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.
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.”
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.