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Hidden 5 mos ago 5 mos ago Post by Kho
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Kho

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The Wheel of Fortune Turns...


30 AA | Year 15

“Five goats were taken today,” Sugae reported glumly. His mother did not look up from the ripped blanket she was fixing — likely brought to her for patching by one of the village women — but Sugae noted the slightest of dejected shrugs at his words. She continued working away in silence for a few seconds before finally looking up. The moment his eyes met her gaze he found himself looking away, unable to bear the weight of her eyes.

Shammur was not a rare beauty by any means, but she had always had a nobility about her. That nobility — that innate dignity and unbroken pride — had made her a source of adoration to Sugae, and the subject of both great admiration and envy for many of the villagers over the years. But now there were dark stains under his mother’s eyes and — crushingly — there was a distinct emptiness there that threatened to swallow him whole if he met her gaze for too long. “They, uh. They took Palwijtha’s grandson too. And uncle Bori’s boys.” Sugae added offhandedly.

“Dhula said they came for Shidhig too,” Shammur spoke in a low voice as she returned to her work, “said that she spent over an hour begging them not to take him. They didn’t let up until she promised them nearly all her share of the year’s harvest, the poor soul.” Sugae frowned at these words. So that was why he had not seen Shidhig all day. Usually he was out tending to the goats even before Sugae. “Not that it matters, they’ll come back and take him when the next levy is called up.” She looked up to find her son picking at a spot on his nose. “And then they will take you too.” His picking slowed and came to a halt as he considered that reality. Looking to his mother, he found that her eyes were brimming with tears, but she steadied herself with a sharp intake of breath and they were gone.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine ma-” he began, but Shammur’s voice cut through his.

“No. No you won’t be fine. Just like your pa was never fi-” her voice caught in her throat and cracked, and there were tears. She buried her face in the blanket as sobs rocked her body. Usually, such a display of sadness would have had Sugae at his mother’s side, comforting her, but her words had caused a sudden snaking fury to erupt in his gut.

“I-” he started, but then took a moment to compose himself. When he did, however, the fury was still there to fuel his tongue. “I am not my pa.” The bitterness in his voice got his mother’s attention and she looked up, wiping the tears away with her hands and causing dirt stains to layer her already dirty face.

“My dearest, your pa was a good man. A great man. Brave, caring, loving too... at times. But he was tormented, and I always thought I could... fix that. And when you came into our lives I was certain of it. I thought that our new, happy, memories will replace everything that he saw out there in all that bloodletting. But some things are beyond our abilities, we are only human beings. You are your papa’s image; I don’t want you to end up carrying so much... so much pain.”

Sugae was drawn to agree with his mother. His father’s memory was larger than life in his mind, a commanding presence and serious visage that had always lent Sugae a maturity greater than his age. But at the same time, it was a great, empty presence. Ravuk had abandoned his wife, and he had abandoned his son. Shammur always told her son that his father had never run from any battle, had stood his ground always. Yet in the face of the great battle of life he had turned tail and run away. Shammur's eyes rested on her son, waiting on a response.

There were a few sombre seconds, and then Sugae’s face lit up suddenly, all signs of anger disappearing as he took two quick strides towards his mother and planted a kiss on her forehead. “My pa was only human, mam, and who isn’t? I would count myself blessed by the Glorified Mojtha if I can be half the man he was. But I want you to never worry yourself about me, mam. I am your son after all and, for all my nonsense, I like to think that you reared me well.” She looked at him with a small sad smile before sighing and holding him close to her, muttering something about my baby. But when she finally spoke there was a seriousness to her voice.

“Your pa knew the bloodletting wasn’t over. He knew they would come for you as they came for him, and he always wanted you to be ready. I... I wasn’t able to prepare you, my dearest. I just... deep down, I thought if we just ignored it and tried to live normal lives it would just never reach us... that you would be my little boy forever. But I was only deluding myself,” she rose and looked to the war-chest his father had left behind. The key was tied around Shammur’s neck and she had only allowed Sugae to look inside on a number of occasions. Now she removed it and handed it to him. “I want you to go to your uncle Bori. He survived the bloodletting and your father always praised his prowess. Convince him to teach you how to fend for yourself before they return. You must be ready.” Sugae looked at the small key, gripping it tightly, and then to the chest. Wondrous things, locks and keys, and no one in Rehna had anything like this one other than priest Ahnu.

“I’ll prepare, mam,” he assured her, “but promise me you'll never worry.” She cocked her head to the side and raised a hand to his cheek, her eyes softening and glistening once more.

“I am a mother, my dearest, and it is the duty of a mother to be always worrying.” He gripped her hand and brought her fingers to his lips.

“Then I must endeavour always to give you no cause to worry.”

When Sugae arrived at the slaughterhouse, Bori was not there. He asked Palwijtha the smith about where he was, and the hammer-wielding veteran of the bloodletting wheezed that Bori had gone off after the soldiers came for his boys. “He used to always go to the lake when he was in a bad way. But he hasn’t gone there since...” Sugae waited expectantly for the giant old smith to finish his sentence, but he only gestured for the boy to go away. “I’ve work to do, whelp. Bori’ll be back when Bori’ll be back.” Sugae was about to respond with some snarky line about the prodigious wisdom of those words, but he somehow doubted the wisdom of annoying a giant with a hammer.

With Palwijtha’s words in mind, he headed for the lake — though he could not remember seeing the butcher there since his early childhood days with his father. Bori had accompanied them on occasion and often brought Hushik and Olkiq along. But though Sugae and the butcher’s boys would swim together often over the years, old Bori never came — even to just watch.

The sun was low in the sky as he crested the hill and the lake spread out before him. He could not see anyone from up there and so descended to look more closely. Here around the lake there were more trees and so the entire area felt more sheltered. Back when his father would take him swimming here, his presence and the trees had given a feeling of complete safety — as though he were tucked into the lap of a valley over which his Ravuk and his host of trees stood guard. The feeling of security this place gave Sugae had never waned.

As he descended, there was suddenly a break in the trees and the light of the setting sun shone upon the lake... and upon a feminine figure stood knee-deep in the water, chanting and slowly pouring water from a clay bowl held high before her. Sugae silently drew nearer and watched from behind a tree, noting that the young woman appeared to be sobbing. He could not see her face, only her long red draping shawl covering her head and back. She was dressed in the long knee-length tunic and baggy trousers common to Rehnites, and her words reach him between sobs.

“We meditate on the glory of that which has produced the world,
“that excellent brilliance of the divine vivifying sun;
“may He enlighten our minds.
“May He enlighten our understandings.
“May we attain that sublime majesty of the god in the sunrays:
“so may He stimulate our prayers.
“We choose your supernal light, oh divine sun;
“we aspire towards it that it may impel our minds.
“Oh you of the cosmos,
“you vital energy of the world,
“essence of our life,
“destroyer of sufferings,
“bearer of brightest happiness
“luminous like the sun,
“destroyer of evil thoughts;
“may we imbibe your divinity and brilliance within us
“so that we may be purified and guided to righteous wisdom.
“Let us adore the supremacy of that divine sun, the godhead
“that illuminates all,
“who recreates all,
“from whom all proceed,
“to whom all must return,
“whom we invoke to direct our understandings on our journey toward His holy seat.
“Unveil your eternal light upon us, oh you who gives sustenance to the world,
“unveil that face of the true sun that we may see the truth and do our whole duty on our passage to your sacred heart.
“We meditate on that adorable glory and radiance;
“may He inspire our intelligence,
“inspire our rise above the world of forms and turn our attention to the all-consuming sun within.
“May He cause us to be absorbed in that sun and make us, in His own likeness, all-luminous.”


With those words, she tipped the contents of the bowl over completely into the water and spun unexpectedly. “So may it be!” She declared loudly, and then fell silent and took an involuntary step back, her eyes on Sugae’s.

The boy was silent and wide-eyed also, for he had not expected to so suddenly be looking — nay, hurtling and falling, drawn in willing and unwilling — into her endless obsidian eyes. He stepped out from behind the tree, and slowly recognition dawned. “So may it be. Don’t be afraid. Th- that was beautiful, Mahula.” She held the bowl close to her chest in one hand and brought part of her shawl over her face to cover everything beneath her eyes, then looked at him carefully, eyes still brimming with tears. She nodded but said nothing. “Are... are you okay?” She turned from him and wiped the tears away, but again made no response, and so he decided it was best to leave her to grieve in peace. “I’m looking for your pa. D’you know where he went?” She looked to the side and gestured off into the distance. He followed her hand to see a figure huddled by the far end of the lake. Thanking her, Sugae made to head for him, but her voice stopped him.

“No, wait. Look... my pa’s not in a good way. Leave him alone for now, please.” He paused, staring at the distant huddled figure, then looked over at her and nodded.

“Alright, but only if you tell me where you learned that chant. Are you a priest?” Despite the melancholia of her earlier chant, she chuckled at his words and shook her head.

“No, women can’t be priests. But priest Ahnu taught me some things. He says that every single person should know some rituals.” While Sugae was naturally involved in the many festivals and rituals that occurred annually in the village, he had never really considered actually learning rituals. Several times a day, his mother poured water at the doorstep of the house from a clay bowl similar to the one Mahula was holding, and every few months she told him to take a goat to priest Ahnu and make a sacrifice to in honour of his father. But beyond that, he had never really thought too deeply about it all. If he was good and took part in all the public rituals when the priest did them, he was sure the gods would be pleased with him.

“Well, if priest Ahnu says that then maybe I should learn some rituals too,” he said offhandedly. Her eyes lit up at his words and there was suddenly an energy and excitement to her as she waded out of the water.

“It’s really easy! And it doesn’t have to be long, you can just say a few words. Here.” She filled the bowl with water from the lake and handed it to him. His fingers brushed briefly over hers, causing him to cough in embarrassment and spill some water. She smiled and brought him knee-deep into the lake. “What do you want from the gods?” She asked. He looked at her, unsure if this was a bewildering dream or reality.

“I want to ask only the strongest god. Uncle Bori always talks of Mojtha.” He told her.

“Oh yes, my pa venerates the Glorified Mojtha most of all. I don’t know if the Mojtha is the greatest god. I talked to one of those ascetic teachers once, and he said that the Mojtha isn’t a god at all. Actually... he said that there are no gods, that every person can become god.” The boy raised his eyebrows at this paradoxical statement. “I don’t know okay! But priest Ahnu said not to listen to him. Anyway. You could pray to anyone of the Thousand Terrible Things and Faces, some of them are truly powerful. Or you could pray to the One Who Frowns. Or you could pray to the Serene Lord who is the source of all things.” He stared at her with a faint smile. “W- what?” She asked.

“Nothing. Just... you really know a lot.” He looked over the lake, the quickly fading sun, the resolute trees standing forever guard. “Can... can I pray to my father?” He asked suddenly, glancing at her. Her eyes softened and she nodded.

“What do you want to ask of him?” Her voice came low, her breath warm and close.

He straightened and looked over the trees and hills towards the fading light of the heavens. “I am Sugaera shib Ravuk. I will be marched to the bloodletting soon, like my father before,” he looked down at the bowl, “I will have his sword and shield, I will wear the battle garments he left me and I will don the warturban. I want him to strengthen my spirit and bless my form.” With that, Mahula told him to raise the bowl before him, no lower than his head, and began to chant rhythmically. He slowly tipped the content of the bowl as he repeated after her.

“When mustered masses lift on high,” she intoned gently.

“When mustered masses lift on high,” Sugae repeated, his voice low and hesitant.

“Their bloodied banners to the sky,” Mahula continued, her near breath causing his ears to tingle.

He spoke slower and more certainly. “Their bloodied banners to the sky.”

“When restless fighters lift their gaze,” he heard her head move, hair rustling, and lifted his chin also, his eyes rising.

“When restless fighters lift their gaze.”

“From blood-red field to sky’s dark haze,” her chant came steady, but louder now and he echoed her growing voice.

“From blood-red field to sky’s dark haze.”

“Oh great Ravuk! Be then my hope and stay!” She did not shout, but her voice cascaded through the air and seemed to pervade everything.

“Oh great Ravuk! Be then my hope and stay!” He repeated, warmth exploding in his chest despite the coolness of the water against his legs.

“And aid your son Sugae in fierce fray!” Her voice dropped and was closer to a whisper, the difference from the previous verse almost dizzying.

“And aid your son Sugae in fierce fray!” With those final words he tipped the bowl’s content completely into the lake, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. The wind whispered on his skin and the light of the quickly-fading sun warmed his eyelids, and the world seemed cosmically tender and safe. When he opened his eyes, Mahula was staring at him with a faint, knowing smile. In the dimming light, she seemed unearthly, her face aflame. “I feel warm,” Sugae noted in a hushed voice. “And you’re beautiful,” he sighed before he could stop himself. She blinked, reddened, and quickly covered her face with her shawl again before turning and wading out of the water. “W-wait. Where are you-” but she was already rushing off into the trees. “Your bowl, you forgot your bowl!” He called, rushing after her.

“You can keep it!” Came her retort.

“But I haven’t learned the chant yet! It’s useless if I don’t know the chant, right?” He cried as he got his feet on dry land. His words caused her to pause this time, and she turned. He looked at her, a smile growing on his face. “If you won’t come teach me again, you might as well take your bowl, right?”

“Your words are sweet and say one thing, but it seems your motives are quite something else, shib Ravuk.” She spoke, somewhat incisively.

“Was it wrong to tell you what is so plainly true? You asked the great god for the truth. Well, here is a truth for you: you are beautiful. You said he created all things, and you praise the sun and light because they were created by him and are beautiful. Well, he created you too and your beauty, so when I praise you I am really praising him, aren’t I?” She looked at him with somewhat startled eyes, never having expected such poetry from him, and then she chuckled, and her chuckle became a wonderfully exuberant and immediately contagious laugh, and so he could not help but be swept up in the irresistible tide of her laughter.

When at last her laughter and his came to a winding close, he stood staring at her with a grin. She looked at him demurely for a few moments, then raised her hand in farewell, turned, and disappeared into the gathering darkness. He took a deep breath, the smile unwavering, the bowl yet in his hand, and he sat beneath a tree and basked in the embers of her warmth and joy.

She met with him many times at the lake after that first time, and each time she brought with her some exciting tale or idea. She seemed to be ever abuzz with life, her mind ever curious and readily amazed. It was like she actively searched for the odd, the curious, the wondrous. But then again, she found something wondrous in near enough anything, seeming to occupy a world quite different from Sugae’s, a world teeming with wonders and marvels.

“Hey, Mahu, do you know how to swim?” He asked her one day, only for her to give him an unimpressed glare.

“Trying to get me out of my clothes, are you? To praise the beauty of my naked form, maybe?” She chuckled.

“Well, would you blame me?” He grinned.

“You’re incorrigible!” She declared, shoving him teasingly.

“Oh, you bring out the best and worst in me. I am beyond saving. But on the bright side, I can teach you to swim.”

“Hah, dream on, shib Ravuk! Maybe I’ll go tell your mam that her son is trying to lead me astray with his many sweet empty words.”

“Empty?” He exclaimed, taking affront, “you can accuse me of whatsoever you wish and tell my mam whatsoever you please, but at the very least recognise my sincerity!” She looked at him, suddenly bashful.

“Will your sincerity save you from my pa’s wrath when he finds out you’ve beguiled his daughter with all these secret lakeside trysts? If you were sincere you would have married me by now.”

“And would you accept me, knowing that soon I may be dead?” His words caused her to stiffen and look away.

“Everyone dies. Why shouldn’t we enjoy what we have while we have it?” She asked.

“It will only cause you pain. Look at Shidhig, look at aunt Dhula. Both of them alone and poor.”

“They may have little coin, but they are not poor or alone!” She insisted, turning to him with anger in her eyes. “Everyone is here for them. Poverty, true poverty in this world of forms, is to have no one at all. But Dhula and Shidhig are not alone. They are loved.” He smiled. “What?” She asked, the anger in her eyes fading into slight annoyance.

“I’m going to teach you to swim.” He stated.

“What? No, I don’t want to sw-” But he caught her by the arm and, before she could protest, scooped her up.

“Oh my- you oaf! Put me down. I’m going to murder yo- he- hey!” But already he was wading into the water and now she was not trying to get away but was holding onto him for dear life. He breathed in her sweet fragrance and, in a hushed, soothing voice, told her to relax. “I hate you.” She grumbled.

“I know.” He grinned. And then her hand cupped his head and brought him to her.

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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by AdorableSaucer
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AdorableSaucer Based and RPilled

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Gibbou


GULP!

SLAM!

CRIIIINGE!

“HAH! YOU LOSE AGAIN! SUCKEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEER!” Gibbou flipped both birds at the figure across the long table, in front of which laid a large, pyramidic arrangement of brim-filled shotglasses, frozen in fear at the sight of their drained brothers and sisters on the opposite end. The figure was speechless, mainly because it had no mouth. Major Rockington of Lightside was a specimen of granite fortitude, a stone of stoic silence, indeed. Its unclearly defined visage was nonetheless in shock and awe at the sheer brutality of the Moon Goddess’ rampage through the liquor cabinet(s). Gibbou let out a simian scream and drummed her chest, still stinky and sticky with yesterday’s vomit. She picked up one of the glasses and hurled it at the major, against whom it shattered into a thousand pieces. Rockington’s expression could hardly be described as anything but stone-faced. Gibbou offered a sour mixture of a hiccup, a laugh and a retch and picked up another glass, tossing it at Kubrajzar. She then danced around in a circle, chanting, “IIIIII AAAAM THE CHAAAAAMPION! IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAM THE CHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMPIOOOOOOOOOON! NOOOOOOOO TIME FOR LOOOOOOOOOOOOSER’S ‘CUZ IIIIIIIIIIIII AAAAAAM THE CHAAAAAAAAAAMPION” She then hopped onto the table. “OF THE MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON!” She then squealed another scream, one that sent the moon foxes running for the craters. Rockington didn’t know what to say. Gibbou ignored his mountainous silence, skipping down from the table again and bouncing her way over to the other side of her glass-dome house, where there stood a tall barrel filled with javelins. A distance off from the barrel stood a target, next to a pile of broken targets. It was wooden, depicting a humanoid figure - or at least an approximation of one - complete with spikes, horns and a mean grin. Over it hung a large cloth sign stretched between two poles on each side of the target. It read, in big, mean, red letters:

|“AIM FOR TEH HEAD, CUZ NEIYA AINT GOT NO HEART >:(“|


Gibbou cracked her knuckles sloppily and gave the non-existent air a sniff. She pulled a javelin out of the barrel with an arm like a tentacle and made great efforts to balance herself. Squinting blindly, she sucked in a breath through biting teeth and tossed, missing the mark so spectacularly that she could feel the distant, mocking cackle of major Rockington. No matter, though - she had her solutions. Strolling over to a small table topped with a mirror pane, she reached for a tipped-over box sitting on it, white powder spilling out of it like a fallen sack of flour. She dunked the rest of its contents onto the mirror, packed it into neat, index-finger sized lines, cleaned her nose out and pressed her face against the glass. She took a deep, deep breath, dragging herself along the mirror with knowingly open eyes, staring her own reflection down into the ground. The kick was almost immediate, and she pulled away before completely finishing the line, grasping her flaming nose.

“OH FUCK, oh fuck, oh, oh, oh, ooooooooh shit… Gaaah… Aaaaa-ah-ah… Fuuuuck me, oh--... MMMmm… Guh, ugh…” She sniffed many, many times, her mind clearing up with lightning speed and her limbs trembling with a sudden influx of energy and focus. She couldn’t help but slap herself sore all over her face, the substance dulling her pain completely. She leaned over and stared her reflection in its pink, bloodshot eyes. She hated it - it was everything she couldn’t stand; this person in this mirror, she had killed millions - she had forsaken the world below and left it without its protector, and she had been defeated by evil herself, proving once and for all that she, Gibbou, could never be the protector she had aspired to be.

She would never be the Shield in the Night.

The goddess snorted another line. She couldn’t have these thoughts - not now - they needed to go away, far away, never-come-back-away. She eyed her right hand - she had been biting her nails a lot lately; she had eaten away at her fingers, too, scabbed and scarred as they had become. A memory flickered from a night earlier in the week (or was it month? Year? Anyway…) when she had had a glass extra before bed. She had had a nice book in her hand - the Story of… Whatever, she couldn’t remember now - and then that glass had become another glass, and then she had gotten hungry, so she had taken her hoe out to tend to her garden, and then she had remembered that she lived on the godsforsaken moon, so of course there had been no fucking garden to tend, had there? And--... No, she had spears to throw - what was she getting upset over now?

She hastened over to the barrel and withdrew a spear with all the expertise of a coked-up athlete. She took only a second to aim before throwing, the spear impaling the Neiya target straight through the forehead and taking the rest of the torso along for a few orbits. Gibbou threw her arms into the air and screamed, “YEEEEEEAAAAH! I WIN! GIBBOU WINS! GIBBOU! WINS!” Her knees gave way underneath her, and she held the celebratory pose as she knelt, the rush of dopamine filling her up like the warmth of a campfire in a winter storm.

“Hey, Gibs,” came a voice. The moon goddess felt the warmth disappear in a flash, and slowly she brought her hands to her ears and took a quivering breath.

“You’re not real, go away.”

It snickered. ”Yeah… Yeah, you keep telling me that. It’s honestly kinda cute that you want to believe it, too.” Footsteps inaudible in the vacuum of space paced around her. Gibbou shut her eyes and bit her lip. ”That was a good throw, by the way. 8.5/10 in my book.”

”I’m just having a bad trip. You’ll be gone in a minute.” Gibbou whispered. The response was a whistle.

”Babe, you know I never, ever go away. The harder you push, the harder I pull, until we both stumble off the cliff and into the endless, black, lonely abyss of nothingness - but hey, at least the two of us will be together, right?” Gibbou felt her chest tighten. Her heart scoffed at her. ”What, do you think you’re the victim here?”

”I’m-... I’m no victim. I--”

”... Need to be protected?”

”No, I can protect myself, just--”

”... Just like you did against me?”

”FUCK YOU! I’m doing perfectly fine on my own! It’s just--”

”... It’s just that sometimes, it’d be nice to have family around, right?”

”... Or someone who would kiss you?”

”... Or maybe just friends to be around?”

”... Like us.”

”No, that’s--!”

”You will remain as you are. Pitiful and weak.

”I cannot believe you fell for my act - did you think you could ever beat me?”

”Your body is the only perfect thing about you.”

”... Maybe… Maybe asking you to be the guardian of the night was a bit too much. You’ve disappointed me, Gibbou. You really have.”

Gibbou pressed her forehead against the lunar ground, her cranium aching from her hands pushing against her ears. ”Orey wouldn’t… She wouldn’t say that!”

”Oh, sure, but she’s thinking it! You know she is! They all are, babe, and you know why?” Gibbou swallowed, biting her lip nearly bloody. ”It’s because… They are right.”

“HELP!”

Gibbou perked up, looking around. The moon was barren as ever, save for a few celestial foxes eyeing warily the creature talking so loudly to itself. The voice offered a surprised whistle. ”How about that! If it ain’t one of those millions of prayers you receive every day. Hey, wanna play a game?”

”Just leave me be,” pleaded the moon goddess as she rolled over into a fetal position. The voice clicked its tongue disapprovingly.

”Oh, come on, you were in such a good mood just five minutes ago. Come on, it’ll be fun! Here, I’ll start.” Gibbou felt the currents of divine essence shift and looked up to behold an image of the mortal in danger, fashioned in ever-changing moon dust. It was a young nelven woman and her newborn, both pressed up against a cliffside. Gibbou could not see what had her cornered, but their dressings indicated that they were bandits. She was in tears, her baby weeping with incomprehension for its mother’s stress. The bandits surrounded her ever tighter by the second. The moon goddess pushed herself up so she could look at the image better. The voice snickered again. ”Lookie here, a mommy and her baby in the process of being robbed. Or, well, I suppose if we’re being realistic, the bandits’ll share her around the camp until she’s on death’s door and feed the baby to the shadowtigers, but hey, that’s just speculation…”

”I… I need to help her.”

”App, app, app! The game’s not set up quite yet.” A full neck turn from the image, there appeared a bottle. Gibbou felt a sting in her chest - not one of pain, but one of need, like staring one’s lover in the eyes. A realisation dawned on her and she slowly shook her nead.

”N-no…”

”Soooo here are the rules…”

”I can’t…” she pleaded.

”... You can either save her - I’m sure you’ve already figured out a bunch of ways to do so… Turn the bandits into bats, give her super strength, teleport her away, lotsa ways out of this…”

”I, I can’t, I…”

”Oh, for sure, you may fuck it up entirely, like you always do. Not guaranteed, but you most like would, and then it’ll all be on you. It’ll be your fault that she was raped, or worse, and her baby, murdered, or worse. It’ll be your fault and yours alone.”

Gibbou couldn’t even answer anymore, so choked up was she that ever sobbing felt like vomiting. The voice sighed.

”... Or… You can take the bottle - leave her to her fate. It’s her fault that she got caught, anyway. Nothing you can do about it, really.”

“KIPPOM, PLEASE!” the voice called out again. The baby squealed louder. Gibbou clawed at the skin around her ears, drawing godly blood.

”MAKE IT STOP! TELL HER TO SHUT UP!”

”Well, I happen to know of a good way to chase away the voices.” A tink-tink of nail against glass sounded from the bottle and Gibbou’s bloodshot eyes regarded it hungrily. Her breathing slowed as her stress seemingly vanished at the thought - the voices, they would be gone.

The image unleashed a cacophony of screams and dark laughter as the bandits finally reached her. Immediately, Gibbou sat back up and took the bottle into her hands. She pressed her lips against its opening and drank as though her life depended on it. She could hear the voice snicker. ”Yeah, that’s it. That’s how you shut us out. No, no, don’t stop. Gotta down the whoooole thing. Thaaaat’s it.” As she drank, she could hear it - she could hear it all. The mother crying and screaming for them to stop; the men laughing and grunting and egging each other on; and the baby was nowhere to be heard.

A hollow dunk that could not be heard signalled the bottle's soft crash to the lunar surface, Gibbou retching at the flavour of its contents. She could practically hear the skin tighten around the voice’s many-faced smirks. Her body falling into turmoil between depressants and stimulants, Gibbou felt her mind grow mushy.

”Did you ever consider how you may be more Twilight than Titania?”

Gibbou lifted her groggy eyes, her sight foggier than mountaintop clouds. However, for a few seconds, she saw her - her reflection: beautiful, innocent, powerful - everything everybody loved about her.

But it wasn’t her.

Its face winked and the voice snickered as the figured faded away. ”See you tomorrow.”

Then Gibbou fell asleep.




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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Commodore
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Commodore Condor

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&
Soleira




A shining barge, golden in all color and aspect, coming down the river from the mountain way. None could see anyone on the deck of it as it moved with purpose down the flow, although they could have hidden in the interior of it as could be seen.

It was a bit overcast as the day had gone on, not something completely enjoyable but it was still warm enough. The barge moved on past the wonderful scenes of plant and animal life. The myriad of colors and luminosity that still bombarded every sense as any who called the Luminant home grew used to in time. And down it came further and further from the mountain getting closer and closer.

The barge suddenly stopped moving. The water beneath it laid still. The current moved along it. Slightly pushing up against the banks of the river they flowed around. On those banks, safely removed from the coursing water, stood Kal supported by his staff with his pet leon sitting beside him. Eyeing the barge with the natural paranoia of a predator. The human mortal looked more at ease. “Hail, avatar of the divine.” He shouted out. “I would ask a moment of your time before you continue on your journey.”

The ground beneath them lifted, carefully collected and solidly stable as it brought Kal and his Leon over the water and onto the barge itself. Three snake heads of large size appeared from the interior darkness of the vessel, and began to speak.

"You may have it servant of a God that we both know."

"Although we do not appreciate the interference with our vessel, you are granted option to speak."

Next to Kal the Leon began to growl at the creature. Spreading its wings wide as it tried to look ever bigger than before. “Easy dear. Easy. They won’t harm us.” He said as he petted the side of his companion. It didn’t particularly listen. “And my apologies for the diversion of the currents. I didn’t anticipate my siblings taking a note of this area so soon. I would’ve tried to reach you earlier if I was prepared. Regardless, I’d simply ask for your purpose here, in this quaint little corner of the world.” Kal was still smiling, but inside a battle raged between the primal response of the body and Qael’Naath’s own will. The god was winning, easily, but the flesh was still fighting the desperate battle.

Two of the heads ignored the Leon, the other looked with hungering eyes briefly before turning back to match the being before them. "Our master has sent us to gather information, and converse among such things. I'm sure you understand his wish for knowledge."

"And you know this corner of Toraan is hardly quaint or of little import, especially to the Undying God." The one of hungering looks chimed in.

"We bring no harm or such intents do not worry about such." The third and previously unspoken provided.

“That is a relief to hear.” Kal said with a smile towards the last of the three heads speaking. Then he turned to the second head. “Apologies. I forgot your master and I have a different viewpoint on what quaint is.” Then he turned to the final head. “If it is merely information and conversation you seek then I shall no longer keep you up. Qannet, veros nee utzelf.” The river began to flow normally again. Allowing the barge to carry on its journey. Meanwhile the older man climbed up the white fur of his mount. Atop the leon he said: “Before I forget. I know you refrained from speaking a certain name to a certain person far from here. You have my thanks for that but I would also ask you to still refrain from speaking that name now and here.” With a soft smile then, the leon lifted up from the deck of the barge. Flying away towards the riverbank again.

With him departing via flight, two heads, Kiim and Jaav watched and Guul dutifully returned the lifted with him originally back to the river back before the barge traversed too far down the river. And so they continued on their journey, visitor departed and earthen waste deposited, the three continued on the barge, disappearing back inside as the shining ship traveled. It would not be too long until the untamed realms along the river grew used with farmers and farming done all along its backs as they grew nearer to Soleras and the target of their mission.

Soleira was walking amid the planted fields. Standing amid rows of wheat. Her hand going over the kernels of the grain. People were standing behind and around her. Seemingly waiting. “Yeah.” She finally said. “Yeah I think they’re ready to be harvested.” She didn’t sound particularly happy about it but knew that if people wanted to survive, they had to farm. Still, slaughtering so much plantlife in one fell sweep hurt. The people behind her already walked away to grab their sickles to reap their bounty. Soleira remained, sitting down amid the plants. “I’m really sorry you know. Just know that your children will grow up tall and strong as well. And some of them will be planted free.” The plants just waved in the gentle breeze. “I’m sorry. That probably doesn’t mean much to you now. But I’m grateful. We’re all grateful for you.” She said, then looked up at the cloudy sky. “And thank you too. For a bountiful harvest.” She quietly said with her eyes closed, as a prayer to whatever god was responsible for the reaping.

“Soleira!” A kid came running. “A-a boat!” He yelled.

Soleira stood up. Almost towering over the golden plants around her. With a single clap of her wings she was out and saw the kid. She landed close to him. “What do you mean? What’s the problem?” She asked. Boats weren’t such a strange sight around Soleras. They had small fisher’s rafts of their own to use on the rivers. Some strangers liked paddling up and around the rivers to trade.

“No it’s.. it’s coming from the mountains.” The kid said, pointing up north. “It’s big and… like wheat but glittering!”

The Oraeliari frowned. Usually boats came from the south, from the lake. Once again she took to the sky and headed towards the river. The barge wasn’t hard to spot. She flew closer. Curious who’d come downstream in such an opulent fashion. Several farmers were looking at it as well.

The barge continued on its course regardless of the gaping sight of the many farmers. Three large serpents heads emerged from the interior, lazily gazing around before centering themselves on Soleira herself. No words or great sounds came forth from them but the barge stayed in course and travel with her.

Farmers screamed and shouted as they ran away seeing the three massive serpent heads. They were fleeing for their lives no doubt. The screams in turn pulled the attention of the few guards. Some swallowed their fear and ran towards the riverbank with javelins and spears. “Wait!” Soleira yelled. It was too late. The first few javelins were already thrown. Soleira dove down, right in time to create the shield. The javelins bounced off harmlessly against the translucent, blue shield made of hexagons. “Wait.” She repeated, keeping her eye on the three-headed creature. From her vantage point up high she saw it only had one body. Despite the frightening sight, it didn’t seem like it would attack.

“Maybe it’s a friend.” She said to the warriors at the riverbank. Who stood ready with javelins again. “You are a friend, right?” She then asked the three-headed creature.

"Friendly enough at any rate!" one of the serpent heads spoke out loud, its meaning understood by all present.

Another one of the heads watched the throwers speaking thus, "We have to thank you for your consideration alas we do not need more spears at this time." It turned towards Soleira. "And for your consideration although the donation of spears would not have harmed us."

The Three heads continued watching Soleira and the populace, but now came more fully out on the barge, revealing themselves to be three serpents heads and bodies serving as necks connected to a great lizard like form. A golden spear rested on one side of the creature.

“Oh.” Soleira said as she dropped the shield. The javelin throwers refrained from attacking, though kept their eyes on Soleira flying above. From the distance several more Oraeliari armed with spears came flying towards the barge as well. Those few outcasts that had chosen to join the relative security of Soleras. For a second everyone was quiet. The four winged Oraeliari observed it’s scaled body and the spear it seemingly carried. She didn’t land on the barge, but kept hovering just above it. “So… can I ask why you’re here?”

The barge lifted ever so little out of the water to meet her feet as she came close.

"My my, ever so many questions you have. The answer is a simple one."

"We came to talk."

"We came to visit."

"And we came to speak most of all with you dear, although your many friends and such we have some manner of interest as well."

For a second Soleira looked down. She didn’t fly down. How did her feet touch the deck then? Gasps from the side of the bank gave her the answer. The boat was going up. “Wait, me?” She asked, genuinely surprised. “Why me?” She asked. She wasn’t anyone special. Sure she was the ‘queen’ now but there were so many tribes and villages around. Some of them bigger than Soleras. There was also the Bastian and the Spire. Great monuments pulled from the ground by the gods. Soleras was of no real importance in the area.

The three exhaled in short bursts, it took a moment to realized this was something like laughing perhaps? In any case one followed up. "Yes, you. Did you not realize your own importance? Or perhaps you'd rather lie to your own self there?"

Another called out to all the others around them, "Let me ask all of you, how many of you believe her to be of great importance? How many think she is worthy to be spoken to as we have?"

The third head remained silent, although watched Soleira carefully.

She didn’t lie. Did she? No. No! She was just… an Oraeliari… with four wings on her back. Who could cast magic. Something she only recently learned. But does that make her special. She looked at the other Oraeliari in the sky. All had two wings. None of them could perform magic. The mortals on the ground couldn’t create the shields she could. Nor could anyone she ever met talk to animals. “I-I…” She tried to defend herself. Instead she felt shame creeping up.

Meanwhile on the bank many confused soldiers looked at each other. As did the Orealiari loyal to Soleira. One finally spoke up: “She is our queen.” The others looked up at the one who spoke, and then nodded. Each repeating the words. Soleira was their queen.

“Sorry.” She finally said, quiet enough so only those in the barge could hear it. “I’m still not really used to it.” Then she set her own feelings aside .”I’m sorry, I haven’t introduced myself.” A smile appeared on her lips as she looked up. Her face still quite red from the shame. “Maybe you would want to moor your boat somewhere so the- my people could bring some food and drinks?”

"That is accep-"

"VERY Welcome Indeed! I am sure we'll be fast friends yes surely."

The barge began to move, the third head spoke softly so that just Soleira may hear. "Do not worry, nor treat yourself harshly. We have understanding that such admissions can be tough, even if they are necessary. You have much virtue, your faults are like flecks among the ocean of gold. Worry not."

Soleira just offered her a meek smile. Meanwhile many of the Oraeliari were already landing. Rather frightened farmers came back. Holding baskets with fruit and bread. Soleira looked over the side of the boat for a second. “I… think it won’t really be a feast. I’m really sorry. If you stick around until this evening I could put something more grand together?” She offered.

A few pieces lifted out of the baskets, doing flips and rings in the air as they gently drifted towards the three headed creature. "I know not why you are sorry, but I am quite glad. We would love to stay and enjoy such hospitality. A feast would give up good time indeed to speak and get to know all much better I would say."

"And for you to fill our stomachs..."

That evening, as the sun started going low a grand fire was lit in honor of the visitor. During the day Soleira and the strange creature, named Kiim’Jaav’Guul had talked at length about all sorts of sometimes somewhat trivial stuff. The Oraeliari still had difficulty with the idea that they were three, yet all part of one body. Somehow. Still, she walked with him towards the fire. “I’m sorry for the lack of meat.” She said. No goats or cows had died recently. She knew it was a small tradition she was holding on to, and everyone else was holding on to for her sake but she knew in due time her people would have to raise and slaughter animals before their time. Still, the longer she could hold it off, the better. “But there is much fruit and- oh look! They baked fresh bread.” From one of the ovens one of the bakers pulled out the rather flat, dense bread and put it in a basket. “I hope it’s enough for you.” Soleira said as she took a seat around the fire, motioning towards Kiim’Jaav’Guul to sit beside her as someone handed her an empty bowl. Most of the humans around the fire had gotten eerily quiet, as they watched the scaled, three-headed creature.

"I will gladly take as much-"

"And as little..."

"-as you would provide."

They quickly moved to sit beside her at the fire as they were best able, lounging sideways on to allow their body to take in the warmth, their serpentine heads coiling near Soleira.

"A curious tradition to keep from slaughter of animals, one rarely found, even those who need not the meat have little inclination to keep completely clean of such."

“It’s hard to kill a friend you’ve talked to their entire life.” Soleira said, then leaned in a little closer. “People around here… don’t want to upset me I think. So they only eat meat when an old animal finally dies.” It was selfish really. She should tell them to eat meat. But she couldn’t stand the idea of looking over the little goat kids knowing they’d die in a few months or years.

She grabbed another bowl and put it by the three headed creature. “People will come around with food like berries and fruit. If you want some you just have to raise your bowl and they’ll- wait. Like this.” Someone was just passing with a much larger bowl filled with berries. Soleira just raised her bowl over her head, pulling her wings close around her. The girl happily placed some berries in the bowl. Then she walked on, putting berries in other people’s bowls that were raised. Meanwhile Soleira popped one of the fiery red berries in her mouth and smiled at the serpentine creature.

Without much ado a bowl floated above their heads. Jaav, turned to watch those with the larger bowls moving around. Kiim spoke, "You hold much influence over them truly there."

"Do you like it here, being the 'Queen' of all of these people?" Guul replied attentively as Kiim looked around at the various peoples, Humans and Oraeliari.

Soleira’s smile brightened even more. “I do, actually.” She said with an excited voice. “I get to help a lot of people here. Not just from the village. See them.” She nodded quickly to a family sitting by the fire. They were laughing and smiling at one of the little boys pretending to be flying around. “They came from south of here. Fled the War in the Skies. Now they have food and help us farm.” Then she nodded towards two men. They were quiet, but ate. “They were slaves. Now they’re free and help building houses.” Then she nodded towards the few Oraeliari. “Exiles.” Soleira said, her tone a bit more somber. “They didn’t want to fight our Neiyari kin. Here they don’t have to fear either side. People are safe here, because of me.” That one fact made her chest swell with pride. “And they prosper. It’s not all perfect. We need to farm more and more every week and I fear that some chiefs nearby might want what we have soon.” She would share, always. But not everyone was interested in sharing. “But right now… yeah. I love being their queen.” It was weird to say it out loud though.

Guul and Kiim looked at each other briefly when she finished before each wordlessly went back to the crowds and Soleira as before. Jaav was much too distracted by food and the carriers of food to discuss much as Kiim spoke. "You seem to care much about your people, truly care about them, a rarity among most of all mortals that claim a title such as yours."

They continued not quite waiting for a response, speaking low as their words guided solely to her ears, "Do you fear it? War? And all the conflict and death it may bring?"

Her smile faded as she looked down at her bowl. For a second Soleira was quiet. “I do. A lot.” She finally admitted. “I don’t want to fight and I don’t want people to die.” And she knew she couldn’t stop it. For some reason some people just wanted more, and would take it in any way they could. Soleira had been asking herself for days whether or not she would rise up against whoever would come. So far she couldn’t answer that question.

In an attempt to lighten the mood though, she raised her hand towards one of the people giving out food. Though the second she did, several others she didn’t mean to call moved towards her as well. “My friend’s very hungry.” She said as a few got close. “Could you give him some?” The people nodded and started filling the floating bowl of Kiim’Jaav’Guul with some torn off bread, fruits, cooked vegetables and berries. “There you go.” She said with a smile to the head named Jaav.

"Very much obliged." Kiim sighed as Jaav set in on his bowl, they turned back to Soleira even as Guul hadn't left focus. Guul moved down as Kiim came closer and spoke.

"Many mortals fear death, many take comfort in ideas of what comes after." Kiim paused looking back to the crowds and flowing peoples, continuing, "Many ensure it comes all the quicker to others, one people to their own, or to another. It matters not what it is, if they are alive then they seem all very quick to ensure another is not."

Soleira, for the first time since she met Kiim’Jaav’Guul, frowned. “That’s not true.” She said. “Not many. Few. Only a few people want others to die.” She motioned around, towards everyone around the fire. “If as many people as you say want to ensure the end of others, nobody would be sitting here. Laughing and talking. People don’t want blood, they want peace, safety, happiness. War and murder doesn’t give them that.” It was the few rotten apples amongst most people that caused that suffering. The problem was that they were prominent. One murderer stands out amid a flock of people who don’t want to hurt others.

Kiim did the same wordless exhalation that signified laughter as the Three had done earlier, Guul merely looked away. They replied, "You are entitled to your ideas, your opinions, and your view. It is your life to live. It is not our, or my, place to assuage you differently."

Jaav was actively eating a loaf of bread as one might have seen a snake eat an egg, slowly swallowing having engulfed the mass in his jaw.

“But you don’t agree with me.” It was more of a statement than a question. Soleira couldn’t quite understand why Kiim’Jaav’Guul’s views bothered her so much, but they did. They were overly simplistic and generalized. Assuming the worst of everyone. Yes, even normal people would march to war at times. She had seen it happen in the last thirty years amongst the human tribes. But they did so only to defend or protect their village. Even if that sentiment was misguided. Maybe… Maybe that’s why she was here. To make sure nobody would be misguided again?

“Then how do you think all of these people are still here together?” She asked the Three. The question was a genuine one.

"Well the food is good for one," Jaav interrupted just as Kiim opened to reply, causing a rapid turn and a glare before Kiim turned back, Jaav stuck out a tongue in defiance unbeknownst to Kiim as they replied.

"Do not misunderstand me by your own measures, dividing the world into dark and light when each only exists in contrasting shadow from the same source. You speak as though you know the whole host of life from pointing to its specs." Kiim nodded their head to others that were around, "You say these ones are good and only a few others are bad, yet by what judgement do you make of them, by what right and knowledge can you delineate good and evil in one when each is connected to a thousand others in making. I do not say that, that all are good, or all are bad in their souls. You cannot judge character, skill, or virtue in a rigged game of life. It is rigged to set them upon each other, whether they know they do such or not."

The words of Kiim overwhelmed her. She knew she wasn’t grasping the fullest of what he was saying but she believed, after a moment to gather her thought, that she at least understood what he meant. “I’m sorry.” She first said with a little shame. “I shouldn’t- you are right. I misunderstood you. This-“ she motioned at the people around her again. “-isn’t much.” But it was all she knew so far. “And when I say only a few are as… dark gray I only speak of what’ve seen myself.”

But then something else lit up in her heart. A fire nobody could quench. “But you are wrong about life.” She said, looking up. Normally she would be so uncertain. Now she wasn’t. “It’s not a rigged game. It’s just life. Painful things happen.” She remembered that fateful night in the cave, when the Neiyari had come. “Just as good things happen.” Her eyes wandered around the people around the fire. Her people. “And even if life’s rigged… I don’t care. Maybe the world is a lot worse than I think it is but I don’t care. I have these people and… and I’ll work – day and night – to give them more happiness than they have pain.” Then she turned to face Kiim with a smile on her lips and a fire blazing in her eyes.

“I might not know the whole host of life but I know this place and I know that I can make it a better place. Even if that’s just a speck. At least it will be a good speck.”

Kiim was silent for a bit, finally turning their head and speaking, keeping one eye centered on Soleira. "Very well, make the greatest spec you can at the very least. But do not forget that all things are connected."

"The hunter takes the game, the wolves go hungry and prey upon the herd, the herders bring their animals closer to the river, they pollute the water, the townsfolk complain of the evils and laziness of the herders. Keep a eye to the big picture if you are to make a good one, not just one that sells the idea of being good."


“A challenge of balance.” Soleira said with a smile. “I understand.” But she wasn’t sure if she saw the whole picture in her speck yet. That would take much more time. Though Kiim had given her plenty to think on. “Thank you.” She then said as she put her bowl down, leaned in and hugged the neck of Kiim. “For your lessons. I will never forget them.” When she released the hug though, she pointed at the bowl of Jaav and said: “Maybe you should eat a bit as well. I’m guessing with you three connected only one of you needs to eat, but tasting things is an experience in of its own. Trust me, the berries are delicious!” And to prove it, she popped a blue one in her mouth, but spat the seeds she could save from her mouth back out and put it in a small pouch dangling off her hip.

Jaav grinned, as much as a snake could in any case, as Guul took a small bite and Kiim replied. "I prefer not to consume much of anything alive or previously in such a state. Jaav has a much different opinion as you may tell..."

"Don't worry, Kiim just is a bit of a stickler for things, I've only gotten them to even taste things a few times, to actually eat something is another matter."

The feast continued on deep into the night. Roles were switched every so often. Those who handed out food were allowed to sit after about an hour, and others took their place. The queen herself even rose up to hand out bread from the basket. As the moon rose high above them though, she did silently pray to Gibboura to forgive them for staying up so late. But her people deserved it. They were hard working and kind, letting Kiim’Jaav’Guul join in with the feast. The Three and she had spoken at length about many subjects and had given her much to think about. Something she was grateful for.

When the moon was reaching its peak though, most people grew tired and the flames started to dim. It was time to sleep. The next morning, in the crisp morning air Soleira flew towards the barge upon which Kiim’Jaav’Guul had come carrying a basket covered with cloth containing fruits, berries and bread. A little gift for the Three. Well, mostly Jaav it would seem, as he thoroughly enjoyed eating.

The basket floated from her grasp towards the Three gently enough as Jaav spoke. "Thank you very much! It is much appreciated."

Kiim rolled their eyes looking away from Jaav, speaking to Soleira themselves, "Our visit has been most enlightening, we'll be keeping an eye on the region."

"We have a mutual friend, you should talk to him whenever he stops by with that rather unique pet, he does know a thing or two we have to say." Guul spoke last, even if rather cryptically.

For a second Soleira was confused about what Guul meant. Then she realized it. “Oh you mean Kal! He’s actually staying at the village. It was odd that he wasn’t there yesterday, but I’m happy you got to meet him anyway. Yeah, we’ve been talking a lot about a lot of things, but mostly magic.” She told Guul with a smile.

Then she turned to Kiim. “You can come visit anytime you want! I’ll try to have a bigger feast prepared for when you do.”

Guul nodded, as Jaav cut in. "That will be most welcome! Truly, we most enjoyed our time here."

Kiim huffed, or as much as they were able to, saying, "In any case we must be off, we have other business and matters to attend to further."

With that the barge began to pull away, slowly at first before rocketing to the north east. The Three were gone, at least for now.

Soleira waved for a while. They probably were already too far away to see her when she finally dropped her arm and walked back towards the field. The oxen were a little restless for some reason. They told her it was something in the sky. Like a shadow looming over them. She didn’t really know what it could be. The birds said they thought they saw some dark clouds that weren’t there. Though she hoped Kiim’Jaav’Guul had a pleasant flight without much rain. Then it was time to work. With ard ready she went off to the field.

“That’s a beautiful gift.” A woman noted who worked beside Soleira.

“Sorry?”

“Your necklace?” The woman said, pointing right under her neck.

Soleira looked down, confused. Only to notice the strange pendant hanging there. “That wasn’t-” She touched it. The metal was cold, but etched in a strange way. “Thank you.” She muttered while looking up at the horizon where the barge had vanished. It was as much a genuine thank you as it felt like a prayer.





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“How about Zenith?” Kal asked, sitting on his rock. Soleira was just taking a break in the shade of the trees near him.

She perked up and turned to look at him. “What about it?”

“Your way of magic.” Kal said. “You say you control the wind so far.” Soleira nodded. “And the way you perform it… it’s gentle. Calming. A simple question. But maybe it’s more than that. Maybe it’s more like… a view of life. The idea that you shouldn’t force anything. You flow with whatever happens and so achieve more magical power. Not because you take it but because you ask for it.”

Soleira just smiled. “People seem to like talking about deeper things with me lately.” She quipped. Which brought a smile on Kal’s face as well. But then she got a little bit more serious. “I like it. Zenith. Height, right?” She looked up at the multi-colored sky. “Maybe it would give me control over more as well.” She wished she could manipulate light someday. Fracture it like water would and cast a rainbow of colors upon the land. “But maybe it should be about more than just magic. You said my viewpoint on life gives me the ability to control magic. What if Zenith isn’t just about using that viewpoint. What if Zenith is about attaining that viewpoint as well.”

The old man leaned back against the stone as to make himself comfortable before motioning at her: “Please then, teach us.”

The Oraeliari was surprised for a second, and then tried to gather her thoughts to make some eloquent teachings. Like Kiim’Jaav’Guul had done. It didn’t really work. So she just decided to talk truly. “It starts with that.” She said, pointing at the earth.

Kal raised an eyebrow. “Farming?”

“No. Well… yes. Tending a field. By hand. It gives you time, you know. Lets you reflect upon things. It’s good exercise as well. Which is important if you want to think clearly.” Something she realized some years ago. “And you do it together. With everyone around you. There will be too much food coming from the field you work but that’s also part of the thinking. It’s selflessness. Everything made in excess goes to other people.”

The old man rubbed his chin. “And this is your idea for the viewpoint?” He asked, without any judgement.

“Well, it’s the start.” Soleira said, visibly looking happier for finally having pulled those ideas together. “So… what’s yours called?”

Kal had already been looking out towards the horizon. Pondering upon Zenith. How he might help it. Improve it a little. Make it a genuine path for mortals to walk upon. The question took him by surprise as well. “My way? Oh you mean…” The arrogance. The confidence. Demanding the world to change for you. Be unyielding and unmoving. “I… never thought about it. I’ve always just called it sorcery. Thinking it as the only way to use it.” That was no longer true, and he realized sorcery simply wouldn’t cut it anymore. In regards of the ideas of Zenith it was polar opposite though. “Nadir.” He finally said. “I think I’ll call it Nadir.”

Again the two carried their discussions long into the night. This time though, Soleira woke up in her own bed. For days on Soleira would first help with the ards and oxen before sitting in the shade and talking at length about how she saw the world and how it related to magic. It didn’t take long before people gathered around them. With sticks the two of them began to explain each their viewpoints as they drew into the dirt. Quickly realizing that they weren’t in opposition but complimentary to each other. Where before the concepts were thought separate, they were then taught in relation to each other. Sadly, that started to draw ire.

It was on a cloudy day when the two were talking as much to each other as they were with the people around them when two people approached the group. “Telinar Timor has summoned your presence.” The two said. Kal, confused, looked at Soleira. Who looked a bit pale. “They’re… mages. They use magic. Normally they stick around in their villages and such. I didn’t think they’d ever come to Soleras.” Kal cocked an eyebrow at that, but decided to play along for now. The two of them followed the two men towards the edge of the quickly growing village. There they met a small gathering of people. Each looking rather richly dressed for the area. With visible gold jewelry. Soleira, been given the title of Queen, didn’t even have anything silver on her. Save for the golden pendant of course.

“Greetings friends, greetings.” A man wearing a mask said. On his back he carried a strange construct of feathers. Seemingly meant to mimic folded wings. Compared to Soleira’s real wings they looked utterly ridiculous. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Telinar Timor. I understand that you are a stranger to these lands.” He said, pointing his staff at Kal. Who chuckled but nodded. “Well then. Allow me to explain. A Telinar, as I am, asks the gods for help and pay the price required. So we may shape the world.”

“So you’re a druid? You drank from the horn?” Kal asked.

“The horn? Oh you must mean that wretched thing that cuts you off from the gods their anima. Oh heavens no. We would never stoop so low. Though it is interesting that you know of it. Anyway, no we mostly work the anima as the gods see fit for us. But enough about me. Some goodhearted people have told me a few things about the two of you. Claiming you have found a new way to manipulate the anima. Tell me, is it true?”

Soleira stepped forth. “It is.” She said, undeterred by the rather condescending tone of the man. “Zenith and Nadir. Strength and compassion. Demand and ask. And it works.”

“Hmm, I’m sure it does.” The Telinar said. “You may not grasp it yet, but what you are using is probably demonic and dangerous. Use it too much and you will summon a demon, which will devour you whole.”

“I…” Soleira looked shocked at the man. Summon a demon? She heard stories but.. she never felt as if her own magic was in any way so evil. “I didn’t know.”

“Ah, there are many things you don’t know my child.” The man said.

Kal could almost feel the vile smile burning through his mask. But then noticed something. His eyes. Not one color but a hundred, fractured like glass shattered in his eyes. His squinted. “He’s lying.” Kal said as he stepped forward.

The Telinar looked at him. “I will allow that, stranger. But I am not. Both of you are playing with dangerous powers you’d best avoid.”

“Another lie.” Kal said, as he now stood right in front of the masked man. Though he was quite a bit smaller considering the mortal body’s age. “The magic we practice is the same magic you use. In fact, it has nothing to do with the gods. You’re not asking anything of them. You’re using anima, and I would be insulted if you pretend you had any connection to any god.”

For a second the two men waged a silent war of wills. They stared each other down. Seeing who would relent first. Neither did. Finally Timor spoke up: “Very well, stranger. I will prove to you my power. A duel of magic. Do you accept.”

“I do.”

Five minutes later they stood opposite of each other. Twenty meters stood between them. A brazier was burning in front of the Telinar. Soleira stood on the sidelines, clutching the amulet the Three had given her not so long ago. Afraid of what was about to happen. Why did people always have to fight!?

With a silent signal the battle commenced. Except Kal did nothing. He just stood there, grinning.

Timor spared no time to pull out the image of a bear with a half-moon carved on it’s belly and crushed it in his hands, letting the crumbled pieces fall into the brazier. For a second a pale white light flickered around him. Then he conjured out a clay tablet showing three arrows, each copper-tipped. He flicked a knife across a fingertip and coated it with blood, before throwing into the smoldering brazier as well. Strangely enough, the tablet ignited instantly. Bright blue flames consumed it whole. Leaving nothing but ash. From three points in the ground around Kal giant stone triangles emerged and roared straight towards Kal. Slamming around him. Apparently the Telinar wanted to be sure. Because he also conjured up a red gem and tossed it in the brazier. It burned in much the same way as the tablet. Fire burst from between the stone. Engulfing everything that had been within.

“Kal!” Soleira screamed.

For a second the Telinar had a satisfied grin on his face. Until the brazier before him flickered and went out.

“Not bad.”

Everyone could hear coming from the rock formation where Kal stood just a moment ago. Part of it began to move and crumble. Revealing an utterly untouched Kal walking out of the makeshift stone tomb. The stone inside was entirely blackened but not even his hair was singed. “If you were on the right side of history I could make you impress me. As it stands though, you and your people seem to be suffering under some delusions of grandeur. I suppose I will have to make an example out of you.” He drew his stone knife from his belt and slowly started walking towards a desperate Telinar. Who threw carved objects of bone, clay and wood into the extinguished brazier. With every step he became visibly more desperate, but nothing ignited in blue flames.

Eventually he snatched off the very small, golden pendant from his neck and raised it up. “Gods give me strength in exchange for this gold!” He shouted out. For a second everyone stood completely still. Waiting for something to happen.

“Let’s end this charade.” Qael raised a single hand and roots of trees burst from the ground. Wrapping themselves around the man’s arms and spreading them out. The grabbed him by the throat and pushed him down to his knees. He was pleading. Qael, up in his own realm watching through the mortal’s eyes, began to see why Auriëlle loved this so much. Kal back on Galbar raised his knife to strike down at the man.

As it came down, it bounced off a suddenly appearing light-blue translucent shield. His eyes grew wide as he looked at Soleira. She had been crying. Tears still streamed down her face but there was only determination in her eyes. “Don’t kill him, Kal. Please.”

“He stands against our creation. Against what we made.” Kal said.

“I know.” Soleira said as she stepped closer. “But I can’t let you kill him.”

Kal and Qael, neither fully understood the turmoil that was raging inside them now. “I’m doing this for Zenith and Nadir. I’m doing this for you.” The Telinar deserved to die. But at the same time he never wanted to go against his own daughter. Even now he could see the sadness in her eyes.

“And I’m doing this for us.” Soleira said, still determined. “If you kill him now, Zenith and Nadir will forever be tainted. Made on a base of blood. I can’t let that happen. Please, please put the knife down.” Kal realized she wasn’t telling or ordering him, as she should as queen, but she was pleading with him.

His heart shrunk in his chest. He looked at the stone knife in his hand. After a second he dropped it. The sharp point fell down into the earth. He started walking away from the scene. With a single tap of his staff the roots coiled off of the Telinar. Who fell over onto the ground. Though when he stood beside Soleira he stopped: “Remember, he tried to kill me and you didn’t stop him then. You will have to act faster, Soleira.” And then he walked away.


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Hidden 5 mos ago 5 mos ago Post by Leotamer
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CERES
in
DEHRTHAA



The divine avatar, Ceres, draped in ragged clothes to hide her unusual starry form though she could do nothing to hide her towering stature, walked down the road, followed by a small child similarly covered.

As they walked, Ceres stopped and examined a pile of rocks. They were familiar. She could almost sense Sirius’ presence cast over them, and heard him whisper, “Nirjurti”

Her head did not move, and she realized she had allowed herself to become distracted and now heard a person quickly walking towards them. She turned and looked at the girl she was travelling with who had taken and gently placed a small rock unto the pile and was praying.

“Good evening to you, friends,” the approaching old man called out to them. He was bald and long of beard, his skin dark and wrinkled - the lines of laughter mixing with those of age. He held a staff in one hand and was dressed in nothing but an old white loincloth. As he approached his black eyes shifted from Ceres to the little girl. “Ah, a roadside shrine. May the lord Nirjurti bless you my child, and guide your footsteps to wisdom and righteousness.” He picked up the same rock the girl had placed and sat by the shrine, which approached head height when he was seated. He reached into the back of his loincloth and emerged with a small sharp rock and got to chipping away at the stone until a small face was apparent in the rock. It was not the most beautiful or well-made, but it was a small contribution. The old man placed it back on the pile and, getting to his knees and placing the front of his fists together, spoke a prayer.

“O great lord, o Nirjurti! Let the protective sheath of your guidance be ever present with us on our travels. Let our chants go on constant and unceasing, every step a call on you, every breath a prayer. Bless the road, master of roads, and show us the wisdoms and glories that we may know the world for what it is. Let our life-journey cast us free of suffering and pain, let it free us of the shackles of fleeting joys and illusionary happinesses.” He bowed his head and was quiet for a time, and then sat back and looked at Ceres and the girl.

Ceres was cautious of the man, he didn’t seem to be particularly dangerous but mortals are fickle beings. The girl was also nervous around the man, though at this point she would be startled by a falling leaf. Part of the avatar wanted to simply leave, however she thought it might set a bad example for her new charge. She was also still interested in this shrine, noting the carving that the elderly man made, she ended up speaking but thinking, “And what is this carving of?”

The old man looked her up and down, curiosity dancing in his eyes. “Ah, new to these roads are you? Come from far away perhaps?” He tapped the carved rock. “It is a small and poor carving in honour of lord Nirjurti, who made the stars and roads, whom the augurs and astrologers all turn to.” He rooted around in the back of his loincloth, where there seemed to be a large pocket, and emerged with a small blue stone that glinted in the dying embers of the sunlight as though it had stars within. “See, I keep it always. Great Nirjuri has cast stars into certain stones, and this is just one of them.” The girl was staring at it intently, and the old man smiled, “but you can have it if you like, I doubt if I will be needing it for long now.” He laughed slightly and brushed his bald head. “I’ve as many years left as hairs.”

Ceres listened to the man, “I have travelled far from my home. You have told me much, so allow me to tell you a story. There was a king, greater than any other before or since, who wished to live forever through his work. And so he would construct tower after tower, reaching ever higher and higher, and yet never was he satisfied with the work and abandoned it. Eventually, he created a castle, so large and grand that it finally sated him and he settled down and had kids. Each of these children went off and created their own wonders and each have their own story, but among them there was one who did not create something for himself but instead marvelled at his father’s work, the towers, incomplete and in disrepair. He toiled no less than any of his other siblings repairing them, and installing a great lantern into each of them so that anyone travelling the king’s land could always find their way through the night.”

The old man looked to Ceres with knotted brows, stroking his beard as he tried to make out her features beneath the hood. “That is a glorious and dutiful son. Tell me, strange traveller, what is this land that you call home? And how did this prince create lanterns so great as to light up the night?”

“The entire epic of the king and his children can be sung for days and nights, but as for the lanterns, he did not achieve the feat alone as he obtained a gift from his eldest sibling, and their project,” Ceres replied, gracefully dodging the question about her home.

“And can this gift be replicated? I am certain the great lord Nirjurti would be pleased if we could create road shrines as wondrous as those of that dutiful prince.” The old ascetic spoke, clearly choosing not to pursue the dodged question.

Daylight was just beginning to yield to night, and yet the stars were already clearly visible in the sky, “That is just a story, but if you wish to guide people through the night, then the lanterns are already in place. You simply must teach people how to follow them.”

His eyes narrowed in thought, and then they widened in realisation as his gaze fell upon the stars. “Oh… great Nirjurti.” He breathed, then looked at Ceres with heightened curiosity, rising to his feet. “M- may I see your face as I learn this from you, wise stranger?”

Ceres paused, “There are some things that are better imagined than seen. You asked about my home. When your journey reaches its end, you shall be closer to it than I will have the chance,” she said, the stars vanishing back into the colorful sunset for a few more hours, as Ceres began to walk away, followed closely behind by the girl carefully clutching the starlit stone.



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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Lord Zee
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Lord Zee There must always be... A Zee

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A Garden of Doubt


Chapter III - Pride and Pain





They were after him.

So he ran, deeper towards the light from whence he came. He had nowhere else to go. The cave was the only option. The only thing he could think of was the swords. If he could get one he might have a chance at fending them off. But that was only if…

The thought struck him with dread.

He was leading those monsters to her! She had just saved him and now… And now he was putting her life in danger! Was he really so selfish? Perhaps his father was right… He shook his head- Now was not the time to think about that! Now was the time to live or die.

His footsteps echoed further, the snarls of the monsters closing in behind. They were close to the entrance. As the light neared, he saw the familiar silhouette of his savor, visage obscured by darkness, but the spear in her hand did not go unnoticed.

“Why you come!” She yelled at him, brandishing the spear. “I say go! You go!” She moved closer to him and Zayd slowed down. He turned sideways and then pointed towards the entrance, finger shaking. He looked at her and could tell she wasn’t paying attention.

“I say go! You go! No stay!” She shouted again. “Wh-” Her voice was cut off by a loud howl. Her eyes grew wide with fear. Her once proud posture seemed to grow smaller and she looked past him to the gleam of red eyes entering her abode.

“Oh no.” She managed to say.

Zayd took his chances and ran past her, around the small wall and into a crevice at the back of the cave. He looked up to see her shaking with fear, they were nearly upon her and she wasn’t even defending herself! Zayd grunted as he thrust his hand into the rocks. He was cut several times by sharp stones but his hand found what it was after- a hilt. He pried the sword free with little effort and swung around to rescue her from the monsters but…

They ignored her.

With one sniff of her head, the larger one moved on towards Zayd and the smaller one paced back and forth like some sort of shield, preventing him from being able to reach her but still keeping her from running. She crouched down and that was the last thing he saw of her before his attention swapped to the monster coming closer. In the light of the fire his eyes fell upon a horrible sight. Of a creature’s flesh that moved like worms in the dirt after a downpour. It was disgusting and the smell was foul. It stood nearly shoulder height to him and Zayd began to wonder if his dull copper sword was going to do anything to it.

Still, he had to try. He couldn’t let fear control him! He took a defensive stance, eyes never leaving the beast that approached. It did not slow down, a low rumble emitting from it’s chest, teeth dripping with a black liquid. Zayd lunged at it, bringing his sword down in an arc but the creature was fast and it side stepped him. He overcompensated his wing and went forward as he lost his footing. Something slammed into his left side, sending him crashing against the rocks. His vision blurred and he felt two things, one was a blistering pain and the other was anger. He forced himself to stay awake and gripped his hilt tighter as he turned to the creature. It ran at him and Zayd barely had time to roll out of the way, feeling a sharp pain in his chest. He sprawled out in a heap as the creature slammed into the rocks with a piercing scream.

It lunged at him again in it’s rage and Zayd tried to roll out of the way, but it pinned his left arm. A rare scream came from his lips, haggard and muted as it was. He felt something break and vision blacken one more, but this left an opening as the creature snapped at his body that had moved. With his right arm, he stabbed the creature in the neck. It screamed again, and Zayd lost the sword as it instinctively jumped away from the danger and into the other wall. It lost its footing as it screamed again.

Zayd was relieved and began to sit up, watching the creature begin to struggle as dark liquid began to spew from the wound. That was his mistake, for the next thing he knew, something snapped down tight on his right shoulder. He wanted to scream, but his breath was taken away. He glanced right and the smaller beast had bitten down and then squeezed. Zayd struggled to free himself but there was little he could do, it was like the weight of three men holding him down, applying pressure, breaking bone, ripping flesh.

Fear took him then, and the creature shook its head, rending his flesh even further before it threw him to the floor, knocking what little wind he had in him out. His eyes were barely able to stay open as he saw it come toward him with such evil eyes. His vision began to fade and the last thing he saw was… The girl… And… Her spear...




“...uman…”

Light was fading. Dim glows. The smell of smoke. There were screams in the dark and terrible eyes. So many eyes. It was like they surrounded him whole, always watching with such malice. He couldn’t escape them no matter how he tried and they threatened to swallow him up whole.

“...You need too…”
Was that a light hidden in the eyes? Something blue besides the crimson. He reached for it and tried to grab it with such desperation but it was fleeting like a shooting star. Fading from his vision.

“...Wake…”

Zayd felt himself fall with a jerk. He tried to scream but his voice was lost. It had always been lost. The eyes began to streak together as he fell, like horrible rivers of blood, threatening to swallow him up. To suffocate him entirely! He heard the howl, tenfold and bloodchilling as hot and humid breath touched his neck. It was going to kill hi-

“WAKE UP!”

His eyes snapped open, tears flooring down his cheeks. He tried to move but a hand pressed his chest down. He looked up to see her face, red with worry. He felt so much pain and he couldn’t move his shoulder without jolts of pain. He took a ragged breath and it felt like something had stabbed him. It was hard to breath. He was able to move his legs and feet and even his left arm? Hadn’t that been brok-

“I try heal. I try.” She said in a softer voice, and Zayd focused on her as she took his left hand within her own. They were so soft and that voice of hers, she sounded sorry.

He looked at her and gave a slight nod. He should have been dead. He would be, if it wasn’t for her. She must have killed them but… He tried to sit up but felt faint. She seemed to realize what he wanted and kept her hand pressed down. Not enough to hurt him but enough for him to realize he shouldn’t move.

His eyes moved frantically, as they strained to see if they were truly safe.

“No worry. Is okay. Killed.” She pressed a hand to his cheek and wiped away one of his tears. “You brave.” She said after a moment, their eyes connecting. Her face was one of guilt and behind those crimson eyes there was a pain of her own.

“Why?” The question caught Zayd off guard. Why what? Why had he fought them? Why had he ran back into the cave? He could have ran anywhere else, those things would have followed. Right?

Was it guilt that had made him pick up a sword? Or was it that he really had believed he could prove himself? He didn’t feel like he had proved a damn thing though. If anything, it had shown just how stupid he was.

A thousand different emotions crossed his face and he looked away from her. He couldn’t speak, so why even try to explain? But he felt her hand tug him back to her and he relented. Zayd froze when they met again. She was… She was smiling. It made his heart flutter, that smile, so warm and genuine and just… Beautiful.

“Thank you.” She whispered, a violet tear rolling down her cheek to her chin, then falling onto his bare chest. When did he lose his shirt?

The plant girl then looked away from him, frowning. “I heal you. You rest…” She paused, peeling her hands away to rest them over the side of his stomach. “I go after.” Before he had time to object, he had the same tingling sensation as before, and then something popping. He groaned as his eyes went hazy but it did not linger and he took his first full breath of air without the stabbing in his side. Relief washed over his senses and he gave her a weak smile.

He raised his good arm and then pointed to her. Then he pointed at himself. He frowned and began to shake his head. He didn’t want her to go. How would she be safe from whatever those things were that attacked them?

She guided his hand back down with her own and shook her head. “I go. I d-danger. To you.”

He took her hand and gave it a squeeze, shaking his head again. He began to mouth the word, stay, but this only further pushed her away. She broke free and stood up. Zayd tried to follow, but she placed a foot on his chest this time and she kept him down. He gave up in defeat and settled back down.

“I...:” She pointed at herself. “Go.” Then she pointed at him. “You stay. You go home. Forget.” She said it with such a commanding tone, a stark contrast to how she had been only a few minutes ago. She walked over behind his head and sank to her knees. He looked up at her and she peered back before he felt her hands upon his right shoulder. The tingling began and he winced as she worked.

Zayd made up his mind right then and there. When he was healed, he would follow after her. He didn’t know why but that smile had been enough to convince him that it needed to be protected. He was stupid but it had led him to her, right? That had to mean something. It just had to. He needed a purpose.

He felt another pop and his eyes focused on her once more. She brought her head close and Zayd felt his heart beat faster. Her eyes seemed to wander over his face for a moment and then she placed a small kiss upon his forehead.

“Sorry.” She whispered and before he could register what was going on, he felt her hand press into the base of his neck. The last thing he remembered was that kiss, warm and gentle, before his eyes faded to black.




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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by AdorableSaucer
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AdorableSaucer Based and RPilled

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A Terrible Loss



Year 30AA, spring, Ha-Dûna...

The day had come at last. After weeks of preparation, discussion and offerings to the gods, the tournament grounds had been set up properly and all the gods had been invited to watch the sanndatr and anointed of Selesta, Ser Boudicca of Gaardskarl Clan Metsep and théin of théins, defend her honour as the chieftess against her good friend-turned-rival théin Hilda “the Leoness” of Clan Ur-Gaard, who ushered a challenge against her abilities as a leader. The arena was grand, and there were many games in which many others would participate to warm up the crowds for the great fight. Logging competitions, snow shoveling, spear-throwing, archery - all would be tested and competed over to please the crowds waiting for what was to come. Legendary athletes such as Frode the Enduring, Megan the Strong and théin Valix of Leothe all participated with great glee and stage presence, rousing up the crowds with their prowess in sport and sense of competition. Braziers with offerings to Caden and Selesta burned all day - in many ways, the tournament was much like a light version of Caden’s Test of Strength during the week of Helgensblot. Festivities raged around the spectacles, too, wherein the occasion was celebrated with fresh spring salads and berries, and some even slaughtered goats to grill. Nets of fish were hauled up from the Misanthir and speared onto sticks over the fire. The bards danced and performed elaborate dramas about the stories of old battles, of the likes of Gaard Goldhair and the Gaardskarl Rebellion, Charles du Pierre and the Battle for Brasfort, and the Herjingsaga. Children and grown-ups alike all took great pleasure in the bards’ work, and all joined in to sign the songs they knew.

When the hour of the battle finally arrived, the city was as wound up as a bowstring. The arena was filled to the very brim, and those who had not come in time to get a seat sat themselves upon the roofs of surrounding buildings or climbed trees. Everyone had to watch - this was possibly the greatest event of their lives, and no one knew if there would ever be a tournament like this ever again. The combatants were hidden away inside tents opposite of one another on each side of the flat wooden arena in the centre of the tribunals. Inside her tent, Hilda stood quietly with her family as a trell dressed her in her armour, bronze scale hauberk imported from the south over custom-sewn leather and linen underarmour produced on her own commission by the crafters in the city. She donned her tall, cone-like helmet and drew a slow breath, looking over at her husband, Fender. In truth, Fender was her second husband, one she was forced to marry by the druids in order to do her duty to the Sun. She had little love for him beyond what was required of her, her heart in all known truth still belonging to her dearest Vegard, dead and buried with honours by the Grimholt stronghold where he fell. However, in this moment, she felt affection for him - real, genuine affection. She reached out to him and took his hand, looking deep into his eyes. They said nothing to each other, but the smiles they exchanged said a thousand words. By his side stood her son Brian and her daughter Ailsa, none of whom were older than ten winters. She kissed them both on the forehead and caressed their cheeks. “Now you make sure to cheer mommy on from the rafters, okay?”

Brian sniffed quietly and Hilda smiled at him. “What’s wrong, Bry? Are you scared for mommy?”

The young boy nodded. “I’m scared that mommy will die,” he whimpered and closed in to hug her. Ailsa, reading the mood, joined in with a whimper of her own. Hilda felt that familiar burn in the nose and struggled to keep the tears from flowing.

“Now, now, my, my little babies…” She cleared her throat. “Mommy will be just fine, okay? She’ll kick that mean Boody’s butt so hard she’ll never come back again, and then we can have cheesy oatmeal for dinner today, what do you say?” She looked up at Fender with a small smile. “Think you can manage that, dad?”

Her husband snickered warmly. “Yeah, that shouldn’t be too much to ask.”

Hilda slowly pulled her children away. “Would that be okay?”

They nodded through the tears. Hilda smiled and gave them each another kiss. “Good. Cheer loudly, okay? There are a lot of people, so you have to make your voices extra loud.”

“Okay,” said Brian. Ailsa nodded.




Boudicca held out her arms while the trells dressed her in scale hauberk adorned with gems and sigils in honour of the gods. They wrapped her wrists in bronze bracers and her shins in bronze protectors; around her waist, they tied a belt with a great buckle displaying a boar’s head. Her shoulders were pauldroned with leather, and her many layers of cloth, skins and hide made for thick underarmour. She took a bronze spear and practiced a few stabs at the empty space before her. A curious hum sounded from her right and she turned to face her daughter Materix and the rest of her family. “What?”

“Why aren’t you using your sword?” asked her eldest daughter. Boudicca looked ahead again and went for another jab.

“The sword is Caden’s work - it cuts wood like paper and bronze like skin. I want this to be a fair fight.” She stabbed again, this time piercing the tent wall. Her husband Aethel sighed.

“Can you be sure Hilda will think the same?”

Boudicca pulled her spear back and wiped the first drops of sweat forming on her brow. The trells hastened to patch up the hole. “Hilda is many things, but she is no cheater. She knows that those who have come to cheer for her want to see her win under our shared rules. That would prove her strength over me.”

“But you’re not going to let her win, right?” Materix asked. Boudicca smirked and put on her coned helmet.

“Of course not. She will be defeated for all to see and then we can once again return to guiding this city in the right direction - we can finally put this squabble behind us.” She picked up a wooden tower shield emblemed with the symbols of the Eight and tested its weight. She nodded at her family. “Alright, then. Materix, you find your father, sister and brother a good spot on the benches, you understand? I wouldn’t want you to miss this.”

Materix rolled her eyes and stepped over to kiss her mother on the cheek. “Yes, mom.” Aethel sighed and cupped the teen Zelda and Boudin on their backs.

“We’ll be cheering for you, my love,” Aethel reassured her and Boudicca nodded again.

“You better.” Then she stepped out of the tent.




The applause was deafening. As the two combatants ascended the arena from opposite sides, sound thundered from the benches the likes of which had never been witnessed in Ha-Dûna before, not even during the Helgensblot competitions. The crowds were wild animals, nearly pouring onto the arena as they closed in around to get as good a view as possible. Neither contestant roused them on, however; both were much too occupied studying one another, the wolven eyes of Boudicca studying the Leoness’ scowl. They each stood still, testing the weight and feel of their weapons and shields, armour and forms. Atop an altar built tall to oversee the fight, the druids had prepared a large elkskin drum, and Kaer Pier, ancient as he was getting, was slowly making his way to the top to say a few words before the fight. Some in the crowd egged him on to hurry up, which he took with humour and tolerance, though others chastised the rowdy ones for hastening an old man. Meanwhile, Boudicca and Hilda continued to circle around one another.

“This didn’t have to happen, Hilda… Yield now and your honour will be spared.”

Hilda spat. “You know it won’t be - the gods know it; the people know it. If I yield before battle is met, I will lose all glory and respect.” She banged her spear against her shield. “This fight was your idea - live with it.”

Boudicca sighed and tested a battle stance, knees bent and shield held close to the torso, spear lifted above her and ready to stab downwards. Hilda tested the spear’s swinging momentum, did a spin attack at the air and then stabbed in Boudicca’s direction. The crowds cheered. Then sounded the drums and the arena quieted down. Both Hilda and Boudicca turned to face the altar, atop which Kaer Pier stood with his hands lifted to the sky.

“As every Dûnan should know, blood and tears are not the draughts of peace and friendship; however, there come times when peace between persons must be set aside so the greater society may continue to live in it. Hilda of Clan Ur-Gaard has committed acts that challenge the authority of our sanndatr Boudicca of Clan Metsep, and the sanndatr has requested a duel between herself and the offender to determine who has the right to rule in the eyes of the gods.” Before him were arranged one row of eight wooden boxes and one of seven leather pouches. He reached into each one starting from the leftmost of the boxes, took a fistful of its contents and sprinkled it on the wind over the arena: “Hear us, great gods, and give your champions your blessings. May the seeds of the Sun give them hardiness; may the mead of the Moon give them warmth; may the sand of Stone give them smoothness; may the salt of the Sea give them fortitude; may the colour of Ink give them beauty; may the splinters of Trees sharpen their edges; may the dust of glass make True their strikes; and may the dust of Stars give them hope to persevere.” He then moved onto the pouches. A few in the crowds were getting sleepy, though fewer still dared even pretend like they weren’t paying their fullest attention. The champions stood with their eyes closed, allowing whatever substances hit them to do so. The druid reached into the pouches and continued: “May teeth give you Endurance; may dried berries wash away your Sorrow; may ribbons tie you to your Promises; may mothdust give you Structure; may Metal dust grant you armour; may charcoal rile you up like Fire; and may the Bones of the fallen guide you on to victory.” The crowd took a moment of silence to finish their prayers before the druid lifted up the drumsticks. Boudicca and Hilda turned to face one another.

“Are the combatants ready?”

“Yes.”

“Yes!”

The drums thundered. “Begin!”

Hilda ushered forth her leoness scream and lunged forward. If she was to win, she would have to do so quickly; it was no secret that Boudicca had divine levels of endurance, and she would likely attempt to win by attrition. Hilda would need to overpower her immediately. The Leoness thus stormed in swiftly, absorbing her momentum as Boudicca knocked her spear away and turning it into a powerful shield bash, which the sanndatr had been less prepared for. Still, however, it wasn’t enough, and Hilda hurriedly kicked away to put distance between herself and Boudicca again. The two circled one another again, occasionally jumping to see if the other would flinch. Both upheld iron stances, however, until Hilda struck again, aiming for Boudicca’s legs, her height making those inconvenient to defend. Boudicca’s shield took the strike, so Hilda swung her spear around from the ground to necklevel, the sharp bronze blade whizzing past Boudicca’s collar bone and singing against her armour- a few scales flew off her hauberk. The Leoness didn’t let her rest for a second, and the sanndatr quickly busied herself with dodging the rabid hornet jabs. A few struck metal and leather, and one or two struck skin. However, Hilda was beginning to pant - she couldn’t keep this up. As her jabs grew sloppier, Boudicca found an opening, dodging around her spear and bringing her shield up to knock Hilda away; Hilda, more tired than she had anticipated, was knocked back far, nearly falling off the arena. There, on the edge, she tried to catch her breath while Boudicca patrolled in a crescent on the opposite side of the arena.

“Heh… Aren’t you gonna attack me? I’m right here, y’know!”

“It’s not right to beat someone who’s down.”

Hilda grit her teeth. “Oh, trust me. This is far from over.”



Meanwhile on the benches, Hilda’s family watched the fight anxiously. Ailsa kept pulling at her father robes, begging for him to head down there and help mommy; Brian, on the other hand, followed the battle intently, though the bench they had been granted didn’t necessarily give the most detailed view - sure, one could see everything, but they were far away, and Brian would need to get closer to study the battle closer. He rose from the bench.

“Going somewhere?” asked Fender.

“I’m going to get closer - I need mommy to hear me.” Fender sighed at looked at the moshpit around the central arena. Someone had brought in ale pots and horns, and the cheers were beginning to slur.

“Alright, but be careful, okay? Don’t walk into the middle of the crowd.”

Brian nodded and stepped down the rafters, disappearing into the architecture of the wooden colosseum. The inside was barren of people, as was to be expected - no one could see anything from within here. The boy hurried over to the staircase that would take him to the ground floor again, turning around a corner at which stood two hooded figures. He paid them no mind until he heard them whisper:

“Isn’t that…?”

“Sure is.”

Next thing he knew, four mighty hands gripped Brian’s arms, and the preteen kicked with futile ferocity as his mouth was gagged and he was stuffed in a sack. The boy kept kicking and screaming, but the cacophony of the arena made even his loudest yell just another tweet in a birdsong. His captors hurried down towards the exit, making sure to take the quickest routes. They bypassed the crowds unspotted, all faces facing the arena. However, as they were about to exit the arena, they spotted a pair of singing drunks stagger by. They had already exposed themselves, so hiding again would make them even more suspicious. Barely flinching, they continued walking forward, offering the drunks a nod.

“Heeeeeey! Where’z you goin’?” asked one of them, a fat, bearded man who spilled drink from his horn with every word.

One of the hooded men smiled and said, “Oh, we’re just taking this chicken here to be butchered! Hope you all are hungry!”

The drunks lifted their horns in the air. “Waaaaaaaayyyy! Chicken, chicken, chicken!” They kept chanting as they slumped back into the colosseum. The hooded speaker sighed his relief and the pair continued walking, further and further away from the arena and Ha-Dûna. Only once they had stepped completely out of sight of the city did they remove their hoods. They dropped the sack in the cold grass, whimpers sounding from the inside and panted their exhaustion away.

“That was way too close,” Murtagh quivered. Burud rolled his eyes and peeked over the hillside down to the city.

“You lack resolve, man. This couldn’t have gone better.” He then looked eastwards. “We should have enough supplies hidden away along the road to last the journey. Resla better keep her end of the bargain.”

“D’aaaw… Doubting me already?” Both men jumped nearly a metre into the air as the fossilised form of Resla the Grey seemingly appeared out of nowhere, dressed in more colours than her skin had had for the last hundred years. She smacked her non-existent lips and offered Murtagh a rotten wink, possibly taking a few years off his sane mind’s lifespan. Burud held out his hand warily.

“What, what’re you doing here?”

“Funny you should ask. See, I know I said you should come to me, right, but then you never showed up! Been waiting since winter here, come on. Anyway, since you took so long, I decided I might as well get out of the house and come over here - make a workout out of it, y’know?” She clapped her boney hands together at her own joke - neither Burud nor Murtagh joined in. “So,” she continued, ignoring their terror, “you’ve got the sacrifice?”

“Y-yeah,” Burud answered and kicked the sack, making it cry. “Right here.”

“Ooooo!” cried the witch and squatted down next to it, undoing the wrapping and pulling it away to reveal the bruised boy’s face. Brian stared up at her maggot-eaten face and screamed as loudly as he could into his gag, kicking and clawing at the rest of the sack still covering his body for freedom. “Oh, they’re so adorable in that age, aren’t they?”

“Can, can we just get this over with?” pleaded Murtagh. Resla blew a curt raspberry and rolled her eyes.

“You guys are so depressing. Hadn’t I known better, I would’ve thought you’re backing out on me. Just keep in mind that your fingers won’t be returned! I have a strict policy against refunds!”

“Fine! Fine! He didn’t mean it like that… We’re still determined to do this,” Burud snarled. Resla grinned.

“I knew you’d have the balls for this, man. Don’t worry. After today, Hilda the Leoness will never be at peace ever again.” Brian stopped screaming, shifting between the three faces in a mortified manner.


In the arena, the cheers had died down. After Hilda had failed to break Boudicca’s early defense, the fight had become so incredibly one-sided, with Hilda being pushed back after every strike. The attendees who cheered for Boudicca kept up their vigorous chants in her name, but Hilda’s supporters were silent with pity. Their most honoured théin, who had been one of the strongest and bravest fighters during the Conquests, and who had been one of the few who dared stand up to Boudicca’s dogmatic leadership, was dangerously close to losing. She had cuts all over her body; she had long since tossed her shield away, reasoning that she would be more dexterous without it. That had been a mistake, and while Boudicca had just begun to break a sweat, Hilda found that just the spear was challenging her endurance. The fight had gone on for almost a third of a thlénn, and the Leoness felt her ferocity fail her. She packed it all into one final lunge, one that was heavy-footed and predictable, and struck Boudicca’s shield. Her opponent punched the spear to the ground, planted a foot on its shaft so Hilda lost grip and then swung her own spear at Hilda’s neck, stopping a few brief inches from the skin. “Yield!” shouted Boudicca.

Hilda snarled and raised her hands. “Why? Why don’t you kill me where I stand?”

Boudicca snickered. “Killing is not our way. You have shown by losing this battle that you have been wrong, and so you shall serve in--”

“What do you mean ‘it’s not our way’?”

Boudicca blinked in curt confusion. “I, I mean that the Gospel of Selesta says--”

“Selesta! Another goddess telling us what to do! Hah!” Hilda flinched as Boudicca’s spear nipped at her neck. Around the arena, the crowd grew surly.

“What is she saying?!”

“Of course we do as the gods command!”

“Blasphemy!”

Boudicca held up a hand and they quieted down. “Hilda, you are walking a dangerous road - you know as well as I that to speak ill of the gods is to sin. Caden, Selesta - both tell us to show mercy when--”

“Mercy?!” Hilda pushed herself to her feet against surprisingly little resistance from Boudicca, speechless as she was to the point of being stunned. “What mercy is there in preserving my life? I am nothing if I lose here! Such is our culture!”

“False! Our culture is--!”

“Our culture is one of war, of battle! Gaardskarls have forever been warriors against the Ketrefans; Herjegallings are raiders in the hills; Brasfortsians, too, raided the lowlands when the mountain soil was meagre.” She gestured up at Kaer Pier and his fellow druids, among whom some ducked for cover to not be seen. “Even the Clennon Fen, peaceful as we think they are, have been some of the most warmongering among us throughout our shared history as tribesfolk!”

“You hold that tongue before I cut it off, you fiend!” roared the sanndatr, but in her rage forgot her stance and did not see Hilda squat down, pick up her spear and shove it into her leg. “AGH!”

“The Dûnans are a people of war, and the gods know nothing of our culture, of our needs and our wants! They see only our sins, and threaten us if we do not act as they wish, like we are children to them!”

“But we are the gods’ children!” shouted some in the crowd.

“We are their chosen!”

“Hilda’s right! Macsal, Caden, Selesta, Reiya - all have tried to restrain us from our destiny!”

“Shut your mouth, you blasphemer!” The drunken crowd, riled up after an hour of cheering, burst into blows. The druids and théins with their bruisers hastened to restrain as many as they could, but some of them were so angry themselves that they couldn’t help but join in. Boudicca snarled and took her own spear, raising it above her head. Hilda stared up at it, waiting for the strike to pierce her and free her from her wicked life.


“MOMMY, HEEEELP!” screamed Brian. His hands and legs had been tied, and his had been put on a flat rock overlooking the city. Next to the rock stood Resla sharpening a knife fashioned from a very special metal - it was silvery, but very clearly much rarer than silver could ever be. When asked what it was made of, she answered vaguely:

“Y’know, magic stuff.”

Murtagh sat a few paces away, covering his ears from the screaming. Burud eyed Ha-Dûna with hate in his eyes. He balanced a hand on the head of his axe menacingly and spoke, “Resla. What will this curse actually do to her?”

The witch creepily hummed a little tune. “Oh, you’ll see. There’s a lot of power in child’s blood. Just be patient.”

Burud groaned angrily. “How much longer?”

“Aaaany minute now, dearie, be patient, I said.” She ran the whetstone over the blade a few more times. The boy kept kicking and wheeping, trying his damndest to escape. Resla eyed him and shook her head giggling. “Now, now, my boy. This’ll take but a minute. You’ll feel an itty-bitty sting, and then it’ll be all over.” She tested the blade of her knife on a nail and nodded. “Alright, we’re set!”

Burud turned and sighed. “Finally. Murtagh, come over here. Murtagh?”

His companion faced away from them, whispering something to himself. As Burud stepped over, he heard it: “... can’t do this. This is wrong. We’ll be punished by the gods, for sure… My wife… My father, mother, sisters, brothers - all will hate me for what I’ve done…” Burud was about to reach out, but stopped himself. Instead, he turned back to Resla and said to Murtagh.

“You… You just rest for now, brother. Resla! Begin.”

“Oki-doki!” shouted the witch. She tossed her hands in the air and the boy was suddenly suspended from nothing, hanging by his hands as though from a rope in the sky. She handed Burud a wooden bowl fashioned with paint and carvings depicting skulls and demons. The man swallowed, but he had come too far to back down now - revenge would be his to exact finally. The witch smiled at him and the crying boy and asked, “Alright, you just hold the bowl riiiight there.” She guided his hands until the bowl pressed against the boy’s chest. “Ready when you are, chief!”

Burud swallowed one last time while staring into the boy’s tearful eyes. “Please… Don’t do this to mommy…” he whispered. The man steeled himself - he couldn’t let himself feel for this spawn of hers.

“Ready.”

“And whoosha!”

A ring of metal, then all sound disappeared. Burud’s eyes trembled as beads of blood trickled out of the boy’s throat, joined immediately by growing rivers. The bowl began to fill, and as Brian coughed up the last of his life, Resla helped steer Burud’s hands so not a single drop would be wasted. Meanwhile, she chanted in a language that sounded like nothing the human tongue could utter - it was bestial, wicked and coarse, like the tongue of trolls if spoken by demons.

And from the bowl in his hands blinked red and black lights, showing that demons were exactly what had been summoned.


Boudicca had managed to spear her opponent through the belly, Hilda’s breathing becoming like thread. The crowd had quieted down again, oppressive silence weighing down on everyone. Hilda tried to speak, but a coughful of blood prevented her. Across from her, Boudicca was in tears.

Then Hilda suddenly retched. An echoing heartbeat punched through the air like a shockwave, and eyes went everywhere as people looked for the source. Anxious wariness spread through the arena, until someone pointed at Hilda and shouted, “The théin! Her skin!” Everyone looked on in horror as Hilda’s skin began to blister. Red pox filled her entire body to the centimetre, and some became large tumours which borders were black as coal and swelled up with menacing crimson. Boudicca dropped her spear in terror and stepped back, noticing that the Leoness remained standing - in fact, she seemed healthier than before. Her right arm grew monstrously large with blood-filled tumours, and the rest of her skin scorched over and became a charred, crusted black. Hilda didn’t sound human anymore - in fact, no one could say what she sounded like at all. Few had time to figure it out, too, because not too long after her transformation seemed to slow did she suddenly turn to the crowd and jump off the arena, her colossal, now-clawed arm massacring its way through to the exit. The crowd panicked, drunks, children and elderly falling over in the stampede to get to safety. Boudicca and the rest of the warriors tried to keep the peace, but the sight of those who had died only spurred on the panic.


Atop the hill, Burud looked down in glee. He could see people running for the lives away from the arena, and charging through the empty streets, he spotted a blinking, red monster, escaping for its life. He raised his hands in the air and shouted, “HAH! Victory! Vengeance for Scawick!” Murtagh, on the other hand, still hadn’t moved from his spot. Resla eyed the fleeing monster approvingly and clapped Burud on the shoulder.

“Good work, sonny. Couldn’a done it without ya.”

Burud grinned back, completely ignoring the bled-out Brian who had been left on the stone to rot in the sun. “We owe you our most sincere gratitude, Resla! Vengeance has never tasted so sweet before.”

The witch blushed, if one could call it that. “Oh, noooo, it wasn’t much.”

“So… If I may ask… What is that thing?”

Resla giggled and elbowed him playfully in the stomach. “Oh? Is my customer interested in the dark arts, hmm?”

Burud frowned. “No, it’s not that - I just wish to know what it is.”

“Pfft… Bummer. Alright, since you asked so nicely, I’ll tell ya. That, my friend, is a demon.”

“A demon?”

“A demon. But not just any demon - oh no! This one’s special, it is. See, normally, demons that feed on people eat their life away before killing the person. Sounds simple enough, right? Standard parasite stuff.”

“Uh-huh…”

“But this one - oh, ho-ho, this one - this one’s already fed. We gave it the soul of our little friend over there. So what we’ve done, essentially, is put a very fat, very full demon inside our friend Hilda there.”

Burud frowned. “Wait, what damage will that do? Won’t it just stay there and not do anything?”

Resla rolled her eyes and pointed back down at the bulbous monster. “Does that look like nothing to you? No, see, here’s the kicker - since the demon is full, it will eat very, very slowly off of her life, chipping away at it little by little. She will never be at peace from the pain, and the demon will have to eat its way through the entire kid’s life, which is at least ten years, before even beginning to consume Hilda’s. While she’s waiting for that, the demon actually makes her nearly unkillable, so she will go on rampaging through these lands for decades, killing everything and everyone she ever loved. Smart, right?”

Burud blinked. “I… I don’t know what to say.”

“No need to say anything. If you have anyone who, like you, wishes someone eternal pain and suffering for a small, small price, just send them my way and we’ll be even.” She then packed up her things, waved a hand and went, “Too-de-loo!” before seemingly vanishing into thin air.

Burud pinched his arm briefly to confirm he wasn’t dreaming. This was it. They had finally exacted revenge on the person who had brought them so much suffering, and made her people cower in fear of what the Scawicks can do. He hastened over to Murtagh and sat down next to him. “Murtagh, brother - it’s over! We won!”

The man was silent, his eyes as dead as those of Brian. Burud tried to shake life into him again. “Come on, snap out of it! Hilda has been punished and so have the Dûnans! Scawick is avenged!”

“... We killed a child, man… He was just a boy who wanted his mother.”

Burud felt his words stick to his throat. He swallowed and stole a moment to recollect himself, but Murtagh stood up before he could say anything. “Murtagh? What’s wrong with you? He was a Dûnan!”

Murtagh kneeled down next to the corpse, his eyes brimming with tears at the sight. Burud’s mind struggled to balance the flavour of victory with the ever-growing tumour of guilt. He hurried over to his friend again. “H-hey,. Murtagh, look at me.” The man was unresponsive. “Look at me!” Burud repeated. Slowly, Murtagh’s face turned to face his. “Listen… We did what was right… For my family and for yours. They can rest now.”

“And can we, Burud?” There was silence. “Can we ever rest? Can you?”

Burud swallowed. He couldn’t answer.




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Legion02

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“Study the eyes.” Darragh said from the benches. Dressed in his heavy cloak. Ciara sat next to him. Leaning forward to focus on the fight. “Eyes of wolves. Already studying the weight of every step.” True warriors. Darragh had no love to spare for Ha-Dûna, but he would not take away the skill of their warriors. Especially not the likes of Boudicca. Blessed by the gods, more than once. People behind him squirmed through. Shouting and waving their cups of mead. The pungent smell was offensive to the old Cenél.

Ciara had an owl’s eyes. Sometimes Darragh thought she saw more than most should. They were trained on Boudicca and the Leoness. The young girl had been shielded from the war only a spare few years ago. Violence like this attracted her still. “Boudicca will win.”

Darragh found that too swift a decision. Duels like these could be influenced by hidden powers. It was why he kept muttering his spells with a natural piece of quartz in his hand. The swirling power of the world that the Cenél beckoned in their rituals was oddly calm. There was no mage here to influence the duel. For now, at least.

Then the drums started. All around the Cenél, people became quiet. Even the drunkards were pulled down and in their intoxicated mind they found the discipline to shut their mouth. Darragh’s heart felt like it stopped. Despite the silence, there was a tension in the benches. “Be careful.” He whispered. To himself, to Ciara, to Boudicca. The ritual of the Kaer started and Darragh began to quietly pray to his own gods. His eyes trained upon the druid. Weighting every sentence and remembering every god praised.

The drums thundered.

“She’s winning.” A smiling Ciara said as she leaned even further. The fight continued. One side giving into mortal exhaustion. The Leoness was weakening but still fierce. She did not give in easily. Yet Darragh's attention was drawn away. The Quartz piece in his hand. For a second he thought he saw a faint glimmer from it. A hint, a touch.

“Something moved.” He whispered. His eyes started looking around. Suddenly he was far too aware of the mounting pressure. More than that of mortals. Something moved through the aether. A terrible sense of foreboding started overwhelming the Fakir. He grabbed Ciara by the shoulder, who looked backwards. Annoyed that her master had to disturb her in a moment like this. But his wild eyes tipped her off. One glance was enough for his own ominous feeling to spread.

Her attention was drawn back towards the arena though. Boudicca stood with a spear at Hilda’s throat. They exchanged words. Ciara thought she heard the word ‘yield’. But something shifted again. The Leoness’ stance didn’t drop in submission.

“Something’s wrong.” Darragh said. His eyes still scanning the cheering and shouting crowds around. Their chants started to shift. Frowns formed. Then his attention was drawn as well. Towards the Leoness. Spouting her truths. Blood drained from Ciara’s face as she heard the words and looked back at him. Darragh looked stoic. He felt vindicated, yet at the same time knew what just happened. New seeds of war came budding up. He hoped the sanndatr would kill those thoughts quickly.

She watered them with blood instead. He pursed his lips. This was bad. Very bad. He and Ciara would have to flee Ha-Dûna tonight. Shrouded in darkness. His worst fear was becoming a reality. He grabbed his apprentice by the arm and started dragging her towards the exit. Pushing people aside. Ciara let herself be pulled, but her eyes were still on the duel below.

And then he stopped. Begging it not to be true. Ciara, concerned, turned to face him. He held up the quartz piece. It was glowing. Both of their eyes turned towards the duel. Boudicca had just pierced Hilda a second time. The crowd was quiet. Darragh was amongst the first to see the blackening of the wound though. He pulled Ciara close. “Run. Run back to the Cenél. Tell them what happened here.”

“What about you!” The girl shouted, already being pushed onwards by her master. Her heart started beating faster. She had smelled the scent of danger. It was putrid. Vomit and blood and angry spit. Her blood turned hot in her veins as the world seemed to slow. Her senses dulled a little. Except for her hearing, which started to pick up random words and shouts.

“I will be right behind you. Just go! Go!” They were nearing the exit. He released Ciara who dutifully pushed on. The quartz crystal was completely bright now as horrid tumours formed on Hilda’s arm. Darragh stood stunned as he witnessed the transformation. Seconds later, its rampage started.

Hundreds of Dûnans started pushing and tearing at each other to get out first. Darragh cast off his heavy cloak as he marched forward. For his age he was still strong. Like all Cenél had to be. He managed to push aside and fight his way through towards an exit. Ciara was nowhere to be seen. “Gods protect her.” He muttered before he made his own way towards the gates amongst the mob of shouts and fear.

People fled to their houses or other places of safety. Men who could armed themselves with spears to fight the demon should it come for their homes. Darragh kept running. Pushing on.Wielding the panic in his heart. Only when he saw the gate did he realize he had left everything. The bark carvings he was working on. The gnarled staff his own Fakir master had given him decades ago. Not for a second did he think about going back. But the gate was already closing. Keeping everyone in to control the chaos.

“Let me through!” Darragh demanded as he stopped to simply walk towards them. Making himself look as big and imposing as possible.

“Get back to your house! You’re safest there.” The guard said. Raising their spears. It was clear from their faces that they didn’t want to hurt anyone. But they would if they had to.

So would Darragh. “I’m really sorry about this. Spredhadh beram a-march.” From the haft of the spear bramble sprouted. Wrapping itself around the man’s hand and lacerating the skin. He dropped in pain. Another stepped aside. But one who was closing the gate turned and pulled his axe from his belt and started to walk towards Darragh.

“No more magic.” He said. He looked veteran. Did he fight in the first wars? Probably. “Nobody died. You can still appeal to the sanndatr, mage.” He didn’t spit the word as Darragh had thought he would. The man held no malice towards the sacred rites.

Which made the next spell so much harder to cast. “I’m really sorry son.” Darragh said as he pulled up the sleeve around his left arm. Revealing burned scared flesh in the form of endless coiling swirls. Darragh reached out with his hand and closed his fist. The burned skin on Darragh’s arm sizzled for a second and the Fakir grimaced.

In an instant the guard’s clothes caught fire. He screamed. Few things were worse than the scream of a burning man. But Darragh had to survive. He pushed aside the burning man, who started rolling over the ground as his fellow guards ran over and tried to extinguish the fire. The Fakir managed to flee through the gates and into the Highlands. Where he kept running. Running until his legs couldn’t carry him anymore. Until he dropped down to his knees and then to the ground. It was already dusk.

Ha-Dûna had to be miles behind him as he laid down, exhausted in the grace. He didn’t want to sleep. Sleep here would kill him. Wolves or Dûnans. But his body couldn’t go anymore. In the distance he swore he heard something approaching. It sounded like hooves. Was it the end? Would he die like this? Maybe he had to. Maybe it was his time. If so he would gladly accept it. His eyes closed. “Sovas take me gently. Ynea hold me close.” He whispered as a final prayer when the hooves were dangerously close.

But they stopped, and he then heard the sound of footsteps approaching. “Already praying to the Winter Gods?” A teasing voice said.

Darragh looked up at the extended arm, and then further up. Into the eyes of another of his kin.

“You have a lot to explain Fakir. But we should get you out of here first.”

Darragh nodded and pulled himself upwards with the extended aid. “Did you find Ciara as well?”

The riders looked at each other and shrugged. “You’re the only Cenél that came from Ha-Dûna.”




Finally, after hours upon hours of brutal beatdowns of ruffians and several calming spells Ha-Dûna once again return to peace - but there was no peace to be found. The people flocked around their sanndatr on a stone, mad as they were with complaints and accusations. At least fifteen people had been killed and tens more were wounded and being tended to by the druids. Boudicca’s voice couldn’t carry over the crowd, and it took several minutes for her and her staff to quiet them down.

“Please! Be calm, my people - we are safe now; the monster is gone!”

“This is what she gets! This is the cost of blasphemy!” There sounded roars of agreement and violent prayers to the gods. Boudicca frowned and tried to quiet them down again.

“Remember, ev- QUIET! Remember, everyone! The Gospel of Sorrow says that--”

“She sinned and the gods saw fit to make her an example! This is what happens when we stray from the path!” yelled a cloaked druid in the crowd. Boudicca grit her teeth and was about to retort when there came a runner, red-faced with exhaustion and frustration and screaming his lungs out:

“SANNDATR! SANNDATR!”

“What?! What is it?!”

“BETRAYAL!” shouted the runner and shoved his way through the crowd. “IT WAS NOT THE GODS! It was Darragh, the Demonspawn of Cenél!”

The crowd turned to him in disbelief; Boudicca, too, was shocked. “What?! What do you mean, ‘it was Darragh’?!”

“When, when the monster appeared, he stormed out of the arena and ran to the gate - there, he killed one of our guards and maimed the other before making his escape!”

“It makes sense!” declared one of the druids. “Darragh hated our people - such was no secret - and the evil Cenél have always practiced the cursed arts!”

“But to do such evil onto one’s hosts… Have they no decency?!”

“The witch that came with him must have helped!”

Boudicca didn’t try to calm the growing rage among the masses anymore. She felt something, something pumping deep within her body and growing larger by the second. She had known this feeling many, many times before, but it had been even more years since last time she had. Now, it returned with a vengeance, and she felt her hand squeeze the hilt of her sword.

Rage.

She quieted the crowd again, her darkened eyes giving her a frightful authority that could pacify leons. Looked towards the east and grit her teeth openly, the area sporting a terrifying silence. Then, she licked her front teeth and glared at the masses. “... Is that how they treat their hosts in Cenél lands…?” She stepped down from the stone and the people parted like a valley before her. Slowly, she walked towards the east, stopping a few paces away. “... Unforgivable. We took them in as though they were our brother and sister. We sent their people supplies, tools and weapons in hopes that our bond would heal again. Is this the price of naïvité?” She flexed her fingers so her leather gloves groaned. “I see now how blind I have been…” The others closed in around her, listening in quiet admiration. “If you still trust me after I let such a blatant traitor in among us, then I swear an oath to you here and now.” She drew her sword and hefted it to the sky, lifting her opposite hand up. As she spoke, she scored her palm open, blood flowing down her arm and dripping into the grass. “I swear to you, my people, that the Cenél will not know peace from my wrath from this day. They have so callously stabbed us in the back, so we will show them -true- dignity and gut them from the front!”

The Dûnans roared their agreement and Boudicca raised her sword higher. “We will burn their petty villages to the ground; their weak will be servants in our temples where they can learn the -only- faith, and the blood of their strong will bring fertility to our crops for years to come! They will be reduced to nothing, their memory lost on the wind along with their blasphemous ways!”

“BOUDICCA, BOUDICCA, BOUDICCA!” chanted the people. Then came another yell, this one also different enough to catch the sanndatr’s attention. It was a woman dragging another by the hair.

“Sanndatr! We found this one trying to escape!” The crowd grew rabid with murderous intent. It was Ciara, black-eyed and beaten. Boudicca offered her not a shred of pity; she sheathed her sword and snarled.

“Lock her in the Temple of Truth. She will disclose everything she knows about her people, or meet eternal suffering in the afterlife.” With that, she turned to the city again. The time had come once again to prepare for war.



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The Great Hall of Chief Aleksiej -- Last holdout of the Čeleviak tribes


Tables were toppled, chairs were split, wooden bowls and bone carved cups were strewn about. The walls were spattered with a mixed mess of a now unidentifiable concoction, and the great door that led into this pine log hall was crushed into the floor, a single metal hinge squeaking against a growing wind outside. By the foot of the Chieftain Aleksiej’s wooden throne was the Chieftain himself, eyes open wide in terror and a gaping cut nearly cleaving his head from his neck. Under him laid his wife, her eyes closed as if she resigned peacefully when her chest was split open. Jjonveyo, the man who sat on the throne, knew that wasn’t true.

A bloodied axe lay across his crimson died pants, one calloused finger tapping against its ivory pommel. Specks of blood flaked in Jjonveyo’s deep black beard and moustache and his dark eyes stared thoughtfully at his slaughtered nephews and nieces. Their bodies littered around his brother Aleksiej’s, bloody and broken. A dense circlet weighed more on his head than his thoughts, though - he felt no remorse in the massacre.

“Is it done?” A voice called from the fallen door, the long grey beard of a man named Piotr poking in. Jjonveyo simply looked up from his deeds and narrowed his eyes. Piotr gulped and took a step in, but as his first footfall hit the wooden floors, Jjonveyo’s voice rumbled from his gruff throat.

“They dwell in the caves of Thaa, now, as cowards.” It was a decree as much as a statement, and one that Piotr didn’t dare question. His old eyes looked as if they desired to ask a question, but instead his lips waited. Jjonveyo waved a hand and Piotr tilted his head.

“You are Tsar.” Piotr announced.

“I am,” Jjonveyo’s voice was certain and without any doubt in the fact, “Čeleviak united...” There was a dense pause, and Jjonveyo stood up a whole head taller than Piotr. He looked down at his loyal retainer, “What of Wojeck, has he returned from Ha-Dûna?”

“No,” Piotr said, following the Tsar who was now on his way out of the hall. Silence overtook the pair again as they crossed the threshold to the outside, where Jjonveyo’s warriors were still picking loot from the dead warriors and people who lived under his brother Aleksiej. Jjonveyo’s glare seemed to follow the scene and a low rumble hummed in his throat as he thought.

“Leave your trinkets!” He suddenly barked, his words freezing the scene, “We will not take from Čeleviaks, they now know who is their Tsar -- leave their wealth so they can multiply it for the tithe.” The warriors blinked at Jjonveyo, but quickly began to drop whatever they had looted to the floor -- survivors huddled in the shadows of broken yurts and a-frame homes watching on desperately. “We already have so little,” Jjonveyo confided in Piotr, voice a low grumble.

“You’re a generous leader,” Piotr remarked, mouth hanging open as if wanting to say more. Jjonveyo frowned.

“But no word from Wojeck?”

“No.” Piotr reminded.

“Then we must wait longer to see if the people of Ha-Dûna will find the caves of Thaa in death, or the mountainside above.” Jjonveyo rolled his jaw in thought, eyes glued to the dark grey banner hanging from the ruined great hall -- the image of a devouring snake upon it. Flicking his eyes back to Piotr he spoke, “Collect my warriors.”

Ha-Dûna


The autumn harvest was approaching its end, and sleds, carts and farmers with baskets and haystacks on their backs filled the mud-path streets to the brim, flowing in and out of the city gates like the tide. Druids patrolled every resthouse, silo and storehouse, scraping down the amounts on oak and birch tablets. Overseeing the peace were leather-armoured constables armed with whips, ready to punish any who dared short their taxes or sneak handfuls of grain and vegetables. Children zoomed between the legs of adults and animals, playing with sticks. By the largest resthouse, the South Gate Hall, théin Aifric rubbed her groggy eyes, hardly paying attention anymore to the masses of ethnicities from the southern farmlands that came with all kinds of taxable and untaxable goods. She had to kick herself awake several times - it may have been the last day, but she had beheld this very sight for weeks now. The responsibilities of a théin weren’t always as exciting.

Théin Aifric?” asked the druid tallying the goods. Aifric instinctively took the whip off her belt and slowly rolled it out.

“Alright… How many?”

The druid blinked and shook her head. “No, no, no - it’s not a criminal this time.” Aifric frowned in surprise and looked up to see the line of farmers and herders shiver as one at the sight of the whip. At the head of the line, though, stood a man. He was dressed in thick woolen clothes hardened with a leather chap. A great serpent was stitched into the chest of his coat, mouth agape and eyes clearly gouged out. The man himself looked rather young, but held experience in his sharp dark eyes. He was flanked by two similar looking men of varying ages. They all wore the same dark beard and moustache.

“You are an official?” The middle man’s voice was thick and groggy with an accent that could only be described as Čeleviak. It was as if speaking Dûnan words made his tongue swollen and slow. The théin blinked.

“I am,” she replied curtly. “What’s this? Uh… Chelivyak, right - there’s no mistaking that accent. You are very far from home, man. You’ve got goods to tax?”

“No,” The man, Wojeck, said sternly, “I have come for tithe to the Tsar.” He pulled a wooden circle out of his coat and pushed it into Aifric’s hands. On its sanded surface were surprisingly well written Dûnan characters and numerals. It almost looked like one of the inventory reports for the post-tax season, but the way it was written and the context made it clear that it was a list of demands. The théin hardened her eyes skeptically.

“First of all, it’s ‘fithe’. Second of all, we have no such law. What even is a saar, anyway?” She turned the plate around in her hand before giving it back. “If you’ve had your fun, stop wasting my time, son.”

The plate was shoved back at Aifric, narrow black eyes glaring from Wojeck. “Jjonveyo the Great demands his tithe under threat of annihilation. Your law is now under his, your time is now under his. Jjonveyo the Great is a man of mercy, and wishes a simple transition of the tithe.” The two other men grunted in agreement. The théin snarled and shoved him back forcefully.

“Back off! I don’t know what you’ve eaten today, but you are far out of line. Go home to your saar or whatever he is and tell him to send a better joker next time.” She flexed her hand around her whip. “Do not make me repeat myself again.”

The three men looked between themselves. Wojeck slowly grinned menacingly, “What is your name, that you speak so cocky against Jjonveyo?”

“What is my--” The woman looked to not know whether to laugh or snarl, standing dumbfounded before the men. The tax line had at this point stopped, and the druid and the constables were paying close attention. Aifric uncoiled her whip. “I wouldn’t give a damn about this Joanveyoh even if I had a damn to give. You can go right home and tell whoever that even is that Aifric, théin of Ha-Dûna and daughter of Clan Sûr-le-Mont, sent his loon of a messenger back home with those words - and if you even open your mouth right now, I will give you as many lashes as it takes to get you to leave. You are wasting my and everybody else here’s time with your games.”

A roar of laughter erupted from Wojeck, and he turned to one of the other bearded men -- explaining something in Čeleviak. The other man started to laugh with Wojeck, the latter following last. All at once they turned to Aifric, Wojeck pointing a finger, "I had no idea I was speaking to an ignorant, indeed I have wasted time. Pray tell, where may I find an official?" He quickly added, "Capable of diplomacy."

That was the last drop, and the théin lifted her whip, cracking it furiously at the three men. More constables hurried over to help, taking out their own whips. “Go! Get out of here, you slobs! Back to your dirty caves!”

The whip lashed across Wojeck's chest, but his ears perked at the mention of caves - pushing him through the pain. He gritted his teeth and barked something in Čeleviak. The other men narrowed their eyes. Wojeck and one of the others whipped out daggers from their coats, murder in their eyes.

"Stop!" The oldest of the three suddenly shouted, voice dripping with a foreign accent thicker than Wojeck's. Wojeck and the other man hesitated.

“He’s pulled a blade!” shouted one of the constables. The crowd of people who had come to pay taxes screamed and scattered, and the théin and her warriors pulled their own weapons, most of them axes, but Aifric’s, a long dagger. They then jabbed and lunged the Čeleviak, trying to get a good stab in, the first stab puncturing the hesitating Wojeck. The blade sunk deep into the base of his neck, a rough gurgle spattering out.

The old man's eyes widened with fear and in a moment, he had his own blade drawn and deep in the leg of Aifric. He pulled it out in time to dodge an axe swing from a constable - the same constable shrieking in pain as the last Čeleviak stabbed his blade into their heart.

An axe came crashing down into the man's back, and before the older man could retaliate and avenge - an axe slammed into his own. He fell to the ground, bone crunching against the axe blade. The constables stood panting over the corpses until one of them turned to the théin, shouting, “The théin! She’s wounded! Kaer Samwyn, do something!” The druid, shocked by what had just transpired, hastened to action with healing Aifric’s leg. One of the constables took the head of the one whose heart had been stabbed and lifted his torso onto her lap, tears filling her face.

“Ron… No… Oh gods, not Ron…” She looked pleadingly over at the druid, who looked back and shook her head slowly.

“There’s nothing I can do for him… I’m sorry. He’s in the afterlife now, being welcomed by his mothers and fathers of yore.”

The constable broke down sobbing.







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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Bright_Ops
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The Craftsman & The Hammers of the Dragon


The Craftsman froze.

This was somewhat noticeable, since he had been partway through a demonstration of a technique with his team of 'rookie' blacksmith of the Hammers of the Dragon and his students had noticed Old Man Hamarr suddenly stop talking and freeze in place. As Hamarr's head slowly started to turn so he gaze landed on what was to his students just a random piece of wall in silence, one of his prize pupils Hildaburg dared to speak up as she asked "Master Hamarr? Are you-" only for Hamarr to raise his hand to cut her off.

"I'm fine, but something big has just happened and I need to speak with Droka immediately." When Hamarr spoke it was with a... softness of tone that was generally only reserved for those students that were clearly trying and putting in effort but were just not quite getting the lesson. "I'm afraid we'll have to postpone this lesson. Go and take a break but... don't go too far. In fact, try and alert the other groups that I'll want to talk to them all shortly. You're all dismissed." Not once while he was talking did Hamarr look away from the spot on the wall that his gaze had been locked onto, even as he gently enforced his dismissal with a small wave of his hand.

While most of the students did as told and left the longhouse, if in a somewhat nervous and confused manner, Hildaburg remained with a look of worry but a bravery in her eyes that was hard not to respect. "Master, might I stay and hear the voice of Droka alongside you? I promise I won't speak..."

At last, Hamarr's gaze turned from the wall towards his student. For a second the old man looked like he was about to chastise the young woman for her question but... he paused for a moment as he looked her in the eyes. A moment of thought... before at last he shook his head. When his spoke his tone was still soft but there was a degree of affection to it; A teacher speaking one on one with a beloved student "Not this time. However, I can promise you that you will get to speak with the Craftsdragon directly before I depart from Scawick. Now run along Hildaburg."

With her boldness and bravery somewhat rewarded, even if she was disappointed that those rewards would come later, Hildaburg finally followed her peers out the door, leaving the Craftsman in private to talk to his master silently. "Droka, what just happened? I felt... something happen in the Westfold and I don't know what."

It took a moment for Droka to turn his gaze towards the Westfold and discover exactly what it was that had been detected by his Avatar, but once he had that information it was shared freely. The conversation about what to do about it lasted for a time... but as it drew to a close a grim expression settled on the Craftsman's features. Droka was focused on refining the details of his project down south and was content to leave how the matter was handled up to the Craftsman, even approving of the plan that he had suggested... but for the first and hopefully final time, Droka had growled in anger at him.

"Never make a promise on my behalf without speaking to me first ever again! The one you've made is a small thing and I'm happy to follow through with it, but do it again and there will by consequences."

.......................................................................................

When Hamarr had thrown open his door to invite all the students who either could attend or had been found and informed of the meeting, he did so with a dark expression on his face. The somberness of their teacher resulted in the various members of the Hammers to find spots to sit or stand and listen relatively quickly and in near silence. The tension in the air betrayed their thoughts; They knew something had happened and if it was concerning Hamarr this much, it was something big and nasty.

It was only once the last person had found their place that Hamarr addressed them. "Earlier today, two men from Scawick performed an utterly horrific act in the name of revenge against Ha-Dûna and a woman named Hilda 'the Leoness' of Clan Ur-Gaard. Having bargained with a vile witch, they abducted Hilda's child and ritually sacrificed him in order to summon a destructive demonic entity into the world, using Hilda as a host to anchor it to this plane."

If Hamarr had let the crowd murmur and speak they likely would have, but he didn't as he continued "Regardless of your views and opinions of Ha-Dûna or of Hilda 'the Leoness', the thing that your countrymen have summoned into this world that wears her flesh is a bloodthirsty, rampaging beast of tremendous power that is almost unkillable by mortal means. If left to its own devices, it will rage across the Westfold for decades, if not generations before it runs out of life energy to sustain itself and the killing finally comes to an end. Scawick will not be spared from the slaughter that is to come, for a creature that was created only to suffer will inflict suffering upon the world blindly in turn."

"I have spoken with Droka... and he has decided to offer you the chance to spare your homes and families the grim fate that your kin have invited upon this land. This demon was called into the world with the spilling of innocent blood; The guilty blood of the two Scawick men who shed it is the key to its undoing. Any weapon infused with the blood of the two men will be able to bypass the demons defenses, fully able to injury and kill the host body and banish the demon from the world. Droka has desires for you to be the ones to deal with this threat. If you are able to do so, he will offer a divine boon to those men and women who cast it back into the darkness from once it came."

For a few moments there was a stunned silence... then a small wave of murmuring as people began to discuss among themselves what they had just heard. The murmuring ceased as a young woman stood up, a look of icy rage in her eyes. "Who did this?" Hildaburg asked with a restrained passion.

Hamarr looked... resigned as he answered "Droka did not deem them worthy of having their names spoken, but they are two men who have been away from Scawick for some time and whom will soon be returning together. You will be able to recognize them for what they are and what they have done because they will both only have nine fingers on their hands, the tenth being sacrificed in order to seal their dark pact with the witch."

"Where is this magical bitch?" Hildaburg snapped in anger, clenching her hands into fists as she tried to restrain her fury. Her master shaking his head at her request confused her.

"The witch has fled back to her lair now that the deed is done. She will remain there until another fool disturbs her forest home. She is far away, well protected and truthfully too powerful at this time for any of you to have a hope of success at even harming her, even if you were given a weapon that could do the deed. Her time will come, but not today Hildaburg. Focus your rage towards undoing the demon that her vile magics have brought forth instead." Hamarr explained truthfully.

For a moment he seemed.. conflicted by something before he rallied and continued "Droka will also offer a second boon to anyone brave enough to perform a task he deemed suited for a true champion of the Craftsdragon. However, he will only revel what this second quest will be to those who slay the demon infested Hilda. Before you all ask, he did not tell me what it was. There is only one way to find out. Any further questions?"





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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Goldeagle1221
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The Village of Skan, home a minor tribe


The sounds of battle were already dying, the small village of Skan already buckling under the ferocity of Jjonveyo’s forces. Every house had a busted down door, pools of blood painting the entrances of the more resistant Skanians. Jjonveyo himself stood before a violent man far past any notion of reason. The Skanian man held a copper bladed axe with both hands, fury burning in his eyes. They stood between two homes, a cowering boy not even in his double digits was hiding in the shadows, tears running down his face.

With a roar, the Skanian swung his axe. Despite his enormous size, Jjonveyo moved like liquid out of its way, angling himself for his own hefty swing. His own axe swung quick, cleaving into the man’s skull and knocking his corpse off its feet. The body bounced off the wall of the house before folding to the ground. Jjonveyo gritted his teeth, dark eyes falling on the cowering boy.

Jjonveyo’s footsteps seemed to shake the boy’s world with each impact until finally the giant of a man was towering over him. The heavy axe head thudded into the ground beside the boy, Jjonveyo kneeling until he was face to face with the sobbing child. The boy’s cheeks were stained red with tears, snot dripping from his nose. Jjonveyo met the sight with a hard analytical glare. The boy was breathless with sobs, so Jjonveyo seemed to talk for him. The Tsar’s voice rumbled, shaking the boy’s attention so they stared eye to eye.

“Do you want to live?”

The boy nodded quickly.

“So do we,” Jjonveyo slowly offered a calloused hand. Scared, the boy slowly gripped the man’s fingers. With a ginger pinch, Jjonveyo grabbed ahold of the boy’s hand and slowly lifted him to his feet.

“My Tsar!” Piotr’s voice found Jjonveyo, and the dark man turned to his retainer.

“Take census of the village,” Jjonveyo commanded quickly, “Let the survivors know I prefer peace.”

“Yes my Tsar,” Piotr nodded, “But I hold news.”

The Tsar’s eyes darkened, glaring deep into Piotrs. The Retainer tipped his head to avoid eye contact, “The Village of Jren refuses to give tithe on account that they aren’t Čeleviak.”

A deep hum growled from Jjonveyo, his eyes flickering over to the boy then back at Piotr, “They insult their Tsar and kin?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Jjonveyo exhaled through his nose, “What is their census?”

“About two hundred and fourteen individuals.”

“The Tsar prefers mercy; execute every tenth, hang their elder, and inform them that they are now Čeleviak.” Jjonveyo stood perfectly straight, eyes flickering once again at the boy. “We are all in this together. To tithe is to ensure your kin and kith live, to deny the tithe is a grave crime against all.” He flicked back to Piotr, “Demtri will be boyar of Jren in place of their elder, inform him of my desires.” Jjonveyo kicked his axe up and over his shoulder, walking away from his most recent victory.

“My Tsar?” Piotr’s voice came again. Jjonveyo didn’t stop, a simple “Hm?” Coming from him.

“Wojeck still hasn’t sent word.”

“Mm...” The groan came, “No doubt the proud and greedy of Ha-Duna have done something vile. What do the Auspices say?” Jjonveyo turned to Piotr. Piotr shrugged.

“They returned to your hall after your victory over Aleksiej.”

Jjonveyo frowned deeply, “We will head to the hall of the Tsar, then, and consult them.” He paused, “No doubt they have grown lazy on my pillows and drunk with my dancers.” Disappointed he let out another rumble, “They will march with me after they give me the reading I know they will.”




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Training — Getting Beaten Up by Bori


30 AA | Year 15

“First things first — your sword. It has two main parts, pup, blade and hilt. If you feel here — careful, ya muttonhead! Don’t feel it, just look. See the blade tapers from the centre and has a sharpened edge, and then at the end here you have the point. The two edges give you flexibility when attacking. If a normal cut,” Bori drew the sword across, “won’t work, then a backward slash — like this — can take out an opponent who isn’t expecting it. If the sword bends one way or the edge warps, just turn it over and you’re good to go.

“The hilt protects your fingers a bit, prevents the opponent’s blade from getting to them, but don’t rely on it. If an opponent gets up close and personal and you can’t get a cut in, you can easily punch at them with yer shield, or hammer down with yer sword’s pommel. Yeah, this big pommel ain’t just for decoration pup, both the blade and hilt are useful. Remember that — it will save you.

“In the fray you want to keep your knees bent, one leg in front and one behind. Shield’s always gotta be up and ready.” Sugae imitated him, and the old man paused to inspect him. He tapped the boy’s back leg, telling him to bring it back slightly and ensure his foot was facing outward. “It gives you a firm foundation, see? And the knees, bend ‘em more. Like this you’re strong, you can step forward, or to either side, and you can retreat easily.” With that said he surveyed Sugae’s arms, bringing the young man’s elbow in slightly, “a tucked in elbow means your opponent doesn’t have an easy target. When it’s tuck in, it’s protected. And here, you want one of the edges of your sword to be facing towards your outside,’ he moved the boy’s wrist so it was rotated at a slight angle. With that said he expressed a satisfaction with the posture, telling Sugae to practice it often.

“Best way to strengthen posture and balance is standing on one leg, like the ascetics.” Sugae balked at the prospect. The ascetics could stand on just one leg for hours on end. “Don’t look at me like that, pup. The best defence is movement, and if you want to move in the right way you have to have balance and posture. Don’t think you’ll have time in the fray, the first blow is nearly always the last. Your shield and blade can be used for defence, but that’s really a last resort. Others will say differently but take it from me; if you keep moving you won’t need for anything other than pressing the offense.” He paused for a few seconds, “but if you ever have to use your sword to parry, you want to meet the strike with the lower half of your blade. The closer to the hilt the strike lands, the stronger your defence.

“Now for attacking, remember always that this sword your pa’s left you is a cutting sword. True it has a sharp point, and you could stab someone with it if you’re desperate, but it isn’t a stabbing sword — after enough usages the point will fail you, so stab only when there’s no other choice. It’s a cutting sword. There are eight angles you can cut from. The first two are downward cuts — one comes down from the right and the other comes down from the left, and then you draw the sword through to slice your opponent open. This drawing movement is important! It’s what does the damage. The second two are upward from the right and upward from the left. The best cuts are straight from the right and left. And the final two are cuts that come straight down and straight up. When you get used to the movements, you’ll be able to flow from one cut into another without moving anything but your wrist — no big swings, no elbow leaping about, just a simple wrist movement. Controlled armed movement, along with this wrist movement, creates for a perfect combination. Now if you combine this with foot movements, say a swift step forward or to the side when you’re attacking, then you give the cut extra power and lethality. Your constant foot movement — left, right, back, forth — and the constant movement of your sword, means your strikes are unpredictable and so more likely to land, and are also more lethal. You’ll have many opponents on the bloodletting field, you can’t waste too much time on each one, so all of these’ll help you to take each one out with one cut.

“Come, let’s practise. If you can master these basics then you’ll be well able to protect yourself.” Bori put the sword to the side and picked up a wooden stick. “Sharp weapons are for killing, not sparring.” He commented casually as he raised his wooden shield and took up the fighting form. Sugae did likewise and both began to carefully step around each other. It was slow and cautious at first, with Bori frequently stopping to comment.

Over the weeks and months, however, the comments grew fewer and fewer, and soon they were not stopping so much anymore, or at all. “Find your feet! Keep your balance.” Bori growled. Groaning slightly, Sugae rolled on the ground and got to his knees.

“Didn’t have to hit me so ha-”

“Stop whining, pup.” The butcher’s steely voice cut the boy’s words short without mercy even as he prodded him roughly with his wooden sword. The boy huffed in frustration and rose heavily to his feet. What was this now, the tenth, twentieth, time that he had knocked him down this session? Bori was just far more skilled and experienced than Sugae, even if it had been nearly two decades since he had last seen a battle and was an ancient husk. Sugae stood no chance against him. “Ready yourself- shield up!” He shouted, striking with sudden speed.

Sugae stumbled back and just about manage to parry and dodge the confident blows, smacking the last one away with his makeshift wooden shield. “You’re doing quite well against these playful strikes, pup — let’s see how well you do against something more serious.” He spoke, and before Sugae knew it he came forth with a furious burst of speed, delivering a powerful horizontal cut to the boy’s midsection that caused him to drop his stick and crumple to the ground in pain.

Bori sighed and squatted down next to him. “Think you won’t die out there, pup? Think you’re the hero of your life? No one is too special when death comes searching for them on the bloodletting fields. Remember that.”

“That... gods. That hurts,” Sugae managed between gasps.

“Think anyone will pity you if you cry? Think anyone will stop ‘cause it hurts?” He looked at Sugae for a few seconds. He had never spoken so ruthlessly before, and Sugae was somewhat taken aback by it. At last, however, Bori extended a helping hand, “but this ain’t the bloodletting field.” Sugae took it and got to his feet, and after a few moments he was ready to resume.

As they circled one another, Bori told him once again to always keep moving. “Move your feet and grip your sword tight and keep it moving — over your head and across, always in a constant circular motion. And when you move in, move with speed and surety. In the fray, the first blow is often the last blow.” And to illustrate, his circling steps gave way suddenly to a two-step forward dash and Sugae’s extended leg was taken out from under him. “Your opponent’s extended leg is an easy target. If you can get his wrist or his fingers, those are excellent targets too. It’s the same for riders — if a horseman is riding you down, you don’t want to turn your back to him or run ‘cause these guys have a sort of strike they do, a sort of turn of the wrist, that makes a man’s head fall off just like that. You want to shield yourself and cut the reins of their horse or the hand holding the reins or injure the horse itself — its legs or throat, whatever you can get your blade into.” He helped Sugae back up again. “A rider’s thigh is also a good target; you can usually get that along with the horse. More riders have died from cuts to the thigh than I care to count. If you have your spear to hand, that’s your best friend — whether against a rider or a footman. Only draw your sword if you lose that — and don’t lose it if you can. Also, don’t go up against an elephant or any kind behemoth, but if you do, get the legs.”

Over the months, Bori battered and taught Sugae. But mostly he battered him. “You don’t want to be the first in the fray. And you want to be the first out. Don’t try to be a hero.” Was one of his cardinal guidelines. “Keep your sword sharp.” Was another. A sharp sword meant that even delicate cuts could slice through an opponent’s wrist, leg, neck, or to the bone at the least. According to Bori, it was all about correct wrist movement, and he illustrated this to Sugae in the slaughterhouse where he allowed him to practice his cutting technique on some of the carcasses they brought back from hunting. “Stop swinging your sword around like that,” he would snap when Sugae’s movements became too wide and open. “Don’t hack and chop. Draw your sword through the target for long, deep cuts.”

It was punishment from the gods for all his meetings with Mahula, Sugae had no doubt about it.

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The augur Nil set about his work, in a hovel abandoned long before the war on the outskirts of the settlement. He did his best to ward the house with symbols and other trinkets, though even he wasn’t sure if this was invoking magic or wives tales.

It was the middle of the night, but his blind-fold was tightly folded around his eyes and he had a scented mask to drown out any senses. He needed complete focus, and was afraid of what he might see or smell when he began his examination.

He laid on the floor, and began to focus. He forced himself to look at the door that he has now noticed was always just on the fringes of his extraordinary sense. It hurt, but he pushed through and was just about to notice something when the door slammed close. He refused to allow the answers slip from his grasp and held tightly, attempting to see past it.

As Nil pushed to try to gain some means of insight, holding on so tightly to a door that refused to give, all sense of it suddenly broke away. Instead replaced with a vision gazing so intently back, a Massive Eye emplaced in a spiked disk looking back at him, into him with an intensity that was rare in any mortal endeavor, connecting directly to his mind.

There was a kind of void demanding to be filled, barging on his mind as the pressure from the vision he now felt grew slightly stronger in each moment.

Nil steadied himself. He felt his instincts flare, compelling him to run. But even as he felt that he was facing mortal danger, he stood his ground. He attempted to speak with the eye, “Are you some figment of my mind, or are you something else?”

A voice came back, made of the chittering of rodents, the calls of birds and the distant laughter of something not quite human. Each melded till it became a single voice flowing into his mind. "Something else. Explain your intrusion."

The pressure on his mind had stopped growing, yet the eye still gazed back into him as he refused to flee.

He replied, “My eyes wander in service of the Rest.” but his voice was split, another intention spilled through, “I will do what I must for my brother.”

The voice replied, "For what reason do you seek to see beyond life? The Rest is focused on other matters is it not? The concerns of the Westfold are many. You seek aid for your brother, and yet you still stand here, what to you is aid?"

Nil was silent, he was attempting to logically think of a response and while he did, words slipped from his subconscious that formed the story of him travelling to his abandoned home town due to reports of a monster, and finding the remnants of his brother and him gazing at the door and seeing that his brother crossed over it.

"Your brother died Nil. Many you knew and loved did so, this is the fate of life. The best you can do is join them in Paradise. All crossover and are granted such, join them Nil, you won't find a good end by trying, the cycle only continues. War will reach the Westford once more, whether tomorrow or a century hence. It cannot be stopped, what happened to you and your brother will happen again countless times to many through generations. It happens even now. Your best hope is to reach Paradise, enjoy and rest with all that you love, all of those who love you and you love. It is beyond life, even if you do not contemplate it you know how to go, letting go of all that this world holds."

For a moment, Nil considered the words and thought about how easy it would be to simply let everything fade around him. But then he remembered his brother, his second voice shouted, “My brother is not in paradise.” His eyes adjusted, and in front of him was no longer a giant eye but a tall gaardskarl man in bronze armor carrying a spear with a skull impaled through it, the figure that haunted his nightmares, what he thought Sigeran to appear as. He just mouthed, “You”

The Gaardskarl looked himself over in his mind's vision, "Me. A name you'd know well enough here in the Westfold."

The voice changed to match that of the vision now so shown, whispering voices of a thousand Dûnans formed into one as he spoke, "You are correct, he is not. He could not rest in Paradise, he was too attached to the world below. So he went back, his will is strong and he holds on ever so tightly now. I hope that he truly could grow out from it, and return in time. True enough he will return in time and be granted rest."

"So what do you wish for now Nil? What information do you need? What path do you seek to take? You are renewed so you might as well set your purpose now."

He paused for a moment. The door and the eye had an intangible, mystical and grand fear emanating from it. A torrent of energy that could be overcome with sheer will, but now he was facing something wholly different. A reminder of the devastating that he personally experienced, the trauma that led him to become an augur in the first place. His primary voice was quiet, while his second shouted, “I will murder you.”

A sigh, "You can't, try something else with what you do with your life if you intend to keep it. Help your brother back to Paradise, or lead others as far away from it as possible. I'm not going to dictate to you what you should choose, if you choose well I may tell you how to help. Poorly and you throw away such opportunities. It is of little consequence."

Nil muttered, “What paradise do you need to escape from.” while his second voice just keep repeating a single word, “Why”

"You do not escape from Paradise, you reject it. When a soul is so terribly distraught by what happened on Galbar that they cannot rest, they cannot enjoy Paradise. I would not suppress the feelings and desires so much upon a soul that it would deny something held so close to its own being and essence. I let them go back, give them an amount of power so that they might find what so mattered to them and let it fade either with time or by their own effort. Only those of the greatest of wills can do this, to be so distraught in their life and all the suffering endured that they cannot make use of their own death. That is what your brother is caught in, he cannot enjoy Paradise because he is too caught up in what happened in your village, what happened then haunts him more than any means or measure a spirit could do to the living world of Galbar."

"If you wish to help your brother, help any who come back with what remains of your life, help them find peace. Death is eternal, life is not, one will make a bigger difference seeking to make good than whatever few joys one can take in life."

The augur’s two voices began to overlap, as he angrily shouted, “You speak of what I must do, none of this would have happened if not for you, if you had just allowed time to wash us away into your oblivion.”

"When the druids of Ha-Dûna gave me the name that you know, when they spoke and asked of me what I wanted from them, I told them what they would have as reason to do what they wished. I did not tell the Dûnans' to fake a cause for war, I did not tell them to march all the way to Grimholt, subjugating and killing as they did. I gave them cause to do as they already wished, in doing so they sent more to Paradise. Perhaps your life would not have been so wrecked as it were if I had not replied to them so, but do not so callously think that there is not the capacity for such evils within you and all else that lives. I may have said that it is what should be done, yet others still jumped to the task."

"Blame me if you must, but do not think that the suffering of all that lives is my fault alone. I only came forth when the first things that lived died in agonizing pain, I brought their souls to rest, I created Paradise for the dead. I did not create life. Blame me for your village as it did happen. Do not think though that no evils would have not come to pass did I not step in. There is no oblivion in Death, it is eternal, it lasts and lasts even with each scar I have to heal and each wound to be treated from the brief sprint of Life. I do not ask for your praise, only that you act morally as you are best able in an immoral world."


The two voices spoke the same words, but started to become out of synch with each other, “Stop. Just stop. You can’t be trusted. You.” he started to reach out with his auguric power, the new power he barely understood, exorcism and directed it at the god form even though he still felt as though there was something lacking behind it.

Another sigh, "Take what you will from my words, you are not the first to ignore my meanings nor will you be the last. I will fulfill your request, I truly do hope you find aid, perhaps another is better suited to handle you."

With those words the presence, the vision in his mind and all its pressure was gone.

His eyes open, he was in a cold sweat on the floor. His mind was still sore, attempting to reassembly itself in a coherent system. He felt the new power wrapped around him, finally completed before fading back into him. He could still sense the door, but he could not fully direct his senses towards it anymore, nor could he ever let it fade from his sense entirely.

His mind, still fogged by the experience, lurched up and he found himself in front of the ghost, his brother. His power flared as the ambient mana responded to his will, his still burning rage, as it surrounded the spectre and began to hold it in place.

He saw his brother suffering, suffering due to that monster. It was struggling, in more pain than it had before. It took him a few moments to realize that it was because of him. The mana was reacting to his hatred, and was harming his brother.

He began to take deep, heavy breaths and attempt to calm. In tears, he spoke to his brother, “I am sorry. I have allowed that monster to hurt you in life and in death. I will not allow him to hurt you any further.”

For perhaps the first time, the ghost noticed his brother and his surroundings. It did not say any words, but Nil could feel his brother’s sorrow and regret. It's thought drifting into the augur’s mind, “It isn’t your fault, brother.”

The augur collapsed to his knees, as in his mind, the village was back as it was and he was telling his still breathing brother about a nightmare he had, the events of his death and all of what happened afterwards.

His brother looked at him with a pained expression, “I am sorry for all the grief I have caused. Maybe I should not have died but we can not change that now.”

He vanished, he once again saw the city as the ruins that it was and the spectre was gone. He sat there and cried.


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Alas! the fleeting years slip by...


31 AA | Year 16

It was a year before shid Arkhus shib Mucazim’s soldiers rode through Rehna again. This time, no pleas from Dhula could make them leave Shidhig as they had done the year before, and not even the promise of all her share of the harvest. When the warrior-lord and his riders arrived at Sugae’s door, his mother was just about finished tying his father’s great blue warturban around his head. The young man was clad in his father’s quilted tunic, sandals on his feet, and a white cloth wrapped around his waste numerous times to act as a holster for the simple scabbard into which his father’s silvery sword was sheathed. In one hand he held his herding staff, sharpened at one end, and in the other he gripped his father’s great round shield. The commanding warrior-lord, whose great beard had more grey in it than black, gave Sugae an amused, if somewhat surprised, look from beneath his thick brows. “Bit overdressed, aren’t you boy?” He did not laugh, but some of the noble riders behind him sniggered, and one of them commented something along the lines of a loincloth would have sufficed.

Bori had warned Sugae that people like him — ‘peasants’, ‘commoners’ — were not even considered soldiers, but merely spare meat to throw at the enemy before the real warriors — clad and armed noble shids — swept the bloodletting fields on foot and horse. “If you want to survive, pup, you’re going to want to keep your head down. The nobles and higher-ups will mock you, laugh at you, make you do menial and humiliating tasks. Take it in your stride. They expect you to die, but if you stick around long enough there will be recognition. They respect a survivor, even if he is a lowly peasant from some rural backwater.” Sugae looked up at the warrior-lord.

“My pa was a veteran, shid. He left these for me so that I can honour him.” The lord scanned the shield and eyed the turban.

“Is that true then,” he said, “thought that turban looked familiar.”

“You... you knew my father, lord?”

“Hmm. So I take it he’s dead then. Shame. A man like Ravuk belongs on the bloodletting field, in life and in death.” He looked Sugae in the eye, “if you can be half the fighter your father was, you will have earned that warturban.” With that, he gestured for him to follow and steered his horse away. A few of the riders, not laughing anymore, gave him curious looks before spurring their horses to follow after the warrior-lord.

Sugae turned to his mother and smiled thinly. “Await my return, mam. I’ll come back to you.” She smiled back and nodded, her eyes glistening as she planted a kiss on his forehead. Then she stepped back and poured water into a small clay bowl. Scooping water from it into her hand, she began spraying it over her son and chanting.

“May the Glorified Mojtha guide your steps. May the Thousand Terrible Things and Faces strike with you and never against you. May the One Who Frowns scowl down on all who wish you harm. May the Serene Lord bring you tranquillity even in the heart of the fray. So may it be.”

With her words at his back, he marched off after the riders and eventually found himself walking beside Shidhig. Unlike Sugae, his father perished in the bloodletting and so he had no armour or shield or sword, only his trusty herding stick. Sugae grinned at him and lifted his own stick. “Good thing I trained long and hard pummelling your sorry arse with this, eh?” He looked over despondently.

“Only reason you ever managed to do that is ‘cause stinkin’ Bori showed you some of his tricks. In a way, you cheated. If not for your cheating I’m obviously far superior.”

“Well, I did invite you to come train with us, but you’re just averse to any form of hard work.”

“Averse to hard work? Me?” He exclaimed, “while you were off messing about with Bori and prancing around the lake with Mahula, somebody was actually bothered to care for the goats. Ain’t nobody gonna bother with them now! Some wolf or leopard will get them without their brave, dashing, daring Shidhig. Oh, my poor goats.” Sugae chuckled slightly, but the mention of Mahula visibly dampened his mood. He knew he was going to miss her immensely. He looked around in the hope of spotting her somewhere in the crowds that had gathered to see the young men off, and even as he looked the mere thought of her brought an immediate smile to his face.

“Ugh, there it is again, that stupid, happy, vacant smile of yours. Can you blame me for wanting to whack you silly every time you look like that?” Sugae looked at Shidhig distractedly.

“You’re just miserable and jealous is all you are, Shidh,” he teased, “if the gods are kind you’ll get your wish and be reborn as a goat.” The bigger man jabbed him in the side with his stick, but Sugae’s thick tunic meant he barely felt it. And then he saw her and his heart leapt as he took a few steps out of the marching procession to be closer to her.

“Oi!” One of the noble riders shouted, riding past and kicking him back into the marching line. Sugae stumbled into a few of the others and they grumbled at him, but he quickly righted himself and got back to marching, though he had eyes for nothing other than Mahula's melancholy visage and small sad smile until the procession crested a hill and she, and Rehna, were permanently out of sight.

Sugae blinked and looked at the others marching around him, most of them in thin tunics. Others had their chests bared and either wore long white loincloths or great baggy sirwals. Only a few were ‘armoured’ like him, and many had not even bothered to arm themselves with a stick as Shidhig had. Only now, as he watched all those who had been pressed into this business of fighting, from all the towns and villages in the region, did the depressing and wretched reality of it dawn on him. No amount of training with Bori or words of warning and advice from him could have truly readied him for this mass of despondent people, near-naked and unarmed, being forcefully marched off from their homes and loved ones. He gripped his staff and tightened his hold on his father’s shield. He would return to Rehna, to his mother, to Mahula.

And everything would return to how it had always been.



Prepared For All Things

The long march ended just outside the market town of Zira, where they made camp. At first it was only the noble warriors who had tents, while rural ‘peasants’ like Sugae, Shidhig, and many others camped out in the open. It was not much of an issue as far as warmth went, since the wet season was not yet upon them and the days and nights alike were rather warm, but the Khadaar had many dangers that made having a tent, or some sort of shelter, advisable.

After perhaps four days in the open, during which time Sugae busied himself practising as Bori had taught him, the shid of Zira, Dharqul shib Caamuthrapa, finally rode through the camp with his warrior-lords, guards, and various advisors, to inspect the troops he would soon be leading into battle in the name of shid Arkhus and the true ramshida, Muwayma shil Sahrur. Upon surveying Sugae and other members of the commoner-militia and speaking for a time with members of his entourage, the giant old man ordered that every one of them be given simple bedding and that five-man tents be provided. “Lord, are we going to get weapons? And training?” Someone asked. The shid looked at him for a few moments, his great grey moustache seeming to curl upwards, then pointed towards the main camp where those of noble birth and military upbringing were.

“They came with their weapons and brought with them their training, and they brought their bedding and their tents and horses and all they will need. Because I am benevolent and wish for the gods to witness my virtue, I have bestowed on you bedding and tents, purchasing them with the shidra’s limited funds. But as for weapons, you will have to buy your own or earn them on the bloodletting field, and if you wish for training, then train amongst yourselves.” So saying, the shid turned his horse, looked once more at the commoner militias, and cantered away with his retinue in tow.

Shidhig looked at his herding stick with pursed lips. “Guess I’ll be holding onto this then,” he muttered. Sugae nodded.

“Good idea. If you like I can sharpen the tip for you.” He looked at him and nodded back in appreciation.

“Fucking Palwijtha coulda given me some of his old stuff. Heck, he coulda let me make something…” Shidhig let loose an exasperated sigh. “And, uh. I think I’ll be taking you up on that training business now.”

“My, you’re just brimming with good ideas today,” Sugae chuckled, and the bigger lad punched him on the shoulder.

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Lord Zee There must always be... A Zee

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Humble Beginnings





She was far away in the land of her Lady's realm. So far from the Furies and Oraelia, frolicking with the animals she had come to love so greatly. They were her friends and that which she loved the most in her existence. From the smallest of mice to the largest of sky whales, they lived in the harmony she had created within the Garden Under the Sun. For what was a garden without life that could appreciate it?

The mortals would of course, for they were not able to not appreciate a realm where anything was possible. Where beauty was at every turn. Oh those pesky mortals. Always fighting and arguing. Never knowing that peace was so close to achieve yet so far away. For those who chose to dominate blocked every path.

But right now, Rhiona did not care about mortal woes. Instead she was busy creating something new in a small glade. She had made many animals and plants since she came to be but now she wanted to try something completely new.

Abstract of the mind but beautiful all the same.

She outstretched her hands and then cupped them together, bringing them back up to her face. She breathed into them and a stream of light coalesced forth coming into a lively ball that wobbled back and forth. It tickled her and she giggled, giving it a scratch with a free finger. It pulsed and it's golden color turned pink as it's body changed shapes into symmetrical blobs that glowed with such beauty it took her breath away. Who knew something so small could contain the beauty of stars.

It was small, yes, but held promise. She set it down and watched as it hovered around a blade of tall grass. She could make it even more beautiful still. Rhiona then picked up a large rock and then crushed it within her hands so tight the pieces became hard. She then blew the rock onto the creature and it coated the vibrating light in a million crystals. It seemed to enjoy that as it's color changed to a lively gold again, it's shape becoming that of a disc as it flew around her head.

It reminded her of a shooting star. So she would name it, ”Lumin.” Upon hearing her voice, the lumin danced and in it’s excitement, it flew into her head, letting out a low buzz as it fell to the earthen floor. Rhiona sank to her knees beside it and gently scooped it up with a soft smile on her face. ”You must be careful, little one.”

The lumin buzzed, changing to a deep blue color. Rhiona looked it once over and blew upon it. It fluttered, changing its shape again to a circle. ”There, now if you hurt yourself, you can mend. Mend and give.” The lumin zipped off her hand and took flight around her head again. Rhiona giggled.

She then grew the creature to the size of a royal joyf and multiplied its characteristics to create more of its kind. Around her they flew amongst the grasses and the trees, pairing off. Rhiona then blessed them with enhanced fertility so that they could make more of themselves. She did not know if they would be sent to Galbar eventually, but even creatures such as they could enjoy the company of one another.

Satisfied with her newest creation, she sat down to hold one but felt… A presence that should not be. It was one of death and it had come to their realm. This could not stand!




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Ganisundur

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Rinaas hli Awqar



“To where are we walking, adi?” One of the disciples asked one day. It was that same Sinhuldo who thought himself stupid in the ways of song. Stupid or not, he was faithful – for Rinaas’ disciples had been many when they walked the river ways, and now that they dared the jungles their number had dwindled to five – the small Sinhuldo, the strange Ganisundur, the giant Biruldaan, the handsome silk-voiced youth Girgaah, and the humelven woman Fihnoom for whom Girgaah often wove lovelorn lyrics and poesy.

“We are walking from here to there, my impatient Sinhuldo.” Rinaas told the young man as they slowly wove their way through the thick undergrowth.

“But adi, the jungle is dangerous – snakes and jaguars and gorillas.”

“Oh there are things far more dangerous than that Sinhuldo,” the songstress spoke melodiously, smiling at him. “Worrying so much that you can’t live, for one. What a terrible thing it is to die while yet there’s breath in you!”

Sinhuldo was silent then, watching the undergrowth fearfully, glancing up into the trees and hurriedly shaking away any dangling branches that brushed against his shoulders or head. His head turned to wherever there was sound – and there was sound everywhere. Above them unseen monkeys shouted and quarrelled, around them insects sent forth their myriad songs unceasingly, here and there the undergrowth rustled as some animal or another made its dashing way through.

They crossed tiny streams and paused by ponds, Rinaas simply breathing the places in and rocking gently from side to side with closed eyes. “These are the Ambuma jungles, my Ganisundur,” she said as they stood by one such rivulet. “Home to many things, of them the Buma tribes; free people who have never known a king or master. Other nomads and tribes may form up under one great chieftain or warlord or another, but not the Buma, the freest of the peoples of the great valley. They are the keepers of these jungles, worshippers of the jungle djinni whom they call Deh-dagini.”

“J- jungle djinni?” Sinhuldo whimpered, looking from side to side.

“Oh yes, a great and powerful thing – perhaps a child of the Godtree. Soon they will be setting out on the Great Hunt to appease Deh-dagini, and for that they will need us.”

“Why do they need us, adi?” Sinhuldo asked miserably.

“Oh, so many questions, Sinhuldo. You will find out. Come, we are close now.” The songstress stepped through the undergrowth and emerged into a small clearing at the centre of which was a small pool. At the far side were some huddled figures, who now watched them carefully as they approached.

“Seer Neh-naka, we had begun to think you would not be coming today.” One of them said once they were near enough, approaching Rinaas respectfully and touching his hands to his forehead in a gesture of respect. He was a short, stocky man – shorter even than Sinhuldo. His skin was dark, unlike the red people Ganisundur had grown used to seeing as they travelled the river ways of the Azumai river. He had a bamboo spear in one hand, his hair was cropped short and his face was stained with white and crimson paste. Beyond the long skirt of leaves, he wore a necklace of bone and amber with colourful feathers spreading out across his chest.

“It is good to see you too, Chief Ak-laha.” He was eyeing her five companions, particularly the variegated Ganisundur, and she noticed this. “I have brought these my companions. I know that some of them want to partake of the Great Hunt. Is that not so, Ganisundur?” She looked at the avatar who nodded with a small smile.

“You are not like anything I have ever seen, Friend Gin-sada,” Ak-laha said to Ganisundur. “You are of many colours, your colours shifting. You are like colour paste and like leaf-ink and earth-ink and all inks.”

“I am only a humble disciple of her whom you call Seer Neh-naka.”

“Ah, the weighty chest illness has you? There is only one cure for that.” Ak-laha laughed. Ganisundur cocked his head and glanced at Rinaas, who only smiled, revealing that small, familiar gap between her two front teeth. She gestured to the chief, who turned and led them from the clearing and through the jungle with the other Buma warriors until they reached their village. It was a simple affair, clearly not meant for permanent settlement.

There Ganisundur and Biruldaan – who likewise wished to partake of the Great Hunt – were handed bamboo spears. “Now know this, Friends Gin-sada and Bur-beda; to speak during the hunt is forbidden. There can be no sound.” Ak-laha told them, and both nodded in understanding. The hunters then gathered near Rinaas, who stood with eyes closed before a fire and seemed to be listening. The women beat drums and the hunters began to beat the ground with their feet, jumping and thumping rhythmically. Ganisundur watched them for a few moments, taking in the rhythms and the movement of their feet, and then joined them. Beside him Biruldaan attempted to do the same but only stumbled over his own feet or got the rhythm wrong.

There was clapping and singing from both the women and the dancing men, and the great ritual went on for some time before Rinaas, at last, opened her eyes and gestured in one direction. The song and dance came to an immediate halt, and Ak-laha turned and led his warriors, silently, into the jungle, going the direction Rinaas had pointed. Ganisundur and the giant Biruldaan followed.

The Buma men moved silently through the jungle, now that they had entered into the time and place of the Great Hunt. They communicated with hand gestured and exaggerated facial expressions, and Ganisundur watched this process with unveiled fascination. As they strode silently, gesturing and nodding to one another, a hand rose and there was abrupt stillness. They listened and watched; eyes wide.

There, hidden in the undergrowth but now moving was a great gorilla, its silver back to them. After some minutes, the great creature moved out and the warriors slowly readied their spears. This was the place that the Seer Neh-naka had told them about. This was the animal they were to hunt today. The warriors fanned out silently, and moved along with the unaware gorilla, watching it all the while.

Then, when they had it surrounded and the coast was clear, Ak-laha leapt forth and struck, and all others threw their spears and struck also. Ganisundur was swift, his spear landed right after that of the chief and lodged itself deep into the noble ape. It did not take this assault in silence, screeching loudly and beating its bleeding chest, rampaging now here and now there. One of the small warriors was not quite nimble enough and the dying thing of muscle struck him a glancing blow to the head that left him dead before he struck the ground.

When the rampage was over and it lay dead, the warriors all formed up around it and gathered their spears, they thumped the earth and ululated and danced around its body, praising the jungle djinni Deh-dagini. Ak-laha turned to Ganisundur. “You, who struck it first in truth, you shall carry it in the lead.” And so Ganisundur lifted its head while others lifted other parts and they carried it with them. The body of the fallen warrior was likewise brought and they entered the camp where the women and children were singing and dancing and ululating and beating their drums.

Praised is Deh-dagini!
Praised is Deh-dagini!
Oh djinni of the jungle
Worshipped of the Buma
You protect us from the monsters of the Ambuma
You alone defend us from the gorilla and the jaguar
You alone grant us great power and high ability
To face all the dangers of our lives!
Praised is Deh-dagini
Praised is Deh-dagini
We are made unseeable to our foes by your grace
Great son of the Godtree, his shadow in the world
You appear to us in every time and place
You alone take care of the affairs of the great Godtree
When, oh worshipped one, will you appear to us?

And as they sang, the jungle seemed to groan in response, and a great sound unlike anything known to mortalkind rumbled through the jungle of the Ambuma. It was, without a doubt, the great response and cry of the guardian Deh-dagini, the jungle djinni, to his loyal people.

Then they brought forth the body of the fallen warrior, wailing and praying to Deh-dagini to ward off the misfortune of death and the cosmic disharmony it brought. They piled debris around the corpse and danced around it all night, spears at the ready; when the viney ghouls came dashing to claim their brother the warriors all rose like the river and fought it off. They danced like this all night, tirelessly keeping the ghouls at bay, and after that long night the people gathered themselves and their belongings and departed, leaving the corpse behind. “Now we will go away from this place and its deathcurse, we will flee elsewhere and find there Deh-dagini’s blessings.” Ak-laha told Ganisundur. “You are of us now, Warrior Gin-sada, you struck the gorilla and heard the great voice of the jungle djinni. Take this spear, for you are foremost amongst hunters. Your heavy chest ties you to the Seer Neh-naka, but when you are cured return here to the Ambuma. May the jungle djinni cause all your foes to cease seeing you.” And with those words the chief and his people moved away and disappeared into the undergrowth.

“Come, my Ganisundur,” Rinaas sang, “for other tribes of the Buma await.”

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Crispy Octopus Into the fryer we go.

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Aquibeophates


She passed through the portal flippantly, entering the misty realm of the dead with all the famous circumspection of the incorrigibly curious. That is to say, none whatsoever. Her head swung this way and that as she surveyed the limitless towers that played final resting place to the uncountable throng of departed souls that Aquibeophate’s warden had claimed. A warden who, ultimately, she made little effort to summon.

It was a predictable outcome when the Patron Goddess of Explorers set off towards the nearest pillar without even trying to realize her goal in coming here. She strode across the stoney field, light bending at her whim so it seemed she’d donned a long dress made from the very world around her, and soon found herself standing directly before the portal she’d come from.

She grinned hugely at the development. Without much of a plan, beyond the vague notion of fun, she closed her eyes and started to step sideways. As she moved she felt the changes, even moving blind as she was. Every step a mile. Every mile a league. She moved faster, then slower. Even as she kept the length of her awkward sideways gait the same. It went on like that for a while, and by the time she finally opened her eyes, she was looking at nothing at all.

Staring into the mist was like trying to see through a rock. The ethereal fog had become so thick it may as well have been total darkness, for all the difference in the way it impacted her ability to see her surroundings. Luckily, the Goddess had senses other than sight. It was what those were telling her that made her almost giddy. Somehow, in the process of moving ‘sideways’ she’d found herself no longer standing on an infinite stone field, but the curve of what felt like a tiny moon. Or an enormous ball. It held her its surface just as the world below clung to its inhabitants.

”Oh, She remarked, “Now that’s a fun trick. I should use that.”

Her thoughts were interrupted by a sense of vibration, even as she could not see even a bare spec in front of her, she could feel on the ground beneath her. Getting closer a thousand quick taps, so soft that most mortals would never be able to tell of the approach. Suddenly the taps stopped just as they seemed to draw ever so near, one could not see any such thing even there was something close by. But then a voice came from the mists in front of her.

"Forgive this one for asking, but could you step quieter? You are disturbing the curvature."

The Goddess affected a puzzled look and scratched her head before answering ambivalently, “I could.”

"I would then request further that you step quieter in any further movement in the third deep mist."

“Will do. Well, if I remember. You know I can’t quite recall if I’m the forgetful sort or not. You might have to keep me company if you want me to quiet down. As a reminder, you know?”

There was a brief moment of silence before the reply came, "This one will accompany you."

The Goddess grinned and started walking backwards without bothering to turn around. Her feet felt out behind her and met the ground in cautious and delicate motions that didn’t so much as make a sound. Even as she moved faster doing it than anyone had a right to. She spoke up, her voice carrying just to her new traveling partner and no further, “So how many deep mists are there? I haven’t stopped by, before.”

"It changes as needed," this voice came from behind her as she felt the taps of her companion receding further away from her as best she could tell from the vibrations. "As of now there are five, a sixth one will form and then we will go back to three beyond then."

”You know that’s probably the better solution. Back home it’s all pines and creeks and then, poof, you’re stranded in the desert no matter where you are or where you’re going. I thought it’d be fun, but I’m thinking this feels more polished. It keeps you guessing. That make sense?” The Goddess mused aloud as she looked up at nothing and strode backwards like it was the natural way people walked.

"I know not, this is how it has been here in the realm of the Master. There are places which change all the quicker than the curvatures, they are far from here."

The mists subtly shifted, the pattern of their coiling and roiling swirls changed with each quickened step.

"We approach an archway. You will be able to see better there if you have such opportunities."

She didn't bother turning her head to look back. Nor did her pace falter as she asked, “Do you?”

"No."

With that she was out of the mists, or more precisely it had suddenly thinned to be mostly visible again. Stone curved around her, quite literally as suddenly gravity seemed absent. As any of her body moved the stone flowed differently to avoid her, the air shifted and her course changed. It was only a few brief moments before the stone flowed fully away and she drifted free. Looking forward was the slow formation of two distant arches of stone.

“Want to?” The Goddess asked as her head lolled back and her body followed. She kept floating back until her conversation partner and her were both liable to think the other was upside down.

"I am content as the Master made me, I am like my siblings among the servants of the Master."

Her partner became apparently visible standing on a curving arch. Of their legs, there were many, it was hard to tell as they were so spindly and of such great number that they almost seemed to form a solid mass beneath of the hard looking carapace of their body. Five tendrils floated out freely in the air, occasionally pulsing in a different direction.

Their body was turned to where she was when she last spoke, there were no apparent eyes upon them and it became rather clear that sight in regards to as most understood it was not among their abilities.

"Are such opportunities truly great? I like myself as I am, the other servants may see things I do not, but they cannot hear as well as I do, among other abilities."

“They can be,” She gave her new friend a little smile and answered honestly, “Sometimes things can be so beautiful you have to stop and stare. Sometimes so horrible you can’t help it. But the same could be said of any other sense. Me? I can’t imagine missing out on any of it. The offer stands.”

"Thank you, the offer is held in appreciation," They had turned to 'face' the Goddess as she floated along to where she had last spoken. "I will stick to what I have for now nonetheless, I am used to this."

They turned to another topic, "This is an archway, we can reach many places from here. You can even travel to the corporealists, although most I find altogether too fond of such means."

“It does feel like cheating,” She agreed, “Why go to the effort of making this place so much fun to explore, and then put a shortcut in it? A waste.”

"It is admittedly true that not all regions would be accessible without it. Less a shortcut, more an anchor allowing all to be traversed. I believe only some of the corporealists have not tried to explore all there is here, it shifts too often to truly know all I must admit."

The Goddess gave the arch in question a disapproving glance before concluding, “Well, room for improvement. Better to have a path from anywhere to everywhere. But if it’s the only way it’s the only way. Anywhere worth taking a look?”

"This one and You could always visit the corporealists, there are many interesting characters, even the New Servant is among them, or the Ones Without Purpose. There is the Locked Room, or the Void, or if You would wish to see the work of the Servants of the Master we could arrive at the New Compendium, it has been a place of great excitement as it is New Work To Be Done."

They lightly pushed themselves off the arch, only barely reaching off the ground where they began to float, gently twisting around as their legs folded on one another.

"There is much more to see, but these I think are the most interesting sites that you have not traveled to yet."

“I’m always interested in interesting people. Why don’t we go visit these Corporealists of yours?” She decided happily, “We might even find ourselves a third!”

"Such is the way of things. I know the way there."

With that they extended a few dozen legs to press against the Archway setting them spinning off to the right weightlessly.

Grinning and laughing aloud the Goddess set off to join her newly met pal, spinning off to the right in the weightless atmosphere of the Archway. It did soon grow apparent however as both twirled through the air that the room was spinning, not as a matter of perspective, but rather it seemed that the archway and the walls of stone had joined them, spinning up faster and faster the further they went along twirling off to the right of the Arch.

To her divine sense she could tell that more than just spinning the stone was beginning to meld and melt together almost, as though they were surrounded by a ball of stone around them, the mists grew ever so slightly thicker moment by moment.

And then they were on the ground, as though they had just landed perfectly. The mists were thicker and in the distance towers leaned over the horizon. Their friend spoke. "We have landed near the New Servant, look up."

And then they were gone from sight.

Upon seeing her companion vanish the Goddess gave an appreciative ‘Oo’ before turning her eyes skyward. As she looked skyward it seemed all the ground and towers of far on the horizon were pulled up with her view, as though keeping in sight. However after a brief moment it became apparent that it had only seemed as such, as she had looked up, she had traveled. The ground and far off towers only seemed to be moving when it was in fact that she was.

Further complicating this was that she wasn't physically looking skyward anymore, rather her head position as it had before she turned it. As well it appeared her friend was back again as well, their voice came from behind speaking to another.

"-uld-Exterminate-Life, my friend is merely exploring, and we would wish to speak and converse with the New Servant."

She did a quick spin on her heel so that she faced them and added, “And anyone else you think might be worth a conversation, really!”

Two things first stood out, a great form standing and that it was next to one of the great towering structures she had frequently seen on the horizon in this realm.

The great one stood, not straight but hunched over, his great head towered over them so many times over. His body was of muscular form, bipedal in all manners and degrees. Each arm came to hands with four digits ending in sharpened claws. His flesh was pale and greyed, a startling distinct among the great colors and forms of life that spread across all the lands. Veins bulge along the contours of his limbs, each colored in a sickly bluish hue as they distended from his body. All across his flesh flames flared out of whole in his body, any divinity could tell they were not of hot fire but pure energy of death, mortals would just see the abnormal green coloration if that. The holes concentrated most in his upper torso, near where the flesh gave way at the neck. Flames spewed upwards towards a skeletal skull, horns and fangs jutted out from the flesh-less surface.

The Goddess's friend spoke, "This one is Kaalaxinasbasonat, They-Who-Would-Exterminate-Life. They are a friend of the New Servant and one of the Servant Corporealists."

The giant Death Demon merely nodded to the Goddess, a voice came from inside the tower, there were Three doors to this one oddly enough, each marked with a sign. 'Guests' 'Dead' 'Re-Dead'.

"Kaala? How many Guests do we have now?"

Before the giant creature could reply to their unseen fellow, the Goddess cupped her hands around her mouth and, loudly, shouted back, “Just me, I think!”

A horned head poked out of the door marked 'Guests', "Hi there!"

"Would you like to come in or would you prefer outside? I baked some sweet bread if you would like any."

“I’ll come in!” With those words the 'Guest' door swung open as the figure retreated inside, swinging open a stall gate to get past a booth. There were three booths and a desk behind them. Beyond that was a staircase that seemed mostly ordinary, the Hostess disappeared up those stairs.

Calling back to the Goddess, "I'll be right back, just need to grab a plate or two!"

“Well come on, lets not keep her waiting!” The Goddess gestured to the door with her head and reached out to one of her companions' legs to tug them along after her. Gently, more or less.

The Goddess's friend promptly reached down with one of their tendrils and snapped off the held leg, which promptly regrew. They then proceeded towards the door leaving the Goddess holding their detached leg. She regarded it for only a moment before mouthing ‘ow’ and tossing it to the side. She followed with a shrug.

Soon enough their hostess bounded back, carrying four golden plates stacked on top of each other, the highest had several bread rolls as well. She spoke with a smile and much enthusiasm, "Sorry for not mentioning it earlier, I'm Zeraphsis by the way, but you can call me Zera!"

It was much easier to see the full form of the Hostess now. Appearing much like a mix of several mortal races, long horns jutted from her head that seemed human like, wings sprouted from her back, and her skin was extremely pale. Eyes were blue, not like that of a human but blue in their entirety, although they had started to shift in color as well. She wore a crown and a long dress, the crown itself was a bit of an odd thing, Twenty triangular spokes all leading into a central circlet that sat on her head.

Zeraphsis distributed the plates on the leftmost booth as they entered, two plates on their side, one on hers and the plate with the rolls in the middle. The Goddess grabbed a roll and spoke while she chewed, “G- Good to meet chu Zera! You can call me the Patron of Explorers, or just the Patron. Or anything you like, really.”

"May I call you Patty? Anyhow, it's really nice to meet you! You're actually my first visitor from beyond the realm as it were and well, that's very exciting!" She gave the goddess a full smile before continuing, "I've always wanted to go beyond the realm but well, haven't been able to as it stand. What is it like? What is Galbar like? Are the Divine realms as varied as Master Thaa says?"

As Zeraphsis talked and asked excitedly the Patron's friend had taken a roll and started carefully peeling the outer layer on their plate. The Goddess gave the meticulous activity a look, shrugged, and took another bite of her roll as she spoke, “If ya like! And Galbar is... Mmm. A lot of things, but interesting on the whole. I mostly pay attention to the people though. I haven’t gotten around to caring for the bigger picture, and y’know? I don’t think I will any time soon. The little stories are more interesting anyway.”

She finished off her pastry and snatched another with a wink before going on, “Can’t say much about the divine realms, though. I’ve been to a whole two now, and this is the most interesting one so far.”

"Oh that's fine anyway! Do you know many stories from Galbar that you've seen Patty?"

Zeraphsis took one of her rolls now too, the Patron's friend continued peeling his roll, Zeraphsis spoke to him as well. "Do you have a name too gentle servant?"

They continued peeling as they replied, "This one is the Caretaker-of-the-Curvature."

“The place with the really thick fog,” The Goddess said, nodding at her clarification. She went on, answering Zera’s question between bites with a food speckled grin, “And a few. I haven’t been around long enough to follow any of the really good ones from beginning to end, but the best part is always the middle when you get down to it.”

She paused as she finished off another roll, and added in a silly half hushed voice, “Actually, I’m here because I’m thinking of starting a few stories of my own. I came to speak to your Thaa, but might have gotten a little bit distracted. Not my fault this place is so fun to run around in. Anywho, I’m sure they’ll be around eventually, and I’m in no rush!”

Zeraphsis adjusted her wings as she spoke, leaning into a half whisper like the Patron, "Master Thaa is usually listening, I wouldn't be surprised if he was aware of all that you've done so far. I usually only have to ask for something and things will shift around as needed."

She leaned back, "I hope you get a good chance to start your stories then!"

Zeraphsis looked down picking up a roll, briefly pausing as if catching something in her sight. The mists in the room suddenly dissipated somewhat, and as she looked up her eyes were human-like, with a grey-green coloration.

As the Patron's friend was still peeling their roll, they spoke. "Zeraphsis has been to the third deep mist before, although her steps were too loud and my brother-servant They-Who-Watch-The-Curvature offered to take her to some less delicate places to explore."

Without commenting on her travelling partners thorough deconstruction of the pastry, the Patron gave a nod. “They do like it quiet there. Not the only place like that, though. At least in the mists nothing is waiting until you step on a stick to eat you.”

"May I ask, what did you want to speak to Master Thaa about?" Zeraphsis broke off a piece of a roll to eat it after asking, not too large so as to be chewing for long.

“Oh this and that,” The Patron prevaricated with a coy little smile, “I’ll be kicking off a competition soon, and I’m thinking everyone who gives it a go should get something for their effort, win or lose.”

"It sounds nice at least. May I also ask what where you're from is like?"

“You could,” The Goddess answered with a hint of well meaning sarcasm, “But it’s a bit of a work in progress. I’m afraid your Thaa and the rest got a bit of a head start, but only by about... Oh, two thousand years? I’ll be caught up in no time, really.”

"Oooh, you are a new Goddess? Master Thaa had told me of all those that he knew well enough when I asked but you being about is most interesting! Who have you met so far? I've wanted to meet Neiya and Celestine when Master Thaa told me about them but well, none have come to visit and I have my tasks for now. Master Thaa still says I'm not ready to leave."

[color=7070db]“You could just go anyway,”[color] The Patron cajoled with a smirk, “It’s what I’d do. This place is fun enough, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just one place. Hm. Well, as for the others I can’t say I know too much about them. Gibbou is good fun, but the rest I met didn’t bother with their names now that I think of it. Ah, it’s more fun that way.”

She paused and, for the briefest moment, her look turned bittersweet. She met Zera’s eyes and stressed her next words, “You could even go down to Galbar, you know. If you got one of us to send you. Any one of us could do it.”

Zera nodded but turned her gaze downward as she spoke, "I did try that once, when I was nervous and afraid first at my job. Then Master Thaa explained why I was not yet ready. I need the mists, death energies to well, exist and act, if I left before he could make me a 'generator' he called it I might not exist very long in this form, going 'catatonic', I wouldn't be able to do much he explained."

She looked up, giving an awkward little smile.

“Pah,” The Patron waved it off with a deepening frown, “Sounds like an excuse to me. Or a way for your Thaa to keep a hold on you. Boring either way.”

"It is true, she was not made like the rest of the Servants." They had advanced from peeling their roll to shaping the underlying bread exposed from the removed crust.

“Then she could have been made better,” The noticeably irritated Goddess complained, “What’s the point in being able to go down there if you can’t do it whenever you want? Some of us will never have the chance. You’d think letting the ones who can actually go, go, would be the least we could do.”

A voice came, echoing from the walls themselves, it was of a thousand whispers and the rustling of a million trees, forming into a singular sound, "She is young yet, experience can be gained before going out into the realms or the world of Galbar fully."

Without missing a beat the Patron answered the voice confidently, “And maybe going out is how that experience should be gained in the first place. What’s the point if you’re prepared for everything before you even start? Why even bother if nothing you do takes any real effort?”

"I do not have the power to do everything that is needed, some need wait for moral action."

“Then we’ll call it a difference of opinion,” The Goddess countered, “I don’t see the need to wait for what’s ‘necessary’, or dictate morality”

"Then a difference of opinion it shall be."

She took a deep breath, and exhaled what was all but a gust of wind blowing a swathe of errant hair out of her eyes. The Goddess tamed her annoyed expression and seemed to brighten up before speaking, “Anywho, as you’ve decided to drop by, I have to compliment your realm. Wandering around has been a pleasure.”

"I am glad you have found much enjoyment in it, few who have visited had more than a degree of annoyance given its difference to the standard state of what you'd find on Galbar."

The Patron's friend finally finished what they had been doing with the roll, flipping it over it became clear that they made a small bread model of themselves, the peeled crust like their own tentacles and the mass of bread made as if it were a mass of legs beneath them. Zera did a soft rapid clap upon its completion, the other servant raised their many tentacles at half of their reach before lowering, doing this several times apparently in place of bowing.

“Oh wow,” The patron remarked with a genuine grin, “It’s a little you! Cute.”

She regarded the little bread statue fondly for a moment before, somewhat reluctantly, shooting her friend a thumbs up and switching back to her conversation with Thaa. “Well, maybe it’s different for the ones who had a part in making things how they are, down there. I can’t say I’m too attached. Up and down, forward and back, as long as it’s taking me somewhere I can’t complain can I?”

Thaa only dry remarked, "You could in fact complain all you wished about it."

His divine counterpart suppressed her snort of amusement at the comment as he moved on, "I do not like how it is down there, but up here I have mostly free reign within my realm to make things less undesirable."

“You know,” The Patron drummed her fingers against the table and spoke thoughtfully, “On the note of things being undesirable, might I ask what your realm is like for the dead, more or less?”

"Paradise." Clearly to get him to elaborate more might take some prodding. In any case, Zeraphsis excused herself from the room briefly, going up the stairs at the back once more.

“So, different for everyone then?” The Petron remarked with a knowing smile.

"In some sense yes. I am running an experiment with a small number of souls giving them a personalized afterlife, the majority have been under a system of blissful rest for the time being."

“But only a small number, and for the others... Rest.” The Patron pursed her lips and repressed a shiver, “And that’s why I’m here. I exist, Thaa. A Patron of Explorers. Of people who can’t stand rest, and who aren’t willing to stop. I’m going to announce a competition, soon, and I have a feeling it will attract a lot more of them. That, and put them in danger. Of course, neither I or they would have it without the danger.”

She took a deep breath, unnecessary as that might be, before making the request, “I’d like you to offer the ones I exist for, the ones who die in my competition or in my name, the chance to come to my realm instead of yours. I have no doubt rest is paradise, for some. I only want the ones that find your peace a punishment.”

"I propose an alternative then, given your concern, I will enroll such explorers in a personal paradise for each, one that fits their particular proclivities. You would be more than welcome to visit them, and I would allow such a connection between our realms at such a point to facilitate that."

She bit her lip for a time, seeming to consider the offer. When she spoke, it was utterly without her usual levity. There was deep caution in The Patron’s voice, “I would accept that, but there’s something you didn’t say. Even if I might visit them, what about the reverse? They must have the freedom. A cage is a cage, even if it’s a perfect one.”

"I am loathe to give up control over the souls I wish to protect. However, I shall let them travel to your realm through an appropriate connection if they should so choose, and to return as they see fit as well."

"I do expect that you will remember this however, I do not agree fully with your ideas, and I shall be most disappointed with appropriate results should such trust be ill-founded."


Almost immediately the Patron’s easygoing smile returned to her face. She clapped and declared, “Then it’s a deal! They’ll be as protected with me as they are with you.”

"Welcome news. In the case of our new found cooperation, and your evident approval of hands on experience. Would you aid me in the final preparations for Zeraphsis and her travels as she wishes?"

“Gladly,” The Patron agreed enthusiastically. At least, until she took a moment to look around and faltered, “...Assuming she’s coming back. She didn’t just run away, right? Even if I...”

"She will be back soon enough, however there is an artifact of great import for her to ensure usage of all of her abilities and maintain a good status. For that I would need your help in making it lock to her, I can handle the rest. And I'm sure you'd be fine preparing herself the rest of the way as needed before sending her out to get experience and explore among such things."

A golden locket appeared on the booth, radiating mists out from it before subsiding.

“Whew,” The Goddess exhaled a sigh of relief before turning her attention to the locket. She eyed it for a moment before reaching out and giving it a single, sharp, tap with her index finger. With a little smile he announced, “And done. The next person who touches that won’t find themselves losing it.”

A soft vibration went through the whole structure, shortly after that Zeraphsis came down the stairs, she spoke. "What is needed of me?"

Only after asking did she spot the golden locket on the booth, she looked to the Patron.

Thaa's voice replied from the walls and floor instead, "It shall allow you leave and explore safely at your whim. Giving you both energy for your ownself as well as keeping your form intact despite any harm that may come of it."

Zera jumped with joy before he had even stopped speaking, profusely thanking Thaa, and the Patron, and Thaa, and instead of the Patron again she effectively leapt over the booth in an effort to tackle the Patron into a hug. It was not, necessarily, a success.

Nor a total failure. The Goddess had grabbed Zera by the shoulders as she ran to hug her, and perhaps that qualified as a half hearted embrace. Once it was clear that the winged woman wouldn’t charge her again the Patron let go and lectured, “The dress is light Zera. Just bendy light. No touching!”

Zeraphsis immediately flushed in embarrassment, mumbling "sorry Patty..."

She kept her distance and awkwardly shifted her arms around before resolutely putting them by her side. "It won't happen again."

The Patron eyed her cautiously for a moment before giving an easygoing shrug and speaking, “Ok. Well, I’ve got what I wanted. Things are about to start happening and since I wouldn’t want to be late for my own shindig, I’ll be heading out. Hey Zera, you want to follow me out or get a portal down to Galbar? Up to you.”

She immediately perked up, "I would like to follow you out!" Beaming she readjusted her wings, stretching briefly before folding them behind her, she reached over and picked up the locket, turning back to the Patron.

“In that case,” The Patron grinned, “If we’re heading back to where we started, I’d guess we go sideways.”

Without checking to see if she was being followed the Goddess immediately shuffled out of the booth and, inevitably, off the tower itself. As she plummeted into the mists below her voice could be heard shouting, “Oh and by the way I fixed your wiinnngggggssssss.”

The fading shout was all there was for Zera to follow, and follow she did, leaping off after the Goddess, into the Mists wings extended.




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Enzayne Invading Eldar

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Neiya





Nails rapped in a slow, rhythmic melody against the armrest of her throne. Neiya lounged backwards, stewing in her thoughts as a countless host of furies milled about with goods, foodstuff and weaving tools. The reconstruction of her realm had taken a lot more planning than she had thought, and the bliss of spending time with Cadien had only lasted halfway through the project. In truth, she didn't really remember what her realm had looked like. It had never mattered before.

It had taken her much too long to realize that it didn't matter now either. The furies had never seen it in it's old state, nor did she have any connection or nostalgia for anything but her trees ever in their blooming and wilting cycle. Those were returned in greater numbers, and she had ended up creating an almost endless forest of pink trees, dusting the ground with their flowers. The long and wide river returned as well, snaking across plains, hills and mountains with no real rhyme or reason beyond what was aesthetically pleasing. She made sure it would always flow gently and calmly, despite heading uphill several times, and breaking into what would have been river rapids in other places as it came back down. Finally, she created a grand palace for herself and the now sentient furies. In truth it was more like a domed coliseum, a massive recreation of her pavilion - and some borrowed ideas from Antiquity. In the middle was something akin to an open arena, and the sides were a combination of viewing balconies and domiciles - or as close an approximation as she could gather from having seen the decoration of Meliorem.

She wasn't sure what mortals truly required to live, so she'd come up with a clever ploy. While she'd been with Cadien, her three heralds had dutifully examined as much as possible of his estate. Now their observations and wants became the blueprint for all the materials necessary. Furthermore, she'd done her best to create raw materials, challenging her Furies to manage on their own. After she'd observed a few of them covering themselves with the available cloth, she gave everyone luxurious silks much like her heralds. Now, they were all running about, like a nest of ants frantically trying to get everything into order. Neiya stared quietly down into the arena, watching them as she pondered her next move. It wouldn't last long.

"My Queen! Waves of shame swell and wash over me for this offense - to disrupt the Great Lady in her peace." A voice piped up from her right, giving Neiya pause in her thoughts long enough to watch the speaker. It was her herald - the red skinned 'Our Journey is Everlasting', indolent but refreshingly simple. Neiya didn't need to ask, Journey took a simple turn to gesture to her kin, and soon enough a whole procession sidled in. Five more furies walked into her balcony, and between them they forced forward almost a dozen deep blue elves, shielding their eyes and ears to the best of their ability. "These kin appeared from across the way, ill-fated and thin. They tell a grand tale of roaring mountains and burning skies. Of a home long lost."

Neiya watched the elves and immediately recognized them as the mortals she'd taken into her realm before. She'd forgotten all about them until now. A wave of shame shot through her, watching these thin husks of the muscular elves she'd coaxed into her realm once. It took a single wave of her hand to rejuvenate them, and watch their health return. The men were confused, some praised her, but most were decidedly suspicious no matter her obvious divinity. Now all that remained was what to do with them. Why did she have them come here in the first place? Because she was curious? Neiya drew a quiet breath and focused on the distant Galbar. With a lift of her hand, the center of her arena began to ripple and twist, until the ground tore open to reveal the same lumber yard they had once left on the other side.

"You may stay, children of the night. If you wish to leave, your challenge awaits. The way home closes soon." she offered with a crisp voice that seemed to echo across the entire structure. The elves looked at each other briefly, and then more than half of them started running. Two braved the heights of the balconies, trying to cut across the structure and risking injury to climb down. A few others found the way they came, and the stairs towards the center. A wild rush followed, which briefly stalled the chaos of redecorating furies, who stopped to watch. One particularly sneaky furie went so far as to step through the portal. It was over in minutes. The elves who had chosen to leave all ran through the portal, with the last one only barely making it in.

Remaining were four men, squinting down at the arena as the procession resumed. "You have endured a great trial to stay alive, and made a grand choice to remain." Neiya pressed out calmly to address the remaining group. "You will want for nothing, now. Give them a room."

'Journey' - who had busied herself squeezing the bicep of the nearest elf perked up quickly. "My domicile will hold a grand host! Please, this way." With that, the elves vanished with her herald, and the other Furies returned to the chaos below.

The entire ordeal made Neiya feel strange. Guilty. It felt good to fix it, sure, but it mainly reminded her of all the times someone had admonished her. How stubbornly she'd done whatever she wanted. She knew what she had done. These elves weren't the only victims. The list was long. The horned goddess sighed sharply and slumped back in her seat, running a hand to adjust the shackle around her throat. Why did she care? She'd pushed it away for so long. So many ruined lives.

She was a monster. How could she ever change?




The crunch of dirt and sticks followed the two travellers in their journey through the forest, almost as loudly as the younger of the two was talking. "I'm telling you, we should have marked the trees as we passed. Teperia is supposed to be south. I'm sure we--"

"Hey, Estrid?" The bandit cut in with a tired sigh.

"Uh, yes?"

"Can we just be quiet?"

That made the horned girl grimace, and possibly raise her voice even further. "I'm sorry, Ava, maybe you should have taken a map or something from those soldiers you were so keen on robbing anyway. Maybe next time try not to get blood on everything. If you hadn't noticed I'm still basically wearing nothing but a blanket, here, and you insisted we had to leave before I could even get my shawl. In fact..."

Ava sighed and simply trampled onwards under the new deluge of verbal abuse, keeping her eyes on the wilderness ahead. If nothing else, the constant prattling scared animals away. Still, several hours of constant complaining was enough to make anyone crazy. Finally, Ava stopped to interrupt again.

"Look." She began, whipping forward to grip Estrid by the blanket. The girl let out a cry of fright, instantly shrinking together. "I'm doing my best here. I ain't wanna be here any more than you do. It's not like just 'cause you remind me we're lost, lightning's gonna strike and put us on the right--" In that moment, as clouds above seemed to darken and cover what little light they had, and a strange ripple of energy ran along her spine, Ava knew. She lifted her eyes upwards to defy the skies. "Oh, now you're lis-"

A beam of light shot down, striking both of the women with enough presence to silence the forest as far as it cast its light. When it dissipated, the women were gone.

That same beam shot down on the outskirts of the lands where Nallan had once been, frightening several innocent cattle, and leaving behind two very confused travellers.

It didn't take more than two minutes before Estrid was complaining again.




"She's no daughter of mine!" came the yell from the other room, followed by the crying pleads of her mother for calm and reason. Caitlín counted the moments in her head that they'd had this same argument. This time she'd prepared for his drunken anger by barricading the door from her side. Just as she had anticipated, his heavy fist soon slammed against the flimsy wood. "Caitlín! You'll come out--"

"Skallar, please!" came her mother's brief, pointless defence.

"Be quiet, Gwyn! -- come out here this instant if you know what's good for you!"

Caitlín rubbed at her nose and pulled her knees up against her chest where she sat leaning against the wall. Her side still hurt from his last tirade. “Go back to your sheep, old man! It's all you're good for!" she countered as loudly as she could muster. The catharsis of being spiteful was almost immediately replaced with the gnawing knowledge that she was just making it worse.

"You little hussy, I'll f--" Skallar began, the rest of his swearing unintelligible over the hard pounding of his fists on the makeshift barricade. The wooden barrier rattled under his continued assault, already threatening to give way. Caitlín wished herself far away, like she always did. She knew it didn't matter what she said. She'd been blamed for the vices of her mother since her birth, and her dark hair proved it. The fear she used to feel was replaced by a numb helplessness, even as her barricade broke apart and splintered at her side. All she could do was pull tighter into her self-embrace and hope he got bored of screaming.

His firm fingers wrapped around her arm like a biting wolf, ripping her up off the floor to yell in her face. Just then, a loud sigh rushed over her senses, brushing over her ear and through her hair. It felt as though someone embraced her from behind, a closer embrace than her mother had dared give her in years. A motherly voice crooned, drowning out the noise of the world. "You are never alone, Caitlín, daughter of Gwyn and Eòghan. The blessings I sang to him live on in you. Nothing can stop you." the voice claimed, instilling a sense of calm, even as her father… no, Skallar … screamed in her face and battled the failing attempts of her mother to intervene. Was this Naya, were the stories true? The voice confirmed what everyone knew. That thought was enough to make her smirk. Go to hell, Skallar. "Together we are invincible, my love. I'll sing you through these troubles, if you sing for me in the morning." Caitlín didn't even have to do more than think of a response before the voice sang to her, a calming and gentle melody. Sorrowful but confident. Unearthly and beautiful. Entrancing.

When Skallar's hand connected with her cheek, she didn't even feel it. Naya was singing for her. Just for her and no one else.




Neiya sat silent on her throne, trying to think of other ways to add to the world beyond without acting on her own impulses. Her mind fell back on the Luminant, and her recent encounter with the neiyari in Meliorem. She was rather fond of them, but had left their existence entirely in the hands of Aveira. Perhaps that had been a mistake, given she'd sent Aveira away. A mistake she could rectify now. So her mind centered on the spire, the Saints, and the main host of her children. Her war effort. Based on a broken promise in the realms, and a divide that Oraelia now seemed keen on mending. She'd treated the neiyari like toys, miniature soldiers to pass the time. Only now did she truly begin to reflect on how they were immune to neither sorrow nor loss. How her own need for violence had made the spiral of negative emotions worse. It would never go away, but perhaps she could mend it. With a deep, long sigh that echoed down into the hearts of her angelic children, she wished away the bitter sting of loss, the agony of sorrow, and the despair of fear. After a few moments of thought, she repeated the same for the Oraeliari. It was a momentary effort, but it would take the sting out of the maelstrom, and perhaps soothe a few hearts.

Their emotions stilled and washed away on the wind, and almost instantly she felt a brief tranquility. It was enough to almost make her smile. In that haze of peace, she twisted her fingers, and let tendrils extend from her fingertips. She spun the energies into an almost translucent little bird, no larger than her palm. It reflected the pink flowers of her realms trees and the marble of her arena. Another grew from her left hand, and then another circled around her head. Before long, a countless throng of them flew through the skies of her realm, singing a quiet and happy song.

Neiya hesitated briefly, before she sang instructions to a few of them, and they vanished out through her portal to head for Cadien's realm. And Oraelia's. (And Yamat's).









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Kho

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This is war!



“The masses of the Khadaar,
Are pouring in amain
From many a grand old market-place,
From many a fruitful plain,
From many a lonely village,
They come to fight again
Like the great and old, those brave and bold,
Their glory to attain!”

31 AA | Year 16

The first man Sugae ever killed was a bare-chested spearman who came at him with terror in his eyes. The turbaned youth tried to side-step, but tripped in his hurry and fell onto his side. The man’s spear snaked at him, glanced against Sugae’s shield, and then rose again for another attempt. But the failure of the first strike gave Sugae enough time to lash out desperately with his sharpened stick. The point penetrated the man’s neck from one side and emerged from the other. He gave Sugae a confused look, shocked and gurgling, then fell over. The youth quickly got back up, shaken, and had only a few moments of respite before another man, wooden club in hand, was upon him.

In the confusion of the first moments of battle he had been separated from Shidhig, and looking around he spotted him fending off a spearman with his stick. Sugae’s new opponent struck out with his club, but this time the youth was better prepared and successfully dodged before swiftly stepping in and driving the spear into the man’s exposed stomach. Without waiting, he drew the spear out and rushed over to the struggling Shidhig, goring his adversary from behind. “Stick with me!” Sugae roared, before turning and raising his shield. Shidhig hurriedly abandoned his stick and took the felled man’s spear as Sugae warded off any would-be attackers. It was clear that shid Dharqul’s side had the upper hand, and Sugae notice that some parts of their mass had driven deep into the enemy.

The shid had crossed the Muhaddir with his force some three days back and made camp on a hill. After surveying the area around, he had moved the camp somewhat downriver and the command had gone around for everyone to prepare themselves for battle any day. Three days later, the enemy force of shid Dagran had appeared and the bloodletting had begun.

Sugae bashed a little bald man who had gotten past Shidhig’s spear with his shield, causing him to stumble to the side and giving Shidhig enough space to impale him. It was then that the earth began to rumble. Sugae looked up to see the enemy’s mounted warrior-nobles closing in on their flanks, along with a great number of behemoths – elephant-riders and riders of the reptilian monstrosities known as dircaans. The fighting continued and it was not long before the mounted warriors and behemoths crash into the massed host with terrible force. Shid Dharqul’s untrained commoners crumbled beneath the power of the charge. Swords flashed and spears snaked out; blood rose like a great cloud in their wake. Sugae grabbed Shidhig and began to back away, Bori’s words echoing in his mind. “You don’t want to be the first in the fray. And you want to be the first out. Don’t try to be a hero.” But then the weight of the warturban on his head reminded him of his mother’s tales about his father. He had never run from any battle; he had stood his ground always.

“C’mon Sug, let’s get the hell out of here!” Shidhig’s words drew him back to the realities of the battle, and he could see that bit by bit the enemy forces of shid Dagran were clamping in on them all. Sugae looked at Shidhig, his brows knotted, nostrils flared, flashing eyes of yellowed honey wide.

“I am shib Ravuk,” Sugae’s voice came, “I do not flee.” And with that, he drew his sword and began to move it as Bori taught him, and he advanced. He heard Shidhig cursing behind him, and then he was by his side.

“You’re going to get me fucking killed. You’re gonna kill me you-” he continued grumbling until suddenly there was a rider before them. Sugae raised his shield and stepped away just as the rider’s sword flashed. The tip ricocheted from the shield and Sugae stepped in immediately with a swift horizontal cut that ate into the horse’s side and lopped most of the rider’s leg off, before Shidhig’s spear caught the agonised rider in the throat.

Sugae looked at Shidhig wordlessly, and the other man spouted a few profanities at him. Sugae could see that shid Dharkul’s lines were now in full rout. Meanwhile, the enemy foot troops had recovered and both behemoths and riders were killing with abandon. “If we stick about, oh great shib Ravuk, we’re gonna die,” Shidhig shouted as Sugae swiftly put down a club-swinging peasant. Shidhig was right, but Sugae made no response.

Spotting a friendly group trying to make a stand, Sugae shouted to Shidhig and rushed to their aid, cleaving into the raised arm of a bald giant on the verge of bashing one of their men’s brains in with a hatchet as he went. Encouraged by the giant’s fall, the other men gave off a roar and pushed harder, causing the temporarily discouraged enemy troops to withdraw. Sugae’s encouraged comrades made to follow after them, but a shout from him caused them to halt and he ordered them to stay together. They instinctively obeyed, and before long Sugae was directing a growing defensive enclave against the massed enemy. One of the men stuck by his side, and when Sugae glanced at him the man smiled gratefully and nodded. “Thanks for that, thought that bald freak had me.”

“No worries, friend.”

“I’m Galgu by the way.”

“Good knowing you Galgu. I’m Sugaera shib Ravuk. Let’s get out of this alive, eh?”

“And with honour.” Galgu added, his eyes steely above his small smile. Sugae chuckled and nodded.

“Yeah, that too.”

The massing resistance did not receive much attention at first, but then an elephant and some riders took note of them and decided to break the little party apart. Scowling, a helpless fury growing within him as he wondered where shid Dharkul’s riders and behemoths were while they were all dying out here, Sugae shouted for the men to brace themselves for the charge. “Kill the fucking bastards!” He heard himself roar, and he sounded so self-assured that he found his own morale rising, and his voice came once more as though from far away, “they’re riding high above us. We’re gonna put them down!” Raising his sword, he stepped out to be among the first to receive the charge. He stood his ground as the riders speared towards them, and his eyes homed in on one of the riders heading for them. His gaze held his until the very last moment, when he ducked and stepped to the side, raising his shield to block a resounding downward slash from the rider even as Sugae’s blade licked out and cleanly severed one of the charging horse’s forelegs. It immediately collapsed and flipped in a mess of flesh and metal, the rider landing with gruesome cracking sounds ahead. Sugae released a triumphant bellow and turned about to face whoever came next, and found himself face to face with the elephant.

He stared at it for a few seconds, and then something struck him. The ground slipped away. He felt himself flying. And all was darkness.

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Zurajai Unintentional Never-Poster

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Mirak of the Benya Kurhah


Mirak il’Kurhah Zhaan held his chin in the cup of his right hand, the rough hairs of his beard scraping against the thick, leather-like hide of his palm. His old eyes stared blankly, the bronze of his irises gleaming in the flickering light. All about the enclosed space of his war tent were familiar faces; each was one of his honored and trusted khayhar warriors and had earned that gift through blood and sweat paid to the earth a million times over. Most were veterans of numerous skirmishes and battles, having followed the belligerent Zhaan on his quest to oppose those who would threaten the Benya Kurhah and all Arrak people.

Years ago, Mirak had led a contingent of Kurhah warrior-retainers and tribesmen into battle against the giant Thwump. The Dovregubbe had earned the ire of the clan and had been appropriately punished for it. This act had seen Mirak steal the name of the Dovregubbe and a consumption of the troll’s power by the ovoo spirits of the Kurhah back in Angetennar. Despite losses to the troll, through Mirak’s clever ploy the monster had been defeated; this had not gone unnoticed. For the better part of a decade the chieftain wiled away his mid-forties in continued battle against the enemies of the Arrak. His reputation for skill at arms was said to be brought upon him by a thousand spirits of fallen Arrak warriors driving him forward.

This dread and honored reputation came with a price Mirak had not been keen to pay, but so too with rewards he had never expected. The Benya Kurhah had quickly risen to prominence among the Arrak Clans; there was no one better to ask for assistance in conflicts, be it against devilish trolls, cruel city-dwellers, or all manner of other monsters besides. Though at first Mirak had simply ignored these requests where he could, the pressure from his retainers had grown; a fire had been lit in their souls and Mirak could not manage to snuff it out. The Kurhah had become rich on gifts and supplication that their Chieftain did not feel they had earned, the aging Zhaan wishing only to return to a normal life upon the plains or in the deep forests of his home. Alas, it was not to be.

And so the Kurhah grew and changed. Warriors of all stripes, often second sons, who wished rather than splitting their father’s herds instead sought honor fighting for a higher cause. Though these initial fighters were rebuked and made a vague mob that followed the Kurhah where they went, it was quickly realized that the Arrak rules of hospitality could not be denied forever. Soon they were living amongst the camp, hunting and herding to assist the clan, and offering their services in those few battles Mirak could not deny. One by one the warriors had offered their souls to the Kurhah ovoo, marrying daughters and merging what herds they had to become one with the clan. These firebrands brought with them the desire for honorable combat that had fueled their departure from their home-tribes and the Benya Kurhah felt every new candlelight add up to a raging fire soon enough. With the blaze no longer within his control, Mirak relented; the Benya Kurhah was never his to command and he was forever her humble servant.

A decade later and now Mirak dwelled on the past, pinning more than anything for the simplicity of that old life. His retainer host had grown beyond one hundred khayhar, a number unheard of in the past. In addition, a throng of numerous tribal warriors had joined him, increasing his fighting capacity to well over a thousand. By day they lived as tribesmen, glad to have joined the ranks of the vaunted Benya of Mirak the Belligerent, when battle called they answered. Though not as disciplined or veteran as khayhar, they did their part well enough and followed orders to the letter and that was all Mirak could ask for.

“My Zhaan, what is your answer?”

Mirak’s eyes opened wide as he realized he was daydreaming. A curse of old age, he had kept telling himself, though he knew it was something far more insidious. His khayhar sat cross legged in his tent, packed to the breaking point with their number. They never seemed to mind it, of course; more than happy to be close to their brothers, they would say. Mirak would’ve appreciated having more room in his tent, personally.

“Hmmm. It is not a simple question, Nazih.”

The old veteran nodded understandingly. He was of the old days, when the band numbered no more than ten at its greatest strength. Nazih had been at Mirak’s heels since they were children, a devoted friend like no other and one Mirak planned to die next to. He hoped whatever part of them was returned to Angetennar would be placed beside one another on the ovoo; though he knew that would not mean they were closer in the afterlife, he thought it a fitting memorial to their bond.

Many of the others, of course, were not so wisely tempered.

“My Zhaan, forgive my tongue, but how can it be so?” The interruption came from a younger khayhar, one of those fiery youths that had sought out the old Chieftain years ago, “They have offered combat, and so surely we must answer?”

There was a general agreement among the warband as younger, less tested khayhar seemed to approve of the mindset. Those older warriors, now becoming fewer and far between in his ranks, remained quiet; they knew better to speak for their Zhaan and backed his opinions to the letter. Trust was a hard thing earned and Mirak had it heaped upon him in droves and so it was no place of theirs to question him.

“There is nothing to forgive, Anheh. You speak freely in this tent, as all khayhar do. We are brothers here and brothers do not hesitate to share their thoughts.” As always, Mirak’s measured response seemed to generate admiration. Mirak inwardly sighed as he saw the youngest of the crowd looking on with beaming eyes, the entire fanfare of the war tent and their revered Zhaan enkindling that oh so frustrating flame in their hearts. The Zhaan regretted that power he held over these men.

“The question is difficult, my brothers, for this is an enemy I know. It is not an enemy we wish to fight.”

Though there were no jeers it was clear from the dread silence that many of the numbered khayhar felt slighted; were they not skilled enough as their master’s old warriors, to be doubted in combat against this old foe? Though they did not say it, Mirak could see it plainly. It was no different than an older brother telling his siblings he had no interest in quarreling with a neighboring tribe. That statement alone humbled them and galled them in equal measure.

“But, why, my Zhaan?”

“They are iskurhil, Rurek,” muttered Mirak, eyes glazing over with memory, “They are demons of the cruel spirits’ making.”

That pervasive silence sat on the shoulders of the band heavily; those who knew what the iskurhil were understood fully why their Zhaan was reluctant to do battle with them. The iskurhil were said to have been poured onto the earth by one of the particular cruel spirits worshipped by the men-behind-walls, a blight that consumed everything in its path. Traders close to the Arrak whispered of twisted bodies, warped from men stolen by that evil idol.

“If we stand against them, we must do so prepared and armed with the knowledge of their evil. They will not behave as men do, nor will they be as trolls in the day. To fight them, we will be drawn into a battle against numberless swarms.”

“Then do we deny the request? Does the Benya Jaahed fight alone?”

Silence descended on the room once more, and all eyes turned to the Zhaan. Mirak looked inward, as if staring at himself, another pair of eyes added to the many gazing into his soul. Would he drag his people into another conflict, against a foe far more inhuman than even the trolls? For several long moments that felt like hours Mirak thought, the flickering of the fire in his eyes reflected off his bronze irises. At last, he stood, stepping towards the flame while pulling free a fetish from his vestments. With the string torn Mirak tossed it into the flame, severing the Kurhah’s bond to this moment of peace and welcoming into their hearth the spirit of war. A sense of power emanated from the flame, filling the hearts of the men around it as the blaze in their eyes were stoked by their master.

“No Arrak is ever alone.”




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