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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.