Chapter 1- The Vibranni
Demons. High Society has painted a picture of this people as a savage beast, only fit for the driest hell-fire. You can often find the propaganda on fliers posted around the city shaming their culture, their beauty. The uneducated lower class eats this intentional racism up like a fresh meat pie, treating those demons who wander into the slums even worse than the inhabitants of their own slimy boroughs. I’m not sure if the city has always shared this view of these majestic people, but I sure was not raised to miss a business opportunity with anyone, regardless of race.
I was raised outside of the great Gearford’s borders. My family travelled most of the time, we were wanderers and the desert was our home. In a length of time we became uncomfortable with the area we lived in, or the inhabitants were uncomfortable with us staying, and so we moved. I was part of a large family which travelled together with my cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and great grandparents. We all moved together and we picked up work where ever we could find it. Most of the family worked with metal, fixing pots and sharpening knives, though a few of us were known to trade and deal with demons. Because of our involvement with the Vibranni, most people hated us. “The Vibranni where to be avoided at all costs” was the the ideal for majority of humans. If they were to be dealt with, they were subhuman and only deserved to be at the feet of our race. Our family knew better. There was big business to be had dealing with them as equals.
I was about the age where I could participate in trade and it was my first time trading with the demons themselves. During this time, the demons were fascinated with colored glass. They had always appreciated glass as they could store perishables from the hot desert sun. Colored glass was a new thing for them and they were obsessed with all differing hues that could be achieved with it. I hadn’t even reached puberty yet, but we had been trading with the red tribe for a long time (even before my parents could trade) and the Matriarch agreed that I could partake. She trusted me over the rest of my cousins, who were the same age. I never understood why.
I remember sitting in the large wagon for a long time while the elders greeted each other. I clasped two small amber bottles in my hands tightly. I was worried they might slip out of my hands because my palms were becoming so sweaty, just thinking about presenting my findings to the other race. I had traded some homemade dumplings to a poor boy in the city for them. He had said he had found them down an alley. I didn’t quite believe him. Children from the city tended to be filthy liars and terrible thieves. I sat in the wagon, thinking about the grubby boy’s face devouring my own lunch, trying to have faith that he was different than other children I had met. Soon I would be trading the bottles for something worth a lot more than what I had given the boy. I remember that I felt a tinge of guilt that I had intentionally swindled him out of a greater profit. I can’t remember what I had told myself to justify the actions, but the rest of our group began exiting the other wagons with their goods, so I got up, pushed the wagon door open, and hopped out, protecting the small bottles with every part of my being.
Trading always reminded me of slaughterhouses. There was something about the trade traditions of the Vibranni that never settled with me. It was logical to line up by importance, then age, and then by size. Maybe it was the humbleness of the demons, or maybe it was the cockiness of humans that made this an unpleasant experience for me. Back then, I had been partnered with a rather shy, particularly red-faced, little demon girl. She was not even a year older than I was, but it was obvious that she had reached an appropriate age. Her legs had been splinted, and she grimaced each step taken toward the line of my family. Being the outsider, I presented the two glass bottles first. I remember the redness draining from her little round face and watched her stumble over to the matriarch, face full of mixed pain and excitement. My heart must have skipped a beat when she approached me. My partner was replaced with the largest Vibranni I had ever seen standing. She towered over me at least a good 3 or 4 feet, her black eyes cast down to the small bottles I had tightly clutched in my hands. “Show, Solnishko.” Her voice was softer than I had expected. It may have been because she saw my nervousness, or considerate only for the baby in the sling on her chest. I opened my hands slowly, lifting them up for her to see the amber bottles. She stooped quickly to my level to examine the bottles closer. She lifted her gaze to mine and smiled.
I only remember the teeth of her grin. Somehow I managed to present a gift that was worthy of the death necklace I had received that day. I had never seen a badger skull before. The teeth were remarkably similar.
Chapter 2- Robbing the Rich
The thing with my family was we never had steady work. Other families lived in the desert as well, and they would create stories about us and our integrity. They would make it a point to tell the city folk that we worked with Demons, or create rumors that our family had interbred with them to steal our customers away. Work would wane, but because we provided consistent service to our clients, they would return with their needed services and the other families would be out of work for a while.
While the work was dry for us, part of the family got involved with robbing the richer peoples of Antiford. These heists were not talked about in the family, and altogether frowned upon. It was dangerous being in the desert in a small group; one wrong step could leave you swarmed by Goblins or Skuttlekovy. Older members often muttered about how such things could ruin business, but all Tinker families stooped to such levels to survive. Unfortunately, I was part of the family that got involved with these heists. It was hard getting work as a woman in the city, and I was not yet married so my days were mostly unproductive. I volunteered, originally, to help two of my older cousins, as well as my fiance, to collect “goods.” It was a very generic task they had asked me to do, and my cousins had told me that it wouldn’t be dangerous. Apparently most of the time it wasn’t.
Occasionally, the rich would travel between Gearford and White Haven. Usually the carriages were guarded, but the guards often were militia of the smaller towns and there were stretches of desert where the carriages could be easily taken over. In simple tactic, we would create a distraction, raid the carriages, and make our escape into the seemingly deadly desert.
In this particular raid, it was said that a Duke and his family would be traveling back towards Gearford from White Haven. We selected a long stretch right before Astam Junction, just past a large clutch of sleeping skuttlekovy. Astam was close enough that it would allow the family to manage their way to safety after the looting. We weren’t savages, after all.
As we waited, I saw an ornate carriage break the horizon. It was hard to see at first as the sun hung low in the sky and the horizon was still waving from the heat. It drew closer to our hiding spot in the rocks and broke the uneasy desert silence with the distinct sound of a steam engine. I was a bit confused as most of the Aristocracy preferred to be drawn by great deer, but my tension was broken when the distant cousin who nestled by me squirmed with excitement. “Listen to that” she whispered excitedly. “That’s the sound of cash!” She grinned at me and I smiled back, still a bit nervous, but intrigued by the notion that we could walk away with enough to go to a proper market. I peeked my head around the side of the large stone we had positioned ourselves behind and squinted as the carriage drew closer. It was white, a strange color for a carriage, and looked to have two dressed soldiers clasped on the side that was facing toward us. They didn’t look like the local militia, and they sure weren’t bobbies from either Gearford or White Haven. I pulled back and looked to the rock formation a few yards back that was hiding the rest of our group. I held up both of my hands, signaling that the carriage was still protected, then waved, suggesting that we fall back.
It was at that time when my cousin exploded from the rock- running towards the carriage like she was crazed. I stood up, half shocked and half confused by her behavior. I lunged after her, afraid for her life. I didn’t see what sort of weapons the guards were carrying and knowing the type of carriage, they were probably packing. She screamed and threw herself on the ground a few feet away from the carriage. I huddled over her as she pounded her fists against the dry, cracked ground. I then realized she had a new plan of attack- she was going to distract the guards. The carriage stopped abruptly. The driver sat high up, peering down his long nose at us, obviously wary of the filth that we were.
A loud bang pierced the air and the carriage parked before me shook. I had fallen back because of the sound, and as I lifted myself to my knees, mirroring my cousin, I saw the damage the mysterious noise had caused. The driver was missing, as was a large chunk of the upper cabin. The white paint of the carriage had been splattered with bits of red and burgundy, and through the ringing in my ears, I heard screaming. At first, I was sure that the sound was my own, pouring out of my gaping mouth like water. As the ringing subsided, I found that the sound wasn’t my own, but belonged to a third guard several feet from the carriage. He laid in the dust, clutching the left side of his body were a limb normally would be. In my daze, I wondered if he never had a limb at all, and he was just shocked to be covered in the remains of the former snooty driver.
Another large bang shook the carriage, and it slumped its weight away from us, as if it had been tired and wanted to take a seat. More screaming erupted, this time from another soldier who unfortunately was now missing both of his legs. The blast had knocked them out from under him and had taken out the rear wheels. The last remaining guard clicked his now empty chamber at the three relatives charging from the rock formation. Bert, a second cousin, leapt onto the guard as he was trying to pry another pistol from the legless’ purse. Knocking the guard to the ground, Bert smashed his fist into the side of the guard’s head as he wriggled, reaching. The guard fell limp, his arm outstretched in longing.
As I found my feet, the door was torn from the carriage. My fiance pulled what we presumed to be the Duke from out of the carriage by his collar. He was spouting profanities on the top of his lungs, but fell silent as soon as a fist met with his face. John stood over him accusingly, and the duke squinted, trying to make out the face of my fiance. “Where’s your family, Duke?” The duke let out an airy laugh, and wiped the blood that was beginning to flow from his top lip. “I am no Duke. You and your filth will pay for the things you did today.” The false duke’s words were met with another fist. He laughed again, lifting his head from the dirt. “You all will be hanged for assault of the crowned prince.” His sadistic laughter filled the air as our entire group fell silent.
At that point, I had climbed into the carriage after my cousin Charlie and had found a sack of what I presumed to be money. My grip tightened on it’s knot as I heard the prince’s laughter. The laughter stopped and was replaced with screams of rage. I slipped out to see John throwing punch after punch into the prince’s now debilitated body. I pushed him away and pulled his face to meet mine. “What’s wrong with you?!”
Before John could defend his actions, Bert pushed me away from him with the tip of the cannon he had retrieved from their prior hiding place. “Comeon guys, we gotta get outta here. This place will be swarming soon” He didn’t mean goblins, of course, but the bobbies soon coming to retrieve the prince. He heaved the heavy iron barrel of the weapon over his shoulder and trotted towards the horizon, followed by the girl. John took a few steps, then took a moment to look back at me, standing at the Princes feet. He made a face of disgust, then took after the rest of the party. Charlie followed, heaving a heavy trunk behind them.
I remember looking down at the prince, beaten and bruised. He was slowly curling into a fetal position, most likely afraid that I would finish the job. "It was never meant to be this way." I said to him in a hushed tone. "Yours should be retrieving you soon, you're very close to Astam Junction." I turned to step away from him, and my leg was caught. I tripped backwards, erupting a large cloud of dust into the air, and was met with a very angry, bruising face.
Chapter 3- The Bear Witch
As the guard got back on his feet, I ran in the direction my group had originally came from. I clumsily trampled over the rock-backed bodies of a clutch of skuttlekovy and past their sleeping grounds to a large stack of rocks. During the day it was quite easy to pass over these giants without fear, but now that the sun was dimming they would be waking. I now not only had to protect myself from the enraged guard, but also from the soon waking poisonous beasts. I slipped into a small opening in the rock pile, clutching the small bag to my pounding chest. I knew it was extremely dangerous to hide near the sleeping grounds of the skuttlekovy, but they would deter the guards from searching for me in that area. I counted on the small opening to protect me from the stinging strikes of the large skuttlekovy, and the knife I possessed might help me survive their children. As I stood up in the surprisingly large cavern I turned to face the entrance, taking a few steps backwards I stared at the small glimpse of disappearing light from the opening. My foot caught something and I tripped.
When I awoke, the light from the opening was strong, like it had been hours from when I had entered. I slowly rose from my sleeping position, aching from the falls the evening before, and found that I had been covered with a large, heavily embroidered blanket. I threw the thing off of me and rubbed my hands on the gritty floor of the cave searching for the bag I had taken. My hands had found something before my eyes did. I lifted my hand from the knobbly fingers of another. I looked up at the owner, and found a rather odd looking girl. Her face was smooth and perfect, slightly smiling in an endearing way. She was wrapped in beautiful clothing, edged in lace and covered with bright illustrative embroidery, similar to the blanket I had just been covered with. She seemed to be wearing a hat made out of soft fur of a kind I had never seen before. I stared for a while, still, unsure why she was here or how she had found me. “Greetings” She said finally. Her voice was calm and gentle, though her accent was extremely hard to place. She obviously wasn’t a Demon, nor from Gearford or any of the surrounding towns who shared a similar accent. “Are you feeling alright?” she inquired, tilting her head to the side. I recoiled slightly. I couldn't place what was wrong with her. She seemed like she was controlled by something else, similar to how a marionette is controlled by a puppet master. The girl began hacking, curling her legs toward her chest in a fetal-like fashion, she pulled her elaborate dress around her like a cocoon. She shivered. I instinctively grabbed the blanket I had been covered with and placed it over her. “The question should be are you
alright?” as I asked, her serene expression didn’t change, but her eyes rolled to meet mine. “I hate to ask for help, but it seems I have to at this point.” I realized her mouth didn’t move as she spoke. “I am dying.”
Chapter 4- An Education of Sorts
Soon enough I found myself making any excuse to break away from the group and return to the cave. I often brought pockets full of bits from my meals that I had managed to sneak from my plate as an attempt to keep my new acquaintance well fed. She refused to eat in front of me and often I would come back to find piles of picked through food shoved off to one side in a dirty pile. I had learned that she had no taste for the few greens I could provide for her, but she almost always requested the blood sausages I managed to sneak away. She also had no taste for the cheeses I had brought, but found a strange fascination with bread, leaving the tender middles among the other discarded bits.
Our visits, however brief, were filled with conversation on what I then considered to be very advanced topics. As a child of the desert, I had never learned to read, much less had any sort of formal education. Her knowledge on plants and animals astounded me. Although she discarded every plant I tried to feed her, she told me detailed descriptions of how each plant grew, reproduced, as well as other ways that they could be used. When we first met, I was convinced that her strange behavior and clothing was custom of Paorr. Ignorantly I believed that Paorrians could know nothing about the outback of Antiford. My challenges to her knowledge just brought more detailed descriptions on the lifecycles of species native to the desert.
After a time, she became increasingly interested in teaching me. Sometimes when I arrived later than she expected, she would become furious, shouting and growling in her native tongue. This fit would always leave her collapsed in pain, coughing up blood underneath the mask she refused to remove. I knew her condition was worsening, but for some reason I couldn’t take her attempts at education seriously. Some topics were too advanced for me at that time, and I then did not know the reason for her relentless lessons.
Over the following weeks I began to grasp the things she considered basic. The thought that over time, small changes could yield vastly differing plants and animals was extremely interesting to me, especially considering my frequent interactions with Chanka. I learned Chanka were once small desert rodents, but with selective breeding they had become the large, dopey beasts they are today. After this topic was covered, she suggested that those years of breeding could be done quickly, almost as quick as one generation. Even after all these years, I am not entirely convinced that this is possible.
Along with theories, she began teaching me about the multiple uses of plants. She had struggled with teaching this specific topic, often backtracking over her thoughts and marking some plants that were safe as poisonous. Surprisingly, some plants that I had previously known as poisonous were able to be used in a number of ways to help people. One plant could cure a snakebite, another in combination with a mild berry could be used for soothing tooth pain, another when peeled and dried could be used as an aid to heal wounds. The combinations of plants was endless. Each had its own properties, and when combined with others could change drastically, almost like magic.
Besides the lessons in native animals and plants, which seemed to be the topic she most knew about, she began teaching me the basics of writing and reading. I had seen books before, namely the few Fjorda texts that my grandmother kept, but they were kept out of reach of the children, and not many in my family knew how to read anyway. The books the Bear Witch kept were far more luxurious than any of my grandmothers. They were bound in a type of velvet, and their pages were soft and slippery similar to silk. The ink saturated the pages in all sorts of colors, and nearly every page had an illustration. I found her native language beautiful, each letter rounded and perfect. I found that rarely the letters were created without the use of a stamp-like end of their common pen.
Once I became proficient in reading, the time had come that my education was at an end. She had been growing weaker as my knowledge grew, and she was insistent that the book was all that I would need once we had to part. At the second to last of our reunions, she was ready to show me her true self. I had come to know so much about her, but never had seen behind the beautiful porcelain mask. I was filled with anxiety and anticipation as she pulled the silk ribbon that held it to her face.
As the face fell to the dusty floor of the cave, I saw the cosmos.
Unmarked Entry- The Gift
The next time I could return, without her perfect mask, she revealed to me that she had grown increasingly weak. Her soft white skin had turned ashen, the downy hair falling in clumps. Small volcanic sores erupted over any flesh that wasn't covered and I imagined that the confines of her robes was the only thing keeping her form whole, as the fabric had swollen under the pressure of whatever was contained within them.
"I bestow this gift to you to ensure the safe return of you and knowledge to my people." she recited grimly as I entered the familiar cave.
I paused. "There are more?" A thought that never occurred to me. Of course she must have come from somewhere.
"Many more, searching just as I have."
There had been so many questions that I hadn't asked, but she knowingly answered all without me even asking. The book she left for me contained all that I had learned then, and more since I was able to read. She had come through the wells, alone, and hoping to collect specimens for the betterment of her entire species. No one was coming after her after this length of time.
"You need to return. You will be safe with them."
She needed me, someone of this world to bring her life's work back.
"Please come near and receive the gift I have for you."
I knelt close, feeling the beat of her ragged breath and her strange coolness. I could see the stars of hope swirling in her small black eyes. She closed them while her vast maw opened, revealing the countless daggers contained within. I leaned in, expecting the great last secret of the universe.
It came rushing, thousands or millions. Projecting from the last of her onto me. I felt them, hot and burning, covering my face in searing pinpricks of pain. I couldn't see. I desperately grabbed at my face and eyes, clawing to remove them. They were all I could see, clouding my vision in ribbons of form, squirming to bury deeper. I cried out in anguish, a mistake as it only provided another means of entry. I vomited, but I felt that they did not come with, though I had no eyes to know.
Chapter 5- The End of an Era
I had awoken crying. I couldn't tell if my face was hot and wet from tears or if what I had dreamed really happened. As I wiped the sleepy tears from my eyes, I realized I was in the Bear Witch's cave. Using an arm to prop myself up, I looked toward the familiar place where she had sat during all of our meetings. There lay a mass of cloth and fur, the remnants of her hide deflated and leaking. A dark discolored patch of earth expanded from her corpse across the ground towards where I laid, the liquid evaporating into the warm desert air.
'It can't be true' I thought.
My mind reeled. I pulled myself into a ball.
'Why would she?!' I sobbed.
Tears came pouring again, effortlessly. I touched my face and felt the scratches made against my skin. I shuddered.
'But I can see...'
I tried to convince myself that it had been a terrible nightmare, but even then I knew I didn't have the imagination to conjure such horrors as the previous night.
After a time, I resolved to return to the life I gave up so freely. I took the last meal I brought for her out from my bag and placed it onto the witches lap, then grabbed the book that I was never allowed to remove before. I shoved it into the pack and left, never looking back at the thing I thought was a friend.
I trudged through the barren desert back to camp to seek comfort from my mother, from my family. At the time, I thought I had been an idiot to leave them. An idiot to think that I could ever be, or experience, more than what I had been born into. The sun had started to set, and I'm sure they had been worried. I must have been gone for a day, longer than I'd ever been out alone. I felt that I had done them wrong, and that I needed to atone.
'I will do better in the future' I promised myself.
'They won't have to worry. I will do what's best only for my family, never again only for myself.'
When I neared the camp, the horizon was ablaze. An unnatural sunset, lighting up the narrow slip of land and sky, in the direction my home was at the time. A knot grew in my stomach. I dropped my bag and my thoughts about the events of the previous day, and ran.
The screams hit me first, children crying held by sympathetic older siblings. Men ordering other men and boys to throw buckets of sand onto carriages in flames. Women wailing, pulling the torn and broken tents away from the burning structures to try and save the remnants of cloth. Blood soaking into the cracked, dry soil. I searched frantically for my family, my siblings, my mother.
When I found her, her hand was immediately thrown across my already scratched and sore face.
"Where have you been?!" she screamed.
I could only sob like a small child, trying to pull her close, to embrace her. I was relieved that she wasn't hurt or lost to me forever.
"You did this, didn't you?!" She accused. She pushed me away hard before my arms could envelope her.
"Mama." I sniffed, resorting to holding myself instead.
"John's dead." She shook her head, grimacing.
"He came back for him. For all of us!" she screamed, spreading her arms in a gesture of the entire camp.
"Mama" I couldn't stop crying. Tears obscured my vision. I didn't know what had happened or why.
"Charlie said you let him go- let him live."
"The prince?" I uttered in between sobs. I remembered at last. The day we robbed the carriage. The man John almost beat to death.
"You fucking sold us, didn't you?!" She slapped me again, harder.
I was confused, and held my cheek staring.
"You fucking little bitch, sold us for a better life. Now John's dead. Charlie, Bert, Your father..." She trailed off, tears forming in her eyes.
"Mama..." I reached out.
She grabbed my hair and pulled me down. I struggled against her grip to free myself, but not wanting to hurt her more than I had already had.
"I didn't" I screamed.
She pulled me, struggling, out of the safety of the tents and the dying embers.
"That's the last lie you'll tell to us." She finally released my braid.
"I never want to see your face again."
That night I fled into the desert, alone with only the knowledge to comfort and keep me safe.
It was years until I returned to the wasteland, only when I knew the last of them had forgotten.