Chapter 14: Pedantic Linguistics
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I get Attunement leveled up to 3 that night as I’m skipping the time away, this time focusing on Attuning the largest—and hopefully most useful—pieces of glass I picked up. One of them I think used to be part of the homunculus shell’s head. The irony that I’d been doing everything in my power to avoid being bound to this body, just to use it to make a new one, does not escape me. It feels vaguely cannibalistic to be dissecting all this glass and stitching it back together again. I try to channel my inner Noli. It’s not cannibalism, Kanin, it’s recycling!

The next two days are more walking, more talking, and more practice at doing both. And I’m not half bad, if I do say so myself. Two skills I’d developed as an actor were quickly memorizing lines and being hyper aware of my body. Both of which are now coming in handy as I learn Noli’s signs and get control of my new legs. In fact, my Foreign Language skill even levels up twice to level 3: I’m not sure if that’s the Echo equivalent of getting a gold sticker on my homework, or if there’s any real measurable benefit, but I guess I’ll take it.

The trek is monotonous. Noli helps stem the boredom and give me something to focus on, but without the need to eat or drink or sleep, there’s no reason to take breaks, either. The forest grows more dense, trees and brush pressing in over our meager trail, but it never quite disappears into the undergrowth. We come across no other people—or even any signs that people have been here in the last decade—but still Noli’s enthusiasm never wavers.

“If I’m right about which direction we’re headed, and I usually am, then once we crest this hill, it’ll be all downhill from here,” Noli signs as we walk, the third afternoon of our travels. “If we find some sign of a creek or river, that will probably lead down into a valley, and that should lead to civilization! We’re close, now, I can feel it in my bones. Er… gears?”

It’s a nice thought, but I’m not exactly holding my breath. I mean, it’s physically impossible to hold my breath, but that’s beside the point. I’m starting to wonder if we shouldn’t try to figure out some kind of backup plan. Maybe at night I should be spending my time reading through Trenevalt’s spell books, seeing if there’s anything useful in there, instead of Attuning more glass. Ugh, these time limits are killing me. If Attuning didn’t take hours—if our spell didn’t come with an expiration date—we’d be able to stop and actually think about what we wanted to do, instead of just relying on dumb luck for us to just stumble across some kind of—

“Oh!” Noli stops. “Look, Kanin, a road!”

Well I’ll be damned. Maybe there is something to this ranger class Noli has. Our faint trail opens out onto a much wider road, ruts carved into the now-dried mud from the wheels of whatever vehicles they have in this world. There are impressions of footprints as well; maybe we’re not as remote as I’d feared. And if anyone else comes by, there’s a chance we could hitchhike. Huh. Maybe we’re not totally, absolutely, completely, 100% fucked after all. Maybe just like… 50% fucked.

I’ll take those odds.

Cautiously, I follow Noli out onto the road. I realize this is only to our benefit, and we were equally blind to any predators in the woods, but out here I still feel extremely uneasy. Noli must notice my hesitation, because she gives me a reassuring pat with a small clink.

“Don’t worry, we definitely won’t get run over by anything,” she signs, putting that new fear into my head. “I can feel the vibrations of anything that’s approaching. We should be able to get out of the way in time.”

Great. Well, I’ve put my faith in her this far and it hasn’t led me astray. Besides following the road in the nearby underbrush, which will definitely be harder to traverse and take more time, I don’t see any alternatives anyway.

“Okay,” I sign, gesturing for Noli to lead the way. “Let’s go.”

She takes us in the opposite direction I would have picked—another reason I count myself lucky to have her help. I try to see if there’s anything in the dried imprints in the road that led her to that conclusion, but it’s all mud to me. Some ranger instincts I guess.

We follow the road for several more uneventful hours, until sunset begins to blush the sky. We make better progress on the road—far less roots to climb over—but with dusk approaching, I’m unsure what our next move should be.

“Nightbanes?” I question, wondering if they’d be an issue out here as well.

“Not sure,” Noli admits. “I didn’t hear anything last night, so maybe we’re out of their territory now. But if we want to play it safe, it would probably be best to shelter again…?”

She’s asking me if I want to play it safe. Why she’d trust my opinion on any survival skills, I have no idea. Although, I guess our spells are just as much tied to our survival as anything else.

“One hour,” I sign. I want to push it just a little further. We can go until twilight, at least; it’s not like we need much more shelter than a fallen branch or rotten log, anyway.

“Aye aye,” she signs, heading on once more. “You know, your signs are getting better already, I’m impressed! We should work on more complex sentences. I could really use the conversation. Not that your current conversation is lacking, mind…”

Hah, sure, Noli. But thanks for the encouragement.

I wait for her to continue her thought, but she’s stopped walking, head tipped to the side.

“What?” I ask.

She doesn’t respond for another moment, then abruptly jerks upright. “Travelers! Coming fast. Hurry, Kanin, off the trail!”

Noli skitters off into the woods and I follow her as quickly as I dare, awkwardly forcing my legs faster. It’s only as I’m stepping off into the grass that I can feel the rumble of approaching footfalls.

Noli’s under a bush, and I edge in next to her as the travelers come around the bend. There are four figures, each leading a… creature laden with supplies. The pack animals aren’t horses, that’s for sure. They look kind of like overgrown armadillos, a net of supplies draped over their arched backs. The reminder that this isn’t Earth strikes me all over again. The not-horses are so strange, it takes me a moment to notice the travelers.

The first one appears to be human, a brown-skinned woman in leather gear, laughing at some unheard joke. But her companions are significantly more fantastical. The man she’s talking to is covered in blue lizard-scales, with horns curling up from his head and serrated teeth decorating his smile. The second stands a head above her companions, skin green, muscles bulging from bare arms. That one, at least, I can pick out from characters I’d seen on the set of Cryptid Hunter: I’m pretty sure she’s an orc. The last is… er… a cat person? Am I seeing that right? He’s got fuzzy black ears and a cat tail, anyway.

I call on Echo for a Check.

[Name: Saru]

[Species: Human]

[Class: Rogue]

[Level: 13]


Okay, okay, I get it! You can spill their whole medical history. Just give me the short version, I tell Echo. Species, level, you know.

[Affirmative,] Echo says, restarting her analysis.

[Saru: Level 13 Human Rogue.]

[Chatil: Level 12 Dracid Healer.]

[Tetara: Level 14 Orc Bruiser.]

[Lark: Level 9 Felis Wizard.]

As the group grows close, the first thing that strikes me (after the scales and ears and green skin, that is,) is how huge they are. Trenevalt already seemed to dwarf me, but it’s only really sinking in now that he was a halfling, and all the other kinds of people I’ll meet in this world will be twice as tall.

Because I didn’t feel small and fragile enough as it is.

“What do you think?” Noli signs, the ground thrumming from their steeds’ footfalls as they pass. “Should we ask them for help?”

It’s a tempting idea. And boy could I use that healer’s help right about now. But I’m not even sure how we’d go about it. If one of them can sign, Noli will be our saving grace. But if they can’t, what would they think of us? Would they help? See us as some kind of novelty? Or use us for target practice?

Not to mention, can we even wave them down without getting stepped on?

“Let’s wait,” I sign. “Follow.”

If nothing else, it’s worth getting closer and waiting until they stop for something.

Noli nods. “Good idea. Well, come on then. We better not let them get much of a head start.”

Already they’re leaving us in the dust. I follow Noli as she carves a path through the woods, struggling to keep pace. But before long, the travelers are out of sight. Shit. Did we miss our chance? Was I wrong to suggest we bide our time? God knows we don’t have that much of it.

However, as the dark begins to settle in, their voices waft back through the trees once more, easing my worry. A few more minutes on, and an orange glow flickers through the trees—a campfire.

As we cautiously approach their camp, I can’t help but again feel alien to my surroundings. Campfires are familiar. I’d gone camping with my dad all the time when I was a kid. Those memories are strongly tied with the smell of woodsmoke, pine, and roasting trout. But I can’t smell anything with this body, and the lack of those scents makes the camp seem fake, somehow. Two dimensional.

But the fire’s real enough. I can begin to feel the heat on my glass as we stop just shy of the clearing, hidden in the underbrush.

The party is in good spirits, seated on logs and stones about the firepit as they laugh and cook their dinner. They seem friendly enough. Maybe we should just waltz on out there asking for help. It hadn’t worked out with Trenevalt, but maybe these guys will listen. Sooner or later we’ll have to convince someone to hear us out if we’re going to get help with our spells.

“Think they are friends?” I ask Noli.

“Friendly.” She corrects my signs. “And it seems like. Think it’s worth a shot?”

We probably won’t have another opportunity to get people’s attention as easily as we do now. At least their armadillo steeds are tied up and unlikely to trample us here.

“I’ll go first, since I can sign better,” Noli signs. “Not that you can’t sign well! I mean, you can’t, but it’s pretty good considering how much time you’ve had to practice! Still, I think it’ll be more clear if I do the talking.”

Probably deciding it’s best for all parties involved if she cuts herself off, she skitters out from our shelter.

The party continues to chat with each other even when Noli comes to a stop before the fire, light dancing off her metal. “Hello!” she signs widely, though even then they don’t notice right away.

“I’m really hoping one of you here can understand me!” she continues with large exaggerated signs, as if yelling. “We are but weary, tiny travelers in dire need of assistance—”

“Ah!” The dracid jerks back, losing his balance and falling off his log.

The human bursts into laughter. “I think that’s more than enough ale for tonight.”

“No!” He scrambles upright, staying behind the log as he jabs a finger at Noli. “It’s a spider! A poison fang!”

All eyes fall on Noli, the flames glinting off her many wriggling legs.

Well, shit.

“Now hold on,” she signs. “While I do see the resemblance, actually I’m not—”

And the camp erupts into chaos.

“Kill it!” The cat-boy jumps up onto his log, back arched. “Kill it!”

The orc grabs an axe and starts edging around the fire, clearly hesitant to get too close.

“This is all a grave misunderstanding!” Noli signs as she hurries to stay on the opposite side of the fire as the orc, causing the human to leap back, tripping into a nearby tree.

The dracid is wielding some kind of staff, which he stabs at the ground as Noli darts past. “Don’t let it bite you! Its poison can fell a rockbeak!”

The cat-boy brandishes a skewered piece of meat. “Don’t you mean venom? It’s a common misconception. Poison is when—”

“Now’s not the time for pedantic linguistics!” the human cries, drawing her bow. She nocks an arrow and draws as Noli skitters back around toward the orc, who in turn stumbles away and falls into a bush.

My bush, in fact.

I skip to the side right as the orc stumbles by, her feet shaking the ground with each lumbering step. Leaves are shredded from the bush with her passing, cascading down over the top of me and obscuring my vision. I use my signing arms to swat them away as I try to get out of the orc’s path and see what’s become of Noli.

I catch sight of her just in time to see her dart between the felis and the dracid, retreating to the safety of the undergrowth.

Or, so I thought.

“Where’d it go?” the human cries.

The dracid stabs his staff toward the woods. “Over here! Hurry, someone has to kill it before it comes back with friends!”

“I don’t think poison fangs travel in packs,” the felis considers. “But it might come back when we’re asleep and try to—”

“It doesn’t matter,” the human snaps. “Someone just find it!”

“On it!” the felis cries. Withdrawing a wand from his robes, he flicks it through the air, its tip lighting up yellow like a miniature sun. He quickly sketches out a shape—the outline of a housecat. Then, the outline becomes much more real as a glowing, transparent cat shakes itself off, pulls away from the wand’s light, and jumps down to the forest floor. It considers its surroundings for a moment, ears flicking left and right. They snap to attention, and the ethereal feline jumps into the brush.

Right where Noli had vanished moments before.

Crap! I have to help her.

Paying careful attention to staying out of the firelight—and the arachnophobes’ line of sight—I hurry through the undergrowth, trying to keep track of where I’d last seen Noli and the felis’s spell. As if maneuvering roots and trees and bushes in the dark weren’t bad enough, now there’s a murder cat to keep track of. I have no idea how I am supposed to help with that. All my spells amount to making glass float, slowly change shape, and stick together. But I can’t leave Noli to face it on her own. At least with the two of us, maybe we can split its attention.

But where is she? I’m sure I’ve passed where I last saw her. Shit. What if we get separated out here? Screw the cat—how would we even find each other again? The woods are enormous, and neither of us can even call out for each other. Crap, crap, crap. Why didn’t I think of this before? I shouldn’t have agreed to let her go out and try to talk. We need to stick together. Next time—if there is a next time—

I stumble out from beneath a bush and the cat is right in front of me. Up close, it’s four times my size, and I can see the trees and sky and stars behind it, shining through its yellow haze. The cat’s head snaps toward me, pupils becoming narrow slits—and Noli hanging limply from its mouth.