Dec 02, 2022 1:28 AM
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This little ocean-facing dock has definitely seen better days. The jetty still looks well maintained, but the shell of a once-proud trading ship is just rotting quietly into the sheltered bay, and nobody seems to be home. Above the docks, a steep climb into the mountains looms, with a robust wooden boardwalk disappearing into a dense, fetid jungle.

Further up the mountainside, a single stone tower pierces the canopy, with a lighthouse-like arrangement of gleaming mirrors barely visible just beneath its summit.

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If anyone were around to watch the shore right at this moment, they would see a solitary, reddish-brown and vaguely canine, head, protruding through the surface of the water, zipping out of the distance to approach the shore at an absurd clip. Fortunately, the head - travelling fast but smooth, leaving an admirably discreet wake - swivels and scans the shore with terribly sharp eyes that (the head is confident) could pick up any biggish creature not trying deliberately to conceal themselves, and those eyes see no one at all.

The speeding head - whose name is Tollee - vanishes just a few feet shy of the strange pile of brightly colored slats and things heaping up out of the water. It rises, spluttering and accompanied by half the body of a patchy-reddish ferryshaft, which, with its legs fully submerged, resembles a large but underfed wolf with enough giraffe heritage to be noticeable if you look twice.

Of course, Tollee thinks, re-scanning the trees, there could be intelligent creatures here much too small for me to notice even if they're being flagrant. It's not as though every squirrel- or bird-sized creature could possibly set off my DANGER! sensors. I'm too used to those sounds. Not that I've ever heard of an intelligent creature being that small, but there's no reason a species like that shouldn't be able to exist. But Tollee was repeatedly and (she hopes), expertly instructed by Tuvien that humans are almost as tall as ferryshaft, if much slighter. She would have noticed that. She's safe. Or, rather - she glances back over the water, feeling a pang of guilt and gratitude - Tuvien is.

Tollee surveys the hulking pile of - what materials are those, exactly? She has no idea - beached on the shore. Unnaturally flat, eerily regular, vaguely reflective. The sheen and variety of insane colors reminds her of the human paintings from Kuwee, only solid colors (well, they look to have once been solid - now the thing is heavily chipped and flaking) rather than being used to make images. Tollee ponders what the purpose of covering . . . whatever this is . . . in paint could possibly have been, and quickly gives up. She gets the feeling that she's about to encounter a lot of inexplicable alien accoutrements over the next period of her life, and suppresses the rising sense that she may be out of her depth here. Speaking of. She maneuvers around the heap to rise out of the water fully, shaking herself, deer-long legs dramatically extending her apparent height, single-toed hooves sinking not unpleasantly into the rocky sand.

Well. Time to go and find some humans.

A very careful visual sweep of everything she can see from her current position reveals only two sure signs of human presence. One is the path leading uphill into the surrounding forest, which is raised above the ground and seems to be built in the same way as the ship, only unpainted. The other is a very unnatural display of glittering . . . crystals? . . . high up on the mountain ahead. To be visible from this far down, the crystal structure must be not just distinctive but, for an artificial construction, enormous. She supposes that by that standard the pile of rubble in front of her is enormous, too, it's just not so weird. Tollee does not shiver. No point getting spooked now - for several reasons. She'll find her humans, and if this is the only lead she has, she'll find her humans by this lead.

Tail and head held high, she trots up the thunderclap-loud and echoey human path - okay, no, on the soft quiet soil alongside the human path, for as long as possible! - into the shadowy, humid forest.

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It's... a little bit damp, off the path. A little bit damp and the water is not really quite a natural colour. There's an unpleasant oily sheen to it which seems to be some considerably wrong colours. There might be a reason people went to the effort of building and maintaining a boardwalk here.

There's something about the mud which is starting to make her paws feel quite unpleasant.

A cacophony of birdsong follows her as she moves further into the jungle, including some rather strange, loud and deep birdsong from a little way off; a lot of cries of warning, assertions of territory, general belligerance.

As well as occasionally incorporating somewhat disturbingly unnatural colours, the mud bears some rather large paw prints...

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Oh. No. No no no.

The prints don't look quite like creasia prints, and the wood doesn't smell at all like Groth, but she knows Wrong when she smells it. Seriously? A whole Journey-Through-The-Mist-Between-Worlds and here she is, managing to strand herself in a dark poisonous (?) wood, following a mysterious trail, stalked by huge predators. Tollee doesn't even feel stupid; the universe is just shamelessly fucking with her at this point. 

She stubbornly plows on through the soil beside the path. Weird dark magic and poison she can handle, but whatever left those paw prints? Alone? Ha, ha. No. She'll take her chances with this forest until forced otherwise.

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The path is now definitely heading uphill and so it really shouldn't be this damp still.

Somehow it is.

Oh, and that tree? That ominously swaying, creaking tree? It's following her.

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She studiously ignores it.

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It is clearly not the only mobile tree in the woods. There's one over there, too. And over there.

In fact, they appear to be encircling her - although none are crossing the path. 

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Tollee looks at the trees, which seem to be forming some sort of guard around her. She looks at the raised path.

Well. Big predators or no, since it appears her life (or whatever these trees want) is now forfeit anyway, she now has nothing to lose by taking the path. She leaps up.

The clop-clop of her ascent up the path is resolutely steady. Adrenaline makes the trees stand out ever sharper.

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The trees seem reluctant to get too near the path.

A little way up the winding boardwalk, another set of vibrations - less careful than hers, possibly deliberately heavy footsteps - suggests someone else, possibly several someones, are coming down the path towards her at a steady human walking pace. They're not in sight yet, but by the time they are, they'll probably have noticed her.

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Those footsteps definitely sound two-legged and not at all birdlike.

These aren't the circumstances Tollee had pictured, but seeing as how she is currently blockaded by animate trees, she supposes she might as well consider the approaching humans her opportunity. With a start she wonders if she and the humans will reach an agreement by tonight. How will she spend the time until Tuvien gets back? She didn't bother planning for that contingency.

She shakes her head and keeps walking.

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A few steps later, there is the sound of human voices: "Halt, there's something on the path!"

The sound of humans changing their formation, looking out cautiously.

"The trees seem riled up, too," someone adds. Their advance starts again, much slower than before.

The tops of long-poled scythes come into view before their wielders do; the point person takes a moment to spot Tollee, and another moment to look again, more closely.

"Animal on the path!" she calls out. "Not a known species!"

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Tuvien's translator chain does work on the humans, too, then  - at least in the incoming direction.

The flat-faced upright mammals are . . . less fearsome than Tollee had imagined, in form, but those curved-pointy sticks and the orderly-cut fabrics spook her in the same way as the hunk of slats from the shore. Alien purpose.

Anyway, they're clearly organized in a militant defense formation. Balls.

"Hi," she calls out, rapidly evaluating her options. No need to risk the full truth immediately in case these peoples' culture is wildly hostile to old Lidian but has forgotten what ferryshaft actually look like. They're not literally attacking right now. She can feel this out.

"My name is Tollee, I'm a tourist from a distant island you've probably never heard of and I mean no harm - just looking for somewhere to stay. You can search my person, I've got nothing dangerous on me," - she nods at the silver chain glinting around her neck - "this is just for translation."

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"Okay, exciting new kind of person on the path," the point person passes back. "Hi there! You've landed on Shatterspire's private jetty - have you been off the path at all? You might need a bit of decontamination - nothing to worry about, unless you're allergic to light - and I'm assuming it's you who's got the trees excited? I'm Aelea Shatterspire, one of the Gardeners here."

The half-dozen humans are mostly dressed in layered robes in various light shades of green, but the robes are sensibly cut quite high for traipsing through muddy areas. Most of them have light leather armour as one of their layers, but a couple have just a few pieces - a wide leather belt, vambraces and a leather circlet with an inset green gem - and those ones are wielding elaborately carved quarterstaves rather than the various long poles with blades on the end.

There are a few subtle differences from standard human as well - one of them has pointed ears, and another has vivid green eyes and a few prominent veins that look rather greener than human veins ought to.

They are still carefully watching out to the sides of the path, but no longer seem to be particularly threatening in Tollee's direction.

One of them at the back says to another, "Maybe this is what a daeva looks like!"

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Tollee regrets that she will have to come clean about not being a daeva, due to daevas being presumably around somewhere to object to Tollee's status as one.

"Ah," says Tollee, straining for 'not terribly flat-footed', "The trees. Are you . . . friends with them? They do seem, um, vexed by me, but I have no idea why. No, no problem with light. Hello, Aelea Shatterspire." Nailed it.

Tollee's brain catches up with her. Gardener, of course she's friends with the trees, genius - oh, ancestors, what's decontamination? Well, Aelea doesn't seem to think it's a terrible thing to put someone through. The momentary shock of fear subsides.

A strange wanderer in their territory, and they're so obviously welcoming? Even . . . ready to help? Tollee feels almost guilty, but mostly, again, bewildered.

 

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"No, but they know not to mess with us. Basically everything in the area is poisonous, wants to eat you, or both. Is your vessel secure down at the jetty - if it's not weirwood, I'm worried it might become something's lunch? And we might need to move it to make sure it's not in the way of the trade ship." Aelea seems to be thinking on her feet, rather than there being a clear policy about unexpected visitors.

"Probably a herald," replies the other rearguard to the one who suggested Tolley might be a daeva. "The stargazers back at the Spire will still love it, though, if we can get it back in one piece."

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Yeah, that sounds about right.

"I'm not dangerous," she articulates very clearly, "but if you go down to the shore you will find no one, because the people who dropped me off, left already. This translator chain was a gift from someone very powerful, who knows where I am and does not want me hurt. Feel free to verify that, too, to whatever extent you can."

She did not just fuck Tuvien and all of Lidian forever, just to Hail Mary her own stupid plan. She did not.

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"Uh, don't mind Menicus, we're not exactly diplomats out here," says Aelea nervously, picking up on the increased aggression. "He's always pessimistic about us making it back from a patrol, but actually this is the most excitement we've had in weeks."

"Can I cast Detect Magic real quick anyway?" asks one of the staff wielders. "I've never heard of a translation chain, I'd love to see if we can, uh, trade for more with whoever did yours?" She was clearly about to say something more like 'make one' but then remembered that people often find you trying to steal their magical secrets to be rude.

"I'm pretty sure - sorry, where are my manners, what pronouns do you use? - anyway, given permission at least twice now," replies Aelea.

The staff wielder steps forwards a little, as if approaching a dangerous wild animal. "I need to be close enough to touch you but won't actually touch you, okay?"

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Tollee blinks. "I'm 'she'. And yeah, go right ahead."

She almost blurts out about how she doesn't understand herself how this thing works, but stops herself.

She scans the party uncertainly. "Mind specifying how I should I refer to you all, then?"

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Everyone dutifully pipes up with their pronouns; Aelea is 'she', Menicus at the back is 'he', the staff wielder at the front is 'she', there's another 'she' and a 'he' and one 'they'.

The staff wielder at the front transfers her staff into the other hand, and starts performing some kind of vaguely magical gesture with the other; she's tracing out a constellation in the air. "I call on the Phoenix," she incants, "to learn of this item, its power and effect." She ends the series of gestures near the chain.

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The fine silver-colored chain, just large enough to comfortably encircle Tollee's neck, is very, very good at the precise task of making educated guesses about what whatever people are saying, will mean to its wearer in the wearer's most-frequently-spoken tongue, and vice versa - and that's about it.

It detects new-to-it languages upon first hearing them, and continues storing new structured-memories of each new language up to a certain point, but after that point its concept of each language is totally fixed, and it just blithely translates between them.

It must have a lot of very finely tuned "memories" pertaining to common structures of syntax, semantics - even phonology and to some extent culture - to pull this off, but it doesn't know anything else, and doesn't have any agency or other latent capabilities.

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"Woah," says the staff wielder, blinking slightly. "I've never seen anything remotely like this; I have no idea how anyone would even start putting together something like that. You'd need, I don't know, Phaleron sponsoring you - it's like a whole library in there, one that writes itself."

"If you're looking for somewhere to stay," says Aelea cautiously, "I'm sure the Spire - that's the Spire of Shattered Art Reforged, or Shatterspire as everyone calls us, up on that hill there - would be very happy to accommodate you, as long as you don't mind curious seers asking all kinds of questions about where you're from and how you came by something like this..."

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Hm. Tollee nods. ". . . I'm sure I'd have plenty of questions for any seers, too."

Tuvien had explained about money. Tollee had thought it was the most fantastic idea she'd ever heard of, and she sorely regrets - "I don't have anything valuable to trade, but I'd be eager to help out around the - Spire - while I'm there."

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"Oh, I'm sure that just chatting with the seers will be fine, unless you're planning to stay on long term," replies Aelea. "Most of our duties are quite - precise; it'd take a lot of training for you to be useful.

Okay, Gardeners, I'm calling it here, let's bring Tollee in to the Spire and we'll have to come out and do the rest of the route later."

There are a few good-natured - and very deliberate - groans at that statement, but the formation gets turned around.

"Do you want a pair of us behind you to look out to your rear, or would you rather just follow along?" she asks Tollee; she doesn't want the stranger to feel surrounded, but neither does she want to leave her exposed if she'd rather have a complete escort.

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"I'll stay behind," Tollee says automatically. "Thanks."

She looks ready to follow, and there's a strange new glint in her eye.

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Aelea registers the glint and doesn't like it; she gestures for the formation to start moving again, and takes up rearguard so she can keep an eye on Tollee (and be the first in harm's way if she has misjudged the situation).

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Tollee takes up the rear, remains by all appearances the honest and docile tourist.

She notices that she sees no disadvantage in -

"These seers you mentioned - " (to Aelea) " - if it's not out of turn for me to ask - what do they, er, see?"

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