Monday, April 27, 2020

The Coral Forest (part 1)

Although the border valleys we'd been traveling through had grown steadily more Changrakatan as we went, there had still been hints of the Golden Desert to them: the low, dry-leaved trees, the sparse underbrush, and the dune-like shapes of the valleys themselves and the ridges between them. That ended when we reached the coral forest.

At first, we'd taken the strange shapes on the horizon for an unfamiliar variety of trees. When we crossed the final valley and climbed onto the higher ground on the other side, we found that we'd only been partially correct. Although there were a few trees, the forest was made mostly of land-coral. Polyp fronds waved in the breeze, catching airborne plankton, passing insects, and (in the case of the largest ones) the occasional small bird.

We weren't sure how to actually enter the forest. The spaces between the coral were far too narrow for our wagons, or, for that matter, the gafl pulling them. We traveled along the edge of the forest for an hour or two before we found a road leading into it.

The road was broad and paved with sand. This seemed an odd choice of paving material, at first, until we realized that any more solid surface would have been just as overgrown with coral, anemones, and various bivalves as the ground around it. Every road leads somewhere (unless one is deliberately participating in certain navigational meditation techniques), so after a brief discussion, we decided to take it.

We turned for one last look out across the border valleys, towards the Golden Desert, bidding our own goodbyes to that land of sunlight and forgotten places. Then we turned the gafl and set off into the forest.

Land-coral grows slowly, and (being an animal, not a plant) it doesn't particularly care about sunlight. The few true trees in the forest towered above the coral, their bark similarly encrusted with mussels and anemones. With sunlight speckling through the green canopy, it almost felt as if we were underwater.

We'd been traveling for most of the afternoon when we came to a fork in the road. The signpost was written in the curling characters of Jingli, somewhat overgrown with coral and barnacles, but still readable.

According to Chak, the arrow pointing back the way we'd come read "Somewhere." The arrow pointing to the left read "Somewhere Else." The arrow pointing to the right read "Nowhere, Maybe," and continued - in smaller characters - into a semi-poetic essay on the concept of locations, the difficulty of distinguishing one place from another, and whether what we think of as "places" actually exist at all or are merely a convenient fiction for the practicalities of civilized life.

This information, while fascinating, was dubiously useful for travelers in need of directions. We eventually took the road leading to "Somewhere Else." That was, after all, where we hoped to go.

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Saturday, April 25, 2020

Changrakata

Over the next several days, the weather turned gradually more humid. The pale, clear sky of the Golden Desert had been shading toward a gentler blue ever since we'd found the first valley; a few weeks later, we began finding dew on the grass every morning. I distinctly remember the first time I looked up to see an actual cloud overhead.

On Chakramalsian's request, we helped him to pull back the canopy of his wagon. He'd been spending as much time as possible outside of it anyway, now that the air outside was no longer dry enough to parch his amphibious skin. "Your painting has been a marvelous help in keeping me sane during the journey," he told me as we rolled up the silk sides of the wagon, leaving the fish-painted roof overhead to provide shade. "But if I have to spend another week without seeing where we're going, I think I might actually go mad."

He spent the rest of the day with his head and shoulders hanging out over the rim of the wagon, like a dog on a carriage ride, splashing the water in its bed with his tail and pointing out every interesting piece of scenery we passed to the endlessly patient Mogen.

The next morning, there was an entire bank of clouds on the horizon, lit up pink by the early-morning sun. A flock of birds was passing in front of it - or what I assumed was a flock of birds, though something was odd about their motions. Some sort of small dragonet or flying snake, perhaps. Distracted by the clouds, I gave them a smile and little more thought.

To Chak, they clearly meant something a great deal more important. He stared at them for several moments. He took off his spectacles and put them back on. Then, with a delighted grin, he uncoiled his long body, lifted himself out of the water, and swam straight up into the air.

"We've done it!" he cried in delight, coiling in graceful loops overhead. Glittering drops of water fell from his frilled tail onto our astonished, upturned faces. "We've reached Changrakata. We're here!"


He explained the situation to us while floating weightlessly above one of the folding chairs we set up for breakfast. While we ate and talked, we watched more schools of fish swimming overhead, which I had originally mistaken for flocks of birds.

There are many varieties of airborne aquatic life all over Hamjamser, of course. The glider-eels of the Railway Regions can remain in the air as long as they keep their long ventral fins dipped in the water. The butterfly guppies of the High Fields are a common sight, darting from flower to flower alongside bees and hawk moths during the Summer months. The sailfin mer-folk of the Crumpled Reef claim to have signed a formal treaty with the Element of Water, which allows them to glide through the air on carpet-like independent wavelets. The floating Sargasso Jungle reportedly has an abundance of floating species, though they tend to be dirigible in nature, filling natural gasbags and float bladders with homemade hydrogen instead of using more mysterious means of flotation.

The conditions that allowed Chakramalsian to float weightless in the air, with his whiskers and external gills drifting lazily in currents that the rest of us felt as mild breezes, are certainly among the more mysterious ones.

The sky of Changrakata is one vast ocean.

The name of the country translates, more or less, to “Sea-Dreaming Land.” The generally accepted theory is that the air of Changrakata somehow remembers the prehistoric time when the country was underwater - something that places such as the Railway Regions or the Golden Desert, for all their ancient aquatic fossils, have long since forgotten. Whatever the cause, any creature in Changrakata (in theory) can swim in the country's air, just like a fish in water, as long as it has a firm and unshakeable belief that it can do so.

In nearly all cases, a belief this strong is found only in creatures that are actually aquatic. The skies of Changrakata are full of fish of all sizes, as well as tree-grazing manatees, gnat-like swarms of darting krill, and giant squid as massive and stately as the grandest airship. However, you will find not a single dog, cat, or hoofed thugroffler among them. Otters take freely to the skies in pursuit of fish; their dry-footed cousins, the weasels and stoats, stay firmly anchored on the ground. Chak told us that even within the Changrakatan branch of his family, he has cousins born with fins who can swim in the air, while their own finless siblings cannot.

Naturally, Karlishek and I gave it a try, doing our best to convince ourselves that we could join Chak in the air. (Mogen declined to do anything so silly, but the prospect of flight seemed more than worth a little indignity to us.) Alas, we remained firmly on the ground. To be born with feet, it seems, is to be forever a walker. *

Chak, in contrast, had no trouble remaining airborne. While the rest of us rode the wagons behind the heavily plodding gafl, he spent the rest of the day swimming: darting down to ground level to examine interesting plants and insects, gliding up above the treetops to watch the fish overhead, or simply keeping pace with us with easy, rippling strokes of his tail. It was impossible not to smile while I watched him. After so many months confined to a single wagon, unable to travel under his own power, his delight at suddenly gaining the freedom of flight was infectious. I even caught Mogen grinning at him once or twice.

We continued to see aquatic life overhead all day. The sight was disorienting at first, but all of us had seen stranger, and we soon grew accustomed to seeing birds and fish sharing the same environment. A fish hawk snatched herring straight out of the air while a sea turtle munched on jellyfish above it. A day bat performed feats of aerobatics in pursuit of gnats and minnows. Every so often, we would briefly come under the shadow of a passing cloud or pod of whales. A few of the fish came low enough, curious about our group of mostly earthbound travelers, that I was able to identify them: tuna, grapplejaw trout, paisley salmon, and a few of the omnipresent sporefish. Catfish snuffled through the underbrush in search of slugs and beetles.

The mingling of salt- and fresh-water species in a single atmosphere is apparently not unusual here. When they're sharing the air with birds and insects, I suppose the usual rules must be somewhat relaxed.

I suspect that I'm going to enjoy Changrakata.

---

* There are exceptions, of course. A previous ruler of Gillirangl (one of Changrakata's larger cities) was mad enough that she believed herself to actually be a fish, even though she more closely resembled a rhinoceros; she was able to swim freely above the towers of her palace. This belief also led to her eventual disappearance. Her madness eventually led her to conclude that the sun was a particularly fat and shining beetle hovering above the surface of the universe, and she swam off into the sky, determined to catch and eat it. As far as anyone in Gillirangl knows, she is still swimming. Several subsequent rulers stated that they would step down if the Empress ever returned, since she would, of course, have the prior claim. Statements of this kind became more common as the chances of the Empress ever returning became increasingly remote. It's quite possible that a few of them even meant it. Tolerance for mad rulers has diminished somewhat in recent centuries, though, and the current popular opinion is that swimming off to eat the sun constituted an abdication of the throne. The city's present rulers are a pragmatic bunch; they have no intention of turning over their well-run city to someone who thinks that heavenly bodies are edible.

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Friday, April 24, 2020

The Other Shrine

By the time we'd put sufficient distance between ourselves and the crabs, it was too dark to see much of the valley where we eventually spent the night. I brought my salamander out to light our way, but we were unable to find the valley's shrine among the trees and underbrush; after I nearly turned my ankle in a gopher hole while looking for it, we decided to wait and pay our respects in the morning.

Our night was thankfully uninterrupted by crustaceans of any size. Before breakfast the next morning, we set off to find the shrine so that we could thank the valley's spirit for their hospitality.

The shrine was easily visible in daylight. We hadn't seen it the previous night because it was an entire sandstone boulder, nearly twice my height, standing by the spring that was the source of the valley's stream. The top of the boulder was carved into the shape of an octopus lifting a trapdoor to peek out of it. We'd simply been too close (or so we thought) to make out the carving the night before. There was no obvious space to leave offerings at the front, so we went around the uphill side and found a handful of Jingli characters carved into the stone.

"Please see other shrine," Chak translated for the rest of us.

Everyone shared a significant look. It seemed likely, at this point, that we had stumbled into the valley of a trickster spirit. Unfortunately, once one has begun an interaction with a trickster, the outcome of quitting is usually worse than the outcome of simply gritting one's teeth and following through. Besides, some tricksters can actually be pleasant company if allowed to amuse themselves. Keeping alert, just in case, and mentally preparing ourselves for something annoying, we set off to look for the other shrine.

The valley was a relatively short and narrow one, roughly crescent-shaped, so we didn't have to look long. The stream ended in a small pond at the other end of the valley. As with all the other valleys, it wasn't clear where the water went from there; into the next valley's spring, perhaps. The edges of the pond were lined with cattails and amphibious blackberry vines, but after some searching, we managed to find the shrine hiding among them.

This shrine was carved in the shape of an upended tortoise. Where one might expect a tortoise on its back to look alarmed, this one was smoking a pipe and sipping from a mug of tea, looking entirely comfortable in its position. The mug held a small stone octopus with a few tentacles curled over the rim. The flat underside of the tortoise's shell would have made a good space for offerings if it had been left clear; instead, it was occupied by an open stone book with a few more lines of Jingli characters carved into its pages.

"No, not this one either," Chak translated in a flat voice. "Try the other end again."

This was more or less the sort of thing we'd been expecting. Still, it was a pleasant enough morning - the sky was blue, the breeze was cool, and the winged gophers who'd endangered my ankle the night before were singing harmonies in the acacia branches - so we didn't mind a little extra walking.

On returning to the spring at the upper end of the valley, we were somewhat surprised to find that the boulder had been replaced with a fountain. Several tiers of singing stone frogs spat water into basins, which eventually emptied into the stream, while a stone octopus conducted them with a baton from the top. The entire structure was darkened with age and water and had clearly been there for years; but then, so had the boulder before it.

"Just one more," Chak read from a plaque at the base of the fountain. "Keep walking, you're almost there."

Back at the pool, we found that the water now drained into the mouth of a large stone whale. Inside its mouth was a stone walrus; inside its mouth, a stone stonefish. The stonefish's mouth held yet another stone octopus, which was holding up a sand dollar with more writing on it. Chak had to swim out into the middle of the pond to read it.

"I lied!" he translated. "The last shrine is back where you started. This really is the last one, I promise."

Mogen grumbled all the way back to the spring.

Further searching failed to turn up another shrine at the spring end of the valley, nor at the pool end either, when we went back to check there again. As we had been walking for at least an hour on empty stomachs and were beginning to run low on patience, we elected to pause for breakfast and continue searching afterward. Karlishek and I went into the wagon that we shared to fetch some pakals for breakfast, while Mogen and Chak gathered some blackberries from the pond to go with them.

Inside the wagon, among the bags and crates that held our food supplies, we discovered the fifth shrine: a stone octopus sitting on top of an overstuffed stone suitcase. A carved sock protruded comically from one side, despite the octopus' lack of feet. Two tentacles held up a stone luggage tag with even more Jingli carved into it. We called Mogen and Chak back to the wagon - which was, after all, where we had started - and Chak translated the tag while we ate.

"Thank you for being so amusing," he read. "It's funny to watch people with legs walking in circles. This is my niece. She is very bored. Please take her somewhere else so she can see the world and stop driving me crazy."

The small stone octopus looked smug.

A trickster's niece as a passenger hardly seemed to qualify as a gift, or perhaps even a wise idea, but at least the writing had asked us nicely. In fact, aside from the harmless prank played with the shrines, our brief stay in the valley had been quite pleasant; we'd had a peaceful night and fresh fruit for breakfast. After a brief discussion, we decided to take the stone octopus with us, hoping that we'd be able to drop her off in another valley if she became too much of a nuisance. We thanked the spirit, glad that we'd been able to offer it some entertainment, and went on our way.

For the rest of the day, at least, traveling with the octopus was uneventful. Though we never saw it move, her suitcase was in a different spot in the wagon every time we looked, with the octopus on top facing toward whatever interesting piece of scenery was visible outside the wagon at the moment. Attempts to ask her name were met with a different answer each time, all of them carved on the luggage tag in elegant Amrat; apparently, she'd overheard Karlishek and I speaking and realized that we didn't understand Jingli. When Chak, in the next wagon, overheard us calling her by the first name she provided and informed us that it was in fact a rude pun in Jingli, we realized that she was also taking advantage of that fact to amuse herself. Subsequent names turned out, according to Chak, to be more of the same. The octopus had a seemingly endless supply of rude puns and kept herself thus amused for the rest of the day.

Otherwise, she was a quiet, unobtrusive passenger. Though still somewhat apprehensive, we began to hope that perhaps we wouldn't regret bringing her along.

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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Processional Crabs

A day of relatively uneventful travel was interrupted in the late afternoon when both carts came to an abrupt halt. The gafl were shuffling their feet and making unhappy snuffling noises. When we got out to see what had upset them, we found a line of crabs marching along on the ground ahead.


Each one was carrying a piece of food: a leaf, a root, an apple, a dead mouse or beetle. Several of them were carrying the dead bodies of other members of their species, but these were crabs, after all; the only unusual thing was that they hadn't already eaten them. The overall effect was similar to a line of ants, only considerably larger, and all moving sideways. Though most of their cargo was ordinary enough, one was carrying a sausage; another had somehow acquired an entire cupcake, intact and in pristine condition. A chocolate-covered coffee bean perched on top of the frosting, unmarred by even a grain of sand.

Despite their small size, the crabs evidently frightened the gafl, who resolutely refused to cross the line. We couldn't have moved the wagons forward without crushing the crabs anyway, or at the very least finding some way to halt their progress while we passed, which we found we were reluctant to do. Besides, we were curious as to where they were all going. We turned to follow them instead.

The sun was setting when we reached the top of a ridge and finally discovered the crabs' destination. The line ended at a heap of food spread across a flat area of the valley below.

Sitting behind the heap was a crab the size of a house.

Each of its eyestalks was taller than I am. Its legs were lazily spread around it, like the buttresses of a cathedral, and it was using both claws to pick through the pile of food with all the delicacy of a gourmet. The total silence of its movements was rather unsettling in so large a creature. Bits of roots and leaves were scattered on the ground around it, apparently too bland for its tastes, but every piece of meat the smaller crabs brought was quickly snatched up and stuffed into its scissoring mouthparts. A few of the smaller crabs would have been snatched up themselves if they hadn't scuttled away quickly enough.

Silently, we all backed up a little, crouching down behind the ridge until we were out of sight of the large and apparently carnivorous crab. Mogen quite sensibly attempted to pull us farther away. Curiosity got the better of us, though, and we peeked over the ridge just long enough to see the crab with the cupcake deliver its gift.

When the giant saw the smaller crab holding up the cupcake in front of it, it actually clapped its claws together in apparent delight. The clack they made was deep and unsettlingly meaty, like a collision between two wooden barrels full of steak. With exquisite care, one rowboat-sized claw came down, plucked the cupcake from the tiny claws that held it, and tucked it unharmed into the giant's chitinous maw.

A shiver ran through the giant's body. It sat perfectly still for a moment. Then, with a majestic and terrible grace, it rose to its feet and began to dance.

If it had been performed on two legs, I might perhaps have identified the step as a waltz. Both massive claws waved joyfully in the air above the crab's carapace while its legs spun it in elegant circles. Despite the lazy grace of the movements, each step of the giant's legs sent a tremor through the ground. All around it, the smaller crabs dropped their gifts and ran for their lives. (Several took the opportunity to steal a better gift from one of their fellows; these were crabs, after all.)

We probably should have run as well, but the giant crab's dance was such a bizarre surprise that we watched, enchanted, for several seconds before Mogen grabbed us (all three at once; I'm still not sure how) and dragged us bodily back from the ridgeline. She was quite right, of course, and we offered our thanks and apologies as soon as we were several valleys away and (hopefully) safely out of earshot of the giant.

We speculated about the crab in hushed tones for the rest of the evening. Was it a spirit? A mutant of some sort? Would any of the smaller crabs have eventually grown to that size, if not eaten by predators or each other? We had no way of knowing.

Still, we all agreed that we were glad it had the smaller crabs to fetch food for it. Otherwise, it might have felt the need to go hunt for itself.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Vertebral Causeway

A few days after leaving Garnet and Hanagrishel, we crested a dune and saw a line of enormous rectangles on the horizon, like a row of crooked molars. Mogen and I, having both been in the Golden Desert for only a few months each, were baffled as to what they were. Karlishek was able to illuminate us.

This part of the Golden Desert - or, rather, the part we could see on the horizon - used to be full of volcanic activity. As a result, it's long been more black and gray than gold. Creminda Zimmergoggle, one of the earliest people to explore the area and write anything down about it, reported "a veritable arboretum of pumice and obsidian. The trees are strange of shape, all formed of black glass, growing from mountains of petrified sponge." *

Since then, nearly all the volcanoes have gone extinct. Now there are earthquakes instead. All but a few of Zimmergoggle's glass trees have been shattered, and the land is covered with their pieces. Razor-edged shards of black glass stretch to the horizon. It's impossible to travel across them in anything less than chain mail. Even that is dangerous; the shards shift in the frequent earthquakes, sliding across each other like the blades of enormous scissors. The plants there are all very short.

The only way most travelers can cross the shattered plain is by the Vertebral Causeway, a trail of massive stone blocks placed there during the reign of the eleventh Farak of Sithera. That was what we'd seen on the horizon.

By the time we'd crossed the valley ahead of us (a small, charming one full of button lilies, whose shrine was a stone hyena with flowers between its teeth) and reached the top of the next dune, geography had shifted, and the Vertebral Causeway was no longer visible. I'm still not certain whether or not I imagined the screech of shifting glass shards in the distance. It all sounds fascinating, but to be quite honest, the shattered plain is one part of the Golden Desert I don't mind not having traveled through in person.

Its history, with which Karlishek continued to regale us as we traveled, is equally fascinating.

The Causeway was designed (like much of Sithera's most famous architecture) by the legendary Femeral San Samara, who - perhaps as a result of building in a region mostly comprised of shifting sand - favored massive, immovable stone blocks in all of their architecture. Their design for the Sithera Public Library required the invention of entirely new methods of construction. The blocks used for the foundation (which is, incidentally, also the first two stories of the building) were too large to be lifted by any known mechanism at the time. In an historic move, San Samara hired a team of dimensimancers, who - rather than physically lifting the stones into their intended locations - were able to simply persuade the geography of the construction site that they were already there. The technique (which came be known as Lumakuma, or Blockwalking) is used in many countries today; it rarely works on smaller stones, but it's become the favored method for moving large ones.

This was the technique used to build the Vertebral Causeway. The scale renders it impossible to determine a precise count of the blocks that make up the Causeway, but there are at least a hundred of them. Each one is the size of a small mansion. The shifting glass shards around their bases continue to scratch and chip at the stone, but travelers on top of the Causeway can cross at a safe distance from the chaos. The blocks shift in every earthquake; maintaining a perfectly even trail would be practically impossible. Instead, they are connected by rope ladders, so that travelers can climb from one block to the next.

We couldn't make out any of this detail from our distance, of course, nor the enormous Halsi characters carved into each block. According to legend, San Samara's original proposal for the Causeway claimed that when completed, the characters would spell out a poem in praise of the eleventh Farak's visionary approach to transportation planning. The eleventh Farak was thus understandably displeased when, upon completion, the blocks proved to instead spell out a proposal of marriage to San Samara's sweetheart. The sweetheart in question was hardly more pleased than the Farak; she reportedly said, "I told you to stop building monuments at me, the murals were bad enough, what in the world were you thinking" and broke up with the architect on the spot. San Samara, always the opportunist, took the design for the sixteen-story mansion they'd been planning to build for her and instead offered it to the Farak by way of apology. The Farak was apparently mollified enough to hire San Samara for several more projects, but monitored the construction much more closely from then on.

Geography being what it is, the blocks of the Causeway change position often, and the marriage proposal was only legible for a day or two (which was probably for the best). These days, the blocks most often spell gibberish. There are a handful of pilgrims who walk the Causeway routinely and record every character as they go, hoping that if they just pay attention, the blocks will someday line up to send them a message from geography itself. Geography has, thus far, sent them little more than the occasional rhyming nonsense couplet and (by a few dubiously reliable reports) one or two dirty limericks.

Opinion is, as usual, divided as to whether this means that the forces of nature have no interest in communication, or that they simply enjoy confusing people. Neither possibility offers much hope that they'll provide a clear answer any time soon. Still, it's reassuring to know that, if they do, someone will be there to read it.

---

*This was back when pumice was still believed to be the fossils of prehistoric sea sponges. The Volcano Dragon has, thankfully, since managed to correct this misconception.

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Monday, April 20, 2020

Hanagrishel

It was nearly a week before we reached the next inhabited valley.

When we first spotted a narrow peaked roof and chimney over the ridge of the next dune, we were expecting another abandoned (or mostly abandoned) building, like the Blue Hyacinth Tea House. We were surprised when we came over the dune and found the small house on the other side perfectly intact. A neatly tended bed of flowers lay in front of it, and a string of washing was swaying on a line between two trees.

Not wanting to disturb the tidy front yard, we left the gafl happily munching grass on the other side of the valley and crossed a small stone bridge over the stream that ran in front of the house. Garnet sniffed the air as we went. As curious as the rest of us were, she seemed even more so; usually the most shy and retiring of our group, she ended up in front this time. We were surprised yet again when she stepped up and knocked on the door of the house.

There was the sound of slow, shuffling footsteps inside, and the door opened to reveal the oldest werewolf I've ever seen.


She squinted at Garnet, sniffing the air and blinking eyes that were almost lost under a pair of shaggy eyebrows. When she got a good look (or perhaps smell) at the younger woman, her face pleated itself into a maze of smile lines, and she ushered her inside with a delighted "kirim, kiriiim!" Welcome, welcome! Her voice was gravely and surprisingly deep.

Her name, we found out eventually, was Hanagrishel. Whether that was her first or last - or only - name, we were never sure. She spoke an old-fashioned and heavily accented dialect of Halsi, of which I could only make out about one word in five. Garnet seemed to have no trouble understanding her. The two of them kept up a lively conversation all afternoon, though Garnet's side of it was limited to about one sentence every minute or two. Hanagrishel seemed to be trying to make up for several decades' worth of missed conversation in a few hours. Garnet didn't seem to mind; like me, she seems to be the sort of person who prefers listening to talking.

Next to the house, Hanagrishel had a small vegetable garden and a coop of the most evil-looking chickens I've ever seen. As far as we could tell, their eggs were most of what she lived on. She made a great fuss over the chickens while we were there, cooing and stroking their feathers lovingly while they glared beady-eyed murder at the rest of us. A few of them pecked at Garnet's ankles, but she gave them one soft growl, and they stayed politely away from then on.

For our entire visit, I was never entirely sure whether our host actually noticed that the rest of us were there. She set out six plates for lunch (hard-boiled eggs and magnificently purple potatoes, plus a brace of jackalopes that Garnet had caught early that morning). Otherwise, she paid attention only to Garnet. Since she seemed to be somewhat nearsighted and hard of hearing, I got the distinct impression that she navigated the world mainly by smell; perhaps, as the only other werewolf (debatably the only other mammal) around, Garnet was the one she could perceive the most clearly.

After lunch, we offered (through Garnet) to help with any work that might need to be done around the place. To our surprise, there wasn't any. Despite her advanced age, Hanagrishel was apparently perfectly capable of handling all the digging, carpentry, and stonework necessary to maintain the house and garden. Even the house's paint was in pristine condition. "She built her house herself," Garnet informed us. Hanagrishel interjected a few proud sentences. "Three times. There was a tornado and a very large crab. She says it was delicious."

Without any obvious way to repay our host's hospitality (Garnet was already supplying all the socialization she seemed to want), the other four of us gave the two of them some space and walked off to explore the rest of the valley instead. As it wasn't a large one, this only took about half an hour. The ground was too steep and uneven for Chak's tub-barrow, and the stream was too small and rocky for him to swim in, so Mogen just carried him in her arms instead. Karlishek and I offered to take a turn, but she shook her head.

"It's my job," she said matter-of-factly. "Besides, you two would get tired in ten minutes." We had to admit that she was right.

The valley's shrine had a carving of a mother wolf nursing a few small pups and looking on fondly while several older ones played with a bone. Behind the mother wolf was a half-skeletonized deer carcass. Given the carnivorous subject matter, we took this to be the wolf version of an idyllic family dinner, rather than a sign of anything more ominous. The shrine's offering slab had several impressively large bones arranged on it in an artistic fashion.

The talismans hanging from the trees in the valley were similar to the ones in Nemigan's. However, instead of a bowl of honey at the bottom, each one had a glass globe of water containing a single dragonfly nymph. There didn't seem to be any way for them to get out of the globes, or anything inside for them to eat, but each one was the picture of robust, snap-jawed, malevolent health. Perhaps they weren't ordinary nymphs. We asked about them, through Garnet, when we returned. Hanagrishel called them "Prangino gili," a Jingli phrase that Chak said meant "children of the Biter." None of us knew what that meant.

Supper was much the same as lunch, with the addition of another sand walrus that Garnet caught a few valleys over. Hanagrishel clapped her hands when the younger woman returned with it - even more so since Garnet had shifted to her larger, more canine form in order to carry the beast. She seemed shy about it at first, but Hanagrishel made a fuss over her as if she were an adolescent grandchild dressing up in fancy clothes for the first time. I could almost have sworn she actually said "oh, how you've grown," which would have been true enough. The two of them carved up the meat to cook with great enjoyment.

By the goodwill of chance or geography, the moons happened to be full the night we stayed there. Mogen was on watch at midnight when the rest of us were woken by the howling of wolves in the distance. One voice was higher and softer, the other earth-rumblingly low, but they harmonized beautifully while the moons shone overhead.

The next morning, there were two sets of canine paw prints in the soft earth by the banks of the stream. The larger set of prints were roughly the size of my chest; the creature that left them must have been taller than Hanagrishel's house.

We had a pleasant breakfast (more eggs, seasoned with some of our dwindling supply of spices), leaving most of the conversation to Hanagrishel and Garnet. They talked a little less, but seemed to enjoy each other's company more, like two friends or relatives who know each other well enough to do without words now and then.

We had nearly finished packing up to leave when Garnet, after a long hesitation, told us that she was staying in the valley. None of us were entirely surprised. Though we'd enjoyed traveling with her, and hopefully she with us, she'd never seemed entirely at home in either the caravan or our smaller group of travelers - or, from what she'd told us, in most of the other places she'd lived - the way she did in this valley.

"I've been looking for a… for a place where I'm needed. I think I've found it." She smiled across the yard at Hanagrishel, who had pulled out some logs and was busy splitting them into usefully sized sections without the aid of a hatchet. The older woman waved cheerfully and picked a splinter out of her teeth. "Besides, there aren't any other werewolves in my family. I want to learn to be like her."

We parted with a round of hugs and well-wishes. I sketched out a quick portrait of the six of us (Mirenza included, from memory) for Garnet to remember us by. We left her with promises to write and most of the basil and snickleweed remaining in our supply of spices, which she and Hanagrishel had particularly enjoyed the previous night.

When we left the valley, Garnet had taken her claws and fangs out again, and Hanagrishel was showing her how to bite logs in half. Both of them looked happier than I'd ever seen them before.

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Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Blue Hyacinth Tea House

Although every valley with any size (and a few without) had at least one shrine, it was nearly a week since leaving the centipede's valley before we found another with signs of more corporeal habitation.

We were surprised to cross a dune and find a small building in the valley below us, but our surprise was lessened somewhat when we realized that it had clearly been abandoned for some time. The building's front wall was made of stone, but the roof and other walls were made of wood and had collapsed years ago. Trees had sprouted in the foundations. None of us were familiar with the species, but the largest ones must have been at least a decade old.

Still, it was a shady place to rest, so we pulled the wagons over and got out to explore. Mogen pulled a folding contraption - something like a cross between a wheelbarrow and a bathtub - out of the undercarriage of Chak's wagon, and he eeled his way into it so that she could wheel him over for a closer look.

Up close, the tiles on the one remaining wall turned out to be decorated with a pattern of blue hyacinth flowers. Two rusted hooks above the sagging doorway had once held a sign, but we could see no trace of it anywhere around the building. There was no risk of falling through the floor - the trees made it obvious that the building didn't have a cellar - so we stepped through the doorway into what had once been the interior.

Inside, standing on grass that showed occasional glimpses of a tiled floor beneath, was a statue.


It was the red-brown of terra cotta, speckled all over with lichen and moss. Its face was sculpted to resemble a round-cheeked dog - an akita or spitz of some kind, perhaps - with polished black eyes and a friendly smile. The rest of its body was much more minimal in detail, as if it had been intended to be covered by clothing. The collar of what I assumed had once been a uniform of some sort still hung around its neck. The rest of the garment had rotted away, and the collar, which looked to have once been a cheerful red, had faded to a pale and ragged pink. The statue's hands held a stack of paper menus, which were yellowed with age but surprisingly intact, considering that the rest of the statue had clearly been out in the elements for some time.

On its forehead was etched a single character. Chak later said that it meant "hospitality."

As soon as Karlishek stepped through the sagging doorway, the statue opened its mouth and spoke.

"Kirim," it said, which means "welcome" in Jingli. While we variously jumped, gasped, and (in Mogen's case) pulled out a crossbow, it repeated the greeting in several other languages. Chak was the first of us to recover his poise; he thanked the statue in Amrat, the one language all of us shared. The statue switched languages smoothly and continued in Amrat.

"Welcome to the Blue Hyacinth Tea House," said the statue - which, I assumed, was in fact some sort of golem. Though it was clearly made of hard-baked ceramic, its face moved as flexibly as if it were flesh and blood. Its voice was soft and androgynous. "Please allow me to apologize for the state of my uniform. Would you like a table for five?"

We held a brief, hushed discussion while the golem waited patiently. Mogen's single vote for caution was outweighed by four votes for curiosity, and we said yes.

A few small vines had grown partway up the golem's legs. The stems snapped when it moved its feet; it had clearly been standing in the same spot for some time. It led us to what had once been an elegant set of wrought-iron chairs and a table. Unfortunately, the seats had long since rotted through, the legs had rusted, and a large portion of the furniture was now rust stains on the overgrown floor. Unlike its uniform, the golem didn't seem to see this as a problem; it gathered the remains of a few more chairs, which shed flakes of rust and in one case an entire leg, and propped them up against the metal outer rim of the table. It carefully balanced five menus on the few scraps of wood that remained of the surface. Given the state of the furniture, we all elected to remain standing (or, in Chak's case, reclining).

"Please let me know when you have made your selection." The golem stepped back a polite distance and surveyed the other tables, which were - if possible - in even worse shape. Finding no other patrons to attend to, it simply stood and waited while we attempted to peruse the menus.

Further questions revealed that the golem had no name; that the proprietor of the tea house was currently on vacation; and that the golem could not presume to say when they would return.

In a set of shelves by the door, several additional menus,  plus an assortment of cracked china, were stacked on the one shelf still intact enough to provide some shelter from the rain. That explained how any of them were still intact.

If protected from the elements, good-quality paper can last for centuries. This, unfortunately, was middling quality at best, and it had been stored for some time in a building without a roof. When I attempted to gingerly pry the brittle, yellowed menu open, it cracked in half at the spine. I felt a somewhat irrational pang of guilt. Rather than try to open another, I simply handed my menu to Chak - the only one of us who could actually read the faded columns of Jingli script inside - and he translated it for us.

The selection seemed to be fairly standard tea house fare: an assortment of cakes, pastries, and biscuits, plus a selection of teas, only a few of which we'd heard of. Most of the teas had reptilian names of some sort: Black Crocodile, Sunlizard, Dragon's Gold.

We were curious as to how the golem planned to produce any of the items on the menu, given the building's apparent lack of a kitchen.When I attempted to order a caramel rice cake and a cup of the Sapphire Dragon tea, which was the variety I was most curious about, the golem's response came as a surprise to no one.

"I am sorry to report that we are missing an essential ingredient for this dish. In fact, we are missing every ingredient for this dish. Could I interest you in something else?"

Still curious, I asked about several other dishes on the menu. The golem informed me that they were also unavailable, as was the Sapphire Dragon tea and, for that matter, every other variety of tea. I probably would have run through the entire menu if Karlishek hadn't interrupted me.

"What exactly is available?" he asked. I had to admit that this was a more efficient approach.

The golem considered the question for a moment. It looked over at the stream running past the front door. "Water." It turned its head to survey a few nearby shrubs and trees. "And a selection of fresh fruit."

That was good enough for us. For the sake of hygiene, I requested that the golem at least boil the water first. Chak rolled his eyes. "Boiled water? For goodness' sake. Mogen, would you please fetch the tea case from my wagon?"

Mogen gave the golem a suspicious look, but hurried back to the wagons and returned a minute later with a watertight chest bound in leather. Inside was a small treasure trove of tea in assorted jars and wooden boxes. The labels were in a bewildering variety of languages. I recognized Amrat, Halsi, Hmakk, English, and even a few in Sikelak. The names were an even wider variety: Jade Serpent, Baconeg Breakfast, Gira Gira Captain's Black, Midnight Purple, Red Rose Lightning, Undertaker's Comfort, Wicked Wilma's Knuckleduster Chamomile.

Chak selected two jars and handed them to the golem with the solemnity of someone presenting a gift to royalty. "Please accept these as a small donation to your tea house."

The golem inclined its head with equal gravity. "The Blue Hyacinth Tea House appreciates your donation. I am pleased to inform you," it added to the table at large, reading the labels on the jars, "that Green Manatee and Baron Smackerly's Blackcurrant are now available."

Both of these are widely known teas, available cheaply in most countries. Chak later informed us that, given the circumstances, he had chosen them mainly for their ability to retain their flavor over long periods of time, and the fact that they were both stored in watertight jars. (And, of course, the fact that they paired well with the flavors of the brassberries and wild mint that he'd noticed the golem looking at, "because I'm not a complete barbarian.")

The golem declined our offers to donate food supplies other than tea to the tea house, citing archaic health codes that none of us had heard of. It was a pleasant meal all the same. The golem even managed to find enough cups and plates for all of us. Most of them were chipped, but they were all intact enough to hold our tea of choice. The china was decorated with a pattern of blue hyacinths.

The prices were quite reasonable - for all we knew, because they were from the previous century - and we paid the bill using little more than small change. The golem took the coins and dropped them with a splash into the rusted-open drawer of what had once been an ornate brass cash register. We also left a tip, of course. The golem attempted to slip the coins into a nonexistent pocket, looked puzzled for a moment, and then placed them on top of its head instead.

As we were leaving, I asked how often the tea house had customers.

"Business has been slow lately," the golem replied. "You are our first customers in twenty-three years, five months, and eight days. If you enjoyed your meal here, please recommend us to your friends," it added hopefully. "Desserts are half-price on Tuesdays if you wear an amusing hat."

We thanked the golem and said that we would certainly recommend the tea house to someone, whenever we reached a more populated area.

By the time we left the valley, the golem had washed the dishes, gathered the menus, and resumed its post by the empty doorway, waiting patiently for the tea house's next customers. I hope the tea is still good when they arrive.

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Saturday, April 18, 2020

Songs for Water

After leaving the centipede's valley, the next several days were pleasantly uneventful. We continued to make our way through the valleys, which grew incrementally greener and more overgrown each day; a promising sign, or so we hoped.

The most excitement we had was when Chak proclaimed that he had been sitting in the same water for long enough, and we spent most of a morning bailing out his wagon and refilling it with water from a particularly robust stream. We could hardly blame him; there had been no water sources large enough to completely refill his wagon in several months at least.

Before using the stream, we announced our intentions to the valley's spirit. The shrine in this particular valley was an eight-headed stone giraffe, carved so that it appeared to be singing harmony with itself. The trees were hung with a variety of chimes and wind-flutes that kept up a constant musical murmur in the background. Though random, they were tuned so that their semi-chaotic progressions of chords were usually pleasant.

One does not usually make direct requests of the spirit of a location. Doing anything that would require a spirit to actually provide an answer, interrupting whatever it is that spirits usually do all day, is considered rude except in serious emergencies. Instead, the accepted method is to simply announce one's intentions, in a respectful if-you-don't-mind sort of way, and wait to see if the spirit does anything to express their disapproval. In situations where one's plans require taking something, or imposing on the spirit's peace and quiet for an extended time, it's considered good manners to offer a gift.

In this case, we informed the spirit that we hoped to take a large volume of fresh water from the valley's stream for the comfort of one of our companions. We made sure to mention that we would be replacing it with a similar volume of significantly less fresh water. Though it was far less scarce in this middling region than in the Golden Desert proper, water wasn't so plentiful here that a wagonload was a trivial amount.

After a thoughtful pause, several seemingly chance gusts of wind brought the valley's flutes and chimes briefly into perfect time with each other, playing a pleasant-sounding melody (complete with three-part harmony and a handful of grace notes). We took this as a sign of the spirit's approval and went to work.

Without legs, Chak himself could do little to help with the process. Mogen lifted him out of his wagon, and while the rest of us bailed water, he clambered happily up and down the stream, preparing a lunch supplemented with various greens and herbs from the lushly overgrown banks. This division of labor seemed more than fair to everyone. (I think we would have been content to let him just sit and watch - as an amphibian, it's been difficult enough for him simply to exist in the Golden Desert - but after being trapped in his wagon for so long, with so little to occupy his time, I suspect he was eager to be useful again.)

Although not the sort to complain, Chak's excitement while he watched us work was matched only by his relief when Mogen lifted him back into the wagon and he settled into the refreshed pool inside.

"I cannot possibly describe how much better this tastes," he said, after thanking us all profusely. "Add a few decent bath herbs and a rubber duck, and I might almost feel like a civilized man again."

I hadn't realized that he could taste the water through his skin - although, since he was an amphibian, it didn't come as a total surprise. In that light, his lack of complaints about what must have been an exceptionally stale-tasting water supply were even more impressive. With the work done, we ate lunch by the stream's deepest pool, so that Chak could join us outdoors. (Though the water in his cart was much improved, he said, it still couldn't compare to an actual running stream.)

Given the spirit's apparent love of music, we concluded that a less physical offering would be appropriate thanks for their generosity. We spent the hottest part of the afternoon sitting in the breezy, instrumental shade of the valley's trees and singing.

Background orchestration was already provided by the valley's chimes and flutes, so we chose songs that fit their pleasant major key - no minor-key tragic ballads or harmonically twisted arzenroyds. We began with a couple of cheerful drinking songs from the Scalps (usually a good place to start, since they're written so that everyone can join in by the second or third chorus, regardless of their level of inebriation), and I provided a passable rendition of the Poltergeists' "Things that I Don't Know." Chak, we discovered, had a wide repertoire of the sort of dry, witty ballads that build up to some sort of terrible pun at the end.

A few songs in, Garnet made a hesitant offer to sing something, to surprised and delighted encouragement from the rest of us. For a small, soft-spoken woman, she proved to have a surprisingly deep and powerful voice; she dropped from her usual hushed tones to a beautiful lupine growl for Pitti Alfasca's "Carved out of Stone." After some discussion, she and I were surprised to find that we both knew the words and harmonies to Tara Chizely's "Perfect," and we sang it as a duet. I was delighted for the opportunity; it's one of those songs that simply cannot be sung properly with a single voice, and singing harmonies with a friend is always a pleasure.

Mogen declined to sing, saying that she had no musical inclinations or interest of any kind, and maintained her usual expression of professional disinterest through the entire afternoon. However, when Karlishek ended the impromptu concert by leading us all in a patter song from an operetta by Glibret and Snullavi, I noticed even her tapping her foot.

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Thursday, April 16, 2020

Surprising Sheep

Roughly a century ago, in the town of Specklemax, a modestly successful farmer by the name of Ekestrial Floo decided to supplement the income of his farm by breeding brindled sheep. Brindled sheep were by no means new to Specklemax; the breed had been something of a local specialty for several generations, as had the attractive salt-and-pepper yarn produced from their variegated wool. Not much had changed about the breed since the brindled pattern had first been introduced some decades before.

Ekestrial Floo was at least as much an inventor as a farmer, an enthusiast in amateur engineering of both the mechanical and genetic varieties. He kept a small army of customized clockwork pipe crawlers, which plowed, seeded, and irrigated his fields, and which only occasionally attempted to upend and plant his house. Much of his success was due to his creation of a variety of pumpkin whose fruit, when left to ripen in the sun for a week or two, fermented into a moderately powerful explosive.*

Given this sort of track record, when Floo began to leave more of the day-to-day operation of his farm to his sister (who had her own, far more predictable, farm to run, but evidently never lost the habit of taking care of her baby brother) so that he could devote most of his attention to his sheep project, the people of Specklemax knew that he must be up to something interesting. Neighbors began to drop by the farm more often, partly out of curiosity, partly out of a desire to be forewarned if the lambs began to fly or breathe fire.

The results were far more mundane; journals and letters from the time report that Floo initially succeeded only in producing sheep with a greater variety of striped patterns. He was evidently dissatisfied by this development, though, intending something far more original, so the neighbors kept checking.

They were not disappointed. After four years of work, Ekestrial Floo walked into town one market day proudly leading the first of a new breed of plaid sheep.

They were twins, in fact: one had fleece with a pleasant blue and yellow plaid pattern, the other a handsome red and black. Some of the more cynical townspeople naturally accused Floo of simply dyeing the sheep, but a quick shearing of one plaid flank showed that the pattern was mirrored in the skin beneath.

Floo's triumph was lessened somewhat when he discovered that the process of spinning the plaid fleece into yarn or thread would inevitably blend all of the colors together into a muddy green or brown. He had apparently expected that the sheep would allow the production of plaid fabric - a favorite in Specklemax - without the need to dye the wool beforehand. Unfortunately, he had neglected to speak to a weaver, or anyone with an actual knowledge of textile production, before embarking on his project.

Though he was initially crushed to have wasted four years of his life on a pointless project, Floo did live long enough to see his plaid sheep become one of Specklemax's major tourist attractions, which I hope came as something of a consolation to him. The sheep are now a familiar sight in the area, scattered like brightly patterned handkerchiefs across the hills around the town.

Specklemax, incidentally, is in a relatively low-lying and swampy area of the Mountainous Plains. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been less than several months' travel from any of the more arid regions of Hamjamser.

It came as something of a surprise, therefore, when we crossed a dune on the outskirts of the Golden Desert and found a small flock of Specklemax plaid sheep grazing in the valley below.

They were unmistakably the Specklemax variety; the placement of their eyes, which are unusually protruding even for sheep, is quite distinctive. None of us could imagine how they had ended up in this remote corner of the world.

Naturally, those of us blessed with legs left the wagons and approached the flock for a closer look. Sheep are rarely the most observant creatures around, but these seemed so utterly unconcerned about their surroundings - including our approach - that we paid perhaps less attention than we should have while we walked toward them.

As a result, we were taken entirely by surprise when a giant centipede erupted out of a nearby patch of sand, hissing like a homicidal steam engine and rearing up high enough to block the sun with its outspread legs and fangs.

I don't know what species it was, but it was far larger than even crocodile centipedes ever grow. I've seen streetcars that were shorter and probably weighed less. Mogen had her crossbow out before I could do more than blink, but I doubt it would have had much effect on the creature. Even if she had managed to hit a joint in the centipede's heavily armored body, a single crossbow bolt would likely have done little more than make it angrier.

"My sheep!" The centipede hissed in a voice like a pot boiling over. "Mine! No touch! If you touch them, I will kill you and bite you until you die!"

Oddly enough, this was actually reassuring. Creatures that offer threats instead of simply attacking you can usually be reasoned with.

Being the only member of the group who'd visited Specklemax and encountered plaid sheep before, I was walking slightly ahead of the others. As a result, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of negotiating with the giant angry venomous chilopod. I've traveled by kilopede and have no particular fear of arthropods of any size, but kilopedes are essentially placid creatures. This one was quite clearly not.

Still, it was speaking Amrat, sibilantly accented but perfectly understandable, and it hadn't actually made a move toward us since we'd stopped approaching the sheep. Its sheep, apparently.

I reassured the centipede that we had no intention of touching its sheep; we merely wanted to look at them. It hissed suspiciously at me.

They were, I added, very nice sheep.

At that, the centipede's hostile attitude seemed to melt away completely. It flipped its antennae forward and rubbed its claws together.

"Yesss! Are they not beautiful?" the centipede crooned. With alarming speed for such a large creature, it dropped back to the ground and scuttled over to the sheep, where it curled its body into a circle around the entire flock. It rubbed its head lovingly against a plump red and yellow one. "I have named this one Rock because she is the prettiest." The sheep all continued to chew placidly as if this sort of thing happened all the time.

After that, conversation with the centipede went remarkably smoothly. Once reassured that we had no intention of touching, stealing, eating, bothering, or otherwise interfering with its sheep, the massive arthropod was happy to tell us all of the minutiae of its apparent occupation as a shepherd. We were treated to an exhaustive list of what the sheep did and did not like to eat, given far more information than we needed about their various ailments, and personally introduced to each sheep by name. (For reasons the centipede did not explain, a full third of the sheep in the flock, both male and female, were named Skeezel. Perhaps it simply liked the name.)

As far as we could tell, the sheep had most likely wandered off from another caravan, or perhaps a farmstead with unusual origins. The flock had already been living in the valley when the centipede had arrived "many long times ago." This could have meant months or decades, although given the size of the centipede, I suspect it was closer to the latter.

Finding the sheep too beautiful to eat, the centipede had instead made friends with them. Its method of "making friends" apparently consisted of tipping a sheep over and resting its head on top of it like a pillow. (It was happy to demonstrate the process for us using one of the older sheep, which continued to chew its cud with an expression of long-suffering patience.) Luckily, the centipede didn't seem to feel the need to repeat the process with us; whether that was because we were capable of speech, or because it wasn't interested in befriending non-sheep, I don't know.

We all introduced ourselves as well. The centipede listened politely and, as far as I could tell, forgot all of our names immediately. It certainly never seemed to feel the need to use any of them while we were there. When asked, it introduced itself as "kerlis," which is simply the Amrat word for "centipede."

The centipede insisted on serving us supper and glided off over the dunes in search of prey. Garnet followed it. After an hour or so, the two of them returned with the carcass of what, surprisingly, appeared to be a sand-dwelling variety of walrus. More surprisingly yet, they were chatting animatedly with each other, discussing local wildlife and comparing hunting techniques. I don't believe I'd heard Garnet say so many words in the entire time I'd known her.

While Mogen was roasting the walrus over a large, efficiently built fire, which the centipede found fascinating, I pulled out a small box of pepper I'd picked up in the Scalps. The smell was strong enough to immediately catch the centipede's attention, and I had the rather alarming experience of having a chitinous head with fangs the size of my leg peeking over my shoulder to sniff at it.

"Is food?" the centipede asked hopefully. I confirmed that it was, and made sure to sprinkle some pepper over the centipede's portion - roughly half of the roasted sand walrus - before we sat down to eat.

The centipede reclined like a large cat while it ate, holding its meat with a few pairs of legs. It took one bite and shot upright again with a hiss that made the rest of us jump.

"The food!" it hissed, clicking and smacking its mouthparts in what I eventually realized was enjoyment. "Hot! It is food that bites! Good good, yessss."

The sight of a centipede the size of a small dragon masticating a chunk of walrus with its mouth open is one that I sincerely hope never to see again. Still, it was rather gratifying to see my relatively minor contribution to the meal enjoyed so much. It's easy to forget what a treasure spices are in lands where they're not commonly available.

The night was once again pleasantly uneventful; most wildlife seemed to avoid the valley, for obvious reasons. We did take care to choose a campsite upwind of the centipede (which smelled like acid and carrion) and the sheep (which smelled like sheep).

The next morning, we thanked the centipede for its hospitality before setting off. I left it with a few spoonfuls of pepper in a twist of paper, which it stroked lovingly with an antenna before scurrying off to bury somewhere.

Once we'd said our goodbyes, the centipede appeared to lose interest in us entirely. When we last saw it, it was making a fuss over Rock the ewe, who chewed placidly while the centipede's fangs neatly plucked burrs and twigs from her bright plaid fleece.

---

* The pumpkin - which he dubbed the Firecrack-O-Lantern - won Floo a commission from the Fiogajas, the notoriously pyromaniac royal family of Specklemax, to grow as many as he possibly could each year. The pumpkins became the centerpiece of an annual dinner party held by the Fiogajas, during which servants launched pumpkins off of the manor roof with a homemade ballista and guests competed to detonate the fruits with flaming arrows before they hit the ground. Floo's neighbors were surprisingly pleased with this turn of events, reasoning that as long as the Fiogajas were blowing up fruit on their own land, they were less likely to wander into town and attempt to create a waterspout by dropping dynamite down the town well.

Sadly, the Fiogaja family manor no longer exists. When the family finally exhausted the town's patience, leading to their deposition and exile from Specklemax, the head of the family at the time - Baron Zamran Arketily Spork Fiogaja - ignited the manor's entire cellar full of firecrack-o-lanterns before leaving town. Residents at the time attributed the Baron's act to a fit of pique at his family's expulsion from town, but in his later years - which were evidently happy ones, despite his exile and lack of eyebrows - he admitted that he had "just wanted to see how large a bang it would make."

The pumpkin seeds not consumed by the resulting fireball were propelled, along with very small pieces of the manor, for miles across the surrounding countryside. To this day, volunteer firecrack-o-lantern vines still occasionally sprout in previously non-flammable pumpkin patches as far away as Tazramack, to the usually unpleasant surprise of gardeners. It's considered wisest in the Mountainous Plains to light one's pipe a safe distance away from the pumpkin patch.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Orlogrove

After leaving Nemigan's orchard, most of the valleys we passed through were uninhabited. They continued to be roughly similar to each other: long, narrow strips of green between the bare golden peaks of the dunes, where scatterings of grass, cacti, shrubs, and small trees had grabbed the endlessly flowing waves of sand and rooted them in place.

Most valleys had a small shrine somewhere, usually by the deepest pool in the stream. (There was always a stream.) Apparently, each valley had its own local spirit - perhaps many spirits, if what I saw in Nemigan's valley was any indication - and someone long ago had taken the trouble to travel between the valleys, building a shrine to each one.

Spirits like to have shrines. They are forgetful creatures themselves, or at least remember in very different ways than we do, and many of them find it reassuring to have a shrine reminding passersby that they exist. Also, like most people, they are fond of well-crafted presents.

These shrines were certainly well-crafted. I couldn't identify the speckled gray stone they were carved from, which was neither the typical Golden Desert sandstone nor the pink granite from the gargoyle village, but it was quite hard; the carvings were old, coated with moss and lichen, but they were hardly worn at all. The stone was clearly not from anywhere nearby either. It must have taken a lot of work to transport it across all these dunes.

After my travels in Mollogou, where there's a spirit and a shrine for every hill and hummock, this place seemed oddly familiar - in an upside-down sort of way.

Karlishek and Garnet steered us away from a handful of valleys that, as they put it, smelled wrong. Nothing appeared obviously different about them from the outside, but after the first three or four, I also began to notice myself feeling faintly uneasy around them - the sort of vague sensation that I might normally have dismissed, but which I should perhaps learn to pay more attention to here. Not every location's spirit is a friendly one, especially in the less populated regions of the world.

Other valleys we avoided for different reasons. One we passed by simply because of the cheeky smile on the stone rabbit that adorned its shrine, a hand of cards pressed close to its chest with one paw. None of us were so starved for excitement that we felt like dealing with a trickster. Another had what was clearly a stone grave marker - much more crudely carved than the modestly adorned stone block that served it as a shrine - placed in the ground under its only tree. Though it didn't feel uneasy or hostile, there was an inward-turned sadness about the valley that caused us to quietly pass by and leave it alone. Spirits don't age or die the way that faster-living mortals do, and their mourning periods can last for centuries.

For the most part, though, the valleys were quite pleasant to wander through. It was a relief to be able to rest in the shade of trees again, however stunted, and hear the trickle of water nearby. Though there were no more inhabited valleys for some time, we found plenty of food in the ones we passed through. There were more desert apples and puddens, the occasional cluster of gumdrop cacti, and even a few edible mushrooms. In the sheltered spaces between bushes, we found the occasional cluster of wormflowers - fat, succulent, pink blossoms with a surprisingly sweet flavor.

We were lucky to have Karlishek along; none of the rest of us were familiar enough with the flora of the Golden Desert to reliably know if most of it was edible. Although he couldn't identify every shrub, cactus, and tuber we encountered, he was, in most cases, able to separate the benign from the poisonous or the unhelpfully hallucinogenic.*

Garnet continued to wander off and bring back various fractions of edible animals, depending on how long it had been since we'd last eaten, and Mogen turned out to be surprisingly deadly with a miniature crossbow she pulled out of her pack on the second day. As a result, we had roasted sand quails or brush millipedes to eat on most nights. (brush millipedes, admittedly, are not exactly difficult to catch; they can approach the speed of flowing tar when they feel frisky.)

All of our encounters with rattlesnakes, scorpions, and crocodile centipedes remained happily brief and long-distance. In an encounter between a crocodile centipede and the wagon gafl, the gafl would probably have won - they are heavy, unappetizing, and not extremely sensitive to venom, even in large amounts - but we preferred to avoid finding out for certain. Whenever we saw the long hummock of sand that marked a buried centipede, we made sure to give it a wide berth.

The shrines were endlessly fascinating. There seemed to be little to no pattern to them. Some were representational, carved with people, animals, or beings somewhere in between, in styles ranging from elegant to comical. Some featured only geometric shapes, or abstract sculptures that seemed to hint indirectly at a subject or a personality. One appeared to be an entire geometric treatise in the form of carved pictographs - something relating to the intersections of circles - although none of us were mathematician enough to understand it.

The design of a shrine seemed to have little obvious correlation to the apparent benevolence of its valley. One of the valleys we avoided was as tidy as a well-tended garden and had quite a lovely shrine, an elegantly carved swan with very little moss or lichen covering its form. It was pretty enough, but we felt distinctly that untidy things such as visitors would not be welcome. The next valley we avoided was the opposite: its floor was choked with underbrush, and moss completely obscured the face of the seated stone woman that made up its shrine. None of us were willing to step over the ridge into that valley, though we couldn't have said precisely why. Perhaps Garnet and Karlishek put it best: it just didn't smell right.

In contrast, one of the valleys that felt the friendliest had a shrine decorated with a border of carved skulls. They were small enough that they weren't visible from the edge of the valley (which was why we entered it in the first place). The valley's trees were hung with vines full of plump, blue-black grapes - which smelled pleasantly sweet, although we didn't quite dare to sample them - and the dense foliage overhead provided deep, much-needed shade during the middle of the day (which was why we didn't leave immediately). Once our initial alarm at the shrine's macabre design had faded a little, it was difficult not to feel comfortable in the valley. We stayed until the worst of the midday heat had passed and left wary but unharmed. Perhaps the spirit's aesthetic sensibilities simply tended toward the funereal.

We stopped for the night in a valley with a stone fish half-buried in the middle. It was similar to the standing stones that we'd seen near the abandoned canyon town, including the slow trickle of water leaking from its mossy stone gills. Unlike the standing stones, this fish was neither facedown nor faceup; it was simply propped sideways against a larger stone, as if someone had set it down there absentmindedly and forgotten to come back for it. Several small trees had grown up around it, and the water from its gills had worn a groove in the valley floor, becoming a small tributary of the stream.

The sun was nearing the horizon by then, and our thoughts were starting to turn to where we were going to spend the night. Despite its forgotten appearance, the fish was the first sign of civilization - aside from the shrines - that we'd seen since leaving Nemigan's house. Taking it as a good sign, we set off into the valley, which was somewhat longer than average, to see if there were any current residents to meet.

We found no other buildings or obviously artificial structures, but Karlishek pointed out that many of the trees and other plants were arranged in small copses, overgrown but still distinct. In most cases, there were visible differences between one copse and the next: slightly larger apples, for example, or flowers of a more vivid pink. Though the valley was short on architecture, it seemed to have an abundance of horticulture.

Finally, at one end of the valley, we found a gap beneath an overhanging boulder - a natural shelf of sorts, sheltered from the infrequent Desert rain. It was stuffed with books. They were old and dusty, but still in good condition. Most had at least one or two pages marked with scraps of paper or dried leaves. Though there were no footprints in the patch of sand in front of the shelf - which was damp from the nearby stream and would certainly have shown them - the shelf immediately around the books was clear of sand, as if they'd been moved recently. We were careful not to disturb them.

The whole valley had a charmingly distracted feeling about it. The flowers were thicker than in most valleys, with the remnants of order about them, like a garden left to run wild. Many of the trees had a bonsai sort of elegance. Even the rocks were often arranged in ways that looked deliberate, though overgrown. It was like visiting the workshop of someone who's constantly excited about their newest skill or project, surrounded by work that's perpetually not quite finished, but lovingly crafted all the same.

By that point, we had explored the entire length of the valley, and we were fairly certain that it had no mortal inhabitants. The obvious next step was to introduce ourselves to the local spirit.

The valley's shrine looked like a trio of wooden cabinets, though they were all carved from a single block of moss-furred stone. The two taller cabinets leaned together conversationally over a smaller, wider one, leaving a sheltered triangular space in the middle for offerings. All three cabinets were pleasantly asymmetrical. Their mismatched drawers were open just enough to show tantalizing glimpses of the objects inside (also stone): a book, a branch, a stack of coins, a set of drafting tools.

Most of the drawers, by now, were lined with moss. Another layer of moss was beginning to grow over the few tarnished coins left on the middle surface. It looked as if the shrine hadn't seen any new offerings in some time.

If one is simply passing through a spirit's home, a respectful acknowledgement of their presence is usually sufficient courtesy. As we were hoping to stay the night, something a little more substantial was in order.

In Mollogou, the details of a shrine often hint at the sorts of gifts its spirit appreciates. Hoping that such was the case here as well, we went through our various supplies for any likely-looking books, tools, plants, or currency. Most of what we were willing to part with fell into the latter category. For once, my habit of collecting interesting coins, rather than more sensibly spending them, proved useful.

We dismissed the various coins from the Golden Desert as too mundane; likewise, the small sum of Lint that I keep due to its widespread acceptance in most countries. Spirits almost never need to purchase anything, and we assumed that this one would appreciate novelty over denomination.

In the end, we left an intricately carved ivory coin from the Blue Desert, a three-sided coin from Tetravania called an Oak's Head,** and a clockwork coin from Miggle-Meezel that plays a simple eight-note tune when one turns the gear in its center. (I was reluctant to part with the clockwork coin, but I do have three others like it.)

The offering seemed to be sufficient. We spent a pleasant, peaceful night beneath the valley's absentmindedly tended trees, unmolested by insects or kleptomaniac centipedes. When we woke in the morning, the flat rock in front of the shrine had been laid with breakfast for five: fried apples and sand quail eggs, still steaming on plate-sized pieces of slate. A small fire was just burning itself down to embers in a ring of stones nearby. Though we'd taken turns on watch through the night, due to the unfamiliar territory, the shrine was just far enough away from our wagons that none of us had seen or heard the food being prepared.

As if that wasn't enough, after we finished breakfast, we found that a few rips in the canopy of Chak's wagon had been neatly sewn up with green thread, and someone had braided flowers into the gafl's fur. A small heap of flowers lay nearby, as if the braider had gotten distracted by something else partway through. Both gafl were happily munching on them.

In short, although we never caught sight of our host, their hospitality was impeccable. We all stopped at the shrine to express our appreciation before leaving the valley. When we boarded the non-aquatic wagon and found a sealed letter sitting hopefully on the driver's seat, weighed down with a pebble painted to look like a lopsided frog, I don't think any of us even considered not delivering it.

According to Chak, who had the best command of Jingli among us, the letter was addressed - in archaic but readable script - to a Gingrin Hilljarvel in Pandagula. ("Gingrin" is an academic title, roughly equivalent to "Doctor.")

The sender was marked simply as "Orlogrove."

Whether that's the name of a person or a place, or whether there's any difference between the two when discussing spirits, none of us were certain. If we manage to locate Gingrin Hilljarvel, perhaps we'll find out.

---

* I asked, at one point, if there were any plants that were helpfully hallucinogenic. Karlishek smiled with his antennae. "None that you'd know how to use," he said.

** I asked several people during my time in Tetravania why it's called an Oak's Head, but - as this was Tetravania - I received a clear answer from precisely no one. The closest thing I ever got was "well, oak trees don't have heads, so something has to." After a few weeks in Tetravania, one gets used to this sort of thing. Far more confusing is the fact that the coin, which appears to be a typically coin-shaped flat disc of metal, somehow has three faces on its two sides; one has to flip it over not twice, but three times, to arrive back at the face one started with. The results of a coin toss are by no means to be trusted.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

An Abundance of Sunrise

I emerged from Nemigan's cellar the next morning feeling more refreshed than I had in weeks. Nemigan was sitting on the front steps, looking around at the valley. It was that blue time just before sunrise, when there's enough light to see by, but none of the other colors have woken up yet.* He looked up with a smile, and I saw that he was wearing an odd device on his head. It was obviously handmade: a twisted length of wire held a small, flat river pebble over his right eye, like half of a pair of stone spectacles. The pebble had a perfectly round hole worn through the center.

We didn't have enough language in common for me to ask what it was, but my curiosity must have been visible on my face. With a grin, he removed the odd assembly and handed it to me. Due to the decidedly non-crocodilian shape of my head, I couldn't actually wear it; instead, I simply held the stone up to one eye and covered the other.

The dim monochrome shade of the valley was instantly alive with color and motion. Globes of light pulsed around the fruit on the trees, full of small, scurrying specks of even brighter light. Glistening bronze creatures perched, snail-like and imperious, on the charms hanging from the branches. Giant, transparent snakes rushed between the trees, rustling the leaves and grass, splitting into smaller snakes to pass around a trunk and then joining together again, snapping playfully at the swarms of red-winged beetles that rose from rocks still warm from yesterday's sun. There were sleeping faces in the trees, old and alien, and more in the clouds, and in the spray rising from the tiny waterfalls in the stream. In the east, where the sun was about to rise, I could see - not hear, but somehow see - the thundering of distant hooves, or possibly wings, and the jubilant cry of some great beast ready to burst up over the dunes…

I awoke to find myself lying on the ground, my head spinning. Nemigan had one scaly hand on my shoulder. He looked mildly concerned, but mostly amused - as if he'd just watched a child getting itself into some distressing but ultimately harmless form of trouble. The pebble was, once more, seated firmly on his own head. A sliver of sunlight from the East was just beginning to turn the trees green. I got up, only slightly shaky, and we went inside to make breakfast.

Nemigan, Chak, and Karlishek had a brief conversation before we left. I could only pick out a word here and there, enough to tell that it was mostly thanks and goodbyes, with a few directions thrown in. Nemigan looked over at me at one point and said something with a chuckle.

When we left the valley, I asked the others if Nemigan had mentioned that morning. Chak was back in his sealed wagon for the trip across the dunes, but I could hear him laughing softly through the fabric. Karlishek gave me an amused quirk of his antennae.

"Not much," he replied. "He just asked, 'didn't anyone ever tell him not to look at the sun?'"

---

* Blue, the cousin of midnight black, never gets much sleep.

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Monday, April 13, 2020

Supper with Nemigan

The crocodilian man in the valley was taking a break with his feet in the stream when we returned, his baskets of fruit set aside. Upon seeing our wagons rolling down between the trees, he rose to his feet with a beaming smile full of friendly fangs and spread his arms wide.

"Kirim!" he called to us in a booming voice. "Um shalassa!" (This, I learned later, is a standard greeting in the border valleys, translating more or less to "Welcome! You look hungry.")

His name, he told us, was Nemigan. That was nearly all I could make out of what he said. He spoke Amrat, but with an unfamiliar accent far thicker than my newfound knowledge of the language could penetrate. Fortunately, Chak and Karlishek seemed to have little trouble understanding him. Mogen, having no business or messages to attend to, didn't seem to feel the need to talk.

After so long in the sun and the dry wind of the dunes, the cool, faintly damp air of the orchard valley was like the kiss of October after a long Summer. I'd almost forgotten what humidity felt like. Even Chak stuck his head out of his wagon to look around.

Each tree in the orchard was hung with what looked like a small talisman - a cord knotted around dangling pebbles and small bones, with a little glass bowl at the bottom. In each bowl was a scrap of honeycomb in a glistening pool of honey. (Though they didn't look like much in the evening shade, the sunlight the next morning lit them up in gleaming amber, dappled with the shadows of leaves and of the various bees, flies, and wasps buzzing around the sweet liquid.)

After we'd made our introductions, Nemigan led us up a path beside the stream that ran through the center of the valley. His house was a cheerfully lopsided sandstone structure with a gaggle of wooden additions hanging off of it, a pale, asymmetrical shape in the bluish dusk. It was built on a rocky outcropping where the stream chuckled its way up out of the ground. Where the water originated, I have no idea; an underground spring, perhaps, or a local aquifrax. The house wore a front porch at a rakish angle, and we shared supper there while watching the sunset over the orchard.

Supper was a masterful display of what one can do with a few types of fruit. Nemigan served us fresh apples, pickled puddens, apple juice, apple jam on pudden bread, and dried pudden slices with apple butter. To provide a little variety, he added a stir-fry of vegetables, mushrooms, and various unidentified crustaceans from the stream. (There were at least a dozen species, but he referred to them all as "kechenin," which means "crunchables.") I got the impression that he didn't get the opportunity to cook for guests as often as he would have liked. The rest of us, finding ourselves in a surprisingly celebratory mood, contributed various small additions of dried meat and bread from our own supplies, including the last of my dried slug meat. I'll have to see about replenishing my supply now that we're in a less arid region of the world.

Garnet took a walk over the dunes while the rest of us were preparing supper and returned with half of a small herbivore, somewhere between a deer and a jackrabbit. Nemigan identified the creature as a "biffery." He was quite impressed - apparently they're not particularly easy to catch - and was polite enough not to inquire where the other half of it had gone. Karlishek and I were already aware of Garnet's lycanthropic metabolism and certainly didn't begrudge her a small extra snack before the meal.

Before eating, Nemigan said what sounded like a brief prayer, which Karlishek said was thanks to the spirit of the valley. (It occasionally appears in the form of a white mouse, formed of the mist that rises from the stream at dawn; it leaves dewy footprints in the grass even on the driest of days.) I couldn't understand the words that Nemigan used, but I paid my respects the best that I could in my own language.

It turned out that Nemigan spoke a mix of Amrat (of which I now have at least a working knowledge) and Jingli, the most common language of Changrakata. His little valley was part of the patchwork region between that much greener country and the Golden Desert. Karlishek, of course, speaks fluent Amrat, and Chak had spent the journey acquiring at least an academic knowledge of Jingli, so all of us were able to converse in one way or another. We traded news of distant places in Changrakata and the Golden Desert all evening. Most of it was at least second-hand, and several months out of date, but this is usually the case with news from other regions of Hamjamser. No one minded.

Sleeping outdoors in the valleys is apparently unwise; the local centipedes have a fondness for shiny objects and are known to frisk sleeping travelers for coins and jewelry. As the centipedes are venomous, roughly the length of my forearm, and liable to bite when startled, we all agreed that it was better to attempt to fit ourselves into Nemigan's house for the night. Space was limited, but we all found a corner to curl up in or a piece of furniture to slide beneath. I spent the night in the root cellar and nearly wept with joy when the subterranean temperature required me, for the first time in what felt like years, to sleep under a blanket again. The fact that I was folded nearly in half between two baskets of puddens felt hardly worth mentioning.

A crooked extension of the building hung slightly over the stream - Nemigan said he disliked having to go outdoors to fetch water on cold nights - so Chak was finally able to spend a night outside of his wagon, submerged to his neck in the cold water. He said the chill helped him sleep.

The best news for Chak, though, came up during supper, when we discovered that we were now on the outskirts of Changrakata. The hardest part of his journey was nearly over.

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Sunday, April 12, 2020

Leaving the Caravan

We reached the first valley a few days later.

It was quite unexpected. We simply came over yet another dune, the gafl puffing with the effort, and instead of yet another channel of hot golden sand, we found ourselves looking down into a small orchard.

It filled the shaded space between two dunes, and nothing more. At the crest of each dune, scrubby grass gave way to bare sand in a line as sharp as the top of a topiary hedge. The trickling of a small stream from below explained how the plants were able to survive. Compared to the fiery late-afternoon sun streaming across the dunes, the shade in the valley was a violet-blue so deep it was nearly black. It took me several minutes of squinting before I could make out more than the occasional glint of running water.

The trees were a mix of apples and Desert puddens, a dusky purple fruit like a dry-weather plum. None of the trees grew higher than the crests of the dunes around the valley. They stretched their branches out sideways instead - quite far, for the ones near the crests. Their highest leaves were brown and curled around the edges, as if the dry Desert winds had singed them.

Between the trees, in the shade of the dunes, was an enormous man with a long staff. He resembled a crocodile; his back was covered in deep green scales, as rough as bark. The shade made the paler, square scales down his front look pale blue. As I watched, he tapped a couple of branches with the staff, expertly catching the fruit that fell and tossing it into a basket strapped to his back. He turned and gave us a wave as we passed. His smile was quite friendly, considering that he had more teeth than a bear trap.

I had finished the canopy painting by then (to effusive and gratifying thanks from my host; he said the sight of fish overhead reminded him of home) and was back in my own wagon, so I had an unobstructed view. I was so captivated by the little green valley - which contained far more plants than I'd seen in one place since leaving Thrass Kaffa - that I almost missed Mogen running past me, toward the lead wagons. The whole caravan stopped a moment later.

The news spread quickly; I could hear the murmur approaching my wagon, like an oncoming wave. It was a breathless Mirenza who finally carried it to me.

"Did you hear? Fish-traveler is leaving caravan!"

It seemed that Chakramalsian, having recognized something in the small valley that was more promising than the endless sand over which we had been traveling, had decided to part ways with the caravan at last.

It didn't take long for me to decide to join him. I had enjoyed my travels through the Golden Desert, but the section the caravan was currently traveling through was hotter and more monotonous than most, and it showed every sign of continuing so. Members of the caravan had spotted signal beacons on the horizon, massive stone towers fitted with lenses and parabolic mirrors the size of small houses; these focused the rays of the sun onto chunks of volcanic glass, which absorbed sunlight during the day and released it in a handsome shade of violet all night. Those who recognized the structures said that we were most likely approaching the canyon city of Kafhipar, which is located in an especially heavily baked area of the Golden Desert. The beacon towers are both an invitation to travelers and a navigational aid to the city's own residents; as the entire city is built below ground level, where the heat is less intense and water occasionally remains liquid for more than ten seconds, the towers are all that make it visible before one stumbles into it.

As much as I would have liked to see the canyon city, the shady green valley - and the others like it that I could see speckled across the dunes beyond - were too tempting to leave behind. I had had enough sand and sun to last me quite a while.

I informed Tirakhai of my intentions first, to make sure that I owed nothing further for my passage with the caravan. "Of course not!" He boomed, giving me an affectionate pat on the back that nearly knocked me flat. "You have done your part already, and we are nearly to the city. We will not be meeting the Painted Ones again. You do not complain, but I can tell you are no Desert flower. I wish you luck in a place where the sun does not wilt you so much." He bade me a fond farewell and gave me a rib-creaking hug to go with it.

When I returned to Chak's wagon, a second wagon had pulled up alongside. As it turned out, Karlishek and Garnet felt much the same as I did.

"I've seen enough canyons to last me all year," Karlishek said. "Besides," he added to me with the flutter of his antennae that means he's teasing, "someone has to help you with your Amrat. A little work on your pronunciation, and people might actually understand you."

Garnet was silent, as usual, but her shyly smiling presence was enough to indicate that she'd decided to come along. We invited Mirenza as well, asking if she intended to continue to Kafhipar.

"Kafhipar? Keh. Barely a hundred years old." Mirenza dismissed the city with a wave of her hand. "Too new for anything of interest. But I stay with my group. We have more to see."

Though we'd met fairly recently, the four of us had grown rather close during our misadventures. Mirenza sent us off with a round of feathery hugs and strict instructions to write to her at the University of Shakrazizli, where she has a postbox that she checks once every year or two. "Be safe!" she told us with a twinkle in her black eyes. "Stay out of trouble, unless it is the interesting kind."

After saying our goodbyes to the other friends and acquaintances we've made in the caravan, and checking many times to be sure that we had all the necessary supplies, we parted ways at last. Our two wagons - one open, one veiled - stopped at the valley's edge, and we stood under one of the stunted pudden trees to wave to the caravan as the gafls and their carts trundled off toward the flashing signal towers on the horizon. We could see Mirenza's black-feathered arm waving to us until the caravan vanished among the heat-rippled gold of the dunes.

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Friday, April 10, 2020

Crickets and Gargoyles

Unlike the vine-covered ruins of Jandraming or the jumbled heap of ancient architecture that is Rampastula, abandoned buildings in the Golden Desert don't tend to get overgrown by anything. The Desert is short on plants and long on space, and many of its commonly available building materials are resistant to rot, even in the rare places where there's enough moisture to make rot possible. Buildings no longer in use tend to simply remain as they are.

This results in experiences like the one the caravan had a week after our encounter with the Painted Ones.

Chak had proven to be, as well as a generous host, excellent company; the two of us had spent most of that time happily exchanging songs and amusing anecdotes while sheltering inside his wagon, I from the heat, he from the dryness of the Desert air. I'd continued to decorate the translucent cover of his wagon with a design of water and fish that I hoped would help to soften the glare of the sun. Though I suspect the confined quarters would have become monotonous given enough time, it was a pleasant way to spend a period of recovery.

The seclusion was broken one day when Mogen opened the flap of the wagon to inform us that there was something worth seeing outside.

We had come across one of the Golden Desert's many abandoned villages. This one was in even better condition than most; the most abundant local building material seemed to have been a type of pink granite, which had withstood decades in the elements even better than other villages' wood or sandstone.

Several travelers with experience in exploring abandoned buildings (a riskier prospect than it might seem) requested that the caravan stop for the afternoon to allow them the opportunity to search the village, in case anything of use or interest had been left behind.

Tirakhai required little convincing to grant their request. The basement of the largest building was flooded with water clean enough to restock the caravan's reservoirs, and several of the smaller houses were home to a rare breed of domestic cave crickets, hunchbacked and freckled creatures the size of guinea fowl. Though feral, they were entirely unafraid of us, hopping between the shade of the wagons and generally getting underfoot in a fashion that most of the caravan's members found charming (except for the gafl, who were afraid of them despite being several hundred times their size). In short, there was plenty in the village worth stopping to examine.

It was about noon at that point, so most people retreated to either the shade of their wagons or the less monotonously familiar shade of the village's houses (those that had been checked by the explorers and proclaimed free of scorpions, rotten floorboards, cellar howlers, and other common hazards).

Chak and I didn't feel the need to brave the noonday sun to satisfy our curiosity, so we waited, listening to the bustle of chores, exploration, and tea preparation outside the wagon, until the shadows had grown longer. Mogen pulled the wagon into the shade of the largest building; Chak donned a scarf soaked in water to protect his face (ineffective for prolonged exposure, but good enough for a brief peek outside); and we opened up the flap of the wagon for a look.

Every house in the village had at least two or three gargoyles on its roof. They were all relatively ordinary examples of the art: hybrids of various animals that ranged between frightening and comical. Some looked benevolent, others charmingly mischievous; some held positions or objects meant to symbolize luck or prosperity, while others - ostentatiously showing off oversized shoes, pots, or spectacles - were clearly meant to advertise their residents' trades. A few, I suspect, were caricatures of the families that once lived beneath them. All of them were fairly sedate and quite clearly the work of the same three or four artists.

Then there was the main building.

No one in the caravan was certain what, exactly, its purpose had been. Various people suggested a granary, a town meeting hall, or a temple of some sort. It's entirely possible that it was meant to serve all of these functions at once. Whatever it might have been, the village's sculptors clearly saw it as the opportunity to create their masterpiece. The building was a riotous confection of bays, arches, gables, cupolas, and small minarets, all built from the same pink granite, and every possible niche and corner was inhabited by a gargoyle.

The East side of the building, which we could see from where the caravan had stopped, had gargoyles in the traditional positions: sly, beneficent, mournful, and pugnacious. Their forms were inventive enough, and the workmanship was superb - clearly several years beyond the work on the houses - but none of them were especially remarkable for gargoyles.

They continued on the South side, though the grimaces became less intimidating there and more like sneezes and stomachaches. A few of the more closely-placed groups gave the impression of quartets or trios of cheerfully hideous singers. It's probably just as well that no one could hear their voices.

The West side, farthest from the caravan, had the gargoyles sleeping, smoking, cleaning their spectacles, and so on. I got the distinct impression of a group of actors killing time backstage between appearances. Still, they remained in typical gargoyle locations, perched on lintels and peaks and at the edges of balconies.

The North side was complete chaos. The gargoyles there had left their posts and climbed all over the walls. They poked their faces into the windows (which must have been a rather startling sight from the inside) and gnawed at the edges of the roofs. Five or six had gathered inside the top of an arch for what appeared to be an upside-down game of cards. According to a few high-climbing explorers, others in less visible areas of the building were doing things less acceptable in polite society (though accounts were vague on what exactly those things were). If this was true, the gargoyles in question didn't seem to be visible from the ground. Perhaps the sculptors suspected that whatever village leaders commissioned the building wouldn't have approved.

Though our view from the wagon was limited, we spent a fascinated hour or two slowly circling the building and looking at as many gargoyles as we could. I even paused to sketch several of the most inventive. We stopped only when Chak said that his face was feeling singed and my head began to swim again from the heat.

I left the wagon that night and spent the rest of the evening comparing notes with the other observers of gargoyles - a category that included nearly everyone in the caravan by then - over a dinner of cricket's-egg omelettes.

The crickets appeared to lay two or three small but nutritious eggs each day, like domestic hens. Tirakhai and several of the more agriculturally inclined travelers insisted on capturing a few in the hopes of breeding and selling them elsewhere as livestock. Using a combination of carrots, greens, and dried fruit, they had no trouble coaxing several dozen crickets into hastily constructed cages, where the insects sat placidly munching on the food and twittering to each other.

Apparently, the crickets used to be a much more common food source in the Golden Desert; Mirenza says that they're mentioned in several historical records, and the omelettes that night were, in fact, an ancient recipe that she'd never had the chance to test with proper cricket's eggs before. As the omelettes were excellent, with a nutty greenish flavor more subtle than chicken's eggs, I suspect that the crickets might be making a comeback in the next few years.

When we awoke in the morning, the gargoyles had moved.

No one who had kept watch overnight had actually seen them in motion, and no one saw them change position while the sun was up. However, everyone who had paid them any attention agreed: roughly one gargoyle in four was in a different position than it had been the previous day. Some had turned ninety degrees; some had shifted from one perch to another.

Most alarmingly, there were now more of them on the east wall of the main building, the side that faced our campsite, and many that had been on the main building the previous day were now perched on the houses surrounding the caravan. None of them were looking directly at us, but all of them were positioned so that they could have done so, if they wished, without turning their heads.

There was some debate - in tones considerably more subdued than the previous night's conversation - as to whether or not the actual shape of any of the gargoyles had changed. An object switching locations is hardly unusual; it happens every day in Hamjamser, though it rarely occurs with anything smaller than a building. For a carved statue to turn its head or move a limb would have implied that something much more unusual was going on. When one of the debates began to grow rather heated, on the subject of whether or not a particular seahorse-headed gargoyle had had its wings up or down the previous day, I offered to fetch my sketchbook and settle the matter. I remembered sketching the gargoyle in question, as it was one of the few in the village with the features of an aquatic animal.

I opened my sketchbook to find that every gargoyle I'd drawn was now shown, not only in its new location, but staring directly out of the page at me.

That was when we decided to leave.

While the others packed up the caravan, I removed the three pages of gargoyles from my sketchbook (I normally have a visceral aversion to tearing pages from any book, for any reason, but felt no hesitation in this case). Accompanied by one of the urban explorers - a woman named Imichek, with whom I had only a passing acquaintance, but whose dry sense of humor I'd come to appreciate during dinner conversations - I ventured into the main building and left the pages in a dry, sheltered area of the floor. One page had several sketches for the design of Chak's wagon on the other side, which I considered only a minor loss, now that the design itself was already sketched out on the fabric. Though the character for Patience in the center of the design was something that I suspected the gargoyles already had in abundance, I hoped, privately, that perhaps they'd appreciate the sentiment. I imagined I could feel the quiet gaze of stone eyes on us as we left the building.

Our departure from the village was far more subdued than usual. Hardly anyone spoke at all until the last minaret of the village had vanished behind the dunes. Even then, the topic of the gargoyles was conspicuously absent from conversation for the next several days.

What's frustrating (and fascinating) about the whole affair is, of course, the ambiguity of it. When one encounters an unexplained phenomenon in a place that has been long abandoned, for no obvious reason, by all intelligent life, it's usually wisest to make a swift exit, as we did. Still, although I wouldn't have stayed to find out, it's quite possible that the gargoyle's intentions - if they had any at all - were entirely benign.

Perhaps they were simply hoping for another taste of cricket's-egg omelettes.

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