Teller of Fortunes 2-2: Foreboding Peace

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Almost immediately after the wagons stop, people begin to pile out and prepare for mealtime. People tend to get anxious when cooped up for so long, and it sends them rushing out to socialize and meal in one another’s company once again. 

 Ane changes out of her robe for the first time in a few days, after what felt like an interminable stretch of waking up, washing up in her wagon, combing her hair, and putting her robe on again. She’s happy to get out onto solid ground — enough that she whistles while she walks to take her place in line for dinner. 

As Ane walks out amongst the troupe, many others are similarly carefree. The mercenaries are strung tighter than a bowstring, but everyone else’s pleased as pie. By the look of things, one group has immediately gathered near Brair’s tent and started to crack open his stash with him. It won’t be long before they’re all busting out into song, celebrating this reprieve from abject boredom and (assumed) sobriety. 

Not everyone is sharing in this mood, however. Some of the troupe, like Vasht the knife-thrower and Nelea the animal tamer, seem to be sharing in the same wary temperament as the guards. It’s a simple sort of wisdom: when the people protecting are nervous, it might be a good idea to keep one’s eyes open. This isn’t particularly typical for them, either; during good times, they’ve been known to get as sloshed as everyone else.

Today, the actors Jiselmo and Korin are cooking. Generally, they never agree to let the other do it alone. The reason why is immediately apparent when Ane arrives at the two of them. 

“Oh come now Korin, you know I can be trusted,” Jiselmo says in a wounded tone. “I’d never prank anyone after so long in the wagons.”

“I’m not so sure…” The many-winged Korin says with a sigh. “Hello Ane,” he greets the Teller of Fortunes, and passes her a plate.

“Hello!” She says brightly, eagerly holding out her plate for something that isn’t jerky and berries. If nothing else, her stomach (and, by extension, her wagon’s chamber pot) will be grateful for an actual meal.

Jiselmo, with a fae glint in his eyes, passes her a hunk of honeyed vulre, spiced to perfection. It’s steaming and radiating a savory, fire-cooked scent that really sets the senses alight. When Jiselmo is behaving, he really is an excellent cook. “Ane, tell him that I am virtuous and pure, and would never do such a thing,” he says with an impish smile. 

She gives Korin a deadpan hum.

“Jiselmo says to tell you he wouldn’t prank anyone,” she replies, before turning to abscond with her dinner. 

She isn’t sure where to sit today — Brair’s group seems a bit much right now, and she doesn’t want to be pressed into sampling his concoctions at the moment. Vasht and Nelea, while quieter, have a jumpy aura that’s bound to rub off on her. 

Ane finds a log to sit on. She can catch strains of conversation as they’re carried on the breeze, enjoy her meal in relative peace, and take in the open sky without anyone’s drunken singing or anxious whispering. 

As Ane sits and observes, the two groups both seem to be progressing in their own respective moods. There’s laughter and song coming from Brair’s group, which swells as the time passes. In contrast, Vasht and Nelea are now collecting a small huddle of sorts. Their anxious demeanor seems to have faded, firming instead into a sort of resolve. A couple of others are seen joining them, including Aedas and, occasionally, the tipsy Brair who would amble over to try to spread his cheer. The mercenary Narue also joins them for a time, before wandering off herself.

Soon, the armored tzuskar approaches, currently with a lazy gait and a plate of honeyed vulre. She’s wearing her hair down today, apparently feeling a fair sight more relaxed than she did in the shadowlands. She wanders up to the log that Ane is using as a seat, smiling in her usual, easygoing way.

“Hello, got room on this log?” She asks.

“Sure,” Ane replies, scooting over a few inches. There’s plenty of room, but it’s as good a welcoming gesture as any when her hands are sticky with honey sauce. 

Narue the caravan guard sits down with a light thump, not bothering to cushion the weight of her armor. Fortunately it’s a sturdy log, and Narue is otherwise lean besides.

“It’s like lookin’ at two different camps today,” she appraises, forking into the meat. “I could cover one eye and switch troupes.”

“Mm… I wish I could say that that’s just Brair and Vasht for you, but I’d be half-lying. Brair needs a tankard of Rhytalan coffee, and Vasht needs about seven naps,” Ane says, as she pulls a piece of meat from the bone, “They’re dealing with the shortage of guards in their own particular ways, I guess.”

“Seems like it,” the tzuskar appraises, glancing between the two of them. Brair’s group has even kicked up into a silly dance contest of sorts, with the triplets and Jiselmo (leaving the cooking to Korin) trading off first. Jiselmo can’t help but add in a little slapstick, bellyflopping to the ground before hunching his shoulders and arching his back, edging along to the beat like an inching worm.

She chews for a second, then shrugs. “Yeah… That other group seems to be strategizin’. Not really my thing. I just fly around and bop things. Gracefully, mind, but not strategically,” she says with a bob of her fork. 

“Not sure how they’re going to strategize against an enemy they don’t know exists yet, can’t see, and don’t have enough bucketheads to beat back even if they did,” Ane replies, “No offense.”

“Well, about that first part…” She swivels in her seat slightly, and uses her fork to point off further down the road. Somewhere off the main path, there’s a rather large column of smoke. 

Narue shrugs. “It could be nothing. But if I had to give ya my gut’s feeling — y’know, aside from feeling full of this meat — I’d say they’d benefit from coming up with something.”

“Could be a cabin or a hunting lodge. Either way, we don’t know if it’s none, three, or thirty attackers– what’re we even able to do that we aren’t doing already? Force a faster march?” 

“Something weird, probably,” she says simply. “That’s what this sort of troupe is supposed to do, right?” She asks with a grin.

“Sure,” Ane says, growing quietly pensive for a moment, “We’re just performers, though. Aedas is strong, Nelea has gelthounds, Brair has fire, I can swing a club, and Vasht is… Vasht, but weird doesn’t mean powerful, really.”

Narue shrugs a shoulder. “I can vouch for you swingin’ a club, but I’ve heard about you pulling off something clever once in a while… and whatever got you that puffroot pile,” she says, with a playful smile. “Anyway… I think that lot’s kinda stuck,” she says, nodding towards Vasht, Nelea and Company.

“They tried to rope me into their talk, but I’m not good at all that… so I said I was gonna come bug you instead. They seemed int’rested in what you’d have to say.” She shrugs. “I recommend poppin’ by, they could probably use a fresh thought… and some puffroot,” she smirks. 

“Well, if they need some, they know where to find it,” Ane grouses through the wry smile tugging at honey-stickied lips, “Maybe we’ll luck out and find bandits that like smoking. I can get my wagon back, and get them to leave us alone…” She pinches the end of a picked-clean bone in her fingertips, before tossing it aside for one of the strays following the caravan. “Of course, if it’s advice they want… Be vigilant, but for shit’s sake don’t overthink it. We got through the shadowlands alright, we’ll just have to batten down, be prepared, and not lose sleep. I know Vasht takes security seriously, but he’s going to send himself to an early grave if he doesn’t learn to let go.”

“Heh, sounds like good advice,” she appraises, examining one of the bones she’s nibbled-clean. “Might wanna figure a neat place to hide your coin, though. If it’s bandits, and those geniuses don’t get a keen idea,” she makes a looping gesture towards the lead wagon. “We’ll probably just have to let ourselves be robbed. It ain’t pretty, but sometimes it keeps your head on your neck. I know we don’t have enough guards to do the same.”

“Great. I can tell ‘em my money’s at the bottom of a sack of puffroot. Maybe I’ll get lucky,” Ane remarks dryly. 

“You’ve got several sacks to choose from, if I’ve heard right,” Narue says, with a grin that sends her smirk-wing a-flutter. “Hey, at least if we get robbed, I can see what the bandits around here look like! I hear they look all crazy, with golem bits n’ whatnot stuck to ‘em.”

“Probably. Just set Jarrik loose on ‘em, let him talk them into becoming the next part of the show. People elsewhere might pay some decent coin to see a man-golem.”

“I know I would! I bet it makes them all strong-like,” she figures, tapping her chin. “Maybe if we get robbed, I can just… shake one of their hands really hard,” she supposes. “You know, steal it and be the one with the neat gimmick.”

“I don’t think getting golem parts is an outpatient procedure, Rue,” Ane’s never seen one, granted, but she doesn’t exactly think she needs to in order to draw some conclusions.

“Aw,” Narue wilts, drooping her wings. It’s hard to tell how serious she’s being. “I can’t just slip on a golem-glove and start doing heroics? That’s too bad.” She kicks a nearby stone across the grass. “Oh well. I oughta go figure out a new life goal,” she says, and hops to her feet. “See you later!” She waves briskly, about to wander off on her way. 

“See you,” Ane says with a nod. She stands as well, dusting chips of bark from her backside before she goes to return her plate to the communal wash basin. 

As she makes the short walk back to her wagon, a sense of foreboding begins to gnaw at her. Will Vasht ask her to be a lookout again? Possibly, though there’s no reason to ask her over any of the others with actual eyes. The shadowlands was one thing, but here… 

Her nostrils flare slightly as she breathes deep, straining to pick up the scent of smoke. It seems like ordinary woodsmoke from here, and tells her nothing. It could be a hunting lodge — is probably a hunting lodge — but there’s no way to tell from this distance. 

From Ane’s vantage point, that column of smoke could be a lodge… though it’s rather thick, like what one may expect from an open flame. Then again, it might just be a big fire outside of a lodge, or a big lodge. 

Vasht’s group does certainly look concerned enough. They’re still in the middle of talking, even now that the plates are mostly cleaned. During one of the lulls in the conversation, Nelea glances up with a worried look, seemingly in Ane’s direction. She’s a rather shy sort, so she doesn’t call out or beckon where another might. There’s a tentative look about her. Seconds later, the conversation tugs her back in. 

Ane catches her look, but she may just want her to try to talk Vasht down from… whatever it is Vasht is currently Vashting. If it’s that important, Nelea knows where her wagon is. She gives her a small wave, but she’s already been pulled back into the circle. 

With a shrug, Ane turns away to return to her wagon. As nice as it is to have gotten outside, even if it’s just for a meal, she can feel herself growing antsy. A vision would be a welcome way to pass the next stretch of the journey, but it strikes her as a bad idea — as helpful as it might be to ride a passing bird or smeerp and see ahead, that would also leave her virtually helpless until her limbs decide to reawaken and her mind falls back into itself. 

Twenty four hours later…

 

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Teller of Fortunes 26: Warm Reception

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It’s the morning before the caravan leaves Paakoponde. Shardflies are buzzing against the curtains, rears aglow with warm light, some starting to slip in across the windowsill. Normally the wagons would have been rolling by now, but the ground is rather marshy and uncooperative in these parts. Sounds of labor last night signalled trouble with one of the wagon wheels. Given the ingenuity of the troupe, the caravan’s sure to be moving again after breakfast.

As Ane shifts, a bundle of puffroot gently thwaps against her forehead. It must have been precariously shoved into a cupboard during her attempts to wrangle the tide of local “gifts.” She’s managed to stay in her wagon since then, but others are bound to be curious. After all, there was a literal procession of bundle-bearing locals heading in and out of her tent, all thanks to her unintentionally standing in for the local oracle. Anyway, the scent of sizzling, savory eggs soon wafts its way into her wagon, sending out the call to go join the others. 

She mutters a soft curse as she bats a shardfly away from her head, before easing herself into a sitting position with a broad stretch. The scent of the smoke has long since dissipated, leaving behind only the barest traces of its sweet, fruity aroma mingled with incense and the smell of dried puffroot. It’s far from an unpleasant smell, but it’s one that’s probably going to start wearing on her after awhile.

After washing her face, combing and braiding her hair, and dressing in a comfortable chemise and a skirt of saffron-colored cotton, Ane heads out to pick up some breakfast and see if anyone she knows is a closet smoking enthusiast.

This morning, peering through the mist, Ane sees that the food line is rather short. All around, the more able-bodied members of the camp are already getting busy prepping the wagons. Apparently many had to awaken early to continue the work of last night. At the moment, it seems they’re almost finished; there are boards under the wagon wheels, the trumba are hitched, and there’s a clear path back to the main road. 

The food line passes in a breeze — a quick step up to Vasht, the sleepy-eyed knife thrower, who’s taking a rare shift at cooking. It’s just as well, since he only really knows how to cook eggs, and there’s a small stock of them leftover from the city. He gives a worn smile when Ane arrives, and uses a spoon to scooch breakfast onto her plate. 

“Welcome to the morning. Glad to see you didn’t float off on a cloud last night,” he says with a hint of mirth, while preparing the next batch. 

Ane gives him a wry, sheepish grin as she accepts the eggs.

“That obvious, huh?” She says, briefly catching her lower lip in her teeth, “Well… What can I say? I’m good with customers.”

He lets out a chuckle. “Right… Well,” he smirks, and motions off towards the current circle of people eating. The lot of them, including Brair the fire breather, the dancer triplets, the actors Jiselmo, Korin, and the animal tamer Nelea are all looking in Ane’s direction with amusement in their expressions. There are more than a few sets of lofted brows amongst them.

Vasht, scraping off a pan, adds, “Maybe you can share some of your tricks, and a cigarillo or two.” He gives her a wry smile that sets the vestigial wing over his left eye a-fluff. “Off you go, can’t keep them waiting all morning,” he says, scraping off a pan. 

Ane darts a glance over her shoulder at the lofted brows and amused grins. When she looks back at Vasht, her lips are pursed in an expression that’s half chagrined, and half miffed at his teasing. 

“Careful what you ask for, or you’ll have six pounds of puffroot on your doorstep,” she chides him, as she turns to find a place to sit. She’s tempted to find somewhere where she’ll endure less ribbing, but, after yesterday, she at least owes them somewhat of an explanation…

When she arrives, the atmosphere is certainly jovial. Jiselmo even raises his hands to begin clapping, though Korin intercepts by smacking them down. Perhaps after the ribbing he endured himself previously, he’s inclined to return the favor for Ane. This doesn’t stop the more mildly amused of from grinning, with Brair being the first to comment.

 “Well… I see our troupe’s other top performer just decided to wake up.” He beams, then bites into an appoh — likely one of many. Munching around it, he says, “Thoughf I don’f think it waf my shirtlesh fire twilin,” he swallows, “had them flocking!”

The others chuckle. The triplets lean forward in unison, with Zila pillowing her chin on her hands. 

“Ane, you just have to tell us your method. We practiced very hard at being triple-topless, and now you’re a puffroot magnate!”

Ane sits down on the edge of the group, shoulders hunched a little over her plate of eggs. Her cheeks burn with embarrassment and she prods the fluffy mass with her fork, muttering softly.

“I just pulled some cards, that’s all.”

Even so, a grin — somewhere between amusement and self-consciousness — tugs at the corner of her lips.

Jiselmo kind of shimmies his head, not a shake, but a general spasm of bewilderment. “Well what did you pull for them? Did you predict that their vulre will go on to a top university?”

“None would even explain their activity,” Nelea says, while petting one of the troupe’s trained gelts with her broad, gloved hand. “It was truly bizarre,” she says, looking at the creature. 

“Not even the ones that gave me appohs would explain it! They just kept spouting, ‘Thank to foreign shaman’ and left to get more!” He says, practically in a laugh as he throws his arms wide. “They didn’t even give a damn about all the fire, either!”

Okay,” Ane says, pointing her fork accusatorily at Brair, “In my defense, I didn’t know how many appohs they had. Or puffroot,” she says, before taking a forkful of eggs, “Obvioufly.”

“To Jiselmo’s point,” Nelea says, “It must have been quite a fortune to tell. I’ve had three vulre go off to college, and I wasn’t that excited,” she says with a warm, albeit dry, sort of humor.

“Yeah! Why were they so grateful? It must have been a pretty high-quality grift,” Jiselmo appraises, crossing his arms and nodding authoritatively. “It’d make ‘ol Jarrik green with envy, with that kind of yield!”

“Well, if Jarrik wants to figure out how to fence about three dozen pounds of puffroot, he’s welcome to his cut,” Ane says sourly, “Besides… You all know what I do. That one lady asked a question, I answered it, she asked how to pay me, since she didn’t have much money… I asked her to give Brair some appohs. She asked if I wanted anything for myself, I figured a pouch of puffroot might be nice. I never expected it to end up so…”

She gestures toward her wagon with a vigorous wave of her hand. 

“High?” Jiselmo offers glibly. 

Ane pins the end of her egg-laden fork with a fingertip, poising it to catapult its payload straight at him.

“‘S enough out of you.”

Through some kind of age-old reflex, Jiselmo immediately ducks behind Korin. He peers over the tzuskar’s upper-wing, not even disturbing the man as he continues to eat. “Just saying!” He calls from behind his fortification, then ducks down.

“Well, it’ll make ya good money in the next city,” Brair figures. “As for me, I’ve definitely got enough for that ‘drink the dragon’s fire’ trick,” he says with a grin, rubbing his massive palms together.

Nelea sighs and shakes her head. “Just don’t test it on us or the animals.”

“Really, it’s not a bad idea,” figures Vila, the middle-sister. “You could make some money for Dynkala, if you tell her to prep belly-remedies ahead of time,” she says with a wiley gleam in her eyes. 

“It sounds dangerous to me,” says Wila, clutching her pearls as always. “Really, how ever did you get such a notion…?”

“And if Dynkala doesn’t want to, the other herbalist probably can — whatsername. Vaidna,” Ane adds, “Though honestly, Brair, you could probably start brewing your own liquor from scratch with all those appohs.”

“Huh, you’re right,” he agrees, furrowing his ridge of a brow. “A lot of it, too… Might go well with the other stuff. It’d be easier to sell than all the blasted appohs, if we don’t eat them first,” he figures, while a camp follower wanders by and takes his empty plate for him.

“At least Ane won’t have to be on backup-duty for the medic wagon when you get them all sick,” Wila chides him. “Really, hearthfire vinegar,” she shakes her head, as someone wanders by and takes the triplets’ empty plates. 

“Thank you, such a dear,” Vila mutters, as the three of them settle back into their seats. 

“Phf, a little digestive charcoal, some white clay tablets, a bit of stomach powder… hearthfire vinegar never killed anybody,” Ane replies.

Then a robed callosian wanders by and accepts her empty plate with a broad hand.

“Thank-,” she begins to say. Something about him jogs her memory, though, as she eyes his robe with a curious hum. That is certainly an Eternalist robe. Is he… the monk she met a few days ago? He never gave a name.

“You are most welcome,” says the dark-braided callosian, bobbing his head.

As he takes Jiselmo’s plate, he shrugs and thanks him as well. Jiselmo has still been hiding behind Korin’s back this whole time, but finally seems to be forgetting Ane’s promise of catapulting.

Korin’s the one who blinks, and as the callosian wanders away with the plates, he wonders aloud. 

“Wait a second… why is a burly monk doing our dishes?”

“I can get used to it,” Zila says cheerfully, with a waggle of her eyebrows. 

Vila gives her a cross look, and huffs. 

“Well, he might be some use against a bandit raid,” she says, averting her gaze. 

Ane presses her fingertips to her temples, and attempts to stifle a soft groan. So far, she’s netted the caravan thirty six pounds of puffroot, probably four times that of appohs… And one adventurous monk.

“I’ll see you lot later. I’ve got to go before anything else shows up.”

“See you later, Ane!” Brair calls to her, waving his arm. He seems quite happy with the outcome, given his wealth of ale-fodder.

“See you, Ane,” Zila bids her dreamily, resting a hand upon her flushed cheek. Naturally, she’s not even looking in the fortune teller’s direction, but rather, at the monk currently scrubbing dishes with his oh-so-strong hands. 

Like a fly-trap, the caravan accumulates strange travelers and friends by the day.

Teller of Fortunes 15: Dreams and Pancakes

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When Ane awakens, she’s blinded by the faint glimmer of a memory.

A vast forest looms, fraught with buzzing lights and drooping shadows. Strange figures move about, all hiding their faces beneath wicker and burlap. Unlike the happy, aimless meandering of Paako’s citizens, they all move with purpose, surging towards a shape on the horizon… 

Her vision swoops down from the canopy, like that of a bird, diving between the mud-root huts and the sleepy town squares. Like phantoms, the strange figures are gone. Finding no evidence of their passing, she glides upwards once more, soaring high, cresting over top of the squalls that pass along temple walls. Beneath her, the massive step-pyramid of the Eternalists lingers in shadow, looming like a colossal sailwhale beneath an ocean surf, or a turtle hiding within its shell. 

In that moment, Ane’s “eyes” flare to life, and she sees color — or at least, a memory of color. It’s a deep, glowing violet, ensorcelled somewhere beyond the body of the temple. It calls out, not with a voice or a language, but with a feeling — a sense that it wishes to fly from here, as she soon will. And like a prisoner that watches the jail door swing closed, it knows its time is quickly slipping away. 

All this comes minutes after waking, once the mind has had time to adjust. 

Meanwhile, a familiar smell wafts in through Ane’s window — thick, creamy, buttery, cooking over an open bonfire. It can only be one thing: the dancer triplets’ patented sweetroot pancakes. They only make them when they’re in a particularly good mood. Sausages and other fixings are likely to follow as part of this rare, somewhat special occasion. Perhaps they’re pleased to be back in Paakoponde? Whatever the case, everyone’s likely to be in the camp for breakfast this morning. 

Purple.

Ane finds herself fixated on her dream. It’s strange — she’d never had, nor wanted, much truck with the Eternalists. Odd that their temple would appear to her now, though maybe not so very odd considering she’d seen it yesterday. Still, she knows better than to think this is a coincidence.

Nothing is ever a coincidence.

Ane avoids letting the memory get to her as she gets ready for the day, brushing her hair, washing up, and dressing for breakfast. When she emerges from her wagon and saunters over for some pancakes, she’s the picture of well-rested, unruffled calm.

This portrait of insouciance is met with a familiar sight — the food line. It’s rather long today, though it seems to be moving quickly,  perhaps almost three times faster. This is fortunate, because people seem rather eager this morning. They shuffle as they stand, watching the backs of those in front of them with a deep, hungry impatience. 

Soon, Ane arrives at the front of the line, where she’s greeted by the conjoined fuhajen triplets. Rather than dancing, this time they’re serving out food in a rather coordinated manner. Wila is to one side, flipping flapjacks on a set of iron pans, pausing to let each new serving sizzle over the fire. Beside her is Vila, in the middle, who smiles and hands out plates full of the morsels.

“Enjoy breakfast, it’s our specialty,” says the usually-sardonic middle sister, today with warmth.

A couple of seconds later, Zila, the “youngest” of the three, offers up the sausages and dollops of either jam or butter. 

“I love it when she’s like this, so much easier,” she confides, pretending Vila can’t hear. 

Of course, all three of them are joined at the hip this entire time. It’s really remarkable what six arms can do in such a confined space. 

“Thanks,” Ane says brightly, as she accepts a plate piled high with cakes, flanked by sausage, and drizzled with butter and jam. She moves swiftly out of the way, to let the rest of the line progress, as she hums over the assembled caravanners to find a place to sit.

After a few moments of wandering, Ane finds a place at one of the larger circles. There are still no tables — lest the caravan more deeply flout the local customs — but the troupe seems used to eating with plates on their laps regardless. Ane’s spot is right between Nelea and Jiselmo (sans Korin), seated neatly on a log. A few others are nearby, including Vasht and Brair. 

As Jiselmo notices her presence, he pauses eating and begins to beam excitedly.

 “Ah! The one responsible for that glorious spectacle last night,” the shasii comedian says, glowing with mirth.

“And the one who cured Korin,” Nelea the animal tamer adds dutifully, chastising Jiselmo with a pointed look.

“Fpecacle?” Ane says, around a mouthful of pancakes. She swallows, gently licks a stray trace of jam from the edge of her lower lip, and says again, more clearly, “Spectacle?”

“Why yes,” Jiselmo replies, leaning back. “A wondrous sight happened upon me as I returned from my grocery run… why, it was truly radiant!”

“Oh, I know where this is going,” Vasht the knife-thrower grumbles, rolling his eyes.

“Purest ivory! Right there, bright and shimmering in the shardlight! It was the pale, contorted belly of my friend and compatriot Korin. Like a loaf of twist-bread or a young girl’s braid, he twisted ‘round towards the sun, splashing himself so copiously with old bathwater! All to apply the curse-cure you gave him.”

Ane purses her lips and furrows her brow incredulously at the actor.

“Aw, leave Korin alone… He’s gotten enough grief from you and your trinket-lady already. Besides, it fixed him, didn’t it? And,” she concludes, spearing another bite of pancake, “How’d you know what the Void ‘ivory’ looks like in the first place? You’re a shasii like me, you don’t even have eyes.”

“Why, dear Ane, we are masters of the dramatic,” Jiselmo waxes on, gesturing with a skewered pancake. “I may not see ivory, but I know it by its passing!”

“I think that meams,” Brair the firebreather mumbles through a mouthful, “That he made it up.”

“Oh, the color may be in my mind, but the spectacle was not! And he was so dedicated in his craft. When I approached, he looked on towards the sun in rapt determination… A true tragic hero,” the shasii continues, gesturing dramatically. 

“I assume you were the cause of his misfortune, Jiselmo?” Nelea supposes.

“I cannot cause such bravery! The way he leapt in front of that crone’s eldritch claw was truly the stuff of song,” Jiselmo declares wistfully. “A true epic, featuring the wise Ane and her remedy, as well as my twitching compatriot with his visceral fondness for puns.”

“… It was Jiselmo’s fault,” Ane explains, “Or, as the trinket-seller apparently put it, Korin’s ‘pet blabrel.’”

This wins a sudden bout of giggles from the animal tamer, who has to stifle herself, lest she lose some of her breakfast along with her high-pitched giggles. Once the callosian has herself under control, Nelea mutters through teary eyes, “It’s true! He is so like a blabrel…”

“Such japery,” Jiselmo faux-chides. It’s not very convincing — he’s often lobbed worse at longtime friends in jest. “I am so much more majestic! Like a soaring silver skarrow, or a sociable clap-vole…”

“If by that, you mean you bring about buzzing horrors by smashing their eggs,” Vasht contributes, “Then yeah, sure, maybe a clap-vole,” he concludes with a wan smile. 

“Still,” Ane continues, “You can’t mock him for doing what he needed to do to get your curse off of him — just be happy I didn’t have him dump the water on your side of the wagon.” She points her fork at Jiselmo, as if it were a wizard’s wand from a fae tale — as if she could strike him with some kind of buttery, jammy bewitchment from where she sits.

“Bwah!” Jiselmo recoils, just barely ducking an imaginary ray of jam. He stumbles back, and nearly knocks over a pile of clothes that’s heaped up between him and the cook-fire.

A head pops out of the pile. It is a shasii woman wearing a dark bandanna over a mop of curls. 

“Be careful. I am toasting,” the scarf-pile chastises him. Vaidna the medicine peddler, apparently.

Jiselmo stops in place, frozen, furrowing his brow. He turns to the pile, then to Ane. 

“I’m… sorry?”

It’s another strange day in the caravan.

Teller of Fortunes 14: A Comedian’s Curse

(This is a direct continuation of the prior episode. Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning of the series. Thank you for reading!)

Ane approaches Korin’s wagon. Her arm is filled to heaping with jars, waxed fabric packets, muslin pouches, the katagon brazier, charcoal, several long, green leaves pulled from fresh cattails, and, finally, a small etui made of enameled metalwork.

She raps sharply on the wagon’s door.

“Four thousand!” 

Korin bids her to enter. 

Fortunately, the door isn’t locked; it’s barely even closed.

Ane finds herself amidst the perpetual spectacle that is the “actor’s wagon.” The first, most noticeable thing is a wide chalk line cutting straight along the middle of the floor. All furniture, whether it be standing or hanging from the walls, is distinctly not placed over this line — except one standing table, which has the line continuing over its top, and two different drinks and sets of cards on each side. It’s like looking at two entirely different rooms, though apparently they collide just to drink and play cards.  

On the right side of the room is a wild collection of things, including all manner of costumes from princely outfits to feather boas and highwayman’s masks. There are many old paintings, all of which come pre-vandalized by inked silly expressions, curly moustaches, and sometimes even googly-eyes. One of them is even covered in darts which stick out of the canvas at haphazard angles. Then there’s a mess of things all about, likely various trinkets Jiselmo has collected, including mirrors he can’t use, embroidered pillows, some nice curtains tossed over a barrel… There’s a bed somewhere in there, presumably. 

On the left side is a relatively austere bedroom. The walls are largely unadorned, but occasionally covered in neat, functional shelves, many of which sport a number of books. Some are fiction, focusing on fae tales and adventure. Others are embroidered with titles that concern history, or the finer points of acting. It’s a rather serious environment. 

Down below the shelves is a well made bed, a sensible night-stand, and a comfortable little reading nook tucked into the corner. Korin sits there now with his hands and feet spread. He looks like he’s bracing himself for surgery, and… Well, that is rather literal, isn’t it? He must have been bracing himself psychologically, and now finds himself stuck up against the back of his chair. 

“Hello,” he greets Ane, his voice tense. The back of his head is shoved tightly to the wall, mussing down his short hair, scrunching his neck. 

He has a wooden basin filled with steaming water set beside his reading nook. There’s also a pinned note from Jiselmo, with a scratched-in smile saying, “Enjoy your soak, just try not to croak!” It seems he’s a supportive but not-quite-so tactful friend.

Ane nods. 

“Hello, Korin. Now, tell me…” She sets the basket down cautiously atop Jiselmo’s… Curtain… Barrel. She’s never quite understood his decorating sensibilities. “Was Jiselmo cursed as well, and did he get anything from the trinket-seller?”

The tzuskar relaxes somewhat, lowering his wings — which were previously pinned to the wall. 

“Well, no… Jiselmo seems fine. Somehow, I think the curse bounced off of him and hit me,” he relates. “Cosmically, anyway.” He sighs, then continues, “The woman reached out with a gnarled hand and tried to… Well, bap him, I guess? With her palm. Right in the forehead. Jiselmo bent down to pick something up, and it hit me instead…” Korin’s posture wilts, and his wings promptly become droopy and somewhat dry and colorless. This only lasts for a second, fortunately, as their color and vivacity soon returns. “Anyway, there was a brief flash of li-”

Korin promptly stops talking, grabs the hem of his shirt, and lifts it up to reveal his stomach. As quickly as he did this, Korin immediately shoves his shirt back down. Just as his face begins to flush, he does so instead by grabbing a handful of water and tossing it at his cheeks.

“Oh, that one was a bit of a stretch,” he grumbles, bellyaching, which soon turns literal and has him clutching his stomach. “I guess it didn’t count as a reveal until I got to the interesting part…”

“But did he actually take or buy anything from her?” 

Ane begins setting up. First, she sets the brazier on the table in the middle of the divided wagon, before filling it with a block of charcoal, adding some tinder, and lighting it with her firesteel. She watches him as she works, studying the symptoms of the curse while measuring out a quantity of snowsage, some round, vaguely pearlescent drops of fragrant resin, and a few of drops of a viscous, pungently foul-smelling oil. Her nose wrinkles a bit from the stink as she works — unfortunately, not every type of herbcraft is intended to smell inviting. Hopefully this stuff is as effective as it is odiferous.

Korin shakes his head — not side to side, but rapidly in place, like a vibration.

“No, he just got all offended. Like, ‘How dare you strike my companion!? Look at him, he’s traumatized! Come along Korin, let’s buy our props elsewhere,’” Korin relates, in an almost perfect Jiselmo-voice. Or, that’s what he would have told Ane. About halfway through the impression, the tzuskar stops and begins pressing hard against a nearby surface, at least until a slight indentation is left behind.  

Ane sighs in relief. Good, at least they probably aren’t dealing with a cursed object.

“Alright, well… Enough talk. Strip down to whatever you’re comfortable with getting wet.” 

She heaps the sticky mixture of herbs, resin, and oil onto the burning coal, which immediately responds with a dark billow of deep, musky-scented smoke. While the oil may have smelled like an overfilled privy before, mixing and heating it seems to have released some sort of strongly woody, earthy scent — like moss and soil before a rain.

While that burns, she measures a few other herbs into a pouch of thin muslin. This, she does not burn. Instead, she tosses it into the wash basin to steep in the hot water, releasing little tendrils of tea-colored liquid.

“Sure, sure,” Korin agrees, then promptly begins scratching his nails at the wall, stripping off some of the paint. “Void damn- actually, you know what, I have an idea. Give me a second.”

He stands up, opens his mouth, and begins, “The curse is-”

He takes off his shirt, revealing his thin, soft torso.

“The lady’s name wa-”

He takes off his gloves, revealing his hands.

“She ca-”

He removes his boots, kicking them off the floor, revealing his black-socked feet.

“That’ll do,” he declares, now just wearing his trousers and socks. He sits back down, and resumes watching Ane’s concoction. Occasionally it almost elicits a reaction from him, but he forces his face to not contort, knit, or do any verbs in general. 

Once he seems to be satisfied with his state of undress, she nods.

“Alright. Stand in the basin. Then, what you need to do — without saying anything — is use your left hand to pour handfuls of water over yourself, until you’ve been completely soaked from top to tips, alright?” 

For now, she settles herself comfortably cross-legged on the floor, with a sheaf of cattail leaves and the little metal etui on her lap. The air of the wagon is growing smokier with the incense rising from the little katagon bowl, fumigating the space from the split table outward.

Korin nods, and seems to fight off a brief bout of drowsiness. Without saying a word, he gets up, and step-step-steps his way to the basin. Rather than enter it deliberately, he walks over it but stops when standing in the middle of the water. He then bends d-

Korin bends to the left, forming an arc with his body. This almost causes him to curse, but he forces his lips shut.

After that, he tries again. Korin kneels down, scoops up some water in his hands, and begins scooping water onto his body. It takes him some extra time, since he also needs to soak his wings. But soon, he’s completely wet, shining in the brazier’s light like a buttered biscuit fresh from the oven. His hair is limply wetted down, and his feathers are all matted with moisture. He shivers a little as he sits there, wordlessly looking at Ane as if to say, “Now what?”

In response, she holds up…

A tiny Korin.

Meanwhile, Larger Korin looks concerned. 

It’s really quite cleverly fashioned, really — made entirely out of a bundle of cattail leaves, with a few extra tied to the back and torn into fringes to indicate feathered wings. Ane stands, cattail doll in one hand, reaches over, and plucks a single feather from the shoulder of the tzuskar’s wing.

“Ow! My wings,” he complains.

“Now hold still while I do some things.”

Ane’s nimble fingers tie the feather around the doll’s neck with a bit of cotton thread. She holds it up, over the basin, and speaks, in clear, even tones,

“Let the doll be as the man — whatever curse has befallen him is sent into the water. From man to water, from water to doll, and from doll to dirt, never to bother another again.” 

She dips the doll into the wash basin, holding it by the tip of one cattail-leaf wing. As it dangles, dripping, between her fingers, she turns her hum back up to Korin.

Korin shivers, feeling chilly and rubbing his arms. It may not be the ritual itself, but just the thought of seeing a tiny “him” dunked in water.

“Alright… Take the basin outside, toward the shardlight. Turn your back to the shard, dump the water behind you, to your left, then come back inside without…” she holds up the index finger of her free hand, “… turning around or looking behind you, no matter what. Then, you need to let yourself air-dry completely before you dress, speak, or leave the wagon again. I,” here, she holds up the cattail doll, “Am going to go bury this. Nod if you understand.”

Korin nods off slightly at the end, but he does so with a look of resolve. That probably means he understands. 

She nods in return.

“Good. Once all that’s done… You should be back to normal after getting some sleep. It just needs a little time.”

Ane begins cleaning up — she tosses the coal into Korin and Jiselmo’s stove, and packs away all of her herbs and other accoutrements into her basket. Lastly, on top, she sets the rather forlorn-looking cattail doll.

While he’s disposing of the water, she seeks out some mud. Nothing said the doll had to be buried deep, just so long as it isn’t where others can get at it and disrupt her handiwork. 

Luckily for me, if there’s one thing Paakoponde’s got, it’s mud.

Kneeling by the edge of a marshy spot, beneath the drooping branches of a willow, she pulls a small, pearl-ended pin from her etui.

“As the curse was pinned to the man, so pin it now to this,” she whispers, as she thrusts the pin into the doll. It’s easy enough to scoop away some mud from around the willow’s roots, creating a small hollow just barge enough for the doll to fit — the ground is soft and sodden enough, the base of it begins to fill with water after only a few inches.

With an unceremonious plop, the Teller of Fortunes drops the doll into the little hollow. It really is a sad-looking thing, pierced with the pin, with its battered little cattail-leaf wings just barely jutting out of the muddy water, and thick spatters of mud across its flat, pale, expressionless-

Ane’s mouth goes dry. Her heart begins to pound in her chest, as a tight, hard knot forms at the base of her throat. She quickly scoops mud over the doll, fixing her hum on the gnarled bark of the willow to keep from having to see its accusatory look.

But how could it be accusatory? The Void-damned thing doesn’t even have an actual face.

Ane wipes her hands clean on the moss clumped greedily around the tree’s roots, and hastens her walk back to her cabin. She’s going to need another cup or two of tea and some time to breathe before anyone wants anything from her again. Few things in life have been as welcome as the sight of her wagon’s split door, with its bright, peeling paint and little carved wooden curlicues at the corners.

Once inside, she gives her hands a thorough scrubbing with the bucket of water beside her round-bellied stove. Even after cleaning every trace of mud from her neatly-trimmed nails, lathering her hands with soap, and rubbing them with a sachet of fragrant herbs, it still feels like there isn’t enough she can do to clean them. 

She lights her stove, roughly prodding a divot in the pile of coal with the fire iron. Into this, she casts a handful of dried mint and snowsage — enough for silvery smoke to rise from the stove’s mouth. Hastily, she strips off her clothing to kneel in front of the glow of the coals. Even though her vestigial remnant of vision can only barely perceive the faint light coming from it, she can feel the heat and the fragrant smoke, enveloping her skin.

In spite of the warmth, goosebumps dot her bared arms and legs. 

Ane inhales deeply and lets her head hang, chin to her chest. She can feel the stretch all along the space between her shoulder blades, where her heavy pack pressed, up along the slender column of her neck. It aches, but it’s the ache of falling onto one’s bed after a long day — a pain that heralds the opportunity to rest, if she can get the rest of herself to comply.

While the herbs smoke and the stove burns, she dips some water into her little copper kettle. Some geltsear leaf tea, a little healer’s honey, maybe a few leaves of sightwort, to rest her thoughts and open her mind’s eye… Between that, her robe, and a book, she might be able to relax until she is needed again.

Fortunately, no one comes knocking for the rest of the night. Korin’s curse was likely enough excitement for one evening anyway.

A cool breeze wafts against the outside of the wagon. Activity outside begins to lull as the troupe settles down to rest after a long day’s work. For Ane the night is soothing and calm, and she settles down to sleep after a day’s work well done.

Teller of Fortunes 13: No Bellyaching

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

By the time Ane returns to the caravan, all the wagons have un-hitched and spread throughout a large clearing between the trees. The ground here is particularly dry and well-trodden, great for the weighty wagon wheels and many barrels of supplies.

It seems most people have finished with their errands and tasks. Now they can finally take a breather, enjoying some time in camp without worry for an immediate departure. It’s a noticeably different atmosphere — in one corner of the camp, the knife-thrower Vasht is trying to teach the comedian Korin how to juggle, while Korin’s partner Jiselmo makes commentary. Elsewhere, the dancer triplets perch outside the herbalist’s wagon, gossiping as the old klorr leans out her window. And somewhere in the city, the caravan master Jarrik is off making his mischief.

The trumba graze, the people chat, the caravan master grifts for more gold… All is at peace.

Ane stops at her wagon to unload much of her burden — at least the heaviest bits, like the wax and coffee. With the herbalist’s medicines in a basket slung over her arm, she sashays over to the old woman’s wagon with a cheerful call:

“Knock knock!”

As Ane approaches, she hears Dynkala and three others wrapped up in casual, gossipy banter. Old Dynkala is particularly animated.

“Well, if he has all his limbs, eyes, and his wonderful hair… Then it can’t be a very good curse now can it dear? Why, of all the ones I’ve seen-” She blinks her wide, slit-pupiled eyes, face lined with laughter as she turns to greet Ane.

“Oh, hello! Back from my little errand?” She asks kindly, leaning with her elbows over her windowsill. That window and her wagon seem as much a part of Dynkala as anything else. The sturdy, rustic vehicle has been hers for many decades. As Dynkala dwells deeper into her twilight years, she scarcely exits, mostly speaking through her open window — and open it always is, with a sign bearing a pestle and mortar swinging gently above.

The conjoined dancer triplets all give a little wave, one after the other. They have three sets of arms amongst them, fortunately enough for them to all sip some of Dynkala’s tea. The trio is perched on a wide crate, temporarily pressed into service as a seat until it has to go on to be rations or wagon parts.

“Yes, and I think I managed to get everything,” Ane says as she passes the basket to the aged herbalist. Even without tea and a place to sit, she almost immediately eases into the conversational atmosphere. “A medicine seller showed some interest in coming on board, so it’s a good thing I didn’t get extra — I told her to talk to Jarrik, but it looks like she’ll be bringing her stocks. You know he wouldn’t turn down free supplies.”

“Not even if they were falling out of a burning orphanage on Turnabout Eve,” Vila adds dryly. The other two triplets nod in agreement.

Dynkala, accepting the basket with a withered claw, seems more pensive.

“A medicine seller, hm? Maybe she plans to make marks of us,” she considers and tucks the basket down onto her lap inside the wagon. “Oh well. If she’s a swindler, she’ll never slip past me. I married three, raised two, and I work for one,” she says with a smile, looking down and picking through the items.

Ane chuckles lightly as she leans against the wall beside the herbalist’s window.

“She didn’t seem like one. No sawdust in the stomach-powder, at least, and the snowsage didn’t smell like turpentine. Speaking of the caravan master, though, how’s he doing after losing us a whole passel of mercenaries?”

Dynkala doesn’t acknowledge the comment on the caravan master at first, focusing on the materials. “That’s good. You always have had a good eye, figuratively speaking,” the old klorr agrees, nodding at the ingredients. No sawdust, no dyed leaves, no fake berries…

The trio, of course, is fully willing to take up the gossip-mantle. Between the three of them, they usually have quite a lot of it. Wila responds from behind a flap of her fan.

“Well, Jarrik’s certainly been left scrambling…”

“He even wanted to circle the wagons! Here, in Paako,” Zila says, astonished.

Vila scoffs. “It’s just how insecure he gets, without a bunch of buff kettle-heads to keep him company.”

Looking up, Dynakala murmurs, “He’s probably off scraping for more as we speak. Can’t just have that sharp boy Vasht handle things; liable to spook the root-twirlers with his glare.”

Ane gives a soft snort.

“Yes, well. Jarrik wouldn’t have to scrape as much if he’d pay them more than twice a year,” she scoffs.

“It would probably be more net funds, due to sign-on fees,” Wila reasons. “It’s simply mathematical.”

“Less spent on funerals and bribes,” Vila comments.

Dynkala chuckles, shaking her head. “He’d have to swindle twice as much, just to feel like he’s making money. Price-hiking my folk cures, cutting ingredients from the rest…”

“Void forbid, another fiasco like the Skilvargan Job,” Zila huffs.

Ane pushes herself away from the wagon with a shrug of her shoulder.

“Anyway, I’ve got things to put away, and a tent to set up. I’ll see you ladies around,” she says, with a casual wave as she turns to return to her wagon.

Dynkala nods, giving an idle wave. “Take care dear, and thank you for the materials! We’ll be doing well for a while now,” she beams, settling back. “Good fortune, maybe, for a spell…”

“Just watch out if you see Korin! He said he got cursed, it might be contagious,” Zila says with an air of scandal.

“Now, that’s not nice,” Wila reprimands, “The poor boy is unfortunate enough, all things considered…”

Korin? Cursed? The only thing he’s afflicted with is a damaged sense of humor.

Ane shakes her head gently. Her walk isn’t long, and the weather is pleasantly humid and cool after the dry dust of the last town and the spore-drenched air of the shadowlands. She swings her arms gently as she walks, humming the same strange, wordless melody from her vision-seeking as she goes.

It doesn’t take her long to set her tent up here, either. She doesn’t need it just yet, but it’s better to have it waiting for her than otherwise.

Now, back in her wagon, she settles by her window to enjoy the breeze (and occasional thwup of a shardfly against her curtains) with a large cup of geltsear leaf tea, sweetened with a bit of healer’s honey. The honey lends a light spicy note to the vanilla-tinged warmth of the geltsear leaf, infused as it is with herbs that are supposed to be a preventative for sickness — she doesn’t know how accurate that is, but it tastes good and it couldn’t hurt. Doubly so if Korin thinks he’s been ensorcelled and turns up at her door, coughing, sniffling, and looking for a curse-breaker.

In time, there is the sound of footsteps outside. The soft-shod trodding comes to a halt, and there’s the rustling of fabric that usually accompanies someone raising their hand to knock. The sound never comes, however. Instead, Korin sighs and reluctantly calls out:

“My name is Korin and I’m here to say, Jiselmo got me screwed in a major way.”

Then there’s a thud as if he’s hit his head against the door. He sounds rather despondent.

“Hello, Ko– What.”

Ane frowns at her door for a long moment, hand paused halfway to setting her cup down on the floor beside her bed.

Slowly, carefully, Korin opens the door and enters…

“Ah. Nothing. Wonderful,” he cheers loudly, though he looks down to find he has his index finger shoved into his closed left fist. “Oh, that’s just rude,” he complains, then mutters, “Ow,” and doubles over slightly, clutching his stomach.

Ane focuses her sight-hum at him, puzzled.

“What… What did Jiselmo do, exactly? And what’s it doing to you?”

I guess this is the curse.

“Well, for one thing, my stomach hurts whenever I complain,” he grumbles. He shakes his head — no, shakes his head, like a vibration. “Gods, it really does hit everything.”

There’s a slight pause, and Korin goes very still. He seems to be trying his best to do nothing. He’s still standing in the doorway, of course, and hasn’t even attempted wandering further in.

“I have to do this very carefully. It was very embarrassing last time. Let’s just try…”

He readies himself to reveal the problem, but then promptly seizes up — literally grabbing himself. Tensing his muscles, he fights back a motion in his arms, cranking them towards one another… With a shaking hand, he grasps hold of one leather glove and then yanks it off. This reveals his hand, which is as normal as can be.

“Damn. Well, at least I didn’t reveal something else this time. Do you have a piece of paper?” He asks, exasperated. His stoic features are more lined with weariness than usual, and one of his face-wings flaps in despair.

Ane nods, swirls wide. Without moving her gaze from him, she feels around in the cabinet beneath her bed for some cattail paper, before tearing off a corner of the roll and holding it out in his direction. She stretches her arm as far as she possibly can, as if afraid that this whatever he has might be contagious.

“Sure, yes, thank you,” he replies in even-tone. Then carefully, he reaches out for a stub of pastel placed nearby. “Thank Firin it’s not ink, I thought of several for that,” he whispers. Slowly now, he lifts the pastel… “Still good,” he mutters, almost sweating from the tension.

Then, he puts it to the paper and drags it one line at a time…

Two seconds later, the end of the pastel is in his mouth as if he’s trying to smoke it.

“Void-dammit, that’s not what I meant!” He curses around the pastel, which is now shoved between his lips.

If Ane had eyes that could blink in astonishment, she would.

“Are you… Is there a way you could just describe what happened? What did Jiselmo do?”

“I can, if you can think of a way to do that without revealing it to you,” he explains, raising his gloved hand. Then he promptly drops the pastel from his mouth and sets it nearby. “I would have brought Jiselmo to explain, but…”

His brow goes flat.

“He has way too much fun with this.”

She gives a soft murmur and an understanding nod. That’s Jiselmo, alright.

“Can you tell me what you need? What would cure you?”

“The trinket peddler said I would have to ‘cease the sins’ of myself and my ‘pet blabrel.’ Meaning Jiselmo, naturally,” Korin explains. “Maybe she can be reasoned with? Or something else, you are the expert,” he speculates. Fortunately for him, it seems most of his speaking is not affected. He’s very noticeably regulating his tone, however, as if trying to avoid some kind of consequence. Given his usual deadpan delivery, he’s at least skilled in this.

Korin sighs. “There’s no way we can stop this! It’s our job for Void’s sa- Errrh, damn!” He groans, clutching his stomach. “Yes, yes, I know, no bellyaching…”

Ane presses her lips into a thin line, biting back a chuckle. She has a feeling she knows how it went down… Jiselmo saw a trinket he liked, and tried to sweet-talk his way into getting it.

This will take quite the fixing.

Teller of Fortunes 11: The Big Show

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

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

Though, perhaps there is a welcoming committee of sorts…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

FORTUNES TOLD

DESTINIES UNVEILED

5 S ea.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nods subtly. 

Void, it’s one of these. Welp.

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

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

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

She turns over another card.

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

She flips the final card. 

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

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

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

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

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

He slumps a little, chastened. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

THUNK.

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

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

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

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

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

Figures.

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

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

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

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

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

I need to start selling them myself. 

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

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

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

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

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

Teller of Fortunes 7: Stand and Deliver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“STAND AND DELIVE-”

Twang, snap!

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

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

Twang, snap! Snap!

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

“STAND! Stand! Stand. Stand…”

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

Ane exhales a tight breath.

“One down,” she mutters softly.

“Void take bandits,” the archer swears.

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

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

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

“Better safe than surprised, I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The archer lets out a light laugh. 

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

The tzuskar sighs, crossing her gauntleted arms. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dead are another story.

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

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

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

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

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

But the trees…

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

THUD.

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

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

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

The thing lumbers forward, planting its feet, before…

THWACK.

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

The tzuskar had only just drawn her sword. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pair of voices comes from below:

“ONE… TWO… HEAVE!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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