Letters. Letters were a glorious thing. She had been on the right track with her crude symbols but hadn’t imagined just how ingenious a system could be made with them.
Letters were a way to systematically create words with symbols. The words were the same as the spoken ones she’d been learning, only they were being made by letters rather than sounds.
The letters represented the mouth sounds the thinkers made, and so you could make any thinker spoken word with letters. It, unfortunately, seemed like there were a lot of rules and interactions between them that changed what sounds they made, which made things difficult, but that was fine. It just made things harder. She was up for the challenge.
She had always known she would be able to understand the thinker sounds eventually. That was just a matter of time. She, sadly, couldn’t see herself ever being able to make their sounds right. Her body just wasn’t made to produce them. The thinkers could make this hum in their throat that filled their words with a wonderful tonality. They also had differently shaped tongues that could modify the sounds they made in many ways, and large mobile lips that could morph sounds even further.
The noises she made when she tried never even came close. She had one tone, and it was high pitched and shrill. Her mouth and throat were not shaped right and her tongue, while very impressive and versatile (Let's see a thinker try to pick up a rock half their body length away with their tongues), couldn't squeeze, stretch and flatten itself like a thinker's tongue could.
But now she had something, regardless of how hard it was to learn. If she could figure out how letters worked, she would have a method she could use to communicate properly. She would be able to actually have a conversation where one side wasn’t always going to have to interpret or ponder what the other side was saying.
She had the whole thinker language arrayed in front of her, she just needed to leap out and bite it… with her mind.
Sure, it wouldn’t be as convenient as saying words, but it was worlds better than any other option if she actually needed to get across a complex idea.
But that was for the future. Right now, she was learning the basics of letters, and she didn’t even know most of the spoken language yet. She was currently learning how the basic letters were formed and how to write them.
That in and of itself was an interesting test of dexterity. At first, she’d tried to write with Annie’s pen, but there was no good way for her to grab it. It was basically a big feather with a nib. She’d choke herself trying to hold it in her mouth straight, and if she held it sideways she couldn’t really see what she was doing.
Annie had been willing to cut the thing in half so Shadow could use it right, but Shadow had stopped her, seeing how pained Annie looked as she’d been about to take her knife to it. She didn't want Annie to destroy the pretty things she had just for her.
That all led to the current situation. She was currently shaking out her foreleg. It’d cramped up again. Annie had come up with a great alternative idea. She’d figured Shadow could use a claw as a writing implement in lieu of a proper pen. She just had to dip a claw in the ink and use the tip like it was a pen all of its own. She'd need to dip it a lot more frequently but that was ok. To do it right, however, Shadow really needed to have only one claw out, or at least only one claw facing out. If she could manage to curl the rest of her toes to get the other claws out of the way, that would work too.
It wasn’t easy. Her paws were not used to this kind of thing. She’d never tried to flex a single claw or individually manipulate her toes before. It turned out trying to do so gave her cramps in her leg. But she was getting better at it, and the cramps were coming less frequently. And the strategy was working.
This one will be better.
She finished shaking out the cramp and extended a single claw into the inkpot, before taking it out and letting some excess ink drip off back into the pot. She placed her claw lightly on to the paper and started drawing another ‘S’. It was tricky. All curvy rather than straight lines. She concentrated hard as she moved her foreleg through the curvy motion, making sure to keep it steady.
Having to use her whole arm was annoying, but she had a feeling that would only be a temporary crutch. She was able to wiggle her toes a bit, and with practice, she was pretty sure she’d be able to make the letters only using toe wiggles. She was a little annoyed she’d never really tried to do anything like this before. Having better control of her digits would be very helpful. She’d seen how useful thinker hands were but had dismissed the idea of being able to do anything similar with her paws. She'd written them off as mostly useless when it came to tasks requiring manual dexterity.
That had been a mistake. Sure, her paws would probably never be able to do things like a thinker’s hands could, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t do anything. She had just never really forced herself to make them move differently than was comfortable.
She finished the ‘S’. It looked a lot better than the last one.
“Good! A few more like that and we’ll move on. S, again.”
Shadow perked up with the praise and dutifully made another one.
Most of the morning was spent learning, aside from a break where she’d gone off to catch a rabbit to eat. Even injured it was laughably easy with her shadow fluff. She was already recovered to the point where she felt fine using it.
Jonas had woken up and Shadow had let him pick something from her selection. He’d laughed and tried to wave her off, but there was no way she’d let him get away without taking something in return for her rescue. He ended up taking her blue snakeskin.
She was happy he liked it. She really was. It was an appropriate gift. It was just… well it was like a memento for her great victory over the snake. It was unique. It wasn’t like a shell when she could always find another pretty one. Only this one was a memento from her battle, even if she found another snake. She hadn't really thought he'd pick that one.
She gazed at it longingly as he folded it up to put in his pack. She was so focused she didn’t notice when Jonas shared a significant look with Annie, a wry smile on his face.
“Hmm. You know, perhaps I’d prefer a shell instead.” He came back over with the skin and pointed to a shell.
Oh yes! A shell would be much better!
Her eyes glowed with barely restrained Joy. She’d never been so happy to trade in her life.
She enthusiastically nodded and gave him her prettiest shell, and he took it, chuckling.
They did eventually have to move on, however, and before mid-day, they were all packed up. Annie helped her put on her pouch belt but emptied the pouches into a bag she kept in her own pack. Now Shadow would be able to gather things throughout the day as they traveled. Everyone was taking their time moving through the woods, now that they weren't in any particular hurry to get anywhere.
The thinkers had offered to carry her, but she’d declined. She may be limping, but she was still plenty fast to keep up with them, given the pace. They weren’t the fastest things in the forest even when they moved at full speed.
"So, Jonas, you did manage to affix the divination beacon?"
"Yup. First thing I did. Missed out on a few of the samples you wanted when the fight started, but I got a bit of its shell and a scale."
"That will have to do. I... think it would be unwise to try that again. Let's just head back and retrieve the anchors. I apologize for my overconfidence. I hadn't anticipated being attacked as we performed the procedure."
Jonas just shook his head.
"It's more my fault than yours. I'm supposed to be the expert here. I... this may be a little harsh, but it was stupid of me to let you make the plan there. You might be the smarter of the two of us, but I know the woods. You filled my ears with talk of magic, anchors, and how it would all be fine and I believed you."
Annie looked hurt, and made to speak but Jonas just raised a hand.
"Hold on. I'm not saying it was a bad plan, but I should have thought about it more, tried to poke some holes in it. I got complacent, even knowing the danger. I grumbled about the danger, but really I was overconfident as well, and rusty to boot. I wasn't taking my job seriously enough. I should have been busy thinking about all the ways that plan could have gone wrong."
He looked into Annie's eyes.
"And you need to start listening to me when I tell you something is dangerous."
He glanced back at Shadow.
"We lucked out with this one, but the next time might not go so well. If you get hurt badly out here, there'll be no one to save you."
Annie gave a small nod of her head and looked contemplative.
"I suppose it was silly of me to want to come out here and do this myself. I've endangered us both for want of a little adventure." She said quietly.
Jonas's gaze softened.
"No, Annie, you didn't do anything wrong. I should have insisted on a bigger team. It was my own arrogance thinking it'd be fine just the two of us. I should have known better. That's what you're paying me for."
He added the last bit with a small smile.
Annie shot him a wry smile back.
"Does that mean I get a discount?"
"When it's the nobility paying you? Not a chance." he laughed, now with a full-on grin.
Shadow wasn't sure what the conversation was about, but she was glad it seemed to work out alright.
It looked like their first stop was going to be back to where they had run from the tree-eater.
She had been worried at first that they were going after the tree-eater again, but apparently Jonas had done enough of whatever it was he had been doing, and they didn't need to bother it anymore. She just about melted in relief when she figured out they were just going back to the site of the battle.
She was still a little nervous though. The tree-eater should have moved on from where it had been resting, but it still made her nervous.
She was pretty sure all the thinkers wanted to do was try to retrieve the amazing golden glowing anchors they had been using. She guessed Jonas hadn’t bothered to grab them while he was rescuing everyone. That seemed like a reasonable decision to her.
She realized she wasn’t actually sure where they were. She’d been sleeping while Jonas moved them to their campsite, so she just followed him as he led them back.
The area was still cold, but not with the same life-draining chill it had had before. They could hear the tree-eater booming along in the distance, but it was a good way off. She almost had a heart attack when she spotted the red-eyes again, still locked in the same pose with which it had died.
Annie and Jonas went over to it and had some sort of heated talk about it. She didn’t really understand too much, but it seemed to be something about eating and waste? Annie had had a discussion with her about 'waste' before, namely that if she had to 'make waste' (which meant poop or pee) she should do it outside of the campsite. It had taken a bit to get the idea across, and Annie had seemed a bit flustered explaining it, but the rule wasn't hard to follow.
She really had no idea what that had to do with the red-eyes though. She didn't think it'd be 'making waste' ever again.
The discussion had ended when Jonas had made some point and then walked over to the red-eyes and knocked on it with his sword. It made a harsh clanging noise.
Annie’s shoulders drooped, but she nodded and they got to work collecting the anchors. Shadow assigned herself to lookout duty while they handled all that, but it didn’t take long, and shortly they had all of the anchors gathered up.
It seemed a couple had been damaged, but Annie took them anyway. Perhaps she could fix them?
Regardless, they were shortly underway again, into the great unknown.
Or, well, technically they were headed back through her old territory for now, but after that! The great unknown!
She was ready.