Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-20: Escape the Tatter-Men

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(Continued directly from prior entry)

There’s that vague sense of warmth resting in her palm, much as it was with the slipshell. The face of the loothine, once solemn, now seems… steady? Determined? Perhaps it even shows a sort of welcome, a silent acceptance. Gone is that sense of frenzied despair, of feeling lost and out of place in the world of men. Its eyes show not peace, but resolve.

A howl rings out, bouncing off the cave walls. The voice is thick, proud, and haunting as it echoes from places unseen. All at once, the leaves of the underworld seem to unfurl. The spring bubbles with life, and a steady mist recedes from its shores.

The corpse of the loothine also seems to change, though only subtly… Whereas before its paws were in the midst of hurried digging, now they are at rest. Even more strangely, the claw-bones are now folded over-top of one another. The vacant skull rests upon them, as if pillowing its head beside the warmth of the spring. 

The change has a dizzying, dreamlike quality, enhanced by the steam of the spring. Ane is tempted to remain there, to soak in more of the sense of calm and resolve permeating the very air of the place, but now is not the time. The assassin and the rag-men are still making their perambulations on the roof and in the streets beyond, and, however serene this place may seem right now, it isn’t safe

She casts a hum over the resting loothine. The carcass seems relaxed now, but something seems wrong about separating it from the carving. Ane can’t take an entire hound corpse with her, though…

Moments later, she begins navigating her way back through the ragged streets, this time kept company by an emerald carving and a loothine skull on the end of a stick. The shrub-stem she pressed into service is a bit wobbly, but it works well enough. With luck, it also makes her look deranged enough to be left alone — there’s definitely no way she can go scaling any walls with a stick in her hand. 

However mad she may seem, the path still leads straight through half a dozen rag-men. As she approaches the mouth of the alley, walking in the open, the ones with the abstract masks press back behind the others. The jagged-marked ones step forward, their shasii bodies almost unrecognizable by emaciation. They bar the path, and one or two even crouch low, placing their hands to the dirt… as if they’re readying to pounce.

They shout and growl in voices as ragged as their masks. It’s in some foreign language — guttural, profane, thick with malice.

 

Ane inhales a deep, tense, hissing breath.

Looks like it didn’t work.

She can’t make out what they say, but their postures are unmistakable. She stands there, with her skull on a stick, humming over the seething group barring her path. Now what? She has no weapons, unless she plans on hitting someone with a loothine head. She has no magic. She doesn’t even speak their language.

Ane squares her shoulders and marshals her nerve… and flees into one of the shacks. 

Outside is the sound of scuffling feet, shouts, and frenzied puffing breaths. The rag-faces dash after her, coming to a skidding stop outside the broken shack.

The room is dark, but Ane can see easily… though it’s a lot to take in on short notice. There’s a broken-down wooden chair, a tattered cot with moldy down, a few earthenware pots, and a gaping hole in the wall on the other side of the room. There’s a door into this place, too, but it seems broken beyond use, jammed into its frame with rust and grime. There’s also a book, some copper silverware, and a rotten hunk of meat covered in both flies and walks.

Ane takes as little time to scout her surroundings as she can get away with before she lunges for the first available opening — she can worry about navigating her way back up afterward, if she manages to lose the group. As she rushes past the mildewed, decaying contents of the shack, she throws whatever she passes behind her to slow them up. Pots, the chair, anything her hands pass near enough to grab flies behind her into a shattered heap. The chair seems to fall apart as soon as she touches it, and her hand comes away still holding a single splintered chair leg with a crude, rusty nail hooking out from one end.

She has a sneaking suspicion she should keep it.

There are curses and crashes behind her, as the first rag-man dashes in and topples over the chair. His emaciated body is sent crashing into the wall, while two others push in past him, still in pursuit.

The next room is equally bare, though it features an old larder filled with garbage and an earthenware pitcher of sour wine. There isn’t even a hole this time.

“Voirrh- damin!” The man behind her snarls, dashing into the room, cursing in some bastard cant of a language. His bony hands are raised, groping like claws, giving only a second to react.

And the pitcher of sour wine flies behind her, accompanied by a soft whistle of air over its mouth. He takes it on the jaw, shattering the poor pottery as he goes crashing backwards. In the moment it buys her, Ane charges at the far wall — she doesn’t think she’ll be able to crash through it, but it’ll be something to get her back up against when more of them pour through the doorway.

Oh, nope, nevermind. She does crash through it, intending to or otherwise. 

Construction is pretty shoddy down here. 

 She finds herself stumbling into the next shanty, now a fair ways past where the chase began. More shouting comes from behind, where the remaining rag-men are forced to clamber past the first two. 

At least, all that did chase her…

 

The loothine figure pulses in Ane’s hand, and she feels a moment of clarity:  olfactory clarity. She can track the trails of the unwashed, downtrodden assailants as if their scent were wisps of smoke upon clean air. One of those wisps leads straight ahead, through the gap into the next shack… There a mass of it is huddled down, hiding behind the wall, lying in wait.

To Ane’s left is the door back out into the alley, merely a square of boards resting on one hinge. She doesn’t smell anyone out there, for the moment. This is fortunate in many ways, as having an enhanced sense of smell down here is, at best, a mixed blessing.

She trusts in the little emerald carving and whatever strangeness it seems to have wrought in her. There will be time to investigate it further later. 

Maybe with the slipshell and some puffroot, she thinks to herself in a moment of grim humor.

For now, Ane rushes at the door. She’ll be able to move more quickly out there, if nothing else.

When Ane dashes out, she has at least ten feet in both directions of clear alleyway. Behind her, towards the grove, there are two more of the assailants. They’re the ones with the crescents and helices about their masks, esoteric and brutal markings. Instead of giving chase, they’ve instead crouched down and begun to chant. If it’s a language, it’s not something Ane recognizes.

Ane has a clear line towards somewhere that isn’t this smear of a street, and she goes for it.

Her pursuers are no match for her relative health and fitness, and even as they scrabble after her, they quickly fall behind. As Ane rounds the corner, she can hear a sharp, blunt crack. As soon as the echo fades, there’s another sharp strike. First one, then another, and another… Five in total.

It seems they, too, have trouble surviving on these streets. And their friend up on the rooftops just received the perfect distraction to pick them all off, one by one by one…

Soon after, Ane is left with a moment to breathe. She stands safe in some alleyway, carrying the skull, the loothine figure, and a broken chair leg. The rest of the city is now open to her, and as sure as she saw the scents of the rag-faces, she can see her own as well. For now, though, she doubles over to catch her breath. While the rag-faced men hadn’t caught up with her, a couple of days of puffroot smoking certainly has. It’s telling that they weren’t able to outrun her — they must be even worse off than they look.

Once she’s pulled herself together, eased her burning lungs, and slowed her hammering heart, Ane begins to make her way ever upward, toward the brighter (and less fragrant) parts of the city. 

 

After some long walking and some deep sniffing, Ane soon finds her way back up to the first atrium of S’varga. It feels like a wholly different city, with all the towering edifices, stunning vistas, and artistic reliefs that were once expected. Unlike the third or fourth atrium far below, this one seems far more interested in catering to a wanderer’s whims. There’s another market just down the road, with many stalls carrying food and produce… Then there’s a plaza off to the left, with a number of tunnel-stone storefronts all carved side-by-side. There’s also the occasional public house, fine dining, and the rare puffroot-ery.

Unlike the deprived lands below, “this” S’varga is fully willing to cater to a paying customer’s needs. Unfortunately, Ane has no coin, and only a carved loothine hound and a dirty skull to show for her trouble. She gives the plaza a look of scorn mixed with longing, as she turns to head out of the city and back to the caravan.

It’s probably for the best. Ane might look a tad out of place with her skull-on-a-stick anyway.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-19: Theatric Thugs and the Lost Traveler

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(Exploration of S’varga –  Continued directly from prior entry)

The shacks sit so close together, their roofs form a slipshod walkway of their own — albeit one so treacherous-looking, even the rag-veiled men seem to avoid it. Even so, a shadow moves about up there as well… 

Ane takes her chances with the shadow. The streets — if streets they can be called — are definitely full of the gaunt rag-men, and the shacks very well may be as well. Finding a way through them could easily be disorienting, too, even with the cry of the thing she’s following to lead her. 

She digs her fingers into the shattered stone of one of the walls of a building, seeking hand- and toeholds as she begins pulling herself up to their patchy, sinking roofs.

As Ane peers over the top of the roof, she finds herself tucked behind a stack of old, rotten crates. This affords temporary cover, as she catches sight of that shadow that was darting about…

It’s  huikkaran. He’s clinging to one of the walls of the small cavern, positioned up from the roofs slightly as if to gain a vantage point on the rag-men below. His lithe, nimble body is covered in dark-colored leather, knives gleaming at his belt beside a wicked-looking blackjack. A large, slick bronze mask, tapering back like the beak of some wading bird, covers his face. It makes his head look almost comically long and wispy, with an exaggerated expression of glee about the elderly lips of the mask.

He seems to almost twitch a little, as if startling at every sound. Whatever he’s doing here, he seems very jumpy. If he’s seen Ane yet, he hasn’t made any sort of move from his perch, clinging to the wall with two hands and a foot.

An assassin?

Perhaps he’ll leave her be if she’s quiet enough and doesn’t get in his way — he seems to be keeping an eye out for someone, and she highly doubts it’s her. Still, she doesn’t like the look of that blackjack. She keeps him in her sights as she cautiously makes her way toward the howl, careful to avoid the loose nails and soft, sagging, rotten portions of the roofs in her path.

 

As she makes her way, the huikkaran clearly seems to be watching her. The dark eyeholes in his mask track her movement, step by step… She makes steady progress, soon halfway to the end of the cavern. As she passes parallel to the watcher, her foot nearly catches in a shattered bit of scrap lumber. There’s a slight crunch underfoot, and the man grows tense. His hand darts at once to his belt, hovering over a dagger, shaking with tension like a taut bowstring…

With a muffled curse, she holds her hands, empty, out at her sides — partially to maintain her balance, partially to show her lack of visible weaponry. Silently, she rues the fact that she didn’t bring a knife or her gurran jaw with her, not that she’d really be able to use either. This roof isn’t very conducive to winning a fight at close quarters, and she can guarantee he knows the terrain better than she does.

The gaze of the watcher is steady. Fortunately, so too is his hand. After a split second of consideration, he averts his gaze back to the rag-faces below. He seems as if he’s been here for quite some time, and has the patience to show for it. 

Soon, Ane is able to step past this mess. The cavern beyond the alley seems far more secluded, while the shanties give way to a grove of sorts. There’s a pool of water in the floor, shimmering and steaming with geothermic heat, bubbling up from some unseen source below. All sorts of strange fungi and shrub-plants have gathered around it, clustered together like vagrants around a fire. 

This place is a small, sparse refuge, but a refuge nonetheless.

As Ane steps forward, she sees the lost traveller.

 

There’s a dark shape huddled behind one of the shrubs, its body curled into a crescent. The once smooth, shining scales have long turned dull, while the flesh below has given way to the ravages of decay. Its noble, sharp ears are now just flaps of tattered skin, and its rows of eyes are just portals to a vacant darkness. The snout has withered away down to bone. The jaws, though fleshless, are closed in repose.

This is not all there is to the scene, however… 

The loothine hound was digging here. Its claws, ragged and chipped, are half-buried into the flesh of the earth. The act seems deliberate, determined, with no hints of frenzied scrabbling in the dirt. 

No, this was no attempt at escape, or a frantic search for food; it was an excavation. 

Perhaps it was some last act of hope, or a sort of animal piety. Whatever the case, it seems the long-dead creature found what it sought.

There, at the center of the shallow hole, is a figure wrought in crudely-carved emerald. It, too, is a loothine hound, though it still carries the firm shape of life and nobility. The edges are rough and primal, though the shape is clear — right down to its trailing spines and three sets of eyes. The statuette glows dimly in some trick of the light, with its head raised, alert… as if it’s waiting.

Ane has never seen a loothine hound before — not a live one, anyway. Then again, she doesn’t suppose she’s seeing one now. It’s a testament to how far she’s wandered from the rest of S’varga that she’s even stumbled across the carcass of one.

She skirts the steaming pool, kneeling beside the remains of the hound as she reaches to pick up the carved figure. Mud mars some of the rough surface, but it’s easily cleared away with a cautious dip in the pool. Much of the crystalline, hewn-gem quality is lost on her, translucent as it is, but she can feel the call within it pulsing as if it were a live thing.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-16: Not absurd, or just not absurd yet.

Teller of fortunes is a serial work of Fantasy Fiction, at times surreal, at times slice-of-life. No holy men were mind-controlled in the creation of this work.

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Ane has a surprisingly easy time finding her way back from the market, even with the gangs, cutthroats, and masked miscreants lurking around the city. The only difference is that now they look upon Ane’s interesting new containment vessel with a mixture of horror and wonder. A thief of a greater caliber might see fit to try their luck at taking it. The average cutpurse, however, seems to prefer a very sizable distance.

Perhaps something about lead boxes with strange creatures inside inspires caution.

It’s just as well — there might be a few sets of ears (or eyes, though they’re a bit rarer here) that would recognize her from the stunt she and the others pulled the other day. The more distance the general populace keeps, the better for her. Not that she’s really planning on roaming the city with her lead box and her wingless bat-creature in tow.

Instead, she hightails it back to camp, to track down Nelea, the beast tamer.

When Ane arrives, the camp is in one of its many flavors of disarray. This time, most of the caravan is carousing for one reason or another. It’s a gentler sort of carousing this time; people tend to be more adventurous and drunken towards the beginning and end of these city visits, and this is distinctly in the middle. 

Nelea, for her part, isn’t involved in any of that. Though her strong, stocky build looks like it handle more than her fair share of Brair’s concoctions, she rarely drinks anything stronger than spiced tea. Instead, she directs that sturdiness towards tending the animals, as she is now. She walks with a long pole lain across her shoulders, laden with dripping buckets. Despite her considerable burden, she’s lacking in neither strength nor poise — the water doesn’t even begin to slosh. 

The moment her lidless eyes alight on Ane, she pauses with a smile. 

“Hello! Is there anything I can do for you?” She asks, before being asked. Polite and hospitable as ever, she doesn’t seem to notice the Teller of Fortunes’ strange payload.

“Actually… I have a bit of an odd question for you,” Ane says, as she gently lifts the small wire cage hanging from the crook of her finger. “Do you, by any chance, have any idea what this is? Or why it shoplifts?”

Nelea knits her brow. She stoops down for a moment, setting down the buckets to get a closer look at the odd little creature. Her curls tumble down over perplexed eyes, her lips form into a taut line of contemplation.

“Well, it looks slightly like a hive-lop, though it has one too many eyes and doesn’t make a buzzing sound… How strange, no limbs,” she considers, peering closer. Seeing that the creature has no apparent fangs or claws, she ventures a poke at the thing’s fluffy belly. When she presses firmly enough, it lets out a slight, squeaky exhalation — in fact, a few exhalations from multiple places.

“Ah! It moves like a fuhajen,” she declares, seeming delighted. As if in response, the creature ejects a pair of fluffy chutes from its sides, which it uses to puff and nip at Nelea’s hand. 

“I don’t think I know what this is,” she says, worrying her lip. “Or why it would commit theft. Where did you find it?” She asks, looking up at Ane.

“In a shop. Apparently it tried to steal something, and they caught it and put it up for sale to get rid of it. According to them, it’s very persuasive,” Ane replies, with a concerned knit of her own brow. Does the creature not have a mouth? Will she have to figure out what it can eat through its odd, squeaky little giggletubes?

Nelea looks aside uncomfortably, eyes wide, as she folds her hands behind her back. 

“That might be why I want to unlock its cage,” she says ashamedly. “I am an animal tamer, so I understand that some creatures are best confined for their own safety at times…” She digs her heel into the dirt in a meandering way. “Still, when I look at its little eyes, I just feel a strange need to obey its tiny whims.”

Ane goes quiet for a long moment, humming at the tiny creature enough to make the cage sway from the vibrations of her gaze.

“Which is probably why I bought it,” she confesses. 

“I cannot tell if it’s bewitching, or just endearing,” Nelea replies, still averting her gaze. One of her hands displays a slight twitch. 

“Fui, fuip, fueep!” The creature chimes in, bouncing against its cage walls. Each impact makes either a squeak or a small “fuibbt” noise. Fortunately, its fluffy body is too wide to slip through the bars. 

“Well… I’ll take it back home, see if it wants to eat anything,” Ane says, albeit hesitantly. There are a lot of things a small creature could get up to in her wagon, even one without arms, legs, or wings. “Thank you for your help, Nelea. I’ll see what I can do for the little mite.”

The animal trainer nods her head hurriedly. 

“Yes, that seems like a good idea… I’m happy to help, Ane!” She bids Ane, and begins to turn away and pick up her buckets. She seems to be making an effort at diverting her attention away from the creature, as if she doesn’t trust herself in its presence.

Ane feels a small tug of dread at the pit of her stomach on the walk back to her wagon. The creature is small, certainly defenseless-looking, and very cute. Maybe it wasn’t really trying to bewitch Nelea — if anyone is going to be susceptible to the effect of a pair of large, button eyes and chubby cheeks, it’d be her. Ane’s hand hovers over the split door of her wagon for a moment, before an idea strikes her.

 

The creature floats like a fuhajen — maybe it isn’t native to S’varga at all. Could it be some kind of stowaway? She sweeps the camp with her hum, on the chance that her gaze might alight on the monk while he’s doing whatever it is Jarrik has him do around the camp now. Probably more dishes.

Oh, he’s currently a barrel monk. The monk is moving a barrel. Presumably, it is filled with supplies, but it’s hard to tell. Most barrels are pretty generic. Either way, he might not be indisposed to looking at a little puff-creature for a moment or two.

“Hey-” Ane begins to call out as she strides over.

Oh Void, what was his name?

Has she failed to catch it? Had he ever given it in the first place? She silently scolds herself for failing to ask, and again for failing to come up with a sensible way to do it now. 

 “-Guy, I have a bit of a question for you, if you have a moment.”

“Oh, you know my name!” Gai says with some mirth. He hefts the barrel down, setting it to the cavern floor with a ‘thunk.’ “What can I do for you?” Gai asks, adjusting his braid. 

“I was wondering i-” Ane pauses. “I’m sorry, what?”

“My name,” Gai replies warmly.

“Is…” 

Gai looks at Ane, patiently waiting for her to continue. After the considerable, unblinking silence that follows, she gives up and begins again.

“So, guy…”

“Correct,” he nods.

“I’m sorry?” A baffled Ane replies.

“For what?”

“I don’t…” She can feel the conversation slipping away like sand through her fingers. What was it she needed to ask, again? Oh, right. “Have you ever seen one of these before? Don’t,” Ane cautions, “Look it in the eyes. It’ll put notions in your head.” She raises the little wire cage to give him a better look at the tiny three-eyed, puff-bellied thing.

Gai glances down at it briefly, before glancing back. 

“How do I avoid that? Its eyes are huge.”

“Point taken. Just try not to act on anything, then.”

“Very well,” the monk replies, and steels himself with a deep, chest-heaving breath. Once he’s mentally prepared, he leans forward and investigates the creature.

“Fuip, fuip, fuoop!” The creature greets the monk, twitching its tall ears and flapping fuzzy little nubbles in lieu of limbs.

“Hmm… That is, most definitely trying to be tricky,” Gai declares, immediately suspicious. Whether the effects are from cuteness or some strange magic, the monk seems to have resisted. This is, of course, not much of a surprise; he’s a dishwashing monk, after all. The real question is what he thinks beyond that…

“Well, I don’t think it’s an animal,” Gai declares, rubbing his chin with a thick palm. He shakes his head, and continues, “Its overall shape and attitude are… unnatural, to be blunt.” His lips tighten, and even slant a bit, as if he’s really trying to figure how to put this. “It could be a number of things: a familiar, an otherworldly being, or even a Shardtwisted. But it’s definitely not an animal.”

“It’s just too ridiculous,” he concludes.

Ane exhales deeply. 

“So I probably shouldn’t just find somewhere to let it go, then.”

The dish-monk gives her a rather stern look.

“It would probably cause something that is, on the whole, just far too absurd.”

She nods in understanding. 

Whimsy.

“Right. Well, thank you — I’m glad I’m at least a little closer to an answer,” she says, before turning to go back to her wagon. Behind her, Guy the Monk returns to his duties — which  now include balancing on a barrel with one foot, occasionally doing a little hop. It’s hard to tell whether he’s been charmed, or if it’s just monk-training.

Ane is lost in thought. If the creature is Shardtwisted, or a familiar, or something else not-strictly-of-this-plane, maybe she can do a little figuring out of her own. Her rituals usually lack a definite structure or purpose — if anything, she enjoys riding on the currents of magic to see where they take her, but maybe she can see if the creature is willing to offer any answers of its own.

When she returns to her wagon, she takes a long moment to take it in as it is. A little disorganized, maybe, by most peoples’ reckoning, but it’s hers. And it is, for the moment, decidedly not absurd.

Ane has a suspicion that this may be about to change.

 

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-15: It’s worse than dangerous. It’s whimsical.

Teller of fortunes is a serial work of Fantasy Fiction, at times surreal, at times slice-of-life. No eldritch horrors were unleashed upon the world in the creation of this work.

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During the last few hours of rest, the slipshell somehow migrated his way to the side of her pillow. Perhaps his presence is intended to be calming, and in a sense, it is; he’s a quiet, easygoing little companion. He’s got the sort of face that radiates the idea that, in time, things may yet turn out to be alright.

Whether with the little statue’s help or not, those scant few hours of sleep prove restful.

Fortunately, all things considered, Ane could probably provide card readings in her sleep. Today, no particular oddballs come out of the woodworks to shake up the paradigm. The day goes quickly, sped up by the ease of familiarity even as her mind roves elsewhere. By the end of it, the Teller of Fortunes takes in another seven miters. Not a bad day, but not a great one, either. Still, gold is gold, and it’s more than she started with.

With only another day or so to go before the caravan has to begin pulling up stakes, Ane makes her way to S’varga’s market. Puffroot parlors, rough gemstones, and herbal notions are thinner on the ground here, but there are still some goods available in the tunnel city that can’t easily be found anywhere else.

Without Jiselmo in tow, Ane’s foray into the city is much less straightforward this time. Sure, much of the actor’s directions seemed like a lark, but he really had his own particular way of navigating the S’vargan streets and tunnels. Given the group’s activities in that particular market, following his course that day wouldn’t be the best of ideas anyway… And the city planning is so intricate that past visits are not much of a guide.

In fact, it even seems like the basic grid of the city has changed somehow — but then again, its spiralling map is unusual enough that it defies memory, in its own way.

Fortunately, Ane has been on the receiving end of an abundance of Jiselmo’s unsolicited advice on navigating the city:

“Lesson one, never go down. Some of the city streets look normal enough, until things get taller and you become smaller. Then boom! You’re in one of the under-tunnels, heading off to another gurran stomach… Or worse. Do that too much, and you’ll end up below the stomachs, if you know what I mean. And, above all, stay away from the flowers.”

“Oh yeah, also,” Jiselmo had said, “Watch out for the idiots in masks and the veils with drawings on ‘em. They’re what our city calls ‘gangs,’ but mostly they just growl and show off their blades. The well-dressed ones are fine, unless you look nicer than them; it’s the hungry lookin’ ones that you have to worry about.”

Sure enough, Ane does see some of these people in passing. Some have masks that slope into a lantern chin, with broad noses and scandalous eyebrows. Others have stylized animal motifs, or very feminine half-masks adorned with imported feathers. Then there are some veiled bands, who adorn the fabric with strange symbols like false eyes, crescents, and other such things… They are dressed in rags, and leer brazenly through their veils.

By spending some extra time, Ane is able to avoid the hungry ones, and eventually find her way to a suitably close, yet sufficiently distant, marketplace.

The offerings are indeed a far cry from Paako’s. Metallic goods seem to make up a much greater percentage, wooden items are outlandishly expensive, and imported products are far more commonplace. There are song crystals from Arrchestra, coffee from Rhytalo, books from Valistea, and whale oil from Sevalah. It’s a particular sampling, of course, given S’varga’s secondhand access to many trade routes. Nonetheless, the city seems to value goods from other lands very highly. There’s also a  thriving art industry, mostly in stone carvings and paintings rendered in lushly-textured impasto. 

Herbalist goods are almost exclusively at apothecaries, which are themselves very utilitarian and straightforward in what they offer. For anything more esoteric, there are alchemist’s supply stores, or full-scale emporiums of eldritch trinkets. The running theme seems to be S’varga’s oddly to-the-point approach in most things. If they think it’s useful or exceptional, it has its own shop. If not, then it’s tough going. 

Except taverns, salons and dance halls, of course. There are at least fifty different kinds of those.

As tempted as she is to investigate the apothecaries, they may not have anything that Vaidna, Dynkala, or Ane herself doesn’t. For now, she gives them a pass, wandering farther beyond to the places with more exotic offerings: Big, glassless windows full of baskets of seeds, bands of carved creatures conspiring in shop corners, fantastical-looking things depicted on scrolls with thick encaustic brushstrokes and collaged pieces of richly-woven brocade. As a city by and for shasii, it’s a visual feast for those without eyes. What it may lack in color coordination, it definitely makes up for in warmth and texture. 

Her hand pauses over the door handle of an esoteric peddler of eldritch goods. She can almost feel the costliness of their inventory through the door, and it makes her hesitate. Still, she’s doing alright for funds so far — besides, if she’s going to find something really interesting in this market, it’s probably going to be here.

The sign outside is reassuring enough, with its carving of a crow wearing spectacles and a feathered hat. The script beneath reads, “Ulassa’s Strange and Familiar.” It has an aged, oaken construction, with brass-handled doors and latticed windows. When Ane enters the shop, a soft chime sounds out. There’s no bell above the door, but the sound carries just the same. 

The room is lit almost exclusively by glowstone, warm with orange light. It shines through special, intricately-cut shades, casting alluring shapes and shadows about the shop. The room feels bigger than expected, though that’s easily accounted for, given the way buildings tend to dip further into the earth to grab more real estate. And, despite its size, every surface is covered in a night-inavigable number of shelves, stands, and display cases. The notion of a browsing customer seems rather secondary to the task of presenting as many varied oddities as possible. 

Aside from one small corner of the room filled with pristine cutlery and tools, the rest is a complete hurricane of miscellany and sundry. Though the name implies that these items are somehow supernatural (or at least beyond ordinary), nothing seems to be marked with a function — or a price. 

After a careful sweep of the place, Ane spots a few curious treasures: A petrified mouse in a dancing pose; a golden-wood whistle with a carved “A”; a baku nut with glass flutter-by wings; a paper receipt with uncannily blurred letters; a glass eye with a hole for a pupil; a smeerp’s foot; an ordinary candle marked with an “out of order” sign; a mummified klorrian middle finger (somehow one can tell); a toy soldier holding flowers; a kettle with no spout; two perfect socks; a sketch of a faceless woman; a tiny, three-eyed creature in a cage; a…

Void, let’s take a breath.

Then, finally, there is a shopkeeper of some sort. It’s an old shasii sitting behind one of the cases, kicked back on a chair with his curly-toed boots on the case. He has a rather large hat with two holes cut in the front, spaced evenly about the crown if the hat. Something shines beyond them. His hum is currently still, as if he’s just resting his eyes for a bit. Otherwise, he looks like a typical, local S’vargan, with finely-patterned trousers and a fine vest over his poofy shirt. 

The kettle catches her attention first — she runs her fingertips over the surface, looking for some sort of catch or hidden hole that might give her a hint as to what it’s for. Not tea, obviously, but maybe something useful… But there are no holes in the kettle, save for the one in the top. Peering in, it is currently filled with a semi-clear liquid (presumably tea), as well as a pair of speared leaves floating on the surface. They always seem to float in the same spot, no matter which way the kettle is oriented. At first it seems to always point in a cardinal direction, but then the tea leaves begin to drift and point some other way.

When the kettle is tipped, as if to pour through the nonexistant spout, Ane feels rather warm and satisfied. Her thirst isn’t slaked, but for some reason, that just feels good to do. 

It seems to be a Generally Satisfying Kettle. Interesting.

She’s not particularly in the market for small, comfortable miracles at the moment — as interesting as the kettle is, she sets it down to continue humming over the merchant’s goods. Her gaze alights on the tiny, caged creature next. Her fingers itch to try to let it out, but this strikes her as an idea that would only make her life complicated at the moment.

The creature has a trio of eyes, like a fuhajen, though they swiftly grow large like a smeerp’s. It’s an odd little creature, covered intermittently in both pearly scales and little tufts of down. Its body is squat and fat, and it has tall, tapered ears that twitch against the top of the cage. It’s noticeably wider than the opening of the container. Its mouth is a little cleft divot over a lower lip, topped by a ridiculous little seed of a beak. It has no markings on its cage, other than a small label: 

 

WARNING: PERSUASIVE.

 

Persuasive?

To do what? She hums over the tiny cage quizzically. It’s a cute little thing, with its huge weird eyes and fluffy pinecone body. Will it try to persuade her to let it out so it can go on some sort of rampage? Persuade her to buy it an entire tiny wardrobe? Persuade her to rob a merchant’s guild?

“Sooo,” Ane says hesitantly, drawing out the word, “What will it persuade me to do?”

“Whimsy,” an old voice, presumably the storekeeper’s, calls from the checkout desk. 

Whimsy.

Whimsy?

Ane frowns at the caged creature, puzzled. “Any examples?”

Muffled curse-words.

“There are no examples of whimsy,” the storekeeper replies. “Then that’s just fancy.”

Hmm…

“I am,” Ane continues, “More specifically looking for something that might help with improving physical comfort, or relieving pain. Do you know if you have anything like that?”

“Sure,” they squawk. “Consumable, or repeated use? The latter is more costly.”

“Depends on the price, I suppose, but reusable would be preferable.”

There’s a pensive, muffled muttering.

“Look for the stuffed bear with the jaunty hat; not the fancy hat, the jaunty hat.”

It takes several minutes of searching, but Ane spots a cloth bear with old stitchings, big button eyes, and back-tentacles made from little tubes of stuffed linen. Unlike the bear next to him, which wears a feathered tricorn, this one has a handsome cap that sits slightly askew. It is indeed jaunty. The bear has a rather soft, earnest expression, despite being a depiction of a godless killing machine. 

“It balms pain,” the shopkeeper calls again, “So long as the bear itself is fully repaired; it does not actually heal, causes sadness when torn — disclaimer, that.”

Well, there’s likely no healing Thelorn as it is.

“I see… And how much is it?” She picks the bear up from the shelf, smoothing her fingers over the much-repaired stitching.

The shopkeeper, still slouching, squawks back, “Forty mitres! First purchase comes with a free Ulassian Eldritch Containment Vessel!” Oddly enough, his mouth doesn’t seem to move.

“Hmm,” Ane murmurs. Her hum wanders to the tiny caged creature again. 

Is this part of its persuasiveness?

Yes.

“Do you often get live creatures here, or is that one a special case?”

“Special case! The little thing shoplifted,” the voice replies dryly. 

Her brows knit. Shoplifted? What could it possibly have even tried to steal? One biscuit? A single copper bit? 

“How much to take it off your hands, then?” 

“I’ll p- fifteen miters,” the shopkeeper replies, head bobbing, mouth unmoving. 

Fifteen gold. So, fifty five for both. 

Granted, she shouldn’t be spending fifty five of anything — she’d intended to comb through S’varga’s market, but that was before she wanted to see if she could find something for Thelorn. She certainly didn’t intend to spend almost sixty miters. 

That would leave her with thirty, plus a handful of scutes and a load of bits. If Jarrik isn’t planning a Half Light Show, she’ll have to hustle tomorrow… Especially since there won’t be another large city on the road for awhile.

“I’ll give you forty,” Ane says firmly, as she dips a hand into her pocketbag for the money.

“Fifty!”

“Forty two.”

“Forty seven?”

“Forty five.”

“Wonderful…” The voice drums low, seeming pleased. 

There’s a soft scratching sound, and then a distinctly masculine-sounding, “Ow!” 

The shasii sits bolt upright, scratching at the scruff on his cheeks. 

“Nngh… Yes, thank you for your business,” he says, in an extremely-not-the-same voice. Boredly, he adds, “And here is your one-time, limited-stock Ulassian… El… Witch?”

Scratch.

Ow! Eldritch containment Vessel,” he grumbles, rubbing around his conspicuous hat, and reaches down behind his desk. He then draws out a sizable box, about one square foot and wrought in the shape of a hexagon. It is very obviously made of lead-lined wood, and looks rather heavy. Fortunately, the sides aren’t too thick, otherwise it would be ridiculous to carry. 

It’s still ridiculous to carry, but it could certainly be worse.

“It also has a free tote,” he explains, still boredly, and produces a thick burlap sack with a large, strikethrough “U” on the outside.

“Thank… you?” Ane says, not at all certainly. She cants her head gently to one side. “Are you alright?”

“Elated,” the man replies deadpan, then slumps back in his chair. He looks rather normal, if a bit drowsy and mildly perturbed. 

She’s not sure if he’s being sarcastic. Being around all of these things is likely to affect someone’s affect after awhile. 

It’s probably best for her to collect her things and flee, lest she get talked into buying a set of spoons that makes everything taste like baked cavefish from a hat that only talks on Fiirdei. 

As Ane makes her way out, a strangely feminine (and conspicuously avian) voice calls out. 

“Post-disclaimer, the bear can create dependency with repeated use! Maintain the seams!” After a short pause, it adds, “Thank you for visiting us, come again some-when!”

The creature, marked “Persuasive,” doesn’t ride in the box. It makes a chirping-whooshing sound of glee, a sort of “Fuip, fuip, fueep,”as it hops around in its little cage with no apparent sort of arms, legs, wings, or otherwise sensible locomotion. It’s like a little three-eyed bat, except with scales and a beak and no useful parts that Ane can see — it’ll probably take her several minutes of inspection to make heads or tails of it.

Though the head is, presumably, where the eyes are.

Ane can’t help but wonder how it was even able to have tried to shoplift anything, without hands to shoplift with or pockets to put things in, presumably. At least it seems happy to be out of the store, though it might just be looking forward to all of the things it can try to convince her to do. 

The creature, for its part, makes no effort to educate Ane about its anatomy or intentions. Instead, it seems mildly elated by this new not-shop-place, and is expressing this emotion through various whistling sounds. 

The bear in the lead box also fails to contribute, for the time being.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-14: That Cruel Light

Teller of fortunes is a serial work of Fantasy Fiction, at times surreal, at times slice-of-life. No eldritch horrors were unleashed upon the realm in the creation of this work.

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“I am called Thelorn.”

Thelorn, the lorn, Ane thinks to herself grimly, Well, that’ll make it easy to remember, at least.

As Ane talks to him, Vasht walks up beside the man and kneels down beside one of his arms. At first sight of the joint, his eye widens and he nearly tips back with surprise. It’s not a look of disgust, nor horror, just sheer disbelief — and this is from a man who’s lived with the rest of the troupe for so long. 

The man’s condition is simply impossible. Arms, flesh, bones aren’t supposed to be have this way. Perhaps it’d be normal for two tree-trunks to twist into a helix, wrapping over-under until they merge at the end into a misshapen club. Even small, gnarled out-branches wouldn’t be out of place… but on a person? Thelorn has clearly been suffering for quite some time.

Still, as stoic as Vasht often is, he manages to contain most of the reaction. 

“This may hurt a bit at first, but I’ll be careful. Just remain still until that passes,” he says in a calm, easing tone.

Thelorn offers his silence as agreement. Without raising his gaze, he speaks to Ane. 

“Yours?”

“I am Ane. This is Vasht. The one who just left is… A monk. Where did you come from, Thelorn?”

The klorr nods, though occasionally winces as Vasht makes first contact. Working with his joints requires working past that initial pain, as well as the discomfort that comes with loosening the scar tissue binding his muscles into knots. 

“Came from Seilina. Small place… Town.” Thelorn grunts, shifting his shoulders, then adds, “Field farmer… Slave.”

Slave. So Jarrik probably did buy him.

“A field farmer? That must have been very painful for you.”

“Not before…” He answers, his voice rasping. “Before this.”

He doesn’t indicate his arms directly, but he doesn’t have to. The implication weighs in his tone like lead.

As cooperative as he’s being, especially considering the fact that Vasht is manipulating his aching joints, Ane decides not to press her luck.

“Do you ever get bored here alone, Thelorn?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he rumbles, wincing again. While Vasht is making some headway, it’s against a rather absurd knot of flesh and bone. It’s like a combination of a Paakopondese cube puzzle and a grievous injury. Nonetheless, there’s plenty to be done.

“Not my place,” Thelorn adds, in a beaten-down tone.

“Sure it matters,” Ane urges him gently, “You don’t have to sit here alone all day if you don’t want to.”

“I should not want,” he states once more. “It is only pain.”

It’s a confusing statement, as bluntly worded as it is. 

“Well,” Ane says, as she tries to sort through the tangle of Thelorn’s words, “You are allowed to not-want.”

Silence. 

Vasht looks up from his task, a look of concern on his brow. He speaks up in a soft, mollifying tone, 

“If you don’t mind me asking… why is it bad to want?”

The klorr makes a slight murmur in his mouth, as if mulling around some words.

“Want gave me these arms.”

Ane frowns, though she tries to hide the expression behind her knees. So, in addition to not being very communicative about his needs, he’s genuinely afraid. Was he punished for taking something he wanted? Cursed to feel pain every time he desired something? She doesn’t know. She isn’t sure she wants to know.

“Well… Someone will come tomorrow, with a book. If you can read, it is yours to read. If you can’t, they’ll read it to you. You don’t have to want it — but, if you think they should go away, just say so and they will. Is this alright?”

“Cannot read,” he answers. 

By now, Vasht has moved to the other arm. As slow as the klorr may be to respond, talking with him tends to take longer than it feels. At least one arm seems to move a little more easily; it doesn’t change the fact of his condition, but the knot of bone and flesh looks a little less painful. 

Then a few moments later, Thelorn continues. 

“… Can listen.”

Well that’s something, at least…

“Then you can listen. If it bothers you, they will leave.”

“No light, not bothered,” Thelorn replies, his voice thick and ungainly.

Light, again. Ane chooses her words carefully, lest she hit a stone wall of woeful silence for her trouble.

“Did… light always bother you?”

At first, it seems he might be going quiet again. But then his voice starts up, creaking underneath the weight of emotion. He stammers a couple of times, choking on his words.

“Not… Not until I tried… Tried to touch it.”

He flexes what must have once been his hands, and his face becomes a rocky crag of pain, his mouth and eyes bunching up while tears gleam at the edges. Vasht has to step back a moment to let this pass, lest the mess of tendons cause him to misstep in his work.

“I saw it, was… like nothing else,” Thelorn continues, chest heaving. “Flying over, while heat burnt my back, my hands full of dirt.” He shakes his head. “A light… Magic,” he sobs, voice tinged with horror and wonder. “I cried, change me! Free me! And grasped for it…”

He heaves a deep breath.

“Then… pain.”

A soft whistle passes Ane’s lips. Her swirls are wide with horror and surprise as she listens, and, when he finishes his tale, she doesn’t know how to respond. What could be said in the face of such desperate longing? What could comfort someone so punished?

“That sounds awful,” she says eventually, her voice small and aching with the inadequacy of the words, “I’m sorry.”

Thelorn slowly regains his composure, until only tear-streaked cheeks remain. He rubs them dry against his thin shoulder.

Even Vasht  is left dabbing his eye and under his face-wing with a sleeve. He draws in a breath, then kneels back down and continues his work. He’s almost finished for now, and intends to soldier on with it until he’s done. Had Ane the tears to cry with, she’d probably be wiping them away, too. 

“Yes,” he replies. “In light, there is… cruelty.”

She’s tempted to argue with him, however gently. Not all light is cruel, and lessening his fear of it would make it easier to make him more comfortable… But not like this. Not after that. Helping Thelorn to leave his wagon is a battle that won’t be won in a day. Maybe not ever.

“Sometimes,” she agrees, tentatively, “But only sometimes.”

The klorr draws in his lips, unable to answer. This might be the closest one can come to his acceptance in this matter. Progress with this is gradual. If he does emerge again, it will likely be due in part to the darkness of the tunnels. Still, this silence itself may be progress.

A few moments later, Vasht leans back from the klorr’s arm, taking a last moment to look it over. He takes in a breath, lets it out, then nods. He looks over towards Ane, indicating that he’s done all that can be done for today. 

Ane nods to Vasht in return.

“I may not be able to come tomorrow,” she explains to Thelorn, “But someone will. You won’t be alone all day.”

Granted, “alone” is a very particular thing here. While he may not be willing — or even able — to leave his wagon, Jarrik has still probably been raking in the bits by charging visitors to peer through Thelorn’s windows. It gives Ane a feeling of very complicated rage.

Performers like Vila, Wila, and Zila are just that: Performers. Nobody, them included, has ever made any bones about the fact that visitors come to watch the spectacle of a singing, dancing trio of fraternal conjoined triplets, with their six carefully-arranged arms and ombre skin shifting subtly in color from one woman to the next. There’s still an enormous difference between watching an unusual person who is trying to entertain you, and gawking at someone else’s suffering. 

The triplets may be exotic, even bizarre or horrifying by some people’s reckoning, but they still earn their money performing in a way they choose. This, though… Ane doesn’t have words for it.

Thelorn, oblivious to this rage, nods.

“Alright. That is… good, that someone will,” he says, as the tightness in his voice eases. 

“I’ll make sure someone does,” she assures him, as she rises from the hay bale. Even covered, she can feel it itching her skin. Still, if there’s going to be hay here, she’s just going to have to endure it. “I’ll see if there are other things that can be done. You don’t have to want it or ask for it,” she hastens to add, “And if you are hurt or bothered by any of them, they will stop.” 

It feels like she’s repeating herself a lot. Unfortunately, with Thelorn afraid to voice any requests for what he needs, her only recourse is to try. There have not been many times in her life when it was better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission, but this, unfortunately, might be one of them.

There’s a grateful air about the klorr, though he doesn’t say it outright. It seems his mindset is set deeply enough that he doesn’t want to acknowledge relief openly. In any case, this is probably all the progress that can be made in one day. He nods again, in his gloomy, silent way of bidding her farewell.

Vasht rises to his feet and dusts the hay off of his knees. He stands prepared to accompany Ane out the door, with a parting nod to Thelorn.

Ane gives the klorr a wave as she steps out into the fresher air of the camp. 

“See?” She mutters to Vasht, hopefully low enough that Thelorn can’t overhear the way the rage rattles her voice, “It’s like Jarrik brought him in and just left him here… And this is after his hair’s been cut and his wagon’s been cleaned a little. He needs help, and he seems to know that, but he’s terrified to ask.”

 

The knife thrower takes a few more steps with her away from the wagon, just to be safe. He nods in agreement, his lips forming a grim line. 

“Yeah… I’ll have to teach one of the camp followers to treat his arms,” Vasht figures. “But you’re right. That’s a bit much, even for Jarrik,” he continues, running a hand along his cropped hair. “What’s even stranger, is that Jarrik hasn’t tried to get any coin off of himLike put him out for show, like his pet Faceless. During the shows, no one’s been shown to his wagon. Right now, he’s riding free.”

Ane’s brow furrows in perplexity. 

He hasn’t?

“Really? That doesn’t make any sense… Why would he do that? Did he just kind of hope someone else would decide to take care of him, and then parade him out afterward? Void,” she shakes her head in disbelief, “Even when I was tiny, it was just assumed that Dynkala would teach me her craft, and I was at least able to help wash and brush the trumbas.” 

Vasht shrugs one shoulder, looking back towards the old wagon. 

“You’re right, it doesn’t make sense… Even under his father, I was set to juggling before I’d even gotten a meal.” He squints his eye for a moment. “I have two guesses… One, he might be scared of the klorr, and waiting until he comes out on his own. Two, he might be up to something else. Though I can’t imagine what.”

“Me neither. It’s not like Jarrik’s ever really been one for a long con.” Fantasizing about them, maybe. Planning and executing them? Not so much. “Maybe he’s scared of him, though Thelorn doesn’t even seem like he’d swat a fly if one landed on him.” Granted, he could probably splinter a stout beam if he really wanted to, but…

“We’ll just have to keep an eye on it, as usual. Maybe it will become more clear with time.” He lets out a labored sigh. “I bet if we asked, he’d give us some rehearsed spiel about helping the less fortunate, or whatever. It’d be about as believable as a flying sailwhale, but not something you could easily argue against.”

“Of course,” Ane sighs, “ At any rate, I’ve got to go through some of Cerine’s books, maybe see if there’s anything else that might make him more comfortable. He doesn’t like light, but I have no idea what to do about that.” She waves a hand in front of her swirls for emphasis. Shasii can perceive light, albeit not the way eyed races do. Ane has even seen light, just generally only through animal eyes. Neither are conducive to figuring out how to help him function without ever having to come in contact with light.

“Sure, sounds like a good idea,” he agrees, his expression lightening. “Anyway, you’ve done a good thing by bringing this to everyone’s attention… Regardless of why he’s here, it’s good that something is being done for him.” His single, sharp eye regards her warmly for a moment, his gaze cast in a rare, sincere light. “So, yeah. Books. I’ll go teach someone about messy elbows,” he says with a slight smile.

Ane shakes her head firmly.

“No, it’s all Nelea. She’s been bringing him food since he got here. I only went to see him after she came to my wagon to see if I could get him to open up a little bit and figure out why he’s holed up in there. But, anyway… if you see that monk around, ask him to stop by. He can read and he seems to have the time, so he might be able to spare part of the day to read to Thelorn a bit. Maybe even teach him a little.”

“Nelea, and you. First steps, next steps,” he agrees. “But yeah, sure. I think that monk will be floating by soon enough anyway…” He scratches the back of his head, and smirks. “Pft, ‘that monk.’ We don’t know his name, and he’s already doing half the odd jobs around camp.”

“I don’t think he’s being paid, either. He asked for a reading, I told him his next step in life should be to do something ‘that challenges his spirit’,” Ane explains, with requisite wiggly fingers, “And, next thing I knew, he was doing dishes here. He washed a chamberpot yesterday. He,” she concludes, “Has strange ideas about challenges. So long as he’s willing to help with Thelorn, though, I’m not gonna complain.”

Vasht grins knowingly. 

“So you’re why we have a monk!” He declares, immediately amused. 

She stills her hum, sighing.

“And a hundred pounds of appohs and puffroot. I know. I know.”

“You’ve been very industrious lately,” he appraises, placing his hands on his hips. “The Shards must be aligned towards you or something.” The knife-thrower, of course, is oblivious to most principles of geonomy and fortunes, though he still makes his own pass at being superstitious, as many travellers do. 

“What can I say,” Ane retorts flatly, “Paakoponde was just a big old event for me.”

“And S’varga. Hot sauce and body paint,” he reminds, pointedly raising one brow. “And we’ve only just begun in this city.”

“Yeah… Reminds me, I still need to check their market,” Ane murmurs thoughtfully, “At any rate, I’m going to go see what books I can find for him. See if you can find a caravan follower who can work on his arms more, and don’t forget to sent that monk my way if you spot him. And… Thank you for coming to help.”

Vasht smiles modestly for a moment, scratching the back of his head and averting his gaze. He seems more abashed about being thanked by Ane than by being falsely led to the wagon. 

“Yeah, you’re welcome,” he replies in an airy tone, rough with his usual edge of gruffness. “I’ll go do that. If you run into anything else, I’m around.” He then gives her a nod, and starts to head off on his way. Given his mood, it’s almost a surprise to see he’s still wearing his usual leathers and belt of knives; though it doesn’t seem to crimp the lightness in his step at all. 

“Sure,” she agrees, nodding to him before she turns to head back to her wagon.

 

Once she’s there, she becomes a flurry of activity. Here are Cerine’s old books, there are a few she can spare for a time. They’ll fit nicely in a basket with the green dress-turned-shirt, too. Oh, and sightwort can relieve pain, at least a little, but would it be too much? Would he end up with visions, and hallucinate seeing the wicked light again? Better leave that out — she can ask Vaidna for help, or see what the S’vargan market can provide…

By the time she’s through, she has a small care package assembled. Three books of varying length, the ribbon-tied shirt that she’d dyed, and an extra pillow. Hopefully he doesn’t object, though she doesn’t think he will. 

A short time later, the monk appears at her wagon once more with a knock on the door. Since he’s already agreed to help, it’s a trivial matter to have him deliver the items.

Ane lets the basket go with a pang of anxiety. She won’t be there to see how it’s received, but hopefully the monk won’t forget to let her know. It’s distracting enough, even, to keep her awake long after she should’ve been sleeping, even after a cup of geltsear leaf tea and a pinch of dried sightwort root under her tongue. When she does eventually nod off, it’s only a few hours before she’s expected to be back in her tent.

Jarrik is going to have a lot to answer for.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-13: Varied Treatment

Teller of fortunes is a serial work of Fantasy Fiction, at times surreal, at times slice-of-life. No amorous plans were dashed in the creation of this work.

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The next day’s fortune telling goes by in a flash. With the recent influx of cash, there’s no Half-Light Show today. As a result, the patrons are all fairly typical. Since it’s S’varga, another capital city, today’s take is pretty good too. By the time it’s passed, Ane has another ten mitres in her bowl, and a load of the city’s dramatic problems now removed from her tent. They’ll probably get more plentiful and interesting, once word about the caravan gets around.

For now, she has her day’s pay and some more free time. Not that it’s very “free” — part of what helped the day go by so quickly was that she kept her mind occupied. Now that she no longer has to worry about pulling cards, she can try to put some of her plans into action.

First, the monk.

But he isn’t posted by the dishes today.

Instead, he’s helping a very confused S’vargan install Ane’s new doors. It looks rather nice, actually; its scrollwork and such are fancier than before, and the wood is of a much better condition. It doesn’t look the same, of course, but it seems to have been easily fitted to her doorway. Right now, the Eternalist callosian is supervising while the shasii finishes up fastening the hinges.

He looks over his shoulder, lifting his brows. 

“Oh, hello! We’re almost done,” he says, assuringly.

“He-” Oh, right. Ane’d told Jarrik to have her door fixed. She’d been so eager to forget having to talk to him, it had been completely forgotten. “–Hello. I need your help with something, if,” she says, with a gesture toward the door, “You can be spared for a bit.”

“Oh, sure,” he agrees amiably. “He’s just finishing up. So, what was the thing?”

The S’vargan wanders off, having fully affixed Ane’s new door. There are other repairs to make, and he’s hoping to make them while Jarrik’s still close enough for him to demand payment.

“First,” she begins, “How good are you at hair, and how is your reading voice?” While she’s glad to have an actual door again, there are more pressing matters at hand. She clasps her hands tensely behind her, as she eagerly awaits the monk’s reply

He taps his chin, thinking for a moment. 

“Well, I have a pair of scissors I use to cut my own,” he reasons, running a hand through his long, yet neatly trimmed and braided hair. “As for reading, I’m only a passing orator; I didn’t win the prize for it, when last there was a poetry read-off at the Vault of Sojethys,” he reflects, drumming his fingers. 

“Yes, g-” Ane pauses, as a perplexed frown crosses her face. “Do you… Actually work for the caravan?”

“I’m provided passage in exchange for labor,” he answers naively. 

Ane pinches the bridge of her nose. Of course Jarrik isn’t paying him. Why would he, when the earnest young monk is so eager to be helpful anyhow? 

“Alright, look. If you can help the klorrian man out with a haircut, maybe a bath, and maybe read to him a little, I’ll pay you.”

He shrugs his shoulders. 

“Sure, as it pleases you.” The monk seems amenable to this. “Does he desire these services? He was rather… terse, when I tried talking while changing his chamber pot.”

Ane exhales a heavy sigh. 

“I don’t know, but he can’t keep sitting in his own filth in a wagon he never leaves. He could die in there, and I’ve a feeling all Jarrik would care about was the cost of burying him.”

The monk nods in agreement. 

“I probably won’t make much headway in conversing with him, but… I think you are in the right,” he says, with confident resolve. “He’s bound to deteriorate further otherwise. You are doing something good, here,” he says warmly. 

“I hope so,” Ane grumbles, though she doesn’t seem at all confident, “I hate going against his wishes, but something needs to be done. Just find what you need to help him clean up and be more comfortable, I’ve a few other things to arrange.”

“It’s probably the only way his wishes can be understood, for now,” he agrees. “In any case, I am happy to help. I’ll get right on that,” he assures her, and strides off to obtain the requisite supplies. 

One down.

Ane is never quite sure where to find Vasht. He might be in his wagon, he might be with the mercenaries, he might be off somewhere trying to plug yet another gap in the caravan’s operations. As a result, it takes her awhile to finally track him down…

Because he’s trying to do his laundry again.

He’s on the second shirt when Ane arrives. He appears to be wearing the shirt he washed yesterday, with a lace-tied collar left untied and the sleeves rolled up. Vasht notices her presence, and pauses washing to sit upright and give her a curious look.

“Need something, Ane?”

Ane clears her throat softly, adjusting the braid over her shoulder before she strolls into view. 

“Nothing really, I was just wondering,” she lightly trails her fingertips over the fronds of a pale fern near the edge of the stream. In response, the leaves gently turn and curl inward. “How serious you were about your offer yesterday.”

He watches her with a measured interest, first from her body language, then her words. He looks away for a moment, then looks back, his keen eyes firm with resolve. 

“Rather serious; I don’t promise things I won’t provide,” he answers with a casual air. 

“Really? I’ve a…,” Ane momentarily nibbles at her lower lip, with a sidelong, downcast hum, “Pretty serious problem that could use some handling.” She places one slender hand on the curve of her hip, angled backward to lightly press her fingertips to her lower back.

A part of Vasht, when presented the words “serious problem,” is swift to straighten his posture and recall where he most recently laid his knife belt. But Ane’s body language convinces him to do otherwise — he just cautiously regards her while he brushes a hand across the soft cloud of chest hair visible from his collar. 

“Well… I’m sure there’s something I can do for you,” he replies, his voice slipping a note lower than usual. “What is it?”

“I was thinking… Maybe you could meet me on the rimward edge of the camp? By the old alosin wagon,” she says, her voice dipping into the silky purr usually reserved for soothing truculent customers. “There’s not much room in my wagon, and it’s quieter there…”

Vasht now furrows his brow for a second, cocking his head to the side. As alluring as Ane’s routine may be, he knows her well enough to understand one or two of her tricks. Abandoning the basket, he rises to stand, and walks up to her confidently. 

“Oh, I’m sure it is,” he says in his own rough, sultry tone, leaning forward just a tad. It gives a generous view of his strong chest through his collar, and there’s just the slightest catch of the rustic scent of soap and leather. 

“So what is it you really want, then?”

Damn it.

“Weeell,” she replies, drawing out the word in the same honeyed tone, “You offered a massage…”

“Mm-hmm…” He nods slowly, eyebrow raised, bidding her to continue. 

Her plush lips pout softly. It’s almost a hurt gesture, as if she might overcome his suspicions by silently chiding him. 

“… And I came to collect.”

He drops his veneer of playful scrutiny and lets out a warm, amused laugh. 

“Alright… Though I owe you a massage as well, once I get done with whatever you’re having me tend.” He smiles, shaking his head. “Alright. Let’s go. Are the alosins injured in the joints?”

Ane lets go of a relieved sigh. No longer required to keep her back thrust in an exaggerated curve, her back relaxes with a little wriggle of her shoulders and a flip of her braid. 

“It’s not them,” she explains, as her hurried strides devour the ground between the water and the wagon, “It’s the man Jarrik brought to camp the other day… He spends almost all of his time in pain. I tried to help, but I don’t exactly have experience beyond rubbing in a little salve, you know?” 

Hopefully, the young Eternalist has been able to make some headway in providing some hygiene help. Otherwise, she might need Vasht’s aid with that, too.

As they walk, Vasht’s smile blooms somewhat further from the discussion. He apparently seems somewhat heartened that Ane is calling on him to take care of someone. He nods in agreement.

“I could see him needing very varied treatment… I’m sure I can figure something out.”

The occasional glimpse of him smiling earns him a raised eyebrow and a curious, sidelong hum from Ane. She’s much more used to the Vasht who spends his days flinging knives into boards and agonizing over things.

When they arrive at the wagon, the door is still slightly ajar. Inside, the Eternalist has begun to move about his tasks. The room is still unlit, though Ane can of course see that some work has been done in here. The hay bales are pinned down by a few old blankets and tarps, to at least keep the dust down, and the floor is still damp from a thorough scrubbing. Ane hadn’t asked the monk to do these things, and it makes her heart glad to see them.

When she approaches, with Vasht waiting in the door, the monk is sitting on one of the hay bales. The man is in his previous position, still, though now his arms at least have a kind of hay-and-blanket cushion beneath either of them. His hair has also been trimmed neatly; it’s impossible for an eyed barber to get a perfect cut in the near-darkness, but at least all his loose ends and scraggly bits are gone. He still has a thoroughly dejected appearance, but he definitely looks better with his hair cropped closer and given a wash. 

The man looks up when he sees Ane.

“You came back,” he states.

“Told you I would,” she says brightly, as she steps into the dark interior of the wagon. It does look far better than it did before — hopefully it didn’t bother the man too much to have the monk going about his duties. “How are you today?”

“Alright,” he replies, his tone lumbering as he does. “This is strange, for me.”

“I know it might be a lot to get used to, but it might make you feel a bit better,” she explains, “If anything hurts or bothers you, we will stop.” 

He grunts in vague assent. As crestfallen as he often seems, he also comes off as rather compliant. He’s also responding more quickly than before, which Ane takes as a tiny sign of progress.

By the look of things, the monk hasn’t been able to work him up to a bath yet, but that might take some time and convincing on his part. Regardless, the slight change in circumstance makes for a noticeable improvement.

“I brought another friend today… They can help you like I did, yesterday, only they’re better at it,” Ane continues. She glances over her shoulder, waving for Vasht to step inside. 

“To stop the pain?” He asks, his voice sounding hopeful, almost fervent. Before Ane answers, he lowers his head. “Alright…”

Vasht enters behind Ane, taking a moment for his eyes to adjust to the low light. He tucks his wings in close, as he sweeps the wagon with a glance. 

“Hello,” he calls. “I’ll be helping you with that. All you have to do is stay still, alright?”

The man responds with another grunt, as he grimly regards his lower arms. He doesn’t seem intent on moving them if he doesn’t have to, anyway. 

“You can stay for a bit and talk to him, if you like,” Vasht whispers to Ane, “It might make it easier for me to work. And he seems to know you, after all.”

The monk, for his part, scoots out silently — unwilling to crowd the space, especially when there will still be things for him to do later anyway.

Ane nods, sitting herself on one tarp-covered hay bale. The mysterious man has only spoken to her once before, but she’s managed to make at least a little conversational headway. She draws her knees up to her chest, looping her arms around them as she makes herself comfortable.

“I’m sorry, I never asked you your name.”

It’s something she does feel a bit badly about — though, to be honest, not knowing his name didn’t even manage to crack the top five list of things that needed fixing yesterday. 

The man is silent for a few moments, before shaking his head.

“I am called Thelorn.”

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-12: Gettin’ By

Teller of fortunes is a serial work of Fantasy Fiction, at times surreal, at times slice-of-life. No knife-throwers’ laundry was left unwashed in the creation of this work.

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Much as she noticed during the medicine scheme, there are advantages to living in something that’s essentially a glorified costume closet with a bed in it. Even if the clothes aren’t new, many of them are still serviceable — some of them are even in decent condition, albeit in odd sizes meant for performers who took their leave long ago.

Ane isn’t really sure how the mysterious man might feel about a shift of woven floral fabric, but it’s the only thing she’s found that comes close to his size. That’s why, about a half hour after finding it, opening all of the seams below the shoulders, and sewing in some pieces of satin ribbon, she’s kneeling on the bank of the stream with the shift, a pot of hot water and mordant powder, and the spiralis dye she bought in Paakoponde. She doesn’t know if he’d be bothered by a shirt covered in flowers, but at least she can make some effort to make them less obvious. The woven flowers look the same to her either way, but people with eyes seem to place a lot of stock in the colors of such things.

Now if only she could tell when the fabric’s been dyed. 

“Hey, Nelea!” She calls out, holding the dripping shift up with the end of a stick, “Does this look like a color to you?”

“It does!” She calls back with a smile.

“Good!” Ane transfers it to the drying line. Unlike most shasii, Ane does have an idea of what many colors look like — albeit by borrowing an unwitting pair of eyes now and then. Nonetheless, it would be a complicated affair to ride the mind of another creature just to make sure she’s dyed this soon-to-be shirt properly.

It’s a strange looking garment, with it’s opened seams, ribbon ties, and overdyed flowers, but hopefully it’ll work.

Ane soon finds she has company — a wild Vasht! The feathered knife thrower wanders up to the river side, once again carrying a big basket of laundry. He clasps it tightly between skillful hands, clenched with determination. Recalling last time, he only ever managed to wash about… One shirt. And it has been… One day. Now Vasht is here again, back at square one, kneeling down beside Ane.

“Hello there. Looking into some new fashion?” He asks casually, as he begins to dip a pair of trousers into the water. 

“Funny,” she says flatly, as she arranges the shirt over the line. “Washing the izash pepper stink out of yours?” 

“Oh no, that’d be futile,” he replies, giving her a dry look. “I’m making sure there isn’t any more clown paint on anything, ever.”

Ane scoffs. “Good luck with that, my tablecloth’s stuck proclaiming the virtues of Doctor Lartimus forever.

“As will all the new guards,” he says, practically beaming. “Now that we’ve at least gotten through testin’ half of them.”  He lifts up the trousers, thoroughly soaked, and begins scrubbing them thoroughly with soap. “Did you make that name up, by the way?” He asks.

She picks a stray thread from the edge of the shirt, and shrugs.

“More or less. I just strung together the most pompous sounds I could think of at the time.”

Vasht smirks. 

“I think that’s just the thing for S’varga. Any longer, and we would’ve been run out by someone with a longer name and a hat,” Vasht figures. He’s looking rather well, still; though that might just be the flattering glow of torchlight, or the way his taut forearms look while wringing out a shirt. Nevermind the generous V of that shirt he’s wearing…

All this, because Ane interrupted him last time. Any more of those urgent schemes, and he’d probably run out before long. Fortunately, he wasn’t trying to wash clothes while Ane was by the river earlier.

“Have a foolish problem, I can come up with foolish solutions,” she explains breezily. She dusts her dye-spotted hands together, satisfied with the current state of her handiwork. 

Vasht pauses washing, curious to see said handiwork. He shrugs one shoulder.

“Not foolish if it works. Never did get the chance to thank you for that… It did a lot of good for us.” A corner of his lips tugs back, as he adds, “I might actually get some sleep now, like ya said.”

“Yeah,” Ane sighs. She arches her spine with a faint frown, tenderly kneading the muscles of her lower back with her fingertips. If only she’d saved some of that chest salve for herself. “I saw you enjoy the fruits of our labors while they were getting all sweaty and grappley on each other.”

His look of warmth and gratitude, while a glimpse of shardshine, is now joined by the sardonic cloud of his fluffed eye-wing. 

“Ah, you were spectating? Seems you leaned forward so far that you hurt your back there,” he ripostes. 

Ane purses her lips together, narrowing her swirls at him . 

“Looks like I was mistaken the other day,” she fires an acerbic shot back, “You are still the same vleark you were as a kid. Just taller.”

“And I dance better,” he adds. “And you’re still getting in my hair, when I’m trying to thank you,” he says, lofting his un-winged brow. 

“Well, I’ll be out of your hair in a moment — I was hoping to be able to take a bath,” Ane retorts airily, “But it looks like you’re going to be here for awhile.”

She bends neatly at the waist, reaching down to tilt and pour the bucket of rapidly-cooling spiralis dye onto the springy ground. Once it’s empty, she props it on her hip and turns to saunter away.

He lets out a light sigh, and runs a hand through his hair. 

“I wasn’t trying to get rid of ya. You can go ahead, I’ll handle this later. Void knows I’ve put’cha through enough…” Vasht sits up, moving aside the shirt he was working on. He bites his lip, a subtle, silent self-admonishment. 

“You’re going to smell like peppers and booze still,” Ane chides him over her shoulder, with a playful tilt of her head and point of her chin in the direction of his laundry, “Though I guess that’s better than sweat and blade oil…”

“I didn’t realize you had so many opinions about my fragrances,” he replies, as a tesing warth returns to his expression. “Though I could always visit your wagon, and get that puffroot perfume goin’ again… Not a bad smell, that.”

“I don’t know, puffroot might take the edges off your cranky, haven’t-slept-in-a-week charm. What would the caravan followers think?” Ane turns to face him again, though she keeps the bucket propped on a cocked hip.

He continues to give her that amused, incredulous look, similarly postured with his clothes basket beside him. 

“They might think I’m not a knife-wielding rogue that murders wood for a living. That’d really sour my reputation,” he agrees sardonically. 

Ane opens her mouth to counter, but swiftly closes it.

“Nope. Too easy.”

He tilts his head sideward. 

“Gonna let me wallow in ignorance, unchastened by your powerful quip?” He crosses his tattooed arms, still a bit wet from the halted clothes-washing. After a pause, his eye widens as it dawns on him. He sighs,  “Wow, I’m really hitting the gurr’s-eye today.”

Ane tries to stifle a snicker, with limited success. 

“Glad to see I’m entertaining somebody today,” he says, pillowing his chin on his palm. “And while being not sharp at all. Completely dull. This is a new bit for me,” he appraises, smiling as he endures her stifled laughter. 

“Oh, don’t worry. I’m sure Jarrik’ll have another Half Light Show for you soon enough.”

“That’s right. And then I’ll be even more muscular, for when you have me parading around S’varga shirtless,” he replies, brushing a hand dry across his chest. 

“Well, don’t hold your breath. I’m not exactly eager to try to wring more bits out of the city’s garrison of tailors, grocers, and scullery staff,” she retorts.

“Probably a good call,” he agrees. Then there’s a slight pause, and he adds, “I’ll have to hope no one recognizes my tattoos at the next half-light…”

“Which is what the grease paint was for,” Ane points out.

“Hmm, good point. I’d forgotten about that part.” He says, glancing towards his clothes. There was certainly enough going on at the time for a little paint to have slipped his mind.

“I know what you mean, though,” he adds in a reflective tone, “I did feel kinda bad, doing a scam and whatnot. Usually that’s someone else’s thing.” He rubs at one bicep, looking back to Ane. There’s a certain hardness to his expression. Perhaps it’s determination, perhaps a dogged sense of protectiveness. “It was for caravan, though, so… I’m glad we did it.” 

“Jarrik’s thing,” she corrects him, “And yeah… It’s a Void-damned sight better than having half our throats slit and the other half of us sold to Skraj by the next bunch of bandits.”

He nods, casting his gaze downward for a second. “Yeah… I don’t know what I would’ve done if one of us was hurt or taken in all of that,” he reflects, as his voice grows husky. “It kinda hit me, when I saw that door of yours. Kept thinking all ‘what if,’ you know?” He shakes his head.

“That’s why I was smiling so much, earlier. It was great to see everyone laughin’, not worrying about who’d get stabbed, or flattened by some Rhytalo build-a-bastard bullshit.” His lips curve back into a smile. “Plus it was funny.”

“If it came to ‘if,’ at least one bandit would’ve gotten his face caved in — part golem or no. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Aedas and that other guy — Bugbeard? — were still at it.”

“Glad to hear you still have that old jawbone handy… Makes me wish I wasn’t further down the train when you used it,” Vasht comments, a note of warm respect in his tone. “Would’ve been nice to see that, after the retelling Narue gave everybody,” he says with a smirk. 

“Narue,” Ane gives a little shake of her head as she shifts her hold on the bucket. “The shadowlands’re enough to twist anyone’s head around, and she had to watch another mercenary eat the dirt maybe a minute before that fight happened. I wouldn’t call her narration reliable.”

Vasht chuckles. “Well… When you gotta look at things like that… you focus on what you need to, to get by.” He says, hauling his basket up in his arms, rising to stand. 

“I guess so.”

When he stands with his basket, Ane bends to deposit the bucket on the ground. Without anyone doing laundry here, this part of the stream is relatively empty and peaceful even with the wagons backed up to it. It’s also pleasantly warm, courtesy of the geyser at its distant source.

“Speakin’ of getting by… If you have more of that back trouble, maybe I can help out sometime. Remember that time we got stuck in the mountains outside Valistea, and I had to find work in a massage house?” Vasht recalls. “Besides, I probably owe you for all the sleep I’ll be gettin’.” He smiles broadly, hefts up his basket of clothes, and begins to wander off with a spring in his step. It’s almost odd to see Vasht happy like this… His sharp features, the broody swoop of his wing, and his general gruffness all go against it. It almost balances him out. Almost.

Ane arches her brow at him as he walks away. Did he really just-

He did.

If he worked in a massage house, maybe he can help.

The wheels of her mind tick along as she strips off of her clothes and wades into the warm, slightly brackish water. She dips her head under the surface, before whipping her hair back in a cascade of glittering drops.

Ane had been able to offer the mysterious man a little relief, but not as much as he could get from someone with more experience. She isn’t sure how much of the man’s circumstances are wrought from despair rather than disability, but it’s obvious something more needs to be done. He’s probably bored, brooding with nothing to do but stare at the walls of his wagon all day. Nelea goes to see him, along with whoever isn’t busy at the moment, but it’s hardly regular. He needs a haircut, probably needs his claws trimmed, he definitely needs a bath…

She rubs the soap over her arms and shoulders, working it into a lather over her skin.

The light seems to bother him, so some simple bits of fabric over the windows might be a mercy. He’d turned down much of what she offered, but providing some things as a “just-in-case” might be welcome. He doesn’t seem to like noise, either, but maybe something could be done about that? Some kind of hat, maybe, or a way for him to cover his ears and shut out the sometimes-raucous sounds of the caravan. 

She trails the bar of soap down her stomach, gently washing the tattoo inside of her hip.

Ane has more books than she can read. Some of them, in fact, are printed in flat inks that she couldn’t read if she wanted to. Though she’d hate to part with even one book from Cerine’s collection, he might need them more than she does… If he can’t read, maybe she could find a caravan follower who’s passably literate.

Maybe the monk? If he can do calligraphy, he can read. Of course, she’s already relied on him to perform one of the most unsavory tasks of caring for the man…

Ane finishes scrubbing up before retiring to her wagon to plan.