Teller of Fortunes 25: Wealth in Smoke

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After her last bout of fortune-telling — and a misunderstanding — the Teller of Fortunes is now left buried underneath a pile of gifted puffroot.

Elsewhere across the camp, Brair the fire-breather is in a similar situation to Ane’s sudden wealth of puffroot; the only difference is that he’s getting loaded down with appohs instead. This is all because, after predicting a Chaos Storm, she told the locals they would enjoy puffroot and appohs respectively. Apparently neither boon is enough to deplete the village’s crop by any measure, but it’s far more than any single person is meant to have in their wagon.

This is a whole damn village, after all, and a fairly sizable one at that. None of them give a damn about the shows, though. They’re all too busy starting the preparations — moving their crops, planning for barricades, considering where to lodge when the month ends — that sort of thing. There is a Chaos Storm coming in a month, after all.

Ane is beginning to have second thoughts about telling the woman to be generous to avoid the wrath of Vurumaji. It’s not that she isn’t grateful, as she certainly hopes Brair is if he’s getting free appohs, but there’s just so much of it. She could smoke up the entire caravan for weeks. It is a pretty valuable haul, but turning it into coin also means storing it, moving it, finding a market for it, and haggling.

At this rate, she’ll be stuffing her mattress with puffroot just to have somewhere to put it.

As more material pours in, it even overturns the coin bowl at some point. The silver clatters out across Ane’s table, rolling and flipping out onto the brocade. One by one, they tumble out, and when they land…

Nine out of the ten in sight are heads-up. While it’s certainly improbable, perhaps it is a sort of omen… After all, coins and cups are symbols of the gods Sarehn and the Wanderer. This result might mean that they look favorably upon this reading. Regardless, the sight instills a certain, visceral warmth in Ane’s chest, like the sort one may feel upon moving an injured, bleeting vulre kid in from the rain.

In time, the situation calms, and Ane is now sitting with her great mound of puffroot. The whole lot of it would have to be measured in the dozens of pounds. The take in silver is pretty normal for a small town — just three gold, mostly in copper — but this is a hilarious sum when one considers that Ane did only one reading for the entire day.

Hopefully Jarrik the caravan master likes smoking, or has managed to hire a passel of mercenaries who do — he’s probably going to be disappointed, otherwise. Ane decides to stop the Half-Light Show a little early, the better to begin shifting all of the puffroot to her wagon. It requires many trips and the patient stuffing of several empty pillowcases, but, eventually, the interior of her wagon looks like a rather oddly-decorated puffer parlor.

Even so, when she goes to take down her tent, she still finds some of the stuff tucked away in the folds and corners of the canvas — and will probably continue to do so for months. 

At least it smells good.

Later, she sits on her bed, nestled beside her window as a cool breeze flutters her curtains. She’s wrapped in her robe, with a book propped on one knee and a cattail paper cigarillo pinched between her thumb and forefinger. Silvery smoke, tinged with an earthy fruitiness and deep, molasses-sweetness, rises and drifts lazily from the ember glowing at the end of it. Though she’s reading, her efforts at doing so are minimal at best — it’s another dogeared bit of romantic fiction, a lyric poem following the adventures of a buxom milkmaid and the lord of the manor (or was it a well-endowed farmhand and a duke? It doesn’t really matter). She could probably still her hum completely and have a better adventure play out in her half-drowsy imagination right now. 

Romantic stories have never been among her interests, but books are expensive. Most of hers had originally been collected by the caravan’s old bearded lady — a costly balm for the woman’s own frustrated passions. There were Archestran epic poems about star-crossed lovers, Aed’harthi bodice-rippers about pirates, Pellan tales of sloe-eyed maids seduced by fae, S’vargan stories about dashing bandits and courtly intrigue… When Ane inherited a crate of them upon her friend’s passing, how could she turn them down? The stories themselves are often uninspired, but, on a long enough road, even the antics of dewy-eyed lovers without an ounce of genre savviness make for good company. There are many books printed in ways Ane will never be able to read (flat ink is no friend to a shasii’s sight), but she wouldn’t give them up for all of the gold in Archestra.

Ane smothers a yawn with the back of her free hand and shakes her head as if to clear it. She reaches around to stub the puffroot out on the side of her stove, leaving the rest of the cigarillo atop it to wait. Void, she can’t even finish a pinch of puffroot in a sitting — she has no idea how she’s going to live with this much of it.

She pulls her blanket up around her, tucking herself in to enjoy the tail end of the day, lulled to sleep by a gentle high and the soft, staccato bap-bapping of the shardflies against her curtains. 

Teller of Fortunes 24: Half-Light Show

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Once more, Ane awakens to the swirling lights of the shardflies that call Paakoponde home. This time, she finds that it’s on the way out of town; the wagon underneath her bed is moving, and must have been hitched-up during her sleep. Fortunately, the fortune telling tent was already packed away, so no input was really needed on Ane’s part. This isn’t the first time she’s fallen asleep during the caravan’s start at transit, and certainly won’t be the last.

The trip likely won’t be long; she heard word yesterday that they’ll be stopping in the farmlands on the way out of the region. It might just be another hour or two before they make that brief stop. For now, it’s a decent time to start on her morning toilette before things get going.

As Ane looks to the vanity, something is amiss. It only takes a moment for her to realize that it’s the small painting she made — the rather cryptic item from her sightwort-fueled ritual. The mere sight of the pciture calls forth memories of her hallucinogenic trance, in which she painted with blood and pigment alike, driven by some strange, prophetic whim. Most of the picture remains as it was before. There’s the infinity-and-semicircle symbol, the marks of blood, the hole in the page, and the nine empty spaces amongst the pastel marks above… There’s only one difference. Previously, a strip of those gaps was filled by a single smear of blood.

Now, another blood-mark has appeared, painted dark and thick by hands unknown.

It filled in a nearby white space with a quick, jagged mark. And not only does Ane not remember making this mark… But she hasn’t even bled since the ritual. Thinking back, there’s no way to account for this change.

She frowns at the drawing spread across the tabletop. At first, she rubs at the stain with a fingertip, but the mark is too dry to make much of a difference. It has to be blood — even without being able to see the color, she can tell by the consistency of the smear and its sharp, metallic odor. 

Part of her wonders if Jiselmo the actor trying to poke fun at her, since she uncursed Korin, his unfortunate companion, and robbed him of his sport. However, it wouldn’t be much like him to sneak into her wagon to deface a picture; Jiselmo isn’t that sneaky nor mean-spirited.

Besides, if it was him, he would’ve drawn a smiley face.

Ane hurriedly finishes combing and braiding her hair before she takes a seat on the thick, shaggy vulre hide rug in front of her stove. While she puzzles over the mysterious appearance of the mark, her hands go through the motions of making some succory root coffee. It’s a process she’s gone through so many times, she’s able to repeat it almost purely from muscle memory. A few minutes later, the copper kettle is empty, the rich, dark roots are steeping in her cup, and she is no closer to an answer.

Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t decide to show up after that either. And it’s such a small detail to have had to notice… Could it have happened a day ago? Maybe two? The only certainty is that it was sometime after the caravan arrived in Paakoponde. And if it’s happened once, it could happen again… Albeit a maximum of five more times, though that’s likely to be of little comfort.

Divination really is an unsettling sort of thing.

Some minutes later, the caravan stops in the outlands of Paakoponde. The surroundings are even more forested this time, with thicker tree-walls and smaller clearings. The straw-mud huts are just as numerous, but now they seem like an afterthought in the overgrown environment. There’s a thick, cool sort of mist settling over the boggier areas, lending an air of uncertainty to the area. It’s nothing in comparison to the forests of the shadowlands, but it feels a fair bit less friendly than the center of the capital… even if the people are still more or less the same.  

Ane ventures out to set up her tent. It’s more of a challenge now — the ground is swampier, which makes finding stable ground tricky. She eventually does, though, for a given value of stable. So long as nobody goes in the rear left corner of her tent, everything should be fine. 

As she places her cushions and sets up her table, the thought of someone sneaking into her wagon continues to gnaw at her. She even almost wonders what the point of working today is. It’s not like she’s likely to pull in much money from a handful of huts on the fringes of the city. Really, she’d rather be secreted away in her wagon, waiting to see if any more picture-defacing interlopers show up.

In fact, thinking back on it, the latch on her door was completely undisturbed. Someone might have gone in through the windows. There’d be no way to really tell if they did. Then again, someone would have probably seen it happen, or they might have disturbed some of her items upon entry. As far as Ane can tell, everything was exactly where she had left it. It just makes the dilemma that much more troubling. 

Nonetheless, Jarrik must have his cut of her coin, so the Teller of Fortunes must sit and pull cards for as long as the clientele holds up.

The first half of the day goes by at a very slow pace. It seems the farmers out here are not as drawn to the caravan’s many sights and wonders. Most of the cultivators are just wondering about their day-to-day problems, like root crops and fishing yields. 

It’s around then that Jarrik presses his clown into service as a crier, and sends it wandering around the camp. Its shouts are partially muffled by the tent walls, but it’s familiar and clear all the same: “Time to ante-up! Tops off, muscles polished, it’s time for the Half-Light Show!”

Groan.

Of course, it’s to be expected — what better to wring the last couple silver scutes out of the local populace than a bawdy show? Ane, half-dressed already, strips off her chemise and sits back at her vanity. She slouches for a moment, before sitting upright and pulling her shoulders back. Her bare breasts — firm handfuls topped with apricot-colored nipples — jut from either side of the feathers tattooed on her breastbone. Ane smooths a few drops of fragrant oil over her skin, to give it a soft sheen. A generous dusting of mica comes next, followed by a few dabs of her favorite amber perfume. In the soft light, she almost shines like a pearl from her slim neck, across her chest, down her lissome arms, all the way to the thin silver and wooden bangles on her wrists. 

Ane ties the lodolite necklace around her neck, sitting it high, like a choker, to nestle the gem in the hollow of her throat. Beneath that, she places a silver-dipped needleshark fang on a beaded cord hanging nearly to her waist. She turns her head this way and that, humming down to gauge her appearance. 

The effect is subtle, but striking — a combination of artistic color and texture, shimmering pearl and rough gemstone, feminine softness and needleshark tooth. Ane secures her veil, and goes to her tent to recline on her embroidered cushions behind the veil of incense smoke.

It’s time for the Teller of Fortunes’s Half-Light Show.

Even now, the flow of patrons is slower than usual for farming settlements. Apparently, even a bit of bared skin isn’t enough to have them flocking to the attractions.

Soon enough, however, the entryway to Ane’s tent fills with someone seeking answers. Looking up, she comes face to face with-

Another topless woman.

The fuhajen floats there, blinking as she examines her surroundings. She’s clad in a half-robe, covering only her lower body, with bangle-drapes doing the same for her hands. She seems a bit older than Ane, with her bare breasts presented under a sort of dark paint. In addition to her tattoos of swirling miasma, lingering mists, and other such things, there are animal designs of sap-paint and the occasional mica-fleck scattered across her bare cleavage. 

When she sees Ane, she beams, lighting up her colorful eyes.

“Hello! This is the tent that allows not shirts?” She asks, apparently working with a thinner grasp of Skilhouran-Common. It doesn’t seem to impede her speech much, however, and she carries a sort of firmness to her tone.

To be fair, many people in Paakoponde do dress like this. Ane typically doesn’t pay much attention to the styles of dress in the cities she passes through. This particular custom wasn’t as common in the first farming settlement, but maybe it’s particular to this side? Women went without shirts in the city, but they blended into the crowd all the while anyway.

Whatever the case, here floats one of them ready for the fortune telling. 

The Teller of Fortunes opens her mouth to deliver her usual greeting, but-

“Y-yes?” She says, suddenly made uncertain. It is a tent that allows toplessness, obviously, but it is not necessarily the tent that does so. There are several implications in the woman’s question and Ane’s reply… And, really, they’re all far more perplexing than seeing a topless fuhajen in Paakoponde, of all places.

The Teller of Fortunes clears her throat softly, to cover her slip back into character. Her berry-painted lips part softly in a smile, as she gestures to the cushions in front of her. It doesn’t sound like the woman’s asking for a reading, but she’s here and it’s better to make the best of the situation.

“Greetings. It’s five scutes for the first three cards, and five more for each three thereafter. What answers do you seek?” She asks, in her smooth, sultry, almost lyrical tones.

“Ah! Then I am in the right place,” she beams, and floats forward. When she arrives at the pillows, she floats down to a sitting position. Now that she’s sitting closer, it’s obvious that while her breasts are technically ornamented — paint, tattoos, mica and such — it’s clearly not to attract wandering eyes. Really, the breasts just seem incidental in the overall picture. Even the glimmering mica is probably accidental, given the mud-and-sap combination being used.

“Well,” she says in a hush, carefully drawing out five silver scutes. “The shaman of our village is getting old, and is too terribly sick to read the skies… So I must ask for all of us. When is the next Storm of Chaos come?” The woman asks, in a confiding tone. 

Of course, Ane is familiar with such storms; she’s experienced many of them while out travelling. They rain the hallucinogenic liquid known only as “Stormwater,” but that’s not the most of their effects. The problematic thing is that anyone — and anything — caught in them could be subjected to strange, seemingly random effects. People describe them as a storm of lights in the sky, with a large variety of wild colors, but… Due to the other two properties, people have also described rays of darkness and vulre raining from the sky. It’s best to take these things with a grain of salt.

They’re fairly common in this part of the world, though they’re not predictable like other weather patterns. In any case, now there is a topless woman in Ane’s tent asking about when the Scourge of Vurumaji is going to wreak havoc.

The next Storm of Chaos? 

The Teller of Fortunes’s lips draw into a pensive pout. It’s not a question she was anticipating, but she’ll give it a shot. She reaches for the stack of suited cards near her left elbow, and begins to shuffle them while she thinks. The mist is rising heavily from the bogs, but that can only foretell a regular rain storm, at best. Vurumaji would never be so predictable — it wouldn’t be a Chaos Storm if it was. After a few moments, she overturns the topmost card.

“The Ace of Cups,” Fitting, she thinks, “If the events of the world continue on the path they are on, it will be one month’s time.”

The woman observes, awed by Ane’s certainty. Looking down at the card, she reaches forward and gently taps near it. 

“This… Does it mean there will be a lot of stormwater?” She wonders, her eyes glimmering as she looks back up at the fortune teller. This question seems to be of great importance to her, at least by the way the firmness in her expression wavers. 

“Not… necessarily. Many things can influence the abundance of the Scourge of Vurumaji, it is a difficult thing to anticipate like this when it can change so easily,” the Teller of Fortunes says. At least, she assumes so. She doesn’t often get serious inquiries about Stormwater, unless they are from people looking to drink it. “In other contexts, this card can indicate an overwhelming emotion or sudden creative inspiration. This may point to a large quantity of Stormwater, given it’s ability to stimulate the imagination.”

Really, that last part’s a bit of an understatement — unless you consider vivid hallucinations “stimulating.” Most people don’t, but Ane has always had a rather charitable view of them.

The woman nods, tapping her chin. While some of Ane’s words may have been lost in translation, their general message and intent seem to have gotten across. After a moment or two of deliberation, she continues.

“I know you are a foreign, so this may be tricky question… What does your fortune say of how to prepare?”

Despite calling Ane ‘foreign,’ the woman seems rather comfortable here. It may be that Ane’s bare-chested state imitates local culture. In fact, it may even be a way of distinguishing this village — or tribe — from others. It might also be Ane’s performance thus far. Whatever the case, the fuhajen’s posture is relaxed, and she seems to smile occasionally.

How to prepare for Stormwater? A good book, a strong door, and a lot of buckets, mostly, Ane thinks to herself. 

Nonetheless, she turns over a card from the stack near her right elbow.

“Ah, The Pirate-King reversed,” she says, laying the card down between them. She lightly runs a finger over the klorrian pirate’s resin-painted face. “This card, in its negative aspect, indicates selfishness. Prepare to look out for yourself and your loved ones, but do not close yourselves off to helping others who may be vulnerable to the Storms of Chaos.”

The woman cants her head to the side slightly, bundled hair spilling over her shoulder.

“So it means we avoid selfishness?” She asks, folding her arms over her lap. She seems a tad perplexed.

“So it says,” the Teller of Fortunes gestures to the cards with a graceful wave of her hand, “Prepare by preparing to take care of the least among you. Don’t leave anyone out in the storm.”

Her eyes widen, and she nods hurriedly. 

“That is wise… what Vurumaji brings is unknown. Does that mean he is feeling vicious in this passing?” The fuhajen asks, touching her fingertips to her lips. 

The Teller of Fortunes divides her left-hand deck into two piles, and overturns the topmost card on both.

“The Six of Coins, and… The Nine of Arrows. It does not appear that Vurumaji is spiteful this time, no,” she attempts to assure the woman.

The woman blinks. “Is that good?”

You never really do know with chaos storms. Perhaps the worst prediction could be that Vurumaji is feeling silly. Whatever the case, the Fuhajen doesn’t know what to make of coins and arrows, and looks to Ane for this last bit of guidance. 

The Teller of Fortunes grimaces. She’d been hoping to avoid this part.

“Well… No. Probably not. The Nine of Arrows is a sign of nightmares and panic, neither of which are good omens for a chaos storm.” Apt ones, surely, but certainly not good.

The woman’s eyes widen.

She looks down, first considering the card — a man hunched over in bed, possibly weeping, in front of an arrow-covered wall. When she looks back up, her countenance is changed. Perhaps this news has hardened her. But then when she glances at the other card, and sees a man giving out coins in charity, it reminds her of the prior reading — that it will be important to support one another in this time of need. 

“You bring important news… We must prepare,” she says firmly, straightening her posture. “Very well. I will go to tell the others. Though still…” She bites her lip, glancing at Ane’s coin bowl. “We do not have much money, as a people. Is there something we can do for you? We have many sorts of roots and tubers, and some raise vulre… Others are fishers.”

Ane thinks for a moment. She’s not really supposed to accept readings without payment, but she also isn’t quite sure how to politely negotiate with the woman. Their language barrier is slight and certainly not unnavigable, but etiquette is a very subjective and tricky thing. 

“If you have some appoh fruits to spare,” she says, “The fire-breather would appreciate them. Tell him they are from the Teller of Fortunes.”

She furrows her brow, then nods. 

“Anything for you?” And of course, she passes two more silver into the bowl. It’s not enough for another reading, but she seems to be tipping in any case.

The Teller of Fortunes’s lips purse as she thinks. It’s too bad this conversation wasn’t taking place the day before — she might’ve been able to parlay it into some cattail liquor or blue boletes and saved herself a little time.

“A bit of puffroot might be nice…” It gives a nice, pleasant high, at least.

Suddenly, the woman grins, reaching all three of her eyes in its mirth.

This we can do…” The woman departs in a hurry. She practically flies out of the tent, moving on both ground and air.  She leaves behind a quite literal whoosh of air, causing the opening to flap slightly.

It takes less than an hour for the puffroot to begin rolling in.

Villager after villager, heap after heap, they move in with a remarkable haste. It turns out, this village is just absolutely wretched with puffroot. Before long, it’s pouring off of Ane’s table and onto the floor, and from there heaping around her ankles in little bundles. They started by throwing it in the coin bowl, but that overfilled in a matter of minutes. And moreover, no matter what, these villagers simply can’t be dissuaded. Most of them don’t even speak more than a few words to her — the only thing they say in Skilhouran Common is, “Thank you, foreign shaman,” before smiling and dumping another load.

She stops one man, a thin, reedy fuhajen with a neck like a knee and a broad, if uncertain, smile on his weathered face.

“Thank you for all of this, really, but are you sure you can part with so much?” She asks, with a gesture toward the pillowy mounds of shaved puffroot currently eclipsing the surface of her card table.

“Thank you, foreign shaman!” He replies, with a broadening of his smile and a bob of his head.

“No, really, it’s no trouble, I just don’t think I’ll be able to keep all of thi-” She tries, in extremely optimistic S’vargan.

“Th-thank you, foreign shaman,” he repeats, with a sidelong dart of his three eyes toward the door of her tent.

The Teller of Fortunes hums at him for a long, curious moment. 

She begins again in very uncertain, stilted Paakoese, while making a firm (yet what she hopes is polite) declining gesture. With luck, it’ll be the right dialect and she won’t accidentally instruct him to go do something impolite with a melon.

The chopon lands in the west. No more cheese, it is very blue.”

“… Thank you, foreign shaman?” His knobby throat bobs with an anxious gulp. The Teller of Fortunes can see him beginning to nervously twist the hem of his shirt in his square, clay-stained hands, and she relents with a gentle shake of her head.

“You’re welcome,” she replies, with a smile resigned to figuring out how the Void to turn puffroot into food, furniture, and clothing.

Teller of Fortunes 23: Appohs and Hearthfire Vinegar

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The trip back from Ane’s foraging is peaceful; unlike some other places, random violence and danger seem to be a rarity around Paakoponde. The locals are all relatively friendly, even waving at passing strangers. There’s only the faint reminders of danger — faded banners bearing the likenesses of grinning, crimson dragons, marks of the militant remnants of the Skilhouran Empire. On this side of town, the plate-armored soldiers are a rarity, with only the occasional gleam of their pauldrons to mark them out. According to what Ane has seen and overheard, most of them hole up in an ancient fort on some catapult-blasted hillside outside of the town’s limits. Long defeated, they hide behind walls and lick their wounds.

What’s important to Ane is that they’re far enough away from her own route, and the caravan has no interest in a bunch of stoic (or drunk) soldiers. 

When Ane returns to the campgrounds, a few people are gathered with meals they’ve brought in from the city, sharing it in a hot-pot in a circle. This reminds Ane that she still needs some liquor from Brair, the fire-breather, to treat her mushrooms and herbs. Ane catches sight of him wandering back into the camp alongside Nelea and one of the mercenaries. The three of them seem unimpressed, but safe, as if they didn’t turn up much in particular during their own travels.

“Brair!” She calls out, giving her basket a heft. It’s probably enough for him to guess what she’s about to ask.

The stocky callosian looks up from his group’s light conversation, lofting a fluffy brow. When he sees the basket of mushrooms, he dons a smile that’s halfway to a laugh. Without hesitation, he raises a thick arm and waves her forward as he begins to walk towards his wagon. That’s where he keeps all of his chemicals, including both the alcohol and all of his “pyromajiks.” It’s a wonder he hasn’t burnt to a crisp after knocking over a candle or something. 

Ane smiles as she walks over, though the expression is tinged with chagrin. She always feels like a kid asking for a sip from someone’s tankard when she does this, but so it goes.

“I’ve got a lot this time,” she admits, lightly brushing the topmost of the bright blue caps with the tips of her fingers. “How was your walk?”

“Hah! So deep into the bottle you go,” he says jovially. “If I didn’t know how potent those ‘shrooms are, I’d tease you for having private parties.” He catches his breath, smiling as he runs a hand over his reddish shock of hair. “Well, it wasn’t too ‘ventful. Vasht went for some ruins, and didn’t find anything sharp. Nelea and I went lookin’ for animals, but didn’t find anythin bigger ‘n a zool. Me, well… I got lost,” he says with a warm sigh.

“Getting lost could be fun. I found some slipshells yesterday, out behind the temple,” she says absently, as she plucks a stray leaf from her basket. “Maybe you’ll have more luck tomorrow, if Jarrik leaves us enough time to ourselves before we roll out.”

Brair ambles around the side of his wagon, then begins to pat his weighty hands across the wooden surface of the wagon’s side. It’s the side currently facing away from the camp’s edge, and he seems to orient it this way every time to protect its contents. 

“Hrm… Well. I don’t know how a bunch of slipshells are fun, but I’ll take your word for it,” he says with a shrug. “One sec. I never can find this blasted thing…” 

He begins pounding his fist across the side of his wagon, each thud in search of a secret catch somewhere in the woodwork. 

She shrugs gently, as she steps aside to give the callosian a wide berth in which to thump the side of his wagon.

“They’re cute. I like the way they pop out of the mud.” 

“Hrm…” THUD!  “Point..” THUD. “Taken! AHA!” He grins, as suddenly a large, rectangular section of the wagon’s outer wall pops loose. Underneath is a metal hatch with a padlock on the handle. Brair pulls out a brass key and twists it in the lock. “If those slipshells’re from the temple, they must be… philosof’cal or somethin’. Did they get you into an argument?” He asks mirthfully, stepping back to survey his side-stash.

There, arrayed in front of the two of you, is a broad selection of small casks, bottles and barrels. Most of them are marked with black paint, though some bear their original labels. His collection represents everything from Pellan brandy to the ‘dragon water’ of the Skilhouran region. There’s not much in the way of ale and beer, since they’re not as easy to keep; it seems he mostly focuses on the strong, flammable stuff. There’s even cattail liquor and some local “root juice,” though that one’s not too popular. In the corner he keeps a very old vintage of taistberry wine. Brair’s been saving it for a “special occasion” for at least nine years now.

“So… Which of these did you need again?” He asks, scratching the back of his head. 

“Nothing fancy — Just plain grain or cattail alcohol, if you’ve got it. Whatever’s strong, clear, and doesn’t taste like anything in particular.” 

“Ah, yes — the really flammable stuff!” He now remembers, nodding. He reaches out a meaty hand and grabs hold of some cattail booze, kept in a tall, thick bottle. Brair passes it along to her readily. “That should do it! I only ever use it to light, so it won’t be missed; got plenty else that can do the same.”

“Great!” She says, taking the bottle from him eagerly. “It’ll be put to good use — this’s enough to last me for awhile, thank you.”

“Muchly welcome!” He booms. Brair then reaches up and takes down a bottle for himself, some of the cattail liquor. The callosian gives it a once-over, inspecting the brownish liquid. “By the by, you know anythin’ that’d spice up the local swill? I know some people are into it, but that earthy taste needs some kinda backin’ as I figure it,” he appraises, swishing it around in front of one eye. 

Being considerably smaller than Brair, she has to stand on tiptoe and lean forward to try to get a scent of the brownish liquor. 

“Hmm… Could pinch a couple of appohs or a few silverpeaches and warm them in it for a little bit. I’ve got some healer’s honey back at the wagon, that’ll help sweeten it and add a little spice… Or, if you’re feeling really daring, you could go half-and-half with some hearthfire vinegar,” she says, with a playful wag of her brows. Some people take gulps of hearthfire vinegar as a tonic, but not often. If anyone was going to drink it recreationally, though, it would probably be Brair.

“Well, it does have my favorite word in it,” Brair says with a grin. “Appohs and hearthfire vinegar! I’ll have to think up a glib name for the drink, maybe pitch it at the next tavern I hit…” He rubs his palms together, really getting on board with this idea. 

Ane settles back on her heels, nose wrinkled slightly at the alcoholic burn of the cattail booze. 

“Don’t know that you’ll find many takers, Brair. Not many have the ability to guzzle hot things like you do.”

Or the desire, for that matter.

He purses his lips, considering this. The cogs are turning in that singed head of his.

“Maybe I’m thinkin’ about this all wrong, then… I could bill it as a challenge, maybe charge for the attempt! The man who finishes the bottle gets three times the price o tryin’, but I’ll knock out dozens before the day’s done.” There’s a sinister gleam to his eyes. “That could work… Either way, I’m into this vinegar stuff! You got that and some appohs? If not, off to the market with me.”

“I think I’ve got a couple of appohs left from the last town, but they’re a little worse for wear… Ask Vaidna about the hearthfire vinegar, I bought it from her right before she joined up. She should have some more, if she brought her stock,” Ane says, with a little bounce of the basket over her arm.

“Ah, the blanket-woman? Sure… I think she was last seen sitting on a roof somewhere,” he figures, looking out across the wagon-tops. He then shrugs, looking back at Ane. “Anyway, sounds like a plan! Enjoy your mushroom party,” he bids her, and begins re-sealing his “secret” stash.

“Good luck with the appoh brew,” she says in return, as she turns to head back to her wagon. She’s got a few hours of cleaning jars, filling them with bits of mushroom, and pouring liquor over them, so it’s best she get started.

About an hour later sees her with a neat row of glass vessels and stoneware crocks, set up on the running board of her wagon to dry. Ane sits on the steps leading to the wagon’s door, pulling the stems from the blue boletes and cutting each plump, spongy cap into quarters. Their insides bruise a light bluish-purple, and it’s all she can do to keep them from staining her fingertips as she tosses them into a waiting basket.

Once she’s through, she packs each vessel with chunks of mushroom cap. Brair’s liquor pours over the top to cover them, readying them for the long, patient process of turning into the cobalt-blue tincture that facilitates her strange journeys.

By the end of the day, her cabinets are full to nearly bursting with containers of tincture-to-be. She has to secure them with ropes tied to eyes screwed into the frames of her cabinets, to keep them from jostling and spilling (or worse — breaking) during the long, bumpy wagon rides ahead.

Satisfied with her day’s work and a successful foraging trip, Ane settles into bed to idly draw pictures of dream-creatures with a stub of charcoal. She can still remember the feeling of stretching the strange spider-bird’s wings as it flitted through the shadowlands… A fascinating, but faint dream here in the peace of Paakoponde. She hopes this peace will last for some time longer. 

Teller of Fortunes 22: Another Fine Day

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Another fortune-telling complete. Once the young woman leaves, Ane adjusts her veil and slips back into character for the remainder of her clientele. The narrative she weaves is a constant balancing act. Hopefully, she won’t have to dispense more herb-lore to them; it’s enough just to have to spin ways to relate cards showing oysters or cute little clap-voles to Paakoese notions of enlightenment and spiritual prosperity. On the bright side, they’ve been satisfied so far… Well. Most of them, anyway. 

She redoubles her efforts, sweating under her veil in the midday heat. Much like the prior day, the number of customers is rather large. This time, though, the Teller of Fortunes gets into a nice frame of mind that lends well to local needs. The tips are more plentiful this time, and Ane takes home an astounding haul of gold mitres. By now, she could buy enough bleating vulre to fill her entire tent.

It’s just as well, too; this will probably be the largest take for quite some time. She’s heard word going around the caravan that this will be the last day within central Paakoponde. The troupe could probably stay for longer, but by now, everyone’s used to the place; if they get too comfortable, the group’s Grifter-in-Chief, Caravan Master Jarrik would probably get them into too much trouble. That’s what happened in Pellas, anyway. Fortunately, he should be occupied with refilling the caravan’s ranks of guardsmen…

Too many died on the last trail.

As the working day draws to a close, people are beginning to clump up into different groups based, looking for adventure. As Ane takes down her tent, she can easily ovehear some of them. One group, including Korin the actor and the dancing triplets, are interested in checking out tourist sights, like the grand Vault of Sojythus and its gardens. Others, like Nelea the animal tamer and Brair the fire-breather, are more interested in checking out the wildlife and the ancient ruins scattered throughout the woods. They are rather common out in the bogs… 

Naturally, there are others that seem to be staying behind. Ane’s mind is drawn to considering the man with the twisted arms who appeared mysteriously days ago, tormented and displayed by the caravan master for all to see. He remains unseen, likely off in whichever wagon he’s staying within. A couple of the less-sociable caravanners seem to be clustered around that wagon. The klorrian magician, always a reclusive one, is wistfully contemplating under one of the large trees. He appears to be talking to his pocket at great length, with a pair of fuzzy smeerp ears sticking out. Then there’s the outcast clown and, well, he’s just kind of mucking around with junk in the clearing. He’ll probably run off to bother the locals after awhile. 

Ane isn’t sure what she’d like to do — foraging might be nice, but it can get lonely at times. She’s curious about the man with the twisted arms, but isn’t remotely sure if he’d welcome visitors. She could take the time to relax and see where her herbs take her, maybe investigate the little stone slipshel some more, but she’ll have time enough for that while they’re on the road.

A half hour later, Ane’s kitted out with some sturdy clothing, her basket, and a small sickle-bladed knife. The caravan won’t need more medicine anytime soon, luck permitting, but it’s still worth seeing what fresh herbs she can find while she’s here. They’re always better and more potent when they’re taken fresh from their native habitats.

Fortunately, foraging in and around Paakoponde is rather easy. It’s a nearly trivial matter for Ane to collect some of her favorite hallucinogens, particularly more of the blue bolete. A simple stroll along the glittering riverside yields plenty, enough to really weigh down her basket if she were to spend the time on it. Ane’s familiarity with the mushroom makes it very easy to identify, even amongst its many peers.

As Ane walks, there’s movement in her peripheral vision. It appeared as if there were some sort of shimmering figure swimming amongst the river’s waves. Out here, who knows what it could have been?

There’s also another notion in the back of her head: There are a few breeds of insect that produce hallucinogenic honey. And in hindsight… Some of those “shardflies” looked rather similar. All told, since these creatures included everything from beetles to flutter-by’s, it wouldn’t be unheard-of for them to also manifest as bees. Honey would keep better than herbs, and wouldn’t be nearly as finicky about needing to be dried and kept cool. On the other hand, buying hallucinogenic honey sounds complicated and expensive, and, if she were to try to gather it herself, there’s no telling what the stings would be like.

For now, she contents herself with the basket of blue bolete. Between this and the couple of specimens she picked up the previous day, she should have enough to travel every day for the next few months if she was able. She just needs to clean out a few jars and procure some liquor from Brair, the fire-breather, to steep the mushrooms in.

Another fine day in Paakoponde.

Teller of Fortunes 21: Stories Everywhere

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The caravan arrives at its next station within the city, moving ever closer to the opposite end. 

The Teller of Fortunes decides to skip breakfast in favor of setting her tent up quickly and having some time to take a bath and read a little before she’s expected to work. When she finally emerges from her wagon, clad in her veil, gauzy skirts, and the lodolite and copper pendant tied around her slender neck with a thin ribbon, she is every bit as relaxed as she was when she got home the day before — either the puffroot was uncommonly good and long-lasting, or something about spending time dreaming with the little slipshell effigy left her exceedingly well-rested.

Ane settles herself on her short stack of embroidered cushions and begins to shuffle her cards. With luck, this will be another good day for business. It’s not likely, given how well the previous day went, but maybe…

The spectacle of the caravan is still fresh, and there’s a whole new flock of clientele now that the wagons have rolled to a new spot in the city. People line up outside, eager to see what future awaits them. This keeps Ane rather busy, sweating under her incense to catch up with the tempo of fortune telling, at least until the middle part of the day. Around then, the line dwindles down and there’s an occasional gap between customers, providing little breaths of fresh air. 

Around then, a strange glow gathers around the tent-flap. It seems to be a gathering of shard-flies. Their little glows circulate and shift behind the canvas, slowly becoming denser. Around then, an arm sweeps back the tent’s entrance flap. There, standing in the opening, is a shasii wearing a rather striking headress. It appears to be made from a skygg’s skull with the tattered fur trailing down behind it into a mantle. Beneath this is a young shasii woman, with the eyeless swirl-span of her upper face half-covered in long, braided mid-shade hair. She has a rather mystified expression, seeming rather misplaced in time and space with her wrapped chest and limbs. A few shardflies cling to her back, trying to stow their way with her into the tent.

“The spirits feel strong here,” she remarks, perhaps a bit obliviously. 

Not as strong as the spirit I’m probably going to need when this is over, the Teller of Fortunes thinks to herself. It’s challenging enough reading cards while trying to tactfully navigate the context of Paakoese spirituality, and people are often willing to argue when the “wrong” cards turn up. She does not know what this young woman’s particular metaphysical context is, but she can sense a sudden, sharp uptick in difficulty. 

“Greetings,” Ane says, with her practiced warmth, automatic smile, and a graceful gesture toward the cushions in front of her table, “It’s five silver for three cards, and five more for every three thereafter. What answers may I help you find?”

The woman wanders forward and kneels down onto the cushions. She furrows her brow, looking thoughtful — at least, as much as one in her garb can look thoughtful. 

“How may I find my guardian spirit?” The woman asks, after a moment or two of consideration with shardflies buzzing around her head. “You seem like someone who knows them well…” The customer’s swirls are wide, as if she’s either really impressed, really off her rocker, or both. 

The Teller of Fortunes’s hands pause in shuffling for a moment. She could just tell her the answer, but a reading is a reading. Ane begins to deal out the cards.

“To seek your guardian spirit… Ah, here we have The Sun Shard reversed. You’re asking me because you’ve been trying, to no avail. You’re feeling frustrated at your lack of success.”

The woman nods hurriedly, causing her skygg-headress to bob with the motion. She’s certainly an excitable sort.

Really? I didn’t actually need a card to know that.

Nonetheless, she continues. She flips over another card with a practiced air, setting it to flank the first.

“Here is The Rogue reversed. You may be feeling that you’ve fallen victim to deception… Perhaps some charlatans have attempted to guide you in the past?” 

The woman frowns gently, perhaps at some rueful memory. This individual probably has some choice words for whoever she’s thinking of… 

The Teller of Fortunes nods gently as she turns over the third card, setting it to form a rough triangle with the other two. 

Void, that isn’t good.

She takes a deep breath. To say that this requires sensitivity is a bit of an understatement. Beside her right elbow, the little katagon-bowl exhales a smoky sigh, as if commiserating. 

“And here is The Tyrant Dragon, reversed. This indicates avarice — you will find your guardian spirit only after you have overcome frustration, deception, and greed. These may be things to beware of when you’re seeking a mentor, but we sometimes overlook characteristics we harbor within ourselves. It is good to be aware of our own negative aspects, in order to acknowledge and integrate our internal light and shadow. When you are able to do this, you will find your guardian spirit,” the Teller of Fortunes’s neatly-manicured fingertips drum lightly on the trio of cards as she pauses for a moment.

“And,” she adds, hesitantly, “If that doesn’t work… Drink about a cup, cup and a half of sightwort tea on an empty stomach and see where it gets you.”

Her mouth drops agape slightly, not in shock, but as if she’s too deep in thought to regulate her expression. 

“Well, there are many charlatans!” She blurts, after a moment’s pause. “Some claiming to be shamans, or men pretending they’re fellow warriors of the spirits… Still, if I want to avoid greedy folk, I need to stop wanting things so badly,” she reflects, resting her fingertips upon her chin. “But sightwort? Really?” She asks, uncertainly. “I heard it just makes people see strange things, but… There is really something about the air here,” she says, looking around. “I suppose I will believe you.”

The Teller of Fortunes shrugs a pointed shoulder. Some of her mystical air has been dropped by now — once you’ve reached the point of telling someone to solve their problems with hallucinogenic tea, there’s not much reason to try to keep pretending. 

“Sure, but nobody sees strange things coincidentally,” Ane supplies. “You can meditate looking up at clouds, and learn things based on what your mind picks up. It’s not that these things necessarily have any special virtue themselves, they provide a space for your mind to play on — like the backdrop for a puppet show. It might just be a backdrop, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a story there.”

The woman nods studiously, listening with rapt attention. She begins to gently dispense silvers onto the table as a tip — more than another reading’s worth. Apparently she deems this sort of information much more valuable. Moreover, she finds Ane has more than established her credibility. 

Once Ane has finished dispensing her wisdom, the woman beams. 

“That makes a lot of sense! I’ll try some of that; maybe I’ve been stressing too hard to please the elders… and myself.” She sighs, and then drops another couple of silver. “Just a tip, to get a head-start on lessening my avarice,” the would-be animist says with a smile. “Well!” She hops to her feet. “I’m glad I asked about that, instead of my next yield of shardfly eggs. Thank you for the advice,” she says, her disposition now much sunnier, almost literally so with her halo of swirling, glowing bugs. 

“No problem,” the Teller of Fortunes says, with a wave of her hand, “Just make sure the sightwort isn’t dusty and hasn’t gone moldy — you’ll be gassy for hours otherwise.” 

Teller of Fortunes 20: A Slipshell Endures

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Upon Ane’s return to the city, she’s able to easily find a puffroot cafe nestled underneath a spread set of roots. It bears a sign depicting a tankard and a puff of smoke, indicating that it has both sorts of refreshment. Inside, the atmosphere is very warm and relaxed, with some cushions strewn along the walls and windows for people to sit and relax. The ale is fragrant and relaxing, with some nutty hints; the puffroot is thick and luxurious, lending to an easy calm. It’s all pretty cheap, only costing a silver piece in total; plus, the contact high is free. 

The slipshell fetish is a rather relaxed presence in the basket. It seems to appreciate the atmosphere. The little guy would probably smoke as well, if it could. 

The entire stroll back to the caravan is similarly relaxing, all with that same pleasant haze. She finds the others of the troupe similarly pleased; at least, whoever isn’t still out carousing. Today, no one comes to Ane with any problems or concerns; for now, all of that is forgotten. There’s just the gentle peace of a group of friends, perhaps family, all enjoying their time in the land where little shards fly. 

Ane lets herself into her wagon, inhaling the incense-and-spice-tinged air with a relaxed, happy sigh. She sets her basket down, undressing and donning her robe before she sits at her vanity to comb her hair, rub a few drops of herb-infused oil into her skin, and tend to the other parts of her evening toilette. 

It’s not long before the little round-bellied stove is burning brightly, and there’s a cup of tea steeping beside her bed. She settles herself against her pillows, legs tucked neatly under her, with the little stone slipshell sitting on the bed in front of her. The more she hums over it, the more she notices the subtle details and nuances of the creature. It’s kind of cute, really, with its silly little face. If she didn’t know better, it almost looks relieved — happy to have joined the caravan by way of her basket. The Teller of Fortunes sips her tea while she studies the spots and swirls of the soapstone, dipping and darting into the etched lines of its shell and around the nubbly curves of its horns and clublike tail like the eddies of some strange river. 

The puffroot, as relaxing as it is, is not something she enjoys combining with anything stronger than some root coffee or geltsear leaf tea. Further investigation of the totem, herbally assisted, will have to wait. For now, she’ll sleep on it — if it was willing to call out to her in her sleep all the way from the river, maybe she can hear more now that she has it nearby.

She sets down her empty cup, nestles the soapstone slipshell under her pillow, and slips beneath her blanket to rest. The caravan will be getting ready to roll on soon, with all of the noise and action that attends moving the wagons and not-always-cooperative trumbas (even less so, now that they have to move the heavy wagons through several inches of mud). With luck, the mildly sedative action of the geltsear leaf and the puffroot will be enough to keep it from troubling her sleep.

Through the night, the memory of a dream happens upon her once more. This time, the feeling of “violet” returns once more, but less as a beacon and more as a presence. Peculiarly, the dream seems to consist of travelling around with an actual slipshell — the living, breathing, reptilian creature, albeit with the ability to stand on its hind legs. It mimics some of her doings through the day, whether it’s going to the market or visiting the puffroot den. At one point, the slipshell even shares a roll of puffroot with Ane. Its dopey, glass-eyed face makes a rather comical, relaxed expression. It’s  certainly a companionable presence.

Through it all, there’s a sense of friendly gratitude. Beyond the silly doings of this slipshell, there’s a sense of something ancient, perhaps something wise. It knows much, but speaks little, and takes its time with things. There’s a calm, unassuming sort of power to its stoicness. This calm is a far cry from its distress, back when Ane found it hidden in the swamps.

Even when people step upon it, the slipshell endures.

Teller of Fortunes 19: The Slipshell

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Maybe a cold drink and a bit of puffroot might help dispel the nagging tug of the temple…

Fortunately, the feeling is less a compulsion and more like a suggestion from something far away. When fought, it is easily overcome; almost as if it’s resigned to it.

As Ane scans around for some refreshment, there are a couple of options. One location, tucked cozily underneath one of the root-sprawls, emits the earthy scent of the puffroot. It has a softly-carpeted entrance and a welcoming glow of light coming from around the curtains. A painted dye-and-sap sign depicts a small fire with a puffy cloud of smoke over-top.

Higher-up on another tree, positioned slightly above ground-level, is a tavern with open seating upon the raised roots. There are cloth banners and overhangs on the outside, tied up on cattail-fibre cords. The place has an open, sociable vibe about it, presumably with a bar situated inside the tree itself. People come and go from the place freely, often sitting on the outside to enjoy their drinks in earthenware cups. 

The need to decide which desire to satisfy first — the puffroot or the drink — lets the gentle tug awaken again. Maybe there are more options closer to the temple. It certainly won’t hurt to walk a little farther, it’ll be so long before the caravan returns to Paakoponde…

Allowing her whims to take her along the path of the pull, Ane makes her way nearer. The large step-temple looms even greater, seeming to creep from the horizon to the foreground like a massive stone tortoise. Now, a number of people are visible near its entrance; some have the garb and gait of cityfolk, towing children or carrying baskets of offerings. Others show the uniform shades of Eternalist robes, some training and exercising along the steps and rails, while others simply ascend or descend the stair.

The pull, growing more insistent, draws Ane in. It seems to lead to a point behind the temple, rather than within the temple itself. It makes little sense, as the temple is backed by the great Jian River. However, there may be a thin stretch of earth behind the mighty stonework… It’s hard to say from this point. 

The taverns and puffroot dens are quite nice along the river as well, though with a notably more spiritual vibe. They have a bit less of that rustic charm, but trade it out for a more esoteric one. There’s wispy trails of incense smoke, some iconography on the outer roots, and perhaps a more respectable sort of clientele. There are still travelers aplenty, though they’re most likely here to see the temple and the archives of the Eternalists. 

Ane makes a mental note of the taverns and puffroot dens, though she ignores them for now. The river isn’t far, and a walk around the swamps might be nice, right? At the very least, it won’t take long for her to satisfy her curiosity and grab a pipe of puffroot and a pint of something refreshing on the way back to her wagon.

As Ane continues her walk, the feeling grows slightly stronger. It’s not as if the gentle tug is swelling in strength; it’s more like a cry, increasing in clarity. Now it begins to have a melancholy tone to it — lost, secluded, forgotten. The regrets of a life unlived. The sorrow of a sight unseen. The shadows of a place where people do not see fit to tread.

Ane’s walk first takes her through a number of curated gardens, which trail along the sides of the Eternalist temple — which a passerby calls the “Vault of Sojethys.” Its gardens are numerous and broad, providing a number of different vistas and habitats. Some are similar to the surrounding lands, with bogs that host the floating zool and lurking snakes, and swamps that boast the occasional zwarf, all with guided-root walkways to allow for easy passage. Other gardens boast different climes, somehow simulated by a higher or lower density of shardflies in the area. There are chilly highlands with gurrans and a couple of trumba, all herded between stone railings and stepped paths. There are also dry savannahs, with a few curltongued, bundle-backed bunduks, as well as a few of the sightless, carnivorous camels that are seen in sinward lands. The sands are raked and dotted with meaningfully-placed rocks, following some unknown, improvisational aesthetic sense. 

It’s a natural temptation to linger in these areas, though the violet cry comes from beyond them. It’s along the riverbed somewhere further, where the walkways cease and give way to cattails, mud, and rocky shores. Given its position behind the Vault, it’s unlikely that most anyone would travel back there. Even the monks likely wouldn’t find it suitable for their training and meditation.

The only thing Ane lingers for is to pick a few of the mushrooms that rise from the occasional fallen, mossy log, grown soft and spongy with water. Judging by the velvety spots across their caps and the fine pores on their undersides, they’re more blue boletes — the freshest she’s come across. She tucks them into her basket with a smile before she continues along the river.

Despite the many sights, the Teller of Fortunes moves onward. Picking the mushrooms takes barely a minute, leaving plenty of time to continue. The walk through the gardens is bewildering, like travelling around the world over the course of a mere hour or two. Each is like a window to a foreign land, albeit with the strange walkways and aesthetic trappings of the Eternalist tenders. By the time she reaches the opposite edge, it all seems to have passed surprisingly quickly. 

Now Ane is faced by the Great Jian River, stretching all the way to a thick green line on the horizon. Its surface ripples and wavers, constantly in motion, with all manner of creature underneath. It’s said that man people draw their lives from this river, gathering at a great embankment in the dexward direction. There they supposedly drink, bathe, and even wash their clothes, whenever the space isn’t taken up by one mass ritual or another. However, this place is downstream from there. And as Ane looks down the span trailing behind the temple, its size is far too great and forbidding to allow for such activity. In fact, the back of the Vault is tall and steep with no apparent steps downward. Even the monks would have a tricky time coming back here, if they so wished.

Up ahead, the land grows thin and muddy, thick with vegetation. Luckily, the zools drifting purposelessly over the ground don’t frighten her and she isn’t in her work clothing — it’s no great matter to continue on at a decent pace. She picks her way along the marshy ground, carefully seeking out flat stones, stumps, and firm-looking patches to keep from sinking up to her knees in mud.

The trip is long and across wild terrain, calling Ane’s nimble steps into service. As she makes decent haste, some mud splashes about her sandals and trousers. It’s considerable, and will likely call for a decent washing, though it’s nothing that’ll see her excused from a tavern. At one point a zool floats by, not minding her as it skirts the water’s edge for food. Its bulbous body thumps gently against Ane’s side, but it continues on anyway, hardly disturbing her course.

Now the violet cries are at their most clear, and they sound like something small. It’s not an infant, but something somehow without a voice. Its creaking is from deeper inside, overcoming the limits of its form with the depth of its emotion. And as it becomes more distinct, Ane’s easily able to pick out its source, even though she doesn’t hear it with her ears. Then again, she can just barely imagine it, right there on the edge of her perception…

Looking down into the mud, Ane comes face to face with what appears to be a small, stone fetish of some kind. Its edges are smoothed, carved from a dun marbled rock, perhaps soapstone or something similar. The details are obscured, but the form is clear: a vaguely pyramidal shell over stout, rounded legs, with a wide club-tail trailing off behind. The head is covered in small, irregular nubs, and the eyes are sad little divots upon the rounded top of its head. The whole thing is caked with mud, with a bug and part of a cattail stuck to the back. 

It rests down there in the ground, overturned on its back. 

For as much as she enjoys her visions, she hates it when her dreams are right. It’s one thing to go seeking knowledge, or even just ride along in another creature for awhile, but reality intruding on her sleep just strikes her as rude.

She bends down over the stone creature. With one corner of her shirt, she wipes the mud from its belly as best as she can. When that doesn’t prove to be enough, she attempts to dislodge it from the surrounding mud and give it a few splashes of river water to get a better look at it. 

As the mud is washed away and the carving is hefted, the pang in Ane’s chest begins to ease. It changes from a forlorn call to a slow, gentle warmth settled in the center. Strangely, even the fetish begins to look slightly different; the divot-eyes no longer look quite so downturned, and the vaguely-pyramidal shell now has a little shine to it. All of its edges are stylized, like what one may see on a ceremonial totem. It’s not a bad trinket, all told; it wouldn’t “wow” a guest, but it’d fetch a decent price at a shop. But there’s something… More, perhaps nested within it.

Might it be violet..?

The slipshell totem might be smiling, faintly, with that silly little line of a mouth. 

She doesn’t quite realize what she’s doing when she gives the stone totem a little rub across the top of its flat, nubble-horned head. Part of her wonders if she should take it to the temple, in case it’s a cultural object of value… But, if that was the case, would it not have been discovered by now?

Ane has spent enough time mucking around back here, anyway, and she’s starting to get hungry. She slips the totem into her basket and begins the trek back the way she came. If she passes a monk she can ask about it, she will, she decides. If not, it’ll have to wait — she’s got a meal to eat and caravan business to attend to before they pull up stakes and roll on to a different part of the city.

The slipshell totem sits comfortably in her hand. It’s as if its taking a ride, or perhaps settling in. A little bit of moss clings to the back even after cleaning, but really that just adds to the aesthetic.

As Ane makes her way back to the gardens, it becomes apparent that she has an audience. A number of the rocks have lifted up slightly, revealing that many of them were actually slipshells — the sort of mossy, shell-backed creature that often causes river-goers to, well, slip. 

They raise their heads, looking up with wizened expressions, seemingly… Approving? It’s almost as if she’d passed some sort of silly trial, or done them some small service. They blink, craning their nubble-lined heads slowly. They don’t particularly move, just sort of hang out, as slipshells do. When Ane passes by, they eventually sink back down, settling into the riverbed. They all seem rather content to sit, munch on reeds and clumps of algae, and wait for someone to mistake them for stepping stones. 

Not long after nearing the gardens, Ane manages to spot one of the Eternalist monks. She’s wearing their traditional robes, the bottom billowing as she floats over the top of a grassy span, which is likely meant to imitate the Gurran Plains. She seems to be combing over the field with a short metal rake, ensuring that the grass follows the direction of some unfelt wind. 

Ane, not really wishing to disturb the woman’s gardening, clears her throat softly before calling out.

“Pardon me. I had a question, if you don’t mind!”

The woman pauses her gardening, and holds the rake at her side as she straightens her back. Her short crop of braids clips against her shoulder as she turns, smiling in a welcoming fashion. 

“Of course; it’s my pleasure to answer, as it would be for any of us,” she says warmly. “What is your question?”

Ane gingerly withdraws the stone slipshell from her basket. She holds it out for inspection, cupped carefully in the palm of her hand as though it were a rare jewel or a baby bird.

“I found this in the mud… I don’t know if one of your order misplaced it, or if it was something that needed returning…” 

Curious, the monk takes a moment to examine the slipshell totem. She doesn’t take it from Ane’s hand, but instead leans close and peers around it with her trio of eyes. She murmurs in thought, then leans back, pursing her lips pensively.

“Well, it doesn’t appear to be something from our archives… I can’t place its origin, or culture. It looks old, maybe something from a foreign land?” She shrugs. “Whatever the case, it doesn’t strike me as a stray artifact or anything. It’s yours to keep. Some of the world’s treasures and secrets are for their beholder,” she appraises cheerily. 

The monk gives no hint of awareness to the item’s properties. Perhaps it’s an off day for her? Either that, or it’s just not an item familiar to their order. It’s hard to tell. Still, the warmth it instills is unmistakable — as if this item somehow experiences emotion. 

“Huh. Well, thank you,” Ane says, with appreciation tinged with bewilderment. It doesn’t seem foreign — how could it be, surrounded by live slipshells? That strikes her as pretty sincerely local. Nonetheless, she slips the totem into her basket again, and offers the monk a smile as she turns to depart.

Now, maybe she can find a place to sit and relax for a little while.