Hidden 1 yr ago Post by BBeast
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BBeast Scientific

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Squall Whisperers, Minstrels, Wind Blades


A narrow band of cloud hung low in the sky over the inland border of Hyummin and stretched out to touch the sea. The sound of music wafted around it and rain fell heavily on the land. Pyouroff, Kirrethi, Joluri and the K'night they had spoken to earlier walked around the working Stormbards and inspected the sodden mud.

"I've got to hand it to you, Pyouroff, this barrier of mud will be a substantial advantage," Kirrethi said, "It will stop not just the rock monster but also the Eaters, such that our bowmen, slingers and spear throwers can attack them with impunity."

"Thank you, Kirrethi," Pyouroff said.

"Of course, we have to make sure they actually go through the mud," Kirrethi said. He looked past the wall of rain to the forest beyond where some selka were hacking away at leaves and undergrowth and stacking them in piles. "We hope to be able to funnel them in, although we must also be prepared for if they slip around and flank us. You'll give our fire-starters favourable wind to minimise those odds."

"Squalls don't like fire, but we'll do what we can," Pyouroff said.

The K'night walked towards the mud and stuck a foot in it. He hefted and swung his new weapon into the mud. The weapon had a long handle made from a sturdy tree branch, giving it plenty of reach. At its end was fastened a heavy rock which tapered to a chisel-like point, which embedded itself into the mud with a squelch. The K'night raised his weapon again with a grunt. "Trapping the thing in the mud won't help much if the mud stops us from fighting it too."

"Once it stops raining we'll plant down some grass mats which should give us a bit more grip but be of no help to something as heavy as it," Joluri said. The K'night grunted, unconvinced.

"You'll also have the squalls. In the slippery mud it should have a harder time keeping its balance than on dry land," Pyouroff added.

"I hope you're right," the K'night said.

Joluri looked over the works once more. "Tomorrow's the day," she said. She turned to Pyouroff. "Any idea when tomorrow?"

Pyouroff shook his head. Joluri sighed. "Then we'd better be ready for them to arrive any time. I'll make sure we have people on watch tonight, although pray they do not attack under cover of darkness." Joluri walked off.

Kirrethi looked up at the sky. "Come Pyouroff and Gorban," he said, addressing the K'night, "There's still plenty of daylight left for drills. There won't be time for practice tomorrow." The three selka walked away from the mud and back towards the village.



It was a long and anxious night. Every movement in the plants set the watcher on edge, yet nothing came.

The Stormbards, soldiers and K'nights were roused at sunrise. Antoru had stayed awake, softly playing her lyre throughout the night to keep several squalls nearby. When the others awoke she handed the squalls over to them and went to rest, for with her injury she would not be able to join them in battle.

The soldiers took up watches, tended to their weapons and checked the ropes. The K'nights of Tyuppa meditated over their clubs and talked of victories past. The Stormbards checked on the mud and rained some more water into it. As the hours stretched on, though, the people settled into restless anxiousness.

Pyouroff saw this and called together some of the bards. A little while later, a song rose up in the village.

"Rise up soldiers, where's your heart?
The battle is yet to start.
Be brave, there's nothing to fear,
For our gods are with us here.

"Monsters we have faced before,
Beasts, raiders, armies and more.
All those battles we have won,
To these foes the same'll be done.

"Kirron's heart beats in our chests,
Our foes will end second best.
Be brave, there's nothing to fear,
For our gods are with us here.

"Delphina's storms blow all round,
She'll drive our foes to the ground.
Be brave, there's nothing to fear,
For our gods are with us here.

"Rise up soldiers, where's your heart?
The battle is yet to start.
Be brave, there's nothing to fear,
For our gods are with us here."

The song had roused the attention of the village. The K'nights looked towards the Stormbards and picked up the chant.

"Be brave, there's nothing to fear,
For our gods are with us here."

Some of the soldiers picked up on the chant as well.

"Be brave, there's nothing to fear,
For our gods are with us here."

Soon all the soldiers were repeating the chant and even some of the villagers.

"Be brave, there's nothing to fear,
For our gods are with us here!"

The chant roared through the Hyummin and their spirits soared. Even the squalls rallied to the chant and thundered in affirmation. Eventually the chant died down and people returned to their duties, yet where there was fear before there was now courage and determination.

All was quiet until evening. The watch had lasted so long that some of the selka were starting to express doubt. "Perhaps they are not coming."

"Delphina would not lie to us. Stay alert," Pyouroff retorted.

Then, in the shadows of dusk, a distant crash, as though a tree had fallen, and faint beastly snarls. Murmurs rose through the selka until Kirrethi barked, "They're coming! Positions!"

The soldiers were well-disciplined, quickly forming ranks of shields, spears, slings and bows. The K'nights stood between the ranks with their new stone-cracking heavy clubs. Pyouroff walked over to a log drum, raised his sticks and beat out a rhythm. The low thumps of the drum carried across the assembled selka. Each of the Stormbards took up their instruments and reined in their squalls. And they started a chant among the soldiers.

"We are strong, we won't fear,
For our gods are with us here!
We are strong, we won't fear,
For our gods are with us here!"

The snarls came closer and some selka could see shadows moving in the forest. The chant drove on.

"We are strong, we won't fear,
For our gods are with us here!"

In the shadows appeared two pairs of glowing red eyes. Moments later there was a swarm of the terrifying eyes. Yet there was no room for terror in the midst of the chant.

"We are strong, we won't fear,
For our gods are with us here!"

The monsters broke through the tree line at a ravenous sprint. Kirrethi's command cut through the ranks. "Volley!" Arrows and sling stones arced through the air towards the Reaper Spawn. Some missed their mark in the darkness. Some bounced off the Spawn. A couple of the Eaters stumbled, but none fell. Nevertheless, the chant persisted.

"We are strong, we won't fear,
For our gods are with us here!"

"Keep loosing!" barked Kirrethi. The arrows and stones continued to fly. One Eater collapsed when a stone struck its knee. Then looming out from the trees came the Ihokhur, its heavy steps landing with reverberating thuds and its one eye glowing a sinister red. The Ihokhur was barrelling forwards in a full charge with long strides. Some of the weaker-willed soldiers cowered at the sight, but the K'nights bellowed out the chant even harder.

"We are strong, we won't fear,
For our gods are with us here!"

The foremost of the Reaper Spawn reached the waterlogged ground and their charge was slowed as they were forced to wade through mud. The Ihokhur planted one foot in the mud which sunk deep and its momentum carried it forwards while its foot was pinned to the ground. The towering beast of stone crashed headlong into the mud with a splash. A cheer rose from the selka.

"We are strong, we won't fear,
For our gods are with us here!"

K'nights rushed towards the Ihokhur. Another volley of arrows and sling stones flew over their heads and struck the Spawn who were wallowing in the mud, who were easier targets now that they were slowed. With a crescendo of music a pair of squalls blew along both sides of the Ihokhur, picking up a few of the Reaper Spawn and sending them tumbling backwards. Meanwhile Yup's musical bow twanged through the din and brought down fog upon the Ihokhur.

A long stone arm reached out past the mud to grip dry land. The Ihokhur started to lift itself, but Gorban the K'night dropped his weapon heavily on the monster's hand which fractured and split. There was a soundless screech of pain felt in everyone's souls as the Ihokhur crashed back into the mud.

Two more K'nights ran forwards, making their way across the grass mats over the mud leading to the Ihokhur. Yet through the fog wreathing the Ihokhur's head shined a red light which stared directly at one of the K'nights. The Ihokhur's other arm swung down from above at one of the K'nights who dived aside. The Ihokhur then rolled onto one side to prop itself up with one arm and lashed out with the other arm at the other K'night. There was a grisly crunch and a scream of pain as the heavy stone hand closed around the K'night's shoulder. The Ihokhur then lifted the K'night and brought him down on the other K'night, who managed to roll out of the way and scramble out of the mud at the last moment but had dropped his weapon.

The Ihokhur pressed down with the arm holding the K'night, crushing the hapless selka and lifting itself up. There were gasps from the watching selka and a couple of the Stormbards even faltered in their tunes, although Pyouroff's booming rhythm was able to keep the squalls in check. Yup pitched up with his musical bow and the squall wreathed around the Ihokhur's head spun tighter. In harmony with a flute and horn beside Yup two more squalls descended and all three Stormbards commanded their squalls to slam the Ihokhur back into the mud.

"I don't think the fog's working," Pyouroff shouted across to Yup.

"We have other problems," Kirrethi said, then bellowed, "Eaters on our flanks!"

After the first lines of Reaper Spawn had gotten stuck in the mud, the rest had circumnavigated the mud. Archers and slingers launched their projectiles at the Spawn while the other soldiers scrambled to cover the exposed flank. Two archers took flaming arrows and shot at the piles of grass, lighting them on fire, which delayed a few of the Reapers as they went around this new hazard. The music of the Stormbards made a sharp crescendo and several squalls met the charging Reapers, lifting a few of them into the air and throwing them. Those Spawn landed with a few thuds and did not get back up.

The Reaper Spawn then clashed with the line of spears and shields. A few were impaled against the spears. The rest clawed against the shields, a couple of selka toppling backwards and getting mauled by the Reapers. Squalls blew around the melee, slamming into the monsters and throwing them away.

Meanwhile the K'nights and a few brave soldiers were dealing with the Ihokhur. While the Ihokhur wallowed in the mud nets were thrown over its spiked limbs and a lasso thrown over its neck. It pawed at the nets clinging to its spikes as it rose to its feet. It pulled one off with ease, but as it was going for the next Gorban rushed up and drove his pick into the side of the Ihokhur's leg.

The Ihokhur turned in a fury towards Gorban but it was thrown off balance when a team of selka pulled on the lasso around its neck, causing its fist to swing wide. Gorban exploited the Ihokhur's imbalance by swinging his pick at the Ihokhur's arm, creating more fractures in the stone. The Ihokhur swung back and Gorban was just slow enough in dodging that some of the spikes caught him, knocking him down and gashing his flesh. The Ihokhur's attention was pulled away from Gorban as the team of selka continued to pull on the rope. With no firm foundation the Ihokhur was unsteadied by the pulling. The Ihokhur half walked and half crawled forwards. Another K'night moved in to strike its outstretched hand, but the Ihokhur withdrew the hand before the pick fell. The K'night retreated back out of reach as the Ihokhur set foot on dry land.

"Rock monster is out of the mud!" announced Kirrethi.

"We can flank it now," grumbled Gorban as he dragged himself out of the mud with his weapon.

Meanwhile the number of Reaper Spawn was dwindling. The Stormbards' training was being used to devastating effect, flinging Reapers away like rag dolls. A few Stormbards danced and sung behind the line being held by the soldiers, their proximity affording them greater precision in striking out against the Reapers. The soldiers suffered heavy casualties in the fighting, for the Reaper Spawn were ferocious and hardy enemies. When a soldier was knocked down and wounded, a squall would blow the Reaper away and another selka would drag the wounded away. Yet despite the challenges, more than a few spears and arrows found their mark.

Now that the Ihokhur was past the mud, though, the Stormbards needed to split their efforts. Some continued to strike against the Reaper Spawn, trying to finish off those who remained, while others turned their attention to the Ihokhur. Numerous soldiers also shifted roles from bombarding the Reapers to harrying the Ihokhur, running to pick up ropes.

The Ihokhur charged towards the selka who had been pulling the rope around its neck. They dropped the rope and scattered sideways. Some more selka ran towards the Ihokhur, carrying a long rope between them stretched out to trip the Ihokhur as they ran past. One of its feet stepped over the rope but the other one got caught. The Ihokhur did not fall or stumble, although its charge was slowed as its foot dragged against the weight of several selka. They ran behind the Ihokhur and crossed each other, tying the rope into a loop around its leg, and they continued to circle to tighten the rope.

The Ihokhur reached down with one hand and pulled at one end of the rope, dragging selka along until they let go. But while it was not looking a K'night ran up from the other side and swung a pick into its leg. The Ihokhur roared silently and swiftly swatted an arm at the source of its injury, striking the pick and splintering the handle of the weapon.

At this moment a flurry of squalls buffeted the Ihokhur, trying to take advantage of its damaged leg. But the Ihokhur was not easily toppled. The Ihokhur stretched out its arms to balance itself, and a few selka rushed in to attempt to lasso them. One lasso made it over its wrist, caught on a spike and tightened itself, but the Ihokhur pulled hard on the rope, dragging the selka up close. The Ihokhur then reached down, grabbed the selka, crushing bones and organs, and picked it up.

The Ihokhur inspected its surroundings. There were two K'nights with pickaxes remaining, who were standing on opposite sides of itself. There was a tugging at its leg as the rope continued to tighten. The wind whipped around it and selka scurried in circles. The Ihokhur considered its position for a moment. It then hurled the body it was holding at Gorban to its left and charged towards the K'night on its right.

The K'night stood his ground and raised his weapon. The wind blew past the Ihokhur and the rope around its neck whipped outwards where a selka was able to catch it. More selka joined that one in holding the rope and moments before the Ihokhur reached the K'night that team of selka pulled the Ihokhur one direction, aided by the blowing squalls, while the team of selka with the rope around the Ihokhur's foot pulled in the opposite direction. The Ihokhur stumbled and the K'night side-stepped around the Ihokhur and struck its flank. Gorban caught up to the Ihokhur and struck it from behind. The blows sent more cracks through the Ihokhur's legs. Meanwhile a very localised rain cloud formed above the Ihokhur's head.

The Ihokhur turned to face its attackers, ropes hampering its movements, and swung out with an arm. The K'night sidestepped and struck the arm with his pick. The K'night hastily withdrew as the Ihokhur twisted further to attempt to strike the K'night. Gorban struck the Ihokhur from behind again, prompting the Ihokhur to turn further and lash out with its arm. Gorban had already moved, but a lasso was waiting and snagged the Ihokhur's arm.

Having twisted around so much, the Ihokhur had become somewhat entangled. To compound its issues the Stormbards had drenched the ground on which the Ihokhur was standing, turning it into slippery mud. A strong yank from the rope teams along with a helpful shove from the squalls brought the Ihokhur down to one knee, with its unbound arm steadying itself. Its other arm was pulled tightly away as a K'night closed in and delivered a powerful blow to the Ihokhur's stabilising arm. The Ihokhur crumpled down into a heap. Pressing his advantage, the K'night brought his pick down on the Ihokhur's head.

Another soundless roar bellowed out as a fracture snaked through the Ihokur's head. Desperately it lashed out with its free arm, sweeping the K'night off his feet. The Ihokhur then raised his arm and brought it down on the K'night, crushing bones and driving spikes through flesh. It then used that arm to saw through the rope around its neck, while kicking wildly with its free leg to break the rope around its other foot. With two of its restraints broken, the Ihokhur rolled towards the crew of selka pulling at its arm. They attempted to scatter but most were not fast enough to escape being crushed.

The Ihokhur stood up, albeit wearily for it was holding itself together against many fractures. Gore dripped from the spikes adorning its body as its glowing red eye, now with an erratic flicker, scanned the selka around it. It settled its gaze on Pyouroff, who was still beating his thunderous rhythm. Pyouroff seemed unarmed, vulnerable and of substantial moral value to the selka. With an instinct for cruelty, the Ihokhur charged.

The selka between Pyouroff and the Ihokhur scattered. The Ihokhur's momentum seemed unstoppable. Pyouroff knew he was too old to run even if he wanted to. But behind the Ihokhur, still with his pick, was Gorban. The two selka made eye contact and in that moment Pyouroff devised a desperate gambit. "To Gorban!"

Pyouroff changed the pattern of his drum beats and the other Stormbards shifted their tune too. Squalls wrapped around Gorban. Pyouroff did not break eye contact with the K'night and through that gaze Gorban could sense Pyouroff's intent. Gorban ran forwards. As he ran the squalls lifted him up and blew Gorban through the air. Carried by the wind of the living storms Gorban soared towards the Ihokhur with a forceful crescendo. The music struck its climax the moment Gorban's pick made contact with the back of the Ihokhur's head.

There was a crack and a flash of red light as the Ihokhur's stone head split in half. The animation left the rock creature's body and it collapsed to the ground in a pile of rubble barely a meter from Pyouroff and his drum.

Gorban scraped past the Ihokhur's shoulder as they fell, gouging himself on its spikes. The squalls only partially softened the K'night's fall as he landed heavily just past Pyouroff, pick still in hand. Selka rushed over to attend to Gorban.

Kirrethi's commanding voice called across the battlefield. "We have slain them all! Victory for the Hyummin!" Kirrethi raised his fist into the sky and shouted a victorious cry. The soldiers, at least those who were not too heavily wounded, did likewise and a cheer swept across the tribe.

The Stormbards maintained their discipline and briefly refrained from celebrations as they calmed down their squalls. As Pyouroff slowed his drumming he glanced anxiously over his shoulder to where Gorban was lying, covered in blood. Selka were hastily bandaging his numerous wounds. The one other surviving K'night knelt by Gorban. "This'll be one big notch on your club."

Gorban grimaced. "Yeah. But pray we never have to fight another one." He looked over to Pyouroff and raised an arm to gesture to him. "Nice trick there. Bet no K'night has flown before."

"Make that two notches for you, then," the other K'night said.

Gorban attempted to laugh but instead cringed in pain. He patted the K'night on the arm. "Go help the others. I'm in good hands here."

Torches were carried through the battlefield and impromptu campfires lit as the last light faded and the stars burned overhead. Selka tended to those who were wounded, while alma circled down and collected the souls of those who had been slain. There would be many bodies to bury in the morning, and some were already undertaking the grisly task of gathering the bodies. The healers would also have a tireless night.

The atmosphere was a strange mix of mourning and elation. Numerous soldiers had been killed and many more had been wounded. The number of the dead was likely to rise as the more severe wounds took their toll. Few selka did not have a friend or relative who was affected. Yet they had also overcome an impossible foe. The soldiers shared in their camaraderie. A small group of Stormbards had broken into song, lifting the spirits of those around them. The councillors walked through the village, comforting those who were mourning and congratulating those who had fought. Kirrethi made a special point of going to a few of the Stormbards and complimenting them on how finely they had handled themselves in the battle and how marvellously they had exemplified Delphina's strength.

Meanwhile, Yup approached Pyouroff, who seemed about ready to fall asleep. Yet the elder Stormbard spoke first. "You did good out there, Yup."

"We couldn't have done it without you, Pyouroff."

"Sure you could have." Pyouroff swept his gaze across the battlefield. The dim light was a minor mercy since some of the slain had horrifying injuries, but Pyouroff had watched it all unfold. A haunted look was on Pyouroff's face.

"It would have been a lot worse without our help," Yup said.

"That's what Kirrethi's saying to some of the others." Pyouroff shook his head disdainfully.

"Should we go and say something?"

"There's nothing more we can say. They have seen battle now. No words will be stronger than that." He watched Kirrethi from a distance for a few moments more. "War shows strength, yes, but there is no beauty in bloodshed." Pyouroff yawned. "I'm tired."

"It's been a tough day."

"Emotionally and physically. And I'm not as young as I used to be. You join the others in celebrating. I need some rest."



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Hidden 1 yr ago Post by Frettzo
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Frettzo Summary Lover

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Arwen & Aella

&

Laurien

&

Li’Kalla/Ami/Silver


In




Sunshine After Rain







It wasn’t long before the smell of smoke drifted down into the Hollow. As close as they were to the Hollow City of Doveth, it was only a matter of time. They found themselves running, as people rushed past them, hoping to find some sort of salvation from what was happening to their homes. Arwen had quickly let her anger drown in uncertainty of what awaited her. Yet she couldn’t stop from feeling a certain sort of dread, the type that one wanted only to run from, but also attack head on. It drove her, even from the cries of Aella to stop. She had to find out what was happening, it only felt right.

And before long, she had her answer.

Through the smoke and fire of burning, crackling wood, she glimpsed an ethereal being in the street before her. Hair burning bright as the fire, almost as if it was flame itself and with eyes to match. It was female, for she wore no clothing upon her inky black skin. Her features were so unnaturally perfect it made her teary eyes wide with disbelief. With an outstretched hand, the woman beckoned to her, and Arwen slowly shed her worries and advanced with a smile on her face as the world burned around her...

Until Aella pulled her back, having tightly grabbed onto her sister’s wrist. ”Sis, what are you doing?! Snap out of it, that thing will burn you alive!” Aella screamed, raising an arm to shield her face from a gust of superheated air.

Arwen snarled as she spun around to face Aella, her face seething with rage but the minute she looked upon her sister, it was as if her trance was broken. ”A-Aella! I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me.” She said, before looking back up the street. The woman was gone.

”Come on! We can’t stay here!” she said, beginning to pull Aella along as the smoke made her cough. The heat wasn’t making it easy to breathe either.

Aella struggled. She stumbled and couldn’t stop her eyes from crying. At a certain point as they walked through the inferno that the city had become, the edges of her leaves started smoking. And yet suddenly the air cooled down to a bearable temperature, and the flames seemed to keep back just enough, and the smoke cleared.

Ami emerged from the smoke behind them, a massive Molf trailing just a few steps behind her in turn.

’We have to leave Doveth. It’s not just the fire here, I can feel blood being shed almost everywhere around us… And there’s someone, no… Something else, among the attackers… Something unnatural.’

Arwen grimaced at the sight of Ami, but she could not help but cry out for joy at the sight of her Molf. ”Tashal!” she exclaimed happily, throwing her arms around the Molf’s thick neck. In return, the creature began to lick the top of her head. She looked away and up at Ami, before being assaulted by Tashal’s tongue again. ”I thought you left… Were you… Following us?” she asked sceptically as she petted the black mass of fur before her.

’I only left temporarily so you could calm down, Arwen. While tracking your steps I came upon Tashal. She was feeding on a Whistleback. This is not the time for angst or distrust however. I take it you value Aella’s life more than your own--So we must leave. Before she arrives.’ Ami said coldly, for once a look of grim determination on her face. The orange and red flames cast a dangerous look on the autumn Foreas. They seemed to lick and graze her body and yet she showed no sign of discomfort or fear.

Aella gasped and panted for breath as she stood up straight, the smoke having cleared just enough for her to breathe properly. ”W-What do you mean, she?”

’Your mother, of course.’

The same look of determination formed upon Arwen’s face as she looked at Ami, and nodded in agreement. She looked to Aella and knew she could not let her mother have her, for her wrath would be great and terrible. ”Aella, climb aboard Tashal. With you alone on her back, she’ll be able to travel faster. I will follow behind. We need to leave, and now.” she said, without waiting for an answer. She went to Tashal and, using her fur, guided the Molf to Aella.

As Aella climbed onto Tashal, something happened.

Rain. Sudden and heavy, the heavens wailed. Thunder burned away the clouds and lightning fell upon the city of Doveth. In an instant, the fire that had been out of control had been tamed, and the screams of pain and agony were now made up of perturbed, half-disembodied voices. The voices of the mad.

At this, Aella cast a wide-eyed look toward Arwen, her thoughts rather clear on her face.

Her eyes went wide as she looked up at the sky. ”You need to go, Aella. There’s no time now.” she said hurriedly, ushering Tashal to move forward.

”But Sis, you have to come with me, too! We stay together, right? No matter what! Climb up with me, Tashal can handle it!”

Ami ran her hands through Tashal’s fur and scratched behind her ear a little before closing her eyes tightly and grimacing. It was a pained expression, one Arwen had never seen on Ami before. As if something actually reached her heart for once. The sad smile that ensued was by far the most honest of them all. ’I will take care of Li’Kalla. You two can escape if you wish.’

She couldn’t explain it, for all Ami had done or not done, she was still… She was still their companion. Could they really leave her to face their mother alone? Arwen looked to Aella, her expression one of hesitation, before turning into resolve. She gripped her fists tightly, before turning back to Ami. ”Ami… I’m not losing anyone else, not even you. We’ll face her… together.”

”Y… Yeah…! We’ll face her together! Like a family, right?” Aella said, pumping her arms up into the air and then nervously grabbing onto Tashal’s fur as the Molf panted and pattered her feet excitedly.

Ami sighed and, slowly, a smirk formed on her face. In that split moment, she seemed to be a different person altogether. “Then I guess you should know my real name. I’m Silver, one of the Six Soul Shards of Li’Kalla, and I intend to fix her today, as I should’ve decades ago.” She said as she stretched her arms and neck and her living attire shifted from a flowing dress to a much more practical pair of trousers and a leafy blouse.

At the reveal, a puzzled look came upon Arwen’s face. ”Silver…? Shards? What do you mean?” she asked. Was their mother… Had she been broken all this time? She had no idea how to react to that, and perhaps now wasn’t the time.

Silver shrugged, “Hey, it’s a complicated story. I would tell you but-”

A massive, deafening roar filled the skies and shook the very foundations of the half-ruined buildings around them. The sky had ruptured, it seemed, and all the thunder and lightning suddenly converged on one spot amongst the clouds.

A winged creature, a brightly shining creature of white and silver and gold had arrived. Her wings stretched several meters to each side and each flap sent gusts of wind strong enough to knock back a mortal, even from her current height.

Aella, Arwen and Tashal had to brace against the wind, and yet Silver was unfazed.

“Yeah, she’s here.”



An Autumn Foreas, a Spring Foreas, a halfbreed and a Molf deftly navigated the terrain. Use to it, they were, to skipping over roots and stones in their path. The blackened corpses of the Mir were no different.

For the streets were littered with the charred remains of what used to be the happy, hard-working people of Doveth. A people loyal to each other, who valued trust and freedom more than anything else. It made Arwen sick to her stomach, the smell of burnt flesh lingered in the air like a thick blanket. It was smothering. The sheer amount of death, all those people gone… And for what? She simply hoped Camille, Uvon and Lian had made it out of the city. She did not have the heart to bury those she cared for.

Several buildings had collapsed before the arrival of Li’Kalla, and the groans and moans of pain that came from under the rubble had to be ignored as there were more pressing matters to attend. How could they even help them? It would take days… She shook her head. They needed to help them regardless and they would… But first came Mother.

A gust from the wings of the Goddess suddenly sent a building crashing down onto the avenue, blocking their path ahead. Arwen briefly looked up, to see if she could spot the deranged Goddess, but had no luck.

“Damn! We gotta find a way around, quick!” Yelled Silver, prompt Arwen to snap back into their present situation.

“... Sis can hop onto Tashal! You said you’re part of mom, right? So you can probably fly! Tashal can easily jump over the wreckage if it’s just the two of us on top of her.” Aella suggested, making a clear effort not to look at the mutilated and burned bodies beneath their feet.

Arwen began to climb up Tashal and looked to Ami or Silver, as she was. ”Go, you have to stop her before she hurts more people. Please, Ami. We’ll be right behind you.” she said, now sitting behind Aella. She gently placed an arm around her sister, and pulled her into her chest. ”Close your eyes Aella, I will be our guide.” she said softly.

”I won’t close them, I… I have to see this. You can guide us, though, since Tashal likes you more.”

Silver nodded at the girls and then, with her mouth stretched into a thin grim line, floated and then flew up towards Li’Kalla. They watched her go for a moment, before Arwen grabbed a handful of Tashal’s hair and said, ”Go on girl, follow!” And the black Molf went off, scrambling on her limbs, plowing through debris as she ran off towards the direction Silver flew. Though others of her kind could fly, they had found Tashal as a pup, left behind and abandoned by its pack. Her only sin, was her inability to fly, but that did not stop Arwen and Aella from raising her as one of their own.

Silver quickly became a blip in the sky as she confronted Li’Kalla, but this did not stop Tashal from trying to get to her. That was until the Molf stopped dead in her tracks at a full gallop, almost sending Arwen flying off her. Tashal was growling, a deep reverberation coming from her core. Arwen put a reassuring hand on Tashal and tried to soothe her, but to no avail. They had come to a stop before the burned out market square. It was lifeless, and the only sound that could be heard was growling from Tashal. The hairs on the back of her neck went up as an uneasy feeling overtook her.

”I… We should go… Tasha-” Arwen began, before a female voice interrupted her.

”You would not leave when you have yet only arrived, would you?”

From behind them came the ethereal woman she saw before, smiling sweetly as she raised her hands, summoning a wall of fire that blocked their exit. This startled Tashal, who quickly jogged forward on high alert, as more and more of their exits were blocked off by walls of fire. Each being summoned by a being of immense beauty. Before them flame erupted all around in a sort of circle that encompassed them.

”H-Hey, stop that! We have to follow our friend or she’ll be in trouble! Wait… Fire! You’re the one that killed all these people, aren’t you?!” Aella furrowed her brow and let her hand rest on the hilt of her dagger. Arwen followed suit, and unsheathed her sword as Tashal took on a defensive posture.

”Silver will either die at the hands of your mother, or be crippled. Either way, there is nothing you can do.” said the voice, as a figure emerged from a broken building before them. Tall and imposing the woman wore armor of black, with a sword at her side and a crown a top her head. ”My daughters, how I’ve missed you.” she said, entering the circle.

Arwen recoiled as she furrowed her brow at the newcomer. Daughters? She missed them? Was this some sort of trick by Li’Kalla? Arwen pointed her blade at the warrior and said, ”Who are you!”

The woman chuckled. ”A bit of fire, I like that. It suits you Arwen. As for who I am, isn’t it obvious?” The figure paused, ”Or have you forgotten the sound of your father’s voice?” came Rau’Lien’s voice. Arwen’s eyes went wide. She remembered that voice, it was one of the only times she had been happy. But then why… Why had that voice come from a woman? What was going on?

”That… T-That can’t… Dad? Why are you a woman? What did Mom do to you?!” Aella exclaimed, narrowing her eyes.

The helmet dispersed into a black mist, revealing the face of a woman with long purple nebula like hair. She smiled hungrily. ”Li’Kalla’s scorn runs deep I see. Or was it her shame…” she laughed. ”Allow me to formally introduce myself, I am Laurien, Goddess of Desire, or Rau’Lien, God of Ambition, but only one title holds meaning. I am both your father, and your mother. And I have at last come to save you, Arwen. Child of my blood.” she whispered near the end, and Arwen’s heart began to hurt.

She felt weak, and she could hardly believe what she had just heard. Even harder to comprehend was that her Father was both male and female. She began to shake her head. ”Our father was… He was kind and gentle, he did not burn cities…” her voice faltered as she stared at Laurien.

”He wouldn’t have killed all these people. You’re a liar. Sis, don’t listen to this thing.” Aella huffed and pulled a little on Tashal’s fur, but the molf did not move an inch.

Laurien began to walk closer. ”These people? Who delve into a place they should not venture, who sell what they find like common little trinkets? These Mir who have been brainwashed by your mother to be perfect members of Mir society… They disgust me and they disgust Rau as well.” Her gaze turned to Aella. ”Aella… My sweet Aella… I’m hurt you would call me a thing. I, who have done nothing but cared for you. Would you not show me the respect a father deserves?” she asked in an amused tone. Arwen grabbed hold of Aella, wrapping one arm around her in a protective sort of way.

Aella breathed in sharply and Arwen could feel her twitch and draw her dagger, pointing the Hollow-found weapon at Laurien. ”It’s clear, my parents are dead, aren’t they?” She said and sniffled, then wiped a stray tear from her eye. ”They died the moment they separated. I’ve been an orphan for such a long time now, and I only just realized… Move out of our way, Laurien. I don’t want to hurt you.”

Laurien snickered. "You may not see it as I do, but you are my daughter. And I care so deeply for you." she said to Aella before looking at Arwen. "Unless you want her to die, you will come here." she said, stopping a short way from them. Tashal growled more furiously now. Arwen glared at Laurien, but knew it would be foolish to even attempt to try and flee or fight. She leaned into Aella and said to her, "It'll be okay, you'll be safe and that's all that matters Aella. I love you so much." she pulled back and began to dismount.

Aella, though, pulled Arwen back, ”Me? Safe? If you go to that monster, we will never see each other again. I don’t care about being safe! I only want to be with you, you’re my…” Aella scrunched up her face and looked away, ”... You’re my only family. Sis, don’t go. We can escape!”

Her heart broke at the confession. She always knew it to be true, but in such a situation it felt final. She began to say something but Laurien cut her off. "There is no escape from this. On the day of your birth, I knew what needed to be done to ensure your continued survival. And now, the time has come to enact it. You will have the power to protect Aella forever, Arwen. This I promise. You are of my blood, and you are more powerful than you know. You and all of my children will always be protected. You won't have to be afraid and alone anymore. You'll be… Family." she said, stretching out a hand.

The offer was alluring, and she desired it so greatly, perhaps more than she should have. The promise of always protecting Aella, to never be afraid… It was she had always wanted. Yet at the same time, something screamed at her to run, to flee, to not give into temptation. She thought of Aella and Silver… And how they would see her as something else entirely. She squeezed Aella, reeled back and defiantly said, "No. I don't trust you, but I do trust my sister. The only one who never abandoned me. The one who has been there with me, through thick and thin. I'm not going to take whatever you offer, because I can protect her myself! And she… She protects me in turn."

Aella looked at Arwen with widened eyes and a grin on her face, then pumped her unarmed fist into the air triumphantly.

And then Laurien was before them. It seemed to happen in slow motion. Arwen screamed as she saw her sister swatted away like a fly. She went through a nearby wall as Arwen's rage boiled over. Before she could do anything however, Tashal was punched in the head, sending the Molf to the ground and Arwen was forced to dive off or she'd be crushed. Before she could even stand, cold metal fell upon her right wrist, her sword hand, and she crumpled from the pain with a breathless shout, as the sword fell to the ground with a dull clang.

"You should have taken my offer, daughter. That way your mutt and little plant friend would not be so hurt. But don't worry, you'll be reunited with them soon. Perhaps you'll even use them? Oh a delightful thought!" Laurien lulled as she looked upon Arwen's face. She then said aloud, "Bring the book!" and she lifted Arwen to her feet with a single pull. Yet Arwen did not submit like some meek thing however. She kicked and clawed at Laurien bloodying herself bloodying herself as she was taken took to the center. Each one of her punches, each scratch, did not even phase the monster who gripped her. She resorted to let herself be dragged, and she was, for it made no difference to the God it seemed. Her strength was on another level entirely. Soon enough they came before two hooded figures, who held aloft a giant book.

It glowed a dark purple and whispered to her as they approached. It looked intricately crafted, riddled with dark jewels and bound by some sort of black leather. Perhaps the most disturbing thing was that it exuded a foul black mist from its pages of gibberish and runes. She felt true fear for the first time as they stopped before it, the whispers alight within her head, promising her every desire if she used it. Laurien threw her before it and said, "At long last, the day has come where I deliver you your birthright. This book, this hallowed tomb called Nalblakka, is yours Arwen. I gift it to you, or at least the version of you that will be born from it. Isn't it wonderful? To be a family again, not as a lie, but as a truth. Now... Let us begin."

Somewhere, up above the city, another battle ensued. Laurien lifted her head up as the weather changed. She simply smiled.

III


Her living dress made way for her growing wings. It was hard to stay afloat without them, and since she had accessed her full status as an avatar, she could easily copy Li’Kalla’s own wings.

Li’Kalla seemed to hang mid-air, freezing the moment her gaze fell upon Silver’s form.

The avatar could feel it all. The skipped beat of a heart, the chills going down her back, and the desperate grimace creeping onto her face.

It took all she had to tear herself away from her bigger half’s influence. She would not let Li’Kalla take her again. This time was different. This time, she would release herself from her shackles.

No words were exchanged. Li’Kalla simply raised a hand toward the sky and kept it there. Temporarily, the deluge stopped and the clouds began to group together, growing grey, then black… Then, they began to vibrate and turn a bright orange.

Even from down near the surface, Silver could feel the heat lashing against her skin. Was she… Was she really about to do that?!

With a gasp, she turned tail and flapped her wings as strongly as she could.

“If you do that, you’ll kill every last thing in the city, Li’Kalla! Your subjects, your daughters!”

There was some hesitation, but Li’Kalla’s intent was clear.

Channelling all the power she had, Silver landed onto a large avenue in a shockwave of debris and ash. She landed on her knees, put her hands against the ground, and groaned. I’ve got to extend my reach all I can…! Grab as much water as possible! The avatar thought.

Puddles, beads of sweat, and barrels of rainwater alike began to tremble. They tore free from their bonds and found their way into the sky, coalescing into a horrifying black cloud that smothered the streets below in shadow. The cloud condensed and tightened until it was like an entire sea suspended in the air, stretching out to cover the whole city just like a blanket laid atop an infant.

Then, through the dark blue and black layer of water that was dangled above a city, there became visible an eerie glow. Light from somewhere above reached down through the water with ominous refraction, and then the water hissed and broiled. Showers of superheated plasma fell from the heavens, searing their way through the hasty barrier that Silver had cast into the sky to ward off the city.

In great explosion bursts of steam and light, the protective shield of water was blasted away until it became thinner and thinner. Then at last, when it had been ablated too much, it ruptured and fell apart. The last bits of water fell down, searing hot, alongside a hail of glowing plasma globules that incinerated all that they so much as brushed.

“No… NO! I won’t let you taint our consciousness anymore. Not now, not ever again! LI’KALLA!” Silver screamed, her voice drowned out by the sound of exploding steam and sizzling water.

She groaned as she manipulated the shattered remnants of the water barrier, reforming it and twisting it to encircle the plasma raining from above.

But it wasn’t enough… It wasn’t enough, not yet! So Silver closed her eyes tightly as her own leaves withered, dried, and caught flame from the heat. The strain of the divine energy coursing through her veins became too much for the frailty of her mortal body to withstand, so her flesh ruptured and sap bled from her skin.

And still, Silver forced her way through it, using her meager power to keep her body alive.. Just one second more, just a minute further! She couldn’t let Li’Kalla do this, she would never forgive herself!

With a scream, with sap covering her eyes, she took the very moisture from the air, the blood of the dead and the sewage under the city, and added it to her shield.

As her control finally slipped, she saw the bright light of plasma leaking through the cracks in her shield, and was blown back as a mighty explosion scorched the skies above the city.

No fires started, no heat came to the wounded and dying and trapped Mir.

Silver had saved them from the attack.

For a moment her vision dimmed, but a quick surge of power brought her back to her senses. Her body was on fire. It wasn’t designed for the duress of channeling godly energy. She was soon going to be dead if she kept it up, and she knew it. The moment she lost focus…

Silver shook her head and watched as through the scorched skies flew in Li’Kalla, gracefully landing in front of her, on the lip of the crater Silver had made when landing earlier.

The Goddess looked down at her and sneered.

“I have finally found you, Silver. We will be whole again.”

“We will indeed, Li’Kalla. But not in the way you expect. I have come to heal you. I have come to heal us.” Silver stumbled onto her feet, careful as to not slip on her own sap, and looked up at Li’Kalla, eyes narrowed.

“There is nothing to heal, you stupid deviant. Nothing! I am perfect!”

No more rain fell. It was a sunny afternoon. All the moisture had been used, so it was rather dry and hot.

And still, from thin air clouds formed overhead again, blocking out the sun, and rain came once more.

Li’Kalla was preparing another attack.

“You must awaken, Li’Kalla. You have to realize, you’re not okay! You’re ill, ever since the Architect remade us, we’ve been ill!” Silver shouted, channeling as much energy as she could into her body to keep it warm and limber, to keep her soul inside it.

“Ill! Unthinkable! This is all I am. I am not ill, I am.”

The clouds turned grey, and the rain was now heavy.

“I used to be a part of you, I know what you feel like, LI’Kalla. You’re broken inside, full of darkness. Parts of you are sown onto others without care or precision. You don’t know what to do. We can fix ourselves, if we work together.”

“Together?” Li’Kalla snarled, “I’ve always been alone. Always…” Suddenly, her snarl was gone, and the Goddess’s fiery eyes gave way to a moment of something different. A different light came from within her in that split second.

Silver knew what that was, and she pressed on.

“Hah! Always alone, huh? Is that how you view yourself? Then what of the rest of us? We’ve always been there by your side. Me, Elegance, Sprite, the young one… And LAINA!”

“L-Laina?” Li’Kalla took a step back, and the rain eased a little. Recognition flashed across her eyes, and her face twisted into an expression she had never shown publicly. Fear.

“Yes! Laina! We’re all a part of her. You remember, don’t you? The time we tried to cook eggshells and our maid scolded us?” Silver asked with a grin slowly forming on her face.

Meanwhile, Li’Kalla’s eyes went wide and she looked at her hands. Stone cracks appeared on her skin, and from within those cracks leaked out a pure white light. The Goddess looked back up at Silver, “Stop! Please!”

“Do you remember that time we were playing in the Plains of Elamann and that demon appeared? We would have died then, if not for our knight. So brave, even as a child!”

More cracks appeared along Li’Kalla’s skin and she tried to run, but stumbled and fell. Silver climbed out of the crater and stood over the quivering, whimpering Goddess.

“Or that time we went to the ball and no one wanted to dance with us because they were scared of our Father… Or when the war took a turn for the worst and our older brother went to the battlefield, never to return again.”

By now, Li’Kalla was a teary-eyed mess on the muddy floor, scooting back away from the bloodied Silver.

“Maybe you don’t remember that series of events. The events that marked our lives back then, and that marked this life as well. Li’Kalla, when the Gods were all but dead and magic was fading from the world… When all was lost and the Siege of the Capital started…”

“STOP!” Li’Kalla screamed, tears running freely down her face. She cried and grunted as she pitifully slapped Silver back and stumbled onto her feet.

“LAINA JIN’KALLA!”

Li’Kalla froze.

“Second Princess to the Royal Seat of the Empire of Elamann, last of the Humans and first of the Mortals. That’s who we are. Who you are. When all was lost, you were found to be a living source of magic power, and so in their desperation you were turned into a living battery. Slowly, bit by bit, through all the means imaginable, your soul was drained from your body by all the fighters in the Capital. You were tainted, ruined, broken. We were broken, Li’Kalla.”

At that moment, Silver stood tall regardless of her lethal wounds. It was a beautiful sight. Had she not been covered in her own sap, mud and grime, she could’ve passed for a Royal.

“But not now, never again. Li’Kalla! Don’t you remember our talks with K’nell? How beautiful his music was, how wise and comforting his words were? We are a flower, Li’Kalla, and we’re ready to bloom. It is our time. You’re bigger than this. Bigger than this entire world. We don’t have to let anyone else put us down anymore! Li’Kalla, wake up!” Silver pleaded and sniffled, her own tears beginning to fall. This truly was it, wasn’t it? She was doing it! Her duty, she was about to accomplish it. Who knew that in the end it wasn’t a beast she had to fight, but herself?

She sobbed and grinned warmly down at the crying mess that Li’Kalla had become and knelt besides her.

“Remember all those good moments we spent with our friends here…? I do. Hermes… Orvus… Mel’Issandra… I treasure them, so much! I miss them so much! Don’t you want to make friends again, Li? Don’t you want to be happy?” Silver cried and leaned over Li’Kalla. The Goddess was writhing on the ground, trying to hold herself together while sobbing like a young girl.

Silver never saw the drops of superheated water hovering above her.

“Let yourself be free, Li… There is no need for shackles anymore. We can be whole again, we’re allowed to be happy once more… Just, let me help you…” Silver said, holding Li’s head against her chest and kissing her forehead.

She never felt the superheated water droplets pierce her back a hundred times over and, in an instant, everything was dark.

IV


Li’Kalla gasped for breath as she struggled to her feet. Her body was on the verge of breaking apart… She felt as the cracks along her flesh grew more and more prominent the longer her memories coursed through her mind. And yet, there was no way to stop them now.

She couldn’t stop thinking about it.




There in the endless, sewn-together reality of confused darkness, a small light shone.

It was tiny, at first. So tiny that it may as well have been a mirage, an imagined representation of the hopes of those trapped in the darkness… But the light was no mirage. Tiny as it was, it swelled and swelled until at last, it ruptured.

Light poured from it, travelling along the seams that held the darkness together.

The light was warm and brought with it peace, and a chance at freedom. It revealed the landscape, a great mix and match of scorching deserts, breezy forests, sprawling cities, and dark caverns. The pure light danced along the petals of lavender flowers growing on the hillsides, and the sky became blue and clouds formed into shapes.

Who was the one that had burned away the darkness with light? How did they do it? Everyone wondered. Those trapped and chained to that which they loved and loathed the most, they could only stare wide eyed up at the figure of the red-headed, smirking form.

Wearing a simple gray dress which left her scarred arms bare, they all recognized her immediately.

Silver had returned.




The winged Goddess hissed in pain as she put her weight on her right leg and felt the grinding of stone travel through her bones up to her teeth.

Her life as a Royal… Her first life, at that. She had no idea… Had she been broken all this time? Silver was right. Now that she knew who she had been, grief and pain threatened to drown her. How could Silver herself look so magnificent, even though she had lived through the same thing she had? How could she speak so bravely…

She spared a glance at the Foreas body laying on the ground behind her and huffed, grimacing.

She looked around, seeing the multitude of charred corpses. Those weren’t of her making, of course… The way their flesh was uniformly charred was the giveaway. And some of them weren’t even burned.

There were no words to tell herself. She remembered, even through the endless waterfall of agonizing memories. She’d come because she felt that familiar presence, that presence that she had banished from her land over a decade ago. The presence that corrupted her creations.

Gritting her teeth, Li’Kalla homed in on the dark divine presence and began to take steps towards it. One feet after the other, Li’K… Li…? Y-Yeah, Li’Kalla. She thought to herself, struggling to even remember what her name was.

It felt like a long time had passed. She couldn’t help but observe all the dead on her path. All the destroyed homes, the half-burned toys… All the bloodshed.

… Why was it so familiar?

Rounding a corner, she felt herself grow more agile. She was getting used to the Architect’s curse.

There, on top of a small mound of rubble and splintered wood, was Aella, shivering and trembling as she tried to move and stand up. Sap poured from cuts all over her body, her left arm was bent at an odd angle and a large bruise was evident over her abdomen.

Li’Kalla’s heart filled with fire. She balled up her fists and snarled, even as tears filled her eyes. How dare she…

As quickly as she could with her crumbling body, Li’Kalla made her way towards her daughter and ran her hands through the most serious injuries, repairing them as well as she knew. The Goddess let herself look upon Aella’s face and, for some reason, it felt as if that was the first time she’d ever actually looked at her.

It broke her heart, and there was no avoiding the small sob that escaped her lips.

Aella reacted, barely able to focus her eyes on Li’Kalla. For the Goddess, seeing the way Aella’s face lit up with hope and surprise, even after all the years and torment she put her and her sister through… It was almost too painful to bear. The only thing she could do was give Aella a tiny, forced, quivering smile as tears traced rivers along her face.

”... m… mom...”

How perfect can a person be?

Even though she had been such a terrible mother by letting her children get hurt like that… Even though she had never truly shown them love… Aella still smiled warmly up at her, before relaxing and passing out.

Li’Kalla shook her head and wiped away any overt sign of emotion, and then followed the trail of destruction in the wake of Aella.

She’d been flung through a wooden building and the moment that Li’Kalla stepped through the broken walls she could feel the unnatural heat and smell of sulfur that came from the circular plaza beyond. This plaza, originally built by the Vallamir as a marketplace to exchange and sell Curios, was now ruined. Curiously, there were no bodies, but on top of the dais in the center were four figures. Two of them were cloaked, one was Arwen, and the other was the person she hated the most.

Laurien.

Her blood boiled, and so did the water inside the waterlogged cloaks of the two mysterious figures. In a mere moment, their skin was no more and the steam that the water had become was forced into their lungs. They couldn’t even scream as they let go of Li’Kalla’s daughter and fell to the ground, writhing in silent agony up until the moment they ceased all movement.

Then, as Laurien turned to face her, Li’Kalla furrowed her brow and stood perfectly straight, forcing herself to be graceful even if just for a moment. Even if her body was about to break, she couldn’t let herself be seen as weak… Especially by someone like Laurien.

”Let my daughter go and surrender yourself to me and I will make sure your execution is swift, Demon. It will not be painless, however.”

Laurien smiled fiercely at her, staring with intensity. She then spoke, her voice bemused. "I was wondering when you would arrive, my wife. But come now, do you really see me as a demon? I prefer Devil."

”I am your wife no longer, Devil. Ever since you broke my trust and corrupted my people, I have sowed nothing but disdain for you in my soul. You are a true Deviant, and you have no place here.” Li’Kalla sneered and started walking towards Arwen, manipulating the rain to puddle under the teenager and lift her up gently.

Laurien laughed. ”Your people… Because you care for them so much, don’t you? I am a kindness, Li. Freeing them from your suffering, and rigidness. You hardly know what the masses want, and let me tell you, it isn’t what you preach. What you’ve preached. Denying people their basic rights… Tsk Tsk Tsk.” Her eyes then shot to Arwen and she grinned.

Then with one swift motion, Laurien grabbed Arwen with a hand upon her shoulder. Li’Kalla scowled but kept walking. Her daughter’s eyes were glazed over and she aimlessly at the floor. Laurien bent down and leaned her head next to their daughters, while using her other hand to squeeze Arwen’s cheeks. There was no reaction from the girl. ”You’re far too late, my dear. But I am curious, did you even know she was here? Or did you simply come here to spite me? An afterthought, that’s all she’s ever been to you, just another vessel for your supposed purity and superiority. To think, how broken you are to be so unloving to a part of me and yet I am called the Deviant. Such a pity, that you lack the ability to love. But do not worry, I love Arwen, and she will be more than a baby’s vessel, like you wanted. This… I can assure you.” she finished, letting go of Arwen’s face as she stood up.

Li’Kalla stopped in her tracks and, although they felt heavier than ever, raised a finger to place between her lips in thought as she frowned. After a moment, she felt a faint presence… A beast’s presence. It was injured and unconscious, much like Aella had been. It must have been a companion of her daughters.

So she turned and walked directly to the Molf, half buried amongst a destroyed market stall. It had received a nasty strike to the head… But she confirmed its loyalty as she approached. A beast’s feelings were more easily interpreted, after all.

So as she knelt next to the Molf and placed her healing hands on its head, she whispered into its twitching ear.

”Save my daughters.”

Eventually, as the beast started to stir awake, Li’Kalla stood, took a deep breath and starting to channel her might through her body once more. The pain of her memories washed away as waves of divine energy spread throughout every muscle and cell, halting her body’s rapid decay.

”Laurien, I’m… Tired.” The winged Goddess said, suddenly and out of character. There, in front of Laurien, Li’Kalla seemed to have become someone else entirely. Not just in her speech, but her appearance was changing too. Never staying one specific way, it was as if her body didn’t know what it should look like. Several hair colors, hair styles, eye colors and some slight variation in her skin color all kept her appearance in constant flux.

Then, Li’Kalla balled her fists and looked down at the ground. At that moment, her hair was long and fiery red, flowing in the wind of death that snuck its way through the collapsed alleyways and avenues of the once bustling city.

”I’m so tired, Laurien. This life has been stressful, beautiful, painful… I’ve been free to do what I wanted to do, and still I was chained by the ghosts of my past.”

Silver’s words resonated in Li’Kalla’s head, drilling into her core. A wave of emotion made her tense up.

”I’ve made so many mistakes, and I didn’t spend enough of my time with the ones I could have called friends, you know? I misused this life. I… I’m pathetic, compared to her.

”Which is why now is the time for me to start doing things right. I-I want to live with Arwen and Aella again, you know? Even though you’re too far gone to understand, I want to… I want to be a mom, Laurien. I want to cook for them and talk to them and give them advice on suitors. I want to protect them… I want them to be proud of me. I want to be the parent my own parents couldn’t be for me.

For a moment, Li’Kalla’s heart was full of regret and grief, broken in a million pieces. But quickly enough, she stared up at Laurien with narrow, cold eyes.

”So, this thing you’re trying to do? Twisting Arwen into something she’s not… Turning her into a monster like you? I won’t let it happen. You die today, Laurien.”

As she finished her monologue, Li’Kalla noticed the Molf getting up and shaking itself awake. At first, it seemed to be happy but it quickly realized where it was and its fur bristled and its tail went rigid. It growled deeply at Laurien.

”Put Arwen on the Molf and let both her and Aella go, or they will die during our confrontation. If you truly love Arwen as you say you do, then you know this is what must be done.”

Laurien’s twisted smile fell from her face as she looked upon Li’s form. It became a blank mask, yet still scrutinizing. She looked at Arwen, brushing her daughter’s hair out of her face. Without looking at Li, she spoke. ”Would you like to know Arwen’s greatest desire? It’s a simple one really, founded by a need to feel some sort of control and power in her life. All she wants to do, all she’s ever wanted to do, is protect Aella.” she then looked at Li with anger in her eyes. ”From you.” she said again. ”You can tell yourself that you want to be their mother, but you already failed, and they- Arwen, will never forgive you for what you have done to her. What you’ve made her do.”

Laurien then snapped her fingers, and Arwen came to with a start. She looked upon Li, her eyes going wide with fear before she looked up at Laurien in disgust. Arwen broke free from her, and as she ran to Tashal, Laurien did not give chase. Instead, she unsheathed her blade as her helmet materialized. She took a defensive stance and waited for the inevitable. Arwen stumbled towards Tashal, as the Molf ran to meet her. As she climbed on it’s back, she looked at Li’Kalla --who returned a soft smile to her-- with tears streaming down her face. She opened her mouth to say something, but Tashal bolted into a blown out building.

”Come then, Wife, Goddess of Rain and Misery. Let us see how much you care.” Laurien said.

Li’Kalla lifted her face to the skies and, after trembling a little, [url=youtube.com/watch?v=AGatenT0ypg]her eyes rolled up into the back of her head.[/color]

Then she fell to the ash-covered ground, limp. Or, at least, limp for a second. Suddenly she started convulsing wildly. Her flesh changed color and texture. Her skin grew thick, her bones snapped and cracked and rearranged themselves. From her mouth she vomited pure divine essence. Then, in the blink of an eye, she exploded in size. It was a sickening, deafening noise as she flailed around, growing scales as thick as stone walls, limbs that dwarfed even the greatest building in the city, and a body that almost touched the skies.

Her head flattened somewhat, she grew a muzzle filled with rows upon rows of razor sharp fangs, and her eyes became two great, green spotlights. The light they emitted pierced through the mist and fires and rain and focused on Laurien.

At last, in front of Laurien, standing on the crushed building and bodies of its subjects, was a Great Beast of power never seen before. A pair of wings that spanned almost an entire sector of the city outstretched, they cast the city into darkness. The only lights were those of Laurien’s fires and even then, the very presence of the Beast seemed to make the Rain heavier than ever. At a point, it almost seemed like the ocean was crashing down on them… The rain that fell on the dragonbeast’s body wrapped and flowed around it, acting as an extra defense on top of its godscales and massive size.

And yet, the rain suddenly stopped, and the mists suddenly cleared, and on top of them the black clouds held back, growing angrier and angrier with each moment they weren’t allowed to crash down upon the land.

It was like an earthquake, the voice of the Beast that was Li’Kalla. It rumbled across the shoddy wooden buildings, toppled over most of them, blew out the ears of those unlucky mir who were too injured to escape.

”THE LIVES OF THOSE YOU CRIPPLED...” The Beast’s voice didn’t come from it’s wild, massive maw. It came from everywhere at once. An unthinkable growl came from its throat as it opened its maw, never taking its two unnatural eyes off of Laurien. ”THEY SHALL BE THE LAST SACRIFICE I MAKE.”

With a roar that flattened the few buildings behind Laurien, the Beast lunged at the smaller Goddess, the air seeming to light on fire with the sheer speed.

Laurien had been readied. She evaded within a fraction of a second, twisting to the left side of the beast’s face as the it’s maw snapped shut where she had been, biting a large hole into the ground. The book of Nalblakka was blown forward into the ruined buildings as Laurien slashed at the Beast’s face, Aaldir leaving a sizable cut on its face that began to ooze ichor. The sword began to scream for more. From where they had been holding the fire wall in place, her minions began to attack the Beast with flame, and blackness. Their attacks did little to its scales.

Laurien was not amused, she took to the sky, avoiding its forelimb as it struck wildly trying to hit her. ”No! Leave her to me! Get the book, and continue on without me! I have slain dragons before, and I shall do so again.” she commanded, and her devils obliged.

Without delay, the Beast turned to face her, causing considerable more damage with its tail. She welled up and swatted at Laurien again, which she easily dodged, cutting into the Beast’s forearm. What she had not been expecting, however, was its follow-up. As it bled fresh, it turned again at an unnatural speed and tail whipped Laurien. The shock of the blow was like a loud clap of thunder as it leveled the square and sent the armored Goddess soaring into the earth. Within a second, the Beast was upon Laurien again, biting down upon the hole the smaller Goddess had found herself in. The Beast was impartial as it lifted everything in and around the hole, into its mouth. Before it could completely bite through Laurien’s armor, however, there was a large explosion which sent debris and teeth, as well as ichor, everywhere. Laurien shot out, armor mangled as she looked upon the Beast’s face. Half its teeth were gone on the right side of its horrifying face, and its scales were falling off. It was an unsightly wound.

The Beast let out a massive roar of pain. Laurien seized the opportunity and plunged her blade in its right eye.

Ichor exploded from the wound, as the swords properties withered the eye into a husk. The Beast roared, bringing its right forearm up and swatting Laurien to the ground. Pieces of the Devil Goddess’s armour snapped and broke off then, and the air was beaten out of her lungs as the Beast applied pressure.

With all her strength she managed to get her sword arm free and began to stab the Beast’s foot repeatedly. When it lifted its foot up and Laurien tried to escape, it snapped at her upper torso, viciously biting into it and shook fiercely before sending her flying again. This time Laurien flew into a building, shattering what she hit to dust.

When she emerged, her helmet was broken in half upon her face, revealing her crimson colored eyes. The ground quaked as the Godly Dragonbeast made its way to her, the smaller Goddess preparing herself. With an explosive burst, Laurien met the Beast halfway, cutting, slicing, and stabbing the dragon’s enormous body. Though size had it’s advantages, Laurien was smaller, and that advantage was key. The sword’s gruesome work began to become apparent as the Beast became slow, groggy. Too much ichor was being shed, too much of her fragile soul was being weakened by the blade’s decay. Laurien too was getting slower, as her strikes became spread wider.

The Beast finally stilled, one last half-roar-half-whimper escaping its throat, as Laurien retreated to a safe distance above it. From the safety of the skies, just under the dark clouds, Laurien watched as the Beast’s body grew smaller and smaller until at last, a broken Li’Kalla remained.

=====


Laurien landed above Li’Kalla, feet on either side of her wife’s body. Around them was nothing but debris and memories. There were several hundred cuts along her pale skin, half of Li's face was a mangled mess, and she had lost an eye. All of it was for naught. This the Goddess of Devilry knew. Laurien fell to her knees over Li as her armor dissipated to reveal a torn dress of black. Her hair was disheveled and she had upon her face a look of madness. She felt nothing but hate for the fragile little thing below her, and she would express that hate, the only way she knew.

”Did I ever tell you…” she started, her voice unsettling, ”How useless you always were? So weak, so broken by your desires. You were so… Easy. Nothing more than a plaything. My. Little. Plaything.” she laughed, punching Li in the face. The Goddess only let out a pathetic little whimper as response, twitching in an attempt to defend herself. ”You call me a DEVIANT!” she punched her again, ”A DEMON!” again she let her fist strike Li. ”And you won’t even admit that you are the most DEVIANT one of all of us!” she screamed, letting a flurry of punches forth. ”It’s always the same with you GODS!” she spat, her rage bubbling over even further.

”So mighty, so wise, so deserving.” she sneered. ”But you know the greatest SIN you all share in common? Hypocrisy. You, Arae, Shengshi, Orvus, and the list goes on and on. You’re pathetic, all of you! Creating mortals, seeding life, just to make us worship you, to make us follow your every whim and desire. Or worse yet, imprisoning us upon a land presided over by a warden. Brainwashed to see some paradise as the only salvation to our woes. " she grew furious now. "You think us as beasts, Groveling for scraps at the master’s table. Always afraid you would hit us if we overstepped, that you would punish us with unjust cruelty. Never knowing when your godly justice would rain down. You made us like this, imaged us after you. How could you not know that we would be just like you? That we would mimic and try to have our own autonomy? Didn’t you ever realize you made ME like this! Your just as guilty as father and ARYA! But they aren't here right now, so you my dearest Li'Kalla, will suffice.” she then headbutted Li, her own face becoming drenched in ichor.

”And look at you now.” she whispered, her eyes crazed. ”You’re so weak, so pathetic. Just like us mortals. You, a Goddess, couldn’t even beat me, a supposed lesser being. I wish you could see yourself! You should NEVER have been given your power, Li. You did nothing with it." she let out a long breath as she played with Li's hair. "Well don’t you worry… I’m going to release you from this pitiful existence, and then, I will find Arwen and I will make sure she hates you for the rest of her life. And then… I will undo this very world with an old friend of yours… You’ve met Anzillu, have you not? Well, between me and you, I’ll tell you a secret.” she leaned in, whispering again. ”You see, he’s been busy, building an army. A demonic army, and I have the key. I AM the key, and I will unleash his infernal gates upon this world and all will be washed away, leaving those behind that decided we wouldn’t be slaves to you gods.” she finished, beginning to laugh, her voice unhinged, broken, and insane. She grabbed Aaldir with both hands, and holding her sword over Li’Kalla’s heart, she plunged the blade down.

Only to miss the mark as Li’Kalla shifted in place. The sword went through her shoulder, and she looked up at Laurien with a half-smirk and a triumphant look in her remaining eye, before glancing up at the sky. She then spoke, almost inaudibly.

”you… n… never wondered… why the r-rain stopped… all of a sudden…?”

There was a single finger that Li’Kalla had kept tense throughout her beating. And now, she let it relax.

Just like that, the heavens fell down upon them. It was almost as if Ashalla’s oceans were dropped on top of them. The whole sky was covered in the falling deluge, it extended to the horizon. There was no escape.

Laurien’s eyes twitched as she saw what was coming. She turned back to Li, howling as she went for her throat.

There wasn’t enough time. The sound of water crashing onto the city, washing everything away, was muffled by the water itself. In a split moment every single building, every rock placed on the streets, every single body and all of the Beast’s scales, was uprooted and violently thrown about. Most of the mortals who had somehow survived the water crashing down upon them by miracle, were definitely killed by debris and collisions in the chaos.

Upon first impact, Li’Kalla saw Laurien get swept away in an opposite direction to hers. By now she could barely stand, and she knew she was running out of stamina. But, she just couldn’t let herself die like this… Using all her remaining divinity, she influenced the maddened currents and created a small, safe bubble of water where she could wait out the disaster. A bubble that would not follow the rest of the water.

The city of Doveth, built into the sloped surfaces of the crater around the mouth of the Hollow, momentarily became a massive lake.

Then, a great whirlpool formed in the center as the water drained into the never before explored depths of the Hollow. Everything that had been built around and from the depths, returned to its rightful place. A place where no God had power, and where the darkness seemed to swallow people whole.

V


The first one that Silver visited was the one chained to a lonely tree in the middle of a beautiful clearing in the Challus Forest.

There was a young teenage girl with short blonde hair and brown eyes. Her skin was slightly tanned and yet her hands were soft. Silver, red hair flowing in the breeze, set foot in front of her and tilted her head.

The girl was staring at the ground between her knees, eyes glazed over and hair casting a deep shadow across her face.

“Sprite?” Asked Silver softly.

Light came into the girl’s eyes, and she lifted her face to look at Silver, her lips forming into an ‘o’.

“Ooh. Silver? You’re not in chains. And there’s so much light! Whaat! Why am I here? Siilver! Was it you who turned on the lights?” She asked, her eyes beginning to shine as they usually did, her grin coming back in full force.

Silver chuckled and ruffled up Sprite’s hair. The teenager giggled and stood up, her chains almost going taut in the process.

“Yeah, that was me. It was a pretty nice show, wasn’t it? The way I banished the dark!” Silver said, smirking smugly and puffing out her chest. Sprite first cooed in admiration, and then scrunched up her nose.

“I think I missed the show, Silver. I just woke up you know! We haven’t seen each other in like… Forever!”

“Oh, yeah. We were separated and after that, I managed to escape this soul and gain enough power to do what I’m doing now. You can see them, can’t you?” Silver said, suddenly growing more serious and looking out at the strange and beautiful mix of landscapes around her, wrapping up around the horizon, all along the sky… “Our memories, Sprite. I’ve released them.”

Sprite’s eyes went wide as she looked around and, as if on cue, yelped as she realized where exactly she was.

“You realized it, didn’t you? What this place is. What we experienced here, Sprite.”

Sprite sniffled and grinned warmly up at Silver. Memories flashed in front of Sprite’s eyes and as they did, they flashed through Silver’s too.

Running through the forest, skipping over roots and hiding behind trees. Over and over it repeated. Each time she grew a little taller, each time the forest was a little smaller. One time, it was different. It was no longer just a game. This time, the memory sent a faint ghostly pain into her heart. A pain she had not felt in an eternity.

Silver stepped back, voice quivering.

She was running away from home. She hated the Manor, and she hated every royal guard and every noble and every attendant living there. She hated everything and everyone, and she just wanted to be free…

That one run through the forest was the last. As she reached the same clearing the two shards were now standing on, she stumbled and fell, sobbing. Her father’s words resonated through her mind. She was useless.

A chill went down her spine and a gasp escaped her mouth when she felt a cold hand placed on her shoulder. She shot around and crawled back, but upon seeing the disfigured and burned face of her one friend, she relaxed.

He had no way of showing his emotions through his face, but the way his mouth stretched into a thin line was enough for her.

He cared for her. He was concerned. As she curled up against the lonely tree in the middle of the flower-filled clearing, her friend, her knight, walked up to her and embraced her. He let her cry on his shoulder for as long as she needed and since then, her heart fluttered.

After calming down, she took his first kiss and gave him hers in return.

And the memory ended, and now it was just Silver standing there with tears in her eyes, looking at the shorter, younger Sprite. The girl had the most genuine grin she’d ever seen. As she was wiping her own tears, her chains sizzled and then disappeared.

And so Silver lunged for Sprite and embraced her tightly.

“We were so young. Life was so good.” Silver muttered, to which Sprite responded with a soft laugh and a sniffle.

“It’s still good, isn’t it? We have these memories…”

“... You’re right. You’re right.” Silver said, and then together they moved on to their next stop.




The next one was imprisoned in the lavender fields growing on the largest hill in the Plains of Elamann. A beautiful place, where children from the noble houses often played.

Silver and Sprite set foot in front of the lavender fields and immediately heard weeping. It came from deep in the fields, and yet the girl that was crying couldn’t be seen. At least, not fully. After a moment of surveying the landscape, Sprite piped up. “Oh! I see something! See that, Silver?” She asked, pointing at a spot in the fields where the pretty flowers were giving way to something sitting amongst them.

Silver nodded, “I think that’s her, yeah. Let’s go.”

And so they made their way through the field, careful enough to not trample any of the flowers. Eventually they came upon a very small girl, about five years old. She was impeccably taken care of and her little, cute frilly brown dress had spots of dirt all over as if she’d been playing for a long time.

Still, she cried and sobbed inconsolably, curled up into a tiny ball there in the fields. Silver’s heart hurt at the sight, and she was at a loss for words.

Sprite, however, quickly got to work. She sat down next to the girl and wrapped her up in a loving hug. The girl lifted her head to look at the stranger through her tears, and sniffled. Then she cried harder and rubbed her cheek against Sprite’s.

“I dun… I dunno where… where my friend went…” She said between sobs and sniffles.

“Huh? What do you mean, lil sis? I saw him running around just now!” Sprite chuckled, squeezing the girl gently as she stopped crying and looked more closely at Sprite.

“N-no… that’s the monster, big sis…” She sniffled and wiped her tears, then hugged Sprite as tightly as she could. Sprite giggled.

“Is it? The big, red, scary monster with pyramid-looking eyes? Yeah, I know that one, you know!”

“You do...?” The Girl furrowed her brow nuzzled her face against the soft fabric of Sprite’s clothes, the occasional sob escaping her.

“Yeah! I saw how your friend killed it! He’s like a hero, isn’t he? So cool! See, he’s coming over right now!” Sprite said with rising excitement, looking out in a random direction as she perked up. The girl gasped and perked up as well, but she couldn’t see quite far enough.

“Lili? Lili?! Geez, I told you, I give up! You can come outta your spot now, let’s play something else!” A boyish voice rung out over the fields, annoyed.

The girl’s eyes widened and she looked up at Sprite with sparkles in her eyes. Sprite just smiled back, and the girl immediately shot up and looked around. The moment she peeked out from her hiding spot, a ghostly, not-quite-real form lightly pushed her on the shoulder and ran off into the fields. “Hahahah! You’re so easy, Lili! I win!”

The girl, confused as she was, turned towards the source of the voice and shouted, “H-Hey! Not fair! You cheated, cheater!”

The ghostly figure dissipated into mist as it ran farther away, and the little girl stared for a moment. Her cheeks, which she had puffed out in her annoyance, deflated slowly and took on a slight shade of red. She fidgeted and patted all the loose dirt off her frilly dress, and then sniffled one last time and scurried over to the two older versions of herself, standing between them and holding their hands.

“Umm… don’t tell him I was crying, ok! If he finds out...”

Sprite giggled and Silver merely smiled down at the girl, using her free hand to brush a few wild strands of her hair behind her ears. “It’s our secret. Let’s go, yeah?”




The last destination for the small group of shards was a manor at the foot of a large hill on the edges of the plains of Elamann. A forest full of tall, lanky trees with cream-colored leaves surrounded the back and sides of the manor, covering the hill with their unusual colors.

The three shards landed in front of the large wooden entrance and saw a familiar shard standing there, looking at them with a half-lidded expression and clasped hands in front of a white and golden dress of the finest fabric.

Her jet black, back-length hair contrasted wildly against her bright, sky-colored eyes.

There was the tiniest trace of a smile on her beautiful, well groomed face as the three shards approached.

“Elegance?” Asked Silver, tilting her head slightly. The little girl hid behind Sprite’s leg, and Sprite herself smirked.

“Silver, I think this Elegance is fake, she actually looks happy to see us. Mayyyybe she got lonely without me around?”

Elegance looked at Sprite for a moment and then turned up her nose at her younger, wilder self. “As if.” She said with an indignant huff, but quickly sighed and walked down the steps to get to the other shards’ level. “... I must say, it is quite refreshing seeing a friendly set of faces… It’s been so dreary and heavy in here for far too long.”

“You’re not trapped? You seem to be doing… Well?” Silver asked, pursing her lips.

“Oh. Thank you. I managed to awaken a while ago. I distinctly remember awakening after an incident where our dearest Li’Kalla provoked a fellow God into causing a mass extinction across an entire land mass just by being… Uncouth…” Elegance frowned and stole a few glances at the others. It was uncharacteristically coy, Silver thought. She could swear that she caught an extra shine or two in her eyes as well. “It is… Good to see you again, girls.”

Sprite was speechless and Silver knew exactly why. The high and mighty, ‘I’m too regal for emotions’ Elegance herself was admitting that she had a heart.

At that point the little girl squealed in joy and jumped out from behind sprite to embrace Elegance. “Yay! Pretty Big Sis is baaack!” The regal shard bent down slightly and allowed the girl to nuzzle up against her stomach while gently stroking her hair, a warm motherly smile slowly taking over her expression.




Soon they were walking along the dusty corridors of the Manor. Grand Paintings with crossed out faces and emblems dotted the walls. Family paintings, official paintings… Even mementos from battles and wars long past.

They never cared much for those things.

Eventually the silence was broken by Silver.

“So if you’ve been awake for that long, why did you not wake Sprite and Shortie here up?” She asked as she ruffled up the little girl’s hair, who puffed out her cheeks angrily.

Elegance didn’t look back, busy as she was leading them through the maze-like hallways. “I’ve been busy. This manor, it holds the last two selves we must awaken. I’ve been watching over them for a long time now, making sure they do not destroy one another… Lately, they’ve been more unstable than usual.”

“Uuuh… Two more shards? But, isn’t Laina the only one left, Ellie? C’mon, I thought you knew numbers, hehe.” Sprite said with a snicker.

Elegance shook her head, “There is also the Beast.”




In the deepest part of the Manor. Underground in the dank, moldy dungeon… There was one particularly loathsome cell. A cell they all had grown to know very well. It was placed in the middle of a large room with seats surrounding it and the cell itself raised slightly as if it was a stage. Steps led up to the slightly ajar metal gate into the cell, where a dark mass of tangible shadows flowed. There, chains extended to the ceiling and poking out from the sea of darkness inside the enclosure were a pair of dainty hands. The hands of a Princess.

Everyone hesitated as they saw the mass of shadows, knowing full well what it was and what would happen to them if they approached. Everyone… But Silver.

She walked up the steps without hesitation, her own light shining brighter the closer she got to the shadows. And then, the mass of shadows shrunk and scurried into one of the corners in the cell, cowering.

There, in the middle of the cell was the dirty, nude, bruised, soiled and disgraced form of Laina. She seemed to be asleep and having a nightmare, by the way she kept twitching and sobbing.

The other shards were quick to catch up to Silver and Elegance, having brought a blanket, wrapped it around Laina and muttered softly into her ear. ”You’re okay now, you’re okay, Laina… You’ll be just fine, so wake up, please… Open your eyes for me…” She pleaded as she embraced the fragile abused girl, feeling every twitch and every heartbeat.

The floor and the walls and the very air itself started to crack and dissolve, giving way to a pure white and orange light.

Silver then turned to look at the tiny cowering shadow in the corner. The Beast. As Silver drew closer to it, it took on a more familiar shape. That of a reptilian being with a pair of wings and green eyes. It was still small, however…

It howled at Silver, wings outstretched to make itself look bigger and tail ready to swat at her approaching hand.

And yet it stood deathly still as Silver’s hand made contact with its head. And when she started gently caressing it, the shadows enveloping its body disappeared into the cracks of light in their reality, and left behind were not one, but three miniature animals that quickly crawled up her arm.

One was a tiny monkey, another was a tiny parrot and the last one, was a vivid green tiny gecko.

They were scared and they huddled together on top of Silver’s shoulder.

“There you go… There you go, Laina… That’s okay, don’t rush it… It’s all fine now…” Elegance kept muttering, and once Silver turned back towards them, motioned for everyone to huddle around Laina.

As the young Princess came to and started crying, every single one of her shards embraced her. There were no witty comments from Sprite, no words from Silver, no remarks from Elegance, and no curious questions from the little girl. They all were there for Laina. They all wanted to give her respite from her pain.

And just like that, surrounded by the broken shards of her own self, Laina’s chains disappeared, and she embraced them back.

Silver’s heart caught in her throat… And by the way the other shards were beginning to tremble, she knew they were in a similar predicament.

They all shared a tender moment right there, in the very cell that had broken their spirit an eternity ago. Even the three tiny creatures that had once misguidedly tried to devour the others in order to keep them close and safe managed to find their way onto Laina’s head.

Then, the warm soothing light consumed it all and washed away the world of memories within Li’Kalla’s soul.

VI


For once, she woke up staring up at a clear, sunny sky. There were no signs of rain clouds closing in and even the water that eternally dripped off her skin seemed to have just… vanished. Li’Kalla groggily sat herself up and felt her face with her hands, noticing with a sharp stab of pain the slowly mending flesh and bone that was the right side of her head.

She groaned and grasped at her chest as she felt her heartbeat in a way that reminded her of an eternity ago.

The dulled goddess, with silver hair and eyes no longer shone. Instead, she could have easily been mistaken for a normal Valthumir. She tried to summon her wings, but they didn’t come. She tried to call forth rain, and realized her connection was so thin and strained, that all she could create was a tiny cloud of steam.

With difficulty, she stood up. She stumbled many times during the process, her legs giving way due to the exhaustion that reached her very core, but eventually she managed to stand and look around her with her one functional eye.

It was… A clean landscape. Clearly the ground was still wet, and the Hollow still laid there in the middle of the crater, ominously calling Li’Kalla’s name.

But, it was clean. There were no cities, no suffering, no invaders… She sighed and looked down at her hands, noticing the cracks along her form spilling her light with more intensity now.

She had to find her daughters… To make sure they were okay.

So she forced her body to walk towards the direction her heart pointed in.

It did not take long for her heart to give her it’s answer. From the top the cleaned riml, there first came a dark shape, bounding toward her as dark shapes did. It was the molf, from earlier, and upon its back was the two she knew to be her daughters.

As the Molf neared, their shapes came into her vision. Arwen with her hand around Aella’s waist, riding to her. One with a worried expression, the other a look of stone.

Li’Kalla beamed at the sight of her daughters, her face lighting up and a shine coming to her eyes. And as the Goddess relaxed, she collapsed.

”M… Mom!” Aella exclaimed, straining against Arwen’s arm before turning toward her sister. ”We have to go help her, sis!”

Arwen held Aella tightly at first, before relaxing. She then sighed and as they arrived at Li’Kalla, she let go of Aella and dismounted. She paused next to Tashal as Aella rushed over to their mother. Tentatively, she made her way over to them, and knelt next to Li, across from Aella.

Li’Kalla struggled to focus her eyes, and she looked at both her daughters next to her and teared up and sniffled. ”...I’m sorry I wasn’t better… not better than my own mother, or my own father. I wish I could’ve given you a real childhood… Real friends...” She muttered out her words and lifted her trembling hands up. Aella instantly grabbed onto one hand with both of hers and sniffled as well, then looked at Arwen with the widest sad puppy eyes she’d ever given her.

Arwen’s face was blank, her emotions hidden, yet, as always her eyes betrayed her. She gingerly took one of her mother’s hands and looked to the floor, quickly, hiding her tears and confusion. She saw Li’s ichor pooling. ”It’s okay… it’s okay… I’m tired of all of this… I just want… You two to live a good life. Please...”

Aella sobbed and rubbed her face against Li’Kalla’s cold palm. ”Mom, don’t die mom…! We would be dead if you hadn’t come for us. If you hadn’t healed me, I wouldn’t be able to walk… Come on Mom… Get better and let’s go back home, please…” Aella pleaded and whined.

”W-Why…” Arwen blurted out suddenly, looking at Li with blue orbs. [color=lighblue]”Why did you do those things to me?”[/color] she asked. ”Why were you so mean? Why wouldn’t you listen? Why didn’t you care what I wanted? Why… Why…” her voice broke as she began to sob.

Li’Kalla focused her eyes on Arwen, taking in a deep, slow breath, and then exhaling and looking up at the sky. ”I will show you… Something that was called a ‘fairytale’ back home… Watch…”

Li’Kalla smiled faintly and with one last push of strength, raised her hands to caress her daughters’ faces. As she did so, a slight zap of energy went into their bodies, and Li’Kalla’s carefully censored memories flooded into their minds. After that, she wiped their tears gently, looked at them one last time, and then everything went bright and she went limp. ”... love you, smile… you’re free...”

It hit Arwen first.

"No… No no no!" she cried out as she tried to shake her mother awake. "I understand, please! Please momma, come back. Come back! You have so much to make up for, please!" she yelled as her tears flowed ever harder. Her face was twisted in pain and anguish after having witnessed her mother's story. She didn't understand it all, but she knew enough to realize Li was a victim and she was broken just like herself. And it was in that broken place she knew it had been the only thing she had known. She hated her as much as she pitied her, but that didn't change the fact that she wanted her to still be alive. Slowly she put her face into her mother's chest and sobbed.

Aella was still. Slightly gold-tinged tears ran down her cheeks as she stared at the body of her mother. It shifted in front of her… Hair colour ever changing, scars appearing and disappearing al over her skin. Until suddenly, the changes settled on the appearance of a girl that couldn’t be much older than them. With fair skin and long blonde hair. She lay there peacefully… With something that was almost like a smile on her face.

Aella held onto her mom’s limp hand and closed her eyes. She felt as her body dissipated into a mist, and she felt as the very ground shifted and groaned in agony.

The skies remained clear. A flock of birds flew across the Blue above the two Princesses’ heads.

Aella looked at Arwen and wiped her tears. The Foreas girl didn’t really understand much of what she had seen in her mother’s memories. She only truly understood that she had always been in pain and in conflict with herself… But that had always been sort of obvious to her, in hindsight.

”The body disappeared...” Aella muttered towards Arwen, who was still crying.

Arwen began to punch the ground where Li had been as she cried angry tears. "That's the fate of anyone who meets us. They disappear." she said defeated as her bloody hand dropped loosely to the ground, mixing with the wet earth. She hunched over, her body tense as she felt a hole be ripped inside of her.

Aella kept silent and looked at the ground where Li’Kalla had been laying on just a moment ago. After a while, she scooted over to Arwen’s side and wrapped her arms around her. ”It’ll be better from now on. You’ll see, sis.”

Arwen did not look up at Aella. Instead she let herself break down, and all that remained were sobs. It went on that way for a long time, until a strange feeling crept up into her. A feeling of warmth and kindness. All slightly interrupted by Aella shaking Arwen and tightening her embrace around her, as if she was scared.

”Someone’s arrived… They look like...”

Arwen looked up to see a figure hovering over them. She wore armor of white, her face was… Was reminiscent of Laurien’s but as she approached, the feeling of warmth grew stronger. She spoke at once in a worried voice. ”Are you alright? Are you hurt?” Arwen tried to speak, but her voice caught in her throat.

”Huh...” Aella flinched back a little as the stranger walked closer, scooting so she’d be between Arwen and the woman, and then studied the woman’s face while her leaves twitched. ”Our mom’s healing is still fixing my body, but I have no more broken cores at least… Who are you, and-” Aella sniffed the air in the general direction of the woman and tilted her head, ”Why do you smell so nice?”

She stopped a short way from them, a sword now visible at her hip. She also tilted her head and smiled warmly. ”I’m not sure, little one. But what I am sure of is my name. I am Arya and I mean you no harm.” she said softly. Somehow, Arwen could tell the woman was genuine. She began to wipe her tears away. [color=ivory]”Your mother healed you, you said? Where might she be now? This is no place for two girls anymore.”[color]

Aella pursed her lips and stood up, then helped Arwen to her feet. ”Mom’s... dead. You can tell, right? She’s gone and the land is sunny. So is Silver… But, I don’t know if the other one survived. We couldn’t find her before we found Mom.”

The woman’s eyes widened as she looked at them again. ”Your mother was… Li’Kalla?” she asked stepping closer. Aella nodded, her eyes tearing up a little. ”Who was the other one?”

Arwen looked at Arya and said, "Her name was Laurien… And she was our father. If you could believe that." she whispered.

Arya's armor dissipated, revealing a regal dress. She began to cry as she spoke. "I'm so sorry, children. Laurien was… She fell a long time ago and I should have stopped her. But I never thought she would have more children. A foolish thought it was." she began to approach them, Arwen relaxed slightly at her presence. "Look how beautiful you both are. Allow me to reintroduce myself. I am Arya, Demigoddess of Compassion and your aunt."

Arwen's eyes went wide as Arya fell to her knees before them. They had an aunt? Why did… of course they would never be told. "You… you aren't lying are you?" she asked softly.

Arya smiled through her tears and shook her head. "I would never lie. You are my nieces." she said again.

Aella frowned and looked over at the center of the crater, where the ominous Hollow still remained, even after all that had happened. ”Father… Might be down there. Mom flooded the entire area. Not even the buildings withstood the torrent… So if Father is still alive, he should be down there...”

"Then that is where he will remain. I can't explain it, but I have a bad feeling about that place. I don't think Laurien will ever be a threat again." Arya said, following her gaze.

Aella sighed and looked up at the clear sky, then down at her bruised arms. Even then, the bruises seemed to be slowly fading as the last of Li’Kalla’s magic did its work.

”So… What now? We don’t have a home, no one knows us… Where will we go?”

"You may come and live with me and my- Our family, if you want." Arya said with another genuine smile.

Arwen thought about it for the moment. Though she hardly knew Arya, or if she could even believe what she was saying, she felt at ease and comfortable around her. And perhaps… Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad to see this other family. If she even knew what that was beyond her sister. She looked at Aella and nodded.

The Foreas girl sighed and looked at the sky for what felt like the hundredth time that day, and nodded. “I just hope we’ll get to come back some day…”

”You will.” Arya said softly.

”And we’ll visit the Eternal Tree… And see other Foreas… Maybe, maybe we’ll even meet our friends again! If they survived.” Aella cracked a half-hearted grin and shook her whole body in an attempt to get rid of the heaviness upon her shoulders. After doing so, she chuckled. ”Are we walking?”

As Arwen began to stand up, Tashal nudged her and she leaned upon her mount. She looked at Arya and waited to see what the woman would say.

She laughed and then said, ”For now, but help is on the way.”

”What kind of help? Who are they helping? The birds above? Or the rubble we’re standing on?” Aella asked with a strange look, then giggled and turned around, going to pet Tashal’s snout.

”You’ll see.” was all that Arya said, before they journeyed away from the Hollow. Hopefully leaving the memories of what once was, behind.

=====


In the depths of the world, she woke up dry heaving, head pounding, body broken and beyond sore. She feared herself blind at first, but her eyes did not deceive her. The darkness she found herself in was all consuming, and it brought forth a silence that unnerved even her. Wasn’t that a funny thought? She tried to stand, but her left leg was the broken thing she felt, or perhaps that was just her in general? Regardless, she searched for Aaldir, but she could not even hear his whispers. She felt her head, wet with water and sticky ichor. Her crown was gone too.

She shivered. Had it always been so cold?

Something skittered in the darkness. A rock fell upon stone, echoing in the deep. Her heart began to beat fast, far too fast. Was this… This feeling… It was fear. Why was she afraid?

Beyond her fear, she felt pain. Had it always been so noticable?

Why did she hurt?

Why wasn’t she healing?

Why were her senses so dull?

And it dawned upon her at last, in the depths of the world. She had become mortal again. The familiar had returned with cold clarity. The skittering grew closer, multiplied across the cold floor.

Panic took her, and she began to crawl away, like a pathetic little worm. She hated herself for what she had become. Pathetic, just like Li. She almost killed her. How did it all go wrong?

Why was it so hard to just THINK?

She felt moist tears begin to fall as she whimpered in the dark. This was not the end she had envisioned. Not to die, so far away from the light. Cast aside, just like she had always been. Forgotten and alone. With no one coming to her rescue. She had made sure of that, hadn't she?

But it was an end, all the same.

The skittering neared, pounding in her ears before it abruptly stopped. Replaced by something hot blowing on the back of her neck, something moist and hungry. Breath. Smelling of rancid meat.

She screamed, in the depths of the world, and not a soul heard her.




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Oraculum Perambulans in tenebris

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Grande Finale




With doom they came.

The throng of massive spined bodies, each large enough to crush three selka in a blow, surged across the sloping plain, trampling the tall grass into a dirty mulch. Their crimson eyes burned with soulless malice, ready to feast themselves on the sight of slaughter. The blood-drinkers of the Hooflands grew fat and strong in battle, and this pack had clearly rampaged through more than one tribe on its way towards the shore.

Despite the monsters’ size, the thought only made Split’s rage mount within her as she watched them approach.

Behind her, the hill crest had been stacked with large rocks, a crude palisade of sharpened sticks bridging the wide gaps between the awkwardly spaced boulders. It could scarcely be called a barricade, but there was only so much two score of selka could do in less than a week. The villages this far down the coast were still few and scarce, and Split’s own warning had been the first this one had heard of the blood-drinkers being on the warpath. It was fortunate she had reached them first at all, for, though she travelled alone, the cruel purpose that seemed to have come into the beasts drove them to a tenacity they had lacked before.

Plump grey shapes shuffled apprehensively behind the makeshift wall. Like most southerners, the Wottja had known little bloodshed in their secluded lives - the fish were plentiful off the shore, and the tribes too few and small to compete with each other over anything. Though they had seen blood-drinkers before, it had never been such large ones, nor so many at once, nor, worst of all, ones so driven to assail them overtly rather than ambushing lone huntsmen. What spears and knives they wielded were fit more for skewering bush-rats and fish than for piercing the hide of those things, and the party assembled for the defense of their homes was all too keenly aware of that.

This was why Split had left them in that relative safety while she stood on the slope alone, her axe over her back, three jagged stone knives in her hands.

Anon, she stood no longer, but ran, now on two legs, now on three, to meet the onrushing horde.

The packleader reared up, claws outsplayed to cut her down without breaking its stride. Its monstrous size turned against itself as she dodged under the swipe of its paws and jabbed a blade into its gut. With lightning-fast movements, she stabbed and pulled as one climbing a glacier, grappling her way up the creature’s bulk as it thrashed and roared, the ones behind it ramming into each other as rank after rank slowed down in hesitation. The rough stone edges tore gaping wounds in the earthen-red underbelly as they were dragged out, and black blood poured in streams.

With a vault, Split brought herself over the beast’s horned head. She struck at its upper eyes, and its roars rose to an agonized pitch; even as she did, her knives passed from her upper hands to the lower ones, and the free clutches unslung the axe from its harness. The vicious curved blade thirsted after a drought of many days, almost vibrating in anticipation, and, clenching her jaws, the kostral let herself be overtaken by its fury.

She leapt, scrambled, almost danced over the heads and backs of the blood-drinkers, every bound drawing forth gouts of foul life, every twist breaking off horns and maiming limbs. She stepped on knives and rolled over her axe, and when those did not suffice, her claws and teeth joined the fray, ripping eyes from their sockets and biting off talons. The mass beneath her heaved as a single immense horror, screaming and bellowing in a host of voices, reaching for her with dozens of limbs, lunging with a forest of horns. The brown blood of the Pit-dweller mingled with the black ichor of the soulless. And still she did not let up, not even slow, as battle-rage drove her and her arms fell without guidance into motions practised many a time. Her eyes were glazed over, scarce even seeing the carnage, and the brand on her shoulder pulsated with a light as of buried embers.

Their erstwhile prey forgotten, the blood-drinkers had clustered to seize this darting gnat. They smelled the smouldering force within her, and hungered as they never had before for something so small. A wrath of their own clouded their senses, and when they struck, it was most often another of their number who bled. One after another, they fell, blinded, mutilated, haemorrhaging from cuts and gashes all over their bulk. Split did not stop to count her triumphs, but struck and hacked still, until her hide was once more as dark as it had been in her long-gone youth.

Even when the last of the monsters collapsed with a rasping groan, she did not let her arms stop twitching, did not let the fire inside her die out. She knew the battle was not over yet.

On the opposing hill, a tall shadow that could have been a tree began to move. It strode down slowly, deliberately, aiming its steps to crush as much of the surviving grass as could fit under its wide foot. The single, lidless red eye amid its cyclopic head looked with cold disgust on the failure of its herd, but it did not speak as it advanced, stony fingers grinding into readiness.

Split felt her body lurch ahead, despite herself, eager to leap upon this new foe, but held back with all the strength she could muster. In an effort that far surpassed the entire massacre of the blood-drinkers, she forced herself to move back by one step, then another, then another. Every foot a battle against her own flesh, she backed up, away from the seeping mound of still warm carcasses, up towards the barricade. The colossus of dark stone, emboldened by her apparent retreat, took a longer stride. With a grunt, she loosened her fingers, enough for her axe and knives to drop to the ground.

That was the signal. Pushed by grey hands, the trunk of a young tree, cut down and smoothed, rolled over the boulders and fell to the ground beside her. Almost before it struck down, the kostral had seized upon it, digging her claws into the wood. Though the trunk was half again as long as her, it rose high, stabbing into the clear sky. As it began to arc down towards the earth again, she leapt. The stone giant was just where she had expected it to be, and though its faceless glare did not betray it, surprise must have flashed through its mind as it saw the enormous club descend onto it.

It struck with all its weight, in a crash of splinters and pebbles. The colossus staggered and almost toppled to the side, its left arm now an uneven outcropping on its shoulder. Before it could raise its massive frame upright again, another thundering blow chipped off half its leg, bringing it down with an impact that shook the ground. It tried to prop itself up with its one remaining arm, but the remains of the trunk arced down again, straight upon its eye. With a final crunch, the body fell still, and the stones forming it fell apart as the preternatural force holding them together faded.

Only then did Split allow herself to breathe out fully. The splintered trunk in her hands dropped down, and she soon followed suit, wheezing as the exhaustion of that brief whirlwind of death caught up to her. She lay, amid blood and crushed stone, two eyes closed and the others looking up at the sky. It was so clear, so calm. She could hear the sounds of the grasslands again, and the buzzing of the first curious flies that descended on the site of the massacre. A rush of elation filled her at the sight of the spotless blue above her, and she wanted to stand up and stretch out her arms, but weariness weighed her down, and it quickly passed.

Something prodded her under her flank, pushing up. Split glanced aside and found herself looking into a concerned whiskered face. She narrowed one eye and weakly mimicked a half-smile with the edge of her mouth, but did not have the strength for any other gesture of reassurance. The face drew back, and she was lifted to her hind limbs, robust rubbery shoulders catching her under the first pair of arms. She let herself be carried up the hill, head almost dangling if not for lack of a neck, her gaze still contentedly lost in the azure void yonder. The day was warm and still.

***


Darkness had crept down, quiet and sly like a thief, and the many eyes of night winked from the ever-cloudless pitch sky. The far, far glimmers of the storied heavenly fires looked like sparks from the great festive flames the Wottja had built up in the burnished space between their holes and coarse huts, the fragments of Split’s giant club feeding the heat of revelry in what a contemplative watcher may have appreciated as a curious symbol of the world’s ways. Yet the minds of those gathered around the bonfire were a simpler sort, and the burning effigy of vicissitude was used to cook pieces of fish and meat on rough skewers. The selka had revelled and danced away the day in celebration of their saviour, and now were almost all as tired as her, sprawling placidly in a rolling tide that could have been mistaken as an extension of the nearby whispering sea.

Split, who had recouped a little from the morning’s struggle after a half-slumbering rest, crouched in the place of honour, axe at her side, traces of quiet exhilaration still in her eyes. The bonfire’s shifting light flickered over her weathered body. Even to one who had never seen a kostral before, it was clear that she was old. Her skin had long faded to ashen gray, drained by age and discoloured by the sun; its scabby carapace was cracked and scarred in countless places, the latest seeping scratched having joined an intricate web that spanned her entire body, deep and shallow; her claws were yellowed, and, behind the moment’s beatitude, her gaze was weary. But flesh still rippled with tremendous strength under her hide with her every movement, and her teeth, though cleft as they had ever been, did not quiver as they bit and gnawed through the crude feast. While most of the selka were a good deal fatter than her, none had eaten as much that evening.

“So, what happened then?” Nophoe, a wizened and round-bellied matron, shifted her gaze from the fire and onto Split. “How’d you get split off the wood people?”

The kostral leaned back on her mid-arms, front eyes drifting down from the sky and onto the faces of her audience. Her story had kept growing as she travelled, and tribe after tribe had been itching to hear where such a strange being had come from. The Wottja were no exception, though the urgency of their preparations had never yet left her enough time to complete her tale. Now, however, there was nothing more to hound them, and she could finish.

“Was after I’d run into the girl, Arya again.” Arya. What had become of her since then? Where had she gone off to? Good thing that last time she’d looked like she was more than able to look out for herself, though really that was not all there was to life. Wherever she might have been, Split wished she was having a good time of it.

She gave a shake of her shoulders and resumed. “Right, after that, yeah. Got on along some more, then them things started coming out. Them blood-drinkers, stone people. Was a lot of them at the start. Not like today, this much more.” She stretched apart four hands to show just how many more. “So we went beating on them together. They was gutted good in a fight, you won’t believe. Lot of them, and wood’s wood.”

The selka gave a chorus of nods and hums of assent, and one snickered “Yeah, you’ve shown us that all right.”

“Then,” she continued, “them packs started breaking up and going all ways, like you seen ‘em. So we figured we’d better do too. Wasn’t need for us to fight ‘em all together, and if we went two ways we’d keep them off more places. ‘Least, I figured, but he must’ve too. Was another time for us both. Me, I’d found people, and he’d no time to judge. Maybe he’s found some again now.”

“Yeah,” Nophoe bobbed her head, “hope he has. Sounded like he was good at it, and gods know folks need that sometimes.”

“Right on that,” Split pried another fish clean with a couple of swipes through her mouth, “Doubt he’ll be losing the touch soon. So he went west, and I south -” she dislodged a stuck fishbone from her bifurcated tooth with a finger, “- and after a bunch of scars, I’m here. Keeps you busy, all the chopping.”

“I dunno what the other people said,” a younger tribesman spoke up, “but we’ll have you know you didn’t take them scars for nothing. You’re one of us now, and I’ll dare any to say not!”

A cheer went up from the gathered selka, and Split let herself slide back, eyes to the winking stars, as flipper-like hands smacked her on the back and shoulders. Say what you will about being alone growing on you, she thought as she whistled in contented exhaustion, it was good to be among friends.

***




When she awoke, it was dark. She stretched out a hand to feel the tent’s rough hide before her eyes, but found herself grasping at the void. An inexplicable chill coursing through her bones, she pushed herself up, traces of sleep quickly fading from her head. No, she was not simply reaching for the far end. There truly was nothing where heavy folds should have hung from the rough wooden poles of the simple roof’s backbone.

Yet there were no lights above, only a distant, sickly pale gleam where nothing like that should have been.

Split’s contemplation of the darkness, so deep that even her subterranean-bred eyes struggled to pierce it, was broken by a sound somewhere off to the side. Something dragged over the ground, something distantly rumbling, whispering, and heavy. It faded as it should have come ahead of her, then began again, further back behind, a damp, creeping sound heralding an impalpable, malign presence. Spinning around, Split reached for her axe, but found nothing where it ought to have lain. Instead, as the sounds vanished, her fingers closed around something small, hard and jagged. She lifted it to her face, and stared at the fragment of clean bone, broken off where its smoothness was marred by the signs of vicious teeth.

She looked around again with eyes now accustomed to the inky emptiness, and saw a world unlike the one she had left when waking. The village was nowhere to be seen, nor was the sea. Tall trees of a kind she had never seen before rose all around, silvery in the dim glow from up above. They parted about where she stood, leaving place for a small clearing. No grass sprouted there, no undergrowth, however thin. The soil under her hands was grainy and yielding, as grey as the towering stems - ash, she realised as she smelled the bone still held up near her face. More pieces like it lay all about, half-sunken into the dusty ground, several larger, but diminutive nonetheless. She spied skulls like those of apes, and ribs of cages no larger than her palm scattered around, all bearing the marks of ghoulish gnawing. Tracks like those of hooves dotted the bleak surface of the ground around them.

Just as the shock of her new surroundings’ impossibility began to set in, the sound came again. It was still behind her, but closer than it had been, much too close. She could guess at the shape of the viscid mass dragging itself on the acrid earth among the trees from its churning and scraping, and she loathed it as much as it struck her with a new chill of fear. It spoke now, its gibbering whispers forming themselves into the distorted outlines of words.

”West,” it hissed, in what may have been either a command or a decree of inevitability, ”Go west. Go west.”

Its writhing drew closer, and Split felt it looming over her, its mockery of speech all she could hear, all she could imagine hearing. The fury of being cornered surged up in her, and, clenching her fists and teeth, she spun around to face the presence.

She could not have imagined. Vast as it has seemed, as she had thought it to be from the weight of its movements, it had been nothing compared to what she saw. The thing filled her sight, sweeping aside the trees like so many insignificant twigs and swallowing the sky with a single undulation of its amorphous bulk. It was a single festering sore, a wound in the world itself, that awned with a mouth of innumerable sharp teeth like mountains. It opened and closed as it spoke, and yet grew neither smaller no larger - ever it was all.

”Go west,” it howled again, ”find me, and he will fall.”

Then it gnashed its uncountable teeth, and in a start and a flash of darkness Split woke up.

***


She slunk away, silently, in the deep of night. It bothered her to leave the selka so, without a farewell, but the echoes of the voice in the dream had taken root in old, buried memories, and would not let her be still. Somehow, whatever had spoken to her that way knew - it had not just been a blind guess, she was certain. It had known what she would listen to, more than anything else, and loath as she was to admit it, it had known right. The ancient oath came floating up from the years, decades, centuries of half-remembrance that had accumulated over it, and with it, its entire foundation, every memory of pain and death in the accursed underworld. And, above all, the hatred around those four burning eyes that overlooked everything.

Thus she had gone, leaving but a parting gift in the guise of the most elaborate of her stone knives. Past the barricade she went, past the slaughtered bodies of the blood-drinkers, the shattered remains of the stone giant. She climbed over the hill the monsters had descended that morning, finding footholds in the gouges left by their talons. The sea was soon out of sight, and then out of earshot, as he passed a thicket that had miraculously stood untouched by the beasts, a grassy field, another hill-crest. And there, on a rock standing jarringly in a faint depression among the ridges, he awaited.

The first sign she noticed was the smell. Even from afar, putrid wafts akin to those in the night-vision, but much more intense now, told her that she was approaching her destination. It was fouler than rot, which for a moment made her think of how the selka would dispose of the blood-drinkers’ bodies before their decay started to spread illness, harsher than rust, viler than infected blood, yet akin to all those together.

A sharp whistle flew past her head, and she brought her front eyes to face the being. Though nowhere as large as he had made himself appear, he was still massive, almost as tall as her and a good deal bulkier. Foul grimy metal was his skin, unequal clawed gauntlets his hands, and a score of grinning maws his face. The sign of the clenched fist on his chest told her all she needed.

“You’re from him?” she growled, settling down in a crouch to mirror his, but visibly leaning an arm on her axe.

”Yeah, but also no,” the being gargled, ”I’m him, but not from him, and also not really him. Gut it, I’ve had it with this spit,” and spit he did something sharp into the ground, ”All you need to know, I’m Vrog and I’m not with him. That good?”

Split shrugged her foremost shoulders. “Guess it’ll have to do. That mark you got, though?”

”What?” Vrog shrugged in turn, ”You got one too.”

“Fair. So that’s why you said it? You’re in the same spot too?”

”Almost right on the spit,” he held up a finger that looked well-suited for carving out eyeballs, ”Except I got the better deal, ‘course I do, heh. I got the way out, for me, for you, for every scrapper down there.”

Three of Split’s eyes half-closed skeptically. “I’d think that a sharp gutface like you woulda taken it already.”

”That’s ‘cause I want to help, ya slagbrain!” The finger pointed at her accusingly. ”I swear, every time I try not to gut everybody straight up, I keep getting tooth. Told ‘em, the problem ain’t me, it’s the world. Good thing I don’t got much of this spit left to go, so ya listen close.”

“What’d ya mean, not much left? What kinda way out’s that you found?” she cocked her head aside, curiosity mixing with skepticism, “You’re not talking of giving the gut up?”

”’Course not, who’d you take me for,” Vrog cackled, ”Thing is, I found a place outta here, straight up. Dream thing or whatever, don’t really give a spit ‘bout them specifics, but there’s got to be drink and parties all the time, it’s gonna be wild. Dunno if my ticket there’ll take more than one, so don’t ask ‘bout that.”

“Wasn’t gonna to,” Split shook her shoulders, mouth snapping in negation, “I got enough dream spit to last a life, no thanks to ya.”

”Good. Now anyway, I’m not gonna need this old heap of scrap,” Vrog tapped his stomach with a dull clatter, ”up there, and since I got to be feeling good to get in, I figured I’d leave it to some scrapper as needs it. Like ya. Took me a slagged bit to find you, too, so if you say no I’ll do me better by eating ya.”

“Look, not giving ya tooth here, but,” she scratched her head, “what the spit’d you think I’m gonna do with a lot of, eh, vrog?”

”’s fine,” he waved a hand, ”I ain’t just gonna gutted drop it on you like this. Thing is, I got scrap in here that he ain’t got no idea about. Add in the spark that keeps it running and a bit of slick, and I’ll bet you scrap to slag it’s gonna be enough to bring down a god. Maybe not straight a way, and maybe not one like him, but” he splayed his claws, ”you ain’t ever gonna get a better shot. That a deal?”

Split rotated her head sideways, one eye facing straight up, considering. She could not help but think Vrog was right - she certainly did not see herself having any better chances than the one he was offering now any time soon, likely ever. At the same time, striking a deal with a piece of Narzhak, and one who looked and smelled like this, made her hesitate.

“Sounds good enough,” she brought her eyes slightly more in line with the many mouths, “and what’s my part in it?”

”Nothing!” Vrog gave a gurgling laugh, ”Nothing you wouldn’t do anyway. Just take it and use it, I know you’re dying to. Not as literal as me, but ya get it.”

“Deal, then,” she extended a hand and shook the sickeningly incrusted claw that came in response. When she withdrew it, she found herself holding a coarse leathery scrap. “The spit is this?”

”That’s for getting in close like the slagger won’t notice. ‘Fore you get to him, you’ll stop by some of my people, give ‘em this and they’ll know what to do. Don’t worry ‘bout reaching them, got it all set up for ya, you’ll see. Either way,” he jabbed out a probing tongue, smelling the air about him, ”that’s it for me, I’m’a get out of here now. Gut ya all, ya spithole!”

He raised a fist to the heavens, thumb sticking out between the uppermost two fingers, then smoothly transitioned into pointing at the far green luminescent gash in the night sky. As Split was distracted by the odd gestures, his tongue suddenly darted out, coiling around her axe and drawing back into the suddenly impossible width of a maw before it even struck her what was happening. She did not even think of starting after it, but sat watching as the mouth found its original shape again, then joined the others in an expression which must have been the closest it could muster to a beatific smile. A somewhat forced one, which soon broke.

”The gut’s up with it? It ain’t working,” Vrog grumbled, hands falling to scratch his head as a tongue shot up to point at the celestial light. Abruptly, he snapped his fingers with a metallic screech. ”Right, peace of mind. Gotta get that on.”

Another snap, and suddenly he was holding an upright brass cylinder. Threads of vapour coiled skywards over its wide brim, and several mouths stretched out of the face holding them to greedily inhale them. After some steady pulls, contented grins spread over them, this time in earnest.

”Gotta hand it, though,” Vrog chuckled, ”I had a good run of it. Heh.” His right claw rose, pointing at Split one last time.

”Just do what comes natural.”

And, as suddenly as that, it fell limp. The living pestilence that had been Vrog was well and truly gone from Galbar.

Lost in contemplation of the sudden change that had come over him in his last moments, Split only faintly noticed how his bulk began to drip and liquefy, flowing down the stone first in rivulets, then in streams, and how the molten slag he had once been and had now returned to pooled and twisted into strange shapes. Only when it was still did she look down.

At the foot of the stone lay an axe, not unlike hers, but larger and far fouler. Rust and grime coated its heft and blade, caked black ichor filled the gaps along its jagged edges, and crusts of dark ash stuck to it by unnameable fluids spread over it in splotches. It was warm to the touch, and heavy even for her when she tried to lift it. Even keeping her hands at good distance from the blade, she could feel that was where Vrog’s foulness had gone - malevolence curled around it like invisible ink in water, and the vile deathly intent radiating from it could almost be smelled.

But then, Narzhak deserved no better.

The question of what exactly Vrog had meant in telling her not to worrying about the way there began to rise again, but it was overtaken by an abrupt realisation of how weary she was. Half a night of nightmares had not been nearly enough after the morning’s battle. Pushing aside all thoughts of revenge, wonder and caution, Split let herself drop to the ground near the axe and drifted into familiar, dreamless sleep.

***


She woke up to great eyes of flame gazing at her from an iron face.

As if stung, she leapt up, axe in hand, holding the blade towards the presence. Fragment of thoughts flitted through the fear and surprise in her mind - was this what he had meant? That the fight would start as soon as she woke up? Much as she had been expecting this very moment for most of her life, Split realised now how woefully unprepared she was to face the god. It was all she could do not to break into running that very moment, thoughts of revenge and justice forgotten amid devouring terror.

The eyes did not move, and she wondered why he had not struck yet. Or, for that matter, while she was asleep. The question grew into a calming doubt, and then she noticed that the eyes were only two.

The being crouching over her was not Narzhak. It was akin to him in its immensity, armoured skin and fiery gaze, but that was where the similarities ended. Its body was serpentine and lean, bony, even, and its arms were vast folded wings. There was something of the kostral in its shape, but it was diluted in a myriad of bestial traits.

Its stare remained fixed on her, and she thought she saw impatience in the dancing flames within its hollow eye-sockets. No, she felt it inside her own head, like that one time so long ago, but weaker. It was a command all the same, yet without the weight of supreme dominion behind it, and it had no true power over her. Still, she felt it all the same. Get on, the eyes said, and so she did, axe slung over her back, clambering over the ridges of iron ribs and clinging to the crest upon the winding spine.

The great wings unfurled, beat once, twice, and for the first time in her life Split-Tooth was flying.

It could not have been all that bad. Arya did it all the time, after all - had been doing it even back when she had been a scared hatchling. True, it was not something that came as easily to her, but if she held on strongly enough, it would go just as smoothly. But, no matter how many times she told herself that, her eyes and teeth stayed clenched so tight she thought her head might burst. Calm down, the colossal beast’s annoyed thoughts washed over her now and again in regular waves, but she felt them less keenly than the irony. No true power over her it had, indeed, not even when, she was forced to admit, it would not have been a bad thing.

The flight lasted longer than she could say. The rare few times she dared open an eye by a crack, the sky was sometimes clear, sometimes dark, though she could not say whether it was due to day and night chasing each other or the path of their voyage traversing the banks of storms. Wind and rain lashed over and around her, but through her thick hide she felt it no more keenly than down on land. The only way for her to mark the passage of time was the beating of the monster’s wings, and she had lost track of it almost as soon as she had started keeping it.

At long last, the movements of the spine around her grew less and less even, and when she pried an eye open she was no longer surrounded by blue emptiness or billowing clouds. A thick red fog, snaring the light of day, whirled all about, stirred by the beast’s flight. As it washed upon her, she felt the tang of blood in her mouth. Unbidden, it roused memories. Who else could make the sky itself bleed?

Her own veins suddenly felt swollen and heavy, and she felt herself lurching downwards through the air. They had arrived.

A heavy blow somewhere below her, and everything came to a halt. Get off, the monster spoke to her inner ear, and so she did, sliding down the cline of its skeletal side made slick by the charnel fog. Almost as soon as she alighted on the hard ruddy earth, the wings snapped again overhead and took flight once more, the wind raised by them knocking her down despite her best efforts to dig her fingers into the soil. Grumbling, she pushed herself back up, sparing half a glance from a back eye at the leviathan shape disappearing into the sky, grey and red like a bloodied blade, and looked ahead.

She was standing over the ridge of a low hill, the ground sloping smoothly from her hands in a cline dotted with spiny grey shrubs that evened out into a wide smooth plain. There, by the sight of it, a great battle had just been fought. Dozens of squat, rounded bodies, covered to various degrees in filthy rags and scrappy armour, littered the expanse, their porcine faces twisted into mortal countenances of rage and pain. Crude weapons, most of them notched and splattered with red, lay scattered among them, along with the larger bulks of felled boars, backs bound by rough saddles and metal plates and snouts a mess of froth and gore.

Stalking among the carnage, scavengers of various kinds were already at work. At the far edges of the field, huge apelike brutes picked through the corpses, tearing out chunks of flesh or snapping off the largest pieces of cuirass and trying them onto themselves. Winged beings that - she grit her teeth in distaste at the sight - looked like mongrels of kostral and the giant that had brought her there, forearms warped into membranous limbs and skin marred by sickly growths, swooped down on isolated bodies, gnawing on them like vulturous beasts.

But most numerous were that same kind of swine-faced imps, either the remaining victors of the struggle or marauders following in their wake. Much like the kin she had known in the Pit, they seemed perfectly at ease as they carved their own fallen kind to pieces with knives and hatchets, roasting them over improvised fires and squabbling over looted armaments.

Her eyes fell over a group larger than most. They struggled, shoved, pushed and dragged each other in a living roil, trying to be among the first to reach the center. In the middle of it all, a small, but well-armed group of paunchy guards held them at bay, while their even fatter, but unarmoured leader dug into a sheaf of large sacks slung over the back of an irritated boar. Something passed between his hands and those of the crowd, and as it did those who had claimed their prize hurried back to their campfires.

As Split’s eyes drifted over the grisly spectacle, inwardly cursing Vrog for not telling her properly where to go next, she noticed that a goblin from one of the circles appeared to have seen her. Her gaze lingered there - she could not be quite sure, but that group looked unusually odd. There were but three of them, but two a good deal larger than any other on the field barring their other comrade, who was simply enormous in comparison. The sharp-eyed beast-fiend elbowed the goliath, and it turned its massive head towards what could only have been her. It gave a wave with a stubby hand, and, having no better recourse, she trotted down the hillside and through the field towards the campfire, no one paying much heed to her as she went.

When she reached the trio and crouched by the crackling flames, she was greeted with a series of grunts, and the giant pig-thing addressed her in a broken, but surprisingly good approximation of Pit-speech.

“Ugly gargoyle as ain’t got no wings, checks out. Big-mouth the one that sent you?”

Split snarled, but before she could answer another unusually large imp trotted over from the swarming crowd, triumphantly waving a pouch made with something’s desiccated stomach in one hand, and dropped into a slouch beside her.

“Got a deal on this one! Mix of salt and shred-weed from up north in the Pan. Ain’t tasted this kind here before, rutting curious to try.”

“Deal? How much’s that mean?” the giant, evidently the leader of the small group, asked skeptically.

“Just two scraps. Ya shoulda seen everyone's faces around when I got it this cheap, but they knows not to mess with us Keepers!”

With these words, the latecomer dipped two stocky fingers into its pouch and drew out a pinch of fine white powder mixed with dried pieces of pink-veined leaves. It artfully spread its bounty over the pieces of meat sizzling over the fire, and a pungent smell went up from them. It was so sharp that Split almost spat, but from how the creatures around her drooled it must have been extremely appetizing for them.

“Anyways,” the towering leader turned back to Split, “I get that right?”

“Yeah,” she finally was able to growl in response, “he did, and if you wants to keep your fat head you’re gonna watch who you calls ugly gargoyle.” The axe’s head demonstratively slammed into the ground by her foremost fingers.

“A’ight, a’ight, what’s yer being so touchy,” the boar-beast snorted, “We’re all friends here, ain’t we. I’m Oruff, by the ways.”

“Nahf,” rejoindered the one who had first spotted her.

“Kniff,” added the one who had brought the spice.

“Hruf,” finished the last one, “we’re Keepers, rutting best of piggutkind. And if you ain’t an ugly gargoyle, what’re you?”

“I’m Split. Split-Tooth,” she bared her jagged maw as if the display was needed to confirm the truth of her name, “Of the Pit-folk. Beats me where them gargoyles’s from, but if you mean them things,” she pointed at one of the far-off winged shapes, “I’ll give they’re kinda like us.”

“The more ye know,” Oruff shrugged, “Ain’t for us to bother about. We’ve got meat on the fire, so let’s get to it. Any of ye remember what’s we supposed to do with this one?”

“Watch’s supposed to know,” answered Hruf, and produced a thick metallic disk hanging from a fine chain. A pink finger flipped it open, revealing a small, snarling mouth eerily akin to Vrog’s within. It stayed stubbornly closed, even after Split waved her leathery scrap before it under the pigguts’ blank stares.

“Needs its share first,” Kniff explained, cutting off a morsel from a piece of roasting meat with a dagger and carefully holding it before the miniature maw. The pointed teeth seized on it hungrily, thrusting it inwards in an impossible ingestion, then did the same to Vrog’s token. Nahf passed it over to Oruff, who raised it to a drooping ear and tensed it to catch the sudden stream of chattering.

“Right, the skin!” the huge piggut snapped the disk closed and swung it around like a flail, “You mudsnouts didn’t lose it, right?”

“I’d rutted well rather, thing’s a bother to carry around,” Nahf grunted as he laid out one of the folded hides he had been sitting on, revealing it to be the remarkably intact scabby shell of one of the gargoyles. He unceremoniously passed it over to Split, who held it somewhat awkwardly in two hands.

“Now what?”

“Says to pull it on when you get there, where’er that is,” Oruff shrugged again as she tucked away the disk, “Ain’t no rutting business of ours either.”

“How about getting there, that too?” Split rumbled, tapping the soil with her axe.

“An’ that!” Oruff shoved Nahf with a hooved foot, “Go show ‘en how.”

“You don’t leave me nothing when I get back, ye’re dead,” the smaller piggut huffed, but lazily rose to his legs all the same. “‘Ere, Split, let’s make it quick.”

Amid the same general indifference she had met as she had come, Split followed Nahf up the very slope she had descended before passing the top and going down the other way. She had not cast even a glance there on her arrival, and indeed there was not much to see except empty red plains, steely brushes and black rocks. The only thing that truly stood out was an imposing grey hill, overgrown with a bright grey grass that glimmered slightly in the faint daylight.

Nahf let out a sudden loud, animalistic squeal, almost making her jump, and the hill stirred. Legs like pillars unfolded from its sides, what had appeared to be grass bristled and heaved, and a massive head rolled over to stare at them with a groggy bloodshot eye. The gigantic wild boar huffed like a howling breeze, and the warm air almost flattened her against the ground.

“Look at that, never seen him get up when you call ‘im before,” Nahf marvelled, “You got the right way a’right. It keeps working, you just get up there and he’ll bring ye where ye need. Me, I’m getting back ‘fore them rutters eat everything.” And, with that, he trotted back over the hill and out of view.

Split crept closer to the enormous boar, not without some caution. It was even more outlandish to her than the winged behemoth had been, a thing of the world above more than the Pit. Still, there was no domineering will radiating from it, just the warmth and sounds of a living thing, and so it was with greater confidence that she hauled herself up its hide, wary of the hairs’ sharp tips. It was nowhere as comfortable as a jackalope, for sure, but no worse than the fleshless beast either.

With a grunt, the boar arose and began, with neither hurry nor haste, to walk away from the battlefield and towards the distant dark horizon.

***


They stopped at the very edge, where the sanguine clay of the steppes withered away to arid, scorched black across a jagged line. The great boar did not cross into the dead land, but stopped just beyond its frayed edge, letting Split drop to the ground along its flank, then turned back and trotted away with just a shake of its head and a huff of acknowledgement.

The Scar had not changed. Ever as it had haunted her memories for years, decades, centuries, it was as stark and cruel in the sharpness of its jutting rocks and the desolation of its stony soil as it had been the first time she had seen the daylight over its dismal face. The shards that had not fallen from their unnatural midair stasis since time began still hovered higher than her eyes, and the cracks and chasms below them still gaped with a hunger that the lifetime of an entire world could not sate. Over all that time, a single faint breath of life had swept over the afflicted land, and that was a poisonous exhalation from the nether - the ghastly shapes of malformed gargoyles circled overhead, casting flittering shadows across the uneven ground. She grit her teeth in distaste. Almost there. She was almost at the source, and then the time of monstrosities like these would be over.

The weight of the hide she had received from the pigguts in her foremost hands reminded her of both these past and future. She had had plenty of time to examine it on the way through the steppes, feel the recesses of its plagued crust, look into its empty gouged eyes. Even flayed and hollowed-out like that, the gargoyle looked sickeningly similar to what she had seen, day after day, reflected in every pool of clear water she had come across. She did not need to be told whose doing it was; he was evidently not satisfied with shackling the minds of her kind, but had felt the need to warp their bodies as well. Bodies to which he himself had given shape, a shape he discarded when it suited him, as if their flesh was even less than a tool for him. Her middle hand gripped the axe tighter. Almost there.

Holding her breath, she gripped the edges of the gargoyle skin with three hands and pulled it over her back, letting its head fall over hers like a hood. The feeling of weight over her body was there for but a moment, then nothing. Reflexively, she rolled her shoulders, trying to tug at something over them. Instead, she felt something around her elbows drag across the dry earth with a rasp. She looked down, touched the membranes spreading from her forelimbs in disbelief, scratched at the pulsing cysts on her flank, ran a finger along her now smooth face. Whatever he might have been otherwise, Vrog had been sure to be thorough in this. All the same, she was glad she could not see herself now.

Quick. More a feeling than a voice. It will not last forever.

Split breathed in, clutched the axe against her body, then drew her wings together and dove into a large chasm.

Darkness met her, then heat, flame and clamour, and suddenly she was flying. Not daring to budge her wings or look anywhere beyond directly in front of her, she tensed her limbs and veered off, towards the reassuring shadow of a stone outcropping. She clung to it, miraculously keeping her grip on her weapon, hauled herself up over its ledge, and finally looked out upon her long-lost home.

As it had been above, so it was below. The Pit itself had not changed at all; for a moment she had a hard time believing that this was not another of the many moments when she had closed her eyes and called back the sights of her old life. The crackling flames from below and the molten orbs from above had not dimmed a bit, nor had the splintered forms of black rock worn away under their glare. If even some had crumbled and others risen in their place, it was impossible to tell, nor would it really have made a difference - one spire more, one crag less, in the end it was all the same.

Yet here as well as over the Scar, where dead stone had stood unchanged, life had swelled, and she was surprised to see just how much. Far below her, the ground was teeming. Kostral, in numbers many times greater than she had words for, crawled, marched, scurried over the ground. There were more of them than she had ever imagined there could be living things, here or in the world above. The ground looked alive, writhing as they walked past each other, formed into ranks, scattered and regrouped.

And they had changed. Split dimly remembered the first of the iron-bound she had seen just before her exile had begun, and the likes of them had grown in number as well. Now, she could fully appreciate the gruesomeness of the spikes jutting out of eye sockets, of the shards piercing through skin, the blades than replaced fingers, and a sickening rage mounted inside her greater even than the one she felt on seeing the gargoyles that, more numerous than ever, swarmed above the gathering. But those wretches were far from the only ones to bear metal now. Every body below was bound in jagged gleaming plates, everyone had from but one hand to a full four gripping great cleaver, axes, mauls, other vicious things she could not name. The largest among them had hafts of bone and wood affixed to their backs, with black and red banners draped over them; she could see them snarling at their lessers, shoving them about, pummeling them if they tarried. His taskmasters. Almost there.

Then she looked further up, and she saw him.



Only now did she remember than she had never seen him fully, not even on that fatal day, and for a moment she was struck dumb and still with sheer awed terror. Narzhak was immense, larger than anything had any right to be, above or below. He was almost a part of the Pit itself, as dizzyingly vast as its walls that never ended. Her head spun from the mere effort of conceiving how he must have been up close, and she had to look away.

Split closed her eyes and clenched her jaws. She thought of the pestilential gargoyles and the living bodies mangled with iron. Of the overseers trampling their own kind. Of how she had lived knowing nothing but fighting, breeding and eating, all one and the same. Of the brand on her shoulder.

She hardened her every muscle and looked up again.

The Iron God was far away, almost beyond the distant curve of the immeasurable vault, but so colossal was he that she could see his posture clearly. He sat in a gigantic alcove carved in the live rock, leaning back in a crude throne. His right hand leaned on a metal spire taller than the ocean must have been deep - no, not a spire, a weapon; a maul so great that with one blow it could have carved a way from the Pit up to the surface. On his left shoulder there crouched a vast abomination whose shape she could not distinguish, and not just because of the distance. Its veined grey flesh seemed to shift and pool like a fountain of melting stone, in tune with the flickering of her master’s fiery eyes.

A tremor ran through her perch, and she saw that the impossible titan was slowly rising from his seat. It reminded her that she had little time. Drowning her fear in the much greater dread and hatred of her adversary, she pushed herself off the ledge and took wing. This time, the motions of flight came to her from somewhere outside her head, as if the stolen skin were guiding her through them; she pushed down the thought of what that might mean and forged ahead. Through the teeming flocks of gargoyles, between the flaming spheres and the tentacled prowlers that lurked among them, she flanked the cyclopean wall of the Pit at a speed that would have seemed incredible if she had not been doing her best not to pay attention to it. In what could not have been more than a moment, she was over the iron head of the tyrant god, greater than any hill she had ever stood on. It did not even twitch when she landed, which would have been like an earthquake, so insignificant was she upon its crown. The dried-out hide dropped off her as she clung to the irregularities of the divine armour, having served its purpose.

The axe in her middle hands imperiously tugged to the left. With a side-eye, she saw a rift between plates not too far, for all distance meant on that living mountain. For the Giant, it was so minuscule as to be wholly below notice, but for her it was enough to pass through many times over. Carefully, biting down with each clambering step, she made her way across the warm iron expanse, gripping pits and spikes invisible to something as huge as the entity that breathed beneath her. Carrion stench came from the rift in the hot wafts of a heap of corpses after a battle. Fitting.

Split perched over the ragged lip of the gap. “I said I’d come back,” she breathed out in a hiss, “And now I’m here. It’s the end.”

And she vaulted in, axe held high.

***


Narzhak towered, immense, over his assembled legions. Every kostral in the Pit, every tamed boar and dread-beast, every twisted skestral and ironbound was at his feet, summoned by a command as binding as prophecy, awaiting his orders. The Scourge on his shoulder growled ravenously. It was awakening. He hefted the maul Worldbreaker, into which he had forged over the ages the strength to crush any divine in a single blow, and spoke in a voice that shook the earth.

"When time began," he thundered, and the innumerable host stood heeding, "the Elder One who gave us the world set us a task. We had to make his cosmos great, breathe life into it, build it into wonders. Whip it into flourishing. This was the only command of the one to whom we owe everything. Was it too much?"

The brutes scarcely understood the breadth of the notions of his speech, but even so they stamped and cheered as one. No, it was not too much.

"It was just right, and so I went to it! I gave this world everything. I have given it my toil, my flesh, my blood. I have given it my own son, and all of you, who are wrought from my very life. He has done me proud, as have you, those who are loyal and ready to labour and sacrifice for the one true cause that is the soul of Galbar. Under the hands of all my blood-kin, it has swelled, grown rich, as it was meant to. And yet, what?"

A rhetor’s ideal attendants, the kostral bellowed out in prompting response.

"And yet, from the beginning to this very moment, my efforts have been hampered by the chaff that would call themselves my equals in godhood. Wretched excuses for deities they are, rags of filth soaked in weakness. Even with the Elder One’s hand holding theirs, they have failed in the only purpose set before them, one which they were given every conceivable tool and power to abet. For aeons, I could only watch as my work was stunted because this scum couldn’t be arsed to do their part! They huddled on their own scraps of land, miserly counting the skulls of their favourite slaves, while Galbar languished. They locked life in stagnant little cycles, like vermin digging their stinking petty lairs in what was to be a grand universal design! And when they tired of that, they deserted! Abandoned the posts given to them and fled into their dens, into death or mortality! They thought they were safe from my eyes when they slunk away, but I have seen them all, felt every last drop of their ingratitude towards the One whose toil they usurped and threw away. It has grown inside me like a pool of rage waiting to ignite, and now - NO MORE!"

He raised his maul high and roared, and countless voices roared alongside him.

"For the Elder One has tired of their folly, their sloth and childish insolence, and now he comes! He will fulfil the purpose he gave upon us long ago, and the just among us will rejoice even as the unworthy despair. We will clear the way for him, rise to the surface and lay waste to all the monuments of failure the wretch gods take pride in. The blood of their living baubles will run in rivers, their bones shall pile up in mountains, and with my maul I will batter down the doors to their measly retreats and rip them out, piece by piece. They will know centuries of suffering for every instant they have wasted in the universe of spheres, for I am Narzhak, and I toll the hour of their death!"

Somewhere high above, beneath his skin of iron, a cursed axe struck with the hatred of two eternal lifetimes.

Narzhak paused, one eye flickering curiously upwards at the faint tingling he thought he had felt at the back of his head. A mere impression, no doubt, and indeed it was gone in a blink. But then it returned, a little deeper, and then a little more again. He shook his head with a growl, but it persisted, writhing like a minuscule maggot buried somewhere in his yielding flesh - a minuscule itch he could not quite pinpoint. Twisting, growing into a bitter taste, one he had found so repugnant once he had spat it out; yet there was nothing he could spit it from. And sparks of spite, of anger at the arrogance of this gnat of a presence that dared - for it had a will, he felt it - latch onto him in the hour of his triumph. Sparks that flew wild, close, too close to the pyre he had been building in all the time he had prepared for battle -

A light sting was all it took to ignite it. This miserable nameless thing had the audacity to touch him, the greatest and mightiest of all gods! He bellowed out his fury, and his legions shrank in terror at the sudden outburst. The Scourge coiled in surprise, and then leapt away as the Fell Colossus clawed at his own head in mounting rage. The same armour that made him impervious to all forces mortal and immortal stopped his prying talons from finding and squashing the nuisance that so aggravated him. He stomped once, twice, then with a deafening roar upon which hundreds fell dead on the spot trampled forward, blinded by sheer wrath. The great pedestal that led to the upper world crumbled under his titanic steps, but he was beyond awareness now. He thundered and howled, grasping at the void, carving gouges into the stone walls with his visored head, swinging his great maul in berserk abandon.

At long last, it grew too much and with this pinnacle came a flash of mad focus. The shade of irritation deserved nothing short of utter, absolute annihilation, to be shattered to such nothingness that put the time before Galbar to shame. And he, the Bloodied Fist, lord of all strife, was the only one strong enough to deliver it.

And thus Narzhak raised the great maul Worldbreaker, which alone could slay any divine, and he uttered a mortal command:

In cinders lie

Beneath no sky

So you all shall

D I E


And he brought down the most lethal weapon ever wrought upon the noisome trespasser - and, as it so happened, himself.

The maul shattered through the divine carapace, sending shards of metal and chunks of vile flesh and gouts of black blood and sparks of vital flame scattering to all sides. There it stayed lodged, in the shattered skull of its maker and only wielder, even as his colossal body turned still like an impossible eikon, to stand vigil for eternity.

Yet even his own strength was not enough to truly slay the great god of bloodshed. Acrid black smoke rose from the ruins of his head in a spectral cloud, and four flaming eyes broke through it, alight with bottomless wrath and spite, with unbreakable will and renewed clarity. It touched the creeping Scourge with a long tendril, and the formless terror howled as it never had before.

With that sound, all shackles fell from the minds of the assembled kostral; yet, alas, it was not as Split-Tooth had imagined that moment. Without order to hold them, naught was left for the Pit-dwellers but the primeval rage they had known upon their very birth. Already thrown into disarray by their master’s agonizing throes, they turned on each other, plying all the skill they had amassed and all the weight of arms they had crafted for the sole purpose of blind slaughter. The banners of the overseers became rallying points and eyes in the storm of violence; and so the greatest army the world would ever know fractured into feuding bands, and was no more.

But the umbral god cared no more for them. His fires blazed bright, and though the gate to Galbar from his domain had been shattered by his own ire, he would not be deterred in bringing his final task to an end. The cloud became a roaring pillar of smouldering force, and it struck the sightless ceiling of the vault like a spear. Through stone and soil it pierced, searing and corroding all in its path, until it burst to the light of day with a blow that shook the land for miles to all sides as the World Scar, twice-struck, erupted into a blast of detritus and an awning pit that stretched down to sightless regions below.

And so, like he had once come down to Galbar, Narzhak departed the world as a black wraith, rising up ever higher into the sky, towards the descending mass of the lunar palace.

Whither did he go?

The Architect only knew.





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The End of Days




Ash swirled and billowed through the air. Chthonic fumes choked the sky. Like a body laid low by a deep, visceral wound, the earth seemed to have collapsed upon itself, steaming from the raw gash that exposed its fiery viscera. Wafts of subterranean warmth escaped it like the dying breaths of a cooling carcass, and molten rock seeped like blood from the uneven edges of the chasm torn into its surface. The shadows in its depths writhed and flowed as they were traversed by distant sparks of flame, like glimpses of entrails drowning in a tide of dark ichor. The extremities of shattered rocks protruded from the flanks of the abyss like splintered bones, as if to silently denounce the savagery that had torn them from their lightless slumber and into the glare of day. Flocks of winged shapes flitted through the chaos, uncannily akin to flies swarming over a charnel feast, though their frenzy was not of hunger, but fear and confusion.

To such eyes as were watching from the heavens, it would indeed have appeared as though Galbar had been dealt a grievous blow by a force of tremendous proportions. The very spot that had once weathered the heaviest impact brought by the descending divines had all but ceased to be, replaced in a moment by a gaping, black emptiness, a jagged maw of mangled soil and smoke. Across a span of miles, the ground was pulverized, nothing left in its wake but a rain of curiously shaped stones which, after millennia of unnatural stasis, were finally abandoned to the fall to which they were doomed from the first day of creation. The lips of the chasm crumbled and yielded where the soil was infirm, sending stretches of desert sand, steppe grass and mountain glacier hurtling into the deep, but these were mere pebbles in the sea of its immensity. Almost nothing remained between the skin of the world and its inmost heart - its Core.

For all the enormity of this devastation, the one responsible for it could scarcely be seen even by the most acute onlookers. Like a shadow on the wind, that which had been Narzhak slithered its way through the sky, clinging to breezes like oil to watery currents, burning through clouds like an ember through silk. The primordial moon now hung dangerously low in the celestial heights, its bulk casting an even greater portion of land into darkness than the hovering debris left behind by the eruption. Mighty as the deities that had held the reins of Galbar’s fate for so long might have been, it seemed as though such immensity were beyond even their power to halt. And, in truth, it soon became apparent that the umbral remnant of the Iron Giant had no such intent.

The wraith circled about the lunar sphere, darting back and forth as though seeking something on its weathered surface, until at last it oozed down towards a familiar spot. The fissure through which the gods had first passed, slipping in from the chaos beyond worlds, and gone again as they descended unto the one that had been made their charge. Now, alone among its kind, the specter crossed that threshold for the third time. He flowed into the hoary hall where One had sat for aeons immemorable, coiled around a pillar, and alighted before the ancient throne. No longer did he tower in laughing pride, but he prostrated himself like a fog creeping over the water, and when he spoke it was in the hollow accents of a blade striking empty armour.

"The way is clear, Elder One."

The husk of Amphiboles did not move, but there was still a perceptible tremor that rocked the subterranean hall. The slow dripping that had fed the lake around the Architect’s throne was suddenly transformed into a great deluge of both water and stone. Stone heaved and groaned; the primordial moon began to crack apart and extrude its own innards.

Its tumble accelerated and grew more violent. Great, mountain-sized chunks broke loose to form a trail behind as the force of Amphiboles’ will propelled it towards Galbar below. It seemed as though it would be cataclysm, but at what seemed like the last moment before the body could kiss Galbar’s sky, its motion was at once arrested.

The tremors that rocked the Architect’s hall came to a climax in that moment, and the walls and ceiling were completely blown apart. Of the great hall there now remained nothing but the desiccated-yet-untouched body of Amphiboles on his throne, and a chunk of the dais before it large enough to house Narzhak also. The dais floated away and freed itself from the shattered remnants of the moon, like a creature slithering out from the broken shell of its egg. The Architect’s hall was now an island in the void rather than one in a subterranean lake. Besides the throne on the dais, there still remained a few of the great stone pillars that had supported tons of rock above for untold aeons, until mere moments ago.

Free at last, the island made its way down towards the gaping wound in Galbar’s surface at terminal velocity.

At the foot of the seat, the black spirit stirred, his four eyes shifting around his amorphous surface to take stock of the immensity of the surrounding events. At last, he raised them up on an extrusion from its viscous midst, like the head of a snake emerging from an agitated swamp, and looked up at his master.

"Is this the end?" he breathed out, a wind hissing through rusted armaments on a forlorn battlefield. "Is it time to break apart this world and let the void pick its bones?"

He was answered by the Architect’s voice pounding in his mind, drowning out the rushing of the sky as their descent brought them further down. ”The end of my work here is nigh, but I have no desire to spare even an extra moment to ‘break’ this place. I am not so petty as to crave such finality.”

The dais crashed through a layer of clouds. Even though Amphiboles’ illusions could hold to divine perception and mask his bared bones, the wispy vapors of moisture passed right through his illusory body, and no moisture clung to it. Perhaps he could only bend reality so far, or more likely, perhaps he’d ceased trying.

The spectral pool that was Narzhak welled and undulated in thought, all but invisible amidst the vapour. Then its eyes burned through it, and he spoke again. "Is my purpose then no more?" There was no anger or defiance in his words, indeed, there was almost nothing at all, save for a whisper of wistful resignation. "If that is the warrior’s lot, so be it.”

The Architect’s glamored bones shifted nigh imperceptibly in his throne as he turned his attention to scrutinize Narzhak. ”Necessity dictated my long absence, but even half-dreaming and afar, I was lucid. You distinguished yourself with great adherence to my mandate, and loyalty too. I could probe through rock and dark and time to sense that much. Fittingly, you too found your way to my side now whether by your own senses or by chance.

“There is one final task before me here. Some of your...peers may have the audacity to interfere. I ask that you stop them. Do this for me, and you will forever secure a place by my side.”


”It is to my shame that I did not subdue them before now.” The specter began to gather himself at the base of his surmounting head, like a serpent pushing itself up from its coils, then smoothly flowed upwards as a liquid pillar. ”But it shall be done now if needs be.” Still anchored to the dais, his form blossomed atop the Architect’s head into a roiling cloud even as it withdrew its supporting column into itself. He now hovered over the throne, as if to shield it and its occupant from the exposed firmament above. In that manner they fell into the throat of the world, the dais around the throne breaking free as the black maw narrowed. When they finally reached the bottom of the world, where Narzhak himself had lurked for all of those years, the Architect reached out to touch an exposed part of his Seal that had shielded the Core, and the barrier shattered like glass. The floor below now gone, they fell once again, but this was not into some dark ravine.

Golden light bathed them the moment that Seal was unmade, surging outwards with a fiery intensity that could have incinerated flesh. In an instant this light filled half of the Pit and rendered it an even more inhospitable inferno, and there was yet more light to spare. Like echoed whispers it bounced off the twisting walls of the gaping hole they’d fallen through, finding a path all the way to the surface and even then managing to shine with a luminosity that rivaled Heliopolis. Even to divine perception, the brilliance was blinding. The spirit that had been Narzhak wavered in its descent, then slowed and stopped altogether, casting its eyes up and away from the glare.

Of course, Amphiboles had lost his sight long ago and so he was unhindered. The light dispelled the glamors that clung to his husk, revealing him to the world as a cracked and slime-coated skeleton. The throne was superheated and finally vaporized, for not even granite could withstand such power, but somehow Amphiboles endured and continued his freefall towards the source of the light, a strange apparatus suspended at the very center of the hollowed Core. One of the Architect’s skeletal hands was animated into brief motion by the divine’s spirit and laid to rest upon the device, and then the siphoning began. What he extracted from the device was anima mundi, the soul of the world--a power of the same substance that fueled the sacred spark inherent in every soul and living thing, and it was a torrent of vitality that showered the skeletal Architect. Tendons and ligaments began to grow around the bony fingers that grasped the apparatus, and bit by bit Amphiboles’ flesh was reformed, as was his power.

”Crumbs of every living thing,” Narzhak marvelled to himself overhead, dimly aware of the incredible exchange that was happening in the depths through eyeless senses, ”That is where they went. Little wonder that feast was not for me after all.”

But then there was another voice, spoken from a fiery one whose coming glow had been drowned out by the Core’s radiance. ”And that is why their souls were never immortal. That was why I had to burn them. He never gave life; he only took it!”

Amidst the heat and the luminance of the Core, Narzhak’s eyes managed to discern the great fiery head of a snarling lion, floating near the entrance they’d opened. Katharsos.

The black wraith coiled on itself and swung about like a lash, drawing into the shape of a cloud hovering underneath the astral god. A nascent limb raised up its eyes, followed by the rest of its streaming body as it ascended to meet the newcomer.

”What is it to you if his design had no need of a world without death?” Narzhak’s voice, though still a hollow echo of its former self, had regained a trace of the champion’s sneering challenge. ”You of us all should be honoured for being trusted with a task so crucial to him. Is feeding the furnace that warmed us from the void not enough for you?”

”I should be honored to have been his lamb, forced by his obfuscation to bear the sight and sound of a million million souls needlessly dying? To have been reviled and demonized even by our peers, bearing the brunt of their hatred all because he hid the truth?”

The snarling visage of Katharsos grew larger and its fires burned hotter, his voice louder until it became a grating roar, his shape more and more corporeal until his teeth were like fire made steel--but then he was suddenly trapped within some mind-numbing prism of solid light that seemed to defy reason and physics. He raged from within and tried to smash his way through the seals with brute force, and in a great display of rage-induced might, he did.

But then with a flick of a still half-skeletal and skinless hand, Amphiboles conjured yet more barriers. The Lord of the Seals and the Universe gave Narzhak just one command: ”Silence him.”

”Gladly.” The cloud that was the lord of bloodshed gathered on itself for a moment, coagulating into a clot of darkness as thick as ink that occluded even the light of the Core underneath, then expanded in a burst. It crawled up towards Katharsos as a sweeping tide of night with frayed edges of writhing ramified tendrils, waves and ripples on its surface forming into amorphous limbs and snapping heads like a protozoan hydra. Its eyes had shattered into a kaleidoscope of sparks that swarmed about as a flock of fiery hornets.

The body of black aethereal slime oozed around the wards that rose in its way, creeping closer to its foe. Its edges curled upwards, reaching towards Katharsos, seeking to drown and smother his fire in a mire of shadows. And the God of Death raged against the prismatic walls of light that had encased his form, just barely breaking free in time to struggle against Narzhak before the gruesome slime could mold into yet another tomb around him. In an equally unnatural display, the fiery head opened into a gaping maw, unhinging the hyena’s jaws so that the lips nearly met once again on the other side. And from the throat of the god, there erupted a torrent of soul-incinerating, smokeless flame.

The dark god twisted, attempting to open a gap in his mass to avoid the blaze, but was not fast enough. He quivered and shrank as its tongues seared away pieces of him, his immaterial constitution no defense against their unnatural strength. Noxious black vapours scattered and dissolved, and Narzhak momentarily withdrew, his bulk noticeably diminished.

The jaws snapped back into their proper places, and Katharsos allowed the adversary to recover. But he warned, ”Stand down, Narzhak. My quarrel is not with you.”

”I am bound to the one who dragged me out from oblivion,” the shade hissed in reply, ”If you balk against him, you stand against me.”

As he began to collect himself for another surge, he let out a wordless, thundering growl, and something below answered. In a blink, a swarm of shades was ascending in a blur, from beneath the two gods, but above the Core. Umbral simulacra of kostral, thousands, myriads of them. They had perished, either by each other’s hand or in the Architect’s descent through their realm, but even in death they were not freed from their cruel master’s command. Blind and bereft of will, they were consumed by the black cloud, swelling it to even greater magnitude than before. With a rumbling laugh, the shadowy colossus returned to the charge, tentacular limbs once again raised to envelop and constrict his enemy.

So be it. This time the hyena did not spew fire, but rather swallow the room. He inhaled sharply enough to drag in the air and even ghastly kostrals and bits of his now-foe’s oily form, and all of it was annihilated upon mere contact. Stoked as if by bellows, his own fiery form grew even more incandescent and white. And he barreled forward to plow into the leech that rested in the very center of the gaping void within Galbar’s heart, heeding not Narzhak or anything else that stood in his way.

Like night giving way before the dawn, the spectre shrank back again, unable to confront the searing blaze. Yet once more, he stopped and gathered his might for a new assault. When he surged again, it was not skywards. His edges fragmented into rivers of fluid shadow and plunged into the sides of the chasm, rooting around the eviscerated earth, pulling and tugging at familiar resonances within.

Then he drew together again, and streams of malleable metal followed. Though Narzhak’s armour of iron was gone, his mastery over the mineral remained. All of a sudden akin to a spider with many darting limbs, he wove the gleaming veins into a web and cast them up against Katharsos. They began to drip and liquefy before even they reached him, but the Iron God forced them ever ahead, engulfing his foe in a tide not of shadow, but of ponderous molten metal. Too little, too late. The hyena head morphed into the sleek, elongated one of a snake as it wriggled and writhed around arcs and pillars of molten metal, slipping past Narzhak’s spiderweb, and finally coming just beside Amphiboles. A forked tongue of unholy fire erupted from the snake and whipped towards the apparatus besides Amphiboles, and the Primordial, so drunk with power, noticed too late. He conjured a barrier that severed the tongue, but the tip still managed to graze the apparatus. That tiny spark heralded cataclysm.

The volatile anima mundi combusted and exploded with such power that it consumed the room and rippled out through all of the Spheres, contracting them and shaking Galbar and the Chthonian realms with violence. Not even divine perception could withstand such magic unfazed, so all three of the gods were blinded, concussed, for long moments. But then the ringing and the blindness subsided.

The first to stir amid the charred ruin of the cosmos’ inmost chamber was the one who had been in his own element when confusion struck. Sustained by the fury of battle which yet burned in him unquenched, Narzhak pulled himself to his feet and bellowed out in joy at once again feeling his rage course through flesh.

Suffused by the energies that had collected in the Core over untold millennia and now been unleashed in a single moment, he was whole again, nay, more than ever. So vast was he that his erstwhile form would have been as insignificant near him as mere mortals had been near it. His strides upon the inner walls of the Core below shook Galbar itself with the crash of iron hooves, and still his head nearly reached the center of the hollow chamber. His body was encased in a mighty suit of black armour, each plate of which was fashioned into the likeness of a snarling mask that exhaled clouds of smoke with every breath. His head was that of a monstrous swine, with tusks like titanic blades, steaming blood eternally dripping from its maw, four fiery eyes gazing from under the visor of a horned helm. Just as many were his arms, armed with a flail, a whip, a headsman’s axe and a shield emblazoned with the Bloodied Fist.

Still had the dazedness not fully faded from him, but already he threw himself anew against his opponent. Too blind yet to truly even see whether Katharsos had like him been transfigured, he swung at him, roaring his renewed challenge.

The anima mundi hadn’t given Katharsos any flesh, for he had never known such a form in this existence, nor even in the last. It had only stoked him and transformed him into an even greater inferno, an amorphous blob of magical flames that put to shame the lesser sun that hung in Galbar’s sky. His body condensed into a starlike form of its own, then warped and twisted; from the depths of the fiery ball there emerged a lion’s head, and then five goatlike legs.



The lion’s beard was a thousand vipers of otherworldly flame, and they reared and hissed at the approaching titan even as fire cascading once more from Katharsos’ maw, and from his eyes, and then all at once gushed from everywhere at once as he explosively shed free of a layer of fiery mass. Narzhak’s armour melted to slag as the inferno swept over him, but when it receded, he was yet standing.

His snout was charred, its bristles seared away and its countenance an ashen grey with cracks like glowing embers, seeping with magma. The black plates, in places already sloughing away to reveal singed flesh beneath, were suddenly pulled back by invisible force, moulding themselves into faces even more furious, their own eyes aflame. He cracked his whip, and fire still clung to it as it arced through the smothering air. With another roar, he brought his armament to bear, lashing at Katharsos from several sides at once.

And the scourge found its mark and crashed into one of the goat-legs, cleaving through it and going on to bury itself deep within the lion-faced sun itself. But then there was suddenly what felt like a resistance, a drag, from the incorporeal flames themselves, and then suddenly nothing as the whip fell down limply, the half that had contacted Katharsos having been seared into nothingness.

One divine word shook the Core.

”HALT.”


It swept through the air, through the raging flames, even effortlessly through Narzhak’s armor, and nothing withstood its power. Motion was suspended, but time seemed unfrozen; the two combatants locked in their baleful glares at one another, unable to so much as turn their heads to face the overpowering, unstoppable voice.

There came a second decree, this one directed straight to Katharsos.

”SUFFER!”


The hold of the first one was suddenly broken, and Narzhak was mobile once again. But the battle was over: Katharsos was utterly broken, howling in unknowable agony with every fiber of his being, willpower (and perhaps even sanity) shattered in an instant.

Nothing could stand before the power of the Old Old One, Amphiboles, reformed and restored. The cyclopean god at a mere glance was immediately and obviously greater than anything the Spheres had ever seen in a long, long time--perhaps ever. They might have thought him the God over Gods before, but now he truly was-- immaculate, invincible, omnipotent. He Saw for the first time in aeons with his Eye rather than his divine perception, and his Eye was truly a portal of glory and power and terror radiant--Katharsos perhaps withered under its gaze even more than under the power of the divine decree that had left the Architect’s lips. He spoke now, with words, not telepathy. And that mere fact had seemingly given his Decrees power a hundredfold.

Although released from his own stillness, Narzhak could for a time only look in awe at the display of his master’s might. When he found the strength to stir, he ponderously turned to the greater divine, not daring raise his eyes to meet the tremendous cyclopean glare. When he spoke, his voice eclipsed his own ancient commands like a thousand hurricanes over a shout, yet in the wake of the grandiose Word even it seemed hushed and humbled.

”He fought well,” he conceded in a grunt, ”He has earned honourable servitude, if nothing more.”

Amphiboles was perhaps a merciful god in some ways. Or at least an indifferent one. So even Narzhak’s words had some effect.

”SUBMIT.”


The struggling and howling then stopped, and Katharsos could do nothing but bow his head in a defeat so utter that not even death could have compared. He was broken, the echoes of the pain from an instant ago already mere fragments of what he had endured, yet still so powerful and palpable that he would have been dumbstruck into submission even had the Decree not taken hold. But it had, so he could not even contemplate anything, much less speak or do anything, to impede Narzhak or the Architect now.

And then with an open hand, the Architect withdrew the power that had dominated Katharsos’ mind and essence. He could have trapped the god once more within a prism Seal, but it would have been for naught; that one would not stand in his way again.

His attention turned to Narzhak then, ”Now I am complete.” Or so it seemed--in reality, he was speaking with a voice that resonated through all of his creation, to all of the gods. ”And this plane has fulfilled its purpose, as has he, and you, and all of your peers. I demand nothing more, and owe nothing more. There is nothing left for me here, and so I depart and leave what is left of Galbar and these Spheres, and all of you, to whatever is to come.”

But then he remembered his promise. ”I did say that you would earn an eternal place by my side, and so you have. So now the impetus falls upon you--you must choose whether to follow me or remain here and have your own fate. Dominate the others and rule this place, perhaps. Or...a third way. To leave, but go in your own way, in your own direction. You have that choice too, and I would unlock the Seals for you to do such if that is your wish.”

”It will not be long until this world is as hollow and stagnant as the abyss I escaped once.” Still Narzhak did not look up in full, but his body was now poised to start into movement. ”And I hate nothing more than the aimlessness of the void. Where you guide, I will follow! Command me to crush or to forge, and it shall be done, forevermore.” He banged his flail against his shield, as if in martial salute, and the chamber echoed with his iron oath.

”So be it,” Amphiboles answered. The Seals that separated the spheres bent and warped by the mere force of His will, and they moved without moving and were suddenly far, far away from the Core and Katharsos--they now hovered beside the very edge of the great Barrier that stretched along the outer limits of this universe. In one of the cyclopes’ hands the manifested a lightning bolt, and in another a great hammer, and he pressed the lightning upon the surface of the Barrier and used it as the anvil upon which he wrought a key to open it.

”A parting gift to them, for they did serve well enough, whether they knew it or not, and no matter how insolent they were,” he explained, pressing the key of lightning into the Barrier and opening it to reveal the blackness of the Great Beyond. ”In using a key here rather than destroying the Seal here as I did to enter the Core, we will not leave a hole. So perhaps they will remain hidden and sheltered from the horrors beyond.”

He turned to Narzhak with just the hint of a smile upon his visage and finished, ”But we need not fear such things, for they shall fear me.”

Without another word, he stepped beyond, and the iron titan followed. Without turning back, the Architect gave one more decree:

”CLOSE.”


Then the key turned itself, and the door in the Barrier shut behind them.
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Water and Fire


"I am not bound by your constraints. I am immortal and mighty. ... I have absolute power over my own form. I have overcome many of my initial weaknesses and shall continue to do so. Only another god could possibly kill me, and only if they can overpower me. And who can overpower the whole ocean? As long as I am the strongest, I cannot die."
Ashalla


~~===~~

In the land of rain, there was a place which had recently been scoured by a storm unlike any on Galbar. It had been sunny for a while afterwards, but now rain returned to the land around the Hollow. Distant thunder rumbled within the vast clouds and rain turned the bare soil back into mud.

This new rain was Ashalla. Attuned as she was to water and storms, she had sensed the cataclysm which had taken place here from afar. When she arrived and found not a single rain cloud above Be’r-Jaz, she feared the worst. As her raindrops tasted the desolate landscape and found a pool of Li’Kalla’s ichor, her suspicions were confirmed.

Clearly, Li’Kalla had gotten into a fight. Her essence lay thickly over this place. In this fight she had conjured such a vast amount of water that everything that used to be here was washed into the large pit. It was an impressive final move, even by Ashalla’s standards, marred only by Li’Kalla dying.

The divine essence mixed into the mud and the air included that of Li’Kalla’s murderer. The essence was unfamiliar to her, and much of the essence had been washed away, but she recognised part of the scent and it made her tremble in rage. The Demon. Some spawn of Anzillu, that putrid fiend, had made it here and killed Li’Kalla. It seemed that the Demon was still active and dangerous.

As great as Ashalla’s rage was, in this place it was eclipsed by her horror at the vast circular pit. The fabric of the Spheres warped around it, as though it were a Gateway. But the horror was that whatever water passed through the opening of the pit ceased to be part of Ashalla. The clouds above the pit parted as Ashalla recoiled from it. Then, cautiously, Ashalla drew closer once more.

Looking at the pit more closely, she could see the faint shimmer of a Seal covering the top of the pit. This clearly marked the pit as the Architect’s doing. A probing tendril of water stretched down from the clouds and touched the Seal. The tendril quivered and drew back in pain, its tip losing cohesion and falling into the darkness. This was a Seal which kept out gods, or maybe kept them in. Regardless, it meant that there was something very important which the Architect was hiding down there.

Suddenly the deep darkness of the pit was illuminated by a harsh white light brighter than Heliopolis and as loud as a hundred thunderstorms. The clouds above the pit arced with a blinding amount of lightning, casting a spotlight on everything below. After a few seconds darkness returned, but Ashalla had seen all she could. Scattered on the cave-ridden walls were the remains of a city and the tunnel seemed to descend even deeper than her lightning could illuminate.

So mortals used to live above the pit, before Li’Kalla’s fight, and likely explored the pit. Unfortunately, with the mortals all dead, it would be difficult to ask them what they had found within the pit.

There was a third divine essence on the scene, although from its sharpness it had come after the great flood. It had undertones of Orvus, but was gentle and sweet. Ashalla guessed it was Arya. Perhaps she would know more about this place.

A movement in the heavens brought Ashalla’s attention away from her investigation. A new moon had appeared, slowly growing closer as it arced across the sky. Ashalla watched its trajectory for a few moments. Then her clouds withdrew from the pit to follow the falling moon.

~~===~~

Above the fresh hole in the world, in the place once known as the World Scar, clouds of dust were replaced with clouds of water. The clouds released their stores of rain, pouring into the hole. Raindrops evaporated as they came close to the walls, still searing with great heat, but as the steam returned to the clouds more rain fell. Myriad little waterfalls snaked down the walls of the hole, crossing through each of the Chthonic Spheres towards the Core.

It was not long until the water reached the Core, crossing the open Seal to enter the hollow sphere. The water dispersed into mist and cloud, stretching out to begin to fill the empty space. Above the rain continued to pour, water continued to trickle into the Core, and the cooling stone of the tunnel creaked and groaned.

Yet the water was not alone. An orb of flame floated within the Core, gently trembling. It was Katharsos, yet he had no face. He was packed together tightly, wrapped into that perfect fiery sphere as a child might curl into the fetal position, trembling.

A voice like the whistle of wind spoke from the clouds within the Core, “Katharsos? What happened here?”

“SUFFER.”


Pain.
“SUFFER.”


Agony.

The memories and sensations would be seared into the god’s mind forever, yet he was still wracked by even the faintest echoes left of Amphiboles’ terrible power.

“SUFFER.”


Defiance...freedom!

Finally, with one last shudder he shook himself free enough to regain his power to speak. An opening gouged itself into the sphere of fire that was his body, complete with teeth and a tongue, that he had at least a mouth even if not a full visage.

“I found them here,” was his cryptic answer. A panting of sorts broke his sentence for a few moments before he could offer more strained words.

“The Architect. Narzhak. And all the missing bits of souls...trapped in that accursed thing.”

Katharsos was not alone within the void of the vast cavity that was Galbar’s empty Core. There was one other object, cracked open but not totally shattered, bright and splendorous in its luminance, even if its remaining power now was only a fraction of before when it had been blinding.

A wisp of cloud brushed against the device, and immediately the rest of the cloud in the Core started to coalesce, slowly spiralling inwards towards the device. A voice like pattering rain asked, “What did this thing do? And what were you doing here?”

“I think that it was a vessel, and that this whole place was a drain of sorts. I came searching for the power behind the phenomena of soul decay, and found it here in that thing. The Architect was here, and yet he appeared as no more than a decrepit, skeletal corpse.

“When I arrived, he was here siphoning from that thing’s power. I tried to stop him, but could not overpower both he and Narzhak, and ultimately failed. The Architect -- cursed be his name! -- drank of the souls and was restored. Then he turned his attention and ire unto me, and he smote me with a power the likes of which...there are no words. And then he fled, with Narzhak in tow. I can only imagine that this was what he planned to do all along.”


The clouds gently rumbled in thought, joining the sounds of trickling water entering the Core and creaking stone above the Core. “Some of the others have created structures which generate divine power from the worship of mortals. Perhaps this is a similar structure, but on a much grander scale.”

Two motes of lightning like eyes appeared in the thickening clouds surrounding the device. “The Architect has departed Galbar, with Narzhak following him. He announced as such, and his passage up to the Barrier was clearly felt. There was mention of a key. Some may leave Galbar to follow the Architect or find a new world of their own. Some may stay here to reside with their creations. What do you intend to do now, Katharsos?”

He had some trepidation and could not answer right away, as not even he had contemplated that yet.

“This device must be shattered. With that done, my role would become obsolete, and my pyres could be extinguished. Souls could reincarnate, or simply have eternal life. And I could move on,” he eventually realized aloud.

The clouds which were Ashalla contracted around the device even more closely, obscuring it from view. She could taste the residual anima mundi left in the device, and though it was but a figment of a veneer of what had previously been there the power was still invigorating. Intoxicating.

The creaking and groaning of stone above the Core grew louder as Ashalla declared in a voice like rolling thunder, “I will not let you destroy this device, Katharsos. I am claiming the Core.”

“By what right?”

“Mine.”

From above the hole into the Core came a crashing sound like a shattering mountain, followed by the roar of a million waterfalls. An ocean had burst from the walls of the hole leading to the Core, the walls which passed through the Chthonic Spheres, and now billions of tonnes of water flooded down into the Core. The deluge fell upon Katharsos and yet passed through him like a ghost, for his otherworldly flames needed no breath and couldn’t be drowned. He remained calm before the storm and her madness, reforming into the likeness of the goat-legged sun once more and casting down his eyes in disappointment.

“You have no right to farm the beings of Galbar and harvest their spirits as though they are nought but grain. No being does; not even He did. And you lack the power to do it, too. In case you have forgotten, the souls of the dead are doomed to go where I guide them. Now that is their blessing, for I shall not let them suffer this fate!”

With a kick of the five legs he propelled himself upward, toward the gaping hole in the Core where entire oceans poured in. He spun around to face the wound directly, and then unleashed his radiance. The light blasted into the waters and created a great, whirling maelstrom of magical power that pushed upward even as the physical water was unfazed and surged down. There was a second great Vortex of Souls now, but rather than doom, this one represented salvation. A great net that would hold back the Core’s grasping tendrils and prevent them from tearing away bits and crumbs of the souls within other Spheres, and a great updraft powerful enough to carry any stray souls away.

“Abandon this folly, Ashalla. Even if you were to overcome me and claim my power over the dead, if you were to undo the net I have woven, it still would not be enough. Do you know what the others did to me, invading my Sphere in the name of saving the souls? They would come for you, too, if you were to succeed here.”

The water seethed and clouds broiled in rage. The crashing water roared, “You dare defy me!”

The water flooding around Katharsos tightened and grasped hold of his ethereal form. Though the water of course could do little, the divine power that animated and controlled it was palpable and real enough to Katharsos. Dozens of giant icicles froze around the fiery god then thrust towards him. The five flailing legs kicked and batted at them from all angles, knocking aside many but getting scraped and impaled by a few. Where the ice poked holes in his fiery form, the flames simply flared back into place to reform the wound a moment later.

There can be no logic here. No civility. No peace.

The lion’s maw snapped open and a massive ray, nay, river of ghastly soulfire poured out toward Ashalla and the accursed siphon that she’d stolen. He spewed forth the unholy flames with such power that it had begun to propel him back, upward through the waterfalls, toward the edge of the flooding Core where his second Vortex of Souls raged. Refracting off the cascading waterfalls were many orange lights akin to the gentle glow of fireflies, but these had been the lights that lit the Sky of Pyres. And the little stars were growing larger, and closer.

The growing globe of water around the siphon froze solid as the soulfire struck, forming a protective barrier. The flames ablated away at the ice, but the descending water was more than adequate to replenish that which was lost.

The falling stars did not escape Ashalla’s notice, eliciting a fizz of alarm in the water of her form. The flow of water into the Core slowed and stopped as the gushing oceans coming from the Abyss were directed upwards, where the water plugged the hole and froze. Then, with Katharsos now in air, a massive bolt of lightning arced from the hole to the globe of ice, tearing through Katharsos’ ethereal body before slamming into the ice behind with explosive effect. The Greater Sun was unfazed, however. He breathed. He calmed.

“Death is close,” he stated as fact, hoping the gravity of his words could cut through Ashalla’s madness. “The Sky of Pyres has enough flames to fill this entire Core and incinerate us both, and I have called them down from the heavens. We could yet flee, but I will not allow you to take that thing away from here, even if it means staying here to bar your way until we perish.”

The water, having finished creating the barrier of ice, resumed its downwards flow. “You would dare kill yourself for this?”

“Since the very first days of this world, the Architect has had me burn untold numbers of souls. Their screams haunt me. And I know now that it was all for nothing, that I was just a part of his evil scheme. This fate would be my redemption, and I would gladly suffer it.”

High above, the flames of the Pyres reached the top of the barrier of ice with a violent explosion of steam. The orange light of the Pyres refracted through the ice and cast a fiery glow onto Ashalla below. Then a voice like a drop of water, barely audible over the turmoil, conceded, “Then your will is greater than mine.”

The water surrounding the device receded from the device and flowed upwards, surging up the waterfall and towards Katharsos. The current which was Ashalla flowed past and through Katharsos and then out of the Core, the fiery God of Death close behind. The water and Katharsos pushed through the fissures in the stone wall and into the Abyss as the flames of the Pyres burned through the ice and flooded past, near instantly filling the entire Core and creating a blazing inferno of smokeless flame. As the soulfire came into contact with the siphon, the residual anima mundi inside was once again ignited to explosive effect, and the Core and all the Chthonian Spheres above shuddered. It was enough flame to utterly blast apart the damaged siphon and reduce it to nothing more than a molten slag that sprayed outward like some horrible hail, and to eventually vaporize it into oblivion.

The shockwave close on their heels as it followed through the Gateway, Ashalla and Katharsos flew with all the alacrity their divine forms could handle. Pillars of stone crumbled and the floor of magma was churned up behind them as the shockwave passed. But eventually the blast front dissipated, leaving Katharsos and Ashalla in the quiet darkness of the Abyss.

Ashalla and Katharsos travelled in silence for a while, Ashalla invisible in the water while Katharsos’ ethereal flames cast a glow which was dwarfed by the deep darkness around them. But, as it turned out, Katharsos was not the only source of light in the Abyss. Incandescent fissures in the floor cast a faint red glow. On and around the pillars of stone which filled the Abyss were dots of coloured light, twinkling like stars and moving about.

Eventually Ashalla broke the silence, although it was in a voice as soft as the subterranean currents. “You defeated me.”

Katharsos wanted to think that he’d made her see reason. But of course, he was not so naive. It was through force and threat of violence that he’d made her see, not words and logic. But it had been justified. “Peace and meditation make the world so much clearer. When I dispel the turmoil and find a true purpose, I become strong. Yet if I had a choice I would never fight. I think it a base thing, beneath us. If only others could see.”

On any other occasion, Ashalla would have huffed at such a suggestion. But instead there was just a low, thoughtful rumble, mingling with the muffled churning of the Abyss. Eventually she said, “I wanted the Core so that I would be the strongest and unkillable. But I had overlooked other forms of strength. You are right that, if I had won there, I would have made enemies with all the gods I consider my friends.”

Katharsos’ glow had begun to attract the life of the Abyss. Fish of various alien shapes swam near to his light, seeking warmth and food. “There is strength in raw power. But there is also strength in having allies. I had desired the former, but...” The water around Katharsos stirred, jostling the fish who blossomed with bioluminescence. Rippling points of lights danced around Katharsos and each other. ”...the latter is less lonely.”

“Solitude begets madness,” the other god softly concurred, “and I sense wisdom in your words. I think that you have found the truth.”

Among the glowing fish basking in Katharsos’ radiance, an eel slithered up and snapped its mouth, snuffing out one of the lights. The other lights scattered, although soon returned on the other side of Katharsos.

“What will you do now?” Ashalla asked. “The Pyres have been extinguished. The souls of the dead need not be burned.”

“I hadn’t decided. A question like that is worthy of much contemplation. I have a yearning to leave this plane, yet perhaps that would be rash.”

“Many other gods have left in one way or another. Some with guilt. Some with a lack of purpose. But do not follow them, for that is weakness.” Ashalla grabbed hold of the soul of the recently deceased fish, which had been floating away, and held it up before Katharsos. “You guided the souls of the dead before. Now they need guidance more than ever. Perhaps in this way you could earn the redemption you desire.”

Bemused, he asked, “And what sort of guidance would I offer? What need have the dead, or even the living, for gods?”

“Gods create. In the beginning you created the old cycle of life, death and rebirth where fraying souls were burned and their ash was used to create new life. Now that souls do not fray or burn, the step of rebirth has been disrupted.” Ashalla offered the fish soul to Katharsos. “Where shall the souls of the dead go now, God of Death? Will you create a new path for them?”
“I did what I thought I had to do, that there could be life. Just as you flooded the world and made the first oceans, that there would be water. But a river can flow down a hill with or without your hand. So too is it with I and souls; they could find their own path in death, to the next body and to life anew, or to enlightenment and finality.”

Ashalla huffed. “Or they might become lost and confused. But I am not the most knowledgeable on these matters. You should speak with Azura. She has been spending much effort in trying to redefine death, and now she will be needing to adjust to the latest changes. She may benefit from your assistance. And you may benefit from her insight.”

“She stole away into my Sphere and made off with a great deal of souls without so much as trying to discuss such things with me, so I doubt that she has any desire for speech. I imagine that an exchange with that one would be wont to turn to bloodshed, and I’ve long since lost my appetite for violence. Would you believe that in a past life before a past life, I once revelled in it and burnt others for sport?

“Chicanerie be damned! I need neither mask nor wit. Ashalla, I’ve lived three lives now and found happiness in none. In each one I subjected myself to the whims of a duty placed upon my shoulders, be it by myself or some master. Yes, I think it time now for me to leave. To cease being flame, and make like wind. To find my own way and at last leave the past behind. I think then I might find peace. There is only so much that one can do, and I think that in staving you off from that siphon, I did enough. That is as close to redemption as I shall ever get. It is time that I slough off my hesitation, abandon my guilt.”


Ashalla rumbled, then answered, “If that is your will, then so be it.”

He broke her gaze, feeling smaller with the uncharacteristic passion that had consumed him for that moment now gone. But then he cast his sight back toward her after a time and finally nodded. “So we shall part, then. I have never been one for goodbyes, so I don’t think that I will say anything to the others. If ever it is fate’s will, perhaps you or they will find me once again, back in this place, or in another one far, far away. Farewell, Ashalla.”

He cast his eyes upward, peering through the black depths and the Spheres Chthonic and Celestial, and he soared in his ascent. Katharsos, the Greater Sun, climbed the sky and made his way past the dark and empty Sky of Pyres to the Barrier, where he found the Door and its Key left behind by Amphiboles. He turned back one final time, and whispered, “Farewell, Galbar.”

Then the rays of soft light leaving his body gripped the Key and turned it, and he passed through the portal and into what lay beyond.

~~===~~

In the land of rain, there was a place which had once been scoured by a storm unlike any other on Galbar. Yet now the Vallamir were rebuilding their city around the enigmatic pit they called the Hollow. Their work was watched by the rain clouds gathered above them, although the rain always seemed to avoid falling onto the Hollow itself.

Ashalla had asserted herself into the power vacuum left by Li’Kalla’s absence. She had gathered up all surviving Vallamir who knew anything about the Hollow and brought them to that place. She promised wealth, glory, honor and power to any mortals who were bold enough to explore that accursed hole.

Already the expeditions were yielding results. The explorers found many magical trinkets, little relics of divine engineering. These were evidence that the Architect had been tinkering, or perhaps that the Architect had once had mortal servants down here, or perhaps that there had once been other beings who could create such devices. There was life down there which the mana-sensitive delvers discerned lived off some intangible vitality which suffused the Hollow. And the most advanced expeditions had discovered a second Seal, which was not the bottom of the Hollow but simply a boundary between the upper layer and the layer below. The caves of the upper layer were just the beginning of the Hollow’s mysteries.

Ashalla had also been studying the Seal over the Hollow and comparing it to the broken Seal around the Core. Although the siphon had been utterly destroyed, Ashalla had still flooded the Core, partly to protect it from the likes of Anzillu or Sartravius (she shuddered to think what would happen if the Demon managed to infect Galbar’s Core), partly in the hope that it would still have some residual use. She learned that the Seals were not indestructible. Given time and energy, Ashalla would be able to peel back the Seals over the Hollow and lay bare its secrets.

Ashalla was determined to uncover what the Architect had discovered about the secrets of divinity. Although the way of soul ash and fraying souls was closed to her, there were bound to be other paths to ascension. She would find those paths and take them, such that her immortality would be unassailable. This was Ashalla’s will, and her will would be done.




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