The Crossroads, Chapter 19: Ben Gan Shui

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

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

“No.  Not anymore.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The fuck was that?” he roared.

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

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

“Decryptor?  What are you on about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go now, sightless one.”

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

“Very well.  Come forward.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are a perceptive hiveling.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?!”

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

The Crossroads, Chapter 16: Mr. Ruffles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like Captain al’Ver?” she whispered.

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

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

“Then why are you teaching me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patience, my dear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy fucking shit.”

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