Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-21: Join the Mad King’s Joust

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When Ane returns to the camp, there’s quite a commotion around one end. People have gathered in a large, oblong circle, faces turned expectantly toward the center. The din of chatter raises high on the air, and alosins chuff loudly.

There also appear to be… banners? At least, Ane’s reasonably certain that the hanging clothes were intended to look like banners.  An even more motley collection has been draped all over what was probably Vasht the knife thrower’s wagon. Then, up top, a seat of some sort has been placed there.

Vasht’s wagon looks like a very odd nucleus for the whole thing, really.
And it all has a certain air about it.
You might call it “whimsy.” 

Oh.

Oh no.

What did the fweep-fweep do now? She’d thought Vasht was safe — if there’s one word she’d never use to describe him, it’s “whimsical.” But now there’re banners? And a group? With tables? She drops the things she’d collected from the undercity, a chair leg and hound’s skull, in her haste to go see what level of fuckery the caravan and her mind-controlling pet abomination have gotten up to in her absence.

As it turns out, they got up to quite a lot.

Ane has to push past the throng of observers, which is growing thicker by the minute. As soon as she finds a spot with a low shoulder, she darts her gaze around…

The first thing she spies is a scraped-bare strip of land, save for a rope fence running down the middle. When her gaze pans left, she sees… an alosin. Though that’s hardly the strange part. On the alosin is Brair, wearing a sheet as a sash and a large, ashen pot upon the top of his head. It sits jauntily on his brow, oddly complimenting the stark, firm expression on his bronzed face. The fire-slinging callosian today wields something else instead: a tall, wooden pole with a pillow tied around one end. 

Then, Ane pans her gaze to the right…

There’s another alosin, and this one is carrying Vasht. He has a curtain slung about his chest, in a most barbaric fashion (if barbarians had a thing for Valistean lace). His many sharp, sweeping tattoos paint a rather ominous picture; this, complete with the kettle perched upon his head, make him the perfect “dark knight.” He’s wielding a pillow-spear, similar to Brair’s. He also wears an expression of grim determination, though there’s a glimmer of chagrin in his eyes. It’s the look of a man that’s gotten himself into something, knows he looks ridiculous, and just has to commit to the bit.

And lording over the center, in the midst of the “banners” lining Vasht’s roof is an old oaken chair, perched imperiously right in the middle. Upon it sits a certain round, fuzzy creature, with an air of comical gravitas. Its little beak-mouth is set firmly, as if it too is pretending to take this all very seriously. It’s not bouncing or fweep’ing at the moment, but it nearly vibrates with an excited sort of energy. Its barely contained glee is almost childlike, under its  veneer of pretend-play. 

It has a small, yellow prop-crown on top of its head.

It is King Fweep-Fweep the Whimsical. This is his joust.

Ane groans to herself immediately before she begins to try to shoulder her way through the crowd. Brair and Vasht can have their pillow-fight for the moment — she is going to retrieve that fweep-fweep before someone loses an eye (or an ear, a wing…).

As Ane makes her way towards the wagon, the festivities begin to unfurl in earnest.

Jiselmo, standing in the center of the lanes, steps out wearing the full costume of a royal herald. He even has a long, brass horn with a flag on the end to match. 

“Hear ye, hear ye,” he calls out, “We gather today for the match of a lifetime! Today, two knights shall do battle for their honor. In the blue corner…”

He flings an arm out in the direction of Brair.

“SER BRAIR! Honorable knight of flame, lord of the pints, baron of the exploding wagon!”

Cheers erupt while Brair trots his alosin in a small circle, pounding his chest and waving his spear.

“And in the red corner… SER VASHT! The wicked dark knight, lord of edges, slayer of boards and fruits alike!”

Vasht receives a mixture of cheers and boos, as villains are wont to, though they’re all mixed in with laughter. Vasht, for his part, foregoes the grandstanding and instead raises his spear and points it towards Brair — a challenge!

Jiselmo cuts in, “Once more, simple rules! A knight who is lanced must remove their sash. A sashless-knight who is struck is DEFEATED! And if a knight falls off his alosin, he is both DEFEATED and VERY SILLY…”

Ane gently pinches the bridge of her nose. She knew the little thing was persuasive, but this. Half of the participants here have to be indulging it for fun. There’s no way something the size of an appo and a half could turn the caravan into this.

“Hey!” She calls sternly up to the fweep-fweep, “Either you come down, or I’m coming up.” 

Somehow.

“Fwip fwip fwip fwiiip fwip… fwep fwep…” The thing squeaks and whistles, babbling on, as if imitating a person’s speech. It doesn’t seem to be paying any attention to Ane. In fact… is it acting like a king? The crowd is silent, as if it’s officiating the start of the battle.

“Fuip… fwep… FWEEP!”

Cheers erupt as the alosins huff, scuffing their feet on the dirt. Then in a burst of activity, they LEAP! Both knights charge at each other valiantly, Brair in his ash-pot helm, Vasht wearing his kettle. The thunderous sound of galloping alosins fills the air, as a large dust cloud kicks up behind their springing legs.

The fighters lean low, gaining swiftness, ersatz pillow-spears held tightly to their sides and braced in brawny arms. The alosins leap with their heads low, charging for speed. 

There’s a moment of silent suspense.

Then, in a flurry of motion, the men pass and the spears flash into action! Brair goes for a very straightforward charge, but Vasht… oh, he’s a dark knight. And being the deft fighter he is, he ducks aside at the last second and thrusts his spear! His muscled arms tighten with tension as he swings his ‘weapon,’ striking Brair straight in the stomach. He takes the full weight of the alosin’s charge, coupled with the deftness of Vasht’s strike.

“Bwaaaahfuck!” Brair cries out, sent sailing off the (in hindsight, not-all-that-fast) alosin. He falls back while it charges onward, and he collides into the spongy tunnel ground with a thump.

At the other end of the lanes, Vasht brings his alosin to a stop. He then plants the haft-end of his spear in the ground, stands tall, and puffs out his mighty tattooed chest. 

“SER VASHT IS VICTORIOUS! A DECISIVE BLOW,” Jiselmo calls out, frantic with excitement.

He then toots his brass horn to make it official, while Brair sneakily wanders off to find a pint for his bruised pride and his jostled rear. 

“Right. I’m coming up,” Ane says, as she begins attempting to find hand- and footholds among all of the clothing hanging from Vasht’s wagon. If he ever did manage to find the time to do his shirt laundry, he’s going to have to do it again — the kicked-up dust from the alosins has not done them any favors. 

When she arrives at the top, the little fweep-fweep is looking quite fat and sassy in his “throne.” It’s currently rocking back and forth, cheeks pooched, looking very satisfied with itself. It’s still wearing the little fake crown, though it’s slid over its little tufted head at an angle.

Down below, the aforementioned actor is now busking the camp followers, guards and passers-by that clumped around this event. He moves amongst the thunderous cheer and applause, shouting. 

“Thank you, thank you! We accept appreciation in the form of CURRENCY and LOTS OF BOOZE. Brair seems a bit sore, so we won’t be getting more any time soon!”

Jiselmo!” Ane shouts down to him in horror. It’s bad enough the fweep-fweep is responsible for this without him capitalizing on it for liquor and coin. “What the Voi– Alright, you know what?” Perched atop Vasht’s wagon beside the makeshift throne, she reaches out to pluck the crown from the tiny creature’s head. 

“Fwep fuip fep… Fip f– FEEP!” It cheeps, eyes wide with alarm as its divested of its authority. Almost immediately, the fweep-fweep seems aware that the jig is up. Rather than attempt to reason with Ane or feign sleep, it instead lets out a big, gaseous “FWIPPPT!” and jets off into the nearest piece of laundry — a pair of Vasht’s britches — to hide.

Ane holds the tiny crown, pinched between thumb and forefinger.

“No crown, no kingdom. Those’re the rules,” she admonishes the fweep-fweep. For now, she allows it to hide — from the sound of things, whatever ensorcelment it worked seems to be breaking, giving her an opportunity to survey the damages from up on high.

Jiselmo rides out of this place on a tide of money and beer, taking the crowd with him to boisterously retell this event around a fire and a barrel of something brown and potent. 

This leaves Vasht standing in the middle of the field, contemplating his life choices. Furrowing his brow, he plucks the kettle off of his head and throws it to the soil with a clatter. He turns to the alosin, giving him a one-eyed look of sympathy. Then he looks up towards the fweep-fweep. 

Vasht rubs the side of his head, thoughts clearing, and then he sees Ane. His face goes slightly pale. 

Ah, yes. This is what social mortality feels like. 

What,” Ane says, arms held wide in bewilderment, “Happened?” 

She knows what happened. The same thing that got her to dress the fweep-fweep in makeup and jewelry and a tiny stone slipshell hat happened. What she does not know is how the creature escaped its cage and managed to affect the entire caravan.

The dark knight, Ser Vasht, stands dumbfounded. He doesn’t respond immediately, instead tossing his pillow-spear aside and crossing his arms behind his back. It’s like some last-ditch attempt to retain the scraps of his dignity. 

He calls back up to Ane, “Your ‘king’… and also, Jiselmo!” His expression firms. “Yeah, Jiselmo’s definitely to blame for at least part of this…”

“Yes,” Ane says with a slow nod and the tone of voice one might use to ask a small child why their mittens are currently floating in the privy, “But how did the ‘king’ get from safely inside a cage to… to…” She makes a flailing gesture toward Vasht’s britches, which are currently trembling in a perplexing fashion.

Rather than answer immediately, Vasht wanders aside and gathers up the thing’s cage. Its door swings open tellingly. With it in hand, Vasht spreads his rows of wings, catches the air, and flaps his way up to meet Ane on the roof of his wagon.

Once he’s safely landed, he dusts off his shoulder.

“Well, I first meant to keep it in my wagon… but when I saw it, it did something.” He sighs, staring at the wriggling pair of pants. “It kept giving strange ideas, and some would’ve wrecked my things.” He coughs. “Important things. Keepsakes. So…”

He makes a vague, spinning gesture with his fingertip.

“I took it outside, it got ahold of Brair and convinced him to open the cage.” He explains all this in a rather careful, measured fashion, as if that can make the result a bit less silly.

Ane rubs a spot in the center of her forehead. With her free hand, she waves at the tiny, quivering pile of underpants and fweep.

“So it’s Brair’s fault, you’re saying,” she concludes. “At any rate, it doesn’t matter. Just… Put it back in the cage so I can get it somewhere where it can do less damage, I’m not going to go rooting through your underthings.” 

“Well, not his entirely. I should’ve kept him from opening it, though my back was turned. After that, he said he ought to take care of it, feed it some of his booze…” Vasht goes on, walking towards the pair of waggling trousers. He takes it by the legs, positions the waist at the mouth of the box, and begins to gently shake the garment. Soon the fweep-fweep pops out, tumbling into the cage, whereupon Vasht shuts the small door.

He takes in a breath, and continues, “So, we got into an argument… Jiselmo strolled by, and suggested we decide it with a contest. Then, a while later, I look up and this is happening,” he says, gesturing towards the scene laid out beneath the two of you. 

Ane shakes her head as she takes the cage, muttering to herself.

“Can’t go anywhere, Animus alive… At any rate, thanks for keeping an eye on it. Sorry about your laundry. And,” she nods toward his ‘knightly’ getup, “All that.”

“Mm, might want to keep it hidden when you’re away,” he agrees, gruffly running a hand across his cheek. “Seems only to do that when people see it.”

Vasht then shrugs a shoulder, and smirks with chagrin. “Well, I’d say you’re welcome, but I’m more sorry that I let it start a monarchy. And knight me, I guess.”

A faint grin tugs at the edge of her lips, in turn. “A tiny tyranny, complete with bloodsports. Out of curiosity, though — why did your laundry end up all over the outside of your wagon?”

Seeing Ane’s smile seems to lessen his embarrassment, somewhat, and he finds himself doing the same. He lets out a theatrical sigh, and plucks one of his scarves off of his wagon’s roof. “If I had to guess? The critter needed heraldry, and somehow Jiselmo knew that. So while we got ready, he went around throwing my clothes everywhere.” He furrows his brow at the scarf, and adds, “Also, they were nearby… I’d just finished washing them.”

She pulls her lips inward, pressing them tightly together in her teeth to keep from laughing outright. Instead, she manages a stiff nod and a subtle quiver of her shoulders before she turns away from Vasht (and his “heraldry”) and begins the process of climbing down the dangling shirts, belts, and trousers.

As she does so, he leans forward and aims a few pokes at her side. “I see your giggle fit,” he saccuses. “Making a getaway with your tiny trouser bandit,” he adds, watching Ane flinch to avoid being poked as she clambers down his wagon. He hops down himself shortly after.

“Hey! Careful — some of us don’t have wings. Or a head harder than that kettle to break a fall with,” she chastises him as she disembarks from a muslin shirt. 

He crosses his bare arms, regarding her dryly from the bottom. “Well, I can help with that. There’s a spare kettle over there, for your safety.”

“Wouldn’t fit without crumpling my ears. Anyway, thanks again, Ser Knight.” 

“At your service. Or something,” he agrees, offering a sardonic half-bow.

With the fweep-fweep safely in its cage, she makes her way back to where she deposited the hound’s skull and chair leg she found earlier. The chair leg is useless to her now — let it sit here and raise questions in whatever hapless wanderer finds it next — but she has a lot of soaking and cleaning to do before the skull is in a keepable condition.

Which means, unfortunately for him, she needs to bother Brair (and his wounded pride).

 

Teller of Fortunes

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

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(Continued directly from prior entry)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ane inhales a deep, tense, hissing breath.

Looks like it didn’t work.

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

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

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

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

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

She has a sneaking suspicion she should keep it.

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

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

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

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

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

Construction is pretty shoddy down here. 

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

At least, all that did chase her…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Teller of Fortunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An assassin?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

As Ane steps forward, she sees the lost traveller.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-12: Gettin’ By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vasht smirks. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope. Too easy.”

He tilts his head sideward. 

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

Ane tries to stifle a snicker, with limited success. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess so.”

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

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

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

He did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-11: Twisted Arms

Teller of fortunes is a serial work of Fantasy Fiction, at times surreal. No fae-twisted farmers were harmed in the creation of this work.

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After all the nonsense that comes with another day in the grand caravan, Ane has a couple of hours to herself. Inevitably, however, a knock sounds against her (still broken) door. This time it’s three soft raps — polite, but without Jarrik’s overbearing air. An even, gentle voice follows, “Hello, it’s Nelea.”

Nelea?

Strange, the animal trainer doesn’t often visit her wagon. Well, once, when one of her gelthounds came down with worms as a puppy, but Ane has the distinct impression that this is not about that.

“Coming,” she calls out, “Gimme a minute.”

Really, it takes closer to three minutes for her to shift her door. She does manage to succeed eventually, leaving a triangular space beside the half-hanging upper door for her to talk through.

Sure enough, there’s the callosian. She’s of a rather stout build, and has tumbles of extremely light hair that spills in tight curls down from under a straw hat, contrasting with her deeply tanned skin. She smiles politely, and stands with her hands in front of her clasping the handle of a basket — an almost comically girlish pose contrasted with her imposing musculature. She’s no Aedas (or Bugbeard), but it’s enough to throw off the image for certain. That, and the rather stern, architecturally beautiful angles of her face. 

“Hello,” she says. “Sorry to bother you, Miss Ane. I’m not here for myself,” she explains. 

Ane nods, leaning forward slightly to peer through the door-gap at the trainer’s basket. Her curiosity was already piqued; the basket makes it doubly so. 

“Everything alright?”

“Well, yes,” she says, hesitating. “In a sense. First, do you remember the klorr who joined us in the last city? Tall, mysterious, a condition about his arms,” she explains tactfully. “Well, he hasn’t come out of that wagon since then, and it’s…” Nelea pauses and sighs, her stoic posture somewhat wilting.

“It’s just not healthy. He needs light, air, and water,” she says, voice heavy with concern. “We’ve been taking turns bringing him food and drink, but it’s not safe to go on like that. It’d be great if you could take a turn, and maybe you can talk to him?” She lifts the basket, indicating its contents. It has some of the day’s dinner, rendered in a less messy form; chopon cutlets, some biscuits, vegetables strained out of the gravy, and a lidded cup of water. 

Nelea continues, “We’ve each tried, to no avail yet. Even if you can’t make him feel that comfortable, well… Every bit counts, you know?”

The man with the twisted arms!

Ane had forgotten about him in the midst of everything else. Which, really, probably just serves to emphasize Nelea’s point — she certainly would’ve noticed if he’d been out and about. By the time the callosian is done asking, Ane is already clambering through her broken door. 

“I’ll take it to him. Which wagon is he in?”

Nelea nods, holding out the basket with one hand and motioning off to her side with the other.

The wagon she indicates is an old, unadorned thing, with large double doors on one end. By the look of the rustic vehicle, it was once likely used as a place to hold the alosins when they needed to be indoors. By Ane’s memory, though, it fell out of that use and ended up being converted to storage. It’s often opened when people need to draw out sacks of grain or hay for the animals. This means it likely has plenty of open space, though with lots of dusty feed bunched all around.

“It is said that he chose it himself, shortly after arriving. None of us had the chance to talk to him beforehand, and he hasn’t spoken much since,” Nelea explains, her worry clearly evident in her tone.

“I don’t blame him, really. Have you seen what Brair and them are getting up to?” Ane holds the basket from the bottom, careful not to jostle the contents as she strikes out for the old wagon. 

“I can’t say I have,” Nelea fibs, with a hint of mirth. “In any case, good luck.”

Hopefully he’s feeling sociable, Ane thinks to herself. Nelea would probably have warned her if she thought he wasn’t, but Ane knows nothing about the man outside of his twisted arms. 

Even with the door closed, the scent of dry, dusty hay makes her nose itch as she approaches. She pauses for a long moment, keen ears perked to listen for any sounds coming from the wagon — not that she’s likely to hear anything more than muffled noises through the thick wood. Even so, there are sounds of breathing, likely from someone rather large, and a thick silence between each breath. There is no movement, no voice, nothing.

Cautiously, she raises a hand to knock sharply on the broad double doors.

A deep susurration follows, short and simple. It’s not a growl, nor a noise of displeasure. It sounds most like a mumble of assent. As for the wagon itself, the door doesn’t even seem to be bolted. She waits for the door to open, then silently curses herself for it. He probably couldn’t open the door even if he wanted to…

“I’m coming in,” she says, pressing her lips to the narrow gap between the doors. She gives one a tug, mentally bracing herself for whatever it is she’s about to see.

Were she not a shasii, Ane would mostly see a tall, dark shape hunched against the far wall, sitting with legs splayed across the floor. Since Ane can see perfectly, however, the man isn’t afforded any discretion by the darkness. He’s tall, perhaps muscular, albeit in a limited fashion about the shoulders and back. Otherwise he’s rather gaunt, with scraggly hair and wide, sharp klorrian eyes. They open slightly when Ane peers, in, though they remain downcast. Of course, most importantly, his arms lay heavily beside him on two hay bales  — heavy enough to make the tops sag and the sides crumble.

He doesn’t speak. His facial features are a tad strange, perhaps duller than most. He doesn’t seem afflicted by anything beyond his arms, but it’s still a disturbing sight — he looks like he’s badly in need of some fresh air, let alone a haircut and clean clothing. Ane’s brow furrows in concern as she takes a tentative step into the wagon’s dark interior.

“I brought you some food,” she says, giving the basket a little heft, “Chopon and gravy, with biscuits. Are you… Do you need anything else?”

There’s a slight pause. 

“Naw.” 

As blunt a refusal as it is, the tone of his voice doesn’t sound intentionally brusque. The accent even seems a bit thickened, as if in an attempt to mollify the intruder.

Ane moves to set the basket down, but stops midway through. Instead, she takes a step back, closer to the door.

“Why don’t you come outside and eat? The air’s fresher, and it’s brighter and less dusty…”

“… Quieter,” he says thickly. It seems to take him some time, before he adds, “This is for me.” There’s no comfort in his tone; instead, he sounds deeply resigned.

“Do you need it quiet? We can find curtains for the windows, or something to dull the noise,” she offers.

He hesitates, as if hitting a kink in his thoughts. Then he just shakes his head. 

“I can… have this. Maybe,” he replies.

His response, however short it is, urges her to keep going, to try to keep the mysterious man talking. 

“I can see what I can do to make it more comfortable. Pillows, maybe? Or a wash basin? Maybe a blanket? It’s warm now, but it gets cold on the trip sometimes…”

The klorr starts to open his mouth, as if to object. Ultimately, he just remains silent.

Well, that didn’t work.

She moves forward, slowly, as if she’s afraid of spooking him. Once she’s set the basket down within his reach, she steps back a pace.

“Do you want me to go?”

He begins to shake his head side-to-side, but stops himself again. One shoulder shrugs instead. His eyes shift briefly to regard the basket of food, then back to the same spot on the floor. 

Ane watches his flat affect and apathetic demeanor. Puzzled, she edges a little closer.

“Do you need help to eat?”

The klorr regards the food again, hesitantly. There are some stains on the floor nearby, likely from previous meals. At this point, it becomes apparent that there’s also a foul smell in one corner of the room; it seems he pressed a chamber-pot into service, and somehow covers it with hay afterwards. Truly, he has not left this wagon.

“I shouldn’t need,” he replies simply. 

“Do you,” She’s loathe to ask, but Void, someone has to — it’s painfully obvious the man’s being neglected. If he won’t, or can’t, do for himself, there has to be someone who does. Why bring him into the caravan just to let him languish here like this? “Do you need some help cleaning up?”

Nelea and whoever else is helping him have flailed against this bare minimum. By now, that chamber pot would’ve needed dumping several times over. Fortunately, as bad as it smells, it doesn’t seem he’s been using anything else. Though, if the man doesn’t leave… Then there are few other options but to await someone changing it.

“I shouldn’t need,” the man repeats somberly. “Bad things.”

Shouldn’t, fine. But you do.

“What kind of bad things?”

Her nose wrinkles at the smell. The longer she stands there, the stronger it seems to get — she’ll be splashing around in the stream with five pounds of soap just to get rid of the odor on herself. 

The klorr answers, his voice husky. 

“The light… that pain… these arms.” He lifts each of them, twisted as they are, then lets them fall back on the hay bales with a thump. 

“Pain? What kind of pain?”

“When I changed.”

So he wasn’t always like this…

It seems obvious, in retrospect. If he’d been born this way, she doubts he could’ve survived until adulthood. With his stilted speech, he may not be fluent in Skilhouran common. If he’s from one of the klorr tribes, his twisted arms would’ve been an even bigger challenge to growing up in a hunting society that relies on living closely with dangerous gurran behemoths.

“I’ll tell you what,” she says firmly. Though she doesn’t know him at all, she’s at least mostly convinced that his arms are too cumbersome to try to harm her — if he did, she could probably get away quickly, or at least yell for help in time. Even if he tells her he doesn’t want help cleaning up, that chamberpot needs to go. “I won’t leave — I’ll come back. If you let me take that,” she points to the pile of soiled hay, “I will bring you something that might help with the pain.”

For the first time since Ane entered, he looks up. His eyes subtly widen, and he looks more present than moments ago. There is certainly a glimmer of intelligence in there, and a very deliberate sense about him. If there’s any emotion visible behind his eyes, it’s a long sorrow.

“Yes,” he answers. “Please.” His tone wavers.

Finally, she’s getting somewhere. She’s not sure where, but somewhere.

“I will come back. For now, eat.”

… Now she just has to figure out how to handle the chamberpot. 

The hay is already making her nose itch, and she can feel bumps raising on her bare skin where the dust touches. Above all that, the sharp ammonia burn of an overfilled chamberpot sears her nose — had she eyes, they’d be watering. Ane turns toward the door, inhales a lungful of fresh air, and steels herself.

Somehow, she manages to maneuver around the man, and make it back outside with the chamberpot in her arms. She doesn’t want to think about what’s running over her arms and staining her sleeves, or the constant tiny thwats of flying insects ricocheting off of her face. She definitely doesn’t want to look down to see the mass of hay and waste crawling with maggots.

Ane upends the chamberpot several yards from the wagon. She must be a repulsive sight, holding a recently-dumped chamberpot and reeking like a barnyard, but she tries to flag down the first moving shape she sees anyway.

Fortunately, luck is with her as Wila, Vila and Zila float by. They don’t appear to be particularly preoccupied, outside of a leisurely walk and some light chatter.

“Dishes though? Really?”

“Well, he probably had to keep his, his monk-skills far from the fight!”

“Uh-huh…”

“You know, so nobody gets hurt. Have you heard what Eternalists can do?”

Hopefully they’re good at scrubbing.

“Wila, Vila, Zila! Speaking of dishes…”

The three of them rotate together, looking towards Ane. Generally, they’d often look like they’re just walking with linked arms, if it weren’t for the way they all turn as a unit.

“Oh, hello!” Zila chirps.

“What is it, Ane?” Wila asks, and holds her nose on reflex.

“I need the monk, a tin of Dynkala’s chest rub, a bucket, a scrub brush, some lye soap, a very long ribbon, and a piece of chalk,” Ane says, between gasps of fresh(ish) air.

Vila gives her a dry look. 

“I hope you don’t think we can scatter to fetch these for you.”

Zila gives her a small swat on the shoulder. 

“What Vila means, is, we’ll be right back.”

“It just might take a little while,” Wila adds. “We aren’t exactly swift, though Dynkala should have all of that.”

Ane breathes a sigh of relief.

“Alright, great. Yes. Thank you. I’ve got… Very urgent business to do,” she explains without explaining.

“Very well,” Wila says with a sigh. “We will return here.”

“Well, things turned out great last time she doled out errands,” Vila mutters as they begin to float away. This earns a murmur of agreement from one of the others.

“Don’t forget the monk!” Ane calls out after them.

 

About ten minutes later, the aforementioned monk arrives, sans the triplets. He does have all of the requested items under his arms, however. Such is the way, when dealing with the triplets; at least one is liable to get impatient, no matter what the task.

He stands there dutifully. “What is needed?” He asks, tilting his head sideward. 

“Hope you’ve got a strong stomach,” Ane says grimly, “I’ve dumped that pot and buried the waste, but it still needs to be cleaned. Then I might need your help there.” She cants her head first toward the chamberpot, then toward the dusty wagon. “I’ll take the ribbon, chalk — they didn’t forget the chalk, did they? Good — and the chest rub, for now. Just try to get that as clean as you can.”

The monk nods dutifully, and fixes the chamberpot with grim regard. That will be his next challenge. 

With the requisite items in hand, Ane ducks back inside the mysterious man’s wagon.

Inside the wagon, the man remains silent. He does look up when Ane enters, however. There’s still that sad look in his eyes. 

 She sets the chalk and ribbon on the floor, as she kneels down within reach of him. She can still smell wafts of the chamberpot-reek, but at least the chest rub might help cover some of it…

“Where does it hurt?” She asks him, as she pulls the wide cork from the little earthenware pot.

The klorr lifts his elbows, which are the last bastion of normalcy prior to the twisted mess below. 

“There,” he indicates, almost biting his lip. It seems he has trouble even just acknowledging it. 

And given any understanding of anatomy, well… It’s unthinkable that his lower arms could function, circulate blood, or feel pain, yet they do seem alive, despite the constricting bones and contorted flesh. It defies sense. If his elbows are the last place following the rules of biology, then they must be suffering a pain most bizarre and cruel.

She nods, though she’s unsure how to tackle this. Though the chest rub is made to ease coughing and congestion, the sharp, camphoraceous coldness is helpful for soothing pained muscles. Is this even muscle pain? She doesn’t know — she’s not sure he does, either. Muscle, bone, ruptured tendons, it could be anything.

Ane scoops a generous dollop of the salve onto her fingertips, brow furrowed with concern as she hums over his elbow. If only she knew where to begin…

“I’m going to use this,” she says, holding up the glob of oily salve, “If it hurts you too much, tell me and I’ll stop. Someone is helping me, he can come to clean up a little if you’d like. He’ll be quiet.”

The klorr nods, though he’s not entirely sure to what he’s agreeing.

And, with that, she gently daubs one of the man’s elbows in the pungently minty rub. He winces with pain at the first contact, but calms as the soothing chill of the rub sets in. His teeth grit in his closed mouth, remaining otherwise still. 

“… Helps,” he mumbles. Naturally, it’s only a muscle rub, but it’s more of a reprieve than he’s likely experienced in a long time. He doesn’t exactly look like he’s visited a real physician, after all. A doctor would probably just amputate both limbs from the elbows down… But the condition is so bizarre, would it even follow that logic? The twisted structures almost look botanical in nature. Would they just regrow? It’s impossible to tell by looking at them. 

Ane nods, relieved to hear it’s helping a little. She takes his elbow in both of her hands, gently probing and kneading the joint with the tips of her fingers. The hot, thickened areas of swollen muscle and congested blood get a little more attention, as she attempts to ease the blood flow back toward his heart. She can feel the scarred, adhering fascia beneath his skin, but it would take more expert hands than hers to try to release it.

The treatment also gives a deeper sense of his condition. Whatever did this, there’s a sense of real malice in the result. The way the bone splits so wickedly, then spins around itself… It’s like what a child might do to two blades of grass, bored in a field, wrapping the two together then pulling them taut… But never hard enough to break. 

It’s deliberate. Something with a mind did this.

“Thank you,” the klorr murmurs in his raspy voice. 

“You’re welcome,” she replies, distracted by the motions of her hands. She moves from one elbow to the other, repeating the same process — apply the salve, feel for what’s hurting, and try to ease pains she can barely even guess at. 

Was he punished? Or just cruelly used for something’s sport? She can’t tell, and doesn’t think he’d tell her if she asked. He might not even have the words for it. 

Once she has rubbed as much of the salve in as she can, she picks up the ribbon. If nobody had been by to try to help his pain or even regularly empty his chamberpot, there are probably plenty of other things that have been neglected, too.

“I need to use this — it’ll only take a minute, and, if it hurts you, I will stop,” she assures him.

He just stares at the ribbon, knitting his brow. He nods in assent, however.

Ane stands, maneuvering cautiously around the man to avoid bumping his arm with her knee. She stretches the ribbon across the breadth of his shoulders, before making a marking with the chalk. His upper arms are next, then the length of his spine. It’s a crude system, but it leaves her with a length of ribbon suitable for making approximations, at least. 

“I have to go soon,” she tells him, as she brushes a few clinging wisps of hay from her knees, “But I’ll come back tomorrow. I might not be the one who brings you your food, but I’ll come back.”

“Alright,” the klorr replies. His almost-perpetual frown is a bit less pronounced, forming closer to a flat line. It seems like a vast improvement, given his overall mood. Once again, he adds, “Thank you.”

Ane nods, stashing the rest of the pot of chest rub beside a hay bale. Hopefully it won’t be too hard to find next time.

“You’re welcome. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-10: Bugbeard’s Brawl

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When dinner time finally rolls around, it only takes a quick glimpse outside to see a fair commotion brewing.

Off to one edge of the camp, a wide V of armed individuals approaches. Their heavy boots sink soundlessly against the spongy undersoil, while their half-polished chainmail and plate-bits shine in the torchlight. None of them bear the markings of the city guard, and it’s no wonder, because they’re not all shasii; they’re a rather motley crew, with everything from a big, patchy-bearded callosian to a lithe huikkaran with shaggy hair. 

There’s one piece that makes it all make sense: Vasht, in the center, leading this band of armored misfits towards camp. He walks proudly and with a broad smile on his face, as if feeling his first taste of relief — and triumph — in quite some time. He’s even a bit better kept today, with his hair combed and his clothes not all a-ruffle. It’s the start of what seems to be a recovery from his many sleepless hours along the road, though even that can’t account for the confidence in his posture, or the sureness in his strides.

Ane shakes her head at the distant display. He really missed his calling — he should’ve been a town guard or a sellsword, instead of a knife juggler. Now he’ll be swaggering until Jarrik manages to lose this batch of mercenaries.

 

Vasht and the group don’t head all the way into the camp, instead heading for a large rectangle marked along the ground. There’s a line down it, bisecting it so there are two sizable sections on either side. On one side stands Narue, who waits there with a quarterstaff in one hand, a round, wooden shield on the other arm, and a length of chewed tunnel reed parked between her lips.

As this scene begins to unfold, the members of the caravan gather and clump around the rectangle with their meals. Some pull up barrels, crates, or actual chairs, pressing them into service so they can watch whatever’s about to happen. 

Ane sits cross-legged on the ground, with a wooden bowl propped on her knee. Inside, a few chunks of chopon meat float in a lake of floury gravy dotted with the occasional root vegetable. It’s a bit heavy, but the biscuits are good. 

Though she doesn’t move closer to the action, it doesn’t mean she isn’t paying attention. She dips her head in between bites of biscuit, peeking at the show through the spaces between chair legs and sets of knees. 

Of course, what ensues is a long line of would-be mercenaries showing up to take a beating. Vasht must have offered a pretty substantial sign-on bonus, because there is quite a drove of them. Scanning across the lot, a fair number are just average civilians: Laborers, brawlers, bar bouncers, maybe a town guard or two down on their luck. 

Most of them end up soundly trounced (and sometimes flounced) by Narue. For all her casual, country affect, she’s able to deliver a mean beating with that stick-and-board. Some get tripped, some get jabbed in the gut, others are shoved out of the ring from a whack in the butt. Generally, she seems a cut above them, but who wouldn’t be after the shadowlands? Her victories aren’t necessarily an obstacle to someone signing on, though — several last long enough to trade blows with her, and they make a good enough effort to get a nod of approval. 

Then, of course there are the odd ones… 

A huikarran with shaggy, curly hair steps into the ring. Her bangs even come down far enough to obscure her eyes, which is really saying something for her kind. There’s a slight twitch to her movements, though granted, a huikkaran crawling on the ground never looks quite natural. And here in the ring, she’s at a clear disadvantage, whereas she might have a good leg up on foes when clinging to the side of the wagons. 

She’s scrawny, but adult-sized, though the look of her crawling about with such wiry limbs is enough to make Narue chuckle.

“Ya ain’t gonna be wearin’ that smirk fer long, feathers,” the woman threatens, as her shoulder suddenly jerks.

“We’ll see. Get up here, maybe it’ll be a smile by then,” Narue quips, to some laughter from onlookers.

Near Ane’s seat, Aedas seems to have moved a log and taken a seat. 

“Ey Ane, wanna place bets?” He leans over and whispers, “Might make this a bit more interestin’…” 

She shouldn’t. She knows she shouldn’t. And yet-

“Three scutes on Narue,” Ane says, around a cheek full of chopon.

“Deal!” Aedas grins widely.

The call is sounded, and the match commences!

Narue goes in for the strike first, noticing the odd stance of the huikkaran and hoping to catch their bad form. She sweeps the legs… And the woman hops up with all four limbs, like a spider! While she’s midair, Narue brings down an overhand strike… And the huikkaran rolls, clutching her stick and dropping the shield. She seems to have no intention of using it, but her overconfidence soon wins her a swift, wooden THOCK to the chest.

This strike sends the huikkaran reeling, still going, but almost blooded. It’ll probably leave a good bruise. Narue may not have hit many times, but when you’ve got her sort of farmgirl arms, you often only need to hit once. The fact that the huikkaran is still in the fight is to her credit.

Then, the shaggy-headed huikkaran really starts to twitch. She suddenly becomes a flurry of activity, scrambling and rolling about, each time thwapping Narue with the thick training-stick. Each one is about her arms and shins, not enough to bring her down, but it soon wears on Narue, who just can’t keep up. With a sigh, she winces and raises her shield, giving the smaller woman a good shove just to stop the assault.

“Alright, alright, I yield; you’ve proven yerself plenty.” Rather than give a thumbs-up straight away, she nods towards Vasht. “Go talk to him.”

The others are a bit in awe, both that the huikkaran “won,” but also that it didn’t mean an immediate sign-on. 

“Might be that temper’a hers,” Aedas figures. “Anyway, I kinda figured she was walkin’ good for wunna us on flat ground.”

Damn.

“Looks like I owe you for that one, then,” Ane says glumly. 

“I think so,” he beams. It’s Aedas, though; by the jovial shine of his eyes, one can tell he cares more about winning than any of the payout. He’d even probably forget the wager if left to his own devices.

Narue, a bit battered, still seems up for testing more hires. She takes a moment to drink a flagon of water and tap at her shins, but after that, she’s ready to go back at it. 

At least, she is until a looming tower of a callosian steps into the arena. He’s as wide as he is tall, too, with layers of thick muscles packed under a generous cushioning. Every visible inch of him is practically covered with hair, wherever the callosian hide permits it to exit. He’s also got a big, mean set of horns that curl right up beside his head, before tapering back behind him. They may not be great for ramming, but there’s certainly a statement being made.

“He’s like a smeerp,” Ane points out to Aedas, “All armored plates set into fuzz.”

But all of this is secondary to his big, dark, fluffy callosian beard, all patchy where it has to slip past his thick skin. It looks like he had to scratch calloused surfaces away just to let it out. It’s a rare sight; most callosians aren’t predisposed towards beardedness, but there are occasionally exceptions — particularly where their lineage blends with shasii.

As he looms over Narue, she looks up and sighs. 

“Arright, that’s hilarious. Alright. What’s the number on this wagon I’m about to be run over by?”

“Bugbeard,” he answers gruffly, with a voice thick as a fur coat. “Pleasure,” he says, then widens a wild grin.

“Ah…Like the creature, but you have a beard… Haha,” Narue says dryly, with a look of resignation about her.

On the sidelines, Aedas leans over and mutters to Ane.

“Should we even place bets on this one…?”

Ane shakes her head firmly, lips pressing into a line. Void, she wouldn’t blame Narue for stepping down from this one, though she doubts Vasht would be that much more willing to take her place.

“Yeah, I didn’t really think so… This won’t be their kinda fight,” Aedas appraises.

And when the signal is given, Narue raises her weapon and shield, and Bugbeard just…

WHOOSH.

He sprints forward at full speed, making only a token effort to keep his shield raised. Without even slowing down, he just slams with the full weight of his body into Narue. She doesn’t seem to be hurt by the collision, but it does send her stumbling. The tzuskar gets in one or two swipes, with one even connecting, but for all its impact Bugbeard doesn’t seem to give a damn. 

Instead, he just digs in his teeth, leaps forward, and…

There’s just no other way to describe it. He catches Narue in a stumble and bellyflops her into a winged pancake. Underneath, she manages to push him back for a moment… But her stick and shield are useless, and she’s very out of sorts. After that, she’s just a mess of arms and wings underneath a towering frame. Soon, Bugbeard has an arm wrapped around her head — rather than choking, he’s just flexing until she can’t breathe anymore.

“HNNN- Yield! Gah,” Narue chokes out, and Bugbeard lets go and rolls away into a crouch. Narue lays on the ground and gives a thumbs up, before shuffling off to get some water. 

There’s mild cheers and applause, as Bugbeard stands up and puffs his chest.

On the sidelines, Aedas is positively shaking with excitement. 

“Like I said Ane, this is ain’t their kinda fight… It’s mine! I gotta get in there!” He says, standing up and beginning to clamber past others.

“Aed- Aedas, no!” Ane shouts. She leans forward in an attempt to grab his wrist, ankle, something to keep him from happily bounding into the middle of the ring like an oversized gelt puppy, but all it earns her is half a bowl of chopon gravy accidentally upended in her lap.

An excited Aedas is pretty hard to deter.

While Bugbeard is grandstanding, Aedas clambers into the ring, all overmuscled and swollen with might. He raises his head of ratty blond hair in defiance, and gestures Bugbeard over with a long, bulge-ridden arm. 

“‘EY! You wanna wrestle, well, take your test with the wrestler!”

Bugbeard lets out a big, guffawing laugh, and smacks his chest with his palm. 

“That right? I just trounced yer vet’ran. Who’m I havin’ to fight now?”

“The stronnest man in these wagons, lad,” Aedas boasts, smacking one of his muscled arms under a striped sleeve.

“Well, let’s jus’ see who’s the lad, then!” Bugbeard blusters, before his heavy, booted strides charge forward.

The crowd roars, some even leap to their feet. Somewhere nearby, Brair is sloshing tankards and Jiselmo is cheering, from his perch atop Korin’s winged back. Korin seems none to pleased, but nonetheless resigned — he’s dealt with being his partner’s ersatz chair often enough before . Nelea is watching intently with hands clasped, occasionally shouting, while the triplets usher Narue away to tend to her. Ane, meanwhile, picks bits of boiled peas and chopon meat off of her trousers. Overall, quite the crowd.

By the ringside, Vasht at first opens his mouth to call a stop to this, but reconsiders. There’s an amused glint in his uncovered eye, as he crosses his arms and leans back against a nearby post, grinning. As duty-bound as he can be sometimes, apparently he can be a fool for this sort of thing too. 

In the middle, the two men are now clashed shoulder-to-shoulder, each making grabs at each other’s thighs. Presumably, the objective is to trip one another to initiate a grapple while on top. In practice, though, it looks like two bulls locking horns, or two very big men struggling to figure out how hugs work. 

Needless to say, tryouts will probably be put on hold for awhile. 

Once Ane has evicted most of her meal from her lap, she watches the fight with bated breath. It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere — the two competitors are evenly matched. There’s a brief,  incredulous look at Vasht, standing there with his arms crossed and a cheeky grin, then back to the wrestlers. At this rate, they’ll be here all day watching them swat at each other’s pantlegs.

In time, the two of them push each other back and their forward momentum pauses. They begin walking in circles around the arena, facing one another while they grandstand.

“Y’got arms,” Bugbeard rumbles. “But let’s see if you can put a man ‘ta the floor with ‘em!”

“I’ve tossed heavier things than ya,” Aedas rebuts, swinging his arms in preparation.

“Oh, from all the way downthar? Wun’t wanna squish yer head when ya try!” The callosian boasts, fluffing his patchy beard. There are no apparent bugs, but it does kinda look like it’s jutting out from under a shell.

Aedas, who has no riposte for this, immediately rushes Bugbeard.

This time their clash is much more kinetic, and Aedas makes a skilled grab at one of the man’s legs. His thighs are like lumber, but Aedas has flipped lumber before. In a second, the massive callosian is flat on his back. Aedas quickly leaps atop him, and their grapple becomes a complex tangle of thick limbs, bulging backs, and very loud grunts.

This, Ane muses, is more suggestive than I anticipated.

She rises from her seat, making a half-hearted attempt to brush the dirt from the backs of her legs. Really, after the incident with her bowl, these pants are going to need a thorough scrubbing anyhow. She gives up halfway through, and gathers up her dish and spoon to bring them to whatever eager caravan follower is washing dishes today. 

Today, it’s the monk. Yesterday, it was the monk. A week before that, right out of Paakoponde, it was the monk. Apparently he is a dedicated dishwasher now.

He nods his short-horned head. 

“Thank you. How were the guard tryouts? I could hear it all the way from over here,” he says warmly, nodding down towards his mobile washbasin. 

“Oddly sensual,” Ane replies, as she sets her bowl in the wash basin, “Are you sure this is what the cards had in mind when they said you should find something to challenge yourself?”

He shrugs his robed shoulders. 

“I hate washing dishes,” he explains. “It’s a very ascetic task for me to do. It also occupies me, so I don’t consume the alcohol that’s, uh, sloshing over there,” he says, motioning towards the commotion with his scrub brush. 

“I wouldn’t recommend it. Brair’s tastes are of the ‘extremely acquired’ variety.”

“Hrm. Makes me wonder where he found those tastes,” the monk figures, while idly scrubbing one side of a bowl. “Wherever it was, it was probably on fire at the time.”

In the distance, the silhouette of Brair can be seen amongst the crowd. He is very clearly running a betting racket now, collecting coinage in his recently-emptied tankard with a fresh full one in his free hand. At one point he confuses the two, and almost downs a whole mess of mitres and scutes. Fortunately, the coldness against his lip tips him off just in time. 

Ane shakes her head.

“That’s Brair for you. He’s alright, though. Won’t be anything wrong with him that a day’s rest, a few gallons of water, and some headache powder won’t fix. At any rate,” she says, as she hums down at the murky, soapy water, “Good luck with your,” A chunk of half-chewed yam floats to the top of the basin, “Lifestyle.”

“Asceticism,” he reminds her plainly. “Bye!”

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-3: Robbery Delivery

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The caravan doesn’t even get a full day of peace as it trundles through the outlands.

BANG BANG BANG!

“ROBBERY DELIVERY! Your money or your life!” A ragged, bellowing voice calls through Ane’s wagon door. The wagon had only stopped for a few minutes, and already bandits are pouring out of the bushes to shake down the train. The voice on the other side of the door even sounds rather bored by it.

“Unless you’re a clown! Clowns are fine.”

When Ane catches a glimpse out the window…

Ah, there was a hunting lodge after all! The smoke on the horizon surely came from this peaceful little cottage… 

It just happens to be a burnt-down hunting lodge. Its cinders are currently on their way to becoming smaller cinders. It must’ve been burning for quite some time before the caravan’s arrival. There’s no signs of life left there, though there are a few lanky alosin hitched up to a nearby post. They’re probably also bandits.

Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to be right.

 

The knocking sends her heart pounding in her throat. She had been sleeping, fortunately — she only bothers to bolt the split door when she is. Unfortunately, it means the next few minutes pass in a bewildering daze. She scoops up her pocketbag and her jewelry from the half-seashell on her vanity, and stashes them in one of the costume-cubbies. The little stone slipshell gets secreted under her bed. Several sacks of puffroot are given pride of place near the entrance.

For now, she doesn’t open the door — if they want it open that badly, they’ll have to defeat heavy wood and the bolt securing it in place. Instead, she crouches on her bed beside the window, with the gurran jawbone held high over the point of her shoulder.

“Oh, com on, just open the door… I wouldn’t be the knock guy if I couldn’t…”

THUD, THUD!

The door begins to splinter, groaning against the blows. It sounds as if something hard and metallic is striking into the wood, cratering near the lock.

“… Knock!” The man bursts out laughing, a thick, throaty cackle. 

Still, Ane waits. He might break her door’s hinges, but she’s definitely not going to invite him in.

“… Alright then.”

There’s a small, rickety whirring sound, as if some old contraption is kicking into life. Then, with a loud, grating rumble… 

KRRRRACK!

A massive impact strikes into Ane’s door, punching through the latch as if it were set in paper. With that broken beyond repair, the door creaks on its hinges, slowly flipping open to reveal…

By the Fires, one of the most unsightly men she’s seen in some time.

The huikkaran has some flies buzzing around his head, occasionally landing on a gleaming, fist-sized wen on the side of his neck. He’s a bit wall-eyed (which means a lot for his kind), and neither of his two massive pupils seems to want to cooperate in pointing the right way. There’s a strawlike, sticky-looking mop of straggly hair atop his head, and a smug little smile over a deeply recessed chin down below.

“See? I told you I knew how to knock,” he says with a gleeful chortle, raising his right arm. On the end of his otherwise-stringy limb is a large, stony contraption of some sort — it’s shaped like a glove, with a large, notched circle on the back of the palm. A set of cords runs back from there, looping around (and through) a notch near his elbow, somehow set into the bone. The whole thing is puffing out gouts of black smoke, and that notched metal circle even glows with heat.

He steps in, waving his other hand around the room. “Alright, let’s see the gold… The last lass had at least seven. C’mon now, so I don’t have to flip all this over misself.”

Welp, Ane thinks to herself, This ugly fuck is how I die, I guess.

Her mouth is almost too dry to speak. Faceless are one thing — they can’t be reasoned with, but they also don’t really have a concept of cruelty. This guy thinks this is a joke. She clears her throat before she attempts to speak, talking slowly to keep her voice from wavering.

“Do I,” she says, gesturing to the many bags of puffroot on her floor, “Look like I have any gold left?”

There’s a pause as he tilts his head this way and that, buggy eyes alternating at the task of focusing on the pillowy sacks propped by the door. Seconds seem to stretch into an eternity — the only thing that even marks the passage of time is the lazy circuit of the flies around his head, and the steadily-thickening smoke puffing from his mechanical arm. 

If Ane’s hands weren’t occupied, she’d be making as many good luck gestures as she can think of. 

“Well,” he mutters, scratching the thing on his neck. “I guess not.”

With that, the man plunges his hand into one of the bags, coming up with a grimy fist full of shreds of puffroot. He gives it a good sniff, punctuated with a deep sigh of satisfaction. Once he’s finished sampling the product, he gathers up the two pillowcases. 

“Good quality. That’ll do. Stay high,” he bids her, and promptly stomps his clumsy way out the door. 

Well, through what remains of the door, anyway.

Ane watches the splintered door swing haphazardly on its remaining hinge as he stomps off. Part of her is amazed it worked — most of her is convinced he’s only taking the puffroot before he returns to kill her. Not that she’d make for an easy target, but what in the name of Firin’s fiery tits was he made of?

She exhales deeply through pursed lips, trying to slow her racing heart. Shaking hands move to light her stove, though she drops the firesteel a few times before she can get the tinder to catch. There isn’t much water left in her bucket, but there should be enough for some tea… Something to occupy her hands and help her calm down. 

Is the rest of the caravan safe? She doesn’t know. The bandits could’ve taken some of them captive, or convinced some of the camp followers or mercenaries to turn on the others. Some might’ve tried to stand up to the bandits and been injured, or even killed. Granted, any bandit that willing to scoop up a couple bags of puffroot and continue on his way probably doesn’t have any real intention of killing anyone, but still.

While the water boils, Ane hums cautiously through her door. Her ears stay perked, keen for the sound of distress.

Listening closely, Ane can hear something…

It sounds like raucous laughter, coupled with confused shouts and honking noises. Presumably, that bandit finally found the clown in the caravan. He might be flicking the tail ends of puffroot cigarillos at the painted huikkaran right this very moment.

Beyond the confusing cacophony from the clown’s wagon, she doesn’t hear anything else — not counting the cracking of the burnt-down lodge, of course. While the clown is certainly in a situation of sorts, it sounds like this group of bandits isn’t the hostage-taking type. Either that, or they just don’t think any of the troupe is worth anything. 

Except maybe the clown. 

Then again, it might just be that one bandit who’s into that. 

Ane sits back down on the edge of her bed as the kettle begins to whistle. If they made off with enough of the caravan’s money, it’s going to make the next town interesting. 

“Interesting” in the way that two-headed gurran calves are interesting. 

She makes a mental note to buy more mica, or see if Vaidna has any — Ane is probably going to need it when Jarrik inevitably begins pushing them to do more Half-Light Shows. She rubs at the side of her face with a soft groan, momentarily ignoring the shrieking kettle. The robbery may be done (or nearly so), but she can tell the effects are far from over.

(Thank you for reading! Please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! Best, P&R.)