Valeria's flight from the old farmer and his reluctant business partner took her away from the heart of town and north along the river bank. She came to a small shack, in front of which, a black cauldron hung bubbling over a low fire.
Idly curious and a little bit hungry, Valeria peeked into the cauldron. She recoiled in horror. The pot was full of severed ears floating in a watery red broth.
|"I sense a soul in search of
answers." A woman in a long black dress came out of the shack. She had pale skin and
long, straight black hair with a wide streak of white down the middle.
"I sense a soul in search of answers." A woman in a long black dress came out of the shack. She had pale skin and long, straight black hair with a wide streak of white down the middle. Despite the white hair, however, it was impossible to tell her age. Her face was free of wrinkles, except for tiny ones at the corners of her eyes and mouth, so she could have been middle-aged. She had a large basket of sliced potatoes in her arms that she hefted without difficulty, so she could have been younger. Her black eyes reminded Valeria of midnight. They were ancient. If forced to guess the woman's age, Valeria would have estimated it at somewhere between 35 and 105.
The strange woman emptied her basket into the cauldron so nonchalantly that Valeria dared another look.
They weren't severed ears after all. They were just slices of dried tomato.
The woman stirred the soup a bit and then took a moment to study Valeria. "You have traveled a great distance to be here today, but I sense that you have lost something along the way."
Both assessments were correct, but were also vague enough that they could have been true for anyone in town. Valeria gave the woman a look intended to convey her opinion that fortunetellers were for commoners, dullards and particularly stupid farm animals.
The woman understood her perfectly and laughed. "I sense a skeptic in search of answers. I am Adria. Come inside and perhaps I'll tell you something useful."
Valeria followed Adria into the shack. Despite, or maybe because of the gloomy light inside, the interior of the shack appeared to be three or four times bigger than the exterior would have suggested. Shelves of potions and powders lined one wall. A library of hundreds of books of all sizes lined the opposite wall. In the far corner was a rack of staves. Not far from them manacles and bizarre instruments of all sizes hung from the wall. There was a large golden pentagram inscribed on the floor beneath these. Incongruously, in the opposite corner was a big luxurious bed with a pale pink canopy. It looked like it could have slept three or four people with room to spare. In the center of the room was a shallow pit that burned with heatless, smokeless orange flames.
Adria sat down, cross-legged, on the floor across the pit from Valeria. She studied Valeria with those bottomless black eyes for a few seconds and then smiled. "I don't suppose it would be enough to improve my credibility if I told you that I sensed recent turmoil in your life and that you have recently embarked on a voyage of great personal change and self-discovery?"
Valeria smiled and shook her head. While the assessment was again essentially accurate, it was still too vague to impress anyone except the most gullible.
Adria sighed. "Very well then. It is fortunate for you that I am still establishing my reputation here in Tristram." She reached for a heavy glass cover and placed it over the fire. The strange flames did not seem to need air either, because they continued to flicker underneath the glass. "Sit down," invited Adria.
As Valeria sat, Adria produced a deck of cards and distributed them, seemingly at random, across the glass tabletop. The cards were larger and fewer than an ordinary deck of playing cards, and whenever one settled on the table, it turned translucent revealing luminous metallic highlights and deep shifting shadows.
"There," announced Adria with satisfaction as the last card settled. "This will paint a fuller picture." She pointed to the one nearest to Valeria. It depicted stacks of glittering gold coins. "You come from wealth and power. Am I correct?"
The next nearest card depicted a tornado tearing across the countryside. The lights and shadows in the room made it look as if the storm was actually moving. "The Whirlwind is a sign of change," explained Adria. "Note how the card landed: with the tip of the funnel pointing toward you and the wide end pointing away from you. It shows that the nature of the changes in your life involve growth rather than loss."
Adria pointed to the next card. It was black with a pair of glowing golden feline eyes. "Cats' Eyes see what we do not," she continued. "They indicate spiritual or metaphysical gains rather than material ones. The close proximity of the Cat's Eyes to the Whirlwind promises that the coming events will leave you a very different person from who you are now."
Valeria stifled a yawn. Adria frowned, apparently not appreciating the fact that Valeria had even attempted to stifle the yawn was something of a compliment.
|"This tragic lady is one that I know too well," continued Adria, indicating the woman in the cemetery. "She is the Maiden of Anguish.|
Adria pointed to the next set of cards, even more determined to make a believer out of the girl. One card depicted a mountain, its snow-covered peak partially hidden by shimmering fog. The next showed an unremarkable diamond divided into four equal-sized diamonds. The third card of the group depicted a pale-skinned woman wailing alone in a darkened cemetery. These three cards, in turn, overlapped a card bearing the image of a glowing white sword, and one depicting a great crimson-skinned demon with horns. Adria interpreted their meanings: "The Mountain foresees great challenges ahead for you. It is also possible that you will climb a mountain in a more literal sense." She shrugged.
"This tragic lady is one that I know too well," continued Adria, indicating the woman in the cemetery. "She is the Maiden of Anguish. Her card overlaps the Diamond, or Sign of Four. It suggests that great Anguish will come into your life four times in the coming year." She paused. "However, if you are to endure your final encounter with the Maiden of Anguish, you will need to wield great power indeed."
Adria paused again and studied Valeria. "It may be a moot point, however." She indicated the last two cards fully visible in front of them. "These are the Sword of Justice and the Lord of Terror. You will take up a just cause that you will have to see through to its end. If you are to be successful, you will have to overcome Terror. If you allow Terror to consume your soul, all you hold dear will drown in Anguish." She waited to see the girl's reaction to the dire predictions.
Valeria had written a note. She handed it to Adria: "Is this the part where you tell me I'm going to meet a tall, dark stranger?"
"The cards do not foretell such an encounter," said Adria. "However, I also arrange marriages. Perhaps I can introduce you to one."
Valeria shook her head and gave a raspy laugh. The fortuneteller was almost certainly a fraud, but she had an excellent sense of theatre.
"You appear to have lost your voice," observed Adria.
Valeria would have liked to favor Adria with a stinging comment on her grasp of the obvious.
"I sense that you would like to make a sarcastic comment regarding my grasp of the obvious," said Adria with a sly smile. "Perhaps I should tell you something that is not so obvious: It appears that you are about to meet a tall, dark stranger after all." With that, she got up and walked around Valeria to the exit.
Curious, Valeria followed her. Valeria's first thought was that, while they'd been inside, someone had built a stone wall outside Adria's shack. Then the wall moved and looked down at her with huge red-rimmed yellow eyes. The creature stood around eight feet tall and its chest was nearly as broad as Valeria was tall. It had a hide that reminded Valeria of muddy cobblestones and stood on a pair of heavily callused talons. A single curved horn, about three feet in length, projected from its forehead. It opened its mouth wide and revealed a set of triangular saw-edged teeth.
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