Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-10: Bugbeard’s Brawl

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, of course there are the odd ones… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Deal!” Aedas grins widely.

The call is sounded, and the match commences!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHOOSH.

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

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

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

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

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

On the sidelines, Aedas is positively shaking with excitement. 

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

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

An excited Aedas is pretty hard to deter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nods his short-horned head. 

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

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

He shrugs his robed shoulders. 

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

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

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

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

Ane shakes her head.

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

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

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-9: A Bastard’s Visit

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The next morning, Ane is woken up by the slight thunk of something landing on her wagon’s floor. The voice of Narue follows, calling from outside:

“There’s your take from the S’vargan Job! Gotta go hand out the rest. Later!”

“Mhf,” Ane replies, as her hum wavers into wakefulness and she picks her face up from her pillow. It takes her a long moment to actually realize Narue wasn’t some kind of hypnogogic hallucination — once she does, she wraps herself in her robe and goes to retrieve the source of the thump: a sizable leather pouch. It’s filled with a generous handful of coins, each imprinted with S’vargan marks, including the noble, half-veiled face of their first high priestess, flanked by tunnel-shark teeth crowns. The other side bears a handsome snake wrapped around a bundle of curly tunnel-ferns.

Twenty seven gold. Not bad for a couple of hours of work. Certainly more than she would’ve gotten had she spent the time reading cards instead. It might even be enough to fix her wagon.

Ane casts a baleful hum at the rigged-up remains of her old door. The odds of her finding a competent carpenter in a bunch of tunnels aren’t exactly good, she figures. Certainly better than finding one in Paakoponde, but far from great. She heaves a sigh as she tosses the sack through her window and onto her bed. Maybe she can use the money to bribe Brair, Aedas, or someone else who knows their way around heavy things to fix it.

Several hours later, after Ane has had enough time to complete her wake-up routine, there is a knock on what remains of her door. It’s a careful, polite, three-rap knock. There isn’t much sound otherwise, as if the person doesn’t see fit to pre-announce themselves. All she can make out is a mumbled, “… more collateral damage…”

More coll-

As far as she knows, the authorities haven’t tracked them back to the camp. Besides, that’s only relevant if they figured out what the “doctor” was up to, anyhow. What collateral damage could she possibly be responsible for? She pauses, teacup in one hand, and hums over her shoulder at the door with a wary frown.

“Who’s there?”

“Ehem. This is Jarrik. I’ll just be a moment,” the voice answers, clear and stately, as Ane hears a hum sweep up over the splintered, hanging remains of her door. Collateral damage, indeed.

“I’m just here to, ahh — congratulate you, after your performance yesterday. Wink nudge,” he explains. There’s a bit of pomp to his accent, the sort his father never had. It’s the thick, frothy fullness of a minor noble, and the swift twang of a practiced salesman. 

Ane stills her sight-hum with an inward groan. Somehow, she anticipates that this congratulations will also come with a request to donate her take to the caravan’s guard budget. 

Nevertheless, she rises from the vulre-hide rug and goes to answer the door. (At least, as much as the dilapidated thing can be answered.) She pokes her head around one cockeyed half, eyeing the caravan master with a wary hum.

“Hello, Jarrik.”

When her gaze lands on him, he’s quite the display of respect and contrition. For all his brass buttons, thick lapels, and the embellished curve of his waxed moustache, he looks rather odd with his hat off. His hair is slick and parted down the middle, where normally it would be hidden underneath — as if he deliberately styled it in anticipation of this moment. The hat, with its three feet of diameter and its big, fluffy dervallo “feather,” lays across his breast, clasped in one hand.

“Hello, Ane,” he says crisply. “My condolences for your door… But, most importantly: Congratulations on a game well played!” He boasts, spreading his arms. It  gives a full view of his impeccably tailored striped shirt, and a glimpse of the jewelled dagger tucked into his soft leather belt. 

“I heard tell of your scheme this morning, after returning from my, ahm, constitutional,” he says, faking a cough. “It does me proud to hear of you bringing all of them together so effectively!”

How much is the dagger worth? She prices that feather out at a pretty sum, too. Meanwhile, she, a pair of actors, an unpaid mercenary, three burlesque dancers, a very perplexed monk, and Jarrik’s more-or-less self-proclaimed captain of the guard were pressed into saving the day with paint, liquor, herbs, and garbage.

“You’re welcome, Jarrik. How’re we going to fix my door?” 

He lofts his brow and pooches his lips, looking down at the damage with a whistle. 

“Hrm, well… I do suppose we can have a carpenter sent for you. It is S’varga, home to a lumber-less people, but I’m sure something can be done.” When he looks back to her, he smiles wide till his teeth shine. The edges do reach his swirls, though there’s a sinister edge to its feigned sincerity. Any man could half-assedly fake a smile, but Jarrik… Jarrik reads on the subject, and simulates both the smile and the squint. 

“It’s a paltry thing, really. Purely within our power. In any case,” he sweeps an arm, gesturing out with his fur-lined cloak. “The day calls, and there’s much to do. Do you require anything else? I am glad to show my appreciation for the, ah, enterprising spirit,” he flourishes. 

“No, I just want my door fixed,” Ane says firmly, as she withdraws into her wagon again. She can feel herself about to be pulled into one of Jarrik’s schemes if she keeps accepting his effusive praise, and the thought alone is enough to make her teeth itch. 

“Very well!” He calls after her. Now behind the door, he lets out a sigh of relief, and smiles with contentment. “Then I shall be off.” He says, taking a moment to test at his sideburns and moustache with his fingertips. A trace of fragrant powder comes off on the tips of his fingers, remnants of an attempt to turn his dark hair a distinguished salt-and-pepper. Venerability establishes credibility, his father always said. 

“Good day, Ane!” He bids her, his pomp thick as oatmeal, as his footsteps fade into the distance. 

Ane returns to her position beside her stove, and fills her cup with fresh tea. Part of her wants to continue working in the bound book of cattail paper spread out in front of her, but something about dealing with Jarrik also makes her feel as if she’s been coated in a thin sheen of frozen slime. 

Or powdered moustache wax.

She closes her book with a sigh, giving it a little push to slide it into the open cupboard beneath her bed.

Fortunately, it seems the caravan’s sudden infusion of cash has delayed the first workday. Instead of skipping breakfast and raising the call as they normally would in a big city, the caravan instead takes time to let things settle. After all, it’s best to avoid bringing customers (or, more accurately, outsiders) into camp while it’s still unguarded.

This means that, next time Ane steps out into the open, it’s mealtime all over again. 

The glint of armor is almost purely absent in the camp. Most of the remaining mercenaries seem to have departed, presumably to aid in recruiting more. Even Vasht has gone to see to it, in pursuit of both safety and several hours of uninterrupted sleep. 

At breakfast, the troupe is filled with laughter and, for the first time in too long, joy. There’s nothing but praise for Ane and her cohorts, along with smiles and slaps on the back. Korin and Vasht went around in the late hours, paying out ten mitres to anyone who was robbed earlier in the week… And share a somewhat-exaggerated story  of how cleverly they came by the money.

It’s also a story about swindling people out of their hard-earned coin, but that, for the moment, is beside the point. A cook who gets punished for spending their master’s grocery money foolishly is still a far cry from the caravan dying to the next pack of bandits, as far as Ane and company are concerned.

When she sits down to eat, there’s plenty of laughter and jovial congratulations for her efforts. Brair at one point pats her back so firmly that it jostles her plate, and even Nelea provides a few gentle pats on the back, knowing that the caravan master’s plots might have been worse. When the praise grows too great, Jiselmo steals the attention, weaving more yarns about all that transpired. At some points he embellishes — a daring chase from guards, Korin fencing a rival merchant, Jiselmo winning over the hearts of young ladies with his plight… 

“Yes, you and your boils,” Korin cuts in, in a voice as flat as his plate. 

Ane accepts it all with thanks, though she’s reluctant to talk about the scheme itself. Jiselmo’s having enough fun spinning his tall tales, Korin seems to be enjoying himself yanking Jiselmo back to reality, why spoil it? She doesn’t stick around long after she’s finished eating, either — she passes her plate to whichever caravan follower has taken on dishwashing duty, bids everyone a good rest-of-the-day, and retires to her wagon. She could go into the city to replenish some supplies she hadn’t been able to get in Paakoponde, but it might be a bit premature for that. Even though they were mostly disguised and managed to avoid trouble from the city guards, it might be a bad idea to saunter back in to spend her ill-gotten gold.

Besides, grift or no grift, the caravan hasn’t started working yet. They might be flush with funds for the moment, but most of those are already spoken for — repairs and mercenaries don’t come cheap. The sixty-odd gold she has right now are starting to burn a hole in her pocketbag, but they’re going to have to last her for a long while after they’ve put S’varga behind them.

Better to settle in in front of her stove with another book and some geltsear leaf tea and while away the hours. All the better to prepare herself for the next commotion.

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

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-8: Marry My Daughter, Doctor Lartimus

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After much setup, the caravan undertakes its next big venture to return gold to its purse. With a bit of chicanery, a large amount of bottles and paint, and a whole heap of gurr-shit, the caravan begins The S’vargan Job.

First, Narue the mercenary procures an alosin, a long-necked, maned thing with sound, sturdy hoppin’ legs. She’s familiar with the thing and able to lead it easily enough, before the rest load it down with “Miraculous Concoction.” The beast is a rather helpful feature to have; though the bottles clatter as it hops, it certainly carries more than the lot of them could. Besides, it can easily trot at walking pace to reduce the odds of a big old mess in its saddlebags.

On the way towards the city wall, Vasht directs the group around to a side-gate. It’s a bit more obscure, and makes it seem less like the group is coming from the caravan. On the way through, some of the sleepy guards startle, then scoff at the display. 

“Loony foreigners,” one chainmailed shasii mutters. 

“Just peddlers, mister,” Narue says, with a disarming smile.

“Right, right, get on with you then,” the guard huffs, waving them onward. “Don’t steal anything.”

Inside the walls, the architecture is of much the same style. Even the low buildings are overwhelming, with their own spikes and spires all adorning the top. And somehow, each building is built with its neighbors in mind. It’s such that the toothlike pattern of one rooftop blends with the next, each piece complementing one another. It’s as if one artist had his way with an entire skyline, sculpting it to his whims.

The streets are crowded near the gate, bustling with merchants and locals alike. The crowds are almost exclusively shasii, though tzuskar and huikkarans are also occasionally seen. It’s a good thing the group didn’t decide to include any callosians; they would have stuck out like a sore thumb.

It’s a short walk to reach a square near one of the outlying markets. Jiselmo, despite being dressed as a beggar, often points for the proper street or alleyway to take. He seems to have a rather good sense of the place, however long its been since he last navigated the winding streets. A couple of times, he even manages to divert the group away from a group of cutthroats, who tend to wear gentlemanly garb that matches their stilettos. 

The clearing is a perfect medium; near a market to get good foot-traffic, but not adjacent any apothecaries or herbalists. There aren’t even many guards around to hassle them. What’s more, a fountain in the center serves as a rather nice draw, with people tossing coins into it as tribute to their god, the Wanderer. 

Upon arrival, the group shifts its gaze towards Ane.

Jiselmo waggles his eyebrows. “Shall we begin?”

Ane parks one silver-ringed hand on her paste-gemmed hip, and gives the group a firm nod. 

“Let’s go.”

They all nod to one another, and commence setting up. They park the alosin in front of the fountain, where Narue bids it to sit. Vasht lays out a blanket and begins setting bottles all along the edges. Jiselmo runs away to beg.

Korin finds a dry spot on the fountain’s base, and pins up the glorious sign:

 

DOCTOR LARTIMUS ~and~ HIS MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION

(the heat lets you know it’s working!)

 

He strides proudly into the middle of the display, and motions for the others to flank it. Even before he begins to speak, people stop and stare — mostly at the sign and its oddly-dressed attendants. 

Korin puffs out his chest before belting out a thick, booming voice.

“GREETINGS, CITIZENS OF S’VARGA! It is I, Doctor Lartimus,” he declares, with a sweeping bow, and a tone that implies he’s known by all. At his call, a few obedient souls begin to gather in front of the display. 

“I have come from far and wide,” he continues, “And borne witness to a terrible plague: FATIGUE, APATHY, IMPOTENCE, and worst of all, CURDLED HUMORS.” He leans forward, wiggling his hands in a most menacing fashion. “Through the finest alchemy and most importantly, vitogeonomy, I have derived a cure: MY MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION!”

He raises up one of the carefully-sealed bottles.

A shocked crowd of house-peoples and errant servants watches in awe, exchanging blank looks. None of them have heard of “vitogeonomy,” but it sounds enough like something important that it has them hooked. Korin has a rather stately look about him, too. Truly, a face as dour and serious as his couldn’t be that of a con-artist. Void, just looking at his scowl makes them feel ill.

Now that he has everyone’s attention, Korin begins to rattle off his pitch.

“With MY MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION, all of your ills shall be CLEANSED and HEALED!” He clenches his fist for emphasis, shaking with passion as the other holds his life’s work. “It reduces boils, it regrows hair, it puts the vim back in your vigor and the spring into your step! It even cleans dishes! All you need to do is take a swig, gulp it down fast, and swish it ‘round in your belly! And remember folks…”

As if compelled, his “assistants” shout in one voice. 

“The heat lets you know it’s working!”

A crotchety howl rises from the crowd. 

“I DON’T BUY IT! Yer conkeckshun works? WELL PROVE IT, BEANPOLE,” heckles an old beggar, with a mud-smeared face and a neck encrusted with boils. Underneath all the grime (and generous slatherings of greasepaint), Jiselmo’s fine hair and youth are unrecognizable.

“Very well, good sir, step right up,” Korin urges him, motioning for the man to approach.

The man hobbles forward, supporting his weight on a gnarled stick. His gait is slow and unsteady, his course to the front is agonizingly slow. When he reaches the front, Korin shoves an unsealed bottle into his free hand. 

“Toss it back, good sir, and you’ll feel like a lad all over again!”

“BEH! We’ll see,” the codger scoffs, accepting the drink. 

He brings it to his lips and tosses his head back. The man makes loud, noticeable gulps, as his adam’s apple dips up and down theatrically. Fortunately, the group’s audience misses the small bag pooched beside his cheek, concealed under his palm. It receives all of the drink, draining the bottle over halfway, before he gasps with refreshment, wipes his lips, stealthily flings the bag into the fountain in a feat of cunning legerdemain.

“Well, it sure does hekkin’ burn,” he mutters, looking at the drink appraisingly.

People in the crowd begin to look at one another in suspense, expecting something to happen. There are raised eyebrows and exchanged whispers, as gentlefolk all peer over one another’s shoulders to see.

“Why… I feel a… a TINGLE,” the codger declares with a whoop. His limbs begin to shake and tremble, so much so that he tosses his cane aside. His posture straightens, vertebrae by vertebrae, until he stands tall like a young man. One can almost hear the popping sound of each snapping back into place. He lets out a wild howl, frantically patting his hands across his neck. When he moves them aside, the makeupped-on boils and blemishes are gone.

“WOOOHOO! I’MA GO TO THE BROTHEL! SEE YA LATER, FOOLS!”

With that, Jiselmo breaks off into a full, sprightly run towards the nearest alley. He’s gone in a flash, leaving behind nothing in his wake but an audience of awed viewers.

There’s a pregnant silence. Ane can feel the tension settling on her like an itchy blanket — as her hum roves over the expectant faces of the crowd, she bites her lip to bottle her tense, unwilling laughter. 

Korin clears his throat, blushing.

“Now, you too may have MY MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION, For the LOW, LOW PRICE of only TEN MI-”

“I’ll take five!”

“I’ll take ten!”

“MARRY MY DAUGHTER, Doctor Lartimus!

“-FIFTEEN MITRES!” Korin concludes.

Suddenly, the group is positively swamped. S’vargans surround the group on all sides, grabbing for bottles. Narue and Vasht can only barely keep them back. Korin holds up a small basket to receive payment, and begins getting pelted by gold. People are throwing away their monthly salary, their allowances, and even the money servants receive to pay for their master’s groceries.

Korin looks back to Ane with a smile and a sly wink as the coin begins to pile up. 

Ane smiles broadly. It’s all she has to do to avoid applauding his performance as she begins handing out bottles and collecting money.

“Ten mitres, thank you,” she says with a saucy flutter of her hum and coquettish cock of her hip as bottles and money change hands. Sometimes, it helps net a few extra coins at the tail end of a card reading. Today, there simply isn’t time — the demand is faster than she can keep up with. 

“Th- Ten mitres, thank y- That’ll be ten m-.” Had she many limbs, like the Progenitors, she might be able to pass out bottles and collect coins fast enough. Since she does not, it takes a considerable effort to keep the crowd from fighting over the rapidly-vanishing bottles of “concoction.”

The money is piling up at an almost alarming rate. 

The way we’re going, Ane thinks dryly to herself, half of these poor bastards are going to end up signing on to be caravan guards just to recoup some of their coin.

Time passes, as bottles and coins continue to fly. A generous pile accumulates in Jiselmo’s basket, and about a third of the bottles are gone. Korin smiles as the coins glitter, though he maintains his stately composure all the while. Had it been Jiselmo, he’d have the look of a grinning Daezra by now.

Someone is shouting at the edge of the crowd, but they can scarcely be heard over the din of sales being made. Only snatches of words come through. 

“… Not true! … Vitogeonomy isn- It’s all… Nonsense!”

No one in the crowd is listening, of course, and they continue to pay vigorously.

Vasht and Narue look to Ane for direction. Apparently they consider her to be the one that decides how long they all stay in. 

Ane’s lips form a frown as she hums over the crowd, trying to pinpoint the voice of the dissenter. It might be a little early to drop the ruse just yet, but it might also be a good time to figure out how to maneuver that voice into the fountain…

Of course, her vigilant scrutiny serves another purpose, too. The second she spots a guard uniform, it’s high time to cut their losses and hie back to the caravan.

Peeking about, Ane’s able to spy the source of the voice. It appears to be a portly old shasii, gray in the hair and red about the face. He seems absolutely furious, though no one’s really listening to him. He’s certainly no guard, though his impotent rage doesn’t threaten to lose steam anytime soon.

She doesn’t move her hum from him, as she leans over and mutters to Vasht.

“The second that codger leaves or a guard shows up, we’re out.”

Vasht nods dutifully, keeping his eyes sharp.

The sales continue, and the gold piles up without slowing. It even overfills the small basket, and Korin is left collecting it in the pockets of his jacket and trousers. The others are stuffing it into the saddlebags of the alosin, stashing away as much as they can. 

“… an OUTRAGE!”

Right at that moment, the merchant screws up his swirls, then turns and dashes off. There’s practically steam exuding from his long, droopy ears, while his coattails flap behind him. 

As soon as he turns, Vasht gives Korin the signal.

“Well sorry folks, I must be away to go give alms to the orphanage! FAREWELL, AND GOOD HEALTH!”

The doctor then leaps up onto the alosin, swinging a leg over it and mounting the stirrups. Narue and Vasht tear down the banner and tuck all the gold safely away, moving with swift efficiency borne from years of dodging guards.

Ane scrunches her face as she clambers aboard the creature. There are no stirrups left for her, so she tenses her legs around the saddlebags and loops her arms around Korin’s waist. 

“It was believable until the bit about the orphans. Anyway, let’s go!”

“Orphans are important!” He shouts in protest, and kicks the alosin into a running leap. “Hyah!” He shouts, sounding much less gallant than most.

“Sure!” Ane shouts back, “But I can’t picture you dropping sacks of gold off to ‘em!”

With the alosin and the speed of flight, the entire group moves far faster than the old merchant. It only takes minutes for the animal to bound out the city gates, slowing only for Korin to wave to the guards. They wave back, before he kicks off again at full speed.

By the time everyone reconvenes at the camp, there’s no sign of guards on their tail. In fact, they looped around so thoroughly, that even the wall guards could never have followed their course. Korin practically stumbles face-first off the alosin, planting into a fuzzy patch of mycelium on the ground. Vasht and Narue arrive a few moments later, landing next to the others. 

Jiselmo is already there when they arrive, still in his beggar’s garb. He’s smoking a pipe filled with puffroot; most likely “borrowed” from Ane’s wagon.

“Compatriots, partners in capitalism! How go the earnings?” He asks, while offering a hand to help Korin up off the ground.

Ane bounds nimbly down from the creature, before gently massaging a spot on her lower back. She doesn’t ride often, if she can help it — alosins are useful saddle animals, but, at high speeds, their scrambling hop is far from comfortable. Even after what amounted to a short jaunt, her back and thighs ache.

“Beats me. It seemed to work pretty well, though I’ve no idea what we’re going to do with the rest of these bottles,” she admits. 

Narue wanders over and pats one of the saddlebags. “One of us could try to hawk it on a black market. We’d get much less for more risk, but it’s an option,” she figures.

“I could do that. What do you think, Ane?” Jiselmo asks, taking a drag from his pipe.

Vasht’s expression seems disapproving. 

Ane hums at the saddlebag for a long moment. They’re not nearly as bulgey as they were before — they must’ve unloaded at least a third of the concoction — but it’s still a lot. Having some extra doesn’t bother her much, each bottle was made with only a few copper bits’ worth of ingredients — but they do represent a lost opportunity.

She exhales a sigh that puffs out her cheeks, before giving the saddlebags a dismissive flap of her hand. At this point, she’ll be happy to be well shut of the whole affair.

“Vasht knows how much money Jarrik needs to pull our asses out of the fire. Do what you want, I’m going to go wash this mess off.”

Vasht raises a hand and speaks up, “Wait! Before you go, there’s one last matter… the take.” He looks towards the saddlebags containing the coins, all bulging conspicuously at the bottom. “There’s probably about seven-hundred and fifty gold in there. Most people probably lost about ten gold in the robbery. How much goes to us, to the caravan, and to the people who lost in the raid?”

He looks towards Ane, raising an eyebrow. This of course makes his eye-wing flutter, bapping his cheek. 

“I’ll defer to Ane,” Jiselmo says in a puff of smoke, “Though I personally enjoy getting paid for a grift…”

Ane turns around, paused halfway to leaving. She gives Vasht an annoyed frown and another, more dramatic wave of her arm.

“How’n the Void should I know? I tossed all my money in the costume closet, pawned two bags of puffroot off on some ugly bastard, and he fucked off. You know how much money Jarrik needs for guards, you do it.” She turns around again, grumpy from a combination of saddle-soreness and hot, itchy greasepaint with bits of alosin hair stuck in it, and begins to walk off mid-mutter.

Vasht shrugs turns back to the group. In her absence, they deliberate about what to do with the money. At some point it gets Korin and Jiselmo into a theatrical tussel, but that’s the tenor of just about any negotiation they’re party to. 

As long as they don’t get put to the sword in the next bandit attack, Ane considers a bath a far more pressing concern. While they argue, deliberate, and haggle over their respective cuts of the gold, she finds a spot on the bank of the geyser-fed stream, a sliver of soap, and a clean washrag to begin scrubbing clown paint from her skin. They water has an oddly sulfurous, mineral quality that’s makes washing clothes and dishes a bit of a challenge (scrubbing the paint from her tablecloth is going to be a struggle), but it certainly feels nice on sore muscles. 

It’s a brief return to relaxation.

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

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-7: The Miraculous Concoction

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Ten minutes later, Vasht the knife thrower is well at work gathering the ingredients for the big plan. Gathering materials and accomplices for a scheme is always quite an undertaking. Even now, Vasht knocks urgently on Brair the fire-eater’s door. When the door opens, Vasht speaks in a hurried clip. 

“Brair, I need some liquor, some hot peppers, and all your empty bottles.”

“Uh, sure,” the scaled callosian mutters, moving slowly to grab something from behind him. He moves at an almost glacial pace, causing Vasht to bite his lower lip with impatience.

Vasht rushes in, followed by a clattering noise, then rushes back out with a heap of liquor, bottles, and izash peppers piled into his empty laundry hamper.

“Thank you, Brair, I’ll tell you later, goodbye,” he bids him, and wanders off to the next task.

“Alright… Sounds fun though, gotta be a scheme,” Brair grumbles, and wanders back into his wagon before shutting the door to nurse his hangover. “I wanna do a scheme…”

Next is the clown. Vasht cringes at the notion of having to talk to him. As social as the knife-thrower can be, he really doesn’t like the vibe of that man. He simply can’t fathom asking him for anything…

So instead of doing that, he wanders up to the clown’s window and picks the latch. 

 

After that, it only takes a bit of pawing around towards the huikkaran’s “vanity” to find the paint. At one point, his palm hits a rubber nose, causing a loud, “Squee-wook!” A shiver runs all the way through Vasht, and he dashes off with the paint (and an empty bottle from the clown’s dresser full of something he’d rather not question).

As for Dynkala’s pestle and mortar, well… he knocks on her window shutter, and in seconds, the smiling, wizened face is there to greet him. 

“Dynkala, I need your … Bowl, and, uh, grindy thing, to, erm, herbs,” he explains, mostly with hand gestures. “Urgently.”

“Why, sure dear,” she agrees. Shortly, a scarved limb hands it over from out of view, followed by a strange monotone:

“Enjoy the shenanigans. It is good to enjoy one’s youth,” Vaidna drones. “Also, here are the bottles you forgot,” the scarf-covered interrupter adds, and pours several into his basket.

And then, off he goes.

Now for recruiting. For these, he hits each wagon rapidly in order. First, the actors:

Knock, knock, knock… Creeeeaaaak.

“Korin, I need you — and your pet blabrel — to go to Ane’s wagon in an hour. Bring empty bottles.”

“Whaa-” Korin stammers.

“Ooh, a grift!” Jiselmo chimes.

Slam.

Then again… This time, the conjoined dancing triplets.

Knock, knock, knock… Creeeeaaaak.

“Wila, Vila, Zila, I need all of you to go to Ane’s wagon in an hour. Bring empty bottles.”

“What?” “Why?” “SURE!”

Slam.

Knock, knock, knock…

“Wait. You don’t have a room,” he mutters, realizing that he’s just knocking on a storage wagon’s door.

“It’s open!” Narue the wagon-less mercenary calls from above, and peers over the edge of the wagon’s roof. 

Vasht blinks at her.

“I need you to-”

She flaps a hand lazily. 

“Yeah, yeah, get all bottles and go to Bones’ wagon, I gotcha,” she tells him. “Really, as if I couldn’t hear you from up here!”

“Errh. Damn.” He looks around. “Slam.”

Then he runs off.

 

A half an hour later, there’s more insistent knocking — this time on Ane’s door.

When she glances out, there is a ridiculous crowd of people, including Vasht with a basket full of stuff. The triplets float nearby, and the actors sit on the edges of her wagon’s small porch. Narue is standing off to the side, and the monk managed to invite himself — even without a formal invite, he seems to have tagged along regardless.

“Assembled,” Vasht says grumpily, and blows a pinion off of his cheek. The bottles in his basket clatter together with the motion. 

Ane pokes her head through her still-broken door. She’s wrestled it aside for the occasion, all the better to allow for easy ingress and egress for the ragtag troupe. Her arms are full of a veritable riot of water-stained silks, balding velvet, and faded cotton — enough that she has to crane her neck to see everyone.

“Alright… You,” she says, pointing at the callosian Eternalist with her elbow, “You lot are good at writing, right? Neat letters and whatnot?”

Generally, the whole group looks pretty bewildered.

The monk looks pensive for a moment. 

“Well, we are all taught to write from a young age. I’m not the best at calligraphy in my class, but I am passable,” he replies.

“Great!” Ane replies eagerly, as she drops the pile of clothing on the threshold of her wagon with a flump

She disappears back into its interior, before emerging a moment later with a folded-up bit of cattail paper. Leaning over to hand it to the man, she points to the brocade tablecloth staked out on the spongy ground. “Take this, and the paint, and do it to that. Don’t worry about what it says, just work on making it look professional. Wila, Vila, and Zila, take the peppers and mortar and pestle, and get as many of them mashed as you can. Jiselmo, Korin, Vasht, and Narue, come inside for a minute. ”

The monk puzzles over the tablecloth. 

“You mean copy? Like a sign?” He asks, while the others bustle into the huddle.

“Just like it is on the paper!” Ane calls out, as she heads back into her wagon.

The triplets all shrug in unison, and take the materials. Wila begins the task dutifully, while Zila curses and mutters. 

“You’re making it splash, sis! There are nine eyes to watch out for here.”

As for the other four, they all give each other a look, before stepping forward into Ane’s wagon. The three tzuskar all have to hunch low and fold their wings tight, lest they knock something over or flap each other about. Jiselmo, being a shasii, just ducks down under the rest of them and crouches on the floor so he doesn’t take feathers to the face.

Once inside, they are greeted by the sight of…

A lot of laundry. There are several piles, none of which seem to make sense. Nonetheless, Ane begins doling them out, carefully choosing who to allocate which pile to.

“First, Korin,” she says, handing the dour tzuskar a velveteen greatcoat, linen trousers, silk cravat,  muslin shirt, and long brocade scarf. 

He furrows his brow at the clothes, with a mutter.

“This looks like something Jiselmo’d wear…”

“And Jiselmo,” she continues, handing him what looks like the dregs of a city’s rubbish pile. There might be pants and shirt in there somewhere, but it’s hard to tell under all of the stains and patches.

“This looks like something Korin’d wear…” He snickers.

“And Narue,” she moves on down the line, handing the mercenary a tiered skirt, ruffled bandeau, and wide, painted leather belt with ribbons for laces.

“Oh my. It’s fancier than all the dances I’ve ever crashed,” she comments, plucking at the ribbons.

“And Vasht,” she hands him what may have once been either a heavy skirt or the bottom of a long coat of patterned velvet, cut to knee length, and a pair of silk scarves. 

“I get to wear clothes with this, right?” Vasht asks, though no one answers.

“So… Find somewhere to put those on, I’ve got stuff to do and there’s no Void-damned room in here.”

While they dress, she rummages through her stash of herbs. There’s the puffroot, of course, maybe some mint and fennel seed. Nothing too exotic or expensive, and just enough of each to make their fragrant presence known. The triplets are mashing the peppers, the monk is lettering, everyone else is trying to figure out what in the name of Animus she’s dressing them as, and Ane…

Ane is beginning to fill bottles. All the bottles, mismatched as they are. There are bottles of ale, jugs, little bottles that once held resin gum, amber tincture bottles, swirled glass lachrymatories… No bottle goes ignored.

First, a generous dollop of spicy izash pepper paste. Then, an equally generous helping of shredded puffroot. She tops each one off with a heavy pinch of powdered mint, and another of fennel seed. Lastly, she pours a generous measure of Brair’s surrendered liquor into each. 

A short time later, they all return wearing the required outfits. Jiselmo and Korin are now doing impressions of one another’s affects, and they are really far too good at it — with Korin flipping his hair, and Jiselmo sniffing and furrowing his brow. Narue does a spin in her new outfit, feeling rather elegant this evening. As for Vasht, he shoved on the required outfit and decided to follow instructions. As a result, more of him is on display than he seems strictly happy about — from a tattooed expanse of chest, to his toned lower legs. Still, he seems willing to shrug it off. It’s no different than a half-light show.

Ane holds an armful of different bottles of the clown’s paint, filched from the monk in the midst of his writing. She can’t see the colors in each, but it doesn’t really make a difference for her purposes.

“Now, Narue,” she says, as she dips a finger into the greasy mixture. “Take these two bottles, and paint yourself wherever you can reach. Like this.” she draws a white line around the other woman’s upper arm, fringing it with small triangles and lining it with fingertip-width dots of color. 

“Ooh, I get the fun job,” she says with measured joy, and gets to painting her self with triangles, squares, rhombuses and the like. 

“And Va-,” Ane dips another fingertip in a different bottle — red, though she can’t tell — and turns to the knife-thrower. She pauses, frowning at him quizzically for a moment as she hums him over. “Animus alive, when’d you get so big?” 

Ane doesn’t often leave her tent during Half-Light Shows. In her mind, Vasht had never stopped being a skinny, mop-haired teenager — just taller, grumpier, and with more scars. In lieu of a demonstration, she just thrusts a pair of bottles at him before turning away to continue assembling the rest of the plot. 

Vasht shrugs his shoulders. 

“I have to throw heavy things,” he explains.

“If you’re done painting… I need you to take these candles, and seal the bottles,” she says, offering him some of her cave bee wax candles. Wasting them on sealing bottles will deplete her store, but having candles to burn isn’t nearly as important as having guards to make sure they don’t all get murdered in their beds.

The callosian monk, having finished his prior task, now stares down with abject confusion at the candles and bottles. Rather than ask questions, he figures he ought not interrupt, and begins to seal each bottle, making trips into the wagon to melt the wax on Ane’s stove.

“Vila, Wila, and Zila, once Narue’s done painting herself, I need you to do her hair and makeup. Everyone else’s, too — the more disguised, the better. You can use mine, I’ve got enough of it lying around. I’ve got a few more things to do.”

“Not a problem,” Wila says with authority. She’s been doing the makeup for the other two for years, and she presses her sisters into service helping her do-up everyone else. 

Soon enough, they all finish with their respective tasks. By the time the triplets are finished, practically no one looks like themselves — even down to the occasional added birthmark, longer nose, or carefully-applied bit of prosthetic putty. 

As soon as the last forehead is daubed with pancake makeup, Ane emerges from the costume cabinets at the rear of the wagon. Like the others, she’s dressed up in a barely recognizable fashion. A wide indigo scarf of nubbly raw silk trimmed in silver embroidery serves as a skirt — a paste gem brooch secures it at her hip, leaving a generously long opening for one pale, painted leg to emerge. Like Narue, she has a ruffled bandeau tied around the swell of her bosom, and bold, geometric designs adorning her arms. A brass chain encircles her stomach, with a large, teardrop-shaped glass pearl dangling just below the shallow dip of her navel. Her hair is still braided with its twists and flourishes, now fixed in place with silver pins capped by more glass pearls. The effect is, at the very least, unusual — any onlooker would have trouble pinning down whatever corner of Uruvalei she hails from. 

“Alright,” Ane says, adjusting one pearl-decked pin. “So, you’re all probably wondering what this is all about. Monk,” she nods to the man, “Hold up the sign.”

When he does, his handiwork is unfurled for all of the others to see:

DOCTOR LARTIMUS ~and~ HIS MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION

(the heat lets you know it’s working!)

 

They all gasp in awe.

“You, Korin,” she gestures to the actor with a painted hand, “Are the good doctor. Jiselmo,” she says, turning to his compatriot,“Is the one he’s going to heal. The three of us are your assistants from a foreign land, there to make sure you don’t get fucking robbed or decide to spend all the money on props.”

Korin puffs out his chest and adjusts his collar. “My mum always did want me to be a doctor…”

“And my mom always told me I’d be a beggar or an invalid. Now I can be both!” He grins. “That’ll show ‘er, eh?”

“You’re a regular overachiever, Jiselmo,” Ane says flatly. 

Narue, now fully makeupped and painted, speaks up.

“So, do we just… Go to a town square and start hollering?”

“Pretty much,” Ane shrugs, “Preferably one far away from a legitimate apothecary.”

“Good idea,” Vasht agrees. “We might have to make a break for it, if some sort of Union or Guild comes after us.”

Narue nudges one of the bottles. “How are we going to carry all of these? Vasht’s laundry basket?”

“I’d hope not. My clothes would smell of izash pepper for months,” he replies.

“Pinch a handcart? Load up an alosin?” Ane suggests, “There’re some crates full of old costumes in my wagon that we could use, but we’d still be carrying them all by hand.”

Narue smirks, flapping the attendant wing. 

“Not a problem. The guards get a couple of alosins; we can just use one of those. I’ll grab it on the way.” 

“Well, everyone in the camp probably knows about this anyway,” Korin sighs. “We haven’t been subtle or anything.”

Ignoring Korin, Vasht adds, “And the alosin means we have a quick get-away. Jiselmo and Ane can use it in a pinch, while the three of us fly away.”

Ane flaps a hand. 

“We’ll be fine. Just get the alosin and some saddlebags, and let’s get this over with — this paint is heavy and sticky, I’ve no idea how the clown stands it.”

“Insanity,” Korin says flatly. 

And on that note, the triplets and the monk all head off and pretend none of this happened. There’s the sound of banter as they exit, though it’s hard to tell which sister the callosian is talking to.

For everybody else, the grift is underway.

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

Teller of Fortunes

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…

 

(Thank you for reading and please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! We love to hear from you.)

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 7: Stand and Deliver

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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.