Lore

A World Through Shattered Eyes

Shattered eyes look out over the horizon, taking in the gleaming curvature of the world. 

Red embers flicker behind fragile irises. Their glow is alarming and yet weak, failing.

Pallid lips curl into a sinner’s smile, an arc of malice, mocking that gentle crescent of pale light that spills over mountains. The light filters through the trees and illuminates the seas. His smile is like the wayward son of a handsome father, the misshapen apple of a glorious tree. That pale, warm light ends its journey as it falls on his wolfishly-angular features.

The bright rays bring a million tiny deaths to the surface of him, unseen lives that spawn and extinguish in an instant. Their deaths bring him nourishment and color, for he is plague personified.

Life calls for death, glory for shame. Health brings illness. It’s the dance of eons, the ballad of making and unmaking, the song of fire and fugue, and it is…

Tiring.

He sits on an ashen boulder, reclining with his broad back against the stone. The cool surface is a relief against his jagged spine, easing pains that have walked with him through life. Long years of travel wear deeper with every step — it shakes up the shins, unsettles the knees, and then snakes through all the bones from earth to sky. An afternoon’s stroll can be rejuvenating; a thousand year’s travel takes its toll. 

“…Where shall I walk next?” He wonders in a voice like cracked vellum, smooth yet broken.

He raises a hand to the great pale light. He yearns to see the golden rays spill between his fingers, glorious as it was for the trees on the horizon. Instead,  he’s confronted with profanity: a warm glow inhabiting his flesh, illuminating the softness of his fingers in gentle amber. The darkness of the bones remains at the core, black and unforgiving. 

Here, too, is ceaseless mortality.The traveller finds it everywhere. It’s both what he seeks and what he brings. 

“This is not enough,” he whispers to the unchanging horizon. “My efforts are not enough. I need to bring something new to this song.”

But what? 

Time passes. Dust blows through his hair, salting the strands, abrading his cheeks. The road has brought him nothing. 

Twenty sky-cycles ago, he walked with the caravans. Ragged clothes, dust-pocked faces, people left adrift on the wind. Like him, they were strangers in any land. Like him, their lives were ones of endless travel. In walking beside them, the traveller hoped to find some meaning, and to create something wonderful and new.

With his road-worn boots drying by their fires, he would sit in their company, share their cups, their dances, and their kisses. He was handsome of face, long of limb, and kind in his words. All in all, he was a creature made to affect, to reflect, and most importantly… to infect. Others were drawn to him, and he drew them yet closer. Even when the campfire’s light burned out, he’d formed associations and friendships, shaking hands and sharing embraces of camaraderie.

His touch was a kill. Cheeks that once blushed soon turned pale with sickness. Lips that curled at his passing soon became dry, cracked, racked around coughs. One by one, the people who walked beside the wagons began to ride within them. Proud fighters became misshapen lumps beneath sheets. 

Leaders and followers soon began to do little at all except sleep through the day and wait for their misfortune to pass.

One at a time, these caravans wilted by roadsides. Even their steeds, whom he’d stroked at the mane, began to litter the trails. Strong beasts returned to the earth.

Somehow, the traveller remained dissatisfied. His efforts became known across the countryside, and soon, cities ceased to open their doors. He’d done nothing but draw suspicion to an already-waning crowd. In time, that crowd became suspicious of him in turn. Caravans became insular. They learned tricks of medicine, they learned the profane preventions known to temples. 

One long day, the traveller approached the strongman of a performing caravan — a real gurran behemoth of a man. The lanky specimen, broad and barrel-chested, regarded him with lifted brow. 

“Well ‘ello. May I help you, lost traveller?”

“I am weak of back, light of limb. I could use some training… May I borrow one of your weights?”

“For sure, for sure. Strength is gain’t through pain, my friend. Join me in my labors.”

And so he did, and he made a strong show of it. He’d killed recently, and it brought vigor he’d needed. He lifted the irons high, and ingrained them deeply with his touch. When he threw them to the soil, the strongman guffawed with laughter and clapped him on the back. At this, the traveller grinned with triumph.

It was only to his dismay then, that the strongman then washed his hands and boiled his weights upon a kettle over fire.

“An ol’ superstition, learn’t it from the Kindlers. Purify it with the light of the ‘ol pale fire. Y’best try it yourself! Sick goes ‘round.”

Around indeed. To travel would never be enough. Shattered eyes, red lights, the pale of his cheeks… He hid them well from others, though he could not hide the deaths he’d brought. This trail took him far and wide, but too shallow into cities, too rarely into homes. If this world were to know his brilliance, his unique brand of affection, then he would need to become something very, very much else.

By one blighted caravan, he stopped to consider a wagon’s carcass. Within, a family of four slumbered their last. Each could hardly be called corpses. They’d become skeletal  lumps in rags, wretches drowned in misery. Below, the wagon wheels had gone to rot, with strong kruckwood besotted with moisture and mold. The wagon’s undercarriage crashed into the dirt, half-buried, and buried yet further with every passing rain and dust storm. 

The wrapped canvas peeled from the wagon’s bows, half-pinned with nails, half taken by the wind. It billowed like waves, flapping upon a prairie wind. It stood there as a standard of surrender, of conquest, a white flag telling all that came: “Do not stop here. Do not tarry. Our goods are gone to brigands, and our hearts are gone to the soil.”

A queer fascination struck the traveller, and he wrapped one hand around the canvas’ edge, capturing it from the wind. As he pulled it taut, he saw something he’d scant expected: a pure pallor, bleached by the shardlight that spilled across it. Not the rain, nor the dirt, nor the carcasses beneath could ever have changed the canvas. It remained resilient and unblemished, lighter than the sun, smoother than bone. It was the soul of the wanderers that he could never taint.

And so, taint it he must.

The traveller violently ripped the canvas from the wagon bows, prying and tearing it from the nails. He went about his work with the brutality of a feasting skygg, a hungry scourge, a hound ripping skin from flesh. In time the canvas came away in tatters, leaving the wagon behind as a skeletal corpse, its former inhabitants laid out like entrails beneath an unkind sky. This dead beast needed its skin no longer, especially not one so pure and tooth-white.

No sooner than the traveller had drawn it about his shoulders than the canvas had become his own. Ripped fibers mended once again, and shapeless skin turned to clothes. He was a being that corrupted all he’d touched, and as he claimed his prize, it came to suit him. Ripped ends wrapped ‘round into sleeves, frayed spans turned to collar and coat tails. Bent nails turned to iron buttons, and the canvas, writ large, became a pure white coat.

The traveller would be lost no more.

The Visitor in White was born.

The Visitor turned his shattered eyes away from the horizon he’d so hated. The embers of his eyes flickered and burned for more. Like in a dream, he took to the air without walking. Like a nightmare, he found another unfamiliar shore to crash upon: a city on a hill.

Before him stood towering stone walls – limestone, flint, granite, and mortar of sand, lime, and water. The walls were born of labor and audacity, stone stacked on stone, a monument to mankind’s gall. They were made to turn away speartips, to baffle the monsters of the land, blunting swords and claws alike. The hunger of brigands and beasts failed against such measures. It was a match for monsters, but they had never met a monster quite like him.

Every wall had a door, and he had a knack for finding them. All he had to do then was stand alone before the guards, spread his arms, and present them with his brightest smile. Unlike peasants and paupers, he brought them vague promises spoken through pearlescent teeth. The dirt of the road never stuck to his clean shardlight-white coat, and thus he, too, must be clean. They felt that the beautiful must also be unimpeachable. The Visitor, noticing the success of his spotless coat, brought out sheafs of papyrus, each in fact bleached and empty, though to the eyes of onlookers, they were penned brilliantly with meaning and certification. The gatekeepers saw in the papyrus the promises they’d needed fulfilled. 

There was no need for forgery, when their hearts already sought lies he’d never bothered to tell. They took to him like flies to mouldering wheat. In return, he smiled, and the edges of his lips never reached his shattered eyes. The broken sclera glittered with delight.The embers within flickered side to side, like flame to paper, not knowing what to begin to devour. A whole new realm of potential opened up to him with the rising of the iron portcullis, and with the first few, giddy steps he took beyond those city walls. 

House calls, but not ones that were requested. He became the blight of learned men, fools that he’d bested. Where they’d spent years learning to turn away pox and boils, he brought vague hopes, joys, and lies to thwart their toils. The best successes were salves and venoms, pretty names, caustic agents, and false tinctures for vim. There was nothing that could stop him. Door by door, porch by porch, he made his way into homes. One after the other, they turned sick, and he bound up their sheets. 

He bagged up their bones. 

Manic victory. 

It was his first grand success, and in days the city between the walls was emptied. 

Like the wagon on the roadside, it became blasted, cracked open to the world. Anyone could now walk through that old portcullis. The men who’d once manned them first held kerchiefs to their lips, then bedsheets, then old white tarps. 

When he left, the city was returned to the world, though the world was not keen to take it back. Brigands seldom entered its walls, fearing they, too, would be wracked with coughs and meet the city’s old fate. 

The embers of his eyes burned brighter, like small suns within their sockets. This was what the world needed. Ages ago, the hope of this world’s celestial light had been shattered, sundered, and returned to the land. Now here it is, reborn in his eyes. It’s a hope of an age past. It’s the falsehood that this world really needs: a true balm. 

Sickness? No, the land was sick with despair long before his passing. Before, the city’s standard rotted above the walls, faded cloth half-lost to the wind. Now it was exactly where it belonged: planted in the dirt, eaten by worms, reprocessed and made grand. In life, the city was a mockery, a charade, fading every day with its shattered glory. In sickness, it found the cure to obscurity. 

In death, it became a legend. 

“Not enough. Not enough. The embers could burn brighter!”

Frustrated, he pounded the cobblestones with his fists. His knuckles turned bloody.

Rage overtook him. 

The bodies had ceased to move. 

They mocked him with their stillness. 

With his success, no one remained to sing his praise. 

“How?”

He felt great satisfaction as he’d fooled them, triumph when they took to their beds. He’d even felt glee, delight, when the men in masks came and counted the dead by their heads. But then what? The illness, the death, it passed and then it was gone.

Now the visitor is left in the street, enraged and alone. 

“What next? What next? I must become a god among the damned!”

His blood splattered across the stones. The wounds on his knuckles festered, boiled, and then closed. In time, his composure returned, and the hatred in his eyes continued to burn. 

“A story. A tale! I need to hurt those who will speak of me, long before they’ve passed.”

So he turned his back once more, a wave gone to find yet newer shores. 

Another span of walls rose before him, yet these were grander, unsullied, and much more than stone. Florid banners flew high over stylized parapets, crisp edges bore gilded engravings, and like cathedrals, these walls told stories in stained glass. Across the panes, tales spun in sweeping flourishes of color: grand battles, heroes who took to the hills, ancient monuments to massacre. To the Visitor, this was a place to earn his fame. 

Its name: Arrchestra.

The walls here honored killers, and he would not rest until he could rise above them all.

Before he could even begin, he’d heard children chanting, jeering with morbid gall… 

He brought out the usual trick: the white parchment, the unimpeachable cloak. It worked, though the guards took him for a joke. As he passed through the gate, he realized a new horror: there were many like himself, liars in their coats, hundreds more. Word of his conquest had already reached these shores. The worst part, yet? It had already become a bore. 

“I bring you miracles, open up your doors!” 

Laughter came from inside.

“No thank you, good sir, we’ve no need for more.”

Frustrated, he turned to a man by the roadside: pocked, brittled with age, and nearly dead. The Visitor checked him close and found specks of illness, spots on his head.

“Here good sir, miracle tincture. Take one, take ten!”

The man smiled in good cheer and waved him away.

“You’ve already cured your pox? Well, I’ll help you do it again!”

The man silently turned his back.

This city, so jaded, had no need for his wares. But for a man like him, what else was there? And then he saw, by torchlight and applause: a stage. A commoner’s play showcased the world’s flaws. He took to the stairs and placed a mask across his face. If he disguised himself as another, then there’d be no more disgrace. He told them lies again, but now they were beautiful. He bade them gather close, and through them, he feasted in full. 

One hall after another, filled, and then emptied. He rose in prominence. 

Windows once full of candlelight went black. Dark providence.

Thinking this the height of success, he visited the elite: a special game. The Visitor in White himself would come to play. It would have been his masterpiece, a fine place to showcase his name. One by one, they gathered and giggled, telling stories of his travels. Then one by one he visited them, sent them to their beds, and they fell as corpses when sheets unravelled.

It was quite a tale, and it too made its way to the stages. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t one for the ages. It worked once, and then he received no more invitations. They were wise to his tricks and his cheap imitations. 

Where, still, were the heroes from those tales of war? It made no sense. They spoke of them. More importantly, he’d won wars before!

Then he recalled the children’s laughter, and realized he’d become a mere doggerel.

He took to the parapets, manic with failure…

His blood boiled in his veins. Shame burned in his cheeks. He’d never felt such humiliation. He had to stop his lying, stop his rhyming, the rhythm to his tribulations. The songs, the songs, the songs, they were changing him! He had to stop. Even so, he could barely slow. Every attempt energized him. Every failure infuriated him. He clasped a hand around his wrist, and found it to be shaking, trembling with the hunger. Eyes blazing…

His shaking only stilled when he felt the wind through his hair once again. He was high, high above the city, free of the fever he’d brought to them and that they’d given to him in turn. 

There, he could see it. He could see the beauty of this city at last. It was something he’d missed during his manic attempts to bring ill throughout its populace. It was already so frenzied, so fevered, so wild before his arrival, and yet, there was something he’d missed: Order. Society. Compassion. There was a strange undercurrent to all of their works. He’d been fooled by the banners and stories of conquest painted across the outer walls. Between them, he found only storytellers. Had they never loved lies at all? Perhaps their whole society was founded, instead, upon the careful crafting of truths. 

He’d been thwarted by a strange resilience of the soul.

Light around the city moved like the face of a clock. It was precisely timed. Everyone had a home, every sick person received a doctor, and every earnest lie was met with earnest mockery. People tended to this city with great care, and it bore the tender mark of those who kindled flames. Good people lit torches, and bid people who were sick to stay in their homes. The city adapted, and cared, and took care of people beyond its own. 

In the face of them, he felt like a piece of shattered glass.

He hated the feeling that rose in him in that moment, tangled sorrow, love, and hatred.

He saw that this land had already been struggling, and thus, been no stranger to struggling against him. He’d stepped to the edge of the parapets and gazed down over the walls. From above, he could finally see their design writ in glass, now inverted, a cautionary tale. The heroes were not meant to be hailed as they died on those fields, faces comical with dismay. They were simply lessons to be learned. Even the barrier itself was a parody: glass that could never stop the inevitable. 

This land had already faced a blight or two, and learned their lessons. It was a place that had no home for him. He had no choice but to leave this tale behind. 

He’d achieved a handful of names, and nothing more.

He’d brought forth a few thousand deaths, and nothing more.

Up above, the flat white light of a swirling, sunless sky mocked him. It was like a father’s cold smile, disapproving of a vagrant son. It was the look of a victor, someone who’d say to themselves, “Yes, exactly as I predicted. Like a small flame, you flare, then flicker and wane. No more, no less.”

The Visitor in White beat their fists against the ground once more. The dirt was unmoved, and like an uncaring mother, remained stoic and unyielding. A powder of dust covered his fists until they’d bleached a chalky white. Parched cracks formed in the knuckles, splitting open to reveal ruby flesh. The very sight of it was repulsive to him. It was a reminder that he, too, was something that could die. He, too, would one day become nothing.

That hatred brought his blood, again, to a boil — and being a creature of manifestation, of pure will, his blood did in fact boil. The skin over his hands rose, bulged, then popped and fell. With each burst, a million tiny lights crept, then poured forth like flowing glass, first inching over his fingers, then surging, cascading over his flesh like hungry insects. They swarmed over his forearms, each one spreading, growing, then popping over the course of seconds.

Pop, pop, pop…

 Birth, life, death, birth life, death, birth life death

He watched in horror as they lived out their false lives on his skin, each shard of glass shattering upon expiry, embedding crystalline corpses into his flesh.

The Visitor in Light screamed in anguish, hating, ripping, until there was naught left of him but the smallest shards of glass. Lies and rhymes never worked because he was never a creature of man. He was an insect, born of dirt and sky. 

So like an insect, he sought a new hive.

A great citadel loomed on the horizon: Grand, Stoic Rhytalo.

The walls stood taller than any he’d ever seen before. Rather than stone, great hexagons held up the fortress: man’s divisions, geometries, plans and grand designs. Rather than armored guards, uncaring automatons stood sentinel along the rims of the walls. There were watchers in the towers, but they stood vigil from afar, their eyes crossed in black and covered in cowl. It was a coward’s vanguard, though against the armies of men, no doubt effective.

Fortunately, Visitor had chosen to be an insect. 

Despite its silence, this citadel stood as a core of the world. Wooden crates flowed in on the backs of beasts, iron crates flowed out on the backs of automatons. Within the walls, the wood was used. Within, the flesh was used. Import and export, supply and demand. All of it was on the cheap, lean, and efficient. 

Everything was scheduled, nothing gone to waste, and nothing to spare. It was the picture of perfection, and with every arrival a guildmaster marked a piece of parchment, “Just on time. Just on time. Just… on… time.”

The sentinels had no care for the small, crystalline creatures that entered the goods.

The beasts had no care as they ate of him in their feed, swallowed, and filled.

He had acted on instinct. He had not even known that there were people behind those walls, waiting for those goods, also waiting to be filled. Just like him, they too wore white — head to toe, daubed and grayed by the labors and dusts of the day. Yet with the way they took up the meat in the market, the way lived without tending, went sick without medicine, died without graves, they were like pure, freshly-driven snow.  In them, pains rested comfortably in their joints, having never felt a life without an ache. 

They showed innocence in suffering.

He grew within them, one by one. Like the people of Arrchestra, the Visitor had learned from his mistakes. He did not arise at first — like the aches in their joints, he made himself comfortable, waiting for the day the bones would break. He embedded himself deep, resting crystalline in their lungs, filling them with pain, infecting them with light.

Production continued unabated.

From hand to hand, the Visitor’s in Light’s blight spread.

In the grand warrens, people were crammed in tight. They lived without privacy nor comfort and arose at first light. They were awakened by claxons, orders, voices from pipes. When they faltered, the voices bellowed louder, and swords were drawn at the first hint of a strike. Delays would bring only madness, imperfection, lost profit and goodwill. As the blood of this nation, it was a call they were required to heed. It was no matter that work could kill. When the halls grew dark, the voices in the pipes grew louder with the Visitor’s spread. They were all asking one question: 

“Why won’t the wretches get out of bed?”

The goods did not arrive on time anywhere. As was the motto of the masters, there was never any excess — and in the times of famine, there remained nothing to spare. The few crates that did leave, the Visitor in Light rode inside.

By the time he had left, he finally had a name — an acronym and a number, and before he knew it, he’d traveled worldwide.  

He became a number, and he killed a number — such irony. You really are what you eat. It was a fine thing that he chose to travel again.

He killed quite a few within those sterile, uncaring walls. Yet even as the numbers drifted down to nil, he wondered: did he kill more for their poor goodwill? He’d gone rampant with glee, as the workers were forced to work, and the automatons pushed them back to the stone mills.

He took more of them then. The thought of it made him nostalgic, how their dedication became their end. 

In time, the city’s master on high — somewhere beyond the screaming pipes, the nutrient tubes, the bulbous windows — must have become wise. He took measures. The city began closing its doors, masking the inhabitants, and sequestering them into cubicles rather than grand bunkhouses. In time the Visitor in Light  found this place was a fine cradle, but not a greenhouse to grow in. They stifled him in due time, much like how they stifled their people. 

He then went abroad once more, and oh, did he take glee in returning to the arrogant Arrchestra. He’d learned lessons from the first pass. He’d learned to learn from those storytellers. He did not return as a man, a peddler, nor an insect. No, he returned clinging to the things they did love: crates of fine jewelry, bushels of gleaming taistberries, on the lips of illicit encounters. They did not love medicine, but they did love their delights. By his own fortune, he’d made men of medicine meaningless to these people. One by one, he snuffed out their lights.

While they fell sick in their beds, they turned the well-meaning men in coats away. 

Soon, he became Arrchestra’s ultimate decay. 

The theaters turned to hospitals. The town squares turned to morgues. The grand, twisting canals became pipes for offal and waste. The grand orchards became withered, husked graves of the decadent. They clung to their stories, their delights all the while… Where grand Rhytalo seemed to be in folly, never learning, never listening, they at least knew to stay inside.

Arrchestra couldn’t bear to bolt its doors. An entertainment economy — was that the phrase he heard on those wine-parched lips?

It made him feel nostalgic again, the way the city crumbled to dust. It was as if it’d relied on the soaring spirits portrayed in those grand, stained-glass facades, and old plaques now covered in rust.

Without its joys, its pleasures, its cavorting and nightly endeavors, there really was very little to Arrchestra. The Visitor in Light never took note of it, but the city had relied on fae protectors. Their will was as fickle as the hearts of its people. When their plays, their joys, departed, these juvenile beings became broken — feeble. One by one, the city’s heroes left.

What had made it so easy for greatness to wither?

Perhaps if they’d had a grand foe, they would have stood strong.

Instead, there was just him — a speck of a thing, a nothing, hubris in a magnifying glass.

The shardlight cast finely across their amber orchards. Somehow, despite it all, they brought those failing plants back first. Their stocks soon overfilled with taistberries, gleaming ruby, though they dared not distribute to any but the city’s worst.

The prices rose, more bodies fell, and in time, it all came to pass. 

Shattered eyes look out over the horizon, taking in the gleaming curvature of the world. 

Red embers flicker behind fragile irises, alarming, but weak and failing.

The Visitor in Light once again strides across the dusty path. His boots are parched, his cheeks now weathered by the wind. His eyes still shine like shattered glass. His white canvas envelops him still, familiar and kind. It remains his only friend here, between the blazing-white sky and the harsh, cold earth. 

He listens close, and smiles in serene pleasure as the wind sings him yet another dirge. 

A wretch howls at the wind:

“Why did it have to be yesterday?”

Vaipeas, now-named, turns to look upon him. 

Like Vaipeas in his own time of wretchedness, this man prostrates, with his fists and knees ground into the dirt. His clothes are a-tatter, his tangled hair blows hither-and-yon. Lines of tears streak through the dust on his cheeks. His voice is like cracked vellum.

“Why did it have to be yesterday? The day… that you took her from me!”

He howls at the wind, pounding his fists into the dirt. The stones crack his skin, break the knuckles, but no power bubbles forth — just blood, just skin and broken flesh. So he strikes the ground more, all for naught. 

Curious, Vaipeas looks him over more closely, and can now see: his tattered linen cloak, and the Kindler’s sigil wrapped in a silver, dangling from his neck. He’s a worshipper of the arcing crescent of light that spans the horizon, the Great Fire, that fallen light from the sky. His departed Sun has done him only ill, it seems.

The dust of the earth trails through the man’s grasping, bloodied fingers… 

He’d be so easy to end. In that moment, Vaipeas considers taking the man’s chin up in his hands, to kill him with a touch. He could grip those ashen cheeks and watch, slowly, as the flush flees his skin and the light falls from his eyes. Perhaps in those final moments, the pupils would gleam like small, amber lights, and the irises would crack like glass…

He laughs.

“What does it matter that it was yesterday?” Vaipeas asks, turning on him.

The wretch doesn’t waver or whimper, for he’s already broken. 

“If it were tomorrow, things would have turned out the same. Ne’er would you have predicted. Ne’er would you have prevented. This is your lot. I come when I please, and you die, and there’s naught in between. It’s the way of you small folk to die. It’s simple, it’s clean.”

And then the man recounts a tale: one of dogged pursuit. Be-masked and cloaked, he’d chased the Traveler, the Visitor, the Number, Vaipeas from city to city. He’d marked every new name in a tattered journal. He’d taken note of every weakness, every symptom, every medicine, even as they’d changed. He’d run up the ramparts to scream the names. He’d run into the halls of kings, the feasting dome of Arrchestra’s fine-silked Symposiarch, the maze-like citadel of Rhytalo’s grand Architect. Neither listened to him, until the time came. Then they snatched his notes, praised this poor wretch, until the Visitor shifted and stole this small man’s light. 

He was a man chasing yesterday to prevent tomorrow.

It strikes Vaipeas as curious, and again, yes, as a tad nostalgic. Did he see this man once, back in that first shuttered city? Was he a boy with dust-pocked cheeks, bereft of his mother? Was he a grizzled father, hair peppered with grey, having lost a wife and a life as the Visitor peddled his wares? All too possible. He never really did take note of their faces. The “who” of them never really did matter.

But then, something occurs to the Blighted God.

He looks upon the man, not with pity, but with a sense of reverie. Like in a trance, the Blighted God speaks, and strange words leave his lips:

“Perhaps the land that we’ve been born into is blighted…”

“But the things that you’ve done have not been in vain.”

“Believe in the choices you’ve made.”

Man against nature, nature against man… They both long to thrive, to grow, to deprive. 

They found understanding in hatred for one another, their love for life, and in resolve.

And so the God of Blight turned away, and the chase did begin again.

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 2-19: 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 2-16: 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 2-11: Twisted Arms

Teller of fortunes is a serial work of Fantasy Fiction, at times surreal. No fae-twisted farmers were harmed in the creation of this work.

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After all the nonsense that comes with another day in the grand caravan, Ane has a couple of hours to herself. Inevitably, however, a knock sounds against her (still broken) door. This time it’s three soft raps — polite, but without Jarrik’s overbearing air. An even, gentle voice follows, “Hello, it’s Nelea.”

Nelea?

Strange, the animal trainer doesn’t often visit her wagon. Well, once, when one of her gelthounds came down with worms as a puppy, but Ane has the distinct impression that this is not about that.

“Coming,” she calls out, “Gimme a minute.”

Really, it takes closer to three minutes for her to shift her door. She does manage to succeed eventually, leaving a triangular space beside the half-hanging upper door for her to talk through.

Sure enough, there’s the callosian. She’s of a rather stout build, and has tumbles of extremely light hair that spills in tight curls down from under a straw hat, contrasting with her deeply tanned skin. She smiles politely, and stands with her hands in front of her clasping the handle of a basket — an almost comically girlish pose contrasted with her imposing musculature. She’s no Aedas (or Bugbeard), but it’s enough to throw off the image for certain. That, and the rather stern, architecturally beautiful angles of her face. 

“Hello,” she says. “Sorry to bother you, Miss Ane. I’m not here for myself,” she explains. 

Ane nods, leaning forward slightly to peer through the door-gap at the trainer’s basket. Her curiosity was already piqued; the basket makes it doubly so. 

“Everything alright?”

“Well, yes,” she says, hesitating. “In a sense. First, do you remember the klorr who joined us in the last city? Tall, mysterious, a condition about his arms,” she explains tactfully. “Well, he hasn’t come out of that wagon since then, and it’s…” Nelea pauses and sighs, her stoic posture somewhat wilting.

“It’s just not healthy. He needs light, air, and water,” she says, voice heavy with concern. “We’ve been taking turns bringing him food and drink, but it’s not safe to go on like that. It’d be great if you could take a turn, and maybe you can talk to him?” She lifts the basket, indicating its contents. It has some of the day’s dinner, rendered in a less messy form; chopon cutlets, some biscuits, vegetables strained out of the gravy, and a lidded cup of water. 

Nelea continues, “We’ve each tried, to no avail yet. Even if you can’t make him feel that comfortable, well… Every bit counts, you know?”

The man with the twisted arms!

Ane had forgotten about him in the midst of everything else. Which, really, probably just serves to emphasize Nelea’s point — she certainly would’ve noticed if he’d been out and about. By the time the callosian is done asking, Ane is already clambering through her broken door. 

“I’ll take it to him. Which wagon is he in?”

Nelea nods, holding out the basket with one hand and motioning off to her side with the other.

The wagon she indicates is an old, unadorned thing, with large double doors on one end. By the look of the rustic vehicle, it was once likely used as a place to hold the alosins when they needed to be indoors. By Ane’s memory, though, it fell out of that use and ended up being converted to storage. It’s often opened when people need to draw out sacks of grain or hay for the animals. This means it likely has plenty of open space, though with lots of dusty feed bunched all around.

“It is said that he chose it himself, shortly after arriving. None of us had the chance to talk to him beforehand, and he hasn’t spoken much since,” Nelea explains, her worry clearly evident in her tone.

“I don’t blame him, really. Have you seen what Brair and them are getting up to?” Ane holds the basket from the bottom, careful not to jostle the contents as she strikes out for the old wagon. 

“I can’t say I have,” Nelea fibs, with a hint of mirth. “In any case, good luck.”

Hopefully he’s feeling sociable, Ane thinks to herself. Nelea would probably have warned her if she thought he wasn’t, but Ane knows nothing about the man outside of his twisted arms. 

Even with the door closed, the scent of dry, dusty hay makes her nose itch as she approaches. She pauses for a long moment, keen ears perked to listen for any sounds coming from the wagon — not that she’s likely to hear anything more than muffled noises through the thick wood. Even so, there are sounds of breathing, likely from someone rather large, and a thick silence between each breath. There is no movement, no voice, nothing.

Cautiously, she raises a hand to knock sharply on the broad double doors.

A deep susurration follows, short and simple. It’s not a growl, nor a noise of displeasure. It sounds most like a mumble of assent. As for the wagon itself, the door doesn’t even seem to be bolted. She waits for the door to open, then silently curses herself for it. He probably couldn’t open the door even if he wanted to…

“I’m coming in,” she says, pressing her lips to the narrow gap between the doors. She gives one a tug, mentally bracing herself for whatever it is she’s about to see.

Were she not a shasii, Ane would mostly see a tall, dark shape hunched against the far wall, sitting with legs splayed across the floor. Since Ane can see perfectly, however, the man isn’t afforded any discretion by the darkness. He’s tall, perhaps muscular, albeit in a limited fashion about the shoulders and back. Otherwise he’s rather gaunt, with scraggly hair and wide, sharp klorrian eyes. They open slightly when Ane peers, in, though they remain downcast. Of course, most importantly, his arms lay heavily beside him on two hay bales  — heavy enough to make the tops sag and the sides crumble.

He doesn’t speak. His facial features are a tad strange, perhaps duller than most. He doesn’t seem afflicted by anything beyond his arms, but it’s still a disturbing sight — he looks like he’s badly in need of some fresh air, let alone a haircut and clean clothing. Ane’s brow furrows in concern as she takes a tentative step into the wagon’s dark interior.

“I brought you some food,” she says, giving the basket a little heft, “Chopon and gravy, with biscuits. Are you… Do you need anything else?”

There’s a slight pause. 

“Naw.” 

As blunt a refusal as it is, the tone of his voice doesn’t sound intentionally brusque. The accent even seems a bit thickened, as if in an attempt to mollify the intruder.

Ane moves to set the basket down, but stops midway through. Instead, she takes a step back, closer to the door.

“Why don’t you come outside and eat? The air’s fresher, and it’s brighter and less dusty…”

“… Quieter,” he says thickly. It seems to take him some time, before he adds, “This is for me.” There’s no comfort in his tone; instead, he sounds deeply resigned.

“Do you need it quiet? We can find curtains for the windows, or something to dull the noise,” she offers.

He hesitates, as if hitting a kink in his thoughts. Then he just shakes his head. 

“I can… have this. Maybe,” he replies.

His response, however short it is, urges her to keep going, to try to keep the mysterious man talking. 

“I can see what I can do to make it more comfortable. Pillows, maybe? Or a wash basin? Maybe a blanket? It’s warm now, but it gets cold on the trip sometimes…”

The klorr starts to open his mouth, as if to object. Ultimately, he just remains silent.

Well, that didn’t work.

She moves forward, slowly, as if she’s afraid of spooking him. Once she’s set the basket down within his reach, she steps back a pace.

“Do you want me to go?”

He begins to shake his head side-to-side, but stops himself again. One shoulder shrugs instead. His eyes shift briefly to regard the basket of food, then back to the same spot on the floor. 

Ane watches his flat affect and apathetic demeanor. Puzzled, she edges a little closer.

“Do you need help to eat?”

The klorr regards the food again, hesitantly. There are some stains on the floor nearby, likely from previous meals. At this point, it becomes apparent that there’s also a foul smell in one corner of the room; it seems he pressed a chamber-pot into service, and somehow covers it with hay afterwards. Truly, he has not left this wagon.

“I shouldn’t need,” he replies simply. 

“Do you,” She’s loathe to ask, but Void, someone has to — it’s painfully obvious the man’s being neglected. If he won’t, or can’t, do for himself, there has to be someone who does. Why bring him into the caravan just to let him languish here like this? “Do you need some help cleaning up?”

Nelea and whoever else is helping him have flailed against this bare minimum. By now, that chamber pot would’ve needed dumping several times over. Fortunately, as bad as it smells, it doesn’t seem he’s been using anything else. Though, if the man doesn’t leave… Then there are few other options but to await someone changing it.

“I shouldn’t need,” the man repeats somberly. “Bad things.”

Shouldn’t, fine. But you do.

“What kind of bad things?”

Her nose wrinkles at the smell. The longer she stands there, the stronger it seems to get — she’ll be splashing around in the stream with five pounds of soap just to get rid of the odor on herself. 

The klorr answers, his voice husky. 

“The light… that pain… these arms.” He lifts each of them, twisted as they are, then lets them fall back on the hay bales with a thump. 

“Pain? What kind of pain?”

“When I changed.”

So he wasn’t always like this…

It seems obvious, in retrospect. If he’d been born this way, she doubts he could’ve survived until adulthood. With his stilted speech, he may not be fluent in Skilhouran common. If he’s from one of the klorr tribes, his twisted arms would’ve been an even bigger challenge to growing up in a hunting society that relies on living closely with dangerous gurran behemoths.

“I’ll tell you what,” she says firmly. Though she doesn’t know him at all, she’s at least mostly convinced that his arms are too cumbersome to try to harm her — if he did, she could probably get away quickly, or at least yell for help in time. Even if he tells her he doesn’t want help cleaning up, that chamberpot needs to go. “I won’t leave — I’ll come back. If you let me take that,” she points to the pile of soiled hay, “I will bring you something that might help with the pain.”

For the first time since Ane entered, he looks up. His eyes subtly widen, and he looks more present than moments ago. There is certainly a glimmer of intelligence in there, and a very deliberate sense about him. If there’s any emotion visible behind his eyes, it’s a long sorrow.

“Yes,” he answers. “Please.” His tone wavers.

Finally, she’s getting somewhere. She’s not sure where, but somewhere.

“I will come back. For now, eat.”

… Now she just has to figure out how to handle the chamberpot. 

The hay is already making her nose itch, and she can feel bumps raising on her bare skin where the dust touches. Above all that, the sharp ammonia burn of an overfilled chamberpot sears her nose — had she eyes, they’d be watering. Ane turns toward the door, inhales a lungful of fresh air, and steels herself.

Somehow, she manages to maneuver around the man, and make it back outside with the chamberpot in her arms. She doesn’t want to think about what’s running over her arms and staining her sleeves, or the constant tiny thwats of flying insects ricocheting off of her face. She definitely doesn’t want to look down to see the mass of hay and waste crawling with maggots.

Ane upends the chamberpot several yards from the wagon. She must be a repulsive sight, holding a recently-dumped chamberpot and reeking like a barnyard, but she tries to flag down the first moving shape she sees anyway.

Fortunately, luck is with her as Wila, Vila and Zila float by. They don’t appear to be particularly preoccupied, outside of a leisurely walk and some light chatter.

“Dishes though? Really?”

“Well, he probably had to keep his, his monk-skills far from the fight!”

“Uh-huh…”

“You know, so nobody gets hurt. Have you heard what Eternalists can do?”

Hopefully they’re good at scrubbing.

“Wila, Vila, Zila! Speaking of dishes…”

The three of them rotate together, looking towards Ane. Generally, they’d often look like they’re just walking with linked arms, if it weren’t for the way they all turn as a unit.

“Oh, hello!” Zila chirps.

“What is it, Ane?” Wila asks, and holds her nose on reflex.

“I need the monk, a tin of Dynkala’s chest rub, a bucket, a scrub brush, some lye soap, a very long ribbon, and a piece of chalk,” Ane says, between gasps of fresh(ish) air.

Vila gives her a dry look. 

“I hope you don’t think we can scatter to fetch these for you.”

Zila gives her a small swat on the shoulder. 

“What Vila means, is, we’ll be right back.”

“It just might take a little while,” Wila adds. “We aren’t exactly swift, though Dynkala should have all of that.”

Ane breathes a sigh of relief.

“Alright, great. Yes. Thank you. I’ve got… Very urgent business to do,” she explains without explaining.

“Very well,” Wila says with a sigh. “We will return here.”

“Well, things turned out great last time she doled out errands,” Vila mutters as they begin to float away. This earns a murmur of agreement from one of the others.

“Don’t forget the monk!” Ane calls out after them.

 

About ten minutes later, the aforementioned monk arrives, sans the triplets. He does have all of the requested items under his arms, however. Such is the way, when dealing with the triplets; at least one is liable to get impatient, no matter what the task.

He stands there dutifully. “What is needed?” He asks, tilting his head sideward. 

“Hope you’ve got a strong stomach,” Ane says grimly, “I’ve dumped that pot and buried the waste, but it still needs to be cleaned. Then I might need your help there.” She cants her head first toward the chamberpot, then toward the dusty wagon. “I’ll take the ribbon, chalk — they didn’t forget the chalk, did they? Good — and the chest rub, for now. Just try to get that as clean as you can.”

The monk nods dutifully, and fixes the chamberpot with grim regard. That will be his next challenge. 

With the requisite items in hand, Ane ducks back inside the mysterious man’s wagon.

Inside the wagon, the man remains silent. He does look up when Ane enters, however. There’s still that sad look in his eyes. 

 She sets the chalk and ribbon on the floor, as she kneels down within reach of him. She can still smell wafts of the chamberpot-reek, but at least the chest rub might help cover some of it…

“Where does it hurt?” She asks him, as she pulls the wide cork from the little earthenware pot.

The klorr lifts his elbows, which are the last bastion of normalcy prior to the twisted mess below. 

“There,” he indicates, almost biting his lip. It seems he has trouble even just acknowledging it. 

And given any understanding of anatomy, well… It’s unthinkable that his lower arms could function, circulate blood, or feel pain, yet they do seem alive, despite the constricting bones and contorted flesh. It defies sense. If his elbows are the last place following the rules of biology, then they must be suffering a pain most bizarre and cruel.

She nods, though she’s unsure how to tackle this. Though the chest rub is made to ease coughing and congestion, the sharp, camphoraceous coldness is helpful for soothing pained muscles. Is this even muscle pain? She doesn’t know — she’s not sure he does, either. Muscle, bone, ruptured tendons, it could be anything.

Ane scoops a generous dollop of the salve onto her fingertips, brow furrowed with concern as she hums over his elbow. If only she knew where to begin…

“I’m going to use this,” she says, holding up the glob of oily salve, “If it hurts you too much, tell me and I’ll stop. Someone is helping me, he can come to clean up a little if you’d like. He’ll be quiet.”

The klorr nods, though he’s not entirely sure to what he’s agreeing.

And, with that, she gently daubs one of the man’s elbows in the pungently minty rub. He winces with pain at the first contact, but calms as the soothing chill of the rub sets in. His teeth grit in his closed mouth, remaining otherwise still. 

“… Helps,” he mumbles. Naturally, it’s only a muscle rub, but it’s more of a reprieve than he’s likely experienced in a long time. He doesn’t exactly look like he’s visited a real physician, after all. A doctor would probably just amputate both limbs from the elbows down… But the condition is so bizarre, would it even follow that logic? The twisted structures almost look botanical in nature. Would they just regrow? It’s impossible to tell by looking at them. 

Ane nods, relieved to hear it’s helping a little. She takes his elbow in both of her hands, gently probing and kneading the joint with the tips of her fingers. The hot, thickened areas of swollen muscle and congested blood get a little more attention, as she attempts to ease the blood flow back toward his heart. She can feel the scarred, adhering fascia beneath his skin, but it would take more expert hands than hers to try to release it.

The treatment also gives a deeper sense of his condition. Whatever did this, there’s a sense of real malice in the result. The way the bone splits so wickedly, then spins around itself… It’s like what a child might do to two blades of grass, bored in a field, wrapping the two together then pulling them taut… But never hard enough to break. 

It’s deliberate. Something with a mind did this.

“Thank you,” the klorr murmurs in his raspy voice. 

“You’re welcome,” she replies, distracted by the motions of her hands. She moves from one elbow to the other, repeating the same process — apply the salve, feel for what’s hurting, and try to ease pains she can barely even guess at. 

Was he punished? Or just cruelly used for something’s sport? She can’t tell, and doesn’t think he’d tell her if she asked. He might not even have the words for it. 

Once she has rubbed as much of the salve in as she can, she picks up the ribbon. If nobody had been by to try to help his pain or even regularly empty his chamberpot, there are probably plenty of other things that have been neglected, too.

“I need to use this — it’ll only take a minute, and, if it hurts you, I will stop,” she assures him.

He just stares at the ribbon, knitting his brow. He nods in assent, however.

Ane stands, maneuvering cautiously around the man to avoid bumping his arm with her knee. She stretches the ribbon across the breadth of his shoulders, before making a marking with the chalk. His upper arms are next, then the length of his spine. It’s a crude system, but it leaves her with a length of ribbon suitable for making approximations, at least. 

“I have to go soon,” she tells him, as she brushes a few clinging wisps of hay from her knees, “But I’ll come back tomorrow. I might not be the one who brings you your food, but I’ll come back.”

“Alright,” the klorr replies. His almost-perpetual frown is a bit less pronounced, forming closer to a flat line. It seems like a vast improvement, given his overall mood. Once again, he adds, “Thank you.”

Ane nods, stashing the rest of the pot of chest rub beside a hay bale. Hopefully it won’t be too hard to find next time.

“You’re welcome. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-10: Bugbeard’s Brawl

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, of course there are the odd ones… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Deal!” Aedas grins widely.

The call is sounded, and the match commences!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHOOSH.

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

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

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

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

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

On the sidelines, Aedas is positively shaking with excitement. 

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

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

An excited Aedas is pretty hard to deter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nods his short-horned head. 

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

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

He shrugs his robed shoulders. 

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

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

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

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

Ane shakes her head.

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

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

Teller of Fortunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More coll-

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

“Who’s there?”

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

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

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

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

“Hello, Jarrik.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or powdered moustache wax.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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