Chapter Nine: The Vagabond's Library
The shelves making up the legendary Sylvan Tomes stood innocuously over the soft cover of mud. Incredibly, the combined weight of the shelves and their loads of books did not seem to have any effect at all. It was as if they had simply not been informed that their bulk ought to be at the bottom of a mud puddle by now-- either that or they had got the message but were too proud to comply.
Creeping closer, Eidolyn began to notice that the shelves weren't of any kind of construction she'd seen before. Shelves made by people are pieces of wood fitted together with nails. Shelves made by people are imperfect, with little gaps and protrusions caused by equally imperfect measuring tools and the uneven passes of saw blades. These shelves, by all appearances, seemed to have been shaped in their current form from single pieces of wood. And each shelf felt organic, but lifeless. It wasn't lumber, or even a living tree like the furniture in Shard's house. It was as if a force of nature had poured the essence of wood into a mold for a shelf and tempered it with primal fire and countless eons. And Eidolyn couldn't at the time point out precisely why, but the sight of it was somehow frightening, as if it portended to something her subconscious knew she'd rather not know about. The Sylvan Tomes were a majestic sight, but the shelves alone were simultaneously beautiful and fearsome in their perfection.
Because imperfection was beautiful, too. Glorious, familiar imperfection that led to pocks, gashes, dents, blemishes and stains that all told a story and acted as proof that they were just as flawed as their observer. Flaws in objects are comforting, and the closer an object approaches real, immaculate perfection, the more strongly it inspires hostile, xenophobic fear in those cursed with mortality.
Oddly enough, the books they were stocked with were generally not at all what she would have expected. Yes, some of them covered lofty subjects such as magic, evolution, the nature and intention of the gods and geological history, but a few of them were so absurdly mundane that she nearly asked the question that Gryphon beat her to:
“Say... do you think that the Sylvan Tomes are some sort of library that's come alive and wandered off from a city?” Gryphon flew into the ring of shelves, dispassionately examining the books like a cow trying to appreciate a fork.
“Nonsense, the Sylvan Tomes are ancient. I'd reckon that they're where people got the idea for books in the first place.” Shard was standing decidedly clear of the Sylvan Tomes, but gestured Eidolyn forward. “Go on. The best way to ensure encountering the Sylvan Tomes a second time is to borrow a book. But be sure you return it. The Tomes do not abide with thieves.”
The prospect of removing a book from the shelves was a daunting one, akin in Eidolyn's mind to reaching into the gullet in a hole in reality and hoping that nature was feeling generous. And doing so with a swamp as the backdrop did not do anything to bolster her belief in the compassion of nature. But then, if she did nothing, the regret would be crippling.
The moment she stepped forward, Shard added, “Choose wisely.”
And Eidolyn stopped. Why must she choose wisely? What was at stake?
“You only get one choice. Oh—and do care you don't splash about too much.”
Oh. Well, that was fair enough. The Sylvan Tomes did contain a great number of books of all sorts, but taking more than one book seemed like it would make one a greedy cheat. She thought of the recommendation that, upon finding a genie which grants wishes, to wish for more wishes every time one arrives at their final wish. Of course, that never works; a genie is obligated to grant your wishes, but that does not mean that it is obligated to not melt, explode or disintegrate you.
But just choosing one book! That should be simple. Eidolyn presumed that she was allotted as much time to make her decision as was required, and that she'd be able to get a good look at her prospective choices before making her selection. Striding into the shelves' midst so as to dissuade her quaking knees found her much more at ease than she anticipated. For one thing, the ground inside the shelves was firm, despite by all appearances being an oozing mud puddle. This was, she supposed, how the Tomes compensated for the fact that not every place that they might appear could be safe and pleasant.
There must have been hundreds of books surrounding her, and at first, she could not even read any of the titles, for all of her skittish excitement. Rather, she skipped over all of them as if she could glean their usefulness simply from their color, size and binding. Well, that was right out, she mused to herself. Going by the old rule of magical artifacts, the most valuable book would be one that was bound in threadbare cloth, or which had no cover at all, bound with stiff string and stained with dirt.
Actually, there were a couple that were like that. And at first none of the titles seemed to demand her immediate attention:
“Springtime Musings; A Primer on Using the Weather to Predict Coin Tosses; A History of Dwarven Cheese-Smithing; Forty Fortnights in Featheridge; Last of the Autumn Ale; Poems for the Deposed Monarch; Thirty-Three Odes to Sofia...”
Chuckling, she withdrew one book and held it up to Shard, even as he returned the gesture with a startled gasp. “Shard, I think this one ought to be for you.”
She did not have enough time to be perturbed at his ignoring her joke, for the moment she slid the book free of its home, the Sylvan Tomes blinked away into the murk without any sound, gentle puff of smoke or violent flash of light. And she, Shard and Gryphon plunged waist deep into the cold mud.
For a moment, Shard's jaw quivered. He seemed to be teetering between either indulging himself with an angry tantrum or a fit of tears. “My fault; I should have mentioned that the tomes disappear once you remove a book from the shelf.”
“That may,” she said gently, “Have been a piece of information of greater importance than not getting mud on you.”
“Well? What was so amusing that you had to wrench it from the clutches of infinity to show me?”
Amazingly, the book that Eidolyn had taken from the Sylvan Tomes was the only thing nearby that wasn't covered in runny mud. Even the mud on her fingers respectfully refused to soil the cover of the attractive book. Noticing this as well, Shard leaned in to peruse it.
The Arduous Journey of Innocence Reclaimed: A Preening Peacock's Guide to Not Being a Thieving Little Twit was bound precisely and exquisitely in wine-red leather and stamped in gold leaf framed by ornate brass corner protectors. No author was given.
“Well, it does suit you,” Eidolyn said smugly to Shard's mud-smeared scowl. “Nothing for it now but to take it with us, I suppose. I'm sure that it, at least, contains some practical advice that at least one of us will benefit from.”
He was far too busy squirming in his chill, sticky prison to silently search his library of witticisms, and likely overwhelmed with grief over the fate of his white shirt. “Good gods,” Shard gasped as he wrung great gritty clumps of mud and stringy bits of decaying plant matter from his body and flung them away, where the swamp assimilated them welcomingly.
Eidolyn did the same, but wiping the superficial mud from her upper body only served to sink her deeper. “Gryphon? Mittens? Are you still back there?” She wasn’t sure why she called to Mittens, who was unable to reply, but it did seem unfair to exclude it based on that fact alone.
“Yeh luv.” The unmistakeable sound of fur and feathers frantically slapping and clawing the surface of a mud pit issued from behind them. “In the middle o' me first mud-baff, and I can't say I understand the appeal.”
“Splendid!” Shard shouted happily as the poor dirty basket, who'd been dropped into the mud as well, trudged through the muck over to Eidolyn. “Then you can escape, and help us out of this.”
“Ahh, fine,” Gryphon called back. “But I’m saving Eidolyn first!”
“I would have asked you to anyway,” Shard grinned triumphantly from his muddy prison as Gryphon went back to pulling himself to freedom with his muscular limbs.
“Hmph! I hope dere’s baneburrow bugs in your side o’ the puddle!”
It took some time, but they did eventually manage to pull themselves free.
“Why don’t we take Mittens over the treetops once we find a clearing?” Eidolyn asked, once again wiping herself as free of mud as she could manage. At this point she wondered what the point was if she'd just get dirty again anyway. The book from the Sylvan Tomes was enviously clean, and she'd managed to save it from the mud pit. She made a point of putting it away in the basket where it would not get lost until it could be returned. “If we can see the lights of South Sable, we won’t have to use a spell that might bring the shadelings around.”
Shard, with pained wistfulness, looked up above the canopy where the clear, pure light of day lazily wafted through points of least resistance, then scattered aimlessly through the humid air, so saturated by pollen and stink and mist that the light lost what little ambition it had and was dispersed into a purposeless gold haze. “We could make faster progress, certainly.” From across their island of dry ground, he looked over to Mittens where it perched weightlessly on a stunted sapling over them in a thousand colors and a hundred patterns like some obscure grinning god of patchwork quilting. “I’m still concerned about opening ourselves up to my fellow shadelings.”
“Ya know,” Gryphon grinned conspiratorially. “I hear you can keep the bugs off ya by smearing mud all over your skin.”
Shard shuddered. “Right, let’s go, Mittens!”
The growth thickened ahead, and so they were forced, for the time being, to travel on foot beside Mittens, with the fortunate basket clinging, comfortable and dry, to its back. Shivering and growing increasingly irritable, they unanimously determined to travel onward until a suitable gap in the ceiling of dry, stunted leaves could be found that Mittens could carry them over the treetops safely and without injury.
But a clearing never came. They pressed on with varying degrees of enthusiasm the way they had been going and eventually, the sickly ground swallowed the layers of rot and mud so that they were treated to a long stretch of merely slightly damp murk that sucked resentfully at their feet and oozed a bit of dirty water around their soles, the remnants of the swamp’s way of shaking their fist at its escaping victims.
“You know,” Shard spoke, “I’ve never felt much cause to find a way for shadeling feet to wear shoes. Consider my mind changed.”
It was, at least, relieving to walk on ground that fully supported Eidolyn’s weight again, and it came to her only then how much the swamp had exhausted her. Her sides were hurting and her calves ached from the continuous effort of pulling them from the mud and now that she was free of it, the lack of muscle needed to move her legs forward was jarring. The stink had also diminished to a dank, earthy smell, going from “stench” to “odor” with occasional whiffs of “aroma” when they passed places that had fresh rain fallen.
The problem was the darkness as the trees clustered closer together, competing for sunlight and shutting it out almost completely below them. None of them could be aware of it, but they were being drawn into the deceptive maw of the swamp’s inescapable depths, the calm in a confused, disorderly mess of perils that concentrated around a trap of seemingly peaceful wetland. This wasn’t by anyone’s design but how things worked out naturally, and it was impossible to keep an accurate map of the dangers of the swamp, as they shifted seasonally as snow thawed and saturated the ground, spring rains fell and drained north toward the bay, and over the summer and fall the swamp dried out like dry sores in erratic patches. The land rose and fell throughout the year, leaving high water marks to glare down at travelers, islands and pits, ridges and valleys that, in time lapse, would make the swamp itself appear to seethe and bubble. Everything in the swamp thrived in desperate cycles of near oblivion, competing frantically with regretful ruthlessness that acknowledged that everything was in the same situation.
That was, except for one thing, which enjoyed the only life of privilege for many miles, with a steady, slow trickle of travelers through the dark, deceptive center of the swamp.
Above them, the trees crowded their upper branches together, arching menacingly, so completely that most of the daylight was banished above them, almost nothing below growing to its full height except for those that got by on less conventional methods of sustenance--the kind that even people were advised to allow a wide berth. Getting over the canopy here was out of the question, and all Gryphon’s attempts over the hours they slunk through the darkness got him a mane full of thorns and twigs and, as he recounted with an unsettled stutter, “I dun think somefing up there trucks wiv tourists.”
“A bird?” Eidolyn asked.
“I… I couldn’t tell,” Gryphon admitted. “Are dere any birds wot got tentacles?” He flinched at the treetops with a visible twitch.
“Depends on whose bestiary you’re consulting,” Shard muttered.
“Oh dear; it grows even darker up ahead,” Eidolyn observed. In fact, it looked darker than they’d seen it yet, even back into the mire where they’d come from. The realization that the swamp was perfectly silent around them stabbed out of the darkness like a formless phantom in a child’s nightmare, when it’s young enough to not know what to be afraid of but with enough animal instinct to know that whatever it is, it likes dark places.
“At times like this,” Shard mirthfully spoke, “You never take for granted the ability to make your own light.” He held his hand out, palm up, and smeared it with an oily balm from the inside of one of his earrings. The silence deepened, full of all the tense stillness of a coiled spring as a plaintive, soft white glow blinked on over his palm as he spoke, “Yehl patra despa.”
Magic is slightly faster than the speed of sound, but by such an infinitesimal amount that to mortal senses, an incantation and the initial whumpf of raw magic being summoned into purpose usually appears instantaneous. A spell is like a recipe, subject to a precise science but able to be enriched by love and creativity. The fact that all of this sprung through the back of Eidolyn’s mind like water seeping into a washcloth was incredibly startling. How could she deduce all this intuitively just by watching Shard?
Shard’s light spell, owing to his love of dramatics, was an orb of glowing opalescent warmth, pearly pinks and yellows and blues. Raw, neon purple arced along its inside, spinning and whirling the patterns on the surface. A more pragmatic conjurer might find it wiser to enchant the end of their staff with a simple white light, while others preferred to create the glowing illusion of something that emitted light, like a candle.
The light flickered determinedly through the swamplight, elongating the shadows of the trees away from them. A few gnarled shrubs with eternally stunted and unripe fruit huddled close to the ground among sickly patches of trampled grass and clover. Saplings optimistic enough to take root were twisted little twigs in the mud, half toppled for lack of their roots’ ability to gain purchase in the mud, and a few larger trees, gnarled and blackened, without a single leaf on the branches that bowed in jagged, uneven arcs down to the ground to be entwined by youthful vines. The air of deadness about them was so absolute that Eidolyn had difficulty envisioning them ever bearing leaves at all.
“Oh dear.” With admirable control, Shard swallowed a whimper. “Eidolyn, no apology I can give is sufficient for my carelessness. We may already be hopelessly doomed beyond trifles like biting insects and sinkholes.”
Now what? Her mind raced as her eyes darted from sight to sight, but nothing seemed outwardly threatening. And of course, to Eidolyn that was more fearsome than anything that might have been looming over her with conventional instruments of terror like sharp fangs, glowing eyes or rending claws.
However, Gryphon appeared to notice the imminent threat once Shard called attention to it. “Aw no! I can’t believe I din’t see it before we got in the fick of it!”
Now Eidolyn’s heart began pounding even faster. “Shard, what is it?” she demanded. She’d stopped trying to spot whatever was menacing them; if it was that obvious to Gryphon once it was pointed out to him and she didn’t see it, it clearly wasn’t something she’d perceive until it was explained to her.
With only a quick flash of his hands, Shard reached over to a pouch set behind the iron emblem attached to his bag, which Eidolyn had always thought contained make-up or cologne. A brief puff of lavender powder was expelled from the compartment behind the emblem, which Eidolyn later learned contained a powdered formula that amplifies magic for a short time. He rubbed the powder in with the perspiration on his palms and breathed, “Gryphon, you may not like carrying people, but I implore you: carry Eidolyn to safety; Fyirs can’t climb trees.” Eidolyn's nose wrinkled at the scent, of lavender and rosemary and old rot.
Shard seemed alarmed indeed, but nothing had presented itself as an immediate threat before them.
“The black trees,” Shard hissed. “They’re only pretending to be trees.”
Uncontrollably, Eidolyn let out a small squeak.
“Come on, luv!” Gryphon urged. “’Op aboard, I’ll look after ya!”
She didn’t want to go. She reviled the thought of huddling up in a tree, but just as much she knew that, she certainly didn’t have any skill in fighting yet. She climbed onto the damp, shaggy fur of Gryphon’s back.
“Take my mane, luv. Dun worry about pulling too tight, me skull’s fick as a brick!”
It was almost inaudible, but it signaled the start of the battle nonetheless. A tiny, muffled twig snap that carried the all the weight of a bugle call echoing across a windswept moor pushed Shard into a guarded spellcasting position, ready to bolt in any direction. “Run!” he shouted.
“Shard, we should run!” Eidolyn called. But her call was lost as she was pulled up into the trees, and at that sudden noise, a wave of movement erupted outward from Gryphon. The nearest of the trees shuddered with the sound of a million sheets of rustling paper and pulled up its branches, snapping the youthful green vine bindings and flexing spindly legs tall as a man. Signaled by their fellows, the fyirs further out from the disturbance followed suit until they were surrounded by a black mass of thorny black legs. Each trunk, with a series of wet, muffled whispers, was pulled free of the dirt to allow beaked maws more suitable to some giant murderous arthropod to gape wide and snap experimentally at the air. There must have been at least twenty visible around them, and gods knew how many were waiting beyond where the shadows and thickening trees obscured the distance?
The fyirs circled Shard calculatedly, realizing that their soft, small adversaries may be capable of taking down the first few attackers but also that if they straggled behind, they might miss out on a meal. The larger of the front line surrounding them snapped their beaks, scratching out with rigid black legs. As one of them began to rush forward, Shard made a grand gesture with his arms. “Skalls hesscor splina!” he barked out.
The earth under the fyirs rumbled and hummed as geologic forces normally taking place over centuries happened in an instant, and pillars of dirt and saturated sandstone thrust upward in unnatural undulations, knocking most of the monsters off balance onto their fellows. A sickening panicked series of clicks and snaps of furious, ravenous beaks and flailing legs against carapaces overwhelmed the stagnant air. Mittens, while not bothered by the ground’s wild movements, just didn’t have the weight or strength about it to attack effectively and was in danger of piercing and slashing damage from the fyir’s natural weapons. However, it was, at its core, a cat. Agilely it wove through the toppled monsters and created a path to safety, down a muddy ridge rife with brush and tangles of brambles—painful to cross, yes, but sure to pose an obstacle to their predators. The long suffering basket, unable to communicate whatever frustration the soul trapped inside might be feeling, crawled further up Mittens' back in order to cling to its neck with its pointed wicker legs. In this way, it managed to prevent itself from being tossed into the brush.
There was no way Shard would get through the brambles without a few scratches. Some of the resulting injuries might even swell up painfully and unattractively. “We’re going to draw them away!” Shard didn’t dare to look up to Eidolyn and Gryphon. “Once they follow me, take off! I’ll have Mittens with me, and we’ll catch up.” Shard plunged down the murky slope down toward the pond before Eidolyn could voice her protest, drudging up shallow valleys of saturated dirt as he slid to the bottom. He only had a few moments of grace before a root threw him crashing uncontrollably into the wall of brambles with a ragged crunch. Shard shielded his face with his arms, turning the billowing sleeves of his white shirt into a frayed mess.
He came to a very muddy and tattered stop near the bottom of the slope, his pursuers filling the air with furious clicking and hissing behind them. In all the chaos, he took a moment to be agitated at the woeful state of his clothes. Uneven fraying was considerably more difficult to fix with magic than clean tears, and blood was among the hardest stains to get out with magic, especially if the blood had magical properties of its own.
Eidolyn and Gryphon had not taken to the treetops as such, but hovered protectively overhead, and their presence seemed to mitigate the fyirs’ boldness somewhat. They watched as the fyirs attempted passage through the brambles so fiercely that in the shadows it was difficult to tell the plants from the creatures.
“They ain't smart,” Gryphon panted, then called down to Shard. “Oy! If you’ve got a plan—that will work, mind—den I can draw their attacks.”
“Just keep Eidolyn safe!”
Shard stumbled backward, losing possession of his balance as one fyir made it through the brambles, leaving a treacherous path for its fellows. The leader was uninjured by the passage, and now that it was free of the tangle of vines and brambles, it surged forward with renewed ravenousness—possibly at the indulgent thought of getting the soft morsel all to itself. It stamped down the hill to its prey, squelching out deep pits in the earth with its stabbing armored legs.
Impotently, Shard backed down the hill as he frantically tried to prepare a spell. However, in his panic he seemed stumped as to the proper incantation. Gryphon bolted down into the melee, claws bared, with Eidolyn still clinging, only just, to his back. Unconvinced that this would be enough to slay it, the fyir reared on its back legs, emitting a series of low thuds in staccato from its beak. More fyirs surged through the gap in the wall of brambles, shoving and climbing over each other, injuring themselves in order to be next through. The frantic clicking of beaks and claws, rising to an agitated crescendo, seemed to sear through Eidolyn’s ears and grate against her skull. It was maddening.
The fyir Gryphon had set itself against made a mighty swipe against its airborne foe, and Gryphon reeled to the side to compensate. He didn’t seem badly hurt, but Eidolyn was thrown from his back. Fortunately, only her left side scraped against the wall of brambles, but she only tumbled halfway down the slope before colliding with the thudding legs of the leading fyir that made it through the barrier with the others close behind it. Blackness bristled above her.
“Eidolyn!” Shard screamed.
Now the fyirs’ hissing rose to an ambiance that reverberated off the trees and canopy in anticipation of a kill. Brief panic overtook all present on the battlefield, as it created the illusion of being suddenly hopelessly surrounded in a forest full of fyirs. This, a tactic that intimidated and confused, was their most effective one. For the brief moment that Eidolyn figured she had to live, she reflected that it was very probable that her end, at least, wouldn’t be too drawn out. She cowered and averted her gaze from the looming predators.
But no blow ever came. She waited for second after agonizing second but found her body miraculously unharmed, though the fyirs’ furious intonations still echoed around her. At last, she summoned the courage to look up and found herself utterly ignored by the giant spiders. They stepped around her like another piece of forest detritus. In fact, they barely seemed to acknowledge her at all! Panting, she gathered up her skirts and stumbled cautiously to her feet, against the nagging thought that they might suddenly pounce on her, were she to do so.
They didn’t. They shot past her toward Shard, nearly knocking her over in their ravenousness.
Shard shot under the legs of the flailing, injured leader with his arms outstretched, and caught his bare back on a waving talon and screamed noiselessly under the furious hissing.
Stumbling, he made it another handful of paces, wrapping his arm tightly around Eidolyn’s midsection and rasped out, “Utaraki butra…” He skidded onto the hillside and, entwined with her, fell forward into a pile onto his elbows, his hands glowing a pulsing red as his back streaked with blood. His breath was hot and ragged as he managed to shout, “Minhya guybrim!”
The blood welling up over his back increased suddenly from the effort of magical conjuration, washing his backside with little trickles of crimson, as his body strained to draw the raw magic from the air. It was a powerful spell, even for Shard, and his injury taxed his ability to cast it without causing further harm to his own body. The whole of his form was gritted against the will to collapse onto the hillside for just long enough for the spell to complete; he fell forward in a bleeding heap as the air under the mass of writhing fyirs roiled in brilliant red and orange, then burst upward in an explosion that lit the wall of brambles ablaze and created a shockwave that surged down the hillside as pieces of charred monster fell, smoldering around them.
“Shard!” In the ensuing silence, Eidolyn quickly moved to peruse the limp body by her side. He was even paler than usual. To her relief, Shard exuded a pained groan.
Gryphon limped over through the smoldering underbrush, his left wing sagging along behind him.
“He’ll be all right,” Eidolyn stammered, more as a question.
“I’ve been wiv Shard frough da worst o’ times, luv. Dis is nuffin, as long as someone’s dere to stop ‘im getting carried away wiv ‘is dramatics.”
As Mittens ploughed through the wreckage of the exploded fyirs in an flurry of polka dots and paisley, Gryphon came up alongside them, and, contrary to his usual retorts regarding his indifference toward Shard’s safety, was at his side immediately nuzzling his side with his beak and murmuring something as the injured wizard lay prone, but conscious and apparently stable amongst the twitching remains of the monsters.
Gingerly and slowly, Shard shifted himself into a position with some semblance of comfort, on his side with his arms tucked near his chest, and one leg crossed loosely over the other. It was not a position that one assumes when they plan to be getting back on their feet soon. “Apologies. That was a class seven spell, strain enough for even a moderate genius of wizardry who isn’t in possession of an unsightly hole in their back.”
“Shard,” Gryphon murmured. “You’re hurt. Want me to lick it?”
“I’d pay you not to. But I don’t have enough magic left to heal this, unless I rest for a while. Gryphon, get Eidolyn and we’ll be on our way. Mittens can carry me until I have enough strength to heal this gash. Oh, drat, this will leave a scar if it isn’t healed promptly.”
Immediately, Gryphon's great maned head bowed between his shoulders. “Huh! Wot a peacock! Right, let’s get going. We’re losing the sunlight wot isn’t getting through the trees anyways.”
All should have been silent, the sound of writhing fyirs gnashing their beaks and clicking their claws having subsided. The creatures’ twisted, black corpses were littered everywhere, exanimate as dead tree limbs, but distantly, the fearsome sound continued. For a moment, Eidolyn wondered if it was a terrible artifact of the battle, similar to a ringing in one’s ears, but then admonished herself for being brazenly wishful. The sound was far too vivid to be an auditory illusion. “Gryphon, do you hear that? There’s more coming!”
“Sure ‘nuff, lass! Dis ain’t over yet!” He sprang to his feet near where he’d been watching over Shard and whirled around to face the southwest, apparently from where more fyirs were on the way. Eidolyn, herself, felt the sound was coming all around them, but his senses must have been much sharper. “C’mon, ya tatty oaf, you can have my back one more time!” Digging into the moist earth with his claws, Gryphon nudged himself under Shard and, with a bit of aid from his injured companion, hoisted him between his wings, where he hung there, half dragging in the dirt until Shard shifted himself into the best riding position he could manage as Mittens sidled up beside them. Eidolyn hoisted herself aboard the firm plush back along with the basket (which had dropped most of their supplies, including all of their food), and then helped Shard up beside her. She was followed by Gryphon who, in his haste and owing to his injured wing, clawed his way up Mittens’ side and clung to his flank behind Eidolyn and Shard, just as the tattered wall of brambles burst in a dry, gnarled assault of thorns. The fyirs, no longer heedful of the tearing thorns, screamed and clawed down the slope toward them, incited to primal bloodlust, apparently, by the ichor of their slain fellows.
“Mittens, if you please, get us above the trees as soon as you can manage it!” Shard groaned as he leaned forward exhaustedly over Eidolyn. Shard’s chest was warm—far too warm. “Pardon my impertinence, but we don’t seem to have the time for us to change our arrangement.”
“Just hold on!” Eidolyn snapped back.
Nearly weightless, Mittens tore down the slope away from the stampede of bristling blackness, grinning a five-foot grin as it approached a gray, stagnant pond surrounded by uneven hillocks and cattails that obscured the borders of the water. Eidolyn, leaning forward to grip Mitten’s handles and press herself close against the back of its head, called back to Shard. “Shard, take hold of my waist!”
She felt Shard’s left arm wrap around her waist in a distressingly weak grip, and Shard leaned into her back, panting. “Eidolyn…” It came out on the tail end of a ragged exhalation. Her eyes watering from the stinking swamp air racing past them and a hot aching in her chest, she resisted the urge to look behind her as the pond filled her field of vision.
Mittens increased its speed as it approached the pond’s shore, mounted a small hill and sprung out toward the center of the body of water, where a sagging dead branch hung limp over the pond.
Eidolyn had no idea if it would work. But why shouldn’t it? But images of a waterlogged Mittens, along with she and a horribly injured Shard being dragged down under the gray water in a writhing mass of giant spider bodies kept shoving her way past images of what she hoped would happen. One portion of her mind weighed the density of leaves over the surface tension of water, while the other part compared death by drowning against death by getting sheared by giant spider mandibles. But then, Mittens certainly seemed to have confidence in its own abilities? She hugged the back of its head close, enveloped in a less-than-pristine expanse of plush yellow polka dots. Precariously pulling her hand away from one of the reins, she reached back and gripped Shard’s loose hand and prepared to hold on for dear life.
Thankfully, there was no need. Mittens sprung out over the pond, weightlessly hitting the surface of the pond and sprinting over it. At that moment, its passengers clinging like a bit of lint to a shirt collar, the faintest hint of a ripple appeared beneath each of its six feet over the water and the fyirs, too stupid to recognize the novelty of what was transpiring before them, plowed over each other into the still pond, stirring it into a gray and black churning mess, those lagging behind using their submerged fellows as stepping stones as they grappled their front legs desperately at their escaping prey. For a moment it looked like the creatures would never stop coming and might succeed in filling the pond with a writhing mass of hairy, spindly legs.
Eidolyn never got to find out. Mittens sprung onto the overhanging branch and used the precarious, stunted growth over them to rise above the chaos.
The branches overhead wouldn’t stop their escape entirely, but they would certainly hurt, and possibly exacerbate Shard’s injury. Mittens stopped midway, halfway up the tallest trees, looming over the writhing pond full of the giant spiders, which by now seemed to be coming to the dim realization that the hunt had been unsuccessful, and sluggishly pulled themselves out of the water, dripping. A few of the bodies did not stir and were pushed underfoot by the defeated survivors.
They were safe for now, but they couldn’t possibly go back down there.
“Dey’re on our trail,” Gryphon confirmed. “Infernal fings got as much brains as a ‘eadless hydra, but dey got good ‘unting instincts. Stubborn, too.”
“So, like you,” Shard teased around a grunt of pain. “Shouldn’t have tried to fight them.” Now that they’d come to a stop, he was draped over Mittens’ flank, breathing steadily, and while he still bled, it didn’t seem to be as dire as moments before. “I’m not good at it, fighting.”
“Can we get over the trees?” Eidolyn asked the question desperately to anyone, in particular any of them who might answer in the positive.
“If dey’ll let us,” Gryphon replied. He gestured above them by nodding at the canopy.
She managed to shut out the sound of screaming fyirs enough to hear agitated rustling above them. There was just enough light to pick out a fluid writhing motion.
Most things that writhed were not good.
“Pilfer trees?” she ventured.
“Yeh, I fink so. Told ya dere was somefing up there.”
Pilfer trees are a variety of trees that sport a crown of prehensile vines—normally no more than an annoyance, as their sole quarry was anything composed of metal, except iron, which they detest.
“Shard, we have to take your jewelry off first!” Eidolyn yelped hurriedly. She couldn’t imagine an enthusiastic response, and in fact, she felt herself trail off on the last few words. “Um.”
But Shard, groaning as he righted himself, sighed. “Nothing for it. I’d give all my entire collection for clear and safe skies. Though I might fight for the chance to keep my limited edition white mithril Birds of Byrin charm bracelet. If I had a job in the first place, I could retire on that alone.” He had already, straining against the injury, begun to reach down to his jingling anklets, stripping off a few cheaper bangles from his left wrist on the way and pitching them down, twinkling, into the shadows. “And yes, I stole it, but from Lord Pelgrin, so it doesn’t count.”
Tiny bangles and baubles rang out a cheery dirge of their demise in the murky shadows for a few seconds before all went silent again. Shard, rearing back up in a breath as deep as if he felt he might not get another for some time, had stopped removing his finery.
“Wot?” Gryphon demanded.
“We have to go now!” Shard barked out.
“But you’re still wearing…”
“Mittens, go! It looks like the fyirs we’re dealing with haven’t been informed that they can’t climb trees!”
A collective stare of disbelief was cast downward at the agitated spider-scrabbling of hundreds of legs scraping their way up the sagging lower branches, climbing over one another as they slid cacophonously down one step for every two, tenacious as ever.
“You’ve gotta be pullin’ my tail!” Gryphon whimpered.
Mittens lurched upward toward the waiting pilfer trees, and all aboard braced themselves for whatever would reach them first while hoping for a first glimpse of blue sky in more than a day.
“You can do it, Mittens!” Shard urged.
The vines stalled for a moment, speeding past them as Mittens took split second calculated leaps to broad branches, bold jumps onto tiny twigs and after an uncharacteristic stumble onto an insect-gnawed leaf, when they were fully in their midst, the vines lashed out. They’d been waiting.
There were dozens of them, deep green and with a tacky, waxy glaze on their flesh. They seized Mittens around his middle, contorting and squeezing so hard that Eidolyn and Shard were thrown together, but only for an instant before more wrapped around Eidolyn’s head and neck and yanked upward. As for Shard, he was treated as a vast banquet that’s been happened upon by a hermit who smelled the roast chicken, fresh bread, thick stew, pastries, fruit and cake all at once and decided to amend the title of his profession by adding an “ex” at the beginning. He was swarmed by several, all around his ankles and pulled down as Eidolyn grappled with her own problems.
They wanted her earrings! It was the only metal she had on her! She reached out in a frenzied panic to pull them from her ears, but the vines’ own fervor prevented her, and her hands were repeatedly swatted away. “Let me go!” she squealed. Very probably, her ability to struggle was hampered by her repulsion at the odd feel of vines moving all on their own. “You can have them, I’ll give them to you!” Now, she was simply shaking her arm uselessly in a panic.
“They can’t hear you, luv!” Unmolested, Gryphon was free to lash at the vines grabbing at Eidolyn with claws, talons and beak before they were able to lift her into the air, completely off Mittens. He snapped a large chunk of a thicker vine with one beak. “Get back!”
At last, Eidolyn managed to twist her arm in a way that allowed her to yank an earring free, and the act of tossing it down toward the advancing fyirs distracted the grappling vines enough to remove the other, which followed its twin immediately. At that moment, the vines released her back onto Mittens’ back. But rather than reversing direction and moving downward, they concentrated their attention on the ankle of Shard, who by now was only being held aloft by the attacking vines and it was only owing to surprising upper body strength for someone of his build that he was not entirely upside down.
“Shard! Take them off!” Perhaps if they could toss the jewelry down, the vines would slow the fyirs’ advance enough, and the tangle between the two would, at last, allow their escape! But why weren’t they trying for any of the metal implements Shard carried on his person? If the vines were to let go, Shard would fall without help. “Gryphon! You need to be ready to catch him!”
“Ya got it, luv!”
Shard, constantly needing to twist his body upward to make a grasp at what had got the vines’ attention, looked to be straining harder than ever against his injury, now agitated into dripping blood downward toward the pursuing fyirs. At last he got hold of one of the vines seizing his ankle and set about prying it away. “It’s the silver in my anklets!” he managed, almost inaudible. “I think they prefer it!”
The screaming of the fyirs was approaching closer, and the rate at which they were advancing seemed to be picking up. Now she could tell that, apart from climbing over their slower fellows, their legs were able to stab into the thick bark of the trees below and pull themselves upward. For a moment, she was hypnotized by the impossibility of the action, but at last she pulled her gaze away and dove across Mittens’ back and reached down toward Shard’s bare feet, wrapped in pilfer tree vines. In the shadows, she could indeed catch glimpses of silver.
Shard imploringly looked up at her. “Take this!” He passed up a knife—one not intended for cutting animated plants, but food. Eidolyn quickly snatched it. It was not iron, so a few vines persistently groped at her hands as she accepted it. “And be careful, if you please.”
Without delay, she wedged the knife as carefully as she could manage beside Shard’s ankle and began to put pressure outward on the surface of the vine. Immediately, as if feeling pain, it loosened, not quite enough to retrieve the anklet, but enough to afford her room to safely cut through the vine without the risk of cutting Shard. She could do this. All she had to do was hack away at moving vines wrapped around a dangling man in thin air while a swarm of monsters advanced on them. Just enough to…
All at once, as she was concentrating on her cutting, a vine seized her hand, holding it immobile.
“Eidolyn!” Biting his lip, Shard yanked off the exposed anklet and hurled it down toward the fyirs.
That did it. A flood of green shot past them, downward toward the forest floor and the lower tree branches, only a few stragglers staying behind to have a try at the anklet’s double, still fastened around Shard’s right ankle. Shard immediately swung free momentarily, before Eidolyn caught his freed ankle.
“’old on!” Gryphon shot downward and, once Shard stopped swinging so wildly, seized his shirt in his beak and pulled him back up onto Mittens, where they were able to cut themselves free as the pilfer tree vines and the fyirs met, their momentum making their clash spectacular and dramatic.
A thousand muffled crunches sounded all at once, like a colossal giant taking a bite from a village-sized pilfer vine and fyir sandwich. Bits of both opponents flew away into the darkness, presumably leaving what was left over to be pulverized into a brackish paste.
“Phew,” Shard breathed briskly. “Well done, all. Yes, well done indeed. Shall we take our leave of this wretched place and graciously forget who suggested coming here in the first place?”
“Fine by me,” panted Gryphon.
“If I ever see a spider again, it’ll be too soon!” added Eidolyn. She noted with great relief that, while the living basket was mostly empty, the book she'd borrowed from the Sylvan Tomes, The Arduous Journey of Innocence Reclaimed: A Preening Peacock's Guide to Not Being a Thieving Little Twit was large and heavy enough not to have been tossed out in the violent chase. She was growing curious about its contents, which she hadn't had the opportunity to peruse yet, and it would have to wait still further! She didn't want to risk dropping it down into the swamp.
As Mittens uneventfully pounced its way to the treetops, they were at last able to see daylight, and from the looks of the braughnauthene in the sky, it was late morning, possibly approaching noon. At that height, at the top of the slender, stunted trees of the Swamp of Dire Poets, both peninsulas of northern Jigsaw could faintly be seen stretching away in the summer haze toward the horizon, and the bay past Analerna shimmered faintly between them. Eidolyn wondered if she would soon be able to see Threed across the bay from Analerna.
They didn’t even slow down until they arrived at South Sable as noon approached. They chose to enter the modest village from near the intersection where the road coming from the south, pointing travelers toward the Inter-City met the road headed to the west, prodding travelers toward Dalabiot and Juste.
The plains of the Gibbering Hills rolled away to the south, and as they’d left the swamp behind some time ago, they were now able to take long, lofty leaps between the thinning trees that cast small oases of shade from the golden late afternoon sunlight. But they’d had quite enough of shade for a while.
Finally, Mittens trotted down to the ground from a tall, shaggy bush, soundlessly onto the dry grass. Out on the village’s lonely outskirts, a couple of small fields fenced off a few smallish rows of crops and lazy herds of livestock, probably just enough for the village itself. A handful of farm houses and barns, all painted a fading, chipped light blue, sagged exhaustedly and appearing to gaze with funereal resignation at a collapsed barn to the field’s north that was being overtaken by the Howling Woods, beyond the village. The entrance to the village proper was marked with a weather-worn stone column on either side that supported a sign that swung lazily in the scant breeze that meandered over the fields. The road, as it approached the village, dipped under the long grass on either side, so as they walked toward it, it was like traversing a long, dusty ditch that rose up on either side, all dry dirt, sprigs of resilient, tough grass and small animal burrows. Apart from the bays of cows, sheep and packah and the conspiratorial chattering of chickens, all was fairly silent.
“So this is a city of thieves?” Eidolyn had had a very different image in her mind prior to arriving there. It was far too soothing and peaceful a home. But then, Shard was a thief, too.
“Only from a certain point of view.” Shard brushed a pebble from the heel of his left foot. “South Sable was settled by honorable thieves deposed from Analerna long ago when its increased traffic due to Jigsaw winning exclusive access to the inlet leading to the eastern sea made it both prime territory for a more cruel strain of thief and one of the region’s major hubs for the slave trade.” He grimaced. “The local claim is that their ancestors left in disgust, but the reality was that principled small-time thieves couldn’t compete against a badder brand of brigand. It was adapt, be crushed, or leave.”
As they drew closer, Shard had begun lowering his voice, and now she could read the faded, splintered sign hanging over the road:
HONOR AMONG THIEVES
“Non-thieves from Analerna who moved here were put on edge by living amongst so many thieves. So they took the town motto to the letter and learned the tricks of the trade themselves, and it’s my understanding that to this day, it’s tradition to learn the ways of the thief, even though very few who live here are likely to practice them. Still, most people from South Sable are likely to be perfectly capable of picking a pocket.”
“In ovver words,” Gryphon said, “Watch yer pockets.”
“Gods, you’re cynical,” Shard chuckled. He looked back the way they'd come. And they had come a long, long way, at least by Eidolyn's standards. “At least we’re well out of range of Pelgrin’s beasts—and Pelgrin himself, for that matter. Lord Pelgrin’s far, far away from here, doing gods know what! I couldn’t care less what the jackass is up to, at the moment. But it probably involves shopping. The Inter-City is the best place in the kingdom to get anything… apart from a restful night’s sleep, or a bargain on discontinued eyeliner. Believe me, I’ve tried.” Wistfully, he glared into the clouds that lazed across the powdery blue sky like pulled cotton floating on pure, clear water. “Ah, ‘Midnight Mystery Mauve,’ why must you elude me so?”
“’Midnight Mystery Mauve’ is too good for ya, you peacock!” Gryphon chuckled, curled into a ball and facing away from the camp, occasionally contorting into an indeterminate lump of fur, feathers and claws long enough to lick his injured back leg. Only one wing was tucked in tightly at his side, the other injured one mingling its tawny feathers with the dry grass, and his tail swished at the dirt restlessly.
After a short rest, they entered the village and quickly attracted a few stares from the locals. Even more were obviously watching from their periphery while trying to make it appear that they were still going about their daily business. That daily business generally wasn’t anything Eidolyn wasn’t used to. She never would have guessed that South Sable was known as a “city of thieves” just from looking at it. As they passed, friendly nods and waves were passed back and forth without any sense of irony, and in fact, it made her think very much of her own scant memories of living in Gelding from day to day before she met Shard. For a moment, she was distracted from Shard and Gryphon’s rapid-fire banter, realizing that if she hadn’t been expecting something on this trip to Analerna, it was feelings of homesickness, which increased to a feverish longing when she saw a young man and his father selling preserves from a splintering table outside their home.
“I'm telling you, I know the value of matching makeup to the glow of one's horn,” Shard was saying. “I’ve never seen a gryphon wear cosmetics.”
“We dun need ‘em,” Gryphon pouted mulishly.
“Additionally, if you don’t mind me pointing it out, bags under ones’ eyes can be visible through feathers.”
“I do mind.”
Eidolyn watched the peaceful villagers cast their gazes on her, the shadeling, the gryphon and the moving six-legged stuffed cat. “Shard! People are staring, and I do not blame them for it! If you’re going to bicker, save it until we find an inn, at least.”
“Let them,” Shard said. “Gryphon and I have done this since I was a boy to reconcile the fact that an unstoppable, winged predator found himself babysitting a boy who, while cute as a button, was a mischievous brat.”
Eidolyn tried and was met with amusing failure to envision Shard as a young boy. Visions of makeup, perfectly-pressed trousers and gourmet imported tea—not to mention, most incongruously, an aversion to dirt, kept obstinately getting in the way. “You’ve known each other that long?” she asked.
Gryphon rolled his eyes, following through with his great feathery head, shooting a beady glare across to his lifelong companion. “Shard! No one’s supposed to know about that! If ya must know,” he grumbled, “I told ‘im I’d play wit ‘im if he could guess my name. Never imagined he’d actually do it.”
“With a name like ‘Gryphon?’” Eidolyn pressed.
“Oi!” Gryphon huffed. “Most gryphons don’t have names at all—no need for ‘em. And there’s not a lotta call for creativity when you’re a gryphon, so that was good enough for me at the time. Back den, I was more of a big bruvver to ‘im. But not now, when ‘e ought ta be able to mind ‘imself! Used ta be just skinned knees and scraped elbows,” he sighed with a sudden melancholy. “Gryphon brains are meant for hunting and territorial disputes. Not a lotta room left over for nurturing, y’ know? Me dad tried to eat me,” he nodded proudly.
Gradually, like a trickle, attention drifted to the strangers making their way through the village, and mainly toward Shard. The funny thing about magic was that those least acquainted with its practice are less likely to find creations like Mittens to be extraordinary than is an experienced mage who can appreciate what it takes to make such a creature. In fact, Eidolyn thought she heard one passerby swearing to his neighbors that not only are “those things” very fashionable this season, but that his cousin has two (“Isn’t that the same cousin who discovered the Fountain of Charisma and was given the power to turn mud into pudding by a magical storm?”)
But as far as the strange, but dapper and handsome man went, he may have been walking on his toes for some reason and the horn emerging from his forehead from a bed of silver hair may have been an eccentric ornament, but the tail swishing up against the dirtied and ragged short mantle was undoubtedly full of genuine life. Gradually, so that even Shard didn’t notice it until they were surrounded, the people of South Sable became sightseers in their own town.
One plump, middle aged woman approached shyly, but once she was up close to Shard, she nearly gushed, so that Shard broke out in an uncontrolled grimace before she even cooed, “So you’re a real shadeling!”
Once he realized the mundane nature of the speaker to his side, the shock washed away from Shard’s face, and he plastered on a gentlemanly smile. “More or less.”
That got the crowd going. One one of them had breached the wall of proper etiquette, a few more followed with the intention of pointing out that the portly woman who'd first approached had started the whole mess, should trouble arise from the encounter.
“Say, talk shadeling to us!” another denizen of South Sable, a middle aged man shouted.
“Yes! Give us some real shadeling talk! Uh… shadelingese?”
“I have it on good authority that it’s Shadish.”
“That sounds ridiculous. It has to be Shadian or something pretty sounding.”
Shard sighed. No subtle 'I really ought to be going' gesture was suitable; these simple and happy thief-descendants were too forthright. Failing that, Shard quickly descended into an inelegant dismissal of their curiosity. “Uh… I really can’t be speaking to all of you right now.”
They nodded, fascinated. “Oh, that’s very good.”
“Exactly like I imagined.”
“Oh, oh, sir shadeling! Is it true that shadelings don’t like other people?”
At that point, Mittens made a lolling motion with his head that gave a very convincing impression of the rolling of one’s eyes, and hopped up onto the rooftop of a nearby shoemaker and curled up around the chimney.
“Oh. Uh. Well, I don’t know. People are all right. You’re all somewhat charming, in your own way. Can’t say I dislike you, particularly.”
At this point, it was clear that Shard was willing to say that shadelings traditionally walk only on their hands and are inebriated by anything flavored with lemon. Instead, he quickly appealed to their preconceptions about shadelings, which, in this case, were correct. He shrugged and grinned, “But most of them would revile you all!”
Before Shard, confirmed stereotypes and curiosity blossomed together into a burst of approving gasps. “Ahh! Tell us a word in shadeling language!”
Come to think of it, Eidolyn hadn’t heard anything at all of a native shadeling language. All of the shadelings they’d met so far spoke human, and surely if such a language existed Shard ought to know it.
She could, however, tell when Shard was making something up or masking the reality with creative half-truths by that time. His lips parted slightly and he ran his hand through his hair. Whenever he was nervous, Eidolyn knew, he momentarily forgot about his horn and bumped it with his hand. “Well,” he said, “There is a word that has no equivalent in your language.”
“How fascinating! Do tell us.”
“Liengmalka. It’s the word for the feeling of guilt you get for not feeling guilty about something.”
Words that have no equivalent in other languages are common in all universes—at least, those universes whose established laws of physics allow for verbal speech. There is a word in most dialects of dwarven language that means “spitting into the wind and having it blow back at you” with dozens of ways to conjugate it based on the situation.
The crowd's ripple of feigned understanding made Shard smile despite himself. “Now we really must be on our way. Were that we had more time to spend in your charming village, I should have honored your continued company.”
“Oh.” One young woman frowned imploringly back over her shoulder, for reasons that Shard was about to feel extremely alarmed by. “You’re not here to meet the other shadelings? I thought maybe it was some kind of convention.”
Shard choked on his grin. There would be no point in trying to convey to the people that any other shadeling was his enemy, and for all the frustrations that Eidolyn shared over his reclusive fellows, she got the feeling that she didn’t understand it entirely, either. “How many?” he demanded, hushed as a tiny wave washing a footprint from a beach.
“About four. Maybe five.”
“Ahh, well dat’s lovely!” Gryphon grumped.
It was as if the townsfolk hadn’t noticed Gryphon until that moment, and that at the moment he spoke was the appropriate time to whirl around and give him space, especially in a cushion around his black eyes and razor beak.
“Wot! You’ve seen a cat wiff six legs but not a gryphon before, izzat it?”
Eidolyn laid a hand on the scruff of Gryphon’s neck. “Let’s go, Gryphon. If we leave now, we can make it to Analerna before nightfall.”
“Indeed,” Shard quickly whispered. “The Howling Woods is small and harmless, but the more light we traverse it in, the more comfortable I’ll be.”
Under duress from the curious townsfolk, Shard and Eidolyn boarded Mittens again and steered themselves out of the town warily, after being told that the other shadelings present there had last been seen at the Boarded Boar cafe, trying to figure out how they could order coffee without “introducing undue influence.” Gryphon acted as a scout, flying overhead to be sure that their adversaries weren’t around the next corner.
It was such a shame, since South Sable was so small and nice, but Eidolyn did have a metered amount of enthusiasm for seeing Analerna. Their exhaustion from their misadventure in the swamp settled over her, and until she realized she’d have to wait to rest and bathe, she hadn’t realized just how bad it was. She couldn’t begin to imagine how the motley crews of adventurers that were so fashionable these days managed so much travel and adventure for such a sustained period.
“So the spirit of adventure is in you, but it’s more overwhelming than you imagined,” Shard prompted as they rode down a cobbled slope toward a plaza built around a blackened brass statue of Ha and Judran, two trickster gods of mischief, engaged in a grapple with Byrin, the more malicious goddess of cruel fate. Old debris of dead leaves and twigs from several seasons huddled with dust in the corners of the plaza, under chipped and faded tables outside shops and behind doors that looked as if they only closed when alarm bells went off.
“I suppose. There’s so much out there and I’ve seen so little of it. In fact,” she murmured with excited realization, “Everything I’ve seen has been after I met you.”
“Well, then! I’ll stop Lord Pelgrin well and good, and give you the world, Eidolyn! There’s far too much out there to not be able to see any of it.”
They rode on into a narrow street leading out of the town, Gryphon dutifully and silently leading them up a shallow slope toward the Howling Woods. The first stands of blushing orange and yellow trees were still some distance off, but Eidolyn thought she could hear a distinct moaning from the north. Occasionally, a trilling tone stabbed out from the shadows, a scream eternally separated from its body, then a despairing sob. “We have to travel through it?” she asked.
“It surrounds Analerna on all sides that isn’t the beaches and harbor,” he stated. “Quite stubbornly, I should say. It won’t be pleasant, but at least it’s dry. It’s also much smaller than the Swamp of Dire Poets and has a main road traveling through it, and shouldn’t take but a couple of hours to go through.” He turned around, smiling brightly and glowing from the very heart of himself. “Don’t worry. Take another look at the Woods. Despite the sounds, the path ahead is quite beautiful, wouldn’t you say?”
It was true. The Howling Woods rimmed the horizon to the north in green and a few late summer yellows and oranges but still positively glowed with life. Despite the very real sounds of despair and pain which exuded from within, it thrived quite merrily. Even amidst those terrible sounds, which reverberated coldly along Eidolyn’s spine, the calls of cicadas, crows and songbirds sang out a bizarre, cheery polyphony to counter them. “It is.”
And so, they managed safe passage through South Sable without a face-to-face encounter with the shadelings. However, at a cafe tucked in amongst a few modest homes, they did manage to hear familiar voices conversing as they sneaked softly behind it.
“So this is coffee. I feel positively energized! Why don’t we have anything like this?” The skinny, almost bony shadeling cast a reverent gaze into the swirling caramel potion that he’d found himself imbibing.
Elder Feinlore found, even in this most mundane of events, an opportunity to provide guidance to the youth he was charged with. He did not fail to silently congratulate himself for it. “It involves too much influence on the outside world, Jasker.”
The stouter of the two youthful shadelings, hardly brought along for their experience and wisdom but for their agility and able bodies, spoke, “But you’re drinking it right now.”
This earned the two youths a patient nod and a stiff grimace lacquered with proud authority. “That is simply because it was offered to me, Piebalm. My sophisticated, developed sense of the world’s balance analyzed the situation and determined that to refuse it would cause greater influence, and that that influence would be further minimized by a judicial request for whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles on top.”
Piebalm nodded humbly, his perky gray curls shuddering. “I see. I guess that’s why you’re our superior.”
“Do not worry. These instincts will come to you in time. Waiter! Could I try one of those glazed confections?”