Cadence worked their lips to one side, loosed an ambivalent smack, and then brightened up. Sure, they thought, it might be that Our Lady’s just sent me here to work out some petty trade dispute before it turns bloody. Or… or, it might be a chance for some real work. “Appy,” they said aloud, “would you mind hanging back a few paces, sweetling?”
“Okay!” Appy said, ever helpful. “Do you sense mean people, Cadence?”
“Maybe,” Cadence said, and caressed their polehammer’s haft. They didn’t feel they’d earned the right to name it yet, but Cadence was thinking it should be something straightforward–something blunt.
As wind blew over the tidal labyrinths, Cadence led them upwards through a steep tunnel formed from that porous aqua stone–one whose top opened onto the coral-town’s islet. Ancient stairs cut into its broad, irregular belly glinted, turned translucent at thin points by the late morning sun. Some grooves might once have been a handrail; dark igneous streaks suggested a volcano tried to form here in some past era. Now only dead fish and stubborn sea-plants lingered, the latter fighting to survive until the tide returned.
They passed on, footstep-echoes mixing with dripping water’s sounds, until they emerged into a jagged, cracked bowl. Driftwood walls stuffed hollow spaces in the bowl’s sides, which at their tops formed tips and dips like shark’s teeth. Closing their eyes to clear flesh and blood’s flawed picture, Cadence swept the odd village in every direction at once with their mind-sight. Long-ago ramparts with broken-down bladelike protrusions–rounded at the top to stop them aiding grapnels as well as foiling ladders–and markseye-grooves indicated a stubborn little redoubt.
Spiderwebbing out from the broad impact hole in a far wall, its edges partly gone glassy, the cracks offered testament that no fortress stands forever. The original buildings survived mostly intact, all carved from fossilized coral in faded rose-hues and oranges and grown right onto the islet itself. They were lumpy, yet carved enough for their artificial curves and natural swells to make a harmonious whole, merging into each other with chiseled frames still holding heavy stone doors. Land-plants sprang from the deposited soil in their crevices, adding greenery and flowers.
It ought to be the most charming place Cadence had visited for years, and they instantly hated the crude driftwood debaucheries propped up throughout the settlement like plague-sores. They put that hatred aside and scanned the supplies atop the ramparts, doing their best to ignore the new “construction” marring the marbled coral walkways. Food, drink, and fishing supplies nestled right in with weapons, many of which were rusted and pitted nigh unto useless by the humid salt air. If these people offered Cadence any trouble, it’d be light trouble.
The Chaplain centered themselves and opened their eyes, regarding the mismatched villagers now staring at the trio. Most were human, though a few otter-like Novgori clustered at the crowd’s edges.
Some of the humans, those from the olive-skinned Takautaratawli–or simply “Takau”–people whose tribes were most native to these tide-lands, wore odd yet fine coats made from sharks’ hides, complicated in cut and patterns, either form-fitting or with their own dramatic silhouettes. The best featured sealskin panels and faux-embroidery with what looked to be polished silver–or perhaps pewter–thread. Others favored suits made from gleaming fish-scales, chosen for glint, colors, and patterns to create dazzling animist displays.
Gauzy cloth wrappings provided their underclothes. They bore spears, short curved swords with wicked points, and vicious polearms with two slicing, narrow hooks beneath spearheads; these were called “Walu”. All were crafted from whalebone and fine dark wood selected from newly-wrecked warships and other such elegant craft, every head and blade wrought of steel and Fringe-metals hammered in forges heated by mage-siphoned lava. They’d suit the coral homes well, but of course the Takau preferred a semi-nomadic life in their youth, and this group all looked quite young.
The town’s own residents, because fortune laughed at a Chaplain’s strain, wore patchy rags and rotting leathers and scavenged silks obviously dredged from chests in ships too long sunken. Even now, their wearers sweated out their misery in great glistening patches. Now that they stood closer, Cadence perceived the separate auras more clearly.
Some tingled, nervy and anxious, and though without their own psionic gifts they didn’t know that Cadence touched their minds, some subconscious cue made them cringe in turn. These seemed underfed, but harmless. These poor folk didn’t anger the Chaplain, even if Cadence had the same perfectionist bent as most Mirtullan disciples–the Chaplain felt sorry for them. They clearly knew little about these tidal plains, and they clearly knew that too. Unfortunately, Cadence led no charity missions; they must mark this place’s location and hope to find aid from a gentler order.
Thick-muscled, tanned, and even a little on the fatty side with coarse red hair, it was a scraggle-bearded hulk of a man who first spoke to the newcomers. “I bid ye welcome, travelers,” he said, “I bein’ Ovin Martaeus, and this bein’–” If they’ve named it something like “Driftwood”, I swear by the northern snows I’ll scream, Cadence thought, even as Ovin concluded, “the free town of Flotsam.” MotherFUCKER, the Chaplain fumed, reminding themselves for the latest of many times that The Boreal Lady did not permit executing others for stupidity or, indeed, unoriginality.
“We thank you for your welcome,” Cadence said aloud, and restrained themselves from asking if this place had a better name before outsiders like Ovin polluted it. Besides, Cadence thought, glummer for it, I don’t know for certain that Ovin is an outsider. Maybe his family’s lived here since the fortress was carved.
“I and my band greet you, Chaplain,” one of the Takau said, and moved his hand in a sinuous motion to brush across his forehead as he bowed. His Common was flawless, of course; most Takau tribes shared the belief that all language rang sacred because it expressed a soul’s desires, and would not let themselves speak poorly. “We venture today in the direction you’ve just left. Have you met any special dangers we ought to know of, and do you know when the tide may return?”
“Our Lady sent me to an old galleass perched on a rock outcropping half a day’s journey thence,” Cadence said, “where I delivered her blessing to some who needed it. Aside from trapped sea-beasts, we’ve seen nothing to worry over. I’ll show you where to find the galleass and a few other places which should be safe havens if the tide catches you unawares. Here,” they concluded, and produced a proper Fringe-map, a silvery parchment with inky darkness brooding upon one side as though an abyss tore itself open and yawned now within the page.
Starry twinklings and lines marked the places Cadence had seen. They focused on a spiraling runic symbol until a winding blue stream sprang out from one corner and arched into the sky–sending both the map’s newest markings and Cadence’s own location far north to the scrying room at the Lynchpin.
The Chaplain sensed Ovin’s attention on the map, and barely disguised their smirk as a smile to the Takau tribesfolk. The tidal nomads nodded their thanks, updated their own mundane map, and hurried off, leaving Driftwood to its ill-deserving inhabitants.
“Must be worth quite a bit, that map,” Ovin said, subtle as a cannonade. Though, to be fair, he probably hadn’t visited any of the three places on the Fringe where cannons existed.
“Oh, a fortune,” Cadence agreed. “You’re native to the Fringe, then, if you understand that?”
“Near enough to,” Ovin said. “Washed up here as a lad. Can’t remember much from the old world. Come in for a drink, miss Chaplain?”
“Just Chaplain, and I’d dearly love a drink,” Cadence said. They turned to Thlib and Appy. “Have some fun, you too. Poke around.”
Thlib, Cadence sent via telepathy, this place reeks of dissonance. Some of these people are just ill-favored. But Ovin, I wager you anything, has deeper problems–he’s too slimy to be calm around me unless he doesn’t know what a Tundra-Chaplain is. Keep Appy close and warm up your suit. Condensed to pure ideas, the whole mental burst took less than an eye-blink.
“Of course, Cadence–careful you don’t drink more than you can handle, hm?” Thlib said aloud, leading Appy off towards the ramparts.
Their suspicions aroused, Cadence answered only with a sensation of agreement and shifted the polehammer into a readier position. Mirtulla, as always, had nudged Her Chaplain right where She needed them. At least this time Cadence might get something to drink first.
(Previous Episode Here) (Next Episode to come)
And there we are–a double-post this week since I’ve decided I want to shift episodic stories like this into the weekend and reserve Wednesday for theory, one-off and editorial-type posts as I’ve done in the past. As always, I’d love to hear thoughts from any of you down in the comments! Otherwise, please leave a like, share this episode with your friends wherever you may go online, and consider supporting me on Patreon!