Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-25: The chopon dung’s important.

Looking across the camp, Ane can see the two figures cast in the fire’s glow. The callosian covered in protrusions is gathering up portions for them, while the mass of wings mostly just… Well, flaps, as far as she can tell.

She heads out towards the pair with long, determined strides. About halfway through, Ane catches herself — she smooths her fingers through her dark hair, softens her shoulders, and eases herself into a casual saunter with a faint sway of her hips. It’s a subtle change, but one that at least helps her and Vasht avoid looking like they’re marching into an inquisition. As much as she’s pushed to take things slow and be friendly, it’s difficult not to charge ahead like a gurran down a thoroughfare. 

What the Void is Jarrik up to?

Vasht takes a similar tack, adopting one of his casual swaggers. He has about six of those. Three of them are more like brooding-in-motion, but he has one that’s normal, one that’s cocky, and one that’s completely inappropriate here. He’s going for the normal one. 

On the inside, he similarly wants to know what the Void Jarrik is doing. 

When the two of them arrive near the cooling food cauldron, the two new arrivals are finished scooping out their own portions. Neither speaks. 

“Hello,” Vasht greets them warmly. “I saw Jarrik walk you in, so I figured I’d come welcome you too. The name’s Vasht,” he says with a genuine smile. 

“Ane,” Ane says, following his lead. She offers the pair a bright smile and an extended hand, on the off chance either are in the position to shake it. She’s not sure, but it seems remiss not to.

The two of them exchange glances, then look back at Vasht and Ane. The callosian doesn’t move, but the mass of wings — a tzuskar, in reality — reaches out and shakes Ane’s hand. It’s hard to tell if the person inside is tall or short, thin or fat, male, female, of the Skrajjic third-sex, or something else entirely — the wings all over their body are similar in size to the ones on their back. Even up close, you can barely see a face through the gaps.

“Lurim,” the tzuskar answers evenly.

“Pimsun, or just Pim,” the callosian answers. Vasht begins to offer him a handshake, but the callosian politely waves it away. The many craggy mounds on his arms seems to make moving them unpleasant, and even shifting his weight is accompanied by the sound of creaking and cracking carapace.

“Nice to meet you both,” Vasht says amiably. “I’m the knife thrower, and she’s the fortune teller. We do a lot of the odd jobs around here, taking care of the caravan,” he says, by way of explanation. “So if you two need anythin’, don’t hesitate to ask. Right, Ane?”

“Right,” she nods, “You picked a good time to come — we’re actually getting ready to roll onward. Do you both have a place to stay?” With some effort, she manages to keep the question breezy and nonchalant.

The callosian, Pim, murmurs in thought.

“Somewhat. The talkin’ man said we got one,” he says gruffly, looking dour under the scale-mound erupting from his left-brow.

“Stuck us in the scullery wagon,” Lurim chimes in, in a nasal voice. “Not that either’a us can cook, or that there’s a bed or anythin’ in there.”

“Mm… Yeah, space is a bit dear at the moment, I think,” Ane apologizes, “But I’m sure we can try to find some bedding between us and the other caravanners, at least.” A beguiling expression of feigned perplexity crosses her face, even accompanied by a faintly pouting frown. “Though, if Jarrik doesn’t mean for you to cook… It’s odd he’d put you there. What did he have in mind?”

“The fop didn’t say,” Pim says glumly. “Said we’d get to travel, get away from S’varga.”

“Oh, he had a whole schtick about helpin’ the downtrodden,” Lurim says, with a fair air of cynicism. “When I asked ‘im what we gotta do, he just said…”

“Perform, if you like,” says Jarrik’s voice, coming out from under those wings. The tone is flowery, flattering, unctuous. Typical Jarrik.

Vasht jumps a bit, and Lurim chuckles under the burden of feathers. 

“Sorry, gets people e’rry time. I’m a skil’t mimic, for sure.”

Ane raises a brow.

“Impressive,” Vasht appraises. “Quite a talent.”

The callosian chuckles sullenly. 

“Not one we bein’ hired for. People don’t exactly buy us on for our cheery wit, if you get my meanin’,” he mutters, shrugging a crag-cracked shoulder to demonstrate. 

“Well, I’m sure you’ll find something to fill your days with,” Ane says brightly, “At least, when you’re not doing what Jarrik hired you for..?” She trails off, adding an uncertain rising inflection that turns it into almost-but-not-quite-a-question.

So, Jarrik didn’t say anything to them about requiring them to perform, and they want to leave S’varga. He’s trying to play this off as a charitable endeavor, but he’s so full of shit I can smell it from here.

“Oh, prob’ly,” Lurim agrees. “So long as I ain’t gotta cook. Do you know what happened the last time I tried to cook?”

“It was like twenty burnt vlearks, and all of em’ were silly-mad,” Pim adds helpfully.

Vasht nods in understanding. 

“I don’t think that’ll be a problem… We all take turns when it makes sense. Even so, there are caravan followers,” he says, vaguely flapping a hand at the latter half of the wagon train. “No one’s gonna make you cook, and they’d get an earful if they did.”

“Eh, well enough,” Pim says agreeably. “That said, you mentioned a bed?” 

“I need a fluffy cot, I do. Big, downy pillows,” Lurim says wistfully, almost fantasizing. There’s a smile of wonder somewhere on there, audible in their voice.

“Bit ironic, idn’t it? But that’s ‘is thing,” Pim explains.

“Feels better on me tail, too,” Lurim adds helpfully.

Tail?

“I don’t know if we can scrape together a bed on short notice, but hopefully there’re some blankets and pillows to be had.” Ane turns to Vasht with a cant of her head. “What d’you think?”

“Yeah, I’m sure we can pull together some extra-fluffy pillows,” Vasht agrees easily. “A mattress will take more time, but when we’ve got something, you get first pick.” He smiles, his visible eye crinkling with amusement. He probably thinks the bit about the tail was a joke.

“Mighty squiffy,” Lurim says with approval. Neither Ane nor Vasht knows what that means, but it’s the tone that seems to matter.

“I’m not much for fluffy stuff… but I’m gonna need salves soon, methinks,” says Pim, scratching at one of the peaks on his arm. “Get mighty itchy, ‘specially if I’m gonna be paid to get gawked at. Gawkin’ makes me itchy.”

“Oh, we’ve got those. I still have to make some, but Dynkala — the klorrian herbalist, she’s usually in her wagon — or Vaidna, the other herbalist, should have something that can help,” Ane says, with an airy wave of her hand. “Void, we’ve probably got the ingredients to compound you some, if there’re any salves that’ve worked well for you in the past.”

Pim starts to open his mouth to reply, before Lurim promptly moves an arm(?) to cover it. 

“Nunna that, don’t be givin’ her a list right now. The day’s late.” There’s a muffled noise. “No, no, I get it. The chopon dung is impor- no, don’t give me that look. Stop sulking. Stop- Arright, nevermind,” Lurim says, uncovering Pim’s mouth and absolving themselves of responsibility.

“That’s a lotta healers for one group,” Pim says, with some astonishment. “May get some relief yet. Thank ye.”

Ane nods. “No problem. We take care of our people,” she replies, “As best as we’re able to, anyway.” The grin that accompanies her words comes only with effort — thus far, Jarrik himself does not have a stellar record as a provider for his employees. She has no doubt that, were either of these two any worse off, they’d be in the same position as Thelorn.

“Well, yer both a kind sort,” Lurim appraises. “More’n that weird fop. Anyway, thanks for all the trouble,” they say amiably.

Pim nods simply. “Been a pleasure,” he says, raising his bowl. 

“Yeah, we’ll let you guys relax. We can bring stuff by the wagon later,” Vasht replies. “Enjoy your dinner and whatnot.”

“Yeah, we’ll see what we can do,” Ane assures them. Once the pair has nodded their farewells and returned to eating, she shoots Vasht an uneasy hum. For all their guarded questions, it doesn’t seem like they’re much closer to an actual answer. Vasht returns her glance and nods solemnly. When both of them are far enough away, he grumbles. 

“Yeah, same deal. No real request for work, no explanation.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Alright people, though.”

“Yeah, they seem friendly enough… Hope we can find a bed for them, eventually. For now — do you have any spare pillows or blankets?” She hooks a thumb into the waist of her trousers as she walks, with her hum turned on the spongy ground as she makes a mental inventory. She has a few pillows, mostly of the decorative sort. She might be able to find some spare sheets, but they aren’t much good without anything to put them on. 

Why did Jarrik think he could just make them sleep on the floor?

“Yeah, I’ve got some spare pillows, and a quilt,” he answers, similarly pensive. “Don’t know what to do about the ‘bed’ part, but with enough pillows, we can at least give them something while we figure it out,” he strategizes, though he doesn’t seem completely in it. Mostly, the dilemma of how they’re being neglected — and yet not asked to work — doesn’t quite make sense to him. He takes a pause from his thoughts to glance up at Ane, donning a slight smile. “I’ll go scrounge some things up. Meet you at their wagon?”

Ane nods pensively. She’s as lost as he is — is Jarrik just collecting people? Why? He obviously isn’t putting any thought into their care, so he isn’t treating bringing them on as an investment in the caravan’s future. It seems like he couldn’t possibly care less what happens to them once they’re here.
None of it makes sense.

“Sure, sure,” she answers with an absent murmur. A furrow creases her brow as she looks over her shoulder, stealing one last glance at the pair before she turns to go to her wagon.

The two of them are still sitting by the waning fire, eating their meal as they were. They seem like a fairly companionable pair — not gleeful, by any means, but happy enough. They sometimes move their arms slightly, subtly, as if gesturing while exchanging idle banter. 

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-24: Act casual.

In concept, the caravan is an ideal place for people who become othered — whether physically or otherwise, whether by accident, design, or birth. There’s a way for them to make a living, experience the world, even earn admiration that might be otherwise difficult to find for those ostracized in a small town or lost to the underbelly of a city. All the caravanners get shelter and regular meals, and, with many hands making the work light, there’s enough time to pursue one’s talents. Even if the gawping crowds show up and hand over their coin to see a “freakshow,” they leave dazzled by performers with genuine skill. 

This all depends, of course, on those performers not being left in a neglected wagon with an overflowing chamber pot.
Now Jarrik seems to be building a collection.

Vasht, in the midst of his pacing, occasionally gives Ane a confiding glance. For now, at least, he has enough presence of mind to second-guess it. Perhaps it’s a good time to get answers. Perhaps it would make things more difficult for everyone. His posture looks uneasy — shoulders tense, feathers ruffled, teeth gritted all the while. 

Ane tosses her still-half-full bowl down in front of her as she stands. When she catches Vasht’s sight again, she gives a firm jerk of her head in the direction of the river. It’s answers they need, and they’re not going to get them with grinding teeth and anxious glances. 

If Vasht was looking for an excuse, this is more than plenty. He leaps down from his wagon, landing on his boots with his dark wings fanned to soften the fall. He quickly hits his stride, heading towards the spot Ane indicates. As much as he’d like to rush right up to Jarrik, a huddle is probably wise.

When Ane walks up, he’s standing with his arms crossed, back leaned against an ivory tree. He gives her a nod of acknowledgement as she approaches.

“I see you’re keen to confront him too.”

Though Ane’s stride is even and relaxed as she walks to the river, her fists are clenched tightly enough to cut half-moons into her palms. She shakes her head, whipping her cheeks with strands of dark hair. 

“Not in the least. Have you met Jarrik?”

“Heh. Good point. He doesn’t really do ‘confront,’” Vasht agrees, grimacing. “I guarantee the second I walk up to him, he’s going to have five reams of gurrshit ready to go,” he says with disdain, his visible eye narrowing at Jarrik with suspicion. 

“Exactly. He’s obviously up to something, but the odds of us — any of us — getting it out of him are about as good as a sailwhale learning to fly. Either way, him gathering up more performers just to end up leaving them to rot is not alright.” Ane turns her head, casting a wary glance over her shoulder. Even if Jarrik notices the two of them, it’s not likely he’ll chalk it up to anything more than a casual conversation… but still.

Vasht drums his fingers on his bicep, nodding and thinking as he listens to Ane. The wing over his eye flaps in distaste. 

“You’re right, he’s not going to give any real answers. The question is whether to wade through his nonsense now, or wait until a moot is called. Given how the others felt about what happened with Thelorn, I’m sure one’s soon to happen,” he says tensely, tightening his jaw. “Dealin’ with Jarrik is always some damn social calculus, and most of it is makin’ sure he doesn’t screw ya.”

“I’d say wade through it without him,” Ane ventures, with a faint tilt of her head, “Thelorn doesn’t know why he was brought here, but, to be honest, Thelorn hasn’t really had the luxury of knowing much outside of his wagon — he went from enslavement to here, from what he’s told us, so it’s not like Jarrik was going to make him privy to any of his big ideas. We don’t know anything about the newcomers, though… They might be a bit more savvy about the situation, yeah?” 

He furrows his brow for a moment, mulling this over. If nothing else, the expressions battling on his face seem to express cooling his hotheaded fire into a strategic simmer. 

“You’re probably right… This pair might be more talkative. If they are, then they’re bound to have asked questions,” he figures, looking off towards them. The pair has begun walking back to camp with Jarrik and Vozhik, guided along by the bobbing torch. “Better than talking to Vozhik, too… Even if he does know anythin’, he’s more secretive than a smeerp in a greengrocer.”

Ane gives a derisive snort and a sour purse of her lips. She wouldn’t be inclined to palaver with the reclusive magician on a good day — after his display during dinner, she has the feeling neither of them hold the other in any kind of esteem.

“Leave Vozhik out of it. Judging by his complaining, he probably has a few choice words for you about the ‘jousting,’ anyhow.”

Vasht lets out a blunt scoff and shakes his head. 

“Of course he does,” he says with a smirk. “In any case, it looks like those two intend to show the newcomers around. Maybe we can greet ‘em in an hour or two, once the gurrshit-doctor is out of earshot.”

“Right. But Animus alive, don’t immediately start ambushing them with questions,” Ane cautions him sternly. “Remember, odds are they’re on Jarrik’s side right now. He might’ve shown up like a hero, far as they’re concerned. Jumping on the opportunity to start grilling isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

“Heh, you’re right,” he says with a self-effacing smile. “When’d you get such a sense for keeping my aim pointed right?” The tension in his shoulders relaxes somewhat, as he rests his head back against the ivory tree. 

Ane shoots him an incredulous hum, accompanied by the subtle squint of fern-patterned swirls. 

“Literally give people advice for a living,” she says flatly, “I have to size most of them up the second they walk into my tent, pull some cards, and turn it into something useful.” She presses her lips together, to hide the skeptical grin threatening to sneak through. “Think I can’t do the same for you, when I’ve known you since practically before your balls dropped?”

“I like to think I’m a bit less readable, bit more mysterious than that,” he replies, smirking in return. “And trust me, I didn’t join that early…”

“Nobody’s that mysterious. Not even Vozhik. And it was early enough… What were you, twelve or so?”

“Fourteen,” he answers readily. “And it’s not like I’ve gone in your tent, weeping and asking what the shards have in store,” he says, flipping a hand towards the ceiling of the cavern. “As far as you know, I arose from the sea before joining the caravan,” he says with a jokingly-feigned mystique, tipping his chin up slightly. 

“Sure. The Littlest Pirate King,” she taunts, “Raised by crabs, left to make your own way in the world at the tender age of eleven.”

“Not the littlest; I was bigger than this other guy. He was eight,” Vasht informs her, holding back a smirk. “He had it rougher; had to be raised by snails instead. That’s why he was eight. They raised him too slow.” As he talks, his grin threatens to break through the gruff facade that the ‘retelling’ requires.

Ane hums at him for a long, quizzical moment, mouth open with unformed questions. Finally, a laugh bursts from her — a strangely euphonious sound after all their conspiring.

“‘Raised him too slow’?” She just barely manages to utter, “Okay, okay — Second Littlest Pirate King.”

“Damn right! Plenty of adventures, loads of mystery.” He raises a brow, nodding in confirmation. He grins and adds, “I don’t know how much it takes to make you swoon, but I got started early. From there on?” He makes a sweeping gesture. “Just lousy with mystery, a downright handsome enigma.”

“More than crabs and pirates,” Ane retorts flatly, “Besides — you were a gangly kid when you turned up here, how much mystery’d you possibly have hiding in your rucksack?”

“Ah. Good thing we made that up, then,” he says, brushing away his hypothetical career as a corsair monarch. He takes in a measured sigh. “Plenty, I guess…”

 His rough hand drifts up towards his scarred cheek, before he resists the reflex and lowers it. His one visible eye glances furtively aside. 

“I didn’t join up here for fun. Not even sure it’s a choice I made.”

“I don’t think it’s a choice most of us made,” Ane agrees. Her voice softens, easing the edges from her sharply teasing tone. “It wasn’t one I was ever offered, at least.”

“Yeah, seems to be the way,” he agrees, his own tone turning the rough side of sincere. He seems to struggle with a thought, before he lets out an easing breath. “This is better than what I came from, though. It’s a good thing I like most of everybody, bastards notwithstanding.” He adopts a smile — not exactly cheerful, but with its own hard-won mirth.

Ane shrugs a shoulder gently, with a self-conscious cross of her arms. She pretends to flick a stray thread from the sleeve of her shirt, to give her gaze something to do that isn’t trying to meet his. 

“I wouldn’t know — this is where I came from, more or less. Not here, specifically, but you get my meaning.” 

“Yeah?” He half-asks, curious, but not wanting to pry. “Parents, right?”

She holds up a finger.

“Parent.” 

Though she doesn’t seem inclined to continue, she can feel his unspoken questions thickening the silence between them. Ane touches her tongue to her lips briefly, as she subtly shifts her weight on the boggy riverbank. 

“Her name was Raunia. I never met her,” she explains, almost apologetic for her lack of detail, “We were — the caravan was, anyway — in a mountain pass. It was snowing, we had two wagons with broken axles… “ She makes an airy, looping gesture with one hand, as if that can smooth over the parts she wasn’t yet alive to — or just doesn’t want to — relate. “The timing was… bad. I survived, and she didn’t. Dynkala says she thinks my father was a tzuskar, but nobody ever actually met him. Raunia was pretty rowdy like that. And,” Ane adds with a touch of grim humor, “Tzuskar boys’re bad luck.”

Vasht listens attentively, with a sympathetic air. It’s easy to understand the situation she describes, insofar as: A., the caravan is not great with childbirth at the best of times, and B., mountain passes and broken wheels are vicious killers. 

That last note about tzuskar boys, however, earns a surprised laugh from him.

“Hrm. Bad luck? Can’t say I disagree,” he says with his own note of grim humor, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m definitely not good luck myself… though I like to think I’d never abandon someone. Had enough of that from the other end.” 

“You don’t have to abandon someone to be bad luck.” The corner of her lips turns down sharply, though briefly. It’s little more than the flash of a half-frown, a momentary crack in her humor that’s gone as soon as it arrives, but it’s a frown nonetheless. 

“At any rate,” she continues, with a forced air of jocularity, “It’s not important… How’d you turn up in this merry band of bastards, Second-Littlest Pirate King?”

“Mh, well thanks for the reassurance. Yeah, I manage to be bad luck by stickin’ around,” he agrees, now tracing one hand along the bone-spire behind him. “Anyway, I’ll spare the details. Dad ran off to become an adventurer, came back as a bandit,” he says, his jaw tightening. The thought seems to send one of his hands warily drifting near his waist, though he plays it off by resting it on his hip.

“It was years later. Mom had moved on, wanted nothin’ to do with him… but he wanted plenty to do with us.” He averts his gaze, the wing over his eye twitching from the tension in his brow. “He got drunk, got mad… and tried to get even. I tried to stop him…” He shakes his head, washing the tinge of emotion from his expression. 

“Now I’m here.”

For a moment, Ane looks like she might as well have been hit in the stomach. Her belly tenses and her cheeks pale, and there’s a long silence before she can find the words to say through the bilious feeling in the back of her throat. 

“I’m sorry.”

They feel as leadenly inadequate here as they did when she was talking to Thelorn.

“It’s alright,” he replies almost immediately, offering a light smile of reassurance. “That was over a decade ago. Now, I just…” He looks off towards the rest of the caravan, going about its business. After the interruption earlier, everything has returned to its usual course for the time being. Jiselmo and Korin are telling another tale, Aedas is arm-wrestling over the pot of dinner, and Nelea is introducing a small camp follower to her animals. “This is weird, isn’t it?”

“Hmm? What is?”

Vasht shrugs a shoulder. “Like y’said, we’ve known each other for years. I knew you were born here, more’re less, but we’ve never actually talked about this before.”

Ane tilts her head gently from one side to the other, weighing her thoughts. “Mm… I guess. You know how it is, though — never really matters how someone ends up here, just that they do. Whatever happens outside of the camp stays there. I don’t know what Nelea did before this, or Wila, Vila, and Zila, or anybody. It’s not that strange.” She pauses for a moment. “Come to think of it, Thelorn’s the only one I’ve really asked about it. Everyone else? If they don’t bring it up, I don’t mention it.”

“Fair point. Whatever happened before this… Eh, all that matters is trying to protect everyone. Keeps me awake, but, when you have dreams like I do, that ain’t so bad.”

A smile, albeit a wistful one, crosses her lips in return.

“And then there’re people like me, who give themselves bad dreams on purpose.”

He gives her a curious look. “Well I hope they’re interesting ones, at least.”

“Mm,” she murmurs, before holding out one slim hand and tilting it from side to side. “It varies. Most of them are useful, if nothing else… Some are even relaxing.”

“More productive than mine. If it made any sense, I’d ask you to take me along sometime. If it’s crossing planes, flying ‘round dark forests or exploring weird Voidscapes, well,” he lowers a hand, donning a more warm smile now. “I’m sure it’d be a damn lot more fun with you.”

Ane gives a short laugh. 

“Baby steps. You wouldn’t be the first person I’ve guided, but, like as not, I’d spend the whole time holding your hair back while you threw up out my window.”

His smile becomes a grin.

“Alright, make sure you hold the wing too.” He raises a hand to it, gently lifting the feathers from the eye underneath. “It can reach pretty far down if it’s of a mind to.” He lets it go, then puts his hands back at his hips. “Anyway, shall we get on to meeting with these newcomers? We’ve been chatting long enough for Jarrik to get bored, and it’s helped me cool my heels besides.”

She darts a glance over her shoulder. Nelea’s operating an impromptu petting zoo, Aedas’s upset his bowl of stew, and Jiselmo and Korin are probably indulging in either a very animated story, or a relatively subdued argument. If it’s going to be done, it might as well be now.

“I guess so. It couldn’t hurt, I don’t think… Not if we just try to be friendly, at least.”

Vasht presses a heel to the ivory tree, pushing off from it. “I think I just saw them wander off past the fire. Probably grabbed a late dinner. Let’s go.”

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-23: Most wroth.

In the distance, the caravan’s magician heads off toward the edge of the camp. He’s grabbed up a torch, casting his stark features in half-shadow. He wanders out and greets three figures approaching from the city — the caravan master among them.

As Vozhik stops and palavers with Jarrik, the light of his torch falls upon the two newcomers. One is a ruptured silhouette at first, resolving into a callosian covered in long, lumpy protrusions like the back of a Skrajjic rock-lizard. It’s almost uncomfortable to look at, the way his clothes appear to warp to fit his distorted shape. The weight of the crags along his shoulders and back seems to hold him down, forcing his posture to stoop low.

The other is… a collection of birds? A flock of massive, twitching wings? And yet it stands in the vague shape of a man. It’s hard to tell whether there’s a person beneath them.

Jiselmo, rubbernecking all the while, speaks for the rest as attention falls upon this spectacle.

“… What the fuck?”

Ane twists around in her seat, craning her neck to see what Jiselmo’s spotted. When she does, her nostrils flare in anger.

“More people for Jarrik to shove in a hay wagon and ignore, looks like,” she mutters through clenched teeth as she drops her spoon into her bowl with a clatter. She casts a hum in Vasht’s direction, wherever he’s off brooding. Though he’s plenty far from the group, she raises a brow at him with an unvoiced, Do you see this shit?

Vasht, at this point, has switched to perching atop his wagon with his legs over the side. His expression is hardened as he watches Jarrik the distance, shaded under his sweep of wing and hair. Even as Vasht watches this spectacle, he can feel Ane’s gaze upon him. He turns to regard her with his single eye, shining in the light of torches below. He raises his brow in turn, his lips drawn in a stoic line, as if to say, Oh yes, this shit is seen.

“At least he isn’t leading this pair with a group of handlers,” Korin mutters.

The burdened callosian moves and converses, despite his apparent discomfort. The group of wings stands close to him, somehow gesturing and expressing itself under that mess of feathers. 

Wila huffs, and mutters, “There may be need to call a moot over this… If he’s building a ‘freak’ show,” she says with finger-quotes, “Then I will be most wroth. Simply vibrating with wroth!”

“So wroth that it gets all over us,” Vila mutters.

“So wroth that we must scoot her up an extra bed, just to get some beauty rest,” Zila chimes helpfully.

“I don’t know what he’s doing. Nelea, have you spoken to Thelorn at all recently?” Ane asks warily, though her gaze never stops shifting between Vasht and Jarrik.

Nelea nods, though the gesture goes unseen. 

“He seems to be doing better… We read to him, feed him, and he’s largely left alone.”

Vila scoffs. “The old man must be waiting until he has a full set of us…”

In the distance, Vasht is equally watchful. He’s now standing on the edge of his roof, almost pacing. His brawny arms are crossed, taut with tension. Whenever he looks towards Jarrik, his expression seems to darken of its own volition. He stands like a woethrask on a taut leash, as if he’d charge at the caravan master if Jarrik weren’t in mixed company. 

Ane gives a murmur of acknowledgement. “Does he ever mention why he came here?”

“He doesn’t know,” Nelea replies softly.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-22: You pull smeerps out of a hat!

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The next day begins with a pretty typical thing for Ane: fortune telling. 

It’s the last day for the caravan to wring the last few copper bits it can from the local populace, and Ane spends a solid day’s work behind her table with its (still somewhat paint-spattered) brocade cloth. The readings seem to blur together for her — a few minor lordlings on a lark, badgering her for news of their impending fortunes. A gambler or two asking about their next big score. A few shady types with marks on their temples where masks usually hang, probing her for intrigue and forewarnings of betrayals to come. It’s not an outstanding day’s work, by any means, but it’s a thorough and steady one.  She nets nine miters, nine scutes; a tidy sum, and the last from a city for some time.

Once it’s over, Ane is exceedingly pleased to pack up her tent and put S’varga behind her. The caravan has money, guards, and enough supplies to get them through the next leg of their journey, so the sooner she puts some potentially very dissatisfied customers of “Doctor Lartimus” behind her, the better.

When Ane steps out of her tent, she sees that everyone’s gathering up for their last meal in the city. There’s not enough time for one last day of carousing, so everyone is faithfully assembling at the foodline and eating by firelight. While Ane is generally unaffected by the darkness of the tunnels, the other members of the troupe all flock to the nearest light source. It lends things a rather warm, conspiratorial atmosphere, with people packed in tighter clusters than usual. 

Today, Aedas the strong man is the one doling out food — and massive portions of it. It’s a pity that he’s never had much sense for flavor. On the bright side, he hands out a pretty protein-heavy meal, full of boiled-down plants and fibers known to strengthen the body. 

When Ane approaches at the front of the line, he shovels her portion onto a bowl with a smaller bowl, fumbling with the utensils in his massive hands. 

“Hey Ane, got the gud stuff for ya!” He chimes, smiling to his eyes.

“Thanks, Aedas!” She replies brightly, as she accepts the bowl. Even if Aedas didn’t err deeper on the side of nutrition rather than flavor, it’s nice to not have to worry about Brair’s peppers. She turns, bowl and spoon in hand, to find a place to sit — the clusters of cravanners seem warm and jovial enough, satisfied with a successful trip, but it might be nice to take advantage of her ability to see in the dark and find a quiet place to relax…

When Ane arrives, Jiselmo the actor is in the midst of retelling his tales of the madcap adventures of King Fweep-Fweep and the joust, in usual form. It seems like the story of a small creature enchanting the caravanners gets a little more embroidery with every retelling; this time, the wagons get decorated a little more brightly, and a cadre of charming caravan-followers carry Jiselmo away from the ersatz tiltyard on their shoulders while cheering.

Nelea the animal tamer shakes her head and mutters, “You really shouldn’t encourage such things, Jiselmo. Someone could have been hurt.”

“Oh, it’s fine! That’s what the pillows are for.”

Korin the straight-man covers his face with his palm, and mutters, “They were still poles being thrust at alosin-velocity, Jiselmo…”

“Well, the ground is soft als– oh, hello Ane!” He breaks, waving at her with his spoon. 

Ane takes a seat, though she somewhat regrets it — of course Jiselmo would have plenty to say about being the master of ceremonies to a tiny fweep-king. She gives the group a chagrined smile and a wave of her spoon before setting to eating her dinner.

It doesn’t last much longer. While the conversation continues (and seems unaware of Ane’s role), it soon comes to a swift stop. Looming at the other edge of the group is the klorrian magician, a rather rare figure at these fireside gatherings. He’s always a gloomy picture of a man, with long, thin black hair and a gaunt, disapproving face. All this paired with his ostentatiously-dyed robes and air of importance. The look is only broken up by a pair of floppy lop-ears that stick out of his pocket, each thick with cotton-like tufts. His steps are quiet, but the sound of a smeerp munching a carrot is not. 

The moment he steps up, silverware clinks and conversation grinds to a halt. It doesn’t seem deliberate; his severe, stoic presence has a talent for throwing a wrench into any conversation. As Jiselmo puts it, he’s the “doorstopper of chatter, a paper-weight for words, a muzzle on the snout of pleasant company, and a condom on the cock of social grace.”

Despite this colorful description, Jiselmo is the first to speak. 

“Ah, hello Vozhik! Come to rejoin our delightful company?”

The klorr glowers, staring down his nose. 

“I come to address your idiocy yesterday. Your indiscretions and frippery rub you against forces you’d best not tamper with,” he cautions, as his sharp ears lower gravely.

Jiselmo smirks, waggishly swaying from side-to-side. 

“Oh? Afraid I’ll pull one of your smeerps out of my arse and put you out of a job?” 

This earns Jiselmo an elbow-jostle to the rib from Korin, who adds, “It’s all right now. No one was hurt.”

The klorr responds with a chilly, fanged smile. 

“You don’t even recall that you were influenced? Hah. It’s no surprise, given your lack of mental acuity.”

“It was an accident, Vozhik,” Ane interjects firmly, “Nobody was hurt. Besides, it won’t happen again.”

The klorr shifts his gaze to her, raising an eyebrow. 

“Oh? I would hope so. Let us hope this is the only force you house that’s beyond your ken.”

Nelea bristles.

“You mind your words, Vozhik. You are with the caravan, true, but that gives you no license to insult as you please. One more jibe like that, and I’ll have you out of our circle on your ear.”

The magician reels back for a second, chastened. Somehow, even such a mild threat makes him wilt and balk. He quickly regains his stiff posture, and utters a dour “Hmph.” Then, more cautiously, he adds, “Just a warning. We travel in a complicated world with troublesome forces…” His gaze shifts subtly back to Ane. “A fae mood can cause all sorts of problems.” 

Then, he promptly turns to leave with a swish of his voluminous cape, which he wears literally all the time. His mysterious exit, however, is ruined by the way he tucks a hand into his shirt pocket to anxiously stroke his smeerp’s ears. 

You pull smeerps out of a hat!” Ane calls out sourly after him, to his swiftly-retreating back. There are some people who she would accept this admonishment from — Dynkala, naturally, and maybe the medicine-seller, Vaidna — but the pick-a-card-any-card guy does not number among them, however tall and glowery he may be. 

“Void,” she mutters, turning back to Jiselmo and the others, “Is he always on?”

“Regrettably, yes,” Korin replies sourly. “I don’t know how he walks around with all those smeerps up-him.”

“Oh, it’s important for some of the dark magical super-spooky arts,” Jiselmo adds in, in a suitably, theatrically eerie tone. “He might need to conjure ribbons or saw pretty ladies in an emergency.”

“I worry for the smeerps,” Nelea says quietly. “It must be hard to breathe…”

Ane shakes her head. It isn’t that she doesn’t have her own concerns about the fweep-fweep — far from it — but the last thing she needs is to be scolded like an unruly toddler who left their toys out where someone could trip over them. 

“Damn near killed my appetite,” she mutters glumly. 

Vila (of the triplets) side-whispers, “You should see his dirty wagon… It’s a real warren in there, not made for a person.”

This earns Vila an immediate elbow-strike from the other two on each side. She utters a small grunt of surprise and a mutter of protest to the oddly silent Wila and Zila.

In the distance, Vozhik heads off toward the edge of the camp. He’s grabbed up a torch, casting his stark features in half-shadow. He wanders out and greets three figures approaching from the city — the caravan master among them.

As Vozhik stops and palavers with Jarrik, the light of his torch falls upon the two newcomers. One is a ruptured silhouette at first, then resolves into a callosian covered in long, lumpy protrusions almost like the back of a Skrajjic rock-lizard. It’s almost uncomfortable to look at, the way his clothes appear to warp to fit his distorted shape. The weight of the crags along his shoulders and back seems to hold him down, forcing his posture to stoop low.

The other is… a collection of birds? A flock of massive, twitching wings? And yet it stands in the vague shape of a man. It’s hard to tell whether there’s a person beneath them.

Jiselmo, rubbernecking all the while, speaks for the rest as attention falls upon this spectacle.

“… What the fuck?”

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-21: Join the Mad King’s Joust

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When Ane returns to the camp, there’s quite a commotion around one end. People have gathered in a large, oblong circle, faces turned expectantly toward the center. The din of chatter raises high on the air, and alosins chuff loudly.

There also appear to be… banners? At least, Ane’s reasonably certain that the hanging clothes were intended to look like banners.  An even more motley collection has been draped all over what was probably Vasht the knife thrower’s wagon. Then, up top, a seat of some sort has been placed there.

Vasht’s wagon looks like a very odd nucleus for the whole thing, really.
And it all has a certain air about it.
You might call it “whimsy.” 

Oh.

Oh no.

What did the fweep-fweep do now? She’d thought Vasht was safe — if there’s one word she’d never use to describe him, it’s “whimsical.” But now there’re banners? And a group? With tables? She drops the things she’d collected from the undercity, a chair leg and hound’s skull, in her haste to go see what level of fuckery the caravan and her mind-controlling pet abomination have gotten up to in her absence.

As it turns out, they got up to quite a lot.

Ane has to push past the throng of observers, which is growing thicker by the minute. As soon as she finds a spot with a low shoulder, she darts her gaze around…

The first thing she spies is a scraped-bare strip of land, save for a rope fence running down the middle. When her gaze pans left, she sees… an alosin, though that’s hardly the strange part. On the alosin is Brair, wearing a sheet as a sash and a large, ashen pot upon the top of his head. It sits jauntily on his brow, oddly complimenting the stark, firm expression on his bronzed face. Today, the fire-slinging callosian wields something else instead: a tall, wooden pole with a pillow tied around one end. 

Then, Ane pans her gaze to the right…

There’s another alosin, and this one is carrying Vasht. He has a curtain slung about his chest, in a most barbaric fashion (if barbarians had a thing for Valistean lace). His many sharp, sweeping tattoos paint a rather ominous picture; this, complete with the kettle perched upon his head, make him the perfect “dark knight.” He’s wielding a pillow-spear  similar to Brair’s. He also wears an expression of grim determination, though there’s a glimmer of chagrin in his eyes. It’s the look of a man that’s gotten himself into something, knows he looks ridiculous, and just has to commit to the bit.

And lording over the center, in the midst of the “banners” lining Vasht’s roof, is an old oaken chair, perched imperiously right in the middle. Upon it sits a certain round, fuzzy creature, with an air of comical gravitas. Its little beak-mouth is set firmly, as if it too is pretending to take this all very seriously. It’s not bouncing or fweep’ing at the moment, but it nearly vibrates with an excited sort of energy. Its barely contained glee is almost childlike, under its veneer of pretend authority. 

It also has a small, yellow prop-crown on top of its head.

It is King Fweep-Fweep the Whimsical. This is his joust.

Ane groans to herself immediately before she begins to try to force her way through the crowd. Brair and Vasht can have their pillow-fight for the moment — she is going to retrieve that fweep-fweep before someone loses an eye (or an ear, or a wing).

As Ane makes her way towards the wagon, the festivities begin to unfurl in earnest.

Jiselmo, standing in the center of the lanes, steps out wearing the full costume of a royal herald. He even has a long, brass horn with a flag on the end to match. 

“Hear ye, hear ye,” he calls out, “We gather today for the match of a lifetime! Today, two knights shall do battle for their honor. In the blue corner…”

He flings an arm out in the direction of Brair.

“SER BRAIR! Honorable knight of flame, lord of the pints, baron of the exploding wagon!”

Cheers erupt while Brair trots his alosin in a small circle, pounding his chest and waving his spear.

“And in the red corner… SER VASHT! The wicked dark knight, lord of edges, slayer of boards and fruits alike!”

Vasht receives a mixture of cheers and boos, as villains are wont to, though they’re all mixed in with laughter. Vasht, for his part, foregoes the grandstanding and instead raises his spear and points it towards Brair — a challenge!

Jiselmo cuts in, “Once more, simple rules! A knight who is lanced must remove their sash. A sashless-knight who is struck is DEFEATED! And if a knight falls off his alosin, he is both DEFEATED and VERY SILLY…”

Ane gently pinches the bridge of her nose. She knew the little thing was persuasive, but this. Half of the participants here have to be indulging it for fun. There’s no way something the size of an appo and a half could turn the caravan into this.

“Hey!” She calls sternly up to the fweep-fweep, “Either you come down, or I’m coming up.” 

Somehow.

“Fwip fwip fwip fwiiip fwip… fwep fwep…” The thing squeaks and whistles, babbling on, as if imitating a person’s speech. It doesn’t seem to be paying any attention to Ane. In fact… is it acting like a king? The crowd is silent, as if it’s officiating the start of the battle.

“Fuip… fwep… FWEEP!”

Cheers erupt as the alosins huff, scuffing their feet on the dirt. Then in a burst of activity, they LEAP! Both knights charge at each other valiantly, Brair in his ash-pot helm, Vasht wearing his kettle. The thunderous sound of galloping alosins fills the air, as a large dust cloud kicks up behind their springing legs.

The fighters lean low, gaining swiftness, ersatz pillow-spears held tightly to their sides and braced in brawny arms. The alosins leap with their heads low, charging for speed. 

There’s a moment of silent suspense.

Then, in a flurry of motion, the men pass and the spears flash into action! Brair goes for a very straightforward charge, but Vasht… oh, he’s a dark knight. And being the deft fighter he is, he ducks aside at the last second and thrusts his spear! His muscled arms tighten with tension as he swings his ‘weapon,’ striking Brair straight in the stomach. He takes the full weight of the alosin’s charge, coupled with the deftness of Vasht’s strike.

“Bwaaaahfuck!” Brair cries out, sent sailing off the (in hindsight, not-all-that-fast) alosin. He falls back while it charges onward, and he collides into the spongy tunnel ground with a thump.

At the other end of the lanes, Vasht brings his alosin to a stop. He then plants the haft-end of his spear in the ground, stands tall, and puffs out his mighty tattooed chest. 

“SER VASHT IS VICTORIOUS! A DECISIVE BLOW,” Jiselmo calls out, frantic with excitement.

He then toots his brass horn to make it official, while Brair sneakily wanders off to find a pint for his bruised pride and aching rear. 

“Right. I’m coming up,” Ane says, as she begins attempting to find hand- and footholds among all of the clothing hanging from Vasht’s wagon. If he ever did manage to find the time to do his shirt laundry, he’s going to have to do it again — the kicked-up dust from the alosins has not done them any favors. 

When she arrives at the top, the little fweep-fweep is looking quite fat and sassy in his “throne.” It’s currently rocking back and forth, cheeks pooched, looking very satisfied with itself. It’s still wearing the little fake crown, though it’s slid over its little tufted head at an angle.

Down below, the aforementioned actor is now busking the camp followers, guards and passers-by that clumped around this event. He moves among the thunderous cheer and applause, shouting. 

“Thank you, thank you! We accept appreciation in the form of CURRENCY and LOTS OF BOOZE. Brair seems a bit sore, so we won’t be getting more any time soon!”

Jiselmo!” Ane shouts down to him in horror. It’s bad enough the fweep-fweep is responsible for this without him capitalizing on it for liquor and coin. “What the Voi– Alright, you know what?” Perched atop Vasht’s wagon beside the makeshift throne, she reaches out to pluck the crown from the tiny creature’s head. 

“Fwep fuip fep… Fip f– FEEP!” It cheeps, eyes wide with alarm as its divested of its authority. Almost immediately, the fweep-fweep seems aware that the jig is up. Rather than attempt to reason with Ane or feign sleep, it instead lets out a big, gaseous “FWIPPPT!” and jets off into the nearest piece of laundry — a pair of Vasht’s britches — to hide.

Ane holds the tiny crown, pinched between thumb and forefinger.

“No crown, no kingdom. Those’re the rules,” she admonishes the fweep-fweep. For now, she allows it to hide — from the sound of things, whatever ensorcelment it worked seems to be breaking, giving her an opportunity to survey the damages from up on high.

Jiselmo rides out of this place on a tide of money and beer, taking the crowd with him to boisterously retell this event around a fire and a barrel of something brown and potent. 

This leaves Vasht standing in the middle of the field, contemplating his life choices. Furrowing his brow, he plucks the kettle off of his head and throws it to the soil with a clatter. He turns to the alosin, giving him a one-eyed look of sympathy. Then he looks up towards the fweep-fweep. 

Vasht rubs the side of his head, thoughts clearing, and then he sees Ane. His face goes slightly pale. 

Ah, yes. This is what social mortality feels like. 

What,” Ane says, arms held wide in bewilderment, “Happened?” 

She knows what happened. The same thing that got her to dress the fweep-fweep in makeup and jewelry and a tiny stone slipshell hat happened. What she does not know is how the creature escaped its cage and managed to affect the entire caravan.

The dark knight, Ser Vasht, stands dumbfounded. He doesn’t respond immediately, instead tossing his pillow-spear aside and crossing his arms behind his back. It’s like some last-ditch attempt to retain the scraps of his dignity. 

He calls back up to Ane, “Your ‘king’… and also, Jiselmo!” His expression firms. “Yeah, Jiselmo’s definitely to blame for at least part of this…”

“Yes,” Ane says with a slow nod and the tone of voice one might use to ask a small child why their mittens are currently floating in the privy, “But how did the ‘king’ get from safely inside a cage to… to…” She makes a flailing gesture toward Vasht’s britches, which are currently trembling in a perplexing fashion.

Rather than answer immediately, Vasht wanders aside and gathers up the thing’s cage. Its door swings open tellingly. With it in hand, Vasht spreads his rows of wings, catches the air, and flaps his way up to meet Ane on the roof of his wagon.

Once he’s safely landed, he dusts off his shoulder.

“Well, I first meant to keep it in my wagon… but when I saw it, it did something.” He sighs, staring at the wriggling pair of pants. “It kept giving strange ideas, and some would’ve wrecked my things.” He coughs. “Important things. Keepsakes. So…”

He makes a vague, spinning gesture with his fingertip.

“I took it outside, it got ahold of Brair and convinced him to open the cage.” He explains all this in a rather careful, measured fashion, as if that can make the result a bit less silly.

Ane rubs a spot in the center of her forehead. With her free hand, she waves at the tiny, quivering pile of underpants and fweep.

“So it’s Brair’s fault, you’re saying,” she concludes. “At any rate, it doesn’t matter. Just… Put it back in the cage so I can get it somewhere where it can do less damage, I’m not going to go rooting through your underthings.” 

“Well, not his entirely. I should’ve kept him from opening it, though my back was turned. After that, he said he ought to take care of it, feed it some of his booze…” Vasht goes on, walking towards the pair of waggling trousers. He takes it by the legs, positions the waist at the mouth of the box, and begins to gently shake the garment. Soon the fweep-fweep pops out, tumbling into the cage, whereupon Vasht shuts the small door.

He takes in a breath, and continues, “So, we got into an argument… Jiselmo strolled by, and suggested we decide it with a contest. Then, a while later, I look up and this is happening,” he says, gesturing towards the scene laid out beneath the two of you. 

Ane shakes her head as she takes the cage, muttering to herself.

“Can’t go anywhere, Animus alive… At any rate, thanks for keeping an eye on it. Sorry about your laundry. And,” she nods toward his ‘knightly’ getup, “All that.”

“Mm, might want to keep it hidden when you’re away,” he agrees, gruffly running a hand across his cheek. “Seems only to do that when people see it.” Vasht then shrugs a shoulder, and smirks with chagrin. “Well, I’d say you’re welcome, but I’m more sorry that I let it start a monarchy. And knight me, I guess.”

A faint grin tugs at the edge of her lips, in turn. “A tiny tyranny, complete with bloodsports. Out of curiosity, though — why did your laundry end up all over the outside of your wagon?”

Seeing Ane’s smile seems to lessen his embarrassment, somewhat, and he finds himself doing the same. He lets out a theatrical sigh, and plucks one of his scarves off of his wagon’s roof.

“If I had to guess? The critter needed heraldry, and somehow Jiselmo knew that. So while we got ready, he went around throwing my clothes everywhere.” He furrows his brow at the scarf, and adds, “Also, they were nearby… I’d just finished washing them.”

She pulls her lips inward, pressing them tightly together in her teeth to keep from laughing outright. Instead, she manages a stiff nod and a subtle quiver of her shoulders before she turns away from Vasht (and his “heraldry”) and begins the process of climbing down the dangling shirts, belts, and trousers.

As she does so, he leans forward and aims a few pokes at her side. “I see your giggle fit,” he accuses. “Making a getaway with your tiny trouser bandit,” he adds, watching Ane flinch to avoid being poked as she clambers down his wagon. He hops down himself shortly after.

“Hey! Careful — some of us don’t have wings. Or a head harder than that kettle to break a fall with,” she chastises him as she disembarks from a muslin shirt. 

He crosses his bare arms, regarding her dryly from the bottom. “Well, I can help with that. There’s a spare kettle over there, for your safety.”

“Wouldn’t fit without crumpling my ears. Anyway, thanks again, Ser Knight.” 

“At your service. Or something,” he agrees, offering a sardonic half-bow.

With the fweep-fweep safely in its cage, she makes her way back to where she deposited the hound’s skull and chair leg she found earlier. The chair leg is useless to her now — let it sit here and raise questions in whatever hapless wanderer finds it next — but she has a lot of soaking and cleaning to do before the skull is in a keepable condition.

Which means, unfortunately for him, she needs to bother Brair (and his wounded pride).

 

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-20: Escape the Tatter-Men

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(Continued directly from prior entry)

There’s that vague sense of warmth resting in her palm, much as it was with the slipshell. The face of the loothine, once solemn, now seems… steady? Determined? Perhaps it even shows a sort of welcome, a silent acceptance. Gone is that sense of frenzied despair, of feeling lost and out of place in the world of men. Its eyes show not peace, but resolve.

A howl rings out, bouncing off the cave walls. The voice is thick, proud, and haunting as it echoes from places unseen. All at once, the leaves of the underworld seem to unfurl. The spring bubbles with life, and a steady mist recedes from its shores.

The corpse of the loothine also seems to change, though only subtly… Whereas before its paws were in the midst of hurried digging, now they are at rest. Even more strangely, the claw-bones are now folded over-top of one another. The vacant skull rests upon them, as if pillowing its head beside the warmth of the spring. 

The change has a dizzying, dreamlike quality, enhanced by the steam of the spring. Ane is tempted to remain there, to soak in more of the sense of calm and resolve permeating the very air of the place, but now is not the time. The assassin and the rag-men are still making their perambulations on the roof and in the streets beyond, and, however serene this place may seem right now, it isn’t safe

She casts a hum over the resting loothine. The carcass seems relaxed now, but something seems wrong about separating it from the carving. Ane can’t take an entire hound corpse with her, though…

Moments later, she begins navigating her way back through the ragged streets, this time kept company by an emerald carving and a loothine skull on the end of a stick. The shrub-stem she pressed into service is a bit wobbly, but it works well enough. With luck, it also makes her look deranged enough to be left alone — there’s definitely no way she can go scaling any walls with a stick in her hand. 

However mad she may seem, the path still leads straight through half a dozen rag-men. As she approaches the mouth of the alley, walking in the open, the ones with the abstract masks press back behind the others. The jagged-marked ones step forward, their shasii bodies almost unrecognizable by emaciation. They bar the path, and one or two even crouch low, placing their hands to the dirt… as if they’re readying to pounce.

They shout and growl in voices as ragged as their masks. It’s in some foreign language — guttural, profane, thick with malice.

 

Ane inhales a deep, tense, hissing breath.

Looks like it didn’t work.

She can’t make out what they say, but their postures are unmistakable. She stands there, with her skull on a stick, humming over the seething group barring her path. Now what? She has no weapons, unless she plans on hitting someone with a loothine head. She has no magic. She doesn’t even speak their language.

Ane squares her shoulders and marshals her nerve… and flees into one of the shacks. 

Outside is the sound of scuffling feet, shouts, and frenzied puffing breaths. The rag-faces dash after her, coming to a skidding stop outside the broken shack.

The room is dark, but Ane can see easily… though it’s a lot to take in on short notice. There’s a broken-down wooden chair, a tattered cot with moldy down, a few earthenware pots, and a gaping hole in the wall on the other side of the room. There’s a door into this place, too, but it seems broken beyond use, jammed into its frame with rust and grime. There’s also a book, some copper silverware, and a rotten hunk of meat covered in both flies and walks.

Ane takes as little time to scout her surroundings as she can get away with before she lunges for the first available opening — she can worry about navigating her way back up afterward, if she manages to lose the group. As she rushes past the mildewed, decaying contents of the shack, she throws whatever she passes behind her to slow them up. Pots, the chair, anything her hands pass near enough to grab flies behind her into a shattered heap. The chair seems to fall apart as soon as she touches it, and her hand comes away still holding a single splintered chair leg with a crude, rusty nail hooking out from one end.

She has a sneaking suspicion she should keep it.

There are curses and crashes behind her, as the first rag-man dashes in and topples over the chair. His emaciated body is sent crashing into the wall, while two others push in past him, still in pursuit.

The next room is equally bare, though it features an old larder filled with garbage and an earthenware pitcher of sour wine. There isn’t even a hole this time.

“Voirrh- damin!” The man behind her snarls, dashing into the room, cursing in some bastard cant of a language. His bony hands are raised, groping like claws, giving only a second to react.

And the pitcher of sour wine flies behind her, accompanied by a soft whistle of air over its mouth. He takes it on the jaw, shattering the poor pottery as he goes crashing backwards. In the moment it buys her, Ane charges at the far wall — she doesn’t think she’ll be able to crash through it, but it’ll be something to get her back up against when more of them pour through the doorway.

Oh, nope, nevermind. She does crash through it, intending to or otherwise. 

Construction is pretty shoddy down here. 

 She finds herself stumbling into the next shanty, now a fair ways past where the chase began. More shouting comes from behind, where the remaining rag-men are forced to clamber past the first two. 

At least, all that did chase her…

 

The loothine figure pulses in Ane’s hand, and she feels a moment of clarity:  olfactory clarity. She can track the trails of the unwashed, downtrodden assailants as if their scent were wisps of smoke upon clean air. One of those wisps leads straight ahead, through the gap into the next shack… There a mass of it is huddled down, hiding behind the wall, lying in wait.

To Ane’s left is the door back out into the alley, merely a square of boards resting on one hinge. She doesn’t smell anyone out there, for the moment. This is fortunate in many ways, as having an enhanced sense of smell down here is, at best, a mixed blessing.

She trusts in the little emerald carving and whatever strangeness it seems to have wrought in her. There will be time to investigate it further later. 

Maybe with the slipshell and some puffroot, she thinks to herself in a moment of grim humor.

For now, Ane rushes at the door. She’ll be able to move more quickly out there, if nothing else.

When Ane dashes out, she has at least ten feet in both directions of clear alleyway. Behind her, towards the grove, there are two more of the assailants. They’re the ones with the crescents and helices about their masks, esoteric and brutal markings. Instead of giving chase, they’ve instead crouched down and begun to chant. If it’s a language, it’s not something Ane recognizes.

Ane has a clear line towards somewhere that isn’t this smear of a street, and she goes for it.

Her pursuers are no match for her relative health and fitness, and even as they scrabble after her, they quickly fall behind. As Ane rounds the corner, she can hear a sharp, blunt crack. As soon as the echo fades, there’s another sharp strike. First one, then another, and another… Five in total.

It seems they, too, have trouble surviving on these streets. And their friend up on the rooftops just received the perfect distraction to pick them all off, one by one by one…

Soon after, Ane is left with a moment to breathe. She stands safe in some alleyway, carrying the skull, the loothine figure, and a broken chair leg. The rest of the city is now open to her, and as sure as she saw the scents of the rag-faces, she can see her own as well. For now, though, she doubles over to catch her breath. While the rag-faced men hadn’t caught up with her, a couple of days of puffroot smoking certainly has. It’s telling that they weren’t able to outrun her — they must be even worse off than they look.

Once she’s pulled herself together, eased her burning lungs, and slowed her hammering heart, Ane begins to make her way ever upward, toward the brighter (and less fragrant) parts of the city. 

 

After some long walking and some deep sniffing, Ane soon finds her way back up to the first atrium of S’varga. It feels like a wholly different city, with all the towering edifices, stunning vistas, and artistic reliefs that were once expected. Unlike the third or fourth atrium far below, this one seems far more interested in catering to a wanderer’s whims. There’s another market just down the road, with many stalls carrying food and produce… Then there’s a plaza off to the left, with a number of tunnel-stone storefronts all carved side-by-side. There’s also the occasional public house, fine dining, and the rare puffroot-ery.

Unlike the deprived lands below, “this” S’varga is fully willing to cater to a paying customer’s needs. Unfortunately, Ane has no coin, and only a carved loothine hound and a dirty skull to show for her trouble. She gives the plaza a look of scorn mixed with longing, as she turns to head out of the city and back to the caravan.

It’s probably for the best. Ane might look a tad out of place with her skull-on-a-stick anyway.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-19: Theatric Thugs and the Lost Traveler

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(Exploration of S’varga –  Continued directly from prior entry)

The shacks sit so close together, their roofs form a slipshod walkway of their own — albeit one so treacherous-looking, even the rag-veiled men seem to avoid it. Even so, a shadow moves about up there as well… 

Ane takes her chances with the shadow. The streets — if streets they can be called — are definitely full of the gaunt rag-men, and the shacks very well may be as well. Finding a way through them could easily be disorienting, too, even with the cry of the thing she’s following to lead her. 

She digs her fingers into the shattered stone of one of the walls of a building, seeking hand- and toeholds as she begins pulling herself up to their patchy, sinking roofs.

As Ane peers over the top of the roof, she finds herself tucked behind a stack of old, rotten crates. This affords temporary cover, as she catches sight of that shadow that was darting about…

It’s  huikkaran. He’s clinging to one of the walls of the small cavern, positioned up from the roofs slightly as if to gain a vantage point on the rag-men below. His lithe, nimble body is covered in dark-colored leather, knives gleaming at his belt beside a wicked-looking blackjack. A large, slick bronze mask, tapering back like the beak of some wading bird, covers his face. It makes his head look almost comically long and wispy, with an exaggerated expression of glee about the elderly lips of the mask.

He seems to almost twitch a little, as if startling at every sound. Whatever he’s doing here, he seems very jumpy. If he’s seen Ane yet, he hasn’t made any sort of move from his perch, clinging to the wall with two hands and a foot.

An assassin?

Perhaps he’ll leave her be if she’s quiet enough and doesn’t get in his way — he seems to be keeping an eye out for someone, and she highly doubts it’s her. Still, she doesn’t like the look of that blackjack. She keeps him in her sights as she cautiously makes her way toward the howl, careful to avoid the loose nails and soft, sagging, rotten portions of the roofs in her path.

 

As she makes her way, the huikkaran clearly seems to be watching her. The dark eyeholes in his mask track her movement, step by step… She makes steady progress, soon halfway to the end of the cavern. As she passes parallel to the watcher, her foot nearly catches in a shattered bit of scrap lumber. There’s a slight crunch underfoot, and the man grows tense. His hand darts at once to his belt, hovering over a dagger, shaking with tension like a taut bowstring…

With a muffled curse, she holds her hands, empty, out at her sides — partially to maintain her balance, partially to show her lack of visible weaponry. Silently, she rues the fact that she didn’t bring a knife or her gurran jaw with her, not that she’d really be able to use either. This roof isn’t very conducive to winning a fight at close quarters, and she can guarantee he knows the terrain better than she does.

The gaze of the watcher is steady. Fortunately, so too is his hand. After a split second of consideration, he averts his gaze back to the rag-faces below. He seems as if he’s been here for quite some time, and has the patience to show for it. 

Soon, Ane is able to step past this mess. The cavern beyond the alley seems far more secluded, while the shanties give way to a grove of sorts. There’s a pool of water in the floor, shimmering and steaming with geothermic heat, bubbling up from some unseen source below. All sorts of strange fungi and shrub-plants have gathered around it, clustered together like vagrants around a fire. 

This place is a small, sparse refuge, but a refuge nonetheless.

As Ane steps forward, she sees the lost traveller.

 

There’s a dark shape huddled behind one of the shrubs, its body curled into a crescent. The once smooth, shining scales have long turned dull, while the flesh below has given way to the ravages of decay. Its noble, sharp ears are now just flaps of tattered skin, and its rows of eyes are just portals to a vacant darkness. The snout has withered away down to bone. The jaws, though fleshless, are closed in repose.

This is not all there is to the scene, however… 

The loothine hound was digging here. Its claws, ragged and chipped, are half-buried into the flesh of the earth. The act seems deliberate, determined, with no hints of frenzied scrabbling in the dirt. 

No, this was no attempt at escape, or a frantic search for food; it was an excavation. 

Perhaps it was some last act of hope, or a sort of animal piety. Whatever the case, it seems the long-dead creature found what it sought.

There, at the center of the shallow hole, is a figure wrought in crudely-carved emerald. It, too, is a loothine hound, though it still carries the firm shape of life and nobility. The edges are rough and primal, though the shape is clear — right down to its trailing spines and three sets of eyes. The statuette glows dimly in some trick of the light, with its head raised, alert… as if it’s waiting.

Ane has never seen a loothine hound before — not a live one, anyway. Then again, she doesn’t suppose she’s seeing one now. It’s a testament to how far she’s wandered from the rest of S’varga that she’s even stumbled across the carcass of one.

She skirts the steaming pool, kneeling beside the remains of the hound as she reaches to pick up the carved figure. Mud mars some of the rough surface, but it’s easily cleared away with a cautious dip in the pool. Much of the crystalline, hewn-gem quality is lost on her, translucent as it is, but she can feel the call within it pulsing as if it were a live thing.