There has been a crazy awesome turn-out on the Patreon thing. You guys blow my mind. It pays for KUEC AND my antacids AND my coffee. I don’t know how to thank you.
So, err…have a story! For those of you who’ve played CrypticStitching, here’s a small prequel for your amusement. (And if you haven’t played it, Crazy-Wool is the stuffed Sheep shaman of Wool-Tribe, Quippet is his apprentice, and the (probably) Chosen of the Spirits…well, that’s the point of the game, after all.)
The Vision of Crazy Wool
It was dawn, or a little past it, and Crazy-Wool the shaman felt the urge to go into the forest.
He didn’t like the urge very much. Shamans get urges, same as the rest of us, mostly for naps and tea with extra honey in it. But they also get deep dark shamanistic urges, when the Unpatterned Land reaches out and pokes them.
The Unpatterned Land was poking Crazy-Wool now.
“Really?” said the Sheep aloud, glaring up at the smoke-hole with his one good eye. (His other eye was also perfectly good, but it saw into the world of the spirits, so it tended to be a little wild and rolling and not so good for mundane tasks, like glaring at the ceiling.)
The Unpatterned Land poked him again, in the urges.
Crazy-Wool swore. He swore with passion and depth and extraordinary breadth of knowledge. A moth that had gotten into the tent wandered within range of the shaman’s voice, which turned its wings soot-black and sent it crashing to the floor.
He swore some more.
Then he climbed to his feet and shook himself off. Bits of lint flew from his matted wool.
Crazy-Wool reached into the aether a very short way and jabbed his apprentice’s brain.
There was a bleat of dismay from the tent that adjoined his. A moment later, his apprentice was fumbling at the tent flap.
“Make some tea, Quippet,” said the shaman. “There’s spirit work on the hoof.”
Quippet scurried into the tent as well as a small blue Sheep can scurry, and poked up the fire. He dumped a hoof-full of herbs into the mammoth bladder that served as a teapot and went rummaging for the honey jar.
“What sort of spirit work, master?”
“Haven’t the foggiest,” said Crazy-Wool. “The usual sort, I expect. Somebody needs a pebble moved six inches to the right so that the world doesn’t come crashing down around our ears. Some old spirit wants somebody to pay attention to them. Rains of fire and yams. You know the kind.”
Crazy-Wool grumbled his way through the tent, found his walking stick–bipedalism was harder than it used to be, the seams at his hips were stiff–and took down a sack in case whatever the Unpatterned Land was dumping on him required transport.
Quippet poured tea into one of the broad, shallow mugs favored by Sheep. Crazy-Wool lowered his head and drank deeply. Sharp herbs, sweet honey. He sighed. His mind was as alert as it had ever been, but his senses occasionally needed joggling.
“I hope you live to a ripe old age, Quippet. But not this old. Someday I’ll find the secret of my longevity, and when I do, I’m going to kick its stuffing out through its ears.”
“Yes, Master,” said Quippet dutifully. Quippet was always dutiful. Crazy-Wool didn’t know what he’d done, at his time of life, to deserve a conscientious and thoughtful apprentice. It was more than mortal fabric could bear.
He started for the tent flap and stopped.
His seams creaked as he reached down, picked up the stunned moth, and breathed life back into it. Its tattered wings flexed outward, suddenly the color of honeyed amber, and it turned its tiny, fuzzy antennae toward him.
Crazy-Wool grumbled and set it on top of his head, where it would be out of the way.
Then he stomped out of his tent and off toward the woods and whatever damnable destiny the universe had in store for him today.
He went into Withyjack Forest as deep as he cared to go, and then he stopped. One of the secrets that shamans know is that any place can be made sacred, if you’re willing to put your back into it. Some places are just more responsive than others.
The Withyjack Forest was occasionally a little too responsive. Gods had walked its rootbound halls in ages past, and it liked to wallow in nostalgia. Crazy-Wool thumped his cane on a tree trunk and Quippet jumped.
“You! Pay attention. No, not you, Quippet.” He cleared his throat. “I’m going to sit down here and try and get some work done. Make sure nothing terrible jumps down my throat while I’m doing it, eh?”
“Not you, boy.”
The Sheep waited.
The wind overhead washed the leaves and set them rustling. One fell, fluttering, to the ground between Crazy-Wool’s front hooves.
“Good enough,” said the shaman. He sank down to all fours and stretched, then, regretfully, sat back up. It didn’t do to get too comfortable at his age. You laid down to do a little spirit work and you wound up taking an afternoon nap while the universe unraveled around you.
There, that was good. Nothing painful, nothing jabbing into him, but not in danger of going to sleep. He wiggled a bit to make sure his tail wasn’t getting pinched. There.
He closed his good eye and focused his spirit eye on the world.
It looked more or less the same, at least at first.
Same trees, same stones. The leaves glittered with a tracery of energy, and the fire at the heart of mountains burned inside the stones. The beech trees sang with golden light and the aspens shattered silver around him.
Same as it always was.
Quippet was surrounded by spirits, as usual. They danced around him like a gentle, permanent snowfall. The little Sheep was making discreet shooing motions, trying to get the spirits to leave while Crazy-Wool was spiritwalking. For some reason, his apprentice still thought that his spirits were a secret. Crazy-Wool was waiting for a properly dramatic moment to disillusion him.
Other than that, nothing.
The leaves rustled with green fire overhead.
“All right,” said Crazy-Wool, annoyed. “You’re the ones poking me. What’s so blasted urgent that I had to get up at the whalloping crack of dawn for it?”
A few minutes slid by, and then Crazy-Wool turned his head and there was a hare watching him.
The hare was as blue as a summer sky and had silver button eyes.
Well, these things happened.
It was watching Crazy-Wool in a way that an ordinary hare would find quite unnatural.
Crazy-Wool narrowed his spirit eye and stared at the hare.
The hare narrowed its silver button eyes and stared back.
Unhurriedly, almost reflexively, Crazy-Wool assessed the spirit world around him. The trees would help him if he asked–trees loved to be asked to do something. They were giving in ways that would be quite self-destructive in a mammal.
The stones might or might not help him. He could generally wake a stone from its slumber and make it pay attention to the here-and-now, but it took time that he might not have.
He spun his consciousness out, farther, farther, and there was Wool-Tribe’s meadow and the familiar gods of his people. None of them were actually paying attention, but he could call them up quick enough if he had to. The Snowfleece Maiden was positively soppy about Quippet, She’d be there in a heartbeat if She thought he was in trouble. That had to be worth something.
Farther out, across the steppes, roamed the Great Spirits, Tiger and Mammoth, Hyena and Bat–they would come to his aid if he called. Mammoth was almost as bad as a tree, and Hyena always liked it when a shaman owed Her favors.
Very well. He was not without protection. He turned his attention back to the silver-eyed hare.
“All right,” he said. “Show me.”
The hare leaped
It charged down the embankment toward him, doubling and tripling and quadrupling in size. It was larger than a mammoth when it landed before him, kicking up a fountain of leaves.
Crazy-Wool didn’t flinch. It was a point of professional pride.
The hare jumped over him.
As it passed over him, it grew again, until its body was the entire sky, the blazing blue of a summer afternoon. Its final leap seemed to have kicked the world away underneath it, for Crazy-Wool was no longer surrounded by forest, but by sky. If he looked closely, he could see the pale lines where the hare’s legs curved and trace the long sweep of its ears.
It was a neat trick. As visions went, this one was pretty good.
He appeared to be a small black cloud in the hare-belly sky. Crazy-Wool turned his head–best not to think too closely about his cloud anatomy–and gazed down.
The vast steppes stretched out beneath him, running to the ice wall in the north and the forests to the south. The glacier was a blinding rim of white around the world.
But what was this, to the south?
It was as if the glacier had developed an unnatural twin, dark instead of light. Shadow lay around the southern edge of the world, shadow as far as he could see.
Shamans do not fear darkness. Darkness is their element. Crazy-Wool preferred night to day, if only because you couldn’t see the stray bits of lint so clearly in daylight.
This was different.
Crazy-Wool scowled as fiercely as a cloud can scowl.
The light faded. The moon came up in the hare’s eye. Stars spangled its darkening fur.
The glacier blazed in the moonlight. Grass rippled on the steppes.
And the darkness to the south reared up and crashed like a wave, pouring over the world.
Crazy-Wool would have given a great deal to look away, but he did not. His vision of himself would not allow it.
So he bore witness as the blackness reached his valley, pooling in the depths of Withyjack, then reached out to extinguish the campfires of Wool-Tribe. He watched the wave pour over the steppes, saw great mammoths pulled down by a shadow that seemed to have a thousand mouths and a thousand grasping claws.
At last the shadow reached the glacier, and there, at last, it broke. Crazy-Wool had only seen the sea in visions, but that was what it looked like–the sea smashing against stone, and the stone resisting.
He hung alone in the sky, while the world under him turned black.
After what felt like a long time, he turned his head. The sky-hare blinked the moon at him.
“Very well,” he said. “Very well. This is the shadow I’ve seen coming, then. The darkness at the edge of my mind. I was hoping I was just going senile, you know.”
The sky looked faintly abashed.
“You’re not telling me anything I didn’t expect. Not,” he amended, sighing, “that I wanted to be alive to see it. I was rather hoping to pass along the word to young Quippet, gasp out something like “Believe in yourself. The fate of the world depends upon you,” and then slip gracefully into the Unpatterned Land.”
The moon blinked at him again.
“I suppose you’re right,” muttered Crazy-Wool. “If you want the world saved, you can’t leave it to spring lambs.”
He looked down at the crawling darkness and felt his lips pull back from his teeth, or whatever passed for teeth and lips in this body. “Nasty business.”
The moon closed in assent.
“You’re giving me some help, though,” said Crazy-Wool.
The sky-hare considered this.
“That wasn’t a request,” said Crazy-Wool testily. “I may be a cloud right now, but I’ll kick your pole star halfway to the equator if you think you’re leaving this all on me and Quippet.”
The sky moved. The moon swung close, and then Crazy-Wool was standing on the sky’s shoulder, looking down at the darkened earth.
The shadow had retreated. The terrible night of his vision had not yet come to pass. The darkness only lapped at the edge of the world, instead of consuming it, and yet Crazy-Wool could see it creeping closer.
And then there was a spark.
It had something of the silver shiver of aspen light. It was on the very edge of the shadow, shockingly bright against it.
“That better not be a chosen anything,” said Crazy-Wool. “I’m not kidding. I am way too old to deal with a–oh, son of a–“
The earth spun dizzily as the sky-hare bent down toward the light.
The light was moving closer. So was the shadow. It hardly seemed as if the light could outpace it, and yet it did, just a little.
Light and dark crawled with agonizing slowness along the bottom of the world.
It was a single figure, walking alone.
Crazy-Wool leaned forward and strained his spirit vision. He could not make out anything about the figure–young or old, Mouse or Sheep, Wolf or Bear. It could have been anyone.
It was very small, and the shadow behind it was very large.
He lifted his spirit eye to the darkness. For a moment, something seemed to flicker, like the movement of a fish just under the surface of the water.
Something gazed out of the dark at the shaman.
Crazy-Wool threw himself backward, off the shoulder of the sky.
Immediately he was falling. This was unsettling, but not nearly so unsettling as the thing that had looked at him from the shadow.
The sky-hare turned its head and caught his fabric in its teeth. It jerked its head and flung him sideways, out of the Unpatterned Land.
The shaman’s vision filled with shapes, going by too fast to see. He grasped for them but they turned to fragments and fled away from him as he fell–the flash of fireflies, a twisted tree, sunlight shining on the glacier’s edge.
Crazy-Wool was starting to worry that that he was going to fall forever in the spirit world, and just thinking that he should do something about that, when he fell back into his body and face-planted into the forest floor.
“Master!” gasped Quippet. “Are you all right?”
“I am fine,” said Crazy-Wool with dignity. “The world is most likely going to be destroyed and we are the last line of defense, except for some plush who is probably going to die before they get here. Other than that, completely fine. I hope you brought more tea.”
Quippet stared at him in abject horror.
“Tea,” said Crazy-Wool patiently, still chin-deep in leaf litter. “It is a beverage. You make it with hot water and herbs. You’re very good at it, which is the primary reason why you’re still my apprentice. That and your misplaced sense of duty.”
“The world is going to be destroyed?” whispered Quippet.
“Trust you to seize on the least important aspect of the whole thing. Yes. The world is going to be destroyed. That was always inevitable. We are merely forestalling the inevitable, which is what shamans do.” He considered this. “Also heroes. Also tea.”
He gave Quippet a very pointed look.
It took his apprentice a few minutes to cobble together a small fire. In the end, the little blue Sheep mumbled a request under his breath and a spark leapt up and danced between his hooves.
Sure, thought Crazy-Wool, half amused and half annoyed. Sure, the spirits love him. Well, that’s just how it is. Quippet was lovable. Crazy-Wool had been cynical even as a lamb, and the spirits respected him, but they didn’t fall all over themselves to smooth his path down, either.
Whether they’d fall all over themselves to smooth the way for that unknown plush out there…
Crazy-Wool closed his eyes and groaned.
“Are you all right, Master Crazy-Wool?”
“I am being crushed by the weight of an unkind universe. Other than that, fine. How’s the tea coming?”
By the time the tea was ready, he was just about ready to get up. Quippet hurried to brace him up.
He slurped up a few mouthfuls of tea and exhaled.
“Better–“ he said, and the world was engulfed in shadow.
He had only a heartbeat worth of warning. He flung himself over Quippet, knocking the smaller Sheep down, while blackness flowed over the forest.
Everything became muffled and flat. He could not see. The trees let out long, wordless vowels of pain.
“Master?” whispered Quippet.
Crazy-Wool was reasonably certain that he wasn’t in the Unpatterned Land, for the simple reason that his joints didn’t ache when he was in the Unpatterned Land. Whatever was happening was not quite real, but a long way from a hallucination.
A wind struck them, smelling of cold earth. Things rustled. In the dark, something was searching for them, making wet, snuffling sounds.
Crazy-Wool reached out to the trees. They shuddered with fear, as much as trees can be frightened.
Under his touch, they quieted and listened.
Hide us, he said. Please.
The trees leaned together, whispering. The wet, searching noises came nearer.
A pile of leaves as large as a grown Sheep dropped onto them.
Quippet let out a thin bleat of terror. Crazy-Wool stifled a laugh. Ask trees for help, and get leaves. Well, what had he expected?
They lay in silence, hidden under the leaves.
Whatever the thing was, it came closer. Assuming that they were still in the same clearing—and Crazy-Wool wasn’t sure that was a safe assumption—it was just on the other side of a line of trees.
Nasty sound. Like a pig with a head cold.
The snuffling came closer—tried—and to judge by the noises, ran into a wall of branches. Crazy-Wool strained his ears and heard the crack of wood and a muffled squeal of pain.
Just so long as we don’t make a sound, the trees will keep it out. If it knows we’re in here, trees might not be enough.
He didn’t dare poke Quippet, either physically or with his mind, for fear of startling his apprentice. He prayed the little Sheep would stay quiet.
Either he had chosen his apprentice wisely, or a spirit had whispered wisdom into Quippet’s ear. There were no sounds.
It was enough.
The thing that searched for them searched in vain.
A long time later, he heard it howling, far away, a howl of failure and despair. Its master would not be pleased.
Crazy-Wool exhaled and rolled off Quippet.
“Ow,” said his somewhat flattened apprentice. “Is it safe now?”
“Safe,” said Crazy-Wool, rolling the word around. “Safe. Interesting question. It’s not quite as dangerous as it was, how’s that?”
“It’s still dark,” said Quippet. “And I can’t hear the–“
Can’t hear the spirits, finished Crazy-Wool internally. No, because they’re smarter than the rest of us, and they didn’t want to call attention to you, so they cleared out and didn’t get stuck in here with us. Very sensible of them. I wonder what would have happened if that thing found us? Would the Snowfleece Maiden have come in like a blizzard and frozen it in its tracks, or are we beyond Her sight as well?
It was an interesting thought. He hoped he wouldn’t have to put it to the test.
He looked around, which was a pointless endeavor, because the world was still as black as pitch.
“What’s happening?” asked Quippet.
“Someone appears to have torn a hole in the world,” said Crazy-Wool.
“That sounds bad.”
“Trust that feeling.”
“Does it have something to do with the end of the world?”
Crazy-Wool snorted. “No, it’s because I was a damn fool and tried to make eye contact with a nightmare. Stupid. You’d think at my age I’d know better.”
“I’m sure no one could have done better,” said Quippet loyally. Crazy-Wool gritted his teeth.
He turned around in a circle, or what felt like one. It was difficult to tell.
“Are we stuck?” asked Quippet.
“Not if we can find our way out. If we can’t, the world will sew itself up–it doesn’t like holes–and we’ll be stuck on the wrong side of it.”
He considered an eternity stuck in a pocket universe with Quippet’s earnest good nature. It did not bear contemplating.
“You never told me that was possible,” said Quippet.
“I didn’t want to worry you,” said Crazy-Wool. “You might have stopped making tea.”
Quippet gave him a betrayed look.
“All shamans lie to their apprentices. Nobody would ever become a shaman if they knew what it was really like. Incidentally, I saw that look you just gave me, so something’s happening.”
The light was very faint, but growing stronger. Crazy-Wool could see tiny reflections in Quippet’s eyes.
“It’s coming from your head,” said Quippet, staring at him.
Crazy-Wool tried to see through the top of his own head, which was impossible even for shamans.
The light moved.
The honey-amber moth spread its wings and flew.
It circled Quippet’s head twice and landed, very briefly, on his nose. The little Sheep’s eyes crossed trying to look at it. It waved its antennae at him.
Then it lifted off and flew away.
“Follow that moth!” cried Crazy-Wool.
The two Sheep staggered after it. Crazy-Wool’s right side was not happy with the way it had been treated, and Quippet had to shore him on that side. Like three-legged lambs, like drunks, like shamans, they wobbled after it, threading between the dark lines of trees, and emerged suddenly into the sunlight.
Crazy-Wool fell down and took Quippet with him.
“Are we safe now?” asked Quippet.
“You keep asking that…” He closed his eyes. His wool was full of leaves. In a few hours, he was going to have to get up and dig around until he found that pocket universe and turn it inside out. The trees didn’t deserve to be stuck in there.
And after that, the end of the world, sole savior of plushkind, all that crap.
After a minute, he said “You know, I could really go for a cup of tea.”
Quippet sighed and got to his feet.
The amber moth spiraled upward, into the daylight, and was lost against a sky as blue as the belly of a hare.