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…