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    • Markshire PCs:

    The young woman stood uncertainly in the smoke and wisps of heady incense that filled the dim cave. She sensed the expectancy of the others in the darkness, the grim determination of her parents behind her, and she hesitated.

    The long bones were still clearly visible, edging the dying coals of the round firepit before her, the small bones consumed or lost amid the ash. A faint dark line snaked through the middle of the embers, no longer recognizable, as it had been hours before, as carefully placed ribs.

    “Go on. You’ll not get burned, and the portal will soon close.” The voice penetrated her incense-fogged consciousness, and she flinched and then stepped gingerly into the middle of the pit, the skulls to either side of her foot flaring deep red through the eye-sockets as her foot came down….

    And down further, up to the knee in a drift of snow, the unanticipated cold shocking and unnerving. The bitter breeze assaulted her at once, her best silk robe no protection at all. Her mind cleared instantly in the fresh air, but immediately filled with doubts. Doubts which lingered with her just as the aroma of incense clung vaguely to her deep red robe.

    For she was looking down from a hill into a small enclosed valley, gated at the one open end and filled with stone markers. Some of the barbarian tribes, she knew, honored their dead in this way. She looked around and noted quickly that she was in a fortified village of some kind, nestled in a larger valley enclosing the burial ground. Human soldiers manned the walls, inside which were a strange, giant statue and a varied assortment of oddly constructed buildings.

    Shivering and bewildered, she walked down the hill toward the village’s main street and a wagon whose driver was slowly adjusting his load. The building next to her looked sternly magnificent, and she felt certain approaching the human governors who doubtless lived inside would be a mistake.

    She spoke to the driver, but he understood neither the tongue of the Kingdom nor that of the People. She turned, and was confronted by a squat midget who paced up and down the street. He stopped to listen to her but also shrugged and returned to his business when she could not make herself understood. She ran up to several other caravaneers chatting in the street, with the same result. She was freezing, frustrated, and confused. For she could not fail in her mission. Could not, she thought to herself, bitterly.

    She ran to the nearest building and wrestled to open the door, at last realizing that it swung open from one side rather than sliding. She stumbled inside and slammed it closed behind her, stamping the snow off of her and reveling in the warmth, but confused that she stood in a strange, small entry chamber, surrounded by smells of…food? She moved further inside, and the smells became more clearly cooking–charring meat at least, among other less familiar odors. Many tables and chairs, two more midgets, and three humans, one a drunk woman. A meeting hall of some kind. None of them seemed to understand her either. She turned and left, struggling again with the door on the way out.

    She was becoming frantic. This place was so strange, the people so unresponsive, oddly pinkish of skin, with such big round eyes of as many different shades as their extraordinary hair. And the midgets–so many in such a small village–were extremely disconcerting. And, of course, there were none of the People. Her people.

    Had the ritual gone wrong? Where had the portal taken her? A more unlikely setting she could never have imagined. And her mission…her mission.

    In this distraught state, the woman ran towards another human she saw pacing through the village. And stopped, well short of the man, because she had been approached by a tiny winged girl, buzzing right through the air up to her like a hummingbird.

    • Markshire PCs:

    And the humming-girl spoke. Incomprehensible words like everyone else here, but it spoke. And flitted. And spoke again. And oddly, it seemed as if it might just understand her, when she spoke the Ancient words. It poked her, and flitted off.

    The woman’s confusion mounted. How could someone understand a language and not speak it? The humming-girl was not mute–it formed the barbarian sounds of these folk well enough. And what was it, anyway? There was nothing like it in the Kingdom, at least that she knew of. And someone would most definitely mention seeing a tiny flying talking girl–the story would have spread faster than the news that Tae-hi-ajima had unearthed her latest batch of kimchi.

    She started to turn back to the human man walking up and down the hill, shaking her head as she caught another glimpse of that first sturdy midget, still pacing the main street. And in that moment, the humming-girl returned, with one of the People. He was tall, and bore a staff like the elders carried. At last! Now she would have some answers! Now she could get on with her mission. Assuming, she thought testily, that he can actually form the Ancient words.

    Happily, he could. But he was not immediately very helpful, for he said he had never heard of Sun-Ok, the friend she had come to find. But surely she would have sought out the People and especially the elders here? Her doubts about the portal returned. At least he cleared up one mystery–the midget, he said, is actually a dwarf. But in so doing, of course, he raised a whole new set of doubts. A dwarf? They were not real–everyone knew they were just creatures from the tales told to frighten children. Where was she, anyway? Dwarves and humming-girls?

    At least she managed to convince him to go indoors, someplace warm, and he led her up the hill to an inn where someone had oddly left a bear fur, complete with head and claws, in front of the door. As she edged past the barbaric thing, someone entered the inn behind her, calling her friend’s name, “Sun-Ok?”

    At last! Someone who knew her friend! Now she could deliver the message. She had begun to doubt…to fear that the portal..

    She turned back and saw a female elf-blood, who seemed surprised that she was not in fact Sun-Ok. “You know Cheng Sun-Ok?” she asked in the Ancient words.

    “Pardon, I thought…perhaps she had changed the way she wears her hair.” The woman looked her over curiously. “I am Avalumiel Diansdottir. How do you know our Sunny?”

    “Choi Hon-tae, honored,” she answered distractedly. The confusion was returning. “Sun-ni? No, I am looking for an elf-blood named Sun-Ok, Cheng Sun-Ok. She is a friend from my youth…from home.”

    It turned out this “Sunny” was a nickname of sorts that these people had given her friend–at least that made sense, when this Ava-person explained what it meant in the local tongue–the contrast with this wintry realm would have appealed to her friend’s sense of humor. And so they sat and talked of their mutual friend.

    But the confusion lingered, her doubts never further than the humming-girl, who buzzed around the elf who claimed she was his familiar and who dozed just across the tall table, her uncertainty reinforced by the midget and the fantastical bull-man who seemed to operate the inn, and who stood not three bow-lengths away. Quite apart from them, the most incredulous things emerged from this Ava-person’s lips.

    For she told Hon-tae of earth-demons and sewing, of dwarf-oaths and human partnerships, things that made no sense for the Sun-Ok she had known. But Ava seemed to know some of Sun-Ok’s past, as well. It was confusing, but since Ava could provide no answer as to how to locate Sun-Ok, Hon-tae at last decided that there was no choice but to pass the message, for now, as best she could. She thought for some time of the best way to do that–one that would work whether her doubts were unfounded or not…

    “Tell Sun-Ok…please tell her…that blood runs in the stream and snakes are in the grass. Tell her…exactly that.” There, Hon-tae thought. A step toward completing the mission. And not fatal if this Ava…or the portal…

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