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.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-14: That Cruel Light

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 realm in the creation of this work.

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“I am called Thelorn.”

Thelorn, the lorn, Ane thinks to herself grimly, Well, that’ll make it easy to remember, at least.

As Ane talks to him, Vasht walks up beside the man and kneels down beside one of his arms. At first sight of the joint, his eye widens and he nearly tips back with surprise. It’s not a look of disgust, nor horror, just sheer disbelief — and this is from a man who’s lived with the rest of the troupe for so long. 

The man’s condition is simply impossible. Arms, flesh, bones aren’t supposed to be have this way. Perhaps it’d be normal for two tree-trunks to twist into a helix, wrapping over-under until they merge at the end into a misshapen club. Even small, gnarled out-branches wouldn’t be out of place… but on a person? Thelorn has clearly been suffering for quite some time.

Still, as stoic as Vasht often is, he manages to contain most of the reaction. 

“This may hurt a bit at first, but I’ll be careful. Just remain still until that passes,” he says in a calm, easing tone.

Thelorn offers his silence as agreement. Without raising his gaze, he speaks to Ane. 

“Yours?”

“I am Ane. This is Vasht. The one who just left is… A monk. Where did you come from, Thelorn?”

The klorr nods, though occasionally winces as Vasht makes first contact. Working with his joints requires working past that initial pain, as well as the discomfort that comes with loosening the scar tissue binding his muscles into knots. 

“Came from Seilina. Small place… Town.” Thelorn grunts, shifting his shoulders, then adds, “Field farmer… Slave.”

Slave. So Jarrik probably did buy him.

“A field farmer? That must have been very painful for you.”

“Not before…” He answers, his voice rasping. “Before this.”

He doesn’t indicate his arms directly, but he doesn’t have to. The implication weighs in his tone like lead.

As cooperative as he’s being, especially considering the fact that Vasht is manipulating his aching joints, Ane decides not to press her luck.

“Do you ever get bored here alone, Thelorn?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he rumbles, wincing again. While Vasht is making some headway, it’s against a rather absurd knot of flesh and bone. It’s like a combination of a Paakopondese cube puzzle and a grievous injury. Nonetheless, there’s plenty to be done.

“Not my place,” Thelorn adds, in a beaten-down tone.

“Sure it matters,” Ane urges him gently, “You don’t have to sit here alone all day if you don’t want to.”

“I should not want,” he states once more. “It is only pain.”

It’s a confusing statement, as bluntly worded as it is. 

“Well,” Ane says, as she tries to sort through the tangle of Thelorn’s words, “You are allowed to not-want.”

Silence. 

Vasht looks up from his task, a look of concern on his brow. He speaks up in a soft, mollifying tone, 

“If you don’t mind me asking… why is it bad to want?”

The klorr makes a slight murmur in his mouth, as if mulling around some words.

“Want gave me these arms.”

Ane frowns, though she tries to hide the expression behind her knees. So, in addition to not being very communicative about his needs, he’s genuinely afraid. Was he punished for taking something he wanted? Cursed to feel pain every time he desired something? She doesn’t know. She isn’t sure she wants to know.

“Well… Someone will come tomorrow, with a book. If you can read, it is yours to read. If you can’t, they’ll read it to you. You don’t have to want it — but, if you think they should go away, just say so and they will. Is this alright?”

“Cannot read,” he answers. 

By now, Vasht has moved to the other arm. As slow as the klorr may be to respond, talking with him tends to take longer than it feels. At least one arm seems to move a little more easily; it doesn’t change the fact of his condition, but the knot of bone and flesh looks a little less painful. 

Then a few moments later, Thelorn continues. 

“… Can listen.”

Well that’s something, at least…

“Then you can listen. If it bothers you, they will leave.”

“No light, not bothered,” Thelorn replies, his voice thick and ungainly.

Light, again. Ane chooses her words carefully, lest she hit a stone wall of woeful silence for her trouble.

“Did… light always bother you?”

At first, it seems he might be going quiet again. But then his voice starts up, creaking underneath the weight of emotion. He stammers a couple of times, choking on his words.

“Not… Not until I tried… Tried to touch it.”

He flexes what must have once been his hands, and his face becomes a rocky crag of pain, his mouth and eyes bunching up while tears gleam at the edges. Vasht has to step back a moment to let this pass, lest the mess of tendons cause him to misstep in his work.

“I saw it, was… like nothing else,” Thelorn continues, chest heaving. “Flying over, while heat burnt my back, my hands full of dirt.” He shakes his head. “A light… Magic,” he sobs, voice tinged with horror and wonder. “I cried, change me! Free me! And grasped for it…”

He heaves a deep breath.

“Then… pain.”

A soft whistle passes Ane’s lips. Her swirls are wide with horror and surprise as she listens, and, when he finishes his tale, she doesn’t know how to respond. What could be said in the face of such desperate longing? What could comfort someone so punished?

“That sounds awful,” she says eventually, her voice small and aching with the inadequacy of the words, “I’m sorry.”

Thelorn slowly regains his composure, until only tear-streaked cheeks remain. He rubs them dry against his thin shoulder.

Even Vasht  is left dabbing his eye and under his face-wing with a sleeve. He draws in a breath, then kneels back down and continues his work. He’s almost finished for now, and intends to soldier on with it until he’s done. Had Ane the tears to cry with, she’d probably be wiping them away, too. 

“Yes,” he replies. “In light, there is… cruelty.”

She’s tempted to argue with him, however gently. Not all light is cruel, and lessening his fear of it would make it easier to make him more comfortable… But not like this. Not after that. Helping Thelorn to leave his wagon is a battle that won’t be won in a day. Maybe not ever.

“Sometimes,” she agrees, tentatively, “But only sometimes.”

The klorr draws in his lips, unable to answer. This might be the closest one can come to his acceptance in this matter. Progress with this is gradual. If he does emerge again, it will likely be due in part to the darkness of the tunnels. Still, this silence itself may be progress.

A few moments later, Vasht leans back from the klorr’s arm, taking a last moment to look it over. He takes in a breath, lets it out, then nods. He looks over towards Ane, indicating that he’s done all that can be done for today. 

Ane nods to Vasht in return.

“I may not be able to come tomorrow,” she explains to Thelorn, “But someone will. You won’t be alone all day.”

Granted, “alone” is a very particular thing here. While he may not be willing — or even able — to leave his wagon, Jarrik has still probably been raking in the bits by charging visitors to peer through Thelorn’s windows. It gives Ane a feeling of very complicated rage.

Performers like Vila, Wila, and Zila are just that: Performers. Nobody, them included, has ever made any bones about the fact that visitors come to watch the spectacle of a singing, dancing trio of fraternal conjoined triplets, with their six carefully-arranged arms and ombre skin shifting subtly in color from one woman to the next. There’s still an enormous difference between watching an unusual person who is trying to entertain you, and gawking at someone else’s suffering. 

The triplets may be exotic, even bizarre or horrifying by some people’s reckoning, but they still earn their money performing in a way they choose. This, though… Ane doesn’t have words for it.

Thelorn, oblivious to this rage, nods.

“Alright. That is… good, that someone will,” he says, as the tightness in his voice eases. 

“I’ll make sure someone does,” she assures him, as she rises from the hay bale. Even covered, she can feel it itching her skin. Still, if there’s going to be hay here, she’s just going to have to endure it. “I’ll see if there are other things that can be done. You don’t have to want it or ask for it,” she hastens to add, “And if you are hurt or bothered by any of them, they will stop.” 

It feels like she’s repeating herself a lot. Unfortunately, with Thelorn afraid to voice any requests for what he needs, her only recourse is to try. There have not been many times in her life when it was better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission, but this, unfortunately, might be one of them.

There’s a grateful air about the klorr, though he doesn’t say it outright. It seems his mindset is set deeply enough that he doesn’t want to acknowledge relief openly. In any case, this is probably all the progress that can be made in one day. He nods again, in his gloomy, silent way of bidding her farewell.

Vasht rises to his feet and dusts the hay off of his knees. He stands prepared to accompany Ane out the door, with a parting nod to Thelorn.

Ane gives the klorr a wave as she steps out into the fresher air of the camp. 

“See?” She mutters to Vasht, hopefully low enough that Thelorn can’t overhear the way the rage rattles her voice, “It’s like Jarrik brought him in and just left him here… And this is after his hair’s been cut and his wagon’s been cleaned a little. He needs help, and he seems to know that, but he’s terrified to ask.”

 

The knife thrower takes a few more steps with her away from the wagon, just to be safe. He nods in agreement, his lips forming a grim line. 

“Yeah… I’ll have to teach one of the camp followers to treat his arms,” Vasht figures. “But you’re right. That’s a bit much, even for Jarrik,” he continues, running a hand along his cropped hair. “What’s even stranger, is that Jarrik hasn’t tried to get any coin off of himLike put him out for show, like his pet Faceless. During the shows, no one’s been shown to his wagon. Right now, he’s riding free.”

Ane’s brow furrows in perplexity. 

He hasn’t?

“Really? That doesn’t make any sense… Why would he do that? Did he just kind of hope someone else would decide to take care of him, and then parade him out afterward? Void,” she shakes her head in disbelief, “Even when I was tiny, it was just assumed that Dynkala would teach me her craft, and I was at least able to help wash and brush the trumbas.” 

Vasht shrugs one shoulder, looking back towards the old wagon. 

“You’re right, it doesn’t make sense… Even under his father, I was set to juggling before I’d even gotten a meal.” He squints his eye for a moment. “I have two guesses… One, he might be scared of the klorr, and waiting until he comes out on his own. Two, he might be up to something else. Though I can’t imagine what.”

“Me neither. It’s not like Jarrik’s ever really been one for a long con.” Fantasizing about them, maybe. Planning and executing them? Not so much. “Maybe he’s scared of him, though Thelorn doesn’t even seem like he’d swat a fly if one landed on him.” Granted, he could probably splinter a stout beam if he really wanted to, but…

“We’ll just have to keep an eye on it, as usual. Maybe it will become more clear with time.” He lets out a labored sigh. “I bet if we asked, he’d give us some rehearsed spiel about helping the less fortunate, or whatever. It’d be about as believable as a flying sailwhale, but not something you could easily argue against.”

“Of course,” Ane sighs, “ At any rate, I’ve got to go through some of Cerine’s books, maybe see if there’s anything else that might make him more comfortable. He doesn’t like light, but I have no idea what to do about that.” She waves a hand in front of her swirls for emphasis. Shasii can perceive light, albeit not the way eyed races do. Ane has even seen light, just generally only through animal eyes. Neither are conducive to figuring out how to help him function without ever having to come in contact with light.

“Sure, sounds like a good idea,” he agrees, his expression lightening. “Anyway, you’ve done a good thing by bringing this to everyone’s attention… Regardless of why he’s here, it’s good that something is being done for him.” His single, sharp eye regards her warmly for a moment, his gaze cast in a rare, sincere light. “So, yeah. Books. I’ll go teach someone about messy elbows,” he says with a slight smile.

Ane shakes her head firmly.

“No, it’s all Nelea. She’s been bringing him food since he got here. I only went to see him after she came to my wagon to see if I could get him to open up a little bit and figure out why he’s holed up in there. But, anyway… if you see that monk around, ask him to stop by. He can read and he seems to have the time, so he might be able to spare part of the day to read to Thelorn a bit. Maybe even teach him a little.”

“Nelea, and you. First steps, next steps,” he agrees. “But yeah, sure. I think that monk will be floating by soon enough anyway…” He scratches the back of his head, and smirks. “Pft, ‘that monk.’ We don’t know his name, and he’s already doing half the odd jobs around camp.”

“I don’t think he’s being paid, either. He asked for a reading, I told him his next step in life should be to do something ‘that challenges his spirit’,” Ane explains, with requisite wiggly fingers, “And, next thing I knew, he was doing dishes here. He washed a chamberpot yesterday. He,” she concludes, “Has strange ideas about challenges. So long as he’s willing to help with Thelorn, though, I’m not gonna complain.”

Vasht grins knowingly. 

“So you’re why we have a monk!” He declares, immediately amused. 

She stills her hum, sighing.

“And a hundred pounds of appohs and puffroot. I know. I know.”

“You’ve been very industrious lately,” he appraises, placing his hands on his hips. “The Shards must be aligned towards you or something.” The knife-thrower, of course, is oblivious to most principles of geonomy and fortunes, though he still makes his own pass at being superstitious, as many travellers do. 

“What can I say,” Ane retorts flatly, “Paakoponde was just a big old event for me.”

“And S’varga. Hot sauce and body paint,” he reminds, pointedly raising one brow. “And we’ve only just begun in this city.”

“Yeah… Reminds me, I still need to check their market,” Ane murmurs thoughtfully, “At any rate, I’m going to go see what books I can find for him. See if you can find a caravan follower who can work on his arms more, and don’t forget to sent that monk my way if you spot him. And… Thank you for coming to help.”

Vasht smiles modestly for a moment, scratching the back of his head and averting his gaze. He seems more abashed about being thanked by Ane than by being falsely led to the wagon. 

“Yeah, you’re welcome,” he replies in an airy tone, rough with his usual edge of gruffness. “I’ll go do that. If you run into anything else, I’m around.” He then gives her a nod, and starts to head off on his way. Given his mood, it’s almost a surprise to see he’s still wearing his usual leathers and belt of knives; though it doesn’t seem to crimp the lightness in his step at all. 

“Sure,” she agrees, nodding to him before she turns to head back to her wagon.

 

Once she’s there, she becomes a flurry of activity. Here are Cerine’s old books, there are a few she can spare for a time. They’ll fit nicely in a basket with the green dress-turned-shirt, too. Oh, and sightwort can relieve pain, at least a little, but would it be too much? Would he end up with visions, and hallucinate seeing the wicked light again? Better leave that out — she can ask Vaidna for help, or see what the S’vargan market can provide…

By the time she’s through, she has a small care package assembled. Three books of varying length, the ribbon-tied shirt that she’d dyed, and an extra pillow. Hopefully he doesn’t object, though she doesn’t think he will. 

A short time later, the monk appears at her wagon once more with a knock on the door. Since he’s already agreed to help, it’s a trivial matter to have him deliver the items.

Ane lets the basket go with a pang of anxiety. She won’t be there to see how it’s received, but hopefully the monk won’t forget to let her know. It’s distracting enough, even, to keep her awake long after she should’ve been sleeping, even after a cup of geltsear leaf tea and a pinch of dried sightwort root under her tongue. When she does eventually nod off, it’s only a few hours before she’s expected to be back in her tent.

Jarrik is going to have a lot to answer for.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-13: Varied Treatment

Teller of fortunes is a serial work of Fantasy Fiction, at times surreal, at times slice-of-life. No amorous plans were dashed in the creation of this work.

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The next day’s fortune telling goes by in a flash. With the recent influx of cash, there’s no Half-Light Show today. As a result, the patrons are all fairly typical. Since it’s S’varga, another capital city, today’s take is pretty good too. By the time it’s passed, Ane has another ten mitres in her bowl, and a load of the city’s dramatic problems now removed from her tent. They’ll probably get more plentiful and interesting, once word about the caravan gets around.

For now, she has her day’s pay and some more free time. Not that it’s very “free” — part of what helped the day go by so quickly was that she kept her mind occupied. Now that she no longer has to worry about pulling cards, she can try to put some of her plans into action.

First, the monk.

But he isn’t posted by the dishes today.

Instead, he’s helping a very confused S’vargan install Ane’s new doors. It looks rather nice, actually; its scrollwork and such are fancier than before, and the wood is of a much better condition. It doesn’t look the same, of course, but it seems to have been easily fitted to her doorway. Right now, the Eternalist callosian is supervising while the shasii finishes up fastening the hinges.

He looks over his shoulder, lifting his brows. 

“Oh, hello! We’re almost done,” he says, assuringly.

“He-” Oh, right. Ane’d told Jarrik to have her door fixed. She’d been so eager to forget having to talk to him, it had been completely forgotten. “–Hello. I need your help with something, if,” she says, with a gesture toward the door, “You can be spared for a bit.”

“Oh, sure,” he agrees amiably. “He’s just finishing up. So, what was the thing?”

The S’vargan wanders off, having fully affixed Ane’s new door. There are other repairs to make, and he’s hoping to make them while Jarrik’s still close enough for him to demand payment.

“First,” she begins, “How good are you at hair, and how is your reading voice?” While she’s glad to have an actual door again, there are more pressing matters at hand. She clasps her hands tensely behind her, as she eagerly awaits the monk’s reply

He taps his chin, thinking for a moment. 

“Well, I have a pair of scissors I use to cut my own,” he reasons, running a hand through his long, yet neatly trimmed and braided hair. “As for reading, I’m only a passing orator; I didn’t win the prize for it, when last there was a poetry read-off at the Vault of Sojethys,” he reflects, drumming his fingers. 

“Yes, g-” Ane pauses, as a perplexed frown crosses her face. “Do you… Actually work for the caravan?”

“I’m provided passage in exchange for labor,” he answers naively. 

Ane pinches the bridge of her nose. Of course Jarrik isn’t paying him. Why would he, when the earnest young monk is so eager to be helpful anyhow? 

“Alright, look. If you can help the klorrian man out with a haircut, maybe a bath, and maybe read to him a little, I’ll pay you.”

He shrugs his shoulders. 

“Sure, as it pleases you.” The monk seems amenable to this. “Does he desire these services? He was rather… terse, when I tried talking while changing his chamber pot.”

Ane exhales a heavy sigh. 

“I don’t know, but he can’t keep sitting in his own filth in a wagon he never leaves. He could die in there, and I’ve a feeling all Jarrik would care about was the cost of burying him.”

The monk nods in agreement. 

“I probably won’t make much headway in conversing with him, but… I think you are in the right,” he says, with confident resolve. “He’s bound to deteriorate further otherwise. You are doing something good, here,” he says warmly. 

“I hope so,” Ane grumbles, though she doesn’t seem at all confident, “I hate going against his wishes, but something needs to be done. Just find what you need to help him clean up and be more comfortable, I’ve a few other things to arrange.”

“It’s probably the only way his wishes can be understood, for now,” he agrees. “In any case, I am happy to help. I’ll get right on that,” he assures her, and strides off to obtain the requisite supplies. 

One down.

Ane is never quite sure where to find Vasht. He might be in his wagon, he might be with the mercenaries, he might be off somewhere trying to plug yet another gap in the caravan’s operations. As a result, it takes her awhile to finally track him down…

Because he’s trying to do his laundry again.

He’s on the second shirt when Ane arrives. He appears to be wearing the shirt he washed yesterday, with a lace-tied collar left untied and the sleeves rolled up. Vasht notices her presence, and pauses washing to sit upright and give her a curious look.

“Need something, Ane?”

Ane clears her throat softly, adjusting the braid over her shoulder before she strolls into view. 

“Nothing really, I was just wondering,” she lightly trails her fingertips over the fronds of a pale fern near the edge of the stream. In response, the leaves gently turn and curl inward. “How serious you were about your offer yesterday.”

He watches her with a measured interest, first from her body language, then her words. He looks away for a moment, then looks back, his keen eyes firm with resolve. 

“Rather serious; I don’t promise things I won’t provide,” he answers with a casual air. 

“Really? I’ve a…,” Ane momentarily nibbles at her lower lip, with a sidelong, downcast hum, “Pretty serious problem that could use some handling.” She places one slender hand on the curve of her hip, angled backward to lightly press her fingertips to her lower back.

A part of Vasht, when presented the words “serious problem,” is swift to straighten his posture and recall where he most recently laid his knife belt. But Ane’s body language convinces him to do otherwise — he just cautiously regards her while he brushes a hand across the soft cloud of chest hair visible from his collar. 

“Well… I’m sure there’s something I can do for you,” he replies, his voice slipping a note lower than usual. “What is it?”

“I was thinking… Maybe you could meet me on the rimward edge of the camp? By the old alosin wagon,” she says, her voice dipping into the silky purr usually reserved for soothing truculent customers. “There’s not much room in my wagon, and it’s quieter there…”

Vasht now furrows his brow for a second, cocking his head to the side. As alluring as Ane’s routine may be, he knows her well enough to understand one or two of her tricks. Abandoning the basket, he rises to stand, and walks up to her confidently. 

“Oh, I’m sure it is,” he says in his own rough, sultry tone, leaning forward just a tad. It gives a generous view of his strong chest through his collar, and there’s just the slightest catch of the rustic scent of soap and leather. 

“So what is it you really want, then?”

Damn it.

“Weeell,” she replies, drawing out the word in the same honeyed tone, “You offered a massage…”

“Mm-hmm…” He nods slowly, eyebrow raised, bidding her to continue. 

Her plush lips pout softly. It’s almost a hurt gesture, as if she might overcome his suspicions by silently chiding him. 

“… And I came to collect.”

He drops his veneer of playful scrutiny and lets out a warm, amused laugh. 

“Alright… Though I owe you a massage as well, once I get done with whatever you’re having me tend.” He smiles, shaking his head. “Alright. Let’s go. Are the alosins injured in the joints?”

Ane lets go of a relieved sigh. No longer required to keep her back thrust in an exaggerated curve, her back relaxes with a little wriggle of her shoulders and a flip of her braid. 

“It’s not them,” she explains, as her hurried strides devour the ground between the water and the wagon, “It’s the man Jarrik brought to camp the other day… He spends almost all of his time in pain. I tried to help, but I don’t exactly have experience beyond rubbing in a little salve, you know?” 

Hopefully, the young Eternalist has been able to make some headway in providing some hygiene help. Otherwise, she might need Vasht’s aid with that, too.

As they walk, Vasht’s smile blooms somewhat further from the discussion. He apparently seems somewhat heartened that Ane is calling on him to take care of someone. He nods in agreement.

“I could see him needing very varied treatment… I’m sure I can figure something out.”

The occasional glimpse of him smiling earns him a raised eyebrow and a curious, sidelong hum from Ane. She’s much more used to the Vasht who spends his days flinging knives into boards and agonizing over things.

When they arrive at the wagon, the door is still slightly ajar. Inside, the Eternalist has begun to move about his tasks. The room is still unlit, though Ane can of course see that some work has been done in here. The hay bales are pinned down by a few old blankets and tarps, to at least keep the dust down, and the floor is still damp from a thorough scrubbing. Ane hadn’t asked the monk to do these things, and it makes her heart glad to see them.

When she approaches, with Vasht waiting in the door, the monk is sitting on one of the hay bales. The man is in his previous position, still, though now his arms at least have a kind of hay-and-blanket cushion beneath either of them. His hair has also been trimmed neatly; it’s impossible for an eyed barber to get a perfect cut in the near-darkness, but at least all his loose ends and scraggly bits are gone. He still has a thoroughly dejected appearance, but he definitely looks better with his hair cropped closer and given a wash. 

The man looks up when he sees Ane.

“You came back,” he states.

“Told you I would,” she says brightly, as she steps into the dark interior of the wagon. It does look far better than it did before — hopefully it didn’t bother the man too much to have the monk going about his duties. “How are you today?”

“Alright,” he replies, his tone lumbering as he does. “This is strange, for me.”

“I know it might be a lot to get used to, but it might make you feel a bit better,” she explains, “If anything hurts or bothers you, we will stop.” 

He grunts in vague assent. As crestfallen as he often seems, he also comes off as rather compliant. He’s also responding more quickly than before, which Ane takes as a tiny sign of progress.

By the look of things, the monk hasn’t been able to work him up to a bath yet, but that might take some time and convincing on his part. Regardless, the slight change in circumstance makes for a noticeable improvement.

“I brought another friend today… They can help you like I did, yesterday, only they’re better at it,” Ane continues. She glances over her shoulder, waving for Vasht to step inside. 

“To stop the pain?” He asks, his voice sounding hopeful, almost fervent. Before Ane answers, he lowers his head. “Alright…”

Vasht enters behind Ane, taking a moment for his eyes to adjust to the low light. He tucks his wings in close, as he sweeps the wagon with a glance. 

“Hello,” he calls. “I’ll be helping you with that. All you have to do is stay still, alright?”

The man responds with another grunt, as he grimly regards his lower arms. He doesn’t seem intent on moving them if he doesn’t have to, anyway. 

“You can stay for a bit and talk to him, if you like,” Vasht whispers to Ane, “It might make it easier for me to work. And he seems to know you, after all.”

The monk, for his part, scoots out silently — unwilling to crowd the space, especially when there will still be things for him to do later anyway.

Ane nods, sitting herself on one tarp-covered hay bale. The mysterious man has only spoken to her once before, but she’s managed to make at least a little conversational headway. She draws her knees up to her chest, looping her arms around them as she makes herself comfortable.

“I’m sorry, I never asked you your name.”

It’s something she does feel a bit badly about — though, to be honest, not knowing his name didn’t even manage to crack the top five list of things that needed fixing yesterday. 

The man is silent for a few moments, before shaking his head.

“I am called Thelorn.”