Teller of Fortunes 11: The Big Show

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

Though, perhaps there is a welcoming committee of sorts…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

FORTUNES TOLD

DESTINIES UNVEILED

5 S ea.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nods subtly. 

Void, it’s one of these. Welp.

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

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

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

She turns over another card.

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

She flips the final card. 

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

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

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

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

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

He slumps a little, chastened. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

THUNK.

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

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

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

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

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

Figures.

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

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

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

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

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

I need to start selling them myself. 

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

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

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

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

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

Teller of Fortunes 10: Return to the Shardlands

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

When Ane reawakens,  the wagon has finally come to a stop. It’s almost disorienting, as if her body expects the floor to suddenly jolt forward once again. Above her head there is a single beam of light pouring in through the window, shimmering behind the gauzy curtain. Wherever they are now, it’s certainly not the shadowlands.

Her senses reclaim clarity from the cloud of slumber, and immediately anguish at the buzz of outside activity. Clanking pots, rolling wheels, the hum of distant chatter… The caravan has come alive once again as if it too has reawakened. The strange, barren world of shadows has receded, and a battered semblance of normalcy has swept in.

Ane stretches her limbs, wincing at the dull throb that reminds her of the wounds on her arm. She tests the temperature of the air against her bare skin for a moment, before wriggling out from under her blanket and into a pair of trousers and a loose shirt. They’re plain clothes, old and much-repaired, but they’ll do.

She slips a sliver of honey soap and a clean cloth into her pocketbag, and steps, squinting, into the shardlight. If there’s light, they’re probably near Paakoponde, and that means she can find a stream.

And lo and behold, a glittering span of water shines off in the near-distance. It’s a wide thing, more a river than a stream, spanning to the far horizon. It’s right against the edge of the encampment. It would probably be a five to ten-minute walk to reach the river’s shore, which slopes down from the solid ground and into a silty beach.

The surroundings seem to be yet another grassy plain, but up ahead, things rapidly change. Parallel to the river, the smooth ground turns marshy, patched with water and thick vegetation. Further on the brush turns into trees, and then into a wide-leafed canopy. Beneath this, a road half-paved winds in between large tree trunks. This must be the path to finally reach Paakoponde, the last stop before the circus finally arrives at the city’s edge.

All around, the caravan seems to be buzzing as per usual. The motion is constant, but a bit more subdued and sluggish than usual. The men carrying boxes all seem to take their time, while those washing clothes and running fetch-errands all look more than a little drained and withdrawn. The bulk of the troupe seems cheerful having survived, but not invigorated in it. There are smiles on faces, right under the lines beneath eyes.

Those without immediate orders seem to be divided; some are heading towards the center of the camp to score some breakfast. Others are heading to the beach, hoping to clean the darkness of the shadowlands off their skin.

Ane makes her way toward the silty beach, avoiding the groups of other bathers as best as she can. Fortunately, she’s able to find a small space for herself — a neat semicircle of shoreline, marked by a stand of tall, swaying reeds and the spongy hump of a fallen tree, gone soft in the water. She neatly vaults the tree and finds a place to lay her clothing, happily shucking off her trousers and shirt and laying them aside on a dry, sandy patch beyond the reach of the river.

She can tell already that the river will be cold, so she hastens her way into it to get past the shock of the icy water on her bare skin. Waterbugs skate around her knees as she wades in up to mid-thigh, and she keeps her hum trained on her feet to keep from slipping on a mossy rock or trodding on a grumpy shellfish. Shellfish are not friendly at the best of times.

With soap in hand, she bends and dips her hands into the water, working the wet bar into a creamy lather up her legs, over her stomach, and across her chest and arms. She splashes herself with clean water before slipping a hand between her thighs, rubbing the soft fluff of hair into a lather with a soapy hand.

As she washes, the same strange, wordless song rises to her lips. She half-hums, half-sings to herself as she pours water over her hair with cupped hands, before working the soap through the silky, green-black locks.

This proves to be a peaceful location, currently secluded from the rest of the caravan by a tumble of rocks from a nearby cliffside. The water glitters nicely in the shardlight, with small fish and bits of stray algae floating by from upriver. The source of the flow comes from high in the mountains, rather than the shadowlands, and so it brings a refreshing coldness and cleanness.

Across the river, on the far side, is the shape of a water-bear in the distance. Its pudgy, hairless body trudges across the rippling surface, occasionally poking its circle-mawed head down to catch fish. Whenever satisfied, it returns to leisurely floating along with the water’s flow, easily floating despite its bulk.

Elsewhere, towards the middle of the river, the surface foams and ripples with activity. A small group seems to be playing there, frolicking amidst the small waves. Their arms and bodies seem to glisten in the air when they wave or sweep a splash at one another. The lot of them seem to be accompanied by large, sectioned creatures that float ever-close, like oversized prawns or some other sort of enormous shellfish.

Ane squeezes the soap through her hair, before dipping her head down into the water to rinse away the bubbles. Cleaned of the traveling dust, she gives herself a little time to play… She’s not hungry yet, and the cool water feels good on the cuts on her arm and thigh.

She bends her knees, tensing her thigh muscles like coiled springs before she pushes forward, hands pressed together to slice through the water. With a deep breath, she splashes beneath the surface, feet kicking to propel her along the shallow bottom of the riverside.

Ane lingers as long as breath and temperature allow, only rising long enough to take another gasp of air before she vanishes beneath the rippling surface of the water again. The perpendicular current buffets her side, gently pushing her off course as if toying with her. When she has finally had enough of the river’s chill, she wades back to the shore, pulls her clothing on, and makes the soggy slog back to her wagon.

For now, she’ll air the wagon out, maybe do some laundry… She has devoted enough time to pursuits of the mind and spirit of late.

Today is a day for housekeeping.

Hours later, with her blanket airing out over a tree branch and her clothes drying on a line, the Teller of Fortunes sits on the little rickety wooden steps leading to her door. She balances a book on crossed knees, one bare foot idly swaying as she makes notes in the margin of a page adorned by a drawing of a plant with short, slender, twisting leaves.

SNAKELEAF

Root: Good for creative expression. Divination(?). Hard to maintain control, though. Bitter. 

She pauses to take a bite of an appoh before she traces the drawing with the wax pencil in her hand, gently darkening the delicate lacework of the veins of one serpentine leaf.

As Ane works on the drawing, several other troupe-members wander past in their day-to-day doings. There’s first the old matronly herbalist, Dynkala, who hobbles by on her cane. Her sight is fading, so she doesn’t seem to take notice of others on her way. Given the tatty wicker basket on her arm, it’s likely she’s headed off to gather materials for her work. The area around Paakoponde is prime for this sort of thing, and a faint smile creases the old mouth-lines across her cheeks.

Next come Brair and Vasht, talking about something as they stroll along. Vasht, still clad in leathers and strapped head-to-toe in knives, seems as tired as he ever has. He has the look of someone who’s either not slept for days, or just awakened from sleeping well beyond what the body can handle. Either way, he’s likely not to be up and about much longer; the stint in the shadowlands must have taken its toll.

Brair, in contrast, looks about as bright and warm-blooded as ever. He likely didn’t have the eyes for spotting in the darkness, and his method of combat — pyrotechnics — would’ve either burnt down the wagons, started a forest fire, or just drawn more faceless with the spectacle. He’ll probably be doing double duty for awhile on cooking to make up for it.

“Good day, Ane! Easier to draw in shardlight, eh?” Brair booms, walking past Ane with a wave.

Vasht, seeing this as an opportunity, smirks and begins to slip away. Time to go steal that nap he’s been lacking…

“‘Lo Brair,” she calls out in return, before pausing to spit out bit of fibrous appoh skin, “Seems like everything’s easier in the shardlight.”

Especially staying alive.

Brair chuckles, scratching the back of his head under his fire-like shock of hair.

“Well, I’ve heard you’re rather capable at some things out there… Vasht was alight with praise that you handled yourself. Isn’t that right Va–”

He looks around, then notices Vasht is long gone.

“Bah. Anything he can do to avoid complimenting someone directly,” the callosian scoffs, crossing his arms.

“D’you get a look at him?” She asks, with an incredulous rise of her brows, “He looked about half-dead himself. He probably flapped off somewhere to get a nap in before having to do it all over again.”

Brair hums, rubbing the blunt end of his chin with a wide palm.

“Well, he did make fewer dark jokes than usual… They must’a run him pretty ragged in the shadowlands.” He shrugs his tattooed shoulders. “I dunno what Jarrik does to keep a guy like him.”

She shrugs in return.

“Blackmail? Or Vasht just likes feeling important.”

“Maybe both,” the bulky callosian agrees. It’s then that his gaze drifts down, finally taking notice of her book. “Hrm…? Oh,” He glances up, abashed. “Was I interrupting?” Brair’s never been great at noticing things. Given how often his lidless eyes are exposed to open flames, it’s a wonder he can see at all.

“Hmm?” She scoots her hand aside, before making a small, dismissive gesture. “Nothing, you’re fine — just a way for me to keep track of things.” Brair is easier to talk to than Aedas most days, but it would still be patient work to really, honestly explain exactly what she gets up to when the wagon’s curtains are drawn.

Brair nods, a bit of comprehension shining in his eyes, which always seem glassy — as if the heat of his work has dried the clear scale typical of callosian eyes into a window of sorts.

“I wish I could do the same… Though I’d never write with a skilled hand like that. And it’s all powders and chemicals,” he muses, letting out a huff of air. “If only I knew letters, maybe I could do it that way. I’d put them all in neat little blocks, like bricks, but for explosions!” He booms, miming out the brick shape, then the subsequent blast.

“Hey, everybody has their talent! Yours is fire, mine is strange plants and stranger dreams, Vasht’s is having more edges than a hope chest full of silverware.”

“Ah yes, Lord of the Barony of Edge,” Brair agrees, smiling and bobbing his head. “If only we had someone with a talent for arrangin’ boxes… Then my mixes would blow up on atheir own less often,” he figures, scratching at his scruff. “They could put them together, maybe into columns and rows… One for things that ‘splode easy, one for one’s that don’t,” he figures, miming out the stacking process. As ever, Brair is a rather fixated individual. “… And one for all the things I’m not allowed to have,” he adds, beaming.

“Could ask the herbalist… If anyone knows organizing, it’d be her,” Ane offers.

He pauses for a moment, then snaps his large fingers.

“Good point! She’s got to keep all her drugs straight somehow,” he figures. “Bright as ever, Ane! Thanks for the thought, and enjoy the light and the city!” The callosian bids her, in the midst of excitedly bustling off.

“You too, Brair,” she says, as she tosses the remains of the appoh off into the trees. She flips the book closed and sets it down as she stands, dusting her hands against her hips before reaching out to touch one of the skirts fluttering on the line. The very edge of the hem is still cool, though dry enough to the touch. Ane hums as she sets about pulling her clothes from their pegs, draping them over one arm to carry them back into her wagon.

Once inside, she has the rest of the day for small, domestic things: Making her bed, putting away her laundry, and organizing her shelves of herbs, tinctures, and simples. There are a few things she’s running low on — some she might be able to forage from around Paakoponde, others she’ll need to track down a medicine seller for. She worries the right side of her lower lip in her teeth as she formulates a shopping list, performing a little mental math to help stretch her earnings from their last stop as far as she can.

At least Paakoponde is bound to be a prime location for gathering such materials. According to rumor, the city is known to have a large, open market amidst the trees. Many of the merchants here tend to corner the market on these things and charge huge prices to ship the materials abroad. Here, though, they’re certain to be cheaper by several orders of magnitude. There’s also word of a great arboretum somewhere within Paakoponde… The Eternalists are known to be preservers of many things, from knowledge to cultural artifacts; perhaps they might see fit to stockpile plants and seeds as well.

Then, of course, a stray medicine peddler or two is a likely sight. Who knows? It’s a large city.

Ane settles onto a floor cushion to skim through another book — something barely a half-step above a bodice ripper, but with sorcerers in it. She ends up missing the call to dinner when she dozes, but that’s alright — Paakoponde’s market beckons, and sleep shortens the hours before her arrival.

 

Teller of Fortunes 7: Stand and Deliver

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

The shadow darts towards the wagon at a manic, staggered pace.

It’s a blur for mere moments, until it resolves into a shape about a hundred meters out. With Ane’s carefully-focused sight-hum, the thing comes into sharp clarity: a squat, hunched figure, slumped down even as it sprints along the side of the road. Their posture is despondent and their body clad in rags, as if they stand destitute even now. Altogether, they seem alive, but wholly unnatural in their jerky movements.

A steady stream of inky blackness rises from their head and chest. It stops and stands in place, head and shoulders jittering unnaturally.

Ane jerks her head in its direction, signalling to her guards. When she speaks, her voice is a tight, tense whisper.

“Hundred yards, right side of the road. Sort of hunched down, not running towards us — yet.”

The fuhajen nods. He leans forward, squinting his trio of eyes hard as he peers into the dark. He does so for a few seconds longer, before he mutters in frustration. 

“Void, I can’t see it at all. Passing it on.” The guard peers over the front of the wagon and shouts to the riders in front, “Light in front, paletorch at the ready!”

A few seconds later, there’s the sound of tinder being struck, then the whoosh of a flame. While a regular torch would do practically nothing here, the caravan is fortunately supplied with a bullseye lantern. Its fuel is far cheaper than a paletorch, which are sued as a last resort, as just one of which can cost a small fortune.

The lantern casts out a cone of light along the path ahead, stretching on about a hundred-and-twenty feet. Beyond this is first silhouettes, then yet more darkness.

A few seconds pass as the caravan travels further down the road. Ane’s ears twitch, sensing a rapid, approaching sound coming from ahead… 

The faceless has risen to stand, and now it’s dashing, straight at the caravan.

Within seconds, it reaches the edge of the lantern’s light. There it stops and stands, revealing a black scarf over the lower half of a huikkaran’s head. Above it, there is nothing– no eyes, no nose, just inky blackness and burn marks. 

And yet despite its near-lack of a mouth, it shouts. 

“STAND AND DELIVE-”

Twang, snap!

The fuhajen looses an arrow, and it lands straight in the thing’s chest. It continues to stay stationary, shouting its nonsense like a broken poem. 

“STAND AND ‘LIVER, STAND AND! STAND AN–”

Twang, snap! Snap!

The fuhajen sends off two more arrows, this time landing them in the thing’s head. Both pound easily into the skull, shattering bone and sundering the charred face-flesh. It begins to lurch forward, slowly dropping.

“STAND! Stand! Stand. Stand…”

It falls face-first into the dirt, now silent. The voidstuff within it pools around its motionless body, like a churning puddle of tar. 

Ane exhales a tight breath.

“One down,” she mutters softly.

“Void take bandits,” the archer swears.

Now that the body is felled, the darkness pooled around it seems to… drip upwards. It’s slow, like jam falling from a piece of toast. Slowly but surely, the strange essence begins to dissipate, until there’s nothing left but a lifeless corpse. As the caravan passes towards it, someone at the front hops off. This mercenary, clad in metallic scale armor, takes the thing up by the hair. When he goes out of Ane’s veiw, she hears the grim snap of a neck being severed and something heavy being tossed back along the side of the road.

“Grim work,” the tzuskar guard comments from beside Ane on the wagon-top. “The Void-ness takes almost any corpse, but not ones without a face to remove.” She sighs. “Decapitatin’ it probably wasn’t necessary, though I guess you can’t blame a little superstition.”

Ane shrugs a shoulder, feigning a nonchalance she does not feel.

“Better safe than surprised, I guess.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” the fuhajen archer agrees, adjusting his hat. Soon he settles into the task of counting his arrows and testing the string of his bow. 

The hours begin to pass. The shadowlands remain barren and featureless, and the caravan trundles on ceaselessly and without incident. Yet the deeper the caravan heads into the shadowlands, the more the landscape continues to warp and change… The few sparse copses of trees give way to strange, featureless land, all with soil covered in strange white webbing. Even the road wastes away, until it’s naught but an ancient trend in the dust.

The only real “feature” of the land is the occasional tunnel-mouth, each going down into the spongy soil beneath the earth. Without the shadowland’s oppressive mycelium cover, those tunnels seem lush and vibrant by comparison. With their heat-vents and own local ecosystems, they’re a world apart from this wasteland. The mycelium along some of the ground even clumps there, trying to get at the scraps…

In the distance, something begins to emerge: light. It comes in small pinpricks, barely perceptible, but it’s there all the same. Whenever Ane moves, even to breathe, they seem to flicker out. Soon, the reason for this becomes more apparent — they’re coming from behind a curtain of thick, barky trees. A whole forest looms ahead in the distance. The border of the forest seems to go on for miles in either direction, while the road continues towards it undeterred…

Off to the right, the mountain range dips lower, though not by much, just a fraction of the overall height. It still doesn’t permit much shardlight to pass from beyond it, but the dip permits some illumination into the strange, impending forest.

“Well… That’s a blessing and a curse,” the fuhajen comments. “We’ll be able to see a little, but there’ll be plenty of things for those monsters to hide behind…”

Ane nods, a slow, solemn, singular bob of her head.

“Too bad drawing cards doesn’t help much here,” she says with flat sardonicism. “There’d be less pressure that way.”

The archer lets out a light laugh. 

“Wish you’d said that a few hours ago… You’re busy spottin’, but we’ve just been pinching ourselves this whole time to stay awake.”

The tzuskar sighs, crossing her gauntleted arms. 

“I don’t think she meant playing cards… Didn’t you see the style of the wagon? She’s a fortune teller.”

“… Well,” the fuhajen murmurs, chastened. “That doesn’t mean she wouldn’t have a deck of playing cards too…”

As the wagon rolls closer to the forest’s edge, the true, sheer enormousness of it becomes apparent. If this is the same forest that Ane explored in her trance a day ago, borrowing that strange body, then its small size must have disguised how large the forest really was.  The trees here seem to be two, sometimes even three stories tall. Certainly this forest hasn’t seen an axe for almost a millennium. All this time, it seems the forest has had no shardlight to nurture it — none save for the strange, ambient glow that emanates from what she can only assume is its center.  This glow is mirrored by the trees themselves, but not the ones out here towards the edge… Those strange, glowing discs must be deeper inside, hiding behind layer upon layer of these barky phalanxes. 

The wagon wheels continue to roll. It’s just a few more moments now ‘till the first wagon enters the forest. Strangely, there is still a path going through. It’s a low, desperate thing, but it’s wide enough for the caravan and also seems to stretch deep into the forest.  Not a single tree nor root marrs the dusty surface of the stones. It must be by magic or some sort of trickery that the path is preserved… or the path of some hidden fungus hidden amidst the leaf-litter. Some of them are selfish like that — pushing back other forms of life with secret poisons, so that their own might take hold. 

Ane’s fingers itch to dig into dark turf, to see what kind of tiny, botanical treasures she might find. Surely, a place like this must have some useful herb, root, or mushroom in it… The forest looks like it was distilled from a nightmare as it is, so it’s got to hold something helpful for some strange, dark facet of the mind.

Unfortunately, the caravan is dead-set on trundling forward, even though the column does move rather slowly as it squeezes between the pressing walls of ancient trees. Some of the branches dip low, obstructing the bulk of the wagons as they begin to pass through. And yet the wagons carry on anyway, snapping through even the thickest of branches with the unstoppable force of the marching trumba. 

Of course, the trio on the roof isn’t so comfortable. The tree branches force the tzuskar to join the archer at the front, where she begins to hack and whack at the barring branches, swinging her sword like a machete. The archer joins her in this, fortunately drawing a hatchet from his pack. It seems tiring work, but fortunately it comes in short bursts, with long bouts of rest in-between. Altogether, it’s enough to have the fuhajen puffing heavy breaths, though the tzuskar doesn’t seem terribly bothered — save for the twig stuck in her feathers. 

In the midst of all this, Ane plucks a stray twig from the wagon’s roof, secreting it away in the pocketbag tied around her waist. She’ll investigate it later, once she has the luxury of more time and when her humming sight isn’t pressed into service as a lookout. Right now, the two mercenaries seem very distracted by the stray branches. If something were sneaking on the caravan, they’d probably be at a disadvantage. They do occasionally have pauses in this work, though, allowing the two of them to glance around a little. 

During these gaps between weighty chops and snapping wood, Ane finds it easier to keep a lookout as well — and it’s a bit more interesting to the senses. There’s a lot to listen to out here, with the forest practically teeming with bizarre life. Things all seem a little different in this place. 

The creatures here seem to be a departure from their usual counterparts. The clap-voles are a little louder, the skittering quarrels are a little bigger… And at some point, by the side of the road, there even appears to be a three-foot tall smeerp. It’s as if all the life here were sequestered away to an island, allowed to grow and change without regard for common sense. By the look of things, there aren’t any signs of true predators — none that are living, anyway. 

The dead are another story.

A strange echo permeates the woods, like a voice bouncing off of trees. It almost sounds like a bark. This notion is only comforting for a few moments, before the sound comes into greater clarity… There are vowels and consonants in there, even if no true words can be discerned. 

Ane sweeps the forest with her gaze as best as she can —  first the path wending ahead and behind them, then the underbrush lining it, and then up into the trees. The vibration of her hum against the leaves makes it difficult for her to see very far, but she might be able to catch a burned-away face or a stray limb before it’s too late.

The path ahead holds nothing. Just a dark, lonely road.

The path behind holds nothing. Just a long train of wagons, followed by trees. 

The underbrush — was that a grinning, half fused mouth? No, it was just a large, wet leaf.

But the trees…

“Erue enee nikethai! Sylaa, sylaa!” The non-words, maybe another language, cry out in a chant. They’re falling, falling, until…

THUD.

The form of a large, hook-armed callosian falls onto the roof of the wagon. It could’ve crashed through anything not made of such sturdy old wood. The thing’s face is burnt away, charred like the coals of a long-dead flame. Its body is ancient, skeletal in parts, and otherwise half torn away. The head is still intact, offering onlookers a view of half a pair of disturbingly perfect, pierced lips, burnt shut halfway through their span. Above, the eyes and nose are lost in a crater of whispy darkness. Below, the monstrosity is covered in strange fabrics, patterns, and jewelry — an ancient horror, lost to time.

“Sylaa, Sylaa! Krun tukka sin laan! Sin laan, sin laan!” It echoes, again and again, slapping its arms of fused flesh together. The hands have worn way to bone, and that bone to a point, marked by endless bite-marks. “Sin laan, sin laan…” It raves in ancient tongue.

“PALE TORCHES! Light them!” The archer calls desperately. “FACELESS ON THE-”

The thing lumbers forward, planting its feet, before…

THWACK.

…slamming one of its hook-bone hands into the archer’s torso. He’s tossed back, sent tumbling from the roof of the wagon. He lands with a thud and a clank, striking the wagon coupling below, before doubtlessly tumbling onto the road beneath.

The tzuskar had only just drawn her sword. 

Far back on the wagon train, there’s a similar commotion. Another Faceless is there, stomping on the top of Jiselmo’s wagon. There’s a shriek, and Jiselmo cowers into his cabin, latching his roof-hatch shut. Atop it, a featherless, Void-ridden tzuskar stomps powerfully. He hefts a strange, bulging sack over his shoulder, and carries a savage stone-fashioned axe in-hand…

Ane’s group has more than their own share of trouble.

Ane barely has time to get out a word, and, when she does, it’s less a word than a kind of startled yelp as she scrambles to her feet. She holds the knobby length of gurran jawbone clutched in an iron grip, swinging it high over the point of her shoulder as she readies herself to strike the shouting callosian’s burned-away face.

The tzuskar has fortunately come to her senses, just as surprised as Ane. She stands backed up against the front of the wagon, much like the archer was before he took his fall. She steels herself and plants her feet, taking a wide stance as she faces the creature. 

“Over here, ugly!” She shouts, too frazzled to quip. She raises up her metal shield and clangs it against her sword, drawing the monster’s attention. “See if you can toss me so easily, bastard!” She flares her wings around her in a shielding sort of fan. It’s not enough to block incoming attacks, but obscures her center of mass, making her a harder target.

The Faceless, already positioned between her and Ane, turns its full attention towards the warrior. This leaves his back and skull exposed to Ane, showing the cancerous bald-patches on its cranium that give way down to the bone. Bizarrely, it throws testing punches at the guard’s shield, as if it’s trying to disrupt her stance. 

“Sin laan, sin laan! Krun tukka sin laan!” It continues to shout. Its voice is irate and raw, moreso than the usual mad raving. Void, the tone even sounds like it’s instructing. 

Ane doesn’t need to be told twice. Once the creature’s back is turned to her, she brings the curved end of the jawbone down on the bared, rotting skull. The sheer weight of the weapon forces her to follow through completely — it’s less a blow intended to strike the creature’s skull, as it is one that fully intends to go through it.

The strike is bone against bone. With a loud THWACK, the bludgeon clubs straight through the back of the Faceless’ skull. Once the bits of flesh and skull are shot off like shrapnel, a deep, seething nothingness is revealed beneath. It swirls within what was once the cranium, tumbling over itself like smoke in a bottle. With the back removed, it billows out, bringing with it the horrible stench of old flesh and baneful magic. 

The mawkish, sulfurous stink of death blows over Ane’s face as the callosian’s skull gives way. She takes a half step backward, bracing herself as she yanks the heavy jawbone free of the crushed mass of splintered bone and papery, desiccated tissue. 

Suddenly the form goes slack, then slowly tips forward on the force of the wagon. It falls towards the tzuskar, who’s left only a moment between her and the crash of the body. She manages to bring her shield up in time, catching the thing’s weight. With a flare of strength, she tosses it aside, letting it topple from the roof and down to the road below. 

Behind the tzuskar, a flash of white light flares up. It’s not wholly familiar to Ane, but it’s distinct and well-known enough to be identified: Palefire light.  The caravan dares not stop now. Faceless tend to attack in hoards, just like the men they once were. The paletorch, while expensive, is the only option to ward off more attackers. The halo of light barely reaches back to where Ane and the guard stand. It certainly doesn’t reach back to the other wagons, where they hear a muffled-

“HEEELP! By the gods, lumberjacks are even worse after the expiration date!”

Jiselmo shouts his quip, jesting faster than ever while peeking out of his hatch. He immediately ducks back down before the stone axe can strike, hitting the wooden hatch instead. His drivers are frantically searching for paletorches in their packs, but seem to be coming up empty. 

When Ane hears Jiselmo’s cry, her hum darts to his wagon. It’s too far of a gap for her to jump, and there isn’t time to scramble down, get past the trumbas, and scramble up the side of his wagon…

“Go,” Ane shouts hoarsely to the tzuskar. “I can cover this for now. Go!”

The guard nods. Without a word, she spreads her wings and dashes towards the end of the wagon. She takes flight just in time, catching enough wind to catch her wings into a short glide befroe she can tumble to the road below. She comes to land upon the first wagon of Jiselmo’s train, briefly dropping to one knee as she steadies herself. Once she has her balance upon the swaying wagon-top, she dashes forward, battered sword at the ready and her shield raised high. She leaps the next gape in-stride, then stops and takes up her stance. Across from her, the Faceless immediately raises its head, now focusing upon her. That entrance was hard to ignore, after all. 

“Put your backs into it!” The Faceless raves, heaving up its axe. “A path for the king!”

The tzuskar spits. “Another condescending one, great!”  Apparently she’s had enough of being scolded by old, dead men.

The two clash, as the creature swings its whole body into every blow, hammering against her shield. One of those strikes could probably sweep a person off their feet. This guard, however, gives it no ground…

Back on her wagon, Ane finds relative quiet. There are no more shouts coming from her end, and all the action now seems to be further back in the train. The paletorch lit in the front seems almost useless up here. It’s a bit of a waste, too, since it’s likely to burn out within a few minutes. Unlike the sort that cities use — which draw upon a whole leyline system of magic — this one carries just a short burst. It’s enough to frighten, damage, and even sometimes kill Faceless in the short term, but it doesn’t do much good in a prolonged situation. 

Ane curses under her breath. They’d be better served by snuffing the paletorch, at this point — it isn’t doing them much good back here, where the Faceless actually are.

She sweeps the path with her gaze, then the underbrush, then the trees. It’s hard not to watch the fight against the other undead creature, but she can’t run the risk of letting her attention waver enough to miss another onslaught.

Back on Jiselmo’s wagon, the fight between the tzuskar and the Faceless is long and bloody, even if it’s carried over less than a minute. Even in armor, the woman moves quite a bit faster than the creature, able to duck under the arcs of its axe-swings. It’s a tough thing, though, since the warrior quickly finds she can’t rely upon her shield in this. Whenever it catches a blow, the metal dents and threatens to permit a strike straight into her arm.

Grunting with effort, she dodges back from a swing, then takes a follow-up from the blunt side of the weapon straight in the gut. She nearly doubles over. Gritting her teeth, she stares up at the thing. Grinning with an unnatural hunger and rotten, charred teeth, it raises its crude axe high over its head. This would be the finishing blow, cracking down against a foe too battered to roll aside…

A pair of voices comes from below:

“ONE… TWO… HEAVE!”

The raving creature stumbles back, lifted off-balance by the hatch beneath its feet. The mercenary regains just enough of her breath to leap after it, plunging her sword into the thing’s skull. It pierces through, letting out gouts of ink which soon dissipate into the air. Panting, she takes a knee, treasuring her life for a moment while the dark bleeds out of the creature in front of her. 

As the abomination falls away, Jiselmo and Korin pop out of their hatch. The two performers seem triumphant, grinning to one another. 

“See, Korin? I told you the old lift-and-trip would work,” Jiselmo declares proudly, hands on his hips.

“Would’ve worked sooner if you’d just lifted on ‘heave’ like I said,” Korin chides him, crammed into the hatch with his tzuskar wings.

“I was waiting for ‘Three’! Who does ‘one, two, heave’? It’s either heave-ho, or you count. Honestly,” the two  banter, smiling from adrenaline and triumph. 

Back atop her wagon, Ane breathes a tense sigh. She can hear Jiselmo (it’s hard not to hear Jiselmo, sometimes), so at least that fight is over with… 

She nudges a bit of gummy, rotted flesh off of the heavy jawbone with the tip of her shoe, and then returns to her vigil.

Teller of Fortunes 6: Adorned with Bones

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

The rest of the march towards the shadowlands is filled with anxious anticipation. Couriers step a little faster than usual, and dinner conversations vary between being terse or filled with wonder, depending on the speaker. Jiselmo, with his wont for drama, certainly likes to speculate about the shadowlands, spinning yarns that stretch the very bounds of credibility. The more practical members of the caravan, like Vasht the knife-thrower or Nelea the animal tamer, take the subject more seriously and only speak up to shoot down the more dangerous falsehoods. Nelea makes sure to give Jiselmo a firm rebuke when the topic of “comely Void-maidens of the black eaves” arises. Not only are such whimsies dangerous, but the bit about them wearing “hoop-skirts like whirlpools” was really too much anyway. All in all, it’s not nearly as good as his fibs about “shadow-moots,” wherein the older Faceless gather to bicker about municipal politics.

After some time, the caravan rolls to a stop again, pausing outside the usual sleep-wake-eat cycle, and one glimpse out the window tells why: the edge of the shadowlands are just ahead, like a black line drawn across the grass. Beyond, the chlorophyll-based plantlife dies off abruptly, save only for the hardiest sorts. The grass shrinks down to bare soil, replaced only by the occasional fluffy fungus and copse of glowing trees, or perhaps the ivory trees usually found in tunnels.

The rest of the caravan engages in last-minute preparations. Some people take this time to hop out and take their own measures, though it’s also perfectly normal to remain in one’s wagon and let others come to them. And given Ane’s agreement with Vasht, she’s certain to receive at least brief instructions at some point — either in-depth, or in passing. So, the Teller of Fortunes waits.

In the meantime, she makes her own preparations — a full waterskin, a few juicy appohs, comfortable clothing — all things that will ensure she won’t need to clamber down from the roof of the wagon for much. She even removes the dusty thing adorning the top of the split door’s frame. It’s long, oddly lumpy, with a dull, yellow-gray sheen… To look at it, it seems like little more than a mass of bone, raw and unshaped by any caring hand.

This is mostly because it is.

She wraps both hands around the end of the arm-long gurran jaw, and gives it a few short practice swings. It’s heavy, but not so heavy as to keep her from using it — she’s used the mean edge of the dead beast’s teeth to let shardlight into a few skins before. Years ago, one of the caravan’s mercenaries had even given her a ribbing over it.

“How’re you even gonna swing that more than once without falling over?” The mercenary chuckled, with a wry smile and a lazy flip of her dagger.

“Don’t need to, if I swing it right the first time,” the Teller of Fortunes had brazenly countered.

Thus armed and provisioned, Ane makes her way to the top of the wagon. It’s an easier trip than it seems — the old wood houses a set of iron rungs, hammered into the wall for just such an occasion. If Vasht sees her, he’ll know she’s ready. If he has anything else to tell her, well, he can jolly well flutter up there himself and do so.

In time, Vasht swoops in, flapping his sextuple-set of wings as he comes in for a landing. He manages to slow down just enough that he lands comfortably upon the wagon’s roof, with the hurried look of someone who’s moving around between a million places at once. As ever, the shadows beneath his eyes hint towards a lack of sleep. The tzuskar stops, glances around, then looks towards Ane — and as he sees the old gurran bone, he furrows his brow, causing his eye-wing to fluff.

“Ah. Bringing that bruiser out…? I’d only heard about it ‘till now,” he says with a smirk. Then he motions to a couple of mercenaries out of view, absently continuing some instruction from before. 

Ane shrugs gently, as she polishes the ruddy cheek of a slightly bruised appoh against the thigh of her trousers. 

“If there ever was an occasion for it, this seemed like it.” 

“Hopefully not,” Vasht replies. “There’re guards in the front and more in the back. If Faceless get up here, either they’re too smart, or the mercs are too dumb… or they’re dead,” he says with a dry humor. “Anyway… If we know some are coming, then we have some paletorches that’ll help. They just don’t last long, and we’ve a ways to go,” he reasons. 

“Understandable,” she replies, casting an experimental sight-hum over the assembled wagons. If they pass through the trees from her vision, she won’t be able to see much… But “not much” is better than “nothing,” and the eyed races are no good at all in the dark. Shasii like Ane fare much better without light.

Ane then remembers the faceless pantster, undead and chittering in the dark lands ahead, and a small shiver tickles between her shoulder blades. What seemed ridiculous in the comfort of her cabin has sharper, more sinister edges in the fringes of the shadowlands.

Still, part of her is curious about what it would feel like to touch a Faceless mind with her own, and explore it the way she did that bird-spider. She has never tried — never really wanted to. Would they still be aware, trapped in some kind of unliving hell? Or just as they seem, babbling their idiot poetry to no one?

Ane’s never touched a sapient mind like that. She had tried once. She was young, very young, and so was the round-cheeked callosian boy who watched her feed the trumbas with a sneer on his lips. His clothes and face were clean — doubtless kept that way by the governess who held his hand and made sure he kept his distance from the grubby shasii girl with straw in her hair and grass stains on her knees. She saw his lips move, though even her keen hearing couldn’t pick up what he said over the creaking and lowing or the trumbas, or the chatter of the crowd. It’s probably best she didn’t hear him.

Later, she’d snuck some of the old herbalist’s concoctions — a foolish thing to do, when she just barely knew what any of them did — and lay on her mat in front of the old woman’s stove. 

And, before she slept, she reached out to try to steal a piece — just a piece — of the little boy’s life.

Did he have a nursery full of toys and cake after dinner? Did he have parents who read him stories, or brothers and sisters to play with? 

She didn’t find out. She had, for a second, touched a world that felt like a hot kettle in its intensity — so loud, and so bright that holding onto it was like clutching a cactus paddle — and, when the horrified herbalist had found what she’d done, she’d given her several dissuading whacks with a ladle for her effort.

Ane had not tried to touch a sapient mind again. When her mother’s former wagon no longer needed to be stuffed to bursting with costumes, she had moved into it to read cards and see what the herbs would tell her without Dynkala’s help. 

Even thinking about it is enough to waken the sensation of scales — still with the pink softness of a baby’s — on her cheek, the welts on her legs, and the bitter rumble in her stomach. It had probably been nothing more than a hallucination, however vivid, and Dynkala had been right to punish her for dabbling in things she didn’t understand. She was lucky all she had come away with was an aching head, sore legs, and an upset stomach.

Ane sniffs at the passing breeze, with its earthy smell and thickness of anticipation. 

Vasht, still there in the present, shrugs his shoulders. 

“Need anything before we get moving? The guards should be up here in a minute,” he says, to the sounds of footsteps on the path below. 

Presently, the surroundings are still grassy and normal — normal, at least, for another half-mile or so. Once things reach the shadow’s edge, it’s like stepping from one painting to another. The rolling hills and swaying blades of grass give way to an abrupt line of thick, foamy mycelium. Their ghostly white tendrils reach up over dark hills, like crests upon waves. Underneath them, the specs of ivory are visible in the distance. 

Ane shakes her head.

“As long as the hired blades can feed and water themselves, I’m fine,” she assures him.

“Of course,” he assures her. Then, with a grin he adds, “Enjoy the ride.”

With that, Vasht turns and begins to take off. He spreads all six of his wings, dashes across the short span of the roof and catches the wind, sailing up into the air with a mighty beat of his wings. By the look of things, he’s going to make another pass along the shadow’s edge, then return to visit others manning the wagon-tops. There aren’t many. For now, it just seems to be Ane, and then Jiselmo in the distance. He’s halfway out of his skylight hatch though, and likely intends to drop inside at the first hint of trouble. He waves jauntily in the distance. 

It takes a moment or two longer before the mercenaries arrive. One of them, a fuhajen, simply floats up to the top. He’s an odd sight for his race, adding leathers on top of the usual chest-baring robes of his people. There’s a feathered, wide-brimmed hat on his head and an oaken longbow on his back. He regards Ane with his trio of sapphire eyes, then nods.

“Hello. Reporting in,” he greets her amiably.

Then there’s the sound of another clambering up the side of the wagon. Ane hears the light jingling of her chainshirt as she makes the ascent, before a  lightly-armored tzuskar with a mop of wavy blond hair finally crests over the top. She wears a circular shield strapped to her right arm and a sword sheathed upon her hip. The mercenary stops at the top for a moment, smiling politely as she gives a wave in greeting. 

Ane nods politely to the pair, though she doesn’t try to make small talk. She’s going to be occupied with keeping her eye on the spaces between the trees, and it’s not likely she’ll have the attention to chat either of them up. Besides, she doesn’t really need to know them much — Jarrik doesn’t keep hired guards around long, or he’d likely find himself at the end of a sword for stiffing their paychecks too often.

They soon take up their positions, with the Fuhajen perched near the front with his bow at the ready. The tzuskar sits near the back, ready to either defend the wagon or to intercept an approaching Faceless. 

“I’m sure you know already,” the tzuskar says lightly, “But just point and call out whatever you see. Our goal is to get it before it comes near the caravan.”

Down below, Ane can hear the sound of the wagon’s hitch being checked. Up ahead, trumbas snuff and clatter in their harnesses. It seems like the wagons are about to begin rolling. She nods.

“Got it. Not sure why Jarrik has us going through the shadowlands, but hopefully it won’t be long.”

The woman frowns. “It can’t be for anything good, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“Well,” the bowman chimes in with a twang, “Nothing but Faceless and Friends out there. Not the sort of company most people would pick.”

With a slight jolt, the wagon begins to roll. There’s the slight crack and creak of wood being pulled into motion, working admirably against many years of wear. Soon the pace becomes steady, at just above a walking pace. The trumba are faster than most beasts of burden, though that’s not saying much with three wagons in tow. They almost seem to be moving faster than usual, as if they’re rushing to get through this area. 

Ane bites into her appoh, crunching quietly, then settles into silence. There won’t be anywhere to stop in the shadowlands, so she’d better take the chance to eat now, as meager a meal as it may be.

The two mercenaries go quiet and settle in for the long haul, keeping a wary gaze outward. They might as well be alert and ready… even if they can’t see very far in front of their faces. 

 

The next half-mile is like any other caravan ride, except for the anticipation. Up ahead, the line of darkness slowly inches forward. With it, the land beyond begins to come in with greater clarity… and there’s much to see, especially for someone with echolocation like Ane. It all comes after a strange phalanx of bleached bones, with ribs tossed askew and skulls staring eyelessly towards the sky.

For some reason, it seems a great many beasts have died along this border. 

After this initial line, the sets of bones occur in occasional smatterings across the grassless fields. Some are more recently departed, still carrying their fur and some of their flesh. One creature, strangely, is still alive, fur and sinew twitching and grasping towards the sky. The caravan’s arrival is heralded by its distant, mournful mooing. The gurran cries out repeatedly without sense, with tones somewhere between mating and maimed. As Ane catches sight of it, she sees the thing isn’t even Faceless; it’s just stark-raving mad. The beast’s mighty head is ducked down to the dirt, shoving its curled horns into the white tendrils of mycelium.

Alive or not, it already seems to be glorified fertilizer. 

Ane can feel a knot of anxious anticipation tensing in her belly. Part of it is dread — the forest is full of terrors, and it’s her job to keep them safe — while part of it is a kind of eagerness at testing the accuracy of her vision. Will the strange glowing circles be on the trees? Will she hear the repetitive chatter of the Faceless pantster?

Soon, the caravan leaves the mad, mooing carcass in the dust. Its haunting cries continue on for some time longer, until finally they fade into the distance behind.

So far, the environment has been crisp and clear to Ane’s vision. To her, it’s less like going into darkness and more like entering into a world that’s a different shade of heat. She can see the flecks of dirt upon the fungus-ridden soil, and even the fibers of said fungus as it weaves in-between the dirt and roots. This valley has no secrets to hide from her thus far, and strangely, there is the occasional sight of life: lost animals, random clumps of struggling grass, then copses of trees that seem fed by the mycelium. 

They, too, are adorned with bones. 

In contrast to Ane’s clarity, the two mercenaries are clearly, visibly lost. Their postures are slumped and yet tight with tension, breaths catching with an air of sudden helplessness. Out here, they don’t even have regular torchlight to guide their vision. That would draw too much attention. Instead, they’re simply waiting. To their eyes, this land is nothing but a deep, endless black, with nothing but the distant shards in the sky offering pitiful pinpricks of light. 

Truly, this sort of land is a thing of dire fables. Many tales begin with this sort of journey… They also tend to be stark departures from the usual fare, trading fae and whimsy for darkness and dread. Parents often chastise their children about venturing anywhere near this sort of place, and in truth, it’s wholly unnecessary. No child in their right mind would come here. Children may hassle a stray dog, but this would be poking a dragon’s belly. 

After about an hour of riding, the mad animals cease to be a feature. All goes still in the darkness, save for the steady rumble of the wagon beneath Ane’s feet. Even here, it feels somewhat reassuring — as if even this dreaded land can’t take away that feeling of life, of movement and steady progression. All is otherwise still…

Then, up ahead, a shadow stirs. It hastens, and then darts along the side of the road towards the wagons…

Teller of Fortunes 5: Fear Graves and Dark Places…

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

It isn’t easy to wash up in the middle of a trip with nothing but a bowl of water, but the caravaners don’t often have the luxury of long soaks. A few may take their turn braving the cold of the stream, but Ane would rather have a little bit of hot water than all the seas in the world. 

Once back in her wagon, she strips down before her little round-bellied iron stove. She dips the scrubbing-cloth in the water, lathers up with the soap, and gives herself a brisk rubdown. She wipes the bubbles away, then dries off, dons her robe, and hangs her head through the split door to pour the water over her hair. It isn’t much, but it’s the best way to stay clean and civilized-feeling on the dusty road. 

As the caravan rolls along, the scenery slowly changes. Rolling hills of shimmering grass give way to scrubby shrubs, and trees cease to be a rarity. They still remain somewhat sparse in number, and thus, refreshing to the caravan’s passage; occasionally there’s some shade, without the foreboding uncertainty that a proper forest presents. 

The ride of mountains that once painted the far horizon is now rolling in. The tallest, snowiest peak itself is still far in the background, but the closest foot of the mountain ridge has crept forward. Its sides are dappled with vegetation, resolving into sharp detail the closer the caravan approaches. In a matter of days, the road begins to curve all the way around towards the back of the ridge.

There, with the vestigial light-sense of the shasii, Ane can see where the rays of Shardlight begin to get tucked away. A distinct shadow is cast off the mountainside, blanketing an entire span of land hundreds of miles long in relative darkness. While some shardlight does come from the distant coast, the mountains on the other side block it almost completely. 

Traditionally, these lands are an open invitation to danger and intrigue. 

This reality goes unspoken, at least until the caravan’s next meal.

This time, when Ane lines up to eat, Nelea is the one doling out helpings of food. This means a rather well-balanced meal, heavy on vegetables, without Brair’s flair for large portions and searing black flecks of shard-pepper.

And this time, the caravan master himself is in front of Ane. Even he has to line up for food, though he customarily zips off soon afterwards. Despite his youth, the stocky shasii has a rather venerable and overwhelming presence. His collar is worn wide, his hat is rakishly cocked, and he carries a cane polished to match the epaulets of his velvet jacket. Never mind the shining array of brass buttons, burnished to look like gold,  and the ostentatious curl of his mustache. 

He cuts a rather boisterous figure, as he chats gaily with some others. As easy as it would be to eavesdrop, Ane isn’t sure she wants to know what he’s blathering about. She does what allows her to get through the line with maximum speed and minimum fuss — there are other engagements to concern herself with. Besides, the most she’s likely to hear from the caravan master is more money woes and the unsavory details of his shady doings, and she can do without that for now. 

She gives Nelea a murmured thanks and a smile as she turns to hurry back to her wagon… At least until she finds her swift escape cut short by the gaze of Vasht, the knife-thrower. He turns quickly from the middle of a conversation, with the light of the fire shining across his cheek and the ravine of a scar in the middle. With a hand raised in her direction, he beckons for Ane to slow down for a moment. She doesn’t have a chance to respond before he rises from his seat, excuses himself, then heads off to intercept her before she can change her mind. 

Normally, when it comes to mealtime, one wouldn’t be so insistent; however, Vasht is a special case. Despite his relative youth compared to the Master and some of the hired guards, Vasht carries some authority around the camp — partly earned by his role in defending the group, and partly from his bearing.

In every way, Vasht has the look of a keen soldier himself; he has short, sable-colored hair, and deep blue wings that seem every bit as sharp as his knives and his smile. Still, despite his rough appearance, Vasht has been known to take more than his share of risks on the caravan’s behalf. For the last few days, he’s been seen flying ahead to scout the path; even if she hadn’t seen his shadow passing overhead, she can see the fresh scores in the leather of his armor.

At least he seems relatively relaxed on his approach, shoulders at ease, as he smiles casually and waves in greeting. 

“Hey, Ane. Getting close to shadowlands, so I’m making my usual rounds. Mind if I have a word?” He asks, easygoing but straight to the point, as usual.

She draws in a stiff breath.

Now what? 

It takes her a moment to decide if she minds. Has she done anything wrong lately? Not that the caravan master would know about, unless he wants to complain-by-proxy about Aedas commandeering all of the soap.

She gives a short, sharp nod.

“Alright, what’s happening?”

Once he approaches a comfortable distance, Vasht stops and shrugs one shoulder. 

“Nothin’ yet. It’s just been awhile since we’ve passed through shadowlands. We had easy going on our way to Pellas, but that was all in shardlight.” He scratches at the wing jutting from his right cheek, right above the scar; it covers one of his eyes, as always. Ane hasn’t the foggiest idea of how he keeps it from interfering with his aim, but he seems to manage well enough. 

“Anyway. That’s why I’m tryin’ to talk to everyone, just to get ready. Some people wanna be outside on the lookout, and others just need the notice to batten down all their hatches.” He smirks a bit at this. “For you, though… Just wonderin’ if you have anything you wanna pitch in, in case things get rough. I know you’re not one for scraps with Faceless, but if you’ve got wards, salves, or anything like that…” He trails off, nodding towards her. “And if not, we can always use another spotter if you feel up to it. It’s not for everyone, but the more the better.”

Faceless? 

The word alone is enough to make her stomach turn sour.

Stay in the shardlight,
And you will be alright.
Fear graves and dark places,
Or you’ll meet the Faceless.

Creatures from a bad dream. Monsters to frighten children with. An unfortunate reality for those who live in or travel through places where the shardlight doesn’t touch. Faceless shamble through the darkness like mindless things, repeating whatever nonsense was once important to them in life through their charred, inky lips. They only have one drive, and it’s a simple one: find a new body, and spawn in it. Any living thing can be possessed by a Faceless, from a hermit-mouse to a gurran behemoth, and all Faceless seek another body to vomit themselves into. Like the broken, idiot machinery of the Skyral, it’s hard to tell how much intelligence lays behind their repetitive rambling. Is it the misfiring impulse of a hijacked brain? Or a way to bait the living into coming close enough to attack?

Faceless didn’t always exist, or so Ane’s been told. Some blamed their appearance on the breaking of the sun even if they’d existed before that, there weren’t nearly as many dark places for them to hide. Regardless of where the blame lies, one thing’s for certain: a slow-moving train of alive things would be irresistible to them.

Shasii spotters, as a rule, fare better in shadowlands. A sight based on sound can see perfectly well in the dark, and their keen ears hear far better than most. Though there are some shasii among the mercenaries, mercenaries are mercenaries and it’d be foolish to turn down extra sets of swirls and ears.

“Salves?” She arches a brow. “I’ve got a few, though I haven’t made any fresh since our last trip through Paakoponde — I was hoping to see the root-mongers to replenish my ingredients. I can spot, and,” she jerks her head in the direction of her wagon as she speaks, “I’ve got my own ways to defend myself.”

Vasht nods at the first question. 

“For healing, unless you have something that’ll make a man into twenty,” he jokes. When her offer to spot seems to sink in, a genuine smile tugs at the edges of his lips. “That’d be great! It matters more than one might think, and you should be in a good place for spottin’.” He flaps a hand towards her wagon, with its wide window and broad roof. “Though Fires, I wouldn’t want you to have to defend yourself… That’s what ol’ Jarrik swindles the mercs for, and they don’t have the good acts.” 

She gives a dismissive wave of her fork in the direction of a few of the hulking, boiled-leather-clad-forms grouped around a fire.

“I haven’t needed a paid blade yet, and I don’t figure I need one now,” she says flatly. “I can spot, and there’s room enough up there for one or two others besides me.”

When Ane says this, something seems to change in Vasht’s expression. His laid-back nature is still there, but he seems a little sterner… Perhaps a bit more grave. His eyes, usually almost unseen in a smile or a squint, now shine faintly. They seem to take a moment to size Ane up, with a curious glance at her arms and shoulders, though mostly he examines her expression to gauge how serious she seems. 

After a moment of apparent wondering, Vasht nods.

“Top of the wagon it is, then,” he decides. It’s about the most dangerous place that Jarrik would allow Vasht to station one of the performers. While the mercenaries may use mounts or sit on the sides, Jarrik wouldn’t allow that sort of danger to even be offered

“Well,” Vasht sighs, “The details can get sorted once we’re closing in on the shadow’s edge. Anything else?”

She seems impassive, even slightly annoyed, as he looks her over. There’s a bowl of food in her hand, and it’s getting cold. 

“You stopped me, remember?” She gives an insouciant shrug.

He nods, smiling again. 

“Yeah, sorry. It’s just…” He glances off, looking towards the caravan master’s wagon. When his gaze returns to her, his tone is hushed, “Truth be told, we shouldn’t even be taking this path. There’s a brighter one along the coast.” He takes a moment to glance about, and when he sees no one else is in immediate earshot, he continues, “Either he’s runnin’ extra fast this time, or he wants to meet someone in the shadowlands. I hope it’s the first one.” 

“Or he owes someone money and he’s trying to give them the slip,” she mutters, with a flatly dour look in the caravan master’s direction. It seems more likely than him having a secret friend in the shadowlands. Or anywhere, for that matter.

“That’s all.” Vasht leans back, and shrugs his shoulders with affected nonchalance.  Thanks for pitchin’ in, and sorry to interrupt!” 

She mirrors his lean back, and gives him a nod. 

“Sure.” And, with that, she heads back to her wagon to eat her dinner and take a long, leisurely journey inward with a cup of Pellan cherry cordial (and a couple of drops of tincture of blue bolete).

Fortunately, her meal it didn’t get too cold during their conversation. It’s not hot, but it’s still warm enough. With the rest of the day to enjoy it, enjoy she does, though she doesn’t take extra time for savoring — all the better to return her dishes and hightail it back to her wagon. 

Once she’s through, she wraps herself back in the silky, threadbare robe, pours out a measure of the cordial, adds a few drops of the cobalt-colored tincture, and reaches under the dusty depths of her cushioned bench for a small, iridescent crystal. She has to gently blow a few dust-smeerps from it before she uses it, even giving the rough surfaces a rub of her sleeve for good measure. When it’s clean enough, she sets the crystal beside her and gently, softly taps it into melodious life.

The bright, crystalline notes of the song begin to fill the wagon as she takes her first sip of the cordial. It blazes a sweet, tingling trail of heat down to her belly, leaving her lips and the tip of her tongue abuzz as the mushroom’s mildly psychotropic compounds dance across them. A few more notes, another sip, and she can feel the heavy softness settling over her like a favorite quilt. As she drains the cup, the walls of the wagon seem to breathe lightly — moving the way the sea laps at the sand. 

Once her mind no longer feels housed within her body, once moving her limbs feels like pulling on mile-long marionette strings, she lets the wagon — with its once-opulent carpets and its breathing walls — become eclipsed by the thickening trees beyond. She no longer tries to pull at arms and legs that no longer seem interested in obeying. Instead, she lets her consciousness rise and float, drifting like a leaf on the surface of a stream, to find a more willing body to ride in.

As her very soul floats along the wind, carried by rites even unbeknownst to itself, Ane finds herself drifting towards a form. It’s a dark one, yet one that flits along the winds so majestically. Could it be a crow? No, the eyes are too small, unfitting for such a view… Could it be a raven? No, the eyes are too few, and they lack a raven’s reddish glow. 

While these forms may be familiar to Ane, they are not hers. As Ane reaches towards them, she feels a queer wind wash against her course. The shardlight above shines and flickers, playing tricks, diverting her from the clear path to a simple form. The result is that she just barely brushes against them, touching their very concepts, but lands just a little to the left. Not to the left of their bodies, but to the left of what these birds truly are.

And where that is, is somewhere in the shadowed lands ahead. 

Her vision opens. The hum is silent, but the eyes… The eyes do see. And now that her being has begun to settle, she can feel them. Three of them, all blinking and gazing out with split pupils. The body is small, but substantial, like that of a large arachnid. Like such a creature, she has numerous legs that touch, step, and stroke along the rough bark beneath. Perhaps there are eight? It’s hard to tell. Numbers are beyond comprehension in this state. Ane’s mind is her own, but also something else’s, as if on loan. 

As her feeling of this creature begins to fill out, Ane becomes aware of two large, raven-colored wings. They cover the body neatly, well enough to cover the strange legs beneath. Truly, these things do not fit together, nor does the trio of eyes. And her beak… Is it fanged? There’s a small tongue as well, tasting the scents on the air. 

And so she sits within this creature, for a time; this thing that’s not quite a bird, not quite an arachnid, just simply not quite. She’s perched neatly upon the branch of a tall tree, sheltered beneath a wide, leafy canopy. Colors are all around, though they’re muted into grayness by the darkness of this land. There are many things in these trees to discover: flitting birds, scuttling insects, foraging beasts, and all manner of plant life.

She feels a glimmer of intelligence — a bit more than usual for riding in the body of a creature. While she’s here, she should make herself — or the remnants-of-herself — useful. If the creature can ambulate somehow, now is a good time to reconnoiter. Besides, the inability to move her own sluggish limbs is prickling at the back of her mind like an itch she can’t reach. Spreading this creature’s wings, whatever it might be, might offer a little relief.

And ah, that does feel nice. 

When Ane spreads her wings, they feel so light, so dreamlike… It’s as if they were made from a soft, sheer fabric, rather than proper feathers. Even so, they hold her weight and catch the air just fine. The very thought of flying is almost sends her into the air on its own. The way her muscles, her borrowed bones respond is purely automatic. It’s as if they were made to work on a whim, simpler than a twitch of the shoulder. 

When the wings tilt just right, Ane is propelled to new heights. She floats in this strange, leafy purgatory between ground and sky, able to deftly flit between even the tightest gaps in the branches. All this, even with her fairly substantial body and numerous legs, which all now neatly fold against the underside. 

Through triple-vision, Ane begins to catch sight of the forest’s other denizens. The most numerous are the bugs of course, which march along bark and soil alike. There are the sap-scarabs, which sip and then ball-up sap to be nibbled on later. There are the “walks,” flies born without wings. And then of course there’s a great many others, even a few colorful flutter-bys… 

She can feel the presence of a number of other birds, like the angular skarrow, or the more conventional sorts of corvid. These all seem to move the fastest, even making a point to avoid Ane. Is it fear? It could imply that she’s some sort of predator, or (stranger still), just a little too similar and too different from them at the same time.

Teller of Fortunes 4: Watch Out Where the Trumbas Go

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

When the Teller of Fortunes awakens, it’s to the pitch and roll of her wagon. Just as she expected. 

She slips a finger in her mouth, fishing out the last dregs of the sightwort from under her tongue. Pulling a bitter face, she tosses the small, sawdusty clump out of the window as the wagon trundles on. There’s not much she can do while the caravan’s in motion, aside from solitary, quiet activities, so she sets about the minor tasks that mark her waking.

First, some roasted root coffee. Unlike the Rhytalan stuff, the faintly bitter brew isn’t a stimulant. It’s definitely nice to wake up to, though. She sets a few coals into the little round-bellied iron stove beside her bed, stirring them to life with a little tinder, a firesteel, and the edge of a good, sharp knife. Once the coals glow, she pours a bit of water into a small copper pot, and an equally small measure of dulcis root into a muslin bag. She floats the bag atop the rippling water, and attends to the rest of her toilette. 

Seated at her vanity, she rubs a little herb-infused oil into her skin and the ends of her hair, before combing through the thick, dark locks with a comb carved from polished snailwhale shell. She prods gently at a small blemish on the angle of her jaw — nothing a little grain spirit and some clean Paakoponde mud won’t dry up — and ignores it in favor of retrieving the little copper coffee pot from her stove. 

With coffee in hand and her robed knees drawn up to her chest, Ane sits on her bed beside the window to watch the grasslands roll past. The rhythmic rattle and creak of the wagon is soothing in its gentle repetitiveness, and it’s only with effort that she keeps herself from lapsing into sleep again. 

For those accustomed to the road, trips tend to pass much more quickly. What may be a long, ceaseless experience for some can start to feel like a chain of the smaller, more significant events. In this case, the breakfast and lunch of that day pass by without much fanfare. Brair cooks again, though it seems the others talked him out of using more of his peppers. Naturally, he responded by saying he didn’t want to use them all at once anyway. Either way, it makes the next two meals satisfying and flavorful in a more conventional sense. 

Sometime later, around mid-afternoon, the caravan stops again to let the trumba graze upon prairie shrubs. Ane’s content to stay in her wagon with some coffee and a book, at least until she hears a knock on the door. It only comes as half a surprise — it’s not at all rare for the other carvaners to turn up on her doorstep, either for divination or for more medicinal needs. Even seasoned travelers have things they wonder about life, and as for medicine… well, one may not always want the care of an octogenarian klorrian grand-matron.

Whoever it may be (and whatever it may be), the knock is firm and steady, but not urgent. When her keen ears flick toward the sound, she’s in the midst of letting her hum drift lazily over a book. She was just at the point where the dashing bandit was about to tear through the heroine’s bodice like wet paper… Or was it the effete courtier? Never mind, it isn’t important. The raised-print words are little more than something to keep her swirls busy; she’d begun daydreaming three chapters ago.

“Who is it?” She calls out, setting the book on the other end of her bed. She swings her legs over the edge and waits to get up — if it’s something that can be handled by yelling through a door, she’d just as soon stay where she is.

“It’s Aedas!” Comes the reply, from a rather deep, thick voice. “Think I pulled something, but also, there were strange tidings at the time!” His way of pronouncing things tends to come off as a bit brash, as though his tongue tends to crash into syllables. Some mountain-people talk in a similar manner, but really, Aedas’ mannerisms are uniquely… Aedas. “So, uh… Medicine and ‘terpretation? Those,” he finally concludes.

Probably hurt himself having a bad dream, she figures, again.

“Arright, ‘s open,” she calls out as she stands. If he’s pulled something, he probably needs a little heat and some salve. Maybe there’s some more of that salt solution she picked up in Aed’harth… 

Her hands deftly maneuver through a collection of pots and bottles in one of her cabinets, before retrieving a small tin of something gray, gooey, and unctuous, an earthenware bottle of something clear and viscous, and a lumpy sack. She parks the sack before the round-bellied stove to warm.

Given permission, the door creaks open. In hobbles the taut, lumbering form of Aedas. As a huikkaran strongman, he’s tall, though purely in a technical sense due to the way he is forced to crawl into the room. While moving about on all fours through their tunnel homes is perfectly natural for most huikkarans, Aedas usually avoids it at all cost. This time, pain seems to mark his departure from custom. The result is a sight that’s mostly muscled back and striped tanktop held up on short, thick legs, and long, muscular-to-bursting arms. 

The picture changes somewhat when he struggles to raise his head and offers a shy smile. Aedas may not be a handsome man, but he’s an earnest one. His chin is a distinct wedge, if not fully symmetrical, set below a pair of very large, shining brown eyes and a mop of dark-blond hair. 

“Heh… Hello, Ane! I’m getting back to my roots today,” he says jovially, gesturing to his crawling frame. He sighs. “You got a pillow or something I can flop flat on? Pain’s in the lower back,” he finishes, with a wince. 

Ane cants her head, sizing up the huikkaran’s posture before she allows him to sit — is he fully upright? No, she can see the subtle tilt of his shoulders, the faint curve of a spine protecting one side. Are his legs even? It’s difficult to tell without seeing him walk farther, but, even standing, his hips might not be perfectly level… She nods swiftly as she sets a square cushion near her little pot-bellied stove. It was once a costly decorative item, covered as it is in faded embroidery, with bits of ricrac and mirrorwork along the edges, now pressed into service in a purely utilitarian fashion.

“Sit there. Right or left side?” She asks, as she turns away to face the stove. One hand works the tinder into life, while the other adjusts the sagging bag of faded muslin before the stove’s door. Its lumpy shape attests to its contents — about a pound and a half of dry, rather aged grain hulls. 

He flops chest-first onto the cushion without ceremony. He’d probably crush one of the tiny mirrors, if his weight weren’t spread out across an arm span wider than he is tall. It seems he has interpreted the word “sit” in his own way, by hugging the floor like this. 

“Ngh… Lower left?” He guesses, tilting his head towards his back. “Pulled the muscle while doin’ my morning overhead lift. I was facing off towards the Skyral, like I always do, and then I saw a flash of black light unner the shardsign ‘a Jjokar the Tyrant! That’s when I…” He rambles on.

The Skyral. It’s the last thing that marks where the sun once hung in the world’s hollow belly a swirling vortex of magical energy, half dark, half iridescent. Ever since the Shattering, chunks of the broken sun dot the landscape like fragments of a dropped teacup, and the Skyral turns in the sky with the pointless motion of a piece of forgotten machinery. If you look hard enough on a clear day, you can even see through the sky, past the Skyral, and to the sun shards dotting the land on the opposite side of the world. Geonomers use the constellations of sun shards to tell fortunes and create horoscopes. Some people prognosticate using the turns of the Skyral. Ane’s always preferred her cards, but she’s never shied away from dabbling in a little geonomy where it proves prudent.


 “Flash of black light?” She asks. One hand holds the edge of the sack of grain hulls, letting it fall open as the other adds a few drops of the clear, fragrant liquid. She binds the sack closed with a deft miller’s knot, and sets it atop the stove to warm. Before long, the sharp, greenly pungent smell begins permeating the rest of the wagon.

“On your back, please.” The Teller of Fortunes kneels on the threadbare rug beside the brawny strongman.

He wrinkles his nose at the smell, but doesn’t complain. Then with a grunt of effort and a wince of pain, he turns his weight, flipping himself onto his back. He groans with pain as some of his weight falls on his back, and he wriggles vainly to readjust. 

“Yeah! ‘Twas, eh… right there, in the blue sky! And this horrible, Void-damned buzzing noise, like nothin’ I’ve ever heard! Took me right off-guard, had to shrug off the weight and…” The words almost have to fight to get through his protestations of pain. 

 “Did it go to the right, or the left?” She asks, as she takes one of the huikkaran’s short, muscular legs in hand. She cautiously bends the limb at the knee, before placing one hand on his opposite shoulder, and pushing his knee until his spine twists to one side.

“The weight? Why, it fell to the left… Can’t be good, dropping all sinistra- Nnngh!” He grunts in the midst of a loud popping sound, signalling a few of his vertebrae snapping in and out of place. He’s a rather strange sight in this pose, like a farm-boy’s head atop some kind of bizarre man-pretzel.  “Whatsit- Agh! … Mean?” He asks in between.

It takes quite a bit of strength to pop his back, or even move him at all — like trying to bend a wagon wheel. He’s patient and accommodating though, so with a few attempts, the Teller of Fortunes manages to produce a satisfying crack.

“No, no…” She says, as she patiently unknots him. Then, she gently maneuvers his other leg in the opposite direction. “The flash of light. Did it go off in one direction, or the other, or stay still? And describe the buzzing.”

The two of them now look like a strange piece of performance art. Then, soon, he’s cracking twist-wise and suppressing more of the same sounds.

“Oh, the right… Nn- then I felt a sharp pain in that eye! The buzzin’ was fast, terrible, just Void-damn horrible…” He shakes his head. 

Her lips press into a flattened frown. 

The Teller of Fortunes leaves him to rest there for a moment, as she retrieves the steaming muslin bag from the top of the round-bellied stove. She takes a doily from the recesses of the shelf above the window, and makes a looping gesture at Aedas.

“Turn onto your stomach again, but, before you do… Let me see your eye.”

“Y-yeah, sure…” 

He leans forward, opens one large, dark-irised eye, and Ane sees… A single, diaphanous strip of wing tissue wedged into one of his long eyelashes. 

It’s a Void-damn wing from a fly. 

Ane hums directly at his eye, almost making the shiny, wet surface vibrate under her gaze. She folds the corner of her robe into a small point, then deftly dabs the fly’s wing off of Aedas’s eye.

“Well,” she concludes, “If I had to guess, I’d say you should stop lifting where the trumbas shit.”

The strongman looks at her blankly, uncomprehending. As said before, Aedas is an earnest fellow, but he certainly isn’t a bright one. He looks at the end of the robe, staring for a moment before he notices the fly’s wing. It then takes a few more moments after that before he connects it all together.

“Oh.” He furrows his brow. “A fly.”

“A fly,” she assures him, before flicking the insect wing off of her robe with a soft thwat of her fingernail. 

“Ah. So…” Aedas pauses, now drumming his fingertips on his chin. He’s still game for whatever Ane has planned to make his back feel better, but he’s rather dumbfounded by this. “So… What does that mean?”

“It means you should be more careful where you exercise. And,” she admonishes him with a friendly sternness and an almost comical wag of her finger, “While we’re on the subject, more careful about lifting in general. Now, if you would,” she gestures to him to finish rolling over onto his stomach.

“Oh. Arright,” he agrees, and flips himself over. Now the rocky slab of his back is facing the ceiling, and his perplexed expression is directed at the floor. His voice is a bit muffled when he adds, “So, no bad omen if I lift in cleaner places?”

“I shouldn’t think so,” she assures him, as she gently raises his shirt over his muscled back and begins lightly daubing his skin with oily grey liniment. “And lift more carefully.” 

She lays the cloth doily across his lower back, then places the sack atop it. The grain is hot, but the fabric helps keep the worst of the heat from his skin. He’s so rugged and calloused, though, that it’s hardly likely he would’ve noticed even if she hadn’t put something down first.

He now looks like a very fancy (albeit bizarre) table for tea. Aedas doesn’t really react to the heat, aside from uttering the occasional sigh of relief. That may be either the advice or the treatment, though; it’s hard to say which. He nods, nose about an inch from the floor.

“Thank ye. I’ll do my best to be more careful,” he says contentedly, with an air of determination. 

“That’s good. And make sure you stretch before you start. No skipping it just because you think it’s boring,” she gently admonishes him, as she returns to half-paying-attention to her book.

“Alright…” He says glumly, but obediently. 

The rest of his treatment passes without incident, and soon he’s able to stand on his hind legs and walk just fine. Once he’s no longer bearing the doily, he rises up and begins to amble towards the door.

“Thank ye, Ane! See you ‘round,” he bids her, then makes his way out. Once again, the Teller of Fortunes has completed her duties for the time being. 

“Be careful, Aedas,” she says, waving a goodbye from the cushioned bench beneath the window.

The rest of the day passes uneventfully, with plenty of time for Ane to read the rest of the bodice-ripping tale. As usual, the wishy-washy heroine chooses the dashing thief-with-a-heart-of-gold over the diplomatic courtier. All this, despite some glaring personality flaws in both men. Based on Ane’s knowledge, the dynamic reverses in the next volume; the bandit is framed for a crime, and the courtier so charitably offers his aid in busting him out. This allows the focus to swing his way, and the courtier rips the bodices for awhile. It’s almost as if the protagonist herself were just a blank lens, and this story is some kind of battleground for two tormented souls to battle over bodices till the end of days. 

The story has some nice descriptions of flower arrangements, though. 

In any case, a few mealtimes pass with much merriment, but little incident. The only hiccup in the routine comes towards the end of the day, when the caravan stops at a pristine stream rolling alongside the road. Strangely, there’s a long, impatient line forming in front of the cauldron of boiling water. This is baffling, though really it’s easier to just go along with it and wait her turn.

It’s only when Ane gets to the front that she realizes what is going on.

Aedas is sitting beside the bubbling cauldron, seated atop a stack of boards. He has a heap of iron weights at his side, as well as a scrubbing cloth and some lye soap. It appears he’s been taking time in-between people to wash his weights, his lifting platform, and just about everything else within reach. Whenever someone comes up to take their turn at the cauldron, Aedas pauses cleaning to perform some warm-up stretches. When Ane approaches, he gives her a nod and a thumbs-up.

“No bad omens,” he says with a grin.

Her lips purse and her brow furrows in bafflement. 

Is he-

He is.

She gives the strongman a perplexed thumb up, as she scoops a bowl of clean, steaming water from the cauldron. With a small shake of her head, she turns to carry it back to her wagon, where a clean scrubbing cloth, a fresh towel, and a bar of honey soap await.

Teller of Fortunes 3: A Little Sightwort and Some Crownflower Wine

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

The little wagon is much as Ane left it. The herbs in the katagon-bowl have burned through, but there’s a crisp, mint-and-vanilla scent lightly wafting on the air. Away from the bonfire, the breeze is cooler and there are fewer sounds of conversation and caravan-noise — she stills her humming gaze and tilts her face up toward the ceiling as she stands in front of the window, drinking in the cool and relative quiet.

Ane parts her lips in a contented sigh as she begins shedding rings into a half-clamshell on her vanity. Her hairpin follows, set on a wooden block carved into the likeness of a particularly placid disembodied head. She runs her fingers through her dark hair, shaking the heavy, glossy mass free, unlaces her sandals, shrugs off her muslin shirt, and shucks off her trousers.

Beneath the fabric, her skin is marked with a score of shapes and colors. The life of a circus performer is fraught with impermanence — one it is necessary to get used to, possibly even enjoy, if you’re going to last long. So, like many others like her, her hide bears the stamp of her travels: the familial and racial markings she was born with across her left shoulder and down her upper arm, a cluster of sightwort leaves picked out in deep blue dye just inside her right hip, a spray of dark feathers between her breasts, angular lines and dots of white ink encircling one thigh. Unaccustomed to the air after being in layers of clothing and a sweltering tent all day, a crop of goosebumps prickles into sharp relief across her skin, swiftly banished by a lively rub of her palms.

Ane plucks a thin, silky robe from the seat of her vanity, draping it around herself for modesty’s sake. Though she may be at home, there could be a knock at the door at any moment. Still, it’s not very likely — the rest of the caravan’s busy with their own doings, and the trumba-drivers won’t need her help to get the wagons linked. She folds her silk-clad arms atop the vanity’s smooth, whitewashed surface, and props her pointed chin on them. 

Above, her humming gaze settles on an old poster, little more than a scrap of cattail-fiber paper, yellowed and brittle with the passage of many years. In the center, a sprightly, curvaceous figure stands with one hip saucily cocked, one round-fleshed arm holding aloft a flaming hoop. The heart-shaped face is faded nearly beyond detection, but enough remains to be just barely recognizable: deep, enthralling swirls, a dazzling smile, cheekbones you could slice a cheese on. Beneath, block letters boldly declare (through the dingy veil of a Rhytalan coffee stain),

PRESENTING

For 3 Days Only

The Acrobatic Feats 

Of 

RAUNIA S’VARIO

It is not a picture Ane can look upon for long. 

She lightly presses her fingertips to a place at the nape of her neck. She can feel the tension brewing there, settling into the muscles from her head all the way down to the middle of her shoulders. With her free hand, she lifts the lid of a small enameled box inlaid with shells. The fancy exterior belies its contents — inside, there’s little more than a few curled shreds of what look like tree bark. More perceptive eyes than hers (if her swirls could be called eyes at all) might pick out the occasional splash of chartreuse lichen or stripe of spalting, but these nondescript bits of wood weren’t exactly chosen for their visual appeal. 

Ane gently breaks one in half, and places it in the center of her tongue like a sacrament. She is careful not to swallow, though. Swallowing would not only feel very unpleasant, it would be a waste of very expensive medicine. With her robe hugged tightly about her frame, she pads from her seat to her bed.

Now, she can enjoy the rest of the day in her own way.

It only takes a minute or so before she feels the telltale tingle against her tongue, as subtle and as thrilling as the brush of a feather across bare skin. She hasn’t taken enough for the visions to come, not today. There’s just enough for her to feel a light, downy warmth flowing through her limbs, and a pleasantly velvety feeling beginning to take the edge off of her thoughts. Just enough to rinse her mind of the detritus of other people’s strange cares. Just enough to ease her body from the stress of the oppressive heat and choking dust. 

A judicious sip of crownflower wine chases away the bitterness of the herb, and Ane is free. 

There is only the cool breeze, the breathy flutter of the curtains above her, the softness of the feather bed, the feeling of the robe against her skin, the pleasantness of a full belly, the sweetness of the wine… And, above all, the spreading succor of the sightwort root on her tongue. 

The sightwort is slow to take hold, and it does so gently, rolling across the mind and smoothing out the senses. Any more than this, and one tends to see things; but, for now, all is placid and cool. Time begins to pass in that silken, flowing sort of way that makes it impossible to discern how far it’s gone. Whether it’s the sightwort or a momentary lapse into sleep, Ane soon finds herself drifting carelessly ahead. 

Beneath her, the wagon begins to shift like a rolling tide. There are the distant sounds of labor outside, before myriad muffled clicks and clanks signal the wagon being hitched to another. Once it is so joined, the motion ceases long enough to permit Ane another dip into her sweet, dreamlike state. She’s hardly able to notice when the wagon begins to roll again, going steadily down one of Pellas’ paved highways. 

The sound of wheels against stone begins to form a rhythm that fades easily into the background. And, as her mind probes at the evening air, Ane finds an odd sense of clarity. Skarrows chirp and swoop high above, while smeerps leap across the grass, munching on bugs… Caravan workers lounge and snooze, rustling fabric as they move.

Up ahead, she hears words. A conversation drifts down from a wagon lit by candlelight. It rolls more smoothly than the others, carried on the finest wheels and springy leather supports. It must be the caravan master’s wagon. He always did keep his in the best condition.

The man is almost never alone. Even now, there are two voices coming from that reinforced wagon, though both are distant and muffled. In fact, it’s odd that Ane can hear them at all. Old Jarrik Varroon keeps thick walls about his person. But something about the coolness of the late hours, the ease of the sightwort, and that sense of relaxation opens up Ane’s senses… It’s like a door being nudged ajar, allowing only a sliver of light to peek through. 

The second voice with Jarrik is like a whisper, only occasionally flaring up when their words hit an impassioned pitch. That voice slithers and slides as it drifts across the air. Ane can begin to make out the shape of a conversation, though much of it is muffled and lost to the rolling of wagon wheels:

“The hounds sn- … -our heels, Jarrik. The ti- … has co-” the visitor presses in a deep, insistent tone.

The caravan master’s words are harder to make out, as he waffles and sniffs, “I know, I kn- … It’s been s- … time, but I -n -in- eh … tyrants to scra-…”

Hearing this, the first voice becomes yet more aggressive. 

“Then let’s make them!” The shout dies down into an urgent, barely contained whisper, “We need m- … Jarrik…. don’t come like …. once did. One mons- … and some trip- … are n- enough … -ur debts.”

The caravan master seems to take umbrage with this, and scoffs loudly, “-t’s as plain as the sha- … They… There -ust b-… nine.”

Whispering in a frenzy, the first man replies, “Th- … has been -ting. I thi- … it best you- … cold feet this ti-…”

The caravan master sighs loudly, trailing into an indecipherable murmurs.

“You will see,” the first voice reassures, suddenly placating. “-ey will … at the bridge- …”

“I hope so.”

Just like that, the conversation fades. Chairs legs scrape against the rattling floor, followed by footsteps, and a door nearly slamming. 

With that, quiet settles back over the trip. The sounds of the prairie begin to take prominence, shooing away the shadows of those two voices like unwelcome specters. Many hours pass in this new sense of peace, with all the sounds of the road put in harmony once again. 

It isn’t long before Ane drifts into a calm, dreamless sleep as soft and heavy as a velvet comforter. If the caravan leader’s conversation has intruded on her rest, it doesn’t show. Then again, he wouldn’t be Jarrik if he wasn’t up to something.