Jovial feather, a small air elemental wearing his usual guise in the form of a blue-tailed hawk, perched on a ruddy brown boulder watching his Lawgiver eat a meager meal of trail jerky and water. The sky was a clear Southern azure, and their hilly bluff overlooking a small village, likely ranchers, some distance away and below. Off in the distance to the North the green of grasslands and fields increased as the land neared the Great Inland Sea. To the South the hills turned into mountains, and over them the vast Glitter-Flame Desert and eventually the elemental pole of Fire. East and West ran the trade road between Paragon, far to the East, and the City of Lap to the west.
“You eat too much.” The spirit suggested. “The old master once went on a special diet: three grains of rice and two ounces of water a day, and a spoonful of salt at bedtime. He did it for two centuries and everyone was amazed.”
Fluttering Crane, merchant errant of Halta and Eclipse Caste Chosen of Sol Invictus, Sun of the Skies of Creation, grimaced at the thought. “A spoonful of salt? All at once? Sounds awful.” He considered further. “I can understand the three grains of rice thing being amazing, but it just doesn't seem worth it, you know? Might as well enjoy good food.”
Crane spared an evaluating glance at his ancient friend and servant, his look turning thoughtful as he tried to sort through the memories of lore that had come with his Exaltation. “Speaking of which, in all this time we've been traveling, I've never seen you eat anything. Wouldn't you like something? I'm a little fuzzy on whether elementals need food, come to think of it...”
“I respire essence directly from the wind.” Jovial Feather said, turning his head with pride. “Some elementals might lower themselves to eating things, but really it's a barbaric thing to do.”
“Ah.” Said Crane, trying not to sound quite as ignorant as he felt. His education, driven by curiosity and a love of books in his Haltan childhood, wasn't quite up to the task of dealing with spirits, essence, and stranger things. Still, Crane always had loved discovery, and his old servant was a living remnant of the First Age, and Crane's own prior incarnation.
That thought elicited a shiver and thoughts from nightmares he could only half remember. Best talk about something, anything, to avoid remembering the mind controlling monster he had been.
“Sounds very pure.” Crane remarked. “Noble. I suppose we mortals are more...earthy. Which means that I should probably pay this village a visit and see if I can bargain a few bits for some more trail food.” He stood and stretched, back cracking in relief after being compressed by his modest pack during the long trip from Chiaroscuro far to the East past Paragon, where the last merchant ship they had had fare for made harbor.
“Although,” Crane thought aloud as he started to walk, Jovial Feather resuming his usual position on his shoulder with a beating flutter of wings. “I suppose if we get desperate I could ask you to go hunting for me, but I could hardly ask that after all you've done.” He paused. “I really am sorry about my predecessor leaving you in Elsewhere with his sword, waiting for his next incarnation for over a millennium. I've said it before, but I am terribly, terribly sorry. I know it was an unexpected wait, but he should have let you live free during the wait rather than being stuck in a featureless void.”
“Humbug!” Jovial Feather said. “And watch as Creation became this dim shadow of its former self? I”m glad I got stuck in Elsewhere. Gave me lots of time to think.”
There was a pause, and Crane thought about his prior incarnation's memories of Jovial Feather as the cheerful, joke cracking life of First Age parties. Elementals may have psychologies designed for long periods of dully keeping Creation's natural processes running, but one and a half thousand years of nothing seemed to have dulled the Air Elemental's demeanor somewhat.
Jovial Feather finally broke the silence. “I would be happy to go lizard hunting for you, though...” His voice suddenly had much less pride in it, and Crane was quick to intercede.
“Nonsense, hunting for mere food, unless a matter of survival, is below a being of your nature. Besides, I like to practice my bargaining. So,” Crane asked, working his way down the road to the West where it eventually met up with the village. “What conclusions did you come to while you were thinking?”
The elemental sighed. “I was thinking of the dangers of being happy without good cause.”
“Huh.” Crane remarked aloud. “As in people who are happy for reasons that aren't exactly good for the world? I noticed an awful lot of that in the histories. Although to be fair, there was a lot in them about people being miserable in ways that weren't exactly good for the world either.”
“I wasn't really thinking of anyone's happiness but my own,” Jovial Feather squawked. “I was stuck in a pocket of nothing with only a silly sword. I decided to use that time to consider me.” The spirit paused. “Incredibly, I wasn't done when you finally became a lawgiver.”
“Oh.” Said Crane, surprised but intrigued by the different perspective as the road neared a bend around a cliff. “So...what were you worried about being happy over without good cause?”
“Nothing. I realized I'd been happy for no-” The bird stopped mid-sentence as they rounded the bend.
An old battered signpost was there at the fork between the main road and the village path, and a tall figure in yellow embroidered clothes was walking toward them.
“I'd better hush up.” Jovial Feather whispered, and Crane nodded. Talking birds were likely to convince normal folk that they were gods or something, and drawing attention was the last thing Fluttering Crane needed.
As the figure neared, it was clear that she was a tall russet blonde, fair skinned but tanned, and in what might be noblewoman's clothing except that it was covered in dust from the road and she was missing sandals. A book of some kind was tied to her belt, and she carried only a small pack over one shoulder.
“I wouldn't go that way.” V'neef Elera said in the chirpy voice of the resplendent destiny she wore, adjusting her pack strap.
Crane reflexively smiled back, his expression puzzled. “The village? Is there something wrong?”
“Yep.” She said.
Crane waited for something more, but it seemed there wasn't anything coming from the tall woman. “I, ah, didn't notice any fair folk invasions from the bluff. I was headed there to trade; are they alright?”
She looked sideways at the village and then back at Crane. “Well, er, it's funny you should mention the fair folk. The village is nothing but a bunch of old geezers who can't remember where the young people went. I got my supplies but I think the fae are involved.” That, Elera thought, and the pattern error in the area she was here to solve were definitely leaning toward fae. “Probably safer to go back the way you came, mister. I hear there's been a lot of disappearances around here lately. I wanted to head West, but I'm not so sure now.”
“Huh.” Replied Crane, drawing his gaze over the village and the drifting woodsmoke of ovens dissipating into the ocean of air above, like an endless futile battle against the whole of the sky. He weighed the options, and decided that the risk of discovery of tampering out here was low enough that these people's apparent need easily overcame it. He just couldn't say no, not without taking a look anyway.
'And if it comes down to it, you can just wipe all their memories of you and be on your way.' The thought drifted through his mind, and he pushed it aside. That wasn't how he solved problems any more, not if he could help it.
“Well, the road to the Lap was safe enough this far, at least for now. These people need help, though.” He turned his eyes back toward the odd young woman, appraising her. He thought he caught the glimmer of the same keen appraising eye in return, but no, that seemed unlikely. She was just a mortal, after all. Jovial feather finally shifted uncomfortably on his shoulder, and Crane decided to ask. “You sound like you know a lot about the fair folk; ever dealt with them before?”
V'neef Elera hid her surprise, and remembered the list of less likely pattern errors from her directive. No sane mortal would seriously try to help people against fair folk. So what was he? He wasn't a demon, they were all obviously inhuman. He probably wasn't a death knight, but it was difficult to rule out. She would have to be careful then, but she couldn't let the opportunity pass her by. She pushed down the sick feeling of fear that if he was a death knight, they might be fighting one another to the death very soon. Especially if her disguise was off in the slightest detail. If a death knight got the drop on her in a fight, she knew she wouldn't likely live very long.
“Nope, but I know a lot about them.” She held out her hand. “My name is Yanas Honest Lotus. I come from a long line of traveling scholars.”
Crane gracious took it, his instinct for social graces reacting without real conscious thought. “Then it's lucky of me to run into you, Yanas...is that a Realm name? I don't think I've heard one together with a threshold name, like mine.” He remarked, politely releasing her hand.
“No.” She answered, shaking her head. “Lookshy. My family is from the scavenger lands, and my grandad was so well respected that Lookshy offered him an officer as a wife if he would accept permanent work. I grew up in Nexus though; my mom hated Lookshy. My parents always said I had a little Earth Dragon blood in me.” She paused, as if remembering something. In truth it was just the character; resplendent destinies made it easy to adopt mannerisms just as they fabricated entire fake life histories using the power of the Loom to re-weave the way people remember history. “You can call me Honest, or you can call me by my inititals, YHL. I'm good with either one.”
Crane nodded and smiled, ever happy to indulge his curiosity at something out of his experience. “Of course. I am Fluttering Crane, and you are welcome to call me Crane if you like. So, I am thinking of tracking down some missing villagers. How much do you know about fair folk etiquette? I'm pretty certain I can bargain with them, but I've heard they can toss civility aside if they're offended, so I would love a crash course before you head on your way.”
Honest looked surprised, then gave a determined shake of her head. The V'neef Elera playing Honest wanted a reason to stay with this fellow until she could finish her assignment, and determine what was going on. So, she came up with an excuse.
“I know plenty about the fair folk and the stories of their bargaining, but it's too much to teach in a few minutes. If you're serious about bargaining with them, you'll need me to come with you. But...this could get problematic. You generally need something impressive to put on the bargaining table with the fae to get them to talk to you right off.” Honest explained, with an expression of puzzled thought.
Crane smiled a genuinely mischevious smile. “I think I have a plan, and a way to keep us both safe at that. If you're dead set on coming.” Crane remembered the rule he'd made for himself, on learning of the horrors committed by his first age incarnation. He wouldn't change her free will to come, even if it would put her in danger. He had to remind himself that it was her decision, foolishly dangerous or no. And she might genuinely be a help, he had to concede. “First though, we have to find them. Do you thin they'd have left tracks, especially with all those villagers along?”
Honest seemed to think about that for a moment. “I don't know. All I've seen is a village of old people.”
Crane shrugged, the motion a nudge for Jovial Feather to hop from his shoulder to his upraised forearm. “You always knew when something was amiss, didn't you my friend? Devourers of souls qualify, I should think. Go looking, and fly back to me on swift wings. Fly!” And with that motion Crane launched the elemental into the air with a swing that felt oddly practiced. The ghost of a memory from centuries ago, he realized, and felt an odd deja vous at the thought.
He shook it off, and watched Jovial Feather fly off over the village. “Such a beautiful creature of the air.” He remarked with an odd sort of truth, watching and hearing the receding beat of feathered wings on the air. “Let's look for tracks, then.”