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Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Valor
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Valor

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Preparation.




Celestine paced about her personal chambers as she contemplated what preparations she would need to make for the upcoming conflict. She knew that deploying one of her Death Dragons, or perhaps two, would be a viable solution. But they were massive forces of destruction and capable of causing an extensive amount of collateral damage. Perhaps then sending forth her Virtus Elves first would be a wiser idea? A fine needle to address the problem in a more surgical manner rather than simply smashing away at it with the hammer that the Death Dragons were. She would need to make sure that the Virtus Elves were prepared to leave the paradise that they lived in.

Moving to the balcony that lay outside her personal chambers, Celestine moved to begin granting gifts of knowledge and equipment to her Virtus Elves but was stopped shortly thereafter by the sudden occurrence of an idea. If she was to deposit the Virtus upon Galbar to serve as a peacekeeping force then it would likely be useful to shore up their ability to function independently of their patron goddess. Indeed, if they could not produce or maintain their own equipment then she would have to tend to their needs constantly. Nodding to herself, Celestine began to enact a different plan. She had no intention of abandoning them once they were upon Galbar, but it would be crippling to their effectiveness to be so dependent upon constant gifts and guidance.

First, the city surrounding her castle was expanded once again. In the new space that was created several training fields were added to practice swordplay and archery. Then she added six smithies for the Virtus to begin forging and maintaining their own weapons and armor. When this was done, she decided that it was time to make full use of the gift that she had been given by Àicheil. Hefting The Akashic Gate from its resting place, Celestine carried it to the town square and sent out a divine ping to the Virtus Elves that lived within her realm. Taking a moment to craft a shrine to The Akashic Gate in the town square, Celestine began the tedious process of distributing the pages from it to the gathered elves. Hours were spent distributing pages to them, but each and every Virtus Elf was eventually given a page from The Akashic Gate and thus attuned to it as The Dreaming God had specified. This would prevent the knowledge that she was about to give them from being lost. The Akashic Gate would remain within the shrine that had been made for it for now, able to be accessed by any elf that needed it. It would have to go unto Galbar when the Virtus were permanently placed there, but for now it could remain where it was.

When she was finished with the tome Celestine expanded her divine senses and tapped into her reservoir of divine power. Bringing forth a small pool of it Celestine placed two drops within the mind of every Virtus Elf. Within the first drop was the knowledge of metalworking and blacksmithing, with special attention paid towards the crafting and maintaining of weapons and armor. Within the second drop was the knowledge of how best to utilize the weapons and armor that they were going to make. Strategies and tactics for waging the war that they would soon be embroiled in.

Once this was done, Celestine paid a visit to each of the six smithies that she had placed within the city surrounding her castle. Within each smithy she used a portion of her divine power to stock it with a large quantity of steel. Then she gave instructions for the Virtus to begin forging arms and armor for the coming conflict. Some time thereafter she was made aware of an issue that the Virtus were having with some of the bows that they were making: The immense draw-weights of some of these bows exhausted them after a few shots, and while they were plenty powerful their weight made them cumbersome to aim and move about the battlefield with.

This left Celestine with a dilemma. She could instruct them to make bows from wood as was more traditional and better understood, or…

Dipping into her divine strength and expanding her divine senses once again, Celestine bestowed a new blessing upon the Virtus Elves: A blessing of Strength. A brief period of clumsiness ensued as the Virtus adjusted to their new strength, but once it passed they found themselves more than capable of wielding the bows that they made. In fact, their enhanced strength made their new task of blacksmithing that much simpler, as they could work the metal much faster and more accurately than before.

With that finished, Celestine instructed her Virtus Elves to train themselves in the combat tactics that they had been taught, and to construct as many sets of equipment as they could. She told them of their upcoming deployment, and asked that as many of them be ready for combat as they could. The response was simply overwhelming. Drills were held constantly, and teams of blacksmiths cycled in and out of the smithies constantly to produce elegant yet deadly equipment at an astonishing pace. They were so eager to please their goddess...

Returning to her personal chambers, Celestine sat down at her desk and buried her face in her hands. She mourned the losses that would inevitably come because of this event. She knew that it was nearly inevitable that not all of them would return to the realm alive, or return at all given that she could not knight all of them to ensure their return to her realm. Celestine knew that they would give anything she asked of them, but hated the fact that she had to ask in the first place.

She hated the fact that war seemed to be the only way to solve things, and hoped that her plan of installing the Virtus as peacekeepers would break the cycle of violence in the area. If it didn’t… She didn’t know what she would do.



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Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Frettzo
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I





It was a sound that made shivers travel down his spine.

The incessant, morose humming.

”Out in the open seas, a ship sailed.
The sea below, like a thick fog, veiled.
Within the veil,
One, two, twelve tails.”


The singer’s voice, low and unaffected by the rough seas, kept a constant level of volume just loud enough to be heard and yet low enough to make the listener wonder if they heard the words correctly.

Out of everyone in the ship, the singer(an Old Sailor) was the only one that the Recruit had had any trouble getting to know. Every time he spoke to the man, he’d stare blankly at him for a few seconds, then turn away and corry on with his tasks while humming and singing the same four lines.

He had lost it, everyone said, a long time ago when a ship he used to sail on sunk into the depths, seas away.

And in fact, one look at the Old Sailor’s appearance and the way he carried himself would be enough for a normal person to dismiss him as insane… The Recruit, however, was anything but normal.

There was a certain darkness in the man’s eyes that spoke of things he had seen, things that had broken him beyond repair… Things that had stolen his speech, and taken the fiery spark of curiosity from his eyes.

For now the Recruit kept on working, making sure that the central structural beam of the ship was intact. It was an important job, one that he had been assigned merely a week after joining the crew due to his hard work and getting the head explorer to recognize his abilities.

Again with the humming, the Recruit thought. He had to tell the Old Sailor to shut up, or he’d go insane.

”Out in the open seas, a ship sailed.
The sea below, like a thick fog, veiled.”


The Recruit turned to stare down the Old Sailor, but instead realized that the Old Sailor’s mouth was closed. He wasn’t making a noise.

”Within the veil,
One, two, twelve tails.”


As the sound finished, the Recruit felt his own mouth closing. His heart skipped a beat, and his stomach turned.

He had been the one singing.
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Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Legion02
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“Am I boring you, Auriëlle?” The Headmaster asked. The first words he spoke in class that Auriëlle could actually understand. She never even looked up. Her head was just resting on her desk. Almost as if she was asleep. Though she knew he had turned towards her. For the past hour he had just been talking in a language she didn’t understand. Probably about magic but how could she know?

“You are.” She said without even looking up. In one hand she raised the paper that was resting underneath her. “I wish you would make this a bit more interesting.” She said and then lit the paper up. It burned to ash in an instant. Several of her classmates, none of whom she could understand, gasped and leaned away from the flashfire. With her face still on the desk the sorceress grinned. She could sense them at their desks. Even the idiots that sat behind her that had tried to run a prank on her.

“Out. Now.” The headmaster said. Auriëlle didn’t even fight it. She just got up and walked out of the auditorium. Most of the students pulled their chair closer to their desk to let her pass, except one. Who seemed to be as lazy as her and hadn’t noticed she was leaving. At least not until she kicked the chair. The two hind-legs of the chair magically shattered upon impact. Sending the student and his chair down to the ground. Only for Auriëlle to step over him.

He yelled something.

Auriëlle turned to face him. Her blank stare focused down at him. Of course, she didn’t know what he had just yelled but she assumed it was an insult. An old habit boiled up again as she took a step towards him. Maybe she should teach him the same lesson she had taught so many during her raids.

“Auriëlle.” The Headmaster in front said. The mere mention of her name stopped her. She let out a deep sigh, turned around and walked away again.

“Whatever.” She said to herself as she closed the ornate carved door behind her. “It’s not like I could even understand what they were saying.” Talking to herself had become something of a habit lately. A few minutes later she was standing in Duxus’ plaza again.

“Welcome… little one.” The creature said with its gentle giant tone. For several days Auriëlle hadn’t dared visit him. Not after what happened last. Yet when she finally summoned the courage, Duxus never even mentioned the incident. The fact that there wasn’t even a scratch on him probably meant he didn’t really care. Which helped Auriëlle not care about it either.

“Hey there big guy!” She yelled with excitement. Duxus really was the one interesting thing to her still. “The classes are boring.” With that said she lazily sat down in front of him, basking in the sunlight. Several of the student around, having heard what had happened, started walking away again. “I just wished they taught me something useful.”

“Knowledge…requires…time. This… I was told.” Duxus answered. “You shouldn’t… forsake… your studies. Discipline… is what… you require.”

“I know, I Know.” Auriëlle said. “It’s just… I sat in a class full of weird people talking their funny language. What am I supposed to do there? Learn the damned sounds?” She looked away. Towards where she knew the horizon would be but couldn’t see it.

A few hours later and Auriëlle was in another class. This time alone at a bench. Students were spread out. Each having their own workbench filled with tools and simple stone. Auriëlle was toying with hers. Spinning it on the wood while the Headmaster was talking in front of the class in the funny language she didn’t want to learn. Until he started showing stones of his own. Through the sight Auriëlle could see in what shape they were carved. Then everyone went to work.

Including the sorceress. Though she didn’t really want to grab a hammer and chisel. She just traced the lines in the stone with her finger. The rock turned to gravel, then fine sand and eventually poured off the stone. Revealing a groove. Soon she had the shape of the rune exactly right and channeled her magic through it. Much like she did with sorcery.

Nothing happened.

She frowned, tossed the stone away again and took another. In the same way she traced the rune into it. This time a bit larger. Again she channeled her magic through it. Nothing happened. Again she tried it with another stone. The biggest she had. One she had to hold in both hands. She traced the rune exactly right and… nothing happened.

Out of pure frustration she slammed the rock down on the bench. It shattered in an instant. Rock and debris shot around everywhere except towards the sorceress. For a second she heard several screams in the class. The next thing she sensed were the students nearest to her. Leaning away again with shards floating in front of them. Their workbenches filled with pieces of stone.

“Auriëlle.” The Headmaster said. She sensed him now to channeling magic. When he released it, she heard the bits and pieces of stone fall from the air. “Out.”

“it’s not fair! I can’t even understand what he’s saying!” Auriëlle screamed in front of Duxus. He didn’t answer as she paced back and forth in front of him. She was alone in the plaza. “How am I supposed to learn spells if I can’t even understand him. And I already can’t cast spells! I never could! This was such a stupid idea. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! All that time wasted I could’ve used to build a raft or something to get out of here.”

“The waters… around… are dangerous. It would’ve been… unwise.” Said Duxus in his usual monotone voice.

Auriëlle just glared at him. “Well I’m getting off one way or the other.” She said. “Even if that means I’ll have to move this entire gods damned island.” With that said she stomped off again. Duxus was a good friend to talk to but not now. Not when she felt this frustrated. What she needed to do now was let of steam. Luckily whatever idiot had made this school had included a few places where you could actually throw lighting, rock and fire to your heart’s contend.

A rather sizeable boulder was careening through the air. It was heading straight for a floating mirror off in the distance. Yet when it touched the surface, it harmlessly passed through. Auriëlle saw it ripple like a vertical pond. Magic around it awakened and momentarily altered something about the mirror, she couldn’t say what, and then shifted back to its normal form. Behind the mirror laid an ever increasing heap of stone.

“Not a bad shot.” The Headmaster said from behind her. Auriëlle hadn’t noticed him approaching. She was far too focused on reaching far out towards the mirrors.

“You’re not here to appreciate my throwing skills. So what do you want?” An icy Auriëlle asked as she prepared another stone to throw towards another mirror. A second later it was whistling through the air.

“I am here… to teach you a lesson.”

Auriëlle turned to look at the Headmaster. Just in time to see him pull up his right sleeve. Around it the gaseous form suddenly took tight shape of circles around his arm. Lines of now glowing energy formed across his arm. A second later the deafening crack of a thunder could be heard. A whip of lightning had lashed out just beside Auriëlle. “What the hell!” She yelled. Surprised by the sudden attack. “You could’ve hit me!”

“Maybe I should’ve.” There was no malice in the Headmaster’s voice. The lines around his right arm were still seemingly flowing as he lashed out again.

The sorceress dodged and unleashed a wave of fire at the Headmaster.

He reached out with his hand and said something. Auriëlle could sense his lips moving. Yet couldn’t make out the words. Yet again she saw the fog around everything tighten and glow. Several hundred rivulets of it raced through the air towards the fire. Crawling through it like roots through earth and then split the fire. So it passed the headmaster harmlessly.

The headmaster retaliated immediately. The lightning whip combined with several other spells of rock, sand, fire and lightning kept Auriëlle on her toes. Forcing her to move around in an effort to dodge his attacks. Meanwhile the Headmaster stood firmly in his one spot. Stone was rendered to harmless sand half-way towards him. Lightning arched around him like it was afraid and finally fire just split itself in half every time.

For ten minutes they had been fighting. Auriëlle was out of breath. Again she saw the golden glowing rivulets splitting her fire. Wave after wave he had done so. She tried to throw some more rocks but she didn’t have the time. Her body had slowed down. She had just regained her footing when the crack of thunder roared far too close to her. The lightning whip barely touched her. But it was enough. She felt her entire body tense up. For but a second she saw the rivulets form something just between herself and the lightning.

Then she was pummeled through the air. Send flying by a force that should’ve been invisible. For a few seconds she was weightless. Yet pain coursed through her. Part of her hip was burned ugly by the lightning. She winced, until the inevitable fall to the ground force all the air from her lungs. Three coughs was all she could utter as her entire back felt as if it was broken. Something whooshed from high up. She rolled aside. Where she laid two seconds ago now laid a boulder that would’ve crushed her entire body.

Enraged she shot up again. The falling bolder had thrown up a lot of dust. A problem for the Headmaster, who stopped his assault for a second. Auriëlle’s sight focused on the rivulets around his arm and then turned her gaze towards her own right arm. Her sleeve was already tattered. With her other hand she tore the remnants of the cloth away. Akin to sorcery, she simply demanded the rivulets of mana to take the same shape.

She felt energy course across her arm. Though it was quite akin to when she threw lightning normally. Would it work? Auriëlle didn’t have the luxury to ask that question. She saw a golden drop-imbued wind come from high up. Blowing away the dust. A second later she saw the Headmaster summon the whip from his arm again. Ready to lash out towards her with it. Auriëlle mimicked his movement. Swinging her right arm around her head before letting it flail out.

Two whips of lightning met in the middle and like rope entwined. Auriêlle gripped hers firmly and yanked back. The Headmaster was pulled off his feet and pulled towards the stone she had already send his direction.

Yet suddenly the two whips disentangled. The stone turned to sand midflight. Every momentum was lost as it fell harmlessly down to the ground. The Headmaster landed back on his feet with a big smile on his face. Auriëlle still stood ready to attack at a moment’s notice. The golden glowing lines on her arm remained as well. Yet her breathing was ragged. Her knee would soon give in. She could feel the left side of her face already swelling up.

“Congratulations, Auriëlle.” The Headmaster said as he folded his arms. The smile he had never vanished. “You’ve just used your first real spell.” He had always been dismissive of the demonic summoning spell that Auriëlle had mastered before.

Sensing no more attacks Auriëlle fell backwards. Whincing in pain as she realized she had fallen on her back before. “By the gods.” She said with her eyes closed. She felt like she could sleep for a week. Yet a grin began to form on her lips as well. “It’s been years since I last fell so…exhilarated.”

“A worthy opponent can do that.” The Headmaster said as she sat down beside her. She sensed him looking up at the dusk night sky. It had to be dusk. The temperatures were starting to cool slightly and she couldn’t feel the warm light of the sun so much on her skin anymore.

“I… really did use a spell just then. Did I?” Auriëlle asked as she looked at her own arm. The golden lines were gone. Broken up. Only fog remained again. But for a moment she had seen something solid and firm in the magical substance that surrounded her.

“You did dear. I figured you wouldn’t learn a thing in a classroom. From everything you’ve told me I don’t think you’ll ever learn that way. But it seems like you’ve got a very interesting way of rising to the challenge.” Said the Headmaster. But then he got up. “Now I have to go back to actual teaching.”

“Wait!” Auriëlle shouted as her body tried to shoot up. Except she felt stiff and bruised all over. “When can we do this again? Maybe I can learn that spell you’ve used to split fire in two?” Pure excitement, something she hadn’t felt since Ketrefa, poured from her words.

“Soon. Soon. Rest now. You’ve taken quite a beating.” The Headmaster walked away. Leaving a worn out, severally bruised but happy Auriëlle laying in the scorched and blackened grass.



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Hidden 4 mos ago 4 mos ago Post by Frettzo
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The Buzzslinger





I





The whole town was dead silent. Nary a whisper nor a step. It was just the two men standing twenty steps apart, staring each other down.

A window creaked, a small Sylphi’s brown face peeking out from inside one of the homes.

Hands hovered over buzzers.

One man’s hand was shaking. The other man’s hand was calm.

One was covered head to toe in leathers and furs from all over the Arborean lands. The other donned simple clothes and a large straw hat.

Their hair was long, flowing in the wild winds of the Calyptus Desert. One man’s was black with streaks of grey. The other’s was as brown as the mud in the Garden.

Someone shut a door loudly, the sound echoing all across town, through the empty alleys and off the flimsy clay and sandstone walls.

The man in simple clothes took in a deep breath, the other man’s fingers twitching. The town still had the scent of freshly baked bread lingering. The sun had finally risen over the horizon.

The sound of a hundred bees filled the town.

It was a blur. In one moment, buzzers had been drawn. The man covered in furs shot first.

Out of his buzzer came a dragon of fire, devouring everything in its path to its destination, the other man.

The other man then shot his own buzzer and a great gust --no, a blast-- of wind pushed the dragon of fire back, then as the simple man threw his buzzer to the ground, the wind shot upwards into the sky.

As the simple man raced through the superheated air left behind by the dragon, the dragon in the skies above exploded in a blaze of endless colours.

Skin sizzling and grunting in pain, the simple man lunged at the one in furs.

The nervous man choked and dropped his buzzer upon seeing the other’s charge and grabbed the adze he kept in his belt.

Yet the other man was too fast. As soon as the furred man had raised the adze, he was in front of him with his arm raised to intercept the strike. When he brought down his adze, it struck the simple man’s arm without much built up force and got it lodged into the bone.

“AAAAAAAAHH!” Screamed the simple man as he twisted his arm and disarmed the furred man, blood gushing out of his arm and all over the two men.

“S-Shit!” The furred man shouted as the other man tackled him to the ground and mounted him. He was too slow in bringing up his guard, as by the time he had realized what had happened, the simple man’s fist crashed upon his left eye.

CRACK

And the pummeling did not stop there. The simple man hammered the furred man’s face, jaw, neck and head for well over a minute.

When the simple man finally stopped the motionless furred man had been beaten beyond recognition and the simple man, left arm immobile and his torso drenched in the blood of his opponent, let out a scream of victory.

He raised his good arm toward the skies, the embers of the dragon of fire falling onto the sandy roofs and streets of the town and being put out for good.

There was a moment of quiet...

“THE BUZZSLINGER TOOK DOWN THE DRAGON!”

Suddenly, doors and windows were thrown open and dozens of voices joined in on the cheering. Sylphi, goblins and humans piled out of the buildings and circled around the Buzzslinger, patting him as he screamed victoriously again.

Cactus seeds were thrown all throughout town and bards from the tavern started playing music and singing one of the many tales of the Buzzslinger.

The injured hero of the people, with an adze still stuck in his radius, his skin covered by blisters from charging through superheated air, and his right hand’s knuckles broken and bleeding, finally stood up and, with a swift final kick to the ribs of the unconscious Dragon, turned away and made his way through the cheering crowd and straight for the woman standing at the back of it all, wearing washed out blue robes and copper ornaments around her wrists, neck and ankles.

Tears brimmed in her eyes as she stared at the Buzzslinger. He smiled roguishly as he approached her, using his mobile arm to flip up his straw hat to gaze down at the adoring woman. His brown, steely eyes met her wide emerald ones, then he nodded and she jumped to embrace him, crying into his chest.

“OW!”

“S-Sorry, sorry!” The woman quickly pulled away and smiled, wiped her joyful tears and grinned at the Buzzslinger.

“How about we start working on patching me up? My arm feels like it’s gonna fall off any second now, and the battle rush is fading. I’ve also got blisters everywhere… Absolutely everywhere. I don’t know what I’d do without you and your blessed hands, Mend.” The Buzzslinger chuckled, and the woman did the same. She then turned and led him into the nearest building, the Pillar’s Home.

From that point, the pair spent several days and nights working on his proper recovery. The townsfolk, eternally thankful to the Buzzslinger for taking care of the Scourge of the Calyptus, spared no expense in feeding him and housing him.




II





The Buzzslinger threw open the front door to the Pillar’s Home and came face to face with a pair of Sylphi. One was a wide eyed, awfully vibrant green one with luminous golden eyes and the other was one up there in age, with yellowing leaves and a slight dullness in his eyes.

The Buzzslinger’s eyes traveled all over the two Sylphi, and theirs did the same. It was when the Buzzslinger saw the male holding his hand over a profusely bleeding injury in his side that he smirked and flipped up his hat at them, looking at them with an amused expression before turning his head slightly to yell into the house.

“Mend? Got some work for ya!”



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Hidden 4 mos ago 4 mos ago Post by Frettzo
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The Singer





I





Staring at the sky and humming her little melodies was all she could do.

Lost in the endless forests as something alive yet not living. Doomed by fate itself as well as her kin to be forgotten and discarded, yet stubbornly grasping at the embers of life for the sake of her Dream. Disconnected from everything else and with her memories as her only compass.

She reached for the twinkling stars, her hand slightly translucent and her body emitting an otherworldly glow, and closed her eyes.

Alone. She was alone.

A whimper came from nearby, and the short goblin opened her eyes again and walked over to the source of the sound. Her steps were not synchronized to her movement and wherever she stepped, the ground glowed for a few minutes after.

It was behind a tree, hidden and curled up, that she found the child.

A little human, no older than ten. The boy was shivering with his eyes closed, bruises and small cuts all over his body.

A strange sound came out of the goblin wight’s throat as it half walked half floated up to the child, kneeling down in front of him and caressing his cheeks. She wiped away sweat and tears and mud, the touch cold as ice on the child’s skin. He got goosebumps along his arms, and weakly managed to open his eyes to look at the ethereal form of the smiling goblin.

There was no fear in his eyes. Not a single twitch or gasp as he saw the wight in front of him, nor the clean deep gash along her throat, or the liquid that eternally dripped from the injury only to evaporate as soon as it touched the ground.

Instead, his eyes widened and sparkled as he coughed blood all over himself.

The boy relaxed and fresh tears streamed down his cheeks as he sniffled and buried his face behind his knees, his body shaking rhythmically in synchronization to his quiet sobbing.

The undead goblin sighed, wrapped her slender arms around the boy and caressed him gently as she began to hum one of her melodies. The soft music echoed deep into the silent woods. Their only witness being the full moon and the trees, the goblin kept comforting the child even after his sobbing had stopped and his body had grown cold and rigid.

She only let go once she felt his spirit pass through her, on his way to the stars. At that point, she wiped her own tears and continued to watch over the small body.

“You... were silenced... too…” She muttered to no one in particular, tracing fingers along the edges of the gash cut into her throat. “This world... is cruel and.... unforgiving… For a... pure creature... like you to... end up like this… do the Gods... have no hearts?”

There was silence for a while, until she began to hum once more, eyes closed as she stood up and stayed beside the body the child had left behind.




II





Soon after the first night of grieving, the wight had chosen to hide within the tree that kept the boy's corpse out of the rain. Weeks later, it was a rough voice that woke her from her reverie. It was a Sylphi’s voice, she could tell not only from the sound but from the smell and taste of his soul.

He, accompanied by a much younger Sylphi girl as well as two humans, one with a straw hat and the other with washed out blue robes, came to a stop in front of the body.

“Tsk…”

“Gods be damned…” Said the one in robes.

“The monster who did this… We gotta get rid of it. This can’t happen again.” Said the one with the straw hat. He slid his hat in such a manner that it would cover more of his face, but he could not hide his turbulent emotions from the wight.

The Sylphi girl, after a moment of shock, started to cry. Instead of saying anything, she instead walked off into the forest. No one else followed, their bodies tense and shoulders slumped. The midday light cast long shadows down their faces.

The Sylphi male went on to kneel in front of the husk that had once contained the soul of an innocent boy, and poked it. It immediately dissolved into dust and was blown away by the breeze.

“Ghouls…” He whispered, with the man in the hat grunting and the robed woman turning away and crossing her arms.

The shadows grew long under the tree. The wood creaked and leaves rustled.

“You… Mourn for… Him…” Came the weak, breathless voice.

The men tensed, hands slowly finding their way to their weapons. The Sylphi male took a sharp breath.

“... Yes, we do. We were meant to protect him…” He said.

“We were meant to save him! From the bunch o’ freaks that took children from outside the Forest!” The man with the hat shouted, one hand now on his buzzer and the other digging for cartridges in his pouch.

“I… Grieve for him… too...” The weak voice continued. A silence ensued.

The silence was eventually filled by a soft melody coming from the tree, however. A gentle thing that calmed the soul and gave it respite.

It was a minute that the three living sapients were on guard, but to the wight it felt like far longer. Once they relaxed and took their hands off their weapons, she stopped her melody and watched.

“Do you, um, know where to find… You know, the ones responsible for this?” The robed woman asked, her eyes sparkling similarly to the way the boy’s eyes sparkled when he saw her.

“I… Do…”

The three mortals shared glances, nodded and the Sylphi male went off to presumably get the girl that had walked off.

Once he was away, the wight left her hiding spot within the tree, materializing right on the spot where the boy’s husk had rested. She was a goblin, but unlike most goblins she was elegantly dressed with the finest fabrics from the Great City, all tinged a strange blue colour, made more clear due to her translucent nature and her glow.

Her features as well, were not as wild as those of foreign goblin clans’. Instead, they resembled much more closely the features of modern civilized Arborean craftsperson goblins.

Reaching up to their knees at most, the goblin wight looked at them with her glazed blue eyes and turned to walk in a set direction.

“Follow…” She told them and walked.

Just in time for the sylphi male to come back with the girl in tow, who was rubbing her eyes still. The man in the hat saw the two Sylphi return and whispered to them, a wild glint in his eyes and his brows twitched and his mouth seemed to have trouble deciding whether to laugh or scream.

“T… That thing’s got a fuckin’ gash in its throat! It’s drippin’, someone slit its throat! How the fuck’s it walkin’ and talkin’?!”

“You’re friends with hunter who’s also a talking plant, as well as his adoptive daughter who is also a dead goddess, and you think a ghost is weird?” The Mender asked the Buzzslinger, jabbing him lightly in the side with her elbow.

“Ow! Hey, my ribs are sensitive! Fuckin’...” The Buzzslinger muttered something unintelligible before the Mender jabbed his side again and turned away to hide her smug grin. “OW! Thaa take me now and end my sufferin’...”



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Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Enzayne
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Enzayne Invading Eldar

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First Contact





The swell of the sea and steady winds battering them from the side was enough to send a spray of water onto the deck of their vessel. The black sail was rolled up and wound tight, lest the current would catch it and risk stealing away both balance and direction. At the fore of the ship, nestled in under the dragon-head arch sat old Hýlva, droning a loud throat-borne song and beating her weathered reindeer-skin drum. Her voice and music mingled with the wind, reverberating through each wave that hit the ship. Ronja felt the world's turmoil around them abate and ebb away as the deep song lifted the worries of the nature spirits just enough for the sea not to claim their craft. The cold waters beneath washed and sprayed against the dark wood with uneasy tension, but nevertheless carried them forward without quarrel, each heave of oars catapulting them forward on the rocking waves.

In the darkness of night, they could just barely make out the contours of the nearest ship, and had to trust that the others had sight of the last. When day broke, they'd hopefully find they'd never left each other's side. Ronja didn't know if Hýlva's song extended the same protection to the others, if the sea would take offense at their bold walk across the water and swallow another ship. Both of them full of villagers. Her friends. Perhaps this journey was a mistake after all. She gripped the mast tighter and stared at the distant contour of the other ship. She wondered how Hakon was doing. If either of them fell overboard, her last words to him would be to shut up. She frowned to herself, leaning against the post. No, she resolved. They were chosen. Neither wind nor sea would keep them. Aveira had entrusted the future of not just Reginsvik, but the entire merelli race to them - even if she didn't fully understand yet how such a thing could be achieved. Only one thing was certain. Darkness and swelling water would be the least of their worries. Her gaze fell down to the ram-horned dark metal helmet in her hand, and then the many spiral horned helmets among her rowing comrades. For a fleeting moment she worried, but the embrace of her overcoat burned with a gentle heat that filled her body and swelled her spirits, and she pulled it tighter around her to protect against the mild rains. Slowly Ronja's expression shifted to a smirk, and she viewed her rowing friends with pride. They were pioneers of a new era. Just like her.

"Take heart," she voiced with renewed fervor, letting go of the mast to walk among her rowing friends. "Wind, water and darkness cannot stop us. We are the promised people!"

A few of them chimed in to acknowledge her words, and Ronja took to a louder tone. "What are we?!"

"Chosen!" The crowd shouted back, and Ronja tightened her grip on her helmet.

"What belongs to us?!" She followed up.

"Everything!"

She repeated the chant until they all joined in and expected it, drowning the howl of the wind with exultant cries. As she cried herself hoarse, she could hear voices in the dark; people on the other ships calling out to respond as well.

They barely noticed how their loud ways disrupted old Hýlva's careful song, and how the waves grew in protest.




"Careful with those, or you'll feed the dog before us." Eàmon remarked with a big grin almost as bright as his golden hair, eliciting a tired grunt from Mionn, who could only heft the net higher to try and get it free of the small wooden stumps on the side of their short jetty. Each pull threatened to both rip the net and unleash the handful of fish still violently wriggling within, eager to escape.

"You could just help me untangle it," she groaned and cast him a bothered glance from under her unkempt red locks. Her best attempt at tugging the net free only served to tangle and bunch it up further.

"No, no. You pointedly said you didn't want my hands nowhere near you. I got to oblige that, it's my honor at stake." He lectured with great amusement, waving a hand before placing it on his chest.

Another grunt from Mionn set him straight, and Eàmon finally moved to help. "I saw you making eyes at that new white-coat. You can't very well go touching me up if you're dreaming about sowing seeds in some big town hussy. Pappy will beat me and kill you." She admonished with consternation, though accepted his help in untangling the net with clear relief.

Eàmon gave her a good-natured glance as he leant down to pull the net free. "You think so poorly of me, Mionn. I'm just curious. Ain't often we get visitors, right? Don't you ever dream about the bigger world?"

That elicited a sigh from Mionn, who reflexively tugged her net upwards as soon as it was free, and made her way down the jetty as she spoke. "The dûnans are all talk, putting their problems on other people and dragging kind-hearted folk into their weird cult. Like Dugh, remember?"

"Not this ag--"

"Not a word for near three years, then he comes in all wild-eyed raving about his new god. Sigeran this, Sigeran that. Not a care for his family. Even his Pa didn't want him around no more." Mionn concluded with a firm and lecturing tone, bunching up the net of wriggling fish to stow in a large clay bowl.

"Dugh always was that kinda way. He'll come around. Shepherding will do him good." Eàmon replied with a shrug, moving over to help untangle the net and dump out their prize.

Mionn sighed and glanced up at him, "He's my cousin, Eàmon, but I don't feel like I recogni-..." she began, pausing as her gaze fixed on the ocean. Her brows furrowed slowly, and that was enough for Eàmon to stop his work and follow her gaze.

On the horizon, the silhouettes of three large ships bobbed closer over the water. Black sails and dark wood was enough to make them foreign, but the design was nothing like either of them had seen. Eàmon narrowed his eyes and watched the approaching ships with deep thought and scrutiny. For a brief slice of silence, both of them just stood there, watching the silhouettes until it was clear the ships were coming straight for them.

"Go and get my pappy, Mionn. He knows all the boats what come through here." Eàmon murmured.

Within minutes, the entire village was abuzz with the gnawing sensation that something was wrong.




"No movement, far as I can see." Arvid mumbled from the fore of the ship, turning back to face the crouching mass of warriors holding their equipment. Only a few were rowing now, slowing the advance of the ship to a crawl. On each side was another ship, filled to the brim with eager youth looking ahead or staring over to Ronja's ship for the go ahead.

"Why would it be abandoned?" Ronja mused idly, stroking a lock of white hair away from her face. In truth, she doubted it was, but Aveira had always said to consider every possibility.

"I saw someone, I swear it." The younger Jari piped up, only to be shushed by Arvid, and quickly looking back down at the deck at the behest of his elder.

"The promised land was supposed to be unsettled," Arvid argued in turn, rubbing at his face before facing the faraway shore again. "Did we sail off course?"

"Hýlva says the spirits carried us straight. The stars have said the same. This is where the gutakvínn wished us to go." Soini spoke up from among the waiting warriors, wearing a grim look in his face. He exchanged a brief glance with Ronja, and she couldn't help but reflect over how different he looked. In the ramhorn helmet and black wear, even the baker's son looked imposing. Grown up. Like a real warrior. She nodded to him, and he gave a firm nod in return.

"This isn't the promised land?" One of the younger men spoke up amidst the crowd. A few mutterings spread among the youthful warriors, followed by short debates and calls to shut up.

Ronja frowned deeply, and gripped the axe handle in her hand firmly. It was now or never. "We are the chosen! These people have tried to steal what is rightfully ours! Soini, Arvid. Lead our people on the ground. Let us show these trespassers what the rightful settlers are worth." The two boys nodded in turn, and gestured firmly to the assembled warriors. The rowing commenced in full force, and soon the other two ships followed suit. On Hakon's ship, someone banged a drum in rhythmic tension. Jari followed suit, and soon the final ship joined in as well. Among the soldiers, Soini led the initiative to hammer his axe handle into the deck, in rhythm with the drums. A loud, imposing melody followed them ashore. Ronja stared ahead, feeling a strange grip on her gut.

Destiny was in reach.




After she'd gotten the village's attention, everything had gone so fast. Mionn pressed herself together underneath the sheepskin pelt, huddled in the corner of her family's little hovel. Her mother wasn't far away, pulling young Calidigh into a comforting embrace and shushing his questions. None of the men wanted to answer what it meant, but Mionn knew what the looks on their faces had meant - she'd seen the same look each time refugees, preachers or warriors came from the west, taking the Dûnan war with them each time.

Outside she could hear her father's gravelly voice - muffled as it was through the walls. A few moments later the leather drapes blocking the door swept open, and another shape stepped into the musty old house. Long light brown hair and the white apparel gave it away instantly; the dûnan woman. She looked at the three of them sheepishly before clearing her throat. "Murtàgh said to come in here…"

Mionn's mother nodded and gestured at the free space left. Before long, the white-coat sidled over to slide down awkwardly next to Mionn, and almost immediately started fiddling with her hands. Mionn looked at her for longer than she'd allowed herself to in the past - she couldn't be much older than Mionn herself. Nineteen, maybe. The woman caught her looking and sent her a sheepish, faint smile. "...Mionn, right? I'm Teagan."

Mionn exhaled and looked away. "You dûnans always bring trouble," she muttered, earning her an instant reprimand from her mother. Mionn shot her a sour glance and pulled her legs up against her body.

"Y-... You mean the ships? That has nothing to do with me," Teagan eventually cut in, glancing between all assembled. "I'm sure it's nothing. This is a pious place, the gods won't allo-"

"Just be quiet," Mionn bit back sharply and pre-empted her mother's next admonishment with another sour glance. Teagan looked crestfallen, but followed her new instructions and simply looked down.

The next few minutes were carried out in silence, with only the occasional muffled sound of talking from outside. Calidigh seemed not to understand why they were just sitting there, and tried to break the tension by moving away. Mother quickly set him right and shushed him once more.

It didn't last long. The muffled voices were replaced by stamping feet, shouting, and the clatter of broken pottery. Something inside her froze up, and Mionn felt her entire back go stiff as the world outside took a new turn. Voices she'd never heard before shouted and hollered from outside; she couldn't make out what they were saying - it didn't even sound like anything she'd heard before. Deep and angry voices echoing and jeering from all sides of their little hovel.

Mionn felt her breath catch in her throat and heard her heart pounding in her ears. Fear began to grip the four of them as they listened to the growing shouting outside, and the crash and clatter of broken pottery and wood.

The flimsy door to their little hiding place swung open with enough force to rip from its top hinge, and two tall figures with giant horned helmets rushed inside. Mionn heard her mother scream in fear and surprise, and felt her whole body freeze. Her eyes locked on the axes in their hands. They barked at them in some awful language, and moved to pull them from their hiding spot one by one. Teagan panicked beside her and threw herself up at the invader, begging for mercy. Mionn heard the crack of skin against skin as they struck her, and saw her tumble to the ground with a whimper. She tried to move from her crouch but her legs wouldn't listen, even as her mother screamed for her, escorted out of the hovel with a crying Calidigh in her arms, under threat of axe.

Someone shouted at her, a long dark coat and a weapon dangled in front of her threateningly. Mionn didn't have time to do anything - before she could truly react she felt a painful and firm grip of her hair, and the invader pulled hard to drag her out towards the exit. The pain was intense, shooting through her head until her eyes were welling up with tears and her breath was gone. It felt like he was pulling her skull from her body, and each scrape and cut along the ground only made it worse.

The cold breeze from the sea washed over her face and bare arms as she was dragged outside. The horror from inside was replaced by foreign chatter and the cries of others captured in the same way. A last burning pain rocked through Mionn's hairline as the invader pulled harder to throw her, and the dirt and gravel below scraped angrily against her skin and flax tunic. Her arm and knee burned with fresh scrapes, and even as the figure finally let go of her, her scalp felt like it had been permanently set ablaze with pain. Mionn pushed tear-welled eyes open and saw the carnage for herself.

Several dozen… maybe almost a hundred... black-clad pale invaders littered every nook and cranny of their little village, and more scurried around three large dragon headed ships at the stony beach. Most were wearing dark helmets with thick rounded horns, but a few wore no such headgear. She could see men and women alike, youthful and imposing with a fragile and fascinating beauty that made them both a wonder to behold, and a fright, as the strange fixation taking root in her mind contrasted starkly to their hard, angry faces and the weapons. Black and grey horns poked between the hair of those few without helmets - Mionn had seen merelli before, but never like this. They were never more than a few in a single place, never so angry.

Around her was almost everyone else in the village, assembled and dragged out into little communal area where their houses intersected. A cry of pain and protest came from behind, and Mionn looked over her shoulder in time to see the whitecloak Teagan get dragged and shoved her way as well. There wasn't enough time, and the young druid crashed into Mionn - just another bout of pain in the frenzied panic going on.

One of the dark clad invaders removed his helmet to reveal a young and statuesque face, it too adorned by short black horns. He barked at them angrily, pointing at the house to his right. There were no words that Mionn could even begin to make out. Even if she had tried, the freezing dread in her body refused to let her head work as it should. The invader paced in front of them, gesturing wildly at both them and their houses as he shouted. Teagan crawled up off the ground and earned a pull on her braid for her insolence, dragging her back to what Mionn was only now realizing was a lineup. Were their fates sealed already?

Eàmon seemed to think so, the young man burst from his anxious seat in the line to stand up beside the pacing invader. His hands nestled in the black coat, and an incoherent stream of pleading and demands left the boy's mouth. It was too fast for Mionn to catch, but it included sparing the women. He stared down at the invader as he kept him in place and for a moment Mionn watched him with renewed hope in the midst of her fears. The invader grabbed both sides of Eàmon's tunic and swept a firm leg to kick the human boy's legs out from under him. Eàmon fell hard to the ground, aided by a half-throw as the invader shoved his hands free of him. A dark boot came down on him, and within moments two more merelli burst forwards to assist in beating him down with firm, quick stomps all over his body to the tune of panicked and angry screaming from his captive family. Mionn was quiet, staring at the battery with a cold grip freezing her spine all the way through her form.

Eventually the beating stopped, and Eàmon wheezed out a weak sign of life through pain and bruising. The horned man did not care. He began shouting again, pointing down at Eàmon before sweeping his hand in a gesture towards all of them. Each motion of his hand made Mionn cringe with fright, and by the chorus of cries it elicited the same in others. A tap on the invader's shoulder made him pause. Another merelli - a youthful pale woman with almost shimmering white hair and black horns murmured something to him in their foreign tongue, and he seemed to calm down. She gestured at Eàmon, and the violent invader and a comrade moved forwards to drag him back into line. When they moved aside, the woman stepped forward. Her coat was longer and stiffer, black as night. It almost looked like armour. She scanned the line briefly before settling her gaze beside Mionn. She flicked her hand in a gesture, and her mother - still carrying Calidigh - was pulled to a stand. She sobbed quietly but dared not speak. Instead the merelli woman spoke. "Er ther sjalfraett ta ganga fri."

She repeated the words slowly, and gestured towards the grazing fields beyond the village. Mionn murmured for her mother, and others looked confused. Eventually the woman grabbed her mother by the arm and dragged her two feet while pointing at the fields. The other invaders moved out of their way. Confused and sobbing, Mionn's mother carried Calidigh away from the village. Mionn called for her, feeling her fear build selfishly inside her. A boot came down on her back, silencing her and pushing her into the dirt firmly. She watched helplessly from the ground as her mother and little brother were made to abandon them, and wander out of the village.

Then the woman squatted down in front of Mionn, and the pressure of the boot lessened to allow her to look up at her. "Ef er gett aet hvert naste manna-vist ydr, er ther sjalfraett ta ganga fri." The woman spoke - gibberish to Mionn beyond that strange pull the words seemed to have on her. They felt surreal and otherworldly. The pale woman repeated the same words and gestured out towards the fields.

Mionn stared at her in panic. What did she want? Was she taunting her? Was she gonna kill her? She didn't want to die. She'd do whatever, beg and plead - yet her lips refused to move? Words came in a murmur from her father no more than two feet away. "I think she wants us to give up more villages…"

"Maybe we'll get to go free if we comply…." Teagan whispered from her other side. Mionn sent her an incredulous stare. This woman was barely her senior, yet so willing to doom others. Even now, the distaste she had for dunans seemed to bubble and overtake her fear.

Mionn parted her lips to push out sound at last. "Ha-... Ha-Dûna…" she managed quietly, and saw the captive whitecloak beside her widen her eyes in realization and sudden panic. The white haired woman leaned in closer to Mionn, forcing forwards a thin, polite smile as she listened. "To the west… there is a rich place called Ha-Dûna. It will have an-..."

Teagan shot up beside her to a stand, surprising both invaders and captives. Her arm flailed to point east as a man stepped forward to wrestle her down. Panicked and spiteful the druid screamed to overpower Mionn's voice. "Scawick! It's right beyond the hills! Not more than three days! They have food and wealth and all you could ever want! You should go east! Scawick is ripe for your conquest, mighty peo-... Hnngh.."

Teagan was silenced as she was struck from behind, and then forcibly sat down again. "You bitch, we have family by Scawick!" Edragr the Woodsman roared from down the line, earning himself a swift bash on the head.

The merelli woman looked at Teagan, and then back to Mionn, who felt tears welling up in her eyes. She was tired, scared, and she'd wasted her words wishing misfortune on someone else. The pale woman tapped a finger to her lips in thought, before murmuring to herself. "Skaevik," before standing up and raising her voice to address the other invaders. "Wi ganga fra at Skaevik!" She gestured quickly at the line, and several invaders rushed forwards to grab everyone. Mionn felt hands grab her arms and lift her painfully from the ground. She saw the woman staring at her as she was dragged past, and she met her gaze exhausted by pain and fear.

Behind her, crying and shouting resumed. Chief among them Teagan the Whitecloak demanded to be released, but judging by her screaming protests, no one listened. One by one they were dragged to the beach, and the dark dragon-head ships.

Within the hour, the village was quiet. Empty of people, goods, and small livestock. Only two people - one of which was barely three - had witnessed the vanishing of a village.






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Lord Zee There must always be... A Zee

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Sundown





Grey and ominous colors tracked over the clouds as the winged avatar burst past them and lingered in the sky just above. Aveira's powerful wingbeats forced them to whip and whirl away like fleeing cattle, and the spirits of wind and water gathered and bunched themselves up uneasily, threatening to bundle into a thunderstorm to ward off Aveira's presence. Luckily for them, the avatar was not interested in tormenting the clouds further, but instead rocketed away with another beat of her wings. Before long, she was a tiny dot in the sky, speeding towards the west with breakneck speed.

Aveira was frustrated. Not only had she been made to abandon her project in the north early after decades of silence from the goddess, but now Neiya could not wait a full week before interrupting again to give her new instructions. She had abandoned Mekellos and his Acadian puppets without much more than a simple goodbye, yet she doubted that he would need her assistance to fulfill the cleansing of the forest that that they had begun – indeed, the only thing that truly bothered her was that the goddess had begun to speak, and now did so with neither acknowledgment or concern for their previous plans. Her only solace as she drifted through the clouds on wide colorful wings was that intervention in this new place would directly benefit her own little merelli project – now that Neiya seemed to have forgotten or stopped caring about the task she gave her so long ago.

The horned angel toyed with a few thoughts of playful rebellion. If Neiya no longer cared about the northern merelli, perhaps she would return herself and rule them as she saw fit. She had been much too lenient – decades had gone into shaping their minds, yet she doubted her trained youth were ready to handle the task on their own. The only benefit to this current task was it’s possible boon to the merelli project; Aveira cared about the Westfold about as much as she did Acadia. In another life, perhaps she would return to Acadia and raze it just to show Mekellos what real power looked like. He had let mortals make his mind soft, there was no doubt.

The winged avatar zipped across the sky, whipping up the colorful sky into a frenzy as she passed. Finally, when she could sight the mountains beneath, she came to an abrupt halt with a single beat of her wings. There she hovered, no more suspended by actual flight but rather willing the air to hold her up, as she extended her mind to feel and grasp at all that Galbar could be coerced to feel. Tendrils of black, blue and gold snaked from the ephemeral feathers on her wings, feeling out slowly in the air and sky, and crawling out over the void to root herself in the world. The world around her grew agitated and fearful, the very fabric of the world trembling with a building dread from the terror angels’ budding onslaught. Even from after she could sense those same emotions for which Neiya had once instilled in her a deep love.

This new land, the Westfold, was rife with hatred, pain, and fear. It was almost intoxicating, but it also made for a clear understanding of the goddess' interest in the region. Surely Neiya's words of mercy towards a people could be carried out in a way that bolstered these nascent troubles.
She raised her hands into the sky and closed her eyes, readying herself for the ritual she had in mind. There was nothing quite like making an entrance that would captivate the entire region.




Solus had flown a fair distance upwards towards the sensation that had first caught his mind. There was no mistaking it now, these energies and the unnatural dread warping all of the world around him as he flew through the sky was the same that he had been struck with several decades ago. It was like a beacon, infecting the world with pulsating enmity, growing stronger for each inch he cleared towards the source. It didn’t take a solar giant to figure out that something nebulous was taking place.

He broke through the clouds and found her. Tendrils ran from her wings into the sky, trying to corrupt all the world as she had the aiviri.

The Betrayer, the Fearspawn, the Hatred that Bloomed.

Aveira.

What was she doing? It didn’t matter, as he approached, for whatever it was he needed to stop it.

“AVEIRA!” His voice boomed like thunder, the clouds crackling with solar energy. “MY OLD ENEMY!” His voice, unrestrained now out of fear of mortal ears, shook the heavens. Spears of sunlight formed in his hands, letting her speak would be foolish. For nothing she said could be trusted. He lent back his arm, and threw a spear at her.

The angelic avatar shot her eyes open as Solus voice cracked like thunder across the sky, and that simple threat inherently borne in his words was enough for her to react. Her wings whipped and thrashed, battering the spear aside in protection of her form. It was enough to distract her - the tendrils began to dissipate and the tension carried in the air began to ease. He had interrupted whatever despicable act she was intending for Galbar next, and that fact seemed to make her focus entirely on him.

"I leave one fool behind to find another," she boomed with a palpable hatred, her wings whipping to carry her higher at first, like a hawk preparing to dive for prey. "I have longed to finish what we started!"

Solus’ only reply was to heft his other spear and throw it at her, before he himself started for her in a burst of lightning like speed. He was ready for this and this time, he could not allow her to continue. The fate of all depended upon it. Aveira stabilized in the sky above, drawn out of her impending attack by the second spear. That too was sent careening to the side by a slap of her massive wing, but it was enough to keep her still for just a moment.

It allowed for Solus to collide with her, the giant tackling the smaller avatar with a force that sent shockwaves, blasting apart the cloud cover as they were sent careening down. Solus punched Aveira time and time again and she did the same as they tumbled ever further to the mountainous terrain below. Each blow was as loud as thunder, as fierce as lightning and as dangerous as anything ever could be and neither yet relented. Ephemeral wings beat with a fury to both try and break away, and alternatively swipe angrily at Solus like a set of large blades trying to batter and cut at his glowing body. Aveira seemed to grow more and more bestial as they struggled, her features contorting with a rage and fury that made her fists seethe with darkness and her eyes burn with dread hatred. Each punch of his furious sun-tempered boulder like fists enraged her further, and like a frenzied bird she clawed and beat angrily, caught in the cycle of violence.

They fell towards the mountainside, exchanging violent blows like a falling star at war with itself. They spun and whipped around erratically as Aveira tried to break loose, but eventually they ran out of air to fall. With a deafening crack of stone and a thunderous boom, Solus felt the stone of the mountain crumble and crack around him as they slammed into the mountain range as beyond lethal speeds. Aveira was undeterred by the shockwave, smashing her fist down at him like an angry ant, trying to beat him down into the mountain with each smash, and whipping at him with her wings like a restless gnat - if that gnat wielded a lethal blade.

When her efforts met resistance from Solus, she found a newfound focus, staring down at him with glowing, deep-seated hatred. Her eyes burned with a fire that seemed to evoke the primal reactions deep with the sun, and her body seethed with a heat that echoed and carried across the mountain. In response, the ground began to crack and blister beneath them, as the same burning light in her eyes shone from underneath Solus, casting rays of blood-red light into the sky before a turbulent heat gathered and built beneath him.

Aveira ripped herself free and shot up into the sky as the ground cracked, and hot flame and liquid stone erupted violently from the mountain, rippling up around Solus to drown him in molten fire. Scalding stones and unbearable heat shot into his frame and scattered into the sky as his crash site rapidly turned to a burning inferno of roiling flames and lava.

Solus was made from the sun, this heat and anger meant nothing to him and he exploded from the bowels of his confinement, emerging from the lava as an inferno of anger and might. His gaze fell upon Aveira again and he jumped at her, breaking apart the stone at his feet. This caused another fiery explosion as he was propelled towards her, scattering molten stone and heated debris over the mountainside.

The winged avatar met his charge with a wicked fury, her hands collating some manner of dark energies that she was forced to dissipate once more in order to raise her arms and defend herself. Still, despite her height she was a tiny figure beside the charging giant, and dodging away from his assault quickly became a fool's errand.

He threw a fist at her and it collided with her arms, the force of the blow sending a shockwave that blew dust and rocks into the air, with the ground below her exploding. Aveira was flung into the mountain, shattering the side like it was a clay pot. As boulders the size of houses fell down around her, she barely had time to reorient herself before Solus came crashing down once more. Two arms slammed into the rock beside her as Aveira clambered out of the way to save herself from the blow but Solus caught her by her foot as she tried to escape and then threw her through into the mountain. The giant did not relent as he battered her into the rock, each blow like an earthquake.

He punched her hard again and Aveira erupted out the other side, stabilizing herself with quick wing beats as she braced for him to come. Yet he did not. Where had he gone? Her malevolent gaze scanned for the giant from whence she came but only rocks fell. She flew further away for safety's sake, rapid wing beats keeping her in the air but ready to shoot away over the horizon. The volcano was but a small glow now, on the other side, on another mountain. It sent out ash and dust into the air as it shook, the sounds heavy in her ears. She looked up into the sky but the sun was… Brighter? She could feel Solus' presence bu- A spear slammed into her shoulder and Solus came down from the heavens above with a fury in his voice.

Aveira did her best to evade but the giant was too large. His glowing fist smashed into the colorful war angel and his weight pushed her downwards with rocketing haste. Like the last flash of a shooting star, they burned across the sky before smashing deep into the countryside, leaving a crater behind. Solus smashed and beat the horned avatar into the dirt, seizing all opportunity to crush her with overwhelming force while he had the advantage. A divine beatdown that would leave even a deity gasping for air, each strike pounding a new dent into the crater. A strange shimmer made him pause, and that momentary pause gave him enough clarity to watch Aveira in the crater beneath him. Her image rippled and shimmered, and he understood the ruse. The horned avatar's image dissipated in his fingers, and at the same time a flash of prismatic light shone behind him. It struck him in the back with a violent burst, searing and piercing with unnatural force. An invigorated assault like the one in their first battle.

But unlike that first battle, this time within seconds the beam pierced his flesh. He did not scream but instead grunted as he was pushed forward, losing his balance as he fell further into the crater. Her assault did not relent as he struggled to turn over and Solus felt the beam rip apart his divine flesh more and more by the second. Dark energy rippled and raged over his form, the horned avatar descending from her hidden perch in the sky as her assault shredded him piece by piece.

Finally the attack relented, allowing Solus to complete his battered attempt to turn over and face his opponent. Aveira hovered in the sky not ten feet away from him, clearly convinced he no longer posed a threat to her. Her face was locked in a frown of haughty, arrogant fury - the true malice within Aveira carried openly. The giant coughed, something strangely mortal for a being so divine. Ichor and essence poured from his wounds, covering the ground in liquid light.

Aveira raised her hand slowly, and in her palm a metal barb began to form and elongate, like liquid slowly being stretched to take form. It warped and twisted until a long black blade manifested in her grip, and she twisted both hands around it firmly as she turned it down to point towards Solus in the air. "Today, the war is won. Everything else is just a rat hunt. Breathe your last, Son of the Sun; a good death is it's own reward."

“You…” He spoke in a whisper, broken. “You… Will be… Defeated… One day.” He coughed again as Aveira flew in close. Solus tilt his head back, looking to the sky. “Mother… Forgive me…”

Like a falling guillotine the winged avatar let herself fall freely towards the ground, piercing blade lifted with unerring aim towards one of the many wounds on Solus' body. Aveira's weapon impacted his ichor-flowing wound, and the immense weight of the divine creature fell upon the blade to push it deep into the giant's body. Her entire form twisted with a beat of her wings and the large blade twisted with her, turning and carving deep into the divine giant. With another powerful beat of her wings, the pressure on her weapon grew immensely and it sank deeper into Solus, stabbing into his body until her feet stomped down on him. With new ground beneath her, the horned avatar twisted the blade again, roaring with unabated desire to kill.

The giant gripped the sword in vain as his body began to shake violently. Great fissures began to spread out from the wound, like snakes glowing white hot. His luminous color grew blinding, as if the sun had come to Galbar, taking from the world all of its color and vibrancy, while replacing it with white. Then, when the light was all consuming, the avatar of the sun exploded with a flash and then a roar that shook Toraan.

Rock and boulder alike turned bright red for as far as a godly eye could see, then farther still, as heat swept the land. Eventually it became too much and even the stone began to melt into slag. Trees, grasses, flowers, and anything green burst alight with roaring fire and within the time it took to blink, they were but dust strewn about in the hateful wind as it whipped ever on, towards the mountains in the west. Lakes boiled, turning to steam as rivers clogged with sand and debris. That which walked on four legs and two legs and which swam with fins and flew with wings were not spared. There would be no savior, no great hand to block the vicious heat. Nor would any prayer reach the gods in time, save for those farthest away from the blast, at the foot of the mountains and to what lay in the east. There was no time and so they died. Whole villages like tinder for the storm of heat. Turned to sand and dust, their after images forever haunting their places of death and the moment it happened. Their only saving grace was that it was quick and painless.

The blastwave at last struck the mountains, sending debris and dust into the skies, like a blanket reaching for the heavens. The mountains held firm as they took the brunt of the heat and force, but down into the dunalands would come fearsome storms as the cooler air met its match. The land on the other side was changed. Scarred forevermore.

Aveira, bruised and battered by intense pressure, flame and debris, raised the blade where she stood in the center of the chaos, watching her creation. The weapon had been turned to slag and drawn on the pure essences of Solus, creating a new blade that shone with a seething heat and fury, dripping slag and molten metal as she whipped it in the air. Rather than be cooled by the air, it seemed to cook all it came close to, such was its inherent blazing heat. What remained was a weapon of pure death, the remnant essence of her foe lingering eternally. And he raged at her, at least what remained of him did. With furious appetite and dripping with the wrath of an oppressed sun.

All around her, Aveira bore witness to glassy plains and sandswept dunes. There was no sign of life, no sign of anything really. Just an angry storm that struck at the ground with lightning as its thunder boomed. But soon, she was not alone. For from the sands, they came. Thousands of creatures that resembled beetles made of white sands and glassy mandibles. They chittered as they approached, followed by humanoid creatures that resembled Solus. But they were far too small and made of dust and sand that swirled. Their very hands were made of glass and sharp. They sensed her, for what was divinity but not life overwhelming? And they were not afraid, as they began to attack her.

The avatar of the war goddess accepted the challenge with gleeful wrath of her own, a single beat of her wings bringing her into motion to battle these new creatures. Like an angel of death she descended with the molten blade to sweep and swing, bringing death in arcing scythes against these furious and reckless new creatures. She raged for an eternity, meeting the endless fury of the storms with a hunger for battle and violence that could never be sated. So intense was her malice that her divine hatred seeped into the energies and creatures she cut apart, and with each new creature that came at her, it seemed to be more and more enraged until nothing but burning, cold hatred remained.

And Aveira stayed in that blissful malice until the skies turned dark and it rained embers.




In the Heavens above, a Goddess screamed.





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Cadien

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Yllis




Another routine walk of Antiquity. Cadien first began by scanning the surroundings, to see if anybody was present. No. Then he approached the noticeboard, to see if it had been updated. No.

He sighed. This was an ideal public space. It really ought to see more use…

Suddenly two sets of footsteps echoed through the mostly empty Antiquity, growing louder and louder as if they were headed straight for Cadien. As soon as it became obvious that someone was walking towards him, he turned around slowly and deliberately(??), immediately catching the gaze of the two… Twins? That had come up to him.

The twins, pale as ghosts, wearing all black and a chainmail shirt as well as heavy boots took in Cadien’s appearance slowly and then cocked their hips. For a second, Cadien wondered if he was actually looking at two people or at just one that was being reflected by some kind of invisible mirror.

”Hey,”
”Hiya,”

They said at the same time.

”What’s up with your armor? Kinda flashy don’t you think?” One of them asked, letting her eyes rest his chestplate.

”Yeah! Yllis and I were worried you might blind someone just by walking around. But listen, I saw the noticeboard earlier and well,” The other sighed, something the first one mimicked before taking over the sentence.

”I was surprised you know, seeing a brat’s drawing posted there. It’s a public area you know? Do you know whose kid it was?” She finished, the two crossing their arms at the same time and looking at Cadien’s face with a raised eyebrow, their tails brushing against the floor absent-mindedly.

“I believe I know who posted it,” Cadien nodded. “She has neither been seen nor heard from in decades, though. I never did find out the full story, but I assume it must be rather tragic.” He sighed. “But let’s put such topics aside, for now. I’m Cadien, the God of War and Perfection. Who would you be?”

The girls pursed their lips for a moment, then shrugged, their chainmails tinkling with the movement.

”Yllis.”
”Yllis.”

”What do you do as the God of Perfection? Do you paint portraits of me all day long?” One asked, then her eyebrows twitched and the other one elbowed her in the side, both of them slamming their tails onto the ground, perfectly synchronized. ”Ow!”

”That was super lame, Yllis!”

The first one then cleared her throat, a light tinge of red painting her cheeks. ”So uh, do you uh… Like girls who use tons of eyeliner?” She asked and immediately buried her face in her palms. The other one groaned and slapped her own forehead so hard she almost knocked herself out.

The God of Perfection stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Hm. I suppose that depends. There are people who already look good naturally, then there are those who are able to improve themselves through artificial means. Natural beauty would be the ideal, but make-up can have its own appeal as well.” He smirked. “Why do you ask?”

Again they crossed their arms, ”A-Anyways! Do you know who else lives around these parts? I’m new here, only escaped the clutches of the perverted semi-sentient slime a little while ago and I’m trying to get a lay of the land. I met this really weird guy called Illyd already...” She trailed off.

”Weird doesn’t even cut it!” The other one continued, ”He made me blow his kazoo and then he put the air that came out the other side into a jar. Who does that? Only a pervert does! At least you’re not telling me to blow on anything...”

”I guess that’s to be expected, you do look very uh… Well groomed? So you probably are only a pervert to guys.”

Cadien furrowed his brow. “I’m not sure what you’re implying, but as a God of Perfection and Beauty, I must be able to appreciate the physical form of all genders. You, for example, chose your form rather well. It is good to know that so many other deities share my preference in hair. I believe I have started something of a trend.”

The girls seemed to perk up a little and came a few steps closer to Cadien, their tails rubbing against each other’s and intertwining. ”Really? Hm... They hummed as they slid closer and closer to Cadien, up to the point they were pressing their shoulders together and just a foot away from the God. The two had red spreading all over their cheeks as they tilted their head up to look at Cadien, with one of them still having the red mark on her forehead from when she slapped herself.

”We could use a tour,”
”We could use a ride,”

They said, their faces offering no actual expression beyond their blush. Not to mention the intense ‘wrestling’ their tails were engaged in.

“Well, I would be happy to show you around,” Cadien nodded. “Though I’m afraid I must limit such a tour to Antiquity, and my own realm. It would be rather rude if the three of us simply barged into the other gods’ homes. I can also answer any questions you have afterward.” The girls smiled a little and nodded, then turned towards each other, pressing up together.

”We get to see a trend-setter’s home, Yllis?”

”Yeah, Yllis.”

”That’s like, so cool. What do you think we’ll see?”

”Dunno. Maybe more armour, maybe a box full of toys? PERFECT toys, mind you.” She snickered, then the two of them turned their head to face Cadien again as they firmly wrapped their arms around each other, their cheeks touching as they looked up at the God with wide, sparkly eyes.

”Bet you would like to dress us up, you fence-hopping knight.”
”Bet you would like to undress us first though, you flute-playing perv.”

Before Cadien could deny either of those assertions, they pulled apart and stepped back.

”Not really feeling it, Yllis...”

”Yeah… The memories of slime time are still fresh. Maybe later.”

”We do have time, Yllis. Maybe later.”

After a moment of staring at each other, they chuckled and turned to Cadien, stopping their tails from playing with each other.

”So? Let’s begin with the tour.”

Cadien blinked. He wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this two. One was a god, and the other was an avatar - he could tell as much by their auras. Their manner of speech was strange, as was their bickering with one another. He wasn’t sure when they intended to deliver a compliment, an insult, or both. His offer for a tour had been genuine, but they seemed to have different ideas.

Luckily, the conversation had been immediately steered away, sparing Cadien the trouble of having to correct them.

“The space we are in now is known as Antiquity,” Cadien explained, waving a hand to indicate their surroundings. “It serves as a central hub between the divine realms, but it rarely sees any use these days. The other gods mostly prefer to keep to themselves, and some are rather eccentric. Speaking of which, what type of god are you? What is it you hold power over?”

”Uh, the good type?” Yllis cocked her hips again.

”But to answer your question butter boy, don’t we all hold power over practically everything? Though honestly I feel like helping awaken civilizations might be more of my thing. It might come easier and more natural...” The one trailed off, scanning Cadien’s extremely golden and shiny armour again. ”Like style, because clearly I have enough sense not to wear all gold. What would you do if some Divine Thief steals all your sets of golden armour, huh?”

“I could just… make more. After punishing the thief, of course.” Cadien furrowed his brow. “That’s assuming they could even steal from me at all. And it’s rather rich to be criticized for wearing gold by someone who wears all black. Now then. Shall we continue?”

[b]”H-hey, black is stylish, it goes with everything. Specially black. Right, Yllis?”[b]

”Very true, Yllis. Besides he already said he likes eyeliner, and that’s black… So there we go. Anyway, let’s get going. Show us the good stuff, snowhair.”

“Hm. This way, then,” Cadien said as he turned and made his way toward his realm’s portal.



And so, Cadien showed them his realm. He showed them his fortress, with its statues, throne room, and paintings. He showed them the Song Village, with its various features and the inhabitants. He showed them the Hussars, who were training in their black armour. He even showed them a few of the other islands, meant to house the souls of fallen warriors.

When all that was done, he returned to the main island. “And that’s about it,” Cadien said. “There are many more islands, of course, but I’m afraid we do not have the time to see them all.”

The two women, having grown slightly unresponsive over the course of the tour, twirled small locks of their hair with their fingers and raised an eyebrow slightly at Cadien. ”We don’t? Are we keeping you from something important? Your artsy song girlfriends waiting awake for you to come back home and have dinner with them? Last I checked, we have all the time in the world.” One said with a light huff which was imitated by the other, tails flicking erratically behind them.

”There’s some cool things here, like the armoured people, but I do wonder...” The other began.

”It being the realm of a Patriarch of Perfection and all...” The first hummed aloud.

”... Where’s all the fun? The thrills? You have soldiers here but nothing for them to die to. You have the souls of your little broken galbarian toys around, but they do nothing of importance all day long. Don’t you think they’ll grow bored after a year or two of doing the same things every day…?”

”I agree with Yllis. They looked well, a little bit dead. What’s the point of an afterlife if you’ll be forced to do the same things for an eternity? Might as well be reincarnated into Galbar...”

”At least then they’d have the chance to experience new things without being forced to be ‘happy’ or ‘fulfilled’, you know? Life is all about the hardships and the bumps in the road! There’s no point anymore to continuing if you know it’s all going to be fun and games forever.”

“I believe you’ve made a few too many assumptions,” Cadien frowned. “The Black Hussars are here as a reserve force to be deployed anywhere on Galbar when they are needed. The souls who dwell in this realm as an afterlife do so by their own choice, and I am currently working on giving them more things to do. They aren’t being forced to feel anything.”

”Ah!” One of them gasped, covering her mouth and looking at Cadien with a mock expression of surprise.

”So snowhair, you’re telling me you do not trust the little people down in Galbar can protect themselves just fine, and that they should not be subject to the consequences of their choices, both good and bad? I see that you’re a fan of armour and weapons so I’ll give you a neat little example...”

Cadien gave them a hard stare. “Again, you make too many assumptions. I never said that I did not trust them, nor that they should be immune to consequences. Don’t be absurd.”

Yllis’ eyebrows twitched and their tails froze for a moment. ”If you have them ,that means you don’t trust our little people. The one being absurd here is you, snowhair. Would you look at that, the God of Perfection being so hurt by me telling the truth that he interrupts me before giving my example!” Yllis said, with the other one smirking slightly as they crossed their arms.

“Again with the assumptions. Their presence here has nothing to do with trust. Their species was created by someone I care about. Said species was given a curse that would have inevitably resulted in their extinction. I brought a portion up here so that some members of their race would be preserved, for the sake of the one I love. I send them to Galbar to serve as soldiers specifically so they have something to do, because they are a warlike species, and I do not deploy them in just any battle.”

Yllis pursed her lips, then shrugged. ”Whatever. It’s super lame that you house bums in your realm just because some buff guy seduced you to, in any case.”

“Guy?” Cadien frowned. “She’s not a man, oh Goddess of Baseless Assumptions.”

”And you’re the God of Assuming others are assuming things, aren’t you? I’ve seen your face you know, there is no way you keep that relaxed, serene expression without at least having three guys to tend to you at night. Trust me. Also your nails are too well taken care of. Everyone knows a perfect male form has some ruggedness. AND,” Yllis took a breath.

SHE, if she is even real, made a species of warlike people, got them cursed, and you swooped in to keep them alive as soldier slaves? I am super sure that that can’t be ethical. Where’s the God of Divine Human Resources, I need to report a breach of the code of conduct. Specifically clause 6, you shall not be a loser who interferes in Galbarian matters out of sexual attraction to an omnisexual being.”

“She was not the one who cursed them, and I did not take them by force - they chose to be here. And it’s rather rich to say I can’t interfere when I was only responding to another god’s interference. Now, shall there be anything else?”

”It’s not that you can’t interfere, it’s just that bringing them here takes all of their agency away. No point to living if you know you’ll be perfectly safe. I wonder how long until they all kill themselves out of boredom.”

”But hey, at least they’ll be safe. Right, Yllis?” The other one asked, sticking her tongue out slightly at Cadien. After a moment, the two turned away and began to walk the way they came, just to bump face first into the unyielding abs of one of the Hussars.

Immediately one of the two pulled away and looked up at the chiseled jawline of the man they’d bumped into. Their long tails started wagging enthusiastically as this Yllis placed her hands on the man’s abdomen and glared up at him, her cheeks and nose practically burning red. ”Loser. You’re a loser! Should’ve faced your des...” She trailed off as soon as she heard sniffing coming from beside her, ”ti...” She turned to see her other half with her face still pressed against the man’s plate armour and sniffing with her eyes closed. ”... For fuck’s sake!” Yllis practically growled as she pulled her other half by the ear.

”Owowow! What’s the deal, Yllis?!” The other one whimpered, receiving no response as the first one dragged her around the Hussar and back the way they came, their voices gradually growing fainter.

”You are so damn disgusting, Yllis-”

”I could almost catch a whiff though! I swear he had just finished working out and I wanted to-”

“A pity,” Cadien said as they departed. “We might have been friends, were it not for your blind self-assertion.”

And that was the last that was seen of them before they disappeared through the portal. At which point the Hussar sighed and knelt before Cadien, head low.

“My Apologies for showing myself before you while so disheveled, my lord,” There was a short moment. An almost inaudible tremble came into the Hussar’s voice as he spoke his next words. “I must however report that Yunari has crashed into the Captain’s hut while training and somehow destroyed it and lit it on fire…”




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The Rise of the Tamrat Empire




Hreelcii Isles, the Riverlands of Irtressi, on a hill overlooking the rice fields of Tamrat.

Nothing could quite beat the morning sunrise in the riverlands - the gentle buzz of insects echoing off of wetland trees; the sweet song of waking birds harmonising with the river’s rush; the gentle kiss of sunbeams on the early river fog; nowhere on Leligi could one find equal unity of natural phenomena into such a blessed whole. Tarik gosa Lencho aba Ifa aba Moti absorbed it all with every sense, feeding his nose and tongue with the warm, bitter sensation of freshly brewed coffee with grated sugarcane. In the paddies in the lowlands under the hill, the yeruzi were warming up their throats for the long song. Moti regarded the sky - the inken heavens were dancing eagerly today; it was a sign that the crops would grow properly today. There it started, the low, soft rumble of a hundred voices all across the rice fields, a reverence of the spirits in the mud and water, of the fish and birds in the paddies. Moti would wake up early every morning to witness this event: the world song rang out from the singers’ throats and the water and its inhabitants responded - fish picked lice off of rice stalks; the mud itself spat out weeds and had the water wash them ashore. They would be gathered and cooked along with fish and bananas and be served to the poorest in the city at the soup kitchen every morning. Meanwhile, the rice would be left to grow uninterrupted, allowing for a whole three harvests per year. The farmer’s song was an ancient technique among the Tamrat and its use had allowed their people to prosper for generations. Moti shuffled on his pillow so that he could look further up the hill behind him - there, his eyes followed the cobbled path up to the coffee, vegetable and cereal farms on the plateau, flanking all sides of Great Tamrat. He had another slurp of his coffee and waved his hand slowly through the air. A tapestry at his side weaved itself a little longer, threads interconnecting beautifully into images and letters.

“Nephew, your father summons you,” came a sudden call, and Moti nearly caught his coffee in his throat as he had heard neither steps nor breathing. He coughed madly and turned to regard his aunt Gadise, signalling with his hands that he would be right over once he’d gotten control of his cough. Aunt Gadise flashed him a smirk and then blinked down at the cooing babe wrapped around her chest. She gave her scaled cheek a soft caress and played with its fin-like ears, inciting gleeful giggles from her before moving on, picking up a basket full of clothes and moving down towards the rivers. Moti finally wrested command of his throat, chugged down the rest of his luke-warm coffee, took the tapestry and jogged off from his spot under the willow tree. His father’s estate was nothing short of magnificent, as one would expect of the head of the Tarik Clan: It was almost its own village, consisting of six lavish huts for all his brothers’ families and four lesser huts for servants and soldiers.



The whole village was built around a central plaza on which had been built the family jengo, the great obelisk tomb of the Tarik Clan wherein the remains of all ancestors had been stored for at least six generations.



Before the obelisk was an altar overflowing with gifts of gold, silver, figurines of people and animals, fabrics, pearls, fruits, spices, weapons and armour, all fogged over with a thick blanket of incense from smoking braziers. Moti stopped before the altar, put his palms together, bowed once, knelt down, let his forehead kiss the ground, stood up and bowed again, and then continued to a grove of trees some ten metres away from the obelisk. Under the grove of three trees sat four men atop colourful pillows, small tables in front of them with steaming food and cups of fresh coffee. The men were serviced by both slaves and family, and all of them expressed a most daunting authority that could only be matched by that of each other. Upon seeing Moti, the man in the middle nodded for him to approach the centre of the circle. “Ah, Moti, my son… Come here.”



Tarik gosa Sisay aba Lencho aba Ifa was stern by nature as though he had been a father from birth. He wore simple clothing today, a jaguar skin over his left shoulder and a green, red and yellow linen kilt was all he needed on a summer day such as this one; around his neck, he had several charms with bones and figurines to the many gods, the largest of which was a small human face with reptilian features and half-nelven ears. He gave his scaly neck a passive itch, blinked a pair of reptilian eyes at his son and asked, “How are you doing today, my boy?”

Moti waited patiently for one of the servants to roll out a beautifully patterned carpet for him, at which point he knelt down on it, brought his forehead to the ground, sat back up and answered, “Good father, I am very well today, thank you for asking.”

Ifa nodded approvingly. “Good. What have you been doing this morning?” The other men in the circle regarded Moti as well, sipping their coffee and picking on occasion pieces of food with their fingers to eat.

“I was watching the yeruzi in the paddies, good father - listening to their song, admiring their bond with the water and mud.” One of the servants came over to him with a small table that resembled more of an upside-down box with a tri-coloured, zig-zag-patterned tablecloth, topped it with a cup and poured it half-full of coffee. After the servant had poured, Moti picked up the cup with his right hand, sipped it once and put it back down. “I have been noting down their behaviour and rituals for my book, in fact.”

“Ah, yes, your book - do tell how that is going, my boy,” Ifa continued politely and beckoned over one of his daughters, whispered something to her and then refocused his attention on Moti. Moti smiled.

“Of course, good father. I have already catalogued the planting process from earlier in the spring - Zinabi Garungasa came so soon, after all, so the yeruzi could start earlier as well. In fact…” He took the tapestry he had brought along out from under his arm and rolled it out. The yellow background hosted pictures of meadows in shades of blue and green, populated thickly with dancing spirits atop water commanded by sitting sages. The tapestry was as long as two men were tall, and detailed descriptions next to the pictures explained thoroughly the processes of worldsong rice farming from planting to weeding to fertilising to irrigating, as well as treatment of the fish, birds and insects in the paddies. The people in the circle leaned in to get a closer look, nodding their amazement at the work. Ifa clapped approvingly, but without the vigour of his diction.

“That is splendid work, my boy. Your asimena has improved considerably since last year. How much more do you have left?”

Moti rolled the tapestry back up. “Just the harvest and fallowing of the paddies, unless I am mistaken. I also hope to include some stories from the yeruzi as well - something about their experiences and connections to the spirits.” He quieted down once he saw Ifa wag a finger warningly.

“Now, now, your eagerness is most admirable, my boy, but you know the law - only the ye Bontu may speak with the yeruzi, and unless you choose to accept the Bontenya’s daughter’s hand in marriage, you will never be able to speak to them.”

Moti blinked. “Has, has the Bontenya offered--”

“A joke, my boy,” snickered the father. The other men and some of the family members serving them joined in the laughter. Moti chuckled along politely, though his face couldn’t hide a shade of disappointment.

“O-of course, good father.”

Ifa’s smile faded and he lifted his cup, took a sip, put it back down and kept his eyes on his son as a daughter came to fill it up. “As much as I would like to talk pleasantries for the rest of the day, my boy, there is a reason I have called you here. I take it you are keen to know.”

Moti nodded. “Yes, good father. What do you wish of me?”

“It is not just of you, my boy - it is for all your brothers and cousins. However, as my eldest son and heir, you speak for them all, and thus you should know first so you may pass the message on.”

Moti frowned with concern and nodded slowly. “Of, of course, great father.”

“Do not flinch now, my boy. Remain stoic and stalwart if you are to inherit my seat.”

Moti flexed his muscles and sat up straighter, his face like stone. “Yes, great father.” Ifa nodded approvingly.

“Well, then, let us begin. A messenger came from the Bontenya’s palace today: Ekitili is dead.”

Moti recoiled in shock. “The warlord?”

“That’s right. The royal meklits all had a simultaneous vision sent by the Many Eyes in the Sky. His rule is no more, which means that the Bontenya believes the time has come.”

Moti blinked. “The… Time?”

“Indeed,” nodded Ifa. “I’m afraid your book will need to wait, my boy. The Bontenya has summoned every clan to Great Tamrat for a war council. He believes this is the opportunity the Wise Kings of the Past have been waiting for - the chance to lay all of Irtressi under Tamrat.” He paused brieflyto take a small pancake from a clay plate, pack it with some meat and vegetables from another plate and put it in his mouth. After swallowing, he continued, “What I need you to do is to gather your brothers and cousins, share with them these news and then send them to your uncle Desta. He has already journeyed off to establish a foothold and altar on the Lulit. Tell them to bring plenty of meat and chum for the crocodiles and jaguars. The last thing we want is tumultuous waters in war.”

Moti made a quick mental note. “Yes, great father. Is there anything else you wish of me?”

“There is, actually. While you and your uncle establish the warfront, you will be the only tenikwayi there. The rest of us are needed in Great Tamrat for Keni Yenigusi aba Bontenya.”

Moti swallowed. “Shouldn’t, shouldn’t I be there as well?” But Ifa waved dismissively.

“The Yenigusi aba Bontenya will understand. We cannot very well allow our warfront to be without the assistance of magic. However, just in case you are attacked before we can get there…” He nodded at one of the slaves, who brought over a gilded lidded basket to Moti. She placed it down on the ground before him, lowered herself to the ground along with it and slowly lifted the lid without looking into the basket. Moti gasped.

“G-great father, are you sure I can--”

“You will not use it frivolously, is that clear? It is a gift from the Bontenya himself and will be treated as such. If anyone in that camp sees it except for you and your uncle, be it stranger or brother, you are to execute them on the spot, do you understand me?”

Moti swallowed again and had the slave lower the lid onto the basket again. “Yes, great father. I… Understand.”

“That’s my boy. Now run along and tell your brothers and cousins to prepare. Me and your uncles here must ready ourselves to go to Great Tamrat.” With that, he and the three other men stood up. Instantly, the servants and family members hastened to clean up, dress them more properly and offer them basins of water in which to wash their faces and hands. Moti did the same and three servants came over to him respectively carrying a water basin, a clean cape and his barineta, dressing him as he washed himself. Once finished, he was handed his trusty bronze dagger, sheathed in a jade-speckled length of leather, and turned to his father once more.

“Alright, great father. I am off, then. May you and my uncles be at the best of health until we see each other again.”

“And to you, my boy,” said the patriarch and tugged his clothes into place. “Be safe out there, and do not let anyone see inside that basket.” With that, he walked off with his three brothers and almost all the servants and family in the village. The slaves carried chests and baskets full of gifts of grain, meat and metals, and Moti was left pretty much alone. Not quite alone, though - he heard voices coming from outside the estate walls. He tugged at his own cape and moved himself to the exit. As the eldest and heir of the clan, only he was permitted to speak to the patriarch in his fellow sonfolk’s stead. He never warmed up to that sort of pressure - on the occasions where he had misspoken or gotten some message wrong, his brothers had been the ones to be punished for it. Yes, in the eyes of the law, he could do nothing wrong, but all eyes were upon him, watching his every move and mistake. He halted by the corner of the exit, preparing himself quietly. He cleaned out his nose, tugged his clothes into place one more time and adjusted his hat as perfectly as he could. Then he rounded the corner and lifted his right hand in greeting.

“Brothers and cousins - the Hundred Rivers collect and bring us together on this occasion. I bring news from Our Father, brought onto him from the Bontenya, brought onto him from the Many Eyes in the Sky.” Around him gathered both eagerly and lazily a crowd of boys and men between the ages fourteen and twenty-five. Twenty-five in total, they were the sum of Ifa and his brothers’ kin, as well as spawn of other clans that had been adopted into the Tarik clan - a man as affluent as Ifa would have been considered greedy and selfish had he not taken in children of other clans; he himself had sent many a brother and sister of Moti to the other families of Tamrat.

A man five years Moti’s senior bent the knee. It was his cousin, Tarik gosa Lencho aba Lishan aba Workneh, a man destined to serve as Moti’s right hand in time. The bond between them flickered only with the smoulder of politeness that was considered the bare necessity between a patriarch and his close kin. Neither had made much effort to change this, despite their relationship going back over a decade. Still, neither could afford to lose face for selfish reasons such as rivalry, so Workneh knelt all the same and said, “The Thirteen Lakes flow into one as we gather to greet our master, Ifa aba Moti. The ancestors listen in anticipation - what word brings the son of the master of masters?” With Workneh’s pledge of servitude, the others followed, the internal hierarchies falling in place as the closest kin spoke for the furthest, the elders spoke for the younglings, and the fullbloods spoke for bastards and adoptees. Moti regarded them briefly and pondered who among them knelt for him and who knelt for his rank. He dismissed the thought and spoke,

“The Singing Warrior odes a call to battle, my kin. The tyrant Ekitili is dead, meaning the Itumasa are in disarray. It is known to all of us that Ekitili never spawned an heir - his eggs never saw the light of day on account of his weakness and impotence as a man. His decades of devastation wrought upon our kin and the kin of our kin shall be repaid in blood and bone. The Wise Kings of the Past decree it must be so - the Bontenya will unite all of Irtressi under Tamrat.” He scanned the faces of his audience. “We have been ordered by Our Father to bring arms and don armour and sail our canoes to the mouth of Lulit, where we are to meet with Lencho aba Desta. There, we will establish a warfront and wait for Our Father there. Any questions?”

One of the youngest, a lad by the name of Tarik gudi Gudina aba Dejen aba Dejen, whispered something to another boy next to him; that boy then shuffled over to Workneh and whispered something similar to him, and then Workneh spoke, “The youngest ask why we are going ahead - why does not Our Father travel with us?”

“Our Father must travel to Great Tamrat for Keni Yenigusi aba Bontenya - doing one’s duty to the ancestors comes first always, even before battle and glory in war. For what do we fight for if not to honour the wishes of those that came before us?”

Nods of agreement rippled throughout the elders in the crowd; the youngers seemed more aversive. Moti paid them no mind and continued, “The order has been given. Go to your huts and don your armour and grab your weapons. We leave at sundown.”

“Understood!” With that, they all returned home to prepare. Moti had his servants remove his long, white cape and armour him with a finely woven grassteel harness around the lower chest and belly, with another circular collar to protect his shoulders and upper chest. They gave him dexterous linen pants and packed them tightly into a pair of shin protectors, also grassteel-made, to serve as protection against waterborne parasites and leeches. On his feet, he put on agile sandals with frilly bottoms, made for allowing good grip on slippery surfaces while simultaneously exposing the feet to the open air to ward off fungal diseases that would thrive in closed off boots. Finally, they gave him a red cape - a symbol of the warpath - and a red barineta - denoting the rank of leader.



Once fully clad, he brought along his dagger, a water flask and a longer, flat-headed machete and headed outside. His followers had likewise prepared, all of them wearing grassteel imported from the reef lands by the Delta, armed with spears, blades and axes of bronze and bows with grassteel arrows. Behind Moti, servants carrying carcasses of slaughtered animals and pots of fresh blood followed in a line. Moti offered Workneh, his second in command as evidenced by his white barineta, a confident nod and led the way to the jengo to offer their prayers to the clan ancestors before departure. Moti offered the altar before the towering tomb one of the pots of blood and a shank of pork and spoke,

“Blessed aba Tarik - today, we will begin the work for your dream of old: The Itli will no longer enslave and pillage your sons and daughters. Today, the legacy of Ekitili will end. Please bless us with your guidance and wisdom so this may come to pass.” Then, as one, the men put their palms together, bowed once, knelt down, let their foreheads kiss the ground, stood up and bowed again, and then journeyed down to the canoes. There were four canoes in all, each capable of seating nine men. The twenty five warriors spread throughout all of them, the rest of the spots being filled with servants carrying equipment and goods or rowing. After leaving the first offering of blood and meat on the altar to the local crocodiles, they sailed off down the river. Moti had brought along his father’s gift, the basket with the secret content. He used is as a stool at the far back of the canoe from where he steered and kept watch. Reaching the Lulit would take the whole evening - he would have much time to plan.




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The Sinful Children





I





There, in the centre of the Endless Forest, was a large settlement that had gone unnoticed for years. It was only over the last year thanks to a rise in the number of disappearances that people living in the various villages on the outskirts of the Forest realized something wasn’t right and sent a messenger to the nearby Lesser Town of Ruthil.

In response the Arborean Guild of Explorers and Guardians, A.K.A. the Guild, sent an Explorer and a Guardian to investigate.

A week after venturing out, the Sylphi Explorer returned to one of the small villages, badly beaten and broken.

He told the story of the Sinful Children, a group of Sylphi and Goblins that worshipped a ‘Horned Demoness’, as well as the horrors that came from the depths to feed on his fellow captives in the pitch blackness of the Endless Forest’s night.

His stories were wild and people did not truly believe them... That is, until a day after his death when a full Party of veterans arrived in the same village.




II





Four Sylphi wearing bone-reinforced leathers walked through the Endless Forest. On all their chests they had sown a patch depicting the same thing--A pine, with vivid green leaves covered by thick snow.

The Sylphi themselves were not much different from the pines in their patches. They were pale, with nearly white skin and bleached leaves on their heads.

It was midday, the harsh Sun of Galbar shining down through the canopies.

They walked carefully, barely making a sound, and had each member of the Party watching each direction, weapons drawn. One Bow, one Spear, one Shield and one Fist.

Confidently, the Party walked out into the open clearing where the Sinful Children’s settlement was. Shield ahead and Bow carefully scanning the treeline. As one, they walked up to the wooden arc that marked the only entrance.

The scene was almost too much. Human corpses hanging upside down from poles, flayed and being drained of blood… Mountains of filth piled up outside the palisade, consisting of feces as well as old bloodied clothes and diseased bones… And inside, right next to the entrance were several cages made from wood, bone and reinforced with random bits of metal here and there. Inside the cages, were Human men and women, in varying states of malnutrition and disease. Some of them didn’t seem to have lips, teeth or tongues at all anymore. It was a wonder how they were still breathing.

Still, the Party did not flinch. Their immediate objective was not to free the victims, but to exterminate the Children.

And no Children did they see.

They searched every nook and cranny in the village. They went into the basements where they found starved, chained up Sylphi and even quickly checked the few easier to access caverns all over the settlement. And there was... nothing.

Almost an hour later, the Pines regrouped in front of a crude altar in the central plaza of the settlement and decided to release the prisoners and escort them back to civilization.

It was then that the sky became very dark.

Thick, unnatural clouds assembled out of nowhere and blocked out the sun, and the air stagnated.

Then a very familiar buzzing rang out from somewhere within the Altar…

“Buzzer warming up, get behind me!” Shouted the Shield, planting his tower shield on the ground and bracing against it.

Quickly the others squeezed in behind him and not a second later, the altar exploded.

Splinters and shards of stone flew everywhere. Walls were blown open and the ground was showered by shrapnel. The Shield held fast however with only minimal damage as some shrapnel lodged itself in it.

Then the ground started shaking. “H-Huh?!” The Bow gasped, her leaves rustling as she took a few steps back. “Troll incoming, very big! Smells like centuries. Stand back!” She shouted and ran out of the centre then climbed on top of a hut, training her bow and arrow on the rising mound of dirt in the centre.

“Spear, you ready?!” Shield basically screamed as he, Spear and Fist ran back into the street, making sure to remain within the Bow’s line of sight.

In another explosion, the entire area they had just been in was obliterated and in its place, a massive beast stood and roared. The roar knocked the Bow onto her butt and the others barely held on thanks to the Shield.

“NO… SHE NO HERE YET… NO LOVE!!!!” Screamed the Dovregubbe.

There was a moment as the Dovregubbe reached for something that had been buried alongside it and pulled out a massive tree trunk.

Everyone was stunned. At least, they were until the Dovregubbe roared again and charged at the three in the street.

In that instant, the Shield pulled out his bronze knife and cut deep into his left arm. Sap practically shot out as he grunted. The sap didn’t fall to the ground however, and instead bubbled for a split moment before forming a dome around the three. Every last bit of sap that came out of his body joined the rest, strengthening the dome until it was almost opaque.

Then the Troll smashed down his weapon against the Dome. The earth shook and the dome cracked, but more sap flowed out of the Shield’s arm as he grew pale and fell to his knees.

Before the Troll could strike the dome again, the Bow had regained her footing and shot it in one of its eyes. The arrow then crackled with white lightning, and the heavens parted just enough to rain their might down on the Troll. A great bolt of Lightning struck it and cooked its skin off, eliciting an ear-bursting scream of pain.

It cried and moaned in pain, then stomped on the ground hard in the Bow’s direction. Immediately, the shoddy hut collapsed and with it fell the Bow, getting trapped by the debris.

Wasting no breath, the troll turned and brought down its weapon once more on the Shield’s Dome, shattering the defense once and for all. The liquid that had crystallized into the dome evaporated and with it gone, the troll roared at the three Sylphi left. The Shield, pale as a ghost, eyes heavy and legs wobbling, stood up and braced his shield again.

The troll grabbed the shield and shook it around, the Sylphi flying off and crashing into a faraway hut, then it ate the bronze shield. “Shield!” Screamed the Fist, before turning to stare at the Troll, who was now raising his weapon to finish them off. “FUCKING THROW IT ALREADY!” The Fist screamed at the Spear.

So he did. His spear was like a shooting star made of pure lava as it shot towards the Troll and pierced its skull right between the eyes. It came out the other side and shot off into the distance.

All was quiet for a moment as the Troll froze in place. Then, the flesh on the troll’s face melted along with its eyes, and from the sockets and hole in its skull flowed the mush that had once been its brain.

It fell backwards, dead.

At the same time, the Spear collapsed onto his hands and knees, vomited, and then passed out.

The Fist, being the only one standing, sighed in relief. She went to check the Spear’s heartbeat and nodded to herself in satisfaction. As she began to think on what to do next, the leaves on the back of her neck rustled and she turned around to see dozens of Sylphi and Goblins pour into the settlement from the entrance. Her heart skipped a beat and she found herself taking a step back.

They didn’t stop moving, and instead broke into a run toward her.

She gulped hard and steeled her will. She was going to meet her fate well. The first thing she did was snap the Spear’s neck. Then, she ran over to the Bow, who was trapped beneath the debris. She looked at her half-conscious, crying friend in the eye, smiled gently, and struck her with a quick and painless channeled fist to the chest, stopping her heart and sending a shock throughout her entire nervous system. She died painlessly.

Next, she tried to escape the horde by going into an alleyway, but she was quickly cut off from escape by the horde.

A grim sense of certainty fell upon her, and she assumed her favorite stance. With the mad club and knife-wielding Sinners now approaching from two sides, she took a deep breath and channeled her fist once more, then tried to strike her own chest--Only to be interrupted as a heavy weight landed on top of her, throwing her to the floor. She screamed her lungs out as soon as she realized it was one of the Sinful Children on top of her, laughing madly into her face.

She kicked and struggled, but she couldn’t get him off. Soon, the horde piled up on her.

She wasn’t taken captive, oh no… But they did torture her for as long as they could before she died. At the hands of her fellow Sylphi, the Anchor’s Fist was broken and humiliated.




III





Weeks later, the village sent notice once more to the Guild... This time, the news of the Pines never returning from their mission made waves. The Guild then reached out to the Explorer Party closest to the area in order to task them with the mission of retrieving the Pines or confirming their fates... This Party turned out to be one consisting of two Sylphi and two Humans.


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A Visit from a Farmer



Year 30AA, late Autumn, on a hilltop outside of Ha-Dûna...

There was a gentle, harmless breeze on the air coming from the northern sea, the horizon a palette of blue, yellow, red and green. The treeless hill atop which Boudicca sat gave an extraordinary good view of the surroundings, and she found herself moving up here with growing frequency. She had taken to planning the coming battles in isolation - the pestering mórthéins, lesser théins, hildargeach and other military folk - they were too busy arguing among themselves to see the big picture; the foreign chiefs and kings weren’t much better. Fights kept breaking out whenever the Doserung would open their mouths and say something much too honestly for the fragile Dûnan ego, and the Constabulary were almost too busy quelling riots against the strict enforcement of shared housing to shelter all the refugees from the countryside, to actually do their job policing the ministers. Finally, rumours had reached her that the mysterious disease that had broken out in the Temple of the Night had somehow escaped the facility of its quarantine, having been registered in the household of a Mother stationed at a waystation a distance down the Misanthir. She couldn’t wait any longer - at the first sign that the elements of the world were in her favour, she had to charge and destroy Jjonveyo’s force so she could refocus her attention on keeping Ha-Dûna from ripping apart at the seams again.

She cursed under her breath. Nothing was going the way she had planned last year!

Out of seemingly nowhere she felt a tickle on her hand. Turning to look, the tail of a red fox was whisking back and forth as it sat next to her, dull brown eyes looking outward from the hill. The woman skipped to her feet and turned to regard the fox in disbelief.

“A wild fox? Approaching me?” Curiously, she held out her hand towards its snout. “... Might it be that even the animals of this world see Ha-Dûna as a place of peace and harmony?”

The fox sniffed her hand cautiously before violently sneezing all over it, a booger splattering her hand. Boudicca retracted her hand and grimaced at it, kneeling down to wipe it clean in the dry grass. “... Be thankful that I have children who have dirtied my hands with worse.” She squinted into the fox’s eyes. “... Is this some sort of sign? I cannot recall any farseers presenting this exact event… One did mention a coughing bull, but that’s a bit of a stretch, I suppose.”

The fox yawned wide, snapping its mouth shut - a voice echoing around it. "You prayed for me, Illyd Dyll, God of Weather and Agriculture."

For a moment too long, the woman stood as frozen. She then tossed herself to the ground and pleaded, “Great Lyd! Forgive my uncouth tongue - take it if you wish! Had I known I was in your divine presence, I would not have been so arrogant in my speech!”

"Ah, well -- oh well," The voice hummed, the fox snuggling back into the grass. It yawned again and closed its eyes. The voice turned to a soft breathing for an uncomfortable while before Illyd coughed. "So what's up?"

Boudicca peeked up. “Uh… Pardon?”

"You prayed for my presence, it's not very often a human does that," Illyd answered, "So I figured I'd come see what you needed to tell me."

“Oh.” Boudicca sat up and collected her legs in a cross, her arms following suit across her chest. “Well, if that’s the case, I feel like I should start from the beginning: My people are under attack from the east - the Chelevyaks are advancing on our homes and I reached out to ask humbly if you could give us aid in the matter. The manner of aid, if you wish to provide it, is of course up to yourself and your convenience - whatever be granted by your holy will, we will accept it wholeheartedly.” She bowed her torso.

The fox lifted its head, "I have a feeling I'm not the first god you asked for aid."

Boudicca nodded concedingly. “Your guess is true, great one. I have asked everyone, and those who wished to gift us something that could aid us, did; others did not answer, and we understand that the will of the gods is not one and the same - lest they would not be many.”

"What sort of aid are they giving you?" Illyd wondered, nose sniffing the air.

“Oh, their gifts are many. Macsal’s lieutenant, the Lady-in-Waiting, offered me this collar.” She touched the inky belt around her neck. “... I confess I do not know its exact potential, but it has focused my mind since I received it. I feel clearer now - fastened on a purpose.” She then reached into a satchel hanging from her shoulder and retrieved a pearl that fit perfectly in her palm. “The mighty and generous Claroon gifted me this, a tool that taught me the tongue of the seafolk and the oceanborne.” She then pointed back down to Ha-Dûna. “Cadien offered us three banners with powers to enhance strength, stamina and accuracy, all necessary components of battle.” She then tapped at her temple. “Naya took upon herself the burdens of our tumult now, too, so we can sleep easier.” She paused. “... So some may sleep easier, anyway… Others have, have been finding it harder to rest. That’s not Naya’s fault, of course, but… Anyway, finally, Selesta has promised her support when battle is met.”

"That's all so generous of them," the fox stretched, "Why did they grant you these things?"

“The gods are kind and generous,” Boudicca nodded. “We ask not why or why not - we are merely thankful that it happened.”

"Maybe you should ask why," Illyd suggested. Sitting up the fox looked around before continuing, "Gods are insidious creatures, usually without realization. It's the harmful by-product of their security in immortality - suddenly their opinions are law and their actions sancrosanct - consequences be damned... Literally. Have you heard this from a God before?"

Boudicca blinked uncomfortably. “W-well… No, but… But we would rather not upset any gods. As you said, their opinions -are- law, after all. If they - if you - would ask us to do anything, we cannot say against it.”

"It's true, I could destroy your entire civilization and ensure that not a single generation exists beyond the second I do," Illyd mentioned idly, "All the gods could, and every mortal knows it, and they know that this is far from the worst we could do to you. Terrible things - a mortal once suggested at least death could be an escape, but no - not from us." The fox put a paw on Boudicca's knee, "Do you know why I, the God of Agriculture and Harvest, speak of such things to you?"

“N-no?” It was incredible the tremors that the fox’s paw sent through the giant warrior of a woman.

"Because I planted the seed of mortality myself, long long ago, and I aim to see my garden grow," The Fox smiled a toothy smile, "Free of biting insects and gnawed roots. In your war and in your pleas I smell the stink of invading rot. Gods slowly forcing their hands stronger and stronger on mortality, pushing them and pulling them into the cages of their own desires. Their many conflicting ideals ripping the mortal plane asunder." The fox looked away for a moment, "If you want my aid, I can aid by keeping the Gods away from your war, on both sides - so you and mortality can solve it to your own desires and ability. And after, I can keep them from meddling in whatever peace is born."

Boudicca’s wide eyes hardened into a frown. “But… I asked them for help. Please, I do not wish to confuse - we are happy to be watched over by them, come what may. We have only grown as prosperous as we have because the gods have kept us in their plans, and I believe I speak for all my people when I say we feel safer with them than without them.”

"Well okay," Illyd put his second paw on her knee so as to lever himself high enough to look her in the eye, "Look to my gardens to see what it looks like in a world I offered, I'll always have my ears open."

She stared deeply into his eyes. “Your… Gardens?”

"There are corners of this world that don't know the pain your people have gone through, and even among your people there are pockets of paradise bent to the law made before the gods," Illyd nodded, "The harvest, the wild meadows, the deep groves misted in rain -- places I call home. They have been untouched by the other gods, and as such they are in a pure and pristine state without tugging conflictions projected upon them. Think on this: you have great tools of destruction gifted to you by the gods, but if your enemy is also gifted such things then all the gods have done is made a larger wound - and even if they don't - eventually something will match that power, and then either side will escalate and escalate. Ah the Gods," Illyd shook his head, "They don't go away. To give blessings is one thing, but to make ordenances of war - I question them."

As if to punctuate his point, there came a sudden explosion to the east. The mountains, so distant that they were not visible - only known thanks to one’s sense of place and direction - were in a flash overshadowed by a ball of flame, and the sky above seemed to blacken like soot. Boudicca rocketed to her feet and gasped. “By the gods, what-... What on Galbar is that?!”

"Oh dear," Illyd whispered, a sense of frustration in his voice. "I can feel the loss of an extravagant number of lives." He snarled, "with more to come."

Boudicca’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “Was… Was that the work of a god? And, and was that aimed at the Chelevyak homelands?!” She descended to her knees and looked up at the sky. “... Is this what you meant, great Reiya?”

"You wouldn't call it great if it had struck here," Illyd stared at the horizon, "Then again I feel a lot of our talk would be different if you didn't, in serendipity, align with divine machinations. But who knows how long that'll last."

“Hah! Triumph for--” Boudicca was knocked back by the sudden blast of air and sound. Tremors rocked her off balance and out of the corner of her floored eyes, she could see Ha-Dûna below filling with dust and smoke from fires. She blinked dizzily and tried to push herself to her elbows. “... By the gods, what force…”

Illyd Dyll stood unaffected, coat untainted by dust. He looked over at Boudicca, "Force is one word for it." Boudicca blinked up at him, coughing harshly as she forced herself to rise.

“I, I need to run home. Smoke from fires is rising from within the walls--” She coughed again and staggered a few steps forward before needing to stop to restabilise herself.

"No they aren't," Illyd Dyll said, pointing his snout back at the city, the dust and smoke already being washed away by a seemingly gentle rain -- licks of fire already dying down. Boudicca blinked.

“As expected of divinity…” She finally recovered her balance and smeared some dust off her face. The clouds in the far east grew blacker by the second, and they were expanding with violent speed. Boudicca paid them only a glance and turned back to the fox. “A mere movement of your nose just saved several families, parents and children alike, from burning alive inside their homes. I state once more that we are eternally at the mercy and in service of the gods, for without them, how would we thrive as we do?”

Illyd blinked, "Consider this, I only just canceled the damage caused by another god." He looked out to the east, "And now I will cancel that - the clouds are mine."

Boudicca squinted. “... But hold on… The clouds may sour the weather for the advancing Chevelyaks… This could be an opportunity to turn the battle! Oh, please, great Lyd!” She descended to a knee and folded her hands. “I realise the insolence of my request, but all I ask is that I’m given a week. A week in such weather and the morale of the Chelevyaks will be shattered - no sun and only ashen rain for days! It’s a golden chance to end this war and bring peace to these lands once more!”

The fox whisked its tail past Boudicca's nose, the fuzzy hairs interrupting her request with a sneeze. Sitting up on her lap, Illyd studied the mortal. "Could have ended the war by letting you all burn as well, no?"

The woman blinked. “W-well…”

"Could end your mortal war so many ways and not all are pleasant to you - but that's not my place, not now at least." The fox held its stare, "I will rejuvenate these lands as I always do with my blessings, regardless of who will feast of my harvest and dance in my rains, I'll guard the garden of mortality." He hopped off, a goofier tone tinting his voice. "But seriously thanks for all this, I don't talk to humans enough it seems - I'm always available by prayer."

“Oh.” Boudicca appeared somewhat deflated and remained kneeling. “But of course. Your will is ours, great one. We cannot thank you enough for your aid in growing our crops and feeding our soil. I hope our druids may reach out come sowing season and ask for your blessings so that we may feed ourselves for one more year, then.”

"Oh but of course, I already planned your winter and spring schedule," The Fox seemed suddenly excited by the topic.

“O-oh, you have?”

"Yes!" The fox all but hopped in place, "Tell your farmers to plant rooty vegetables with tap roots in the late winter after haying, the snow will be mild enough - trust me - but your soil is starting to shelve from use and could use the roots to break it up for your true spring rotation like wheat and the like."

“Oh! Yes, of course! When, when should we plant the peas, leeks and onions?” She seemed to move her hands in a writing manner as though scratching in notes on a fictive tablet.

"After the beets and deep roots," the fox was actually hopping now, "Make sure the ground is warm though!"

“Of course. I shall pass this on to the druids as soon as I return so they may write it down and start distributing seeds. Thank you for this, great one. I shall have a bull slain in your honour come the solstice.” She bowed her head in respect.

"Cook it with rosemary and give it to your farmers -- oo make it a potluck." Illyd was prancing around spouting ideas.

Boudicca’s lips flattened out, but she nodded politely all the same. “We shall make it a ‘potluck’, then,” she responded as though the meaning of the term was as clear as water. “Hopefully, the druids of the Temple of the Woods will have some sprigs left over from this year’s herb harvest.”

"They'll have double!" Illyd Dyll seemed determined, eyes focused on nothing in particular as he pranced around Boudicca in circles. It was unclear if he meant he would make sure they had double, if they already had double, or if he was just wish-listing. The warrior struggled to keep up.

“That-that’s awfully kind of you, great one! Thank you! W-we’ll need it for the coming winter, for sure, especially if the Chevelyaks…” She seemed to stop herself as though returning to such a subject would be taboo. “... When should we forage for mushrooms and berries, then?”

"Chevelyaks," The fox stopped prancing, "Do you think they would want to come to a potluck?"

Boudicca frowned. “... We would rather not have them come for anything. They belong in their mountains and have no business trekking beyond them.”

Boudicca couldn't be sure, but she coulda sworn the fox rolled its eyes, "Have you ever talked to one?"

“I’d rather not. First, they demand a senseless tribute from someone else with whom they have had no history; then they burn Ha-Leothe to the ground and ally themselves with the wicked Cenél - these actions speak loudly of the quality of this barbarian Jonwayo and his people.” She shook her head disapprovingly. “The fact that he keeps on marching west tells me all I need to know about him.”

Another whisk of the foxes tail, and another sneeze. "You're coming with me," Illyd said almost happily.. Boudicca pursed her lips.

“Where to, great one?”

The fox shimmered away and from the sky, a great fluffy cloud came zipping down to the hill. Sitting on top was a young man wrapped in white robes, brandishing a goofy smile. He patted next to him, big brown eyes sparkling, "We are going to go meet Jjonveyo together." Boudicca looked like she was about to suffer a heart attack.

“The enemy himself?! What if he seizes the opportunity and stabs me down the moment he sees me? Then who will lead our defenses against him?”

Illyd pinched his chin in what looked like deep thought, "Oh I got it!" He wiggled his fingers and a steaming apple pie formed in the palm of his hand. The earthy yet sweet aroma wafted from it as Illyd quickly explained, "Just hold this pie, nobody stabs anyone offering a pie."

She eyed the pie skeptically, but took it nonetheless, switching grips every now and then to not burn her hands. “I, uhm… I don’t think a pie will dissuade him from murdering me. It, it might confuse him, though! You are wise, great one.” She smiled politely.

Illyd nodded and smiled, "Glad you agree! Climb aboard, we have a secret surprise encounter to... Encounter." Boudicca cast a quick glance down the hill to Ha-Dûna.

“I hope we’ll be back by sundown,” she mumbled and climbed aboard. Illyd seemed to snicker before with a bang of thunder - the cloud jetted off into the dusty sky.




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Carn

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Cadien

28 years after Antiquity…




Three days had passed.

No word from Cadien. No news of what had happened from Galbar. Three days of enduring the hospitality of the songs.

It was far from unpleasant. In truth, some part of him was actually beginning to enjoy it. All he had done was set a condition that he didn’t want to hear any songs about himself or the war he had fought. The food was good, as was the music - even if he was reluctant to admit it. The other types of performance were endearing too, in their own ways. The plays sought to emulate reality despite being nothing like it, yet that carried its own sort of charm.

And yet, he could not fully enjoy himself. Despite the comforting words of Shae, his failures and those he had left behind still hung in the back of his mind.

He sat on a cliff overlooking the sea, practicing motions with his sword: elegant yet efficient strokes he often used in combat. From time to time he would take a break and gaze out at the horizon. Now, one of those breaks had just come to an end.

Carn rose to his feet and drew his sword once more. He fell into a stance and resumed the familiar patterns of strokes. Shae had joined him a few times, watching his movements with interest and commenting on how he ‘didn’t flow’ quite right, whatever that meant. She had risen, taking the sword from him and staring at it - looking completely out of place in her delicate hands - and imitated his movements. It was odd at first, she did not know quite how to hold it and so Carn had shown her, and when she danced with it again it looked both beautiful and deadly - like a cobra snake dancing to the flute of one of those wandering southerners he had seen once, or a leoness gyrating on air before turning suddenly and plummeting towards its hapless prey.

She was not here now, though. She was practising for a play and had wanted him in it - as himself. She had been subtle, but it had ended in a bout of squabbling and now he was here. Strangely enough, he felt some regret for turning her down. But there was no way he could imagine himself standing on a stage and reliving his own actions, following a script divorced from reality for the entertainment of people who had never been there.

He pushed the thoughts on his mind and focused on his training. Swinging, lunging, parrying, and blocking against imaginary foes. If only he had a partner. Even if he would have to hold himself back, as he had whenever he sparred with someone on Galbar. It was then that a dark thought crossed his mind. Was his skill in swordsmanship truly due to his own skill, training, and experience? Or was it yet another of the many gifts Cadien had bestowed upon him?

The thought angered him, and he felt his movements come sharper and his brows furrow. But after a few moments Cadien’s words came to him - “Did you not resent what little sway over your life I already held?” It gave him pause. He had not really thought about the exchange since, now that he had calmed and the anger of the moment was gone. Was it true? Was this anger evidence of that? Even now he wished to be free of his father’s shadow - and yet he blamed him for not being there when he had been free. His brows knotted and he started moving again. What did he want?

He thought of all the things he had ever wanted. Wealth? It was nice, but ultimately just a means to acquire other things. Power? No, he had chafed under the burden of leading an entire army. His desires had never been material. Fame? That had its perks, but it also led people to expect things of him. Then he finally placed it: the most prominent motivator throughout his life. The one he had strived his hardest to achieve, and had nearly ruined himself when he couldn’t have it.

Acceptance. Love. Family. Companionship.

He had wanted to please Aurielle. When she rejoined him, his march against Ketrefa had been as much to impress her and keep her with him as it had been to rescue his brother. His desire to rescue his brother had been genuine too, until he found out Brundt was already in service to the enemy. But before that, he had been hoping for a genuine reunion.

After he had been parted from his family, but before he met Aurielle, he had been alone. A wandering vagrant who dirtied his hair so he wouldn’t be recognized. A boy who pickpocketed, begged, and stole to get by. Then as he grew older, he fought and killed. He became good at it, and even enjoyed it, but he hated the life it forced him to live. Living in filth or on the road. Never staying in one place, and never having any friends or loved ones he could trust.

Aurielle and the Redspears were the first people he had spent more than a month with. No wonder he became so fixated on her. No wonder that, to this day, turning his back on the mercenary band they had built was still one of his deepest regrets.

Was that it, then? Was that all his motivation boiled down to? A lovesick fool who wandered the world desperately seeking out what few souls were willing to put up with his blunders and crimes? He lowered his sword, suddenly losing his energy for the practice. The hilt slipped from his fingers, and the blade sank onto the grass. He stepped forward, and looked down at the sea below.

What would happen if he jumped? Would Cadien save him again? If not, would the songs miss him? He clearly didn’t fit in with their little world. All he brought with him were troubles Cadien clearly didn’t wish for them to be exposed to. They’d move on.

Then, the question rang in his mind again: what did he want?

He had failed to find his place on Galbar, and he was failing to find his place here. Did that mean a place didn’t exist for him?

No. It did not mean that. Because he had only ever looked in one place. He had only ever done the one thing he had been good at. He had never tried to see if he was good at anything else. What sort of fool behaved the exact same way over and over again, and then became surprised when the world refused to accommodate him? As he looked down at the water, he knew he did not wish to die. If he died now, he would die a failure; a flawed, broken, and blind man. That was not what he wanted. That was not what anybody who cared about him would want.

What he really wanted was a second chance.

But such a thing would not simply fall into his lap. It was something he needed to earn. Resentful as he was about his circumstances, bitterly lamenting about them would not change a thing.

He turned away from the water, and walked back toward the town, leaving the sword in the grass.



The next few weeks were spent getting adjusted, both to life in Meliorem and the company of the Songs.

The clothes were strange, the foods were strange, the people were strange. But they were strange in a good way; so much better than anything Carn had encountered on Galbar. Then there were the performances; so much more refined, complex, and eloquent than anything he had seen on Galbar. He had heard that nobles from the cities enjoyed such things, but he had never seen anything like that in person.

In time, the plays and the poems and the music eventually began to grow on him. He found himself liking them, though he still refused to listen or speak about his own ‘adventures’, even if they could be called that.

It was nice, not having to worry about always looking over his shoulder or fearing that he would be stabbed or robbed in his sleep. Not having the pressures of command on him, as everyone looked to him for leadership. He was safer and more comfortable than he had been in years.

But as comfortable as he was, he could not pretend everything was alright. He missed Aurielle. He missed Yarwick. He missed Ingrid. He needed answers.

So, he marched up to Cadien’s palace to demand them.



“Ah!” Cadien exclaimed as Carn stepped into the throne room. “You have returned!” One look in Cadien’s eyes told Carn that was exactly what the god had expected to happen. “Tell me, how are you enjoying your stay?”

“Well enough,” Carn replied warily. “Aurielle. Yarwick. Ingrid. The rest of my men. What happened to them?”

The god’s smile faded, but he did not frown. “Yarwick and Ingrid are alive. Aurielle, I don’t know where she is. She vanished from the field of battle. I suspect her maker’s involvement.”

“Who made her? Where did he take her?” Carn asked at once.

“The God of Magic,” Cadien replied. “And no, I don’t know where he took her.”

“Can you find out?”

“Perhaps. If Qael chooses to tell me. I could ask, of course, but last I spoke to him on the matter of his daughters he was a bit… nevermind.” Cadien leaned forward on his chair. “But trust me. You are better off without her.”

Carn’s hand curled into a fist. “And what gives you the right to decide that?”

“I am the master of this realm,” Cadien replied. “No, I am this realm. I have a right to decide who comes or goes. She would not be well-suited to this place. She is volatile, and destructive. Perhaps if she had not changed so drastically since when you first met her, I might have tried to bring her here alongside you. But alas…”

“She hasn’t changed that much,” Carn protested, though he knew that was a lie. Yes, the woman he had come to love was still there on the surface, but she had become more callous, cynical, and bloodthirsty than ever before. He had known it even on Galbar, but he had blinded himself to it.

“You know that isn’t true,” Cadien chided. “I tried to convince her father to steer her onto a better path, you know. I don’t think he listened. I suspect other gods have ties to her as well, and their influence has not been for the better. To court her is to court destruction, if not to yourself, then to others. Is that truly what you want?”

“It doesn’t have to be that way. I can…”

“You can change her?” Cadien asked. “I’ve been observing mortals for millennia. They always think they can change their friends or their loved ones. Sometimes, they succeed, but on most occasions? They don’t. In the worst cases, all they do is create a rift. Do you think this Aurielle is one who will listen to reason, or be moved by emotion? She tried to destroy a suit of armour, simply because said suit of armour had a female voice and had been in your vicinity.” His mouth curled into a frown. “You owe that suit of armour an apology, by the way.”[/color]

Carn glared at the god, but said nothing. Cadien stared back. Eventually, Carn broke the gaze and looked down at the floor. “You’re right…” he whispered, as a sudden sense of grief and heartbreak overcame him. The things she had done. The things he had overlooked. The way things could have been instead, had she not changed the way she had. The knowledge that there was nothing he could do, because beings of far greater power were invested in his and her fates.

It all came back to the gods. The all-seeing, all-powerful beings who held sway over creation and destruction. The beings who had denied him a simple life. Who had separated him from his family.

He couldn’t even bring himself to feel angry at this point. Too much had been taken from him. Not just him, but all mortals.

Then, Carn heard footsteps, and looked up to see that the God of Perfection had risen from the throne to approach him.

“I did not wish for life on Galbar to be so horrendous,” Cadien admitted. “There needs to be challenge, yes, but not so much suffering. Ketrefa was a source of great suffering, and your war against them was meant to put an end of that. Either you would make an example of them, take control and change things yourself, or your own brother would pick up the pieces and fix things from within. But it was… foolish of me to use you in such a manner.”

Carn looked Cadien in the eye. “How do I know this isn’t another trick? That you’re not just saying what you think I want to hear?”

The God of Perfection frowned, and then gripped Carn’s wrist. Suddenly, Carn’s surroundings faded away, while new images and feelings overwhelmed his senses.

He found himself standing before a crowd of primitive humans, clad in furs or nothing at all. Next he was flying through the stars, on the back of a great winged beast, looking down at Galbar below. The shape of the world was round, like a sphere. How could it be round? Then he found himself embracing what appeared to be a pale merelli, except they were both hovering over the open ocean. Next he saw the creation of the merelli, with that same woman from before present. Following that was a feeling of boredom and isolation, as he languished on a throne.

No. He wasn’t himself. He was Cadien. These events were through the God of Perfection’s eyes.

And finally he came to the present. Carn, as Cadien, was looking at himself through Cadien’s eyes, and speaking with Cadien’s lips. And he, from Cadien’s perspective, knew it to be true.

Then the vision faded, as Cadien released his wrist and Carn was back in the throne room. He nearly lost his balance, but Cadien’s hand came up to his shoulder to steady him.

“If you speak the truth…” Carn whispered, “then make it right.”

“I shall try,” Cadien said. “I cannot account for the influence of the other gods, but I do not intend to give up on my work simply because of a few miscalculations. You no longer need to worry about Ketrefa. Brundt will see to it, and I will guide him with more transparency than I did you.”

“And what of the men who followed me?”

“I will encourage the Ketrefans to show mercy to those who survived. As to those who didn’t… I have a plan. It will be a long time before I see it enacted, but I intend to turn this place into a refuge for the souls of fallen warriors. Their sacrifices will not be unawarded or unacknowledged.”

Carn wiped a tear from his eye. “And what of me?”

“Your work is done. Your fight is over. You may rest here, if you wish. And when the time for the rest of your siblings has come, they may rest here too.”








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Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Legion02
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Not a thing upon the mortal world nor the high heavens could’ve missed it. A continent shook. Divinity bled. The earth bore a scar. It was an awful thing. A sun-bleached hellscape where no life could ever survive. White, desolate sands. Dunes of glass. In the distance, Qael’Naath could see the petrified remnants of what would’ve been mortals. Their lives eternally sealed within their last expression. Yet the wind blew as tranquil and serene as it always had. Oblivious of what it swept over. The Winds of Magic had coalesced once more in a denser form. With enough imagination, one could imagine it looked like Kal. The Conduit was fast approaching atop his leon. Mortal eyes and mouth that may be much needed. Even though this hellscape was not suitable at all for him. That would have to be solved but only when the issue came up.

For now, the perceived immortal being that was Qael’s avatar floated forward. Into the dunes and white sands. Into the scorching heat. The god of magic registered it but nothing more. Heats continued to climb. Then, from the white sands came small things. Creatures that looked familiar. Dozens of them came to attack the Winds but could barely reach him. One found himself lifted up and floated in front of the Winds. “What are you?” Qael’Naath asked out loud. The question carried upon the air of Galbar as well. The creature in his magical hold twisted and turned. Its form was so very familiar. Though he quickly lost interest when he felt the cheer lack of magical affinity within the creature. He tossed it, and it crumbled instantly.

He carried on. Deeper into the oppressive heat. Far beyond what most mortal life could walk through and live. Then he passed into even hotter places. Where patches of the white sand were replaced by glassy ponds. Deeper in the ponds became lakes. And deeper still Qael felt the oppressive heat that could not and should not be upon Galbar. And there in the central crater, he found the first being not made out of glass and sand.

A tall and winged humanoid in the shape of a woman, with shimmering black and blue wings - reminiscent of the winged aiviri of the Luminant, but with long horns that set her apart from the mortals that dwelled in the south. Furthermore, she radiated divinity and the essence of one Qael had sensed many times in the past. The mother of the neiyari - the ‘love’ goddess. It was not hard to deduce that this being was a servant of the goddess, not to mention she appeared as undisturbed by heat and glass that Qael’s vaguely humanoid Wind-shape was. She bobbed up and down in the air with powerful beats of her wings, cutting and slicing through the occasional fragile being that came charging at her through whipping dusts and rising from old piles of glass.

To help her on this constant crusade was a long, golden blade - seemingly liquid and solid at the same time. It too radiated a blinding amount of divine essence, a considerably more familiar one. It felt angry, as if the blade itself was driven by an endless anguish and rage. The winged woman swept it briefly towards a small creature, and the mindless glass wraith disintegrated and melted from pure heat, despite already being native to an endless expanse of intolerable heat. The blade was unnatural to Galbar - to Antiquity - even to a deity’s own realm, and it didn’t seem like something she would have created. It seemed like something more. An echo of what had once been.

The god of magic stood stunned in his own realm as he watched the woman slaughter. Pieces in his mind fell in place. The crater he had found her in was awash with a particular divine essence he had felt before. It, however, was merely an echo of what had happened here. The blade she wielded though, was burning with the power of the sun itself. A realization came to him. Solus he was called. Something he had glimmered from Soleira’s mind. A protector. A guardian. An avatar of the sun itself.

“You!” He said. The air carried his voice through Galbar. Making it sound storm-like. The physical body of the Winds floated closer. “What have you done!?”

The woman righted herself in the air, turning to settle a gaze on Qael'Naath's avatar that seemed to carry nothing but aggressive disdain. After a long bout of silence, she pointed the long blade in his direction, and it dripped of slag metal as it lingered in the scalding air. He saw it seemed to have affected her as well, long golden cracks glowing down the skin of the hand and arm she used to hold the hilt. They pulsated with the blade itself, almost as if it was spreading to the rest of her. Her voice boomed in turn across the desolate landscape, arrogant and haughty. In it he could sense an attempt to twist his mind and sow fright - nothing that affected a divine being. "All I have done is finish what I started decades ago. Be happy that the tyrant of the Sun will never again leave his blighted stain on our world,” she spoke before pausing, regarding Qael’s avatar with renewed focus. Her eyes narrowed to slits, and the blade lifted ever so slightly. ”You stink of mana. Kneel before me now, and you may yet be made to serve your purpose."

Something crackled over the Winds body. Then it shifted, growing taller. Though clearly more evanescent. He outstretched his hand towards her. “Hand over your weapon.” The winds storm-like voice became booming like thunder. It was dangerous beyond belief. A weapon that could harm the sun’s divinity should simply not exist. Until they found a way to extract Solus’ essence and perhaps reshape him, it could not be destroyed either. But there was just no way Qael would allow it to exist within the divine realms. It had to remain on Galbar. In the sole place where it would be kept safe.

First, though, he would have to break through the megalomania of this other avatar. But he was a god. And in the end, all avatars would understand they stand no chance against the full powers of divinity. “Hand it over, and I will allow you to live.”

The winged avatar scoffed sharply, a cutting breath to go with her disgusted frown. "It is war, then." she declared with a malicious finality. Her wings shimmered and moved, and without further warning the divine woman dove straight towards Qael'Naath's tall form with no apparent regard for his imposing power and threats. The blade sung through the air, as molten metal seemed to heat the very particles in the dry atmosphere. The liquid blade swung in an arc as she charged, aimed straight in an attempt to decapitate, with swathes of slag launching in the aftermath as the blade passed. She attacked to kill, that much was clear.

The winds moved. Human instinct. The influence of Kal took over for a moment. In truth Qael’Naath did not expect to be hit. Not in such an ethereal form. It was that mortal aspect that he had bound with that was having at first assumed unfortunate effects on him now.

Then the blade bit.

It did not pass harmlessly through the Winds’ ethereal form. The slash tore through his avatar’s form. Separating divinity from its source. The ripped clouds spawning from the wound coalesced together. Turning into glistering purple and blue rain that fell upon the Glass Wastes.

At first, the god did not understand. The winds were incorporeal. Untouchable. Yet the blade, already dangerous enough, was stronger still. He even felt the sensation back in his own realm. He touched his chest. Luckily there was no wound. While on Galbar the Winds recoiled. Shifting and shattering like ice before reforming higher up. “I will say this one last time. Surrender the blade or perish.” His voice now a full-blown storm as the clouds were pulled by the ever-growing vortex of mana.

Aveira did not appear to listen; for the aggressive winged avatar, the time for talking was over save for a quick and furious "Die, cur!" Either mad, overconfident or truly fearless, she sneered at Qael'Naath's presence with a haughty, utter disdain unfitting for a lesser being. Giant wings beat again and flung the horned woman forward to drive the molten blade in a rushing attack straight for the vague humanoid shape's centre of mass. The air steamed and hissed as the blade singed and set fire to dust and oxygen, and the lethal golden tip shot forwards in a violent and confident stab.

Something flashed. Qael’Naath fell down to his knees in his own realm. The connection with the Winds severed. Down on Galbar Kal collapsed as well. On the ground he felt as if he could barely breathe. Both of them clutched their robes. Qael’s felt wet. He looked down to see the old wound from which he had carved out Qull was bleeding with raw divinity again.

The Winds pierced by Requiem raged and shrieked around the blade. Where it once looked controlled and humanoid it now looked animalistic and violent. Raging against everything around it. The piercing blade kept a hold of it. But it was fighting with the powers of a hurricane. Lashing at Aivera and the blade. Until it was finally free. Only to be shackled again by a desperate Qael’Naath. Who did not wait a second to get his mutilated avatar away.

Leaving the vortex of power he had summoned behind. Still coiling over the center lands of the Glass Wastes. The mana, uncontrolled and without purpose, lashed out in the air around it. In certain areas an all freezing wind blew and vanished again. Other places the natural light of the sun became a searing heat. The sand and stone moved and quaked on its own. Gale winds could whip up and appear out of nowhere, and be silenced just as quickly. It became an even more unpredictable, lethal land.

The winged woman gave chase behind Qael'Naath's avatar for a handful of moments, but even her massive wingspan was no match for the endless flexibility and speed of the Winds. She became a blur on the horizon that mixed with the heat waves boiling the air, and eventually could no longer be said to be giving chase. For better or worse, the horned avatar, and her lethal blade, remained somewhere in those hostile wastes. Slowed and kept occupied by worsening weather and growing volatility. Hopefully.



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A Song Journey





It was not long before the lady-in-waiting had selected a group of fifteen songs, placing Saluna at their head. While Shae had always annoyed her and gone out of her way to frustrate her, they were of one ink. “Look after your comrades - and know that even if the Lord Cadien has sent an escort it is your duty to ensure their safe return just as it is their duty to protect you on your way. Pursue all clues of Shaeylila’s whereabouts, speak to all gods you cross and to their creations. And be brave.”

Nodding, the clothier of the sirens took up her mask and brought her brocaded mantle of gold and crimson about her and led the solemn procession of similarly clad sirens and songmen, and their armed and armoured escort, towards the gate of Melioriem.

The guards, for their part, were silent. A mixture of men and women selected by Dakari, They were led by Jakri, Dakari’s old ally from ages past. Jakri may have initially been tied to Dakari out of coercion all those decades ago, but had since proven himself to be reliable and trustworthy. Of course, the songs knew nothing of this, other than that Jakri was the one deemed suitable to command their escort.

Other songs followed them, strumming lutes and playing flutes and an assortment of other instruments to lift their morale and prepare them for the journey ahead of them. Through the portal they went, those stalwart, dauntless thirty.

They stepped into ink up to their knees and were for a few moments surprised - had they walked through the wrong portal? But a quick lookaround confirmed that this was not the realm of their Lady at all. From a near portal an inkfall flowed, filling the entire space with ink. Here and there little inky butterflies or faeries fluttered and at the centre of the great space was a signpost that stood enduring the rising ink tide. Saluna gestured for the others to follow, keeping her eyes surveying the space.

“What does it say?” Herraiya asked. Saluna glanced at the other song and then looked at the signpost.

“It’s a noticeboard. Let’s see now… ‘What if I told you there was a way to interact more closely with the world? All you need to do is bind a small piece of your soul to another form, and send that form to Galbar. It will be able to pass through without interference from the Lifeblood, walk the world, and perform divine actions on your behalf. You can thank Gibbou for this trick. Oh, and if you haven’t set foot outside your realm’s portal yet, please do; it’s perfectly safe! That will be all!’” Saluna read. The others looked at each other with deep frowns. “Uh. Lifeblood? I don’t think that’s intended for us. But this name ‘Gibbou’ sounds familiar.” The leader thought out loud.

“Moon Goddess,” Jakri grunted, as if that answered everything. Saluna’s brows rose in realisation and she nodded gratefully to the leader of the guards before moving onto to the other things. “Hmm, ah yes, zodiacs. This addition here has been vandalised - a drawing of some sort. I wonder who would do that…” she paused in thought, “do you think maybe Shae passed by and did it? It’s something she would do.” The others only shrugged in response. “Okay, we’ll take it as evidence.” She ripped the vandalised piece off and inspected it more closely. It looked to be half of a smiling face of some kind.

“Oh! Saluna! This looks useful. I think it’s a list of all the g-” but before Herraiya could finish, there was a great disturbance as one of the far portals expanded rapidly and a creature from the land of nightmares emerged. The songs stood frozen in shock, eyes wide, but their Neiyari guards were swift to put themselves between the songs and the danger.

At first, it didn't seem to even notice them, which seemed lucky enough. It was truly massive. Its entire body, excluding the large wings like that of a bat that sprung from the back of its quadrupedal form, was covered in shimmering black scales. Along its head it had impressive horns, they curled back in on themselves like that of a ram's horns. A long tail swung out as it finally stepped fully free of the portal and it returned to its normal size.

The massive creature looked around, soft it spoke even as its voice echoed through the barren land, "So this is the land beyond the portal..."

The creature's voice drifted off until its eye crossed the path of the group, it turned, bringing its gargantuan head low to the ground, bringing its eyes near the level of the group. It spun around its body, no easy feat given it's size and difficulty moving among the portals. Speaking even as it did so, "Oh I didn't see all you there. What might you be?"

The tone was of obvious joy and was only so very nearly not one of singing. The guards did not relax, however, and seemed set on striking out if the creature got any nearer, but Saluna stepped forth and calmed them. “There now Jakri, give me a moment.” She looked at the fearsome beast for a few seconds, her inky form rippling with the slightest fear, and then she clenched her fist and stepped forward. “I greet you, mighty being. I am Saluna, Clothier of the Songs. These here are my comrades, all servants and wards of Lord Cadien of Melioriem, the Beauteous and Perfect. Who may you be?” She spoke melodiously and without hesitation, her euphonious words flowing in harmony with the lake of ink all around them and the great spaces above.

"Oh my, I do most love your voice. I am Iom'dryrar, she who was allowed to explore the divine realms by the Great Eye, the supreme Lord of Death, Thaa. In truth, I had not expected to see such wonders as yourselves so quickly! I am very glad to meet you Saluna, among my people each has a name, are you solely in possession of one as a 'Clothier of the Songs'?" Iom'dryrar had begun to settle down on her haunches as she spoke, taking a very relaxed position, apparently in disregard of the guards. After a tense few seconds, they eased up somewhat but were still visibly wary.

“Some of us have taken up roles to benefit our community, and from those roles titles arose. But no, we are all in possession of names. These here are my song siblings - here is Herraiya,” the song in question waded forth, the ink parting about her, and bowed respectfully as she removed her mask.

“I’ve no grand titles, mighty Iom’dryrar, but my voice is one Lord Cadien loves and that is honour enough for me.” Herraiya spoke daintily, admiring the great being’s terrible form. Others stepped forth after her, introducing themselves in turn and relaying their roles if they had taken up any. There was the slender Linuha, her inky hair flowing long and green and her clothes boasting flowers of red and green and gold. Then came Simta, who was soft spoken and paler than all the others, seemingly unable to meet Iom’dryrar’s eyes. Though she lowered her mask, it remained over the lower part of her face as she spoke. After her was Filaisa, her voice as silk and features the most constant of the songs, then the songman Mihdara, strumming his lute and bowing with a great flourish, sending forth a few verses of praise for the glorious dragon’s mighty frame and goodness of nature. Next was wild and tempestuous Laiyuna, who spoke quickly and stared intently and asked questions without waiting on answers, and after her was Sabunta who, trembling and fearful, stepped forward with shaking knees and declared his bravery and courage to the chuckles of the others. Migara was next, whose every aspect was peace and whose aura followed her like a great cloud of calm, followed by Sirpal - tall, dashing, wild-haired and quick to laugh and smile -, then Hidashar - sombre, melancholic, and whose words came like sighs -, then Eshren, Saluna’s consort and whose words came velvety and considered. The final three were Jinaha, who seemed to float, Lajia who twirled and loosed the melodies of her flute to the hums and singing of the others, and Ghizla - black of eye, black of hair, black of aspect; unchanging Ghizla, deep-voiced and tallest, broad of chest, wielding charisma as easily as the Neiyari guards hefted and swung their weapons.

“And these here are our Neiyari friends and guards,” Saluna continued once that was done. “They come from the terrene sphere of Galbar, the Toraanian continent there, and now live to serve Lord Cadien.” She paused and glanced at the guardsmen, but they seemed to have little interest in introducing themselves or being friendly with the dragon, and so she moved on. “He’s the quiet sort - probably just shy, aren’t you Jakri? But I guess you should know him at the least, our very own, dashing [TITLE PLACEHOLDER] Jakri.” She looked at the Neiyari for a few seconds, but introductions did not seem to make him anymore talkative. “Ah well. We had not expected to meet something as wondrous as you, magnificent Iom’dryrar - truth be told I thought you a god at first! You said you are exploring the divine spheres. Are you searching for something, like us?”

Iom'dryrar met each with interest and happy gaze, smiles with teeth kept firmly behind her lips as she enjoyed each introduction. With the final question of purpose she responded, "I am far from a god for one must be sure, I am but one of many of my people, first however to move among the divine realms if second to leave that of our creation. I am not searching for anything in particular, instead I seek to explore realms near and far for interest and hopefully most joyous findings. Already I am succeeding to have met such wonderful company."

"You are searching for something you have said, and I have no set schedule, if you would have it, I'd gladly assist you in any means that I could."

Saluna sighed and nodded at the question, though she seemed pleased at the prospect of having the Iom’dryrar join their fellowship. “Yes, we are searching for some of our fellow songs who have disappeared. We fear that something has befallen them. You come from the realm of death - I don’t know much about death, but do the dead… go to the great Lord Thaa? Have you perchance seen beings like us wander into the world of death of late?”

The dragon nodded solemnly as Saluna spoke, replying, "I do know some from knowledge of the realm and the words of the Great Eye. Almost every dead soul goes to Thaa, he ensures quite stable control over it in his own powers I believe. I have not seen such beings as your kind ever before I must admit, but I would not fear they are lost there. Inside there are guards which watch the entrance, most often the Echoes, they typically alert the Great Eye to any visitors. He is very particular about such I am led to believe. If they had wandered in I am sure the Echoes would have forced them to leave once more as long as they lived still."

She crossed her fore-legs and continued, "If you wish to pray to the Great Eye to confirm whether they have reached him you might do so, but I would doubt he would reply, in truth." Saluna raised her hand and shook her head.

“No no, it is quite alright. If you had not noticed any upsets then Shae was definitely not around. She’s irreverent, wild, crazy - and maybe it’s actually for the best that she’s disappeared, only that she’s probably giving songkind a bad name wherever she’s off to and so we must reluctantly find here. And then there is poor Wilarda and Meralusa, they certainly don’t deserve whatever has befallen them - no doubt due to that Shaeylila.” Saluna caught herself mid-tirade and couged. “But ah, anyway. No need for all that. Now, if I remember right Lord Cadien did recommend we visit the goddess of sun and daybreak first.” She looked around at the portals. “Is there any way of knowing which leads there?”

“We can almost certainly discount that one, that one, and that one.” Filaisa said coolly, pointing to the portal Iom’dryrar had emerged from, the one they had emerged from, and the one that was gushing liquid ink.

“As good a start as any.” Saluna agreed. “Does anything on the board give any clues, Herraiya?” The song had gone back to inspecting the list of the gods.

“No, there’s nothing here Sal-” she glanced up at the leader and froze, her eyes drifting above them. Saluna looked up and likewise gasped, and one by one the other songs all beheld it. The great alabaster wall of Antiquity rose like gold-veined cliffs all about them, and there where a ceiling should have been was a whole other world. The great sphere of Galbar hung above them like a great jewel in the sky, clouds and winds layering its atmosphere and covering up the great landmasses of Toraan, the Mydias, Khesyr, and the Kubrajzar. Seeing was not like hearsay and tales, and the songs took it in for the longest time.

Filaisa was the first to break out of the reverie, and her voice broke her ink-kin back. “That one there. It is alight and rays of day are leaking out of it everywhere. I am certain of it.” Saluna nodded and looked to Jakri and then Iom’dryrar.

“Well, if things go badly at least we have you, eh?” She smiled and was still for a few moments, and then rushed forth gracefully, the ink parting before her, and leapt headfirst through the portal. The other songs formed around each other and, like a great cascade of ink and melody, followed after her.

With a sigh, Jakri followed. “Next time you pass through a strange gateway,” he said as he passed through the portal, “let your guards go through first.” He looked around. “Where are we?” he asked, as the hussars behind him began passing through in pairs.

Finally, the last of those to transit, Iom'dryrar followed with some trepidation but mostly excitement. Another realm of the divine beyond the one she had been born into, the one that she had known all her life of mists and dimness, the entire atmosphere of death. And now one so unbelievably full of light, what wonders awaited her. She came up to it, setting her fore legs at ends of the portal and tried to move it, it seemed to oblige more of intent of will rather than any matter of her strength. So the dragon followed as best she was able after those that came before.

She emerged into a realm of bright colors, painted upon every bit of creation. Lazy clouds drifted upon a light blue sky, joined by creatures small and large that seemed to drift without care upon the cool breeze. With a gentleness, the wind wrapped around them, ruffling hair and bringing many pleasant floral aromas to the senses. The air here was crisp and refreshing, as told by the many song birds that flew past. Though, on sight of the dragon, those birds darted away in fright or surprise.

Before her and the others, there was a well worn dirt path. It was very wide and somehow well kept, leading off into the rolling landscape. There were fields and fields of flowers and tall grasses, ranging in all sorts of colors, sizes, and shapes. From small bushy clumps of yellows and blues to tall reds and violets with flowing petals. It seemed endless, but along the path in the far distance, the landscape changed to trees. Like a wall of mighty green they waited. Not many animals were about, for many had fled at the sight of the dragon and those that remained were naught but quiet insects. In the distance however, more could be seen going about their lives, in peace and harmony. None rivalled the dragon in size, but a few were impressive in stature nonetheless.

The songs stood aghast, their inky forms expanding, shifting, dilating with the world around them. They breathed in the novel smells of flowers, grasses, earth - a breeze carried the whispers of the distant trees. The clouds in the sky had them staring, and Herraiya giggled at one point. “That one looks like you, Iom’dryrar.” Iom'dryrar looked skyward to catch the look of the apparent look-alike cloud, her head softly turned in examination. By her, quiet Simita gasped as an odd, long-eared creature leapt too close.

“H- Herra.” She whispered in panic, and the lively song bent down and stroked the strange animal between the ears before taking it easily in her hands and lifting it. It seemed at perfect peace in her hands.

“By our Lady, Simta, it’s so cute!” She held it up to the other song, who recoiled and retreated behind the towering Ghizla. Perhaps the greatest indicator of who’s realm they had arrived in, however, was the sun and it’s light. It was pleasantly warm there and the rays felt divine - and the songs had never seen its like. Who knew the sun could be so refreshing? Who knew its rays could dance on the surface of an inky form and warm one’s very core?

“Are we… back in the Luminant?” one of the Neiyari asked. A few of the songs looked over and raised their eyebrows, a few chuckling.

Jakri frowned. “No. It’s not bright enough.”

“Have you forgotten your home already?” another Neiyari heckled.

For her part, Iom'dryrar stared in fascination, at all the multitudes of life, she seemed stunned at the vibrancy of it all, only softly looking close at this or that piece of vegetation. The fascination was akin to that of a child seeing out into the world for the first time. “Hey, Io - can I call you Io? - look at this! Isn’t it just the loveliest thing?” Herraiya rushed over and held up the befuddled long-eared thing. “I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it! And it feels so soft and warm.”

"That you may," Iom'dryrar, or Io, replied with much excitement, "It is so small!" She bent her head down, examining it with one eye. She kept her lips as far down over her teeth as she could manage, and moved gently, trying not to spook the creature. Perhaps the creatures here did not understand the concept of predation or death, for the little thing stared indolently back at her, only moving its nose about as it sniffed at the air.

“I think I’ll keep him.” Herraiya declared as Saluna moved past her and looked at the path. After considering it for a few moments, she stepped off it and walked through the tall grass and flowers.

“Let’s go this way.” She called, and the songs all followed after her - except Filaisa who exhaled, sending forth a spurt of ink and song that fluttered off in the form of moths and butterflies. She looked at the road for a few minutes, then reluctantly followed after the others, giving Jakri an annoyed glance as she passed.

Before they had even taken a few steps off the road, a blinding flash of light erupted all around them. When the glow subsided, a tall ethereal woman of light floated before them in the air. She did not look happy.

"Halt." she commanded and rays of light descended all around them in a square prison. She then pointed at Iom'dryrar. "This one is of death. Who speaks for this party? Why would you bring such a creature here and those…" she pointed at the Neiyari hussars, voice taking on a sour note. "This is a realm of life and peace. We do not want death and war here. Furthermore, you are not Furies." She pointed to the songs. "Who might you be to keep such company as this?" she folded her arms and looked to them expectantly.

The Neiyari visibly tensed. One looked as if she was about to go for her weapon, but a sharp look from Jakri stopped her.

Saluna stepped forward, removing her mask and bowing low. “I salute you, great being. I am Saluna, Clothier of the Songs, and these here are my ink-kin, songs and songmen all. We have come from the realm of Lord Cadien of Melioriem, the Beauteous and Perfect. This here is Jakri of the Black Hussars, he and his men have joined us - on Lord Cadien’s insistence - to ensure our safety on our journey. And this here is Iom’dryrar, who seeks after joy and adventure. We beg your forgiveness if we have done wrong.” Her voice came soft and melodious, and all around little life forms seemed drawn towards them, sparrows and other small birds alighting on her shoulder or nestling in her great flowing hair of ink. The other songs similarly bowed, Herraiya clutching the little animal to her chest.

The Great Dragon set her head low on the ground, speaking clearly even so, "Oh Luminous One, I mean no harm or malintent, Saluna speaks true. Should my presence be ever too odious, please, treat any such punishment upon me and not my friends I have met so soon and become so dear."

“We stand under Cadien’s protection,” Jakri said, cutting straight to the point. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Neiyari did not bow. “We are searching for a woman named Shae, who recently went missing from Cadien’s realm.”

The woman narrowed her gaze at the Neiyari. "These ones speak and are polite but what is one to expect from Neiyari?" she scoffed, floating closer. "So it is Cadien that your protection falls under, is it not? One should not assume that we would ever harm such esteemed guests." she said sarcastically, eyes never leaving the Neiyari. "Oh how I'd like to make you feel.To turn you to the light. It would be easy here. So easy." but then she shrugged and looked back to Saluna.

"Songs and Songmen. Curious names. You remind me of… Hmm." She smiled suddenly, the barriers of light retreating from whence they came. "Do not fret, no wrongs have been committed. You must realize that we simply did not expect to have Neiyari and a death entity come into our realm on good tidings. One can never be too careful nowadays. So, I take it this missing person is one of yours? I am afraid to say no one of your like has wandered in unless their presence was masked. But perhaps you might find answers by speaking to my lady? She does wish to speak to the death entity in person. Just follow the road and it will lead you to her. But do keep careful watch on your friends." she began floating away. "Oh and welcome to The Garden Under the Sun. Lady Oraelia's realm." and before anyone could speak, she was gone in a flash.

“That wasn’t Oraelia?” one of the Neiyari questioned with a furrowed brow.

“Doesn’t matter. We must tread carefully nonetheless,” Jakri said.

“She nearly destroyed our people!” the same Neiyari interjected.

“And she can destroy us,” Jakri said, glaring at him. “We’re not here to fight, and even if we were, we can’t win. Focus on the mission.”

“Yes.. sir…” the dissident Neiyari spoke through grit teeth.

Jakri turned to Saluna. “It’ll be best if you take the lead here. We don’t seem to be in any danger, yet.” Saluna nodded, but behind her Filaisa pursed her lips and huffed. Saluna glanced back at her with raised eyebrows.

“Are you okay, Filaisa?” She asked.

“Yes. I guess that being has wisely advised us to follow the road, hasn’t she?” There was a certain barb in her voice.

“Uh, well. Yes, I suppose she did.”

“Good. We need to stay focused, Sal. Running off into fields is not what we’re here for.” She glanced at Jakri. “And I would have expected you to say as much. Sal may be in charge, but she has no experience in leadership. Jumping through portals, rushing off the road. They are all foolish and inadvisable, and you should be more outspoken about them. That’s why Lord Cadien sent you with us, isn’t it?”

“Fila, there now. I got a bit carried away,” Saluna said, placing an appeasing hand on the other song’s shoulder. “No need to get angry.”

“I’m not angry,” she responded coolly, “I just know what we’re out here to do. Find Shae, find Wilarda, find Meralusa. Not to,” she glanced at Herraiya and the animal in her arms, “collect wildlife and prance through fields.”

“Well, I’m going to prance as I please,” Herraiya huffed, “and I won’t let a boring tuneless bitch like you stop me.” The others gasped audibly, and Saluna cast Herraiya a glare.

“Okay, that’s quite enough Herra. Fila is right and we need to be a bit more focused. There’s no need for all of…” she waved her hands about at them, then exhaled in annoyance, “this.” She turned on her heel and stormed off down the road. “Let’s just go.” Filaisa glowered at Herraiya for a few seconds, who grinned mockingly and danced off after Saluna. Filaisa’s hair reddened momentarily, licking at the air around her like flames, and then settled back to its natural cold blue and she followed after them. The timid Simta had wrapped her arms about Ghizla’s arm, and the great songman picked her up, settled her on his shoulder - how she managed to hang on was anybody’s guess - and moved on, followed by all the others.

Jakri let out a tired sigh, and ordered the black hussars to form a perimeter around the songs, with two standing behind and six on either side. Jakri himself stepped up beside Saluna. “Don’t lag behind, and don’t wander off,” he instructed the songs behind him, before facing forward and once again wondering what he had done to make Dakari inflict this job upon him.

Iom’dryrar followed silently, as much as she could at least with steps as hers, behind, happily taking in the surrounding life. The drama of songs didn’t phase her too badly, plenty of dragons had hard contestations over much smaller things, once one got an idea set it was hard enough to stop the pursuit of it. In part she was thankful to be away from all that as each step resounded behind the group, following at a slow pace. She stopped to examine the flora every now and again when something caught her interest in particular, she was in no threat of losing either sight nor ability to catch up with the group. It did mean that her pace and the bounding beats of her claws on the ground was somewhat erratic with each stop and start.

The road went over sprawling hills, through the tall forest that had once been on the horizon, by small cool ponds and crystal clear lakes that threatened a pleasant time within, before opening up into a vast expanse of grassland once more. As the party crested the final hill they overlooked a large white palace of many levels in the distance, sat upon its own hill. Balconies and gardens and tall pillars. “Oh my,” Herraiya murmured, emerging last of all - for she had not hesitated to veer off their route to prance about near the lakes or the trees, which were quite unlike anything she had ever seen.

The palace was not so grand in design as their own home but it had a distinct feeling of warmth to it. As they approached the structure and ascended the steps, it became clear that the stones were engraved with all manner of artworks and statues. Of proud leons and burning stags and the light.

But perhaps the strangest thing of all was how empty it was. With such a grand place of living, where were all the people? As the final step loomed and a great entrance was seen before them, an answer was had. For a woman stood waiting. For the Neiyari amidst the new arrivals, she was an uncanny equal to visions of the War Mother, like an artist's rendition with several liberties taken. Likewise for the songs, her horns and rose-colored skin lent memories of Cadien's alleged consort. Her horns arced gently backwards, and they had been decorated with beads and pearls nestling into brown hair. Glowing red eyes settled on the crowd, shifting among the arrivals quickly - though it was difficult to track her gaze. Draped in a long white toga, the form of the tall creature was mostly hidden from view, save a tail bobbing like a fisherman's line.

"Hail, travellers!" She greeted in a language that touched deep in their mind - the words were not known to them, yet they understood. "A travelling troupe to visit on such an auspicious day; fortune casts us in gleaming light." She dipped her head in a gentle and relaxed bow. "My chosen name is Endless Field of Flowers - The Lady bequeathed to me a personal quest; escort those unknown to me to the… rest." Her jovial, relaxed tone was quickly reinforced with a calm smile. The songs took in her words and then a few giggled, clearly amused by the rhyme - Mihdara strummed his lute for effect and Laiyuna twirled on the spot and fell into his arms.

Ignoring their nonsense, Jakri looked upon her with puzzlement. “You share a similar likeness with the War Mother, and yet you are in the realm of Oraeliara. Why is that?”

'Endless Field of Flowers' turned towards Jakri and nodded dramatically. "All of my kin share a common heritage, cast by Neiya from the specks of her pain. 'tis a tale of fury and woe, how the Sun quelled the rage of the Lover, and joined hands to uplift those of us who languished in the dark. We journeyed as you do now, to seek the court of brightness. Countless kin remain with the creator, joining her chorus of sorrow."

The songs collectively crooned, filling the air around them with sorrowful sounds and melodies. “That sounds like an epic waiting to be written, a performance waiting on a playwright. You must tell us all.” Laiyuna intoned, approaching the fury and looking at her with tearful inky eyes. She took ‘Endless Field of Flowers’ by the hand and brought it up to her chest, holding it close. “It sounds as tragic as it is joyous,” she closed her eyes and allowed her head to fall to the side for a few moments.

“The night was deep with agony
The light was still with pain
When from the wounds in Neiya’s eye
We hurtled down like rain…”


Behind her Lajia’s flute sounded, matching the slow melancholy of her dirge, and euphonious humming accompanied it until she stopped at the fourth verse and opened her eyes again. “Yes, maybe that could work.”

“A bit overwrought,” Herraiya chirruped, “it’s the story of their coming into the world, you don’t want them wishing to leave it before the prologue is over.” Laiyuna threw herself back, butterfly sighs fluttering out of her mouth as she fell into Herraiya’s arms dramatically.

“Ah, I am undone. Your tongue is of black ink, a dart lodged into the apple of my heart.” Filaisa rolled her eyes as the two continued their antics and looked to Saluna, who cleared her throat and curtsied to ‘Endless Field of Flowers’.

“We thank you dearly for your welcome and will be happy to follow you to your kin. Your tale sounds like one in need of telling, and we too have a tale of our own that your Lady could perhaps assist us with.”

The bright red glow of the horned woman's eyes turned and shifted as her gaze followed each speaking song. When attention fell back on herself, she presented a calm and polite smile before matching the curtsey with a gentle dip of her head. "Your quest is over afore it has truly begun; such is the kindness of the Lady. All tales can be told when the hour is late; for now, journey with me to the debate." She said with practiced grace and looked very pleased with herself. A brief gesture inside later, and 'Field' turned on her heel to head inside.

Through the doors the party went, taking in the unfamiliar sights of the palace home. Strangely enough as the Dragon walked, the walls grew wider and taller, allowing for her to walk with comfort within. Along the white walls much was bare besides some busts and depictions of landscapes, figures of sunlight and animals. They walked for a long time, witnessing many courtyards and pleasant views through pillars and under overhangs. And even the icey Filaisa allowed her eyes to roam and wander, though unlike the other songs did not wander here or there but continued after the fury. Eventually they reached a set of stairs and Field began to ascend, the songs and their entourage of Neiyari in tow - and Herraiya trailing furthest behind, enamoured with one sight or another.

The staircase was much longer than perhaps any could have thought and they passed many empty hallways and rooms before coming to a stop on a floor that wasn't at the very top but still was a ways up. Here there were distant voices that grew louder as they approached an open doorway. At first, beyond it not much could be seen but the daylight and greenery. As they passed through the arch however, the ceiling lifted to blue skies.

The sound of flowing water was apparent, as small fountains were worked into the walls on the other side of the doorway and further down the hallway. With fountains the songs were familiar, although they had never seen them outside the context of a bathhouse and the idea seemed to appeal to them immediately. There also came the scent of something citrous in the air, with hints of vanilla and herbs. On a closer look at the water features, one could see that they had depictions of unknown figures working as spouts, trickling down into a basin of golden stones and blue waters.

“Oh my,” Linuha breathed, “I can see it - fountains everywhere. And greenery, flowers- a- a-”

“A garden.” Filaisa finished coolly, and Linuha’s eyes widened and a smile spread across her liquid face.

“Yesss,” she hummed and nodded, then moved on.

Iom'dryrar examined each as carefully as she could as they went along, taking time to take a sidelined look from multiple angles of each statue. She was completely overjoyed, all could see that despite a general unfamiliarity of draconic expressions. Curious to the extreme, she was still careful to ensure not to accidentally rest her weight on anything not of the path she was taking.

Large pillars covered in leafy vines stood to the right of them and also went down the length of the hallway. They held up an overhanging ceiling all around an open, small amphitheatre where the blue sky was. Like a full moon in shape that led down to a low area where two of Field's kin were in an exchange of sorts.

Watching from the cushioned seats before and across from them were more of Field's kin. Numbering in the dozens they came in all sorts of skin tones, hair styles, clothing and eye glows with the defining feature of horns. Those that were across from them all stared with curious eyes and in turn this prompted those before them to turn around and stare as well.

There was however one who did not stare, in fact she had no horns to speak of. She sat across from them, surrounded by a small band of the horned women. She was shorter than those around her but she radiated a sense of authority. Her raven black curly hair was shoulder length and she had small features upon her otherwise content face as she watched the two on the floor with intentful golden eyes. The same color of the intricate heart shaped tattoo upon her chest (that was half hidden by a low cut dress) and almost coming to form a star pattern on her arms. The same arms that were sat back on the stone as she leaned back on a large cushion.

Perhaps noticing they had lost their audience the two on the floor joined the others in the staring and all grew quiet. It was then that the black haired women turned her eyes to them as well. She gave a small smile, one that seemed to spark a sense of calm in the newcomers and beckoned them to sit with her hand as she sat up. She then cleared her throat and said, "Closing arguments, if you please." Her voice was one of beauty, soft and sweet. Yet somehow warm and inviting.

The songs - even Filaisa - were immediately at ease and flowed around each other easily as they responded to the woman’s sweet commands and seated themselves all around. Saluna sat nearest of all and curtsied into a seated position by the dark-haired woman, surreptitiously admiring her low-cut address and the tattoos that small to flow like rivulets of sunshine.

“Thank you for hosting us, my lady. I am Saluna, Clothier of the Songs, and these are my companions.” She gestured to the others and introduced each one of them. Though they had done this several times now, the songs did not seem any less excited about the opportunity to make themselves and little quirks known. “And this here is Iom’dryrar, who was not initially with us but has joined us since. Though her aspect calls up terror, her essence is all beauty.”

The golden eyed Goddess lingered upon each of them as they were named, at last coming to Iom’dryrar with a tilt of her head. She then turned back to Saluna and gave a smile. “You are most welcome here, Songs, Iom," Her eyes then fell upon Jakri and the Neiyari. For a brief moment her expression faltered but a smile came to them as well. "Neiyari. I am Oraelia and these are my Furies. I am sure many questions will soon come but first, I must oversee this debate to its conclusion. I do not wish to be rude to such lovely guests, so I hope you can forgive us.” She said, twirling a finger in her hair.

The dragon happily settled down to rest now that they had stopped, smiling with closed lips as she looked around at all the bright and wonderful sights to see.

The two furies at the centre of it all watched with keen interest as the songs, neiyari and dragon all found a place in the grand arena. When Oraelia appeared to fall silent for the last time, the paler of the two furies - almost like snow - raised a hand to slide away a long lock of hair from her face before raising her voice to fill the area with the sound of her confidently spoken, enigmatic language that seemed to transcend all barriers. "My kin. Great Lady of Hearth and Heat. Conveniently arriving guests. Hot has been this debate of the ages. We have heard facts on the matter, testimonials from observers, and my challenger has even conducted a poll among those gathered." She paused to run her golden eyes over the crowd, stopping to eye the dragon. The pause was a little too long as a result. "Through all this, a clear pattern in the weave reveals itself like a lone string of another color. No matter the force nor compulsion that the fallen position may exert on viewers, a raised shape allows for a more practical enactment of practicing safety, communal interaction, and other effects. All for a minor tax on the overall glamour and alluring spell it holds over other mortals."

She took another breath and faced the faintly brown fury facing her in the ring. "It is for this reason that we must consider straight ears to be the superior form of bunny ears." A wave of acknowledging murmurs shot through the crowd of furies, with a few being even more vocally supportive. The pale fury bowed before raising her hands to quiet the arena, before gesturing to her opponent.

The brown fury offered a polite smile, the red glow of her eyes making it difficult to tell her expression otherwise. "A sharp argument, as expected of the esteemed Garden of Ordained Peace. Indeed, as a great seeker, you have trawled the land for facts and secrets contained within this mythical beast of which we debate, yet this focus on the practices of the bunny itself is irrelevant to the case at hand." She argued with a grin, taking a step towards 'Garden' before spinning to face the crowd. "The mind of the populace has spoken - a lop-eared bunny is found to be more desirable to hold and cuddle more than twice as often as its raised-ear kin. This is the core of our issue; we cannot in good faith find anything but the lop-eared bunny superior for this sole reason." Again, a wave of acknowledging murmurs shot through the crowd. The brown fury bowed her head, before moving to offer her arm to the pale one, and they grabbed each others arm in friendly gesture, signaling an end to their arguments.

Oraelia stood and began to clap. The other Furies following suit. When the appraise died down, Oraelia spoke. "Garden, Painted." she looked between the two of them. "A splendid debate, darlings. I am proud of you both. Never before have such gracious tongues talked with such passion here in this court. Each argument has merit but the ultimate winner was decided by the crowd," she lifted a finger and pointed at the darker of the two. "Painted, you are the victor of this debate. But do not let shame eat at you, Garden, for there will be more debates and more victors to come."
Her decision was immediately apparent on the two, as the brown fury fought to contain a cheer as she did her best to bow again. The pale fury offered a fleeting half-smile before looking away.

Oraelia clapped twice and looked out across the gathered Furies. "Upon this day, we find ourselves with guests, so I proclaim a great test. Of your abilities, of your passions. We must feed and house these fine folk for as long as they wish to stay. Food will need to be prepared for a feast. While rooms will need to be cleaned and readied. So let's do our best!" The furies went to action immediately and all of them filtered out of the room, with a couple stragglers looking at the strange guests before being ushered out. Lingering the longest was the pale 'Garden' who remained still and morosely watched the dragon from afar, until a reddish-brown fury skirted into the centre with great haste, and grabbed her arm while giggling and murmuring something. The debater had no choice but to file out with the others after that.

The Goddess then ran her hands through her hair and as she did, the black changed to golden locks, long and true they went down past her lower back. Her frame grew ever so slightly, and she turned to face her guests again, looking like a different Goddess. Her smile was far more infectious and she looked positively brimming with life on that tanned skin of hers. Large blue eyes sat above a button nose and soft lips. It was the same face before but somehow different, in a good way. Before their eyes, even her clothing changed to that of a long blue sundress that fit her comfortably.

"Welcome to my realm, again! Oh you must tell me all about yourselves. Are you tired? Hungry? Thirsty? Oh please just let me know what comforts you want. I would hate to be a rude host!" she said with much mirth and cheer. A stark contrast to her earlier demeanor. She then began to inspect Saluna, touching her face and hair with curious but gentle fingers. The song did not seem to mind, and her liquid form burst with oranges and yellows and seemed to glow wherever the goddess touched. Her liquid hair burst aflame and danced giddily about the others. After the goddess was satisfied and released the song, she jumped up and took a few steps back, euphonious sounds bursting all about her.

Once she had found some space, she paused and slowly began to rise on a mass of golden ink, her golden form darkened until she was black, sunshine bursting here and there in a network of tattoos that flowed like molten rivers across her black form, and her hair seemed but an extension of that. “When all the world was ink, there was only the Lady. Beautiful, perfect; her song was the euphony of the cosmos, her dance the movement of the earth, her form the sculpture her hands the sculptor. She was beauty and her eyes the beholder.” The other songs all rose and flowed about Saluna.

“And she was alone!” Came their chorus. Herraiya then leapt from the flow and zipped around Saluna, her form dark and a grand mask shifting and forming on her face.

“Gloried, wise, knowing, loyal. The lady-in-waiting rose in the loneliness, her Lady’s right hand, her echo, the voice that sang in response to her song, the dance that skipped across the ripples of her dance, the beauty that aspired towards her beauty, the sculpting hand that sculpted a thousand inken forms from the songs of her Lady.” She declared powerfully.

“And so we rose and so we rose and so we rose!” The chorus came, and they all burst forth around Saluna and Herraiya, their forms colourful and their dances quick and loose. The joy of the moment was broken after a few long seconds, and Saluna’s humming came long and morose.

“But the doors to the castle were all of them closed, no friends or companions came through. And though there was joy and though there was song, the sadness in here grew. The silence of sleep calls and invites, in there we have comfort more true more true. In there we have comfort that is better by far than all those forgetful companions all are.”

“All are! All are!” The chorus affirmed.

“And so we sat there with our sleeping Lady, our song was a tear and our dance was a malady. What could we do? Could anything be done? And that was when along came Cay-dee-yan!” Herraiya sang as Saluna descended into a sleeping pile below.

“Cadien! Cadien! Cadien! Cadien!” The chorus sang excitedly, and Mihdara stepped forth with his lute, his body blossoming and his jaw square, his lips veritably kissable, and his movements powerful and dashing.

“I came upon these damsels fair and a shifting, vast, and dangerous lair! Evil! Evil! Who would lock these damsels uuuuuupppp?” He brandished his lute like a sword and tore through the inky mass of songs. “This travesty called on a saviour - I cannot stand unjust behaviour! Songs so sweet and pretty too - yes I say it, isn’t it true? - mustn’t be kept locked up like this. Evil! Evil! That’s what that is... is…” he finished the unfinished sentence with a flourish and a small solo on his lute.

“But the land rose up, that land of ink! It fought brave Cadien to the brin-k! He fought it hard and fought it true and nearly died somewhere or two! But as he fought there sprang a gate and he knew well the will of fate! Such damsels cannot stay in here, and nothing would be stopping him - not inky waves and tendrils, and sir-ten-lee not feeeaaar. Through the gate, through the gate, quickly before it’s too late!” A few of the songs had formed up into a doorway while others thrashed and crashed as though they were waves of ink and violence. Through them Mihdara sprang, and the other songs sprang after him as the gate crashed and closed behind.

From the chaos Saluna emerged, asleep and beautiful. “And she was… aloooooooooooooooooone.”

Oraelia tilted her head and blinked, staring at them all with a curious gaze. A smile then erupted on her lips and she clapped with giddiness. Saying with enthusiasm, “Oh marvelous! What a lovely story! You are all so very talented, as I would expect from Megzhaal’s creations. The ink gave it away. I had wondered what he had been up to, but,” She brought a hand to her chin and looked thoughtful. “Did he tell you about Lucia? You bore her resemblance, Saluna. Lucia never said much about the god of poetry, only that his presence faded with time. She never gave mention of this. How very curious.” The songs wore confused frowns on their faces, and looked to each other in an attempt to understand what the goddess was saying, but before any of them could ask she snapped her fingers and they were all suddenly in a different place.

A large garden outlook on the very top of the palace with another open sky. The area was large enough for Iom to comfortably rest while the smaller mortals could lounge about on the many plush pillows and honey colored chairs. The gardens here had plants that streamed off the sides of the walls, revealing the long drop. The large Dragon sat besotted with the plants streaming off the sides of walls, focusing entirely on them, not seeing near the middle of the room where there was a small pool that Oraelia gravitated too. When she neared it she sat on the ledge and dipped her hands in, looking to the songs again.

“Come, let me show you something.” she spoke. The fifteen songs approached in a slowly moving flow, an uncertainty about them.

“What did you mean about, uh, Meghzaal’s creations, my lady? And what is Lucia? And what did you want to show us?” The ever-curious Laiyuna breathed, her words rolling forth like a ceaseless deluge. “And why were those pretty ones back there arguing over ears? And weren’t they going to make food? Can we go make it with them? And oh, how did you change like that? And what material are these clothes made out of? And why is this place so different from Lord Cadien’s realm? And how is Io able to walk everywhere, even into tiny passageways? That just looks reeeaally weird and hurts my eyes. And-”

“Ahem,” Saluna cleared her throat loudly, and Laiyuna paused.

“Ah, I’m doing it again aren’t I, that thing I always do! Sorry!” She backed off sheepishly and Saluna approached.

“You wanted to show us something, my lady?”

Oraelia giggled, looking to Laiyuna first and winking. She then turned back to the water and touched it with a pointed finger. The clear waters became dark before the image of a woman came… slowly she formed. Of dark skin and golden hair, retaining ever the beauty of youth upon her round face. Large golden eyes seemed to be focused on them but it was only an image. Her body was tattooed in golden ink that shimmered and danced. It was their Lady, yet not.

"That is my daughter, Lucia. When the gods yet walked upon the earth she was born and your creator, Megzhaal, fell in love with her and she, him. But alas their time was cut short when we were banished and she remained alone. Lucia spoke that Meg talked to her in the beginning but as the ages went by his voice became less and less until he grew quiet. Perhaps his songs came to life through his grief and he took the visage of that he loved most before… Whatever happened, happened." The image faded and Oraelia turned to them again with a soft smile.

"I know this might be much to take in. It's alright if you feel overwhelmed or scared or confused. I shall answer any of your questions that come to mind to the best of my ability but before that I shall let you ponder this for a time. The Furies will come bearing food and drink soon and I shall reconvene with you then. I must attend to my other guests." she stood and looked to Field, who had followed them. "What is your estimation, Field?" she asked her.

"No more than a short while, to be sure, my Lady. I believe they planned to begin with the pear, peach and fig platter." She said. 'Endless Field of Flowers' stood with her hands behind her back, head slightly inclined. Oraelia gave her a nod and smiled at the fury in return. "Excellent. Field will attend to you for now, if you would excuse me."




Oraelia made her way over to where Iom was resting. She felt her heart begin to beat fast and thought she might change forms to get a bit of confidence facing death but she shook her head. She couldn't do that! This was an opportunity to understand and learn. She had to at least try.

As she approached she was amazed to see just how large the creature was. It made her feel small. She could also feel death energies coming from it. If it was anywhere else the creature would have killed the plants and foliage where it walked but here her life energies were potent.

She stopped a short distance away, heart pounding and the spoke. In a small voice she said, "H-Hello." she quickly cleared her throat and then followed it with, "You have… Lovely scales Iom."

With the voice Iom'dryrar's great head turned around, her neck bending to down to bring her head near to the Goddess, she replied, "Why thank you! You are very kind, but I think you and all of your realm are far prettier than anything of my own self."

She kept a close lipped smile as she best could when not speaking, her head facing side on bringing a singular eye to focus on Oraelia. Her voice had a hint of song as she spoke and continued, "In full truth I have never seen such a beautiful place, so filled with plants and oh so many things of color and gentleness. It is a wonder."

Oraelia cocked her head. Was she wrong about this? Had she judged this creature before even getting to know her? She felt embarrassed but pressed on. ”Why thank you, Iom but know this, there is beauty in all things. Do not think less of yourself, for true beauty is what is unseen. In our hearts and in our minds. What makes the very soul.” she said softly before giving a smile. ”Now do tell, where are you from? I’ve never met or seen any of your kind before.”

Smiling still the dragoness replied, "That sounds similar to one of the sayings of the Great Eye, it is his realm I am from and where the great host of my people live and have lived since our creation. Our creators were spurred on to make us but we have lasted there as time past, I am the first to come to explore the Divine realms, I hope I shall not be last! Such places as this so full of wonder and beauty, and wisdom as you yourself speak."

"Although I suppose it is easier to speak of the beauty within when one can see it, I know there are such who do, to one extent or another. And yet to so many it is not of their sight, I wonder how things would be should it have been so for all." She softly shook her head as if banishing a thought before continuing onward, "You must know I am greatly pleased to meet you, wise and beautiful that you are, I hope you do not mind if we should talk further?"

Although she stayed resting and a closed lipped smile upon her face, her tail drifted ever so slowly back and forth behind her.

Oraelia reached out to the dragoness and placed her hand upon her scales just beneath her eye. She smiled as she felt the scales. Then she spoke with a joyous melody, ”Of course, there is much time to talk!” She paused then said, ”Truth be told, I have never met your creator, this Great Eye, you speak of. Does he have a name?” Oraelia asked,

Iom flickered one of her eyelids in thought, her head slightly cocking at an angle, then she replied, "Yes I do believe the Servants called him 'Master Thaa', among the Dragons he is known simply as the Great Eye among the other creators. Few have spoken to him directly that I know of, in my race at least. There are rumors of what he speaks of but I do not know much of the truth of them. I know at least he is God of Death and Guardian of the Dead, I know not much beyond that in much certainty. I only know as much from the words of the Servants on other matters."

”Thaa…” Oraelia whispered to herself. ”So that’s your name…” she kept on running her hand across Iom’s scales, lost in thought for a moment. When she talked again, her voice was much quieter. ”I was scared of death, when I first felt it. Not as mortals perceive it but… I am life. I want things to grow, to live and to bloom. I know death is a natural part of the cycle, I do not try to stop it but it always frightens me. You are helping me, your presence, your touch- It makes me realize that my fear is misplaced. Thank you, Iom’dryrar.”

"I know little of cycles and Godly things, but I am happy to have been able to provide any such assistance to you!" Iom gently brushed her head closer to the Goddess in a small display of affection.

"Let me know if there is any further assistance I could provide, although I would like to know more myself, I have such little knowledge of Galbar, of the realm of mortals and other divine places. I wish to see much. Could you tell me of them?"

Oraelia placed both hands on the dragon in turn and smiled brightly. ”Oh I have indulged myself far too much as it is. You have been very helpful, so I suppose I can answer your questions.” she said in a playful tone. ”What first?”

Her tail began to almost wag as she spoke with much excitement, "I'd like to hear of Galbar if you could tell me of it, I hear there are all manners of peoples and with so many different forms and kinds. I heard of great men of stone and fantastical kings of the seas, of all many differing peoples across the surface, is it all true? What are they like?"

Oraelia smiled again. ”Of course. I cannot say if there are great stone men or fantastical kings of the seas, but I can tell you of the tall trolls, the plantfolk that sing of sunlight, the great roads in golden fields and the colorful Luminant were winged ones live. They are each unique and wonderful in their own ways and they are…” Something was wrong. ”They are…” her voice faded and Oraelia paused as Furies burst through the doors bringing platters of food and drink. She looked at their faces, their smiles seemed so soft. So kind and warm. They were all so happy, weren’t they?

Then it hit her.

A tearing pain that ripped into her very soul the likes of which that stole the breath from her lungs. Her face distorted into pain as she clutched her chest and fell to her knees besides the dragon, shivering violently. The world became a blur in that moment. She couldn’t focus on anything else, not as concerned Furies approached, nor as Iom reared her head down in fright. They spoke but she heard nothing. She wanted to scream but her voice failed her. So she shut her eyes tight, trying to make sense of what was happening. What was…

Her mind drifted out, to Galbar and to Solus. She felt his fleeting touch. She saw a confrontation, a piercing blade which brought pain and then a fiery explosion. The last thoughts he imparted upon Oraelia were of failure, regret and… Aveira? Her cold smile, a haunting expression before… She felt his soul become sundered, his very being shattered. She began to shake her head.

No… That wasn't possible. No! It couldn't be. NO NO NO!

Yet the pain did not subside, instead it grew worse, like an empty pit that threatened to consume her within. For Solus was dead! Her son, her first avatar! A part of her soul, a part of her divinity. He was gone… That hole in her own soul was because he was gone. Dead.

Forever?

It was in that crushing moment that Oraelia finally screamed. It was a harrowing noise, of a mother’s loss. She gripped her head, covering her ears as Song and Fury alike backed away. Another of her children were dead and she had done nothing to help again. Her screams grew softer, replaced with the sounds of weeping.

She recollected his memories and went over them again and again and again, trying to piece it together. A fight. A volcano. His death. Aveira had murdered him. Aveira… Avatar of N-Neiya… She said she would change… That she would try…

She… Lied?

It was then her loss turned to anger.




Rhiona gripped her chest, still reeling from the death of Solus. She still had her duty to her Lady and she needed to get to her. With a portal she slipped in and found Oraelia lifting off into the sky, her face was of rage as her form grew dull then bright. Over and over again.

Thinking fast, Rhiona ripped a portal open that showed the portal to Antiquity. She then shouted to the dragon, the songs and the neiyari gathered. "Go! Get out of here! Something happened on Galbar! Something terrible! Oraelia is not herself, now go!"

A wind began to whip up as the blue skies became dark and thunderous. Rhiona turned to Field and the furies. "Get to the lowest level, you will be safe there and I will join you." with a nod Field began to lead the furies to safety as Rhiona watched Oraelia and shared her pain.

Without hesitation Iom unfurled her wings, using them to shield them from the wind and began to try to herd them towards the portal. She roared over the wind to them, ”Best to go quickly, if she is not herself this may not be so hospitable as it remains!”

“Enough dawdling,” Jakri interjected, despite having remained silent for most of the proceedings. “Go!” he grabbed a random songman and shoved him in the direction of the portal. Most of the Black Hussars were already saving themselves, leaving through the portal as quickly as they could, but a few stayed behind with Jakri to ensure the Songs would get out as well. And that they were, with shocked cries and wide eyes the songs ran for the portal and escaped as the wind whipped ever on.

For the Goddess wept.









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Ha-Leothe


All day the survivors of Ha-Leothe have toiled to rebuild their town after the fires, and all day the mighty Western Army sharpened their weapons, mended their armor, and prepared for the coming war. It wasn’t until the moon started to emerge from the dusky sky that the tent of the Tsar was suddenly lit with candles - a meeting of commanders.

Darragh stood alone to represent the Fakir, and next to him stood a few Boyars of equal rank and commanders that often wore the yellow mane in battle. Along with the military men stood Dmitri, the Auspice. They all stood around a table, a map of the region splayed across it. Jjonveyo alone was sitting, a large wooden chair wrought with carvings of old tales under him. He sat with his beard in his fist, dark eyes brooding over the map.

“By now our agents would have made it to a few towns and villages with our messages and promises,” He grunted, “The war of the mind has begun, and our scouts have already picked the next settlement to approach. Ha-Tinn is close by and no better fortified than Ha-Leothe was, not that I think it would come to bloodshed -- a spy has relayed their interest in joining the Tsardom peacefully.”

“Cowards.” Darragh said. Loud enough so everyone in the tent could hear it. His eyes were roaming across the map. He didn’t care for what villages decided to surrender peacefully. What he needed was blood.

"You chose the same path, Darragh," Jjonveyo rumbled without looking at the man. "There are, however, reports of cowards -- or at least fools -- burning the land and retreating to Ha-Dûna; I wish to see this scorching myself, I think it could provide us with a great boon." He sniffed.

“I wasn’t at war with you.” Darragh returned, but remained quiet for the rest. Jjonveyo looked over at Darragh for a moment, a blank look upon his face.

“Speak your mind,” The Tsar grumbled.

For a second Darragh remained silent. But seeing as the Tsar was insistent he simply said: “You know my mind.” One in ten men should be dead. The price for the peace they so desperately desire. Of course, the merciful Tsar wouldn’t do it.

"Speak your mind," Jjonveyo insisted heavily. The eyes of the other officials fell to Darragh.

The Fakir didn’t care about eyes. His own were fixated upon the Tsar. After a tense pause he finally let out a sigh and said: “They’re only surrendering now because they know what happened to Ha-Leothe. If they were first then they would’ve made us bleed. Yet now you’re letting them kneel. Is that your price for peace?” He looked around to the officials staring him down. Did they know nothing of who they’re fighting? “Dûnans crave war. Conquest. What’s stopping them from rising up in ten years? What if they’re just biding their time. Staying strong until we are weak?”

Jjonveyo rolled his jaw, the silence palpable. Finally the Tsar spoke, "I appreciate your concern, Darragh, but it is much easier for them to rise up against me when they don't already have my soldiers integrated into their settlements -- soldiers spared needless battles. Do you see what I'm saying? Unrest comes no matter what route you take, it's better not to waste resources making more than necessary." The Tsar tugged his beard, "Does this not satisfy you?"

Silence reigned. Darragh was not about to break it. It wouldn’t be his own people that would be stationed in the deathtrap. If Jjonveyo was so keen on having his own men slaughtered then so be it. For a while he kept his eyes locked on the Tsar, but after a while they fell upon the map again. Scouring it for prey.

Jjonveyo narrowed his eyes, a deep growl rumbling from his throat, "You dare show such disrespect?"

Darragh let out an exasperated sigh as he looked up. “As your Boyar, I would advise you to drop this matter and focus on what counts right now.”

Jjonveyo stood up, "I have done nothing but given you a platform to advise and speak and be a part of the Celeviak Tsardom, but I increasingly notice your spite and sarcasm. Dissent has no place on our journey, if you do not wish to be treated as Celeviak -- fine." He looked at the yellow maned soldier. "Round up the Fakir." He looked back at Darragh, "I will see the root of this matter cured before another step be taken with the Cenél."

“Dissent?” Darragh said. Perhaps the first time giving a hint of some heated emotion brewing in his heart. “We burned the walls of Ha-Leothe for you. We fought beside you. We have followed every order! Is this how you treat anyone who disagrees with you on any matter?”

Jjonveyo folded his arms behind his back, "No, but as you said -- I should keep my eyes open against those who simply bide their time."

A tense moment passed before the yellow maned soldier returned, "They are lined up outside." Jjonveyo looked at his council.

"Come."

The group shuffled outside the tent, the Fakir waiting outside. Jjonveyo looked directly at the first one on the left. "What is your name?"

“Faas,” He said, then looked at Darragh standing behind Jjonveyo. “, my Tsar.” He quickly added. He was younger and his showed it.

"What do you think of my decision to spare the children of this settlement," Jjonveyo asked quietly.

“Children...sir?” Faas asked. He looked at Darragh, then back at Jjonveyo. “I-I… a merciful choice my Tsar.” He said swallowing deeply.

"Why are you looking at him when I'm the one speaking?" Jjonveyo asked.

Blood drained from Faas’ face. “I-I wanted to be sure I wasn’t speaking out of turn, my Tsar.” He quickly said.

"It's just you and I speaking," Jjonveyo said deadpan, "What of the women, Faas, what should I do with them?"

Something shifted in the young man’s eyes. He swallowed again. “Sparing them is a merciful decision, my Tsar.” He said, but it was strained. It was almost too obvious he did not agree with it.

"Is that what I should do, then?" Jjonveyo asked a little louder. He pointed at another Fakir, "Do you agree with Faas' judgement? Should the women be spared?"

“Yes?” Said the next Fakir. Quickly added: “My Tsar.”

But Darragh set a step forward. “Tell him Faas.”

The young man’s head dropped in shame and he looked down at the ground. “They have the one I was supposed to marry.” He said. “Right now I can’t even imagine what they’re doing to her. I don’t even know if I’ll ever see her again. I-I’m not a leader. I may never be. But why should they get mercy when she doesn’t?”

"Oh I see..." The Tsar's voice rumbled thoughtfully, dark eyes scanning the fakir before snapping to Darragh. A crude smile formed and he paced along the line of Fakir. "So this is the root of all the grumbles and stares and snaked eyes? You all have felt loss and now you wish for revenge, for them to feel it too?" Jjonveyo spun on a heel to face Darragh, "Do you agree with my assessment, Boyar?"

“I do, my Tsar.” He said. The other Fakir gathered were growing more resolute in their agreement by the second.

Jjonveyo nodded, "Would you go as so far to say that these feelings may be the true purpose of your advice rather than care for future uprisings against my banner? Do not be ashamed if that is true, but correct me if it is false, please."

“No.” Darragh said. “I’m not blind to the future. Dûnans are warmongers. Greedful and spoiled. Five years ago they raged a war here as well. Killing and massacering through these lands. When they were beaten back they professed their love of peace. Yet five years later they chant for war in their arena again. I have no desire to fight this same war every five years.”

Jjonveyo nodded once again, "Would you say the Dûnans in this settlement are already, then, guilty of conspiring and unrest?" He stood up straight, "I will not stand for it, if they are."

“I know for a fact that mothers are already whispering in their children’s ears to avenge their fathers. Lose a battle, look as if you can be beaten after all and those in Ha-Tinn will murder those you’ve left behind there in the streets.” Darragh spoke with a venom he had never used before in the presence of Jjonveyo.

"So you," Jjonveyo jutted a chin at Faas, "Want revenge. And you," he looked at Darragh, "Tell me the people of this settlement are already guilty of treason." The Tsar pinched his beard in thought, looking away and towards the horizon. After a moment of contemplation, Jjonveyo tipped his head at Faas, "Thank you for voicing your concerns to your Tsar -- clearly -- it is communication that will lead us to unity, not passive grumbles. Know I have heard your words, and will now consider them with your Boyar." He waved a hand, "The Fakir are dismissed."

The Fakir walked away. Often looking behind their backs at Darragh. Who remained motionless. Though he had eased up. A little. “Know that I will accept it if you choose to not believe them. And I will make them accept it as well. This is why I did not want to raise the issue further. It wasn’t disrespectful. It’s the fact that you are merciful… and we are not.”

Jjonveyo considered Darragh thoughtfully for a moment before looking towards the tent. "Have any of them ever killed someone defenseless before?" He asked idly as he walked back into the privacy of the tent, the council following.

“A handful.” The Boyar said as he followed Jjonveyo in. “They killed thieves and criminals. Cenél laws are as harsh as winter.” He then further explained. “But they will stay in line.”

"The penalty for treason is to be nailed to a tree," Jjonveyo explained as he sat back in his seat, "Usually through the stomach, sometimes upside down. It's not very quick but serves as a reminder to others. It helps denote the traitor to be too dishonest for an honest demise." He paused and his brow fell in thought, "Those found guilty of treason will be given this punishment, and I wish for the investigations and execution to be done by the Cenél. There is a place in unity for those who seek justice fervently, seek it through the authority of the Tsardom."

A smile cracked upon Darragh’s face. “We will be thorough.” He said. In his mind he was already devising the ways to flush out the traitors. Some would be fools and whisper to all who’d listen. Others would be too clever and would first pretend to be a friend. Offer their services. Burrow into whatever they wished to fight.

“Ha-Tinn will give us ease of passage then.” Darragh continued. Truly wishing to know the battles soon to come. “So who is stupid enough to stand against us then?”

"Before we get into that," Jjonveyo cleared his throat. "Take as many men as you need from your own Boyardom to form the investigative force, they will be a permanent mark until mentioned otherwise. They will be present in all captured Dûnan settlements even if by rotation -- but the investigation will begin only after we take Ha-Tinn or if they change their minds towards aggression. Expecting Ha-Tinn to submit willingly, we will clip their claws to prevent future uprisings by conscripting their able-bodied men and women into the front lines. They will have little choice but to comply at that point, and the recruits will be spread evenly to prevent clustering. Does the council agree to this course of action?"

Thought lingered for a while, as if the commanders and boyars were digesting Jjonveyo's words -- thougj some admittably were just trying to make it seem like they weren't just going to agree with everything the Tsar said without thought. Finally a wave of agreement came in. Jjinveyo looked at Darragh for his final say on the matter.

Darragh bowed down. “A wise choice. It will be done.”

"Great, our generals will conspire a war path moving forward," Jjonveyo nodded over the nap, "Demtri should be meeting up with us within the month on top of it all." He mumbled, "Everyone is dismissed - except you, Darragh, I'd like a private word with you. Dmitri you stay as well, shuffle the copper cards."

The Fakir was one step turned to walk away as well when Jjonveyo bid him to stay. And then ordered the soothsayer to start shuffling his metal cards. Darragh frowned for a second at Dmitri. The Cenél had no real faith in such practices. But then his attention turned towards Jjonveyo. “My Tsar?”

"I fear a divine presence actively works against us," Jjonveyo explained.

Dmitri nodded slowly. “That may be the case, my Tsar. Earlier this morning, I turned over the Priest in upside-down position - indicating that the enemy has been speaking actively with the Divines. Just what sort of foe is this?”

"I'm unsure of her origin, but a Goddess who named herself Celestine has spoken to me," Jjonveyo looked at his Auspice. "She spoke against our cause, I can only assume her power will be used against us."

“By Thaa,” mumbled the Auspice. “W-well, I’ll see what the cards say, then.” He shuffled the copper plates carefully and laid out an array of five cards. Slowly sucking in a breath, he turned the first card, frowning. “... The Commander in upside-down position… It would seem that they summon help not only from the divines. I can’t say anything about the size of the force, but they have gathered a force, that’s for sure.”

He turned the second card. “The Ambassador, upside-down. This… This is an odd draw.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “... I… I think it’s not meant to represent them sending a peace offering, as it would normally be. In all honesty, this is the first time I’ve turned the card in this manner - never before have I ever seen an upside-down Ambassador.”

Jjonveyo hunched over the cards, completely invested. His face turned to a snarl, "Then what does it mean?"

The boy hesitated. “Uh, uhm… It’d-it’d have to depict something the enemy is doing. M-maybe they’re sending out messages asking others for help? Do they have allies? Do we know?”

"A blind spot," Jjonveyo grit his teeth. "We will send spies and learn every faucet of their capabilities and support and I know just the spies to do it." Jjonveyo looked away from the cards. "Jonathan?" The name was funny on Jjonveyo's accent, but a previously unheard voice popped up seemingly out of thin air.

"Yes sir?"

"Take leave at once and report on the aid Ha-Dûna has received."

"Sir!"

Jjonveyo pinched his chin and looked back at Dmitri, "Do the cards speak of anything else?

Dmitri quickly flipped the third one, blinking quickly. “The Wolf, upside-down once again. We will be attacked by something and it’ll cause us terrible losses. It, it won’t be human - some sort of animal. We should have scouts on the lookout for beasts.”

The fourth card. “The Uncle. We, too, will receive aid from somewhere we did not think about. How far away is Demtri?”

"He should be on his way south soon enough," Jjonveyo nodded..

Dmitri shrugged. “I think this indicates that he is bringing aid from the north. I think.” He blinked. “I will just read the final card.” He turned it over and pursed his lips. “... The Cave… Someone close to you will perish, great Tsar.”

"In what form?" The Tsar was hovering once again, eyes picking the art of the card apart.

Dmitri shook his head. “The cards cannot reveal that much. For now, all they can tell is that someone will perish. It might be a close relative, a close friend, a close rival…” He paused. “... It, it might even be you, great Tsar,” he whimpered carefully.

"Not before I'm finished," Jjonveyo grunted. "While the small ones gather intelligence required for mortal assault, I'm placing you, Dmitri, in charge of leading the Auspices and Wise speakers in finding favor with the gods. I will meditate on Thaa tonight, myself. The machinations of this unknown Goddess cannot jeopardize the liberation of mortality from suffering. I will also send word to Demtri..." He trailed off, eyes on the map.

“M-me?! I’m just a novice, though! I’m-I’m sure Master Bradislav would be better suited to lead!”

"Then delegate to him but never question me again." Jjonveyo moved away from the cards, "I shall retire to prayer now."

Dmitri swallowed and bowed silently, shuffling his cards together in a hurry so he could leave as fast as possible.

"Darragh." Jjonveyo didn't even look at the man, "I have a final word for you before I retire."

The Fakir had no time or interest in soothsayers. For most of the reading his mind was somewhere else. He almost left with the others when Jjonveyo stopped him: “Of course, my Tsar. What can I do for you?”

"I fear that the enemy's use of the divine and unnatural put our physical superiority in jeopardy," Jjonveyo began. "This may be beyond your scope but it is no secret that magic won us Leothe and that it is your people who have a stronger covenant with violent magics. Do not tell me if it isn't possible, but tell me you'll look into it when I say; we may need to devise such a devious spell, such a dangerous magic - as to level the playing field. I do not know what form this will take, but I put it on you to bring me solutions to this query."

“This is a dangerous request my Tsar.” Darragh’s expression grew even more grim than before. Yet he spoke with a tone of extreme caution. “Magic is offered to us by our own gods. And if it’s what you say – that some of the divine have turned against us – then crafting such a spell might only insult them further.” For a second he closed his eyes. Contemplating the idea. “I will do my best to bring you what you seek but it will cost time.”

"Of course," Jjonveyo agreed, "Take what time and resources you need."

Darragh gave a short bow of acknowledgement before he left the Tsar alone.




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Hidden 3 mos ago Post by Not Fishing
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Carn

30 years after Antiquity...



There was once a boy,
Heir to a village!
Then the raiders came,
His home they pillaged!

His family scattered,
or reduced to ruin!
Cold and friendless,
A storm is brewin’!

He wandered the road
Every day he fought!
The path was endless
He walked without thought!

But he felt empty,
His life was lonely!
Something more he craved
Oh oh, if only!

Alone in the world,
With naught but a sword!
Blind to his desire,
He stumbled onward!

Then he met a girl,
Her hair bright and red!
A kindred spirit,
Together they fled!

But it was not to be,
Too many diff-rent needs!
From him she departed,
To pursue her own deeds!

Then word he received,
Of his brother’s fate!
Believing him imperiled,
And it could not wait!

So he raised a host,
And his love returned,
He marched to war,
For the reunion he yearned!

An army at his back,
In his hand a sword!
Blind to his desire,
He stumbled onward!

But his love had changed,
She was not the same!
And yet he was blind,
To what she became!

But he was to blame,
Not for her own crimes!
But for his inaction,
He turned a blind eye!

His objective reached,
His quest nearly complete!
A city he sieged,
Its leader he did entreat!

They met at the gate,
But he was misled,
There had been no danger,
The city his brother led!

An army at his back,
In his hand a sword!
Blind to his desire,
He stumbled onward!

Taken by surprise!
They both made a plea!
Too stubborn to yield,
Neither could agree!

But his men and his love,
They urged him to fight!
Afraid to lose them,
He foolishly complied!

An army at his back,
In his hand a sword!
Blind to his desire,
He stumbled onward!

Their loyalty unwavering,
His army attacked!
First through the breach,
No time to look back!

An army at his back,
In his hand a sword!
Blind to his desire,
He stumbled onward!

Under the spring sun,
Brothers’ weapons crossed!
Stronger was his foe,
And the fight he lost!

Saved only by the grace,
Of divinity’s aid!
Defeated and broken,
On his mind it weighed!

He realized his folly,
But was it too late?
Nay, for he still lived,
And could master his fate!

Found a home at last,
No need for his sword!
Self-aware at last
Found a life he adored!




Carn took a breath as his fingers strummed the last few notes on the lute. Once finished, he took a bow, and the crowd of Songs gathered before him applauded, with a few sighing theatrically. He had not thought his self-deprecating tale would be so moving, yet here he was.

“What do you all think?” he asked, once it had died down.

“Oh, excellent!” one Song exclaimed. “Very emotional, and the music was flawless!”

“The lyrics could use some work, though,” a Songman suggested. He casually leaned against the wall, with red hair and blue skin. This one Carn recognized - he was named Liamas, and it was he who taught Carn how to play a lute. In exchange, Carn had taught him how to wield a sword.

“Oh don’t be so harsh,” the Song chided, even as everyone else nodded along at Liamas’s words. She walked next to Carn and placed a hand on his shoulder. “It was his first song!”

Liamas offered a languid shrug in response. “It’s honest criticism. Besides, he shows no mercy in the sparring arena, so why should I show him mercy here? Only way for either of us to improve.”

“He does have a point,” Carn nodded. “Though your own praise is appreciated,” he added, placing his hand over hers. The Song blushed slightly. He released his hand, and she stepped away.

“Speaking of which,” Liamas went on. “We have another session soon, don’t we?”

Carn nodded. He had almost forgot - it was hard to tell time in this realm. “I believe we do.”

“Ah. Will Nekara be joining us today?”

Nekara was one of the Neiyari. When they were first brought to Cadien’s realm, Carn had been asked to help train them, and test his blade against a few of them. That had reawakened his interest in swordplay. Nekara had quickly proven herself to be one of the greatest fighters of the lot, and Carn had begun to duel with her more frequently. “She will,” he nodded.

“Ah, excellent,” Liamas smiled. “I will melt the ice around her heart yet.”

“You couldn’t melt a snowflake,” a cold feminine voice retorted, as a Neiyari stepped into the room. Her hair was black, her eyes green, and her figure slim but muscular. She had needed to turn sideways in order for her light brown wings to fit through the doorway. “Not even if you were on fire in the middle of summer.”

Most of the Songs gasped. Liamas staggered and clutched his heart as if he had been struck by an arrow. “Ah! You wound me, my lady!”

Nekara looked Carn in the eye. “The others have already gathered,” she said. The ‘others’ being a couple of Neiyari, as well as a handful of Songs who had also expressed interest in swordsmanship. “Early, I know, but if you’re finished here there’s no point in keeping them waiting.”

Carn nodded. “Right then. Let’s get to it.”






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Hidden 3 mos ago Post by AdorableSaucer
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Face to Face



Year 30AA, late Autumn, in a hidden grove outside of Ha-Leothe...

Incense burned. The smoky trail from a sole dark stick wisped around the prone Jjonveyo, his arms stretched in a bow and his knees tucked under him. He was without a shirt, the jagged scars of life making a webbing map across his body - a brand new one on his stomach hidden from view as he whispered sacred words in prayer. Beneath him was a plush carpet of moss and above him was the reaching canopies of beeches and maples. All around him was silence.

His nose twitched, he smelled... apple pie? He tilted his head up from the ground and caught the boots of someone. Quickly he scrambled to his knees, a quizzical look overcoming the beast of a man. In front of him stood a woman of clear Dûnan descendancy, and in her hands was a steaming apple pie.

“Who...?” He trailed off, eyes flickering to a young man of unclear ethnicity lingering in a nearby tree. His eyes snapped back to the woman, “...are you?”

The woman appeared momentarily frozen, looking down at the pie then back at the Tsar. In a reflex, she grabbed her hip when her sword would be, but found nothing as she had left it at home before her walk. “Curses!” she snapped.

Jjonveyo slowly crept to his bare-feet, standing tall. "Explain yourself."

Boudicca frantically looked around for somewhere to set the pie down and ended up kneeling down and placing it neatly on the forest floor. She then rocketed back to her feet and pointed a rough log of a finger in Jjonveyo’s face. “Be grateful that I was brought here without preparing! Lest I would have struck you down before you would have had time to stand!” She slammed her chest with a curled fist. “Brought here by Lyd, I have come to meet you at His recommendation. Where He went, I do not know, but know that this visit is not one of my own will.” She hardened her eyes. “I am Boudicca of the Dûna, matriarch of Clan Metsep of the Gaardskarl tribe, and speaker for the Eight and the Seven gods.”

"Boudicca," Jjonveyo's eyes widened. His brow dropped into an angry scowl and his murderous fingers curled -- around a warm plate. A look of shock brightened his dark face and he looked down at a steaming pie that had made its way into his hands.

"She also made you this pie," Illyd clapped a hand on Bouddica's shoulder, his other hand gripping Jjonveyo's as he stood between them.

"You?" Was all Jjonveyo managed to stutter.

"God of all the good stuff." Illyd winked. Jjonveyo sucked in a breath and hardened his eyes at Boudicca.

"You're shorter than I expected." Almost involuntary, Jjonveyo lifted the pie and soaked in its flaky aroma - eyes still suspicious. "But just as loud as I expected."

Boudicca scoffed. “Funny. You’re about as fat as I expected.” She inexplicably received a very dull cake spade in her hand and menacingly started cutting Jjonveyo a juicy slice.

"Oh thank you," Jjonveyo whispered as he received a fresh plate to house the slice. Clearing his throat he jabbed a finger at Boudicca, "As blind as your people I see!" He put the remaining pie down on a -- oaken table that seemed to have sprung up off to the side. A steaming kettle occupied the center as he poured her a drink into a stone cup, to the sound of a mumbled “oh, thanks”.

“HAH! -I- am blind?! I wasn’t the one who seemed to lose sight of where the mountains end and the lowlands begin!” She grabbed a warm pitcher of egg custard and poured a small dollop on top of his pie before putting one on her own. “What’s your goal here, exactly? Die a glorious death so you can join your ancestors in whatever place the wicked Sigeran sends you to?”

Jjonveyo angrily took a bite of his pie and chewed violently. After a hard swallow he closed his eyes. "Well wait," His voice grew calm, "Firstly, I'm not Sigeran. Secondly, this is absolutely delicious." He turned to Illyd, "I mean completely."

"Oh stop," Illyd blushed.

"Go ahead," Jjonveyo nudged a chin at Boudicca. "I can do the honor of pausing our hostilities long enough for this treat to be appreciated."

Boudicca kissed each of her fingers on her right hand free of apple juice and custard. “Fine. I can agree to those terms. This is very good, after all. Very good. If it is not too much to ask, great one, would you send the recipe to my cook, Scot?”

"And to my cook!" Jjonveyo interjected, "Skottoslav."

"Yeah no problem," Illyd smiled at the two.

There was a long pause, and Jjonveyo sighed. Any burning hate was too interrupted to flow freely. He sipped at his tea and nodded, "Well my enemy, since you are here and inexplicably knew the Celeviak tradition of bringing food to a foe you wish to talk to - we misewell make use of this truce and speak on level terms."

“Hmph. Fine.” She swallowed another piece. “You must realise that your people are not welcome in these lands. If you value the lives of your men, you are to turn your armies around by midday tomorrow. We outnumber you, the gods are on our side, and the first snows will soon begin to fall. You cannot win this.”

"I've already won," Jjonveyo shook his head and poured Boudicca a fresh cup before sipping his own. "My army represents an idea, a change that is coming to this world. All the souls that may perish, including my own, shall be replaced by the next generation and the next. The way of mortal life is changing..." Jjonveyo paused. "Although, there may be a way for us to both take this journey without blood to be spilled. If you'd be interested in hearing out the barbarian from the mountains."

A scoffing snicker. “I’ve won, he says - like the rabbit seeking refuge from the hawk by hiding in a foxes’ burrow. Still, I…” Her face seemed to twitch slightly, as though a fit of uncertainty cracked at her stern demeanour. She tugged uncomfortably at the inky brace around her neck. “Fine. Say your words, but expect them to fall on deaf ears. I will accept no compromise, I’ll have you know.”

"A union," Jjonveyo said simply. "I propose a union."

The sanndatr frowned. “A union?”

"Yes, it is when two entities unite under a common cause," Jjonveyo explained slowly, careful in his pronunciation of Dûnan words.

“No, I understand that - but what sort of union? Don’t tell me that, after slaughtering the defenders of Ha-Leothe, you are proposing that we break bread as though nothing has happened?”

"They were given their choices same as we are," Jjonveyo frowned. "And it is our choice to use this unique situation we find ourselves in as we choose. The world is changing, Boudicca, you cannot deny that; and as it changes, it grows. Eventually our people will be thrust against each other, or if not ours - two other groups. But if they were all of the same population, of the same charity - such problems would rather be a boon. To be crowded by allies rather than strangers." Jjonveyo rolled his jaw. "Spin the tale however you wish, but I am offering a peace through diplomacy"

The sanndatr pursed her lips thoughtfully. “... Alright. Say I accept - I accept, ignoring the immense damage to my own face and the honour of my court of priests and théins caused by not only allying with a warlord who has burned down one of our towns and butchered its people, but one who has actively allied themselves with the cowardly Cenél and fights alongside them, all while clearly having the upper hand in terms of numbers, defensive advantage and supplies - what then? What can your people, starved as they are for both resources and civilisation, offer the Jewel of the North?”

"The tithe," Jjonveyo pushed Boudicca another cup of tea. "I studied your tax system, you know? Same as I did your language. I learned about your resthouses and the disparity between those who farm, and those who eat." The Tsar seemed to consider something for a moment. "Think even as we drink our tea, if I were to pour my cup from your own, we'd both drink so little, but we don't do that - we pour from the kettle. So too does the tithe work similarly. The vast holdings of the Tsardom thrive by each pouring a little into a larger kettle, for that resource to be redistributed among the tithers to ensure health and happiness. It's cheaper than your current taxes even and much more efficient. It's how we are able to field our large armies - for surely you know that the mighty host at Ha-Leothe is but a small fraction of our forces. Join the tithe, unite for the future."

“And do you know why we keep our tax system as is? Do you know how we can feed all the thousands of people who swear fealty to the Stone?” She paused for effect and to eat another piece of pie. “The druids are the only reason the soil in these parts can be worked as intensely as it can. We have studied our neighbours - all of them, nomads, hunters and gatherers, moving with the bison or the reindeer or the seacattle and caproshrimp. If they are lucky, they can burn off the lands and sow for a season or two, but then they will have to move again soon. There is no stability - nothing that allows people to stay in one place; the land is that of Boris the Stone Hog, and to till it is to work the mountain. Only with the aid of druids channeling the generosity of Reiya, Jennesis, Lyd, Claroon and Boris can Ha-Dûna exist, and only by supporting a caste of priests who can fully dedicate their time to appeasing the gods and maintaining this growth, can this generosity be given.”

"Is it really generous if you're keeping it to yourself?" Jjonveyo looked confused.

“If the druids cannot work all the time, then no one will have anything. How hard is that to grasp?”

Jjonveyo pursed his lips. "Regardless... The point of this is resources. By joining in on a union we stave off war, border conflict and scarcity."

"Especially if you had my holy grail," Illyd nodded in the corner.

"Especially if we had- what?" Jjonveyo looked over at the god.

"Oh yeah, long time ago I made this trinket that blesses the land it sits upon so incredibly, it would put all of the druids to shame." Illyd wiggled his fingers. Boudicca’s eyes went wide as saucers and her hand froze halfway through grabbing another pie piece.

“A, a trinket that puts druids to shame? W-well, where could we find it?! What does it look like, this, this ‘grail’?”

A smug look overtook the god and he strutted over to the table. "Was that a 'we'?"

Jjonveyo eyed Boudicca but stayed quiet. The sanndatr blinked and looked away.

“-Not- one in which this one’s included, of course. He attacked us! Why would we share such glory with him?”

"Because it would end the war," Jjonveyo stated, "And put you in a better position than if you had won it through violence." He scrunched his brow, "Don't think I won't have some upset subjects of my own, but should this grail prove as... Well."

"Oh it could easily provide for both nations." Illyd poured himself some tea, "Though I imagine retrieving it won't be too easy."

Boudicca raised a curious brow at Illyd. “What would it take, if I may ask?”

"Well, last I checked an avatar of another god swiped it from the tomb of my saints," Illyd tapped his chin, "So it's likely in the possession of some other 'god-chosen' civilization -- lot of them about."

"Indeed..." Jjonveyo shot a look at Boudicca.

Boudicca shot a look back. “... And what am I supposed to tell everyone at home? What am I supposed to tell Selesta? Claroon? The Lady-in-Waiting? That all their efforts and aid have been for naught? Am I supposed to tell my people, who have suffered a month of rationing and riots, that their patience and perseverance will be rewarded with an even longer wait and the possibility of sharing a legendary artifact which we may never find, with death’s slave from the hills and his army of bloodthirsty retainers? How would they accept that? Tell me, how would anyone think these were good terms?”

"Spin it like that and absolutely no one would think so," Jjonveyo agreed. "It wouldn't be much easier on my side either. Turns out a lot of people want Ha-Dûna to burn into nothingness."

"See now this is interesting," Illyd hid a smile under a hand. "You're saying that one of the chief reasons you couldn't take this peace is because of the already intrusive involvement of other gods?" He looked at Jjonveyo, "Let alone the mundane reasons, which are much easier to work out than the ire of a spited god." Illyd put on a straight face and looked past Jjonveyo and into Boudicca's eyes, "Think back to my comments before I brought you here, are you starting to see what I was lamenting?"

Boudicca didn’t answer, but rather frowned down at the crumbs on her plate. “Selesta will be furious. Ha-Dûna may very well break apart once again… You know, we were just beginning to recover when you sent that boy to claim that ‘tithe’ of yours. Had you just stayed in your hills or gone anywhere else, none of this would have happened. If I choose peace, my chain of command will break - there will be chaos in the Dûnlands as théins who have lost sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, sons, daughters, cousins, will mobilise all whom I cannot command and march east; our allies who sent valuable warriors to join our ranks will mock our cowardice - the Swadi archers have all sworn blood-oaths and -will- demand it be paid, be it with Chevelyak or Dûnan blood, lest they will have to kill themselves, such is their custom. I don’t even want to imagine what the common people will do…” She grit her teeth. “If I choose war, however…”

Jjonveyo closed his eyes for a moment. "It would seem to me that your lands are as fractured as ever, if one 'boy' could cause all this..." The table fell silent and Jjonveyo spoke again, "Is that boy alive?"

Illyd poked a head in, "Curious, why would Selesta be furious?"

“W-well, we’ve been planning this war for almost a month and a half now! She’s--...” She scowled over at Jjonveyo. “... I cannot say what she will do when the enemy is here with us, but know, old man, that you cannot win this war. The Master’s wrath will be unlike anything the Dûnlands have ever seen, possibly worse than the wrath of the gods striking your home this afternoon.” She cracked a smug smirk. “By the way, have you received any word from home about any survivors yet? Would be a shame to fight for a kingdom that no longer exists, wouldn’t it?”

"My home is untouched," Jjonveyo raised a brow, "The innocent tribes of the eastern plains however, are no more. Saibar of the Axe relayed the information through... Well how is not important. It would appear your gods missed, if they were truly doing such terrible deeds in your name."

Illyd propped a brow himself, "Not to add salt to any wounds but any and all wrath wraught by any gods against either side will be met with my own of the most ancient and terrible variety." The god stretched, "This conflict is of mortals, so decree Joa- myself." He coughed. "Feel free to tell Selesta that the God of Weather opposes any direct and violent intervention in this war, and you might want to remind her that it is also I who owns the crops."

Jjonveyo looked to Illyd, "So you side with us?"

"No," Illyd answered, "I side against the gods who are imposing and no one else. If you want my council, you'll have it - but I've already done so much just letting you two meet and hopefully have enlightened either of you to the complexities of this situation."

"Complex is one word for it," Jjonveyo hissed to himself.

“Indeed…” Boudicca sighed. “However, I will not go back to her and tell her not to intervene - I invited her after all, as I invited all the Eight and the Seven gods to aid us. I have made an oath to rid our lands of those who are a threat to the Dûnan way of life, and I do not intend to break it. These are my terms, therefore: Turn back, Jjonveyo, to your homelands, and seek out the grail on your own. I will swear to you that I will keep its existence a secret to the grave, so none of my people will ever follow your trail. If you someday find it, then I will applaud you, and maybe we can prosper side by side once more if you can quell that lust of yours for conquest; but for now, you are not welcome here, and if you march any closer to Ha-Dûna than you already have, even if you believe your intentions to be peaceful or co-prosperous, you and all who follow you will be killed to the last man and your corpses will burn in the cleansing flames of Naya the Crying Crone.” She held forth a palm. “If you accept, then let us part in peace, and perhaps speak again in some time as acquaintances.”

Jjonveyo hesitated, "Boudicca - grant me a measure of patience as we are using your language and not mine..." He paused in deep thought, "Are you proposing a white peace?"

“Not what I will call it when I share the news with my allies and people, but… In essence, yes. Mind you, this tithe of yours is out of the question; you will not be afforded even a shred of the Dûnan harvest. However, if you and your soldiers leave, I can devote myself and my resources to stabilising my realm once again, which, in turn, will allow me to leash whomsoever would dare to stake to the east on their own, looking for homes to pillage. You would have peace to search for this grail and would not need to worry about the safety of your realm. This, I vow.”

"I cannot leave the lands already entrusted under the tithe," Jjonveyo added. "Further, there are settlements and people who wish to join of their own reason. I won't unleash my forces, but I also won't turn down those who wish to join through peace. Let them, and then there would be no need for armies..”

“Whatever lands you have conquered outside of what you had before does not belong to you nor your tithe. It is not a white peace if you keep what you have taken - that is conquest. You will withdraw your ‘Zardom’s influence completely and allow those who out of fear have sworn fealty to you to come to their senses once more and remember their true allegiances, their true family. This is my demand.”

"Your demand is currently unreasonable," Jjonveyo gestured. "Let us call it a ceasefire instead of a peace then, and there is also the matter of my nephew."

“A ceasefire when only you have taken and I have lost? You are the unreasonable one here. And what’s this nephew of yours? Was he the boy you sent some months ago to demand your outrageous tithe?”

"He was," Jjonveyo picked at the remaining pie flakes on his plate.

Boudicca nodded. “Then he is dead and his corpse, burned so his spirit may be free of Sigeran’s grasp.”

"Boudicca." Jjonveyo pushed more tea towards the Dûnan. "Boudicca," He repeated, more clearly. He cleared his throat, accent swooping and then clearing, "Boo-dekka."

“What, ‘Jonwayo’? What are you rambling about?”

"I'm just making sure I'm speaking clearly," Jjonveyo sniffed. "Do you have any children?”

“I do, actually - three of them, all exemplary Dûnans both of breeding and upbringing, if I may say so myself. Look, I see what simile you are drawing here, but know that your nephew was no more loved than any parent loves their child. When you sacked Ha-Leothe, you robbed hundreds of parents of their children, and hundreds of children of their parents. What are three deaths compared to a village?”

"You speak too quickly," Jjonveyo sipped at his tea. "Give me your eldest daughter and the entire war will be over and you may have Ha-Leothe as it stands."

Boudicca glared. “Again with the hopeless terms - you have already taken more lives from my people than any hostage trade can ever make up for. Let me inform you--”

Jjonveyo held up a hand for Boudicca to stop. "The war will be over and thousands of lives spared, you will be given your land back and will have saved your people. All I ask is for one person. That's it - it'll avoid further battle and fighting."

Boudicca leaned over to the side and spat on the ground. “That’s my answer. If you want anymore Dûnans beyond the ones you have taken from this world, you’ll have to come and get them.” She rose from the table and finished her tea. “If your senseless greed cannot be reasoned with, then I say we’re done here.”

"And as always your word is law," Jjonveyo didn't bother to look at her. "Unless you wanted to duel for it - but I have a feeling the Dûnans wouldn't respect the outcome should it not be in their favor."

“Duel, you say?” In a shift of demeanour, she tugged her chin thoughtfully. “A duel between two knights of Selesta. How dreadfully poetic and appropriate.” A brow rose.

"I'm not a knight," Jjonveyo looked disgusted, "Vile creatures born of a goddess that reminds me more of expired milk than a leader. But I'll duel one to spare lives."

“No matter what you consider yourself to be, Jonwayo, the Master’s mark is on you - I can tell, as I am marked as well.” She smirked and put her cup back down.

"Gross," Jjonveyo growled passively.

“Either way,” Boudicca dodged, “I admire your selflessness, I will give you that. The one runner you allowed to escape from Ha-Leothe, however, made very sure to thoroughly explain that your very body is infused with the strength of Sigeran, granting you unmatched resistance against anything that could kill you. I would know, for I, too, was foolish enough to pollute myself with his presence some years ago.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Still, are you confident your ability to cheat death will be enough to kill me?”

"No, but unlike you I'd bury my son to prevent a deathtoll in the tens of thousands - let alone myself." Jjonveyo remained sitting. "Life is empty, Boudicca, but I'd rather my people a happy one."

Boudicca scoffed. “Your philosophy makes no sense - life is empty, yet you try so desperately to live it. If you are so sad to be alive, then I will gladly do you the favour of uniting you with your heathen master. Leave the world to those who actually appreciate it and go on back to your holes in the hills.” She rolled her neck around her shoulders. “What would be the terms of this duel? Winner takes all?”

"Terms will be discussed two weeks from now," Jjonveyo moved past the other words. "You and I, plus any councillors can meet on neutral ground and set our plans out formally. Until the meeting, I'd suggest a cease of hostilities."

“... That can be done,” Boudicca agreed and held out an open palm. “Two weeks, then.”

Jjonveyo put a refilled cup of tea in her palm and lifted his own. "I'd also like to add that you speak as much extra as your master." With that, he took a large gulp of his tea and smiled.

“And you are about as dreadfully cruel as yours,” smiled the sanndatr back and slurped down her own. “Thanks for the pie and the tea. I will remember this time fondly as I carve out your windpipe a hundred times over.”

"Cut off my ears first, and spare me from your voice." Jjonveyo suggested.

“I’ll see you both in two weeks, then,” Illyd smiled.






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A Failed Gamble



Year 30AA, late Autumn, Ha-Dûna...

Boudicca found herself spirited back to the front gates of her city, a million thoughts waging war in her mind. The battle tore at her facial features, forcing forth an exhausted frown that she could not decide was the fault of Lyd’s magic or Jjonveyo’s deal. She decided to split the blame between them and her own selfishness. Her mind conjured forth scenario after scenario wherein she presented this new deal to the clans, théins, druids and gods - all of them ended in struggle and spite. She pinched her nose and groaned.

“Sanndatr?!” came a shout all of a sudden, and that was when Boudicca finally perceived the fact that she had appeared in the middle of the river of people flowing in and out of the great city, and an island of emptiness around her conveyed just the amount of attention this had drawn, as hundreds of people ringed themselves around her in awe. Boudicca looked up to regard the yeller, mórthéin Charlix of Blanche, dressed from head to toe in clothes more expensive than anything Boudicca had ever worn, denoting his month-old promotion. Impressive purples and royal blues coloured nearly his every piece, contrasting rather fiercely with his bald head and fiery mustache. Diplomatically, he extended a hand and took a knee. “Are you well, Ser? We have looked everywhere for you! After we failed to find you at your usual spot, we feared the worst and sent out search parties!”

Boudicca heaved a slow sigh and took his hand politely. “I am alright, Charlix. The great Lyd came to me and spirited me off to a distant land. What I saw there, we must discuss urgently.”

Gasps rushed through the people mass and the mórthéin bowed his head. “As the sanndatr wills. I will gather everyone post-haste!”

“Good,” nodded Boudicca. “Have them gather in the great house.” She turned to everyone else. “Remain strong and loyal, worthy people of the Stone - in two weeks, victory will be ours!” Uncertain mumblings mixed themselves with relieved cheers as shifting faces tried to interpret the meaning, but none dared question her as she stormed through the parting crowd towards the administrative core of the city to the sound of “make way, make way!” After the fifteen minute walk from the Southern Gate to the inner core, Boudicca stood before the door to her home, before which stood the avatar of Celestine. Boudicca bowed respectfully. “Master, forgive my absence.”

The avatar of Celestine hardly moved as Boudicca approached, though there was a slight smile of relief at the sight of her missing friend. When Boudicca bowed she stepped forward to place a hand on her shoulder before speaking. ”You are forgiven, so long as you warn me if I am to take up all of your duties for a day again.” Removing her hand from Boudicca’s shoulder, Celestine’s avatar stepped aside and briefly raised a hand to Boudicca’s home before speaking again. ”I’ve done what I could to keep things going and to keep your family safe. I was partially worried that the events of the day of my avatar’s arrival were beginning to repeat themselves and kept the rest of your family safe. I’ve most likely been a bit overbearing and you do have my apologies if any complaints are raised. On a somewhat more positive note I have news for you, but I would hear your tales before I begin my own and beyond that I’m sure you want to see your family first. Please, avail yourself of the comforts of your home as you desire. I will wait for you to be finished.”

After that Celestine’s avatar would fall silent as she waited to see what Boudicca would do. She was concerned with how best to break the news of Thaa’s demands to her, as she was plenty aware of the Sanndatr’s disdain towards the god of death. But Thaa had given a fairly generous offer and Celestine had not been entirely willing to harm the good terms that they were on by spitting in the face of it. Perhaps after she had reunited with her family but before the meeting would be best… And most likely alone. Or as alone as they could get.

Boudicca nodded gratefully. “Thank you, Master, for your fantastic help, though I trust my clan would have been able to keep any unsavoury company at bay for one day. Now please, join us. We are having a war council and I have very important news to share.”

Celestine’s avatar gave a few nods but surprisingly didn’t say anything right away. She wanted to share the news on what she had discussed with Thaa, and share in what she had been given for this express purpose, but she knew that Boudicca was eager to speak at the war council for a reason. She would have to wait. Perhaps what Boudicca was going to announce would change what Celestine had to share as well.

Raising a hand towards the general center of the village, Celestine’s avatar finally spoke after a few moments of silence. ”Very well. I see that you are eager, but I would request a more private audience when you are finished. There is something that I wish to discuss with you that will not be an easy topic. But, let us tend to your people and what you wish to announce first. There will be time later.”

With that said, Celestine’s avatar would fall into step behind Boudicca as she departed. She hid it well, but the slightly furrowed brow of her avatar gave away Celestine’s concern for what might have come to pass while Boudicca was away. She hoped it was nothing malicious, but her mind was already plotting out contingency plans for whatever storm might be coming. Boudicca nodded and gestured for her to follow her inside.




It took a brief hour to gather everyone, for the Dûnan host had many leaders within itself, and all had to hear the word of the sanndatr. Here had gathered everyone from lowly strongmen, bossing a band of up to ten, to the great clan heads, formally below théins and mórthéins in administrative rank, but commanding their families, workfolk and hildargeach with unbreaking matriarchal or patriarchal authority. Of course, the most powerful among them, the mórthéins, were also clan heads, and the sheer power of Charlix of Blanche and Clement du Pierre earned them seats by Boudicca and the avatar of Celestine. Close by were also the commanders of their allied forces: Chief Bonursan Chirrut of the Doserung, brow chiseled into a dark frown; Sumbierka, son of Weymbierka of the Nubveians and leader of the Buffalo Riders; Pride-King Koisa of Swadi, still a guest of Boudicca’s to oversee that his family’s vengeance against the Cenél would be exacted; prince Ratinmaar of Bast, promoted from scribe to commander of the Troll-Men in war times; and Vanya the Pale, speaker for the Death-Singers of Mink. From there, the longhouse’s sixty or so guests were roughly arranged by rank in an outwards order, centered on the burning hearths in the middle. The fires were not as violent as usual, for the packed populace generated most of its own heat. An orchestra of murmurs from tens of conversations coloured the soundscape with a thousand moods, with everything from existential worry to premature celebration flowing from mouth to ear. Around the hall, young druid apprentices zig-zagged between the groups with bowls of crusty salt and hand-torn bread, offering all the guests a greeting snack. When Boudicca received word that the last of the attendees had come, she rose from her seat and stuck two fingers in her mouth, squeezing forth a silencing whistle. The conversations quickly died out as all turned to regard the sanndatr, elevated as she was after mounting her bear-skinned chair.

“Brothers! Sisters! Cousins! Friends!” she greeted, drumming her fist to her chest. “In the name of all the gods and spirits, I, Boudicca of Clan Metsep, sanndatr of Ha-Dûna and champion of Caden and Selesta, welcome you to my house. Please, help yourself to ale from my pots and apples from my baskets. Praise Lyd and Reiya that the harvest was kind to us this year. I ask, though, that you be mindful with the drink, for what I have to share today is bound to shake the very foundation of this war we find ourselves in.”

“Better not be speak of a truce,” came a sharp remark from somewhere in the hall, followed by a roaring laughter and some nervous giggling. Boudicca eventually stilled the crowd again with a hand.

“No such thing, sister! We will never make peace with the Chelevyak scum so long as that wicked warchief of theirs still draws breath - that, I swear!” Fists shot into the air in her salute and Boudicca busied herself with stilling another roaring cheer. “However…” That one word did more to silence everyone that any gesture ever could. One could, second by second, see a powerful shared spirit and thirst for the glory of war fade in the wake of a ghost of uncertainty that rose from the floor like a fog. Boudicca looked reluctant to finish the sentence, but eventually said, “There will be no battle.”

Another empty field of silence filled the house, broken only by someone in the far back yelling, “what did she say?!”

“What do you mean, no battle?” demanded mórthéin Clement du Pierre, cocking his face of well-kempt hair and beard to regard the sanndatr skeptically. Boudicca bit her teeth together.

“Lyd brought me to Jonwayo this morning. We have agreed that we will meet in two weeks to discuss terms… Of a duel - one that will decide the war. This will protect our people from the armies of the east--”

“How… Dare you?!” came a seething snarl. Boudicca furrowed her brow harshly and glared down at her side, where mórthéin Clement du Pierre had risen up and was slowly stepping his way to face her front to front.

“Do you have something to say, du Pierre?”

The laird scoffed. “Do I have something to say?! You have said it all, indirectly! How could you agree to this? Rob us of our glory? Our vengeance?”

Boudicca recoiled. “Your glory and vengeance?! Clement, people are bound to die! Ha-Dûna cannot afford to--”

“Ha-Dûna cannot afford to look weak, that is true,” interrupted mórthéin Charlix of Blanche, standing up as well to join his colleague in opposing Boudicca. “Which is exactly what we do by kneeling to such a demand.”

“N-no, that’s not true! Listen to me, all of you!”

“No, -you- listen, sanndatr, if we should even call you that!” challenged Clement. Boudicca’s face flashed red and she drew her sword, placing it against his throat in the blink of an eye.

“You are treading the very edge of what I can accept, mórthéin--” she began, but she then studied the faces of everyone around her; no eyes looked at her swordhand with the glint of justice and agreement - the complete opposite was true: Charlix’ words seemed to resonate with everyone. Clement saw the chink in her facade and continued:

“A sanndatr or sannsonn is an individual who exemplifies Dûnan morals - fearlessness, strength, love of family, clan and people, piety in the face of the gods, wisdom in the face of challenges - which of these have you shown of late?!”

“I-...” Boudicca felt her swordhand quiver and the divinely sharp blade bit a slight cut into Clement’s skin, drawing a sliver of blood. The man flinched and stepped to the side, pointing a gloved finger into Boudicca’s face.

“You have stolen our right to avenge Ha-Leothe by accepting the warlord’s terms!” he accused. Boudicca bit her teeth together and stepped back. She turned to the avatar of Celestine and pleaded,

“Master, talk some sense into them!”

To say that Celestine was surprised by the statement that Boudicca gave would’ve been an understatement, but this surprise was a welcome one. The avatar’s brow relaxed as the news of a duel came forth, though what happened afterwards displeased her quite immensely. She did not intervene immediately, as she didn’t want to undermine the authority of Boudicca and make the situation worse than it already was. But when Boudicca asked for aid, it was delivered.

Rising from her chair, Celestine’s avatar stepped forward and issued a single commanding cry in a volume that nearly shook the great house. ”SILENCE!”

Standing silent for a few moments to allow the weight of such a command to be better understood by all, Celestine’s avatar stood behind Boudicca with confidence. Placing a firm and assuring hand upon her shoulder, Celestine’s avatar would begin to speak once more as she looked out over the assembled people. ”You ask of her if she has exemplified Dûnan morals? Is it not fearless to take on the hopes and dreams of all who are gathered here? Is it not fearless to face the leader of your enemy in single combat? Does it not display a deep love of family to ensure that the sons and daughters of all gathered here will see their parents returned home alive? Does she not show a love of clan and people by ensuring that Ha-Dûna’s resources will not be slowly sapped away by an unrelenting enemy until the people who you all so valiantly defend lay starving in the streets? I can assure you that her piety is quite strong, given that I am standing here and receiving it directly. Is it not wise to find an option that ends a war quickly and without needless death?”

Celestine’s avatar paused now to allow her words to sink in. Turning her gaze to Clement she stepped forward and released the grip she had on Boudicca’s shoulder. Her voice lowered from the volume she used for delivering speeches. This would be far more personal. Placing a hand onto Clement’s shoulder, the avatar began to speak ”I understand your desire for vengeance. To pay the blood debt that the enemy has caused you. But that is not always the way. I have a blood debt myself. Hilda the Leoness was cursed while dueling in a tournament held in my name. For a time I wanted nothing more than to kill the people responsible for such a thing, and part of me still does. But I have found that there is another way to honor the fallen: Live for them. Be their living legacy and do not let their names fall into obscurity. Additionally, think of the duality of such a situation. Consider that If you enact your vengeance upon those that have hurt you that you could cause someone else to take up arms against you for hurting their kin. You would end up perpetuating a cycle of death and violence that will come to affect your children and their children, and their children's children. It is painful to leave a crime unanswered, but sometimes answering that crime can cause so much more.”

The room stayed silent for a second. Then there came a sharp scoff. “Hilda was a proppa’ Dûnan, dat one. She wouldna have t’ought herself so great that she could take all our sorrow and fury away and do away with the enemy one on one - she had pride, yes, but a humble kind; one that understood that others, too, have deir own pride.” It was the Pride-King of Swadi, Koisa, his many leon tusk charms dangling from his buffalo fur attire. “Me and my warriors, dey swore an oa’f - de Cenél would bleed the blood of a hundred men for what dey did to my cousin’s daughta. On de honour o’ Kon, de great war-god, dey are sworn to take de lives demanded, or be forced ta take deir own. If de war is ova’ by duel, den a hundred of my strongest men an’ women will die, instead ov de people dat really deserve it. Where’s de justice in dat?” He looked around the hall and shrugged theatrically. “Where is de justice for my cousin’s daughta, cursed as she was by de Cenél?”

“And for Valix! My own cousin Valix the Quick!” came another shout.

“Be quiet!” shouted Boudicca. “You are speaking against a goddess!”

“Oh, so now that loud voice of yours is back, huh?” Clement snarled, still standing defiantly before her, though shifting nervously over at Celestine. “Must be easy to lead when you’ve got a goddess behind your back.”

“Shut it, or I will have your head.”

“Then take it, you coward - take it and show everyone that you would rather kill one of your own than to give them the right to avenge their family and friends. Go on! I’m sure whatever we do to retaliate won’t affect you, on account of your friends in high places.” Mockingly, he raised his hand, and the faces of the people in the hall grew increasingly suspicious of both Boudicca and Celestine.

Celestine’s avatar turned to face Boudicca shortly after her comments were made, and she held up a hand to stay any further ones, even if only briefly. But shortly before she could speak Clement gave his own retort, and Celestine’s avatar moved to stand between them with a hand held aloft to both. Looking to Boudicca once more, the avatar would speak to her first. ”Ser Boudicca, please. I am not one who is incapable of suffering slings and arrows. Let them raise their voices in protest. I will hear their complaints, as is fair.”

Dropping her hand and turning to Clement and the room in full, the avatar would speak once more. ”The soldiers who have taken this pact may yet have their battle. I am sure that there are many among the enemy who would gladly agree to the chance to do battle. If given time, I can try to speak with the leader of the enemy and see this arranged. This duel might serve to be expanded upon to be one great battle instead of a protracted war of skirmish after skirmish until one side is too exhausted to continue. Will this satisfy all?”

Celestine’s avatar took a step back now to look at Boudicca as well as the assembled leaders. The solution she proposed was one that she didn’t enjoy proposing as it served to add complications to the simple and already agreed upon solution of a duel, but the flaring tempers of the room needed something to cool them, and this was the simplest idea that came forth.

She only hoped that proposing it would not shatter the possibility of a peaceful future. However, none of this seemed to cool the mood in the room - in fact, it only seemed to get hotter. Clement raised his finger in challenge once again, this time at the avatar. “Again you cover for her! I was speaking to Boudicca, not to you!”

“Hold your tongue, du Pierre! You are to speak respectfully to a goddess!” wheezed the ancient voice of Kaer Pier, leader of the Circle of the Long Stride, but none could hear him over the loudening crowd. Clement continued, his eyes trying to meet Boudicca on the other side of the armoured giant. Meanwhile, many more were rising from their seats and closing in on the centre.

“We will not have any sort of duel, skirmish or planned battles of any kind, is that clear? What happened to you, Boudicca? When did you surrender our freedom to live and battle as we’d like to the gods?!”

“We live for the gods!” Boudicca retorted, and the few druids in the room shouted their agreement. Many of the théins, who outnumbered them anyway, seemed unconvinced, though.

“It is clear that you do, sanndatr - but the du Pierre clan lives for itself and its friends.”

“As does the Blanche!” Charlix supported.

“And the Ur-Gaard!”

“Ur-Met!”

“The Shepherds!”

“Ur-Sikra!”

“Ur-Qir!”

Boudicca felt her breathing outpace her. “Aifric! Constable! Arrest these rebels!” But as soon as her eyes found the chief of justice, she noticed the same face on her as on almost everyone else. The red-haired woman clad in the black leather attire of the Constabulary, adorned with the sigils of Taeg-Eit and Fìrinn, lifted her hand in the air and shouted:

“The Leothe clan were brothers and sisters of the Sûr-le-Mont! They will be avenged, head for head!”

Boudicca tugged on Celestine’s cloak again. “Do something!”

The avatar of Celestine stepped back defensively as more began to rise. She understood their frustration and anger at being denied something that had been promised for so long, but it surprised her to learn how many were eager to risk their lives to spill just a drop of blood. Celestine’s avatar kept her hands well away from her sword. She knew that if she so much as touched it that there would be no small amount of blood today. The mortals here posed little threat to the avatar, but Boudicca on the other hand…

If they wanted her head, they could get it. She might’ve had her sword, but was currently lacking in armor. This caused no small amount of alarm, as Celestine knew that if this fury took what it wanted Ha-Dûna would shatter overnight, and all their effort would be in vain. As much as she did not like the idea of what she was about to do, Celestine knew that it was for the best. Boudicca was not safe at the moment, neither was her family. Perhaps it would be time for a brief vacation away from Galbar…

Whispering quietly, Celestine asked Boudicca a critical question. ”Do you know where your family is exactly? Are they all at home?”

“Wh-what? No! They’re, they’re-... I don’t know, I didn’t have time to see them!”

“What are you two whispering about?” Clement demanded. None of them had weapons, as bringing such into someone else’s home was a grave misstep, but he rolled and unrolled his fists threateningly. Charlix, on the other hand, lowered his voice with calming authority.

“Let’s see reason in this, shall we? It is clear that these past few weeks have torn immensely at your psyche, dear sanndatr. May we perhaps suggest that you step back for a time, maybe allow the clan heads to rule in your stead while you rest up?”

Boudicca hissed. “This, this is nothing short of a coup! You are trying to usurp my position!”

“You are unfit to rule, Boudicca. You spend more time with the gods than you do your own people. You’re no leader; you’re a glorified priestess!” Clement accused.

A strumming harp followed Clement’s words, a white robed figure playing off in the corner. The crowd quieted and then turned to regard the figure, the line of sight between them and the centre of the room clearing of people. With no one else interrupting the music, Clement, who had said the last word, followed up with, “Pardon me, I do not recall asking for a bard’s input to our discussion. This isn’t a drama for you to narrate. Kindly leave the war room.”

"Actually, Clement," Illyd Dyll looked up from his harp, "I believe you did ask me to come, don't you remember?" The God walked over and studied Clement, "Yes, you did - you have the same look on your face that Adrian did when he first asked for me. Your opponent has a goddess backing her and arguably strung similar to a puppet in your eyes - you asked for justice and order. Well, here I am, know that while I stand here - no god or goddess can retaliate against you. This is once again a mortal affair."

Most in the room blinked ponderously.

“Have you people learned nothing?” a baritone voice cut in.

"Nope." A brave servant, clearly exasperated from all the surprises, called out from the water he was pouring. The druids began their usual psalms to Caden, whereas many others instinctively cowered. Some even sighed, clearly tired of all the divine attention.

"Oh boy," Illyd screwed his face up with disappointment. He nudged the servant, "If you thought she could talk. Woof."

“Do you not recall the advice I gave you?” Caden demanded. “To make peace where you can, and battle only when you must? Have you already forgotten that it was this sort of infighting which nearly destroyed you all?”

“Great Caden,” Clement pleaded much more respectfully than any manner he had shown Celestine, “that is what we are trying to do - this is a war we -must- fight! Surely you of all magnificent gods would understand the depth of the wound to our honour should we leave this war of aggression up to a mere duel!”

“I understand honour better than you,” Cadien countered. “And I can assure you that no honour would be lost in resolving the conflict in this manner. Honour would, however, be lost in breaking promises that have already been made. Not just the promises your leader has made to your enemy, but the promises your own people have made to your own gods, and to each other.”

A cognitive dissonance seemed to flush over many faces, including those of Charlix and Clement. The latter brought some fingers to his temple and mumbled, “But, but then what is honour? What is honour when some wild barbarian from the hills can massacre a village of over a hundred people and is then only willing to offer one of their own? That is neither respectful from us to them or from them to us - for us, it’s weak; for them, it’s mocking! When did we promise something that would rob us of our right to avenge our fallen?!”

“Honour comes in many forms,” Cadien argued “But do not confuse honour with pride, or vengeance. Pride is not always a bad trait, and vengeance can sometimes be necessary, but not always…”

"Is anyone else here tired of getting talked down to and being told what is and what isn't?" Illyd cleared his throat, "Or no?"

Heads once again turned to the harper, but initially, no one responded. Then, very slowly, one of the strongmen in the back, a rugged brute who looked not much different than a common peasant, raised his hand. “I am.”

Kaer Pier let out a panicking wheeze and shouted, “Great Caden, please have mercy! This one is clearly without the proper learning to--”

"Ah nah nah," Illyd interrupted, "He is exactly who he needs to be. He is tired, and why not? He's a grown man being babied by one God who barges and bellows and another who is probably younger than you are good Kaer." Illyd grinned wide, a mad twinkle in his eye. "A dishonest man is an undesired man."

“Enough!” Cadien interjected once again. Illyd rolled his eyes and whispered "see."

Cadien continued, “I have given no orders. Illyd Dyll, I must say I expected better from you. You interrupt and insult others, while only sowing chaos and discord, in a conflict you have only recently taken note of. You are not acting as a god, but as a child. Now be silent and allow me to finish."

"If that's what you see, then you're blind and I am sad to see you have fallen," Illyd shrugged and turned to the mortals, "Speak your minds and do as you will. If a god interrupts your rightful paths, I will retaliate in your defense."

“War is not a matter of equivalent exchange, Clement of Ha-Dûna,” Cadien went on. “If that was the case, then your people would have far more enemies than they do already. You cannot call for an equal exchange of life only when such an exchange is not in your favour, after already turning a blind eye to the battles where your own people killed far more than they lost. That is not honour.”

“This duel is not something I personally approve of, but allow me to tell you what will happen if it does not occur. Chaos. If you reject this duel after your leader has already agreed to it, you will show the world that a Ha-Dûnan’s word cannot be trusted. They will not care if your leader made this decision without consulting you. All they will see is a betrayal. Your allies will desert you, your enemies will sense weakness, and your own people will be divided on who should replace her. Even if your city does not succumb to infighting once again, it will collapse under the weight of the enemies which surround it. It will be the end of Ha-Dûna.”

“Now, allow me to tell you what will happen if the duel does occur. If Boudicca prevails, which I am fully confident she will, then your conflict will be resolved without any further loss of life. The enemy’s leader will be slain, which will do far more damage to his people than the loss of a single village. If she loses, then there will be no need to overthrow her, for she will no longer be your leader. While you will be expected to follow the conditions of defeat to the letter, doing so will be far less damaging than what would happen should you refuse to honour them.”

“All of this will happen without my intervention,” Cadien continued. “I need not lift a finger. This is not the first conflict that two leaders attempted to settle through a duel, and it will not be the last. Despite his insolence today, I still count Illyd Dyll among my friends, so this once I will honour his request not to retaliate. If you wish to replace your leader, then you may attempt to do so. If you wish to reject the terms she has already made, then you may attempt to do so as well. But know that straying from the course she has already set will only mean disaster. It will be a disaster of your own making, and I will not aid you.”

The highest in command seemed utterly baffled. Around the hall, many others looked genuinely confused. “... Weak? Allies will desert us?” mumbled Clement as though the very connection couldn’t make sense to him.

“You do not speak for us, Kadon!” shouted suddenly the Pride-King of Swadi, pointing a finger defiantly to the roof. “We are an ally ov’ A-Dohna, and if dey go to war, so will we!”

“Aye!” shouted the leader of the Buffalo Riders and rose up.

“Dueling will show strength?! What sort of mighty people cowers before a lesser army in a war they have every advantage in, and then accepts a simple duel? The Doserung stand with the Dûnans!” proclaimed chief Bonursan Chirrut.

“Bast… Bast, too, stands with the Dûnans, if they choose war. That is what my father sent his support for, after all,” said carefully the scribe-made-warlord Ratinmaar. The only one of the five allied leaders to keep quiet was the Death-Singer Vanya, but whatever she would have answered.

“When it comes to replacing the sanndatr, actually,” added the chief constable Aifric, “we have already found several candidates who may possess the necessary moral fibre to lead. Succession would therefore not be an issue, and leadership would be delegated to the Circle of the Long Stride until the heir would be ready to rule. So reads the Dlíbók chapter on rulership and succession.”

“We cannot trust the enemy to keep their promise if they win, either!” came another voice. “They already attacked us unprovoked once - they will do it again!”

“Whatever enemies once surrounded us, have now been tamed! Until the treacherous Cenél ratted themselves together with the Chevelyaks, no one would rise against us! The lands will not fall into chaos if we refuse the duel and destroy the eastern threat, nay - chaos will come should we squander our advantage in the heat of the moment!” proclaimed Clement. Charlix hummed harshly in agreement.

“What infighting the great Caden refers to, I cannot see now,” said the mórthéin Charlix. “Here we stand, fifty heads, each leading their own band or clan, and all are united in mind and purpose: The Chevelyaks deserve not to savour a cheap victory should the hopeless sanndatr fail, nor do they deserve an unprecedented mercy should Boudicca win. The Chevelyaks deserve only to be thrown back to their mountains from whence they came and never set foot in our lands again!”

“YEAH!” The druids, granted, did not celebrate alongside the unanointed, but it was clear that their voices mattered very little now.

Celestine’s avatar, after a long period of silence, spoke up once again. ”I can offer something to quell one fear: Anyone who attacks unprovoked now that this duel is a known factor will be met with a prompt counter offensive of my own design. In addition, Illyd, I will make you this promise: The outcome of this duel will be accepted without intervention on my part. I have been trying to figure out ways to break the cycle of violence and death that has gone on for too long, and this duel aligns with those ideals quite nicely.”

Looking to Charlix, the avatar addressed something that he had said in particular. ”As for the infighting you dismissed so easily, consider that mere moments before Cadien began to speak you were all acting in a manner that gave me reason to believe that you were going to make an attempt on Ser Boudicca’s life here and now. I was fully prepared to spirit her away to my realm to ensure her survival should those who were rising from their chairs begin to rush for us. That is the infighting that was referred to.”

The people looked stunned. Even Boudicca tugged at Celestine’s cloak and shook her head nervously. Then Clement scoffed sharply. “Attempt on her life?!”

“Does she think us to be barbarians?!” came a shout from further back.

“And she threatens to kill us instead of the enemy, for what? For accepting these foul, puny terms?! What manner of war gods are you, even?!” boomed another.

Charlix stuck an authoritative finger in the air. “I do not know about the rest of you, but one of my age can recall stories from a time our people had other masters who restricted us like this.” The hall quieted as eyes fixed on the red-mustached man. “Oh, certainly, we have always been pious to the gods, and Caden has been a beloved divine amongst my people in particular. My father used to draw excellent worded pictures of the temple to Cadwyn back in old Brasfort.”

“Hear, hear…” went a mumble.

“Still, great divines, it is clear that your nature is exactly that - divine. You clearly do not see the world as we do, and we do not see it as you do. From your words and tone, we are pieces in a game to you, to be shuffled around and managed to achieve some sort of cosmic balance; however, we are people - our own, breathing people…”

“Yeah…”

“And the Dûnans…”

“Yeah!”

“Will NEVER--!”

“YEAH!”

“BE RULED AGAIN!”

He pointed an accusing finger at Celestine, his eyes trembling with adrenaline. “You never cared about us Dûnans - you have only ever cared for your champion, and you have shown as much by threatening to punish us should we exercise our divine right to avenge our fallen! You are no better than the damned Ketrefans, you are!”

"In Celestine's defense." Illyd held out a hand, "Jjonveyo is also her Champion but very little care goes towards him."

A gasp flushed through the room, followed by outraged growls and roars. Clement kicked his chair over and shouted, “That butcher?! She sired that -butcher-, that utter killer, and have the audacity to talk to us about honour and justice?!”

"Again in her defense," Illyd looked over at Celestine, "You're only a few decades old, no?"

The avatar of Celestine gave a nod before speaking. ”I am rather freshly emerged from the lifeblood, yes.”

“By Taeg-Eit, this is what happens when we move beyond the druidic gods,” exclaimed suddenly Kaer Pier, his wrinkly face so red that it looked like a dried-up apple. “Damned youngster spirits try to deceive and mislead us, I say!”

“Finally dropped the act, you old badger!” a smug Clement snapped back.

“This is what I’ve been saying for thirty years, you damned fart! The druidic gods are the only gods worth our worship! These others are too demanding-- UGHUUUH!” The old man bent over to an overpowering cough and his attendees swarmed him with water and medicine.

“Please, Kaer Pier, do not strain yourself!”

Clement and Charlix seemed satisfied with the outburst, however. Clement tugged his expensive vest straight again and said, “Well, then. It would seem there is unison agreement that we are quite fed up with being told what to do.”

“So it seems, so it seems,” Charlix agreed.

Celestine’s avatar raised an eyebrow at the statements that came in response to her own. She looked to Boudicca, confusion in her face. If she had felt the tug a few moments earlier… Regret filled her eyes, and she nodded to Boudicca before looking to the crowd once more before speaking. ”It would appear that I have erred, and I will offer my apologies. I do not seek to control you in some great game like some of the other divines might. I just wish for peace. That is all I have ever wished for. If you wish to be free of influence as you so say, then very well. I will abide by your desires.”

And then a portal would open. Beyond it lay the near paradise that was Celestine’s realm. Dragons dotted the sky and Virtus Elves carried on with their days. Placing a hand upon Boudicca’s shoulder, Celestine’s avatar blinked once before departing, closing the portal behind her moments later. Boudicca grabbed fruitlessly at the air where the portal had just been and whispered, “M-master?”

As the crowd gathered ever closer around her, Clement and Charlix looked over to Aifric, who had already prepared a length of rope. “Chief constable Aifric. Take the former sanndatr to the Temple of the Sun. She is from this day stripped of her title as she is not fit to rule, and her daughter Materix of Clan Metsep will inherit the title of laird in her stead.” As Boudicca’s hands were bound, Charlix looked over at Kaer Pier who had slowly recovered from his cough. “Kaer Pier, you and your druids may begin the search for a new sanndatr or sannsonn.”

The old druid nodded slowly, holding a linen handkerchief over his mouth. “Yes, yes, we will start it as soon as we can.”

“The rest of you - prepare for war. The Chevelyaks will be driven from the Dûnlands by the axe and the spear and the fist of its true rulers!”

A thunderous cheer nearly quaked the building itself. It was a sort of cheer that hadn’t really existed in Ha-Dûna for a time; for weeks, there had been this humbling presence everyone one went, and the city felt lighter, more human the second the avatar had left. The heaviness of divine presence still lingered, though - there was still one who had something on his heart.

"Hold a moment."

"Allow me to tell you a story," Cadien spoke up again, his voice quieter and thoughtful. "It is one your people have long since discarded and forgotten, but it is true nonetheless. Long ago, while I was still being born, I was a being without vision, hearing, or thought. As was the case for every other god, before they too came to be - including your own Druidic gods. But even in this state, I had power. I created a species, which was scattered throughout the Highlands."

"And when I emerged, with vision, hearing, and thought, I looked upon this species. And I thought it could be improved. So, I turned thought to action. I reshaped their bodies in my own image, giving them strength and beauty. I granted them intelligence; the ability to think for themselves and come up with complex solutions. I prevailed upon another goddess to grant them passion and emotion as well; the same sort of passion which now animates all of you. And those people... are your ancestors."
-
"So do not presume," Cadien continued, his voice hardening into anger. "To call me a slaver. I am your creator. That is truth, whether you accept it or not. All humans, and all merelli, are descended from me. And that is my interest in this affair. Do you know how few humans there were at the time of my birth compared to how many there are now? A hundred different tribes and clans can claim the same ancestor."

"And so," the god concluded, a note of sadness entering his voice. "Whenever you kill another human, you are killing a distant kinsman. Do keep that in mind." And with those words, the Dûnans felt a great presence leave them.

The hall was quiet. Then came a remark: “As if I can trace my lineage all the way to Eceda.”

“... Did, did Caden really make us?” came another.

“No, Reiya did! It is known!”

“It is very well known, in fact. He must be upset he could not convince us to accept the duel. Do any of you wonder why he was so adamant about that, by the way? As a war god, shouldn’t he…?”

“Duh! It’s clear the Chevelyaks have persuaded him away from us. Can’t be trusted, those non-druidic gods.”

“As always, Hir guides the way.”

Meanwhile, Clement and Charlix approached the avatar of illyd Dyll and bow took a knee. “Great Lyd,” they choired. “We thank you immensely for your aid in this. To think Selesta was in cahoots with the wicked warlord…”

"You know," Illyd tapped his chin. "It's about this time a god would throw another speech at ya - but instead - please just don't forget to plant some heavy taproots this late winter."

“Taproots?” asked Charlix, but Clement nodded.

“Of course, great one. They shall line the fields like posts in a fence.” He folded his hands and pressed them against his forehead. “With your blessings, this war shall be won by Dûnans, for Dûnans. Not by gods and not for gods.”

"Don't hold your breath for my validation," Illyd giggled. "But really just pray to me should a divine force rear its machinations. Now show me too my druids, it's high time I show them what soil temperature is then I'm out of here."

“Of course! Kaer Myvon, come here,” demanded Clement and one of the druids assisting Kaer Pier out of the house came jogging over, bowing deeply before the avatar and then not as deeply before the two mórthéins.

“Yes, laird Clement?”

“Gather your Circle and go with the great one. Make sure his every need is tended to and pay attention to his every word. I will expect a full report once it’s done.”

“Of, of course!” replied the druid nervously and bowed against before Illyd. “Great Lyd, I am yours to command. Please, allow me to take you to the Circle of the Gods.” She gestured, still bowing, for him to follow.

"Oh my," Illyd made a surprised face. "So formal." He quickly followed behind the druid - an eager spring in his step. As the last people left the house, Charlix and Clement remained, both smiling proudly at one another.

“So, who shall inherit the House of Chieftains? At least until the new sanndatr or sannsonn is chosen?” asked Charlix.

“Oh, you go ahead, my good man - I so enjoy my own estate, after all. I would miss my sheep.” Clement tugged at his vest.

“Ah, what an unfortunate coincidence - I, too, am much too deeply in love with my own bed and the view from my door. What shall we use this for, then?” The two of them quietly pondered.

“... Storage?”

“Storage.”

Then they left to prepare for the coming war.



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Qael’Naath

&
Cadien

&
Carn




The wound had stopped bleeding by the time Qael’Naath had arrived by Cadien’s portal. So many strange things - emotions - flowed through him. Was he so tainted by mortality now that he could feel hatred, rage, fear? It didn’t matter. Even logic demanded the downfall of the winged avatar. He couldn’t do it alone though. His avatar was uniquely suited for other things but not combat and with the winged one holding that accursed blade, he needed help. He swallowed his pride as he stepped through the mortal to enter Meliorem. “Cadien!” He shouted, but instantly clutched his chest in pain. No wound should hurt so uniquely but his did. Still, he bit through the pain and said: “I need to talk to you.”

“Qael?” Cadien’s voice could be heard, as the surroundings of Meliorem came into view. The great fortress was just ahead, but Cadien himself could not be seen. “Whatever is the matter?”

“Galbar is in danger. We are in danger!” Qael said as he lifted off the ground and gently floated towards the castle. The pain in his chest eased up. Replaced by something else. A consuming fire he felt within. “I need your help.”

A gold-clad figure stepped through the castle’s threshold. “Hm? Is this about that-” Cadien stopped in his tracks. “By the Lifeblood, what happened to you?”

“My avatar was attacked.” Qael said as he stepped in closer. Under his hood, hidden by the tentacles just peeking from underneath it he tried to offer Cadien a feeble smile. His robe was still bloodied by the attack that transferred to the divine realms. “It’s good to see you brother. I’ll tell you everything but if you don’t mind, I’d like to do so in a better-suited place than outside. There is much to show and tell.”

Cadien furrowed his brow. “This is most unusual, but come in.” He beckoned the god to follow him into the courtyard. He then led him into the castle itself, through the hall of statuary, and finally into the throne room.

Once in the throne room Qael took a seat at the long table. “I’ll assume you’ve noticed the quake on Galbar as well.” He started. “I’ve sent my avatar out to investigate it. The power coming from it was far too much for any sane god’s creation. And the insane ones don’t want that kind of attention I’ve noticed. There I’ve found a winged woman amid a glassed wasteland. An avatar, I believe. In her hands, she held a weapon.” His gaze and tone grew grim. “My avatar is almost ethereal, brother. No mortal weapon should be able to harm it. But that sword did and now my own blood has soaked Galbar again.”

“Again?” Cadien asked. “When was the first time?”

“When we were born I came into being with a fatal flaw. Something anathema to the logic and systems that I desired. In that age of myth, I’ve cut that chaos out of me.” And it took its shape in Qull. She who would have been his nemesis. Luckily, it would’ve appeared the Lifeblood had quickly consumed her. “The wound I’ve made back then is ancient, but it opened again when my avatar was struck by the blade.”

“For someone who claims to be a being of logic, you sure do have a flair for the dramatic,” Cadien commented as he settled into a seat across from Qael. “Do you know whose avatar it was?”

“A growing mortal affliction I’m afraid.” Qael said. “I don’t. Though I suspect she killed the Sun Giant, which caused the quake and the wasteland I’ve found her in. I wish I could say if it was ordered by one of our siblings or if this is simply the case of a runaway Avatar but sadly I can’t.”

“Just how long ago did this happen?”

“Very recently.” Qael’Naath answered.

“And her ability to hurt you through your avatar. Would you say this is a property of the avatar herself, or of her blade?”

“I cannot say for the certain.” The blade certainly pulsed with an energy Qael had never seen before but then again, they were gods. Creators of the ‘never seen before’. He himself had given some the blessings to remain invisible from a god’s eye. What stopped another from creating a weapon that could harm divinity? “I need your help to destroy this threat, brother.”

“Do you know where she is right now?”

“The glass wastes. That desolate wasteland east of the Westfold. For now she seems strangely obsessed with slaying the local spawning creatures. They look like small, glassy golems.” Qael said. “As we speak I have my mortal representative heading out to gather the locals. At least those with the proper affinity for magic. They will be the wardens and rangers of this place.” There had to be vigil over the place. Divine essence was spilled in that place. “So, will you help me?”

Cadien frowned. “Tell me exactly what this avatar looks like.”

“Like a human woman but beautiful to an objective degree. She has horns sprouting from her hair. Horns…that feel familiar.” He had seen those horns before. In his own daughter. They were an illusion then. Now they looked real. His expression under the hood darkened as the thought dawned, but he continued. “She has a set of large wings. Like a Neiyari would.”

The God of Perfection grimaced, as if his worst suspicion had been confirmed. “I know the avatar you speak of.”

“Speak your mind, brother.” Said Qael. His tone matched that of Cadien as he had an inkling as well.

“Her name is Aveira, avatar of Neiya,” Cadien confirmed, with some reluctance. “But that does not mean Neiya was behind this attack. She always had a hands-off attitude toward her creations, and I do not think she would seek a fight with another god for no good reason.”

“You know her better than I do, so I’ll trust your judgement but that doesn’t take away that Aivera’s power is too dangerous to allow to exist. She has to be destroyed, as well as her blade.” And if they couldn’t, then the blade would have to be stored somewhere safe. Somewhere away from the divine realms though. Qael’Naath would not trust that blade to stay with any god. Not even himself. There was only one place in all of Galbar where he would entrust such a relic to. “If you believe Neiya to be innocent, do you believe you can bring her around to that cause?”

“I can speak to her,” Cadien nodded. “I can send my own avatar to speak to Aveira as well. They fought alongside each other not too long ago, and did not part on hostile terms.”

“Be careful brother. She managed to hurt even my avatar. That is no small feat. And frankly, I see no way to resolve this diplomatically. As I said, she is too dangerous to be left alive at this point.” Qael said as he rose up from the chair. “But as with Neiya, I trust you on Aivera as well. I’ll make sure at least the wastes are secured. Come to me if you made headway with either of them. This is not a matter us gods should stay distant of.”

“Of course,” Cadien said. “What about that wound of yours? It will heal, surely?”

“With time, with time.” Qael said as he flashed Cadien a smile from underneath the tentacles and darkened hood. “Last time I tried everything on Galbar to heal me. From the lake in the Luminant to the healing gift of Lucia. Only time closed it. I will be fine.”

“Hm.” There was an awkward pause, before Cadien spoke again. “Another question. Whatever became of that Aurielle girl, after the Battle of Ketrefa?”

For a moment Qael was quiet. Taken by surprise by the question after his daughter. He was well aware that Cadien did not fully approve of who she became. Even when Qael did. “I felt it time for her to learn magic properly. She’s at the Omniversity. Though I’d be lying if I’d say she picked up the art of spellcasting smoothly.” The headmaster trained with her once every three weeks now. It was the most Auriëlle could maintain.

“And what about your own son? Carn, was it? The last images I saw before I whisked away my own daughter put him in a dire position. I hope he didn’t depart to Thaa’s realm.”

“He is here,” Cadien answered. “In this realm. Alive, too. I suspect he may return to Galbar one day.”[/color]

“Can I see him?” Asked Qael. “I want to see what sort of a man my daughter has been giving her heart to.”

“I suppose there is no harm in it,” Cadien shrugged.



Carn sighed. He had been in the midst of another training session, when his ‘father’ spoke within his head, summoning him to the keep. He did not resent Cadien’s influence as he once had, but it was nonetheless tedious that the God of Perfection expected him to come when called, even if he was already in the middle of other things.

So in no particular hurry, he had made his way there. Past the bridge, down the road, up the stairs, through the courtyard, through the hall, and into the throne room. He had been expecting it to be just Cadien, but to his surprise, another figure was present.

“Who is this?” he asked, turning to the figure, noting the bloodstained robes and the stains they had dripped onto the carpet below.

“Ill mannered.” Qael said as he looked at Cadien. Momentarily ignoring Carn before giving the mortal the fullest of his attention. For a second the god of magic was quiet. The glowing eyes underneath his hood saw more than light. Yet when he looked at Carn he saw nothing to like. “There is barely a speck of mana clinging to you.” He said before lifting his legs up and floating cross legged over the ground.

“I suppose it is proper that I give you my name now. I am Qael’Naath. God of Magic. Father of the one you love. Or is it loved these days?”

Carn’s eyebrows rose slightly, and his eyes widened. “Where is she?” he asked at once.

“On Galbar. Somewhere safe where she can focus and ponder upon her greater destiny.” Qael said as he floated a bit around Carn. “She still thinks of you, you know. Even after she turned blind. It’s most odd. She made a bust from memory in your likeness. I can see the similarities.” Then he leaned in closer. “Though I think she got the nose wrong.” He said before leaning back again. “But you haven’t answered my question yet, Carn of Cadien. Is it love or loved?”

“I…” he said, nearly choking on the words. “I don’t know.”

“That’s a most disconcerting answer.” Qael said before turning to Cadien. “Would it be okay if I conjured a pitcher of wine?”

“Feel free,” Cadien said, with a wave of his hand.

The god of magic gave a grateful nod and then turned back to Carn with his arms outstretched. In his left appeared two silver cups. They were unadorned. In his right appeared a silver pitcher engraved with a Oraeliari bending water around her. He poured both cups full and offered them to Carn, taking the other for himself. The pitcher he held a moment ago remained floating in the air as if gravity just didn’t exist. “What troubles your mind when it comes to my daughter?” Qael asked as he sipped the rich, slightly sweet tasting red wine.

Carn was silent as he examined the cup. He brought it to his lips and took a long sip, as he mulled over the question, though it was clear his hesitance was over how to phrase it rather than any actual doubt. “Where is she?” he asked at last. “Is… is she happy? Is she safe?”

“She is not.” Qael said, not the least bit worried about that answer. “You should know her well enough to know that Auriëlle simply doesn’t do happy. Or safe. I ask again: what troubles you about her?”

Carn’s eyes narrowed, briefly, and then he stood straighter. When he next spoke, his voice was filled with new resolve, and it was no longer in short fragmented sentences. “Where should I begin?” he asked. “It has been over a year since I have seen her. I don’t know what happened to her, or where she is. I don’t know how she has changed, or if she would accept how I have changed. I don’t even know if I will ever see her again. An easier question be what doesn’t trouble me about her.”

For a second Qael swirled the wine in his own cup just as he let the words of Carn swirl through his mind. Eventually he let out a somewhat exasperated sigh. He dropped the cup as it started to disintegrate into sparkling dust. The pitcher and Carn’s cup vanished in the same way. “You’re not destined for her.” He said, as he put one hand on Carn’s shoulder and looked him straight in the eyes. [color=a187be]“Move on.”

With those words said he uncrossed his legs and turned to Cadien as his feet still floated a few inches off the ground. “I thank you for your hospitality and I wish you good luck in our shared matter.” Then he floated around Carn to leave Meliorem.




Carn had endured the remark in silence. It was not the first time he had been told that. After Qael was gone, Carn looked to Cadien. “Was this all you brought me here for?”

Cadien shrugged. “He asked to see you. I did not plan this.”

“Are all gods so judgemental?” came Carn’s next question.

“Many are. Of course, you hardly helped yourself, what with that attitude of yours.”

“Do you know of any ones that aren’t?” he asked next.

“A few,” Cadien answered, rising to his feet. “Why?”

Carn thought for a moment. In truth, he was beginning to grow tired of Meliorem. Although he had enjoyed himself, he was beginning to fall into a routine. A repetitive one. He needed something… different. And the only way to find that would be to venture beyond Meliorem’s boundaries, or ask Cadien to create it. He knew which solution he preferred. “I would like to meet them.”

“A dangerous proposition, Carn,” Cadien chided. “Especially if you continue to speak to them in such a manner. Even your fellow mortals would take issue with that, yet alone gods.”

Carn frowned. “So I can’t leave?”

“Oh, you can leave,” Cadien answered. “Just be mindful of what I said. I cannot protect you if you are in another god’s realm, nor will I start any feuds on your behalf if you offend the wrong being. Be polite, be respectful. The songs taught you eloquence and manners. It would be best if you used started using those against people other than them.”

“And if they don’t respond in kind?”

“Do so anyway. You cannot control their behaviour, but you can control your own, and if there is no fault in the way you conduct yourself, you are blameless in whatever comes next.”

Carn frowned. So he would have to grit his teeth as higher beings judged him and talked down to him, without truly understanding him, just as Qael had a few moments ago, and just as Cadien had when he was first brought here. He would have to be polite even if he was insulted or belittled. It was unfair, it was unjust, and it was demeaning. But it was the price he might have to pay, for a little adventure and variety…

“I will depart tomorrow,” he decided.








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Recuperating



Year 30AA, late Autumn, Ha-Dûna...

Boudicca had seen many temple chambers from the inside - she had overseen construction of the Temple of the Sun in particular, actually, and this particular room wasn’t at all unfamiliar to her. What was unfamiliar was the fact that she was locked inside it, dressed in the simple, gray linen robes of a nun, her hair tied in a bun and hidden under a hood. She sat on a flat of hay on the wooden floor; save for a sliver of light peeking in from a hole one could scarcely call a window, the room was pitch black. In the corner was a clay mug she had emptied of water earlier and a half-eaten loaf of dry flatbread, plus an empty bowl with gooey traces of salted curdled cheese. The temple treated none of its residents poorly, for sure - this was a hearty breakfast considering her position - but it was nothing to her brother Brian’s mutton oatmeal with leeks and onions, served with a horn of steaming spiced ale and houlin berry pudding. She felt her teeth drown in her drool at the thought.

It had all gone so very wrong - so much worse than anything she had played out in her head. How did this happen? Well, she knew perfectly well why it happened. She had been a fool - an utter and incompetent fool, thinking that one duel between her and Jjonveyo could undo all the pain, all the sorrow and all the hate her people held for the Celeviaks. It had been arrogant, thoughtless, even, to think so.

There came a knock on the door. “Boudicca?” said a man’s voice. Boudicca sank together into her arms. Maybe Clement was right? Maybe she had been too obsessed with the gods to think about how her own people felt?

“Boudicca!” the voice repeated and knocked harder. Boudicca looked up.

“What?”

The wooden bar over her door groaned to the side and it opened to reveal a robed man with a crown of hair around a gleamingly bald scalp.He frowned down at her, a torch in his hand. “You have been tasked with digging a new latrine.” With a sudden and short-lived wheeze, Boudicca caught an incoming wooden shovel the man had tossed at her. “Get to it.” Then he left. Boudicca snarled. To be treated like this… Just yesterday, this man would have bowed to the ground before her. Pleadingly, she looked to the ceiling and whispered,

“Master? Are you out there? I, I need your aid.”

The response to Boudicca’s plea was very much immediate. She would feel the sensation of her mind being touched by a divine presence the moment the word ‘master’ was uttered. Then came the whisper that she had heard before, on the fateful day when Celestine’s avatar arrived. ”I am here, my champion. What do you need?”

Boudicca fell to her knees and folded her hands, the shovel dunking to the ground beside her. “I, I have been dethroned! My position, usurped! By madmen, no less! You both heard and saw them - they must have been corrupted somehow, by something. I, I don’t know why they’ve kept me alive, but they might be planning to use me for something vile - to use my family for something worse!”

“Boudicca! Come on! Adherents of the Sun don’t laze around!” the voice thundered again and footsteps grew louder in the wooden hallway.

“Please, Master! You have to help me!” Boudicca continued, her breath in panic.

Moments after the plea for help was uttered, the connection broke. Then, mere inches away from Boudicca’s kneeling form, a portal opened. Unlike last time where one could see a fair portion of the paradise-like realm behind it, this time there was merely a room containing a large four-poster bed and some other personal effects like a desk that was covered in papers.

These were quickly rendered unimportant by the appearance of Celestine’s avatar as they stepped partially through the portal. Holding a hand out to Boudicca and up to the portal, the avatar spoke quickly. ”If you fear for your safety, please enter this portal. It will take you to my realm. Decide quickly, as I cannot maintain this connection for long.”

Without a second thought, Boudicca tossed herself inside, just in time to hear the gasp of the monk at her door. The portal closed behind her, and Boudicca pushed herself to her feet with the help of the goddess, taking in the sights and smells with a gaping mouth. She then spun back for a second to look at the spot where the portal had closed. Panting, she said, “That, that was close… Thank you, Master.”

Celestine’s avatar nodded but remained fairly silent as it backed up to a nearby wall before slightly hunching over as if a puppeteer had cut the strings. Then a few moments later the door upon the south wall opened gently, and in stepped Celestine herself. She blinked slowly as she approached Boudicca. Stopping a few feet away, Celestine crossed her left arm across her chest and bowed before speaking. ”It was. I can only hope that your disappearance does not endanger your family. It is nice to finally meet you in full rather than through visions or through my avatar, though I do wish the circumstances were better.”

Rising from the bow, Celestine allowed her right hand to rest upon the pommel of her sword before speaking again. ”Do you have a plan you wish to undertake? I will assist you as requested.”

Boudicca seemed momentarily mesmerised by the surroundings, the plains, the dragons, the many elves all around. She eventually snapped out of it. “Oh, a, a plan?” Pausing briefly, she turned back to Celestine. “We, we need to get my family. They, they must be at my tún, my estate.” She paused again. “... Or, well, my daughter’s estate now. It is right outside the walls, to the south of the city.”

Celestine nodded a few times at Boudicca’s plan before she asked a few other questions to better see what Boudicca might want to achieve in the area. ”Understood. I will open a portal there in a few moments. Before I do that, is there anything or anyone else you would like to try and bring here from Ha-Dûna? Your equipment? Loyal friends? Anything. I ask because opening portals to Galbar is only a temporary affair and draws from my divine power every time. I can open three more before I exhaust my current reserves. If there’s anything you can think of that you might want me to do urgently, please feel free to mention it. No matter how small.”

Internally, Celestine was quite pleased with the fact that Boudicca seemed to be mesmerized by her realm. She took it as a complement, and hoped that Boudicca would share in that same mesmerization if or when she came to reside in the realm more permanently. But that was not something she needed to think about for now, and instead refocused her thoughts towards the current situation.

“Celestine!” an all-too familiar voice boomed from another room. It did not exactly sound angry, but it was clear he was far from pleased.

Celestine’s eyebrow raised promptly at the voice of Cadien booming within her realm. Turning her attention to the door into the room, she pulled it open before speaking gently. As she spoke, her voice reverberated throughout her realm to ensure that the message reached his ears. ”Greetings, Cadien. I am in my personal chambers. If you are within The Longhall, ascend to the ledge above with the throne upon it. Through the central door you will find a passage leading you here.”

Stepping back from the door, Celestine looked to Boudicca before nodding in assurance. Hopefully there would be no escalation from Cadien’s visit.

A few moments later, Cadien entered the room, clad in his golden armour. “Just what were you thinking?” he demanded, his usual smiling expression twisted into a frown, and his brow furrowed in anger. Boudicca, meanwhile, bent a knee.

“Great Caden, I salute you!” she unleashed respectfully. “Please, allow me to apologise on behalf of the sinful amongst my people!”

Cadien gave her a brief glance, before turning back to Celestine as he awaited a response.

Celestine took a moment to give Cadien a curtsey as he entered. After standing, she spoke calmly. ”Boudicca asked for help, and I brought her here to free her from imprisonment. I had planned to open another portal for her to gather her family here in a few moments. Do you object to this? If you have a proposal that you wish to put forward then please do so. I will hear it.”

“Do so, then,” Cadien said. “But after that, we will have words.”

Celestine nodded before turning to Boudicca once more and asking after a few clarifications like before. ”Boudicca, is there anyone or anything else you would like to go get when I open this portal? Do you want my avatar to go with you for protection?”

Boudicca shook her head. “No, nothing must go through from this side. If I’m seen, or your avatar is seen, they will surely kill them all. They, they must be in the great hall by now. If, if you open a portal exactly in by my daughter’s throne, then I will pull them through before any can react.” She bit a nail. “There’s no other way…”

Celestine nodded once again before raising a closed fist before her. Closing her eyes to better visualize where she would be opening the portal, Celestine spoke quickly before she began the process. ”Be quick. These portals are temporary. If you scream for help, I will send my avatar.”

Celestine’s hand opened now, revealing a baseball sized sphere of silvery energy. It was promptly crushed. Seconds later, a portal opened, revealing the interior of the great hall and the throne that Boudicca had mentioned. Reflexively, Celestine backed away from the portal. She didn’t want to anger the lifeblood by being too close to it. They were forbidden from walking upon Galbar in their full power, after all.

Looking to Boudicca once more, Celestine spoke once more. ”Go, quickly!” With that, the former sanndatr threw herself through the portal and into the middle of a great, dark room, lit by a mighty hearth and filled to the brim with men, women and children. Shock froze the room, and Boudicca scanned madly for her targets when she suddenly heard.

“Mother?!”

Boudicca spun, her eyes fixing on a seated young woman, her daughter Materix, eyes wide with confusion. Behind the grossly large throne of firwood and wolfskins stood her husband Aethel, one hand gently holding that of her child son Boudin. Opposite of the throne stood her second oldest daughter, Zelda, and to Boudicca’s right, filling up the entire room from wall to wall, stood the entire Metsep clan. Her brother, Brian, was in the process of kneeling, his mouth frozen mid-oath. The former sanndatr leapt forward and grabbed Materix by the arm and Boudin by the hand. “Come with me! Now!”

Both of them struggled against. “Mother, what are you--?!”

“So -this- is where she ran off to!” came a blade-sharp call from the second row and the crowd parted to reveal none other than Claude du Pierre, heir to the du Pierre clan and as much the bloodthirsty warmongerer as his father. The man pointed at Boudicca and shouted, “Well, what are you waiting for?! She escaped the Temple of the Sun! Haul her back there this instant!”

As her clansmen weighed the option of betraying their former laird and betraying their duty to uphold the Temple Law, Boudicca tried her luck once more. “Stop struggling and just come with me! You’ll be safe in the Bulwark!”

Boudin lost grip of his father’s hand and the expert grip of Boudicca lifted him up into her arms, her feet inching closer and closer to the portal while her eyes shifted rapidly between the rest of her family and the increasing number of clansmen who started agreeing with Claude. “Damn it, Materix! You’ll be killed here!”

“Dad, what’s mommy doing?!” screamed Zelda panickingly. Aethel ran over to his wife and tried to wrestle Boudin out of her arms.

“Boudicca, what’s the matter with you?! You’ll get us all killed!”

“You’ll all die if you stay here!” she retorted and planted a rock-like knuckle into the face of a cousin who got a little too close. She inched closer to the portal and managed to grab Aethel by the arm, pulling him along, as well. However, he pushed her off, and in the action, Boudicca lost her grip around Boudin, allowing for another cousin to snatch him from her. Boudicca screamed. “MY SON!” Vengefully, her fists started hammering their way through the ever-more numerous horde of clansmen trying to overpower her, divine strength matching the mortal power of five men. However, even she couldn’t fight these odds for long. As Boudin, Aethel, Materix and Zelda disappeared further and further behind a mass of people, Boudicca screamed, “SELESTA, HELP ME!”

Celestine’s avatar awoke from its idle state and stepped forward promptly. The sound of a sword being drawn could be heard, and following that a clatter of a scabbard being dropped. Shortly thereafter the cloak it wore was discarded. A second sound of a sword being drawn could be heard. The avatar held its hand aloft, and Celestine tossed her own sword to her avatar. Moments later, it stepped through the portal. Moments after it was through, it let out a scream that nearly shook the great hall. ”STAND ASIDE OR BE SWEPT AWAY!”

If people were stunned as Celestine hoped, the avatar would briefly hold both swords with one hand as it wrapped an arm around Boudicca and quickly pulled her free of the crowd and into the small amount of space that the portal had around it. Holding one of the two swords out to Boudicca, Celestine’s avatar would speak quickly. ”If you wish to continue this effort, here. I will follow your lead in whatever course of action you wish to take.” The clansmen rolled back like a wave, terrified of the avatar’s presence. Just as shocked where Materix and the rest of Boudicca’s family, who had taken refuge behind the throne.

Boudicca swung her sword threateningly towards her clansmen, people whom she had known for her whole life, and they tossed themselves back to avoid her swings. “BACK OFF! I’m not leaving until my family’s safe!” she roared.

“Mother, please stop!” cried Zelda from behind the throne. It didn’t take long for a handful of men and women armed with shields and sticks to make their way to the front, looking as frightened as though they had been tasked with subduing a bear.

Back in Celestine’s realm, the God of Perfection unleashed a frustrated sigh. “Time to put an end to this farce,” he whispered.

And just then, in the hall, a portal opened beneath Boudicca’s feet. She fell through, and it closed immediately.

“Call your avatar back,” Cadien ordered Celestine, with the tone of one who was not open to arguing.

Celestine’s eyes narrowed at the sudden portal, but what was done was done. Her own avatar quickly leaped back through the portal that Celestine was maintaining, and it closed shortly thereafter as well. The avatar tossed the sword back to Celestine, who promptly placed it back within the scabbard hanging at her right side. The avatar collected its scabbard and cloak, replacing both upon its person before backing up to the wall and becoming idle once more. Celestine herself frowned before turning to Cadien with her arms folded and speaking. ”Where have you sent her? My first guess is your realm, but if you haven’t I’d like to know.”

But Cadien had already left the room.



It was a short fall. Boudicca landed feet first on a soft carpeted floor, made of a fabric she had never seen before. She stood in the middle of a great hall, with magnificent furniture the likes of which could never have been crafted on Galbar. There was a great table in the middle, and a marble throne at the far end. Doors and paintings lined the walls. The sword still in her hand, she spun around, eyes scanning all around the room.

“Materix?! Zelda?! Boudin?!” Her breathing could be compared to a drum beat. She sprinted for the nearest window and looked outside to see nothing but an endless blue void and hints of clouds at the bottom over her vision range. A sense of failure and loss grabbed her by the heart and threatened to crush it. She staggered back in a daze and crashed into a weak seat, the sword falling against the carpeted floor beside her. She stared emptily at the ground for a bit before rolling over into a fetal curl and beginning to weep.

Only a few minutes later, the doors of the great hall swung open, and in stepped a tall figure with white hair and golden armour. His resemblance to Evette, the woman Boudicca had spoken to so many months ago, was unmistakable.

He strode across the room to where Boudicca sat, and lifted her sword off the floor. He took a moment to inspect the blade, frowning in disapproval, before placing it on the table. Then he looked to her, waiting for her to speak.

His champion did not hesitate. She rolled onto her knees and let forth a warcry, kicking off from the ground and winding up a punch. However, her body was heavy with sorrow, and the punch didn’t manage more than to push air in Cadien’s direction. She tried again, her fist like a clumsy fly against the god’s golden breastplate. A third fist became the final one as she collapsed down on her knees again, head hanging hopelessly as sobs threatened to choke her to death.

“They did not wish to go,” Cadien said at last.

“... But…” She could hardly speak. “... But why? Why stay? They, they will die if they stay!”

“They were in no danger. One of them was being sworn into a title, by the looks of it. If there comes a time when they are in danger, they can be rescued then. But for now? They are safe.”

“No, shut up! They… They’re not…” She embraced herself desperately and keeled forward. “... My daughter, she, she can’t… Not on her own… My boy, he, he needs me, my-...” She tried to push herself to her feet again. “Open another portal! Please, I cannot leave them alone like this!”

“They are not alone. They have their father. What of him? Did you intend to take his children away from him, and leave him alone instead?”

“Aethel can fend for himself, he--!” She paused for a second. “He has his position with the Circle! Not like my babies, my, my… Oh gods, Materix will… She’s…”

“He can fend for himself, and he can fend for them,” Cadien insisted. “For now. Your separation from them need not be forever. There may come a time when you can return, or when they must be brought here.” Boudicca didn’t answer, busily pressing the tears out of her eyes.

“I will let your family know that you are alive and safe,” Cadien assured her. “This is not the end. Not for you, not for your family, not for your clan, and not for Ha-Dûna. If there is any other message you wish for me to pass on, tell me.”

Boudicca stared at her hands. “Without me, the city is finished… The mórthéins are wicked and corrupt, and our allies are nothing but treacherous fiends… You saw them yesterday; you heard them yesterday.” She shook her head. “Who will lead them if not me?”

“Someone else will step forward,” Cadien said. “They will not be as capable as you. They will lead the armies in the war to come. If they fail, it will be brought to its knees, to the brink of destruction. And if that day comes, they will realize you were right. They will take you back, you will lead them, and you will help them rebuild. Just as you did before.”

“... But what if they don’t? What if, what if they cast me out? What if I’m branded as lawless? They will never take me back then!”

“Then perhaps they deserve to be destroyed,” Cadien said. “If they would turn aid away even during their worst crisis. If they would reject even the gods themselves vouching for you.” He shook his head. “I doubt they will be so stupid. If they lose this war, they will realize their decision to depose you was a mistake, and they will miss the days when you led them.”

Boudicca looked up slowly, a glimmer of hope in her eyes. “... Will, will you save them if they get too close to the fall, great Caden?”

Then, the god frowned. “They have ignored my advice, they have rejected me, they have named me a liar, they have called me a slaver, and they have disgraced my champion,” he said, his tone neutral despite the bitterness of his words. “I will not deny, there is some part of me that wants to see them destroyed.”

“But,” he went on. “I am not incapable of forgiveness. As to whether or not they will earn that forgiveness, that depends on their conduct in the battles to come, and their ability to learn from their mistakes.”

Boudicca looked down. “I pray on their behalf that they will act exemplary…”

“I expect Celestine will arrive here soon. Although her actions may have led to this affair, you must forgive her. She is a young goddess, and I suspect not entirely familiar with the minds of mortals.”

“That, that is to be expected,” the former sanndatr acknowledged. “After all, we are miniscule and irrational - nothing compared to the magnificence that is the gods.” She wiped the last traces of tears from her eyes and bowed politely. “Forgive me, I, I lost my senses earlier. I meant no evil by it.”

“I’m afraid your senses have not been your own for a long time,” Cadien said grimly. He reached out to touch her collar. “You were given this shortly after I gifted you those banners, yes?”

Boudicca blinked and patted the inky collar with her right hand. “Yes, I… I suppose so. It was given to me by Macsal--...” She paused and frowned. “... No… No, it was not. She called herself… She called herself the Lady-in-Waiting. She gave me this. She gave me the collar and told me to take what was mine.” She swallowed. “You, you don’t think that…”

Cadien’s eyebrows rose. For several seconds, he looked at Boudicca in stunned silence. Then, his expression twisted into rage. He pulled something out of his cloak - a rose made from jewels, and looked from it to Boudicca’s collar. His grip on the rose tightened, and he returned it to its place. “I am familiar with the Lady-in-Waiting,” he said at last. “She has stood before me in this very hall. She is no goddess. This ‘Mascal’, I am not familiar with, but I suspect I know their whereabouts. And if I am correct, they have been asleep for decades. If not centuries.”

“I knew she was hiding something from me, I just did not think it would be this sinister…” he whispered, clenching his fist.

“Did, did she do something to me? Master, what does this collar do?”

“It’s a corrupting force. It instills a sense of greed, desire, and blind ambition within its wearer.” He reached out to grip the collar tightly. And then, half of it shattered, ink droplets flying in every direction, splashing some spots on Boudicca’s vest and shirt. Cadien gripped the remaining half, and with a disgusted look he tossed it aside. “No more.”

Boudicca grabbed her neck instinctively and patted around to feel her skin again, which had grown pale and rashed from a lack of exposure to air. She swallowed and breathed in deep. “Thank you, Master,” she laughed in relief, closing her eyes. “... I… I feel it. A peace of mind returning to me…”

“I always found ‘master’ to be a distasteful term. ‘My lord’, will suffice.” Cadien corrected. “Now, until Celestine arrives, you are my guest. You are free to explore Meliorem. All I ask is that you do not speak of the Lady-in-Waiting or what she did to you - not even if the other inhabitants mention her. It’s a delicate matter, and one I must handle myself.”

Boudicca bowed. “Yes, my lord.”




Cadien had left without explaining anything. This caused Celestine to audibly sigh. She’d been doing her best to help as Boudicca requested, but then Cadien had to go and spirit her away. Most likely he sent her to his realm, but Celestine couldn’t be sure. Part of her wanted to depart immediately, but the tone that Cadien had taken gave her pause. She did not want to become an object of irritation to him, and thus decided it would most likely be best to seek council with one of her advisors. Walking to the north side of the room, Celestine pulled open the set of double doors that lay there and stepped out onto the ledge beyond. Closing the doors behind her Celestine approached the mouthpiece to the massive horn that lay embedded within the side of her castle. Inhaling into lungs that did not exist she blew into the horn, causing a reverberating hum to echo throughout her realm. Moments later, a roar answered.

A few moments after that, a great red dragon approached by wing. He pulled back, buffeting the goddess with a fierce windstorm before coming to rest upon the large ledge that had been specifically crafted for this purpose. Letting out a short huff, the dragon spoke with a deep and reverberating voice. ”Greetings Celestine. What is it that you wished to ask my council for?”

Celestine opened her mouth to speak, but froze when she realized that she was no longer the only person standing on the ledge…

A red fox sat on Celestine's feet looking up at her. After a silent moment, the fox's eyes twinkled and a toothy grin snagged on its snout.

"How you?" The words danced around the small mammal.

Celestine looked down at the fox sitting upon her feet with a raised eyebrow. Looking up to the dragon for a moment, Celestine spoke to him once more. ”Please pardon me, Grigori. I have an unexpected visitor. This might take a while, so if you find the conversation boring please do feel free to depart.”

The dragon responded with only a huff as Celestine looked down to the fox once more to speak again. ”Hello. I’m… Busy, I suppose. Who are you, exactly? There are no foxes within my realm that I know of.”

"Well you sort of answered yourself with that qualifier. I'm a fox you don't know of - but I'm also Illyd Dyll among other names." The fox paused. "How you?"

Celestine raised an eyebrow at the name given. She recognized it from not too long ago… The great hall. Where Cadien had given his speech and Celestine had hoped to calm the mortals by heeding their desire to be free of divine rule… That had obviously not worked out like she had planned and things had gone really rather sour. Blinking, she answered the fox again. ”Ah. I believe I remember you. From fairly recently at the great hall. Greetings Illyd. I would curtsey but… You reside upon my feet and it would be rude of me to shoo you away from where you are. Did you have something that you wished to discuss?”

"One might say I'm stepping on your toes." Illyd snickered.. This caused Celestine to tilt her head at the fox and pose a question about what motives they might’ve had. ”And why might you be doing such a thing, if I might ask? Do you gain some benefit from pinning me to this spot? Or are you merely playing a game of some sort?”

"Oh do you like games?" Illyd questioned. "Is that why you play with mortals so often?"

Celestine narrowed her eyes slightly, but shook her head. ”I enjoy tournaments, and other honorable combat exercises. But I don’t enjoy all games. I interact with mortals because that is my purpose. To me, knighting people is as natural as breathing is to mortals. Why do you ask?”

"Not all mortals breathe," Illyd corrected.

Celestine blinked. Now she was growing frustrated by Illyd’s presence. He was toying with how she spoke and in all honesty she didn’t really appreciate that. However, she kept her tone of voice calm as she spoke. ”I suppose that is fair. But still, the point stands. It is something that comes natural to me. Do you take issue with it?”

"No," Illyd hopped off of Celestine and began to ponder around aimlessly. After a sudden sniff, Illyd paused and looked back at Celestine. "Well come on then..." He started to prance away, "Follow the fox."

Celestine raised an eyebrow once again as Illyd began to hop away. What an odd god… But she knew what he was getting at. Cadien had said he wanted to talk, and yet here she was talking to a dragon and a fox. There was a conversation to be had elsewhere, and Celestine looked up to Grigori once more. ”I’m going to be leaving the realm for a time. I don’t know for sure how long it will be. Would you kindly ensure that things run smoothly while I’m away?”

Another huff came, and then a nod. Celestine smiled at the dragon before speaking once more. ”Thank you. I appreciate it.”

With that, Celestine turned and began to follow Illyd.




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