Teller of Fortunes 12: The Enigmatic Peddler

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The Teller of Fortunes’ new customers are decidedly unlike the last. The vast majority tend to be either cultivators or fishers. Many are visibly covered in mud, leaves, and other signs of rough living, with bodies adorned in shells, clad in fabrics made from root-fibers. Most are primarily concerned about their day-to-day subsistence, whether it’s fishing hauls or the amount of good root and cattail cuttings that they find. Peculiarly, the cultivators are more driven by luck than most farmers; they almost treat their craft like foraging or mining, as if they spend most of their time wandering around for the best results. 

As a result, Ane makes quite a lot of money for a short stint in farmland — four gold mitres and change, when you convert all the silver upwards.

Typically, the caravan might stay longer in these sorts of outlands. However, after that deadly stint in the shadowlands, the caravan master Jarrik is eager to get things moving. There are higher “marks” in the city, and much more in the way of the creature comforts of which Jarric is quite fond. After just six hours, the call goes out to uproot the tents and move into the wagons. Normally this would be a paltry work period, but the many “village squares” of Paakoponde offer a higher clientele, and they’ll have more provisions during the post-city stint… 

Ane is pretty satisfied with her take, anyway. She requires little in the way of materials — not like Brair’s need for fuel and burn salve. She should have plenty enough to buy the supplies she has to replenish, and perhaps some dye, thread, ribbon… Maybe even a new dress or a pair of trousers. 

She tries not to get her hopes up too high as she rolls the canvas tent back up and stashes it in her wagon.

As she gets ready to travel once more, Ane feels a strange sort of silence about the camp. Usually, there’s a lot more going on… Sure, all the performers are still accounted-for. Brair is snuffing his flames, Jiselmo and Korin are stashing their costumes, the triplets are closing down their stage… There’s even that mercenary that Ane met during the trip — Narue, probably. She’s walking and talking to…

Nobody. She’s alone, walking in pensive silence.

That’s what’s missing. Mercenaries. Normally, this picture includes a group of them, often drunk and sassy on the alcohol that the caravan provides. Right now, though, it’s just Narue wandering about. One can practically draw a dotted line to mark where the others are supposed to be. This silhouette’s holding a tankard, that one’s smoking puffroot, the other is scratching his- well, nothing right now. They’re not here. 

Of course, it’s not like there was a mass death in the shadowlands… More like a “slight death,” or a “middling death.” But whatever the size of the supposed die-off, others seem to have decided that after such horrors, the farming life is for them. Some others have even been seen donning a foresty sort of ceremonial garb, then marching off deeper into the trees, presumably to find some monastic vows to take and put all of this far behind them. 

Plus, one or two of the remainder seem to have the sniffles. So does Korin, but that just helps with his “straight-man” schtick. 

Ane doesn’t worry about it much — mercenaries come and go, though such a mass exodus is certainly unusual. Still, so long as Jarrik doesn’t have any more jaunts through the shadowlands on the docket, they should be fine until they can round up more dewy-eyed farmers’ get with ill-fitting hand-me-down armor and adventure on their minds…

Once everything is gathered into the wagons, the caravan then spots for a brief but chatty dinner. While Ane washes the bowls, the others all chat around her. She doesn’t overhear much, save for bluster and curiosity about the recent trip; easy enough to ignore. 

She finishes scrubbing the dishes piled in the washbasin and retires to her wagon to change clothes and dig through her stock of herbs to double-check what needs replacing before she ventures out to find it.

Soon after, the caravan hitches-up again and begins to roll into the “city”… Though in this case, it defies most conventional notions of such. 

While Ane is getting ready, most of the short trip into Paakoponde goes unseen. 

But, when she steps out…

It’s more like stepping out into a painting than any kind of settlement. Sure, there are the huts, the shanties, the rows of homes. But all of these are dug out underneath tall, sweeping trees that dwarf most others. Many are so wide, that the gaps and “knees” of their roots are spacious enough to accommodate actual dwellings. The main body of each tree bears a peculiar, diagonal striation that spirals up to the top. The twisting looks almost synthetic as if someone walked around the outside while urging the tree, “Yes, keep going! Just a few more dozen feet, come on now. Up you go, on with it!” And by the Fires, judging by their bark, those trees must be far older than most men can count.

Up above is a veritable explosion of foliage, many trees with their leaf-shapes depending on their apparent age. Each seems to be the grandest specimen of its time, preserved in perpetuity… 

Then all around are the shardflies, which now sometimes form large, swarming clouds of light. There seem to be small sparks of heat when they draw too close to one another, promptly repelling and expanding the cloud. It’s like watching a creature breathe. It would probably be rather hazardous to walk into one of those super-heated clouds of shardflies.

At times, the shardflies rush to the trees, seeming to feed on the sap. Whenever they do so, the spot seems to radiate light, moisture, and heat just a little bit, as if it’s receiving a sudden burst of nutrition. Soon after, a local in a heat-retardant smock rushes by, either encouraging the creatures with a vase of liquid or shooing them away with a wide, feathery fan. 

Then, in every gap along the far horizon, there’s a massive stone structure with blocky stone steps, ascending between a set of wavering, stone-carved walls. They together lead up a tall, tapering pyramid, which itself seems to house several mega-trees that jut out of pits made into the structure. It’s as if they built the temple around these trees, then continued to modify and excavate the stonework whenever they expanded many, many times over. 

Though all of these sights are overwhelming, they’re strictly in the background. After a few moments of adjustment, they become much easier to ignore in passing. 

When Ane leaves the campgrounds, she’s certainly not the only one; many others are being sent off as runners to collect basic supplies, whether they be food, wagon parts, or other needs. She spots the wing-eyed knife-thrower Vasht being sent off in one direction, while the finely-dressed form of the caravan master, Jarrik, arranges for transport in another. 

At some point, a pair of hands passes Ane a shopping list to append to her own, followed by a leather pouch of coins. The list sports several medicinal herbs and compounds — most of which Ane could probably gather in her sleep, while Grandma Dynkala can scarcely leave her wagon. There’s also her usual note:

 Remedies for the camp and all its sniffles. Keep the change, avoid the sneezes! 

– Dynkala

Fortunately, Ane can remember some of Paakoponde’s layout from the circus’ last pass through. There’s some logic to the streets, at least in a rather organic sense. Markets tend to be in population centers, and herbalists often prefer places that lend best to plant growth. Soon she finds herself in a sunny city “square” (more like a clearing), the middle of which is covered by a line of root fiber open-air tents. Each is well-stocked, sporting a wider variety of flora than one may expect in nearly any other city. There’s everything ranging from the practical — medicinal herbs, oils, incense — to the mystical — good luck charms, ritual components, psychoactives.

It’s quite the place to window-shop. And past the row, there seems to be a particularly wide, well-stocked tent towards the end…  

She follows her sensitive sense of smell — first a few candles and ten pounds of wax from this seller, scented richly of honey-sweet cave bee combs. Then a pound of geltsear leaf tea, redolent of freshly-split vanilla pods. After that, a pound of powdered spiralis dye, with its sharp, dusty, dried-herb scent. Ane may not be able to see its bright green color without riding the mind of a creature with eyes to see by, but refreshing her clothing with a new bath of dye goes a long way toward maintaining her image as the mysterious Teller of Fortunes instead presenting of the somewhat threadbare reality.

She lets herself linger by a tent with samples of fine brocade hung around the outside. Having clothing made for her is far too rich for her blood, but her fingertips trail longingly over the sleeve of a cotton gauze shirt. It’s a loose garment, as things made for nobody in particular tend to be, given shape by laces at the neckline, shoulders, and sides. The laces themselves are ribbons cunningly worked with tiny fern leaves — this, more than anything, gives her a pang of want. She worries her lower lip in her teeth as her hum roves over the garment. She wouldn’t be able to get the colors right, whatever they might be, but she might be able to buy some ribbon and re-work one of her old shirts. The cut wouldn’t be the same, and the fabric would show its age, but…

Standing in between the patterns and floral flourishes of the brocade, it feels like being in a completely different jungle. There’s something a little disorienting about standing amongst all of these different shades, patterns, and textures — textures which Ane can see as only a shasii might, sightless and with a sight-hum to sense texture. The hum bounces strangely, sometimes blending one texture with another in echoes. 

The cotton shirt, though… Its gauzy sleeves are like an island in this sea. The pleasing texture and the relative simplicity are both soothing in this sort of environment. 

Deeper in the tent, an aged fuhajen sits against the tent wall. There are streaks of gray in his thick hair, and he waits with a sagacious sort of patience. He’s watching customers with his three, inscrutable eyes, but only just barely, and offers no particular pitch or price. He must be the sort of merchant that lets his wares sell themselves, and otherwise just treats salesmanship as a nice occasion to sit and enjoy the midday breeze. 

If he wasn’t so old, and this wasn’t Paakoponde, she would just steal it. The feeling of guilt wouldn’t nag at her as much in Skil’houros. 

Instead, she clears her throat gently.

“How much?” She asks the man, casually holding up the edge of the sleeve as though it were no more than a handkerchief.

The fuhajen raises a brow as if his attention were diverted until just now. 

“One gold piece,” he replies placidly, with a downward glance at the garment. “Less if bought with trousers or a skirt. Together, one and five.” He sounds rather serene, enjoying his day even as he tries to ante-up with a bundle deal. 

She feels her resolve harden, and prepares herself to argue.

“I’ll give you one and two for both.”

“One and four,” he replies as if discussing the weather. 

“One and three.”

“Sure,” he agrees as if answering his thoughts. This conversation feels oddly one-sided. 

She exhales in relief, though it still pains her to hand over so much money. Ane hadn’t sweated buying the dye, or the tea, or the candles and wax… Those are all useful things. Clothing, on the other hand, is largely a concession to the local constabulary and indecency laws (however pretty its ribbons may be). 

After picking out a pair of cotton trousers in something close to her size, she lets her sensitive sense of smell lead her back outside of the tent, past the alluring fragrance of perfumes, the beckoning scent of skewers of spiced meat and honeyed dough, and beyond… to the bittersweet, sharply green smell of dried herbs and the alcoholic sting of tinctures.

She doesn’t see the medicine seller at first when she approaches — she’s mentally going over Dynkala’s list. Her hum is fixated on the wares spread out on the table under the canvas canopy. There’s a jar of stomach powder, next to what looks like neatly-labeled pots of chest rub… 

An abrupt, monotone voice greets her:

“There is everything from nullwither tincture to wagon wheel oil. Choose wisely.”

Glancing up at the seller brings great confusion. It looks like Ane took a wrong turn and ended up back at the textile tent. She sees scarves, cloaks, tunics, veils, head-wraps, and they all appear to have banded together and formed a Garmentry Union. Granted, they’re all very nicely coordinated by both texture and shade, though they don’t seem to align to any sense of function. They all just heap up and around a…

Huh, that is a person, isn’t it?

Peeking up over them all is the face of a young woman, shasii and paradoxically un-veiled despite wearing veils. She has a dark-shaded silk bandana tied over tumbling curls. Her smooth lips are set into a thin line. 

“I feel like I was just in a different tale… How abrupt,” she comments, in her perpetual one-note voice. “Anyway, take your time. There are many travels and trials ahead.”

Ane’s hand pauses over a packet of ale-head tea.

“Travels and tri–? Of course,” she says. The other woman must’ve deduced that she isn’t from here. That probably isn’t hard to do. “I need four jars of chest-rub, six ounces of headache powder, a pound of digestive coal,” she hesitates for a moment, thinking before she continues, “Some dried blue bolete, cherry bark, a gallon of hearthfire vinegar, and a pound of dried sightwort. Is that it?” Ane frowns gently to herself. “I think that’s it. Oh! And some healer’s honey.” 

“Oh my, sightwort,” she comments flatly. “That’s the good shit.” 

After a pause, the medicine seller adds, “Right over there, prices are tagged. I’m the only one in the city who believes in forestry, let alone convenient labeling.” The pile of scarves gestures about, sweeping that blanketed hand over each item in the list. The sightwort, however, is accompanied by a knowing nod.

“I’ve been into snakeleaf roots lately,” Ane confesses, “Though it’s better if you tincture them and drop them on some sugar, first.”

She begins to amass her purchases, counting out the coin from Dynkala’s pouch first, then her own. As an afterthought, she adds a few more herbs — some mint, an ounce of fennel seeds, some Skil’houran snowsage…

“Alright,” she finally says, laden with about as much as she can bear, “How much?”

“Snakeleaf. Interesting,” she comments. “Very messy foreshadowing. My last dose was unpleasant, rather ominous stuff. Anyway,” the medicine seller totals up Ane’s selections. At least she wasn’t kidding about the convenient labeling. 

Ane sighs softly as she parts with her coins. It’s painful but necessary — she doesn’t haggle with medicine sellers, because she doesn’t need any of them hedge-magicking at her after she leaves. Besides, good herbs are worth paying for.

“One gold and eight, right. Thanks.”

In one day, she’s nearly destroyed her take from her last three workdays. Hopefully, Jarrik knows what he’s about here…

Before Ane turns to leave, the medicine speaks up in a slightly louder (though no less flat) voice: 

“If you lack for spending money… I will ignore the one and eight, and discount the rest slightly. You do seem to know your craft well, and I can appreciate that.” Strangely, there is a slight curve to the edges of her lips — a smile, albeit a very mechanical one. It’s as if she has to signal the muscles her good-will, rather than have them react on their own.

Ignore more than half the price? 

Ane pauses mid-stride, before turning back around with a wary tilt of her head.

“I’m listening.”

The medicine seller folds what Ane can only assume are her hands, nodding as she regains her attention. 

“Simple. Secure me a spot somewhere on your caravan,” she replies. “It can be small, so long as it is warm. I fit in a space of approximately two square feet.”

After a beat, she adds blandly:

“… I also have a tincture for square feet, though I don’t think that will be necessary.”

“Two sq- Are you a contortionist?” 

“Not professionally.” 

This is at least slightly baffling. Two square feet? For an entire medicine seller? Doesn’t she sleep?

“The caravan is in a clearing three miles that way,” she says, pointing. “Ask for a man named Jarrik — tell him the Teller of Fortunes told you to come because she and Dynkala need help with the sickness in the camp.” Even if Jarrik would be cross with her, he would be less likely to question the aged herbalist needing an extra hand.

“Wonderful,” she replies, seemingly incapable of the enthusiasm that the word requires. “I shall do so. I would have looked silly as a mercenary anyway.” 

With that, she holds out a limb of scarves and veils, then drops three gold coins out of the pattern-work and into Ane’s hands. 

She quickly pockets the gold, as if afraid the medicine seller might change her mind in the face of not receiving a more tangible agreement. It’s between her and Jarrik, though — she has little power to add employees to the caravan at will. Besides, it’s not like another person will be noticed while Jarrik busies himself with scraping up more hired guards…

With the gold securely in her pocketbag, Ane gathers her purchases and makes her way back to the caravan.

Teller of Fortunes 11: The Big Show

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

Truth be told, there’s no “entering” into Paakoponde. There’s no border, no walls, no guards, and no welcoming committee. There is only first a marsh, with the land turning wet and damp, the air thickening, and the trees growing fewer but, at the same time, larger and larger. Their willowy limbs begin to drape impossibly wide. The fronds are thick enough that it feels like a loose ceiling, allowing only shardlight to pass through. 

Though, perhaps there is a welcoming committee of sorts…

The very first thing seen upon entering into Paakoponde is light. This time, it doesn’t come from the sky, nor the trees, nor even the hundreds of pale-torches that some cities use. No, this time the light comes from thousands, perhaps millions of flying, buzzing “shardflies”. Many of them are simple creatures, with almost stone-like thoraxes that radiate improbable levels of light and heat. They buzz around with a vivacity that’s far removed from any normal insect, seeming to travel miles without eating, drinking, or even landing. They make this obvious by how they buzz around the caravan, following along like a strange little entourage. It’s as if they’re attracted to… Movement? Life? People? It’s hard to say, for they also buzz around the plodding trumba that pull the wagons.

On closer examination, the term “shardflies” proves to be woefully lacking, for not all of them are flies at all. The term proves to encompass an entire category of insects, ranging from beetles to wasps, to even the rare sparkling flutter-by. They form entire fields of light, first infrequent enough to be misperceived as will-O’-wisps, then thick enough in the air to give the illusion of full shardlight. 

One by one, small huts appear between the trees, each made from tree-fronds and other leavings. None are crafted from logs, bearing no marks of hatcheting or cultivation. Instead, these huts are largely modest, questionably stable, and patched by sticky sap gums and mud. Each tends to accompany a small pier over the march, similarly constructed to allow easy fishing and diving into the centers of the larger marsh-ponds. 

This is what Paakoponde considers to be farmland, and it’s a halfhearted venture into the concept at best, if not an outright aversion. Even the sap-taps are unintrusive, barely penetrating the trees; it’s as if they avoid harming them with a religious zeal. Then, strangely, there are animal hides, feathers, and other signs of hunting that adorn various windowsills and doorways. The locals seem to have no qualms about harming wildlife, so long as the trees are treated with respect.

Upon further examination… Those shardflies do seem quite fond of those tall, willowy trees. 

Ane takes a long moment after waking to watch Paakoponde through her window, blanketed knees drawn up to her chest. She even sticks a hand outside of her wagon to test the weather, only to withdraw with a glowing shardfly clinging to her fingertips. She sends it on its way with a soft puff of breath and wriggles out from under her covers to begin her toilette. 

She’ll be working in a few hours, and it takes time to prepare.

Fortunately, as quick as the creatures are to flock to Ane’s hand, they make no attempts to enter the wagon. Nonetheless, it’s customary to seal wagons tightly when in these lands. If too many shardflies gather in a dwelling, it can cause several problems. Most of them simply boil down to “too hot, too bright, and damn bugs in general,” in Brair’s words, and when he complains about brightness and heat, there’s bound to be something to it.

Outside, the actual weather is relatively cold, balancing out the temperature. Without it, the bugs would burn hot and keep people awake in their dwellings. Without the bugs, well… Perhaps this would be a “twilight land,” one permitting some of both life and un-life. 

The caravan continues to roll, and in time it comes to a stop. Here the huts are more dense, though the troupe has yet to enter Paakoponde-proper. This tends to be the customary approach: draw in the farmers on one side, roll into the city to get supplies and attract the wealthier takers, then get the farmers on the other side when leaving. 

The metallic clanks of the wagons being unhitched echoes past the walls. 

Ane combs her long hair, fashioning it into a thick, doubled-over braid fastened with a pin of carved snailwhale shell. She smooths a few drops of shimmering, mica-flecked oil over her skin, lending a soft glow to her cheeks under the dancing light of the shardflies. One fingertip dips into a small pot, before lightly painting her lips with a sheen of burgundy. She ends her efforts with a light dab of rich, warm amber perfume at the nape of her neck, her wrists, and atop the bouquet of feathers tattooed in the center of her chest.

Her tent is usually warm, but it won’t permit any shardflies — with Paakoponde’s breezes, she may need something extra to cover up with. She sorts briefly through the racks and boxes of odds-and-ends of clothing at the back of her wagon, sifting through strongmen’s singlets, spangled leotards, and her small collection of clothing. She comes away with a silk skirt (carefully tied so the tear doesn’t show), and a loose muslin shirt with an embroidered neckline that sweeps daringly down around her upper arms. Not enough to scandalize, but maybe enough to entice a few extra coins.

She drapes a tatted shawl over the curved points surmounting her shoulders, pins her veil atop her head, and steps out into the cool, damp air to finish setting up camp.

Outside, others are doing the same. No one needs a signal to start their work; this process has been done over a thousand times, and will naturally be done over a thousand times more. It’s so automatic, that things seem to be in roughly the same configuration each time, albeit allowing for local anomalies in geography. For example, Jiselmo and Korin’s theater-wagon is almost always stood up at the side of camp opposite from the triplets’ burlesque tent-stage. Then the “oddities” show will always be on the side of camp perpendicular to them, with the master’s wagon positioned on the side opposite that. 

In the middle, the strong man set up his weight bench, his arm-wrestling table, and his “Tower of Broken Skies” — a vertical, interlocking, modular obstacle course made of salvaged wood and fake, painted-on steel. He sets it up surprisingly fast. Over the last few times, Brair helped by adding what he calls “pyromajicks,” which are really just torches that fume from the top of the tower at certain times, sometimes over perilous gaps. This time, the tower is set up on one of those muddy piers, simultaneously adding the illusion of extra peril and a quick way to douse the flames. 

The location of Ane’s tent is at a nearly random position but generally fixed, like how a student may choose a desk on whim but in time commit to the position. At least, except when new acts appear; hers is the easiest to reposition, lacking both outdoor features or the drama that determines some of the others. Today, habit arranges the tent in between the triplets, the knife-thrower’s range, and the “Tower of Broken Skies,” though comfortably remote enough to give a sense of isolation and mystique. 

That’s the curse of having a tent instead of bringing people into her wagon — it has to be set up wherever the ground’s flat and hard enough, and that isn’t always consistent. Still, at least the nature of her trade helps her here.

If someone wants a diviner, they’ll seek one out.

She paces over the patch of ground for a few moments, kicking a few stones and fallen twigs out of the way before she lets the rolled-up canvas flop off of her back. Setting it up is a relatively simple affair: Flatten it out, slide in the poles, prop it up, and hammer the pegs in at the corners. Once it’s standing, it’s just a matter of ferrying in cushions, her folding table, her little katagon brazier, and other bits and pieces from her wagon.

The others often have similar concerns, albeit more tailored towards their wagons. Frequently, they employ boards to stop the wheels from sinking into marshy spots. As for the “Tower of Broken Skies,” well… That thing almost topples over about three times, before the stubborn strongman finally relocates it five feet further down the embankment. 

 

With everything in place, a wild, tinny turn-box tune begins to play, made by the slow grating of a song crystal inside the mechanism. Now Brair begins to make his rounds, lighting all the camp’s torches and braziers. Here, the bugs render them mostly unnecessary, though the differently-colored flames give a certain sort of ambiance. For Ane, this is a haunting pinkish-purple, though she wouldn’t know it herself.

A flick of the match, a light of the powder, and that rush of flame… And the show begins. 

It’s not just any show, but the big show — The Wondrous Varroon Troupe, limited time only. Bring your wife, your kids, Void, bring your hounds! The thrills are cheaper than the tickets, but they’ll light your pants on fire! Except for the hounds. The hounds get in free because Jarrik loves them. Everyone loves a good hound. Granted, the “Custom Fur-Shine Kindness Treats” (available in packs of twelve!) are always a few silvers each.

It’s better than what the herbalist gets stuck peddling, though. Her pitch burns the ears; it’s amazing what an old lady with some dried herbs and a shadowy windowsill can sell. 

Ane tugs gently at the corner of the neatly-painted fabric banner pinned over the entrance to her tent. 

FORTUNES TOLD

DESTINIES UNVEILED

5 S ea.

 

It’s not quite as flashy as the other displays, but it doesn’t need to be — people find their way well enough. Once she’s satisfied with the appearance of her post, she heads inside to light the katagon, shuffle her cards, and relax on a small pile of cushions until someone shows up to hand her some money.

In time, there’s the sound of footsteps approaching, then a sweep of the entry-flap…

The first patron of the evening is a tall silhouette of a man. This is to say, he’s not very visible underneath his many layers of travel gear. Between his cloak, his hood, his doublet, and some old, tattered banner, it’s really hard to make out their actual features. Marking him, however, are many trinkets hanging from his neck and shoulders: fangs, feathers, claw tips, and all manner of things dangling from him as he walks. When he approaches and lifts his hood, revealing a shasii half-veiled in the traditional style. There’s little else remarkable about his features; straight, firm, and with a token scar or two about the chin.

“Hello,” he greets her, looking about as in bewilderment. The man has the appearance of someone who just wandered in from being lost in the forest. Like most patrons, it seems he doesn’t know what to do or say upon entering; he stands confused within the atmosphere Ane has arranged.

 “Greetings,” the Teller of Fortunes says with a smile. She gestures to the cushions in front of her table with a lissome hand. “It’s five scutes for three cards, and five more for every three thereafter. How may I help you?”

She returns to shuffling the cards as she eyes the man up and down. Shasii, so he may have some social mobility concerns. He appears to present as male, so that makes it doubly likely — his trophies show he has a rather unconventional idea of the trappings of wealth, but it’s something to keep in mind regardless. He has a few scars, too; judging by his apparel, they probably come from animals, but he may have an enemy. He doesn’t look too young, and few people get into his apparent line of work if they have other means, so his parents are likely deceased. No trust fund. She nods subtly to herself. Money, enemies, dead parents. Her smile widens a fraction, touched with growing confidence.

The man follows her instruction, albeit with the typical delayed reaction. When people step into Ane’s world from the very, very different places outside, it usually takes time for their sense to catch up to them. This man, well-traveled as he seems, is certainly no exception. 

He kneels, then folds his legs underneath himself as he sits. The result is a dark heap of a man, mostly cloak, veil and trophies. He reaches a leather-gloved hand into his cloak and draws out an “approximately five” amount of scutes. The figure seems almost surprised that this place accepts his currency, and as a result, he hardly counts — though fortunately for Ane, it comes out to six. 

It soon strikes him that he’s supposed to ask a question. He purses his lips, then forces the words out in a low, grizzled tone. 

“I am looking for something… A creature. It’s a thing of myth in this land,” he explains, looking left and right as if he might see it slipping under the tent-walls. 

“Mm?” The Teller of Fortunes murmurs inquisitively, with a subtle raise of her brow beneath her veil. “And what information about this creature do you seek?”

 “How to find it, and how to kill it,” he replies bluntly. It seems he has little notion of how this process works; it’s sometimes a common thing for people to walk in with such misplaced expectations. 

She nods subtly. 

Void, it’s one of these. Welp.

“I can’t give you an exact map, mind — it would not be useful if I did, for creatures are prone to moving, no?” She asks, with an amused purse of her lips. “But let’s see what I can find for you…”

She leans over the table, as the trail of smoke emitting from the katagon brazier gives a rather theatrical little billow. The first card she turns over is…

“Ah, The Shard reversed,” she says, with a soft tsk and a shake of her head. “This signifies frustration, which I’m sure must be unsurprising to you.” Her hum raises coyly to meet his scarred, veiled face, before she continues in a conspiratorial tone. “But more than that, it signifies delay. The first steps on your journey to tracking down this beast are to release your frustration and relax your attempts to look for it. Counterintuitive, perhaps,” she cants her head, “But important things are often found just as we stop looking for them. Besides, after this…”

She turns over another card.

“We have the Cradle reversed,” she swears silently to herself. It’s hard to make reversed cards sound good, and bad omens don’t get much money. “It is a symbol of nurturing, but a cradle is also a place where one is looked down upon by one’s betters — when you find this creature, do not underestimate it. You may be tempted to treat it as any other conquest, but such would surely be your downfall. Now, to end your quest…”

She flips the final card. 

“Ah! The Gurran upright.” Finally, an upright card. “This indicates a stoic nature. Whatever the result of your quest, you may find yourself with greater reserves of mental fortitude for having done it.” 

The man is mostly silent during the reading, though occasionally his lips part in-between cards as if to ask a hurried question. He’s a disciplined patron, however, and holds his queries for the end. In any case, Ane certainly grabs his attention; something about her statements keeps him on the hook, as if he’s accepting them as immediate truth. This is the benefit to people who expect concrete results from the cards; sometimes, they become convinced that they’re receiving such results. 

His jaw is set firmly, with a dogged sort of determination. 

“So I will see more trouble in this… and be stronger.” He blurts out, “But will I find the beast?” He’s raptly attentive, even leaning slightly forward. “Oh,” and as an afterthought, drops four more silver scutes into the money bowl. 

The purse of her lips tightens a little as she tilts her head as if silently chastising him for his impatience. 

He slumps a little, chastened. 

“The beast is important to you, but the important things in life are only won with patience. Now…”

She turns another card, silently praying to any deity that’s listening to let it be something she can spin as a good omen.

“The Shroud upright,” the Teller of Fortunes says, with a soft sigh of relief. “This card, specifically, indicates putting old matters to rest — either you will find this beast, or you will abandon it for better quarry. Either way,” she says, as her soft, berry-colored lips ease into a smile once again, “You will reach the end of this goal. As for how long it’ll take…”

The tension in the man’s posture eases. His look of determination melts slightly, as he finds himself in a state of ambivalent calm. There’s still a shine of hope to the curve of his lips…

She reaches over to another stack of cards near the brazier and flips the topmost one. 

“The Two of Hearths,” Void damn it, “It won’t be soon — a year, at least, likely two.” 

THUNK.

The man promptly drops his head face-first against the table, pillowing it under his arms. It’s a look somewhere between despair, acceptance, and just plain old melodrama. He looks like he just lost a raffle, or sold his most prized vulre for a bargain-bin price. There will be no crops this flowering, no presents for him this Turnabout. 

In a surprise turn, he raises a fist slightly and shakes it, “Damn, that Void-ridden Great Mymbis! The beast evades me even in the cosmos,” he bemoans, scarcely realizing how any of this is inappropriate. All the while, he’s still covered in cloak, banner, and veil, making it all the stranger a display. 

The Teller of Fortunes hums at him flatly for a moment. She’s seen a lot of emotional displays, but none for a… What was it he said? 

“Tell me — what sign were you born under?” 

“Vurumaji, the stormwater,” he answers glumly, raising his head just slightly enough to do so without being muffled by his arms. 

Figures.

“Ah,” she says, with a sympathetic murmur. Her hum lands on him almost like a caress — like a gentle, reassuring pat on the hair. “In that case, you should keep a piece of iridescent rock crystal on you. For best results, tie it in a square of blue cloth, and keep it around your neck. This will improve your luck.”

She has no idea how he’s going to figure out what “iridescent” or “blue” are, but neither of those things are her problem.

He lowers his head slightly, now fixated on the recommendation. 

“… How… How do I find these?” He asks. “I have no eyes,” he answers, humor tempered by his deep, utter openness to superstition.

“Weeeell…” She trails off. Does Paakoponde’s market have a gem seller? Or a tailor? “You should check the market if you’re unable to dig your own,” she offers, “Just ask until you find someone who sells precious stones, or fabric.”

I need to start selling them myself. 

It’d be so easy, too. She can picture it already: A neat little display beside her table, full of little jars of herbs, stones, and bones…

The man nods, and even makes a tentative pat at his pouch — just checking to make sure he still has money for it. He’s not the sort to keep careful track. With this done, he begins to rise from the cushions, bracing himself upon his knees. “Very well… I shall do this. Thank you, Fortune Teller,” he says in an exasperated tone. “Maybe I do need to think about this…”

“Any time!” She says brightly, “Come again! Tell your friends!”

He’ll probably have to explain it anyway, at least when he returns to the hunter’s lodge and asks for a new assignment. It’s just as well; The Great Mymbis can’t be caught by everyone, otherwise it wouldn’t be legendary. 

With a whoosh of shifting fabric, the man is out of the tent and off towards whatever he next sets his sights upon.

Teller of Fortunes 9: The True Picture

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

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.”