We walked for several hours through the forest surrounding the creek and fishing cabin. Honestly? It was very plain, but sort of nice. I found myself on edge at times, reminded of when Bali-la led Siouxsie and I, when we were just starting out. But the good thing this time? We weren't jumped. There were no alligator people laying in ambush, for one. Secondly, I, along with everyone else, knew to watch for the mushrooms and their veves... not that that would have helped against the Longtooths with the stunt they pulled. And the ones we found were blank, which according to Rottkap, meant they were contested areas or uncontrolled by any major group. Considering how quiet things were, it seemed the latter.
Further to our benefit was Beltresz. She seemed pretty perceptive, as I often caught her focusing on our surroundings and the ground. When I asked about it, she told me she was focusing on scents, any tracks we came across, and vibrations on the ground. Although she said there were potentially creatures around, nothing she picked up on was especially fresh or nearby. I was quite impressed.
Siouxsie was more or less quiet, but smiling as ever. If she had any trauma about the original attack on us with Bali, she either didn't let on, didn't care, or didn't remember it. I asked how she was on occasion, but the answers were pointedly simple. "Fine." "Walking with new friendsss..." That sort of thing.
Leading us directly was Tulsan. I still didn't have a strong impression of him. He didn't talk much and he never seemed to break from trailblazing. Even when I spoke to him, he'd rarely look in my or anyone else's direction, as if he was locked onto the horizon. From what I understood, he had an idea of our heading, but didn't know the path in particular. I didn't want to disturb him, considering how important his task was. With that in mind, I didn't get any tension from him either. He just seemed task oriented. It was perhaps something he had in common with his cousin, maybe.
I was the apparent 'Alpha' of the group, as I understood it, but I felt rather useless while we walked. I really wasn't sure what to do. If I lagged behind Tulsan too much, though, I'd catch Beltresz glancing at me with possible disapproval. Did I want to be Alpha? Honestly? No. I knew I didn't have the skills to really warrant the position. Or even the personality. Or the experience... the list goes on.
Chatting on the side with Rottkap, who was ever a friendly source of information, it was the threat of that power that I exhibited in my old incarnation that convinced Beltresz to stay in line. Blowing up Adelaide... was not something I could recall ever doing, nor was it something I was proud of in retrospect by any degree. So, why not just give it up? I wasn't even certain Rottkap cared about the hierarchy within a group and Siouxsie probably didn't even know the concept anymore than I did. But I knew Beltresz and I weren't perfectly suited together and I knew she held to some Xibalban ideals, including that of hierarchy. What if she took over and kicked me out? Would Tulsan object since Bali asked him to gather me for the road? Or would the cousins ditch me in the middle of nowhere?
Maybe I was overthinking it. I was distracted by many things. Thoughts of Siouxsie coming back to life, what Bali thought I would be needed for at the end of the journey, studying magic, and trying to get the shadow hat to shape clothes based on my will, as I had been advised by Atacama. Incidentally, I had re-donned the Longtooth skirt and the cowl Brand gave me. Siouxsie got the large pink shirt from the fishing cabin that I had used for a dress. She was more willing to wear it when I offered it, thankfully. Regardless, I decided if I was going to take advantage of that sky clad enhancement that Tom mentioned, I wanted something in the meantime to cover myself with. In truth, I was trying to form some shadow-made clothing under what I was wearing. It felt easier to concentrate without open about it, you know?
Eventually, we crested a hill that lead down to a vast valley of mangroves and other swamp trees. Tulsan finally paused and we took a break, a bit tired from hiking. "What are we looking at?" I asked him.
He sniffed. "Bog lands. Possibly even a salt marsh from some ocean inlet. Sloggish travel, I'm afraid. I don't see anything else around. Hate to say it, but this is probably still the fastest route and we're nowhere near close."
Crap. "So there's possibly some Longtooths down there?" I was not looking forward to dealing with them again.
"Maybe... the veve's will tell. But from what I know of the ones you and Rottkap there ran into, those guys aren't a threat now from the sound of things. Not much anyone can do when the lady of mushrooms revokes your freedom from disease pass. I mean, there could be other Longtooth tribes out there not affiliated to one you ran into, but they shouldn't be doing that veve removal nonsense. I'm surprised it happened at all. Seems like most Xibalbans aren't so desperate as to cross Rottkap's boss," he said, his voice low and assertive.
Remembering that I had learned Blood Sensing, I closed my eyes and focused, trying to get a feel for the area. In mere moments, while everything before me was dark in my mind's eye, I could sense both the ruins of Adelaide (now of course a Harrier lair) and the Longtooth village somewhere further south of here. I got the impression that neither were too close, although I couldn't assign it a solid distance. Still, it was a bit relieving to know.
"Karolina," Tulsan began. "I suggest we push on into the swamp while we still have light left. I have no idea how long it's going to take us to get through there, but I'll do my best to navigate. I'm no stranger to waterways and the like."
I nodded. Tulsan had been described as a hunter, and his insight was certainly better than anything I could muster on the subject. "Absolutely. So, what do you think is in there anyway?"
He tilted his head, staring at the vast sea of murky green trees. "Just be ready for anything. That's all I know. This is one of those places that can get rough." I suspected maybe he did have an idea of something out there, but he didn't want to scare me. Left with the unknown, I could only imagine what this area would hold.
While taking our break before we pushed into the swamp, I wanted to stay positive. For a change, right? "Hey Tom?"
I felt the little hand monster slip out from beneath my hair. I wasn't sure, but I thought maybe he had been hanging out in the hood of my cowl all this time. "Hm? What is it? Got a question for me?" he peeped.
"No," I responded. "I just really wanted to let you know I'm appreciative for what you and Brand have done for me, you know, with the whole Siouxsie thing. You taught me a lot more in that small period of time than my mentor did, it feels like."
"Oh... well, um... you're welcome, Karolina. I figured what was the harm, right? Just things I knew off the top of my cuticles, as it were. I share some of Brand's trivia-like knowledge. A familiar's job is to be useful, after all."
"So, that was all you then? You're a pretty cool little hand, Tom. I mean that. I just... I've been too distracted to really say it much. But we have a moment here and I wanted to let you know. Thanks for all you've done. I wouldn't have Siouxsie back, I'm sure, without your advice."
I could swear his palm blushed. "You, ah... mean that, huh?"
"Sure. Doesn't Brand thank you for your hard work?"
He seemed without a response for once. At least, at first. "Master Brand, doesn't... ah, really say anything positive or negative to me. I just work for him, you know? A familiar is like a tool for his creator. That I talk doesn't really mean I'm independent in any way."
I smiled. Was he being modest? I got the impression he wasn't used to receiving attention. Truly, I hadn't given him much either. He was always so innocuous. "Well, I don't know if I believe that. I'm pretty sure by the way you talk, that you have your own personality. Regardless if you work for Brand, I can't imagine you don't have your own thoughts and opinions occasionally? And helping me with the ritual... you wanted to, didn't you?"
Again, he seemed uncertain of himself or something he wanted to say. "I, uh... hrm. You're putting me in quite the spot here, Miss Karolina. Brand... is a good master, don't get me wrong. But he doesn't talk with me as we are, really. I don't know anything more than he does, for the most part. And yes, I just wanted to help, more or less. Surely you know what it's like to have a purpose and not be needed? Or used to that end?"
Thinking on my self doubts on being the appointed group's Alpha and not knowing how to contribute during our trip, I certainly did. "You can say that again... I've been living it during this hike." I took a seat, not sure what else to say, but having gotten my appreciation off my chest.
After a few moments, Tom spoke up again. "You know, it's kind of nice. This."
"Helping out someone who doesn't know everything. Who's receptive to advice. It's nice," he said, sounding unlike himself. "Brand uses me to run small errands or forgets I'm around half the time."
"Yeah?" I asked casually. "Have you ever talked to him about it?"
The little hand sat down on my shoulder, using his knuckles. "No. But it wouldn't matter. Our relationship is that of a master and his tools. We don't communicate like this. He knows more than I do and I have nothing I can teach him. I'm really just his assistant, nothing more. Brand is not... particularly personable. It's all about business with him. I don't think he has much reason to care that I'm on loan and wandering further away from him, if I can be frank. If I was destroyed, he'd just conduct another ritual to make a new familiar without much effort. It wouldn't even be me, just another familiar, probably in my relative likeness."
"I'm sorry to hear that." I never gave much thought to how familiars worked, thought, and behaved. But I could tell the little creature was sort of disenchanted with his life with Brand. That Brand could consider him expendable, that was troubling to me. "I wish I could help."
"Yes..." he sighed. "We're extensions of the person who conjures us. But, it is what it is. Brand doesn't go on adventures as you do. He has no relationships of a non-business nature with others. He... well, I shouldn't say too much. That I've said this much is unlike me. I apologize."
"No, no... it's okay. I think it's fine, like I've gotten to know you more now than I have at any other point. You're your own person, Tom. I feel like I understand you much better now. And I'm glad I do."
He twiddled his thumb and pinky finger. After a moment, he spoke once more, this time quietly. "I bet you'd be a fun master to serve, Karolina. I've never talked like this with anyone. Ever. I could ride along and share what I know. See new things and people. And we could just talk like this. It's strange, but I like it. Thank you."
Smiling warmly, I nodded in appreciative affirmation. "I like this too, Tom. Maybe one day I'll learn how to summon a familiar and I'll talk to them as we just did, eh?" I chuckled.
"Urm... how would you... like to do that sooner than later?" he asked, still quiet.
Huh? "You know a trick or something? I don't have a spell like that in my book that I know of yet."
"No, I mean, I could teach it to you. It's a basic mage shtick for most casters. And it doesn't need to be in your book. I AM a familiar. Since you're magically inclined, I can literally express how you can do it in a ritual. Like I said, it's a basic one, relatively speaking. You'd be plucking something of yourself and giving it form into a servant for yourself. I don't know what it would look or act like, but it would function as I do, ideally."
I blinked. A new magical ritual? I could have my own familiar? It was exciting to consider. I could only wonder what it would be like. "You'd do that?"
"For real, Karolina," grinned the hand. "Your bond with your familiar would be unique to you and your creation. You might find it very interesting, or at least useful. And I get the impression you'd make a good master for one, given all this."
"Wow. Count me in. How do we go about this?"
"I'll show you tonight when we camp for the evening. It'll take a little time and it's not anywhere near as risky or hard as what you tried with Siouxsie."
"Neat. Thanks Tom!"
"No problem. What else is a familiar for but to help and teach?" he smiled. "Also, I'm calling dibs on being the godfather of your new creation, ha ha!"
(This was actually last week's update, it just got pushed back again and again. Being that this is the week of Thanksgiving Day, I'm not certain if I'll have a proper update this week or if I'll just skip it. Gonna play it by ear. Either way, enjoy some time with your family!)