Teller of Fortunes 2-4: I Could Do More

(Welcome! Teller of Fortunes is a serial work of fantasy fiction. Click here for the previous section, or click here to go to the beginning.)

The caravan has been sacked by bandits.

Naturally, the most immediate consequence is a forced march to escape danger — albeit just two days this time. It’s enough to put some good distance between the caravan and the bandits, just in case they get an appetite for more. Road-rations are once again brought to the wagons, though they’re slightly more meager this time. Fortunately, it seems the caravan’s food stores were largely untouched; the bandits, fat and sassy from raiding the nearby hunting lodge, were more concerned with gold and silver.

For now, Ane has more time to herself — unfortunately, she ends up spending it arranging bags of puffroot and trying to fix her door. Some of the frame is splintered, so she can’t do much without a carpenter, but she does manage to rig up the upper and lower halves in a way that keeps it from banging every time the wagon moves.

Around midday, the first after the robbery, there’s a sound of large, fluttering wings above Ane’s wagon. It’s followed by the familiar, booted footfalls of Vasht, thumping heavily on the roof. A few moments later, after a hop and a slight thud, the sounds move to the small threshold outside Ane’s door. After a moment of rustling, there’s a firm knock on what remains of her door — a polite one, in stark contrast to the knocking from the day before. 

“Ane?” Comes the voice of Vasht, the knife-thrower. 

“It’s as open as it’s able to get, Vasht,” she calls out in reply.

There’s an audible sigh of relief. 

“Are you alright in there? I would’ve come by sooner, but I’ve had to scout along the back for awhile now,” he says in his usual rough, dry tone. While talking, he takes Ane’s reply to mean he can enter — though how is another question. He begins jostling the door, lifting it up and angling it to see if it will move. He’s surprised to find it almost falls over, and he immediately braces it. As he does so, his head of black hair peeks up over the gap. 

Ane waves from her seat by her stove. She’s wrapped in her blanket again, one hand clasped around the amber-colored neck of a bottle of taistberry wine. It’s a bit of hair-of-the-gelthound, here — ever since the robbery, she’s been in a state wavering between “tipsy” and “hungover.”

“Fine as possible under the circumstances. How’s everyone else holding up?”

After a few grunts of exertion, Vasht finally gets the door askew just enough. He gives up on getting it open completely without tumbling off, but at least there’s some space for him to lean against the other door and be seen from within. As usual, he looks to be lacking sleep, but that’s par for the course with him. What’s different now is the way he fails to hide his fatigue and concern. There’s also something else hidden in there, with his downcast gaze… Perhaps guilt?

“Most are alright, albeit with lighter pockets. The clown is covered in puffer burns. Brair bumped his head after his bender a few days ago.” He sighs. “Some wagons are damaged,” he says dryly, glancing at the door. “Overall, though, everyone’s alive. Luckily.”

“That’s good. Dynkala and Vaidna tending to the clown?” 

He frowns grimly. “Yeah. He’ll be fine. Most of the trouble’s all in the hypothetical,” he says somberly. “What those bandits could have done, and…” He breathes out slowly, and shifts his gaze towards Ane. His usually-sharp eyes seem somewhat blunted by the ordeal. “Well, Jarrik was up to some nonsense before this. Who knows what he might do now?”

He grits his teeth, tightening his jaw.

“I wish I could have protected us… But without enough guards, there was nothing. There had to be a dozen in that raiding party, and even more in the woods,” he says through clenched teeth, as if steeling himself during surgery. 

Ane fixes him with a long, steady hum. After awhile, she scoots over and jerks her chin toward the vulre carpet.

“Siddown for a minute.”

He glances inside, looking in the direction indicated.

“Sure,” he breathes, and begins to slip past the door. It takes him a few moments, mostly to wrangle his sets of wings through. Once he’s folded the last pair enough to fit past the doorway, he wanders in and sits down, legs in front, with a hand bracing behind him. 

She holds the bottle of wine out to him with one hand, while the other begins fumbling for some puffroot and a bit of cattail paper. When he takes it, she starts deftly rolling and twisting a fresh cigarillo atop her blanketed thigh.

“‘S not your fault, you know,” Ane says, “Though it is going to be your responsibility when you get yourself killed. You worry yourself, you don’t sleep enough, your reaction time turns to shit, and then the rest of us’re fucked. Plus,” she continues sternly, as she holds the twisted paper end to a coal, “Then we’ve gotta figure out what to do with your corpse. Here.” She passes the puffroot to him without bothering to ask — there’s a definite sense that she wouldn’t pay his answer any mind even if she had.

“Hrm,” he grumbles, and takes a swig from the wine. It’s just one swallow, before he’s set it down on the wagon beside him, stilled by the palm of his hand. “Yeah, I could probably do with more rest. I just wish I could do more,” he says, and accepts the cigarillo with a grunt — possibly of protest, possibly of thanks, maybe both. Either way, it’s lit, so there’s little he can do with the thing aside from smoke it. He takes a drag, then lets out a fluffy cloud of exasperation.

“Can’t knife a whole group of monsters by myself… And Jarrik spent all his time on getting that klorr. Couldn’t recruit anyone, since they all got word that we went through the shadowlands.” He takes another drag, then mutters, “And now we’re gonna end up drawn into whatever the next scam’s gonna be, to get us outta this.”

Ane murmurs in agreement, as she takes the wine bottle back. She wipes the mouth on her sleeve before taking a sip.

“That’s always the way, though, isn’t it? I mean, when it wasn’t Jarrik, it was his dad, granted his ideas were usually a bit less shit. Mercs might be more inclined to go through the shadowlands if he didn’t come up with so many excuses not to pay them.”

“S’ a bit different now,” Vasht huffs. “I may’ve been a kid back then, but I know the old man wouldn’ta done any of this. Nor would Jarrik, come to think,” he reflects, and takes another pull from the puffroot. Once it’s had a chance to slacken his hard expression, he adds, “The man’s a coward. He’d normally avoid somethin’ like that forest,” Vasht appraises.

“Not that I wanna think about him in the first place. Too angry. We coulda died this time,” he figures, digging a heel against the floor. “I just gotta get ahead of him. Figure out a way to stop it from happenin’ aga-” He shakes his head, as if dismissing some thought. “… To get some more guards. And maybe take up somethin’ more than knife throwing, I don’t know.”

“Easy, easy,” Ane says, trading him the wine bottle for the puffroot. She takes a deep drag of it, flaring the ember on the end into brilliant orange heat, and holds her breath for a moment before exhaling a thick, fragrant plume from the corner of her lips. “Next place we stop, we’ll find more sellswords,” she assures him, “We just need money.”

“That we do,” he agrees, now holding the wine bottle. He takes a swig-and-a-half this time, permitting himself a bit more. Vasht seems quite fond of taistberry, so it’s a bit more persuasive at getting him to relax. His shoulders slacken slightly, as he wipes his lips with the back of his sleeve. “I’m all outta ideas lately, though. We’ll probably end up in S’varga… It has guards, and money,” he appraises. “The two things we need right now.”

“S’varga…” Ane says the word pensively. Even though it’s a predominantly shasii city, the name feels strange in her mouth. She takes another drag, speaking through a lungful of puffroot smoke. “I’ll think of something,” she attempts to assure him, “Just make me a promise.”

“What’s that?” He asks, lofting one brow wryly. A flap of the wing covering his eye spoils the effect, and he ends up having to  puff at it and bat the pinions from his cheek. 

Ane purses her lips to hide a laugh, but it doesn’t quite work. She ends up trying to disguise it as a cough, but amusement shows on her cheeks and swirls as plain as shardlight.

“Promise me you won’t ask me any stupid questions,” she says, attempting to trade him the puffroot for the wine, “And Animus alive, go to sleep.”

He tries to stifle a smirk, but the laugh is infectious — even if at his anatomy’s expense. He sighs in resignation, leaning back. 

“I’d ask what you mean by stupid questions, but I’m afraid that might count…” He shakes his head. “Anyway, we’re gone from those bandits at least. I guess I could allow a nap. There’re no more people to check on anyway, since you’re near the front here…”

And he probably doesn’t want to check on Jarrik. Vasht lets that go unsaid, however. 

“You’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. We’ll come up with something,” Ane reassures him. “And, if not, at least the next pack of bandits’ll ensure we never have to worry about this gurrshit again, right?” She half reaches out to pat his shoulder, but refrains, hand hesitating in midair for an uncertain moment — instead, she redirects herself to the wine bottle.

“Yeah. Maybe,” he agrees half-heartedly. He shrugs it off, then presses his hands to the floor and pushes off, rising to his feet. “Well, if you come up with anything, I’m keen to help out… Gotta do something after all that,” he grumbles, glancing back out the door.

“I’ll see what I can figure out,” she calls after him. For now, she’s probably going to continue to nurse her hangover, if not earn herself another one.

They need money and guards. Food can be stolen, clothing can be repaired, even medicine can be foraged, but nothing is going to protect them from more misfortune besides money and guards… Well, money, really. Guards can be bought. 

The image of The Clap-vole card she drew days before leaps to mind, unbidden – the furry little paws with the egg of a woeful beast in-hand, ready to dash it against a rock and unleash horror…

Ane exhales another silvery plume of smoke in a deep, thoughtful sigh.

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

Teller of Fortunes 2-3: Robbery Delivery

(Welcome! Teller of Fortunes is a serial work of fantasy fiction. Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning.)

The caravan doesn’t even get a full day of peace as it trundles through the outlands.

BANG BANG BANG!

“ROBBERY DELIVERY! Your money or your life!” A ragged, bellowing voice calls through Ane’s wagon door. The wagon had only stopped for a few minutes, and already bandits are pouring out of the bushes to shake down the train. The voice on the other side of the door even sounds rather bored by it.

“Unless you’re a clown! Clowns are fine.”

When Ane catches a glimpse out the window…

Ah, there was a hunting lodge after all! The smoke on the horizon surely came from this peaceful little cottage… 

It just happens to be a burnt-down hunting lodge. Its cinders are currently on their way to becoming smaller cinders. It must’ve been burning for quite some time before the caravan’s arrival. There’s no signs of life left there, though there are a few lanky alosin hitched up to a nearby post. They’re probably also bandits.

Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to be right.

The knocking sends her heart pounding in her throat. She had been sleeping, fortunately — she only bothers to bolt the split door when she is. Unfortunately, it means the next few minutes pass in a bewildering daze. She scoops up her pocketbag and her jewelry from the half-seashell on her vanity, and stashes them in one of the costume-cubbies. The little stone slipshell gets secreted under her bed. Several sacks of puffroot are given pride of place near the entrance.

For now, she doesn’t open the door — if they want it open that badly, they’ll have to defeat heavy wood and the bolt securing it in place. Instead, she crouches on her bed beside the window, with the gurran jawbone held high over the point of her shoulder.

“Oh, com on, just open the door… I wouldn’t be the knock guy if I couldn’t…”

THUD, THUD!

The door begins to splinter, groaning against the blows. It sounds as if something hard and metallic is striking into the wood, cratering near the lock.

“… Knock!” The man bursts out laughing, a thick, throaty cackle. 

Still, Ane waits. He might break her door’s hinges, but she’s definitely not going to invite him in.

“… Alright then.”

There’s a small, rickety whirring sound, as if some old contraption is kicking into life. Then, with a loud, grating rumble… 

KRRRRACK!

A massive impact strikes into Ane’s door, punching through the latch as if it were set in paper. With that broken beyond repair, the door creaks on its hinges, slowly flipping open to reveal…

By the Fires, one of the most unsightly men she’s seen in some time.

The huikkaran has some flies buzzing around his head, occasionally landing on a gleaming, fist-sized wen on the side of his neck. He’s a bit wall-eyed (which means a lot for his kind), and neither of his two massive pupils seems to want to cooperate in pointing the right way. There’s a strawlike, sticky-looking mop of straggly hair atop his head, and a smug little smile over a deeply recessed chin down below.

“See? I told you I knew how to knock,” he says with a gleeful chortle, raising his right arm. On the end of his otherwise-stringy limb is a large, stony contraption of some sort — it’s shaped like a glove, with a large, notched circle on the back of the palm. A set of cords runs back from there, looping around (and through) a notch near his elbow, somehow set into the bone. The whole thing is puffing out gouts of black smoke, and that notched metal circle even glows with heat.

He steps in, waving his other hand around the room. “Alright, let’s see the gold… The last lass had at least seven. C’mon now, so I don’t have to flip all this over misself.”

Welp, Ane thinks to herself, This ugly fuck is how I die, I guess.

Her mouth is almost too dry to speak. Faceless are one thing — they can’t be reasoned with, but they also don’t really have a concept of cruelty. This guy thinks this is a joke. She clears her throat before she attempts to speak, talking slowly to keep her voice from wavering.

“Do I,” she says, gesturing to the many bags of puffroot on her floor, “Look like I have any gold left?”

There’s a pause as he tilts his head this way and that, buggy eyes alternating at the task of focusing on the pillowy sacks propped by the door. Seconds seem to stretch into an eternity — the only thing that even marks the passage of time is the lazy circuit of the flies around his head, and the steadily-thickening smoke puffing from his mechanical arm. 

If Ane’s hands weren’t occupied, she’d be making as many good luck gestures as she can think of. 

“Well,” he mutters, scratching the thing on his neck. “I guess not.”

With that, the man plunges his hand into one of the bags, coming up with a grimy fist full of shreds of puffroot. He gives it a good sniff, punctuated with a deep sigh of satisfaction. Once he’s finished sampling the product, he gathers up the two pillowcases. 

“Good quality. That’ll do. Stay high,” he bids her, and promptly stomps his clumsy way out the door. 

Well, through what remains of the door, anyway.

Ane watches the splintered door swing haphazardly on its remaining hinge as he stomps off. Part of her is amazed it worked — most of her is convinced he’s only taking the puffroot before he returns to kill her. Not that she’d make for an easy target, but what in the name of Firin’s fiery tits was he made of?

She exhales deeply through pursed lips, trying to slow her racing heart. Shaking hands move to light her stove, though she drops the firesteel a few times before she can get the tinder to catch. There isn’t much water left in her bucket, but there should be enough for some tea… Something to occupy her hands and help her calm down. 

Is the rest of the caravan safe? She doesn’t know. The bandits could’ve taken some of them captive, or convinced some of the camp followers or mercenaries to turn on the others. Some might’ve tried to stand up to the bandits and been injured, or even killed. Granted, any bandit that willing to scoop up a couple bags of puffroot and continue on his way probably doesn’t have any real intention of killing anyone, but still.

While the water boils, Ane hums cautiously through her door. Her ears stay perked, keen for the sound of distress.

Listening closely, Ane can hear something…

It sounds like raucous laughter, coupled with confused shouts and honking noises. Presumably, that bandit finally found the clown in the caravan. He might be flicking the tail ends of puffroot cigarillos at the painted huikkaran right this very moment.

Beyond the confusing cacophony from the clown’s wagon, she doesn’t hear anything else — not counting the cracking of the burnt-down lodge, of course. While the clown is certainly in a situation of sorts, it sounds like this group of bandits isn’t the hostage-taking type. Either that, or they just don’t think any of the troupe is worth anything. 

Except maybe the clown. 

Then again, it might just be that one bandit who’s into that. 

Ane sits back down on the edge of her bed as the kettle begins to whistle. If they made off with enough of the caravan’s money, it’s going to make the next town interesting. 

“Interesting” in the way that two-headed gurran calves are interesting. 

She makes a mental note to buy more mica, or see if Vaidna has any — Ane is probably going to need it when Jarrik inevitably begins pushing them to do more Half-Light Shows. She rubs at the side of her face with a soft groan, momentarily ignoring the shrieking kettle. The robbery may be done (or nearly so), but she can tell the effects are far from over.

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

Concerning the Trumba, Golem Composites

Lhorisian Neghast, Rim-Seer of Quill and Leather

Ninth of Antegaust, Year Four-Thirty and Three of the Shattered Sun

Recommendation: Study and Augury

 

Shape

The trumba are a grazing creature known all across the world. These lumbering, snorting, roving beasts act with dim-eyed complacency. They roam from one grassland to another in vast herds, blanketing the land in the coarse fur of their backs. From afar, trumba are creatures like any other — albeit much smaller than gurran behemoths, and much larger than ikkapo, deer, and such. They feed on the land, and their broad backs can bear enormous, perhaps impossible amounts of weight. In other words, they are the perfect beast of burden, and have been bred across the world as such. 

What say we, then, to the fact that they have limbs and hearts of stone?

This is no flourish of poetry; it is fact. The peasantry, oft accustomed to trumba, may confuse this material for a sort of bone, or hold it in no particular regard. Trumba are creatures of the earth, so of course, why would they not be composed of earth? And yet, the stone is otherworldly, and not common to this realm’s soil. This line of thinking quickly fails to those who have studied, treated, or even dissected living fauna. Dissecting a trumba, in comparison, requires not just a scalpel but also a hammer and pick of considerable weight. 

The stone in their bodies melds quite perfectly to the flesh. This Seer attempted to find seams or transitions, but if such exist, they are too precise to observe. The stone and flesh act together in perfect union. At its core is a heart-substitute, an orb composed of white stone, threads of glowing shardmatter, and tubes for blood flow. This heart is not an organ, but an artifact — one that multiplies when trumba mate with one another in the animal fashion. 

In fact, the trumba is not a grazing animal as we know them. This Seer has gazed into their bellies, and instead of grass, found dirt in large quantities. They graze upon the soil itself. 

Truth

Trumba are clearly creatures of artifice. This would exempt them from a Rimseer’s scrutiny; however, this Seer asserts that they were not crafted by mortal hands. Trumba most resemble the golems crafted by the Synithe, denizens of the realm of law and rhythm. The signs of this connection are as follows:

Trumba react to particular rhythms, tones, and chimes in an ordered fashion. Consider the story of a trumba shepherd who affixed copper bells to his herd’s necks. When the trumba set to marching, the shepherd found that the entire flock migrated exactly dexward, each in a perfect line from the original position. No amount of driving, whipping, or cajoling could alter this course. Similar stories arise all across the world,  though the tones, materials, and rhythms are too particular to be reproduced without careful design. This Seer’s own attempts have only yielded a chime to make trumba defecate on command. 

The second sign of otherworldly influence is that people, too, may merge with golemic material. The city of Rhytalo, which the Synithe use as an outpost to our realm, frequently dumps large amounts of golemic waste as products of their work. This oft includes discarded golem limbs, otherworldly stone, and rarely,  golemic cores similar to the hearts of the trumba. Even a novice surgeon may insert such a core into the socket of a severed limb, and then attach the appropriate golemic material. As a result, there are roving bands of half-golem brigands that subsist upon unwary travellers. They are a sort of walking, talking trumba, in a sense. Perhaps they eat dirt as well.

Consider, then: if trumba may be controlled by sound, why not these half-golem brigands?

Purpose and Lament

The Synithe are renowned for their efficiency, certainty in purpose, and blind obedience to Fayt, the god of Rhythm and Order.

Why would such beings create a perfectly obedient species, and then discard it?

Why would they allow layfolk to merge with the discarded material?

Perhaps the purpose is the same as that of their master: order and obedience. The trumba serve a niche in society, one that is not well-served by any of the natural fauna. Of them, gurran behemoths are too large, the leaping alosins are too unsteady, and the ikkapo are too weak to bear substantial burden. Trumba are the only recourse for wandering caravans, and trade is the lifeblood of any society. 

Consider, then: Fayt, and thus the Synithe, may control a major aspect of world trade. To exert influence, they would only need to create a bell of substantial enough size. One may dismiss this as typical Rimseer paranoia. However, if the Synithe were truly threatened, they could not only threaten world trade, but also control legions of half-golem brigands. 

The Synithe may otherwise shun such imperfect soldiers, but in a moment of desperation, would Fayt truly turn away from a tool?

In any case, trumba are easier research subjects than other half-golems. This Seer laments the challenge of finding a curious, willing brigand, and the proper bell for testing.

Teller of Fortunes 2-2: Foreboding Peace

(Welcome! Teller of Fortunes is a serial work of fantasy fiction. Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning.)

Almost immediately after the wagons stop, people begin to pile out and prepare for mealtime. People tend to get anxious when cooped up for so long, and it sends them rushing out to socialize and meal in one another’s company once again. 

 Ane changes out of her robe for the first time in a few days, after what felt like an interminable stretch of waking up, washing up in her wagon, combing her hair, and putting her robe on again. She’s happy to get out onto solid ground — enough that she whistles while she walks to take her place in line for dinner. 

As Ane walks out amongst the troupe, many others are similarly carefree. The mercenaries are strung tighter than a bowstring, but everyone else’s pleased as pie. By the look of things, one group has immediately gathered near Brair’s tent and started to crack open his stash with him. It won’t be long before they’re all busting out into song, celebrating this reprieve from abject boredom and (assumed) sobriety. 

Not everyone is sharing in this mood, however. Some of the troupe, like Vasht the knife-thrower and Nelea the animal tamer, seem to be sharing in the same wary temperament as the guards. It’s a simple sort of wisdom: when the people protecting are nervous, it might be a good idea to keep one’s eyes open. This isn’t particularly typical for them, either; during good times, they’ve been known to get as sloshed as everyone else.

Today, the actors Jiselmo and Korin are cooking. Generally, they never agree to let the other do it alone. The reason why is immediately apparent when Ane arrives at the two of them. 

“Oh come now Korin, you know I can be trusted,” Jiselmo says in a wounded tone. “I’d never prank anyone after so long in the wagons.”

“I’m not so sure…” The many-winged Korin says with a sigh. “Hello Ane,” he greets the Teller of Fortunes, and passes her a plate.

“Hello!” She says brightly, eagerly holding out her plate for something that isn’t jerky and berries. If nothing else, her stomach (and, by extension, her wagon’s chamber pot) will be grateful for an actual meal.

Jiselmo, with a fae glint in his eyes, passes her a hunk of honeyed vulre, spiced to perfection. It’s steaming and radiating a savory, fire-cooked scent that really sets the senses alight. When Jiselmo is behaving, he really is an excellent cook. “Ane, tell him that I am virtuous and pure, and would never do such a thing,” he says with an impish smile. 

She gives Korin a deadpan hum.

“Jiselmo says to tell you he wouldn’t prank anyone,” she replies, before turning to abscond with her dinner. 

She isn’t sure where to sit today — Brair’s group seems a bit much right now, and she doesn’t want to be pressed into sampling his concoctions at the moment. Vasht and Nelea, while quieter, have a jumpy aura that’s bound to rub off on her. 

Ane finds a log to sit on. She can catch strains of conversation as they’re carried on the breeze, enjoy her meal in relative peace, and take in the open sky without anyone’s drunken singing or anxious whispering. 

As Ane sits and observes, the two groups both seem to be progressing in their own respective moods. There’s laughter and song coming from Brair’s group, which swells as the time passes. In contrast, Vasht and Nelea are now collecting a small huddle of sorts. Their anxious demeanor seems to have faded, firming instead into a sort of resolve. A couple of others are seen joining them, including Aedas and, occasionally, the tipsy Brair who would amble over to try to spread his cheer. The mercenary Narue also joins them for a time, before wandering off herself.

Soon, the armored tzuskar approaches, currently with a lazy gait and a plate of honeyed vulre. She’s wearing her hair down today, apparently feeling a fair sight more relaxed than she did in the shadowlands. She wanders up to the log that Ane is using as a seat, smiling in her usual, easygoing way.

“Hello, got room on this log?” She asks.

“Sure,” Ane replies, scooting over a few inches. There’s plenty of room, but it’s as good a welcoming gesture as any when her hands are sticky with honey sauce. 

Narue the caravan guard sits down with a light thump, not bothering to cushion the weight of her armor. Fortunately it’s a sturdy log, and Narue is otherwise lean besides.

“It’s like lookin’ at two different camps today,” she appraises, forking into the meat. “I could cover one eye and switch troupes.”

“Mm… I wish I could say that that’s just Brair and Vasht for you, but I’d be half-lying. Brair needs a tankard of Rhytalan coffee, and Vasht needs about seven naps,” Ane says, as she pulls a piece of meat from the bone, “They’re dealing with the shortage of guards in their own particular ways, I guess.”

“Seems like it,” the tzuskar appraises, glancing between the two of them. Brair’s group has even kicked up into a silly dance contest of sorts, with the triplets and Jiselmo (leaving the cooking to Korin) trading off first. Jiselmo can’t help but add in a little slapstick, bellyflopping to the ground before hunching his shoulders and arching his back, edging along to the beat like an inching worm.

She chews for a second, then shrugs. “Yeah… That other group seems to be strategizin’. Not really my thing. I just fly around and bop things. Gracefully, mind, but not strategically,” she says with a bob of her fork. 

“Not sure how they’re going to strategize against an enemy they don’t know exists yet, can’t see, and don’t have enough bucketheads to beat back even if they did,” Ane replies, “No offense.”

“Well, about that first part…” She swivels in her seat slightly, and uses her fork to point off further down the road. Somewhere off the main path, there’s a rather large column of smoke. 

Narue shrugs. “It could be nothing. But if I had to give ya my gut’s feeling — y’know, aside from feeling full of this meat — I’d say they’d benefit from coming up with something.”

“Could be a cabin or a hunting lodge. Either way, we don’t know if it’s none, three, or thirty attackers– what’re we even able to do that we aren’t doing already? Force a faster march?” 

“Something weird, probably,” she says simply. “That’s what this sort of troupe is supposed to do, right?” She asks with a grin.

“Sure,” Ane says, growing quietly pensive for a moment, “We’re just performers, though. Aedas is strong, Nelea has gelthounds, Brair has fire, I can swing a club, and Vasht is… Vasht, but weird doesn’t mean powerful, really.”

Narue shrugs a shoulder. “I can vouch for you swingin’ a club, but I’ve heard about you pulling off something clever once in a while… and whatever got you that puffroot pile,” she says, with a playful smile. “Anyway… I think that lot’s kinda stuck,” she says, nodding towards Vasht, Nelea and Company.

“They tried to rope me into their talk, but I’m not good at all that… so I said I was gonna come bug you instead. They seemed int’rested in what you’d have to say.” She shrugs. “I recommend poppin’ by, they could probably use a fresh thought… and some puffroot,” she smirks. 

“Well, if they need some, they know where to find it,” Ane grouses through the wry smile tugging at honey-stickied lips, “Maybe we’ll luck out and find bandits that like smoking. I can get my wagon back, and get them to leave us alone…” She pinches the end of a picked-clean bone in her fingertips, before tossing it aside for one of the strays following the caravan. “Of course, if it’s advice they want… Be vigilant, but for shit’s sake don’t overthink it. We got through the shadowlands alright, we’ll just have to batten down, be prepared, and not lose sleep. I know Vasht takes security seriously, but he’s going to send himself to an early grave if he doesn’t learn to let go.”

“Heh, sounds like good advice,” she appraises, examining one of the bones she’s nibbled-clean. “Might wanna figure a neat place to hide your coin, though. If it’s bandits, and those geniuses don’t get a keen idea,” she makes a looping gesture towards the lead wagon. “We’ll probably just have to let ourselves be robbed. It ain’t pretty, but sometimes it keeps your head on your neck. I know we don’t have enough guards to do the same.”

“Great. I can tell ‘em my money’s at the bottom of a sack of puffroot. Maybe I’ll get lucky,” Ane remarks dryly. 

“You’ve got several sacks to choose from, if I’ve heard right,” Narue says, with a grin that sends her smirk-wing a-flutter. “Hey, at least if we get robbed, I can see what the bandits around here look like! I hear they look all crazy, with golem bits n’ whatnot stuck to ‘em.”

“Probably. Just set Jarrik loose on ‘em, let him talk them into becoming the next part of the show. People elsewhere might pay some decent coin to see a man-golem.”

“I know I would! I bet it makes them all strong-like,” she figures, tapping her chin. “Maybe if we get robbed, I can just… shake one of their hands really hard,” she supposes. “You know, steal it and be the one with the neat gimmick.”

“I don’t think getting golem parts is an outpatient procedure, Rue,” Ane’s never seen one, granted, but she doesn’t exactly think she needs to in order to draw some conclusions.

“Aw,” Narue wilts, drooping her wings. It’s hard to tell how serious she’s being. “I can’t just slip on a golem-glove and start doing heroics? That’s too bad.” She kicks a nearby stone across the grass. “Oh well. I oughta go figure out a new life goal,” she says, and hops to her feet. “See you later!” She waves briskly, about to wander off on her way. 

“See you,” Ane says with a nod. She stands as well, dusting chips of bark from her backside before she goes to return her plate to the communal wash basin. 

As she makes the short walk back to her wagon, a sense of foreboding begins to gnaw at her. Will Vasht ask her to be a lookout again? Possibly, though there’s no reason to ask her over any of the others with actual eyes. The shadowlands was one thing, but here… 

Her nostrils flare slightly as she breathes deep, straining to pick up the scent of smoke. It seems like ordinary woodsmoke from here, and tells her nothing. It could be a hunting lodge — is probably a hunting lodge — but there’s no way to tell from this distance. 

From Ane’s vantage point, that column of smoke could be a lodge… though it’s rather thick, like what one may expect from an open flame. Then again, it might just be a big fire outside of a lodge, or a big lodge. 

Vasht’s group does certainly look concerned enough. They’re still in the middle of talking, even now that the plates are mostly cleaned. During one of the lulls in the conversation, Nelea glances up with a worried look, seemingly in Ane’s direction. She’s a rather shy sort, so she doesn’t call out or beckon where another might. There’s a tentative look about her. Seconds later, the conversation tugs her back in. 

Ane catches her look, but she may just want her to try to talk Vasht down from… whatever it is Vasht is currently Vashting. If it’s that important, Nelea knows where her wagon is. She gives her a small wave, but she’s already been pulled back into the circle. 

With a shrug, Ane turns away to return to her wagon. As nice as it is to have gotten outside, even if it’s just for a meal, she can feel herself growing antsy. A vision would be a welcome way to pass the next stretch of the journey, but it strikes her as a bad idea — as helpful as it might be to ride a passing bird or smeerp and see ahead, that would also leave her virtually helpless until her limbs decide to reawaken and her mind falls back into itself. 

Twenty four hours later…

 

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

Teller of Fortunes 2-1: Second Trail Begins

(Welcome to the second season! Whether you’re picking up from before or joining us anew, we’re happy to have you along for the ride. Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning.)

The wagons of the Varroon Troupe roll ever onward. They slowly trundle along the main road, wheels bouncing over rocks, as the caravan leaves Paakoponde behind. Even as the Eternalist capital fades into the distance, the boggy mist of its outland remains. Without the shardflies around to brighten the haze, it becomes all the more foreboding. Weather like this often heralds the arrival of trouble… whether its bandits, a broken wagon wheel, or a wagon wheel strategically broken by bandits.

Fortunately, this isn’t a concern for Ane, at least at the moment. 

She has some time to herself in the wagon, something that’s often in great abundance. The only difference is that now she shares it with the spoils of her prior adventures: a cheerful little slipshell totem and several large bundles of puffroot. The slipshell is currently sitting beside one of them, reptilian eyes gleaming, looking rather pleased with itself. Given the dream Ane had the other day, it must be rather fond of smoking. 

In a moment of indulgence, Ane even sprinkles a little puffroot over a coal in her katagon brazier. Without hands, the slipshell can’t really smoke puffroot, but maybe it — or whatever entity it represents — might enjoy being offered some nonetheless. 

The little statue seems quite pleased, at least judging by its expression. Even though it’s just stone, the curve of the smile and the divots of the eyes are just inscrutable enough to make the imagination run wild. Even a slight shift in shadow or heat can make the difference between a stoic line and a silly little smile. Right now, it seems both sagacious and grateful. The incense also lends an odd little halo of haze to the creature, as if it’s taking in the fumes and basking in them. Thusly pleased, it sits silently while Ane goes about her tasks. 

Now, she sits on the vulre hide in front of her stove, wrapped in her blanket and holding a hand full of cards. The remainder of the cigarillo is perched between her lips, sweet, silvery smoke rising and drifting on the chilly, humid air. She narrows her swirls as she hums at the cards, shifting the cigarillo to the other side of her lips as she moves one particular card to the front.

The Shard, The Sailwhale, The Twisting Root, The Paenarch… All upright, all in their positive aspects. Luck, contentment, industry, tradition. 

And then there’s this one. The Clap-vole reversed.

Where The Clap-vole represents partnership, symbolizing the little cooperative circles where the voles clack and crack hard-shelled nuts together, The Clap-vole reversed takes a more sinister bent. There, the partnership is no longer that of fat, happy clap-voles cracking nuts together — it’s clap-voles and okkapli, the enormous, wasplike creatures that use the clap-voles to hatch their eggs. It is exploitation, and danger brought by good intentions.

For all intents and purposes, things seem to be going well for the caravan. Paakoponde netted them a tidy profit, and more puffroot and appohs than they know what to do with.

So what’s next…?

Ane exhales a curl of smoke, as her fingertips brush The Clap-vole’s round, chubby, painted cheeks. 

Hopefully it won’t be a large, hellish, stinging horror that likes to gnaw out a person’s flesh and lay their eggs inside. That would not be an ideal follow-up to any good trip.

For the most part, she leaves a lavender silk scarf tied to the latch of her window-shutters to signal the supply riders when she gets hungry enough. Unfortunately for her, she’s often bored enough to lose herself in reading, drawing, divination, or meditation, so she frequently finds herself hungry long after the food has been eaten and the long-necked alosins dismounted.

Luckily she still has a couple of appohs, though hers have started to go a bit soft and mealy by now. At one point, she debates bothering Brair for some of his — she can’t figure out how to clamber between wagons while carrying some puffroot to strategically abandon on his porch, though, so she doesn’t follow through with the idea.

Fortunately, the alosin is often quick to come at her signal. At one point, less than even ten minutes after she put up the scarf, Ane’s window is visited by a lone mercenary on alosin-back. The chainmailed, curl-horned callosian rides the bounding beast up to her window, then settles it into a trot at the same pace as the load-bearing trumba. 

“Rations!” He calls into the window, and passes a parcel in through. Within is a fairly meager meal, just barely enough for most people: salted meat with some foraged greens and berries. Fortunately, the caravan is pretty well stocked after hitting Paakoponde. It’s better than some times in the past, at least, when it was all pemmican and knobs of what was either very old bread or very strange cheese.

“‘Rations,’ he says,” she murmurs, as she opens the parcel. 

They treat this like a forced military march.

Such is the way of mercenaries. Generally, they always seem to get worse when there’s way too many, or far too few. There’s a happy medium where they’re content, but not too uppity, and this certainly isn’t it. Thinking back, not many people joined up to defend the troupe back in Paakoponde… At this point, there are still fewer guards than there was prior to the shadowlands — or worse, fewer than even there was before Pellas. Glancing out the window, it seems they can’t even cover the entire train.

Given the way that one rode away so quickly, it seems like they’re a tad anxious… This must be a rough place in the route. Given what Ane has seen, it does make some sense; Paako hardly even used town guards, let alone anyone to watch the roads. It’s all well and good to rely on monks to defend a town square, but they do nothing for the miles and miles of road heading out of the region. 

The caravan goes on like this for about half a week, before the wagons finally begin to roll to a stop. The mist has begun to lift, though some of it still clings to the landscape as a vague haze. A simple glimpse out the window shows that the caravan has moved quite far. The forests of Paakoponde have completely receded, giving way to chilly highlands. While this is certainly no mountaintop, it seems the wagons have ascended up a plateau of sorts. Gazing in one direction across the grassy hill, one can see all the way back to the great forest.

In the other direction, there’s an old, familiar sight: the tall, gray octagon on the horizon that represents Rhytalo. Ane has never been very close, given its general intolerance for circuses and the like. But it’s always been a sight to see even in the distance, with its layers upon layers of citadel walls, its massive chime-towers that dispense low, slow moving shapes on the far plains… And occasionally, when one listens carefully, they can hear the signal chimes that supposedly move the city’s golem garrison.

This far out, the caravan is safe from the umbrella of Rhytalo’s crushing authority… but also outside of its protection.

 

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

Teller of Fortunes 27: First Trail End

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. This is the last entry in this season, and we will  take a brief hiatus as we prepare for the next part. Thank you for reading, please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! We love to hear from you.)

Ane beats a swift retreat back to her wagon. It’s quieter there, and nobody will ask her about strange deliveries of produce, or the results of her strange daily adventures. She can finish that cigarillo, maybe meditate a little bit, see how her bolete tincture is starting to get on, even talk to the stone slipshell for a little while – she’s certain it must house some strange spirit within. 

Ane lets herself in through the half-door of her rustic, weather-worn wagon, and bolts it shut behind her. Minutes later, she’s back in her robe, lying beneath her window with the music of an old song crystal filling the wagon and a pot of geltsear leaf tea steeping beside her bed.

She probably should’ve foreseen that the monk was going to end up in the caravan. Hopefully he doesn’t get himself killed by the first troupe of bandits they come across — it’s not likely he’ll end up safely housed, unless he has some previously-undisclosed talent for juggling, puppetry, contortionism, or the like. 

Ane pours herself a generous cup of tea, watching a few stray leaves twirl and dance in the current. As she raises it to her lips for a sip, she reclines against her pillows to ready herself for the long road ahead. The trail to grand S’varga is long and fraught with danger, but great profit and adventure await in those deep, cavernous atriums and amongst its underground city spires.

Across the room, the slipshell totem stands vigil over a bloodstained page. His dull, uncritical eyes belie a gentle guardian, one that cannot fathom the danger to come.

Where one trail ends, another begins.

The caravan rolls on.

Teller of Fortunes 26: Warm Reception

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. Thank you for reading, please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! We love to hear from you.)

It’s the morning before the caravan leaves Paakoponde. Shardflies are buzzing against the curtains, rears aglow with warm light, some starting to slip in across the windowsill. Normally the wagons would have been rolling by now, but the ground is rather marshy and uncooperative in these parts. Sounds of labor last night signalled trouble with one of the wagon wheels. Given the ingenuity of the troupe, the caravan’s sure to be moving again after breakfast.

As Ane shifts, a bundle of puffroot gently thwaps against her forehead. It must have been precariously shoved into a cupboard during her attempts to wrangle the tide of local “gifts.” She’s managed to stay in her wagon since then, but others are bound to be curious. After all, there was a literal procession of bundle-bearing locals heading in and out of her tent, all thanks to her unintentionally standing in for the local oracle. Anyway, the scent of sizzling, savory eggs soon wafts its way into her wagon, sending out the call to go join the others. 

She mutters a soft curse as she bats a shardfly away from her head, before easing herself into a sitting position with a broad stretch. The scent of the smoke has long since dissipated, leaving behind only the barest traces of its sweet, fruity aroma mingled with incense and the smell of dried puffroot. It’s far from an unpleasant smell, but it’s one that’s probably going to start wearing on her after awhile.

After washing her face, combing and braiding her hair, and dressing in a comfortable chemise and a skirt of saffron-colored cotton, Ane heads out to pick up some breakfast and see if anyone she knows is a closet smoking enthusiast.

This morning, peering through the mist, Ane sees that the food line is rather short. All around, the more able-bodied members of the camp are already getting busy prepping the wagons. Apparently many had to awaken early to continue the work of last night. At the moment, it seems they’re almost finished; there are boards under the wagon wheels, the trumba are hitched, and there’s a clear path back to the main road. 

The food line passes in a breeze — a quick step up to Vasht, the sleepy-eyed knife thrower, who’s taking a rare shift at cooking. It’s just as well, since he only really knows how to cook eggs, and there’s a small stock of them leftover from the city. He gives a worn smile when Ane arrives, and uses a spoon to scooch breakfast onto her plate. 

“Welcome to the morning. Glad to see you didn’t float off on a cloud last night,” he says with a hint of mirth, while preparing the next batch. 

Ane gives him a wry, sheepish grin as she accepts the eggs.

“That obvious, huh?” She says, briefly catching her lower lip in her teeth, “Well… What can I say? I’m good with customers.”

He lets out a chuckle. “Right… Well,” he smirks, and motions off towards the current circle of people eating. The lot of them, including Brair the fire breather, the dancer triplets, the actors Jiselmo, Korin, and the animal tamer Nelea are all looking in Ane’s direction with amusement in their expressions. There are more than a few sets of lofted brows amongst them.

Vasht, scraping off a pan, adds, “Maybe you can share some of your tricks, and a cigarillo or two.” He gives her a wry smile that sets the vestigial wing over his left eye a-fluff. “Off you go, can’t keep them waiting all morning,” he says, scraping off a pan. 

Ane darts a glance over her shoulder at the lofted brows and amused grins. When she looks back at Vasht, her lips are pursed in an expression that’s half chagrined, and half miffed at his teasing. 

“Careful what you ask for, or you’ll have six pounds of puffroot on your doorstep,” she chides him, as she turns to find a place to sit. She’s tempted to find somewhere where she’ll endure less ribbing, but, after yesterday, she at least owes them somewhat of an explanation…

When she arrives, the atmosphere is certainly jovial. Jiselmo even raises his hands to begin clapping, though Korin intercepts by smacking them down. Perhaps after the ribbing he endured himself previously, he’s inclined to return the favor for Ane. This doesn’t stop the more mildly amused of from grinning, with Brair being the first to comment.

 “Well… I see our troupe’s other top performer just decided to wake up.” He beams, then bites into an appoh — likely one of many. Munching around it, he says, “Thoughf I don’f think it waf my shirtlesh fire twilin,” he swallows, “had them flocking!”

The others chuckle. The triplets lean forward in unison, with Zila pillowing her chin on her hands. 

“Ane, you just have to tell us your method. We practiced very hard at being triple-topless, and now you’re a puffroot magnate!”

Ane sits down on the edge of the group, shoulders hunched a little over her plate of eggs. Her cheeks burn with embarrassment and she prods the fluffy mass with her fork, muttering softly.

“I just pulled some cards, that’s all.”

Even so, a grin — somewhere between amusement and self-consciousness — tugs at the corner of her lips.

Jiselmo kind of shimmies his head, not a shake, but a general spasm of bewilderment. “Well what did you pull for them? Did you predict that their vulre will go on to a top university?”

“None would even explain their activity,” Nelea says, while petting one of the troupe’s trained gelts with her broad, gloved hand. “It was truly bizarre,” she says, looking at the creature. 

“Not even the ones that gave me appohs would explain it! They just kept spouting, ‘Thank to foreign shaman’ and left to get more!” He says, practically in a laugh as he throws his arms wide. “They didn’t even give a damn about all the fire, either!”

Okay,” Ane says, pointing her fork accusatorily at Brair, “In my defense, I didn’t know how many appohs they had. Or puffroot,” she says, before taking a forkful of eggs, “Obvioufly.”

“To Jiselmo’s point,” Nelea says, “It must have been quite a fortune to tell. I’ve had three vulre go off to college, and I wasn’t that excited,” she says with a warm, albeit dry, sort of humor.

“Yeah! Why were they so grateful? It must have been a pretty high-quality grift,” Jiselmo appraises, crossing his arms and nodding authoritatively. “It’d make ‘ol Jarrik green with envy, with that kind of yield!”

“Well, if Jarrik wants to figure out how to fence about three dozen pounds of puffroot, he’s welcome to his cut,” Ane says sourly, “Besides… You all know what I do. That one lady asked a question, I answered it, she asked how to pay me, since she didn’t have much money… I asked her to give Brair some appohs. She asked if I wanted anything for myself, I figured a pouch of puffroot might be nice. I never expected it to end up so…”

She gestures toward her wagon with a vigorous wave of her hand. 

“High?” Jiselmo offers glibly. 

Ane pins the end of her egg-laden fork with a fingertip, poising it to catapult its payload straight at him.

“‘S enough out of you.”

Through some kind of age-old reflex, Jiselmo immediately ducks behind Korin. He peers over the tzuskar’s upper-wing, not even disturbing the man as he continues to eat. “Just saying!” He calls from behind his fortification, then ducks down.

“Well, it’ll make ya good money in the next city,” Brair figures. “As for me, I’ve definitely got enough for that ‘drink the dragon’s fire’ trick,” he says with a grin, rubbing his massive palms together.

Nelea sighs and shakes her head. “Just don’t test it on us or the animals.”

“Really, it’s not a bad idea,” figures Vila, the middle-sister. “You could make some money for Dynkala, if you tell her to prep belly-remedies ahead of time,” she says with a wiley gleam in her eyes. 

“It sounds dangerous to me,” says Wila, clutching her pearls as always. “Really, how ever did you get such a notion…?”

“And if Dynkala doesn’t want to, the other herbalist probably can — whatsername. Vaidna,” Ane adds, “Though honestly, Brair, you could probably start brewing your own liquor from scratch with all those appohs.”

“Huh, you’re right,” he agrees, furrowing his ridge of a brow. “A lot of it, too… Might go well with the other stuff. It’d be easier to sell than all the blasted appohs, if we don’t eat them first,” he figures, while a camp follower wanders by and takes his empty plate for him.

“At least Ane won’t have to be on backup-duty for the medic wagon when you get them all sick,” Wila chides him. “Really, hearthfire vinegar,” she shakes her head, as someone wanders by and takes the triplets’ empty plates. 

“Thank you, such a dear,” Vila mutters, as the three of them settle back into their seats. 

“Phf, a little digestive charcoal, some white clay tablets, a bit of stomach powder… hearthfire vinegar never killed anybody,” Ane replies.

Then a robed callosian wanders by and accepts her empty plate with a broad hand.

“Thank-,” she begins to say. Something about him jogs her memory, though, as she eyes his robe with a curious hum. That is certainly an Eternalist robe. Is he… the monk she met a few days ago? He never gave a name.

“You are most welcome,” says the dark-braided callosian, bobbing his head.

As he takes Jiselmo’s plate, he shrugs and thanks him as well. Jiselmo has still been hiding behind Korin’s back this whole time, but finally seems to be forgetting Ane’s promise of catapulting.

Korin’s the one who blinks, and as the callosian wanders away with the plates, he wonders aloud. 

“Wait a second… why is a burly monk doing our dishes?”

“I can get used to it,” Zila says cheerfully, with a waggle of her eyebrows. 

Vila gives her a cross look, and huffs. 

“Well, he might be some use against a bandit raid,” she says, averting her gaze. 

Ane presses her fingertips to her temples, and attempts to stifle a soft groan. So far, she’s netted the caravan thirty six pounds of puffroot, probably four times that of appohs… And one adventurous monk.

“I’ll see you lot later. I’ve got to go before anything else shows up.”

“See you later, Ane!” Brair calls to her, waving his arm. He seems quite happy with the outcome, given his wealth of ale-fodder.

“See you, Ane,” Zila bids her dreamily, resting a hand upon her flushed cheek. Naturally, she’s not even looking in the fortune teller’s direction, but rather, at the monk currently scrubbing dishes with his oh-so-strong hands. 

Like a fly-trap, the caravan accumulates strange travelers and friends by the day.