Bookshops & Bonedust by Travis Baldree
Viv is cutting a swathe through hordes of undead. The Necromancer, Varine the Pale's skeletal ranks fall to her sword and hammer. Viv has pulled ahead from her party, Rackam’s Ravens, she’s young, full of strength and power… until she takes a spear to the leg. Dizzy with blood loss, her leg unable to sustain her weight, Rackam’s Ravens fight past Viv and leave her behind. If she doesn't die, they’ll pick her up when the fight is done. Rackam returns some time later, unable to find Varine the Pale, but they have word that the Necromancer may be up north. The Ravens will head there while Viv is sent to a local town to rest and recuperate. If, when they pass back through in a few weeks’ time, she is there and healed, Viv can rejoin the party, but for now, she’s out of the fight and learning a harsh lesson in the process.
Viv wakes in a bed too small for her orc frame in a bare room with a boring view and the sound of the sea. Her leg hurts a lot, but at least it has clean fresh bandages. After an hour of going stir-crazy, Viv reluctantly reaches for the crutch left for her and her sword, but not her hammer which seems to have gone missing, and wobbles down the narrow stairs to an empty tavern below. Behind the large bar is Brand, the sea-fey tavern keep, cleaning glasses. He offers her breakfast of eggs, bacon and potatoes and delivers the mouth-watering delight in a hot skillet a short time later. Brand explains to Viv that she is in the coastal town of Murk and the tavern is called The Perch. Murk is generally a quiet place when the ships aren’t in, so it should be a good place for recuperation. Viv decides to explore, but as she leaves, Brand says he’ll see her in ten minutes.
Murk seems half asleep. Viv walks by another orc who nods at her in greeting. Continuing down the bank, Viv can see the piers, various shops including Thistleburr Booksellers, a sail-mender, and junk shops, then she catches the delicious smells from Sea-Song Bakery. Having no money on her person and no inclination to go back to The Perch to fetch any, Viv turns to exercise as distraction. The other orc makes his way past her again and introduces himself as Pitts. It seems he was witness to Viv’s entrance into Murk and her attempts to perform grievous bodily harm on the local surgeon, Highlark. Awkward. After, Viv heads up the dune to practice with her sword and it doesn’t go well. Her stumbles are witnessed by a tapenti, Iridia, the head Gatewarden, and she doesn’t appreciate Viv being in Murk or the likely trouble she’ll bring. Charming.
Reluctant to spend the rest of the boring day being bored in the boring Perch, Viv heads into Thistleburr Booksellers, but breaks one of the boardwalk planks on her way. Oops. Inside smells exactly as an old bookstore should with added henhouse, dog, mildew and disappointment. Stacks and piles of books and papers are everywhere so it’s unsurprising that Viv knocks some over with her sword causing a strange little creature that looks like a pug with an owl face covered in fur and feathers to come running from the back of the store making strange barking hoots at her. The creature is a gryphet called Potroast one would assume by the profanity being directed at it from the Ratkin following it. The potty-mouthed Ratkin is called Fern, she’s friendly and boisterous and able to talk Viv into buying a book on credit until tomorrow for the inconvenience of knocking over the papers. The book Fern hands her is called Ten Links in the Chain, it’s got curses and jailbreaks, sword fighting and a one-eyed dwarf with a murderous streak. Reluctantly Viv takes it, but over dinner in The Perch that evening, she can’t put it down.
Viv continues to read into the night, falling asleep with the open book on her chest and devouring the rest after devouring another of Brand’s hearty breakfasts. As a storm hit during the night and shows no sign of abating, Viv decides to stay in the dry confines of The Perch. When someone comes in the tavern, Viv hopes it is Fern bustling in demanding her payment, but instead it's Highlark the surgeon sporting a lovely bruise from their previous meeting. Highlark, an elf, tends to Viv’s wounds in her room and reluctantly offers her a salve which will hurt like a nest of hornets continually stinging her but should help speed up the healing process. Eager to be healed and back out with the Ravens, Viv agrees, and for the many, many hours of horrible, terrible pain she endures, she wishes she didn’t.
By way of apology to Fern for being late, Viv brings freshly baked goodies from Sea-Song Bakery and its flirty dwarf baker Maylee. Viv is instantly forgiven. They talk about Ten Links in the Chain before Fern recommends another book, Heart’s Blade, which is slightly different and Viv only needs to pay if she doesn’t finish it. On her way back to The Perch, Viv nearly goes ass over tusk on the broken boardwalk again so she flags Pitts down to bring supplies so she can attempt to fix it. They arrange to meet for repairs at noon the next day.
The Perch has filled since Viv left, and a spiky haired gnome is sitting in what she’s come to feel is her chair. After a failed negotiation, Viv shares the table but doesn’t get the chair until the gnome starts bugging her about what she’s reading and then interrogating Viv about Rackam’s Ravens, at which point Viv gets her spot back. Gallina wants Viv to recommend her to Rackam, but Viv doesn’t like her because she’s interrupting her reading and doesn’t know her to be able to endorse. Gallina stomps off.
The next day, Viv meets Pitts outside the bookstore. He’s brought tools and supplies and leaves Viv to stumble through fixing the broken plank. At one particularly loud point, Fern and Potroast come out to see what’s going on and Fern is taken aback and stomps off down the road. A short while later, Viv finishes fixing the plank and cleans up just in time for Pitts to inspect and, moments after, Fern arrives with a fresh loaf of bread in hand and feeds the two orcs lunch as thanks. When Pitts leaves the shop with a book of poetry in hand, Fern has a breakdown and admits to Viv she’ll be lucky to have the shop open in a month's time. It needs too much work and it gets no business and she feels like she’s let her father, who opened the store fifty years ago, down. Viv suggests burning the carpet as a start because it smells yellow.
Because she’s already out and about, Viv visits Highlark for her checkup early. His office is floor to ceiling books, they’re well taken care of and organized, exactly what Thirstleburr should be. Highlark inspects Viv’s leg and finds it’s progressing well enough that she can swap the crutch for a walking stick. He’s also equally surprised when he sees Viv’s copy of Heart’s Blade, Viv’s a reader? On her way back, Viv spots a suspicious cloaked and creepy hooded man in the shadows. He gives off an aura of trouble and danger. In contrast, walking past Sea-Song Bakery, Maylee intercepts Viv with a bag of goodies and a wink.
Later, Viv is helping Fern clean the rugs, sweep the floor and even suggests moving some of the floor books and sea charts into the back room while they discuss Heart’s Blade. Fern likes the improvements but feels terrible that she hasn’t done it before and worries that she’s just been pretending. Relating it back to Heart’s Blade, Viv suggests Fern reframe her thinking. A short time later, a grizzled man comes into the store wanting nighttime reading material, not a sea chart, so Viv recommends Ten Links. A sale! After he leaves, the friends come to an agreement. Fern will keep Viv supplied in books if Viv continues to spend time at the bookstore. Fern’s next book recommendation is Sea of Passion. Viv agrees so long as she can have somewhere to sit. The next day, Viv goes looking for Pitts and bribes/thanks him with a sack of baked goods from Maylee so she can use his cart to carry two chairs and a table she buys for the store from a gnome estate sale. Speaking of gnomes, Gallina is hanging round The Perch sitting in Viv’s seat, and, to Brand’s annoyance, putting her feet on the table. She keeps eyeing Viv.
Well, Sea of Passion is… moist. Viv decides she needs to read it in her room at The Perch alone and not while being closely and carefully watched by Fern. Luckily an actual customer comes in distracting the Ratkin from taking the piss out of Viv further for enjoying the moistness of her book. While Fern helps the customer, Viv heads to a little area behind The Perch away from prying eyes to exercise with her sword, but when she returns to the store, it’s to find the creepy hooded man looking at the shelves. Her initial judgment turns out to be accurate when he slaps the excitable jumping Potroast to the floor. As Fern turns all her expletives to him, he leaves. Viv needs to find out who the hell he is.
Viv follows the creepy hooded man down the street and confronts him. She doesn’t get any information out of him but there is a smell about him that she recognizes, but can’t place. Not so friendly words are exchanged and they end up getting into a fight in the street. Gallina, the annoying but scrappy gnome, happens by and joins in, but it’s eventually stopped by the Gatewardens headed by Iridia who throws the three of them in the Murk fortress cells. The creepy hooded man is in one cell while Viv and Gallina are in another. He doesn’t move or speak all night. Gallina is a chatter box though and manages to get Viv to talk about Rackam’s Ravens and bargains with Viv for her to read the book Fern dropped off with some goodies from Sea-Song. Gallina is asleep before anything gets moist.
When Viv and Gallina wake up, the creepy hooded man in the cell across from them is gone. They shout for the guard, and eventually a dwarven nightwatchman comes staggering in. He doesn’t know where he’s gone either. Eight hells! When Iridia arrives, she starts asking Viv and Gallina who he was, yeah they don’t know and shouldn’t she have asked him when she still had him in custody?! Patience and time obviously wasn’t the wisest course of action in this case. Viv is finally given a chance to explain what happened in Thistleburr, and tells of Potroast being hit, the guy being weird and his smell being familiar, and how she thinks he’s linked to Varine the Pale. They also can’t go through his belongings as he took them with him after knocking Luca, the dwarven guard, out. Eventually Iridia sets Viv and Gallina free.
The next day, Viv makes her way to Thistleburr to find Fern repainting the front of the shop and willingly joins in painting the bits Fern can’t reach. Later, Gallina comes by to make a nuisance of herself and Potroast falls in love with her. After, Viv heads to Sea-Song Bakery to give Maylee a gift, a book of gnomish pastry recipes, and she absolutely loves it.
After the creepy hooded man came to the shop, Viv has taken to keeping her saber behind the counter. A few days after the incident, Viv finally finishes Sea of Passion, which she finds out was written by Zelia Greatstrider, a local author. Pitts also comes in and asks for more books of poetry like the one he got earlier. In The Perch that evening, Maylee joins Viv for dinner and makes her intentions very clear that she wants to get to know Viv for the short time she’ll be in Murk, in a moist way. ((I’m sorry, hahaha!)) Their first date is a boat trip to feed the fish and drink gin.
Viv and Potroast head to the top of the bluff overlooking the city so Viv can exercise. They find an old cemetery at the top and spy a grand estate which is where Zelia Greatstrider lives. Gallina seems very interested in Viv and Maylee’s burgeoning relationship. It is, however, none of her business. Later, at Thistleburr, Fern gives Viv her next book, a mystery, The Lens and the Dapplegrim. As they’re talking, Gallina comes running in. She’s found the creepy hooded man and he’s dead!
Gallina shows Viv the creepy hooded man’s corpse. Yeah, he’s very dead. She also explains that Pitts walked by and ran to the Gatewardens when she told him there was a dead creepy hooded man. This gives Viv and Gallina only a few moments to look around. The creepy hooded man’s coin purse and magestone are there. Viv peels back his shirt to see a stab wound and a mark that looks like a diamond with branches that look like horns, Varine the Pale’s symbol. Further searching reveals his satchel which they are able to hide again just before Iridia and the Gatewardens arrive. Iridia is unsurprised to find Viv and Gallina standing over a murder victim but doesn’t think they had anything to do with it. She orders Luca to search the area for the creepy hooded man’s bag, and, lucky for Viv and Gallina, Luca isn’t great at his job and doesn’t find it. Gallina dashes out when the area is clear, grabs the satchel and they take it to Thistleburr. It is, however, just a bag of bones.
Raking through the bones, Gallina pulls out corked bottles full of bonedust. Examining the bones, Fern points out inscriptions engraved on them and explains the bones are enchanted to animate. Clearing space in the shop, Viv takes a pinch of the bonedust and sprinkles it on the bones. Nothing happens for a long time, but then the satchel starts to move and slowly a spray of bones moves into place and a homunculus stands before them before taking a bow.
The homunculus isn’t able to give completely straight answers to their questions, stating he exists to serve and is the Lady’s, who created him, but can serve whomever wakes him with the dust. Obviously the Lady is Varine and he must keep her secrets. He is able to give his name, though: Satchel. He’s named after the gods-damned bag?! Satchel confirms the creepy hooded man was called Balthus and he stole him when he fled the Lady, but he can’t confirm if Varine is coming to Murk. They decide not to hand Satchel over to Iridia and that he should stay at Thistleburr.
The next day after her check up with Highlark which Maylee accompanied her to, Viv heads to Thistleburr and sees Satchel out and cleaning. Fern felt guilty looking at the bag of bones all morning and Satchel insisted on being useful. Eight hells! Gallina walks in and spots the homunculus doing housekeeping straightaway. They need to discuss what to do with Satchel, but he’s perfectly happy cleaning for the moment. Conversation then turns to something said the previous day, that Satchel wasn’t the only thing stolen. Satchel can’t explicitly say, what with the Lady’s secrets and all, but heavily hints about a place to tidy and organize on the shelf and wonders what will be discovered there that unfortunately goes over all their heads. Then Viv heads out to exercise with Gallina.
Everything is quiet, perhaps too quiet, which puts Viv on high alert. Satchel continues to clean and tidy Thistleburr, turning to a pile of bones and rolling for cover if a customer actually comes in, except for Maylee who comes to meet him. Meanwhile, Fern has been selecting books from a catalog to make a new order, though there is literally no room in the store. Viv suggests having a mystery book sale and they decide to wrap the books to hide the covers and list words to describe them. Ten Links in the Chain could be Swordfights, Beheadings, Betrayals, though Fern suggests Moist.
One evening while eating her dinner at The Perch and reading The Lens and the Dapplegrim, Viv is joined by Iridia. They don’t become friends during their conversation but they certainly develop a better understanding of each other. When Viv returns to Thistleburr, the place is wrecked. Fern has thrown herself into the mystery book sale full pelt. As she’s digging out books for Satchel to wrap and Viv to mark up, she finds a huge mysterious tome. Satchel warns her not to open it, obviously this is the secret thing Satchel was hinting at days before, and of course neither Fern or Viv listen to him and open the book. The pages are pure black, except it’s not ink. Each page is a portal to an underspace and Varine has stored something inside. Viv dips her hand in the pages and pulls out a huge greatsword that she is instantly in awe of. Suddenly the surface of the page ripples and vibrates, it’s Varine’s warning, the book is calling to her! Eight hells! There’s only one thing to do, give the book to the Gatewardens with a somewhat edited story about how they know it’s Varine’s.
A few days later it’s time for Fern’s mystery book sale. Pitts helps set up stalls and Maylee drops by with a basket of goodies to help encourage business. Overall it goes really well as passengers and crew from newly docked ships stop by and residents of Murk take an interest. With half the stock sold, Thistleburr now looks empty until the new books arrive, but Viv points out it gives them room to really clean and redecorate the store, and Fern begrudgingly agrees. Viv, Fern and Maylee make a day of shopping for new furniture and supplies, and when all the decorating is done and the new furniture is installed, it does make Thistleburr look good. At the end of a hard day's work, Satchel thinks he sees something outside the store, so they decide it would be best if Satchel stays with Viv overnight.
Viv’s dreams are filled with Varine the Pale who tells Viv she has something of hers: Blackblood, the greatsword she pulled from the book. When Viv suddenly awakens, she is clutching Blackblood’s hilt. She confirms its name with Satchel in the morning who warns Viv that the Lady will come and that she can’t be killed with steel, but perhaps there is another way.
Viv, Maylee, Fern, Potroast and Gallina go for a picnic on the bluff. Satchel comes along but is carried until they’re out of sight of Murk. They spy Zelia Greatstrider’s estate and Maylee tells Fern to get the writer to come to the store, “scones and sexy books! Yes, please!” The friends relax, enjoy their food, and have a nap until Satchel, who went for a walk, calls Viv over to see a patch of earth blasted black and in the powder, a diamond with branches like horns. It puts an end to their outing and Viv intends to tell Iridia the following day. Though it ended on a sour note, on their return, Fern finds a note in the door jamb, her shipment will be delivered the following day. That night, Viv has more dreams about Varine. Thankfully, finally winning Potroast over with bacon and Fern’s shipment distracts Viv from dwelling on it.
The books are glorious and include copies of Zelia Greatstrider’s latest. Viv asks about the store's reopening and offers to go and speak to Zelia Greatstrider about coming for it, and Fern agrees. Gallina also stops by, not to help of course, but to ask for Viv to join her on a spineback bounty she found on the Murk notice board. Satchel loathes spinebacks and offers to join them. Later, Viv heads to the Gatewardens and warns Iridia about the burnt symbol they found and luckily, Iridia takes Viv seriously.
Viv, Fern and Potroast head to the Greatstrider estate by coach. They knock and the door is answered by a human, Berk, Zelia’s Everyman. He accepts the goodies from Sea-Song Bakery and will see if they, along with calling Zelia Miss Greatstrider, will butter her up. A few moments later, Berk comes and ushers them inside. Zelia Greatstrider is impressive and imposing, reclining on a long devan with an open book. Zelia is intrigued by Viv and Fern, their directness, and their proposal to join them for Thistleburr’s grand reopening. The offerings from Sea-Song also do a lot of the heavy persuading. In the end, she agrees to attend.
Preparations are made, and flyers and signs are distributed. Satchel will attend but will watch from a box on the counter Fern has made. It would be too risky for him to be out and about. Fern has made sure to have stocks of Zelia’s newest novel, Thirst for Vengeance, and offerings from Sea-Song. Luca, the dwarven Gatewarden, is a huge fan of Zelia’s and is completely nervous meeting her. Viv and Berk watch the proceedings, Berk noting that Zelia has never done this type of thing before, and Viv roundaboutly asks if Berk provides inspiration and logistical help with most sections of Zelia’s books, ((aka are they banging)) but she doesn’t get a clear answer. Overall, the day goes brilliantly.
The next day, Viv, Gallina and Satchel in his satchel head off to the spineback bounty. When they get to the farm, the farmer tells them their sheep are going missing and points them in the direction of the spineback nest. They easily enough find it and deal with the creatures inside, but it’s strange. Viv notes the creatures are clearly starving and, for typically messy eaters, there are no signs of any kills, so they couldn’t be responsible for the death of the flock. At least they got to see Satchel in action, though. He starts to glow blue and is able to control bone fragments to rip apart the spinebacks. Nice. As they start to head back to the farmer, Viv catches the smell of winter blood. Following it into the woods, she finds the remains of the missing sheep and a drawing of a diamond with two branches like horns.
As quick as the mule and cart can take them, Viv, Gallina and Satchel head back to Murk. When they arrive, the warning bells are ringing in the fortress. Viv directs Gallina to Thistleburr to check on Fern and Potroast to keep them safe while she heads to Maylee and tells her to get her mace, stay inside, stay awake and keep the doors locked. After, Viv heads to the Gatewardens, she needs the book she gave to Iridia, but she finds the Gatewardens fighting Varine’s wights.
Making her way through the throng of battle with Blackblood in her hands, Viv eventually locates Iridia. It thankfully takes little persuasion for Iridia to hand over the book. Once Viv has it, she opens it and dogears one of the corners ((GASP!)). When they emerge onto the street, Varine’s wights are standing to attention. As one, the wights’ jaws open and Varine’s voice comes through, she wants to meet Viv in the flesh at Thistleburr.
Viv and Iridia head to the bookshop and it's deathly quiet inside. The bells of Murk have gone silent. In the wreckage of the shop, Fern and Gallina have been hung from the ceiling in cocoons of bone. Varine is also waiting, sitting in Viv’s chair. Varine is amused by Viv’s lies and threats, mocking her that through Blackblood she was able to get into Viv’s dreams. Then she demands her property back. Viv hands Varine the book and as she caresses it and croons over it, Varine notices the dogeared page ((GASP!)). Varine turns to the page and as she flattens out the fold ((THANK GOODNESS)), Satchel’s hand reaches out and grabs Varine and starts to pull. It takes a lot of effort by Satchel and an enthusiastic Potroast knocking her off balance and biting her arm, but they are able to force Varine into the book. Unfortunately, Potroast, still attached to her arm by his beak, goes in with her.
Viv reaches inside the book, grabs Potroast and pulls him out before slamming the book shut and using all her strength to keep it closed. The book fights back and eventually it pulses, releasing a pressure. The pounding from within the book has stopped. All at once the bones holding Fern and Gallina fall apart. Viv opens the book to the dogeared page and the upper half of Satchel pulls himself through the portal from the underspace. Once free of the pages, Viv drives Blackblood through the book. Eight hells, Satchel’s plan from days ago actually worked.
Three days later in the battered interior of Thistleburr, Fern holds her first book club. More people turn up than there are chairs to sit in and they definitely should have had more scones. Surprisingly, Zelia joins them which is good since it’s her book they are discussing. Berk watches with Viv and Maylee. As Fern welcomes everyone to the book club she also introduces Satchel. With Varine dead, he no longer needs the bonedust to animate and has gained his freedom.
Eventually Rackam’s Ravens return to Murk. Viv gives Rackam Varine’s book and, though it’ll be a tricky thing to cash it in for the bounty as proof of her death, Viv has every confidence he’ll do it. She also introduces Gallina as the girl who saved her ass in a street fight. As Viv tidies her room at The Perch, Maylee stops by. Viv doesn’t get the chance to say anything and as much as Maylee would like Viv to stay, she knows they are in two different places in their lives and respects that and has no regrets over their short time together. Viv goes to Thistleburr one last time to return a book and say her goodbyes. Fern tells her, property damage notwithstanding, it has been an honor to be good friends with her. For now, Satchel will remain in Murk and Thistleburr but thanks her for helping him get his freedom. As Viv leaves, Fern tells her, “see you in the story past the story.”
Many years later. Tandri returns to Legends & Lattes with a letter for her wife, Viv, postmarked from Murk. In it, Fern tells her she received news of Viv’s shop and success from Zelia Greatstrider. She admits her life has not been perfect, but it has been satisfactory. Maylee found someone she needed and Satchel moved on and, though she is pleased he chose to do more than to stay, she is lonely and expresses her wish to come to Thune to see her old friend and hopes she has kept reading. When Viv finishes her letter, Tandri offers to make them coffee while Viv tells her about her time in Murk. Viv also wonders if the place next door is still for sale and if Cal would be up for another renovation because Thune could definitely use a bookstore.