Cloudlark

by

CoffeeQuills

25 - Looking Past, Present, Future

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Seren followed Tairdi, the engineer beside her muttering under their breath the entire way that saying “Mushroom” was the easiest way to show others that you’d never been to Viadora.

They all walked over a miniature stone bridge, past a small, hollowed out tree, and stopped in front of the biggest of the three buildings. Seren let out a small gasp, and when she glanced over at Rive, she could see that their eyes were wide with wonder as well.

The only places there were no rocks were the open archways. Other than that, rocks literally dotted the walls, each one sticking out a little, almost as if it was shouting out for someone to admire it.

“Are they all different?”

“Not a single one is identical to another,” said Tairdi with pride in xyr voice. “And they were all found here, in Azmar. Well, several of them might have traveled from other places, but were somehow they were all involved in a decision to end up here.”

Seren stepped forward and placed her hand on a smooth white stone at eye level. It was warm, and even as she traced a finger on it, she couldn’t find a single crack or scratch. Next to her, Rive was crouching to stare at a speckled rock, tapping places where red, brown, and black touch.

“This isn’t painted at all.”

“Exactly,” agreed Tairdi. “When I was building this, all my money was going toward book purchases, so everything you see is natural. No matter how odd-looking it might be.”

Xe stepped forward and tapped a glossy black rock, orange ripples breaking out where xyr claw had touched.

“This beauty does come from the mines here, actually, and can be found under sea level if a being has more than their fair share of luck. I’ve found that while the rock is a normal black color, there’s a slight ‘skin’ to it that shudders when provoked. I’ve heard of green and blue as well, but nothing else.”

“That’s amazing.” Seren stepped forward and double tapped it, smiling as two waves rippled out.

“Welcome to my life’s work,” Tairdi said, gesturing grandly at the building. “And know this.”

Seren and Rive turned to xem.

“The amazements you see on the outside are at least doubled inside. Or at least, that’s how I feel about it.” Tairdi gestured for them to go on ahead of xem.

“If you had said that in the landing zone, I would have needed to keep unkind thoughts to myself,” admitted Seren, mincing forward so she could admire everything. The rocks were the most obvious of the wonders, she finally concluded. But other amazements were the colored glass lights hanging over the door, and when it glided open at her touch, the touch of coolness that ran along her skin.

“The inside’s cold?” Rive looked at the ceiling. “I don’t see any way for the heat to leave, or for the chill to be prolonged.”

Tairdi nodded, shutting the door behind xem as they brought up the rear. There was a path straight to the back, and small branches left and right, similar to a tree and its branches. The leafy part of the “tree” had several small tables, mostly slabs of polished rock, and stools nearby.

“I admit, some of the wonders on the inside had magic involved in their creation, and that’s how they work. In the air's case, there’s several distinct elements involved.” Tairdi walked past them and disappeared behind a thickly lined bookshelf. “How do you like your tea?”

Rive shrugged.

“There are so many types,” they said. “And adding something like sugar or spice depends on the base taste, which will have to account for the season the leaves were picked in, how they were dried, and the time length they were stored.”

Seren just looked at her engineer.

“Um... sugar, please.” She called out to Tairdi. “I like my tea sweet.”

“I can certainly concoct a sweetened tea. As for you and your knowledge, Rive, why don’t you come over here and look over my collection? If there’s a type you’re particularly interested in trying, I can easily brew another small pot.”

The offer had Rive perking up, and Seren almost giggled at how quickly they followed their host. Since the topic of tea didn’t interest her as much, she decided to look over the books on display. Tairdi, she realized, reading all the category labels, kept their collection to a level of organization that her father would have wept to see. The shelves were arranged by topic, then by the author’s first name with series kept in numerical order, and finally in descending size. A book gilded with something silvery that showed up well against a dark blue cover.

Wind Waves: Tales of Skies Past.

Wind Waves. Her mind went back to the conversation with Rive and Bri.

“Tairdi? How does a person go about borrowing a book from your library?” Seren called out. The next section was all about how to train a person to use magic. If this was her already itching to read some of these books, she could just imagine her reaction if xe also collected non-study books.

“Books need to be dowsed to be taken from the library,” xe exclaimed, coming around the corner with a tea tray. “However, that’s why the price of parking includes a free book dowsing—that way everyone has the possibility of at least one book to read.”

Xe settled the tray on one of the small tables.

“I’m surprised no one is coming to buy you out of tea and home,” muttered Rive, clutching a mug in their hand as they walked up. “With the selection you have, I’d be coming every morning, afternoon, and night.”

“An idea,” Tairdi agreed, nodding as xe poured, “but not a path which I would like to tread. I’ve been working to make this a place people will come for knowledge, not to quench a thirst.”

“Wanting to know is a thirst, though,” said Seren, sitting down at the table and cupping her hand around the hot drink. “This place is amazing.”

“Thank you.” Tairdi poured a third cup and sprinkled something yellow into it. Then xe took a pull and let out a happy sigh. “Perfect. Now.”

Xe cleared xyr throat.

“I believe there was a story for me?”

Seren and Rive looked at each other, the engineer nodding to the captain.

“It’s not as exciting as you think it might be,” she cautioned, trying to figure out how to tell enough of the truth that xe wouldn’t think she was lying, but also skirting around events that would end up with the shellship confiscated, her home, and Rive back in Viadora.

She started with finding the shell on her home island, said that an air spell had put it into the sky, and that she’d been lucky enough to find a dragon and kind sky pirates. The pirates were how she’d landed in Viadora, and Bri had been how she’d stumbled into Rive by accident.

Tairdi was the best audience any story teller could hope to find—xe gasped, groaned, and openly showed xyr emotions at the best parts. As Seren finished with the two of them landing there, xe drained their cup and poured another, taking a deep whiff.

“Well, the first thing I can tell you is this,” xe said. “Your ship? That’s meant to be in the water, not the air—that’s why you almost killed yourself getting it anchored.”

“Because it’s built out of a seashell?” asked Seren.

“How can you tell?” asked Rive.

“The propeller shape, not the ship shape, is how you can glean that information. It works through air, and that’s a good thing or else you wouldn’t have been able to sail here, but the fact that the blades can be lowered means it should be simple and easy for a person to go out and change them. In this case, either a being who can fly, one who can use air magic or metal magic, or the environment needs to change, and water would be the most likely.”

“I haven’t seen anyone who can fly,” said Seren. “But, maybe, you might know someone?”

Tairdi laughed and shook xyr head.

“Because I’m bearkin? The few feathered folk I know are not able to hold themselves up in the air for long. They can glide a short distance, and if you go into town you’ll see them, but that’s not flying.”

“We’re going to need other people in the crew who aren’t at such a disadvantage,” said Seren, shaking their head at Rive. “I don’t want them to do that again.”

“Then you’ll need a metal master, or a way to strip your ship of the air spell you cast on it and put it back into the ocean.” Tairdi scratched the bottom of xyr chin. “The owner of that vessel you found was most likely a water master, or at least someone on the crew was. I didn’t get a detailed look at your ship, but with the doorway I saw, the only way that wouldn’t have let in water was if someone was using magic. And at a high enough level to keep it up while sleeping, so it wouldn’t be draining.”

“And you learned all of that from just looking at our ship?”

“No,” corrected Tairdi, “I learned all of that before seeing your ship, in books and papers. It was simply a matter of applied knowledge.”

“I need to figure out how to pay you.” Seren looked around them. “I mean, I’d take as many books as possible, but since they’re not supposed to leave unless you dowse that it’s okay for them to...”

“How about this?” Rive leaned forward over the table. “We need to pick up supplies, hopefully find a threader, and also pay our berthing fee. Tairdi, could you dowse for us first by letting us know how we can gain coin here? And then we’ll be able to pay you for both the fee and the additional dowsing.”

Tairdi let out a little hmm, leaning back from the table... then gave a brisk nod.

“I should be able to do that. You’re going into town and it’s likely there will be some work for you, so it’s not as if I’m dowsing and you’re going to take off without paying me.”

Seren wanted to protest that she wouldn’t do that to a person, but she had, in fact, stolen someone else’s ship. She grabbed her thin red and orange tea cup and took another sip, letting the sweet and tart liquid sit on her tongue so she didn’t end up saying something stupid. Tairdi stood up and stretched, several loud cracks coming from the vicinity of their neck and back. Xe yawned a few times as well, snapping xyr jaw at the end.

“Um...”

Tairdi held up a claw, then reached out to down the rest of xyr tea. After the cup was emptied, they filled it again and repeated the action.

“Thankfully, I accidentally slept in this morning, that’ll be the rest I needed.” Xe sat back down again. “Is this your first time asking another to dowse for you?”

Rive and Seren both nodded.

“Then there is one rule to follow.” Tairdi tucked xyr legs up underneath them, making it so xe was sitting cross-legged on the stool. “No matter what you see or hear, please don’t touch me. While others may be pulled with sounds, scents, or lights, touch will cause me to stop dowsing immediately. If you disobey that, then I won’t offer my ability to you again.”

“Sounds fair,” said Rive, nodding. They were still slowly sipping from their cup of tea, cradling the off-white ceramic in the palm of their hand.

“Agreed,” said Seren. It was close to how her father did his charming… even if in his case it would cause accidental charming of the person who touched him, and didn’t stop him from using his ability.

Tairdi nodded, closed xyr eyes, and a slight rippling of white played among his fur.

“I’ve seen others dowsing,” whispered Rive, “but it’s never looked like that.”

They both waited, Rive concentrating on their tea and Seren going back to the wall and looking at all the books. What to Do if You Don’t Have Magic grabbed her attention, as did The Last War & Its Future Consequences and Identifying Airships. There were a few others that Rive might like as well, such as Crafting Non-Metal Machines. It took Tairdi about five, maybe ten minutes for xem to open their eyes.

“Okay...” Xe stood up and stretched, several more bones cracking. “So, good news, interesting news, and bad news. Which would you like first?”

“Good news,” said Seren at the exact moment Rive asked for bad news.

“Personally, I’d go for interesting news, but that’s just me,” commented Tairdi with a slight smile. Xe shook xemself, and poured another cup again, this time emptying the pot. “I did a bit more dowsing than I normally do, but it was worth it and I won’t expect you to pay; it was at the indulgence of my own curiosity. Captains first—the good news is that there is someone in Azmar that will help you.”

Seren pumped her fist.

“Wonderful!”

“And she’s a friend of mine, so I’ll be happy to introduce her to you. Now, for Rive’s request.” Tairdi took a slow breath. “The person who your shellcraft belonged to can no longer be counted among the living.”

Seren gasped. Rive gave a little shrug.

“I wasn’t expecting it,” they said, defending themselves as Seren glared at them. “But, I’m not really surprised? I mean, someone steered that craft to your island.”

“But...” thoughts were clicking together in her head. “That means they died on my island. And if they died there, then that means one of my parents killed them.”

“Before you panic, no, not necessarily,” Tairdi pointed out. “They could have been sick, or injured when they arrived on your island, and succumbed seeking help. Someone could have taken them off the island, and they passed away in another place.” There was a pause. “Is there any reason to think that either of your parents killed them?”

“No....” Seren said slowly.

“With no evidence to the contrary, it’s possibly best to assume that they didn’t, then. Now, onto the interesting news. I glimpsed the two of you and your ship on my way to find the person who could help you, since more data means a better fit, and it looks to me that you’re not connected to the guilds yet.”

“We were going to sign up in the next area.”

“Ah. Then it’s a good thing you came here first.” Tairdi stood up. Xe was a little wobbly, but xe stumbled over to the books that Seren had been looking at during their dowsing. “I’m going to need a small nap before we head out, so I can recover a bit more of my energy, but while I’m gone, I’d like you two to discuss this.”

Xyr claws snagged the spine of a thick, red-bound book, and xe deposited it onto the table.

“Here’s information that the Guild will assume that you already have. Look over it, and when we later leave, you can tell me all about what you’ve read.”

“Why?”

“Because,” yawned Tairdi, covering xyr mouth with a huge paw. “That’s a great way to remember what you’ve learned and for me to pick up new information. I’ll be back in a bit, please be kind to my library.”

And with that, the giant bear left, heading straight back outside. Seren and Rive looked at each other, and then she shrugged, moving her chair over to where the book had been placed.

How to Join a Guild

She flipped it open to the first page.

written by Atois Burke because they didn’t tell me anything and screwed me over

Rive laughed as Seren read that part aloud.

“I think I like this person already. Let’s see what they say and if we can do better.”

Basically, a Guild membership requires at least two people to be in a party. Of course, others can join your pair later, but BOTH PEOPLE have to be IN PERSON at signing. After that, the Guild will say that one person needs to be “defense” and the other person needs to be “offense.” What they’re actually saying is that one of your pair needs to be good at attacking, just in case you need to attack, and the other person needs to be good at defending... just in case you get attacked. Stupid basics. However, ask me how I know this.

“If all books are written like this,” commented Rive, laughing, “then let’s lug around some more.”

“They aren’t,” said Seren, shaking her head. “I’m surprised this has a traditional binding to it, it’s written like someone just... took their thoughts and slammed them into ink and tossed them at the pages.”

“Not a bad thing,” Rive said. “So, one of us needs to be more offensive, one of us needs to be more defensive. And we both need to be there in person.”

My partner, Vaar, decided to get something to eat. By the time I tracked him down and we were both there, that’s when I found out about this “you have to be able to take care of yourselves” crap. They tested us, and decided that we could party together if we had a third, but since we both tested as defense-heavy, we couldn’t be a pair.

“We should be okay, then.”

“Keep reading,” warned Seren.

The problem is that they test for skills that are not defense or offense. Let me explain their stupidity:

Testing Skills:

Reflexes (they throw things at you and you’d better hope you dodge them!)

Perception (what was this for? seriously? it was more throwing things at us)

Strength? (we had to keep fighting until we dropped… or would this be endurance?)

And they made up open a bunch of chests (they took notes, but didn’t tell us why)

Then, then they repeated the tests with magic, if a user has it. Vaar has fire as his element. Want to guess what he doesn’t have? Perception involving aim. We were denied a pair pass, and he was denied coming back after he sent flames to one tester’s head.

“This doesn’t look good for us.”

“It’s going to be difficult, that’s true.” Rive tapped the table. “My reflexes are good, and I think my endurance will be higher than yours since I worked with heavy things.”

“Mine might be better than yours, though,” pointed out Seren. “Since I’ve been working on a farm since I was young. But, honestly, I don’t think we’ll know until they test us.”

“True.” They turned back to the book.

So I started asking around to see how other people were getting their guild memberships. First of all, this is a damn racket. The advertised fee is “a single coin,” and even though that coin depends on the place a person is joining at, what they don’t mention is that it takes “a single coin” to fill out the paperwork, “a single coin” to take the tests, and “a single coin” to get the tattoo.

“Tattoo!?”

“It’s actually more than a single coin!? Wait...” Seren looked at Rive. “Why are you worried about a tattoo?”

“... needles,” they muttered, turning away. “I’d rather pay double for needles not to be involved.”

“Maybe the book is wrong?” offered Seren.

“… maybe. Just keep reading.”

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About the author

CoffeeQuills

  • Tokyo
  • Dust Warrior

Bio: CoffeeQuills is a transplanted Floridian, living in the Land Rising Sun. They write for 4thewords (an RPG for writers) and in the twists of space and time created by caffeine, they enjoy coming up with stories all along the spec-fic range. Anything goes for this Hufflepunk, so hold tight and pretend it's a plan!

“This is who I am, right here, right now, all right? All that counts is here and now, and this is me!”

(Currently back after a long hiatus - apologies to those I owe chapters and mail too. The plan is to update fictions and continue with a once a week schedule.)

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