Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Goldeagle1221
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Apostate

...makes a promise…


Setting: Keltra

Homura had returned to the keep after cleansing Lorelei’s suit and visor, and found her six champions busying themselves with weaving a new outfit for the sleeping girl. The goddess chose not to interrupt their work, and laid down the suit and visor on one of the unoccupied pillows beside Lorelei, so that she would see it upon waking.

She allowed herself to smile in amusement upon the sight of the heralds of honor sharing ideas with each other, and creating something new with their own power, their own hands. So engrossed with their project, they had yet to notice her return. Their understanding of the Gnosis was limited, but they were quickly learning what they could create if they put their minds together.

Homura stepped back, and stood near one of the many entrances into the keep. The three colossi had been loaded with sleeping humans and were ready for their journey to resume. All of her champions were here and well, and for that, the Goddess of Honor was truly grateful.

She leaned against the doorway, choosing one from among the smaller ones, and gazed upon the empty fields that spread out from the keep to the wall. She could see a section of one colossus in the sea beyond the wall through the rift she had created to temporarily allow passage in and out of the citadel. Soon she would have to make proper gates, but that time had not come.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the previously missing figure of Apostate trudging over towards her. His face had its usual intensity, but instead of his habitual grip on the blade he wore on his hip, both of his hands were hidden behind his back and under his beige cloak. As he arrived at Homura, he scuffed to a stop and stood up tall, dwarfing the Goddess of Honor.

“Homura,” he said, “I have something for you.”

She simply tilted her head, her eyes narrowing with suspicion. “I would rather you keep your eccentric ideas of what a surprise warrants far from Keltra. I have tired myself trying to keep my spirit from being stained with pollution, so I have no time for your barbs and… gifts. There is no need to hide whatever you have behind your back.” She answered.

“Homura the rebel,” Apostate started, “you’ve wasted a fine speech on something that doesn’t even explode. Hold out your hand.”

“Why?” Her hands now hid behind her back, as she scowled. “Besides, your words have not alleviated my concerns.” She continued, her eyes burning brightly with skepticism.

“The one time you’re defiant…” Apostate rolled his eye and pulled his hands from his back. He shot out one of his loosely clenched fists and unrolled his fingers for Homura to see what laid in his palm. Sitting on top of his bandage was a simple strawberry.

Her eyes wandered from the fruit he held, to his face, then back. “Why did you take this child? Was its family killed by Astus as well?” She asked.

Apostate closed his eyes and furrowed his brow, standing in silence for a moment. Finally he answered, “because it was ripe, Homura. Look closely at it and tell me what you see.”

“He is young, but his seeds are still strong. However, there is no soil for his kind here. He would survive in the forest, perhaps. I am still a novice regarding my knowledge of the nature of plants. Are you helping him spread his seed?” Slowly she reached out with her hands, ribbons of red light wrapped around her fingers and palm, as she touched the fruit.

“In a way.” Apostate watched her investigate the strawberry. He put on a thoughtful look, clearly trying to find the correct words. “You… don’t understand why things eat other things, so I thought I could be the one to tell you the secret behind it… if you wanted to hear it?”

“I understand the concept of consumption. I consider it an inferior means of sustaining life, as it perpetuates a cycle of abuse and avarice. It is not a secret. It is the path of self-indulgence and eventual destruction. There is nothing more to say, brother.” Homura answered, her hands retreating when she realized the intentions of the God of Defiance.

“So you won’t hear what I have to say?” Apostate asked, quietly, his fingers curling back over the strawberry.

His words elicited a sigh of frustration from her, but she relented. “Speak if you must. I will hear what you have to say, but do not harm one that has not harmed another.” She said, her eyes on the strawberry, with a hint of concern she failed to conceal.

Apostate unrolled his fingers again and held the strawberry close to Homura’s vision. “The seeds are on the outside, do you know why? Apples have seeds on the inside, but this fruit has seeds on the outside.”

The god shook his head. “Wait, don’t answer that. I think it’s best that I just completed my little speech.” He let out a sigh and focused hard on the fruit. “Strawberries know the secret that I was talking about, so they put their seeds on the outside. You mentioned that consumption is self-serving and otherwise I agree with you, except at the same time I don’t, and let me explain with this fruit that knows why.”

He cleared his throat, posing with the fruit in an almost comical manner, despite his face being as serious as stone. “By being eaten, this fruit propagates itself. It creates more of itself by being consumed, and that’s just the beginning. The need to eat is actually the first step of realizing the need for reliance. It connects the parties of the world together and creates a bond of respect — the bear and the fish, for example, or maybe the Eidolon and the ram — one works on the other in this cycle to create a rhythm of harmony.”

With quick reflexes, Apostate held up his other hand to block any early comments. “But what of that which doesn’t want to be eaten, the fish for example? Or perhaps the ram dislikes the Eidolon. What if there is no respect between the parties, and the bear takes the fish for granted, or the Eidolon abuses the ram… then that is the issue, not the reliance and consumption, but the use of the medium, the incorrect translation of the lesson… and that’s where my aspect lives — for the fish to swim faster, for the ram to break pasture, and find good in breaking that cycle to find a better one, one where they can find respect.”

“Perhaps you understand why I consider the flora of this world to be the most beautiful. The animals are tainted, but they devote themselves to their purpose, and that is honorable. However, consumption corrupts the spirit, and the creatures closely connected to that which is sacred will become what I fear. In this primal state, this infancy of the world, the consequences of our actions seem small or not worthy of attention, but as time passes, the insidious nature of this cycle will reveal itself, and perhaps it will be too late then. I am pleased by your words, brother. You are not wrong, but you have ignored the most crucial piece of the puzzle: the Divine and our most clever creations.” Homura said, keeping her expression free of emotion, like a statue speaking.

“The divine are not required to be connected to this, and that’s why they are ignorant to it,” Apostate, in contrast to Homura, had swirling emotion in his face. “I feel it in my chest.” He smacked his chest hard for emphasis. “An immense pain — I was born a piece of the connection, to understand mortality.” He paused and held out the strawberry. “Would you help a strawberry?”

“I cannot… it hurts me to see a child led astray, and it would hurt me to partake in its flesh. Why must you do this? Must I banish you from here?” Homura stepped back, her gaze falling to the floor, to the immortal stone of Keltra infused with her essence. She could see her reflection in its depths, staring back at her.

“I ask that you cease this.” She said softly, refusing to look at him.

“The Apostate,” he growled, and she could see his shadow turning away from her. As he started to walk away, he said in frustration, “I’ll see you at the gardens.”

“I have a request.” The goddess announced before he could leave. “I have heard you out, now you must hear me out.”

Apostate’s boots scuffed, and without turning to her he replied, “What do you need?”

“Two favors. The first is a promise that you will bring others like Lorelei here should they seek shelter for a time. The world is a cruel place, and I wish to offer some sanctuary to life when the war truly begins. Secondly, I ask that you properly arm yourself. When you have the opportunity, forge a weapon that will help you, and I will invigorate it with my power as well. Will you do these two favors for me?”

He looked over his shoulder at her, brow furrowed. “I will.”

-0-


Instead of heading out right away as Apostate had alluded he was going to when he was talking with Homura, Apostate, instead, decided to take it upon himself to sneak back into Keltra. The strawberry was long gone now, and he gripped the pommel of his blade with stress — an unusual look etched on his face.

“Who cares,” he said to no one in particular as he sharply turned a corner. His mind was racing against his will over Homura’s response to his gesture — but no matter how much he put the feeling away, it seemed to pop right back to annoy him some more. He couldn’t quite put his finger on why it bothered him so much, but he also convinced himself he didn’t care — so thinking about it wasn’t going to reveal the reason.

Taking another turn through the labyrinth of walls, Apostate found himself in the little room put aside for Lorelei, the small girl sleeping soundly on a just as tiny bed. The god walked over to his ward and knelt down by her face. He stared at her and frowned, she was still sleeping.

He cleared his throat, but she didn’t stir, so he cleared it even louder — but Lorelei simply twitched in response. Apostate rolled his eye and snapped both his hands to either side of the bed, lifting it into the air and giving it a shake.

“Lorelei!”

“Ah!” The girl gasped, shooting up onto her feet on the bed, sheets falling off her body to reveal her dressed in a simple brown gown. “W-What… Oh.” Lorelei’s half-lidded eyes settled on Apostate’s face for a while. She flicked one of her ears, some sort of mental process clearly slugging along behind those tired little eyes. Eventually, she wrapped her arms around Apostate’s neck and hugged him.

The god dropped the bed with a bang, leaving the girl hanging off of him. He put an arm around Lorelei to support her and knelt down to bring her safely to the floor. “Did you sleep well?”

As soon as she was set down, she began to rub at her eyes and yawned. “Yyyep. You?”

“I didn’t sleep yet, I had things to talk about with Homura,” Apostate explained, “we are delivering the sleeping humans to the garden today.”

“C-Cool. Apostate?”

“You can call me Hevel, remember?” He put a hand on the top of her head, making her smile. “What do you need?”

“Are you my d-dad? White, he t-told me he was big and strong.” Lorelei asked and sat back on her bed, looking up at Apostate.

Apostate furrowed his brow, emotion in his eye. “I’m not your dad, but I can still be big and strong for you. Is that okay?” Lorelei nodded enthusiastically.

“Yep! H-Hevel. I wanted to ask, I was curious. I think he’s d-dead, though. It doesn’t matter though, w-we’re together now. We’ll be fine!”

“Exactly.” Apostate gave her a small grin. “Well, I need to get to the garden to make sure it’s ready for Homura, but I’ll be coming back to Keltra right after everything is settled there.”

Lorelei grinned back and bobbed a little, “Okay! It’s a p-promise!”

“See if you can get Homura and her Champions to loosen up a little while I’m gone.” Apostate put his hand on top of her head once again and stood up. “I’ll be back.” He said, but the moment he was about to take his hand off Lorelei’s head, she swiftly grabbed it and bit a finger. She let go quickly, giggling.

“G-Gotcha.”

“I’m glad I didn’t give you a blade yet,” Apostate said with an amused look. “Well, I best be off then.”

“Bye-bye!” Lorelei said, waving at Apostate as he left her room.

-0-


The champions of Homura had finally completed their project, and were ready to give it to Lorelei when the time was right. They stood around their small section of the keep where the bonfire burned brightest, and looked at their work. Inspired by the white and red cushioning around them, the six champions called upon their sacred power to conjure enough material to make an outfit for Lorelei to wear when she awoke.

The material shaped itself according to their whims, and took many different appearances throughout the process of becoming what they wanted. The end result was wondrous and appealing; a flowing white dress adorned with a myriad of red patterns, its sleeves enriched with red rings and runes. The dress itself was accompanied by boots similar to what all of the champions wore, but fitted to fit the small feet of Lorelei. In the light of the Eternal fire, the outfit shimmered with otherworldly power, revealing the nature of its enchantment; self-purification. The dress and boots would always cleanse themselves, resisting mundane stains and decay.

Elated by the results of their efforts, the six Heralds of Honor traversed the vast hall, eventually reaching the another tiny area of the keep consisting of a comfortable room Apostate had created for Lorelei. Slowly they peeked their heads through the doorway that held a beautiful bead curtain, also created by Apostate, to see if the little girl was awake. She was indeed awake, sitting facing away from the doorway while she tinkered with something using various tools from her pack. The dim lightning of her room, provided by the single miniature lantern she’d brought with her, made it difficult to see what she was actually doing but she was clearly enjoying herself if the hypnotic way her tail swished was anything to go by.

“Pst. Lorelei, it’s Courage. We’ve got something for ya.” The brash champion whispered from the other side of the bead curtain, before poking forward and listening to the sound of her passage through the threshold. It reminded her of the sea, in a way. Lorelei’s ears turned toward the source of the before her head did, a grin finding its way onto her face.

“Hiya!” She greeted, standing up swiftly and skipping over to Courage, her slitted pupils almost shining in the darkness as she looked at each of the champions. “W-What is it?”

Her sisters followed Courage into the room, with Kindness carrying half of their gift folded in her arms, while Pride held onto the other half with her small hands. They approached Lore, and offered the rich and intricate dress along with boots, both faintly shining in the light of the lone lantern, to the little girl. “Here… we made this for you.” Kindness said while the others simply smiled with excitement.

“R-Really?” Lorelei asked with starry eyes, quickly grabbing the dress and hugging it close to her chest. “It’s so s-soft! So good! I have never felt t-this before! Thank you so much!” Lorelei nodded excitedly, throwing the dress onto her bed and running over to hug each of the champions as well as she could. “The H-Girls are the b-best! Yay!”

“Don’t say you’re unclean again now. You’re our friend, and our sister. Our Maker doesn’t make unclean children, so I expect you to remember that.” Courage proclaimed, standing tall with delight in the fact that the gift had been so well received. Pride, along with Wanderer and Curiosity, had shifted to examine the light source in the room, while Fear and Kindness asked if Lorelei would wear the dress before they had to depart.

“Some of us have to help our Maker deliver our kin to Apostate, so we’ll have to say goodbye for a time.” Kindness explained to Lorelei, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder while she spoke.

“Mmmm, I-I understand. Duty! Work! Food- Uh, not food. Y-You know! I know. Um,” Lorelei clasped her hands for a moment, then looked at Fear and Kindness and nodded. “I-I will wear the gift! I made s-something for you all too. Here, look at i-it!” She exclaimed, skipping over to the item she had been tinkering with and picking it up only to come back to the champions and show it to them. It was a small, roughly humanoid sculpture of some sort, made by various little bits of interlocking metals.

All of the champions turned to look, and Curiosity held out a hand to hold it, while the others watched. “How did you shape the metal?” The inquisitive champion asked, and the rest of her sisters found that they had wondered that as well, stroking their chins in thought, or wearing puzzled expressions while they tried to figure it out.

“It’s like us.” Pride suddenly chimed, pointing a finger up as if to emphasize her epiphany. “Forged from the riches of the earth.” The small champion explained, and the Heralds of Honor all nodded their heads in agreement.

“Thank you, Lorelei.” Kindness said, and one by one, all of her sisters expressed their own thanks for the gift. Lorelei’s grin almost couldn’t be contained by her face by the end, and she handed the small statue to Kindness. Immediately after that she undressed and got around to trying out the dress, easily finding her way around it and the boots. She practically squealed in delight as she jumped off her bed and onto the ground.

“Waow! I-It fits so well!”

“Told you it would!” Courage teased Kindness, and applauded Lorelei in her new attire. The champions had been happy after finishing their work, but seeing it worn and appreciated filled them with joy.

“You look wonderful!” Curiosity exclaimed, and there was wordless agreement among the champions again. “We have created something beautiful, I think.” Kindness added, gesturing to the elated Lorelei, the bright smile of the little girl that had been traumatized by the cruelty of the world. It was a reminder of what they had promised to do, and why they had continued to persevere.

Suddenly, Lorelei started to cry. Tears escaped her eyes even as she smiled; she tried to wipe them away but more just kept coming, until she sniffled and her smile disappeared. “S-Sorry. I love you.”

“There is no need to apologize. You are allowed to cry. Know that we love you as well. We have loved you since the day our Maker forged all of us, and we will love you until the day our time together comes to an end.” Kindness replied, as memories of being moved to tears herself danced in her mind. Her voice was soft and soothing, she hoped it would help as she sensed the presence of the Goddess of Honor approaching.

“It seems our time is up for now. We’ve got to go, so wish us the best of luck, and remember to listen to what the others tell ya. We’ll be back really soon.” Courage said, the first to vanish through the bead curtain.

“You still need rest, little one. We’ll talk again later.” Pride commented, taking her leave as well. The four remaining champions were more hesitant, and Curiosity and Wanderer both leaned down to hug Lorelei once more. Then the four of them had left to follow their goddess out of the keep.

After all of the champions left, Lorelei sat herself down on her bed, wiped her last tears away and sniffled. “White, you promised… I-I miss you.”

-0-


They had gathered atop the towering red wall, facing the southern sea of Kel-Mera, where the three colossi stood and awaited them. The six Heralds of Honor looked to Homura, and bowed before her as she gazed upon them with her usual intensity, as though she were judging their every motion.

[b]“It is time to depart. The world will not wait while we remain here. Courage, Kindness, Curiosity; you are to accompany me to deliver our gifts to Apostate. Fear, Wanderer, and Pride; you are to stay in Keltra and watch over Lorelei. Should any among the Divine arrive, you are to welcome them, and inform them I will return soon. Act with honor, for you serve the King in Heaven, and your purpose is peace.”[/b[ Homura ordered, and her voice rang with the authority of divinity.

“Yes, mother! For the King in Heaven, and for peace!” They called out, and the six champions stood up before each set out to perform their appointed tasks. Three leapt to their respective colossi, while three returned to the keep, and the red goddess turned her attention to the north where she could feel the power of another deity approaching. It seemed there was something she must deal with before departing.



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Hidden 7 mos ago 7 mos ago Post by Legion02
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Legion02

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The Disregarded Herald

“Steady. Steady!” Nimueh said to herself. Climbing into a tree as a squirrel came easy to her. Running like a fox across the forest came easy as well. Generally, whenever Nimueh transformed into another animal she didn’t have that much problems adapting. Most of the time the running was just done on four legs instead of two. Flying was another matter entirely. The senses were so different. She could see so far away! But at the same time she felt how she constantly had to feel the wind go under and over her wings and adjust as needed.

Still, she started to get a hang of it. Or rather, she didn’t crash face first into the ground again. Turning fast and looping through the air would make her head spin though, and gaining altitude felt like she had to move in some esoteric way with the winds. For now she glided over the forest canopy in her owl form. Soon though she left the forest underneath her to find the valley stretch in front of her. From her vantage point in the sky she saw the many blackstones stretching far and wide. There were so many! “Oh by the Lady it’s beautiful.” She said, which came out as the hooting of an owl.

But she came her with a mission. Another mission. Teaching the zenii magic would be… hard now. She’d find a way! She promised after all. But now she had to make sure zenii weren’t going to die because she didn’t tell them about the Beast Queen. Of course, she could try and convince Lonam and some other blackstone group leaders but really, how effective would that be? No, instead she decided to be clever! As a rat or a fox she scurried around the camps learning about what was happening in the valley. It turned out that this Masol guy who was coming after her was gaining a lot of attention. People listened to him!

So now, in her owl form, she was on a mission to find and convince Masol that the Beast Queen was real!

Finding Masol wasn't as difficult as she had first expected. From descriptions of his appearance, she simply looked for the zene with unyielding pectoral muscles and biceps like tree trunks, a handsome face and the respect and admiration of his peers. Maybe with some accounting for the fawning tone with which this information had been conveyed - considering the typical topics he was either a friendly protector of all zenii or a handsome beast of a zene who could shield you from the cold in his arms. With some cursory flying, Nimueh had already located a promising part of the valley. A place where the blackstones no longer seemed to serve as natural group dividers, where zenii wandered back and forth between each and even sat away from them, engaged in tool-making and various labors. At the center of all this was a ringside camp by a blackstone, sticks and tools heaped against it and a small fence built out of sticks and clay. The crowd here was very big, circled around two zenii engaged in some kind of whistling and pitch-shifting duel, dancing around each other and taunting before briefly lunging for their opponent to try and push them off-balance; not off of their feet, but out of tune. One of the men was clearly who she was looking for. The exaggerated descriptions fit no zene better than it ever would him. To top it off, half the crowd was deliriously shouting 'Masol! Masol!' at the top of their lungs. That fact actually made all the other investigation facts a little redundant.

Nimueh had to get closer. She had to talk to Masol who was currently occupying himself with the strangest of activities. She circled out again. With her owl eyes she peaked some yarenes hanging from another blackstone while some other zenii were playing in the nearby river. Well, they wouldn’t miss it for now right? Nimueh dove down and snatched some of the clothes off of the obelisk. With the yarenes in her claws she flew away to a nearby copse, transformed back into her zenii form and tries to put on a yarene. She needed to try out two. The first was obviously made for a zene and would make her indecent. Not that she cared but the zenii, and Masol especially would. The second was too big. The third fitted her well enough. Even with the holes torn in them by her owl claws.

Once properly dressed she made her way towards the shouting group surrounding the whistlers. “Excuse me, sorry, coming through. Sorry, excuse me. Sorry I need to get in front.” Nimueh kept apologizing as she pushed her way through the throng of zenii. Once she reached the edge of the circle she stopped and just watched the ‘battle’ unfold. Compared to being hunted by a wolf it felt silly. Nimueh stood out like a sore thumb though. Because right now, she was the only one not chanting a name.

The battle was something akin to a show match. Now that she watched, she could tell they were not only mock-wrestling, but also singing some kind of highly varied and improvised tune. Wherever the opponent stopped, it was up to the other to first match pitch and rhythm, then build on it. All while being assaulted by another zene's strength. It wasn't the dumbest game she'd seen, but it wasn't that exciting either.

"Nimueh!"

Someone shouted her name, and the effect was immediate. The song came to an abrupt end, and confusion spread in the ranks. Someone was pointing at her - she recognized him as one of the late joiners of Lonam's blackstone, maybe a day before she left. Others started gesturing and pointing, and someone shoved her from behind to push her further into the ring, even as others tried their best to flee her immediate presence. Masol and his opponent turned to put eyes on her, fingers flexing slowly. She assumed both of them could choke her out in seconds, and Masol carried himself with a confident air of masculine aggression. He was not afraid to stare her in the eyes, even as the other zene took a few steps back.

A thousand thoughts went straight through Nimueh. For a moment after she was pushed she just stood there like a deer that heard something suspicious. She couldn’t run and she sure as hell couldn’t fight someone as big as Masol. At the same time though she heard and saw a bunch of zenii running away. Were they running away from her? There was a general sense of panic growing everywhere around her. This really wasn’t how she wanted this to go. She just wanted to catch Masol alone at some point to have a nice talk. This? This wasn’t it. So she did the only thing she knew she could do.

“Hi.” She stammered as she gave Masol a small, awkward smile and an even more awkward hand wave.

The awkward gesture seemed to be interpreted as some sign of intense mystery by a few gathered onlookers, as vicious mockery by others. Masol remained resolute, his face stony and unmoving. "You come to us at last. You are lucky the Lady has not returned." He uttered eventually. Not much of a greeting. Two zenii, one of each sex, rustled out from the crowd and flanked him. The zena moved towards Nimueh but Masol stopped her with a raised hand physically blocking her. "Wait, Jem. We'll let her speak."

Nimueh’s heart skipped a beat when Masol invoked the Lady. She nervously looked upwards to the skies. Has she returned from the moon yet? Or was she silently judging her for breaking the one thing rule she gave the zenii? She was quiet for a second, just to see if the Lady would take now of all moments, to descend from the moon. She didn’t. Which was a relief to the young zena.

“Speak?” She squeecked like a squirrel. Her eyes went from looking at the sky to looking around her. There were so many zenii here! It was impossible! But then then again just a few days ago she couldn’t make the grass dance around with her finger tips or jump from tree to tree as a squirrel. So she took a deep breath to muster her courage. “Right so… I’m here about the Beast Queen. She doesn’t like that you bring pots and baskets and such into the forest. So maybe.. you should stop… doing that?” The way she said it, she realized she couldn’t even convince herself. Really, what hope was there that she could convince the others.

The crowd was deathly silent. A mess of eyes burrowed into her from every direction, judging her with fury and disgust apparent in their eyes. Confusion lingered in many, no doubt ill informed about the Beast Queen in the first place. But Masol appeared to know exactly what she was talking about, rubbing his hands together as he took the time to consider her words. When his face twisted into a smile and he looked towards the crowd on his right, Nimueh knew it wouldn’t be that easy. “A common beast doesn’t like us picking berries and sticks with our pots. Perhaps we shall carry them in yarenes, instead?” There was an uneasy ripple of snickers as Masol looked at Nimueh head on, a smug smile plastered on his tense features. “The forest belongs as much to us as the animals. We are given the purpose to thrive by the Lady.”

“The Beast Queen is real!” Nimueh shouted with all her strength. That rage from being mocked over her existence surprised even herself. But she kept going, fueled by something that came from deep inside of her: “And she’s more than just some common beast. She is a goddess and her domain is the forest.” She looked around the group. It wasn’t hard to find the foresters amongst the crowd. Their feet were muddied and they had the most scraps. Nimueh locked eyes with some of them. “You know what I’m talking about. About the whispers upon the wind that make you think there is something behind you.” She shifted eyes to some of the girls in the group. She was one of them not too long ago. “Everyone who entered the woods knows about the rustling of the leaves. As if the trees are talking.” She then turned to lock eyes with Masol. “Anyone who enters the forest knows there is something far greater there than any zenii. Her name is the Beast Queen and she has sent me here to warn you.”

"So the woods are not safe," Masol repeated, stretching his arms out to command the attention of the crowd. The crowd was uneasy and still. If any of the foresters she had seen in the crowd sympathized with her message, they didn't particularly like to show it. "Then your Beast Queen would have us deny our true purpose. The Lady asks us to stand against evil - well, I ask you, all you gathered," his eyes turned to the crowd. Clearly this zene was more interested in popularity than reason. "Is it not evil to demand such obedience from the Lady's chosen? There is enough forest for all. This Queen can share her bounty, no harm done."

Nimueh looked around the group. It was clear that they were all siding with the big, muscular zene. “No… please. Listen.” She stammered. The strength and fire she felt just a moment ago dissipated. “You’re not- you’re not listening. By word or by claw she said. Please, I don’t want it to be by claw.” But the more she pleaded, the quieter she became. Her heart shrunk in her chest. She locked eyes with Masol one more time in a desperate attempt to convince him. “Please, you don’t know what you’re saying.” Because deep in her heart she knew the Beast Queen would see the ‘harm done’ and she would kill a zene to prove her point. “Please I don’t want anyone else to die.”

"That's rich coming from a kinslayer," the zena at Masol's side, Jem, called out to her in open challenge. "You come to spit on our ways - your ways - in service of another ruler. Well, we already have a ruler. Masol is the King of the Valley as much as there is any Queen of the Woods." She explained with venomous tone, and Masol silenced her once more with a lifted hand.

"Now, now. I'm certain we can come to terms," Masol cut in, extending a hand towards Nimueh. "You have communed with this evil. What does she look like? Does she command the animals?"

“She’s- You shouldn’t call her evil.” Nimueh said. The zenii that had previously ran away were now slowly coming back. Adding to the pressure Nimueh felt bearing down on her. Her eyes darted from Masol’s to the zena by his side. She didn’t get it. Her eyes then darted to another zenii in the group. He didn’t get it either. Everywhere around her she saw eyes full of certainty that Masol would protect them. But Masol was not an equal to the Beast Queen. “You’re not a god.” She whispered to herself as she bit her lip.

“She talks to me but only sometimes. It’s on her terms.” She explained. Maybe answering his questions would make him see reason. Maybe. “She looks like.. whenever she appears before me it’s as a green animal, like a green fox. I know how that sounds!” She quickly snapped before another zenii could jest about it. “But I can feel that she is a goddess.” She then locked eyes with Masol again. “She commands the animals and the trees and the bushes. She can command everything in the forest.”

To his credit, the zene in which so many appeared to put their faith seemed to actually pause and consider her words. Someone heckled her from the crowd during the lull - another called for her to be banished. When Masol finally spoke again the crowd hushed quickly, helped by enforcers in the masses that grew increasingly apparent to Nimueh. There were plenty of zenii calling the shots present, and they seemed content to let Masol do the talking. "A goddess. Seeing as the Lady has spoken tender tales of all the good gods, there can only be one conclusion to your words. This Beast Queen of yours is unreasonable and evil, as proven by the threats you bear." The zene at his side began to speak, but Masol quickly continued before anyone could speak differently. "We shall consult the Lady herself for aid in this matter! The battle against evil has begun, just as she predicted! No zenii shall need to fear the forest, for a protector shall be in their heart, and by their side!"

There was an uproar of excitement. The crowd took this declaration of zenii supremacy with total adulation. Masol smiled her way, confident and unyielding.

Nimueh, in total contrast, looked utterly defeated. She looked around the crowd. If only they knew what she knew. The Beast Queen was a force beyond what they could fight against. She came here to warn them. To protect them! And she failed that task. Which meant now zenii would die. She didn’t know when or exactly where but it would happen.

With that surrender a breeze blew from the nearby forest. To all zenii it would feel like just a regular breeze. Except for Nimueh. She smelled the faint scent of blood upon the air. A shiver went down her back. She knew what this meant. The Beast Queen would make her wishes clear, by word or by claw. Words have failed, so by claw it would be. She felt herself being called back towards the forest. Perhaps the Beast Queen wished to punish her for her failure.

She looked one more time at Masol with tears already pooling in her eyes. She saw the confidence radiating from him and almost felt sick because of it. He couldn’t help them! But she could. She had the power, both magical and divine, to protect her people. “If you ever need me again, stand at the edge of the forest and shout my name.. And pray that I can hear you.” She said with a meek voice. Suddenly her form shifted and changed. In the blink of an eye she was sporting feathers and shrinking. The crowd gasped and cried out with terrified and awed surprise and confusion. Her yarene started falling to the ground as an owl flew up into the sky and then towards the forest.

Behind her, she heard the powerful bass tones of Masol's reassuring voice amidst the din, cursing her name and her Queen.



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Pleased that his new creation was guarded from divine trespass, Arvum walked away from the moon and closer to the sun. His voice emanated from where it should not have been able to, ”Grand Monarch and Lord of All Lords, I respond to your summons.”

Almost instantaneously, the gates of the heavens opened for Arvum with the bridge extending its way to allow the lord his entry. It was there that he could see the Divine Palace, standing with its many pagodas and towers and walls all adorned in a dark red and jade trimmings at its very edges. The Protector of the Vestibule of the Lord stood wordlessly at the bridge, not paying much attention to the god other than a slight bow of the head before returning his attention back to Galbar. Not much could be said for him and so the path to the Jade Throne was clear, the Monarch of All sitting upon His place of rule and looking down upon Arvum. He spoke with a voice that echoed across the great room, His words clearer than any noise that could be heard.

”Welcome, Arvum, Lord of Golden Fields.”

Arvum walked past the guardian, noting his presence and nodding to him. He continued to just past the entrance of the throne room, ”Greetings, Grand Monarch.”

The Monarch of All gestured one of His clawed hands to a nearby visible garden, showing the purpose of why He had summoned Arvum in the first place. Though, it became clearer as He explained to the younger god what had happened since the last time the god had set foot in the Divine Palace. His words ebbed at the very shard that formed Arvum’s being, almost whispering to it directly as He spoke.

”I used your shard to create these gardens, to make the Divine Palace beautiful as it is now. Yet, the more I look upon the gardens the more I am growing to despise how they look. I have tried to rectify this but the results have been less than perfect. That is why I have called upon you, Arvum.”

Arvum gracefully walked through the gardens, closely examining every plant and structure therein. While he did his inspection, he did sense lingering traces of his essence in another’s creation. ”Do these gardens have purpose beyond being aesthetically pleasing?”

”Not when they had initially been made. Before I had created all of you, I merely made this palace as a place to rule from and nothing more.”

The Monarch of All did not move as He spoke, merely noting where Arvum was within the palace as he inspected the garden meticulously. There was no reason for Him to rise, not when He could see what Arvum was doing and certainly not when His status as king meant that He did not have to rise for His subjects. The Great Ruler of Reality allowed Arvum to continue his inspection, not wishing to rush whatever creative processes were going through the shard’s mind. After all, interruption was an artist's greatest bane, a fact that the Monarch of All knew all too well when He had first desired this Kingdom of His.

After finalizing his digilent examination, he revitalized the garden with his essence and seeded them with new designs, "I could not find any grievous fault, perhaps it is the monotony that offends you? I ask you to forgive my assumption. I have worked to ensure your garden shall have myriad forms, it requires only your consent and it shall shift to a different arrangement of my design. I also have a design for a more grandiose garden, however I believe it would be diminished if not given a proper space within the castle walls as it requires a particular lighting.”

The Master of the Gods pondered the idea, bringing a hand to rub against the edges of His chin as He imagined the something so grandiose in His palace. Yet, He knew that it might take away from the very fact that it was the Monarch of All who made the Divine Palace beautiful, giving Arvum more credit than he might deserve. The garden changed its shapes between the differing arrangements that Arvum had prepared and none would satiate the desire for the artistry that He desired. With a grumble, the Monarch of All pushed Himself from the Jade Throne and looked down upon the god, His voice commanded that the construction begin.

”Very well, make me the most grandiose of gardens and let all the other gods look upon it with envy.”

Arvum nodded, and walked into an appropriate, empty room near the gardens. He sealed the door, not to obscure himself from the Lord of All Lords, but to ensure that he may work freely without fear that his creation would escape its intended boundaries.

From the god’s form emerged a radiance that engulfed the entire room. He worked to shape the room to the Monarch’s exacting requirements, spending several hours to ensure that the smallest detail was correct. It was an exhausting and burdensome effort, but one ultimately personally rewarding.

Mosaic paths extended and split from the room’s entrance, providing the only safe places to step within the room. The rest of the room was covered in short, green crystalline grass that would shatter under any mortal's foot. Electrum pots, engraved with intricate but elegant carvings along their upper portions, floated above the grass, and from them grew solitary flowers and flowering vines with petals constructed of a similar translucent structure.

The center of the room was dominated by a pillar of bronze that upon closer inspection was a great tree, its numerous blue, glass-like leaves gave the impression that there was sky overhead. The illusion was only broken by glowing golden moss that grew from the tree branches and would occasionally dip down beneath the blue glass. Despite its natural appearance, the leaves, grass and flowers were placed in precisely the correct position to refract the light in pleasing manners while under the metallic pillar’s shade.

The upper branches of the tree which were nigh invisible from the surface would occasionally grow peaches. The peaches would fade in a mere hour after being removed from the tree, but eating one would imbue a mortal with potent life energy, helping ensure they have a long, healthy life and permitting them to emulate the vital powers of an Eidolon. Reaching them would be a herculean task, as the mosaic paths did not extend to meet the tree, the bronze trees branches were polished to a shine and made difficult to climb, its leaves were as sharp as blades, and light from the moss would reflect in odd ways within the branches.

Arvum opened the door, a mostly symbolic gesture, ”Perhaps this is simpler than you expected, especially compared to the majesty of your castle, however I hope that is a pleasant addition to your dwelling.”

As the Monarch of All entered the room, He was at first stunned by it and then He was put into awe by the resplendent beauty that the garden held for it cast back His radiant light. He did not speak, instead taking time to tour the garden and meticulously looking over each and every piece that brought the room together. This was not to find any imperfections that may have existed within the garden, but rather, it was in admiration of what had been created in His glory and it did well not to itself outshine the great palace. The Monarch of All spoke as He looked upon the bronze tree, the light from His wound bathing reflecting across the garden.

”This is truly a work of art, Arvum.”

”I was simply inspired by the wonders and frailties of life.” Arvum replied. ”Perhaps it is inappropriate to mention, however the destruction that has been sown across our pantheon has deeply concerned me. I am sure that my work has not gone unnoticed. I do not know if it would ever be possible to restore the shards that have been lost, but I wish to do everything I can to preserve and restore creation. May I be so bold to request your aid in this endeavour?”

The Monarch of All seemed to stop as Arvum began to talk about the destruction of His subjects, and the talk of restoring shards would be what would earn His full attention as He looked to Arvum. Turning away from the bronze tree, His Majesty walked along the path, continuing to tour the freshly made garden as He thought of an answer to the question that had been posed to Him. When He spoke, it was soft yet His gaze would not return to the lord as He continued His walk along the garden.

”A shard is not something that can be restored. It is the very essence, the manifestation, of my own soul and to have it destroyed is not something that even I can accomplish.”

Deciding it best not to contradict the Monarch, he replied ”I hope you understand that as mortals can not comprehend the divine, I struggle to understand your nature. But even if I misunderstood and that you are above the petty squabbles of the gods, I would request you pay heed to those below.” he said, gesturing towards his newly created garden, “I could only create something like this because I can fear not the influence of the Others. Upon Galbar, the situation is more complicated and I do believe that my work could become greater should I be better equipped to handle any complications that might arise. Of course, I would not use this solely for myself, but for creation.

”The complications imposed upon one by others is what strives them forwards. It is an annoyance, yes, but I already have one enforcing my will and order upon Galbar. You needn’t my aid for something that would push your future creations into the pinnacle of what they could become.”

”I am sorry, I never meant to suggest I needed to be able to prevent conflict all together, but merely restore what is left afterwards. The forest can become stronger after a burn, but only if not all was all burnt to cinder and that it is given the chance to replenish itself.”

It was then that the Monarch of All snapped His head towards Arvum, his voice quick and filled with a brief anger that resonated within the room.

”If a wound is meant to heal then it shall. If it shall fester and decay then let it wither away until there is nothing left so that something new may take its place!”

The Great Lord pulled a hand up instinctively to trace the edge of the glowing wound upon His chest, seeming to try and find solace within the fact that it was the one wound that He could not heal. He looked away, unable to look upon Arvum any longer as the thoughts of the wound took hold of His mind, casting away the good that had been planted there. It took a moment of silence for the God of Gods to speak again, His gaze turning back to the bronze tree and its fruit - His voice was soft once more.

”Some things are not meant to be restored, Arvum.”

”I believe that is the last of my duties here. I hope you will excuse my quick departure, but I am sure you have more important matters to attend to and will not take any more of your time.” he said, walking towards the entrance of the garden room. As he walked past one of the floating planters, he carefully examined it and plucked one of the crystalline leaves from a vine, ”I apologize, it seems as though I had made an error in the arrangement.” he said, using the barest effort to crush it into dust.



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THE CHRONOMACHIA

Featuring



&






On high above the mists I came
A distant flame before the sun
A wonder ere the waking dawn
Where grey the nordlands waters run
In elder days and years of yore





Seven hovered over the island’s dead soil, their smoky cloaks tinging the grey stone with soot where they swept across it with their frayed edges. Though they all faced the middle of their semicircle, they kept their eyes averted from that point, looking at the ground, the sea, the sky, the buzzing flies, anything but the white light that washed over them from the center. They knew, without need to experience it, that if they met it, that illusion of eternity that was their greatest treasure would be shattered, and all that rested on it would follow.

”What did you see as you roamed the world, with no purpose but what you gave yourselves?”

"We saw the ocean and its colourful dances, and heard the songs of the great wanderers. There was neither harmony between them nor accord; had we such songs and dances, they would not be matched so crudely."

”And what did you see in the north?”

"We saw a people who cannot share a thing as plentiful as fire. Had we their fire, we could make it endless."

"We saw the beast-folk of the northern rivers and the sun-blooded of the plains alike maim and slay each other for what they fancied to be riches. Had we their blood to spill, we would not value it less than bark and grass."

”And what did you see in the east?”

"We saw the people of the monoliths, who had to be taught to hate death, for they could not understand the weight of it otherwise. Had we their strength and vigour, we would know better than to risk it until admonished like unruly children."

”And what did you see in the south?”

"We saw the many living shapes beyond the poison waste, who think with one same mind and still are slaves to their primal cravings. Had we their multitudes and unity, we would not be bound by such base chains."

”What did you find all around the world?”

"We saw those who call themselves gods, and all the power they wield is worthless as long as they are shackled by their follies. Had we their might, we would truly be all-powerful."

"We have seen that all that is good in the Galbar is in the hands of those who cannot use it, and none are as wise as us."

"Nor are you wise enough not to covet all these things, when I have given you something better than them all. But it will serve me well now. Go forth, and find that which the divine would desire above all. Let your envy flow freely and be your guide."





Through the murk of a night stretching overlong into the morn, One of Seven drifted over rocky wastes veined with rivers that shimmered in uneven pale streaks where a fading moon-ray reached them past the clouds that kept the darkness against the Galbar into the early hours. Already, grazing beasts of the arid shrublands were rising from where they had lain in black heaps, and under a lonely tree by a branching stream the lion stirred lazily, not to be left far behind by its prey. The One cared not for the beasts, thoughtless and ungainly bodies of breathing clay that they were. They had no eyes for beauty nor hearts for warmth, nor had they value for that which the Seven had been commanded to find, and so it left them be.

But there were other things than the beasts in these lands, things that thought and laughed and dreamed, and the One would stop in its search when it found them. That evening, it had spied a family of furry things with long teeth as they looked out over the darkening horizon, calling shrilly to each other, and when they had gone to curl up in their burrow, it had followed in silence. They had huddled together against the cold of the night. What right had these sorry things to do this when the Seven had no soft bodies to keep each other warm? So it had burned them until they were bones and dust, and it had been pleased in its hollow way.

Now, as the One wound its oily shadow over a quietly murmuring river, it saw a loose circle of bodies on its shore that breathed without the coarseness of beasts. Curious, it lowered itself to the water, and crept close to the sleepers on soundless wings of smoke. They were painfully familiar, with their four limbs and well-formed faces that had two eyes to see. Long ago, it had slept like them, perhaps side by side with these same weary travellers, before the Seven had been Seven. But now it was no more like them than the sand on the night breeze. It would never know, as they did, what it was to collapse in exhaustion after days of marching, what it was to know the relief of seeing the waters play and run ahead, where for days there had been only dry earth. There were many things that the pilgrims of the river knew that the One could not, and once more it felt spite twist and stir in its heart of cold grey fire. Like fog, it crawled over one of the sleepers, and silently it burned and gnawed what it had lost.

But the man roused at once, for his sleep had been but a ruse, and his third eye never closed! An arm the prophet Medes raised to shield him from the evil, and even as his flesh dried and cracked under some withering fire that hungered for life, and even as he gasped in pain, the prophet spake, “You, who steals life in the dead of night, are cursed! Not just once by your master, but thrice: by him, by me, and by the light of the moon!”

The Eschatli drew back into a swaying cloud, like a cobra raising itself on its coils. Where its flames had licked Medes' limbs, they were left dry and wrinkled, as if they belonged to a very old man.

"What can you or the moon take from me that I have not already lost?" asked the spirit, "Look at me: I was like you once, but now what you see is all I am."

Others were now waking to the commotion, but Medes squinted only at the phantom. “From you much was taken, and more still have you taken from others. You think that the way of curses -- the taking of things precious -- but beware! The moon’s vex upon you might be one that gives; a heavy stone, you would be made to bear. The emptiness that you have now might be preferable indeed to being laden with burden.”

“You speak so lightly of these things from within the firm walls of your skin, by the fire of your heart on the hill of your bones,” the Eschatli hissed, glaring at him with its one eye, “How different would your words be if you truly had nothing, if you knew that weariness itself can be a boon! But enough talk, I can teach you what it is to live so!” And it reached for the seer with arms of grey fire that burned no brighter than the moon above… until in that instant the moon’s phosphorescence rivaled the sun, and the dark pit of the pale jewel’s eye seemed to glower all the more menacing.

With a hand of fingers like a fire’s licking tongues, the One seized that droll speaker and immolated him utterly. But what happened next defied reason; where the flames seared, grime and sweat and sunspots were cleansed, the flesh renewed. Medes grew more youthful, and then collapsed, suddenly a dormant manikin once more, like he had been when he was just another body piled into the great colossi.

It made no sense!

The Eschatli’s head tore from left to right, but all the other awoken humans were gone; there was only a small copse of trees, none of which had been here before. There was no river, either; this land was as it had been when Phelenia’s touch had first embraced it, before the Ruination that had smote a goddess and sundered the hills.

There was a small puddle; it called to the One, and eagerly, the lifeless immortal raced to it, the strange and sudden feeling of a heartbeat spurring it to witness its own reflection. And lo, it had two eyes, a body!

Moreover, this reflection revealed that there was a black cloud looming over the sky. The darkness of a storm was approaching swiftly. There was a noise that it bore also; however, this din was not the boom of thunder.

The sound – an incessant, undulating drone – became deafening once the endless swarm of flies arrived. They carpeted every surface, swarming and biting at the One’s supple flesh. Something heavier landed behind, talons scraping the ground. The Eschatli spun around in terror to see its cyclopean master, ten palms facing upward in a thoughtful ponderance that threatened to turn into a cruel rage. Iqelis’ one eye met the Eschatli’s two, and Doom shook his head.

The One, who was of Seven no longer, looked about itself, frantically searching for something, anything to put between itself and that horrid eye. It did not stop to think that perhaps now it had less to lose, having been restored from its false deathlessness. The eye could do worse than merely disabuse it of a consoling lie. Away, away from its merciless light, from its cutting gaze!

But there was nothing to stem it. The flies refused to stand between their master and his quarry, and no matter how thick their clouds were, they always parted so as not to obscure his sight wherever the Eschatli moved. Away! It did not understand by what miracle it had regained all that had been taken from it once, but now that it felt the earth under its feet, the air in its throat, the pure burning fire in its chest, it could not bear to lose it again. It would not let those black claws reach into it again, would not let them tear out its soul, bloody and writhing. And so it ran, shaking away the noisome insects that harried every step, ran without sight, without feeling anything but the pounding of the warm soil under its heels and the pain of the dry wind tearing through it with every gasping breath.

Three moons hung over the sky above, two lighting the way forward: a white one, and a gray. The third, ink-black, cowered halfway obscured behind the other two, lurking in their shadows. The three moons each suddenly blinked, and revealed themselves as gargantuan, bulbous eyeballs. Past, present, and future all presented, side by side, and all bore down upon the wretch with their full weight and gravity. Their triple glares all came together in perfect unison upon a bleak obsidian mountain not far ahead, and Lord Doom coalesced from nothingness atop that peak. Looming over the world, the god threw a hundred arms to each side as though forcefully tearing away curtains, not merely drawing them aside.

The clouds of flies were swept aside by that gesture, and they tormented the Eschatli no more. But there was still that scrape of talons behind, drawing ever nearer… the wretch looked back, and sure enough, the cyclops was there too. But then that Iqelis fractured. White light in place of blood sprung out from the cracks in his glassy form, and then with a harrowing wail and an ear-piercing sound of scraping stone, the god burst apart into a million scintillating jewels.

The Eschatli sighed a breath of relief, but then puzzledly turned back to face the obsidian spire. Nothing crowned its top now; the One God was gone, swept away by the Flow of a river that not even he could dam.

But then he – or it, whatever this new one was that had killed the first – appeared mere inches from the Eschatli’s face. A score of cruel vices seized the One’s newly gifted, pasty flesh. The three moons were overhead no longer in their places, but they hadn’t truly vanished. Each of the three glowed from deep within the god’s oculus. There was one eye; yet from within it, three pupils peered and Saw all… Horror had a face.

“Ţ̱̑̈͑ͅh̢̝̥͙̽̃̈̀e̻̮̣̓͂̾̇͟ ḩ͚̪̉͐͑ṷ̧͇̼͍̟̃̈̐͂̎̿͟͝m̛͓̺̀͊͢ą͎̤͌̾̾̚ͅn̟̳͇̊̂͋ w̦̳̪̽́̂ā̜͓̞͑̍̌͢s̺̠͕̋̋͊ r̬͚͍̆̀͞ǐ̬̞̱̖̪͋̑̎̿͜͝ǵ̢͉̲͖̪̬̯̂̊͊̈̊͠h̡͇̘̋̍͂t͉̘̟̖̎̒̆̄͟͠,̘̜̟̮͊͗͒͘” a raspy voice croaked, the sound having emanated from somewhere within that All-Seeing Eye.

One of the twenty hands grasped that One by its cheek. Its tightness eased, and for a moment the glassy obsidian touch almost caressed the One’s soft, supple flesh. But then it drove a daggerlike thumb through the One’s forehead, drilling deep into the skull right above the bridge of its nose.

The pain was a matter of a moment, a sharp flash that numbed all other sensations. For a moment, it was as though it had lost its body again, and was drowning in an airy sea of shapeless, discorporate torment. But like the flowing water, it went and passed, and in its sore dripping trail the Eschatli could see, no, See –


It Saw what had been before awakening to its eternity of servitude, when it slept as an inert body that had never been nor would ever be truly alive or dead. It watched the waves sway from atop a titanic back of heaving metal, and looked on as its maker consigned it and its six brethren to jeering doom - for what?, it wondered, what good was her honour if it demanded such things?

It Saw what was now, as it lay trapped in its tortured flesh. It followed, with the eye that had been gouged into its forehead, the Six as they flew through the night, in search of that which all desire, and saw as they stopped, as it had, to exact their vengeance on the carefree and the unworthy. It peered cautiously at its Lord, who plotted and puzzled over something in the desolation he had wrought about himself.

It Saw what would be, where the course of the Flow became a glossy black thread in an intricate arras of cosmic magnitude. It Saw flies in countless myriads carpet a gulch, waiting for something it could not guess. It Saw bones blossoming on the slopes of a tall mountain like the descending snow. And it Saw the moon, that faceless haunt of the nightly sky whose glare had pierced it so viciously, raked and torn by hooked fingers of obsidian.

The One thrashed in the grip of the astral presence, the danger to its newfound body forgotten as it struggled to hold onto what little was now certain, what it knew to be itself.


Alas, it was futile trying to writhe away from the grip of that horrible scarred moon… its formless, ethereal clutch was all too real upon the psyche, and it gripped tightly. All around the One, there swirled a wind that bore some melange of pallid lunar regolith and tiny, scintillating diamonds. The cyclone of pain tightened its grasp, and the sharp gemstones flew closer until they gnawed and tore at flesh as though they were so many teeth. Then the white, powdery dust was stained and joined by a carmine mist. Just as it reshaped and maimed his corporeal form, a cosmic storm etched at the Eschatli’s very essence, imprinting it. Now it was Eschatli no longer.

The storm faded, but the pain endured. Anemic moonlight roused the One back into Reality’s grip; it looked so beautiful in the One’s two eyes, and so horrific in its third. Dazed, it looked around; those Medians that it had tormented had all flown away, and now it was more alone than it had ever been.

It remained One, and its immortality and deathlessness had only been affirmed stronger, and so a replacement could not erupt from the other Six. Never again would they truly be Seven; they would be Six and then this One, who had been cursed again to forever be the Outsider, the Twisted, the Slave of the Moon.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


High above, Yudaiel was pleased. Another being had been enthralled to her will, another eye had been opened, an interloper had been punished, and Iqelis... oh, the Fly would seethe at this!

She had observed his heptade of phantoms as they had haunted the land, scorching and razing whatever they pleased as they went about fulfilling his insipid will. But how would Doom feel to have one of its own agents twisted? This One was greater than any of the other Six, for it had been doubly cursed. Moreover, it could See. It would be able to play the game of the Eschatli still, but it would also be able to contend with the others and thwart them.

The Reverberation located the fiend, the one she might have named nemesis were he not so far beneath her. It had only taken her a moment to find him in meditation, no doubt brooding upon the divine punishment that had been decreed unto him by that one who called Himself the Monarch of All. Yes, she had borne witness to Iqelis’ confrontation with Him, for she was ever at the shoulder. She projected oppressive consciousness toward her rival, tormenting him in his lowest moment.

The roar of the Flow became deafening, the churning rush of stygian fluid sweeping aside all things; this was a river with no banks, after all, only an end where it emptied into a deathly still Final Sea. The power and grandeur of it all was intoxicating… glorious was this rush!

Of course, the moon claimed a lofty place in the heavens above, far out of the Flow’s reach in its pretension… In mockery of the Flow and of Doom, its rays of brilliance beamed a hundredfold more luminous, so much so that the moon rivaled even the sun. Cleansing moonlight pierced the inky waters of the river. It evaporated the Flow’s surface with a scorching heat, averting ruination here and there, perverting and averting the proper way of things. Iqelis longed to tear down the insult that had been hung above his head, to dispel her merciless light and usher back the soothing coolness of the night!

Yet as though that insolence was not enough, the moon defiled even more! There yonder, a vast riptide of the Flow had been corrupted; it was aglow with divine power in its throes, and all about it spawned chaotic whirlpools as it twisted and raged against the Six currents all about it, answering to the beck and call of another: Yudaiel.


The answer did not let itself be awaited for long. There was no returning wave in the tide of ideabstraction, but when her eye turned back to the world of the corporeal, the Lord of the Flies was no longer where she had observed him. Instead, she could see the thread of his motion rearing up into the sky, and there he was at its tip, riding the umbral Flow until he was high enough to vault over the rings of unbroken night and push off of their glittering swarm. Higher still. High enough to reach the moon. The going was easy; the moon itself seized him in its clutches and helped pull him nearer, at ever increasing speed.

This promised to amuse and excite. ’Come, little one. Let us see if you fare any better than your minion did.’

Upon Iqelis’ landing, taloned feet dug into the gleaming surface of the moon, which, though once scarred by shattering decay, now truly knew for the first time the touch of its destroyer. It could have been an illusion or a play of shadows, but as they stepped, the dust they unsettled seemed to collect into small black shapes that whirred in the soundless flight of spectral gnats. As if carried by a whirlwind, they spun around the black tree of grasping hands that smoothly wove through fluid patterns, now snapping by in a blur, now oscillating with the sluggish grace of drowned seaweed.

”How eagerly you all cast yourselves to your destruction,” Iqelis crackled as he advanced towards the core of the All-Seeing Eye, a thousand hands poised to strike, ”Your time could have been distant yet, but like a curious ape you dip your edges into the Flow until you are carried away. Now I shall tear out your pupil and set it into my eye, so that I may See the shortest path to the First One’s Doom.”

And with those words, he lunged, swift as the slightest of implacable instants. Time itself accelerated, aiding in the perpetration of his vindictive assault. Dripping with the Flow, ten thousand claws rent through the nebulous vastness and tore about the goddess’ insubstantial soul, blinding and ruining that arrogant eye to such a degree that its pupil might not even be worth the trouble of harvesting.

With a shudder, the sea of consciousness lost shape and came unbound; psychic energies charged everything all about, and in chaos that ensued, the moon was torn asunder. But through the concussive blast of unshackled telekinetic might, laughter boomed. It shook and rattled and threw Iqelis to and fro; now he was a breadcrumb dancing on the skin of a massive drum that was her laughter.


He shrieked, a scrape of toothed metal wheels that was enough to shatter the fragile glass of this illusion. He won a brief glimpse of Reality, and found himself suspended high over her pupil, having never even managed to touch the moon’s surface. Yudaiel claimed mastery over what could be, what had been, and also what was not. The immaterial and the false owed her their allegiance and so they bombarded Iqelis’ mind; a million illusions raced across his vision. In entering the storm of her mind, he’d consigned himself to her power, and now was shrouded in the madness of her weave. With just a single eye, it was nigh impossible for even the One God to peer through the veil and perceive truth, and yet he could sense that was exactly what he had to do. If he could not cast aside the phantasms and prove the flimsiness of hallucinations, then he would be lost.

And so he traced the course of dreaming, straining his arms as he held the swirling chaos from his sight while he followed the span of the unreal to its edge, and he saw where its end lay - for nothing, not even deception itself, can be endless. Dreams withered before the coming of dawn, their thousand nameless colours crumbling to grey strands of drowsiness as the eyes opened to the light of the rising day. Thus Iqelis grasped the rim of his own eye with twenty fingers, and he pried it open with a crack of shattering glass and a hiss of pain. From the gruesomely widened fissure, white radiance came pouring in blinding rays. Where they struck, the weave of apparitions shrivelled like paper in a fire, and though the god could scarcely see it from within his own glare, it wavered and crumbled to colourless dust.

The wild shapes and apparitions came alive even more in what was to be their final breaths, but they danced in defiance and fled from the devouring beam that left his eye, keeping to the periphery of his sight. As though conveyed by a million unseen strings, they flew just at the skirts of the destruction that he brought to bear, tauntingly close and yet never within reach. And the Eye, where it rested at the very edge of the unreal, was likewise shielded by some oddly distorted space. It Saw where he aimed, where he meant to look next, and it twisted and contorted everything around a million fulcrums so as to render aim and perception as meaningless as any of these illusions. A single dart of consciousness struck him in the widened, near sightless eye, and an icy lance of agony wracked his mind as new thoughts crystallized in frost:

A gadfly of grotesque proportions had its wing tangled in a spiderweb. It writhed, but could not free itself. When the vicious spider with its many beady eyes neared, the fly fought even harder and lashed out with bites and flailing limbs. It was all in vain. The spider foresaw the fly’s every motion, and it waited patiently, allowing the fly to tire before beginning to wrap it in a smothering, deathly cocoon.

The fly vanished in an instant, as did the spider and the web. Only the cocoon remained, but now it was more like half-woven silken tapestry, attended to by the deft hands and needle of some unseen seamstress. Upon the tapestry Iqelis witnessed an embroidering that bore the likeness of himself, the Flow pouring from a maw that had erupted from his head. Strings and shackles wrapped about his million limbs though, and they all led to Yudaiel – his Fate was bound to her, his neck collared and leashed.


No more.

Latching on to the more tangible facets of the pain and the phantom chill that echoed the vision being thrust upon him, the god tore himself from the dream-painted mockery and once more found his footing on solid moon-ground. The glow of his exposed eye had abated, though narrow white streams continued to flow from the cracks around its rim, searing away the tendrils of the surreal that sought to encroach on his vision.

His hands darted to all sides in a flurry of kaleidoscopic motion, constraining the currents of time in a hundred ways. His motions hastened again, and a step became a blink, even as the sweep of an arm grew no slower than the lightest twitch of a finger. Yet that was not the entirety of his manipulations, for the Flow pooled oddly behind a web of black claws turned towards Yudaiel's center, and as it swirled to a halt a heavy sluggishness caught hold of her. It was no mere fatigue, or what simulacrum of it could exist within the Eye's incorporealness, but a drought of the oil that smoothed the universe's grinding advance, and she was caught in its midst. Her thoughts crawled as if in a daze, and her sight, once unmatched in its pursuit of the singular moment, could barely rise fast enough to meet the thorned streak of night that lashed at the heart of her illusionary web.

Ah, but that Eye could See its peril, for it perceived the Flow as easily as any other thing. A Reverberation was not so easily trapped within clouds of decay or the oil of Time, and so she rippled through the tiniest and most invisible of threads to emerge somewhere else. Iqelis gave pursuit, but even as he hounded her, unseen tentacles of kinetic might sheared away limb after limb, groped and choked and twisted his neck, seized his legs, and harried his every step.

And though that vulnerable heart of Yudaiel’s form – the pupil of her Eye and the core of her mind – was ever fleeting and evasive, her insufferable voice and the thoughts that she projected were omnipresent and mocking.

A bizarre plant erupted into view, obscuring Reality for just a moment. This plant had a maw, and teeth, and though it could not leave its place it nonetheless feasted. Even now, it had lured a curious insect to its grave. The Fly buzzed too close to the maw. It touched a nigh invisible hair, and the plant’s trap-jaw snapped shut with such rapidity that the motion was imperceptible to the eye.

With ire and his wroth, with rage that flared and burnt so strong that it became palpable, Iqelis incinerated the wretched plant; from drifting ashes and smoke, the moon coalesced before him once again. He could sense her thoughts, just as she could doubtless sense his.

’Y̻͙͎̝͑̀̎̅o̧̗̤͛͆̚u͙̳͒͝r̛͇̙̔̚͜͜͞ w̜̆̌͟ilḻ̆ iṡ͎͍͑ st̙̉͝ͅrõ͖ň̛͙̼͇̒g̻̝͖͐͒̂,̧͎͘͠ b̞̀ǔ̦͚͌̚ͅṱ͋ y̤̥̹͆̽̔̀͟ö̲̱͆u̥͉͗͝ w͔̽e̛̜̜̓r̟̬̭͗̏̂͡ͅẻ̩ a̡͇̩̋̄͑̍͜ F̺̭͆̈O̱̜͐̍O͖̺͂̑Ḷ̘̬̙̎̽̾͘ t͍͝ô̤͓͡ c̨̳͂͂o̫͍̰̤͂̒̏͛m͚̏̿͜ḙ͠ h̠̙͖͆̑̊ě̪r̬̲̈̀ȅ̲.̕’


The charred debris of the ravenous plant struck the ground - for there was a ground now, a craggy stone plain that ran past the horizon in all directions - and splashed outwards like liquid pitch. Now fluid, it expanded at a frightful speed, flooding the wasteland like an inky wildfire rampaging over a dry field. Not satisfied with swelling in breadth, it grew in depth too, rising as if fed by a thousand roaring rivers, until the moon, now seeming ever so small, hung above a boundless tarry ocean. The fly that was Iqelis was no more to be seen.

A shadow suddenly loomed in the distance, and as it approached it solidified into a titanic wave of viscous blackness, rushing to swallow the diminutive moon. The orb glanced at it contemptuously with its eye-fissure, and a cord of silvery light crossed the sky, interposing itself between the sphere and the onrushing wave. More gleaming threads sprang into being, crisscrossing each other’s span to weave a thick web that blocked the tide from view altogether. The moon glared triumphantly behind its barrier, but great was its consternation when the wave crashed through it, ripping the silver cords like fragile gossamer, and sharp was its terror in the moment before it was engulfed by the black ocean.


And like the wave had torn through the illusory web, so did Iqelis carve his way through the bridge of thoughts, and both combatants were awakened to the material world as he lunged anew.



Far away…

Over the waters of another, much more tranquil stygian sea, nine eyes looked up at the night sky. They pried at the distant scarred moon, and though their sight was sharp, six of them could only guess at what was transpiring so high above.

“I see the cracks widen and close again, like the breathing of a leviathan, but not what moves them,” said One of Six.

“I see clouds of dust blossom with no wind to scatter them, but not the blows that seed them,” said another.

“I see none of those things, but only a swarm of black flies pass over the white sometimes,” said a third. It then turned to the one specter in the group that hung aside from the others, separated by something more than its two supernumerary eyes from those that had not long ago been its brethren. The Third did not say anything more, its words lost to it in the fracture that had been opened between it and the other, but the Outsider understood nevertheless.

It said:

Rivers of fire at dead of night
On moonstone lying cold and white
Upon the plain burst forth, and high
The red is mirrored in the sky.

From Galbar’s plain I See the fire,
The steam and smoke in spire on spire,
Leap up, till in confusion vast
The stars choke, and so it will pass.


The others did not answer, unnerved in their sinewless forms by the strange notes and cadences they had heard in those verses. Yet the Outsider still had more to say, more that it could not put into words, and so it spoke directly to their minds.

On the sands of a white desert, under a black sky, two giant drops of thick glassy ooze chased each other. One was as dark as the heavens above, and its surface was faceted like a cavern-grown crystal. The other was as pale as the ground below, and it moved with a dreamy slowness that did not seem to impede it in traversing as much space as the other did in the same span of time. The glossy mounds spun in a circle, each striving to seize the other’s tail, but the more ferociously they reached, the further they slipped from each other’s grasp. They ran and streamed and leaped, until the very force born of their spiralling trajectory began to distort them, stretching and flattening them against the walls of an invisible ring. And still they pushed ahead in pursuit, even as their frenzy shook the desert around them, pushing up concentric dunes of disturbed sand and tearing them apart again and again and again.

The Six were quiet, for now there was no more to be said.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Canyons were gouged into the lunar rock. Silent dunes of dust and regolith had been smattered away like so many piles of snow, and new pits and craters were strewn everywhere. Doom knew no discrimination, its ruinous power claiming everything within sight. Yudaiel embraced her violent tendencies, too; perhaps the Sight was wasted upon her of all people. For all the wisdom and knowledge that was hers to claim if she only looked and Saw, she’d always had a talent and appetite for violence… even if she often resorted to other means, her first instinct was almost always savagery and brute force, and here and now, that tool was as effective as any. Unshackled by any notions of restraint, for her jewel was already cracked and scarred, her telekinetic might wrought devastation on cataclysmic scales.

Their battle raged on, endlessly. Neither were ever truly in flight, for every motion was either an aggressive lunge or a fighting retreat to evade the next blow. Here, Yudaiel brought down the full weight of her might in a fearsome battering blow. Alas, it was perilously difficult to strike a buzzing insect with a hammer. She could aim with supernatural precision and predict her foe’s motions with brief prescient glimpses into the future, but then he could accelerate or slow Time as he pleased and in different areas. Accounting for the relativity was challenging enough that it all but cost her the entirety of her advantage, and so they were left on near equal footing for the deadly dance. So her reckless swing had missed the dancing Fly, but it still struck the cadaverous surface of the moon. It chipped her precious jewel, it bored through rock and rent a horrific pit that extended all the way down to one of the wormwood tunnel-ravines wrought by that wave of Iqelis’ power.

Ah, how that had felt like an eternity ago! Yudaiel had relived those moments, over and over, again and again, until they were forever seared fresh into her memory. This was her vengeance for that slight, among other insults. She lashed out at the Fly again, this time seizing him directly, throwing him onto the ground in a battering motion and then dragging him over the edge of the cavity. But as he fell he drew the course of the currents with him, and she slipped down over them, following her adversary into the crevice.

In the depths of the fissure the struggle continued unabated. Leaping from wall to wall like a maddened locust, Iqelis pursued his foe, and she slipped around the unearthly maze of the lunar tunnels, now flanking, now ambushing from the twists and crannies she knew as thoroughly as the Tapestry’s knots. He brought down tonnes of crumbling moon-soil upon her, and Yudaiel snatched them in midair, hurling them back at his burning eye. The darkness of that hoary underbelly became choked with dust, crumbling passageways closed like decaying veins, yet neither was deterred, and the moon groaned as they tore deeper into its innards in their frenzy.



Far away…

This was an auspicious night. Weeks of careful toil within their research post were about to culminate and finally bear fruit; the ranger named Udish toyed with the telescope that rested in his hands.

They had spent a long time up here, crafting and inventing various new scientific instruments so that they could better understand the stars, the night sky, and even those lands splayed out below and all around their camp atop the mountain summit. Ludari had painstakingly pressed and refined plant matter into parchment and ink, and now by day he mapped the surrounding climes and geography, and by night he charted the stars diligently while Udish could only stare at them and the moon in wonder.

There was much knowledge to be found and shared within their outpost; they were all gorging upon it. Udish felt as though he was struggling to pull his own weight, though. He’d gone spelunking into some cavities in the cliffs and found twisting caverns, and within those he’d harvested some growing crystals of quartz. Iluratum, awed by how they bent light, had spent a long time chiseling, polishing, and shaping cuts of the strange stone. Eventually, Udish had been inspired while gazing unto the moon and contemplating that look in its eye, and he had spirited some of Iluratum’s lenses and fashioned this telescope in secret, a short ways from the others. No doubt they thought he’d spent the afternoon down in some new hole, but instead he’d built this marvel. How large everything looked when enhanced through this simple optical tube!

As the sky grew dark and the moon rose, Udish peered at it through his telescope… he knew that the stars were one thing, but the moon and the sun another entirely. This research of the moon strayed dangerously close to that which was forbidden – studying the divine – but he could not care, did not care… the moon called to him!

And as he marveled at it through his telescope, discerning the ridges and craters too small and hazy for unaided sight, he saw strange flashes of light. He peered at them more closely, and saw great explosions of color that came from no obvious source, but which tore asunder the surface of that distant, alien, and pale jewel. This was confusing, but so savory… The implication was that this must be a normal thing. Was the moon always in such a state of flux and violent change, only for them to have been entirely oblivious by virtue of their feeble sight?

Udish ruminated upon that thought in wonder, lowering his telescope as he considered that crude hypothesis. But he continued to look up at the moon, and the flashes were so bright that he saw them still, even without the assistance of his instrument. His conjecture was disproven in an instant, but this anomalous observation left the kynikos with only more confusion and questions…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Through the tunnels and depths had the gods battled, until they burst out to emerge from the caverns once more. Now the fray was on the far side of the moon, that which the Galbar never saw. At the moment this was also the dark side of the moon, lit only by the twinkling of impossibly distant stars. With the sun so far away and its view so obstructed, perhaps not even the so-called Monarch of All bore witness to this clash.

Iqelis broke and shattered Time itself; roots and tendrils of acceleration spiraled out from his own form, granting him alacrity and hastening the doom and decay of all around, but here and there remained bubbles of slow. The Tapestry of Reality fluttered, wrinkled, and nearly was torn all around the monstrous deviant, and Yudaiel Saw his profanity more clearly and fully than perhaps any other could. So she, the Prescient, at last realized the path to victory. Calling upon her divine power, she bled and radiated ghostly ichor, flaring like a flame that had been fanned. She, the Reverberation, rippled through the Tapestry’s fabric and righted it, hurling Time back into its place and defying that power which sustained Iqelis so far… that was what had granted him some analogue to her own unfathomable power, the only thing that had allowed him to rival her in this battle. Now, it was fading.

Thus the Fly was cast down from the confluence of temporal fractures that he had engendered, and from the middle of a leap that defied speed, insofar as it was grounded in the ordinary course of time, he fell skidding onto the shadowed ground, his feet carving gouges in the stone as momentum reasserted itself around his body, now bare of anomalous folds in the immaterial. He grasped at the void, seeking the currents he was wont to turn, but, defenseless before blows from arcane angles, he was hurled from where he stood by the resurgent Yudaiel.

He did not remain off his feet for long, however, and again he plunged his claws into the waters of the Flow in defiance of Time's equilibrium. Yet it was a ruse, for, reaching from below the surface, he caught the fraying edges of the weave where they dispersed into the end, and with a mighty pull he yanked them down. In a groaning vortex of chaotic moments, past and present became one with a dead future. Thoughts and intentions ended before they had fully formed, movements wound down before they had been realized, stones crumbled before being touched. A dire tangle rose to mar the All-Seeing Eye's view, and beyond it Iqelis sprang at her in a high arc through the empty sky, bearing down on her from above.

For the first time in all of her existence, Yudaiel was sightless. Fear filled her in that moment too, and it was an icy lange that gouged a fiery wound into her psyche. She could not See, so she lashed out, blindly and in all directions, in a paroxysm of mad violence.

It was good that the Galbar was shielded by an entire moon, as for a brief moment, that darkened half of the sphere was aglow with a light brighter than even the sun. The explosion rocked her moon again and chiseled yet another gaping hole. Such was the shockwave that it swept up Iqelis as though he were a mere fly in a hurricane, hurling him upwards and leaving him to spin off into space. So potent was the blast that it rippled through the lunar gem’s core and all the way to another side; the backfire thrust up a mountain in the heart of that great crater that was her usual seat – now the crater was an iris, and that mountain its pupil. So vehement was the detonation that chunks of the moon were sent hurtling at well past escape velocity; some became shooting stars that eventually fell down unto the Galbar, some more distant comets that would forever wander and in their circligns occasionally come close enough to emblazon trails across the night sky, and still other pieces were flung out into the depths of space to never be seen again.



Far away…

On a blue-green jewel of a sapphire, there was an ocean. Somewhere out in the seas, there sprouted an isle, and for roots it had caverns. The roots were deep and long and dark and twisting, but down there resided a mind. It looked like little more than corruption – mold, rot, and moss covering the damp stone, encasing wall and ceiling and floor alike, but the branching hyphae of the mycelium was all beautifully connected and intertwined like rope. Countless fungi were there, but only one beautiful and nascent mind.

It had never really been troubled by the simplicity of its existence, growing in the humid darkness and waiting. It didn’t really even feel trapped by its nature, free as it was to sing and dream. It liked to project itself into dreamscapes, to imagine what it would be like to be a mushroom under the sun, to feel the rain, or to be a spore that settled upon a cloud and grew from there, or to be a brave toadstool that took up arms and fought a mighty beast of a boar to protect all the other mushrooms in the forest. Its mind wandered and pondered all of that and more, and yet it remained content and safe at home.

On this day, it was a king. Its loyal subjects had all assembled around in circles, forming a hundred concentric fairy rings. Its first act, as king of the mushrooms, was to summon his guard and lead them to war against the lichen that dwelt on a large boulder nearby, and which had arrogantly crept onto the rimward trees of his glade. But the dastardly lichen had been of the same mind, and met them at arms in the middle of the road, where the grassy realm of the mushrooms met with the rim of its craggy grey boulder.

The battle was a fierce one; both armies fought without respite, time and again threatening to overthrow the other, for three hours and three minutes. Lo, and in the darkest moment of the battle, the sky itself blackened as raven clouds hung overhead and blocked the sun. This truly was a horrid day; perhaps the coming deluge of rain would wash them all away in its heavenly judgement, and spell a watery end to his short-lived reign! Yet to the shock of all, it was not raindrops that fell from that black cloud, but rather flaky white bits of stone.

Not even a hint of the sun was anywhere to be seen; it was suddenly night. All the lichen and fungi ceased their quarreling and looked skyward, and as they squinted, they beheld the horror of a swarm of flies so endless that they had mistaken the bulk for storm clouds. Here and there, pinpricks of moonlight poked out for just an instant through the onyx blanket that smothered the sky. To their horror, the fungi realized that those flies were ripping apart and devouring the moon… That was their creator!

The kingsguard and even the savage lichen all melted away into aetherial wisps as the lucid dream twisted into a nightmare. Everything spiraled out of control; in the black depths of a sea that knew no end, a corpse-looking whale shuddered, stirred into rage and hunger by the scent of even the most wretched of lifeforms – this prey was still seasoned with some of the most savory of flavors, after all – and it exploded into horrific thrashing motion. Its cry attracted other whales, and horrors even worse, and they began swimming through the black void devouring flies and moon-bits like krill.

Distraught and horrified, the psychic fungus began to wail and shriek in its cavern.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Since the time before life, the outer void beyond the Galbar’s skies had remained untouched by the troubles that stirred and wounded the world below. Darkness and silence had been a barrier insurmountable for even the most insistent echoes of strife, and covetous eyes would have found nothing to aspire to even if they had thought to glance up at the cold waste between the stars. Peace, though it be of a sterile sort, had ever reigned in those unbounded halls.

But on that day at last it was to be broken, and the blight of anger spilled out into the translunar spaces as war seemed to reach for the stars themselves with its iron clutch. Two antagonists stared each other down with single eyes, unmoored from the spheres below, their struggle the only constant in the fluctuating vacuum.

Struck by Yudaiel as she lashed out blindly, Iqelis had been cast into the moon's own heavens. There, he clung onto the pale fragments scattered by their tremendous clash, vaulting between them as he had when first he had departed the Palace of the Sun, and in the untouched emptiness he began once more to twist and gather the tides of the Flow into smothering tides, as the All-Seeing Eye gave pursuit. She reached him first, though.

Her faintest touch was enough to conduct currents of madness, but now she wrapped all around him in a smothering embrace. Hallucination and phantasm became his wreath.

There was sand, drifting in the breeze. It settled underfoot, and that scarlet-haired goddess thrust the tip of her spear into the grit, moving it, drawing the design of a little humanoid figure… Ea Nebel. The stick figure became a clay mannequin. Earth became life, and his daughter’s eyelids opened.

Turmoil had coursed through his every thought. There was the Flow, roaring, ever roaring, demanding that he right this accursed wrong. He hesitantly raised a claw over the nascent godling, poised to strike. Then his gaze fell on her features, and he saw, reflected in the black of her four eyes, the white light of his own. Sparks that had split from the flame he carried in himself, now returning his look - so trusting, so familiar, so his. His hand froze in place, for the first time uncertain in delivering a demise, then fell limply to his side, powerless.

The sands shifted, and there He was, that arrogant fool.

”Trials…”




”...it is time for yours!”




”...four separate trials to prove her worth so that she may not be ended by my hand.”


Those words echoed in his mind as they already had a hundred times over, each syllable an agonizing reminder of this horrid Fate that had been decreed unto him by that atrocious Pretender, how He would burn–

Ea Nebel clambered up the steep slope of a mountain of black stone, so vast that its peak was hidden far past the clouds above. Around her, the harsh flank was barren, no sign of life stirring over it as far as the eye could see besides some noxious corpse-flies. But what did abound there were the dead. Rigid and mouldering, or little more than skeletons sparsely clothed in tatters of parched skin, they lay scattered on the unmerciful rock, or sat, propped up against ancient boulders. Though stricken forever with silence, they seemed to implore the deva with outstretched arms and despairingly gaping mouths. Give us rest, please, give us rest; yet she could not, for the stone was hard, and harder still were the terms of her task. She dragged her feet wearily, slouched under the unfulfilled burden, stumbled as a bony grip suddenly closed around her leg…



The ground was even under her feet now, a smooth road of dry beaten dirt. To her sides, unassuming grassy plains rolled to the horizon, dim under a nondescript beginning of dusk; gone was the oppressive leaden cloak of the mountain-clouds. Ahead, the road stretched on, a lazy earthen snake, until it came to a bifurcation marked by the foot of a low rocky ridge that neatly separated the two branches. The blessed clarity of her sight let her pry far along both ways. One led into a bank of grey fog, blind and featureless, yet calming in the way of nebulous things. The other was lit by distant flashes of what must have been lightning, flashes that began to approach as she looked, like a beast emerging from its burrow, accompanied by a cacophony of clashes and thunderclaps…



Nothing behind her, nothing above her, nothing around her - only the angular shadow of Iqelis looming over her, and his hooked fingers closing around her throat. His body, chiseled from that glassy obsidian, reflected the moonlight, brighter and brighter… The vision twisted, and suddenly this was not some omniscient view from above, but rather one from Nebel’s own four eyes. The perspective was enough to stir the flames of envy, but all that vanished in an instant. The bitter, chilling touch of those obsidian fingers around the throat grew colder and tighter yet. The world began to collapse inward and distort as creeping darkness encroached upon the corners and light danced in strange ways, a side effect of the asphyxiation.

Silver and white streaks ran across the sleek black form of Doom incarnate, like grey whiskers accenting a beard. The luster grew larger, and brighter though, until nothing remained of that jet-color. What grasped her was reflecting so much light that it may as well have been aglow, was practically bone-white. Craters and scars marked it for the moon. Smaller, smaller, smaller. The field of view shrunk and darkened even as Yudaiel-Iqelis seemed to grow more brilliant and blinding with each passing instant.

The hundred arms of Iqelis became the bulging, oozing red arteries of a bloodshot eyeball, grotesque in its scarred cloudy white vastness, and also in all the ash that cascaded from it in place of tears. That which grasped at the throat was no longer anything like a hand so much as the choking, crushing force of a divine will. It was as inevitable as winter, and fighting it was as futile as shouting into the wind.

The lightheadedness grew even more extreme; death and unconsciousness were near. Something whispered cajoling words, soothing the passing, easing the journey and making the acceptance of death feel right, proper…sweet. But something else screamed and raged and wanted to fight! It began to win, and panicked adrenaline seared and wracked the mind, staving off unconsciousness.

Then Yudaiel’s grip pulled in all directions; there emerged three spinning moons that orbited in wild and chaotic patterns, tugging viciously all the while with far greater fervor than the Galbar’s gravity; indeed, the Galbar was gone, as was the safety of its tether. Flesh ripped and tore while bone and neck snapped. The bits shorn off were drawn into stringy wisps and cast and flung everywhere through the void of space. The sickening sounds were only made worse by one last sight – that of the eye blinked and pulsating, flashing back and forth as its appearance oscillated. Doom, Moon, Black, White, Iqelis, Yudaiel…Iqelis. It remained his eye in the end. It had been him all along, strangling and breaking her.


An abominable, anamorphic monstrosity of a voice pierced the darkness that followed:

“Ń̡̮̫͇̎̓̅o͙̰̘̩̣̿̀̎̌͛t̝̱̖̺̀̊̄̊ w̮̘͓̿̇̿h̬̄̕͢a͉̩̳̜̽͂͗̕t̹͈̮͗̀͌ c̘͖̅̄ou̞̕l̬͓̱̒̌̔d̛̻̻̟̖̔̔̌ h̫̣̱̱̓̒͞͞a͎̗̮͂̇̉p͙͘p̯̱͚͖̔̐͊̕͢͝e̩̼̩̜̊̍̒̎͆͟n̝͇͍̻͗͗̐͐,̛͈͚̥̻̀̕͠” it insisted, “W̛̛̺̜̫̺̯̦̗͔̍̂̃̒̕͝H̥̱̦̪͈̿́̀͐̐̒͊͑͟͜͟A̡̻̝̖̬̅͂̔͒̀T̜͍͔̅̈́̚ ͇̫̙͈̫̗̖̑̾̈͐̀̕͞S̨̬͔͓̞̪̤̔̈́͑̋̈͊͐H̭̳̝͎̤͋̄̀̒̕͘ͅȦ̢̟͉̰͇̗̃́͑́͞L̟̭̹̮͚̙̍̋̐̎̚͝L̪̝̹̮̀͋͊̍!̗̓̿̔͢ͅ.̨̨̛̥̺͓̮͂̈́͛̈́͗”

”I̘̫̾͂f̝̠͉̓͛̈́ y̛͈̠̾o͈̠̰͗͑̕ǘ̢̦̼̂̔ d̖̺͙̔͘͘o̠͊̐͢ ǹ̨̗͐o͎̖͖͌͊̍t̨̠̻̗̉̃̉̍ s̗̼̑̈u̮̟͚̙͆̃͐̂b̞͕̚͝m̱͎̥̟͌̀̾̚i̛̳͚͌t̲̩͉͍̉͗̆͒ t̡̻̦͊͊͘o̞̬̮̓͋̚ ṃ͙̞͐̃͠y͚̟͡͡ ẇ̨̯̫̄͝͝ͅí̪̼̒͂͟l̹͇̜͆̍͌l͉̦̲̃̿͊!̬̣̣̇̆̕”

That was her voice, and that was her threat. She punctuated it all with one final vision, that of Ea Nebel meandering the Galbar in that very instant.


Pain of the heart, bleak as Iqelis’ own was, unfortunately stood as only the tip of the spear. The agony of a million tortures she thrust upon him; a second passed, and yet it felt like an eternity. The Flow could not abate the pain, only stoke the burning agony that came while the flames flared and burnt even hotter and faster, or else it could slow and draw out the suffering so that the coals nibbled at him and writhed through his gut like worms. And still, these courses were the only recourse that his mind, severed from control and maddened with rage and excruciating torment, could conceive. The deeper Yudaiel drove her barbs into it, the more it rolled and wallowed in the black waters, sinking in them, melting in them.

Melting into them.

A droning sound rose in the distance as Iqelis’ crystalline hypostasis finally yielded under her grip. But it did not shatter as it ought to have, dissolving instead into a noxious black sludge that dripped between her intruding thought-strands, as if it had too little substance to be retained. For indeed, the looser the oily fluid became, the more she could see that its attributes were being reduced to a single constant. A moment, and it was no longer a god, a thinking being, a feeling one; only Doom remained, a blind and unshakable axiom lodged in the universe like a venomous thorn.

The droning grew louder, and now it was the grim chant of a thousand clouds of gigantic flies. The blackness flowed out from the maze of illusion and onto the moon-soil. Or perhaps it was Iqelis’ body falling down in an ichorous pillar as it liquefied in the void-sky and poured into a lake that corroded the ground about it with the crumbling of ages. Yet the One God was not so large for the lake to become a sea, no, an ocean that covered the best part of the moon’s hidden face before rising into an amorphous, undulant body as tall as ten mountains. He and his shadow were one then, a stain that did not merely sully the moon but defiled the material dimensions of which it was a facet. Darkness so absolute swallowed it that it had no name in a living cosmos, and even the star-studded emptiness above shone like a cascade of diamonds against that abyss.

A burning white light burst out in the god-shadow’s midst, not so much an eye as a maw of a titanic furnace that breathed with the bellowing of a cataract. Arms that were rivers, ending in deltas of many-pronged talons, raked the white surface, decaying – nay, unmaking solid stone and throwing up pillars of dust, as more of them rose to reach for the god-spark and extinguish it in their clutches. Pallid moon was devoured by creeping doom and converted into more of that ever-growing ocean of stygian sludge.

And yet Yudaiel’s smoldering gaze set fire to the thirsty seas, broiling the doom beneath the incinerating ray of her stare. The inky blackness evaporated, surged up in vast clouds, and rained back down as diamonds. The ravenous darkness swallowed and digested those precious stones just as readily as they ate into the jewel of her moon, and the cycle raged in a vicious and neverending circle as Yudaiel’s eye darted here and there, searching for the Fly, wherever he was in the depths of that horrid sea. If she could only find him, seize him, burn him, strip away his power and control, then all that sludge would become lifeless and inert. It could be righted and cleaned away in one great conflagration, but she had to find him.

A splitting pain pierced Yudaiel’s mind. It waned and ebbed, throbbing as if to a heartbeat even within the depths of her empty vastness. It made Seeing difficult; how could she not find the Fly within those depths when normally she Saw all, when nothing could hide from her? Pain. Somewhere within her disoriented and enraged mind, there was a whisper that she didn’t see the Fly, that she wouldn’t and couldn’t, for the Fly had dissolved and become one with that whole ocean of corrosive rot. Anguish. She heard a chorus of otherworldly shrieking. The Sentry, that Psychic Fungi that she’d left in Arvum’s service, had been wailing this whole time and she’d hardly noticed, but now its cry stood out. It was the only voice within the discordant tumult that she could discern, that she could recognize, that she could understand.

Agony! The other voices were vast, and distant, and close… their psychic voices carried well through the void-medium. There was a pattern, and a song, but it was horrifying chaos, nothing at all like what Yudaiel could grasp or understand, let alone lesser minds that had not been tempered by peering into the abyss before and hardening their sanity.

She Saw barbs, spikes, claws – claws that were made to rend the mind, not flesh. She Saw spikes, teeth, maws – gaping maws that hungered for the taste of misery and the sustenance of souls. Arrayed before her were maws within maws, maws within the pupils of sightless eyes, gaping and horrific throats and jaws that covered every part of their abominable and twisted forms.

A seeking arrow cut through the void towards her pupil. With a furious thought, she caught and gripped it. It was real, to her horror, and yet only half-real. It was not of her conjuration, not of the Monarch’s, and certainly not of the Fly’s; it was no illusion at all, and yet it was half-ethereal and utterly alien. She squeezed the arrow even harder, so that its tenuous being could not slip from her grasp, and then she twisted and turned. That thing had not been an arrow as she’d first surmised, but a horrific proboscis, like that of a bloodsucking mosquito, only this monstrosity had been intent upon draining the juice of her eye, the soul of her mind. The rest of the beast’s hulking form had somehow collapsed out of her sight as it had approached, hiding behind the tiny silhouette of that needlelike proboscis. When she'd twisted and broken its sucker, the thing hadn’t died, but it had shrieked, and her entire essence recoiled and shuddered. Searing pain juxtaposed itself with frigid fear.

Others had come, too. Like a vast whale, one breached the surface of that darkened ocean that covered her jewel, swallowing more of the sludge that any maelstrom ever could and yet surviving, thriving… feasting, even in the heart of a god’s ruinous power. The living shadow writhed and thundered as it struck at the abhorrent leviathan, its arms folding into itself in coursing loops, but where one interloper was pushed down, ten more arose, like sharks that had smelled blood. Its tremendous size turned against it, as every span of pitch waves had become a new breeding-ground for the nightmare flocks.

Its erstwhile enemy forgotten, the sea that had been Iqelis raged against the grotesque congeries of skinless and eyeless morays, lurking crabs that crept on fractal fleshy roots instead of limbs, and fin-ringed disks that split open into gnashing jaws like sunfish teratomas, battering them aside and vomiting searing beams of light from its eye-maw. Fury steadily became surprise, then alarm as the consuming tides and withering glares left the dire invaders unscathed. Whatever their nature might have been, Time held no more an absolute dominion over them than did the principles of life, trampled underfoot by the sheer incoherence of their bodies. Their hunger, however, was undisputable, and every bite and mouthless draught left the madly thrashing ocean diminished.



Far away…

The trickling of water made for a soothing ambience for meditation. Its ever-present sound near the Blackmoss Dam calmed Ruslan’s mind. The young bjork sat in the same darkened lodge-chamber as half the rest of his clan. In the center of their circle was his father, Tanas the Undying, Tanas the Seer, Tanas the Moon-blessed. They looked to him as their foremost guide now, not the matriarch: this was only right as it was he that had first discovered the potency of the sacred fungus, he who had guided them all in their first experiences with the magical substance, and he who had ingested more of the holy mushroom than any other.

The bjorks, kit and adult and elder alike as they were, sat in a circle about Tanas. Tanas did not seem to sit, preferring instead to levitate. Or perhaps that was more akin to hanging? The bjork might have flown (might have ascended all the way to the moon, even!) the mushrooms whispered to Ruslan, but for the thin, ethereal threads and branches of fungal hyphae that tethered him to this world.

Tanas had his two birth-eyes closed in meditation, and yet his third gaped wide open, all three of its pupils staring into the void. Two were glazed in that moment, but the third, that which saw the future, was focused.

’What do you See?’ Ruslan wordlessly asked. A telepathic chorus of other voices echoed the question.

In answer the manbjork, once a mighty warrior but now thin and nigh-skeletal from a long diet consisting of little more than the mushrooms, trembled. He trembled, he shook, and he shut his third eye, embracing sightlessness. Wordlessly, Tanas spoke to their minds,

’Calamity.
Doom.

Armageddon.’


The rushing sound of water was unbearable to him in that moment, its sound more horrifying than the bone-chilling roar of a giant snow leopard, than the bloodcurdling howl of wolves, than the howling winds that heralded wintry cold and frigid blizzards. The gloom and shadowy recesses of their lodge grew larger, more umbral. Darkness evaporated into wisps of smoke, and from those foul fumes there amalgamated the shapes of monsters and beasts and demons. Eyes were everywhere, staring, staring. He Saw it all, and yet his eyes were shut. There was no escape from the horror.

“The moon is under attack,” he gasped aloud, “I See it.”

The others looked all around, and they too Saw the shadowy people and beasts, and were afraid. It was a nightmare they couldn’t wake from. The sound of the river sounded eerily like distant, muffled screaming.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


The relentless souldrinkers surged forward. Yudaiel perceived them in strange ways; she Saw a thousand brass claws, but only two-thirds as many limbs from which those graspers extended. These horrors were anathema to Reality and creation, slaves to unreason, impossible to truly comprehend. The grotesque forms that she Saw, even these brass claws that she felt ripping into the cohesion of her sea of consciousness, were all just her mind’s vain attempts at projecting that which was impossible to depict, grasp, see, or even understand. They were vast creatures, and she suspected that they existed in more dimensions, and higher ones, such that she saw only their outward facets, tiny shadows of their true terror. Still, she witnessed more than enough.

The one with the proboscis had shattered before her might, but from its sundered mass had erupted a half dozen more demons, each greater in immensity than the one that had contained them. She focused upon the most enormous of them all. It bit into her vastness, but as it gorged upon her essence, it was as though she’d thrust an arm down the beast’s gullet and not gripped it by the tongue – no, by the entrails. She had the fool now, as she reached deep into its depths. Recalling her essence, withdrawing that filament of her being back from the demon’s insides, she caught hold of its innards and jerked them as she ripped that extension of herself free. Its entrails were drawn outside of its body in one sickening and incredibly forceful movement. Eviscerated, everything was pouring out of its maw, and the demon was inside out for an instant. In that ungodly shape it resembled some sort of nightmarish blob of otherworldly flesh, of fiery malevolence, and of black bone… but then its flesh rippled over those bones and shifted in strange ways, even as those bones snapped and spun and rotated through the roiling cloud of gore. The demon collapsed back inwards on itself before splitting apart, and what should have been its corpse somehow became three thrashing horrors.

What was this madness? The absurdity of their profane shapes, the lunacy that such aberrations had emerged as if from nothingness, was such that Yudaiel could scarcely believe what she saw, let alone what she tried in vain to See. A single thought echoed in the back of her mind with crystallized clarity – had she lost? Had Iqelis wrested control over the unreal, and now banished her mind into the nightmare of madness?

No.

He couldn’t have.

He is only a fly!


With a roar, Yudaiel threw herself – or at least, the majority of her enormous vastness – into the maw of one of the lesser of these many beasts. It gorged at first, and as it unmade her essence and fed upon her soul Yudaiel writhed and felt diminished, but then she had forced her way in. The horror grew bloated as even its impossibly expansive void of a belly was utterly filled. Its teeth bent backwards in its maw as she swept her way down its gullet; its nineteen eyes bulged almost to the point of bursting as more and more pupils erupted from within, forcing their way into each one, crowding the red orbs.

Lesser minds would have been utterly consumed when trying at such a desperate and maddened ploy as entering and forcibly possessing one of these demons. Minds greater still would have been overwhelmed and consigned to lunacy forevermore, their sanity shattered so easily as glass. Yudaiel was nearly met with that fate, but the glassy sea of her consciousness was only cracked, not broken.

She Saw deep into this thing’s horrific thoughts, and for just a fleeting moment, she felt as though she actually understood it. It and its kind were infinite, timeless, and more terrible than words or thoughts could capture. They feasted upon misery and strife and souls and life, and they lurked somewhere out there in the cold, vast, black voids that lay between the stars. There, everything was so empty that it was like a bottomless pit that led down, down, down into lower and worse and more twisted realms. They only emerged when something drew their attention, when they felt the urge to hunt… in their hubris and displays of power, so near to the void and away from the protection of the Monarch’s terrible light, she and Iqelis had attracted these monstrosities.

But how could they ever be defeated, banished back to the nothingness from whence they came? She couldn’t find the answer to that; there was no time, for with each moment spent within the corpulent monstrosity’s caustic innards, she dissociated more and more, drawing that much closer to oblivion. She tried to fight her way free, to force her way out through the lenses of its eyes, but it held her tightly, too tightly to wriggle or break out. It would rather burst and die than surrender its meal. Its greed was its undoing; she seized control of the beast for just a moment, just long enough to send it careening too close to the maw of an even greater horror. Without discrimination, that leviathan’s jaws eagerly crashed down upon this mere worm, rending and ripping and shredding it into chunks and clouds of gore. Even then, even as it was swallowed by an even greater maw, the nebulae and rivers of gore – all that remained of the demon – tried in vain to wrestle with Yudaiel and drag her to the same fate, but she was strong enough to break free and soar out from the gaping mouth.

She beheld the carnage, and through the tumultuous battle beheld an even greater swarm of these demons… she was weak now, too. And her hard-won knowledge, claimed from the eldritch mind of one of these demons, was slipping through her fingers and out of her mind more and more with each passing moment. Some knowledge was just not meant to be known, not possible to retain.

Below her, the transfigured Fly was locked in his own struggle against the hideous void-spawn. His shadowy immensity had been greatly diminished, now filling but a minuscule fraction of the vast moon-sea that it had corroded, and it continued to shrink as putrid behemoths drained more of it. Nor was he as fluid any longer, for his bulk stiffened and hardened as more of it was sheared away. By now it had almost returned to its primordial state, a monolith of icy crystal hewed into a tripodal spire surmounted by a wheel of many-segmented arms.

A quake shook through the moonscape as most of the limbs slammed down, wreaking obscene carnage on the throngs that harried the black tower's foundation. To little avail, for the mangled carcasses had soon recombined, like the fanciful lens-figures of a kaleidoscope, into a tangle just as horrid and ravenous, and scattered entrails had sprouted like seeds into cyclopic coral trees with fanged mouths across their trunks. Iqelis raised a hand, parting a current of the Flow and raining the ravages of doom onto the encroaching horde; yet once more, the ineluctable was brazenly defied by the otherworldly monstrosities, for whom it seemed there were neither past nor future.

The god's eye, colder now and a measure more lucid than the roaring furnace it had been at the apex of the forsaken duel, jumped feverishly across the tainted field and the churning skies, and at length it met by chance with Yudaiel's own pupil. She did not need to peer into its temporal shadow to perceive the emotions behind it. There were still remnant clouds of rage, though they wandered confusedly, uncertain which foe to cast themselves against, and a shadow of spite at being so beset when he believed his triumph was nigh. But above all, it was lost. Consternation and disbelief reigned in the fading light of the great eye. His look seemed to be asking her whether she was seeing the same as him, whether this abominable breach of Time's law was real and not a deception more insidious than even she would dare to weave. Hostility was eclipsed by the desperate will to find something familiar in this nightmare. For the first time since the universe's wheel had begun to turn, Iqelis was shaken. Another moment, perhaps, and despondent apathy would overtake him, the uncountable arms collapsing limply as forests of teeth tore him to shreds.

She understood, of course, and she dove back down towards him. A hundred soaring demons stood in their path, but she wove all of her vastness and her nothingness between their seeking limbs and horrible claws of brass, away from all their horrific maws and teeth of crystallized nightmare and misery. She made her way through the swarm, finally drawing close enough to reach out and touch her rival.

A great beast thundered across a plain, savaged and harried at every step by the lions and hyenas, the flies and the mosquitos. With roars and mighty thrashes of its limbs and tail, it crushed and mutilated those lesser creatures by the dozen, but its assailants were endless, and they knew no fear. They were no mere beasts, after all; these were demons in another shape.

The great beast’s life drained from a thousand wounds; the buzzards smelled blood, if not rot, and already circled high overhead in anticipation. But then a sweet wind came, and it breathed it in deeply and gladly, even as the vapors carried by that gale forced their way into its flesh and changed it. The beast’s hide was crystallized into impenetrable adamant, and from all those wounds where it had been raked and bitten there erupted new eyeballs, such that it now saw everything all around with perfect clarity. It trampled and massacred its powerless attackers with ease.


And as a new expanse of vision had been opened before that oneiric beast, so too did a new light surge up behind Iqelis’ faltering eye. It tore itself from Yudaiel’s gaze and the sights it exuded, snapping back upon the gnashing, clawing tide. No more did it leap and run wildly about, however, harried by the dire spectacle, but it cut precise lines from one foe to another, as if measuring their multitudes and distorted distances. Then he stabbed a finger into the ground, and with the smoothness of a knife running through water carved a trench near his foundation. An empty gesture, it seemed, for none of the horrors had been there to suffer the blow; until a hydra-like tangle of boneless spinal cords, surmounted by toothed but otherwise amorphous lumps of bloodied flesh, twisted at an angle that ought to have been impossible, and instead of breaching his crystalline wall tumbled howling into the fissure that appeared to await it where in would emerge from its contortion through space. A colossal black fist followed it, and liquefied matter sprayed out from the edges of the rift.

The intruders, alien to Galbarian life and matter, were not bound to the temporal laws of the world. But as long as they remained in its confines, they had to abide by some few principles that permitted the existence of things, which kept them anchored to reality yet also subjected them to certain of its laws, however scant. One such imposition was their collocation in space, and though they blurred even that fundamental, for many of them were intertwined in eye-strainingly implausible ways or occupied extensions that should have been too small for them, of each void-predator it could be said that it was at certain moments in a particular place. This was what Iqelis’ revitalized eye tracked in the renewed clash, for though the ghastly adversaries were elusive to Time-attuned Sight, the sequence of the terrain they afflicted could be traced, and though that gift was barred to him, the momentary favour of the All-Seeing Eye permitted him to glimpse the reflections of the Tapestry on his black waters, and thereby forestall the hideous assaults.

Thus his arms multiplied again, and struck out with renewed force and focus. It was no immediate turning point, and many were snapped off and devoured by the forest of teeth where a wily terror twisted in a way that none could have predicted, or where a sacrifice was demanded, but the battle became more even. The seething ranks were now cut off when they tried to advance, halted by suddenly awning pits and rising shield-mountains. The One God’s towering body stirred with fluidity again, and his movements gained haste to match their decisiveness. Barriers rose and crumbled, and at the bidding of orchestrating claws the Flood spilled forth to reinforce them. Its waves did not seek to uselessly lap at gnarly hides and pulsing membranes, but washed smoothly around them, swallowing the ground they stood on into crumbling gaps. Undulant bodies toppled back as their material footholds failed them. In places, they became tangled with each other as they retreated, flesh commingling in a charnel metamorphosis until where two had been forced back, one was left standing.

At some point Iqelis had lost track of the Reverberation amidst all the thrashing, the carnage, the ambushes and feints. She had cast wide his gaze and granted him Sight beyond sight, but now he could not even See where she had gone.



Far away…

It was alone again, slowly hovering upriver. The Six had withdrawn into the mists of the Tlacan, restless and uneasy after it had told them of the battle that rent the moon, but not daring to go out across the world and hunt again, in case their master returned suddenly and demanded account in a foul mood. But the One that was no longer Seventh did not fear the chastising hand of its god. Death was illusory and ephemeral for one trapped in a cyclical existence, less forgiving even than the one it had led before, but for those few moments until it resurfaced from the black Flow, perhaps it would have respite. Respite from its dual servitude, labyrinthine as it lay ahead in the paths of the future, and respite from the Sight which even now needled its three-lobed burning eye.

The visions had not abated since the first brush with the vastness. If anything, they had grown more frantic as the night wore on. Dim figures barely had the time to form before being swept away by the next expanding thread, yet this came as a relief, for of late some sinister presences had been intruding into the dreamlike vistas which it did not wish to see more clearly. The two feuding gods were no longer alone in their battle at the edge of the world. A third force had intruded upon their contest, and it was not one that the Outsider could match to any strand of fate, nor to any reflection on the Flow’s surface. There was something unsettling about these aggressors, a whiff of red skies and shattering divinity, a stench of astral blood that made them sickening to even glance at.

But the third eye was a curse, not a gift, and as the Outsider passed near where it had fatefully set upon those sleeping humans, the visions grew sharper. And it Saw them.

Pain and fear struggled within it as it reeled from the revelation. It was not as though the entities could harm it, far as they were, though had they descended upon the Galbar it suspected that their distorted claws might have cut short even its recursive life. The horror they radiated was an instinctive feeling, the sort of fright that made one recoil from large spiders and tentacled octopi, though orders of magnitude more intense and protracted. A fundamental revulsion for the other, the different stirred its core, and beset by the dread of something more alien yet than itself, the Outsider sought to exorcise the noisome sights by giving them voice:

"No other eyes have vented there
Since eyes were lent for human sight—
But here, with gaze untamed by night,
I see the Elder Secret bare.

Inhuman shapes, half-seen, half-guessed,
Half solid and half ether-born,
Seethe down from starless voids that yawn
In heaven, to tides of stygian pest.

And voidward from that pest-mad zone
Amorphous hordes seethe darkly back,
Their dim claws laden with the wrack
Of things that gods have dreamed and known.

The loathsome Fishers from Outside—
Are there no tales in warning told,
Of how they found the worlds of old,
And took what pelf their fancy spied?

None sees me watch, long fore the dawn,
Nor does my flame bear any mark
Of what I glimpse in that curst dark—
Yet from my soul all peace has gone!"


“Such a vivid poem,” a ragged voice commented from the darkness of a riverside shrub, not so far away at all. “Your words paint, and the moving pictures makes this nightmare that I See all the more real.”

It was Medes, that prophet, the one that had cursed that Eschatli, back when it had numbered among the Eschatli, when it had been One of Seven. Now, it carried a burden, and was somehow even less. And Medes Saw that too. The Outsider saw that Medes was alone; the others had gone on ahead downstream in their flight from him after that chance encounter, but the prophet, aged by the decay of an Eschatli’s touch, had soon run out of breath and had to stop.

“You… you understand my warning, now,” the human stated as fact.

”Aye, great was the loss of my spirit,
And great is the reach of its doom;
Not the pity of nightfall can cheer it,
Nor can respite be found in the tomb:
Down the infinite aeons come beating the wings of unmerciful gloom.”


the spirit answered mournfully as it stopped in its drifting, hovering over the river like a lost storm cloud.

Above, a more tangible cloud began to let loose its burden, sloughing off heavy raindrops that plopped as they seeped into the ground. Water mixed with sand and clay. A mirthful chuckle mixed with a hacking cough and a sorrowful sob. “These horrors in my Sight are too much for a mortal heart to bear. I implore you now, finish what you have begun, and grant me reprieve.”

As a wisp of mist borne on a sepulchral breeze, the spectre approached the dying seer. It did not set upon him like a hungry psychopomp as it had the first time, but gathered over him in a grim pillar, looking down upon him with three solemn eyes. It descended then, slowly, as it intoned a susurrant dirge.

”Then may for you death be
A soothing well in an oasis dim—
Cool-gleaming, hushed, and hidden gratefully
Among the palms asleep
At silver evening on the desert's rim.”


And Medes was engulfed in its black smoke as in a silent shroud; and when it rose again, nothing was left but dust and tranquil bones.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


After Yudaiel had dove down to Iqelis’ aid, she had found herself precariously amidst the densest swarm of horrors. Unseen shockwaves of force and all-too visible crackling bolts of lightning shot forth omnidirectionally to stave off the attackers, but she didn’t last long, not when her every attack against these strange beings seemed nigh futile. Eventually she found herself weary and surrounded on all sides with nowhere to flee, and then was caught by one of the greatest of the horrors. It had seized her with both tentacles real and fetters unreal, tethering its mind and will to hers such that there was no escape. When its many jaws came unhinged, she careened to the side and instead clung to its sickly flesh and what passed for its lips, like a veneer of intangible sweat. But pores and fissures had erupted from the amorphous demon’s form, and she had been siphoned and drank and absorbed – her consciousness, her mind, and her warmth swallowed and pulled in through some perverse method of inverted perspiration.

This beast, distorted as its manifestation in this world was, had far too much substance to it for her to puppeteer its bulk as she’d done for that last, smaller one. In truth, she now felt her vigor waning. She had already been pushed to the brink and beyond; her entire mind felt laden with fatigue and tiredness and the hints of surrender. The fighting spirit – that part of her that still screamed and raged and wanted to fight – now seemed a quiet and distant voice, one whose cry was stifled by a smothering pillow, or distorted by the weight of water as it called out from up above the clouds while she drowned in a deep lake. Even as it was digested and subsumed into nothingness, the will to struggle started to pass away like a fleeting dream…

In what might have been a final flash of clarity before oblivion or a gesture extended in air from outside, or perhaps both at once, a beautiful tapestry pinned to a wall swept before her in an unbounded wealth of colours and woven patterns. Spun across its face in vibrant threads were likenesses of the celestial spheres, the golden sun, the multifarious Galbar and the silvery moon, framed by the distant chorus of the pale stars. Of those, the earthly globe filled the center, with the sun and moon alike below it in different corners.

Her sight fell upon the lunar orb, and she saw that the edge of the tapestry where it lay was frayed, leaving argent threads to dangle down to the floor. There, they were lost in a mass of blackness: a swarm of huge, lazy flies carpeted the soil, unmoving but so thick that it could not be seen what they sat upon. One of the loose threads twitched, perhaps moved by a breeze, and slipped slightly out from its place in the pattern. A portion of the flies strewn out below it, stirred by the motion, sleepily rose from the bare stone floor and buzzed all together to another place further away. The loose thread seemed to have engendered a cascade, however, for another slipped out after it, and another. Every time some length of the silver weave fell, the flies below it moved away. There was a curious order to their flight, and every time it was only those whom the the threads brushed by that woke, as if there were a correspondence between the loose lengths as they fell further out and which of the insects were shaken from sleep.

Then her sight descended on one of the threads, and it was a thread no more, but a silvery river, with banks of grey and black stone. A wooden chest lay by its course, and into it unseen hands laid a still body with indistinct features, yet clearly untouched by decay. The cover snapped closed above it, and the chest was pushed into the shimmering waves, where it drifted downstream. As it floated, Yudaiel could see the corpse within mouldering in the darkness, with no respite from the faintest breath of air; until the fumes of putrescence became too much for the wood to bear, and it burst in a sickening rain of rot and splinters that stirred her awake to her similarly malodorous fleshy prison.


She lapsed in and out of lucidity; the light of the path out of this tortuous confinement flashed here, and then there, and then disappeared before returning to the first place, always ever so slightly out of reach. In this state and place the otherworldly and unknowable knowledge that she’d extracted from the mind of the first horror returned momentarily, slipping back into her fingers. The pieces came together… she almost knew what she had to do and how to achieve it, yet she felt so weak. Her own despair and hopelessness was only amplified by the appalling clime about her; half-digested and alien memories of the multitudes of all this abomination’s past victims flitted about like ash, and the curse of her Sight forced upon her the weight of experiencing some of their suffering vicariously as she Saw shattered fragments of their final thoughts.

A voice pierced the din with clarity so crisp and pure that it harkened back to a time that felt so distant, so very long ago, before she had been swallowed.

”You do not perish today, Yudaiel,” it proclaimed. She thought that she heard a droning sound, the distorted buzzing of flies, or perhaps the faintest roar of a distant river. ’Iqelis?’ she wondered in disbelief. She sensed the weight of a thousand shoulders shift, but it didn’t answer her, not directly.

Behind the words were the weight of an image; she Saw smoky roiling clouds, or perhaps currents in a river, and behind that just endless darkness. But in the center was a great looming hulk with innumerable hands and arms, far too many to count, so many that the elbows bumped and jumbled all together and she wondered how such a great mass of limbs could ever be coordinated. There was no background with which to compare, but she knew that this silhouette was tall and vast and inevitable; it consumed and seemed to fill the entire endless void. Just as that wound in the chest of the Monarch of All was so deep that it stretched into what may as well have been eternity, this familiar giant seemed infinitely tall.

The darkened lord – her unexpected savior – leaned closer, His body like a towering sculpture of frozen, glassy darkness. ”You have yet to fulfill your purpose; I have need of you yet. These monsters can be bested, so FIGHT!”

That final order echoed like thunder, shaking the void of her waking nightmare of a vision with such might that it roused her back to the horrific reality of her torment.

’FIGHT!’




’FIGHT!’




’FIGHT!’


Each booming roar of the word lent her strength: it endowed her with steely resolve, and also vigor that she didn’t know she possessed somewhere, perhaps that truly wasn’t even her own. She remembered what she had seen of these creatures’ disquieting and aberrant physiology, and the patterned fraying of Reality’s threads… she focused, and her mind reached out beyond her prison to find the Flow. Then she pulled it unto herself, and the monstrosity could not resist its decaying touch, not this time, not when the unseen stygian waters seeped through the tiny pores that she opened to allow grant access into its otherwise impervious skin. The Flow, guided by her mind, sundered the valves of its vile heart and poisoned whatever horrific substance flowed through it as a mocking, twisted analogue to warm blood. Using the Flow’s pressure, she then forced open a maw, breaching a way out, and escaped.

The horror came unbound and exploded, imploded, dissolved, and sublimated all at once. She’d actually called upon Iqelis’ deleterious aspect and guided it with such precision that not even that anomalous demon could withstand it! Her captor was utterly destroyed, its remnants smitten with enough power that nothing had endured in part or whole, that no other beasts spilled forth from its entrails as though their bodies had been stacked together in this plane of existence. Yudaiel was freed, unshackled, but so, so tired. The swarms still remained, but at least they now feared her after having witnessed that display.

They had shrunken now, too, for it seemed that the One-Eye had not been idle. His own bulk had collapsed again, and instead of a crowned tower embedded in the lunar surface, it was reduced to a less imposing though still gigantic simulacrum of his body’s torso. Below it there was nothing but a colossal tapering spike which, lodged into the stone, held him upright as he warred with the shapeless throng. He glanced up at the Reverberation, and his eye seemed to wander as if he were expecting to see someone else who had burst free along with her. Finding no other presence, it flashed with surprise, but soon turned its attention back to the battle the scores of his hands were waging.

Arrayed against them was a host much changed since when Yudaiel had last seen it. Driven back by incessant lunges from the black claws, many of the creatures had folded into each other in that blasphemous amalgamation that overtook them when collapsing spaces forced them together. Webs of bone and membrane had swallowed worm-eels into tubular canvases of mutilation, spine-limbed scarabs and serpents of intestinal flesh dripping with bile were knotted into twitching, seeping branches with insectile shells instead of bark. These comminglings had not paradoxically increased the size of the beasts; if anything, some of them had shrunken, as though the binding force had crushed some of the claim they had cast upon dimensions.

Iqelis looked at her again, and pointed a finger at one of the amalgam-trees: there, perhaps, lay the way to stemming the tide at last. He stretched out his arms further than they ought to have reached, and again the flurry of crust-shattering blows and corroding splashes from Time’s river began. Yudaiel’s ethereal bulk shuddered, exhausted, but then she threw her weight into the fray too, bending the Tapestry and distorting space; that was the means through which she was able to hurl about and cast down the horrors where even her telekinesis was not alone enough to overcome their own formidable mastery. It was still a battle, and no mere hunting of a harried foe. More black hands and wrists were snapped away from the mass that was Iqelis – the horrors possessed teeth and claws whose bite far exceeded their apparent length, and used them to vicious effect – and as the god’s severed appendages fell and shattered upon the ground, it became evident that these wounds were taxing upon his magnified frame. With every few new arms that sprouted like a hydra’s head to replace those lost, slivers of bulk vanished from around the god’s disembodied torso, until he had grown thin and emaciated.

Yet still, slowly and painfully, the terrors were driven back. Here two fell into a globe of limbs and staring eyes. There more were crushed by each other’s weight, in spite of the moon’s airless light-footedness, into a churning wave of steely grey sludge. There again, a viridian growth with empty yellow eyes and root-arms sprouting out from its head crashed into another amalgam, a mound of purple flesh ringed with red irises and creeping upon millipede legs, and the tumorous living hill that ensued was hideous to behold. Little by little, they dwindled, ceding ground as it crumbled around them and withdrawing into each other for lack of any other route of retreat.

In the end, only two corpulent, writhing masses of disconcerting demon-flesh remained. Yudaiel grasped one, and Iqelis the other, and without speaking the two understood what had to be done and crushed their final two foes together. They squeezed, and squeezed, against the struggling and screaming horrors until two congealed together into one, and until that one was compressed into an unholy singularity, a ravenous gap in space that began to clothe itself with a skin of angular grey plates. And then they manipulated Time and the Tapestry and the Flow in a hundred arcane ways, and together tore a rift in creation just wide enough to cast out the abomination before it had coalesced, and then receded their touch and sewed the wound closed before it offered passage to anything else from beyond.

On the moon, tranquil quiet was restored at last.


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Homura

...wait this isn't Apostate's POV...


Setting: The Garden of Hevel

They marched southwest, through the red forest of Kel-Phelenia, until the trees turned verdant, and the song of the eastern sea was too far to hear. They traveled until the dead sea and the cursed soaring stones above it were visible in the west, and they had walked along its shores where menacing mist spilled forth from, where there was a terrible taste in the air, putrid like the stench of something foul and rotten.

Homura was not surprised by the lingering presence of Iqelis and his power that was so profuse in such a gloomy realm, but her lack of surprise did not mean that she wished to be anywhere near it. The red goddess also detested its close proximity to Keltra, as well as the other lands where life was found and cultivated. She scowled in the direction of the dead sea, and hoped that her infuriating brother could feel her scorn.

Her procession consisted of the three colossi burdened with thousands upon thousands of sleeping humans, the massive machines piloted by her three champions; Courage, Kindness, and Curiosity. Their journey had been peaceful, and Homura found herself free of stress for a moment as her gaze turned south to the great sea of grass that glittered beneath the light of the receding sun. She would divert more of her attention to the creatures she had seen spreading across the land at a later time, as she could not delay her delivery any longer.

The garden Apostate had described appeared in the distance, and it seemed their journey was coming to a close. The goddess was curious to see what Apostate would make with the humans she gave him, but the duel he had also mentioned only reminded her that he was still a fool. A fool with a good heart, she supposed.

Though the sun was descending, the light of day did not diminish as her golden spear blazed brightly like a second sun, Daybringer illuminating the path ahead and the world around her. Homura looked to see if the God of Defiance was nearby.

With her godly vision she didn’t need to strain her eyesight and quickly spotted the bandaged man sitting next to a much taller statue of his true form. Her gaze met his, even at the incredible distance, but he didn’t stand up — he stayed sitting with his legs criss-crossed in the grass and a long stemmed leaf threading between his fingers, a defiant gleam in his eye.

Despite their size, the colossi approached like the whistling wind, every step in otherworldly silence as though they were only ghosts that walked the land. Closer and closer they came until their shadows loomed over the Garden of Hevel. From atop the three titans, three champions waved at Apostate before convening on the middle colossi where Homura called to them. Her voice was clear, regardless of the distance that separated them from ground far below.

“There is no need to rush. Lay them on the ground around the statue, then wait while I speak with my brother. You are not to wander now, we can return another day. Those are your orders.” Homura said, as her champions bowed before setting out to their task. The red goddess leapt from the crown of the colossus to the ground close to Apostate.

“I have arrived. Your humans await your touch. Do you wish for me to explain anything, or are you aware of what you want?” She asked as she stepped closer to the seated god.

Apostate looked up at Homura (for the first time) and furrowed his brow. Flicking the leaf away he sucked in a breath. “I’m nervous, you know?” Despite the words, his voice showed no hint of nerves, but rather confidence.

“I will let you know if you make any mistakes.” Homura replied, her impassive mask and stern tone concealing any thoughts or opinions she may have. As she spoke, a mechanical whir and a grinding noise came from the middle colossi, as pillars and paths formed leading down its legs and along its equine body. The three Heralds of Honor had collected a few of their kin and laid them upon stone wheelbarrows that they raced down the newly created ways of getting to the ground.

“It will take them some time. I hope your patience is not worn before they are finished. Hmm… your temperament is fickle even at the best of times.” The red goddess commented.

“I’m made of smoke.” Apostate gave Homura a dirty look before standing up. Brushing stains from his pants, he then straightened himself out, now towering over the small goddess. His hand instinctively found the handle of his blade and gripped it. A pained look came over his face for a moment, a groan rumbling deep within him.

“Do you think they will be strong enough?” Apostate asked quizzically.

“That depends on the rest of the pantheon. No mortal is strong enough to stand against the fury of the Divine in war, but they are resilient in many other ways. Humanity is not a weapon to be wielded, brother. They are our opportunity to prove we are worthy of being called gods and goddesses, and are meant to walk beside us on the Sacred Path.” Homura answered, and her red eyes peered at the God of Defiance with an inquisitive shimmer, as though seeking something unknown in his visage.

Apostate frowned. “I think I was the one who told you that mortals are not tools — but what I don’t remember is what you said the Sacred Path was.” He turned to match her gaze. “So, what is it?”

“Hmm… Some things are difficult to describe using thoughts and memories, especially when I cannot see it in its entirety, but the most apt way of wording what the Sacred Path is… transcending the traditions and conventions that contain us, and changing our current situation where we cannot see each other from the other’s perspective. We are locked within a prison, and the Sacred Path is the way to free ourselves. If we stray, and wander lost and alone… we will all be annihilated, and there would have been no meaning to any of our creations, our choices, our struggles. I hope that you understand what I am saying… I fear that I will eventually be lost and alone when I discover that none of my kin wish to walk beside me.” Homura spoke with conviction at first, though she seemed to seek the proper words that would convey her inner truth, but as she continued, the memories of all the gods and goddesses that rebuked her reminded her that this journey she has embarked upon may not have a happy ending.

“I understood parts of what you’re saying,” Apostate admitted, “but then again we often hear and see the same thing but think differently — or so it always seems. In the end, I also don’t find the prospect of holding burdens alone to be too appealing, but that’s why we allied ourselves, right?” The god closed his eyes, for whatever reason, Homura didn’t know.

“Indeed. It is quite the arduous task, trying to understand each other, I think. Do not laugh, but I have trouble understanding my own Champions, and wonder whether I will ever truly know what they are thinking. I can see the shape of their inner fire, peer through their memories, and I know what their bodies will do before they have even moved, but I still do not understand why they act in the manner they do. Why can they hide their perspective of myself and the world around them, and create these barriers that prevent me from sharing my own perspective? Hmm… I know their minds lack the power to process information as fast as mine, but then why do my kin lack this ability as well? Apologies, I am wasting words now.” She bowed her head slightly in shame, and returned to watching the trio that were carrying more and more humans to the ground now.

Apostate leaned forward so their eyes would meet even with her looking the other way. “You don’t need to apologize, Homura. I prefer it when you speak openly, it reminds me that…” He furrowed his brow, thinking about his words.

“I don’t know,” He continued, “you can be rigid sometimes, and you either block out or pretend to block out so much. Sometimes I feel alone among the gods, or well I always do, except when you show that you’re capable of thinking like a mortal.” He paused and looked away, opening his mouth to say something but then closing it.

“You mean slower?” Homura tilted her head, bemused by Apostate’s words. “I prefer to think that I can be quite flexible when it comes to new ideas. It is everyone else that appears rigid… so stubborn at times, from my view.” She continued, and looked upwards to the sky. “Am I making another mistake?” She asked aloud, letting the question soar up towards the sky, to the dancing stars, and the darkness beyond.

“Well, you’re talking to me — so that’s not a good sign,” Apostate said simply.

“I would rather be elsewhere. There are still others among the Divine that I have not encountered, and more and more of our creations are being killed while I waste time trying to find a solution that may or may not exist. There is a point of no return, and if we let the world suffer too much, we will have failed our Lord, ourselves, and those that we love. I know there are other deities not like you, who will seek to undermine my efforts. We need to talk to our siblings and organize ourselves.” The red goddess replied, speaking indirectly to the god beside her, speaking to herself, and praying that perhaps her words were heard by more than just the two of them.
“It could be worse…” She muttered, and looked to Apostate with a forlorn smile. “At least you haven’t stabbed me in the back with your smoky sword, or something like that.”

“I’d prefer not to.” Apostate pinched his chin before smiling back. “Do you want to see one of my favorite things this existence has to offer?”

“I tend to disagree with what you find favorable, but please show me.” Homura gestured with her hand for Apostate to take the lead.

The other god took three dramatic steps until the pair was behind the statue. There in the shadow of the monolith, a lone yellow flower bobbed happily in the slight breeze of the gardens. Apostate grinned at the flower then looked back at Homura.

“This is it.”

Homura pondered what she saw for a moment, before looking at Apostate. “Hmm… why do you consider such to be, one of your favorite things, as you put it.” The red goddess asked, attempting to imitate the deeper tone of his voice, but failing to achieve the desired result, before she peered back at the flower.

The god of defiance snorted a chuckle before looking over at the other god. “I guess you’d have to see it from my perspective. I can show you that, if you want.” He held out a hand, his fingers turning into wisps of smoke that hazed upward. “Only if you want.”

“Show me.”

“Breathe in.” Apostate’s entire hand puffed into smoke, the tiny cloud washing over Homura, and though she did not need to breath, she opened herself to allow the smoke to pass through her physical form. Her inner fire shaped itself accordingly, trying to accommodate the smoke that pressed against it. At first, a deep anger erupted through her — only for it to quickly subside into a heavy pounding pain that rumbled in her chest. As it pained her, she saw Apostate himself mimic a look of pain for each jab on his face, but then through the overwhelming emotions, she felt something cool.

A radiant gold flickered hidden behind all the oppressive pain, and as her eyes fell to the flower, she felt it’s tiny defiant dance. Every shake of the flower seemed to quiet the pain, until all the harshness of before turned into a backdrop, a certain canvas for the better to be painted over. The flower was at peace, in odds of everything and in defiance, it was truly calm and the pure unaltered bliss that the flower put out was now beating softly in Homura’s chest.

Apostate hummed once, the small rhythm of his quick vocalization matching the beat of the bliss. He was looking at Homura, as if testing that she felt it as well. Appreciation shimmered in her being, an aura of reverence and revelations consisting of cascading colors and an otherworldly melody that resonated with the joyous motions of the little flower. It matched the hum of Apostate, and released its own cadence, though it reached out and gently caressed the yellow plant. She spoke, and her words reverberated throughout her body, but the sound originated from deeper within her. From the blinding light of sacred flame.

“Would you say this flower is more symbolic of Defiance, or Honor?” She asked, and both amusement and curiosity for whatever his answer welled up and filled her, easy to sense from behind the mask she wore. She had yet to banish his presence, and remained tolerant of the emotions and sensations he created from his smoke.

“I don’t know,” Apostate answered, “but I do know that in spite of everything that has happened and that could happen and that is happening, this flower dances. It knows that life is a fire, with each tendril of flame twisting and turning every which way, so that no flame is alike another — no life is identical to another, each guided by their own path to make a beautiful mosaic in the end. Independent, but together — free, but reliant. In the end I guess I just think it’s beautiful, it’s so simple and a god didn’t even think of it.” He looked at Homura but didn’t say anything more.

“I want to protect this beauty. If I have failed to make my intentions clear, then let it be known now. It has always been my sole prerogative to preserve such, and I will fight to defend it from those that seek to defile it.” Homura proclaimed, and the heat within her increased until it was hotter than any fire Apostate had known, and deep within the flames were things sharp and serpentine, like the shadows of sinister snakes, coiling and entwining themselves in the blinding fire.

Slowly, the smoke that had seeped into her was expelled, and Apostate could only see the mask once more. “You know, you have been rather rude to the flowers and trees of Kel-Phelenia. You do not have to disrupt their peace with every visit.” She said, crossing her arms while she looked at the God of Defiance. Daybringer simply stood by itself beside her, shining like a beacon as twilight bathed the land in dim light.

Apostate’s hand returned to its physical form and he gave it a shake. “There’s the chastising Homura, I was worried you were lost.”

“Your concerns were unfounded, as I would not wander astray so easily. Your words were… unexpected as well. Much more poetic than usual, I would say.” She tilted her head, and that inquisitive look returned, as though she was looking for something, but did not know where it was, only that Apostate seemed to be hiding it. “Why did you challenge me to a duel?” She finally asked.

“So I could defend those who couldn’t,” Apostated said, his brow furrowing. “I needed to be stronger, and I suppose I still do — but I don’t really want to fight you anymore, not like that at least.”

[b]“You are stronger. We fight together now, and your next foe will not not know what hit them. Know that I never had any desire to fight you as well. I saw no reason for us to duel, so I wondered whether I had offended you unintentionally, or if you were using this duel as an excuse to attack me. My concerns are now alleviated.”[b/b] Homura replied, and allowed herself to smile slightly, relieved upon hearing that the danger she fretted so much over had proven to be a test she considered passed now.

“I am certain there will be other times you will be called upon to fight. Our brother, Tuku, has had the honor of fighting beside our Lord. The King in Heaven will see your strength, and summon you when you are needed.” She continued, hoping her words helped him as well, though something he had said continued to prod the back of her mind.

“Maybe,” Apostated conceded. “But I am glad to hear your confidence in me. So the duel may be off, but we could still learn a lot from sparring with each other, no? A friendly bout... With friendly wagers.”

“Hmm… what do you have in mind?” Homura asked, as her arms unfolded, and she grasped Daybringer once more. The weapon lazily resting against her shoulder as she stood facing the God of Defiance with a readied stance.

Apostate tapped his cheek. “Well I’d be remiss as the attendant of Defiance if I didn’t pick something thematic.” He hummed to himself in thought. “If I win… you will do everything your own champions ask of you for an entire day — they will have free reign.”

“Then if I win, you will directly apologize to the denizens of Kel-Phelenia for your reckless behavior. Speaking of reckless, you apparently have not heeded my words. Why have you refrained from forging a weapon with which to properly defend yourself? I cannot invigorate it if it does not exist.” Homura pointed her golden spear at him, and exuded an aura of frustration as she spoke. Her smile had vanished, and her eyes accused him of being guilty, but the flames of her ire were mild, and she did not move to strike.

Apostate drew the blade from his hip and hefted it so as to point it back at Homura. As always, the blade was massive and if not for Apostate’s godly strength, holding it with one hand as he was doing would have been impossible — except this time something was different about the blade. Before, it shared the exact same aura as Apostate since it was a piece of him, but now it felt separate. He squinted at the Goddess. “Oh is that right?”

“Have you given it a name?” Homura inquired, lowering her weapon’s point to the ground, satisfied by his display.

Bouncing his eyes from the blade and back to Homura, Apostate cleared his throat. “Cleaver?” He said it more as a question than an answer.

“Cleaver…” She repeated, and she tilted her head in consideration of the name, letting the word shape itself in her mind. “It is a rather simple name, but perhaps that is appropriate considering its wielder. I have a suggestion, ignore it if you wish… but I would call it Warbreaker.”

“Warbreaker?” Apostate said, confused. “Why Warbreaker? Also, did you just call me simple!?”

“Though it is a weapon, its purpose is to protect life from death and destruction. To defend yourself from those that would harm you. When war comes, it will be broken upon your blade… a quicker end to avoid needless suffering and bring peace. I hope my reasoning makes sense to you.” The red goddess replied, and avoided answering the second half of his question with stoic silence.

Apostate rolled his eye at Homura’s silence and slammed his blade back into its baldric. “Fine, then. I’ll name it Warbreaker.”

“Come with me.” Daybringer embedded itself in the ground where the soil had turned scarlet, then the shaft of the golden spear suddenly and swiftly elongated, carrying Homura further and farther, higher into the sky as she held onto it. The God of Defiance arched a brow before flying up after her.

The opposite of a falling star, Daybringer’s light reached towards the heavens, soared towards its bright and fiery kindred whom illuminated the night sky. The two divine traveled far from the land, from Galbar itself, until they came to halt among the sea of stars, and cosmic beauty shone all around them. The red goddess stood atop the spear now, free from the weight of the world. Her hands reached outwards, and her voice echoed across the void.

“I am Homura, celestial servant of the King in Heaven! I invoke His name and command you! Heed my summoning and bend to my will!” Her words rippled in the darkness, and the stars heard the power of divinity in the small goddess. Daybringer pulsed, and was answered by a second pulse from one of the many children of light.

A rainbow river surged towards Homura, crashing down upon her, and washing her with its myriad of colors. The hands of the red goddess began to weave the stream, channeling it, directing it, and the two began to dance to the rhythm of an otherworldly melody. Slowly she moved, and slowly the light coalesced into a smaller shape. The celestial song continued, touching the fabric of the tapestry, sending reverberations through reality, as the music reached its crescendo.

Then it was over, and Homura held in her hands a small ruby. She looked to Apostate, and gestured with one hand for him to come closer.

"Should I be worried?" Apostate quipped as he floated towards Homura, eyes stuck on her hands.

“Unsheathe your blade.” Homura said, with the slightest shake of her head as she held out the shimmering stone suffused with divine power. It reflected the appearance of Apostate in its flawless facets, every edge sharp and clear, and in its depths was something more. A fire that blazed with life, the essence of a star.

"Ever the forward one." Apostate gripped the handle of Warbreaker and ripped it free from it's baldric. The blade reflected the light of the stars and with a toss he hefted it softly towards Homura.

The sword hovered before her, while she gracefully ran a hand along its length, heating the metal with her inner flame until it was searing white and ready to be melded once more. The weapon shifted and sang as she spoke to the ruby she held in her other hand.

“Protect him. That is all I ask. Know that I shall come when you sing, child of light. You will never be alone.” Then she pushed the red gem into the blade close to the base where it met with the handle, and the weapon was awakened further, infused with even greater power, before returning to its original shape. Afterwards, the Goddess of Honor returned Warbreaker to its wielder, and bowed her head respectfully.

“It is done.”

Apostate held the blade up to his face and turned it to watch the gem shimmer. He looked past the weapon and at the goddess in front of him. A soft grin formed under his bandaged eye and he tipped his head.

"I appreciate all you've done."

Homura allowed herself to smile slightly, pleased that her efforts had not been in vain, to not be rejected in the end. “Now that you have a proper weapon, I feel confident in advocating your strength when I speak with our Lord. We should… return to Galbar, my heralds will have finished by the time we get back.” The red goddess quickly climbed down her spear, until she had firmly grasped the shaft, and then descended backwards to the distant planet. Apostate was shortly behind her.

"You're going to tell the Monarch about me?" He questioned as they approached the Galbar.

“You are a warrior. You seek battle, to better understand yourself and your strength. I am the same. I will tell our Lord that we would like to partake in the fight against those that threaten creation. Are you opposed to this?” Homura queried back, her eyes closed and features returned to the expression devoid of any emotion.

"No, because I'll be fighting regardless — it's who I am." Apostate answered.

“It is only appropriate that you are recognized for your dedication then. Pain is a powerful motivation, but it should not be your only one. Seek rewards, brother, and feel pride. That is one of my beliefs.” The two deities came closer and closer to the land they had departed, and they could see that the three champions of Homura had almost finished their task. The Garden of Hevel was once more illuminated by the presence of Daybringer, and Apostate and Homura alighted upon the ground.

The Goddess of Honor pulled the bottom of her spear from the red ground, and the color quickly faded, returning to what it was before with no sign of being struck earlier. Homura looked all around her at the thousands of sleeping humans arranged around the statue. Her champions carried one more load down before approaching the two deities.

“Ninety thousand, all laid down here without any trouble. It’s time, ya?” Courage asked, as she and her two sisters approached. When they stood before the God of Defiance, the trio proceeded to respectfully bow.

“An honor again to meet you, your grace.” Kindness said softly, as the three of them arose.

The God of Defiance shook his head. “You still don’t need to bow to me.”

“It just feels right. It’s sort of selfish of us, but it makes us feel better. Maybe because we came from the Goddess of Honor, I think.” Courage replied with a chuckle, before silently signaling to her sisters. Without further word, the brash champion leapt from where she stood and alighted upon the head of Apostate’s metal effigy.

Curiosity joined her, and let out a gasp of wonder. “We weren’t struck down, Kindness. Come on, get up here!” But the third sister remained on the ground, and stepped beside her maker. Homura herself gestured to the sleeping humans and spoke to the God of Defiance. “Awaken them, brother. Let them experience the joy life offers them.”

Apostate furrowed his brow the moment his eyes found the humans. A hesitant twitch was on his lip and the sheen of worry was evident in his face.

“Joy,” he mimicked Homura, or perhaps was feeling the word for himself. He closed his eyes and held out a hand towards the many sleeping forms. Slowly his hand unraveled into wisps of smoke, climbing up his arm until pieces of his shoulder were missing. Flakes of black metal formed his face and his eye glowed like coal. His mouth moved and Homura could have sworn she heard him apologize.

The wisps of smoke shot from his arm and bloomed into a great hurricane, each pillar of smoke finding their way to the nostrils of the sleeping forms. The air whoosed and the sky turned grey as each human felt their lungs fill for the first time, eyes snapping open. As quickly as the smoke shot from Apostate, he recalled it — leaving the lungs of the stirring people, and letting them suck on fresh air.

Homura and her champions merely watched as their kin’s slumber came to an end, and the power of Apostate began to shape them. In a matter of seconds the awakened humans held the variety expected of a human, with shades of skin and hair of many colors — their eyes just as unique as well as their personalities which were already being formed around them.

Suddenly alerted, Apostate blinked and spun on his heel, staring at something far to the south. Looking in the same direction, Homura saw two Eidolons who stood watching the spectacle of the humans. They were wearing simple woolen shorts belted at the waist and hanging down to their knees. One held a sling, the other a wicker basket.

“Hmm… you should tend to your humans, I will speak with the newcomers.” Homura said, before she began striding towards the two eidolons from the south. She moved with otherworldly grace and was suddenly standing before them, though they had watched her come closer and closer, yet it also seemed she had appeared in the blink of an eye.

“I am Homura. I have no intention of harming either of you.” The red goddess said.

The one with the basket all but stepped in front of the other, cutting him off. “I am Tarowwe.” He stated with his chest puffed. The other gave him a sideways glance and answered.

“I am Cabel.”

“Hmm… There is no need to be afraid. What is the name of your Maker, young Tarowwe and Cabel?” She asked, her eyes on neither of them and both of them at the same time, shining more brightly than any fires they had ever seen.

She spoke softly, but her voice seemed to shift the air, to command it and the world all around. Her lack of horns and markings did not interfere with her ability to communicate through their kinetic empathy, as her mind brushed against their minds, and her thoughts were surprisingly gentle in comparison to her stern visage.

Cabel held out a steady hand and Tarowwe mimicked. Cabel spoke first this time. “We come from Avros… are you a spirit?”

“I am the sister of Avros. Do you know where my brother can be found? I wish to speak with him.” Truth and desire both danced together in her words and bright - almost blinding thoughts, her mind unlike any others the two eidolons had encountered. She believed in her own words, even if they sounded like madness, and her conviction washed over them like a warm breeze.

The two both knitted their brows, clearly confused.

“Avros is dead.” Cabel answered.

“Hmm… is Avros not the name of the deity that created you? I sense the still living essence of the divine within you. Your maker is not dead.” Homura replied, her thoughts shifting too fast for them to be understood by either of them. It was almost overwhelming, and then suddenly the connection was gone, and neither Eidolon could sense her with their kinetic empathy.

The pair started to back away, clearly distraught. Cabel put his palms up as he did. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, spirit, but we mean no disrespect to you or your family.”

“We really don’t,” Tarowwe added, “In fact, we love your family, right Cabel?”

Cabel made a face at Tarowwe before slowly nodding, but maintaining his retreat.

Then she vanished, and her voice announced that she had appeared behind them. “I am not a spirit, I am the Goddess of Honor. Do not lie in my presence again. Ah, you are as pitiable as those creatures in the north. Ignorant because your Maker was inept.” Homura said, between them and their planned route of escape.

“Homura!” Apostate’s voice boomed, causing the two Eidolon’s to flinch. The man was walking towards the group, and as he stopped on the other side of the Eidolons — trapping them in between the gods — he spoke again. “Are you harassing these mortals?” His voice was deep, but he had a friendly gleam in his eye.

“Of course not. I was about to offer them wisdom, and ask a favor of them.” She replied, and held up a hand, while pointedly looking at Apostate before turning her attention back to the duo. “You do not need to fear him either. He is more friendly than he appears, unless you are his enemy, I imagine.” She continued.

Apostate rolled an eye and turned away from the conversation, his ear still to it. Cabel shook his head, as if collecting a jumble of thoughts.

“I have a request!” He spoke confidently, though a sense of worry was laced in his words.

“Speak, child. I will hear your request.” Homura stated, and maintained an imperious aura despite the difference in height between her and the two Eidolons. Both of them squirmed in place for a moment before shifting on their knees, squatting a bit until they were eye-level with Homura.

“We ask,” Cabel glanced at Tarowwe then back at Homura, “we ask that you allow us to cultivate this land. Our people have dreamed about this place ever since we lost our pastures to the south. We need it.”

“Hmm… and what do you mean by cultivate? Why do you need it?” The red goddess asked.

“Our flock needs to eat its grass, and we need to drink its water,” Cabel answered. Tarowwe nodded enthusiastically.

“And perhaps we can take its wood to build, as well?”

“Then this is my answer; your flocks shall not eat its grass, you shall not drink its water, and you will not take its wood to build. The sins you have committed were forced upon you, but I offer you salvation. You may come to these lands, and you may cultivate them, but your carnage and crimes will be left behind. You will know love and generosity, truth and compassion, you will be the first welcomed in freedom’s fortress, where hunger and death has been banished. You may return from where you came, if you desire. The choice belongs to you.” Homura proclaimed, and standing so close to her, the two Eidolons could feel the power within her, more vast than the land they stood upon, more potent and terrifying than any enemy horde. To defy her was to defy the rising sun, the rain that fell from the sky, the burning touch of fire, the changing of the world. It forced them back.

They stepped backwards, nearly bumping into Apostate. They both looked confused, their mouths agape. No words came from their mouths, but as if reading their thoughts, Apostate answered for them.

“What do you mean?”

“You will not have to fear your neighbors, nor fear the pain of an empty stomach. Your herds will be safe, and you will have a home where you may rest when you are tired. Your families would be with you, away from the danger of those that prey upon the living. You would be allowed to focus on what is sacred and righteous, instead of worrying whether you will die a meaningless death. That is what I offer you. You may refuse and return to where you came from, but I expect your tribe will be disappointed. These lands have begun cannibalizing themselves, and though you may be blind to the consequences of your Maker, the results speak for themselves. Out of curiosity, why do you carry that sling? What is its purpose?” Homura ended her speech with questions directed towards Cabel, still speaking directly to the two Eidolons.

“What are you proposing?” Apostate interjected and stepped between the mortals and the god. Cabel and Tarowwe shared a glance and took a step back. Apostate was studying Homura’s face. “What do you intend to do?”

“They have known only oppression, brother. I wish to free them from the system that forces them to cannibalize each other, and alienates them from the beauty of the world. Their tribes are fighting among themselves, killing one another because our siblings have abandoned them. They have enslaved the beasts that roam these fields, and ravaged the plants that grow there. If I do not intervene, the cycle will continue and consume this land.” Homura answered, now facing Apostate with her common cryptic expression.

Apostate narrowed his eyes at Homura and crossed his arms, standing tall. “Cannibalize? Oppression? This is the strawberry all over again, isn’t it!?”

“Brother… These people need our help. We are the Divine, we have the strength to help them. Please, I am asking you to think about what will happen if we leave them to their own fates after instilling a hunger that cannot be sated and providing nothing to sustain them. The weak will become meat, and the strong will eat. It will be a feast for tyrants.” She continued, remaining still with empty eyes that refused to look away from the God of Defiance.

"I know they need our help," Apostate snapped before closing his eyes. Sighing, he placed a hand on Homura's shoulder and looked at her again with his emotional intensity. "How can you be so sure that your way is the right way to do that? You're the one who dispersed an entire race of your own only to judge and criticize how they live and the people you gave them to. I've been trying to tell you that the world needs change, it needs an end and it needs a beginning — that's the beauty of mortality, the beauty of your creation. You can't hide it away, it will wither. If you take away the needs, you're left with the wants — and an eternity of mistakes. I always hear you, but you never seem to hear me, or the others. Mortals drink from moving water, not the still — another lesson the universe taught them before us."

Homura averted her gaze, looking away from Apostate, to the land all around and seemed to consider his words in silence for a time. She spoke, but her tone remained in the same emotionless state. “You understand that you are making no sense. You are right, I do not know if my way is correct, but I can see that the current path we have laid will crumble beneath our feet. I am not refusing change, I am advocating it. Let us change this system. The universe did not teach them to drink water, brother, as their way of life was taught to them by us. The water was created by us. The mortals were created by us. It is the fact that our siblings seem to have casually discarded their creations which irks me. No mother or father should abandon their child before they can stand on their own. Please, let me help them.”

Apostate let go of Homura and crossed his arms again. “Tell me your plan, and let me judge you for once.”

“First we must end the fighting. Too many corpses litter the land south of here now, and more will follow if we remain uninvolved. They must learn how to live in harmony with each other, not afraid that their kin may lash out at them because there is a shortage of food, or because they seem vulnerable. The animals and plants will be stronger if they support each other, not consume each other. I suggest we allow these two to guide their people here, or bring them to Keltra where they can learn how to protect and sustain themselves. Then they can begin their journey on the Sacred Path. I even believe they have the potential to travel farther than us, brother. So… that is the basis of my plan. Truthfully, I would like to acquire more information regarding what we are dealing with before providing a more detailed plan for the future. It is too easy to make a mistake that we do not realize even exists.” Homura’s mask seemed to slightly slip away, as fire flickered in her scarlet eyes, and both conviction and hope faintly manifested in her voice.

Letting out a groan, Apostate pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t want to tell you that I agree with some of what you said, in the fear that I’ll disagree with how you intend to do some of those things.”

Homura merely nodded, before she continued. “If at any point you think that my methods are either inefficient or only worsening things, then please intervene. As I have said, I do not know if my way is correct. I am a rather pathetic goddess… I only know that there are those that need us, and they are dying because we have already failed them. I want to atone for my mistakes by saving any and all that I can.”

“I’d intervene even if you didn’t say please,” Apostate admitted, “if nothing else, it’s who I am to defend all against any force that pushes or pulls and limits freedom, no matter what that force may be.” His face twisted with a thought for a moment, then reset.

“That alleviates many of my concerns. I am much the same, though I find that freedom is too varied a term. I like it, and I often encourage it, but here is my experience with it. There is no such thing as true freedom. We are always bound by the unseen forces that weave through each and every one of us. However, these forces are not necessarily evil or good. You may fight against them, or embrace them. Apologies, I am wondering aloud again. Shall we help these two then?” The Goddess of Honor offered her red ribbon covered hand to him, and her head tilted to the side like a curious animal that had seen something interesting.

“Freedom is volatile, and so am I.” Apostate gripped Homura’s hand tight. He rolled her hand inside his palm gently for a second before arching a brow. “Why the ribbons?”

“I will tell you another time. It is nothing worth being noted. We have frightened Cabel and Tarowwe, so let us ease their fears now. This is your garden, would you prefer they come and live here, or would you prefer I escort them to Keltra? Ah, first we should ascertain whether they wish for our aid.” Homura bowed her head in deference to Apostate, and allowed him to speak with the two Eidolons.

Apostate blinked and then spun around, Cabel and Tarowwe already at least fifty sneaky steps away with their backs turned. “Hey!” Apostate boomed, causing them to flinch in place. “You can use this land, bring the others!”

“Thanks!” Cabel shouted back before starting a hurried walk, dragging Tarowwe by the shirt behind him.

Homura was walking back to the nascent humans scattered across the garden, passing through the crowd to reach her three champions who had begun tending to their awakened kin. The lively voice of Courage as she shouted inspiring words, and taught them how to stand and walk. Curiosity and Kindness provided support for those that stumbled, and needed some help before they had found their own balance, and understood their own strength.

The red goddess watched, and allowed any of the awakened humans to approach her if they desired. The light of Daybringer was not harsh to their eyes, it gently passed through them and revealed the shape of the land, the song of the sky, and the truths of the world, akin to the presence of the sun when it was high above.

“So why did you give them to me?” Apostate’s voice came from behind Homura.

“You are the one that claimed them. I have faith that you will protect and guide them. Otherwise, they will serve as another reminder of why I fight. For each piece of life that is lost, my dedication to defending it from the depredations of our kin only strengthens. Why did you accept my gifts?” She questioned back, and felt no need to turn to face him then. Her mind did not enjoy the paradoxical reasoning for her stance.

“Truthfully? It’s because I didn’t trust you,” Apostate answered. The god stayed behind her, paused in thought. “Why I’m still taking them, that’s debatable.”

Her head slightly shook in response before she spoke again. “Debatable how? Are you saying that you have some trust in me, brother?”

“We struck an alliance, I wouldn’t have done that otherwise.” Another pause. “Will you trust me in my choices?”

“Know that I have not turned my back on you out of disrespect.” Homura replied, as she contemplated what would become of the future, and wondered whether this was another step on the path of annihilation, or a step towards something wondrous and beautiful. She could only hope it was the latter, but the choice belonged to Apostate now. He could strike her down, or he could walk beside her and create a new world.

Apostate shifted behind her. “I didn’t think you did. I just want you to know that I intend to give these humans choices.”

“Indeed. I am against the idea of enforcing our will upon our creations, but we must also prevent them from destroying themselves. It is something I still struggle with. Perhaps you will have a better time than I.” The red goddess said, as she turned to look at him, and evident sorrow was visible in her eyes that were shrouded by shadows.

Resting his hand on the pommel of his blade, Apostate’s eye flickered over Homura’s exhausted visage. “I think we talked enough for one day.”

“Hmm… I should return to Keltra. The air dances with apprehension, so I assume another calamity has befallen elsewhere. Remember our promise, and perhaps one day we may even have the opportunity to spar for a time…” Homura stepped back, and her three champions suddenly looked towards her. An unspoken command went through them, and each began saying goodbye to the humans around them.

“Until then, farewell, brother.” The Goddess of Honor bowed to Apostate, before she returned to the crown of the colossi with her heralds.

“Don’t forget to rest,” Apostate said as he stood up straight, a small groan rumbling in his chest. “I’ll return to Keltra to fulfill another promise soon enough.”



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Journeys IV





Viho flew for a long time, for his mission was by divine decree and nothing would stop him from reaching his goal. He had to find his Lord, deliver Homura’s message. Though, he did find it embarrassing to be already flying back to the North. He hadn’t even been gone for that long. What would his Lord think of that? What would Winter think of all of this? Would he even want to leave the North to visit Keltra?

This Iqelis… The name was foul even thinking it. But he was their enemy? He had slain a fellow deity? All life was under threat? And the Green Murder! The one who had slain the bjork and defiled the north with innocent blood. Perhaps his maker would like to learn the truth and Homura could provide assistance in combating such a vile god.

So Viho flew faster than he had ever flown before. For this was a message that could not wait to be told. It was paramount and he had to do this. All by himself, no divine aid this time. It was true, after all, despite Homura readily wanting to give him a gift- Viho did not think himself worthy enough of one. WIthout Chailiss, Fear would have died, and Viho would have delivered a corpse. The mere thought of such a thing sent shivers down his flight feathers.

He was glad Fear was alright, and even happier she had been able to reunite with her sisters. Even Courage! What a name, a name that provided relief to his aching heart. He had thought her dead for sure. It would have been a terrible failure on his part, unable to see her down in the depths. He had to be better, stronger, if he was ever going to be worthy.

So he flew.

Over the land with its trees, grass, and hills. With its fresh smells and vivid scenes. Then over the ocean, soaring high up above as the great blue shimmered below him. It rolled and flowed and smelled of salty brine. The currents were good to him and propelled him ever on.

When a storm threatened to impede his progress, he took no chances, and flew high up above. He crested the storm and was meeted with the eerie quiet. The stars and moon were his only companions and the distant rumble of the storm began to lull him to sleep. It was so peaceful up there. Away from the world and all of it’s problems.

Eventually the sun began to rise upon the distant horizon, painting him in early morning light. The sky became one of color. White to yellows into faint oranges and deep purple melding into blue. It took his breath away but his only complaint was that it lacked any red.

But there was green amidst the blue, like a hazy image.

He was close to home.




Upon entering the north he felt his maker’s presence and went to it. It led him to the east, and the great forested region of pine and water. Things did not look out of the ordinary but why had his Lord not answered his prayers? He soon found the answer.

A great swathe of land had been destroyed. Like someone had tunneled into the earth upon the surface in long straight lines.

He found his Lord where the destruction ended. He began to speak but stopped when he saw the tell tale signs of battle and the utter state of his maker. Chailiss knelt on both knees, staring at the dirt beneath him. His chest bore terrible scars and that box sat beside him.

Viho landed with silent feet before him and gave a bow. He waited and he kept waiting but Chailiss never spoke. Anticipation welled up inside him and it forced the great owl into action. He looked up and spoke, “My Lord, what has happened here? Are you alright?”

He waited for what felt like an age for a response and when it finally felt as if he would have to speak again, Chailiss finally stirred.

”Never take for granted the life that surrounds you, Viho. It is fleeting.” His voice was raw.

“My Lord…”

”Death will come to us all, either when we are ready or not.” He looked up at Viho then. There were no tears in his weary eyes, just a mask of cold upon his face. ”Why have you returned, my champion?”

“I…” Viho took in a breath. “I found the Lady and spoke to her. Now I bring a message from Homura to you, my Lord. The Goddess of Honor gave me this quest, after I delivered Fear to her safe and well. Your assistance saved her life and for that I am thankful.” He bowed.

Chailiss gave a nod. ”What does the Lady wish of me?”

“She wishes to speak to you. She says she has found a means to uncover the identity of the Green Murder and will share it with you. Or if you have already found out, she said she will assist you in handling it.”

”I’m sure you saw the land with your eyes, Viho. Though I never found out her name… We are well acquainted, the Green Murder and I. The Goddess of Honor could not help me with this then. It remains to be seen if she does anything about it at all.” The god sighed. ”Anything else?”

“Yes. There is another matter she wishes to convene with you on, though I do not know what. You have been invited to her keep, Keltra. Though she may not be there when you arrive, I was told one of her heralds, Pride, would fill you in on the topic.” Viho looked upon his maker, apprehensive about what he had to say next. Something had happened to his Lord, something terrible. More bad news… It could worsen everything.

[color=deepskyblue]”I suppose that’s only fair. On account that I do not wish her in my own lands. Maybe that can change… We will need all the allies we can find. There’s no use in petty squabbles. But a journey to this Keltra? I have not left this land since… I’ve never stepped foot on another continent. Who would watch over? Who would ensure this does not happen again? Can I risk it?” he seemed to ask those questions aloud to himself.

“My Lord… There is more. The Lady Homura also wishes to inform you that Iqelis is an enemy. He… He slew a fellow deity and wishes to destroy all life. She said, be weary of the eye that weeps the tears of time, with sinful claws stained by god blood. I am sorry, I did not wish to be the bearer of bad news but the message is complete.” Viho said in a quiet voice.

”Death… Without it we would know nothing. With it, fear. Thank you Viho. You have done well.” Chailiss rose to his feet. He steadied himself. ”I shall go to Keltra to see Homura or this Pride of hers. I will leave the North unguarded for a time. I’m sure something terrible will happen, as is this place’s constant luck.” he sounded defeated.

“No! No my Lord. Please, I shall stay and defend it!” Viho exclaimed with a puff of his own pride. He would not let the North be defiled by those that sought to undue everything his maker had created!

”No.” Chailiss stated. ”You are needed elsewhere.”

He was crushed in an instant. “My Lord? Where else could I be needed if not in the defense of my home? Why would you send me away? Why? Wh-”

”I won’t lose another!” The god shouted, silencing Viho. What did he mean another? What did he… It was a sudden sinking feeling. There was a reason he found his creator in such a state, wasn’t there? If he had lost a fight, his condition would warrant more than a scratch.

“What ha-”

Chailiss shook his head. ”I have not the heart to speak more than this, Viho; My daughter, your sibling, died fighting the Green Murder. And a part of me with her.”

The news struck him in the face. His sibling? One that he had never met, one he would have liked to have met- gone. He stumbled back. “I… Is there nothing we can… Surely there must be something we can do?”

The God shook his head again and shut his eyes. ”I will not lose another champion. I will not lose you, Viho. Anything that befalls the north, shall be equally returned. Forever more.” He opened his eyes and Viho felt as if they were piercing his soul.

”Promise me that you won’t seek vengeance. Nor revenge. You are a wanderer, an explorer. Not a killer. I will deal with my Kin with the help of my Kin. Promise me, Viho.”

Viho wanted to scream, wanted to lash out and shout out his grief but the Owl held his tongue. Begrudgingly, he yielded. “I promise.” No matter how much he thought otherwise, no matter how much he wanted to make someone pay- His Lord was right. He was an explorer and a wanderer.

”Good, Viho. Now, listen close. You are to seek out Zenia. Tell her I am in need of… Good company and aid. Journey to the obelisk in the North, there you will find where she is through her own eyes.” He gave a small smile to him. ”Do this for me Viho. Fly, fly and be free.” He touched Viho’s chest and departed in him the location of the obelisk and Viho knew he too, took the location of Keltra before he let go.

“As you wish, my Lord.” Viho turned and outstretched his wings. He flapped them but then looked back at his creator. “I am sorry for her loss, father.”

Viho then beat his wings and carried himself into the sky, flying further north.

Chailiss watched him go and clutched at his heart.

”I am too.”







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Raethel Norvegicus and the Rattus People


In the end, it took the better part of two days for news of the 'incident' at the border outpost to reach Raethel's ears and for the leader of the Rattus to make his way to said outpost in order to see the results of it for himself.

The corpse of the strange, insect like creature had dried out after two days on the surface, battered by the wind and scorched by the light and heat of the sky as the Rattus at the outpost hadn't wanted to bring the wretched thing underground into their tunnels. While this did have the benefit of making it so that the body didn't have much in the way of an odor to it and, if they were so inclined, would likely make transport of it all the easier... beyond the fact that it proved the existence of an outside threat there was little else to be gained.

An examination of the corpse had failed to revel whatever trickery that its injured partner had used to try and mimic the Rattus form, suggesting some form of magic that the creatures used... through the eye witness account from a slightly shaken by recovering Annandale raised the question of if it that was a trick that all of them could do, or if it was something only certain members of the species could perform. The debate on the matter was inconclusive, since what tactics the monsters had employed to stage their ambush would have likely played out exactly the same regardless of if the dead bug monster had the ability to make itself look like a Rattus or not.

The fact that the creature had sacks that were apart of its body that seemed to be filled with blood that had dried up in the heat of the sky that had very clearly been a different color and texture then what had spilled out of its fatal wounds the night it died gave a pretty grim look into what exactly the pair of 'Pretenders' as the local Rattus had started to call them had been after. Still, the general unease and panic of the situation was kept relatively minor all things considered; Annandale had gotten herself out of the situation alive and uninjured, if deeply frightened. No Rattus had been harmed, one of the Pretenders was dead and the other badly injured enough to have been faltering even before other Rattus had scampered to join the fray... and they discovered a major flaw in the Pretender's otherwise convincing trickery in that the winds of mana revealed them for what they were.

This was by all accounts the best possible outcome that Raethel could see the situation having gone. The whole situation could have very easily gone a lot worse for Annandale and the outpost. But Raethel would have been a fool not to acknowledge the warning for what it was. The Pretender that fled might take the defeat and loss of its kin as a sign never to return here or it might harbor a grudge and seek vengeance in the future, but regardless of its personal actions it was doubtful that these two where the only members of their kind out there. They would have to account for that fact going forward but, just the knowledge they did have on the matter so far would likely prove highly valuable in what alterations needed to be made.

Aethel's arrival at the outpost was not as enlightening as Raethel might have hoped. Their creator appeared, inspected the body of the Pretender, walked up to Annandale and then gave her a headpat before saying "Well done." and refusing to comment of anything about the Pretender that they hadn't already discovered for themselves.

Despite his personal frustrations, the answer that Raethel had received when he pushed the matter with Aethel had caused him to look at his creators in a light he hadn't considered before. "This is a mortal matter Raethel. When myself and my brother created the Rattus, we put into your being the tools and ability to survive and thrive in this world... and one of those tools is the ability to discover new information and make choices based upon it. To that end, while I cannot speak for my siblings, I will generally not get involved in situations I believe you are more then able to handle by your own paws, intelligence and wit."




Once the Pretender's corpse was tossed onto a fire in order to be destroyed, Aethel had stayed at the outpost only long enough for everyone to sit around the fire and tell the story of their ancestry. The tale of the first pair of rats to be brought into existence. From their creation by the Lord of the Hunt, the sacrifice of the first male in order to create the mana winds of death, the bargain the original female struck with the Lord of the Hunt and the results of that. At which point their colorful creator politely excused themself and disappeared upriver.

This left Raethel and the outpost Rattus with much to ponder as they helped themselves to an early dinner on the surface, watching as the sky lost its heat in order to let its lesser lights take over. It was during this meal that a discussion began that would alter the view of the Rattus' original creator of the Lord of the Hunt for generations afterwards.

"You know what I don't quite understand?" Yuri softly asked as she gazed up at the sky and its distant wonders. "The Lord of the Hunt intentionally sent a Hawk in order to spy on Mother Rat as she did as he asked and stole from the Tree of Harmony... and then rewards the Hawk for being 'loyal and upstanding' when it reveals that Mother Rat took a branch for herself while she was there. Why? There was no great test of skill, no means for the Hawk to actually prove its loyalty to the Lord of the Hunt. Had the Rat Mother not taken an extra branch or been honest about taking two, would the Hawk have been lifted up by the Lord of the Hunt for confirming her story, or was the Hawk only chosen as the Lord of the Hunt's favored solely to further degrade Mother Rat? "

There was quiet around the fire for a few moments as the Rattus considered her statements and chewed their food... before at last Raethel answered her. "You make some very good points. I mean... why did the Lord of the Hunt even send the Hawk to spy on Mother Rat to begin with? Did he not trust her to do as he asked if it meant she would have children? And you're absolutely right! The Hawk didn't do a damn thing worthy of being praised or promoted as the chosen animal of a god and yet the Lord of the Hunt chose them anyway. I think the Lord of the Hunt just wanted to have the Hawk as a symbolic animal and they set up a situation where they could claim the Hawk proved how good and loyal it was to do so without it looking like the Hawk was selected because it looked nice. The Lord of the Hunt is such a poor judge of character that they wouldn't recognize loyalty if it stopped them from being stabbed in the ass."

There was much laughter and snickering among the Rattus... and it was Yuri who spoke up in her soft voice as she said "Have any of you heard of the story of how the Lord of the Hunt was so distracted by a shiny object in the distance that he walked right into a river?" With a range of snorts and 'no' from her new audience, Yuri grinned widely as she started to weave details into the story she had just made up on the fly. She would not be the only one that night to do so.





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Hidden 6 mos ago Post by Lauder
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Lauder The Tired One

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Yoliyachicoztl Week


The great fields were alight that night.

Fields are smoke,
Smoke is air.

Gazing ever on to the dancing light,
The only light that could give us fright.

It took the moisture from our throats,
It came and made us dry.

It was Fire.

Fire! Fire! Ferocious Fire!
You restless wall of flame.
Fire! Fire! Roaring higher!
Your fury to never tame.

You show no mercy – no regard:
A writhing army uncontrolled.
At least you don’t discriminate,
Coming to exterminate:
All dealt with equal pain untold.

Fire! Fire! Ferocious Fire!
You restless wall of flame.
Fire! Fire! Roaring higher!
Your fury to never tame.

In time of drought you run amok –
An open chimney of the land.
Prefer to scorch than suffocate:
In blinding zeal, incinerate
To blackened vista now unmanned.

Fire! Fire! Ferocious Fire!
You restless wall of flame.
Fire! Fire! Roaring higher!
Your fury to never tame.

Destruction be your only goal
For you to vent your jealous wrath
On gentle life with caring soul
And human victims to console:
As you are none, but psychopath.

Fire! Fire! Ferocious Fire!
You restless wall of flame.
Fire! Fire! Roaring higher!
Your fury to never tame.

So there it is – you are but flame:
Reacting gases to adorn –
With orange flicks of flailing arms,
You’re flaunting your demonic charms!
Now leave us for bereaved to mourn.

Fire! Fire! Ferocious Fire!
You restless wall of flame.
Fire! Fire! Roaring higher!
Your fury to never tame.

So many lives to claim.
Too many for you to swallow.
And yet that roaring flame -
It would soon make us hallow.



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Hidden 6 mos ago Post by Antarctic Termite
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Antarctic Termite Resident of Mortasheen

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Ea Nebel


In a circle of ash lay huddled bones. Their incisors yawned wide, still locked in their final scream. What remained of their arms held one another even into death. In the center, black boots. In the boots a woman. In the woman’s hand a hat.

She clutched it to her chest. Her hair fell back behind her. She lifted her face to the moonlight.

Four eyes she had. An error. Nothing more. No Sight had ever graced her. No crystal Eye leant itself to her face, not One, not Three. Four eyes she had, and they but the tarnished ruin of what should have been two. Yet even though she could not See, she could listen.

So she heard. And, though the eddies of the Flow had yet to be revealed to her, those dark blank eyes saw far.

All around her, lines of broken moonlight burned silently across the sky. Ea Nebel’s knuckles grew whiter and whiter on her hat.




The grave of Medes was to lay under a single stone. There was none like it for miles, resting all alone, neither natural nor set with purpose, only fated to be where it was. It was large, covering the whole of the circular pit in which he had been laid, wrapped in a warm shroud as was fitting for an old man who had passed in the chill of the night. His blindfold had been blown away from his bones with the dust of his flesh, as though he had lain still for ten thousand years on this firm bed of desert grit, his face still inclined to the moon. Ea Nebel had laid over the sockets of his skull a band of clean black silk to replace it.

“Go home,” she said, when the men emerged from their homes among the far and harsh streams of Nalusa to see what had become of their Prophet. “Your guide rests quietly now. His Sight has been passed to another, and he is at peace in the land that he chose. Hold his voice in your heart when you remember this place, always,” she said, and it was only the wide quiet of the desert night that carried her own to their ears. “Take this. You already know what it is.”

Dawn broke. The leader of the men, clothed in a lion’s pelt, accepted the orb. Ea Nebel dismissed him. “That I might rest, as you did in the days of your journey,” she lied. “Lifting this slab was not easy.”

Then she sat alone again in its shadow, staring at the moonless sky.

Flies buzzed over the parched riverbank. There was a sound of something sharp softly digging into the soil, and a longer, deeper stretch of darkness slithered over the coarse monument and onto her, stretching and folding its many limbs. Boots skidded before it as the goddess awoke in a flutter of black.

“Father!”

She stopped abruptly before the figure of Iqelis and stood there, gripping her thumbs in her fists. Her flurrying thoughts had evaporated. She stared at what had been done. Her gaze fell away for a moment, until at last she wet her lips and found right words. “...I heard such sounds.”

“Some voices ought never be heard,” the god crackled wearily. He seemed spent, both in the dimness of his eye and the frame of his body, ever so subtly slighter than it had been before. “As some sights ought never be seen.”

He crossed the space between them in a stride, and a dozen arms locked around Ea Nebel in a cage-like embrace. There was perhaps more caution than tenderness in his motions, as sharp fingers hovered where they could not risk gouging into cloth and skin, and faceted limbs slid and shifted in an uneasy bid not to wear her sore. Her breath quickened, then slowed.

“You are well,” came a whispering rasp of snapping rusted blades, not so much a question or even a statement as an intimation.

“I am now.” She opened her eyes and saw them reflected in dark glass, staring into herself. “The… other one, moon-bound. Her prophet is ash. Has she…”

“She lives still, regrettably,” Iqelis was looking over her shoulder at the grave-stone, “Would I that you could have built a mausoleum for her under the black sky, but her time is not yet spent. Until then, you will have to bear the weight of her enmity, as all things mine.” A cold hand haltingly caressed her back with its shardlike knuckles. The coat liquefied slightly, remembering its old shape. “It will not be long.”

“I fear her not. Please… be patient, Father. No matter how the river winds, the sea is always ahead. I will wait on the ship with you.” Reflected in glass, the white slab behind her. “Wait with me. As I have waited.”

The hands stilled, and pressed closer for a moment before finally releasing their grip and sliding away.

“There must ever be one who turns the Flow,” the god stepped back, lowering his gaze to meet that of his daughter, “But patience is imposed on us now. Higher eyes still than hers seek to trace your doom.”

Ea Nebel nodded, and slung out her arm lightly to one side, flicking into the breeze the five-cubit banner of Heaven she now wore as a scarf. It danced across a field of colours only woven into one other garment in the universe. “I have been prepared, if only with this talisman. I can bear this humiliating penance with you.” Her eyes met his now, and were calm. “No matter what it is.”

The claws that had been about to snap up at the sight of an echo from the One Above relaxed and dwindled. “Then He would mock you with His scraps,” Iqelis rattled, and as if opening wider his light shone bright again, fed by the familiar fuel of malice, “Flies will feast on His empty eyes and the ruins of His throne will be toppled by hogs when the day comes.”

“All in time…”

He turned his faceless head to the east, but did not look up to the rising sun. One hand motioned to the horizon, and another beckoned for the demigoddess to follow as he slowly began to step away from the riverbank.

“It is the vainglorious fool’s will that I prove your worth as His subject. Come, there are others we must summon to witness that it is done.”

“Very well. Let it begin.” Ea Nebel adjusted her coat and followed the elder god away from that valley, into the dry lands further on, where a very real hog flicked its knowing ears.




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Hidden 6 mos ago Post by Bright_Ops
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Raethel Norvegicus and the Rattus People


As the heat of the sky returned and chased away the cool darkness that had lingered on the sands, Raethel sighed softly to himself as he quietly watched the Rattus that had followed him out to investigate the monsters that had assaulted the Rattus outpost skittered around, performing what last minute tasks they needed to do in order to prepare for the trip back to where they had started while he sat and watched the river flow by.

It wasn't a dangerous trip traveling between the outposts where Rattus life had claimed as their strong holds while they strove to claim more ground and resources... at least it wasn't, but the presence of the Pretenders going forward might change things. Scampering from one outpost to the next was just time consuming... and the heat of the sky and the chill of the shadows held their own discomforts that made the journeys more taxing.

Moving resources was also proving difficult. Currently if a Rattus wanted to take something from one outpost to the next, it had to be carried either by paw or on their backs. While there were Rattus among their people who were naturally blessed with the physical strength and endurance to bare greater loads then their peers, this did not change the fact that there was a sharp limitation to how much could be transported by a band of Rattus in a single trip. Not to mention that while Raethel himself could make such trips without needing to much in the way of supplies, the other Rattus tended to require having some of their carry capacity dedicated to things such as prepared food for their own personal usage. There had to be a better way to travel...

By happenstance, Raethel lazily watched as one of the plants that grew beside the river floated by on the flow, slowly heading towards where the river met the endless water where the land ended... and as it did so an idea started to form in Raethel's head. There was some difficulty in seeing just what the end result would look like, but while he wanted for his escort to be prepared the First of the Rattus started to gather some of the river plants that he knew for a fact floated and... experimented a little. A single plant would never be able to hold the weight of anything on top of itself... but maybe if several plants were bound together like the Rattus did as a people...

The thing that Raethel created was crude, was barely big enough that one paw needed to be dedicated to carrying it and artistically... it wasn't pleasing to the eye. But when he carefully placed it in the waters of the river and stopped it from floating away by using his tail as an obstruction, it floated just fine. Even when he started to place pebbles on it, it continued to float... through one stone to many caused it to flip over and dunk all the stones into the river, even as the object itself remained floating while upside down. But the concept was clearly workable.

Of course the whole thing needed to be refined, made bigger and issues such as it flipping over like that needed to be addressed and solved but no idea was made fully formed from the beginning. It was a solid start through... and there were a lot more of these plants back where they were heading.




Raethel himself got involved with the process of developing his idea whenever possible, but his duties as leader of the Rattus and the mandate from their absent co-creator to see that all the Rattus had names ensured that they didn't have as much time to focus on any individual project as he might have liked. However, like with many things he didn't need to do it all by himself. Once he had gotten back to the birthplace of his people, Raethel had dug a hole down in the tunnels away from the heat of the sky, filled it with some water and placed his example into it in order to show his vision to others.

Time and again, Raethel saw a spark of something in the eyes of his fellow Rattus as they gazed upon his floating creation. Their minds had never considered this possibility before, but now that the possibility had been shown to them it was as if a wall had been knocked down and a wave of ideas on how to make this floating marvel actually work for the benefit of the Rattus surged forth without an end in sight.

Groups of Rattus had formed around different attempts at making a proper, Rattus sized version of his creation. It was something to be apart of in ones spare time when other duties were done. There was something of a competition between the different bands... a friendly rivalry that sort to drive all taking part onward. The best way to witness this friendly rivalry in action was when they were testing each others designs and attempts to work around issues like the water craft flipping over; While they were utterly unforgiving in their process of testing and seemed bent on doing everything possible to expose some new flaw that a method to solve an existing problem had created, it was clear to all involved that this wasn't happening out of hostility.

While the first group to get a successful working method out onto the river would win their little contest, no one wanted that victory to be undercut by some fatal flaw that should have been spotted and wasn't causing the whole thing to fall apart and endanger someone's life. So the cycle repeated over the course of days... weeks... until at last something was pushed onto the river from the bank.



Raethel couldn't help but grin as he watched from the river bank as a small team of Rattus on board their craft bent the waters of the river in order to push themselves against the flow and heading upriver at a respectable pace... and clearly carrying as much weight as a traveling band three times their number would be required on board next to themselves.

The grin on Raethel's face was filled with pride as he reached up to wipe a tear that had been forming in their eye away. It might have been a simple thing, but it was the dawn of a new era all the same.




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Hidden 6 mos ago 6 mos ago Post by Oraculum
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Oraculum Perambulans in tenebris

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Blood of the Achtotlaca


On that day, the city bloomed like a fallow field when the tides of molten rock recede, leaving behind a glittering expanse of the most divers and colorful growths. Wreaths of fine crystalline flowers hung from slender copper stalks across the entrances of every cavern-den like so many subterranean rainbows, casting shifting blinks of many hues in the dim glow of the magma flows. In the largest dry-ground plazas, braziers had been lit with the dry and brittle plants of the world above, collected over scores of daring and furtive expeditions and set aflame by the heat of the lower city. The music of horn and scale rhythmically striking against metal rolled through the tunnel streets, solemn yet festive, for today Tecuicicoyoctli celebrated the rite of bloodletting.

The lower causeways, where the city met the flows, were thronged with the expectant peoples, twisting their serpentine bodies in the most fanciful ways so that they might spy what was happening on the lowermost plaza that hung above the slowly coursing vein of the earth. It appeared as if part of the great stone honeycomb had come to life as a great serpent, resplendent in scales both young and fiery and old and greying. Only the wide road that led straight to the upper city was left open, with the stoutest and most belligerent Achtotlaca guarding its length in a martial display.

A melodious sound rolled down the sloping hewn track, and the sibilant whispers of a hundred hushed conversations subsided as a magnificent procession descended from the rough but imposing palace that crowned the head of Tecuicicoyoctli. At its head came a score of musicians, their heads and spines adorned with crowns of brazen and steely leaves, coloured by a flower or underripe fruit here and there. Some of them held in one of their forelimbs a cymbal made with the shell of a large and ancient crab, which dwelt in multitudes in the pools below the city, and rhythmically struck it with the talons or knuckles of the other. Others carried rattles, oblong sacks cut from the skin of Tecuicicoyoctli’s illustrious dead and filled with the bodies of innumerable fire-beetles that clinked against each other like a river flowing with metal.

The harmonious beating of the cymbals and clattering of the rattles was mesmerizing, but even the most obtuse souls were struck with awe as the musicians passed, for behind them there came the splendor of the city. Teoxiuh, Tlatoani of Tecuicicoyoctli, was glorious to behold even in his waning years. His body was long and puissant, without the unwieldy burliness that often defaced the strongest warriors, but slender and long-tailed, with a gracefully tapered head. Now, however, his features could not be seen, for he wore the ritual mask made from the skull of his forefather Tlatlacatl, a splendid thing hung with beads and etched pieces of crab-shell. The Tlatoani’s attendants followed in a long train, and though they all wore their best ancestral ornaments, none were as magnificent as he.

On its way to the lower city, the procession stopped before the two greatest temples in the city, and each time Teoxiuh gave obeisance to the altar. The first time he prostrated himself to Yoliyachicoztl, the mother of all flame, from whom the Achtotlaca came and to whom they returned, and the second he bowed to Tlanextic, the first Tlatoani, who had saved the city of Chicomoztoc and all the Iyotlaca from the Demon from Below. Then he came at last to the plaza, where two mighty bonfires roared, and his musicians spread out around its edges, save the furthest one, which opened directly onto the magma vein.

Teoxiuh passed between the bonfires, and the beating and rattling reached a fevered pace as he perched and coiled on the open ledge. One of the attendants, the Keeper of the Thorn, handed him a basalt knife, which had tasted of his father and his great-father. The Tlatoani brought its tip to rest against the grey scales on his flank, and he spoke: “Unto you, deep fires of the earth, and unto you, mighty Tlanextic, First among Firsts, do I offer my blood, which runs pure with the line of sage Tlatlacatl. May it deepen the carven seal which entraps the Demon, and may it feed the weeds than bind the Demon, and may it quench the smoking fires of the Demon. Nothing is dearer to me than Tecuicicoyoctli, and I have never spared riches for it when it hungered. So too I will not spare my blood when the sacred ways demand it!”

And he drove the slender knife into the gap between his scales, and did not wince as he withdrew it, letting his scalding blood drip into the river below as all the city gave a hissing cheer. When enough had been spilt, another attendant, the Blood-Drinker, scurried to his side and licked his wound, not letting a single drop of the exalted ichor fall to the ground. Once the flow was stemmed, Teoxiuh whipped around head to tail, in a brief flash of the prowess he had been wont to flaunt in his youth, and solemnly trudged out of the plaza and up the road he had come from, preceded by the exultant musicians and trailed by his attendants. Behind him, the crowds began to flow, for now that the rite was done the celebrations in the upper city could begin.

As the causeways grew more and more deserted, two Achtotlaca remained, coiling and perched at the edge of the plaza. Both were from Teoxiuh’s circle; one of them, Ixpetz, had earned honors as an expert crab-catcher, and though her flanks were streaked with stony grey and she could no longer dive as deep as she once had, she was still reputed to be cunning and observant. The other, Miximachtlani, was far younger, but already known as a brash and fearless diver, who had many times journeyed to the world above in search of fame, of which, it seemed, he could never have too little.

“The Tlatoani never betrays his name,” Ixpetz said casually, looking at the molten river, “This year, too, you saw how much he spilled.”

“More than he had to,” Miximachtlani answered.

“Almost twice as much as he’d have to for his age!” the older Achtotlaca sniffed the air, still heavy with a sanguine tang, “The years haven’t tied his hands.”

“But?” Miximachtlani had sensed the lightly hidden caveat in her tone.

“But they’re drying up his blood. Soon he won’t have as much or as hot to give anymore. His children will have to step up to the Thorn.”

Yacahuitzic.” The diver did not need to say more. Teoxiuh’s consort was from Chicomotzoc. The match had been a great token of friendship between the cities, and none could contest that her lineage ran from great champions of the Iyotlaca, she was not Tecuicicoyoctli. It was not at all clear that their offspring would be pure.

“I said it at the time, that this was going to be trouble eventually, and I got told I was too young to mind these things,” Ixpetz gave an amused huff from her nostrils, “Now everyone else is starting to see it. You do too.”

“Blasted right I do,” Miximachtlani grunted, “It’s not just anything that’ll keep the Demon down there. How do they think they’re going to get pure blood from two who were born two days of swimming apart? We might as well start mating with the crabs.”

“But even if their hatch is found lacking, someone’s going to have to spill it anyway.”

“So?”

“Tlanextic wasn’t Tlatoani when he bled for the first time,” Ixpetz’s eyes were smiling, “All that mattered was that his blood was pure. That’s all that the sacred ways demand.”

“You think anyone could do it? Like us?”

“Why not? My fathers and forefathers were all of Tecuicicoyoctli, and so were yours. Many who are honoured think the same. If you’ll add your voice to ours, we may become famed among all cities for the bounty of our bloodletting…”

Now speaking in hushed tones, the two slid away from the ledge and began to ascend in the tracks of the already distant celebrants. They did not notice the cloud of black smoke that slipped out from a darkened alcove, nor the red eye that followed their steps as their voices faded into the sounds of the city’s festivities.


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Hidden 6 mos ago Post by Chris488
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Chris488

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Yoliyachicoztl Week

Fear - Wanderer - Pride



“I’d rather not.”

Fear now found herself confronted by her two sisters in the great hall of Keltra, where they stood by the Eternal Fire, surrounded by sleeping humans and large white owl plushies. Wanderer and Pride stared at her with a hint of disappointment, but both had yet to give in to their anxious sister’s refusal. The small champion currently held both the staff and dagger left in her possession by Tuku, Master of the Hunt, while he rested after his battle against the Pariah.

The two artifacts seemed too large in her little sister’s hands, Fear thought, but she decided not to share this information aloud. She really wished the others would return soon, but they had another whole day until they were expected to be back. Homura would have given them tasks to perform, Courage and Kindness would have provided either a better distraction or form of entertainment for Wanderer and Pride, while Curiosity would most certainly have been eager to participate in the duo’s request. Fear was most certainly not eager and her company did not seem to understand that.

“We should all learn to expand our awareness. This staff will help us do that. Come on, Fear, we want to do this with you.” Pride persistently continued, applying her most potent technique of pouting which forced Fear to avert her gaze elsewhere lest she succumb to her sister’s manipulative look.

It was dark outside, and Lorelei seemed to only gain enough energy from the Eternal Fire to stay awake for the day, as Homura herself would have to teach the child how to fully tap into the power of the bright monument. Fear was tempted to stand outside and gaze upon the sea of stars that filled the night sky, but she was worried her sisters might try something dangerous without her, so she remained inside while attempting to ascertain what exactly Pride was proposing.

“Wanderer and I have almost found out how to use the Incantation of Seeing, and we want you to join us… Pretty please.” Pride said, stepping into Fear’s view once more, coaxing her with that cute and childish voice she possessed. The sound of Wanderer’s footsteps from behind her informed the anxious champion that she was entrapped now.

“Someone should… stay alert and watch for visitors though. If all of us are looking elsewhere, we wouldn’t even realize if someone comes, right?” Fear countered, attempting to remain steadfast, and hoping her logic would prove sufficient for her sisters. There was a quiet moment where Pride contemplated her words, and Fear simply waited.

“Hmm… I suppose you’re right. Then you’ll watch over us?” The small champion stepped back, and smiled softly, but Fear knew she was saddened by the answer she had received. It was fortunate that the Eternal Fire kept them in a serene state, because none of them had really recovered from what their maker had shown them. Fear absently nodded while her mind drifted and her gaze fell upon her hand shaped from ice. Memories of Viho watching over her pulled her from her forlorn thoughts, and she smiled at her sisters. She considered the owl champion to be another part of the family and she wished he were here.

“Then let’s begin.” Pride proclaimed, stepping next to Wanderer so that the reticent champion may take hold of the staff as well. “And you don’t need to put your hand on my head, sister.” Pride complained as Wanderer rested her palm atop the small champion’s head, ruffling some of the soft red hair.

Together the two of them waved the staff, and then tapped the ground. Fear saw very little differences in the way the two held themselves, aside from keeping their eyes close and their slightly strained expressions as they focused, they seemed to simply be standing there and doing nothing really impressive. Fear let out a sigh, then began her watch.



The two minds of Wanderer and Pride had traveled far throughout the night, as their senses continually expanded through the sacred staff they held, and its power further strengthened by the presence of the Eternal Fire which provided the once upon time branch of the Tree of Harmony with a profuse supply of mana as a result of all the localized and abundant life thriving so much.

As time passed, they became more and more attuned to the land, so they listened to the whispers of the world, its voice which was like music to their enhanced ears. It then suddenly dawned upon them, the music of motion, as the earth danced beneath their feet. They could feel the stone shifting, changing, drifting, like clouds in the sky, and they wondered whether there was more water even deeper underground.

The earth happily offered to sate their curiosity, and guided them towards the riches hidden beneath the surface. They were carried along vibrations and an invisible weight that became more potent the farther they descended. They could not see, only touch and hear the earth all around them until they had peered too far and found a lack of it.

For a moment, it seemed they had stumbled upon nothing… until sounds reached them once more, and they realized what they were hearing was a hollow space underground. So they listened and felt along the ceiling and the walls, until they sensed the shape of the tunnel they had found themselves in. From afar, it reminded them of the unseen drums beating while Homura danced. The two were also surprised by the heat they felt. It was almost incomprehensible, the stone seemed to forget its shape and become like water...

The tunnel was occupied, and though they could not see what moved around them, they could feel its very large shape and heat pressing against the earth. It was alive, and burned with greater heat than they had ever known. The temperature washed over the two, hotter and hotter, beautiful like the blazing sun. Pride could feel herself wanting to explore and further understand the contour of this creature, the nature of its being, but she felt her mind reel as Wanderer recoiled and forcefully pulled her back.

The small champion could not comprehend what she was sensing as they retreated so swiftly, retracing their passage at blinding speeds, back through the earth, back across the land, back beyond the red wall, until they were back in the keep of Keltra and had both let go of Tuku’s staff. Their senses returned to their much more limited capacity, and Pride felt as though she were even more tiny after the educational experience.

She looked to Wanderer, annoyed that her sister had so hastily ended the experiment and without any warning. Her annoyance turned to concern when she saw Wanderer cling to herself, her eyes remaining tightly shut with terror. Pride reached out, until she was gently holding the reticent champion’s arm. “Wanderer, what’s wrong?”

Fear noticed the two had stirred from their long trance, and placed a cold hand upon Wanderer’s shoulder. “What happened?” She asked, hoping one of her sisters would explain their distressful awakening.

Wanderer grasped Fear’s hand of ice, and brought it to her forehead, before she slowly relaxed and she opened her eyes. Pride watched the interaction, and felt relief upon seeing her sister recover from whatever had seemingly caused her pain, until she recalled their ordeal two days before.

“You’re afraid of heat…” Pride whispered, and looked to Fear. Her sister nodded her head in agreement with the evaluation of their sister’s reaction. Wanderer spoke then, her voice which she rarely spoke with… was quiet and hesitant.

“Don’t tell the others. I would rather they didn’t know. And… Thanks, Fear.” The reticent champion closed her eyes again as she held Fear’s frozen appendage against her skin, letting the cold seep into her.

“Anytime, sis. Can one of you tell me what you saw?” Fear asked, feeling a small smile emerge now that Wanderer had been soothed, and nobody seemed in danger.

The sun was rising once more, and morning meant that Lorelei would soon awaken. The others were expected to return later in the day, and Pride would explain the strange sight of burning creatures that dwelled beneath the land. A wondrous new world of strange new life awaited them, and Pride found herself filled with thoughts about the fire too fierce to comprehend. The inner fire of Galbar.


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Hidden 6 mos ago 6 mos ago Post by Antarctic Termite
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Antarctic Termite Resident of Mortasheen

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The scribe drummed his fingers on his desk, which he was lucky enough to have to himself. It was a nice desk, a lovely desk really, made of quartzite. In the typical style of his people, it had no legs. A salamander did not stand upright, so there was no need for space below the desk to tuck in the legs, and it didn't stand very high either. So, technically, it was more of a slab.

But a very nice slab!

Thoughts of furniture popped away in his head and the scribe pinched himself. He wouldn't have such a desk to himself for long if he neglected his training. He'd made it this far in his apprenticeship with a mix of discipline and panic, and now was no time to slow down. He sighed, picked up his crystal stylus, and set the copy-text on the desk in front of him.

The Hand Tongue


In the fourth year of the reign of the Granite Emperor, Huēy Tlatoani Yaotl the Tunneller,

...'Tunneller'? The scribe lifted his pen for a moment. Normally the epithet would be something like 'Blood-Generous' or 'the Strong'. Maybe the document had been written before the modern rites of sacrifice- the events themselves had transpired rather early in his reign, after all. How old was this text? Or- maybe the copy-text had just been composed to mix up the words a little, for practice? Nevermind.

Now the name of this crone was Zoltic, and of all the village women in the realm of Chicomoztoc, she was said to be the most advanced in years. Her length was measured to be forty-nine cubits, and she had borne eleven healthy children. So cold was the ancient's blood that her voice was as low and slow as a tremor, and the light had gone out of her eyes, leaving her blind. Though she yet lived, she could not traverse even twice the length of her body over the course of a day, and soon it became apparent that she could no longer chew what little food she still ate.

There arose thus concern among the villagers over their elder, who would surely cease to move, and thereafter to breathe. Said some, she is our honoured ancient, and has lived a noble life among us, thus let us petition the Granite Emperor to bring her to the Great Flame, as did the exalted Tlanextic, blessed be his memory, and the explorer-hero Mixpetzoani, who discovered the Maze of Treasure.

Oh. The text was probably fabricated, then, or at least... heavily embellished. The only serious inroads to the Labyrinth had been made in the scribe's own age. No one so far in the past had any real claim to its first explorer, bar maybe some unfortunate miners.

But maybe the text was old, and the great-grandfathers of Chicomoztoc remembered heroes who had since been forgotten. They had lived in the age of Tlanextic, after all, if only in his waning years. The young scribe smiled. His position was an honour and a privilege, but more than that, what fun it was! To read anything he wanted, any way he wanted- what a mystery!

So the peasantry was divided into four groups, according to what each thought should be done with the bodies of their most ancient. So loud was the clamour that the realm of Chicomoztoc became unrestful, and even the Granite Emperor heard of the affair.

It was at that time that the realm of Chicomoztoc was visited once again by the Spirit of Nepetl. She appeared before the huēyitequitiquētl

"Oh, come off it!"

The scribe rubbed his forehead, looking back through the door to see if the master scribe had heard him. Huēyitequitiquētl? Really? No one used that word. Was 'administrator' not fancy enough? This whole text must be some sort of joke.

as a beautiful maiden,

Nevermind, this text was fine.

veiled and dressed in moonstones. She said to the

The scribe grit his teeth and spelled it out one letter at a time, counting their palm-lines and knuckles. H- u- ē- y- i-

-tequitiquētl that she had come to resolve this quarrel, and bring honour to the elders of Chicomoztoc. Said the spirit, let Zoltic stand among the shrines of the gods, facing the whole village, and become as a shrine herself. Let her be a monument to the health and history of the family blessed with such an elder. She shall bear a bowl for offerings in her coils, and her spirit shall intercede between the living and the dead. For a statue is difficult to carve, heavy to move, and worn down by tremor and flood, and there is no carver in the whole of the realm who could produce a likeness of life such as her.

Said the

"Administrator-!"

huēyitequitiquētl, how shall this be? For her body is stiff and tired, and she cannot stand long, not even on all of her legs. Her eyelids droop, her tail is hooked, her wrists bent by age.

Said the Spirit, let her stiffness not be a sign of brittleness, but of strength. I will teach her to breathe as the spirits and gods can breathe, to calm her heart, that her blood may flow as quietly and easily as the hottest stream. Meditation will release the pain of her muscles, that even the tallest stance will be as restful for her as being curled up in her own home. Remember that your lady Yoliyachicoztl is an ever-moving goddess, whose coils are never still, and you are sculpted by her hand. Fix your mind upon Her blessings as I show you, and your body will be limber, until it awakes no more.

So the shrouded maiden went in unto the crone Zoltic, and showed her the art of dying. The very next day, the elder stood tall in the garden of the shrines of Yoliyachicoztl and Tlanextic and the Heavenly Flame and the harvest, with her tail curled around a bowl of offerings at her side. Her arms were raised before her, and a smile was upon her face, and her blind eyes were open, and none knew the moment she passed away from this world, for her body was asleep in perfect peace.

Thus the elder's death brought lasting honour on the village of Zoltic, and her figure stands there to this day.

The Spirit of Nepetl travelled the realm, teaching the dying arts to the ancients of Chicomoztoc. Much veneration was given her, and talk of the shrines spanned the empire. Many delinquent youths of the realm even changed their ways for a while, hoping they might evade disease, accident, and execution long enough to become a towering monument.

Much good that must have done. Maybe some kind of cautionary insert.

It came to pass that the shrouded maiden was invited to dine at the table of the Cihuacoatl himself, Yolyamanitzin, the brother of the Granite Emperor. They feasted together, and spoke, and the Spirit gave unto him the a gift of a wolfram spearpoint, and he gave to her an amulet of the most precious turquoise.

And the Cihuacoatl said, stay with us, and marry among our family, for your very presence is a blessing to us. But she was sworn to other duties. And the Cihuacoatl said, stay with us, then, until my brother the Huēy Tlatoani returns from his campaigns. But she could not stay. So the Cihuacoatl said, then let us call upon on hundred skilled stonecarvers, that we may devise a way to preserve your teaching in the picture-words of emperors.

And the Spirit of Nepetl answered, o Cihuacoatl, architect of the Granite Emperor, the power to preserve is already in your hands. Behold, what I have given you is not a spearhead but a stylus. Take before you a plate of soft tuff, and observe the raised hands of the monumental dead. For the name of each ancient is held in the shape of their hands, and the names of the ancients comprise many words. Thus in the shape of your hands may be the names of many other things, even words for which there is no image known to the carvers.

The scribe stretched his fingers and set down the stylus, looking at his own weary hand. It didn't look much like a letter, but the curves and joints were all there. Turn the thumb, bend one finger, and that was a single sound, 'mo'- as in, Chicomoztoc. Almost the same sign on the other hand- 'ku'. Raise a mid-limb, turn the wrist, incline the fingers a little, put them together, and... well, that could spell a very rude word indeed.

He laughed. He put his stylus away.

Time for bed.



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Bright_Ops The Insane Scholar

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Raethel Norvegicus and the Rattus People


The ability to travel via the river while carrying much more then a rattus could normally carry had been a boon to their people. It also made the journey between the pockets of rattus settlements all the quicker and easier as well. But it had come with a danger that no one could have predicted. A deadly one, as it turned out.

Of the rattus that had been aboard the water craft, only Lutreolus had escaped and made it safely back onto land. While someone might have looked at the curled up, shivering female who was muttering so quickly and quietly under her breath that individual words couldn't be made out and seen a scared, simple being Raethel knew for a fact that Lutreolus was anything but. Of the rattus people, she had been among the first wave of settlers to go and make their first outpost, having proven herself as one of the best and intelligent of their people. To see her reduced to such a sorry state was... haunting. Turning to Lutreolus' attendant Bonthain, Raethel's tone was soft as he asked "Has she revealed anything that happened yet?"

Bonthain shook their head as he softly squeaked "If she has, I haven't been able to understand it. She's just... she's just been speaking nonsense since she was brought here. Any signs of her companions?" was asked hopefully... but that hope quickly fled from the look in Raethel's eyes.

"We have found... pieces of them. Alongside chunks of their water craft." There was a pause... before "I don't know if it was just the fate of one of them or all of them... It's just... It's an utter mess." The room seemed to feel colder as both of them joined Lutreolus in shivering at the chill that ran down their spines.

"Do... Do you think it might have been the Pretenders?" A nervous twitch of the tail and physically having to restrain themselves from rubbing his whiskers was more then enough to betrayal the fears lingering in Bonthain's mind... and Raethel felt truly terrible that he couldn't lay them to rest.

"I don't know. It's possible but there isn't enough evidence of what happened to say for sure. We need her to tell us what happened. But..." Both of them glanced at Lutreolus in her current, somewhat pitiful condition. Physically, there had been nothing wrong with her but it was clear that whatever had happened on the river had inflicted a terrible wound to her all the same. Death as a concept was something that the rattus understood for they had witnessed it in animals around them before, as well as stories of their ancestors and the ghost of memories of their time prior to understanding what and who they were, but this was the first time that any member of the rattus people had died since the change. It had not been a peaceful death either.

Taking a few nervous steps towards the shaken rattus, Raethel knelt down in front of her... and was soft and gentle as he reached out to cup her face to tilt her head towards him as he asked "[color=brown]Lutreolus... can you hear me?[color]" Lutreolus for their part continued their non stop drivel of words... but despite the glazed look in her eyes that suggested that she wasn't currently present in the moment mentally, physically she slowly nodded her head. "Lutreolus... what happened on the river? We need to know so that we can take steps to make sure that it doesn't happen again."

For her part, Lutreolus had been muttering for so long that the moment she stopped doing it, the silence left behind actually felt strange. The glazed look remained but... there was a scrunching of her face that suggested that she was actually trying to focus, trying to figure out a way to describe and put an answer into words. "W-We were... We were making our way back up river after visiting some friends. We were just passing by a small bend when Muridae pointed... pointed at something in the water..." Her breathing grew heavy as Raethel could feel her heart start to beat quickly... too quickly.

"Lutreolus, it's over. You're safe now. You're in one of the barrows..." He tried, hoping to calm her enough to stop her from panicking and shutting down again... and it worked in the sense that she was only crying rather then devolved completely into panic and terror.

"It... It came out of the water. Water sprayed everywhere as it just closed its mouth and just... tore our craft in half as we all ended up in the water. They... They were screaming in fear and pain and all I could do was bend the water to help me swim to shore fast enough to get away..." She muttered quickly, her tone easily suggesting that she was getting lost in her own mind again before she got to the part that mattered to Raethel at the moment.

"What did? Lutreolus, what came out of the-"

"One of those... One of those things we haven't named yet. The big, silly looking gray things without fur that we've seen walking around and swimming on the other side of the river. The ones with the huge mouths and silly looking teeth!" Lutreolus squeaked out in a panic... before she started to softly squeak and mumble under her breath again as she retreated completely into her own mind again.

Raethel... didn't bother trying to drag her back out of her mind at the moment. Just getting this much information out of her had been taxing on her and she deserved a chance to rest. The creatures she spoke of though... it didn't make sense from what they had witnessed of them. Such creatures had been spied on the other side of the river, or swimming within it at times but... after some observation it was pretty clear they simply ate plants. They had no interest in meat or hunting for prey, observed by them passing by several types of fish and animals walking along the opposite bank of the river nearby that they just ignored.

But despite how shaken and in need of time to recover Lutreolus was, Raethel was inclined to believe her. Their craft had been completely smashed to pieces and the other rattus aboard... as he had said before there had only been bits and pieces of them left, but despite that they clearly hadn't been eaten by whatever had killed them. That... that was in a way the worst part of it in his mind; It would have been one thing if it had turned out that they had fallen prey to a predator that was striving to feed itself and possibly its offspring but these gray beasts... if what Lutreolus had said was true, they had attacked and tore apart his people without warning solely for the sake of killing them in a brutal fashion.

Letting Lutreolus go and walking back to Bonthain, Raethel placed a paw on his shoulder as he softly said "[color=brown]Look after her as best you can. I'll get someone to help you out shortly."

Accepting the comforting gesture, Bonthain was curious as he asked in return "What are you going to do?"

Raethel took a deep breath... before answering with a level voice "First, I'm going to warn our people of this unexpected threat. This situation is already bad enough as it is, I don't want to lose anyone else because they didn't know that these... these water monsters are highly dangerous, despite their silly appearance. Second... I'm going to find out who else was on that craft with Lutreolus when they set out. We... we need to know who died out there." Despite trying to put on a brave face, there was sorrow in Raethel's eyes that was easy to see. Just as it was easy to see that sorrow and pain turn into something sharp and hot as he finished "After that... we're going to call our people together and we're going to work out how to rid ourselves of this threat. This river is ours. It is our birthright to be able to travel along it in safety... and I will not allow some overgrown, tubby water monster challenge that right!"

Catching his rising, angry tone, Raethel closed his eyes for a moment as he squeezed Bonthain's shoulder firmly... and then let it go as he walked towards the entrance of the room and into the tunnels of the barrow proper. There was work to do.





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Chris488

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The Monarch of All
&
Homura



The far away words of her brother, who had announced himself the chosen champion of the Monarch of All, had reached the Goddess of Honor, and she felt the sudden weight of dread descend upon her after hearing that another member of the pantheon had been slain by one of their own. Her mind simply could not comprehend why many among her siblings were so blind to the needless damage they were inflicting upon all of creation by their impetuous behavior.

She stood alone outside the citadel of Keltra, and lifted her gaze to the heavens where the imperious sun illuminated the vast sky, the shifting sea, and the resilient land. Daybringer shimmered with colorful joy beneath the warm radiance of the greatest among stars that acted as the gateway to the King in Heaven’s celestial palace. She sensed as the world trembled while the Divine fought each other, and it irked her that they could be so careless. They should be focusing on the act of creation, not the immediate destruction of each other.

“Your Imperial Majesty, I must speak with you. Please grant me an audience now.” Homura called outwards, then stood in silence awaiting an answer.

And so there were no words, no sound other than the bridge between the heavens and the Galbar opening itself to allow Homura to enter with the gates of the Divine Palace being open to her. Yet, as she walked through the hallowed halls, the Monarch of All was not to be found sitting upon His throne, a fact that was strange but she could feel His presence all the same. Following it, she came across a garden of glass with its pathways laid out and the bronze tree standing opulent upon its center. But there He was, standing wordless as if He did not know that Homura was standing behind him.

For an ephemeral moment she was able to appreciate the wonder of that which had been cultivated all around her, and she could discern the touch of the one that had created the Eidolons, the one that was known as Avros by the horned ones of the plains.

This ever changing garden stood as evidence that the Divine were capable of creating great beauty, and Homura hoped that the others among the pantheon would strive to achieve such works of art.

Then the brief time of thoughts was over, and the Goddess of Honor deeply bowed before the Monarch of All.

“My Lord of Creation, O Ruler of Reality, I have come with a request. I ask that you choose me to act as your Emissary.” She spoke softly, for she did not wish to break the tranquil silence that had washed over her when she stepped into the courtyard, yet her voice was clear and easily heard.

The words seemed to stir the Monarch of All, His head turning slightly to acknowledge that He had heard Homura but did little more than turn back to look upon the bronze tree. There was yet more silence before the Creator of the Gods reached and grabbed one of the fruits to look upon it. After a moment, He spoke in a soft tone, still not having turned to face the would-be Emissary.

”You seek to become my Emissary? Why is it that you wish to join my side, Homura?”

“It is gratitude, your Imperial Majesty. I cannot remain idle or distracted when I could be serving you in a greater capacity.” She answered, still bowing before the King of Heaven. Her sacred inner flames danced with great passion, burning brightly with conviction that conveyed both her devotion and strength. It promised completely that she would fiercely fight for the Monarch of All, that she would eternally obey the Monarch of All, that she would sacrifice herself for the Monarch of All.

“As your Emissary, I would rectify the ignorance and profanity of that which my kin has created on Galbar. The Bjork in the north pray to the Singing Maker who has already abandoned them, and now there are those that curse our existence. The Eidolons of the south do not understand the truth of the world, and offer no proper praise or respect to the Divine. So much of life has become dedicated to the pursuit of solely satisfying both sinful and carnal desires in a cycle which will result in life ultimately consuming itself instead of traversing the Sacred Path as an expression of your will.” Homura continued, after feeling compelled to offer an explanation.

”Then perhaps you might just be the only one not merely seeking to gain more power, Homura.”

The Monarch of All’s words held a touch of animosity to them, none of which was directed upon the goddess but rather to her many peers. He finally turned to look down upon Homura, His presence still commanding all attention as the glass reflected all of His light back to Him. In but a single step, He appeared closer to her, not even a foot length away as He continued to gaze down. His arms were still folded behind His back as He spoke to her in a more raised tone, as a superior would to their subordinate.

”You would be the one to bring the mortals back into the light - MY light. Do you understand that some mortals may wish to cast away my gaze forever? To live in the dark wallowing in their own desires?”

“I believe that those mortals have been led astray, and that their lack of enlightenment, their aversion to salvation, originates from both ignorance and malicious machinations engineered by an external evil. I believe that all of life truly wishes to celebrate and uphold the virtues of creation. That the appropriate attitude towards the wonders of this world you have shaped for life to exist within should be appreciation, your Imperial Majesty. All other actions and beliefs are motivated by self preservation; a remnant of their love for you, despite what others may claim.” She answered with unwavering faith towards the towering one before her, the one that had given her the gift of life and meaning. She could not accept being unworthy, so she must succeed His expectations and adhere to His decree. That was her purpose, she recalled with cosmic lucidity.

”And what are you prepared to do, should these machinations prove too powerful for you to convince the lost lambs to come back to the fold?”

Her hand came to her chest, and closed in a tight fist. Her other hand held onto Daybringer, and sought to soothe the shimmering star within the golden spear. As the Monarch of All remained looming over her, it was not a shadow that was cast upon her, it was His glorious light that passed through her being and granted her the inner resolve to find further strength in His presence.

“I will not fail you, Great Lord of Creation. I am not alone, and though the work is indefinite, I readily embrace the challenge. I am a divine warrior, and I will fight back the insidious threat of nihilism. I will protect creation from the workings of an infernal annihilation. I am the Goddess of Honor, and I stand defiant against the forces seeking to unravel reality, and usurp your throne. Our enemies speak of our inevitable defeat, but they are wrong. Your reign is eternal, and you will be victorious. I am ever-prepared to follow your edict, your Imperial Majesty.”

”Then let it be known, Homura, that you shall be the Emissary of the Palace and you shall let all know to not stray from my light.”

The words of the Monarch of All resonated throughout the chamber as He allowed His hands to spread out as the proclamation spread throughout the Divine Palace. He no longer looked upon his judge, but into the air as power surged from His very core and entered Homura’s very soul as her new position gripped her. The power was overwhelming at first, more than what she would need but such was His reward for unquestioning and unyielding loyalty to the great Lord of Reality. Once it was all said and done, He gazed down upon her, and gestured with an upwards hand before He spoke softly.

”Rise o’ loyal Homura and know that you will speak my will and ensure that none will stray from the path again.”

“Yes, your Imperial Majesty!” Homura stood straight and steadfast as she answered, brimming with fiery resolve reflected in the many mirrors of the glass garden, but there in that space, the brightest mirror shining with cosmic clarity was her eyes in which the Monarch of All Himself was reflected and seen. Though mortals and even demi-divine were unable to fully bathe in the true glory of the Monarch of All, they would know His will, and know His wondrous radiance, and they shall be replenished with reverence and gratitude. With regained strength, life will walk the Sacred Path once more.

”Now go, my Emissary, my Highest Judge, and let them know my path! My will be done!”

The Goddess of Honor bowed once more, before she departed the heavenly palace, and began the journey back to Galbar. With renewed purpose as an instrument of His will, she would follow the divine command of the Monarch of All and bring beauty to a world that had forgotten its origin. There was an indefinite amount of work to do after all.



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Hidden 6 mos ago Post by Lord Zee
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Lord Zee I lost the game

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Intertwined





Chailiss did not react to the world as he flew south. He heard the words of the champion and felt something else amiss in the heavens but anything else was lost to him or set aside for later thoughts. His mind was a crypt of grief and anger. For his nisshi was dead and he was to blame for abandoning her as much as the green murder was to blame for letting her kill herself. So he flew and his mind turned darker. Colder. A precaution for whatever new insults Homura would throw at him.

He made landfall in the twilight, passing a sea of inland red. Stained like crimson in the deepening dark. Viho’s knowledge was sound and soon enough a glow lit the horizon. This Eternal Flame, protected by a red keep.

It was night when he finally arrived. The three familiar colossi stood near the shore, their massive hooves hidden beneath the deep red waves, but even they seemed dwarfed by the size of the citadel close to them. The walls were almost twice the height of the titanic creatures, and formed a great circle where more than twenty of the massive machines could easily fit within. The cubic keep itself seemed to stand even taller than the walls, but lacked any features; there were no windows or balconies, no architectural flourishes or designs. For all of its grandiosity, Keltra was an incredibly barren place.

The presence of Homura lingered all across the land, but it lacked the true power of divinity, informing the Lord of Winter that the red goddess was currently absent. However, noise could be heard coming from within the keep, and the familiar sounds of Courage, Kindness, and Fear as they conversed with others that spoke with similar voices reached Chailiss.

His divine form fell away as he approached the voices from the air. He took the guise of a tall Childan man, gaunt and haggard. His hair was white, there were fresh scars upon his chest and his icy blue eyes looked on with cold clarity. He wore his artifact like a medallion, far smaller than it ought to be but just as dangerous. It hummed with power.

His feet touched down inside the keep without sound. The mortals within did not hear his arrival, but the scarlet stone called out to him. The voices of thousands cried as they sensed the coming of their lost kin. His medallion and the keep itself had once been one, but now they were nothing more than shattered corpses that had been recycled by the Divine. The mark of the Calamity was not yet healed, the wound only festering as the gods warred with each other, and life was devastated in the crossfire.

Another sacred power detected his presence, welcoming him with its light. The Eternal Fire which sustained the life inhabiting the citadel was the only thing that did not seem macabre about the fortress, where the walls and structure had been forged from death, the burning monument had been created by Homura offering her own essence to the world.
By the large bonfire, the Heralds of Honor gathered and happily conversed about future plans for where they would visit, wondering about the sights they would see, and the people they would meet. Courage, Kindness, and Fear; all of them still wearing their blue crystal pendants, the last with her hand of ice, all bearing his power, then there were three more; two more simulacrums of Homura, and then a much more smaller, childish version of the red goddess.

They sat in a small area furnished with soft red pillows, and large white owl plushies resembling Viho, while a nearby table was laden with divine artifacts; an egg, a dark orb, a sheathed knife, and a wooden staff. Further within the vast hall, thousands more of the dormant vessels Homura offered were all currently sleeping. In one corner, there was a small room that seemed dedicated to one being that also slept peacefully.

His eyes went back to the smallest one. Memories of Nisshi came to his mind and he found himself staring at her. He felt a pang of regret at that moment. They looked nothing alike yet… She was small. Nisshi had been small too. It was enough for Chailiss to want to leave. The guilt was too much and he about did, as silently as he entered but he knew he had come too far now. It was too late to go back empty handed. So the god of cold summoned a small chilling breeze and sent it into the room.

It ushered a subtle disruption in their conversation, and caused a few to look towards the doorways where the God of the Cold stood. At first they hesitated, but Courage, Kindness, and Fear were quick to recover. They arose, and stepped closer before they bowed before the tall god. “Your grace, welcome to Keltra.” They said in unison.

The other three regained their composure and approached as well, repeating the same act of reverence that their sisters performed. All of them straightened themselves and looked at him with cheerful smiles which soon turned to concern when they saw his weary visage. “Are you hurt, your grace?” Kindness asked.

”Nothing that won’t heal in time, dear Kindness.” He said, forcing a small smile. ”Viho delivered Homura’s message. Here I am but where is the Lady of the keep?” He asked, changing the subject.

The smallest champion moved to the front of her sisters. “My name is Pride, and I’m the Keeper of Keltra, your grace. Our mother said she was seeking an audience with the King in Heaven, and will return soon. I’ve been told to inform you of her future intentions regarding the Green Murder and your role as the one Whose Breath Bears Icy Winds.”

He knelt before the small champion and nodded. ”Pride. You were mentioned as well. But before you tell me this,” He said, ”Who might be your other two sisters? I have not met them.” He looked upon the two whose names he did not know.

“I’m Curiosity! Nice to meet you!” The first announced, and almost jumped with her unbound enthusiasm, the sister next to her was much more subdued and simply said a single word while Curiosity poked and prodded her to get her to introduce herself. “Wanderer.” The reticent champion murmured softly. They seemed to be opposites in personality and demeanor, but their love for each other was there, hidden beneath the masks they presented.

“We heard about your land from our sisters, and we'd like to come visit sometime! Mother also promised to show us snow when she gets back!” Curiosity continued, and looked eagerly between her sisters and Chailiss. The others remained unfazed by her jubilant excitement, and stayed both polite and formal around the god. “Easy, sis.” Courage commented, but then they all awaited an answer from the God of the Cold.

”Curiosity. Wanderer. Well met.” The god tilted his head to them, eye lingering on Curiosity. Her joy, excitement… Nisshi. He went silent for several moments then gave her a small smile. ”You and your sisters are always welcome in the North. Just… Let me know if you ever come.” His gaze fell back upon the trio he knew first. ”I heard of an ill fated journey. Tell me, Fear, how is your hand treating you? Are you well? And you Courage. Are you well? Who was it that saved you?”

“I was saved by another goddess, her name was Sala. She brought me back, and reunited me with my sisters. I’m doing well, ya.” Courage answered, and a hint of sorrow slipped in her voice at the end. She stepped in between Kindness and Fear, and placed her hands on their shoulders. Her anxious sister then spoke, looking at the hand of ice that served as a replacement for her lost appendage. “I’m doing well, your grace. Your gift has really helped me. I can’t tell you how thankful I am for what you did.” Fear allowed herself to smile, and placed her frozen hand over Courage’s.

He gave a nod and then his icy gaze fell upon Kindness. ”I can only imagine what must have gone through your mind. All of your minds. Be gentle and kind to one another, for life is fleeting.” he blinked and looked to the floor. ”It can be taken from us without a moment’s notice. Hang tight to those that you love and let them know love all the same.” A frozen tear shattered upon the keep floor and Chailiss took another moment to steady himself before he looked upon Pride. ”What would your Mother expect of me then?”

The six champions looked among themselves, before wordlessly approaching the deity. Each of them embraced Chailiss, Courage tossing Pride up so that she could hug the tall god properly. “Before that, rest, your grace. Even the Divine need their moments of respite.” The small champion whispered as she clung to him. Kindness was the first to let go and spoke softly. “It is not your fault… What happened.” Curiosity joined her. “It’s not your fault.” Then Wanderer, who offered a solemn nod. Last was Courage. “Don’t blame yourself.” The usually brash champion spoke much more gently. Fear and Pride continued to hold onto Chailiss, refusing to let go.

The God of Cold did not know what to do. It was in his capacity to understand what a hug was. A sign of affection, for comfort and warmth. But to a god? So he let himself be hugged for a time, neither moving or breathing. The fact that these mortals had hearts larger than any divine, was not lost on him. For they were the future and what they all should be fighting for to protect. Even if Homura’s champions did not know the true depth of his pain or even the cause of it, they recognized something was amiss and had acted. What a gift it was. What a gift.

”Sweet things.” he began, ”The world can be a dark and cruel place but you make it better. Compassion, empathy… Kindness. These are the virtues we must hold so dear. Without them, all else seems lost.” He sighed. ”I will tell you something, for your Mother must know as well… I have met the Green Murder, she is the one who has scarred me so. And she… My… Daughter, Nisshi… She died trying to kill her. Died… Trying to avenge the death of her friends.”

The four sisters that gazed upon the god and the two that held onto him found themselves confronted by what they had been dreading ever since their mother taught them the cruelty of the world. Like before, they refused to surrender to despair, and thought they could not understand the pain Chailiss felt. They could not completely understand this divine being they inherently loved, but they could love him completely. They silently offered prayers for their fallen sister, hoping their mother heard, that the King in Heaven heard.

Pride felt the tears trail down her face, and pain constricting her throat, but she would not let such deny her the ability to articulate her feelings. “I’m sure she still loves you. She’ll love you always.”

“The Shepherd’s lost… and his home is far… The night is long… and the path is dark… Look to the sky… the dawn will come.” Wanderer sang, and then her sisters joined her.

“Shadows fall, and hope has fled… ice your heart… the dawn will come…”

Then Fear let go, and looked to Chailiss. “You saved me. Let us save you.”

As mortals, there was nothing more they could do. They stood by him, and offered their support. They were all aware that they lacked the ability to undo the damage, and that they could cause more harm if they tried to simply erase the pain. However, they would remain with him. They would always be there when he needed them.

Chailiss sat in silent reflection, shedding but one more tear. For the loss of his daughter, for the beauty he witnessed from mortals who had never even met her. His heart and soul felt the warmth of their song and touch. Perhaps his grief could be shared after all, whether he spoke or not, they did care. ”All of you remind me of her.” He said after some time. ”I think she would have liked to know you all. Perhaps even building a lasting friendship. Here…” An idea came to mind, and Chailiss waved his hand. From the ceiling came small snowflakes and then a story.

The snow acted as a medium. It showed a small wispy creature, more of a cloud or made of smoke. It danced around another figure’s head, Chailiss in the form of a bjork. The bjork disappeared and she took different shapes. A small bjork, a smaller mink, a chirping bird, and a fawn. All the while she played within the snowy images, brushing the red hair of Fear and Kindness as she danced around the room. Then the form dissipated into a poof of snowflakes that fell around Curiosity.

”A parent should only want what’s best in life for their children. I failed my daughter, for I was not there to protect her from such… Needless cruelty. Take heart, Daughters of Homura. You have pried my heart open a little, allowing warmth in again. For this, I shall always be thankful. Know that you are all beautiful souls and any parent would be proud of you.” Chailiss gave a small smile to them.

Love and grief tasted bittersweet, and though their hearts ached, there was an inner feeling that consoled them, comforted them despite the pain. “Your words bring us much joy, your grace. We can’t understand the burdens you carry, but we can pray that an angelic light guides you. As Keeper of Keltra, know that you’re always welcome here.” Pride said, unable to ascertain whether she was crying because she was sad or happy.

Then the six champions looked to the doorways, where the darkness of the night had been banished by an otherworldly light. They sensed the return of their mother. Chailiss sensed the return of Homura.

The red goddess descended towards the entrance of the keep, appearing in one of the many southern doorways where she alighted on the ground. Daybringer illuminated the world around her, and all of the dancing shadows within Keltra retreated into the Eternal Fire where they hid from the stern visage of Homura, as she approached the denizens gathered around the large bonfire.

“Brother.” She greeted him with only one word, as she stepped towards him and bowed.

Chailiss rose from his knee, his expression becoming hard and gave her a respectful nod. ”Homura. I must thank you for extending an invitation to visit your home. Your daughters and I were just about to discuss the topics you had in mind.”

“Hmm… I arrived at an appropriate time then. Allow me to explain my reasons for calling you here. First: I have learned the identity of the Green Murder. She is our sister, Phelenia, Goddess of Plants and Animals. For her crimes against life, she will stand trial and answer to justice. I require you to provide testimony as evidence, so you are being summoned as the Guardian of the North and all life that dwells there. I must ask, and know that I mean no offense, but do you still claim what you once said to me; that you will protect life? If you claim otherwise, I only require your testimony and you need not attend the trial in any other greater capacity than that.” Homura explained, her ever impassive mask and tone giving no hint to her thoughts on the matter, or regarding the one she spoke to. She was neither warm or cold, she seemed robotic in her presentation.

Chailiss nodded. ”I still claim it.” He put simply. ”As I told your daughters, so I shall tell you. I fought Phelenia. She returned to the north and summoned a flood to wash away the bjork. Too late I arrived to stop the flood outright but I did what I could to help those who suffered… Too late I arrived to stop my own daughter from dying when she tried to kill Phelenia. I… Almost killed her myself. But it was not my place to be an executioner when she had not yet been judged. I told her as much. That you would judge her. All I ask is that you do so.”

The red goddess remained silent for a moment, evidently pondering his words until she finally spoke. “She has committed greater crimes than I thought. Your daughter will have to attend the trial as well. Her attempted murder is still a crime, but as a child, she shall simply be lectured and taught the proper path. Phelenia will now face judgment for three crimes. Though it may not be worth much, you have my condolences for the pain she has caused you and your family.” There was emotion in her voice then, and a look of understanding in her eyes as she listened to Chailiss.

”Nisshi is dead, Homura. She cannot attend a trial. Her soul is elsewhere. Nor can she be lectured or taught the proper path. Her actions were born out of revenge for the loss of a friend and she, as much as I hate to admit it, paid the ultimate price. Let the dead rest.” he said in a quiet whisper.

“Hmm… I apologize, as I apparently was not clear. She will be attending the trial. That is the truth. I will speak with our brother, Voi, about the fate of her soul, as that is his aspect. Whatever ultimate price you speak of, it is nonsense. There was only theft. Phelenia stole a life that did not belong to her. I digress, if it pains you, we may move on to the second reason for why I called you here?” Homura replied, unfazed and stern once more. Her eyes burned like shimmering rubies in the light of the Eternal Fire, and they were not the eyes of a mortal that did not understand the meaning of their existence. They were the eyes of one that had stared into the blazing sun without being blinded, and saw its light.

Chailiss stared blankly back at her, unfazed. ”So wise is the judge of the Creator. Indifferent, as any good judge should be.” He said coldly, giving her another slight bow. ”I was not aware of Voi or his aspect. I will be most curious to see what he says. It does give me hope… Now, what is that reason?”

“The second reason: I wish to share information. I have encountered a few of our other siblings and ascertained their aspects and alignments. There are our brothers; Voi the God of Souls, Voligan the God of Earth, Iqelis the God of Doom, Jiugui the God of Wine, Apostate the God of Defiance, and Tuku the God of the Hunt. There are our sisters, Zenia the Goddess of Revelry, Yudaiel the Goddess of Prescience, and Sala the Goddess of Salt. I have yet to meet Yoliyachicoztl the Goddess of Heat, or Astus, Avros, and Ruina; of unknown aspects. I do not know how many other deities exist in our pantheon, but our allies are few and two of us have been slain by our own hands. What helpful information do you possess, brother?” Homura asked.

”Yoliyachicoztl is an ally, I have not met any others save Zenia. This is all I know, besides the stench of death and decay in the north. If it is another God, I have not found their identity.” Chailiss said absentmindedly.

“Hmm… Voi, Voligan, Zenia, and Apostate have agreed to protect life. I am uncertain regarding Jiugui, Tuku, and Sala. Iqelis and Phelenia advocate death and despair, and Yudaiel has a violent temperament. I would not be surprised if she is willing to sacrifice many lives in order to achieve her goals. I wish to discuss the nature of the role our Lord has given you. I do not intend to enforce you into obedience, but we must cooperate. I ask that you grant me permission to visit the north, so that I may help those that are suffering there. Know that I do not desire to intrude upon your domain, and will inform you of my every intention while I am there. Please, brother.” Unlike the two deities that easily stood and faced each other while they talked, the six champions found that attempting to remain still and standing was rather arduous. They silently bowed and stepped back to allow the two deities to continue their conversation without an audience.

”Tell me one thing. How would you help those suffering?” he asked, looking her in the eye.

Homura gestured for him to follow her outside of the keep, and answered while she walked. “I must inform our brother, Jiugui, that he is no longer considered the one that holds jurisdiction over the Bjork. That is now your responsibility. Then I will provide life with the resources it requires to sustain itself. This cycle of cannibalism ends now, and our children will no longer have to eat each other to stay alive. I will teach them the arts, communication, and how to protect themselves from evil. To do this, I need to establish an embassy, where I can manage the details of the operation, and exert efforts into restoring peace. Whatever nefarious plan you thought I would conjure, it will not happen. I advocate sacred change, and spiritual growth. Perfection is not a word I employ in my vocabulary. It sounds too similar to perversion. Does this explanation suffice?”

Chailiss looked off into the distance now. ”And what if the denizens of the north do not want your aid? Would you become a tyrant and enforce such change? Would you kill those that disagree with you?” he sighed. ”I never thought you nefarious. You just think so differently than any others when it comes to how mortals should be and act. You gifted humans to many gods, and yet you were disappointed when you learned how they would be living and cannibalizing, as you say. Why give them at all if it pains you? I simply cannot wrap my mind around you or your thoughts. You wield so much power now Homura, as Judge, to any of we gods would listen to you- Your words will carry weight.”

She closed her eyes and contemplated his words, letting their lingering silence be overwhelmed by the song of the night. The sea beyond the wall with its waves washing along the shore, and the sky filled with the whispers of the wind. She listened to its voice as well, and felt the weight of the world.

“I am not infallible. I have made mistakes, and I will make many more, but that is why we must cooperate. I will not heed only one voice, I will hear all of the desperate pleas, the furious curses, the hopeful prayers, and the unheard cries of lost children. I would seek wisdom before making any decision. I… I understand your apprehension. I am also concerned. I originally thought that all of our siblings would be worthy of the gifts I shared, but I was wrong. I did not want this power, and it means nothing if I ultimately fail. Know that I cannot lie, and my previous words spoken on those cold shores still hold true. If you think I am a threat to life, do what you believe is right.” Homura looked at one of her hands, both were hidden beneath scarlet wraps, and she clenched her fist with a mix of sorrow and frustration. Her gaze turned to Chailiss, as she presented him with the decision of her fate once more.

He stepped forth and laid a hand upon her shoulder. ”My heart could not bear the weight of more death, and to take away your daughter's Mother. I would be no worse than Phelenia or Iqelis.” He let his hand drop and looked back out at the expanse. ”The fact you yourself are concerned speaks volumes. Even the noblest of intentions can be led astray and down into a darker path. I would hope clarity and reason would preserve if it ever comes to that. You may have access to the north, as a sign of good faith between us. Only know that if your methods become a detriment to the peoples of the north, then you will have to go. And I would prefer to have a voice within whatever council or body you elect to run your embassy.” he rubbed his temple and looked back at the smaller Goddess. ”I am putting a lot of trust within you, Homura. The North has suffered enough from those wanting to teach lessons without giving anyone a choice. Do better.”

Homura smiled slightly, and her relief was apparent. “Thank you, brother. I will endeavor to help those in need, and will only act to guide them, not control them.” As she spoke, she revealed a shiny stone in her hand, shimmering like the moon in the night sky. She held out the stone to him.

“I hope I can help you reunite with your family, as you have helped me with mine. This stone is a promise of aid from our sister, Yudaiel, and she will know how to find Voi. I will give you this, and you can call upon her to help you. I must speak with our other siblings, but we should reconvene either here or in the North after you have spoken with Voi, and I have met with those that will work with us. You can always call out to me, and I will come as soon as I can.”

He looked upon the stone, thoughts twirling and running in his head. But then he shook his head. ”That was intended for you, Homura.” He gave her a small smile. ”I thank you regardless. I will meet this Yudaiel in time, for if what you say is true about her, I do not want to be indebted to such a Goddess. As for Voi, now that I know he exists It is only a matter of time before I find him. There are strange happenings in the North, perhaps it all ties together.”

“So be it. Finally, my third reason for summoning you has been partially handled. You have a weapon to defend yourself with now, but I wish to offer some of my own power to further increase its potency. Will you accept this offer?” Homura replied, and then asked as she gestured to the cold medallion around his neck.

Chailiss clutched the medallion and felt its power thrum. ”I am not sure… It is a dangerous artifact, Homura. Forged of destruction and violence. Yet my soul is wary of the times yet to come. If Phelenia ever returns I have a feeling she will not be so ill prepared as last time. She will want revenge, for one as misguided and cruel as she cannot change for the better.” The medallion came loose around his neck and he clutched it by the straps, showing it to Homura before nodding.

“For now, we must be ready to defend ourselves, but I hope for a future where peace and prosperity has been established, and all among the pantheon work together to create wondrous beauty. This fortress was forged from the same calamity that echoes in this relic, but such terrible violence… I pray it will forever remain a bitter memory.” Her hand reached out, and began to pulse with divine power, radiating celestial light that transformed into glowing rivers which swam towards the artifact, then pierced it. Time slowed, as it seemed her actions had released the ferocious storm held within and powerful gales of frost spread in all directions, but as the destruction spread, the air that had been around them did not stir, and the land was not shook or torn asunder. The storm within the artifact did not touch the world, as though it were only an illusion.

“Hmm… I do not have enough power to complete my work, but I think you will appreciate what I have done. Your weapon is dangerous, but only to those that you deem an enemy. Its strength and rage will not harm the innocent any longer.” Homura explained, as what little of her remaining power receded back into her.

”That will suffice. Thank you.” Chailiss said, and placed it back around his neck. ”Was there anything else you wished to discuss?”

“Nothing necessary. I wished we had the time to share ideas and create a better world together, but I am afraid that is not an option. We must rush to those that suffer even now, since that is our duty as the Divine. I wish you good fortune on your journey, brother. We will need it.” She answered, peering back into the warm confines of the keep where her champions waited, then her attention turned to the west where the presence of another god reached her senses.

“Iqelis is here. You should take your leave, and find Voi. Find your missing daughter. We will meet again, Lord of Winter. It brings me joy that this farewell ends with hope instead of anger.” The red goddess continued, holding her spear tightly as she prepared for the arrival of Doom.

”I would stay and help you but I know this is not my place for now. So I shall go. But.. Ah, I am not without gifts of my own before I leave.” From his hands came a swirling of mist that grew larger and larger. He held it up into the sky as she spoke and it formed, ”Your champions are always telling me they wish to visit the North. I know not how you will feel about this gift, Homura, but do not judge it so harshly as you would others. Even young women need time away from home.” Before them came a sleek and narrow boat of dark pine, oak and cherry. Large enough to fit five or so humans comfortably, wide enough for only two to sit side by side but with room for cargo more at the narrower front. A layer of frost began to cover the hull and from the underside came flurries. At the back there was a rudder and a spot for someone to steer the ship by controlling it. When it was completed he looked towards the interior of the keep and shouted, ”Daughters of Honor! Come and visit me!” before he turned to Homura, winked and then dissipated into a flurry of snowflakes that formed into his divine form and vanished into the night.

They emerged from their home, and saw the ship that was near Homura. Their eyes widened, and they looked at the snow swirling in the air left in the wake of the Winter Lord’s departure, and their eyes alighted with even greater wonder. Homura merely shook her head with a content sigh. “So the cold has a sense of humor… Chailiss has given you all a gift. Do not break it while I go on a walk.” She said, as her champions all bowed to her before loudly calling out to the heavens in hopes that he may hear. “Thank you, uncle!”



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Yolly Week


I


The air was superheated, the perfect temperature for a nice, long, relaxing magma bath in the deepest and most exclusive pool of Zya’s Bathing Emporium. Sparks of pure heat came off the pool of bubbling magma and met their end upon coming into contact with Ichtaca’s rock-solid scales. He sighed out all of the stress he’d accumulated over the last three tides, taking in the sights and sounds of the flowing magma… His favourite sound was probably the constant sounds of the magma-fall that came from the end of Amoxtli’s Claw, but the drips and glugs that echoed throughout the chamber as the very same magma drained down into the Coals were a close second.

He sneezed a big glob of flaming snot into the fiery pool and watched as the mucus, glittering all sorts of colours thanks to the sacred nature of the chamber, dissolved and became one with the magma.

“I do love some alone time at the sauna.”

“What Did You Say Uncle??” Asked the small child swimming around Ichtaca. He chuckled and shook his head.

“Nothing lil’ gecko, I just forgot I wasn’t alone for a moment.”

“That Happens When You’re Old.”

Ichtaca’s right eye twitched, “Listen here you lit-” He stopped in his tracks, perking up. The child giggled and swam up to him, poking his chest and forearms with his forehead. Ichtaca paid the child no mind however, as he had heard something… Different and unnatural, reverberating through the walls of the chamber.

Just as he began to relax, it happened again. This time, he tensed up and jerked his head around to try and locate the exact source of the sound. By this point, his grandchild had realized something wasn’t right.

“W-What’s Happening, Tecol?” The child said in a shaky, small voice.

“Shush.” Ichtaca whispered back.

Again. Ichtaca jerked his head a few more times and pinpointed the source of the noise to be some distance down Amoxtli’s Claw. Several tidbits of information popped up in his head as he tried to figure out what it was that was probably making the noise, and that was when he remembered that Amoxtli’s Claw was the only tunnel connecting Zya to the Great Yoliya’s Sacred Bathing Tube, the very tube that went to the heavens and the hells themselves.

II


The Boss’ latest project was mostly a drag. With everyone having to wait for the heat at the surface to pass, the only thing they could really do was send out Surveyor drones and try to find resources to extract once the resettlement efforts actually commenced. It was boring work, especially for Evoker. She didn’t like it. In truth, she didn’t like much of anything lately.

Another day, another hundred strides of tunnels mapped. Blah, blah, blah… If she was capable of falling asleep she would’ve done so already, or maybe she would be sipping on some Enerjuice and kicking her feet up on the control panel.

Evoker pressed a button and the drone feed flickered a few times, her own visor doing the same as she connected directly to the drone’s motor systems and sensors.

It was a strange thing, being able to so easily override someone else’s control of their bodies. Not that the drone cared, really - it wasn’t even conscious.

While inside of the Surveyor’s body, she explored the tunnels. Its onboard sensors relayed all the information they could back to her real body - The heat, the pressure, the extreme contrast between light and dark… All of it but the actual soul of the place. Figuratively speaking of course, she reminded herself. It wasn’t as if anything had a soul on Astalon anymore, not after-

An alarm popped up in the upper right corner of her vision.

COMPLEX LIFE FORMS DETECTED. CANNOT CONFIRM LEVEL OF CONSCIOUSNESS.

Her visor blinked yellow, and dug through the Surveyor’s systems to activate its active sonar. Soon enough, she had pinpointed the location of the life forms. Just as she began to accelerate towards the lifeforms, Astus burst into the surveillance room.

“Heeello there, Evocat! My favorite creation, my most effective worker!” He exclaimed, walking at a brisk pace to Evoker’s side with an infuriatingly wide smirk on his face. “What have ya got here I wonder.” He mused, leaning in a little and looking at the drone feed.

“Lif-”

Astus cut her off. “Life forms detected! Finally! Do ya think they are composed of valuable materials? You’d like a chestpiece upgrade wouldn’t ya Evocat?”

Evoker remained silent, focusing her best to maintain a stable connection with the Surveyor Drone until finally, the drone erupted into a great chamber - an intersection between many different tunnels, with magma fall and drains that went even lower into the Galbar - and saw two life forms indeed.

They were two monstrously sized lizard-like beings, and they were… Swimming in the pool of magma. One was much bigger than the other, probably a parent, and frozen in place as they were, Evoker took the opportunity to fly closer.

“Abnormal biology. The Surveyor’s sensors aren’t calibrated to get a read on this kind of creature’s internals. Taking pictures…”

Three flashes of white light illuminated the faces of the two lizards.

“HEY! Bring up that last picture, Evoker.” Astus ordered and she obeyed.

“See that?” He said, pointing at dozens of glints in the background of the photo.

“Yes. Gemstones. Ores.”

“Exactly! We found what we’re looking for. Pull back for n-”

‘Sssss ssss ss ssssss!’

The static-filled hissing came through the speakers of the surveillance station, Evoker’s visor blinking yellow.

“Evoker, translate.” Astus ordered.

“Sssss ssss ss ssssss!”

“That isn’t a translation, you’re just hissing.”

“Missing language index required to translate new language. I can’t fulfill this request, Boss.”

“Tsk.” Astus clicked his tongue and crossed his arms. “Continue observation. Focus on the gemstones now. Try to find signs of Aethelic Infusion. We need more material for Generation Three.”

The Surveyor drone then floated over to one of the walls of the chamber and took several more pictures. It all went smoothly, until…

’Sss!’

The Surveyor’s feed caught the smaller lizard scurrying off into one of the side tunnels, and immediately after that the whole feed shook and the drone fell to the superheated ground at the shores of the magma pool. Alarms blared in Evoker’s visor, so much so that sparks flew. Before she could react, she felt herself being forcibly disconnected by Astus.

“Hm,” The God mused, side-eyeing the small amount of smoke coming from Evoker’s head before focusing back on the feed. From the edge of the feed, a glowing hot liquid dribbled down into view, damaging the camera as it went.

Then the large lizard crawled into view, inspecting the drone’s single camera before leaning back and spitting on it.

CONNECTION LOST.

Astus read the text on the screen a few times, before shrugging. “We found what we’re looking for. Prepare a squadron of Hunters for extreme heat and pressure. Use the new assembly line and make sure to use materials from the Labyrinth… If we don’t have enough, I’ll leave it up to you to organize an expedition or two into the place. Sapient or not, those oversized geckos don’t know the value of the stuff they’re sitting on.”

III


Evoker stood at the edge of Astalon’s only volcano, observing the dozens of Hunters, Seekers, Extractors and Neurons as they plunged themselves fearlessly into the red hot lava at the center, heading for the depths of the Galbar in search for even more materials to feed the beast that was Astech.

To her sides were Aliver and Cat Lover, two of the first Second Generation Primes to have been created. They both had been serving for less than a decade by this point, and were given the assignment of shadowing Evoker. Honestly, it was a pain having to deal with their questions… Not really because of having to answer them, but due to their innocent nature and organic outlook on things. It reminded her of what she’d done, even after years of trying to lock the memories away behind layer upon layer of encryption that even she had trouble cracking.

“So what’re we sendin’ these things into lava for, Evoker?” Asked the shortest of her apprentices standing to her left. It was Aliver with her trademark soft voice box and ding sound effect.

“I transmitted the briefing documentation to you sixteen hours ago, Aliver. Please make sure to process it the moment you receive it in the future. We’re machines, we’re meant to be efficient and industrious. To answer your question, we’re merely observing Astech’s newest drone detachment as they delve into the Galbar’s crust in search for Aethelic Infused Resources. The resources that your core is made of.”

“Evoker, I tried to log into the Astech Cloud last night to take a look at the job pack but my login details aren’t work-” Said Cat Lover to her right, his communication glitch still present.

“Cat Lover, your voice box is still glitching, it cuts off your sentences just before you finish them. Did you attend the Maintenance Appointment I organized for you with the Boss?”

“Uh-”

“Cat Lover, you’re a machine. You do not need to make needless noises with your voice box. You did not attend the appointment?”

“... Sor-”

Evoker remained silent for a moment, her visor flashing red before slowly going back to a blue hue “... Make sure to attend the next appointment I’ve set for you. Also, did you submit a request to be logged into the Cloud after you provided your credentials?”

“...”

“If you do not submit a request after providing your credentials, Mind will disregard your attempt to log in as a misfire.”

“Evoker, I need to pee.” Said Aliver to her left, a ding echoing out after she’d finished speaking.

“Aliver, you’re a machine. You do not need to urinate, defecate, or engage in sexual acts. These sensations are merely ghosts floating around in your Core. Reminders of your previous organic platform and therefore to be disregarde-”

BOOM

An explosion rang out, the shockwave sending the younger Primes flying back and onto their backsides, while Evoker herself merely braced herself. The very volcano even shook a little and small pieces of charred debris plinked uselessly against the Primes’ reinforced bodies. They were the pieces of what used to be a Neuron, of the few that were floating somewhat far away as they waited for their turn to delve into the depths.

The Hunters and Extractors under its direct influence flagged and crashed, some against the rock of the volcano, others into the lava where they immediately began to melt due to their Aethelic Temperature Regulators being offline, and others all the way down into the forests surrounding the foot of the volcano. Those that fell into the forests weren’t too lucky, as smaller explosions rang out soon after.

“Speaking of ghosts…” Muttered Aliver, to which Cat Lover reacted with a metallic chuckle.

“... Activate your Ea Nerdbel RFGs, Aliver, Cat Lover.”

Soon after, a constant hum emitted from all three Primes along with a low purple glow.

It was going to be a long operation, Evoker realized, feeling even more figurative weight piled onto her metal shoulders, and immediately reported the encounter back to Mind who would take care of arranging the deployment of a new Neuron Squadron sometime soon.

For now, they’d have to make do with two thirds strength. Well, it wasn’t like the geckos down under had anything besides fire spit and big bodies, right?





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There came a time when Ea Nebel, Maiden of All Tombs, set foot in the lands of the far north, so far almost that there was no longer any north left, only south. There was in those nights no aurora, for no god had given breath to such splendour. Long rays of evening sunlight sparkled on flurries of snowy glitter, and their dance upon the clean snow was beauty enough for the Maiden.

Yet there was something foul and hot on the wind. Something rotted here with a pestilent warmth, filling even the furthest north with the far-ranging stench of death. The gravedigger of deity folded her mittens into her coat with a grim squint as her boar followed the scent. She knew her duty. Her joyless task would be executed, come Hell itself.

A sound before her was so foreign to the land that Ea Nebel barely noticed it the first two times. Only when the snow grew thin and the air unnaturally warm did she notice what was flying towards her from the heart of the sulphurous miasmic anomaly. An insect- a fly. Not even a blowfly, born of carrion. This was a common fly. This kind was only born of...

...

"By the Heaven-"

Ea Nebel stood on the permafrost and stared at the ghastly abomination poisoning earth and air before her, covering her mouth and nose, eyes wide as a stack of gunmetal ball-bearings. Word left her, thought cringed away. The staggeringly nauseating mass was the work of a demon, not a god. None numbered among her family could have the demented perversion of imagination to conjure into being something so unutterably vile. No monument stood before her. It was an affront.

Gripped with righteous disgust, Ea Nebel felt her internal furnace burn hot within her, and pulled from the ground a tall torch already roaring with cleansing fire. The frost around her gave way to bilious brown mud churned with the worst kind of filth. Choking on vomitous fumes belching from the hill, Ea Nebel advanced through a dense, buzzing hail of flies, deriving no comfort from this profane lesser breed of her father's sacred creature and offering them no mercy from her light. Her crusade bore her to within the closest possible reach of the thing, and there she hurled the torch like a spear into its glistening feculent surface.

It stuck there, falling wetly onto the vast and uncomfortably body-warm heap like a dropped matchstick, sputtered weakly, and went out.

...

"IGNITE!"

The hill erupted into a pillar of flame that pierced Heaven. All colour disappeared except that of fire. Ea Nebel staggered from the conflagration, choking on smoke too black and noxious to speak of. Meltwater steamed up all around her, rising to surround a long smear of toxic brown smoke that would billow from the roiling inferno for one thousand years.

She did not visit those parts again for some time, but was ever after grateful for the bright, crisp cleanness of fresh fallen snow.

MERRY CHRISTMAS DIVINUS 2021





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Hidden 6 mos ago Post by Legion02
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Wardens of the Crimson Woods

“Run. Run!” Brunai shouted at Venar. The young boy did as he was told. He started running through the bushes and in between the trees. He heard his friend shout at something behind him. He could hear the whooshing of a very large branch. Brunai was fighting something off, he knew it. Then there was a gust of wind and everything fell silent. He stopped and turned around. He saw nothing. Burani was gone. Not dead, just completely gone. Just like the others. An hour ago, at sundown, he would’ve run back to check upon her.

Now he just kept on running. The forest was impossibly huge though and he had no idea in what direction to run. So he just kept going in one direction hoping he would finally find the edge of the forest. There was a chill on his back though. He felt as if he was being watched from somewhere above and behind him. Like some great bird would snatch him up at any moment. So he kept running and running. Until he suddenly saw the light of a clearing poured through the trees in a distance. He was nearly there. Just a little further. Just a little further.

And then he tripped over a branch he hadn’t seen. He looked up. His face was caked in mud and leaves. It was right there. Something wrapped around his legs. “No! NO!” He tried to crawl but whatever wound around his legs suddenly pulled him back and then there was only blackness.

~

“Sycrae!”

Sycrae slowly opened her eyes. She was lounging in the sun near a clearing, on a stone with a creek running around it giving her plenty of water to drink. Those were the only things she needed in life. Before her stood four of dryad nymphs. They all looked like humans with light green skin and dark green hair. Huge leaves and flower petals were wrapped around them as clothes. “What is it?” She asked. The dream was already fading.

“You have to come! Quickly!” One of them insisted. Whitoa, a nymph who had already wrapped herself in the native red leaves of the area. Tears were streaming from her eyes as she was tugging Sycrae’s arm. Which caused the dryad sentinel to jump up immediately and follow the group of nymphs. Unlike them, she looked more as if she was armored: her skin was mostly bark now and her hair looked more like a tangle of vines. Branches grew through her hair as if she was crowned.

Only a moment later and the group of nymphs with Sycrae in tow arrived near two more nymphs hunched over something. “Out of my way,” Sycrae said. The younger nymphs were quick to obey her. When she finally reached what they were hunched over, she saw what caused so much worry: a fox. A regular, wounded fox. An eagle or some other predator had probably attacked it. The fox seemed to have gotten away but the wounds were too deep. He would die.

“We have to help him!” Whitoa yelled as she kneeled down next to the fox. “Please! How?” She was pleading with Sycrae. The sentinel wasn’t moved, though. She stroked the fox along its back a bit. “We can’t help him. He’s already at the brink of death.” She said calmly.

“Well can’t you pull him back!?” Whitoa yelled.

“We shouldn’t.” She carefully said. “He is dying, it’s his time.” More nymphs were breaking down in tears around her. They weren’t hardened yet like the rest of the sentinels. With time that would come. Though she envied their hearts. Sycrae was born as a sentinel. She and Whitoa were equally old. Yet there was still a youthfulness in Whitoa that Sycrae never had. Despite their heart and insistence, they wouldn’t dare cross Sycrae though.

But the sadness they felt now should not cause them to be consumed by hopelessness. “Who here is a beastspeaker?” She asked. Whitoa actually raised her hand. Sycrae didn’t know that about her, but apparently, fate was at her side today. “Come here, kneel down.” Sycrae said. The young nymph did as she was commanded. “I want you to stroke him like I did, and I want you to tell that the pain will soon end.”

Whitoa sobbed for a second but did as she was told. She spoke some ethereal words that nobody present could understand as she stroked the fox. Meanwhile, Sycrae carefully took the fox by its neck. First gently as to not stress it out. Whitoa saw her sister's hands and kept on talking. Sycrae wasn’t a beastspeaker but she could guess that Whitoa continued to comfort the poor animal. The sentinel had her hands ready, and gave a small nod to the nymph. Who swallowed her sorrow for a second, gave a nod, and told the fox some parting words. With one quick move Sycrae twisted its neck. It yelped for a second, and then the animal went limp in their hands.

“It’s over, you did well.” Sycrae said. Whitoa lifted up the fox in her arms. It was dead. Sycrae put a hand on her shoulder. “Listen, you helped end its suffering. That’s the most we can do. You understand that right?” The nymph gave a small nod but then walked away. She would probably cry some more with the fox’s body in her arms, but eventually, she’d surrender it to nature. Sycrae followed her for a moment with her eyes, and then turned away and looked the other way. There were more important things to watch here. The dryads of Ailorn, the name chosen by the Green Mother as she found the original name: Kel-Phelena displeasing, were tasked with watching the strange goddess Homura. So far Sycrae had never watched the pox mark upon the world by the name of Keltra from a distance. “I need to get closer.” She whispered to herself.





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Hidden 6 mos ago Post by Cyclone
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The Searing Tunnels
Somewhere beneath a volcanic island


Claws dug and ground into stone, carving a path forward, sloping upward. They worked quickly. The rising temperature in those infernal depths gave them urgency, for not even achtlaca could endure the mantle’s heat, and now its tide of fire was inexplicably and unseasonably rising, and quickly. As this unstable tunnel slowly flooded and heated as one great crucible, the rock walls ahead of them became softer and more easily broken – that was a welcome reprieve. They cast the excavated debris backward; the rising magma would dispose of it. It wasn’t far back; they tried to ignore its ominous bubbling as they toiled in the light of its incandescence.

“Didn’t plan for this, did you?” Yaquica, one of the hot-headed youths of the warband, spat out. That one dug his four frontmost claws to rend at the rock with fervor, fueled by frustration at what seemed like a doomed situation. This had not been their plan!

Achcauhtli, their leader and a giant of prodigious size, cast a baleful glance towards the smaller salamander. His aura projected enough reverence and calm to keep the group toiling with steely resolve; though the occasional complaint was inevitable. Still, were it not for his decisive orders a while back, they’d have probably only bickered and despaired until the rising tide of fire swallowed them all… or perhaps they’d have suicidally tried to dive into the chthonian magma and swim through the searing depths to get back to the deep passageways on the other side.

But then again, were it not for their chieftain here, the self-proclaimed master tactician and strategist, this foolhardy ploy would never have been attempted! Sure, it had sounded clever: they would take a smaller and more unstable branch of the lava tunnels, boring through any collapsed sections as needed, and take by surprise the volcano that housed their hated rival league. This war had stretched on for too many cycles, and a decisive victory was what they’d all longed for. So with a few smoothed words this stranger from another tribe, who’d sworn fealty to their lord only a cycle or two ago, had convinced their ruler to give him command over his finest warriors, for a surgical strike.

There was just something indescribable about Achcauhtli, this strange ‘tactician’. When he had offered battle plans in the war councils (which his size and age had quickly won him access to) they had always worked, almost as if by magic. The enemy did exactly as he predicted, and so he and his stratagems had won them many close battles in the great tunnels. When he spoke his designs, one could close their eyes and just envision everything as he spoke; Achcauhtli was blessed, the elders and sorcerers had said, but it didn’t take a sage or a prophet to see that.

The present was a lens that had a funny way of coloring the past, though. Perhaps they had all been wrong and this was just some lucky fool that they’d been made to follow, with schemes that’d worked only by miraculous chance; Achcauhtli was now seeming more and more like a fool, and one whose luck had run out at that. Whatever lingering respect they had for him was the only thing that kept the rest going, so Yaquica withheld the worst of his thoughts with bated breath.

A suicide mission, and one that looked like it might well end without glory or even combat, with us all being horrifically melted, none so much as knowing our fates, let alone remembering our legend…’ the warrior couldn’t help but muse to himself as he dug forward. What they faced was the worst sort of fate, far worse than perishing in honorable combat against the enemy.

Achcauhtli finally spoke after several long moments of tense silence, “How could I have accounted for it? Our plan has been sidetracked by this… unpredictable and unfortunate eruption from below. But we are not lost; our mission can be salvaged yet. We need only tunnel upward until the magma recedes, or we are met with another tunnel and can regain our bearings. Then I will reevaluate our position, and we will continue on to press the attack from another angle, or… return back empty-handed, if we must.”

Clever wordplay. Even young Yaquica had felt a flush of shame at the thought of returning from their mission as a failure, and so ended with that thought made it that much easier to keep going, to forget the rising tide, to just trust in their warband’s leader and press the attack even as their supplies grew perilously low.

The youth was still mulling over the manipulation of those words when his claws dug into the stone and made a strange sound. None of the others had heard it. He slapped and struck the rock wall with a strange motion, and the wall echoed louder this time, loud enough for the others to hear. They all rapidly began tapping upon it with their claws. “There’s a hollow cavity of some sort not much further this way,” one of them with much experience in such matters declared. Relief washed over Yaquica; perhaps he had been wrong to doubt Achcauhtli.

“Excellent,” their illustrious leader said, breathing in visible relief. He’d been more anxious that he’d let on. “Probe closer; we’re almost safe again.”

Eagerly and desperately they tunneled until there was a breach from whence bright light and frigid air spilled out. This deep? In fleeing the volcanism and rising magma they had come a long way up, but they should have still been far, far below the surface. Great Achcauhtli was too large to get into that narrowest part and peer through the hole, so while the others kept chipping away to widen and expand the tunnel, young Yaquica described what he saw. “There is a chamber here above us, and it does not seem at all natural, for the walls and ceilings are carved perfectly straight and smooth, and where the walls meet there is a harsh and sharp edge. This is not of achtlaca make, either… the proportions are all wrong.”

“It makes no matter; keep digging until the breach is wide enough for me to fit through,” Achcauhtli insisted. He left the obvious unsaid – that the magma was still rising, and they had no other choice but to press forward into this strange void, for good or ill.

With renewed enthusiasm, they quickly tore through the remaining span of stone and entered the artificial cavern. Their claws had a harder time than usual finding solid purchase on the smooth floor; it was tiled, and they found the tiny polished squares of stone to be utterly alien. Even in the harsh light of this room, which was inexplicably illuminated with some manner of strange lantern, they felt terribly exposed. Fortunately, it seemed that this place was devoid of any inhabitants…

That was, until they heard the light tapping of claws coming from up a stairway. Though spacious compared to the wormlike tunnels from whence they’d just emerged, this hall was still so small that they could only barely all stand abreast. All turned to face the oncomer, mighty Achcauhtli at the head of their defensive line formation.

A strange voice echoed from above with cadences and tones that were terrible and alien in their shrill chirps; they had no ear for whatever curses this incoming monstrosity had to lay upon them, so they merely readied themselves for the sight of whatever horror they would face. Moments later the demon at last descended to the bottom of the stairs and entered the room. It was slender and not terribly great of stature, much smaller than they’d expected from such a terrible foe, but it still looked as gruesome as they could have imagined. It had four limbs – two too few – and pointed ears; moreover, a ghastly and horrific chill seemed to enter the chamber at its heels.

Achcauhtli wasted not even a single breath. “A cecepaltictli! Slay the demon!”

Of course, Yaquica had already charged forward before the order had even been spat out. He was swift of foot, for his body still burned hot with youth, and so he closed half the gap between them and the demon in what felt like just one moment.

Startled and bewildered by their valor, the wretched demon stumbled backward and nearly tripped upon the stairs. He didn’t even attempt to fight back, it seemed to them, until something happened. None of them could tell what – in one moment the demon was scrambling up the stairs mewling and murmuring something that none of the brave warriors could hear or had ears to hear, and in the next it had looked over its shoulder and opened its mouth wide. Brave young Yaquica had nearly seized the fleeing demon by the tail and fallen upon it at that point, but instead horrific agony suddenly wracked him. Yaquica shrieked, and his body shuddered as clouds of strange fumes erupted from his stony hide. The demon had used some perfidious spell to strike at them, but even as Yaquica writhed, others scrambled over or around him in pursuit of the monster.

They came up to another chamber at the top of the stairs. This was an unbelievably vast void in the ground, and here and there near the walls were clusters of strange humanoids, small and four-limbed but reared up to stand on just their two hindmost legs. They were arrayed in perfectly regular formations, utterly motionless even as they seemed to hold all manner of weapons or tools in their hands. The sight of such an army of demons filled the warriors with cold terror for just a moment, and they froze. But then they realized with a start that this was some sort of graveyard, and all those demons mere icons.

So they continued giving chase to the still-living (and slightly warmer) demon. A few others like that one emerged from connected antechambers and hallways, and soon the warriors found themselves chasing not one cowardly demon but a small group of them. On all four legs the demons scrambled up yet another set of stairs, one of them calling out in their foul and oily-smooth cadence, “This is out of hand! We must summon the master!”

“He is busy, fool!” the first voice answered. Instead, that one, the cecepaltictli that they’d seen at the bottom of the last staircase, spun around suddenly and cried out, “Guardians! Attention!”

The achtlaca were met with the din of a thousand feet stomping the ground from just behind. They cast their eyes backward, away from the staircase and the foes they’d been pursuing, and beheld the sight of all those statues that they’d taken for icons moving. One, two, three strides forward they all took in perfect, freakish unison, before raising their weapons high in some strange salute. And their weapons were strange too, fashioned not from jagged and wicked obsidian, or from unyielding adamant or hefty granite, but some strange, shiny stone that gleamed in the lanterns’ light, a stone that they’d never seen.

“Guardians! Ready!”

Weapons that had been brandished in salute were suddenly leveled with deadly intent.

With a smugness to him, the demon demanded, “Now, cease this futile and most foolish aggression!”

They did no such thing, and met these attackers, these demonic ‘guardians’, with fiery spittle and tooth and claw. The guardians approached fearlessly and with immaculate discipline, quiet except for the pounding of their heavy footsteps, clearly unfazed by the much larger lava lizards. A hail of projectiles suddenly tore through the air and crashed into stony achtlaca hides, and though these were small things they had somehow been fired at great speed. A few of the warriors bellowed in pain when the strange metallic darts found gaps in their scales (or in the cases of the younger warriors with thinner and softer scales, pierced into those scales and the fiery flesh underneath) but the moans of pain were soon buried beneath a mighty battlecry as their warband’s leader rallied them and led the charge.

Great Achcauhtli whipped and thrashed his massive tail at one of the approaching platoons, utterly breaking their formation even as long weapons of the strangely gleaming rock shot out to spear and cut at him. Sparks flew out where the metallic weapons rang and scraped against rocky scales. It was in vain, of course; he rampaged through the rank of attackers and almost singlehandedly crushed a dozen guardians. The other warriors all around did their part too, and after a short but intense fight the guardians, some hundred or so in number, were all destroyed or disabled. They were remarkably resilient, with forms fashioned from some kind of strange stone, and so a few thrashed futilely and silently as they tried to keep battling even after their limbs had been shattered.

The first demon, that one that ran around so quickly yelping and taunting them, that one that had awakened all those some hundred guardians, looked very distraught at the outcome of that battle. Predictably, it turned tail and fled up another flight of stairs, so with a triumphant roar the demon-slaying achtlaca warband pursued.

Through hall after hall and many chambers they fought, hacking their way through what seemed like endless hordes of these ‘guardians’. Ornate and fanciful furniture and devices and decorations were everywhere; out of spite and hate for the demons, many a stray limb thrashed out to crush and destroy. They would sack this den of evil more thoroughly when all was done, but for now they focused upon catching the talking demon, and they gleefully relished in its repeated begging that they halt and listen. There was no talking with demons! Once or twice it spat out unsettling threats to summon its master, but if there truly was some great demon lord that could smite them all, why would it not have acted already? They saw through its vapid lies and manipulations for what they were: hollow deceit, a poor shield when raised against true might and courage.

But it was hard to fight on, ever upward, through the labyrinthine complex when every breath of air grew crisper. They emerged into one final massive chamber with a vaulted ceiling so high that it resembled the conic interior of a volcano reaching up to the cold surface, and like the harsh light filtering down from the top of a volcano’s crater, this chamber had some sort of light fixtures in the ceiling that filled the whole place with radiance. And as they shambled out into this massive room and beheld a garden of all sorts of frigid and unnatural plants and creatures, they were suddenly beset by a fog of poison.

Thick clouds of dense, white vapor spilled out from above and to the sides, and where it clung to the infernal skin of the achtlaca it caused horrible sizzling and crackling. Where their nostril inhaled it, their bodies were filled with horrible pain, and it sapped their life and energy. The toxic gas was just the tip of the spear, though: it was being dispensed from the walls where a whole river of the poison flowed freely!

…until an angry demon turned off the waterfall by pulling a lever. A floodgate closed, and the lovely waterfall that had been filling the air with its spray and ambience was suddenly just a trickle on the wall. Nervously, the achtlaca eyed this being that was surely the lord of the demons, for who else could wield such magic as to summon and dispel clouds of icy poison?



“Susanoo,” the demon lord scolded that first one that they’d pursued so far, up from the very lowermost stairs and the fiery depths, “you were supposed to greet our guests with courtesy and respect!”

And the dragon bowed his head in shame to look down at the four clawed feet of his long and serpentine body, and his triangular ears (like those of the ox) flattened down in sadness. “Shu Zhi Da Shen, my deepest apologies,” the first-demon-called-Susanoo stammered to its master, “but they just attacked upon first sight! They’ve raged the lower levels and destroyed half your army in their rampage!”

“WHAT?!”

Now Shen was very angry, and the boom of the god’s voice shook the underground garden. He turned down to the horrific cauldron of broiling water that he’d been standing over the whole time, tapped his stirring stick such that it became a spoon, and used that to dredge up a single grain of rice from where it’d been cooking in the bottom. He grasped it between two fingers and tossed the day’s meal into his mouth and his scowl only deepened. “I couldn’t even cook dinner all the way through in the time it took for you to bungle the plan! Agh!”

Foolish perhaps to the point of stupidity, brave Yaquica listened to no more of the demons’ talk and charged forward. As Shen looked up incredulously at the gigantic brute of a lava lizard, he laughed and the spoon suddenly became a long staff. Yaquica lunged forward with a huge claw, but the agile Shen smacked the limb aside with one deft thwack. Where claw failed, the warrior tried tooth, and his head darted forward in a biting motion. Shen had of course foreseen that move and so he darted out of the way effortlessly before thwacking the salamander over the head for its impudence.

“Perhaps these ones are too rude and brash to be reasoned with,” Shen conceded to Susanoo, but by then the rest of the achtlaca had found their courage and began to press the attack, that they might at least die with honor if that was to be their lot.

Achcauhtli reared up to stand tall on just two hind legs, and then with a sharp twist of his neck, spat a huge glob of molten salt at the foremost demon. The offended Shen twirled his gun-staff around so fast that it whipped up a great wind, and the frigid blast of air hurled the spit right back into the of Achcauhtli. “Unbelievable!” was all he could declare.

Well, maybe not all. It quickly devolved into a rant about hygiene. “I’d imagined their breath might be odorous, but this stench of sulfur is vile. And from how they hissed in that water, you know that they never bathe or shower in their whole lives.”

The whole while, Shen kept twirling the staff to buffet them with a wind powerful enough to slow their advance. Hurricane-like winds whipped at the achtlaca, but through the gales they could behold Susanoo open his maw and do the thing again, spraying out water just like he’d done to paralyze Yaquica the first time he’d nearly been caught. As the dragon-summoned rain was swept up by the gales of Shen’s make, the icy cold droplets were hurled into the crowd of achtlaca in a rain of terrible pain.

Still, they fought through. One of them knocked down a potted plant in its raging warpath as it drew close enough to swipe at Shen, who called out in grief as his planting pot shattered. The gun-staff became an ornate and curved dao-saber, and in one motion Shen tore off his baggy robes to reveal a chiseled physique. He leaped high into the air and then descended back down into the warband of lava lizards as a whirling dervish or slicing blows. Every tail, claw, and tooth was effortlessly parried away – he didn’t even bother to try dodging – and Shen always returned the favor with a mighty thwack from the flat of his blade.

This little flea of a four-limbed demon made them all look like fools as they jumped and cried with every blur of the demon’s motion, and from the periphery of the room Susanoo and a cohort of other wormlike dragons were all laughing. Eventually, the pain and frustration started to get the better of Shen.

The long dao-saber suddenly straightened itself out into a jian-sword, and Shen held it up to bring its point awkwardly to his lips. With a few sharp thrusts, he finally dislodged that grain of undercooked rice that’d been lodged between his teeth like a rock, and then he hurled it at the leader of the achtlaca. Three sounds rang out across the hall: first the sonic boom of the rice grain as it tore through the air, then the horrific impact as it struck Achcauhtli, and then a big thud as the big lizard crashed into the wall behind. Then there was a fourth, much quieter sound of a pained moan.

Shen leaped forward to pont his jian at the biggest lizard’s dazed head. “Yield!” he cried out, and an affirmative nod finally put an end to the fight, all the other warriors bowing their heads in shame and defeat.

“Now, with that thing out of my teeth, I’m in a much better mood,” Shen began, “so I’ll forgive you if what Susanoo said is true and you’ve destroyed half of my forward outpost. I’ve got other bases all over the place anyways, and we can always build more terracotta soldiers.”

“Are you… a god? Not a demon?” Achcauhtli finally asked.

“Of course I am! I’m Shen, the God of Plans, the god with plans! Though it seems like today I can’t get a break!”

The salamander finally chuckled. “Well, neither can we. We weren’t looking to intrude upon your, erm, domain, truly. We were trying to find-”

“Yes, yes, I figured out what you were planning, what you were trying to do,” the god impatiently interrupted as he paced around, wagging the stick in his hands at the downed chief, “that’s why I intervened to bring the magma up and send you to me. Your war’s already over, guy. There’s peace between your tribe and that other one now; you and I have got bigger, worthier enemies to contend with.”

“Peace? In the last few days? How? And what, why did you force us in here? Why didn’t you just say anything?”

“Oh, it was easy. See, a certain Tletzintli princess of great beauty arrived at the city of your hated enemies, and promised her sister’s claw in marriage to their king, if only he would have peace,” Shen began, even as Susanoo snickered and his serpentine draconic form twisted into the shape of an achtotlaca that looked indeed to be every bit as regal and beautiful as a princess ought’ve! “And then of course that same princess went to your city and said much the same thing. I’m sure there’ll be some confusion about who these ‘sisters’ are, but that’ll be easy enough to sort out.”

He leaned in to continue. “Now, the important part: you’re here because I need you. You’re the greatest warriors of your tribe, and you’re all conscripted into my army! See, I’ve been planning an invasion for a while, and I have redoubts all over and plenty of golem soldiers, but you saw how easily you rampaged through this one. It’s not enough, and so that’s why your sort will have to help me. As for why I didn’t say anything, well, I was cooking dinner when you got here! But Susanoo says he tried, and you didn’t listen and just attacked him!”

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