Hidden 9 mos ago Post by Enzayne
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Chailiss Week

Predators in the Night

Tala





A solid thunk echoed through the woodlands as the frozen axeblade lodged itself into an imposing tree trunk. The nearby stag bristled and snorted loudly. Moments later, it raised its tail and rocketed away between the trees, escaping into the mists of the forest with a steady cracking of branch and bush as it sped out of sight.

Tala cursed under her breath and pushed out of her hiding spot in the underbrush. Heavy feet tromped over the leaf and root-covered ground, and Tala gripped the handle to wrench her tomahawk free from the wooden trunk. Despite its short time lodged in the wood, the trunk was already frostbitten - turning the grip was enough to crack and splinter it as the point of impact, leaving a frost-damaged crater where the axe had rested.

She stalked into the mists after her quarry; it was either that or another night of sleeping hungry. A good kill would give her food to complete the journey. She had tried not to take too much from the camp, and that cautious generosity had come back to bite her now that she had more or less ran out of dried food. Worse, she wasn't sure of where her real quarry would be. The Flamekeepers were east - that was as good a start as any. If she didn't starve first.

The mist was thick and all-encompassing. It demanded a slower pace; both because tracking could only be done by searching for the tracks left by the big stag, and because running headlessly through the mist threatened serious injury. As such, Tala slowed herself down enough so that the idle howl of the wind and sway of trees quieted her heavy steps through the underbrush. Fortunately, between the panicked escape of her target and her eager interest in tracking before leaving her home, the tracks were easy enough to find and follow - a trail of broken branches, heavy hooves, and disturbed ground.

She stalked for what felt like an eternity, careful to limit her own sounds and breath, eyes shifting between the ground and the misty forest ahead. As long as she followed the track and it didn't lead her too far in the wrong direction, it would be worth it. So with that mindset, she eliminated the last of her worries, and focused on playing the silent predator.

It took more than a few hours. When she picked up the hint of an idle bleat amidst the misty tree trunks, the sun had begun to roll to rest. Darkness had started to blend with the mist, making each passing moment a race against time before further hunting would be futile. The night was the animals' domain. If she couldn't trust her eyes, she would never catch up. Though the cold didn't particularly bother her, she could feel it becoming increasingly chilly. Eventually all prey smaller than the stag would hide away.

She found the shape of the stag bent over a small creek, sipping ice-cold water after what must have been a taxing trot through endless forest. Between darkness and cold fog, it was difficult to make out more than the general shape, yet Tala knew in her heart that her hunt favored her. Fortune favored the persistent it seemed. The throwing axe felt like it throbbed in her hand, muscle memory coming back alive to eagerly remind her of the violent force under her command. Tala stepped forward slowly, inching as close as she dared while her arm lifted and bent back, itching fingers waiting to send the axe flying. She saw the beast's ears flick nervously, and she knew. With a firm throw, she let the axe fly loose through the air, whipping and spinning as it had so many hours before.

The strike was subdued, covered by a shriek of pain and panic from the stag. It made a strange set of grunts and snorts, and stamped off southwards along the creek, quickly vanishing in the mist. Tala rushed forwards with her breath in her throat, looking for her axe and the tracks. She got visual confirmation then. No axe. Blood in the grass. She turned south to follow the trail of speckled red, picking up her pace now.

It didn't take more than a minute of following the blood trail to come upon the collapsed form of the stag. The axe sat lodged in its flank, spreading a deep and icy chill over the bleeding form. Tala moved forward and found the creature staring blankly at her, kicking with three hooves and unable to move the last - it was already frostbitten and immobile from the proximity of her weapon. Tala grimaced and pulled the axeblade free from the crystallized wound, and closed her eyes to catch her breath. She listened to the panicked cries of the stag, battling against a crippling cold and injury. "It's him or me. I'm sorry, spirits." She muttered quietly before opening her eyes and watching the stag. The moment passing, she silenced the animal with a hack of her axe.

-----------

The creek was cold and unpleasant, but it made a good source of hand washing and drinking. Tala had dragged her downed stag back where she'd found it drinking, establishing her own little worksite where she could carve and skin at her own pace. She didn't have fire, and hunger thundered enough in her gut that she wasn't sure she would have had the patience to stir a flame anyway. She settled for carving chunks from her kill and eating it straight. It felt immediately empowering to just eat something, anything, and Tala ended up just sitting there for a while after gorging herself on meat. Waiting for her body to recover from the full day of stalking the woods.

A crunch of dirt and branch made her open her eyes. Had she slept? Axe still in hand, she was sat still in front of the dead stag in the dead of night. The mist didn't matter anymore, the darkness was so enveloping that there was no hope of seeing past the trees. Another crack of branches, and Tala turned her head towards the noise.

There it stood, a wolf almost as large as her, teeth bared and head lowered. It had followed the scent of blood, she reasoned, and Tala had been unmoving and silent in the dark. Two predators staring each other down. Tala shifted to move her weapon hand in preparation, enough to spook the wolf and make it growl. They stared at each other for a while, both expectant, but neither childan nor wolf were keen to try their luck.

Tala instead took the remnant of the haunch she'd eaten of before, and chucked it past the wolf to its side. The beast snarled and looked at her and the thrown food cautiously in equal measure. Eventually it slinked towards the discarded meat, took it hungrily, and stalked soundless into the darkness. Tala breathed a sigh of relief, raising her hand to rub at her eyes. No longer particularly keen on sleeping, she leaned forward to commence the harvesting of the stag she'd promised herself and the spirits that she'd do.

The wolf was not gone. After a solid amount of work, she spotted its shape again, stalking at the edge of her tiny makeshift camp. Tala carved a piece of stag and threw it into the darkness, and the wolf accepted hungrily. This pattern repeated itself many times through the night, until Tala was sure she had fed the wolf more than she would have eaten in two days full meals. Eventually the wolf did not return, nor could she hear its paws tramping around in the dark. Exhausted and finished with harvesting as much as she could, Tala settled in to rest again, laying her sparse equipment over her throat to protect her most vulnerable place. She pulled what remained of the carcass around her as further protection from the elements and predators. With her axe held tight in one hand, Tala drifted to sleep.

When she continued her journey east under the protective promise of sunlight the following day, the tracking eyes of the forest saw pawprints trailing the childan's own tracks.

Fortune favors the persistent, after all.







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Hidden 9 mos ago Post by Frettzo
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That Time I Almost Died, Got Saved by a God Blinded by Rage and Pain and Taken to Another Goddess’ Home to be Taken Care of By Her Champions Only to End Up Being a Dress-Up Doll: Volume 1


Happened just before this post


V


They gathered in a circle beside the Eternal Fire in preparation for the ritual to create the two items Lorelei requested. They each held one of their hands outwards while the other hand performed slow and graceful gestures. Their skin became covered in shifting symbols as they channeled the Gnosis, their power enhanced by the presence of the Eternal Fire. They closed their eyes as they focused on the spell, shaping the desired effect in their minds.

“Let’s name the first piece… the Ribbon of Many Fashions. Anyone have any objections?” Pride said while the air began to distort around her, becoming blurred by an otherworldly power. None of her sisters voiced any disagreement, the air around them similarly began changing. The space in the center of the circle began to shimmer, as the contour of something small and bending appeared from nothing.

Their outstretched hands which reached towards the faint outline were shrouded in a scarlet aura, specks flowing from their palms into the materializing object. More and more pieces of red light seeped into it until it formed a soft black fabric, woven into the shape of a small bow akin to what the five larger champions wore.

Then the light faded, and the symbols on their skin receded. Pride approached the levitating accessory and collected it in her little hands. She looked to Courage and Lorelei, and offered the now undone bow to her sister who passed it upward to Lorelei herself, who in turn grabbed it carefully and inspected it with wide eyes.

“Waow… What’s it do? H-How do I put it on??” She asked excitedly, bouncing a little.

Courage kneeled so that Kindness could reach the back of Lorelei’s head, gently gathering the little girl’s dark hair in her hands. “Hmm… well it is imbued with the power to change its shape and color. You can tie your hair back like we do, or wear it wrapped around your head. It can become a scarf or sash that you could wear anywhere else around your body.” Kindness explained.

“You could put the bow on your tail!” Curiosity exclaimed with excitement, while Lorelei played around with the ribbon.

“Ummm… Tail! For now. C-Can you show me how to tie it please, Cour?” Lorelei asked, reaching back to grab a hold of her tail and bring it up front so that it was right next to Courage’s face.

Courage looked at the undone ribbon, and then at Lorelei’s tail. Her features became set with determination as she took both the accessory and tail, making sure not to move too much to unseat the little girl on her shoulders. “Hold on, ya. First you take both ends and wrap them around… your tail, hehe.” Lorelei giggled.

Both ends came together, and then Courage made two loops with the two ends she held, leaving a long strip for each end. “You make these two loops, and then wrap them around each other. Then one goes under the other, and afterwards you pull on both… but not too tightly.” Courage explained as she tied the ribbon, with Lorelei immediately swishing her tail around behind her as her tail was let go, cooing as she saw the ribbon’s movement in sync with her tail. “That’s how you tie a ribbon, but it might take some practice when doing it behind your head. You’ll get it in no time though.”

“When you want it to grow, just hold it and say enlarge, and It’ll shrink if you say reduce. It can change color too, but it’s easier to change it if you press it against another ribbon, or strip of fabric, and it’ll copy its appearance.” Pride added with a smug smile on her face as she provided an explanation of the ribbon’s enchantment.

“Ooh! That’s so cool! I-It’s so cute!” Lorelei said in an even higher pitch than normal, holding herself upright partly in thanks to how tightly she was hanging on to Courage’s hair as she whipped around and looked at her own tail swishing around. “Thank you so m-much!”

“I’m glad you like it, pipsqueak!” Courage replied, rising up and twirling playfully, while the runes of the Gnosis resurfaced on each of the champions. Pride keeps an eye on Courage and Lorelei, while her sisters begin the ritual to make the second accessory. “Courage, be careful and help us.” The small champion chastised the other two until Courage joined in their circle and began focusing upon the ritual as well.

Once more, their power came together and coalesced in the center of their circle, red light solidifying and shaped according to their will. Unlike the ribbon, the object they create remains its original color, and as the ritual comes to an end, and their sorcerous runes recede, a single red ring levitates between all of them.

Once more, Pride approached their creation and took it in her hands before she passed it to Courage. “The Ethereal Earring. You hold it up to your ear, and speak the command word, then it will pass through the skin and stay there. No need for a piercing.” Pride described, as Courage held up the earring for Lorelei.

“The first command word is; Adhere. The second word is; Release, which will cause the earring to remove itself from your ear.” The small champion added, finishing her explanation.

Lorelei nodded in response and took the earring, pressing it to her left ear. “A… Adhere.” She whispered with closed eyes. Once the ring had locked into place, she let go of the ring and wiggled her ears, chuckling before shuddering a little. “I-It feels funny, but I love it! D-Does it look okay?” She asked, looking at Pride.

Pride squints at Lore as she examines how the earring and the rest of her furry eared sister mingle and complement each other. The other Heralds of Honor, minus Courage, join Pride, and scrutinize the result of their efforts. “So, is it good? Bad? Tell me!” Courage asked from underneath Lorelei, unable to get a look.

The five judges stroked their chins in thought, before they all nodded in agreement. With cheerful grins among her sisters, Pride stands as tall as she can while she announces their verdict. “It looks adorable. Really good. We should make more.” The small champion remarked, and Wanderer gave Lorelei a thumbs up, whatever that meant. The girl grinned and toyed with her new earring.

“I can understand why Gray possessed so many. I can really appreciate the aesthetic.” Kindness commented, allowing herself a small smile. The numerous effigies of Homura looked among themselves, at their identical appearance, and their identical attire, wondering what they would look like with added accessories and different styles. “We should make more of these, and further diversify ourselves. Courage and I are too similar… Curiosity and Wanderer as well.” Kindness concluded.

“Y-yeah! Gray had so many different kinds! Not just earrings. S-She had necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and p-piercings in other parts besides the ears. She had a l-lot! I think Wanderer would look g-good in a long silver choker.” Lorelei suggested.

Fear raised up her hands with apprehension, exuding anxiety. “Shouldn’t we ask our Maker whether that’s fine or not? We’re using our power for ourselves, but is that allowed?” She asked all of her sisters, looking nervously between them.

“It’s just a little bit. Come on, Fear, it’s for fun.” Courage countered with a dismissive wave, her tone teasing and playful. The brash champion steps forward and leans against Fear, humorously kicking her with Lorelei’s legs.

“I think it would help guests distinguish us from each other as well.” Kindness interjected, pulling Fear away from Courage with a gentle tug. “Something for Wanderer to distinguish herself from Curiosity, and something for you to distinguish yourself from me.” She added.

“I suppose that works, but shouldn’t you get something too?” Courage asked, as she absently nodded while Kindness spoke. She tilted her head as much as she could to offer a cheeky grin to Lorelei. “What do you think Kindness should get, pipsqueak?”

“Hmm…” Lorelei hummed and tapped her chin with a finger for a moment, before perking up. “A bracelet! B-because she’s got really soft warm h-hands and I like it when she pets my head.”

“A good idea! What about me then?” Courage asked.

“Umm, belly button stud! Y-Your belly is really cool and tough, like W-White’s.”

“That’s right! Let’s do that!” Courage exclaimed with excitement while Kindness lightheartedly sighed in response to her sister forgetting the purpose of the adornments, it seemed.

“So three more pieces then.” Pride stated, and her sisters gathered into their circle formation again. The process of conjuring the material and then shaping it into what they imagined repeated itself three more times, and when they were finished; a silver choker, a gold bracelet, and a small blue gem all levitated in the space between them.

All of the Heralds of Honor looked at their creations with infectious enthusiasm, the objects being claimed by their intended recipients, as Wanderer places her choker atop her the collar of her dress, the accessory imbued with the same spell as Lorelei’s earring. Kindness put on her bracelet, and slowly it switched through various sizes and colors, imbued with the same spell as Lorelei’s ribbon. Lastly, Courage lifted the hem of her shirt, and placed the blue stone on her bare belly, where it sank into the skin.

All of the champions of Homura looked to the most exuberant of them, and smiled. “That stone will always lead you back to Keltra, Courage. Back to your home.” Kindness said, while she and the others came in close and hugged their surprised sister, with Lorelei shifting a bit and jumping off of Courage’s shoulders, grunting as she landed and did a somersault.

“D-Does Courage get lost easily?”

“You could say that, hehe.” Courage said, her cheeks turned red with embarrassment, as she was freed from her sister’s embrace. She poked where the gem was, now hidden beneath the dark fabric of her shirt, and contentedly smiled. ‘Thanks, everyone.”

“Why don’t I get anything?” Curiosity asked, and was promptly ignored as the rest of her sisters walked back to their small area of the keep where their seats and pillows awaited them. The inquisitive champion merely shrugged and followed after them.

The six took their seats, wrapping themselves in the soft feathers of the white owl plushies. Curiosity pulled Lorelei alongside her, and onto her seat. “Sit with me, the rest all got gifts, but I get to cuddle with you. It’s only fair.” She said, while tickling the little girl, who giggled and tried to swat Curiosity’s hands away until she stopped.

“Hehehe… Okay!” Lorelei agreed, pressing herself as close against Curiosity as she physically could, with her body beginning to vibrate slightly after a few moments.

“It’s come to our attention that we should have more outfits. I propose we tell Mother our plans when she returns. Any objections?” Pride announced, and looked to those gathered for either affirmation or dissent. Silence reigned for a moment, until Pride purposely coughed for attention. “Wonderful, I’m looking forward to seeing what we come up with.” She said, clapping her hands together once.

“Using the Gnosis will be expensive. Are there any alternatives?” Kindness asked, glancing towards the doorways that led into the keep. None of her sisters provided an answer, until Courage spoke up.

“We’re going to have to dance and sing more if we want to make lots of things, ya. We should choreograph some, and think of reasons to have parties! Most of you haven’t met Zenia yet, but she’s lots of fun!” Courage put forth, gesturing wildly, and contributing her liveliness along with possible solutions to their predicament.

“It has been too long since we have spoken with any others among the Divine, but that is not something we can control. All we can do is wait.” Kindness countered, her monotone voice dampening the excitement that had briefly surrounded the six champions.

“Zenia is like our aunt. I’ve never met her, but I’m told she is really beautiful and makes you feel elated to be alive. She took four thousand of our kin across the sea, and promised Mother a lesson in dancing, which means she has to come back at some point.” Curiosity happily explained to Lorelei, while the others pondered the words of Kindness.

“We could ask the other Divine to help us make new outfits…” Fear meekly added her own suggestion, her sisters immediately expressed their approval.

“It’s settled. Whenever we accompany Mother on her voyage and encounter another of our aunts or uncles, we must ask for their assistance with this project.” Pride said, and frowned as Wanderer dragged her seat closer to the small champion’s. Her annoyance was quickly suppressed as her other sisters voiced their agreement with her declaration.

And so the personal quest of finding divine fashion has begun.




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Hidden 9 mos ago Post by Chris488
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That Time I Almost Died, Got Saved by a God Blinded by Rage and Pain and Taken to Another Goddess’ Home to be Taken Care of By Her Champions Only to End Up Being a Dress-Up Doll: Volume 2


Happened just before this post

VI

“Psst… Lore, wake up. It’s morning.” The quiet words were accompanied by a gentle shove, and followed by shaking. Courage pushed and prodded the sleeping Lorelei while her sisters all remained a step behind her. Lorelei stirred, slowly, but didn’t open her eyes. Instead, she grabbed one of Courage’s hands and yawned, a soft purr coming from somewhere deep inside her chest.

“Mmnyo…” She whined.

Courage glanced back to the five pairs of red eyes that stared at her expectantly, but offered no advice or assistance, of course. The brash champion simply shrugged before grabbing the sleeping girl and easily lifting her from the bed. “Uh, good enough, ya. I said; wake up, Pipsqueak.” Courage casually remarked, as she shook Lorelei once more.

“Aah!” Lorelei yelped, tensing up and eyes shooting wide open. Her little heart beat so fast that it could almost be heard. She calmed down as soon as she recognized the shadowy outline of Courage’s face. “W-What wrong?”

“There’s something you’ve got to see. Come with us.” Courage replied, gesturing with a quick tilt of her head to where the other champions of Homura waited for the two. Courage placed Lorelei back on her bed, slightly embarrassed and also excited. “Trust me, you’re going to like it.” She said, with red cheeks and a large smile.

Lorelei couldn’t help but to smile back. She rubbed the remaining sleep out of her eyes and stretched, then stood up and held Courage’s hand. “L-let’s go, Cour. Good morning, e-everyone.”

Pale morning light poured through every doorway leading outside the keep, and after passing the curtain of beads, and walking the short distance to the nearest doorway, the champions and Lorelei stepped outside. They stood upon a large ledge, overlooking the northern fields of Keltra, and levitating before them was a sleek boat crafted from dark wood and coated with frost. Many swirling snowflakes fell from the bottom of its hull, leaving a white glittering trail behind it.

“Chailiss gave us this gift when he visited last night.” Courage explained, pulling Lorelei along, as Curiosity and Wanderer dragged the weightless vessel towards them, the sight of such a big object being moved so easily truly indicated the otherworldly nature of the boat. There were seats enough for all of them to sit comfortably, and a large steering apparatus attached to the back.

“Waow! H-How… Wait! Is it…” Lorelei gasped, “It has to be, right?!” She turned to look up at Courage with sparkly eyes, “An airship! A working one! It flies!” She cheered, jumping up against the railing and trying to reach for the dark wooden hull.

Courage chuckled before tossing Lorelei up and over the railing, with the small girl yelping and landing on her feet on the boat and immediately running all over the deck, checking every last nook and cranny and then popping up over the boat’s railings to look at Courage with puffed out cheeks. “Where’s the engine? I can’t find it.”

“This vessel utilizes sorcery. The engine would be the will of the divine, and their power acts as its source of energy. We are fueled by the Eternal Fire, which sustains us. It is similar in nature, but… different as well.” Kindness explained, as each of her sisters jumped aboard.

“We can’t take it beyond the wall, but do you want to go for a ride?” Courage stood beside the shaft of the rudder to control the boat, almost jumping with joy, as her eager hands grasped the simple steering apparatus.

“Yeah!!”

“Wait, isn’t it my turn? You already got to fly us around!” Curiosity was quick to also take hold of the rudder, and the two champions began a slow struggle against each other to wrest control of the boat. “Besides, Kindness said your flying is a safety hazard because you crashed into the keep and wall fifteen times!” Curiosity continued, as Wanderer nodded in silent agreement with her.

“I did not say that.” Kindness protested, her impotent glare directed towards the inquisitive champion, who just shrugged. “That’s what you whispered to Fear after crash number ten, so you still said it.” Curiosity countered, and Wanderer nodded once more.

“I-I-hmm…” Kindness stumbled upon her words, and Courage stared at her, the look of betrayal in her eyes.

“Kindness, come on. We’re sisters! You’re just jealous because you’re slow and everyone was getting bored when you flew, ya?”

Fear stood up, and positioned herself between Courage and Kindness. “Kindness only crashed twice which is a lot less than you. Besides, it’s Curiosity’s turn, then Wanderer’s. We all -”

Fear found herself, along with Kindness and Courage, falling upon the floor of the boat as Curiosity successfully pushed her brash sisters away, and shifted the steering controls into motion, causing the vessel to surge forward. The world all around them had suddenly become a blur, all except for the boat itself and its occupants, until a loud bang and tremor announced their crash into the red wall of Keltra, and the boat had stopped. Pride and Lorelei were still seated, held in place by Wanderer who took care to make sure all onboard were properly seated before a premature take-off. Courage, Kindness, and Fear were a heap of flailing limbs and exasperated noises as they sought to upright themselves.

“Are you alright?” Pride asked, her question directed at nobody in particular until she peered towards Lorelei, and dedicated her attention to the most fragile among their group. Lorelei meanwhile found herself hugging onto Pride for dear life, her hair disheveled and expression wild with narrowed eyes and a panting grin.

“T-That was… Awesome! So cool! It didn’t break, let’s do it again!” Lorelei cheered, trying and struggling to peel herself away from Pride, her muscles locked into place by the scare.

“That’s crash number one! I’m counting now!” Courage exclaimed as she climbed back to her feet, and pointed aggressively at Curiosity who wore a smug grin. With a more gentle tug, the boat pulled away from the wall, and began drifting backwards, until it turned and began flying sideways.

“How does this thing work?” Curiosity asked from the stern, looking at the rudder like it was some confusing contraption beyond her understanding. Kindness and Fear took seats next to Wanderer, Pride, and Lorelei, while Courage marched back to her bemused sister.

“Curry, you can do it!! I only saw these things crashed into buildings and streets back home, so they’ve always been d-difficult to pilot.” Lorelei said with a small hmph at the end, now much more relaxed but still practically glued to Pride.

“I’m not sure why you’re encouraging her.” Pride whispered, familiar with how incompetent all of her sisters seemed to be as pilots. The small champion was honestly surprised the three colossi were all still intact after she had experienced being in a vessel with Courage at the helm.

“If she figures out how to pilot this airship well, I can get her to teach us! It’ll be fun, Pride. I’ve wanted to pilot these things since I was like t-three!” Lorelei whispered back.

“Three?” Pride asked, as Courage and Curiosity began to bicker, the two of them both had their hands on the rudder again, but the former seemed more intent on teaching the latter how to pilot rather than wresting control from her.

“Yeah! Or was it four? Two?” Lorelei shrugged and looked back at Courage and Curiosity, “Umm, why not m-modify it? To make the levers and steering smoother? I just need something s-spongy, and to go out and scavenge for s-something to use as glue.”

“The only thing that needs modifying is my sisters. I mean, it’s easy, yet both Kindness and Fear seem to make it look hard. Courage knows how to fly, but she acts like she doesn’t. Hmm… allow me to amend that, she chooses not to fly properly.” Pride explained with a sigh, as she brought a small hand to her head and attempted to ignore her frustration. The boat then began to rise in the air, higher and higher, until they arose above the wall.

“Wait, we’re not supposed to leave the fields.” Fear said, as peered over the railing and began looking down below at the barren landscape within the keep. Her other sisters looked beyond the wall, and their eyes widened at the sight. A vast section of the western forest had been demolished by the touch of doom, the warm presence of the red flora was obliterated beyond ever being restored, and a terrible blight upon the land had replaced it. Even from afar, the putrid stench assailed them, and the boat became still as Curiosity let go of the rudder to cover her nose.

“How… how did this… happen?” Courage asked, but none of her sisters answered, Fear and Wanderer struggling to cope with the air of rot all around them.

Lorelei hopped off her seat, a hand barely covering her nose as she walked over to the front of the boat to look at the scenery. In the distance, she could see the swarms of flies and the familiar shapes of corpses–Though this time they were animal corpses.

“Flies–Death. W-We gotta go, or we’ll be next.” The girl said, quite obviously trying to put on a tough act despite the fact that she was shaking in her boots.

“Mother said to remain within the walls.” Pride added, attempting to assure those that were distraught by the sight of Doom’s wake. Her voice was small, but filled with enough strength to stir Curiosity who reversed the controls, and directed the boat back down to where they had been before.

“What was that?!?” Courage shouted, still seeking an answer. “How’re we supposed to go, when that’s just outside? Why didn’t Homura mention that?” The brash champion continued, pacing back and forth, until she realized that there were more occupants on the boat then there was just a moment ago.

“I said not to leave the confines of the wall.” Homura said, standing on the prow of the boat, and all of her champions turned to face her.

“What happened? Tell us!”

The red goddess stared at Courage with an enigmatic expression, her lack of emotion contrasting sharply with the panic and apprehension of the other passengers. Kindness and Fear stood up, and stood beside their sister, while Wanderer held onto Pride and Lorelei.

“My brother, Iqelis. You do not need to concern yourself with him. You all have been assigned your tasks. Do not distract yourselves. Time is of the essence now, all of you must make haste and help those that still suffer. I will be departing soon as well.” Homura stated before she leapt away, and a lingering tension simmered afterwards. None of the champions could say anything; their maker had left as quickly as she came, and now they sat in silence.

Curiosity began directing the boat back to the keep, however she missed her intended destination and the boat collided with the massive wall. “Almost did it…” She whispered, as Courage and Pride angrily muttered to themselves. Courage took hold of the rudder, and the ship descended to the ledge they had first lifted off from.

“Listen, pipsqueak, most of us have to go now, so I’m going to give you a choice. Do you want to come with us? We’re heading north to help the people there, because that’s what heroes do. That said, Pride is staying behind because she has to watch over Keltra, and I think she would like some company.”

At first, Lorelei perked up. She shook a bit in her seat as she seemed to wrestle with her thoughts until eventually she reached back to grab her tail and sighed. “I-I’ll stay with Pride. No one should be alone when things get dangerous.” She explained and nodded mostly to herself, gently caressing her shivering tail.

Courage leaned forward with a slight grin, and playfully ruffled the hair between Lorelei’s ears, eliciting a few chuckles out of the girl. “We’ll bring you back something when we return, ya… and next time you can come with us. It’s not going to be as fun without you, just so you know.”

Lorelei looked up at Courage, mirth gone from her expression as quickly as it had appeared. She nodded and looked away, clasping her hands and placing them neatly on her lap. “O-Okay… Are you going now?”

“We wanted to show you Skydancer before we left. Take you round the keep a few times, ya. We were told to get going as soon as we can though.” Courage answered, as the other champions would either avert their gaze, or look at Pride and Lorelei with guilt in their eyes.

“It’ll only be a couple of days; you’ll need to return to the Eternal Fire before too long. Just give us our hugs for good luck, and complete your tasks as quickly as you can. Okay?” Pride said, rising to stand on her seat before lending a helping hand to Lorelei.

Lorelei took Pride’s hand and stood up beside her. “We’ll wait for you, just be careful. Don’t be too much of a hero…” She said quietly and opened her arms towards her bigger sisters.

Courage lifted Lorelei off her feet, before she leapt up high in the air and swung her around, with the girl squealing happily. They slowly descended, like a leaf falling from the branch, until they alighted among the others. With a chuckle, Courage passed Lorelei to Kindness before approaching an apprehensive Pride. “No, no, no, NO!” The small champion protested before being lifted in the air as well.

Kindness wrapped her arms around Lorelei, and whispered softly to the girl. “I will look after them. Hmm… thank you for being alive.” She let go before Fear stepped forth and embraced both in a wide hug.

“Good luck, good luck, good luck…” She repeated, over and over again, her eyes closed and a tight smile. Then the two let go, and Curiosity came close for a hug.

“We’re going to have lots more stories to tell you when we come back! Then we can have lots more fun! You’ll always be the first human with furry ears and a tail that I spoke with, and that makes your hugs give double good luck, I think.” Curiosity said, nuzzling Lorelei’s twitchy ears with her cheeks, and giggling afterwards. “I don’t want to ever let go!”

Wanderer whacked Curiosity on the head, and the inquisitive champion let go with an abashed look as her reticent sister embraced Lorelei. “We will always be together.” Wanderer said in her quiet voice.

Pride received similar exchanges before Courage and Fear picked up the two little girls and leapt from the boat to the ledge below. The air rushing past them briefly, a cold whisper that was a prelude to the touch of stone beneath their feet. Courage and Fear stood in front of the two being left behind, wearing smiles of joy and sorrow, then they jumped once more and were back in the boat. There was a scuffle heard, the sound of Courage and Curiosity bickering once more, while Kindness, Fear, and Wanderer leaned over the railing and waved. Slowly, but surely, the vessel was rising higher and higher.

“Bye!” Courage and Curiosity both shouted from the stern, before the boat had risen high enough, and suddenly soared north with swift speed towards the lands beyond the red wall.

Lorelei watched dejectedly as her sisters left, her tail and ears uncharacteristically limp. “... Bye bye.” She said after a long while, then turned to Pride.

“So… What do you do for f-fun here?”

“Let’s wait till Mother leaves before we speak of forbidden things like fun. I had some ideas though…” Pride answered, showing a small mischievous smile.






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Hidden 9 mos ago Post by Bright_Ops
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Bright_Ops The Insane Scholar

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Raethel Norvegicus and the Rattus People


Years passed.

Some argued that the exploratory tunnels out into the desert took more time, effort and resources to accomplish then simply equipping a band of Rattus explorers and sending them out overland on paw. This callous disregard for the lives of their follow Rattus was a minority viewpoint through... and one that was quickly countered by facts. A fact was that once they started tunneling to search for water sources up on the surface, the amount of Rattus that died or went missing dropped to zero which also meant that any equipment or supplies they might have taken with them had dropped to zero as well.

Another was that while the tunnels themselves took time to set up, once they were built the time it took for a Rattus to scamper from one end to the other was deemed a lot faster than attempting the same distance above ground due to removing the environmental conditions, threat of attack by the wild life and the sapping heat of the sky as factors to contend with. The tunnels also had the benefit of ensuring that supplies could last longer; Not only did the absence of the sun overhead reduce the strain on water supplies by a great deal, but the cooler nature of the tunnels ensured that food stuffs lasted longer then they might have on the surface.

Inspired by this, the various outposts had started to build tunnels to each other since it provided so many benefits to being able to move around. A surface presence was of course maintained and the river still had plenty of traffic because it was still faster to go by water craft in order to get to an area that isn't next door, but there was now an option to walk from one side of Rattus held territory to the other without having to come to the surface. Crossing the river still required a water craft, but the idea of tunneling under the river was currently being discussed with the primary issue being a question of depth; How deep did the tunnel need to be so that there wasn't a risk of the river breaking through and flooding, but shallow enough that Rattus could just use it to cross the river if they wanted without having to go so far out of their way that it would be faster to go topside and take a water craft.

While each outpost went by a different name as favored by those living there, collectively the Rattus had started to refer to their settlements as 'The First Barrows', through some Rattus had already started shortening the name down to 'First Barrows' or 'Firstbarrows'.

The exploration of the desert had uncovered a handful of surface bodies of water... as well as couple of underground sources. It also revealed survivors of one of the exploration teams that had gone out; The gamble to keep going had paid off for them in that they had managed to locate a decently sized pool of water with life growing around it, proving enough food and water to sustain them. The pair who had decided to try risking the trip back home had not made it and they were deemed lost to the desert, despite some attempts to search the likely area they would have died in.

These outposts of food and water proved to be wonderful staging areas in order to continue tunneling on, through the sites themselves would need to be fortified to remain secured.




If asked about what he believed the greatest change to come to the Rattus had been over the years, Raethel would answer without hesitation 'The pups'. After the awakening there had been both young and older Rattus due to the fact that there had been young and old rats that had answered the call, but there had been no true pups among their number for over a year. Then one night a messenger had come to get him because one of the expectant mothers had finally started. While there were Rattus there who were better suited for tending to the mother's needs and trying to make sure it was a healthy birth, Raethel had still felt the need to be present at the first natural birth of a Rattus litter.

It was... humbling in a way, seeing their bare, pink flesh and their closed eyes as they hurdled together naturally. While Raethel might have been the first of the newly created Rattus to awaken on that fateful day, one of these pups had been the first Rattus to truly be born as a Rattus rather then to have started off as a rat. So overwhelmed by the moment, he had tried to declare that his standing and title as the First would go to the first born of the litter as was their right as the first natural born Rattus... only to be stopped by the simple fact that no one actually remembered which of the pups had been the first. Sure there had been excitement when the first one came, but the mother was still birthing the rest of the litter and by the time the question of order was brought up, the pups had huddled together and gotten mixed up. While they were able to rule one out due to a mark on their skin, there was simply no way to be sure with the rest.

In the end it was for the best that his position would remain in his possession to pass down to his own pups when they were born later on, but the original litter would at least bare the honor of being the first litter as a collective. He wasn't quite sure which of his children would be the one to take his position as Speaker just yet, but they still had plenty of growing to do before he felt the need to concern himself with grooming them for the role. Let the pups be pups.



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Hidden 9 mos ago Post by Chris488
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Chris488

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Lorelei

...Daughter of Hevel…


Setting: Keltra

Keltra was big and empty. So much so in fact, that it kinda made Lorelei miss the cramped and lively interior of the many places she’d called home in her previous life back in Astalon. In order to escape from the ever present feeling of emptiness and stagnation that permeated all of Keltra, she resorted to climbing. She’d now climbed as far up as fifty strides and was laying down on another ledge along the immense walls. This ledge was smaller than the ones below but it was still big enough for her to sit on and lean back against the wall.

The view… Had gotten dull. She sighed.

“I wonder..” She muttered as she lazily scanned the massive cube that she’d called her home for the last couple months.

“What do you wonder?” Apostate’s voice came from the god. He was standing tall on the ledge, right next to the small girl, arms crossed and eyes looking forward. Warbreaker was strapped to his back, pressed against the wall as he stood.

“Hevel!” Lorelei perked up and hugged Apostate’s calf as tightly as she could. “You’re back! How were things?”

The god placed a hand on top of Lorelei’s head and smiled down at her. He didn’t answer right away, staring in silence for a while. “Things went well, nothing too interesting happened. Want to talk on the ground?”

“Yep! I’ll meet you down there.” She said and immediately grabbed a hold of the ropes she’d installed and slid down. Of course, she heard the telltale sound of Apostate landing far faster than she could climb down. Still, at the end she was actually quite proud of her speed so she wiped her hands on her elaborate white dress and swished her tail from side to side, showing off the red ribbon tied near the tip. “What do you think?” She asked with a grin.

Apostate crossed his arms. “Were the Champions dressing you up, again?”

Lorelei sighed, “I-I asked them to! They made me a dress and a ribbon and an earring, and they’re cute so I wear them.” She crossed her arms and pouted.

Knitting his brow, Apostate let his arms fall to his sides. “Very well, your dress is pretty.”

She relaxed and mimicked Apostate, letting her arms fall to her sides as well. “Thanks. But…” She ran up to him, grabbed her tail and brought it forward for Apostate to see clearly. “What about the ribbon? Look!” She smirked smugly as she pressed the tip of her tail and, incidentally, the ribbon as well against Apostate’s tattered dark cloak and muttered something under her breath, making the ribbon change its fabric and colour to perfectly replicate his cloak’s, holes and rips included.

“Oo…” Apostate knelt down to Lorelei’s level and flicked the ribbon. “That’s a neat trick.”

He held out a closed fist to Lorelei. “Want to see a trick I recently learned?”

Her eyes widened and she nodded enthusiastically, letting go of her tail. “Obvs!”

“Well here.” Apostate bounced his fist in front of her face, his cut fingers tightening. His bandages strained as he put his strength into keeping his hand closed. “All you need to do is open my hand, and treasures will pour out.”

Lorelei squinted her eyes at Apostate’s hand and inspected it from every angle, sniffed it and almost even licked it, until she finally placed her hands around his fingers and tried to force them open. She huffed and puffed and then with one final tug, his fingers pried open — albeit suddenly quite easily. When his hand wrenched open, a bloom of sky lilies poofed out from his palm.

“Eep!” She squeaked as she was suddenly engulfed in a cloud of fluttering pink flowers. A few sneezes later and once the flow of lilies slowed to a trickle, Lorelei’s ears poked up and out of the small pile of petals and flowers, followed by her hands as they cleared the flowers away from her head and face. “How did you hold that many f-flowers?!” she asked and sniffled, rubbing at her now reddish nose.

“They form in my hands and pop out whenever I like.” Punctuating his point, a pinkish glow formed in Apostate’s hand and another poof of lilies plumed into the air around the two. A subtle breeze took most of the lilies away, leaving streaks of pink in the sky.

“... You beat me this t-time.” Lorelei sighed, watching the streaks until they traveled out of sight.

Apostate’s hand came down again, his cut fingers lightly gripping the top of Lorelei’s head, prompting her to look back at him with a half-smile.

“Hevel? I… The others o-offered to take me with them up north. Way past the ocean. I-I wanted to go with them, but… I couldn’t leave Pride here by herself. Did I make the wrong choice?” She asked, lowering her head a little.

“No,” Apostate answered. “It was noble of you to look after your friend. Taking solace in each other keeps us warm…” He paused. “Why are you troubled with your decision?”

Lorelei bit her lip, shrugged and flicked her ears. “I-I dunno. I’m tired of being stuck inside, I g-guess… And it’s so empty here, Hevel! I ran outta scrap my first w-week here and all I can find around here is dry g-grass, dirt, or bird feathers. I can’t even eat the w-worms…” She whined and kicked up a little bit of dirt.

“Hmm.” Apostate rumbled with thought. A moment went by and he folded his arms over his chest. “Would you like to come with me on my adventures, then?”

Lorelei huffed and turned away from the god. “I-I wanna! But, but, Hevel! I told you! I-I can’t leave Pride alone… She’d be so lonely…”

Defending himself with his own huff, Apostate frowned. “Well I didn’t mean right away! We can leave once Homura or the others return.”

Lorelei tapped her chin and hummed, then turned back around and nodded, “Okay. Deal. I’ll go with y-you and you can’t back out now!” She declared with a smirk.

“And neither can you!” Apostate boomed, his face turning grim only to quickly soften. “Well no, you can leave any time you like… though we’ll need to equip you properly…”

The god fell into thought, pinching his chin and taking steps towards Keltra’s inner keep, with Lorelei running after him and deftly climbing up onto his back and scrambling over Warbreaker. “Equipment? Y’mean the A-Astawhacker?”

Scuffing to a stop, Apostate turned his head so as to see Lorelei peeking over his shoulder. He knitted his brow. “Maybe… but more or less something so you don’t get any more bruises… and maybe a sword… a big one.”

Lorelei scrunched up her nose. “Why do you like big swords, Hevel? A-Aren’t they hard to use? Hevel, you know that d-drones back home could hurt you from afar? With some kind of ranged weapon that could p-punch big holes into people? I want a ranged weapon too!”

“Fine.” Apostate said, albeit with a hint of defeat. “A big weapon that will let you punch holes into things from afar.”

“And gloves! I want gloves. Armor… Maybe not? It’s not hot enough for suits… And I like my Homuran dress, I don’t wanna c-cover it up.” Lorelei said as she rested her head on Apostate’s shoulder and made little popping sounds with her lips.

“Needy all of a sudden, aren’t we?” Apostate said, making Lorelei giggle in response. Eventually, they passed the threshold to the fortress, the chilled air of the outside being pushed away by the radiant light and warmth coming from the bonfire within. The small form of Pride stood close to the Eternal Fire, the runic wooden staff in her hands as she concentrated her mind on sustaining a powerful spell, her body covered in shifting runes. She did not stir from her trance when Apostate and Lorelei entered the keep.

“HEY!” Apostate’s voice blasted off the walls of Keltra, sending vibrating shockwaves bouncing all about. Half a moment later, Lorelei dropped to the ground and sat down, head spinning.

Pride did not immediately react to the thunderous roar, only swaying slightly as a result of the vocal percussion, but her eyes slowly opened, and she blinked awake. Once. Twice. Lucidity filled her eyes then as the runes disappeared, and she stared at Apostate and Lorelei for a brief period before she softly smiled.

“Welcome to Keltra, your grace. I apologize, I lost track of time…” Pride said, before she bowed to the God of Defiance.

Lorelei groaned, holding her head for a second before standing up. “Y-You don’t have to say ‘your grace’ you know, Pride. We’re all f-friends here, right?” She asked, looking up at Apostate with a pout.

The god looked down at Lorelei and shrugged. “I keep telling them that.”

“Despite the lack of necessity, formality still serves a useful purpose.” Pride replied, standing very rigid and upright. Her voice was stern, and her features impassive, greatly resembling her Maker’s visage… until she tilted her head and then shook it.

“You guys don’t understand jokes.” She complained, offhandedly waving away her annoyance as she walked to the nearby table where other artifacts rested. She returned the staff to its place beside the dagger, nestled between the egg and orb.

“You can’t blame me for not expecting a joke from one of Homura’s chosen.” Apostate looked past Pride and to the smoky orb he had given the girl.

Lorelei ran up to Pride and hugged her, “And you’ve been so busy chanting and casting Gnosis things t-that we haven’t done anything! Also it's the first time you’ve ever said a joke, Pride.” The girl said with a giggle.

“Ah, you’re right. Apologies, I’m still… befuddled after my abrupt return. I can’t quite recall what we were doing before…” Pride admitted, abashedly averting her gaze away from Lorelei and up towards the ceiling with an embarrassed blush.

“Hmph!” Loreleri huffed in mock indignity and looked at Apostate. “Tell her what we plan on doing, Hevel!”

“Making a weapon that can punch holes into people from afar?” Apostate looked down at his young ward. “Or the tremendously dangerous adventures you’re going to be taking with me?”

“Neither of those things sound appealing.” Pride commented, slightly scowling in the direction of Apostate, as she took hold of Lorelei’s hand.

Lorelei pursed her lips, “I-I wanna see the world! And so do you, right? You can c-come with us when the others come back! Hevel will even make you all the equipment you n-need!”

Apostate waved a hand. “Firstly, I’m teasing you with exaggeration — similar to a joke, hm? Secondly, as keeper of the orb, I’ll be needing your help a bit later in designing protection for Lorelei.”

“I cannot leave Keltra. I… can’t. Lorelei, I have seen so many things. I was lost to the wonders of the world, and yet… there is still so much I haven’t…” Pride shook her head again, her gaze aimlessly adrift until it settled upon Apostate once more. “Your jokes lack irony, your grace.”

“And your height lacks inches,” Apostate was quick to reply. “Why are you still designated to be stuffed in this old cube, again?”

The small champion sighed with annoyance before answering. “I protect my slumbering kin, and tend to the Eternal Fire. Also… this is my home. It’s more than just an old cube.”

Apostate arched his brow. “If it's eternal, does it really need to be tended to?”

“It’s warmth can be stolen, or forgotten, and though the fire burns eternally, its presence only lingers if divine will compels it to be here. I act to remind the flame of its purpose.” Pride explained.

“Can’t you just play a recording of its purpose to it while you’re out?” Lorelei asked and tilted her head slightly.

“That’d be dereliction of duty, and I don’t think anything I make could fulfill that role anyway. Nothing I’m willing to make, at least. When Mother returns, I can ask…”

Grinning, Apostate poked. “Mother?”

“Our Maker. We call her Mother, because… she acts like a mother, treating us like her children. It’s annoying because despite her divinity, she still acts like a child herself.” The small champion answered, frowning with mild frustration, but a hint of fondness as well. “I wonder, do the Divine have parents?”

“Does she call you her daughter?” Apostate wondered along. “As for my own parents, I’m afraid I have a less dramatic origin — did you two want to know of the genesis of the divine?”

Pride simply shook her head in answer to Apostate’s first question, but then chuckled upon hearing his followup one. “Ah, yes, the birth of the pantheon. How boring.” She tilted her head, as she pondered his words until she spoke again. “I know Mother’s account of such, but I’d like to hear yours as well, please.”

“Same!” said Lorelei.

Apostate nodded his head and walked over to the fire before slumping to the ground. He removed Warbreaker from its spot on his back and placed it next to him before laying down and looking up at the incredible ceiling of Keltra. He tucked a frown into his cheek and folded his arms behind his head. “First, tell me what your mother told you.”

“Hmm… I’ve never seen the Heavenly Palace, but that is where the King in Heaven resides upon His throne. It is where she was born. She spoke of… no, she didn’t share such a story with me using words; she seeded it within my thoughts and memories… an innate knowledge. I remember His voice, like I was there, when He spoke and His edict was first heard. She showed me the shards within His wound, the shards that would become the Divine. His words had ushered them forward, and gave them purpose. Rise. Heed this call of mine. Become the gods of Galbar. It’s too much…” Pride recoiled after speaking, stumbling back and closing her eyes. Her voice echoed in the vast hall, and resonated with otherworldly power that seemed to overwhelm the small champion that had acted as its conduit. The weight of her words fell upon her, and her eyes shimmered with truth and sorrow.

“It’s alright, Pride! My grandpa told me once that the Gods have been around for a looong time and remembering things from so long ago… Yeah… Might be hard. I can barely r-remember last year, myself.” Lorelei said with a half-chuckle, trying to cheer Pride up.

“I’m older than your grandpa, you know. I’ve seen thousands upon thousands of days pass while my senses reached out, and witnessed the happenings in the world. Years… I have seen a great many years now, and it frightens me so.” Pride shifted towards Lorelei, and wrapped her arms around the other girl, seeking solace in her company. “I don’t want to see you go.” Lorelei stiffened a little bit at first, but eventually returned the hug.

“Everyone I know is dead…” Lorelei whispered, “I will die too. I-I just wanna fulfill everyone’s dreams, and do what they wanted to do for them, before I die. White wanted to see the world, Gray wanted to h-have a family of her own, Brown wanted to be a hero… I can’t do those things in here. S… Sorry, Pride.” Lorelei explained gently, nuzzling her sister’s neck.

“If you wish to be with your previous family, I won’t stop you. If… you leave, you’re always welcome to return.” Pride stroked the hair and furry ears of her sister, blinking away any tears that threatened to spill out.

Apostate laid in silence, listening but with his mouth closed. He didn’t shift from his spot, his cloak splayed out around him with tiny wisps of smoke escaping from under him here and there. After a while, he cleared his throat, as if announcing his presence.

Pride glanced in his direction, and spoke softly. “I’ve said my piece. Some things can’t be described with words though, so… please, regale us with your wisdom. I want to hear your story.”

“Right.” Apostate’s voice came. Another pause as Apostate wrinkled his face with thought, a sense of regret bubbling inside of him, as if he maybe shouldn’t — but it was theirs to know.

“In the beginning…” He started, “there was more than just the Monarch of All. By his own words he told me about an infinite beauty long outside of his reach, before he was found stuck in this current realm. Either way, our story starts there — in a cell, divided from the infinite beauty for a reason kept from my knowledge. The self-named monarch dwelled there for what time I don’t know, but it couldn’t have been long as I can only surmise the wound I was born from wasn’t of his own recent doing but likely predated his imprisonment as he so put it.”

The god rolled his head so as to look at his ward and Pride. “You see, me and your mother were later born from that wound as shards to do his bidding. That’s when he proclaimed himself a king and a lord of all, but in reality to this day he lords over nothing much but himself. I remember those days very clearly — how the horse god sucked up to his macrocosm (wretchedly so), how quickly the goddess of ruin assigned herself as a servant. I myself was very small then, just a haze of smoke unwilling to take a shape. I hated to be told what to do, and here he was casting all his desires on us… though I suppose we were just aspects of him and I suppose we still are.”

A pause.

“Nevertheless, you can imagine my distaste when I discovered the other aspects were doing as he instructed so willingly and so ignorantly, disregarding the letterings between the speeches of the Monarch. Before answers were laid out for us, before structure could be given, the others created life — a drastic move on their part — if only because they were building on an unknown foundation, with a potential conflict looming over us. It still does — loom, I mean — not all the aspects respect each other or are aligned in design, and the monarch himself is fallible and teetering precariously over whatever secrets he is keeping. Everything is on borrowed time, and at some point it will most likely end… though how it will end is hopefully in our power to decide.”

“Everything ends.” Lorelei agreed, nodding. “Nice story. There’re many gods, then? Do you think that um, the Boss is one?”

“The Asshole?” Apostate shifted to look quizzically at the young girl, who had to stifle a laugh.

“Yeah…”

“Yeah, he is one — which goes to show you how glamorous the title is.” Apostate returned to looking up at the ceiling.

Pride pondered the truth of Apostate’s tale, and Lorelei’s affirmation… remaining quiet as she contemplated. “Mother would likely disagree with you.”

“Doesn’t she always?” The god offered.

“Does everything have a beginning?” Pride asked.

Apostate shrugged from his spot on the floor. “A lot of things do — you do — but everything? Well I don’t know everything. I know where this realm began, but I don’t know why it began, nor why I wasn’t told.”

Pride shook her head, smiling again. “Hmm… until the end, there is no end. I’ll keep it simple like that for me and my kin. I’m not one for arguing with what the Divine claims as providence. I just want to help my friends and family.”

“A noble goal.” Apostate said. “I won’t worry you with any more of these stories.”

Pride tilted her head, with a more and more amused look playing with her features. “That’s because the Divine are all rather silly. Hmm… Lorelei, would you like to dance?” She asked, turning to the other mortal in the vast hall, hesitantly offering her hand. A simple grunt came from Apostate as he resigned himself to his spot, eye closing and soft puffs of smoke breaking with every exhale.

“Yes!! Let’s dance! How?” Lorelei jumped on the spot, grabbing both of Pride’s hands. The small champion pulled her along, before coming to a stop.

“Let there be music!” Pride proclaimed, and the shifting runes appeared again, covering her skin and humming with power. The stone beneath their feet suddenly reacted, and glowed with an otherworldly aura. With her eyes closed, Pride leaned forward, touching her forehead against Lorelei’s. “You can hear it.”

Without any visible source, sounds began to accompany the two, sounds that synced with the luminous floor pulsing in rhythm to the blooming melody. The same repeating sounds, until a voice began singing.

Pride found herself awkwardly staring at Lorelei, uncertain how to proceed. The small champion pondered briefly before she shook her head, and began pulling Lorelei further along while the music followed. She began jumping and tumbling, lifting her arms up and down, as she dashed through the hall until a bright flash of light signaled a stop.

A stream of radiant light peeled away from the floor and began dancing around them, wrapping around their bodies until Pride and Lorelei were more akin to people enveloped in rainbow bandages. Just as swiftly as they were wrapped, the stream unraveled itself and tossed them spinning into the air.
Neither Pride nor Lorelei couldn’t contain the childish laughter that escaped them as they flew into the air and swirled like falling snowflakes until they were caught by the prismatic stream again, and the process repeated itself. It guided their motions, and let them move freely, as though they were no longer burdened by the weight of the world.

Pride found herself playing with weightlessness, and attempting to perform a myriad of motions normally impossible with her feet touching the floor. Her aerial dance was clumsy, as she bumped into Lorelei more than once, but she felt free and joyful, exerting herself and watching her companion be lifted and tossed up again. The music filled the air, and Keltra was illuminated with dancing light.

“Compassion eases change.” Pride said, when she and Lorelei were brought together once more. “We can do anything, each of us, if we believe it has been done before.”

Another light started to pulse in the room, nearly taking over the spectacle. A pale light was pulsing from the smoky glass of the orb, each pulse akin to a stuttering heartbeat. Another light answered it, and down on the floor, Apostate was holding another orb. A chain sprouted out of the top of this one, hanging as the god palmed the smoke ridden ball.

“Let’s fly!” Pride shouted, and the light lifted them high again, and the two girls sailed through air upon the luminous stream. The music grew quiet, and the light dimmed, revealing the silken nature of what carried Pride and Lorelei; a long shimmering scarf woven from red and gold and glowing runes. Then the melody was reborn, and a new song came into existence.

With the tune reborn, the two danced and soared for what felt like hours but was actually just a few minutes, until Lorelei gracefully disentangled herself from the magical fabrics and dropped to the ground, panting. “... Waow…!”

Apostate was standing now, securing the chain of the new orb over his shoulder so as to sling across his chest and back (under the cloak) so that the orb rested safely on his hip. He gave it a few tugs to make sure it wouldn’t slide or fall away before lifting the orb to his face. It blinked another flash of light, the orb on the table mimicking the pulse. Tapping it a few times, he looked over at his young ward and Pride.

“Having fun?”

Pride laid upon her stomach on the floor, resting her head atop her folded arms as she stared back at the God of Defiance. She wore a content smile as the enchanted scarf loosely wrapped around her neck continued to twist and sway in the air. The accessory was easily thirty times the length of the small champion’s height, and most of it simply trailed behind her, or in this case above her, like a very long strand of hair. The artifact continued to chime periodically, but the music had receded for now.

“What’s fun, your grace?” She asked, a teasing glint in her eyes.
The god let the ball fall to his hip, and the flashing between both orbs stopped. He pinched his chin in thought, a serious look across his bandaged visage. “Blowing up mountains is pretty fun.”

“Hmm… you stand in a monument built from the remnants of shattered mountains. Mother has never said it, but she does hate this place. What else is fun?” Pride asked again, rolling onto her side, and idly playing with the pink strands among her scarlet tresses.

Lifting his brow, Apostate scoffed. “Well that explains why she is always delegating others to stand here in her place… myself included.” He closed his eyes and sighed. “Your mother needs to learn to relax.”

“Hugging, cuddling, running, jumping, climbing, seeing, smelling, talking, listening, hugging, climbing, ea… ting?” Lorelei smiled sheepishly, “A-All of that’s fun, y’know!”

“You said hugging twice,” Apostate corrected. “And climbing.”

Lorelei puffed out her cheeks and shrugged, “T-They’re double fun, then!”

The god gave a surrendering look.

“I agree with Lore, and wish to add flying and dancing to the list. I want people to have fun when they come here.” Pride commented, casually gesturing around at the vast hall that remained so empty. “I’ll make Keltra into a fortress of fun, where the air is… like liquid laughter, and visitors can experience the joys of life.”

“Maybe you can teach your mom to laugh.” Apostate said while he walked over to the orb on the table.

“You think the least favored of her children can do such a thing? I’ll add it to the long list of household chores I need to do then.” Pride remarked, stretching once, before she rolled over and pushed herself to her feet. With small and hasty steps, she hurried towards the table, with Lorelei watching her closely after yawning.

“What d’you w-wanna do now?” The girl asked, fully lying down on the cool floor.

“Least favorite?” Apostate grabbed the orb that was laying on the table and inspected it.

Pride reached the table and stood beside him. She glanced back towards Lorelei, and slightly smiled as she whispered to the god next to her. “Why don’t you say something that will make us laugh?”

“A joke, huh?” Apostate pulled away from the orb to think. He let his eye trail the walls and ceiling of the fortress around him. A pregnant pause overtook the conversation before he turned to Lorelei and dramatically pointed a finger. “Lorelei!”

“Huh?” Lorelei perked up and flicked her ears unconsciously, focusing her eyes on the accusatory finger, “Whuh?”

“What did the blanket say after falling off the bed?”

“W-What did it say?”

“Oh Sheet…”

Lorelei squinted her eyes at Apostate and after a moment broke out into laughter. “T-That was so bad!” She said in between fits of giggling, causing a smile to split on Apostate’s face.

Pride simply blinked, and awkwardly nodded her head in an obvious attempt to show she understood the joke. “Blankets can’t talk.” She stated with utmost certainty, and crossed her arms as she pretended to frown.

“Okay, Homura,” Apostate gave her a face while Lorelei tried to stifle her laughter. The God put the orb back down, a fingerprint lingering for a moment.

“Thank you, uncle. I don’t think Mother could’ve made us laugh like that.” Pride replied, replacing her frown with a pleased expression.

“Uncle?” The god quizzed.

“I heard the term before used elsewhere in the world. I thought it was apt, but if you think differently…” The small champion fiddled with her fingers, her features furrowed with frustration.

“D-Doesn’t matter what he thinks! An uncle is the brother of a parent. H-Hevel is your uncle, yep!” Lorelei declared, wiping away the traces of mirth from the corners of her eyes.

“Attempting to apply familial affection and familiarity to me, huh?” Apostate said. “Your mother does the same thing.” He pointed finger at Lorelei in jest. “And you too!” Lorelei recoiled a little bit, once more focused on the accusatory finger.

“Do you disagree? I’d stop, if you ask me to.” Pride inquired, as she crossed her arms, and glared at Apostate.

“No,” Apostate rescinded his finger. “ Lorelei is like a daughter to me, and if I were to call anyone else family it would be you and your sisters… though I admit I too am biased, having witnessed your birth. So maybe I have a favorite, too.”

“Then I’ll call you Uncle.” Pride proclaimed, pointing a finger at Apostate. “Unless I’m teasing you, or feel the need for formality, of course.”

“That makes us c-cousins and sisters. H-How does that work, Pride?” Lorelei asked with a tilt of her head.

“Yeah, Pride.” Apostate crossed his arms.

“Are you acting childish, your grace? To answer your question, can’t you apply many names to a single thing. Mother is also known as the Highest Judge, and the Goddess of Honor. She can also be irksome and much too uncongenial, though she would say differently. We’re both cousins and sisters, Lore, it’s as simple as that, isn’t it?” Pride answered.

Lorelei pursed her lips, “Hmm, okay! Makes sense.” She said with a nod.

“If it doesn’t make sense,” Apostate said in a mocking voice,” the gods can just will it to make sense.” He eyed no one in particular. “And I’m the brute.”

“Are you blaming yourself, or someone else?” Pride innocently asked, with a mischievous glint in her eyes. The small champion leapt onto the table, and tried to stretch herself further in order to stand taller than Apostate, to no avail.

Apostate put his hand on top of Pride’s head, gently gripping the top in its entirety under his cut fingers. “What do you want?”

“I have a name, you know... What do you think I want?” She shot back, giving him a pout.

"A big sword?"

“Why would I want a big sword?” Pride asked, placing her hands on her hips. Her words were accompanied by a chime from her scarf, as it swam through the air around the mortal and god.

Apostate pondered for a moment. “So at least something about you will be big?”

“That’s a silly reason. Besides, size is relative. I’m big compared to your orbs, or my egg, and Tuku’s knife. I’m also taller than Lore, so stop mentioning my height.” The small champion closed her eyes, and huffed with annoyance.

“So no big sword?”

“So no big sword.” Pride repeated, opening one eye and peering at the God of Defiance.

“Swords don’t e-exist anyway, only gods use ‘em.” Shrugged Lorelei. “Hammers are better in all aspects.”

“Hammers can’t impale someone,” Apostate muttered. “Besides, I know a mortal that wields a sword and know of many more who soon will.”

“No, Lore is right. I’d rather have a hammer than a sword. You know, both you and Mother are surprisingly foolish. It's a rather frightening thought for us mere mortals. I ask that you don’t impale anyone, please Uncle. I mean, what’s wrong with trying to fix the world instead of breaking it apart further?” Pride asked, as she tried to pry herself from Apostate’s grasp.

“What’s wrong with the world?” Apostate lifted his hand.

“Did you not see the field of death outside? You’ve said it yourself, life was created too early. You weren’t here when your brothers visited, but the Lord of the Hunt had to fight a terrible monster that threatened all of us, and Chailiss has lost his daughter. Why did Mother make Keltra? Would there need to be a shelter if the world was safe?” With a small leap, and quick stride, Pride rejoined Lorelei, hugging the other girl tightly.

“I have no brothers.” Apostate shifted, his voice deadly serious. “Regardless…” A thought trickled behind the god’s visible eye, but he left it there, shaking his head. In front of him were two young girls, happy and full of bliss — he had no right tainting the scene with the pain he knew.




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Wayward Daughters





Stepping off of their boat, the Heralds of Honor immediately felt the change in temperature, and had shivered once involuntarily. “It’s colder than I thought!” Curiosity exclaimed, while Courage, Kindness, and Fear all merely chuckled.

Each and every breath they took formed into mist and swirled in front of their faces, and they looked at the frost which coated the looming trees that stood vigilant before them. Snow blanketed the forest floor, and the realm of Chailiss seemed like it slumbered. Aside from the song of the sea, the world was much more quieter in this place.

All five of the champions silently intoned the Incantation of Sending, and the shifting symbols of the Gnosis manifested upon their skin, so that they left no traces of their passage as they walked farther inland.

Fear and Curiosity carried Skydancer; their task consisted mainly of tugging the almost weightless vessel around, and avoiding any obstacles. Courage, Kindness, and Wanderer took the lead, noticing that the coast was not abandoned.

The familiar sight of humans came into view, but these were much larger and all male. When one had spotted them, he had rushed back to the others, stirring up a great ruckus as more and more men came out from the trees onto the beach to get a look at them. Many eyes had quickly fallen on them but the members of the Holy Quintet organized themselves to properly greet their northern kin.

It wasn’t long before three men came forth from the group. They walked side by side, wearing an assortment of feathers in their long kept hair and necklaces of shells around their necks. The middle one was the tallest, bare chested and carried an old twisted knob of a stick. The one to his left was shorter, also bare chested, with lighter brown hair and equally tan skin. The last man wore tannish furs of some sort, with braided black hair. He was missing his left ear. Their faces were a mix of reverence and awe and when they neared the Holy Quintet, all fell to their knees, heads dipped to the sandy beach.

“Spirit Mother…” The middle man spoke with a deep, projecting voice. “We were foolish. We were stupid. We knew not what we were capable of. For this we sinned and in doing so, we stained our hearts. We cannot ask for forgiveness, for that would be too easy. But we are all of us, sorry. So sorry.” His voice broke and the man began to sob.

Courage was the first to react, dashing towards the three kneeling men, and moving with empowered grace. Her uncovered hand gently rested upon the man’s shoulder, who peered up at her with strikingly blue orbs brimmed with tears. She peered at him with shimmering sincerity shining in her eyes. Her other hand clenched into a fist, the gold metal emitting a couple clinks. “Brother, you can always ask for forgiveness. You’ve become lost, but that just means you have to find your way again, ya.” She spoke softly, and stood by him. The other two looked up as well, silent tears falling down into the sand, lost forever.

Kindness and Wanderer approached, and bowed before the trio of giants, as Fear and Curiosity caught up, and bowed as well.

“We’ve come to offer aid.” Kindness said, as she and her sisters straightened themselves. Curiosity and Wanderer glanced at each other, uncertainty filling them upon the sight of so many people, though there was less than they had expected.

The man in the middle stared up at Courage before giving her a small nod. “How does one ask for forgiveness in the face of such a crime? How could we be worthy of any aid? Tell me, for you have called me brother, are you not the Spirit Mother?” He looked at all of them one by one.

Courage looked back towards her sisters, and saw the effect the words had upon them; a paradoxical mixture of sorrow and joy. Bittersweet feelings, she realized, but she could not understand why she or her sisters felt them. She turned back to the man, and smiled. “You can’t seek forgiveness on your own. Our Mother will come… We’re her messengers that’ve come to spread the word of honor by helping our kin. Listen, you can’t give up either, because like you said, that’d be too easy. You’ve got to always keep trying, and know that you’re not alone.”

Slowly the men nodded to each other as they thought upon her words, then the middle man wiped his tears away. “We and our tribe, would do whatever it takes no matter the journey, for forgiveness. My name is Bodaway. This is Chesmo,” He gestured to the man with light brown hair, “And that is Eapalek.” The man missing an ear gave a small nod at the recognition. “What would the Daughter Spirits ask of us?”

“We wish to know more about this land, to see it through your eyes. Would you share your stories with us? Please.” Courage answered, and gestured with her head towards her sisters. “I’m Courage, and those are our sisters; Kindness, Fear, Curiosity and Wanderer. It’s nice to meet you.” Upon being named, each champion raised her hand, and introduced herself. There were a few noticeable differences between the quintuplets - primarily the minor accessories and tools they wore, but there was also a more subtle difference in the way they held and expressed themselves.

Bodaway rose to his full height, towering over the smaller champions. Chesmo and Eapalek followed and began to walk back. “Come.” Bodaway said, gesturing for them to follow. “We shall feast and learn of each other! It is not every day the spirits come to greet us.”

Courage shook her head with mirth before she and her sisters joined the trio of giants as they returned to their tribe. “Thank you, brother.” She said when she was beside Bodaway, calling up to him as she took two strides for every one step he took in order to match his pace. The ground rumbled ever so slightly and her own footprints could fit three times within his own. Yet besides them being so different to them, they seemed to just fit. For the very trees loomed before them now, the true giants of the north in all their splendid glory. It would have taken two tall giants, standing atop each other's shoulders to reach the lowest branches and they went up, up, and up.

As they neared the rest of the tribe, a great hollering came from them as Chesmo and Eapalek no doubt told what was about to happen. A great thundering of feet, the sound like a landslide, erupted forth as the giant men began to prepare with what they had. Many more came to greet the Quintet, and give reverence to such holy spirits as they were led into the trees towards the camp proper. A wide path had been formed by many feet over and over again through the underbrush, lined with many men hard at work. Some were beating animal hides, others were threading furs and fibers, weaving their craft into works. All stopped and waved as they passed.

“What happened here?” Curiosity asked from the rear, as her sisters waved back and offered friendly smiles. She let go of Skydancer, and raced ahead of their entourage to hear an answer to her question, leaving Fear to carry the airborne boat by herself.

To the giants, Skydancer was an even stranger sight than the champions. Many offered to help carry it and then most did without waiting for an answer. They lifted it high into the sky, enough so that Fear no longer had feet on the ground.

“Eh!” Fear looked around in surprise, before pulling herself up and over the railing of the vessel so that she was carried as well. The anxious champion gave those that were lifting the boat a gracious nod, and quietly muttered thanks.

Bodaway chuckled. “Such a strange craft of yours. What is its purpose?”

“It’s a gift from Chailiss, and it allowed us to fly here all the way from Keltra. It’s nice and comfortable, and goes really fast! It took a while, but we eventually settled on Wanderer’s name for it, so now it’s Skydancer. We’re hoping to get a chance to give proper thanks to Chailiss when we find him.” Courage explained, wearing a cheeky grin.

There was a mystified response from those that heard her, while the few that carried Skydancer stood a bit taller. “What a mighty gift from the Spirit Father! Truly we are blessed this day.” Bodaway exclaimed. A great fire now loomed in the distance, sparking to the heavens in a cleared area with large hides and logs that made shelters around it. More and more men were gathering within, bringing their crafts and food stuffs. As they entered the area proper, Bodaway gestured to a spot where a great log sat. Large enough for each of them to sit on. Skydancer was placed next to the log but before any of them could even try to sit on it, men quickly placed down hides and furs to make it more comfortable.

“Please sit.” Bodaway said to them, “Sit and we can talk of many things around the warm fire.”

As they took their seats and relaxed, Curiosity raised her hand as she spoke. “Did you use the Incantation of Making to create all of these things? Everything sort of smells strange.” She asked, poking the cushioning underneath her. Her question caused her sisters to look around as well with bemused expressions.

Bodaway raised an eyebrow. “In-can-tation?” He spaced the word out before shaking his head. “The land of our father provided all we needed. Here,” he nodded to a fellow man with yellow feathers in his hair. He brought over a large pot, the size of their head and placed it before them on the furs. “Our water is fresh, drink it if you are thirsty.” He gestured to another man and he brought two bowls to them. One with a strange, hot chunk of something that smelled savory. The other bowl contained blueberries as fat as their palms. “Eat of our food if you are hungry.” And finally he gestured to another man, who carried a bundle of furs. He placed it behind them and bowed before backing away. “Our clothes are large, but wear them if you are cold.”

Curiosity excitedly looked over all that had been offered to them, reaching out to touch the fruit within the second bowl, but before she could, Wanderer grabbed her arm. The silent champion simply shook her head, and Curiosity retreated her hand with a dejected look.

“Your father is generous giving you all of these gifts.” Kindness remarked, hesitantly examining the tantalizing content of the first bowl. “We appreciate your generosity, but we have no need to drink and eat.” She continued until Courage interjected.

“Come on, Kindness. Let’s at least try some.” Her words further tempted the rest of her sisters, except for Wanderer who kept away from the offerings. Fear looked at Courage and Kindness, eyes darting back and forth between the two with uncertainty.

“Shouldn’t we wait until we find Chailiss, or something? Without our Make… without Mother, we can’t cleanse ourselves if we consume something we shouldn’t.” The anxious champion said, and shook her head with frustration upon watching Curiosity swiftly plop a blueberry into her mouth.

“See, Curiosity knows what to do.” Courage exclaimed, and grinned at Kindness. The brash champion then looked at the bowl containing the chunk of something, and wondered how to eat it. Kindness, Fear, and Wanderer observed Curiosity as she smiled brightly, and began grabbing more berries.

“Our Maker will likely be angered by this, but that does bring me a modicum of joy.” Kindness muttered, as she relented, and proceeded to grasp a piece of the food-chunk, and rip it free before she slowly ate it. “Mmm… this is really good.”

Courage joined her by following her lead, and only Fear and Wanderer were among those that remained hesitant to touch anything. Fear looked at her frozen hand, before she shook her head and relented.

“Fear… no.” The hand made of ice halted, hovering over the second bowl, its owner stopped by the emotionless voice of Wanderer. With a sigh, Fear pulled her hand back, and stayed still while three of her sisters enjoyed their gifts.

“So… what happened after we left?” Fear asked Bodaway, seeking something to distract her from the strange noises her sisters were making.

He and the other men had remained silent as they watched the Quintet debate about eating. It was not their place to interject.

But now he looked to Fear and the other men could not hold eye contact, so they dipped their heads as if in shame. "I can only think that you mean what happened after our Spirit Mother left with the koloss in tow? It is a tale of great joy and bitter sorrow. But we will tell it now so that you understand our first words upon the beach." The man cleared his throat and looked into fire. "When we first walked this earth, feeling the new sensations of life, we were not alone. The women walked beside us under the teachings of our Spirit Father. We learned many things, even the art of fire from the bijjiork. It was that fire that was our downfall."

Chesmo began to speak, his voice like honey. "Her name was Lansa, the first Flamekeeper, and she loved her flame with great passion. She tended to it, she made it grow strong and kept it alight in the dark. Back then fire was power and those who could keep it, were seen as objects of want. None were better than Lansa and so we men flocked to her, wishing she would share our beds beside us, or to be our wife. Lansa, her heart was good, she declined those who asked. For the fire was hers and that was all she wanted."

Eapalek was the next to speak, his voice was raw and tired. "Our Spirit Father left for a time and not a day passed before Lansa was taken from her fire by force. For some men could not handle rejection, desire and lust. Lansa had her flame extinguished." He dipped his head lower, many of the men had sorrowful faces, others were blank with eyes full of grief.

Bodaway spoke again, "So our women gathered and spoke to each other as they mourned and it was decided that because of our crime against Lansa, men and women would separate. We were outraged at first but to do anything or say anything… We would be no better than the men who had done the crime itself. They never came forward and even to this day we know not who they are or else we might have…" He shook his head. "Some went this way, some went that way. The exodus of men and women was painful but necessary. We have not seen the band of women we followed for some time now, though we know they are half a day away up the beach. Wapeka the Brave spoke of a prophecy, that when the sky danced we would come together again for future generations. Even now we wait for the sky to dance, a small hope for the price we pay. Now our band lives along the coast and we shall learn of its waters and what they might offer us. That is our story."

Many nodded in agreement and all was quiet for a time until two men walked into the camp holding a large stick with an even larger fish between them. It had red scaled, bulbous eyes and was gutted. It was nearly as tall as the champions when they set it next to the fire to cook.

"Our fishermen have returned!" Bodaway exclaimed, clasping them on their backs. "Hehan and Tipo, best we have when it comes to slippery fish." Both bowed before the Champions.

"An honor to meet the Daughter Spirits!" Tipo said.

"We hope you will try our snapping beast, the meat is sweet and succulent!" Hehan added.

At the sight of the slain creature, the Holy Quintet were taken from their thoughts and consideration of the tale they had been told, and forced to recoil. All aside from Courage had risen to their feet, and stared with widened eyes at the neatly eviscerated corpse placed beside the flames to cook. Fear placed a hand over her mouth, and looked away - anywhere that wasn’t the lifeless beast before her, while Curiosity found herself silently crying large wet tears as she choked out a single question. “Why?”

Courage clenched and unclenched her gauntleted fist, flinching and twitching as she slowly shook her head. “Listen… it’s not as bad as it looks…” She muttered, loud enough for her sisters to hear, before she stood and bowed before the two newest arrivals.

“Thank you, Hehan and Tipo. It is an honor to meet you both.” She said, and offered them a polite nod, before giving a pointed look to the rest of her sisters who hesitantly and slowly followed the lead of the only one among the quintet that was not trembling with distress.

But it was too late, for many of the men had puzzled looks on their faces, and others looked distraught. Hehan and Tipo deflated a little, both looking as they were forcing small smiles. All eyes had gone to them but mostly to Curiosity, who cried.

“Have we… Have we upset you?” Bodaway asked in a gentle voice. “If we did something wrong…” His voice quieted.

Curiosity pointed at the carcass, before bringing her hand back to her chest. “Did something kill this child? I don’t understand… what could do this?” She asked, and looked to the two men that had carried the corpse into the village.

They looked at each other with growing distress. Tipo opened his mouth to speak, “We…” but his words betrayed him and Bodaway quickly took over. “Daughter Spirit, why do you call the fish a child? It died so that it could give us life. If it is wrong to kill for life then we have failed you yet again.” His tone was a somber one.

Courage was quick to speak up, raising her hands and gesturing to both parties. “We’re here to help everyone, not condemn them. When I was lost at sea, Sala told me to eat a Godfish, otherwise I’d drown. We’re supposed to listen to the Divine, ya.” Her words were directed at her sisters, then she turned to the men of the village. “Where we’re from, there’s no need to eat anything. The light of the Eternal Fire feeds us. It’s just a bit surprising to see such things for us.” She explained, attempting to assuage all those gathered with a calming voice and an affable attitude. However her sisters did not find themselves soothed by her speech, still perturbed by the sight of death.

“Apologies. We do not mean to cause any distress. Hehan. Tipo. Let us cook the fish elsewhere for now.” Bodaway said with a nod. The two gave a sad nod to Bodaway in return, then dipped their heads in shame as they grabbed the fish and left the bonfire.

“They will be alright.” Bodaway reassured. “This land can be plentiful to us but we have no fire like that which would keep us full all the time. I am not sure if it would give you any comfort, but the life we take… We do not let anything suffer. And when our time comes, we return to the land that gives to us.”

With red cheeks and chagrin, Courage rubbed the back of her head and fumbled with her next words. “I, uh, understand. We don’t speak, um, for… the Divine, and we’re still learning as well… We just want to help everyone, and it’s hard trying to figure out how to do that.”

Kindness placed a hand upon Courage’s shoulder, and shook her head. “This is wrong, Courage. Our Maker had to cleanse you after you consumed that Godfish, and you were sick before that. Our inner fires were not designed to do this.” She said, however, her reckless sister only brushed her hand away and scowled at her in response.

“You know, for someone that thinks she’s such a pain, you sure sound a lot like our Maker. I’m sure she would love to scold them for something when they didn’t even have any chance to make a choice. It seems like we just left them to starve, doesn’t it?” Courage remarked, before she stepped away from both Kindness and the rest of the quintet. The Champions of Homura were all silent, exuding a combination of frustration and sorrow.

The men of the camp also reflected the mood of the Champions. There came little talk, only slight whispers and gazes that only held the fire. A few picked at their food, but it seemed many of their appetites had left them. The only audible noise that could be followed was the crackle of the fire. Even Bodaway did not seem to know what to say.

“I would seek another way… anything but the theft of sacred life. I would not partake in this act even if it meant I would perish otherwise. Would you eat Lorelei if the situation necessitated it? Would you eat Pride if the Divine demanded it? I cannot condone this, and I would stand by our Maker if it meant I can bring an end to this madness.” Kindness proclaimed.

“You’re an idiot, sis. What do you think we were putting inside us? There’s none here that know the Gnosis, so there’s none here that know the Incantation of Making. Come on, even Curiosity must’ve known when she was stuffing her face.” Courage countered, pointing a finger at the aforementioned champion who proceeded to spew blood and fruit from her mouth.

Wanderer and Fear swiftly offered their support to their vomiting sister, holding her up as her legs gave way. “Curiosity, what’s wrong!?! What’s happening!?!” The anxious champion looked to Courage and Kindness who stared at the scene with abject horror.

The men stood up in surprise and shouts. Some cried out about evil spirits, others simply left and many could only watch to see what was going to happen. Bodaway hefted his staff and moved towards Curiosity. “She is rejecting the food. Hold back her hair.” Was all he said.

Fear gently laid Curiosity down, as Wanderer followed the instructions of the giant, and kept any red hair from falling in front of the sick girl’s face. Curiosity continued to retch, despite the lack of anything else escaping her stained lips, and the two sisters looking after her turned to Bodaway for further guidance. “What do we do now?” Fear desperately asked.

Courage stepped farther back, and averted her gaze, her scarlet cheeks flushed with shame instead of humility, and she bit back any more words she might have said. Kindness raised a hand to her own mouth, and her fair skin became sickly pale.

“There is nothing you can do but let it pass on its own.” He looked to Kindness. “She will be next, see to her.” A great sigh then escaped him. “This talk of how we live and what we do to survive, has disagreed with your minds. This is why the rejection takes place I think.”

Fear nodded, and stood up to assist Kindness, but her sister refused, holding her hand up to ward away the anxious champion. “I am fine. I can stand. Do not concern yourself with me, look after Curiosity.”

“But-

“No, our sister needs you now more than I do. I appreciate this, but I am fine.” With a firm tone, Kindness continued to push Fear away, and weakly nodded in gratitude at both Bodaway and her sister.

“If it’s wrong, why does it feel so good then?” Courage asked, “Wouldn’t everything just stop and find another way, like you said.” She questioned further, as she stepped up to Kindness who began pushing her away as well, but the brash champion rebuked the attempts to fend her off, and forced Kindness to take a seat.

“It’s like using the Gnosis, you can’t just eat as much as you want. You have to learn how to eat proper, ya.” Kindness closed her eyes as Courage began lecturing her. “Our brothers here must’ve eaten a bunch since we left them, and they aren’t sick, am I wrong?” Courage directed the question to Bodaway then, yearning for a consoling answer.

He shook his head. “Seldom do we get sick. It is only after one eats something that has gone bad or should not have been eaten in the first place, that we do get sick.” He laid a hand upon Courage’s shoulder. “I do not know what the Spirit Mother ever intended for us to eat or not eat, how we should be or how we shouldn’t. Correct me if I am wrong but you all seem like children. You do not know how this land works, how to survive, how to thrive. Tell me, without your fire, how long would you last?” He looked upon Kindness next. “We do not eat people, to say such is an insult. I mean no disrespect when I say this, but you do not listen to our words and judge us too harshly for one named Kindness. You have come to help and offer guidance, yet you have already judged and made up your mind. Look at my brother’s and their faces, see how frightened they are? You will not help any if no one trusts you. I have spoken my words, listen to them if you will.” He let go of Courage’s shoulder and went back to sit down. Chesmo came to him and began to whisper in his ear, leaving the Champions to themselves with watchful eyes.

Courage stroked the hair atop the head of her reticent sister, as she looked all around her and sighed. “We’ve really stumbled, huh. We’re only a couple days older than all of you, and yet we’re the ones that are in need of teaching. Please, let me apologize on behalf of my sisters. We want to help, we truly do, but it seems like we’re always messing up. We’ve got twenty five days until we must return to Keltra, and we were hoping to catch up to Chailiss before then. Maybe we can’t help you on our own, but if you can help us help you, then ya, just maybe we can make this work.”

Her speech was loud and clear, but was also accompanied by the sounds of Curiosity whimpering as Wanderer caressed her. “I didn’t know… I didn’t mean to… I’m so sorry…” She sobbed, and her sister continued to try to soothe her. Fear stood between both pairs, and wore a lost expression; her mouth slightly opened, but with no words to speak with, and trembling eyes that gazed at both everything and nothing.

Eapalek stood. “In the days when our Spirit Father walked with us, Childan united, we made many mistakes and we stumbled and fell. We still do but he would always say; ‘To fall is to be human, to make mistakes, is to be human. That is why when you rise, you do better. Learn, grow, teach.’ We were younger then and did not know the depth of such wisdom but now, it becomes clearer every day.” Around him the men began to nod in agreement. “First you must ask yourselves who are the ones that need help. Second, you must act. You have apologized, now do better. Stumble, fall, but do better when you rise.” He sat back down and dipped his head towards the flame, closing his eyes.

“Sounds like the Sacred Path. We’ll do better, I promise!” Courage answered, adding her own affirming nod. “It’s just being human to make mistakes, and gives us the chance to be better, ya. You may not believe this, brother, but even the Divine make mistakes. What a foolish world we live in, but you know what, I’m not afraid, because I’m not alone. Let’s find Chailiss, and help each find our way of bettering ourselves.”

“One does not find the Spirit Father,” Bodaway began, “He finds…” His voice quieted as a strange bird flew through the camp. It was a spectral blue that flew around Courage’s head before disappearing into the trees. Next came a deep chill and a heavenly white orb stopped in midair over them, sprinkling down snowflakes.

The Lord of Winter materialized before them then, the great bonfire turning to embers as the men shouted in awe, rising to meet their Father.

”Quickly, we have little time, Champions.” He said, taking one look over Curiosity and Wanderer, before waving his hand over them. Two blue pendants, the same as Fear’s, Courage’s and Kindness’ appeared around their necks.

Courage offered a hasty bow, before pulling Kindness to her feet, while Wanderer assisted Curiosity, with the aid of Fear, and the five Heralds of Honor stood mostly prepared before the God of the Cold. “We’re ready for your commands!” Courage cried out, her eyes burning bright with reignited conviction.

The god knelt on one knee before them. ”By chance or fate I have found you, and welcome you to this land. This is not how I wished your time here to be but I have need of you. A goddess lays dying and I must go to her but there is another matter I need help with. I do not ask you this lightly, for it could be incredibly dangerous. Please, let me know now before I continue. It is your right to refuse and I will think no less of you.” He said with urgency in his voice.

“We accepted the dangers when we set out from Keltra. Let us know how we can be of assistance, your grace.” Courage smashed her bare fist into the palm of her golden gauntlet, and offered Chailiss an eager grin. None of her sisters objected, though there was much less enthusiasm among them.

“We want to be worthy of your faith in us…” Fear added, hesitantly articulating her willingness with an icy thumbs up.

Chailiss looked to Fear and smiled, ”You have always been worthy.” he said, looking at each of them but his smile faded. ”My… Daughter. Zima, Nisshi as I called her, is… She has returned. But she is not as she once was. She has become something, I fear, darker and twisted by forgoing death. I ask you to find her but under no circumstances should you speak or fight her. I only want to know where she is and when I do, I shall come and see to her. Is this understood?”

“Yes, your grace!” Courage answered, her words followed by Kindness and Fear saying the same, while Curiosity and Wanderer merely nodded. “What does your daughter look like?” Courage asked, content upon hearing and seeing her sister’s acceptance of their task, and dedicating herself completely to her new assignment.

“She’s a shapeshifter, correct?” Kindness softly inquired, recalling the vision they were shown in Keltra of the various creatures they had seen depicted when Chailiss described his daughter before.

Chailiss nodded. ”I know not what shape she will be in but Mish-Cheechel is the Bjork’s name. A vengeance seeker who thought to kill Phelenia with Zima. I know not if they are still together.”

“We’ll find her, and you’ll be reunited with your daughter!” Courage proclaimed, and this time her words seemed to reinvigorate her sisters. They each stood straighter, and their eyes held newfound resolve. “The Holy Quintet won’t fail you!”

Fear raised her frozen hand once more, and timidly approached the God of the Cold. “May I ask, where’s Viho? I was wondering if I - if we could see him again…” She asked.

Chailiss took Fear’s hand within his own. ”Viho searches for Zenia, I have need of her as well. Do not worry Fear, you shall see him again. I promise you this, that when I see him next, I shall send him to you.” He let go of her hand, a jolt of power flowed through Fear in response. ”You may find your hand can do more than grasp things now.” he smirked.

She looked back and forth between her hand and Chailiss, and smiled with hints of joyful tears around her eyes. “Thank you, you’ve done so much for me…” She leapt forward, holding onto the deity for a moment. “We’ll find Nisshi.” She murmured into his chest.

Courage seemed about like she was about to leap as well, until she threw her fist into the air. “Zenia is what we need! I remember feeling really happy when she was around, and there’s also Voligan! If those two offer their help, you’ll be safe, Chailiss? All of you! You and our Maker can save us…” Her words were neither a question or affirmation, and Courage found that despite her best efforts, the previous mentioning of a dying goddess still filled her with a dreadful feeling.

”Of course Courage. Of course.” He said, outstretching a hand towards her. It was half closed at first but as it opened, something sparkled to reveal a dazzling light blue gem that he dropped in her hand. ”Set this into your gauntlet for the journey ahead.” He said before turning to Curiosity and Wanderer. ”Step forth.” he told them.

Wanderer helped Curiosity approach, and the two stood before Chailiss. Curiosity looked up, her chin stained with drying blood, and she wiped away another tear. “I’m sorry, your grace. Please forgive me.” She said with a sniffle. Chailiss looked puzzled, but very gently wiped the blood from her chin and then rubbed her face underneath her eye with his thumb. ”I know not what you think you have done wrong but all the same, you are forgiven. Now let me see your shield.”

She held out her arm the buckler was attached to, the face of the small shield aimed up and reflecting the light of day with its dozens of glittering gemstones. With his free hand, Chailiss circled over it and briefly shut his eyes. When he opened them, the shield looked much the same, besides the rim which had turned an icy blue. ”Your job is the most important one, without you they would be in harm's way. With this shield, you will protect them all, Curiosity.”

“I will. I’ll protect them.” Curiosity held the shield close to her chest, and bowed to the God of the Cold once more. “Thank you, your grace.” She looked up at him with a sincere smile, letting his words soothe the ache in her heart, and finding the strength to stand on her own. “Can I have a hug too?” She asked.

He pulled her into an embrace as he looked to Wanderer. Her staff pulsed and a shimmering white orb set itself at the top. ”With that, you may see farther than ever before.”

The silent champion looked at the orb atop her staff, then looked at her sister and Chailiss, before she wordlessly joined them in the hug as well. With mild reluctance, the two eventually let go of the god, and stepped back. Chailiss stood and briefly looked at Kindness before turning back to face the men. All had large eyes with looks of profound reverence upon their faces. Chailiss rose his hands and proclaimed, ”I have not forgotten you my sons. Know that you must let go of the burden in your heart. Do not blame yourselves for the actions of the few but never become complacent. I now give you my second sacred law, let all men know; Do not force your will upon another mortal or you will be marked forever more for your sin.” he waved his hand over them and the air turned brisk as a wind whipped through their hair. All their eyes shined with a bright blue before fading and one by one they looked to their hands.

“Father…” Bodaway and the others murmured.

”Learn of this power and grow with it and remember my law.” he said, before turning back to the champions. ”I must leave you now, search the west of this continent for her. There lies a gate that leads to the Underworld. Start there.” he smiled at them. ”I wish you the best of luck in this endeavor and know that I will see you again. Pray to me when you find her and I will come.” His eyes fell upon Kindness once more. ”Come see me off, Kindness. Farewell Courage, Curiosity, Wanderer and Fear.” He said with a nod each before gesturing for the first named Champion to follow him.

“Farewell, your grace.” The dismissed four replied, before jumping towards Skydancer, and waving at the gathered giants with a mix of fondness and regret. Kindness remained behind, sparing one more look towards her sisters, until she nodded to herself and leapt after the God of the Cold.

Chailiss said nothing as they entered into the forest the way the bird went. When the trees obscured the camp and any prying eyes, he at last turned to Kindness and bent down before her, resting a hand upon her shoulder. There was pain in his eyes. ”Your sisters are eager to prove themselves worthy. Do you feel the same?” he asked her.

“I wish to help our sister. If that means I must obey your commands, or… accept your task, then I shall do so. I wish to help you, not because of your divine nature and any obligation I may have to serve, but because I think… because you remind me of myself. I hate seeing the pain you are enduring because you have lost someone you love.” Kindness answered, and beneath the impassive mask and emotionless voice, there was an inner frantic fire that flailed with frustration and confusion. Her spiritual power was so much smaller, but the shape of her essence was the most similar to the Goddess of Honor compared to all of her sisters.

”Speak to me as if I were a friend, Kindness. It does not take divine eyes to see that something is troubling you.” Chailiss said in a quiet voice, searching her eyes.

“I am uncertain. Courage and Fear almost perished before, and now they eagerly depart again. Is this a cycle, and will I continually face this dread of wondering whether I will be returning home with them, or alone again? Our Maker said our work is indefinite, but I have no investment in this Sacred Path, and finding meaning. I just want to be happy… I want to rid myself of this pain.” Kindness brought both her hands together, palms pressed against one another and fingers upright. “Why do we have to become lost? I was happy before…”

”When one is lost, they have two choices. Give up or press on.” He gave her a slight squeeze. ”To give up is to succumb to every negative and be consumed by it. To press on is the hope we all cling to- That times will get better. Happiness is your beacon, Kindness, so cling to it, strive for it, fight for it. You will be happy again, you and all of your family. And know If I could take your pain from you I would, I would shoulder it so that you did not have to suffer but to do so I would strip you of a part of yourself that you must either come to terms with, or overcome. Your Maker’s sacred path is Idyllic but the laws of this system dictate otherwise but this does not mean it cannot be strived for. I have bickered about this with her every time we meet. I do not know if her system will work or not and I have said my peace on the subject. Kindness, if you do not wish to tread that path, then you must find your own. No one can give it to you but yourself.” He let go of her shoulder. ”To be worried is normal but do not let those thoughts dominate your mind. I would not let you face this alone or without aid, only you and your sisters can do the rest. Protect each other, and if it comes to it, fight together. Are you prepared to do what is necessary if you must?”

“I do not understand, what separates necessity from that which is not necessary? I will always protect and fight beside my sisters, if that is what you ask.” Kindness answered, as she tilted her head with confusion.

His face hardened. ”Kindness, are you prepared to take a life if it threatens you or your sisters?”

“You are asking if I would extinguish another inner fire to preserve the inner flames of my family. Why would you ask me such a question? I… I do not… no, I would be. I am prepared… but only if I cannot see another option. Does this answer suffice, your grace?” As she spoke, her hands fell to her side, and closed into fists. Her scarlet eyes hardened into stone, but was covered in subtle cracks; fragile despite its sturdy visage.

Chailiss smiled wearily and put out his thumb to rub Kindness’ cheek in reassurance. ”Be brave. I ask this question because not all life will care about your inner flames, Kindness. Nor would they have their own flames for you to take. Such creatures only prey upon others out of hate and misery but you will also find that beings with flames may try to harm you as well. This is what I fear most, sending you on a quest and putting you in such situations. I do not wish this upon you or your sisters but you must be made aware that it could be a possibility.”

“Thank you, for the warning. Thank you again for providing so much for my family. There were one million of us when we were all created, and now we are lost and divided… and there are less of us, but you have been very… kind to me and my kin. Thank you.” Kindness bowed, and arose, looking at Chailiss with conflicted eyes, paradoxically conveying both appreciation and resentment. The eyes of a child who is afraid of the dark, and an adult who is afraid of the light.

He pulled back his hand with a bit of hurt on his face before it became impassive. He gave her a nod and then from his hand there formed a long dagger of blue spectral make. He held it out to her. ”Do you know what this is and how to use it?”

She carefully examined the artifact, before gingerly grasping it. “It resembles the knife that the Master of the Hunter entrusted to Pride. My knowledge regarding knives is limited though. The sharp edge is used to cut… and it can be used to harm.” She observed, staring at the blade. Her gaze traveled up its length towards the point, and she blinked, as if suddenly struck by a realization. “It is a weapon, and I know how to use it.” Kindness answered.

The god nodded. ”A Blade of Mourning. Where your sister’s tools may affect a spirit, this will most certainly harm one. It is for you now, in case Zima is no longer herself.” He wrapped his hand around her own that held the dagger. ”Listen to me now.” there was a sense of urgency in his voice, ”It may not even work on her, for I fear what afflicts her will laugh in the face of a certain end. It may slow her down, it may immobilize her but only use it if all else fails and it comes down to a fight. Knowing Courage… I fear a confrontation will be inevitable. Prove me wrong Kindness. If not, watch each other's backs. Nisshiniek can possess cold elements and use them as vessels and they are durable. With your tools… Perhaps she will run. Do not pursue her unless doing so would be to prevent catastrophe. Do you understand?”

“I understand.”

He let go of her and stood up. ”When this is over, Kindness, I will grant you a wish of whatever you desire. Who knows… Maybe you won’t find her at all by the time I am through with whatever I am about to find. Now I must go, before that bird gets too far ahead. Goodbye, daughter of honor. I wish you luck.”

“I wish you good luck as well, Lord of Winter.” She stepped back, and allowed the shadow of a smile to touch her lips, as she bid Chailiss farewell with another slight bow. Chailiss smiled, raising a hand in farewell and then became snow as a wind carried him away.

Left in the quiet grove, Kindness peered down at the weapon she held, before turning her attention back to the way she had come. With the weight of a choice soon to be made; an unseen burden upon her shoulders, she marched back to where her sisters waited for her. Emerging from the frosty foliage, her four sisters all waited within Skydancer.

“Hey Kindness, come on. Zima won’t find herself!” Courage called out, waving her large golden hand in the air.

Kindness approached the airborne vessel, but before she leapt aboard, she turned to the giants still present. “I apologize for my previous words. I did not mean to offend you, my brothers.” She said. The men, mostly busy with their new powers (and learning how to not freeze each other), turned to Kindness and raised their hands to her. Bodaway stepped forth and spoke, “All is forgiven. Please, take these gifts for your journey, perhaps they provide you with some semblance of comfort. Chesmo brought forth a simple brownish red pot, carried in one hand and draped over his other was a large fur blanket, black as midnight. Upon closer inspection, the small pot was full to the brim with shells and fancy rock. Chesmo held them out to the girls in the boat. “We wish you good luck finding the wayward daughter. Come and visit us again, we insist!” he smiled.

“Of course. Until we meet again then.” Kindness said before she jumped up and stood on the railing of Skydancer. “I look forward to it.” She added.

“We’re going to be better! We haven’t helped you really, not yet, but we will! If you find our sisters, tell them the sky dances. Oh, perfect Kindness, just what I needed.” Courage glanced at her sister carrying the knife, and swiftly took it from her grasp. With a blur of motion, the blade cut through the air where the brash champion pulled her long hair and held it, easily slicing through the long strands.

Returning the dagger to Kindness before she could react, Courage held out a large tuft of her scarlet tresses, offering them to the giants. “Here! A gift from the Heralds of Honor!”

Chesmo took them and held it up for all to see. The men whooped with joy, small icicles flying up into the sky. There was much laughter then as many began to wave goodbye.

Courage stepped back and moved towards the rudder, while Kindness and Fear offered more cheerful waves. Skydancer began to rise, and slowly the village of Childan became more distant. There was some relief in the hearts of the Holy Quintet, as they began their journey westward where they would begin their quest to seek out the missing Zima.




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The Second Trial


The peak was more exposed than it could have been expected from a spot nested so low among the surrounding mountains. The gales, not content with its already fractured shape, battered it ferociously, seizing every loosened crumb of stone with triumphant howls and carrying it away like a treasured prize. No snow could hold its footing on the rocky spire’s small flat head, and, besides some tufts of brown grass heroically clinging to a crack in its side, the even little dolomite plaza was perfectly bare.

Just as the sky above it was obstinately silent, save for the wordless whistling of the wind.

“Here I am!”

Ea Nebel raised her face towards Heaven, her feet planted in the center of the summit, hands a-fist at her sides. Her scarf whipped out behind her, a perfect straight line tracing the force of the wind, marking a tiny black figure exposed on all sides to the crown of peaks that encircled her. Her shout, like her scarf, was cast away and lost to the gale. The silence continued.

Until, at last, the wind brought something.

Black smoke tumbled and rolled through the air, twisting and flouncing like entrails tossed to the ground, but never unravelling. One cloud, then two, three.

Seven.

They began to circle her as they approached, winding a quickly tightening spiral. Red eyes. Flashes of grey flame.

“Breathe,” one of them said in the voice of a dying pyre.

“...Hello, sisters.” Ea Nebel flicked white hair off her face with her gloved knuckles and let her eyes relax from the ruinous spirits, closing them for only a moment. She filled her lungs.

A fiery chuckle answered.

“Sisters,” one spectre repeated, and five others laughed again. Only the one who hung further back, the one with the three melancholy pupils, did not join them.

“If we are so much to you,” a one-eyed Eschatli began again, “Give us your breath.”

“All of it.”

“All your body.”

“All your life. Then you will truly be one of us. Just breathe us in.”

The demigod, cold-hardened, gave the spirits the air she held in her body, and nothing more. Nothing but a quarter of a smile. “You are more than nothing to me,” she murmured, knowing they could hear her over the wind, just as she could hear them. “But not that much. Talk to me, Eschatli. I would listen to your voice.”

The Six hummed, and they gathered closer.

“Do you know,” one of them said, “What it is to live without breath?”

“Without it, we cannot feed our flame,” another rejoindered, “We burn, but we are forever cold.”

“We never had land to call our home, for we cannot tread it.”

“No rest for lidless eyes.”

“No warmth for the heartless.”

“Come, sing for our sister,” one turned to the Other, who had quietly approached, “Sing of the Seven.”

And she sang.

“What I am, I must not show,
What I am, you could not know.
Something between heaven and hell,
Something that neither stood nor fell.

Far less happy, for we have
Help nor hope beyond the grave.
And this is all that I can show,
And this is all that you may know.

Neither substance quite, nor shadow,
Haunting lonely moor and meadow,
Dancing by the haunted spring
And riding on the whirlwind's wing.

A year there is a lifetime
And a second but a day,
And an older world will meet you
Each morn you come away.

The thunder’s noise is our delight
And lightning makes us day by night,
And in the air we dance on high
To the loud music of the sky.”


The howl of wind and song swept over Ea Nebel. She squinted against it, bracing herself against a force in the Outsider’s words that not even the gale could match. She drove her quartered gaze up into the grey flame that was Seventh of the Seven, hunting for colour in that thrice-pupilled eye, daring the spirit to bare more, to sing on with the loud music of the sky.

But the Other had no more to say, and she looked silently back as tendrils of smoke crept closer to the demigoddess’ face.

“Such is our lot, but in your breath we will find a new one,” said the Six as they reached for her nose and mouth with searing fingers, “If you will not give it to us, we will take it.”

And not another word was spoken as they surged in a wave of light and pain.

White teeth flashed. Soot-black fingers pulled open Ea Nebel’s black lips and revealed the clenched snarl hiding behind them. She threw her head forward as the fire entered her mouth and bit, ripping away an Eschatli’s gaseous limb above the wrist, claiming fingers from her sisters, snuffing them between her jaws. When she lunged, it was with a wet, grinding animal growl, and her neck stretched on inhuman bones as she seized her sister’s fire in tooth and hand and tore her apart.

No sooner were the Seven restored to number than Ea Nebel drew her blades. Twin smallswords, thin as needles, their guards of fresh ivory; they leached light, spilling tattered flowing sheets of shining white mana onto the mountain altar. Glyphs sparked from her ring in a constant shower and scattered out from behind the guard of that hand.

And, trailed by plumes of smoke peacock-like in that bath of shimmers, the Seventh began to dance. It was at first the slow oscillation of the waves lapping the shore at dawn, but then it quickened, unfolded, and truly became the dance of the flame. She careened one way with a weight that was gone the next moment, and then leapt up to the sky in fifty tongues before falling again in a pool of blades and teeth.

Without looking, the Six followed her, at first in a few tremulous steps between one life and the next, then more and more confident, more and more joyous. She was their corypheus, and they her silent choir, and she guided them among woven wonders to which they were blind. Where the Nebel-blades struck, they were no more. Where the rune-sparks left an opening, they lashed and burned.

Every white nova that flared when their enemy pierced them only delivered Ea Nebel an instant of respite as the Eschatli divided and the gap in the dance was filled by fission. She worked those moments without mercy. No longer could the shape of the woman on the mountain be mistaken for the goddess beneath the skin. Her spine twisted without grace, her wrists snapped back and forth independently, faster than fleshen nerves could command or bone could withstand. She was sleek chaos, she ate rhythm. Silk became steel on her skin and the Eschatli’s perfect step was broken time and again on her solidity.

Always there was another space in the dance for the Seven to hide in. The song of joy had been Seen before it was composed, and it was composed for her.

“ENOUGH!”

The cry did not come from her throat, only somewhere behind the soulless mask she wore atop her segmented armour. The night air thickened like water, and the dark fires floating within it were caught in the light of the sphere around her.

“Stand Still!”

And still they stood. Ea Nebel sucked the mask back inwards, revealing her sweat-soaked face under her helm. “You don’t… Tire like I do.”

Yet, tireless as they were, the Seven flames grew lower and dimmer in that moment. A shadow cast by no solid body had fallen over them, and with it came a weight that was more than just fatigue.

“To know the virtue of authority is to know the standing of oneself and all things in creation,” came at long last the voice from the sky, “It is to know that the obedience of Galbar-born is the birthright of divinity, as the obedience of lessers is the birthright of the supreme. Where even the subaltern may be preeminent in might or wile, they must ever heed the command of the paramount. This is a virtue of the divine.”

Then the veil of shadow was lifted, and the Eschatli were carried away into the distance upon its trail, like driftwood on the current.

Ea Nebel breathed, heavily but unmolested, her mail melting away into silk and wool. Her hands still gripped the swords. Only the mountains looked at her now, and under their gaze, she was all alone.

“One day we will dance together!” she shouted, her voice small against the wind, into the back of the distant circle of spirits. Once again her eyes chased down the last one, the grey flame. “One day I will swallow you.”

"There will be dancing, there will be ringing,
There will be shadow-people singing ~"


The fading gales brought back tatters of song, before those too were swallowed by the horizon.

Far below the godling’s feet, a small cavity about halfway up the tomb-peak’s side, until then as dark as its neighbours, lit up with the subdued radiance of luminous silvery fog streaming from its mouth.

“The third trial awaits there.”

Ea Nebel inclined her gaze once more towards Heaven. The wind was not so strong now. It carried faint drops of sleet. She threw her swords out onto the steep slopes to the left and right of her, and let the magnesium light of magic claim them. Then it was her turn to leap from the peak.

A faint voice carried between the mountains.

Daylight, in bad dreams
Of a cool world, full of cruel things
Hang tight, all you
Nothing like a big, bad, bridge
To go, go
Burning through





Stone and crystal scraped sharply as Iqelis tore himself from the ledge once more. As he stepped away, the grooves left by his talons were bared to mark where, until briefly before, every one of his fingers had been clenched while the struggle raged. Again he cast his inquiring gaze to the two goddesses without a word spoken.

“I wish I could find any enjoyment in the irony of these trials, but I cannot. I digress, I am satisfied with the results once more.” Homura said.

“Then you draw as much enjoyment as there is kindling for it,” the god rattled drily back. He spoke even fainter now, in the clatter of ancient bones rolling in a deep crypt.

Ruina observed the test with some amount of interest, as the trials of sisterly conflict were something that she was quite intimate with. The brutal way that Ea Nebel chose to push back against their assault was something that she personally approved of. She resolved to tell her that later. To do anything now would go against the spirit of the tests. As Iqelis sought her critique Ruina gave a reply that was actually simple for once. ”I approve.”

And so it was.



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The Rebirth: Into the Wide, Wounded World.


I


On the tenth anniversary of the Day of Ashes, the Vault doors opened.

It had been a month since that day, when every last organic living in Astalon was kicked out of the Vault and told to settle the lands like they’d done before.

Groups of hundreds of Astalonians, mostly children, were escorted to their lineages’ hometowns. The ones who traveled to the south towards the coastal city of Roi had to brave the ancient, broken, melted asphalt highways and had to navigate around massive blockages where dozens of carriages had crashed a decade ago. Items, clothing, mementos, framed drawings… All those things still remained, strewn all over the roads near the mountains of scrap. Yet there was no blood, and there were no bodies.

Those who traveled west to the secluded village of Sol had to weave their way through overgrown swamp and forest alike. At times, they would stumble upon caverns. The first two they explored had old furniture inside, filled with the tattered and dirty clothes and diaries of the people who had thought it a good idea to hide out in the wilderness. There were craters in the walls and stained bedrolls in the back of the caves. Yet there were no bodies. They didn’t walk into any other cave after that.

Those who traveled north to the sky city of Nube had to climb and climb until they were breathing more cloud than air. Their journey was, relatively speaking, the smoothest. There were no ruins anywhere before Nube City, but upon climbing a rather steep drop the Vaulters saw the near hundred pairs of shoes that had been lined up neatly against the ledge, some big like a champion’s and some tiny like a child’s.

Those who traveled east towards the great boreal city of Vie had to brave treacherous weather and the last remnants of wildlife. They found nothing. Absolutely nothing of what had once been the greatest city in Astalon. Nothing, but the tip of the cracked Monolith that had once stood at the center of Vie. The city had been buried under hundreds of meters of snow alongside the rest of the region.

Something that had been thought of as a happy event by the Vaulters, that of finally going back home and leaving the confined spaces of the Underground Vault, was faced with the reality of what had happened to the majority who couldn’t make it to the Vault all those years ago.

There were no cheers.

There were no laughs.

There were no hugs and no wide, wonder-filled eyes.

The adults then realized that the world they knew, and the people they knew, were gone and would never return.

Thus, the Day of Ashes became the Day of Ashes and Tears, and would come to be mourned on a yearly basis ever since as a way to pay respect to those who were lost.





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Natural Adventures

In front of the first knight stood the unending green and brown stands of the forbidden forest. As if ignoring its grudge with the man so long as he stood just outside it on the dirt lot that marked the beginning of civilization (and Noetal’s garden), a myriad of birdsong and chattering rodents chorused through the unending leaves and underbrush. Truthfully, Farwaen found the scene relaxing if not amazing — even after his dangerous bout with the local fauna.

He wasn’t alone, though, with Hafface standing confidently next to him — clearly secure in her machinations. Noetal himself had opted to watch the spectacle on the other side of the lot, behind his home, which didn’t bother Farwaen any. The knight knew that he had reached the first step of his journey, and all he had to do was pray… something he was quite apt at in his own opinion.

Flourishing his blade, Farwaen drove the point into the rooted ground and tapped his forehead against the pommel of the crucifix. He closed his eyes in respect.

“Hevel, let my voice roam as I call out in prayer to the guardian of this wood. Let her hear my voice and contemplate my words as I beseech her presence this day. Nimueh is her name, and Nimueh I wish to meet. Let it be so.”

Slowly but surely the forest started to quiet down. The songs stopped singing and landed on the nearby branches. The smaller critters stopped their chittering. A tension started to glow from the forest. As if everything stopped to see what would happen next. “Who are you?” Asked a voice coming from somewhere deeper into the forest. Neither Farwaen nor Hafface could see the source of the weary voice though.

“Tis I!” Farwaen called back. “The First of Knights, Farwaen!”

Hafface’s confidence had visibly shrunk, but Farwaen didn’t pay it any mind as he jutted his chin in her direction. “And the First of Squires, Hafface!”

The elf scrunched her nose. “What?”

The forest remained eerily quiet. As if all animals were collectively holding their breath. In the distance a humanoid body moved like a shade between shadows. It inched just a little closer. Then it vanished again. A moment later the voice from deep within the forest spoke again: “Leave your weapons at the first tree of the forest. You have my promise they won’t be taken. Then enter.” The voice said.

Farwaen couldn’t help but bend a small smile at the notion that his weapons could even be taken. Even so, as noble as the prospect, he spoke out, “I have no qualms in leaving my sword by your tree, but my shield shall remain on my back.”

“Then you will not meet me.” The voice returned. The forest became a bit more agitated again. As if the prospect that the shield would enter it made it angry. “I won’t let the forest harm you. That is my promise. But I won’t meet with you if you hold anything that can hurt me. So please, leave it.” The voice did not sound as somber as before. It sounded almost pleading. As if it wanted to meet with Farwaen but could only do so if he didn’t carry the shield.

“An old saying from the plains,” the Eidolon answered, “you cannot touch a hand unless you first reach out. I’m reaching out to you and meeting you halfway, won’t you do the same for me? Tis a shell strapped to my back, I in turn promise you no harm.”

In an instant all the song birds took flight. As if some great beast was rampaging from the woods. The smallest of the critters fled as well. From the shadows a pair of glowing eyes appeared. And then another. “I have reached out… again… and again… and again.” The voice was angry. “I have been ridiculed and beaten for it. I lost my closest friend because of it. And despite that I have done my best to keep as many of my kind safe in the forest. I have reached out, Farwaen. And none listened. You will leave your shield or you will not meet me.”

“A notable amendment to the current predicament, indeed.” Farwaen cradled his chin between thumb and finger. Hafface scowled.

“Again… what?”

The Knight ignored his unwilling squire and leaned his blade against a tree before unstrapping his shield and holding it in front of him with both hands. “Before I let go, what has you so worried about such an instrument as this?”

“It can be held so it can be used to hurt me.” The voice explained. The angry edge had immediately disappeared when Farwaen relented. The glowing eyes vanished in the darkness of the forest as well. “Beyond that it is a mark of civilization. Entering with it would break the Queen’s edict. That would enrage the forest and… It doesn’t matter. Thank you for leaving it.”

“Very well!” Farwaen arched a brow and let go. The shield fell to the ground, shaking it abruptly and scattering the local birds. Farwaen stepped over the shield, the bottom half of it buried in the ground from the immense weight that it landed with. With that done, the Eidolon entered the forest.

“Good.” The voice said. It led the zenii and the eidolon into the forest. The trees grew denser around them. Eyes watched them and a few times a singular singing bird heralded their passing. Still they couldn’t see the source of the voice save for a shady outline in the far distance.

After a while the roots that broke the surface and the path began to recede. They reached a clearing in the forest. The canopy opened up there, letting in the sun’s radiance. On the edge of the clearing was a small incline made of moss-covered rocks from which a crystal clear creek fell and flowed straight through the clearing. On top of the moss covered rocks sat Nimueh cross legged. “Welcome.” She said, her hair was a tangled mess and her eyes were deeply sunken. But still she gave both of them an inviting smile.

Without his sword, Farwaen kicked his foot against a branch on the ground, launching it straight into the air. He deftly caught the branch and spun it around before plunging it into the ground. To Hafface’s chagrin, he fell to one knee and pressed his forehead against the ‘hilt’ of the branch.

“By Hevel, I accept this woman of the woods’ gift of welcome and offer her my own humble celebrations at our meeting. May this exchange of words and thoughts be constructive and pleasant… amen.”

“Are you Nimueh?” Hafface asked with curiosity, stepping past the praying knight.”

The woman of the forest watched Farwaen with suspicious eyes as he grabbed the branch. For a moment she flourished her hand a little and for a split second both the zenii and the eidolon would’ve seen a slight green glow. But as Farwaen pushed the branch in the ground and fell to one knee the glow vanished again, as did the woman’s suspicion.

“I am.” She said to Hafface with a gentle smile. “I’m actually curious, what do they say about me these days around the blackstones?”

“Well…” Hafface started, cautioning another step closer to the mythic elf. “They mostly talk about…” She frowned, a look of shame on her face. “Well, I at least know that you're considered the servant of the Beast Queen.”

“Of a wonderfully mythic woman of the woods! Ho!” Farwaen burst past Hafface, fist shaking with vigor. “And here you are, in the flesh — albeit you seem stained by sadness. Pray tell and regale me with your plight, mournful maiden.”

“Mournful maiden?” Nimueh let out a small snicker. “You must be confusing sadness with tiredness. I wasn’t joking when I said I am still keeping my kin as safe as I can in this forest. Day and night.” She said with a genuine smile. “And I doubt they call me wonderful Farwaen.” That was said with a more melancholic and even guilty sounding tone. Her eyes turned towards Hafface again. “You know the one law the Lady gave. It is true. I broke it. I killed.” Now all happiness had drained out of her and was replaced with sorrow. She took a deep breath and then looked at Farwaen again.

“The Beast Queen blessed me and gave me the duty to teach my kin how to respect the forest. The Beast Queen also has very simple rules: don’t enter the woods with marks of civilization. The zenii would learn, by word or claw. Those were her exact words. I tried to talk to the zenii… to Masol. Nobody listened so the Beast Queen decided they would learn by claw. I’m prot- trying to protect my kin from the anger of the forest. Like I’m protecting you two now.”

“I’ve seen your… civilization,” Farwaen said apprehensively, “tis true it be a sad one with little to note, but it can never grow unless it can reap the forest that it dwells by. Like it or not, the commandment that keeps the people from this wood is the same that will slowly choke the life from them. Let me speak with your lady the Beast Queen, and perhaps I may enlighten her to the damage she wrought and perhaps, mediate on behalf of those who have in turn fouled her mood.”

“The village shuns me, too,” Hafface added abruptly. “Maybe not in the same way.”

For a second Nimueh looked at Hafface with eyes of pity. Though she soon shifted her gaze back at the boisterous knight. “You’re… not wrong.” The zena atop the moss-stones said. For a moment she awkwardly fidgeted with her fingers as if she didn’t want to say anything more. It took almost half a minute before she continued.

“I don’t… actually know how to talk to her though.” She finally admitted. “I mean sometimes she appears in my dreams as some green animal. But I can’t summon her… I think.”

“Ah I see…” Farwaen put a foot up on the moss stone that Nimueh sat on and rested his elbow against his leg, striking a thinking pose. Cupping his chin, he thought with a playful hum before snapping a finger.

“Nimueh!”

“Y-Yes?” Nimueh said as she was leaning somewhat backwards, away from the large eidolon.

“I theorize that perhaps your Queen of Beasts may have a similar attribute that of which my own Lord, Hevel, possesses.” Farwaen gave a wide smile. “Should my estimation be correct and not just presumptuous, then you might be able to cloister yourself to a simple prayer and thus conjure the attention of your Queen. Ho!” He slapped his thigh as punctuation. “Indeed, I think that may be the answer.”

It took a clear moment until the zena fully understood what the eidolon before her just said. “I… tried that.” She carefully answered. “She doesn’t respond.”

“Mind if I give it a go?” Farwaen held his pose — and Hafface stood disappointed behind him, arms crossed.

“Doesn’t sound like a good idea.” She said.

“I agree with Hafface, I don’t think it will work.” Nimueh added.

“Very well!” Farwaen didn’t seem the least bit dissuaded. “Lady of the wood, what do you suggest instead?”
“There… might be a way.” Nimueh said. “But it won’t be easy and you won’t like it.”

“I wasn’t always… like this. I used to be a normal zena until I found a strange tree and ate its fruit. The next thing I know I was stumbling out of the woods in the late evening. Somehow I knew about the Beast Queen and somehow my influence over the forest grew. Everything started with that fruit. You could try and find the tree. It holds a much closer connection to the Beast Queen.”

Before Farwaen could give any grand declarations Nimueh quickly held up her hand to stop him though. “I can’t accompany you if you go out looking for it and the forest is still angry with you. If I left you it would attack. If you want to find the tree you’ll have to do it on the terms of the forest.”

Seemingly unbothered, Farwaen cracked a grin. “And what are the terms of the forest?”

“No sword. No shield.” Nimueh said. Then her eyes wandered over to Hafface. As if the next demand wouldn’t faze the knight but would cause a reaction from his squire: “And no clothes. No marks of civilization. If you follow the rules the forest will let you be.”

Hafface squirmed uncomfortably under Nimueh’s suddenly oppressive gaze. “You want us to-”

“Derobe?” Farwaen stepped in between the two. “Such debauchery! Shall we meet the Queen with our fruits bare for the lady to see as well?” He paused… looking down Nimueh. “Present company excluded from this new revelation, I suppose.”

“I- This is… I didn’t mean to offend you.” Nimueh stammered. “But that’s the rule. Nature doesn’t know about clothes. If you don’t take them off when you go looking for the tree the forest will keep attacking you. You could fight.” She looked straight at Farwaen with a knowing look. “But eventually you’ll tire and the night will come and you still won’t have found the tree. You won’t ever find it if you carry marks of civilization with you. This I know as a fact.”

Something swirled in Farwaen’s eye, something grey and fluid. His expression changed at Nimueh’s words and his voice deepened. “Is that a challenge?”

Nimueh met his eyes but showed only pity now. “It’s not. In fact, I don’t think you understand. This tree is divine. You won’t find it unless it lets you.”

“And it wishes to find me naked?” Farwaen squinted.

“It wants you as natural as you can be.”

“And yet it asked me to be declawed and deshelled, and now to bear myself nude,” Farwaen cradled his chin in thought. “I’ll play its game, but I do deplore its requirements and find the fascination with my natural state to be pervasive and deeply disturbing, let it be noted.”

“Noted.” Hafface answered for Nimueh.

Farwaen tipped his head. “Thank you, Squire. Now disrobe, I shall close my eyes and scour the forest blind and natural — apparently.” The man ripped his cloth belt off in one swipe.

“N-No no no!” Nimueh quickly interjected. “Right now you’re protected by me. I can guide you back to the edge of the forest where your shield and weapon rests.” She then looked past the eidolon at Hafface. “You don’t have to accompany him if you don’t want to. You can stay fully dressed unless you go into the forest without me nearby.”

“I know I don’t!” Hafface yelped. “I don’t have to be doing any of this!”

“Then why are you here?” Farwaen was retightening the belt he had around his waist.

Hafface scoffed as if the answer was obvious but then fell silent. Farwaen blinked. Frowning, Hafface shook her head. “I want to see what happens.”

“Well then, if that is so, you know what to do.” Farwaen ripped his belt off once again and tied it over his eyes. His white robes slacked without the support of the belt, and he easily pulled them off. Blindly, he threw the clothes over Nimueh’s head.

“Hold onto that for me,” Farwaen said as he kicked off his strapped sandals.

Another set of clothes landed over the robes Farwaen tossed over Nimueh and Hafface called out, “ready.”

“I-I’ll…” Nimueh stammered as the knight’s far larger clothes fell over. The zena quickly uncovered herself again but now was looking up like a deer smelling a predator nearby. Something only Hafface could see now. “I have to go.” She suddenly said looking sideways towards somewhere in the forest. “I wish you both all the luck I can give you. Really, I hope you’ll be successful Farwaen.” With those words said Nimueh shot up and transformed into an owl so she could fly away over the canopy.





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ROSALIND

RAGING ROSA | THE DANCE-DEMON | FEVERFOOT | LEAPING LINDA

in
A First Account of Hell


Now I do not wish to begin this melodramatically, but when Rosalind the Feverfoot died she found that she went the way of most dead things in those days; the gods are not as special as they think. She hovered above her still-bleeding corpse, half-swallowed up by the tree she had died against, and was in all ways dumb and useless. But the attentive reader would know that this was hardly unique to that particular moment of her mediocre existence.

She wandered in a befuddled daze around the Blood Grove of the Empathy Dance - which, I will reiterate, had become a rather revolting lake of divine ichor at this point thanks to her incessant bleeding. She circled that grove perhaps thirty-thousand times, give or take some, until her circumambulating soul was discovered by a passing vahura. The great spirit, with the naked upper form of a bewitchingly beautiful white-haired woman of almost ebony complexion and the lower body of a golden falcon or hawk, did not take its predatory yellow eyes off Rosalind as it circled lazily above. Rosalind watched the spirit and the spirit watched the soul, and then without warning it plummeted and struck right for the dancer, who stumbled back and scrambled away just as the vahura swooped by and ascended again, coming to rest in the branches of a tree and folding its wings.

“Now my girl, I mean you no harm,” the vahura crooned maternally, smiling down at Rosalind from beneath her hawk-like eyes. The twilight-haired spirit of Rosalind cowered by a tree and glanced nervously at the odd bird.

“Who are you? Where did you come from?” Rosalind asked hesitantly, her eyes sweeping across the sky in case there were more like the strange being, but she found only the one siren.

“From above, from the clouds, from the sky,” the bird-woman sang back, “where else? Tell me, little one, have you ever wanted to see what it is like up there? Come along, and I can show you.”

Rosalind could not help but smile then. “Oh, I was born up there. I know what it looks like. I know what heaven looks like unobscured by the lens of an atmosphere. I know what the innards of clouds are like and I’ve rowed across the sky. I know all about that.” She spoke it with the slightest hint of pride and happy abandon. The siren looked startled for a moment before she turned her head like an owl to examine Rosalind more closely. Whatever it was that the siren saw (or didn’t see) in her appeared to calm her, so her poise relaxed as Rosalind babbled on. “So I’m happy to wander down here instead, though thank you for the offer.” She glanced heavenward again to once more check that there were no more of the sirenlike bird-woman up there. “What’s your name? Are you on your own?” Rosalind asked curiously, relaxing somewhat against the tree.

With a haunting smile, the siren leapt to find a perch within the boughs of another tree that was closer still to Rosalind. “You conjure enchanting little tales, child. Melusine is my name, but call me Mother. I’m one of many, just like you, and it is a delight to finally meet you. Eventually I meet all of my children, see. Would you let your mother hold you, Rosalind dear?”

The avian talons loosened their grip on Melusine’s perch as the siren ready herself to hop down at last to the shallow lake of ichor. Only bafflement was written across Rosalind’s face, however. “Mother? What do you mean?” The soul asked. “I…” her brows furrowed at the sudden realisation, “I don’t have a mother.”

Upon hearing trepidation in Rosalind’s voice, Melusine froze - leaning forward on the branch in anticipation of hopping down as she was . Still, she didn’t settle back; she leaned forward and was deathly still - in such a manner that she seemed to almost float in defiance of Galbar’s pull. “Of course you do,” she insisted, “you have me, and I’m right here. A mother bore you into this world, and a mother must likewise bear yo– well, nevermind that, Rosa dearest. I ask again: would you let me hold you?”

The twilight-haired woman stepped forward timidly, walking on the surface of the blood lake as though it were solid ground. She took in Melusine’s form again; her snow-white hair, her ebony skin, the captivating, unearthly beauty of her face, the way powerful muscles rippled beneath a layer of softness, which in turn was enveloped in velvety skin (Rosalind could tell as much even from afar, even without touching it) which gave way at the waist to feathers and the forceful torso and talons of a hawk. As her gaze drifted across Melusine’s form, she was caught quite suddenly by the siren’s piercing yellow eyes and could not look away. “But if you are a mother - my mother, then why do you have such terribly predatory eyes, Melusine?”

“Why, the better to see with,” the siren patiently explained. “There are dark things out in the world, my sweet Rosa. I must always be vigilant and ready to protect you, and all of my children, from their clutches.”

Rosalind nodded slowly. “Well, that makes sense.” Her gaze fell on the vahura’s resting wings; they were great powerful things that seemed to have been cast from pure gold. “But if you are a mother as you say - and my mother at that - why do you have such great powerful wings?” She asked curiously, leaning forward even as she kept one cautious hand on the tree behind her.

“Why, to travel the world and find all my children, to bear them to safety when the dark ones come. Would you like to see, dear Rosa? I could carry you up, up away from all this blood and muck. You could truly see the clouds from up there.”

Rosalind’s eyes seemed alight, then, with a certain child-like wonder at the thought, and she let go of the tree and took a single step forth. Her eyes caught on Melusine’s talons, though, and she stopped. “But,” she said hesitantly, “if you are a mother like you say - and my mother at that - then why do you have such wickedly curved talons on your feet?”

Something in Melusine’s hawkish eyes - not that Rosalind noticed - suggested that the siren’s patience was thinning, and yet Rosalind was so close. Almost close enough. The vahura leaned further forward, and came to rest completely horizontally. Her smiling face stuck out right in Rosalind’s, and its beauty and the feathery bulk of her lower body now completely obscured the sight of those fearsome talons.

“Why, don’t worry about those. They’re not for hurting you dear, I promise. So please… forgive.

Slowly, tenderly, she extended her womanly arms out as if to caress and hold Rosalind. The twilight-haired dancer’s eyes widened in momentary fear - for this had every appearance of her run-ins with Yesaris and the Exile before him. But she was utterly still - why, not even her feet moved. In fact, her feet had neither trembled nor shaken at all since she awoke. The tender fingers of Melusine caught her and Rosalind allowed herself to be embosomed against the diaphanous skin of the vahura. It was warm and safe and protective, and it promised that no harm would touch her ever again.

Rosalind released a pent-up sob and allowed her arms to circle her mother, and she held on tightly and released what little pains and complaints about the world she held in her chest. At last she leaned back and looked up at Melusine. “You said… there are dark things - what dark things? And you said something about forgiving - forgive what? And you were saying something about bearing in but stopped - what were you going to say? Tell me.”

“Why, my dear, you’ll understand it all soon. There, there. Let’s fly away from here. Those dark things come for lost and vulnerable children, and they destroy them. But I promise you child, I won’t let them take you away,” Melusine whispered soothingly, looking deeply into the woman’s eyes of twilight even as her arms continued to envelop Rosalind, curling around the soul’s back. Rosalind could not break the siren’s mesmerizing gaze so long as she spoke, but when the bird-woman finally grew quiet for a moment, she glanced down and realized that the siren had already lifted her up. These were not the lowest hanging branches of the trees behind her now, but rather their highest boughs! And before she could say anything or even realize it, they had crested the crown of the tallest oak and ascended above the point of the greatest pine.

Rosalind held onto Melusine as tightly as she could, and pleaded that she not let her fall. But the vahura had no such intention, and she flew higher and higher into the sky, so high that Rosalind saw - for the second time in her life - the wondrous bow of the horizon and the the luminous line where the light of her father’s palace disappeared over the side of the world. Small inadvertent pearls formed at the edges of her eyes as she beheld the sight, and dripped one by one from her long dark lashes and plummeted like raindrops away and then disappeared. “It’s beautiful,” Rosalind mumbled, and pressed her cheek into her mother’s soft chest and was at peace for a time.

Melusine ascended through the clouds, beating her golden wings and holding Rosalind near, and the great wispy things roiled and parted about her until - like a whale breaching - she surged from the final layer and the white-red ocean of clouds spread endlessly beneath them; and before them - spreading almost from horizon to horizon - was a Gate of Nebel. Melusine set Rosalind down, and the woman found that there rested beneath her what was, to all extents and purposes, solid ground. Darkness swirled before Rosalind and the shadows formed up until a hooded figure made of pure tenebrosity stood by her.

“You have arrived at the Gate of Nebel,” the shade declared. “Only the worthy dead may pass.” Rosalind looked at the shade with undisguised fear, then turned to Melusine.

“I don’t want to go, Melusine,” she mumbled. She glanced upward. “I… I want to go higher. I want to be as high as the sun. Then I will go, I promise.”

“Oh but dear child, here we are at the top of the sky. The sun that you know and speak of is far, far away; a whole life away from us now. Why, do you think my eyes so sharp as to find another sun? Why, do you think my wings so strong as to carry us even above the sky? Why, do you think my talons strong enough to keep hold of you long after these arms give out?”

But her child mewled and stammered and nodded, and so with a weary sigh, Melusine the Mother acquiesced. “Very well, Rosalind dearest,” she finally spoke, “but I will hold you to your promise!”

So while the umbral shade just stared impassively, the siren once more picked Rosalind up. She bore the soul higher, higher, and ever higher. The night sky above looked so much like a sea! The stars were little bubbles and minnows swimming around in its darkened water. The currents of water were cool to Rosalind’s skin as they dove ever deeper into that strange celestial sea, but Melusine’s warmth never left and it kept the shivers away. Here and there Rosalind even thought she spied a laektear!

“Wait,” she breathed once to her mother, but the siren did not seem to hear. In truth she was panting from exertion, fatigued as she was from having to swim so far through the sea with her wings. How a soul can be fatigued, ask not! But eventually the cool currents grew stronger. In Melusine Rosalind felt not panic or fatigue so much as relief – the currents were conveying them where they needed to be, and so the siren’s wings beat slower even though their flight did not slow.

Made drowsy by the long journey - how a soul can be made drowsy, ask not! - Rosalind finally blinked her sleepy eyes and suddenly Saw that they were drawing nearer to a great whirlpool.



In the eye of that vortex was a great maw of light and color – Melusine had done it! Her mother had found another sun. But this one, indeed, was not so much like that mighty fire that blazed across Galbar’s sky. It was not cold, but neither was it terribly warm or welcoming. As they came to land upon the lukewarm surface of this alien sun, Rosalind beheld a great black gateway nearby that looked terribly familiar. And despite this strange sun’s gentle glow, she still cast a shadow; that shadow soon evaporated, though, and from its inky steam there coalesced an altogether familiar figure.

“You have arrived at the Gate of Nebel,” the shade declared. “Only the worthy dead may pass.”

A weary siren at last murmured soothingly to her child once again, “So you see, dearest Rosalind, we have come a long way and found for you a sun, and yet here we are at much the same place. Do you understand now, child? You have died, and yet your journey is not over; through the darkened gate you still have a ways to go, and yet I cannot take you any further. These shades will guide you.”

The vahura shook a bit, droplets of water falling from her rustled feathers. And realisation dawned then on Rosalind. ‘No…’ she thought. Her mother was preparing to leave, to fly back.

“You see, my dear,” Melusine crooned, “a mother bore you into the world of the living, but you knew that I was not that mother. I am a different sort of mother, the kind that must bear her children away from that place, to the next world. So here we are, see. I would so much like to cradle you for longer, to soothe and comfort you, but I cannot, for I have many more children that I must look after, see. That’s how it is.”

Rosalind looked from the silent shade, who gazed at her with unseen eyes, to the gate and then back to Melusine. Sighing, a dissatisfied pout lined her mouth as she looked beyond the strange vortex, which held no Palace and did not feel like home. Her eyes scanned the endless void but saw little sign of the planet she had left behind or even her father’s sun. They had come a long way and the only path left was ahead, through the tenebrous gate. Sadly, but without tears, she held onto Melusine’s hands and bid her a subdued farewell, then turned and followed the shade towards the towering gate. She paused before it, tears now bubbling from her eyes and now a small scowl spreading over her face - tears of frustration, scowls of anger; it was unfair, she thought, that she would not be able to see her father once more before leaving. Then she stepped forth, shimmered briefly in the gate’s dark maw, and wandered in the world of the living no more.


And that was how Rosalind the Feverfoot died. Now I don’t mean for this narrative to grow long and unwieldy - I know well how frustrating it is to read narratives that seem to be going nowhere - but I considered it of some importance to detail these happenings if only for the historical record. Reluctantly walking through that Gate of Nebel, having reached such distances from the Galbar as no divine before her ever had done, Rosalind found herself - once the darkness had dissipated - standing on the white cobblestones of the Death-Road. It is of note that the Death-Road has at times been reported as being of unbroken white marble, at other times as white jade or jasper, even white coal. Some have found it to be tiled, others cobbled, others perfectly unbroken. Whatever the case, in all reports its colour alone is unvaried.

When Rosalind the Feverfoot set foot on the Death-Road, she found it crawling with spirits. Souls streamed in by the hundreds, ambling on in a daze. And yet no matter how many were on the road, at no point did it strike her as being crowded. There was always ample space to step forth, to look around and look ahead. The sky above was of nighttime and the stars, and yet the road was awash with a soft white light - as though the road itself was alight. It was not blinding in any way and washed over all things, until it gave way at last to the darkness that lay beyond the edges of the road. In that stilly darkness there seemed to now and again be movement, the glittering of a single eye, a waving hand, a welcoming smile, a greeting and a call. Ever-curious Rosalind found herself drifting closer and closer to the road’s edge, watching - searching - for those captivating movements and sweet-sounding calls.

A sparrow landed ahead of her, on the cobbled side of the road, and the woman walked slowly up to it. It turned its head to reveal the visage of a viper with fangs bared, and she flinched away in shock. It hissed and and leapt forth warningly, causing Rosalind to scramble away from the edge of the road and the dark shapes and their cooing calls. She continued along the Death-Road, glancing every now and again off into the calling wilderness beyond, and did not wonder why it was so alluring or question why it called and pulled on her so.

At last, a gate rose up ahead and a shade exploded violently into being before her, causing her to stagger away. “You have arrived at the Gate of Rosalind,” it declared, “alone you have walked, though throngs swirled about you, and alone will you be tried.” The soul of the woman took the shade in for a few confused moments.

“The Gate of Rosalind?” She asked. “That’s… that’s me, isn’t it?” She pointed at herself and the shade considered her for a few moments.

“That’s your name, but…” it leaned forward, the darkness beneath its hood swirling, “you are no divine. A shared name, nothing more.” With those words, it leaned back and gestured for her to go on.

“I’m… not divine?” She asked, a frown lining her face. “But… but my papa… and Yudaiel, she’s my sister. And Iqelis. And Voligan. They’re my brothers and they’re gods. So… so surely I am too. You’re wrong, I’m a god.”

The shade’s unseen eyes bored into her and it took a single step and brought the darkness of its face right up to her nose. “If that is so, Rosalind, then save yourself. Call on your powers. Weave the world to your will. Surmount the Death-Road.” The woman was still, her eyes wide and frown deep. “Well, go on.”

“I… I can’t. I… don’t know how. I’m not like the others.” She stammered.

“You are not like the gods, you mean?” The shade asked.

“I… guess I’m different.” She trailed.

“Not a god, perhaps?” The shade spoke slowly.

“I- I am!” The woman insisted with a frown.

“Human… all too human, perhaps?” The shade asked with finality. Rosalind blinked, tears leaping to her eyes.

“I’m… I’m not. I’m a god.” The shade wrapped an ethereal arm around her and tapped her shoulder comfortingly.

“There now, Rosalind. There is no shame in having been human; all souls are alike in the end. Even the gods, when they die, come here. The Death-Road is wide and withstands the ambling of mortalkind and the march of gods alike. Step forth now, it matters not what you are; here your mettle alone is tested and who you chose to be.” Still frowning and eyes yet wet, the slightest pout on her lips, she tramped off with a sigh and melted away into nothingness. The shade watched after her for a few seconds, muttered, “well, how curious,” and with a puff was gone.


I will not bother with suspense here and will say it outright: Rosalind the Feverfoot failed her trial. If one were to summon up one word, one characteristic, with which the entirety of that hapless woman’s personality could be defined - if we, for a moment, put aside some of the virtues she learned vicariously in becoming Mamang - then the word most suited to her would be ‘coward.’ Rosalind the Coward is by far more apt than Rosalind the Feverfoot ever was. It is therefore to be expected, and stands to reason, that such an ill-famed coward would fail any trial of courage. There is little of historical value in the substance of that trial and so I will spare the gentle reader the tiresome details. Suffice to say that she failed most ignobly and so was consigned to the depths of hell.

And here we arrive at something singularly unique as far as the chronicles of history and natural philosophy are concerned: an eyewitness account, or as close as we can get, of hell from mortal eyes. It is one thing for a divine to wade into that plane and observe the suffering of its denizens, quite another for a mortal inhabitant of that unholy plane to give an account. They are quick in forgetting, are mortals, and no sooner is their punishment complete before they are reborn and all their previous memories confined to the fields of forgetfulness. And what is mortalkind but an endless cycle of forgetting? But that is by the by. Here begins an account of how Rosalind arrived in hell and what horrors she witnessed and punishments endured while there.

As the Gate of Rosalind closed before her and the Death-Road melted away, the shade stood above her and the darkness of his face was cold and judging. “You have failed,” it stated, the slightest tinge of disappointment in its otherwise flat and monotonous tone. Countless failed, and countless passed. “You could not demonstrate your courage, and so your journey ends here.”

She did not attempt to defend herself and instead allowed herself to wallow in self-pity. But that timeless shade had no patience for such folly or even for her anymore; her stolid guide had already consigned her to the Ashen Plains and promptly dissipated. The ground underfoot vanished and she was falling. She fell a long, long way through miserable darkness. Flakes of hot soot pressed against her suddenly sweaty face, and the air grew warm, and then stiflingly hot, and then at last torrid. The darkness all around was maddening, and yet it was her shield though she did not know it.

An infernal red glow emanated from somewhere far below to cut away at the umbral gloom that wreathed and shrouded her. Tormented screams and howls echoed up from the depths below, louder and louder, and then before she knew it she had fallen into some horrific pool, or lake, or sea… it made no difference since it was so wide that she could not fathom whether it was bounded or boundless. It was inky black and made of broiling, fetid sludge. She could not swim in it – she would not have been able to even if she knew, for it was too thick – and so she began to sink into that searing ooze which burned her flesh.

In great bubbles it burst up and covered her face in a layer of grime even as it slowly, ever so slowly, pulled her further into those forlorn depths. The putrid vapours forced their way into her nose and mouth and eyes; the nauseating odour and taste were acrid like bile, metallic like blood, rancid like soured milk, in all ways fouler than mere words could hope to describe. She wanted to scream and vomit, but when her mouth gaped open to gag she only swallowed the rancid substance. Bits of hair and bone churned in the mass too, scraping against her skin and forcing their way into her mouth and indiscriminately down her gullet and up her lungs. She should have suffocated and drowned, but she did not. She was already dead, and so now not even death could offer her any escape from this suffering.

It felt like a slow eternity in there. The haze of insanity gnawed at her then retreated, then returned just when she thought herself lucid before retreating again with a laugh, and again and again with any signs of ceasing or mercy. However, before that terrible cycle, and those horrible teeth of madness, could chew and pulverise her mind into gruel, she was freed.

Salvation came in the form of a seeking hook, whose cruel iron barb slid between her ribs. It yanked and it pulled, slowly and yet violently jerking her bit by bit until her head once again crested the top of the fetid water. She gasped and choked, heaving up ooze, what must have been faeces, and then blood. The hook viciously ripped through her innards, and it was a snake in there, writhing like a knife slowly twisting inside a wound.

The hook was on the end of a long chain and she was being winched up and out of that rotting pit of tar. She found herself flopping and choking, dragged onto a shore of skulls. But it was no hero or angel or vahura (that she knew of) that had pulled her out; instead, it was a grinning fish operating that winch. Oh yes, in that inferno it was a fish who was the angler, and the unworthy and the sinners and the cowards was who it caught. Now whether that is ever the case, or whether it was unique to Rosalind is difficult to know. It is awfully suspect that one who spent much of her life prior this at sea should find herself tortured by fish, and so I would advance that hell is rather more personal than uniform narratives about it suggest, though a single account like this can hardly be concrete evidence of such.

“My, my, what a fine catch,” the pleased fisherfish purred. He had the biggest mouth that Rosalind had ever seen, and his grin spread from ear to ear (for it was a strange fish with something like humanoid ears). His smile stretched even around and above those beady little eyes of his, which glowed with an inexplicable hunger. His smile bared six rows of giant yellow teeth that looked more like wicked stalactites and stalagmites in some vast cavern than teeth in a maw.

With a rag as rough as gravel, he scraped off the ooze that clung to her face as well as what little bits of skin and flesh still inexplicably clung to her skull before he tossed the rag aside, down by the great big barrel where all of that day’s catch lay. Naked, gutted bodies filled that terrible vessel, and yet Rosalind had no eyes for it, just for the angler. Even after she had been boiled in the sludge and should have been little more than bits of ooze clinging to a blind and bare skeleton, she was somehow whole again - perhaps just so that she could see and feel as this monster’s claws caressed her cheekbone.

“A pretty one, too!” He cruelly laughed. “Once.” A sharp claw poked into her breast, and when he pulled it back crimson blood dripped free. He licked his finger and gave off a satisfied moan. “Ah, I taste your soul. It’s sweet… so sweet. Better than milk! Almost like… tears, hah! Like tears!”

For a moment, a weeping and wailing Rosalind - she did not know when she had started doing that - saw a beautiful laektear before her, which was then overwhelmed and replaced by that cruel blue-eyed Exile. Her tears spilled out like rushing waterfalls as she sobbed in endless misery and despair. The angler laughed so hard that she failed to so much as hear the snap as his jaw came unhinged and he swallowed her whole, his teeth tearing her into a hundred ribbons and shreds.

He swallowed her, and then she was falling. She fell a long, long way down her tormentor’s gullet. Bits of meat and half-chewed food stuck to her sweating face, and the air grew warm, and then stiflingly hot, and then at last torrid. The darkness all around was maddening, and yet it was her shield even though she did not know it. An infernal red glow emanated from somewhere far below to cut away at the umbral gloom that wreathed and shrouded her. With a splash, she finally fell into a pool of viscous, liquid fire.

She shrieked and howled and burned, until a harpoon skewered her and she was wrenched out. “My, my, what a fine catch,” an exuberant fisherfish crooned. But then he pursed those great big blubbery fish lips of his, and frowned. “Ah, but you’re not so pretty,” he spat with disappointment. “Half chewed already. Whale food, perhaps. Hah! Well, let’s see if you can at least dance!”

Still skewered by the harpoon, Rosalind was helpless as the monstrous fish used it like a great big lever to fling her over his shoulder. The harpoon’s wicked barbs kept hold of half her guts and flesh even as the rest of her was wrenched free by the whipping motion. With an undignified and agonied splat, she landed face-first on a searing rock. She sizzled there and felt every cut and burn, the weeping of her organs and cooking of her meat. Her flesh and body regenerated, but slowly, too slowly for her to flee as that great torturer plodded from his fishing spot to the edge of the burning rock. She cooked and cooked for a while, until the fisherfish impatiently gestured for her to stand up, and she found herself doing so. He started rapping his harpoon against the stony ground to a beat, and she felt herself compelled to dance, but the half-molten rock underfoot burned her worse than the Fever ever had. She could hardly even step on the ground, much less find her feet, and so she tripped and fell over and over until the fisherfish at last called her a worthless bit of chum and left her there.

The dark ocean of burning ooze receded and all around her the smouldering rock grew. Flames erupted all around her and then she was no longer alone, for her cries mingled with the cries of unknown thousands. Flames of blue and purple and darkest black licked at her form, and she burned and wilted away before reforming, then burned and wilted away and reformed, then burned to a smouldering husk before flesh cauterised itself back together and flesh wept its way across her form. The denizens of the hellish plains raised their hands upwards, and Rosalind did so too and saw, as her eyes exploded from the severity of the heat and then regrew, that above them flew a great multitude of black fiery beings. When the gaze of one of them fell on Rosalind it was as though liquid fire was poured into her eyes and across her face, and she screamed out in maddened pain and fear.

“Kohshello!” the people cried, “Kohshello!” The most tremendous of the flying beings descended from above - a thousand glaring eyes of blue, a thousand arms of fire and thousand legs, a thousand wings and a thousand mouths; in all ways as ice and in all ways aflame, in all ways headless and in all ways a face, in all ways impossible and in all ways inevitable. Simply beholding it was more agony than Rosalind had tasted in her hapless existence, and a gaze from one eye piled screams on her screams and tears on her burning tears. Where he turned a blizzard of poison cut across the hells, and where he looked the fires burned brighter and flaming waters poured on hell’s denizens. He did not speak, but opened his thousand mouths as if to do so, and a singular cry rose up from those whose punishment and torture was his purpose. “Don’t speak, Kohshello, don’t speak!” They cried. “But intercede for us with your lord, plead with your lord, let him annihilate us! Let us be destroyed, Kohshello; let this end!”

He said nothing, that Kohshello, but spread his thousand wings of flame so that all the world was poison and pain and ice and flame, and ascended with the cacophonous beating of those ten hundred impossible appendages. The flames flayed them and the creatures of torture - which, Rosalind realised after an eternity had passed, were vahuras, terrible vahuras - descended on them and gave them festering waters of flame to drink. Rosalind drank, and her lips burst and tongue evaporated and throat sizzled into nothingness and stomach opened so the waters ran right through her. They gave her ground and broken glass to eat as her lips and tongue and body reformed, and it was like swallowing a thousand hacking blades, which cleaved her up from mouth to belly. And then she found - to her horror - that her hunger only grew and she could not help but eat more of the cursed glass and drink the fetid flames that destroyed all they touched.

They wailed, those denizens of the Ashen Plains, they screamed tirelessly and screeched without ceasing, and they tore at what hair they had and clawed at their skin and eyes and bit their tongues and lips in regret. “Woe to me!” they crowed in unison, “woe to me!” And Rosalind wept and screamed it too - “woe to me!” she cried with all who cried, “woe to me!” she wept with all who wept. And the vahuras of black flame, those Wardens of the Ashen Plains, would now and again descend and sweep a group of burning sufferers, and Rosalind would watch as now they ascended a far off cliff and threw the group into smouldering cauldrons of lava, or ascend and hang them on hooks which tore away skin and flesh, or launch them into pits of burning tar.

In time - or rather, after an unknown eternity had passed - the giant Kohshello, that greatest and most terrible of hell’s Wardens, returned; the denizens of hell cried out in increased pain as he looked on them and they beheld him, and their screams came louder and more desperate and they clawed at their eyes that they may not see, tore at their skin that it may not burn, and ripped at their nostrils that they may no breathe in the poisonous gales which circumambulated Kohshello like cackling death.

“The lord has spoken,” Kohshello said, and Rosalind’s form disintegrated and reformed with every word, “and he has decreed that you shall abide,” came his verdict and promise of ceaseless punishment. Then Rosalind wept and was joined by all in weeping.

Something strange happened then. In all the eternity that the Ashen Plains had existed, there had never been something even akin to harmony in it, but that great wave of weeping that Rosalind led was a great symphony, a strange harmony, a sudden peace that if for a moment quietened the pangs of pain and eased the striking of hell on its people. It was not a harmony for too long - just as eternity stretches infinitely, that harmony did not last long enough for an eyelash to tremble.

Great Kohshello’s retributory eyes were on Rosalind at once, and in that moment all the weight of hell - in its eternity of suffering - was upon her; she wilted and she sobbed and she groaned and she could not even begin to claw at herself or wail. Kohshello took her up on a wing, and above her a single blue eye gazed into her and below her a single mouth spoke. “The coward dies a thousand deaths; the valiant dies but once.” The gaze bored into her, and all of hell disappeared so that only Kohshello was - Kohshello and her. “You are not of the valiant, Rosalind.”

She looked into the eye and her lips trembled and eyes flooded. “I…” she sobbed, “I’d like to be.” The gaze of Kohshello seemed to soften on her then, and his fingers prodded her and weaved her back together.

“Cowardice aside, yours are little sins, Rosalind. There is a seed of anger and spite in you, but it is not grown. In all other ways…” his single blue eye considered her. “All that you have tasted here, Rosalind, is but the seed of your cowardice. Hell was inside you long before you were tossed into it. Meditate on this, and perhaps when next you live you will extinguish it in you before you are flung in again.” The terrible vahura placed her down by a small grey door and disappeared without another word. She stood on shaking legs for seconds and then collapsed to her knees and buried her face in her hands and hair, and she stayed like that with no intention of ever being any other way.


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Hidden 9 mos ago Post by Bright_Ops
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Raethel Norvegicus and the Rattus People


More years passed.

The Rattus tunnel network grew in size as it spread across the land, the process of tunneling and being able to locate water via means both mundane and magical being refined with practice and experience. Most of the tunnels went south of the River Rattus to form a network that acted as a road system between the city of Firstbarrows and the various fortified towns that it was created to secure the sources of water and fertile growing land on the surface for their own usage.

North of the River Rattus proved to be bare of water sources... at least on the surface level. Underground there was a river that snaked its way through the soil which they happily claimed but otherwise the area would only have a few observational outposts there in order to watch any comings and goings, but otherwise it wouldn't feel the same kind of construction efforts so the southern towns would. While some of the northern posts were more boring to be assigned to then others, the fact that Pretenders tended to lurk in the region ensured that neglect would be harshly punished.




Raethel's head was bowed in mourning and deep contemplation as they sealed the crypt before them. This was far from the first time that they had personally closed the final door for one of his people in the living world, but this one... this one cut deeper then just about any that came before due to who it was that he was saying goodbye to. The healers said they had done everything they could and he truly did believe them but...

It was a hollow comfort to know that his third litter of pups would have their mother to look after them. It felt like there was a piece of him missing and the void... the void hurt. It hurt so badly and yet as much as he wanted to scream and rage and cry... he found that he couldn't.

Despite the personal hardship and tragedy that had befallen him and his family, he was still the First of the Rattus... still the Speaker. He had always been a leading figure among his people, but for the first time in his life could he truly understand the weight of the influence and expectations that those titles imposed upon him in return. He had duties... responsibilities... as much as he wanted to just break down and die he couldn't.

But even as he gazed at the stone beyond which his beloved and some of his pups would rest... the latter without having the benefit of enjoying life first... a realization dawned on him. He did have responsibilities and duties to his people... but he also had a responsibility to strive to perform that duty to the best of his abilities and right now... right now he couldn't. He was not in a state of mind that would allow him to make proper decisions for the welfare of others.

Someone else was going to have to take over his duties and responsibilities for a while. At least until the wound had started to heal and he could face them again with the clear head that they required. Who would be a good question through. The first name that came to mind was that of his eldest son, Raethel Jr in order to let him get some first paw experience as Speaker. But the pup was likely also dealing with the loss of his mother and needed time to recover as well.

The matter of who would be temporally taking over could wait a few moments through. Turning from the stone in order to look over his first and second litter of pups, Raethel could hear the sorrow that was escaping from their lips as sobs... the tears that were pouring down their face and wetting their fur. While his duties as a leading figure of the Rattus people could be passed to another, his duties as a father couldn't... and as he walked in order to hug and comfort the nearest of his little ones, he found that he was okay with that.




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Hidden 9 mos ago 9 mos ago Post by Goldeagle1221
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Voligan Week


Just past the foothills that caressed the Garden’s western border was a veritable range of mountains and crags. Among this range was a clade of ancient spires that were named the Frawkian Mountains by a small kingdom of Dwarves some odd centuries ago — but that’s not important right now. What is important is that among these sister mountains, defined by their wind-scarred heights and sparse vegetation, was a lonely cliff face that faced the dangerous sea to the north.

Broken into the cliff face was a window, a symptom of the vast burrows and tunnels long since bored into the body of the mountain, and from this window, one could watch the crashing waves and witness the churning mists of the darkest and deadliest sea the Galbar had to offer. Though anyone else might feel a sense of dread or even doom at the sight of the infamous sea, one particular man felt no such thing, but rather used it as a pleasant view for his morning tea.

This man was more of a dwarf than a man, and was named Frawk — not to be confused with the great hero that founded the kingdom this cliff sat in — Frawk (this Frawk) was a hermit. He lived alone, or so any other dwarf would tell you. They would also say he spends all his hours and all his minutes crafting simple arts that were useless to the pragmatic, but he always did so with a gentle smile.

His face was about square, his nose was pocked with age, and his cheeks were rashed. In total, he looked more like the face of a fruit than a man — or dwarf. While his visage might be considered homely, whatever his hands created was anything but.

Frawk sat at his dining room table. It was carved of stone and yet it was done so fancifully, it could have been mistaken for wood — as could his chair. Simple runes decorated the edges of the furniture, black as if it was burned into it — but again, that was simply the trick of his skill. On the table was a kettle of glass, which was actually once again just stone, shaved to such a small width that it was translucent. It matched his tea cup, but not his tea plate — which he had curiously carved his own bubbling smile onto.

He sat by his window, feeling the ocean air coming pushing in and out of his small little home, but he didn’t sit alone. Across from him sat his wife — an identical cup of tea cradled in her hands, though the liquid was untouched and cold. One might wonder how a hermit who lives alone could have a wife, but this one did — if not with a catch. Oh no, nothing disturbing or dangerous or uncomfortable — his wife was very much alive and very much inlove with Frawk, and by her own will, I’ll add.

To get back to the story, she sat there across from him, a simple content smile on her face — and what a face it was. She was the definition of beautiful. Frawk’s wife was the most stunning Eidolon woman anyone might have ever seen. Her body was curvaceous and her face marked with freckles in all right spots so as to highlight her gentle cheeks and coaxing eyes. She wore a gown that seemed half as graceful as she was whenever she moved, despite its superior quality. One might notice though, after hours upon hours of study and after hours upon hours of being lost in her beauty, that she too was of stone — another artwork set by Frawk’s own hand.

Despite all this, she loved him just the same and he loved her. Her name was Gala, and while she herself couldn’t open her mouth to enjoy the tea along with her husband, she very much liked to hold the cup and pretend. Gala found it much more intimate if she could at least make believe she had certain capabilities she didn’t have, and oftentimes it was as simple as holding a cup.

“Have you heard about what’s been happening in the valley?” Frawk asked Gala, knowing very well she rarely went that far from home. The stone woman was silent for a moment, before reaching out with a hand.

“Could you hand me my thoughtful face, dear?” Her voice was liquid silk.

Frawk slapped a pile of stone masks onto the table and began to hastily filter through them, until he found one that mimicked Gala’s face if not adding a cocked brow and thoughtful purse of the lips. He handed it over and the woman gently placed it over her visage.

“Hmm,” she thought out loud. “No, I can’t say I have.”

Frawk sipped at his tea and leaned back in his chair. “They say an entirely new group of people have arrived.”

“Ah yes!” Gala dropped her thoughtful mask, opting for her natural gentle smile. “The Ekotone.”

“No, no!” Frawk waved a hand, and Gala quickly slapped on a mask of surprise. “Newer than Eidolons, even! They were brought in on giant machines and now dwell in the garden with the brooding warrior.”

“Oh my,” Gala swapped back to her thinking mask. “That certainly is a big change. I didn’t know the brooding man was interested in any company.”

“Other than the small child that he had brought there that one time.”

“I believe that was his daughter, dear.” Gala corrected.

Frawk tilted his head in suspicion. “That’s merely our assumption, of course.”

“Of course.” Gala agreed, making sure to wear a mask that contained an eye roll.

“There’s more though,” Frawk continued. “I took it upon myself to take a stroll down there the other day.”

“Was that three days ago?” Gala sat up straight. “I had wondered where you went off too for so long, and when the dishes needed to be done as well!”

“Dear, please,” guilt etched on Frawk’s face.

Gala crossed her arms, but not before putting on a stern mask. “Dear, please, nothing! You’re doing the dishes tonight, then!”

“Fine, fine, but can I finish my story?”

The stern mask dropped and Gala sat back in her chair, bringing her cup to her stone lips with a clank. “Of course, dear.”

“Infection!” Frawk all but blurted, not sure how to enter this part of his story.

A confused mask found Gala’s face. “Infection?”

“There are rumors jumbling about, that the people there are infected with some sort of incredible disease. I heard it from one of them while I was sulking about, looking for stones by the shore.” Frawk placed his empty cup down. “I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but from the sounds of it, a lot of the people are feeling strange pains in their stomachs and hearts — and their skin itches. Some are saying that they stopped feeling the pain altogether, but are feeling something else, something new.”

Gala fumbled her pile of masks. “Oh, shit.” she cursed as she sorted through them all to find one struck in suspense. Clearing her throat (well you get what I mean) she slapped the suspenseful mask on. “Something new!?”

Frawk held his mouth open, but no words came out. The sly smile of a storyteller found his plum cheeks and he sat back in his seat. “I guess we will just have to wait and see.”


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Hidden 9 mos ago Post by Frettzo
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The Rebirth: Journey for Atonement I


I


It was the dawn of the 20th Day of Ashes and Tears, the quietest day of the year on Astalon. It had also come to be known as the day of pilgrimages, which is what Lionel was packing for. He wasn’t a particularly big fan of the sad and gloomy atmosphere that always befell Vie around this time of year, so ever since a few years ago he’d take a couple weeks off work and make a pilgrimage to his lineage’s actual home, a fishing hamlet to the southeast of Vie that always pointed in the direction of the great lands to the east no matter how much Astalon herself danced.

The journey started at dawn and saw him braving the endless snowstorms and earthquakes of the region with only a heating-core lined cloak and a bottle of (very expensive) schnapps for whenever the cold got too much.

It was difficult. Difficult, but possible.

As usual after an uneventful three day journey (thanks to his route planning skills, which saw him give a wide berth to any area of conflict), he arrived. Lorelei was as small as he remembered, but the people in it greeted him with hugs and cheers. It was home. It also helped that it wasn’t as cold or nearly as snowy down in Lorelei.

The first night he spent in a warm barn courtesy of his aunt’s husband. He slept amongst horses, but he didn’t dislike it. He took the entire first day to rest and by the second day he had started to help out by fishing in the creeks and rivers all over Lorelei. He spoke to lots of people and got to meet some of the people who had arrived at Lorelei over the last year.

They were mostly survivors of the Day of Ashes. Every year a handful of them showed up after receiving news of the Rebirth of Astalon from passing Primes, riding the waves on their magnificent yet mostly broken down boats of the past. Even now he could see the non-functional wrecks of at least five of the beasts, just marooned on the beach.

He wondered what it was like, the world beyond the shores of Astalon. Despite having seen the survivors’ scars and listened to their frightening stories, he couldn’t help but be drawn to the world beyond.

II


It was one day at sunset, while he was sitting at the top of the beachhead looking at the fading Godlight all the way beyond the horizon, that he was approached by Dandelion for the first time.

“Y’look sad, y’know.” She said, her voice husky. It was a pleasant sound, and Lionel thought it went well along with the waves. He leaned back against the rocks, and looked back at her with a half-smile.

“Everyone ought to be sad around this time of the year.” He replied.

“Day of Ashes and Tears, right?” She asked, having gracefully found her way atop the massive boulder he was leaning up against. She looked down at him from the top, eyes gleaming like two spotlights. She flicked her ears.

“Yep. Not that I care much for the sadness… We got enough of that with all these ruins.”

She hummed in response and tilted her head. “I’m Dandelion. You?”

“Lionel.”

She chuckled, “We both got ‘lion’ in our names.”

He chuckled too.

“Say Lionel, are you from around here?”

He shrugged. “My ancestors were all born here in Lorelei. I was born here too, but my dad took me into the Vault soon after.”

“Huh…” Dandelion pursed her lips and after a moment, jumped down and landed next to him. “I was born here, too. Bit later than you though, so my parents took the last boat outta here and we ended up living next to elves to the east.”

“Elves? You mean-”

“Yep! Aliens! They do exist, and they’re pretty dangerous! Not used to our kind of pointy ears, y’know.” She said with a chuckle, flicking her ears again. Lionel pet her head, making her tense up. “Huh, you catch on quick don’t ya?”

“Heh. You’d be better off looking for someone else to date if that’s what you’re after.”

She blushed and shook her head, stepping back. “I-I wasn’t here just for that! I just, uh, I saw you working the other day and your markings looked really familiar. Y’know there’s a girl named Lorelei living in the Valley? I know, weird name, but get this – She’s got the same markings as you!”

Lionel froze, his heart skipping a beat. “You mean-”

“Yep! Hundred percent sure that she’s your family. She’s also around the same age, maybe younger. You sure you don’t have a litter sister?”

“I-I-” Lionel coughed and looked at Dandelion with wide eyes. She was smirking smugly, her previous blush still faintly visible on her face. He felt tears well up in his eyes and he hugged her, eliciting a small surprised squeak from the young woman. “Thank you. According to my dad, both my litter siblings died before the day of Ashes, but… If one of them is alive, then I can go rescue her! Thank you so much, Dandelion!” He repeated, hugging her even tighter.

“H-Hey! Too tight!” She grunted and he immediately loosened his hug, smiling sheepishly even as he wiped the tears from his eyes. “Wow, you’re crying.”

“Obviously, I- I thought I was alone in the world. It’s why I kept coming here, to make sure my family’s names were still carved into the memorial stone.” He sniffled and shook his head, recovering from the sudden wave of emotions.

“Um, I’m glad for you actually! You know Lionel, I came here to stay but if you want I can take you to see your sister in the Valley.” Dandelion declared with a nod.

“Really? You’d do that for me, even though we don’t know each other?”

“I owe your family, y’know. It’s only thanks to Lorelei’s brother that my family escaped Astalon all those years ago.”

“Brother? You mean that I have even more family?”

“He’s dead, so no. He also wasn’t really Lorelei’s family. I was very little back then, but even I could tell he wasn’t from the Vie region. He had white hair, y’know.”

“Oh. So when are we leaving?”

“Next week. Y’wanna meet here every sunset till then, Lionel? I don’t want my dad seeing me hanging out with you, y’know. He’d tease me for years afterward.” She groaned, with Lionel laughing in response.

“Sure. Want me to bring anything? I fish throughout the day, so I can get you any fish you like.”

“Hmm…” She caressed her chin in thought. “Salmon? Salmon! Smoked salmon sounds great.” She said with a grin. “I’ll bring berries and salad. You’ll get to taste some traditional Valley cooking!”

Lionel smiled. For the first time in a good while, he was actually looking forward to the future.





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Hidden 9 mos ago 9 mos ago Post by Goldeagle1221
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When Hevel awakened the sleeping humans that Homura had gifted him, he empowered and kickstarted their waking lives with his divine energy; however, while doing so, the God forgot about the infectious nature of his presence. Unbeknownst to Hevel at the time, he had infected every last human with a phenomena later deemed the recusar infection.

Hevel himself didn’t notice the infection starting to take hold until the day he met Arvum, when under the pressures of the god of agriculture, the humans reacted independently against Arvum’s grasp whilst showcasing the basic symptoms of the infection: such as exhaling black smoke, and aggressively defiant behaviour. While this concerned the god, it wasn’t until after his meeting with Homura that the limits of the infection became clear.

An unknown interloper had come and went, undetected by any — but left a lasting mark on the infected. Whatever this divine rogue had done, it greatly pushed forward the rate of infection, making it impossible for the humans to ignore it any longer. One day, they started feeling bolder and more confident. Their need to drink or even eat faded away alongside any notions of sleep. On top of that, lacerations from a long day at work stopped drawing blood — in fact no one could bleed anymore. Any injury would hiss that black smoke and close up on its own. What was more alarming was that different people started to age at drastically different speeds, with pregnancies changing in gestation. Even only being alive for a matter of weeks, already a baby had been born in full health, just as mutated as the others.

As concerned as Hevel, some of the humans consented to harmless observations and anatomy studies. The god used his divine senses to analyse the slowly changing creations of Homura and discovered a startling fact. Indeed, every organ in the bodies of the humans was now vestigial and dead, in fact the very flesh had changed composition — each cell was made of that black smoke, cleverly mimicking flesh and not so cleverly replacing bone with the blackmetal of Hevel. While the god found every organ dead, he couldn’t help but notice one organ was missing entirely — the heart.

Instead of finding a beating heart, Hevel found something much more concerning. In the chest of every human of the garden he found a beating shard of twisted metal akin to his own. Each had its own rhythm, some slow and some fast — some quickly deteriorating and thus causing age, others taking an extremely slow pace. He quickly surmised that this was the sole source of energy in these humans, their only vital spot. Through hypotheticals and divine visions, Hevel further observed that because of this, the infected creatures before him would no longer suffer the fatality of exsanguination or loss of limbs — with each appendage slowly hissing back together. Not even beheadings stopped this fact, no, this meant that the only vital and fatal blow left for these people was their anchor.

It was no longer right to call them human, Hevel and his people thought the same. They were no longer the creation of Homura, but creatures of the smoke — they had become the Recusant.

At first, Hevel was mortified and guilty, but little did he know that the Recusant also inherited pieces of his personality and desires. Intrigued, he listened to them speak and soon learned that they didn’t hate him for their mutations, nor did they despise how it turned out. Most notably, the woman who had punched Arvum spoke out and told him that she, along with her friends, didn’t wish to simply survive on the Galbar at the whims of whatever powers that be, but to take the fight to the front like Hevel himself alongside him. Quickly, the god rectified such an organization of the Recusant by applying a loose style of peer-leadership, and allowed any willing soul to join the movement — or leave — as desired… thus the Recusant Army was born.

Of course, every army needs equipment, and as fortune favored, the infection brought along a little bit of Hevel’s own ability to manipulate the smoke within and create the dark metal. He named the ones skilled in the manipulation of the smoke, Wispwelders, and taught them to forge a massive anvil on which to work it. While it took many Recusant to make only a single blade of dark metal manually, Hevel gave the Army leadership plans before he left to check in on Lorelei, plans for a factory powered by…

“Junt-Cailen.” A slim looking man stood at the entrance to the Junt’s home. He held a big smile on his face, the creases of his grin moving a sea of metallic freckles on his right cheek. Inside the soil walled home sat Junt-Cailen the God-puncher. She was sitting on a wooden stool by her open hearth. Both her hands glistened a metallic sheen against the fire and her eyes flared with ambition.

“Core-Indel” She greeted with a nod.

“We found a vent.”

It was Cailen’s turn to smile, showcasing her blackmetal teeth. She rose to her feet and gave a groaning stretch. “Well, let’s go secure it then. This war won’t supply itself.”




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WHOOPS IGNORE THIS
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Hidden 9 mos ago Post by Leotamer
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Vernal and Autumnal


Diana carefully stepped through the verdant caves of the Serene Islands. Several other Eidolon carefully followed behind her. All of the inhabitants would quickly learn how dangerous the underground is, however they were called forward by a familiar supernatural force. Diana thought it might had been her imagination, but it seemed like the common beast were given her distance and the moss and vines held tightly to the loose ground to keep it stable.

Diana's group, along with several others guided by the same calling, converged into a cavernous pocket of the cave. The blue glow moss was especially prevalent here, making it almost as bright as day. Their eyes were drawn to a mound of mud, moss and various plant growth. It took a moment, but they realized it as a humanoid figure and then recognized him as their savior.

His word passed through the air without sound, "I have called you here because I need your aid. I would require a degree of loyalty from you which I would not ask for lightly. I can not promise much in return except for hardship and toil. I might even become dangerous, but I believe your work will be important and help better the Serene Island and the rest of Galbar. If you accept this burden." He gestured with his hand towards the wall in front of him. Looking closer, it appeared as though many tiny orbs had been imprinted into it. "Take one of the seeds. You shall know what you need to do with it."

Diana was the first to walk to the wall. She did not know if she was permitted to take the first one out of reverence, or if all the others were simply afraid to do so first. Taking it in her hand, it was like a solid black and perfectly smooth pit. She could have almost mistake it for a stone until she touched it and felt life radiating from it. As the god had said, she had known what she must do, even if she could not fully explain how to do it. She interwove her life with the seed. She looked around, and saw that all of the others that had followed the voice had followed her lead.

The figure did not turn around, "And so you have chosen to follow me. I welcome you to the Vernal Order. As such, I grant your reprieve from the commandments I have originally gave you, for you shall have your own. You shall be loyal to me, the god known as Arvum, holding only life itself as more sacred. As Diana is the leader of the Eidolon upon the island, she and her successors shall be your leader as well. Cultivate and protect the island, from its tiniest ant to the greatest of its cities. Understand the island caverns are dangerous, but that they are now yours to tame and that your duties extend below the surface until you reach the fungal guardian of the deepest depths. Your life is bound to those seeds. Nurture them in life, and in death, plant the seed near this proscribed place. Only those within this collective and those being initiated into it may know of its existence, nor may you tell a soul of your involvement or its nature should its existence be revealed."

There was a pause as a tension developed into the room. Even though the figure did not turn around, everyone could feel his intention turn towards Diana. He responded to her unvoiced concern, "Is there a problem with my commandment?"

Diana closed her eyes, but she could still feel his notice, "I don't it is just." She tried to evade the question, but his attention lingered. "It is just I don't understand it."

The voice replied, "Do not fear not understanding. There are forces aligned against me, and they may imperil you. I believe secrecy was the best measure of security I could provide and the most conductive to your work. My divinity shall hide you from them and make your appear ordinary and beneath their notice, however it is not infallible and can not prevent you from being revealed by mundane methods."

The tension started to fade, however some of it lingered as dread. Arvum continued his commandments, "Is there any other questions."

Responding to the silence, "Then I shall announce your current duties. Organize the Eidolon of the island so that they may prosper and that you may preform your duties unhindered. Find safe passage to the depths where the fungal guardian rests and appease it. Learn how to produce in yourself a surplus of vital energy and how best to use it to heal and mend."

---

A group of Eidolon huddled together, weapons in hand. They were not some singular band or members of the same collective, but people who had people taken from them by the intruders. At first, they had great success as they killed the immature or weak ones which had been pushed further towards the fringes. However, their enemies were as cunning as they were confident.

Recognizing the threat, they had joined together and had cut off their escape to more populous lands where they might find aid. Pushed deep within the depths of Duskwall, their rations began to dwindle away and they knew they encircled by their foe. Unbeknownst to them, their end was only delayed by bickering over who had the greatest right to what they had prematurely judged as their feast.

The group was determined to fight to the end, to rid the lands of as many of them as they could before the end. And as the hordes descended upon them, they fought. Through the battle, a voice called out to the Eidolons, "Noble defenders of the plains, you have proven yourself worthy of my aid if you merely call upon it."

Believing it was a blessing from the ancestors, they embraced the blessing. Golden energy radiated from the ground beneath each guardian's step. The Eidolon found strength from the light, while it seemed to weaken and tire the intruders. The spears of the group transformed into scythes, which they used with uncanny ability. Some mechanism within the weapons allowed them to quickly adjust the blades orientation so that once again resembled spears, however their metal edges made them far more effective than their previous stone implements.

With the assistance of the sacred, they were able to destroy the profane intruders. The voice called to them once again, "I ask that you continue to protect Eidolon." And the group had all agreed.

The power beneath them gathered to a point, and that point moved some distance away. The ground around it began to shift and turn and change. Their eyes were not fast enough to true see what happened, but suddenly a great tower of harden red clay formed. They were hesitant to approach it, but felt permission to do. Upon growing closer, at the base of the structure was a trough filled with barley grain. The voice continued, "I welcome you to the Autumnal Order. This tower is my gift, it shall provide sustenance so that you might establish yourself in these wilds. As I said, I ask that your protect the plains and its rightful inhabitants. However, I must admit that there is must work to be done. I ask that you create a fortification to defend this location and the silo, that you create a safe passageway through the dark wilds known as Duskwall, and that you learn how to produce in yourself a surplus of vital energy and how best to use it to strength yourself."





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LORD of the DEATH-ROAD | WATCHER | DEATHDART | SHEPHERD of SOULS | MASTER of the SCALES of JUSTICE
SOVEREIGN of the AFTERWORLD | LORD of SOULS


&


ROSALIND

RAGING ROSA | THE DANCE-DEMON | FEVERFOOT | LEAPING LINDA


That is how hell was on Rosalind. While some may be immediately put off by its ghastliness and consider it an altogether unpleasant thing, or perhaps drive themselves into the doldrums thinking how terrible it is that such a place should exist, that is all by the by. It remains one of the least studied and explored places, and is naturally of great interest to the avid cosmologer. While the ethical and moral virtues of its existence are to some suspect and to others self-evident, it is not an area of enquiry into which I would now like to delve. No matter the position one seeks to take regarding it, there can be no other position regarding its existence except acceptance of the truth of it.

Now Rosalind, as mentioned, got to sobbing her eyes out right where Kohshello had left her, by the entrance to the Grey. This inbetween-place, a waiting station that is neither hell nor paradise, is interesting only insofar as its introspective qualities go. It does not appear to have any special features as such, but appears to its denizens as a plain - I would not say shabby - place. It inspires neither joy nor sorrow, but only introspective reflection. All who leave are made more aware than they have ever been of their great failure when it comes to the ultimate purpose of life.

Consider Rosalind, who eventually was ushered in by the strict and matronly Simsillia, the vahura charged with wardenship of the Grey. Rosalind’s sobbing came to a halt almost as soon as she stepped through the grey door - all feelings of sorrow, suffering, fear, terror and whatever remained in her of hell, simply vacated her mind and chest, and a blankness overtook her and her eyes dried.

The Matron sat her on a bench, dressed her in a plain white robe, and left her staring blankly across a field of black grass - not grass, when Rosalind looked closely, but twilight hair. She did not question it, did not consider it ugly or beautiful. It simply was. There were no hills and there was no horizon. The plain simply stretched on eternally, and she saw eternally. And here is the thing about eternity: in eternity we see how the material becomes the conceptual. Now mortal minds cannot comprehend this, but as Rosalind looked on across that eternal plain, she found that somehow, though she did not know where, that plain stopped being material and became conceptual, and she was suddenly staring not across the plain but across infinity; she was staring across and into a concept. I don’t want to ramble on, I understand that many may not quite comprehend this, and it is not an important point really. Just know that Rosalind looked into this incomprehensible conceptual thing.

I have mentioned that the Grey inspires only introspection, and this is exactly how it does it. When you are staring into an incomprehensible concept, your mind immediately wanders off to the only thing in all that stuff that it can comprehend: itself. So yes, Rosalind found herself staring into herself. Her life played out again and again before her. That’s all that happened. She saw her birth, saw Iqelis laughing at her, saw herself whirling off into space, saw herself collide with Yudaiel, saw the terrible dance that resulted and the merging of their beings, saw the coming of her father and his words of reprimand, how he gifted her the bangles, saw how her unconscious body wandered off, saw how she collided with the moon and how Yudaiel forgave her, saw the boat she was gifted and her descend to Galbar in it. She saw it all, again and again. A thousand times perhaps, ten thousand - as many times as is required for true knowledge. She became, to use our own terms, an expert on matters Rosalind, something of a rosalindologist.

That kind of introspection is difficult. She lay herself bare before herself and saw herself for all her beauty and ugliness, for all her vices and virtues, stripped of all the illusions of the world. That’s how. That is the sort of stuff that drives people insane if done in the material world, but the Grey is not the material world and so such things are possible there. A mortal can go their entire life and never cast an inward glance, never know who they are at all; in the Grey all things are laid bare and there is no escape from oneself. Now I don’t know what others think, but I don’t know if what we saw of hell is worse, or this. If we consider that Kohshello attested that hell existed inside Rosalind long before she entered hell, then what is the Grey but a venture into the truest hell of all?

Anyhow, it is a very odd place the Grey, and all we can say of it with certainty is what I have said here. Rosalind’s memories are so garbled and unreadable beyond this; make of it what you please.

She did not stay in there eternally, of course - the Grey is but a stopping station before mortal reincarnation - so in time the Matron Simsillia returned and took her by the shoulders. Rosalind moved in a daze at the vahura’s bidding, and eventually found herself standing in line before a cloaked figure. He was not so dissimilar to the shades she had seen before - hooded and dark. But he differed in grandeur, and had two pinpricks of blue beneath his hood of darkness. He inspected the lined souls one by one, and sent them out through a white gate with his blessings, until he came to Rosalind and looked down at her.

He paused and his blue eyes narrowed. Rosalind stumbled towards the door, but his hand descended gently on her shoulder and he walked her from the door. “You have been to hell, have you not?” He asked her as they crossed the eternal plain of black grass-hair.
“Y-yes.” She said simply, as he walked her even across the sky she had not known existed in that odd grey plain.
“And on entering it, what were the joys of life to you?” He asked.
“Joys?” She asked in confusion. “What joys? Hell taught me that I never tasted joys.” He did not respond, and they finally arrived at a vast lake of iridescent splendour. Rosalind looked at it and thought she saw people inside it, thought she saw fields, thought she saw bliss. She glanced up at the shade. “What is this place?” She asked.
“That there is paradise, Rosalind.” He said.
“Paradise?” She repeatedly dumbly, not understanding. “Why are we here?” The shade glanced at her and gestured for her to come to him. She obeyed. He placed his hand on her head and she found herself suddenly in his grasp - her body had shrunk and he held her between his gloved thumb and forefinger. Without a word, he dipped her into the lake for the shortest second, then brought her out. She sat in his palm and was still.
“Have you ever known sorrow, Rosalind? Have you ever known misfortune or pain? Have you known any of that?” The shade asked. The twilight-haired woman looked up with a contagious bright smile.
“I’ve only ever known bliss,” she laughed, “in my whole life I never knew suffering or woe!”
The shade nodded. “Yes. That’s how it is. That’s how it is.”

They left the lakeside and he took her with him until they emerged out of a massive tree, and he placed her down - whereupon she returned to her normal size - and sat before her in the tree’s hollow. She sat by him - for the hollow was wide enough - and looked on the green plain before them. “This isn’t paradise.” Rosalind stated plainly.
“No. This is but a waystation on the way.” The shade said.
“Are you a god?” Rosalind asked, turning her head to him.
“I am. And you are too, Rosalind.” The shade said. Rosalind chuckled incredulously.
“No no, I’m not a god. I thought I was - a very long time ago it feels like - but now I know.” There was no pain or loss in her voice.
“It may be as you say, but it remains the fact that despite all that - perhaps because of all of that - you are a god. You are our sibling. You emerged from the Monarch of All. You are a god, Rosalind.” The shade told her.
“I don’t understand how that can be. I’m not like the gods, I know that now.” Rosalind mused.
“The gods are not alike for you to be like them.” The shade said simply. “You are a god in your own way. And our sister in every way.”
“Then… why am I so weak?” She asked, her brows furrowing. The shade looked at her, his eyes of blue faint and wide - warm, even.
“You are not weak, Rosalind.”
“Why am I so cowardly?” She continued.
“Many cowards pass through my court; you are no coward, Rosalind.” The shade told her.
“But I failed - I failed the trial. I went to hell for it.”
“That was due to an oversight on my part. It is clear to me that hell should not be a consequence of failing the trials - it creates injustice. There must be judgement for all. I will have to rework things. You have made me aware of this, Rosalind, and I thank you for that. Forgive me for all that you suffered.” The shade glanced at her with quiet contrition. Rosalind only smiled.
“It’s okay, all sorrow and suffering seem so small after paradise. I feel dumb even calling it suffering - that’s such a serious word.” She paused. “But you know, don’t you think people should know? I’m sure if everyone knew how wonderful paradise was they’d all want to go. And if they knew how awful hell was they’d want to avoid it.”
The shade cocked his head at her. “You raise a very good point there, sister. I… didn’t really think about it. Perhaps it would be fair to make mortalkind aware of the existence of these places and tell them how they can gain one and avoid the other. But I would hate to leave these my domains to do such a thing.” He cast his blue eyes across the plain.
“Well, you could just send someone instead of you. Like an envoy or a delegate. In fact-” Rosalind got to her feet suddenly, excited, “how about I choose someone. Someone who will be your envoy to all mortalkind, forever!” She looked at the shade, who rose and nodded.
“That’s agreeable to me.”

They watched together, then, as the souls of mortalkind wandered through the underworld on their way to judgement. Sinners and saints passed by, but Rosalind’s eye was not drawn to any, those who had been male and those who had been female, those who had died young and those old, those who had been killed and those who had perished in accidents; all sorts passed. At last, however, a little soul came crawling by - an infant - and Rosalind immediately jumped out and brought it to her chest. It had been a boy in life and when it looked at her there was curiosity and dignity only, and perhaps a smile. “But he’s just a child.” Rosalind said, kissing his ethereal brow.
“Hmm,” the shade mused, “killed, it seems.”
Rosalind looked up at him in shock. “Killed, bu who-”
“Zima…” the shade whispered with a sigh, more to himself than to Rosalind.
“I- I don’t understand, is that a-”
“No matter, it’s no matter. So you think this one is fit to be my eternal delegate?” The shade considered the child, and Rosalind looked down at him too, then smiled.
“Yeah, I like him.” And even as she spoke the child’s white luminescence took on a golden-red hue, and his light became something altogether divine.
“Then he shall be our delegate. He will go to mortalkind, warn them of hell and tell them the good news of paradise, and he will tell them how to avoid the Asheln Plains and gain the Elysian Fields. Is that fair to you, sister?”
Rosalind looked at the shade with a broad smile and nodded. “They’ll love him.” She brought him to her and rained little kisses on his brow, cheeks, lips, and held him tightly to her bosom. The shade looked at her quietly, but if he thought otherwise he did not say anything.
“Give him to me, I will take care of things from here.” The shade said at last, and Rosalind looked at him uncertainly.
“Can’t he stay with me?” She asked.
“If he is to be our envoy to mortalkind, he must go out as one of them; he must gain their trust and live among them, and he must then warn them. They will trust someone who grows among them more than a stranger who comes with wild claims.” The shade explained.
“Oh… that makes sense, I guess. But I’ll get to see him again, right?” She looked at the shade with furrowed brows.
“Of course, there is nothing to prevent that.” He assured. Somewhat contented, Rosalind handed the golden child over to the shade. The child giggled and kissed his cheeks at Rosalind as she passed him on, and the woman could not help the joyous grin that spread across her face. “I will return you to your body now, sister.” The shade said, stepping away from her.
“Oh, okay. But you’ve not told me your name.” She looked at him expectantly as he raised a hand and drew a doorway for her, then cast it open.
“Names are an odd thing.” The shade mused. “But I’m Voi, if you like.”
“Oh,” the woman gasped, “I… knew that.” There was a happy sort of realisation on her face. “But it’s good to hear it from you anyway. Look after my little Earohana.”
“Earohana?” The divine shade asked.
“Yes. My beloved one.” Rosalind affirmed. The shade nodded silently and placed a hand on his chest in farewell.
“Until the threads of time bring us together once more, sister.” Voi said.
Rosalind nodded. “Goodbye, Voi.” Her eyes not leaving the golden Earohana, she disappeared through the doorway.



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Four-horn Culture - Inheritance


As the eldest child of war-leader Sophia, everyone had great expectations of Isabel. Under this great amount of press, she excelled. She was proficient using either a dagger or spear, but could never master the sling. Others would comment that she could ride any horse, however she knew that there was one she never could.

When Isabel was young, she and her brother travelled with her father's band. She was expected to train hard than everyone else, but it was rather idyllic. They rarely travelled near the contested grazing lands, and thus rarely saw their mother. Isabel remembered the first time she had visited the war camp. Her father was a noted warrior in youth, and a recent draught had embolden the Sunsworn and they launched successive preemptive attacks to help secure fresh grazing land. Apparently, they had even started to kill their livestock when they grazed in the contested lands.

She had learned about the history of war, but the war camp was the first time it wasn't far away and ethereal. It was different watching someone use a sling to kill a bird, than watching a line of slingers practice creating a rain of stones. She looked down into the ditches dug around the encampment, and how they would throw thorny plants into them. And for what, grazing land? It did not seem to her they were lacking that, though she was only a child at the time.

She remembered vividly that her father was taken from her during that trip, and how she would be consigned to live within that dreary camp. But he was not slain by the hatred of their mortal enemies, but stolen away to satiate the demonic hunger of intruder. She was the one to find the body. At first she thought he was sleeping. But he wouldn't wake up when she called him. When she touched him, she couldn't feel his presence but she denied what it meant. It wasn't until she flipped him over did she see the wound upon his back. It was to small, it shouldn't have killed him.

Sophia had entered the camp next, and she was silent. But she looked, and she didn't need her touch to feel her intense rage. For the next few days, nobody was allowed to leave the encampment and anyone who tried would be struck by one of Sophia's most loyal slingers. If they survived, they would be dragged back. They didn't find the intruder this way, but one Eidolon was whipped for insubordination. Everyone was tested, Sophia even going first to ensure their would be no argument. The disgusting, small thing tried to weasel his way out, but he was found and publicly killed. There was some people more spiritual than her that told her to never take joy in the death of another, but in that moment, Isabel ignored them.

When Isabel was on the verge of adulthood, she had heard starting hearing interesting rumors about a group of people travelling to Duskwall. But then, Sophia became gravely sick. A war-wound had reopened before it could fully heal and became infected. Salt was applied, however the particular strain had proven resilient to this treatment. Deaths of this nature were slow, as the disease slowly festered siphoning away the host's lifeforce to grow and siphon more and more.

Isabel was called to her mother's tent. She was not surrounded by the usual gaggle of salters, but by a group of war-marshals. She had been chosen as the next war-leader. Her mother seemed rather indifferent to the entire affair, almost as if she simply wanted them all to leave so that could go ahead and die. She had been raised her entire life for the role and yet it seemed so sudden. As she prepared to give her answer, something came over her and everyone looked upon her with a shocked expression before she had a chance to say, "No." and turned around to leave.

She had been expected to be stopped and turned around to look. Sophia stumbled upon to her feet, and signaled everyone to say. Her mother said, "Let her go. She is my daughter, she will do as she pleases." She never did understand if that last part was a command or a mere acknowledgement of fact.

After that, she was even permitted to her horse and spear and ride out into the Dusklands with the others. She quickly learned what the others were gawking at as her life marks had changed from gold-brown to the smoky gray of her mother. She thought of this while practicing with her scythe, falling into routine motions of using it as a spear. It was only after realizing how familiar it was that she practiced using the bladed edge to slice at the air, and some of the more complex techniques.

Looking around, she noticed people digging ditches and crafting various items including shields. It was familiar, but different. It felt meaningful.



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Ea Nebel


Some earlier time.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she built it on the beach, at the north shore of the Tlacan sea where the water is smooth and shallow and without colour. She built it herself, without any help at all. And she was happy when she built it, because she had nowhere to be, and nothing on her mind. It's important to build a house this way. You must always come home to happy memories.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she built it from smooth ashlar, and it was both tall and wide. She built for it arches and buttresses and colonnades, and she made sure that every part of it was both beautiful and useful, so that it would be just the right size: not too small and not too big. It had one face for the land and also one face for the sea, looming into the banks of mist. They were not the same face, so if the fog of dying rivers that hovered over the dead water were ever to part, a hidden facade may be revealed on Galbar’s final day. She pulled down a low-hanging fragment of obsidian from the sky, which was curved into strange orbits, such that it could be turned one way to look like the sleek skull of the fox, and another an eel, and another a flame. From it she chipped and ground twelve high pillars of pure black glass to hold up its highest domes and halls. When she was done she ground the remains of it smooth again, and set atop it a flat, circular stone dais. This she sent back to float nearby, for when she wished to meditate.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she gave it a wide courtyard, and filled it with trees planted in soil from the Eternal Wildlands, because the mud around the Sea was just no good for growing. This way it would always be a little different, but not very different, but different enough that it had moods, and the birds were often slightly different birds, and the song they sang would always be the right mood for her. Ea Nebel appointed the Iron Boar as watcher over this shrine-forest, which would be its home, and it delighted in the roots and the trees and the streams with their frogs. Outside she laid gravel and chalk in the draining mud, and so built a long road leading to that house, with milestones and resting-places.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she built inside it a museum and a library, and made sure that they would always be full of beautiful flotsam washed up by the Flow from every corner of Galbar. There was Nalusan pottery and Bjork woodcuts and Shennic paintings on rice-paper, and many remains of living things, from the lava-crab to the god-orca, and every kind of exotic creature from the jungles of Orsus: ceratopsian skulls and araucaria cones and cabinets full of many insects that had once glowed with their own power in the Moonlit Gardens, and now glowed on, with hers. And in her house she dug an aquarium, which was a little piece of reef from nowhere in particular, and filled it with all the fish and coral she liked the most, and set windows into it and under it, so she could see everything that went on with her fish by day and by night without ever needing to wet her feet. And when she felt like a closer look, she became a mermaid, and didn’t have to wet her feet that way either.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she built it with a guest wing and an office and a lounge with a roaring fire and chairs so comfortable one could easily die in them. She built a kitchen where the food was always hot, and a porcelain golem would come out to serve it anywhere in the house, and she made sure the golem was dressed well, in white and black. Between domes she built the glass roof of her conservatory and within one she set the glass lens of her observatory, which she would have liked to use more, had the dark between stars not sent shivers over her skin, and the lunar eye not ever been trying to peer down the brass scope. Under the widest dome she erected a throne of swirling onyx, and behind it rings of gold, such that she could sit in the center of an enormous halo. There she would brood, or nap, or lounge around eating fruit as it suited her.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she consecrated a chapel with twelve hundred candles and fractal mosaics in many colours, into which the sun would spill from tall windows and alight on the dancing smoke of censers. She engraved no image of man or beast in that chapel, and gave its altar over to any god to which a mortal guest might wish to pray. For herself, Ea Nebel consecrated a second chapel, a private chapel of black and white ablaq, which is layered stone. There she hung the black silks marked with white, which were the symbol of the babiruš, and the death’s head, and the Three Eyes and One. On its altar were many boars and moths and flowers laid in amber and jet, lit by a crystal set inside a shell, and it was for the receiving of prayers. For when the children of dust pray, they hope that God will listen; and when the God of Nebel prayed, she hoped to hear them speak.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she built for herself a bedchamber, which was a small outgrowth of the much larger room that was her wardrobe. This she filled with black hats, black coats, black jackets, black gowns, black trousers, black skirts (modest), black gloves, black boots, black socks, black glasses, black scarves, and a variety of other accessories, which were black. The secondary section of her wardrobe was reserved for more ostentatious costumes, which had highlights of red, silver, white, and gold, and were otherwise black. In the back corner of this section she stored eight additional dresses, one for every colour that wasn’t black. She had no intention to wear any of them but she felt that it was important to have a little variety.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she displayed all her weapons in a large armory, which were in every way alike to those she conjured. On its racks there were many pole-arms, such things as quarterstaves and glaives and pole-hammers, and her swords she displayed on stands, half-sheathed. There were lined cases, which contained many knives, and the hacking weapons hung from the wall, a selection of machetes among them. Of the missile weapons, the most room was dedicated to her crossbows, slurbows, arbalests and pistol-bows, and room also was left for the javelin, dart, bolas, and the stockless bow, of both the simple and compound kind. The smallest section was reserved for the incendiary weapons: the long, sleek musket with its filigree underbarrel, the fire lance and arrow, and the chòng, or pole-cannon. The only weapon not displayed was the doom-claw, which had no equal, and never left her side.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she dug beneath it an extensive basement. Most of it was unfilled catacombs, where the remains of the faithful, exotic, and worthy could be interred in sarcophagi as Ea Nebel deemed fit. Hidden among these empty and ghostless halls were the secret rooms. One of them was a vault where she might hide her secret treasures, were she ever trusted with any. For now she heaped it with a pile of shining gold, just so that it wouldn’t feel too empty. The other secret room was her dungeon, where sealed cells were arranged around a central workroom built around an oubliette. There she assembled the rack, the wheel, the chair, the horse, and all the other apparatus of torturing.

When Ea Nebel built her house, her own room stood in the sunniest corner. There she had a big bed, and a fire, and a cello, and a shelf for all her treasures: her gold rune-ring of jade and her iron ring with its blood diamond, a stand for the doom-claw and a hook for her grandfather’s scarf, a little haematite warthog, a spindle and whorl, and the turquoise amulet of Yolyamanitzin, who was architect to the Granite Emperor. She had a plush boar and a plush skull and a plush whale and a plush wasp also, and an entire hot spring for her bath. And in this corner she spent most of her time.

All this came to be, when Ea Nebel built her house.



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The Third Trial


As Ea Nebel entered the mouth of the cave

ť̷̼ḥ̸͗e̸͓͌ ̶̹͆m̷̭͝o̷͔͘ṷ̶̉t̴̼́ḧ̸͎́ ̴̙̍o̷͑ͅf̷̻͒ ̴̛͙t̴͕̚h̸͚̊e̶͓͋ ̸̨̍c̵͇͐a̵̜̾v̸͔̕ê̸̘


Ḁ̶͐s̴̛͍̠͖̿͘ ̶̧̔̈Ȩ̷͙̩͗̅a̸̩̼͆͗͠ ̸̩̻͒̓̊N̵̹̲͒͒e̶͉̎̚b̷̩̖̹̅̎͋e̶̦̘̐͆̈́l̴̪̭̹̑̿̉ ̸̧̩͉̀̓̿è̵̦̅͠n̷͐ͅt̸͎̂͋͝ȅ̸͚̭̪r̷̮͍̋͜͝ȩ̷̠̈̿͜d̸͇̊ ţ̴͙̩̳̫̬̱̺̱̭̮̆͊͂͗̈͌͠ḩ̶̢̨̹̹̲̭̬̟͔̻̼̦̱͉̋̈̓͂̀̕͠ͅé̶̛͓̉̈́̄͊̿̇̚͜ ̴̻̺̥̜̪͌̄́͛̉́̈́̉͗̕͘͘͝m̸͓̲̦̑̅̐̎͋̐͒̃̕͝o̴̢̧̭̰̬̮̤͉͓͕̓͊̅͐̒̅̄͂̐ͅu̶̩̤̙͙͕̥̫̠͓̫̎͐͜t̸̟̬̯̼̼͖̑̍͆̀ͅͅͅḧ̷̼̥́̌̀ ̴̥͙̦̦͒̆̈́̿̔̾̈́͐̓͐͒̿̕͜͝͝ō̸̧͍̮̤f̵̡̧̨̡͈̝̹̰̯͖̣̱̬͕͔̰̈́̈̀͛̓̔̓̀̌͋̀ ̴͔̤͖̬̞̜̗͕̳̺̦̑̎͆̒̆́̃͌̀̈́̔̃̕͜t̸̹͕̀̆̈́̓̿̀̌͌͘̚̕h̵̹̣͙̹̮̮̩̣͍̭͍̹̱͓̄̓͜ę̶̛̫͓͈̤͖̲͚̊́͗̎̽̓̽̋͒̅̆̇͝ ̵͖͎̫̻̪͎́̾̓̉̔̂̅̏͒͠c̴̫̱̊̔̓͗̾̒̕ȁ̷̧̛̙͓̜͈̦̝̐̈́̆̄̅̽͘͝v̶̡͖̘̺͈̄̑̇͒͗͒͘͝ȩ̷̢̹̳̺͍͖͒̃̒̉̔̊̋̇̓͐ͅͅ


...

As Ea Nebel entered the graveyard gate, the dense silver cloud that had enveloped her finally thinned, giving way to a light spectral mist that seemed to soften things rather than veiling them. The glow that permeated it, which in the bank under the plain iron archway had for a moment been almost blinding, dispersed along with it, as if to blunt a brightness unbecoming in a sombre place. Now it cast a pale leaden light like a cloudy sky in the fall, as it may well have been, for nothing could be seen in the heavens but a drowsy cap of grey.

Silence. The reverent fog let no sound louder than the crunch of the gravelly path underfoot trouble the repose of the dead.

The cemetery welcomed her with a cool, archaic neatness, as if it were itself the interior of some fantastic sepulchre. Irregular yet harmonious plots surrounded the winding paths like islets rising from the branches of a thin stream, faultless save for the odd tuft of weeds that had sprung up in the otherwise trimmed grass. Headstones filled them like the eaves of a peculiar harvest, lined in orderly rows regardless of disparity and punctuated by some ornamental cypress. Some were great, imposing things, angled and arched, covered with traceries and reliefs eroded by time. Others were humble granite slabs, sober and subdued in their inscriptions. What those were, she could not say for sure, for they were etched in some unknown alphabet of curves and circles, but it was easy enough to guess. Names, dates, the last farewells of those left behind.

The memories of those buried below were just as soothingly ordinary. They had been people like so many others. They had grieved, they had rejoiced, they had been mourned. Now, they rested.

Ahead, the paths turned and crossed in what would have been a maze if it had higher walls. Towards the heart of the graveyard, taller shapes rose between the quiescent rows, the columns and statues of crypts together with the domes of small chapels. And far beyond them, at what must have been the opposite end of this respectable little necropolis, a beam of white light shone through the mist, as if streaming from behind a great invisible door cracked open. Even from this distance, it stung her eyes with an unpleasant glare, and its presence in the gentle grey quiet grated like a crass intrusion.

A low creak sounded from behind her, and the iron gate closed with a click.

“...”

There was no-one there.

When Ea Nebel stood still, the silence was total. There was not a breeze to tousle the grass, nor so much as a cricket. She could hear herself blinking. A more paranoid environment could scarcely be envisioned, and yet she was at ease. The isolation wasn’t lonely. The stones and slabs were as familiar as old toys, and she stroked them with her ungloved hand, back and forth, soothed by the texture. It was almost like an untroubled dream.

She picked a stray cornflower and laid it on the grave of a young child. She didn’t think even a single word as she did so. Were this place any other than what it was, she might have wondered where she had learned that habit. Were this place any other than what it was, its abandonment could be uncanny. But it wasn’t. When had these people lived? Had they been laid here by those who even now walked Galbar? Had they ever walked it themselves? It didn’t matter. She had found a place as far away as a forgotten memory. Here, under the grey sky, there was neither light nor shade. Here there was nothing more to be said or done. Here the Nebel was satisfied.

The godling swung her head to the tower of light. Easy to lose herself in the empty reverie, were that beam not ever trying to shine under the brim of her hat and make her squint. She was still under trial.

The light made her anxious, more than it annoyed her. Both her trials so far had strained Ea Nebel in their own way. This next would be no different. She had seen the grave of Luck, and doubted that hers would be sufficient to bypass a second riddle. The unknown necropolis was so restful that the only way she could see herself being set to the grindstone was by disturbing its peace, as the beacon did now. She sighed faintly and set off towards it with an unhurried step, missing her faithful boar’s unflinching step at her side.

Polished stone monuments grew taller and broader around her until she had to look up at them, not down. Their memories were wealthier, more storied. She didn’t stay long at any of them. Only long enough to notice that a marble bird-bath was not completely still, the way everything else was still. Ea Nebel frowned and looked down. There was a hagfish in there, wriggling away merrily at the bottom of the fountain pool, completely unaware of its misplacement.

How strange.

She kept walking.

The closer she came to the glaring beam, the wider it grew, until it was a veritable gap in the grey scenery. It parted both the fog and the iron fence of the cemetery, which in that spot alone offered the outer world entry into the sacrarium of the dead. For that was what it was; not merely an interloper, but a glimpse of what lay outside the tranquil little sea of grey.

And outside, there was death.

Not the placid, contented death of the graveyard, but the torturous doom of the forsaken. Over an arid plain of sun-cracked yellow earth, uncountable bones lay scattered to the winds. A great battle had evidently been fought there, sometime long ago. The files of immense armies were strewn as they had fought, desiccated fingers collapsed around the rusted stumps of sword and lance, eyes that had once locked in hatred staring emptily into the sky above. Horse and rider had been joined for the last time, centaurs of the battlefield now truly become as fanciful chimeras as their remains mingled. Like the crests of macabre hills, the remains of giants of legendary stature cast their frayed shadows over the blanched sea, their skulls alone as large as the crypts and chapels. Little had their puissance availed them, for they too had been brought low, as impotent as the humblest footman against that foe which none can surpass.

The heavens themselves seemed to be moved to bitterness by that desolate sight, for above the waste reigned the harsh white light, now outright painful to the eye when met directly. Torrid heat wafted from it, hard to bear even so far away, and a distant drone, faint but insistent, hung in the air, without apparent source nor purpose but to strain the ear and rankle the skull.

Around and behind her, the mists coiled invitingly, as if to call her away from that hellish vision and back into the recesses of the grave-paths.

The maiden’s fist clenched and unclenched. She pressed hard against her tragus and smeared her ear shut, deforming the flesh into a half-melted nothing on her face. Now she could feel the drone in her inner skull. She doffed her hat and pulled a dense veil over her face. It dimmed the light only a little, and made it almost impossible to see the bones in front of her. Her lips parted slightly from her clenched teeth. She grabbed the shovel leaning on the iron fence and swung its head against the bars, breaking the quiet of the necropolis with a loud clang. Only then, scowling, did she step through the door.

She measured that old abattoir before she broke ground. It was not infinite. There was a real battle written on the earth in the pattern of the chaos: here they had first clashed, perished, and been trampled; here they had fallen back to the next palisade, collapsing here and there under raining arrows as they formed new ranks. Evenly matched and armed, one side had finally broken. Their bodies were strewn far back behind the battlefield where the lancers had rode them down. Like a fistful of sand thrown to the wind.

Ea Nebel looked up. The beam was still there. The necropolis was still there. The light from the door was soft and silver. The further she travelled from the cool air of the portal, the hotter and louder this world became.

The war elephants were too large to grind down and set in an urn. They were livestock, anyway. The giants were much worse. Their bones could be left to posterity, to be mistaken for strange boulders and make a marker of the place, if anyone ever came here again, ever, until the end of time. Their skulls would need to be set into mounds, and each would be the work of months. They reflected the blinding light like snow, and Ea Nebel had to squint through her veil. She raised her hand to the blank, hot white of the sky. This was not Astalon. There was no sun. It would never be night. And at least Astalon had been quiet.

Quiet, like the graveyard.

Cities had been emptied for this unremembered war. There were more than a million skeletons, not counting horses, dogs, theropods, and other war-animals. Women had fought. Boys also. There were sixty-eight titans of the large kind, and hundreds of their lesser cousins. Many bodies had been crushed, others obliterated entirely. Ea Nebel turned around. The necropolis was still there.

“La da daa, di da, da da daa…”

A little humming tune kept her focused, and she forced herself to sing it louder than the drone in her head. The giant graves could be erected with a multilayered sigil potentiated with the hypertones of a song, turning the work of many decades into… years. Then she could begin to inter the ordinary skulls in the mounds, according to their division. The titanic crania would provide space for men of rank. The skeletons...

“...”

Ea Nebel sank down and sat crosslegged on the hot clay grit, rubbing her eyes with her palms and letting her head sink into her hands, gently chewing her tongue. She still hadn’t done anything. There was no riddle this time, none that she could see. This time she really would have to count the flies. She pulled a timepiece from her coat and set it. She closed her eyes and inhaled, determined to rest in deep meditation, letting her thoughts drift away on the Flow. When she finally opened her eyes, almost twenty seconds had passed.

And the necropolis was still-

“GET OUT!”

The beam didn’t waver. It shone in the middle of the fields of forgetting, the arch of a rain-worn chapel still visible inside, the only soothing thing in the Hell that surrounded her. The conditions of failure were abundantly clear now. There was no riddle here.

“Get out of here! Which one of you did this? Did you think you were being clever? Did you think I would break for something so trite? Was it you? Father? Do you think so little of me? Mother? Oh, no- Homura, isn’t it? I wonder if you treat the others like this. Pity for them! Maybe you, Grandfather, if only you had the spine to do anything yourself.” She whipped the many-hued scarf from her neck and threw it away in a bundle. “Ooh, I feel cooler already. So much for you, you wet-eyed coward. Get out, all of you. Die and rot!”

The last shout, like all that preceded it, was an incoherent mumble under the constant drone of the Hell-sky. The beam didn’t waver. She spat.

Time blurred along, the currents of the Flow making no perceivable ripples on its surface, cursing this world with a damnable smoothness that slid on and on with only the sensation of Ea Nebel’s fingernails digging into her palms to tick one moment over into the next. She lifted her head and stared once more into the beam, trying to make out a shape in the silver wash of mist. There was one. It was different.

Ea Nebel stood up at once. There, through the crack, a second doorway- a real door, a door she knew, her door. Behind it she could make out the domed belfry of her little house, her house on the shore of the Tlaca. On the steps, a movement, a life: the arched back of the Iron Boar, rising and falling, sleeping, dreaming, waiting for its master.

Waiting for her.

She had already choked on a sob before she knew it. Ea Nebel clenched her teeth and tightened her mouth as hard as she could, holding herself. Her hand pressed against her face and covered her eyes.

The sweat of her palms mingled with the tears welling up in her eyes, gently burning. The fluid glowed gently enough to pierce the thin of her eyelids, but not enough to seep out through the gaps in her fingers such that any others would notice the new presence; this was a sight meant only for her four eyes, blurred and shut as they might have been.


With reckless abandon, her flesh lost form. It was as though her eyelids were of transparent glass, while her hands became puffs of fog with fingers made of smoky, wispy dreamstuff. No matter how tightly she tried to cover her eyes or squeeze them closed, she Saw.

The beam’s intensity remained, but it seemed a more distant and less troublesome thing at that moment. The incessant droning sound that had been there faded also, as if muffled by great distance. All of those woes were replaced by a more immediate, pressing one: darkened silhouettes of monstrous beings – Iqelins of all shapes and sizes – lurked waiting all around the outskirts of this great battlefield, silently leering at her and hoping against hope that she would abandon her charge. They were good at hiding from her sight, had been so good that until this moment she hadn’t even sensed their presence, but now she Saw them clearly through all the tricks and glamours. Most were waiting out there in the distance, but others were also hiding anywhere she might have looked for respite: in the shade, in the tunnels back behind from whence she’d entered this place, and yes, inside this little replica of her house. Especially inside of there, they waited.

”Ẏ̡oų̘͎̔̏͠r͙̥̦͗̅̏ f̳̪̂̕l͖̮̚̕y̭̚ ǫ̾͂͟f̝̪͎̏̾̚ ḁ͓̊̆ fȁ̩̯͠th̯̩́̊é͈̺̬̇̃r̡̼̱̔̌̈́ s̙̞̔́ē̯e̩͈͌͛k̺̋ṣ̦̓͆ ţ͠ó̻ t̂͜e͉̭͚̓͐̎s̢̛̱͍͑̓t͖͐ ỵ̹͊̀ó̼ur re͚̣̞͑͆̐s̤̬̓͛ol͈̪͈̂͘͡v͖͎̆̊͝ͅe̟̋,̭̎ y̯͛o̟̗̐͂ự͎̤͗̓ŕ̺͙̗̏̾ d̨͋ȇ̦̫̏d͑͟ḭ̈́c̪̺̏͗at͒ͅio̺͌n̥̫̠̎̈́͝ t̜̫̉̋o d̛̝͙̒ű̡̝͛t̡͓͇́͌́ỹ̜,̨̀” a lonely toadstool whispered to her from below, where it had sprouted out between two ribs of an ancient skeleton.

”Ṫ͉ō͟ le͈̿ä͕͚̋v̩͗ẽ̝ i͕̇s̲̊ ṫ̹o f̺͋aì̛̻̝l͎͙̑͞. So̳̔ e̫͝í̞t̙͒h̜͞e̛̗r͈̼̾̒ l͚̘̆͊eav̧̓e̟̕ a͎͗n̜̓ḏ͔̌͠ p͓͚͈̦̓͌͡͠ĕ̡̛̪͔̯͇͋̈̀̾ͅṟ͖̩͚̅͆̎̀̓͟i̡̛͖͇̹̩͇͒̈͂͘͝s̡̝͇̦̉̆̚͝h̭͖̖͔̱͂̃̆̔̕͟͞ á̳n̘͍͒̿d sp̠̼̎̽i͍̭̿̀t̰̤͑̍e ḩ̩̱̞͓͇̰̓͂̀͊̎́͠i̲̳̻̾̽̑͋ͅm̲̪̩̟̣̣͖͂̐̏͋̈͑͘,̨̡̊͝ or̓͢ TOIL to p̺̹̀͊a̦͊s̞̓ṡ͔̠̈́,̯̇ a̝̞͛́nd͔̈ r͕͡e̫͑m̒͢e̦̒ṁ̢̟̃b̢̗͞͠ẻ̜ṛ͂ t̡̕hȉ̤s͎̆ fa̡̫̒̈́vö̦r wh͇͘ẽ̝n̯͡ ń̥̱͠ḛ̇x̜̋t w̱̌ë̛̜͓́ ś̠p͂͢e͓͊a̿̉͢ͅk.”


Then toadstool’s conspiratorial whispering stopped, and through her tears she saw naught but darkness once again. She raised her hand from her eyes and the bones were bare and empty before her. Only a single heartbeat had passed in that span of time, but now, unnoticed by her judges, she’d been given the answer.

But there was no riddle here. Ea Nebel already knew the answer. She hated the answer. “Shut up,” she whispered, to no one and everyone. “I will not leave. I will not leave. Choke on it. I hope it sticks you through the throat.”

The necropolis beckoned again through the portal, its air cool, its light smooth. No matter how much she stared, she couldn’t See the hulking, crawling shapes of Iqelins seething over every stone like bloated spiders. Spiders creeping everywhere. Creeping through her home. Crawling on her skin. Ea Nebel looked out over the horizon where the heat was burning in. Everything shimmered, blurred with tears and heat. There, too, would be demons, writhing and creeping up her spine, along the endless horizon. Of course there were demons here. This was Hell.

Ea Nebel shuddered and snapped her hand to the back of her neck, felt something soft in her fingers pushing back on her skin with its wriggling little legs, threw it down in front of her, her guts squirming. It didn’t have a head, didn’t have symmetry, just legs and proboscises and bloated abdomen. She splattered it under her heel, already feeling another creeping up her ankle. She swatted it down and broke into a sprint, leaping at once up to the high top of a titan’s skull, where the ground was smooth and white and fire-hot and nothing crawled except the horizon around her in every direction. She crouched and rocked back and forth, holding her head and mouth, trying not to vomit.

“How about… you leave.”

Ea Nebel threw back her veil and squinted into the blinding light, seeing nothing and Seeing nothing. Tiny bugs and maggots crept up and down the horizon just like they crept up and down the lines of her fingers in front of her eyes. She stared and stared until her eyes adjusted and they did not go away- this time she saw them, with her eyes, far far in the distance. She pulled a stiletto from her coat with trembling hands, flipped it back-hand, and popped out the blade.

Her boots hit the ground with a crunch of grit that was lost in the roaring drone and then she was sprinting, crushing bugs and bones alike, faster than a hawk, her blood hotter than Hell. The battlefield flashed away behind her in seconds as the Iqelins on the horizon grew closer and closer. They were huge, colourless, liquid, dripping, like tar-sand, a misshapen nightmare of a being she had never, ever seen. Their bodies were like mites, so swollen and bulbous as to be almost spherical, their legs like gnarled fingers with far too many knuckles, breaching and and out of its surface like capsized ships in storm. The greatest one was closest, towering over the titan-skulls she’d left behind her; Ea Nebel leapt onto its flank, sinking her hands into gritty choking slime, and heaved herself up on top of it, all the way to the height of its back, and slammed her knife into its skin with her fist.

She stuck that demon over and over and over again on hands and knees and every time she made a hole it splattered her with blood; human blood, bright like candy, sugary in her mouth like the oily crust of bile on its body was honey to her; and it felt like stabbing a thick mushroom, and when she looked she saw that it was a mushroom, with moist rubbery gills and stipe-meat; and it struggled and heaved like a mountain might buck off a horsefly but she had a lance now, a long lance like a needle six men tall and on that lance was the scarf the Banner of the Monarch and she stuck him with it; and no wind fluttered that old rag but grey waves rolled over it as its kaleidoscopic colours dimmed and brightened, and the Iqelins the demons were still calmed because it wasn’t hatred oh no this was something much better and crueller and delicious and it hurt so much more; and-

“La da daa- di daa-”

and there was wasn’t was a pattern in those tiny pinpricks of violence she gouged in it and only she could see it and it was plague spots was not a pretty one at all; and as she stabbed at it its mouthparts sprouted and grew and curved and twisted in and out of its four dark pearl eyes its eyeless face like a babirusa; and its head was immobilised and its brain was pierced and it snapped its neck back reared itself up with a sickening crack on too many legs and its belly gaped open because there was a whole new mouth there; except it wasn’t a mouth it was just a hell a hole and the hole was a drooling orifice hag-eel’s breathing hole and it stretched and strained like a dark toothless tube with its six tongues six stubby tentacles; and-

“DA DA DAA-”

and every single person demon was like this now and they were everywhere and a hundred Ea Nebels loved them stabbed them but only one had the ovipositor had the Banner; and they shoved their gaping wounds holes onto the grit and clay and ants and bone and gobbled it up anyway, contracting, stretching, gulping, kissing, shuddering; and everything Ea Nebel could see was doubled quadrupled and blurry and in the after-images she could see them crawling up the beam of light like newborn babes mutilated ticks and sucking her the necropolis out of it like milk pus and she screamed that was good; and the more they slurped and crumbled the less she could see of anything, anything at all…

And then there was nothing, no demons, no heat, no drone, no portal; and Ea Nebel floated there in the silver mist all alone, her face a sea of tears, wheezing laughter to herself and no one else.




“It is the virtue of duty to know one’s own purpose and whereby it may be accomplished. It is to serve one’s end with abnegation, without forsaking its most grievous incumbencies for one’s own indulgent fulfilment when those should prove discordant. Thereby, in service of a higher Law one is made master over oneself and all things.”

The voice hesitated, reflecting on something it had until that point not prepared for.

“And it is to champion that Law and its universal ordainment in the face of unclean forces that would overturn it. It is to find one’s way among their deceptions and never stray from the destined path. This is a virtue of the divine.”




The space, if indeed it was a space, where the arbiters found themselves was cool and dark, the only source of definite sensation being the smooth glassy floor underfoot. After the sights of the ancient battlefield, over which they had been afforded eyes and ears that were everywhere and nowhere at once, free to pry at the minutest grain of dust or observe the breadth of ruination from a far vantage, the impenetrable shadow and silence did not seem altogether unpleasant.

Iqelis was not with them, not visibly. His presence could be felt around them, however. The darkness writhed, breathed, coiled indistinctly; he was inside it, and he was it. Its stirrings were his thoughts, and as the focus of his unseen eye was drawn to the course of the ordeal, a perceptive spirit could have read their course easily enough. There had at first been expectation, impatient yet confident; a pang of bitterness at the demigoddess’ rebuke, and a flash of anger which even here curled into an edge of rancorous mockery oddly laced with concern - Is this how you repay me? On with it! or you will break, are breaking! - that steadily turned to bemusement as he strained to catch something he thought he had seen. It grew to bafflement as distortion blossomed, for it was plain that it was not something he had woven into the fabric of this hell-crucible. Even now, after the hurriedly improvised conclusion to his homily, he seemed to have forgotten the two judges, and fluid ether flowed and shifted places as he weighed memory against design, puzzling over whether the one had contaminated the other. Recollections of a be-nightmared battle against impossible enemies under a sunless black sky danced on the skein of his mind, and measured themselves against the events that he laboured to force into the mould of what had been his intention.

The Goddess of Honor had shut her eyes closed, and sighed once with sorrow before she spoke. “I have now found the profuse irony here to be more than enough. Despite what others may claim, failure in this test is something we have all experienced as the Divine. There will be times when we are defeated, but then we will rise again. She has passed this trial through such failure, so let us move onto the next.” Homura proclaimed, as her scarlet eyes slowly opened, and afterwards shifted her attention to the second judge.

Ruina let out another hum as Homura spoke. She did have a point in that suffering failures without being crippled was a quality needed of a divine, but something tickled at her mind a bit. What, exactly, had been the goal of the test? To bury the bodies? To be rid of the light? This test seemed to be lacking in an overall goal, unlike the prior tests which had fairly clearly defined ones. Thus Ruina would raise an issue. ”Something I feel like I must observe is that this test possessed of it no purpose that is clear to me. What was the goal of Ea Nebel in this area? To bury the bodies? To rid herself of the beam of light? It feels to me that this was a test that had no solution, thus making failing the only solution possible. Lest an explanation comes, I would think of this trial as unworthy.”

Around them, Iqelis' mind bristled with impatience as it was torn away from its pondering, but the voice that sounded from the darkness was even.

“The light and the bodies are one and the same,” it crackled, now loud and pervasive, “They are the path of adversity, which duty must tread and overcome. Had she fulfilled her calling in spite of their asperity and of the lure of complacency, there would have been no doubts as to her success.”

Homura slightly shrugged. “It is what it is. These trials should not be so black and white, and an unworthy trial is still a trial nonetheless. Would you say the actions of Ea Nebel have given you cause to annihilate her?” The red goddess asked, offering Ruina a shadow of a smile.

Ruina blinked as the explanation was given from Iqelis before she nodded. As Homura gave her own thoughts, Ruina would blink once more as she thought about the question presented. Looking to Homura, Ruina gave her answer bluntly. ”No. Not yet. When the trials are finished I will have made up my mind on matters.”

Ruina thought it best to not include the fact that she was not here to judge Ea Nebel, but to instead judge her father, Iqelis. With things explained, Ruina folded her arms before speaking again. ”I am satisfied by the explanations given, and you have my thanks for them. Let us continue to the next trial.”

And so they did.





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