Mud and curiousity drive our adventurers on to a mysterious mountain civilization...
The woods were dark that night, and the echoes of the nocturnal world it encompassed were active and thriving. Raelle scanned the area, turning slowly in a 360 arc, trying to make out shapes in the shadows.
"Behind the tree?" Raelle questioned, her eyes squinting in confusion.
"Well, yeah, they're all trees, here." Gavin quipped sarcastically. He soon realized the error of speaking to a person one was trying to hide from, however, and concentrated. There was a fairly large dead oak about 10 feet from him, and if he tried, he might be able to make it over there without the wereraccooness seeing.
He crept quietly, making no noise whatsoever in the underbrush. A squirrel stood directly in his path to the tree, oblivious to the human it would normally scurry away from, digging noisily through the foliage on the ground for food. Gavin stepped over the small furry forest-dweller and grinned. The squirrel's ears perked a bit as it cast a glance behind it. But it was apparently not alerted to Gavin's presence, as it went right back to its hunt.
The oak was a mere foot away, and Gavin stealthly made his way into its shadows. He peeked out from around its knobby trunk, wondering how long it would take Raelle to find him. If that squirrel didn't even notice, there was no way...
"Gyaaah!" The man cried as he noticed Raelle directly behind him. "How did you..!?"
"The same way we've found each other the last three times, moron." Raelle nodded to the squirrel. It finally noticed the significantly larger mammals now inhabiting what it had assumed was safe space and darted away. Raelle stepped up on a low bough and sat on a higher branch in the tree.
"This is crazy." Raelle said finally, in a low tone. "I just don't get how we're suddenly able to disappear and reappear at will. Unless I concentrate really hard, it's like I don't even notice you're around."
"Well, like I say, it's something that you have to learn to do quite well in my line of business." Gavin said nonchalantly.
"Uh-hunh. Funny how I never had any trouble finding you wherever you hid until now." Raelle scoffed.
"Okay, I admit, this is pretty weird, even for me. But you can't say you're not grateful that we were able to lose those acolytes because of it." Gavin pointed out.
"Sure I am, it's just... things like this just don't happen randomly. It gives me a bad feeling not knowing why we both suddenly acquired this kind of ability." Raelle reclined on the branch, looking up at the leafy canopy above her in contemplation. "Where the heck did it come from? It's not like we were granted any magical powers from anyone or anything in the last hour."
"...actually, that might not be true." Raelle looked to Gavin accusatorily as he spoke.
"... what did you do?"
"Well, there was this cheese on the altar when we were holed up in that room in Nyvim's temple, so I..." Gavin trailed off.
"...you..." Raelle almost didn't want to hear the continuation of Gavin's sentence.
"Well, it summoned Nyvim. But she was really nice! She gave us her blessing and everything!"
"Her blessing... the blessing of a rat goddess..." Raelle pondered aloud. "This is starting to make sense." Raelle looked up. "But why didn't I see her?"
"She indicated that you would have had to have eaten the cheese."
"So you talked to her? What else did she say?"
"Oh, she mostly said stuff about you... your lack of life force, some aura stuff about Tanuki and Shinkou..."
"Shinkou?" Raelle stared off in thought. "Shinkou..."
"God of midnight, she says. Not real social."
"You know him?"
"Uhh, no. I just... think I heard the name somewhere." Raelle instinctively brushed the surface of the Tanuki Amulet with her fingers. "Midnight. Darkness. Hunh."
Gavin sat at the base of the tree, looking up at the raccooness above him with a doubtful face, but shrugged inwardly and closed his eyes.
"So what's that chunk of rock supposed to do when it's not broken?"
"Hunh?" Raelle responded through a yawn.
"The Tanuki Amulet. What's it do?"
"None of your business." Raelle's voice was quiet.
"Cause those falcon guys really didn't want you using it." Gavin sat in silence, waiting for her response, but instead was met with a knock to the head with the Tanuki Amulet itself, which had fallen from Raelle's limp arm.
"Asleep again?" Gavin gripped another branch of the tree and lifted himself up to look at Raelle, who had indeed fallen asleep on the bough. "You used to brag that were-raccoons never needed to sleep."
He stared at the trinket he had in his free hand, his expression growing stern. With one last glance at Raelle, he pocketed the amulet and slipped back down to the base of the tree.
The squirrel returned and saw the two larger figures were still there. But they looked like they weren't awake, so he decided to risk it and continue his foraging.
The rain fell gently on the forest that morning, slipping down the canopy of leaves, nurturing the earth in tiny cascades of water. A mist carpeted the forest, and tenuous branches stretched their way skyward, toward the life-giving shower that fell from above. Droplets large and small fell into the pond, and tiny tadpoles danced around the glimmers of light the ripples reflected. And all about, the tranquil hush of a spring shower lulled bears in their dens and rabbits in their burrows into a placid, warm sleep.
Raelle and Gavin, however, were neither bears nor rabbits, but very soggy travellers who couldn't muster appreciation for the rainfall this particular morning.
"So where... -slosh!- exactly... -shlorp!- are we going?" Raelle asked, pausing to reach into the foot-deep mud they were wading through to retrieve her shoe from its grip.
"Well... -slosh!- there's this tribe that lives on a mountain -slosh!- north of here..." Gavin received the dirty shoes from the now-barefoot raccooness and put them in his bag. "Real nice bunch.-slosh!-"
"And you don't think -slosh!- these people will want to kill us -slosh!- like the last 'nice bunch' we met?"
"Nah, I've actually been to this pla- gyaaah!" Gavin steadied himself on a nearby tree trunk, and was able to avoid falling over.
"Careful." Raelle cautioned. "I've found it's deeper over this way." She stopped and waited for Gavin to catch up.
Gavin nodded. "So yeah, I don't think we have much further to go until we reach the Zandrel Mountains, and then it's just a straight shot..."
"Up." Raelle intoned, her eyes wide as she looked ahead of her. Gavin sloshed his way to stand beside her.
Looming in the mist were three skinny jagged mountains that seemed to reach like fingers toward the featureless sky.
"Not afraid of heights, are you?"
"No. Just of falling from them."
"Awww, come on, in this kind of weather, you won't even be able to see the sharp pointy ones along the base."
"Give me my shoes back."
"Yeah, it'll probably hurt walking through all those rocks barefoot."
Raelle took a shoe and whapped Gavin over the head with it as hard as she could, which to Raelle's disappointment, wasn't very hard at all.
"Hey! What was that for?"
"To make me feel better." Raelle put her shoes on her feet.
"Okay, I'm ready. Let's go."
Neephak stood close to the cave entrance, regarding the weather. He was very good at regarding things, even though he was oft ridiculed by his peers due to his small eyes. He was particularly good at regarding the weather, which was why they posted him as forward guard. He smiled inwardly at the thought that his "flaw" allowed him to watch such beautiful happenings outside the caves without getting a headache. The rain fell against the rocks outside, echoing into the cave's mouth, washing him in gentle white noise. His eyes swiveled in their sockets like pale coconuts, observing everything that passed before the cave's entrance. The diffuse grey light from the murky weather reflected in wide glares on the deep film layer over his eyes. A fly buzzed into the cave, seeking refuge from the falling death outside. It buzzed around a bit, only mildly distracting Neephak from his vigil. After a few minutes, like all small flying insects, it decided his eyesockets might make a nice spacious home. Neephak still hardly payed it any mind. As it drew near to his eyes, one of his nine-inch eyelashes reflexively bent down and impaled the insect, and then the eyelash next to it bent a bit and flicked the remains off. Both then resumed their normal rigid positions. Neephak finally blinked, and it was like a venus flytrap, closing over his eyes for a brief moment. When his eyes were open again, he noted a figure scrabling up into the cave mouth, soaked and panting. He turned and helped a second person out of the rain. The second person, female, looked up when she was fully in the cave and noticed him.
"Uh, Gavin?" she said to her companion. Neephak remembered this name. And then when the first person turned around and showed his face more clearly, Neephak remembered the face as well. Gavin's was a difficult face to forget.
"Ahh, Tiny Eyed One," Neephak said in greeting, "You have returned to us."
"Ah, Neephak, right?" Gavin questioned uncertainly.
"That is my name, yes. You are looking better than I saw you last. I was worried that perhaps Neeprot had gotten his spell wrong and that your face would remain upside down forever."
"Ah... yes..." The female was giving Gavin a strange aprehensive look. "I hope Neeprot is also well," Gavin said.
"He is!" Neephak prolaimed. "He has been made Vice Chief just recently. He will be happy to see you. He has learned many new interesting things since the last time you visited, and I am sure he would be pleased to share."
"Gavin..." the woman... no, raccooness said in a warning tone.
"Don't worry Raelle, we don't have anything to fear, really. Neephak, this is my companion Raelle. If it is not too much to ask, we would, um, how did it go, we seek your hospitality for a night."
Neephak bowed low. "I will gladly ask Chief Neepyar if he will grant it. Please wait here at our threshhold and I will return with an answer shortly." Neephak turned and entered into the dark depths of the cavern to tell his tribe the glad tidings of a visitor returned.
Meanwhile, back at the mouth of the cave, Gavin was trying to explain many things.
They called themselves Hyul'nee, apparently, and as far back as they could remember, they'd lived in the caves of the area. Never wanting much or venturing far, they simply subsisted on the fungi and fish the rivers brought them. Though they devoted themselves to no higher deity, they had a healthy respect for their elders, and were mostly pacifist. Which was good, because nearly every family came from a long line of black magic practitioners, and though invaders rarely came to disturb their village, those that the history book described met fates that Raelle decided she didn't want to read about any more,thankyouverymuch.
Her eyes had accustomed to the dimness of the library, but aside from the books that appeared to be written by foreigners and collected in a small corner that looked very rarely used, everything was written in very hard-to-read scrolls that Raelle couldn't quite figure out. The line breaks were all odd and... it was almost like you had to unfurl the entire thing to read any of it. Very strange.
...of course, if that were the strangest thing about them, she wouldn't have gone so far as to feign interest in books and ask the person who met them (damn, and now she forgot his name) if she could stay in the library while Gavin met with the chief.
As if her intuition was as accute as her eyesight, the librarian stepped out from behind a row of scrolls. She smiled pleasantly at the were-raccooness, who nodded and tried to not look as nervous as she actually was.
"Anything in particular you're looking for, Miss Raelle?"
"Uhhh... no... I was just... looking at the collection... ermm... Miss... Zadnee...?" Raelle spoke the name cautiously, hoping she remembered that one correctly, and to her relief, Head Librarian Zadnee nodded acceptingly.
"It must be quite different than what you're used to... all these scrolls, I mean. We do have quite the impressive collection, don't we?" Zadnee motioned around with her eyelashes, which made Raelle even more nervous.
"It's... yes, it's very... nice." Raelle nodded and smiled, but stepped back a little from the librarian.
"We record nearly everything that happens in our village. It's actually been in my family's line for centuries. And we've started recording the more recent events in the Common language, so that outsiders like yourself will be able to learn from our histories as much as we have."
"That's impressive." Raelle said honestly. "But I, I'm not sure I'm actually reading the format correctly. Is there some trick to these scrolls that I don't know?" The raccooness held a scroll in her hand, which she had slipped off the shelf at random and which looked like it was written in the Common language.
"Oh." Zadnee paused, and finally realized. "Ohhhh, well of course!" Zadnee laughed heartily, and Raelle nervously joined her as Zadnee walked past her to the other end of the room. "Here, you can use one of the children's reading walls, since you won't be able to see the text at the top otherwise. See the hooks there? Just fasten the binding string around those and... there you go, just like that."
Raelle obediently unrolled the scroll, tying it to the wall and smoothing it flat with her hands. Tiny text had been printed across its surface in what looked like a crowquill pen. Zadnee smiled at the foreigner as she stood in front of the scroll, reading the words that she herself could read in a matter of seconds. Zadnee's mind was already forming words, connecting images, describing the traveller in prose she would later add to the volumes her parents had written, and their parents had written, and their parents had written...
The librarian's eyes fell on the text again and instictively began to read. Zadnee grinned silently.
"That one, eh?" Zadnee said to herself quietly. The librarian shook her head, still smiling, and turned and walked back the way she came, leaving Raelle alone with her reading.
"And I could live on those popovers... what'd you think of them?" Gavin's eyes glistened in the candlelight as he looked across the room to the raccooness lounged on the hammock.
"Hmmm, a little strange-colored, but otherwise alright. And no, don't tell me what kind of rock they grind up to flavor that. I probably don't want to know."
"Actually, that's where they use that stuff that we saw growing in th--"
"Not listening, not listening, hum dee dum." Raelle covered her fluffy ears, blocking Gavin's voice out.
"Okay, okay." Gavin said plaintiffly, waving his hands to get Raelle's attention visually.
The interior of the cave was silent and warm, protected by layers of the thick rock on all sides from what had become a full-blown storm outside. And though dinner had been... interesting... and the stares of the natives were admittedly a great deal more nerve-wracking in this village than nearly every other place he'd been, the Hyul'nee were as generous and understanding as he'd remembered them, and they had agreed to grant them shelter until the storm subsided Gavin felt more grateful for their hospitality than he had in the past, for some reason. But he could think about that later.
When he finally returned his attention to the small room, Raelle was staring directly at him, her brow curious, her eyes sharp in the relatively low lighting.
"Hunh." she said finally, breaking the silence and her stare. "I can't figure it out."
"Did your forehead attach directly to your neck and your chin go up to your hairline, or was it more mixed?"
"...." Gavin glared in silence at the raccooness.
"You should take a look at the library before we leave. They really do record everything, you know." Raelle said, finally breaking out in a grin.