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Connection to the Unknown

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After she had recorded his lineage and the list of the foremothers, Rowan asked Efraim more questions about life on the Face. He didn't understand why she was interested in the information or wanted to write it down, but like the rest of the tribe, eventually accepted her curiosity as an odd Inner Lander quirk. Bel cheerfully told him that Rowan's Steerswoman tribe was famous for writing down inconsequential information and then ducked away laughing when Rowan swatted at her.

Efraim was more hesitant to talk about his tribe and their culture, so instead Rowan asked questions about the land. In general it seemed like the Face had the same plants and animals as the rest of the Outskirts, but in different proportions: useful plants were rarer, while almost all the dangerous or unpleasant plants were more common. Even demon sightings seemed to occur more frequently. A few times Rowan had to ask Bel or another tribe member to confirm that the plants or animals Efraim talked about did exist in the Outskirts, and those usually turned out to be things she was glad not to have encountered yet.

After a few days, Rowan asked about the blackgrass prairie. It was impossible for humans to live there, but surely there had been explorers who tried to go further east.

Efraim looked uncomfortable with the question, and eventually Rowan understood that there seemed to be a superstitious taboo about talking about the far prairie. All she got from him were vague descriptions of colorful bush-shaped structures, many meters high and shimmering in green and red and blue, that were only visible on days with high visibility and so far out in the prairie that none who had set out to find them had ever returned.

"Legends say they're the home territory of the demon bears," Efraim added, and Rowan paused and called for Bel.

"Oh yes," Bel said when she arrived. "I've heard of demon bears. They used to appear in the Outskirts, but I thought they'd gone extinct."

"Not extinct," Efraim said. "But they're rare. Rarer than demons."

Rowan looked at the sketch she'd made from the descriptions from his tales: a large grey creature, with a round barrel-like body, six short legs, and a short trunk in front. Apparently the legends described them as peaceful unless they felt threatened, in which case they mercilessly tore any attacker apart with their claws.

Efraim had said none of his tribe had encountered a demon bear in two generations, but he didn't know how often they appeared in general or if there were any regions where they were seen more often.

"Why are they called demon bears?" Bears were mythological creatures. Some legends said they were merely extinct, but no bones or other proof of their existence had ever been found.

Bel shrugged. "They've always been called that."

"Are they related to demons?"

"They don't make noise," Efraim said. "But they can disappear."

"Disappear?"

"Yes. Sometimes there are lights around them and they disappear. And sometimes they appear out of thin air."

Rowan looked at Bel, to see what she made of this impossible sounding tale. Bel was frowning. "I've never heard of that."

"Maybe they can hide very well," Rowan suggested. "Or they have a camouflage mechanism, like chameleons."

"No. They disappear," Efraim stated firmly. "It's the lore." For him that meant it was not open to discussion.

Bel looked unconvinced, but unwilling to debate him on that point.

Nothing just vanished and reappeared. There weren't even rumors about wizards doing that. Possibilities were two: either these demon bears had an amazing ability no other known creature had ever shown, or the stories were exaggerating, and the latter was more likely. However, Rowan already knew that questioning Outskirters' ancient lore was only met with stubbornness and got her nowhere. All she could do was record the stories she heard, see if she found clues for alternative explanations, and make her own observations if she ever had the luck to encounter a demon bear.

She must have looked eager, because Efraim added: "They only appear where there's all blackgrass."

Bel laughed at Rowan's look of disappointment.

Rowan wasn't planning on going to the Face. It would be foolish and extremely dangerous, and there was nothing there she sought so urgently that it would be worth the risk. And even the Face People didn't explore the prairie. But for a moment she imagined how exciting it would be to walk across the blackgrass to the shimmering structures in the distance and encounter the mysterious demon bears. She wondered what she would be able to learn.