Concerning the Voidsoul, “Faceless”

Shaejra Rim-Seer, of Claw-and-Bark

Fifth of Nocander, Year Eight-Ninety and Six of the Shattered Sun

Recommendation: Eradicate and Exorcise

 

Shape

This creature, if one may call it that, consists of a inky-black false liquid, which perpetually dissolves. Despite this, it never depletes. It is corporeal in movement and form, yet it can reduce down to almost any size and mold its shape to fit any container. It may be vaporous, as containment requires an airtight vessel. Voidsouls may slip through even the slightest cracks and crannies, whether it’s under a door, through a break in a window, or into the holes and fissures of the flesh that litter any mortal vessel.

It moves towards creatures, both living or dead, even when deprived of direct line of sight. Either it is a simple elemental force, drawn to these things, or it is like those of my ilk: hungry and wishing to sate itself. I feel no kinship with this mote, this dollop of ink; where I hunger for flesh and knowing, the Voidsoul longs for simple corpses. Still, this Rimseer’s guess is towards the elemental. In either case, it seems possessed of supernatural sense divorced from sight, sound, etcetera, instead seeing bodies and obstacles with unerring focus.

Any attempt to disassemble this creature or dilute it into baser agents has failed. The most one can do is “divide” it into smaller Voidsouls.

When presented with a body, the Voidsoul will seek to enter it by any means necessary. Should it reach a proper “host,” the Voidsoul will slip inside any facial orifice it can find… Upon contacting the body, it burns and mars the flesh, rendering the host’s face unrecognizable without exception. These burns progress as the Voidsoul “grows” within the skull of the host and eventually overflows from all orifices and wounds.

Within minutes, the Voidsoul will outgrow its host and seek to “reproduce.”

This is done via controlling the host through some unknown means. The host will move as if alive, and even spout random nonsense, usually something commonly spoken. The main aberration in their behavior is in their drive to find additional bodies, living or dead, by any means. This naturally includes violence, as well as odd feats of cunning.

When faced with any form of Shardlight, the Voidsoul will promptly combust, as well as any host it maintains. Depending on the size of the host, this process may be more gradual. Yet if the Voidsoul is left without a host, it will combust immediately upon contact with Shardlight.

Truth

The new myths lay out dogma, saying these creatures come from the sins of one man: Animus the Defiler, the Devourer, Liberator, and so on and so forth. He received a dark power, then rose against the draconic tyrants that ruled the realm. His power overcame him, a lesson was learned, consequences occurred, and overall, a neat little story unfolded.

That’s all a load of kravak dung.

The oldest of monstrous spirits recount battles with the Voidsoul going back millenia, long before the “Shattering” occurred. It seems that, in some form or another, Voidsouls have always existed. No doubt they are more common during this millennium, but they are by no means unique to our time.

What is the Truth then? As is often the case amongst the Rimseer, we have only conjecture.

Mine is that they are an elemental force, a part of existence itself. If the world is a page, and our experiences are stories composed of words, then the Voidsouls must be the ink. Perhaps this ink has gone astray and spilled across the page, creating aberrations where it should not. Still, thinking of them this way, it makes enough sense to anyone with black-stained claws like mine. The ink wishes to spread across the page. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t know of words, nor stories, nor any other purpose. It simply wishes to spread.

Purpose and Lament

Why does ink spread? Perhaps it was made for this purpose, and intended for a controlled hand. Yet when the words take hold of the pen, casting magics and flinging reality about, perhaps the pen leaks. Ergo, the reason for this is our arrogance, and the carelessness of the author.

The greatest regret is that this cannot be undone. When ink is upon the page, it can never be fully cleansed. One may cover over it, or destroy the page entirely… but this cannot change the past. When the Voidsoul leaks from creation, it cannot be put back in.

Then what happens when a Voidsoul is exorcised?

Perhaps the page is burned… 

Teller of Fortunes 5: Fear Graves and Dark Places…

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. Thank you for reading!)

It isn’t easy to wash up in the middle of a trip with nothing but a bowl of water, but the caravaners don’t often have the luxury of long soaks. A few may take their turn braving the cold of the stream, but Ane would rather have a little bit of hot water than all the seas in the world. 

Once back in her wagon, she strips down before her little round-bellied iron stove. She dips the scrubbing-cloth in the water, lathers up with the soap, and gives herself a brisk rubdown. She wipes the bubbles away, then dries off, dons her robe, and hangs her head through the split door to pour the water over her hair. It isn’t much, but it’s the best way to stay clean and civilized-feeling on the dusty road. 

As the caravan rolls along, the scenery slowly changes. Rolling hills of shimmering grass give way to scrubby shrubs, and trees cease to be a rarity. They still remain somewhat sparse in number, and thus, refreshing to the caravan’s passage; occasionally there’s some shade, without the foreboding uncertainty that a proper forest presents. 

The ride of mountains that once painted the far horizon is now rolling in. The tallest, snowiest peak itself is still far in the background, but the closest foot of the mountain ridge has crept forward. Its sides are dappled with vegetation, resolving into sharp detail the closer the caravan approaches. In a matter of days, the road begins to curve all the way around towards the back of the ridge.

There, with the vestigial light-sense of the shasii, Ane can see where the rays of Shardlight begin to get tucked away. A distinct shadow is cast off the mountainside, blanketing an entire span of land hundreds of miles long in relative darkness. While some shardlight does come from the distant coast, the mountains on the other side block it almost completely. 

Traditionally, these lands are an open invitation to danger and intrigue. 

This reality goes unspoken, at least until the caravan’s next meal.

This time, when Ane lines up to eat, Nelea is the one doling out helpings of food. This means a rather well-balanced meal, heavy on vegetables, without Brair’s flair for large portions and searing black flecks of shard-pepper.

And this time, the caravan master himself is in front of Ane. Even he has to line up for food, though he customarily zips off soon afterwards. Despite his youth, the stocky shasii has a rather venerable and overwhelming presence. His collar is worn wide, his hat is rakishly cocked, and he carries a cane polished to match the epaulets of his velvet jacket. Never mind the shining array of brass buttons, burnished to look like gold,  and the ostentatious curl of his mustache. 

He cuts a rather boisterous figure, as he chats gaily with some others. As easy as it would be to eavesdrop, Ane isn’t sure she wants to know what he’s blathering about. She does what allows her to get through the line with maximum speed and minimum fuss — there are other engagements to concern herself with. Besides, the most she’s likely to hear from the caravan master is more money woes and the unsavory details of his shady doings, and she can do without that for now. 

She gives Nelea a murmured thanks and a smile as she turns to hurry back to her wagon… At least until she finds her swift escape cut short by the gaze of Vasht, the knife-thrower. He turns quickly from the middle of a conversation, with the light of the fire shining across his cheek and the ravine of a scar in the middle. With a hand raised in her direction, he beckons for Ane to slow down for a moment. She doesn’t have a chance to respond before he rises from his seat, excuses himself, then heads off to intercept her before she can change her mind. 

Normally, when it comes to mealtime, one wouldn’t be so insistent; however, Vasht is a special case. Despite his relative youth compared to the Master and some of the hired guards, Vasht carries some authority around the camp — partly earned by his role in defending the group, and partly from his bearing.

In every way, Vasht has the look of a keen soldier himself; he has short, sable-colored hair, and deep blue wings that seem every bit as sharp as his knives and his smile. Still, despite his rough appearance, Vasht has been known to take more than his share of risks on the caravan’s behalf. For the last few days, he’s been seen flying ahead to scout the path; even if she hadn’t seen his shadow passing overhead, she can see the fresh scores in the leather of his armor.

At least he seems relatively relaxed on his approach, shoulders at ease, as he smiles casually and waves in greeting. 

“Hey, Ane. Getting close to shadowlands, so I’m making my usual rounds. Mind if I have a word?” He asks, easygoing but straight to the point, as usual.

She draws in a stiff breath.

Now what? 

It takes her a moment to decide if she minds. Has she done anything wrong lately? Not that the caravan master would know about, unless he wants to complain-by-proxy about Aedas commandeering all of the soap.

She gives a short, sharp nod.

“Alright, what’s happening?”

Once he approaches a comfortable distance, Vasht stops and shrugs one shoulder. 

“Nothin’ yet. It’s just been awhile since we’ve passed through shadowlands. We had easy going on our way to Pellas, but that was all in shardlight.” He scratches at the wing jutting from his right cheek, right above the scar; it covers one of his eyes, as always. Ane hasn’t the foggiest idea of how he keeps it from interfering with his aim, but he seems to manage well enough. 

“Anyway. That’s why I’m tryin’ to talk to everyone, just to get ready. Some people wanna be outside on the lookout, and others just need the notice to batten down all their hatches.” He smirks a bit at this. “For you, though… Just wonderin’ if you have anything you wanna pitch in, in case things get rough. I know you’re not one for scraps with Faceless, but if you’ve got wards, salves, or anything like that…” He trails off, nodding towards her. “And if not, we can always use another spotter if you feel up to it. It’s not for everyone, but the more the better.”

Faceless? 

The word alone is enough to make her stomach turn sour.

Stay in the shardlight,
And you will be alright.
Fear graves and dark places,
Or you’ll meet the Faceless.

Creatures from a bad dream. Monsters to frighten children with. An unfortunate reality for those who live in or travel through places where the shardlight doesn’t touch. Faceless shamble through the darkness like mindless things, repeating whatever nonsense was once important to them in life through their charred, inky lips. They only have one drive, and it’s a simple one: find a new body, and spawn in it. Any living thing can be possessed by a Faceless, from a hermit-mouse to a gurran behemoth, and all Faceless seek another body to vomit themselves into. Like the broken, idiot machinery of the Skyral, it’s hard to tell how much intelligence lays behind their repetitive rambling. Is it the misfiring impulse of a hijacked brain? Or a way to bait the living into coming close enough to attack?

Faceless didn’t always exist, or so Ane’s been told. Some blamed their appearance on the breaking of the sun even if they’d existed before that, there weren’t nearly as many dark places for them to hide. Regardless of where the blame lies, one thing’s for certain: a slow-moving train of alive things would be irresistible to them.

Shasii spotters, as a rule, fare better in shadowlands. A sight based on sound can see perfectly well in the dark, and their keen ears hear far better than most. Though there are some shasii among the mercenaries, mercenaries are mercenaries and it’d be foolish to turn down extra sets of swirls and ears.

“Salves?” She arches a brow. “I’ve got a few, though I haven’t made any fresh since our last trip through Paakoponde — I was hoping to see the root-mongers to replenish my ingredients. I can spot, and,” she jerks her head in the direction of her wagon as she speaks, “I’ve got my own ways to defend myself.”

Vasht nods at the first question. 

“For healing, unless you have something that’ll make a man into twenty,” he jokes. When her offer to spot seems to sink in, a genuine smile tugs at the edges of his lips. “That’d be great! It matters more than one might think, and you should be in a good place for spottin’.” He flaps a hand towards her wagon, with its wide window and broad roof. “Though Fires, I wouldn’t want you to have to defend yourself… That’s what ol’ Jarrik swindles the mercs for, and they don’t have the good acts.” 

She gives a dismissive wave of her fork in the direction of a few of the hulking, boiled-leather-clad-forms grouped around a fire.

“I haven’t needed a paid blade yet, and I don’t figure I need one now,” she says flatly. “I can spot, and there’s room enough up there for one or two others besides me.”

When Ane says this, something seems to change in Vasht’s expression. His laid-back nature is still there, but he seems a little sterner… Perhaps a bit more grave. His eyes, usually almost unseen in a smile or a squint, now shine faintly. They seem to take a moment to size Ane up, with a curious glance at her arms and shoulders, though mostly he examines her expression to gauge how serious she seems. 

After a moment of apparent wondering, Vasht nods.

“Top of the wagon it is, then,” he decides. It’s about the most dangerous place that Jarrik would allow Vasht to station one of the performers. While the mercenaries may use mounts or sit on the sides, Jarrik wouldn’t allow that sort of danger to even be offered

“Well,” Vasht sighs, “The details can get sorted once we’re closing in on the shadow’s edge. Anything else?”

She seems impassive, even slightly annoyed, as he looks her over. There’s a bowl of food in her hand, and it’s getting cold. 

“You stopped me, remember?” She gives an insouciant shrug.

He nods, smiling again. 

“Yeah, sorry. It’s just…” He glances off, looking towards the caravan master’s wagon. When his gaze returns to her, his tone is hushed, “Truth be told, we shouldn’t even be taking this path. There’s a brighter one along the coast.” He takes a moment to glance about, and when he sees no one else is in immediate earshot, he continues, “Either he’s runnin’ extra fast this time, or he wants to meet someone in the shadowlands. I hope it’s the first one.” 

“Or he owes someone money and he’s trying to give them the slip,” she mutters, with a flatly dour look in the caravan master’s direction. It seems more likely than him having a secret friend in the shadowlands. Or anywhere, for that matter.

“That’s all.” Vasht leans back, and shrugs his shoulders with affected nonchalance.  Thanks for pitchin’ in, and sorry to interrupt!” 

She mirrors his lean back, and gives him a nod. 

“Sure.” And, with that, she heads back to her wagon to eat her dinner and take a long, leisurely journey inward with a cup of Pellan cherry cordial (and a couple of drops of tincture of blue bolete).

Fortunately, her meal it didn’t get too cold during their conversation. It’s not hot, but it’s still warm enough. With the rest of the day to enjoy it, enjoy she does, though she doesn’t take extra time for savoring — all the better to return her dishes and hightail it back to her wagon. 

Once she’s through, she wraps herself back in the silky, threadbare robe, pours out a measure of the cordial, adds a few drops of the cobalt-colored tincture, and reaches under the dusty depths of her cushioned bench for a small, iridescent crystal. She has to gently blow a few dust-smeerps from it before she uses it, even giving the rough surfaces a rub of her sleeve for good measure. When it’s clean enough, she sets the crystal beside her and gently, softly taps it into melodious life.

The bright, crystalline notes of the song begin to fill the wagon as she takes her first sip of the cordial. It blazes a sweet, tingling trail of heat down to her belly, leaving her lips and the tip of her tongue abuzz as the mushroom’s mildly psychotropic compounds dance across them. A few more notes, another sip, and she can feel the heavy softness settling over her like a favorite quilt. As she drains the cup, the walls of the wagon seem to breathe lightly — moving the way the sea laps at the sand. 

Once her mind no longer feels housed within her body, once moving her limbs feels like pulling on mile-long marionette strings, she lets the wagon — with its once-opulent carpets and its breathing walls — become eclipsed by the thickening trees beyond. She no longer tries to pull at arms and legs that no longer seem interested in obeying. Instead, she lets her consciousness rise and float, drifting like a leaf on the surface of a stream, to find a more willing body to ride in.

As her very soul floats along the wind, carried by rites even unbeknownst to itself, Ane finds herself drifting towards a form. It’s a dark one, yet one that flits along the winds so majestically. Could it be a crow? No, the eyes are too small, unfitting for such a view… Could it be a raven? No, the eyes are too few, and they lack a raven’s reddish glow. 

While these forms may be familiar to Ane, they are not hers. As Ane reaches towards them, she feels a queer wind wash against her course. The shardlight above shines and flickers, playing tricks, diverting her from the clear path to a simple form. The result is that she just barely brushes against them, touching their very concepts, but lands just a little to the left. Not to the left of their bodies, but to the left of what these birds truly are.

And where that is, is somewhere in the shadowed lands ahead. 

Her vision opens. The hum is silent, but the eyes… The eyes do see. And now that her being has begun to settle, she can feel them. Three of them, all blinking and gazing out with split pupils. The body is small, but substantial, like that of a large arachnid. Like such a creature, she has numerous legs that touch, step, and stroke along the rough bark beneath. Perhaps there are eight? It’s hard to tell. Numbers are beyond comprehension in this state. Ane’s mind is her own, but also something else’s, as if on loan. 

As her feeling of this creature begins to fill out, Ane becomes aware of two large, raven-colored wings. They cover the body neatly, well enough to cover the strange legs beneath. Truly, these things do not fit together, nor does the trio of eyes. And her beak… Is it fanged? There’s a small tongue as well, tasting the scents on the air. 

And so she sits within this creature, for a time; this thing that’s not quite a bird, not quite an arachnid, just simply not quite. She’s perched neatly upon the branch of a tall tree, sheltered beneath a wide, leafy canopy. Colors are all around, though they’re muted into grayness by the darkness of this land. There are many things in these trees to discover: flitting birds, scuttling insects, foraging beasts, and all manner of plant life.

She feels a glimmer of intelligence — a bit more than usual for riding in the body of a creature. While she’s here, she should make herself — or the remnants-of-herself — useful. If the creature can ambulate somehow, now is a good time to reconnoiter. Besides, the inability to move her own sluggish limbs is prickling at the back of her mind like an itch she can’t reach. Spreading this creature’s wings, whatever it might be, might offer a little relief.

And ah, that does feel nice. 

When Ane spreads her wings, they feel so light, so dreamlike… It’s as if they were made from a soft, sheer fabric, rather than proper feathers. Even so, they hold her weight and catch the air just fine. The very thought of flying is almost sends her into the air on its own. The way her muscles, her borrowed bones respond is purely automatic. It’s as if they were made to work on a whim, simpler than a twitch of the shoulder. 

When the wings tilt just right, Ane is propelled to new heights. She floats in this strange, leafy purgatory between ground and sky, able to deftly flit between even the tightest gaps in the branches. All this, even with her fairly substantial body and numerous legs, which all now neatly fold against the underside. 

Through triple-vision, Ane begins to catch sight of the forest’s other denizens. The most numerous are the bugs of course, which march along bark and soil alike. There are the sap-scarabs, which sip and then ball-up sap to be nibbled on later. There are the “walks,” flies born without wings. And then of course there’s a great many others, even a few colorful flutter-bys… 

She can feel the presence of a number of other birds, like the angular skarrow, or the more conventional sorts of corvid. These all seem to move the fastest, even making a point to avoid Ane. Is it fear? It could imply that she’s some sort of predator, or (stranger still), just a little too similar and too different from them at the same time.

Teller of Fortunes 4: Watch Out Where the Trumbas Go

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. Thank you for reading!)

When the Teller of Fortunes awakens, it’s to the pitch and roll of her wagon. Just as she expected. 

She slips a finger in her mouth, fishing out the last dregs of the sightwort from under her tongue. Pulling a bitter face, she tosses the small, sawdusty clump out of the window as the wagon trundles on. There’s not much she can do while the caravan’s in motion, aside from solitary, quiet activities, so she sets about the minor tasks that mark her waking.

First, some roasted root coffee. Unlike the Rhytalan stuff, the faintly bitter brew isn’t a stimulant. It’s definitely nice to wake up to, though. She sets a few coals into the little round-bellied iron stove beside her bed, stirring them to life with a little tinder, a firesteel, and the edge of a good, sharp knife. Once the coals glow, she pours a bit of water into a small copper pot, and an equally small measure of dulcis root into a muslin bag. She floats the bag atop the rippling water, and attends to the rest of her toilette. 

Seated at her vanity, she rubs a little herb-infused oil into her skin and the ends of her hair, before combing through the thick, dark locks with a comb carved from polished snailwhale shell. She prods gently at a small blemish on the angle of her jaw — nothing a little grain spirit and some clean Paakoponde mud won’t dry up — and ignores it in favor of retrieving the little copper coffee pot from her stove. 

With coffee in hand and her robed knees drawn up to her chest, Ane sits on her bed beside the window to watch the grasslands roll past. The rhythmic rattle and creak of the wagon is soothing in its gentle repetitiveness, and it’s only with effort that she keeps herself from lapsing into sleep again. 

For those accustomed to the road, trips tend to pass much more quickly. What may be a long, ceaseless experience for some can start to feel like a chain of the smaller, more significant events. In this case, the breakfast and lunch of that day pass by without much fanfare. Brair cooks again, though it seems the others talked him out of using more of his peppers. Naturally, he responded by saying he didn’t want to use them all at once anyway. Either way, it makes the next two meals satisfying and flavorful in a more conventional sense. 

Sometime later, around mid-afternoon, the caravan stops again to let the trumba graze upon prairie shrubs. Ane’s content to stay in her wagon with some coffee and a book, at least until she hears a knock on the door. It only comes as half a surprise — it’s not at all rare for the other carvaners to turn up on her doorstep, either for divination or for more medicinal needs. Even seasoned travelers have things they wonder about life, and as for medicine… well, one may not always want the care of an octogenarian klorrian grand-matron.

Whoever it may be (and whatever it may be), the knock is firm and steady, but not urgent. When her keen ears flick toward the sound, she’s in the midst of letting her hum drift lazily over a book. She was just at the point where the dashing bandit was about to tear through the heroine’s bodice like wet paper… Or was it the effete courtier? Never mind, it isn’t important. The raised-print words are little more than something to keep her swirls busy; she’d begun daydreaming three chapters ago.

“Who is it?” She calls out, setting the book on the other end of her bed. She swings her legs over the edge and waits to get up — if it’s something that can be handled by yelling through a door, she’d just as soon stay where she is.

“It’s Aedas!” Comes the reply, from a rather deep, thick voice. “Think I pulled something, but also, there were strange tidings at the time!” His way of pronouncing things tends to come off as a bit brash, as though his tongue tends to crash into syllables. Some mountain-people talk in a similar manner, but really, Aedas’ mannerisms are uniquely… Aedas. “So, uh… Medicine and ‘terpretation? Those,” he finally concludes.

Probably hurt himself having a bad dream, she figures, again.

“Arright, ‘s open,” she calls out as she stands. If he’s pulled something, he probably needs a little heat and some salve. Maybe there’s some more of that salt solution she picked up in Aed’harth… 

Her hands deftly maneuver through a collection of pots and bottles in one of her cabinets, before retrieving a small tin of something gray, gooey, and unctuous, an earthenware bottle of something clear and viscous, and a lumpy sack. She parks the sack before the round-bellied stove to warm.

Given permission, the door creaks open. In hobbles the taut, lumbering form of Aedas. As a huikkaran strongman, he’s tall, though purely in a technical sense due to the way he is forced to crawl into the room. While moving about on all fours through their tunnel homes is perfectly natural for most huikkarans, Aedas usually avoids it at all cost. This time, pain seems to mark his departure from custom. The result is a sight that’s mostly muscled back and striped tanktop held up on short, thick legs, and long, muscular-to-bursting arms. 

The picture changes somewhat when he struggles to raise his head and offers a shy smile. Aedas may not be a handsome man, but he’s an earnest one. His chin is a distinct wedge, if not fully symmetrical, set below a pair of very large, shining brown eyes and a mop of dark-blond hair. 

“Heh… Hello, Ane! I’m getting back to my roots today,” he says jovially, gesturing to his crawling frame. He sighs. “You got a pillow or something I can flop flat on? Pain’s in the lower back,” he finishes, with a wince. 

Ane cants her head, sizing up the huikkaran’s posture before she allows him to sit — is he fully upright? No, she can see the subtle tilt of his shoulders, the faint curve of a spine protecting one side. Are his legs even? It’s difficult to tell without seeing him walk farther, but, even standing, his hips might not be perfectly level… She nods swiftly as she sets a square cushion near her little pot-bellied stove. It was once a costly decorative item, covered as it is in faded embroidery, with bits of ricrac and mirrorwork along the edges, now pressed into service in a purely utilitarian fashion.

“Sit there. Right or left side?” She asks, as she turns away to face the stove. One hand works the tinder into life, while the other adjusts the sagging bag of faded muslin before the stove’s door. Its lumpy shape attests to its contents — about a pound and a half of dry, rather aged grain hulls. 

He flops chest-first onto the cushion without ceremony. He’d probably crush one of the tiny mirrors, if his weight weren’t spread out across an arm span wider than he is tall. It seems he has interpreted the word “sit” in his own way, by hugging the floor like this. 

“Ngh… Lower left?” He guesses, tilting his head towards his back. “Pulled the muscle while doin’ my morning overhead lift. I was facing off towards the Skyral, like I always do, and then I saw a flash of black light unner the shardsign ‘a Jjokar the Tyrant! That’s when I…” He rambles on.

The Skyral. It’s the last thing that marks where the sun once hung in the world’s hollow belly a swirling vortex of magical energy, half dark, half iridescent. Ever since the Shattering, chunks of the broken sun dot the landscape like fragments of a dropped teacup, and the Skyral turns in the sky with the pointless motion of a piece of forgotten machinery. If you look hard enough on a clear day, you can even see through the sky, past the Skyral, and to the sun shards dotting the land on the opposite side of the world. Geonomers use the constellations of sun shards to tell fortunes and create horoscopes. Some people prognosticate using the turns of the Skyral. Ane’s always preferred her cards, but she’s never shied away from dabbling in a little geonomy where it proves prudent.


 “Flash of black light?” She asks. One hand holds the edge of the sack of grain hulls, letting it fall open as the other adds a few drops of the clear, fragrant liquid. She binds the sack closed with a deft miller’s knot, and sets it atop the stove to warm. Before long, the sharp, greenly pungent smell begins permeating the rest of the wagon.

“On your back, please.” The Teller of Fortunes kneels on the threadbare rug beside the brawny strongman.

He wrinkles his nose at the smell, but doesn’t complain. Then with a grunt of effort and a wince of pain, he turns his weight, flipping himself onto his back. He groans with pain as some of his weight falls on his back, and he wriggles vainly to readjust. 

“Yeah! ‘Twas, eh… right there, in the blue sky! And this horrible, Void-damned buzzing noise, like nothin’ I’ve ever heard! Took me right off-guard, had to shrug off the weight and…” The words almost have to fight to get through his protestations of pain. 

 “Did it go to the right, or the left?” She asks, as she takes one of the huikkaran’s short, muscular legs in hand. She cautiously bends the limb at the knee, before placing one hand on his opposite shoulder, and pushing his knee until his spine twists to one side.

“The weight? Why, it fell to the left… Can’t be good, dropping all sinistra- Nnngh!” He grunts in the midst of a loud popping sound, signalling a few of his vertebrae snapping in and out of place. He’s a rather strange sight in this pose, like a farm-boy’s head atop some kind of bizarre man-pretzel.  “Whatsit- Agh! … Mean?” He asks in between.

It takes quite a bit of strength to pop his back, or even move him at all — like trying to bend a wagon wheel. He’s patient and accommodating though, so with a few attempts, the Teller of Fortunes manages to produce a satisfying crack.

“No, no…” She says, as she patiently unknots him. Then, she gently maneuvers his other leg in the opposite direction. “The flash of light. Did it go off in one direction, or the other, or stay still? And describe the buzzing.”

The two of them now look like a strange piece of performance art. Then, soon, he’s cracking twist-wise and suppressing more of the same sounds.

“Oh, the right… Nn- then I felt a sharp pain in that eye! The buzzin’ was fast, terrible, just Void-damn horrible…” He shakes his head. 

Her lips press into a flattened frown. 

The Teller of Fortunes leaves him to rest there for a moment, as she retrieves the steaming muslin bag from the top of the round-bellied stove. She takes a doily from the recesses of the shelf above the window, and makes a looping gesture at Aedas.

“Turn onto your stomach again, but, before you do… Let me see your eye.”

“Y-yeah, sure…” 

He leans forward, opens one large, dark-irised eye, and Ane sees… A single, diaphanous strip of wing tissue wedged into one of his long eyelashes. 

It’s a Void-damn wing from a fly. 

Ane hums directly at his eye, almost making the shiny, wet surface vibrate under her gaze. She folds the corner of her robe into a small point, then deftly dabs the fly’s wing off of Aedas’s eye.

“Well,” she concludes, “If I had to guess, I’d say you should stop lifting where the trumbas shit.”

The strongman looks at her blankly, uncomprehending. As said before, Aedas is an earnest fellow, but he certainly isn’t a bright one. He looks at the end of the robe, staring for a moment before he notices the fly’s wing. It then takes a few more moments after that before he connects it all together.

“Oh.” He furrows his brow. “A fly.”

“A fly,” she assures him, before flicking the insect wing off of her robe with a soft thwat of her fingernail. 

“Ah. So…” Aedas pauses, now drumming his fingertips on his chin. He’s still game for whatever Ane has planned to make his back feel better, but he’s rather dumbfounded by this. “So… What does that mean?”

“It means you should be more careful where you exercise. And,” she admonishes him with a friendly sternness and an almost comical wag of her finger, “While we’re on the subject, more careful about lifting in general. Now, if you would,” she gestures to him to finish rolling over onto his stomach.

“Oh. Arright,” he agrees, and flips himself over. Now the rocky slab of his back is facing the ceiling, and his perplexed expression is directed at the floor. His voice is a bit muffled when he adds, “So, no bad omen if I lift in cleaner places?”

“I shouldn’t think so,” she assures him, as she gently raises his shirt over his muscled back and begins lightly daubing his skin with oily grey liniment. “And lift more carefully.” 

She lays the cloth doily across his lower back, then places the sack atop it. The grain is hot, but the fabric helps keep the worst of the heat from his skin. He’s so rugged and calloused, though, that it’s hardly likely he would’ve noticed even if she hadn’t put something down first.

He now looks like a very fancy (albeit bizarre) table for tea. Aedas doesn’t really react to the heat, aside from uttering the occasional sigh of relief. That may be either the advice or the treatment, though; it’s hard to say which. He nods, nose about an inch from the floor.

“Thank ye. I’ll do my best to be more careful,” he says contentedly, with an air of determination. 

“That’s good. And make sure you stretch before you start. No skipping it just because you think it’s boring,” she gently admonishes him, as she returns to half-paying-attention to her book.

“Alright…” He says glumly, but obediently. 

The rest of his treatment passes without incident, and soon he’s able to stand on his hind legs and walk just fine. Once he’s no longer bearing the doily, he rises up and begins to amble towards the door.

“Thank ye, Ane! See you ‘round,” he bids her, then makes his way out. Once again, the Teller of Fortunes has completed her duties for the time being. 

“Be careful, Aedas,” she says, waving a goodbye from the cushioned bench beneath the window.

The rest of the day passes uneventfully, with plenty of time for Ane to read the rest of the bodice-ripping tale. As usual, the wishy-washy heroine chooses the dashing thief-with-a-heart-of-gold over the diplomatic courtier. All this, despite some glaring personality flaws in both men. Based on Ane’s knowledge, the dynamic reverses in the next volume; the bandit is framed for a crime, and the courtier so charitably offers his aid in busting him out. This allows the focus to swing his way, and the courtier rips the bodices for awhile. It’s almost as if the protagonist herself were just a blank lens, and this story is some kind of battleground for two tormented souls to battle over bodices till the end of days. 

The story has some nice descriptions of flower arrangements, though. 

In any case, a few mealtimes pass with much merriment, but little incident. The only hiccup in the routine comes towards the end of the day, when the caravan stops at a pristine stream rolling alongside the road. Strangely, there’s a long, impatient line forming in front of the cauldron of boiling water. This is baffling, though really it’s easier to just go along with it and wait her turn.

It’s only when Ane gets to the front that she realizes what is going on.

Aedas is sitting beside the bubbling cauldron, seated atop a stack of boards. He has a heap of iron weights at his side, as well as a scrubbing cloth and some lye soap. It appears he’s been taking time in-between people to wash his weights, his lifting platform, and just about everything else within reach. Whenever someone comes up to take their turn at the cauldron, Aedas pauses cleaning to perform some warm-up stretches. When Ane approaches, he gives her a nod and a thumbs-up.

“No bad omens,” he says with a grin.

Her lips purse and her brow furrows in bafflement. 

Is he-

He is.

She gives the strongman a perplexed thumb up, as she scoops a bowl of clean, steaming water from the cauldron. With a small shake of her head, she turns to carry it back to her wagon, where a clean scrubbing cloth, a fresh towel, and a bar of honey soap await.

Teller of Fortunes 3: A Little Sightwort and Some Crownflower Wine

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. Thank you for reading!) 

The little wagon is much as Ane left it. The herbs in the katagon-bowl have burned through, but there’s a crisp, mint-and-vanilla scent lightly wafting on the air. Away from the bonfire, the breeze is cooler and there are fewer sounds of conversation and caravan-noise — she stills her humming gaze and tilts her face up toward the ceiling as she stands in front of the window, drinking in the cool and relative quiet.

Ane parts her lips in a contented sigh as she begins shedding rings into a half-clamshell on her vanity. Her hairpin follows, set on a wooden block carved into the likeness of a particularly placid disembodied head. She runs her fingers through her dark hair, shaking the heavy, glossy mass free, unlaces her sandals, shrugs off her muslin shirt, and shucks off her trousers.

Beneath the fabric, her skin is marked with a score of shapes and colors. The life of a circus performer is fraught with impermanence — one it is necessary to get used to, possibly even enjoy, if you’re going to last long. So, like many others like her, her hide bears the stamp of her travels: the familial and racial markings she was born with across her left shoulder and down her upper arm, a cluster of sightwort leaves picked out in deep blue dye just inside her right hip, a spray of dark feathers between her breasts, angular lines and dots of white ink encircling one thigh. Unaccustomed to the air after being in layers of clothing and a sweltering tent all day, a crop of goosebumps prickles into sharp relief across her skin, swiftly banished by a lively rub of her palms.

Ane plucks a thin, silky robe from the seat of her vanity, draping it around herself for modesty’s sake. Though she may be at home, there could be a knock at the door at any moment. Still, it’s not very likely — the rest of the caravan’s busy with their own doings, and the trumba-drivers won’t need her help to get the wagons linked. She folds her silk-clad arms atop the vanity’s smooth, whitewashed surface, and props her pointed chin on them. 

Above, her humming gaze settles on an old poster, little more than a scrap of cattail-fiber paper, yellowed and brittle with the passage of many years. In the center, a sprightly, curvaceous figure stands with one hip saucily cocked, one round-fleshed arm holding aloft a flaming hoop. The heart-shaped face is faded nearly beyond detection, but enough remains to be just barely recognizable: deep, enthralling swirls, a dazzling smile, cheekbones you could slice a cheese on. Beneath, block letters boldly declare (through the dingy veil of a Rhytalan coffee stain),

PRESENTING

For 3 Days Only

The Acrobatic Feats 

Of 

RAUNIA S’VARIO

It is not a picture Ane can look upon for long. 

She lightly presses her fingertips to a place at the nape of her neck. She can feel the tension brewing there, settling into the muscles from her head all the way down to the middle of her shoulders. With her free hand, she lifts the lid of a small enameled box inlaid with shells. The fancy exterior belies its contents — inside, there’s little more than a few curled shreds of what look like tree bark. More perceptive eyes than hers (if her swirls could be called eyes at all) might pick out the occasional splash of chartreuse lichen or stripe of spalting, but these nondescript bits of wood weren’t exactly chosen for their visual appeal. 

Ane gently breaks one in half, and places it in the center of her tongue like a sacrament. She is careful not to swallow, though. Swallowing would not only feel very unpleasant, it would be a waste of very expensive medicine. With her robe hugged tightly about her frame, she pads from her seat to her bed.

Now, she can enjoy the rest of the day in her own way.

It only takes a minute or so before she feels the telltale tingle against her tongue, as subtle and as thrilling as the brush of a feather across bare skin. She hasn’t taken enough for the visions to come, not today. There’s just enough for her to feel a light, downy warmth flowing through her limbs, and a pleasantly velvety feeling beginning to take the edge off of her thoughts. Just enough to rinse her mind of the detritus of other people’s strange cares. Just enough to ease her body from the stress of the oppressive heat and choking dust. 

A judicious sip of crownflower wine chases away the bitterness of the herb, and Ane is free. 

There is only the cool breeze, the breathy flutter of the curtains above her, the softness of the feather bed, the feeling of the robe against her skin, the pleasantness of a full belly, the sweetness of the wine… And, above all, the spreading succor of the sightwort root on her tongue. 

The sightwort is slow to take hold, and it does so gently, rolling across the mind and smoothing out the senses. Any more than this, and one tends to see things; but, for now, all is placid and cool. Time begins to pass in that silken, flowing sort of way that makes it impossible to discern how far it’s gone. Whether it’s the sightwort or a momentary lapse into sleep, Ane soon finds herself drifting carelessly ahead. 

Beneath her, the wagon begins to shift like a rolling tide. There are the distant sounds of labor outside, before myriad muffled clicks and clanks signal the wagon being hitched to another. Once it is so joined, the motion ceases long enough to permit Ane another dip into her sweet, dreamlike state. She’s hardly able to notice when the wagon begins to roll again, going steadily down one of Pellas’ paved highways. 

The sound of wheels against stone begins to form a rhythm that fades easily into the background. And, as her mind probes at the evening air, Ane finds an odd sense of clarity. Skarrows chirp and swoop high above, while smeerps leap across the grass, munching on bugs… Caravan workers lounge and snooze, rustling fabric as they move.

Up ahead, she hears words. A conversation drifts down from a wagon lit by candlelight. It rolls more smoothly than the others, carried on the finest wheels and springy leather supports. It must be the caravan master’s wagon. He always did keep his in the best condition.

The man is almost never alone. Even now, there are two voices coming from that reinforced wagon, though both are distant and muffled. In fact, it’s odd that Ane can hear them at all. Old Jarrik Varroon keeps thick walls about his person. But something about the coolness of the late hours, the ease of the sightwort, and that sense of relaxation opens up Ane’s senses… It’s like a door being nudged ajar, allowing only a sliver of light to peek through. 

The second voice with Jarrik is like a whisper, only occasionally flaring up when their words hit an impassioned pitch. That voice slithers and slides as it drifts across the air. Ane can begin to make out the shape of a conversation, though much of it is muffled and lost to the rolling of wagon wheels:

“The hounds sn- … -our heels, Jarrik. The ti- … has co-” the visitor presses in a deep, insistent tone.

The caravan master’s words are harder to make out, as he waffles and sniffs, “I know, I kn- … It’s been s- … time, but I -n -in- eh … tyrants to scra-…”

Hearing this, the first voice becomes yet more aggressive. 

“Then let’s make them!” The shout dies down into an urgent, barely contained whisper, “We need m- … Jarrik…. don’t come like …. once did. One mons- … and some trip- … are n- enough … -ur debts.”

The caravan master seems to take umbrage with this, and scoffs loudly, “-t’s as plain as the sha- … They… There -ust b-… nine.”

Whispering in a frenzy, the first man replies, “Th- … has been -ting. I thi- … it best you- … cold feet this ti-…”

The caravan master sighs loudly, trailing into an indecipherable murmurs.

“You will see,” the first voice reassures, suddenly placating. “-ey will … at the bridge- …”

“I hope so.”

Just like that, the conversation fades. Chairs legs scrape against the rattling floor, followed by footsteps, and a door nearly slamming. 

With that, quiet settles back over the trip. The sounds of the prairie begin to take prominence, shooing away the shadows of those two voices like unwelcome specters. Many hours pass in this new sense of peace, with all the sounds of the road put in harmony once again. 

It isn’t long before Ane drifts into a calm, dreamless sleep as soft and heavy as a velvet comforter. If the caravan leader’s conversation has intruded on her rest, it doesn’t show. Then again, he wouldn’t be Jarrik if he wasn’t up to something. 

Teller of Fortunes 2: Shard-pepper Stew

(Click here for the first portion. Thank you for reading!) 

Outside, the Teller of Fortunes finds a very different scene. The caravan has gone from a state of transition — boxes, broken signs, and fleeing locals — to one of relaxation and hospitality. There’s certainly a different air about the place when all of the visitors are away. Before, even in that brief span of time, there was a definite sense of tension in trying to appeal to outsiders (and their wallets). Now that’s fallen away, so people walk with easy gaits, slackened shoulders, and genuine expressions.

Others have dressed down and begun to line up near the middle of the camp. Caravaners and hired hands alike all snake around a pot in the center, fragrant and steaming with this day’s dinner. A stocky callosian with geometrical fire tattoos stands over it like a master of spice, doling out sauced meats with a large metal ladle. His shock of blond hair seems to catch the fire’s glow, lighting up his bronzed, scaled skin and arcing horns in a very on-theme sort of way. He serves quickly to keep the line moving, taking just long enough to exchange a few words before dishing out good helping of stew.

After that, people disperse. Many head towards a small, crackling bonfire near the center of the camp. Some of those seated there chat aside and swap stories to the rest. Others hang around the fringes, enjoying a little privacy in the midst of the camaraderie. Then there’s others with more particular social calls to make, bunching up around this wagon or that for smaller conversational groups. 

Finally, a select few go off to eat in their wagons, though they’re the outliers. It’s a category reserved for the Caravan Master (who lunched by appointment only), sometimes the old herbalist (who might not be feeling well), and a handful of others indulging in solitude for their own (perhaps dramatic) reasons. 

Ane takes her place in the back of the line waiting for food, hands clasped behind her as she rocks idly back on her heels. She hasn’t decided yet if she’ll return to her wagon, or find a spot near the bonfire— a convivial atmosphere where she isn’t expected to perform or dictate the path of some anxious farmer’s future would be welcome, but so would stretching out on her feather bed with some more crownflower wine and a pinch or two of something mind-expanding. 

She idly examines the nails of her left hand — short and neatly manicured, if flecked with colorful resin in a few spots — with a patient, weary sigh.

As Ane lines up, she finds herself randomly placed behind a stranger. She’s a shasii of about the same age, and, from her bearing, she seems to be one of the caravan’s hired guards. They make up about one-fourth of the traveling troupe, ever present around the perimeter of the camp. Some are lucky enough to take their breaks during meal times, and, for this dark-braided shasii, that seems to be the case. She’s unveiled, and gives Ane a friendly nod at her approach. 

Up ahead, there’s some laughter as Korin and Jiselmo exchange words with Brair, the fire-eater. Though she’s hardly an eavesdropper, Ane catches the tail end of Jiselmo’s boisterous voice — something about how Brair “handles the fire five hours later.” It sends a ripple of chuckles down the line before the hungry throng shoos the two of them away.

Ane offers the other woman a polite smile, though it’s interrupted by a snicker at Jiselmo and the rumble of a hunger she didn’t realize she had. Keeping herself busy reading cards all day has made for even hungrier work than she’d thought. Divination can be exhausting, especially over the course of a long, hot day. Though, really, it’s the customers. It’s always the customers. And not all are as tractable as Stazio and his beetroot crop… 

“Ah, Ane!” The Fire-breather booms, smiling as he begins to dip the ladle into the pot. “How much heat are you predicting today?” He asks jovially, as he hands her a wooden bowl and spoon and prepares to start dishing out the stew. 

“Brair,” she says warmly, as she steps up to receive her portion of whatever peppery provisions he’s proffering. “Just enough, I hope. Got a long ride ahead of us, from the sound of things. What’s in the pot today?” 

She gratefully accepts the wooden bowl — polished to a high shine from years of use and vigorous scrubbing with clean sand and soaproot — and slips the spoon out of the little carved loop on the side. Holding it in front of her, she cautiously sniffs the curls of steam wafting from the deep, roiling cauldron. 

“Medium it is, then!” He proclaims. “Today, it’s the thickest chopon the market had! We cleaned ‘em out,” he says, with the vigor of his own hunger. “All stirred up in some of my home-made kula sauce, plus those shard-peppers I got at Skilhouros!” Brair boasts, puffing his bare barrel chest with pride. “Only the best for ya!” 

With that, he scoops out some big, meaty hunks of chopon into her bowl, along with a generous helping of vibrant sauce. Luckily, there’s only one of those dark, round “shard-peppers” haunting her bowl this time. The name isn’t literal, fortunately, though it is an apt description. 

“Great,” she replies, with a somewhat forced grin. She’d hoped he’d used the last of those peppers a week ago. “Thanks.”

With that, Brair gives Ane a friendly nod before others begin to bustle behind her. 

Up ahead, Jiselmo and Korin (Collectively, “JiselRin” or “KorElmo,” depending on who is asked) break off to go join their friends around the bonfire, while the guard does the same. From her place at the cauldron, Ane spies the triplets, Nelea the animal tamer, Aedas the strong, and a handful of other recognizable faces. 

Off to the side, Vasht the knife thrower is chatting with a few guards, likely about the road ahead. The troupe’s tall, klorrian magician is there too, though he doesn’t seem interested in talking to anyone. He’s busy fussing over a flock of fluffy smeerps as they hop about camp, play “chase” with each other, and generally cause a tiny ruckus. 

The caravan master, the herbalist, and the clown (thank the Fires) are unsurprisingly absent.

Ane wanders off toward the bonfire, bowl in hand, to find a place on the fringes to sit. While the warmth of camaraderie is nice, the heat of the bonfire is less so — if she weren’t preoccupied with getting ready to roll on to their next destination, she’d be looking forward to finding a cool spring or a clean well to pilfer some water for a long soak.

At least the bonfire itself is at a low burn, more a way to get rid of unwanted bugs and burnable trash than for actually keeping warm. They probably would have dispensed with it entirely on a day like today, if not for tradition and the need to get rid of all of the unwanted signage that would take up too much space on the road. 

She finds a spot around the bonfire, tucking herself between the guard and the triplets. The guard hangs around the outer edge where the air blows cooler, while the conjoined triplets… Well, they’ve their own heat-related concerns. The sisters, usually the picture of coordination, are in a rather complicated situation when it comes to temperatures. Zila, the one nearest Ane, fans the three, while Wila, on the far side, speaks to the animal tamer. Fortunately for them, they’re fuhajen — a race known for the thin, air-puffing tentacles that twine together to form their limbs. They each use their hand-vents for a little extra cool air, taking turns to puff one another like a six-armed assembly line for cooling.

“Nelea, dear, could you fetch the group some water? Between this heat and this… heat,” Wila says, with her three emerald eyes glancing towards her bowl. 

“We’re all really going to need it,” Vila remarks dryly beside her.

“Of course,” the animal tamer replies, nodding her head of curls. Even in the heat and dust, she’s the picture of prim neatness, in short pants, lace-trimmed stockings, a linen blouse, and a well-pressed, spotless jacket. It’s a fitting appearance for a woman who only ever carries herself with an air of polite hospitality. “One barrel or two?”

Korin looks over at them, with a roguish smirk.

“Better make it three!” He called from his spot a few paces away. “One for the hot air, one for the spice, and one for…” He stops for a second, taking a long glance aside at his partner in crime, who shovels down the spicy meal before the heat can touch his tongue. “… Good measure.”

“Sure,” Nelea replies with a smile, rising to her feet. “We won’t have a pump… Well, for awhile, anyhow. Might as well make use,” she figures, rolling one of her thick shoulders.

“That good, hmm?” Ane says, as she settles herself between the four. She carefully picks the wrinkled pepper out of her bowl and sends it arcing into the fire with a deft flick of her spoon. She likes spicy food as much as the next person, but Brair’s occupation has given him some very strange ideas about what things taste like. 

“Some men live to so bravely die!” The food-shoveling shasii calls back, “Honor in spice.” His oath sounds even more absurd coming from a man still clad in all his bells and whistles. 

“At least we won’t need any fire for his funeral pyre… He brought his own,” Korin remarks. 

He and a few others follow suit after Ane’s pepper-flinging, as if they were waiting for an excuse to do it themselves. The sisters all do so in practiced unison, with each landing neatly in the center of the small fire. 

“It’s a good thing most of us aren’t getting this in our rations,” the guardswoman chimes in, “Lest we drop before even hitting the road.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that!” Korin says with a slap of his knee. “Just follow Jiselmo’s suit, and we can weaponize this before the day’s done.”

“Best to be careful, flinging them in the fire like that,” Ane cautions, dryly, “Any more, and we’ll be choked out of our seats.” As it is, there’s already a faintly peppery sting in the air, when the breeze blows the right way. 

Still, burning peppers or not, there’s little to keep her from enjoying the rest of her dinner. She eagerly spoons up mouthfuls of the tender chopon, cooked to near translucency in the spicy-sweet, flavorful sauce. Once you get around his predilection for scorching everyone else’s tongues and burning the bottoms of their stomachs, Brair really isn’t a bad cook.

“What’d I say? Weaponize,” Korin confirms, wagging his spoon at the fire. “Put this in a bottle, light a wick, give it a toss and you’re good to go.”

Zila chuckles, covering her mouth demurely with her fan. 

“That’s all well and good, if the breeze doesn’t betray you.” She wafts a bit of the fumes in his direction, causing him to cough into a napkin a bit.

“That’s no good, you’ll have him doubled over. We really ought to put out this- oh, look who’s back already!” Wila chides, as Zila tsks.

Turning around, they see Nelea has swiftly returned with a barrel of water under each arm. She sits each beside the bonfire with a loud thud, before jogging off and hauling in a third. This one already has an old wooden tap affixed to the lid, allowing ease of access to the sweet relief within. Dutifully, the guardswoman fetches some wooden cups and stacks them beside the barrels.

“There you go. It was good for some exercise,” Nelea says serenely, before settling back down into her spot. 

Almost immediately, people begin filling and downing cups of water… Though Jiselmo abstains, for now. He’s currently holding on to his pride, while his cheeks start to burn a merry crimson. Ane darts an incredulous glance at the actor, as she kneels to fill a cup from the tap. Once she’s got enough to carry her through the rest of dinner, she settles herself back between the triplets and the animal trainer, legs stretched out toward the low-burning fire.

“If we put out the fire,” she points out, with a jab of her spoon in the bonfire’s direction, “No guarantee that Brair won’t just scoop up the unburnt peppers for next time. I’m half convinced that’s how he’s gotten ‘em to last as long as he has.”

The others all exchange glances of shock and comprehension. The triplets seem particularly aghast.

“It really is possible,” Zila mutters. 

“He does take care of the fire, so,” Vila continues. 

“… He would know.” Wila concludes.

The trio grimly considers the fire for a moment, as if weighing the option of trying to get the peppers out of the fire… before hauling them off to some unknown location to never be seen again.

While the whole lot is mulling this over and sipping on water, Jiselmo discreetly rises from his seat and shuffles over to the barrels. He maintains a moment of decorum, before opening his mouth in a steaming gasp and leaping for the tap. The shasii begins frantically filling cups with one hand and downing them with the other, pouring cool water down his gullet like a freshet. In a moment of unabashed desperation, he even gurgles, before going back in for a few more.

Korin sighs, shaking his feathered head. 

“I always do see these things coming…”

Ane shakes her head as well, sending a few strands of dark green lightly patting her cheeks in the warm breeze.

“I think that might be some kind of record, though,” she speculates as she scrapes at the bottom of her nearly-empty bowl. 

All that’s left is a few bits of pale carrot, a fragment of yam, and some kula sauce, but there’s no sense letting it go to waste. Like as not, they’ll be stuck eating traveling food until they reach Paakoponde. The marshland city does have some very good taverns, full of sweet ale and puffroot, so at least there’s that to look forward to.

She washes the last of her dinner down with a deep draft from the wooden cup, before pouring the rest of the water into the bowl to rinse it clean. Whoever’s stuck doing dishes will end up scrubbing it anyway, but it doesn’t hurt to lower the odds of getting your supper in a stained bowl next time. 

“Of water poundage consumed?” Korin wonders, spectating. “I suppose we’ll see…”

He and the others give Ane a nod of friendly goodbye as she readies to depart, half still in the midst of eating, half getting ready to make their own ways home. One of the triplets finished a good while ago, but she’s still politely waiting for the other two. Really, there’s not much that the triplets can do but politely wait for each other — this is the cost of sharing parts of a body.

Ane knows that soon the dinner crowds will likely dissolve into post-prandial games and a slow resumption of their actual responsibilities. In her case, she’s certainly made enough of a showing that she’s free to be as private as she likes, at least as much as practicality allows. There’s a lot of preparation to do, but once her own cart is sorted, there’s likely little else she’ll be required to do.

“Well, that’s me done, then,” she says, standing up and giving the others a wave. “I’m cutting out early, this dust’s going to have me coughing all day if I stand around in it much longer.” 

With that, she turns to leave her bowl, cup, and spoon in the basin near the cauldron. What was once full of stew is now full of water and curled shreds of soaproot, steeping until they release their froth of bubbles across the surface. She gives Brair a parting wave and an appreciative grin as she deposits the dishes, not lingering long enough to chat before she makes her way back home.

The Teller of Fortunes 1: A Bit of Bloodroot in Your Shoe

“… And here, we have the Shard in your Luck house. This is an omen of good fortune.” 

One slender, neatly-manicured hand turns a card over with a deliberate air of reverence as she explains. The words slip from wine-colored lips with a smooth, almost lyrical quality — part prophecy, part lullaby. 

Incense smoke softly curls from the nostrils of a bronze, sleeping katagon-shaped brazier, thickening the air with its perfume. The silk scarf pinned over the tent’s entrance is almost completely still in the heat — the light glowing warmly through its brightly dyed designs paints the ground in shifting shades of scarlet, indigo, and violet. Much of this effect is lost on the Teller of Fortunes herself, for the eyeless, humming gaze of a shasii is ill-equipped for colors.

“And,” she purrs smoothly as she uncovers another card, “The appearance of the Oyster in your Money house means that yes, you absolutely should sell your beetroot crop to the merchant in the next town instead.”

The stout huikkaran seated in front of her nervously twists his wool hat in work-worn fingers. A grin, nearly giddy, spreads across a mouth with more batac nut stains than teeth. The Teller of Fortunes smiles softly at the response, a subtle shift in expression emphasized by the veil covering her from forehead to nose. This is always the way in these small enclaves — the women want to know when they will fall in love, and the men want to know when they’ll become rich. Those who are both, neither, or in-between have their particular concerns as well, but it’s a rare day when they ask her cards for help.

It hadn’t taken her long to learn that she needed to remove all of the bad omen cards from her deck if she wanted to make money, herself.
Woman, man, or otherwise, nobody is very willing to pay for bad news.

She moves to turn another card.

“Here, in your Longevity hou-” Barely do the words leave her before the little bronze katagon breathes its last fragrant breath. The woman’s lips form a faintly apologetic pout as she flips the card face-down again with fluid, practiced ease. “I’m sorry, that’s all the time we have for now,” she explains, “However, for another five silver…”

The long-armed huikkaran farmer’s ruddy, spatulate hands dig in his pockets, discovering only empty air and a bit of knotted string. He looks up at her with large, watery eyes, at a loss for words. What? What’s in the Longevity house? She rises from her brocade seat cushion and gently lays a hand on his shoulder. With a gesture as subtle as it is forceful, she turns him toward the tent’s entrance and gives an airy wave of her free hand. 

“Well, have a good season, Stazio, and remember — you’re born in the sign of the papandaki, so keep a bloodroot in your left shoe for luck, and definitely sell your beets. Bye!” 

The bewildered farmer, his mind turned in spirals by soft words, a dreamlike hum, and clouds of incense as much as it is by prophecy, stumbles back out into the air. As soon as the silk scarf flutters back down over the tent entrance, the Teller of Fortunes drops herself back down onto the cushion and swipes the veil from her head. Her sight-hum, once somnolent, vibrates balefully at the tent’s completely ineffectual window-flap. 

“Fuck me, it’s Void damned sweltering!”

She deftly combs her fingers through her hair — a mane of green, dark enough to look nearly black in all but the brightest light. The silver hoops running the length of her long, pointed ears tinkle softly against each other as she replaces the veil with a few swift tugs and the judicious application of a hairpin. Her swirls — patterned like curling ferns and situated where most others would have eyes — can still detect enough sound and light through the gauzy fabric to see.
To her clientele, the Teller of Fortunes is a mysterious figure.

Thus rendered presentable for the public again, she slouches in her seat, scoops up her deck of cards, and begins idly shuffling. They flip and tumble through her fingers as her touch passes over the resin-painted figures on each card’s face — figures bright enough to capture the imagination of an onlooker, and painted thickly enough to be seen even by those with voices for vision. 

Unfortunately, if this heat keeps up, she’ll be spending her after hours peeling The Dragon and The Virgin apart and wiping bits of The Archmage’s robe off of The Huntress’s claws. 

Quickly, she casts a hum over the contents of her cash-bowl. It hasn’t been a bad haul, but she could have done better. She cautiously lifts the back of the brazier and prods the ash-covered coal inside with a brass poker. It’s nearly burned away — it must be late in the day.

As the sounds outside begin to settle, there’s a slight shift in the breeze against the sides of the tent. Out here on the open plains, one can sometimes feel a shift in temperature as the day goes by. The air begins to cool slightly as the Skyral’s dark side causes a rush of calm, soothing wind. It’s not much of a reprieve from this steady heat, but it’s something.

A distant call rings out. It sounds like a man’s voice coming from the other side of the encampment. The voice is deep and booming, and yet it’s difficult to make out the words. 

Before there’s much time to wonder over it, the sound of footfalls comes from outside the tent. There’s two pairs to the noise, one from a pair of soft-soled shoes walking in a leisurely gait. The other is steady and solid, likely from hard, practical boots. They’re accompanied by a soft murmur of conversation, which stops when it reaches the entrance. 

With the brush of an arm, the cloth sweeps back to reveal the forms of two young men. The first, leaning forward and obscuring the other, is a shasii with a long fall of dark hair. His swirls seem almost as whimsical as his clothes — myriad curls and other odd flares. 

“Hello, Teller!” The smiling shasii greets the woman behind the brocade-covered table. “The old wagon-tugger is sending us around with a message.”

“Ffffruffhf!” The man behind him exclaims, with his face caught and covered in the tent flap. After struggling with it for a moment, he emerges, gasping for air. He seems a much simpler sort of man: a tzuskar with close-cropped hair, numerous wings, and straight features. He gasps for breath as he collects himself.

“Gods, Jiselmo, every time…”

“I have to play true to part, dear Korin,” the shasii replies impishly.

“We’re not doing a ‘bit’ right now!” Korin bristles, shaking his head. With a look of embarrassment, he turns to her with a measured calm. A wing flaps on his upper-left cheek. “Ah, yes, hello also.”

The Teller of Fortunes nods a greeting, accompanied by a soft sigh of relief — she probably won’t have to do any more readings for today. A good thing, too. The incense was beginning to make her dizzy.

She dips a little in her seat, slipping a hand down beside her table. When she straightens, she’s holding a small bottle of crownflower wine. She tugs the wax-covered cork free with her teeth, and takes a sip before speaking.

“Jiselmo. Korin. What’s he want now?”

Jiselmo bobs his head of swaying hair.

“No raunchy stuff today! Wagon-Tugger says we start packing up after dinner.”

Korin nods with a grave air.

“He just shouted at the other end of the camp. Some of us will be sleeping with the wagons rolling, at least until we’re a good ways down the road,” he says, squinting against the glare of the distant light. No sun ever rises in the sky of these lands, but bright shards of the broken star dot the landscape. They’re helpful for growing crops within their radius, but make very annoying obstacles when you need to drive a caravan around them. 

“Oh yes! He seems to be in a hurry,” Jiselmo continues with an impish half-smile.

Her complete lack of surprise hangs heavily in the sultry, perfumed air.

“When’s dinner?” She asks, stuffing the cork back into the bottle’s narrow cobalt neck before tucking it down beneath the table’s voluminous brocade cloth.

Korin ruffles his short, tousled hair in thought.

“By the pace of things, probably a bit less than an hour.”

“Brair is still breathing on the coals,” Jiselmo adds helpfully, to Korin’s chagrin. “I hear he’s cooking today! That means spicy… Not my thing, I prefer Nelea-Days.”

“Biscuits…” Korin murmurs in somber agreement. 

The Teller of Fortunes wrinkles her nose slightly. 

“Stew again, probably. Here’s hoping he’s run out of those little round death peppers he picked up in Skilhouros,” she says, with a weary sigh. 

Still, even the virtual guarantee of a bumpy ride with indigestion does little to dampen her relief at  leaving this particular patch of land, with its heat, dust, and unpleasant similarities to-

“Any idea where we’re going next?” She asks, as she rises from her cushioned seat with a bone-cracking stretch. She interlaces silver-ringed fingers and reaches high over her head, easing kinks from a back that’s spent too many hours bent over a table for one day.

Both men glance about, as if checking whether others are nearby. Jiselmo looks back to her with a conspiratorial hum.

“Well… I hear we’re beating a strong retreat away from Pellan lands. I’m not sure what it is, but the patrols are starting to look at us a little funny…”

Starting?” Korin scoffs, flapping his cheek wing. 

“More than usual,” the shasii amends. “Anyway… It looks like we’ll be heading dex-rim towards Paakoponde.”

Beneath her veil, one brow shifts upward.

“Again? I feel like we were just there.”

Granted, her perception of time is faulty, at best. It’s at least partially a consequence of watching countless towns through the window of a jostling wagon. 

“Somewhat,” Korin answers dryly. “We went along the midward trail, avoiding Paako-”

“-Now the trumba wants to march right through. Couldn’t tell ya why!” The shasii throws up his hands. “He made a point of not doing it last time. Anyway, how’s stuff, before we go marching on?”

“We have other tents to tell, though I don’t think we’re in any hurry,” Korin adds, with a pointed look at Jiselmo, who seems more than happy to chat instead of doing his assigned task. 

“Mm…” She murmurs, trailing off as she jingles the handful of coins in her bowl. “Not great, if I’m to be honest.” She lets the bits of copper and silver sift through her fingers, clattering back into a less-than-impressive pile. “Hopefully Paako’ll be better, though I guess that depends on how long we’re staying for.”

The pair murmurs thoughtfully.

“Well, we will be passing near the capital,” Korin reasons.

“I hear they’re rather…” By way of explanation, Jiselmo raises his hands and wiggles his fingers. “So… Maybe better? At least for us, they’re a bit less stiff…”

“We might just have to go higher-brow than we did around the Pellan farmers,” the tzuskar figures, while tugging the tent-flap off of his wing. 

“Perhaps,” she replies, as she lifts the lid from the katagon-dish, “That’s easy enough for you two to do, though. I just shuffle cards.”

The incense is nearly ash now — the last dregs of smoke curling up from the smoldering embers grow fainter by the second. The Teller of Fortunes begins absent-mindedly gathering up her things: slipping the cards back into their leather pouch, moving the katagon-dish, folding the tablecloth…

“Hmm. Well, they’re mystic enough at least. I think you’ll get plenty of takers,” the shasii offers, with a more optimistic air. “Anyway, we’d best get moving before someone gets upset. See you later!” Jiselmo bids her, and begins to wiggle past his compatriot.

“See you,” Korin adds with a nod, as he follows. 

“See you,” she calls over her shoulder. It won’t take her long to pack up the little tent and roll it up for safekeeping, but it’s nice to have something to keep her busy in the space before dinner. Besides, the sooner she has the tent broken down, the sooner she has an excuse to be away from her spot and back in the fresh air.

Well, as fresh as the lingering odor of fertilizer can be, at least. Usually, she almost enjoys the smell — it’s strong, but earthy and redolent of young plants and growing things. It’s a welcome air after they’ve been traveling through snow-capped mountains or across seemingly endless stretches of sand. In this heat, though?

There isn’t much to recommend about the smell of shard-baked gurran leavings.

The smell is one downside of the late-day breeze, and the Teller’s senses are well-tuned to pick them up. (That Stazio fellow certainly had quite a bit of that particular fragrance with him as well.) Though with the promise of new lands comes the promise of new smells. As far as she can remember, things smelled much fresher around Paako-lands. At the very least, there wasn’t the stench of croplands and the ambient musk of wandering gurrans, nor was there a chorus of mournful, trilling moos around day’s end.

As the Teller of Fortunes packs up, the footfalls of the pair trail off on their way on to the next performer. There isn’t much space from one tent to the other, but the two of them seem to be taking their time. They’ve never been ones to rush about doing errands, after all.

Once she’s deposited her tent’s furnishings in a neat pile of chests and sacks just outside of its entrance, she steps out to begin prying the pegs out of the hot, dusty earth. Stepping from the interior into the fresh(ish) air is a blast of relief — as warm as it is here, the difference in temperature feels as refreshing as plunging her face into a cool spring, even behind her veil. 

She only allows herself a moment to enjoy it before she’s busily yanking at wooden stakes and flattening tent poles, though.

Out here, it’s much easier to enjoy the late day breeze. The sights of the camp offer a different sort of relief from the monotony of working inside all day. The world outside is full of motion, as all the tents in the encampment begin to fold and crumple under busy hands. Everyone, from the long-armed huikkaran strongman to the dancing triplets, are all taking care of their own. Even those ahead of the two messengers are already taking down their tents in anticipation of Korin and Jiselmo’s visit. 

At times like this, the caravan feels like a living, breathing thing. Even such different people can seem unified at times like this. As the seller-stands and the knife-thrower’s target board falls, the trappings of an actual camp begin to build in their wake. The impromptu signs and staves begin to melt away, while a few fires glow to life at the center. Then there’s the oddly organic flow of commoners being ushered off the grounds. 

In the distance, there’s the shape of a large callosian bent over some of the kindling. He is — quite literally — blowing the fire into existence. Such is the way of things.

The Teller of Fortunes rolls her tent up, crushing it as small as she can. She tucks it under one arm, followed by a sack of cushions under the other, and a set of tent poles slung between the side of her neck and the curved point of her shoulder. It’s not a heavy load, but it makes for awkward carrying.

Luckily for her, her home isn’t far away. The sight of it greets her like an oasis to a thirsty man — from its roof, flat and bordered by ornate scrollwork, to its tall, wooden wheels, to the gauzy curtains tugged by the breeze. It’s been around longer than she’s been alive, but it has seen her through years of touring through every sort of weather blowing across every sort of terrain. 

The wagon doesn’t have a voice of its own, but it greets her with a gentle against the wind. Though it’s an old, patched-together sort of thing with new parts brought in over the decades, it has its own rustic charm nonetheless. It’s survived a number of strange hardships, from chaos-storms to Faceless attacks. There’s some steel in that wagon’s make, underneath where the rain can’t reach. The Teller of Fortunes leans over the bottom half of the split front door and deposits her burden. She’ll worry about putting things away later. For now, she has several more armloads to carry.

As the Teller toils, many others are doing the same. Some are getting done sooner, especially the strongman, Aedas, and the knife-thrower, Vasht. The two of them are some distance away, leaning against a stack of barrels and crates that await one last shove into a wagon’s door. As the Teller goes by, they cast waves in her direction — part greeting, part silent offer to help her move things. It’s their unspoken role in the caravan to assist with this sort of work (and sometimes the fire-breather too, when he’s not busy puffing dinner into existence). 

Though her burden is considerable, it’s one she’s used to — even with her arms full, she gives a polite nod of her head in return for any waves she gets on the way. It only takes three trips for her to have her temporary place of business broken down and stashed away anyway, and the walk itself is almost meditative in its repetition. Once everything has been deposited on the threadbare rug inside of the wagon’s door, she lets herself in to stow it away. There’s not much to her tent, but it wouldn’t do to have it rolling around the floor while the wagon pitches and sways. Tent poles cost money.

Inside, shardlight slants through the wide, double window in one of the wagon’s walls, setting the dusty air alight with motes of glittering gold. A few mismatched rugs cover the painted floor, cobbled together from what was available in her travels — a patchy floral by the door, an elaborate work of colorful, fringed silk beneath the whitewashed vanity, even a thick, curly vulre hide in front of the wagon’s little iron stove. The curtains hanging in the window are all of crinkled linen, elaborately block printed in shard-faded leaf-and-vine designs. Under the widest window, there’s a wooden bench with a set of cupboards beneath and a thick feather mattress on top; with enough pillows and a soft blanket, it makes for a welcoming enough bed. 

As much as that bed calls out to her right now (how nice would it be to lay down and enjoy the late-day breeze!) she continues putting things away. The little katagon-bowl gets pride of place atop her vanity, positioned next to a lacquer box, a few cut-glass bottles, and various other pots and vials of varying description. She even takes the time to refresh the coal in his back, and sprinkle it with a pinch of herbs from an octagonal, lavender box nestled in the cupboard beneath her bed. The fresh, herby sweetness curling into the air is one of the few small luxuries she will afford herself today.

With tent, cushions, and other accouterments securely stashed away, she sheds her shawl and hangs her robe in the closet at the rear of the wagon. Domicile though it may be, most vehicles in the caravan have to pull double-duty. Hers is no exception. Aside from the little section given over to her own belongings, it’s stuffed full of leotards, feathered headpieces, boxes of masks, corsetry, and all of the other bits of threadbare sartorial artistry on which the caravan’s performers rely. 

Lastly, she places the leather bag of cards in the vanity’s velvet-lined drawer. Now, she is no longer the exotic, mysterious Teller of Fortunes. Dressed in a loose muslin top over rough-spun, knee-length trousers and a pair of sandals, Ane exits her wagon in a state of cool, relaxed comfort. 

A World Born: The Promise of Fire and Fugue

Deep in the secluded archives of the Eternalist monks is a tomb for tales: multitudes of shelves covering every moss-plastered wall in scrolls and cracked tomes. Further below, ancient crates fashioned from kruckwood, limestone, and slate sleep in the deepest catacombs. Covetous roots crowd along the walls, inching to pierce through to the vast knowledge stored deep beneath the soil. Even these ancient, patient, persistent thieves cannot pry nourishment from the sealed-up parchments and letter-carved stone.

The Eternalists never cut the roots. Instead, they carefully relocate the ancient tales whenever their pursuers draw close. They treat the pages with special, ink-preserving resins — a practice refined through the passing of ages. Only the dim light of glowstone illuminates these vaults; the meticulous monks simply will not allow open flames, be it a blazing torch or a flickering candle. Even unfurling a scroll requires special instruments, lest clumsy fingers damage a vital truth of existence.

In the deepest chamber, ancient automatons guard passages from the times before the Shattering of the Sun. Only the highest-ranked members of the Eternalist order know of this room, let alone ever see the secrets within. Every passing year renders the parchment, the script, and the words all the more sacred — here there are some of the last, most enduring instances of Progenitor language, describing their theories on life, on love, and even on the secret name of the world.

Uruvalai.

One scroll is the most secret of all, covered in runes once scrawled with hands of unknown shape, for an unknown purpose, and for an unknown reader. Even the language itself is a mystery that defies complete translation, and yet, it’s still the most helpful means of deciphering the eldritch language of the Pre-Shattering. The Eternalists have never succeeded at copying the text, purely out of fear of somehow damaging the original. At one point a filtered, translated version made its way to the surface, but even this could not capture its true nature.

With every reading, the story begins with nothing — a blank page. Only after a few moments of observation does the the tale unfurl in careful, ancient script, unfurling in a slow fade from the wordless, blank reed-derived parchment into elegant scrawl. 

The world is lightless Void — a wasteland bereft of life…

(more…)