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Many years had passed since the birth of Anu, and the pygmies were beginning to grasp the skills taught to them by the King’s Council: They kowtowed before their master Anu and the councillors; they began to understand the use of sticks and poles as weapons; they could build tiny tents of boar hide to live in; and they had a language - some could even write crude characters. Their population had grown considerably from the first ten, already numbering the triple and growing. Still, however, the pygmies had much to learn, and subsisted largely on diets of boar meat and stews made of wild rice cooked in boar stomachs. As a gesture to their king and lord, the pygmies often sacrificed live boars and always let Anu take the first bite at any meal, much to the satisfaction of the councillors. The people had fashioned their king cloaks and clothes of hide and fur, all to honour the great one’s presence.

Despite this Anu remained adamant that the Pygmy work to earn his respect, to earn the right to sit eye level with him, this in line with his own blossoming world view. On these plains of the Ivory King, strength of will and the drive to succeed was law, obey and grow else fall short and remain on the receiving end of his ire, their place forever at his feet.

Some pygmies had protested before, their arrogance overtaking their instincts - one had even challenged the Ivory King. Much their surprise the defier was praised, one such worthy to stand at eye level. He then promptly crushed her skull. To all those present a lesson was made brutally clear, a gorilla was not questioned by jackals. To challenge him was to stare down death, a show of strength, but a fool’s gambit. He was no surmountable obstacle, no he was a king, and his power as solid as the bedrock beneath the plains.

The councillors had cautioned him against excessive force, advising instead whipping or imprisonment to be worthier punishments. Yet they, too, agreed that the King could not allow mutiny, especially not the kind with deposing intent. The pygmies subsequently understood that their place in society - at Anu’s feet.

As the capital began to take shape - a large, central tent surrounded by tiny hides on sticks and primitive lean-tos on the northern corner of the great grasslands - the pygmies fell more and more in line, grateful to their King for granting them food, shelter, community, safety and spiritual guidance.

However, it was a day in the late summer, as the northern rains hammered against the soggy hides of Anu’s tent, that a strange guest came to the village - a colourful bird bearing a message. The four councillors stood glaring at it as it spoke, four pygmies each holding a large palm frond over each councillor to shield them from the rain.

Anu’s hands flexed then balled up as the message relayed, his expression unreadable. As it finished his golden eyes fell upon the council of four.

”Well?”

All four looked horrified at the message, Fu Lai’an covering her mouth as she choked on tears. Zhu Rongyuan shook his head with furious vigour, his long beard slapping at the air like a wet towel.

“There is nothing to it! This is vile! Blasphemy! A plot planned by the wicked Wind Demon to destabilise the harmony between life and death! She said it herself - the ash forms the basis for life!”

Qiang Quan folded his arms and nodded with a glare. “If one breaks the circle of life, life will end. Their solution holds no water - a long, dreamless sleep is no alternative to death by flame. It is the way of the unworthy who think themselves above the cycle.” He punched his fist into his palm and growled.

Yong Cai shook her head disapprovingly. “Life is no construction that can simply be put on hold - it is organic, breathing. A house cannot be build if the wood is stored away. It is madness, Your Majesty.”

Fu Lai’an swallowed a clump. “T-to think they would stab at the hearts of the living with such gruesome words…” She sniffed and sobbed into her palm. “... Have they no conscience? Is the Wind Demon so low as to rely on populistic panic to turn the opinion of her?” She shook her head and looked away. Zhu Rongyuan bowed to Anu and extended his arms forward, left palm covering his right hand.

“Your Majesty, these servants beseech You - undo this vile, lying demon. Its words cannot be allowed to spread among Your Majesty’s people. Its betrayal cannot go unanswered.”

Anu’s lips were set in a thin line, his chin resting in the crook of his index finger and thumb. ”Those who choose this way, choose to ‘save’ their souls instead of be put to the flame, choose the cowards way out, and I will have none of it in my camp.” he asserted. ”When death comes, we all burn.”

The present pygmies all kowtowed at the King’s word - the advisors, too, even as the wet mud clung to their dressings. “A worthy statement, Your Majesty - His Lordship is undoubtedly proud to see His Son, a champion of harmony. His blessings will be Yours without question and bring Your Majesty’s empire to greatness, surely.”

Qiang Quan cast himself over and grappled the Alma as it realised it was no longer welcome. As he wrestled it in the mud, he looked to Anu. “Your Majesty! What shall we do about the demon?”

”Gods are certain to rally against this ‘demon’.” he adjusted himself. ”I have little knowledge of the divines beyond my fathers. Tell me of them.”

The Alma eventually blasted Qiang Quan off it with a powerful gust of wind, flapping its wings maniacally and flying off. The warrior was immediately tended to by Fu Lai’an, but he had luckily not sustained any damage. Zhu Rongyuan sneered at the colourful speck in the sky. “This world has several gods, Your Majesty - and several demons. The greatest among them, the Creator of the Exalted Creators, is Dajianshen, the great architect of Existence. However, according to His Lordship, He is an observing god - this Holiest of Beings does not interfere with the Exalted Creators without reason.” He sat down on a roll of hides that a pygmy brought over and began to draw in the wet mud.

“Beneath Dajianshen come the Great Pantheon, upon which sit the twenty-four Exalted Creators, including the evil demons. These are: Abanoc, the Record-Keeper; Aelius, Sovereign of Justice and Heliopolis; Anzillu, the Unseen; Arae, the Dragon Queen; Asceal, Sovereign of Light; Ashalla, Queen of the Sea; Azu--Pardon, this servant means the Wind Demon,” Zhu Rongyuan corrected and dabbed his forehead with his sleeve. “Chopstick Eyes, Great Marquis of Markets; Eurysthenes, Blessed One of Conundrums; Katharsos, Lord of Death; Kalmar, Herald of the Hunt; Kirron, the eccentric Blood God; K’nell, Sovereign of Sleep and good friend of Your Majesty’s father; Li’Kalla, the Rainmaker; Melantha, the Duchess of Darkness; Your Majesty’s other father, Narzhak, King of Strife and Steel; Ohannakeloi, the Stone Crab; Orvus, God of Desolation and perhaps a misunderstood character, according to Your Majesty’s father; Parvus, Master of Insects; Phystene, Mother of Plants and Trees; the Flame Demon; His Lordship Shengshi, Lord of the Thousand Streams and Sovereign of All Rivers,” Zhu Rongyuan tipped a bow as he spoke of Shengshi, “Urhu, the Wanderer; and Ekon, King of Fear.”

Finally done with the list, Zhu thanked Shengshi for not giving him lungs.

A tiny smirked danced across Anu’s face, but it could have been a trick in the light. ”You seem to allocate the title of ‘demon’ to a revered few.”

Zhu Rongyuan nodded. “The title of Demon is not given lightly, Your Majesty. It is bestowed upon the evil gods who have murdered, betrayed or mistreated immensely these servants’ people or wronged His Lordship in the cruelest of ways - they are not to be trusted, not to be named, and never, ever to be prayed to. Nothing good comes from allegiance to their wicked natures.”

”The personal grudges of my father are not my own, but the assault and murder of innocent Servants whose strength know no bounds will not be tolerated. This ‘Wind Demon’ has upset the balance of the world in a vain and selfish bid to enforce her own brand of false security.” the demigod paused for a moment. ”She has raged against the system and took it upon herself to change it, and for such reason, no hatred binds my heart, only respect, but she has solicited a cowards path, and for such this one will not stand.” Anu nodded towards Zhu. ”We will stand against the Wind Demon and her camp.”

The councillors all bowed in agreement. “His Majesty’s stance is worthy. Hers is a path of disharmony, one His Majesty cannot support. His Majesty’s choice is righteous,” Zhu Rongyuan stated.

”Then there's only one course of action. We beseech my father and stand with him in this crusade.”

“A worthy suggestion, Your Majesty; however, this servant must ask who will remain to govern the pygmies? The trek to Hemen is a long one, and one to Nanhe would be even longer. Surely, the pygmies are still too uneducated to govern themselves.” Zhu shot the gathered pygmies a frown.

Anu was silent for a moment. The pygmies were quick to learn yet were still soft. To govern would surely prove beyond their capabilities. ”Some of you must remain then. Our traveling party will be light, but these people of mine shall not fall out of line, not because of this divine war.”

Zhu Rongyuan nodded. “Very well - then this servant offers to remain.” He kowtowed pleadingly. “Take the others instead. This one is both old and slow, and His Majesty’s escort requires haste. This servant has full confidence that His Majesty has learned enough that there will not be an immediate need for it.”

”As you say Zhu, so it will be. They are in your care.” he asserted, rising and placing a gentle hand on the elder’s shoulder. He then shifted his gaze to the rest of the council. ”We leave at first light tomorrow.”

“Yes, Your Majesty!” the three of them boomed and bowed. Zhu nodded, his long beard dangling freely in the moist air. He then turned to the pygmies and raised his hands. “People of Anu - salute your king!” As commanded, the pygmies fell to their knees and hands before Anu. The Ivory King gave regard, released them, and set for his throne.




The next day, the group set out on the journey back to the Giant’s Bath, this time at a much faster pace. They trekked along Beihe this time, the vibrant life greeting Anu with the same enthusiasm as usual. Anu likewise responded all the same, acknowledging their obeisance and then releasing them, unlike the pygmy usurper, they naturally knew their place. Along the way as they rested, Qiang Quan schooled Anu in martial arts, teaching him the way of the pole and the club, as well as hand-to-hand combat; Fu Lai’an revealed to him the many kinds of edible and non-edible plants along the river and also gave a theoretical course on tea brewing, as they lacked the necessary equipment for a demonstration; Yong Cai brought him along to inspect the local building materials to determine which could be suited for a palace. He was slow to catch onto the non-combat related subjects, but learned regardless, deeming any and all knowledge worth his due diligence to master. One day, Fu Lai’an carved him a flute from bamboo and insisted that a great king would need to master the arts to appeal to both commoner and nobility.

”You expect to perform like some sort of jester for guestrite?” he scoffed, holding the flute to the light.

“Not at all, Your Majesty,” Fu Lai’an replied calmly and added a sweet giggle. “It is merely recommended that a king master what appeals to all citizens - music is such a skill. Furthermore, it is an important part of self-cultivation towards achieving personal excellence.” She kowtowed before him in the jungle soil.

”Does father play?”

The servant nodded with a smile. “His Lordship plays several instruments, Your Majesty. His favourite is the guzheng. On quiet, peaceful days like this one, one can hear beautiful harp notes from His Lordship’s tower, music that harmonises with the natural sounds of the jungle.”

This earned a huff from the demi-god. ”Indeed sounds like the most gratuitous of pastimes. Couldn’t a member of my cherished court wow the nobility and the masses all the same?” he chortled.

Fu Lai’an joined in on the chuckle and cocked her head sweetly to the side. “Your Majesty, none among Your court could ever elicit such a glorious celebration as what would follow a performance by the Ivory King - that, this servant can guarantee.”

”Bah, I’m sure they can, why else would they grace my court. They are to act as an extension of my will and might no?”

The enchantress sighed gently. “An extension rarely measures up to the very core, Your Majesty.” She took her own flute and tested a few notes. “Please, would His Majesty like to join me?”

The ape stifled a breath and held the flute to his curled lips. ”Well, it’s seems I’ll be lashed if i refuse.” he joked.

“Not lashed, Your Majesty, but we’ll think of something,” she jested with a wink and played a few notes, showing vividly where she placed her fingers, then gestured for Anu to try.

He imitated her stance albeit a bit clumsily, but found his place and nodded. At first, the timid tones were both sharp and flat, the ape king’s fingers still not quite used to small, accurate movements like hopping between the holes of a flute. However, as his diligence suffered constant challenges from impatience, the conflict channeled itself into a simple, yet interesting little tune. Fu Lai’an let out an impressed ‘ooo’ and clapped her hands together.

With a frustrated sigh he held the thing out for Fu Lai’an to take. ”This one has had enough for today. I’ll master music another day.”

Fu Lai’an giggled and took the flute. “The most important part of learning something is the very beginning. His Majesty will undoubtedly master it in time, indeed.” She cleaned both flutes with the sleeve of her dress and put them in her bag. That moment, Qiang Quan broke through the foliage, bowed and said, “Your Majesty - it has been an hour. Shall we keep moving?”

The ape hoisted himself help and held out a hand for Fu to gradb ”Yes of course.” he said

Fu Lai’an nodded gracefully and softly took the king’s hand, letting him help her to her feet with a gentle, “Thank you, Your Majesty.” Yong Cai also came through the foliage, bowing to Anu. “The trek left is quite short,” she said gleefully. “We will be at Hemen by nightfall.”

”Let us be off then, better to not keep father waiting.” he jested.

With that, the band once more set off, and surely enough, they arrived at the Giant’s Bath by nightfall. There, in the middle of the deceptively small lake, the colossal ship of Shengshi rested contently, quiet harp strings clinging through the air. Qiang Quan skipped into the lake and waved the others along. The other two first undressed before they jumped in, Fu Lai’an dropping a slightly smug comment about Qiang Quan’s eagerness getting the better of him. Anu on the other hand had a sheen of opaque silence about him, yet if anything was bothering him he showed otherwise as he bowed before his father’s vessel and with a voice like rolling thunder called to him.

”My father, I Anu have come to you. I ask for your permission to board your sacred vessel.”

A moment passed and the harp strings stopped. Then, there came a warm chuckle and the river formed a staircase up to the deck. “Please, come aboard, my son,” said the deep voice of the snake.

A rumble of footsteps hammered against the deckplanks as thousands of servants lined up on the main deck in front of the palace. The councillors ascended the stairway first to make certain everything was in order before they joined the ranks closest to the palace gates. As Anu ascended the staircase, all seven thousand servants kowtowed in unison and bellowed, “TEN THOUSAND YEARS AND MORE TO ANU, THE IVORY KING!” In front of the palace gates stood Shengshi with his arms spread wide in welcome.

”I pray you are well, father?” he bemused politely as he bowed at the waist.

“Oh, worthy son, it is a joy to have one’s children come from afar to see them. I am more than well. How goes the conquest of the world? Are you staying true to the Flow and listening to the advisors I put in your care? I notice good Zhu Rongyuan is not present.” He looked around with a half-smile.

”Ah yes, Zhu remains at my camp in order to manage the affairs of state in my absence.” he replied as he gestured to the remnants of his council. ”These cherished members of my court joined me on this journey. As for my conquest it has began, slowly but surely I will see it so.”

“The affairs of state? My, have you already formed a kingdom of your own?” The snake squeezed Anu’s shoulders proudly and smiled. “Hah! As expected of my son.”

A smile crested the king’s lips. ”Time waits for no one, dear father. Speaking of which,” the sheen returned as Anu paused. ”do you have a spare moment?”

“Why, yes, that I have. Please, join me in my chambres. I will have the servants bring up whatever you want to eat and drink.” With that, servants pulled open the gates to the palace and the snake slithered inside and up to his tower along with Anu, the councillors and roughly twenty more servants.

The chambres were rather empty as usual, but the small tea table was quickly stacked high with dishes of fragrant foods from the kitchens below. Wine was poured in Anu’s cup and Shengshi raised his own in his honour. “First, a toast - to the conception of… Have you thought of a name for that empire of yours, my son?”

A stillness settled over Anu. A name worthy of conquers? A name worthy of an empire spanning the world? ”Talemon.” he replied clumsily, the word seemingly spawning from the void and tumbling out of his mouth. Somehow, it felt appropriate. ”The Talemon Empire.” he said resolutely, this time reaffirming it within himself.

The snake snickered. “The Talemon Empire… That has a rhythmic appeal to it… Very well! To the Talemon Empire, then!” He raised his cup and downed the wine - as did Anu. The taste garnered a small curl of the lip and a small glance at the contents left in the cup. It tasted bitter at first, but was pursued by flavours of peaches and jasmine. It seemed to have little effect on the demigod whose blood was of alcohol itself.

”I’m sure you heard the message from the Wind Demon?”

Shengshi’s brow furrowed. “Yes, you have evidently been listening to Zhu Rongyuan if you call her that,” he mumbled. “I have indeed heard it - as have the Servants, and likely every other sentient being in this innocent world.” His smile had faded and his eyes turned to the view out his veranda door. “A condemnable offense, if you ask me - one that cannot go unanswered, but what of it? Have you come seeking counsel?

Anu returned the cup to its place and followed his father's gaze. ”Zhu refuses to tell me of the demons’ true name. Nevertheless I come bearing a request. I ask that you permit me to join you on this quest for retribution..”

The snake blinked a little, then snickered. “The -goddess’- true name is Azura. The servants have a tendency to tweak a little the many cultures and phrases they learn depending on their proximity from Jiangzhou. It is a natural evolution of customs and tradition, however, so I let it slide. As for your proposal, it is welcome. With my alliance with the hunter Kalmar shattered many years ago, I have few I can truly rely on. I am reaching out to potential new comrades, but while many certainly are threatened by the implication of Azura’s maddened mission, few have the motivation to amend the damage she will do.” He shook his head. “But I have you, and you are welcome into my coalition.”

”Thank you, father.” he began, shifting somewhat in his seat. ”An alliance broken with Kalmar? ‘Herald of the Hunt’?”

“Yes, yes, a poorly handled affair, that,” the snake admitted. “We do not see eye to eye on many things, but with this new conflicted with Azura on the horizon, well… I really do wish I had not broken it, after all. I may have let my anger get the better of me…” He sighed and pinched a piece of fish between his chopsticks.

Anu imitated. ”And reinstating it would be out of the question?”

“While I personally rather would not,” he put the fish piece in his mouth, chewed and swallowed, “it may not be up to me in the end. We must do everything in our power to preserve the balance of life and death - even if that means allying ourselves with brutes and barbarians.”

”So you had particulars in mind then?” he breathed as he set aside the chopsticks and gestured for a second cup of wine. A servant immediately refilled his cup from a pitcher.

“Yes, I believe there are those who will see reason where Azura does not. Chief among these are Kalmar, Phystene and Ashalla, all of whom have tight connections to life. However, Phystene and I have our… Differences, and Kalmar, well, I have already explained. That leaves Ashalla. Kirron and Narzhak may also be convinced to join our cause, I believe, though that may require a degree of diplomacy. However, if we can unite a force of three or more gods, we will already outnumber them - and with you, we are even stronger.”

The demigod downed half the cup of wine in a single swig and set his lips in a thin line. ”So we take the offensive with the superior numbers we hope to have and take back this commodity called souls. What becomes of the ‘rebels’?”

The snake shrugged. “In all honesty, my son, I would rather not see them killed. I have murdered a brother before and there is little joy in it. It only feels as though you are removing an essential part of this world from the universe itself. His name was Vakk, lord of Talk. Thankfully, his sphere remains, but I cannot imagine what would happen if the wind disappeared - or worse, the light. No, too much life depends on both of these forces to simply rid the world of its keepers.” He shook his head. “Still, a punishment would be in order. Imprisonment seems suitable.”

”So we war and imprison to restore a flawed afterlife?” Anu swallowed a piece of fish. ”The seeds of doubt have been planted. There will be whispers of this for generations and if no change is wrought, this will only come to bare again. As I’m sure you did as well, I quelled dissenters fairly quickly. Some no doubt, are cowards to the bone, and would rather disobey their creator and sleep eternally then join the cycle.”

The snake’s eyebrow rose. “The system is not flawed. It is as good as they come - a solid method for recycling soul matter. Whatever dissenters there are must be reeducated or, yes, as you suggested, quelled. Thinking one can avoid doing one’s part for the good of all life is the peak of cowardice.”

”Is that not what the rebels are doing? Doing what they believe is best for all life?” Anu sighed and finished the cup of wine. ”Truth be told I see no other outcome then…” a pause. ”There is no doubt they will upset the balance again should they escape bondage.”

“What they believe is best for all life does not take into consideration the life that will be,” the snake muttered and shot a sideways glance out his door. He pinched another bite of food and tossed it into his mouth. “It is rash, irrational and selfish. As for their escape, surely, the cooperative efforts of multiple gods to seal them away would be quite difficult to escape, no?”

”Even the divines are imperfect. No prison is inescapable, but that is neither here nor there as of right now I suppose. We have a war to win first.”

The snake wrinkled his nose and nodded. “That we do, indeed. Raising the necessary forces for an all out conflict will take time, however, and in addition to an attack force, I must keep one posted here on the Foot to keep the Flame Demon at bay…” The snake blinked a few times and then pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Say, my son, how soon are you willing to test your military capabilities?”

For the first time in years a toothy smile graced Anu’s face. ”As soon as I have an army to lead.”

The snake nodded with a knowing smile. “Marvellous. The Flame Demon’s infestation has gone on for far too long. It would contribute considerably to our cause if a great warrior I trusted could keep the wicked forces at bay while Azura is dealt with.” The snake extended an inviting palm. “Would you be willing to do this in your father’s name? For the glory of your empire and yourself?”

Anu took it without hesitation. ”For all of the above a thousand times over.” he declared.

The snake grinned and squeezed proudly. “Ah, that is good to hear, worthy son. Your conquest will be a source for the poets for aeons to come.”

”When do we begin?”

“When our forces are ready, my son,” replied the snake. “And when yours are, too. I will come to you in time with the necessary instructions. Now, go forth and carve your name into the annals of creation, my child.”

The ape bowed and radiated determination. ”So it will done.”




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The Buajaoi rested atop a mountain in the northeast of Atokhekwoi, with Ohannakeloi considered carefully. The God-Crab had seen his daughter off previously, she was heading westward first and from there she knew that a great body of water that had to be crossed to reach the other continents. She could make her own decisions, and maybe even interact with others, it would be a good opportunity for her. But that was not Ohannakeloi’s concern for now, he had a far greater concern that was not so easily met with divine powers or the supreme ability of his form.

Two great questions dominated his mind, both that had vital matters of importance to the same core issue. Firstly, how does one respectfully ask if they can come visit? And Secondly, what kind of gift would show that he himself, the great Ohannakeloi, appreciated being able to visit? Clearly any gift should have some meaning to its recipient, but what could one do when they knew little of the style and manner one was making the gift for? This question seemed unanswerable for now, or at least not acceptably answerable. The first question, that one may be possible to answer. Ohannakeloi send out his message across Galbar to the mind of Shengshi.

“Shengshi, I wish to visit you, if you have the time and the patience for the company of one of your Divine fellows.”

There was a short pause. Then, in a gentle, deep voice came the reply: "Why, of course! I always have time at the request of a dear brother. You will find me aboard my ship sailing down Nanhe on the Foot. Please, come, come!"

“I’ll be there shortly.”

And with that the Buajaoi shot off from the mountain and streaked across the skies of northern Atokhekwoi, heading north to that continent. The journey was fairly short, nothing to impede a journey over open ocean for a divinely made craft. Ohannakeloi did run into some trouble over the fact that he had no idea what the Nanhe was but sorted it out well enough by following the biggest, and first, river he came across into the interior of the continent. He had to circle the craft around slowing down and lazily settling down to the river craft, he could have gone faster but seeing the artistry of the craft was something Ohannakeloi wanted to enjoy.

Most importantly for Ohannakeloi, it gave him an idea for the gift he felt was appropriate as the Buajaoi pulled up to the Jiangzhou and Ohannakeloi folded the stone of his craft so he could exit. As he approached, the river itself rose up like a mighty staircase that carried the crab aboard. Once there, a sea of servants filled the deck and cast themselves on the ground before him. “TEN THOUSAND YEARS AND MORE TO HIS HOLINESS OHANNAKELOI, THE KING OF STONE!” swiftly followed by a cheerful chuckle from the palace doors after a rhythmic pause.

“Welcome, dearest brother Ohannakeloi, welcome!” The snake slithered over with his arms spread wide apart in warm greeting, his tall form flanked by a servant on each side, one carrying a tray with two cups and a small pitcher and the other carrying a small bamboo steam basket oozing wonderful smells. The snake bowed and the servants kowtowed. “Welcome aboard my humble vessel. It has been far too long since we last saw one another - the Cradle of Creation must have been the last time, if I recall?”

“You do recall correctly, you are in fact only the second of our fellows I have spoken with or seen since that time but that makes it only the more welcome to see you now.” His happiness clear in his voice, Ohannakeloi had his claws raised attempting to make some gesture of similar nature. However, most notable was a blanketing feeling of awe sweeping the servants, his aura powerful and generally effective over mortals. “I have to thank you for this welcome, as I do for far more I do not doubt to come. Let me present you with a gift.” The servants seemed to refuse to look up from the deckfloor, seemingly deeming themselves unworthy to look upon such a perfect specimen of godhood. Divine hearing could pick up pops and plops as tears of awe dropped against the deck among the crowds.

The Divine Crab marshalled his divine effort to summon forth a block of stone and imbue it with specific power. On the outside it was covered in granite, inlaid with various gemstones, carved in much the same designs as found on the Jiangzhou, notably similar to ornaments on the towers. An open top of the granite covering revealed inside was a large form of jade, twice and long and wide and only a third so deep as its creator, while at first unclear as it formed it soon became apparent, it was the Jiangzhou itself along the Nanhe, at the present moment. The Buajaoi rested there by the Jiangzhou and if one looked carefully they could even see all those along the deck. The large jade landscape showed the changes, as it soon became apparent when the jade river seemed to flow and the landscape changed as the Jiangzhou continued its voyage. The detail was quite fine, but hard to make out all of it if one did not have the benefits of divine vision.

Ohannakeloi held it above himself, admittedly making him quite hard to see under it, and spoke. “My gift to you brother, so that you may survey that which you are surrounded without leaving the comfort of wherever you may be.” As an apparent after thought he added. “It is lighter than it looks.”

The snake was momentarily speechless. As the gift was delivered to him, he could not help but throw himself to the floor for a second, nearly counting as a push-up to save face. A sheen like the heliopolis’ twinkle in the river filled the snake’s eyes as he marvelled at the details and colours. He turned it around in his hands to oogle it some more, almost forgetting what he was supposed to do. A partial return to reality let him formulate the words: “My dearest, precious brother, in all my years of literature and poetry, I am completely without sufficient, adequate words that can describe this vibrant sensation of gratitude.” He ran his eyes over it one last time before offering it to a group of servants, who walked with their torsos inclined at a forty-five degree angle next to Ohannakeloi, that wrapped it in sheets of expensive silks and brought it inside the palace. “Please, allow me to express my deepest, most profound thanks with actions instead.” He snapped his fingers.

The crowds dissipated momentarily before they came back up with tables, pillows, a small stage, several pots of wine, instruments, wicker chests of gold and silk and, naturally, several towers of dishes. The snake turned to the servant on his right, the one carrying the wine, who poured two cups full, walked over to Ohannakeloi in a constant state of bowing, and knelt down as she offered a cup. “It is not nearly the same variety of beauty and generosity as your gift, brother, but please, join me for a few drinks and a meal while we reminisce about the past.”

Ohannakeloi took the cup as he responded, “I would be ever so delighted, of course I will join you.”

“Then, a toast before we sit down,” the snake smiled and lowered his cup so it was below Ohannakeloi’s. “To brotherhood!” he exclaimed and drank the cup in one go.

“To brotherhood!” Ohannakeloi mimicked the toast and motion, downing the cup.

Pillows were arranged neatly in a small nest on the side of the table furthest from the palace doors, perfect for Ohannakeloi to sit in. On the opposite side, the busiest side with all the incoming servants, the snake took his seat. Food was stacked high on the tables and the snake held out a generous hand. “Please, please! Eat your fill, and while you do, please do tell how you have been of late, my dear brother. It truly has been much, much too long.”

Taking his seat Ohannakeloi began to reply as he examined the dishes, “I have been truly well, as you may know I’ve made a continent to the south and even a race of mortals, the Ihokhetlani. As well numerous guardians and such of mortal kind, indeed another is off traveling as we speak, perhaps you will meet her sometime, her scales glimmer quite majestically in the light from Heliopolis.”

Ohannakeloi paused to actually try some of the dishes he was presented with before continuing, “I did mention that you were the second of our fellows, Azura came to meet me before all this soul trouble, she had made the Alma at that time and tried to convince the Ihokhetlani to accept their business. I am fairly proud to say they stood quite admirably in their interactions from there, call me proud perhaps but I am quite confident in them, as you have no doubt in your own creations. I could tell you of minutiae, but enough of me no? What of yourself? I heard some worrying business with other the other gods?”

“Oh, such a glorious tale, worthy brother - indeed, I have been to your lands and, in all honesty, they are absolutely stunning, particularly the mountains. In fact, so stunning were they that I simply had to fill them with life - it would be a waste not to share such a sight with animals and, maybe in time, mortals.” He smiled warmly, though it faded slightly thereafter. “And yes, it is no lie, what you have heard. While I have spent the majority of my days furthering this world towards prosperity, it is no secret that I have encountered obstacles and, I am ashamed to say, sown rivalry between myself and a select few of our other siblings.” He clicked his forked tongue disapprovingly. “I will not speak ill of them in their absence - such acts are uncouth - yet I cannot lie, either: As time has passed, I have found little love for Kalmar and Azura, both simultaneously so wonderful, yet at the same time so utterly different in certain areas that truly, deeply matter to me. I take it you have not had the opportunity yet to meet our hunter brother?”

“No I have not yet had the opportunity, and I do have to compliment you on the food, your servants have truly outdone themselves.”

The closest servants fell to the ground. “Great, blessed King of Stone - these servants are infinitely grateful for Your warming compliments.” They could barely look up at Ohannakeloi’s form as they spoke, his aura too mighty for such insignificant beings. The snake nodded. “Your compliments mean the world to them, brother. Thank you. As for Kalmar, well… We have had our differences, philosophical and otherwise. I will not soil his image, though - he is a righteous god with an amiable sense of justice. The two of us just are not of the same mind, if you will. You may draw your own conclusions if you encounter him, of course.” He pinched some fish between his chopsticks and popped it in his mouth. “Then there is… Azura… If I may ask, what are your thoughts regarding her… Project?”

“If I am to be honest with you brother, I don’t care all too much. She has some concerns about the treatment of the dead in the Pyres and her own ‘solution’ has its own issues, but should they ever become too great a trouble I’m sure a reasonable solution could be found, especially with so many of our fellows who will be interested in the matter. I feel no need to take action on the facts of that, nor does her Alma worry me, they require consent and I have trained and informed my followers well, I have no doubt they are fully capable of making appropriate decisions.” Ohannakeloi paused finishing off a piece of food he had stopped eating to speak, then continued. “In short, I see no reason to take any action at this time, I want to verify a few things myself but if there is ever an issue I have no doubt a multitude of our fellows would assist to fix it given the threat such a thing could potentially pose. I do not know when or if we shall see that realized in due time, but I will be ready if it does. Do you have strong feelings on the matter?”

The snake hummed. “‘Strong’ is an adequate adjective, yes… Even if it requires consent, it may have catastrophic consequences for all life if enough mortals and beasts pledge themselves. As life shares from the same soul pool, as you no doubt are aware of, and as prosperity is rather dependent on a free, unrestricted flow of souls, any change to this system as radical as hers pokes more than a few sticks in our wheels. I can harness soul ash like a reflex, but how would I harness a soul stone? It is unnatural, I say - much too reckless and rash; as is the moral high ground stance that backs it up, too - how are aeons of dreamless sleep preferable to a quick bath in fire? Sounds like a coma to me. Who wants to be in a coma? I--” He stopped himself and cleared his throat. “Pardon, I let my mouth run much too fast.”

“It is understandable when one is invested, none would deny you a moment of vigor in your speech dear brother. While what you foresee is a grave concern, and you are wise to be concerned, I am not sure it is a concern of the moment. I admit that I do know for sure. What I do know is that simply opposing Azura is not enough, Azura is determined and is a divine being like ourselves, we would get nothing done if we spent all our time going back and forth doing and undoing. The only true solution is one that can satisfy the radical elements like Azura, while preventing or greatly reducing the harm of such a crisis of souls.”

Ohannakeloi paused again to finish off a dish before continuing, “At least such is as I see it, I have no claim to absolute truth, nor am I an expert in souls, death or our fellow Divines but it is what I have thought and considered. Have you seen much of Asceal? I had heard she is of similar mind to Azura but I have never spoken with her.”

“Hm… You have given me something to consider, brother. I will meditate on this… As for Asceal, yes, I have met her on several occasions. She carried many of the same opinions and thoughts as Azura at the time we last saw one another, though that was nearly fifty years ago now…” He scratched his chin. “Asceal is a cherished sister to me and I owe her much after she aided my servant and I in the defense of this very ship against an onslaught by Sartravian dragons. While we again have certain unfortunate splits in motivations and goals, I cannot say anything less than that she is determined to make a world of safety and joy for mortality. Truly, she is also a champion of prosperity.” The snake nodded approvingly as he sipped some wine.

“I shall have to converse with her sometime, I believe she has an island off the western coast of Atokhekwoi although I haven’t visited it. I must say, an onslaught by Sartravian dragons? I had not been informed of such a thing, I would be most pleased if you were to tell me more about how this came to pass.”

“Oh, that whole ordeal is ages old by now. Really, I am awful at telling my beloved brothers and sisters about the chaos that passes for ‘just another day’ here on the Foot - terribly sorry. Now, where to begin with that whole mess…” The snake took another sip of wine and let out a gruff groan. “Our brother Sartravius, for all his necessary work down below - with all the heating of the crust and such - I am certain you have quite an extensive knowledge of his portfolio… Anyway, for all his goods, the god is…” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “... What is a good word… Spiteful? Yes, I think I will go with spiteful. I confess, my brother, I have only hate for him at this point, and this god escapes my restriction on ruining others’ face. He has intentionally been burning my jungle at regular intervals for the longest time now, and his dragon assault was no mere hunt of hungry beasts - it was a coordinated attack with the intention of sabotaging my vessel and exterminating my people.” He blasted some hot air out his nose. “Again, I pardon my excessive episodes of rage… This Sartr and his minions are quite sensitive subjects to me. Poor Chuanwang still has not recovered completely, even after all these years.”

“There is nothing to pardon, you are most composed under the circumstances, the apology should be mine for not having considered the sensitivity of such a subject before bringing it up. I thank you for telling me despite the trouble you no doubt have in remembering his assaults against you. Let us speak of other things, your home sphere, what is it like? I cannot imagine it is any less impressive than all of your other creations.”

“Oh, you are much too generous with your words, dearest brother - they are not that impressive.” He chuckled softly. “Now, as for my home, I have not been there in a while now. Fengshui Fuyou is actually rather more empty than it ought to be, though it is still quite fine, if I may say so myself. Endless, mysterious fog surrounding a beautiful land of constantly shifting rivers, all sprouting outwards in ever-changing webs from the central spring, Shiquan. Oh, I simply must bring you along one day.” He ate another small piece of fish. “May I ask how yours turned out? There was one point many years ago when I felt the earth grow a little steadier - that would not have happened to be you, would it?” The snake winked playfully.

“You are as humble as you are wise, Shengshi.” Ohannakeloi replied with happiness clear in his voice, “Indeed it was I. I had seen that the general support of Galbar was insufficient for the great works being done upon it, so I improved upon it. As well repaired what damage was being done by the rather consumptive leakage from Anzillu, I’ll have to ask him one day about that.”

He picked suspiciously at some marine meat, “Ehomakwoi is quite nice, although I have to admit is perhaps somewhat barren. Tunnels reach throughout the earth with the most wonderful stones and gems abundant in every corner of the complex, in the lower levels light is not scarce like above but almost antithesis to the darkness there. I wonder somewhat if there is something more going on there but I have not investigated it strongly. It is truly beautiful but there is much more to be done there in the future, I have no concrete plans but I will see as I may.”

“Mind you, my dear Ohannakeloi, the river is quite thankful to the earth that holds it - without the good stone and earth you provide, my rivers would be siltless, lacking in that wealth of nutrients that comes from loess and clay. Indeed, Kangjiang in the east of your magnificent land is a haven for all surrounding plants thanks to the wonders in the mountain stone. As such, I would be more than happy to give back, not only for that, but also for your beautiful gift. If you ever want an extra hand in any structure or project of yours, my good friend, I will be there posthaste - I swear it here and now, before yours and every Servant’s face. Oh, and if there are no concrete plans, well, I would love to offer suggestions, if I may - both for your own sphere and the Middle World.”

“I appreciate your offer of future assistance, it is most deeply felt. You must know how happy it makes me to hear the generous praise you have given. As well, I would love to hear your suggestions, particularly for the Middle World, none should refuse the wise and generous counsel of Shengshi.”

“O-ho, stop it, you,” the snake said with a giggle and grinned. “Very well, suggestions… Well, one that I have in particular for your own land would be some oases in that dry central region. I have flown over it once and it seemed rather hostile to living beings - a rainless region without sufficient moisture in the soil to sustain much greater growths than the occasional shrubbery. An oasis network, perhaps? Oh, but how would water be refilled, hmm? A river would dry up before long, most likely, but what if it was covered? An oasis network fueled by underground rivers, perhaps? With great biomes in the dark as well as on the surface,” the snake suggested.

“A grand idea Shengshi! Such a proposal could support multitudes of kinds of life, above and below. An excellent way to vitalize that region, and good planning. I had not thought to do so but I realize that it is true that region does not have as great a capacity as it probably should if we want to make the best use of it. I’ll have to work out the details of such an operation at sometime, if nothing else comes perhaps this would be a good endeavor to call in your assistance, you are the supreme expert on rivers after all.”

Ohannakeloi paused to sip wine, “I do have to ask, do you have any plans for future projects?”

The snake chuckled. “Oh, numerous projects, indeed! First one all, perhaps a little surprisingly, I have left my jungle in a rather sorry state - its biodiversity is quite finite, you see, and I have been too occupied with other projects and obstacles to see it truly blossom into the pinnacle of life that I one day wish to make it. Then I must found a more permanent solution to holding off Sartravius’ pests. Finally, there are always the final goals: Prosperity and harmony. Anything I can achieve to bring this world closer to those goals is a project of its own. To start off, I had planned a visit to my son, Anu - his civilisation is only just starting to form, and I think I can perhaps give it an additional little push.” He shrugged. “Otherwise, I do like to occasionally be spontaneous. Oh, and by the way, please do feel free to take any inspiration or specimens from the Foot back to your own home, as well as to make whatever you wish here. There are no restrictions on creativity in these lands.”

“Once again I must thank you for your generosity, I have not seen this continent very closely so I am not sure what I could add or take away but I will take a survey as soon as I am able. I do have to say that your final goals are quite a deal of work but worthwhile goals they are. Additionally, you have not told me hardly at all about this son, Anu, of yours, starting a civilization is he? Is he of a divine nature?”

The snake nodded. “Anu came to this world as a result of Narzhak’s and my wily experiments… Under influence. It is a bit of a shame to admit that is how he came to be, but rarely does one spawn children of such honour and convictions as we did that afternoon. Both Narzhak’s and my blood flow in his veins, making him quite a mighty and charismatic character. He has this… Presence, much like your very own aura - beasts, mortals, even some plants all bow before him as he passes by. He told me he has founded his very own empire, the Ondo empire, built on the backs of his very own species. It is quite something. By the way, you mentioned you had some daughters of your own. May I inquire further into who they are?”

“I have one which lays claim to the relationship, others consider me their god and creator but only one considers me their father, and I am inclined to agree. Azukuao is her name, she does not have divine blood but our bond is close regardless of such things. From head to tail she is about twice as long, maybe more, than your ship here, her scales are infused with metal from the deep earth and so she shines with reflected light from Heliopolis and the Lustrous Garden. She has good sense, I fear for her a little, she is not as strong as our fellows and I hope none take a disliking to her.”

"If she is similar in character to yourself, dear brother, I see no way that others could dislike her," said the snake and smiled.

“I hope so, I sincerely do hope that is the case.”

The snake patted his lips with a small napkin and let out a satisfied sigh. "Now, if I may ask, since it seems that you are out to explore this grand world, would you like to spend some time hear while you plan for your next destination? I will have the servants ready your personal room."

“With such excellent hospitality how could I say no? I would be delighted to spend some time here, it will give me plenty of opportunity to consider my destinations carefully.”

"Any in particular you are interested in?"

“I had considered the land to the far north of the world, practically on the other side of Galbar from here. Do you know much about it?”

The snake made a short-lived sneer. "You speak of Kalgrun, I take it?" There was a pause. "I have not been there in a long time… However…" Another pause. "It was quite beautiful the last time I went. I can recommend it, certainly. Flat plains, occasional hills and mountains. It is satisfactory."

“I have only ever seen it from afar, but I believe it may be satisfactory for my purposes. I wish to see some more of Galbar, and perhaps take some useful pieces and ideas back to Atokhekwoi to ensure its development and prosperity. I truly thank you for your offer and I must say Dragon’s Foot does have the most promise I feel for the more exotic and divine creatures. Kalgrun may have some useful diversity that could benefit some of the more southern regions of Atokhekwoi. As well it would be nice to see some of our fellow gods.”

“Well, you are welcome to stay for however long it may please you, my dearest brother. Whatever you may need shall be provided and whatever you may ask shall be answered - to the best of our ability.” He winked playfully at Ohannakeloi. “Oh, but I must sadly say that I may run a few errands over the next few days, so I am most broken to admit that I may not be around all the time. Most unmannered of me, I know - I pray it may be forgiven.”

Ohannakeloi waved a claw to dismiss such concerns, “You have done far well above the duties of hospitality on such rather short notice. I think I shall go see this room of mine now.”

The snake bowed his head deeply. “I thank you deeply for your words, my brother - the kindest and warmest there are. Your room is in the Delta Spire, I believe, towards the stern. Among the first rooms ever furnished in this ship, I hope you will enjoy the detail and the view. My servants will escort you and provide for you in every way you may wish.” The snake stood up, circled the table over and offered a hand. “Once more, I must thank you for this joyous, brotherly dinner - it has been a long, long time since I last spoke to someone of such impeccable and worthy character as yourself, Ohannakeloi.”

“You flatter me, but I am not above accepting such esteem, as you deserve such in kind.” Ohannakeloi took the offered hand.

The two said their goodbyes for the day and Ohannakeloi was escorted inside the palace by some very awed servants.



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Almost there





The sky slowly turned to a deep purple as the pair swiftly rode the wind. Gusts of billowing air pushed under the umbrella, pulling the two along quietly -- or what would be silence if not for the faint rustle of blowing fabric and Diana's gentle, and uncharacteristic hum that she so often falls into the habit of reciting. The avatar held the umbrella with a single hand, her body clearly ignoring the effects of extreme speed and gravity as she looked as if she were simply standing, waiting for something; however Karamir wasn't as lucky.

The mortal clung to her, the deep chill her body emitted long settling in his skin. The wind buffeted his face and teared at his eyes. His hat had long since been lost. Something about Diana's occasional flickering gaze told him that perhaps this was unnecessary -- but then again, nothing is ever comfortable near here, the quickly avoiding birds were testament to that.

Karamir grimaced, but he did not complain. Instead, as they flew, he began to think. And then, he got an idea. He looked up at Diana. “Are we there yet?” he asked in an innocent voice.

Diana cackled, as if enjoying the question, "Would you like to find out, dear?" Her voice was sweet, if not laced with menace. Her eyes flickered down to the vast blue below.

“Why, whatever do you mean?” he asked in the best aristocratic voice he could manage, recalling the teachings from so long ago. “I simply asked a question.”

"So did I!" She guffawed, "Isn't that fun?" She hummed for a second, clearly still very excited to be going home, "Oh I can't wait."

“But still… are we there yet?”

"Hm?" Diana's humming stopped as she was pulled from her latest reverie. She looked down at Karamir and gave him a pitiful look, "Oh dear, where you struck blind or is this really the capacity of your intelligence?"

Karamir said nothing and Diana cackled. Her free hand tapped at the side of Karamir's head, and to his surprise a hollow sound rang from it. Her hand flicked away as if she didn't expect the sound, "Well there you have it!" Her smile curled and he could feel the most annoying itch right where her finger tapped him.

Karamir blinked. “How about now? Are we there yet?”

"Oh no," Diana's brow furrowed, "Karamir dear, don't tell me you've finally broken?"

“You are the one who refuses to answer the question. Are we there yet?”

"Oh foo, not this game again," Diana huffed, "No we aren't there yet, silly buffoon." Her eyes flickered away from him and she looked back out to the encroaching horizon.

“Alright then,” Karamir said before once more falling silent. A minute passed and Diana suddenly took to her hum again. It was familiar, but perhaps it was just because he heard it so much over the years, but wasn't it familiar the day he first heard it? Diana stopped and cleared her throat. She opened her mouth, squinted, then closed it again -- the hum returning.

Karamir opened his mouth once again. “So… are we there yet now?”

Diana sighed and craned her neck to look at him, a cheshire smile on her face, the tips of her sharp teeth clear and occluded together, "allow me to put your wonders to rest, hm?" There was a sudden kink in Karamir's arm and his hands began to cramp, his hold slowly slipping. Diana's smile turned to an entertained grin as she watched the mortal slowly slide further down.

Karamir’s eyes widened, and he tried to fight through the pain of the cramp to hold on tighter, but it seemed to have no effect. Through grit teeth, he managed to utter three words. “We… there… yet?”

"I would say it's about time we found out," Diana cackled as his fingers finally lost their grip altogether. The wind seemed to change directions as he began to plummet. It screamed past his ears and his vision blurred from the speed of his collapse. The dark dot that was Diana seemed to disappear into the sky above as the great blue below grew closer and closer.

Calmly, Karamir closed his eyes and braced himself for impact but of course it never came -- it never does. He felt a slight tug on the back of his shirt, and as a knuckle grazed him -- he felt the sudden urge to vomit, his stomach turning. He nearly did, but managed to choke most of it back down.

"Take a look," Diana's voice hummed from above.

He opened his eyes. A cool shock washed over him as he saw it in the distance. A great black line overtook the once blue horizon, the color shimmering in and out of focus as if it didn't want to be seen.

He coughed, remnants of the vomit still clinging to his throat. “What am I looking at?” he asked.

"Tendlepog," Diana said with excitement in her voice.

He blinked in surprise. “So we are there, then?”

"Almost, it'll be awhile longer." She cackled, "Good thing we know-- or well, good thing I know exactly where we are going. This is not the place to get lost." She paused and a smile broke across her pale face, "Then again…"

Karamir was unbothered by the implication. “So what are we waiting for?”

Diana seemed to pause for a moment, pursing her lips as they flew forward. She breathed in through her nostrils, "Karamir, dear." She gave him a patronizing smile, "Shall we discuss the process of movement and how it is used to obtain location or must I really answer such a question?"

“Oh by all means, answer it, if you wish.” Karamir said.

"You should know I don't wish it by now," Diana grinned and began to hum again, only to suddenly stop "But really, at least you have abandoned your primitive 'what' 'what's you were so fond of." She cocked her head in thought, the hum returning.

“Would you mind telling me where, exactly, we are going, then?”

"My home! The land of dreams. Did I ever tell you that I'm the perfect dream?" She fluttered her eyelashes, a small cloud of dandruff falling onto Karamir's jacket.

Karamir glanced upward at the sky, a look of concentration on his face, as if searching deep into his memory. “No,” he lied. “I don’t think I ever heard you say anything like that. Doesn’t sound like you. You’ve been so modest up until now.”

Diana gave one sucking 'ha' and shook her head, "Silly silly." She pursed her lips into a hum, as if letting the conversation end at that.

Karamir seemed to let it slide as they both fell into relative silence, Tendlepog rapidly taking over the horizon.





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”The Heavens Weep”





The skies reverberated with mighty booms, like the drumming of Kirron. Lightning flashed, illuminating the world outside of the cramped cave for a few brief moments, showing the torrential downpour. There were hushed whispers, private conversations as the Selka within sat and watched. The tribe was large, and as cramped as the cave was, it was a certain kind of cozy. Pups and children slept besides or on their parents, while a few were reassured the storm would not get them and to sleep. Most adults watched the storm, hoping it would pass. There was a certain fear in the air, for such a storm had been the worst anyone had seen in a generation. They had been forced to flee to the cave, else they be swept away in their homes down by the sea. Delphina would not have them just yet.

“Harwa! Hey Harwa! Come over here!” A tall Selka shouted above the noise. Many parents looked at him with anger, some even ‘shhh’d’ him. Harwa, who was watching the storm at the mouth of the cave, turned back to Menes. The older Selka had a gleeful smile on his face, as he beckoned for Harwa to come over to him. Reluctant at first, the younger Selka walked over the Menes.

“Menes, you seem excited. What is it friend?”

Menes grasped him by the shoulders and said, “I’ve figured it out!”

“Figured what out?” Harwa asked.

“Do you remember when the night terrors started? When the moon hung in the sky large? When the great night light illuminated the ocean?”

“Uh… Yeah. What about it?”

“Ever since then our luck as been down! First the accident at sea! We displeased Delphina, I know it. Then there was the time that little Grottu boy slept walk off the cliff? And now this storm of storms! It’s all connected, Harwa. We’ve angered the gods somehow, we’ve angered Kirron and now he sends these terrors and accidents to punish us, but I know what we have to do!” Menes said enthusiastically.

Harwa began to shake his head, “Menes… When was the last time you slept?”

Menes drifted back, blinking, “Well uh… It doesn’t matter!”

“Menes, the gods are not angry at us. What has any of us done to deserve such punishments? It’s just… life. There doesn’t have to be an explanation for everything.”

The older Selka began to huff and he opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, his gaze wandered to the mouth of the cave as lightning flashed. He rubbed his eyes as darkness took over and looked to Harwa. “I think you might be right. Harwa my boy, I haven’t slept in a couple days. I think I’m starting to see things.”

Harwa, with a skeptical expression, turned around to the entrance. There was nothing but rain and pitch blackness but… He squinted. Was that red?

Lightning flashed, revealing something large and black before the cave, but as quickly as it was seen, the figure molded back into the darkness as the lightning died. Harwa turned back to Menes, with fear in his eyes.

“You saw it too…” The old man said aloud, “We need to te-” before he could finish his sentence, an ear shattering screech pierced the downpour of rain. The sound was something terrible, and unlike anything he had ever heard before. Then it ended, replaced by the rain once more. Inside the cave, hushed whispers silenced as eyes fell upon the outside world. Harwa turned back to the entrance, and as the lightning flashed, he saw more figures. A sense of dread overtook him and his breathing became quick.

Fearing the worst, Harwa spun around, shouting “KIA!” Then Menes screamed, and fell backwards, prompting Harwa to turn again. What he saw shook him to his core, a creature with crimson eyes, its bulk large and screaming danger. The lightning flashed again, to reveal more entering the cave and their skin as black as the night. The first one opened its mouth, and chattered to another on it’s right, then it turned to look at Harwa and his heart froze. The creature, then screamed, turning the cave to chaos as everything erupted around him.

The creatures pounced, Harwa barely had time to duck before razor sharp claws would have taken his head off. He fell backwards, then rolled to the side, right into Menes. The creature brought its tail down, right between his legs, and then brought it back up. Harwa closed his eyes, thinking of Kia as he prepared for the end. Instead, there was a loud, THWAK, and a disturbing hiss, prompting Harwa to open his eyes. A spear lay on the ground, and the creature’s attention had turned away from him. Harwa followed it’s gaze, to see Chuqik with an angry face, before the creature pounced. He did not have the heart to look as his brother was slain, his mind instead turned to Kia and the safety of others. Quickly he grabbed Menes to his feet, and said, “Save as many as you can, then flee!” Menes, simply looked at him dumbfounded. Harwa slapped the old selka, who still did not have a reaction. “Menes! You have to RUN!” he shouted at the selka, and he nodded slowly, turning to the cave entrance.

He then felt a hand on his shoulder, and he spun around to meet Kia’s white face. Tears streamed down her blood coated face. :Oh Harwa! We have to go!” Kia said anxiously. “But what about our famil-” he tried to say before Kia interrupted him. “They’re dead, Harwa. I’m sorry I tried to get to them but they didn’t make it.” The Selka blinked, then quickly grabbed her hand and began to run after Menes. He looked back to the massacre, many were running for their lives, many more lay dying, and the creatures kept coming. Quickly, the two got shoved into a group of fleeing Selka. They managed to flee the cave and enter the wet world, only to be attacked by another creature. One of their group died instantly, their neck cut and another was taken by a large claw and off into the darkness she went. It gave time for the others to flee, and into the woods they went.

The storm was moving off, but the rain still came down. Lightning flashed in the far distance, and the thunder followed. Their small band consisted of Menes, Istha and Banto, plus their two small pups. The group did not stop running until the rain became but sprinkles and the thunder silenced. It was then they stopped to catch their breaths, underneath a rocky overhang.

“K-Kia. Are you alright? Menes?” Harwa began, doubled over from exhaustion.

Kia fell down beside him, the short Selka girl breathing heavily. “I-I’ll make it.” she said, giving him a faint smile. He returned it, before looking over at Menes. The old Selka sat on a rock, his eyes staring blankly before him. He looked away, over to Istha and Banto, who were each holding tight to a pup, snuggling their heads together. He looked over to Kia again, reaching out to hold her hand. Before he could, there was a loud ‘squelch’ and then a scream. Harwa sat up to see a pointed tale had ruptured through Banto and his pup. Istha screamed, before a mouth full of sharp teeth descended a top her head. There was a crack, and a sickening tearing sound before her body dropped headless. The pup began to cry, but was quickly silenced as a large foot stepped on it. Before them stood a demon, which chewed before swallowing. It flicked its tail back, sending Banto’s corpse into the darkness. Four gleaming eyes stared down at them as viscera and blood spewed from it’s mouth.

The creature began to move forward with great speed, before a mighty hand fell upon it. It one quick motion, the creature’s eyes bulged, before many different things broke. The creature, once so fearsome, dropped dead to the ground as all eyes fell upon the rock that began to move. It rose, towering above the trees. The thing then turned to look down upon them with a giant scarlet eye. Though it was unwavering, it seemed to smile all the same.




There came a sound like the grating of rocks. Loud, coarse, and terrifying, eluded with heavy footfalls, like mountains crashing down and then the screaming. The demons in the night, coming into the cave. The blood, coating everything. Always the screaming. And then the eyes, like weeping blood and the hand, coming towards-! Harwa was jostled awake, and he bolted upright, only to see the all too familiar eyes of Menes. He held a finger to his lips, the gesture all too familiar to Harwa. He nodded, breathing slowly. It took him a moment to calm down, and even then he did not relax. Menes’ eyes did not leave him. They were worried eyes, ringed with red and stained with tears.

Menes sat back down, his expression turning to anger in an instant. He picked up a stick and broke it into two, the sound making Harwa jump slightly. Then the silence returned but Harwa put a reassuring hand on Menes shoulder and the older Selka looked at Harwa with dead eyes. He was broken, just like the rest of them. The younger Selka shivered, before looking away and at the others. There was around forty of them all huddled together in a grassy ditch, cold and hungry. Some were sitting up, holding themselves for warmth, others still slept, and some still wept silent tears. They had nothing to eat, and hadn’t for a couple days. Harwa’s belly ached just thinking about food. Soon enough the the other group would come back with whatever they managed to get, at least he hoped so. It was the only thing that kept him going anymore, for that group had his mate, Kia.

But his thoughts were interrupted by the all too familiar sounds of the earth trembling. Everyone began to wake and sit up, cowering in the dirt as a being of jagged and pointed rock walked by. It’s blood eye impassive as always, as it ground to a halt on the rise above them. It raised a claw for a finger, and pointed to the east. It was time to work. They all began to rise, the repetition practiced day after day as malnourished Selka began to crest their ditch. Menes and Harwa brought up the rear, their gazes sorrowful as they walked by those who would never rise again.

What lay before them was a rock field at the base of a mountain. Menes, Harwa and the others started for it. For weeks that had been gathering rocks, and moving them to a central location, wherein a Blood Eye, a few hand selected Selka, and the Blue Eye’s stacked the rocks into formations. The Blue Eye were different then the Blood Eye. They looked different, and were not as aggressive as the Blood Eye, but still, no Selka trusted them. They never seemed to tire, and worked endlessly day and night, stacking rocks. Then there was the Great Blood Eye, who sat atop a throne of crimson stains. Watching, always watching and- there was a scream.
And several, earth shaking footsteps. All eyes fell upon the commotion. A new band of Selka were being brought in, paraded by three Blood Eye. It was a medium sized group, only adults, children never made it. As they neared, Harwa could tell who screamed. It was a younger female, her eyes wide, being half carried by a male as she gazed at them all.

“What is this place!” another male at the front shouted, “Why are we here!” his voice was desperate sounding, but not a word was said in reply. There was an eerie silence permeating the area, before they were marched before the great throne. One by one they were forced to kneel before the Great Blood Eye and only then did he stand, walking down the steps slowly but deliberately, watching the new Selka to see who would try to flee from his presence. It was the young female, and in a burst of speed, a long black arm snatched up her screaming figure. She was pleading to Kirron, pleading to be saved by anyone who would listen. Where was the K’nights she asked. Where were they. And then the Great Blood Eye, opened her mouth with two clawed fingers, and from his eye came a blast of red energy. It struck her mouth and at once he dropped her. She fell to the floor in a heap, opening her mouth to scream, but the only sound that came forth was a sad attempt.

He watched the realization hit her, and Harwa watched as the others struggled as well, but it was no use. Everyone lost their tongue, there was no exception. There was a rumbling sound, and that was his clue to get back to work and he did, listening as the screams became silent.





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Hidden 1 mo ago Post by AdorableSaucer
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AdorableSaucer Blessed Beekeeper

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The Wuhdige Tribe


Rain drizzled through the great crack in the cave ceiling. Jotokan sat next to some dry sticks, a rock in each hand. With his tongue sticking out his mouth, he made diligent attempts at making the rocks spit on the sticks so they would catch fire. He sat there for a little while.

“Did you pick the right rocks?” came a familiar voice from behind. Jotokan shot a glance over his shoulder to see the familiar thick figure of Selenu. He gave her half-hearted shrug and struck the rocks together again.

“Maybe not,” the chieftain mumbled and fell backwards onto his blubbery bum with a huff. His wife made a face and sat down next to him, grabbing the rocks out of his hand and giving them a go herself. As they sat there in a silence only broken by the clack-clack of stone against stone, the chieftain’s eyes shone a ponderous glaze. His wife flicked a look over and smiled wryly.

“This game’s really got you deep in thought, huh,” she went as one of the stones finally yielded a twinkling speck of spit. It was not enough to light the sticks aflame, but it was encouraging nonetheless. She increased her efforts with more frequent clacks to the rhythm of Jotokan’s agreeing hum.

“... Yeah… Ain’t seen determination like that since, well…” He stopped and tugged thoughtfully at his whiskers.

“Since yourself in your younger days?” Selenu proposed with a sly grin.

“Kinda, I guess,” the chieftain agreed. “Was something about them eyes - had this fire in ‘em. I was pretty wrong about that boy - the Julus raise ‘em good. Still, I’m not sure how I feel about having them in the Home Cave.”

“You want Eel instead?” Selenu asked with a raised brow. Jotokan looked equally curious, if not a little appalled.

“That’s your brother, you know - your family, who might be living on the beach if he loses.”

Selenu made a momentary scowl that morphed into a frown. “I know that! I know, it’s just… Eel’s never been much. When we were pups, he never played any games with us - he always got big brothers Eole and Elueh to do all the hard work for him. He just got the nice stuff, like eating and sleeping. He really ain’t no true Wuhdige.”

Jotokan made a disapproving frown. “Not everyone gotta be a true Wuhdige, Selly, just… I mean, it’d be nice if everyone was, but that ain’t happening and you know it. True Wuhdige happen once or twice in a lifetime - everyone has some issues.”

Selenu pouted. She then looked up at Jotokan with round, affectionate eyes. “You don’t,” she said quietly and put her head on his shoulder. Jotokan snickered.

“I ain’t as strong as Duh,” he proposed. Selenu snorted a laugh and punched him playfully in the gut.

“He’s your champion! He’s supposed to be stronger, you fish-head!”

Jotokan chuckled. “A’ight, a’ight, I give up!” The two giggled a bit to one another before another blanket of silence wrapped itself around them. After a minute, Jotokan went: “Champion, huh…”

Selenu looked up with a “hmm?” and Jotokan once more reached for the stone, smacking them against over another over the sticks. “Always was a bit hard for me to think why gramgrampa made such a role. Chieftain’s supposed to be the strongest in the tribe, but thanks to the champ, he never is. Makes you wonder why the champ ain’t chief.”

Selenu cocked her head to the side thoughtfully, watching her husband patiently hammer the stones together as if the seventy-eighth time would be different than the last. “I think they wanted it to be like a family, y’know.”

“Wha’chu mean?” said Jotokan as another speck of spittle sprang from the stones. Selenu shrugged.

“I ain’t no expert, but the chief got a lot of say in things - maybe some people want that power, to get to have a lot of say. The champ keeps the chief safe from those people, y’know.”

Jotokan nodded slowly. Selenu scratched her cheek. “Then, I think, it’s about honesty. Champs are supposed to say when they think the chief’s acting a bit weird, y’know, when nobody else want to say it.”

Again, the chief nodded slowly. “So like a brother, then, y’think.”

Selenu shrugged again. “Yeah, something like that. A brother you gotta build that bond with from the bottom again. Tests both the chief and the champ, y’know. Ain’t easy to accept a stranger as a brother, though nobody here is truly strangers, is they?”

Jotokan hummed as the rocks finally spat enough spittle to sear a dry leaf on one of the sticks. “I’unno, tribe’s getting pretty big nowadays. We spreading out more and more by the year, now.” He huffed. “I hope winter’s gonna be okay for those living outside. Lotta Wuhdige are in Julo’s position. If they have a bad time this year again, well… Might have more Julos knocking.”

Selenu huffed. “Won’t be long before someone challenges the Tokuans, then,” she mumbled. “Ours is the best spot in the cave, after all.”

“Yeah, hoping it won’t come to that,” Jotokan muttered as the rocks finally managed to produce the spittle needed to light the sticks aflame.

“Whey, nice,” Selenu snickered and shuffled a bit closer to blow on the embers while Jotokan added some more sticks and leaves.

“Hey, Selly?”

“Hmm?” the female hummed between blows. Jotokan gave her shoulder a caress and made some popping noises with his lips.

“How goes the berry picking, by the way?”

Selenu sat back up, the fire now adequately sized for the two of them. The smoke crept upwards and escaped through the crack in the roof. She shrugged and cocked her head to the side. “It went a’ight today. Got some apples, some pears, a couple of raspberries and blueberries. No browncaps, though. Was hard to carry them all, too. Little Agye kept dropping her blueberries in the sand.”

“Did she carry them in her hands all the way?” Jotokan asked with a furrowed brow.

“W-well, how else was she supposed to carry them? With her feet? In her mouth?”

“N-no, no! ‘Course not. Is just… Why didn’t you use a stretcher or something?”

Selenu gave him an appalled look. “Joto, stretchers are for dead people. You really want our food on those?”

Jotokan frowned. “No! Was just thinking, y’know, could maybe carry more food if you had, like, a mini-stretcher or something - y’know, like a… A…” He snapped his fingers as he thought of a good word. “A tray?”

“A tray?” Selenu repeated skeptically. “You mean like a board?”

“Yeah, yeah! Like a flat thingy that you can put other thingies on so you won’t have to keep them in your hands or mouth.”

Selenu leaned her mouth on her fist as she thought. “Y’know, maybe that could work… Get some sticks, bind ‘em with seaweed… Put some berries on it. Poof! A board of berries!”

“Exactly!” the chieftain cheered. Selenu suddenly raised an inquisitive finger.

“Wait, what if the berries roll off?”

Jotokan’s smile gave way to a flat mouth and he hummed. “Uhm… You could try to make it… Deeper?”

“A deep board?” Selenu said skeptically. “You just said it would be flat!”

“Look, I changed my mind, okay? It would be better deep!” the chieftain proclaimed.

Selenu sighed. “A’ight, a’ight, you stay here and I’ll see what me and the girls can whip up.”

The chieftain nodded approvingly and Selenu set off out of the cave to experiment with containers. Jotokan sat staring into the fires with no heed for time, brooding with a fist in his mouth.

“Pa?” came a voice from the cave mouth and the chieftain turned to see his oldest son Aloo carrying a whole cod. The chieftain blinked. “Oh, hey, Aloo! What’re you doin’ here? You hungry?”

“Y-yeah, pa, ‘course. It’s dark out.”

The chieftain peeked out. “Oh, huh. Sorry, son, your ol’ pa got a little carried away. Been thinkin’ a bit, ‘s all. Here, come here. Fire your fish.”

Aloo smiled wryly and waddled over. He sat down, impaled his fish on a nearby stick and held it over the fire. They sat in silence for a moment before Jotokan asked, “So, what’ve you been doin’ today, son?”

There was a shrug. “Y’know, the usual. Odue wanted to play catch again, so we played for a while. Then Egee got mad ‘cuz Agyo threw her rock at his head. Odue and I had to break up the fight.”

“Huh… They calm down in the end?”

Aloo shook his head. “Nah, they got pretty angry next round, too, and ruined the rest of the game, kinda why I’m here to eat.”

The chieftain shook his head. “Ain’t good sportsmanship to get so angry over a game. How’s Egee doin’ nowadays, actually?”

Aloo frowned with pursed lips. “He’s worried. He knows his pa’s a wuss and--”

“Son, we don’t say mean things about tribesfolk, a’ight?”

“But he is! He ain’t no true Wuhdige!”

“Ssshhh! Not so loud,” Jotokan cautioned and looked over his shoulder towards the cave mouth. “... Yeah, alright, Eel’s a bit of a… Wuss, but he’s accepted the challenge and he’s gonna take it in a two days. He even chose the challenge himself! If he’s good at one thing, it’s eating!”

Aloo made an unconvinced frown and looked back into the flames. “Egee’s pretty upset, anyway. He doesn’t wanna live on the beach. People apparently get really cold at night out there…”

“Yeah… Can’t imagine what it was like before gramps found stone-spit.” Jotokan poked around in the fires with an evergreen branch, its little pines letting off a burnt incense. Aloo bit into his cod and gnawed on it passively. He looked up at his father multiple times and huffed occasionally until his father blinked down at him with a partial frown. “What?”

“Was just thinking about Egee’s uncles and brothers… What if they got really into the competition and Eel loses? What if they all get real angry?” The young selka bit into the cod’s cheek and chewed with furrowed brows. Jotokan made a face.

“What of it? They’ll calm down like any good Wuhdige would and that’ll be the end of it.”

Aloo shook his head. “No, I-... I don’t think they will… Egee’s already really mad all the time, and I think his brothers aren’t much different. I heard Egii went over to the Julu camp and started lobbing rocks at their roofs.”

“What?!” Jotokan exclaimed and grabbed his son’s shoulders. “What else? What happened then?!”

The young selka wiggled left and right, momentarily stunned by mighty shakes by his father. Eventually, though, he formed the reply: “I-I-I-I dunno! I think he snatched up lil’ Joppo and went to beat her up--!”

Jotokan was already at the cave mouth before Aloo could finish his sentence. Swiftly, he ran over to Duhwah at the beach and explained the news. Then, together with ten hunters and the champion, the chieftain stormed into the woods, the spectacle attracting quite the crowd. It did not help that it already had gotten dark - they searched with primitive torches at first, and when they burned out, they resorted to their eyes. Jotokan, his brother Joku, and his cousin Toko, son of Tokuhe, formed a scouting team of three who surveyed the western reached of the woods, the area closest to the Julu camp.

“... Darn it, I can’t see nothin’ in this dark,” Joku muttered. Toko hummed in agreement.

“Well, neither can I, but if y’all wanna actually find the girl, we gotta--”

There came an unintelligible shout from the north. Toko stopped the other two with an outstretched arm. “Did y’all hear that?”

“Hear what?” went Joku.

“... ieftain!” came a second shout. Toko pointed northwards. “It came from there! Let’s go!”

The three sprinted as fast as their stunted, chubby legs could carry them over stock and stone, under branch and leaf. The autumn moisture had begun to set in, a chill foreshadowing the events transpiring in the approaching clearing. Jotokan and his followers broke the treeline and witnessed six other shadows, all tracing back to six shapes before a great fire. Five of the shapes turned and four of them nodded in greeting.

“There you are, chief,” said Duhwah, his voice tainted by sorrow. Jotokan approached, but Dohn, brother of Duhwah, walked into his path and placed a hand on his shoulder. He shook his head and sucked in a breath.

“Roughen your mind up, chief. It ain’t pretty.”

The chieftain furrowed his brow and approached the other figures, one of which began to wriggle. “Oi, chief!” came the familiar voice of Egii, followed by a few angry, yet teary breaths. Jotokan looked down at the familiar muscular shape.

“Egii, what did you do?” the chieftain whispered in shock.

“What I had to do to keep my home,” he muttered regretfully.

Jotokan blinked and pushed his way past the rest of the crowd.

There, before the bonfire, laid a small selka girl, barely old enough to no longer be considered a pup, her fur crusted with blood and her skin pocked with bruises. She still breathed, but it was faint and weak. The woods parted again and into the clearing came Julo, his wife Okeke, his eldest son Julu’e and his second oldest son, Jugu.

“JOPPO!” Okeke screamed and stormed past the crowd to embrace her daughter with frightened tears. Julo’s eyes grew so fierce one could even see his fury in the dark of the night, and it took three selka to hold him away from the kneeling Egii.

“Why?! Why, you ugly lump?! Why did you go after my girl?!”

Egii’s hung head barely turned. “... Now you know what happens when you challenge the Elu, you krill.” The tall selka rose up and brushed off the hands of his shocked captors. “Forfeit the game, or more of your kids gonna get a beating.” He pointed at Julu’e, who was much too young to be here. “Next up, it’ll be your boy.” Julo grit his teeth and dragged and struggled against the three selka grasping onto his body.

“Oi! Egii!” Jotokan shouted and thundered over, pointing a finger straight into the face of male of roughly equal height, but of inferior musculature. “This ain’t okay. Not at all. You can’t do this over a game! It’s-... It’s against the rules!”

Egii snickered and glared at the chieftain. “The rules? I didn’t like doing this, but breaking the rules wasn’t why. The Elus belong in the Home Cave and no Julu gonna change that!”

Jotokan snarled. “No… Had you waited two days, a Julu probably couldna changed it… But an Elu just did.”

Egii’s eyes widened and he even recoiled a little. “Chieft-... What did ya say?”

“You heard me right, you dumb rock! ‘Cuz of your darn, dumbass stunt to try to scare away the Julus, you just got your family kicked out of the Home Cave! Go home and tell your family of your stupid, no-Wuhdige ways and pack up your things!” The chieftain folded his arms across his chest. “I don’t want no cheaters and beaters in my cave!”

Egii blinked and stood frozen for a moment. “No…” he suddenly whispered.

“Wha’chu say, stupid?” Jotokan snarled back.

“No! The Home Cave is Elu home! We ain’t leaviiiing!” With that, the giant sent a heavy right hook into Jotokan’s cheek and sent the chieftain smashing into the ground, where he laid for a moment. Duhwah’s eyes stood staring, then turned to Egii in a blood-red rage. The champion, along with the other present selka, all jumped at the assailant, hammering and pummeling the selka until the chieftain recovered his consciousness and yelled, “No! Stop!”

The fight broke up shortly after and the twelve selka formed a hateful circle around the broken body of Egii. Jotokan rose up and entered the circle, looking down at the hardly-breathing body with sympathetic, yet furious eyes. He looked to the others. “Take him to Eel. Tell him the Elus are out of the competition and that they gunna be sent to the old camp of the Julus.”

The selka nodded and together picked up the male, carrying him into the woods. Julo, Okeke and Julu’e all sat around the limp, beaten body of Joppo. Jotokan approached at squatted down next to them. “She alive still?”

Okeke nodded with teary eyes. “Y-yes,” she cried, “thank Alae.” Jotokan nodded somberly and sniffed. He turned to Julo and Julu’e.

“Julo. I might’a misjudged your family when we first met. Y’all might be rash, but at least you ain’t bad.” He looked over his shoulders. “The Elus might’a gotten too comfy in the Home Cave… ‘Bout time we switched them out.”

Julo’s rubbed his water eyes. “Chieftain, y’mean…”

“Yeah… Pack your things. Tomorrow, y’all moving into the Home Cave.”

The Julus collectively sniffed and nodded. “Thank you, chief,” Julo said with a shaky voice. “We ain’t gunna disappoint ya.”




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Hidden 1 mo ago 1 mo ago Post by WrongEndoftheRainbow
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WrongEndoftheRainbow

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Anshumat

The terrible fires of will burned so brightly within their brows that each was a Universe on their own, and the Gods could say no more.




Anshumat’s first thoughts were forced, abrupt. An instinctual reaction to blinding light, their eyes slow to adjust to the sun that beat overhead. They stumbled forward, collapsing over terrain they held no knowledge of. The ground was quick to meet them, an embrace of dust and sparse grasses. With a groan, they fell silent, their own racket receding into nothing as the realm of sound was instead overtaken by the babble of wildlife and the flow of a river. A breeze whistled through the air lightly.

Slowly, Anshumat’s eyes adjusted, unfamiliar with the light of the sun. They slowly took in their surroundings from their ignoble sprawl upon the ground. Anshumat was sat near the crook of a river, with trees intermixed in the distance. Above them, blue sky and the harsh sun. To the east, a mar upon the sea of blue; small smoke trails. Too small to be a natural fire, they could immediately tell.

“Child,” came a voice like oil. “Tell me, how does existence feel?”

Anshumat threw their head around, looking for the source of the voice. Eventually, they gave up on that line of thought; opting to instead speak, “It is unfamiliar. I know much about it, yet none of that knowledge is lived.”

“A symptom of recent birth, that,” the voice proposed. “Nobody is born knowing everything - even us gods were quick to realise that what we knew quickly grew outdated as time went on… Even though I sorely wish I had just a little more knowledge on this subject.” There came a blast of hot air, likely a frustrated sigh. “I am unsure whether your mind took the shape I wanted - I would like to do some tests, if you do not mind. This is only my second time, and already the situation is wildly different from the first…”

Though Anshumat continued to look around for a source of the voice, they continued to respond, “What tests do you propose? Where and who are you?”

The adjacent voice hummed disapprovingly. “Disabled eyesight? That will surely be a hindrance… It must be this air. Atokhekwoi is quite different from the Foot.” From the riverside came a gentle brush against sand as the snake rose to his feet, his bright, crimson scale glistening with a blood red sheen in the light of Heliopolis. “... As for my identity, child, I am your creator - I am Shengshi, lord of the Thousand Streams. I rule the rivers and command the crops - all terrestrial life owes much of its existence to me; however, I ask for naught in return but their respect, for prosperity is to be shared with all of creation, and I am prosperity’s champion.” He sucked in a small breath. “Does that answer the question?”

Anshumat locked eyes with Shengshi, an act of both silent acknowledgement and silent refutation. They hinged their jaw, smelling the air before responding, “With grandiosity, yes.” Anshumat paused a moment before continuing, “Why did you make me?”

The snake furrowed his brow. “You have been created with the purpose of aiding me in the war against the evils of the east, as well as in the war against my wicked sister Azura, who threatens to upset the very balance of the universe. That is the purpose for which I made you, and for your efforts, you shall be rewarded and treated as only a son of mine would be. You shall be granted whatever you may wish for and my tables will always be stacked high with food and drink in your honour - whatever blessing you may wish for, you shall have it. Now I ask you, is this not a fair trade? Is this not in key with the loyal bond between father and child, my pride?”

Anshumat stared at Shengshi for a while, taking in the offer presented. They closed their mouth, before slowly opening it again to say, “I am not interested in war; and such a reward for such dishonorable acts brings distaste to my very core. Why would you ask this of me?”

The snake blinked with genuine disbelief and shock. He then cleared his throat and leaned in a little closer. “With all due respect, my child, I believe I may have misheard you. I must be ageing, even in my immortal form. Could you kindly repeat to me that answer of yours?” His voice betrayed spikes of rage towards the end of the sentence.

The demigod did not flinch or look away as Shengshi leaned in closer, an act of purposeful defiance. “If I were willed into existence merely to kill and destroy, I would have rather not been willed in at all. I will not prosecute your war for you.”

The snake pressed his lips together as he sucked in yet another breath through the nose. His face contorted into a snarl momentarily, but quickly resumed a peaceful, yet disappointed frown. “My child, you are still so young… I need not an answer this moment, but please, give it some thought. It is only fair to do right by your father, is it not?”

Anshumat clambered to their feet, standing tall in the face of Shengshi, defiantly responding, “There is no need for thought when the choice is to commit atrocities or to not. I will not do right by my father if my father demands I commit inextricable wrongs against others.”

The snake forced a snicker. “I see now what I did wrong - I provided insufficient context for these wars. Forgive me, child, I shall correct this error posthaste: Now, to start off with, the war on this continent is between life, and the inferno that wants to annihilate it. It is not a war of atrocities, no - it is a war against atrocities. Now, the second war - the war in the Heavens, is against those that would seek to undo the very foundations of the universe. This war is not an inextricable wrongdoing - it is a conflict to end such a mistake. Now, I will ask one final time: In light of this intelligence, will you seek to undo that which no doubt will seek to annihilate you and all that you care for?”

Anshumat responded viciously, “Even with honeyed words, my answer is the same.” They turned their back on Shengshi, beginning to walk away from the god.

The snake closed his eyes. “You… Insolent ingrate.” A tentacle of water sprouted from the river and dove for Anshumat to seize him.

The demigod did not expect to be seized, and did not make any move to prevent it, until it was too late. They twisted their head to stare at Shengshi, in an expression of both defiance and shock. Saying nothing, Anshumat struggled against the water.

“I have spent thirty years on your creation - half a mortal life’s worth of work, research, failure… Only for you, this honourless, dutiless insect, to be the result… Are you without a heart, little cretin? Feel you not the filial piety within your soul, child? Know you no loyalty to your creator?” The snake brought the tentacle closer to his face and scowled sternly at him. “Well?”

Anshumat spat at Shengshi, “To wage war on a divine scale is the act of one without a heart. I will maintain my honor by having no part of it. I do not owe loyalty to those who would see merit in such a scale of war.”

The snake wiped the spittle off his face and glared at it. “I must have made a fatal misstep in the creation process… How, oh Architect, how could I have made such a useless, ungrateful brat? I even went so far as to shield his existence from the enemy by bringing him to this primal land! How could my holy essence be coursing through the veins of this disrespectful, heartless excuse for divinity?” The snake tightened his fists and the tentacle squeezed around Anshumat with bone-crushing strength. “... Yet, I am a creature of patience - I will allow you one final chance to be accepted as my child. Speak your apology, or seal your fate.”

Anshumat, their frame crushed as it was, did not speak. Instead, they slammed their head forward, their scarab-like shell flinging towards Shengshi’s face in an attempt to mar it with a brutal headbutt. The snake recoiled with a snarl as the demigod smacked his forehead into his and shot a glare back.

“Sealed fate, it is.” With a snap of his fingers, three more tentacles rose from the nearby river, turning into colossal snakes. One by one, the snakes bore down on Ashumat like fanged hammer-heads, crushing their bones and puncturing their skin. With every jab of watery jaws, spikes of sand and stone were left behind in the wound like sadistic corks to hinder bleeding, just so the demigod would not pass out from blood loss. The snake looked on with stern disappointment as the punishment continued for hours. As the final strike dug its teeth into the thoroughly wounded Anshumat, the snake dismissed the snakes and collected his hands behind his back.

“If that killed you, then you are no child one mine. I am a merciful father, know this - should you return to me and seek safety, then I shall give it to you. However, come to me with this insolent attitude again, and not even your soul will remain after I am finished with you.”

The snake turned away from the beaten body and dove into the river.

Anshumat fell to their knees as soon as they were freed, wheezing and gurgling as they struggled to stay conscious. They tried to stand up, collapsing downwards onto their front. Bleary eyes looked skywards, towards the smoke trails, and desperately, Anshumat began to crawl towards them. Every movement brought agony to their pockmarked frame.

It was nearing sunset, several hours later, when Anshumat finally saw the edge of the treeline that separated them from the smoke trails. They dragged themselves along with one arm, their other arm having long since gone limp. Anshumat wheezed, spats of divine ichor leaking from their mouth.

When they broke from the treeline, Anshumat saw a small tribe of Selka, poised next to the river as they cooked fish and small bits of whatever they could find on land. They spotted Anshumat quickly, and reacted with a mixture of fear and curiosity. Anshumat reached out desperately towards them, before everything went black.




The first thing Anshumat noticed was that they hurt less. It was of little relief, given the searing agonies still involved, but it was noticeable. They tried opening their eyes, finding one to be blocked by something. They were in a sloped tent, made of animal furs. Open at the top, smoke from a fire in the center of the tent lazily drifted out. Anshumat attempted to reach out to unblock their eye, but they found their right arm to be stuck in place.

A glance downwards confirmed why that was; a wrap of furs had been slung about it, holding it in place against Anshumat’s chest. Their left arm was barely better, partially casted with river clay and highly inflexible. They reached up with their one good arm to touch their blocked eye, finding it also blocked with crude bandages made of furs and leaves.

One small mercy was that it was easier to breath; every bit of air was still agony to take in, but Anshumat did not have to wheeze as hard to force the air in. Their entire body was wrapped in the same crude bandages, and near the entrance to the tent, a bucket of bloodied debris, presumably pulled from Anshumat’s body.

Anshumat next attempted to stand up, but found they were unable to do so. They had gotten to their knees when the dizziness hit, and they collapsed back down into a sprawl upon the ground. Anshumat wheezed from the effort, trying to regain their lost breath. Something stirred outside the tent, provoked by the sound of Anshumat’s collapse.

The flap to the tent opened as what was definitely a Selka entered, moving over to Anshumat’s side. Anshumat stared up at them, and after a brief moment of checking the bandages, the Selka spoke. “Do not try to move. You are still too weak.”

Anshumat wheezed out in response, “Who are you?”, and the Selka responded immediately, “I should ask the same of you. Nobody should have survived such wounds, let alone crawl an hour’s walk from where they were wounded.”

The demigod let their head list back into the ground, wheezing to catch their breath before continuing, “The pain makes me wish that I did not.”

The Selka kneeled down next to Anshumat, saying, “There is no way for me to alleviate that beyond what I already have. Your wounds should have been mortal, I would not believe you lived if you were not in front of me now. Many in my tribe assumed you would not last the night.”

Anshumat violently coughed, painfully expelling one of their hard-earned breaths. “I did not assume I would either. I am Anshumat; who are you?”

The Selka produced a rough-hewn rag of twine, wetting it in a nearby bucket of water and dabbing it on Anshumat’s head. “I am Artonu: but names alone do not provide answers to all my questions. You are clearly not Selka, nor anything my tribe has ever seen before.”

The demigod looked up at the top of the tent thoughtfully, before saying, “I am not quite sure now what I am, either. I defied my father and he saw fit to do such horrors to me that I would rather renounce my position as his progeny and all that comes with it than continue on this path.”

A look of sympathy crossed Artonu’s face, and the Selka sorrowfully spoke back, “To have such wounds visited upon you by your own father is a crime I hope I never see again. To bring your own child so close to their death is against all good in the world.”

Anshumat simply nodded, too exhausted to speak further. Their chest hurt as wooziness came over them, too much air used too quickly for their injured body to keep up. Artonu looked over the demigod, and seemed to notice it as well.

The Selka dabbed their head once more, before placing the rag on the bucket. He advised, “You must rest now. I will return later to see to your health.” Before Anshumat could get the chance to respond and use up more of their precious oxygen, Artonu had left the tent and closed up the flap again.

Anshumat wheezed out a sigh, looking towards the fire as they tried to relax to lessen the pain.

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Hidden 1 mo ago Post by Not Fishing
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Ashalla

Goddess of Oceans and Storms


One week later after Milo’s election.

Pallamino the Third lazily laid on the beach. After the election, life had more or less gone back to normal. Milos led the tribe much the same way Anhaf had, and while there was a certain tension in the air, the fisherman was confident that too would come to an end. After all, no one could be resentful forever, could they? Kalaf was just grieving; that was all. When his head was clear, he would come to accept the result of the election, surely.

As for Arryn, the bird had remained, but all knew he would soon leave. That had always been the way of things. The bird would appear every couple of years, give some advice, maybe a blessing or a gift, and then leave. Understandable, of course; there were many other Selka tribes out there, and although the Ubbo Tribe was the first Arryn had decided to teach, there was in truth little which marked them as more important than the others. Nonetheless, it would be a shame to see him go. Many in the tribe, including Pallamino himself, were rather fond of him.

The fisherman continued to rest. He had broken his leg that morning, when a hut collapsed on him, and although healing magic had quickly remedied that, his claims that a dull ache still remained had allowed him to evade work for the day. He began to softly hum to himself, enjoying the ocean breeze.

As Pallamino hummed, he heard something rather peculiar. It was as if underwater echoes were humming along with him. He immediately stopped humming and sat up, looking around. “Who’s there?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow.

There was a pause in which the waves themselves seemed to still. After a few moments, a sound like waves answered in what seemed like words. “The ocean.”

Now both of Pallamino’s eyebrows were raised. He had assumed this was some sort of elaborate prank, some Selka hiding in the water or in some nearby bushes, but those words… they did not sound natural. Not like anything he had ever heard before. “I see…” he said, staring blankly ahead. The ocean, the ocean… what had Arryn told them? Who was the God of the Ocean? It started with an A. As… Ash-something. But why would a god contact him, of all people? No, it was probably something else. Perhaps that magical water had effects other than healing…

The voice spoke again. “Is this how you spend your time when not fishing?”

Well, whether he was speaking to an unnatural force, or simply losing his mind, Pallamino supposed he had nothing to lose by indulging the voice. “I suppose it is,” he said with a shrug. “Though sometimes I’ll help out around the village, or maybe go out on a hunt. But I’m injured, so today I rest.”

A wave lapping on the shore rolled up and did not recede, instead sprouting a tendril of water which snaked up the beach towards Pallamino. An expression of panic crossed his face, and he scootched backward. “Kalmar’s whiskers!” he cursed.

The tendril surged forwards and wrapped around Pallamino, licking over his limbs, body and face. He winced and dug his hands into the sand, believing that the limb intended to sweep him out to sea. The tendril paused around the leg Pallamino had broken earlier that morning, since healed by the magical water. The tendril seemed to become icy cold.

“You are uninjured,” the watery voice said with a slight quaver. The tendril then grew as thick as Pallamino’s waist and hoisted the selka off the ground. As Pallamino dangled upside-down, water rose up in front of him to form a body and a feminine face which glared at him. “Why would you lie to me?” she said in a voice like hissing steam.

Just when Pallamino thought he couldn’t possibly be more terrified, here he was. “I… misspoke!” he said, desperation heavy in his voice. “I was injured! I’m not anymore! I’m sorry!”

Ashalla’s face stared at Pallamino for a few seconds, watching the fear in his eyes. Then the water released its grip on the selka, and he fell onto the wet sand below. Pallamino simply sat there in the sand and gawked, too afraid to speak.

“If you wanted to just sit and stare at the sea, you could have said so,” Ashalla said. “Although, I would be more pleased if you could make something more artful than a tuneless hum.”

Pallamino rose to his feet, his legs shaky - from the hours he spent lying immobile in the sand, and from the sheer fear of what he just experienced. “Make something? Like… like what?” he managed to ask.

Ashalla’s face leaned closer to Pallamino and inspected him. Then the head rose up, taller than the trees, and scanned the land behind him all the way back to the tribe. There was a thoughtful rumble as Ashalla lowered herself to her previous height. “I shall have to teach you,” she said.

Just as she spoke, a bird flew from the treeline, and perched itself on a nearby rock. Through its appearance alone, it was clearly not native to this area, but even more telling was the slight divine aura which radiated from it. “Ashalla?” Arryn questioned.

Ashalla’s gaze turned to the bird. “Yes,” she answered, then after a quick glance at Pallamino she added, “Many selka call me Delphina.” As she spoke, a tendril of water flowed up the beach towards Arryn.

“Can I ask what you’re doing here?” Arryn questioned. As the tendril came close he beat his wings and took flight once more, in an attempt to evade it.

“Listening. Inspecting. Teaching,” Ashalla answered curtly. The tendril tried to follow Arryn, but swiftly gave up. “And who are you?”

“Arryn. Avatar of Kalmar,” the bird answered without hesitation. “And I have been doing the same.”

Ashalla nodded. Then she looked back at Pallamino. An empty conch shell with some holes drilled into it washed up on the shore by the selka’s feet. “This should make better music.”

Pallamino picked up the shell and studied it for a moment. He knew that such shells could make music when someone blew into them, but he never seen one with holes drilled into it. With a shrug, he brought it to his lips and blew. A wavering note whistled from the shell.

“Try covering some of the holes,” Ashalla suggested.

So, he did. He placed his fingers over two of the holes closest to his mouth, and blew again. The sound that came out that time was different, so he removed one of his fingers and placed it over a different hole, before blowing it a third time.

“What do you think?” Ashalla asked with a voice like a trickling brook.

“It sounds nice,” Pallamino said, his nervousness fading somewhat. He brought the shell back to his lips and blew a few more notes random, while Arryn looked on in confusion.

“Good,” Ashalla said. There was then a long, slow rumble as Ashalla receded into her thoughts.

“Thank you for this gift,” Pallamino said. Arryn continued to study it from his perch on the sand, angling his neck slightly.

“Can you see how it is made?” Ashalla asked.

The fisherman took a closer look. “No,” he said, after a moment’s inspection. “There are holes in it, but I don’t know how I’d put those holes in any other shell without cracking it. How is it made?”

Ashalla rumbled, then commanded, “Fetch something with a sharp, hard, narrow point.”

He thought for a moment, and looked at the shell with an expression of doubt. Stone, flint, or coral, maybe, but the odds of finding a piece that was narrow and sharp enough to drill such fine holes was slim to none. Would wood work? Or perhaps one of the arrows they had crafted? He was unsure. With those ideas on his mind, he began running back toward the village.

Arryn, meanwhile, looked up at Ashalla. “Have you been giving these to all the Selka?” he asked her curiously.

“Not yet, but I plan to,” Ashalla answered.

The Avatar glanced back at Pallamino’s retreating form, the conch still in the fisherman’s hands. “Does it only make sound, or does it have some other purpose?”

“Its purpose is to make sound, which can be used to make beautiful music,” Ashalla said.

“I see,” Arryn said. He personally did not see much value in such items, but he knew the Selka saw differently. “I have been travelling among these Selka for years, and I know they are fond of diversions. Most will probably welcome these items.”

Ashalla nodded. “And with them, they would be able to create beauty while having their fun.”

“As for me, I’ve been giving them teachings and gifts to help them become better hunters, as my master instructed,” Arryn told her, before pausing for a moment. “That agreement you made with my master. Does it still stand?”

Ashalla gave Arryn a look as if he had asked whether the sea was blue. “Of course it still stands. My word always does.”

The bird nodded. “Good. I did not mean to question your word, but there have been issues with others who had also joined the agreement. I just wanted to be sure.”

A quizzical bubble rose through Ashalla. “Phystene?”

Arryn shook his head. “No. Shengshi, and possibly Asceal.”

“I was not aware that the pact included any others,” Ashalla said.

“They agreed to join after it was formed, with individual pledges to either Kalmar or Phystene. But I don’t think it matters anymore. Shengshi broke his word over a minor, unrelated disagreement, and Asceal invaded another god’s sphere to help Azura steal the world’s souls. No others have joined or broken the alliance.”

“Shengshi broke his word?” Ashalla’s voice had an icy edge to it.

Once again Arryn nodded. “Ekon and Sartravius raised an army to attack the continent to the east of here. My master heard of this, and went to aid Asceal and Shengshi, who were already defending it. He arrived to find out that Asceal had left for Katharsos’s sphere. Shengshi then offered my master a drink. My master didn’t like the drink, so he altered it. Shengshi took this as an insult, and began to threaten my master’s creations. My master wasn’t going to stand for this, and called him out. Shengshi then declared that his alliance with my master was broken.” He shook his head. ”It was stupid. To start a feud with an ally as he was being attacked...”

Ashalla’s eyes narrowed. “Despicable,” she spat. “Did Asceal also break her word?”

“No. But she still attacked and stole from another god, which complicates things. Katharsos might want those souls back, which could lead to a war - and my master is on good terms with him. I also don’t trust this Azura. My master and I do not know her, and even if her intentions are honest, they might end up doing more harm than good.”

Ashalla gave a thoughtful rumble. “Azura has compassion for the mortals, all of them. I know not why, but she does. That is why she wishes to preserve them.”

“But if she preserves them all, there won’t be any soul ash left to make more, and all life will end,” Arryn countered.

“We are gods. Reality bows at our very word,” Ashalla declared, “If Azura and Asceal desire, they can circumvent that constraint.”

“My master always told me that even a god’s power has its limits,” Arryn said. Ashalla huffed before Arryn continued, “But I suppose there is not much point in discussing this right now. He has yet to tell me what he plans to do, or who he intends to stand with.”

Ashalla stared out towards the treeline silently. Meanwhile, another tendril of water tried to snake its way across the sand from out of the edge of Arryn’s peripheral vision towards the bird’s new perch. Arryn narrowed his eyes, and flew back to the rock he had first landed on when he arrived. ”Why do you keep doing that?” he asked.

“I want to taste you,” Ashalla answered.

“...why?” Arryn asked, shifting uncomfortably on the rock.

“To know more about you,” Ashalla replied.

“What do you want to know?”

“Your scent. What you are made of. How you function. Anything you have been in contact with recently,” Ashalla answered. After a moment’s contemplation, she decided that further explanation would be beneficial. “Animals have many senses, but usually one is used above all others, such as sight, or smell. For me, my keenest sense is taste. I am acutely aware of the exact composition of everything within me and which I touch.”

Arryn sighed. “Fine. Do it.”

A tendril of water crawled up the rock and licked against Arryn’s feathers, talons and beak. After a few seconds, the tendril withdrew, only leaving Arryn slightly damp.

Arryn was about to say something else, but then four figures appeared in the distance - Pallamino, Chieftain Milos, and two others. “You are Ashalla?” Milos asked as they approached.

As the selka approached, Ashalla drew up taller and faced them. “I am.”

Milos and the two unknown Selka knelt. Pallamino’s expression suddenly flickered to alarm, as if he had forgotten something, and he knelt as well. “I thank you for your visit, and for your gift.” Milos said. “But I don’t think we have anything that can do what you requested.”

Ashalla rumbled. “Then I have more to teach.” Her gaze flicked between the four selka. “Who are you and these others?”

“I am Chieftain Milos, of the Ubbo Tribe. This is Akamu, Keanu, and Pallamino,” Milos introduced them.

“Pallamino the Third,” Pallamino interjected, receiving three sharp glares in response.

“Akamu and Keanu are hunters,” Milos explained. “And Pallamino is one of our best fisherman… when he takes the time to fish.” He gave Pallamnio another sharp look. After all, Pallamino had ran back to the village, clearly showing his injury to be a fake.

Ashalla regarded all four selka with a critical eye. “Can you craft or play music?”

“Music?” Milos asked, scratching his chin. “We make drums out of wood and animal skins. We hit them to make noise. And we have some singers. That’s our music.”

Ashalla nodded. “You should show me. Afterwards, though, when I have shown you how to make a new instrument, and tools with which to make the holes in that instrument. Now, gather what I tell you to…”



Days later...

Word of Ashalla’s command quickly spread throughout the small Selka village, and there was no shortage of volunteers to gather up the materials and assemble the instruments. Such a task took time, but they worked quickly. They carved flutes from bone, made rattles by filling skulls with sand and stones, and carved smooth sticks that could be banged together to make a clapping sound. A fourth instrument was made, which was very similar to a bow, but the string would make sound when plucked or struck.

It took three days to put all this together. After that, they were given two days to prepare and practice; not very long, truth be told, but they did what they could. Pallamino had thrown himself into the task with an unusual amount of fervour, practicing with his conch shell well into the night, to the point where he had to be kicked from the village just so the rest could actually sleep.

When the two days were over, enough Selka had a decent enough grasp of the basics to put together something that was somewhat presentable, at least. And so, those with the most musical skill made their way down to the beach. Pallamino, with his conch, Hoshu, with his voice, Keanu and young Arrino with a pair of drums, Leliana and one other with flutes, Akamu with the rattles, Kurunu with the clapsticks, and Milos himself with the strange bowed instrument.

They stopped by the water, and waited for Ashalla to appear with an air of uneasiness. Once again, Arryn observed from a nearby rock. The ocean heaved and up rose as a great blob. With a faint burble the blob adopted a vaguely selkaish shape. Ashalla cast her gaze across the assembled musicians. “You may begin,” she declared with a voice like a breaking wave.

The Selka exchanged glances and nods. They did not have enough time to work out a way to play all their instruments together in synchrony to one song, so they had instead divided themselves into groups, which now quickly formed. There would be three groups - and thus three performances - in total. Perhaps two dozen other members of the Ubbo Tribe came wandering down from the village to watch the display, marvelling at both Ashalla’s form and the instruments carried by their brethren.

The first performers to step forward carried rattles, flutes, and clapsticks. Kurunu began striking the clapsticks together, maintaining a consistent rhythm. Then the rattles began, shaking at every second clap. Finally, the flutes started, a soft and smooth contrast to the sharp clacking and rattling.

Though the clapsticks and rattles remained mostly consistent, it was the flutes where most of the errors lay. One would occasionally play the wrong note, or fall out of rhythm, but for the most part the performance was passable. It lasted for a minute, perhaps longer, and then the performers stopped to await judgement.

Ashalla had seemed to enjoy the performance. The music was not as skillful as Xiaoli’s, nor was the composition as sophisticated as Vakk’s Box of Orchestration, but it was only natural that the talents of the gods would far surpass the talents of mere mortals. “That was good,” Ashalla said in a melodious voice. She then looked expectantly at the next group of performers.

Leliani smiled, and the others breathed sighs of relief. They took a step back. Meanwhile, Milos and Hoshu exchanged a glance, and stepped forward.

Milos took a breath and put the bow string between his lips, before rapidly tapping it with a stick. The sound that each tap produced differed slightly depending on the placement of his lips. He quickly went through the song, giving it his best, but with so little time to practice, he was no master, and the performance was actually somewhat worse than the previous one.

Then Hoshu began to let out a low whistle. He was old, and whistling was a talent he had practiced since he was a boy. The performance was flawless, and easily compensated for Milos’s own lacklustre skill. Milos himself continued on, though occasionally he would need to take brief stops when his hand slipped or he fell out of rhythm. Then it ended, and Milos sighed - half in relief that it was over, and the other half in disappointment with himself. Hoshu bowed modestly, a light smile on the old Selka’s face.

Ashalla gave Milos and Hoshu a nod. She said to Milos with nothing but kindness, “I expect you will improve with practice.” Then she turned to Hoshu and said, “Your whistling is marvelous.” She then leaned back and awaited the final performance.

Hoshu’s smile widened, while Milos nodded. The two men stepped back, and the final performance, consisting of Pallamino and the drummers, stepped forward and began to play.

Similar to the first performance, the percussion instruments began, making up the backbone of the song. Then Pallamino began, bringing the conch shell to his lips to blow, while deftly moving his fingers to produce a variety of low sounds. Despite only being introduced to the instrument a few days ago, his dedication to practice had paid off. The drummers themselves were excellent as well, for the Ubbo Tribe had ample experience with such instruments already.

The low notes of the conch shell complemented the low beats of the drums rather well, with a harmony the previous performances lacked.

Eventually the drumming ceased, and it was clear the song was supposed to end, but Pallamino did not quite stop there. He continued playing for a few more moments, before punctuating the song with one long final note. With a grin on his face, the Selka gave a quick bow.

Ashalla let out a burble. “Very good, very good!” She leaned in closer to Pallamino. “I see you have found a better use for your time than sitting around.”

The grin faded, and Pallamino nodded frantically. “Yes, yes I have Asha- er, Delphina…uh, whichever name you prefer.”

Ashalla leaned back and gave a thoughtful rumble. “I am known by both names,” she finally answered.

“Oh, uh…” Pallamino looked as though he was about to ask another question, but seemed to think better of it. “Alright then.”

Milos stepped forward. “Thank you for your teachings, Ashalla,” he said with a slight bow. “We will continue to put them to use.”

Ashalla nodded. “That is good, for I have given them to you to be used.” Ashalla’s watery form began to recede. As she departed, she said, “Continue to create beauty, for that is a worthy pursuit.”







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Hidden 1 mo ago Post by BBeast
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BBeast Scientific

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The Girl Who Loved the Sea


This beach was a sacred place.

This was where Ippino the prophet had been visited by Delphina.

This was where the skies had wept during Ippino's funeral, when his body was cast out to sea.

This was where a new shrine made of piled stones and Ippino's old boat had been built to Delphina, because this was clearly a sacred place.

This was where selka offered their fish bones to show their recognition of who had supplied the fish, as Ippino had taught them.

This was where selka would come to pray for bountiful catches of fish, and to admire the sunrise and moonrise over the great blue.

It was in this sacred place that Delphina had appeared again to her faithful followers, bringing knowledge of how to create new types of musical instruments such as flutes, rattles, and lyres, as well as the means to create them, spinning twine and drilling holes.

It was here that the selka of Hyummin and Grottu had gathered for their first concert, where they sung praises to Delphina.

It was here that musicians came to play their songs to Delphina, Kirron and Bobbo, to please each other and the gods, and in the hope that they might be worthy enough to be graced by a divine presence.

It was here, during a stormy day, that one particular selka played her lyre and sung gently in the rain.

As the rain pattered around her, Hujaya plucked at the strings of the instrument she had made herself, creating a gentle melody. As she played, she sung a song.

"There once was a man who lived by the sea.
He looked at the water and found beauty,
In light of the moon and blue of the sea,
That man sung 'Delphina how I love thee.'"

Wind stirred around her as she plucked another phrase from the lyre before singing the next verse.

"This man was cunning and did conspire,
To steal from the storm birds their mighty fire.
Thus a burning branch did he acquire,
And with it he sought out his desire.

"Fire burned until a tree no longer stood.
With stone he carved out the innards of wood.
It floated on the sea and this was good,
He would stay out there as long as he could."

As Hujaya came to the refrain, the rain seemed to ease around her, calmed by the music of her lyre.

"There once was a man who lived by the sea.
He looked at the water and found beauty,
In light of the moon and blue of the sea,
That man sung 'Delphina how I love thee.'"

She noticed mist forming nearby, twisting about in the wind. Yet she continued to play.

"One day this man met a mighty K'night,
And he joined his quest to make all things right.
His cunning saved them in the greatest fight,
For he loosed fire and set his foes alight.

"From then on the Hyummin did he advise,
All could see that this man was very wise.
Despite his fame he'd not yet found his prize,
Because only one woman had his eyes."

The mist had gotten closer, and she felt a chill as the damp wind caressed her skin, distracting her. Then she heard a voice like a gentle breeze, 'They like you.' So surprised was Hujaya that she briefly stopped playing and looked over her shoulder, trying to see where the voice had come from. The air about her seemed to stiffen, and the voice hastily commanded, 'Keep playing.' Quickly and with a hint of anxiety Hujaya strummed a chord and kept singing.

"There once was a man who lived by the sea.
He looked at the water and found beauty,
In light of the moon and blue of the sea,
That man sung 'Delphina how I love thee.'"

Hujaya began to wonder whether it had been Delphina who had spoken. The thought of Delphina listening made her heart quicken, and she did her best to focus on her performance.

"Then one day this man saw Delphina's face.
That meeting's memory none would erase.
This man taught all to love Delphina's grace,
Till Ippino joined the ocean's embrace.

"Now there is a girl who lives by the sea,
Taught by Ippino of ocean's beauty,
By touch of the wind and weather rainy,
I now sing 'Delphina how I love thee.'"

The last notes of her lyre hung in the air as Hujaya bowed deeply towards the ocean. Up from the water rose the form of a goddess with a watery burble. At an imperceptible motion from Delphina the strange winds around Hujaya shifted, returning to their gentle circular dance they had been performing before Hujaya had stopped playing and drawing the rain away from the selka.

"From all the mortals I have heard, none have been as beautiful a singer as you," Ashalla said.

Hujaya gasped and looked up at the goddess, bringing her hands up to cover her irrepressible grin. "I- You- Thank you!" she blurted, overwhelmed by emotions.

A tendril of water stretched out and brushed against Hujaya and her lyre. The tendril then lifted Hujaya's chin so that she looked at Ashalla's face. "Such devotion and talent is rare in a mortal," she said. Hujaya only beamed and trembled in excitement. Ashalla drew her tendril back.

"Rise."

Hujaya clambered to her feet.

Ashalla gestured to beside the selka. "What do you see?"

Hujaya looked to her right. "There is the beach, the rain, the-" she hesitated and scrunched her brow as she tried to find words for what she saw, "the wind and rain move and dance with a life of their own. These... spirits, they're..." She turned her head to the other side. "They're watching me." She wrapped her arms around herself and her lyre protectively, and she cast an anxious look at the two squalls circling her.

"Play for them."

Hujaya looked back to Delphina and relaxed. Delphina would not let any harm come to her, not now. Hujaya took a breath and strummed a chord on her lyre. She felt the wind shift around her and she looked back at the squalls. She played another chord and watched them react.

"They are squalls. They like music."

Hujaya smiled as she strung a few chords together and made the squalls dance with the music. She started to hum and the squalls moved differently. Then she started vocalising on top of the lyre's rhythm, and the squalls shifted their movements again. Hujaya watched the squalls as she improvised, observing how they responded to different notes, patterns and progressions. Yet it was not the technical details which controlled the squalls, but rather how the emotion and feeling of the music flowed.

Soon Hujaya had the squalls dancing around her, and she spun around with them. She picked up the tempo and the squalls spiralled faster. With a sudden crescendo she leaned forwards and one of the squalls pushed outwards, forcing a sharp gale against the beach and sending out a spray of sand. Hujaya sung a note which rapidly climbed in pitch, and the other squall tightened into a brief whirlwind and pulled a spray of water from the ocean high into the air.

Yet the wind around her was starting to get unstable, and Hujaya could sense that the squalls were getting too excited. So she slowed down the music, gently bringing the squalls away from a frenzy and into a more docile state. Melancholic notes wafted around them, prompting them to release a localised shower of rain heavier than what had already been falling. Hujaya turned down the melancholic tone, returning the rain to normal. She then transitioned into a lullaby, and the wind calmed to stillness at the gentle sound of her voice. With a final strum of her lyre, the squalls were gone.

Hujaya exhaled and flopped onto her back. The exertion of her performance had caught up to her.

"To speak with the squalls like that is a powerful gift, one which I have granted you, and which you can grant to others," said the voice of flowing waves. "I taste potential in you, Hujaya. You will make an excellent Stormbard. Now go. Teach others as Ippino taught you. Show all my strength through you. And create beauty everywhere you go."

Hujaya stood back up and bowed to the goddess once more. "Yes, Delphina. I am eternally grateful. I will serve you with all of my heart and strength, Delphina."

She looked up to see Delphina sink back into the waves. When the goddess disappeared, the storm ceased and the clouds parted, letting Heliopolis' warming rays shine upon the selka. Hujaya stared in awe at the sea for another minute, until she turned around and ran back to her tribe, singing all the way.


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Hidden 1 mo ago 1 mo ago Post by Not Fishing
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The Ubbo Tribe





"You know..." Hoshu ventured. "What happened the other day reminds me of that story I heard. About those Grottu and the 'K'nights.' What a name."

They stood on the beach, near the recently constructed shrine of Ashalla - the rock Arryn had perched on during the meeting, which was now piled with sea shells and colourful stones. Pallamino blew a few practice notes into his conch. He turned to Hoshu and raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

Hoshu began twirling his whiskers with a finger. "They say a Selka just like you was lounging by the beach, when a god appeared from the water to grant him gifts."

Pallamino frowned. "That's not too different from what happened to Anhaf. Only he wasn't by the beach. What's your point?"

Hoshu shrugged. "There is no point. Just something I noticed. You know me: I'm an old Selka who likes stories, nothing more."

A voice cut in behind them, causing the two Selka to freeze. "Does this mean he's going to bash my head in with that shell?" The two of them turned around to see Milos. "We'll have a hard time waging war with sticks and shells, you know. But the bows Arryn gave us? Those would have been useful. Even better than those strange spears we've heard stories about." The Chieftan looked down at his own bow. "But that's not our way."

Hoshu nodded. "It isn't. I was just-"

"The Grottu are scum, Hoshu." Milos interjected. "How many Selka did they slaughter? Why? For what? Do not compare one of us to them, even as a joke."

Hoshu furrowed his brow. "They did right in the end, didn't they?"

"How many tribes were wiped out? How many ran to the Ubbo for safety?" asked Milos, his voice unusually heated. "You know that better than I. We took in as many as we could and directed the rest to neighboring tribes. My own mother came here because she was driven out by one of their attacks, and her father was cut down ensuring she had time to escape." He shook his head. "The Hyummin forgave the Grottu in the end, but did they have the right to do so? They weren't the ones who lost everything."

Hoshu's frown deepened. "The Grottu today are not the Grottu of so long ago."

Milos shook his head. "I don't believe it. Their ancestors showed their nature, and it was those same ancestors who raised them. Do you think such creatures have atoned? Or are they just waiting until a voice from the sea gives them their next chance to strike?"

At that, Hoshu could only shrug. "I don't know. I've never met them."

"Panganeem and the Hyummin were fools to trust them. Now, the Grottu are part of the Hyummin, and the Hyummin have left themselves open to betrayal."

"Listen," Pallamino interjected, his voice unusually serious. "My grandfather was murdered by one of the Soul Stealers. My father, a child at the time, watched it. He swore vengeance. He became a hunter, one of the best. Almost as good as you. He could have fed so many."

Milos nodded. "I remember."

"But he didn't care about feeding anyone," Pallamino went on, even as his eyes began to glisten. "He brought back enough to pull his weight, true, but all he cared about was hunting the Alma. His arrows could never strike them, so he had to find other ways to kill them. He searched for and tested new methods. It was all he cared about. And then... you were the one who found him, remember?"

Milos nodded. "In the woods not too far from the village, a black hole in his chest."

Pallamino nodded back. He wiped a tear from his cheek. "Only an Alma could have done that. He dedicated his life to vengeance. It blinded him, consumed him, it killed him. Who gained from that? Nobody. If you pursue vengeance against the Grottu, you will meet that fate."

The Chieftan raised his eyebrows. "What? No! I don't intend to attack the Grottu, if that's what you're thinking," Milos insisted. "I became Chieftan to protect the lives of our people; I'm not going to throw them away. All I'm saying is that we shouldn't forget what the Grottu have done, and we should not sit idly by when they - or even some other tribe - might attack again."

"What do you intend to do, then?" Pallamino asked.

Milos stroked his chin. "When Anhaf first heard of the Grottu's aggression, he reached out to the nearby tribes. They made a pact - to defend each other should the Grottu come this way. More tribes appeared - some fled to escape the Grottu, while others were formed by the survivors of the Grottu's attacks. They joined as well. But when the Grottu were defeated, most seemed to forget the pact. But I will restore it, and use it to bring us and our neighbors closer together."

There was a silence. Hoshu and Pallamino exchanged a glance. "It's not at a bad idea," Hoshu said at last. "The Hyummin banded together, and they've done well, but if you're unwilling to join them, then I guess the next best thing is to start an alliance of your own."

Milos nodded. "It is good that we agree. I will announce my decision to the tribe tomorrow, and send word to our neighbors. Will you deliver one of these messages?"

Hoshu nodded back. "I will. Hopefully I won't bore anyone to sleep this time."

"Good." Milos turned to Pallamino. "We don't always agree, and we haven't always gotten along, but I know you care about this tribe. And you have a way with words. Would you-"

Pallamino shook his head. "No. I'd prefer to stay out of this. Actually... I think I might leave."

Milos blinked. "What?"

Pallamino turned the conch over in his hand. "I was given a gift. Something that I am not only good at, but enjoy as well. I think I should share that gift, and I've always wanted to travel. I will visit Selka all across the land, I will play my music, and that is how I will be remembered."

"When are you leaving?" Hoshu asked.

Pallamino shrugged. "Right away seems as good a time as any. I don't want to go through a week of tears and goodbyes."

Milos sighed. "If you want to leave, that is your right. You were given a divine purpose, after all." He extended a hand. "I wish you luck, Pallamino."

Pallamino took the hand, and shook. "You as well, Chieftan."




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Hidden 1 mo ago 1 mo ago Post by Antarctic Termite
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Antarctic Termite Resident of Mortasheen

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Beta.


The Alma came on a midsummer morning, while Chopstick Eyes sat on a stone, watching sheep watching lambs watching butterflies over the fields.

"Good people of Galbar, I bring you grave news..."

The air flickered, and Chopstick jolted.

"Azura!"

There. Right there! Atop a whale with Asceal at her side! But Chopstick's smile faded, and the recording played on, lies and illusions all.

"...and the tools to claim your freedom. Each and everyone of you has an immortal soul, the essence of your being that contains your mind and memories. This soul is the very core of your being, more vital to your..."

It wasn't meant for her at all, no more than it was for the sheep. Somewhere, where living beings crowded the space between god and livestock, this message belonged. But not with Chopstick Eyes.

"Katharsos, the tyrant of death, has decreed that your souls, once severed from flesh should be put to the flame..."

Chopstick Eyes listened to the broadcast with growing apathy. Her thoughts were elsewhere by the time the footage of a griffin-soul burning was replayed, and she watched it as she had watched the sheep: without feeling.

"...so I ask you, I beg you, please people of Galbar, when your time comes let the Alma help you. Please use them to save yourselves! For only by your own wills can you set yourselves free!"

The bird fell silent. The two watched each other, chopsticks to eyes and back again, each waiting. The Alma, it seemed, had nowhere else to be, and nothing better to do, than to wait and see if she would die. Chopstick shook her head.

"You're wasting your time, buddy."

Perhaps mistaking this for a preemptive denial of access to her soul, the Alma preened, fluttered, and went on its way. Chopstick suspected it would find Ya-Shuur, and deliver the same message. She shook her head, picked up her shepherding crook, and stretched. She wondered if either the glowing lady or Azura actually believed that they could forestall annihilation. She suspected they both did.

How... breathtakingly naïve.

Everything burns, thought the alien shepherd, drawing an ancient fabric from the pocket of her overalls. Everything rots.

She looked out into the distant sky. Somewhere, far away, she smelled water. Fresh, fresh water. Miles and miles of it, splattered across the earth of midsummer. She looked back at the ancient kite, and wondered how many times she had reached this point, an instant away from alighting the high winds and travelling onwards, only to falter. She didn't know what she was waiting for. She didn't know why she failed.

Even me.

Azura was still out there. Sitting on an armoured whale, perhaps. Fighting a burning tyrant. Something like that. And here she was, stuck.

She sat back down on the rock. A lamb looked up at her. She looked away.

Her gaze fell upon a tiny whorl of leaves peeking out from a crack in the stone she sat on. There, too, there was something stuck: an ant, writhing on the sticky surface of the succulent mucilage. She knew this plant, had made use of it before. It was a butterwort, and true to its name, the honey with which it trapped and pickled its insect prey was also a great additive in the goatmilk that she and Ya-Shuur fermented in the spring.

The ant struggled on. The exoskeletons of its compatriots lay perfectly preserved elsewhere on the leaf. On the tip of a long pedicel, a tiny purple flower marked what their remains had fed.

Out of the eater came something to eat, thought Chopstick Eyes. Out of the strong, something sweet.

She leaned in and watched the ant struggle anew. The skewers on her face pinched off the tiny flower and dangled it before her face.

Butterwort.

She took the flower on her fingertip and shook it about, saw that it wouldn't come off. It was stuck.

Butterwort in midsummer.

The name fit her like a glove never could. One of Ya-Shuur's herder-wolves bounded up, momentarily spooking the sheep, and panted eagerly at the godlet, sensing change.

"BUTTERWORT IN MIDSUMMER!"

Chopstick's laugh echoed across the island of rain, and the molf shot a happy doggy grin as she wiped her sticky, sticky hands clean on its fur. She didn't know what it meant, quite possibly never would, but it was hers and it had stuck. She wiped more of the mysterious sticky fluid on her overalls, and unfolded the kite.

It was time to get out of this place, yes. She'd go to the north where the water was, and seek Li'Kalla's beast out there, and failing that, she would speak with Azura in its reflection. She'd check her postbox, pay her bills, and chase Kalmar over the cold flats, if she could find him. Together they would solve this riddle.

The wind picked up, and Chopstick Eyes was gone within the hour.


Alpha.


Chopstick stood on a raft of kelp, squeezed a brilliant rainbow bird under her arm, and said, "Pew!"

The Alma didn't budge. Chopstick sighed, adjusted her grip under the bird, wrapped her one hand around the creature's right leg and the other under its breast, tugged its leg sharply, and said, "PEW!"

With a squawk, the Alma lit up and blasted a mighty sunbeam into the air, shooting down a passing Skestral. The gargoyle returned to the basement of Galbar exactly as confused as it had come, only much deader. The Alma clucked. Liv croaked disapprovingly. Chopstick cackled.

"This is AWESOME!"

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Hidden 1 mo ago Post by Goldeagle1221
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Goldeagle1221 I am Spartacus!

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Rainy Noodles at Sundown

Starring Snake and Sleepman


Wooden wheels ground over wet cobble, creating a dull grinding sound that challenge the wash of the gentle rain. The night sky was inky and the air was thin but cool. Gentle lights flickered from glass covered torches, challenging the darkness and illuminating a small wooden shack. The shack wasn't much more than a single bar with five seats exposed to the elements on all sides except above, where a thin awning stretched over any would-be customers. The thick smell of broth seeped from behind the bar along with yellow light and sharp clangs of metal.

"Here go," an old lady with a wrinkled face unceremoniously placed a wide clay bowl in front of the River-God. He had been sitting there since -- actually he didn't know, he couldn't quite remember ever sitting down but here he was. He looked down into the bowl of noodles, buttery broth swimming around the yellow-stained egg noodles, dotted with quick chopped vegetables. He looked up, but the old lady had already left, her voice carrying from the back of the shack as she argued with what he hoped was her gruff husband.

Wooden chopsticks clicked together and Shengshi turned to the stool adjacent to his, a smiling face looking back at him. The smiling gentleman held a prize of noodles between two long chopsticks, a gentle hum in his voice, "I do love this place you know," his grainy voice ricocheted across the sound of the pattering rain.

Shengshi smiled and grabbed a pair of chopsticks for himself. “Well, in that case, I look forward to the taste test. Let us see if the noodles of dreams can measure up to the craft of servants.” He pinched a couple of strands between the sticks and slurped them up. He chewed for a moment and swallowed, nodding with an impressed expression all the while. “That is quite something, indeed. Incredible what the mind can convey to the tastebuds.” He grinned and reached out his hand to K’nell. “How have you been of late, my dear friend?”

Their hands clapped together in a clasp and then fell apart. K'nell swallowed his own bite and cleared his throat, "I've been well, and how have you fared? I would be lying if I didn't admit to hearing about the troubles settling on the southern continent." The old lady came out from behind a curtained door and placed two cups onto the table and then a carafe between them. She gave a gentle bow of her head and turned to leave.

"Ah thank you, dear Rosy," K'nell tipped the carafe over Shengshi's cup. The old lady simply gave a pinched smile and shuffled off. The cups were both quickly filled halfway with a clear liquid. K'nell lifted his to his chin and ushered Shengshi to continue.

The snake mouthed the name Rosy to himself and shrugged discreetly. His eyes then flicked back to K’nell and he pursed his lips. “Well, I cannot lie, the last fifty years have been something else. With everything from experimentation to figuring out the essence of agriculture, in addition to all the conflict before and after the Arrival of the Alma - everything has been less than harmonious.” He furrowed his brows. “Yes, you have no doubt heard about all that regardless, so I will spare you the rant, dear friend. Now, what have you yourself been doing?”

"Oh, what I've always been doing, I suppose," K'nell took a sip of his drink and placed it back down, opting for his soup. He slurped a pinch of noodles and nodded, "Ah but I'm sure you want details. I admit I rarely get visitors who simply want to chat." He swirled his chopsticks in his soup, his utensils suddenly pinching a large bundle of noodles. He held them over the bowl until they stopped dripping. His eyes flickered back to Shengshi, "If you don't mind, I would like to perform a quick exercise… have some of my soup."

The snake blinked and accepted the bowl with a nod of his head. “Well, I am not one to decline such an offer. May I inquire as to what this exercise is about?” He took the bowl with both hands and brought it to his lips to nip at the soup.

K'nell held up a finger, "First, how does it taste?"

The snake smacked his lips quietly. “Quite similar to my own, I confess.”

"What if I were to suggest that my soup is actually very different than your own, but your tongue, of course, is none the wiser. You see, both soups have a similar taste pattern and your own palate has already become accustomed to it through your own bowl." K'nell smiled, "Awfully thoughtful for a bowl of soup -- here." He suddenly produced a glass vial of black liquid. He let eight drips fall into the soup before Shengshi, the broth darkening.

"Now try."

The snake once more nipped at his bowl, smacked his lips and then had another sip. “My… What did you put in it?”

"Just something very different than the original flavour. To be honest, that spice you now taste has always been there, but hidden. Now it has something to contrast against and show itself," K'nell explained simply. He looked at his drink, "Such is the way of soups… and such is the way of dreams."

The snake took another sip and chuckled. “A similarity shared with wine, I suppose. By the way, how did you like your gift?”

"I enjoyed it very much, thank you," K'nell grinned, "Not a drop was wasted, I assure you."

“How marvellous,” the snake said with a grin. “Please, do not be afraid to ask for more. There will always be more for my dearest friends.” He slurped another mouthful of soup and hummed pensively. “On another note, may I ask what happened that night when all my servants suddenly woke up screaming? Were you testing something?”

K'nell gave Shengshi a knowing look and waved a hand over their noodles, a tiny grin tucked in the corner of his mouth, "I was simply making soup."

The snake wrinkled his nose. "Not a soup for the faint of heart, I reckon. Forgive my questioning, but I feel compelled to inquire as to why you felt the need to make such a… Particular recipe."
I
K'nell steepled his fingers over his now empty bowl, "Ah I see, you have some concerns." He paused with a hum, "Perhaps a quick look behind the curtain might appease your worry?" The god smiled as his fingers slipped between the unseen folds of reality, "Yes?"

The snake made a face and nodded. "Very well. Show me."

K'nell raised a brow and flicked a smile; then with a sudden resounding snap, everything changed.

K'nells boot crunched on autumn leaves as he walked, his elbows folded square behind his back. The two were on a leaf ridden path cut through beautiful red leaved maples that hung over their heads. An owl was crying somewhere and Shengshi wasn't sure if it was dusk or dawn. The leaves swished in tiny storms and K'nell sucked in a soil scented breath.

"So tell me, Shengshi," K'nell broke the tanquility with a charm, "What are you thinking, if you'd forgive my familiarity, what is the future in your eyes?"

"The future? Why, that is simple! The future is prosperous - unending lands of green filled with full-bellied beasts and pious mortals, webbed together by rivers of life." The snake made a playful smirk. "Or had you something else in mind?"

K'nell smiled but didn't take his eyes off the path before them, "That sounds almost like a paradise, no?"

The snake nodded. “Indeed, hence why I wish it for this world. Already, much of it has known destruction, and it deserves a calmer, safer future - one without worry and anxiety.”

"Have you created paradise, yet?" K'nell turned his head to look at Shengshi, his black eyes betrayed more than a simple question.

The snake made a frown. “W-well, obviously not. It is a future goal - a project-in-progress.”

"I suppose that would make sense," K'nell nodded and turned back to the path, "I have one more question on the topic, but I have to ask you not to take offense to it."

The snake pursed his lips. “Go on.”

"Do you know how?" K'nell asked simply, his words almost punctuated by him suddenly stopping on a particularly crunchy leaf. He turned to the snake, a single brow raised.

The snake’s face caught a slightly redder shade and he looked away. “... There is still some experimentation to be done in order to find the optimal path, I fear…”

"Ah," K'nell presented a tiny smile, "Then I won't pressure you further on paradise." He mused in silence for a second, "But since you clearly have had some thought of similar subjects, did you perhaps devise an end for your creations? Or perhaps a way to create perfection?" The God didn't wait for an answer before he started walking again.

A distant look filled Shengshi’s eyes. “A way to create perfection, huh… Well, I have been refining my book of law that I will hand down to mortality. I believe firmly that the system outlined within them forms a most harmonious society, which can then be supported by bountiful harvests and great wealth. Only…” He shook his head in disappointment. “... Please do not tell anybody I said this, but I… Struggle to practice my preachings, so to speak - that does not exactly set a wonderful example for mortality.”

"Deviations are expected in most coded works; although by the creator…" K'nell paused, "I suppose that shows you that you have either created a code that is impossible to follow or one that is honest -- as so many creator of rules ensure the rules favor them first… If that was the case, in this greed you'd have no trouble, so take your struggle as a sign of potential and not failure." He looked intently at the snake, "As for the topic of privacy, you are in a dream. Only I and the dreamer know what transpires in dreams and as I've made clear to others, none of it shall be shared. I expect the same of you of course, we share delicate bits of information, such as this dream, or the secret demise of Vakk." His eyes flashed over the snake for a moment.

The snake blinked. He then sucked in a breath through the nose and placed his fist over his mouth. “... His death…” he began, “... I…” He squeezed his eyes shut in shame. “... I am afraid that is a secret no longer.”

"I know, Shengshi," K'nell stepped over a tiny puddle, "But hearing it from you ensures my faith in your honesty." He hummed for a moment, "However I must insist you keep this talk between us, yes?"

The snake nodded with a recovering smile. “Of course, my dearest brother. This is but a dream - little of note to share.” He winked playfully.

"And yet some of the best things happen in dreams," K'nell mused, "Ah, for example."

K'nell suddenly stopped and as if the trees were peeled away on command, there stood an endless field of green before the two gods. It held glistening blue brookes that cut the endless field into pieces. Idyllic homes crested each island, and a great many people went about various tasks, each with a feeling of bliss in their hearts and step. K'nell plucked a yellow flower from beside him and held it to his nose to appraise it.

The snake gaped in awe and breathed a hacking gasp. His eyes shone with the moisture of pride and love as he gazed out across the vast fields of green, listened to the warm buzz of farmers and heard the snaps and smacks of their work. He sniffed a single sniff and nodded. “Yes… Some of the best things, indeed.” He slithered forward among the tall, verdant stalks, his hands caressing the growing sprouts on top. He hummed to the sound of the becks and flight of the bees and revealed a grin than glistened in the light above - the same way everything around radiated with idyll.

"But of course," K'nells grainy voice piped up from behind Shengshi, the Lord of sleep not having moved from his spot, "Should you stare at this scene long enough, it will become bland despite that special spice that makes it so wonderful. It is not perfect, but it holds a piece of perfection." He paused, "Then again there is also the matter of perception."

The grass bent under his boots as he made his way to Shengshi's side, "No, I'm afraid this is not good enough. Mind you it isn't the lack of grandeur nor the dreams fault but those perceiving it. Tell me, Shengshi, what makes your most beloved creations happy?"

The snake furrowed his brow in thought and hummed. "Why, I reckon that would be the knowledge that their creator watches over them and ensures their bellies are filled and their throats are wetted." He gave K'nell a look. "Since you asked the question, what do you think?"

"Hm?" K'nell turned his head towards the snake, "Your creations? I suppose the answer is the same for any creation granted free will: they make themselves happy, or unhappy -- not to say external forces are not extremely important in determining one's mental state, but to rely solely on external stimuli is… well incorrect."

"There," K'nell pointed a finger at one of the farmers, "You can see the intricacies of this person's mind, yes? By all means they should be soaring with happiness as all their needs are met and they live in an idyllic paradise… but they are uneasy -- unsettled. They crave new experiences, new sights." K'nell chuckled to himself, "So let's say I give those to him, will he then be at ease? Sadly not, as they will eventually realize they want something else entirely. This is a man not yet ready for paradise, as he has yet to find it first in himself. That is not to say that a paradise shouldn't be much more than this, but if he were to be at paradise within, I dare say any scape I throw at him shall be paradise as well." K'nell smiled.

"Do you follow, dear Shengshi?"

"I do," Shengshi murmured. "He could be granted tools to humour himself with: a harp, a flute, clay, wood - paradise necessitates a culture for the arts, of course." He gestured outwards. "Everything such would be welcome in paradise, so long as it would remain harmonious and not infringe upon others' enjoyment of it."

"Oh but it would, dear Shengshi, if the mind is not prepared," K'nell looked out over the field, "It takes a single grain to disrupt such a gentle equation and when dealing with objects of free will… well that is to say perfection is not as simple as everyone plays nice and does nice. To need to enforce a rule dictates that it is a mere sham of a paradise, not quite there… so."

K'nell turned to Shengshi, "Physically a paradise needs to be infinite and infinitely varied, that much is easy… but the psychology of the denizens of paradise, not so easy. So how do you ensure that all parts of this paradise are in concordance with each other… well I suppose you learn all sides of the equation, and every motive possible for emotion… I suppose you add a contradicting flavour to the soup, to better understand the spice you seek to taste." K'nell folded his hands, "And that's just to make the soup, does this all make sense now, Shengshi?"

The snake nodded slowly. "Yes… Yes, it does… A Galbarian paradise is beginning to sound difficult."

"Then let me make it easy," K'nell smiled, "Or at least allow me to simplify it all to a few words: you cannot force someone to be at paradise." K'nell inhaled, "To answer a long ago asked question, a dream holds the seed of truth, but so does a nightmare. You cannot ignore negative experiences on the path to paradise, but let both dreams and nightmares foster a better way of thinking. Perfection exists, dear Shengshi, we just can't talk about it."

"I would like to disagree, but it was indeed a nightmare that brought to me the thought of forming Xiaoli." He chuckled to himself. "Yes, I am in agreement with the need for this balance of impulses - both good and evil can be necessary when deciding the proper paths ahead. Yet… I do hope there will be a spoonful more good in the lands to come."

K'nell looked at Shengshi for a moment before smiling, "But of course and on the topic of balance, I have come across an interesting case -- perhaps one that would be an excuse to allow this topic to rest and our minds with it."

The snake raised a brow. "A case?"

K'nell nodded and clapped his hands once. At the resounding vibration the sky suddenly rolled and thundered about the fields. The people were nowhere to be seen anymore as the sky suddenly sundered open and with it, a torrent of flame. The fire pounded to the earth below and engulfed all.

The flicker of blinding orange subsided and Shengshi stood on the steps of a dias, K'nell sitting on a throne far above. The intricately dressed room around them was well lit, and filled with a playful orchestra. Flitting orbs of emotion danced around them and in between the statues along the walls. Before Shengshi could comment, K'nell flicked his wrist and a person materialized between them.

The figure was nothing too impressive, save for the dark circles under his eyes and the beat up clothes of a gentleman he wore. The man was neither dreamer nor of K'nell.

"A man who has only (or at least mostly) experienced misery alone for the past five decades. Not even in sleep does he get a reprise, as it is flooded with nightmares, most of which have nothing to do with his particular journey through life. He is known as Karamir and unfortunately for him, he is friends with…" K'nell mulled over his words, "Well a divine being whose sole purpose is to spread misery."

The snake furrowed his brow and made a faint sneer. "With a name like that, he can only be the creation of Kalmar… My, what an utter lack of creativity." He turned to K'nell. "Why are you showing him to me?"

"Simply because I thought you might find this case as curious as I do," K'nell flicked his wrist and the figure fell to the floor, lumbering about mindlessly. K'nell cleared his throat, "A mortal who has for the better part of their existence having been removed from positive encounters. Of course, he has grown used to his current level of misery -- as expected. To be suddenly liberated from such misery, what do you suspect might happen?"

“... I imagine he would act like a beaten beast - joyous and ecstatic, yet perhaps even a little anxious. Free of chains, the slave is often without purpose, after all.” A pause. “Did you have a wish to free him hidden within this message?”

"You'll have to excuse me, I don't tend to deal in wishes -- he is on his way as we speak," K'nell leaned back in his throne, "Have you ever felt trapped?" The question was sudden, the God of Sleep reaching into his coat pocket.

Shengshi shook his head. “No, I cannot say I have.”

K'nell seemed to ponder the answer as he pulled a silver tin from his coat and opened it up. He presented the rolled cigarillos within to Shengshi, "Smoke?"

The snake peered intently at the cigarillo and hummed. “I have never tried, I confess. Lately, I have been a little wary of smoke and fire.”

"Oh yes of course," K'nell snapped the tin shut, "How insensitive of me." He hummed for a moment as he tucked it away.

“No, no, do not concern yourself with that. It has already been over fifty years, after all, and fire is a necessary, essential part of life for many mortals. As will pipeweed and other substances be, I reckon. Now, I imagine you wanted to tie the trapping to this Karamir?”

"Could you excuse me if I spoke rather liberally for a moment?" K'nell gestured a hand.

“Why, certainly - go ahead.”

"You are trapped, Shengshi," K'nell folded his fingers together, "Whether you know it or not, since the moment you fell asleep I've felt it. Karamir, the cigarillo, simple prods at your symptoms. Tell me, when seeing a curious case of damnation, why did you first focus on the name made by a rival and when presented a luxury item, your first thought was of the war? You have things eating at your subconscious, Shengshi, and plenty of things that need to find a bed."

The snake recoiled a little and blinked. “W-w-well! I-...” He cast a sideways glance into the distance and sneered. “They were mere remarks. Karamir’s name is awfully similar to his creator’s and I have indeed kept my distance from fire over the last few years. What, are you going to tell me that I am trapped by my experiences from the past?”

"Perhaps I misspoke," K'nell offered, "Then again, if I didn't, you would know before me."

Shengshi’s eyes flicked back and forth between K’nell and the fine curtains over the windows. He sighed a hot sigh and crossed his arms over his chest. “... I would not say I am trapped, but the past does haunt me at times.”

"Who can fault you for it," K'nell grinned, "I suppose the only judgement can come from what you do next."

“Yes… Speaking of, would you have any recommendations? Already, I have sworn to oppose Azura and, well… I would likely be a fool to think one of your crows did not catch my latest failure.”

"If I may be so bold," K'nell said after a small pause, "Perhaps it would be wise to sit for a while." He patted the arms of his throne, "And think. Think about the start of things, and the end of things. Figure out the path of each of your choices and only create when you know how to end it. But if I am to be honest, lecturing is not my strong suit, at least not this sort."

The snake smirked. "As usual, you are much too modest, my dearest brother. Your advice has been more than helpful, I assure you." He looked over his shoulder as if something was there and shrugged. "An itch and spine in my neck is telling me I have taken a rather funny position in the real realm… I must be waking up."

"Ah, that's what I was afraid of," K'nell said, "The former rather than the latter. Far be it from me to be directly involved in the choices of another -- in this case, I suppose for a friend." He smiled wide, "As for your waking arrangements, there you are."

As the last syllable sounded, Shengshi realized he was no longer asleep. He turned a lethargic neck to see that he had nearly twisted himself around inside his basket. He muttered to himself and quickly undid the knot that was his body and crawled out of the basket.

"Well… Time to see how close we can get to paradise."



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Laurien


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Dreamers





”Lai Qin!” Arya shouted, ”Come back here, you know what your mother said about getting too far ahead!” Arya shouted again, jogging after the small dreamer. The girl’s long alabaster hair blew in the wind as she raced down the sandbar away from Arya, who let out a small groan. But a smile could not help itself from forming on her lips as she watched her tiny legs try to escape her. ”Don’t make me get you!” she said playfully, hearing a squeal of laughter from the girl in return as she renewed her efforts to escape. Arya then broke into a sprint before jumping into a flight after the girl. She extended her hands, narrowing in and plucked Lai Qin into the air. The girl screamed briefly, before beginning to laugh maniacally as Arya flew straight up into the sky. Once she leveled out, Arya held her niece below her, who had extended her hands, now flapping like a bird as she whooped and hollered.

This went on for several more minutes, before (much to Lai Qin’s disapproval), the two landed on the outskirts of a lone tree, sweetgrass all around them. Before Lai Qin could run off again, Arya grabbed her orange hand and pulled her close enough for a quick kiss on the cheek. “Auntieee! Let me go, let me go!” Lai Qin said quickly, trying in vain to free herself. ”No, I don’t think so young lady. Running off, again no less, deserves a punishment…” Lai Qin’s black eyes went wide with fright at the word, ”...Of tickling!” Arya beamed, before assaulting the small girl’s sides. She peeled with laughter, trying to squirm out of Arya’s grasp as she fell onto the grass. Arya was relentless however, and did not yield until the small girl had tears of laughter running down her face. Only then did she stop, Lai Qin breathing heavily as she sat up. The girl’s blue dress was covered in grass stains, and her hair was disheveled. Arya visibly frowned at the sight. Laia wouldn’t be very happy with her. ”Come on, let’s fix you up for mama.” Arya told her, taking her hand and leading her underneath the shade of the tree.

Arya hummed softly as she brushed Lai Qin’s hair. Her strands were thick, and they reminded her of Laurien’s mane and her own to a certain extent, which she had cut to the length of her back. She had her hair up into a bun today, with her bangs reaching the top of her eyes. It was an easy style, one she had stumbled upon a long time ago. Lai Qin’s own hair was a tangled mess after the days excitement and play, and now the little girl sat in front of Arya, playing with a strand of grass.

“Oh no,” came a silky smooth voice, following it was a tall and slender man with crimson patterns covering the left half of his face. The man had walked through some underbrush, clearly on his way to the wood and thatch homestead that sat at the entrance to the flatlands, buckets in each hand. Zhongcheng rubbed a clean chin with the back of one of his hands, his brow knitted. He jutted his chin at the dress, “Has Laia seen yet?"

"No not ye-" Arya began before Lai Qin erupted where she sat exclaiming, "Daddy! Daddy! I flew like a birdie again!" Before running at Zhongcheng. "Lai Qin…" Arya said quietly, still holding the brush in her hand. She couldn't help but have a soft smile on her face, seeing her childish enjoyment. It reminded her of herself, once upon a time.

Zhongcheng grinned and patted the top of Lai Qin’s head with a certain approving calm. He pursed his lips and looked around, turning to speak conspiratorial-like to Arya and his daughter, “Well then, follow me back to the homestead-- I’ll draw Laia out, you sneak her in and get her a new dress? It’s Laia’s birthday, third K’nellsday of Lustroustime after all.” He eyed Lai Qin, “Not a peep.”

Lai Qin had a curling smile as she mimicked tying her mouth shut and nodded. He looked up at Arya, “Come on.” Zhongcheng hefted his buckets of berries and set out at a small jog, only slowing to a walk as his boots cuffed on a downtrodden path to the homestead.

It was a quaint little cottage, clearly designed with both the attentiveness of Xiaoli, but the slight laze of Zhongcheng, making it simple yet efficient. Standing only a story high, it had a unique “c” shape to maximize the space within. Zhongcheng approached one of the clay plastered walls and called out, “Laia! Come look, quick!” Zhongcheng waved at Arya and Lai Qin and the pair ducked behind one of the wings of the cottage.

There was a thick silence as Zhongcheng listened intently, his face stern. Only when the rustling footsteps of Laia sounded near the door did his lips curl into a sly grin. The door swung open to reveal Laia, a curious look in her big black eyes, her fingers scratching at the cyan birthmark that trailed down the side of her neck, slipping under the collar of a very fine woolen dress trimmed with furs.

“What is it, dear?” She said in her soft serving tone, although only slightly suspicious, having been trained to accept Zhongcheng’s unusual excitements with skepticism. The man, however, seemed to ignore the inflection as he plopped his buckets down.

“A nestle of chameleon squirrels, little babes,” He nodded quickly, “Too young to blend into much, you have to see.”

“Oh!” Laia seemed to perk up at this, “I love those little fuzz balls. Hold on, let me get my--”

Zhongcheng grabbed his wife by the wrist, “No time! Wenbo was telling me the other day that the mother moves the babies regularly.”

Laia let out a sharp “oh!” as Zhongcheng led her away, glancing over his shoulder discreetly and flitting a tiny wink.

Quickly Arya got to work, finding a suitable dress for Lai Qin, fresh and clean. To the huff and tuff of the girl, Arya worked quickly to clean her up and to be presentable. As she did, Arya began to feel uneasy, like a slight discomfort that would not go away. Or a sense of foreboding dread. It was minor, but steadily growing as she combed Lai Qin's hair. "Lai Qin, do you feel… Strange at all?" she asked the girl softly. Lai Qin shrugged. "No, I'm just hungry." She said as she played with a rag doll. Arya rolled her eyes at the response and tried to bury it, but the feeling remained all the same.

"Your siblings and parents should be back soon." Arya said, satisfied with her work. Lai Qin's hair was straight, and her dress was a light shade of purple. "Oh don't you look precious! Now come on, let's go greet them!" Arya said. "Ooookay!" The girl exclaimed.

“Qin? Lil’ Qin?” a soft feminine voice called. A face peeked around the corner and locked onto Arya and Lai Qin. It was double-striped on the cheeks in an auburn colour, which contrasted a little bit with her charcoal hair. “There’s my little sister! D’aaaw, look at you! Did auntie Arya make that for you?” A short, slender girl turned the corner and walked over to Lai Qin, kneeling down to hug her affectionately. “Oh, forgive me - hello, Arya!”

"Ping’an! Stoooop, your squishing me!" Lai Qin squirmed in her sister's grasp. "Ah Ping'an, I looked for you this morning but I must have missed you. Wherever had you run off too?" Arya questioned.

“Oh!” Ping’an brushed some hair behind her ear as she released Lai Qin from her grasp. “I was just out picking mushrooms and berries and now I’ve started make mushroom soup.” She looked around. “Have you seen mom and dad?”

"Oh they should be back soon enough." Arya said with a wide smile as Lai Qin went back to playing with her doll. Arya then felt her sense of dread returning, more intense then before. She frowned, then turned back to Ping'an. "Do you feel strange at all?"

"They must have moved!" Zhongcheng's voice came from outside; it was met with a disappointed 'hmph'.

"Nevermind Ping'an, I'm sure it's nothing." She said, walking over to her bag. She had left it there since morning and luckily no one had disturbed it. She sifted through and grabbed a medium sized wooden box then went over to the girls. "Come one let's go give your mom her gift!" she said with enthusiasm.

As their hands grabbed the box, the door swung open. Ping'an quickly slipped the box behind her back, little Qin tugging behind her. Laia, who stood in the doorway gave them a quizzical look.

"What do you have there?" Laia asked as Zhongcheng slipped behind her, snagging his buckets. He discreetly shook his head as if saying 'not yet'. He pushed between the three.

"Ping'an dear, I left my… well you know… down in the root cellar, could you-"

"I'll get it, Father!" Ping'an announced without the grace of her dad and scooted sideways towards the door, tugging poor Qin along with her. Arya watched with a sy smile as they went.

"What's this all about?" Laia cocked a brow, suspicion in her soft voice. Zhongcheng gave her a smooth chuckle and rolled his eyes.

“Nothing special, dear,” he said with a wink. “Come, let’s eat.” Laia made a sly smile and snickered. “Alright, alright, I’ll come along… Say, what are we eating?” Zhongcheng shrugged and grinned, his yellowing teeth shining with all the joy and glee of his youth’s pearly white. “A wonderful mushroom soup that your daughter made!”

They entered the dining room, and while the fragrance of fresh, earthy mushroom soup permeated the air like a cozy blanket, Laia found her gaze locking onto something else. With a gasp, she saw little Qin holding a bucket of berries, specifically raspberries, and beaming like a small sun. Laia placed a hand over her heart and knelt down next to the little girl. “Qin, my dear, did you pick all those for me? This must have taken hours!”

Lai Qin giggled, put down the bucket and tossed her arms around Laia’s neck. “Happy birthday, mom!” Laia sniffed and squeezed back. “Oh, thank you, dear, thank you! My, I’m getting emotional now…”

“That’s not all, though, mother!” came Ping’an’s voice as she turned the corner and presented the box from earlier. As she removed the lid, the box revealed a snapfruit custard pie, its yellow, mushy vulcano-like top of sweetened cream glistening in the evening heliopolis through the window. Laia sucked in a gasp and chuckled. “Oh, you people… What has a mother done to be this fortunate?”

“Well, you’ve been a mother to us,” Ping’an giggled and kissed her on the cheek. Laia giggled back and embraced her daughter. “Oh, my dearest little Ping’an… Alright, now we have dessert! But no touching it until after dinner, okay?”

“Yes, mom,” Ping’an said smiling, though Qin huffed quietly. Zhongcheng chuckled warmly in the meanwhile.

”Happy Birthday La-” Arya began for abruptly stopping. She froze, before slowly turning towards the doorway. The door began to slowly open up, her eyes going wide at the sight, her heart began to race, the sense of dread eating at her like never before. She saw what awaited on the other side, a figure floating above the ground, wearing a black, tattered cloak, far too long to have any practical use. A hood obscured the figures face, but she could feel eyes bearing down into her. An object slowly came to a stop beside the figure, something glowing white even in the light of heliopolis. It was strangely beautiful, before she realized that the object was a sword.

Then the figure threw back it’s hood, to reveal a face she once thought had just been a bad dream. Inky black smoke, almost like flame. The impassive eyes, burning white. The dots of white, eerily reminiscent of stars. It was her father, he had come at last. After so long. Zhongcheng quickly scooted in front of his family, fingers curled into uneasy fists.

”Arya…?” the figure asked, his voice different then it had been, so long ago. ”Is that you?”

There was a lump in her throat as she opened her mouth to speak, but no words came. She didn’t know what to say, didn’t even really know what to think. She had thought this moment would be different, somehow, but not like this.

“Auntieeee, who’s that? He kinda looks like you.” Came Lai Qin’s voice as she grabbed Arya’s hand. The touch made her blink, and she looked down to Qin with a brief smile. ”Oh… That’s just… Um, that’s my father sweetie.” She then turned to Zhenchong and Laia, her face suddenly becoming very serious. ”I need you two to go find Laurien, Hermes, and Xiaoli. Please, take the children with you, and stay there. I will come for you when… When whatever happens is over.” she said in a commanding voice.

“Well, so much for a celebration,” Zhongcheng muttered. Laia gave him a frown. “Zhongcheng, not if front of a--!” she snapped and cut herself off. Ping’an appeared even smaller than she was as she shot frightened glances at the figure and the long, long knife he seemed to carry with him. She took Qin’s hand on her own, though the child seemed a little reluctant to go. “Come on, sweetie, we’re going to see grandma and grandmother.”

“But why now?” the child protested before she was tugged along a little harder as the family passed out the door past Orvus, making certain to bring along the pie and berries. As their chatter slowly faded, mostly angry rants about the total lack of convenience of Orvus’ arrival, the room fell silent.

Arya followed them outside, watching them go with a quiet sigh of relief. She quickly shut the door behind her and then turned to face her father. He did nothing but look at her, as his long cloak drifted in the steady breeze.

”It's been… A Long time, father.” she said at last, crossing her arms as her brow furrowed slightly. ”Why have you come now? Why wait all these years?”

”Arya… I am…” the god whispered aloud before stopping. ”I have no excuse. I’ve had… A lot of time to think… About everything and my place in this world. Over time, I realized that my greatest failure, was abandoning you to Galbar. I never should have said that you were a mistake. I should have treated you as my daughter. I know, perhaps, that my word means hardly anything to you, and it shouldn’t, but I am sorry, Arya. I do not ask you for your forgiveness, for I am unworthy of such a thing. I-”

”Stop.” Arya said, tears running down her face. ”Just stop. Do you know what you put me through? Do you know how lost and afraid I was? Do you know what it felt like to be ripped away from your home without a choice? Do you have any idea how much I came to resent you? I hurt people because I could not see you! I murdered Servants because I was angry that no one woke me up when you came to ‘visit’ me! I hated myself because of the powers that came from you! I never wanted to see you ever again, I didn’t want to be ‘his’ daughter. Why? Why don’t you love me? What did I do? What did I-” she said breathing heavily, an angry look in her eyes. Orvus stared at her with, his own eyes flooded with sorrow. She felt flustered, not even knowing why she was ranting like a child. But for some reason, it felt good to finally get it off her chest.

”From the moment you came to be, from the second I laid eyes upon you, I loved you Arya.” Orvus said, touching down on the floor as she froze. ”But I could not give you what you wanted then, I just… Couldn’t. I was broken at my core, perhaps I still am and I told myself that I was doing the right thing, to send you away from that place. Veradax would have killed you, Arya. It is not a place one should call home, especially as fragile as you were then. I regretted that decision the moment you left, I should have went with you. Should have taught you the ways of the world. I should have raised you as a father. It was never your fault, do not blame yourself for my inability to be there for you. I will never be able to forgive myself for what I have caused you to feel, Arya. I… I came here to see the both of you and try to reconcile. I know both of you have many reasons to despise me, even hate me, but I wanted to try regardless. But I… I should go…” he said slowly turning around.

Arya said nothing, shocked by the confession she thought would never come. It was a lot to take in, even more to process, but the moment he finished, Arya broke into a sprint, crying ”No! Please don’t leave! Please! Don’t leave me again!” Orvus turned around with frightening speed at the sound of her heartbreaking voice, and Arya flung herself into him. And in that moment, the two embraced. Arya clutched the cloak tightly, sobbing into his chest as Orvus held her tightly. He said nothing as she wept, letting out all her frustration and anger and sadness in a flood of black tears. When she could cry no more, Arya spoke in a small voice, ”I was going to give up on you. But I was told I shouldn’t so easily lose hope and I never did.”

”I am glad you did not, Arya. More than you will ever know. I… I will not leave you. Not again.” Orvus stated firmly, letting her go but he kept his hands upon her shoulders. They stood around the same height now. ”You’ve grown daughter. More ways than one I think. And… You did not have lips or a mouth, how?” the god asked. Arya gave a faint smile, ”Well… I fell asleep for a long time and when I woke up, they had developed. It was strange at first… But it feels natural now. Do you know why?” she asked sheepishly.

”I am unsure, perhaps it is just in the nature of what you are. There was never a defined blueprint for you or your sister.” he said, and Arya nodded.

“This one should be tested, creator.” came a deep voice, that made Arya jump. She looked round but noticed no one else but them.

”She is not…” Orvus paused, turning to the sword. ”Are you sure, Wreanun?” Arya cocked her head, unsure of what was going on and then the sword spoke, it’s voice impossibly deep, “I am.”

Orvus turned back to Arya and said, ”This is Wreanun, the Sword of Ending. He is a weapon, the cultivation of a quest I first set on years ago. When Laurien was attacked by a divine creature, I realized how… frail she truly was and it scared me. So, I came up with a solution. Wreanun is that solution, but he requires someone to wield him. It is not my place to do so, and now, he wishes for you to be tested. Simply grab the hilt and he will judge your worthiness, Arya. But be aware, if he finds any unworthy… There will be consequences.”

Arya looked over the blade with inquisitive look before turning back to Orvus, ”I don’t know… What would I even use him for outside of killing things?” she said dryly.

”I can’t always be everywhere to protect those that I care for Arya, Wreanun has that potential to be a deterrent. I will not lie to you, for it would serve no purpose, the sword is an effective killing tool, but it can be used for so much more. To protect those that need protection, to be a guiding light for those that have fallen, to strike fear into those that would cause senseless destruction… To be a Knight, Arya. For that is what such a blade would bestow upon you.” he paused, before saying, ”Yes, It was born of desolation, Arya, but I have learned… That we can use such tools against their purpose, to forge a better one. By all means, I owe you everything, but you do not have to be tested if you do not want. It is your choice."

”A knight…” she whispered aloud. ”That sounds… I’m sorry but where did you learn of such a thing, father? I’m sorry if this sounds mean but… I never expected such words from you.”

Orvus nodded, ”I am not offended child, it is a sensible question. I learned from a very… Dear person. Her name was Silver and she made me… Better.”

Arya nodded slowly, she had heard the name before, when Laurien told her everything about her mission and duty and her loss. She knew not why her father did such a thing, but she no longer felt that he was such a cold being. Her death… why it had to happen, there was a story there. But Arya’s gaze fell upon the sword again and the sword floated closer to her. All her life, she wanted to protect those that needed it. She wanted nothing more than to help people and she had. But the sword… Could it allow her to help more? Could she become such a ‘Knight’ and be a champion for the downtrodden? Were there even downtrodden? But that was a foolish question, for it was not just people in the world. There was life itself, to the trees and plants, and to the animals. There had been conflict on the Dragon’s Foot, people had died, could she have helped prevent such a thing? Could she have saved those souls?

Slowly Arya reached out and grabbed the hilt. There was a stinging sensation, then a prickling all over her body. She stood firm however as the sword began to glow bright, brighter than anything she had seen before and so she shut her eyes. Then there came a loud clang and the world returned to normalcy. Slowly she opened her eyes and she gasped. In her hand was Wreanun, the sword pulsing to her heartbeat, and she was covered neck to toe in some sort of white clothing. It was hard, not like normal cloth and exquisite beyond anything she had ever seen before. It was comfortable, as if she was always meant to be wearing it and she felt so strong!

“We are bonded.” Wreanun’s voice rang in her head.

”We are.” she gasped, turning to Orvus. ”What is this?” she asked.

”That is armor, your armor. The sword defends its wielder, Arya. You are no bonded with it, and he will always know where you are. Simply call his name and he will come to your aid. Know his however, the sword needs your hand to fight, it cannot do so alone and if you ever must fight, he will guide you. Be strong, and you will have nothing to fear.” he said.

There came familiar voices in the distance, getting steadily closer: “... I don’t know! Laia said Arya needed help, so we’re helping.” It was neither Xiaoli nor Hermes - the voices had a deep, masculine character - but Laurien’s groan could be heard among them. ”For the love of all that is good, stop arguing, it’s probably no-” The tall woman stopped as she rounded the bend, coming face to face with her sister but more importantly, Orvus. Her eyes went wide as she gazed upon Arya’s figure, even more so then Orvus.

”Laurien.” Arya said softly, before turning to her brothers. ”Wenbo! Temüjin! You are not our mothers. Where are they?”

Wenbo and Temüjin both carried long sticks. Wenbo’s one blue-ringed eye squinted as the other raised its brow and he looked up and down Orvus. The two Dreamers bowed and Temüjin scratched his red-striped chin. “Mom and mother were unfortunately nowhere to be found in our hurry, so we had to come instead. Laia’s waiting for them in case they come back, though, so they might come over soon.” Wenbo looked Arya up and down and blinked. “I, uhm, I know we haven’t seen each other in some time, but did you change your wardrobe? It looks… Tough!” Temüjin nodded approvingly.

Arya sighed, letting go of Wreanun for the sword to stay floating. She blinked at that, but then walked towards her siblings. She gave Wenbo and Temüjin a half hug and then hugged Laurien, who felt her new ‘armor’ up and down. ”Very hard. But how?” she said looking at Orvus. Arya then said, ”Thank you for coming Temüjin, Wenbo. My clothing is something called… Armor. And uh, this is… Orvus, our father.” she said, glancing at Laurien.

”Dreamers.” Orvus nodded at the two.

Temüjin pursed his lips and nodded. “Divine parentage, huh. Yeah, you did mention it once or twice, I think. A pleasure-- Uh, I mean, an honour to meet you, great Orvus!” He grinned sheepishly and bowed again. Wenbo knocked two fingers on the armour and hummed. “Armour, huh… Say, would His Holiness want some refreshments while He’s here? I think I know where Laia hides the cakes.”

Temüjin nodded. “Could make some tea, too.”

Orvus shook his head, ”I do not eat, nor do I drink. Your offer is appreciated.” Orvus answered for himself.

Arya then said, ”I appreciate you both coming, but Laurien and I will be fine. We have… Much to discuss. But if Hermes or Xiaoli pop up, just send them to our house, okay?”

Temüjin gave Wenbo a frown and the elder brother furrowed his brow. He leaned his stick into the bend of his arm, covered his right fist with his left hand and bowed. “Yes, of course. Be safe, you two. We will come by later to see if you need anything unless mom and mother get there first.” They both turned to Orvus and repeated the gesture together. “May your dreams be fulfilled, Your Holiness Orvus.”




A short flight later and they arrived at the house of Arya and Laurien. It was a large, two story manor, designed by Xiaoli and crafted with the help of Arya and Laurien. It was Shengese in nature, with elements of the cabin Laurien was fond of and it sat a bit farther away from the other houses. The specifications were much larger than the other houses on Tendlepog, due to the two sister’s heights. Because no one really knew when Arya would stop growing, they built the house with Laurien in mind and everything fit to accommodate her, comfortably. As such, Arya was also comfortable, when she finally stopped growing.

Arya was the first inside, with Laurien following behind. Her face was devoid of any emotion as she walked into her house. Without saying anything she walked over to a cabinet and brought out a tall bottle. Next she uncorked the bottle and took a sip. Arya gave her a scowl but said nothing else as Orvus entered the room, looking around the room.

"Welcom-" Arya began before Laurien cut her off. "Why are you here?" she said, staring at Orvus. The God turned his gaze to Laurien and said, "For many reasons, Laurien. Chief among them, you and Arya."

Bottle still in hand, Laurien crossed her arms and furrowed her brow. "How did you find us?"

"I assumed that you had found Arya, and upon Tendlepog you were. I would have found you regardless even If you hadn't been here." Orvus said as he explored the main room.

"It's been a long time father. Way too long. You never came to look for us sooner. We could have been dead or captured or... or something else entirely!" Laurien said angrily.

Orvus stopped in front of a massive family painting. Laurien and Arya stood behind many children old and young. He could only assume that the ones who looked older were Xiaoli and Hermes. He then turned to Laurien and said, "I would have known if something happened to you. To either of you. Besides, it was you who said you did not want to talk to me. Silver-"

"Don't! Don't say her name! You murdered her, remember? Or did you forget her just like you forgot us?" Laurien said, the bottle breaking in her hand. Purple liquid fell to the floor as the air took on a fragrant smell. Arya's armor dissipated as she went to Lauriens side. Purple liquid stained her hand as she tried to look Laurien's hand over. The tall girl growled and pulled away from Arya, as she stared daggers into Orvus. There was a tense silence in the room as the three waited for the others to react. Laurien then looked down to her hand, before turning her head to see Arya’s hurt face. In an instant, Laurien softened her expression, and outstretched her bleeding hand to Arya, murmuring under her breath, ”Sorry.” Arya took her hand gently and began to look at it.

Suddenly the door jumped, a stuff fist knocking it twice. Without any more ceremony, it creaked open and Hermes took a half step in. Her body was wrapped in her cloak, a small haze of cloudlings around her head and a flickering shadow crow on her shoulder. Her eyes squinted at Orvus as she took another step in. The dreamer was quiet, thinking. She looked between the two sisters then back at Orvus.

"Is everything alright?" Her first question was stiff and suspicious, but laced with care.

Before Arya or Laurien could speak, Orvus stared past Hermes shoulder and at the crow. ”K’nell.” was his greeting word, then he looked upon Hermes for the first time. ”Hermes. You have my thanks for taking Arya under your wing.” before his voice ushered back the silence.

Arya then looked at Hermes, and said, ”Everything is… Well… We’re working on it. And I need a cloth.” she said to herself as she crossed the room to a cabinet. Laurien said nothing, but looked at the floor. Wreanun, not one to be forgotten, floated next to Hermes.

Hermes glanced over at the strange sword and furrowed her brow before looking back at Orvus, "Oh, yeah. Well if you plan on thanking everyone who loves Arya around here, you have quite the list -- but it was my pleasure." She forced a smile through her confusion, "Do you all need some privacy?" She backed towards the door, her haze of cloudlings retreating with her, but the crow maintained its stare.

Arya’s voice came from across the room, ”No, stay. You’ve been our mother for the last… It’s been awhile. I’m sure whatever is going to be said, will benefit you too.” she finished, her voice growing louder as she walked back over to Laurien with a ceramic cup and a cloth. ”Come on, let’s go wash it.” Still Laurien said nothing as she let her smaller sister walk her over to the wash basin. There Arya began to work, humming a tune. In the meantime, Orvus stood looking at the two, before his gaze fell upon Hermes forehead.

”I thought so. Your mark resides upon Arya’s hand, as well. I take it this has some significance?” his eyes moved down to Hermes' own.

She gave him a blink, "Well I did say she was awfully loved," she nodded and looked at Arya, "I don't think it is my place to answer this for you, though."

Without missing a beat, Arya spoke as she worked on Laurien’s hand. ”The mark of K’nell, father. Anyone with the mark is under the Lord of Dreams protection. He made me a Ward, a very long time ago. We have an interesting relationship, he and I.” came her soft spoken voice. She turned briefly to look at Orvus, but like as she remembered, his expression was blank.

She went back to work, wrapping the cloth around Laurien’s hand. Orvus then spoke, turning to look at the shadow crow. ”This… Eases my mind. You have my thanks.” He then looked at Hermes again, but said nothing.

"I'm sure no thanks are necessary," Hermes presented her trademark smile, "But if you'd like, I'm sure we can arrange a meeting if you'd like to talk to him properly -- I." She paused and chewed the inside of her cheek for a moment, "I'm going in that direction come dawn, which is something I needed to tell Arya, actually." She looked at her daughter, eye flickering from Laurien's hand, "Well both of my daughters, of course." She was now walking across the room, finding a good spot to lean against near the pair.

”That will not be necessary.” Orvus said, finding a chair and sitting down in it. Arya cocked her head, cleaning her hands on a dry towel as she looked at Hermes. Laurien then looked at Hermes, her eyes narrowing slightly, as if thinking. ”Oh?” Arya began, ”Where are you going?”

"I've been called to Limbo for… something important. I will be gone for a while -- Xiaoli and I will be gone for a while." She folded her arms under her cloak, "I wanted to ask you some things but I have a feeling you already have some new things to process and go over." She gave the table a tiny smile -- one of recognition rather than happiness.

”Limbo… That’s dangerous. You know that, right? Of course you do.” Arya said quickly, then grabbed Hermes hand. ”It’s okay. Go ahead and ask. Processing can come later.” she said with a smile.

"Oh no no," Hermes shook her head, "This is far more important than my silly adventures." She squeezed Arya's hand, "Spend some time with your father, I'll make sure I don't step a foot towards Limbo without saying goodbye. Come by the estate, yeah?"

Arya frowned slightly, but nodded her head. She let go of Hermes’ hand and gave her a quick kiss a top her head. ”Okay, momma. We will.” Arya said, looking up at Laurien, but Laurien’s gaze was on Orvus. She scrunched her nose and let out a small sigh. ”Hmm, perhaps it's best if we three talk alone. Come, let me walk you to the door.” She said, looping her arm in Hermes’.

"O-oh," Hermes looked over Laurien carefully, "Well if any of you need me… you know how to get me." Her face twitched, that motherly glint in her eye, "Oh, do you want me to leave the crow, or the cloudlings for company?" The crow squawked at this.

”If it pleases K’nell.” Said Orvus, before Arya could speak. This time Arya frowned, ”Don’t worry mom, everything will be fine, but if we need you, I’m sure you’ll know before I get the chance to even leave the house.”

"Okay," Hermes gave the girls a reassuring smile as she was ushered out, "I'll be around!" The door clicked closed.

Arya turned around and looked at Laurien. ”What was that about? You didn’t even say anything to her!” But Laurien did not respond, instead, her staring match with Orvus continued on. Arya walked over to the middle of the table, and banged on it, making Laurien flinch. She looked at Arya with an annoyed face. ”Why did you do that?”

”Why did I do that? Maybe because you ignored me! Why didn’t you say anything to mom? She looked worried.” She said, putting her hands on her hips.

Laurien crossed her arms, her expression softening. ”I… Don’t know. My mind is a little preoccupied by him.” she said, nodding her head at Orvus. Arya sighed, bringing a hand to her face and holding it for a moment, as if in thought. She let it fall after a moment and said, ”Sit down. We are going to have a talk. All of us.” Laurien hesitated, but with a dejected stance she pulled a chair out opposite of Orvus and sat down. Arya then sat in the middle and awaited to see who would start.

”Why did you kill her.” came Laurien’s sad voice.

”Child, I told you before. K’nell came with the rest of the Li’Kalla shards. Silver was the final piece in that puzzle.” he said.

”No. Why did you kill her.” she said, her voice brimming with anger.

”I did not want to, she was my friend but I promised her I would help when the time came. She did not feel any pain, Laurien. I made sure of that. She simply fell asleep, and then nothing. I gave her life, and she used it to her fullest extent. It only seemed right that I would be the one to… end that life. I am sorry.” he said sadly.

The silence returned after his confession. Laurien turned away from her father, and off to the side she looked. Tears fell down her face when she finally turned back to Orvus. ”Did she… Have any last words?”

”She said… She said she was grateful for the life she lived and it was going to be okay, Laurien.”

Laurien took a deep breath, wiping the tears from her eyes with a sleeve. ”Okay. I… Still can’t forgive you, not yet… But perhaps one day. I just… I was supposed to go back and see her again. She was waiting for me.” Arya stood up, no longer able to watch her sister’s pain. She walked to her side, and then gave her a tight hug, which Laurien gladly returned, burying her face into Arya’s shoulder as she wept again.

”I understand Laurien, I do.” came Orvus’ voice, ”We are emotional beings, we feel more strongly than others do. Both a curse and a blessing but in the end, it makes us stronger. You will endure, not because you want to, but because you have to. Come now, daughters, I am going to tell you everything. And then you can finally judge me for what I have become.” Arya was the first to turn her head and look at Orvus and when Laurien settled down she too looked upon their father. His eyes were sad as Arya pulled away from Laurien, giving her sister a comforting squeeze upon her shoulder before sitting down.

”It all began in a place beyond places…” he began, starting at the beginning of his existence, and all the newfound pain he had been born into. He gave them visions as he spoke, showing them the great gathering, Seihdhara and the meteor. He told them about Veradax, about the moons explosion, about his first dream, and his battle with Phystene. The image shifted to the Mar Tree’s purpose and the nature of soul decay. Then he showed them his second dream in its entirety. For it was the catalyst for his change. Then Arya came, and Laurien watched as she was cast out of the Moon, and she knew that was one of his greatest mistakes. For she realized that her father wanted what the dream gave him, but was too scared to admit it, and thus he sent her away.

He then showed them of the Gate Lord, the Reaper Queens and their spawn. Dark creatures made for a terrible purpose, but he had only made them so people would hate him, for who could love such a being as he? But then the image changed to Orvus, sitting in front of a small field of growing plants. It was a calm, sunny day and he took solace in the fact that such a thing was possible not because he could do it, but because he wanted too. Then Arryn came, and Arya’s heart grew excited at his appearance and knowing that he was fine. And then came Silver, the one who pushed him to change even further. The house he built for her, and the fields they grew together. He showed them of their many conversations, how she made him see the error of his ways, and the great beauty that could be. She had helped him and for that Arya was grateful.

He then showed Laurien’s birth and their meeting with Katharsos. Then Laurien was gone, looking for Arya. He did not show them how Silver died, but they could feel his pain when the time came at last. Then he showed them the orb, and it’s strange questions. Then he showed them the Vault of Souls and its location, and what he had put there as a punishment for Azura. Then he showed them his anger and the birth of a Demigod, known as Ikarus. Who was their brother in a way. Then there was the anger he felt at seeing Laurien attacked by Vrog, and his great sadness that came when she told him to leave. He went back to the orb and it showed him that Rowan and that dream life could be real, but Orvus knew he was not worthy of such a thing. Not until he made things right with his daughters. Then there came a long montage of searching for items, and then the forging of Wreanun and then the moment he saw Arya and then Laurien.

When the images finally stopped, and their eyes came back to reality, the world had grown dark outside. Both of the girls sat silently, reflecting on what they had witnessed, and how they felt knowing their father in such a way. Arya realized that he had changed, just as she had grown and changed as the world moved on. He was different, more caring in a way that at one time, he probably thought impossible. And yet, he had made so many mistakes, just as she had done. She was her father’s daughter.

”I… I don’t know what to think.” Laurien said, her voice on the verge of faltering. ”You’ve done such… horrible things but why… Why did you create us?” she asked, looking to Arya, whose expression was one of confusion, before they both looked to their father with pleading eyes.

”I created the both of you, because I wanted too, whether I knew or not. Each of you, are ten times the person I can ever be. You are the best of me, the best of this world. I have created so many, terrible things, and I have so many mistakes but the both of you are neither of those things. You are not a mistake,” he said looking at Arya, ”You are my daughters, a part of me lives in you, and instead of embracing it, you have done the opposite. You have a life here, a family and you have each other. The both of you are not the monster that I am, you are Arya and Laurien and you will do great things in the time that has not yet come. I know this, because a father’s love is nurturing. Yet, even though I know I have been a horrible father to the both of you. I’ve always wanted you to be better than I, and you are. You are, and that’s all that matters. I know I cannot ask this of you, but what the world needs most, are protectors from the threats I’ve made and beyond. It is a selfish request, that I would ask this of you. But I cannot undo what I have done, not easily. For now it exists and is apart of this world, intricately serving a purpose. But by a mortals hands, change comes.”

Laurien looked at the table before her, the all too familiar silence returning. But she sighed. ”Thank you.” she then whispered before looking up, ”That means… A lot to me. I’m sure I can say the same for Arya. But tell me something, father. What do you expect us to do? You said it yourself, we are only mortal. You saw what Vrog could do, how would we even be able to fight such threats, let alone survive them?”

Orvus said nothing, but turned to look at Arya, who had remained motionless as she sat, hands scrunching her dress with her lap. She was thinking about everything said, everything wanted and she came to the conclusion.

”Knights…” Arya whispered, then looked to Laurien. ”You wanted to be there for Silver, you wanted to return. I almost forgot, but do you remember what you told me she called you? Her knight, returning home to… Well that part doesn't matter, but what does matter, is that you still be a knight, Laurien. We both can. And… We can protect people. We are not the only mortals in the world, there are others, I know it. Just like when we opened our eyes for the first time, they will be lost and need guidance. We can be that guidance.” Arya said with a warm smile.

”Your sister is right. I have already provided one weapon capable of helping, and yours will come soon enough, regardless of the choice you make. I promised myself that my daughters, would never be hurt by another divine and such weapons will promise that. But…” and Orvus paused here, his eyes glancing to the table before looking up again, ”What would you say if I made… If I brought Rowan and Ava and Lily to Galbar? Would you think me even more selfis-”

”Father.” Arya cut in, ”This isn’t selfish, it’s only natural. The day you helped a lost, lonely shard of a person, and gave her a choice and a life… You were worthy. This relationship that you have with the both of us… It hasn’t been easy and it’s been full of bumps along the way, but… This is the father I would love to know more of, and to have in my life. You have a lot to make up for, but don’t deny yourself happiness. It might surprise you.”

”She’s right. You don’t need to be worthy to want your family. You have the power to bring them to life, why not? Personally… I’d like to meet this Rowan.” Laurien said with a smirk.

Orvus bowed his head, ”Very well. Now… Let us talk of knights.”









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Hidden 1 mo ago 1 mo ago Post by Not Fishing
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Karamir

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Click

Diana’s boots tapped against black stone as she landed. A wind-ridden Karamir was unceremoniously shed from her arm, the mortal’s eyes opening once they no longer needed to be shielded from the violent wind. He took in the surrounding crooked trees and imposing black platform he now stood on. There were little floating orbs of different faint colors, and a red dawn sky above. He sucked in a breath, and his chest twisted with a new feeling: pure melancholic nostalgia. It was cold against his heart, having gotten used to the emotional barrage of Diana, this new feeling was alien yet familiar.

“What is this place?” he asked, his eyes fixating on one of the orbs, as he attempted to ignore the feeling.

“The entrance to Limbo, my dear,” Diana pinched her sharp chin and closed her eyes, as if taking in the scent, “The sacred entrance.”

“But what is Limbo? And what’s so sacred about an entrance?” After all, Karamir thought, an entrance was an entrance. What was so special about one, beyond where it led?

There was a tickle in his mind, and Diana suddenly laughed, “I think you answered your own question for once, how useful!” A toothy grin stretched across her face, “You should make a habit of that.”

“So it’s just an entrance, then.” Karamir concluded. “How does it work, and what’s on the other side? You still haven’t told me what this ‘limbo’ is.”

Diana’s smile faded and was replaced by one of boredom, “Well it was nice while it lasted, yes?” She pushed a hand forward, the ungodly force pushing Karamir over and directly into the platform -- but before what would have been a body shattering impact occurred, everything turned white.

He couldn’t see. He couldn’t smell, He couldn’t feel, nor taste. All he could do was hear, and all he heard was a terrible high pitched ringing. Minutes turned to years, until finally the familiar touch of Diana’s hand wrapped around his wrist. There was a gurgling cackle, as if he was underwater, and then suddenly a yank on his arm.

His body was flung out of a puddle, landing hard on a cobblestone path below. Facedown, his hands groped at the stone, the experience of touching something solid feeling alien to him. The experience of feeling anything felt alien to him. His mind was in disarray, unravelled by the transition, and all he could do was lie there and continue stroking the cobbles, an expression of what appeared to be awe on his face.

“Oh foo,” Diana’s voice rang above him, her boots in his peripherals, “I had forgotten that you have the mind of a mortal, silly me.” She fell silent for a while, “Well don’t be too long, we have an appointment to keep.” She muttered to herself, boots clicking away from Karamir, “Mortals and their squishy little heads.”

Karamir looked up at the woman who spoke, and memories came rushing back. He was filled with rage, and suddenly there was a feral look in his eye. He leapt to his feet and charged at Diana, screaming an unintelligible cry of rage -- but the street caught him. Stone engulfed his legs as Diana turned to look at him. She made a face and walked back over to him, the air around him building with such pressure, he could barely twitch. So instead he took to glaring at her with grit teeth and hateful eyes. Suddenly a grin stretched across her face and she brought a finger up to his head, giving it a sharp flick.

Karamir blinked in surprise. He felt a sensation inside his skull, like fragments pulling themselves back together, while the blinding rage seemed to vanish in favour of clearer thoughts. It was almost like waking up. He opened his mouth to speak, but she had not yet released her hold. “What…” was all he managed to get out.

“Oh good!” Diana’s smile grew and the air peeled away from him, releasing his chest and allowing his lungs to fill up once more. The street crumbled from his legs, leaving him completely free once more, save for the smiling avatar before him and the strange swirling landscape around him -- where when his eyes left an object, be it bench or statue, he wasn’t sure it was still there, his peripherals nearly empty.

He dropped to his knees and took a breath, placing one hand on the cobbles below. “That was…” he looked at Diana, but couldn’t find the words. Then a memory seemed to strike him, and suddenly he smirked. “Are we there yet?”

“Oh you,” Diana flicked a wrist, “Just about -- look.” Her hand pointed in the distance. The street seemed to wind and twist, with vast nothingness on either side of it, until it reached what could possibly be a lush garden, fit with fountains and trees. Towering over the treetops was a palace, fitted with dominating spires and sharp steeples.

The Palace of Dreams, Karamir assumed. In all his life he had never seen anything like it. On one hand, the sight was relieving - the journey was nearly over. On the other hand, it brought a certain sense of trepidation. What if the destination was worse than the journey? That had been his assumption when he first agreed to come with her, and he only agreed to come because he believed staying would have brought certain death. Nonetheless, the idea that all these trials and tribulations might only bring him somewhere worse brought a certain sense of dejection.

“Out of the river and into the ocean,” he muttered under his breath. This had all started when he stepped into that river. That one mistake and everything after it had brought him here. There was no turning back. All he could do was press on. And hope it meant something.

Diana gave Karamir an appraising look and then waved her hand, his clothes suddenly stitching together and drying out, albeit remaining just the right amount of damp in the worst areas, until Karamir was once again dressed in a dazzling suit. She nodded as she finished her work and smiled, “And there we are.” She gave him a push on the shoulder, “Shall we?”

Solemnly, Karamir nodded back, and took a step forward. There was a rush and suddenly the two were standing atop a few stone steps, a massive door in front of their faces. The double doors had a massive knocker on each side. On either side of them were beds of strange flowers, metal fences, and mossy statues. Diana seemed to pay none of it any mind as she pushed the mighty door open with ease, a humming smile on her lips.

A waft of cold air escaped the now gaping door, and the avatar took a near skipping step in, clearly excited. Karamir glanced behind him, to see if anything - or anyone - was watching him, and then followed her in.

He quickly found himself in a long hallway, doors on either side, and plenty of paintings of obscure figures. On the far end was a large golden door, light flickering under it and a leak of gentle music oozing out. It was a sweet sound, happy; it was a certain sound Karamir had never experienced, and it carried a happy emotion, one he had not known he had been without for so long.

For a moment Karamir nearly allowed himself to be taken in by the music, but then he raised his guard. He arily, he advanced through the hallway, half-expecting the music to suddenly stop, the light underneath the door to go out, or for one of the figures in the paintings to move. He glanced about the hallway with suspicion, but no fear.

Diana hummed behind him as they approached the door, only stopping as they could go no further. She cleared her throat and gestured for Karamir to open the door.

Karamir raised an eyebrow. He was already on edge, but somehow she had made him even more suspicious. “Why don’t you do it?” he asked.

Diana tapped her foot and crossed her arms, “Gentleman.”

With a sigh, he stepped forward to push the door open, but it did not budge. With a frown he tried pulling the handle instead, but to no avail. He pushed again, and nothing. He looked back to Diana, and his expression hardened into a glare.

She cackled, and shrugged her shoulders, “Oh foo, I had to get at least one more in.” She grinned and pushed the door aside. Immediately, Karamir and Diana both were assaulted by the grandeur of the ballroom. Light scattered across the room, mingling with the music of brass and string, it all bouncing off twirling orbs of emotion and dancing spectres. An organ fluted alongside the silk of the violin, the great instrument atop a grand dias. Seated before it on a throne was a gentlemanly figure, fingers expertly making short work of the ivory keys. Karamir couldn’t be sure, but a tiny gasp rasped behind him in the direction of Diana.

It was all so overwhelming. Everything in this room was completely alien to one who had only ever known forests, rivers, and seas, and thus none of it moved him. All he saw were possible threats. Those orbs - what did they do? Those spectres - could they harm him? The man at the organ - was that K’nell? Even the music - what if it suddenly became so loud that it might drown out his thoughts or deafen him? He looked to Diana, the only familiar thing, and seemed to silently request guidance.

Diana may have noticed, he wasn’t sure, but she did suddenly hook her arm with his, practically dragging him forward the first few steps across the marble floor. They seemed to weave through the dancers with ease, until they stood at the bottom of the dias. The figure on the throne took his hands from the keys, ethereal fingers taking his place as the music continued, albeit softer. Two silver eyes peered out from the gentleman, slight creases on the edge of experienced eyes, and a gripping smile underneath.

“Ah, you’ve finally arrived,” The Gentleman charmed, “I’m sure you must be brimming with questions.”

Diana scoffed, “A truer thing has never been said.”

“You are K’nell?” was the first thing that sprang to Karamir’s lips.

“That I am, and you are Karamir?” K’nell returned in kind.

Karamir nodded, before taking another look around. He did indeed have many questions, but where to start? “Why was I invited here?” he asked at last.

“An interesting question,” K’nell leaned forward in his throne, “If I have this right, Diana invited you here because she considers you her friend. Now did I invite you here? Perhaps indirectly, but we can save that for later. Could I appease any other aspect of your curiosity?” Diana silently rolled her eyes, taking a step back from the conversation.

“What is…” he waved a hand to indicate his surroundings, “...all of this?”

“You my good man are standing in a ball room, as for what a room is, consider it a compartment in a grand shelter, and then as for what a ball is -- in this case it is a dance, movements of entertainment to the sound of music. It is medicine for the mind, you see.” K’nell leaned back and folded his fingers, “Do you enjoy it?”

The direct, detailed explanation was almost comforting, in a way, but the question took him by surprise. “I… don’t know,” he answered, looking away.

“Simply shocking,” Diana’s words dripped with sarcasm, but K’nell met it with a straight face, eyes keen on Karamir.

“That is to be expected, I suppose. You are not required to know just yet, anyhow,” His eyes glanced over him as if reading something, “And you have plenty of time to come to terms with everything it seems.”

Despite his uncertainty, Karamir once again managed to meet K’nell’s gaze. He still needed to ask the most important question of all. “Now that I’m here, what happens next?”

K’nell steepled his fingers and crossed a leg, “What do you want to happen?”

“What can happen?” Karamir countered.

A cheshire grin stretched over K’nell’s face, “Anything.”

“Stay with me,” Diana suddenly spoke up, but was silenced by a glare from K’nell. She met it with her own, then all eyes fell on Karamir.

Karamir turned to Diana with an expression of surprise, before looking back to K’nell. “If anything can happen… that is something I need to think on.”

“Indeed it is,” K’nell agreed, “A good choice.” He sucked in a breath, as if dismissing the growing tension in the room. Diana fell to a casual stance, her fists unraveling and K’nell leaned back in his throne, “You have free roam of my palace until such a time you decide you are ready. You will that your body, while not of here, will find sustenance in our food and hydration in our drinks -- so feel free to eat and drink as much as you need, and to make use of any furniture or clothing you may come across.”

“Are there any dangers that I should be on guard against?” He asked.

“Just yourself,” K’nell folded his hands, “And perhaps the company you keep.”

“Oh you,” A wide smile plastered across Diana’s face and she waved a hand, “With all that settled, perhaps you can show me my new… working station?” Her eyes flickered with devious hunger.

“But of course,” K’nell slowly rose to his feet, and as he did, a throne similar to his own rose from the step right below the top of his dias, “Fitted to your liking, you’ll find.” Diana’s eyes played with glee as she skipped up the steps, nearly leaping into the seat. As soon as she sat down between the mighty arms of the throne, her face furrowed into a frown.

“Hey-” She started, but was cut off by a strong look from K’nell. The commandeering look causing her to cough on her next word. The gentleman gave a satisfied smile and sat back into his own throne.

“Not every dream must be a nightmare, my dear,” Was all he said on the subject, followed by a quick, “But please, do your best.”

“If I could be so bold,” Diana stuck her chin out, “I never do anything less.” Her sickly eyes turned to where Karamir had been, “Isn’t that right, dear Karamir?”

But Karamir had moved. He had listened to the two talk, but now wished to do more than just stand idly by and listen to others. He had been given free roam of the palace. If K’nell was truthful, then he saw no reason not to make use of that. And if K’nell was deceiving him, if this was all part of some greater trick by Diana, then it would be better to discover that deception now. Either way, his heart burned with a newfound independence.

Standing by a door which he had chosen at random, he looked back to Diana. “In truth… it became somewhat repetitive. But still… thank you.”

He opened the door.

The End… for now.





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Hidden 1 mo ago 1 mo ago Post by Archangel89
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The Monkey and the Dragon



TIME: Post-Alma | LOCATION: The Dragons Foot - Hours AC - Flying Southeast | INTERACTION: Anu - @LokiLeo789





This world...Galbar was an entirely new experience after his ascension. The world held more color more vibrancy as if being reborn finally revealed the true beauty of all around him. The wind whistled through his horns as Ikarus watched the world fly by beneath him Mana flowing aimlessly by him. Pausing a moment to hover in the air surveying the area to gain an understanding of this world. The ground below was layered with a thick pillow of gold that seemed to flow in all directions which seemed to be on par with his knowledge thus far. The amazement finally hit him that he was the one one, divine or otherwise, that knew about this amazing substance that permeates the world. The gods as numerous as they are were so spread out that it's almost impossible to reach them and thus if Mana was spread to more than just Galbar then the magics he could learn will be severely limited which saddened him greatly.

All of this meant nothing if he could not master the basic principles of this new world. Out of the corner of his eye Ikarus noticed a new occurrence that he did not expect to see, Mana of a different color. To this point the natural Mana around him appeared gold but this very faint and small strand was blue and it seemed to lead in a specific direction. With curiosity peaked Ikarus took off in the hopes to discover what this strange phenomenon was.

The peculiarity moved north through dense jungles, its movement far from lackadaisical and instead akin to a march or whatever one could get as close to in the heavy undergrowth. As he drew closer even fainter signatures appeared, three in number and in close proximity with the white. No shift. All seemed oblivious to his growing presence.

His eyes could not make them out through the canopy but their Mana was unmistakable. A white flowing Mana with one giving off an immense amount almost like Orvus was when we saw him. Keeping his distance Ikarus flew above the jungle following these signatures. He couldn't help but feel a connection to the largest of these instinctively knowing they were divine in nature, but if what he received from Orvus was to be any indication of divine interaction then its possible that whoever this is may not be as friendly as his father was.



Qiang Quan suddenly stopped in his tracks and looked around. A massive rustle in the trees a distance away had frightened a flock of birds into the air and the warrior stood squinting in the direction of their fearful song. “Your Majesty,” he went, “something is coming.”

”Indeed.” the ape breathed, chains rattling in what seemed to be preparation.

Almost as if on cue a thundering beat followed by a cacophonous blast of wind cleared the area of the light brush and such as the massive frame of an iridescent gold dragon stood before the group. Standing on its hind legs allowing its full mass to be seen its golden eyes peered across the group and seemed to study all present. A low guttural snarl escaped his lips as the he seemed to focus his attention on the great white ape and directed his full focus on him,

"You…you are a demigod are you not?"

”You could me that, I suppose. I am Anu, son of Shengshi and Narzhak, and should all go well, King of Galbar.” he tentatively gestured towards his entourage, his face an emotionless mask. ”And these would be my councilmen.”

The councillors, already well acquainted with the very presence of gods and demigods, quickly realised what sort of being had come into their view, so they all cast themselves to the ground without question. However, after a mere single kowtow, they were quick to their feet again, Qiang Quan in particular massaging the hilts of the baton-like sticks on his belt; Fu Lai’an sighed and discreetly patted a small bulge in her clothing on the side of her waist; Yong Cai tightened and untightened her fist around the hilt of her primitive stone hammer.

Golden eyes peered over the lot as the legacy was laid bare. Shengshi and Narzhak, the names brought forth images from Father's memory of the two beings. 'Another demigod. Perhaps his lineage knows of Mana…',

The thought dismissed itself as it entered his mind, for if Orvus did not know then certainly the rest of through pantheon wouldn't either. Still the possibility had to be explored as the mystery of Mana had to be explored to its fullest potential. At the announcement of Anu's intention to be the King of Galbar, a further eye needed to peer at his sibling. The white ape stood motionless as his councilmen appeared to be ready to fight should the need arise, a good trait to have indeed. His supreme control of self was impressive, however, as one would expect a dragon to fall from the sky and question to cause a situation for some reaction. Yet he remained.

'This one's interesting...perhaps I should explore what others could do with my power. A king would be the best person to wield it.'

"King of Galbar you say? To accomplish such a feat would require a vast quantity of power, and as it stands...your council seems…lacking. How do you intend to reach your dream with such weakness around you?"

”If you base strength on appearance alone then your judgment is in question.” the ape retorted, the slightest edge entering his voice.

“With all due respect, great spirit,” Qiang Quan went as he fastened tight grips around his batons, “while these ones may not possess neither the divine durability nor the unmatched power of His Majesty, strength of muscle and bone are but two categories on the infinite spectrum of power. This servant in particular is but a speck in comparison to both His Majesty and likely Your mighty self; however, it is doubtful that either of You two divine beings are acquainted with the martial arts of the Strong, or with the logistical questions around providing for a great kingdom or army.” The warrior stood proudly forth, even as his colleagues grew a little uneasy at his tone.

Curious eyes were cast upon the brave mortal that stepped forward. Ikarus' first experience with mortals was an enlightened one. A wisdom he did not expect, and hope that his experiment would not be wasted.

"Well said mortal. You are absolutely correct. But there is power beyond even the divine comprehension that has yet to be explored…"

Tapping into the Mana around him Ikarus willed some of the surrounding Mana he gathered an amount of it into his palm and twisted its structure and created a ball of flames. Allowing the group to bask in it's creation he continued,

"...and I can teach this power. This is Mana and with it your power can be tripled. Does this interest you?"

Anu was silent for a few moments, his countenance placidly apathetic. Finally we spoke, his words sounding almost controlled. ”You come, approach me unannounced, insult my judgment and the abilities of my council, and then tout this sophistry and claim it can triple my power?” the demigod said. Slowly he rolled his massive shoulders and started at the blue flame. ”Prove to me that this ‘Mana’ is worth my consideration lest I strike you down where you stand.”

Fu Lai’an shook her head and winced at the flames. She turned to Anu and bowed deeply, saying, “Your Majesty, with all due respect, this servant believes this spirit will demand something in return. Such uncouth interruptions and accusations connote nothing like the generosity expected of someone approaching a king such as Your royal self. Rarely is such power offered freely, and least of all by complete strangers.” She shook her head again. “No, this possesses not the aura of a tribute, this servant must say.”

For a moment the ape’s mask slipped, and he glanced at Fu Lai’an. Wordlessly, he seemed to communicate control over the situation and silence with one firm nod and regarded the dragon again, mask back on. ”Go on.”

The animosity felt from the great ape was palpable. Strength of will great enough to stand against unknown power, very befitting a king. 'Perhaps these people will be the perfect test subjects…' Without pausing to listen to the other mortal Ikarus turned himself into the Mana around him once again, this time creating a veil around the group and manipulating the perception of those around. To the others they were "transported" into a world similar to there own but everything around them became twisted and contorted; space folded in on itself creating a strange never-ending labyrinth of moving parts and pieces. Gazing upon the group now with shimmering blue eyes the dragon spoke with an odd distance in his voice as if he was beyond the group and their existence,

"Mana is a power of the mind, limited only to its wielder imagination. You were right mortal, physical power is not the only power to wield and Mana expands the minds power. What I desire is to grow this power and know its full measure, and have determined that you will be the first I teach this power to."

Dismissing the illusion the world returned to its natural state and the dragon once again regained his golden stare.

"This is the power that I offer. In return I ask only the ability to expand this power."

All the servant stood dumbstruck momentarily. The first to break out of the awesomeness-caused stun was Yong Cai who made an uncertain frown. “Great spirit, forgive this servant for asking, but is the scale of power drawn from the number of its users? Or is it to be spread primarily for the purpose of study, like one would leave batches of wine in different environments to see how they ferment?”

If Anu himself was at all impressed by the display he did not show it. ”Answer this.” he added.

The thought had never truly crossed Ikarus' mind. He had never thought to discover if Mana would be stronger with more wielders involved,

"It is a mixture of both. While it is certainly possible for more wielders to make an effect stronger there is still much to discover about it. So the more wielders that discover more uses the more diverse its power can become."

”So did you come baring this power freely or was that your price? Test subjects.”

"A bit of both…"

The dragon replied.

"...I am freely giving you the opportunity to use and learn this power for your own. For I can see a sense of nobility in your actions and intents, but I also need to see how Mana will change in the hands of another. In order for knowledge to grow I must first test what it can do in the hands of others. Is this something you can accept Brother Ape?"

Qiang Quan frowned. “Please, do forgive this insolent one for cutting in, but have You never tested it before, great spirit? How can we know if it will not poison or weaken His Majesty?” He turned to Anu and bowed. “His Majesty is strong, yet this feels rash and dangerous.”

”Your proposition lacks weight and my councilman’s skepticism is warranted, as well as my own.” Anu began, golden eyes narrowing into rivers of fire. ”Therefore I shall put it to rest now.” he gestured towards Qiang Quan. ”Cherished Qiang will serve as our first subject. Should I see significant results I will consider this offer. Should I see him harmed, then my earlier threat stands.” he finalized.

”Are you up to the task, Qiang Quan?”

The servant descended down on his knees, his torso upright. He covered his right fist with his left palm and bowed his head. “With all its heart, this servant will serve.”

The ape nodded towards the dragon expectantly. ”There you have it.”

Ikarus could not even reply when asked about the testing of his abilities. How would one explain that he was just created simply hours before the current interaction, the fact that he himself was still learning about not only the existence of Mana but of his own place within Galbar and even the pantheon at large. Silently and stoically he watched as Anu volunteered the one called Qiang Quan to be the first test subject of Mana experimentation. Just within this encounter Ikarus deducted that Anu was a creature that respected strength above everything else, so as logic dictated a sign of strength would be what he would require as proof. A simple enough feat. As Qiang approached the dragon he reached down and touched the loyal servant with a clawed finger, using a bit of his own Mana to unlock the mortal's ability to wield Mana for himself as well as grant him a blessing of strength. The blessing imbued the mortal with greater strength than previously imagined and all that was needed now was a target. Qiang Quan trembled as the power coursed through him like lightning. He fell to his knees, groaning and hissing with agony as his form and spirit were infused with magical might. He forced himself to endure, and as the change neared its end, he rose to his feet with ragged breath, his eyes aflame with determination.

"Mortal Qiang, I have allowed you to see and manipulate Mana for yourself. Now give us a feat of your new found strength."

Qiang Quan blinked his eyes at the sights, particularly flickering between Anu and Ikarus as if their forms suddenly had changed before his very eyes. He eventually looked down at his hands. “I feel…” He tightened his fists around the hilt of his wooden batons and slowly extracted them from the ribbon about his waist. His eyes locked onto a long branch up above, a few metres away in aerial distance. His nostrils flared a few times before the warrior bent his knees and tossed himself into the air, much higher than any Servant had ever flown on their own. His feet seemed to shoot out blasts of wind, and as he gained height, he laid himself horizontal and spun with his arms outstretched, the mana in his veins seeping out and coagulating as blades of air along the length of his batons. A little beyond the branch, the warrior crashed into the ground, his landing barely saved by a frail and weakened roll. A loud rustle and a thud sounded behind him.

His blunt batons had cut through solid wood.

The warrior staggered to his feet and gave the group a pained, yet ecstatic smile. “M-my King… This… This servant flew!” He then collapsed forward into the forest floor. Yong Cai and Fu Lai’an both broke out of their shock of awe and hurried over to aid him.

Anu gave Qiang a nod of approval, his own surprise and elation masked by a sheen of satisfaction. ”I see. And the latent mana-capabilities of any god or mortal can be unlocked just like this?”

"To my knowledge the gods have no need of Mana as their power far surpasses anything we can comprehend, but mortals and others like ourselves yes. All I did was open Qiang's mind to Mana and gave a blessing of strength. The rest he did on his own. He created those blades from his Mana. This is the power that I offer. Anu you say it is your desire to become King of Galbar, allow me to grant you the power that I offer. Together we can make that dream a reality through our combined might."

”To say you haven’t convinced would be a lie, you offer me a resource I’d be foolish to reject, Dragon. I accept your offer.”

Internally Ikarus was overjoyed, he could now truly begin to unleash Mana onto Falbar as he was intended to. Qiang was simply given a taste of it and took to it naturally which meant that mortals were natural recipients of Mana.

"Very well my King...let use be off. We have much work to do."



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Hidden 1 mo ago 1 mo ago Post by AdorableSaucer
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AdorableSaucer Blessed Beekeeper

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Xiaoli sat on a round rock next to the large black platform, her head propped up on her two fists and an uncertain frown about her face. She found herself flickering between the platform and the crooked woods behind her, as if painful memories shook morale hard enough to consider retreat. Her eyes locked onto the platform for a moment longer than usual. It had an oppressive presence about it, not at all like its creator. In that respect, perhaps, her own creator had a tendency to make things that acted and looked quite similar to himself - wealthy, fruitful… Opulent. Not at all like the holy K’nell’s wild variety of benevolence and malevolence.

“Arya will be here to see us off soon,” Hermes mentioned idly as she pushed through some underbrush. She was dressed in the leather adventuring clothes from her wedding day, her Narzhakian club set on her back, a long curved sheath on her belt, and her Abanocian bag slung over her shoulder. She stepped up to the rock and put her hands on her hips, “Wen Wen stopped by the estate after you left.” Her brow furrowed as her eyes flickered over Xiaoli’s face, “Are you alright?”

Xiaoli blinked back to the present and gave Hermes a reassuring smile. “Yeah! Yeah, just thinking a bit.” There was a pause. “Hermes, do you… Do you think we are better prepared now than we were last time? For a whole new quest, I mean.”

“We are a lot… different than we used to be,” Hermes nudged Xiaoli and the river girl shifted, giving Hermes enough room to sit next to her. She turned her head to Xiaoli and smiled, “Back then I was… brash, emotional -- well more than now at least. Easy to anger, slow to think. And you…” Her voice trailed as she stared at Xiaoli, suddenly flashing a sheepish smile.

“... And I?” Xiaoli muttered and raised a brow. However, it quickly broke apart with a chuckle and the river girl twiddled her thumbs a bit. “We’ll see how much I have changed in that aspect, I suppose. Suppose a mother’s sternness isn’t of much use inside what could potentially be a nightmarish dreamscape - a fit of berserking in case you get hurt, however…” She made a playful smirk which fell apart rather swiftly. “Pardon, I should not be joking about that.”

“Oh Xiaoli,” Hermes draped an arm over her wife’s shoulders, “You just do what you did to that tree a long time ago, and I think we may be the most dangerous thing in Limbo.”

“Oh, gods, I didn’t wanna remember that scene, but I reminded myself of it and now all I feel is shame…” She dug her face into Hermes’ shoulder and groaned. “Sweetgrass, please stay safe. I don’t want to break the dreamscape completely.”

“Don’t be ashamed, love, that was so long ago,” Hermes threaded a finger through Xiaoli’s hair, “As I said: we are very different people now and to think, this time we at least have K’nell’s blessing.”

At this, Xiaoli nodded with increasing enthusiasm. “Yeah… Yeah, I suppose so.” With that, she got to her feet, dusted herself off and held out a hand to Hermes. “Shall we commence this quest, then?”

Two long shadows suddenly descended upon the clearing, growing smaller as they came until two figures could be seen touching ground right in front of the pair. Arya beamed a smile at the two as her feet met grass. She wore a simple blue dress, her hair curled down her back and the sword Wreanun, floated beside her. Laurien smiled warmly at the pair. She wore shengese attire with her hair let down loose as she always did. Before anyone could say anything, Arya attacked the two with a fierce hug, enveloping the both of them in her grasp.

"Oh how I'll miss you both!" she said.

“That was rather immediate,” Xiaoli teased playfully before her eyes fell on the sword. “What is that?”

Hermes squeaked from the sudden impact, but then let out an embarrassed smile, “Oh right,” She patted Arya off of her, eyes flitting to the sword, “I never did get to hear what that was all about, after all.”

"A gift from father. Wreanun-" she out held her hand and the sword shot into it. There was a bright flash before them and when in faded Arya was covered in white armor, save her head. There was a childish smile on her face as she said, "Is his name. He and I are going to do great things." she said excitedly.

Hermes nearly jumped at the sudden flash, giving a weak smile, “Okay, but please try not to startle the Warden, you know how he can be. Erm.” She shifted, eyes on the sword, “And stay safe, okay?”

Xiaoli stood humming as she ran her eyes up and down with a look that leaned towards disapproval. She tried her best to hide it and nodded at Hermes. “Yeah, like she said, please stay safe. We will be back in no time.”

Her enthusiasm faltered at her mother's looks. She let her arms fall to her sides, letting Wreanun float beside her. "Oh… Of course." she said sheepishly.

Hermes sighed, the exhale turning her lips into a warm smile. She flicked her eyes away from the sword and back at Arya, “Good, now give your moms another hug and then go be the best adventurer out there -- you can tell me what you’ve done while I was gone. Oh! Do you remember our martial dance?”

"Of course I do… but wait. Didn't you have some questions for me or something like that?" Arya said, giving a hug to Hermes. Laurien then approached Xiaoli and bent down to give her a hug, she then whispered, "I'll keep her safe, don't worry."

“Oh,” Hermes leaned out of the hug, “I just wanted to tell you that I love you but didn’t want to embarrass you in front of your dad, and also -- could you look after the estate? You don’t have to stay there, but now and again make sure it isn’t in flames, maybe?”

"Oh… Um. I…" she started looking away. "This isn't easy to say but… We're leaving." she said sadly.

“Oh,” Hermes chewed on her cheek, “I can have Wen-Wen do it I suppose, but when are you getting back?”

“And where are you going?” Xiaoli added with her hands on her hips.

Arya shrugged looking at Xiaoli, "There's a place we have to go to first. The Eye of Desolation, then probably the vast continent south of it, or Kalgrun. Wherever mortals are. We're founding orders, to protect people. I'm not sure when we'll be back, but it won't be years like last time. I promise that."

Then Laurien said, "I know where most places are on Galbar, the Eye is my first home. It'll be an easy journey. And, this time Arya has me for the long haul. We'll be safer than most, I can assure you that." she said to the both of them.

Xiaoli put her hand on her chin. “Well, according to His Lordship, there are apparently mortals on the Foot and Atokhekwoi, though he has never actually seen them. As for the other places, well, one would have to look for themselves.” She smiled sweetly, pulled Arya down to her height and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She did the same to Laurien. “You truly are our daughters with that kind of wanderlust in your veins.”

"So I've heard! I think they're called Selka or something along those lines." Arya said smiling.

Lauren then bent down to hug Hermes. She held her for a moment and said, "I'm sorry about yesterday. I was not in the right mind with fathers arrival. You didn't deserve the silent treatment, mom."

"It's okay, love," Hermes squeezed Laurien, "I understand… But seriously if I don't hear from you two in at least a year, I'm putting my sandals on." She gave them a pointed look but her smile betrayed pride at the sight before her.

With a happy sigh, Laurien took her place beside Arya as the two sisters looked at their mother's. "I'd expect nothing less, mom. Now, you two be careful. That place is… Well you know better than I. I love you both, so so much, watch each other's backs, there's a lot of people waiting for you out here." Arya said on the verge of tears.

"Thank you for everything. I'm honored to be called daughter. I love you guys, please be safe." Laurien said, with a sad smile.

“Don’t worry. Your mother has me to protect her, after all,” Xiaoli said with a smile. “We’ll be fine!”

"And your other mother has me to look after her," Hermes shot Xiaoli a slick grin before looking back at her daughters, "Will you two be needing the flute?"

Arya shook her head, "No, I don't think so. Besides, I'll feel better if the others have it. Oh…" she said sadly, "We haven't said goodbye to them yet… That'll be… Hard." she said.

“You mean little Qin?” Xiaoli asked.

"Y-Yeah." she said beginning to cry.

Xiaoli sighed sympathetically and went over to hug her. “It’s never easy leaving a friend, particularly one as sweet as Lai Qin. However, you have a new mission now, as you said, and Qin will hear of all your glory and heroism as she grows up. Who knows? She might even come join you in time.”

"Don't forget to say goodbye to the twins either," Hermes patted Arya's back and looked over at Laurien, "Chaggie and Wen Wen are all worried about you two."

Arya nuzzled into Xiaoli's shoulder before saying, "That… That would be nice."

"We'll go see the twins, and everyone else too." Laurien said with sad eyes.

Hermes gave Arya one more pat on her shoulder, and then Laurien. With a smile she sighed and turned to the black stone platform, "I suppose we should get going…" Her voice trailed with her gaze, the weavers flitting across the dim atmosphere of the glade. Xiaoli nodded agreeingly.

“Yes, this task will only finish as quickly as we work, after all,” she said with a wry smile.

"Well," Arya began, backing up to stand before them, "Don't let us keep you." she said sadly.

"Farewell, mothers. May your journey be swift." Laurien said, slightly bowing.

"Just don't make me chase you down when I get back," Hermes wagged a finger as she took a wide step up ontop of the platform. Her other hand reached out for Xiaoli's, which accepted it eagerly. With a final look, the dreamer turned to her daughters, and then a great flash.






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Hidden 1 mo ago 1 mo ago Post by DracoLunaris
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DracoLunaris Multiverse tourist

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Death of a Selka

Lekika and a small group from her tribe had traveled north, past the Kangjiang river, for a place free from the petty squabbling of their overcrowded home. They’d laughed at the warnings, old tales about giant lizards, but as she lay there, slumped against a tree with her blood rapidly pooling around her, she couldn’t remember what had been so funny.

The creatures that had ripped through the migrant party. Now monsters that walked on two legs and who where about 4 times the size of a Selka despite being about the same height, where in the process of devouring the corpses of her friends and family. High above them circled bright colorful birds circled like inappropriately festive vultures. They had tried to run for the safety of the sea, but the monsters caught them. Some had tried to fight, and had died where they stood. She’d tried to save her husband from the jaws of a beast as it shook him to pieces and been smashed into a tree for her trouble. The impact had broken something inside her. Her strength was gone, and now the light in her was fading. As she slipped over the precipice down into oblivion she wondered what the point of it all had been.




Lekika’s soul was pushed out of her body and from the painless bliss of death by an unseen force. She had a few brief moments where she could see her own body being devoured by an Alioramus before the pull of the vortex took hold, pulling the bewildered Selka upwards and westwards. As the ground fell away from her Lekika, understandably, panicked. As if drawn to her screaming and flailing form one of the Alma separated from the circling flock and chased after her till it was flying parallel with her. The opposing tug it generated wordlessly offered a choice, to grasp hold of the lifering she had been thrown, or to continue to be swept along by the current. Part of her knew where that current would end, in the fires these very same birds had shown her tribe several years ago, but most of her simply grasped at blindly for something, anything, that would end this utterly alien experience.

The connection was made, a pact sealed and then everything went dark.




It felt like a dream

“Tell me a little bit about who you were.” asked a voice in her mind

“I’m Lekika. I was a healer for our tribe, a good fisher-women and soon I’m going to… I was going to be a mother. I died trying to save my husband from a monster.”

“I see. Would you like to help me with something Lekika?”

With the memory of her failure to help crystallized in her mind she responded “However I can.”

The voice explained what it wanted and then everything went dark.




“Ah, your awake. Excellent!”

Lekika’s consciousness was abruptly returned as she surfaced from a dreamless sleep and found herself standing in an unfamiliar place. Everything felt wrong. She was cold. So cold. Her vision was wrong, to high above the ground, and her eyes where to close together. It took her several more moments to realize she could not see her nose. She brought her hands up, but they weren't her hands. She stumbled back in shock and thrust the offending limbs away from herself and ended up looking down. There were so many things wrong down there. Some kind of stone or metal or cartilage had replaced flesh and it wasn't even in the right shape. To lanky, utterly sexless and covered with odd ridges and spurs. Her feet had no toes. Hands grasped her face and found it a blank featureless mask.

She had no mouth, but she screamed anyway.

“Oh no no no no.” said the voice with concern. Moments later she found herself pressed against soft glowing feathers by a warm embrace.

“Shshshshshsh. Its ok. It’s going to be ok.” she was assured by a voice she recognized form the Alma’s broadcast. Even though she had no lungs, eventually Lekika got tired of screaming. It wasn’t actually helping anyway. Neither did the sobbing. Without a body’s natural coping mechanism she had to learn how to get a hold of herself on her own.

It wasn't entirely clear how long she spent coddled in the birds embrace, but Azura gave her all the time she needed. Eventually she half stepped, half stumbled back and away from the goddess and got to see her in full. The humongous parrot was both beautiful, terrifying and slightly ridiculous to behold in person as it loomed over her.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“no. no I’m not” she answered. The shock was gone but the sense of wrongness remained, even if it was down to a lower level of existential horror and uncomfortableness. She was so cold. “My body…It’s not… I can’t… What am I? Where am I?” she tried, “and where are my breasts!?”

The great bird blinked in surprise “Oh dear. I thought I explained?” she said. Then, seemingly sensing Lekika’s bewilderment, added. “I had one of the Alma bring some of the recently dead here and asked them if they would help me. You said you would, don’t you remember?”

“No. no I died... and then woke up here,” she said, scouring her memory for this conversation yet finding no recollection of it. The great bird cocked her head in response to this and said “Curious. Perhaps there was a flaw with that method of communing with the dead? Hmmm. I’ll explain again then. After you died your soul was crystallized by an Alma, after which it was brought to the north pole, which is a secluded space at the very top of the world. You should have gone down into the vault with the others, but I’ve had an idea that I’ve been working on for some time for how to have people live after they are dead. I asked you if you’d want to help test it. You said yes.”

“I have taken your soul crystal and plugged it into an Armonia, which is a simple minded creature made out of air and song made physical that can be commanded to perform tasks. The one you are in’s task is to be your new body.” Azura then explained “And its working better than I could have hoped. You’re articulate, the limbs seem to be obeying you fairly well… you did scream quite a bit at first but you seem to be feeling better now right?”

“I…” she was so cold “I’d prefer it if it were more… me?” she tried to explain “why can’t you just put me back in my body. Or make a new one?”
“True resurrection is, at the moment, very difficult. I could, but it would be extremely taxing and as a result I’d never be able to bring back everyone even with all the time in the world. I can’t put your soul crystal in control of a new body because if I made one it would form its own soul. Its own Selka soul. Which you would need to replace or, bleh, dominate, in order to control the body. I don’t think I need to explain why that would be terrible. Does it feel bad to be in this kind of body/”

“The body… its numb. But it’s also the wrong…” she tried to explain, hands fidgeting as she failed to find the words “shape?”

“Like wearing clothes that don't fit” Azura suggested.

“Kind of. I think it would feel a bit better if it looked how I wanted it to look?” she tried before hurriedly adding “I’m sorry, I don't mean to say you made it look bad it’s… it’s just not me”

“I’m not offended” she sounded a little offended as she said it, just not angrily so, before returning to a more understanding tone “Do you think if you designed it it would suit better?”

“Maybe? But how would I do that? I’m not even sure how to describe what it should look like. More Selka and more me I guess?” Lekika respond

“Hmmm. I think I know how to do this. Armonia where made so mortals could create them after all. But you’ll need power, and musical accompaniment and a way to shape it exactly how you like around yourself and...” the bird trailed off into thoughtful muttering before moving away from Lekika and beginning to spin strange tools and instruments from thin air.

“I uh” Lekika begin before Azrua explained “oh. Sorry. I’m going to make a magical monument that will let you make your body just the way you want it. But this may take a while. Feel free to explore the sky bastion while I work, or ask any questions you like and I’ll try to answer them as best I can.”




After a few minutes of questioning Lekika had discovered that Azrua was not the best conversation partner while she was working, and so had wandered out into the halls. It was a strange experience, walking though perfectly square caves lit by a directionless light in her alien body. She kept misjudging how long her legs where, causing her to stumble every few steps. Eventually she found an exit, a massive cave that ended with a pair of open doors large as hills.

She had to walk up to the doors and stick her hand out before she could believe that she wasn’t underwater, because outside myriads of sea life could be seen, swimming though the skies as if it were the ocean.

“What is this?” she asked.

“It’s the Blue” said a voice

Lekika was startled, having not expected to be answered, and then fell over herself in fear when she saw what had spoken. A killer whale, one of the Selka’s main predators, floated up into view only a few meters away from her.

“Please don't eat me” she cried. In response the orca performed a slow spin, as if it had cocked its head and then kept going by accident, before responding “Why would I? God bird’s stone things don't taste good and greatest whale Luis gets mad when we try.” the orca completed its role before coming to a realization “oh! I should show you to Luis. I’ve never seen a stone thing that talked before. hmmm. But luis does not like us biting stone things… I know. I carry you, like luis carry Bruna!”

Before Lekika could say anything the orca had swum up to the side of the door “hop on.” It instructed.

“I really shouldn't. Azura wouldn't want me wandering off” she retorted.

“Luis and Azura are same pod. Will be fine.” the whale explained impatiently. Somewhat worried that it would drag her along either way Lekika gingerly boarded her natural predator. Then sat down with her back to its fin while her hands tried to grip its smooth skin. “Ok. but make sure I don’t fall!

“Ok ok. Here we go!” the orca responded, before heading out. Fortunately it seemed to grasp that it needed to be gentle and so the ride was relatively smooth.

“I’ve never met a whale that could talk before. How can you speak Selka?” she asked it.

“Selka? What is Selka? We talk with the Verse, like all things made by Azura” it explained.

“I wasn't made by Azura. Selka where made by Father Kirrion… oh. Its the body. The body was made by her. huh.” she said, figuring it out on her own. An uncomfortable realization, but a useful one.

The rest of their journey was a rather relaxing affair. She traded rather simplistic small talk with the sea creature and watched the shoals of Tonnikala swish to and fro in the skies around her. Their destination was hard to miss, an absolutely titanic whale swam lazily through the Blue, accompanied by a pod of smaller whales of many different species. Once they were close enough the orca called out “Hay. Hay Luis. look what I found. A talking rock thing!”

Lekika waved and shouted “hello” at the great whale, who turned to face them both. Her captor/mount swam up in front of the whale, who then spoke to the orca.

”What an interesting find you have there Matías, I hope you did not seal them away. Luis said

“What? Noooo. I asked her to come. Right?” Lekika shook her palm from side to signal “kind of.” she realized afterwards that this was a stuid way of communicating with a bing with no hands, but Luis seemed to get it regardless as he let out a disappointed sigh directed at the Ocrca, who was apparently named Matías, before addressing her.

”Hello there. Who might you be, and where did you get stolen away from?” he asked.

“I’m Lekika. A migrant from the Mokala tribe. Or was. I died and then... uh” Lekika’s mind suddenly ran into a roadblock. She couldn't remember what happened after she died but before she left the sky bastion. “Well I uh. Died and then… I was in that big floating cave thing and this killer whale came and startled me and took me to you… but before that I was. I was.” Lekika’s speech became more and more erratic as she tried and failed to remember. “There was Azura and she. She was doing something? We spoke. Maybe we spoke?. I can't. Why can't I?” Lekika gripped her head with alien hands she no longer knew how she acquired “Why can’t I remember?!”

”Matías, drop her on my back, we’re taking her home!” the whale ordered. As the smaller whale moved to comply Luis assured her that. ”I’m going to get you help. Its ok. It’s going to be ok.” Lekika didn't even suffer deja vu at being comforted like this again.




Some time later a colorful mass of feathers landed in front of Lekika. She was sitting on the back of Luis, knees pulled in against her chest in a fetal position. She had spent the return journey trying to hold on to her oldest memories only for them to keep slipping away from her grasp. Soon she’d forget the moment where she realized it was happening, and then what?

“Do you know who I am?” asked the large parrot

“Your Azura. From the bird vision” she said, her voice dull and hopeless.

“oh dear, oh dear.” Azura muttered “I’m going to need to look in your mind to see what is going on. Is that ok Lekika?” she asked. Lekika simply nodded. She felt nothing as the goddess did whatever she was doing. She’d almost forgotten agreeing to the mind reading when Azura spoke up again.

“I’m so very sorry, but I’ve made a bit of an oversight in this design. Because soul crystals are usually static, they can't create new memories easily. I knew this was a problem, but I didn't realize just how bad it was. you seemed to be doing fine while we where together after all. The issue is your crystallized mind have no natural short term memory whatsoever. However the Armonia has been filling in for that role, but unfortunately it has a very small memory capacity, which is why you keep dropping memories as quickly as you are. I can make that longer in the next version, but that doesn’t solve long term memory.”

Azura sat down before the sad dead Selka and told her “I need you to relax, get your head out of your knees, close your eyes and to focus your mind on what I just said and what I am saying just now. Turn it over and over in your mind. If you do this you can force the crystal of your soul to grow, adding it to long term memory the same way your body used to do on its own.”

Lekika did as she was instructed. She crossed her legs and tried to repeat the memory over and over instead of clinging to the last one, till the entirety of her short term memory was filled with the explanation of why she was forgetting and how to remember.

Eventually Azura spoke startling Lekika. “Now stop.”

She did, and opened her eyes to unfamiliar surroundings and the presence of the goddess from the bird vision.

“Now we wait and see if the memory sticks. Try and not think about it until I ask.” she said, “Til then I imagine you have a lot of questions?”

Lekika did, though she’d probably asked them before. She asked and Azura answered, while the goddess periodically checking that the memory had stuck. The process was exhausting as she tried to speak with the bird and ignore that her memories were slipping away. Eventually, after goddess only knows how long, Azura concluded that it had stuck.

“Well that's one problem solved. Now I just need to finish the machine that will make you a body exactly how you want it and with more memory this time.”

“Exactly how I want it?” Lekika asked “That would be good. This one, it doesn't fit right”

“You said as much the.. Ah. never mind.” Azura responded “It might be quite some time until I have a new body ready for you. Do you think you can hold out till then?”

“I.. no. no I can’t keep going like this. I can't live a life of forgetting and remembering. Even if you make my next body better what’s the point. I’m so cold and numb in here. It’s not a life worth living for the sake of living” she said, sorifuly. “I miss my tribe and my husband. But I don't want them to live like this either. You have them right? I want to go to where they are, because what's the point of living if it’s not begin happy with them?”

“But if you stay awake you can help people. Help the living! I have this idea for a...”

Lekika shook her head “the only people I cared about are dead now. I want to be with them”

Azura sighted. “Ok then”

There was a feeling of pressure where her heart was supposed to be, and then everything went dark.




Azura examined the soul crystal of Lekika as she floated in front of her. Her second body lay on its back before her, its chest cavity torn open from where she had ripped the Selka woman’s soul out of it. “of course it couldn't be that easy.” she said, before handing the soul over to an Alma to be sent down into the depths. Lekika would get to be with her friends and family, even if she would never know it.

”This thing you’ve been working on is a dead end then?” Luis asked.

“No. Not quite. We just need to recruit people who have everything left to live for.” Azura said.




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It was dusk when Split’s eyes flicked open, first on the sides, then ahead. Long as she might have spent under them - too long to keep count, if she had ever cared for that - the cycles of the sky sometimes still felt out of place. Dark should have been warm, but here again, like every time before, it got a little cooler. Still, the tiny difference was well worth not having to squint all the time in the open, and at least it looked a bit more like that so sorely missed blackness of the tunnels.

So, get up at dusk she did. When she slept at all, at least.

She stretched her four upper arms, flexed them in the elbows and half-jumped, half-slid out of the tree she had taken as her bed for the day. Luckily, her axe did not catch anything stronger than twigs on the way down. That was something even years of practice could not help. It all came down to the tree. A light tap was enough to straighten the weapon in its rough reptile-skin strap; check the chipped stone knife at her side as the hand came down, and off she went, pattering on all sixes over the tall, dry grass.

Patter, patter. Sometimes she listened to the sound, sometimes she did not. What mattered was not doing either for too long. When either her steps or the chirping and buzzing around got too monotonous, the silence underneath started to drown them out, and that was something she knew to avoid. It took just a week or so to understand, and from then on it was clear. If she let the silence get to her, she would start hearing things, and after that seeing things was not far off.

It worked, well enough that the worst she ever got was a suspicion of a whisper somewhere over her shoulder, or a blur in the corner of a side eye. Even when a strange-looking bird had appeared one day and started talking, which made her fear that despite her efforts she had lost it after all, it had turned out to be really there. Hearing a voice had been like a cool draft at first, and even better when it brought up freedom, though her attention had faded when it had started jammering about death and souls. She was not sure that stuff helped anyone, and either way thinking about it was the sort of thing to make her start dreaming awake. The one time it had happened in her sleep had already been bad enough. If those were dreams, she had not been missing anything, and she sure did not want any more.

And she had gone back to pattering, on and off. Patter, patter-

Creak

Something moved in the far distance.

Creak… Creak… Creak…

Split stopped, following the sounds with the sharp ear of a cave-dweller. A cracked, dried tree could creak like that, but so often without a breath of wind? There were no trees over there close enough to hear, either. Hands reaching for the haft over her shoulder, she stood up on her hind arms, smelling and looking ahead. So much for not having to squint.

There in the distance marched -- if it could be called a march, dense with strange, stiff shambling movements -- a handful of strange creatures, all clearly fashioned out of wood. Out of all the figurines, the one at the head stood out the most, as while his design was simple, even minimalistic when counting his shortage of appendages (just four), a strange sword floated above its head, point down, and threatening to drop on the bizarre mannequin at any point.

The kostral raised another hand to scratch her teeth, and found herself nibbling at the finger. It was not that she had never seen anything as unfitting with the rest of the world around at this - floating talkative rings beat it square by a good margin. But it was one thing to have seen something as strange as that, and another to look at the weirdness itself. Whatever else she had been over, wood moving around on its own, without even an oversized rabbit head or twitching eye sockets behind it, was not any less unusual for that.

But, wood or not, it was the closest to something like herself she had seen in a long, long while. Much longer, and she would stop believing there were beings that could walk upright anywhere else in the world at all.

As bad as it might go, she had not tried her blade on living bark yet. The axe felt a little heavier on her back. She chewed the thought to the back of her head, but kept a hand over her shoulder as she trotted closer to the jittering procession, making no effort to hide herself.

The squadron of uncanny, if not almost comical, walks didn’t seem to pay her any mind, until she was half a stone’s throw away. The lead swung a leg around, coming to a stiff halt. Its shoulders were square, and even without a face, Split was certain it was regarding her presence. Just like that the fields fell silent, with even the creatures of the ground and sky scurrying away from the showdown. Slowly, very slowly, there was a harsh creaking sound as the mannequin began to turn away, clearly done with its assessment. With an awkward stride, it began its march again, the others clamoring behind.

She followed it with her eyes, cocking her head sideways, then turned to follow, trying to fall into step with the crowd of shuffling things. Had she been expecting a piece of wood to greet her somehow and start talking? That would have been a huge relief, absurd or not, but not something she had been stupid enough to gamble on. No, it was already something that the creatures had not turned on her straight away. Always keep an eye open, but company was company, and by then she was ready to take almost any the wilds threw her way.

Keeping pace with the oddly moving figures was no easy feat. Just when she thought she had found a balance, a twitching step would go arcing much too long or much too short, leaving her plodding or scampering not to fall to the wayside. It became easier, if still not effortless, when she stopped looking for a rhythm and just kept an eye trained on the closest shape, speeding up when it loped and slowing down when it shambled. After a little time, it became almost a reflex. Walk, speed up, slow. Slow down, speed up, walk. It left her mind a bit clearer, enough to think of how this was like her time in the tunnels, when she walked with the others. There, too, nobody spoke, except for a gruff snarl from an overseer now and then. They just went where they had to go, together, keeping step in the line. It seemed like a good, simple time now, and for a while she did not think of why any of them had to go anywhere in the first place.

Eventually, however, that thought reared up again like it always did, bigger and bitterer for every passing year. Split grit her teeth with a little exhaustion and looked outward again. Her eye, used to the dark, took in the contours of her closest marching companion with any attention for the first time.

This one was different from the first, with big lumbering limbs as if hewn right from the log. It was a lot taller, and in all ways bulkier. Next to that one was something quite short in comparison, yet still stout. It waddled more than the others, its legs a bit shorter and wider, with remnants of what could have been the start of a snout on its featureless face. The others were a similar medley of tall and bulky, and short and stout -- all but the leader, who was the most plain of all. Curious too was their joints, the wood so tight next to each other and held together by pegs, it seemed almost impossible for them to move at all, let alone so wildly without falling apart.

Creak…

One of the smaller figurines turned its head to Split, as if just noticing her. It was silent and blank, just like the first time.

Her eye narrowed, now a little apprehensive. It had not yet occurred to her to think where the things could have come from. They did not look, even vaguely, like anything she had seen before, but the similarities among their two kinds must have meant something. It was not clear how old they were, either. Some were so worn and cracked that they must have been walking around at least as long as her, but others looked smooth and new. The leader, she could not tell.

Whatever had made them could not be far, and this was not good. Something she had missed in all this time did not sound believable. Which way had they even come from, now that she thought of it?

The shape that eyelessly faced her was not a sight she liked, either. She could take it that wood could walk, fine. But wood looking at her, or close enough, was something else. That even really wood? It did not feel dangerous, none of the jittery things did, but it sure felt wrong. Not for her. Just wrong all about it.

Tentatively, she raised a hand and gave the figure a wary sign of greeting.

The faceless head seemed to follow her hand, all the while maintaining its march as if it never looked away from its fore. It held the stare for a little longer, and just about when a normal person may have said something, or at least waved back--

Creak…

The head swiveled on a wooden joint, once again facing forward.

Split bit down, heavier than before. Worse than wrong. Ugly. Maybe she had started dreaming again.

With a quick, cautious movement, she stretched out an arm to lightly tap the creature’s side, ready to retract it in a blink. It was cold, like wood -- because it was wood. The figurine, if it could feel her, was doing a great job at ignoring her as it continued to walk, but then there was an itch.

Sure enough, the leader's head swiveled with complete 180 and was now staring at her -- or what could have been a stare if its face wasn't empty. She trotted up to its side, its featureless head following her, and silently pointed at the convoy behind them, eye widening in a wordless question.

There was a pause, the march never slowing, but a pause nonetheless. It could have been her imagination or perhaps a subconscious wish but she could have swore she felt a sense of reluctance coming from the wooden mannequin. Did she assign it emotion, perhaps, but against all odds and after a time far too long past the question, there was another creak, a new kind.

"Crea... Go." The word was hollow, as if pounded into existence by old wooden rods, "...a-way."

“Rhgh.” Split’s voice was little more than a dry, rasping creak after years of mutely battling the silence. For some long, quiet moments there was no follow-up to her opening sound outside of some whistling gargles as she stretched the dust away from her throat. Some of it was surprise that the thing could speak. “No,” she finally managed, in a withered husk of the words that had called out through unlit tunnels so long ago. “Not yet.”

She hadn't noticed when it happened, but all the other blank faces seemed to be staring at her as the leader fell silent again, save for its creaking joints. Slowly the rattling creaks that could only be its voice groaned once again, "O-K."

It slowly creaked as its head spun right back round, the others slowly peeling their own attention from Split.

Slowing her steps, she fell in with the thick of the group again. It was already a lot that it had spoken. Expecting it to speak any more than that too was, now that she thought of it, absurd. Then again, she did not have much more than absurdity left to count on. She could try again later, when her own voice got better. At least she would hear herself talk again, and a thinking thing, wooden or not, was always a safer partner than thin air.

Later. For now, she could just enjoy having someone to walk along with, and no iron hand pointing where to go. If she did not think too hard, it would be good and calm.

Wrong and ugly, sure. But it was a step ahead.



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Hidden 29 days ago Post by Not Fishing
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Not Fishing The Mediocre

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Karamir





The Palace was an… unusual change of scenery, to say the least.

On one hand, the confined space offered Karamir a sense of security. If he was in a hallway, he only had to worry about what was directly in front of him or directly behind him. If he was in a room, he could put himself in a corner and nothing could sneak up on him. On the other hand, the confined space was… well, confining. Despite their security, the walls felt restrictive, and with the endless rooms and hallways, it would be easy for him to get ambushed, or lost.

In fact, he was already lost.

This did not bother him, however. No, what bothered him was the possible dangers or tricks that might be lurking around every corner. K’nell had assured him there were no dangers beyond his own mind, yet if K’nell was anything like Diana, deception was a very real possibility. He could not afford to lower his guard. He frequently looked behind him, he investigated the source of every shadow, and every noise made him do a double-take of his surroundings.

All the while, he contemplated K’nell’s question, and Diana’s plea. “What do you want to happen?” K’nell had asked. But to answer that question, Karamir would first need to know what he actually wanted. “Stay with me,” Diana had urged, rather suddenly and unexpectedly. He wondered why. Did she truly care for him, or did she only wish to continue his suffering? It was probably both, in truth, but still. He cared for her too, in a way.

It was strange, not having Diana with him. No soft humming. No vicious remarks. No unnatural feeling of discomfort. Yet somehow that only served to make him feel even more uncomfortable. He had lost track of the exact amount of time he spent with her, but he knew it was most of his existence.

Secretly, Karamir realized that might be another reason for his caution and vigilance. Relaxation felt almost wrong somehow, and he was keeping himself on edge because he was used to being on edge.

In one exceptionally small room, there had been a strange object on a wall which reflected Karamir’s appearance back at him. He had changed. He was thinner, dark circles hung under his eyes, and a single thin crease ran across his forehead. Kalmar had told him that in time his body would age and eventually die, but this… to look like this so soon somehow felt wrong. Had her actions taken a greater toll on him than he realized?

The theory was certainly a sobering one, to say the least.

He turned away from the mirror, and continued onward. He stepped out of the room, and followed another hallway, before stopping at yet another door. There was nothing unique about this door; nothing to set it apart from any of the others, but he decided to open it nonetheless.

Stepping through, however, nearly convinced him that his confinement was all but over. The room was large and had a ceiling so high, he wasn’t sure how he knew it was even there. In the distance his vision was absorbed between infinite rows of wooden bookshelves. The dark wood stretching deep into the sky and trailing into the distance in rows. The crushing smell of old paper tickled Karamir’s nose, as did a tinge of damp mold. The only noise was a hollow breeze, and the tiny toots of a distant panpipe.

He furrowed his brow at the sight. What purpose did this room serve? There were so many shelves, and the things on the shelves… what were they for? Why were there so many? At random, he plucked a leather-bound tome from one of the shelves and opened it, to examine its contents.

A flittering of strange symbols floated over the page, arranging themselves suddenly. His eyes widened and then shrunk, as if focusing on them when suddenly he heard the words in his head, just as his eyes floated over the symbols.

’Why does your existence matter?’

Karamir blinked at the message. He glanced up at the ceiling, and then back down at the book. I don’t know, he thought to himself. Why does your existence matter, strange leathery… thing? And with that thought, he read on, flipping the page. His brow furrowed, the exact same runes were on the next page as well, as if pressing the question.

’Why does your existence matter?

Karamir pursed his lips, and began to flip through the pages, yet each page said the same thing, save for the last four pages -- which were blank. His expression shifted to irritation as he shut the book, and he concluded that, while he did not know why his existence mattered, he at least knew that it mattered more than some worthless object on a dusty shelf.

He returned the book to its place, and hesitated. Would the one next to it be any different? Then he shrugged. What did he have to lose by checking? So he grabbed the next book. This one was much heavier, with thick yellow pages sticking out of a leather clad cover with metal hinges. Letters he couldn’t understand were gilded to the cover, yet he opened it anyways.

This one was very different than the first, with tiny letters scratched endlessly over every inch of the pages. He squinted, the letters actually looked very similar to the runes from before. Here and there his mind seemed to decipher them, the very first few reading: ”In the beginning… there was only the smoke...“

Karamir wasn’t entirely sure what that was supposed to mean, but at least it wasn’t as frustrating as the previous book. He kept reading. His eyes were forced to skip over the words he couldn't understand, until he found similar runes once again: ”...was a paradise, but its perfection would not last. One day Stenmur was out looking for…

And who was Stenmur? He knew he was missing parts of the story. Why was it that he could understand some runes but not others? How did he even understand any of the runes in the first place, when he had never seen them before? He skimmed ahead, searching for the next readable section.

His quick search yielded a few more segments: ”...the valley, and Stenmur was drowned in the onslaught of chaotic smoke, his body… ...Wherever this great army marched, so too marched the taint as… ...The Sondoper and Precursors aided second, followed by the rest of the newest and…”

Smoke? Army? Taint? Precursors? What did it all mean? Had this already happened? Was it a warning of what to come? Or was it complete nonsense? Karamir didn’t have the faintest idea, but perhaps if he kept reading he would find out.

His eyes darted quickly, eager to find more segments: ”...way to the anvil of creation they had gifted to Stenmur, and together they bled upon its surface… ...The Champion was a being of pure harmony, radiant like the sun, and traveled on angelic wings while plated in an armour colored like the stars… ...While saved… ... would never be the same…”

Karamir decided he would fill in the blanks. These ‘Sondoper’ and ‘Precursors’ had clearly found some sort of anvil they had previously gifted to that ‘Stenmur’ person, who was presumably dead, and for some reason they all decided to bleed on it. Then a champion appeared, for some reason - perhaps because they bled on an anvil? Whatever an anvil was. Anyway, something was saved - presumably either Stenmur or the previously mentioned paradise - yet it would not remain the same. Understandable, he supposed, considering one of the previous lines quite literally said “its perfection would not last.”

Satisfied that he had solved the mystery of the segments thus far, he turned the page and searched for more. The pages grew thicker with words and finding segments became a little more difficult but he managed to find a footing eventually after passing a particularly decorated page: ”...Naturally the prominent leaders of the mortal army that had fought alongside their now hidden creators… ... also political power houses of the time, it is the policies of the Silver…”

Now Karamir was lost. Leaders? A mortal army? Politics? Silver? None of these concepts had been introduced previously, at least not in the parts that he was capable of reading. Any attempts to connect them would be sheer guesswork, but perhaps future passages might contain the answers. He read on.

Unfortunately the writing fell into the unintelligible language that seemed to restrict him so, save for a few lines mentioning a place called "Garthil" and a group of adventurers known as the "Praxian Storm Guard" but whatever context they were in was lost in the runes. He flipped the pages, but he was only met with more unknown words and bizarre pictures of half-bull half-men creatures.

Karamir frowned in disappointment. He shut the boot, and returned it to its place on the shelf. Ultimately, if he had to sum it his thoughts on the book with an arbitrary number and a quote, he would give it a “three out of five; it was okay.” Still, it was clearly an improvement from the previous one. So without wasting time, he grabbed the next book.

This one was a forest green and a lot thinner than the last, which was promising. The cover was blank and as he slipped it open, he was met with an intricate diagram filled with patterns and unknown symbols. The pipe music from before grew louder as he opened it and suddenly a near juvenile or very high pitched adult voice called out in his own language.

"Oi!"

Karamir shut the book and looked up, instinctively raising the thin tome as if it had been a weapon.

The voice was now muffled, "You dope! Open the book back up!"

What?

Realization slowly came to Karamir’s face, and then, reluctantly, he opened the book.

The voice was clear again as the book opened back up to the large diagram, "That's better! Much better, yes."

“Who are you?” Karamir demanded, uncertain what to make of this. Afterall, the other books had not spoken.

"My name is… er… well you know it's been quite some time-- how about you just call me Keibrik. That sounds fancy enough." There was a pause, "Say, you don't happen to know how to perform sorcery do you?"

“Perform what?” Karamir blinked.

"Oh I see, not quite there yet are we. That's fine…" There was a gentle hum as if a thought was forming, "So get this, just by chanting a few silly words and doing a few gestures (also quite silly) you can make me poof! Right out of this book. You look like the kind of guy who needs a friend, or at least I'd assume such, all alone in a library at this hour."

Karamir narrowed his eyes. Mere words and gestures could allow a mind to escape from a book? That sounded strange, to say the least, and it also begged another question. “Wait… how did you end up in this ‘book’ anyway?”

"Listen, I'll be honest with you, I'm sure I had a damned good reason to put myself into a book at some point but void be damned if I could remember why. I suppose that may also be a side effect of other unpleasant factors of my existence but hey, you can alleviate all that." There was a pause, "Trust me, I'm smiling. The friendly kind."

“So you put yourself in the book but you can’t get yourself out?” Karamir asked. “How does that work?”

"That seems to be the case and trust me, I'd love to tell you all about it but again, my memory is a bit foggy at the moment. So what do you say, do me this favor?"

Karamir glanced up at the ceiling. K’nell… he prayed. Why does your ‘library’ have someone trapped in a ‘book’? he asked, the words still somewhat strange and unfamiliar to him.

"Ah, Keibrik," K'nell snapped the book shut, somehow standing next to Karamir, the book in his hands rather than the mortal's, "That's an interesting conundrum where neither the book nor Keibrik currently exist." The book suddenly disappeared, "However, I have a feeling you two would have gotten into some interesting scenarios."

“Can he be freed, as he said?”

K'nell flashed a smile, "But of course, however…" He pointed his finger and where Karamir's vision fell, there stood a tall man with long black hair streaked with white, tight black robes covering his body.

"...He can also have never been trapped to begin with," K'nell nodded at the man and Keibrik rolled his eyes. K'nell flicked his wrist and with a blink, the man was gone again.

“Where did he go?” Karamir asked, taken aback.

"You'll have to excuse this answer, perhaps one day, if not right now, you'll know exactly what I mean when I say: everywhere," K'nell folded his elbows square behind his back, "Shall I leave you to your studies, or do you have further need of my hospitality?"

“Can you bring Keibrik back? In book form, or in… normal form?” Karamir requested.

"Very well," K'nell answered and with a mind numbing blink, Keibrik once again stood next to Karamir.

Karamir briefly glanced at Keibrik, and looked as if he was about to say something, but then looked back to the shelf. “One more question… why can I only understand some parts of that book, but not others?”

"The simple answer: because there is just enough of it for you to read and capture your imagination that way, without accidentally telling you far too much," K'nell kept his arms folded, "Dreams are strange beasts and sometimes the simplest answers are needed for the most cryptic moments."

“I see…” Karamir said. So there was knowledge in that book he was not meant to know? Secrets? Perhaps it was even more important than he thought. He would need to reread it at some point, but there were so many other books to see to as well. “That’s all I needed to know for now. Thank you.”

"But of course," K'nell smiled, "Then you'll have to excuse me as I tend to some other things." With that the god swiveled on his heels and began to walk away, far down the rows of shelves.

Karamir turned back to Keibrik. “What else can you tell me about yourself?”

"Oh you know," Keibrik mused as he snapped into the conversation from a daydream, "I don't really exist and mirrors can't see me. Also I used to get into spots of thievery back in the day."

Karamir narrowed his eyes. “Thievery? What do you mean?”

"Oh it just means I collect things people leave lying around," He grinned, "Sometimes they put them behind doors, but with a name like Keibrik, does that really matter?"

“I see… and I take it they don’t want you to collect these things?”

"You know," Keibrik snapped and pointed a finger at Karamir, "I never really took the time to ask them, but that may explain a few things." His eyes scanned the shelves, "So what's this: we are standing in an infinite library and instead of reading, we are discussing me and the mood of poor saps who leave things lying around."

Karamir crossed his arms. “You asked if I knew sorcery. What does that mean?”

"Oh no no, the Keibrik in the book asked if you knew sorcery -- I don't care either way… but since you asked it's pretty much exactly what I said, waving hands around while chanting funny stuff and bam silly things happen." He pinched his chin, "But I wager that sort of thing is still beyond the denizens of your existence. Odd too, considering it all."

“Any creature with hands can wave their hands around, and any creature that speaks can chant,” Karamir told him. “I don’t see how that can do anything beyond draw attention to yourself.”

"Well paint me corrected," Keibrik nodded, "I bet there are plenty of sorcerers out there." He moved away from Karamir and began to thumb through some of the books, making a face at each title.

“Have you read any of these?” Karamir asked, picking a new book from the shelf.

"Considering my contact with your existence is less than five minutes old, maybe," He pulled out a book of diagrams and began to flip through it. Karamir looked down at his own book -- it was a picture book of strange humanoid beings made of wood or water.

Karamir flipped through the pages, pausing momentarily to examine each one. “What’s the difference between you and ‘the Keibrik in the book’? Aside from one of you being in a book, I mean.”

"Don't stretch your head too hard on this one, but the Keibrik in the book doesn't presently exist in your existence, but I do -- to a degree at least. I mean, no," He slapped his book shut, "I don't exist, but presently I'm here." He shook his head, "The moral of the story is that I'm here and me in the book is not -- no thanks to your tattling. You know, that was a rather minor reason to pray to a god for help over, I'm surprised K'nell showed up at all. I suppose better safe than sorry." Keibrik shrugged and shoved his book back on the shelf.

“I didn’t ask him to take the book away,” Karamir said, rather defensively. “I just wanted more information before I began tampering with his things.”

"To anyone other than a thief, that's a very noble statement. Unfortunately I think you just learned a valuable lesson in that sometimes there are unseen consequences to each even minor action. Maybe Mr. Careful should have thought about that before tampering with it," Keibrik slipped out a thin book and flipped to the middle, a wide grin growing on his face.

“Do you know why the ‘other you’ was in that book?” Karamir asked, not quite liking that grin.

"Nope," Keibrik answered simply, "best not to question every fabric of nonexistence, that's what my mother used to tell me. Well she would have." He flipped the page in his book, eyes flickering over the page.

Karamir turned another page, to another picture. He looked back to the book that Keibrik held. “So what’s that one about?”

"It's the family portraits of the members of the Heinrich dynasty during the last separate Jerrovian age," Keibrik turned the book to show him, on one side there was a tall black haired man wrapped in soldierly regalia, the other page held a particularly fetching woman dressed in silk.

"I'd say history is easy on the eyes," Keibrik commented.

“I see,” Karamir said. “What is this ‘Heinrich’ dynasty?” he asked as he closed his own book and returned it to the shelf, before grabbing another that seemed to cover the existence of an ecosystem in the Galbarian skies.

"To you and this existence? Utter nonsense," Keibrik shook his head, "Doesn't mean a guy can't take a peak though." He shut the book and slipped it back on the shelf and opting for another.

"But-- oh hey!" Keibrik thumbed his book open and showed Karamir, a portrait of Karamir on the title page, "This one is about you!"

“What!?” Karamir dropped the book he held and seized the new one from Keibrik’s hand, quickly turning a page.

Sure enough, the book chronicled his time since he left Kalmar up until the very moment he found the book. Keibrik leaned over his shoulder and scanned the text, "You need to learn to be more assertive -- ironic considering that you ripped that book right out of my hands."

“I am assertive,” Karamir countered.

"Oh yeah?" Keibrik made a face and pointed at a small portrait of Diana in the corner, "Then explain her."

“What about her?” He asked. “I was washed out to sea, I woke up on a floating umbrella and she was there. I couldn’t swim back to land, and I wanted to leave Kalgrun anyway, so I had to stay with her. We then arrived at a new land that was somehow even more dangerous than the one I left.”

"Okay but check this little fact out," Keibrik nodded, "You had fifty years to leave her side, already blessed with not only the ability to defend yourself but the knowledge to survive the Galbarian wilds. You stayed with her. Trust me, I met women like that aplenty, all trouble."

“I…” Karamir began, but his voice trailed off. Could he have survived on that continent? He had seen the types of beasts that resided there, and even with his abilities and his knowledge he hadn’t been certain they would be enough. Had he underestimated himself? He closed the book.

"Exactly," Keibrik took a step back, "Maybe it was a lack of confidence, maybe assertion, but either way I'm hardly ever wrong about these things."

“You frequently encounter stories about people who find themselves stuck with literal living nightmares?” Karamir asked in a rather sarcastic tone.

"Yes I've met married men," Keibrik gave a wheeze.

“Married? What does that mean?” Karamir asked. He went to grab another book from the shelf, but kept his biography under his shoulder.

"Ah so not quite there yet either. Enjoy it while it lasts but unfortunately it's when a man or woman pledges their life to another man or woman -- in a reproductive sort of way." Keibrik raised his brows as if checking out his own definition before nodding. He quickly scooped up the book Karamir had dropped, opening it up to a thick chapter about sky whales.

“I can’t reproduce, so there’s no reason for me to do something like that,” Karamir muttered as he opened the latest book, finding an amazingly sketched landscape of deep forest, a blinded sealman holding a small child's hand. Underneath chronicled their story.

"That's the spirit," Keibrik chuckled as he flipped a page, "Galbar has some pretty fascinating skies."

Karamir did not reply, instead reading the story about the blinded seal, with a range of emotions. Was this something that actually happened, or was it another tale from a different existence? “How do I know which of these books are about Galbar, and which aren’t?”

Keibrik looked over his book briefly, "That one is Galbarian, call it instinct."

“Why would something like this happen?” He asked, his expression shifting to one of confusion and a touch of pity. He had known pain, but he had never been cast into the wilderness without eyesight. Nor had any guide ever tried to rescue him from one of his predicaments… well, there was Diana, but she had been the cause for the majority of his pain, in truth.

"Isn't that a question worth asking," Keibrik mused, "If I had the answer to why there is suffering-- well wait a minute." Keibrik pinched his chin, "So here is the thing -- you are in an interesting situation where you can ask the creators of your world why there is suffering… although now that I say it out loud I think I know what they would say."

“‘Suffering makes you stronger’” Karamir said. “That’s what I was told. But I don’t see how this," he gestured to the book, “makes anyone stronger. He came out alive, but without his sight - what did he gain from that?”

"Hey I think you may be asking the wrong man," Keibrik held his hands up, "I'm a decadent loving son of a bitch."

Karamir returned the book to its shelf, and grabbed another, his expression still unsettled. Once again, he opened up to the first page, finding a tasteful and delicate story of a lovesick sailor and wistful noblewoman from some desert.

Keibrik shrugged and deposited his book in favor of another labeled, "The Hermian Calendar".

Karamir looked up. “Hermian… Hermi… Hermes… I heard that name before, I think…”

"Probably," Keibrik thumbed through the pages, "She is one of the big and famouses of Galbar." He looked up, "Beat Kalmar in a footrace according to a short bio in the preface."

Now he remembered. “She didn’t beat him. Her sandals did.” He wasn’t enjoying the book about the sailor and the noblewoman, so he returned it to the shelf in favour of a different one titled "The Angry River," which covered the creation of the 'Nuhe'.

"Semantics," Keibrik turned the book on its side as he looked over some of the charts presented in his own book.

Karamir already knew how the Nuhe was created, so after briefly skimming it to confirm what Kalmar had told him, he returned it to the shelf for yet another. Interestingly enough, this one was written in rather messy shengshese characters and depicted the various wildlife of Tendlepog.

Keibrik looked bored and slapped his book shut, sliding it back into the shelf while he decided on what to look at next.

Karamir briefly glanced at some of the sketches, but he couldn’t read the writing and so it wasn’t of much help. “Each book seems less interesting than the last,” he commented as he put it back to grab another.

"You know," Keibrik looked over, "It would help if we decided on what we wanted to read first so we could grab books we are specifically interested in."

“Something about the gods, or the people they created, maybe.” Karamir said. “I think that’s what I’d prefer.”

Keibrik smirked and suddenly the spines of the books changed colors. The thief put a finger on one, then slowly rolled it to the next and then the next, reciting as he went, "Let's see… history of the Selka… Creation of the Ihokhurs… The Dreamers… Pygmies --- wait Pygmies." Keibrik laughed, "Well okay, I guess we are just going to ignore that questionable naming convention."

"Enjoying yourself, dear?" The all too familiar voice echoed behind the pair. Keibrik was the first to spin around. His elbow nudged Karamir.

"Oh look, now's your chance to be assertive."

Karamir raised his eyebrows as he turned to Diana, a sight that somehow managed to be both comforting and distressing. “I am,” he said calmly. “Why?”

"I thought you were supposed to be contemplating a big decision," She turned to the books and ran a finger over them.

"Escapism is the best medicine," Keibrik winked in Karamir's defense. Diana narrowed her eyes and Keibrik's smile disappeared.

“I contemplated,” Karamir answered in a vaguely guarded tone. “But I still haven’t decided yet. Why are you so interested?”

"I'm bored and curious, and the longer you take the longer I have to wait," She answered, "I thought the decision would be simple, after all we are friends... Of course friends want to stay with friends."

“How many years did I spend with you?” Karamir asked in a neutral tone.

Keibrik nodded his head, but began to go through the books by himself, putting an open book between him and the conversation. Diana raised a brow and smiled, "Why only fifty years, dear Karamir. A drop in the pond."

"And do you know how long I’m supposed to live?”

Diana cackled, "How silly. Karamir you can live as long as you and I want. What you were supposed to do has nothing to do with it."

“I found something, you know. Something that reflected my own appearance back at me - like water, but it was solid. I haven’t spent enough time with anyone that I could compare myself to, but somehow I feel like I’m aging faster than I should.”

"Oh foo," Diana's face turned to a smiling pity, "I fear you may be growing paranoid."

“You have given me reason to be paranoid,” Karamir pointed out.

"Well of course, I'm your best friend aren't I? But really Karamir, I feel you are reading far to into a mirror. Certainly not the basis for a decision," She waved a hand dismissively, "Why don't you leave the books and come to have a chat with me over something to drink? We can settle your nerves and get you in the right mind to make your decision."

Karamir considered those words for a moment. Several tense seconds of silence passed, and he sucked in a breath. He briefly looked at Keibrik, but before Keibrik could respond or do anything, he looked back to Diana. “Even if I did stay with you, what would that mean? Would I remain here forever?” He gestured to one of the books. “There’s an entire world out there. Some part of me does want to stay, and I do consider you a friend, but... “ he took a breath. “Fifty years. We crossed continents and oceans, but I feel like I travelled no further from where I started.”

"Karamir you're being silly," Diana sneered, "Of course we won't stay all cooped up. There is plenty to do here and out there. I like to think our time we spent together wasn't so easily thrown to the side as…" She wiggled her nose in thought, "Well quite so worthless as you seem to put it."

“When you call me a friend, what does that mean to you?”

"Oh I see what this is about," Diana's brow fell, "You don't think I mean it when I call you my friend, do you? As if I decided to spend fifty years with someone who wasn't a friend of mine. Now Karamir, don't you think you already know exactly what I mean when I call you friend? Now come." She began to turn away, "Let's talk this over elsewhere."

Karamir did not move. “I think I know what you mean, but I’d like to have it confirmed.”

"Oh Karamir, do you really need to stoop for validation?" Diana folded her arms, "You're being quite ridiculous, and I mean more so than usual."

Still, he did not budge. “Why can’t you answer my question? That’s what a friend would do, isn’t it?”

Diana closed her eyes, her lips spreading into a wide toothy grin, "So that's what a friend would do, hm? Or would the friend be particularly hurt that you would ask such a question after all you've been through together." She gritted her teeth together and finished her turn so her back was to Karamir.

Somehow, that actually managed to make him feel guilty. “Most of what we’ve been through… was you hurting me.”

"If you didn't like me, you didn't have to stay," Diana didn't turn to look at Karamir.

Karamir took a breath, and when he spoke next, his resolve had returned. “What made you think of me as a friend? Why did you save me. Why didn’t you leave me when we first arrived on that continent? Why didn’t you leave me when you had to come here? You say it’s because we’re friends. I see you as a friend because despite everything else, you saved my life and you helped me when I needed it. What I don’t know, is what you see in me.”

"Don't be so self absorbed, Karamir," Diana hissed over her shoulder, "I said you were my friend; the least you could do is at least attempt to sound like you might want to stay with me." She folded her arms behind her back, her boots clicking as she started to walk away.

And then the guilt threatened to return, but Karamir pushed it aside. “For someone who can read minds, you don’t seem to have a grasp of what I want. I do want to stay with you. But I also want knowledge. I want power. I want a purpose. If these four desires conflict, then I have to choose one over the others. Why do you think I didn’t decide right away?”

"Oh dear," Diana sucked in a breath and turned, her smile strained, "I'm just trying to help, Karamir-- that's all I've ever done for you if you would just take a second to think about it."

At this point Keibrik had put an even thicker book between him and the conversation.

“I will make my decision when I am ready,” Karamir concluded. “I am thankful for your help, but I will decide this on my own.”

"Of course you will," Diana smiled, "The choice is yours… Isn't that right Keibrik?" The man peeked over the book, catching Diana's sickly stare. The avatar flickered her eyes back to Karamir.

"Well, I suppose I should make my leave then, leave you to it." Diana mentioned idly as she checked her jagged nails. Karamir nodded.

Diana raised a brow and spun on her heel. She didn't say anything as she began to walk away, that strange hum echoing from her. In a few seconds, she was gone, leaving nothing but an air of discomfort in the room.

For a long time, Karamir was silent. Did he handle that situation correctly? Had he been right to argue with her in that way? He looked to Keibrik. “Well?” he asked.

"Well you stood up to her," Keibrik lowered his book and slapped it shut, "How do you feel?"

Karamir shrugged. “I don’t feel any different,” he lied.

"Well damn," Keibrik looked shocked, "It's not my problem and even I felt a little something-something from that encounter. Either you have a steel trap for a head or a hunk of stone for a heart. No judgement, probably better off that way -- as I said, women like that are nothing but trouble."

Karamir sighed. “It’s not your business, anyway.” He needed to get his mind off of it, so he looked to the shelf, and began to think. The last time he decided what type of book he wanted to read, the books on the shelf had changed. An idea suddenly occurred to him… and he decided he wanted to read the book that the other Keibrik was trapped in.

A book beside him suddenly shifted, turning into a thin leather bound spine. Keibrik plucked a different book (a thin green one) from the shelf, "You know it never really is - my business that is." He looked over as Karamir went for the new book, "But then again you're the one who asked me to be here."

“I wonder… could two of you be in the same place at one time?” Karamir suddenly asked as he opened the book. Runes skittered across the page spelling out: "Why does your existence matter?"

Keibrik held open his green book, showing the runic diagram from before, "Yes, I suppose I can." He mused, his voice echoing from the book. He slapped it shut and it disappeared once again. Keibrik leaned against the shelf, "I don't know if you had gotten the spiel yet but this place is quite endless with possibility." He paused, "Unfortunately, that doesn't mean it is endless on our whim -- trust me I've tried many times and I've only been in this existence for maybe a half hour."

“How much do we have control over?” Karamir asked.

"Void be damned if I knew, but what I do know is that our control likely isn't as quantifiable as you'd like," Keibrik stood straight, "In other words, we don't really have control as much as we have arbitrary allowances… we are completely at the whim of… well… You know who."

“I see…” Karamir said, suddenly that much more uncomfortable with where he was. He looked around. “If I were to leave this room, and go to some other area of the Palace, would I be able to find my way back?”

"Hey, maybe," Keibrik shrugged, "But if it's a little jaunt around the palace you propose, then count me in. This room is starting to make me feel a little down, that Diana sure knows how to leave an air of presence."

Karamir nodded. “Then let’s go.” With his own biography still in hand, he turned and made his way to the door.

Keibrik twirled a cane that Karamir hadn't noticed before; the thief looking about ready to start whistling a tune. He stopped by the door and tipped his head, "And after you."

Karamir opened the door.




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Ashalla

Goddess of Oceans and Storms


&



The sickly stench of decay seeped over the ocean like an oil spill. Dead fish of all sizes floated in the water, their bodies blackened with white lesions. The few creatures who were still alive, as discoloured as the dead, swam without awareness, their faintly glowing eyes staring blankly ahead. A lumbering whale did not even notice the smaller fish eating its tainted flesh, so dulled were its senses by its affliction. Beds of sea grass and algae had turned from vibrant green to black and white, colouring the ocean a dreary grey. All around was nothing but death and decay. Even the things which still moved could not really be called alive.

A furious voice like a crashing wave cut through the gloom. “What is this?”

Ashalla rose above the water’s surface to look down upon the desolate scene. She could taste what remained of the creatures here (although part of her wished she couldn’t), and the decay of their souls was similar to that she had tasted in the Angler Leviathans. A conversation came to her memory.

“Orvus seemed quite enamored by them. He claimed they were the future. I’m concerned he’ll try to make more of them and other kinds of similar… entities.”

“If Orvus finds a way to replicate whatever caused this, he could inflict this state on all life, and then it will become a problem for the rest of the world.”

“That would be a problem. If he finds a way.”

“If he’s half as dedicated to the cause as I suspect he is, he will.”

And now Orvus had, as Phystene had warned. Ashalla should have foreseen this, for Orvus was a god, so had the power to follow through with his word.

Ashalla cast her gaze over the water once more, and her eye caught a white mote floating in the breeze. A pseudopod rose up beside the mote and wrapped around it. The mote promptly began to dissolve, and the watery limb froze to ice, trapping the mote before it could finish dissolving. The pseudopod grew around the ice and lifted it to be level with Ashalla’s gaze. It took only a moment’s scrutiny for her to discern the mote’s function and purpose.

More motes floated over the sea, carried by the wind and the waves. Squalls flitted around Ashalla and the motes, whipping up the water into churning waves. Her eyes traced the path the motes had taken. “This cannot continue.”



Dark clouds spiralled around the Maelstrom, lightning arcing across the sky and lancing into the swirling ocean. Countless squalls flitted about in the torrential rain and cyclonic winds, feasting upon the energy which fuelled the unnatural storm. The storm seemed to intensify slightly as Ashalla arrived, the storm which was the goddess merging with the storm of the Maelstrom.

In the heart of the Maelstrom the clouds turned from dark grey to desolate black and the ocean surface was churned into a mist by near-sonic winds. The area would have been in total darkness if not for the supernatural lightning which lit the storm with crimson light. And those scarlet beams hid something else in between their flashes. Something large and so, so angry, its shape but an image here and there as it moved around the new pretender storm. There was a new sound within the Maelstrom, louder than thunder and the sonic winds, an eerie call of a low rumble, growing in intensity before a beam of all consuming scarlet rippled through the clouds and straight for Ashalla.

The beam struck the clouds, although whether it had actually done any harm was impossible to tell since the clouds constantly shifted and blended with the storm around them. “Move aside,” commanded a voice of thunder.

The thing fell before her in a torrent of tentacles and sharp, biting teeth. With eyes ringed with hate it looked upon her with impunity. It pulled back, its chest beginning to glow as it craned its neck, opening it mouth to reveal crackling energy. But before it could unleash its anger, it stopped, the glow subsiding and as quickly as it had come, the clouds swallowed it from her view once more. The path was open. Warily, Ashalla advanced through the Gateway.

On Veradax, clouds billowed out from the Gateway and coalesced into a towering cumulonimbus which was the goddess, joining the natural storms of the shattered moon. Around her was nothing but a blanket of cloud and plains of dust. Ashalla cast out her senses until she found another white mote drifting on the wind, being slowly sucked towards the Gateway. She rolled out in the direction the mote had come from, a few squalls trailing behind her.

As she travelled, a scattering of objects marked the dusty plains, and the goddess paused to inspect them. Pieces of a curved wooden hull arced out of the dust. Tattered canvas billowed in the wind. Articles of worn Shengshese clothing hung from splinters. To one side lay a piece of wood carved in the likeness of Shengshi, and to the other side lay a statue resembling her own oceanic form. There was a pensive lull in the weather. Then there was a huff, and Ashalla carried on.

Eventually, Ashalla came to a valley, one beset by broken rock on either side; jagged and lonely they watched as Ashalla made her way into the twilight of the moon. The path was long, and slowly tightening, until at last she rounded the final corner. In the distance of the large clearing, there stood a figure of stars before the tree that had brought her there. Like a crown, the monument of soul decay, the Mar Tree, was the origin of the mote and wore many upon its blackened branches.

"I knew you would come here before the Mar Tree eventually, Ashalla." came Orvus’ voice as he turned around.

Ashalla filled the sky before Orvus and looked down upon him. A voice of howling wind spoke. “The destruction caused by this tree of yours must cease, Orvus.”

"You are right." he said, looking back at the tree. "When I created it so long ago, I was angry at the world and broken in my tainted beliefs, thus the tree came. But now… How can I justify such a thing?" his voice was but a whisper now.

The turbulence in Ashalla’s form seemed to calm to a more natural level. “Then we can neutralise this danger,” she said.

"How?" Orvus asked, turning around again. "I have not the strength to destroy it. However, I could turn it off if you wanted." he said.

Ashalla’s voice had almost lowered to a melodious whistle. “Yes, turning it off would be lovely.”

He lowered his head and shut his eyes. Before him the tree began to lose its glow, the humming ceased, drowning in silence. Then it became nothing more than a dark, blackened tree, as the last of the motes were swept up by the current of wind.

"There. It won't make anymore." he said.

A branch of cloud split off from Ashalla and brushed against the orvium tree, engulfing it momentarily and tasting it. The arm lowered and Orvus was likewise swallowed in cloud before the pseudopod withdrew. “Good. Thank you for your cooperation, Orvus.”

He nodded. "Is there anything else you require?" he asked.

There was a brief rumble. “No.”

"Then you should not tarry here, this sphere is dangerous. Even to gods." he said softly.

Ashalla huffed. Then the wind changed, and the storm was gone.

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Alas, many more years passed and Anu’s empire, Talemon, grew from a simple camp that lived in the shadow of Xishan into a settlement to challenge its width. While the living conditions were a poor excuse for scraping by, tents and shacks close to those of a slum, none dared desert the great capital for fear of the King's warbands hunting them down. The Beihe river, however, was fruitful and generous, even to the point where simple foraging could feed the settlement’s growing population. It was enough for now, but even the most ignorant of pygmies could see that this way of life simply could not sustain the growing jewel of the Knucklelands.

And so it was that a day dawned much in the same way as those before it, but yet carried a tinge of change in the air. The tinge came from the river and made its way towards the great central tent like an energizing perfume. In the tent, as usual, the councilors were pouring over years of plans and projects and presenting them to their king - all but one councilor, that is.

“... And that is why this servant believe there must be sent another expedition to gather clay from the river, Your Majesty,” Yong Cai proposed. Zhu Rongyuan shook his bearded head.

“This servant objects. The clay that was gathered last time proved useless by the time it was brought back. It is clear the correct types usable for construction have either yet to be found or simply do not exist close-by as previously estimated. This servant instead proposes that a workforce be sent to the rivers to attempt reseeding rice as was done last year.”

Fu Lai’an rolled her eyes. “The output was severely lower than input. It took nearly one hundred pygmies to plant the rice, but nothing happened to half of it. The plant is evidently tied to the river and cannot be removed from it as we previously thought. No, instead, this servant proposes focus towards the populace. Disease and starvation fill His Majesty’s camp, and many pygmies struggle to even complete menial tasks. The quality of life must take center stage.”

“Which is why we should plant rice!” Zhu Rongyuan added in frustration.

“And improve housing!” Yong Cai added as well.

Anu had been silent for the better part of the conversation. His glittering capital had been reduced in its former atmosphere - a sort of disease both literal and figurative permeating the sorry community. It was a nauseating shell of its intended glory.

”Enough.” the ape rumbled, his voice like distant thunder.

The councilors quieted down and bowed. Zhu Rongyuan held forth his hands, left hand covering his right. "Great King, forgive these servants bickering. It is a great crime against the harmony of this council. Does His Majesty wish any of these servants to elaborate on their suggestions, or does He wish to propose his own, perhaps?"

” Cherished Fu, what is the current state of my people?”

Fu Lai'an shook her head. "The latest desertion is the most sizeable one yet, nearly twenty individuals. The force sent to get them back would have been outnumbered had it not been for Qiang Quan. His Majesty's people have not seen a boar for months and harvesting season is still far off. Legumes are the only foodstuffs available. This servant fears the empire's population may already have outgrown its niche."

A low, yet bone-chilling growl seems to emanate from the ape’s belly, his anger was almost palpable. ” I ought to have them executed for their weakness, yet how can they develop strength in this decrepitude?”

He turned to Zhu. ” And you propose we cultivate rice, despite last years failed attempt? Were any forays made into refining the process?”

Zhu nodded. "According to His Lordship's writings, rice is a most nutritious and abundant crop - perfect for growing empires. However…" He furrowed his brow. "His Lordship's writings are unfortunately quite… Vague regarding the very cultivation of the crop. In a most glorious, yet somewhat inconvenient holy feat, His Lordship may have… Skipped a number of steps when producing his own rice." He shook his head. "Rest assured, Your Majesty, Your farmers are making great strides towards unlocking the plant's secret, but…" He cleared his throat. "... A little more time is needed."

” We don’t exactly have the luxury, Zhu.” the demigod sighed. ” Would father have the knowledge we need?”

Fu Lai'an nodded. "Most assuredly. His Lordship built Jiangzhou and Qiangshan - He shaped the rivers of this continent and filled them with clay and nourishment. If anyone can offer aid, it will be His Lordship."

The ape rose and strode to the edge of his tent, parting the fabric and gazing out across the plains. ” Then we call for him.” he breathed almost heavily.




It did not take long for the great ship to arrive on the southern riverbank, right by the outer edges of the capitol where failed lines in dry and wet dirt had been filled with rice and bare sprouts. Crowds of famished pygmies lined the fields behind Anu and his councilors, all of whom stood ready at the bank to accept the arrival of the King's father. The river rose and flowed, encircling the ship and rising upwards on the southern end to form a staircase, down which Shengshi descended along with an escort of one thousand servants. The servants each carried a straw basket under each arm, sealed tightly with covers and thread. They lined up behind the snake, their numbers dwarfing the pygmy population. The snake surveyed the crowd before him and folded his hands behind his back.

As if ordered to, or maybe due to fatigue, the pygmies collapsed to their knees and hands in unison, uttering with accents of mixed thickness: "All hail His Holiness Shengshi, Lord of the Thousand Streams and father of His Eternal Majesty, Anu!"

The snake nodded and gave Anu a smile. "They have been well educated."

” Of course, father, they learned from the best.” he intoned, bowing low. Behind him, the councilors assumed their kowtow as usual.

"Rise, worthy son," the snake said in a voice as warm and gentle as a summer stream. "From the message given to me by your messenger, I understand your expansion met with some hindrances along the way, specifically regarding food and shelter. Would that be all or were there additional concerns?"

The ape nodded. ” Yes father, food and adequate shelter prove to be our greatest hindrance. We lack proper knowledge of agricultural techniques and our search for affirmable building materials has produced little result.” he paused then pointed to the north. ” We also lack adequate defense for dangers across the river. I’d like to establish up a defensive position within the camp's center. Something impregnable, a jewel and a bastion of the knucklelands.”

The snake nodded as his son spoke, his lips pursing at the various requests. As the final words were said, the snake looked to the North across the river. He let out a quiet hum of thought. "Perhaps the great tigers have migrated around the foot of Qiangshan… I would not be surprised if they have." He snapped his fingers and the thousand servants behind him, as one, stepped forward, put down their baskets and gripped the lids tightly. "My dear son, worthier than any other of that title, I see your people as we speak: the shade 'neath their ribs, the rings around their eyes; the bones where their muscles should be… It stabs me deep in the heart, dear son…"

He snapped his fingers again. The servants ripped the lids off as one and flipped them around. The baskets spewed forth small hills of rice, and as a thousand all spewed simultaneously, a low wall of rice formed before a quietly awestruck Anu and the pygmies. The snake gestured around him. "Generosity is the greatest feat of a king and lord - these requests shall be granted in the only way befitting of my own blood. Come, you starving souls - be free of the pain in your guts and embrace the glory of an early harvest!"

The pygmies cared not that the rice was uncooked - never before had they seen so much food. Manners were not minded as they swarmed the wall like locusts over a field. The snake merely laughed warmly and took a fistful of rice in his hand. The grains sprouted in his hand and he snapped his fingers, the pygmies falling into attention even as they ate. The snake called over some water from the river and shaped a water hole before him, about so shallow that wading pygmies would be walking knee-deep. He held up the sprouts.

"Hark at me, mortal beings - after spending a mortal life grasping the nature of agriculture, I have mastered it. However, this is not knowledge meant only for myself; in fact, it warms me to have the privilege to teach it to mortal kind. Behold--" With a gentle, yet firm splash, the snake planted the rice sprouts into the soil beneath the water, small green strands poking out from underneath the surface. "--the rice paddy! This is how the Beihese rice thrives, see. It grows not on dry soil like the flax of the west, but in small ponds and in river mud. Therefore, you must dig small canals to these pits to properly irrigate this crop. One day, then, you may reap harvests as big as the one I have given you."

The pygmies nodded slowly with understanding and the counselors took notes ecstatically, even Anu quietly observed, kneeling to gently rub the stalk between his fingers before speaking.

” And should winter come our surplus will survive?”

The snake nodded. “Store it somewhere dry and cool, and dry rice can survive for years. Build larders on stilts or poles to keep scavengers and floods away from the harvest, and long it will last. Speaking of, your next request was for the wisdom of construction, was it not?”

The snake slithered over to a nearby tree sapling. He cut it at the stump and at the head, leaving a long, straight stick. He found twenty-two like it and laid them in a pile. He called over Yong Cai and pointed at the pile. “Yong Cai, dear servant, did you create a skeleton of wood to carry the clay for the house walls?”

The builder stood frozen for a moment as if the realization of the mistake that had haunted her and her projects for fifty years was wringing her heart out with a tight fist. She collapsed to her knees, not before Shengshi, but before Anu and groveled in the mud. “Your Majesty - this servant has been a complete and utter failure. To not think of such a base and simple solution, and simply spend a mortal life stacking mud in piles… This servant deserves capital punishment!”

A meaty hand commanded her silence. ” A failure is far from what I would consider it, rather an oversight all of us made. Gather yourself, and regain your honor in sheltering my people.”

With teary eyes, the servant looked up with distressed eyes at first, then reignited vigor. She rose and bowed, saying, “Forgive this servant - once more, it will do its utmost duty to see His Majesty’s people safe and sheltered.”

The snake smiled at the harmonious resolution and gestured once more to the pile. He pulled some ivy and thin vines from the surrounding trees and laid them beside it. “Here lie the basic components of a house’s skeleton, mortals,” he proclaimed. Some servants came over and picked up the materials as the snake slithered towards the camp, parting the small lake of pygmies to bring his sea of servants through. As the host arrived at the fringes of the camp, Shengshi came upon the first tent at the settlement’s very edge, a poor excuse for a moldy boar pelt on a stick with dry, barren land underneath to serve as evidence that someone actually lived there. He pointed at the ‘shelter’ and exclaimed, “Who among you mortals claims this as their home?”

Two shaking hands rose into the air, one - a skinny, boney male, and the other - a starved, weakened female with a bump on her abdomen. The snake nodded slowly and beckoned them over, at which the pygmies reluctantly approached and presented themselves on their knees. The snake pointed back at their home and spoke, “Have you anything within that you hold dear?”

The male kept his face to the ground, but the female raised it slightly, saying, “N-no, nothing in home.”

The snake nodded. “Then my gift unto you two, and your child-to-come will be a true home.” With that, the snake disassembled their tent with a simple swipe of his arm and planted four sticks into the ground, forming a square. The pygmy couple gulped while the onlookers peered on with determined focus. To the tops of the four posts, the snake tied perpendicular saplings to form a true square shape - seen from the air, then raised a pyramid on top of the square again. He cut several bushels of palm fronds from the nearby trees and tied them into long bundles, which he laid into rows across the surface of the pyramid, layering them on top of one another to secure the inside against as much rain as possible. Once more, he turned to the crowd which was largely in awe of the structure. Not even Anu’s palace had such simple, yet so effective a structure. The snake said, “This is the simplest form of the house - a roof upon four posts. If the elements are kind, this is all one will need. It serves well as a source of shade in the worst of summers and can shelter from the rains. For the winds, however, one needs walls.”

And so the snake placed an additional two poles between the outer posts on every face of the structure except the designated entrance, where he placed only two. He then had his servants fetch more saplings, and once they were brought back, the snake clove each sapling in half and weaved them between the posts, much like he was making a basket or a carpet. Once the carpet of wood reached halfway, the snake pointed to the building. “Here is the skeleton of the wall - this to what one will tether the clay to.” With that, he took some clay out of the ground, had his servants bring water from the river in clay pots, and mixed them together. With his divine hands, the snake patted the wet clay all over the wooden wall, mellowing and leveling it out into a flat, beautiful wall. Soon, after a little more weaving and clay-addition, the hut with clay walls and thatch roof stood ready for use, the clay having been dried a little faster due to an impatient trick from the snake himself. He turned to the crowd and spread his hands out to the side. “The knowledge is yours now, mortals. I have shown you what to do and how to do it - build now for yourself the greatest city in this universe!”

The pygmy couple, overcome with gratitude, were completely groveling in the mud at this point, similar to beasts. The snake gave them a slight frown but shrugged. “My son, what was next, you said?”

Anu nodded, his own gratitude hidden behind a wall of hard features. ” A citadel proper, father.” he added, bowing slightly.

“Ah, yes, that was it… Hmm…” He eyed Anu up and down, then slithered over to the King’s tent. He gave it a disapproving look. “You live here?”

” Decrepit, I know. A byproduct of our situation.”

The snake shook his head in deep disapproval. “No, no, no, this will not do at all. No son of mine will spend a minute longer in this approximation of a slum shack.” With a wave of his hand, Shengshi caused the earth to catapult the tent over the horizon. The councilors all cast themselves forward to save what they had kept inside, but it was much too late - all their notes, plans, and projects had been sent flying well beyond Qiangshan.

“Noooooo…” Fu Lai’an sobbed and the snake turned around.

“Did you have any belongings inside?” he asked. Fu Lai’an and the other three fell to their knees.

“For fifty years, these servants’ notes were kept inside His Majesty’s tent… It is-... It is a pain to see them go,” Zhu Rongyuan said while holding back tears. The snake gave them a pitiful look.

“Rest assured, worthy servants - your belongings will be returned in time, nay, tenfold. First, however…”

The snake clenched his fists. Mud and stone churned into an unnatural soup where the tent had been, then the boiling pool expanded. The masses withdrew from the approaching bubbling, frothing mixture. The snake spun his hands around in circles before him, a maelstrom forming before him. Into the maelstrom, he tossed wood, stone, and bones from the surrounding camp, and as the maelstrom grew, it swallowed the surrounding tents like a gaping maw. Only when a satisfying diametre of two hundred meters had been achieved did the maw assume a rectangular shape. The brown and blackened mass suddenly took on a chalk-white color, and out of the rectangular pool rose tusk-like towers like the points of bodkin arrows, growing a set of walls between them in the same color, the wall stretching five hundred meters across. From the walls appeared sapling trunks in beautiful patterns to both serve as building support and future scaffolding. However, the scaffolding did not appear below the towers, for no one should be able to climb inside from the outside. The towers sported intricately patterned and carven ivory windows. Inside, the wall continued perpendicularly to the front for eight hundred meters. The stern outside gave way to several flat-roofed buildings of bone and ivory, completed by a tall palace towards the back, this one flat-roofed with teeth like the crown of a king about the roof’s edge. Three buildings made up the citadel: The palace at the far northern back, looking much like a collection of ivory pillars holding up the opulent roof; the barracks at the eastern wall, a windowless building with several doorways in the front functioning as entries and a staircase along the side up to the walls; the food stores on the western wall, elevated on platforms with a web of canals running underneath it - the center was a large, ivory platform. As the walls set and the bone hardened, the snake took a deep breath and slithered over to push open the chalk-white gates. Inside, the great palace awaited its king.

The king, now visibly awe-struck padded through the portal, his golden eyes as great as Heliopolis itself. For a moment he was speechless, truly struggling to find words for the first time in his existence. ” F-father, a thousand times over you’ve made this place.’ he gawked. ” Forgive me, I am at a loss for words. All the world’s praises could not express what boils within me now.”

The snake smirked and squeezed the ape’s shoulder as he gestured to the palace. “Why, of course - I will repeat myself once more: You are my son, Anu, and no son of Shengshi will settle for anything less than quality befit royalty, nay, divinity. Now, the palace has room for you, as well as your advisors, plus a few extra reserved for guests or additional administrators once your state gains momentum.” He pointed to the barracks. “Qiang Quan mentioned that you have begun to dabble in the organization of your forces. I thought you may as well have a proper place to train and develop them.” Finally, he gestured to the food storages. “Finally, since I have given you enough rice for your people to last the winter and then some, you should have a proper place to store it. Make sure to instruct the keepers of this granary to keep the fires in the channels below smoldering at all times - moist air is the enemy of all grain.” He pursed his lips and nodded. “Well, any other requests, my dear son?”

Anu bowed deeply. ” I could ask no more even if I had any to beseech. You’ve saved my people from calamity, I cannot give enough supplication.”

The snake waved dismissively. “Prosperity is the goal of this world. I am merely doing my part as a father and a god.” He gave Anu a warm smile. “Now, Zhu Rongyuan, Fu Lai’an, Yong Cai and Qiang Quan - approach.”

The four councilors did as requested - they walked over to the snake and Anu and kowtowed before the two. Zhu, as the oldest, took the role of their representative: “What does His Lordship request of these servants?”

The snake gestured to the palace. “As magnificent as this palace may be, the fact still remains that my own carelessness cost you four a mortal’s life’s worth of bark, ink, sweat, and blood. Bone can heal; scars can fade; wood, regrow - but nothing can replace history.” He bowed to the four. “I am deeply ashamed of my actions.” The four councilors remained wordless and frozen, uncertain of how to react to their creator’s act. The snake extended his hand forward. “I, therefore, repent for my sin with a gesture I should have made a long time ago.”

Momentarily, it seemed as though the four councilors glowed with a specific color each: Fu was a fiery, yet beautiful velvet; Yong glowed a yellowed, golden brown; Zhu shone with a deep, calm azure; Qiang burned with an energetic white. Then, as fast as they had come, the colors were absorbed by the councilors’ bodies. The snake lifted his hand.

“Rise, Siwen, worthy councilors - Wangdao, advisors of the king; rise and see the world with reforged eyes and reinforced souls.”

The councilors did as commanded and before Anu and Shengshi stood four servants - much like the four that had been groveling before them but a minute ago - and yet so, so much more. The snake nodded at them and turned to Anu. “Well, my dear son, I believe I have left you with the necessary tools to go on a little longer.” He gave Anu a wink and extended his hand. “Please, do not hesitate to visit, however. My tables are always stacked tall for you, worthy child.”

” No father, far beyond than a little longer.” he began, his father’s hand disappearing in his own. ” Much farther.”






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