Week 3, Day 3
Glamour welcomes Marjan a little less warmly this time, most likely because she’s busy trying to make Nilrae feel bad for making a witch play babysitter. Nilrae doesn’t seem to notice, or at least react. The Nebayan does thank Glamour graciously and, later, hesitantly asks if Glamour has any advice on identifying Journey’s grimoire, since she assumes the Collector would have several, the book had been taken before they met, and Nilrae’s not very good at reading magical texts to identify spells.
The witch tells her that if the grimoire hasn’t been missing for long, she shouldn’t have much trouble finding it but supposes she could help her more directly and disappears downstairs again. She returns with a small figurine of a hedgehog with a broken ear, smaller than a finger joint and carved from something blue and irridescent. She places the toy on Journey’s forehead for a moment. She gives Nilrae a pouch and directs her to take the figure, warning her that it will radiate with Journey’s magic for some time and that the sorceress will be incredibly upset if it is lost.
Before they leave, Glamour gives them a wrapped bundle and instructs them to trade it to the Collector for a skull that can be found in the Room of Thought. The one she wants will be painted gray to look like a model skull but will in fact be a real human’s head. The witch shoes them out of the house, giving Marjan’s shoulder a covert squeeze as she ushers Nilrae past the tables and shelves.
Nilrae is anxious about the figurine. She’s tied the pouches loops to her belt and shoved the pouch into a pocket, but has already checked on it several times. Marjan crits her lore check to determine what the hedgehog is made of and recognizes the material as a chunk of steatite, its strange color coming from an enchantment that allows it to be incredibly absorptive. The hedgehog shape has nothing essential to do with its function. More likely it was once used by a small child who might like the shape. Magical teachers will often use the stones for purposes like Glamour has—to capture and study the feeling of magic without using the actual spell. It’s very useful for teaching magic that is illegal or incredibly harmful.
It takes about an hour to reach the weather vane Glamour indicated. It points north northeast. As they head toward the area, one of the scouts interrupts, telling Marjan that they are going the wrong way, that last night they went west. Marjan says she can’t explain it but that they must follow the weather vane regardless. It’s harder to follow a straight line once they reach the trees that care little for their path. Somehow, despite keeping an eye out for gaps in the trees that could be your destination, the two adventurers quite literally stumble into the circle Glamour mentioned.
The snow is perfectly smooth and level despite the thick, old branches growing toward the center of the circle far above. The branches are hung wit strange ornaments. Bits of glass, rock, bone, and other things of little value. More oddities cling to the trunks themselves, nestled in nooks or hammered on.
”Supposed to be west,” a crow grumbles.
Three crows remain: Cap, one of the scouts, and one of the crows who had flown into the glowlight and still wants to be near Marjan more than it anything else. They and the humans follow Glamour’s instructions and begin to weave in and out of the circle.
The thrill of seeking a Collector’s attention quickly grows boring as they keep their eyes peeled for anything that could be interesting enough to be an invitation. They make lap after lap, though they only ever follow one set of their old tracks.
When Marjan passes from behind a tree that drips with strings of firecrackers, a glimmer of something finally catches her eye just on the edges of her vision. Looking over, she sees a magnificent crow, its rich, black feathers glimmering wit a sheen of purple, green, and blue to rival the best kept raven, and a small splotch of white plumage on its chest is equally opalescent. The white feathers part to sow a large gem that shines and shifts like fire, and tangled around one foot is an amulet bearing a large drop of godsblood.
The crow perches on a low branch some distance away. It says her name in human tongue, and the sound seems like it comes from right next to her instead of yards away. It sounds warm and familiar. The others seem oblivious to anything but their circle, except for the frightened crow on her shoulder who comes to attention, focusing on something else.
”What frightens you, crow?”
”Not scared. Hungry. See big juicy frog. Pop.”
Cap cranes his neck around. “No see. Where?”
”There. Big frog.”
Marjan encourages the crow to follow the frog she cannot see and she goes after her own invitation. The colorful crow waits for her to approach before gracefully gliding away to draw out a game of chase.
Nothing seems amiss as she follows after the bird. She chases it through the woods, and suddenly the next step feels like you’ve missed one on a flight of stairs. Her foot lands hard on stone instead of snow and earth. With a blink, she is in near darkness. The invitation is nowhere to be seen, but her real crow swoops at her, squawking and shaking for comfort. The “room” she’s in is smallish and almost musty smelling. There is no apparent source of light, but her eyes are able to adjust well enough to see. Behind her, a hallway continues until it becomes too dark to perceive. The floor is messy with melting snow, mud, and dirt. In front of her, the mess of earth eventually clears, replaced with the mess of Man.
Marjan comforts her crow and as she hears footsteps approach. She sees a bit of movement through the stacks and shelves of things. It seems like a person and moves with what a crow might consider a wobbly walk. She calls out a greeting.
”Hello hel-lo! Have you come to buy? Patrons, patrons, when I have not yet sorted through my newest supply? Usually I have more time,” the voice frets. “How can I be of service?”
The figure moves into view. It is a…man, mostly. He has a preternaturally sallow, sickly greenish-gray complexion and a matted nest of stringy black hair that makes Tiska look like a well-groomed socialite. His nose seems to have been broken many times and never set properly, so it is utterly un-uniform and has difficulty holding up the cracked spectacles that make his eyes look huge, fractal, and altogether insectile. He limps on widely bowed legs. The pant of one leg shines darkly and wetly as if it might be actively bleeding freely. He is scarred, wiry, and a little jittery. Marjan’s father hid her from the likes of such men when they lived in Glass, scaring her into malleability with tales of drug use and cannibalism-induced insanity.
He smiles at her expectantly. Maybe it is supposed to be a salesman’s smile. The few teeth he has are broken and dark. Something pale and wormlike moves behind them. Marjan is unsure it is a tongue.
Marjan is taken aback by him, but asks if she can browse his wares. She says she is interested in trading, for magic, possibly. Grimoires.
The man tells her he can give her power and disappears, eventually returning to hold out a tarnished silver tray to her with a flourish. The tray bears a pair of fingerless leather gloves.
Marjan looks at them a little skeptically. “Power?”
“Peeled from the hands of a corpse,” he boasts. “See how worn the knuckles are? Worn from punching walls and raging impotent against the world. Someone died in these gloves, alone and ineffectual. Someone emptied herself out into them. But you can have them. You can wear them to find the purpose she died without fulfilling. Wear them to find the power to complete it. You’ll tear down the walls that trapped her. Fearless, you may stride through the world, riding high on the strength she died without. You may tear down anyone who throws at you tiny barbs and petty injuries. In return, you must change the world. Take her power to take their power. Be what she could not. Exceed her. Do not let her down.”
“It is not much of a price. Unless you fail.” He laughs.
”I’m…not sure that that is the power that I seek. Is there anything…more bookish? Something spiritual? I want access to the spirit world.”
He frisbees the metal tray and its gloves down the hall. They clatter and ricoche t and cause other things to tumble, setting FrightCrow off again. The main doesn’t seem to notice. “Of course. So foolish. One moment.”
Cap arrives after his own failed hunt and the man returns with the tray—now sporting a flattened edge from the roughness of its impact and what at first glance appears to be a burned stick. The man’s description of it is equally grim, and Marjan sends him away for the third time asking for something that would not change her appearance nor hurt her. He throws his tray again and stalks off.
The Nebayan finally arrives with a curse and a stumble, looking around both amazed and a little distressed. ”This is even worse than your basement.”
”That is uncalled for.”
Nilrae looks at a seemingly empty jar, frosted with…age or something. “I should have asked Glamour for help that wouldn’t require touching.”
Nilrae asks if the final crow will have the stamina to keep circling by itself and says she was starting to flag after the first hour. Marjan’s surprised by the time delay, but the scout crow quickly follows, grumbling misanthropically when Nilrae tries to talk to it.
The man returns and Nilrae quickly hides her reaction to his appearance. He ignores her entirely and bears an envelope, sealed with wax, that will allow its bearer to introduce themselves to a beast in the copper wastes who will protect them for gold, and kill them for their bones if not provided consistent compensation. Marjan is, for some reason, interested. Nilrae looks like she’s having difficulties not resorting to violence. Marjan asks for more writing and the man finally looks at Nilrae, who asks naively for grimoires. When he finally looks at her, he asks if she’s a soldier, and Marjan names her a pirate. The man says that it’s dangerous business and he knows of just the gift and zooms off, this time taking the tray with him.
”I know we can’t kill him but can we…?” She makes a gesture of cracking him over the head, complete with a pop noise. “Uh, help him take a nap? He seems like a pretty old dude.”
Marjan won’t let her. She suggests Nilrae search the room while the man is gone, but they’ll have to wait until the next time. He arrives with the letter of introduction from before, a red ribbon, and a vial of amber liquid.
He gestures to the ribbon first. “For someone who has fought and maybe taken lives. Who has seen horrors or is about to. I have nothing to protect you, but I do have this. Peace of mind for your loved ones, perhaps. Small, and fraying now at the edges. Tie this around any delicate pulsepoint and you will always return home. Walking or crawling. Dragging fragments of bone across the bottom of the sea. Wriggling as pieces smaller than the worms that ride you. You will return. You will always find your way home, no matter what you have to go through to find it again. Even if there is no time for healing when you get there. But you will be there. You will be home.”
Nilrae shivers. “If I can find my spook’s grimoire, I think I’ll be fine.”
He frowns, the eye movement looking wild under his magnified glasses. “But if you cannot find the grimoire, this will be here.”
The vial he bears will cause sleep to flee, replacing it with visions of fluorescent lights and blurred shapes in white coats, the sound of rattling stainless steel and whispers.
Nilrae looks like she’s considering what would happen if she barged past the man and began hunting for the grimoire. Marjan says she’d like to help look for the book while she thinks about what she’d like.
”I have plenty more wares. I can find you many things. I have this satchel of things I have not yet returned with. And this other that I have not yet discovered what they will do.”
”Well, perhaps I will take a look at those while the pirate searches.”
He frowns. “My things are much more interesting than books. I’ve made them so much better than what they were. I’ve spent my whole life on it. Spilled blood and flesh for these things. Not the others.”
Marjan has no idea how he would react if she were to tell him why they were interested in a grimoire. Instead, she asks about the Room of Thought. He tells her that it is deeper inside and holds bones. ”Hard to get into. I have some things from there. Treasures. Very hard to get.”
He will not lead them to the room, as he prefers to keep visitors in the entryway. ”They get too ambitious if they leave here. They don’t want to talk to me anymore. I will bring you something from the Room of Thought.” He zooms off.
Nilrae’s paranoia is coming to a head. ”Why is it hard for the Collector to get into his own stuff? If this is a lair that’s magic enough for him to control who comes in when and to make it too dangerous to kill him?”
”You could ask him when he gets back. After you’re done searching through his junk.” Marjan flinches after she says ‘junk,’ like she’s afraid he might hear.
With a bit of bickering, the two sneak down the hall, going to great lengths to avoid touching anything. They’ve gone some distance, and can see a much larger room widen at the end of the hallway when they hear the man’s oncoming return. They cannot make it back to where they began before he arrives, so they decide to hide. The man returns and passes them, holding what appears to be a strange, mildewed quartz on his tray with the other baubles that were not rejected.
They wait for him to disappear behind the racks and piles before sneaking deeper into the lair. Just as they begin to hear the main cavern, they hear an almost forlorn, ”Travelers?” They do not hear the sounds of being hunted for.