Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-25: The chopon dung’s important.

Looking across the camp, Ane can see the two figures cast in the fire’s glow. The callosian covered in protrusions is gathering up portions for them, while the mass of wings mostly just… Well, flaps, as far as she can tell.

She heads out towards the pair with long, determined strides. About halfway through, Ane catches herself — she smooths her fingers through her dark hair, softens her shoulders, and eases herself into a casual saunter with a faint sway of her hips. It’s a subtle change, but one that at least helps her and Vasht avoid looking like they’re marching into an inquisition. As much as she’s pushed to take things slow and be friendly, it’s difficult not to charge ahead like a gurran down a thoroughfare. 

What the Void is Jarrik up to?

Vasht takes a similar tack, adopting one of his casual swaggers. He has about six of those. Three of them are more like brooding-in-motion, but he has one that’s normal, one that’s cocky, and one that’s completely inappropriate here. He’s going for the normal one. 

On the inside, he similarly wants to know what the Void Jarrik is doing. 

When the two of them arrive near the cooling food cauldron, the two new arrivals are finished scooping out their own portions. Neither speaks. 

“Hello,” Vasht greets them warmly. “I saw Jarrik walk you in, so I figured I’d come welcome you too. The name’s Vasht,” he says with a genuine smile. 

“Ane,” Ane says, following his lead. She offers the pair a bright smile and an extended hand, on the off chance either are in the position to shake it. She’s not sure, but it seems remiss not to.

The two of them exchange glances, then look back at Vasht and Ane. The callosian doesn’t move, but the mass of wings — a tzuskar, in reality — reaches out and shakes Ane’s hand. It’s hard to tell if the person inside is tall or short, thin or fat, male, female, of the Skrajjic third-sex, or something else entirely — the wings all over their body are similar in size to the ones on their back. Even up close, you can barely see a face through the gaps.

“Lurim,” the tzuskar answers evenly.

“Pimsun, or just Pim,” the callosian answers. Vasht begins to offer him a handshake, but the callosian politely waves it away. The many craggy mounds on his arms seems to make moving them unpleasant, and even shifting his weight is accompanied by the sound of creaking and cracking carapace.

“Nice to meet you both,” Vasht says amiably. “I’m the knife thrower, and she’s the fortune teller. We do a lot of the odd jobs around here, taking care of the caravan,” he says, by way of explanation. “So if you two need anythin’, don’t hesitate to ask. Right, Ane?”

“Right,” she nods, “You picked a good time to come — we’re actually getting ready to roll onward. Do you both have a place to stay?” With some effort, she manages to keep the question breezy and nonchalant.

The callosian, Pim, murmurs in thought.

“Somewhat. The talkin’ man said we got one,” he says gruffly, looking dour under the scale-mound erupting from his left-brow.

“Stuck us in the scullery wagon,” Lurim chimes in, in a nasal voice. “Not that either’a us can cook, or that there’s a bed or anythin’ in there.”

“Mm… Yeah, space is a bit dear at the moment, I think,” Ane apologizes, “But I’m sure we can try to find some bedding between us and the other caravanners, at least.” A beguiling expression of feigned perplexity crosses her face, even accompanied by a faintly pouting frown. “Though, if Jarrik doesn’t mean for you to cook… It’s odd he’d put you there. What did he have in mind?”

“The fop didn’t say,” Pim says glumly. “Said we’d get to travel, get away from S’varga.”

“Oh, he had a whole schtick about helpin’ the downtrodden,” Lurim says, with a fair air of cynicism. “When I asked ‘im what we gotta do, he just said…”

“Perform, if you like,” says Jarrik’s voice, coming out from under those wings. The tone is flowery, flattering, unctuous. Typical Jarrik.

Vasht jumps a bit, and Lurim chuckles under the burden of feathers. 

“Sorry, gets people e’rry time. I’m a skil’t mimic, for sure.”

Ane raises a brow.

“Impressive,” Vasht appraises. “Quite a talent.”

The callosian chuckles sullenly. 

“Not one we bein’ hired for. People don’t exactly buy us on for our cheery wit, if you get my meanin’,” he mutters, shrugging a crag-cracked shoulder to demonstrate. 

“Well, I’m sure you’ll find something to fill your days with,” Ane says brightly, “At least, when you’re not doing what Jarrik hired you for..?” She trails off, adding an uncertain rising inflection that turns it into almost-but-not-quite-a-question.

So, Jarrik didn’t say anything to them about requiring them to perform, and they want to leave S’varga. He’s trying to play this off as a charitable endeavor, but he’s so full of shit I can smell it from here.

“Oh, prob’ly,” Lurim agrees. “So long as I ain’t gotta cook. Do you know what happened the last time I tried to cook?”

“It was like twenty burnt vlearks, and all of em’ were silly-mad,” Pim adds helpfully.

Vasht nods in understanding. 

“I don’t think that’ll be a problem… We all take turns when it makes sense. Even so, there are caravan followers,” he says, vaguely flapping a hand at the latter half of the wagon train. “No one’s gonna make you cook, and they’d get an earful if they did.”

“Eh, well enough,” Pim says agreeably. “That said, you mentioned a bed?” 

“I need a fluffy cot, I do. Big, downy pillows,” Lurim says wistfully, almost fantasizing. There’s a smile of wonder somewhere on there, audible in their voice.

“Bit ironic, idn’t it? But that’s ‘is thing,” Pim explains.

“Feels better on me tail, too,” Lurim adds helpfully.

Tail?

“I don’t know if we can scrape together a bed on short notice, but hopefully there’re some blankets and pillows to be had.” Ane turns to Vasht with a cant of her head. “What d’you think?”

“Yeah, I’m sure we can pull together some extra-fluffy pillows,” Vasht agrees easily. “A mattress will take more time, but when we’ve got something, you get first pick.” He smiles, his visible eye crinkling with amusement. He probably thinks the bit about the tail was a joke.

“Mighty squiffy,” Lurim says with approval. Neither Ane nor Vasht knows what that means, but it’s the tone that seems to matter.

“I’m not much for fluffy stuff… but I’m gonna need salves soon, methinks,” says Pim, scratching at one of the peaks on his arm. “Get mighty itchy, ‘specially if I’m gonna be paid to get gawked at. Gawkin’ makes me itchy.”

“Oh, we’ve got those. I still have to make some, but Dynkala — the klorrian herbalist, she’s usually in her wagon — or Vaidna, the other herbalist, should have something that can help,” Ane says, with an airy wave of her hand. “Void, we’ve probably got the ingredients to compound you some, if there’re any salves that’ve worked well for you in the past.”

Pim starts to open his mouth to reply, before Lurim promptly moves an arm(?) to cover it. 

“Nunna that, don’t be givin’ her a list right now. The day’s late.” There’s a muffled noise. “No, no, I get it. The chopon dung is impor- no, don’t give me that look. Stop sulking. Stop- Arright, nevermind,” Lurim says, uncovering Pim’s mouth and absolving themselves of responsibility.

“That’s a lotta healers for one group,” Pim says, with some astonishment. “May get some relief yet. Thank ye.”

Ane nods. “No problem. We take care of our people,” she replies, “As best as we’re able to, anyway.” The grin that accompanies her words comes only with effort — thus far, Jarrik himself does not have a stellar record as a provider for his employees. She has no doubt that, were either of these two any worse off, they’d be in the same position as Thelorn.

“Well, yer both a kind sort,” Lurim appraises. “More’n that weird fop. Anyway, thanks for all the trouble,” they say amiably.

Pim nods simply. “Been a pleasure,” he says, raising his bowl. 

“Yeah, we’ll let you guys relax. We can bring stuff by the wagon later,” Vasht replies. “Enjoy your dinner and whatnot.”

“Yeah, we’ll see what we can do,” Ane assures them. Once the pair has nodded their farewells and returned to eating, she shoots Vasht an uneasy hum. For all their guarded questions, it doesn’t seem like they’re much closer to an actual answer. Vasht returns her glance and nods solemnly. When both of them are far enough away, he grumbles. 

“Yeah, same deal. No real request for work, no explanation.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Alright people, though.”

“Yeah, they seem friendly enough… Hope we can find a bed for them, eventually. For now — do you have any spare pillows or blankets?” She hooks a thumb into the waist of her trousers as she walks, with her hum turned on the spongy ground as she makes a mental inventory. She has a few pillows, mostly of the decorative sort. She might be able to find some spare sheets, but they aren’t much good without anything to put them on. 

Why did Jarrik think he could just make them sleep on the floor?

“Yeah, I’ve got some spare pillows, and a quilt,” he answers, similarly pensive. “Don’t know what to do about the ‘bed’ part, but with enough pillows, we can at least give them something while we figure it out,” he strategizes, though he doesn’t seem completely in it. Mostly, the dilemma of how they’re being neglected — and yet not asked to work — doesn’t quite make sense to him. He takes a pause from his thoughts to glance up at Ane, donning a slight smile. “I’ll go scrounge some things up. Meet you at their wagon?”

Ane nods pensively. She’s as lost as he is — is Jarrik just collecting people? Why? He obviously isn’t putting any thought into their care, so he isn’t treating bringing them on as an investment in the caravan’s future. It seems like he couldn’t possibly care less what happens to them once they’re here.
None of it makes sense.

“Sure, sure,” she answers with an absent murmur. A furrow creases her brow as she looks over her shoulder, stealing one last glance at the pair before she turns to go to her wagon.

The two of them are still sitting by the waning fire, eating their meal as they were. They seem like a fairly companionable pair — not gleeful, by any means, but happy enough. They sometimes move their arms slightly, subtly, as if gesturing while exchanging idle banter. 

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-23: Most wroth.

In the distance, the caravan’s magician heads off toward the edge of the camp. He’s grabbed up a torch, casting his stark features in half-shadow. He wanders out and greets three figures approaching from the city — the caravan master among them.

As Vozhik stops and palavers with Jarrik, the light of his torch falls upon the two newcomers. One is a ruptured silhouette at first, resolving into a callosian covered in long, lumpy protrusions like the back of a Skrajjic rock-lizard. It’s almost uncomfortable to look at, the way his clothes appear to warp to fit his distorted shape. The weight of the crags along his shoulders and back seems to hold him down, forcing his posture to stoop low.

The other is… a collection of birds? A flock of massive, twitching wings? And yet it stands in the vague shape of a man. It’s hard to tell whether there’s a person beneath them.

Jiselmo, rubbernecking all the while, speaks for the rest as attention falls upon this spectacle.

“… What the fuck?”

Ane twists around in her seat, craning her neck to see what Jiselmo’s spotted. When she does, her nostrils flare in anger.

“More people for Jarrik to shove in a hay wagon and ignore, looks like,” she mutters through clenched teeth as she drops her spoon into her bowl with a clatter. She casts a hum in Vasht’s direction, wherever he’s off brooding. Though he’s plenty far from the group, she raises a brow at him with an unvoiced, Do you see this shit?

Vasht, at this point, has switched to perching atop his wagon with his legs over the side. His expression is hardened as he watches Jarrik the distance, shaded under his sweep of wing and hair. Even as Vasht watches this spectacle, he can feel Ane’s gaze upon him. He turns to regard her with his single eye, shining in the light of torches below. He raises his brow in turn, his lips drawn in a stoic line, as if to say, Oh yes, this shit is seen.

“At least he isn’t leading this pair with a group of handlers,” Korin mutters.

The burdened callosian moves and converses, despite his apparent discomfort. The group of wings stands close to him, somehow gesturing and expressing itself under that mess of feathers. 

Wila huffs, and mutters, “There may be need to call a moot over this… If he’s building a ‘freak’ show,” she says with finger-quotes, “Then I will be most wroth. Simply vibrating with wroth!”

“So wroth that it gets all over us,” Vila mutters.

“So wroth that we must scoot her up an extra bed, just to get some beauty rest,” Zila chimes helpfully.

“I don’t know what he’s doing. Nelea, have you spoken to Thelorn at all recently?” Ane asks warily, though her gaze never stops shifting between Vasht and Jarrik.

Nelea nods, though the gesture goes unseen. 

“He seems to be doing better… We read to him, feed him, and he’s largely left alone.”

Vila scoffs. “The old man must be waiting until he has a full set of us…”

In the distance, Vasht is equally watchful. He’s now standing on the edge of his roof, almost pacing. His brawny arms are crossed, taut with tension. Whenever he looks towards Jarrik, his expression seems to darken of its own volition. He stands like a woethrask on a taut leash, as if he’d charge at the caravan master if Jarrik weren’t in mixed company. 

Ane gives a murmur of acknowledgement. “Does he ever mention why he came here?”

“He doesn’t know,” Nelea replies softly.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-22: You pull smeerps out of a hat!

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The next day begins with a pretty typical thing for Ane: fortune telling. 

It’s the last day for the caravan to wring the last few copper bits it can from the local populace, and Ane spends a solid day’s work behind her table with its (still somewhat paint-spattered) brocade cloth. The readings seem to blur together for her — a few minor lordlings on a lark, badgering her for news of their impending fortunes. A gambler or two asking about their next big score. A few shady types with marks on their temples where masks usually hang, probing her for intrigue and forewarnings of betrayals to come. It’s not an outstanding day’s work, by any means, but it’s a thorough and steady one.  She nets nine miters, nine scutes; a tidy sum, and the last from a city for some time.

Once it’s over, Ane is exceedingly pleased to pack up her tent and put S’varga behind her. The caravan has money, guards, and enough supplies to get them through the next leg of their journey, so the sooner she puts some potentially very dissatisfied customers of “Doctor Lartimus” behind her, the better.

When Ane steps out of her tent, she sees that everyone’s gathering up for their last meal in the city. There’s not enough time for one last day of carousing, so everyone is faithfully assembling at the foodline and eating by firelight. While Ane is generally unaffected by the darkness of the tunnels, the other members of the troupe all flock to the nearest light source. It lends things a rather warm, conspiratorial atmosphere, with people packed in tighter clusters than usual. 

Today, Aedas the strong man is the one doling out food — and massive portions of it. It’s a pity that he’s never had much sense for flavor. On the bright side, he hands out a pretty protein-heavy meal, full of boiled-down plants and fibers known to strengthen the body. 

When Ane approaches at the front of the line, he shovels her portion onto a bowl with a smaller bowl, fumbling with the utensils in his massive hands. 

“Hey Ane, got the gud stuff for ya!” He chimes, smiling to his eyes.

“Thanks, Aedas!” She replies brightly, as she accepts the bowl. Even if Aedas didn’t err deeper on the side of nutrition rather than flavor, it’s nice to not have to worry about Brair’s peppers. She turns, bowl and spoon in hand, to find a place to sit — the clusters of cravanners seem warm and jovial enough, satisfied with a successful trip, but it might be nice to take advantage of her ability to see in the dark and find a quiet place to relax…

When Ane arrives, Jiselmo the actor is in the midst of retelling his tales of the madcap adventures of King Fweep-Fweep and the joust, in usual form. It seems like the story of a small creature enchanting the caravanners gets a little more embroidery with every retelling; this time, the wagons get decorated a little more brightly, and a cadre of charming caravan-followers carry Jiselmo away from the ersatz tiltyard on their shoulders while cheering.

Nelea the animal tamer shakes her head and mutters, “You really shouldn’t encourage such things, Jiselmo. Someone could have been hurt.”

“Oh, it’s fine! That’s what the pillows are for.”

Korin the straight-man covers his face with his palm, and mutters, “They were still poles being thrust at alosin-velocity, Jiselmo…”

“Well, the ground is soft als– oh, hello Ane!” He breaks, waving at her with his spoon. 

Ane takes a seat, though she somewhat regrets it — of course Jiselmo would have plenty to say about being the master of ceremonies to a tiny fweep-king. She gives the group a chagrined smile and a wave of her spoon before setting to eating her dinner.

It doesn’t last much longer. While the conversation continues (and seems unaware of Ane’s role), it soon comes to a swift stop. Looming at the other edge of the group is the klorrian magician, a rather rare figure at these fireside gatherings. He’s always a gloomy picture of a man, with long, thin black hair and a gaunt, disapproving face. All this paired with his ostentatiously-dyed robes and air of importance. The look is only broken up by a pair of floppy lop-ears that stick out of his pocket, each thick with cotton-like tufts. His steps are quiet, but the sound of a smeerp munching a carrot is not. 

The moment he steps up, silverware clinks and conversation grinds to a halt. It doesn’t seem deliberate; his severe, stoic presence has a talent for throwing a wrench into any conversation. As Jiselmo puts it, he’s the “doorstopper of chatter, a paper-weight for words, a muzzle on the snout of pleasant company, and a condom on the cock of social grace.”

Despite this colorful description, Jiselmo is the first to speak. 

“Ah, hello Vozhik! Come to rejoin our delightful company?”

The klorr glowers, staring down his nose. 

“I come to address your idiocy yesterday. Your indiscretions and frippery rub you against forces you’d best not tamper with,” he cautions, as his sharp ears lower gravely.

Jiselmo smirks, waggishly swaying from side-to-side. 

“Oh? Afraid I’ll pull one of your smeerps out of my arse and put you out of a job?” 

This earns Jiselmo an elbow-jostle to the rib from Korin, who adds, “It’s all right now. No one was hurt.”

The klorr responds with a chilly, fanged smile. 

“You don’t even recall that you were influenced? Hah. It’s no surprise, given your lack of mental acuity.”

“It was an accident, Vozhik,” Ane interjects firmly, “Nobody was hurt. Besides, it won’t happen again.”

The klorr shifts his gaze to her, raising an eyebrow. 

“Oh? I would hope so. Let us hope this is the only force you house that’s beyond your ken.”

Nelea bristles.

“You mind your words, Vozhik. You are with the caravan, true, but that gives you no license to insult as you please. One more jibe like that, and I’ll have you out of our circle on your ear.”

The magician reels back for a second, chastened. Somehow, even such a mild threat makes him wilt and balk. He quickly regains his stiff posture, and utters a dour “Hmph.” Then, more cautiously, he adds, “Just a warning. We travel in a complicated world with troublesome forces…” His gaze shifts subtly back to Ane. “A fae mood can cause all sorts of problems.” 

Then, he promptly turns to leave with a swish of his voluminous cape, which he wears literally all the time. His mysterious exit, however, is ruined by the way he tucks a hand into his shirt pocket to anxiously stroke his smeerp’s ears. 

You pull smeerps out of a hat!” Ane calls out sourly after him, to his swiftly-retreating back. There are some people who she would accept this admonishment from — Dynkala, naturally, and maybe the medicine-seller, Vaidna — but the pick-a-card-any-card guy does not number among them, however tall and glowery he may be. 

“Void,” she mutters, turning back to Jiselmo and the others, “Is he always on?”

“Regrettably, yes,” Korin replies sourly. “I don’t know how he walks around with all those smeerps up-him.”

“Oh, it’s important for some of the dark magical super-spooky arts,” Jiselmo adds in, in a suitably, theatrically eerie tone. “He might need to conjure ribbons or saw pretty ladies in an emergency.”

“I worry for the smeerps,” Nelea says quietly. “It must be hard to breathe…”

Ane shakes her head. It isn’t that she doesn’t have her own concerns about the fweep-fweep — far from it — but the last thing she needs is to be scolded like an unruly toddler who left their toys out where someone could trip over them. 

“Damn near killed my appetite,” she mutters glumly. 

Vila (of the triplets) side-whispers, “You should see his dirty wagon… It’s a real warren in there, not made for a person.”

This earns Vila an immediate elbow-strike from the other two on each side. She utters a small grunt of surprise and a mutter of protest to the oddly silent Wila and Zila.

In the distance, Vozhik heads off toward the edge of the camp. He’s grabbed up a torch, casting his stark features in half-shadow. He wanders out and greets three figures approaching from the city — the caravan master among them.

As Vozhik stops and palavers with Jarrik, the light of his torch falls upon the two newcomers. One is a ruptured silhouette at first, then resolves into a callosian covered in long, lumpy protrusions almost like the back of a Skrajjic rock-lizard. It’s almost uncomfortable to look at, the way his clothes appear to warp to fit his distorted shape. The weight of the crags along his shoulders and back seems to hold him down, forcing his posture to stoop low.

The other is… a collection of birds? A flock of massive, twitching wings? And yet it stands in the vague shape of a man. It’s hard to tell whether there’s a person beneath them.

Jiselmo, rubbernecking all the while, speaks for the rest as attention falls upon this spectacle.

“… What the fuck?”

Teller of Fortunes

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

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

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

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

Oh.

Oh no.

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

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

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

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

Then, Ane pans her gaze to the right…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He flings an arm out in the direction of Brair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow.

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

“Fuip… fwep… FWEEP!”

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

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

There’s a moment of silent suspense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He makes a vague, spinning gesture with his fingertip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mm, might want to keep it hidden when you’re away,” he agrees, gruffly running a hand across his cheek. “Seems only to do that when people see it.” Vasht then shrugs a shoulder, and smirks with chagrin. “Well, I’d say you’re welcome, but I’m more sorry that I let it start a monarchy. And knight me, I guess.”

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

Seeing Ane’s smile seems to lessen his embarrassment, somewhat, and he finds himself doing the same. He lets out a theatrical sigh, and plucks one of his scarves off of his wagon’s roof.

“If I had to guess? The critter needed heraldry, and somehow Jiselmo knew that. So while we got ready, he went around throwing my clothes everywhere.” He furrows his brow at the scarf, and adds, “Also, they were nearby… I’d just finished washing them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Teller of Fortunes

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

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(Continued directly from prior entry)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ane inhales a deep, tense, hissing breath.

Looks like it didn’t work.

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

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

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

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

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

She has a sneaking suspicion she should keep it.

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

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

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

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

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

Construction is pretty shoddy down here. 

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

At least, all that did chase her…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Teller of Fortunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An assassin?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

As Ane steps forward, she sees the lost traveller.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-18: What the Void is that?

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There’s a sense of tight tunnels, of running, of diving through holes and burrowing to new places. The world is a vast and colorful thing, and all those colors have scents. There’s a plethora of textures in every grain of soil, every patch of mold, every tunnel-shrub that marks the way… Dashing on all fours, Ane feels the memory of diving further into the depths, perhaps even becoming lost. 

The spires of men rise out of a great cavern, swallowing her up, baffling her with so many new smells. Wagon oil, burnt soil, the sweat of toil. It throws her senses into a frenzy, bringing about confusion and distress. 

As Ane drifts slowly out of dreaming, this sense of being lost does remain… like some sort of puppy gone on a long adventure, only to find it’s too big for its fuzzy britches. 

That feeling separates from Ane, though she can smell it on the air… It leads off into S’varga, down through the few stomachs of its connected caverns. 

And that scent, that forlorn call has a color: Emerald. 

 

When Ane awakens, the dream lingering, she finds herself already dressed for the day. At least, in the sense that clothes are laid across her body, in some cases over the sheets. Though as considerate as this could otherwise be, there’s a problem: It’s an ensemble collected from both her actual clothing stores, as well as the crates of costumes kept nearby. There’s a ruff, a fluffy hat, a pair of curled boots, a rather fetching skirt, all paired with a very garish paisley evening robe.

Nearby, the strange “fweep-fweep” creature is innocently asleep. It’s perched right there upon her lap, nestled against a rather out-of-fashion pocketbag. It seems to have passed out at the scene of the crime.

“Fui- fweeweeweeweep… Fuiiiii… Weeweeweeweeep…”

“Gree-” Ane begins to say, as the world around her resolves into view again. It’s an odd transition to make, shifting from eyes-that-are-not-hers to herself-without-eyes, and her momentary waking confusion is not helped by the bizarre collection of moth-eaten clothing draped over her as if she were some sort of doll in the hands of a very clumsy and easily distracted child. She plucks gently at the hem of the paisley robe.

How?

The fweep-fweep doesn’t even have anything to carry things with. How did it manage to drag all of this here? She nudges it gently with the tip of her finger.

“Thanks, but I think I’d prefer to dress myself,” she mutters softly.

“Fwi wiwiwi wiiiiip…. Fwi wiwi wiiiiiip….” 

It seems to be absolving itself of all responsibility via slumber. As Ane looks at the thing, lumped on her lap as it is, it doesn’t even have arms or legs. Even its quote-unquote “giggle tubes” are currently retracted, giving it the appearance of a semi-mammalian sphere of somnolence.

She gently nudges one puffy cheek with her fingertip. When that doesn’t produce anything but more tiny, squeaky exhalations, she gently shifts it to the other end of the bed so she can get up and begin getting ready for the day.

As she pulls a shirt over her head, she steals another glance at the fweep-fweep. It’s really a cute little thing, for all of the trouble it’s caused. It really has a talent for getting up to things… 

Ane catches her lower lip in her teeth as a thought occurs to her. It probably isn’t a good idea to have it ride along in her pocketbag while she goes into S’varga, if only to keep it from shoplifting. She also can’t leave it here, unless she wants to come back to… Ane isn’t even sure what. All of her laundry arranged around a very small tea party. All of her makeup used to draw smiling faces and bug eyes on everything she owns. 

She has a feeling the tiny creature is a creative and efficient architect of nonsense.

Maybe she could find someone willing to keep an eye on it for a little while, long enough for her to investigate the city. Nelea wouldn’t work, she’s far too soft-hearted — besides, she almost let it out of its cage already. The monk is probably busy, and he was nearly swayed as well. She hums at the sleeping creature, frowning subtly as she thinks. So, who?

A half hour later, Ane raps sharply on the windowsill of Vasht’s wagon.

There’s a rummaging sound from beyond, complete with various stumbles and small collisions. After a knock, a bump, and a thump, Vasht finally approaches his window. There’s a creak of wood as he pries the window slats open and squints through. His feather-cropped hair is all amess, tossed this way and that. Despite his usual vigilance, Vasht definitely isn’t a morning person. He’s not even fully clothed.

“Hmm… Ane? S’methin’ happenin’?” He asks in a lazy, amiable murmur, dulled by a haze of sleepiness. His revealed eye is half-open, and the wing over the other flaps lazily. 

Ane arches a brow.

“Rough sleep? I can come back if you need to chase out a guest first,” she offers.

He shakes his head, and raises a hand to sweep back his hair. 

“Nah, not rough. Just early,” he says, with a slight, self-effacing smile. He leans forward, propping his forearms on the windowsill. “And why’s it always caravan-followers with you? Been taking your jokes from Jiselmo lately?” He asks, tilting his head. 

Ane shrugs. 

“It sure as shit isn’t my card-pulling that keeps that bunch hanging around. Anyway,” she continues, as she raises the small wire cage up to his window, “I wanted to know if you’d watch this for a few hours.”

Vasht looks down, fixing his now-keen gaze upon the cage. Expecting to see a skarrow, or a smeerp, or even some exotic bat, he’s left looking puzzled. As he stares, the creature has dropped its ruse of slumber and instead begun to investigate its surroundings. Its trio of eyes widen like saucers as it takes in all of the possibilities… Vasht, for his part, is unimpressed with the morning.

“The Void is that?” He asks, ruffling the back of his hair. He doesn’t seem at all bothered, though he also makes no secret of how silly the thing looks.

After a slight delay, he adds, “… And was that a compliment?” He asks, even more baffled. It sounded like one, but perhaps twisted into a backwards figure-eight or even mobius strip.

“No idea!” She says brightly, as she passes the cage through the slats. “Don’t let it give you any suggestions! Good luck! Bye!” 

And, with a wave, she turns to walk away before he has time to decide he won’t.

“No ide- about which part?” He calls after her, to no avail. Really, he ends up figuring it’s both. The tzuskar lets out a light sigh, then turns his attention to the cage. “Alright, she won’t tell me. What are ya, then?”

“Fwip fwip fwippa-fwee!” The fweep-fweep replies, hopping and flapping its tube-arms.

“Ah, I see. So you’re at least two fwip’s, and maybe a fwee,” he replies, with an air of patient understanding. He then picks up the cage, turns, and disappears into his wagon. It’s time for him to start his day, and if this thing’s going to feature in it, he might as well get on with it.
Ane, meanwhile, sets off for the city proper. If her dream is at all accurate, what she’s looking for is going to be somewhere within, albeit off the beaten path. She should’ve brought Jiselmo — he could keep her from the most dangerous parts of the city, at least. With luck, this thing — if it is a thing, in the same way the little slipshell was — is somewhere so forgotten that even S’varga’s organized crime contingents won’t bother with it.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-17: The most asinine thing I’ve ever done

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Ane bolts the door securely behind her before setting the heavy lead-lined box on the floor with the creature’s cage atop it. Ane sits cross-legged on the floor in front of it, elbows on her knees and chin in her hands. She makes a point to hum at the creature’s stomach area, if it can even be said to have a proper stomach area — it just seems to be a sort of fluffy, scaly puff of skoosh with a chubby-cheeked, large-eyed bit at one end. 

It shuffles its bottom, lacking feet, and almost tumbles over. The concentration of Ane’s hum seems to tickle the creature, making it twitch and wriggle, though it doesn’t make more noise than usual.

“Alright,” she says sternly, as if a firm tone alone can cut through the creature’s ridiculousness, “I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, but I want to know a few things.”

“Fueep fep,” the creature jabbers, tilting forward. It seems to be some kind of gesture, until it topples forward and bumps its little head on the latch of the cage. Oh, that looks quite unpleasant… It must have hurt, given the way it squints its trio of eyes. And that lock really is big and dangerous for such a little thing, isn’t it? 

Ane tucks her hands firmly beneath her. 

“Yes, you’re very cute, and it is very unfortunate that you bumped your tiny…” Head? “Self, but I’m not going to let you out here. Not yet. If you aren’t an animal — can you talk? Do you have a name?”

The creature seems to subtly narrow its eyes. Either that, or a mote of dust just floated into the top one. It’s rather hard to tell.

“Fueep… fep,” it exhales, a tad pitiful. Then, for some inscrutable reason, it extends one of its fluff-tube-arms and makes a squeaking puff out of its end. 

“I… I don’t know what that means. Are you hungry? Do you need food?” Ane mutters to herself, “Void, what would you even eat?”

The creature seems to be profoundly clueless, just soundlessly flapping its little triangle of a mouth. If there were a competition for the most ridiculous creature in S’varga, this one would be a smash hit. That being said, something about it’s mouth movement looks very sassy… It gives the distinct impression that the creature would look both hilarious and oddly fitting in makeup. Perhaps some lipstick, some jewelry… That would look quite silly, wouldn’t it? Though it’s strange one would even think of this. Maybe it’s because there’s jewelry and lipstick so conveniently nearby, with which to dress up the strange little character… 

No,” Ane says firmly. She feels a bit ridiculous talking to the creature this way, but, if nothing else, she’s at least used to trying to commune with things that don’t speak. Even the slipshell statue was more communicative than this, though. “Do you want food? Or water?”

It flicks its ears dumbly, fluffing the tuft of fur in between them. There’s a silly little rise to its upper-head, like the top of an egg. The slipshell would probably fit right on there, like an odd little stone hat. Maybe the creature would hatch? Who knows. It seems like it’d be an amusing sight, though… 

“I’m not putting it on your head,” Ane replies obstinately. “If you don’t want any food, then I won’t give you any yet — I don’t want it to rot while you have ideas about makeup and stone hats.” 

The creature’s ears droop low, and its trio of eyes turn watery. Its entire body seems to droop, as if laden with a sudden sorrow. Its odd little arm-tubes even flump out of its sides, laying limply beside it. The creature utters a soft, “Fuep… Fuep,” seeming disconsolate. Its fur even droops slightly, flattening against its body.

Oh shit. I made it sad.

Maybe it isn’t the only one of its kind. Maybe it has little ones to feed, that it was stealing for — what it would’ve been stealing from a shop of eldritch curiosities, Ane has no idea. Still, maybe there’s a nest of these little things somewhere, cold and hungry…

She sighs softly as she reaches for the lock of the cage.

It seems like such a simple, sensible idea. A creature needs room to thrive. Perhaps this is true here, as well.

But really, what does this creature need to thrive? There’s no telling how long it’s been in that cage, neglected and forlorn. And here it seems so oddly drab, so sad and morose. Maybe what it really needs is a good cheering up. 

It needs a tiny dress-up party.

The fluffy little whimsy-balloon puffs its way out of the cage, and damn, it’s hard not to follow along… 

Soon after, the lipstick comes out, and then it has a little smudge of crimson across its little flap of a mouth. Then, there’s the earrings haphazardly hung over its big, fluffy ears… The necklace follows naturally, crafted by Ane’s own hands, now adorning this adorable little abomination. Its eyes shine with glee as it gets dressed up, a service provided so naturally that it seems to be an afterthought. 

Then, shortly thereafter, the slipshell figure… it looks so relaxed, so calm. It wouldn’t mind, would it?

Onto the head it goes.

The slipshell seems comfortable there, at least, and smiles in its usual placid way. It’s probably seen some weirder shit in all its years. Sitting as a hat for something without limbs doesn’t even rank on the slipshell’s “Strange Weekend” list. It just seems content to ride out the tide, and await more incense to be burned for its favor.

The fluffy creature, however, is elated. It bounces around wildly with its new hat, somehow never upsetting the stone statue. It looks really avante-garde, flapping its tube-arms with stylish flare. Yes. Yes. Yes. It is really working that hat. Slipshell is really in this seaso-

It’s around then that Ane realizes she was complicit in all of this. As soon as she catered to one whim, another followed, then another… For all its worth, the creature seems happy, perhaps even brighter, for all the trouble… Though the process to get there was downright insidious.

“This,” Ane breathlessly concludes as she gently smudges away an errant trace of lip paint from the creature’s cheek, “Is easily the most asinine thing I’ve ever done.”

“Fueeep, fwippa fwip!” The creature agrees, carrying through the rest of its strut. It seems oddly grateful to have its makeup corrected. It soon begins to slow down, settling into a pudgy puddle of sorts in the middle of the vanity. It lets out a puff of air, like a relaxed sigh of sorts. 

Fortunately, the slipshell doesn’t judge. It just seems content to sit upon its temporary perch. Nonetheless, Ane cautiously removes it and replaces it atop the vanity. 

“Be careful, don’t break that. It’s important… I think.” 

She’s content to let the creature do whatever its tiny heart desires for the moment, while she sets about putting away makeup, jewelry — how did her bottle of amber perfume get here? It hadn’t asked for perfume too, had it? — and various other tiny-creature-dress-up accoutrements. As she hums at a brush, bristles shiny with the remains of lip paint, she cynically concludes that she was incorrect about the tiny creature having a nest of little ones to tend to. 

If this thing is a parent, is not a responsible one.

Now that it’s had its fun, the thing toddles around in aimless circles on the vanity. Soon it stops, stares down, and then clambers its way onto half a seashell that was being used to hold jewelry. It settles down again, and just slowly melts into a pile of fluff and flub. Like a sort of pudding, it fits the container it’s in. The creature’s eyes drift slowly closed, and its ears gently lower.

Now there is peace once more.

Also, there are small whistling snores.

Ane gently ruffles the ridiculous fluff atop its head with a fingertip. If it’s going to sleep there, she’s going to have to find better accommodations for it — ones that don’t involve bits of jewelry wire and the edges of gemstones. Maybe something softer, like a folded handkerchief in a box…

 

With the little fweep-fweep creature dozing with its ludicrous outfit and tiny smudge of lip paint, Ane turns her curiosity to the bear. She opens the lead-lined box as if she were pulling the cork from some volatile alchemical reaction. Even though she’d already handled the thing in the shop, that seems worlds away from actually having it in her home.

Cautiously, she turns it over in her hands. It seems in good repair now — the shopkeeper (or was it his hat?) had warned her not to let it become damaged. Though she’ll have to devise a way to see what they meant, for now, her attention is purely wrapped up in it’s pain relieving properties.

Ane is uninjured, so the bear does little. 

She can change that.

Kneeling on the vulre-skin rug, Ane places the bear on her lap. Her little silver penknife is within easy reach, tucked into one of the cupboards beneath her bed. It probably wouldn’t take much to register as an injury to the bear, and she certainly knows her way around her own biology. She’s had to use enough blood to know exactly which cuts to make to elicit pain with little damage, and which yield blood with little pain. Deft hands guide the tip of the knife to its mark. 

And so the slice occurs. Ane sees the cut, the small seam of blood, a single shining drop coursing down across her outer forearm. It was a cut that probably went a fraction deeper than anticipated, though it’s nothing serious regardless. The sensation of the cut, though… It’s most strange. If a description had to be put to it, one might say it feels like being gently ripped, as if the flesh were made of unfeeling fabric. It’s unmistakable. There’s no pain, no recoiling, no seizing up — just the rather abstract sense of damage.

Naturally, this means that without sight, Ane can’t tell how much damage there is, only its location. And, even after the fact, there’s still another vague feeling: almost like being opened up, like a cracked book, or a torn pocket of stuffing. Still, no pain.

The bear, for its part, is completely unremarkable. It’s sitting there with its stitched little triangle smile, its button eyes, its fluffy tentacles and its jaunty hat. That’s all. It doesn’t glow, it doesn’t move, it doesn’t do anything. 

It’s just a stuffed bear. In a way, so is Ane.

She can feel the uncomfortable psychosomatic sensation of cotton wadding in her mouth, squeaking between her teeth and drying her tongue. Void, she can almost feel it filling her stomach, with its insidiously coiling, twisting fibers… 

She sets the knife down and presses her finger to the wound, putting pressure on it to slow the bleeding while she looks for a clean bit of cloth to bandage it with. 

At least the sensation itself seems to stop at the wound, and anything else normally considered “pain.” But the imagination can do some strange things, especially when the body is behaving well outside the bounds of normalcy. That being said, the bear sure doesn’t do anything to stop bleeding… Though even that feels abstract, like a breeze against uncovered fluff.

Either way, it looks like this won’t do exactly what she’d hoped. Even without the warnings from the merchant (or his hat), she’s hesitant to hand over a magical object like this to Thelorn. He’s not likely to trust it, for one, and it feels so deeply wrong and strange. It protects against pain, but not in any way that she could reasonably call “pleasant.” Honestly, it doesn’t even seem to prevent or guard against it as much as just substitute a different kind of discomfort. Would the bear even recognize Thelorn as injured? 

Maybe it’ll do in an emergency, for pain that isn’t long-lasting. For now, she reaches to set it on a shelf in one of the costume cupboards.

As the bear leaves Ane’s grasp, a sort of warm, fuzziness recedes from her person… It’s a subtle feeling, but there was some layer of comfort that it provided that is far more noticeable in its absence. Little pains return from the woodworks, whether its joints, the back, or just aching feet from a long walk. It’s easy to see why someone might be reluctant to give the bear up. It’s enough to make Ane hesitate to put the bear away from her — but, if it’s able to cause that after only a few minutes, she’s even more reluctant to see what it can do if she gives it more time.

With her brief experiment with the bear finished for now, she turns her attention back to the snoozing fweep-fweep creature. She lightly wiggles a fingertip against its oddly soft, oddly scaly belly, lightly tickling it as it dozes amid her jewelry.

“Hey. I’ve no idea what you usually nest in, but you probably don’t want to stay there,” she cautions it.

“Fwepfwepfwep,” the creature half-protests, half-snores, nearly toppled by her wiggling finger. The touch seems to make it puff out inexplicably fragrant air. It’s a rather calming scent, the sort one would use for incense before sleeping. True enough, the creature still seems very asleep, with all three of its eyes closed, fit snugly into the shell

“Come on,” Ane murmurs, in a musical coo. She gently tips the shell, attempting to dislodge the creature onto her palm. It doesn’t seem to have any teeth that she can see — what would it use them for? If it eats like a fuhajen, it wouldn’t use its mouth. If it’s truly some kind of odd, fae thing, it probably doesn’t properly eat at all. The odds of her getting bitten seem, at most, very low. “Wakey wakey.” 

Like a pile of pudding or a heap of putty, the creature half-falls-half-pours out of the shell. When it plops into Ane’s hand, it makes a small, “fwemp,” and otherwise remains unperturbed. It’s not even properly upright or laying, but rather at a diagonal, though it doesn’t seem to mind. 

It actually feels rather light in Ane’s palm, far more so than its size suggests… It’s like holding a waterskin filled with air, albeit one covered in fluff and scales. When she hefts it gently, it even bounces a little. 

Ane sighs. 

“Alright, let’s find you somewhere to sleep that’s less,” she pauses, “ridiculous.” 

She sits at the chair in front of her vanity, the better to rummage through its drawers. There’s an empty bottle of liniment, a bit of ribbon, a few corks with ends stained with use. It takes her some time before she finds a cotton handkerchief, edges adorned with faded embroidery, to fold into a makeshift bed. Ane tucks it into the bottom of the wire cage, and gently rolls the sleeping fweep-fweep inside. This time, she leaves the cage door open. How much damage can it really do without her awake to acquiesce to its tiny, weird demands? 

The answer to this question doesn’t occur immediately…

Instead, Ane finds herself pulled into a strange jaunt of consciousness once again.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-16: Not absurd, or just not absurd yet.

Teller of fortunes is a serial work of Fantasy Fiction, at times surreal, at times slice-of-life. No holy men were mind-controlled in the creation of this work.

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Ane has a surprisingly easy time finding her way back from the market, even with the gangs, cutthroats, and masked miscreants lurking around the city. The only difference is that now they look upon Ane’s interesting new containment vessel with a mixture of horror and wonder. A thief of a greater caliber might see fit to try their luck at taking it. The average cutpurse, however, seems to prefer a very sizable distance.

Perhaps something about lead boxes with strange creatures inside inspires caution.

It’s just as well — there might be a few sets of ears (or eyes, though they’re a bit rarer here) that would recognize her from the stunt she and the others pulled the other day. The more distance the general populace keeps, the better for her. Not that she’s really planning on roaming the city with her lead box and her wingless bat-creature in tow.

Instead, she hightails it back to camp, to track down Nelea, the beast tamer.

When Ane arrives, the camp is in one of its many flavors of disarray. This time, most of the caravan is carousing for one reason or another. It’s a gentler sort of carousing this time; people tend to be more adventurous and drunken towards the beginning and end of these city visits, and this is distinctly in the middle. 

Nelea, for her part, isn’t involved in any of that. Though her strong, stocky build looks like it handle more than her fair share of Brair’s concoctions, she rarely drinks anything stronger than spiced tea. Instead, she directs that sturdiness towards tending the animals, as she is now. She walks with a long pole lain across her shoulders, laden with dripping buckets. Despite her considerable burden, she’s lacking in neither strength nor poise — the water doesn’t even begin to slosh. 

The moment her lidless eyes alight on Ane, she pauses with a smile. 

“Hello! Is there anything I can do for you?” She asks, before being asked. Polite and hospitable as ever, she doesn’t seem to notice the Teller of Fortunes’ strange payload.

“Actually… I have a bit of an odd question for you,” Ane says, as she gently lifts the small wire cage hanging from the crook of her finger. “Do you, by any chance, have any idea what this is? Or why it shoplifts?”

Nelea knits her brow. She stoops down for a moment, setting down the buckets to get a closer look at the odd little creature. Her curls tumble down over perplexed eyes, her lips form into a taut line of contemplation.

“Well, it looks slightly like a hive-lop, though it has one too many eyes and doesn’t make a buzzing sound… How strange, no limbs,” she considers, peering closer. Seeing that the creature has no apparent fangs or claws, she ventures a poke at the thing’s fluffy belly. When she presses firmly enough, it lets out a slight, squeaky exhalation — in fact, a few exhalations from multiple places.

“Ah! It moves like a fuhajen,” she declares, seeming delighted. As if in response, the creature ejects a pair of fluffy chutes from its sides, which it uses to puff and nip at Nelea’s hand. 

“I don’t think I know what this is,” she says, worrying her lip. “Or why it would commit theft. Where did you find it?” She asks, looking up at Ane.

“In a shop. Apparently it tried to steal something, and they caught it and put it up for sale to get rid of it. According to them, it’s very persuasive,” Ane replies, with a concerned knit of her own brow. Does the creature not have a mouth? Will she have to figure out what it can eat through its odd, squeaky little giggletubes?

Nelea looks aside uncomfortably, eyes wide, as she folds her hands behind her back. 

“That might be why I want to unlock its cage,” she says ashamedly. “I am an animal tamer, so I understand that some creatures are best confined for their own safety at times…” She digs her heel into the dirt in a meandering way. “Still, when I look at its little eyes, I just feel a strange need to obey its tiny whims.”

Ane goes quiet for a long moment, humming at the tiny creature enough to make the cage sway from the vibrations of her gaze.

“Which is probably why I bought it,” she confesses. 

“I cannot tell if it’s bewitching, or just endearing,” Nelea replies, still averting her gaze. One of her hands displays a slight twitch. 

“Fui, fuip, fueep!” The creature chimes in, bouncing against its cage walls. Each impact makes either a squeak or a small “fuibbt” noise. Fortunately, its fluffy body is too wide to slip through the bars. 

“Well… I’ll take it back home, see if it wants to eat anything,” Ane says, albeit hesitantly. There are a lot of things a small creature could get up to in her wagon, even one without arms, legs, or wings. “Thank you for your help, Nelea. I’ll see what I can do for the little mite.”

The animal trainer nods her head hurriedly. 

“Yes, that seems like a good idea… I’m happy to help, Ane!” She bids Ane, and begins to turn away and pick up her buckets. She seems to be making an effort at diverting her attention away from the creature, as if she doesn’t trust herself in its presence.

Ane feels a small tug of dread at the pit of her stomach on the walk back to her wagon. The creature is small, certainly defenseless-looking, and very cute. Maybe it wasn’t really trying to bewitch Nelea — if anyone is going to be susceptible to the effect of a pair of large, button eyes and chubby cheeks, it’d be her. Ane’s hand hovers over the split door of her wagon for a moment, before an idea strikes her.

 

The creature floats like a fuhajen — maybe it isn’t native to S’varga at all. Could it be some kind of stowaway? She sweeps the camp with her hum, on the chance that her gaze might alight on the monk while he’s doing whatever it is Jarrik has him do around the camp now. Probably more dishes.

Oh, he’s currently a barrel monk. The monk is moving a barrel. Presumably, it is filled with supplies, but it’s hard to tell. Most barrels are pretty generic. Either way, he might not be indisposed to looking at a little puff-creature for a moment or two.

“Hey-” Ane begins to call out as she strides over.

Oh Void, what was his name?

Has she failed to catch it? Had he ever given it in the first place? She silently scolds herself for failing to ask, and again for failing to come up with a sensible way to do it now. 

 “-Guy, I have a bit of a question for you, if you have a moment.”

“Oh, you know my name!” Gai says with some mirth. He hefts the barrel down, setting it to the cavern floor with a ‘thunk.’ “What can I do for you?” Gai asks, adjusting his braid. 

“I was wondering i-” Ane pauses. “I’m sorry, what?”

“My name,” Gai replies warmly.

“Is…” 

Gai looks at Ane, patiently waiting for her to continue. After the considerable, unblinking silence that follows, she gives up and begins again.

“So, guy…”

“Correct,” he nods.

“I’m sorry?” A baffled Ane replies.

“For what?”

“I don’t…” She can feel the conversation slipping away like sand through her fingers. What was it she needed to ask, again? Oh, right. “Have you ever seen one of these before? Don’t,” Ane cautions, “Look it in the eyes. It’ll put notions in your head.” She raises the little wire cage to give him a better look at the tiny three-eyed, puff-bellied thing.

Gai glances down at it briefly, before glancing back. 

“How do I avoid that? Its eyes are huge.”

“Point taken. Just try not to act on anything, then.”

“Very well,” the monk replies, and steels himself with a deep, chest-heaving breath. Once he’s mentally prepared, he leans forward and investigates the creature.

“Fuip, fuip, fuoop!” The creature greets the monk, twitching its tall ears and flapping fuzzy little nubbles in lieu of limbs.

“Hmm… That is, most definitely trying to be tricky,” Gai declares, immediately suspicious. Whether the effects are from cuteness or some strange magic, the monk seems to have resisted. This is, of course, not much of a surprise; he’s a dishwashing monk, after all. The real question is what he thinks beyond that…

“Well, I don’t think it’s an animal,” Gai declares, rubbing his chin with a thick palm. He shakes his head, and continues, “Its overall shape and attitude are… unnatural, to be blunt.” His lips tighten, and even slant a bit, as if he’s really trying to figure how to put this. “It could be a number of things: a familiar, an otherworldly being, or even a Shardtwisted. But it’s definitely not an animal.”

“It’s just too ridiculous,” he concludes.

Ane exhales deeply. 

“So I probably shouldn’t just find somewhere to let it go, then.”

The dish-monk gives her a rather stern look.

“It would probably cause something that is, on the whole, just far too absurd.”

She nods in understanding. 

Whimsy.

“Right. Well, thank you — I’m glad I’m at least a little closer to an answer,” she says, before turning to go back to her wagon. Behind her, Guy the Monk returns to his duties — which  now include balancing on a barrel with one foot, occasionally doing a little hop. It’s hard to tell whether he’s been charmed, or if it’s just monk-training.

Ane is lost in thought. If the creature is Shardtwisted, or a familiar, or something else not-strictly-of-this-plane, maybe she can do a little figuring out of her own. Her rituals usually lack a definite structure or purpose — if anything, she enjoys riding on the currents of magic to see where they take her, but maybe she can see if the creature is willing to offer any answers of its own.

When she returns to her wagon, she takes a long moment to take it in as it is. A little disorganized, maybe, by most peoples’ reckoning, but it’s hers. And it is, for the moment, decidedly not absurd.

Ane has a suspicion that this may be about to change.

 

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-15: It’s worse than dangerous. It’s whimsical.

Teller of fortunes is a serial work of Fantasy Fiction, at times surreal, at times slice-of-life. No eldritch horrors were unleashed upon the world in the creation of this work.

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During the last few hours of rest, the slipshell somehow migrated his way to the side of her pillow. Perhaps his presence is intended to be calming, and in a sense, it is; he’s a quiet, easygoing little companion. He’s got the sort of face that radiates the idea that, in time, things may yet turn out to be alright.

Whether with the little statue’s help or not, those scant few hours of sleep prove restful.

Fortunately, all things considered, Ane could probably provide card readings in her sleep. Today, no particular oddballs come out of the woodworks to shake up the paradigm. The day goes quickly, sped up by the ease of familiarity even as her mind roves elsewhere. By the end of it, the Teller of Fortunes takes in another seven miters. Not a bad day, but not a great one, either. Still, gold is gold, and it’s more than she started with.

With only another day or so to go before the caravan has to begin pulling up stakes, Ane makes her way to S’varga’s market. Puffroot parlors, rough gemstones, and herbal notions are thinner on the ground here, but there are still some goods available in the tunnel city that can’t easily be found anywhere else.

Without Jiselmo in tow, Ane’s foray into the city is much less straightforward this time. Sure, much of the actor’s directions seemed like a lark, but he really had his own particular way of navigating the S’vargan streets and tunnels. Given the group’s activities in that particular market, following his course that day wouldn’t be the best of ideas anyway… And the city planning is so intricate that past visits are not much of a guide.

In fact, it even seems like the basic grid of the city has changed somehow — but then again, its spiralling map is unusual enough that it defies memory, in its own way.

Fortunately, Ane has been on the receiving end of an abundance of Jiselmo’s unsolicited advice on navigating the city:

“Lesson one, never go down. Some of the city streets look normal enough, until things get taller and you become smaller. Then boom! You’re in one of the under-tunnels, heading off to another gurran stomach… Or worse. Do that too much, and you’ll end up below the stomachs, if you know what I mean. And, above all, stay away from the flowers.”

“Oh yeah, also,” Jiselmo had said, “Watch out for the idiots in masks and the veils with drawings on ‘em. They’re what our city calls ‘gangs,’ but mostly they just growl and show off their blades. The well-dressed ones are fine, unless you look nicer than them; it’s the hungry lookin’ ones that you have to worry about.”

Sure enough, Ane does see some of these people in passing. Some have masks that slope into a lantern chin, with broad noses and scandalous eyebrows. Others have stylized animal motifs, or very feminine half-masks adorned with imported feathers. Then there are some veiled bands, who adorn the fabric with strange symbols like false eyes, crescents, and other such things… They are dressed in rags, and leer brazenly through their veils.

By spending some extra time, Ane is able to avoid the hungry ones, and eventually find her way to a suitably close, yet sufficiently distant, marketplace.

The offerings are indeed a far cry from Paako’s. Metallic goods seem to make up a much greater percentage, wooden items are outlandishly expensive, and imported products are far more commonplace. There are song crystals from Arrchestra, coffee from Rhytalo, books from Valistea, and whale oil from Sevalah. It’s a particular sampling, of course, given S’varga’s secondhand access to many trade routes. Nonetheless, the city seems to value goods from other lands very highly. There’s also a  thriving art industry, mostly in stone carvings and paintings rendered in lushly-textured impasto. 

Herbalist goods are almost exclusively at apothecaries, which are themselves very utilitarian and straightforward in what they offer. For anything more esoteric, there are alchemist’s supply stores, or full-scale emporiums of eldritch trinkets. The running theme seems to be S’varga’s oddly to-the-point approach in most things. If they think it’s useful or exceptional, it has its own shop. If not, then it’s tough going. 

Except taverns, salons and dance halls, of course. There are at least fifty different kinds of those.

As tempted as she is to investigate the apothecaries, they may not have anything that Vaidna, Dynkala, or Ane herself doesn’t. For now, she gives them a pass, wandering farther beyond to the places with more exotic offerings: Big, glassless windows full of baskets of seeds, bands of carved creatures conspiring in shop corners, fantastical-looking things depicted on scrolls with thick encaustic brushstrokes and collaged pieces of richly-woven brocade. As a city by and for shasii, it’s a visual feast for those without eyes. What it may lack in color coordination, it definitely makes up for in warmth and texture. 

Her hand pauses over the door handle of an esoteric peddler of eldritch goods. She can almost feel the costliness of their inventory through the door, and it makes her hesitate. Still, she’s doing alright for funds so far — besides, if she’s going to find something really interesting in this market, it’s probably going to be here.

The sign outside is reassuring enough, with its carving of a crow wearing spectacles and a feathered hat. The script beneath reads, “Ulassa’s Strange and Familiar.” It has an aged, oaken construction, with brass-handled doors and latticed windows. When Ane enters the shop, a soft chime sounds out. There’s no bell above the door, but the sound carries just the same. 

The room is lit almost exclusively by glowstone, warm with orange light. It shines through special, intricately-cut shades, casting alluring shapes and shadows about the shop. The room feels bigger than expected, though that’s easily accounted for, given the way buildings tend to dip further into the earth to grab more real estate. And, despite its size, every surface is covered in a night-inavigable number of shelves, stands, and display cases. The notion of a browsing customer seems rather secondary to the task of presenting as many varied oddities as possible. 

Aside from one small corner of the room filled with pristine cutlery and tools, the rest is a complete hurricane of miscellany and sundry. Though the name implies that these items are somehow supernatural (or at least beyond ordinary), nothing seems to be marked with a function — or a price. 

After a careful sweep of the place, Ane spots a few curious treasures: A petrified mouse in a dancing pose; a golden-wood whistle with a carved “A”; a baku nut with glass flutter-by wings; a paper receipt with uncannily blurred letters; a glass eye with a hole for a pupil; a smeerp’s foot; an ordinary candle marked with an “out of order” sign; a mummified klorrian middle finger (somehow one can tell); a toy soldier holding flowers; a kettle with no spout; two perfect socks; a sketch of a faceless woman; a tiny, three-eyed creature in a cage; a…

Void, let’s take a breath.

Then, finally, there is a shopkeeper of some sort. It’s an old shasii sitting behind one of the cases, kicked back on a chair with his curly-toed boots on the case. He has a rather large hat with two holes cut in the front, spaced evenly about the crown if the hat. Something shines beyond them. His hum is currently still, as if he’s just resting his eyes for a bit. Otherwise, he looks like a typical, local S’vargan, with finely-patterned trousers and a fine vest over his poofy shirt. 

The kettle catches her attention first — she runs her fingertips over the surface, looking for some sort of catch or hidden hole that might give her a hint as to what it’s for. Not tea, obviously, but maybe something useful… But there are no holes in the kettle, save for the one in the top. Peering in, it is currently filled with a semi-clear liquid (presumably tea), as well as a pair of speared leaves floating on the surface. They always seem to float in the same spot, no matter which way the kettle is oriented. At first it seems to always point in a cardinal direction, but then the tea leaves begin to drift and point some other way.

When the kettle is tipped, as if to pour through the nonexistant spout, Ane feels rather warm and satisfied. Her thirst isn’t slaked, but for some reason, that just feels good to do. 

It seems to be a Generally Satisfying Kettle. Interesting.

She’s not particularly in the market for small, comfortable miracles at the moment — as interesting as the kettle is, she sets it down to continue humming over the merchant’s goods. Her gaze alights on the tiny, caged creature next. Her fingers itch to try to let it out, but this strikes her as an idea that would only make her life complicated at the moment.

The creature has a trio of eyes, like a fuhajen, though they swiftly grow large like a smeerp’s. It’s an odd little creature, covered intermittently in both pearly scales and little tufts of down. Its body is squat and fat, and it has tall, tapered ears that twitch against the top of the cage. It’s noticeably wider than the opening of the container. Its mouth is a little cleft divot over a lower lip, topped by a ridiculous little seed of a beak. It has no markings on its cage, other than a small label: 

 

WARNING: PERSUASIVE.

 

Persuasive?

To do what? She hums over the tiny cage quizzically. It’s a cute little thing, with its huge weird eyes and fluffy pinecone body. Will it try to persuade her to let it out so it can go on some sort of rampage? Persuade her to buy it an entire tiny wardrobe? Persuade her to rob a merchant’s guild?

“Sooo,” Ane says hesitantly, drawing out the word, “What will it persuade me to do?”

“Whimsy,” an old voice, presumably the storekeeper’s, calls from the checkout desk. 

Whimsy.

Whimsy?

Ane frowns at the caged creature, puzzled. “Any examples?”

Muffled curse-words.

“There are no examples of whimsy,” the storekeeper replies. “Then that’s just fancy.”

Hmm…

“I am,” Ane continues, “More specifically looking for something that might help with improving physical comfort, or relieving pain. Do you know if you have anything like that?”

“Sure,” they squawk. “Consumable, or repeated use? The latter is more costly.”

“Depends on the price, I suppose, but reusable would be preferable.”

There’s a pensive, muffled muttering.

“Look for the stuffed bear with the jaunty hat; not the fancy hat, the jaunty hat.”

It takes several minutes of searching, but Ane spots a cloth bear with old stitchings, big button eyes, and back-tentacles made from little tubes of stuffed linen. Unlike the bear next to him, which wears a feathered tricorn, this one has a handsome cap that sits slightly askew. It is indeed jaunty. The bear has a rather soft, earnest expression, despite being a depiction of a godless killing machine. 

“It balms pain,” the shopkeeper calls again, “So long as the bear itself is fully repaired; it does not actually heal, causes sadness when torn — disclaimer, that.”

Well, there’s likely no healing Thelorn as it is.

“I see… And how much is it?” She picks the bear up from the shelf, smoothing her fingers over the much-repaired stitching.

The shopkeeper, still slouching, squawks back, “Forty mitres! First purchase comes with a free Ulassian Eldritch Containment Vessel!” Oddly enough, his mouth doesn’t seem to move.

“Hmm,” Ane murmurs. Her hum wanders to the tiny caged creature again. 

Is this part of its persuasiveness?

Yes.

“Do you often get live creatures here, or is that one a special case?”

“Special case! The little thing shoplifted,” the voice replies dryly. 

Her brows knit. Shoplifted? What could it possibly have even tried to steal? One biscuit? A single copper bit? 

“How much to take it off your hands, then?” 

“I’ll p- fifteen miters,” the shopkeeper replies, head bobbing, mouth unmoving. 

Fifteen gold. So, fifty five for both. 

Granted, she shouldn’t be spending fifty five of anything — she’d intended to comb through S’varga’s market, but that was before she wanted to see if she could find something for Thelorn. She certainly didn’t intend to spend almost sixty miters. 

That would leave her with thirty, plus a handful of scutes and a load of bits. If Jarrik isn’t planning a Half Light Show, she’ll have to hustle tomorrow… Especially since there won’t be another large city on the road for awhile.

“I’ll give you forty,” Ane says firmly, as she dips a hand into her pocketbag for the money.

“Fifty!”

“Forty two.”

“Forty seven?”

“Forty five.”

“Wonderful…” The voice drums low, seeming pleased. 

There’s a soft scratching sound, and then a distinctly masculine-sounding, “Ow!” 

The shasii sits bolt upright, scratching at the scruff on his cheeks. 

“Nngh… Yes, thank you for your business,” he says, in an extremely-not-the-same voice. Boredly, he adds, “And here is your one-time, limited-stock Ulassian… El… Witch?”

Scratch.

Ow! Eldritch containment Vessel,” he grumbles, rubbing around his conspicuous hat, and reaches down behind his desk. He then draws out a sizable box, about one square foot and wrought in the shape of a hexagon. It is very obviously made of lead-lined wood, and looks rather heavy. Fortunately, the sides aren’t too thick, otherwise it would be ridiculous to carry. 

It’s still ridiculous to carry, but it could certainly be worse.

“It also has a free tote,” he explains, still boredly, and produces a thick burlap sack with a large, strikethrough “U” on the outside.

“Thank… you?” Ane says, not at all certainly. She cants her head gently to one side. “Are you alright?”

“Elated,” the man replies deadpan, then slumps back in his chair. He looks rather normal, if a bit drowsy and mildly perturbed. 

She’s not sure if he’s being sarcastic. Being around all of these things is likely to affect someone’s affect after awhile. 

It’s probably best for her to collect her things and flee, lest she get talked into buying a set of spoons that makes everything taste like baked cavefish from a hat that only talks on Fiirdei. 

As Ane makes her way out, a strangely feminine (and conspicuously avian) voice calls out. 

“Post-disclaimer, the bear can create dependency with repeated use! Maintain the seams!” After a short pause, it adds, “Thank you for visiting us, come again some-when!”

The creature, marked “Persuasive,” doesn’t ride in the box. It makes a chirping-whooshing sound of glee, a sort of “Fuip, fuip, fueep,”as it hops around in its little cage with no apparent sort of arms, legs, wings, or otherwise sensible locomotion. It’s like a little three-eyed bat, except with scales and a beak and no useful parts that Ane can see — it’ll probably take her several minutes of inspection to make heads or tails of it.

Though the head is, presumably, where the eyes are.

Ane can’t help but wonder how it was even able to have tried to shoplift anything, without hands to shoplift with or pockets to put things in, presumably. At least it seems happy to be out of the store, though it might just be looking forward to all of the things it can try to convince her to do. 

The creature, for its part, makes no effort to educate Ane about its anatomy or intentions. Instead, it seems mildly elated by this new not-shop-place, and is expressing this emotion through various whistling sounds. 

The bear in the lead box also fails to contribute, for the time being.