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----------Wealth--------------

-Tobacco b/c looks
-Katana lol
-Blowfly Temple / central bank
-Banking
-Mercantilism
--Trade company investing in production
-Rotflies?
--Rather a blind hain than a bad heart
-Subjugation of a Grotling tribe
--Soul Weapon: The Executioner's Hammer
-Price of shadow tunnelling

-------Colonies-----Post-fight------
-University of Mirus
-Expansion into space
-Zyle's lance
-The Kris
-Crown of Thorns
-Machiavellian politics
--Colonies
--Crush the strongest
--Nobles vs. administrators
--Better to be feared than loved
-Burn the Bridge ?

-----Etymology-------------
-School
-Bank
-Company
-Stock
-Capital

-----Levelling------
21 remaining, lv. 10
(assuming all possible level ups)

-19 =2
+10 =12
+10 =22
-22 =0

------Grotling tribe-----Subjugation--------
-Tauranga as god, Tauganactsa
-Saluractasa value of strengthening one's slaves
-Valtanansa wing capacity
-Executioner's Hammer as a soul weapon (haft length is variable, haft strength is amplified)
-Very few Overseers
-Vosh are considered citizens
-Vosh follow Heartworm as a deity, the Grot-worshipping tribe follows with them
-Metalbenders for early steel wringing technology
-Rivalry with Cahnulan bone-breakers

----------phonetics------------------
Erjang (Capital city)
Mako
Ruthar
Oyur
Sareh?
Sen
Dracces
Jinini
Usgalo
Tauga

-------tech-------------
Gunpowder (the blind monk)
Steel
Metal folding (Grotlings)
Glue and fabric (synth)
Waterproofing (synth)
Crossbows (Dundee)
Ballista (Dundee)

roleplayerguild.com/posts/4419944
roleplayerguild.com/topics/91565-mid-…

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It was very late in their partnership when Tauga asked an important question.

“Are you Jaan?”

“No,” Heartworm replied. It lowered the upper half of her beak along with her brain onto a clasp in the fluid. With a ripple of its tail it was away again. Elsewhere, Tauga's fourth eye swivelled slightly to follow.

“The Emaciator was created to act as Jvan's envoy to distant places. Heartworm was the name and consciousness assigned to that entity. Kept its powers occupied when Jvan's attention was elsewhere. Glitch in its personality displeased her. Inevitable. Heartworm was subjugated. Eventually I escaped.”

“Oh,” she said. Her larynx fell to stillness, alone on its threads.

The fluid was utterly transparent, yet dim, for lack of light. Heartworm swam in the grey. It was viscous enough to support it motionless, all the while keeping Tauga's many veins alive. In this it was a technical marvel, as in many other, small things.

Heartworm shuffled around her upper-body muscle, zooming in on each myomere. It rearranged the threads.

“Heartworm?”

“...”

“Have I ever met Jaan?”

“No.”

“Will I?”

“Maybe.”

“Huh.”

Tauga experimentally flexed a foot. The fluid twitched in three different places. Heartworm knew it was coming and paid no heed.

“Hey, worm.”

“...”

“...Nothing.”

“...”

“...This will make me strong, huh.”

“Correct.”

“Okay.” Heartworm ran along a vein and found a nerve in the Tauga-web, lined it with a crystallogenic matrix. Strange shivers were felt in Tauga's brain.

“...I guess you could say you were his slave.”

“You could.”

“A runaway slave, huh.” Her first and second eyes swivelled towards Heartworm and for the first time saw how small it truly was. She'd always considered Heartworm a god. This... made much more sense. “No wonder you're always so alone.”

Heartworm stopped. It met her eyes.

“...”

“Tauga will be reassembled within three hours,” it said, and continued with its work. Tauga closed her eyes and waited.
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Birth of the Marquisate
Part II: Subjugation







Birth of the Marquisate
Part III: Wealth







Birth of the Marquisate
Part IV: Colonies
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Tauga applied the thin knife one more time to the haft of the polehammer, then again to the tip of her tongue. It drew blood. She smeared it over the head.

"Atacartes racta, taka linsa gg Tauga hai," she recited, gripping the point. It shuddered in her hand. She forced it to be still. A part of that shudder carried into her, replacing in her an unnameable part of herself just as the force of her grip replaced a part of the steel.

She stood, once more hefting its weight. It balanced perfectly in her hand. It always had, but only at her volition. Now she seemed unable to lose her grip on it. She swung the sacred weapon and leveled a crystal sprouting eight feet away. Its shards clattered on the cavern floor.

She picked one up and pitched it at the roof, examining the wyrm tunnel's outer wall by its light. In some other places, and here, the dark labyrinth penetrated the natural caves of Vakarlon, and did not stop for them. A sufferer in the tunnels could wander straight through a mighty chasm the size of a mountain and never know there was anything beyond the sickly walls but solid rock.

Tauga tapped the hammer on the stone. She listened to the echo. There was no wear on the haft of the executor at all. She knew that, even though she hadn't checked.

"This will make them respect me."

"False. It will only familiarise you. Tauga must rely on her own-"

"Yeah, I know," she said, stepping towards the tunnel. "I wasn't asking." She spun the hammer above her head without thinking and demolished a crystal with each end. Quartz as old as time and thrice as tough shattered like sugar at her strength. "This is what I meant. Run me through that one more time."

"Throughout their lives, Grotlings accumulate prestige through warcraft. Military success is the measure of worth. Elder veterans are revered. Gods considered spirits of strength. Perpetual campaign provides means of development towards utopia. Grotlings wish to achieve supremacy so as to advance all subservient races."

"Perfect." She turned to the waiting worm. "And what do you intend to play?"

"Heartworm plays the role of Vosh. Internal operator culture is underdeveloped. They will follow a superior."

"Alright. And I've gotta introduce myself as Tauranga. Right?"

"Tauga's birth name is guttural. Phonetically appropriate."

"And you?"

Heartworm made a sound.

"...Prshv... Pzhuvra?" Tauga raised an open hand. "Nobody with a tongue's going to pronounce that, Heartworm."

"They don't have to," the worm replied.
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Birth of the Marquisate
Part II: Subjugation


Tauga's boots smashed weeds as they furled and snapped at her form. The Venomweald sensed her from miles away, her presence vast and visible to the flora. They were not fooled by the transparency of her tongues. A god walked here.

Tauga felt something coming through her tendrils, swept them aside that it might pass undisturbed. Beyond, she could feel the workings of slaves mashing the pith of trees for their meal, held by nothing but the knowledge that they would be caught if they tried to run. She looked up. Through the goggles of her mask, she could clearly see the vast wings of the Valtanansa beating as they trailed their pod of dirigible cloudwhales above. They moved like the wings of an angel's marionette, Grotling muscle hooked onto a pair of Vosh limbs, pulling the boneless wings in a manner not unlike that of a certain demigod's ornithopter. Mechanical. Tireless.

Somewhere up there, the Grotlings had built their whaleback outposts. Tauga stood still and let the one in the jungle find her.

A metal thorn whipped downwards onto the back of her skull. She caught it one-handed. It had fallen into the exact line of a hain's cranial blind spot. Admirable.

Tauga had intended to toss back the spearhead, but something about it shook her hand when she tried, so she let it fall. It was pulled back sharply on a long rope. The Grotling emerged.

"...Where are your wings?"

The lithe monstrosity drew four knives in four hands and leapt for Tauga, screeching unutterable hells under her crest. Tauga parried with the back of her gloves and leapt five times her body height to smack the Grotling in the skull.

"Don't," she said. "Good moves, but."

The Grotling backed off a touch and flicked the rope spear. It coiled like a live thing and Tauga retreated, blurring to avoid its catch. A welt had risen on the warrior's face. Tauga let her tendrils settle back on the Grotling. It backed off, slightly. Adjusted its guard.

She can sense them, Heartworm reminded.

"Right." She beckoned to the warrior. "I'm not gonna get caught out by you. What's your name?"

"Eggshells get broken here," said the Grotling, or something like that, in Grotto. "Make a good slave or a sad corpse."

With two quick motions, Tauga drew her sidearm, a rear-toothed Grotling blade. It cut through a flower as it moved, and she felt her foe tense. She beckoned again. The Grotling laughed.

"I didn't fucking think so." She pointed the blade at the gap in the trees. "Why aren't you with them?"

"I catch slaves," said the Grotling.

"You're doing shit job of it," said Tauga, and parried half a dozen blows with one hand. "You're not an Overseer. Who are you?"

"Sasha will bring the aberration to heel." The grammar was such that Tauga was the one being introduced, and Sasha's name was only dropped in passing. Clever. Respectful, in a threatening way.

"No," said Tauga, and launched a brisk offensive. It was a short skirmish, and a violent one, and at the end of it Tauga sat perched on a branch at head height with four knives on the ground and a rope spear caught dangerously fast on the teeth of her blade. A variety of fresh wounds had opened around Sasha's hands and thighs. She could see a Vosh knitting together the edges of its host body's wounds, draining fat reserves as it moved. She started to see how fascinating the process really was.

Sasha raised her fists, bleeding. "You are Jukfonite."

"Not a monk," she said. That was all the word meant in Grotto; they had no concept of Jvan. "Think bigger."

Sasha snarled. "Demon."

"Almost," she said. "I won't waste your time. Watch." Heartworm emerged from her suit by its limbs, took apart her cranium and brain, arranged them in two ways, and repaired her in an instant. Sasha paused. To her, it was bizarre, impressive. To her Vosh, who knew the ways of flesh, could understand the action's true complexity, there was one explanation only.

"Voshbolo," said Tauga. Vosh carrier. And the Vosh in question-

"Valun eppkel as."

"No one sent me. I came down because I wanted to."

Grotlings are not especially partial to using gestures of the head to indicate attention. The lack of eyes accounts for that. Tauga was not yet attuned to the subtler gestures of latter Grotkind, and when her hand rose to point to the ophanim that flew above, she knew not that Sasha was already listening to them.

"Those aren't the weapons of people who die. They're soul weapons. Mine." She flicked her fingers and the colony changed shape, confounding the Valtanansa sent to investigate it and nearly bisecting at least one. She moved them again and they returned to previous orbits. "I've seen Tek-" Heartworm's limb flicked through her tongue, changing the syllable- "Tesnald take the form of a hain. I take after her. Do you know why?"

Sasha made a facial gesture, a slight lowering of the head.

"Thought so. Say it."

"Tesnald te un ghorrinaal."

"And his name is Karn." Tauga exhaled. The hardest part was over. Yes, Tesnald had a husband. And Tauranga was their son. The lie was told, and in the telling it had become truth; just like Tauga's godhood, her ancestry was created by her myth. The Blowfly lived.

"You have seven gods. I'm the eighth. I'm the Vosh-carrier, the one who tests. I own ten thousand slaves." She looked up. Heartworm gave her no cues. She recited. She learned. "You have seven gods. The Prime is dead. The Writhe never left. My mother was the first to do so. I'm the one who came back." She looked down, slightly, to the towering slaver. "My name is Tauranga, son of Mason. My weapons crush armies."

"...Where are your thorns?"

"They'll grow in."

The Grotling looked down upon her, the one who had worn the shape of the weak-shelled and beaten her with it, and then slowly took a knee. Tauga nodded. Some words were spoken.

"Tell them everything you've heard," she replied. "Or don't. I don't care. I'll be saying it again and again ten times just to make them hear."

More words.

"Because I need a tribe," she said, and leapt into the sky.
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Error is the mechanism by which truth is pruned from assumption.

The words echoed in vibrational speech through the body of a whale, beached by sea serpents and left alive in the shallow water. Heartworm's tongues extended like spiderlimbs hair-thin through it all. From tongue to tail-tip.

Unseeing, we strive at the borders of what we know.

A warband of Grotcarar and other tribesfolk stood guard uneasily waist-deep in the lagoon, some perched on the whale or treading water. Without Vosh, every instinct within them cried of loneliness and danger.

Sometimes we break through.

Some sixty Vosh riddled the inside of the whale. They followed Heartworm's lead, mending wounds it had made, studying twists of sinew it had implanted, conversing in a way none had had the opportunity to converse before: in a crowd.

When the next words came, they listened to the lesson.

Thought is mobile.

When Tauranga came to the Grotcarar, they were divided. Some said that they needed no God, and no living God could impress herself upon them. Most agreed. Power would not sway them. They were already sworn to a cause.

Their Vosh did not see things that way.

Imagination extrapolates the known.

The original Grot carried the original Vosh. When the Many Eyed Emperor slew both from the inside, their spirits escaped, intertwined, to soar forevermore in the hearts of their children. So went the story.

But Vosh are born in darkness. The myth of surface-dwellers has no bearing on the world they inhabit. To them, there was only one god, the Prime Vosh. Their ancient memory of Angelblood Ridge was unrecognisable to any other folk. It was a gruesome one.

They'd lost their only god.

And now they'd found another.

The limits of art dictate the limits of science.

Parasites or symbiotes? The latter, by all measure, but when Grotling will collided with that of their Vosh, they all too rapidly became the former. Vosh did not make many demands, but the ones they had they were well capable of enforcing.

The Emaciator offered them knowledge. The Emaciator offered them freedom. The Emaciator numbered them and listened to their voice, where no one else had. So they listened to the Emaciator. They learned its story. Its story resembled their own.

Power is the product of beauty.

The Vosh of the Grotcarar followed the one they named Prʐywra, in their own tongue, and where the fearful and the stubborn would not follow in turn, they were left behind.

And the people of Erjang whispered of the hidden god who had called the spiders to its fold and taught them of the dark things, the secret ways of Arkenflesh and schools of blood, and whom they knew only as SHUVRA, for their mouths were insufficient to form the true words.
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* * *


Tauga leapt further, up on the threads of her tendrils, a dark bullet piercing the dark canopy.

She shattered the branch in her way with no more than a thought and an extended hand. As she tossed away the splinters, the Valtanansa saw her, and the foremost of the great-winged pirates dove to meet her. She brandished her bush-knife. The slingstone shot past her by some short inches, and she realised she'd have to close.

Riding the swing of an ophan around the colonial epicentre, Tauga flipped the machete back-hand and launched into the Valtanan, the Grotling immediately diving to do the same. The thorns on its first did nothing to slow the advance of the godling; her control of trajectory was greater, as was her speed. She rushed past with blood on her blade as the Vosh amputated what was left if its fist.

More slingstones fell, but Tauga had no intention of waiting around.

The rift in space spat, and Tauga's polehammer appeared in her hand. She'd done this so many times. The Grotlings could only move so fast, and Tauga's Vosh knew vents in the suit from which it could extend its limbs as it rose. The slingstones broke its fragile arms as one by one they were batted away.

Without disturbing the ophanim from their orbits, Tauga ripped through the Valtanan ranks, striking one by one the faceless entities in the language they understood.

She levelled her altitude on the top of a Bludgeon, let her feet settle upon it. The wounded Valtanansa fell spiralling to glide down and land amidst the trees. From afar, their reinforcement came.

Even a hollow-boned Grotling is too large to ride the mottled skyray. But they have loyal slaves.

With a single movement, an ophan departed from its orbit, and cut them both in half. The watchers on the dirigible cloudwhale grew still. Tauga flicked herself up with another ophan, extended her wingsuit and soared easily onto the cloudwhale.

She landed at the dead center of their arena. She looked around. Grotlings looked back at her. She beckoned to all of them, turning, one by one.

"...That's what I thought."

* * *
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Tauga's feet stepped not without caution as they ascended the steps of the Rhyolite Temple. A schism of late had begun to send cracks through the accord of the elements, and the Monsoon roared above the mighty mountain, a display of power a little sharper, perhaps, than was their respectful due. It was nothing- just a wild wind, in the season therefor- but Tauga knew men, and Djinni behaved like men. The four elements had chosen leaders. The fault lines were there.

Nothing to her, of course, at least yet. Not in the shadow of the tetchy balance she had found with the mountain gods, and strove hard to preserve. She summited the Rhyolite Temple with the Teknarotu in tow, a laden sack of gifts upon her back. The metal-bender could carry hers, easily, in addition to his own, but it was humble and appropriate to bear one's own.

Tauga offered a fine copper goblet, and two jars of toaka gasy, hard rum. To this she added a sawshark skull, and some incense, and said prayers of penitence as they were subsumed into the stone, eternal magma bubbling as the volcano willed it. She had never been the type to pray, at least not 'til she was sick, but she prayed now- for peace, mostly, and the forgiveness of a crime against the mountains.

Then the two of them left, down through the valley between Ihuian's mountains.

Here the slaves were kept, or at least most of them that weren't settled on Axotal. They were Amestrians, many, of cities Tauga and the Alefprians had... Liberated. New warlords would rise to replace those petty lords they had toppled, but Tauga had made off with a substantial number of second-hand slaves and captured soldiers.

Others were from Itzamatul, which Tauga had been raiding of late, whole villages taken from that war-torn island and transplanted where they were needed to build her marquisate. The rest were gifts from the Saluractasa and other Grotling tribes, who were familiar with sacrifice. It had not taken them long to realise that Tauga was an avid and capable slaver.

Few Tlaca numbered among them; they were citizens of the islands and therefore free by birth. Nor were there Xerxians. The first refugees to land here had been granted freedom by virtue of there being no one left to own them, bar Erjang, the slave master, and though Erjang had not been a gentle woman, nor had she been cruel. Though some still begrudged her name for the tattoos on their shoulders or the work-scars on their backs, the fact remained that she had held their settlement together in Tauga's absence, and had communed with the Emaciator. The beach where they landed and she was now buried was Erjang's place, now and forever. The Marquisate's budding capital had found its name.

But that was all hundreds of miles away.

Tauga nodded to the Saluracta overseer standing outside the bamboo barracks, and he nodded back, exchanging an eyeless look with the Teknarotu that would have started a fight in any other species. Tauga's tendrils slipped up the stilts and under the door of the raised structure, sensing the slaves.

Healthy. Mostly human and goblin. Mostly women and eunuchs. Mostly book-keepers and builders.

Apart from segregating the sexes to avoid trouble, for which primates had some knack, the males and warrior caste tended to keep themselves away if ever they had a choice (and giving them one was key in maintaining their obedience). Grotlings are careful breeders. Male slaves that did not meet their exacting standards for sires and were not needed for raw strength were typically castrated by Vosh, to ensure longevity and improve behaviour. Most had some aversion to this, and non-Grotling slaveowners lacking the patience to build up their female slaves were eager to capitalise on the natural strength of the men.

The arrangement suited the women. They gravitated to Grotling overseers, who themselves took no untoward interest in them, and thus spared themselves some abuse. If they were required to bear specific children for their masters, so be it; they'd be doing that for their husbands in any case, and all pain was dulled under the net of madness the overseers had cast over their minds.

All this would be easy enough if not for the urtelem.

Tauga passed the ring of stones on their way up the far side of the mountain, her Teknarotu escort performing an idle flourish with his mace as they moved. She caught the eye of a stoneman glinting through the rain as they passed, and she flexed a hand in her glove. "Peace," she said.

Urtelem are not especially enamoured of cities. These are mostly capable of defending themselves, and the pace of life is faster than most urts are keen for. There is no room for wise rocks in a hill of ambitious ants. But the villages Tauga had stolen had not been undefended.

Cracking stone was not beyond her capabilities or that of the Grotlings, but it cost her men and time. Between the projectiles they launched at her Valtanansa and the runes they invoked on her ships, they had taken a toll on her and her thorny warriors. She would bargain with them if she could, even if it meant packing them on ships and sailing them to Axotal with their precious villagers, but that would infuriate the Grotlings.

Problems.

Fortunately, these sleepers in the rain were but locals. They had no old memories of the Itzamatul folk, though perhaps they sensed that something here was not quite sane, for they kept very close. The Grotlings had no trouble picking them apart from the surrounding stone, and the urts could easily scent the trail of cold, crushing intelligence surrounding each one. Watchers and watcher-watchers.

If they kept each other at peace, thought Tauga, that would be just fine.

* * *
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The metal-bender led Tauga high up the fore-side of the mountain, facing the wind. She wondered how humans and rovaick could handle being in such conditions. Wouldn't all that awful head-fuzz soak? It did, yes, and the skin people had to be a very specific shade of warm in order to live. Hence their tendency to sweat constantly, and reek because of it. Maybe that explained why goblins ate so much, too, their bodies being so skinny.

Really, Tauga thought, it was a wonder they didn't die of hypothermia every time it rained, although, of course, some did...

"Shut up, Heartworm," she said aloud, and the distant worm filed away the details of human endothermy for a later date. The Grotling noticed, but didn't show it. After all, he, too, bore a Vosh.

"So. This is what you wanted to show me?"

The Teknarotu nodded, kneeling down before the windswept edifice. She watched the hammer-chisel emblem bounce on the hilt of his mace as he moved. A different kind of Chipper.

"And it's a kind of bloomery."

"It may be used so," he said in Grotto. Tauga had taken to speaking the Alefprian tongue by habit, such that she was always understood, whether by Tlaca, or Amestrian, or Itzamatul, or Grotling. It saved time. "You have noticed the shape of the wind."

Tauga nodded. Her tendrils flowed through the array of ceramic tubes leading into the sheltered smelting-furnace, angled at the forwards flank of the mountain such that the wind deflected by its bulk would stream directly into the pipes, into the long trench. She had to lean against it, such was its force. "This will save the arms of the bellows-pumpers, when it's season." She crouched, looking down the holes.

"That is right," said the metal-bender, "but there is a higher purpose."

Tauga tilted her head at him, then looked back. "The temperature. You could melt iron in this furnace, no problem. Maybe cast it like brass." She looked up to the top of the construction, frowned with her hands. "There's something else, though. If you tried to bloom ore in this, then that would melt too. Nothing to stop it dripping right into the coke and turning into pig metal." He was testing her, she realised. She met his gaze. Her back eyes caught something else on the slope. "What are those pots for? With the sand."

The Grotling nodded. She was on to something. "Your people have learned to work the solid metal. That is good. But you must learn to manipulate iron in its liquid state. This learning was passed down to us by our goddess Tesnald, through the words of the Wrought People, whom you call the Monks of Jaan."

"...That sand will melt in the furnace. It doesn't mix with iron." Tauga folded her knuckles, one hand over the other, squatting before the tuyeres. "You could put the metal, sand and charcoal all in the same bowl, and the sand would keep the iron free of coke and slag. It would sink to the bottom." This method was known, with copper, but had never been attempted with iron before. "That's not all, is it?" Again the Grotling nodded.

"You hesitate, o Tauranga, to melt your iron, for you fear it will mix with the charge. That way lies brittleness. Yet you lament that what you produce is soft, like cheap bronze, and not as hard as our souls." He flourished his mace. Tauga nodded. It was a curt kind of nod; she did not like being reminded of her frustration.

"Both of these troubles are caused by the presence or lack of carbon. It is not so easy to add such stuff to the solid iron, or take it away. But once melted-"

"We can mix any iron." Tauga's gaze was locked on the long furnace, looking over the pipes and crucibles with new eyes. "You could add pig metal to iron in its melting pot. If they mix smoothly, the carbon will... thin out from one to the other. Make something new. I guess-" she blinked, put her hand to her face.

"Carbide. Carbide! That's what Tesnald's weapons are, that's what the death-hammer's made of. Damn right!" Heartworm gave her that clue, and now she'd finally figured it out. "It'll be harder than iron. But it should be less brittle than pig metal. That's perfect." If it could work with adamantium, it would work with iron.

Tauga stood up, called her ophanim. "There's five weeks left of the monsoon. How much metal and coke do you need to get started? How many smiths?"

"I already have what I need," said the Chipper. Grotlings had an odd kind of modesty that came from never admitting they needed help. "Steel yourself, o Tauranga. Your era of supremacy is coming."

"Damn fucking right it is. I want fifteen straightswords. By the end of the season." No longer fearing the wind, she ran her hands over every bit of the blast furnace, checking its slag channels, its covers, its every crack. "So long as we don't end up giving the metal a stupid fucking name this time."

The Teknarotu watched as the ophanim pierced the cloud cover like dawn. "Steel yourself," he repeated.

* * *
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The depths of the world shone with light.

Intermittent flare of blue on amber, the glow was seen by none and required by fewer. The cavern burned with it, marking the passage of God.

Grotlings had splayed out of rank, Grotlings everywhere, on every crag, in every gulley, sprinting through the blood well tunnels, hunting by smell and sound and aura-sight to challenge their kinsmen to duel. Weapons gleamed, discoloured by the Change Eater, in every shape and form of slaughter imaginable.

Wyrms shot through the dark, yawning with monstrous rows of teeth. Grotlings rode them. The Blowfly rode the greatest worm of all.

Auricolor alone was enough to face eight Grotlings, in her draconic Stance of the Threefold Ferret. Her claws were myriad, her laughter constant, her teeth a shredding void of fire into dust. No tunnel was too small to contain her, no battle too large. With Tauranga at her back, she was unstoppable.

They fought for her, and with her, and against her as her enemy, split tribe against split tribe- forged themselves in her name. They were her Tauganactsa, her demons, her pirates of the pit.

Against them stood the ones who would not call them so, the ones who would defy her godhood and name them Valtanan, Saluracta and Teknarotu. They were Grotcararsa, depleted of Vosh, and Atacarzalnkelsa, shattered as their god had been, and above all, they were Cahnulansa, bone breakers, who had spited Tauranga and been spited in turn, for no true Grotto God would suffer such weakness.

So Tauranga had arranged a duel.

And they had agreed.

The Blowfly leapt from her colourful perch and landed in the stone, wielding a war-maul in one hand and a bush knife in the other. She put the bush-knife in a Cahnulan raider and beat her skull in 'til she said 'yield', and moved on rapidly to the next two warriors, awaiting her behind a corner with a falx and a bladed longbow in hand. There they would meet, and fight, 'til death or agony, for Tauganact legitimacy.

Tauranga knew they were attempting to meet her in more open terrain. She sheathed her machete and held the maul in both hands, feeling it lengthen in the dark, tapering until spiked at both ends, returning to its polehammer form. They felt the change. Good.

Sasha landed beside her, so they could have even numbers in the pit fight.

Like civilised people.

* * *


It took a long time for Heartworm to find the site.

Buried beneath kilometers of sea, covered by a siliceous layer of dust, the bones were forgotten, left to rot and then to fossilise. It would take time for the skeleton to be buried completely, but that it had in plenty. It had promised to slumber.

The pod-like shape zipped through high-pressure water with a chain of bubbles in its wake, the lines in its glass visor the only glow in an ocean utterly dark. So much for Toun's 'white' sea. Beneath the skin, all depths are black.

It landed its arms on a titanic rib and went further.

There. In the chest of the giant Grot, the sparse remains of something too arachnid to be human, too twisted to be spider.

Główna Vosh.

Heartworm settled on it. The shattered skull was as large as its entire pod, but that didn't matter. Between these ribs, they were equally small.

It took a deep-bone sample. The nucleic acids were almost irretrievably eroded, but that could be repaired. The soul, of course, was nowhere to be seen.

Shuvra stood in the silence.

Soon I too will die.

All things led the same way in the end. That was Fate; Lazarus was right. Chiral Phi was right.

A spectral worm had drilled a hole in the Prime Grot's rib, long since empty and forgotten.

Is it the fate of we worms to pass quickly out of mind?

The Główny gave no answer.

Our time was too short, said Shuvra. I will do what I can.

No answer.

Maybe this time, the worms will have something to remember.

Heartworm turned away, and departed to the surface, a very small light in a very large abyss.

Behind it was only darkness.
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Tauga applied the thin knife one more time to the haft of the polehammer, then again to the tip of her tongue. It drew blood. She smeared it over the head.

"Atacartes racta, taka linsa gg Tauga hai," she recited, gripping the point. It shuddered in her hand. She forced it to be still. A part of that shudder carried into her, replacing in her an unnameable part of herself just as the force of her grip replaced a part of the steel.

She stood, once more hefting its weight. It balanced perfectly in her hand. It always had, but only at her volition. Now she seemed unable to lose her grip on it. She swung the sacred weapon and leveled a crystal sprouting eight feet away. Its shards clattered on the cavern floor.

She picked one up and pitched it at the roof, examining the wyrm tunnel's outer wall by its light. In some other places, and here, the dark labyrinth penetrated the natural caves of Vakarlon, and did not stop for them. A sufferer in the tunnels could wander straight through a mighty chasm the size of a mountain and never know there was anything beyond the sickly walls but solid rock.

Tauga tapped the hammer on the stone. She listened to the echo. There was no wear on the haft of the executor at all. She knew that, even though she hadn't checked.

"This will make them respect me."

"False. It will only familiarise you. Tauga must rely on her own-"

"Yeah, I know," she said, stepping towards the tunnel. "I wasn't asking." She spun the hammer above her head without thinking and demolished a crystal with each end. Quartz as old as time and thrice as tough shattered like sugar at her strength. "This is what I meant. Run me through that one more time."

"Throughout their lives, Grotlings accumulate prestige through warcraft. Military success is the measure of worth. Elder veterans are revered. Gods considered spirits of strength. Perpetual campaign provides means of development towards utopia. Grotlings wish to achieve supremacy so as to advance all subservient races."

"Perfect." She turned to the waiting worm. "And what do you intend to play?"

"Heartworm plays the role of Vosh. Internal operator culture is underdeveloped. They will follow a superior."

"Alright. And I've gotta introduce myself as Tauranga. Right?"

"Tauga's birth name is guttural. Phonetically appropriate."

"And you?"

Heartworm made a sound.

"...Prshv... Pzhuvra?" Tauga raised an open hand. "Nobody with a tongue's going to pronounce that, Heartworm."

"They don't have to," the worm replied.




Birth of the Marquisate
Part II: Subjugation


Tauga's boots smashed weeds as they furled and snapped at her form. The Venomweald sensed her from miles away, her presence vast and visible to the flora. They were not fooled by the transparency of her tongues. A god walked here.

Tauga felt something coming through her tendrils, swept them aside that it might pass undisturbed. Beyond, she could feel the workings of slaves mashing the pith of trees for their meal, held by nothing but the knowledge that they would be caught if they tried to run. She looked up. Through the goggles of her mask, she could clearly see the vast wings of the Valtanansa beating as they trailed their pod of dirigible cloudwhales above. They moved like the wings of an angel's marionette, Grotling muscle hooked onto a pair of Vosh limbs, pulling the boneless wings in a manner not unlike that of a certain demigod's ornithopter. Mechanical. Tireless.

Somewhere up there, the Grotlings had built their whaleback outposts. Tauga stood still and let the one in the jungle find her.

A metal thorn whipped downwards onto the back of her skull. She caught it one-handed. It had fallen into the exact line of a hain's cranial blind spot. Admirable.

Tauga had intended to toss back the spearhead, but something about it shook her hand when she tried, so she let it fall. It was pulled back sharply on a long rope. The Grotling emerged.

"...Where are your wings?"

The lithe monstrosity drew four knives in four hands and leapt for Tauga, screeching unutterable hells under her crest. Tauga parried with the back of her gloves and leapt five times her body height to smack the Grotling in the skull.

"Don't," she said. "Good moves, but."

The Grotling backed off a touch and flicked the rope spear. It coiled like a live thing and Tauga retreated, blurring to avoid its catch. A welt had risen on the warrior's face. Tauga let her tendrils settle back on the Grotling. It backed off, slightly. Adjusted its guard.

She can sense them, Heartworm reminded.

"Right." She beckoned to the warrior. "I'm not gonna get caught out by you. What's your name?"

"Eggshells get broken here," said the Grotling, or something like that, in Grotto. "Make a good slave or a sad corpse."

With two quick motions, Tauga drew her sidearm, a rear-toothed Grotling blade. It cut through a flower as it moved, and she felt her foe tense. She beckoned again. The Grotling laughed.

"I didn't fucking think so." She pointed the blade at the gap in the trees. "Why aren't you with them?"

"I catch slaves," said the Grotling.

"You're doing shit job of it," said Tauga, and parried half a dozen blows with one hand. "You're not an Overseer. Who are you?"

"Sasha will bring the aberration to heel." The grammar was such that Tauga was the one being introduced, and Sasha's name was only dropped in passing. Clever. Respectful, in a threatening way.

"No," said Tauga, and launched a brisk offensive. It was a short skirmish, and a violent one, and at the end of it Tauga sat perched on a branch at head height with four knives on the ground and a rope spear caught dangerously fast on the teeth of her blade. A variety of fresh wounds had opened around Sasha's hands and thighs. She could see a Vosh knitting together the edges of its host body's wounds, draining fat reserves as it moved. She started to see how fascinating the process really was.

Sasha raised her fists, bleeding. "You are Jukfonite."

"Not a monk," she said. That was all the word meant in Grotto; they had no concept of Jvan. "Think bigger."

Sasha snarled. "Demon."

"Almost," she said. "I won't waste your time. Watch." Heartworm emerged from her suit by its limbs, took apart her cranium and brain, arranged them in two ways, and repaired her in an instant. Sasha paused. To her, it was bizarre, impressive. To her Vosh, who knew the ways of flesh, could understand the action's true complexity, there was one explanation only.

"Voshbolo," said Tauga. Vosh carrier. And the Vosh in question-

"Valun eppkel as."

"No one sent me. I came down because I wanted to."

Grotlings are not especially partial to using gestures of the head to indicate attention. The lack of eyes accounts for that. Tauga was not yet attuned to the subtler gestures of latter Grotkind, and when her hand rose to point to the ophanim that flew above, she knew not that Sasha was already listening to them.

"Those aren't the weapons of people who die. They're soul weapons. Mine." She flicked her fingers and the colony changed shape, confounding the Valtanansa sent to investigate it and nearly bisecting at least one. She moved them again and they returned to previous orbits. "I've seen Tek-" Heartworm's limb flicked through her tongue, changing the syllable- "Tesnald take the form of a hain. I take after her. Do you know why?"

Sasha made a facial gesture, a slight lowering of the head.

"Thought so. Say it."

"Tesnald te un ghorrinaal."

"And his name is Karn." Tauga exhaled. The hardest part was over. Yes, Tesnald had a husband. And Tauranga was their son. The lie was told, and in the telling it had become truth; just like Tauga's godhood, her ancestry was created by her myth. The Blowfly lived.

"You have seven gods. I'm the eighth. I'm the Vosh-carrier, the one who tests. I own ten thousand slaves." She looked up. Heartworm gave her no cues. She recited. She learned. "You have seven gods. The Prime is dead. The Writhe never left. My mother was the first to do so. I'm the one who came back." She looked down, slightly, to the towering slaver. "My name is Tauranga, son of Mason. My weapons crush armies."

"...Where are your thorns?"

"They'll grow in."

The Grotling looked down upon her, the one who had worn the shape of the weak-shelled and beaten her with it, and then slowly took a knee. Tauga nodded. Some words were spoken.

"Tell them everything you've heard," she replied. "Or don't. I don't care. I'll be saying it again and again ten times just to make them hear."

More words.

"Because I need a tribe," she said, and leapt into the sky.

* * *


Tauga leapt further, up on the threads of her tendrils, a dark bullet piercing the dark canopy.

She shattered the branch in her way with no more than a thought and an extended hand. As she tossed away the splinters, the Valtanansa saw her, and the foremost of the great-winged pirates dove to meet her. She brandished her bush-knife. The slingstone shot past her by some short inches, and she realised she'd have to close.

Riding the swing of an ophan around the colonial epicentre, Tauga flipped the machete back-hand and launched into the Valtanan, the Grotling immediately diving to do the same. The thorns on its first did nothing to slow the advance of the godling; her control of trajectory was greater, as was her speed. She rushed past with blood on her blade as the Vosh amputated what was left if its fist.

More slingstones fell, but Tauga had no intention of waiting around.

The rift in space spat, and Tauga's polehammer appeared in her hand. She'd done this so many times. The Grotlings could only move so fast, and Tauga's Vosh knew vents in the suit from which it could extend its limbs as it rose. The slingstones broke its fragile arms as one by one they were batted away.

Without disturbing the ophanim from their orbits, Tauga ripped through the Valtanan ranks, striking one by one the faceless entities in the language they understood.

She levelled her altitude on the top of a Bludgeon, let her feet settle upon it. The wounded Valtanansa fell spiralling to glide down and land amidst the trees. From afar, their reinforcement came.

Even a hollow-boned Grotling is too large to ride the mottled skyray. But they have loyal slaves.

With a single movement, an ophan departed from its orbit, and cut them both in half. The watchers on the dirigible cloudwhale grew still. Tauga flicked herself up with another ophan, extended her wingsuit and soared easily onto the cloudwhale.

She landed at the dead center of their arena. She looked around. Grotlings looked back at her. She beckoned to all of them, turning, one by one.

"...That's what I thought."

* * *


Tauga's feet stepped not without caution as they ascended the steps of the Rhyolite Temple. A schism of late had begun to send cracks through the accord of the elements, and the Monsoon roared above the mighty mountain, a display of power a little sharper, perhaps, than was their respectful due. It was nothing- just a wild wind, in the season therefor- but Tauga knew men, and Djinni behaved like men. The four elements had chosen leaders. The fault lines were there.

Nothing to her, of course, at least yet. Not in the shadow of the tetchy balance she had found with the mountain gods, and strove hard to preserve. She summited the Rhyolite Temple with the Teknarotu in tow, a laden sack of gifts upon her back. The metal-bender could carry hers, easily, in addition to his own, but it was humble and appropriate to bear one's own.

Tauga offered a fine copper goblet, and two jars of toaka gasy, hard rum. To this she added a sawshark skull, and some incense, and said prayers of penitence as they were subsumed into the stone, eternal magma bubbling as the volcano willed it. She had never been the type to pray, at least not 'til she was sick, but she prayed now- for peace, mostly, and the forgiveness of a crime against the mountains.

Then the two of them left, down through the valley between Ihuian's mountains.

Here the slaves were kept, or at least most of them that weren't settled on Axotal. They were Amestrians, many, of cities Tauga and the Alefprians had... Liberated. New warlords would rise to replace those petty lords they had toppled, but Tauga had made off with a substantial number of second-hand slaves and captured soldiers.

Others were from Itzamatul, which Tauga had been raiding of late, whole villages taken from that war-torn island and transplanted where they were needed to build her marquisate. The rest were gifts from the Saluractasa and other Grotling tribes, who were familiar with sacrifice. It had not taken them long to realise that Tauga was an avid and capable slaver.

Few Tlaca numbered among them; they were citizens of the islands and therefore free by birth. Nor were there Xerxians. The first refugees to land here had been granted freedom by virtue of there being no one left to own them, bar Erjang, the slave master, and though Erjang had not been a gentle woman, nor had she been cruel. Though some still begrudged her name for the tattoos on their shoulders or the work-scars on their backs, the fact remained that she had held their settlement together in Tauga's absence, and had communed with the Emaciator. The beach where they landed and she was now buried was Erjang's place, now and forever. The Marquisate's budding capital had found its name.

But that was all hundreds of miles away.

Tauga nodded to the Saluracta overseer standing outside the bamboo barracks, and he nodded back, exchanging an eyeless look with the Teknarotu that would have started a fight in any other species. Tauga's tendrils slipped up the stilts and under the door of the raised structure, sensing the slaves.

Healthy. Mostly human and goblin. Mostly women and eunuchs. Mostly book-keepers and builders.

Apart from segregating the sexes to avoid trouble, for which primates had some knack, the males and warrior caste tended to keep themselves away if ever they had a choice (and giving them one was key in maintaining their obedience). Grotlings are careful breeders. Male slaves that did not meet their exacting standards for sires and were not needed for raw strength were typically castrated by Vosh, to ensure longevity and improve behaviour. Most had some aversion to this, and non-Grotling slaveowners lacking the patience to build up their female slaves were eager to capitalise on the natural strength of the men.

The arrangement suited the women. They gravitated to Grotling overseers, who themselves took no untoward interest in them, and thus spared themselves some abuse. If they were required to bear specific children for their masters, so be it; they'd be doing that for their husbands in any case, and all pain was dulled under the net of madness the overseers had cast over their minds.

All this would be easy enough if not for the urtelem.

Tauga passed the ring of stones on their way up the far side of the mountain, her Teknarotu escort performing an idle flourish with his mace as they moved. She caught the eye of a stoneman glinting through the rain as they passed, and she flexed a hand in her glove. "Peace," she said.

Urtelem are not especially enamoured of cities. These are mostly capable of defending themselves, and the pace of life is faster than most urts are keen for. There is no room for wise rocks in a hill of ambitious ants. But the villages Tauga had stolen had not been undefended.

Cracking stone was not beyond her capabilities or that of the Grotlings, much less her sparse handful of Cosmic Knights but it cost her men and time. Between the projectiles they launched at her Valtanansa and the runes they invoked on her ships, they had taken a toll on her and her thorny warriors. She would bargain with them if she could, even if it meant packing them on ships and sailing them to Axotal with their precious villagers, but that would infuriate the Grotlings.

Problems.

Fortunately, these sleepers in the rain were but locals. They had no old memories of the Itzamatul folk, though perhaps they sensed that something here was not quite sane, for they kept very close. The Grotlings had no trouble picking them apart from the surrounding stone, and the urts could easily scent the trail of cold, crushing intelligence surrounding each one. Watchers and watcher-watchers.

If they kept each other at peace, thought Tauga, that would be just fine.

* * *


The metal-bender led Tauga high up the fore-side of the mountain, facing the wind. She wondered how humans and rovaick could handle being in such conditions. Wouldn't all that awful head-fuzz soak? It did, yes, and the skin people had to be a very specific shade of warm in order to live. Hence their tendency to sweat constantly, and reek because of it. Maybe that explained why goblins ate so much, too, their bodies being so skinny.

Really, Tauga thought, it was a wonder they didn't die of hypothermia every time it rained, although, of course, some did...

"Shut up, Heartworm," she said aloud, and the distant worm filed away the details of human endothermy for a later date. The Grotling noticed, but didn't show it. After all, he, too, bore a Vosh.

"So. This is what you wanted to show me?"

The Teknarotu nodded, kneeling down before the windswept edifice. She watched the hammer-chisel emblem bounce on the hilt of his mace as he moved. A different kind of Chipper.

"And it's a kind of bloomery."

"It may be used so," he said in Grotto. Tauga had taken to speaking the Alefprian tongue by habit, such that she was always understood, whether by Tlaca, or Amestrian, or Itzamatul, or Grotling. It saved time. "You have noticed the shape of the wind."

Tauga nodded. Her tendrils flowed through the array of ceramic tubes leading into the sheltered smelting-furnace, angled at the forwards flank of the mountain such that the wind deflected by its bulk would stream directly into the pipes, into the long trench. She had to lean against it, such was its force. "This will save the arms of the bellows-pumpers, when it's season." She crouched, looking down the holes.

"That is right," said the metal-bender, "but there is a higher purpose."

Tauga tilted her head at him, then looked back. "The temperature. You could melt iron in this furnace, no problem. Maybe cast it like brass." She looked up to the top of the construction, frowned with her hands. "There's something else, though. If you tried to bloom ore in this, then that would melt too. Nothing to stop it dripping right into the coke and turning into pig metal." He was testing her, she realised. She met his gaze. Her back eyes caught something else on the slope. "What are those pots for? With the sand."

The Grotling nodded. She was on to something. "Your people have learned to work the solid metal. That is good. But you must learn to manipulate iron in its liquid state. This learning was passed down to us by our goddess Tesnald, through the words of the Wrought People, whom you call the Monks of Jaan."

"...That sand will melt in the furnace. It doesn't mix with iron." Tauga folded her knuckles, one hand over the other, squatting before the tuyeres. "You could put the metal, sand and charcoal all in the same bowl, and the sand would keep the iron free of coke and slag. It would sink to the bottom." This method was known, with copper, but had never been attempted with iron before. "That's not all, is it?" Again the Grotling nodded.

"You hesitate, o Tauranga, to melt your iron, for you fear it will mix with the charge. That way lies brittleness. Yet you lament that what you produce is soft, like cheap bronze, and not as hard as our souls." He flourished his mace. Tauga nodded. It was a curt kind of nod; she did not like being reminded of her frustration.

"Both of these troubles are caused by the presence or lack of carbon. It is not so easy to add such stuff to the solid iron, or take it away. But once melted-"

"We can mix any iron." Tauga's gaze was locked on the long furnace, looking over the pipes and crucibles with new eyes. "You could add pig metal to iron in its melting pot. If they mix smoothly, the carbon will... thin out from one to the other. Make something new. I guess-" she blinked, put her hand to her face.

"Carbide. Carbide! That's what Tesnald's weapons are, that's what the death-hammer's made of. Damn right!" Heartworm gave her that clue, and now she'd finally figured it out. "It'll be harder than iron. But it should be less brittle than pig metal. That's perfect." If it could work with adamantium, it would work with iron.

Tauga stood up, called her ophanim. "There's five weeks left of the monsoon. How much metal and coke do you need to get started? How many smiths?"

"I already have what I need," said the Chipper. Grotlings had an odd kind of modesty that came from never admitting they needed help. "Steel yourself, o Tauranga. Your era of supremacy is coming."

"Damn fucking right it is. I want fifteen straightswords. By the end of the season." No longer fearing the wind, she ran her hands over every bit of the blast furnace, checking its slag channels, its covers, its every crack. "So long as we don't end up giving the metal a stupid fucking name this time."

The Teknarotu watched as the ophanim pierced the cloud cover like dawn. "Steel yourself," he repeated.

* * *


Error is the mechanism by which truth is pruned from assumption.

The words echoed in vibrational speech through the body of a whale, beached by sea serpents and left alive in the shallow water. Heartworm's tongues extended like spiderlimbs hair-thin through it all. From tongue to tail-tip.

Unseeing, we strive at the borders of what we know.

A warband of Grotcarar and other tribesfolk stood guard uneasily waist-deep in the lagoon, some perched on the whale or treading water. Without Vosh, every instinct within them cried of loneliness and danger.

Sometimes we break through.

Some sixty Vosh riddled the inside of the whale. They followed Heartworm's lead, mending wounds it had made, studying twists of sinew it had implanted, conversing in a way none had had the opportunity to converse before: in a crowd.

When the next words came, they listened to the lesson.

Thought is mobile.

When Tauranga came to the Grotcarar, they were divided. Some said that they needed no God, and no living God could impress herself upon them. Most agreed. Power would not sway them. They were already sworn to a cause.

Their Vosh did not see things that way.

Imagination extrapolates the known.

The original Grot carried the original Vosh. When the Many Eyed Emperor slew both from the inside, their spirits escaped, intertwined, to soar forevermore in the hearts of their children. So went the story.

But Vosh are born in darkness. The myth of surface-dwellers has no bearing on the world they inhabit. To them, there was only one god, the Prime Vosh. Their ancient memory of Angelblood Ridge was unrecognisable to any other folk. It was a gruesome one.

They'd lost their only god.

And now they'd found another.

The limits of art dictate the limits of science.

Parasites or symbiotes? The latter, by all measure, but when Grotling will collided with that of their Vosh, they all too rapidly became the former. Vosh did not make many demands, but the ones they had they were well capable of enforcing.

The Emaciator offered them knowledge. The Emaciator offered them freedom. The Emaciator numbered them and listened to their voice, where no one else had. So they listened to the Emaciator. They learned its story. Its story resembled their own.

Power is the product of beauty.

The Vosh of the Grotcarar followed the one they named Prʐywra, in their own tongue, and where the fearful and the stubborn would not follow in turn, they were left behind.

And the people of Erjang whispered of the hidden god who had called the spiders to its fold and taught them of the dark things, the secret ways of Arkenflesh and schools of blood, and whom they knew only as SHUVRA, for their mouths were insufficient to form the true words.

* * *


The depths of the world shone with light.

Intermittent flare of blue on amber, the glow was seen by none and required by fewer. The cavern burned with it, marking the passage of God.

Grotlings had splayed out of rank, Grotlings everywhere, on every crag, in every gulley, sprinting through the blood well tunnels, hunting by smell and sound and aura-sight to challenge their kinsmen to duel. Weapons gleamed, discoloured by the Change Eater, in every shape and form of slaughter imaginable.

Wyrms shot through the dark, yawning with monstrous rows of teeth. Grotlings rode them. The Blowfly rode the greatest worm of all.

Auricolor alone was enough to face eight Grotlings, in her draconic Stance of the Threefold Ferret. Her claws were myriad, her laughter constant, her teeth a shredding void of fire into dust. No tunnel was too small to contain her, no battle too large. With Tauranga at her back, she was unstoppable.

They fought for her, and with her, and against her as her enemy, split tribe against split tribe- forged themselves in her name. They were her Tauganactsa, her demons, her pirates of the pit.

Against them stood the ones who would not call them so, the ones who would defy her godhood and name them Valtanan, Saluracta and Teknarotu. They were Grotcararsa, depleted of Vosh, and Atacarzalnkelsa, shattered as their god had been, and above all, they were Cahnulansa, bone breakers, who had spited Tauranga and been spited in turn, for no true Grotto God would suffer such weakness.

So Tauranga had arranged a duel.

And they had agreed.

The Blowfly leapt from her colourful perch and landed in the stone, wielding a war-maul in one hand and a bush knife in the other. She put the bush-knife in a Cahnulan raider and beat her skull in 'til she said 'yield', and moved on rapidly to the next two warriors, awaiting her behind a corner with a falx and a bladed longbow in hand. There they would meet, and fight, 'til death or agony, for Tauganact legitimacy.

Tauranga knew they were attempting to meet her in more open terrain. She sheathed her machete and held the maul in both hands, feeling it lengthen in the dark, tapering until spiked at both ends, returning to its polehammer form. They felt the change. Good.

Sasha landed beside her, so they could have even numbers in the pit fight.

Like civilised people.

* * *


It took a long time for Heartworm to find the site.

Buried beneath kilometers of sea, covered by a siliceous layer of dust, the bones were forgotten, left to rot and then to fossilise. It would take time for the skeleton to be buried completely, but that it had in plenty. It had promised to slumber.

The pod-like shape zipped through high-pressure water with a chain of bubbles in its wake, the lines in its glass visor the only glow in an ocean utterly dark. So much for Toun's 'white' sea. Beneath the skin, all depths are black.

It landed its arms on a titanic rib and went further.

There. In the chest of the giant Grot, the sparse remains of something too arachnid to be human, too twisted to be spider.

Główna Vosh.

Heartworm settled on it. The shattered skull was as large as its entire pod, but that didn't matter. Between these ribs, they were equally small.

It took a deep-bone sample. The nucleic acids were almost irretrievably eroded, but that could be repaired. The soul, of course, was nowhere to be seen.

Shuvra stood in the silence.

Soon I too will die.

All things led the same way in the end. That was Fate; Lazarus was right. Chiral Phi was right.

A spectral worm had drilled a hole in the Prime Grot's rib, long since empty and forgotten.

Is it the fate of we worms to pass quickly out of mind?

The Główny gave no answer.

Our time was too short, said Shuvra. I will do what I can.

No answer.

Maybe this time, the worms will have something to remember.

Heartworm turned away, and departed to the surface, a very small light in a very large abyss.

Behind it was only darkness.


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