Teller of Fortunes 9: The True Picture

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After a long night, Ane returns to her wagon for what answers she can glean.

The room remains much as Ane left it, though a few of her shelves have gone askew in their travels. The bottle of cherry cordial lays on its side, with a few precious, ruby drops congealing in a sticky puddle just below the corked opening. With a muttered swear, Ane picks the bottle up and searches for a rag to clean the mess with.

When she is able to settle herself enough to relax and change out of her clothing, she arranges a clear space on her floor. It isn’t yet safe enough for her to fully impair her mundane senses and let her mind ride again, but there are still things she can do to pass her time…

Her slim fingertips grasp a stick of dusty, pressed-eggshell chalk. With a practiced sweep of her arm, she describes a broad circle around herself. Letters (but not quite letters) that read like the veins of leaves or the paths of hungry caterpillars mark the edge at regular intervals ⁠— equal parts wards and invitations. Before her kneeling knees, she sets a candle of dense, yellow tallow studded with curled, deep black fragments of dried Wanderer’s violets. Even before she lights it, the small circle begins filling with the candle’s scent ⁠— rich gurran tallow, carrying the sweet, almost fruity floral fragrance of the violets. It’s at once rustic and sumptuous, like a wave from a velvet-gloved hand beckoning you down a flower-strewn path.

She strikes a firesteel over a bowl of tinder and lights the candle with a burning twig. The orange flame shimmies in her hands as she brings it to the knotted cotton wick, coaxing the fire into a warm, persimmon glow that dances across the planes of her face. The damp heat of the forest casts a sheen on her skin that spreads the candle’s light along the firm set of her shoulders, down the tattooed valley between her bared breasts, and across the smooth span of her stomach. Despite the heat, a shiver of anticipation raises the soft, peachlike hairs along her arms.

In her right hand, she clasps the hilt of an old ⁠— but no less sharp ⁠— silver filigree penknife. She whispers words in a language she does not know, ones that arise from someplace in the center of her being, ones she could not consciously remember if she tried. Her lips pause moving as she takes a breath, the briefest of pauses before she sends the tip of the knife, straight and swift, into one creamy thigh. Blood, as rich and red as the cherry cordial, wells up around the silver blade, trailing down her outer thigh to drip softly against the floorboards. She dips a fingertip into her blood and feeds a few warm drops to the flame, letting them fall to mix in a scarlet rivulet with the melting golden tallow and unfurling violet leaves.

A small soapstone box, barely larger than a pillbox, sits to her left. Within it, lumps of coarse brown sugar lay clustered in a glittering pile like sticky jewels. She lifts the carved lid, takes one morsel, passes it over the candle’s flame, and lays it reverently atop her tongue.

The sugar is sweet, as sugar is wont to be, flavored with long hours of shardlight over koolak nut palms, the salty spray of seawater, and the hard, flinty sand beneath. Still further behind the sweetness, something else lingers ⁠— something warm and nutty, redolent of months spent dreaming beneath the spongy soil, before wise, patient hands came to dig it up, dry it, and craft it into the tincture dropped over every last glistening piece of koolak nut sugar.

She sets the knife and soapstone box aside. They will not be needed again today.

Instead, she picks up a bright, cobalt blue wax pastel. Before her, she spreads a roll of cattail fiber paper. As the sugar melts, the wax warms, and the wagon rolls on, filling her senses with violets, tallow, and blood, with shard-warmed sweetness and months tucked into the cool, damp earth, with the creak of the wagon and the sinister rustle of the trees outside, she begins to draw.

Somewhere amidst the flow of her hand, a song wells from within her. She doesn’t sing loud ⁠— probably not loud enough to pass beyond whoever may be sitting atop her wagon’s roof now ⁠— but it’s no matter. Whoever could hear her wouldn’t be able to make sense of the floating, wordless melody anyhow.

Hours pass beyond her notice as she allows the ritual to take her by the hand, guiding her skilled fingers into crafting a seemingly endless array of symbols and figures across the rough plane of the paper. It’s only when her senses begin to clear that she sits back on her heels, stilling her hum and taking a deep breath. Her head tips back as she fills her lungs with the warm, sweet air, before exhaling a luxuriant, satisfied sigh through parted, half-smiling lips. The candle burns out, guttering and finally suffocating itself in a limpid, shimmering pool of liquid tallow. The pastel is long gone, drawn into nothing more than a few stray, sticky traces of blue wax lingering on her fingers (and one smudge above her right brow). Despite this, the paper is still covered with-

“Oh,” Ane’s hum flickers. “Oh, son of a bitch.

Somewhere, the pastel had run out. Somehow, she had thought it was a good idea to keep drawing.

The rest of the figures are fingerpainted in fresh blood.

The Teller of Fortunes feels around for the rag she’d used to clean up the cherry cordial ⁠— it’ll have to do for now, until she can find something cleaner ⁠— and presses it to the three new cuts near her left elbow. She should have known better.

“Motherf- Where the Void is the alum?!

She rattles, one-armed, through the bottles and jars in the cabinet beneath her bed. Fortunately, though she exists in a kind of organized chaos, it is one in which she’s able to track down nearly anything she needs in a matter of minutes. Where an interloper might be perfectly dumbfounded, Ane can still find things most of the time.

She sits at the edge of her bed, still naked and smelling of sweet violets and the sharp, copper smell of blood, to dress her wounds and curse her lack of sense. It’s only after she’s given them a good shake of alum to stop the bleeding (accompanied by a colorful string of profanity at the sting), a generous daubing of cave bee honey, and a stretch of clean cotton fiber to cover that she actually takes a look at her colorfully-drawn handiwork.

The page is at first overwhelming to the senses, defying any sense of an initial impression. It first all comes in a haze, a blur of mixed color and texture. The streaks of the smooth pastel swirl together with gritty, dried blood, in some places even staining through the page and boring a hole to the other side. There’s even a tear at the right edge of the paper, where Ane likely moved it too abruptly in her frenzy.

As Ane stares into the result, these bits of destruction finally recede from attention, revealing themselves to be the distractions that they are. Somewhere, in the chaos of the painting, order begins to mold and take shape.

Strangely, the pastel avoided the center of the page, creating space for the true picture. Color sweeps above to form a sky, maybe clouds, maybe an ocean. Below this are a series of circles, nine  in total, each spaced irregularly and drawn with erratic strokes that leave streaking tails of pastel coming off their apexes. Each circle is filled with empty space, except for three. Within them, splatters of blood forms a long, bumpy line; these are smeared as if blood sprayed off while Ane was mucking about elsewhere on the page.

Then, there is the center.

There, in some fit of mystic insight or erratic madness, she drew a symbol. There is a figure-eight lain on its side. At each end, a line of blood trails off and around the symbol in a semicircle, but never reaching the other end. The result is infinitude, with one half-arc above, one below, almost as if to put it within a circle. Crafting this symbol seems to have resulted in the aforementioned tear, a spot where her little finger seems to have punched a hole through the paper straight through to the other side, leaving a vacant maw upon the page.

To the left, in the margin, it seems Ane continued to make marks after this main “piece” was finished. She left what looks like a cross between a tree, half a smeerp, a crying man, and a left foot. Then again, it might have just been where she put her bloodstained left palm. One’s mileage may vary.

It seems the last of the drawing was intended to carry on to the floor. Unfortunately, the floor is a terrible artistic medium, so that just turned into a right mess.

“Hmm,” she murmurs to herself as she puzzles over the rough page. She can’t make heads or tails of it ⁠— then again, she rarely can so soon after the fact. Now that her wounds have ceased bleeding, she begins to clean up: First the sooty stub of the tallow candle, then the bloodstains and pastel marks, and finally finding a home for the page itself.

For now, she lays it across the top of her vanity. A few bottles and jars hold the edges down, keeping the page from rolling itself up again. It gives her the opportunity to see the drawings, but not too closely… just at the margin of her awareness, where subtle suggestions and dream-images live. Eventually, she may find the keystone of understanding that helps the ragged circles and bloody smears resolve into the shape of something real.

Ane slips beneath her blanket, listening to the wind through the trees as the wagon creaks onward.

Teller of Fortunes 8: Mercenary Names

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

In time, the many-winged mercenary returns from her harrowing battle with the undead. She moves more sluggishly than before, and her armor is as beaten and knackered as she is, but she still seems fit for the job of guarding the caravan from Faceless monstrosities. She sighs, moving towards the front of the wagon’s roof. She sits down, crossing her legs with her hands upon her knees.

“Well, that’s another one of those survived.” She pauses, reaching down in front of the wagon. She plucks up a long, recurved bow, devoid of both arrows and archer. “Mostly,” she adds grimly. Her mouth is a thin line as she tucks it aside, somewhere that it’s less likely to slide off the roof. “Damn forest…”

Ane gives her a solemn nod. She’s not very good at times like this. It’s easy to know what to say to a farmer about his beet crop, or to someone desperate to find out if they’ll get to marry the prettiest girl in the village, but this is something entirely else.

Were they friends? Had they fought together before? Now’s not the time to find out. There’s too much of the forest left unseen.

Met with silence, the tzuskar adds, “All the same, thank you for the assist. I probably wouldn’t have gotten to the second one in time otherwise,” she says with a resigned sigh, letting the weight of things drift off her shoulders. The mercenary doesn’t seem like one to linger on the subject. “I may need another before we’re through.”

It probably doesn’t do much good to linger. Letting yourself be distracted by grief is just the kind of opening the next Faceless needs to get the drop on you. Ane gives her another nod.

“It’s what I’m here for. Hopefully, we’ll have more time to prepare before the next one.”

“Hopefully so.” She touches her midsection and winces. “Not that I know how I would. I think that thing might’ve broken a rib…” The tzuskar grits her teeth, causing the wing at her lip’s edge to fluff. The configuration looks oddly like a smirk, though in this context, it’d have to be a bit of a rueful one.

“Dynkala can take a look once we’re stopped again, and somewhere she can see. I’m good at scrapes, bites, and muscle pain, but absolute shit at setting bones,” Ane explains apologetically.

Hopefully, the old herbalist is somewhere safe. A momentary twinge of worry twists in the pit of her stomach — what if some Faceless creature has managed to get inside one of the wagons? Would they have noticed amidst all the chaos?

Unaware of Ane’s worries, the winged mercenary lets out a short laugh.

“Absolute shit at bones? How’d you manage to take out that skull with a jawbone, then?” She jokes, tapping the tip of her sword against the roof in your weapon’s general direction. The warrior wears a tight grin, genuine in its mirth, though also tweaked a bit by the pain.

“This?” Ane raises her brow as she gives the jawbone an idle turn in her hands. “Well, the former owner was already dead, and smashing ‘em’s a damned sight easier than fixing them afterward.”

“That’s the truth,” she agrees readily. “Now, if you’ve got some of whatever makes you swing like that… I’ll take five.” The woman jokes again, adopting a more carefree attitude than earlier. It’s likely a sort of coping mechanism, given the tension in her posture. Then again, she also seems less guarded, albeit more so in the literal sense of looking out for danger.

In any case, as the conversation goes on, she begins to devote more of her attention to her surroundings. The paletorch is still going, offering a bit of a reprieve, but it can’t stay beaming for much longer now… There may not be an immediate attack, but the possibility would inevitably return.

A wry grin pulls at the corner of Ane’s mouth.

“A heaping helping of not wanting my face melted, mainly. I know I usually keep it covered, but I’ve grown kind of attached to it over the years.” She pinches one shapely cheek between her thumb and forefinger, lighting tugging at it.

The woman laughs. She leans back a moment, albeit gingerly, taking in the cool air — at least where she can, past her chain shirt, pauldrons, and gauntlets. Here, she seems a picture of a person from another time — a blond girl laughing in a field, in a tavern, anywhere but here. It doesn’t last long though, simply a flicker of the past.

“That’s probably better than the stuff the men sniff for their marches. I hope you have a lot more of it, seems to be doing well so far.”

Up ahead, the light begins to dim. With it, the barky environs of the forest return to clarity. Still, even without the light, the path seems brighter than it was before. Could it be that the caravan is now closer to wherever the light is coming from? The big glow certainly doesn’t seem to be straight ahead, but it must be somewhere parallel to the current path. Then, those little webbed discs of light are starting to appear… They’re sparse now, too infrequent to examine, but seem to be increasing in frequency over time.

Ane hums distantly at the patchy glow. Her anticipation of it almost drowns out the sight of the glowing discs entirely — she only barely makes a mental note that she did envision what she thought she had. This part, at least, had not been some kind of herb-dream.

There will be time to think more about that later.

“Probably,” she says to the mercenary. “Better than a cheekful of batac nuts, at least.”

In that second or two, there was something though… A moment of strange clarity hits. Was that some kind of being? A curled up, shrimp-like thing devoid of skin and fur? The memory of seeing it seconds ago is clear, and yet, the mind rejects it somewhat. Somewhere, deep in the brain, some process marks this sight as “simply absurd” and shuffles it off into a less-detailed memory. And yet, the curling silhouette lingers, stuck upon Ane’s strange sight as an after-image. She rubs gently at a place between her brows as if that alone will chase the images away.

“Yeah, I can’t stand the stuff,” the tzuskar relates, taking no notice of the discs. She’s instead focused upon the gaps between the trees, looking up and down frequently. “I may be a guard, but… I just can’t imagine being seen spitting the stuff. I think I’d have to burn every dress I’ve ever owned and start going by a three-letter name.”

“I just see it too often. I’ve sat with enough old men stinking of corn liquor and batac nut, thinking up a hundred different ways to ask me when they can expect to get rich… The sight of it alone is enough to turn my stomach. Besides,” she shrugs a shoulder, with a faint curl of her lip, “I have this thing about spit.”

“Eugh,” she agrees, grimacing. There might have even been a slight shiver at the back of her neck. “That thought’s getting at me more than the actual monsters. I think that’s a sign that I need a new line of work…” She smirks, holding her sword tip-down on the roof of the wagon, gripping the pommel.

In time, the images seem to fade, though their frequency increases. It’s a strange sight, to be sure; from what Ane’s heard in stories and read in old books, this sort of thing is pretty unheard of. The discs seem to give off genuine shardlight, too. That itself isn’t too unusual, given how many trees live off of such things. But for there to be something inside them…

By now, the wagon seems to be at the brightest part of the forest. Now the torches seem almost unnecessary. This means it might also be safer, for now. When the light gets this dense, Faceless are known to be more scarce.

As the wagon passes within arm’s reach of a tree, Ane reaches out to scratch gently at the bark with her thumbnail. Even if there isn’t any shardlight coming from this patch, maybe she can take a piece to see what secrets hide under that ancient, crackled skin…

It’s thick, grainy stuff, mixed in with little glittering flecks. At one point, her nail brushes near one of those strange, glowing discs. It feels rather chitinous, smooth and hard to the touch… It’d be tricky to scrape any of that off. She’s not sure she’d want to, anyway. She’s seen some of the things shard-impregnated material can do. In better, more profitable times, they had specially reinforced wagons dedicated to some of the things shard dust could do.

She gives the crumbled bark a brief investigation, before settling back to keep her hum on the road ahead. In time, the lights begin to grow infrequent. As they dim, their protections seem to fade.

“That might’ve been a decent place to make camp,” the tzuskar comments, “Though I can’t blame them for rushing.” She sighs, resisting the urge to amuse herself by carving into the roof of the wagon. “I’d rather change shifts and nap while someone else is up here anyway… It’ll probably be the same for spotters.”

All the while, Ane’s focus on the path ahead soon pays off. In the distance, she can see a strange silhouette upon the road. It’s blurry, still over four-hundred feet away. By the shape of it, it looks like a big, hulking gurran is standing in the middle of the path. As the caravan approaches, the increase in detail confirms this. It seems to be mooing, senselessly, again and again, into the darkness beyond the caravan.

“Great, another crazy slab of dinner,” the tzuskar mutters.

This one seems a little different, though — the cries are more repetitive, and strangely normal-sounding despite their volume.

“I don’t see any dark trails coming off of it… Not yet, anyway. It could be a trap — we hop off to move the thing, some bandits rush out and jump us,” Ane whispers to the mercenary. The tzuskar turns aside and looks at her, blinking her sharp blue eyes. This prompts her to take another look at the strange bovine…

“It’s a good thing you said ‘not yet’!” She says hurriedly. As the two of them stare, it becomes apparent that the thing was hanging its head low, as if it were grazing in the middle of the bare path. It only takes a few more feet of distance to reveal that what looked like its mane was dripping darkness, trailing up to vanish into the inky air like smoke.

Void,” Ane swears hurriedly under her breath. “Are there any other archers?”

“Nope, I think we dropped all of them.” The mercenary looks around, then sighs. After the bit of gallows humor, she grins. “Still, good catch.”

Then, she shouts down to the driver, “Draw out your second torch, boys! … No, don’t pretend you don’t have it, come on now! We’re dinner if you don’t, this is no time to cut costs!”

Soon, with a sharp fizz, pale light once again erupts from the front of the train. Like a beacon in the night, it illuminates the rest of the road, throwing the gurran into sharp relief. It turns its head, startled, displaying the charred lump of flesh in between its huge, curling horns. It lets out another massive, “MRRRRRUUUUUUUHHH!” through its fused mouth, then immediately turns and runs off into a space between the trees. Ane is almost impressed the massive beast can fit through it, even with so many bits of it missing. It probably scraped off even more of its rotting hide trying to get away from the light of the paletorch.

“I know the one before was useless,” the tzuskar comments, “But really… No time to move a bruiser like that.”

Soon after this, the leaves above begin to thrum with activity. A sound like many loud, flapping wings begins to echo out, causing many branches to drop from the volume of passing birds. Their caws are thick and dreadful, like that of crows or ravens. When the wingbeats begin, she swears softly and tries to cover the rest of her small stash of appohs — that much noise means many wings, which means many birds, which means a veritable rain of droppings.

“Watch your head!” She warns the tzuskar, “Even if they’re not hostile, they might fly at us in confusion.”

As the two of them duck low, a flood of birds jets past the top of the wagon. It passes right over their heads. Were they less aware, it would probably have knocked them off their feet. There are a great many beady, red eyes in that cloud of corvids, marking them as a (very urgent) conspiracy of ravens. They’re certainly not Faceless… Those beings don’t tend to occupy such small creatures, unless by ‘accident.’ Even then, they don’t usually appear in groups.

As the wagons hasten in their pace, the flow of ravens drifts further back in the train, occupying a single space. It thickens, forming a feathery, flapping wall, which sends some people down to cling to the sides of their perches. Had the wagon remained in the same place, it probably would have overwhelmed Ane and the tzuskar’s position.

“Well, that’s damned strange,” she comments breathlessly, looking back.

“Agreed,” mutters Ane, “The sooner we get well shut of this place, the better.”

In time, the flood of birds begins to thin, all the way down to a trickle. Soon, there are just a few of them left — yet one of those last few catches Ane’s sight.

There was a large, many-eyed bird amongst them. It had a raven’s eyes, albeit few, trailing strangely down onto its torso. Its wings were wide, thin, wisping off into nearly transparent silk. Beneath it were many curled, blackened limbs, all tucked up underneath its body. Then, as soon as it was seen, this creature, too, disappeared in-between the trees…

Now, as the forest once again goes quiet, Ane’s breath catches in her throat.

“That-” And, as quickly as she noticed it, the creature is gone. She shakes her head, even squinting her swirls to try to better catch the last reverberations of the birds’ wingbeats. Nothing.

 

“Never mind.”

The tzuskar looks at Ane and blinks.

“Hmm, yeah. I don’t think I wanna know,” she concludes.

With that, the wagon finally begins to roll out of the forest…

Beyond, yet another vast, dark wasteland greets the caravan. Now the shardlands are visible in the distance. Just over the next few hills, warmth and brightness suddenly returns to the landscape. It’s another few hours away still, but now that vision of hope is there. The forest that obscured it is now dropping back behind the caravan, as one wagon after another pops out, heading on towards the next destination.

Assured by the promise of light, Ane pops the cork on her waterskin and take a long drink to wash the forest from her senses. The bark of the trees had a crumbly, green smell, and the mycelium choking the dark path was deep and earthy, but all of it, even her breath, feels tainted by the reek of decayed flesh.

She hopes there will be water where they stop — she could use a bath, though she tries not to get her hopes up.

With that, the mercenary turns around, still sitting with her legs crossed. She seems rather cheered now, smiling with a similar sort of satisfaction. She draws out a flask, raises it, then takes a swig of whatever swirls within.

“Well, we’re alive! Could’ve been worse,” she comments happily. “I think it’s time for us to pass the shift on to some other saps.”

“That it could’ve been,” Ane says with dry humor and a raise of her waterskin. “I’ll be grateful for the rest, though I doubt I’ll get much sleep worrying about a gurran with a melted face crashing through my window.”

“Well, if it helps you sleep any better…” She smirks wickedly and leans forward, holding up a hand in a conspiratorial way. “I hear the caravan master is a spotter on the next shift. He’s gonna be the one getting moo’ed at now.”

Ane tries to smother a short, soft laugh.

“Serves him right — this was Jarrik’s idea.”

The tzuskar grins, brightening up the wasteland a bit. Her smile, easy and beaming, against this background of shadow and dread.

“Oh, you bet it does.” Now animated, she adds, “There was a bit of a scene, too… he didn’t want to do a shift at first. But, some of us managed to convince him, then he came around…” She says in a meandering tone, half-lidding her eyes, as she conspicuously scuffs at the top of the wagon.

“You realize,” Ane says, pausing for a sip from her waterskin, “He’s going to take it out of your pay, right?”

She gives Ane a deadpan look.

“What pay?”

Ane looks equally bewildered.

“You’re shitting me.”

“He’s settled into a pattern, you know,” she says with a raised brow. “Every couple of months, he docks pay by eye color.” She reaches up and tugs on her lower eyelid with her forefinger. “Blue’s up for it this month. And before you ask, he guesses by shade. If we accuse him of it, he has the obvious defense — y’know, being eyeless, as Shasii are.” She lowers her hand, resting it on her hip.

“And you just… hang around, hoping he’ll eventually make good on his word?” As someone accustomed to at least getting to keep most of the coins the citizenry toss into her bowl, Ane is positively baffled.

The mercenary shrugs one slim, armored shoulder. “Well, he will. After he gets to ‘green,’ ‘brown,’ or ‘other,’” she says with a wry smirk. “And it is a decent sum when he does. Kinda ‘feast or famine,’” she reasons, tapping her narrow chin. Then she shrugs, leaning back a little. “Besides, sinward sounds nice! Doesn’t sinward sound nice right now?” That cardinal direction certainly takes them out of the shadowlands.

“So you,” Ane says, leaning forward to cast a curious hum over the woman’s face, “You just sort of… hang out and potentially die, hoping he’ll eventually get around to paying you before you do?”

The tzuskar purses her lips then pouts for a second.

“Well… for now,” she’s forced to agree. “At least until I get away from Pellas, and on to somewhere better,” she says in a waffling tone, tipping her flask from side to side.

“You could be a barmaid. They make decent tips. Or… Or-” Ane almost says ‘work on a farm,’ but stops. “Be a governess. Work in a shop. Raise toy gelthounds! Literally anything that isn’t this.”

“Well, some of us,” she slows, mouthing words as she tries to form them, “Don’t have options,” she sighs. “Well… I mean, this is a little weird since you don’t know my name and stuff, but,” she shrugs, causing her chainmail to jingle over the rise of her chest. “We did kill some dead guys together, though, so I’ll level.” The tzuskar closes her eyes, while the wing at her lip’s edge fluffs a little.

“Back in Pellas, the Kindlers run everything. They appoint kings, they hold court, and they even march in the streets. So, when one of your relatives — no matter the kind — happens to be an unraveler, they, uh… They dislike you,” she understates as if explaining something dirty. It’s no surprise; unravelers, those who employ dark magics, are oft accused of birthing Faceless. Given how they share certain similarities, like dark whisp-trails and occasional bouts of insanity, the Kindlers might be right about this one. Right, however, seldom means merciful to the innocent.

“But…” Ane gestures back, toward the now-vanished flock of birds and the since-trodden corpses of the Faceless.

She follows Ane’s gesture, looking back at the forest. Then she looks back at Ane again, expression unchanged.

“Well, Faceless are one thing. At least I know what they’re gonna do,” she reasons, making a little scratch at the air. “A whole theocracy, though? It’s people talking behind your back, turning you away, confiscating your things, intimidating your friends… And then, what about the next time they need a good spectacle?” She sighs, sinking her shoulders a little. “I’m a stone’s throw away from being called ‘Void Spawn’ and becoming a very cute me-kebab in the town square,” she concludes.

“I’ll take an actual Murder Forest over that any day. At least I get to fight back. In Pellas, arguing just makes it worse…”

“So… You’d rather ride through this Void-hole on the promise you might, someday, eventually get paid enough to survive.”

“And live a new life somewhere far, far from any burning stakes,” she amends. “Oh, and neighboring towns are right-out. Word travels eerily fast at those harvest festivals.”

“That,” Ane concludes, “is fucked up.”

She pauses for a moment, processing. Then she lets out a laugh, shaking her head and pounding a fist on the roof.

“Yes, yes it is,” she says to a grin. “And now I’m in the shadowlands, explaining witch hunts before I even say my name. Funny world, isn’t it?”

“Seems like it,” Ane says, as she leans over to hum at the slowly-passing road beneath the wagon. It’s not likely she’ll get a bath tonight, but there’s still some cherry cordial left, and at least half a book to read… Is it safe enough to try more of the mushroom tincture? Probably not. That strange not-bird didn’t seem to appreciate it, anyhow.

“Well, anyway,” the mercenary puts a hand on the pommel of her point-down sword, using it to lift herself. “The name’s Narue. The others call me Rue, though I don’t really like it,” she says, standing back up. She has to pause to steady herself, caught between the wobbling of the wagon and the injury to her rib.

“Usually, I’m just the Teller of Fortunes,” Ane replies politely. “Half of the caravan doesn’t know my name, but I don’t suppose they need to.” She plants a palm on the wagon’s ornate roof edge, pushing herself to a standing position as she warily hums for a way down.

She furrows her brow at her, now tucking her sword back into its sheath.

“Hm. How do you shorten that?” She asks. “I feel like I’m in some old poem if I say the whole thing. And,” she raises one finger of a gauntleted hand. “If that’s true, then I’m gonna die because my name isn’t mysterious enough. That’s no good.”

Ane shrugs gently, as she reaches for one of the iron rungs hammered into the wooden wall.

“However you need to, I think. Vasht, Jarrik, and their ilk will know who you mean.” She grasps it experimentally, testing the strength of her grip against the rolling sway of the wagon.

“Hmm, if I call you Fortune, then I’m really gonna die… Teller just makes it sound like you’re a clerk,” Narue thinks aloud. “Four? No, shit, that’s a death number,” she almost gasps, correcting herself. “Screw it. They all sound spooky. You’re Bones now. You have a bone, I call you Bones… Mercenary names are terrible, so you’ll just have to enjoy that. Rest well!” She bids and begins to march off towards the rear of the wagon.

Ane chuckles as she clambers down the side of the wagon, with the gurran jaw and bag of appohs clanking against the iron rungs as she goes.

“Suit yourself. And likewise.”

Teller of Fortunes 7: Stand and Deliver

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

The shadow darts towards the wagon at a manic, staggered pace.

It’s a blur for mere moments, until it resolves into a shape about a hundred meters out. With Ane’s carefully-focused sight-hum, the thing comes into sharp clarity: a squat, hunched figure, slumped down even as it sprints along the side of the road. Their posture is despondent and their body clad in rags, as if they stand destitute even now. Altogether, they seem alive, but wholly unnatural in their jerky movements.

A steady stream of inky blackness rises from their head and chest. It stops and stands in place, head and shoulders jittering unnaturally.

Ane jerks her head in its direction, signalling to her guards. When she speaks, her voice is a tight, tense whisper.

“Hundred yards, right side of the road. Sort of hunched down, not running towards us — yet.”

The fuhajen nods. He leans forward, squinting his trio of eyes hard as he peers into the dark. He does so for a few seconds longer, before he mutters in frustration. 

“Void, I can’t see it at all. Passing it on.” The guard peers over the front of the wagon and shouts to the riders in front, “Light in front, paletorch at the ready!”

A few seconds later, there’s the sound of tinder being struck, then the whoosh of a flame. While a regular torch would do practically nothing here, the caravan is fortunately supplied with a bullseye lantern. Its fuel is far cheaper than a paletorch, which are sued as a last resort, as just one of which can cost a small fortune.

The lantern casts out a cone of light along the path ahead, stretching on about a hundred-and-twenty feet. Beyond this is first silhouettes, then yet more darkness.

A few seconds pass as the caravan travels further down the road. Ane’s ears twitch, sensing a rapid, approaching sound coming from ahead… 

The faceless has risen to stand, and now it’s dashing, straight at the caravan.

Within seconds, it reaches the edge of the lantern’s light. There it stops and stands, revealing a black scarf over the lower half of a huikkaran’s head. Above it, there is nothing– no eyes, no nose, just inky blackness and burn marks. 

And yet despite its near-lack of a mouth, it shouts. 

“STAND AND DELIVE-”

Twang, snap!

The fuhajen looses an arrow, and it lands straight in the thing’s chest. It continues to stay stationary, shouting its nonsense like a broken poem. 

“STAND AND ‘LIVER, STAND AND! STAND AN–”

Twang, snap! Snap!

The fuhajen sends off two more arrows, this time landing them in the thing’s head. Both pound easily into the skull, shattering bone and sundering the charred face-flesh. It begins to lurch forward, slowly dropping.

“STAND! Stand! Stand. Stand…”

It falls face-first into the dirt, now silent. The voidstuff within it pools around its motionless body, like a churning puddle of tar. 

Ane exhales a tight breath.

“One down,” she mutters softly.

“Void take bandits,” the archer swears.

Now that the body is felled, the darkness pooled around it seems to… drip upwards. It’s slow, like jam falling from a piece of toast. Slowly but surely, the strange essence begins to dissipate, until there’s nothing left but a lifeless corpse. As the caravan passes towards it, someone at the front hops off. This mercenary, clad in metallic scale armor, takes the thing up by the hair. When he goes out of Ane’s veiw, she hears the grim snap of a neck being severed and something heavy being tossed back along the side of the road.

“Grim work,” the tzuskar guard comments from beside Ane on the wagon-top. “The Void-ness takes almost any corpse, but not ones without a face to remove.” She sighs. “Decapitatin’ it probably wasn’t necessary, though I guess you can’t blame a little superstition.”

Ane shrugs a shoulder, feigning a nonchalance she does not feel.

“Better safe than surprised, I guess.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” the fuhajen archer agrees, adjusting his hat. Soon he settles into the task of counting his arrows and testing the string of his bow. 

The hours begin to pass. The shadowlands remain barren and featureless, and the caravan trundles on ceaselessly and without incident. Yet the deeper the caravan heads into the shadowlands, the more the landscape continues to warp and change… The few sparse copses of trees give way to strange, featureless land, all with soil covered in strange white webbing. Even the road wastes away, until it’s naught but an ancient trend in the dust.

The only real “feature” of the land is the occasional tunnel-mouth, each going down into the spongy soil beneath the earth. Without the shadowland’s oppressive mycelium cover, those tunnels seem lush and vibrant by comparison. With their heat-vents and own local ecosystems, they’re a world apart from this wasteland. The mycelium along some of the ground even clumps there, trying to get at the scraps…

In the distance, something begins to emerge: light. It comes in small pinpricks, barely perceptible, but it’s there all the same. Whenever Ane moves, even to breathe, they seem to flicker out. Soon, the reason for this becomes more apparent — they’re coming from behind a curtain of thick, barky trees. A whole forest looms ahead in the distance. The border of the forest seems to go on for miles in either direction, while the road continues towards it undeterred…

Off to the right, the mountain range dips lower, though not by much, just a fraction of the overall height. It still doesn’t permit much shardlight to pass from beyond it, but the dip permits some illumination into the strange, impending forest.

“Well… That’s a blessing and a curse,” the fuhajen comments. “We’ll be able to see a little, but there’ll be plenty of things for those monsters to hide behind…”

Ane nods, a slow, solemn, singular bob of her head.

“Too bad drawing cards doesn’t help much here,” she says with flat sardonicism. “There’d be less pressure that way.”

The archer lets out a light laugh. 

“Wish you’d said that a few hours ago… You’re busy spottin’, but we’ve just been pinching ourselves this whole time to stay awake.”

The tzuskar sighs, crossing her gauntleted arms. 

“I don’t think she meant playing cards… Didn’t you see the style of the wagon? She’s a fortune teller.”

“… Well,” the fuhajen murmurs, chastened. “That doesn’t mean she wouldn’t have a deck of playing cards too…”

As the wagon rolls closer to the forest’s edge, the true, sheer enormousness of it becomes apparent. If this is the same forest that Ane explored in her trance a day ago, borrowing that strange body, then its small size must have disguised how large the forest really was.  The trees here seem to be two, sometimes even three stories tall. Certainly this forest hasn’t seen an axe for almost a millennium. All this time, it seems the forest has had no shardlight to nurture it — none save for the strange, ambient glow that emanates from what she can only assume is its center.  This glow is mirrored by the trees themselves, but not the ones out here towards the edge… Those strange, glowing discs must be deeper inside, hiding behind layer upon layer of these barky phalanxes. 

The wagon wheels continue to roll. It’s just a few more moments now ‘till the first wagon enters the forest. Strangely, there is still a path going through. It’s a low, desperate thing, but it’s wide enough for the caravan and also seems to stretch deep into the forest.  Not a single tree nor root marrs the dusty surface of the stones. It must be by magic or some sort of trickery that the path is preserved… or the path of some hidden fungus hidden amidst the leaf-litter. Some of them are selfish like that — pushing back other forms of life with secret poisons, so that their own might take hold. 

Ane’s fingers itch to dig into dark turf, to see what kind of tiny, botanical treasures she might find. Surely, a place like this must have some useful herb, root, or mushroom in it… The forest looks like it was distilled from a nightmare as it is, so it’s got to hold something helpful for some strange, dark facet of the mind.

Unfortunately, the caravan is dead-set on trundling forward, even though the column does move rather slowly as it squeezes between the pressing walls of ancient trees. Some of the branches dip low, obstructing the bulk of the wagons as they begin to pass through. And yet the wagons carry on anyway, snapping through even the thickest of branches with the unstoppable force of the marching trumba. 

Of course, the trio on the roof isn’t so comfortable. The tree branches force the tzuskar to join the archer at the front, where she begins to hack and whack at the barring branches, swinging her sword like a machete. The archer joins her in this, fortunately drawing a hatchet from his pack. It seems tiring work, but fortunately it comes in short bursts, with long bouts of rest in-between. Altogether, it’s enough to have the fuhajen puffing heavy breaths, though the tzuskar doesn’t seem terribly bothered — save for the twig stuck in her feathers. 

In the midst of all this, Ane plucks a stray twig from the wagon’s roof, secreting it away in the pocketbag tied around her waist. She’ll investigate it later, once she has the luxury of more time and when her humming sight isn’t pressed into service as a lookout. Right now, the two mercenaries seem very distracted by the stray branches. If something were sneaking on the caravan, they’d probably be at a disadvantage. They do occasionally have pauses in this work, though, allowing the two of them to glance around a little. 

During these gaps between weighty chops and snapping wood, Ane finds it easier to keep a lookout as well — and it’s a bit more interesting to the senses. There’s a lot to listen to out here, with the forest practically teeming with bizarre life. Things all seem a little different in this place. 

The creatures here seem to be a departure from their usual counterparts. The clap-voles are a little louder, the skittering quarrels are a little bigger… And at some point, by the side of the road, there even appears to be a three-foot tall smeerp. It’s as if all the life here were sequestered away to an island, allowed to grow and change without regard for common sense. By the look of things, there aren’t any signs of true predators — none that are living, anyway. 

The dead are another story.

A strange echo permeates the woods, like a voice bouncing off of trees. It almost sounds like a bark. This notion is only comforting for a few moments, before the sound comes into greater clarity… There are vowels and consonants in there, even if no true words can be discerned. 

Ane sweeps the forest with her gaze as best as she can —  first the path wending ahead and behind them, then the underbrush lining it, and then up into the trees. The vibration of her hum against the leaves makes it difficult for her to see very far, but she might be able to catch a burned-away face or a stray limb before it’s too late.

The path ahead holds nothing. Just a dark, lonely road.

The path behind holds nothing. Just a long train of wagons, followed by trees. 

The underbrush — was that a grinning, half fused mouth? No, it was just a large, wet leaf.

But the trees…

“Erue enee nikethai! Sylaa, sylaa!” The non-words, maybe another language, cry out in a chant. They’re falling, falling, until…

THUD.

The form of a large, hook-armed callosian falls onto the roof of the wagon. It could’ve crashed through anything not made of such sturdy old wood. The thing’s face is burnt away, charred like the coals of a long-dead flame. Its body is ancient, skeletal in parts, and otherwise half torn away. The head is still intact, offering onlookers a view of half a pair of disturbingly perfect, pierced lips, burnt shut halfway through their span. Above, the eyes and nose are lost in a crater of whispy darkness. Below, the monstrosity is covered in strange fabrics, patterns, and jewelry — an ancient horror, lost to time.

“Sylaa, Sylaa! Krun tukka sin laan! Sin laan, sin laan!” It echoes, again and again, slapping its arms of fused flesh together. The hands have worn way to bone, and that bone to a point, marked by endless bite-marks. “Sin laan, sin laan…” It raves in ancient tongue.

“PALE TORCHES! Light them!” The archer calls desperately. “FACELESS ON THE-”

The thing lumbers forward, planting its feet, before…

THWACK.

…slamming one of its hook-bone hands into the archer’s torso. He’s tossed back, sent tumbling from the roof of the wagon. He lands with a thud and a clank, striking the wagon coupling below, before doubtlessly tumbling onto the road beneath.

The tzuskar had only just drawn her sword. 

Far back on the wagon train, there’s a similar commotion. Another Faceless is there, stomping on the top of Jiselmo’s wagon. There’s a shriek, and Jiselmo cowers into his cabin, latching his roof-hatch shut. Atop it, a featherless, Void-ridden tzuskar stomps powerfully. He hefts a strange, bulging sack over his shoulder, and carries a savage stone-fashioned axe in-hand…

Ane’s group has more than their own share of trouble.

Ane barely has time to get out a word, and, when she does, it’s less a word than a kind of startled yelp as she scrambles to her feet. She holds the knobby length of gurran jawbone clutched in an iron grip, swinging it high over the point of her shoulder as she readies herself to strike the shouting callosian’s burned-away face.

The tzuskar has fortunately come to her senses, just as surprised as Ane. She stands backed up against the front of the wagon, much like the archer was before he took his fall. She steels herself and plants her feet, taking a wide stance as she faces the creature. 

“Over here, ugly!” She shouts, too frazzled to quip. She raises up her metal shield and clangs it against her sword, drawing the monster’s attention. “See if you can toss me so easily, bastard!” She flares her wings around her in a shielding sort of fan. It’s not enough to block incoming attacks, but obscures her center of mass, making her a harder target.

The Faceless, already positioned between her and Ane, turns its full attention towards the warrior. This leaves his back and skull exposed to Ane, showing the cancerous bald-patches on its cranium that give way down to the bone. Bizarrely, it throws testing punches at the guard’s shield, as if it’s trying to disrupt her stance. 

“Sin laan, sin laan! Krun tukka sin laan!” It continues to shout. Its voice is irate and raw, moreso than the usual mad raving. Void, the tone even sounds like it’s instructing. 

Ane doesn’t need to be told twice. Once the creature’s back is turned to her, she brings the curved end of the jawbone down on the bared, rotting skull. The sheer weight of the weapon forces her to follow through completely — it’s less a blow intended to strike the creature’s skull, as it is one that fully intends to go through it.

The strike is bone against bone. With a loud THWACK, the bludgeon clubs straight through the back of the Faceless’ skull. Once the bits of flesh and skull are shot off like shrapnel, a deep, seething nothingness is revealed beneath. It swirls within what was once the cranium, tumbling over itself like smoke in a bottle. With the back removed, it billows out, bringing with it the horrible stench of old flesh and baneful magic. 

The mawkish, sulfurous stink of death blows over Ane’s face as the callosian’s skull gives way. She takes a half step backward, bracing herself as she yanks the heavy jawbone free of the crushed mass of splintered bone and papery, desiccated tissue. 

Suddenly the form goes slack, then slowly tips forward on the force of the wagon. It falls towards the tzuskar, who’s left only a moment between her and the crash of the body. She manages to bring her shield up in time, catching the thing’s weight. With a flare of strength, she tosses it aside, letting it topple from the roof and down to the road below. 

Behind the tzuskar, a flash of white light flares up. It’s not wholly familiar to Ane, but it’s distinct and well-known enough to be identified: Palefire light.  The caravan dares not stop now. Faceless tend to attack in hoards, just like the men they once were. The paletorch, while expensive, is the only option to ward off more attackers. The halo of light barely reaches back to where Ane and the guard stand. It certainly doesn’t reach back to the other wagons, where they hear a muffled-

“HEEELP! By the gods, lumberjacks are even worse after the expiration date!”

Jiselmo shouts his quip, jesting faster than ever while peeking out of his hatch. He immediately ducks back down before the stone axe can strike, hitting the wooden hatch instead. His drivers are frantically searching for paletorches in their packs, but seem to be coming up empty. 

When Ane hears Jiselmo’s cry, her hum darts to his wagon. It’s too far of a gap for her to jump, and there isn’t time to scramble down, get past the trumbas, and scramble up the side of his wagon…

“Go,” Ane shouts hoarsely to the tzuskar. “I can cover this for now. Go!”

The guard nods. Without a word, she spreads her wings and dashes towards the end of the wagon. She takes flight just in time, catching enough wind to catch her wings into a short glide befroe she can tumble to the road below. She comes to land upon the first wagon of Jiselmo’s train, briefly dropping to one knee as she steadies herself. Once she has her balance upon the swaying wagon-top, she dashes forward, battered sword at the ready and her shield raised high. She leaps the next gape in-stride, then stops and takes up her stance. Across from her, the Faceless immediately raises its head, now focusing upon her. That entrance was hard to ignore, after all. 

“Put your backs into it!” The Faceless raves, heaving up its axe. “A path for the king!”

The tzuskar spits. “Another condescending one, great!”  Apparently she’s had enough of being scolded by old, dead men.

The two clash, as the creature swings its whole body into every blow, hammering against her shield. One of those strikes could probably sweep a person off their feet. This guard, however, gives it no ground…

Back on her wagon, Ane finds relative quiet. There are no more shouts coming from her end, and all the action now seems to be further back in the train. The paletorch lit in the front seems almost useless up here. It’s a bit of a waste, too, since it’s likely to burn out within a few minutes. Unlike the sort that cities use — which draw upon a whole leyline system of magic — this one carries just a short burst. It’s enough to frighten, damage, and even sometimes kill Faceless in the short term, but it doesn’t do much good in a prolonged situation. 

Ane curses under her breath. They’d be better served by snuffing the paletorch, at this point — it isn’t doing them much good back here, where the Faceless actually are.

She sweeps the path with her gaze, then the underbrush, then the trees. It’s hard not to watch the fight against the other undead creature, but she can’t run the risk of letting her attention waver enough to miss another onslaught.

Back on Jiselmo’s wagon, the fight between the tzuskar and the Faceless is long and bloody, even if it’s carried over less than a minute. Even in armor, the woman moves quite a bit faster than the creature, able to duck under the arcs of its axe-swings. It’s a tough thing, though, since the warrior quickly finds she can’t rely upon her shield in this. Whenever it catches a blow, the metal dents and threatens to permit a strike straight into her arm.

Grunting with effort, she dodges back from a swing, then takes a follow-up from the blunt side of the weapon straight in the gut. She nearly doubles over. Gritting her teeth, she stares up at the thing. Grinning with an unnatural hunger and rotten, charred teeth, it raises its crude axe high over its head. This would be the finishing blow, cracking down against a foe too battered to roll aside…

A pair of voices comes from below:

“ONE… TWO… HEAVE!”

The raving creature stumbles back, lifted off-balance by the hatch beneath its feet. The mercenary regains just enough of her breath to leap after it, plunging her sword into the thing’s skull. It pierces through, letting out gouts of ink which soon dissipate into the air. Panting, she takes a knee, treasuring her life for a moment while the dark bleeds out of the creature in front of her. 

As the abomination falls away, Jiselmo and Korin pop out of their hatch. The two performers seem triumphant, grinning to one another. 

“See, Korin? I told you the old lift-and-trip would work,” Jiselmo declares proudly, hands on his hips.

“Would’ve worked sooner if you’d just lifted on ‘heave’ like I said,” Korin chides him, crammed into the hatch with his tzuskar wings.

“I was waiting for ‘Three’! Who does ‘one, two, heave’? It’s either heave-ho, or you count. Honestly,” the two  banter, smiling from adrenaline and triumph. 

Back atop her wagon, Ane breathes a tense sigh. She can hear Jiselmo (it’s hard not to hear Jiselmo, sometimes), so at least that fight is over with… 

She nudges a bit of gummy, rotted flesh off of the heavy jawbone with the tip of her shoe, and then returns to her vigil.

Teller of Fortunes 6: Adorned with Bones

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

The rest of the march towards the shadowlands is filled with anxious anticipation. Couriers step a little faster than usual, and dinner conversations vary between being terse or filled with wonder, depending on the speaker. Jiselmo, with his wont for drama, certainly likes to speculate about the shadowlands, spinning yarns that stretch the very bounds of credibility. The more practical members of the caravan, like Vasht the knife-thrower or Nelea the animal tamer, take the subject more seriously and only speak up to shoot down the more dangerous falsehoods. Nelea makes sure to give Jiselmo a firm rebuke when the topic of “comely Void-maidens of the black eaves” arises. Not only are such whimsies dangerous, but the bit about them wearing “hoop-skirts like whirlpools” was really too much anyway. All in all, it’s not nearly as good as his fibs about “shadow-moots,” wherein the older Faceless gather to bicker about municipal politics.

After some time, the caravan rolls to a stop again, pausing outside the usual sleep-wake-eat cycle, and one glimpse out the window tells why: the edge of the shadowlands are just ahead, like a black line drawn across the grass. Beyond, the chlorophyll-based plantlife dies off abruptly, save only for the hardiest sorts. The grass shrinks down to bare soil, replaced only by the occasional fluffy fungus and copse of glowing trees, or perhaps the ivory trees usually found in tunnels.

The rest of the caravan engages in last-minute preparations. Some people take this time to hop out and take their own measures, though it’s also perfectly normal to remain in one’s wagon and let others come to them. And given Ane’s agreement with Vasht, she’s certain to receive at least brief instructions at some point — either in-depth, or in passing. So, the Teller of Fortunes waits.

In the meantime, she makes her own preparations — a full waterskin, a few juicy appohs, comfortable clothing — all things that will ensure she won’t need to clamber down from the roof of the wagon for much. She even removes the dusty thing adorning the top of the split door’s frame. It’s long, oddly lumpy, with a dull, yellow-gray sheen… To look at it, it seems like little more than a mass of bone, raw and unshaped by any caring hand.

This is mostly because it is.

She wraps both hands around the end of the arm-long gurran jaw, and gives it a few short practice swings. It’s heavy, but not so heavy as to keep her from using it — she’s used the mean edge of the dead beast’s teeth to let shardlight into a few skins before. Years ago, one of the caravan’s mercenaries had even given her a ribbing over it.

“How’re you even gonna swing that more than once without falling over?” The mercenary chuckled, with a wry smile and a lazy flip of her dagger.

“Don’t need to, if I swing it right the first time,” the Teller of Fortunes had brazenly countered.

Thus armed and provisioned, Ane makes her way to the top of the wagon. It’s an easier trip than it seems — the old wood houses a set of iron rungs, hammered into the wall for just such an occasion. If Vasht sees her, he’ll know she’s ready. If he has anything else to tell her, well, he can jolly well flutter up there himself and do so.

In time, Vasht swoops in, flapping his sextuple-set of wings as he comes in for a landing. He manages to slow down just enough that he lands comfortably upon the wagon’s roof, with the hurried look of someone who’s moving around between a million places at once. As ever, the shadows beneath his eyes hint towards a lack of sleep. The tzuskar stops, glances around, then looks towards Ane — and as he sees the old gurran bone, he furrows his brow, causing his eye-wing to fluff.

“Ah. Bringing that bruiser out…? I’d only heard about it ‘till now,” he says with a smirk. Then he motions to a couple of mercenaries out of view, absently continuing some instruction from before. 

Ane shrugs gently, as she polishes the ruddy cheek of a slightly bruised appoh against the thigh of her trousers. 

“If there ever was an occasion for it, this seemed like it.” 

“Hopefully not,” Vasht replies. “There’re guards in the front and more in the back. If Faceless get up here, either they’re too smart, or the mercs are too dumb… or they’re dead,” he says with a dry humor. “Anyway… If we know some are coming, then we have some paletorches that’ll help. They just don’t last long, and we’ve a ways to go,” he reasons. 

“Understandable,” she replies, casting an experimental sight-hum over the assembled wagons. If they pass through the trees from her vision, she won’t be able to see much… But “not much” is better than “nothing,” and the eyed races are no good at all in the dark. Shasii like Ane fare much better without light.

Ane then remembers the faceless pantster, undead and chittering in the dark lands ahead, and a small shiver tickles between her shoulder blades. What seemed ridiculous in the comfort of her cabin has sharper, more sinister edges in the fringes of the shadowlands.

Still, part of her is curious about what it would feel like to touch a Faceless mind with her own, and explore it the way she did that bird-spider. She has never tried — never really wanted to. Would they still be aware, trapped in some kind of unliving hell? Or just as they seem, babbling their idiot poetry to no one?

Ane’s never touched a sapient mind like that. She had tried once. She was young, very young, and so was the round-cheeked callosian boy who watched her feed the trumbas with a sneer on his lips. His clothes and face were clean — doubtless kept that way by the governess who held his hand and made sure he kept his distance from the grubby shasii girl with straw in her hair and grass stains on her knees. She saw his lips move, though even her keen hearing couldn’t pick up what he said over the creaking and lowing or the trumbas, or the chatter of the crowd. It’s probably best she didn’t hear him.

Later, she’d snuck some of the old herbalist’s concoctions — a foolish thing to do, when she just barely knew what any of them did — and lay on her mat in front of the old woman’s stove. 

And, before she slept, she reached out to try to steal a piece — just a piece — of the little boy’s life.

Did he have a nursery full of toys and cake after dinner? Did he have parents who read him stories, or brothers and sisters to play with? 

She didn’t find out. She had, for a second, touched a world that felt like a hot kettle in its intensity — so loud, and so bright that holding onto it was like clutching a cactus paddle — and, when the horrified herbalist had found what she’d done, she’d given her several dissuading whacks with a ladle for her effort.

Ane had not tried to touch a sapient mind again. When her mother’s former wagon no longer needed to be stuffed to bursting with costumes, she had moved into it to read cards and see what the herbs would tell her without Dynkala’s help. 

Even thinking about it is enough to waken the sensation of scales — still with the pink softness of a baby’s — on her cheek, the welts on her legs, and the bitter rumble in her stomach. It had probably been nothing more than a hallucination, however vivid, and Dynkala had been right to punish her for dabbling in things she didn’t understand. She was lucky all she had come away with was an aching head, sore legs, and an upset stomach.

Ane sniffs at the passing breeze, with its earthy smell and thickness of anticipation. 

Vasht, still there in the present, shrugs his shoulders. 

“Need anything before we get moving? The guards should be up here in a minute,” he says, to the sounds of footsteps on the path below. 

Presently, the surroundings are still grassy and normal — normal, at least, for another half-mile or so. Once things reach the shadow’s edge, it’s like stepping from one painting to another. The rolling hills and swaying blades of grass give way to an abrupt line of thick, foamy mycelium. Their ghostly white tendrils reach up over dark hills, like crests upon waves. Underneath them, the specs of ivory are visible in the distance. 

Ane shakes her head.

“As long as the hired blades can feed and water themselves, I’m fine,” she assures him.

“Of course,” he assures her. Then, with a grin he adds, “Enjoy the ride.”

With that, Vasht turns and begins to take off. He spreads all six of his wings, dashes across the short span of the roof and catches the wind, sailing up into the air with a mighty beat of his wings. By the look of things, he’s going to make another pass along the shadow’s edge, then return to visit others manning the wagon-tops. There aren’t many. For now, it just seems to be Ane, and then Jiselmo in the distance. He’s halfway out of his skylight hatch though, and likely intends to drop inside at the first hint of trouble. He waves jauntily in the distance. 

It takes a moment or two longer before the mercenaries arrive. One of them, a fuhajen, simply floats up to the top. He’s an odd sight for his race, adding leathers on top of the usual chest-baring robes of his people. There’s a feathered, wide-brimmed hat on his head and an oaken longbow on his back. He regards Ane with his trio of sapphire eyes, then nods.

“Hello. Reporting in,” he greets her amiably.

Then there’s the sound of another clambering up the side of the wagon. Ane hears the light jingling of her chainshirt as she makes the ascent, before a  lightly-armored tzuskar with a mop of wavy blond hair finally crests over the top. She wears a circular shield strapped to her right arm and a sword sheathed upon her hip. The mercenary stops at the top for a moment, smiling politely as she gives a wave in greeting. 

Ane nods politely to the pair, though she doesn’t try to make small talk. She’s going to be occupied with keeping her eye on the spaces between the trees, and it’s not likely she’ll have the attention to chat either of them up. Besides, she doesn’t really need to know them much — Jarrik doesn’t keep hired guards around long, or he’d likely find himself at the end of a sword for stiffing their paychecks too often.

They soon take up their positions, with the Fuhajen perched near the front with his bow at the ready. The tzuskar sits near the back, ready to either defend the wagon or to intercept an approaching Faceless. 

“I’m sure you know already,” the tzuskar says lightly, “But just point and call out whatever you see. Our goal is to get it before it comes near the caravan.”

Down below, Ane can hear the sound of the wagon’s hitch being checked. Up ahead, trumbas snuff and clatter in their harnesses. It seems like the wagons are about to begin rolling. She nods.

“Got it. Not sure why Jarrik has us going through the shadowlands, but hopefully it won’t be long.”

The woman frowns. “It can’t be for anything good, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“Well,” the bowman chimes in with a twang, “Nothing but Faceless and Friends out there. Not the sort of company most people would pick.”

With a slight jolt, the wagon begins to roll. There’s the slight crack and creak of wood being pulled into motion, working admirably against many years of wear. Soon the pace becomes steady, at just above a walking pace. The trumba are faster than most beasts of burden, though that’s not saying much with three wagons in tow. They almost seem to be moving faster than usual, as if they’re rushing to get through this area. 

Ane bites into her appoh, crunching quietly, then settles into silence. There won’t be anywhere to stop in the shadowlands, so she’d better take the chance to eat now, as meager a meal as it may be.

The two mercenaries go quiet and settle in for the long haul, keeping a wary gaze outward. They might as well be alert and ready… even if they can’t see very far in front of their faces. 

 

The next half-mile is like any other caravan ride, except for the anticipation. Up ahead, the line of darkness slowly inches forward. With it, the land beyond begins to come in with greater clarity… and there’s much to see, especially for someone with echolocation like Ane. It all comes after a strange phalanx of bleached bones, with ribs tossed askew and skulls staring eyelessly towards the sky.

For some reason, it seems a great many beasts have died along this border. 

After this initial line, the sets of bones occur in occasional smatterings across the grassless fields. Some are more recently departed, still carrying their fur and some of their flesh. One creature, strangely, is still alive, fur and sinew twitching and grasping towards the sky. The caravan’s arrival is heralded by its distant, mournful mooing. The gurran cries out repeatedly without sense, with tones somewhere between mating and maimed. As Ane catches sight of it, she sees the thing isn’t even Faceless; it’s just stark-raving mad. The beast’s mighty head is ducked down to the dirt, shoving its curled horns into the white tendrils of mycelium.

Alive or not, it already seems to be glorified fertilizer. 

Ane can feel a knot of anxious anticipation tensing in her belly. Part of it is dread — the forest is full of terrors, and it’s her job to keep them safe — while part of it is a kind of eagerness at testing the accuracy of her vision. Will the strange glowing circles be on the trees? Will she hear the repetitive chatter of the Faceless pantster?

Soon, the caravan leaves the mad, mooing carcass in the dust. Its haunting cries continue on for some time longer, until finally they fade into the distance behind.

So far, the environment has been crisp and clear to Ane’s vision. To her, it’s less like going into darkness and more like entering into a world that’s a different shade of heat. She can see the flecks of dirt upon the fungus-ridden soil, and even the fibers of said fungus as it weaves in-between the dirt and roots. This valley has no secrets to hide from her thus far, and strangely, there is the occasional sight of life: lost animals, random clumps of struggling grass, then copses of trees that seem fed by the mycelium. 

They, too, are adorned with bones. 

In contrast to Ane’s clarity, the two mercenaries are clearly, visibly lost. Their postures are slumped and yet tight with tension, breaths catching with an air of sudden helplessness. Out here, they don’t even have regular torchlight to guide their vision. That would draw too much attention. Instead, they’re simply waiting. To their eyes, this land is nothing but a deep, endless black, with nothing but the distant shards in the sky offering pitiful pinpricks of light. 

Truly, this sort of land is a thing of dire fables. Many tales begin with this sort of journey… They also tend to be stark departures from the usual fare, trading fae and whimsy for darkness and dread. Parents often chastise their children about venturing anywhere near this sort of place, and in truth, it’s wholly unnecessary. No child in their right mind would come here. Children may hassle a stray dog, but this would be poking a dragon’s belly. 

After about an hour of riding, the mad animals cease to be a feature. All goes still in the darkness, save for the steady rumble of the wagon beneath Ane’s feet. Even here, it feels somewhat reassuring — as if even this dreaded land can’t take away that feeling of life, of movement and steady progression. All is otherwise still…

Then, up ahead, a shadow stirs. It hastens, and then darts along the side of the road towards the wagons…

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.