- Markshire PCs:
Of course, when Sun-Ok arrived back at the east gate, the guards demanded her passport, which, of course, she was not deemed experienced enough to have, despite being older than all four of the gate guards combined. “It is Markshire and the baek-ho in a nutshell,” she thought, but she stifled the near-insane laugh that threatened to bubble out again. “They’ll never let me in if they think me mad,” she thought to herself tiredly. “Or maybe that’s what it takes to get through. Please, ancestors, send me a traveler so I may sleep.”
She huddled grimly in the softly falling snow, counting herself lucky that a caravan passed inside just two hours later, and that the drivers made no objection to her tagging along at the end as though she belonged. She trudged to the inn for a bath and a soft warm bed, tripping once again on the absurdly large head of the bear rug that nearly blocked the foyer door. She dropped a pouch of gold coins wordlessly to the floor in payment.
The bath was well worth the outrageous price—Sun-Ok did not, however, get any restful sleep. Her exhausted body stirred fitfully, following the soundless images that flashed through her tortured mind.
Large lavender scorpions falling into the sea, the face of Odin’s statue, a hideously toothy lizard creature slaughtering kobolds. The images piled after one another, a small part of her mind working, even asleep, to discern any meaningful pattern with which to assimilate them.
A vegepygmy grinning horribly around an arrow lodged in the back of its throat, war-clubs blotting out the sky, a spinning almond falling slowly toward an upturned eager mouth. A needle pulling purple thread through canvas, a jolting landscape framed by ox-horns, a hooded face spilling forth maggots. Orphaned children staring vacantly into the distance, a beating heart, a cave floor covered in diabolical traps. The stump of a small arm next to the stump of a larger one, a cloud of lazy bees, chunks of meat spilling into an icy chest. A shy Marco, blood in a slow river, an astonished Father Ryche, fireworks exploding, a short dancing figure in a tiger-mask. An eerie painting of some terrible ritual, a gently smiling nun, a charging orc. Arrow-pierced horses writhing on a hillside, a painted image of Loki carrying strands of gold, a hammer beating metal into a long thin blade.
Her worn-out mind longed to grasp just one scene and cradle it gently into real slumber, but it was not to be. The flood continued. A hand picking cotton, an indistinct elven man surrounded by human and elven women, a beautiful necklace, a frightened goblin. A brew bubbling with bones and mushrooms, a terrified dalmatian puppy, a laughing half-orc, a minotaur holding out a bottle of reddish ale. The face of a roaring white tiger with the mutilated body of a panther. A spider dripping venom. A painting of Thrym in a glaringly white snowscape with some absurd dark goggles drawn over the eyes in charcoal. A human baby with its face contorted, right at the moment before it cries. Animal fat bubbling slowly in a curing tub, dappled sunlight piercing the forest canopy, a circle of standing stones, a wae gum lying in dark blue silk in a lacquered mahogany case, an open and empty grave. A dusty ancestral shrine at sunset, a dwarf’s belly, a gold-bearing rock, a club embedded in Johannsen’s skull. Hon-tae in tears, baby ice-snakes barely visible in their nest, and an injured raccoon. An incredulous Walis, skins on a tanning rack, a half-moon, and a credulous Portales writing eagerly in a book. A bamboo grove leaning in a light wind, a bloody bandage, a bucket of seawater, a loom slowly weaving.
Sun-Ok woke at last, unrested, with the dream-images fresh in her mind. They remained, oddly, even as Perido banged on her door, threatening to charge her for another night if she did not clear out. She performed some perfunctory grooming and some basic stretches, then gathered her things, her grumbling stomach giving her the perfect excuse to avoid both Perido and the massive bear-head: she walked instead to the back-stairs and the Grotto, gathering blackberries and eating them slowly on a worn bench, turning the images over in her still-groggy mind.
They were part fancy and part memory, of course, in the way of dreams, but they offered no coherent answers to the questions that plagued her, no signs pointing her unerringly to the Way. She stood, and sat immediately back down on the bench. For she realized that at the very least her review of the dream-flood had temporarily pushed the questions and doubts aside, allowing her to truly focus, for the first time in days, on just one thing.
And so she tried again, the first image springing to mind the baek-ho. She recalled with a sad smile her bitter thought of the evening before—that if Markshire’s white tiger lay in the east instead of the west where it belonged, she merely needed to walk backwards when here to find the Way. The thought resonated somehow, and she struck her forehead, wincing as she remembered that she was still bruised from the one-eyes.
“I never will be the village wise-woman,” she thought. “I’m an idiot not to have seen it before—I need only walk back in my mind over the path I have followed, back to when the Way was clear, then turn around and follow it back. It should be obvious, then, how to get back to the Way from here.” With new purpose at last, she stood and looked around her, listening to the droning bees. “Not here: too warm and too sleepy. If I’m to walk backwards…”
She smiled and, recognizing that her mind did not always move quickly, gathered some more berries and almonds to sustain her as she retraced and then traced the path of her life. She left the Grotto and the Bazaar, walking toward the Temple of Odin, inhaling deeply as she passed the corral. She ignored the look that Gustov gave her, waited patiently for Bognar to cross before her, and continued past the Temple, up the hill, to a quiet spot overlooking the town’s cemetery. She kneeled, dug a small hole in the snow for her food, and began to meditate peacefully, bowing her head to the closest thing she had to an ancestral shrine.
The guards defending the town’s walls nearby looked at Sun-Ok and shook their heads but said nothing. In the barracks and at their posts, the topic of why they risked their lives for this town full of lunatics had long been utterly played out.