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Notes From The Evercloud


Fantasy blurry image
A figure in Venice Italy

Xsira’s hips splayed out away from her navel in a fashion that drove her toes to point in nearly opposite directions. Her kyphotic back arched into such a hill that her shoulders peaked above her skull and her neck nearly disappeared altogether. She carried a tall shepherd’s crook, always. From its broad hook, an arthumn light dangled and cast her in its heavenly green glow. She trudged the cobbled streets every morning and evening calling out her wares; her potions and everme elixirs. 

This evening was like every other. Her voice penetrated the evercloud before any other sign of her passing. Stacker perked up his ears. Through the watery window, the young man of Cower’s lane saw her light swing back and forth, back and forth, throwing shadows across the mist. He hurried out of his row cottage and into the narrow passage. Cats fled from Xsira’s cawing and he nearly tripped over one in its flight. He stumbled to a stop and waited for the crone’s slow shuffle to materialize into form. He was used to these appearances. His world, and that of everyone who lived in the land of Claggis, was never clear. It was filled with the evercloud from the day he was born, and it would be until the day he died. Myths told of times when a young man like Stacker could see hundreds of meters in any direction, days when the sun could be seen distinctly without the use of a penescope. But these days did not live in anyone’s recollection. They were dreams of a past that may have never existed. 

Xsira stopped in front of Stacker and looked up with one massive, bloodshot eye. “The babe of Cower’s lane, the younger stacker I believe?”

“Your mustache is coming in nicely I see…” he enjoyed his time with Xsira. She knew perfectly well who he was of course, being his sometimes nanny until just a few years ago when he entered manhood. 

“Oh your wit cuts me deeply, but it is, isn’t it?” she winked and smiled up at him. “Has your father risen from bed yet or is he still behind the fog?”

“He’s still unwell. I was wondering if you could try something new on him? The yellow doesn’t seem strong enough.”

She gave him a serious look. “Let me see,” she said and shuffled past him and pushed the door open with her crook. Deep in the gloom, a small fire clung to life above the ashy remains of cow shit. “Throw another dung cake on the flame,” she demanded, falling easily into her old role.

Stacker did as she asked. Xsira squeezed her way through the piles of old ledgers his father kept outside his bedroom. “And the next time he’s asleep, clear this muck away.”

“I can hear you, you old meat sack.” The father’s voice was weak but it retained a hint of lightness, even after such a long illness. 

Xsira disappeared into the bedroom and Stacker made himself busy rekindling the fire. He’d been so focused on work, he hadn’t noticed the chill that descended on the house in his attention’s absence. While he stoked the flame, he listened to his old nanny’s lullabic incantations. Her elixirs all began with the same basic mix of water and blood. Their power came from the type of blood and incantation she used. Some were weak and required little of her life. Others were powerful but could leave her nearly dead without a pick-me-up. This one, he recognized, was from the latter group. A part of him worried for Xsira’s safety, but he also knew she was a professional. She’d never made a mistake, never over stressed herself and she still lived. Of course, he mused, the life she poured into her magic was never perfectly replaced. Her mangled body was evidence enough of the slow decay bought by such a life. 

Stacker himself had the Gift Of Breath, but he never cultivated it. He feared losing control. He feared the risks he’d have to accept if he led the life of a wizarman. Xsira often brought it up in passing, his wasted talent, but she knew it wasn’t a life for everyone and she never pushed him hard. He wondered what he would do when she was gone. He had no idea how old she really was, but everyone remembered her as aged. Even his father’s generation had no memory of Xsira looking any younger than she did now. Perhaps she’ll outlive him, he mused.

With the fire renewed he sat back down to continue his work accounting for the docksmen. His father built up the business and when he fell ill, he expected Stacker to take it over, but the young man had no inclination toward accounting. He could do the tally’s of course, but he was slow and he often made mistakes. Gradually  the clientele left. Only the docksmen, who couldn’t afford anyone more expensive, still came to Cower’s Lane to keep their finances in order. Part of the problem for Stacker was the endlessness of the task. He could run through the ledgers all day long and the next day he’d have exactly the same amount of work as the previous. This knowledge sapped his energy. He could spend the better part of an hour daydreaming about another life before he’d catch himself and get back to the task at hand. 

Xsira emerged from his father’s room. Stacker looked up, “A red? Will it help you think?”

The old woman cocked an eye in his direction and beckoned for him to follow her outside. When they were safely in the street she pulled his ear down close and whispered, “There’s nothing I can do. The red will keep him comfortable but it will not cure him. His body has weakened from the long illness and it has reached its final stage. When it gets to this point, there’s no going back.”

Stacker is shocked. He knew his father was sick, but he never considered the man’s death as a possibility. “To this point? Why didn’t you give him something sooner, something more powerful? Why did you let him get this far into the illness?”

Xsira shook her head but didn’t let him go. “My potions are a breath of life for those who can live, but they don’t bring back the dead. The moment your father fell ill, he died in his imagination. This is the power of the plague. It doesn’t just wither your body, it dements your mind. Strong or no, my potions can do nothing for an unwilling mind.”

“But what about your potion to ward off loneliness? Surely that’s one pointed directly at the mind? I’ve seen you give it countless times to Mariset at the tobacco shop.”

“That? That’s just honey water mixed with a smile and a kind word.”

“She always seems better after your visit.”

“A lonely person feeling better after they’re visited and caught up on all the gossip? Who would have guessed. Any potion I need to give to someone countless times isn’t a real potion. Mariset is just a victim of her own desire to feel better I’m afraid. Nothing to do with my sham potion.”

Xsira looked into his eyes deeply. She had a way of seeing past his expression and into his thoughts. Ever since he was a child, he’d done his best to hide his inner life from his old Nanny, but with little success.

“Don’t worry,” she continued. “Not all my potions are placebos. The ones I’ve given your father are the real deal. And if you’ll excuse me, I need to return home for a pick-me-up. Reds are tough on this old frame.”

And with that, before he could beg her to stay a little longer and try something else, she’d disappeared behind the veil of the evercloud. Stacker looked at the heavy door to his ancient, family row cottage. It was thick teak with a brick sized, opaque blue window at knee height as was customary. It was beautiful in its way, but he didn’t love that he’d known only this door his entire life. WIth Xsira’s visit something clicked in Stacker’s mind. Some unmade connection between his present life and the life he dreamed of finally slotted together. While his father’s death remained unthinkable, he considered his day dreams just that, dreams. Now the levers of his mind were shifting to accommodate his new perspective. After his father’s death there would be no reason to stay on Cower’s Lane. What would he do?

Stacker returned inside and slunk to his father’s side. The man’s room was nearly black in the shadow, but Stacker’s eyes were keen in low light. He bent down and fixed the man’s blanket before retreating to the warmth of the living room.

“She tell you I’m dying?” His voice had no lightness.

Stacker didn’t respond. He knew any response he could give would be wrong.

“I’ve known it for a while. No point in begging for a different outcome. Life’s like that. Sooner or later, it all comes to an end.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Stacker mumbled. What else could he say?

“When I’m dead, burn all this, all those papers and ledgers. Burn it. What a way to spend a life, counting coin. Don’t let it end you the way it ended me.”

“The plague is your problem…”

“Aye, it is,” his father sighed. “Burn it all,” he finished after a moment.

Stacker closed the door to his father’s room and sat back down at his work desk, but he didn’t pick up the pen. Instead he watched the new flames caper along the edges of the dung cake.


Xsira’s pain wouldn’t stay in place. It migrated here and there across her body, dull but ever present. She gave the man everything that was safe to give, knowing it would ultimately do him no good. Such was the life of the wizermen; a blanket tied to a bed, warm when wrapped up with a body, but ultimately useless against the cold beyond the bedroom. She leaned heavily on her crook with each step. She didn’t bother calling her way. She would need a pick-me-up before any more services could be performed. 

Xsira turned down Trine Alley and shoved her way through the stuck door of Arno’s Apothecarium. Arno wasn’t in, but she knew where he stored his goods - so many times over the years she’d watched him retrieve something for her. With a sigh she clunked her way around the counter and used her crook to pull a long, narrow drawer from the top of a tall cabinet. She let the drawer fall to the countertop and then picked a single pill from the scattered contents. Xsira popped it in her mouth, closed her eyes and took a swig from the nipper she always kept hidden in her vest. It burned nicely going down and within seconds she could feel the effects of the pick-me-up start to take hold. 

Her pain throbbed briefly in her shoulders and knees and then slowly dissipated until it was gone all together. The meat of her back that rose above her head seemed to lighten slightly and she stood up a little straighter. The red blood vessels that had been clawing at the corner of her eyes retreated. She ran her hand through her hair and took a deep breath. 

“Ohhhhhhhhhhh,” she said with its release. She glanced down at the other pills that had fallen to the floor or were strewn across the counter. “Bah! Why keep the important things out of reach!” She stooped to the ground, gathered up the lost pills, and scooped the remains from the counter. She unceremoniously dumped the handful back in the drawer but left it on the counter. On her way out she tossed a coin in with the pills and cracked her back. Life was certainly better after one of Arno’s little black pills, she thought. Still, it would be some hours before she was ready to work again. She decided to spend the time by the docks and watch the traders unload their skiffs. 

The city was built into a gentle slope and all the way down the evercloud hid Xsira’s presence. She met no one, not even a gleaming eye from one of the windows lining the street. Only her three legged hitch made any noise; shuffle, shuffle, click, shuffle, shuffle, click. Finally the smell of rotting fish wafted by and she welcomed the salty breeze that swirled around the docks.

Men of all sorts were there on this day. Fisherman, traders, travelers, even some women were mixed into the slow chaos. Probably navigators or captains, those being the only two jobs a woman would be caught dead accepting out on the sea. Xsira liked to watch these few women stand about with their glasses stuck to their noses and their articles of incorporation jammed in their pockets; each her own business… not unlike Xsira, or any woman who cut her way through the evercloud. 

Xsira vaguely recognized one pregnant woman who stood with her hands pressed to the small of her back as if to take the weight off her bulging belly. She was short and gnarly like a tree rooted to a seaside cliff. Her skin was pitted and stained from life at sea. But she wore a peacoat made of the finest sealskin and her cane was crowned with gold. None of the men would look her in the eye. Instead they took their orders chin to chest and shoulders politely hunched. The woman seemed to feel she was being watched and caught Xsira’s eye.

A smile pulled at her scarred cheeks and she swung over for a chat. The old crone wasn’t pressed to chat with anyone this morning, but she let the conversation come all the same. 

“You come to see what the storms blew in there, Mistress Xsira?”

“I must wait for my pick-me-up to work its way through my system and I was drawn to the movement of the docks, like smoke to an eye.”

The half smile turned to a smirk. “If you want to skip the middleman, I’ve got something you might find an interest in?”

Xsira doubted it, but there was no harm in entertaining this captain. “Oh,” she said with a brow cocked. “What’s that you’ve got?”

The captain whistled a deckhand over. “Haul that black and crimson box out of the hold and bring it on over here for Mistress Xsira to sneak a look at.” The man nodded and hurried away.

Before long, she watched the deckhand and a mate of his lug a small but heavy teak box down the gangplank. They set it Xsira’s feet. The captain waved her hand and the men unlatched its top. 

Xsira bent low and pulled it open. For a moment she wasn’t sure what she was looking at, but when her mind wrapped itself around the sight, she gasped. Xinshifts blood; twenty five large vials of a devil’s blood. Nearly as heavy as liquid mercury and twice as dangerous, but in the right hands it could be used to craft an elixir so powerful that the wizerman might die when the lullaby passed her lips (if she wasn’t careful.) Xsira had only seen it once before in her life, her very long life, and she’d never seen so much of it at once.

“Where’d you get this much?” she demanded.

The captain laughed. “Caught you off guard didn’t I. It was a gift for services rendered.”

“A gift from who?”

The two women stared at each other for a moment before the captain gave in. “From the Xinshift itself, of course. Only way I know of.”

“A Xinshift let you draw its blood?” Xsira was more than a little doubtful. 

“No, it drew its own blood. I have no blade or needle capable of drawing blood from a Xinshift.”

“No one in this land does.” Xsira said this in an offhand manner while her mind worked on another problem. “And who do you mean to sell this to? Must be worth more than your ship.”

“I docked just this morning. You’re the first to see it.  Perhaps you’ll be the lucky winner?”

Xsira was tempted. Nothing could have prepared her for this unexpected turn of the day, but she also knew the power of that blood was worth more to the god of misery and destruction than the goddess of liberty and long seeing. “No,” she said with a heavy turn of the shoulder. “This is the kind of prize idiots wish to win. I think I’ll leave it to them.”

The captain laughed and held her round belly. “Yes,” she coughed out. “You don’t get to be your age with slow wits, eh?” But Xsira was already disappearing behind the curtain of mists, and she didn’t turn back to answer. I need to lie down. Enough excitement for a morning… she thought.  “Bah,” she said aloud on her way back up the hill. 

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