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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.
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.
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.”