Teller of Fortunes 12: The Enigmatic Peddler

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

The Teller of Fortunes’ new customers are decidedly unlike the last. The vast majority tend to be either cultivators or fishers. Many are visibly covered in mud, leaves, and other signs of rough living, with bodies adorned in shells, clad in fabrics made from root-fibers. Most are primarily concerned about their day-to-day subsistence, whether it’s fishing hauls or the amount of good root and cattail cuttings that they find. Peculiarly, the cultivators are more driven by luck than most farmers; they almost treat their craft like foraging or mining, as if they spend most of their time wandering around for the best results. 

As a result, Ane makes quite a lot of money for a short stint in farmland — four gold mitres and change, when you convert all the silver upwards.

Typically, the caravan might stay longer in these sorts of outlands. However, after that deadly stint in the shadowlands, the caravan master Jarrik is eager to get things moving. There are higher “marks” in the city, and much more in the way of the creature comforts of which Jarric is quite fond. After just six hours, the call goes out to uproot the tents and move into the wagons. Normally this would be a paltry work period, but the many “village squares” of Paakoponde offer a higher clientele, and they’ll have more provisions during the post-city stint… 

Ane is pretty satisfied with her take, anyway. She requires little in the way of materials — not like Brair’s need for fuel and burn salve. She should have plenty enough to buy the supplies she has to replenish, and perhaps some dye, thread, ribbon… Maybe even a new dress or a pair of trousers. 

She tries not to get her hopes up too high as she rolls the canvas tent back up and stashes it in her wagon.

As she gets ready to travel once more, Ane feels a strange sort of silence about the camp. Usually, there’s a lot more going on… Sure, all the performers are still accounted-for. Brair is snuffing his flames, Jiselmo and Korin are stashing their costumes, the triplets are closing down their stage… There’s even that mercenary that Ane met during the trip — Narue, probably. She’s walking and talking to…

Nobody. She’s alone, walking in pensive silence.

That’s what’s missing. Mercenaries. Normally, this picture includes a group of them, often drunk and sassy on the alcohol that the caravan provides. Right now, though, it’s just Narue wandering about. One can practically draw a dotted line to mark where the others are supposed to be. This silhouette’s holding a tankard, that one’s smoking puffroot, the other is scratching his- well, nothing right now. They’re not here. 

Of course, it’s not like there was a mass death in the shadowlands… More like a “slight death,” or a “middling death.” But whatever the size of the supposed die-off, others seem to have decided that after such horrors, the farming life is for them. Some others have even been seen donning a foresty sort of ceremonial garb, then marching off deeper into the trees, presumably to find some monastic vows to take and put all of this far behind them. 

Plus, one or two of the remainder seem to have the sniffles. So does Korin, but that just helps with his “straight-man” schtick. 

Ane doesn’t worry about it much — mercenaries come and go, though such a mass exodus is certainly unusual. Still, so long as Jarrik doesn’t have any more jaunts through the shadowlands on the docket, they should be fine until they can round up more dewy-eyed farmers’ get with ill-fitting hand-me-down armor and adventure on their minds…

Once everything is gathered into the wagons, the caravan then spots for a brief but chatty dinner. While Ane washes the bowls, the others all chat around her. She doesn’t overhear much, save for bluster and curiosity about the recent trip; easy enough to ignore. 

She finishes scrubbing the dishes piled in the washbasin and retires to her wagon to change clothes and dig through her stock of herbs to double-check what needs replacing before she ventures out to find it.

Soon after, the caravan hitches-up again and begins to roll into the “city”… Though in this case, it defies most conventional notions of such. 

While Ane is getting ready, most of the short trip into Paakoponde goes unseen. 

But, when she steps out…

It’s more like stepping out into a painting than any kind of settlement. Sure, there are the huts, the shanties, the rows of homes. But all of these are dug out underneath tall, sweeping trees that dwarf most others. Many are so wide, that the gaps and “knees” of their roots are spacious enough to accommodate actual dwellings. The main body of each tree bears a peculiar, diagonal striation that spirals up to the top. The twisting looks almost synthetic as if someone walked around the outside while urging the tree, “Yes, keep going! Just a few more dozen feet, come on now. Up you go, on with it!” And by the Fires, judging by their bark, those trees must be far older than most men can count.

Up above is a veritable explosion of foliage, many trees with their leaf-shapes depending on their apparent age. Each seems to be the grandest specimen of its time, preserved in perpetuity… 

Then all around are the shardflies, which now sometimes form large, swarming clouds of light. There seem to be small sparks of heat when they draw too close to one another, promptly repelling and expanding the cloud. It’s like watching a creature breathe. It would probably be rather hazardous to walk into one of those super-heated clouds of shardflies.

At times, the shardflies rush to the trees, seeming to feed on the sap. Whenever they do so, the spot seems to radiate light, moisture, and heat just a little bit, as if it’s receiving a sudden burst of nutrition. Soon after, a local in a heat-retardant smock rushes by, either encouraging the creatures with a vase of liquid or shooing them away with a wide, feathery fan. 

Then, in every gap along the far horizon, there’s a massive stone structure with blocky stone steps, ascending between a set of wavering, stone-carved walls. They together lead up a tall, tapering pyramid, which itself seems to house several mega-trees that jut out of pits made into the structure. It’s as if they built the temple around these trees, then continued to modify and excavate the stonework whenever they expanded many, many times over. 

Though all of these sights are overwhelming, they’re strictly in the background. After a few moments of adjustment, they become much easier to ignore in passing. 

When Ane leaves the campgrounds, she’s certainly not the only one; many others are being sent off as runners to collect basic supplies, whether they be food, wagon parts, or other needs. She spots the wing-eyed knife-thrower Vasht being sent off in one direction, while the finely-dressed form of the caravan master, Jarrik, arranges for transport in another. 

At some point, a pair of hands passes Ane a shopping list to append to her own, followed by a leather pouch of coins. The list sports several medicinal herbs and compounds — most of which Ane could probably gather in her sleep, while Grandma Dynkala can scarcely leave her wagon. There’s also her usual note:

 Remedies for the camp and all its sniffles. Keep the change, avoid the sneezes! 

– Dynkala

Fortunately, Ane can remember some of Paakoponde’s layout from the circus’ last pass through. There’s some logic to the streets, at least in a rather organic sense. Markets tend to be in population centers, and herbalists often prefer places that lend best to plant growth. Soon she finds herself in a sunny city “square” (more like a clearing), the middle of which is covered by a line of root fiber open-air tents. Each is well-stocked, sporting a wider variety of flora than one may expect in nearly any other city. There’s everything ranging from the practical — medicinal herbs, oils, incense — to the mystical — good luck charms, ritual components, psychoactives.

It’s quite the place to window-shop. And past the row, there seems to be a particularly wide, well-stocked tent towards the end…  

She follows her sensitive sense of smell — first a few candles and ten pounds of wax from this seller, scented richly of honey-sweet cave bee combs. Then a pound of geltsear leaf tea, redolent of freshly-split vanilla pods. After that, a pound of powdered spiralis dye, with its sharp, dusty, dried-herb scent. Ane may not be able to see its bright green color without riding the mind of a creature with eyes to see by, but refreshing her clothing with a new bath of dye goes a long way toward maintaining her image as the mysterious Teller of Fortunes instead presenting of the somewhat threadbare reality.

She lets herself linger by a tent with samples of fine brocade hung around the outside. Having clothing made for her is far too rich for her blood, but her fingertips trail longingly over the sleeve of a cotton gauze shirt. It’s a loose garment, as things made for nobody in particular tend to be, given shape by laces at the neckline, shoulders, and sides. The laces themselves are ribbons cunningly worked with tiny fern leaves — this, more than anything, gives her a pang of want. She worries her lower lip in her teeth as her hum roves over the garment. She wouldn’t be able to get the colors right, whatever they might be, but she might be able to buy some ribbon and re-work one of her old shirts. The cut wouldn’t be the same, and the fabric would show its age, but…

Standing in between the patterns and floral flourishes of the brocade, it feels like being in a completely different jungle. There’s something a little disorienting about standing amongst all of these different shades, patterns, and textures — textures which Ane can see as only a shasii might, sightless and with a sight-hum to sense texture. The hum bounces strangely, sometimes blending one texture with another in echoes. 

The cotton shirt, though… Its gauzy sleeves are like an island in this sea. The pleasing texture and the relative simplicity are both soothing in this sort of environment. 

Deeper in the tent, an aged fuhajen sits against the tent wall. There are streaks of gray in his thick hair, and he waits with a sagacious sort of patience. He’s watching customers with his three, inscrutable eyes, but only just barely, and offers no particular pitch or price. He must be the sort of merchant that lets his wares sell themselves, and otherwise just treats salesmanship as a nice occasion to sit and enjoy the midday breeze. 

If he wasn’t so old, and this wasn’t Paakoponde, she would just steal it. The feeling of guilt wouldn’t nag at her as much in Skil’houros. 

Instead, she clears her throat gently.

“How much?” She asks the man, casually holding up the edge of the sleeve as though it were no more than a handkerchief.

The fuhajen raises a brow as if his attention were diverted until just now. 

“One gold piece,” he replies placidly, with a downward glance at the garment. “Less if bought with trousers or a skirt. Together, one and five.” He sounds rather serene, enjoying his day even as he tries to ante-up with a bundle deal. 

She feels her resolve harden, and prepares herself to argue.

“I’ll give you one and two for both.”

“One and four,” he replies as if discussing the weather. 

“One and three.”

“Sure,” he agrees as if answering his thoughts. This conversation feels oddly one-sided. 

She exhales in relief, though it still pains her to hand over so much money. Ane hadn’t sweated buying the dye, or the tea, or the candles and wax… Those are all useful things. Clothing, on the other hand, is largely a concession to the local constabulary and indecency laws (however pretty its ribbons may be). 

After picking out a pair of cotton trousers in something close to her size, she lets her sensitive sense of smell lead her back outside of the tent, past the alluring fragrance of perfumes, the beckoning scent of skewers of spiced meat and honeyed dough, and beyond… to the bittersweet, sharply green smell of dried herbs and the alcoholic sting of tinctures.

She doesn’t see the medicine seller at first when she approaches — she’s mentally going over Dynkala’s list. Her hum is fixated on the wares spread out on the table under the canvas canopy. There’s a jar of stomach powder, next to what looks like neatly-labeled pots of chest rub… 

An abrupt, monotone voice greets her:

“There is everything from nullwither tincture to wagon wheel oil. Choose wisely.”

Glancing up at the seller brings great confusion. It looks like Ane took a wrong turn and ended up back at the textile tent. She sees scarves, cloaks, tunics, veils, head-wraps, and they all appear to have banded together and formed a Garmentry Union. Granted, they’re all very nicely coordinated by both texture and shade, though they don’t seem to align to any sense of function. They all just heap up and around a…

Huh, that is a person, isn’t it?

Peeking up over them all is the face of a young woman, shasii and paradoxically un-veiled despite wearing veils. She has a dark-shaded silk bandana tied over tumbling curls. Her smooth lips are set into a thin line. 

“I feel like I was just in a different tale… How abrupt,” she comments, in her perpetual one-note voice. “Anyway, take your time. There are many travels and trials ahead.”

Ane’s hand pauses over a packet of ale-head tea.

“Travels and tri–? Of course,” she says. The other woman must’ve deduced that she isn’t from here. That probably isn’t hard to do. “I need four jars of chest-rub, six ounces of headache powder, a pound of digestive coal,” she hesitates for a moment, thinking before she continues, “Some dried blue bolete, cherry bark, a gallon of hearthfire vinegar, and a pound of dried sightwort. Is that it?” Ane frowns gently to herself. “I think that’s it. Oh! And some healer’s honey.” 

“Oh my, sightwort,” she comments flatly. “That’s the good shit.” 

After a pause, the medicine seller adds, “Right over there, prices are tagged. I’m the only one in the city who believes in forestry, let alone convenient labeling.” The pile of scarves gestures about, sweeping that blanketed hand over each item in the list. The sightwort, however, is accompanied by a knowing nod.

“I’ve been into snakeleaf roots lately,” Ane confesses, “Though it’s better if you tincture them and drop them on some sugar, first.”

She begins to amass her purchases, counting out the coin from Dynkala’s pouch first, then her own. As an afterthought, she adds a few more herbs — some mint, an ounce of fennel seeds, some Skil’houran snowsage…

“Alright,” she finally says, laden with about as much as she can bear, “How much?”

“Snakeleaf. Interesting,” she comments. “Very messy foreshadowing. My last dose was unpleasant, rather ominous stuff. Anyway,” the medicine seller totals up Ane’s selections. At least she wasn’t kidding about the convenient labeling. 

Ane sighs softly as she parts with her coins. It’s painful but necessary — she doesn’t haggle with medicine sellers, because she doesn’t need any of them hedge-magicking at her after she leaves. Besides, good herbs are worth paying for.

“One gold and eight, right. Thanks.”

In one day, she’s nearly destroyed her take from her last three workdays. Hopefully, Jarrik knows what he’s about here…

Before Ane turns to leave, the medicine speaks up in a slightly louder (though no less flat) voice: 

“If you lack for spending money… I will ignore the one and eight, and discount the rest slightly. You do seem to know your craft well, and I can appreciate that.” Strangely, there is a slight curve to the edges of her lips — a smile, albeit a very mechanical one. It’s as if she has to signal the muscles her good-will, rather than have them react on their own.

Ignore more than half the price? 

Ane pauses mid-stride, before turning back around with a wary tilt of her head.

“I’m listening.”

The medicine seller folds what Ane can only assume are her hands, nodding as she regains her attention. 

“Simple. Secure me a spot somewhere on your caravan,” she replies. “It can be small, so long as it is warm. I fit in a space of approximately two square feet.”

After a beat, she adds blandly:

“… I also have a tincture for square feet, though I don’t think that will be necessary.”

“Two sq- Are you a contortionist?” 

“Not professionally.” 

This is at least slightly baffling. Two square feet? For an entire medicine seller? Doesn’t she sleep?

“The caravan is in a clearing three miles that way,” she says, pointing. “Ask for a man named Jarrik — tell him the Teller of Fortunes told you to come because she and Dynkala need help with the sickness in the camp.” Even if Jarrik would be cross with her, he would be less likely to question the aged herbalist needing an extra hand.

“Wonderful,” she replies, seemingly incapable of the enthusiasm that the word requires. “I shall do so. I would have looked silly as a mercenary anyway.” 

With that, she holds out a limb of scarves and veils, then drops three gold coins out of the pattern-work and into Ane’s hands. 

She quickly pockets the gold, as if afraid the medicine seller might change her mind in the face of not receiving a more tangible agreement. It’s between her and Jarrik, though — she has little power to add employees to the caravan at will. Besides, it’s not like another person will be noticed while Jarrik busies himself with scraping up more hired guards…

With the gold securely in her pocketbag, Ane gathers her purchases and makes her way back to the caravan.

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.

Teller of Fortunes 2: Shard-pepper Stew

(Click here for the first portion. Thank you for reading!) 

Outside, the Teller of Fortunes finds a very different scene. The caravan has gone from a state of transition — boxes, broken signs, and fleeing locals — to one of relaxation and hospitality. There’s certainly a different air about the place when all of the visitors are away. Before, even in that brief span of time, there was a definite sense of tension in trying to appeal to outsiders (and their wallets). Now that’s fallen away, so people walk with easy gaits, slackened shoulders, and genuine expressions.

Others have dressed down and begun to line up near the middle of the camp. Caravaners and hired hands alike all snake around a pot in the center, fragrant and steaming with this day’s dinner. A stocky callosian with geometrical fire tattoos stands over it like a master of spice, doling out sauced meats with a large metal ladle. His shock of blond hair seems to catch the fire’s glow, lighting up his bronzed, scaled skin and arcing horns in a very on-theme sort of way. He serves quickly to keep the line moving, taking just long enough to exchange a few words before dishing out good helping of stew.

After that, people disperse. Many head towards a small, crackling bonfire near the center of the camp. Some of those seated there chat aside and swap stories to the rest. Others hang around the fringes, enjoying a little privacy in the midst of the camaraderie. Then there’s others with more particular social calls to make, bunching up around this wagon or that for smaller conversational groups. 

Finally, a select few go off to eat in their wagons, though they’re the outliers. It’s a category reserved for the Caravan Master (who lunched by appointment only), sometimes the old herbalist (who might not be feeling well), and a handful of others indulging in solitude for their own (perhaps dramatic) reasons. 

Ane takes her place in the back of the line waiting for food, hands clasped behind her as she rocks idly back on her heels. She hasn’t decided yet if she’ll return to her wagon, or find a spot near the bonfire— a convivial atmosphere where she isn’t expected to perform or dictate the path of some anxious farmer’s future would be welcome, but so would stretching out on her feather bed with some more crownflower wine and a pinch or two of something mind-expanding. 

She idly examines the nails of her left hand — short and neatly manicured, if flecked with colorful resin in a few spots — with a patient, weary sigh.

As Ane lines up, she finds herself randomly placed behind a stranger. She’s a shasii of about the same age, and, from her bearing, she seems to be one of the caravan’s hired guards. They make up about one-fourth of the traveling troupe, ever present around the perimeter of the camp. Some are lucky enough to take their breaks during meal times, and, for this dark-braided shasii, that seems to be the case. She’s unveiled, and gives Ane a friendly nod at her approach. 

Up ahead, there’s some laughter as Korin and Jiselmo exchange words with Brair, the fire-eater. Though she’s hardly an eavesdropper, Ane catches the tail end of Jiselmo’s boisterous voice — something about how Brair “handles the fire five hours later.” It sends a ripple of chuckles down the line before the hungry throng shoos the two of them away.

Ane offers the other woman a polite smile, though it’s interrupted by a snicker at Jiselmo and the rumble of a hunger she didn’t realize she had. Keeping herself busy reading cards all day has made for even hungrier work than she’d thought. Divination can be exhausting, especially over the course of a long, hot day. Though, really, it’s the customers. It’s always the customers. And not all are as tractable as Stazio and his beetroot crop… 

“Ah, Ane!” The Fire-breather booms, smiling as he begins to dip the ladle into the pot. “How much heat are you predicting today?” He asks jovially, as he hands her a wooden bowl and spoon and prepares to start dishing out the stew. 

“Brair,” she says warmly, as she steps up to receive her portion of whatever peppery provisions he’s proffering. “Just enough, I hope. Got a long ride ahead of us, from the sound of things. What’s in the pot today?” 

She gratefully accepts the wooden bowl — polished to a high shine from years of use and vigorous scrubbing with clean sand and soaproot — and slips the spoon out of the little carved loop on the side. Holding it in front of her, she cautiously sniffs the curls of steam wafting from the deep, roiling cauldron. 

“Medium it is, then!” He proclaims. “Today, it’s the thickest chopon the market had! We cleaned ‘em out,” he says, with the vigor of his own hunger. “All stirred up in some of my home-made kula sauce, plus those shard-peppers I got at Skilhouros!” Brair boasts, puffing his bare barrel chest with pride. “Only the best for ya!” 

With that, he scoops out some big, meaty hunks of chopon into her bowl, along with a generous helping of vibrant sauce. Luckily, there’s only one of those dark, round “shard-peppers” haunting her bowl this time. The name isn’t literal, fortunately, though it is an apt description. 

“Great,” she replies, with a somewhat forced grin. She’d hoped he’d used the last of those peppers a week ago. “Thanks.”

With that, Brair gives Ane a friendly nod before others begin to bustle behind her. 

Up ahead, Jiselmo and Korin (Collectively, “JiselRin” or “KorElmo,” depending on who is asked) break off to go join their friends around the bonfire, while the guard does the same. From her place at the cauldron, Ane spies the triplets, Nelea the animal tamer, Aedas the strong, and a handful of other recognizable faces. 

Off to the side, Vasht the knife thrower is chatting with a few guards, likely about the road ahead. The troupe’s tall, klorrian magician is there too, though he doesn’t seem interested in talking to anyone. He’s busy fussing over a flock of fluffy smeerps as they hop about camp, play “chase” with each other, and generally cause a tiny ruckus. 

The caravan master, the herbalist, and the clown (thank the Fires) are unsurprisingly absent.

Ane wanders off toward the bonfire, bowl in hand, to find a place on the fringes to sit. While the warmth of camaraderie is nice, the heat of the bonfire is less so — if she weren’t preoccupied with getting ready to roll on to their next destination, she’d be looking forward to finding a cool spring or a clean well to pilfer some water for a long soak.

At least the bonfire itself is at a low burn, more a way to get rid of unwanted bugs and burnable trash than for actually keeping warm. They probably would have dispensed with it entirely on a day like today, if not for tradition and the need to get rid of all of the unwanted signage that would take up too much space on the road. 

She finds a spot around the bonfire, tucking herself between the guard and the triplets. The guard hangs around the outer edge where the air blows cooler, while the conjoined triplets… Well, they’ve their own heat-related concerns. The sisters, usually the picture of coordination, are in a rather complicated situation when it comes to temperatures. Zila, the one nearest Ane, fans the three, while Wila, on the far side, speaks to the animal tamer. Fortunately for them, they’re fuhajen — a race known for the thin, air-puffing tentacles that twine together to form their limbs. They each use their hand-vents for a little extra cool air, taking turns to puff one another like a six-armed assembly line for cooling.

“Nelea, dear, could you fetch the group some water? Between this heat and this… heat,” Wila says, with her three emerald eyes glancing towards her bowl. 

“We’re all really going to need it,” Vila remarks dryly beside her.

“Of course,” the animal tamer replies, nodding her head of curls. Even in the heat and dust, she’s the picture of prim neatness, in short pants, lace-trimmed stockings, a linen blouse, and a well-pressed, spotless jacket. It’s a fitting appearance for a woman who only ever carries herself with an air of polite hospitality. “One barrel or two?”

Korin looks over at them, with a roguish smirk.

“Better make it three!” He called from his spot a few paces away. “One for the hot air, one for the spice, and one for…” He stops for a second, taking a long glance aside at his partner in crime, who shovels down the spicy meal before the heat can touch his tongue. “… Good measure.”

“Sure,” Nelea replies with a smile, rising to her feet. “We won’t have a pump… Well, for awhile, anyhow. Might as well make use,” she figures, rolling one of her thick shoulders.

“That good, hmm?” Ane says, as she settles herself between the four. She carefully picks the wrinkled pepper out of her bowl and sends it arcing into the fire with a deft flick of her spoon. She likes spicy food as much as the next person, but Brair’s occupation has given him some very strange ideas about what things taste like. 

“Some men live to so bravely die!” The food-shoveling shasii calls back, “Honor in spice.” His oath sounds even more absurd coming from a man still clad in all his bells and whistles. 

“At least we won’t need any fire for his funeral pyre… He brought his own,” Korin remarks. 

He and a few others follow suit after Ane’s pepper-flinging, as if they were waiting for an excuse to do it themselves. The sisters all do so in practiced unison, with each landing neatly in the center of the small fire. 

“It’s a good thing most of us aren’t getting this in our rations,” the guardswoman chimes in, “Lest we drop before even hitting the road.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that!” Korin says with a slap of his knee. “Just follow Jiselmo’s suit, and we can weaponize this before the day’s done.”

“Best to be careful, flinging them in the fire like that,” Ane cautions, dryly, “Any more, and we’ll be choked out of our seats.” As it is, there’s already a faintly peppery sting in the air, when the breeze blows the right way. 

Still, burning peppers or not, there’s little to keep her from enjoying the rest of her dinner. She eagerly spoons up mouthfuls of the tender chopon, cooked to near translucency in the spicy-sweet, flavorful sauce. Once you get around his predilection for scorching everyone else’s tongues and burning the bottoms of their stomachs, Brair really isn’t a bad cook.

“What’d I say? Weaponize,” Korin confirms, wagging his spoon at the fire. “Put this in a bottle, light a wick, give it a toss and you’re good to go.”

Zila chuckles, covering her mouth demurely with her fan. 

“That’s all well and good, if the breeze doesn’t betray you.” She wafts a bit of the fumes in his direction, causing him to cough into a napkin a bit.

“That’s no good, you’ll have him doubled over. We really ought to put out this- oh, look who’s back already!” Wila chides, as Zila tsks.

Turning around, they see Nelea has swiftly returned with a barrel of water under each arm. She sits each beside the bonfire with a loud thud, before jogging off and hauling in a third. This one already has an old wooden tap affixed to the lid, allowing ease of access to the sweet relief within. Dutifully, the guardswoman fetches some wooden cups and stacks them beside the barrels.

“There you go. It was good for some exercise,” Nelea says serenely, before settling back down into her spot. 

Almost immediately, people begin filling and downing cups of water… Though Jiselmo abstains, for now. He’s currently holding on to his pride, while his cheeks start to burn a merry crimson. Ane darts an incredulous glance at the actor, as she kneels to fill a cup from the tap. Once she’s got enough to carry her through the rest of dinner, she settles herself back between the triplets and the animal trainer, legs stretched out toward the low-burning fire.

“If we put out the fire,” she points out, with a jab of her spoon in the bonfire’s direction, “No guarantee that Brair won’t just scoop up the unburnt peppers for next time. I’m half convinced that’s how he’s gotten ‘em to last as long as he has.”

The others all exchange glances of shock and comprehension. The triplets seem particularly aghast.

“It really is possible,” Zila mutters. 

“He does take care of the fire, so,” Vila continues. 

“… He would know.” Wila concludes.

The trio grimly considers the fire for a moment, as if weighing the option of trying to get the peppers out of the fire… before hauling them off to some unknown location to never be seen again.

While the whole lot is mulling this over and sipping on water, Jiselmo discreetly rises from his seat and shuffles over to the barrels. He maintains a moment of decorum, before opening his mouth in a steaming gasp and leaping for the tap. The shasii begins frantically filling cups with one hand and downing them with the other, pouring cool water down his gullet like a freshet. In a moment of unabashed desperation, he even gurgles, before going back in for a few more.

Korin sighs, shaking his feathered head. 

“I always do see these things coming…”

Ane shakes her head as well, sending a few strands of dark green lightly patting her cheeks in the warm breeze.

“I think that might be some kind of record, though,” she speculates as she scrapes at the bottom of her nearly-empty bowl. 

All that’s left is a few bits of pale carrot, a fragment of yam, and some kula sauce, but there’s no sense letting it go to waste. Like as not, they’ll be stuck eating traveling food until they reach Paakoponde. The marshland city does have some very good taverns, full of sweet ale and puffroot, so at least there’s that to look forward to.

She washes the last of her dinner down with a deep draft from the wooden cup, before pouring the rest of the water into the bowl to rinse it clean. Whoever’s stuck doing dishes will end up scrubbing it anyway, but it doesn’t hurt to lower the odds of getting your supper in a stained bowl next time. 

“Of water poundage consumed?” Korin wonders, spectating. “I suppose we’ll see…”

He and the others give Ane a nod of friendly goodbye as she readies to depart, half still in the midst of eating, half getting ready to make their own ways home. One of the triplets finished a good while ago, but she’s still politely waiting for the other two. Really, there’s not much that the triplets can do but politely wait for each other — this is the cost of sharing parts of a body.

Ane knows that soon the dinner crowds will likely dissolve into post-prandial games and a slow resumption of their actual responsibilities. In her case, she’s certainly made enough of a showing that she’s free to be as private as she likes, at least as much as practicality allows. There’s a lot of preparation to do, but once her own cart is sorted, there’s likely little else she’ll be required to do.

“Well, that’s me done, then,” she says, standing up and giving the others a wave. “I’m cutting out early, this dust’s going to have me coughing all day if I stand around in it much longer.” 

With that, she turns to leave her bowl, cup, and spoon in the basin near the cauldron. What was once full of stew is now full of water and curled shreds of soaproot, steeping until they release their froth of bubbles across the surface. She gives Brair a parting wave and an appreciative grin as she deposits the dishes, not lingering long enough to chat before she makes her way back home.