Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Legion02
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Legion02

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Rock and stone. Evergreen trees. The Winds coalesced into a single point. Creating a form that was vaguely humanoid, but translucent and brimming with power. A mimic of the other, more mortal looking avatars. The confines were already putting a strain upon the Avatar and its divine controller. But it stepped forward. Into a cave from which it had seen the bright glow of something divine so great in power, it could no longer be overlooked. Nature gave way to mortal carvings. Creating a long hallway inside. Flanked by braziers on both sides. The divine senses of the avatar saw the events depicted on the stone walls. Painted on them as murals. Legends. Wars. Stuff of destiny from when the gods were gone. Yet he still lit the fires. Bright, yellow light banished the darkness and announced the coming of something to whoever would live in a place like this.

No creature cried out. The avatar pressed on. Floating through the venerable hall until it came upon a room with a throne. The throne sat atop a dais. Qael stopped the winds for a second before it. The throne alone would be a great enough gift for his daughter. It wouldn’t be enough though. Not for her. No throne in all of Galbar would be enough for her. But it would’ve been a good, solid foundation. But he wasn’t here for the stone chair. He pressed on. The heavy stone behind the throne’s dais was already moved. Revealing the stairs down which the Winds descended.

Down there things were both more and less impressive. Barracks and a kitchen. Ancient weapons and armor laid waiting. How long until banditry would come and loot the place clean? Qael was surprised they hadn’t already. The cobwebbed shields were all painted the same: a gate enveloped in light. The symbol of a dying faith.

One thing did catch his attention. A statue, covered with dust and spiderwebs. Not of a man, or troll, or rare thumblings. But unmistakingly of a night elf. Up in Qael’s own realm, he cocked his head. “How curious.” He said out loud, as the etheric fingers of the winds traced over the elven features. How did they know? One of his siblings had to have shown them. Why he could not say. The figure didn’t point up towards the throne room though. Or towards some other place. It pointed at a large, sealed doorway off the side.

With a mere thought, magic began to move the stone. The very air inside was older than anything else within the cave here. The revealed room was different from the barracks and kitchens. It was made from solid stone. Inside were two tombs. Damp and parts of them covered by moss. The winds floated inside. Undeterred. The first coffin, the largest one, showed a night elf again. Death or sleeping, Qael couldn’t be sure. Maybe both? The other coffin was that of a thumbling. Tiny. But no less intricately carved. The old runic script revealed their names to Qael’Naath in an instant: Saint Oyticon and Saint Bartholomew. “You are a long way from home.” The god whispered back in his own realm as the wind’s ethereal hand traveled over the top of the tomb.

He would’ve smashed it open. To see if the corpse it held really was that of a night elf. But something else caught his attention. Not death, but life. Beyond the coffins was a pedestal, holding the object he was looking for: the grail. And sitting beside it was a thumbling. Still breathing.

The ghostly figure of the winds moved forward. Passing through the houllin berry bush casting the room in a soft glow. “A worthy gift.” It said out loud in the tomb as it approached the grail. “And you must be something of a protector then, are you not?” it asked the thumbling.

Old blind eyes opened, a million wrinkles forming around the toothless mouth of the thumbling. A coughing laugh sounded, “I’m more of a janitor these days, too stubborn to stop clinging to the past.”

Qael in his realm was surprised to find the little thing to be blind. The ethereal shape stopped approaching the grail and instead watched the thumbling. Was this what mortals called empathy? Or was it curiosity? The god of magic couldn’t tell. “And what past might that be?”

“The Thumblings have always been small,” The old thumbling started, “So big things like gods, heroes and kings often never notice us -- a curse you may be thinking but nay! In these cracks and crevices you find untouched glens and groves where we can play and sing and dance just like we did at the start of time itself, untouched by the injustice and cruel chance of the world and its benefactors.” The thumbling shifted, “So you see, those who noticed this wanted to join in on the song -- and so our way of life spread to the larger folk, but the OTHER larger folk who thought of different dances weren’t too found of this one so old, and eventually this way of life was whittled back down to the groves and cracks and glens -- BUT!” Standing up the thumbling cast a big smile, “When the way of the Golden Light was still cast on the others, we had ourselves feasts, and love, and summers, and happiness -- treasured memories too fond to let go.” He wiggled his nose and leaned against the cup, “The world is a cruel one, where random chance can end what few sparks light the darkness of this existence.”

“You’re kin are very insightful to realize these truths.” Qael said as the winds began to shift. Losing grip on the singular, humanoid form. It slowly began to dissolve into a cloud-like shape again. “Us, the gods, have done too little to nurture places where one can sing and dance.” Not even Qael has done that, he realized. Not really. Though he hoped Soleras would be a place that could feast without real fear about whether or not they could eat the next week then. His divine senses peered back at the grail. “You understand that I wish to take this gift of… presumingly your Light?”

“You won’t take it,” The thumbling predicted, “You will receive it.” With little hands he pushed the Grail slightly, unable to lift it in his frailty and size. “It brought abundance to the memories of old, but back then it too lived in a crack between the sights of the larger folk -- I cannot say if I am gifting a blessing or a curse, but I hope it is as much of a blessing to you as it was to me.”

For a second the cloud moved backward. Seemingly away from the thumbling and the grail. A manifestation of Qael’s own surprise. That a mortal would give such a power so freely. But then the cloud moved forward again. Magic lifted the grail up. Taking it within the cloud and filling it with a handful of houllin berries Qael knew would bring prosperity to the future empire. “You are a generous creature. Tell me, what is your name?”

“Tim. I’m a thumbling,” Tim answered simply. “What’s yours?”

“My name matters not. It should not be known by mortals.” Qael said, meaning every word. “Tim the thumbling. been a loyal custodian for this grail and you know its lore and history better than I ever will. I cannot imagine you would want to live out your last few days in some damp cave. So I offer you this: you can join the grail at its new place. At the right hand of my daughter. In a realm she is making where one can dance and sing and feast as your ancestors have. What say you?”

“It’s a mighty fine offer, and I thank you for it,” Tim said sincerely. “But I am a tired soul, and with the grail in new hands and a new future on the wake of the world, it would be time for an old relic like me to get some sleep, same as the Saints.”

“Very well then.” The grail vanished in a flash of chromatic light. Moved from the tomb miles down north in an instant. There it appeared upon the ground of Kal’s hamlet for the other extension of Qael’Naath to find it.

“Goodbye, Tim the thumbling.” The cloud said. “May my brother of death offer you a tranquil time beyond life.” With those words spoken, the cloud rushed out. As if it was carried by a storm’s wind.

“Farewell,” Tim said, laying on his back. He scooted against the pedestal until he was comfortable, and then closed his blind eyes - a big toothless smile frozen on his face.



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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Kho
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Kho

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Ganisundur

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Rinaas hli Awqar



Their little band crested a hill one day to find two great hosts stood in the valley below. They were dressed in many colours and held spears and great flat clubs of wood, some studded with metal or some made entirely of metal. Rinaas sat down on a nearby boulder and watched how things unravelled below.

Two figures were stood between the hosts, their clubs raised as they moved around each other in great exaggerated movements, gesturing here and there and puffing their chests out. They beat at the earth with their feet and sped up now and again like two great tigers circling and thrashing at one another. Their movements were full of power and violent intent, their gestures threatening and hostile, and yet they did not strike out at each other. The display continued for some time, now one causing the other to back away and now the other gaining ground as he swung his great club around with energy and ululations.

The hosts shouted and beat at the earth with their warrior, ululating as he ululated and crying out and cheering when his power manifested itself or when he carried out an impressive movement or manoeuvre. As the excitement and shouting increased, the hosts began to inch towards one another, hurling insults and boasting, swinging their weapons and raising their spears, drums sounding aggressively and giving each host the impression of having gods amongst them.

Here and there individual warriors stepped forth and engaged others in the display of duelling, like the original warriors, and before long both hosts had come together and pushed and shoved and boasted and insulted. Here and there were chaotic clashes as two warriors met and one managed to hurl the other to the ground, and it was soon becoming apparent that one of the hosts was gaining the upper ground.

A shout rose up somewhere and a ripple of fear ran through the losing host, and its men began to slip away and were soon disappearing over the far hill. The victorious host had gathered around what appeared to be a fallen warrior, circling around him with spears raised, gathering wood and piling it up around him as they circled and pounded the earth and howled in victory.

Soon ghouls began to emerge, lumbering towards the dead body, and the warriors beat at the earth and retreated slowly, shouting and boasting as the viney monstrosities of death found their target and began tearing and eating and destroying.

“For these warriors of the forests and plains, this is viewed as the only way to sate the Dead-eye and prevent him from setting the itralla on the living.” Rinaas explained.

“What are these itralla, adi?” Ganisundur asked.

“Have you not heard their song, my Ganisundur?” She asked.

“They are like no song of plant I have known. They hunger – but only for the dead. And it is not a hunger that seeks to stave off death. I don’t know if it can rightly be called hunger – it is merely consumption given form, consumption is its own end.” Ganisundur glanced at the songstress, who merely nodded. Beside him, the handsome Girgaah strummed at his instrument and sent a sigh towards the humelven Fihnoom.

“The people all fear feeding death
“But in my chest is no such fear
“I only weep with every breath
“And call on her with every tear
“If she would come feast on my flesh
“I am restored and rise afresh!”

Fihnoom shook her head and glanced at him with a small smirk, then moved away and sat by Rinaas. “What I have never understood, adi is why the tribes on these southern plains wage war like this. Everywhere else war brings death and great bloodshed and it is a terrible sight, but here there is dance and boastful song and witful abuses, and the warriors dress as though they are going to a festival. Death only arises unintentionally.”

“Ah yes, these clans of the Hjinka are often feuding, often fighting. Perhaps it was the case long ago too, and perhaps they killed one another so much that they could kill no more. And perhaps there was a wise one amongst them who taught them how to make war without shedding blood. But perhaps by asking them you would know better, or if you listen to the rocks or the streams or the trees they may know a song or two.”

“It would be beautiful if all the world would fight as the Hjinka do,” Fihnoom sighed, “even if it is loud and horrible on the ears. I can only imagine my old man would frown severely at all that noise and think it worse than even death.”

“Oh, but there’s nothing worse than death!” Sinhuldo piped. “Nothing is worse than that Death-eye.”

“Then praise Hulaiya, Sinhuldo, and do not fear death so much that you stop enjoying life.” Rinaas spoke to the fearful man.

“Oh, never! I enjoy life, may the goddess never take that from us.” Sinhuldo responded with a shaking voice, looking down at the ghouls below as they dissipated and shivering in disgust.

“I don’t know about that,” Fihnoom said teasingly, “you seem like you’re not enjoying life at all. Perhaps great Hulaiya will see this.” Sinhuldo’s eyes widened and he gave a trembling smile.

“Wh- what? M-me? I enjoy life a lot. I sing and dance, l-look,” he started dancing and stumbling, strumming at his instrument with fumbling fingers. “See, the g-goddess will see I love life.” Ganisundur watched this exchange curiously, then looked to Rinaas, who spoke before he could ask his question.

“Life and death, day and night, joy and misery, the two great sides to life’s short cycle. Hulaiya presides over the first, Duhthaei over the other.”

“What of Reffoh, adi?” Fihnoom asked, causing Sinhuldo to scoff and earning him an irritated glance from the humelf.

“Incompetent and weak.” The giant Biruldaan spoke gruffly.

“Reffoh, disliked by elves and humans alike – though, it is said, she is the creator goddess whose face is the moon and who reigns over the night. When Duhthaei came to claim the mortals she had created, she could not stave him off and was felled, and even now she lies imprisoned inside the moon, her kingdom now her dungeon. When night arrives so too arrives her failure to rule. That is why all the dangers of Duhthaei arise with night. This is why when you visit Amashu or Telruto or Teukrall, or any of the great cities of the Upper Azumai, you will find there great braziers that are lit with the onset of dusk so as to keep the darkness - and its dangers - at bay.

“Not so with Hulaiya, the glorious mistress of the day who stands as the bastion against Duhthaei’s misery and darkness and death. She is not like Reffoh, the people say, she is not weak and useless – these are their words, my Ganisundur, do not frown. What are they to think of a goddess who failed them, hmm? People are fickle like that – they fear those who cause them fear and death, and they love those who ward that off and inspire joy. As for those who fail, if remembered at all they are despised even more than the evil that felled them.”

“Is it right?” The inkman asked, a small frown on his face.

“Is it right for a god to be so incompetent?” Biruldaan countered.

“Well, someone sounds like they have a grudge.” Fihnoom noted, her eyes on the big man.

“Yeah. Maybe.” His mutter came as he looked away. “Some things are unforgivable – a wilfully useless god, for one.”

“I mean, she’s not wilfully useless – she was just bested.” Sinhuldo retorted.

“No, the gods are many and the Death-eye could not best any of them. He is not more powerful, simply more terrible. Reffoh was bested because she was useless, incompetent, unworthy of being a god and unable to protect what she created. It had been better if she created nothing at all. Had Hulaiya made us, the Death-eye never would have taken us – he would never have brought calamity upon us by moving heaven and earth as he did to our most ancient ancestors, would never have taken us from the joys of life to death’s despair.”

“It is your pain that speaks, Biruldaan, for it is yet fresh.” Rinaas finally spoke. “Calm yourself and do not blaspheme overmuch against a divine being – imprisoned and incapable you may believe her to be, but she is yet a god.”

“I do not fear Reffoh, adi. Only those who have no protector but her have reason to fear. But let us speak of something else. The tattoo that Ganisundur gave you, adi, it is the same as that on Fihnoom’s thigh.”

“What?” cried Girgaah, “how do you know that? How does he know that?”

“Uhhh…” Fihnoom gave him a guilty glance then laughed.

The man fell to his knees and cried out loud, his beautifully sculpted visage contorted and pained. “Damn it Fihnoom, again? My poor heart.” Rinaas gave the three a frown then stood and began moving away. Ganisundur followed after her and looked at the tattoo that stood between her brows – an extended hand facing down.

“That symbol is known?” He asked.

“It is.” The songstress confirmed.

“I didn’t know… what does it mean?”

“It is the symbol of the singing god, Ghilmu. He lords over the good things in life – music, dance, poetry, feasting, revelry, pleasures of the flesh, and much else are his prerogative. They are the manner by which great Hulaiya is appeased. His great hand is known to be a ward that drives off all kinds of evil – and so he is regarded as the defender of everything good and the enemy of all that is bad. By dancing, singing, revelling in joy, the people call up his great protective powers and so aid in the fight against the Death-eye and all the evil he has birthed.”

“Why would it be on Fihnoom’s thigh?”

“Fihnoom was a professional dancer before she joined us, and tattoos of Ghilmu’s hand can be found on the thighs of dancers. Musicians too, actors, and servant girls.”

He was quiet for a few moments. “You don’t seem to approve, adi.”

“What she does is her business, Ganisundur.”

“No, I mean – you don’t seem to approve of the gods.”

“Oh, Ganisundur!” She exclaimed with a mite of shock, “you accuse me of blasphemy?”

“I didn’t mean it like that. It seems to me more like… you don’t approve of what is said about the gods.”

“Ah, in that case you may well be right.”

“So… what do you say of them?”

“I don’t say anything Ganisundur. I listen and I sing, and what is beyond that is between my heart and I.”

“Why do you think my ink became a hand of Ghilmu on your brow?” He asked after a brief silence.

She paused and looked at him. “Isn’t it obvious, Ganisundur? It is because you are of that god.” He blinked after her.

“Ah.”

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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Goldeagle1221
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Goldeagle1221 I am Spartacus!

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Dadomu, Capital of the Burgeoning Čeleviak Tsardom


Inside the great hall of the Tsar, loud drinking strumming bounced off the thick walls alongside dense laughter and the clinking of cups. Musicians with far from sober eyes played with lids half closed, and scantily dressed dancers could barely walk straight. The Auspices themselves, the wizened elders and the eager youths, both alike were soaked in the festivities. A bounty of food laid picked and nibbled on the messy table, and booming chants of old Čeleviak songs ricochet everywhere.

Over the noise, one of the young Auspices -- a man named Niamy -- tugged on the sacred beads of his friend, another young Auspice named Dmitri. Wine dribbled down Niamy’s white woolen robes, matching the red tattoos stark on his pale skin. “Hey... HEY!” He tried to get his friends attention. Dmitri sounded a sleepy hum with his lips on the rim of his drinking horn.

“Wha?”

"Look," Niamy said conspiring, eyebrows bouncing in the direction of the Tsar's seat. It was empty, plush with feather down and carved out of a gentle wood. It sat on a dias overlooking the feasting table. Without waiting for Dmitri, Niamy made his way over and slowly sat in it. He let out a groan of relaxation as he sank into the cushions. Dmitri nearly spat out his wine and laughed, shambling over and nearly tripping on the flat floor.

“Man, you’s in-SANE! Shih, we gonna get caught!”

"Caught by who!?" Niamy nearly shouted, "I'm the Ts..Tsar, you can tell by my seat, what I say guh-goes." He burped. Dmitri’s nose and eyes were running like rivers over his laughing face, the guffaw overpowering him to the point of collapsing to the ground, where he rolled around on his back, fumbling for his spilled horn.

"Concubine!" Niamy shouted at a nearby dancer (who scowled), "My feet are sore and require a rub!" He shifted "Muh-misewell get my back while yer at it too, this chair isn't as comfy as you'd-"

The doors to the great hall wafted open, slamming against the metal door stoppers with a massive bang. All color drained from Niamy, Dmitri, the dancers, and all the other party goers as the sight of Jjonveyo filled the doorway. His height alone made him look like a giant, but the terrible glare in his dark eyes made him look like a fragment of the god of death himself. His retainers, terrible and powerful as they were, seemed meek behind him.

Niamy fell flat on his face scrambling out of the chair, but it was too late, he was seen. Jjonveyo remained silent as he slowly walked through the scene. He picked up a cup off the table as he walked towards Niamy, spilling its stale contents to the floor with a look of disgust. Walking by a stunned dancer, he pushed the empty cup into her hands and continued. A scowl grew on his face as he stepped over sleeping drunks and out of commission Auspices, until finally he stood towering over Niamy and his friend Dmitri.

Niamy immediately stood up, suddenly frozen by Jjonveyo's booming voice. "Kneel."

Niamy fell back to his knees and bowed his head. Jjonveyo walked behind him. "Do you think yourself Tsar?"

"No-"

"I would hope not," Jjonveyo growled, "To use the tithe and resources of this hall for your own pleasure while your kith and kin pay for our salvation with their very lives. Chest bared to swords and axes, while your mouths gape at wine like thirst driven fools. Worthless fish, snapping its lips at any and all - even undeserved." Jjonveyo put his boot on Niamy's back. The Auspice squirmed but Jjonveyo barked again, "Do not move!"

The command bounced around the fear struck room, a cold adrenaline in everyone's chest as the moment stood still. Very slowly and almost gingerly, Jjonveyo pushed his boot against Niamy, slowly toppling him to his side - the Auspice daring not to move during the whole ordeal. As soon as he was on his side, Jjonveyo scowled and made his way to his throne. He sat with a heavy fall, now once again facing the scene from his chair of leadership. Eyes snapping to Dmitri, Jjonveyo pointed a finger, "What is your name, Baby Auspice? - I said do not move!" Jjonveyo slammed his fist against the arm of his chair, Niamy flinched but otherwise remained toppled over on the floor like a gutted pig.

“D-d-d-d-d-d-d…” was all the boy’s stupidly inebriated tongue could force out when faced with such terror, the rest of his body looking halfway ready to sprint for the hills any second, standing about halfway facing the exit.

Jjonveyo's stony frown was unwavering, "It is every brother's duty to ensure that their sibling does not stray from the path of charity and care for our people. Can you do that?"

“Yuh-YES! Yes, Zz--Tsar!” Dmitri thus hastened to kneel down and reach out to help his friend back to his feet. “W-we won’t do it again!”

"Don't move!" Jjonveyo roared. Niamy fell back to the ground, a wet spot forming under him. "If you hold the loyalty to the people in your heart and are unwavering to the cause..." Jjonveyo stared directly at Dmitri, "Strike your friend, beat him. Realign him with punishment, since you forgoed prevention through advice and council. He will not move or protest his punishment."

Dmitri blinked down at Niamy and held up his hand. “B-b-but I can’t! H-he’s m-m-my fr--!” Words came even less easy to him now as fear began to overman the alcohol in his body.

"Do you insult me? Was Alexseij not my own brother?" Jjonveyo growled, "Your hesitation to commit to your words of loyalty is disturbing." The Tsar waved a hand, "Piotr, drag the fallen fool out of here and strip him of his place as Auspice." The old retainer nodded before roughly pulling Niamy to his feet, all but lifting the whimpering man as he hauled him out of the hall. Jjonveyo turned his attention back at Dmitri.

"So not only have you drank the tithe for yourself and failed to stop your brother, but you spoke of loyalty and then refused to act upon it once it became unfavorable to you personally," Jjonveyo sat back in his chair, "From your perspective, how valuable of a unit is that in the sum of the whole?" The other Auspices and the retainers all looked at Dmitri in anticipation.

Dmitri was almost flat on the floor at this point, facing to the ground and holding only up his folded hands. “F’give me, midy Tsar! W-we just--... We didn’t mean anythin’ by it! Jus, jus don’t hurt my friend!”

Jjonveyo reached into a pouch tied around his waist, procuring a small deck of copper plate cards tied together by a ribbon. Printed into the metal were different symbols. The Tsar tossed them at Dmitri, the deck landing in front of him. "Divine." The young man squealed and covered his face to defend himself from the threat that never reached him.

"My Tsar," An older Auspice protested, "He isn't yet experienced-"

"Oh there will be punishment for you as well," Jjonveyo said, "I have not forgotten the elder Auspices here doing the same as these youths." He looked at the older Auspice, "Your young kin must have some use, no? Let's give him a chance to give back to his people." Looking back at Dmitri, Jjonveyo's dead serious eyes focused, "Tell me of Wojeck and Ha-Dûna."

Dmitri lowered his hands and licked his lips nervously. “I-I-I’ll need--... I’ll need--...” His eyes locked with the Tsar’s and one could practically see him weighing his options. Slowly, he gathered up the cards and shuffled them into a deck, light metallic scraping sounding between his fingers. He closed his eyes, heaved a deep breath and began laying five cards out face-down in a circle, in the centre of which he placed the fifth one. While he did, he nervously whistled a tune that seemed to reverberate with the fabric of the world, and through the walls one could hear sparrow song. He opened his eyes again and took the card furthest away from him, turning it over.

“The M-Messenger - Wojeck’s journey to Ha-Dûna went swiftly and with-without issue. He might have gotten there earlier than usual - the roads were most likely clean, thank Wandering Fsyot…” He turned the next card, frowning in surprise.

“The Jester…” After dismissing his surprise, he continued, “... He-he and his men ran in-into someone other than who they were looking for, or maybe someone like that person, or someone pretending to be them. The-the cards aren’t, aren’t…” He shrunk as he looked back up at the Tsar and continued. The following card hastened his breath.

“The Brother. There arose some kind of argument. I, I think he didn’t find the right person and, and something, something happened.” He turned an ear to the ceiling and nodded slowly. “The sparrows, they… They say something happened to the west.” He flipped the fourth card.

“The Warrior - weapons were drawn.” Impatiently, he turned the final card, gasping at the result, though nodding with silent understanding.

“The Snake…” He paused and looked back up at the Tsar. “Wojeck and his men didn’t make it out alive.”

"If this is true, baby Auspice," Jjonveyo seemed unmoved, but the keen eye could see a flicker of anger on his face, "Then Ha-Dûna has committed more crimes than pride and circumstance. Demtri will be heartbroken." Jjonveyo stood from his throne. "We march west. Piotr!"

The old retainer poked his head in from outside, "My Tsar?"

"Keep to my hall and overtake administrations, I wish to personally collect the body of Wojeck." His eyes wandered to Dmitri, "Living or dead." Piotr nodded and Jjonveyo waved another command, " Send correspondence to Demtri."

Pointing a finger at Dmitri, Jjonveyo said, "You're coming with me." Fumbling while picking them up, Dmitri ended up leaving the cards behind on the way to his feet as he hastened to keep up with the Tsar.

The newly acquainted pair stepped from the hall, an amazing sight facing them both. Through the streets of Dadomu, Jjonveyo’s host awaited their Tsar. Like a flood of metal and warriors, the newly reformed Čeleviak army stood. To the left, Dmitri saw the almost solid formation of spearmen, to the right -- a forest of archers, and straight ahead the dreaded cavalry that made waves the day it smashed through the tribes of Alexseij.

“We will rain the fury of our kin upon all who stand in our way to salvation, boy,” Jjonveyo said with a sense of pride in his voice.




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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Kho
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Kho

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Epilogue

The stalwart slain salute you, oh glorious gods!


31 AA | Year 16

A heavy silence hung over Shidhig and those who had seen Sugae in the fray. There was a feeling, among them, that things had gone very wrong. "But it was weird, wasn't it." The big man, Balghro, said. "Like something out of the stories, you know?"

"Yeah..." Shidhig agreed sullenly as he stared into the fire.

"He saved my life, y'know." Galgu murmured.

"Yeah, you've not shut up about it." Shidhig muttered irritably. "Honour and all that bullshit, got it. What good's honour now, huh?"

"Come now Shidhig-" Balghro began, but the smith's apprentice rose and kicked the flame, sending cinders and burning wood everywhere.

"I don't want to hear it, alright?" Shidhig growled, then moved off.

Sugae had been alive, barely, after the elephant struck him. They had managed to get him back to camp and one of the ascetics had taken his warturban off and set to stitching him up. But he had died within the hour. Shidhig had watched numbly as they placed him on the pier, tunic and warturban and all. It was surreal.

That night, Shidhig slipped silently from the camp and disappeared into the darkness there.

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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Commodore
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&

Gibbou





The news had reached the far north, the south had fallen with the capital city of Wek-Nor. The priesthood of Wek-Phon, the northern center of civilization and religious site of grave importance to all of Welkos, had come together with a solution. It had then subsequently helped that surviving armies from the south and Royalty approved of such action, too many of the lay priests had been wavering to the more end times approach than the higher powers could easily force back in line. Stability and recovering from the disaster were the goal, settling the populace, rebuilding and retaking what was rightful underneath the Divine Mandate of Welkos.

The Divine Mandate was a curious thing, coming from the days of the conquest of all of Welkos under the rightly guided rule of the Renabussan. When the High Divines were chosen, Mother and Father, the Aunt and Uncle, the Sister, and the Enemy were known to all and made to be feared and worshipped across the land, but they were not all that were known to the people of Welkos. All divines large and small supported the Mandate. In villages, in towns, in cities across Welkos on the Holy Days and Nights of realm, deities of the house, of a stream, of town and city, of bread and of beer, of fire and of sword. Those to be feared and those to be worshipped, the state cultivated all Divines, all favors forward to the state as all had to be united from the rightly guided people against all that was evil and cruel.

And so with the Divine Mandate so secured in the fight against all that was evil, it was of course a matter of great pride and importance who to petition for aid against the accursed. It had to be of the High Divines first, and after speaking and laying their request at each that they chose, they would seek to enlist the aid of lesser deities all through the realm. This was the chosen course of the High Priests of Wek-Phon.

Of who to choose to petition for aid and advice, there was no shortage. There were of course the Great Kitz’lae Father and Mother, paragons of good behavior, justice, and all good things. They were the ultimate inspiration and the guardians of the Kitz’lae. However no child wishes to admit that as they are in the world they cannot handle themselves, even as they go to their parents for advice, for what to do, it would be a great shame for the entire race if they went to them now tail in hand asking for help to take back the south and set back the righteous order. Much better to achieve the task then speak of their achievement to the Mother and the Father, prove that their children were capable and full of excellence!

No, the priesthood had decided they would ask each of the other deities for aid, and proving themselves knowledgeable they knew just who to ask first. Sister of the Great Kitz’lae Father, Supreme Goddess of the Moon, Keeper of the Dead and the Epitome of Envy, Vasj’casa. As known to be the most envious of the gods, asking her first was the clear and present choice, to ask one full of envy first could saite their pride and prove things good, this was known as common wisdom. And so the High Priests commanded, and as was custom the laity obeyed.

The city was mobilized, in the streets the Kitzon mobilized to lend their voices to the prayers of the lay priests, the Kitz’lae of the city crooned sacred praises of the moon, the High Priests gave sacrifice of Gold and Bronze, and upon the Altar of Prayer a humble monk led the whole procession word by word. Such as she was chosen to lead such events of importance by the High Priests, but rather than important matters such as Holy Days and Contemplation and Prayer this was a time to request aid. None could compare to divine splendor, so none would dare compete, such was the reasoning to elevate such monks. To her right and left, and behind her, the streets of the city were filled, eight of every nine were Kitzon, children of the Moon Goddess it was known they had been granted leave from work for this occasion. To the front of the monk stretched the river as the Altar of Prayer was elevated above all else in the city atop the half-ziggurat that supported it.

And her voice rang out, “Oh Vasj’casa, blessed Divine Goddess of the Moon!”

And the crowd followed, lending thousands to the cry.

And again her voice came, “We beseech you first in our call for aid, Great Sister, oh Hallowed Mother, and Beloved Aunt! Come to us and give onto us your most Holy Word!”

And the crowd followed, once more, each taking the opportunity after the call of family to ask for their own personal connection for aid in the calamity. Most however echoed the monk, it was easier if one did not have family in the south, or fears for others in the midlands.

The heavens quaked, clouds parting away from the moons to reveal the sacred orbs in the sky, still a few years away from overlapping, but both visible either way. There came another quake, this one slightly… Ceramic in nature? Glass-like, maybe, as though a stack of glazed pottery fell over somewhere in the cosmos. Then came a groan, a long groan of pain and exhaustion before it subsided in an instant, being replaced by a short, curt and flat, ”Yeah?”

Kasda had given herself over as a monk a long time ago, to expect to have a goddess speak to her was beyond all things she had held in mind when she did so. Even now it seemed surreal, and yet she had been coached by the High Priests on what to say next. “We call on you first among all the Divines of Welkos, please give aid unto us to save our homesteads, protect our clutches against the suhrvuj and drive them back into the sea!”

The crowds took up the final phrase repeating once, “Back into the sea!”

The voice was quiet for a time, just for long enough to produce doubt of her continued attention among the adherents. Then came an ”uh” followed by, ”Do I have to? It’s kinda, kinda… Effort, innit? What are they, even?”

Kasda had been asked questions by a goddess, it was duty to answer, “Evil beings of that most vile suitor Vuj’ar, webbed and finned, of taste for egg and blackened heart. Anathema to all good things!”

And the crowd took up a chant for a brief moment, “Anathema! Anathema!”

Kasda spoke again when they had quieted, she knew not whether this was a test nor what Vasj’casa was getting at but it was not important, she had been asked by the Divine and so she must answer. “All things must fight against evil, Lae’nat means it must be so, it is the Will to Resist! Good can only come when one puts themselves to effort and difficulty, evil bubbles forth slipping between any crack or defense yet the Will to Resist is the only path!”

And the crowd came back much more enthusiastic, the Will to Resist was well known and it became clear that the Divine was testing the monk’s moral fortitude, “Resist Evil! Do Good!”

The masses joined the chant, it was a phrase that came up often in speeches and holy phrases, now to them they found it as explanation of purpose.

”Yeahyeahyeahyeah, I get it! Be quiet, alright?! Ugh, my head...”

The crowds fell into an awaiting silence, quickly following the commands of the goddess that spoke to them. There came a dry rub, as though chafed fingers scratched a cheek exposed much too long to the elements. ”Right, okay, will you leave me alone if I destroy these soorvoojies or whatever? That’s what you want, right?”

"We would be overjoyed for you to aid us Oh Great Vasj'casa! All the Kitzon and Kitz'lae of the river would sing your praises till the eggs of now hatched their own!" It was more than Kasda would have hoped for, all the crowds stayed silent in wait of a reply.

There came a sigh. ”Got it. Where are they?”

"In the south of Welkos Oh Munificent One, they swarm from the sea and have overwhelmed the villages and even the city of Wek-Nor!"

”Sure, whatever…” With that, time seemed to stop for a very brief moment. It wasn’t clear exactly when it happened, but everyone present could very clearly see that the white moon at some point suddenly flashed like a star. Then, as briefly lived as the flash, a white beam crashed into the targeted location like an arrow of light. At first, there was no sound - only a distant, oozing, swelling cloud of steam, stone, droplets and sand that seemed to grow like a mushroom on the very edge of the horizon; then, a shockwave, strong enough to sway the trees and quake the houses even this far away from the actual blast. Nelven traders unfortunate enough to not have their cotton in went temporarily deaf, and pottery on the edge of the shelves in the pottery shops fell over and smashed against the floor.

The whole of all of the crowds were silent at the vast manifestation of Divine power, Kasda had not expected such a great display herself. Slowly however, even with the shaking and broken pottery, the crowds broke out in cheers, such a display of the supremacy of the Divine will of Goodness was apparent. The crowds fell into revelry even as Kasda watched the horizon and the vast plume still present over it, "Thank you Oh Divine One..."

She didn't know how she felt, it was something beyond anything she had ever known or heard except in the most sacred of stories.

There came a surly glug. ”Urp! Yeah, sure, whatevs. Will you leave me be now?”

Still more than stunned watching the horizon, Kasda replied, "As the Divine of the most Holy Moon wishes..." With that, there came a surkling sound like water down a drain, and the divine presence disappeared.

The crowds continued to cheer, Kasda eventually would be escorted through them by the Temple Guards, the High Priests would have much to ask. Pots not cracked began to circulate through the streets in a celebration, beer was most likely given the reed straws that came out as well, such an event would likely become a Holy day.

Still all thoughts of that would come later for Kasda, right now she had the view Divine Action in the sky to watch. She had never seen something so beautiful, and yet, still seemed so terrible and mighty at the same time. She would have to head south to see more. She had to know more.

The distant dust began to misshapen from its plume due to the soft and continuous efforts of the winds as Kasda was led away, crowds cheering over the apparent destruction of their enemies.



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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Kho
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Kho

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“Built like a mountain, spread like the sea.”


31 AA | Year 16

War, as any wandering ascetic knew, did not give rise to truly great cities. Those only came about during periods of peace, and when they did were the herald of decadence and decline. The great Ramshid Birsas shib Hur had taught his three sons this: “Chaos forges strong Ramshids, and strong Ramshids create prosperity. Prosperity forges weak Ramshids, and weak Ramshids reign over chaos.”

The fortified city of Kolcara was not much of a city -- not yet, at least. If the gods were good and Ramshid Dagran - or Warprince Dagran, as the foes who denied his great claim preferred to call him - was given just another ten or fifteen cycles of life, he would just have time to cast down the vultures claiming his throne and bring his dreams of Kolcara to fruition. But of course, nothing in life was certain. He was beginning to feel the toll of his age, having walked the land for fifty-some cycles and ruled in his own right for nearly half as long. And though he was a clever man, a schemer by all accounts, he could not know whether his cause would triumph at the end of this bloodletting that tore at the land he loved. He could only trust in the righteousness of his cause and fight to bring about better days, to build the Kolcara of his dreams.

Yes, in his dreams it was a grand and beautiful city, with long straight roads, temples crowning every hill along the riverbanks with spires that towered over the city and came just shy of the grand heights of his own castle in the heart of it all. He foresaw great walls also, storehouses, and cisterns enough to withstand drought and siege and hardship for all time. It was Sahruqar come again, only a thousand times as grand, in Dagran’s dreams. But of course, for now in reality it was only a glorified castle surrounded by muddied drilling fields, a dry moat, a few watchtowers, and many clusters of hovels that housed the builders and other folk unworthy of dwelling within the fortress at the heart of Kolcara. Still, the plans were there and when Dagran closed his eyes he could see the roads, wide and paved with white stones that gleamed in the sun like dew upon morning grass.

Still, for its humble beginnings, Kolcara was already Dagran’s seat of power. It lay in a strategic and defensible position in the center of his realm, at the convergence of the river Muniw with the Barjuhrim, which flowed south until it met the mighty Juhmar. This placed it a good ways away from the northern border where even now the fires of the bloodletting had found new kindling and caught once more. But it would not be long before his levies were assembled and readied to march north. This season could very well witness the final defeat and humiliation of Arkhus, if the seeds that he had sown would sprout and bear fruit. He had been planning this campaign for a long time, picking the grounds where he would take battle just as meticulously as he had planned out the paths and walls of his future city.

Not all approved of his plans and genius, however. He could feel their jealousy and fear. They knew, when they gazed into his obsidian eyes, that they stood before one who was to them as Mount Qaywandar was to other mountains. It was just such an envious gaze that he felt boring into his back at that very moment, and he turned to find the old ramtej approaching. The ancient man’s silver hair and beard were well-oiled and combed, bedecked with rings of silver and gold, and likewise his arms and chest. A saffron sarong, with gilded and intricately patterned trimmings, covered him from hip to ankle and he had a staff of gold and silver in his right hand. Precious jewels adorned the top, as did golden hoops and a golden figurine of the tri-faced Serene Lord, seated with all his eyes closed.

He came to a stop beside the ramshid and looked out from the high balcony across the great castle and to the encampments beyond. “What was it, my ramshid, that your father used to say? About chaos and strong ramshids.”

The ramshid sniffed and wondered for a moment just what the ramtej’s intent was, but he indulged the question. “He would speak of the chaos and great bloodlettings of old that had forged hard men, and of how those great men and their strong ramshids would bring about good days. And then he would promise that good days always bring about a weaker breed of men that kneel before indulgent ramshids, and then those men finally bring bad times. The bloodletting is renewed, and the cycle restarts then, as it always has and always will.”

“Indeed, for your father was a wise man and understood men, knew what moved their hearts and knew that their hearts have a proclivity towards vice. But he understood this also: that bad times are unvirtuous times, and that such proliferation of vice causes those of pure natures to become inclined towards virtue; the ugliness of vice and the ugliness it causes, this great imbalance in the world, drives them towards virtue. These strong virtuous ramshids create good days, for their virtue brings about the cosmic balance vital to any goodness.”

The old ramtej paused, his black eyes gazing towards the far horizon before he turned and looked directly at Dagran. “And these good days, brought by the virtuous strength of those who came before, cause the new generations to forget the evils that vice brings, the cosmic imbalance and chaos it causes. And their hearts become inclined towards its momentary pleasures. Weak, undisciplined, unvirtuous; they bring ruin to themselves and ruin to all. This is as it has always been, for you are a learned man my ramshid and you know this, but it is not as it always needs to be. If our ramshids know to be ever virtuous, then the times will be ever good.”

The ramshid’s own black eyes seemed to gaze listlessly over the horizon, his head gently bobbing in nods as though he heard nothing more than the eddies of wind. But when the other man had said his fill, Dagran did not wait long to reply. “Truth dwells in your words, wise Viparta,” he admitted, forgoing titles and calling the ramtej by his name, “and I have oft thought in ways much the same. Most men are shortsighted, lacking in vision; I think that is what leads them to fall prey to vice and foolishness, to abandon all teaching of discipline and vex their fathers. They contemplate yesterday, and realise that it was not so different from the day before that, or the one before, or even some day a cycle ago. So then they look to tomorrow, and think that it too shall be much the same. They are like leaves, falling from trees on the riverbank and drifting down into the water to be swept this way and that, never imagining that they might paddle their own way - or perhaps even change the course of the river! Ha!

“Gaze upward, Viparta; do you see how high this fort stands? Have you seen any other like it? Or even any temple so grand, reaching so close to the heavens above?” The hints of tiredness, boredom, reticence in the ramshid had vanished, replaced by something else… something perhaps more dangerous. His eyes were smiling, and the scent of pride was upon his breath as real as if it were a cloying smell of wine.

The ramtej looked up, his dark eyes impassive and mouth pursed. “It is a high fort indeed. Perhaps nothing higher was ever made by the hands of man - other than your father’s of course. It is a good and dutiful son who avoids outdoing his father, after all; and you my ramshid are clearly just that. And though the temples of man’s making are all of them cast low about you, the divine temple stands there in the west, the throne of the One Who Frowns down upon all and is not frowned down upon.” The ramtej smiled slightly. “It is as though he says, ‘build!’ and mocks all we raise high. Where is Sahruqar and its high towers? Where are its thousand streets, its hundred gates? Sprawling and mighty, built like a mountain and spreading like the sea - think how a mere peasant brought it low.” The ramtej spoke sadly, bitterly, but when his eyes turned to Dagran there was also a knowing gleam in the darkness of his eyes. “Is it not said, after all: ‘No glories ever fruit by mortals planned / The gods all laugh at all we scheme and brew / Come let us weep the loss of love and land’?”

“You must meditate carefully upon such thoughts, ramtej. A fruit half ripe and yet half black is in the end just a rotten fruit, and so a man who preaches half wisdom but half folly likewise cannot be called wise at all. Just ruminate upon what you have said: if no sons were ever to outdo their fathers, out of their senses of goodness and duty, out of fear, then you must understand that there would be no forts at all. We would all live in hovels and be nothing more than the dirt beneath our feet. From the hard times there would arise no strong men and ‘good ramshids’ to bring about better days, you see? So in your mockery you find truth: I am a good and dutiful son to my father, for seeking to rebuild the realm that was his legacy and leave behind a legacy of my own that is even stronger yet. The land bleeds and suffers; these are trying times, make no mistake, and I am a hard man that must - that shall! - see them into the twilight.

“And as for Sahruqar, you know as well as I that it lies a ruin. Its walls were not tall enough, the slopes and might of its mountain too easily climbed. So again that is why the son must surpass his father, and why I must build my own stronghold into a city stronger and grander yet, one that shall not fall for many lifetimes if ever. Have you ever thought of what it must be like, to be a god and look down upon all? I think that to them, we must be as mere ants. Do you notice the stray ants that crawl beneath your shadow? Do you concern yourself overly with any of them, of their struggles? No, you simply cannot, so you walk on mercilessly, not wishing them harm but also not watching for those that fall beneath your feet. But when the ants come together and build a great mound, then you take notice. Then you step around it. Perhaps one could say that in so doing, you give the ants your blessing.”

The ramtej turned away from the balcony, his eyes betraying his regret for having come or spoken. There was simply no reasoning with a man whose hubris matched the mountains. “Then build, ramshid. But as you build remember - for you are a learned man, are you not? - what became of those who came before us. Glorious ramshids came and went, the Glorified Mojtha, a god amongst us, descended and ruled; only the essential goodness of his teachings survive, not his ramshidra, not his great temples, not even his progeny. Only his virtue.” He glanced over his shoulder, his lips compressed. “Had you and your brothers loved your father better, my ramshid…” the words faded away, and the old man’s eyes lost themselves in thought as he turned away and walked off muttering to himself, “you are blowing into ashes, Viparta, into cinders. Won’t you learn?”

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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by AdorableSaucer
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The Interrogation


Darkness, lit only by a single, circular beam of light was all the dizzy, exhausted Ciara could see in the room she had been locked in, so torturously concentrated as it was right in her face. She was bound to a chair by the wrists and feet - an uncomfortable one at that - and her throat was parched from a dry, waterless night. The walls around her were nearly invisible in the shadows around her, but she noted that they were incredibly odd, as though they were full of… Her - going on for miles and miles and miles into infinity. The floor felt like dirt to her bare feet - cold, hopeless dirt that licked freezingly at her toes in the morning dew. Everywhere around her was dreadful silence.

Then footsteps approached from behind. The sliding and knocking of wood revealed that the wall behind her was not like those she could see - there was likely a door of some kind there. Inside came flickering lights, nothing bright enough to outshine the sun, but enough to give her eyes a break from the terrible contrast of darkness. Shadows of people held torches around her, and then a bald head blocked out the bead of sunlight, forcing Ciara’s eyes to adjust.

“What’s your name?” said a female voice.

“You know my name!” Ciara yelled. For at least a year she walked the market. Helped people out and bought apples from the stalls! The people knew her. “Please, please I don’t know why I’m here. I didn’t do anything!” The bruises on her arms still felt sore and made her muscles ache but above all else, she felt tired. Tired from the fighting and crying and pleading.

Suddenly, she was drenched with water from a bucket splashed in her face with oppressive force. The cold shocked her just as much as the split-second suffocation. When the water fell her lungs sucked in the air as if she was just underwater for a minute. Ragged, panicky breaths took her back to when she was caught and beaten.

“What is your name?” the voice repeated.

“Please I just…” Her weak voice cut off. Afraid she’d get drenched in in cold water again. “I-I’m Ciara.” She answered with a trembling voice and a quickly shrinking heart.

“Where are you from?” continued the voice. The light of the sun formed an oppressive halo around her bald head, and out of the corner of her eye, Ciara could spot other women bringing in a table lined with… Something - it was unclear what it was.

Wild-eyed she looked around. Not understanding what was happening. Why were they asking questions? What was that table? Why was she being treated like the enemy!? She opened her mouth. Ready to let the questions pour out. But she swallowed the words. “I’m from the Cenél villages.” She said with a heavy sob.

“Where is Darragh?” asked the voice. The icing sound of a whetstone scraping over metal hissed in the background. A burnt smell filled the air and soon, the crackle of burning wood joined the background noises.

“I-I-I don’t know!” She tried to move but couldn’t. She would thrash, but her body was already exhausted. “Please, please why are you doing this? We’ve done nothing.” She repeated then, over and over, as she broke down further.

“The curse that befell our warrior Hilda was the work of ungodly magic - the kind that your kin is known to practice. I will ask again - where is Darragh?” The air filled with a different burnt scent - sour, sickening. It was a burnt plant of sorts, and it made the room unclear and hard to perceive, as though Ciara had been given a drug; however, the others seemed to be unaffected.

Things started to fall in place within Ciara’s mind. Her eyes grew wide. The quartz, it detected magic. “Wait!” She screamed out. As if her salvation dawned in her mind. Even though the room ws becoming blurred and her senses dulled. “Please wait! We didn’t do anything. Darragh… he felt it. Please I’m begging you, we didn’t do anything.”

“What did he feel, exactly?” The smoke had at this point grown so thick that it was getting hard to see. Slowly, but surely, it felt more and more like Ciara was alone in the room - and the world. The smoke appeared endless and quiet, and the only sound was the sound of her own breathing.

“I-I don’t know…” Her voice faltered again as her heart shrunk in her chest. She tasted copper in her mouth. The smoking was obscuring everything now. Was she still in Ha-Dûna? Was she still in the world? She wanted to beg again. Hope someone would finally help her. Instead, her lip just quivered as tears fell from her eyes. In her mind started praying to Seva to save her.

Suddenly, there came a burning sting, as though her skin was singed by hot coals. The pain coursed through her. She screamed at the top of her lungs. It pulled her up from a daze she didn’t know she was in. A moment later it was gone. Her mind blocked out the pain. Turning into a faint sense in the back of her mind. But she broke down crying. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” She kept saying, barely comprehensible through the sobbing.

Out of nowhere, a heavy-handed punch hit her in the cheek. Meanwhile, she could feel her mind begin to float - it was as though someone was forcefully opening up her consciousness and attempting to see the world as she saw it, like a pair of eyes behind her eyes.

“WHERE IS HE?!” came an ungodly, terrifying scream like a chorus of demons.

“Home!” She screamed. Her mind forcing out anything to stop the pain. To stop whatever was burrowing through it. That’s what he said. Go home. Go to the Cenél. She wanted to be back in her house. The roots and branches of which her grandmother had coaxed into their shape. Seva wasn’t coming. “Irra protect me. Irra protect me.” She kept muttering. The line between thought and speech blurred. Another punch, this one to the back of the head. At this point, her mind felt pierced, like something had driven a splinter deep into her brain. She couldn’t see it completely, but there was very clearly something staring back into her mind’s eye. It searched, forcing Ciara to see memories from her whole life, image by image, scent by scent, pain by pain. The joyful memories were somehow devoid of emotion, coldly analysed and tossed aside in the quest for the revealing detail. The eyes grew less patient by the second and the stream sped up, Ciara hardly having time to process each bypassing memory as more than a flickering image. It felt as though it lasted for hours, and whenever her mind threatened to regain focus, the stink of smoke intensified and sent her right back into trance, and every time she grew too exhausted to stay away, a surge of pain from either burns or punches would force her back into dazed wakefulness.

Finally, after what felt like a row of three sleepless nights, the eyes blinked and disappeared. She heard mumbles beyond the smoke, but nothing she could interpret. Just as she was about to keel over from exhaustion, ice cold water once again coated her from head to toe.

Her mind felt blank. Untouched. Her body reacted in spasms and gasps. It wanted to live and breathe still but her mind didn’t seem to care anymore. Did she want to die? Or to sleep? Was there a different anymore. She just wanted out. Away. Home.

But then she needed someone kind. Someone who cared. Someone good. In the back of her mind it felt as if light pierced through the fog. A name. “Boudicca.” She muttered. Her blank eyes still staring down at the ground. “Boudicca.” She said again. The glimmer of hope seemingly keeping her mind above water.

However, the voices were silent. Eventually, one of them said coldly, “Who do you think had you arrested?”

Who arrested her? Who took her? Who put her here? Her mind kept going over things. Memories laid scattered. Forced open and closed. Their order broken. Who took her? Who punished her? Not her. Not Boudicca. “Boudicca.” She said again. Still half breathless. Refusing to believe the kind and just sanndatr would’ve put her here. Darragh was long gone. The Cenél would not come for her. The gods had forsaken her but not Boudicca. She wouldn’t let her suffer here. Like this. “Boudicca.” It became her prayer.

There came a sigh. “Leave her here. She’s got nothing to do with the summoning.”

“So she spoke true, then?”

“Yes, she had no memory nor conception of doing the crime, and unless Darragh also knows the ways of the Truthful One, which is unlikely for his… Profession, then she is innocent of the crime.”

“Shall I inform the sanndatr?”

A pensive hum. “Delay that for a bit. There might be other parts of her memories we can use for the coming conflict.” With that, the voices faded, leaving Ciara alone in her cell once more.

High up the moonlight that would fall inside was partially blocked by a small, insignificant shape. From inside one could barely see its black, oval figure. With two icy, blue eyes that seemed to be glowing. When the men were done the creature unfurled its wings and flew away. Leaving behind three black-striped white feathers.


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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Goldeagle1221
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Juniper and Shae and Boudicca


It was still the middle of the morning as the two women walked through the flows of Ha-Dûna and towards the former Hall of the Weary, now Hall of Chiefs. Unlike before though, the day had enough time to settle -- meaning the honest and healthy were off working or studying. It was peaceful, or would be if it didn’t remind Juniper that she was skipping out on her own work to be out doing this. Scrunching her nose, she broke the growing silence between her and Shae.

“Did you ever hear the story of the spider and the apprentice?” Juniper asked, eyes stuck on the glare of someone who definitely recognized her (and recognized her out of place even).

“No, I don’t think- oh, no thank you Maera, I’ve had apples today- I don’t think I’ve heard it.” The song waved at friendly passersby and patted curious childrens’ heads as they walked. It was quite difficult for helgens to be subtle in Ha-Dûna. “Though it sounds like another one you might have made up.” Shae smirked and gave the other woman a sidelong glance.

Juniper squinted her right eye at Shae and continued through the comment, “The apprentice was a gifted student of a well known painter, but as gifted as they were, they had to follow the instructions of the master painter.” Juniper looked at Shae, “Simple enough. The master painter would inspect a room and then give the tools to the apprentice and have them work on it while they themselves worked on more difficult tasks... or so they say.” She waved a hand, “But that isn’t that important -- what is important is that one day while the apprentice was preparing to paint, they came across a spider. Now-”

Juniper paused suddenly as she lurched forward, nearly tripping over her own feet. Pretending that didn’t happen, she continued, “Now as the apprentice was scraping and cleaning the old corners of the room, he came across a spider - wait I already said that. Shit.” She paused, “Right! So anyways the spider was directly where the apprentice needed to work and eventually paint... it was quite a simple issue -- if the spider were to remain in its cozy little home, it would be destroyed alongside it by paint and scrapes and what have you... so in kindness, the apprentice picked the spider up and removed it from its place, destroying the web in the process. The spider obviously was scared and worried and horrified, but the apprentice paid that no mind as he knew he had saved it from much worse trouble than the trouble they themselves gave the spider.” Looking forward, Juniper finished, “So the apprentice went about their day, finished the job, and left. No human was any the wiser of what had happened and the spider, though deeply troubled that day, was spared a worse fate that it didn’t know was even possible, and still doesn’t.”

“Well, that was an incredibly thoughtful apprentice. Perhaps if he could communicate with the spider they could have come to some kind of agreement and any misunderstandings would have been avoided, but seeing as that was the next best he could do…” she pursed her lips and exhaled, “but the poor spider would just go on living thinking that humans are terrible and arbitrary things. If it was made to understand why it had to be moved, then perhaps there would be greater harmony between humans and spiders - perhaps spiders would not bite as often, and humans wouldn’t kill them.” Her melodious sigh came long. “Oh anyhow, it seems that no human was the wiser about all this… other than you. Did this noble painter’s apprentice tell you the tale himself?”

“It’s an old story,” Juniper used her usual defense, “Just to say that when you don’t know the perspectives beyond your understanding, even a positive can seem like a negative.” She scuffed her boots and stood still, the Hall of Chiefs only a few steps away from the pair. “Maybe you should trust in the wisdom of things greater than yourself, or maybe not -- who really knows.” Juniper dropped a corner of her mouth into a frown, “I don’t know.”

“I, for one, think wisdom might be a tad bit overrated. Sometimes you just need to live a little unweighed by grumpy wisdoms and their needless mysteries.” She said easily. “Everyone manages well enough either way.” She stood by the great bearskin curtain and listened in for a bit, then raised her hand and knocked on the doorframe. She did not seem to strike too hard at all, yet the knock came unnaturally loud and somewhat off from where she struck. The usual murmurs inside quieted, then approaching steps heralded the arrival of the doorman, who pulled aside the curtain and unleashed the rolling avalanche of pipe smoke out of the entrance. He regarded them with groggy eyes, though was quick to recognise Shae and offered a small bow with his free hand cupped over his head.

“W-welcome, good helgen of the Dancing Théin. What brings you to our humble house?” The man made quick efforts to straighten out his shirt, plaid and kilt, and tugged at his beard to keep his hands in action.

“That’s a good question,” Juniper said, realizing she didn’t really have a good answer. She looked over at Shae for support.

Shae stood up tall and any childishness she may have exhibited before seemed to melt away. “I must speak with the sanndatr,” she intoned dolefully, “on a grave matter.” The pipeweed air seemed to tighten, her voice darkening what may have been a light and merry gathering before.

The man blinked as realisation dawned upon him. He stuck his head a little further out of the doorframe, looking left and right, and then ducking back inside, pulling the curtain with him. “Alright, come on it. Boudicca! The Song has come to see you.” The inside of the longhouse seemed permanently stained with the tangy stink of pipeweed, though the smell fought bravely against the musk and rank of cows and sheep; foreign and local carpets decorated every wall and the floor, not arranged by colour and pattern so much as by place of origin; exposed parts of the wooden walls held imported shields, weapons, jewelry and artistry. Despite the overflow of wealth around the room, however, the central hearth around which sat three figures seemed most humble - the most precious object being a bubbling ceramic pot at which the faces of the figures had been looking before they shifted to the newcomers.

“Ah, Shae, Daughter of the Dancer. Come on in,” the sanndatr’s voice called and the shadow of her beckoning could be seen against the light of the fire. “Brought a friend, have you?”

The song cleared her throat and nodded as she made gracefully for Boudicca and, removing her cloak, seated herself by the hearth. “Yes,” she spoke, placing a hand on Juniper’s arm and nodding for her to sit by her, who with wide and uncertain eyes, did. “This is Juniper the Twiceseven’s daughter. Orator and storyteller of great renown, purveyor of wisdoms and knower of ancient truths.” Shae bit her upper lip and maintained an altogether serious visage. “And witness to dire happenings that may only be spoken of in strictest secrecy.” She glanced at the two figures sat by Boudicca, then back to the sanndatr.

The shadows on Boudicca’s face danced with less vigour as her chewing mouth came to a stop, turning to regard Juniper with a small squint, who sunk in her seat. “The Twiceseven’s daughter, you say?” The sanndatr placed her spoon back in her bowl of porridge and set the bowl on the floor. She looked across the fire at the two other figures and then over at the doorman. “Brian, would you take Materix and Zelda outside?”

“Mother, can’t we stay and listen?” Materix asked with a twinge of what almost seemed as surprise.

“When mother asks us to leave…” Zelda started. Materix’ stare shut her up.

“Oh! Materix,” Shae exclaimed, “my, you’ve changed quite a bit since I last saw you. When did you get back?”

The young théin offered her a polite smile. “A month and a half ago or so. I’d love to tell you all about the journey, but…” She gave her mother a frown. “... It seems that secrecy will be taking priority.”

“It most certainly will, young lady,” Brian said soothingly and took both the girls’ bowls, setting them aside, before shepherding them out of the house. Shae gave the young woman a knowing glance, an I’ll find you later. With the young women gone, Boudicca gestured for the bench upon which they had sat and mumbled, “The heat’s better on that side if you’re cold. Today’s a cold autumn day, after all…”

“I have my cloak,” Juniper tugged her white plaid as if showcasing it, “But thank you.” She leaned slightly to the side and behind Shae’s ear, whispering, “What am I a witness of?”

Shae seemed completely relaxed now, all seriousness gone. “Oh Boudicca. If I didn’t know any better I’d think you were avoiding me,” the song pouted as she took up Zelda’s bowl of porridge and picked at it with the spoon. “When did I see you last? It was when you… ah, that nasty business with Hilda.”

Boudicca’s eyes darkened. “... Yes, and we both know well not to speak of that day. Our city has hardly recovered from the terror…” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “... I have hardly recovered… Thank the gods farmwork keeps the people busy...”

Shae sighed, little inky moths fluttering out and dying on the flames with audible fizzles as the flame licked angrily and hissed at them. There was a heavy silence for a few seconds, and then Shae looked up, “anyhow, Boudi, I’ve got a little problem. Or rather, we’ve got a little problem. Probably more you than me… or maybe just me, I don’t know.” She sat back and put the bowl to the side. “It’s those bald druids.”

“The Seekers? What about them?” Boudicca rubbed her hands together over the flames.

“I don’t know how to put this but… they don’t seem to like me very much. They’ve been following me around for months talking about my ‘serial untruths’ and how the ‘stench of falsification echoes in the footsteps of your mind, so-called Macsaldatr’. Juniper here saw their latest bout of creeping on me. We were minding our own business at the college this morning, sharing songs and stories as you do, when they came along with their blue stares and continually constipated countenances.” She huffed and grabbed at her cloak, “isn’t that right Juni? Tell her how we had to escape through the window and nearly got caught by that smelly… whatisface.”

Juniper blinked a few times and sat up straight, "Uhm." It took her a few seconds but she managed to push through her nervousness and into a storyteller’s mood. She found her smile and nodded, "Yes! A group of older men had burst into the courtyard of the school looking for Shae. It was apparently so dire a situation, we needed to take an alternative route through one of the professor's private offices and through the window. Not only that, but we later had to convene outside the limits of the town to plan safely our next step."

The sanndatr squinted. “If that’s what happened, it is concerning that I was not informed until now. Were you seen on your way here? By them, I mean - were you followed?” She got up, walked over to the doorway and tugged gently a piece of the curtain away to glance outside.

The song looked back at her and shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. But they’ll find out soon enough, I’m sure. The people make it quite hard to be discrete.”

“Ever since that horrid day, the théins have been breathing down my neck… Tensions haven’t been higher since we retook this city.” Boudicca continued, and Shaeylila rose and came up beside her, placing a hand on the other woman’s shoulder.

“Things would no doubt become even worse if these Seekers were to uncover our little... “ she paused, “repurposing of the truth.” She turned away and sighed. “What can we do? I can’t go on with them following me around like a second shadow.”

Juniper cocked her head, "Repurposing of the truth?"

Boudicca turned and made hard eyes at the Storyteller. “You didn’t tell her yet brought her along?”

The song raised an eyebrow at the sanndatr. “It wasn’t my tale to tell. I brought her along because storytellers know things - I thought she could help us deal with this in the least damaging way.” Turning away from Boudicca she looked at Juniper with a slight frown. “But maybe I was wrong.”

“Ouch,” Juniper squinted her right eye at Shae.

Boudicca heaved a slow sigh. “Forgive my frustration… I haven’t slept well of late.” She gave her nose bridge a comforting rub as Shae moved softly by her and looked out of the small window. “So, daughter of the Twiceseven, you ‘know things’, is that it?” She hunkered onto her elbows and collected her fingers in a twine under her nose. “What do you know of Macsal’s promise?”

“The curse, you mean?” Juniper pinched her chin.

“If you’d like to call it that,” the sanndatr responded and shrugged passively. “What do you know of it?”

“War and death, or peace and art,” Juniper replied simply, “That’s the word around town at least, no?”

“That’s the gist of it. Did you see Shae’s performance that day? What did you think of it? Convincing, right?”

“I wasn’t there,” Juniper scrunched her brow, “But I obviously heard the stories -- where is this going?”

Boudicca spied over at Shae by the window and studied her distant expression. Then she heaved another sigh, eyed the doorway and whispered, “What if I told you that it was all an act?”

“I’d say you have great foreshadowing,” Juniper arched a brow, “And now I’m hooked.” She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees, eyes staring intently at Boudicca, “Tell me the story?”

Boudicca shrugged. “Not much to tell, if I’m being honest. It was Shae’s plan, in truth - I needed public support for our city’s shift to peace and diplomacy after years and years of war and battle. Our solution was to depict it as a divine imperative - Macsal’s imperative. If we went to war, there would only be death and abandonment - we would never become the cultural capital we dream to be.” She heaved yet another sigh. “We gained their support that time, but then those cursed Scawicks rioted and then the Clennon Fen purists and then…” She shook her head. “I’ll be frank, Shae, I have lost faith in our lie - lost quite a lot, in fact. It has all but faded already, anyway - what will the Seekers hunt you for if what you are accused of is no longer a reality?”

“It’s a shame that things happened this way.” The song sighed and turned back to them, leaning against the window sill. “But it would reflect quite poorly on you if it’s discovered that our bout of creative output was misinterpreted by the people. You could just say you were misled by little old me, of course. That would work. But then what will become of little old me? Living here has grown on me.” She turned her head to the side and looked out of the window again. “And I don’t get the feeling that those bald druids would be satisfied to just unveil my ‘falsifications’ as they say. They seem to have taken it all awfully personally.”

The sanndatr didn’t answer. Her face harned and she hammered the bench she sat on with her palm in frustration. “Why did everything go so wrong? Why? What have we done to incite the gods’ wrath upon our city time and time again… War, threats, terror. For what? We want peace, same as everyone, and not even the Seekers will allow it.” She hung her head in defeat. “... My hands are tied - if I do something onto them, they will suspect me, too, and sending you away is…” Her voice trailed off. “... You could go into exile for a time, just until I can send the Seekers away.”

Shae was silent for a few seconds, a stillness and terrible silence hanging about her. And for all the crackling and flickering of the fire, there was suddenly a coolness to the place. She glanced over at Juniper, her eyes seeming to glisten with liquid ink. “Y-yeah.” Came her dirge. “I…” inken eyes turned to the ground, “I’m sorry Boudi. It was my stupid idea.”

“Oh, don’t apologise. Had it not been for that idea, this town would’ve been on the warpath again months ago. It’s… It’s like Hilda said: We’re a warring people. Maybe it was foolish to think that we could keep them in check with a lie.” She tugged sniffingly at her nose with her hand. “Either way, you aren’t safe here. I cannot protect you against the Seekers - not anymore. My support from the people has been replaced with suspicion and skepticism.”

“What are you going to do? Are you just going to…” Shae approached the sanndatr, looking into her tired eyes, “give up? Are you going to let it all wear you down? You stood before them like a mountain once and bore the full brunt of the heavens, and when their waves crashed against your steep cliffs you batted them aside and put them back down - that was you, Boudi. You tamed them and directed them, not the other way. Isn’t that what being sanndatr is all about?” There was no bitterness in her melancholy melody, only a plucking at the strings of Boudicca’s morale, a gentle blowing into the embers of her great flame.

Juniper squinted her right eye and looked between the two. Finally she wiggled her nose in thought before speaking, "I'm going to be honest: this is extremely uncomfortable. So what you're saying is that you two lied about divine punishment to keep the city from going to war, and now a bunch of old men are out to getcha?" She looked up at the ceiling before shifting to Shae, "I did say leaving was your best bet, remember? It sounds like a web of politics that has no winner." She pauses, "Then again Boudicca has a point.. What's the lie if war comes anyway?"

The sanndatr shrugged. “I can sway the druids by saying Macsal is with us in this war - they will no doubt agree under the circumstances, but… The Seekers are of a different circle - I don’t understand them like I understand the Long Strides.” She paused. “All I know is that they are pursuers of the Truth, whatever that means to the servants of Fìrinn--” She halted to lift her hands to the sky and whisper a short apology, likely for uttering the god’s name with insincerity. “... Shae’s targeted because she claims to be a messenger of Macsal, unless I’m mistaken. In truth, she’s just a Song, after all. I beg forgiveness that you need to hear all this Juniper; I trust you will keep this secret in good confidence, yes?”

"Well wait," Juniper held up a finger, "If you don't understand the Seekers, why are we hashing out these thoughts? I say we should learn their story and how they tick before trying to counter their plays." She leaned back, "You're a strategist, no? You are in my stories."

“Taking an interest in them now of all times will raise suspicion, especially if I lead the initiative… However…” She pursed her lips. “You said you weren’t seen on the way here, correct? Twiceseven’s daughter - could you learn their stories on our behalf, perhaps?”

"I dunno, I've never been very good at remembering stories," Juniper said deadpan. A silent moment passed and she frowned, "It's a joke - of course I can. Oh! But work..."

“I don’t know if you can learn things from them the normal way.” Shae spoke out. “They just…” she looked around and exhaled with a frown, “they know things. Their song is full of other people’s songs, it’s really weird. When they come near me, I’ve heard my own song in theirs. It’s like they can… look into you, siphon your song.” She convulsed in disgust and took a few steps towards the fire, holding her arms in silence. Before either of the two could say more she raised her head and looked Juniper dead in the eye. “I think you were right before. And I think it’s the answer we’ll arrive at in the end. I need to leave.”

Boudicca sighed and stood up, pacing thoughtfully between the heart and the doorway. “Then so be it. Whatever provisions you may need for the road, you shall have. I will make certain none of those Seekers follow you, and my daughter will guide you to the river and have a boatsman take you southwards--”

Suddenly, stomps thundered on the doorstep. Within the following second, the pelt over the doorway was pushed aside, revealing the face of Brian, pale with shock and red with warmth. He was panting, having much exerted his full body’s ability to sprint. Boudicca frowned over gritting teeth. “Gods, Brian! What is it that brings you here with such speed that you can’t knock first?”

“Iss-...” He caught his breath just barely and held on with a feeble grip. “It’s Aifric!”

“Of Sûr-le-Mont? What happened to her?”

“She--... Ugh…” He leaned forward and retched. Boudicca groaned and stormed over to straighten him up.

“By the gods, hadn’t you been my brother I would have had you whipped for wasting my time. Now spit it out! What has befallen the théin?!”

“She-she killed a man! Three men!”

Boudicca recoiled and blinked. “She killed three men?”

Brian nodded. “She and her constables - it was by the South Gate Hall. They, they were Chelivyak, a young lad and two older men. They, they made some odd demands for tribute to their ‘zar’ or something and then drew blades when the théin told them to leave!”

The frown of Boudicca’s face hardened with every word and her eyes slowly shifted towards the doorway. She walked over, pulled aside the pelt and looked outside. “Chelivyak, Chelivyak…” She closed her eyes and turned back to the others. “Mountain clans, correct? Like the Uirda?”

"[C]eleviak," Juniper corrected.

They both ignored her. “More or less,” Brian agreed. “However, I stopped by the Hall of Pilgrims on the way and consulted the visiting Kaer Hrothgi, an expert on the eastern clans, explained that that part of the mountains is the home of death worshippers.”

Boudicca raised a sharp brow. “Sigerans?”

“Very similar, supposedly,“ Brian agreed. “Sister, what should we do?”

"Not close at all," Juniper said under her breath.

Boudicca pursed her lips in annoyance, tossing a glance back at Shae and Juniper. “Have Aifric come here this afternoon. She will be given a stern talk and then go free. As for the Sigerans, you will have them sent to the Temple of Sorrow to be properly burnt in sight of Naya so their spirits may pass properly into the afterlife. They will not be returned to the worshippers of death, for their own sakes.”

Brian blinked. “D-do we dare do something like that? What of their families? What of this supposed ‘zar’ demanding tribute?”

Boudicca scowled. “We do not deal with Sigerans, and according to my daughter, the mountain peoples of the east have heard nothing of cavalry, tactics nor food other than goats. If they are foolish enough to challenge the might of Ha-Dûna, then all they will prove is how fond they are of death.”

After a second of silence, Brian nodded slowly. “Yes, sanndatr…” He then hurried back out the doorway.

"With respect," Juniper piped up again, "The Čeleviak's aren't Sigerans or death worshippers."

Boudicca turned and raised a brow. “Come again?”

“My mom was a Čeleviak,” Juniper explained, blinking her eastern brown eyes, “They revere the process of life and understand death to be the equalizing end of it, and as such show reverence and respect to their God of Death. They bury their dead -” Juniper suddenly paused, “Usually in the soil near where they were born.”

“So they worship death, then?” the sanndatr replied stubbornly.

Juniper looked helplessly at Shae. The song pursed her lips. “This is the first I hear of these mountain people - uh, Čeleviak, Uirda? Are they the same thing? Anyway, from what you’re saying…” she opened her palms and and two jets of ink arose, one bright white and the other obsidian. They curled around one another, forming a bi-coloured circle. “Death and life are two parts of a circle. They complete each other. Without death,” the black side of the circle slipped away, “life would be incomplete. And so, like life, death is not evil and is to be honoured and worshipped.”

The white circle transformed into an idyllic scene, with little figures running around and enjoying life’s delights. “But here: life is honoured and loved and worshipped because there is good in it, pleasures and delights and goodness to be had.” The black ink arose and swept the white scene away, leaving nothing but darkness there. “Why would anyone worship or honour death?”

"It's easier to admire the stars than the backdrop that contrasts them," Juniper pointed out, "Or the words on the tablet rather than the tablet, but without the negative, you can't perceive the positive. One reason to honor death is as a reminder that you're alive, the other reasons are to ensure a good one, to prepare for whatever comes next. It keeps you humble, as well, knowing your fate isn't different than any other creature."

“Fine! Fine! So they differ from the Sigerans, to the extent that acolytes of death can differ from one another.” She rolled her eyes and approached Juniper with arms crossed over her chest and shoulders squared authoritatively. “Our objective right now is to get Shae somewhere safe before the Seekers find out - afterwards, you’re invited to tell your stories about these people over midday meals. For now, though - Shae, when can you be ready?”

The song looked thoughtfully to the side, glanced down at herself, and then smiled wistfully. She picked up her cloak and wrapped it around herself. “Before that question left your lips, Boudi, that’s when.”

"Then where to?" Juniper dropped her arms, "I know plenty of fabled sanctuaries." the song shrugged in response.

“Wherever those Seekers aren’t, I guess.” She looked at Juniper. “So you’re coming? What about all this mountain people stuff?”

"I figured that's why you snagged me here in the first place," Juniper admitted. "Besides, I'm sure I know some places of legend that the seekers wouldn't think to look, or even know to."

Shae smiled. “This mountain people stuff seemed like it had shaken your resolve for a second, just making sure.”

“I will go find Materix, then. Wait here. Pretend you’re not here if anybody knocks.” With that, Boudicca exited the longhouse. The song sat back down and stared into the flames.

“So, what places of legend are these that you’re thinking about?” She asked.

"Ever hear of the Fortress of Yalin?" Juniper crossed her arms.

“Nop,” the song said simply, stoking the fire. “Where is it?”

"I'm not entirely sure but I have a good idea -- either way that's another reason the Seekers wouldn't even think to go there." Juniper nodded.

“Well, I guess if we don’t know where we’re headed they definitely won’t.” Shae chortled, though there was little mirth there. “So your mum was from these mountain people? No one mentioned that - always the Twiceseven’s, never the mountainwoman’s, daughter. Did you ever live among them?”

"No," Juniper said simply, "My mother ran away from the mountains to be with my father. Stole her heart really."

There came stomps at the steps leading into the house and in came Boudicca once more, followed by her daughter Materix, who in truth took much more after her father, slenderer in the face than her mother’s broad jaw. She was already fully armed and armoured, and Boudicca clapped her on the shoulder proudly.

“Materix will take you to the river - there, you will meet with Grum Ferryman. He has been paid to keep quiet, so we only need to make certain you, Shae, stay hidden. Now hurry - the Seekers have no doubt sensed that something is happening.”

“We leave when you are ready, helgen,” Materix said dutifully.

Shae rose and brought her hood up, darkness enshrouding her face. She was still for a few moments, and then she approached Boudicca and looked her in the eye. She took her by the hand and rubbed her finger across the back of the sanndatr’s hand, leaving behind a small flame of ink on the back of her right hand. “Be well, Boudi. Don’t let your flame go out.” She stepped back and brought her hand to her chest as she had often seen them do, and then followed after Materix without a backward glance. As the two of them left, the sanndatr raised a brow at Juniper.

“What about you? Staying or going?”

"Going," Juniper didn't hesitate, "By the gods I'm going."

Boudicca nodded and thumbed at the doorway while she walked over to the dying embers of the fire. “Well, better hurry if you want to catch up. I told Materix to keep a high tempo, and Grum’s not the easiest fellow to find.” She tossed another log on the fire.

"You don't have to tell me twice," Juniper nodded thankfully, "Good luck with everything!" With that, she was gone as quickly as Shae.



[*]

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“it is decided then.” Said the elder Fakir. A title he none could doubt about. His long hairs were gray and even white. His well-tended beard ran down from his gaunt, wrinkled face. One could mistake him for being tired, but Darragh knew the old man still had more life in him than one would think.

Many of the Fakir around grunted. Perhaps not all in agreement but certaintly all in acceptance. Even grim-faced Darragh had resigned himself to the fact that the Cenél could no longer stand alone. The irony was perhaps that the now growing infamous tithe requests of the Čeleviak Tsardom would be paid by the food and tools given by the Dûnans.

Darragh’s eyes wandered over the shape-sung trees standing around the grave. With his back towards the dark, deep cave. They were in the shape of the Cenél gods and goddesses. Each painted with the colors of their seasons. Bright green was painted upon the shape of a young woman, holding a babe in her arms, Seva. Vibrant yellow was painted on the twin gods of summer: Orrai, god warmth and the fullness of life and his brother Malgog, god of war and martial prowess. Finally orange was painted on the trees of Mnim and Hunim. Only winter wasn’t visible. Those gods resided in the cold, dark cave. Where icy blue was painted not on living trees but on cold, uncaring rock.

The Fakir were moving out of the grove. Heading towards their people to deliver the news. Soon enough a messenger would be send towards the Tsardom. A request for aid, in return to swearing fealty to the Tsar. It still laid wrong with Darragh, but he knew they had no other choice now. Not when the Dûnans were clamoring for war again. They had been too trusting. Blinded by the perceived kindness of Boudicca. Had all been an act? She, Hilda, the peace they wanted to maintain? How long had she prepared this farce?

“Will you remain again?” Asked another Fakir. She was younger. Between the age of Darragh and Ciara.

Darragh nodded. “There is nothing else I can do but pray now.”

“Trust the gods brother.” She said, putting her hand on his shoulder and squeezing it for a second. Before she walked away again.

Moments later Darragh stood alone amid the circle of statue-trees. There weren’t even birds daring to break the silence.

“I should burn every single one of you.” Darragh said out loud to the gods and their trees. “She loved all of you. Every season of every year since she was a little girl sat here on her knees, praying to you!” He pointed down to where he had seen her so many times. Even in the dark nights of winter, when she shivered because of the snow that she was kneeling in she kept praying. Giving her thanks to the gods that had now abandoned her.

“And for what? You left her.” He began pacing past the trees. “Our people are suffering. We lost so many before. Now you bring this abomination to our woods and we are blamed for it as well. What would you have me do? Should I have purged them three decades ago? Should I have voted? Break the tie? Let the drums of war roar? I chose peace that day.” He stopped in front of Malgog’s tree. The god of war stood strong and stern. A tree-shaped bush crouched at his feet. “As you taught us. Never squander lives. Never beg for vengeance. Strive always for peace first. You taught me that. And when I chose peace the first time, you took my daughter for it. And when I chose peace again, you took my apprentice.” And then he spat at the tree.

“Gods rarely take insults like those well.” Said a new voice. A young voice. Darragh turned to face it. At the edge of the grove stood a woman. She was young. Barely thirty, probably younger. Holding a gnarled branch. The Fakir would’ve dismissed her entirely if not for her eyes. Her deep, dark, piercing eyes. Eyes that he had seen so many times before, but in men and women.

“Who are you?” He asked with careful curiosity. Keeping the moss-covered stones marking the center of the grove in between them.

The woman didn’t appear to approach him either. She just smiled. “I’ve worn many names. These days I go by the name of Keylaigh.” She said, then her eyes turned towards Malgog. “He, above all, is a dangerous sort. Toxic and vile. Have you ever heard of the tale of the two brothers?”

Darragh frowned. As a Fakir he had heard all the tales there were. Some that had been forgotten for years by others now. Yet the story of the two brothers did not ring familiar.

“In a faraway land Malgog had two favored sons. Removed from each other at a young age. One searched for the other for years. Until Malgog gave him a sign where to find him. In a grand city. Larger than even the Dûnans could build. A place protected by a mountain. In there he would find his younger brother. Only if he would attack it though. And attack he did. The eldest gathered his armies. The might of the land rose with him against the city. When the gate finally fell, he found his younger brother. Armed with a hammer standing in the front line. Ready to defend his city.”

“You lie.” Darragh said, though his tone notably absent of poison. “There is no such tale. I would’ve known.”

“There are many things you don’t know. You don’t yet know that these gods don’t care. The ones that do you’ve kept hidden.” The woman said with a taunting smile.

Darragh looked behind him. Into the dark cave. He could faintly see the outlines of the stone crudely carved into the shape of Irra. Goddess of the Night and moon. Watcher against dark magic. Though Darragh knew the names that he would find past her. Sovas and Ynea. Death and Winter. “What do you know about the gods?”

A smirk grew on the woman’s face. “Many things.” She said. A white owl came flying down from the canopy and perched itself upon her gnarled staff. It looked at Darragh with two icy-blue eyes. They looked different than from any other animal he knew. For a second silence reigned once more. Before the owl looked like it was satisfied and flew up again towards the branches where it vanished. “Think on what you want, Darragh of the Cenél and then think of what you are willing to give up to get it.” With those words said the woman turned and walked away again. Leaving Darragh alone in the grove he still wished to burn. Yet now the shape-trees of the gods felt hollow. Their eyes closed. Where he first felt their presence around, he now felt truly and thoroughly alone.





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yoshua171 The Loremaster

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It had been a fairly short amount of time since Celestine had stirred sentience within her Virtus Elves. The experience of cultivating sentience within them had been a fairly intense one, and the exhausted feeling that came afterward was not one that Celestine particularly enjoyed. Thankfully her reserves of divine energy had recovered at this point and she was feeling much better. During her resting time Celestine had once more cast her divine senses upon Galbar in order to watch the ongoing events that were taking place. These events caused Celestine to reach a fairly grim conclusion: No matter how much she prepared them, her Virtus Elves would face struggle.

This led to an intricate problem: Should a critical Virtus Elf be killed, the overall society might suffer greatly. Celestine’s first idea was to attempt to teach them all equally in every topic, but she then rationalized that such a process was too inefficient and caused them to be entirely dependent on her being free to teach them all, which was a risky proposition. Celestine then figured that she could infuse a select handful of them with advanced knowledge and allow them to spread their teachings to the others, but she then rationalized that this would create an inequality between those who were highly knowledgeable and those who were not.

Tapping a finger against her chin as she reclined in the throne that sat above the Longhall, Celestine finally came to the conclusion that she would have to seek outside advice regarding this particular subject. Rising from her throne, Celestine moved to her personal chambers and approached the desk that she kept there. Sitting down, she fetched some parchment and writing utensils in order to craft something that she could place upon the notice board that she had seen earlier.

Starting to write, Celestine stopped a few moments after she began in order to think about how exactly she wanted to phrase her request. Tapping her pen against her chin Celestine looked about her personal quarters for a few moments in order to see if there was something that she might be able to emulate. It was then that her eyes settled upon the bookcase that had never been used. Celestine read the titles of the books on chivalry and knighthood, knowing the contents of each book perfectly without ever having opened them. It was then that inspiration came to her, and she resumed writing once more.

Seeking assistance of a more experienced god for the creation of a memory library. Visit the realm of Celestine for more information.

Setting her pen down, Celestine looked over the small piece of parchment and nodded to herself. It would do well enough. Rising from the chair, Celestine made her way to the visitation chamber and then stepped through her portal to Antiquity with confidence.

As soon as she emerged from her portal completely, Celestine made her way to the notice board that she had found earlier. Making use of the tools present she placed her notice firmly upon the board before nodding to herself and turning to leave.

It was then that she noticed that she was not quite alone.

For before her loomed the figure of a most imposing Presence. Down upon her did it gaze with lidded eyes, its form wreathed in a shroud of silvers, blacks, and pallid white. Its flesh was like a starlight spackled void writ into a vessel most divine. There was an ancient endless air about it, a great weight it seemed to bear.

It spoke, and its voice was a quiet thrumming thunder, resonating in her chest; it pressed outwards through her bones and into the ancient stone of Antiquity. "Greetings, sister," the Presence said, its tone like music, but subtly strange as if the instrument were faintly damaged. Its shroud billowed slowly, driven to movement, though no true wind blew in that stolid place between. It was a force familiar yet all-together different. It was the twisting of minds to tasks, the awakening of reflection. It was the glimmer of intellect within even the smallest spirit--be it stone or bird or sky.

It was emotion, pure, varied, and unrestrained by vessel or mortal mind. Writ in the hues of many faded colors, those feelings swept back and forth between them. They scattered in harmless drifting waves. As vigilant as she was, Celestine would notice his gaze upon her--though it was eyeless and thus quite vague. There was an intensity to it, one which at the very least matched that of Thaa's.

Satisfied, its intent withdrew, and once more it let words flow upon the air. "I am the Dreaming God," it said, then fell silent so that it might allow her to reply.

The imposing presence of the Dreaming God unnerved Celestine when she turned to face them. Not only did she nearly walk face-first into the swirling void that made up their body but their entirely otherworldly appearance gave Celestine a brief cause for alarm before she recognized that this entity wasn’t hostile. Instincts flared violently before being quenched quickly as Celestine’s rational mind figured things out. Depending on how keenly they were observing Celestine, they might’ve noticed a faint twitch in her left hand as she almost went for the sword hanging upon her right hip. Thankfully her mind was just as fast as her body. The effects of the Dreaming God’s method of speaking were quite perplexing to her, as she noted how she felt their voice rather than merely hearing it. Thaa’s method of speaking through a mountain of corpses was equally perplexing, though at the very least that method still made some amount of reasonable sense within Celestine’s mind.

Her own appearance and the appearance of Cadien had led her to believe that many of her fellow deities would take on more mortal forms, but then her visit to the realm of Thaa had proven that deities were not limited to such an idea, and the being before her pushed that boundary even further. Perhaps she and Cadien were the exception and not the rule? Celestine would have to see about meeting more gods and goddesses before figuring out the truth behind that enigma.

The Dreaming God had the honor of being the second god that Celestine had to look up at in order to properly examine them. The way that they presented themselves was fairly interesting as Celestine noted a mix of both corporeal and incorporeal elements. After a few moments processing what had just happened and the physical appearance of the being before her Celestine remembered her manners and began her usual greeting routine. Grasping at the edges of her cape like one would a skirt, she gave a curtsey and spoke calmly. ”Greetings brother. I am Celestine, Goddess of Soldiery. Did you have something that you wished to speak to me about?”

Standing from her curtsey Celestine smoothed out her cape and awaited a response from the Dreaming God. Perhaps they wanted to speak with her about the notice that she had just posted? It would be awfully convenient to progress her idea while it was fresh within her mind instead of having to recall the information at a later time. Though, naturally, there was only one way to find out for sure.

The air crackled briefly with the sensation of anticipation, before falling once more to the subtle sway of extant emotions as he regarded her once more. Then his awareness expanded and touched the board behind her, and a fleeting sense of amusement would tug faintly at the edges of her mind. It was not an intrusive thing, but merely the evidence of his nearness and the influence of his nature.

As if pondering her query, he responded, each word seeming listless in its timbre.

"Mmn, one could say that such is true, sister-Celestine," then a pause, dragging into silence, as the Presence thought upon its words. In that time of wordless wondering, the emotion-wind began to swirl and churn. They did not seem to completely mirror the Dreaming God's own reflected thoughts but instead began to weave their own tapestry of meaning.

'Wariness,' said the swaying thoughts, twisting about themselves in patterns.

'Trust,' said another gust of wavelengths as they brushed past her hair and ears, coiling away in swirls.

'Awareness,' the third uttered, the sound fluttering like a whispered breath across her skin.

The Presence stirred, seeming to constrict like narrowed eyes. The winds grew quiet once again. Its voice then pressed into her skull and was felt as much as heard, "I glimpsed your essence, sister, as you departed the Death God's realm."

The words were laden full with meaning, weighty in their bulk. They spoke of curiosity unending, a drive to find and learn, and know from the shallow surface to the deeper secrets held hidden far below. The air about the Dreamer shifted, and once again, he spoke.

"Yet," he started, but the rest never came. Instead, a mass of churning insight erupted from his shroud. It writhed about them both until it was all that they could see.

In it were the vaguest shapes of her creations, her children of newborn minds. Beyond these intimations was an Endless Dream--a Subtle Web--through which all living, thinking, things remained connected. It danced and swirled and thrummed with an intensity that few things could match. If she were to look upon him, she'd find his eyes open, no longer hidden from the world.

Black, bottomless cores, plummeting into infinity. Exploding nebulae, dying stars, spread outwards from the darkness of his gaze. There was something bizarre--yet fitting--about the sight. A being of endless knowledge, boundless thought and feeling, yet seeming to always hunger for more. Perhaps it was not a vile emptiness, but merely a sad truth of his nature.

Perhaps.

The veil of color and sensation began to ebb its flow, drifting in many threads to clear the air.

"I would help if you will let me," the Presence said, its words a proclamation.

The presence of the whispered voices unnerved Celestine slightly, especially with their insistence upon touching her as they passed. Unfortunately, such things had to be abided as not all gods took so closely after mortals, and the Dreamer clearly didn’t seem inclined to follow their patterns beyond the slightest degree of acknowledgement. When they mentioned that they had seen her leaving the realm of Thaa, Celestine raised an eyebrow by only a millimeter. Her activity had drawn an observer? How curious. Celestine pondered if more than one being had observed her entering and exiting the realm of Thaa, but such a concern was waylaid promptly as she heard the Dreamer speak once again. However, this was only a single word before something quite concerning happened.

When the mass of churning insight erupted around them, Celestine’s hand was not stopped by her rationality. Her sword was drawn promptly and was raised in a simple single-handed longpoint guard as she found herself surrounded by an unexplained and unexpected event. It was not until she saw the presence of her Virtus Elves within the surrounding mass of churning insight did her focus break from defending herself from possible attack.

As she observed the event and connected the dots about what was being shown Celestine would relax her guard slightly, and then completely as the mass began to dissipate. Gently placing the tip of her sword within her scabbard, Celestine slid it gently back into place with a soft metallic clink. Looking back to the Dreamer, Celestine began to speak. ”Please inform me ahead of time if that is going to happen again. I don’t really enjoy the prospect of spontaneous happenings that may or may not endanger me. Also, I must apologise for going for my sword. It is merely my natural reaction to a potential threat. Moving along, how did you intend to assist me? I will hear out your offer.”

When she finished speaking, Celestine placed her right hand upon the pommel of her sword and her left hand upon her hip. Then she could do naught else but wait to see what The Dreaming God had to say.

Slowly, the eyes of that Dreaming God once more slid shut, hiding their darkness from the world. Considering her response, the Presence constricted his power and rather than express it in great swaths of enveloping experience, it instead became writ in its shroud.

Billowing backwards from the deity of dreams, the grey shroud took on many colors and spread out to take up a wider space behind him. Then, as images of the Virtus elves formed, he spoke.

“A library of experiences, of memories as you say,” he began, his words mirrored in his shrouds, creating images of books and endless shelves all held within a dreaming realm. “This is a thing that I would gladly do.”

“However,” he began, his black-orbs opening as tiny slits, “I would ask of you a simple thing in return.”

He held out a hand, its fingers long and spindly with perhaps too many joints. Nonetheless, there was no threat in the motion.

“Communion, so that I might serve your children better.”

The colors of his shroud grew strangely muted and his black eyes seemed to flash with the vanishing light of dying stars. He awaited her reply with anticipation, hoping she’d agree.

Celestine observed the images of her Virtus Elves within the Dreamer’s cloak for a few moments before turning her attention back to the deity. As they spoke, she began to grow considerate of accepting the offer, but the next thing that they said inserted a splinter into her mind.

”Keep in mind at all times there is always an angle.

Thaa’s advice from earlier was once again made relevant as the Dreamer asked to commune with her. Celestine did not know the extent of a communion that they wanted, nor did she know what else the dreamer might seek to learn other than details about her Virtus Elves. Some parts of her wanted to reject the offer until these details were known, but she also rationalized that doing so would put the entire offer in jeopardy. It would appear that this would have to simply be a risk that she accepted.

Taking a moment to retrieve and crumple the notice that she had put up, Celestine would then grasp the offered hand firmly before speaking with confidence. ”Very well. I accept.”

Vigilance would have to be kept for deception. Hopefully it would not be needed.

So it was that he took her hand and met her gaze. In those black slits was an inscrutable smile.

"I will not harm you," he said, and it was one utterance.

"It is communion," he repeated, and it was three.

Then blindness. An eternity.

Motion.

Across the endless white of her perception, filled once only with her thoughts, shot flashes like lightning writ from pitch. Then thunder without sound. It emanated through her mind, but the world remained silent and far away. Divided.

Slowly, from above and below, from every direction, color crept. None were muted. Each was a single thought, an experience, an emotion. Together they were a tangle, a weave, a river of endless currents.

They flowed inwards, eclipsing at first the blinding white, then her as well.

His hand tightened, as if to anchor her, but its touch was gentle. A rising sensation entered her body, and it was as if she expanded outwards. Perhaps she might recall the time when her mind had swept over Galbar, or that tractless eternity before her current self.

Lifeblood's Warmth. The womb of gods. Oblivion. Eternity. The Origin.

A whisper dripped between her thoughts.

It had a dark texture. Like gritty tar. Like viscous fluid; congealed blood. Then smoke: ethereal, untouchable, yet choking.

The feeling passed.

With a suddenness the world realigned and though everything was different, nothing had changed.

Except her.

"I am Os-fhireach," proclaimed a voice--was it his...or hers?

"I am Neo-Aicheil," he repeated.

"I am Aicheil," they replied.

Yet, there was something else. There were more facets within the endless gem of that boundless dreaming god. Among them was another pattern, hiding. Its tendrils were a pulsing network of creeping black, coiling and skittering through it all.

Mhaireann, the pattern said.

For a moment there would be no thought, only the churning mass of emotion and experience--every idea that was and could be, every possibility that mortals had lived...might live...were living. Then all was revealed. The pattern's motion became clear to her and her to it.

She was a lattice, a structure of order and of logic. A machine made to bind a sleeping beast, which lay beneath a well of coiled intimate emotion. It was a thing of beauty and it became imprinted upon his mind. Yet, she did not lose it, for that control was her anchor, that lattice was her mind. It was her way.

He withdrew his hand and the tapestry of thought--the pattern of consciousness, perhaps even existence--vanished in a flash. Left behind were fear and confusion and perhaps awe or loss. The Presence retreated a step, giving her space. Though he did not breathe, something about him seemed...briefly overwhelmed, before it swiftly became more solid.

Where the veins of power about his lidded eyes had once pulsed black, now they flowed with silver light. His form had shifted, it appeared somehow more regal now. A crown of stars drifted above his head, his shroud billowed out, as if driven by a constant unseen wind. There was a new solidity to him.

He opened his eyes, those endless pits, and gazed upon her form. Knowing it. Knowing her.

Unthreatening, he raised a many-jointed hand and plucked the image of an elf directly from his shroud, drawing it before him. He waited, observing.

Communion’s effects were frightening at first, with the white nothingness leading to think that she had been deceived. Tricked into some kind of prison where her divinity could be drained until she was no more. The lightning hewn from black pitch did not assist her concern over the unfolding events, as she had no perception of the flow of time within this snowy void.

As more colors began to spread across the void she began to relax and trust more in the assurance that she would not be harmed. As the flow of colors and sensations eclipsed Celestine she pondered once again if she had been duped, but those thoughts were set aside as she began to feel similar sensations as to her first moments of individual thought. This was certainly a strange sensation, as these moments were still relatively fresh within her mind as she hadn’t been parted from the lifeblood for nearly as long as some of the other gods that she had met.

As things shifted once again she began to feel an encroaching presence within her thoughts. Set upon edge once more, Celestine nearly raised her mental defenses to the fullest when she heard a duo of voices begin to speak. Upon hearing the names of this duo, things began to make more sense. The Dreaming God was not merely one mind like she herself was, but two. Now the various displays and oddities began to click together in her head as her understanding grew. As she studied the presences before her, Celestine’s divine senses began to lead her to believe that there were possibly more than two minds within the Dreamer, but anything beyond the voices that she was hearing was simply too nebulous to properly see.

A few moments later she was greeted with what seemed to be a projection of the structure of her own mind. Perhaps this had been what the Dreamer had been seeking. To understand just how Celestine’s mind functioned. Given what she saw before her now she rationalized that he had come to understand it. Perhaps this was the ultimate goal of the twin minds of the Dreamer? To figure out how the minds of individually minded gods so that they could unify as one? Celestine figured that it was not her place to know this, and thus dismissed the possibility lest it come to cloud her perception of events in front of her.

As the communion ended, Celestine found herself grounded in Antiquity once more. A peaceful feeling flowed across her mind as she was once again comprehending things in the manner that she was used to. Taking a moment to make sure that her faculties were in order once again, Celestine turned her attention back to the Dreamer once she was done. It was now that she noted that their features had changed slightly, likely a reflection of the understanding they had gained from the communion. Deciding to avoid commenting on it, Celestine merely waited to see what would happen.

It was then that the Dreamer drew forth the form of an elf from their shroud. Celestine was curious as to what they might be thinking, and since they seemed to be paused in their actions Celestine decided to speak in order to try and figure out what they were contemplating. ”Is there something more that you require of me, or are you merely studying the form that my creation has taken?”

A rumbling chuckle shook Antiquity’s stone, its sound vibrating through the bones of her lifeblood form. The Dreamer shook its head and spoke. “We know these, your creations, for they are of you.”

There was a smile in those words and an endless knowledge in the dark voids of those black orbs. “Watch,” he requested, “...listen,” he continued.

The depiction of her child grew in size, though there remained a sense not that it would truly become larger. Then it seemed to grow hazy at the edges before the impression spread throughout. In an instant, something else snapped into focus, a complex array that spread from the skull of the depiction and outwards into their body. It pulsed with awareness and that pulse would tell her of what she now bore witness.

It was the mind of her child, or at least as their minds were.

Like swirling prismatic lanterns, condensed down to pinpricks, two minuscule glowing pupils shown from within the endless dark of the Dreaming God’s visage, meeting her gaze. Almost unbidden--though far less intense--a remembrance would come upon her. Her own observation of Galbar, her awareness moving through it. Then, it would be as if the physical layer of that world were peeled back and behind it were another place. A landscape of thought. An ocean of experience. Consciousness.

“The Endless Dream,” they said, and it was impossible to say which of the many Dreamers spoke the words.

Then, as if summoned, an image of that flowing tapestry of minds became visible around the depiction of her child. They seemed as if held apart from it. With an effort of will like a great storm breathing out its first torrent of rain--like a black-grey cloud unleashing branching tines of lightning in an instant--the divide vanished.

The mind of his depiction shifted from its natural silver hue to something else. It was as if an essence like the sheen on oil had been woven into its like, intermingling with it and attuning.

Then, the Dream itself shifted, and images of endless halls--endless shelves, endless knowledge from her people--would rise into her awareness as they flashed into her mind. The figure before them, the elf, held in its hands a great tome. Somehow, that weight of pages was itself a library.

“These things to your people I will give, if it pleases you.”

Lights rippled through the pallid greys of his shroud. Like lightning. Like dying stars, like newborn planets. Like flashes of thought writ upon neurons. He closed his eyes and finally the weight of his attention fell away as he awaited her decision.

Celestine heeded the guidance of the Dreaming God and resigned herself to watch as the form before her began to shift and change. She began to grow concerned when the depiction grew hazy, though her attention was drawn to the array that snapped into focus. It did not take her long to connect the dots on what such a thing represented as it pulsed with awareness and thought. Such a method of depicting the mind of her people was interesting to say the least. Celestine couldn’t help but ponder if this depiction was how the Dreamer saw every mind, or just the minds of the Virtus Elves. She pondered asking for a moment, but figured that such a question would lead to too complicated of an answer for her to understand without holding the same unique perspectives that the Dreamer did.

As the minuscule pupils focused in on her eyes they would see that they held a sort of coldness to them. The eyes of someone with a long gaze wrought of steel. As the remembrance of her time spent viewing Galbar came upon her Celestine took heed of the shifting that she was seeing. When the physical layer of Galbar was pulled back to reveal The Endless Dream Celestine’s gaze softened slightly to witness the remarkable creation of what she could only presume to be the god before her. It was clear that a lot of effort had been put into such a creation. Celestine silently hoped that one day the other gods would look upon her creations with the same sort of wonder and appreciation for a long task labored on until it was done.

As the dream and depiction of a Virtus Elf were altered, Celestine pondered what exactly had been changed about it. Did the Dreamer perhaps give her a stable island in the sea of thought? The visions of many library-like halls seemed to depict something of the sort, and the sheen that the depiction had taken on was like a sword that had been oiled. The presence of a great tome was intriguing. Would it possibly be how the library was accessed? Had their minds been shielded or connected in some way? Was this time a sort of gateway into the library that her elves could use? Or perhaps was it something that they could access any information they wanted by simply turning enough pages?

These were questions that needed answers, and thus Celestine began to ask them as the weight of the Dreaming God’s attention fell away. “These gifts please me. How might my people make use of them? Is there a particular method for accessing this library that you had planned? What is your plan for the great tome? And what of the sheen that the representation of their mind has taken on? Does it hold a particular meaning?”

With these questions asked she could do nothing else but wait for an answer.

“Yes,” replied the Dreamer, the word like a pulse that resounded deep within her chest, within the stone, through the air.

“They will be touched by my creation, that Subtle Weave which to you I have revealed,” his shroud gently dispelled the illusion of the elf, which drifted like colored mist, dispersing. Then, swirling like eddies of color, that mist converged, forming the image of a great tome once more. It was perhaps as tall as a man, and certainly wider. With a brief hum like latent electricity, the thing took on substance, shape, before finally it snapped fully into being.

Its pages were pristine white, its covers and spine filled with coiling knotwork, at the center of which stood a sword thrust through a triquetra. The symbols of the two gods brought together.

“The Akashic Gate,” thrummed the Dreamer, his eyes opening for a flash as the Gate took on truest form. He offered it to her, as if it would answer her questions. It just might.

Celestine raised an eyebrow slightly as the book was made whole. When it was offered to her she hesitated for only the briefest of moments before reaching forward to take the book. It was equally as tall as her and quite wide which made trying to manage it a little awkward. As she held it Celestine would examine the book and make note of the layered symbols of the two collaborating gods upon the cover. Giving a nod of approval, she would attempt to open the book to see if there would be anything of note on the inside.

So it was that the book was opened by her hands, its many pages revealed. At first it would seem blank, no matter how many pages she turned, but then just before her patience waned something appeared upon that canvas of white. Images and sensations gently threaded their way into her mind. It was as a Virtus’ life might be, its every experience flowing from the page and into her awareness.

There was a deep impression, ever growing, speaking of many lives--each a different elf.

“As you have felt, so too will your people,” intoned the Dreaming God, his voice a deep-toned hum.

Then, the Endless Dream, the Subtle Weave, the vast threads of the Collective Unconscious made themselves known to her once more. She would move through them, feel them, and find the experiences of those who would become her people. It felt--for a moment--like being lost in the being of another, learning them, coming to understand. The vision faded, but a deeper understanding of their experience--or at least the potential they held--had been instilled within her.

“As you have walked the dream, so too will they. From it, from their people, understanding can be gleaned, skills shared, minds melded.” His voice was itself a swirling miasma of experience, somehow more vivid in that moment than it had been in communion. The sensation passed.

The great tome began to glow, silver and golden outlines limning prismatic designs upon its pages. It drifted from her hands and stood upon its spine, pages spread to their full breadth. At first it was merely luminescent, but soon it grew to a brightness beyond bearing. Then, with a singular flash it was as if the tome became a gate, taking on the purpose of its namesake.

“Through the Gate lies an archive of their making. As you might pass into its pages to that world beyond, so too will they.” Without warning, a hand reached out and with swiftness snapped shut the gate, and once more it became a tome within his hand. He let it stand before her so that she might decide.

As Celestine experienced the sensations provided by the tome her understanding of the Collective Unconscious deepend. As she saw the experiences of the Virtus Elves flow before her she understood the magnitude of the gift that had been given. Giving a few nods to the Dreamers explanation, Celestine reached out once more to take the tome from the Dreamer, speaking as she did so. ”I understand, Dreamer. I humbly accept these gifts, and will be sure to honor your name as these contributions are used by my people. You have my deepest thanks.”

With that said, Celestine would bow her head briefly to add further weight to the thanks that she was giving.

Bowing his head in kind, giving grace where it was due, the Presence drew back. Though he faced her, his head now raised, he had begun to drift away. As he departed, he left her with these words, “To each child, give a page. The essence of the Gate will bring forth the change that you have seen.”

He turned then, that Dreaming God, and headed for an empty space where a portal had once been. He looked back only once, and though he did not speak, something passed between them and lingered in that realm between.

’Farewell.’

Then a black flash, a rolling silver storm, limned with gold, filled with many hues, and he was gone.

Celestine gave a nod at the final instructions of the Dreaming God. For now she decided to wait until the elves were to be sent to Galbar before fully immersing them in this gift. They did not need it yet. Hefting the tome gently, Celestine carried it into her realm and set it down within her personal chambers.

There it would stay until it was time for it to be put to use.


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Ganisundur

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Rinaas hli Awqar



Both Rinaas and Ganisundur heard it happen - a callous deathsong, as careless as it was thoughtless - and it caused them both to pause. The songstress frowned deeply, her aged beauty gaining a severity of aspect rarely witnessed by her disciples. They had walked then for many days southward until the mountains reared up before them like cliffs from horizon to horizone. We stand here, ye humble things / No further may you walk / So burrow deep or fly on wings / Like earthworms be, or hawks. They were silent as they approached, and Sinhuldo was not happy.

"We are far from home, adi, and there are all kinds of strange creatures here near the mountains." And so Sonhuldo was the first to turn back. They continued through the mountains, follow trails and pathways until they came to a great cavern. Many elves milled around in the shade. They turned their heads towards Fihnoom with distaste. Humelves were not well liked round here. Rinaas spoke with them, asking about routes south.

"Ah, south is it. Have a nose for death and an ear for noise have ye?" One asked in barely legible higher azumai. Rinaas surprised them all by responding in a different tongue, and the elves relaxed and conversed with her for a few minutes.

"They have a caravan heading south, beneath the mountains. We can join it." She told her remaining three disciples.

"This doesn't seem necessary, adi," Girgaah spoke. Fihnoom looked tense beside him, Biruldaan unconcerned.

"We are simply walking, Girgaah. Walking and listening. How can you sing if you don't look and listen?"

"Ah, adi, I had rather look at beautiful dancing forms and listen to sweet nothings." He complained.

"Then go do that." Was her simple response, and she turned away followed one of the elves into the cave and tunnels beyond. Ganisundur followed wordlessly and without hesitation, and Biruldaan followed nonchalantly. Fihnoom glanced to Girgaah, who frowned, pursed his lips, then backed away and turned his back on it all. The humelven woman looked into the darkness of the cave, sighed, then followed after the songstress and the two other disciples.

"To walk in darkness is not like walking in the night." The songstress commented lowly, and no one who heard her understood. It was silent, speech was brief and fleeting. Ropes were important, and touch. Ganisundur remained close to Rinaas, but they were not of those who needed ropes or gentle touches to see one another.

When they emerged into the twilight of a new day, the land the looked upon did not look so different from the one they had left behind. But it sounded different. The deathsong was louder, clearer, taunting and callous. It was not like any other deathsong - those usually sang with purpose, some were triumphant and some filled with honour. Some had within them the sadness of the killer and the killed. But there was none of that here. Rinaas swallowed and trembled, and Ganisundur placed a hand on her shoulder. She smiled at him and nodded wordlessly. Then she walked on ahead, and her three remaining disciples followed.

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Valor

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Recovery 1 - Plea



Year 30AA, spring, Ha-Dûna...

She knew she had riled up for war in the moment, but Boudicca had woken up the morning after that horrid tournament with nothing but regret filling her stomach. Another war, so soon after the first one, too. She hammered her hay mattress furiously. Darragh had really played her, she would admit - she had genuinely thought he had come in peace. To think that it had all a cruel ploy to terrorise and break Ha-Dûna’s morale.

But she would show them just what he had accomplished. Ha-Dûna was the leader of the pack in these lands, and the Cenél had dared to challenge her. Surely, the gods could understand retaliation against such evil. She quickly dressed herself, pulling on her kilt and undershirt, fastening both around her waist with a belt with a bronze buckle. She put on her many talismans and necklaces, donned her tartan plaid and wolfskin cloak and fasted both with each their pin. She would’ve done her hair as well, but her schedule demanded she attend the first war meeting by the second thlénn. She hastened out of her longhouse, greeted quickly whoever she passed by, and walked the short distance from her home to the Ring of the Gods, wherein many druids, théins and gentry already were making their morning routines. Her presence made those kneeling before the first statue on her route speed on their prayer and move on out of respect for their leader and fear of her morning face. Boudicca nodded slowly at their obedience and knelt down. The statue was the newest in the ring, not yet moss-grown and bleached by the sun. Its carvings and paint resembled a woman clad in silvery plates, holding aloft a sword much like Boudicca’s. Her hair was white as chalk, and to Boudicca’s slight chagrin, the artist had forgotten to include the pointed ears she recalled from her vision.

It was Selesta the Champion Knight.

Boudicca heaved a sigh and took off one of her necklaces, holding the string above her head by two fingers on each hand. The necklace held a large medallion of dwarven make, depicting the Stone God Boris between two hammers, a symbol of might. “My most humble greetings to the greatest warrior there ever was, the Champion Knight and my master, Selesta. It is me, your knight and servant Boudicca, thanking you for another safe morning in our city… But we have not been safe of late. As late as yesterday, there was a great calamity in our home, and I humbly ask for counsel. You said once that I could come to you if I needed help - well, now I need help, great goddess. Please, hear my plea.”

As the prayer reached her ears Celestine sat up from the slight slouch that she had eased into over time as she sat upon the throne that overlooked The Longhall. The First Knight calling for aid? Equal parts intriguing and concerning. Taking a page from the book of the Dreaming God Celestine decided to reach out and touch at the mind of Boudicca instead of manifesting an illusion. Boudicca felt a gentle pressure akin to someone placing a helmet upon her head as a connection was made. Shortly thereafter a whisper would enter her mind as Celestine answered the call for aid. Celestine’s telepathic voice carried with it her usual tone of calm authority. ”Ser Boudicca of Ha-Dûna, I hear your plea. What is it that you need guidance on?”

As Celestine waited for an answer, she cast her divine senses out towards Galbar once again. Boudicca felt the pressure lessen slightly as Celestine’s full attention was not on her for a brief moment. It felt a bit odd to look at it now after she had seen The Endless Dream that lay beneath its physical surface. Steeling herself against the intrusive musings, Celestine took a moment to observe the surrounding area, and as she did she took immediate notice that something terrible had happened. People seemed to carry with them a fresh wave of rage and grief. Even Boudicca herself seemed to be affected by whatever turmoil had taken hold.

Turning her attention back to the link that she had with Boudicca’s mind, Celestine asked another question. This time her voice carried the air and tone of a mother looking in upon a sick child. ”My chosen… What has happened here?

“Betrayal, my master - trickery perpetrated by a friend of our people. It was during the tournament we held in your honour - my opponent Hilda, she…” Boudicca’s voice encountered a bump in her throat and it took her a good three seconds to recover. “... She was put under the cruelest of spells. At first, we thought it was the act of gods - that her blasphemous words which she uttered in fatigue and mindlessness were the reason for her punishment. However, we discovered quickly that the perpetrator had escaped in the chaos, killing one of our guards and wounding another on his way out. This is a blatant declaration of war upon my people, and we must prepare. I… I have come to you asking for counsel - how should we proceed?”

As she listened to Boudicca explain her perspective of the events that took place Celestine felt a twinge of regret. Her encounter with the Dreaming God had distracted her immensely with the communion that they had requested. If she hadn’t been thoroughly occupied with it she might’ve noticed. She might’ve been able to intervene…

When Celestine next spoke her voice had shifted again. Now the tone she spoke with was full of regret. ”My chosen, I have failed you. I was occupied with another god and was not able to see such events as they unfolded. If I had been able to see them I would have intervened much sooner. For this, you have my apology.”

Celestine took a moment to remain silent and compose herself before speaking again. She did not wish to take sides in a mortal conflict, as it would be shunning some of the people that she held domain over. However, the person who initiated the curse was not going to be spared such a mercy. They could be punished for disrupting the tournament, which was something that Celestine would not tolerate. Speaking again, Celestine sought more answers. ”You mentioned that the perpetrator escaped? Has anything else happened? Do you know what manner of spell was cast? I may be able to undo its effects if I can find Hilda, though I cannot guarantee that even if the spell is broken she will be able to completely return to what she was.”

Hopefully Boudicca would know. Celestine desperately wanted to aid her chosen in some way after failing her so spectacularly.

But Boudicca shook her head. “We still know very little - our druids are not familiar with the cursed arts of the Cenél, and neither the Bare-Footed Men of Nubveia, the shamans of Mink, the Three-Eyed Mother of Doserung nor the singing sages of the Meike have ever seen anything like this. We have Darragh’s accomplice held captive in the Temple of Truth, but so far, she feigns ignorance - it may well be that Darragh kept her in the dark about his operation to not leave loose ends, but we cannot take that chance.” She heaved a grim sigh. “... Lastly, we have yet to find Hilda’s son, Brian. According to his father, he went down to the ring to see the fight up closer, but we have counted and named the casualties after the uproar - it is as though he ran away from home and never came back.” She shook her head. “We sent a search party out this morning - hopefully, he is hiding somewhere in the plains.”

Back within her realm, Celestine placed a knuckle to her chin as she contemplated how best to try and assist her champion. She had mentioned that Hilda’s son had been missing, and so there was something there that could be done. Turning back to the mental connection that she was maintaining with Boudicca, Celestine began to seek more information. ”You have said that Brian is missing? Do you know how Brian generally appears? If you could paint an image of him in your mind and offer it towards me, I could try and and find the boy.”

Celestine hoped that Brian would be alright. Anything to give Boudicca and the people of Ha-Dûna a moment of hope and respite in the face of the tragedy that had taken place.

“Of course,” the knight responded. “He is as tall as a grown-up ewe, athletic and black of hair like his mother. He has a quiet, stern voice, but his cries are like those of any other child in pain - if he’s hiding, please listen for those. Oh! And he has a birthmark - a spot on his neck shaped like a leaf or a broad feather. The druids say it brings good fortune to display it, so he always wears his shirts loose in the neck. Look for that, if possible.”

Once the description of Brian was given Celestine took a moment to expand her divine senses and look out across Ha-Dûna and the surrounding wilderness. Celestine held the expectation that a child would likely not be one to stray far from the village since they were likely still dependant upon family in some form or another. Accomplishing what would be hours or days of searching in mere moments, Celestine found nothing. Concerned, Celestine expanded the range of her search and looked again, only to find nothing one more. Expanding her search a bit further, Celestine began to grow concerned until she found finally found something that matched the description.

Unfortunately, she did not find him in good condition.

Through their mental connection, Boudicca could feel the swell of sorrow at a task not completed in a way that had been hoped. When Celestine whispered into Boudicca’s mind once more, the goddess’s tone was flat and emotionless. ”My chosen, I have located him… He is dead. He lies upon a rock some distance away from Ha-Dûna. I am sorry.

The message struck the sanndatr like a lightning bolt. “D-dead? Did he fall? Did an animal get him? What direction must we go in to find him?”

Celestine’s voice was beginning to regain some of its normal tone as she spoke again. “He is far to the south, well away from the city. I do not believe an animal did this. His arms and legs are bound. Something is not right. There seems to be another party involved in this.”

Boudicca’s eyes widened. She rose immediately to her feet and turned to a bypassing théin heading home with his family after morning prayer, who stopped and returned a curious frown. “Is something the matter, sanndatr?”

“Gather your band immediately, théin Driod, and ride on elkback southwards. You will eventually find a large stone upon which lays… Lays a corpse.”

“A corpse?!” the théin exclaimed and many around spun to eye them all. Boudicca grit her teeth.

“You are to bring it back here in the most respectful way possible. If you see anyone in the area around the stone, arrest them and bring them to me. Now go! Swiftly!”

“A-at once, sanndatr! Eire, bring the bairns home and wait for me there. Bebinn, come quick, we have orders! Yes, you may finish your prayer!” He bowed swiftly to Boudicca, said “sanndatr,” and hurried off out into the city again. Around the knight, speculating whisper hummed forth like an approaching swarm and the sanndatr grit her teeth harder.

“Sanndatr, what has happened?” came a question.

“We will find out soon, I pray,” she answered curtly, tightened her cloak and plaid around her torso and marched off towards her house. She cast a glance to the sky and whispered, “What if we cannot find his killers? What do we do then?”

A few moments after Boudicca mentioned the possibility of not finding Brian’s killers, she noticed a small glimmering grey object hurtling towards the ground at rapid speeds. Shortly after she noticed it the sphere of white mist would impact harshly into the ground before Boudicca’s home and kick up a great deal of dust. Thankfully the sphere of white mist had avoided impacting her home or any of the people milling about the area. From within this dust one could make out a brief moment where what appeared to be a suit of armor glowed red-hot before rapidly cooling. When the dust settled a figure wearing a great red hooded cloak was standing there. Beneath this cloak was an almost full suit of steel armor which glimmered in the sunlight. Hanging from their right hip was a longsword. A pair of gauntlet covered hands reached up briefly to remove the hood from her head, revealing a face almost identical to the statue of Selesta save for a pair of long and pointed ears.

A few moments after removing her hood, the figure began to speak. ”You will, because I am going to help you. Whatever conflicts that emerge because of this event I cannot lay a hand in, but the blatant disrespect of my tournament will not go unanswered.”

Boudicca stood speechless - as did everyone around. Slowly, she descended to one knee, then to two. The others in the vicinity, as well as an increasing number of people outside the city centre palisades that managed to peer in, came closer and closer to pray on their knees. The druids in the ring hastened over to kneel beside Boudicca, and the knight declared, “Ha-Dûna wishes welcome Estella, daughter of Selesta, the Grand Knight!”

The avatar of Celestine merely stood in silence as the mortals gathered around her. Once Boudicca declared her welcome Celestine began to walk forward gently before kneeling down and placing a hand on Boudicca’s shoulder. Speaking once more, the avatar of Celestine corrected her before making a statement. ”I am no daughter, but an extension of Celestine herself. Rise, my chosen. You do not have to bow to me. If you can delay your riders for a moment, I wish to accompany them and examine things before they are too thoroughly disturbed.”

As she finished, the avatar of Celestine would rise to her feet once more before offering a hand down towards Boudicca to assist her in standing. She took it, albeit very carefully and almost reluctantly and rose up, standing shorter than her which was usual. She pointed at one of the guards who was kneeling in the crowd and shouted, “You! Run to the southern elkyard and find théin Driod! Tell him not to ride out and instead wait for our most esteemed guest.”

The guard nodded quiveringly and sprinted off in a flash.

“There, Master,” said Boudicca. “They will be waiting for you by the South Gate for when you are ready.”

The avatar of Celestine would nod before turning towards the south gate and beginning to walk, likely causing the kneeling audience that her appearance had drawn to part rapidly. As she left, she spoke softly to assure them. ”Your faith in me shall not go unrewarded, people of Ha-Dûna. I will do my best to right the tragedy that took place at the tournament held in my name.”

With that said, she would pick up her pace in order to reach the south gate quickly. Once there, she would speak confidently in order to find the person that she sought. Théin Driod, I have come to both guide you to the location that you are being sent to and to investigate that location for myself. I will be traveling on foot, please try to keep pace or signal if you cannot. When we arrive please hold from approaching too closely, I do not know what else has been done and I will need to see if there is perhaps some trail to be found. Are you ready to depart?”

When she finished speaking, the avatar of Celestine made her way to stand in the opening of the south gate, clearly eager to begin moving.

However, nobody came. Instead, everyone had knelt down to pray upon seeing her - théin Driod himself was busily dismounting to join in. “A holy being is among us! Praise be!”

The avatar of Celestine nearly gave a sigh. She had imagined that the mortals of Galbar would be a bit more used to divine interference given the number of gods that held influence within the world, but perhaps it was not as she had understood. Speaking softly once again, the avatar of Celestine would attempt to redirect them onto the proper course of action. ”Your praise is appreciated, but there is little time to waste. Every moment we delay is a moment that the honored dead lie dishonorably, and the people responsible for insulting not only me and my tournament, but corrupting a member of your people into a monster with magic that is not understood slip further and further away. Please prepare to depart as I mentioned before.”

“Oh! Of course!” The soldiers hastened onto elkback as before. As the riders remounted, the avatar of Celestine would call out a brief instruction before they began to move. ”Riders! Focus upon the red of my cloak to guide you! Signal if you cannot keep up!” With that said she turned towards the south and began to run. With each step the armor she wore clanked and rattled and her red and gold cloak flapped erratically. The avatar of Celestine did her best to avoid completely outpacing the elk riders but her speed and agility were well above what they could accomplish. Ten to twenty minutes into their gallop, they reached the end of the farmlands and entered into the rocky grasslands, where the terrain began to slope upwards. The elks, perfectly adapted to the terrain, gracefully ascended to its top, where they rode past a great rock. One of the riders turned around by chance and yelled,

“W-wait! STOP!” The cohort slowed and turned and the rider pointed. “There! Upon the rock!” Indeed, upon the rock laid a corpse, a small one, with black hair and a large linen shirt. As they rode closer, the théin whispered,

“By the gods… That’s Hilda’s son, Brian.”

When the group arrived by the stone, the avatar of Celestine held up a hand to signal for them to wait. Approaching the rock gingerly she knelt down beside it and began to inspect Brian’s corpse. Making use of the immense sense of smell that her avatar possessed, Celestine did her best to pick up on what lingering smells might’ve been left on Brian himself or the surrounding area.

When she was finished gathering what smells she could, the avatar of Celestine reached up to grip at the cloak that she wore and pulled free an identical copy of it. Gingerly picking up Brian’s corpse, she wrapped it firmly in the cloak before turning to the waiting riders and approaching théin Driod slowly. Holding the bundle up to him she delivered firm instructions. ”Ride carefully back to Ha-Dûna and deliver him to your resting places. Then inform Ser Boudicca that I will not be returning immediately. There are things that I wish to look into here, and they may lead me abroad. I will contact her if I have news. Go!

“Un-understood, Our Goddess!” the théin replied dutifully.

With her final push for them to leave, she would step back from the elk riders in order to grant them space to move properly. Once they were gone, Celestine would turn her attention to the ground and begin to search for any kind of tracks or evidence that may have been left behind.

Hopefully there would be something, or else this effort would be in vain.





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The Cenél stepped out from under the shadow of the forest’s canopy. To Darragh it felt like stepping out of a completely different realm back into the wretchedness of the real world. Behind him, on a highland stag as well, stepped the young woman carrying her gnarled staff. Her raven hair and tanned skin marking her as outsider. Yet somehow she had come attached to Darragh. Part of his retinue.

In front of them was a hill on top of which a single lonethorn grew. The tree had long ago been struck by lightning. Splitting it open, but it failed to kill it. Now the split tree was the mark of the elsewise insignificant hill. In total only five stags walked out of the forest, but throughout the forest, spread laid the Cenél. Ready with both the tithe promised, and bows and arrows should the meeting turn sour.

“We’re early.” Keyleigh said, looking up at the sun and then at the split lonethorn tree.

“Best to be early for dealings like these.” Darragh said. His eyes were affixed on the horizon as they walked up the hill. Trying to see the Čeleviak. The tension felt far too similar to meeting the Dûnans for the first few times. As the hill began to peak, Darragh got his wish: the dark line of an army spreading far to the left and the right. It was an impressive sight, with more soldiers than he had ever seen in one spot - and deathly quiet too. It stood as a silent forest of spears.

Breaking away from the army and stealing Darragh’s attention was a chestnut elk, a massive man riding atop it. He alone approached and mounted the hill, a heavy metal circlet on his head. He wore thick quilted clothes dyed red, and had a dark black cloak thrown over his left shoulder. In short time the tall man was already at the meeting tree, dismounting. Keyleigh grinned from atop her stag. “He’s ambitious.”

“He is.” Darragh said as he dismounted as well. He tasted something bitter in his mouth. Still he walked up towards the tree. Alone as well. “Hail Jjonveyo of the Čeleviak.” He said as hit his own chest with a fist.

An immensely thick accent rumbled from Jjonveyo, "I am glad we are speaking." He mimicked Darragh's salute. Reaching under his cloak, Jjonveyo procured a copper flask, corked. Without explaining it, he continued, "I apologize for bringing an army behind me; your message found me already marching - though if this meeting goes as we both want - you have no need to fear your own army, or shall I say 'our'."

Darragh faked a smirk. Though it confirmed both his greatest fear and deepest joy. The Čeleviak were already marching for Ha-Dûna. A lesser leader would’ve offered the tithe and started marching with him. “Before we start saying ‘our’, I need to ask you a question first. Why are you marching for the Dûnans? They’re blessed by the gods. Many times over.”

"So are we," Jjonveyo said simply, "but what's more, is we are marching for a better life for all; to end suffering in this life through unity and charity. The Dûnans stand in the way of this great reform."

They weren’t the same words but they carried the same sentiment. Boudicca had almost told him the same. No more suffering. Unity. Charity. That charity now paid a tithe and an ally in a time of war. Life and time had suddenly turned into a very small wheel. For a second Darragh looked behind him. Towards the four other stag riders and the forest beyond. Which itself became part of a greater woods which housed the Cenél. Last time he accepted those words, war followed less than five years after. Yet the same words kept floating in his mind. You don’t have a choice. His people were already spread too thin.

For a while he kept quiet. Weighing options. Feeling out ideas. “I offer half the tithe.” He finally said as he turned to face Jjonveyo. “In return to let us keep the other half I offer up myself and the Fakir for your war.”

Jjonveyo sniffed and slowly, very slowly, sat down onto the grass. He placed the flask in a gnarled tuft to keep it standing and looked up at Darragh. "Sit with me."

Darragh did as bid and sat down. Keeping a distance that might be seen as either respectful or safe. Jjonveyo kept his stoic feature, but something in his eyes glistened approval. His voice grew low, as if the words were meant just for Darragh, "Why are you offering me a tithe?"

“We’re not deaf. We know what you ask from your subjects. Those who don’t, get the rod.” And the Cenél weren’t in a position to get the rod.

"So you are my subject?" Jjonveyo raised a brow.

"As hard as it might be to believe, some in this world know their place in it.” Darragh said.

"Then that makes me your Tsar," Jjonveyo lifted the flask, "and the Cenél, Celeviak." He pulled the cork from the flask, "Keep your tithe this season, use it to enrich your people so you may give a full tithe next season. You are the Tsardom, every appendage must be well." He offered the open flask to Darragh, "And as yTsar I request that you and your Fakir do accompany the march west."

Generous or pragmatic? The question stayed on Darragh’s tongue but he never uttered it. They’d find out soon enough. Darragh took the flask and took a swig. He wasn’t a stranger to the beverage. Some years ago – something that felt like a lifetime ago – the two people used to trade. He handed it back to Jjonveyo. Who sealed the deal with a drink of his own.

“The Fakir you will have.” He said. His words gaining an edge. “But you always had me.” The fire he hid in his eyes shined through now. This was personal for him. “You’ll always have me if you promise me one thing.”

"Speak your wish," Jjonveyo commanded.

For a second Darragh remained quiet, looking the ground. Clearly going over the words. Then finally he looked up. His eyes intense, yet his body calm. “No mercy. No peace.” he said, his voice that of Ynea, the ice-queen herself. “Thirty years ago I cast my vote to spare them when they were still small.” Now look where that got me. “I chose peace after their civil war again. Now I’m sitting here.” Selling my people so they could survive. “They’ve done enough to this land. To my people.” And to my apprentice. “I come with you if you promise to raze Ha-Dûna to the ground.”

Jjonveyo rolled his jaw, eyes dark and calculating. After a pregnant pause he spoke, "No." It was a simple reply, "It is not the way of the Celeviak to make oaths they are unsure if they can keep. Those who stand in the way of the Tsardom will perish, though I take no joy in massacre and give life to the deserving." He paused, and began to stand up, "You are the leader of this Boyardom of the Celeviak Nation, you must set an example away from blind anger. Fear, sure - punishment, of course - I as any leader will not spare those deserving of it, but I shall not mark a soul I have yet to discover as one way or the other." He paused again as he now stood tall, voice grim, "And know that your wish is possible many times over and has been granted to those who have stood in the way -- this is why I do not agree lightly."

The Fakir and now Boyar remained sitting. It was a mistake, to refuse it. Darragh was already thinking about the war that would come after again. The third one. Would he still be around to see it happen? Would he want to? “Then I will make my peace with that, my Tsar.” He finally said as he rose up as well and looked straight into Jjonveyo’s eyes. “And I’ll sate my thirst on the blood that we can spill.” It wouldn’t be enough but it would be a start. In truth Darragh had no real interest in leading his people after the war. Malgog remained silent to him but Ynea’s whispers were upon him.

“My people will start joining you in the next few days. Look for stagriders coming for the forests.” With those words Darragh extended his hand towards Jjonveyo. The Tsar gripped it, his hand rocky with callousness.

"Good." Jjonveyo said, "Ha-Dûna will capitulate be it under a new name or fire. Then, let a new covenant with the gods be struck in its place." He released Darragh's hand, "I will see your riders shortly." The Tsar began to turn back to his army.



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The Eastern Front


In the valley of Karalieuski, an army of round shielded axemen stood opposite the Eastern army of the Čeleviak Tsardom. The scene was quiet, and if not for the occasional chatter of metal idly moving, it wouldn’t seem like a battlefield at all. Lazy clouds drifted overhead and even songbirds peeped louder than the armies. A uncaring wind snaked through the warriors and soldiers, apathetic to politics or war.

The scene was broken as the lines split, a single entity coming from either side. From the side of the Karalieuski axemen, came an elderly man with a long white beard and the muscular vigor of a man twenty years younger. His body was tightly wrapped in bronze chains and cured leather, giving him the look of an armadillo. His opposite, the entity from the Čeleviak army, was a much younger man who stood a whole head taller. He had the dark features of his older brother, but a crooked smile unlike Jjonveyo’s stoicism. In his hand he held a long spear that ended with a wavy bronzen blade and sharp point.

“Demtri of the Čeleviak,” The old Karalieuski man greeted, eyes on the spear.

“Siabar of the Karalieuski,” Demtri tipped his head.

“I had heard of your brother’s reforms, but I didn’t expect to see one of the Fangs of the Snake at my doorstep so soon.” Siabar admitted. His eyes trailed the weapon, “Speaking of, is this the Tongue of Thaa?”

“The very same,” Demtri tipped the spear proudly.

Siabar exhaled sharply, something between a scoff and a laugh, “Well I can’t help but admit that your father would be proud to see it in your hands, prouder still of you and your brother’s ambitions.”

Demtri faked a bashful face, “And of Siabar?”

“I heard the demands of the reforms, the purposes and ambitions of it all,” Siabar sniffed. “What it entails...” He lifted his axe from his belt loop and held it high. Demtri kept his eye on it as Siabar tossed it into the dirt below, blade first. “The Karalieuski have seen it as righteous and offer our allegiance freely.”

“Then by the power of the Tsar,” Demtri tipped his head, “I name you brother, Boyar, and my equal. May the Boyardom of Karalieuski prosper.”




“We got them now!” Vorah of the northern valley tribes shouted, his rowdy band of warriors cheering loudly. In front of them, a small detachment of Čeleviak spearmen stand wedged between their berserkers and the thick trees of the approaching forest. On either side of the armies stood the arms of the forest, putting the groups on a peninsula of field, the northern valley tribesmen blocking any escape for the spearmen.

A Čeleviak soldier wearing a strange golden mane on his helmet turned to the warriors in the distance and shouted something in Čeleviak that Vorah recognized:

“ANVIL!”

A loud “HOOAH!” sounded as the Čeleviak spearmen faced the warriors and packed in tight, spears leveled. The tight formation spread to cover the length of the field.

“SAW!”

“HOOAH!”

Every other spearman dropped a pace back, giving the line a serrated edge. Vorah’s eyes widened in confusion, then the rumbling behind him tipped him off to what was going on. The warriors of the northern valley began to shout in fear, a devastating horde of elk riders pounding down towards them. Demtri lead the charge, the Tongue of Thaa leveled as a lance. Panicking, the warriors began to scatter, breaking formation - but they had nowhere to go.

With an incredible smash, the Čeleviak cavalry slammed into the mob. Screams and warcries split the air as mists of blood permeated the scene. Those who stood in the way of the elks were trampled and cut down, those who tried to run were impaled on the wall of spears. Vorah stood in complete shock as he watched his resistance fall to slaughter around him, only when he saw an elk riding right at him did he snap back too.

Demtri was already half off his mount as he approached Vorah, leaping off the moving creature and towards his victim. Vorah managed to duck under the lunge just in time, but it was punished as Demtri landed square on his feet, spear twirling under arm - smacking Vorah with the butt. Another swing, the pole of the spear smashing into his throat, then another as the long reach tripped him -- the cold earth below catching Vorah. In a moment it was all over, the Tongue of Thaa thrusting into his chest and poking into the soil behind -- a quiet prayer to Thaa spilling from Demtri and onto his fallen foe.

The Northern Valley tribes have fallen.




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Lord Zee There must always be... A Zee

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A Garden of Doubt


Chapter IV - Loss of Heart





He did not dream. Instead, Zayd woke with a jolt, feeling a mix of betrayal and sadness. He looked around but she was gone. Not even the coals of the fire were smoldering. How long had he been asleep? Zayd got to his feet, moving his arms in a circle and stretching them out. He was amazed that they felt fine, maybe a little sore but by all accounts he should have lost them. Even his chest… Where was his shirt?

After a quick sweep, he found his belongings and… A small pile of berries. He frowned and then his stomach grumbled. He was hungry, and thirsty. Not one to let food go to waste, he took the berries and began to eat them as he looked for the old sword. He found it sitting against the rock wall, still coated with black blood. He touched it, feeling the dry texture and how smooth it was. There was something very strange to it, unnatural as the beasts had been. He looked around for their corpses but could only find two black spots on the ground. Had they burned away to nothing?

He shook his head and made the for exit. A cool breeze was blowing the scent of early spring, that wonderful aroma of budding flowers and growing grasses. The light was near midday, just enough for him to cover his eyes so that they might adjust. Had the light always been so blinding, he wondered, stepping out and making his way up the vines. He would need to get home quickly, as he was sure his family were worried for him and he did not know for how long he had been sleeping.

Once he reached the top he finished off the last of the berries and made a quick stop at a nearby stream to drink some of the water. It was pleasant and he drank his fill, washing his face of grime and dirt before continuing on. He tied the sword to his cloth belt, the weight of it alien against his leg at first but that feeling disappeared as he made his way on.

The trip let his thoughts wander back to the plant girl. That kiss… He didn’t even know her name, which was unfortunate. He would have liked to know, or maybe to have seen that smile again but she was gone and Zayd had a feeling he would not see her again. Perhaps it was for the best, perhaps it wasn’t- he still felt guilty all the same. Like he could have done more for her. Shown her the land, given her another hiding spot, kept her company…

He shook his head. He was getting ahead of himself, fantasizing about what never would be. No, it would just be a story that he could not tell anyone about. Not his family, not his future wife, not his future kids. Not even grandkids. Partly because he couldn’t speak and for the fact he felt as if something like that got out, it could cause trouble. She was being hunted by something. Those demons… They were not natural, they were not of Oraliyah or the gods. What could have even wanted her?

It made him angry to even think about it. He couldn’t do anything to help her. She would just fade from his memory. Like a forgotten dream, wanting to be remembered, so desperately. No! He would not forget her, he could not forget what she did for him. Never.

At least the forest was lively.

Zayd cleared the woods as he tightened his resolve of that smile of hers, the memory of his savior’s kiss. He would remember it and think fondly of her. As he continued on, his eyes caught the open fields of his home and… Smoke on the horizon. A great plume of it, thick and dark. Why were they having a fire that large, at this hour?

Unless… Oh no!

Zayd broke into a sprint, letting the wind whip through his hair. His earlier fears washed away in a torrent of like a raging river, unleashed by this new fear. This ever growing thing that threatened to consume him forever. He had been a fool! If those demons had found him then what’s to say they wouldn’t have found his home!

His lungs felt like they were going to burst, like he was going to pass out. He was pushing himself too much, too soon but what else was there to do? He ran and ran and as he approached, he was welcomed by horrors. The fields were burned out, their livestock was slaughtered or missing and the smell of death was pungent. It made him want to vomit and he almost did but he sucked it down and pushed on, slower now. He was shaking, he couldn’t even call out to see if anyone was there. Not that he could hear anything but the crackling of wood.

As he stepped onto the long, well worn path to the homestead, he found it was littered with dried blood, broken pots, splintered wood, tattered clothes and burned out fires. He spotted several black spots, the same as were in the cave and he felt his spine shiver. He took out his copper sword, trembling within his grasp. This was his home, it shouldn’t- it couldn’t look like this.

As he approached the homestead proper, his heart grew heavy at the amount of destruction. The first few houses, his uncles houses, were completely burned to ash and timbers as he walked up into the center. It was then his eyes caught sight of something closer towards the middle. He didn’t know what he was looking at first but his mind began to put the pieces together as he drew closer, like his mother when she would sow. Slow but always coming toge-

He threw up.

The pungent smell of berries clouding his senses as tears filled his vision.

Before him, suspended by pikes of wood through their throats and stomachs, was his father and uncles. At their feet lay a pile of pale corpses. His boy cousins, around his age and a bit younger, perhaps older. A few of his aunts and girl cousins were there as well. Stripped naked, bodies clawed, some chewed to pieces and others with their throats slit. All with vague eyes, open and cloudy, looks of pain and fear. Of ending.

Zayd couldn’t breath. He felt like he was choking. He wretched again in his panic, then dry heaved until he gasped for air. When he at last caught his breath, he rebounded and ran off, stumbling in the direction of his home.

He found it. The roof was caved in, and the doorway was little more than just a gaping hole. He worked his way inside, shuffling around the debris and moving them when he could. The family room was broken apart, like the wind had come and blown everything to one side. He pushed on, towards the sleeping room and found a great amount of dried blood there. It coated one wall and the floor, staining sheets, pillows, and blankets that dark crimson color of suffering. He fell to his knees, then tossed his sword at a wall. It clanged and hit the dirt floor with a thud. Zayd then gripped his head and shut his eyes, wishing to wake up from the nightmare.




With the last body wrapped, and carefully laid on the pyre with the others, Zayd cast a torch and let his family rest. Nothing was really the same. He barely ate, barely drank- just went on with his motions. Preparing the dead for the fire, keeping the birds away, dealing with the smell, the bloating, the warmer days.

Time didn’t really matter to him, for he felt nothing. And if one did not feel, then why would one care?

He did what any good man would do, what was expected of him. He should have buried them but the stink was attracting too many animals. They would not eat and defile these corpses, no. Thus he burned them and as he watched, fire reflecting in his hazy eyes, Zayd knew not what to do next.

He did not find any others in his family. His mother, brothers, sisters. They were missing and so were most of his younger cousins and his aunts. Who would have taken them? Slavers? No… Even slavers were not that cruel and this land was free, protected by… Where were the soldiers of the Hash’Lahan? Of Artikulah? The curious eyes of the passersby? The Coven of Omun?

Where was his help? Where was any help? Why did no one save them… Why didn’t he save them? Because he ran away… Like a coward unable to accept responsibility. His father was right. He was no soldier. He would be no great warrior. His dream of bringing honor to himself and his family were burning right before him. He remembered her smile and he paused where he stood, looking out over to distant lands. His shoulders slumped and he grimaced. He was not worthy of that smile. For he who could not protect his family from wolves, deserved nothing. For he was nothing. He was worthless, a leech that persisted on despite knowing it should be dead.

With staggered feet, he began to withdraw from the fire, walking back to his home. His gaze could not stomach looking at anything around him. The broken houses bringing forth the memories of better times. Now there was nothing but pain here, that was the only truth he knew. Pain and the memories of better times. A constant reminder. He didn’t want to stay but where would he go? This was all he had known.

There was really only one thing left for a person that had brought shame, dishonor, and failure to his own name. He walked past his home and fell upon his knees in the tall grass. He pulled his father’s dagger from his belt and looked upon it. It was one sided, long as his hand and tarnished. Zayd had found it in the house, unused but well kept.

Now, it would be used.

He looked up at the sky, tears beginning to fall down his face. He hoped his family would forgive him. He hoped they would not suffer at the hands of fate. His hands were calm as he brought the blade to his neck and pressed the bladed side to his throat. He thought of his savior and hoped that she would find her way. He felt something hot trickle down his throat as he closed his eyes, breathing deep and prepared a fitting end for the coward he was.

He thought of a memory, he wanted to think of his savior as the last thing he saw but instead, he remembered a time when his baba was still alive. Down at the river, where he was teaching Zayd how to fish. It had been right after he lost his tongue and his spirits had faltered. Baba told him with kind eyes, “Zayd, you must not let this take your spirit. Remember this always, what we lose, makes us stronger. In ways that might not be seen by the naked eye, or known by the mind but,” He had poked Zayd in the chest, “What is felt by the heart.”

Zayd snapped his eyes open and the blade slipped from his fingers, landing in the grass before him. He heaved, and placed his head on the grass as he cried again. What was he doing? Why was he giving up so easily? He had family out there somewhere, afraid and alone and he was just going to kill himself? He would die trying but he would find them and he would bring justice to this senseless act. He had to. It was the only thing that ushered in a new purpo-

“Are you alright?”

The voice startled Zayd and he shot up. A man stood before him, gripping tight to the reigns of a massive bird. A terrakin! It’s body was sleek, kept up by two powerful legs with great talons. It’s neck rose up above them, leading to a large crushing beak and rows of red and yellow crest feathers. It looked on edge and the man too, looked uneasy. This man, who wore an old brown shirt and tan pants. Black beard, tinged with silver, large and bushy upon a slim face with high cheekbones and inquisitive eyes. He wore a cap of black upon his bald head.
“Are you hurt? What happened here?” He asked, standing still.

Zayd got to his feet, leaving the dagger on the ground. He looked over his shoulder and then back to the man and shook his head. He then pointed to his throat and opened his mouth to show him.

The man gave a thin frown in return. The kind his father had given him when he had been disappointed. It was both comforting and humiliating. “I noticed the smoke a day ago. Then a new fire this morning. Was this place your home?”

Zayd nodded as his face twisted with emotion. Then he placed his hands atop his head and paced back and forth. It had been his home, now it was just broken wood and embers.

The man looked past him, then back to him with a slow nod. “There are strange things happening in this land. Tales of mass death and blood sacrifices.” He shook his head. “Ah, I should not trouble you further. Come on then. By Oraliyah’s light I won’t leave you here by yourself. You look starved boy and these nights, one can never be too careful alone. I have a home half a day’s journey away from here, if we leave now, we might make it before dark.”

Zayd breathed through his nose, and looked back at his home. He steeled himself, this would not be the end. He would return with those he could save, no matter what. For now, the man’s invitation would be enough. He would get his strength back and rest, then his journey would begin.

He turned back and nodded, picking up his dagger and putting it in his belt. That was all he needed.

“Have you ever ridden on a terrakin before?” the man asked as he approached. Zayd eyed the bird and it eyes him back and he shrank, quickly shaking his head. “Not to worry, old Itern is calm. Calmer than most, at least. Let me help you up.”

After a bit of reprehension, Zayd was on the bird, sitting closest to its neck. He didn’t know where to grab so he wrapped his arms around its neck. The bird’s head came down and with a mighty clack, it startled Zayd enough and he almost fell off if not for the man steadying him. He chuckled aloud. “Itern doesn’t like constriction around his neck. Grab on to the larger feathers in front of you and hold on. Terrakin are quick.”

Once Zayd had done that, he peered over his shoulder at the man. “No sense in waiting then. Itern! Home!” At once, the terrakin lurched forward and with mighty leaps, as if it was more flying then running, they were off. Zayd shut his eyes tight, holding on for dear life as the man laughed deep behind him.

“The name’s Nadir, by the way.” he shouted over the wind. “And you are most safe now.”




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Aching Conscious; Homeward Bound


Scawick, summer of 30AA...

Burud and Murtagh had walked homewards largely in silence. Many times, Burud had tried to convince his companion that their victory was a great one - that Ha-Dûna had been wounded in a way that no other enemy of theirs had wounded them before; however, Murtagh had never answered him - in fact, he hadn’t said a single word since that fateful day. Eventually, Burud had lost interest, and the two had slept under the stars with contentious distance between their bed rolls, their once-powerful brotherhood breaking into smaller and smaller pieces by the day. By the time they could see the village, they weren’t walking beside one another anymore - in fact, Burud had a fifteen minute lead. He lifted his hands over his head upon seeing the village people, shouting from the top of his lungs,

“I’m HOME, Scawick! We did it! We triumphed!”

Scawick for the most part looked much like it had when Burud and Murtagh had left… through there were some rather noticeable differences. What had been a small blacksmithing forge just large enough to handle the odd piece of metal work that had to be done had clearly been expanded, alongside the construction of what seemed to be a second forge.

The addition of this change would be easy to see as the guard that met Burud was wearing a set of armor made out of an unknown greyish metal that covered their chest that looked almost like fish scales in design. He even had a spear in hand tipped with a point made of the same grey metal. In fact, having a closer look around would reveal plenty of examples of tools made of the strange substance being carried and used for a variety of tasks by many of his fellow villagers.

The guard boy, young Ragni, beamed at Burud as he stood to attention. “Burud! Where have you been?! So much has happened lately and…” He paused for a moment as he looked around in slight concern as he asked “Where’s Murtagh? I thought you were traveling together.”

“Where’s Murtagh?!” shouted Burud. “I’m more interested in what’s happened here! Did I take a wrong turn somewhere?” He eyed Ragni up and down, the outfit clearly impressing him deeply. “My, oh my, did a trading caravan from the south come and gift you all this precious metal? What in the gods’ name…” He reached out and gently tried to squeeze at his studded leather shoulderpad.

Ragni seemed to be infused with a mixture of pride and slight embarrassment at having the older man squeezing his shoulder to test the leather out. “Oh no! No traders! After you and Murtagh left, Master Hamaar arrived as a messenger of Droka, the craftsdragon and master of metal! Hamaar took the blacksmiths, their students and a bunch of other students from those who hadn’t quite found their calling yet and taught them all how to work Iron!” There was actually a bit more pride and excitement in his voice as he tapped his chest. “That’s what this stuff is. We’re the first people in Westfold and beyond to be taught how to work it!”

The excitement… faded slightly as Ragni noticed something off. Namely, he finally looked at Burud’s hands… and noticed the lack of a finger. “What happened to your hand?” He asked, his excitement prior making the graveness in his tone all the easier to hear in contrast.

The older man eyed his hand briefly and hid it behind his back. “Oh, never mind that. How long’ve you got left of your shift? I’ve been missing aunt Leitha’s oat and onion porridge. Meet me there when you can!” He clapped him supportively on the shoulder and began walking away.

“Oh, I’ve got a little while to go yet.” Ragni answered, trying to get some of that pep back into his voice but… there clearly being something weighing on his mind as he watched Burud walk away. He didn’t leave his post or alert anyone to his private thoughts just yet through; After all, the message from Droka and the blacksmiths had been clear that there was a pair of people who would arrive in Scawick, not a singular man. So it couldn’t have been Burud, right?

Merely five minutes later, another figure appeared on the horizon - visibly ragged and beaten by weeks of sleeping in nature. His hair and beard were rough and unkempt, and his every step seemed to stagger him.

Ragni had still been at his post, so he clearly saw the figure approaching. It took a few moments to figure out exactly who it was, but figuring that with Burud having recently returned he could take a guess that this was “Murtagh? You look terrible.” Leaving his post in order to walk up to the staggered man, he wordlessly tried to slide himself under one of the larger man’s arms to help steady him.

The man looked up at him with dead eyes. Then, wordlessly, he started crying, collapsing forward and landing at Ragni’s feet, weeping into the ground while grabbing weakly at his ankles.

Looking down at the larger man, Ragni was completely confused… before his gaze fell on Murtagh’s hands. A finger was missing… and a chill went down his spine. It was a harsh thing to witness, as the message from Droka had come true and the meaning behind it was clear to see but… this was not the actions of a man who had done such a vile act as Droka had shared willingly.

Gulping heavily, feeling the need to confirm his deepest fears, Ragni softly asked “Murtagh… what did you and Burud do?”

“Please…” he wept. “Please forgive us…” He lifted his hands in surrender, and surely enough, the right ring finger was missing. “Forgive us…”

………………………………………………….

The Hammers of the Dragon had been expecting resistance when the men called out by Droka had arrived. This was not the case. Murtagh proved easy enough to bring before them without complaint or issue. Burud’s presence was also easy to get, if only because they had politely asked him to come so they could hear about his adventures and they could let him know about what changes in the village of Scawick had happened in his absence.

The two men were not kept in the same room, with Murtagh being offered the room that Hamaar had been using during his stay while the Hammers had decided that the best place to question Burud was in his own home. They did not let on that they were questioning Burud about anything beyond his trip; The remorse that Murtagh had clearly expressed over their actions had tempered the anger that had been created by the original revelation of their sins, and thus the Hammers had quietly agreed to let Burud have the same chance to come clean and express remorse.

So with a flask of beer offered to the ‘returning hero’, Annul and Rigna took their seats at the table as Rigna asked “So what was this triumph you were boosting about when you arrived? We had to have a healer look Murtagh over when he arrived because he looked pretty out of sorts.”

“He lacks resolve, is all,” mumbled Burud and accepted the flask and gave it a sip. He collected his hands around its neck and leaned forward onto elbows. “He’s been like this for a few weeks, letting himself be eaten by guilt over something no man should ever feel guilty for.”

Annul had always been a large boy and had grown into a large man, but when Burud had left he had still been an apprentice rather than a fully recognized blacksmith in his own right. His hair covered arms shifted slightly as he moved to make himself a bit more comfortable with his elbows on the table, a mug of beer resting for a moment as he asked “And what would that be exactly?”

Burud gave him a stern look. “Vengeance, my boy; making them pay for what they did to us, for all they’ve done to us.” He sipped the bottle again. “Murtagh couldn’t see further than the tip of his own nose, and now he’s lost as he tries to escape what he did rather than accept it.” He flexed his missing finger. “This, my boy - this was the cost of revenge for our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters who all died that winter after the filthy Dunnies sacked our home. A small price.”

For a moment, there was nothing but silence from Annul and Rigna… until at last Rigna cleared his throat and pointed out rather pointedly, with a small degree of heat in his tone “You seem rather evasive as to what exactly it is you both did… and why it cost you both a finger. What did you do Burud?”

Clicking his tongue, Burud took another sip. “Have you two ever heard of Resla the Gray?”

Rigan glanced at Annul for a moment… before answering in a somewhat vague manner “I’ve heard stories… old tales.” and letting Burud continue.

“Yeah, you probably have. They’re all true - I know that now after having found her and met her… The natives in this area telling of the time she gave ancient chiefs terrible plagues or made parasites infest the game and wildlife to no one could eat - it’s all real. So we asked her to curse that most evil bitch, the Leoness… And by the gods, did she deliver.” He chuckled coldly and had yet another sip.

There was a moment. As Burud chuckled and drank where Annul and Rigan looked at each other again in silence. If Burud bothered to listen, he would have heard the creaking as Rigan’s grip on his mug tightened. Rigan had clearly heard enough as the words he spoke next were infused with a cold, seething fury. “And all your revenge cost you was a young boy and Scawick’s future.”

“Scawick’s future? We -saved- Scawick!” The man grit his teeth and smashed the flask to the floor, shards flying everywhere. “We were the ONLY ones who dared take the fight to them! They have never been weaker, yet none of you pussies dared stand up to them, because you are COWARDS! All of you!”

Rigan didn’t slam a fist against the table, or break his mug… or do anything he had instinctively wanted to do to express the anger that had bubbled up from his soul that was competing with the feelings of disgust trying to force its way up his throat. Instead his grip on the mug tightened to the point where the wood splittered and cracked, but his voice remained icy in its contempt.

“Droka spoke about what you did, Burud. Hamaar told us how you spilled innocent blood to summon a demon into this world. How you turned the Leoness into an inhuman creature of pain and suffering that will haunt the Westfold for generations to come… and how if we did not act to deal with what you have summoned, it will come here and destroy Scawick as readily as it would the warmongers of Ha-Dûna!”

Breathing deeply through his nose, he sneered as he ignored the blood dripping from his fingers. “Droka decided to give us a chance to avert the fate you and that witch-” The word was spat “- have tried to force upon us. You’re key to doing so.”

Burud spat back and rose from his seat. “What, all of you forget the meaning of sacrifice? Did you grow soft in my absence?” He lifts both hands into a guard and bit his teeth together. “If you’re gonna have me killed, then you’re gonna have to work for it.”

“What good is taking vengeance for those who died due to Ha-Dûna’s actions if it kills everyone you cared about?!” Rigan spat back, raising onto his own two feet as Annul slowly did the same. The look in Rigan’s eyes hardened as he gazed at Burud, but there… was still a hint of mercy within them. After all, just because his opinion of the man had been drowned in mud didn’t mean all he had done had been wiped clean.

“We’re not going to kill you Burud. What we need is your blood. You brought this demon wearing the Leoness’ skin into this world by spilling innocent blood, only weapons infused with your blood will cast it back to whence it came. If you give any damn about Scawick at all, you’ll help us undo your mistake… before it consumes us all.”

Annul watched the exchange for a moment… before he decided to speak in a somewhat more calm tone. “For what it’s worth Burud, regardless of if we kill her or not… the Leoness is dead. All we’re doing now is killing something that looks vaguely like her before it reaches our homes… and Droka promised us a boon for putting her down.”

Slowly, but surely, Burud lowered his fists slightly. He still appeared jumpy, but a shadow of defeat filled his face more and more by the second. Eventually, he dropped his arms down at his sides, his breath becoming like shivering branches on a winter night. “... I… I just needed one triumph… It’s just not fair. It’s just… Not fair…” Sobs choked him up and he slapped a palm over his eyes. “Gods, what have I done…”

The anger that had been building up in Rigna faded away as Burud started crying. It was easy to be enraged by a man who was celebrating the vile deeds he had committed while being uncaring of the consequences, but now that the barrier had broken and the full weight of what he had done had finally hit him, the rage departed.

As Annul walked around the table to offer a comforting hand on Burud’s shoulder, Rigna decided to speak up and offer… something on a peace offering to a broken man. “I… I know it’s not much but… there was some debate about what was going to happen after the demon was slain. A lot of people were discussing exiling the guilty parties but… If you want, I think I might have an alternative. Let you and Murtagh have the first chance of fighting and killing the thing. We were already planning on producing weapons able to slay it so… a couple more isn’t going to be a tall order.”

“It’s your call. I’m happy to let you think about it before I bring it up with everyone else. It is your life after all.”

“Hah, would that be right?” Burud sniffed and swallowed, lowering his palm to reveal flooding, red eyes. He pulled the snot from his nose and cleared his throat. “No… No, we don’t deserve to go after it - I don’t deserve it. Murtagh is a broken man because of me, and I will not go into the afterlife to be with my ancestors even if I should die fighting this creature I summoned. Find me a cell - take my blood as you need it and find me a cell, so I can rot there until I am to be banished or killed for my crimes.” He sank back down in his seat. “I don’t deserve to die in battle.”

There was… a brief look of disappointment, but Rigna would respect Burud’s wish. He might still run the idea by Murtagh to see how he responded but… only time would tell. “...I’ll give you some time to think about it. Ask again when we’ve got some equipment together and we’re better prepared to head out.” Because as much trouble as Burud had likely brought into the world… it was hard to condemn a man who had once been a leading figure in Scawick.




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The Realm of Kolodiva

23 Rule of Valesti

“I put my heart and soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.”



The city of Gorleka had grown fat and rich. The city of light-upon-river, it was the capital of the Southern Fiefdoms. The throne of Valesti sat there, his stoic perch above the lands he had spent his life conquering. Its ivory towers were the envy of the known world, their glory rivalled only by the machinations of the thunderlords in their fortress upon the sky. All trade in Kolodiva, at some point or another, made its way through Gorleka. Armies beyond counting marched in the name of the King of Gorleka and the emperor of the Southern Fiefdoms. From its parapets, the steely-gazed Royal Castellan Witalis met Valesti plotted his machinations of law.

To the southwest lay Gornibin, a humble city in the shadow of the glory of Gorleka. Though its splendor lay in question, Gornibin was a place of hardy and capable men; woodsmen and farmers in equal measure. Where Gorleka failed to hold back the marauders of the Southern Realm, the men of Gornibin held firm; it was their efforts alone that maintained the guard-upon-river that held back the worst of the pillaging. Its churches hailed the name of Kuba met Valesti, the Imperious Bishop tep Caedan of the whole realm.

To the far west lay the town of Derazhi; its independence nominally maintained by its pioneering spirit. Where other men saw barren fields worth nothing, Derazhi men took pride in their ability to bend and tame. Under their careful guidance, the frontier plains were settled, and their stake carved out on the map. A stake they saw to none would take from them. Its hardy settlers praised the Lord-Architectural Metody met Valesti’s theories on cultivation.

The final city, Cajnicea, lay as the gateway to the northern states of the Anchor; Cajnicean farms occupied the last truly arable land in the north, and through Cajnicea flowed the mineral riches of the mountain and the grains of the plain. Though not numerous, Cajniceans commanded immense power over the flow of trade that far outweighed their mere numbers. At its beating heart, Marin met Valesti pulled the strings of the realm; though without royal position, he nonetheless held power over the kingdom.

The cities of the Anchor had long refused the clarion call of unification; their independence maintained through fire and war. The greatest among them, Chruda, dominated the western ranges, a monumental city built into the mountainside. From it, mineral riches poured forth, made by the finest blacksmiths and artisans across the whole Realm. By its banner the Anchor rallied, the scheming Eliasz met Valesti taking his place among their walls in stark rejection of the scorn of Valesti.

To the east of Chruda lay the manors of Jasztad, a small but fierce town of the Anchor who made their living in the monopolization of trade between Chruda and Cajnicea. It was here that the lords of Kolodiva took their journeys, well-managed and idyllic pastoral farmland to greet them. Thus it was that Chruda thrived.

In the north, laid bare in the shadow of the thunderlords, the city Domred worked their political theory; the only true republic in the Realm, Domred held a particular curiosity and scorn among men. Its people were capable statesmen, their institutions the most efficient in the Realm. The city held its head high, regardless of its plague of cults.

Privie lay in a child spur of the Anchor range -- originally but a monastery of soldier-monks dedicated to the glorification of Gebei, around them a city grew. Under the watchful eye of the monastery, the fortifications grew as well. Privie stands proud, a fortress unassailable, manned by the most devout and most disciplined troops in the realm.

Finally, the last city of the Anchor, in the eastern reaches, Ungmir sat a bastion of ore. Its mines were the richest in all of Kolodiva, and from it the copper, tin, bronze, and iron that all the cities relied upon flowed. Its men were hardy, used to the dark and the heat.




“You hold no position, Marin, you are ineligible for the throne! It is the law of the realm!” The voice of Witali rang out, ripples of murmured shock flooding the hall. On the throne, Valesti stared at the assemblage before him, pale-faced and hollow-eyed, his pupils focused on something only a man in the throes of madness could see. He seemed an edifice of stone as Marin responded. “I’ve purchased my right to presence! You can’t kick me out, and I will say what I wish while within this hall!”

A huzzah rose from the merchants, the aristocratic hangers-on jeering in response. Metody shouted above it all, scoldingly, “Witalis, you cretin, how would you know the laws? It is doubtless you are illiterate! And Marin, you are no better, you take the credit of your betters! You lazy, self-absorbed mongerer!” The hall descended into a furious uproar.

Witali shouted back, “I would have your hide tanned if you were not Lord-Architectural, Metody, you--,” just then, Kuba launched into his own blistering tirade, “Metody, you are a godless whelp! Were Caedan to see you, he would avert his eyes in shame! You are a failure of a man!”

Kuba drew his sword, fire in his eyes as he encroached on Metody, and with a cry of rage Witali responded, drawing his own sword as the guards brought their spears to bear. Marin ducked out of the way, sliding a dagger from his sleeve. The shouting reached a crescendo -- and then Valesti’s voice rang out, silencing all.

“Stop!” he cried, holding up a hand as he stared blankly at the ceiling, “None of you will ever see my crown! I would sooner dash it into a hundred pieces than pass it to any of you! No, I wait for the successor!” His raised hand closed into a fist, his index finger outstretched as he pointed up at the ceiling, his gaze transfixed as he muttered weakly, “The successor. He will have my throne, the successor.”

Unwilling to raise complaints with their father the king, the brothers muttered as they sheathed their weapons, the brief confrontation forgotten as they watched the pitiful display before them. With a shake of his head, Kuba made his exit. Marin, unwilling to watch his father in a delusional fit, ingratiated himself into a crowd of merchants. Metody simply looked at the floor, waiting for his father’s fit to be over. Witali got to work ordering the guards back into their positions, keeping his back turned to Valesti.




Aleksy met Chwalibog was an honest, hard-working child. His father had ordered him to tend to the flock, and Aleksy obeyed. On the outskirts of his village, so small it was not even granted a name, he kept a close eye for predators that would harm the livestock. The livestock was the lifeblood of the village, and to place such a responsibility in the hands of a mere ten-year-old was the ultimate signal of trust.

Aleksy wished to ensure that trust was not misplaced, for he was an honest, hard-working child. All day he had walked the fields with the flock, proudly keeping his guard up and his wits about him. Only once the sun was set, the flock put safely to rest, and he had returned home did he let himself relax. His mother, Juliusz met Toporek welcomed him at the door, her face a beam of pride for her loyal and steadfast son.

Chwalibog met Mieszko was once a strong man, but in his age and peace had grown heavyset; a small price to pay for the prosperity they now enjoyed. Peace had brought for them plentiful bounty, and with a tear in his eye, Chwalibog thought of his son’s innocence. Aleksy had not met the kiss of war, and thought little of the killing of men. Chwalibog could not be more proud, for Aleksy was an honest, hard-working child who knew only the way of peace.

After dinner, Aleksy went to bed early. He wished to be rested for the day after, for his father would once more ask him to tend to the village’s flock. It was an important task, and the son did not wish for exhaustion to slow him down. It was in these ways he made his parents and his village proud.


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Valor

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The Weight of Neutrality.




Celestine paced around her personal chambers diligently as her mind did its best to comprehend the situation that was developing in Ha-Dûna. Her tournament had been disrespected by a third party, and the people of Ha-Dûna had found culprit in someone that had escaped. But things were not adding up for Celestine. Brian had been found executed far away and may have been used as some form of catalyst to curse Hilda, so if the culprit had been within Ha-Dûna until the time of Hilda’s curse and then escaped in the ensuing chaos, then they were most likely not the person who kidnapped Brian and put Hilda’s curse into effect.

Everything pointed to something more complicated going on than first appeared, and now the freshly peaceful Ha-Dûna was being dragged into war once again. A part of her wanted to intervene more directly but she knew that it would both violate her desire for neutrality and she would be acting upon assumptions and partial information. Nothing about the situation pleased her and it took a great amount of restraint to not scream in frustration.

Perhaps she needed to speak with another and have more than her own mind to talk with. Thinking over the gods that she had spoken to since her emergence the answer came to mind fairly easily: Thaa. He had earned the most trust from her by actively warning of the machinations of other gods and how everyone had their own agenda. Such a truth was both commendable and exactly what she needed at this moment.

Walking briskly to her visitation chamber, Celestine stepped through the portal to antiquity and moved with purpose to the portal leading to Thaa’s realm. Standing before it for only a brief moment Celestine stepped through confidently. Unlike the first time she knew what to expect upon the other side. When the misty reality of his realm coalesced around her, Celestine placed an arm across her chest and bowed in greeting to the general direction that she remembered the mountain of corpses being. Once that was finished she spoke loudly to offer a greeting and state her intent within the realm. ”Greetings Thaa. You have earned the most trust out of the gods that I have spoken to and thus, if you are able to receive my company, I come seeking your counsel for a matter that weighs upon my mind.”

With her intent spoken Celestine waited to see if the sensation of the ground moving beneath her feet would begin as it did in her previous visit.

There was no initial reply, no movement of the ground or herself for a long moment, just the roiling mists. Something moved in their hidden depths. Then there was something else, as a Goddess she could feel an intense sensation of folding, not herself exactly, but where she was, as if the reality there was switching some measure about.

And then she was no longer in the mists, there was light, and there were walls, three of them as if she was in a tetrahedron with the floor making up a forth triangular side. The light was red in the extreme and didn't seem to have a specific source, instead seemingly present in equal parts everywhere, there was no shadow or shade to anything.

Again she felt an intense sensation only a divine being could interpret with their senses, a feeling of arriving. And then Thaa was there, not as a mountain of corpses, but a great eye emplaced in a disk, not on the wall, he was the walls, the floors. One could trace the edge of the disk and find it in perfect curvature of circle, and yet looking at the triangular surfaces each seemed straight in their own right. Regardless of the physical divergences from Galbar's normal physics, Thaa spoke most cheerfully.

"Hello Celestine, what manner of issue weighs so heavily upon your mind? I may offer what I can in advice or information but I will first offer only a condition. As a Goddess you make your own choice and take full responsibility for all things that come of it. This may seem an odd condition, but too few of own divine fellows seek to take responsibility for present affairs."

When the usual feeling of the ground moving beneath her feet did not come for a long moment Celestine began to consider the possibility of Thaa simply not being present within his realm. The idea of leaving and coming back later began to broach her thoughts but was quickly dismissed when she felt a distinct sense of folding begin to overtake her. Instinct brought Celestine’s right hand to the top of her scabbard, but rational kept her left hand still. By this point she knew that Thaa’s realm wasn’t harmful.

Passing a brief glance to each wall as they closed in, Celestine took a few steps so that she better stood within what felt like the center of them. The dominating red light of the area was moderately irritating to her eyes but she was able to adjust after a few moments of exposure. The sudden swell of a feeling of a being arriving preceded the arrival of Thaa. When the great disk containing the eye that Thaa manifested himself as arrived, Celestine repeated her bow from earlier out of respect. Celestine found the way that Thaa defied what the mortals considered physics somewhat amusing, but didn’t comment on it. Instead she gave a nod to what Thaa had said and replied in kind. ”Of course Thaa. I pledge that all of my actions resulting from this conversation will have their responsibility wholly accepted by me. Speaking metaphorically, I will lie in whatever bed I make. Does this satisfy?”

Celestine understood Thaa’s reason for wanting assurance that Celestine wouldn’t ignore the consequences of the actions she took. It was far too easy for a god to redirect blame or simply ignore it for their own benefit. But Celestine carried herself differently. It could possibly be considered that Celestine was the most mortal of all the gods with how grounded her method of thinking was. By now Celestine’s right hand had relaxed at her side once again. Hesitant to explain what troubled her until she knew if her response was sufficient, Celestine resigned herself to wait until Thaa made his satisfaction clear.

Thaa’s great eye remained settled, gazing directly at Celestine as a response came, ”I am satisfied.”

There was only a momentary pause before Thaa continued, ”By what matter of concern so heavily draws you to ask for advice?”

Celestine gave a nod to Thaa’s response before beginning to speak. ”A war seems to be brewing within Ha-Dûna. At a tournament held in my name a woman who was competing was put under the cruelest of spells. The people of Ha-Dûna lay blame on someone they say managed to escape from the city, but something doesn’t quite add up to me. The First Knight asked me for aid, and in an effort to help them as I could I used my divine senses to search around the area for a missing person. When I found them, they were dead. And they had been dead for a fair bit longer than I would’ve thought. They were bound with their throat slit. Something tells me that their death might have been used as a catalyst for the spell, but I’m not sure. If that is the case then the person who escaped from Ha-Dûna could not be the culprit as they were there at the time of the incident… But there are so many things that I am not sure about. I have an avatar investigating the matter as it is an insult to me and my tournaments, but what really concerns me is the conflict that may come from this.”

Celestine took a moment to pause and think about how she wanted to express herself. After a few moments she would continue. ”I feel like I am divided against myself. Part of me wishes for peace and thus wants to stand with the people of Ha-Dûna in the event of a defensive war, but another part of me also screams for neutrality. My domain over soldiers has always instilled in me a strong requirement for it, as not only does nearly everything have their own form of soldiers, a viable candidate for knighthood could come from from anywhere.”

Celestine paused now. As she had continued to speak her tone had grown heavy. Giving a sigh using lungs that didn’t need to breathe, Celestine finished her thought. ”Part of me wants to protect them. Part of me knows that I shouldn’t. It irritates my mind like standing bare within a sandstorm to have such a strong duality battling within my being.”

Now Celestine took a moment to close her eyes and steady herself. Looking back up to Thaa’s eye, Celestine waited to see what he would say regarding the matter.

"Conflict will come to that region regardless if you manage to sort out their wounded ego's this time around."

Thaa's resounding voice of thousands paused for a moment, continuing in tone as a chorus of animals joined the call, "'Hilda the Leoness', they truly do like their Champions do they not? A most moral one at that."

"A Demon summoned into the body of a champion, not the most usual usage of Demons I have to admit but a creative one. In any case, I would hazard a guess that there was no intention of disrespect for your tournament, likely they targeted the Dûnan for her own moral qualifications."

"Regardless, you have the issue at present, and then you have the issue in any solution. You wish to be neutral to take benefit of knights from any corner, and yet you have desire to protect the Dûnan's in a defensive war because you desire peace. I do not think you will get peace from protecting those of Ha-Dûna, I think at least given the history of the region. But that is not the issue, the issue is that you are equivalating two concepts to yourself, that to be neutral you must be inactive."

"What action would you take to divert the war? Why would you take that action? Treading carefully and with great thought is a good way forward, the region is best notable for two things. A mixture of godly interventions diverging and displacing each's plans, and bloodshed from the first lies in Dûnan conquest to whatever end they will eventually find. There are thousands of places on Galbar filled with thousands more each, Ha-Dûna is not unique in that aspect."

Celestine raised an eyebrow in concern at part of what Thaa had mentioned before speaking. ”Hilda was transformed into a demon? I had not been informed of this particular event…” Celestine would take a moment to raise a finger to her chin in contemplation before lowering it and continuing to speak. ”If you happen to know what happened to her, then perhaps you will be able to answer a question that I hold: Would it be possible to restore her to as she was? Even if the intent of the action wasn’t meant to disrespect my tournament I still take offense to it as it happened during the event and I seek to render it undone as part of my investigation. If that is a possible thing then I would like to know how. If it is not… I will likely try and at least grant her peace.”

As for what else Thaa had said, he did have a fair point. The area of Ha-Dûna did seem to be volatile and prone to conflict. Thaa’s questions as to what she would do to divert the war provided an interesting twist to the conflict within Celestine’s mind. Asking the two sides to stand down would itself not likely work. Perhaps she could use some of her divine might to render the land impassible? But that would likely not last very long, and might be frowned upon by the other deities. Perhaps relocating Ha-Dûna elsewhere would serve the best purpose? But then that posed other issues. Where else would they go? Would relocating them provide only a short term salvation as a new and greater threat emerged? What if some were left behind?

These questions proved frustrating, and once more Celestine looked to Thaa for guidance.

"It is a complicated matter, I will give you some insight to my sources and you will perhaps have some understanding there." With those few words Thaa's eye disappeared from the walls, all turned to red briefly increasing in light before settling.

"...What will this curse actually do to her?" A man's voice, and figure appeared from the walls, the viewpoint was low, the surroundings clear as the place Brian's body was found even from what little Celestine could see.

A woman stood sharpening a blade and creepily hummed a little tune. "Oh, you’ll see. There’s a lot of power in child’s blood. Just be patient."


The view faded but another came, surrounding the goddess once more.

A new viewpoint, the arena on the day of the contest, was a small amount away from the arena and there were others nearby, a member of the watching crowd. Transfixed on Hilda, her skin was blistering and red pox filled her body, some starting growing to large tumors black as coal and of crimson shade. Boudicca dropped her spear in fear and was stepping back. But the view remained transfixed on Hilda, she was still standing, healthy, if one could call what was happening that. Her skin scorched and charred, her cries were not human in the slightest.

'Hilda' began charging towards the viewpoint, which was thrown aside in a splash of blood as it faded.


There was once again the tumultuous feeling of arriving and Thaa as his great eye returned to walls and floor. "I am guardian of the dead. They are in paradise now, but you must know that Hilda is not. From what I can gather the Demon was summoned into Hilda the Leoness as a specific form of revenge against her, perhaps more expansive than that but she was targeted, that much is clear from the memories of the child."

"In any case the soul of Hilda remains in her body, I have no knowledge of attempt to remove a demon from such conditions that did not result in death. In truth, it is likely better to smite the Demon and Hilda both, such would put a quick end to that if you were greatly concerned in that matter. But rest assured that is in all likelihood one simple reprisal for other attacks and past reprisals. The question remains what should you do? If you can identify them, the actual ones who did this, the Dûnans no doubt would be much eager to put them and their people to slaughter as they have grown most adept in the past.

Of course you could seek to punish yourself and leave the Dûnans out of it which would just see them to lead a war on wrong pretense, not the first time the Dûnans have done so. In fact the first wars started were perpetuated by the Dûnans’ leaders’ lies and deceit to trick their people into a 'reprisal' against other peoples. This is the cycle of things.

Then again war will no doubt come to Ha-Dûna regardless of what they do now, they've already killed a party of messengers and the nephew of another petty king of the region. You have much to think on and I cannot make your choice for you. Perhaps it is not best to try to intervene in matters of war, instead to shape the structure of what comes after, whether the mortals know you have a hand or not."


Thaa finally stopped speaking at length. He paused and then asked a question, "I have said much, perhaps it would be best if you had any specific questions?"

Celestine remained silent as she watched the memories of the deceased play. A part of her wished that she could go back to that moment. Drop her avatar nearby and slaughter the people involved, but what was done was done. There was no going back. The knowledge that the soul of Hilda remained in her body gave Celestine some hope that this crime could be undone. Even if the chance was small she was at least willing to try rather than resign herself to a less optimal outcome.

But as Thaa explained the cycle of violence that had existed around Ha-Dûna that hope shrank. Placing a finger against her chin in contemplation Celestine devoted herself to understanding the situation at hand. Even if this small crime could be undone the effects of it would likely never be stopped. So then it seemed that punishing the criminals responsible for causing this unfortunate series of events was pointless? But that made little sense, for nearly everything could produce such a rippling effect given the right circumstance and there were things that did matter to do. Punishing the criminals would merely be one step of her plan, then.

This war could not be stopped, but perhaps the cycle could be. The main problem to solve then became how to end the cycle. Perhaps the knights that she had plans to create could function as a sort of aggression deterrent? But then again a knight on horseback could only do so much and their movement, despite certainly being faster than on foot, would likely have issues with reaching a conflict in time to make a difference.

Perhaps the answer lay not in dominating the ground, then…

Looking up to Thaa’s eye once more, Celestine spoke confidently. ”Thaa. Do you perhaps know of any gods that have a mighty beast capable of traversing the sky that they would be willing to share with me? I have a plan I wish to put into motion and it requires something that is not bound to traversing the land.”

Thaa was quick on the response, "I know not of any beasts, but I know a people, come I will show you."

Thaa disappeared from the walls once more, however Celestine was not left alone, she felt the same pressure of folding that had occurred when she entered the realm and called out. And she was in the mists, again. To her right was the Massive eye of Thaa, emplaced in a disk looking behind her, he was once again attached to corpses but rather than a simple mound it took the shape of endlessly coiling tendrils, each made up of several corpses that moved as if part of a tendril in full form. They seemed to support his weight and it came to mass of roiling bodies that faded off into the far mists beyond view.

Thaa spoke, not turning his view from something in opposite orientation from the direction she faced when she was transported, "If you can convince one or others I will not stop them from leaving with you, only words and promises, they are already resilient to mind altering magics and I will fully be able to tell. They are named Dragons."

Celestine held firm as the sensation of the realm folding surrounded her once again. When it was finished she took a moment to glance around at her new surroundings and quickly spotted the great eye of Thaa. Turning to face his form once again Celestine listened as he explained that she was to convince them to leave with her.

The only question was… Convince who?

As Celestine began to look around the area to try and see who or what lurked nearby, she finally turned on her heel and spotted what she was meant to see. In the distance there was a massive wall of stone, alcoves dotted it up and down in a great many masses. It stretched from the horizon to the right and to the left, down to the ground and up to the 'clouds', it was hard to discern so thick were the mists. Figures moved along the alcoves, occasionally flying out to move between them. A flicker of green flame was seen here or there. Although they were distant, a goddess's sight could tell them apart and discern what they were. In truth most would have difficulty with how far away they were and with so little scale to see good idea of size, but to a divine sense that was not so difficult.

They were massive, scaled and armored to be sure, the flickering flames came from their mouths. Some had horns, all had mighty wings to carry them. And then in a brief moment Celestine was nearer the base of the wall, Thaa was no longer beside her. Instead a strange creature, three legs of different kinds, five arms each grasping a different kind of horn. They had no proper face on what passed for their head, a series of shifting gaping maws into a dark void in its center. It spoke only thus, "The Goddess may wish to cover her ears."

As Celestine regarded the Dragons from a distance she suddenly found herself quite close to the wall and able to see them quite clearly. What caught her attention immediately was the presence of a very oddly shaped being that was now standing nearby. Had it simply been cobbled together from random pieces of various creatures? Celestine resigned herself to never knowing since questions like those felt dangerous to ask.

As the being near her advised covering her ears, Celestine genuinely contemplated doing so but then decided against it. Thaa had said that only her words and promises could be used to convince them, and thus each of them would be judging her as she spoke. To cover her ears in the face of a noise could be seen as a sign of weakness, and Celestine did not want to undermine herself before she began to speak. Steeling herself, Celestine waited until the noise came and went.

Raising the horns to five separate maws intense screams, up down the spectrum of hearing for most mortal things resounded out most loudly. This got the attention of a massive host of the beings in the alcoves, who soon began to sweep down to the Goddess's location next to the strange being.

Instinct commanded the goddess to seek an alternative place to stand when the ground began to vibrate and shake from the massive dragons landing, but logic and reason cemented her feet where they stood. No weakness. Not here. As the last of the dragons landed, Celestine gripped the edges of her cloak and lifted it like a skirt as she curtsied. When she rose she spoke loudly and confidently. ”Greetings, Dragons of Thaa. I am the Goddess Celestine. I come to all of you bearing questions, the first of which is this: Who among you would wish to leave this realm for good?”

A dangerous question to ask first, but Celestine figured that it would be best to start with it, as those that would not stay with her would likely not enjoy the direction her planned questions went.

A dragon to her left spoke, she had a fairly golden metallic sheen to her scales and a hornless head. "Few wouldn't take the opportunity, if it had no hidden barbs once that path was tread."

As dragons settled in there were a few hisses and thrumming of agreement through the crowd. Although a very small number did take back off into the air and then to the alcoves.

Celestine would nod before contemplating her next move. Perhaps honesty would simply be the best policy? The dragon had mentioned not liking any hidden barbs upon a path, and so perhaps laying out the entire path would make for the best result. Looking across them, Celestine would begin to explain, speaking loudly once again to ensure that they could all hear her equally. ”Hidden barbs are not something I wish to employ, so in the hopes of being fair I will explain my entire plan up-front. My intent would be to have any who join me function in three roles: The first would be as an advisor to the happenings upon Galbar, a view that is not my own to converse and plan with. The second would be that you will be either the rulers of a new people, made in your image and guided by your wisdom to stand as equal partners for a group of knights that I plan on creating upon Galbar. Alternatively, you will be the heralds of a new population of your existing people who will, as before, stand equally as the partners for a group of knights that I plan to create. The third is that you will be an extension of my judgement. Should I come to find that something upon Galbar has sparked my anger, I will release any who wish to participate upon Galbar to destroy the object of my disdain as you see fit. Then, when you are finished, I will pull you back into my realm to spare you from retaliation.”

Celestine would pause for a moment now to allow the Dragons to digest her words before continuing. ”While you are under my charge you will be treated as honored companions. My realm will be modified to accommodate all of your needs and I will see to it that you do not want for sustenance. In addition, should you desire entertainment I will see about organizing a tournament for the souls that pass through my realm, and such an arena will have accommodation for all who join to view it comfortably.”

Celestine would pause once more to allow her words to sink in before asking a final question. ”With my plans laid bare, I ask the question: Who would stand with me?”

Now all she could do was wait and see if her plan would bear fruit.

The golden scaled dragoness from before blew a brief spout of green flame airward before saying, "A Gilded cage, I have no interest in such an exchange of one prison for another."

With that she took off, soon others began to follow, it became clear that a great host of Dragons were taking flight, delayed due to having to wait for the airspace to clear before the next could go so close together and large were they.

When it came to stop and those that remained moved closer, it became apparent she still had a good number of Dragons interested in her proposition. A black scaled dragon, horned and with most intense eyes gaze down at the Goddess, speaking, "What manner of Goddess are you? You speak of those earning your ire, you speak of arenas and advisors, knights and partners. You are not told of the great old gods said by the Great Eye, you number not among our creators, so I ask. What manner of Goddess are you? Why do you seek us? Who earns your ire and your praise?"

Celestine grew disheartened as she saw the multitude of dragons begin to take flight, disinterested in her offer. She did not blame them for doing so, however. The golden dragoness was correct: No matter how much she made it seem like paradise a cage was still a cage. When the black scaled dragon began to question her, Celestine waited until he was finished before speaking. Even though the crowd of dragons had thinned considerably she maintained her elevated tone to ensure that her words came through clearly. ”I am the goddess Celestine. I hold authority over soldiers, with a particular focus on Knights. I seek you for I have need of a people that can dominate the sky. Those that earn my praise are honorable people that are generally polite and speak plainly. Those that earn my ire are those that insult me and my efforts, and threaten the people that I have shown favor to dishonorably. Raging despots who use the people under them as tools and slaves instead of focusing on unity and balance. War and conflict are a natural part of the world of Galbar, and I make no attempt to disguise that fact. But I see a cycle of violence that is spiraling out of control and could create a tyrant that seeks to wage war upon Galbar until there is nothing left. I believe that it is time for that cycle to end to preserve the balance of prosperity upon Galbar as a whole.”

Celestine fell silent once more. This time for a bit longer than usual. However, she did speak again before too long had passed. ”Those that join me will be the guardians of the balance of the world, and your contributions will be celebrated at every step. What say you? Will you join my cause?”

The black dragon stood up, stepped forward, towering over the Goddess. He looked to his right and his left at the Dragons surrounding them, one or two had left during her speech and now he spoke. "I am Vol'srennen, I will join your cause."

After he stood, soon others stood with him and spoke, "Ajn'malssa, your cause is mine."

"Eio'vessen, I pledge myself to you."

"Iav'kronnon, my mind and claws are yours."

One by one dragons stood and pledged themselves to her and her cause. In total they grew to number only a fraction of those that had first come with the resounding call, yet still the dragons numbered one-hundred in all.

Vol'srennen, the first to pledge, spoke, "We are with you and will undertake what you ask of us should your words be held true."

He bowed his head to the Goddess before him, waiting for her to speak.

Celestine was impressed by the numbers that pledged themselves to her. When they finished she placed an arm across her chest and bowed wordlessly before speaking to the gathered crowd of Dragons. “Thank you, honored companions. At any time in the future you find that you disagree with my words or actions, you will be allowed to depart without question. There is much that must be done and time is not on our side. I must give thanks to Thaa for his generosity and then we can proceed to my realm and modify it to suit your needs. If you would kindly excuse me for a brief time.

Celestine would bow again before turning back to Thaa. This time she did not speak loudly for she knew that Thaa could hear her words regardless of volume due to his divine senses. ”You have my deepest thanks for this gift, Thaa. If there is ever a favor that you require in the future, I will do my best to see it fulfilled.”

With that said she would bow to Thaa’s great eye before looking around for the exit portal and, upon finding it, gestured for the Dragons to follow as she departed for her realm.



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The First Skirmish



Year 30AA, autumn, Ha-Leothe, hilltop village east of Ha-Dûna...

The midday sun cast a golden light over the brown, fallow potato fields, raw still from the harvest days, and the orange leaves of wintering trees floated gently on the wind as miners entered the palisade gates of the hilltop village of Ha-Leothe with baskets of crudely mined copper ore and malachite from the tunnels in the crags and valleys around the town. Elk- and cattle-drawn carts of lumber occasionally joined them, all of the resources collecting by smoking kilns, smelting the ore into bars readily transportable for the journey to the capital. The early hints of winter were visible on some of the taller peaks, so production had to be sped up to reach the quotas before the valleys would seal with ice and snow and force the traders and taxmen to go all the way around for two weeks. In his longhouse, the théin Valix of Leothe, legendary victor of the Reconquest and champion athlete of many games and sports at festivals, carried his mask with uncharacteristic discontent. He eyed his wife Muine with a frown and gestured to his bowl, full as it was of pea and potato stew with onions. Coldly, he mumbled,

“You burnt it again.”

Muine huffed and gave her own bowl a sip. “What if I did? Do you think you could do any better?”

“What I think, woman, is that I, at least, would not be so daft as to burn stew - it’s stew, for gods’ sakes! It’s at least six parts water!”

“I will throw this in your face if you do not shut up, you know that, right?” she replied threateningly and tested the swing of her arm. Further down the table, there came an exhausted voice.

“Mom, dad, please don’t fight,” said Garix, their oldest son. His four sisters wore equally tired expressions, though they sipped their stew silently as usual. Muine sighed and sat down.

“They’re right, dear. Dinner time is peacetime - if you have something on your heart, we can discuss it afterwards.”

The théin scoffed, but gave his burnt stew a slurp regardless. “Then so we shall.”

At that moment, there came a knock on the door frame. The théin sighed, put down his bowl and stood up. “Come in.” The many tapestries functioning as their door were pushed aside, revealing the panting, red face of a young woman, gasping as she was for her breath. The théin and his family eyed her curiously and Valix asked, “Gods, Pinya, what’s gotten into you? Where’s the fire?”

“There’s--... Ugh, there’s no fire, chief!” Pinya gestured madly over her shoulder. “You, you better come see this.”

Valix blinked, shifted his glance around the table and sighed. “Alright, fine. This had better be worth it.” He stepped over to a wooden chest, opened it and took out a finely sewn fur vest, a hat, woolen mittens and a cloak. Putting them on in a hurry, he followed the woman out into the courtyard of his estate, then out into the broader village and onto the battlements of the palisades. There, many more people had gathered, chattering and spying at the horizon. Pinya offered a final exhausted breath as she pointed at the woodland border below the hill, where there was an unmistakable host of people on the march - some mounted, some marching. The théin squinted and leaned himself on the palisades, rubbing his eyes to make sure what he was seeing was true, indeed.

“What do you think? Sigerans?” asked another guard. Valix pursed his lips.

“Could be, but judging from the runners from the west, I’d say they are more likely to be Cenél raiders, here to finish the job after their betrayal.” He counted the numbers he could see under his breath. “Stromvarde, how many túnskioldings can we have ready within the hour?”

“The shifts in the mines should be switching any moment, sir - we could have them all armed and armoured as soon as you need them to be.”

“Good. Make it so. Teagan, find my hildargeach - tell them to take to elkback.”

“Understood, my théin!”

“Say, théin? Have you seen those banners before?” One of the guards pointed to the host and Valix leaned over the battlements again.

“... Is that a snake?” he asked uncertainly. The guards around him tried to get a better look, some moving further along the wall to see if they could get closer.

“... Could be. Could also be a rune of sorts. Hard to tell from this distance. Can’t say I’ve seen Cenél fly those colours before, though.”

Valix pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Has Kaer Jane come back yet?”

“No, théin, she is still in the woods. Should we send someone for her?”

“Bah, knowing her, she will be back by the time we are routing the enemy. Focus on getting the people armed.” He turned around and clapped his hands for attention. “Alright, people, to spears and hauberk! There are foes on the horizon and we are not going to let them reach Mother Dûna so long as we still live! Sound the horns!”




The echoing song of baritone horns came booming from the distant hilltop fort. Jjonveyo squinted upwards at his goal, ears perked. He looked past Darragh, who rode next to him, and to a soldier with a unique golden mane trailing down his helmet. "Set the troops into a spaced anvil position with wings, space it two for archer bleed through, then hold rank." The Tsar then looked at Darragh, "I have a feeling pride will send them straight into us - you and your warriors will remain with me behind the anvil formation."

“Not warriors.” Darragh corrected. There was a stark difference between the warriors and the Fakir. Though he could understand why the mistake was made. Some of the Fakir carried stone great axes, massive mauls and shields. Though the majority walked with their gods-given objects. Slates and staves. Through which they channeled their magic.

The Fakir and recently made Boyar had no desire to stay behind though. “Allow us to prepare the circles at least.” He eyed the forming front line of the Celeviak. Then they rose towards the village. “It is time the Dûnans learn to fear the power of the Cenél.”

"Prepare as you need," Jjonveyo gestured. His own soldiers were nearly done with their organization - spearmen in neat columns spread wide with archers funneled in front of them in a thin line, cavalry on the far flanks and set at slight angles inwards. The whole formation looked to engulf the flats that laid before the slope of the hill.

The Boyar kept his grim expression as he pulled his stag around. With a single nod the other Cenél made their space and started carving out circles in the earth. Filling them with swirls and patterns only the Fakir knew. Ancient knowledge had been retrieved from the caves already. Sacred stones were put at corners and edges and large candles were lit as well. Darragh turned to face the front again. “When the lines clash you can let us loose.”

"Very well," Jjonveyo looked towards the hill again, "If they can make it to the line."




“We’re not riding out against -that- are we?!” boomed Pathalix, hildargeach and bloodsworn soldier of Valix’ clan Leothe. The théin’s expression, too, had gotten visibly more skeptical.

“It is true that their numbers have grown--...”

“Numbers have grown?! They’re three times as many as us! And they’re in formation! The Cennies’ve obviously gotten help from someone! Someone powerful!”

“But who on Galbar’s got this kind of manpower in this region?” asked Tvínn, another bloodsworn. The théin grumbled quietly.

“... Didn’t a runner come by some weeks past with news of a warlord from the east? Some Chelevyak fellow…”

“Jonwayo, you mean? Are you telling me a damn mountain goblin has this kind of force and he just happened to bring it all the way over here without our scouts noticing?!”

“Prepostorous!” snarled some of the other bloodsworn. As debate broke out, the théin distanced himself from the worst of it by moving to another section of the wall, analysing the approaching formation. After him came the dutiful Pinya, biting her nails nervously.

“S-so… What’s the plan, chief?”

“If you shut your mouth for one second, maybe I’ll come up with one.” She quieted down as the théin gave the battlefield yet another scowl. “How far away is Kaer Jane, you said?”

Pinya swallowed. “W-well, we didn’t send anyone after her, so--”

“Have her summoned here this instant - carry her here if you must. Take my elk. Only divine power can help us level out the odds here. Hama! Take all the unburnt timber from the kilns and shore up the gates and walls! Stromvarde! Find me every arrow we have and bring them to the battlements. Yes, even the ones reserved for the winter hunts! Move it, people, if you want to live to see the sunset!”

Within the hour, the battlements filled with archers and javeliners, the defenders evidently taking a much more defensive approach than initially signalled. The horns sang different signals - taunting the enemy into attacking if they dared. The théin on the battlements found himself biting his nails, too. They had not at all been prepared for an attack - much less a siege. He prayed they would move on - see Ha-Leothe as a needless target and give them time to prepare. A fool’s hope, maybe, but hope it was.




Jjonveyo's dark eyes scanned the hill fort. He looked at the mane crested soldier again, "Instruct the twelve swiftest riders to slay anyone who attempts to leave that hill, four stationed on every cardinal save ours. And have our scouts circle the area in warning of any exterior aid."

"At once my Tsar," The soldier rode off again.

The Tsar turned to Darragh, a rumble forming in his throat, "Darragh!"

The Fakir approached Jjonveyo. “Yes?” He said, his quiet voice contrasting the rumble of the Tsar.

"What is the nature of your magic?"

A grin formed on Darragh’s lips. “It turns our strongest into the wrath of the forest.” His eyes then looked out towards the palisade. Dead wood dreadfully bound together. “I’m assuming you want that torn open?”

"Yes, but first - we need to disarm them," Jjonveyo looked at the Fakir, "Can you create illusions?"

Darragh looked around him. It was a pretty bare hill. No dampness in the air. “Not here. Not now.” He said. “By dusk… perhaps.”

"If at dusk you could trick them into thinking we have charged, and they loose their projectiles - we can then tear into them safely," Jjonveyo stated almost as if questioning Fakir on the possibility.

“By dusk we can create the illusion.” Darragh said. “Whether they fall for it will depend on who their leader is, and who is advising them.”

"Plan for that," Jjonveyo commanded, "In the meantime I will gauge their leadership myself. Bannermen!"




As the foreign leader and his bannermen came riding up to the gates, they were greeted by knocked arrows and groaning bowstrings. However, the bark of a man relaxed those strings swiftly, and a head appeared over the gate, a brown-bearded face topped with a cone-like bronze helmet. He clicked his tongue disapprovingly, but nodded his greeting and spoke,

“Gods’ blessings upon you, stranger. Pray tell, what has compelled you to bring this many armed men to my gates on this lovely autumn day?”

"I fear that if I am but a stranger to you, the rumors are true and your leader has left you in the dark," Jjonveyo replied thickly, "I am the Tsar of the Celeviak nation and who are you?"

“I am théin Valix, patriarch of Clan Leothe, and on behalf of the Dûnan people, I say that we do not recognise the authority of any ‘zar in these parts. Whatever you are after - blood, land or wealth - it shan’t be yours so long as these lands belong to the people of the Stone!” He hammered his chest proudly; some of the warriors on the battlements made known their agreement.

"Maybe," Jjonveyo sniffed, "Know that I am merciful and offer you a deal -- you see you do not look at a man of the living." Jjonveyo drew a knife and held it to his wrist, digging the blade in deeply. A dark red oozed out of his arm, only to slowly patter out and seal, flesh mending as if the knife never entered it, "You cannot kill me nor will my army be any easier, but we can you, so here is my promise - concede, or it will be known that it was Valix of Leothe who authorized the brutal execution of every child of this settlement. His pride, the crime."

There came a scoff from the battlements. “Your threats do not scare us, foreigner! The gods are on our side, and their wrath is swift on those who attack their chosen people! Now go back to your men and tell them to come at us! We will stand against your waves like a rock at sea!”

Jjonveyo looked down at the grassy hill, then back up at Valix, "I'll offer a peaceful capitulation once more, but then judgement will be sealed as covenant."i

“Here’s your peaceful capitulation, ‘zar!” shouted one of the archers and then proceeded to lift up his kilt and wave his member around for all to see, inciting a roar of laughter from the others. The théin snickered agreeingly and left the battlements.

Jjonveyo remained silent, and turned back down the hill.




"Darragh," Jjonveyo approached the magician, "The air, it is dry today, no?"

Darragh was in deep discussion with the other Fakir. They spoke in a regional accent. Too thick for the others to understand. The words flung around were spirited. Some even shouted. It was clear Darragh was trying to keep the calm. Then the Tsar approached. The Fakir stepped away. Avoiding the two now.

“It’s not just that.” Darragh said. “Our illusions work in the forest fog. There’s no forest and there is no fog. One we can summon with time.” But even then the illusions would be pale imitations of what they could create around their own villages.

"The air is dry," Jjonveyo continued, "Our enemy is elevated on a grassy hill - fire climbs, Darragh."

The Fakir’s face grew grim. Grimmer than usual. “Fire is unpredictable and ultimately uncontrollable. It might climb up or it could burn underfoot until it reaches us as well.” His eyes stared into those of Jjonveyo. The question hung in the air. Both of them knew it. Are commanding me?

"That's where you are wrong," Jjonveyo answered, "If we dig a trench around the hill, the fire will only rise in elevation and even if it is unsuccessful in sealing a tomb for our enemy, the trench will serve us as a defense against any escape or counterattack." Jjonveyo paused, "You asked to see Dúnans razed to the ground."

A melancholic smile flashed over Darragh’s lips. He hadn’t expected it this way, but if the Tsar wanted to play with fire he would get it. “Very well. We’ll light the fires in such a way that the Dûnans won’t expect. If you would excuse me now though, I will go convince my brethren.” The Fakir passed Jjonveyo. In a breath the other Fakir were surrounding him. Quite calmly he was explain something. Again in the local dialect. The other Fakir grew wide eyed and then spirited. They began to shout and yell and wave their arms.

“Enough!” Darragh yelled. The Fakir all fell quiet. He said a few more words and then pushed onwards towards where the stags were gathered. For a second the others just looked at each other. Each and every single one of them had pure fear in their eyes as they followed their leader.

With a gesture, a segment of Celeviak soldiers began to ring the hill, shovels and other digging tools in hand.




“What in the world are they doing?” one of the watchmen asked. The théin and the other onlookers were about as clueless. They had never seen anything like it.

“Why would they dig trenches that slow their charge?” asked another. Ponderous murmurs rolled through the people on the well.

“Maybe it’s for arrow cover?” proposed a third. It received some supportive hums until one archer knocked an arrow, pulled the string and loosed. The arrow didn’t even land close, and the support quickly turned to disagreement.

“Nah, if they were building for cover, they’d’ve come closer. No archer in the world can hit anything at -that- distance, even if the height’s on our side.”

“Are you sure you’re not just a weak shot, Béona?”

The woman scoffed. “What, do you think you’re better, Stromvarde?”

“Quiet, both of you!” the théin barked. He leaned over the palisades again and squinted. “... What are you up to, you hill trolls?” he whispered to himself. “Pathalix, have Pinya and Kaer Jane made it back yet?”

“Not that I know of, chief,” the bloodsworn confessed. The théin clenched his fists impatiently.

“Damn it… Where are those simpletons when I need them?”




From atop the palisade, the Dunans heard an order come out in Celeviak far below and a half circle of spearmen marched to cover the bottom of the hill, archers in between columns. Cavalry winged the sides in thin lines able to change direction quickly. It looked as if the army was preparing to collect a scattered charge from the entrance to the fort.

Silence rang after that, the awaiting army well behind the wide dirt trenches. Another order came out and the archers readied their bows with barbed arrows, but kept the strings relaxed and pointed down. The whole scene was baffling from up on the hill, until a shout came from the opposite side of the fort.

"Fire!"

“Fire?! Where?” The théin and the rest of the guards on the wall spun around, seeing indeed the late afternoon sky flare up in the distance. Panic and incomprehension spread throughout the guards.

“Wh-... Are they setting fire to the mountain itself?!”

“Have they no respect for the stone, for the hill?! By Boris, may they all be buried in sand until death!”

Valix felt the bubble of fury light its own fire in his chest. He tightened his cloak around himself even tighter and roared, “Stromvarde! Hold this side with your archers! The rest of you - to the well! Bring pots, buckets, your gods-damned hands - put that cursed fire out! TEAGAN! Where’s Kaer Jane?!”

The fearstruck archer hastened over to the chief, struggling through the crowd of repositioning soldiers heading for the well in the town centre. “Not yet seen, chief! Neither Jane nor Pinya have--... Wait… Wait, look there!” She leaned over the palisades and pointed at the edge of the forest, where a panicking elk was carrying two women atop its back, trailed by a multitude of enemy riders. “It’s Pinya! And she’s got Kaer Jane!”

The théin veered. “All archers - ensure the safety of the druid at all costs! Get those elkmen off of them!” The archers did as instructed, showering the ground behind the druid and scout’s elk with copper-tipped arrows. Pinya and Kaer Jane kept their bodies low against their mount, which was running in a mad panic up the hill. However, it spotted the fire making its way towards them at alarming speed, and suddenly, it veered, running away from the gates.

“Gods, stupid animal!” shouted the théin. “Do not let them get into enemy range! Keep someone ready at the north gate!”

“Yes, chief!”

The Celeviak elks stopped at the trenches, leaving Pinya and Kaer Jane alone on the hill - stuck between the fort and the Celeviak army. When it became clear the scout and druid could no longer control their elk, they jumped off, leaving it to sprint off in any direction that seemed to bring it to safety. The pair crashed hard into the grassy hill, and it took time before Kaer Jane lifted her head - she looked to be bleeding from the forehead. She slowly crawled over to Pinya, who seemed to have landed much worse than the druid had. Nearby, blood had splattered a sharp stone. Atop the walls, the théin seethed.

“Kaer Jane! Get over here before they capture you, damn you!”

The druid looked up from her dying saviour to behold the Celeviak forces by the trenches. However, none of them moved, patiently aware of the incoming fire sweeping the hill. Kaer Jane tried to wake her saviour back up with magic, but the fires approached too quickly for her to cast anything significant. Besides, Pinya seemed far, far gone.

“What are you doing, you fool?! Get over here!” shouted the théin, and eventually, Jane had to concede, picking up her thinks and limping up the hill towards the wall. The fires were hot on her heels, and she would have been dead if she had had to run through the north gate. Luckily, the people atop the wall tossed rope over the side and hoisted her up. The west side of the fort had long since began to smoke, and the palisades were beginning to catch fire as well. Kaer Jane had hardly gotten a chance to sit down before the théin stormed over to her and pointed to the walls.

“Make it rain, druid! NOW!”

“W-wha--”

“Otherwise we’ll burn to the last man!”

Kaer Jane pushed herself to her feet with the help of her staff. “I-... I can ask no such thing! I haven’t the necessary support from Claroon to demand such!”

Valix sucked in air through his teeth and paced around stressfully. From the west side of the village, he heard screams and calls for more water. “What -can- you do? What gods will answer a demand for protection? Any protection!”

“P-protection, uhm…” She flinched as her hip burned briefly with leftover agony from the fall. “G-Gibbou can help! I’ve, I’ve offered her plenty of offerings this month.”

“Then make it so!” The théin spun around and lifted his bronze-tipped spear to the sky. “Worry not, soldiers of the Stone! We may triumph yet! The gods are with us today--!”

Suddenly, he heard a gasp behind him. The warriors who had begun to cheer were silenced as swiftly as they looked at Kaer Jane. She was quivering, and she lifted her hands to behold them as they turned white as chalk. Then, as the paleness moved along her limbs, the outermost parts crumbled away on the wind, like white dust. She screamed; the onlookers screamed, too. Deafening them all, however, was a loud, cranky voice.

”You wake me up in the middle of the day to ask something as ridiculous as that? Fight your own damn battles! Shoo!”

With that, the druid Kaer Jane turned completely to moondust, leaving only her cloak and staff in a heap of dusty white on the ground. With the cacophony of the increasingly desperate and failing efforts to put out the fires in the background, the théin and his closest stood in silence.

“Did… Did Gibbou just abandon us?” asked one of the bloodsworn carefully. There came no answer. Valix’s face had lost the colour of rage and his lips parted and closed with incomprehension. A runner came sprinting and shouted,

“Chief! The western wall has burned down! We’ve lost control! What should we do?”

Valix didn’t respond. The runner shouted again,

“Chief!”

“Wh-... What?” asked the théin and turned slowly. The runner studied him desperately, seeming to grow more and more anxious the longer he looked.

“What should we do?! The walls are burning down and the fire is spreading through the town, too! The children and their guardians, they-- they must be kept safe!”

“Safe… Yes… Safe…” He looked back down at the heap. “... This was our only hope. Without the support of the gods, we’re finished.” A mighty fist struck him in the jaw and he jerked back. “Who dares?!”

“Wake up, chief!” roared Pathalix. The théin blinked. “We have yet to meet the enemy in battle! They resort to cowardly, blasphemous tactics such as burning a hill of Boris for the sake of victory! One god may have left us, but surely, the others are still with us! The Goddess of the Night is blind in the day, so she cannot see our struggles - however!” He pointed to the smokey sky, at which edge shone the afternoon sunset. “THERE! The sun is with us yet!” He stomped on the ground. “The mountain is with us yet!” He grabbed his horn from his belt and shook it before the théin’s face. “Macsal is with us yet! We are the chosen of the gods, and in this darkest hour, they will not abandon us!”

Colour returned to the faces around, and even Valix slowly cracked a smile. “Yes… Yes… The people of the Stone, of the great and mighty Dûna, have never once lost in battle. The gods have been with us every time, and they will surely follow us this time, too!”

“YEAH!”

“Take the children and their safekeepers and hide them in the old mine - hack open the old seal if you must, but beware of the old beams - do not cause a cave-in. They must be kept safe at all cost. The rest of you - find places to hide. We will have guests soon.”




By nightfall, the fires were beginning to die down on the hill itself, continuing in certain hotspots around the town. A loud blast of a battlehorn sounded from the bottom of the hill, jolting the Dunan soldiers on edge - waiting. Nothing came, and a few hours went by, until another blast and the sound of metal moving to the north - but nothing ever came. Throughout the night, false starts and terrible sounds kept the people of the town anxious and awake. It wasn't until the fake calls and shouts became routine, exhaustion was settling in, and the twilight of the morning became a reality, that everything changed.

Through the smoldering ruins of the palisade, a long dark line of spearmen came marching into the burnt out remains of the village, spears leveled. The town was silent at first, but in the smoke came the hurrying approach of steps. It was a young woman, copper axe hefted high above her head, recklessly running at the first in the line of spearmen.

”KUN IONSAI DAAAA, IHRI LAUSÓGAN!” she shouted, clearly not having slept throughout the night. From behind her came another shout,

”TOSKA! Kóme anseo!” It was too late, however. Her charge had revealed them all, and in the dissipating smoke, it became clear that soldiers were hiding all around; however, their ambush had been completely unveiled. In the confusion, more soldiers charged out of their hiding spots despite the fact that the Celeviaks hadn’t made it into the village centre yet. Archers fired at will into the spear ranks, and the officers tried hopelessly to shepherd those who hadn’t charged yet into some sort of formation.

But the well rested Celeviaks were already upon them - the soldiers charging uniform through the streets, tight so no one could go past them. Small pillars broke off to weave through the buildings.

From down the hill a loud, thumping noise came. Several heavy things were running across the ashen hillside. Faster than humans could normally run. They were Cenél, but looking as if trees were wrapped around them. These things came sprinting for the breach on bark-skinned, vine-muscled digitigrade legs. The green muscles and bark crawled upwards across the right shoulder. From which a second arm sprouted. Both the human and branch-like arm were holding the heavy weapons of the Cenél. Helping to carry the weight so their left hand could still hold their shield.

Like a storm they fell upon the ambushing Dûnans. Moving through the street with unnatural speed, their low numbers offset by the cheer brutality of their charge. They fell upon pocket after pocket of archers. The Dûnan line didn’t break, for it hadn’t even had time to form. As soon as the charge began, half the soldiers on the Dûnan side ran for their lives, while the other recklessly and zealously threw themselves at the enemy with neither plan nor skill. The only warriors who proved to be a challenge to the Celeviaks and Cenél were the hildargeach, veterans of many years of battle, and théin Valix himself; however, what could fifty men do against an army like this?

The bloodsworn formed a wall around their chief, but without their levies, they were hopelessly outnumbered. The flood of enemies split around them, spilling into every nook and cranny of the village. The bloodsworn's heads were spinning, never knowing where the next attack was going to originate - and then a mighty axe came crashing through.

The wide blade of the weapon bit into one of the bloodsworn, sending him clean off his feet and into a spray of blood. The axe came spinning down onto another of the bloodsworn, the maestro of the massacre being Jjonveyo himself. With beastly black eyes, the Tsar looked past his current victim and directly at Valix. The théin shouted upon seeing his clansman cut down, raised his spear and stepped forward to jab at the Tsar’s waist.

To Valix's surprise, Jjonveyo didn't seem to make the slightest effort to get out of the way. He walked forward, the spear tugging as it punched into the Tsar. With a terrible look in his eye, Jjonveyo walked through the length of the spear - a foreign prayer on his lips until finally his large hand shot out and gripped Valix by the throat. A deep rumble formed from the impaled Tsar.

"Did I not tell you?" The axe came crashing down, splintering the spear and leaving a slowly closing hole in Jjonveyo's gut.

Valix caved to one knee. “... You… You Sigeran devil. You burn the holy stone of Boris; you fraternise with witches and heretics; and worst of all… You have the powers of death itself.” He spat on the ground by Jjonveyo’s boots. “I curse your filthy ilk. May the black cough take you all!”

No words met his, and the silent Jjonveyo suddenly lifted the théin from his feet, and back down to the ground below, hard. The théin’s head bounced off the cobble, only to regain enough consciousness to see an axe blade dropping down - and then there was nothing.

Valix's head rolled away from the scene, Jjonveyo turning from the corpse. His eyes scanned the battle - or what was left of it. Ha-Leothe had fallen.




An hour burned past the end of the battle, with the Celeviak troops rounding up the surviving townsfolk who were either too young, sick, or old to fight - as well as the women who were excluded from fighting. The spears of the conquering Tsardom brought them all to the townsquare where the bodies of the Dûnan soldiers still laid. Flanked by Darragh and the yellow maned soldier was Jjonveyo, blood spattered over his breastplate. He stood calculating as the survivors were put into rows and pushed to their knees.

“Valix had sealed your fate before the battle began,” Jjonveyo explained slowly, “I had offered peace and life but he swore war even at the cost of every child of this settlement.” Jjonveyo pointed his axe at a terrified mother who was clinging to her baby, “But know that the Tsar is one of mercy and I decree this oath struck by Valix to be nulled by his death as well as his inability to lead. He was not competent enough to strike such a deal - unless of course you all disagree.” Jjonveyo sniffed and stamped the butt of his axe into the ground, “I will ask each of you this, and listen closely and ponder the words for it will determine your fate.”

A pause.

“Do you want to live?”

The survivors exchanged looks. Then a mother with a babe on her arm crawled a little closer and, still on her knees, lifted her free arm in the Tsar’s direction. “Hail the ‘zar of the east, Jonwayo,” she said submittingly, respect in every word despite her botched pronounciation. Others quickly followed in her steps, submitting themselves to the Tsar’s leadership.

Dark, unforgiving eyes stared down the people as they praised their new Tsar. The tree-wrapped Cenél were standing each at least a head if not two towering over the Celeviak soldiers and watched the people kneel. Some exchanged glances, others looked at Darragh. Their faces began to sour. Their Boyar, their Fakir leader looked anything but pleased. After a few minutes it turned his back to the spectacle and walked away. The tree-kin Cenél trickled away. Following their leader.




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Auriëlle was tossing pebbles off the cliffside into the water below. Trying to hear the soft plunges over the violent waves clashing upon the rock. The plaza stretching behind her was empty. She knew the center of it bared a symbol of a giant lobster, which itself had lines carved over itself. Rays flowed from it and the edges of the plaza showed coasts the great beast was to visit.

Another pebble fell from the edge down. A pulse travelled across the mana. Faint and utterly unnoticeable. The pings and touches flowed back to the sorceress. For a moment she saw the world. Less in some ways. Without color. Things that lived and breath were near-shapeless masses. Walking clouds. Those who could cast magic had a dim light to them. It was as Duxus had described, months ago. At the same time she saw more than what others would. She saw the other side of the hedge. What was beyond a wall.

Sadly the pulse was just that, a pulse. A moment of reality. Before it faded again. Her mind became adept at holding onto everything that was sensed but it wasn’t sight. Not really. Another pebble fell from over the cliff. This time, her pulse caught it mid-air. Reality dictated that the pebble would fall down. Yet from the momentary grasp of the world the stone could be going up or down.

She sensed something else as well. A cloud with light shining from it approaching her from behind.

“He will be gone for a few more days still.” The voice, the Headmaster, said. “Perhaps you could find other ways to fill your days, rather than waiting for him here.”

“I like the waiting.” Auriëlle said. She had nothing else to do really. The rest of the people here couldn’t understand her. And they in turn spoke utter gibberish. Duxus and the Headmaster were the only ones who understood her, and she got to liking Duxus vastly more.

“Of course.” The headmaster said before he walked away again. It wasn’t the first time he suggested she did something else. In truth she had no idea what he meant. He was talking about magic but she couldn’t do spells. Nothing ever worked for her. Besides, with the power she commanded through cheer sorcery, why would she ever need spells?

As usual her mind began to wander around again. She tried to remember Ha-Dûna but it felt faded. There were the megaliths but half of them had no real shape in her mind. She had forgotten them, even though she didn’t want to. Especially now. Words had been fleeing as well, but the feelings lingered. Hopelessness. Doubt. Confusion. The goddess asking whether or not she really wanted to follow the path she took. That one question lingered the strongest.

Would she have it any other way? A god took from her any chance for a normal life and back then she had lamented that fact. Back then she was scared. She would’ve rather huddled up in some hut far away from everywhere. Eat from the land she tended. Or hide in the deep shadows of a city. Working in some forgotten corner as a scribe. Carn had made things bearable and even fun back then. Carn… she missed him. And every time she thought of him her heart ached. Was he dead? Was he at peace now?




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