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Commodore Condor

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A small conversation.





Going to another’s realm was always a useful option, especially when one had need to talk directly. Besides the information one could divine from the nature and status of things in their realm itself. Of course such things were not entirely without risk. One put themselves at risk to encounter another deity in their own field of complete control and power.

Thaa however did not worry much, a short and curt message. ”I will be visiting shortly.” He did not worry about such things for this one, or rather he did and had his own set of assurances that his work would not be impeded regardless of the happenings here. Celestine was not an object of great worry for Thaa, although he did have his matters to discuss. He entered through her portal even now to enter her realm. Keeping a broad mix of only a few thousand corpses and his Golden Disk and Eye.

Shortly after she received the message from Thaa Celestine would rise from the throne overlooking The Longhall and send a divine message out to the Virtus Elves and Death Dragons that inhabited her realm. The contents of this message were simple: ”There will be another god visiting. I trust them well, so you will all most likely be safe from harm. Best behaviour please.

With this message sent Celestine would walk briskly to the approaching path of her castle where visiting gods would be placed upon their arrival. It was here that she waited for Thaa to arrive, and when he did she would curtsey in greeting, as was typical of Celestine. When Thaa first arrived the first thing he would probably notice would be the sky being filled with a few dozen Death Dragons conducting their business as they saw fit. The next thing would likely be the massive castle that The Bulwark had been transformed into and the large city surrounding it. It was roughly around noon within Celestine’s realm, so the castle and surrounding city were almost radiant in appearance.

The two Death Dragons closest to where Thaa would manifest would be a pair of juveniles that were playing together. They pushed at one another and wrestled a bit before taking off into the sky to see who could beat the other in a race. Then they both dived down towards a few idling cows and took a moment to eat and chat. A few minutes later they would race into the sky again, resuming their play.

Rising from her curtsey Celestine would speak with a soft smile upon her face. ”Greetings, friend. What brings you to my realm? Did you have a desire to check in with the dragons that you sent over? Or was there something you wished to speak about?”

Stepping to the side and raising a hand towards The Bulwark and surrounding city, Celestine would speak again as a thought came to mind. ”Or perhaps you wished to see how our first arrangement goes? I’ll be happy to give you a tour of anything you wish to see, all you must do is ask.”

With that said Celestine would drop her arm to a neutral position and wait for Thaa to speak.

As the Goddess had spoken the great eye of Thaa drifted around his form gazing in the multitude of directions that presented themselves to him. He spoke finally a few seconds after she had stopped, his eye settling directly upon her once more as the mound of corpses that was his body took a more bipedal form. "We have much to discuss. Beginning with a tour of all things sounds like a wise proposition."

"I see there is a great deal of mimicry of the lands and places one might find on Galbar, although built to a grander scale than the mortals have accomplished on their own in most places to be sure." His form began to slow walk forward as he spoke, clearly intending to speak while walking with the Goddess.

Celestine gave a few nods as she turned to walk slightly ahead of the now bipedal form that Thaa took on. The immense size of it made traversing beside such a form less practical due to the possible margin of error of Thaa’s movement. As they walked, Celestine would pose a question so that she could better arrange the tour that she was giving. ”So, what exactly did you wish to speak on? And beyond that, did you have anywhere in particular that you wanted to see first? I could show you the city around The Bulwark, or The Bulwark itself? Or perhaps you would like to check in with the dragons and see how they’re doing? Of course, if you’ve another idea feel free to share and I’ll see what can be done.”

As they walked, Thaa would see the massive protective wall surrounding the town coming into view well before Celestine did due to his immense height, though it would be notable that Thaa could not quite see over the top of the wall, as it was roughly sixty meters tall to better shield the town behind it from the flying difficulties of developing dragons.

”The City, the dragons, Bulwark, all of these things I would examine. We have much to discuss and principally of Galbar, you have taken keen interest in affairs. You worry about the well being of mortals, it is commendable for one so young. You outstrip many of your peers in that regard, but there are some manners of wisdom and control that come with the perspective of time. It is my desire that your empathy develops along with your wisdom and perspective, to make full use of your potential.”

Thaa paused briefly in his speech, he kept walking as his eye glided along the surface of his corpse-body, gazing upon Celestine directly. ”What manner of things live here? What creations take care of any in your city?”

Celestine gave a few more nods at Thaa’s observations before she began to answer some of the more immediate questions that Thaa posed while walking with him towards the front gate of the city. ”My Virtus Elves live here, as do the dragons which pledged themselves to my cause. They form a fair sort of harmony and I’ve been taking steps to try and enable them to further coexist, like giving the Virtus the ability to leap great heights and survive great falls. That way a dragon does not have to land every time a Virtus that they’re interacting with wishes to descend to the ground or ascend to their back. Something else I’ve been thinking of trying to do would be to grant them the ability to communicate with one another mentally, but I worry about erasing their individuality if I tie all of their minds together. It’s a complicated issue that I don’t readily have figured out yet. As for what takes care of the people in my city, that is my job. The Virtus are largely self-sufficient, but any need that they come to me with I do my best to see answered. Though I am doing my best to prepare them for the hardships that Galbar will provide.”

As they now approached the front gate Celestine lifted a hand towards the Virtus Elves that were manning the gate and signaled for them to open it. Mere moments later the gate was pulled wide and the two were allowed to pass. A fair number of the Virtus that were manning the gate or otherwise stationed along the wall raised a hand in greeting towards Celestine and Thaa in an effort to be polite. Unfortunately for Thaa, the gate was a fair amount smaller than his current form and only stood at roughly fifteen meters tall. The gate had never really been considered as anything bigger than the gate also had a pair of convenient wings to access the entire realm with. Pausing before the gate, Celestine would look back and forth between the gate and Thaa before apologizing. “My apologies, the front gate of the city was never designed to allow for such a large being like your current manifestation through. I could take a moment to modify the gate to accommodate, or if you prefer I could walk with you to the rear of the castle wall? I left a large gap in the wall there to allow the dragons to have easy access in and out. Whatever would be your preference.”

Thaa gave a simple enough reply by collapsing the corpse-biped to the ground of its composite corpses in a mound which proceeded to creep along towards the gate, much lower in height. ”No need for such, we shall proceed.”

”What plans are you so certain to proceed with that you invest in your Elves to send to Galbar?”

Celestine raised an eyebrow at the sudden collapse of Thaa’s chosen form. Having a form so malleable was unfamiliar to her as her own form was overwhelmingly static and didn’t change shape much. But it did seem to solve the problem of the gate not being large enough. As Thaa asked what plans she had in motion there was a notable but slight delay before she began to speak. ”I will be deploying a portion of them soon, but I’ll be recalling them when the situation they’re being deployed for is resolved. Once that’s done I plan on interviewing them and learning what issues they encounter with being upon Galbar, and from that knowledge I’ll either grant more boons or more knowledge to them. Beyond that, I have a few more things that need to be arranged before they’re given a more permanent presence upon Galbar.”

As they moved through the gate Thaa would see that there was a small buffer of empty space between the wall and the city that it was protecting, and beyond that was a beautiful city constructed mainly of white brick houses with blue tiled rooftops. Webbed throughout the city were smooth cobblestone roads that linked every structure together and ensured that none who were traveling had to walk through fields of mud should the weather turn to rain. Within the town square lay the shrine to The Akashic Gate, which was currently closed and displayed the overlapping symbols of Celestine and Àicheil in full.

From six places in the city rose notable pillars of smoke, and due to Celestine’s lack of alarm it was obvious that she was unconcerned about them. Looking to Thaa and raising a hand to the city that lay beyond the protective wall, Celestine asked a simple question to better structure the tour. ”What would you like to see first?”

Thaa gave no easy reply to the answer to his question, instead waiting and responding at last when she had finished, his eye roamed both his form and in gaze all around, occasionally switching back to the Goddess. It lingered on the Akashic Gate for a moment. Thaa spoke, "I wish to see more of this city and the elves that do inhabit it."

Celestine gave a few nods, though found herself a bit puzzled with what exactly to show Thaa first, figuring that it might be best to slay two birds with one stone she opted to show him the nearest smithy and hoped that she would reveal both one aspect of her plans and allow Thaa to observe her elves at work. Raising a hand towards the nearest plume of smoke Celestine spoke once more to vocalize her decision. ”Very well. If you would kindly follow me this way I will show you what some of my elves are working on in preparation for their upcoming deployment to Galbar. I’ve been meaning to check in with how things have been coming along as well.”

With that said, Celestine would guide Thaa along through the city to the closest smithy. They passed a handful of Virtus who were carrying out their daily tasks, each dressed in plain outfits of green, brown, and white cotton and wool. Celestine took a moment to pause in her guidance as Thaa observed the elves for a time, but was able to resume leading him before too long passed. When they arrived at the smithy it had a notable amount of space between itself and the surrounding buildings, and beyond that the elves that worked inside wore thick leather aprons and gloves alongside their regular outfits of wool and cotton. Raising a hand and nodding her head in greeting, Celestine looked to Thaa once more before raising a hand towards the smithy and speaking. ”This is one of the six smithies I have placed around my realm. Teams of elves come and go to produce arms and armor for their upcoming deployment. Do you have anything in particular you would like to witness while we are here?”

Thaa spoke with out much delay, What metals are they working in here? This deployment is certainly going to be interesting as a solution and more than likely cause a few problems in its own right, but we shall see which is greater in the end, the current path or the diverged one. You may get more attention from other divines as well..."

Thaa seemed focused on the Elves themselves as he drifted off in some manner of thought after his little burst of speech.

Celestine gave a few nods before taking a moment to whistle sharply and approach the smithy. She exchanged a few words with one of the elves inside before they stepped away to retrieve something. It was a few moments before they returned with one of the swords they had made and offered it to Celestine. Taking it with a thanks, Celestine stepped back outside to Thaa before holding it aloft with both hands and speaking. ”They work with what I’ve come to know as steel. My own armor and sword are made out of roughly the same material, and so I felt it only right to give such a metal to my children. I do have aims to try and grant them more exotic metals in the future, but this one came to mind earnestly and is more than enough for the current deployment awaiting them. Do you think the other divines will take much issue with it?”

Thaa examined first the Elf stepping forward then the sword carried, his eye large in its own right barely shifted. "Iron and other base materials..."

"No, I don't think there will be much alarm among the divines of this metal in particular. I could see some having issue, or a desire to force their own pet projects into copying if they can recognize some logistical natures. I would worry more about the deployment itself for the deities therein. Many grow attached to certain locals and their peoples, they like the way of doing things each giving their own little boost to make sure their group dominates others. Most dislike more direct intervention, especially should it disrupt their plans."


Celestine gave a few more nods, though these held a distinct weight of understanding an intricate problem rather than just acknowledging that he had spoken. Before replying, she took a moment to return to the smithy and return the sword to the elves working there. Returning once more to Thaa she would hold a hand up towards The Bulwark before speaking. ”I’ve considered that heavily. Perhaps it would be best if we moved to The Bulwark? I can better illustrate the full details of my plan from there, and it will allow me to summon some Dragons should you wish to check up on them afterward.”

"This is acceptable, lead the way."

Celestine nodded once again before setting off through the streets of the city. This time it was approximately thirty or thirty five minutes before the two would arrive at The Bulwark. Once they were within the courtyard Celestine paused and made a mental note that it would likely be a good idea to arrange a sort of meeting room at a later point in time, especially given that her castle would likely be too cramped for Thaa’s form to easily move around in, even when not condensed into a bipedal form. The courtyard would have to do for now.

Raising a hand and tracing a circle in the air, Celestine willed into existence a small recreation of Galbar. Most of it was undetailed, but Toraan was replicated quite well. It grew to dominate the sphere as Celestine focused upon it, and now she raised a finger to point to The Anchor mountain before speaking. ”This mountain here is the foundation of my plan. I believe it is known as ‘The Anchor’. The key that I am noticing there is that it is relatively central to Toraan. This is where I have plans to place a mighty tower-fortress known as The Crystal Spire. It will be both a home and a base of operations for my Virtus elves and the dragons you have entrusted to me.”

It was here The Anchor would shift into possessing a massive tower-fortress, and lines pointing to the major corners of Toraan would project from the tip of this tower. Once that was done, Celestine would resume speaking. ”With their placement I will do my best to contact all of the mortals in the region with a message: Aggression shall be punished and stamped out. That is what I have aligned myself to do in an effort to break the cycle of war and violence in the area: Stop all aggression before it starts, and hopefully all that will be left is peace. Of course, I also aim to include an area for tournaments within The Crystal Spire, which will hopefully be enough for those who cannot contain their bloodlust to exercise themselves. Though now that I think about it again I will have to see about some sort of curse protection charms considering what happened at the one other tournament has taken place.”

Turning to Thaa, Celestine would pose a question. ”Well. There you have it. That is the general summary of what I plan on doing. What are your thoughts? And please, do not be afraid of offending me with truth. It is my preference that flaws and imperfections be revealed sooner rather than later.”

Thaa watched the changes in silence before finally speaking a number of long seconds after she had finished, his eye not moving from the projection. "What is 'aggression'? What is 'violence'? The Westfold as you know is predominantly controlled by humans, there are some trolls in hiding and a few settlements of the Merelli, but humans dominate. If they all disobey your edict will you wage war to bring them into submission? If trolls pledge to be at peace with humans and others alike, would you protect them? Or would you allow the unspoken war between man and trolls continue in a realm of 'peace'?"

He began to move and shift his form around the courtyard, his many corpses marching and crawling as a great crowd, slowly encircling the sphere and Celestine. Humans, Trolls, Reshut, Goblins, Nelves, and others seen and unseen on Galbar made up these corpses, their dull eyes staring in space or sometimes seeming to glance across the sphere of the world or the Goddess, "Is it violent to kill your own people? Kill those who think differently than you do, those who won't obey a tyrant? If their neighbors do nothing and watch and none can stop the depredations from within, will you watch? Will you act? Where is the line drawn? If there is a drought, or a flood, a people are starving and another eeks by, do you punish the hungry? Do you watch them starve?"

His eye moved with the great mass of his body, until he had made a circle in entirety. The great disk began to slide back along his great mound of corpses back to a position near the Goddess, "If you seek to control your Elves through ideals and knowledge, those will change as they must and want on Galbar, through force you make yourself Queen although distant. Will your Elves and their Dragon companions stay strong in their will? Should they have power to control the Westfold, they would have power to rule it. Even if you forbid them, what if in a hundred or three hundred years they decide it is better to do away with the pretense that all would not bend to their wills?"

Thaa turned his eye onto Celestine finally as his eye came to a rest, "I need not answers to all such questions, there are many more I can ask. You need those answers from yourself, from what your Elves are willing and able to do. Know the limits of what you can, and what you will do, long before you need to make a choice and action. Ensuring peace of a land has been the domain of rulers, you may become one, or create one, if this does be the path you intend to tread."

Celestine remained silent for a few moments after Thaa finished speaking. Then a few moments more as she took a few moments to study the corpses that surrounded them. When she finally spoke, the tone of her voice had changed slightly to one of contemplation and doubt. ”Your points are fair and just. To give my thoughts in the same order as you gave your questions: When I speak of stopping violence I speak of stopping the widespread warring that has been taking place. I cannot hope to stop every act of murder or assassination as I would have to be essentially everywhere at once, but if I can stop hundreds or thousands of innocent people from dying because of warfare and its aftereffects then I would think my mission successful. If all in the land sought to disobey such an edict I would likely see to it that a group of death dragons landed around their forward military camps at night and offer them one final chance to turn to home. If they declined… Well, balefire would be the response. If the trolls agreed to a peace with the humans and are later attacked, I would come to their defense. Likewise, if the trolls agree to a peace and then attack, I would come to the defense of whomever was on the receiving end of their assault. When I say peace for all I do truly mean peace for all.”

Pausing for a moment, Celestine gathered her thoughts and then continued to speak. ”If a nation turns to civil war I might try to send an envoy to cause a cessation of hostilities and a negotiation to separate. The issue of tyrants is a peculiar one, as I do not have a clear answer for it. Perhaps if my people are asked to intervene I might see about it, but I would hesitate to respond with dragons, as I feel like such an issue would require a more delicate touch. If there happens to be starvation and famine then I might see about bringing food to those affected and help them to become self-sufficient once more.”

Celestine paused once again as she was left with questions that were incredibly difficult to answer. In a surprising move, Celestine took a deep breath and let out a long sigh. Much like mortals did when they faced such difficult considerations. Then Celestine spoke carefully so that she didn’t say something she would come to regret. ”If I leave my avatar to reside at The Crystal Spire and assist with governing, I can likely slow the divergence of elves and dragons from the original ideals that I sent them with, but you are right in that such a divergence is likely inevitable. I cannot and will not try and shackle their ability to think freely to my will. As before, as now: I would have to use my words and promises alone to maintain the integrity of such a grand design. It is inevitable that some will leave to found their own towns or cities, or some will leave to wander. I cannot prevent them from expressing alternate desires, lest I myself slip into the trappings of being a tyrant. It is my greatest hope that I will never need to see Virtus Elf turn against Virtus Elf… But should that day come I will weep. If they desire a land of their own to rule over, I will use my divine ability to forge one for them in the hopes that they don’t seek to take the land of others. And, truly, that might have to be the stance I take for all people upon Toraan. Perhaps the land as it is has simply grown too small and too famished for people to coexist? I would hope not, but if peace requires that I expand upon the landmasses that exist upon Galbar then I will if I must. Though I will likely need to seek the assistance of other deities should I find my reserves of divine power lacking.”

Finishing her train of thought, Celestine looked to the map once more. Then to the corpses surrounding her. Then to the eye of Thaa. It was now that she delivered one final thought. ”Does this satisfy, Thaa? If you take issue with anything then please voice it. I will be happy to improve my ideals should they be lacking.”

"Having good answers is difficult, but nonetheless important. We both have our differences and I will not deny you your thoughts, however I will say a few things that my experience and knowledge may assist with. Firstly, there is plenty of land to use, even more so no doubt as technology and experience improves. I remember when the grandest populations of mortals sustained were in the hundreds in a small local, hunting and foraging long before they discovered the tilling of fields or domain over animals. With stone, then metal, the amount of food they could grow, the lands they could use improved. No doubt they shall find some new such way when means and times allow, bronze really has spiked their numbers greatly I must admit across much of Galbar."

Thaa took a moment to turn towards the display, "In truth, I believe your plans would likely transform the Westfold from soldiering to assassins as their hatreds grew from the unresolved feuds. From the evils of Ha-Dûna to the brutality and mercy of the Celeviaks, down to the people of Kirin's Rest. Perhaps that would be easier on the people themselves, but all the more likely to boil over should your intervention ever cease or be delayed. Ultimately, it is worthy to try in any case to reduce the suffering that abounds, I have sponsored other experiments as well so I will watch most eagerly. You may succeed in reducing suffering, even if I do not think you will be well liked, although I have never been greatly popular myself..."

His eye turned back onto the Goddess, "They may turn to plagues and poisons, divine aid and retribution from other gods they might corral to their whims, such is common enough. Wars have always been common, you might find a way to cease them perhaps, I have no doubt mortals will find means and measures to test your patience, your resolve and your will to continue your peace. I hope your will is strong and not brittle to the stresses of the task you set before yourself."

Celestine gave a few nods as Thaa spoke. His revelation that there was more than enough land to go around for the mortals was helpful in the sense that she could figure out the limits of what she should do better, but it was also disheartening to learn that there was plenty of land and yet wars were being waged to take the land from others. Such a lack of harmony was concerning, and perhaps that would be something else to strive towards once the current project was done.

When he mentioned the catastrophe that would likely result from a delay or cessation of interventions, Celestine couldn’t help but nod again and respond once he had finished speaking. ”That is something that concerns me. One possible solution that I’ve been considering is setting up multiple smaller towers to serve as outposts for a swift response force while the main tower serves to hold the bulk of their forces, but I think that such an idea will have to remain on hold until I have the main tower completed first. I suspect that there will be many hidden challenges that make themselves known when I put the main events of this plan into motion, and I hesitate to fatten my designs with additional ideas before those possible challenges are answered.”

Returning her thoughts to how Thaa had mentioned his lack of popularity and the trials that her plans would undertake Celestine raised a finger to her chin. If her plans were to make her equally unpopular then perhaps that would simply be the price to pay? It disheartened her that trying to do what felt right would cause her to become unpopular, but it would take far more than just unpopularity with the other deities to cause her to give pause. Such unpopularity might also prove useful in revealing the hidden agendas that Thaa had previously warned her of in their first meeting.

The idea of such truths being brought to light served to affirm the idea that what she was doing was a fair idea. Looking to Thaa, she figured to ask after something that might prove troublesome. ”Please excuse my curiosity, but I must wonder: You said that your designs have made you somewhat unpopular. Would you kindly elaborate with who, or how? Of course, if you would rather not elaborate I entirely understand and will rescind the question immediately.”

Now all Celestine could do was wait for Thaa to reply. And reply he did, ”I am the Lord of Death, few appreciate my work or know truly the results of it on the mortal plane of Galbar. I have no doubt that my actions have displeased other deities as well given their broad designs to disrupt plans set in motion as asked by the mortals that did request my aid and so want it. “

”Life does not take kindly to death, it has been built and made to find a kind of repulsion in it. Even as I seek only to reduce suffering, I fear most that the creation of life was never in the interest in a moral order or a lack of suffering but much the opposite.”

Celestine would raise a finger to her chin as Thaa spoke. Comparing what he said to her own plans she found that he made quite a good point for why he might not be popular. Her plans had lacked vision of what their ends might look like, and that might’ve cost her immensely. She would need to think about such details when she had the free time. Celestine took a moment to stop thinking of death as being something exclusive to just mortal beings. Could an idea die? Could a culture die? Did less physical things like ideas and cultures ever truly die in the same way as mortals or were they immortal in the sense that some part of them could possibly be adopted and carried forward by someone else?

It was a difficult thing to think about, but as she thought about it she gained a newfound respect for Thaa, and came to understand his importance in the pantheon of deities that had emerged: He was a reminder that things with beginnings typically had endings, and even beyond that Celestine could reasonably see Thaa as being a sort of divine clean-up crew for errant projects that had overstayed their welcome.

And with that understanding, she understood why he wasn’t popular.

Lowering her finger from her chin, Celestine nodded a few times before speaking. ”I think I understand, having contemplated a few things. Though in this contemplation I have been reminded that there is something that I would wish to ask after. Do you know of Boudicca of Ha-Dûna? She is one of my knights, and I have made a request of her to stay with me in my realm as an advisor after the end of her life upon Galbar. As I made this request she lamented that she would miss her family while accepting it. I would thus like to discuss the possibility of securing their souls to journey to my realm after their own deaths so that she can be with her family. Would that be something that you could arrange? Of course, if there is a cost you wish to request for this service I will gladly hear it.”

With her question posed, Celestine could only wait and see what Thaa would propose.

”I am very much aware of the one named Boudicca. I could easily arrange such an occurrence, I have two conditions one of the souls and one on your own being. The souls must be allowed to choose whether they go to leave Paradise and their ancestors and friends there to go with your Knights.”

“As for the condition on you, I would request you use your extant influence on Boudicca and Ha-Dûna to end the immoralities so prevalent there under her command.”


Thaa’s great eye lazily shifted along the ring of bodies he had made.

Celestine nodded a few times as Thaa spoke. The condition he placed upon her was easy enough to agree to, Celestine would not want to enforce her will upon someone so thoroughly. But the second request was more complicated. Especially since it did involve trying to actively influence someone in ways that might complicate the friendship between the two.

However, it would have to be done. Celestine knew that Thaa had already gifted her with many things without much of a cost, and she did not want to test this generosity too thoroughly. Speaking up, Celestine sought details about what exactly he would want curtailed. ”Immoralities? If you would be so kind to elaborate in detail about what you mean then I can certainly attempt to see such things done. I would also request that if these details come in the form of memories from a soul within your care, could you possibly make some form of copy of them so that I could show Boudicca herself? I can pass whatever medium you place them into onto my Avatar and then show Boudicca when I next see her.”

An orb appeared in the hands of a corpse of an unknown humanoid being nearby Celestine as Thaa’s eye drifted.

”Cold blooded torture of an innocent on conjecture is one. I worry you rely too much on Boudicca herself but perhaps my methods are at fault for my own lack of influence. Another is the increases in control and policing to the Dûnan will. Finally is the matter of denial of crimes, adventurism and the own growing tyranny of Ha-Dûna.”

“You may wish to prepare yourself before you view those memories…”

Celestine’s eyes narrowed slightly. Were secrets being kept from her? If they were, this was immensely displeasing and she would need to chide Boudicca on such practices. If they were not, Boudicca had another problem to manage, which would likely not bode well. Neither option was pleasant in the slightest, but now Celestine was too involved to merely back away. Looking to the orb that appeared in the hands of the unknown humanoid corpse. Celestine nodded grimly before speaking. ”I am ready, and will endure. Show me what has happened in Ha-Dûna.”

The orb was tossed gently to Celestine’s grasp. As soon as it was touched, the memory flooded, a rapid pace from that orb. Memories of a girl named Ciara, brief snippets of a life, arriving in Ha-Dûna, optimism and hope, distrust, betrayal. Accused of crime not commit and tortured beyond even the captors assurance of innocence.

Thaa’s words echoed out softly as the last faded memories to death, a hundred voices, ”The Dûnan’s manage to find more of the worst quite quickly. One would think a people so tortured by the past of Ketrefan atrocity would not be so quick to create a new legacy of atrocity all their own. Perhaps that is precisely why...”

Celestine caught the orb gracefully and closed her eyes as the flood of memories hit her. As the memories were played out, Celestine’s expression hardened. When it was done, there was little more than a thin mask of calmness to hide the anger that boiled in her mind. Opening her eyes slowly, Celestine lowered her hand. Nodding grimly, Celestine spoke softly. Her voice was barely above a whisper at this point, for any louder and she would find herself caught between screaming and crying. ”I see now why you desire this. Very well. Thy will be done. Justice shall come in one form or another.”

Celestine hefted the orb once more, looking at it with pained eyes. Then she lifted her hand towards the back of her head and pulled at her hood. Setting the orb into it, Celestine tucked the hood into the back of her breastplate for security. It would have to remain there for now until she found a better place to put it, or was otherwise finished with it. At that time she might just return it to Thaa in order to be rid of the weight that it placed upon her mind. These memories held a double pain for Celestine, for within them she also saw that fateful day once again. The day where a tournament had been defiled. The day where her good intentions had met their first true insult.

Celestine despised that day. What made matters worse was that the events of it were not yet fully corrected, and she had failed in her attempts to find the culprit. It was a humiliating time for her. To be reminded of it was something that she abhorred, but it was something necessary: Until the culprits were punished and the cursed given peace those events would be a splinter in her mind.

Emulating mortals once again Celestine took a deep breath into lungs that did not technically exist. Exhaling slowly she looked back towards Thaa to ask a simple but somewhat blunt question. ”Is that all you wished to see and discuss, Thaa? Or was there more that you wished to see or discuss?”

Thaa began to uncoil around the chamber, saying simply, ”The quarters for the Dragons.”

Celestine nodded before speaking as simply as Thaa did. ”Of course. This way, please.” She would then lead Thaa out of the castle courtyard before taking a side path that eventually led to a staircase that would bring them atop the wall surrounding the city. From here Celestine would walk to where the exterior curtain of the wall began to bend protectively around the town before lifting a hand towards the hundreds of individually customized homes for the Death Dragons. It was now that she would speak once more. ”Each dragon has their own home, made to their own tastes. When they want changes they call out to me, and I adjust things until they are satisfied. Do you wish to see any of them up close, or would you rather ask the dragons themselves?”

”No, I am quite satisfied as it does happen to see this. These seem to be adequate enough, divine prayers would likely have warned should there be any issue from you outright given they are evidently still extant and capable.”

Thaa’s form had snaked down to follow. ”I would also offer, should you require a locale or some assistance on Galbar, a number of assets that I still have as current under my control on Galbar. Certain things under my control that could be useful to your designs in the westfold region, lending a little more weight to your concerns in any matter.”

“You are young yet Celestine, while I may ask my price, the accumulated power of me or my fellow elder divines may be useful to your own acts I have no doubt.”


At the mention of having assets under his control in the area, Celestine couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. That was something quite surprising to her, as she had believed that Thaa wouldn’t have too many things physically located upon Galbar in order to not interfere too much. But then again she wasn’t aware of all the prior activities of the gods and so this could just be something new to learn.

Turning to face Thaa Celestine inquired after what exactly Thaa had under his control so that she could better shape her own plans. ”A number of assets under your control? Would you kindly be able to elaborate as to what exactly you have active? Even if I do not request the usage of such assets I wouldn’t want to have a plan of mine knowingly interfere with a plan that you’ve got going already.”

”Its quite simple of course, most remain left over from when I walked on Galbar, a flying temple and some artifacts to ensure tranquility in a small area. Most under the command of my Avatar.”

“I don’t have much plans of the region myself anymore, however there is a Dragon in the region, she is leading a group of people to safety further out of harms way. We don’t agree on everything but she was moral enough and wished to attempt to make a change after gaining some perspective.”


Thaa’s great eye matched Celestine’s gaze moving along his form to face her. ”There are a number of servants and beings I could induce action upon that could be brought to the region, although they are few enough as you would imagine...”

Celestine raised another eyebrow at Thaa’s mention of being able to walk upon Galbar before speaking. ”You were able to walk upon Galbar? I’m rather impressed. I had thought that the gods were always disbarred from bringing our full might onto the surface of the planet, hence the need for avatars? Was this not always the case?”

Turning her mind to the other things that Thaa mentioned, Celestine decided that it would be best to press him for details so that she could better shape her plans. Out of all of them, the dragon he mentioned was the most interesting. If she could recruit her to assist in educating the dragons she would send to The Crystal Spire on the ways of Galbar then there would possibly be a lot less headache and complication from a dragon not understanding some of the unspoken rules that the mortals had. ”The dragon that you mentioned, where is she? Do you think she would be amicable to the idea of aiding the dragons that I will send to Galbar to reside at The Crystal Spire? I would imagine that she would have valuable experiences to share that the others could learn from.”

”There was a time when the world was new and the first gods were born of the primordial elements, land and sea, heat and cold, sun and moon, life and death. In these times before the first mortal peoples the lands and seas were made physics and laws of order, magic, and chaos were added to the world. Realms were no such consideration as each god acted directly in their full power on Galbar. The lifeblood was active then too, a much greater creative force than it seems to enact currently.”

“However, soon enough as the gods enacted ever greater powers on the world, the lifeblood cast us out, the realms our bubbles of power so far away from the centrality of Galbar and all the work we had done, all the good and evils set in motion. The lifeblood wanted, as much as such a thing could want, to keep us out, to force our way back in full power only threatened to destroy the surface of Galbar with the contest of will with the lifeblood. Not to mention the grave danger of defying something so powerful.”

“Two thousand years passed on Galbar, and then antiquity formed, connecting our realms and with the discovery of avatars we were capable to directly interact once more. I had busier myself with caring for the dead. Few or none talked as I know in time, a number of deities seemed to abandon their duties, Oraelia was not heard by any of the souls I had collected in that time I recall as example.”

“With antiquity and avatars came a new period of interaction, things once set in motion could begin again and new efforts undertaken. For example this is how Ha-Dûna first grew strong, it was empowered beyond any other Druidic locale by the might of deities I would not agree to their overall benevolence. In any case, when the full might of a god was in the primordial days we were so much more capable than the mere fragments we send down now. I personally built the Hreelcii isles in a matter of side project hoping to create a better land, moral and righteous and safe. Such things have been abandoned in part with the long absence I have to say, so much less power we have now. Even if we still can shape the course of mortal civilization.”


Thaa turned his great eye away from the goddess as he continued, ”It is possible that she might be of some help, that is her decision. She is a powerful champion of my will yes but I agreed to empower her so that she may attempt to follow her ideas and ideals. She has much more hope and feels it is possible to reform and improve much with good wisdom and a strong hand such as hers. A ruler, something I do not necessarily see yet but I agreed to let her try. Perhaps she might help you in exchange for her own plans to be assisted.”

”You will find her in the westfold, search on the East along the mountains, she leads her followers south to a promised land.”

Celestine gave a few nods to the history lesson, but didn’t have too much that she could really say about it. It was a curious time, and there was no doubt that she would’ve enjoyed being present upon the surface of Galbar with the others, but that time had passed and contemplating about something which could never be was a dangerous pastime. Making some mental notes on where to look as Thaa described the whereabouts of the dragon that was active Celestine reminded herself of the need to convince the dragon with words and promises only. Though this did pose an interesting question about the dragon that she had forgotten to ask before. Seeing as it would be quite helpful to the effort of convincing the dragon to offer assistance, Celestine asked after a small but critical detail. ”I see. What is this dragon’s name? I would wish to call her by a name that only you might know, to show that I am a friend of yours and not just someone attempting to exert my will over her mind or put threats towards the people under her care.”

”Her name is Aen’drannan, but you would get well along with the epithet ‘the curious one’.”

“Although, I do have to make one request to satisfy my curiosity in the matter of the Dûnans”.


As Thaa had turned away to gaze towards whatever he wished to gaze toward, Celestine had turned to look over her realm as a whole. She watched as a pair of more mature dragons engaged in a bout of play in midair. Pushing against one another briefly before racing off towards the more mountainous biomes of her realm to engage in a race of sharp twists and turns. Nodding at the mention of the name Aen’drannan Celestine made a few mental notes on how to approach that possible conversation and set them aside for later. She raised an eyebrow at the question that Thaa wished to pose. Pulling her eyes from her realm and turning to face Thaa once more, Celestine would give an eager nod before speaking. ”Of course Thaa. I will answer to the best of my ability. Please, ask away.”

Thaa’s great eye shifted again to look at another far corner as he spoke again. ”When you react in your investigation of the Dûnans, I would like to know if you can ascertain why Ciara was the one so chosen for their depredations. Whether it was her unusual openness to them or just happenstance that she was captured to be so tortured and blamed by them.”

“She cared for them greatly as a people I know, and Boudicca herself was much beloved, I’m sure you got a sense of that from the brief amount seen in the memories I shared. The sneaking away to visit Ha-Dûna in her teen years, her eventual apprenticeship to Darragh, her hopes of peace and growth for the Dûnans and the Cenél.”

“It made her not suspect that they would or could turn upon her, something that no doubt left her vulnerable in a way Darragh was not in his apparent fleeing the town. Dûnans began their first conquests under false pretenses of murder of a Dûnan by foreign raiders. Staged by Dûnan leadership they went and slaughtered the people and took their land. The point of such a tale is that to Dûnan leaders the killing of their own has not been an issue, so the torture of Ciara in a mostly unreformed society is no great mystery. What I would ask then is the chance for a scapegoat for war was merely stumbled upon or if this was another planned event. I’m sure you’ll find such answers in the course of your own search so if you would share your findings I would be most grateful. They dead arrive the same and paradise awaits, but to satisfy my curiosity ahead of time would be appreciated.”


Celestine gave a few nods, and began to ponder such a thing herself. Unfortunately, she was able to piece a few things together from the experiences that she’d had already, and was able to answer such a question promptly. Emulating mortals once more, Celestine took a breath before beginning to recount what she knew. ”This traces back to a day I despise. Do you recall the fate of Hilda the Leoness? The day where she was cursed and turned into a demon? On that day Ciara was in the stands of the arena with Darragh, and Darragh’s method of fleeing brought him into suspicion even if he was not the one to commit the original crime. According to The First Knight he slew a guard and wounded another as he fled the city, which made him appear the culprit as there is a lack of understanding of the Cenél arts. Ciara, being Darragh’s apprentice, was captured and placed within the Temple of Truth, and we are both aware of her fate thereafter. I do not think it was intentional malice on the part of the people of Ha-Dûna, at the very least not all of them. I think it was closer to a mistake made in panic and grief, but such a mistake is something that I do not approve of, especially not when it ends in a needless death.”

Pausing for a moment, Celestine clenched her fists tightly as she remembered her failings involving that particular situation. When she spoke again, her usual calmness had become a thin veil that barely hid an anger capable of sundering mountains. ”I have not been able to find out the whole truth of what happened on that day, but if someday I can find out the truth of what happened… It will never happen again.”

Following this, Celestine fell silent. After a few moments she released a slow breath and returned to her usual calm demeanor. Looking back to the horizon and her realm as a whole once more, Celestine used a question to cap off her train of thought. ”Does that satisfy, Thaa?”

”Truth is always difficult, I am perhaps not so content to accord that it was mass will that shaped such an event, their leaders have found deception and trickery of the masses easily enough but I know it not their direct action or not it of Darragh or Ciara.”

“A true tragedy in every case, ironic perhaps in some. The Dûnans turn on the one that would still trust them after all they have wrought before and after their civil war. The cursed one herself a great leader of the Dûnans and now one of their blights. I have a friend I should tell such a tragedy to, they might wish to know of such a tale...”


Thaa’s eye swiveled along his mass to stare at Celestine, he spoke again, ”It shall be enough for now of course, I’m sure if anything notable came up you might comment on it whenever we do come to discuss such a topic again. Tell me, have you meet much of our fellow divines since we last spoke on such a topic?”

Celestine did not inquire after who Thaa might wish to share the tale with, as her anger had already been roused enough that she truthfully wished to cease speaking about it, especially since she would need to speak with Boudicca about such an event in detail while retaining her calm demeanor. As Thaa shifted the conversation to be about the other deities that Celestine had met she nearly let out a sigh of relief. That was a much more palatable topic at the moment and one that she was happy to elaborate on. Looking back to Thaa as he had once again turned to look at her, Celestine would detail her encounters with the other gods quite frankly. ”Shortly before I came to talk with you about the issues that I was struggling with in terms of my desires for neutrality I had a communion with Àicheil and received a gift from them to ensure that my Virtus Elves will not lose knowledge or skills over time. It is a memory library of sorts, and they can use it to experience the memories of others and pick up the skills that they did from them. The large tome that you might’ve seen enshrined within the city is The Akashic Gate. It is the centerpiece of the gift and allows my Virtus to reach their memory library. When I send them out onto Galbar to live within The Crystal Spire I will be sending it with them. After our meeting to discuss neutrality I met with both Cadien and Neiya. In truth I had gone to visit Cadien to discuss tournaments for the souls that come to inhabit our realms, but Neiya arrived afterward and the discussion shifted a bit. It was however a pleasant experience overall.”

Soon after she finished, Celestine was reminded of something that she had thought of at the time and figured that it would be a wise decision to ask it now that she was face to face with the one who could provide the answer. ”Speaking of those tournaments, I had a proposal for an idea as to what to reward the victor of such a tournament, seeing as they would want for nothing in the paradises that Cadien and I offer: Would you be willing to allow a soul to reincarnate unto Galbar? Provided that they choose to do so, of course. I would not want to force reincarnation upon those who simply wish to compete for eternity.”

Thaa spoke in a low voice, almost a murmur, ”That would explain the oddity of those souls, Àicheil...”

He returned to a normal voice, ”I have allowed a race reincarnation before, at a nigh divine request, equal time in life and death. Paradise and... ...Galbar. In exchange for a service provided to me.”

“I will allow these champions of yours to reincarnate among their chosen race, for a price.”


Celestine nodded, but was quick to offer up a counter-proposal seeing as a critical party was missing. ”I understand your wish for a price and I have little qualms about paying it myself, but I think such a discussion would be best had with Cadien present. These tournaments are something that we have both equally contributed to in discussion thus far, and I would not want a decision like this to be made without Cadien being able to provide his own input. Perhaps in some time we may both go to visit him in his realm and resume such a discussion then and there?”

”I see.” a long pause.

He resumed in quick order and tone, ”I suppose we shall have to make a time to talk in some suitable locale.”

”If I may make a comment, you may when you have the time, wish to take a tour of some other notable places on Galbar besides the Westfold. The Kyslar Isles, dead east of the highlands, perhaps a little south. They have an interest warrior culture, as well interesting things happen all over that you might wish to take a look at. Keeping informed is valuable in more than just usefulness to a cause...”

Celestine gave a nod towards the suggestion put forward by Thaa before speaking. ”I have considered doing so once my involvement with the Westfold is finished. In truth I don’t know if I will send my first avatar around Galbar, as it will be needed to manage The Crystal Spire and serve as an extension of my guidance for the Virtus Elves and dragons that I send forth onto Galbar in order to serve as peacekeepers on Toraan. My fondness for the dragons that have rallied themselves to my cause has been an influence upon the next avatar that I have been considering: One made in their image, though most likely not possessing nearly as many abilities as they do, and possibly not quite so large in order to avoid provoking too much panic. But the wings that such a form would provide would be quite useful in traversing the land. Though I do feel as if I should ask: Would you be alright with me emulating the form of something that is so closely tied to you? I would not want to cause confusion and panic.”

Several arms from the mass waved dismissively, he spoke, ”Worry not of it, feel free to do as you will. They are not servants of mine and I make no slaves of my creations.”

Celestine gave a few nods as she made note of Thaa’s answer. Following this, she would pose another question to him in order to clarify what Thaa wished to do next. ”I see. You have my thanks. Beyond this, did you have anything else that you wished to speak about or see? Or do you perhaps feel that you will be departing soon?”

”We both have work to do, I am sure you will be interested in investigating many matters in mortal affairs. I shall depart, we will have further matters to discuss once we have taken our necessary actions and we confer with other such divines, your tournaments and such.”

Thaa’s form began to move from its position before pausing, speaking again, ”Please keep me informed as time permits on your concerns of course. And any developments like you moving forward with your plans for these Elves of yours...”

He began to move away to leave without waiting for a reply to begin such as his large form gradually and carefully shifted down the halls.

Celestine nodded silently as Thaa excused himself. As he began to move Celestine spoke simply, not expecting a reply. ”Farewell, Thaa.”




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Breaking Bread



Year 30AA, early Winter, Ha-Dûna...

Clement du Pierre stood alone in the dark of twilight, dressed in his finest clothes and equipped with a basket of fruits, vegetables and small pots of spices. He wore a magnificent white cloak of wool, treated with felgar oil to make it resistant to the winter elements. His green linen shirt, coloured with the juice of mashed grass, needed help from a wool-reinforced vest of buffalo skin, gifted onto him by a Nubveian friend. His pants were of borak skin: thick, heavy and well-suited for the snows that would be here any day. His boots were expertly cobbled from the skin of bearfish, oddly elastic and soft despite years and years away from the sea. Atop his head, a finely waulked bonnet of goat’s wool imported all the way from the distant land of Cúibarsear, brought to Ha-Dûna through great Fìrinn’s mirror. Somehow, it sat more majestically atop his bronze-haired head than any hat of local wool.

He was alone. He had been escorted here by his cousin and her siblings - brave members of his hildargeach, but he had been asked to come alone, after all, and his word was his chain. He stood before a great door fashioned from wood - a rare sight even in Ha-Dûna. Its frame was carved beautifully with imagery depicting the tale of Jeanix Blanche’s battle of wits against the troll sorceror Mysticka, a favourite around clan Blanche hearths. Clement studied the details of the shining woman’s face and its contrasts to the demonic troll hag’s mug in the scene where Jeanix solves the sorceror’s riddle. He pondered whether he should have his own clan’s myths enshrined in wood in this manner.

The bar on the other side scraped against the inside of the door and it was pulled open, revealing the bald, smiling, mustached face of Charlix of Blanche, who took a bow and drummed his chest in salute. “Clement, my prestigious colleague and friend - welcome to Maiseonne Blanchease.”

Clement returned the gesture and bowed a little lower, though his movements were rougher than his counterpart’s. “Charlix, my fellow mórthéin and brother of different blood - thank you for the invitation.” He tilted his head up to study his host - at first glance, one could make the mistake of assuming that Charlix wore poorer clothing than Clement, dressed as he was in a simple shirt knotted together at the collar, a blue and yellow tartan kilt and long, woolen stockings under a pair of wooden shoes. However, the shirt had a sheen to it unachievable with both wool and linen; the kilt was held up by a belt buckled with gold tied into intricate knots; the stockings were of felgar wool; and the shoes were fashioned from an exotic sort of lumber that few in this area even knew the properties of.

“Please,” said Charlix with a grin. “Come inside. You must be freezing.”



“Oh, no, no,” Clement replied politely and kicked the first snows off the underside of his boots before he stepped inside. The inside of the Blanche tún longhouse, the legendary Maiseonne Blanchease, was a wonder of architecture: Three decades of ceaseless timberwork had resulted in a hall large enough to house twenty people comfortably, kept warm by not one, but two hearths. All along the walls hung colourful carpets and animal pelts; many such also decked the floor. The house was so large that, in addition to the main hall, the two ends of the longhouse were their own separate rooms - to the south, the largest room, the laird kept his animals in the winter, and already, Clement heard the grunts and bleats of curious sheep; to the north, Charlix had built a separate storage for food, which combined with another hearth into its own kitchen, allowing for the main hall to exclusively be used for feasting and, for the guests, sleeping. The host and his family would sleep on a sort of second floor, which had been built above the storage room. Clement marvelled at the structure and passively said, “I’ve been quite fine, but thank you.” He gave the air a sniff. “Oh, what are these smells?”

“Do they draw your interest?” chuckled the host as Clement’s cape was taken by a young lady dressed in a beautiful blue and yellow, tartan-patterned linen dress, topped with a woolen vest around her torso and a kerchief around her neck. She offered the guest a smile and walked off. Clement blinked.

“Was that your Beatrice?”

“Not quite,” answered Charlix and guided him over to a decked long table between the two hearths, full as they were of dancing flames. “It is my Enguerrand’s wife, Aranrhod, though I can see how they resemble one another.”

“Enguerrand’s wife, huh…” mumbled Clement as he placed his hands on the back of one of two chairs, each situated on opposite ends of the long table. The table sported a wooden plate for each of them, a linen cloth, a spoon and gilded drinking holds. The table between them was decked to the brim with bowls of fruit, pots of porridge, plates of meat, baskets of cakes and jugs of drink. Clement swallowed at the sight. “What, uhm, what clan does she hail from, then?”

“Leona,” answered Charlix. “That old vixen Branwen sure knew how to ensnare my boy with her daughter, that she did. She wasn’t cheap on the bridal gifts, either.” He sighed and pulled out his chair to sit down; Clement did the same, though he naturally let the host be seated first. “But alas, as a father who loves his son, who would I be to deny him the love of his life?”

Clement nodded. A young man came over to him with a bowl of ash and a small basin of water. Clement briefly dipped his hands in water, then pinched some ash and rubbed it over his hands before quickly washing it off again. The young man bowed and returned to whence he’d come. As he tried his washed hands on his kerchief, he asked, “I couldn’t agree more, my friend. So, will your son be moving to the Leona tún, then? I seem to recall Aranrhod is the oldest of their flock.”

As the young man returned to pour them drinks, Charlix shook his head. “Nnnno… No, I don’t think so.”

Clement raised a brow and lifted his now-steaming horn, filled three-quarters full of something warm. “Oh? Well, why not? I’ve heard the Leona tún is a most satisfactory estate - I’m certain your son will be blessed to live there together with his wife and children-to-come.”

“Oh, certainly, certainly,” Charlix agreed, “but my Guiscard has said he would be willing to offer him the other house - the one on the hill - should he choose to stay and become hildargeach.”

Clement nearly spilled his drink before he could take a sip. “And Branwen agreed to let her oldest and heir marry into a different clan?!”

A smirk lifted one corner of Charlix’s mouth as he dipped his lips into his drink. “As I said: The bridal gifts were not cheap.”

Clement put down his horn, left fingers catching his forehead ponderously. “Does that mean that their tún will pass unto--”

“Gods, Clement!” scoffed Charlix and chuckled. “Of course not! Do you mean to assume that I am out to unite all of Ha-Dûna under the Blanche? No, no, the estate will pass to little Conall once Old Branwen passes on, I reckon.”

“Conall? Oh! Yes, yes, of course… Right, since last winter…”

“Aye,” Charlix nodded solemnly. “Shame about that cough. Cian would’ve been a worthy second choice after Aranrhod. Alas, the Bone Serpent must have his due, as the Mink say… Try the wine, by the way. It is most exquisite!”

Clement blinked down at his horn and picked it up again, giving the rim a sniff. A warming scent amplified by the rising steam and vapours of alcohol filled his nose with memories of autumn, of wandering aimlessly through berry bushes and sneaking whiffs from the spice boxes of foreign merchants at the market. He gave the drink a sip and felt himself grow light. Such sweetness and fullness had he never before tasted in, well, anything - it was magnificent, a work of culinary art. Affording himself a second, longer sip, he eventually lowered his horn and stared wide-eyed at Charlix. “What in the gods’ names is this?”

“You like it?” snickered the host. “Marvelous - I have been dying to share this cask with someone for ages. This, my friend, is Caefirite grape wine from the Gold Coast - bought it from an Arraki merchant some weeks back. You can tell it was made by artisans using only the finest ingredients.” To illustrate his point, Charlix savoured intently his following sip. Clement, on the other hand, seemed to have fallen off at “grape”, for he had never heard of such a fruit, as he presumed it was. He decided not to pry, though, and sipped his horn again, the flavour forcing him to close his eyes in pleasure.

“Mm… Oh, by the gods, your clan has come a long way since you drank curdled milk and muddy water back in Old Brasforts.”

“Hoho, my friend - we are miles beyond that now. After all, this city is meant to be the Jewel of the North, is it not? The former sanndatr was archaic in her understanding of wealth - what we need is a proper aristocracy, someone with means to invest and develop this land!”

“Hear, hear,” Clement mumbled passively into his horn, eyeing the food hungrily. Charlix followed his gaze and chuckle.

“O-ho! Where are my manners! Please, my friend - eat, eat your fill! Everything on the table is for us, after all.” He helped himself to an oatcake and some stewed meat. Clement blinked.

“A-all of this is for us? Charlix, this could feed a warband.”

Charlix raised a brow at him. “Point being? Come on, eat now.”

Clement furrowed his brow to the point where it fused together into one flat line, but he wasn’t the kind to stare a gift horse in the mouth. He scooped some stewed meats onto his plate, helped himself to some potted carrots, grilled onions and oatcakes. He gently dipped a cake in the stew, topped it with a piece of onion and carrot and took a bite. A million sensations assaulted his tongue simultaneously and he had to block his mouth shut with his fist as his body had almost instinctively assumed such flavours and textures couldn’t be natural. Chewing slowly, he savoured each and every one - the cake had a wholesome warmth and roundness to it, a theatre of flavour compared to the dull ash loafs he ate at home; the meat stew offered salt and umami, followed by a burning sensation that made him reach for his drink; his hand was stopped, however, as the sweetness and acidity of the carrot offered respite; and the onion finished off the experience with the sort of gentle, sugary flavour and jammy texture only hours of cooking could achieve. He struggled to swallow, for his mouth wanted to preserve the flavour for as long as possible. Across the table, he caught Charlix’ smirk. At last, he managed to swallow and said,

“... This, this food…”

“A product of the labour of this world’s many peoples and cultures, my friend,” the man answered with calm and satisfaction. Charlix snapped his fingers and Aranrhod came out into the room again.

“Yes, Father?” she asked politely and bowed.

“Bring the spice box, would you? The mórthéin is curious about the flavours.”

“Yes, Father.” With that, she walked off again, turning the corner to enter the kitchen. Clement pursed his lips.

“The spice box?”

“Why, of course! A meal like this would be unachievable without the gold of the west, as they call it.” Aranrhod returned swiftly with a box of similar dimensions to a sheet of cowhide used for writing. It was about as deep as a regular drinking cup, and she carried it with both hands. Stepping over to Clement, she opened it, revealing to the guest what Charlix had meant by “the gold of the west”. Inside the box was a four-by-six grid of separated rooms, each containing its own little pod, bead, grain or twig of spice, herb or flower. While all of it had been dried for preservation, they still had an aroma unlike anything that grew in these parts. They had all been neatly sorted so that each spice had a room to itself, though it was clear that Charlix and his family favoured some over others. Clement picked up a roll of what appeared to be bark and gave it a gentle whiff. The sensation was so unfamiliar to him that he had to sniff it again. Charlix chuckled. “Do you like it? A Doserung merchant brought me that - said he had bought it from the Hacuáins from the Prairie Sea. And that’s not all - supposedly, the Hacuáins acquired this from a distant continent, further away than any Dûnan has ever travelled - the mythical land of Mithia.”

“Mithia,” mumbled Clement. Charlix nodded.

“Supposedly, there, the men and women walk in the night and sleep in the day; their skin is as blue as the sea, and they have ears like frightened rabbits. They tattoo their skin to frighten their enemies and divide society by this very same ink. There, insects as large as the terrorwasps of the distant east have formed a great empire. There, all employ magic similar to Bastian sorcery to fuel great slaver empires which grow plants such as these. That one there - he said they call it ‘zeenahmon.’”

Clement gave it one last whiff before putting it back. “Remarkable… To think I have lived my whole life without ever knowing such fragrances - without knowing such stories.”

Charlix grinned. “Right? The world is a book, my friend, eager and waiting to be read. Oh! Speaking of books! He snapped his fingers again and the young man came out of the kitchen, carrying a large tome with him. It looked like a stack of three bricks, being about as thick as a grown man’s forearm and as long and broad as one, too. The covers were two sheets of elephant skin, connected together with a spine of quillat quills. Between the covers were thick sheets of cowhide pages. In golden Dûnan letters on the front page, a title read, “The Hundred Journeys of Tillis: A Collection of Stories and Tales by the Famed Explorer of Harbiuré”. Clement was speechless.

“For… For…”

“I know your son, Claude, has been shirking his lessons. Well, these are, supposedly, some of the most intriguing stories in the land - eyewitness accounts of everything this beautiful world has to offer. With this, he’ll hardly want to stop reading.” Before Clement could continue, Charlix added, “By the way, I had it all translated into Dûnan for him. Would be best to keep with the times, would it not, so he, too, would leave Ketrefan behind?”

Clement cracked it open and turned the pages. Writing on cowhides was a very recent trend in Ha-Dûna - they were easier to write on than the more traditional wood tablets, but cowhides were so expensive that they were only reserved for the most valuable documents. Additionally, the Dûnan script had existed for less than a year. This translation was not only written beautifully - Clement admittedly could not read most of it, though - but it was complete with illustrations, colouring and much more to make the stories come to life. He could practically see them before him without reading a single word. “How, how did you have time to--”

“Oh, time was no issue. With enough scribes, one could translate a book like this in a week.”

“What on Galbar did that cost you?” demanded Clement.

Charlix said nothing, but he winked playfully back at his guest. Clement felt a pang of fear in his chest as he laid aside the book. He had known that Clan Blanche was rich, but this was insane. The clothes, the house, the spices, the gift - these things must have cost the equivalent of Ha-Dûna herself, should you sell her.

The table went quiet for a moment as the two returned to eating. After savouring another serving, Clement could no longer hold back something that had been irking him ever since he had received the invitation to come. Of course, he already suspected what the answer may be, but he needed to hear it from Charlix’ mouth. He scraped the last spoonful of stew off his plate and took a sip of wine and said, “Charlix, my friend… This is… This is all so kind of you…”

“Oh, ‘tis my deepest pleasure,” the host replied proudly.

“Still, I… I must ask: Why? Why all this? What is the reason for this feast?”

Charlix chuckled. “What, can I not invite a friend and colleague to dinner and give him gifts like any other?”

Clement wrinkled his nose. “While I appreciate the implications of your words, I know you well enough to see that there is another side to this. Yes, we have been colleagues for a few months now, and we have met for feasts and the like for many, many years. But you know as well as I that our families have never been on the friendliest terms; at best, the two of us have maintained a sort of mutual agreement to remain acquaintances and only acquaintances. Even as we both were made mórthéins, this agreement persisted - we have hardly exchanged a word - until that silence was broken this evening, and ‘broken’ does the situation little justice - ‘shattered’ is more like it.” Clement studied his host as he paused; Charlix maintained a small smile, his hand hovering movelessly in the air while holding his drinking horn. The guest continued, “I do not wish to offend by being direct, but understand me correctly when I say that I would prefer if we could do away with the false pretenses and flattering words. Tell me, so, Charlix of Blanche - what are you planning?”

For a twenty seconds, the host said nothing, and the air snapped sparks between them. However, he eventually offered a small chuckle and said, “I should have expected as much, Clement. You have always made an effort to make others think you are slower than you actually are. I admire that about you.”

Clement made a small smile. “What did I say about the flattery just now?”

“Oh, no, please do not misunderstand! The compliment was genuine. It shows that you have a knack for intrigue - trick your opponent into underestimating you, and the upper hand is yours.”

“Why, of course. A viable strategy in combat, that,” Clement agreed.

“A subject that you know quite a lot about, in fact. The songs about your deeds before and during the Conquests are still sung in the taverns here and there, I hear.”

“I am humbled.”

“Yes, I can imagine. However, it is a competency that I, myself, do not possess. As you have probably both heard and seen, I am an abysmal fighter.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say abysmal, but--”

Charlix grinned. “See how easily the flattery comes?”

Clement stopped himself and chuckled. “Must be the wine… Please, do go on.”

“Yes, well - I am not only an abysmal fighter; I have also never had a knack for strategy in battle, at least not when it comes to fighting in real life. The planning phase is all well and good, but, well, the sound of battle tenses me up - makes me tight in the chest. Surely, it must be the ghost of Naya overtaking me with the thoughts of the tragedy to come.”

Clement nodded along slowly. “Not all were made to swing the axe…”

“Surely, my friend, you can see where I aim to take this,” continued Charlix as though the subject had grown too personal to discuss further. Clement took the hint and nodded.

“You want me to take command in this war.”

“Precisely. The druids will need some time yet to find the next sanndatr. In the meantime, governance of this city falls to us, the mórthéins. By breaking bread together this way, I propose an alliance between the two of us - one that plays on each of our strengths to combat our weaknesses.”

Clement put down his drinking horn and folded his hands under his nose. “I’m listening.”

Charlix smiled. “Starting today, my hildargeach are yours to command. With both my warriors and yours backing your claim to leadership, you should have no issue making even the most loyal of Boudicca’s followers fall in line. Should anyone give you trouble, refer them to me, and I will do my best to persuade them to fight for the city’s cause.”

Clement nodded. “... A very alluring proposal. What will be your role in this?”

Charlix had another sip of wine. “Well, as we both know very, very well, among the two of us, it is clear that I have a somewhat better grasp of, well…” He gestured around. “Finances.”

Clement frowned. “... Noted.”

“Anyway, I will remain here, as it were, and ensure that the city remains functional during this war - I will ensure that your army’s supplies do not run out, all while maintaining trade with the north, west and south to make certain that Ha-Dûna does not starve.” He plucked an oatcake from a nearby basket and dipped it in some stew remains on his plate. “I have already reached out to the King of Bast. He has agreed to sell me two ships which can sail up along the coast for the whole winter given that the sea does not freeze. This should speed up trade with the reindeer herders, seal hunters and reef-folk.”

Clement blinked and swallowed. “You… You’ve certainly thought of everything, haven’t you?”

“Well, that is my job, is it not?”

The guest nodded slowly to himself and then squinted one eye suspiciously. Charlix caught the expression and frowned. “Is something the matter?”

“How can I be sure your word is true?” Clement hardened both eyes now and studied his host intensely. Charlix pursed his lips and licked the inside of his upper lip.

“A laird’s word is all he has, Clement. Who knows what would happen to me - to my clan - should I betray your trust in this?”

“Do not take this the wrong way, Charlix,” Clement started, “but ask yourself - would you have trusted yourself with your word?” There was a long pause. Eventually, Charlix chuckled once again and poured himself some more wine.

“Certainly, my friend, you are as quick as they come.”

“You must have had abysmal expectations of me if you thought I would be so dense as to outright trust you,” retorted the guest. The host nodded in quiet agreement.

“So be it, then. What must I do to earn your trust in this? Understand, my friend, that I am genuine in my words - I am doing this for the sake of our relationship as friends and co-rulers-to-be. Whatever you may want, you shall have.”

“Then…” mumbled Clement. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully and then said, “Your eldest son and heir. He will join me as my lieutenant.”

“My eldest,” Charlix replied as though it was just another word. “Guiscard?”

“Unless he has a twin I don’t know about,” Clement replied jokingly. “Guiscard is a worthy and mighty warrior, trained by none other than Frode the Enduring to become a young legend among the hildargeach in every clan. His aid would be irreplaceable at my side.”

A moment to ponder later, Charlix uttered a single, “Done.”

Clement frowned. “Really? Your son and heir?”

Charlix shrugged. “He is part of my hildargeach, after all, so he would have most likely come along to fight anyway, and at your side, he will be much safer than at the front. Furthermore…” Clement felt himself grow somewhat intimidated as his host’s mouth curled into a smirk of almost malicious quality. “... If he is your lieutenant, he will be your responsibility, and news around here travels fast - should anything happen to him, I will know days before you can return to your side of the story.” He rose to his feet and held his horn out in a toast. He smiled, but behind his teeth, Clement saw a spirit of vengeance like few others he had seen before. He joined him in the toast, a ball of uncertainty pushing uncomfortably at his windpipe. “And know this, Clement du Pierre,” Charlix continued, “if I receive a certain kind of news, you can cover it up all you want; you can try to flee the country or attempt to kill me yourself; no matter what you do, you will not know peace, and you will be punished for your treachery against me.”

The room was momentarily silent as the grave pyre, only the hearths chittering in the background. Then Charlix broke it: “In that respect, you could say this is a reassurance for both of us, wouldn’t you agree?”

“... Y-yes… Certainly.”

“Well, then,” said the host cheerfully. “A toast - to the formation of a new and fruitful alliance between our two houses. Cheers!”

Clement forced a smile and lifted his horn. “Cheers!”



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Plans Gone Wrong





It had been weeks of travel through the jungle but the unlikely pair were nearly before the great city of Zuanwa and their future. This was evident as more and more people passed them and the worn road widened. The thought sent a shiver of excitement down Kia’s spine and the beating of her heart with anticipation was ever evident in her step and smile. Kia had learned much on the journey from Oruna and expanded skills she had already known to greater heights with the woman’s help. She had learned how to derive paints from the jungle, which plants were poisonous and which were edible, or which animals were safe to eat. There was a lot that could kill a person out here if they didn’t know what to look for. She even got to hunt a bit but they never took anything that couldn’t be eaten in a day. All the while she felt… Happy. A rare feeling to the girl, foriegn as this place was to her. But Oruna… Oruna was a great help and she often found herself listening intently to what she had to say. She admired the woman and thought her smart. Smarter then herself, anyways. Her plan was perfect, if they could execute it right.

Oruna was unstoppable in her bright mood. She was convinced that the plan would work perfectly, that it would work itself out. She hailed passing people with a benign boisterousness that made them look kindly not just on her, but on Kia as well. It was as though being part of her little retinue with the markings - even though Oruna had guaranteed in private she would never force Kia to be anything she didn't want to be, nor saw her as anything but an equal - brought whatever good things came her way to Kia as well. Was this what having a real family was like? Oruna was happy to delay their journey to teach Kia anything she wanted along the way, to point out the differences in coloured snakes and what those colors meant to the spirits of the earth; red and mottled snakes were poisonous, as they were the guardians of the earthen vaults where the dead went, and the earth didn't want it's guardians hurt. The speckled green snake however, had large fangs as a test for the hunter, but was a very delicious prize for the brave.

Tidbits like these had come thick during their travel. Questions were met with good-natured lessons, tips and tricks of survival, and general half-games as Oruna challenged her to complete various tasks. Nothing was ever really wasted out in the jungle, but despite the dangerous world around them, safety had never truly been a concern. Now that the city loomed in the distance, the consistent presence of other travelers rapidly returned the feeling of being part of something greater, and the end result of getting to meet Uraka, Daughter of the Water; the only goddess in Zuanwa according to Oruna.

"Come on, Keeah. You are not tired already?" the older huntress mocked with jovial tone from further down the path, and skipped a few steps sideways to pull away the leaves of a large frond. Beyond Kia could sight a massive sandstone ziggurat raising far above any structure she had seen before in her life. It shot up out of the ground to point towards the sky, and around it were smaller stone and clay houses in many styles, like little toys next to the massive behemoth. "We are here. The jewel by the water, Zuanwa."

Her eyes went wide and her mouth dropped in wonder. It was taller then the trees, how could it be taller than trees! There were so many people as well! Ten villages, maybe even more could be here! She shot up to Oruna and grabbed the woman’s arm without thinking, as she looked over the scene. “Oruna! Oruna! How is it so tall? And big? How many people are here?” Her questions came without a breath in between, so excited as she was.

Oruna chuckled before tutting quietly, and clicking her tongue to behold the city herself. "More people than live anywhere else I have ever seen. It lifts into the sky because that is where the Daughter of the Water lives. It is said the building grew taller than it had been for her father when she first looked at the sun." Oruna slung her own arm closer to Kia's to trap her in the hold and then took a few steps towards the city proper to lead them both to civilization.

Rows of houses unlike any Kia had seen littered the ground, and long stone rivers ran from further away like snakes through the ground, carrying water that eventually pooled in a man-made lake next to the coast. Hundreds of men and women milled about like they had never been busier, and though Oruna was ornately painted, each of these peoples were painted like the chieftess in the village they had left. They had more paint than clothes, with elaborate and luxurious patterns and strings of jewelry hanging from their necks, hips, arms and hair. Others yet were working, carting stone, goods or carrying things for another person. They too were briefly painted, and Kia recognized a few patterns that she herself had been painted with. Despite that - these alleged owned servants looked as lavishly painted as Oruna. Zuanwa was a busy land of luxury, that much was clear.

It made her feel small. Everything about this place, Kia felt out of sorts. She was pale, she was tall and these people looked important. She clung a little tighter to Oruna as her nerves began to get the best of her. “Where will we go now Oruna?” She asked, her voice still full of awe, but tempered by her own expectations.

"We must see Rakat the Many in the marketplace. He will arrange for us to take our words and your gifts to his Za'wal friends. Through them, we are only a single step from the Daughter of the Water." She murmured back as she pressed forward, dragging Kia with her as they stepped onto the path leading into the open city proper. Though the ziggurat lay on the far end of Zuanwa, it grew ever larger, until it was so tall it nearly touched the sky when they stepped in among the busy people. "Remember not to speak to anyone unless spoken to. The dangers here are as plentiful as the snakes, but camouflaged."

“Yes Oruna, I will try.” Kia nodded as she took in the sights up close. She was still amazed at how these people could walk around wearing barely nothing, protected by only paints. Her eyes fell upon both men and women, as it was hard not to stare and be stared at. She felt her face flush at a particularly attractive couple and she stared at the ground, letting Oruna guide her as her thoughts buzzed with embarrassment and many other things.

The huntress was undeterred by such trivial matters as decency and embarrassment, and led Kia through a dizzying buzz of roads paved with houses and stalls and tents and huts. A veritable army of people brushed past them, not all of them so keen on keeping to themselves. Here it quickly became clear that people had no time for the pleasantries of the jungle and roads. Shouting, laughing, crying, arguing. Every single sound blended like a great mass that played in the back of the head. A few bypassers bumped into Kia when the crowds grew to their thickest, and they simply put their hands on her body to move her aside with no thought to her feelings or reaction. Even Oruna seemed to have issues getting respect unless she verbally told people she was a huntress. That seemed to hold a lot of power among these city folk. Eventually Oruna declared they had reached the market, but to Kia it looked much the same as the other places in the city. Perhaps with more tents and goods, but not by much.

She scanned the area and then whispered to Oruna, "What does he look like?"

Oruna leaned in to respond, but did not have time to speak before a fit man with a hawkish smile stepped out in front of both of them.

"Oruna, my eastern jungle huntress! Is it truly you? The wick of my heart burned bright this morning, I should have known." He exclaimed with a confident tone. His body was toned and weathered by the elements, but was clearly the lesser of the jungle tribes when it came to physical prowess. He made up for that with jewelry and paint, his entire chest painted in hues of yellow and red. Above his skin dangled countless jingling trinkets, catching attention each time he moved.

"Hello, Rakat. I promised I would return, didn't I?" Oruna returned with a stoic smile, straightening herself out.

The man nodded several times and smiled warmly, then stroked his chin and his geometrically trimmed beard. His gaze fell on the tall Kia, and his eyes lit up with wonder. She could feel his gaze removing the paint in his mind to imagine everything. "And who is this? You have a beautiful woman with you to humble your own radiance? Hello, you crystalline jewel, you spellbind me with your coral-brushed skin. And.. and so tall. I want to nestle myself against you as you feed me roasted takka." He produced with a dramatic breath, and reached, grabbing Kia's hand with both of his.

Kia froze at the touch and shifted uncomfortably as she stammered. “I-I-I!” Oruna’s words about showing some confidence reflected in her mind and she took a shallow breath. “T-Thank you.” Was all she managed to say, averting her gaze again. Baby steps right?

Her hesitation appeared to go unnoticed by Rakat, who lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it firmly with painted lips, leaving a yellow stain on the back of her hand. Kia felt her heartbeat quicken and her face flushed again. "So well-mannered too!" He exclaimed before finally releasing her hand before turning back to Oruna. "Tell me you have come to marry me and share your beautiful woman between us, you'll be richer than the jungle could ever provide."

Oruna snickered simply and put a hand on his chest, giving him a brief feel before pushing him away. "You want to marry a huntress, you must do more than compliment my unpainted to impress me. Besides, no amount of riches will settle my spirit, Rakat. You know why I am here."

He chuckled at first, but her last words made him frown instead. Again he stroked his chin. "It's time, then? I hoped it would not come to this but nothing will slake your thirst for vengeance, Oruna."

"Vengeance or no, it's time for a change in leadership. I need Zuanwan support." Oruna affirmed. Rakat stepped to the side and parted the small curtain into the nearby clay and mud hovel. It was decorated with all kinds of trinkets and cheap jewelry, broadcasting a sort of basic extravagance. Without word, Oruna stepped inside, leaving Kia stood briefly alone in the street, eyes of Rakat on her.

She quickly blinked and followed after Oruna, unable to glance at Rakat. She had been well versed on the plan but Oruna had failed to mention it might be because of a personal vendetta. She didn’t just see her as a weapon right? A way to power? Kia stepped into the hovel, and Rakat closed the curtain behind her.




Rakat the Many turned out to be a generous host. When night fell on the Zuanwan coast, he threw a feast in Oruna's honor. This was considerably more informal than the feasts and small festival celebrations from her village growing up, but also on another scale of opulence. Five women with painted symbols not unlike those on Kia herself carried platters of fruits, steamed vegetables, meats and fish. A young handsome man with identical paint as the women sat in the corner and added a soothing ambience by smattering his fingers against a small drum and humming a soothing melody.

Kia was a guest as much as Oruna, that much was clear, but she was still mostly invisible. Oruna herself eagerly engaged and listened to what she wanted to ask or say, but Rakat seemed only to speak with her if directly talked to first. The other six people did not speak unless spoken to, beyond adding a few laughs to Rakat's raunchiest jokes. Because of that, as Oruna appeared to get more intoxicated and rowdy alongside her old friend, Kia's chances at interaction began to wane. Despite that, whenever she managed to catch the huntress eyes, she got a warm, content smile in return.

For all her time in Oruna's village, Kia could now easily intuit more about the jungle ways. Rakat had taken her hand without a thought outside earlier, and seemed to be very grabby with the five women who populated the feast as quiet attendants, but never tried to touch Oruna. In fact, the one time he brushed her by accident, he apologized. Oruna on the other hand, did not seem to have a problem touching Rakat as she spoke animatedly, nor did she fear touching the women or swiping them out of the way. There was some taboo or hierarchy at play. The two of them talked quite a lot, and Oruna happily retold the story of how she met Kia, though excluded the fact that two others found her in favour of making herself more of a hero.

If nothing else, the food was quite good. In fact, she thought it was quite delicious. All sorts of things she had never once thought to ever taste or known to be edible. Her belly grew full but she stuck with a softer drink that tasted tangy, another new sensation. It was quite sweet in fact and she found herself going back to it a lot. If this was the life Oruna wanted for the two of them, then Kia could definitely get behind it. Anything was better than being a slave or being hated and here, she finally began to feel that she could fit in. She smiled to herself, it would be nice.

And indeed the party continued into the night with a pleasant plethora of food and drink. Rakat tried his hand at romantic and powerful singing. It was awful, but his confidence and willingness to make a fool of himself kept it an engaging show. In a brief lull, Oruna told him the same plan as she had to Kia, and Rakat seemed forlorn but ultimately accepting of what had to be done. He promised to arrange a meeting with Za'wal Kurul first thing in the morning. Through him, they would have a good chance of getting an audience with Uraka herself, and support from Zuanwa to return, and establish a life of leisure.

The feast winded down late in the night. Rakat made a very formal invitation for Oruna to continue the party behind another curtain, and she simply scoffed at him in response. The man took it in stride, but pushed himself up all the same. "Well, my future beloved, and her honored guest, I shall take myself to my chambers. I must rise with the sun to speak to the Za'wal, and I'd like a few delights before I do. Please enjoy yourselves at my cost. Baran," he gestured to the man in the corner briefly, before running his hands to touch the shoulder of one of the five women. "... and Eresa will serve any needs you require." He made a flourishing bow before swiping the jug of strong juice off of the assembled platters and mosying in behind the curtain leading to what was likely one of few other rooms in the home. Four of the women followed with quick step, each bowing their head politely to Kia and Oruna both. The man and woman Rakat had pointed out remained, and the music gently resumed with his exit.

Kia, by this point, felt strange. Her senses felt dull and she was sluggish but full of joy? How could that be? She gave a big yawn and looked to Oruna. "I'm… Tired O-runa." Her words were slurred. "Why is my… voice… funny?" She asked, slightly panicked. She began to get to her feet but felt light headed and sat back down. In the smallest voice she could muster she said, "Help."

Oruna however seemed positively delighted, almost mocking in that worldly way she had treated Kia before as well. Her grin was deep, and she celebrated Kia's panic with another hearty swig of her own drink. "Have you never felt the touch of fire before, Keeah? The spirits are wishing you well, heating up your body. The berry drinks will make you find the spirits quickly."

Oruna pushed from her seat, grabbing the servant woman - Eresa - by the wrist when she moved to fill her mug again. She smiled over towards Kia instead. "We should also rest. We must be alert and presentable for the Za'wal tomorrow. The fire in your belly will be a good bed mate." She said, acting as if she wasn't slurring a few words of her own. She muttered something to the Unpainted woman and Eresa gestured to a colorful arrangement of throws and furs in the corner.

Kia stared at Oruna for a bit with a frown before getting up with a grunt, using the table as support. She steadied herself, then very slowly made her way over to the throw pillow corner and settled in. As she got comfortable, she watched Oruna, eyes beginning to blink as she tried to keep them open. Was she that tired? When had she gotten that… Tired…? Oruna downed the last of her own drink and rubbed at her nose, glancing between Kia, Eresa and Baran with a warm blush on her face deepened by the few candles still lit. "You have the right idea, Keeah. But you shouldn't spread out so much, it's rude, no?"

She moved towards the bedding herself and lifted her arms. Baran, the fit and painted young man was quick to stop the music, and moved forward to remove Oruna's tooth and claw jewelry and prepare her for laying down, leaving nary more than paint to mask her body. "Which one do you want to warm your body like your spirit?"

It took a minute for Kia to realize what Oruna meant and when it clicked she became alert. Her cheeks flushed the deepest red yet and her eyes grew wide. "W-W-What?" She breathed. "I-I've n-never… I…" her breathing quickened and she placed her hands over her eyes out of embarrassment. "I'mjustgoingtosleep." She let out, turning over to avoid Oruna.

There was a brief silence in the room before Oruna broke out into a deep and conniving snicker full of mirth and laced with a lascivious intent her initial question hadn't had. "You'll be cold. And it is rude to reject a gift. Eresa, was it?" She offered calmly, the last words catching the attention of the other woman.

"Yes, Ta'zesh." A soft voice replied. The first time the Unpainted had allowed herself to speak all night. Kia heard Oruna click with her tongue that same way she did when disapproving of something or thinking. There was a brief silence beyond a shuffle of movement, before the Unpainted girl replied to something Kia had not seen. "My body is hers, Ta'zesh."

There was an idle shuffle of movement across the room, before a shape stepped in front of Kia and slowly laid down beside her in her field of vision. She watched Kia with soft eyes, though dared not look at her eyes. Before Kia had much time to react, a second body bumped her back briskly and rubbed painted skin on skin. "You are too tall, Keeah, you take up too much space." Oruna quipped from right behind her and brushed up closer yet. "Not much fur left for me."

She grumbled under her breath and looked at Eresa's soft features. Had she thought differently? Had her mind wandered to a place where it should not have gone? Was it acceptable? She could ask Oruna but… No, she would make fun of her in that state. Knowing that Eresa wouldn't do anything she wasn't told, Kia shuffled closer to her to give Oruna more space. Skin touched skin and her heart beat quickly. In an innocent whisper Kia spoke to her, "I get… Cold easily. Thank you, for your warmth." She felt ashamed.

Behind her, Oruna brushed up against her greedily again as more weight fell towards Kia and a man's voice offered a quiet but amused apology, followed by Oruna's snickering. Eresa was a beautiful young woman - it wasn't difficult to imagine Rakat's reasoning behind keeping her in his household. She smiled with tender lips painted with black and red lines at Kia's words, and nodded with averted eyes. She interpreted her words in her own way, clearly reverent of her embarrassment but fully unwilling to leave her alone. The painted woman slowly turned her body over, and then shuffled herself up against Kia with methodical care to line her body's heat up against her, much to the alarm of Kia. No one had ever been so close to her before and her heartbeat wouldn't slow.

Eventually Oruna bumped her back again with a tired giggle, and Kia found herself sandwiched on the furs between painted bodies. She let out a soft sigh, thankful she was at least warm and before long, nestled in that warmth, she fell asleep with a smile on her face.




The table had been reset with new goodies for the mid day's feast. As Oruna's 'servant' Kia wasn't expected to do anything, giving her ample time after breakfast to watch Rakat's five Unpainted household women mill about to set everything in order. Oruna spent the entire morning asleep on luxurious bedding and most of the early day grouchily eating breakfast like a thundercloud rested in her head, but even she was caught up in it now, reapplying her paints with Rakat's supply. Rakat had vanished early in the morning to go plead with the Za'wal and invite him to his home, something Kia learned would cost him almost a full year of his proceeds in goods - or Unpainted. Sitting there with not much to do but watch the hive work and munching on a few tasty dishes, Kia caught the eye of Eresa during her preparation more than once; each time the dark-skinned beauty gave her a soft and welcoming smile.

For some reason, it made her heart flutter and she didn’t know why. Was this what love was? What her mother felt for Rorik? What made Rorik… So angry? She shuddered at the thought of love turning one so bitter all the time. She didn’t want that. She hardly even knew the feeling. Perhaps she was just being friendly? Regardless, Kia had offered small smiles in return, the best she could. She felt restless as they continued to wait but stuck to herself as Oruna was still grouchy and when she was grouchy, Kia knew to leave her be.

Eventually Oruna joined her at the table, and the unpainted servants brought out food in preparation for the event. Rakat returned soon after. He wore a bright, confident smile and brought good news; the Za’wal had accepted his plea and was on his way at that very moment with his retinue to hear them out. All at once, the air in the home became tense and hectic - servants now milled like ants trying to set everything in order, and Rakat had a thousand things to complain about as he visibly worried the arriving guests would not appreciate his home. Oruna had briefly explained the position of a Za'wal, but it mostly went over her head. The only important thing was that this man had direct access to the ruler of Zuanwa, and that made him very powerful.

Soon the craze of preparation came to an end, and the three of them sat by the table to humbly await a man that may take hours to arrive. Oruna was tense, tapping fingers on the table and quietly repeating different parts of her pitch and plan to herself. Rakat sat silent, briefly glancing at both Kia and Oruna ever so often before trying to center himself and relax. The one time he caught Kia looking at him, he provided a quick but charming smile.

She offered a small smile and nod in return then went back to looking at the table in front of her. Her nerves were getting the best of her and she felt sick as they waited. Many questions began to bubble in her mind. What if it didn’t work? What if the Za’wal didn’t like them? What if Uraka didn’t want to see nobodies? She began to fidget with herself, trying to remain calm and focused on that task at hand.

Soon enough the bustle of the outside street seemed to pierce the curtain a little louder, and Rakat shot up from his cushioned seat and gestured for his unpainted to move to the entrance of his small estate. Eresa swayed over with shifting hips, and slowly drew the curtain aside to welcome whomever was outside. What followed was a full retinue of other men and women entering Rakat's home, painted in many varieties and some wearing clubs and knives. Kia saw two women wearing long knives, painted over their chest with the same general markings as Oruna - a set of patterns Kia now knew meant they were Ta'zesh; warriors and hunters. Others were wearing almost nothing but paint and jewelry, a parade of attractive men and women carrying jugs of drink and platters of food. Behind them all followed an older man with a thick but well-oiled beard, split in two at the end and tied together with metal rings. His paint seemed to be permanent, a mixture of decorative patterns and dark markings that looked like they were part of his skin. He wore golden rings on his arms and a full set of necklaces and ear rings, his mildly rotund belly hinting at a good life as it hung out on full display, given he wore only a velvety set of purple cloth whipping around his legs. Even in a room full of paint and luxury, he stood out as a cut above. It was easy to pin him as the guest of honor.

Kia looked at the man, he was very short and all of his servants were fairly tall. She was a bit overwhelmed by all of the new people but kept to herself for the most part. Her job, as always, was to speak when spoken too and to be polite. “Be confident’ as Oruna always reminded her. Still, it was hard to feel confident with so many people. Her eyes scanned them until she found the familiar face of Eresa, who was busy working. She watched her and her problems didn’t seem so bad if she just focused on one thing.

"Welcome to my humble hovel, my esteemed radiance. The magnificence of your crystalline knowledge and spirit-speaking illuminates our paltry lives." Rakat said with a welcoming tone, seeming a changed man from the previously tense and fussy merchant. He bowed his head deeply, and when he gestured towards Oruna, she did the same. "You have traveled far, I will not presume to waste your time. This is Ta'zesh Oruna, and her Unpainted gift for the Daughter of the Water." Kia realized eyes were drawn to her in turn, their gazes the same as those in the village - her pale skin made her a curiosity; her height a fascination. As such there were several moments of silence as countless gazes rested on Kia - and Oruna - before the bearded Za'wal grunted gruffly and moved to sit by the table. A fit and attractive man rushed forward to lay down beneath him, cushioning his place while elevating him ever so slightly.

"Your gift to me was barely adequate. I came to see this gift of yours. I see now you plan to be much kinder to our divine ruler than to me." The bearded man professed with an irritable and raspy voice, and his big brown eyes settled and roamed over Kia unabashedly. Try as she might to stay calm, it was no use. Coupled with all the stares, Kia used her hands to rub her thighs as she avoided the old man's eyes. Her own face turned red.

Rakat released a tense but charitable chuckle, exchanging brief glances with Oruna across the table. After a few moments of hesitation, he extended his arm to grab one of his passing servants. Eresa, caught in the midst of carrying a bowl of fruits, stilled herself as she was grabbed and bowed her head. "I am afraid the rarity meant for the Daughter of the Water cannot be matched, but please, if you will allow me to mend my insolence; I offer you one of my own. An obedient and dutiful servant. Eresa of the Village of a Hundred Lakes. She will love and serve with loyalty." Rakat mused politely.

Eyes fell on Eresa instead, and the Unpainted servant bowed her head deeply, as accepting of this fate as any other. Kia, who had seen her smile up close, noted that there was no warmth in her expression. Just quiet acceptance. Silence reigned for a time, before the bearded man nodded firmly and rubbed his chest thoughtfully. He lifted a hand to beckon Eresa over, and made her sit on her knees next to him demurely as his hand examined her hair, chin and face. He grunted and murmured, then glanced at Rakat and Oruna. "Very well. As thanks for your gracious gifts and invitation, I have brought real food and drink from Uraka's court. Revel in true luxury, as we shall from now on." He eventually boomed out loud, and gestured for his other servants, who quickly set down the gifts of food and drink they had been carrying. It seemed to be more of the same, only with a lot more meats - and spice-scented drinks.

She hardly knew Eresa but seeing her given away so carelessly tugged at her heart. It didn't seem right, but Kia knew it was not her place to say anything. Such was how things went on here. As others began to nest Kia turned her attention back to the table and tentatively picked at the food, not feeling at all hungry but not wanting to seem rude either. She forced herself to eat and drink, finding that she did not enjoy all the spices and seasonings. It overpowered the food. Rakat answered the Za'wal's questions, as did Oruna who spoke her turn between bouts of feasting on the spicy and opulent food. It was all rather lost on Kia, and she found herself focusing on Eresa more and more. The servant girl fidgeted where she sat, fixed in place next to the rich Za'wal and daring not to speak or really move. Even so, even sat still and silent, she was captivating.

But eventually something did catch Kia's attention. A servant brought forth a small platter for the Za'wal. It carried two small cups and he drank it without a word before the other was given to Rakat. The Za'wal's armed servants seemed to step forward or was that a trick of her eyes? Why were things looking so fuzzy? The Za'wal's raspy voice cut through the air, "Did you know that the sap of the Cossa plant is known as an antidote for many poisons?" All eyes fell upon the Za'wal and the air grew tense as all sound in the room seemed to halt. It only took a moment for realization to spring across Oruna's face. She tried to stand but her legs gave out as a look of rage etched itself onto her face.

"You… You…" her speech became slurred and she tried to lunge at Rakat who was across from her but ended up planting her face into the table. Rakat stood up, his face no longer quite cheerful.

"I am truly sorry, Oruna, light of my life. It was either this or I lose everything." He said in a sullen tone and touching at his chest. At first a heartfelt gesture, he simply adjusted one of his many necklaces.

"Oruna…" Kia slurred. She felt her body begin to slump as she lost control of her limbs. The Za'wal snapped his fingers and two servants grabbed Oruna and dragged her to her knees before him. She was barely conscious even before the big man slapped her. It made Kia angry but even her anger felt dull. She was helpless and could only watch and listen as her eyes faded. The last thing she saw was Rakat stepping closer to them but halting as the Za'wal gazed upon him.

Kia then listened, wrestling herself from sleep. "I have no love for Uraka." The Za'wal said in a cold voice. "She is no Goddess. She is a false idol who inherited all she is. But if there is one thing I hate more, it's an upstart. A person like this paltry Ta'zesh, who dreams of a destiny she has no right to. Strip her of her paints and sully her I say. Let it be a lesson." He commanded and though Kia could no longer see, she could hear Oruna being dragged away.

"That was not the deal!" Rakat shouted. "She was to be mine to deal with!"

She heard a grunt and someone landing on the ground. Rakat's breath gave off the same nasal whimpering as when he bragged.

"Do not be so insolent, merchant. What would you do with her from which she could not escape and take revenge? You are a fool and should be thankful I do not take your life as well for being a conspirator." The old man grumbled.

"Yes… Your esteemed excellency. But what will you do with her?" Rakat murmured.

"The pale skinned? Truth be told I would like her for my own but her blood would run hot with revenge as well. Sell her as a slave, far, far from here."

Her heart began to sink and their voices began to fade as Rakat discussed Eresa. She heard a mocking laugh and then nothing.




Kia did not dream. Instead she awoke in pitch blackness and for a second she thought herself blind or still asleep but as her eyes adjusted she could make small flickering lights. Fires? They were small, how far away was she? Kia tried to get up but hit her head on something. She then used her hands to feel the wood above her and then panic set in as she felt wooden bars, encasing her in a box. There was quiet murmuring somewhere and hushed voices.

Tears streamed down her face and she hugged herself. Her memories of the day began to flood back to her. Rakat had betrayed them, Oruna was taken by that foul man and she was to be sold into slavery. Oruna! She had to go find Oruna! The mere thought of what that man said made her blood boil. An old familiarity returning, begging to be let unleashed. Should she?

The pain of the day made her so, so angry.

It was just too much to bear.

As three men rounded a corner with torches, illuminating the tall rows of people in cages, Kia lost herself in her rage.

They began to make their way to her when one elbowed the other, pointing in her direction. Their paints were not familiar to her but it coated their bodies in a mud yellow.

It did not matter in the end what they looked like or what their tattoos reflected about their status, for they died swiftly as Kia exploded with a scream of ice. Her power splintered the wood, and sent spikes outward, piercing any unfortunate enough to be in the radiance. One man screamed as his two companions were impaled in the abdomen and throat. He was struck in the shoulder and fell over. Kia loomed over him, her face twisted into a mask of pain and rage. He outstretched his arms to defend himself and that was the depiction of his statue as he became entombed in ice.

Noticing the commotion, shouts of alarm were being called out and torches were struck alight through the rows of cowering slaves. She had given those that died or dying, a mercy. The only thing she felt was a cold rage, there was no time for guilt or lesser emotions. The slaves themselves cowered in fear or prayed but most screamed for help.

Arrows whizzed past her, prompting Kia to take a defensive stance, eyes on the corridor ahead. Those brave men that carried spears came running to meet their death.

She raised a hand and shot a barrage of spikes at her would be attackers. Most died before they hit the floor but a few screamed out in pain and fear as they tried to escape. Kia began to move closer but felt a flash of pain in her shoulder. She looked to see an arrow protruding with her blood trickling out and then scanned the area before making a wall of ice appear in front of her for protection. In the dark she could not see the archer.

She knew what a huntress was capable of. She had to be careful or… she would become the prey. But first, she broke the arrow in half and then touched the wound, icing it over. It wouldn't last long but perhaps it would stop the bleeding. Hopefully it wasn't poisoned either. She could hear more shouting now and they were coming from behind her as well. She made another wall of ice in that direction to buy herself time.

She dipped her head as she thought up a plan and was surprised to see that the floor was made of wood and through the gaps she could see the flow of water. Was she on water? Floating? It was a thought for another time when an idea came to mind.

Ice was simply water in another state. She touched her hands to the floor and then turned the water to ice. It happened quickly, freezing the wood in place as it spread out. Then the ice began to crack and moan as Kia used it to unleash giant spikes that pierced the floating wood with explosive force. She heard screaming, the sound of rushing water and the cracking of wood. Next, Kia thought inward and realized she would be exposed in the dark, preyed upon by those that knew how to use it to their advantage. She could not afford to be riddled with arrows or worse. Thus, ice began to encase her but unlike all previous times she had used such a death sentence, this would be a barrier and not a tomb.

It formed over her with delicate precision and then added layers upon layers, growing spikes and horns until Kia was armored and fearsome to behold. There was a narrow slit so she could see and three vertical lines across the mouth that allowed her to draw breath. Though she was cold, it was awfully comforting.

Kia then shattered the barriers that kept her protected and scanned the broken surroundings. The raft was a ruin with icy spikes protruding everywhere, having impaled several unlucky victims. Only those lucky enough to survive crawled about trying to get to safety. She looked for the shore, wanting off that which would sink in the warm waters. She saw that the raft she was in wasn'tmuch of a raft but a large platform that was in line with several others, all tied off to a long stone bridge that reached from the shore to where she was, at the very end. Fires were lit, a horn had sounded somewhere in the distance and the stone walkway was going to be quickly populated.

But there was another way. Kia took a step forward, feeling the bulk of her ice make the wood creak. At the platform's edge, she stepped off into the water, freezing it at an angle so she could slide down, using her momentum to carry her towards the unguarded shore. She froze the water as she went, sliding across the ice. As she approached she could see that men and women who were running towards the stone walk, had stopped instead to meet her. Aiming arrows, hefting spears and carrying nets.

It was a small force, and one that was unprepared…

When she neared the sandy shores, she bid the ice to rise and then explode, raining down upon her foes. Many fell from the initial onslaught, and those who were smart found cover before it was too late. When Kia touched down upon the shore, the barrage subsided and she began at a brisk jog, as fast as the armor would let her go. When they came from their hiding places, bearing howls of rage and anger, Kia froze them in place. Leaving them to suffocate in their final positions.

The very air began to turn colder, though she could not see them, she felt clouds arriving. Bringing with them the first flakes of snow that part of the world had ever seen. The wind began to come from the north as Kia made her way further into Zuanwa, bringing death and destruction with her as the jungle turned frigid.

She carved a swathe of destruction as she searched for the market that they had found Rakat. He would be the key that she needed to find the Za’wal, but she was having little luck. She could only vaguely remember seeing a river up on the hill that overlooked Zuanwa and then it felt like Oruna had led them through a maze. Yet, there was another landmark, one that loomed above her at all times. The temple of the false Goddess, Uraka. She paused as the world around her dipped in temperature, as people screamed and soldiers died. She knew where to go.




The market was empty, save for those who sought to defeat her. She, who was all powerful and strong. She slew them with little care for the surroundings and at last, when she was truly alone, she let her arrow riddled, broken armor fall to the wayside and she entered Rakat’s abode. She held her head high, eyes ever forward and arms slightly outstretched. She found the one warm space, touched with an emptiness. The pleasant smells washed away. Rakat had wasted no time in cleaning the place up and doing away with all that he had sullied his hands with. Kia walked over to his room and pulled back the flap to find the man cowering behind his servants, who trembled with wide eyes, as they held knives and daggers pointed at her.

“Leave us.” She commanded, stepping in and to the side.

The servants gave each other looks before they scrambled out, leaving Rakat grasping in the air, yelling at them as they went.

“No, don't leave me!” he screamed, hefting his own sword towards her, his hair disheveled and his knees wobbling. “Stay back demon! You cannot harm me! I-I-I am protected!” He stood his ground at least.

Within a blink of an eye, a spike of clear ice shot up from the ground and severed his hand from his arm, letting the blade drop with a thud. There was a spray of blood that coated Kia in warmth as Rakat fell backwards screaming again as he clutched his hand. Kia loomed over him and then crouched.
“You will bleed out soon. Tell me where Oruna is and I might help you.” Her voice cut through the air.

“Ah-ha, s-so you wish to know where the Za’wal lives? It is easy…” He scooted back with his good arm, pain shooting across his face. “Help me help you.” He breathed a plea. “I could die and say nothing and you will be at a loss.”

“I don’t think you understand.” Kia said, as ice began to encase Rakat’s legs and torso. The man began to fidget and squirm. “Your death will be long and slow. I will make sure of it. You have no room to negotiate. There will be no trades. You will tell me where they are, or you will die and this city will die.”

As the ice began to creep up his neck and chest, Rakat’s breathing quickened. A mad look came in his eye. “The Za’wal, h-his h-home…” He grunted, “H-he lives on the outskirts of Zuanwa in the east… Past the… The temple… It’s w-where all the wealthy l-live. H-His paint… T-The symbol… Where his house will be. Please! I told you, don’t let me die! I’m sorry Keeah! I’m sorry!”

Kia stood. “Oruna trusted you and you betrayed her for your own skin. Where I come from, that would be exile into the wastes but here… No… I will make it quick.”

Rakat screamed again, begging and pleading for his life. Kia tilted her head and watched as a razor thin wall of ice cut off Rakat’s head. There was the sickly smell of something metallic and the haunting expression of the man who thought he could get away with what he had done.

Kia left his house without a word and slipped off into the raging storm that had enveloped Zuanwa.




She found his symbol at the start of dawn. The sun’s light filtering through the clouds and snow, painting the jungle paradise bleak but beautiful. Kia had had to go go upon the outskirts of the city, as she did not want to get close to the Temple, where she feared there would be a higher presence of guards. She was getting weary and tired, her arrow wound taking its toll. But she still had enough fight left in her to see her revenge through, even if it killed her.

The Za’wal’s home was more of a compound of lavish design that contrasted the other homes and even the jungle itself. That man lived in so much excess, what did he even do with it all? From where she stood, underneath a tall tree next to a canal, she could see many guards. It seemed news of her coming did not go unheard, even here.

It was of little consequence, in the end.

Kia donned her armor once more, this time it was nimbler but less protective. It would stop a few blows but not much else. She then made a mad dash towards the gates. Guards shouted, arrows were fired, spears were thrown, rocks were chucked- All being frozen by the walls of ice that she summoned to meet them. And when Kia was close enough, she sent out ice spikes that blitzed the tops of the walls, sending stone and guards flying. She then arrived at the gate and ripped it apart with her ice, blowing it backwards. More guards awaited her and by that time, her patience had grown thin.

In a feat that surprised even her, she let out a scream and a wave of ice shot out from her feet and froze anything it touched from head to toe, before colliding with the walls of the compound proper.

Her helmet broke apart and Kia caught her breath as she eyed the area to make sure no one moved, and not a soul did. Holding her head ever high, she walked to the doors and shattered them with another touch. The interior of the home was even more lavish and decorative. Fine cloth hung about, painted with symbols and stories. Jewels adorned every cup and plate that were displayed upon pillars of exquisite detail. Yet there was no one to greet her. No more guards or servants.

She walked further in and found room after room empty. Had they fled? She neared the back of the house, or was it the middle? She did not know and she found a large room. A great feasting chamber, with long empty tables and a great chair that sat at its head. Behind that there was another room and there she saw…

Her heart dropped.

On the far side of that room, arms nailed to a wooden post, naked skin red and chafed by excessive rubbing and caked with dried blood from multiple cuts- was the unmistakable body of Oruna. Her head was dipped forward, hair obscuring her face. Kia could only stare as she entered the room.

She was nearly blind sighted by the Za’wal who tried to beat her with a metal rod. Her arm was grazed but she managed to fall backwards out of the way. With a mad look in his eye he came at her again but that was his mistake. Kia froze him, but not completely. She left his neck and head exposed and the old man struggled. She stood up as he raged incoherently at her. Kia punched him in the face and he fell silent.

She then rushed over to Oruna and cut her down with ice, catching her as she fell.

“Oruna! Wake up!” She shook her, moving the air away from her bruised face but she did not stir. “Oruna? ORUNA!” Kia began to cry into her chest. She was too late! Oruna was gone. Just like Rorik! Just like her village! Just like her mom! Why? Why did she have to suffer so? Why was fate so cruel? A cold numbness began to spread from her chest and into her limbs as her armor broke apart. She did not want to exist anymore. Not like this. Not alone.
“Keeah?” the voice made her jump. She looked up to see Eresa, shivering with cold breath. She had been bound but her rope was cut. Hesitantly she reached out to Kia, who quite literally froze. “Keeah… Za’watem…Keeah…” She breathed, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. She fell to her knees as she looked to Oruna. “I am so sorry.” She said, before wrapping her in a hug. Suddenly, the world didn’t seem so bad anymore.

However, the moment was interrupted by a cruel laugh.

Behind her, the rotund Za'wal wriggled as best he could in his icy restraints. "A brilliant display! So much effort for nothing. A willing and eager pet desperately searching for its master. Such an owner, such a servant, I suppose," he crowed with a deep and malicious delight. "She didn't even beg for her life, or swear herself into a life of service. I might have spared her as a trophy for my personal enjoyment. But no. She just kept calling for her lost pet. Spitting in my face with no mind to her betters." He scoffed sharply and writhed in his cold shackles.

"You should thank me for freeing you from such a weak owner. Duplicitous and with a head full of crazy dreams. You will be much more at home at my side. Not even the wretched bitch Uraka will fight me with such a cold beauty in my collection." The Za'wal continued with a hearty croon, his robust frame managing to rock the ice enough that his prison began to crumble.

Something snapped in Kia and she sprang up with a fearsome roar. The girl would make him suffer. Make him scream for what he had done! She ran over and began to viciously beat him, the force of the blows rocking him free from his entrapment. As he fell to the ground, Kia's fists became hardened with ice. She fell upon him like a tree falls upon the earth, without regard or care for who it trampled. And so she beat him, over and over and over again until her body was caked in his blood and then she beat him again. It was only when her strength failed and Eresa came to shake her out of it, did she finally realize the horror of her actions. She could hardly look upon the mess that she made.

She dry heaved as the weight of her actions plummeted like a stone in her stomach. She had killed so many people, she had destroyed so much. She was a monster. She was a demon! Oruna was dead and she had lost a other home and and… A mother…

"Keeah." Eresa said as she cradled the shivering girl. "We cannot stay here. They will come to… Kill you."

"We…? Eresa, you can't stay with me. I'm dangerous. You'll die." Kia whimpered.

"You are Za'watem. I go where you go, Keeah. You… You need someone." She murmered. Kia could tell there would be no persuading her, not that she wanted too.

"But where do we go… Who would help us?" She asked.

"I do not know, my Za'watem." Eresa stroked her hair.

Kia thought long and hard and realized the last time she was in such a situation she received help from the goddess… Though she was reluctant to ask her for she had put her in this situation to begin with, it was her only choice.

"Please… Someone…. Goddess. Help us." She said with sorrow in her heart.

After an uneasy dread in which Kia felt like her words went unanswered, the pressure in her head began to increase. The experience was intensified as the inside of the dead man's home seemed to pick up a wind, an uneven howl that Eresa also seemed to pick up on. A soft sigh broke the tension, as though someone breathed in Kia's ear. "Such a troubled soul, with nary a glimmer left to grant you happiness. Worry not, my sweet, you are not alone." a voice unlike the old goddess spoke, comforting and warm. Eresa did not seem to hear it, for her attention was still firmly on Kia, unchanged.

"W-Who are you?" Kia asked.

"Za'watem…?" Eresa said confused.

[color=8493cae]"I am the goddess of love and loss. I understand your pain, my love. You have been abandoned and cast aside. Life was stolen from you. Now here you are, a stranger to all and lost, all over. A truly bitter experience, but it need not be the end,"[/color] the voice crooned. "You called for me, and I came for you, my beloved. Let me help you, let me ease your trial."

Though hesitation was in her heart, Kia did not object. "Help us, please." She said.

There came a strange sensation in the room. Like fabric ripping and across from them, a portal. She was familiar with them. From the portal she could smell food and feel hot air as well as the hushed whispers of people. "Where will it take us?" She asked the goddess.

The goddess was quiet for a moment, letting the ambience from the portal naturally spill over into the room. When she spoke, it drowned out all other sensations, sapping the worst shock of what had transpired, a gentle and soothing mental embrace. "To the mortal who carries me closest in her heart. You will be safe there, and cared for until your heart has mended."

"We will be safe...?" She asked to no one in particular. She straightened herself out and made eye contact with Eresa. "Come, Eresa. Let us be free from this place." She said, and though Eresa looked hesitant and bewildered, she nodded her head.

As for Oruna, Kia bent down and kissed her brow. Not wanting to leave her like that, she quickly straightened her out, and then encased her in ice that would last for eternity. It was the least she could do. Kia then took Eresa's hand and they walked over to the portal. She sent Eresa in first and took one last look before pouring the last bit of her strength into the floor. Giant ice spikes erupted from the ground. Kia stepped into the portal, confident they would leave the resting place of Oruna alone, as it collapsed under ice.




The portal shut behind them with a woosh. It took Kia moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimly lit room and when they did she found herself the center of attention. Eresa's hands grabbed her left arm, holding tight and Kia put her own hand over hers to give some comfort.

At the center of the room, they were surrounded by men and women who wore linen clothes with goblets in their hands. Their faces reminded her of her own people from back home. Holding platters of food and drinks with Silver collars around their necks were dark skinned, painted beings who looked like the jungle folk except their eyes were far too large and they had a bridge of feathers on their foreheads.

And then Kia found her, sitting a top a throne with a formidable crown and a necklace that had such a large ruby… She found herself wanting to get closer to the woman, who wore a dark red dress that left little to the imagination of her pale skin and unblemished features.

She stood all at once and called her hands. This startled the two of them but they were surprised to see the room begin to empty of people. Until all that remained was the red headed woman and… How had she not noticed the black clothed guards whose faces she could not see?

"Neiya, Our Goddess of Love has guaranteed your safety here. By my own hand I will see nothing less then your absolute satisfaction. For she is my Goddess and I, her devoted." The woman spoke, her voice rich and carrying with it a commanding tone. "I am Nalla, Queen of Nallan and all the red seas. Welcome to my home. Do you speak my tongue? What is your names?" She asked, stepping forward.

"Our names…" she said softly. "I speak your tongue, Nalla. This is Eresa, she does not. I am…" she thought a moment about her name. What she had been called so many times. What Oruna had called her. "My name is Keeah and we come from a long way." She said in a tired voice. She felt her legacy began to give out, as exhaustion took hold.

"Za'watem!' Eresa cried out, cradling her as she fell.

The last thing Keeah saw was Nalla stepping before her and tilting her head. "Oh you poor things… We shall fix you right up…"

Then the world faded to black.









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Desert Ice





The chamber was lit dim, like the jungle canopies she used to know. Here the birds did not sing, nor did the animals talk, nor was their laughter. There were only the sounds of distant footsteps on cool stone, hushed whispers in the dark and she could swear she heard something following her but when she looked around, there was nothing to be seen but empty hallways. She dumped water on the lit torch, putting it out with a sizzle and plume of smoke. Her balcony overlook was then set in darkness, her only source of light now the moons, the big white one providing the most.

Keeah shivered, the dark had settled in quickly. She took one last look out the balcony, seeing the heavens reflected upon the earth. Fires lit windows and outdoor foyers as far as her eyes could see. She turned back into her large room. Much too large for two people in fact and it sat high up. She remembered wanting to see such sights in Zuanwa but now… Now it just reminded her of pain. She shook her head and tried not to think about it, instead turning her attention to the room lit by moonlight and the figure sleeping on the grand bed. It was nestled against the wall with a canopy of red that could come down all around it. It was layered with sheets and blankets the like she had never seen.

Eresa slept peacefully beneath those same blankets. The girl, only a few years younger than her, had been cleaned of her paints after they arrived. They both had. Eresa had not known why but also did not object after Keeah had told her it would be alright. A part of her could not help but feel that washing them away was like losing a part of herself. But Eresa listened to her, as a servant did because that was all she knew. Maybe in time she would shed those chains.

Now, Keeah could see her face and she was beautiful. There was no mistake in Rakat's choosing of her as a servant. She seemed to be taking it all in well though, much better than herself, at least. It was remarkable really. Eresa had wanted to stay up with her but Keeah sent her to bed, wanting to keep her thoughts alone for the night. Now though, it was time for rest.

She was drawn to the warmth that awaited her within those blankets and next to someone familiar. A reminder and comfort of where she had come from. And so, she began to carefully remove the sheets on one side and slipped in. She settled in quick, leaning back against the pillows as she scooted closer to Eresa. She paused before she fully committed to that decision however and watched her breath, then feeling foolish she looked out across the room and sighed.

The room was adorned with a rich table and things that were called shelves that had ornaments and other trinkets on them. It was made out of some sort of wood, somehow. On the far wall, built out from it and tall, there was a basin where she was told servants would come and fill it with warm water for washing. Steps led up to it, built into the stone. It confused her.

Many things confused her, anymore.

She was still reeling from the last few days, not really knowing how to process what had happened… What she had done…

Oruna…

She knew in her heart what she truly was… A person that brought only pain and tragedy. Who lost control and murdered with cold clarity that was beyond her.

She was a monster… One that parents told their children to fear. She deserved that fear and that hate. She deserved to di-

"Za'watem?" Eresa's voice was sleepy and and soft as Keeah turned to look at her. Eresa's gaze percieved Keeah with those deep brown eyes of hers, full of concern. "What's wrong? What do you need, Za'watem?" She said, sitting up. Keeah blinked and felt tears fall down her cheeks.

How long had she been crying? She rubbed at her face with her sheets and looked at Eresa again. "It's nothing. I'm fine. Go back to sleep Eresa." She said a little too fast settling back further into the pillows and warmth that surrounded her. Why did she feel so cold still? She felt restless but tired all the same. Did she dare even sleep less the nightmares come to haunt her?

Her thoughts were broken by Eresa as she scooted closer to Keeah under the blankets. After a moment, she pressed against Keeah, facing her this time. The tall girl did not object as Eresa settled in without a word. She felt her slender fingers caress her shoulder, where she had been wounded not long ago. It was pleasant… Kia then looked at her once before nestling her head down. It was a small gesture but it made her feel warmer.

A knock outside her curtained door made them both jump and sit up. Eresa pressed further into her, as if to hide. Before Keeah had time to answer though… She walked through.
Za'watem Nalla. The Queen.

She wore her fiery hair down well past her shoulders, she could see the thick curls caught in the moonlight, reflecting like crimson, as well as her face. Small, dainty and hungry… It sent a shiver down her spine. Yet, Keeah was surprised to see that the only thing she wore was a loose nightgown of black covering her pale skin, but leaving nothing to the imagination. Her crown was gone, so was that necklace and her royal attire. She almost looked normal, and young. Had she always looked so young? But Keeah knew differently. Here was a queen, as they called her here. One of power and secrets. What did she want with her then?

“Hello Keeah, Eresa.” She said in that voice of hers. It lacked the authority it had carried when they first met and that somehow sent another shiver down her spine. “May I come in?” She asked.

She was asking? Keeah blinked and then in a quiet voice she said, “Sure.” Who was she to deny the queen, right?

Nalla smiled at them and walked in. She held her head high, with confidence and pride. Even the way she walked seemed to ooze with charm, practiced a thousand times to be just perfect. She held her eyes shut for a moment, trying to banish such foolish thoughts and she only opened them when she felt a weight at the end of the bed.

Nalla sat there, facing the balcony, slender hands propping her up. “Do you like your accommodations? Are you warm? It does often get chilly at night but never as cold as a winter in the north.”

Keeah raised an eyebrow, the questions gone from her mind as she asked her own. “You’ve been to the north?”

Nalla turned to her, eyes downcast. “Of course, ever heard of the Highlands?”

The girl quickly shook her head. This didn’t seem to bother Nalla in the slightest. Eresa kept her gaze low. She couldn't speak the language of the land and had to have Keeah translate. But right now, she would have to explain later.

“Well, I lived there. Nallan started there, small and full of ambition. Ah but it was not to last, I should have known really. The sun came and ruined everything... But even endings are just disguises for new beginnings, right?” the queen mused.

Keeah looked away from Nalla, her eyes narrowing as she thought about that. Was this a new beginning? Or was it just a stop, another place for tragedy to strike? Could she tell this woman her fears? How dangerous she actually was? She felt a hand grab hers underneath the covers, perhaps noticing her hesitation. Keeah took a deep breath.

She then squeezed Eresa's hand, for she was a blessing that let her focus. For now, she would keep it simple for the Queen. She glanced back at her with an eye and murmured, “The sun? Was it Rhiona?”

Nalla met her eye and gave a thoughtful nod, “I think so, how do you know her name?”

“She was… She is… The one who sent me to where I was. She said I could start over there. She lied.” Keeah whispered, the anger in her voice surprised her.

“Avatars are tricky.” Nalla began. “They can walk upon the earth, be feared and respected. They can do anything they want and the only oversight they have? That would be their God. Or other Gods. I’ve only met two and both times had opposite outcomes. The important thing now is that you are here, brought by the only Goddess who cares and away from pesky avatars.”

“I have to ask, why did Rhiona send you from the north?” Keeah cocked her head to the side, curious.

Nalla in turn looked out towards the balcony. “I wanted more land, more power and I had the means to get it.” Her words made Keeah blink. That was very forthcoming.

“The problem was my naivety. I put my trust in a witch, a Sorceress by the name of Aurielle. I saw in her great potential and I wanted her to lead my armies in conquest. What I failed to realize, was that my trust was misplaced. She did accomplish my goal, that I cannot deny but the cost was more than some could bear. I was blamed, rightfully, of course. A druid came to Nallan and prayed to the Sun and here we were sent as punishment. An unjust punishment of course. I did not tell Aurielle to burn cities in my name. I did not tell her to set examples. Did I expect bloodshed? Of course, who wouldn’t… But she was bloodthirsty and the rest is history. It feels so long ago now, I guess that’s what the heat does to you.” She sighed.

Keeah became conflicted at her sentiment. She was horrified of course, of what Nalla spoke of but a part of her knew what it meant to be bloodthirsty. How could she judge that when she herself was just as equally guilty for lives lost?

“It hasn’t been so bad.” Nalla said, looking to Keeah again, her eyes bright orbs. Somehow soft but strong. “Neiya is a benevolent Goddess. She helped us when the others would not. And we are thriving because of it. Sometimes I have regrets but I know the future holds many promises to come.”

“Do you… Do you miss the past? Of your time in these, Highlands?” Keeah asked in a small, childlike voice.

Nalla smiled and gave a nod. “Sometimes. But if we dwell on the past, we become consumed by it. I prefer to look to the future and what it has in store for us. Sure, the past is a part of us, without it who would we be? But this does not mean it should shackle us.” she paused as if in thought then continued a moment later, “I want you to know that you are safe here and will be well cared for. The both of you. I love my goddess and she sent you here, placing her faith in me. I shall not disappoint her by treating you poorly. Anything you want, anything you need, I offer all that I can to you. You are special Keeah, in what ways I cannot say right now but I hope I might be able to, one day.”

Keeah's face flushed. She was barely able to hold the gaze of the queen. It was so intense. "T-Thank you, Nalla. I mean Queen Nalla." She corrected herself but it came out wrong. She grew embarrassed further.

"There there, you are new here to our customs. When alone you may call me Nalla. In the presence of others, your majesty, my queen and I'm sure you'll pick up others. Think nothing of it for now." Nalla said. At that, Keeah looked up at her.

For a brief moment Keeah thought Nalla's charming smile hid something deeper behind her eyes, the same hunger and it unnerved her but a moment later it was gone. Had she imagined it?

"I can do that, Nalla." She said, breaking the silence. The queen nodded approvingly.

"Good. One can learn much here and if you are to stay I ask that you do. I shall assign some servants to the both of you and they will take care of your needs until you grow accustomed. Starting tomorrow the two of you will be shown a new world. I hope you can enjoy it like I do. For now, I shall let you sleep. You seem to be in good company." She winked, got up from the bed and made her way to the door. "Goodnight Keeah, Eresa." She said, leaving them alone.

"She's so… Intense." Keeah finally breathed, laying back into the bed.

Eresa laid back beside her without words and the two stared up at the canopy. She had a great deal to think about. Could she trust Nalla? Could Nalla trust her? She turned to look at Eresa and sighed. "What do we do, Eresa? She doesn't seem like she'd harm us or get rid of us. Do we just… Stay? Where would we go if we even wanted to leave?"

"I have no answers, Za'watem." Eresa spoke.

Keeah frowned and let out a small sigh. She was about to close her eyes but Eresa spoke again. "I think… We should stay, if we have nowhere else to go, Za'watem."

Keeah blinked and then smiled. Progress!

"Okay. We shall stay for as long as Za'watem Nalla will have us." She said, mind made. She began to shut her eyes again but stopped. There was something else that needed to be said. "Eresa… Thank you for being here, with me."

"The privilege is mine, Za'watem Keeah." She gave with a nod, looking at her again.
It wasn't exactly the response she had been looking for, but it was in the right direction.

"Goodnight, Eresa." Keeah said, nestling back into the bed beside her. She then remembered where her hand was still and let go with a flush of red to her face.

"Goodnight, my Za'watem." Eresa yawned, pressing herself into Keeah's side. The two then drifted off into sleep.




The days went by quickly as Keeah found herself learning about a new world. Again. Unlike her time spent with Oruna in the jungles, here in Nallan a great deal was different. It was hot, but not muggy or humid. No, this heat was bone dry and her body struggled with the temperature changes. Cold at night, hot during the day. And now, it was just raining. They called it the Relief. Dark clouds that stretched on forever, releasing a constant drizzle of water. Just enough to make her miserable, Eresa too. But everyone else, those she passed on her daily journeys, seemed to be smiling and in good humor. She supposed it was a much needed reprieve from the heat.

Then there was the fact everyone wore clothes from head to toe. The less skin one shown, the more wealthy one was seen, as clothes were still hard to come by. The custom had something to do with how Nalla dressed, at least when seen by her people. This was beginning to be reflected down throughout Nallan. Keeah was forced to wear clothing that covered her up, as she was very pale and the sun burned her skin easily. It was strange, going from warm furs, to nothing and then back to being clothed. She felt even worse for Eresa, as her entire identity had been from wearing paints and now she had been wearing clothes as well. Though, they had been able to finally track down a local who made paints and with a little trading, they were able to find the ones they had used back in Zuanwa. Though Eresa did not show it, Keeah could tell she was thrilled.

But now that the Relief had come, many chose to forgo their clothing in favor of feeling the rain upon their skin, it was strange how one second it was taboo to show skin and then suddenly it wasn’t. This perhaps also had to do with how the queen showed herself now, wearing very revealing clothing as she was carried around in a palanquin when she went out into the city. She herself wore clothing similar to that, a long black dress, that more or less acted as a skirt, that was cut down the middle and indeed in a v. It was very revealing but Keeah did not mind all that much anymore. Until people stared at her and she questioned why she had thrown it on in the first place. Eresa simply wore a loin cloth and fabric that covered her chest as they walked.

So it wasn’t all bad.

They learned about Nallan’s customs and history from her servants, Velie and Yeso. Then Keeah translated for Eresa, so she could learn as well. Their servants, though Eresa never asked them for anything, were prim and proper young girls who liked to talk. A lot. And about all sorts of things but Keeah didn’t mind too much. She learned a lot from them and they helped to make their stay more pleasant. They were both younger than Eresa, and about the same height as the dark skinned girl. Velie was a brunette with a thin build, a dianty face with freckles and hazel eyes. Yeso was a blonde, same build as Velie but with a creamy skin tone and blue eyes. If one hadn’t known they weren’t related, they probably would have guessed that they were sisters.

Now the four of them were on their way back to the palace after they had secured the paints. Keeah had seen many strange things those last few weeks but none as strange as the Alma, as they were called. Slaves with large eyes, crested brows of feathers and such strange skin tones with glowing swirls. They were beautiful but… She pitied them. She had almost been a slave and knew how it felt. They reminded her of Eresa the most, how their identities were slowly becoming that of servants, bound to do as they were told. But she was also relieved that their fate was not her own. How could she feel such ways? It was a question that made her think about her place and where she wanted to go. Could she let people suffer, like she had suffered? Or would she just end up doing something foolish?

As her servants chatted amongst themselves and Eresa walked by her side, they passed the gate guards, armed heavily, and their way into the palace. Nalla liked it quiet in her home and not much went on besides servants and the occasional plant folk walking about. That was another oddity she was perplexed by. A living plant? How did they even work? She had not been able to meet one yet, as Nalla kept them as personal pets. She had learned that interesting tidbit from Yeso. Perhaps one day she would be able too?

Velie and Yeso took the two of them back to their room and then left to fetch warm water and food. Eresa began to take out her paints and place them on a shelf as Keeah stripped off her wet clothes and changed quickly into something warm as she awaited the water.

She didn’t mind having servants that did what she asked, it… Felt good and she appreciated them. Oruna would have liked having servants of her own… She felt guilty for living the promised life they had wanted together. She walked over to the empty basin and put her hands on the stone as guilt struck her. Then that guilt turned to anger as her thoughts went back to that day and her knuckles turned white as that man’s face came to the forefront... He had ruined everything!

“Za’watem! Za’watem Keeah!” Eresa called for her and Keeah blinked, spinning around to see what was wrong.

Instead she saw Eresa, now naked, applying paint to her body. Keeah’s heart jumped into her throat and she felt her face begin to blush. She tried to maintain eye contact but her eyes wandered, the odd fluttering in heart building. “Y-Yes, Eresa?” she managed to say.

“Would you like to be painted after your bath, my Za’watem?” she asked with a curt smile.

“I don’t think…” She gulped as Eresa painted her neck, “I… I’m going to go for a walk and clear my head.” She said in a rush, headed for the door. Eresa began to speak but her words were lost to Keeah’s ears as she hurried down the hallway.

She wandered through the halls, cheeks red and heart beating fast. Why did Eresa make her feel as she did? She had seen her body before it wasn’t like… It wasn’t like it was any different. But it was, wasn’t it?

So lost in thought and flustered Keeah was, she thought she almost ran into someone as she rounded a corner. There was a blur in her vision and she blinked to see that there was no one in front of her. Was she seeing things now?

“Keeah.”

She spun around and came face to face with Nalla, wearing her hair up in a bun with that crown of hers and that necklace of ruby red as she wore a black dress. When did she…? Keeah quickly straightened herself up. “Queen Nalla!” she said, giving her an unnecessary bow.

Nalla looked her over. “Good heavens dear, your face is all red. Are you well?”

"I-I-I am fine your majesty. Was just uh… I was just uh…" Keeah began but her mind blanked out on an excuse. It was far too embarrassing to tell the truth.

Nalla smirked. "You know, Keeah. I've seen this before. The look in your eyes is a dead giveaway." She walked around Keeah and then placed a hand on her shoulder, sending a small breath on her left ear that sent a shiver down her spine as the queen leaned in close. Was she standing on her tiptoes? Nalla then whispered, "Why do you deny your desire? If you want something, then take it Keeah. Make it be yours, love it, cherish it, we never know how long we have in this life." She grew silent and Keeah waited for her to continue but she never did. She spun around and found that Nalla was gone but her heart still beat fast.

Keeah brought her hand to her cheek. Maybe she was right… Maybe she… The more she thought on Nalla's words, the more she began to agree with them. Like a seed taking root in her heart. She knew what she wanted.

Keeah raced back to her room and opened the curtain to see that Eresa was wiping her paints off with a downcast look in her eye. When she saw Keeah, she stood a little straighter. Keeah approached her and Eresa began to speak, avoiding eye contact.

"I did not mean to upset you, my Za'watem. I just thought you would wan-" She silenced Eresa's words with a gentle pull of her face to meet her own. The two looked at another for several blissful moments of silence. Then Keeah pressed in closer, her cheeks bright red and her heart felt like it was going to sprout wings and fly off. Eresa's eyes relaxed and she seemed to know what was about to happen with a knowing smile.

Keeah breathed, "P-Paint me." Before pressing her lips to Eresa's.




Almost a year later

Keeah stumbled into the room, numb to sensation and feeling as if she was in a dream as her body felt the euphoric aftershocks of Nalla's words. She hugged herself as she leaned on a table to keep herself from falling over and let out a long but pleasant sigh.

"Enjoy yourself, Keeah?" Eresa's voice came to her ears and Keeah slowly tilted her head to view the Zuanwan woman with a slow smile forming on her lips. Eresa looked so good. The way the moonlight touched her left little to the imagination, especially with her painted features and that silken robe. Keeah was mesmerized. Had her hair always been that long?

Eresa folded her arms. Uh oh. "Za'watem." She said in a stern voice. Keeah stopped smiling and began to pout. When Eresa used that word, it meant she wasn't happy with her. Something that was becoming increasingly apparent.

The tall girl gripped the chair closest to her and said, in a soft voice that was slightly slurred, "Yes, Eresa?"

"Did you enjoy yourself?" Eresa said with an icy coolness as she walked over to the opposite end of the table and gripped her own chair. "How many times this week? Five? Six? Dare I say eight?" Keeah gave no answer but she averted her gaze from Eresa's scrutiny. "I don't like this, Keeah. You go out and out and do things that… That I have a hard time understanding. Why? Why do you do these things? Look how you dress! Look at the ribbon around your neck! Do you not see how addicted you've become to her powers?" Another moment of silence, she did not know what to say. "Keeah. Look at me, please."

She did with some reluctance and saw that Eresa's normally stoic face was full of emotion, her eyes brimmed with tears. She almost wanted to look away again, out of shame. But she didn't. "Eresa…" she whispered.

The jungle girl wiped her eyes. "You know I don't care what you do with others. It was acceptable in Zuanwa, it should be here. You treat me well, you always have and for that I am yours forever." She took a deep breath. "But I worry for you, Keeah."

It took her by surprise, Eresa's words. She had never been so forthcoming with her thoughts. Once she had just been a soft spoken lover but now… Now she was her own person and it hurt Keeah inside. Had she been so blind? "You… Worry for me? Why?" She asked, burying the aftershocks as her mind became clearer.

Eresa nodded. "You were not always like this. But I fear I awoke something in you and she empowered it, turning a kind woman into someone who only enjoys her next dose of pleasure, far too much. Keeah, I've seen the depths one will fall too as they become a slave to their own vices and I worry for who you are becoming."

She felt like she had been slapped, who was she to say such things?. "What are you… That's not true! I am kind, I'm kind to you, I treat you well. I always have! And and and I'm not addicted Eresa!” She slammed her hands on the table in front of them, making Eresa jump. Keeah winced and then in a softer voice said, “Don't blame yourself for who I'm becoming, Eresa. I like feeling powerful and strong. For once, in control of myself. So what if it’s through… Means that make me feel good? Besides, Nalla helps me."

Eresa pursed her lips, she opened her mouth to speak and then shut it. Silence permeated the area as Keeah watched Eresa collect her thoughts. She then spoke in a quiet voice, "You do treat me well, my Za’watem. Better than I have ever been treated, in fact. But what of the other servants? Do you think if they could they would ask for you to stop when you are too rough? Do you care about them or their wellbeing? You used too, Keeah. Now when I look into your eyes I see a hunger. Like hers..."

She felt her blood begin to grow hot, only for it to simmer as she looked at Eresa. "That’s not…” She began but fell silent. As much as she wanted to deny it, to yell and say she was wrong, that she was lying… A part of her knew the truth. Why she did such things. Her own eyes began to water. “Eresa… I-I-I do it for us. Don’t you see?” She took a deep breath, trying to calm the emotions within. “You see the servants… I see them… The lords and ladies of the court. Misham, Corrowin, Helhin, Jaelia, Yiowne… They want you. They want me.” Eresa blinked, her face turning to shock. “Nalla… She likes uniqueness and so do they and who is more unique then you or I? They would have us as their own servants, their own playthings. So I… I have to become one of them, get on their level so I can keep you safe.” Her hands found the chair and she gripped it tight as she looked to the floor and blinked tears away. “I want to be like them.” She uttered, her silent truth revealed.

More silence followed but she dared not look up at Eresa. Before long however, she felt a familiar warmth next to her, with a tender hand guiding her face to look at Eresa. She looked conflicted. “Keeah…" she said, and the tall woman felt the ribbon around her neck become loose and slip down. She shivered as Eresa touched the two bite marks with her fingers, still fresh from Nalla.

She gave a shivering breath as Eresa's hand began to wander. "I don't mean to mistreat the servants. I just get… Carried away. I lose myself in the throws of such passion Eresa… I will… Try to work on myself."

"I suppose there is no changing your mind Keeah?" Eresa murmered, pressing herself into Keeah. She gingerly wrapped her in a hug. "Have you thought it through? Will you forsake the sunlight for such power? Can you stomach blood?" She asked.

"You know I've never been fond of the sun. I think I will be fine without it, the others manage. Nalla says it will help focus my powers, keep me collected and allow me to react quicker. Plus, once I become one of them I get my own house, with my own servants and we will be able to live anyway we want. Nalla promised that we would be well taken care off and more if I help her out from time to time. It's the life Oruna wanted and I will make her proud." She said, sounding confident again.

Eresa said nothing for a time and did not let go from her either. "As long as you don't lose yourself to this power, my Keeah. Okay?" She said in her softest voice yet. Keeah squeezed her a bit harder and looked off and out into the city.

"Okay."




Around Four years later

"Lady Keeah!" Came a voice that jostled her awake with a quiet groan. "Lady Keeah! Please wake." Her eyes focused in the dimly lit chamber and she found herself looking at large eyes. One of her Alma servants, Teiw, stood at attention next to her bed.

"What is it?" She murmured, rubbing her eyes. It had to be daylight out still.

"Urgent message from the Queen, my Lady. She requests your presence, now." The girl spoke with a slight bow.

Keeah began to sit up but felt herself pressed down. She looked at her large bed to see a pile of her fledglings strewn about in various states of wear. While Eresa was the one who was passed out on her legs, the silly woman. Gently she reached out and pushed her aside. Eresa grumbled something about vintage blood and quieted.

Keeah then sat on the edge of the bed as Tiew began to help her as she got up and walked off her sleepiness.

"Did she say what about?" Keeah asked, putting on a loose shirt. If the queen wanted her now, there would be no time to dress up.

Tiew brought over trousers and a large cloak. "No my lady, only that it was important."

She put those on two and fixed her hair. Tiew held out her white mask, bowing again. Keeah instead grabbed her by the waist and Tiew instinctively tilted her head to show her neck. "Hungry, my lady?"

Keeah's reply came in the form of biting her neck. She drank two mouthfuls of her blood and then released Tiew, taking the mask as she licked her lips. "Thank you Tiew, you may take the rest of the night off."

The servant nodded with a smile as she placed a cloth to her neck. Keeah then went on her way, placing the mask across her face. It was a simple one, with only two eye holes and curvature that fit her face. It was meant for traveling in the day, as her cloak blocked the light. It was really only for precautions, as Nalla had used and dug out the extensive tunnel systems for travel between her palace and elsewhere. That was the route Keeah took.

It did not take her long at a brisk run and she was let into the dungeons of Nalla's palace. Long flights of stairs later and she was directed to the throne room where she arrived to see a very peculiar sight.

Nalla was sitting on the throne of course but she had a little girl on her lap with blond hair. And they were alone, talking to each other. Keeah took off her mask as she approached and Nalla smiled at her.

"There you are Keeah, I was wondering when you would show up. I have someone very special I'd like you to meet. Someone with magic as strong as yours." The small girl looked at her with inquisitive eyes. Nalla continued on, "I believe her to be a witch and I think you two will get along very well. Keeah, I'd like you to meet Anastasya."

The girl smiled at her and Keeah smiled back.






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Mekellos




The campaign had gone well, even after Aveira had left.

In truth, there wasn't much use in having her. It wasn't that she incapable; it was simply that Mekellos on his own was already more powerful than anything the iskrill had to offer. Any additional support would have been overkill, unless the iskrill themselves had been given some sort of divine aid - which had yet to happen. So it was little surprise, and little loss, that the Avatar of Neiya had left.

Mekellos still wasn't sure why she had been sent to him in the first place.

Anyhow, a foothold had been carved out on the other side of the river. New outposts and the beginnings of new settlements had been established. The iskrill had made attempts to drive them back, but they were scattered and disunited. Mekellos and the soldiers of Acadia had crushed them one by one. And the loss of so many fighters had left the iskrill settlements deeper inland exposed, and ripe for pillaging.

Unfortunately, the Avatar of Cadien had not had the time to do so, for he soon received word of a most distressing predicament. A sickness had struck Acadia; one that no magic or potion could cure. A number of workers and soldiers had already fallen ill. If left unchecked, the city's food and metal output would begin to suffer, and new soldiers may even carry the disease to the frontlines. Both the Acadians' supplies and their ability to defend their newly acquired territory would suffer.

And so, the Avatar of Perfection was forced to call the campaign off. Suddenly, he wished Aveira had not departed after all. But there was little to do about that, save address the problem immediately.

And he did. It was a surprisingly simple endeavor. The sickness was clearly divine in nature. Its effects were horrific, but not necessarily lethal. And since Mekellos was better at preventing people from getting sick than actually curing sickness, he decided it would be more efficient to identify the afflicted, quarantine them, and bolster the rest of the population's immune system against such unnatural diseases.

With that done, Mekellos prepared to resume his campaign, hoping that the delay caused by this mess would not be too severe.

Unfortunately, another interruption came.




"Are you certain?" Mekellos asked. He was alone, in the council room. The Pontiffs and the Monarchs were absent. It was just him, and the voice of his lord, who spoke within his mind.

"Of course I am. Why aren't you? You felt it," Cadien said, which was true. Even so far away, Mekellos had still felt the earth shake, and the familiar feeling that emerged whenever a divine being was acting in the area.

"It just seems... so senseless..."

"It is, but it has happened nonetheless."

"And you are certain it was her?"

"As certain as I can be without witnessing it myself. Which is why you must go to confirm it, find out why it happened, and see if it can be reversed."

Mekellos nodded grudgingly. He walked over to the balcony which overlooked the city of Acadia. The city he had ruled, which served as his home for so many years. He had never been used to staying in one place for so long. "Very well, my lord."

"Do not go alone," Cadien warned. "She is an avatar. That on its own makes her power equal to yours. But she also had a weapon; a dangerous one, with which she wounded Qael'Naath himself."

"And who could I bring with me that can surpass this weapon?" Mekellos asked, curious.

"A second avatar, of course."

Mekellos's eyebrows rose. "You mean you-"

He didn't get a chance to finish. A small portal formed before him, and from it emerged a bronze longsword with a gilded hilt, and a glowing amethyst set in the crossguard. It was suspended in mid-air, the blade pointed directly at the floor.

"I present to you, Kharros. The Avatar of War."

The blade flipped itself, pointing the tip skyward, and then flew toward Mekellos. The Avatar of Perfection caught it effortlessly. The grip of the blade moulded itself to perfectly fit his hand. "We have our mission," rasped a metallic voice. "And we must see it fulfilled."





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It was only a breeze that flowed over the sandy desert lands of the Wastes but it carried something more than just air. It carried an essence that was invisible to all. Like a seed, it fell down to the sand and sank through the ground. Under the sand, its heat spread. Melting the sand around it into glass and fusing it together to make something more. The heat spread like a virus. From above you could see the red glow break through from time to time. Like underground lightning. Then finally a limb burst forth from below. Grabbing the surface as it pulled its body up. Another limb reached out and pulled itself up. Sand flowed like water off its glassy body. Yellow-glowing beady eyes saw light for the first time in its existence.

The Glass Wastes were a paradise for it. The creature looked up at the sun and opened its split jaw to suck in the magical energies that hung in the air. Sparks traveled through it but were visible from the outside. The sunlight that traveled through it was fractured into a variety of moving colors that shone below it. Lowering its head again, it observed the land. The sand was like the greenest grass and the glass pools were like sapphire lakes to it. But it saw further out. It was born near the edge. There it saw strange things. Things that reached up, drenched in an ugly color. The closest were blackened from fire. They looked better yet still not perfect. Not like the utopia it was born in.

A mound of sand next to it flashed with red light a few times. The newborn wasn’t afraid though. It heard the faint calls of its brethren. Each of its brothers and sisters that were born around him looked different in some way. Yet all let out that soft, high pitched whine when they gazed up towards the scorching sun and consumed their first bite of magical energy. All of them cried out towards the ugliness they saw further out. They also felt that their unity brought forth something greater than the sum of them. As they came close a barely-visible shimmer flowed from their bodies.

The herd moved slowly at first. Letting the newborn that joined them get used to their limbs as they moved through the pleasant, warm sand. Sometimes a deep-frozen breeze flowed over them. Creatures of flesh and skin would’ve been frozen in a near-instant. The elementals just happily stopped for a small nip of the frozen magic and then continued on. Yet as they approached the end of their paradise, they felt as if the magic had grown thin. The sparks they had charged in their body would have to carry them further as they started to pass from sand into the blackened earth. But as they moved, the earth below them began to change. Fertile earth was broken down as its nutrients were sucked out of it. The herd was busy tearing down the burned trees as the ground underneath them very slowly turned to the same fine grain as the Glass Wastes.

One shrieked. The herd looked up to see what was happening. The ash of the burned tree it was trying to tear down was somehow attacking it. Blackened soot began to smear its glass face and sticky ashy began to fill its eyes. It cried and trashed. The rest of the herd flanked it as they desperately looked around to see what was attacking it. Ash billowed up from the ground. Painting their underbellies as they reared towards it. Afraid they slowly walked backward as stones began to fly through the air. Cracking their skin slightly. When they were near enough again, they turned and fled completely. When the moon fell, they were back in the safety of their paradise. Like all creatures, they would sleep but tomorrow was another day in their cherished burning sun. Their instinct told them to return and turn more of the cursed world into paradise.



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Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Not Fishing
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Carn




Carn stepped into Antiquity for the first time. He wore the black armour of one of Cadien’s hussars, with his sword sheathed at his hip, cloak on his shoulders, and lute slung across his back. As he marveled at the vast, white arena, and the shining image of Galbar in the sky above, two more figures emerged from the portal, clad in their own sets of Black Hussar armour as well.

Liamas and Nekara. The Songman and the Neiyari had asked to accompany him in his travels. They too were curious about the outside world, it seemed, and Carn had not objected to some extra company. They, too, were taken in by the sights.

“My word,” Liamas whispered. “Nothing has happened yet, and already I could write a song about this place.” The Songman looked odd in the Black Hussar, mostly because he had never worn it before this day.

The arena was slightly overgrown, with vegetation sprouting in the unlikeliest places. One particularly large bush was happily taking in the strange sunlight of Antiquity, a few paces from the trio. The bush seemed completely normal… At least, until it rustled, followed by an almost inaudible hiss. Deep within the thick foliage of yellowing leaves, a small flash of white could be seen whizzing past back and forth.

“And what’s that?” Nekara asked. Liamas shrugged, but Carn stepped forward.

“Who’s in there?” he asked.

There was another hiss, louder this time, followed by a quiet pained gasp. The rustling came back in force, and suddenly a trio of pristine, white, long, fluffy tails popped out of the bush, wagging back and forth hard enough to make whooshing sounds.

”Ugh, I told you to be quiet, Yllis!” One voice whispered. High-pitched and somewhat jarring yet somehow still attractive to the ears, kind of like listening to a trainwreck from a safe distance.

”I-I can’t be quiet, Yllis! Your elbow’s all the way in there, you know~” The same voice replied, yet this one came from a slightly different location within the bush.

The original voice groaned, and then a third one whispered. ”Did you hear something, Yllis? I dunno, kinda like an over glorified monkey asking someone who’s clearly out of their league their name?”

The first one spoke again after a small gasp. ”I think so, Yllis. Maybe it wants a banana?” She said, snickering quietly.

”Ow!” The second one hissed, ”W-Watch what you do with those nails, you bitch!”

”I’m not a bitch, you bitch! Unless that one tall soldier in Snowhair’s realm asked me to be....”

”You’re hopeless, Yllis.”

The trio glanced at the bush with puzzled expressions.

“It seems they do not know we are here,” whispered Liamas.

“If they don’t, they ought to be more alert,” Nekara commented bluntly. “If any of us had magic, a single spark of fire could be their end.”

“Enough of that talk,” Carn said. “We didn’t come here for a fight.” He took a step forward. “Hello there!” he called out. “You in the bush. Could you please come out so we can speak?”

The bush rustled a bit, and out of it popped a single face. Ghostly pale, with shining golden eyes and white hair. It was a woman’s face, with carefully, delicately sculpted features all around betrayed by the sharp fangs that glinted in the light when she smirked. There was something unsettling about the face, but Carn couldn’t exactly pin that feeling onto any of the features he could see.

After a mere moment a second face, completely identical to the first with the only difference being that this one was sweating and blushing, popped out next to the first. Then a third. And finally, after some more rustling, three dog-like, pristine, white tails popped out the other end of the bush and started to wag chaotically, sometimes slapping each other.

The three women quickly wiped the smirks off their faces and replaced them with more subdued, yet still smug enough, smiles. They all looked at each of the 3 travelers from head to toe.

”That was a bold joke just now, the one where the group’s stress relief implied a little mortal could make fire strong enough to kill me.” One of the three women said, her gaze settling on Nekara as she snickered quietly.

”Yllis, none less than the cutest, most adorable, most lovable, most unexpectedly outgoing Goddess!” The middle one declared proudly, closing her eyes in the process for a moment. Then, she deflated somewhat and opened them again, unamused. ”So? What do two mortals and one half-mortal want with me?”

Carn opened his mouth to speak, but then Liamas stepped forward as well. “The man who stands beside me is Carn the Unblemished. Prince of Meliorem, Champion of-”

“Enough,” Carn cut him off sharply. “I am Carn.” He gestured to his companions. “This is Liamas, and that is Nekara. We are just passing through the area.”

”Huh, is that so.” Yllis asked in monotone, then awkwardly stood up and out of the bush, followed by the other two. They helped each other in quickly patting down their clothing and fixing their hair. While they were doing that, she continued. ”There isn’t much to see, I’m warning you now. Most of the Gods are freaky hermits so you most likely won’t see them out and about.”

“Are there any examples in particular that stand out?” Carn asked.

”All of them. I’ve been waiting here for a long time and no one has appeared... Only a bunch of mortals.” One said and sighed.

”Yep. Biggest disappointment ever. There isn’t even any point to messing with you as it is.” Another shrugged.

“Just how long have you been waiting here?” Nekara questioned.

The women merely gave another shrug.

Hm. So according to this goddess, the supposed central meeting ground of the gods, the crossroads between realms… was almost never used. That was… disappointing, to say the least. “Have you visited the realms of the other gods?” Carn asked.

They rolled their eyes. ”You think I’m some kind of freak that barges into people’s homes uninvited? Only realm I’ve seen other than mine is Meliorem.”

“Do the other gods take issue with mortals walking into their realms uninvited?” Liamas asked. “We wouldn’t want to offend any of them.”

Yllis took a deep breath and the three sat down on a somewhat clean part of the auditorium. They grabbed their tails and started stroking them absentmindedly. ”I’m new here. I only know two Gods, so no I don’t know whether they’ll kill you or turn you into toys upon entering their realms, or even if they’d let you enter their realms...”

”... The true question is why you’d want to get involved with a bunch of immortal children who can’t help but to get involved in a tiny mortal war and to blow things out of proportion. Just go back down to Galbar, you’ll find actually interesting stuff down there I’m sure.”

Carn frowned. “You seem to know a lot about the gods, for someone who claims to have only met two. How is that?”

Yllis huffed and shook her head, leaning back. ”You talk a lot like Snowhair, you know? You pretend to be the fairest of all, but you fall short and just come off as a man who fears taking action. Your little lapdog here,” She pointed lazily at the Songman, who let out a gasp of indignation, ”Said your title was “the Unblemished”, right? That is incredibly lame, so go get a few scars on your baby-face before pretending to be high and mighty with me.”

”Know that I’m not afraid of getting my hands dirty, so if you keep giving me lip I might just be the one to give you those scars.”

The sudden aggression left Carn puzzled. “It was just a question,” he said. “And no, that’s not my title.”

“Carn,” Nekara began, a warning note in her voice, but she said nothing more.

Yllis stared at Carn, letting her tails go. ”You’ve got problems. There’s nothing else to talk about, is there? So why don’t you continue with your little expedition?”

“Gladly,” Carn said, eager to be away from her. He hoped the other gods weren’t like this. If they were ,that would ironically prove her point. A self-fulfilling prophecy, in a way. He turned away, and his companions followed.








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Crime & Punishment





Today threatened to be yet another day of the same. Neiya lounged on her new throne atop the colossal arena that now dominated her realm, and sat idle as a throng of Furies presented their warlike dancing in the midst of the theater. She had had no way of discerning what each of them were good for, and for some infernal reason she had thought to challenge them and reward each with a task fitting to their talents. She had quickly noted that they seemed to try and copy other successful candidates rather than develop their own ideas, and so Neiya had begun to organize challenges taken from the wild imagination of mortals on Galbar, stolen as she pried their minds during prayer. She had chosen to look at and influence mortals beyond her realm as little as possible until she had figured all this out, for once she was taking her existence truly seriously.

She wanted to be better, but had no idea how or what that even meant for her. She had thought back to Cadien admonishing her for letting her worshippers run rampant, but how was she to even know? Why was it her duty to keep tabs on and educate those who rightfully worshipped her? Was that what it meant to be good? Wouldn't that just choke their own direction on Galbar? It would be Neiya play-acting with living dolls, not a life lived. Such a life would never spark anything but a shadow of what it meant to love. A weak facsimile. If that is what Oraelia also meant by being good and being better then she wasn't sure she could ever make either of them pleased. She wanted to ask someone, someone the mortals viewed as good. She wanted to ask Oraelia, but the thought wrung her gut and burned her cheeks. What if she was disappointed with Neiya not knowing? Turned her away? Neiya gripped her throne tighter and bit her lip, staring down at the arena.

There were other gods that the mortals called virtuous and good. It was difficult to find a consistent image, but the twin of the sun was among them. Again, merely thinking about it made Neiya writhe in her seat. Gibbou… she would sooner tell Neiya to die than give her advice. There were others too, but Neiya had never met them or had already given them a tainted image of who she was. No. There was no one. If she wanted help, she would have to ask the only good deity she knew might answer, no matter how much it made her muscles restless and sent cold chills down her spine.

She had just about resolved to plan a visit after the thousandth challenge for her Furies when she sensed a stream of emotion cast her way. It began as a trickle of sadness, then rapidly rose to unbridled anger, rage and bitter despair. Neiya gasped, her eyes turning black as the stream of negative emotions blacked out her mind and awareness of what went out around her. It took shape in her realm, and all activity in the arena ceased when the vortex of energy began to reshape in the sky. Mortals ran for cover and others threw themselves on the ground to beg Neiya's forgiveness. Neiya herself sat frozen, drawn into the pain of loss and endless hate that assaulted her from beyond. There was an unmistakable taste of essence, the same heat that had flown free in her realm before. Oraelia. But this was all wrong. Pain. Anguish. Fury.

Oraelia? Is that you? What's happening?

She cast a lone thought against the stream of negative emotion, but no answer came. She wasn't sure it even got through. The raw physicality of it seemed to bleed through the basic link and began to hurt in Neiya's joints and throat. It burned and wore on her until she could take the torment no more. Oraelia was in pain.

Without a thought towards what waited beyond her own realm, the goddess lifted from her throne and hovered towards the portal to antiquity. The emotions did not subside, and for each moment they remained they mingled with a building panic. A sense of dread that the worst was happening. Neiya couldn't even imagine what that would be - but she knew that simply receiving this stream of pain meant that she was now involved. She had to act.

With her destination set for Oraelia's realm, Neiya vanished through her own portal.




Neiya had never been to Oraelia's realm but she had imagined it to have been molded in the Life Goddess' image. Full of green trees, long grasses, wild flowers and crystal clear lakes as far as the eye could see and whatever else Oraelia fancied. She had seen the vast beauty and majesty of the mortal world and imagined Oraelia was responsible for much, if not all, of it. What awaited her was anything but that. A vast sun dominated the sky, overshadowing the land. Most alarmingly was that this sun was fully eclipsed to illuminate Oraelia's realm in an otherworldly glow of red and black. Like a hateful eye, always watching. Oppressive in its gaze.

"...Oraelia?" she called, beginning to regret her decision to come here. This was not what she had expected, and the thought of what she would find gnawed at the back of her mind.

Much of what Neiya had imagined was there but it was wrong. The landscape was drained of color. The trees were grey and seemed to sag. The grasses and flowers were tinged with solar burns and like embers they glowed faintly across the landscape, while any water source reflected the eclipse. Animals cowered, finding safety under trees and in groups. Though Neiya could feel their fear, they seemed to be unhurt.

It did not take long for Neiya to find the true source behind that fear, for it came to her, dropping down from the shadow of the sun like a raindrop. Oraelia's voice cut into her as she approached, raw with emotion. "I should have known you'd come." she spat with venom. "What better opportunity to finish what you started so long ago? Oh Neiya, you should have just killed me then. After you defiled my Aiviri, after you lied to me, after you hurt me…" her voice broke as she arrived before Neiya. She wore her newest form but like her realm, it was wrong. Her golden eyes had been replaced by the eclipse and her tattoos were burning with solar fury, the color of red. The tips of her curly hair radiated a simmering glow and her black dress was burned and tattered. Oraelia fists clenched at her sides as she looked at Neiya with disgust.

"But you… You exist to cause me suffering, don't you? You loveless, heartless thing." Her eyes narrowed.

"Oraelia, wh--" Neiya began in shocked defense, but the sun goddess did not care, and simply talked over her.

"Why kill me when you could sow the seeds of trust with a smile, knowing I would try to make amends? And then when the time came, when you grew bored of pretending to care, you could deal me another grievous blow." Oraelia raised her voice, fists shaking. "You delight in it because you know nothing else. You are a slave to your own being because you are weak. You can't change and you never will. I see that now. It only took the death of my second child but I now know that you are nothing more than a snake." she outstretched her arms. "So come then, Neiya, Goddess of Betrayal, of suffering and vipers. Finish what you started but know I will not go down without a fight."

Neiya withdrew both her hands to her chest, guardedly watching Oraelia and trying to make sense of her words. "I-... I don't understand, Oraelia. What… Why do you speak such bitter thoughts about me?" Neiya asked with a voice that wavered more than she had planned. The apparent loathing on Oraelia's face, a cold and calculated fury, made her feel a deep stone roll in her gut, while all the same her subconscious self-admiration told her no one should ever speak to her that way. She tried to steel herself, reclaim who she was. Though her arm swept through the air with determination there was no such composure in her voice. "I am no s-snake! I have done nothing but temper myself. I spoke true then and you, you insult me by insinuating otherwise."

Oraelia gave Neiya a wicked smile, as the Sun Goddess began to drift around her, arms behind her back. ”Insult you? Oh, I’m so sorry your majesty. How could I insinuate such things? That’s what you’d like to hear, isn’t it? And here I thought the snake had a backbone, but perhaps I was wrong about that too?” she said in a mocking tone. ”Even your words, your very voice, betray you. How fitting.” Neiya could hear Oraelia’s voice in her right ear, soft but striking like a dagger. ”You have always lied. Every word that comes from those poisonous lips of yours, is a falsity. You have even convinced yourself that this is not true, that you don’t live in such constant denial. Which is why you only listen to that which gives assurances to those lies. It gives you some warped sense of purpose. That you live for them, but in fact, you live for yourself in your own reality. Far apart from the truth.” Oraelia came to a halt before her again, eyeing her down with such calm anger. She pointed at Neiya. ”Look no further then this very moment. Do not deny what you have DONE!” she shouted, balling her fists. ”YOU KILLED MY SON! DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” her whole realm shook with thunder.

Neiya recoiled with a fright that overpowered her usually arrogant sensibilities. Only when Oraelia bridled with such fury that she seemed to grow taller and dominant and her surroundings seemed to grow darker did Neiya begin to reflect on the position she was in. How she had been able to swing the sun goddess around in her own realm. The thought of Oraelia doing the same in retaliation now sent shivers down her divine spine. "Or-Oraelia, I don't know what you're saying," she pleaded, even as some of what the goddess had leveled at her began to slip through the cracks and gnawed at her thoughts, even as her wilder accusations kept her focused and on the defensive. Almost as if on command, Neiya's skin took on the metallic sheen of her war form, subconsciously protecting herself against whatever was to come. "I… I have been in my realm, t-teaching my children! Whatever you think I've done, it's-... it's not true! I-... what happened?"

Oraelia took in a deep breath, the goddess was visibly shaking in her anger. She shut her eyes briefly, but this did little to settle her it seemed, for when they opened again, Oraelia drew in closer. "Changing your skin tone, Neiya? To remind me of that form that scarred me so? You have so much wisdom." she scoffed, twirling her own hair with a finger. "I cannot believe you still don't have a clue." she stopped twirling her hair. "You… Who killed a part of my soul. Shall I show you?" she asked but before Neiya could even reply, Oraelia grabbed her by the forearms and subjected her to a pain unimaginable. Like a giant knife of wreathed flame, had cut her open and stolen something vital, leaving behind a writhing mess of anger and rage. A profound loss of oneself. The feeling abruptly came to a halt as Oraelia let go, floating away as she grabbed the fabric around her chest, letting out a whimper as she hung her head.

Neiya fell to the ground, gasping out a coarse breath. Her throat burned and her ears rung. Only now did she realize the screaming she had heard had been her own. The sensation forced upon her rocked her to her core, and remained there like an ugly stain on her soul, leaving her nauseous and in pain. She had experienced endless loss before, for some mortal cultures, worshipping Neiya and experiencing loss was closely tied together. Still, nothing had prepared her for this. A physical, raw sensation like something was torn and ripped. Her only true comparison was being hit with mortality's negative emotions, so long ago. Was this what Oraelia suffered from? "Oraelia…" she begged through heavy breaths, hands planted in the dirt. "I would never... never do that to you… This feeling-... I do not wish it on any of my kin.." True to her title, she felt her eyes well up from shared emotion, and she looked up to Oraelia with no true attempt to defend herself anymore. "No one deserves such pain."

Oraelia looked upon Neiya and her eyes began to flicker to her golden hue so familiar. There was a pained expression on her face, as if she was being torn asunder. "You…" she began to say in a soft voice before pausing. And in that moment of brief silence, Oraelia's deamnor changed again, as her eyes ceased their flickering and became wrathful once more. The pained look on her face was still there but now it was focused on Neiya. "Your wrong, Neiya. You deserve such pain. Because that is all you are! A creature that inflicts suffering!" she shouted, balling her fists as she leaned forward. "And you are a liar! Your words mean nothing to me! For a snake cannot be trusted and I refuse to give you anymore chances. It's over. For this is all you will ever be." Oraelia gritted her teeth and stepped closer to Neiya. "That version of you I thought could be, died the day you came screaming to life. No, in fact, she never even existed! For if a sliver of her had, she would not have caused this pain onto me. She would not have had her avatar murder mine." she said in a harsh voice, looming over Neiya.

The horned goddess dared not look the furious Oraelia in the eyes, her eyes downcast as fingers gripped at the ground as though that would lend some safety. Her avatar had-... Aveira. It had to be. The shifter did not act out of free will, whereas Aveira had always been eager to interpret instructions in creative and violent ways. In almost an instant, Neiya put the not-so subtle clues together and came to a conclusion. A stone that she had set into motion decades ago and forgotten about had come full circle to come tumbling downhill. A war she no longer cared about, that she and Oraelia had done their best to mend, had been continued. Deep within that realization lay a simple truth, about Neiya and her unwillingness to take responsibility. About how even when she had finally begun to set things right, she had done so with her lax disregard for others. How she would let Aveira languish in silence for a decade at a time, and only check in to alter her orders. So many opportunities to tell her about what had changed. All wasted. Fortunately for Neiya, all these dreadful realizations were easy to ignore in favour of dipping her head lower and focusing on the symptom that had now festered. "Oraelia-... I-.. I did not command this!...” she pleaded once more, her voice buckling under her own nauseous guilt. "I wouldn’t do that to you, I-.. honest! It was never meant to go this far-... It must be Aveira.. She’s done it on her own! She still thinks-... she’s still fighting the same fight as back then-...”

Oraelia gave a mocking laugh once more. "You sound like a child. Pitiful. Was this who I was afraid of for all these years?" the Sun Goddess crouched down. "And To think it was all a game to you, that you could not conceive it going that far. And when it did, you still blame others. It no longer matters if you did not mean it, nor if you didn't command it. You did this Neiya. Whether you wanted too or not. And now… Your judgment is at hand." the words reverberated in the air.

The words burrowed deep into Neiya’s core and sent an unpleasant tingle over her neck. Beneath the guilt, the shared pain and sorrow, the essence of the horned goddess bubbled ever more, unwilling to accept even a basic accusation of guilt - outraged at being belittled so. Even if she was responsible, somehow, this was no way to treat someone admitting their faults. Who prostrated themselves and opened their hearts to another’s pain. Even now she was taunting her, accusing her. All she ever wanted was respect. Adoration. How did she end up here, in the dirt? "Now look-...” she began, and her form lifted from the ground slowly as the love goddess did her best to reclaim some stature. "We can work thi-.. Let me help you... Enough with this…”

Before she truly was able to get to her feet, chains of light erupted from the ground at Neiya's feet, shackling her arms, legs and neck before forcing her to her knees before Oraelia. The Sun Goddess stood tall before her, an inverted halo appearing over her head. "I told you, Neiya. There will be no more trusting you. No more lies to hear. You will be silenced forever and when I am well and done with you, I will move onto your creations and correct them. You will be erased from this world before you can do it anymore harm. Then I will protect life, the life that you and the others have stolen from me and I will make this world as I intended it to be before you all came along and defiled it. This s my right as the first born. It always has been."

Something began to grow brighter above them, a strand of light- No… A lance. Oraelia backed up and away slowly. "I wonder if Aveira will share my pain when you die, or maybe she will cease to exist? Either way…" she finished in a whisper.

A cold rush ran through Neiya, a sense of finality that felt inescapable and overwhelming. Was this what Oraelia had felt when she had been trapped in Neiya's realm? How deep did the wounds she caused that day run? Did she deserve this? Death? A part of her wished she had never existed, the morose and demure woman beaten down by the pain of sorrow and loss. Somewhere along the way she forgot what it was to suffer. It was too easy to test the limits, to offload all issues and doubts on others. On Cadien, who she made to realize the flaws in his creations. On Gibbou, whose suffering she heightened to forget her own pain. On Oraelia, whose ideals she corrupted and being she harmed. She raised her hand meekly as best she could. "Oraelia, please…" she mustered, her voice tinged with shame and fear. "This… this isn't you… You wouldn't-... wouldn't harm anyone…"

The light above them grew brighter and Oraelia brought a hand to her chin as she looked at Neiya with indifference. ”That Oraelia became broken the day you let your children spill their own blood. Then she died without ever having really lived. It was you who broke her. Denied her years of life by the memories that haunted her. And, it was you who killed her, of course. Your death is simply a kindness for the world as a whole. I would ask for your forgiveness but in the end, it would be meaningless.”

Neiya stared into Oraelia's eyes, that dull void where she had only ever seen bright spheres burning with the warmth of life. Not even when she had been on the verge of consciousness, pale and drained of hope was she this void of emotion. It was replaced now by a sullen, cold hate. The pain of her loss still stung in Neiya’s own body from the shared experience forced upon her. Even if Neiya wasn’t directly at fault, she understood. On some level it was her fault. Aveira was hers, and as far as back as Aveira’s birth she had implanted her with a scheming malice for betrayal. She had been brought into existence to deceive Oraelia and fight her creations from the start; it was foolish to assume she would just stop given the chance. Her promise to be better… How easy would it have been to give Aveira new orders? To cease the machinations she’d started years ago? The answer was shameful. "I’m… sorry,” she pressed out between thin lips, eyes averting from Oraelia’s. Restless fingers relaxed and she placed a hand on her own belly, finding an unpleasant clarity in that same shame. She had made a promise to be better, and instead of improving, she had worried about the optics of such a task, and how to accomplish it while remaining the same. She was responsible. For Oraelia. For Gibbou. For so many mortal lives. A pain that she had pushed deep down, and thoughts she had not reflected upon for millenia began to stream to the surface as she heaved a sharp breath. "I cannot fix this, Oraelia. I did this to you, so long ago… and I could have stopped it.”

"N-Now you say sorry?" Emotion flooded the Life Goddesses voice and she came before Neiya in an instant. She snapped her fingers and the collar around Neiya's throat pulled upward, forcing the sorrowful goddess to look upon that which she scorned.

Once again, Oraelia's face was twisted into rage but this time, there were golden tears streaming down her cheeks. Angry tears. "Of course you say sorry now, upon the eve of your death! As an act to dissuade me, to save yourself!" she let out a frustrated sigh, and moved a strand of hair from her eyes. "You would say such things, I should have seen this. Only when the predator is cornered by its prey does it mewl, saying what it can to save itself. It says it will change, that it can fix the problems that led them there, that it can make amends. And the foolish prey lets it go, only for the predator to not even TRY, in its freedom, to change. To be better. So the cycle continues until the prey loses everything and then, and only then, does real change occur." she said with a drop of malice in her voice. "No more…" she whispered, touching Neiya's cheek with her hand. "No more shall you make me suffer."

Neiya's deep blue eyes tracked each motion of the wayward sun goddess with a forlorn stare. Unallowed to look away, she instead delved inwards to confront the reality of her situation. Between the sting of Oraelia's loss, the searing shame of her accusations laying themselves into a neat puzzle in her mind, and perhaps the inescapable fear of death, she felt her gut sink and her thoughts settle with a clarity that washed panic away. She wanted to beg for her safety. To reassure Oraelia that she would change. That everything would be alright. Blame her avatar, or turn it on the sun goddess for letting her guard down. But Oraelia was right. Those were excuses. Neiya herself had preached about the inescapable conclusion; when only sorrow remained. Why be surprised when it came to pass? Gibbou had been right back then. Neiya had the power to temper her sadness, but instead she had flooded her with her own pain. She had broken promises. Lied. Trampled trust at every opportunity.

Because even when she tried to help, she did so with herself in mind. Tried to win. Offload on others. Make their problems about her. The same kind of behaviour that she gave mortals ironic 'gifts' and curses for. What made her better, when she wasted her life? When was the last time she did what she was supposed to? What was her purpose?

Her mind drew back to that fateful time mere moments after her creation. When she opened her heart, and took in the pain of the world. She stared at Oraelia, and lifted her own hand slowly towards Oraelia's chest, straining against the chains until her skin burnt and scraped. The sun Goddess looked on at her with indifference but did not move. Neiya planted her palm on Oraelia, eyes filled with raw emotion. "...No more." she repeated with as much determination as she could in her precarious position, and then opened herself in that same manner as she had so long ago. Like a beacon, calling in and drawing out sorrow and despair to stem the tide of pain in the once bright Oraelia. To take her pain, as she had shouldered the sorrow of mortals once before.

”What are you…” Oraelia began, eyes going wide. She swatted Neiya’s hand away but this did little but reveal a trail of throbbing light going into Neiya’s fingertips from her chest. Oraelia began to panic and pawed at herself in vain, trying to stop what was happening. Her body began to flicker from bright to dark as her sorrow was stifled by Neiya’s lingering touch. Oraelia’s breathing quickened and she fell to her knees facing Neiya. Her eyes were shut tight as she gripped her head and began to weep.

The horned goddess remained in her shackles, arm outstretched and pointing towards the shocked Oraelia as energies flowed from one goddess to the other. "I cannot fix all that I have done, Oraelia, and I see now-... the extent of my choices, and the pain they've brought," she mustered weakly, tearful eyes closing slowly as she focused on her attempt to soothe another. In her mind she envisioned the ocean, and the horizon bobbing peacefully in the distance. Even as her thoughts became hard to focus on, replacing themselves with an unstable pain she had been trying to avoid for millennia. That she had channeled into a raw maelstrom of suffering and used to victimize herself. To languish in doubt and escape responsibility. The two goddesses were caught in a whirlpool of leaves and dust forming around them, as Neiya welcomed Oraelia's pain. It was the least she could do. It was what she should do. Even as her breath grew troubled and the pain of loss and sorrow begun to needle at her limbs and heart like tiny, angry parasites trying to burrow deep and corrupt her very being. Neiya stood steadfast. She had already succumbed to the dread and agony once before, she did not fear it the same this time. For this goddess, who had believed in her when she hadn't deserved it, she would face the pain. Bear the burden of another again. Tears ran from her eyes and crystallized on her cheeks, and her skin grew pale from exertion. "Oraelia-..." she breathed, struggling to keep her mind from anything but the pain, the angry void left behind after the loss of a child, after betrayal, after the theft of her very being. "I'm sorry."

"Sorry… So Sorry. Always sorry!" Oraelia cried out aloud. She keeled over, hand planted into the grass as she clutched at her chest. "Why is it always me!" she began in a yell that turned quiet. "Solus I'm sorry… I'm sorry." her voice broke. The hostile realm began to steady itself and the bright lance above was replaced with a rekindling sun.

Oraelia's own bright color began to return more and more with each flickering. Her cries became less and less as her pain was shared. The Goddess sat up after a time, no longer clutching her chest in agony. When she opened her eyes again and looked to Neiya, they were golden, turning blue as her form slipped into light. Features of anger and hate replaced with love and care. It was not but a second later that her face twisted into horror and she rushed to Neiya's side, breaking her chains and catching her before she could fall. She took a ragged breath of her own as she propped Neiya up to look at her face to face. "Neiya… You would share my pain? Why would you do this? Why?" she asked, sniffling. "I-I tried to kill you." her breathing quickened as panic set into her voice and her body began to shake.

Long cracks shone as they spread over her horns, and Neiya watched Oraelia with a mixture of helpless sorrow and sympathy. The horned goddess winced in pain, letting emotion and memory continue to stream unabated from the forlorn sun goddess as it visibly and audibly began to affect her. Just as anger and despair flowed into her, she watched it leave Oraelia as small threads of light. Heavy of breath, she struggled to respond. "Let me… do this for you, Oraelia. This is the only good I've ever done. I welcomed mortals into my heart. Bore their burden. Let me bear yours. I don't want to hurt anymore. I don't want you to suffer because of me, because of anyone."

Oraelia focused back on Neiya, concern plastered over her face, her earlier hateful demeanor wholly absent. ”No-no-no!” she cried out, wrapping Neiya in a hug. ”Stop Neiya, stop! You can’t take all of it. You can’t! You’ve done enough! She took a ragged breath. ”I-I-I don’t know what to do.” she squeezed Neiya tighter, not able to let go, or not wanting too. ”I-I-I should have talked to you, should have not assumed that you were behind it. I’m sorry Neiya. I’m sorry! Please don’t do this. You’ve done good! You-you’ve gotten better!” Oraelia began to caress her hair. ”Neiya, oh Neiya. I don’t want us to be like this anymore.” she cried.

Neiya placed her hand with motherly care on the back of Oraelia’s head in turn, closing her eyes to focus on the blinding impulses of pain and regret, not all of which were ones taken on from Oraelia’s wrathful despair. No, Neiya felt the surge of emotion swell and brought clarity to so many moments. To what Firinn and Aicheil had spoken of, both long ago and recently, and her many deceitful actions leading up to this day. For the first time in centuries, she listened to the beat of her own heart as an attempt to center her thoughts. Back then it had been a pale attempt to shut out the mortal maelstrom - now it was to think clearly even as she felt her essence draining. She had lost her way, so long ago. Let herself be distracted - no, corrupted - by the unexpected burden of her first act upon Galbar. Everything after that... The first humans she met. Sanya. Gibbou. All of it. It had all been tinged with that same bitter sadness. It warped her and when she finally could walk free again, it was all she knew. She’d forgotten. Forgotten what happiness actually felt like, like an addict chasing a feeling they could never reach again. But she understood now. Remembered her act. Remembered what she could be, and who she was. Maybe she was right, or Oraelia was right, in that she could never be that deity again, tainted by bitterness and selfish guilt as she was. But she could be better. Be the deity she had been, before she let herself be ruled by cynicism, spite and selfish desires. She could be like that again. All she had to do was accept her burden. To carry the pain of others.

"...Don't worry, my sweet Oraelia. I should never… have been so indignant… indolent… ignorant.. in the first place," Neiya murmured with a calmness that fought to prevail over her distorted breath and wincing. "I am awake now. Let me help you."

As her extraction continued, the process and the internal struggle of the goddess continued to physically affect her. In her mind she saw the image of herself that Oraelia had shown her, who she had been before her 'fall'. It burrowed itself into her mind now, like an unmovable principle. The guiding light for how to act.

A whirlwind of energy whipped up around them both. Neiya's physical form continued to grow fraught, as the horns on her body shook and writhed as the cracks spread, until they finally disintegrated into a coarse black dust that fell to the ground. Only two remained, golden and luminous, more akin to the antlers of a regal hind. Her hair invigorated with a gentle, appeasing gold tone. Her skin took on the warmth of mortal life, and the markings under her cheeks faded as her body turned to resemble the loving, affectionate woman the humans had given form to on that fateful day, the greatest reminder of her old form being colorful crystal tears lingering on her features. Neiya gripped Oraelia tighter and sighed, and the shackle around her throat split in two with a violent creak. She was free. And with that freedom, Neiya released a long, tired breath before her body started going limp, and her weight fell on Oraelia.

----

A mass of whispers, emotions, and sensations rocked Neiya awake from a fitful slumber she did not remember fully submitting to. The dull ache of tired limbs rippled through her body, and her head felt like she’d gone too hard on Cadien’s table of luxurious spirits. A grave agony still roiled within her, a painful memory of her crimes against Oraelia, though it had now settled in to mingle with the Maelstrom, and become manageable, no longer overpowering her thoughts. She resolved to no longer languish over what had been, and slowly opened her eyes to orient herself through remaining fatigue.

She came face to face with large blue eyes looking down at her, glistening with fresh tears. Oraelia’s face was a mix of relief and shame. It was then Neiya realized that she was laying upon Oraelia’s thighs, the Sun Goddess and her in the shade of a lone tree. Strands of Oraelia’s hair blew gently in a warm breeze that brought with it the smell of blooming flowers and fresh grass. Birds sang somewhere in the distance and the sun was shining bright, as if her realm had been reborn. Oraelia brought a hand to Neiya’s face and moved a strand of her hair away from her eyes. ”How are you feeling?” she asked, in a quiet whisper.

Neiya drew a long breath, pressing her lips into a thoughtful but serene expression. Seeing Oraelia returned to normalcy made the pain worth it. Watching her eyes flit over her own features warmed her again. ”I feel as if I’ve awoken from a long, fitful nightmare,” she managed eventually, breaking from her thoughts. Neiya extended a hand up to touch Oraelia´s cheek in turn, and shifted her head on her legs to hold the sun goddess’ gaze.

Oraelia leaned into the touch and gave a quiet sigh. She shut her eyes for a moment before looking at Neiya again, shame coming to the forefront of her features. ”You look better, Neiya. Not that I didn’t think you looked fine before. I mean, you looked terrible. But only because you were helping me!” The sun goddess grew sheepish. ”This is what I saw so long ago, isn’t it? This version of you… The dream. I am glad.” she smiled with a warmth that radiated. Then her smile grew distant. ”I am sorry.” she began, ”My anger consumed me. My senses became warped with hate and dark thoughts. That was… a version of me that should never be. And,” Her thumb moved to rub under Neiya’s eye. ”You saved me, Neiya. You helped me brave the maelstrom and regain myself, at the cost of yourself. So thank you.” Oraelia tilted her head down, looking away from Neiya again. ”I carry shame in my heart for the things I said to you but it is not because they shouldn’t have been said but in the manner of how they were addressed. I was needlessly cruel and I apologize for that. I was not myself but that is also not an excuse. I will not ask for your forgiveness for that would be unfair of me. However, what I said was true, before you slipped from consciousness. I don’t want us to be… As we were towards each other. If you want…” Oraelia said in another whisper.

Neiya exhaled slowly, watching the demure sun goddess with silent fascination. She hummed softly in agreement after a few moments of deliberation. "I want to heal this rift, Oraelia. To make amends." she eventually managed, fingers coursing through Oraelia's hair.

Oraelia shivered at the touch and turned her head back to meet Neiya. There was a longing in her eyes. "Okay." she breathed. "You've taken the first step, Neiya and proved me wrong. I'm proud of you and of who you will no doubt become. I," her cheeks began to glow red as Neiya kept playing with her hair. "I, um… The next steps will… Be… You might need help." Oraelia blushed and straightened her back. "I'd be happy to help you. With anything. To make up for trying to kill you." she said with a little cough.

Neiya exhaled sharply, a slight, serene twist of her expression all she gave to hint at her own thoughts. Her gaze tracked over Oraelia's features with renewed interest, before the love goddess lifted her head as much as she could without moving. "You're right, Oraelia.." she murmured quietly and pulled Oraelia down towards her with a gentle hand. "We've only just started."

Before the sun goddess could speak in return, Neiya lifted her head to meet her, and gingerly pushed her lips to Oraelia's.

She did not object.




“I told you it would come to this Vicri!” Magara yelled as she held off two Neiyari betrayers who had ambushed them in the sky a ten minute flight north of the lake, forcing her band to divert to the ground. Vicri grunted as he blocked the sword of a Neiyari man with black hair and grey wings. Magara held her spear sideways as Turi Turi shoved his own attacker to the ground and rushed to help her. Magara frowned. They thought - she thought - they had won the war, that the enemy had at last been broken without a cause. They had been wrong. Neiyari forces had been ramping up their attacks over the last few months, leaving the future uncertain. Now more than ever, was a time of calm before the storm, the older Oraeliari could feel it. Something was coming. The war would begin anew for it was eternal, and it felt as if the rain had finally come.

With Turi Turi briefly by her side, the youthful Oraeliari broke from her, taking one of her attackers with him. This let Magara go on the offensive and she let out a series of fearsome blows with her spear. The THWACK of wood upon a sun forged blade was deafening, consuming. The thrill of the battle could be intoxicating, the thrill of living on the edge, each moment could be a last. But it would not be today, as Magara caught the Neiyari, a girl with short cropped hair the color of light soil, in the stomach with the blunt end of the spear.

The girl keeled over. She gasped for breath and dropped her sword. Magara vividly remembered the first time she fought a Neiyari and how he had invoked such fear into her being but as she looked down at her, she did not feel fear. For once in her life, she felt nothing but contempt. A feeling un-Oraeliari. For those who loved life it was unthinkable but the enemy had taken too much and now it was a time for ends. Yet she had her doubts.

But still, Magara raised her spear.

The Neiyari girl looked up and Magara froze. There were tears in her eyes and for once, the one who brought fear, looked afraid. Truly afraid. She did not speak, yet seemed to accept her fate with a trembling frame. She bowed her head, Magara hesitated and then the Aurora exploded in intensity.

Magara looked up. They all did. Friend and foe alike, and they watched as every tree, plant, grass, flower- the entire Luminant began to pulse to a rhythm that escaped them. It was beautiful. Otherworldly. She dropped her spear, removed her bronze cap and took it all in. A pleasant breeze began to blow and wrapped around her, lingering like a lover’s sweet embrace. Like Hulri’s embrace. She shut her eyes and sighed, as a wash of old memories swept her up and away to fond places. Though her once-mate had died years ago, and that pain still lingered yet did not control, she was reminded of his laugh.

And that was everything.

When she opened her eyes again, Magara wept for the beauty of the Luminant and the memories she would always adore, with a smile on her face, even if they had come and gone. She gasped however, when her eyes found the spot where the Neiyari girl had been. She was gone and in her place, someone new stood. This girl hugged herself with eyes shut as she looked to the sky. Her hair was dark, curly red and her skin was lighter with freckles across her button nose. But what really caught Magara’s attention were her wings- stark white. The same as an Oraeliari but she had no golden hair… What was… Magara looked to the others, finding that Viciri was on his knees, the other Neiyari stood in contemplation and Turi Turi! His hair had become the color of honey and his wings were speckled with light brown feathers!

What was going on?

Light descended and intermingled with each of them, and though not all present had physically changed, it appeared to touch them deeply. Magara felt a bitter rush as memories of the past came rushing back in ever greater numbers, followed by a soft numbness as that same sensation faded back into the back of her mind.

The changed Neiyari girl spread her wings and beheld Magara with new eyes. Confusion, sorrow and sympathy were obvious in her gaze, and without a word she dropped the weapon still clutched in her hand. The others seemed to follow suit, lowering their guard - the malicious intent to ambush and kill washed away with these new emotions and wings. Magara was uncertain if they could even be called Neiyari anymore, between physical and apparent mental changes. Had she changed like this as well?

Magara touched at her hair and looked at her wings.

Her hair felt just as much the same but upon a closer look at her wings, the tip feathers were streaked with silver. It sent shivers down her spine. She felt as if she had unified into one being. Neither Oraeliari or Neiyari but perhaps… Just an Aviri?

Before she could think about much else one of the Neiyari attackers fell to their knees and let out a sorrowful cry. Before their very eyes, her hair turned from black to auburn and her wings were a light brown. She looked incredibly distraught.

"Where is Tevuri?" She called out, looking to each of the Oraeliari, or those who had been Oraeliari. Turi Turi eyed Viciri who stilled looked to the ground with downcast eyes and then to Magara. The woman followed his gaze and then stumbled to her feet and came before her. Magara blinked as the woman took her hand and pleaded. "Where is Tevuri? Do you know?" She cried.

"Cardinal… Tevuri?" Magara said the name with hesitation in her voice.

The woman nodded frantically. "Where can I find him?" She quickly followed.

Magara's face winced, something the woman noted. "Please, where is he?" She asked again in a softer voice.

"Cardinal Tevuri answered the call of Soluri months ago. He and a band of Oraelia ventured forth into a portal to a land called the Highlands. A place very far away from the Luminant, so I'm told. I am sorry, he is not here." Magara said.

The woman seemed to grow more distressed by the second and her facebteiated into that of grief. Magara fell to her own knees and comforted the creature with a hug. The woman sobbed into her for a time and Magara thought that hugging a Neiyari to be foolish. Unachievable. Yet here she was.

Eventually the woman spoke again. "I am glad for this feeling. This pain. I thought the War Mother had dulled these feelings for a purpose but now I see it was only to bury the pain. My pain. I hate it but I love it, as I love Tevuri. As I had loved Tevuri…"

"You loved Tevuri…?" Magara said aloud, and it all began to click.

"I am… I was… His once-mate."

Magara gasped and pulled away, taking the woman by her shoulders to look at her again. "It cannot be… Cardinal Pera…?"




Rhiona crossed her arms and huffed as she watched the two Love Goddesses from afar. They were intertwined with another, essences mingling, causing untold changes in the mortal world below. She should have been happy for her Lady, ecstatic even but Rhiona didn't like it.

Not one bit.

The avatar took one last look at the 'happy' couple and departed. She could not trust Neiya after what her avatar did and even her new figure could just as simply be a lie. Used to lull her lady into a trap and ensure her further. It made her angry to see her lady hurt so, to be used like she had and upon the moment of her revenge, she was saved. Or was she?

Rhiona did not know for sure. Even she felt the emptiness inside where the part of Solus should have been. The pain she could endure for she was her own being after all. But Oraelia worried her.

Her lady was a fragile flower in a sea of thorns. She lacked the foresight to acknowledge this and that was how it should be. Oraelia was special in that way. She saw the best in people despite how bad they were. It was why she was so naive.

But no more.

Rhiona would protect her lady no matter the cost. She could not let her hurt like she had again. She would make sure of it.

Rhiona descended upon the clearing that held the Lumins. After witnessing the grand design of the creature of death, she had her own ideas to implement and it was time to get started.





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Rethinking Strategies.




Illyd stepped into antiquity, his form morphing to that of a young man in white robes. A banjo was strung on his back as he led Celestine across the flagstones of the arena. The atmosphere of antiquity was hollow and quiet, the divine space a sort of mysterious reminder of the supernatural and almost artificial state of the world.

Such a topic seemed on Illyd's mind as he suddenly posed through a casual whistle, his march to Cadien's portal steady. "What do you think the meaning of life is?"

Celestine stepped out of the portal to her realm confidently. She took a few moments to look for where Illyd had gone and came to the realization that she was no longer following a fox. Falling into step behind Illyd’s changed form Celestine remained fairly silent as he began to whistle. When the question was posed, Celestine was briefly stunned by both the spontaneous nature of it and the complexity of the issue being asked after. After her wits came back to her Celestine remained silent for a few moments longer as she contemplated an answer. What was the meaning of life? She supposed that the meaning to a god's life might be to create something that impressed the other gods? Or to perhaps impress mortals? But then what if the meaning to a mortal's life was to impress the gods or other mortals? But then what if one didn’t mean to impress everyone, and only sought to impress a select few? What about those who sought to impress nobody?

After a few more moments of silence, Celestine offered the best answer she could to a complicated question. ”I suppose it depends on who you ask. If I were to give you an answer from my perspective I would say that the meaning of my life would be to knight noble individuals and inspire them to great deeds while spreading the values of chivalry throughout civilizations that would welcome it. Why do you ask?”

"What's the point of that?" Illyd answered simply, stopping to turn to Celestine.

Celestine raised an eyebrow as Illyd asked after the point of what she had said. Just what was the point? She didn’t quite have an immediate answer, as it was something that came to her naturally. Did mortals question the point of their breathing? Blinking once, Celestine gave the best answer she could. ”The point of it, in my view, would be to try and enrich the lives of mortals by opening a path that some might not have previously considered? Why are you asking after these things, if I might inquire?”

"You know, I made the first mortals." Illyd twisted on his heel to face Cadien' s realm once more. "I did it because I didn't want to be alone anymore -- so I know why at least a few things are alive and exist. But why do you?"

Tilting her head in confusion for a moment, Celestine began to ponder a few things. Why was she alive? Why did the she that existed now come to be? How many other versions of her tried to emerge from the lifeblood, only to be squelched before they could even begin to coalesce? If even a few things had been different, how different would she have been? Would she have even come to exist as she did now? Celestine’s eyes narrowed slightly as she began to shove these thoughts out of mind. She could sit and ponder them for lifetimes, but right now there was something more important to her than figuring out the hows and whys of her particular existence. Though she did realize that she had yet to give Illyd an answer, and so gave one the best she could. ”I am alive because I want to inspire mortals to a higher calling Eventually I would want them to strive to better themselves without my influence. Failing that I hope to create something that serves as a shining beacon of what can be accomplished with chivalry. As of right now, however, I want to see things concerning Ha-Dûna resolved. If you’ll excuse me.”

With that, Celestine would step through the portal into Cadien’s realm. Illyd's words followed her from antiquity.

"That's not why you're alive."

Then there was silence.



The realm was unchanged since her last visit. In the distance, Cadien himself was already approaching.

As the realm coalesced around her Celestine’s first instinct was to look for Boudicca. Unfortunately she didn’t seem to be in the immediate area, and Celestine saw Cadien approaching instead. Walking forward herself, Celestine met Cadien at roughly the halfway point of his approach and curtsied before speaking. ”Greetings once more Cadien. My apologies for the late appearance, I was delayed by the appearance of a fox upon my feet. They had a handful of questions they wanted to ask as we walked. Where have you sent Ser Boudicca? Is she safe?”

“She is here,” Cadien nodded. “And she is safe. But you and I need to talk.”

A bit of tension released from the goddess as she heard that Boudicca was safe. But the reminder that words were to be exchanged brought no small amount of concern to her. Nodding with a small amount of apprehension Celestine contemplated folding her arms, but then considered that such a stance might make her appear standoffish. Retaining a neutral stance and bracing herself for what might come, Celestine asked after what Cadien wanted. ”I see. I remember you wanting to speak before. What is that you want to speak about?”

“We need to speak about what just happened, of course.” Cadien said.

Celestine didn’t move as Cadien gave his answer. It wasn’t as specific as she would’ve liked since a good number of things had just happened in a short amount of time, but Celestine didn’t want to try and play guessing games as to what Cadien wanted. Instead she chose to ask after what he specifically took issue with. ”If you would kindly elaborate on which actions of mine you take issue with, I will happily take your advice and will do my best to improve myself to be better in the future.”

“Well, where shall I start? Boudicca has been unseated from Ha-Dûna, I have lost much of my influence there, I was publicly insulted, and they are marching into another unnecessary war.” He shook his head. “You were too involved. You became too close.”

Celestine exhaled slightly, closing her eyes in contemplation as she mentally reviewed the recent events. There were some choices that she had come to regret, certainly. But being too involved? She doubted this notion. All she had done had been by request. But perhaps there was something to that? Could she have merely gifted knowledge or supplies instead of directly assisting with day to day affairs? That might have aided in keeping the disdain the mortals held for the gods down, but then what of the day Boudicca vanished? Celestine’s avatar had stepped up to cover many of her duties. What might’ve become of Ha-Dûna if she hadn’t? Something that Celestine noted was that at least one of the things Cadien spoke of had little to do with Celestine’s involvement: Ha-Dûna marching to war was attributable entirely to the actions of Jjonveyo. It was possible that the loss of influence and insults could have come from Celestine’s consistent presence, but the disdain seemed to stretch towards all of the gods rather than just him. Still, if she was to be blamed for it it would likely be for the best to simply accept the blame rather than trying to extract the truth from so complicated an issue

Boudicca being unseated could have blame laid upon Celestine, and she would admit that some of her choices during the meeting and subsequent events were most likely not the best. They would need to be atoned for, for sure. But that atonement needed guidance. Opening her eyes once more, Celestine spoke softly. ”I will admit that I have come to regret some of my actions in the events as of late. Decisions made too quickly or after effects not considered. I wish to atone for these mistakes and correct them as much as I can. Where is Ser Boudicca now? I would have her guide this atonement.”

Cadien let out a soft sigh. “Follow me,” he requested, as he turned and began walking toward his keep. “Before we talk about any of that, do you know what your mistakes were?”

Celestine fell into step behind Cadien shortly after he began walking. As she walked a somewhat random thought crossed her mind of the prior times that she had walked this very path. There was a distinct mood shift from before, to be sure. Banishing these random considerations from her mind for now, Celestine focused upon Cadien’s question. What did she feel was a mistake? An interesting question. Was it a test? What would his response be if she gave too many answers that he considered unacceptable?

These concerns weighed upon her mind as she gave her answer. ”My regrets in particular stem primarily from the meeting and trying to secure Ser Boudicca’s family. My choices of words were poor and then beyond that leaving when I did, even though I was trying to satisfy the demands that the mortals were making, did not go over well. And then beyond that the attempts to retrieve Ser Boudicca’s family could’ve been handled with more observation and less action instead of the action without observation that took place. I fear that my haste might have permanently damaged Ser Boudicca’s reputation with her family and the more reasonable members of her clan, which is something that causes me no small amount of distress.”

Cadien shook his head. “That is part of it, but it goes deeper than that. You made your avatar her subordinate. A divine being, subservient to a mortal? Such a thing is not possible, no matter how much deference you might show or how much you claim only to offer advice. They saw your avatar with her every day, and it made them believe that her authority was dependent on your support; that she was your puppet. Eventually, they obeyed her out of respect for you, not her. In that hall, you did not treat her as a leader, you treated her as a parent might treat a child.”

“Then the moment a god they revered more than you appeared, and told them they were no longer obligated to listen to you? Her authority disappeared. Because they care more about their druidic gods more than they care about you or I. Nevermind that half those gods abandoned them, and none had any role in their creation.” There was bitterness in his voice. “But that isn’t the point. My point is that there was a reason why I limited my interactions with her, and why you should have done the same.”

Celestine briefly found herself at a loss for words. Cadien had a fair point in some of his arguments, but others she disagreed with. Why would a divine being not be able to be subservient to a mortal? Celestine has no experience in running Ha-Dûna, but Boudicca had plenty. It felt only natural that Celestine support her leadership rather than trying to overrule her. But Cadien had a fair point regarding the overwhelming presence of her avatar. No matter how simple it made communicating with Boudicca, such a presence was most likely rather unnerving. Looking back on events, Celestine mentally smacked herself for not even considering the idea of simply establishing a permanent link to Boudicca’s mind. This would’ve allowed her to experience the things she experienced and offer timely advice, but it wouldn’t have required her avatar be present and slowly plant seeds of doubt among the mortals.

Cadien’s opinion that Celestine was treating Boudicca like a child stung a bit. She had always considered Boudicca as a friend and equal. It was the reason why she had asked her to be an advisor, after all. But Cadien did have a point. In her attempt to be humble and down to earth, she had instead come off as haughty and dominating. A better choice could’ve been made, for sure. Unfortunately, such was the burden of hindsight. A decision that had to be made in a matter of moments could bring days of painful reflection upon what could have been done better.

Realizing that she had been silent for a few moments, Celestine blinked and nodded before speaking. Part of her wanted to disagree with Cadien on some points, but she had a higher priority than debating with Cadien right now. ”I hear your points, and hope to do better in the future. I can only hope that the damage that my inexperience had caused can be mended.”

“I would hope so too,” Cadien said. “Do you have any ideas on how to do so?”

Celestine fell silent once again as Cadien asked and raised a finger to her chin a few moments later. That was a complicated question, and Celestine didn’t quite know what answer she would want to give. There were fairly simple solutions such as ripping the memories from the minds of mortals and simply making them forget, but Celestine found herself fairly disgusted by the idea, and she was fairly sure that Boudicca wouldn’t agree to such a manipulation. Another idea came to mind, but it carried a lot of risk and would make personal intervention rather difficult should the need arise. Lowering her finger, Celestine put forward her rather grisly idea. ”The mortals screamed against the presence of the gods, yes? And they saw Ser Boudicca as someone who was under their control? I could use divine power to… Erh…. Make a false severed head of mine. Let her carry it back to her people along with a fanciful set of armor and sword. Have her proclaim that she and they were free of divine influence. I could never be seen as I am around Ha-Dûna again, but it would possibly allow her to bring the influence of her people back under her control? Though such a display could cause even more chaos from the factions that would still be loyal to the gods… In truth, I do not have a grand arrangement of ideas. Perhaps involving Ser Boudicca in this conversation would be for the best? She has the most experience with her people and might be able to provide valuable insight as to how they would react.”

Celestine fell silent again, waiting to see what Cadien would say

Cadien narrowed his eyes. “We should not encourage the murder of gods, or let them even believe such a thing is possible. I believe the best thing we can do now, is wait. Let them wage their war. If they fail, they will learn that we and Boudicca were right, while they were wrong. We can save them then, and if they would still deny our aid, then they do not deserve to be saved. On the other hand, if they succeed, then we can find some other method to teach them the error their ways in the future.”

Celestine nodded slowly, but her eyes carried concern to them. ”The idea is fair… But I would at least like to attempt to rescue the members of Boudicca’s family. They were hesitant to go due to being in the middle of something, but perhaps if they were visited at a calmer hour and spoken with in secret they could be convinced? Part of me feels that if we bring her family into safety then Boudicca may be alright with allowing things to progress naturally, but I’m confident that she’ll want to do something if they are at risk.”

Cadien shook his head. “Boudicca has already accepted that they will remain behind for the time being. They are in no immediate danger. All we have to do is watch over them, and if they are in danger, then we can rescue them. But right now? Taking them from their homes will be seen as a kidnapping, or cowardice. It will not reflect well on Boudicca or on her clan, and will only stain her reputation further.”

Celestine raised an eyebrow at the fact that Boudicca had accepted that they would remain behind. It seemed odd that her fury to retrieve her son would be extinguished so quickly. Once again raising a finger to her chin, Celestine blinked a few times as thoughts raced through her mind. Eventually, she came to speak. ”In that case, I would ask her if she wishes to come to my realm. If even a tiny amount of blame for these events is to be laid upon me, then I would work tirelessly in atonement, and I would prefer to have her guide my efforts.”

“I believe it would be best if we allow her to spend a few days in Meliorem before she makes such a decision. She has been through much, and needs some form of respite. If you wish to meet her you may, and if you are insistent to ask her I will not stop you, but I do not believe it would be wise.”

Celestine gave a nod before speaking. ”Fair. My ultimate decisions shall be made in reflection of how she feels. If I feel things are right I will ask, but if they do not I will not press the issue.”




Near the settlement of the Songs sat Boudicca on a hill alone, much like she would have back home in search of meditative quiet. Several songs had come over to poke at her and try to cheer her up, but she had shooed them all away with sorrowful fury and furious sorrow. The Songs had been particularly hard to turn down, mostly because of their incessant insistence, but even the spawn of Macsal couldn’t tolerate for long such hopeless melancholy as the sort the dethroned priestess-queen expelled. The face staring into the cloudy abyss beyond the hill was devoid of joy, and each eyeball flashed different changing memories and regrets on loop. She offered a hapless sigh, the hundredth since she had sat down.

As Celestine moved through the realm with the guidance of Cadien the gears of her head spun ceaselessly in an attempt to create more plans on how the situation might be improved. Unfortunately, what little came was quickly squelched by logic and reason. She would need guidance, for sure. When Boudicca came into view, Celestine nearly bound over to her like a cat to its wandering kitten as relief flooded her mind on seeing her hale and whole. Squelching that instinct, Celestine walked slowly and silently. There were many things she wanted to say, admittances of gratitude that Boudicca was well, apologies, expressions of remorse, but the aura surrounding Boudicca caused Celestine’s voice to catch in her throat.

Wanting to do something rather than be paralyzed, Celestine gently sat down next to the priestess-queen wordlessly, allowing Boudicca to do things at her own pace. If or when she would look to the goddess, she would find Celestine’s eyes carrying a mixture of remorse and regret.

Boudicca offered her a small, greeting nod and pursed her lips. “Did Great Caden give you a scolding, master?”

Celestine gave a nod before speaking softly. ”The error of my ways has been made apparent, and I’ve come to hold regret over many of my actions, no matter how good their intent may have been. I would like to offer you my humblest apologies for having erred so gravely, and I can only hope that you will allow me to atone and continue to consider me as your friend.”

With that, Celestine closed her eyes and bowed as best she could.

Boudicca flinched and hastened to stand up, kneel and bow lower. “Please, master! You shouldn’t bow to a mortal like me! That, that goes against the nature of the universe, after all!” Her face disappeared under her unkempt and unwashed hair, still rough after the past days’ shenanigans. “You have nothing to apologise for. This has been my fault, this outcome… I overestimated my power; I brought shame upon myself, my family and upon you and Great Caden.” She massaged her throat where the collar of ink had been not many hours earlier. “... Caden suggested I was under some spell, but… I think I simply thought I had more control than I did.”

Celestine opened her eyes slowly before sitting up and gently placing a hand on Boudicca’s shoulder. Blinking a few times, she could find no words to say. Instead, she brought herself into a kneeling stance before offering out a hand and speaking softly as adequate words finally made themselves apparent. ”Let us both work together to atone for our misdeeds as equals and friends, then? You are still a knight of mine, but I would request that you call me by name. I may be a goddess, but there are many things I could learn from mortals. For you to call me master feels… Wrong. I wish to learn from you the ways of Galbar as much as you learn the ways of knighthood from me. Will you permit me to do that, in time?”

“I…” Boudicca frowned uncomfortably. “... I cannot say it will feel right to call a great goddess by her name with no title. Would ‘Great Celestine’ or ‘Master Celestine’ suffice?” She seemed reluctant to take the hand, as well.

Celestine blinked before nodding. Her hand fell gently, and she would speak again. ”I will accept ‘Great Celestine’, and I must apologize for causing you discomfort. I just feel that in light of my recent failings I should not hold a title so absolute as ‘master’. Perhaps some day I will feel alright to bear such a title again, but… Not for now.”

In truth, Celestine would prefer no title at all, but Boudicca’s hesitation made it clear that such a thing would most likely be immensely difficult, if not impossible. A compromise would have to do. Feeling that the question of where Boudicca would like to stay would not prove to be too hazardous, Celestine asked it cautiously. ”If it does not trouble your mind overmuch, I would ask if you would like to join me in my realm as a guest? If you would prefer to stay here it will not trouble me.”

Boudicca bowed deeper as though that was possible, her knee digging into her chest there she kneeled. “Of course. Thank you, Great Celestine, for your hospitality. I would be honoured.”

Celestine nodded, thankful for the answer. Rising to her feet, Celestine held out her hand once more. This time for the far more mundane task of assisting Boudicca in standing. If or when that was finished, Celestine would let her hand fall gently unless it was clung to. She would then speak once more to ask after Boudicca’s plans. ”Do you have anything you wish to see or do before we depart?”

Boudicca looked over her shoulder at Caden’s castle in the distance. She scrunched her nose with chagrin and shook her head. “No, let’s, let’s just leave, please. I have too much on my mind right now to focus on anything else.”

Celestine nodded. The missing sword of hers could simply be replaced. Boudicca seemed to be uncomfortable with Cadien given the way she looked at his castle, and Celestine would not press her into an uncomfortable position. Lifting a hand, a sphere of silvery energy appeared in it, and shortly thereafter it was crushed. A portal opened, and beyond lay Celestine’s personal chambers. Gesturing for Boudicca to leave as she willed, Celestine would follow shortly thereafter. Once both were through, the portal would close.





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“I still don’t see the point of giving mortals these kinds of things.” Jaav was his usual charitable self.

“First the outer walls and duct lines…” Guul was, as always, more focused on the task than the other two of three.

“This isn’t some major philosophical quandary, although you have trouble with those so I suppose it makes sense you would struggle even here.” A replying harumph was all Kiim needed to continue over any objection, “It is quite simple, we display a matter of Divine will and power, a promised land to which a selected group can be carefully guided towards more right minded thinking while keeping them safe, ensuring the prosperity of Thaa’s ideals!”

”It would still be much simpler to burn a city or two and dictate to the survivors…”

“...the notable towers and gates facing the four cardinal directions, inner walls and ducts back to the central point…”

Explosively speaking, ”And would completely not serve the point! Even if short term the souls would be saved in the long term a philosophy enforced by force would again antipathy beyond normative reason!”

”Why do we bother convincing so many? A few diseases, some droughts and curses, we could bring down half a continent if tried on our own, all these little plans never seem to work out very much.”

”That’s because a little subtlety is beyond you as it becomes ever more apparent. Quiet down and maybe we can go unleash a blight somewhere I suppose.”

”...central chamber of blessed water to fill ducts when sluices are opened at appropriate levels, infrastructure for the city…”

”You’re just trying to play me off, you’re not that subtle yourself you overgrown puppet.”

Truly getting work done was actually somewhat easier with one head instead of three as it sometimes did occur to Guul. Shaping the city below, near a river with good access to trade routes, tribal populations and of course the alluvial plain. Now the defenses and ensuring everything was to specification that was a bit more…

...magical.

”Puppet am I? You’re a child, lashing out at his parent because he can’t stand to be the same, I can at least see good sense and agree when a good point is made.”

The mists bellowed out around the tower, death energies setting into the land itself and spread out from the newly arisen city, it was a careful guided energy. Guided with purpose beyond the avatar’s direction even as control ultimate came to them. The mists would target whoever was chosen, by Thaa, by The Three, or by the soon to arrive Dragon. A very strong protection against any attempt at siege, one that most mortals were by far ill-equipped to even conceive to defend themselves. A clever enough plan to protect a burgeoning haven as it was to be, a good place for good people was the thought as Thaa said.

”Agree-agree,” Sing-song mockery was well know by Jaav to be the height of argument, ”you don’t have an independent thought in the entire stretch of you, whenever you do something its radiates unoriginality.”

”You’re addled, its probably all those bits of life you insist on eating so much, I’d said you’re as dumb as a rock but even life knows not to eat them, most of the time at least.”

”THAT WAS ONE TIME AND YOU KNOW IT!” A flight of birds from some nearby trees gave Jaav pause and lowered his voice as he replied, ”Its not my fault it looked like an egg.”

”It was by a river, why would you think it was an egg?”

”Some creatures lay eggs by water…”Jaav trailed off as he noticed they were leaving the area. ”Hey Guul, we done?”

“I want to go to Mydia. I think I will try painting.”

”Huh, okay then.

And they were finally quiet.

For at least an hour.



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Quartz-like eyes peeked into the dark corridor. The moontorches were extinguished this late at night in this wing. Night elves weren’t expected to come here. Cilantra clutched the leather-wrapped package close to her chest as she slowly stepped into the hallway. The boards underneath her foot creaked and she stopped to look around. There should be no-one here. No, that was wrong. Other things roamed these darkened halls they said. Human students that stalked the night were said to suddenly vanish in the shadows. Others only heard faint screams. The day later they were found in their bed. Fast asleep. Believing everything that happened the night before was just a horrible nightmare.

Cilantra wasn’t in the mood for nightmares. Though she had no idea how she got talked into this by Lakhmu. She smelled the air for a second just to be sure. Nothing. Good. Carefully she stalked through the hallway. She passed corner after corner. Moonlight illuminated some of them. As she approached the cobwebbed underground cellars see gave a small prayer of praise to the goddess of the moon who clearly had blessed her with some stealthy moves before going in. Oddly enough the cellars felt safer than the first floor above. One door here stood out due to its sheer lack of webs. Slowly she opened it as she entered it on the tips of her toes. Not that it mattered, as the old hinges gave off a horrible creak.

“Did you get it?” Asked a voice in the dark. Cilantra knew it was Lakhmu.

“Yes, yes. I’ve got it.” She said as she opened up the wraps. The pitch-black room suddenly lit up as if the sun fell through the ceiling. The light, however, came from a crystal that Cilantra was holding. “Is this strong enough?”

“It should be.” Lakhmu, his olive skin and dark hair now visible, said as he carefully picked it up. “Did the headmaster or Auriëlle catch you?” He asked.

Cilantra shook her head. “I was in and out. The headmaster was no-where to be seen, and I knew Auriëlle was still talking to Duxus.” The nelf student said. “They won’t know until tomorrow. Are you sure this will work?”

“Absolutely.” Lakhmu said full of confidence as he started to put some golden rings around the crystalline structure and then carefully lowered into a cage. “I’m going to be the first to defeat her.”

The other two, a human girl with paint on her skin and a small goblin looked on with fear in their eyes as they both handed Lakhmu some brass disks. “I think you’re going to lose.” Said the painted girl. “She’s been here for thirty years. Nobody won. She’s too strong.”

“That’s because nobody has fought her the way I will.” Lakhmu said as he attached the disk and then finally lowered the whole cylindrical cage into a sort of large, closed lantern. The second the cage was properly secure the light of the crystal within dimmed. Long shadows were cast upon the walls by the four students.
~

The young human mage marched through the hallowed halls of the Omniversity. Before him, the sea of students parted in front of him. He looked ready for war. Dressed in robes bound by leather. His belt carried a variety of stone runes, glass globes containing some liquid, and wooden, carved totems. In his hand he carried something covered by a piece of cloth. Wherever he passed, the tension was growing. Lakhmu didn’t see it but his march was spread through the purple-eyes their web. Rumor spread faster than he could walk. Before he stepped even foot in the gardens everyone knew what he was doing. Everyone, including the headmaster. Who waited for him just outside.

Lakhmu stopped in front of him. He looked defiant but didn’t say a thing.

The headmaster, for his turn, did not look very afraid. Instead he looked worried. “Are you sure?” He asked in that familiar, tranquil voice of his. “The lessons here might be painful from time to time but what you are setting for to do… it will hurt. Are you sure you are ready?”

The boy didn’t say anything. He didn’t move. He simply stared down the strange, alien-looking but friendly headmaster. He would defeat her and return home worthy of his parents’ name. If he didn’t, how else could he prove he had grown over the years?

Sad eyes watched him for a second longer before the headmaster stepped aside and allowed him to walk into the main section of the gardens. “She’s already waiting for you at the arena. May the gods watch over you.” He said. Lakhmu and his retinue marched on. Followed by a throng of interest children. The headmaster kept looking at the boy as he walked away. When the children were gone he finally added: “Because magic will not.”

They said she was over sixty now almost. That she had been at the Omniversity for thirty years. They said she was a princess of a faraway land that was cursed by the sun herself. They said she fought wars in faraway lands in the west. Lands only the fishy Akuans talked about. The rumors were endless about her. Lakhmu had no idea what was true except for two things. She was the strongest mage on the island. Maybe in Mydia. Nobody – not in the last thirty years – has bested her. The second fact was something he realized again when he saw her sitting in the sands of the arena: she could see no light.

Floating stepstones allowed people to sit in tree canopies woven into benches. Statues holding bowls surrounded the sands. Each contained a pristine, fist-sized pearl. Lakhmu stopped before he stepped through the magical barrier that protected everyone on the outside from the magical onslaught that could be released from inside.

The students all around were cheering and shouting but not necessarily for him. The crowd becomes a mass his father used to say. Warriors learn how to fight. Wizards learn the art of magic. Merchants the art of bartering. Leaders must learn how to sway and steer that mass. Right now that mass was untouched. Some rooted for him. Others rooted for Auriëlle who sat cross-legged in the sand in front of him. The vast majority were hollering for a spectacle and nothing else.

Standing now, in front of the barrier, Lakhmu felt something very dangerous: doubt. Auriëlle sat with her eyes closed. That didn’t mean anything. Everyone on the island knew she was blind. She could be seeing him right now or truly have pulled back her senses to meditate. There was no way of knowing.

“You can do this!” Cillantra said from behind him. “You said you could for months! Now get in there and prove it!”

The battle barely lasted a minute.

One could precisely see where the barrier ended. Pristine, green grass fell away into a deep, horrific crater. Fire-blackened stone jutted out everywhere within the circle. The ground itself was cracked and sundered. Lakhmu laid on the ground. Exhausted, defeated. Auriëlle was standing over him, holding the lantern he had made. The horns that curled from between her hair slowly vanished again, together with her shadowy and demonic appearance. The golden metal rapidly lost its hot, red glow. The fight had been fierce but from the onset it was clear that Lakhmu’s secret weapon wasn’t enough. Without giving him the dignity of her gaze Auriëlle walked out of the broken land with the lantern. Ice broke itself free from the huge spikes that stuck out of the earth. In the air they formed beautiful icy songbirds that followed the sorceress. Singing their soft, sweet, serene songs.
~

The Solar Crystal Lantern was put inside one of Auriëlle’s many storage closets in her office. To many, it would look like a terrible and bleak place. Buried deep within the Omniversity with not even a window to look out from. There weren’t even candles, though several stones were imbued to give off warmth whenever someone entered the room. Inside countless of closets with closed doors lined the walls. No cupboards or glass cases. Nothing here was put on display. Which only fed the rumors of what was all stored there. What lurked behind the copper locks in Auriëlle’s office? There was one bookshelf, but it was not filled with fragile paper but stone tablets.

“You could’ve gone easy on him.” She heard from behind her, though she had sensed the Headmaster approach her office long before.

“I’ve never gone easy on anyone. Neither have you on me.” She said over her shoulder before she walked to some cobwebbed corner and opened the closet down there with her magic. From it she took the old wooden bracer she hadn’t worn in thirty years. With a finger, she traced through the blackened grooves dug into it while saying: “The world won’t go easy on him either. Give it time, in a few years he’ll realize how important a lesson it was.”

For a second a dreadful silence fell upon the room. There was rarely silence between the Headmaster and Auriëlle. There was always something to be shared with pride or shouted in anger between them. There was not a subject too uncomfortable between the two. Until now, apparently. The strange, unique, fish-like creature that was the Headmaster took a step forward. “Thirty years ago you arrived here. You’ve grown since, in more ways than I thought. In magic… there is nothing left for me to teach you.”

Auriëlle surprised, turned around to face him. It was an old habit that just would die. She knew, for some years now, that the time of her return to Toraan was coming. Yet somehow she still felt surprised.

The Headmaster continued: “But before you go, I have promised the Three-As-One to show the Omniversity. In all of its glory. For that task I could not imagine a better guide than my oldest pupil.”



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A Journey’s End


Cool water surged up the black sand and lapped at her toes as Amerra Hutta, now at the end of her journey, shut her eyes for a precious moment and drew in a deep breath. The ocean’s familiar scent reminded her of the beginning. All the way back when she’d first stepped back from the water a continent away and a lifetime ago. It had been the dream of another person, to be here. She hadn’t had any idea what it would take then. The cost in years, her countless brushes with death. Even death itself. It disturbed her, that she knew what it was to die.

That things existed in the world which could bring you back from that with nothing more than a word. She had been saved by a Skywalker. The very beings she’d been told had created the world, and then abandoned it. Creatures of vanity and power that regarded her and her people as little more than clever insects whose antics had the potential to amuse. So the stories went.

Those words felt hollow now. Her father had dedicated himself to appeasing them, to staving off their wrath with offering and prayer, and now she wondered. The Skywalkers were powerful. She did believe they had created the world, but the rest? The one who’d saved Amerra had told her that it had only just been born, and what sort of perpetual evil could be brought into the world only to save someone that it named as family?

The truth was she’d lost faith in her people's beliefs a long time ago. How could the beauty of that shining temple at the heart of the great plain be the work of a fickle, wicked creature? There was pain in life, but that did not make it the product of evil or a game to amuse the world's architects. There were cheaper, better amusements.

Now a continent away from her people, from her lost faith, the Eastern Ocean undulated before her and with eyes wide she marvelled at the sight. She remembered her home. She remembered the waves that had greeted her every morning. A silly little grin bloomed on her face as she recalled that the girl she’d been had never even taken the time to watch them.

It was the same water, she thought, but not the same person. Without pomp, or fanfare, or even recognition, Amerra allowed herself to collapse on the beach. The damp sand met her with all the softness it could, but whatever pain the fall caused was nothing compared to the satisfaction she felt as she let out the weight of her journey in one, penultimate, sigh.

She’d made it. Every night she’d gone hungry, every day she’d run from thieves and worse, it all brought her here. Exactly where she’d wanted to be. As far as her feet could take her. There was tremendous freedom in it; the accomplishment of all her dreams. Behind her was everything, and ahead? Nothing to worry about.

Not anymore. The hard part was over. Now she had the cool sand, the sound of the water, the heat of the sun. For a brief moment in time these were her only companions and, though Amerra cherished each one, it was a stray thought as to the reason she’d lived to come this far that wrenched her from them. After all she’d forgotten that, while it was a good presumption in general, it was not always the case that her thoughts were entirely her own business.

“You know I did more than just save you right?”

The familiar voice made Amerra jump, even from her reclined state. As she got her feet under her she was shocked, yet again, to see a woman made entirely from mist rising from the nearby water and eyeing her expectantly. Given the circumstances she managed a choked, “Uh- Yeah. Yes.”

It was not every day that you had to defend your own thoughts, let alone to apparitions in the fog, after all. As for the mist woman herself, she visibly struggled to suppress a laugh at Amerra’s fumbled reply before launching into an explanation for the human woman, “Well, at least you noticed something. It’s more fun if you figure it out, but you’ve made it all the way here so I suppose you deserve to know. I couldn’t have anything else sneaking up on you after going to the effort of saving you once, so I made it so you can sense what the critters around you can. And tada! You’re here, having avoided supplying the local animal population an exotic treat.”

The ability was more valuable than words could express, and Amerra appreciated it. It had paid off time and time again. It was her friendly Skywalker’s self congratulatory tone, though, that was enough to force the human woman to blurt out, “It took a week for the vertigo to go away! I was throwing up twice. A . Day.”

“Huh,” The woman in the mist paused and bit her lip contemplatively. After a pregnant pause the Skywalker’s representation pointed at Amerra and apologized, “Fair. I should probably have thought about that. Well, it’s not like I made you. I’m winging this and it can't all be wins you know?”

“You’d never... Done that before? You didn’t know how?” Amerra stumbled over her words as a little seed of horror blossomed in her imagination. The woman in the fog reached out and waved in front of eyes as she turned pale.

The apparition retorted, “Hey! Hey! You weren’t in danger. I’m pretty sure. Very sure ok. I didn’t make you but it’s not like you’re that complicated! Not that that’s an, look ok you’re fine, you’re here, back to happy thoughts.”

Amerra could only stare blankly at the Skywalker’s representation. She pursed her lips meaningfully and changed the subject before she had any untoward thoughts regarding divinity and the respect one should show to it, “It worked, though. So thank you, honestly. You did save me, and you helped me get here.”

The misty woman gave Amerra a happy little smile and an embellished bow before speaking, “I did, and you’re welcome! Though, I wouldn’t say we’re even quite yet. After all, you are the reason I exist.”

It was a blunt admission, but the Skywalker hadn’t tried to conceal it from Amerra before. Perhaps a Skywalker could be young, and still be a Skywalker. Amerra thought telling people that Skywalkers can be born, and presumably die, wasn’t necessarily the greatest idea. She said as much, “You don’t owe me anything, but if I can make a request, perhaps don’t share that you’re a newborn. Even with... Family.”

“Well, I could be lying,” The apparition of a woman swirled around Amerra, leaving a thick blanket of fog behind her. Once it looked to Amerra as if the whole of the world had vanished but for her and her companion in the fog, that companion went on eagerly, “Or maybe you’re just special. A first, even among family. All explorers might be mine, but it could be it’s only you who has a little of me to yourself. So! I’ll abide by your request, and I’ll show a little nepotism besides.”

With a little wink from the fog suddenly collapsed on the Skywalker’s misty figure. What had been an ethereal figure in the fog manifested itself as a milky white representation of a woman clad in what looked like little clouds. It would have been an unearthly sight, if not for what was above it.

Looming above the vaporous woman was a vast white serpent. No less than five wings protruded from each side of its sinuous body, each one gently oscillating to hold the creature aloft. Every time a wing beat Amerra was buffeted by wind, terrified and mesmerized in equal measure. Two perfect circles, each one home to a great emerald eye, held her attention as the Skywalker explained, redundantly, “I’m sure you’ve seen the wetland people riding similar, if rather pathetic, creatures. I thought you’d appreciate the chance to go whenever you want, from now on. Besides, it beats the ability to walk on water, believe me. Massively overrated, that.”

Amerra's eyes widened and shock and she stuttered, “It... It belongs to me?”

“Yup,” The Skywalker said as she waved her translucent hand in front of Amerra’s face, “Maybe say ‘him’ though. And don’t worry about training, I’ve done all that for you already. Whatever you name him here already knows you, even if you need to take a moment to know him.”

The misty woman hesitated for a second and, somewhat abashed, added, “Though, I can’t say he’s all reward. Your little arrival here marked the start of a... Competition. I’m sure you’ll meet explorers everywhere you go soon, but I feel I ought to warn you ahead of time. Whatever they’re looking for, isn’t for you. If you want something from me, just shoot a prayer my direction alright?”

Amerra nodded at the vague absurdity of the statement. She had mixed feelings about the Skywalker, about her ‘reward’, and about whatever carrot her ‘friend’ was about to go swinging in front of the world. Of course, she was sure the Skywalker was already aware of her reservations. There was no point putting them to words.

At last, the first explorer to traverse Toraan, said the only thing that felt appropriate, “His name is Huern, then. Thank you. Again.”

An unnervingly huge grin bloomed on the Skywalkers facsimile of a face and she all but shouted, “He’s yours! Get to know your new friend! I have a game to kick off!”

She burst, and soon the beach was shrouded in mist with the great serpent as Amerra's only companion. She looked up at Huern and the flying beast met her gaze.

Amerra didn't say a word, but she was still processing it.

***


That night and for six nights after, the world over, men and women who dreamed of more than their petty lives received a vision in their sleep. Grand vistas of distant lands dominated their dreams, and without word or explanation they each understood the images to be true. Thousands of places, big and small, forgotten and remembered. Countless men and women dreamed of a varied and beautiful world, and all came to understand that their efforts in going to see what the gods had made for them would not be in vain. There would be reward, equal not to the destination but rather to the journey taken to get there.

A Goddess was watching, and she couldn’t wait to see what came next.


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No More Doubt





Zayd lived a long and prosperous life after the catastrophe that struck him in his earlier years. After going with Nadir, he learned the old man had once been a soldier and was taught how to fight with a blade for many gruelling weeks. During that time he dedicated himself solely to that pursuit but barely found improvement. Having all but given up on even trying to seek revenge, he was going to call it quits and become the coward everyone thought he was. Yet fate had other plans, for the Sylphi girl appeared again one night, this time badly hurt and in need of aid.

She lay unconscious in the house of Nadir for several days before gaining enough consciousness to give a warning- They were coming. This cryptic message was not ignored and Nadir sent his family into hiding. He and Zayd stayed with the girl as night approached, bringing with it terrible howls and screams. A masked person approached the house after sunset and bade them to return the girl or die. They refused and the person, a man, said that they would die then.

They were then attacked by the same creatures Zayd had fought in the cave. Nadir was able to slay them with ease and Zayd held his own. Then came the true test, as a masked being entered the fray, moving at inhuman speeds. They quickly cut down Nadir and another went for the girl when salvation arrived. The Coven of Omun, wearing their gilded capes and sigiled eyes began to turn the tide. They managed to turn the masked ones and their demonic pets away but not before dealing damage of their own.

The Sylphi girl was saved and came awake at the hands of an old friend, Elena. Now a coven witch. Zayd also finally learned the name of the sylphi girl- Nymi. They traveled with Elena and the coven to their ancestral home, where they would be safe for a time. There Zayd trained and grew in his strength as he learned about the west and where Nymi had come from and the vampire threat that pursued her. Her only crime- Had been running away from home.

There then came a siege of the Coven’s lands and it was decided in secret that the only way for innocents to survive was for Nymi to leave. Zayd would go with her and Elena as well and thus they left with no destination in mind, only that their goal was to protect the plant girl at all costs and stop the vampires.

Then began a lengthy journey of adventure and bravery, through thick and thin, through friend and foe, love and loss.

Though Zayd was only decent with a blade, his undying spirit and strength to endure eventually caught the eyes of a goddess and he was blessed and gifted with artifacts to aid in his journey.

After a few years of making a name for himself in the Gardens and the growing threat of an invasion from the west, they stumbled upon the stronghold of the vampires that had plagued them for so long. With his allies and the coven’s help, plus the timely arrival of the new Hash’Lahan’s army (Another story for another time), they were able to lay siege and wipe out vampires after a long battle. Their triumph came before those within could unleash a hellish army on the Gardens, blackening the soil for years to come. It was over, or so they thought...

Afterwards they had a fateful encounter with another vampire. They attacked her unprovoked, not willing to listen to any lies but this vampire was different. Herein lies that encounter…

The Journal of Elena, Smote and Ruin
‘When she arrived, the very air grew chill. She wore a mask like the others had but this one was different. It was golden, emblazoned with sapphires and a crest of spiralling lines upon the forehead. She was tall, taller then even Som and wore a cloak of white over a pale dress. We thought Ikam had been the vampires leader, that he had only answered to the vile queen in the west. Was this her?

She removed her mask, something that none of the other vampires had ever done in public. The woman underneath had a look of surprise. Like she had not realized others were capable of killing them. Zayd wasted no time and lunged for her at the beside the broken throne but she dodged with ease, even with his sundering sword cutting the air. She did not attack but pleaded with us to listen. Som and Bagar strung their arrows and Nymi with Syl unsheathed their swords. I began to cast an incantation that would have prevented her from moving but it seemed when she realized her words were going unheard, she did something… Unexpected.

That chill in the air? It grew worse and with a snap of her fingers, we froze. Our legs became entrapped in ice that sprang up to lock our hands. I began to speak quicker but cold ice wrapped around my mouth, silencing me. When that was done, when we were at the weakest we had ever been, ready for the kill, she sank to her knees and told us a story.’

Keeah had come and she brought good news. The vampire queen, Nalla was defeated and there would be no invasion. In fact, Keeah had come to silence the vampires there that had been causing problems. With that done and on uneasy terms, they departed with a greater understanding of power. An easier life was before them at last.

Som, Bagar and Syl all retired from adventuring. Som and Bagar opened a tavern in the Gardens next to Syl’s Joyf supplies shop.

Elena eventually settled down in the Coven’s lands, where she taught students magic for the rest of her days, remaining good friends with her old adventuring party.

Zayd eventually settled down with Nymi, having found comfort and understanding between their shared trauma, which let them grow stronger together. He rebuilt his family's homestead and after being separated for years, a few cousins who managed to survive made their way home again. Nymi adjusted to the farming life and the two had several children, who were mostly human. They lived a very happy life together, with no more dangers or great threats to worry about. When Nymi passed, Zayd soon followed and died at peace, surrounded by his loved ones.

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A Brighter Future





Nallan burned. Embers rose into the night like the souls of the dead. Brother fought brother in streets that ran thick with blood while the women and children wept for the lost, cowering behind walls. The age of expansion had come to a violent end and at the center of it all, was one frozen soul.

Chains dangled loosely from her wrists, ankles and neck. Now broken from the ground that once held her as she strode through the corpse littered halls of Nalla's palace. Vampire had fought vampire here in a grisly display of strength. That same strength, her own power, now coursed through her veins, burning the toxin away that had dulled her senses and muddied her head for days. Many of the faces she passed were familiar to her and it only served to anger her more.

When she rounded the final corridor on the path to the throne room, she came face to face with the living. They stood in front of the door, dozens of Eresa's fighters. And the Zuanwan beauty stood at the center, tall and proud as ever. She had truly grown into a magnificent person. From lowly servant to leader of a rebellion and Keeah had watched it all.

When they saw her, many gave hushed whispers and vile glances but it was Eresa who rushed to her, face lighting up as they caught each other's eyes. Selmi followed after her mistress and Eresa embraced her with a hushed breath. Keeah slowly lifted her arms and returned it.

"I didn't think you would come." Eresa said, pulling back and moving the hair out of Keeah's face.

"I couldn't let you go alone… She could kill you Eresa, all of you. I'll fight her… Alone." Keeah whispered, voice still raw and hoarse.

Eresa frowned, shaking her head. " You're in no condition Keeah! Besides this is my fight. For a brighter future for us all. I have to face her for what she's done. For what she's done to us." Eresa said with brimming anger to her voice.

Keeah took her hand and placed a few kisses on it. "Eresa…” she murmured, before freezing Eresa’s legs and arms in place. There came a look of surprise on the shorter woman’s face, then anger. Keeah could not bare to see it so she instead turned to the other rebels as they came at her and froze them in place as well, one by one. Eresa pleaded with her from behind, but Keeah did not look back. They would break the ice in time but it would be enough to see this job done once and for all.

So Keeah made her way to the throne doors and battered them open and sealed the ay behind her.




“So you’ve come to kill me at last, Keeah? I should have known…” Nalla whispered, leaning forward on her throne, hands propping her chin up as she surveyed her would be killer. The girl looked atrocious but she had put her through a lot, hadn’t she? She watched as Keeah looked at the emptiness around them before her cold gaze fell upon her. She shivered.

“I must admit,” Nalla began again, “I did not expect you to be capable of walking, nonetheless of using your powers. I thought myself so careful, so… Smart. I see I was wrong, in the end. About you… About everything.” She sat back and sighed as Keeah stopped at the end of the stairs. Nalla could still hear her city burning and her people screaming but she had been deceived, in the end…

“This ends now… Nalla. No more lies, no more killings, no more.” Keeah spat at her. Nala blinked, remembering the poor broken thing that had arrived at her doorstep over three decades ago. How much she had grown.

“It’s already ended, Keeah. My people betrayed me. You betrayed me. Even… She… Betrayed me... “ It still stung. There was a reason it all came crashing down. She clutched at the dim necklace that used to bring her power. She ripped it off and threw it down the steps. It shattered like her heart. “You and Eresa have made sure that I and my reign are over. Poisoned as I have poisoned. Hopefully she can control them. Slave turned ruler… Stories will be written about her… How she toppled a tyrant queen. You and I will be forgotten of course. For in the end, my dear Keeah, we were always just tools for others.”

“Speak for yourself Nalla! I stopped being a tool the moment you turned me into a vampire. I became my own being.” Keeah’s anger was evident in her voice but she stood with conviction.

“You make it sound like you didn’t want to be one. When in fact you wanted to fit in. Wanting is a drug, Keeah. The most dangerous one of all. You asked me, remember?” Nalla asked.

Keeah lurched forward. “That was before I knew about your mind tricks! How you became an object of desire in our heads, how we had to always be around you! How we had to get our fix from those words! You manipulated me! You used me and I hate you for it!”

Nalla tilted her head and leaned forward again, raising an eyebrow as her fists became clenched. “Yes, I can see that hatred. You used it to escape and even know you use it to fuel you. I suppose this is what I deserve for playing God all these years. All I wanted to do was create beauty but instead I nurtured monsters that resent me.” A laugh escaped her lips as her brow furrowed. “ME!” She yelled, “Who gave you EVERYTHING!” She stood up, grabbing her blade in hand. “I COULD HAVE MADE YOU A SLAVE! I COULD HAVE MADE YOU MY WHORE! BUT I GAVE YOU ALL I COULD! AND THIS IS HOW YOU REPAY ME?” She shouted down at Keeah, who’s face hardened.

“WITHOUT ME YOU ARE NOTHING KEEAH! NONE OF YOU ARE! I AM QUEEN! AND IF I AM TO DIE TODAY THEN I WILL TAKE YOU WITH ME!” From her crown came the shadowy hands of a thousand souls, and they went for Keeah, who erupted a wall of ice and sent it hurtling at her. Nalla cursed and jumped out of the way with speed, landing down on the floor beside the tall throne. Her hands still fought Keeah, each one attempting to grab the girl and they were falling in droves as Keeah cut them down.

Nalla grimaced and charged her. She was upon the girl of ice in an instant and slammed her blade into a wall of ice, shattering it and nicking Keeah in her left arm. The girl’s eyes widened and she jumped back, sending an icicle at Nalla, who sliced it down the middle. The two spikes collided into the ceiling like thunder, making part of the roof collapse. Nalla dodged but slipped on a patch of ice and slid into a pillar with such force that it broke it, causing more of the roof to collapse.

Nalla managed to get to her feet and dodge the rocks as they fell, watching as Keeah did the same. Keeah shot more icicles at her and Nalla spun in the air, feeling their wind as they flew past her. She then lurched forward and brought her blade down upon Keeah, who summoned a blade of ice to block her. Nalla gritted her teeth as the two came to a stand still.

“None of this would have happened if I hadn’t let Euonymia leave. That damn Sylphi girl… Always so defiant!” Nalla summoned a shadow hand that punched Keeah in the stomach, catching her off guard. It was enough for Nalla to shatter her blade but before she could strike the girl, her skin hardened to ice and Nalla’s blade bounced off, the momentum carrying her off balance. Keeah then punched Nalla in her stomach, knocking the wind out of her. She crumpled and felt her crown ripped from her head before she could react. She growled like an animal and leapt away.

Nalla watched as Keeah encased her crown and ice and sent it hurtling out of the broken roof. Rage took her and she flung herself at Keeah once more. The two collided and much of Keeah’s armor cracked as they fell onto the stone. Nalla used her blade to stab at the girl and she punctured her arm again, driving it in deep. Keeah screamed and Nalla laughed but was quickly thrown off as Keeah summoned a pillar of ice that acted like a ram. It hit Nalla on the side and sent her tumbling. She lost her grip on the sword and with a ragged breath began to rise again.

They both did. Keeah pulled the sword out of her and threw it to the ground, her arm going limp. Nalla knew something had broken inside her, for she found it hard to breathe but she would not yield not yet. Not even as the sun began to rise.

“Nymi… Was a free soul.” Keeah said. “She was everything you are not. Caring. Loving. Kind and gentle. How she could be born in such a place is defiance itself. You will never know those things for you are incapable. You’re the monster you accuse me of being and you cannot be allowed to live. To spread your corruption.” A blade of ice formed in her good hand.
Nalla began to laugh between the pain. “Oh my dear sweet Keeah. So Naive. I’ve always known, deep down, what I am. But what are you if not a monster? Come… Let’s find out…” She put her arms around her back and pulled an ebony dagger from her cloth. Then with a smile, she sprang forward and went for Keeah’s neck.

Before the blade entered the girl’s neck, a spike of ice burst from the ground and penetrated her stomach, suspending her in the air. With a gurgle of blood, she dropped her dagger. Nalla looked at Keeah again, their eyes connected and she knew her time had come. But she had one last trick, didn’t she?

She spoke the words and Keeah froze before crumpling, her face becoming flushed as she writhed in ecstasy. Though Neiya had taken some of her gifts, she had left the one most precious to her. With the last of her strength, Nalla broke the ice that held her aloft and tumbled to the ground with half the spike still inside her. She grabbed her dagger and clawed her way over to Keeah’s body. As she pulled herself on top of her, Keeah could do nothing but watch her in a daze.

Nalla coughed. “Perhaps… You won’t find out… After all.” She placed a kiss on the girl’s forehead then brought the dagger to Keeah’s throat. “Farewell… Keeah of the North.”

Instead, she was ripped from Keeah by and then a strong arm found itself around her neck. She looked up to see Eresa and her eyes bulged. She tried to say something but it was useless. There was a sickly crack, her body went limp and then Ekh-Rus claimed her.




After the rebellion had ended, a time of unsure peace fell across Nallan’s old kingdom as the rebuilding began again. Tired of the uncertainty of monarchy a bold new plan was enacted to promote new policy by the voices of the people and thus, Eresa was elected to be the leader of the Republic of Eres. Though it was frightening, it was also exciting. This did not come without time however as many of the common folk had grown accustomed to the rule of Nalla and it took years to break down the old ways so the new could flourish.

In those fledgling years, Keeah was sent out to stop the last of Nalla’s vampire guards from wreaking havoc on their neighbors in the gardens, and Keeah pondered those words of Nalla. What was she? What was going to do? Was she just a tool? When this task was done she returned to Eres and settled down with Eresa and a small harem of followers. The two lived in peace until they grew tired of that life and moved on to different things. Together as always and in time, Keeah realized she did know what she was but the question of being a tool, would haunt her forever...

The Republic of Eres grew prosperous in time and was a relative success.

Nalla was remembered as she said, a tyrant queen and her depictions were brought down and her mark outlawed. The statue in the center of the city was finally brought down too, after years of arguing. Though people now saw Nalla as a tyrant, they still feared angering her spirit.

A spirit that now existed only in memory… Soon to fade altogether.


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All Endings Are Beginnings





Highlanders





The Queen Joyf journeyed ever south with her royal retinue. They seeded the land with many a Joyf, for the glory of the Joyfdom. Eventually they reached the great Garden where Joyfs became the chosen breed of pet. Their descendants still endure, bringing warmth and joy wherever they are.

As for the Queen, well, she is still pampered and doted upon to this day.




After Nallan vanished, Nalla’s fledgling empire crumpled in the Highlands. To infighting. It took years before the region settled into peace again, before being conquered time and time again by warlords or the great city states that pushed their borders. Nalla eventually faded from memory but those that were closest to her, always hoped for her return…




Angels





Deep in the deserts of Kubra.

The Kayhin had been wrong. As they fled that ancient stone site, now broken to the foundations of the earth, they left behind a tomb. One that housed a very dangerous threat, or one that could have been, but his time in that desert land was cut down in its infancy.

For Malri, the demon of the north, god emperor of the south, wanderer, killer, and father to demonspawn… was entombed alive.

It would have been easy, with all his strength, to escape. To seek revenge upon the one who insulted him so, but it was not to be. For not long after, a strange light descended from the heavens and engulfed the area. When the light fled, the stones had changed into that of a mighty half-circle that contained the demon within.

Upon the walls lay a script that all could read, 'Contain the Evil within.'

And that became the end of Malri.

For now.




For nearly thirty years Iora scoured the land searching for the object of her fascination, the plant girl known as Genesis. After several fateful encounters, the trail went cold in the fifteenth year of her search. Iora's mental state began to spiral in year twenty five and by year thirty she had gone insane.

By happenstance she resurfaced near the Luminant years after the Unification of the Aiviri. Rambling about end times and Queens of blood, ice and fire. After going on a killing spree, she was defeated through a combined effort of Aiviri and human ingenuity. She was deemed unfit for any sort of rehabilitation and Queen Soleira sentenced her to imprisonment for life in the Heart Pierce Spire.

To protect herself and her caretakers, Iora was blinded when around people, restrained at all times and drugged with calming herbs to combat her temperament. She will be there for a very long time.




Tevuri and his Oraeliari were loyal to Lucia and Sanya in the end. They followed them and settled down, acting as caretakers and guides for those that wished to be closest to Oraeliara.

After searching for years, Cardinal Tevuri’s Once-Mate, Pera, found him again and there was a great and wonderful celebration. They settled down and had a few children, living out their days in peace.




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