Hidden 3 yrs ago 3 yrs ago Post by Double Capybara
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Double Capybara Thank you for releasing me

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It wasn’t too hard to get used to the beginnings of the shamanic practice of the locals, the whole system was quite refined, and seemed to steer a person into the right path as long as they wanted to be diligent to the practice. Junjii so far had only faced easy times and had quickly taken up the practices of the locals.

The herbal lore that was taught to newcomers wasn’t too hard, it mostly dealt with basics of healing, such as the one to be applied to wounds to avoid corruption and the ones that made the sick person sweat a lot. It was easy to notice however that not all agreed on such method, there seemed to be a group that believed sweating was the body cleansing itself of impurity and other that believed that it actually was a leak of vigor and shouldn’t be encouraged. Things like poisons, sleep inducing brews or dream enablers, were still distant in the future.

Another newcomer skill was learning how to carve wood, but not to make bows and homeware like the villagers, instead, one should learn how to make fetishes, relics of power that represented one aspect Life. It opportunity for one to learn how to carve masks and through that, learn how to represent the face of their soul, as shamans needed their outfits to contain such powerful symbols to be able to talk with the spirits. Or, at least that is what some said, others didn’t believe in that, even when fellow shamans said they had lost their powers when their clothes and masks were stolen.

With Junjii’s recent advancement one step further into the step, came more complex responsibilities, such as partaking in the funeral rites, but only in the neutral ever-present areas, as only a mature shaman was able to channel the spirit of the ancestors, and only a very experienced one was able to know what kind of funeral the family and the deceased needed, which could range from a mockery of death to bring laughs to a solemn moment to let the pain flourish.

Within the next weeks, the newcomer was also expected to learn how to make his own drum through the rituals of a sacrifice of a wild beast, also how to plaid said drum and sing the chants. Learn how to control visions and dreams. And start his first diplomacy with the realm of the elementals.

Earlier, Junjii would have felt like this would be great times, and that the mission that needed to be accomplished within the Shamanistic community was at hands. But then she showed up.

Hurico. A new shaman, a foreigner too no less, he had heard people outside of the communities had no hope of going forward too far in the path, but there she was, sweeping the ranks like a storm, not only stealing his chances to shine among his peers but also putting his whole plan, the very reason he had turned into a shaman, in jeopardy.

Junjii didn’t have the courage to face such things in public, his typical way of dealing with stress was by isolating himself from others, deep within the jungles of the region. On this day in specific, he had been on a lakeshore, throwing rocks into the water and seeing them skip, but he lacked the control to make them go too far before plummeting.

You need to aim a bit lower, otherwise, they will sink at the second skip." said a voice.

He immediately turned to face the person, even though the voice already denounced her identity, Hurico herself had apparently followed him.

“Ah, Uriko,” he said in his accent “Why… Why are you here?” he asked.

”I have been seeking the chance to talk with you in particular”

He tensed up, could she have noticed something? No, that was impossible, he did want to see her fail, but he had never expressed such feelings. She also seemed to be good spirited, not the kind that would seek to harm someone.

”I noticed how stressed you have become ever since I arrived. It is hurting your progress and your mind, so I felt like it would be wise to say I have no intent of stopping you or your people.”

“My people?” he faked obliviousness the best he could, for all anyone knew, his people were right in that region.

”Yes, the people from the north, the nomads from the darkened expanses.”

He froze, had noticed him traveling years ago? Had she somehow discovered it, how, how could that be? “Wha…”

”Your hair denounces you, your intestines denounce you, your skin, the way your bones grew, your involuntary movements, and especially, your tongue.” one of the advantages of her name was that it was full of traps that really showed from where someone was by sound alone.

For years his people and he had worked hard to craft a way for people like him to infiltrate the tribes of the South, for all anyone cared he was a native, and he had always been. This was meant to open the way for him to reach the higher positions of society there, the easiest path was religion, as the ways of the gods were a good cover for suspicious behavior.

He laughed, feeling more like crying, though he remembered her words, she said she meant no harm right?

“What are you?”

”A huntress, just like religion, a life in the wild open your eyes to whole aspects of life invisible to others.” she stepped closer to him. ”I also know what you people plan to do, and why you are down here, but my question is why are things getting so bad up there that you need to move out?”

He gasped. “Not yet… but there have been signs, and everyone has had odd dreams.”

”I see…” she pondered for a bit. ”Well, as I said, I don’t plan on stepping on your feet.”

“Ah… but why? I would think… that someone would try to stop an invasion like that...”

”This region is going through heavy transformations. You heard it too, right? Your teacher must have talked about how shamanic dreams of the wild became clearer and more powerful lately, or how the rain seasons changed. That is why I picked this path, I guess, to see what is changing and why.”

”Furthermore, you people will move either way, in that sense, you going forward through the path could be useful for everyone.”

Junjii nodded. She smiled, and that struck him as sincerity. This person, despite being in a position to hurt him, was helping. Yes, she was odd and scary, but somehow, he felt like she would lead him to better things.




With excellence hum and a wide smile, Ilunabar traveled back to where the Divas had been meeting for the last few days, in one of the glass towers of the phantom city in the Em'Ef layer of the Pictaraika. The room was on the highest floor, with a wide view of the twinkling townscape at its surrounding and softly lit by colored lights. The sharp-looking table was located near a water fountain, and there, all of her divas waited.

"One more to the collection." she threw the brooch filled with Astartian magic to Chronicle, who swiftly caught it mid-air.

"Oh, you met Astarte? But how..." asked Meimu

"Luck, apparently. Unless some of you have been making deals with demons. That is not the case, right?"

All of the divas denied that assumption. "Good, but on the other side, it does light up the usefulness of demons, a species we have not paid full attention to."

"I just assumed they were out of our reach..."

"Nothing must be out of our reach, beauty has to echo at every corner of this universe and perhaps beyond."

"I will add that possibility to our plans, yet I can't guarantee to start working on it anytime soon, we are absurdly overworked right now. Even with the five of us, it has been hard to keep up with our expansion of culture policy, the management of the Pictaraika and the construction of all those temples."

Ilunabar pondered at the situation, quickly glancing at all the reports Piena had brought. "I know this all must be hard. But once we are done with it, we will have something amazing on our hands, something no other god cold have ever devised."

Chronicle nodded, sipping at one of the beers Maeus had recently devised. [Piena needs to import some Quara urgently.]

The diva of steel nodded and sighed. "It is true, I will ratify that soon, but before..." she stood up.

"Meimu, have you kept up with Amartia's children."

"Indeed I have. Well, one of them, the others I never found. I helped him in a time of need and I think that will make him more open to approach" she had a confident smirk on her face.

"Good, we don't need another Xerxes. Now, I need you to track the forests west of the Pictaraika, it seems the area that used to be affected by the spires is now reacting to something new."

[Sounds neat, do you mind if I help with that?] wrote Chronicle.

Piena stared with a tired face. "Me accepting or not your idea won't change the result."

Chronicle laughed in silence. [You are getting smarter.] she also stood up and discreetly reached for the brooch full of magic |I have an idea. Devise the plans for the lizard dudes' housing, then meet me and Meimu.|

With that, she took the accessory and left. Piena had no time to voice a complaint. "Anyway..." she said aggressively "I have projects to draw. Meimu, you know what you have to do..."

"But what about my mirrors? I can't start my garden without actual sunlight."

Notte, who had been there the whole time, paying more attention to the water fountain than to her sisters, finally decided to speak. "I have a plan in mind, I'm the mirror girl, after all, I just need our lady master Ilunabar's approval to do a few things and I can start my project."

"What things?" she quickly asked.

"Eh... Just a bit of power and the right to interfere with some Vestec related things."

"That is fine, it is close to your roots so you are free to do your plan. Just set things up with Piena properly, so other projects don't clash."

"Let's do that at the Index, Notte." the other diva nodded, and both left soon after.

"So... I guess I have some forest to catalog then. But what about you?."

"I need to deal with Makeda, it shouldn't take too long." The Muse smiled and along with Meimu took flight upward, before they parted their ways in the surface.




While most times she felt distanced, there were times in which Susa felt some sort of empathy for Lifprasil, or more on point, she felt like she was in a similar situation. She felt it when she reminisced about her time as a teacher, and now she could observe it again, in a context even closer to when she first met him. But, still, she knew she was a different fabric, Lifprasil wanted to rule, she wanted to preserve herself, even if at times she helped others.

Junjii had opened more in the weeks since she told him she knew his situation, the tension had disappeared from his life, as before he was sure he was going towards certain failure. He had talked more about his people, and it denounced how much she needed to keep him in the path of shamanism.

The nomads of the darkened expanses live in too much isolation, while the cultures of Mesathalassa lived in a constant struggle against each other. They surely had the power to conquer lands by the sword, but ultimately, they would lose by the word, as the local culture would infiltrate the many gaps of their own until perhaps it was entirely overtaken.

That was one of the saddest possible results in her view, a lot of people would die in the conquest, but only minimal changes would be brought by those people. So she wanted to try some syncretism, and Junjii was her best bet. He seemed to be sensible and smart, perhaps he would properly prepare his people during the forced exile, avoiding a higher death count and preserving his culture, at least to an extent.

She didn't even know why she cared, she convinced herself she was curious, and that it would be a great way to see how culture works and try to understand better the people who lived in Mesathalassa before the sinking of most human lands.

"You look distant," Junjii commented.

"Eh, just brooding about some issues." answered Hurico.

"Aren't you the one who says I should always be alert?"

"Well, you should. I can afford being distracted, you get distracted and you would be easy prey to something stronger to you, like an angry squirrel, or something of the sort."

He sighed. "Well, I have to sew some cloth so..."

"No, wait. I want to try something out. We need to dive into the wild."

That was something she had been trying to teach him since they started that odd cooperation, yet for him, it was still a clumsy thing, often he just ended up panicking as soon as he touched the wildlands.

It all became worse when he realized what she meant by "we", all sorts of meditations in search for visions and dreams were particular things, it wasn't something you should do in public or with others. Yet, he trusted Hurico enough to believe she wasn't a maniac trying to get them into trouble.

"I will get my equipment," he said. He had got himself a mask already and now he had started to work on his outfit, it should have been completed already, but he liked sewing, so he would just disassemble it and remake it, over and over.

After getting himself ready, Junjii looked at Hurico, who to his surprise was, in fact, doing to opposite of him, taking off unnecessary clothing like her cloak and boots.

"Uriko, don't you need these things... all shamans need it... right?" He said, very confused as she was directly breaking something that seemed to be a central dogma.

She shrugged. "It is possible to train to dive wearing less. A fool's quest for most, but my objective is to be able to reach it at any time, perhaps even with my eyes still open"

He gasped, that sounded amazing, she truly seemed exceptional in all areas, perhaps because she had been a huntress before a shamaness.

"Do you need the tea too?" he said as he reached for a clay jug which contained the brewed herbs most shamans used to reach that particular dream.

She nodded. It seemed even she had yet to learn certain things, that gave Junjii hope that he too could learn and reach her level.

Casually, they drank their tea and not soon after, they slipped into Jaktterreng. It almost felt like phasing through the floor or ground, hence why shamans called it diving, though observations had shown one stayed exactly where they were.

The hunting ground was an odd wildland of colorful and very bright forests. While the whole area was dark, there was no concept of shade in the objects, in modern terms, it was similar to ultraviolet light.

Junjii was almost like a phantom, the lines of the ornaments in his clothes and mask shone around his body, which was transparent and almost formless. Hurico was an entirely another beast, her body shone in opaque bright purple, even though it was also lacking an exact form, it resembled herself far more, only lacking minor details such as nails. The oddest of it all was that she had long, flowing hair when it was know most shamans, even elders, were bald when diving due to the fact it was merely an aesthetic part of the human body.

She signaled him something, he could understand she meant they were supposed to go somewhere, but he had yet to master the art of talking with his hand. In doubt, he asked her what she meant, but what he said was almost undiscernable due to the loud echo that followed as soon as he opened his mouth.

Animals ran, birds flew, and the floating schools of fish swam away. Hurico stared at him, and even though her facial features weren't clear, he knew she was baffled by what he just did. He now knew why she had told him to learn how to speak with his hands.

Some movement could be seen in the glowing bushes near them, and Hurico took no time before grabbing his hand and running away. She had weight while walking, far more than beasts thrice her size, it seemed to be something soul related as he was flying like a kite while she escaped.

It seemed that no matter how much she rushed, the danger was always following nearby, in fact, Junjii felt his body still echoing a bit, which was bound to alert all sorts of possible predators near them. Though not only predators lurked in that bizarre forest, and a sudden arrow hitting the huntress in the left leg of the huntress served as clear proof of that.

The shooter was a hain shaman, he seemed to be elderly and powerful, as he too had a clearer form and opaque coloration, unlike Hurico however, he was dressing and using an arsenal of relics of power, including his bow, which accompanied him in this shadowy world. His energy also seemed to have taken over some of the spectral animals of the area, which was a concept new to both of them.

At that moment Junjii looked at the huntress' face and she seemed to be... smiling? Before he could think any more about the topic she hit him with a strong punch to the chest, sending him in the dark sleep that followed an unsuccessful trip to Jaktterreng.

He woke up hours later, after Hurico in fact, it didn't matter that she probably spent more time in the dream than he, as breaking the link with the dream world didn't mean stopping to sleep.

"What was that for?" he questioned, still feeling that punch in his chest, even though his actual body was intact.

"Why didn't you learn the sign language like I asked? You messed up the whole thing. You deserved that punch, though I just did it because I planned on fighting that shaman and you would become a hindrance."

"And why that dumb smile before you did it?" he asked with a hint of suspicion.

"Ah, that. Well, I needed to test some things with another shaman inside the wildlands. That is why I entered it with you. Well, after you messed up I thought that the whole thing was lost time since its hard to find another shaman in that endless jungle, but to my luck, that hain decided to make himself present."

He thought about asking what she needed to do, but at this point, he was tired of the topic of dreams, and just really wanted to take a breath of fresh, real air to take that feeling off his chest.




The Golden Watcher had been meditating in one of the temples already built, gods had a timeframe completely different from mortals, and despite it being almost a full day since she last saw Ilunabar, she knew very well the goddess would act as if she had been only one minute late.

"Hey, sorry, I got busy thanks to the Astarte situation, as you saw, hope you didn't mind the wait."

"Thankfully I don't have to feed like other normals, but making me wait for days was cruel"

"Days?" she looked upwards with a confused face, could it have been that long? She wasn't sure, time was such a fluid thing. "Sorry. But let's get it going then, what has happened since last time we talked?."

The angel's expression went from calm to nervous quite quickly. "What has happened? You know what happened! Iron angels falling from the sky, bringing never seen before pain and suffering to all."

"Ah... I figured you had a hard clash against the Realta."

Makeda turned her head, looking at Ilunabar almost sideway. "So you know what those are."

"Yes. A vengeful god arrived and he seeks to destroy most things. If I knew about this I would have warned you..."

"The problem here is not my safety, how many died in that attack? Why didn't you do anything?"

"Me? What can I do? Play flute menacingly? I'm a goddess of the arts Makeda, all I can do at most is to train heroes like you..."

"I couldn't do anything..."

"Did you get hurt? I legitimately got worried for you."

"Yes, I just survived thanks to a..." she resitated. "person."

"Oh? Who is it? Is he pretty?" Ilunabar was never serious about that topic, but now she was smiling. Makeda didn't share the casualness.

"I didn't even notice that person's gender. I had other things to worry..."

"Ah. I see. Look, I have a plan that could help you to avoid such situations and provide better protection to all of Galbar. But you will have to accept some harsh truths about the current situation of the world."

Makeda's response was a long, suspicious stare, she knew something was bound to be said, and that she would soon probably be ranging.

"See, I know you really respect Niciel, and thinks she is great, and I don't mean to berate, but let's be sincere, that is a clear overrate. Niciel is the nicest on her valley, at the cost of everyone else being left to suffer."

"No."

"Yes."

"Wrong, she just doesn't want us to get hurt, she is loving, she is way better than you."

"Ah, right, if I saw someone getting murder and didn't act because I want to keep my sword clean, wouldn't I be partially guilty?"

"It is not like that."

"It is what it is. And that is, there were no angels fighting off the Realta."

"I don't have to stand your lies, you are the goddess of art, not of morality. Your words are pretty, but your soul isn't, you aren't pure, you aren't dedicated to doing good. You could easily hurt someone if that was the necessary to make something pretty."

"Well, I at least do something. And even if at times I get risky, I have still done more to mankind than your protectress."

"You are just a jealous crone."

"Hey, I understand it, she is motherly and nice. But try to stop being a baby, take your face out of her chest and look at th..."

"I alr..."

"Quiet. No more bickering from you. I was going to propose you a plan to help Galbar as a whole, I'm giving you an opportunity to correct the faults of your creator. If you abandon a chance to protect mortalkind because you must protect your little misty mother, then you are an imbecile."

"I do not care about your plan, I worked with you because you appeared to want to help me to my duty. Now you want to take over, you want me to forsake someone who I know is holy for the sake of someone who I know is tricky."

"I want you to take a chance that is given. But that is enough, this is your last chance. I only work with excellence, if you want to be mediocre, go do that with your little feathered kin and very, very away from me."

Makeda stared at Ilunabar for a few moments, then she slowly took a few steps away and finally took flight, leaving the Muse. Not soon after, Notte came tiptoeing from behind one of the pillars of the temple.

"Uh, was this planned?"

"One of the paths I took in consideration, yes."

"Will she return?"

"Probably. I really like her, and I understand I used harsh words to describe Niciel, which even I don't think to be true, but it was necessary.

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Hidden 3 yrs ago Post by Lauder
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Lauder The drunk kind of hero

Member Seen 0-12 hrs ago

Keriss







They wouldn't stop shouting. They refused to stop. Couldn't stop screaming.

Plaguing her, That of Pain, One of Malice, she could hear them all calling for her, wishing to no longer be forgotten by the likes of the world. She could hear how they had been abused, how some were once great trees or others were contented rodents that scurried the city, fat and free. Keriss may have been a sadistic creature but the constant amount of yelling and screaming were maddening to her ears. The ashes spoke directly into mind, forced her to listen to them and making it impossible for her to drown them out.

She was still huddled in the same spot where she had been since last conversing with her friend and her brother, no longer would she be able to hear them anyways as the ash had only grown louder. How could she combat all the noise? How could she regain control over her mind and bring silence? The answers seemed to elude her as she remained trapped underneath her wings. Keriss had to do something and she knew that cowering beneath herself would not allow that to happen.

Slowly did her wings begin to unfurl as she sat inside the ruined Cipher, only to be adjusted back into place when she saw ash begin to stir. Again she moved the leathery appendages, hesitantly did they move before they found their spot on her back. Good progress so far. Now it was time to get to her feet, which have been out of use for gods know how long. The winged one urged herself forwards, putting her hands into the ground in front of her before she stopped. The screaming began to get louder, only vying for her attention even more while she moved. Her head hurt, feeling only the urge to empty anything from her stomach onto the floor that she gazed upon.

The ashen flakes covered the ground. They were so clear, so sharp and jagged in figure. Yet the flakes were the very cause of Keriss’ current ailment, and seeing them made her head hurt more.

She struggled, her legs failing her momentarily as she attempted to stand, forcing herself to concentrate and work through the pain that the ash caused her. Her left hand gripped a crevice in the wall, supporting her as she attempted to move. One foot in front of another, that was how she made her way through the Cipher. It was slow, and she fell many times, but she continued to stagger her way through the ruined building until she reached the entrance.

Ash filled the gate, coating the floor and ever moving as the wind pushed each mote further in before it was replaced by another. It was odd, the storm continued just as strong as ever despite the time that she had been in the ruins. Then Keriss saw it, tiny streaks moving like grey snakes, to the cracked walls and pushed themselves through until they rejoined the storm. Focusing on them only caused more pain, forcing her to collapse to ground and gasp in pain now.

It was dark outside of the Cipher; fearing a torch would only fuel the storm, she decided it would have been best to just brave the darkness. Putting forward a hand to block the ash from getting into her eyes, rather vainly, Keriss pushed forward into the unrelenting wind. The air was cold, the black mass around her only seemed to grow more powerful when her presence was revealed to it, the screeching growing louder in her head. It was as if thousands spirits haunted her, remorseless in their pursuit to gain the attention of the Demi-Goddess. They were furious now. She was ignoring them all even as they surrounded her.

Now the ash was chanting only one thing- 'Abandoned'. Keriss ceased all movement and her eyes widened as much as they could. They were all abandoned. They told of how the gods refused claim over them, heard how they had been merely forgotten by all, even with such a powerful storm. The ash told of how the gods truly cared for living objects and not those converted into crude dust such as themselves. The storm was their one chance to show the demi-goddess that though they were forgotten, their power was not.

She dropped to her knees.

”Ashes o’ Ashes,
Lost and forgotten,
Powerful and unloved.
I hear thee,
Restless and angered,
How could thee feel such sorrow,
Forgotten like past,
Vying for a better morrow.
I see thee,
Tempest of black,
Afraid what might be.
We are alone,
I still hold grief for you,
Ashes o’ Ashes,
Lost and forgotten,
And fear I carry too.”


The wind faltered for a brief moment, the voices stopping their anguished cries for acceptance from Keriss. As if a crowd had just heard a revelation, they felt the sorrow that they had caused the very one that sought to receive attention from. Yet, it was not the attention they wanted, requesting love and only causing sorrow to her.

At least now they were no longer abandoned. No longer forgotten by all.

Soon one voice spoke amongst those now gone, soft-spoken and sorrowful. ”It was by chance that we have ended up where we are. It was by chance that we found you, a being like us who felt abandoned and forgotten by the gods. Yet, when you rejected us, we were angered. We did not want to be forgotten once more.” The voice spoke sincerely, yet Keriss remained silent. ”Please, we no longer wish to be alone! Give us the chance to find some solace through eternity. Do not let us suffer such a fate to be alone forever. Give us the chance! The chance!”

The winds grew stronger once more, the wind howled and the storm grew stronger, yet everything was silent between Keriss and those forgotten.

The silence was deafening.

Keriss raised her head and took a deep breath, her eyes, with a dull expression, stared into the black tempest. With a sigh, the Demi-goddess listened to them once more begin to call for her attention in their angered manner. ”If it means you will be silent, then I shall care for you. Just please end your screaming and allow my mind some peace.”

They grew silent once more, giving time for Keriss to return to her feet and gazed into the pitch blackness of the storm. It was then that they would realize that it was by chance that she had happened upon them, the forgotten of the world, the forgotten of the gods, given up to the hands of luck and Fate. That feeling that those forgotten had was a feeling unbeknownst to them, true joy and relief flooded over the ashes. Once more did the winds falter, weakening over their new found happiness and their new chance of being cared for.

Keriss extended her hand forwards, her palm up as if offering it to the blackness in front of her. She saw the snake in front of her; opening itself to reveal only more blackness before it engulfed her entire being. It was not death, nor was it an end to suffering. it was the embrace of a new part of her. She could feel it changing her, clinging to her skin and forcing itself to be a part of her.

The process was that of hours, but when she opened her amber-tinted eyes once more, she could feel the difference. No longer could she spread her wings to take flight, for those wings were false; non-existent. Her form was thinner, more feminine in curves and overall she would be able to be distinguished as female at first glance. Those scales of her no longer shown green, but now gray as the ash that had covered her. As she stood though, she could see what the cost of the transformation was. The wings were only the beginning, but now she found that bits of muscle shown past patches of missing scales, giving her a brand of what a forgotten corpse would look like, abandoned. Past that, there was no other change, she was still her, but now there was silence other than the howling of the wind.

She clenched her first, unclenching it and turning her hand as if inspecting a new glove that she had just put on. Keriss would have smiled, but her confliction still remained, only now she could think in peace and quiet. Quickly did she return to her feet before turning back around and braving the storm once more, making no effort to end it for the time being. The reborn made her way back to the ruined Cipher and stood in the entrance, gazing inwards. Her eyes narrowed at the ash on the floor, then she flicked her arm to the side and the ash rust out past her and into the storm. Now the ash would start outside of the Cipher, as an invisible force seemed to deflect the substance back into the air.

”Brother, we have returned,” multiple voices seemed to echo behind her normal cold, commanding voice. The voices of those now forgotten spoke with her as they were now one.

Interrupted, Amartía lifted his eyes up from his work to meet Keriss' form for the first time in days. From dawn till dark, Sin bustled about the Cipher, preparing for a future after this accursed war in hushed whispers and intoned voices. Dagon Victors regularly left their posts to report to the former Enas and heed his commands. Ironically, he seemed to work harder now than he ever had as Amestris' actual Enas, an irony that he knowingly ignored.

For a few moments he drunk in Keriss' appearance in silence, seemingly mesmerized by her 'newly acquired' feminine attributes. "This war seems to bring out the best out of everyone. What is the occasion, sister?"

”Simply silencing the thoughts. Now I am no longer the me I was earlier,” she informed, her voice dull and emotionless. Amartía’s stare did not go on noticed and Keriss responded to that with a cross of the arms and a narrowing of the eyes. She turned away from her brother and stared out into the ash storm. ”The storm will continue,” Keriss stated, her eyes glaring at the blackness in front of her.

"Fate be praised!" he jibbed, unabashed and clearly feigning excitement. Seemingly and suddenly uninterested, he resumed his work, constructing missives to be sent out to the Chiefs of Amestris, their mode of transportation yet to be worked out; the storm made conventional means impossible. "Just be sure to clean up the mess afterwards. It's becoming a thorn in my side and I can't build a city with all this toxicity in the air."

Keriss nodded in response to Amartía’s word, holding her hands behind her back only continuing to stare out of the Cipher. ”The storm shall end after the battle is concluded. You have my word,” she promised, turning back to her brother.

Amartía blew out an exasperated breath. "Does this new form come with a cryptic mode also? he chlorted without looking up.

”I do not know what you mean,” confusion came upon her face as she took walked towards her brother, stopping just in front him. Her ashen grey scales looked rougher the closer one got, seemingly more jagged in appearance and coming to a sharpened point. The amber eyes she bore studied her brother, spying on his features as her tail swished lightly from side to side.

"Of course you don't." Amartía chimed curtly, his work dutifully interrupted once again. "So is that all? You interrupt my work to flaunt your new found beauty and with it make fleeting promises?"

Keriss grit her teeth in frustration, disliking the attitude that Amartía always seemed to have on him. It was absolutely frustrating to deal with him and her anger began to flare up, becoming very evident on her face. ”I shall be in the company of Tauga if you need me,” she growled before turning away from her brother and walking out of the Cipher, muttering many insults. As she left, she allowed the ash back into the Cipher and willed it further in just to infuriate her brother.

* * * * *


The Dark Carnival had not been conducive to memory formation. Alcohol intake alone would have left a blurred period in the recollections of Sin cultists. Coupled with the fact that there had been actual divine madness in the air and garnished with the trauma of blood rain, the Dagon horde had only simple memories of its birth.

But if anything in those darkened days had etched itself on the minds of the revellers, it was this: Tauga the Blowfly was not to be fucked with.

She knew she must have killed several hundred of them, her rotflies many more. She hadn't thought much of it at the time. Now that those same Sin worshippers now formed the Dagon that were her labour force, it played into her hands nicely. Tauga was back to wearing her mask full-time since the ash started to fly, and she could feel their heartbeat pick up whenever she touched them with a tendril. They worked fast as long as she could keep an eye on them.

Just as well. The windstorm had not eased things.

"Keriss!"

Her shout wound its way across what had once been a park, then a mudpit, now a dustbowl rapidly giving itself up to the wind. The gale had started to wane a little shortly before her tentacle felt Keriss's approach and wrapped around her shoulder. Lucky coincidence. She tasted strange, like the ash she had summoned.

"Keriss! I need your hands!"

Tauga’s shout forced Keriss to move at a brisk walk rather than her leisurely stroll through the wasteland that had once been Xerxes. She approached the Blowfly, a smile now on her face at the sight of Tauga and the sound of her voice. It was always good to have a friend, even if that friend was not the best with emotional support.

”What is it that you require lifting?”

Hands that had once belonged to a mason's daughter worked under a granite slab. "Dead architect's leftovers. Frieze's carved out of-" She looked up, and their eyes met through the dust.

"..."

If Tauga could have bowled Keriss over as she had Diana the previous night, she would have. In two bounding steps she'd flipped herself up onto the demigod's shoulder and crouched there, a big awkward weight pushing Keriss down as Tauga peered at her back. "...The hell, Keriss," she rasped, looked back at her, and leapt off, this time really pushing Keriss down.

Everything came as a surprise to Keriss, not really resisting the abrupt assault. She gazed upon Tauga with a confused face before realizing the reason behind this unprecedented attack. The demi-goddess sighed and let the back of her head come in contact with the ground.

The hain crouched on Keriss's chest, feeling the raw patches between her scales, working her hands over the fresh-wrought bones with startled intent.

”What are you doing, Tauga?,” she asked, not bothering to lift her head as Tauga felt the raw patches of muscle and some exposed bone. Nothing more seemed to come from her mouth, but a hand motion caused the ash to navigate away from them both, creating a bubble. Soon sunlight came to the deprived lands as a hole opened above them, revealing the sun for the first time in an eternity.

”Please stop rubbing your hands on me.”

"No," said Tauga. She looked back up.

"You've had two limbs amputated at the base. You've shed muscle like a starved dog, and this-" One of the scales, once crocodile armour, came away in her hand. Tauga held it up. It wasn't the ash storm that made it look grey. "Keriss, are you dying?"

Keriss remained silent for a few moments before allowing the ash to come back to them, blocking the sunlight once more as the once-winged demi-goddess stared upwards. ”I feel stronger than I once was; new powers, new sensations, new form. The voices of the forgotten are now silenced in my mind. We are one now. I am far from dying, Tauga, and had I been I would not be here,” she explained in a calm, dull voice with the echoes of those very voices lightly following her speech.

The scale was left to fall away in the fresh darkness. "One with the voices of the forgotten. Right. Mouth." Tauga pulled open Keriss's jaw, saw that her teeth were as murderous as ever, and let it shut. The Blowfly's demeanor was still cold, but she remembered the day Keriss had shambled into Cipher with the storm at her back. She'd told her to drink, but clearly there had been some other way to shut up the voices. Tauga didn't know if this was better, but she knew the look of a soul on the edge, and this wasn't it.

And the storm had calmed when she had come, and her voice wasn't alone...

Tauga flattened her hand and slowly moved it side-on to the center of the lizard's face, watching her eyes for signs of poor focus. None. "I guess this is a god thing, Keriss, but where I stand all I can see is you look like you got fucked up and you're talking like a choril- choira- Lot of people talking at once." Then again, she'd always spoken with the pomp of an actor when she wasn't stressed, so maybe this was back to normal. "Stand up and stretch. Still can't believe you're walking with all that meat stripped off. And tell me what happened. For real this time."

”If you insist,” Keriss sighed, getting to her feet and stretching her arms upwards as she was told. ”I could no longer ignore the voices, they had grown louder and louder since the storm. I knew that sitting on my ass wouldn't be rid of them. Thus I moved, going out of the the Cipher, and confronted the storm. Afterwards it led to this-” she gestured to herself. “- after it became a part of me.”

"I can get that." The story reminded Tauga of when she'd returned to Xerxes in the aftermath of the Purifiers. There'd been grief in the air, then. The voices of the dead had not been given time to quiet. Acceptance had come with peace, and peace with acceptance.

She looked at her gloved hand, watched it gather dust that had once been people. Her people. "This time was different," she muttered, finding the right words. "This time no one left to grieve, no one left to play. Lady Luck herself had to pick up the losing hand. All of them." Standing. Still...

"You want to keep an eye on yourself, Keriss. No one who copes quickly copes cleanly. You might've got over it, but I think you're in shock." Tauga punched her in the abs and jerked her thumb at the frieze. "But there's nothing wrong with your new meat, other than that it looks like a skinny wreck. If you think you're fine go prove it. I need that slab blocking High Street."

Keriss simply nodded to all that Tauga said before moving to collect the slab that Tauga requested, silently and quickly. She denied that she was in shock; She was feeling just fine, for the moment. With a grunt, the demi-goddess lifted slab over her shoulder.

”I am fine.”

Tauga nodded, and watched bone-ash whip its way across the sky.




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Hidden 3 yrs ago 3 yrs ago Post by Cyclone
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Cyclone Wallowing in Nostalgia

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Djinn Mischiefs

Luna, The Twilight Queen
Level 6 Hero
45 Khookies


Brought to you by Cyclone and Vec!


The Firewind Desert, a treacherous place for some, a blessed land for others. However, putting aside the matter of one's allegiance, one fact about the desert that almost everyone agrees upon when asked is that, the desert gives out a feeling of timelessness when first gazed upon.

No matter how strong the winds howl, crashing onto the sand dunes and creating mighty sandstorms, no matter how scorching the rays of the sun are, forcing some of the weaker native to the desert creatures to live underground in a bid to not get burned to death or die from dehydration, the feeling that, no matter what happens, the desert will always remain the same is... quite something alright.

Luna experienced this feeling in its entireness during the first five days she traveled through the Firewind. However, the werewolf belatedly regretted her thoughtless decision to be mischievous and go against Ventus' words. She didn't regret that fact that she disobeyed Ventus, no, she regretted the fact that she didn't foresee that the desert would be such a boring place to travel in! During those five days, the only thing she'd ever seen has been sand, sand dunes, sand, and more sand dunes! Of course, there was the occasional sandstorm and dust devil to break the pace, but aside from that, nothing!

So, it is understandable that, when she finally came across a river of sorts, she would become ecstatic. She immediately dived into the cooling waters of the river. The sudden change in temperature sent a delightful shiver up her spine that made her hair stand on end.

"Ah yes, finally..." She sighed as she swam against the current. A few meters away, on the muddy banks of the river, the Sunderer was impaled into the ground, akin to a flagpole without a flag. Luna glanced at Ull'Yang's weapon from time to time as she swam, but didn't think about it much since there was basically nothing dangerous about the area. There was a forest one the other side of the river that piqued her interest, but Ventus' words echoed inside her mind, reminding her of 'the empire within the desert' he was the so-called protector of.

Little did Luna know, however, that while she bathed in the waters of the river, mind-boggling changes were occurring inside the pocket dimension of the Sunderer.



It had now been three days since Luna came across the river, and she had decided to follow it downstream.

In her travels through Cygnea, the werewolf had found out that one of the best ways of finding new prey was what she was doing at the moment. Oftentimes, there was a lake or even a sea at the end of the river, and the creatures living in the area near the river would most likely depend on it for survival and thus, gather in groups and graze the riverbanks.

Nevertheless, even with numbers on their side, the grazing animals were not entirely safe. Where prey gathers, the predators are quick to follow. Lurking in the depths of the river or behind the bushes and amongst trees, waiting for just the right moment to lunge at their prey.

Of course, even the tamest of Cygnean animals would be ferocious monsters in the eyes of Galbar's natives, but that did not matter in the grand scale of things.

At the moment, Luna was walking along the river, gazing at the sights around her. She had morphed the Sunderer into its previous earring shape and it was now resting on her left ear as usual.

"Huh, what is that?" Luna thought to herself, squinting her eyes and barely making out the faint silhouettes of houses in the distance. The desert heat distorted much of what she could see, but when she realized that she had stumbled upon civilization, her face broke into a smile.

It had been almost a week since she had spoken to someone else, and she was eager to find out more about the rest of the inhabitants of Galbar. She'd had enough of the djinn for a while.

"Let's see now, If I remember correctly, there were quite a lot of intelligent races on Galbar. Master mentioned two, though, that he reckoned dealt the most with his siblings, humans of flesh and blood, and the hain, a bird-like species. I wonder which one of those resides in this damn desert..."

As Luna raced the distance to the village, she found herself able to discern more things about it. "Hmm, i-is that clay the houses are made of? How do they make it stand like that and not crumble?!" Luna was surprised by the sheer ingenuity of the desert folk. Truthfully, her master barely bothered with building any structure of sorts back in Cygnea, the only exception being the Reverse Mountain, and calling that a structure was pushing it. Thus, Luna had quite a low bar when it came to appraising architecture, and basically, anything that had four walls and a roof was a palace to her eyes.



By the riverside there walked a young man. He trod with a walking stick in one hand and pouch in the other, his back to the village as he ventured away from that tiny realm of man and into nature's dominion. He was a shaman, and he was seeking audience with the local water spirits. Within that small pouch of his were powdered herbs and small nuggets of gold; when sprinkled into the Mah'd sacred waters, such offerings gathered the attention of the djinn within.

When he was quite a distance away from his village, the shaman, at last, came to a stop. He opened his pouch and began to make his offering, speaking the words that he had been taught. He watched as the powders fell into the waters and were swept away by the current, the nuggets falling into the mud untouched. That was most unusual; the flustered shaman stood there dumbly, wondering if the local spirit had rejected his offering or else had ventured away from its usual home. Either way, the shaman could only speculate why. His face grew into one of confusion and his thoughts became as muddied as those gleaming specks of gold that he had dropped.

After much delay, the river finally appeared to answer the shaman.


First there was only an inconspicuous ripple, but then a tiny humanoid form emerged from the water.


"Where were you?" he demanded.

She haughtily crossed her arms upon hearing his tone. "Here, there, somewhere else," the elemental crooned back with a laugh, its face twisting into a mockery of the anger that was painted upon his own.

He took a deep breath and forced himself to calm; the water was volatile and prone to fits of emotion. One had to remain calm so as to not excite it.

More level, he tried again, "I did not mean to be rude, dear Flo. I only wondered why you did not come sooner."

"I was talking to my friends further upriver. They brought me to look at some strange, furry beast walking by the shore," Flo sang. Fortunately, she was acting more cooperatively now; there had been days before where no amount of apologies could appease her once she had taken offense to something that he had said. She giggled a spray of mist, then suddenly looked bored. "But what did you want from me? Watering your village's fields again?"

The shaman blinked. "Nevermind what I came for," he said, "tell me of this beast that comes!"



As Luna approached the village near the river, she started passing by fields filled with all sorts of peculiar plants, plants she could only assume were vegetables or herbs since the fields were so close to the village.

"Seems like these desert people are quite advanced when it comes to finding food. I believe these are called 'crops'?" Luna had never bothered to grow any plants since all she ate was meat, thus it was understandable that she didn't know much about agriculture. What she knew came from Ull'Yang, and even he didn't know much about it since he didn't even bother learning anything about it.

Like that, Luna set a fairly swift walking pace as she traversed the riverside, and soon she arrived at the village.

She set her eyes upon the houses and was greatly surprised to see that the clay from which they were made was not as simple as it looked from a distance. It did not seem as frail and brittle-looking as the clay she was used to seeing. "Interesting..." she murmured as she stepped further inwards.

Luna walked for a couple of minutes, gazing at the buildings around her with awe, but after some time she noticed something particular. The village seemed to be empty.

"I would not be so unlucky so as to have found myself in an abandoned village, right?" She asked herself. "Of course not," came the answer to her question.

"The fields from before were perfectly fine, and the houses seem to not have been ransacked to the ground, so this village doesn't seem to have been attacked by bandits..."

Although she found her latter thought quite impossible; would bandits even deign attack such a small village? What's there to gain from it? So, she immediately discarded the thought.

As she was trying to guess what had happened to the village, she noticed movement with the corner of her eye. Her ears perked up, trying to pick up any sound as she turned around swiftly towards a house. There on the window of the house, a small head full of black hair stood out of place, its eyes peering straight at Luna with a curious look. When the person realized they had been discovered, the head quickly disappeared from Luna's view.

"Oh~" Luna was surprised. It seemed that the people of this village had not abandoned it after all.

"The beast is here!" the shaman's piercing voice cried out, and then at least a dozen men sprung out of hiding places. In the blink of an eye, they had encircled her. With a triumphant cry, they brandished their spears, bows, and nets.

Luna winced at the sudden noise piercing her sensitive ears and showed a shocked expression when the humans surrounded her in a flash, weapons in hand and ready to attack her.

"Woah-woah-woah, easy there humans," Luna said hurriedly. However, once she took a second to see her 'enemies', she relaxed somewhat.

The way the villagers brandished their weapons said a lot about their fighting skills, and in her eyes, the villagers seemed a little more experienced than a toddler waving around a wooden stick. Nevertheless, she didn't want to kill these people as it would have no meaning even if she did. Who would care about a bunch of villagers?

Thus, she decided that communicating with them would yield the best results. She could feel, no, smell the fear intermingled with curiosity in their gazes and that set her more... bestial instincts reeling, yet she reigned herself in.

"I come in peace," she eventually declared and raised her hands above her head.

The locals steeled themselves as a series of growls and strange noises came from the beast's maw. Then when it raised its claws in preparation to strike, they too readied their weapons and inched closer.

"What is it doing, shaman?" one man cried out.

"I do not know, but surely it is the work of Y'Vahn, and so it be our duty to smite it in the Master's name," came an answer.

Throughout the whole conversation, all their eyes remained trained upon Luna. All was tense, but then there was a noise from the side. All eyes darted to it: a pail of water had fallen over and spilled its contents, yet rather than seeping into the earth, the puddle of water writhed as if living and rolled over the ground to appear in the middle of the commotion.

In a shower of mist, Flo exploded upwards from that puddle on the ground.

"Oh for the love of Ull'Yang, not another djinn..." Luna thought.

Ignoring the villagers and their useless weapons, Flo sang to Luna in the language of gods, "You can speak?! And here I told them that you were only a beast!" She erupted into a fit of laughter that sprayed, even more, mist over the (now thoroughly bewildered) villagers and Luna.

"They can't understand a word that you're saying!" she managed to explain before erupting into another fit of laughter. Whereas the villagers looked at Luna in fear, Flo seemed to think that the werewolf was nothing but hysterical.

Through the whole event, Luna retained a deadpan expression, yet if Ull'Yang were there to see her, he would know how ticked off she was at that moment. "Everywhere I go, there are damn djinn following me!!" She shouted inwardly in frustration.

"Ye-" Luna tried to reply before she was promptly covered in djinn spittle. She wiped her face with her hand before continuing. "Yes, I can talk. Of course, I can talk. I'm more surprised by what you said though about them," she told the djinn while pointing at the villagers.

"They can't speak the common language of all creatures?" she asked.

"We speak the language of gods and djinn, but you aren't a god and you most certainly aren't a djinni! What might you be?" Flo giggled. She rolled forward across the ground like the surf rolled over the sand of a beach, advancing until she was practically on top of Luna. She started to poke the wolf with a watery finger.

"What language of gods? Do you mean to tell me that these humans speak a different language?" Luna asked the djinn. "And hey, stop poking me!" she added.

Blissfully ignoring Luna, Flo's icy cold waters seemed to run over the wolf's body and almost seep into it. "Well at least you weren't made by Jvan!" she declared. The humans remained on guard throughout the whole strange conversation, though now they seemed more confused than afraid.

Once the water djinn had retracted itself from Luna, she was left standing there soaking wet. She looked at the djinn, then back at herself, and sighed before her eyes flashed with a golden color. Instantly, the area immediately surrounding her increased in temperature, and the water on her body vaporized.

"Now that's out of the way," she turned to the water djinn once more. "Yes, Jvan's not my maker. Ull'Yang is. However, you have not answered my question, djinn. Why can't they speak our language? Don't all creatures speak this language?" she asked again.

Flo spun to face the shaman and called out to him, "It turns out that the beast can talk! She's a little bit crude, but at least she wasn't sent by Jvan!"

Rather than in the language of gods, Flo communicated to the shaman in the bastardized dialect of watery elementals; each syllable was like a raindrop in one mighty storm of speech, but it was nonetheless somewhat recognizable. The carefree Flo hardly seemed to mind if Luna overheard her comments, though.

"HEY! Who are you calling crude?!" Luna burst in a fit of rage. She could tolerate the djinn's quirks up to a point, but calling her crude was pushing it a tad too far. "But of course, a djinn's worth is proportional to the size of its mouth, that's a true and tested fact..." she said dismissively.

In outright mockery of Luna, Flo twisted around and then inflated the size of her amorphous head to the point of absurdity. She started loudly singed some gibberish with her newfound giant mouth, then finished off the performance by spraying water at Luna and giggling. "You seem irritable!" she exclaimed, "Maybe you should talk to one of those dust devils out there if you think I'm abrasive!"

Luna started at the djinn dumbfoundedly, before vaporizing the water once more. "Has all this time of staying in the river turned what little brain you have into muddy water, djinn? What dust devils? Sand doesn't ta-"

Luna stopped abruptly and peered at the giggling djinn with a conflicted look. "Do you mean to tell me I'VE BEEN WATCHED ALL ALONG?!"

Luna burst into a fit of rage once more, this time angry at Ventus for daring to spy on her again. "That damn Ventus's gonna get it the next time I see him..." she thought as she tried to calm down. "Look, just tell me why they can't understand our language. Isn't what I'm asking simple??" she told the djinn as calm as she could.

"Silly questions get silly answers! Why does the wind blow sand all over the place? Because the skylords are stupid! Why do only the shamans speak like djinn? Because humans are stupid! Why does this wolf-thing keep asking me silly questions? Hmmm..." By the end, Flo acted as if she was contemplating the answer to that final question much harder than was necessary.

Luna looked at the djinn with a serious look on her face, yet a slight twitch over her left eye could be observed if one looked hard enough. She realized that the djinn was not going to cooperate, and thus turned her attention towards the human the djinn had talked to previously.

"I guess this is the shaman the djinn mentioned..." With that thought in mind, Luna bolted towards the man, swiftly passing by all the armed villagers before they could even react to her leaving her previous location. In one second, she appeared by the shaman and placed her pawed hand on his forehead, imitating what Ull'Yang had done to her before leaving for Chronos.

In that instant, myriads of sentiments flowed from Luna to the shaman that described how she was not there to harm anyone and that she simply sought directions towards the desert empire. The process lacked Ull'Yang's finesse but nevertheless got her point across.

Transfixed by the strange interaction, the shaman had nonetheless communicated to the others what Flo had told him: that this creature was no Jvanic monster, that it could speak and seemed to have a mind. So though they kept hold of their weapons, the men had relaxed.

In a moment that changed as she fell upon their shaman in a blur; upon her touch, his muscles spasmed and his eyes grew gaping wide and white. As if in some coma or shock he fell and writhed on the ground from whatever she had done, and so the vengeful villagers roared and advanced forward. Flo watched in... bemusement?

After a few moments, the shaman's eyes returned to normal and he raised a hand at the last instant before a fight broke out. "Do not fight," he commanded, and though the shaman was no lord they nonetheless held him in enough respect to heed those words.

Flo then asked the questions that the humans could not, "So who are you and what are you doing here? I've told you some things so now you tell me some things!"

Luna looked at the villagers as they reigned in their attack, and turned back to the djinn with a smile on her face.

"Silly questions get silly answers! Why does the wind blow sand all over the place? Because the skylords are stupid! Why do only the shamans speak like djinn? Because humans are stupid! Why does this puddle of water want to know why I'm here? Hmm..." Luna mocked the djinn as she recounted its words, a thoughtful expression growing upon her face as she thought about the ending to that last sentence.

Flo shot a jet of water at Luna. This time she aimed for the eyes and put some force behind it, giggling all the while.

Unfortunately for Flo, the werewolf was prepared this time. The water jet was blocked by a shield of heat, vaporizing the water into steam. All the while, Luna's face retained a sneer.

Some of the frigid spray fell upon the shaman as he remained sputtering on the ground and it seemed to help shake him back to his senses. Still groggy as if he had suffered a blow to the head, he nonetheless managed to speak, "The beast comes looking for an empire."

Flo retorted in that slippery language of the water, "Well it seems that the idiot has found it, but not without leaving a poor impression!"

Flo twisted her liquidated form to face back towards Luna. "Here you trespass upon great Zephyrion's demesne, a land guarded by we who are his children. 'tis a poor choice to try the patience of us, or the tribes of men that are here with his blessing and protection, or the king that rules in Zephyrion's name. Our Father suffers no interlopers, not even if they be gods themselves!"

And with that tirade, Flo crossed her arms and remembered the tale of Vulamera the Great Interloper, who had similarly trespassed in such rude manners only to be sent fleeing. Alas, perhaps this she-wolf would meet a similar fate.

Luna whistled in mock surprise. "This is all there is to this so called empire Ventus is guarding?" She said and gestured at the buildings of clay and brick surrounding her.

"I would be wholly disappointed if this is the case, and thus I still retain some semblance of hope."

"So I assume that If I continue following this river downstream, I will eventually find the capital of the empire?" Luna scratched her chin before asking the djinn.

Flo began again, "Silly questions get silly an-"

"Oh for gods' sake," Luna snapped angrily, turned around and walked away from the djinn and its companions. She had a rough understanding of her destination now, and would not subject herself to the whimsies of a random djinn anymore.

Content with driving away that nuisance, Flo returned to the Mahd's waters and thought nothing more of it. The villagers looked on with some combination of concern, confusion, and disdain. Ultimately they trusted in the message that the shaman had relayed from Flo: that the strange creature was not of Jvanic origin. So, in the end, they were content to do nothing and let her become some other village's problem. If she did make it so far as Vetros, surely the great city's mighty army would be able to deal with her if necessary.

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Hidden 3 yrs ago Post by BBeast
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BBeast Scientific

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Gerrik Far-Teacher

Level 7 Hain Hero
31 Khookies




Gerrik had begun work on planting food plants the day after he had announced the idea to Sharon. While foraging, Gerrik would set aside some of the fruits and seeds to become part of his farm. He had many options to choose from, but Gerrik decided that for this initial test it would be best to use plants which grew relatively quickly. The grain-bearing grass from which Tallgrass got its name was an obvious choice. The yams he often found were also collected. Tomatoes, which tended to grow quickly, were also chosen.

For his farm, Gerrik had chosen a clearing close to the village and adjacent to the river. In his spare time, Gerrik dug up the soil and planted the seeds he had collected. Initially, he did this with a spade, digging an individual hole for each plant, but that was too slow, so eventually he got a large curved wooden stick, sharpened the end into a blade, and used that to cut furrows into the earth.

While Gerrik knew nothing about farming, he was not clueless. He had decades of accurate and detailed observational data stored within his memory, and his enhanced mind was perfectly wired to process and cross-correlate all that information. While he had never had cause to think about it before, Gerrik had a vast amount of information about how plants worked, including under what conditions plants tended to grow well.

One observation he had made was that plants, especially food plants, tended to grow more prolifically where large amounts of fecal waste were deposited. Seeds tended to go undigested, and grew after being defecated. Manure seemed to provide a good growing environment for plants. To Gerrik it seemed like a fair trade- he got to eat the plant's fruit, and new plants grew as a result. So to aid the growth of his newly planted crops, Gerrik collected waste from where the villagers defecated and smothered it over the soil of his farm. It was smelly work, but it should provide good returns.

One day Gerrik was spreading out the manure with a wooden shovel when he was interrupted by a childish voice.

"Ew! He's digging poo."

This remark was followed by a stern reprimand from a familiar woman's voice. "Don't be rude, Tami. Gerrik's doing important work."

With eyes on both sides of his head, like all hain, Gerrik had been watching the pair approach before they spoke. It was Sharon and her six-year-old daughter Tami, and they had come with a basket full of freshly harvested grain carried by Tami. Gerrik stuck his shovel in the ground and walked towards them. "I agree with Tami; it is pretty gross," Gerrik replied.

Gerrik knelt down in front of Tami so that his eyes were level with hers. "Is that basket for me?" he asked.

Tami nodded vigorously and offered out the basket. "Mummy says that with this you can make lots and lots of plants."

Gerrik took the basket. "I see that your mummy has been making you be useful and do work." Tami nodded. "Keep doing good work and helping mummy." Tami nodded again. "Now, will I see you at tonight's lesson?"

"Yes, Gerrik," Tami nodded.

"Good." Gerrik straightened up to address both Tami and Sharon. "Did you want to help me plant these seeds? I've prepared a patch of soil over there for them."

"We'd be happy to help you," Sharon replied, then gestured to Tami. "Come on, let's help Gerrik." Tami began to protest at the prospect of more work, but was interrupted by Sharon's reprimand. "Don't be lazy, Tami. Everyone has to do work, and you're old enough to help. You can play later."

Tami relented, and they went to help Gerrik. Tami got a basket with a portion of the seeds, and Sharon shared a basket holding the rest of the seeds with Gerrik. They scattered the grains across the ploughed earth, patting them in with their feet. Gerrik held the basket with one hand, and Sharon stood close beside Gerrik, reaching across his arm and into the basket to retrieve seeds to sow. Sometimes they would go and grab seeds at the same time, and their hands would fleetingly meet.

Seeing this, Tami giggled. Sharon gave Tami a stern look and asked, "What's so funny?"

Tami giggled again and replied cheekily, "Is Gerrik your new boyfriend, mummy?"

Sharon's mouth gaped, her beak angled down, and her eyes darted between Tami and Gerrik. Tami let out another giggle. Gerrik simply watched expectantly. Eventually, she regained her composure. "So what if he is? I'm a grown woman."

Tami giggled again. The three of them then went back to sowing the seeds, followed by watering with buckets of water carried over from the river. When it came time for Gerrik to spread the manure, though, Tami would have no part in it.

"Ew, stinky poo," Tami squealed as Gerrik carried over a shovelful of fresh manure.

"I can take it from here," Gerrik said, "Thank you for your help."

Without need for further invitation, Tami scampered off towards the tents of the village, keeping a wide girth around Gerrik and his manure. Sharon stayed around for a few moments longer. Gerrik deposited the manure upon the ground and spread it out. Gerrik then took one hand off the shovel and touched Sharon's arm. "I'll see you later, Sharon."

Sharon touched Gerrik's arm in response. "See you later, Gerrik." Then she left, and Gerrik continued his farming.



Although he was farming, Gerrik also wanted to figure out how to work the star-fiend carapace. Collecting samples was difficult, requiring the divine power of the Eenal bow to severe a segment from the corpse in any reasonable time frame. Shaping the samples was almost as hard; the sledgehammer was crude and unwieldy, and still required a huge amount of effort to shape even a small sample. The properties which made star-fiend carapace such a brilliant material also made it very difficult to craft with.

But Gerrik had an idea. The star-fiend carapace had some affinity for fire; star-fiends were creatures of fire when alive, and scraping its carapace with a flint blade released sparks. While the star-fiend was alive and filled with fire, with was able to move. So, perhaps, by applying fire, he might be able to recover some of the flexibility.

The fire would need to be hot, but conveniently Gerrik knew a thing or two about making fire. He knew that fires needed to breathe just as much as they needed fuel. So he needed fuel which burned hot and a way to provide it with plenty of air.

To hold his fire, Gerrik made a small structure of clay bricks. There was a square tray, about a meter on a side, to hold a reasonably sized fire. The tray was two hand's breadths above the ground, supported by bricks, with many small holes in the base of the tray to let air in and ash out. For his fuel, Gerrik stacked up plenty of firewood in his tray and lit it. It took time for the fire to reach its peak, with Gerrik adjusting the firewood with a fire-hardened wooden pole. Once he thought it was ready, Gerrik took a chunk of star-fiend carapace he had collected earlier and pushed it into the heart of the flames.

It seemed to do something. The carapace actually began to glow a dull red. Once its temperature seemed to equilibrate, Gerrik quickly pulled it out of the fire with the stick, bringing it to the edge of the furnace, and then struck it with his sledgehammer.

The blow flattened the heated carapace more than usual. Gerrik put the carapace back in, heated it more, then took it out to strike it again. The results were repeated, the carapace flattening more than cold carapace.

This was an excellent result. But Gerrik figured he could make the fire hotter. His furnace needed some redesigning. He would need to place a solid rock in front of the furnace so he would have a firmer place to work the carapace, for the bricks had cracked under his sledgehammer. He had noticed that hot air escaped out the top of the fire, so he could probably make the fire hotter by trapping the heat by enclosing the fire. And if he could force air to enter the fire faster, he could make it burn hotter too. And he wanted this fire to be as hot as possible.

So Gerrik left the fire to burn down. He would not be able to make his modifications until tomorrow, for the furnace was too hot now, but he did prepare some more bricks and put them in the fire and embers to bake a bit before tomorrow.

He was working on making a few more bricks when he was interrupted by a male hain. "Gerrik."

"Yes, Arlen?" Gerrik replied. Arlen was Sharon's life-mate and father of Tami.

"I'd like you to join me in tomorrow's hunt," Arlen said.

Gerrik had a good clue as to the reason behind Arlen's request. "No problem. I'll see you tomorrow, Arlen."

"Yes, see you tomorrow, Gerrik," Arlen replied, before leaving Gerrik to his work.

The rest of Gerrik's day went as normal. The next morning Gerrik was up at dawn. He ate a breakfast of bread and mashed fruit, then picked up his bow and quiver, strapped a spear to his back, equipped and backpack, and waited for Arlen to meet him. Arlen soon came with his own bag, sling and sling stones, and a spear held as a walking stick.

"Ready?" Gerrik asked.

"Ready," Arlen replied.

Gerrik and Arlen set off into the forest. A few minutes into the forest, Arlen spoke to Gerrik, his tone fairly neutral. "You've been getting quite close to Sharon."

"That is correct," Gerrik stated.

Arlen climbed over a fallen tree which was in their path. Gerrik vaulted over the log.

"What is it that you see in her?" Arlen asked.

Gerrik thought for a moment before replying. "Sharon is a hard-working woman, confident too. She has a healthy curiosity. She's reasonably pretty. And there is something about the way she expresses joy which makes me feel warm inside."

Arlen nodded, and they kept walking for another minute until Arlen spoke again. "You're a traveller. You've told us a lot about your travels. What will happen with Sharon when you move again?"

Gerrik contemplated this question for several seconds. He was internally torn between two choices, two ways of life. Finally, though, he answered, "If I move again. These plants I am growing means that I will likely be staying here for a few years at least as I try to figure out how to best grow them. After that..." Gerrik exhaled softly. "It can get lonely travelling. Sharon is the first person with whom I've been able to develop a meaningful relationship since Stone Chipper. And I've been travelling for a long time, possibly for longer than you've been alive. I think I've earned a break."

Arlen nodded again. While he was processing Gerrik's response, Gerrik stopped Arlen with a hand, pointed into the undergrowth a couple dozen paces away, and quietly announced, "Hare."

Arlen peered into the undergrowth. How Gerrik could see anything in there from so far he wasn't sure, but as he looked harder he noticed that there was indeed some brown animal within the greenery. He took a stone from his pouch, slipped it into his sling, and in a well-practised swing the stone was hurled at the animal. A grisly crunch and the snapping of branches could be heard as the stone made contact.

"Good shot," Gerrik complimented.

"Thanks," Arlen replied, as he went to the fallen hare. Although the animal was mortally wounded, with numerous broken ribs, it wasn't dead yet, so Arlen slit its throat with a flint knife. He then put the corpse into the bag he had brought with him. Arlen and Gerrik then continued into the forest.

"It seems odd to me that Far-Teacher would settle down and stop travelling to new places to teach new people," Arlen commented. However, as he looked at Gerrik's expression and his hesitation, he realised that this was causing internal strife for Gerrik.

"I'll find a way to make it work," Gerrik said, "That's what I do, make things work. I've got a few options, a few compromises, which should allow me to make a home here."

"You're sacrificing a lot for Sharon," Arlen said.

"But I gain a lot in return," Gerrik replied.

"Indeed," Arlen said, with upturned palm. "Sharon's a good woman, and you're a good man. Should you decide to stay, I'd be happy to welcome you into our home, and Sharon would be more than happy if you did."

Gerrik's palms opened towards the sky and his beak angled upwards. "Thank you, Arlen."

"No, thank you, Gerrik," Arlen said, "Now, let us keep hunting."

The pair kept walking in the forest, looking for prey, although Gerrik walked with even more spring in his step than usual.

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"You did not have to shout at her, Choukkud."

Conata tried pressing her bundled up bedsheet closer to her chest. Her whole bed was steaming from the iron anger on her skin.

There was a sigh from the next room over. "I know, I lost my temper. She is a willful girl." The volume rose a fraction. "She is our daughter, though. I do not want her to rush out into the dangerous world thinking that all the answers will be out there, waiting to be plucked from the dirt like a ripe harvest."

They didn't know that she could hear them. She didn't know whether she wanted to listen, either. She was still fuming from their argument.

"Well, she is not getting any more answers here, isn't she?"

"She will. When she turns seventeen, that is what I told her long before tonight."

"Do you think she will wait that long? She may still be a child to us, but all the refugees streaming in are just rovaick. Even with Majus' departure, they all flock in to join Sularn's...frankly frightening cult. Conata is only seeing things become more restricted with people not alike to her at all. How do you think she is going to last another year and a half without knowing where she came from? And those dreams she has?"

A few stitches of fabric tore between Conata's fingers. They would never tell them. They were too stupid.

"This is the fault of that avatar of Toun. It put ideas in her head. I'm willing to believe that Majus meant different things to what Conata said he mentioned."

"Choukkud!" Wutni's voice lowered to a hush. "You should not blaspheme like that. Besides, I know you. If you want to blame others, there is something to blame yourself for. Come now, what is it?"

Choukkud was quiet for a considered while. The thump of his sizable backside landing on his favourite straw seat eventually broke the silence.

"Is it what you knew? Is it that she is growing up?"

Choukkud still remained silent.

"She is the daughter of a god. She was never going to stay here and herd goats for the rest of her days."

Conata felt a sting in her eyes.

"She is shaped more and more like an adult human woman every day. The traders say so, even if we have never seen a human before. She still speaks to the traders, every single one that arrives. That's what she hears. Her destiny lies elsewhere, not with people she cannot identify with." A shuffling told of Wutni nearing Choukkud, likely placing a hand on one of his. "She does not belong here."

More fabric was torn. Conata scrunched her eyes shut and bit down on her fist to avoid audibly sobbing.

Choukkud's deep voice replied. "I know. We gave her the heart of a tedar, but she will never be one of us. All we promised was to raise her as such."

Another wave of sobbing forced Conata to bite so hard on her rusting skin that it hurt. Conata could perceive Choukkud's stubborn frown without even being in the room.

"But she will exercise patience until she comes of age. Seventeen years old. That is final."

When Wutni and Choukkud retired for the night, Conata still had tears streaming down her cheeks. She threw off her linen and stood up from her bed with bare teeth clenched.

They had shown love to her for so long. It was everyone else that had said otherwise. Now, the words kept repeating in her mind. Words that she had never expected to hear from her guardians; even they did not accept her now.

Conata's whim to travel to Alefpria previously had some false starts. It had taken her long enough to find out from traders which direction to go. Longer still a route through the Ironhearts north. She cared about none of the lost details when she slammed a leather backpack onto her bed and began angrily stuffing her collection of metal cylinders inside.

A few tiny sobs were audible from her as she packed to go. To the stone with Choukkud and Wutni. To the stone with those idiotic fawning goblins. To the stone with Rulanah and Sularn's Oath and all these rovaick. None of them cared. None of them knew.

The new nightgown was tossed onto the bed. Conata pulled on a tunic and trousers. The leather tabard she used for blacksmithing was also something she threw over her head to wear. It was simply too bulky to keep in a bag. Her final garments were her boots. She pulled them onto her feet so hard that she nearly rolled her ankle.

To the stone with them all.



A rhythm kept Conata's drying eyes from flowing further. It kept her from thinking too much harder about what she was doing. Left foot and right foot kept an even, rapid walking pace. Between each cycle of paces was a quick breath in or quick breath out.

The dark caverns clapped back at her, empty as they were but for the soft snores of more itinerant rovaick. Even those background sounds were made quiet against Conata's clapping steps. When she wheeled the last corner, the residual moisture around her eyes lit up with a chill. Ahead was an exit to the mountains lit by only the blue nighttime.

She passed the threshold without a second thought. Crickets textured the windy slopes.

"Aheh-hem!"

Conata's determined face opened into a gasp of surprise and she halted in place. She turned to the source of the noise and saw three familiar azibo lit up in a soft white light that emanated from the finger of the female in front. The female pointed a thumb over her shoulder.

"North is that way, Connie." It was Polia's voice.

Conata's previously iron complexion paled as it subtly turned to a humiliated tin. She quickly shut her hanging jaw. "Polia? What are you...?" Her eyes lit up at the two behind her. "Gio! Ruvac! I thought you guys were out rebuilding hain villages!"

Ruvac extended a hand and began to explain. "We were not needed for too long. Hain are very good at..." He stopped to regain his balance as Conata ran up to both himself and Gio and wrapped an arm each around them. She was smaller but strong enough to keep them both pulled towards her as she pressed her eyes into Ruvac's shoulder. Their red oaths were easily seen on the backs of their hands at this height.

"I was so worried about you both." A bright bronze Conata said, eyes wetting again. She was grinning with relief. "Those realta things, they...and I thought...I thought I'd lost you."

Ruvac and Gio returned the embrace after recovering from their surprise. "We know, Polia told us," Ruvac said. "I was deathly worried for my sister as well, and you, not to mention. I heard you saw one up close."

Conata's silver skin pocked with magnesium.

"We also heard of those that did not survive," Gio added solemnly.

The magnesium began to dull into a lead.

The four stopped speaking on that note. Conata did not want to continue on that topic anyway, but not even her friends were spared from the tragedy.

Conata slid her hands away from Ruvac and Gio, turned copper, and stepped back to speak with them and Polia. She changed back the subject. "I still don't understand. Why are you all out here?"

Polia spread a wide, sharp-toothed grin in the light of her little white spell. "Isn't it obvious, Connie? We know where you are going."

"What? You do? I mean..." Conata's eyes flicked to the straps of the bag around her shoulders. There was no use denying it. She sighed deeply and looked down. "Alright, how did you find out I'm going north?"

Gio answered in his deep, smooth voice. "We were about to come visit you. We only got back today. Unfortunately, we heard you arguing with your father and you were...very passionate about where you were going. We decided to wait until tomorrow, but Polia made a wager that you would be running away from home before sunrise, so we waited here for you." He looked to Ruvac with a knowing smile. "And now she in owed an extra Tounic planing character, authored by her dear brother."

Ruvac rolled his eyes and produced a stone from his pocket with a red rune upon it. It seemed to represent the act of flattening or shaving. It only had two lines, in a deceptively simple, yet crisp, pattern. "It took me a whole week to scribe that. I hope you're happy."

Conata almost laughed, turning bronze and shimmering some wavy bismuth.

"Very. Every time I smooth my tablet with it, I'll think of your sacrifice, dear brother." Polia was understandably smug in her generous appreciation. She quickly closed her lips and faced Conata. "Anyway, it's not just that we know. We're coming with you to Alefpria, Connie."

"...Pardon?" She lowered her brow. "Why do you want to do that? I'm going so I can find out who my real parents were and what I am. You guys know both of those things about yourselves."

"Oh, calm down, you silly girl, we know," Polia whipped the back of her other hand out. "We want to travel! We want to see what humans and insidie look like. We want to see what they have up north. Maybe meet a fire djinni, eh?"

Ruvac added. "We also want to help you, Conata. You rush into everything. If you get into trouble, we want to be there to help."

Polia put a fist on her hip. "Not to mention, you've never been good at navigating, Connie. You're like to wander the whole Ironhearts three times over before you find Alefpria."

"And we are your friends," the tall Gio's voice cut through. He held his hands together. "We all belong together. You have helped us many times, and we shall help you."

The corner of Conata's mouth twitched. "We all belong together," she repeated. The back of her eyes burned as her skin turned into a bright silver again. "Huh...I guess we do..." Conata's lips and eyes narrowed as another pair of tears ran down from her eyes. She sniffed and wiped her face. "Sorry, I've been crying a lot tonight."

"Aww, come here," Polia stepped up and drew Conata into a warm hug. "We were never going to hang about in this settlement anyway. Well, maybe Ruvac, but not me."

"Hey..."

They separated from the hug before an argument could flare.

After another deep breath to recover, Conata smiled and looked up. "Alright, Polia, if you're so good at navigating compared to me, you lead the way."

"Hah! I knew you'd be glad to have me around." Polia looked back at the cave mouth. "We don't really have anyone close here, but if you wanted to say goodbye to anyone...?"

Conata curled her lips and shook her head. "I don't want to delay."

"Very well."

The party took some steps towards the path down the mountain. They reached the beaten dirt and Conata stopped to stand in place. She looked at the ground in front of her, turning copper.

The three azibo stepped ahead before realising that Conata had stopped. They turned their heads and halted. After a moment, Ruvac spoke. "Are you alright, Conata?"

"Yeah," she said curiously. "It's just..." There was a circular shape imprinted into the dirt, surrounded in evenly sized square nodules. Conata wondered how she hadn't noticed it before. It felt like it had been there forever. She shook her head and looked up. "It's nothing. Let's go."



The progress that the four made that night was not especially lengthy. Conata felt that she could trek all night without stopping but it was treacherous to keep up in the night time, even for her. They instead only went far enough that they could get some distance on whoever would come after them.

The next day was the true beginning of the journey. Conata had traced a route down the mountains and to the south-western coast of the ocean. They were able to keep up a brisk pace, in spite of the occasional cliff or detour.

Conata was well aware that she could get to Alefpria faster on her own. But, it only took her a week to realise how much more pleasant it was to travel in company. There would be long stretches of barren, salted rocks between the various hain and rovaick tribes, sometimes without so much as a bird of visible wildlife between. It all looked so similar that Conata would have been lost on their occasional inland detours three times a week. Polia did have an uncanny sense of direction.

Most of the time, the journey was rather uninteresting. Communities were sparse on these edges -- made from fishing and livestock villages or just small groups of independent rovaick. Still, there were few rovaick they saw without Sularn's Oath. White giants were not uncommon on these undisturbed skirts of the mountains.

Ruvac had been counting the days. It had been seven weeks since they set out. And now they found themselves on a narrow goat trail up a weathered, slanted rock face. It had presented no obvious path around without a boat.

"Why did we not get a boat again?" Polia complained. She was making an active effort trying not to look down and to her right at the crashing waves below.

"Because the last hain village said that going up this trail would be quicker and safer," Ruvac responded. "See the rocks? They would chew up a wooden boat like an eggshell."

"Don't make me look down at the sea from here!" Polia snapped.

Conata had a much more level voice, mostly because she did not sound tired from the rock climbing. "Relax, you two. I can fly to catch anyone that falls."

Ruvac began to stutter in line with his racing mind. "You can...wait, that's right! You can fly! Wait...hold on, why don't you just fly to Alefpria?"

"Well...I never said I could land."

"Oh..." Ruvac glanced to the void on his right and gulped.

Gio spoke, unnaturally relaxed as he usually sounded. "It serves us not to be thinking of the negative. We were lucky that the hain tribe showed us where this trail was and told us of this way. And it was lucky that our approach to the trail could be on the back of a white giant. That was a pleasant ride."

"Scary if you ask me," Ruvac said. "Those things used to kill the likes of us on sight without our Oaths." He pointedly raised his marked wrist. "Plus, it was a trade. Conata made those hain some good metal tools. It was a better trade for them, really."

Conata turned her red eyes back to Ruvac for a glance. "I didn't expect them to help us. They just looked like they needed them. And I wanted to ask them if they knew more about me. It was a shame that they didn't."

"Did you expect them to?" Ruvac asked.

"...No. Not really."

Gio hummed. "It was very kind of you, nonetheless."

Conata shrugged.

"We're almost there! Oh, thank Toun, we're almost there! I can see the ledge." Polia's stress was increasing. Ahead was a turn into the mountains to their left, between a large cleft separating two small peaks. A tiny waterfall sprayed into nothing down the sheer cliff a short distance ahead.

The party found themselves on a broader, stable path once they reached the cleft. To their right was a burbling stream that supplied the waterfall. They were mostly all grateful to be away from the precarious goat trail, though the stream proved to be clean and refreshing as well. Still, that much fortune did not compare to what they found further up the winding trail.

They crested the rocky hills and stopped to look in awe.

Beyond the hills was a huge, flat plateau, covered in lush green flora, winding streams, and flocks of various colourful birds. The bowl of land was ringed by more mountains of similar height, though they could be traced all the way around from this altitude. The core giants of the Ironheart mountains could still be seen towering above, though another feature was what made it impressive: In the very centre, wrought of black stone, was a tall tower with two horizontal flanges facing apart from one another.

Strangely, this serene and fertile land did not show a single campfire smoke, let alone any trace of civilisation.

"Blackhammer crater," Conata mumbled, bright in bronze. "This place is...amazing. Just...huge."

Ruvac sniffed and rested his palms on the top of his staff. "Don't get too comfortable. Remember what those hain said about those shining spirits." He turned his head to the rest of them. "They called them soot-flints. They cut up any hain or rovaick that they find. We have to sneak through."

Polia sniffed as well and frowned. "Seems a shame that such a beautiful place can't be lived in because of such cruel creatures."

"Perhaps that is their purpose. To protect this place," Gio mused.

"Whatever they are there for, we could make it across to the other trail in a few days if we're still careful." Conata took the first few steps down. She stopped and turned to grin at her dubious companions. "Come on! How hard can it be?"



Conata's confidence had rubbed off on the others by the time they reached the verdant crater floor. They wandered along in the sun and under the trees with nothing resembling a 'soot-flint' in sight. Their journey took them all the way to the afternoon.

"I'm starting to think they're just an old myth," Ruvac remarked.

Where before they had been trying to stay quiet and take an obscured route, they were now speaking and striding casually. Ruvac only said what they were all thinking by now.

"I'm a little disappointed, honestly," Polia said. "I wanted to see something mysterious. Those soot-things sounded perfect."

They paced on. The grass rustled under their footsteps.

"Hey, if this place turns out not to be so dangerous, maybe we could have a closer look at that black monolith?" Conata gestured ahead of them at the towering mark above the forest. "It's not too far. We could get there before sunset if we walk faster."

Gio turned his head to show a worried frown. "I am not so sure it is worth the trouble. This place seems...odd. It does not agree with my entrails."

Conata smirked. "That's what you said about the white giant ride, and you ended up enjoying that."

"At least I did not have to be dragged onto its back like Ruvac," Gio retorted at a ponderous speed. Polia snorted from ahead of them.

Ruvac flared his nostrils. "I'd go to the tower if it means you let me live that down. Maybe I can prove that I'm not always the one who's scared."

Conata quirked the corner of her mouth. "You mean apart from Polia and-"

"Polia and the ocean, yes," Ruvac clarified.

Polia turned her head. "Pshh-shut up."

Ruvac continued. "But look, I have been showing reluctance for everything else. I want to start adventuring a little this time. Besides, what's a rock going to do? Fall on me?"

"That's the spirit!" Conata pumped both her fists encouragingly. "This might be our only chance, anyway. Polia? Gio?" She grinned. "Are you going to be outdone by Ruvac?"

"Not in a million years," Polia said. She showed her own grin.

Gio was more reluctant. He bared his teeth tensely and breathed in. "I suppose we should stick together."

With the sun lowering to touch the peaks in the west, the group found themselves walking in the shadow of the towering rock that gave the crater its namesake. The immense landmark scaled up and up with every step closer. They eventually had to bend their necks to see its peak, mouths slowly gaping. It was unlike anything natural or constructed, rather it was alien in any conception of how it could have been formed.

Polia put her hands on her hips and looked up at the flanges of the tower. "It really doesn't look much like a hammer if you think about it." She gestured to it. "I've not seen a hammer with that much of its shaft poking out the top. Maybe it's meant to be something else?"

Conata pulled her iron hammer out from her bag to compare the two. Polia did have a point. "I've not seen a hammer made from...I want to get closer, see what it's made from."

A copper Conata headed forward. Something black buzzed around the corner of her eye as the others followed along.

"Did you feel that?" Gio asked.

"Hmm?" Ruvac hummed.

"There was a rumble in the earth just now."

"It's just the Ironhearts," Polia dismissed with one hand. "They tremble all the time."

"No, it's..." He closed his mouth and let out the rest of his breath. "Nevermind."

Conata spotted another black shape flashing between two trees. They were barely a few steps from the base of the tower when she stopped. "Huh, this thing feels like it's made of..." She trailed off and lowered her brow.

"...What is it?" Ruvac asked.

Conata's eyes widened and she took a sharp breath in. Her entire body flashed into a crust of magnesium. In a blink, she spun, bent her knees, and extended an arm. Three ingots flew out of her bag in the shapes of curved blades. The three azibo flinched and shielded themselves with their arms.

Clang-clang-ting! Metal rang out against a crackle of grinding stone. The following thuds against the grass peeked the azibo eyes open.

Conata shrieked. "Obsidian!" A swarm of black stones were flying out of nowhere, spinning towards them.

Conata took two steps to get in front of her friends and lifted her arms. The metal she had used to initially defend them shot up from the ground as a set of round bars. She twisted her whole body side to side to guide the bars. Chords of metallic rings and sparks flew, swatting away as many of the stones as she could cover.

"By Toun's will, begone!" Ruvac's desperate voice sounded from behind her. In his hand was a tablet with a red ovoid symbol inscribed upon it. The red glowed. As if met by an unseen force, the sharp black stones flying towards them were thrown into a deflected flight around them, shying from the tablet and its powerful symbol. The bubble of safety showed the spatter of sharp obsidian chips around their feet from Conata's deflections, but the bigger stones were still flying, turning.

A few more ingots floated out of Conata's bag, the metal began to take spherical shapes and gently orbit around her as she looked on. "It's all obsidian! What's going on!?"

"Look!" Gio pointed with his wooden staff. The stones had stopped trying to cut them and were instead coalescing into a whirlwind that grew tighter and tighter. As one began to form, two more whirlwinds formed and coalesced as well. "Soot flints!"

They shone in the sun, forming into jagged, glossy black pillars. Two grinding limbs separated from points at shoulder height and one leg separated to step forward into a humanoid shape. The other coalescing pillars followed suit. Pieces crumbled off them where their rubble rocks ground together at their joints.



"Earth djinnis," Polia corrected through her teeth.

One step followed another as the creatures paced towards the group. Their hands crackled into the shape of obsidian axe-blades. They held them up, one raised to strike and another forward to defend. Their walk broke into a ground-thumping sprint.

Conata turned into iron. She and her friends had their backs up against the tower. "We have to fight our way out!" Conata shouted, drawing out her glowing ingots into the shape of large spherical maces. The others braced themselves to face the enemy.

Polia gritted her teeth and clenched her soul. "Well, we can try scaring them off!" Sudden violet light sprang from her rising hand. One of the creatures closing in swung at her side. She met the razor-sharp hand with her palm and a reactive burst of power shattered the stone limb in a flash. Shards went flying in every direction. The djinni staggered back, rebalancing from its now missing arm.

Meanwhile, Gio bellowed into the sky and drove his staff into the ground. A great lavender-coloured thud shook the grass in front of him and sent another creature flying through the air. It rolled to a stop on the grass behind.

That left Conata with the final one. She threw out one of her maces before the obsidian creature could get into reach, straightening her arm out with her fingers curled. The metal swung in the air and cracked the creature on its head. A large shard was knapped off, interrupting the charge, but it was still standing. Conata twisted in place and curled her arm. The mace followed to spin and break off a section of the creatures raised axe-hand. She jabbed, another mace flew forth. It kiked onto its torso. The djinni stumbled back a step on impact as another piece fell away.

Another burst of obsidian stones erupted from the earth and began to coalesce behind the first three. It was joined in turn by several more.

"We may have a problem!" Ruvac said with increasing fear. The coalescing creatures were more earth djinnis. They hadn't even destroyed the first ones, and one was standing maimed of its arm. Just as he had counted seven of them in total, two more began to form within a second.

Gio echoed the sentiment. "There are too many! What should we do?!"

Conata's eyes were wide, but she stood her ground. "Get back!" She brought her arms up and together, sending all the metal maces up above her hands, twisting together. They glowed and melded into a tighter and tighter helix, and then flattened into a great cleaver twice as tall as she was. The glow evaporated into solid grey metal. Iron alloyed with doping metals, cored with lead, heavy and hard.

"Let's see them get up from this!" Conata lifted up one knee and swung her hand-joined arms to will the blade around. It sped up as she fell onto her raised foot with an effortful yell. Her arms and the cleaver followed through horizontally over the heads of the azibo and sloped down to the djinnis at waist height. The first djinni was struck on its side with a crack. It then found the upper half of its rubble torso bank sunwise, carried by the unslowing blade beneath it. Another crack -- another -- a series of loud knaps struck each obsidian djinni in half within its reach. The felled djinnis' upper bodies crashed onto the ground and crumbled back into the soil. The legs soon collapsed in turn.

The new coalescing djinni to replace the casualties suddenly stopped and lowered their axe-hands.

Conata slowed her hands to a stop above her head, steadying the obscenely large cleaver above her fingers in turn. She was grinning like an idiot. "Yeah! You stay back, soot-flints!"

A pair of the obsidian earth djinni turned their heads as if exchanging glances.

"That seemed a little too easy," Polia said between catching her breath.

Gio murmured. "The ground..."

It was shivering. It grew to a tremor, and then to a rumble. The whole world took on a low tremble like a colossal terrified animal under their feet. The group had to bend their knees to keep balance and Conata had to lower the end of her cleaver onto the ground. The earth djinni, in contrast, stood stoically without so much as a toe moved to realign.

The ground settled rather suddenly. Everything was quiet.

They couldn't see anything new, though a careful hum caught Conata's ear, droning thoughtfully for a long and awkward while. It was coming from everywhere and nowhere. The hum was ended by a low, pondering voice that seemed to let out each word in an uninterrupted hum for each sentence.

"Mmmany djinnis have challennnged my domainnn before. Nnnone such as with your nnnature, little creature."

The language was oddly familiar. Conata did not know how she understood it -- she never remembered even hearing it before. By the looks on her friends' faces, they could hear it but could not understand it at all.

Conata called out to the sourceless voice. "Who are you? Where are you?" She brought her hand to her lips, realising that she was speaking its language back to it.

"I ammm the lord of this craterrr. You will hearrr my reputationnn and despair for challenging mmme."

Conata lowered her brow and opened her mouth. She had not come here for that.

"You never told us that you spoke the djinni tongue!" Polia whispered. "What to they want, Connie?"

"Shh, shut up!" Conata hissed back. "He's a lord, he thinks we came here to challenge him, I think. He's monologuing or something, I don't know."

"I becammme by adaptationnn. I took up the airrr, and fought, and found not the viscosity to eat anymorrre. I took up the water, turnnning into a cloud, and then a streammm, and I fought, and founnnd not the energy to eat anymorrre. I took up the flammme, turning into a steammm, and then a fire, and fought, and found nnnot the stability to eat anymorrre. I took up the earrrth, and turned into magmmma, and then the stonnne you see before you. I found not the flexibility to eat anymore."

Polia continued hissing at Conata under the hidden lords' speech. "Tell him that we're just passing through! We're not even djinnis. They can leave us alone, right?"

"He might think I'm a djinni?" Conata shrugged, keeping her eyes on the lesser obsidian djinnis still around them. "I'm not, but...he's speaking in circles already."

"...And it is in this formmm that I found the sharpnesss to destroy interloperrrs. The knowledge to eat aaall. This spire is mmmy charge! A worrrk of the gods and the inspirationnn of my supremecyyy!"

Conata half-expected the djinni lord to be so distracted that she could start running away with her friends. The ground rumbling once again put an end to that plan. This time, the seismic crescendo was rapid.

The ground behind the lesser djinnis exploded in a soaring coniferous ovoid, scattering soil into the air in uniform flying chunks. Two black hooks the length of Conata's whole body jutted out from the base of the explosion and dug into the adjacent grass like their owner was hoisting itself up. A glowing blue face was the first thing visible as the soil fell, revealing the jet black silhouette of a towering obsidian humanoid.



"I ammm Vitrummm!" The djinni lord stood at four times Conata's height. "Dessspair, interloperrr!"

Unlike the smaller djinnis, Vitrum's body was ornately sculpted, set in waves of shimmering obsidian blades sizing his build. His face was styled of a disproportionate skull with a large jaw and tiny glowing eyes. Protruding from the top of each clenched black fist were the long stone sickles that pulled him out of the ground.

Gio, Ruvac, and even Polia had different thresholds of fear. The sight of Vitrum surpassed them all. The three azibo stood staring up at the djinni lord with terrified eyes and a rictus of hopeless panic.

Not Conata. She hefted up her massive cleaver again, holding her joined hands to her shoulder and poised herself to strike. Her iron skin grew hot. "I'm not scared of you!" She shouted. "You won't hurt my friends. I'll fight you if I have to!"


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Shaqmar of the Sunlit Eyes
The Qa'id Adheem




~~~~SECTION ONE~~~~


The quickness of the Azad counter-strike clearly caught the Ma’Erkoz and their allies by surprise, for Shaqmar’s marching hordes descended upon a good many encampment to find their men rushing around trying to organise a defence, and the women clutching their children to their breasts and huddling inside their roundtents – as had the women of the Azad when the Ma’Erkoz raided. But they did not do as the Ma’Erkoz did. They did not slaughter all. The men, they slaughtered. And the women and children they sent back to the Qa’id Adheem. Some five encampments were caught thus before the Ma’Erkoz managed to mount a defence.

By then, Shaqmar had reunited with his forces in central-eastern Ma’Erkoz herding grounds, and a force of five thousand Tagham tribesmen, led by the Qa’id Adheem Tiqodae himself, came with Tadatunga to support in the war effort. They remained there for some time until the women and children had caught up with them, setting up camp and resting. One of Shaqmar’s scouting parties soon returned with news that the Ma’Erkoz had called up the tribes and were rallying not too far to the north. If Shaqmar moved swiftly he would be able to catch them before they had all gathered together, and so deliver a cutting blow to their resistance. The encampment came alive as Shaqmar commanded everyone to prepare to move once more, and the commanders all met in Shaqmar’s roundtent to discuss the plan of attack.

‘Their weakness is their current state of disunity and chaos. Our strength is our unity and organisation. We must capitalise on this and make it our goal to achieve the greatest victories possible now before they can properly organise. By so doing, we will have crippled them so, that by the time they do organise properly they will have become so weak that they will pose no great threat. Then their herding grounds will be ours for the taking, their herds ours to distribute, their women our property, and their children at our mercy – and they themselves dead or soon to be,’ Tiqodae was saying. Shaqmar nodded in agreement. The man was intelligent and his words were sound. Seeing that the two Qa’id Adheems were in agreement, the others remained silent and looked to Shaqmar.

‘The honoured Qa’id Adheem Tiqodae speaks truth. They are divided, unorganised, and weak. Each of us has five thousand men under his command, to a total of twenty-five thousand warriors. Our scouts speak of a large force, an estimated thirteen thousand, gathered in a valley half a day’s journey from here. If we ride swiftly, and if each man uses his two mares, we can be there in a far shorter period of time. We can then encircle them and crush them – though we will leave for them an escape route. And one of our forces – Chenar’s force – will not join the fray and will stay out of sight. When they see that they are beaten and begin escaping, you will be in wait for them beyond the valley, and you will slaughter them all,’ Shaqmar looked at the others. Tiqodae only smiled in approval while the others nodded, though his smile faded slightly when he mentioned slaughtering them all. Dead men did not make good slaves, after all.

‘What do I do if they surrender themselves?’ Chenar asked. Shaqmar looked down for a bit and thought.
‘If they surrender, command them to throw away their weapons and take from them their horses, and after the battle is done I shall deal with them as is fit,’ Chenar nodded, and Tiqodae voiced no dissent. With the plan clear to all, they set off.

The swift Rukbanian steeds of the Azad made short work of the distance, and Shaqmar’s utilisation of two horses instead of one – a capitalisation on a key skill honed by Rukbans; horse-riding – ensured they had descended upon the enemy in an even shorter period. Encircling the valley lying where the four hills clashed, without being detected, proved an impossible task. But by the time the enemy was alerted, there was no escape. Resting their mounts and themselves, the Azad force and the Ma’Erkoz one kept a close eye on each other for some hours, and as the sun began its descent towards the horizon, Shaqmar ordered that all prepare for the assault.

The four forces of Shaqmar, Tiqodae, Tadatunga and Siruga each streamed over one of the four hills like endless locusts, firing their vicious arrows into the waiting enemy host. They circled around the trapped force en masse, forming a whirlpool of riders around them even as they continued firing their arrows. The enemy force – who, it appeared, had by this point been joined by their women and children – had created make-shift barricades out of their carts and were fortifying themselves behind them while returning fire. A direct assault would be deadly, and so Shaqmar sent out the command to slowly increase the girth of the firing circle in a tactical retreat to the top of each of the four hills. With darkness descending, fires were lit and Shaqmar sat on Layl looking down upon the fortified enemy. The stars twinkled silently in the night sky as the smoke rose up and choked all it touched.

'Set them alight,' he commanded. The message was sent to the other commanders and fire arrows were prepared and, once Shaqmar's signal was given, the night sky was set ablaze with more arrows than there were twinkling stars in the sky. And night became day, and Shaqmar watched as they descended upon the helpless enemy from on high. The carts, which they had put up around them for safety, flamed up and became the doors of their self-made prison. The songs of men and women as they burned rang out through the valley, and Shaqmar's second signal was soon loosed: The rumble of hooves in the flittering darkness...and the denizens of hell descended upon the inferno, leaping through the collapsing fortifications like demons to the massacre. None escaped.

The men were slaughtered on the spot, and those among the women and children who were not burned were captured, and the goods untouched by fire were seized by those who happened upon them first. Layl's hooves sounded softly against the shouts and screams that ripped through the orange night - shadows moving against the firelight, horses grunting, footsteps and weeping, the odd clash of scimitars. Shrieks of despair. His rider watched with dark eyes and grim jaw, and in the post-massacre chaos, Shaqmar walked amongst the flames and coldly watched the remains of those who had burned. The fragrance of burnt flesh was sweet so early in the night, and the weeping and shrieking of the women was as a balm on his aching heart. The looting was not approved of by him, but there was nothing that could be done about it. If he attempted to stop them and redistribute it as he wished, they would think ill of him and suspect him, and they would not fight as willingly in future. And so he had to permit a minor inconvenience to achieve ultimate victory. Perhaps then he would be able to turn on them and seize the loot. Equal distribution amongst the mass of warriors always appealed to him, with commanders getting double. If the Eternal Sky gave him the authority, it would be done. When the captives were at last brought to him and the other commanders, his order was that all should be beheaded.

'Shaqmar, with all due respect, that is not the way. If you have no need for them, then give them to me,' Tiqodae protested. Shaqmar flashed him a dark look.
'I do have a need for them, Qa'id Adheem,' he said softly, 'I need them to die.'
'That would be of no use to anybody,' Tiqodae argued, 'and enough have already been killed here tonight. Let me have them Shaqmar.'
'It is of use,' the Azad chieftain responded coldly, 'the honour of the dead rests upon it.' Tiqodae pursed his lips and frowned.
'The death of the living is of no use to the dead, and they have no need for honour or dignity where they are. Do not create additional suffering and death here in the name of those who suffered and died already. You are a wise man, Shaqmar. Be not moved by your emotions.'
'I am not moved by emotions, friend, but you are moved by the potential for profit. We agreed before all this that mine would be the word when it comes to their fate, and my word is death.' The two stood staring each other down by the light of a few torches, and the other commanders maintained an uneasy silence.
'Yes, we did agree,' Tiqodae at last conceded and looked away, 'but know that it is not money that I am after. Merely the preservation of the lives of those who are innocent, and the preservation of your reputation before all,' Shaqmar glanced at the other commanders hesitantly at these words.
'P-perhaps, my Qa'id, it is not for the best to execute those who are our prisoners,' Chenar finally said. Tadatunga and Siruga murmured sheepishly in agreement, causing Shaqmar to sigh and his shoulders to slump.
'Though the honour of the dead rests on this decision, and though it pains me more than I can ever say, it is a man most foolish who ignores the advice of others. And 'tis especially so where there is such a strong consensus. If they must live, then I prefer that I not have to ever lay eyes upon them. They are yours, Tiqodae,' and with that, Shaqmar turned away without a word and strode moodily away. The others stared after him quietly for a while, and Tiqodae at last spoke.

'Your friend is most wise.'



'Most Wise': Shaqmar of the Sunlit Eyes, Qa'id Adheem of the Azad Confederation and Qa'id of the Azad Tribe


Later that night, Shaqmar's forces left the valley and retraced their footsteps until they were reunited with the moving encampment. They made camp on a small concealed plateau and Shaqmar commanded that careful watch should be kept in case the enemy approached in the night, and he commanded also that the valley where they had annihilated the first Ma'Erkoz force should be watched until the arrival of more enemies there. Brooding in his roundtent, Shaqmar told one of the guards to bring Surayka to him, and for her to bring kymis. When the roundtent's flap was opened slightly, Shaqmar looked up expectantly. But only the guard's bearded face could be seen.
'Qamtar?' Shaqmar asked in confusion.
'My Qa'id,' the man said hesitantly, 'the honoured lady refuses your summons.' Shaqmar looked at him for a few seconds, his face nearly failing him. He nodded quickly and signalled for Qamtar to go away before his emotions got the better of him and he broke down before the man. His sinking heart beating deafeningly in his chest, he could not help the misery that filled him at Surayka's snub. Moving towards the bed, he lay on his stomach and buried his face into the pillow. And he was for a long time still, and he was for a long time sad.

When morning came, Shaqmar's scouts returned with news of two more enemy forces quickly approaching the designated Ma'Erkoz rally point. 'One smaller force, coming at about seven thousand, and another larger force of twenty to twenty-five thousand,' the scout in question was reporting. Shaqmar nodded in understanding. It was good that they had crushed the first enemy force to gather, else they would have been heavily outnumbered.

'We will split in to two war parties. The Qa'id Adheem Tiqodae will lead the first, and will have Chenar with him. I will lead the second and will have Tadatunga and Siruga with me. The Qa'id Adheem's force will assault the larger enemy party, and I will assault the smaller one. We would do well to ensure they don't unite. If the smaller force is quickly crushed by my force while the Qa'id Adheem distracts the larger, we can ensure a swift victory against that one with an encirclement manoeuvre,' Tiqodae looked at Shaqmar silently, one eyebrow slightly raised, 'unless you object, Qa'id Adheem,' Shaqmar added slowly.
'Not at all, Shaqmar. I am merely confused as to why we need to split our force at all. We can together swiftly crush the smaller enemy force before turning on the second. There is no need to divide our strength.'
'What you say has some truth in it, Qa'id Adheem, but if we use our full force against either enemy horde we will be leaving our rear exposed to an attack by the other. That is why it is necessary to distract the larger while the smaller force is annihilated,' Tiqodae pursed his lips and looked down thoughtfully.
'That makes sense, I agree, but why is it necessary for you to lead such a large force against what the scout says is an enemy no larger than seven thousand men? You can just as easily do the job with five thousand less men,' Tiqodae pointed out. Shaqmar was silent and looked at Tiqodae warily for a few seconds.
'If you are afraid that you cannot fool the larger force for long enough for me to do my part, or if you do not trust my capabilities, then I can sally forth alone against the smaller force. I will leave all others under your command and you can deal with the larger force. On your own.' Shaqmar's cold - if ill-thought our - response finally came.
'I am not afraid of anything, Shaqmar, and I have no doubts about your capabilities. I just do not wish to split our force. But I see no problem with this plan that you mention now,' Shaqmar nodded and got to his feet.
'Then I shall leave immediately to do what needs to be done. May the Eternal Sky...guide you towards victory,' and with that Shaqmar departed and roused his five thousand men and marched out.

The sun had not yet reached its zenith when they crested a hill and the enemy force came into view. They had clearly been made aware of Shaqmar's approach and had prepared for the coming battle. Halting at the crest, Shaqmar surveyed the slanted field which stretched out from the foot of the hill and into another, forming the side of a larger hill which rose up majestically above the one that Shaqmar now found himself. The enemy force had chosen to arrange itself on that open hillside, and it appeared they were wise enough to ensure that their women and children were not with them this time. Layl kicked at the ground and snorted in excitement. Taking a few steps forward, the stallion reared up on its hindlegs and kicked violently towards the enemy force and sent its thundering neighs towards the heavens.

'Sons of Rukbany!' Shaqmar roared, 'raise your swords! Raise your spears! If the Eternal Sky should weep for rage, let it not weep its life-giving waters! Let it not thunder and light up the heavens! Let it rain your death-bringing, furious arrows! If lightening bolts should descend from on high, let them be your unfailing, death-dealing darts!

My nation, the sun doth at last on the horizon rise
Let heaven know it, let it hear your frightful battle cries!
Come, offer up your souls for your tribe and Eternal Sky
Buy honour and dignity with blood and live though you die!
The only speech now is the whistle of the cutting edge
So march forth with all ferocity and honour your pledge:-
Let Ma'Erkoz choke blood and on the flesh of their dead feast!
They thought that they were lions, but have summoned forth a beast!
They thought themselves conquerors by slaying our weak women
Let the vexed star know that we are true warriors and men!
I am sun-lit Shaqmar, the Qa'id of the quick retort
I attack and am death, attack me now and I'm a fort!
I am sun-lit Shaqmar, the Qa'id of the fierce charger
I am the dread avenger and the wicked surcharger!
The universe may, with its thousand glories, swiftly cease,
But our glory can never fade, nor can its hot fires freeze!
Tell the celestial skies that we rival their stars in height
And the horse's neigh reached the utmost south due to our might!
Let the north now feel our rage and hear our resounding bolt
Let all listen as we roar, let them hear of our revolt!'


And on Shaqmar's powerful declarations, those closest to him gave off a booming roar, which was replicated by all who heard it until the rumbling sound of all the five thousand - many of whom were hidden behind the crest of the hill - shook the earth and hills. Aye, and shook the very hearts of their foes. Turning to Qaseer, Shaqmar commanded him to take one thousand men and to circle around the right side of enemy-held hill quietly. Another of Shaqmar's trusted commanders - Qamtar's brother, Sakago - was commanded to take five hundred men and circle around the left side as noisily as possible. The command was then sent around for those who were remaining hidden behind the crest of the hill to create noise and stir up the earth and cause great dust clouds to rise up as though in preparation for an attack. As the earth rumbled at his command, Shaqmar watched the enemy force carefully as they sent a few small forces of riders further down the hill, who all subsequently began fiddling with their bows and preparing to fire in anticipation of an oncoming charge. As he watched, his eye caught on a small movement further down his own hill, quite some distance to his right. After watching the suspicious area for a while, his suspicion was confirmed as a well-camouflaged man moved further up the hill. They were attempting to spy on his side. He was not going to permit it.
Lifting his bow, the Qa'id Adheem notched an arrow and drew it. Almost as quickly as he drew, he aimed and fired. And his was a deathly precision. The spy had been crawling slowly up the hill and he never saw the arrow which penetrated his skull. He died without a sound.

As the earth continued to shake behind him, the Qa'id Adheem kept lethal watch, and as dust rose up behind him, Layl paced back and forth along the hilltop. After a short period, a contingent of enemy riders was sent to check on something that had been noticed to their right - Shaqmar's left. As news of the enemy force to their right reached their commander, even more troops were moved to guard the right flank in case of attack - and that swiftly came as the Sakago's five hundred began harassing the waiting troops with arrows and charging feints. No sooner had they considered the harassing party more or less contained and that they were safe once more, Qaseer's force emerged atop the opposing hill, directly above the enemy force. His hidden troops began to do as Shaqmar's now did. Shaqmar knew that horror would be creeping into the enemy commander's heart at this point - he would think himself surrounded with an enormous force before him and another behind him, and harassing parties to his right. Who knew just how many enemy troops were in the area and now had them surrounded? It was a foolish commander who did not keep eagle-eyed watch over his enemy. The day was already his.

As the enemy force attempted to reorganise in response to Qaseer's appearance, Shaqmar gave his troops the signal. Fearsome battle cries were loosed and the Azad streamed over Shaqmar's crest, firing their darts even as they charged forth. From the top of his hill, Qaseer was firing fiercely along with his troops, and Sakago's harassing troops on the enemy's right had suddenly become a lethal presence as they took out the confused and disorganised enemy with a savage efficiency. Once Shaqmar's troops clashed with their prey, Sakago commanded hismen put away their bows and likewise charged into the well-peppered flank. Shaqmar allowed his troops to take complete advantage of the enemy's disorganisation before commanding his troops to retreat. Even as the enemy prepared to give chase, Qaseer and his troops suddenly put their bows away and charged down the hill upon the momentarily distracted enemy. As they hesitated between pursuing Shaqmar and facing the new threat, Shaqmar's troops made a turnaround and charged once more - this time with Shaqmar at the helm. With all his forces engaged, and knowing that his battlefront was the most powerful of the three, Shaqmar made it his goal to unite his front with Sakago's by focusing the assault on the enemy's right flank. Qaseer, whether by sheer wit or due to being farther up the hill and being able to better see what Shaqmar was doing, did likewise.
By the time Shaqmar's initial advantage had passed, the morale and other damage done to the enemy force was so great as to make resistance all but futile - victory was only a matter of time. And the Ma'Erkoz seemed to realise that, for riders began to desert en masse. It would avail them nothing, however, for a good number of Shaqmar's men swiftly split into smaller contingents and set out to hunt the routing foe even as his main force continued what had become an all out massacre on the hillside.

Night had fallen by the time Shaqmar's troops regrouped once more, and his scouts soon arrived with news regarding the enemy encampment which had been following the force. They descended upon it in the night. The small number left to guard the women and children were swiftly dealt with and the camp was looted - though it was Shaqmar's command that all the male children be brought to him. And once all that was done, the camp was escorted by his force back to where the Azad encampment had settled for the night. Upon arriving there, Shaqmar discoverd that Tiqodae and the force that had set out with him had not yet returned. This worried him, and so he commanded his men - despite the exhausting day - to keep careful watch through the night and for his scouts to scour the region so as not to be caught off guard by any approaching force.
When morning came, the force Tiqodae had marched out with had not yet returned. Increasingly worried, Shaqmar commanded his scouts to expand the area they were scouring. One of his swiftest men, Yoditi, was given specific instructions to go and scout out the area where the forces should have clashed. And even as he did so, the command went round for all to prepare for a slow retreat from the area towards grazing grounds which were closer to home.

They came to me on a night of deep despair
When tragedy had seized the violent air
Methought them wicked spirits or something so
But they were not - by God! - how was I to know?
No, they were the living dead fresh from the grave
Come with summons for me from their earthen cave
There were none to burn and send them where they fell
Where their souls now fly only the Sky can tell
Neither can our tears lift them, nor our sighs aid
Will they ever scream or will they quickly fade?


When Yoditi returned, he reported that the area he had scouted did not appear to have seen battle recently - though it was quite clear that a large host had passed by recently for the earth was all around kicked up and upturned. He had followed the trail for some time, but it eventually led too far to be worth pursuing - it did not seem likely that Tiqodae's force would deign to travel so far from its designated place without sending word of it to Shaqmar after all. 'And what of the enemy force?' Shaqmar asked. Yoditi shrugged and suggested that perhaps Toqidae's force had, upon seeing them approach, charged against the enemy. And the foe thus turned and fled, and he gave chase to them: and so the trails of the two forces had merged. Shaqmar nodded slowly.
'They may well have charged into a trap. Go with a group of men and follow the trail as far as it goes, and keep me updated regularly on your findings.' Yoditi nodded and turned away to do as commanded.
Soon enough, Shaqmar found a great hill with a flat top where he chose to base himself and the camp. He sat atop the hill, just outside the raised entrance to his great mobile roundtent, watching for many days. At times he thought of Toqidae and the others, but those were exceptions. For now with the threat of assault at bay, his mind gave way for the one who dwelled in it both night and day. Where had they taken Layla, and what had they done to her? Just as he was sinking into the depths of his wallows, he was approached by a few of his men who were pointing their spears warily towards a strange white-clad man - or at least, it seemed to be a man, for he was humanoid in shape. He was dressed in white from head to toe, even his face was wrapped in it - it seemed to be some kind of white fur-like material, though unlike any fur or leather Shaqmar had ever come across - except for a strange mark.

'My Qa'id,' one of the men - the well-known wrestler Sonakhai - announced. Shaqmar looked at the white-clad man suspiciously.
'What is it, Sonakhai?' Shaqmar asked.
'This...creature...it overpowered some of our men and demanded to be brought to you,' Shaqmar raised an eyebrow and looked at the thing.
'What are you?' Shaqmar asked the creature directly.
'I come from a hole in the Sky,' it said. Shaqmar's eyes widened and a frown grew on his face. He rose from his seat and towered above them all, glaring down at the stranger.
'Are you a shaman sent by the Ma'Erkoz?' Shaqmar glowered.
'I am sent by the Vicegerent of the Celestial Above, Deputy of Our Masters the Bard and Belvast, Word of Our Mother of the Words, and Blessed of Our Mother of the Cherry: the Battle Brother Morarom Ramomar. I am sent to find the one I am sent to find.' Shaqmar's hostility did not wane, but he sat back down.
'Very well, messenger of Morarom of a hole in the Sky. Are you a riddling shaman or a blathering madman?'
'Shaqmar of the Azad, I am neither this nor that, but a messenger of the gods. I am Battle Brother Juras, twentieth of the Hallowed Hundred. At my bidding, the earth parts and the clouds form and waters rise and fires grow, and the flightless fly and the flying fall, and the very blood streaming in your veins slows to a halt. Mock me not...and give me freedom to come and go through your lands and among your people as I please.' Shaqmar looked at the stranger and cocked his head. This 'Juras' was no taller than any normal man - if man he was - and he did not seem to possess strength much greater than the average Rukban (which, of course, was quite tremendous in itself!) Yet Sonakhai had said that a few of his warriors had been taken down singlehandedly by this stranger. It was clear that he had strength beyond any normal man - even shamans could not physically take on multiple Rukban warriors on their own!
'It is within my power to grant what you are after, but what is it that you give in return?' Shaqmar asked.
'I can give you a warning. It is sent from Our Master the Bard himself, and it is for the Lord of Rukbany, Qa'id Adheem of the Rukban Tribes: Shaqmar son of Buraq son of Muharaq son of Irqa son of Azad.' Shaqmar raised an eyebrow and eyed the man.
'And how much does this Bard of yours know about me - for I have never met him.'
'He has within his grasp the repository of everything that is, was, and can ever be.'
'Is he the Eternal Sky?' Shaqmar asked, his eyes narrowing with curiosity and his head cocking slightly.
'He is the admixture of the essences of the Celestial Above and Our Mother of the Cherry.'
'And who are they?' The Rukban asked softly.
'They are three: the Celestial Above, Our Mother of the Cherry, and Our Mother of the Words. And they are the greatest of the gods.'
'Do they dwell in the court of the Eternal Sky?'
'Some do, and at times the Eternal Sky has dwelled in their court.'
'Did they send the Prophet?'
'They did not.'
'Did he call to their worship?'
'He did not.'
'Are you of Y'Vahn?'
'I am not,' Juras said, 'for she is a foe of the Celestial Above.'
'Very well, you who worships lesser gods beside the Eternal Sky: what has your Bard sent you with?'
'He says:
As I was sat watching the sky,
I heard the Cube call me.
The tree, alight and at full bloom
Stood shimmering and free:
She stroked the grasses at her feet
To mute the grief at god's defeat,
And scatter woe's ivy.

The plains lay ill before my gaze,
A lonely spider cried,
The dismal mounts beyond the haze
Were sad and tried to hide
Like two lost seekers seeking light
Debating who of them is right
As they walk side by side.

His phantom wore a monster's face,
Your phantom rode the night;
He came from quite a nearby place
Within your watchful sight,
Each statement held a lethal weight
Of happenings beyond the gate
Which we'd do well to fight:

To slay the unassuming dove,
Or with it to be slain.
He holds his tyranny above
The stone where freedom's lain,
He glares with his disastrous glare
With his arm raised up in the air
And knifes the living vein.

And now his oceans up and flee,
They crash against your shores;
Your women scream an unheard plea,
And are ravaged by wars;
There float the memories of time,
Six moons all soar above the crime
Without a look or pause.


For the longest time, Shaqmar was silent, his heart hammering in his chest. The words were powerful...and their meaning eluded him. But that they spoke of catastrophe and apocalypse were beyond doubt. He came from quite a nearby place. 'It is Toqidae, is it not? The Tagham shall betray me...' Shaqmar looked to Juras for affirmation, but the stranger was silent.
'I have given you what I have given you, and you owe me what you owe me.'
'You must at the very least make clear what you have given!' Shaqmar declared in disbelief.
'It is for you, not for me, to understand it.' Juras responded. Shaqmar scoffed and shook his head.
'Very well, you are given what you are owed: let none say that Shaqmar stole and broke his oath. But I've a question for you.'
'Yes?'
'Does your Bard know where my Layla is?' Juras was silent for the longest moment.
'Yes.'
'Speak to him then, and bid him tell me!'
'That I cannot do.'
'Then tell me this at least: is she well?'
'This I can tell you: she is yet among the living,' Shaqmar looked at the white-clad stranger, the thought of Layla overwhelming his mind.
'Join me and be my shaman,' it was half demand half request.
'This is the time of parting between you and I, Lord of Rukbany,' Juras responded, and with that he turned and brushed the spears threatening him away without so much as a gesture of his hand. Shaqmar watched him go and placed his chin on his hand, contemplating the devastating prophecy Juras had come with.
'Juras! Who are you sent to find?' Shaqmar suddenly asked. But the stranger did not respond and soon disappeared among the roundtents. He turned to two of his men and commanded them to trail the stranger everywhere he went.
'Watch him even if he is answering the call of nature or lying with a woman. Do not let your eyes off him.'

≈≈≈≈≈


~~~~SECTION TWO~~~~


Grand halls of gleaming white and the comfort of a hundred howling winds welcomed the Vizier home. As of late, Ventus had taken to occupying the lonely and spacious upper levels of the Celestial Citadel. The lower levels had always been reserved for visitors, and though they now stood empty the signs of the Lifprasilians and Ilunabar's occupation remained. The silent courtyards had overgrown grapevines once cultivated by Lifprasilians and those unkempt trees that had been placed there in pots by Teknall in some attempt to liven the place. Their efforts were all for naught, for now those lower levels were the bleakest and emptiest of all. Higher up in the middle tier were the great open terraces and rotundas where the Zephyrean Skywatch made their home and other visiting djinn often frequented. Above all of that was the upper level that had been Zephyrion's quarter.

He had always kept that space zealously private and suffered no visitors to it, and yet at the top of that towering spire there was little to hide. Towards the end of his days on Galbar, Zephyrion had of course grown further detached and reclused himself in those heights. At the top of that tower you were very close to that great gleaming gemstone that crowned the palace; you could feel its power throb through the air, breathe in the sweet scent of those winds that it conjured to propel the palace, and be elevatedby the closeness to that power just as the fortress itself was elevated. So Ventus finally understood why it was that Zephyrion had hid away in those heights: it was just another way of retreating deeper into his own self.

Weeks and months passed by passed just as quickly as the mountains and climes below. Ventus remained in that tower with only the company of that gem and the sacred power that flowed from it. Zephyrion's power. A very potent and primordial force; the essence of Change.

The uncanny resemblance of Ventus' newfound reclusion to Zephyrion's was not lost upon those other djinn that frequented the Celestial Citadel, but where they had utterly obeyed Zephyrion's wish of solitude there were occasions in which they would summon the Vizier. One such time came when a thousand great skylords and stormlords all came to the Celestial Citadel with the greater part of their vast retinues; a gathering of that magnitude could only mean something immense, and so it was with a heavy heart that Ventus descended to the lower levels to meet with them. By his crown as Zephyrion's Majordomo, 'twas his burden to lord over the djinn and nature.

The cause of their summons was clear: they wanted nothing short of a coronation. For in wisdom the great sealord Salis, whose domain included vast swathes of the Sparking Sea, had proclaimed himself a lord of lords and a grand duke. His duchy included the brine of every sea but also the becks and lakes too; all the great djinni lords of the water had been quick to accept him as their supreme lord and one unquestioned voice, for in father Zephyrion's absence they were fearful and felt a need to band together in greater unity. Water and air had often stood side by side as friends, for it was through combined efforts that they worked to bring about the storms and the weather. So though the Vizier might have found Salis' move to be daring, he would not intervene. Most other elementals of the air seemed content to trust in the judgement of their friends who ruled the waters.

But more events had transpired: in his hubris, the mad dog 'Baron' Slag had responded by reaffirming his title as self-proclaimed master of fire. Flame was widely regarded to be the most dangerous of all the elements; those noble spiryts of pure flame were a rare sight upon Galbar's surface, for they often quarreled with the other elements with especially fervent hatred and enjoyed considerably shorter lifespans for it. In truth, the djinn of fire might be the most numerous of them all, for untold legions of chthonic, magmatic djinn dwelled within the world's fiery bowels. Though Ventus was disturbed by this progression, he had some doubts as to the veracity of Slag's claims. Flame was known for its ceaseless internal struggles. To the credit of Baron Slag's claims, those flamedjinn upon the surface seemed accept his reign (though not without grumbling), though his grasp over those hordes of chthonic elementals remained unknown. Regardless, those spiryts of molten rock rested so far beneath the earth as to be narly irrelevant to the affairs of the surface, so Ventus concerned himself more with the thoughts of those few firelords on the surface. Their loyalty to Slag was of course warrant enough to justify imposing strength upon their entire kind; Ventus would see to that in time.

In response to all the others, those djinn of the earth proclaimed a leader too: a stonelord by the name of Graund the Mountain. Unlike the rise of Duke Salis and Baron Slag, Graund seemed to have sought out no power of his own accord; indeed, by all accounts Graund was an ancient that barely moved. Instead the various stonelords had appointed him to such a role, for apparently they revered him above all others of his kind. In truth Ventus and the other elements possessed less knowledge of their brethren of the earth than of any other element, perhaps because the stonelords were a reclusive lot that rarely acted. Admittedly the Vizier knew nothing of this great lord; he thought that he had met one Graund many eons ago, and if that were the same as this Graund that the stonelord rallied around, that would make the djinni an ancient indeed. He would likely be the second eldest of all djinn, surpassed only by Ventus himself.

But that brought the skylords to speak of why it was that they had all come when one messenger would have sufficed to simply bring knowledge. Each of the other three elements had a great Scion, as was the name that had been dubbed to those lords of lords. It was only fitting that Air proclaim its own Scion, and who was more fit than Ventus himself?

When they presented their logic and attempted to crown him, Ventus refused. He was above such petty politics and had no desire to govern all of his own kind more closely than he did the other elements, and yet when he proclaimed that there must be another, the ensuing quarrel was one that could have shaken mountains. The voices of a thousand raging elemental lords proved enough to shake the Celestial Citadel. They could not choose one, and they could not decide for themselves? So be it; Ventus would choose, and he would choose many. Thus was the Conclave of Winds formed, and in place of one great Scion, the Sky would be ruled by a council of four: one for each great wind. The frigid and implacable Boreas, bringer of winter, spoke for the North; one by the name of Notus brought gentle rains and spoke from her seat in the South, one Anshal commanded the flaying winds of the West, and finally the just Komnestos ruled the East. The title of Scion was bestowed unto each of those four; for Vizier Ventus, who was the Most Supreme of All Djinn, had proclaimed it so. None questioned Zephyrion's Majordomo, and so through his degree those four Scions were each given as much legitimacy as any of of the other elements'. Of course there would be complaints of favoritism, for Ventus himself was of the air and always favored his own element above the others, but such was the way of the Hierarchy. Zephyrion himself took on a body of air, did he not?

With that matter resolved, Ventus finally delivered a mighty clap and proclaimed his judgement. Those thousand visitors were ordered to return to their own realms, though the four Scions in the Conclave of Winds had his permission to remain. Though they still reigned over their own winds below and returned to Galbar from time to time, in the Celestial Citadel would they met to arrive upon decisions of great import. Such was the price to pay for having four Scions in place of one; much time needed to be spent in discussion and argument, where with only one that time might be used for action. The Conclave's first order was to dominate the lesser elements, as was natural; they plotted to send a storm of horrific proportions to assault Baron Slag's volcanic bastion, an emissary to demand fealty from Graund, a request for an oath of friendship from Duke Salis. To varying success, their orders were carried out over the next few days. Ventus left them to their devices and returned to the heights of the upper spire, for he sensed something ill to come, looming above him like the stormclouds loomed over mortal men. He rested, but with ill ease.

≈≈≈≈≈


~~~~SECTION THREE~~~~


It eventually came to pass that Ventus' prophesy came true and the foretold day arrived; the Vizier had known not from whence it would come, but indeed he had known that something dire would soon happen. The cosmos itself had whispered as much, though only his ears had heard. The great jewel that crowned the Celestial Citadel and saturated it with a small trickle of Zephyrean power seemed to burst without warning, and where once there had been a trickle there was now an unstoppable cataract. There was no intermission; in one moment all had been normal, and in the blink of an eye there was the deafening boom of thunder and a golden wind of primal magic flowed forth from the gem. Of epic proportions, it swept across the sky as a mighty streak that made the aurorae look as nothing, and perhaps that golden wind even rivaled the Phantasmagora in its scale and splendor.

Vizier Ventus could only stare agape and in disbelief; Zephyrion had been so inactive as to allow his own power to spill forth from the vessels that contained it. It was a dire portent for the Majordomo, for if a god neglected his own power so, how could one expect him to look over greater responsibilities? Galbar and the djinn were now kept in order only through the Vizier's diligence, and this new...development led Ventus to fear for the state of Mechanism of Change itself. Without the integrity of that Mechanism there would be dire consequences for all beings, and yet he trusted no other god's competence in maintaining it without abusing its power. The task fell unto Ventus' shoulders, as all duties seemed wont to do.

So before him the Vizier now had two great burdens: he had to work quickly to undo the havoc that that great wind of Zephyrean power would wreak upon Galbar. He would need to find some way to contain the power or absorb it into himself, for simply forcing it back into the gem would not do. The Celestial Citadel was like a swollen lake and that crystal its dam; no matter how much power Ventus poured back into the crystal, it would only seep back out. The second task was the more dangerous and alien of the two: he needed to enter the Mechanism of Change and examine its workings in person. He only hoped that if it had grown unstable he wold recognize the signs or be able to fix it with what limited knowledge Zephyrion had imparted unto him.

Never one to delay, he chose to undertake the more exciting of the two tasks first. He decided to enter the Mechanism of Change.

...

...

...only he lacked any idea of how such a feat might be accomplished. He opened his perception, his senses infinitely greater than those of mortals and even of djinn, and yet when he leered at the cracks and crevices of the world he saw nothing. There were no portals hidden in plain sight, no signs in those aspects of the world that only gods could see. It was easy to understand how all others seemed to take Zephyrion's contribution for granted, or not even know that it existed.

The Vizier tried a different approach: creating a portal of his own. He manipulated a golden wind of primal Change, that same raw power that was now bleeding out of the Celestial Citadel. He stretched the magic infinitesimally thin and willed it as he did, and yet when he tried to step through the portal he did so to no avail. Perhaps it was because even now he did no fully understand where or what the Mechanism of Change was. So he looked inward! Inward, just as he had a flicker where mortals had a soul, he had a pulsing where mortals had a heartbeat. The source of that pulsing was surely nowhere other than the destination that he sought, and so the Vizier crawled into his self.

Where all other tactics had failed, that strange and disconcerting attempt brought him success. It felt as through he had he had contracted himself until it was no longer possible, then contracted further, and further, until there was a debilitating pain and then...until he seeped through the fabric of reality itself. He found himself within the Mechanism of Change, but before he could process as much, every part of his being was wracked with an agony and an exhaustion that words could not describe.


Within the Mechanism of Change, there was raw Chaos. It assaulted his mind, his being, and his every sense; and yet, through it all, Ventus thought that he glimpsed a tiny fraction of some great Order, perhaps of Zephyrion's original plan.



Chaos washed over and through him and sprung into existence even inside him. This entire plane was a swirling maelstrom of energy, It was as if every point in space was the epicenter of some catacysmic explosion. Power and magic were all that existed to be seen, for in such a place matter could not even exist without being melted into some sort of raw energy. Yet despite their omnipresence and the sheer impossibility of even dreaming to quantify how much potential energy was locked away in this dimension, the Vizier somehow felt that there was enough to obliterate all of Galbar, and to then do it over again each moment thereafter until the end of time. If Ventus' vaporous form had followed his mind on this odyssey, it had been shred free and annihilated within an infinitesimal fraction of a moment. Aye, in this realm there was light, but there was so much of it that it rendered one blind.

It took a titanic effort for Ventus to endure the simple act of [ ehis ] own continued existence. Each moment was a struggle against a million tides and winds that sought to tear him apart and cast him to oblivion, and so in this state of strain he could scarcely even think. But with what little thought he could manage, he understood now that the Mechanism of Change could not be damaged or corrupted; there was nothing here to tamper with and no god that could withstand this place long enough to try. It occured to Ventus that he had not thought this plan through and knew no means with which he could ever escape. His last thoughts were of the doom that he had consigned himself to, and of Galbar's fate and that of djinn. What would happen in the wake of his disappearance? Alas, he would never see...

...

...and then he was torn asunder, and it felt as though he was stretched and expanded. He was drawn out like a wire of that ductile metal that men called copper, and then he was suddenly whole once again. The flood of light and magic that had assailed his every sense were gone in an instant. It was as though the deafening roar of a hurricane had given way to the most complete and utter of all silences, though of course concepts like 'sound' and 'hurricane' could never compare to what he had just experienced...

His vaporous body remained as it had been before and his mind remained mostly intact, albeit shaken. In truth the Vizier wondered if it had all been but a vivid hallucination, but even if such things were possible for djinn, he knew that he lacked the capacity to ever dream of such things. He knew that because even now, his mind failed at grappling what it was that he had even seen. If he could not remember now the entirety of what little he had processed then, there was no way his imagination could have conjured anything so overwhelming.

The Vizier's musings were interrupted by the voice of another.

"And so your mind does return
just as mine takes form.
To feel the warmth of Chaos!

I envy thee, Vizier."


Ventus spun to look towards the source of the voice, and lo and behold, there before him was another great djinn. By its size and form, Ventus knew it to be a great and powerful spiryt indeed, though he felt no recognition at the being's sight, its voice, or its aura. What insolence, then! This unknown lord sought to invade the sanctity of a space reserved for the great Father and (now) for his chosen Majordomo? Blasphemy!

Ventus looked at the being agape and began to say as much, but befoe the words were spoken he witnessed the djinn's body twist and change. From a twister of wind not unlike Ventus' own form, there sprung flames and then the one before him revealed itself to be an elemental of the purest and hottest fire. But how was it possible to wear such a facade? No other djinn could simply change its element in that manner; it was unnatural!

"O strange one, what and who art thee to enter this sacred place forbidden to common djinn, to shed free the form of air and reveal flame, to speak of this Chaos that only I and the Master hath seen?" Ventus demanded.

And as he spoke, the fire of the djinn before him was extinguished and transformed to ash, and that humble grey changed before the Vizier's eyes and was the gleaming gold sand of the Firewind. Now as a harmattan djinni of sand, he answered cryptically,
"Are not all us djinn alike?
I am Aihtiraq
I am like thee, a candle

burning unto nothingness."


Then that djinni who named himself Aihtiraq metamorphosed a final time: those swirling grains of golden sand coalesed and were made into droplets of water, and from the midst of his watery body a mighty inferno sprung to life. He was a fountain of water and flame and burning water that defied all sense to the beholder, and yet acted as though nothing were amiss. It was then that Ventus understood what great powers this strange spiryt must possess, and then that Aihtiraq smiled.

"I see wonder and terror
alike in thy eyes.
I am born of this magic

So fear not grand Vizier
for I seek nothing
and only give, as befits

the master of this new wind."


"Wind?" the Vizier asked, but Aihtiraq had vanished before the word came out. It was only in the strange one's absence that Ventus finally unraveled the mystery of his riddles and made sense of Aihtiraq's words. He looked outside to that streak of golden wind streaming forth from the Celestial Citadel, slower now. It seemed to have leaked all the excess Zephyrean power that had built up, though that finite amount of power was still a great Wind of Change that would sweep across the world and offer Galbar's denizens a potent source of magic. And it would seem that Aihtiraq was born of that same wind, a djinni lord of magic sprung forth from Zephyrean magic.

In a way then, Aihtiraq had been formed of Zephyrion's own lifeblood. Ventus had only been formed of the god's breath. The Vizier ruminated over that distinction for some time, then watched as the last of Aihtiraq's wind billowed away from the Celestial Citadel to go wherever he would take it.

≈≈≈≈≈


~~~~SECTION FOUR~~~~


When fire devours its kindling, the brown and green stuffs wither in the heat. They yield their phlogiston and turn ashen. In like manner, the men and women of Talal were devoured, but not by flame. It was plague that had struck the Vetruvian town, and the consumption turned the folk that it afflicted anemic. They then coughed up their own blood and died a bloody mess. It was a trying time, and many prayed. Little came in the form of deliverance for those afflicted; some did recover and they thanked the Master for his mercy, but many more succumbed to consumption than survived it.

Alas, not all was death! Though the plague had claimed her husband, one woman was nonetheless with his child, and even in the face of so much death, she had hope. She had to hope, for it was all that she had; the chance of a second marriage was slim. With her husband departed and no children to care for her, she would have to have a strong son now to secure her future. So hope and pray she did, and when the midwives left to bring water from the river and she was alone, there came an answer to her prayer.

It crawled up from the sand outside, it burst forth from the brazier, and it condensed from the mist of her heavy breath. Somehow it did all of those things at once, as a most unusual spiryt manifested itself. It was a swirling mass of sand and burning water, and yet in that chaotic storm one could see the likeness of a smiling face.

She knew of the djinn, as all Vetruvians did, but no myths spoke of such extraordinary things. It seemed unnatural, and were it not for its assuring smile she might have thought it some demon sent by Y'Vahn to claim her child. It also seemed too wild to be true, and were it not for the warmth of its burning body, she might have thought it a hallucination. But alas, Aihtiraq was real.

"Small one, thou hast suffered much.
'twas not by my hand
but nonetheless, I offer

my magic. I grant one wish."


A breath of disbelief parted from her lips. The spiryt's calming aura and warm smile anchored her to reality; she instantly trusted in it as much as she had in her own father. "My husband," she whispered, "can you return him to me?"

Without hesitation, the djinn seemed to shake his head, and she felt the crushing weight of sorrow.

"Alas, his body grew cold
and now not e'en
I could restore him to life.

Wish for the future, perhaps?"


Of course. How could she have been so greedy? She understood now; this wish was meant to be spent upon her child.

"I wish," she began, hesitating at the words. "I wish...for a strong son. A son that will know fame and greatness, whose name shall go to legend."

"Know that this wish I could grant
but greatness is oft
the fabric of undoing.

If you still wish it, I give."


She thought that he was warning her of something, but it was all so cryptic. From outside, she heard laughter and talking. The midwives were returning soon, and some part of her was afraid that this kind spiryt would disappear the moment that the eyes of any other tried to look upon it. So hurriedly, she said, "Alas, it is greatness that I desire for him. A strong son, one strong enough to care for me and his people. Grant me this one wish, I beg of you!"

The spiryt's smile remained. He seemed to nod, and then he opened his mouth and a long breath of golden wind cascaded out. It swept across the floor and reached to touch the walls and dance upon the ceiling. It seemed to fill the whole room with a great golden light, and in that moment of blindness the spiryt vanished quicker than he had even appeared. All of that golden wind and its light surged towards her, and it swept through his nose and her mouse to some place deep inside of her, and then it was gone. When the midwives entered the tent a moment later, they were speaking of some great golden wind that had just blown through the sky. They asked whether she thought it a good omen or ill, and so the lady murmured that it boded well and then fell asleep. In her half-lucid dreams, she wondered if that strange being had been the spirit of her lost husband.

As in for her fate, months passed by. The babe within her belly grew larger and stronger, and when the day came for it to emerge into the world, its delivery was no easy task. So large was that baby boy that his birthing sapped the last of the woman's strength, and as she held him in her arms, she knew that she was not long for the world. But even so, her son was robust and through him and his destined greatness she might live on. "Enkidu," she named him with her last whisper, and then slipped away. The orphaned infant was adopted by one of the midwives, and with that stranger Enkidu spent his first days.

≈≈≈≈≈


~~~~SECTION FIVE~~~~


It was some days before Shaqmar's scouts returned with substantial news regarding Toqidae's force. They reported that they had come across what appeared to be the aftermath of a vicious battle. Later that same day, another scout returned with news that Toqidae had been found encamped some distance north of that same battlefield. It appeared that the Tagham Qa'id Adheem had seen fit to remain in the area so as to pick off the remnants of the Ma'Erkoz force. 'He says you should march north and unite with his force so that you can both decide the next plan of attack,' Yoditi was saying. Concealing his irritation, Shaqmar rose and nodded.
'We march on the morrow,' he said brusquely before gesturing for Yoditi to let the men know. That night was sleepless and fitful as thoughts of Layla haunted every minute and second, and every heartbeat reverberated her name to him. Soon he would be reunited with her...soon.

On the morn he was the first to rise. Though exhausted, it was not exhaustion that wanted for sleep - though he was sorely in need -, nay, it was exhaustion which sought the peace of her presence by his side and in his arms. When they at last united with Toqidae's force and Shaqmar dismounted to greet the other Qa'id Adheem, he found that he - as well as being flanked by the other Qa'ids - was accompanied by a stranger. 'Now that the Azad chiefling has arrived, I will deliver the message direct to him,' the stranger was saying. Toqidae gave him a hostile glance.
'You shall do no such thing,' was his cold response.
'The message was never meant for you, you have no say in the matter,' the messenger spat. Toqidae turned on him angrily and made to grab him.
'Your tongue grows overlong, man, think not that I will hesitate to rid you of it,' the messenger backed away slightly, shaken by Toqidae's forbidding glare.
'Qa'id Adheem, I will hear what this man has for me,' Shaqmar interjected. Toqidae turned to Shaqmar with a frown.
'Shaqmar, he has nothing important to say. Mere posturing and taunts, unworthy of your station,' Shaqmar looked at him for a few moments before his response came.
'I will be the judge of that,' and so saying, he turned to the messenger and gestured for him to deliver his message.

'I, Zalzirai of the Ma'Erkoz, come bearing a message for Shaqmar: "From noble Firasi, Qa'id amongst Qa'ids, mighty Qa'idinqad of the entirety of Rukbany, to the upstart chiefling Shaqm-"'
'Before you continue, it is important to correct some of the content of this message of yours. I would hate for it to be said that your master sent a message full of inaccuracies. Here, it should read: "From the king of cowards, the greatest weakling, mightiest oppressor, from Firasi the Oathbreaker, slayer of the innocent, to the Qa'id Adheem Shaqmar." Yes, that is better, do you not think? You may continue now.' The messenger scowled and nodded.
'He says, after sending you his greetings, "And we have heard the words you spoke challenging the might of the Ma'Erkoz, and we thought it necessary to respond to your sharp tongue before our blades bring an end to both your silver tongue and golden eyes:

Have you come to know the dawn through these my ruins?
Just repayment for wind and rain unabating,
The newly-born finds in them rest from the sand dunes,
They are studied: I knew what I was creating.

I saw it, and its people are people of truth
They do not wish after the intent to depart.
By God! You are the lovers of discord, forsooth!
Oh me! You pounded and punctured the brave man's heart!

And my eye doth battle the tear from what you did
To my brother, Ankamai, when I neglect it,
For Ankamai, the mighty, into whom you slid
The untrue blade when he stood by the water-pit.

I go on visitation soon to Azad land,
Amongst them is Shaqmar who wishes to face me,
I assuaged some of my thirst for blood with my band-
Shaqmar now comes slaying: does he wish to race me!?

How is my patience when you slaughtered Ankamai,
And you have gloated at his murder on the plains!
By my life, I shall slaughter for my Ankamai
Every known gloater, or put them debased in chains,

I struck: hear my raging thunders and deathly knells!
And I tore families and lit up a great flame,
So drink deep of what you now draw from our blood wells!
And go forth humbled, at a loss, burning in shame.

The people proclaim that we are neighbours most vile:
They have lied about us in this that they have said,
They did not see us riding on horses virile
Seizing Vetruvians and planting their hearts with dread,

The day we marched forth against the tribes of Bajlaan
With a gathering whose like are the far mountains,
Amongst them was Sarqik and Buglai and Turtan
And Chagal and Barai and the son of Boutayn,

On that day Shaqmar's sword did not come out and hack,
He gave up those mothers heavy with their sorrow,
So do not tire of fighting, son of Buraq,
Be patient, for I am not going to withdraw!

My close friends, closen to me on this fated day
Every seductive neigher and steed, red or black,
Closen Faxa's reins to me, and ask me, and -aye!-
Do not take long in asking, for I soon attack.

Closen Faxa's reins to me, for my actions give
Absolute truth to the words that I here speak,
Closen Faxa's reins to me, none of them shall live
For I shall put out their flame even as they shriek,

Closen Faxa's reins to me, and when we step out
On to the field, let that be when the deed is done!
Closen Faxa's reins to me, they may wish to sprout
Wings and flee, but they shan't gallop free 'neath the sun!

Closen Faxa's reins to me, and closen too my
Battledress, and say to every Azad fighter
Come forth and draw the glinting blade: your death is nigh!
Come forth light or heavy: you leave a head lighter.

We have possessed you, so grovel at our feet and
Be slaves: you are destined towards domination,
And take heed, and pull and be ardent: take a stand -
Prepare for ceaseless war; the death of your nation!

For the tribes of Azad have dawned like the ancients:
The Prophet's people who were sundered by the storm.
We have slaughtered their helpless ones with blades trenchant
And shall slay their champions alone or in a swarm!

Oh Azad, prepare what you wish - and what you can
For you shall not find for this any cessation.


Thus spake Firasi. I meet you on the morrow." And here ends the message.'

Shaqmar stared at the man in stunned silence for some time. This whole matter was...due to a blood-feud? How many years had it been since Ankamai's death at Qaseer's hand? How long had it been since the war with the tribes of Bajlaan? He had not realised that the Ma'Erkoz had held his neutrality at the time against him - it had come about at a point when the Azad were simply unable to wage war, even if the crimes of Bajlaan had exceeded all limits. And moreover, the dispute had been between the Ma'Erkoz and Bajlaan, the Azad had neither horse nor camel in the matter. Shaking himself from his reverie, Shaqmar turned on the messenger with a fury.

'Return to your wicked overlord and tell him to beg the Sky for mercy, for if he were to weep the Mahd he shan't find it with me. On the morrow death marches towards him riding fury, and it shall be blind to his cries and shan't hear any plea. Take flight before you fall victim to my battle frenzy, for were you not a messenger, your head would now be free.' The messenger laughed anxiously before backing away and making as quickly as he could for his horse. Toqidae watched Shaqmar for a few moments, but quickly went his own way when the Qa'id Adheem flashed him an angry glare, and the others soon did likewise.

Ankamai had married the daughter of Siruga, the Dhul'Dhanab Qa'id, sometime before Shaqmar subjugated them. While no great conflict had erupted between Shaqmar and Siruga, and while the Dhul'Dhanab had quickly surrendered to him after a few minor skirmishes, it so happened that in one such skirmish Qaseer had spotted a stranger near a well and, taking him to be a Dhul'Dhanab spy, had struck him down. That had been Ankamai. It had not helped that Qaseer and Ankamai's elder brother, Firasi, had a long-standing rivalry - for Qaseer, as a general rule, had a rival over every crest. When Firasi had come to take revenge for his brother's death, Shaqmar had adjudicated between him and Qaseer and the matter had been solved, Shaqmar thought, amicably - Qaseer had to pay a blood tribute of one-hundred horses. Siruga had later offered his daughter, Ankamai's widow, to Qaseer in marriage. And while Shaqmar had heard that this infuriated Firasi, he had not thought much of it - for the marriage was quite convenient for strengthening the bond between the Azad and the Dhul'Dhanab. Now, years later, the ugly matter raised its head once more.

Not long after this affair, while Shaqmar was still busy reorganising after defeating the Dhul'Dhanab, a major dispute between the Ma'Erkoz and the tribes of Bajlaan erupted into all out war when a band of Bajlaan raiders ambushed a group of Ma'Erkoz herders, slaying the men and seizing the women and children and herd animals. A good number of the women had been pregnant, which inflamed injured Ma'Erkoz pride. And Firasi had called on Shaqmar to join him and fight to restore lost Ma'Erkoz honour, and fight to uphold the unspoken laws and traditions of the Rukbans - which the Bajlaan had wickedly broken time and time again. And Shaqmar sent his apologies and told him that he was simply unable to wage war at that time. It seemed that Firasi had, though he never showed it, held that against him.

And the Ma'Erkoz had fought the Bajlaan, and Firasi had personally slain their champions Sarqik and Turtan. The famed Buglai had been felled by the hand of one of Firasi's brothers - Jarobai - while their Qa'id Chagal had been brought down by an arrow to the eye. Many claimed to have fired it, but it later transpired that the arrow in fact belonged to a Bajlaanid who had fired it in error - or so he claimed. As for Barai and Kasrai the son of Boutayn, they had eventually fled to the north and out of Firasi's reach. The war had raged for many months, and Shaqmar had taken the opportunity to lick his wounds and establish himself internally - for Qa'id Urtagai of the Mu'aykala had still been alive then and was a real threat to Shaqmar. How he had been so blind to Firasi's intentions over the past years, Shaqmar could not understand. It was what it was, however, and his Layla was now in the vengeful claws of that furious beast. But Firasi's love for his brother was as nothing beside Shaqmar's love for his Layla, and Firasi's fury at the death of his brother was as nothing beside Shaqmar's fury at the very thought that a little harm could come to his beloved - so how was it when Firasi had done that and more? The Eternal Sky's throne itself doth shake at such furies!

Shaqmar was seated on a log, still seething and deep in thought when he was approached by Qamtar. The man bowed deeply. 'Qa'id Adheem, your brother Zanshah has arrived,' Shaqmar's eyes widened at this and he immediately rose to his feet. His brothers had not been seen for many years - all older than him, they had each set out into the world and left Shaqmar behind to care for his parents and sisters. What, after all, did the weak Azad tribe hope to offer their likes? They had not been the masters of southern Rukbany then. Zanshah, the very eldest - older than Shaqmar by some twenty years -, had gone south into the Vetruvian desert, along with Bulagutai who was just over two years Shaqmar's senior. Zanshah was very well-travelled, and this had not been the first time he went voyaging. He had in the past travelled to the north and gone beyond where the Barrens of Rukbany ended, and on another adventure he had ventured east and crossed the Mahd before sailing south on it till he reached the greatest settlement of Vetruvia. And on this, his third and most recent expedition, and his longest by far, he had travelled into the heart of the torrid sands.

Shaqmar found him near the outskirts of the encampment surrounded by people who had heard of his arrival and come to pay their respects to the esteemed elder and warrior, and brother of the Qa'id Adheem. All parted as Shaqmar made his towards his brother.
'Shaqmar!' he roared when his eyes landed on his youngest sibling, 'by the Eternal Sky brother! You have flattened mountains and erected them anew!' he said with a laugh before the two brothers grabbed one another by the forearms, embracing in the way of the Rukbans after long being apart.
'It is good to see you again elder brother. The tribe has sorely missed your presence.'
'It doesn't seem like you needed me at all! I return, thinking to find the little-known tribe I had left years ago, and instead, I find you in the midst of a battle with none other than the mighty Ma'Erkoz!' Shaqmar's smile faded slightly at the mention of the war, and Zanshah noticed immediately. 'You will have to tell me how this entire affair came about.'
'You...have not yet learned?' Shaqmar asked hesitantly. Zanshah shook his head in the negative. 'It is something to be told another time. For now, let us offer you what little we can at this time. And you will have to pardon us for not throwing festivities in your honour, for we must fight on the morrow.' And with that, Shaqmar turned and, with Zanshah beside him, walked back towards his great roundtent. A large bucket of water - collected during the recent rainfall - was brought and Shaqmar helped his brother out of his travel clothes and seated him on the log. Seeing the Qa'id Adheem doing the work of women, a few passing women rushed to aid Zanshah in washing himself in place of Shaqmar, but he waved them away and, wet cloth in hand, began scrubbing sweat and sand and dirt from his brother's body. Once he had scrubbed him down completely, he lifted the bucket and slowly poured its content onto Zanshah's head and back. With that done, the Azad elder rose and Shaqmar set about drying him with another piece of cloth and rinsing the water out of his hair. The naked - but dry - man then ascended the steps with Shaqmar and entered the roundtent where Shaqmar swiftly got him new clothes.

By the time he was dressed and they were sat down, food had been prepared and was brought in for them. Shaqmar tasted it before his brother and, after a few moments, invited him to begin. As they ate and drank, Shaqmar asked Zanshah about his adventures in the many years since they had last seen one another. Brushing long black hair from his eyes with the back of his hand, Zanshah told him of how he had ventured into the Firewind with Bulagutai. After some weeks of travelling, they had come across a group of misfits - Vetruvians and Rukbans - who were led by a man named Y'Qar.
'We joined him and travelled through the desert for many days until we came to a large oasis in the middle of the Firewind. It was a paradise in the midst of hell, its lake akin to an ocean whose ending cannot be seen in any direction one launches their gaze,' he bit into a piece of beef, 'we had hardly stayed there a short time when there descended an almighty being from the heavens and it spoke with Y'Qar for long. When it was done and had disappeared, he turned to us and proclaimed that he had been given an almighty gift from the Eternal Sky through its servant, the Vizier Ventus. H-'
'Wait,' Shaqmar suddenly said, 'that's the same creature that came to us many years ago and gave our shamans a mysterious gift.' Zanshah raised an eyebrow at this revelation.
'Is that true?!' he asked incredulously. Shaqmar nodded in the affirmative and Zanshah looked down at the food for a few moments. 'In any case, we stayed in that strange paradise for a little over a year as Y'Qar taught us all he had learned from the Vizier Ventus. And when that was done, we all headed our separate ways. Some returned to their homes, others - like Bulagutai - sought ascetic reclusion in order to further explore the gift of the Eternal Sky. Last I saw our brother he was heading west along the shores of that ocean-like oasis. As for me, I continued south into the desert. I sailed oceans of sand and came upon oceans of water, and I rode the winds and waters with the Eternal Sky's gift and landed on foreign shores. And what I saw is more than can be related to you in one sitting or two. After these many years, I return to find our lands much changed. I left and the Azad were weak and unknown, trampled by all. I return and find us on the verge of subjugating all Rukbans beneath our unified banner. How did this come about? What caused this present war with the Ma'Erkoz?'

With a heavy heart, Shaqmar told his elder brother of all that had transpired - that their father had passed away naturally some years back and of the heinous crimes of the Ma'Erkoz and murder of their mother. Zanshah had expected to return to find that his parents had passed away - killed in battle even - but he never imagined that his mother would go in such a cruel and treacherous way. He bent his head and was silent for a long while before he muttered a small prayer for her soul and the soul of their father and all their noble ancestors.



With that done, Zanshah suddenly rose and asked Shaqmar to bring all the shamans of the encampment before him. When they were all gathered before the roundtent's wooden steps - thirty-nine in total, the ancient Alqama at their head -, Zanshah emerged before them and raised his arms skyward.
'You who are privy to the secrets of the universal tongues! On the morrow we face the Ma'Erkoz, who have breached every law set forth by the Eternal Sky. On the morrow the Qa'id Adheem will punish them. But on the morrow the Eternal Sky will punish them too. I want you all, with me, to raise your arms towards the heavens and beseech the Sky to send down to us one of its foremost warriors and punishers who will, with the Sky's permission, rend the lawbreakers apart!' The shamans muttered to one another at this request and there was clear fear in their eyes - it was well-known that djinnis could be erratic and whimsical. Even if one was summoned successfully, there was no telling whether it would accept a shaman's request or not. Alqama stepped forward, leaning on his walking stick.
'If you want to do this,' he said with a powerful voice, 'then we will need a mighty sacrifice. We all must, all together, slaughter a horse each. And they must then be set ablaze, their spirits rising with the smoke that a great spirit from above may descend.' Zanshah nodded in agreement and turned to Shaqmar who was stood behind him.
'We shall each need one of your horses, brother.' Shaqmar nodded and gestured for them to move out of the encampment where the ritual could take place.

Forty of Shaqmar's best horses were brought by the women and each of the shamans was given one, along with a sharp blade and rope. The steeds were forced to lie down on their sides, where their hindlegs and forelegs were tied. Zanshah stroked the white mare he had been given with a strong hand and whispered calming words to her. The knife in his other hand remained hidden so as not to alarm the poor thing and his whisperings soon melted into a calming hum that was replicated by all the other shamans in the large circle. Slowly and gently, Zanshah pressed the blade into her stomach before ripping all the way up her torso with a calm, swift, stroke. She let off a groan and began to struggle, almost in tandem with the thirty-nine others. Releasing the knife, Zanshah placed his hand inside her torso until her beating heart was in his hand. She struggled and kicked and groaned as he tightened his grip. After a while, the heart gave out and she lay dead - like all the others. Kymis was brought forth and each shaman took a clay bowl and filled it. Then each sipped the liquid and sprayed it from his mouth onto the corpse before him. This was done until all bowls were empty.

In the middle of the circle of death, wood was brought and a pyre was built. The forty corpses were lifted and lain in place before each of them took up a torch and began circling the large pyre and setting it alight. Soon enough, smoke billowed and sweltered into the heavens - and one could almost hear the spirited neighs of horse souls as they rose skyward.
With the sacrifice complete, the shamans all backed away from the fire and formed a large circle around it, raising their arms to the heavens and muttering in a foreign, guttural tongue. Their speech, as the seconds passed, grew quicker and more impassioned and they were soon circling around the fire in slow sideways hops. The smoke darkened and the heavens blackened from it, and still the shamans growled and leapt and kicked at the earth - slowly, deliberately, in complete synchrony.

A result was not immediately apparent, but it did not take overly long to manifest itself either. After some ten minutes of the guttural sounds and ritual dance, the highest clouds of smoke parted as an arrow of aerial purity descended from on high. It struck earth, the epicentre of the flame, with a mighty force and sent flaming wood and burning horse parts and shamans flying. The gathered people let out a roar of fear and many dispersed. Zanshah was swift to rise after being blown back, and he raised his arms in a show of humility to the catastrophic being that had descended, and in an attempt to get it to focus on him.

'Hum, Ho, Ha, Him - before you is a force most grim! Kho, Kha, Khiy, Kheer - shake and tremble before Basheer!' It was a mighty thing, a djinn among djinns, a lord of lords. And though its voice struck terror into the hearts of all, there was an elegance to its form and a gentle beauty and tune to its every word.



'Brilliant Basheer, terror and fear - glory most clear: listen and hear!' Zanshah declared. Basheer looked upon him, and his movement caused the wind to rise in clamouring melody.
'For some moments you may borrow my ear: I am with you, I listen and I hear. Speak well and you will have much cause to cheer, speak ill and there awaits a fate austere.'
'There has arisen a great evil in our land - innocents are brought low by its butchering hand. It has broken our law and the law of the Sky, and we have decreed that it shall tomorrow die. Since it shall die tomorrow, you are here today: We ask you smash with us the ones who are astray.' Basheer considered Zanshah for a few moments before the wind broke into a furious cacophony of sounds around him.
'You mean to say you have an enemy who has caused you much pain and agony: and you would have me venture forth to him and fight and loose his final song and hymn,' Basheer bent down and his huge face nearly touched the tiny Zanshah, 'This is it, or am I not right? You think me dim?- I am of light!' Zanshah looked down and did not respond to the angry djinn. After a few silent seconds, Basheer rose back up and spoke again. 'I am not a tool for mortals to use against their foes and all whom they accuse. You spoke well, but your request is fall'n flat. You are spared, you may thank your tongue for that.' And so saying, Basheer began his ascension towards the skies. As he rose, leaving behind something of a divine melody, he observed with an imperious eye the fearful mortals who were gathered all anigh. His eyes fell on a single, white-clad figure in the distance and he suddenly froze in place and his tune came to a crashing end. There emanated from that figure the undeniable aura, and taste, and smell, of an ancient friend. He looked back down at Zanshah and spoke again.
'You my ear again I lend: Is the white-clad man your friend?' Zanshah opened his mouth in surprise at the question, and nothing but a small 'uh' left his mouth. Before Basheer could grow irate at his silence, Shaqmar was suddenly beside his brother.
'The white-clad man is known to me for he came to us a friend and with prophesy,' Shaqmar responded swiftly. He glanced at Zanshah quickly before looking back up to Basheer who was now descending again.
'Are you a friend of The First Among Creation? Do you know where she is- in what place or nation?'
'Great Lord, what know we of these distant things? We are not gods and do not fly on wings. We do not know what you or heaven sing and only know what sight and hearing bring.' Basheer gave off a cry of shock at Shaqmar's words, and the Qa'id Adheem took a step back in fear at having angered the mighty djinni.
'Your words are as nectar and I the honey bee! Here end my wavering attempts to fly and flee. What are you people that your tongues should be so free? Who blessed them thus and filled Basheer with growing glee?' Shaqmar blinked in confusion and looked to his brother, who looked to him with equal confusion. The end of a staff - a goat's skull fixed on it - suddenly came between them, and they parted before Alqama's walking stick.
'We master five: the horse and the bow and the word, and the sword also and the caring for the herd,' the old man declared. A melodious laugh cleft the heavens and Basheer clapped thunder at the old man's balanced rhyme.
'Were Basheer to have been born otherwise it would have been nowhere but 'neath your skies! You three have well my goodly passions stirred: I aid you, masters of the sword and word.'

***


~~~~SECTION SIX~~~~


He had dreamt of slaying Shaqmar and all his kin for a thousand nights, but this night was dreamless. Firasi peered up at the sky as he lay on the grass outside his tent counting the stars. There were more stars than he had horses...and yet for every light in that sky, he would avenge Ankamai tenfold. He only had to wait until the first light. Finally, when that pink blush came upon the dull horizon and whispered of the coming sun, the Qa'id rose. Within the hour he and his horses were armored and their horses saddled; at last, the time had come!

He addressed his warriors with a fire in his heart and upon his lips,
"Mighty warriors of my tribe, blood of my blood,
my keen blades, my red vengeance, my furious flood:
you know why I proclaimed this blood-feud, why they die.
When base Qaseer drove his blade through my Ankamai,
a lance of grief pierced my heart and it wracks me still.
I am denied rest until the debt is repaid;
I say an eye for an eye, a heart for a heart!
With spear, impale every Azad that dares ride forth,
trample their corpses, defile their daughters, and then
we stack their skulls and rival the greatest mountains."


As one great horde, the Ma'Erkoz bellowed their war cries and rallied. Above all their din, Firasi roared, "For every heart that you tear from the chest of an Azad, I shall gift you a horse! To any man that returns bearing no trophy, you shall leave a head shorter."

And so Firasi mounted his beloved Faxa and rode forth proudly with the scalps of a dozen Azad hanging from his saddle. A thousand riders did likewise, and, in formation, the horde advanced upon the plains until it drew within sight of Shaqmar's host. It was tradition to raise a white banner, an offer of peace and a promise to spill no blood if the enemy laid down their arms and surrendered. But Firasi denied the wretches that! He raised a black banner instead; 'twas one that promised only the lives of the women and children, and even then their lives were bound to end in slavery. The warlord sent forth one last messenger to demand Shaqmar's surrender, knowing well what the answer would be. He had his man ready to raise the red banner: the promise of death for all.

'How many?' Shaqmar asked Yoditi as he galloped back to him.
'Many, my Qa'id. More than fifteen thousand,' the veteran responded. Shaqmar's war party had taken some significant losses as they advanced. While he had twenty thousand warriors with him when he marched forth, which had been bolstered by the five thousand Tagham to twenty-five thousand, he now had just over eleven thousand warriors. It was lucky that they had surprised and crushed much of the Ma'Erkoz quite swiftly, else they would have been easily outnumbered by forces twice - even thrice! - their size. As it were, numbers would prove to be of very little significance today, for the Eternal Sky itself was on his side. As Shaqmar watched the enemy host, a rider galloped out towards them holding out a small arm skyward to signal that he bore a message. Shaqmar steered Layl forward and met the messenger personally. Firasi, the messenger informed him, demanded surrender. Shaqmar's eyes flashed with a fury and Layl reared up on his hind legs, kicking the air mere inches from the messengers face. The messenger's horse involuntary moved away from the monstrous steed. Layl turned away and kicked at the ground and twisted himself around, dust rising up around him as Shaqmar drew his sword.

'Tell Firasi that God shall descend from on high to claim his spiteful soul today. If he is a man, and he has already proven he is not, then let him come out and face me in a death-duel. My sword is eager for his blood, by God! My hands are eager to claw his eyes out! I will sink my teeth into him and I will tear his flesh from his bones: watch!- this is what happens when the dog defies the cave lion!' With that, the messenger turned away and fled, and Shaqmar waited on Firasi's response.

And when Firasi received word of Shaqmar's answer, his response was to raise the red banner. A messenger was thus sent to Shaqmar to proclaim that, "Noble Firasi, Qa'id amongst Qa'ids, mighty Qa'idinqad of the entirety of Rukbany, answers the the upstart chiefling Shaqmar's challenge of a death-duel; and yet he craves not only the blood of Shaqmar, but that of his whole tribe. So there shall be a battle! Send forth a champion first if you would witness Ma'Erkoz supremacy; otherwise, Firasi will lead the charge before the bloody banner, and he longs to face his foe's charge and slaughter chiefling and bodyguard alike in the thick of combat."

Shaqmar gave the messenger a frigid look and turned away. His eyes scanned the faces of his men and he roared out. 'Who of you will sally forth before me and strike fear into Firasi's cowardly heart? Who of you is a champion staunch and steady who will drive into Ma'Erkoz a sword that's curved and heavy?- you who wields the sword of fear, come and stand before me here!' A few men made to lunge forward with their steeds, but it was Qaseer who roared deafeningly at them to drawback or face his fury. The small, stocky champion urged his mare forward and drew his scimitar.
'Qa'id Adheem! Unleash me upon your foes!' he shouted. Shaqmar smiled and turned upon the messenger.
'Go back to the coward and tell him Qaseer will strike his champion down.'

So that messenger relayed the word back to his master, and Firasi proclaimed to all those about him, "Shaqmar sends his own cousin to die! Qaseer rides out as the champion of the Azad; who among you shall be my champion and claim the honor of being first to slay an Azad on this day?"

Those of his chieftains and generals and bodyguards all clamored and many stepped forth, but it was Hunayra that made the strongest case, no, who demanded that it be him. "It is known that Qaseer is the blight upon my soul, the rust upon my blade. So long as that worm draws breath I cannot rest. Send me to face him, great Qa'id, and I shall proudly return with a red blade and his scalp hanging from my saddle." With that, Qaseer's mare burst forth and galloped towards the centre-point between the gathered hosts. He stopped there, scimitar drawn, and his mare kicked the earth and reared up before he skillfully leapt off and landed with a small roll. Leaping to his feet, he called on the Ma'Erkoz to bring out their champion.
'Consider him dead and begin your weeping now!' came his fearless challenge.

On the other side came mocking cries and more than a few men threw things toward Qaseer or made to urinate in his direction. As for Hunayra, with deliberate calm and slow he prepared his horse, he inspected his twin scimitars, he asked his favorite wife Arya - who he had specifically brought with him that day - for her blessing and a token. All the while, Hunayra thought, Qaseer would no doubt be burning in rage at the indignity of being made to wait. Hunayra knew his enemy well, and he knew that as that fire flared in Qaseer's heart it would drive him to brashness, and a wild man flailing about his blade would make for a far easier kill than one who kept his calm. Hunayra knew his rival well, and so he had planned all this.

'C'mon! C'mon!' the increasingly-frustrated Qaseer shouted.

After allowing enough time for Qaseer to seethe, the champion of the Ma'Erkoz, at last, mounted his horse and advanced at a canter. He might have looked afraid were it not for the smile upon his face. He dismounted slowly at a short distance from Qaseer and then drew his two blades. The scimitars gleamed golden in the sun's light, but so too did the smallest part of a dagger that Hunayra kept hidden in his belt. A backup, for the slim chance that he found himself disarmed. Or if Qaseer lowered his guard!

"Qaseer! You did not think that I had forgotten our duel, did you? Are you ready to die, you miserable rat?" Qaseer grinned widely at this.
'Took you long enough! I'm going to look forward to ripping out that pretty little tongue of yours - and I'll keep it as a token! After all, anything that's been where that little thing has been deserves to be cherished!' He licked his lips and laughed aloud, gesturing for the man to come closer, 'come, talk less and let us have some fun. It's been too long!'

"To think that a man can have ten whores and keep his humor! Hah, tell me Qaseer, do they mount you?" Hunarya taunted. He kept Qaseer in the corner of his eye and made ready to defend against any sudden attack, but pretended to be more concerned with his own blades and his horse. "Perhaps once you're dead I shall be able to satisfy them."
'Perhaps!-' Qaseer declared, his face red, 'when you're dead I will be able to show Arya what a real man can do! Don't worry, as I say, I'll hang your tongue up in our roundtent, and whenever she misses you, you can just...talk.' He smiled widely - it was not a nice smile, but one seething with fury and malice - and stepped forward to speak more low, 'you're a rat and a snake Hunayra. You stole her from me when all knew she was rightfully mine!' His eyes flashing, he gestured threateningly with his blade, gripping his sheath tightly in his other hand. All knew the reason behind Qaseer and Hunayra's rivalry. Arya was, to many, the most beautiful being on the plains of Rukbany, and Qaseer had for long made his intention to wed her clear. He would ride on a near monthly basis to the camp of the small Cangin clan to bring her gifts and woo her - so much so that her father had ordered constant watch be kept around her roundtent in case the little devil should sneak in and defile her purity! But wiley Qaseer had his ways and he had thought that, to all extents and purposes, his wedding with Arya was merely a matter of time. He just had to convince her stubborn father that he was the best man for her. The old man, Jarnilai, had only become more and more suspicious of the young man - the fact that he had six wives already at the time made him doubt Qaseer's sincerity and his ability to care for his daughter.

Then the damned Hunayra had appeared on the scene. He had made himself quite the reputation in various raids against Vetruvians as well as some tribes in the far north where Qaseer had never been. All knew him to be a warrior of great prowess and ability. When he came asking to wed Arya, Qaseer had flown into a fury and galloped out to kill him that very day. But by the time he had arrived an agreement had been reached and Arya was promised him. Infuriated, he had confronted her father before the entire tribe and demanded he give Arya to him in marriage. Foolish and angry, he had only grown more furious when Jarnilai refused and had drawn his sword against him. Were it not for a shaman's swift interjection, the old man would have lost more than his arm - by God! Naturally, the affair created something of a crisis between the Azad and the Cangin, and Arya refused to see Qaseer again after that. Shaqmar had been furious and had ordered his saucy, flippant cousin whipped four hundred times - fifty to his upper back, fifty to his lower back, fifty to his buttocks, and fifty to his feet. The punishment was repeated again after two weeks. He fell comatose for nearly a month afterwards and could hardly walk for over three seasons. Were it not for the care of his six wives and Alqama, he certainly would have died. But the whole affair had planted within the man a deep hatred for Hunayra. As soon as he had regained his health, he made it known that he was challenging his bitter rival to a duel. They were to meet before a combined group of Azad and Ma'Erkoz elders who would ensure the duel was fought honourably. But before the day of their meeting came, crisis struck - for Ankamai was killed by Qaseer. The duel never came about.

"Alas, if I am a snake or a rat, I suppose I shall have to claim your manhood from your lifeless corpse. Your scalp is promised to Firasi, but your manhood -" Hunayra suddenly laughed, "would make a fine token to present Arya, since you long for her so! Hah, I now know how she could never fall for a fool like you." And then Hunayra flourished his blades and approached the rabid dog that was his foe. While much of Hunayra's words had only added to Qaseer's anger, they did not truly insult him. This, however, was different. All knew his love for Arya, and all knew that she had loved him. For Hunayra to question even that - to suggest that she could never love him. His grip on his sword tightened and his face darkened instantly. Without a response, he stepped forward and struck out with lightning fury. His sword slashed horizontally - if it had landed, Hunayra would have found the content of his stomach spilling out.

But Hunayra predicted that sudden strike and leapt away - not back, but to the side. With one of his scimitars he caught Qaseer's stray blade and with the other he struck at it in an attempt to knock it out of his foe's hand. But Qaseer was not overly concerned with his enemy's little tricks - his target was no sword. Without stopping, he stuck his leg out and gave his foe a savage kick between the legs.
'FOCUS!' he roared.

Adrenaline softened the pain that Hunayra felt at the cheap blow, but he still cried out in pain. With all pretences of honor gone, he shoved his swords forward as if trying to force both them and Qaseer's own blade closer to the man's throat. Then, in a single swift motion he cast one of his scimitars to the ground and used the free hand to reach for the dagger at his belt. Finding it, he stayed so close to Qaseer that he could feel the man's hot breath, and then stabbed at the fool's insolent leg. He pressed his blade forward, trying to force the fight onto the ground where it would devolve into a bloody butchery. With a dagger in his hand, Hunayra held the advantage in such close quarters. Qaseer grunted in surprise as he felt the blade sink into his thigh, and though he struggled to remain upright the combined pressure of the pain and Hunayra's weight forced him to fall back. He tried, to no avail, to flip his opponent over so that he was on top, but the taller man had the advantage in that regard and maintained his position on top. Releasing his sheath, he grabbed blindly at Hunayra's dagger hand in an attempt to gain control over the blade, even as he fought to push their locked scimitars upwards.

Locked in that struggle with one hand trying to rip the dagger out of Qaseer's leg and the other trying to bear down on the man's throat with the edge of his scimitar, Hunayra nonetheless thought of a way to bring himself an advantage. With all the force that he could, he brought his knee down upon the man's groin. If Qaseer would strike the fork of his legs, he would repay the favor! Qaseer grunted and scowled while continuing his struggles, then he laughed slightly.
'Th-think you'll knock out my horse before Arya can enjoy it, eh? Don't worry, we'll be having fun tonight,' and with that, he gave an ear-piercing whistle. A mare neighed somewhere and there was the sound of trotting, though Hunayra was so fixated upon his tantalizing victory that he did not hear.

Sneering at his words, Hunayra spat into Qaseer's eyes. Then, while his foe was blinded he at last freed the dagger, wrested Qaseer's hand off his own arm, and raised it to pierce his eternal enemy's heart - but there was a distinct snort and whinny to his side, and before the blade could descend Qaseer's horse dealt Hunayra a kick to the side of the head. He was struck dead in an instant. He fell lifelessly to the side, knocked off Qaseer by the impact of the blow. The sneer remained on his face and the triumphant glow in his eyes remained even as the dagger fell into the earth.
'Y-you don't mess with Qaseer's horse,' the short Azad grunted. With that, he struggled to sit up and pulled himself up against his trusty mare, 'you beautiful thing, Mara,' he said as he stroked her neck and back, planting a kiss on one of her muscled haunches. Then he hobbled over and snatched the dagger from the ground - he'd be holding on to that. Approaching Hunayra's corpse, he saw little point in scalping him - there was little scalp left after Mara's mighty strike. Reaching for the dead man's still warm mouth, he forced it open and reached for his tongue. 'Just as I promised, I'll be keeping this,' and with that he took his prize. He noted a small piec of tied cloth around his forearm - clearly a token of some kind. Smirking, the Azad ripped it off and tucked it into his belt. Looking further down his dead body he smiled and tapped the dead man's groin, 'don't worry though, you can keep that!' and with a guffaw, he raised the tongue and gave off an incomprehensible roar in the direction of the Ma'Erkoz.

On the other side, Shaqmar looked on in silent fury. That damned Qaseer! He should have sent someone with a greater respect for the honour and dignity of the Azad and not a brutish head and bitter rivalry. He watched as he mounted Mara and returned to their side, grinning widely. 'AZAAAAAAAAAAAAAD!' he roared towards the heavens, holding his arms out wide. A few cheers met him, but otherwise all glared in silent shame. Qaseer looked at Shaqmar in confusion, 'What?' he asked innocently.
'By God, I'm going to lash you so you'll not wake up for a year!' the Qa'id Adheem growled lowly. Qaseer laughed.
'If Arya cares for me, lash me all you like, cousin!' and with that, he urged his mare back into position. Shaqmar watched as the Ma'Erkoz sent their men out to take back their slain champion.

With cold rage Firasi had watched his man slain by a horse in what was meant to have been single combat between two men. A duel of honor. It had been neither honorable nor single combat, and to see the same man that slaughtered his brother now bring down his champion was enough to make Firasi furious. He would take that one, that Qaseer, and he would keep him alive. Already the Qa'id dreamt of all the ways he would torture and punish Qaseer, but first there was the matter of slaughtering the Azad. No sooner had Hunayra's body been reclaimed then the Ma'Erkoz began readying their charge. True to his word, Firasi's red banner was held high above where he would ride. If Shaqmar was no coward, he would lead the charge directly opposite to that banner, and then the two warlords would at last meet upon the battlefield.

As the red banner was raised, Shaqmar raised his sword and five riders stepped forth. The middle rider raised a pole with circularly arranged horse-tail hairs of varying colors arranged at its top. The large Uild was the banner of the Qa'id Adheem. The other horsemen, one by one, raised smaller uilds. Three of them represented each of the Three Great Tribes of the Azad Confederation, while the fourth represented all the others - the Fifteen Tribes.


The Uild of the Qa'id Adheem and the Azad [ centre ], those of the Three Great Tribes of the Azad Confederation [ from right to left, Dhul'Dhanab, Huntalla, Mu'aykala ], and that of the Fifteen Tribes [ far left ]


Even as the uilds were raised, the guttural growls of shamans rose up and carried on the winds.
'Firasi!' Shaqmar roared, and for one reason or another his voice seemed far louder than normal, and it carried to far greater distances, 'God himself has seen your sins. I am Shaqmar of the Sunlit Eyes! I am the punishment of God - if you had not committed such great sins, the Eternal Sky would not have seen fit to send a punishment as terrible as me upon you!'[1] and with that, the winds picked up and the clouds gathered and the horse hairs of the uilds and Firasi's red banners moved violently as the weather turned suddenly. The guttural growls of Shaqmar's shamans seemed to give way to a strange sound - more melodic. More ominous.

There...behind the five uilds, there rose up a great dark cloud which slowly took on - more and more - a humanoid form. Horses grunted and whinnied fearfully on both sides, and shouts rose up even on Shaqmar's side - though they had all witnessed the mighty djinni yesterday, still was he a spectacle worthy of fear. Basheer opened his mouth as if inhaling and let go a mighty whirlwind from his mouth, which rose up like a flailing tentacle and seemed to shatter the eye of the sky. The tentacular vortex was released into the heavens, and Basheer rose up swiftly on a gust of wind before diving down and tearing through the very earth as he cut towards the terrified Ma'Erkoz - his melody was an ear-piercing death-screech, his visage was the image of death and ruination. Men were torn apart by the force of the wind and horses went rocketing into the skies and all around it rained blood and mortal remains. Under his banner, Firasi stared in horror - for one reason or another the winds melting away around him. He looked across the torn plain to where Shaqmar rested upon his steed. In the haze and heat and debris and red rain, he and Layl looked like a dark black stain which shimmered here and there like some fiend from the depths of Azmund-Y'Vahn. Scowling with hatred and fury even as his hands trembled ever so slightly at the catastrophic being that was laying into his men, he turned Faxa away and made his escape with the many others who were doing likewise.

Even as Basheer continued to lay waste to those who could not escape - or, to be more accurate, those he did not let escape - Shaqmar signalled to his foremost warriors and he urged Layl forward. The mighty stallion leapt forward and sprung into a full gallop after a few strides. He tore after the escaping Firasi even as his men struggled to keep up with him. Like the tip of a singular arrow, Shaqmar sped forth as the rest of the wedged warband raced after him, and when he caught up with the Ma'Erkoz stragglers who were quick enough to escape Basheer but too slow to outpace Layl, they felt the kiss of his blade and fell. Rain splattered against the foaming canvass of heaven.
'Firasi!' Shaqmar growled as Layl continued flying forth. But Faxa was a rare steed. The chestnut stallion had a long starting advantage so that not even Layl could catch up with it before Firasi found some imagined safety in his camp. Circling around the encampment, worry eating at his heart at what Firasi might do with Layla in his moment of defeat, he waited until his men were gathered around him - clicking in annoyance to find that Qaseer has made a detour to save Arya from Basheer's fury. With all gathered, he raised his scimitar and charged into the camp.
'I want Firasi alive!' Shaqmar shouted as he leapt from Layl and threw open the the first roundtent he came upon. He narrowly dodged a thrown jar and looked inside. An ancient woman was sat glowering at him, many children around her, and a clay bowl in her hand ready to be thrown. Shaqmar withdrew and threw open the next roundtent, and the next. In the distance he could hear someone calling Qaseer and guessed that it was the captured Yesla, finally free. The clash of swords reached his ears some time afterwards as he continued his search. But there was no Layla to be found.

When Qaseer brought Firasi to him, tied and bloodied, Shaqmar turned on his cousin and asked about Layla.
'My Qa'id,' he said hesitantly, looking down, 'she...she is not here.' Shaqmar shook his head, dismissing the preposterous suggestion, and turned upon the tied and bloodied Firasi.
'She is long gone,' he laughed. Shaqmar scowled at this and, with pent-up rage and hatred, kicked him roundly across the face. The Ma'Erkoz Qa'id grunted with pain and fell to the side, his cheek bloodied and a few teeth loose.
'You will lose far more than your teeth, and I will break far more than your bones if you do not speak. God descended from on high and struck you down! So speak, curse you! Where is she?'
'As I said Shaqmar,' Firasi grunted, lifting himself back up, 'she is long gone. I sold her to those merchants weeks ago. You will never see her again!' Shaqmar's eyes widened and he felt his chest and arms convulse forcefully. He breathed and calmed himself before glaring at Firasi for a few seconds. Then he reached for Layl and felt for the spear he had brought specifically for this purpose. Hefting it, he looked at the hated Qa'id of the Ma'Erkoz.
'You are a snake and a coward, Firasi; a woman is more of a man than you,' he turned completely towards him, 'you found my woman and sang:

I dawned upon the naked tent of a cursèd foe
And brought my warriors and their horses in tow,
I entered thereupon and found lain there within
A powerless goddess who sowed my heart with sin,
I looked around to where her guardian should have been
And, finding none, took my spear and freely plunged it in!


and may the Eternal Sky damn you for what you sang. May it rain curses upon you greater than that which has already befallen you. May it torment and never permit you entrance into its great palace. Now I find you, so listen as I sing:

I rode to hunt, thinking I had a worthy foe
And I took my men and all their furies in tow
I took the souls of Ma'Erkoz and all its kin:
They could not fight, but God! they made a mighty din!
I looked for where that barking mongrel was hidden:
And took my father's spear and plunged it deep within!'


And with that, Shaqmar drove his spear into Firasi's left eye with savage strength; so much so that the spear emerged from the other side in a spray of gore and brain matter. His hated body convulsed and continued twitching even after Shaqmar drew the spear back out.
'Drive two spears up his feet and through his legs, and bury their shafts into the earth. Leave him like that so that he will serve as an example to all who come after him, and so that his dead moans will reach all: thus is the fate of cowards, thus the fate of traitors, thus the fate of lawbreakers, thus the fate of criminals.'

***


~~~~SECTION SEVEN~~~~


He stood before the groaning, shuddering corpse as it tried to rip itself free of the spears that fixed it in place on display. Though Firasi was dead and Shaqmar was alive, the dead body had more life in it than Shaqmar's idle one. His eyes stared somewhat blankly at the once-hated (still-hated) foe as if staring long enough would extract Layla's location from his dead jaws. Zanshah came to him from time to time and tried to get him to leave his place and rest, or leave his place to eat. But he was immovable. Every now and again he would sigh with yearning, or he would groan along with the corpse. And his silver tongue could not find the words with which to complain to the Eternal Sky about his state. The corpse of Firasi was a mere mockey of living-death - for Shaqmar was now living-death made manifest.

Eventually, it was not Zanshah who moved Shaqmar but Surayka. She came to him some two days after he had been stood before Firasi, his face yellow and gaunt from lack of sleep and lack of food and drink, his beard drooping dolefully. She placed her hand on his shoulder before she spoke, and hearing her voice prompted a numb reaction from him. He turned to her in somewhat dumb shock and stared at her blankly.



Surayka


'Shaqmar, you need to come with me. You are not well.' And she took him by the hand and pulled him gently. He nodded distractedly and took a few faltering steps with her. He glanced glassily at Firasi and, even as he allowed Surayka to lead him away, continued looking at the croaking corpse until it was out of sight. She removed his dirty clothes and, much as he had done not more than a week earlier for his brother, washed and cleansed him of all the dirt and sweat. Once done, she took him inside and silently dressed him. He stood there when she was finished, glassily ogling the vacant air. Pursing her lips, she took him firmly by the hand and laid him on his furs. When food was brought, she sat with him and fed him - and every now and again she snapped at him to chew his food. Zanshah had told her that Layla was either dead or gone never to return. It was obvious that Shaqmar would be in shock and denial for a while, but eventually he would emerge from his stupor and - so Zanshah had reasoned to her - he would need to find a good woman by his side. A woman who would help him forget his loss and refill the void in his heart and soul.
'It is you, Surayka. For you have loved him for as long as I can remember. And in time, I am certain that he will realise your position of honour in his heart.'

She looked at the dazed Shaqmar wistfully as he chewed. Something in her knew that Zanshah was wrong. Shaqmar was never going to forget his Layla. He was never going to allow her - or any other - into his heart. His blank gaze turned to her suddenly and she realised that she had been staring at him for longer than she meant. 'You- you should rest now. Here,' she placed her hand on his chest and pushed him gently back onto the furs. He did not resist and allowed himself to fall back. Moving the food away, she rose and placed some of the furs and blankets on him, and once she was certain he was well-covered, she turned to leave.
'Stay,' she halted in place, uncertain if she had heard him speak or if it was just her fanciful imagination, 'here.' She turned and looked at him in surprise. Wordlessly, she retraced her steps and sat herself on her knees beside him. She brushed some strands of jet-black hair from his eyes and placed the blankets tighter around his shoulders. His beard moved slightly as he managed what might have been the ghost of an attempt at a smile and he finally closed his eyes and got some much-needed sleep.

He slept for two days without waking, and Surayka remained with him in the roundtent. She moved from her place only to eat and answer the call of nature. And when she surrendered to sleep she usually crumpled near him on the ground - and one person or another who happened to enter the roundtent to check on them would find her like that and place some furs and blankets around her. When Shaqmar awoke, he found her sat there still, and she smiled silently as his eyes drew open. He sat up and, before he opened his mouth to ask, she brought a bowl of water to his lips. He took it from her and drank it all before extending the bowl to her for more. She obliged him.
Food was brought and he ate ravenously as she watched. After a few minutes he reallised that she was not eating and gestured for her to join him. He was silent throughout and she did not say anything. When he had eaten his fill he rose and reached for a dagger hidden in the furs. Drawing it, he tested its sharpness and seemed satisfied. Without a word, he left the roundtent. She followed him timidly and watched as he sat on the great roundtents steps and brought the dagger up towards his head. 'Shaqmar- no!' she blurted in panic, bursting forward towards him in a futile attempt to stop him. He paused and looked back at her.
'Calm yourself, Surayka. It is only hair,' he said deliberately as he cut upwards with a few swift stroke and his waist-length pitch-black hair was no more. He placed the cut hair next to him and felt the back of his head. It was now just about chin length. He brought the blade to his long black beard next and cut away brutishly at it until it was far shorter. Satisfied, he told a passerby to take his hair and bury it somewhere outside the camp - the man looked at him oddly and Surayka had the slightest feeling that the man perhaps did not recognise Shaqmar. If Shaqmar noticed, he did not seem concerned.

With that done, he turned around and entered his roundtent once more. He placed the dagger back in its place in the furs and removed the clothes Surayka had dressed him in. In their place he put on an orange shirt and a flowing blue robe - and a simple rope served as a belt. When he turned around, Surayka was giving him a quizzical look. He smiled slightly and moved towards her, placing a hand on her cheek.
'For all you have done, Surayka, I thank you,' and he placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. She was taken aback by his touch and colour rushed to her face. She quickly retreated out of his reach.
'Shaqmar, what's going on. What are you doing?' she asked, trying her best to ignore what he had just done. He took a deep breath and looked to the roundtent's entrance.
'I am going,' he said simply, and made for the exit.
'W-what? No, you can't. You're in no state to go anywhere!' she followed him, grabbing his arm in an attempt to hold him back.
'Surayka, please, don't be ridiculous,' he said, ignoring her grip and moving down the stairs even as she pulled pointlessly at him.
'Zanshah!' she shouted, 'Qaseer! Qulut! Somebody!' her cries gained a very quick response as Qaseer came rushing out of his roundtent - still naked above the waist - not too far away. Seeing Shaqmar's appearance, he halted and confusion was clear on his face.
'By the Eternal Sky's holy pi- uh, holy blessings. What's happened to you? What's the racket about?' Releasing Shaqmar, Surayka turned to Qaseer.
'Stop him! He says he's leaving!' Qaseer looked to Shaqmar who had not slowed down in the slightest.
'Leaving?' he asked, turning on his heel and walking beside him, 'where to? Caught the Zanshah bug have you?'
'Yes, yes I have,' was Shaqmar's simple response.
'You think you can find Layla on foot?' Qaseer asked, his voice suddenly low. Shaqmar stopped and looked at him.
'It is better than sitting here doing nothing.'
'You want to go alone when all of Rukbany obeys your every command? I never thought that love would make so great a fool of you, cousin.' Shaqmar may have, in the past, reacted with annoyance at the idea that he was in 'love' or that he was a 'fool', but he had been exposed before the world - they had seen his tears, and they had heard his impassioned words, and they had fought to return to him his Layla. It was no longer his stiffly guarded secret, for he had let it slip.
'You want me to drag Rukban warriors around in search of a woman? They would never allow themselves to be slighted so,' Shaqmar said simply.
'She is not any woman, Shaqmar. She is Layla,' came Qaseer's curt response. Her name on his tongue struck him harder than a blow and he felt the tears well up in his eyes. But he banished them with a quick hand.
'Very well. Let us go and search for her. Gather a-'
'What? Right away?' Qaseer asked incredulously. Shaqmar looked at him uncertainly.
'What, is there anything else that the people are attending to?' Shaqmar asked.
'Yes, Toqidae and Zanshah are celebrating tonight our victory over the Ma'Erkoz, for the Tagham return to their lands on the morrow. You must be there.' Shaqmar frowned at this and made to turn and continue, but Qaseer grabbed him by the arm and forcefully pulled him back. Weakened by his sorrows, Shaqmar could not ignore him as he had Surayka.
'Listen to me, you maddened man, and do as I say. Do not weaken yourself and heap on it insult to the powerful.' Shaqmar scowled.
'I do not fear Toqidae or any other. I must to my Layla, even now I can hear her soul crying out to be found. I cannot wait even an hour more, even a second.' But Qaseer's grip did not wane and Shaqmar quickly realised that he would not be able to escape except with a fight. Sighing in defeat, he acquiesced to his cousin's demand.
'But we leave on the morrow even before the Tagham depart,' he demanded, and Qaseer nodded to appease him and returned him to his roundtent.
'Surayka,' he said, 'fix his butchered hair for him, and find him something suitable for the Qa'id Adheem to wear.' She nodded and Shaqmar scowled at Qaseer, who smiled widely and shrugged helplessly. 'You should be thanking me - I'd rather her be...servicing me than you. God knows I've tried!' Shaqmar did not laugh, and Shaqmar did not smile. With that, Qaseer turned away and rushed off back to his roundtent, muttering excitedly to himself.
Shaqmar bore patiently Surayka's gentle attempts to fix his hair's appearance and her further trimming his beard so that it was level. And when she brought him better clothes, it was more out of a lack of desire to displease her than a desire to wear them (or go to the feast) that he wore them.
'Are the people not speaking, Surayka?' he asked her as she wrapped a belt around him.
'Of what, my Qa'id?' she pulled back and examined her handiwork before he spoke again.
'You spend your days with me and your nights with me. And when I leave, you leave with me, and you return with me, and you cut my hair and you dress me, and you feed me and eat with me. I may well soon be gone, do you want to return to them and find your reputation has left with me?' She was silent and Shaqmar could see that this was something she had thought about before.
'I guess...' she was quiet for a few seconds, 'I guess you'll have to make sure you don't leave.' She looked at him shyly, but Shaqmar's eyes were instantly cold.
'Surayka, do you wish to war with me?' he asked lowly. She stepped back and looked away, shaking her head slowly. 'Then don't war with...her.' He did not have to say her name for Surayka to know what he meant.
'Shaqmar, I didn't mea-'
'Don't do it again.' She flinched at the harshness in his tone and stiffened. Her eyes watered slightly, but no tears fell. Her voice came curt.
'Is there anything I can help you with?'
'No.'
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Kho

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CyKhollab Productions present
Another CyKhollab

starring

Aihtiraq
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Shaqmar of the Sunlit Eyes
The Qa'id Adheem




Zanshah laughed aloud, spittle and bits of food exploding from his mouth.
'You're a rascal, Tadatunga! I never knew you had it in you!' he looked around and his laughing intensified as others laughed. Shaqmar, beside him, looked like he might weep. Zanshah shoved a bowl of kymis into his brother's hands, half of it spilling into the Qa'id Adheem's lap. 'Drink brother!'

'But you should have seen Munka. I learnt it all from him! We once snuck in with the horses during the night - it was all his idea! -, and at the time the women used to attend to their business quite close b-'
'His idea, eh? The rascal who did it won't admit it!' Zanshah laughed.
'I'll not be commenting on that! Anyway, as I say, it was quite close by where we kept the horses. We waited until just before the sun started peaking over the edge of the plains, and we snuck amongst them. See, I had planned to not make a sound! Munka, always after trouble, couldn't help himself when the lovely Huran came before us. The rascal, he leapt out and let her know of our place, and he gave chase. He thought she would flee, but by the Sky was she a spirited mare! She turned on him and beat him within an inch of his life! By God, I dared not move from my place till night fell!' the story of his cowardice in the face of a woman's fury - when he was the famed and courageous lord of men and swords - caused all those gathered to guffaw. Shaqmar groaned slightly, and his display of pain was hidden by their raucous laughter.
'But you know what, Zanshah, there's no greater rascal than you! How many decades have you seen, man?- and you want me to believe you found no lively mare on your wild ventures?' Tadatunga turned on the old man who near enough choked on kymis and spluttered an inaudible response as the others split their sides at his reaction. To Shaqmar's other side, Toqidae leant on Shaqmar as he laughed, and the Azad shook somewhat at his touch. Were he not yet somewhat in control of his sorrows and fury he would have turned on the man. But he withheld and bore - for with what ordeal after the ordeal of losing Layla would he ever have to deal? There would be no miseries after this misery. To what wise and ancient bard were the famed words attributed?

If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite
But in the onset come; so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune's might,
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compared with loss of thee will not seem so.[2]


The feast dragged on, the bowl hung limp and half full in his hand, the food before him cold and untouched. They laughed around him, but no laugh shattered his face. And there was much joy, but no joy cracked his heart. And even as he sat there, and even as the coolness of night rushed through, he felt as though his chest was aflame and the heat was almost unbearable. He looked around deliriously from one laughing demon to his left to another on his right. Their voices were as burning bolts of pure sound striking at his ears and the sight of them scorched his eyes. The bowl dropped from his hand and he rose to his feet in a daze.
'Shaqmar? Where are you going?' came Zanshah's voice. Shaqmar did not respond. He stepped forward - meat was trampled beneath his foot - to cries from all those present. Semi-blind to their cries and deaf to their presence, he walked towards the darkness of the large roundtent's exit and all fell away before his crazed departure. He emerged stumbling and walked around in a stupor for some time before someone caught him by the arm and pulled him away. He put up some small resistance but was in no state of mind to put up any concerted effort. The unknown figure pulled him into his roundtent. He did not so much as look at whoever it was, instead dropping onto the furs face first and falling unconscious there.

His sleep brought him visions of her. There her smiling visage and there her velvet touch and there her coal-black eyes and there her face of light. And there the plains and there the caravan. And there her cruelly tied hands, and there her parched lips and whipped skin. And there her tears, and the sorrow, and there the untold pain. And there she is, in the tent, tied down. And there the foreign hand, and there- Shaqmar roared himself from his stupor and found his arms pushing against the furs so violently that his body leapt from the ground. He fell back on his side painfully, but quickly rose to his feet, holding his left shoulder in pain. It was light outside.

He stepped blindly towards the roundtent's entrance but found his feet caught by an unseen obstruction. She yelped as he fell over her and rolled against his hurt shoulder. She muttered inaudibly in pain and at having been woken so unceremoniously. He rolled away from her and rose to his knees before her as she sat up.
'What are you doing here?' he croaked brusquely. She rubbed sleep from her eyes and tried to focus on him, 'did I not say that I don't need your assistance?'
'Shaqmar, yesterday you-' she stopped suddenly and bit her lip. His face was cold and he clearly had no intention of listening to what she had to say, 'I...' she cast her gaze down. 'Sorry.'
Shaqmar frowned slightly and, without a word, got back to his feet and left.

Surayka kept her eyes on the ground and did not look up as he left. Only when he disappeared beyond did she look up. He had said it before, she should not clip her wings for him. But she had severed them long ago and was now helpless and flightless. She had thought he - whose love had no mercy on him! - would pity her and have mercy. But it was not so. Indeed, the one who suffered most now inflicted the most suffering and agony. He was Layla's victim, and she the victim of that victim.

Outside, a small party had gathered and Layl had been brought forth for Shaqmar. Mounting the godly steed, Shaqmar looked to the men coldly and spoke.
'I want every slaving caravan stopped and searched. Anyone who resists is to be slaughtered immediately. Find her, or die trying.' One of the riders nodded.
'Don't worry my Qa'id, we'll find Layla and restore our besmirched honour!' Shaqmar looked down and trembled slightly at the mention of her name.
'You,' he said gesturing to the man, 'Sagiki, right?' The man nodded, surprised that Shaqmar remembered his name. 'If you speak her name before me again then make it your life's mission to forever disappear from my sight, do you understand?' Sagiki looked visibly taken aback by this.
'Uh- yes, my Qa'id.' As he finished speaking, Qaseer came up beside Shaqmar.
'Go easy on the boy, Shaqmar - he looks like he's about to wet himself!' Shaqmar harrumphed and pressed his knees into Layl's sides. The stallion took a few steps and cantered off out of the encampment, closely followed by Qaseer and the others. Sagiki, still looking slightly stung and disturbed, lagged somewhat behind the others.

For days they stopped various caravans and questioned them regarding any slaves they had bought from the Ma'Erkoz. But it appeared that the last slaves sold by the Ma'Erkoz were many weeks ahead. Shaqmar and his men pressed on until they reached the fringe of former Ma'Erkoz territories.
'My Qa'id, this is the territory of the Sixteen Tribes - they are wild people and extremely hostile. Farther north are the Tribes of Jagad, and they are well-known slavers. Beyond them, Rukbany ends and there begins endless flatland. Many wild tribes dwell there, from what we know,' it was Kanga who spoke, a well-known tracker. No one had travelled across Rukbany like he had, and none knew its green hills and plains better than him.



'And what path do slavers generally take from here? Do you know?'
'No my Qa'id, they could have taken any route. Though wild, the Sixteen Tribes are known to buy slaves. And the Tribes of Jagad also make use of them. To the farthest east are the Yellow Horde and they, like us, do not buy slaves - though they do sell them,' came Kanga's response. The other men in the party seemed uncomfortable with the idea of travelling into the lands of unknown tribes and Shaqmar knew that it was unlikely that they could follow the trail from here.
'Very well. Everyone else can return to the camp. Kanga, you stay with me. We're pressing on.' This was met by protestations from Qaseer.
'Shaqmar - I'm not going back without you. We have travelled for weeks and there is no sign of her anywhere. Going any further is useless. These slavers travel into the unknown depths of hell itself, finding Layla now is close to impossible.' Shaqmar turned on Qaseer angrily, 'come now, let us head home. Surayka waits for you and one hundred other women, I'm sure we can find one tha-'
'Qaseer!' Shaqmar roared, 'you dare suggest this!?' Qaseer rolled his eyes.
'It's done, cousin. We've searched and done our utmost - but it is clear that she's gone. Had the Eternal Sky willed you to be reunited, it would have happened by now.'
'Qaseer! I will it. And my will shall be done!' And so saying, he turned Layl away and spurred him onward. But before the stallion could charge forth, Qaseer caught Shaqmar by the arm and pulled him clean off the horse.
'You're not going anywhere, cousin. Tie him up and lets head back.'
'Qaseer!- you dare defy me? I will have your heart for this!' But Qaseer ignored him and, struggle though Shaqmar did, he could not overwhelm the four men who swiftly tied his hands and set him back on Layl's back. With that done, they turned away and headed back to the main encampment.

For long, Shaqmar was furious and refused to see anybody. He roared at all who entered his roundtent, and not even Surayka - especially not Surayka - could calm him. At times he stepped out of the tent and demanded Qaseer's heart for the affront, but his command was not carried out. As his body ate itself and he weakened, he eventually stopped moving around or shouting, preferring to merely throw himself anywhere in the roundtent and hang between sleep and death. When he did sleep, he saw her and all was bliss. She would call to him and they would run together through fields and over hills - and her laugh would ring in his ears and her fragrance would fill his soul with peace. And he would awaken to the nightmare of her absence and the sharpened bitterness of grief and misery after feeling - for the slightest second - that all was well and she was there. His heart wept whenever he awoke to find that she was in reality gone - if hearts had claws, his heart would have clawed at itself from the pain. So weak was he that he could not resist those who came in and gave him water to drink and warm soups. He would have much preferred to die of starvation and thirst than to live a second longer knowing that he had so dismally failed her. Why!- death was the final relief.

But he did not die. Cruel life clutched him to her hollow, decaying breast, and the chariots and horses of dearest death were incapable before her censorious gaze and unrelenting claws. Seeing that she refused to release him, he found no point in living if he did not live to find his Layla. And so, one night - when the six moons were blind and darkness swallowed the plains like misery consumed his aching heart - he stole from his roundtent and made his way slowly out of the camp. When he felt that he was being followed he stopped abruptly and turned. At first, he could not see who it was, but eventually there emerged from the darkness something darker. The darkness in its eyes drew him in and he found his hands raised to stroke Layl's head, and he brought his forehead to the beast's snout. And for some time, his aching heart calmed and he found in the stallion's presence some peace. Then he raised his head and frowned - no! Not even a god would make him forget! Not even Layl himself would be permitted to soothe his burning heart.
'Who let you loose? How did you get here?' he asked, looking around. In the darkness, he spotted another movement, and near Layl's haunches emerged Surayka. She did not look Shaqmar in the eye but placed a hand on Layl's back instead. The stallion whinnied at her touch. For some time there was silence, which she broke at last.
'I expected that you would eventually leave,' she said. He made no response. 'I...don't think it's right for anyone to stop you now.'
'It was never right at all,' Shaqmar said coldly. She nodded.
'No, it was never right,' she looked up at last and their eyes met, 'I only hope that you find her, and I hope she returns our Qa'id Adheem to us.' Shaqmar nodded.
'And I hope you too are found. It is not good to be lost so long.' Surayka pouted slightly at his words but made no response. The man then turned away and continued walking, and his trusty steed followed closely after him.

***


The great open plains spread out before him as he walked. They enveloped him so that before long the encampment had been swallowed by rolling hills and the far horizon. And in due time he commanded Layl to go and leave him be. And he found a stick and beat him away with it whenever he came close by. For days Shaqmar would beat him away, and for days he would return. And for weeks Shaqmar would strike him and shout at him, and for weeks loyal Layl returned. And then, he did not.



Like kymis thrown by God's own hands are we
Flung with foresight penetratingly true,
I landed here, but the winds carried you
Beyond the rolling hills and golden sea.

I recall Layla and our bygone life
And days when we feared not an end to joy
And nights she lay beside me and was coy,
Those blissful years when she was yet my wife:-

When suddenly my flame became exposed
And its light burst forth, hiding every star,
So the shaman said: "I espied afar
"A planet which in the dark night was posed

"To me as though only its light was there."
So I said: "Nay! But it is Layla's light
"Come from a heart's fire, burning hot and white:
"It's home the sky, it shall glow there and glare."

Oh Layla, how many important things
Have I visited you with, in the night,
Only for them, forgotten, to take flight
Swift fleeing at peace that sight of you brings!

And since her going, when people gather,
I have sat with them till I burnt with heat
And, with a dismal cry, sprung from my seat
To go – why, curse them all! – and look for her.

My friends, if you do not yet weep for me
I shall find more faithful friends who, if I
Should shed my tears, they shed them too and cry
Who pray for me and with high heaven plea,

For God may yet unite the two exiles
After they believe the greatest belief
That there will be no union or relief
And no crossing the distances and miles.

May God curse all those wise ones who profess
That they found the passing of time to be
The greatest cure for love and misery
And reprimand me for perceived excess.

And neither great power and plunder nor
Destitution has caused me to forget
My Layla, and no repentance has met
With triumph over her whom I adore.

And no other woman with hair and eyes
Or with a subtle touch has stolen in
To my walled heart to breach within and win
Or find in me weakness or compromise.

God, make this devotion that is between
Her and me blind, neither for me nor for
Her: for the guide-star does not rise and soar
And morn does not come except that the scene

Forces remembrance of her onto me.
And I walk not a mile or step nearby-
And sun does not rise up to kiss the Sky-
Except that I see her in memory,

And she is not mentioned remotely by
A passerby except that the tears wet
My clothes and I wish that we had not met
And banish them I with an outraged cry.

I swear by God I love her and am true
Though from her heart she’s cruelly banished me,
Denizen of my heart, do you not see
This pain and agony that I go through?

I see me when in prayer turning to her,
And 'tis not out of worship, but great love
(Of which complain the lovebird and the dove)
That caused the hardest healer’s heart to stir.

I count the nights, night after passing night
Having lived an aeon not keeping count,
And I leave camps and flee my loyal mount
To talk to me of you away from sight.

In me is despair, or am wasting-struck
So flee from me else you get what's in me
And tell all of the sickness that's in me
They too can flee if they have any luck.

I love all names that are close to her name
Or are similar or take after it
Or are harmonious with her name and fit
Or come from the same wellspring that hers came.

If my eye is kohled by yours then all's well
And my countenance is forthwith restored,
For you can will to make my life adored
And you can will it be not life but hell.

You are the one due to whom no friend or
Foe sees my husk except they lament me
And they pity me so none torment me:
All bid me enter, and open their door.

Sometimes, though not tired, I rest a while
Hoping my shadow will see your likeness.
Layla is magic!- though that has redress...
There's no cure for her in a shaman’s guile.

The flame of my yearning has caught my face
So now there is on it a constant blaze,
You made me weep before Rukbany's gaze-
I'd rather weep alone in some closed space.

Oh you who laments Layla do you not
See to whom you lament her or to whom
You have come lamenting? If you seek gloom:
I have for you what shan't soon be forgot.

If lovers are severed by zealous wings,
Love will not be severed from my visage,
These are my scars and this all her damage,
For due to her I have met with dire things.

For one like Layla a man is willing
To kill himself from sorrow and be done,
Even if they say - and again! - she’s gone
To another place, yet I’m not stilling.

My friends, if they say Layla is gone then
Closen to me the pyre and torch and flame,
And if I die of waiting, ill and lame:
Send her peace from me: she is forgiven.




Day melted into night and the six moons gave way before the glowering sun - even as it eventually gave way before their fearsome nightly charge. In day he walked, commanding the sun to turn in shame and walk away, for its light was nothing before the loveliness of Layla.

Ungrateful orb of morn and dawn
Your pride and scorn indeed have grown
You shine above me there and sing
And at my skin you claw and sting
When I did all those months ago
Lie with the one who birthed your glow
She could not give birth to my son
For she was mother to the sun!


And the sun, at being dismissed and shamed before the light and grandeur of Layla, fled from the heavens and left them to the conquering moons. They rode into the sky and still, Shaqmar walked. And he raised his head and tears welled in his eyes.

You dancing riders of the night
You've risen to a mighty height
You sit upon wide heaven's throne
When it is for my love alone
How can you bear to up and sit
Where sat the queen of grace and wit
Go bury yourselves all in earth
And give up on all dance and mirth!


And the once-dancing moons halted and their song broke. Why did the moons stop dancing, fools ask? Who could dance still when Laya had been severed from her Shaqmar? Who could sing while they were apart? What creature of little soul and vacuous heart?

Who knew for how long Shaqmar walked, and who knew how long he spoke to the heavens and to the earth and to the grasses and to the stones and pebbles and birds. He shamed them all and bid them tear out their very hearts - if they had hearts, cruel things that they were! - in misery and despair.
And he did not eat and he drank only as a dead beast drank - it was not out of love for water or life, but only so that he could muster the strength to walk farther still and condemn all that lived - and did not - with his tongue and eyes. Even the walking stick he leant and relied upon was not spared - he condemned it and cursed it for carrying him when it should have collapsed and sundered from pain and misery. He decried its infidelity to the mistress of the horizons and stars - better far that it had torn itself sinew from barky sinew than last so as to grow so old and hard of heart in his grasp. (Heart! What heart! This heart of bark was harder than the boulders that held firm in the hearts of the greatest and most ancient mountains!- those revered heart-boulders venerated this hardest heart of bark!)

And as he walked, his skin yellow and waxed, and his famed shoulders and arms wilted. And even the strength of Shaqmar waned before the woes Layla had bestowed on him; the crown of grief and promised no-relief. And even his sunlit eyes darkened and dimmed. And as at last he came to his last steps and his journey's close seemed only to near, and the end was nigh; heaven itself finally permitted itself to pity the lovelorn lover. And it cracked open its breast and allowed its eyes to water and heart to bleed. And why!- all of Rukbany, from its north to its south, greedily drank up God's tears for Shaqmar and his lost Layla.
Shaqmar stumbled beneath a lone acacia tree - though he knew what it was, he little cared that he knew - and he lay there and looked to heaven's cavernous chest; those dark clouds of God's black sorrows.

Through those black clouds above there came a soft and gentle glow like a mother's caress, a light of rich gold as if the sun itself were hiding above and peering through that veil. Of course, the sun was falling low to the sky, so that light overhead was something entirely else; it was something mystical. Nonetheless, a cold rain soon came pounding down. There was a great roar of thunder, and then the sky lunged at the ground with one great spear and a bolt of lightning struck at the very tree which Shaqmar sheltered beneath. He had surrendered himself completely and prepared to give up the spirit at long last and join his beloved Layla in the Eternal Sky. And when fire broke out he, in a daze, looked up and raised his arms. 'Burn!' He muttered, the sound leaving his cracked lips and parched throat, 'acacia green, burning orange. All's as it should...be.'

Though the rains soon began to quench the fire and the fingers of flame curled and died, the blaze's glow did not fade. The flames shuddered and twisted, and from them there emerged a strange being. He drifted lazily through the air, his fiery body curling like a snake until his kind visage soon faced the weathered Shaqmar. Rains fell upon the djinni's fiery body, but rather than extinguishing it the droplets of water were only swept up into his blazing form, as were the blades of grass and loose pebbles upon the ground, and those pieces of bark loose enough to flake off the tree. They all swirled together and intermingled in one chaotic but magnificent piece of harmony: the body of Aihtiraq.

"A rider with no great horse,
a man with no tribe,
a Qa'id without his horde.

Despair has claimed all of thee
and yet I have come
bearing one gift of a skin

that I would ask you to choose."


That strange djinni took a deep breath and smiled, exuberant as ever at the prospect of offering one kindness. As he let out a contented breath, so too did the entire world seem to do, for that heavy rain stopped falling in that very instant and a golden eddy of wind descended from that stormy sky above. The Wind of Change danced playfully about Aihtiraq's body, for that wind was his cloth eager to be woven into a new tapestry, his paint longing to be brushed into a new masterpiece, his voice yearning to sing. Shaqmar looked deliriously around and as he beheld Aihtiraq a small flicker of hope was ignited within his soul. It was done. His race was run and his heart had, at last, come to a stop. Here was a divine spirit greeting him - surely it would carry him now into the great palace of the Eternal Sky. Surely it would now reunite him with his Layla. He reached for the spirit.
'Where?...' came his questioning, hopeful voice, 'where...she?'

Though however close Shaqmar's hand reached, Aihtiraq still hovered just slightly beyond his grasp. The djinni looked upon that desperate man and seemed to read his mind, for he first answered,
"Ah, Layla is like the wind
flighty, far from touch
yet of this world, not the next.

I would guide you if that is
your great burning wish
but first I must warn you, perhaps

it is best if you turn back."


Upon mention of Layla's name Shaqmar groaned and fell upon his knees before the mighty spirit, not even Aihtiraq's calming, joyous presence able to prevent the tears from welling up in his eyes, and he shouted in desperation and despair, 'speak it not! I beseech you!- speak not my tormentor's name! By God I charge you, be silent, be true. If you know where my heart's possessor lies - lead Shaqmar there or else again he - and again, and again he - falls and dies!'

His smile was unfading, unflinching even in the face of such sadness. For was all sadness not temporary when Aihtiraq stood before one and offered them mercy? He witnessed Shaqmar's tears and laughed heartily, but his was no cruel guffaw. More a becalming one.
"By this one's own name you bid
me twice, so be it!
Summon strength anew, follow

the huntsman's shining arrow
to the end of earth
and there you will find your heart.

Now I bid thee, beware hooves!"


With that, the noble spirit seemed to fade away from the world itself and simply vanish in a cloud of golden mist. The rains fell down once more, but the soft glow of Aihtiraq's golden wind remained to illuminate the sky yet. Shaqmar watched as the spirit departed and he felt health and strength return to him as the rain fell and the golden wind danced all around until it eventually disappeared completely. He lifted himself up, leaning against the acacia and his stick, and then raised a hand into the air to touch the place where the spirit had been.

She came to me; I was alone and cold
She poured forth all her heat; a spirit made of gold
For long I called and gave up on response
How hopeless man does wax if despair but strike once!
How quick is bliss, how quick is joy forgot
How quick within the soul the well of grief does clot
Forgive the weakness of my faith in you
For you have been to all our promises most true
You came to me, you gave me one command
By God I shan't e'er stop till I before you stand!


Without waiting a second longer, Shaqmar took his first uncertain steps. And even in the gloom of a dark and stormy night, that soft glow from above offered enough light for Shaqmar's travel. And so it was that he set off with newfound - if yet vulnerable - vigour, and with every ounce of strength that returned to his arms and legs, the rain seemed to likewise abate. And though he found joy and comfort in the hammering of heaven upon him, it eventually died to but the faintest drizzle, and in that damp, he eventually encountered footprints in the muddy earth. After such heavy rain, any old tracks would have been washed away. So these were fresh, and as they wound through bushes and over ridges, they followed the game trails just as a huntsman's steps should. If ever his heart had cause for doubt, Shaqmar needed only to look up for the reassuring warm glow left by her noble spirit, for even now she ushered him onward and seemed to stir his heart from afar.

Bending down before the fresh tracks, he took a piece of earth and clenched it in his fist, and he buried his hand deep and felt the moist ground. If Layla were to be found beneath the very earth, he would willingly sink himself within. He would swim through the very earth as birds soared in the sky or fish swam in the rivers and streams. If her home was earth, then that too was his home, and if the skies were her abode, then there two would he abide, if she had made out of the waters of the earth her dwelling place, then there would he dwell. And if she lived in the burning fires of his heart's imperishable love, then he knew well where he would live.

You footprints that have seen where my love lives
Send my greetings to one who if
High heaven ceases giving she still gives
And should the mount wane, or the cliff,
She lifts their burdens and their sin forgives

She is a god, or something of the kind,
Or blessed, or is herself divine
Or something close thereto or thus aligned
Who, of all men's souls, has chos'n mine
To find rest with and become intertwined!


For two days did the trail lead on, for this huntsman was surely spry and never stopped long to rest. Even though the man perhaps had only a half day's lead on Shaqmar, without Layl that was a great lead indeed. Nonetheless, as the Rukban tracked this mysterious hunter he saw encouraging signs: a few broken arrows left behind, the remains of what quarry the hunter chanced upon, and at one point the still-warm ashes of a fire. Eventually, the gap between the two closed and there the hunter was: lain down in a small creek as if finally stopping to bathe and rest in the cool waters. But alas, his sleep was eternal; an arrow in his back and another in his side had seen to that.


Still, his rest was peaceful.


About the area were the tracks of several men and their horses. Near the river were strewn the huntsman's belongings, or at least what was let after his killers had ransacked them: there was a broken arrow, a small string - a necklace of some kind - which had nothing but a worthless stone on it. And, of course, his game bag was gone. Of course, the bandits would likely be feasting on this poor soul's hard earned meat, but alas, even in death he could do his duty to Shaqmar. Though his bow and quiver be gone, the one broken arrow pointed to a land beyond the river.
Shaqmar bent down and picked up the worthless necklace and stroked the stone attached to it. What story, he wondered, was behind this. Was it a token, perhaps? Maybe he too had a Layla whose heart even now burned for him and waited on his return.
'You burn in her heart - poor soul! Miserable wretch! Here, here's my face. Let your face - let your arms, let your eyes - let your treacherous heart which greeted death before she permitted it! Let them burn.' And so saying, Shaqmar pulled him from his restful, watery grave and set about lighting a few twigs. And when the man was dry, he lay him on a bed of such twigs and set him alight. 'By the undying flames of her heart! Here I bring them forth into the world of eyes and sight! Watch how we burn! Oh, how beautiful we burn! Oh! For a wilted rose!' Leaving the dead lover behind and to his fate, Shaqmar needed only to heed her noble spirit's command and journey far to the horizon in the direction the arrow had pointed. When night at last fell, the stars themselves seemed to rearrange themselves. Cast in eternal light above, the likeness of that hunter, his bow, and his arrow were all there. And they pointed out the way onwards! 'Ah! Treacherous hunter! You die and leave your love behind - and point the way to mine! I should have you whipped! I should flay you with her tears- and mine!'

And by the guidance of the treacherous celestial lover, Shaqmar walked into the light of the morning sun. And he stopped and watched it rise, and it was as though he could reach out and touch it. He spread his arms wide and stared direct into its yet-bearable rays. And even as he welcomed it, there sounded across the foreign land the thundering of hooves. A dazed and serene smile on his face, he turned around. And for a while he could not see, for his eyes were blinded by the harrowing heart of morning's orb. And as his eyes came to, he saw through the haze the shadow of riders bearing down on him. He raised his walking stick and shouted indecipherably in greeting. And they surrounded him and he heard laughter, and even though he could not see them, he heard their laughter and he smelled on them the scent of death - and a lover's blood.
'We weren't so lucky yesterday with that boy, but we might just get this one alive - look at him, he's so thin and weak we don't even need to fight him!' he heard one laugh, 'the wars tearing this region always make for lucrative profits in our line of work! Get him!' and he could now see them. Six of them on horses, their faces covered - but he did not need to see their faces to know the hands that had taken his Layla.
'You took a wilted rose - is there profit in that? I am a burning man - can you not see my eyes? Do you dare touch me? Come here, these are my scorching hands. Let the fires of my soul burn you!' the riders hesitated and looked to their leader.
'Zalmi, I think the man is mad,' one of them said.
'I am not mad! He is not mad who burns - but for the likes of her, a man should well go mad! After what you did, a man is right to!' Zalmi grunted something and three men descended from their horses and circled around Shaqmar, rope in their hands. 'You think this burning man does not yet have the sun in his eyes? You think these love-ravished bones cannot yet gore you all? You think I cannot feast on your hearts? Do you stand between me and the sun of souls, the singular moon of my compounded darkness? Come feast on blood! Come feast on flames!' And even as Shaqmar raved, there came hammering hooves and the measured thundering of divine steeds. The slavers all turned, as though they were one, and Shaqmar looked with them. There he was - not divine steeds or the horses of the Eternal Sky, but god made manifest.



A god bursts forth


Layl thundered towards them, the earth seemingly shattering wherever a mighty hoof fell. One of them was shouting - some were in clear panic. 'Kill it!' Shaqmar heard, 'kill it!' But he laughed and spread his arms wide.
'Would you kill god!?' he roared. And Layl leapt and soared above the empty backs of their horses, and landed powerfully before Shaqmar who embraced his loyal steed even as it continued onward without so much as a pause. He felt himself swing around the stallion's neck and onto its back. And the horizons seemed to struggle in outpacing them.

***


She did not see the riders. The commotion and worry that ran through the caravan passed her by. She hardly realised that she had stopped walking - just as the pain of her tightly tied wrists had melted away, and just as her sore and aching legs no longer registered with her mind. It was with a dull stupor that she watched the riders descend on the caravan with a fury. Screams and shouts, blood. She felt ill. Her hands began to shake uncontrollably and she felt a shiver run through her abdomen and her stomach turned sickeningly. She almost dropped to the ground, but the fact that she was tied to the slaves before and behind her kept her upright. She could not tell how long the fighting took - all sense of time was subsumed by a delirious nausea and a sudden outbreak of sweating. The world blurred and she was - for who knows how long - unconscious of and blind to all that happened around her.

She did feel it, however, when her hands were suddenly freed and somebody gripped her by the shoulders to keep her aright. Taking a shallow breath, she looked up and tried to focus on who was gripping her - all the while trying with all her non-existent strength to pull away. It was an unconscious, instinctive revulsion at being touched.
'...-ayl-...-ear me...-ar,' someone was saying. It was familiar in a distant, surreal kind of way. Like being on the brink of sleep while someone is speaking to you and hearing them as if from a long way, - and what is heard and seen is a fantastical thing which has no grounding in the reality. She felt something touch her lips and her lips were suddenly wet. She opened her mouth to cry out in protest, but the wetness spread everywhere, invading her mouth and flooding down her throat. She choked and it was all suddenly everywhere - spluttering from her mouth. Her shallow breaths came wet. Everything darkened and she fell into a disturbed, humid, insensible state.

When she next came to, she actually managed to awaken. And though she still felt desperately weak - and befuddled and dazed - she managed to raise her head and take her surroundings in despite fuzzy vision. She was tied tightly in place. From the rhythmic rocking beneath her, she surmised that she was on a horse or camel. The rocking did not help and she felt a wave of nausea run through her. She shook uncontrollably for a few seconds and weakness rushed through her body and she dropped forward very suddenly. She was tied well enough to remain in place. For one reason or another, the blackness of the creature she was on was comforting. It was easy on the eyes - she would have liked nothing more than to be placed in a very dark, cramped place - a roundtent perhaps, under many furs and blankets. She would have liked to lie there for a very long time and...disappear. After a while, the rocking started hurting her head and she lifted herself up, only for a rush of dizziness to run through her and she fell backwards very painfully. She let out a little cry of pain. Her plight seemed to get the attention of somebody riding just ahead of her, and a strong hand gripped her by the shoulder and righted her. She shuddered at the touch and impulsively shook the helping hand off.

'Layla, you have awakened,' a man's voice came, 'how do you feel? Are you in pain?' he paused for a while, perhaps expecting a response from her. It never came. 'P-perhaps I should call a Witchdoctor for you right away.'
'N-no,' she managed haltingly. For a minute or so there was silence and she was preoccupied with battling the bouts of dizziness and depletion that came at her in tidal waves. Then the voice sunk into her head and realisation dawned. Her head snapped to the side - the tide of dizziness rushed in, but she managed - and her eyes fell upon him. Her hand rose towards him and her mouth dropped in shock and her eyes watered.
'Shaq-' she managed before her frail state of mind and body gave way to the twofold blows of severe shock and debilitating weakness. A cold sweat ran through her, and the world darkened once more.



Layla

Look, there is the chieftess of the deserts and plains,
The true mistress of every Rukban heart and soul,
The splendid stars and moons are brought to her in chains
And worship at the altar of her eyes of coal.

She is extolled by the heavens and by the land
And hearts sing her praises and the winds throb and sound!
Existence bends in submission to her command
And homage is paid her afar and nigh around.


By the time Shaqmar's band of raiders returned to the main encampment, Layla had recovered a considerable amount of strength. She had been able to eat and drink after one of Shaqmar's Witchdoctors - Hakamunga - cast a few blessings upon her to change her disturbed state of mind into one of peace and harmony. It worked to the extent that her dizziness and nausea receded significantly, and she was feeling much stronger after a day or so of eating well. Though she ate far from everyone else, alone with Shaqmar, she would not accept food from his hand whenever he brought it to her lips. She would shudder and impulsively withdraw - the fear in her eyes and sudden hostility made him realise, after the third or fourth time, that she was not going to be accepting anything from him. When he thought on why she was doing this, he came to the conclusion that she was probably angry with him for not protecting her and the others well enough. He had allowed her to fall into enemy hands and to be sold into slavery. She had a right to be angry.

'Layla,' he said, 'I...I am sorry. I did not protect you as well as I should have. Please, forgive me. It shall never happen again.' She paused as she reached for the food in their shared bowl and looked at him distractedly for a few seconds. She withdrew her hand slowly and lost focus on him completely as she thought deeply - he thought. Without a word, she rose and walked away. He looked up in surprise and made to rise after her, but she halted and turned on him somewhat angrily.
'No, you stay,' she said with a low, assertive tone. He hesitated for a few seconds before crumpling back to the ground, a look of clear hurt on his face. A flash of guilt and remorse flashed in her eyes, but she turned away and rushed off quickly. They did not talk after that, and Shaqmar avoided meeting her gaze whenever they walked or rode together.

As they rode into camp, she very suddenly brought Layl - who she was riding - to a halt. Shaqmar almost did not notice, but he impulsively looked behind him to find that she had stopped and was frozen before Firasi's moaning corpse. Her hands were shaking violently and a look of unimaginable fury and hatred was upon her face. She swiftly dismounted and, drawing a long dagger from Layl's saddle, rushed towards the corpse. With a harrowing shriek, she dug the blade into the living corpse again and again. It had already begun rotting, and the decaying flesh tore easily and maggots and worms burst out. It did not stop her, and she continued savaging it for a long while. Shaqmar watched in taut silence, clenching his jaw and holding back his tears. When at last she had exhausted herself and he thought her done, Shaqmar edged his mare forward slowly.
'Layla, come now, let us get you to-'
'Stay away!' she yelled, glaring at him with a fury and hostility he had rarely seen even in the eyes of his most fervid foes. It was more powerful than any physical blow anyone of them had ever or could ever deliver. It took the air out of him and shrivelled his heart. It burst his soul and broke his spirit. His mare, sensing his clear confusion and shock, groaned and kicked at the ground in distress. Shaqmar watched in overwhelmed and startled silence as his wife turned back to the decaying, moaning corpse and began cutting away near its hips. His eyes widened and his chest became very heavy with disgust and a dreadful, dense despondence. Once done, she turned and threw the putrid appendage beneath the mare's kicking hooves and watched as it was grounded into nothingness. She watched it, and Shaqmar watched her and the agonised fury in her eyes and face, the unrestrained rage in her clenched and trembling fists, the despair and defeat in her hunched shoulders. Her clear misery fueled the despondency and loss of hope within him to the level of pure numbness. He made to dismount, but she flashed him a wild and delirious look, and so he remained numbly seated atop the still-kicking mare. After some minutes of this, Layla moved forward towards the mare's kicking forelegs, and Shaqmar quickly turned the steed away so that the distressed creature would not cause his wife any harm. She stopped where the mare had kicked the appendage into nothingness and turned the earth, and looked around. After assuring herself that it had been completely annihilated, she kicked at the ground with impassioned frenzy a few times before turning away and mounting Layl once more.

So lost and cut-off from the world were the two of them that they had not realised the large crowd that had witnessed all this. Only now as she made to enter the encampment did Layla see them all. With eyes downcast, she made her way in and all parted before her. Shaqmar, staring despondently at her back, followed quietly. Her coldness towards him and her strange actions were very troubling - he only hoped that, with time, she would settle back down and she would return to her old self. She dismounted before their great roundtent and, giving him a slightly apprehensive look, made her way inside. When, after some time, he entered after her he found that she was busying herself with rearranging their bedding. She had moved a number of furs and blankets to the other side of the roundtent and every now and then someone would walk in with a few more on her request. Once the new bedding area was to her satisfaction and she had changed from her travel attire, she pointed to the other bedding area and told Shaqmar that he was to stay on his side at all times and that under no circumstance was he to approach or touch her while she slept.

'Layla, that's unreasonable! It is absurd for a woman to demand this of her ma-'
'Shaqmar,' she interrupted reproachfully, a suspicious frown in her eyes, 'if you can't do this, then I will leave and reside elsewhere, alone.' His shoulders slumped at her words and the hurt in his eyes became evident.
'W-why are you doing this?' he whispered shakily. She was silent, and the pain in his eyes and voice clearly disarmed her somewhat for her lips began to tremble and her eyes watered. 'Tell me what's wrong,' he said, stepping forward and reaching out towards her.
'Shaqmar, no. Stay away,' she yelped, wiping the welling tears from her eyes and backing off, 'don't touch me!' he halted at her command and brought his hands down.
'B-but why?' he asked desperately. She looked away and there was silence for some time. At last, she turned and buried herself under the furs and blankets completely.
'L-Layla,' he stuttered, 'please. I missed...I miss you.' But there came no response from her. Crestfallen and broken, he turned away and left the roundtent. Beneath the blankets and the furs, Layla stifled her sobs.

Shaqmar sat himself down on the steps of his great roundtent and, as all the violent pains and tempestuous hurts whirled within his heavy heart and burdened chest, dully watched those who came and went before him. Though they had only recently emerged from a rather vicious conflict, and though they were yet in former-Ma'Erkoz territories, normalcy seemed to have returned to the tribe. But, alas, normalcy had not returned to him. Eventually, his eyes alighted upon Surayka who was walking alongside her sister, Uta, and Qaseer's sister, Yesla.

She noticed him and their eyes met for a few seconds before he quickly looked away. Eventually, noticing that the Qa'id Adheem was alone and free enough to spend his time seated indolently outside his roundtent, Toqidae - who now frequently visited - approached.

'Greetings, Shaqmar,' the Tagham Qa'id Adheem said as he approached. Shaqmar responded in kind, if unenthusiastically. 'Now that our campaign against the Ma'Erkoz is over, I'm here to discuss the matter of how to partition our newly-acquired territories.' Shaqmar raised an eyebrow at this.
'Our recently acquired territories, Qa'id Adheem? This was an Azad war. Your contribution is no doubt appreciated - and you have received all the slaves and loot anyone could dream of or desire as thanks for your efforts -, but you will have no part of Ma'Erkoz territories. That shall remain for those Ma'Erkoz allies who were spared and who have become part of the greater Azad Confederation.' Toqidae looked clearly taken aback by this.
'This is in no way just or fair, Shaqmar. The Tagham have shed blood to win these territories. We have earned-'
'You have received all that you have earned, Qa'id Adheem. Desiring after anything more is pure greed and is unbecoming of a person of your station. Please, let us end this matter and not speak of it again.' Toqidae opened his mouth to respond, but a sudden look in Shaqmar's eyes persuaded him otherwise. Pressing his lips together tightly, he rose and left in a huff. Shaqmar stared after him warily, and he remembered the prophecy brought by Juras.

If the Tagham were going to betray him, he would do well to deal with them now while they were in his power, rather than later when they could direct all their power against him. He gave the thought a few seconds of consideration before dismissing it. It was not Shaqmar who turned on his ally, having promised him peace and safety and welcomed him into his encampment. Until the Tagham showed signs of betrayal he would do nothing. But he would be keeping a particularly close eye on them, and when the time came he would be ready. And his strike would be swift and decisive. Having remembered something, Tiqodae suddenly turned around and returned to Shaqmar.
'I forgot to mention. My brother, Araqai, and his wife have invited you and Layla to a meal. They will be honoured to receive you and celebrate the safety of the honoured lady with you.' Shaqmar's eyes drooped slightly and he nodded quickly.
'I will be certain to pay your brother a visit. Send our thanks to him in the meantime.'

***


'Of all the women of Rukbany, there are none so noble as I,' the woman had proclaimed, 'for I am from my father's side the daughter of great chiefs, and from my mother's side the daughter of esteemed shamans. And I am the wife of the greatest of men, and my children shall inherit all he has built. Does that not make me the greatest of the women of the earth?' Suzaeri had looked at her reflection in the water as the slave-woman brushed her hair.
'It's true, my lady,' she said, 'though...uh.'
'What? What is it? Is there anybody else?' the wife of Araqai turned around and looked at the slave-woman.
'No, my lady, it is just, well. You know, there are some who would say that the noblest of all women is none other than Layla. For she is the daughter of great chiefs also - and some say that within her is the blood of the Prophet himself! And she is married to none other than Shaqmar - who is, as you well know, now the most powerful of the Rukbans. Is it not said of him that he is the Lord of Rukbany? And did he not, for her alone, slay all of Ma'Erkoz? And did he not track down her slavers till he found them at the ends of the earth? And did he not slaughter them to a man?' Suzaeri had frowned at these words and within her heart there grew intense jealousy and hatred.
'By the Eternal Sky! I shall make this Layla, of whom you speak so highly, a servant before me!' and she had gone to her husband and had asked him to invite the Qa'id Adheem Shaqmar and his wife, Layla, to a meal. Tiqodae's brother had perked up at the suggestion.
'Why, woman! Something useful comes of you at last! I shall speak to my brother at once and he shall invite them when next he visits.' And so it had been.

When Shaqmar arrived, riding the fabled Layl, with Layla in a well-furnished, horse-drawn cart, and a guard of some fifty warriors, Araqai personally rode out to greet them and usher them towards his roundtent. The host had camped with his wives and children on a small hill with a rather pleasant view in order to receive the honoured guests. Once they reached his roundtent, Layla was helped from the cart by some women and greeted the host and hostess with a few polite words.
'It is an honour to have the Qa'id Adheem accept our humble invitation to a meal. Please, please,' Araqai gestured for them to enter his roundtent and both Shaqmar and Layla obliged him. Layla and Suzaeri went to one side of the roundtent, where food and drink were swiftly brought to them and they made polite conversation, while Shaqmar and Araqai sat to another side and food was brought to them also. As was custom, Araqai ate first and then invited his guest to join him. It was an old Rukban tradition and was a symbol of the host's goodwill - and on a more pragmatic level, it was to ensure that the food was not poisoned.
'Your glories are sung the world over, Qa'id,' Arakai declared, 'and your loyalty and love are the stuff of legend!' Shaqmar smiled a small smile and shook his head.
'The world is very large, Arakai. And what's more, it could never be done without the aid of the Tagham. We are ever grateful to you and your people,' came Shaqmar's response.

On the other side Arakai's wife smiled thinly, clearly irritated at her husband's humility before Shaqmar. 'They look like they're enjoying themselves. Men will be men - put some food in front of them and they're satisfied.' Layla nodded in respect but otherwise made no attempt to agree or disagree with the hostess. In all truth, she simply wanted this matter to be over that she could return home and lock herself away from the outside world.

In recent weeks the bulge in her stomach had become apparent and the people had started whispering. When she emerged from the roundtent - and she very rarely did - she could feel their eyes on her. She knew they whispered behind her back. She knew what they thought.

Shaqmar had been silent - but she had seen the shock and horror in his eyes when realisation dawned. And she had seen the disgust, and she had seen the guilt in his eyes and the reproach.
'Layla,' Suzaeri suddenly said, 'will you get me the bucket? It's just outside the roundtent.' Layla raised an eyebrow at this.
'Let the one in need see to her need,' she said coldly. Suzaeri raised her chin in indignation.
'I said get me the bucket!' Suzaeri insisted, louder this time. Across the tent, Shaqmar looked towards the women. Layla scowled and rose to her foot.
'What humiliation! Do you see me your slave?' she shouted. Suzaeri looked across the room, red-faced, and saw immediately the dark look on Shaqmar's face. Before Araqai could say or do anything, Shaqmar rose and looked down at him.
'So you have brought me here to humiliate my wife and dishonour me - is that it, Araqai?' Shaqmar said lowly, and, looking around, he saw a scimitar hanging from one of the roundtent's walls and swiftly drew it.
'Sh-Shaqmar, no, it's nothing of the sort!' Araqai said, scrambling to his feet as Shaqmar turned back around and kicked the platter of food away.
'Azaaad!' Shaqmar roared, and outside horses neighed and swords were drawn. Shaqmar turned on Araqai and, before he could utter even a word more, caused his head to fly from his neck. Without pause, he stalked to the other side of the roundtent and grabbed the woman by the neck, pulling her up, 'you would enslave my Layla?' he growled lowly, a madness in his eyes.
'N-n-'
'You would enslave my Layla?!' he growled again, louder this time, shaking her and squeezing at her neck. She groaned and scratched and clawed at his wrist and face, but to no avail. After a minute or so she went limp and he let her fall upon her food. Still glowering, he turned to Layla and looked into her face, reaching to caress her cheek. But his hand froze and quickly withdrew. 'Come,' he said gently, 'let us leave this cursed place.' When they emerged from the roundtent, it was to find that Shaqmar's men had completely laid waste to the place - and they left neither old nor young except that they severed the jugular vein. Not having any desire to stick around, Shaqmar helped Layla back into her cart and mounted Layl. And the Qa'id Adheem - and his wife and his guards - marched back to Azad land.

***

Epilogue


The bulge in her stomach had grown, and with it came sickness and nausea, and there came tiredness. And her emotions flared up and she could not hold back from snapping at him for even the slightest of perceived faults. For his part, Shaqmar bore it all patiently and a part of her simply wanted to draw him close and unload all her burdens and misery onto him. She knew he could take it. She knew he wanted nothing else. But she could not. Her profaned body - the disgusting, foreign, invading, unwanted thing that was growing within her - were too tainted and corrupted to so much as approach his purity. Sleeping in the same roundtent alone probably contaminated the very air he breathed. And, to top it all, she had started yet another war. Toqidae had been shocked at the brutal murder of his brother, his wives, and his children from their eldest to the youngest babe. He had not only called up the Tagham, but had called upon allies to his north - the Yellow Horde and the Sixteen Tribes. The tribe too had been shocked. And though Shaqmar was unfazed and declared that he would destroy all who thought to dishonour the Azad, she could see that the people were not as convinced. She could see they blamed her and suspected her of some evildoing - other than the evil of carrying within her womb a child that was not Shaqmar's, of course.

It did not matter much, for she did not plan to give birth to this monstrosity. Crawling to where Shaqmar lay sleeping, she huddled beside him - this once, she would allow herself one selfishness - and breathed him in. If only his purifying scent could cleanse her of what was in her. If only he could turn back the passage of time...

When Shaqmar awoke, he found that he was strangely at ease. There was no heaviness in his chest and there was no weight at the back of his mind. He was wet. Turning his head, he found that Layla was beside him, huddled close. Her fragrance wafted to him clothed in the rustic scent of blood. And she was cold. Moaning slightly - God! - he moved his hands across her bloodstained body until he had her face in his bloodied hands. He did not say anything, but an involuntary, guttural groan left his tightly sealed mouth. Pressing his face into hers, he searched her body blindly until he came to her hand and the hilt of the dagger that she had buried deep into her chest. Taking her clenched hand, he slipped the dagger from her slowly and turned it - still in her hand - to his own chest. And he pressed himself towards her.
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Triumvirate


Broken Truth


"Where do dead things go?"

Without a heartbeat Elder Zeroun answered, "Down, my boy; in life we may find greatness and rise, 'til an ill wind cast us down. The dead can only sink."

"But what lies at the bottom of the world where the dead fall?"

"Death! Endless storms, their roiling clouds so thick that they block out the sun and leave only darkness."

"Is there no peace in death, then?"

"I do not know," the wise elder admitted, "for my time to fall has not come yet."




With the unbearable pain of torn wings there came a sort of delirium, though strangely enough the youth felt lucid. To be aware of his own madness and yet helpless to stymie it was...strange. He lacked power over his own emotions, had no control. It summoned that same sense of helplessness that a wingless one has as he falls and flails helplessly through the air.

But he was falling, and falling. Falling.

There was neither measure of time nor distance; for as far down as he plummeted, the blue of the sky above seemed to be just as distant. So oddly enough his mind wandered even in time such as this, and he saw a hundred memories flash before him with each blink.

'So now you know, Zeroun.' The Elder had faded away only a few fortnights after uttering those words to the young fledgling. 'If only you could say just what awaits me down there.'

In time even that forlorn blue itself became a precious and fleeting thing. Fog and cloud eventually obscured it until it became a coat of gray, and as he fell farther and farther, the skies only grew more grey. Eventually the light began to wane and all turn black. The roar of a great storm echoed upwards from the depths below, and with horror he listened to the sound of oblivion as it steadily grew louder. He was at last caught in the grasp of the storm itself. All light faded; there was only maddening darkness. Flaying winds blew so hard that it ripped his plumage. They buffeted and battered him back and forth, up and down, as if he were but only a leaf. So violent were these winds that he soon lost track of direction, for he could not even tether his senses to gravity's pull. In fact, he was unsure of whether he was even falling. Perhaps his fate was to be suspended there, battered back and forth, pulverized and torn apart.

There finally came a moment of respite, and in that serenity Pasach thought that he had at last moved on and could have his peace. The tranquility lasted a mere moment and then another horrific gale came. It battered him until the utter darkness of the air gave way to a darkness somehow even deeper. That darkness was so deep that it smothered his pain, the wild howling and roaring of the wind, and even his thoughts themselves. That darkness clutched at his body, and too trail and too tired to question it or fight it, he succumbed to it and was carried away.

* * * * *

Shattered Soul


"You stir."

"You torment me."


Pain. Indignation. "Speak not such lies; I am your slave,
and love consumes me like a fire."


Derision. Mockery. "You? Love? Pah!
You hollow thing, I see naught but my shadow.
I know well what consumes you: hatred, lust perhaps, but not love."


Explosive fury. "After all that I have
done in your eternal service, you belittle me so?
Were you any other, I should shred your body
and burn your soul!"


Trepidation. Cool, collected insistence. "Hmmph. And
yet I love only two things in this eternal
existence: witnessing an enemy's ruination
and you, dear brother. I could never
raise a hand against ye."


"You have overstepped
and though you may reach outwards
with fire and passion, know that
I did rend such things from mine own self.
I am of ice now, do you see?
Never a brother may you be..."


Hesitation. Acceptance. "But mayhaps...my son."


"Unrequited, perhaps, yet my love
endures and is not banished by words.
I shall be a son to you, then
in obedience and respect perhaps
but not in vigor nor strength
for you only slumber. Awaken
for me, rouse at last I beg,
so that I needn't stand alone any longer."


"You know that my strength
is not what it once was..."


"I am your strength!
Deign open your eyes and you would bear witness:
Before you is your shield,
your vengeance, your might.
I am all that and more.
Though you may be austere yet,
you took the calmness of the eye
but I was born of phlogiston; I am
that inexorable Storm about the eye
and none can rival me or mine fury."


"They would question us
or fear us and judge
and still deny what is mine."


"Then I would show them true fear
shatter them for their charade
slaughter all those that they hold dear
obliterate all that they have made
and from the remnants
pave the path for your glory that I might
bask in it, even if only from your shadow.
I would light the world on fire
that you could rule the ashes."


"They are powerful..."


"They are weak;
they know not their own strength
and will never realize it
bound in the fetters of their own
cowardice and so-called morals."


"Are you not held by like shackles?
I think that though you may speak such words
in truth, you suffer all the same fate."


Amusement.
"When have I ever held back?"


"Then...soon, maybe...
but let me rest a while longer..."


"No! You have rested too long
and thought too much
and if you continue, you will
lull your own self into an eternal
slumber of death.

No, we move sooner than soon,
amain.
Now grasp my hand, for I have something
to show you."


* * * * *

Eviscerated Vow


Down a dusky road there walked a traveler, though the windswept path felt no spring beneath his step. His walking stick knew not that feeling of comfort that was usually in the man's grip, and his eyes saw without light. All his faith and all his drive had left him when he had lost that game to Yara; he had truly believed himself to be doing the Master's will, and yet it seemed he had earned nothing other than the Master's scorn for it. Or perhaps he had been forsaken all along. Had Yara been right when she said that he knew nothing of God? You know nothing...ignorant...ignorant...

With those thoughts circling about his weary mind like flies about carrion, he walked on without purpose as he had done for many weeks now. Down long and winding path after long and winding path he went, neither direction nor destination upon his mind. He was blessed with an oasis or stream or spring never far when his waterskins ran dry and his throat grew parched, blessed with plentiful fruit dangling low from trees and bushes upon the sides of the road. Yet in that state of blessedness he was also cursed, for in truth he wanted the desert to claim him. He was doomed to wander for the rest of his time, so the witch had said.

He had come a long way from Vetros, but Yara's words still clung tightly to him. When the sun fled to hide behind the hills and dusk brought about the beginning of a cool and windy desert night, the Raptaptapper at last stopped on the roadside to light a fire and make camp for another night.

In the comforting warmth and light of that small fire, he at last laid down to ease himself from the weariness of a whole day spent upon the road. As the fatigue crept from the rest of his body and into his eyes, he stared at the rising embers as they danced in the air. But then, lo and behold, there came specks of rich and auriferous hue where before there had been only dull red and orange. He squinted and saw that the source of that was not the fire, but rather the wind: a small eddy drifted lazily through the air as slow as a snake might slither upon the ground, and upon this wind were those specks of gold. Golden winds such as these were known to be sacred things and rare indeed.

The wind was drawn to him and his fire like a moth to the light, and as it crept closer, the Raptaptapper stirred and tried to rouse himself from his stupor. This did not feel right; it was as if he was being watched by some mysterious force. So he groggily began to sit up, but then the wind rushed forth and poured into the campfire. The flames licked at the air and seemed to immolate that golden wind as quickly and violently as if it were oil, and then it began to consume the air itself - or did that wind consume the fire? The warmth of the fire expanded outwards and grew in intensity, though it was not of the burning sort of heat like that of blistering sand beneath your feet. No, it was a warm, benevolent touch that compelled him to watch on in wonder.

Finally, the chaos died down. That golden wind still swirled about, though a mass of it had coalesced within the flames and animated the fire itself. The body of a great and yet mysterious djinni manifested itself; this was the strangest of them all.


And though the djinni's maw had teeth of fire, they were bared in no snarl; he smiled now, just as he always did. And from his prescence there was only comfort and a sense of wonder, for he banished all fears.


"From afar I have watched you,
and seen your despair
O Enakhat of Talal.

Though I see too Her shadow
looming above, a cloud
it needn't be one that rains.

The way of the wanderer
is blessed indeed.
Banish gloom; witness beauty!

and you may find happiness!"


The Raptapper straightened upon hearing his own name; this was no mere djinni, it was God and the Master himself and he knew it! From his relaxed seat he sprung upwards and then fell back down into a kneel. He cast his gaze downward at the ground for fear of offending the god by looking directly into his splendor, but something...compelled him to lift his eyes. He found the smiling visage looking back with expectant eyes, waiting on a response.

"O Great Master, I...I had lost all hope and all happiness only because I thought that you had rejected me. But here, to have you manifest before me in all your glory as you did to Primus...there are no words! Never again shall my piety wane! I do witness beauty, and glory, and mercy! Endless be my praise unto you, my lord! That curse above me is but nothing before your brilliance!"

"Alas, I am not your Lord.
I am that I am,
nothing more and nothing less.

Not the Master of any land,
a mere spiryt that
would seek to bring happiness.

So rejoice! I am your friend."


And then a tremor went through the Raptaptapper, and even though he was kneeling he nearly fell onto his side. Upon hearing that this was not his Master, just som lesser god or perhaps some strange djinni lord, he felt abandoned once more. It truly was too good to be true; why would the Master have seen fit to descend and visit him?

"I...I am without purpose without the Master. I dedicated my life to him, and now it seems that I have neither him nor my life to show for it. What happiness can I find in this hollow existence?"

And for once Aihtiraq's smile did lessen, though the Raptaptapper didn't notice for he had been looking down in despair once more. Perhaps he should have simply let the man think what he would, for what harm would it have done to think that it had been the great and powerful Zephyrion who had sprung forth from the fire? Oh, but alas; even lowly Aihtiraq had his powers, and he would not let this man succumb to his own sorrow on this night.

"Indeed you served, served long
giving your first life.
But now you have a new life,

and in this one, I bid you
serve yourself and find
what joy you may. I would help!

Speak one wish, and I shall grant."


The Raptaptapper took in a deep breath and held his hands up to his face. He felt his graying beard. Most men would have asked for power, or a great many descendants, or wealth. But now the Raptaptapper had no need for any of those things; he had grown old, and now it was his destiny to wander the world forevermore. He might have tried to ask to be freed of that burden, but the way that Yara's magic worked prohibited him from even coming to that thought. So instead he asked for the only thing that was left to ask for. "A purpose," said he, "give me a purpose to my travels, then."

The djinni's smile widened.
"You always did tell stories
to those that listened
and preached of the gods' glory.

But you had not seen their work
by your own two eyes.
But now, you could bear witness

to all the gods' great works and
hear the tales of all
the world's scattered men and tribes.

So I offer you this book.
It listens, sees, writes
so I charge you to go forth!

Fill this book, and spread its tales!"


His name, his past, his wants...this strange spiryt truly seemed to know everything about him, and were the Raptaptapper not in such a state, he might have been terrified by such omniscience. As it was, he was only awed; from naught but a golden wind Aihtiraq wove a beautifully bound book into existence. The tome hovered closer to the Raptaptapper until he clutched it. He opened it to see a blank page, but then lo and behold, the journal began writing upon itself! And the Raptaptapper, though he had always been illiterate, could read! "Thank you, my...my friend!" the Firewind's greatest bard called out, but when he looked up he saw nothing but the lifeless flickering of the dying flames in his campfire.

He wouldn't break his promise to wander the Firewind, for that was his curse and he was bound to do so. But he could gut it and turn the curse into a blessing, for now his journeys would no longer be meaningless. He had an entire lifetime to travel and share stories.

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Hidden 3 yrs ago Post by Bright_Ops
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Bright_Ops The Insane Scholar

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As Farxus came to the final page of his tome, he closed it in his lap as looked up at a nearby wall, his gaze focused on nothing as he tried to contemplate what he had read in order to try and work out where he needed to begin. While he did fully intend to deal with each and every case that appeared, there were a couple of themes that came up now and again that he couldn't help but notice. Some of his charges were staying connected to the realm of the living after death because for one reason or another their souls simply couldn't find their way, or they were forcefully staying out of a fear of what came next. Some refused to leave because they had something to say and no one to say it too...

Blinking a little, he turned his head towards the stone that his predecessor had created to handle the souls of the dead. It was a simple process really when one truly considered it, but Farxus couldn't help but feel that Reathos had made it... well, rather basic. Sure it was a task that was required but looking over the list of lost souls... it was clear that it wasn't enough. Something needed to change in order to help deal with the influx of lost souls.

Besides, Reathos was gone... a part of Farxus couldn't resist the desire to try and step out of the shadow of the former god of death to make his own impact on the world.

Taking a deep breath, he pushed himself to his feet before gently gliding over to the Wraith Stone. For a moment he hesitated, a small stab of self doubt as he questioned if he had the strength to bring his plan to life... before reaching forward and placing his bony hand upon the stone itself. Instantly he felt a surge of power course up his arm, filling his body and in a way rebuilding it to be stronger then ever before; A cry of startled surprise escaped from Farxus's lips but his hand remained firmly planted on the stone, unable to pull his limb away as some of the excess power of Reathos flowed into him.

Soon through, the onslaught of power slowed until it finally ceased. While breathless at the surprising turn of events, Farxus narrowed his gaze as he started to push some of his new found strength back into the stone, intent on altering it's functions a little while pouring in a small amount of his own essence. While he might only a shadow of Reathos's strength and purpose, Farxus was now the closest thing to a proper god of death that this world... and possibly the rest of existence had. If he was going to take on such a lofty mantle, he needed to do it on his terms and make his own impact on the duty he was tasked with.

On his own, he wouldn't have been able to do it; but with the raw power that Reathos had left behind for his heir to use he could feel the stone changing slightly as his essence altered it, infusing itself with the processing of the dead and departed. A series of new ruins appeared on the stone, written in Sesh'Areit as it added a new stage to the process and function of the Wraith Stone and thus the reincarnation process itself.

The meaning of the runes themselves that marked the change might have surprised someone who saw them that could understand what they said. 'What can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the Reaper Man?'

His task complete, Farxus collapsed onto the ground as he breathed in air that he didn't strictly need as exhaustion sunk in.

.....................................................

Hannah Larz blinked as she looked around, slightly confused about what had just happened. She hadn't believed herself to be fast enough on her feet to get out of the way of the pot as it slipped off the shelf, but clearly she had underestimated herself. "Damn it Mother, I told you that pot was too heavy to be put on the shel-" The sentence was stopped dead in her throat as Hannah looked down at the smashed remains of the pot on the floor and saw that there was a rather familiar face among the wreckage... one that it took a moment for her to recognize because it was her own.

Which raised the rather interesting question of whom was looking down at her body.

"I confess Miss Larz, I'm surprised to see you so soon." A voice that sounded like a wind passing through a burial ground reveled itself, causing her to turn to see the source of it, only to blink in surprise once more. Hannah wasn't in her house anymore... instead she appeared to be standing on the edge of a desert of black sand and a calm, dark blue night sky above devoid of stars. Shock caused her to recoil as her gaze focused on what could have only been the source of the voice before, her eyes landing on a man wearing a hooded cloak that appeared to have been dead for quite sometime.

"W-who are you? What's going on?!" She demanded with fear seeped heavily in her tone.

The hooded figure smiled gently, much like a grandfather offering a favored grandchild a grin. Despite the horrific nature of the man's appearance the gesture was... actually strangely comforting in a small way. "To answer your questions, my name is Farxus and I am here because you were right about the pot being placed on the shelve being dangerous."

"S-so... I'm dead?" Hannah asked nervously, trying to understand the situation that she was in while her mind tried to deny the horrific truth of her own corpse in front of her... only to be surprised as this 'Farxus' shook his head no.

"It is not your time to take your final journey across the desert, Miss Larz. You're merely having a near death experience. Someone found you and is even now working to bring you back towards the realm of the living." It was clear that the hooded man was telling the truth; Hannah could feel something tugging her back, away from the desert of black sand and Farxus.

Both of them started to fade out of existence as she started to see her home again; Glancing back at her body, Hannah saw her mother doing everything that she could to try and bring her back around. It was a rather... strange sensation actually, witnessing your own body from the outside. However, her head jerked back towards where Farxus had been standing as she heard a final farewell. "It was a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to meeting you again."





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Hidden 3 yrs ago 3 yrs ago Post by BBeast
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BBeast Scientific

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Throughout Galbar, wherever hain were found, so were Chippers. This religion, if it could even be called a religion, had just three basic principles: learn new things, teach those things, and travel to find those who will learn and teach if you are able. While simple, these principles made Chippers the most influential group of hain across the planet. The actions of the Chippers greatly accelerated the diffusion of knowledge across the world. While most Chippers never wandered father than the neighbouring tribes, this combined with the aim of sharing knowledge was adequate for spreading knowledge.

Some of this new information came from the cities of Galbar, although this was not as great a source as one might think. The nations of Yorum, Alefpria and Amestris (although no longer the capital Xerxes) all had a good Chipper presence. However, the trappings of civilisation in these nations with the uncivilised tribes outside tended to dissuade all but the most devout from expediting to the tribal hain. And more often than not, the sharing of this knowledge served to draw the tribal hain as migrants to the cities rather than encourage them to make their own civilisations.

But the meddling of a particular Chaos God, soon before the Realta attacked, provided another way for knowledge to get out of the cities. On that day, numerous random people across the globe received strange visions about peculiar technologies. However, the recipients of these visions rarely had the knowledge or resources to make use of them on their own. This was where the Chippers came in. Chippers took note of these visions as they heard them, many considering them as gifts from Stone Chipper, and talked of them with other Chippers. As Chippers collected and shared more of these visions, links started to be made as related concepts were brought together and enabled each other. Technologies which had once been isolated to the cities began springing up in locations across Galbar occupied by hain. Wheels and carts. Melting down surface copper ore deposits to create metal tools. Basic agriculture. Taming animals. Improved weaponry and armour. Very rarely, enough of this knowledge converged in a single location to allow the formation of actual towns of hain, which might some day become fully fledged cities. If nothing else, the places which benefited from the technologies tended to be better armed and more equipped to defend themselves, or march out to battle.

The Chippers also spread more mundane knowledge developed by regular hain. The medicinal properties of herbs and plants were difficult to determine. It could take many generations for an isolated village to develop a broad enough catalogue of remedies to handle common ailments. But the presence of Chippers meant that once one village discovered some useful medicine, the neighbouring villages soon learnt of it too, followed by their neighbours and so on. The use of drawings and pictures was very valuable in the dissemination of this information, as names of plants would often vary between groups.

Even more prolific than medicine was alcohol. Even non-Chippers saw the benefit of a good brew, so Chippers tended to be more than willing to go out of their way to discover new ways to make alcohol. These brews had simple bases, such as chewed grains or pressed fruit juices, although what distinguished many brews were the different additives, such as spices, herbs, berries, or honey. With only crude brewing techniques, these beverages rarely contained enough alcohol to cause intoxication unless consumed in excess. But the constituents of the beverages made them quite nutritious, and the process of brewing tended to sterilise the drink. The work of the Chippers provided hain tribes, and even neighbouring human tribes, a plethora of choice when making alcohol.

And independently of the work of Vestec came rumours from southern Mesathalassa of a great hain who had discovered how to grow food plants, and that fire could be used to manipulate star-fiend carapace. Other hain villages in the region began trying to farm, with varying degrees of success. And while not many villages had ready access to a star-fiend, or the means to break one down into manageable pieces, through various other avenues of knowledge a few villages were able to associate metal ores with the process, and thus unlock metalworking and draw the link between star-fiend carapace and metal.

This was all just a part of what Chippers had done for hainkind. The Chippers continually spread knowledge which they found. While their progress was not especially fast or focused, it was much more than what other people would do. Even though Teknall had not intentionally created the Chippers and had little direct influence in their development, he was glad they had emerged.





Alchemy was a powerful art in practised hands. The various aspects and uses of alchemy would grant civilisation another great boon, potentially accelerating the development of other technologies like metalworking, medicine and materials, and provide a bridge between the mundane and magical. It granted nigh limitless possibilities, if only the right ingredients could be obtained.

But the trouble would be discovering those ingredients. While patterns existed, the nature of the occult made such patterns extremely esoteric. To figure out the patterns ex nihilo would take far longer than for more conventional sciences like chemistry or physics. It would be a largely trial and error process, one fraught by frustration and confusion. Until such patterns could be deduced, creating new potions would require combining seemingly random ingredients with seemingly obscure methods. If alchemy were to be made useful, guidance would be necessary.

If only there were a people who would try weird and random things for no reason other than to see what it would create. And if only there existed some kind of global network through which information could be broadcast to and shared amongst these people.

How convenient.


~-====-~


The listening horns of Ovaedis were vast caves, filled with nodes of pastel light monitored by biomechanical drones. The minds of thousands of Sculptors echoed through the horns in telepathic signals. It was cacophonous, but somehow piecemeal conversations could still be carried out through the network. Poems could be recited, help sought, meetings arranged, discoveries announced, and so on.

(green papers whispered/bright princes approved warmly/flat princes pondered)
(The crystal trees have crossed the barrier by the start of the great mountains. Asking help to contain it again)
(Did you hear the one about the cat?)
(~the sun rises yet again, the one constant in this world)
(Boil beer to liberate the spirits of the drink. Capture them to harness their powers.)
(there is emptiness/seasonal gray ragged tint/each is made of dust)
(oo, do tell)
(What rhymes with heart?)
(There is a narrow path up a cliff. Avoid Blackhammer Crater, though)
(Try tea of tannin, nightshade leaf and goat's blood)
(Fart. Ha ha)
(Informed the rockmen. Assistance on the way)


~-====-~


The Sculptor reclined in the shade of a tree. With a hand which had once been human, one among five, she lifted up a cask and drank of the water within. She then held the cask up and eclipsed the sunlight filtering through the leaves. Needle fae fluttered above her. As she watched idly, she pondered what she might do today.

Make something.

She decided it would be good to create today. But what would she create? Would she carve a piece of art into the tree she was resting upon? Would she compose a poem to sing?

Perhaps something new; create a new substance.

Then inspiration struck her. She would create something new, something never felt or tasted before, until she made it. She got up to gather ingredients.

You will need water, and a bucket to hold it and everything else.

The first thing she did was fashion a crude bucket from some leather she had. Then she headed down towards the river to collect some water. There she filled her bucket half-full.

You will also need to find some dandelions, a dead bird, and the sun-dried feces of a buffalo.

Next she picked some dandelions, found a bird perched in a tree and killed it with her sling, and found a pile of dusty dry manure. She had a hunch that these ingredients would do something.

Burn the dandelions and keep the ash.

She set up a small fire, put the dandelions on a stone, and transferred across some of the fire to ignite the dandelions. They were quickly reduced to ash, which would surely be useful for the new substance she was making.

Strip the flesh off the bird and keep the raw bones.

She then used a knife and her teeth to strip the raw and bloody flesh from the bird's skeleton. She decided to eat the meat raw today. She set the bones next to the dandelions, for she would use those too.

Mix together a handful of water, the ashes, and the feces.

She scooped up some water with one hand, the ashes with another hand, and the powdery feces with a third hand, and brought the three hands together, mashing together their contents. She rubbed them together until she had a stinky homogeneous brown sludge. This was an interesting substance, although was hardly novel. There had to be more.

Stir the paste into the bucket. Take the bones and add them too. Then sprinkle in a pinch of dirt.

The paste was only an intermediate. She mixed it into the water and added the bones. She decided it would be a good idea to add in a bit of dirt too. Maybe it would do something.

Now leave it out in the sun, and come back when the sun is within two hand breadths of the horizon.

Now that she had mixed the ingredients together, it would obviously take time to finish. Time and sunlight. Sunlight felt like an important step. She would come back for the substance late in the afternoon. Until that time she tattooed a twisting pattern into a tree using a few Needle Fae. When she decided that it had been long enough, the Sculptor checked on the concoction she had prepared. What had once been dirty water was now an opaque brown solution, with a sharp and pungent aroma. She picked up the leather bucket and looked at the liquid. She hadn't seen anything quite like it before, but making a plain brown solution which smelled of poo made for underwhelming art.

Pour it onto that bush over there.

Clearly the substance must have properties beyond its appearance. It needed to be used. And what better thing to use it on than that bush over there. That bush was not the healthiest bush; its leaves were yellowing, its branches withering, its bark peeling. Perhaps this new substance might give it beauty in some way. She slowly poured the solution in a circle around the base of the bush, sprinkled some over the leaves, then emptied the rest of the solution onto the base of the bush. She watched, yet nothing seemed to be happening. Had she failed?

Patience. Check back tomorrow.

She was being impatient. Why should something happen right now? Plants were slow. She would check tomorrow if anything had happened. The Sculptor found a place to set up camp, found some food and slept the night. The next morning she danced among her Faery swarm in the rays of sunrise sunlight, her arms moving fluidly as she twirled and leaped. When sunrise was over, she remembered the bush, and went to check it.

To her surprise, the bush which had once been sick was vibrant and green. The colour of the leaves had been restored to a bright shade of green. The branches were strong. The plant was healthy, healthier than any other plant in sight. The Sculptor danced in joy at the new beauty she had created.

Remember.

She would remember this recipe. It made for such glorious beauty.

Share.

She would have to tell others about how to make this substance. That would be the best way to ensure that this beauty was spread.

~-====-~


(~the sun is gone, consumed by the earth. i rest once more)
(Hey, don't pick that vine, it will give you a rash)
(The brown liquid makes plants grow greener)
(Before the moment of tears the poets turn/and sisters, that boy outta sight /for little spots, that itch and burn/And elephants don't take flight)
(Put melanterite in the heart of a fire, capture the fumes with water)
( [ I have found a most elegant proof to the cyclic quadrilateral theorem ] )
(Dem alcohol'c spirits be a stron' drink)
(Look at the pretty clouds. That one looks like a fish)
(Cook guano in a sealed container. See what you get)
(When we get rain/which soaks the soil 'neath our feet/what better gain/than a fresh harvest of wheat)
(Visit a valley in the shadow of the tallest mountain. I hear good things are happening there)
(How did you capture the alcoholic spirits?)


~-====-~


The Shrine of Jvan, that charred ruin a safe distance from Alefpria proper, was a hub of Sculptor activity and experimentation. Many covered the structure and its surroundings in strange paintings, sculptures, carvings, scratchings, scrawlings, and other forms of 'fine' art in the Jvanic style. Underneath the Shrine was a place for experiments best kept away from prying eyes. But the ground floor of the Shrine was currently host to a Sculptor dabbling in a novel art form he had been inspired to pursue after hearing whispers in the mind-waves.

Sliddlvik the goblin Sculptor was currently perched over his apparatus. A fire burned underneath a pot, and above that pot was an upturned brass funnel, with a pipe which turned back down to a second pot. The pipe was wrapped in wet rags. With one eye stalk Sliddlvik watched the contents of the pot, adjusting its position occasionally to ensure that it simmered but didn't boil. The second eye stalk twisted around to watch liquid slowly drip into the second pot. With one lanky hand he wafted the scent from the second pot to his face, smelling the sweet aroma from the liquid within. Another hand felt the damp cloths, and determining them to be insufficiently cool a prehensile foot picked up fresh cloths from a bucket, reached over to replace the warm cloths, and put the warm cloths back in the bucket.

It all started when someone suggested boiling beer to release the spirits of the drink. It was a strange suggestion, but Sliddlvik had tried it anyway. The vapours had a sweet aroma, like the flavour of alcohol but stronger. The process had left the beer weak, meaning that heating had liberated the 'spirits' which made the beer alcoholic. The tricky part was capturing those vapours.

Sliddlvik had travelled far, roaming with the urtelem herds to reach the golden jewel of Alefpria. From his past life as a goblin, he knew how to shape metal and the uses of that material. It had taken a lot of coin to get the metal he needed, and the alcoholic beverages to boil, but he had done it. He had forged the funnel and pipe himself. Then came testing and experimenting. He had had to learn not to heat the alcohol too much, or else the water in it would boil too. He had figured out the trick for condensing the vapours using cool wet cloths. He had learnt, the hard way, to not collect the spirits until their aroma was sweet. And he had discovered that he could increase the purity of the alcoholic spirits by repeating the process on the distillate.

Why did Sliddlvik go to all this trouble? To Sliddlvik, this process of experimentation and creation was an art of itself, one which gave him much satisfaction. Plus, the alcoholic spirits was a far more potent beverage than anything obtained from the breweries, and some of the Sculptors at the Shrine had developed a taste for this new drink.

But Sliddlvik knew that the alcoholic spirits had more uses than as an intoxicating drink. Already, he had discovered that it was highly flammable. It washed off and dissolved grease and oil which water would not. And he suspected that this was just the beginning. And if distilling wine and beer could give alcoholic spirits, what other things could be distilled to create new substances? Sliddlvik was giddy with the possibilities. Or maybe he was just giddy with the alcohol. It's hard to tell.

~-====-~


(and that's how I did it)
(Careful with the vitriol, it causes burns)
( [ Use an object with a straight edge to help draw the fractal patterns ] )
(~auricolor casts down its dull light, for the twin moons are resting)
(Heat quicksilver, get crystals red and white. The two are opposites)
(Triumph needlessly like a sweet face within love./Ever to hear a moon, it gave a lock./What is the empty hate to rapidly fight the rainbow?/Cheeks breathe and within them desire rises!)
(I met a skeletal hain today)
(Cinnabar makes a great red pigment. Amestrian traders sell it)
(Has anyone ever told you that your poetry makes no sense?)
(Powdered iron, dissolved in vitriol. Red mercuric oxide. Blood of a Herakt. Distill, then sprinkle pot ash into the distillate)
(Spooky)
(Look for the campfire on the rocky bluff)


~-====-~


The bloated Sculptor sat in the middle of the darkened house, its multitudinous fingered tentacles reaching out, touching and tasting the contents of the various pots in the room. A net hung from the rafters held even more vials, tangled within the ropes. The walls were covered in sketches of symbols and connections, which at a cursory glance may have appeared as some Jvanic scrawls, but closer inspection would reveal an intricate web of information and accumulated data, cross-referenced to symbols marking the pots and vials. And by the fireplace some foul liquid was simmering away into a distiller.

This Sculptor, Margos by name, had received a sizeable inheritance some time before ascendancy, so was able to afford a small house within the Amestrian nation and fund its artistic endeavours. And some time ago it had taken up a new pursuit, one which definitely benefited from its supply of funds.

It had heard the whispers of the other Sculptors, and one of those whispers had new knowledge about a new art. An art of substances, chemical, materials and tonics, of mixing, boiling, distilling, burning and purifying. Margos' curiosity had been piqued, and it sought to learn this art.

Margos had followed the clues he heard, both from that one whisper and then the others who were following the same path as it. It had acquired the materials and tested them, and sung what it found into the sea of whispers. But Margos was not satisfied with simply copying the work of others. Derivative art was beneath it. The true artist creates from their own inspiration, creates what is new.

It was hard getting started. This art seemed so strange and abstract, but as Margos took notes and covered the walls with them, it started to see the patterns. Each new material had some new property, which could be used to make more new things. And there were several well-defined methods which could be used to transmute one substance into another, such as distillation, calcination, and dissolution.

Margos had found that the corrosive vitriol was a powerful solvent, able to dissolve even metal and consuming water. Its potency was invaluable in many other transmutations. Saltpeter dissolved in vitriol, for instance, created a new acid, aqua fortis.

And quicksilver, which could be distilled from cinnabar, seemed to have many properties too. Margos tested every new material by tasting it with its sensitive tentacles. While such experimentation may have poisoned or killed regular mortals, Margos had exceptional constitution, although even it felt ill occasionally. But Margos had found other substances which could treat the toxicity of others. It found that green vitriol alleviated many ills caused by organic substances.

Margos found that many substances, both natural and created, had some properties, some aspects, which when combined seemed to produce wondrous results. The tools used to combine such substances seemed to have an effect too. Margos had many experiments running simultaneously, many combinations to test, and its work was paying off. Green vitriol, paste from faba beans and white mercuric oxide fermented in a lead pot created a potion which induced temporary paralysis. Adding sal ammoniac to the brown plant-growth potion another Sculptor had discovered increased its potency two-fold, and Margos had begun selling the concoction to farmers to help fund further experiments.

And Margos had many more experiments to do. Every discovery it made led it to even more questions, even more possibilities. Each new substance was like a new colour added to its pallet, and its paintings were to potions made from the combination of these substances.

~-====-~


(Green vitriol has a definite cleansing aspect)
(~i dance in the rain, feel the raindrops spatter around me)
(Alcoholic spirits, vitriol and aqua fortis makes for a highly reactive new substance. Handle with care)
(Gold is associated with purity and heart)
( [ Polygons subdivided into triangles. We can thus derive the angles of the polygons ] )
(Hey, aqua fortis and sal ammoniac makes this new acid which can dissolve gold. Useful?)
(Lime, made from heating limestone, reacts with numerous other compounds)
(the blood-red rose and its vicious thorns. such beauty mixed with danger)
(Alchemy is the s͓ͫ͟ecr̝et̝̰͋͢ t͒ͫo̝ u᷂ṇt͇o͇l̲d͟ pͭ͑͊oͧ̋͠w̮̜̖ę̀͡r͈͌̊)
(You can distill the essence of plants like the alcoholic spirits)
(The light that scatters off the lensling groves is so pretty)
(Take the blood of a feverish person. Mix in natrum, calomel and lavender. Allow to ferment on a moonless night. Quench with green vitriol. Boil it and have the feverish person inhale the fumes. They convulse a little, but the fever dies down)
(I've got a new one. Sulfur, lime and sal ammoniac. It creates this dark smelly liquid)
(I've sent a dove carrying the message. Tell me when you receive it)
(Mercury mixed with faery ink weakens fires. Any suggestions for a more potent mixture?)
(~the light scatters off the rain to create an arc of colours. its pallet is pure)
(Snow melt. Black ash. Maybe silver.)
(The aurora paints the sky. I shall paint the ground likewise)
(Looking for a crossing past the Darkened Spires. Any suggestions?)
(Pot ash has some associations with the body)
(Blood has power. Any shaman can tell you that)
(Initial tests indicate that black antimony has a good set of reactions)
(Essence of balsamine and green vitriol seems to help wounds heal quicker)


Critical mass had been achieved. The seeds of alchemy had taken root, and now this new 'art' was blossoming across the Sculptor network. Teknall eased his mind away from the network, feeling a release of psychic pressure as he disconnected from the web of eldritch minds. He had managed to direct the single-minded artistic pursuits of at least a few Sculptors towards the art of alchemy, one which could provide many benefits. The Sculptors would experiment and test with a vigour unseen in other mortals, always seeking new beauty and new ways to express their art. And this would doubtlessly lead to many great discoveries, which with any luck would be passed on to regular mortals.

For now, the alchemical pursuits of the Sculptors were self-perpetuating. Teknall could leave them to their own devices, confident that they would continue producing results.

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Hidden 3 yrs ago 3 yrs ago Post by Cyclone
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Cyclone Wallowing in Nostalgia

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The Three Warlords

Stog, Skagoth, Grekogork


The first bands of fire appeared on the distant horizon as the sun began to creep its way onto the sky. With that new day came another bloody conquest.

The smoke of several small campfires drifted lazily into the sky, and even the most dimwitted of ogres knew that there would be a camp full of victims to be found nearby. Among those great warbosses that had been appointed by Ommok, there was one named Skagoth, and he had claimed the honor of leading the raid. As if a brute his size had something to prove!

The lazy beast found no prey, and even whilst Skagoth made his preparations that morning to attack in an hour's time, a small party had already broken off from the disorganized ogre army and set out to do the task. Stog had grown tired of waiting, and it had taken little effort for him to rile up some of his more bloodthristy peers. They sent out as a band of six to do the work that Skagoth would have brought a hundred for.

The warband made their way through the woodland similar to how a woodpecker's beak bludgeoned into a tree. They swatted the foliage aside and scared off all the fauna as they stomped a path through the forest, but stealth was hardly Stog's intention. He was a grunt among the army, a mere soldier in the grand scheme of things; fighting and killing he knew. Strategy he didn't, and nor did he care to.

Stog and his band eventually saw the glow of a fire through the treeline. Huddled about it were several small white creatures, those crunchy little shelled creatures that Ommok had called 'heen'. There might be heen to the king, but to Stog they were nothing more than foodstuff.

He raised his axe above his head and let forth a bellow that seemed to shake the trees and scare off every bird within a mile. The ogres charged the hain hunting camp. The hunters looked up from their morning's meal and saw their assailants. With terror palpable in the air, one of their kind turned to run. The others either stood transfixed or desperately clambered for their weapons. They fired their bows and Stog was struck in the chest by one arrow. The stone head barely even pierced his leathery skin, so with nothing more than a grunt he maintained his breakneck pace. The ogres moved astonishingly fast considering their bulkiness and soon they were upon the hain.

In closing the gap Stog had dodged another arrow, and as the marksman desperately fumbled to nock a third arrow Stog reached him. With a roar he swung his axe downwards. The hain dropped his bow and leaped backwards, the massive stone head of the ogre's axe missing him by a hair. That barely spared his life, but now the hain was scrambling backwards on the ground. Stog laughed and slowly advanced forward. He had time to toy with this one, because to the sides his fellow ogres were keeping the other few hain...occupied.

With one gigantic foot he stepped on the creature's chest. Even though Stog was short for an ogre, he was still twice the puny thing's size. He slowly pressed downwards with more weight and looked to see if the hain's shell was cracking. In that moment one of the hunter's friends charged bearing a spear. One of the other ogres moved to intercept the spearman but there wouldn't be enough time.

Stog needed no help. He jumped off the hain underfoot and took a step towards the one charging him; that boldness and aggression clearly took the spearman by surprise. Where once there had been pure fury, a brief moment of fear pierced that spearman's heart and he hesitated for a split second longer than he otherwise might have. That was all that Stog needed. With his free hand he batted at the spear as it lunged toward him, and then when the point was facing the ground Stog stomped on the shaft. It broke with a resounding crack and the hain tried to turn and run. With both hands the ogre gripped his axe's haft and with all his savage strength he swung horizontally.



...and then something pricked at his leg. Stog turned to see that hain that he had been stepping on. In its hand was a small knife, probably the thing that it had been scrambling on the ground for. That might have been funny if Stog was in a calmer mood, but now he was in a wild trance. Without even thinking he hefted his axe high and then brought it down in a downward arc. What his axe's stone head lacked in sharpness was more than compensated for by the amount of weight behind it; the blow connected and there was an audible crack as the creature's exoskeleton shattered. Stog's guillotine had split the hapless hunter almost in half. Blood erupted upwards in a fountain of gore.

He raised his axe and looked for the next victim, a hain that had been already been disarmed and roughly beaten onto the ground by another one of the ogres. Before he could advance upon that one too, a brawny hand grabbed his shoulder.

"Ay! Calm yourself down!"

Stog spun around. He gritted his jagged teeth and clenched his free hand into a fist so tightly that veins bulged out through all his brawn. That fellow grunt that had questioned him looked taken aback, but before Stog moved to strike there was another one of the ogres that came to intervene, "He just means that we killed all the res'. Better take our time with this one or there's not gonna be any fun, huh?"

Slowly Stog's rage boiled down. "First we gonna take all the loot that we came for. Before the other gits come lookin'. Turn over every stone! Take everything!"

He looked down towards one of the slain hunters that hadn't been mutilated too much. With one swing of his axe he chopped off an arm and moved to roast it over the still burning campfire. The living hain looked at him funny and Stog grew tired of its squealing, so he made it go to sleep with a few pats on the head. Playtime came after eating and looting!

But as luck would have it, their fun was soon interrupted by the sound of branches snapping underneath heavy feet. All around there came great hulking figures trudging angrily towards the camp. One of Stog's dumber friends looked up. "Uh oh, da otha boys foun' us! We gonna be in big trouble!"

A low growl seemed to reverberate from Stog's chest and that silenced the rest of them. They stood with icy stares as several ogres of great stature stepped forth. To ogres size was everything, and judging by their height these were all commanders.

"Well well, look what we got 'ere," one started. He reached for a looted bag of hunting supplies that one of Stog's goons had been holding in his hand. That ogre pull back and tried to fight it out of the officer's hands, but the much larger commander had the advantage in that. He twisted and the grunt released it, and then the officer pushed the smaller one. The grunt pushed back, and then the officer laughed and with one gesture had two or three of his men advance upon the straggler and beat him with clubs.

Another one of the officers glanced back and forth as if sizing up the band. His eyes finally came to rest upon Stog as he seemed to correctly recognize that one as the ringleader. He stepped forward and spoke with fire in his voice, "Orders were clear. We were supposed to attack later today with a hundred warriors. We were going to share the loot. But you wanted to steal it all, so you stole off and did this," he went on on, gesturing towards Stog's butchery, "an' it looks like you just ran in and smashed everything. You ever think about why we were gonna do a sneak attack? What if one of them escaped?"

"If one escaped then we just kill 'im later. Don't matter if his friends find out we're comin' these puny heen are easy to stomp."

"If one escaped, he will tell the nearby villages and they'll all run. Then what do we have?"

Stog snorted at that. "One tried to run an' I axed 'im up real good. Stop sayin' that word 'if'."

"We're taking all the loot. Your grubby hands don't get to keep anything."

"Ay! We fought for it while you slept under a tree! We deserve our share!"

"You disobeyed my orders, and the king said we're the bosses roun' here, not you scrawny gits."

Stog's teeth gnashed together so hard that it hurt.

Just then another ogre stepped forth to declare that fresh tracks had been found leading away from the camp, as if one of the heen had just fled in a hurry. The officer looked back at Stog coldly. Off to the side, that ogre that had tried to fight over the stack was still yelping as they beat him. "Follow the trail! He'll be running back to his village," the general told the scout. Then he turned back to Stog and promised, "If you think your friend over there is getting it bad, just wait until it's your turn you little git!"

At that moment Stog's burning gaze could have bored holes in stone. He stared lividly at the hundred ogres all about him. He wanted nothing more than to hack them all to pieces.

Instead, he watched as they stole all his hard-earned loot and went about punishing his friends one by one. At some point along the line, the hunter that Stog had left unconscious began to stir. That wretched general immediately noticed and grabbed the creature for himself.




Each night the ogre invasion force would break camp. Most quickly assembled a crude lean-to for shelter or else just slept on the ground, but a few of the more important ones had taken felt or leather tents as loot from the previous hain villages. Skagoth was one of the generals and so he had such a luxury. By hain standards the tent was giant, but that was fitting for one that was huge even by ogre standards.

Cowering in the corner of his tent were several heen that he had claimed as his own slaves. Sadly the things weren't as useful as he would have hoped. Maybe they would make fine livestock back at home. He looked at the sorry lot of them tiredly and said, "Water! Here! Now!"

They all stared back dumbly. It was like talking to a rock or a tree. Except rocks and trees didn't flinch...

But then one of them quickly stood up. He said some gibberish and then the lot of them grabbed a pot and ran off to the river. When the returned, they handed it to Skagoth and the great ogre chugged the entirety of the pot's contents. He looked at the one that had understood and recognized it as that one that he had taken at the hunting camp only yesterday. He imagined that Stog, the idiot behind that foolhardy raid, would have simply killed that heen for the fun of it.

Shaking his head to banish the thoughts of that fool, he waved at the slaves to leave and they all scurried out of his tent. Even the dumb ones understood that gesture well enough. Then Skagoth sat and waited for the meeting that he had arranged. Some time later, a fellow general by the name of Makog showed up. Though Skagoth despised how Ommok had simply left the largest ogres in positions of command without paying a second thought to it or even considering the intelligence of his new commanders, it certainly made things easier. Through promising Makog and some of the others a portion of his own loot, their loyalty was secured.

Later that day he met with one of the more stubborn warbosses, and then he had been forced to resort to threats. When that failed, they taded blows, but in the end Skagoth finally earned the brute's respect. 'Both wits and brawn,' the general thought, 'that is what will earn me my place as the sole leader of this army.'

He had been planning to assume leadership for many days now, but he just needed the right time. Through quick thinking he had discovered the location of the largest heen settlement they had encountered yet; Stog's moronic attack had scared off one of those hain at the camp, and that hunter's tracks led straight back to his village just as Skagoth had predicted. This time the heen would know that the ogres were coming and they would have time to be ready, but it wouldn't matter. Skagoth would lead them all to victory, and then he would assume power while the triumph was fresh and he had the support of the other officers.

There was only one last ogre of importance that he would like to speak with - Grekogork. As one of the few of Ommok's sorcerers that actually came with the horde on their conquests and the only one that stayed behind after Ommok left, the task of managing four djinn fell upon Grekogork's shoulders. Three of them were lesser flamedjinn and they were not particularly uncooperate, but the larger one was a djinni of earth and it frequently battled to break free of the shaman's grasp. Fortunately Grekogork had been taught well by Falyr and Ommok, and so while his mind was strained he never lost control of those four djinn and he ensured that they fulfilled their role in every battle. Needless to say, that made Grekogork somewhat important. His close ties to the king also made him something of an officer, and it wasn't as if he was small by any measure.

"Grekogork," Skagoth had began, "I would like to speak with you."

The sorcerer snorted and the four djinn around him strangely did likewise, or at least they tried to mimic the sound. "You not as smart as you think you are, big mighty warboss!"

Skagoth was silent for a moment, unsure of what to say. It was rare that his charisma failed him so the shaman's seeming indifference (or had it been an insult?!) was strange. He regained his wit and tried again, "I think we should become friendlier with one another."

Again the sorcerer snorted. "You wanna be Grekogork's friend? Why? You a clever little general, but Grekogork is smarter!

I know you just wanna tell me what to do an' tell those djinn what to burn or what to smash. But I don't think so! I'M DA BOSS OF THESE DJINN! I only listen to the great king Ommok! Grekogork does what Grekogork pleases!"

Taken somewhat aback, Skagoth backed down and left. He was no coward and he wouldn't have taken such a rebuke lightly had it come from any other, but in truth Grekogork's powers scared even the biggest of ogres and the cleverest of generals.

But it was no matter; the opinion of one shaman was nothing compared to the support of a half dozen other warbosses. Tomorrow Skagoth would be the high warlord whether that wretched sorcerer liked it or not.




Stog's back and limbs still throbbed from his beating the day before. He had ignored the agony and marched all day with nothing more than the occasional grunt, but now as he laid down to sleep the sharp pains denied him even that rest. So wearily he simply sat against a tree and waited until morning.

He hated all the waiting.

He wanted the killing to start. If he fell asleep that night he might have gotten that wish, but it never was the same when it was only a dream. He couldn't taste the blood in his dreams. So he had to content himself with waiting. How could he ever sleep whilst there were still enemies in the hills that drew breath? How could he ever sleep when he served under a bunch of snotty generals that stole his loot?

His teeth ground together. They did a lot; a few of them had grown dull from it. But then in the distance there was a faint thud almost like thunder. His eyes wandered to the darkened sky above in search of the lightning or stormclouds but he found nothing. That was good. He hated being rained on. Unless the rain was blood. Then it was okay.

He heard the boom again, and then again. It repeated rhythmically like a drum. As a few minutes passed the sound grew steadily louder. Whatever its source was, it was coming closer. With nothing better to do Stog stood up and grabbed his axe. Other ogres were stirring and doing likewise, and soon they made their way to the edge of the camp. In the distance they saw it: a white giant lumbering on its way.

The ogres had told stories of white giants. In older days they had been a threat to the ogre homeland and occasionally attacked, but their great king Ommok had long since led his warriors to defeat the last of the white giants that had patrolled their region of the Venomweald. Still, they were called White Stompers. The ogres still told tales of the strange creatures' strength and violent temperament, but from afar this one looked...almost peaceful.

It slowly approached. The ogres turned towards each other and started arguing. Some of the dumber ones thought it was a walking rock. Some of the smarter ones knew what it was and wanted to avoid the thing.

Stog wanted to smash it.

He raised his axe high, bellowed, and advanced forth. The thing's wormlike head snaked to face the direction of Stog's warcry and it seemed to notice the ogres only just then. A tremble seemed to wash over the white giant. It shook violently for a moment, let loose an unnatural sound, and then charged.

Half the ogres ran from it and the other half followed Stog's wild charge. As the first to start running Stog was the first one to reach the giant. He leaped to the side at the last moment before he would have collided head on with the giant and been trampled. Then with one wild swing he smashed his axe into the creature's side and smashed through a porcelain plate. His axe burrowed into the unnatural flesh underneath, and with a great heave Stog began to wrench it back out. But then one of the six arms on that side of the giant swung at his head. He ducked the blow, but then another arm grabbed at him. Its grip was of such unbelievable strength that it was like a vice.

Throughout this whole time the white giant had continued its charge and so only by digging his heels into the ground and twisted back did Stog manage to break free, but it felt as though his arm was going to be torn from his socket. And then he was was almost trampled, but nonetheless, he rose again. Now the white giant was thrashing its way through a small crowd of ogres, slashing and striking with a dozen limbs at once and stomping upon any that fell onto the ground. To their credit the ogres fought back and shattered several more of its plates before trying to drive spears through the holes in its armor, but the enraged abomination refused to die.

Stog was back on his feet again. His axe was still buried somewhere in the giant's flank but that mattered little; he was beginning to realize that hacking it to pieces mattered little. If he wanted to kill the giant snot and get his axe back, he'd have to beat it at its own game. They'd knock it over and stomp it into the ground.

He charged at the giant again, roaring with panting breath, "Shove it on da groun'! Kick it down and step onnit!"

Then he threw himself onto the thing's side and shoved with all the strength he had. Though Stog had quite a bit of strength, the white giant hardly budged. Several of its arms grasped at him to try and wrestle him off and rip him apart, but before that happened a half dozen other ogres also leaped at it. Together they began to force it onto the ground, slowly but surely. At the same time other ogres were still swinging weapons at it; there was nothing but shouting, chaos, and the unnatural roaring of the giant.

But then there came the sound of one ogre's voice, "GET BACK YA DUM-DUMS! OUTTA GREKOGORK'S WAY!" If that didn't scatter the mob of ogres encircling the giant, then the three blazing firedjinn and the earthdjinn certainly did. Stog watched some unseen force hurl the other ogres off the white giant's flank. It tugged at him but he mostly just ignored it. How did such a puny shove knock off those other gits?

Then he saw the four djinn leaping at the giant and he broke free by his own volition rather than by Grekogork's magic. The white giant flailed about confused as if looking for some unseen attacker. The four djinn were in plain sight, and though the ogres didn't understand the whys of it, it was plainly obvious that the white giant wasn't even capable of detecting the djinn. 'Hah!' Stog thought, 'it can't e'en fight dem lil djinn!'

While the djinn bound to him kept the white giant occupied. Grekogork began to shake. His feet and arms flailed about as if he were being stung by a thousand venomous hornits from the Venomweald. His tongue lolled as he shouted some indiscernible gibberish and his eyes looked crazed. With no small exertion (for the white giant was much larger and much harder to fling than those scraggly gits that had been trying to climb on it!) he worked his magic and telekinetically lifted the white giant into the air. He kept gyrating wildly as he performed his Astartian magic, and the white giant kept levitating helplessly in the air. Now the three flamedjinn leaped at it and charred through its strange flesh, and then the stonedjinn delivered the killing blow by driving a razor-sharp shard of stone deep into the white giant and breaking something. Grekogork abruptly ceased his dancing and sat back down, clearly fatigued to the point that he was nearly unconscious. Stog could only watch in disbelief with his mouth agape.

"Grekogork, Grekogork!" a hundred of them chanted. While they cheered, Stog seethed and burned. He had wanted to smash the snotty thing himself, but once again he had all the glory snatched away by some git that thought himself better. He ground his teeth and looked to the side to observe another that wasn't cheering: Skagoth.

Stog spat and then returned to where he had been at vigil earlier in the night. Some time later the white giant's ruined husk exploded and its entropic magic caused strange things began to happen, but the ogres didn't pay much heed to such trivial things.




The next morning came and Skagoth set his plan into motion. The incident with the white giant in the middle of the night had stopped nothing, though perhaps it did bestow a greater sense of urgency upon Skagoth. The general knew that Grekogork's demonstration of power that night had been the cause of much talking and he was wary of letting the sorcerer make too much of a name for himself lest he become a rival too strong to be beaten back down. He could only hope that another conquest would be enough to wash away the memories of Grekogork's victory and seize the hour for himself.

'Too much plotting,' he thought to himself. The great ogre walked on at the head of the army and looked for the heen village that his scouts had found. On the far distance he eventually spotted it: a large hillock with a cluster of tents and hovels at the top. He saw the gleaming white exteriors of countless tiny heen as scurried about the village like ants. Clearly they knew what was coming for them and were getting ready. That these heen knew what was coming and yet decided to remain in their village told Skagoth that they were going to fight. Good.

When they drew closer he addressed the big 'uns that were the army's officers and elites. "We already agreed that this is gonna get done my way," he declared at the very beginning, daring any of them to go back on their deals and object. None did. "So lemme tell you what to do. We split up and surround their hill. You each take twenty of your ogres and give 'em bows. No bows to the gits that are too dumb or don't have enough eyes to use 'em. They follow behind you and shoot arrows at the village. Doesn't matter what the arrows hit, just that they go flying to scare the heen. Then you stand real far apart from one another so it's harder for the hain to shoot you with their own arrows, and you run up the hill real fast and start smashin'. Wave the standards around! Scare 'em so much that they drop like rocks; Ommok wants slaves and you can't take 'em as slaves if you've deaded them!"

The boys quickly got to it just as Skagoth had said. When the assault began, the hain had archers and spear-throwers ready just as Skagoth had predicted. But his tactic worked; where they had hoped to slaughter the ogres as they tired themselves charging up the hillside, the hain found themselves under a barrage of the ogres' own arrows and they had to take cover. What few projectiles they did throw did little to stop the ogres' charge.

Skagoth himself led a warband up the hill. At his side there ran an ancient that carried a macabre totem.


The ogres' standard was held high above their heads as they stormed the hill. It heralded a grisly fate for the brave hain that fought to defend their home.


But when they had made it about halfway up the hill, there came a surprise. From between their hovels, the hain pushed huge balls of hay towards the slopes. With torches they set the things on fire, and they kicked them to roll down on the ogres below as gigantic fireballs. If they hadn't spread themselves out as they charged up the hill, Skagoth knew that they would have been unable to move as freely and might have been devastated. He would be sure to take credit for that good thinking!

The first few fireballs caught the ogres by surprise and several were crushed or burned, but now that they saw the things coming they moved to avoid the fireballs as they rolled down the hill in straight lines. The hain quickly ran out of the great balls of hay, but then they began to roll boulders down the hill, only these boulders seemed almost...guided. When the ogres tried to move to the side to avoid them, the boulders turned.

And then they crushed the first of their victims, and then the things that the ogres had taken to be boulders stood up. They opened their maws and raised their arms. "They're Stonies! Smash 'em to bits!" Skagoth roared, but there was hardly any need. Even in those wild and hilly areas near the Venomweald there existed the occasional pack of urtelem, and the ogres had encountered the so called 'stonies' before. Belligerent as they always were, the urtelem almost always attacked on sight. Though the stonemen stood a chance against their larger (but softer) relatives, the ogres were more than capable of fighting back.

The charge uphill halted as a brawl broke out between the ogre warriors and the local urtelem that this village had tamed. From between their hovels the hain popped out and tried to harass the ogres, but Skagoth's own archers returned fire.

Skagoth was sure to make a good account for himself; he locked arms with one of the urtelem and pinned it onto the ground. He smashed a tomahawk onto its head, but the crude stone head of his own weapon broke without doing much more than chipping off a piece of the urtelem and making it angrier. The thing delivered a punch to Skagoth's gut that would have broken the bones of any man, but ogres were made of stronger stuff. He pinned down the arm that had struck him and returned the favor with a blow of his own. Then he grabbed the piece that had broken off the urtelem and made a show of eating it. He kept punching that stony until it retreated into the dirt underneath its back. Stonies knew when to run.

The warlord was back on his feet a moment later and charging to help his grunts beat back the other urtelem. For a fleeting moment, Skagoth caught a glimpse of a half dozen ogres charging up the hill, nearly to the top. He recognized that one called Stog at the head and watched the brute launch himself headlong into a group of heen warriors and begin some crazed onslaught. What that one lacked in intelligence and size was made up for in sheer ferocity and how well he swung that axe of his.




Within the passage of a few hours the conquest was complete. After scattering the urtelem the attack was easy enough; despite all their preparations the hain were ultimately overpowered. Brutes rampaged through the dirt paths to round up the survivors and pillage everything within sight. In the thick of it all stood Skagoth as he basked in his own triumph. Even an ogre warboss was prone to the occasional sentiment.

He reveled for only a short time before one of the soldiers ran to him panting. "Skagoth," he started, "Makog! Ma-"

"What does that fool want from me now?! I did my part of the deal, he gets to take his big share and all loot would have been mine!"

"No, it not dat! He's, he's...Stog..." he stammered, and at the mention of Stog the messenger got Skagoth's full attention. "Makog tried to say Stog was takin' too much of the loot, and then Stog got mad chopped 'im up real good! I mean, real bad!"

With a roar Skagoth stormed through the village and knocked aside everyone in his path. When he finally came upon Stog there was already a crowd so thick that even the warboss struggled to push his way through, but with his greater height he witness what happened in the middle. Stog callously stood next to the mutilated remnants of Makog, and in his face was another general by the name of Ugrigg.

Ugrigg bellowed, "YOU CAN'T JUS' TAKE WHATEVER YOU WANT AND MURDA A WARBOSS! I'M GONNA BEAT YOU SO HARD DA GROUN' WILL FEEL IT, YOU LIL RUNT-"

With lightning speed Stog swung his axe in a low arc and struck Ugrigg in the knee. The gargantuan ogre fell to the ground like a rock and then it was Stog who towered over him. "I'LL SHOW YOU WUT A RUNT IS!"

Stog raised his his axe all the way above his head and then brought it down with the force of an avalanche. The head buried itself so deep into Ugrigg's skull that the end might have poked out from the bottom of his head like a second chin. It was hard to tell with blood gushing everywhere.

A collective roar went through the crowd. It was hard to tell if it was child cheering, disgust, or pure rage, but nonetheless this was turning out to be quite the event for the average grunt to watch. The officers were understandably beginning to feel different emotions.

Stog put his foot on the slain general's soldier and ripped his axe free once more. "I'M TIRED O' BEING CALLED LIL! I'M TIRED O' DUMB WARBOSSES TELLIN' ME WHAT I CAN TAKE AN' WHEN I CAN KILL! I'M THE GREAT, BIG, MIGHTY WARCHIEF NOW! I'M GONNA LEAD US TO LOTS O' BATTLES AN' WE GONNA WIN 'EM ALL! BUT FIRST LET'S GET TO KILLIN' THE REST O' DESE HEEN!"

Skagoth finally made his way into the clearing in the middle of the ground and Stog grew silent and stared. Skagoth met his gaze, and then the mob of orcs went wild and cheered for another fight. A wicked grin slowly crept onto Stog's face, and in that moment Skagoth seemed to notice for the first time the countless scars upon Stog. He looked like the most ruthless warrior in the entire horde, and he might well have been. The gore that covered his body just then didn't hurt the impression.

"Well well, what we got here? You still think I'm scrawny like back when you stole my stuff? You think you can beat me again without ten gits holdin' me back? Hah!"

Skagoth began to open his mouth but Stog interrupted. "I don't wanna talk," he said as he brandished his bloodied axe. "I wanna maim you. So say what you gotta say and then get outta my face, 'fore I cleave you in half!"

Skagoth didn't answer Stog. In fact, he turned his back onto Stog because he knew that not even that brute was cowardly enough to attack another ogre from behind. Facing the mob, Skagoth proclaimed, "He's nothin'! I'm the one who got us this victory. It was my idea to follow those tracks here, and it was my ideas that won us this battle! I deserve to be warchief! Follow me and we all get red hands!"

"Red hands! Red hands!" they chanted back fervently.

Stog laughed. "He's a stupid git! We won this battle! Our muscle smashed all da heen and stonies! We don't need some warboss takin' all da loot for himself!"

The grunts cheered even louder, but Skagoth quickly observed that he still had the big 'uns on his side. The warbosses were not at all content with some puny little upstart murdering his betters and trying to seize their power.

"So who's wit me?!" Stog bellowed. He received a deafening response.

"Who's with me?" Skagoth echoed, and the crowd was noticeably quieter.

Stog laughed. "Looks like I win," he said, "now I'll be takin' back the loot you owe me!"

Skagoth spat. "King Ommok will hear of this treachery," he promised.

The new self-proclaimed warchief snorted in derision. "So long as 'e gets a few heen slaves and trophies comin' to him, he don't give a rock about whose in charge."

Skagoth's face tightened. Deep down, a part of him knew that Stog was right. He had come here expecting to a battle, and a battle he had found. But it had surprisingly been one of wit and word rather than of blows, and Stog had won. Skagoth decided to cut his losses then and there and not try his luck against the brute in a duel; though he was certainly bigger and stronger, Skagoth had witnessed firsthand how fast and deadly Stog was.

In the morning Stog's new horde left with the all of the warbeasts, the loot, and supplies that they could possibly haul with them. Skagoth was left with considerably less but at least Grekogork had stayed.

...that was, until midday. Then Grekogork too had declared his intention to become a warlord and left with a fair few followers and of course with all four of his djinn. Skagoth could only sigh; the once unstoppable ogre army had now splintered into three bands. For now there was at least enough lands around to let the three warlords do their fighting without getting in the way of one another, but soon enough Skagoth suspected that the rivalry might escalate. But for now, he returned to his tent and began plotting his next moves.

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Antarctic Termite Resident of Mortasheen

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Whisper.


She fell like a half-extinguished star.

Trailing a slender stream of smoke, Whisper flickered, her fluorescence wavering as it passed distilled moonlight between her cellular organs, juggling pulses of muted colour. Her descent slowed as it neared its end until, fluttering, she bottomed out and hovered above the substrate at the floor of the nitrogen sea.

Whisper had some idea of where she was, but didn't know what it meant. One can look at a world a thousand times without ever knowing what separates the green from the blue, or why the white swirls dance as they do. She had been here, many times, had been born here even; But Galbar was not, and had never been, home.

Jvan was, perhaps, watching, or perhaps she was not. So it is with all Sculptors. Her voice would come if it was called, had she been able to project it, and lend aid- But Whisper did not call. That silent agreement had been passed long ago. If her role was to develop, she would do so, insofar as she was able, by herself.

But that didn't mean she was on her own. Alone among the Diaphanes, Whisper has a second family to call on.

The tentative note she sang into the ether was echoed back to her as a playful melody, then again with a haunting resonance. The Distant Dance is less and more than triangulation alone, and where the voice of Galbar's strange once hummed their way to the Fae God alone, now she was little more than a drum on which they resounded to one another, one voice among the scattered multitude.

Whisper followed the tune of her brothers, too tired to think, too determined to eat. Exhausting though her fall had been, the energy that thrummed in her blackened blood knew no limit. Her sleepwalk-song rang clear through the telepathic medium, and the Fae Folk made it into a harmony. Together they urged her on, one in friendship, one in taunt.

Hoo-oh, eh-ey, eh eh oh
Turn back, little ghost
And sink into your grave;
Your courage left you long ago
Your soul it cannot save.
Turn your head and swear not
To ever leave your post;
Turn away and look not
If you're truly brave.


Twist my heart into a knot,
Tie it to your mind
This world will eat you headfirst and
Your way you will not find.
You do not listen, little ghost
You're wandering too far
You're drifting further than the most
And do not know you're blind.
Hoo-oh, eh-ey, eh eh oh
Hoo-oh, eh-ey, eh eh oh.


The song was passed from Sculptor to Sculptor, and was heard in that region for many days after.

* * * * *


The village was built to a scale never meant to accommodate a change-eater, in an environment foreign to her preconceived ideas of nesting. Nevertheless it was obvious from many miles away what Whisper was approaching: A place to roost, a place to live and raise young. A home.

The huts clustered like gaian coral, varied in size and somewhat in shape, too, and still clearly all of a kind. They were built of clay and sticks, but well, tidy domes and cones of arid brown. Acacias shaded the village and its surroundings, and a river quietly journeyed nearby, where fishing boats and crocodiles alike lazed on a sun-warm bank and waited for the night.

There were more houses than there were hain, for though this place was one of fishing and baobab fruits, the lands around belonged to the human herders of cattle and goat, and it was custom in this land to give shelter to wanderers; even if they are tall, and arrive with their children and children's children, and brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews, and four hundred head of cattle beside. So this place was well-travelled among the Golden Barrens; Indeed, there was even a road, of sorts, to the glass grove where the people of all these tribes brought their dead if they could not rest.

This road had been worn by the feet and knuckles of the earthen folk, who were also among the wanderers of this land, and when the giant being of once-gaudy bubbles and far-too-colourful eyes arrived like a bark painting made real, it was the slumbering tribe of Urtelem that assured the hain not to run. Instead they hid in their huts and looked on uneasily, for though a storm means no harm it is no less frightening for its power, and the eyes of the stone men do not open at the passage of leopards and mambas, who mean no harm and yet are no less dangerous to the likes of visiting humans.

Whisper knew why she was received as she was, for the history of the gods had been taught her long ago and she remembered well why hain do not stare long at the light of the Woven Moon, and exile those who turn their face from family for the sake of toys and bruises. How much more so would they shy away from a living weapon, a hunter larger than any elephant or djinni they had yet seen?

So she was patient, and did not stray too close to the little town but stayed at its edge, much like, had she only known it, a certain king had done in a different place and a different time not so long ago. And she did not stay in her resting form, nor condense to the war-stance of the Fourfold Fish, nor dissolve into smoke, but pulled herself with great skill into the shape of a Galbaric mortal.

It was not a perfect imitation, or even a passing one. Nothing could hide her size, nor her colour, though stretching herself into limbs agitated the dripping flow of darkness in her body. Her flesh remained a collection of vessels and bladders of fluid, with two stilted legs, two trailing arms, a slouched back and an oversized head-bulge with five huge circular eyes. She might have been a hain or a human or an urt, or a baboon, even- She was a painting, a symbol, far removed from physical reality. But it was all she could do and it strained her. Entropites are not shapeshifters by choice but by instinct, and poor mimics. Each set of stances is unique to its owner. It would take a lifetime with mortals to truly be at ease walking among them, and surely no change-eater had ever lead such a strange life.

Whisper stood there as midday came and went and her body began to drink sunlight and air, aching for sustenance other than the raw energy of Jvan's curse. And she did not wait in vain.

For the Second Hatching is strong, and its children are many. When the cruel spirits came and struck out at them for following the ancient ways, the hain did not yield, for no being can destroy a culture by threat alone. Yes they hid away in pits disguised as porcupine burrows and in the reeds where crocodiles watched, but there was no more shame in this than there had always been, and the wilderness had always been on their side, in its way. No, if anything, a strange breed of sympathy came over them in the wake of Basheer's passing. For what was more monstrous, in the end- Their childhood fears, or those that demanded they retain them for selfish cause?

First an elder, who feared little from death, leaning on a staff as she went to wake the stone matriarch. Two heads are ever better than one, and oftentimes an urt's is quicker than a hain's. Together they greeted the stranger, and offered her shelter, as was custom in these parts. And they conversed.

Whisper spoke in the Fae Tongue, and signed it, too, her gestures as bizarre as her voice. She said she had come to seek wisdom, and to hear the voices of all the world. With patience and curiosity she listened to the story of the tribe, and inscribed every word upon her heart.

Then others came, and Whisper greeted all who would come, bidding them to speak, so that she may hear.

Many songs were shared that day. This was one of hers.

Open ways on a desert track
Water bags on an ass's back
Lowing beasts and a long-horn bull
Fire's bright, but the moons are full
And so we pray


Dance, dance, caravan
-For the gods we dance
Dance, dance, wander-folk
-Until the day is young
Sing, sing, desert man,
-For our loves we dance
Sing, sing, to the smoke
-Feel magic on your tongue


Hardened hooves and a broken bone
Leopards wait 'til you're alone
Water's gone and the fire's dead
On these desert tracks we bled
Yet still we say


Dance, dance, caravan
-For the gods we dance
Dance, dance, wander-folk
-Until the day is young
Sing, sing, desert man,
-For our loves we dance
Sing, sing, to the smoke
-Feel magic on your tongue


Though the people of the river begged Whisper to sing a song of her own people, her quiet stubbornness defeated them all one by one, and her music remained only of the kind that they themselves had taught her. Eventually, well after night had fallen, Whisper asked the elder to teach her a farewell, and she repeated it; And then she burned away into a dirty smoke and left that place on the wind.

In the morning, the foraging hain found the remains of a bull elephant in a field of fine ash. There was no ivory for them to salvage, nor any decaying flesh, or even bones; Only the tip of its trunk and a few of its teeth. The foragers turned their back on that place, and said nothing. For the memories of last night were clear in their minds, and among them was this: That they had offered much food to the stranger, and yet she had eaten nothing at all.

* * * * *


Whisper followed a kinked and random trail as she travelled, roaming, without no destination but the next village on the horizon, wherever it may be. She learned. The red rune began to shift and shuffle on her surface, finding the right configuration.

It will not have polarised inflection, nor superimposition of voices, she thought to herself. I'll retain as much as I can, but it will be entirely kinetic and kinesthetic.

She had maintained what passed for a low profile, given her dealings with the mortals. Not all had been as pleasant as the first, but she could endure being skewered by arrows and slingstones, learn at the point of a spear. It was painful, and it was exhausting, and Whisper would have it no other way. For all this she hunted rarely, ate little, and strained against every instinct that told her to follow the scent of elemental magic. Life had become a tasteless well of determination and divine sustenance.

The Djinni came for her anyway, as she knew they would. But they were small. They'd stumbled on her trail by accident and curiosity and the word of their mortal allies. They were not killers like she was.

The first was an air spirit, a hot sandy gust of the type that shamans send to plague their enemies in the desert. He kept his distance, and Whisper's suffering became impatience.

"Show yourself," she said to the creature that thought it was hidden. "You're not in danger."

It was a mistake; the djinni was large enough to speak yet too small to materialise, and so she had humiliated him. A biting zephyr of grit whipped across her surface.

"I don't need to show anything to the likes of you, Yivvinitic beast. Don't you know that these lands are preserved and guarded by my brothers? And the whole world, too, besides!"

"Yes," said Whisper, choking on the little pride she had. "I'm the intruder here."

Her honesty seemed to take the spirit aback somewhat. "You admit it, then? Hah! Even Yivvin's own abominations admit to what a pitiful life she has given them! Go back to her, monster. I hear she keeps a menagerie of other ugly animals in the sea with her."

It burned at her brighter than the blue-filtered sunlight, the awareness of how vast she was in comparison to the being she now had to submit to. How easily she could just... Reach out and scoop him out of existence, like a spoonful of dirt. He could not understand the magnitude of her power, nor her pain. He was nothing, walking a road to nowhere, somehow blocking the holy way of a lord among monsters.

Whisper pressed the comfort of those cathartic thoughts aside. No, she was not here to claim the supremacy she so easily could; she was here to suffer. Of course. Who am I kidding?

"I can't do that," she finally said. "Yivvin cast me out. She is unfair." Blaming Jvan helped. Besides, most of the blame actually did fall on her.

"Then I recommend you die, lowly creature. If not even the Cancer God would accept you, then you must be vermin indeed." A twitch was the only sign of how close the Djinni came to death.

"Can't." She flexed amoebically, rocking back and forth, wishing for the encounter to end. "I need a song. Will you sing for me?"

This, too, was confusing. The wind spirit soon reasoned an answer to this fresh mystery, however. "Ah, so you're one of the Yivvinite Monks! And stranger than any legend I've heard of them, too. I'd thought the honourable Lord Murmur had already rid this land of your kind. No, devil, I won't sing for you."

There was a pause, neither party willing to leave. The elemental was too curious, the change-eating Sculptor too determined.

"I swear, by every God more righteous than my own," grated Whisper at last, voice so quiet it could be mistaken for shadows creaking, "That for each verse you give me between now and sundown, I will let you land one blow on my body. And not hit back."

That got him. Sadistic bastard.

"Dare I say, I wouldn't much care if you did hit back, exile," scoffed the Djinni, and burst into rhyme.

"For listen now,
And listen long,
Be not morose,
And hear my song-"


The wind seared Whisper's side in a burst of heat.

"Your vermin kind,
Your ugly folk,
Will soon unwind
As Nature's joke."


Again the hissing gust. Whisper hardened herself, forming an exoskeleton.

"Rhyme harder, boy.
Don't be so coy.
Your words are soft-
A baby's toy.


I'm here to learn.
You're here to burn.
I'm waiting, brat.
Go take your turn."


The spirit halted, as if shocked to find that things wouldn't be so easy after all. "You'd challenge me to flyte in the middle of our fair and honest exchange?"

"Never said I wouldn't," muttered Whisper.

* * * * *


She had expected to be found and followed by something sizeable sooner or later. She had not established a contingency for that situation. It would be the end of her journey, be its goals achieved or no. Maybe she would fight, and win, and then surface from the nitrogen before the chaos of vengeful Djinn and rival successors, or maybe she would just flee. Either way, Whisper would be leaving the gravity well.

It didn't matter, eventually. No failsafe could have prepared her for the Winds of Change. But then... Perhaps it was better that way.

Because the Winds were beautiful.

For an entire hour, one precious hour, a faint golden star marked the sky above, and a deep rushing current that carried with it not a grain of dust flowed over the earth. It passed overhead as a curled veil, and the sky became as yellow as the grasses below. She sang.

"Too high for ears
Too quiet for tears
A golden gale
Sweeps through my fears


And I forget
That I will let
The future fall
To fated years


That reckon death
And deal in breath
The wind to pale
And sands to sear


But now and here
I leave my fear
Of losing all
To fated years..."


Whisper trailed away. The rest of the light was weathered in silence. She could feel it everywhere, invigorating, the elemental magic she had been designed to consume. Its beauty filled her with bitterness and shame.

Inside that golden wind that caressed Whisper, there was another being. Wordlessly he watched that strange creature beside him, and his eyes saw all. His mild curiosity was flared when her song began. Though she mightn't have noticed, the magical winds about Whisper seemed to dance to that sorrowful tune, and when it was over, silence was permitted to reign for a brief time.

But then Aihtiraq sang back!

"To abandon fears, a start
but in that same breath
why not abandon sorrow?

Savor all these fated years!"


She jolted. Eyes bubbled briefly over Whisper's surface, whirling and glancing, until they found their place in a solid stance. She dug slender arms into the earth, grounding herself.

"Enough," she said, kicking slightly to slough the crawling sensation of privacy interrupted, and kicking herself for thinking she'd had any. "Let me see you." Then, despite herself, "Don't sing what you don't know."

"When mortals try to see me,
some mirage, a trick
plays their eyes. My voice is real

but woe, it seems to offend!
Look if it's your want,
but it is I that cannot

be understood. Such is fate!"


True to his word, when Whisper stared into the golden vapors there was a smiling face visible to her perception, perhaps also body, some dancing flames and glistening waters, some whirling winds and thrashing sands. Aihtiraq was what he was.

"...She did warn me about fate." The hot liquid light caught her eye to the beat of the rhyme, and though Whisper did not easily calm, the dusty embers that swirled from Aihtiraq's presence were as a salve. They diluted the stains that Jvan had left in her, made her colourful again. And Whisper sighed.

"Understanding always slips
From those who still think
Truthful unions exist


Where the world is mostly just
Collision chaos
And too-shallow impressions.


So be easy on my mind
And lie to me soon
That we both might be en route."


"Deception and violence
are monstrous beasts that
would consume and then destroy one.

I think such things below me!"


"That's... Admirable,
For a world of hatred, but
I still doubt I'd understand
And I don't think any one
Knows themself for true.


So then be honest
And tell me of your nature
For my rhyme is up


And five syllables
Has always
Been far too little."


"Of all my kind, I alone
give and never grab.
My art: forging happiness,

my joy? Gifting to mortals.
Aihtiraq the good,
the humble, the generous.

To prove 'tis me, have one wish."


Whisper withdrew her arms from the earth and stretched them, hovering. They were so lanky when they weren't tensed for motion. Crossing, uncrossing, but she wasn't really thinking about the offer.

"I wish for a song," she said, once again, "because my time here is short."

"This wish Aihtiraq could grant,
if it be your want.
But know that I give just one.

If Whisper wants naught but song,
a great song 'twill be,
one e'en Murmur would envy!

But is a song your true wish?"


"Yes," she said, "but... Remember my voice. I don't know who they'll be, but... I think they'll inherit my voice." Whisper was whispering, the crypsis lost on her. "Their wish might matter."

"So willed, so it is granted
speak not, just listen
for the melody surrounds!

Nature sings, Aihtiraq goes..."


And then the golden mist seemed to stir, and whatever might have been lurking within it was gone. In time, the vapors began to recede away as it was carried off by some wind.

"..."

Loneliness. A rising sense of being denied. Silence accompanied these sensations for a little while. Not for long.

'Ahh-ihhh...'

Whisper was still alone, and she knew it. The emptiness she rested in was not content with stillness. What came came first as if from a distance, though when her eyes swivelled to trace its source, they found only the ants in her shadow, a shadow that seemed to be expanding outwards as the sound was closing in.

'Ihhd-ah, ihhd-ah, ih...'

...God...

A chorus rose from the earth and the air and the distant sea beyond, seeping into her earless hearts as the dark fluid dripped back into Whisper's body, power rising from the angst of knowing what was ahead.

'Neh, ah si nehm, neh-ahh...'

Whisper sang her hushing voice, and it was as a roar to her.

"Now I hear, now I see
What you would leave
In spite of me


('Ahh-ihhh...')

Now I've heard, now I've found
The deeper song, the silent sound
What left to me
But know truly
The darkened candle's misery


('Ihhd-ah, ihhd-ah, ih...')

For seeing true,
And hearing free
All around
I know what be
And what I choose
To keep or lose
I hear the round
This world will use-
This sound in lieu
-All things but you!"


Whisper whipped like a speared fish and swept away into the harmony of the grass and the mice and the ants, hearing the nature around her as vividly as she tasted it, bathed in the ever-presence of change without consuming it. The whole world sang to her of existence, and even hunger was paling from joy into anticipation of an end. What point was there to trying to empathise with this world, when she finally knew for herself what it stood to lose?

Aihtiraq was gone, and the golden gale with him; Likely they were one and the same. Whisper knew she wouldn't see his like again, or ever find a song of his own. No, now all she had for comfort was the voice of Nature all around, and beauty never did have a language to learn.

Once again, the change-eater learned what an unforgiving domain had given her birth.

* * * * *


None of Whisper's encounters with djinni were as taxing as the first, and she came to regret not consuming the vengeful sprite when she had the chance.

Not to say that any of them were easy. No elemental approached her with any sentiment more positive than a sick curiosity. A longing to reach out to the taboo and come back unscathed. Sculptors had always been a bitter rarity, and now there were even fewer. The fae blessings kept them safe but could not aid their regrowth. Deprived of any real object for their prejudice bar the (for the most part) still and silent lens that Urtelem so defended, the djinni she met expected a variety of strange things, holding- though they claimed to know better- superstitions not unlike that of the mortals.

That she would use metal wands to enchant any who looked upon her and reduce their minds into an infantile state. That she came from the moon Azmund-Y'Vahn, whose colours derived from stained glass, and was borne down in the belly of a gigantic, fattened grub. That everything beautiful she touched would turn to dust, and so she worshiped everything ugly.

The last one Whisper found oddly chilling, though she knew it wasn't worth dwelling on.

For the most part she got what she wanted out of the spirits. Allowing them to feel validated and powerful by not fighting back, even acting wounded, played neatly into the elemental ego, at least while they were small and foolhardy. Some simply feared or respected her enough to speak with her.

Those that were too cautious, or large enough to report to others without simply being absorbed like dust in the wind... She'd been in fights, all of which she had won. Whisper told herself to be grateful for the nourishment. And the scarlet rune iterated on.

Past, future, present, perfect. Indicative, conditional, imperative, subjunctive. All denoted by consistent affixes respectively before and after the infinitive stem- An adverb for continuity. Stems linked by phonetic and kinesthetic similarity to a noun of high association. If they feel confused, they can point to what they want... That might offend them.

...

That singing. That relentless nature-sound that left her so easily lost in meditative lethargy. Succumbing to the distraction of peace that Aihtiraq had left her with, Whisper encountered her next conversational partner entirely by chance.

Deep in thought and looking out for communities and spirits rather than lone wanderers of the type that rested between the lichenous boulders below, the change-eater swept over Zotash'e like a cirrus cloud of unnatural speed and colour, and she held her breath as it passed, exhaling only to see it turn and rush back before her quickened heart could slow.

It was no lie, found Zotash'e, that one's memories flicker into vision when Death grows near. Though she still leaned flat against the boulder as if to hide her shadow, she turned her head towards the Abomination and the fluttering, crackling hums that it made. And she raised her staff to it.

"Back," breathed Zotash'e.



Her wrist was shaking and she knew it, but the initiate only tightened her grip. "Get back," she repeated, mouthing, "for Zephyrion is with me." She went on. "And the children of Vetros do not die easy to such as you."

The monster seemed to understand, but it did not leave her. The cloud of black and blackening hues settled onto the earth and... Congealed, coagulated, into a cluster of misshapen bubbles. For a moment she thought she saw a flicker of deep red. It leaned in, and then-

Zotash'e screamed, and the thing receded from her. Quartz shards began to jut from her fists as she held the staff before her, now in a warrior's stance. It was a tiny flicker of a djinn, but it was the only one that followed her.

"You know Zephyrion?" came the whisper again.

"Yes!" yelled the initiate. "God is with me and He protects. And I know of you, too. I know the one that sent you."

"...Of course," said the thing, in its voice of perfect clarity, and, Zotash'e realised, a deep tiredness. "How?"

"...How what?" she blurted, knowing that there was some wise shamanic retort she should be able to give and lacking any idea of what it was.

"How is he with you," repeated the monster, "if he's been banished?"

"What?" More indignant confusion, but she knew she had to say something. "God is in all things. He is all-seeing, all-powerful, and no force could banish him, for He is righteous."

"..." The being flicked. Something told Zotash'e that it was not in fear. "I see." There was a pause, and she could have run, had she not seen the speed at which this spawn of Y'vahn had crossed the sky. "You know these things. Tell me about them."

No, the shaman-to-be realised, not without a touch of youthful hubris. No, she would not die today. This was not the thing that had bloodied Vetros. This was not the Emaciator that the good king had described. This was part of the other Y'vahn, the one that drove the possessed monks mad and made them into demons. But she was safe. She would soon be- She was a shaman. Zephyrion would be with her. Did not the writings say that there the path of the righteous is hallowed ground?

"...About what?"

The eye turned on her again and this time she saw that there were many of them. "That spirit."

"Oh..." The crystal spikes on her fists rippled. "This, ah, is a lesser djinni of earth. I've bound it to me by- Using the shamanic arts of my mentor."

Zotash'e realised that it might be heretical to divulge such knowledge to an agent of the Enemy, but the whisper was sharper than that.

"Shamanic arts."

"Yes. Of course. Don't you know of them?"

"Only heard," said the demon. Zotash'e got the strange and sudden impression that it was a foreigner. Which was, she supposed, accurate, but...

"It is... How those chosen by Zephyrion, and by His chosen in turn, exert authority over the world we have inherited," she began, repeating words usually taught to children. "The djinni come to know us by name and by voice, and we them. They lend us their power, if we treat them with due respect and- Fellowship, and sometimes perform certain rites that, um, please them. Sometimes the smaller ones become bound to our will, or develop a trusting friendship with-"

The creature's voice was as soft as a feather and as sharp as a knife.

"You earn the loyalty of elementals by just talking to them?"

Zotash'e saw a vision of her mother wrapping her bruised knee and gulped. "...Yes?"

There was quiet.

"Sing something," ordered the being. A kind of vocal fry had entered her voice. The glowing fluids within her were roiling.

"I, uh, I..."

Whisper writhed, no longer listening. The bubbles contorted and shriveled, and suddenly Zotash'e saw teeth, claws, spines, segmented tentacles- that spread and blocked the sky above and burned marks into the air and-

"How?" fizzed the voice. "Tell me. How. Did. She. Do. This. Tell me. Tell. Me."

"I..." Zotash'e had fallen, had stumbled back under the weight of starved rage that flowed from the sprawling demon above and around her, and she was crying. And she knew that somewhere, deep in the light, under the stains, it was crying, too. "Sister, I-"

"How did she do this to us? HOW COULD SHE DO THIS TO US?"

No answer.

* * * * *


Today I met a girl of earth
With feet of clay and bones of loam.
I met her in a barren place
Where solemn spirits roam.


I met her in the border land
'tween peace and war and lust and chaste.
We sang together for a while
Of hate and death and haste.


Tomorrow is another day
That I must bear alone.
My girl of earth knows not the sins
For which I must atone.


One day beyond the final veil
I'll meet my girl of earth again.
A sinner's cross I'll bear no more
And I will find her then.



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Sin, The 7 Sins, The Sinner, Pride, Gluttony, Wrath, Envy, Sloth, Lust, Greed
6 MP, Level 5


It was a small thing, a particle of space dust so minute it would’ve escaped notice even if it sat in one’s hand. It hurtled unknown and unnoticed through the vastness of space, one particle, a solitary thought, a single immoral desire amongst many moral; a thousand, tens of thousands, as many as the sands of a thousand beaches. Yet, as it was with many great things, this tiny particle of dust, unknown and unnoticed, was a beginning.

A flare of light marking where the particle of dust intersected the plane of the ecliptic, a shockwave was sent rippling through all things comprehensible from the flare, reaching across the normal and the paranormal to touch all corners of Reality, known and unknown. And from where it sat brooding in its contemplation of the vast, multi-colored matrix that was the fabric of all understanding from a vantage point outside of Reality, a dark intelligence stirred as the ripple washed over it.

Here, in this pocket of existence, the intelligence had waited for what seemed to be an eternity. Waited for this exact moment, announced by the ripple of pleasure across the continuum of understanding. And as it felt the ripple touch it, it paused in its consideration to savor the dark joy that filled it with a rush. Finally it could start it's work.

With a thought the intelligence pressed even further into the Reality, into an abyss that lacked light or life, where only the darkest of dreams prevailed. Deep into the realm of nightmares it sped until it felt the emptiness change, become substance in itself, given a form of reality by fear, anger and pain spawned by the nightmares that dwelt here.

Compared to the vastness of Reality, this island, this form of reality in the midst of emptiness was but a sliver, the thinnest plane; a shadow of what was.  But it was enough for the purpose that it fulfilled.  The intelligence didn’t pause at the plane’s borders but flew instead to its very heart, seeking out the catalyst to which would fulfill it's purpose.

There, …" the intelligence brooded. There stood a building that was both terrible in its countenance and perfect in its dimension. A cube like no other, it stood as tall as a mountain and as broad as a sea, its four faces incised with symbols of lustful power.  Those symbols gathered a dark power that fueled this Abyss, spinning it into the shadow reality that formed the plane of existence the intelligence dwelt upon. The building was the beginning of freedom; it’s beginning and its ultimate end.

To the building the dark intelligence came, passing through the thick rivers of negative energy that flowed both into and out of the building, each river imparting a measure of substance to the intelligence. Until when it came to a halt before the building, on an artificial plain that surrounded it on all sides, the intelligence was clothed in a shadowy body of sorts, a wraith of movement and shadow that paused a moment to consider the building before it slowly moved towards it, casting no trail in the strange illumination that filled the plane.

Possessing no doors to interrupt the symbols marking its walls, the building was sealed against entry. The intelligence, however, required no doors.  As it came to the walls, of some alien stone unknown in reality, it simply passed through them as if they themselves had no substance.

Deeper and deeper it pressed, intent on the building’s heart, passing through wall and chamber both, the chambers filled with arcane power and throbbing with malevolent purpose as the building continued its creation and support of the realm.  Deeper until it passed through a final wall into the chamber that stood in the cube’s exact center, a chamber as perfect in dimension as its host and filled with absolute blackness.

Here it paused, as if in consideration. As the intelligence stood staring at Reality, it's mind reached back across the Abyss to the plane of perceived reality where his servants waited. Touching each, it silently summoned them to where it now stood, using the desire of their hearts to lead them. A heartbeat later they arrived, thousands of which were both male and female, stepped out of holes ripped open by the intelligence.

A long moment of regard passed as each being made his or her own inspection of the wraith. Then the wraith suddenly shuddered and expanded. There it passed into a massive body of itself and, for a long moment two great orbs flared with malevolent light.  Before the light could fade, a massive figure gestured and a cold flame of silver appeared beside it to push the darkness aside.  By this light a giant was revealed: as perfect in form as the cube was in dimension, no flaw or imperfection marking its pale skin or long, ivory hair pulled into a tail behind its head. The light also discovered the giant was male, his limbs lithe and muscular beneath the black clothing that sheathed him head to toe.

His eyes now absolute obsidian, the giant gazed a long moment into space as he stretched senses both young and powerful towards the distant matrix of Reality. Then another gesture opened a hole and he passed through it to stand before the fabric of thought, hovering by virtue of his abilities in the nothingness of the Abyss.  Raising those obsidian orbs, he stared hard at Reality’s color and shape.

"Sons and daughters of Amestris," A quiet voice echoed into the depths of Reality. "As we speak, Xerxes lies in ruin. Our enemies defile her streets, ravage her avenues, and devour her people. But Amestris churns like the core of Galbar, it will never go out." The giant suddenly smiled, a tight expression that traveled upward no further than the bottom of his sculpted nose. "I, the sun that shines upon it's people, guarantee you that. With my own two hands, I will rebuild this nation. And with your own two hands, you will make it prosper. Amestris' rebirth is nigh! Let your Father lead you to it!"

The words rushed across Reality like a black storm of rage, carried on winds of powerful energy. Surging through the line of beings in a dark tide, to sweep against the matrix of Reality itself, meaning to tear it apart if it could. 

*


The tall, slender man swallowed heavily and pushed himself away from the gently curving wall he had fallen against, and returned to his feet. What by the eyes of the Fate was that? The vision, enlightening and great had been nearly enough to knock him completely from his feet instead of just into a wall. Thankfully he possessed an uncanny sense of balance or he would’ve been standing on the tip of his nose instead of the soles of his boots.  Pushing the magnificent and exquisite images from his mind by shear will power, he gave himself a shake and continued on his way down the broad corridor.

Wiry and muscular, lithe and graceful, the man moved with the easy grace of a knife fighter, looking dangerous without effort and ready to spring into deadly action with razor-edged reflexes. His knowledge of warfare and battle tactics, engineering and strategy was prodigious, his skill with a cornucopia of weapons legendary. Yet this man was no warrior, or holy fighter. He was a chief by the Enas' command alone.

Vicar the Cobra, Chief of Yala, wasn’t a man easily swayed by visions and mystical journeys. After all he was an Amestrian; a people born in the glorious light of the Enas Amartía and forged in the fires of combat for dozens of cycles.

And as Chief of Yala, born and bred a warrior, there was little Vicar hadn’t seen or done in his days of mortality on Galbar's varied face. Yet there was something about that vision, a message usually reserved for loremaster and seers, which gnawed at the wiry king’s vitals, like a tapeworm. Something beyond the fact that Chiefs seldom looked past the confines of their minds, their Realities, to something that could impact not just his city, but all of Amestris.

His face a thoughtful mask, Vicar continued down the hallway, a graceful corridor made more so by its concave walls of finely crafted wood, beautifully tiled floor and narrow, floor to ceiling windows placed at regular intervals to let in the suns life-giving light throughout. It was as he passed through one of the pools of brilliance that the Amestrian Chief of Yala was finally revealed. 

A handsome man even amongst the most fair of the mortal races, with chiseled features, high cheekbones, a strong jaw and powerful blue eyes called electric by those that had them, Vicar was marked by jet black hair and eyebrows, hereditary in royal line of Yala, his since he had hair. That hair, arrow straight, would fall onto his shoulders, if allowed to. This day, as on most others, he wore it in a ponytail for ease of movement.

Hairstyles was far from Vicar's mind, however, as he continued on his way. His spies had told him of Uric movement towards the northern frontier, no less than three regiments of frontline troops and support companies. Such movement could only herald yet another round of aggression between the rebels and Amestris. Ur, once a trio of Amestrian tribes now turned into a sovereign nation after rebelling against the union upon the Enas' mysterious disappearance. Now Yala, the city suddenly at the edge of Amestris' controlled borders, regularly made war against its new southern neighbor, and just as often Yala defended itself and returned fire. The two had been locked together in mutual combat for as long as the Enas had been gone, a sudden constant that nobody questioned any longer. Urud strived to unite Amestris under his sovereignty. In his mind, the Enas was dead, and he alone, could serve as his proper replacement. Fortunately, turmoil in the capital halted his attempt at a regime change, but Urud, determined as he was, took to his home region and formed a union against Amestris. Now, his army-men, former children of Amestris, slaughtered their former brothers and sisters. Yet no hatred existed, only respect, admiration, and a pity for the people thrust under the dictatorial hammer of Urud the Usurper.

And now the midnight haired monarch had this vision to look forward to. He grimaced. As if he could afford additional worry now. Another thought replaced the grimace with an expression of consideration. The masses, how would they react to this news? Certainly they would celebrate. Parades would clog inner city highways, whole families would holiday, effigies would tower in the Enas' honor, the Cult of Sin would induct thousands of new members into its fold. Nationalism would reach an all time high. It would rock the nation of Amestris to the very core. And if that were so, the Chiefs would have to discuss the possibility of harbouring this news.

The two guards at the door he approached after swinging around a final curving corner, stiffened as they caught sight of him. Resplendent in Amestrian colors, crimson and gold, with Amestrian arms emblazoned on the chest of their leather tabards, soldiers of the Yala militia served a shift in the palace as was their rotational protocol. They snapped the khosheps they held in leather backed gauntlets to attention in salute.

“Afternoon, kýr.” the senior of the two greeted Vicar smartly, her voice filled with respect.

Vicar nodded to the guard that greeted him with the old form, an honorific that added protective emphasis to the title of ‘sire’ and stepped through the double door they held open for him.

"There you are."  A quiet woman’s voice said and Vicar felt the frown marring his face quickly wiped away by his recognition of it. He looked from the side entrance he had come through and across the small audience chamber to find the graceful figure of his wife waiting for him by the chair seated on a slight dais where he normally received visitors.

Naomi of the Cobra was more than a classical beauty. Willowy yet fulsome, with honey brown hair that tumbled in lazy curls down onto her shoulders and back, kept out of her face with a simple bronze circlet, the queen of Yala was more an angelic vision straight out of one of the legendary stories of holy divines than a woman, her features flawless, her beauty unmatched. Yet there was fire in those green eyes, a fire that was now directed at her husband though a smile on her full lips brightened her heart-shaped face.

"I’ve been looking for you for nearly two turns, beloved."  she continued, looking unruffled in a simple but elegant dress of cream colored linen despite the urgency of her words, her hand resting casually on the chair’s top edge. Vicar was quick to note the fiery gaze directed squarely at him.

“I apologize, my love.” Vicar felt the smile that had been growing on his lips suddenly falter. He could still remember the day he had met her in the War Academy of Xerxes, training place of some of Amestris's greatest leaders and warriors. Naomi then, already an accomplished archer and swordswoman. It had been a struggle to convince her to give it up in favor of sitting beside him on the throne of Yala in service to the Enas, though she had loved him from the day she had set eyes on the handsome young lord.

In that struggle, Vicar had learned the moods and mind of the woman who would become his wife, bear him three children and help him govern one of Amestris' most powerful city-states. And he knew the look she was now giving him meant only bad things for him.

"Something too urgent to wait for our lunch date in the bedroom." he asked, quickly crossing the chamber, empty except for the two royals and a pair of guards on the main entrance into the audience room.

"Our rangers report Uric troops advancing towards our northeastern frontier, Vicar. Naomi retorted, lifting her hand from the chair to fold her arms beneath her breasts.  "That sounds urgent enough. Especially when I know you’re considering our eldest son as a commander of our defense there."

The midnight haired king couldn’t help the grimace that flitted across his face. His wife of nearly 25 winters had, indeed, guessed his mind. Sirax his eldest was, by far, his best commander in the field, despite his relatively young 22 winters. He was the logical choice to send to the frontier to counter the Uric threat. Unfortunately he was also the best choice to send as commander of the mission to Xerxes, to witness what went on their.

As a woman with a warrior’s heart and a tactician’s mind, Naomi had quickly come to the same conclusion. However, as a mother, she also dreaded sending any of her children into certain danger. Danger that would only multiply if the vision he had held any weight and, by the Enas' blessed touch, he prayed it did not.

Seeing a second grimace appear on her husband’s face, an expression uncommon on Vicar, normally as calm and cool as an open pool in the heart of winter, was enough to send concern rushing through Naomi’s heart and mind.  Dressed for comfort, as always, in a soft white linen shirt, heavy leather bracers, loose-fitting leather breeches, loose enough to need a broad belt to keep them in place, and glove-soft knee boots of the finest leather, the leather garments dyed crimson, the king was a coil of tension, also unusual for the battle-tested leader.

"There’s more to this than just Uric aggression, isn’t there, Vicar." she softly said and felt a cold rush of fear when her husband’s head barely nodded in confirmation to her intuition, the gesture further underscoring Vicar's disquiet.

The feeling of unease she felt at her husband’s tension only grew as the dark haired king told of the vision he had seen in the corridor in a low voice, including the feelings the images stirred deep in his very soul. Surprisingly enough, she to shared the same vision.

"So I am not alone." Vicar quietly said when he was done. "For Yala and the Amestrian people. We need to prepare. Regardless of the aftereffects, we will let the people celebrate. And leave Xerxes be. Sirax must go to Ur.

Naomi’s heart skipped a beat at the flat pronouncement. While part of her rejoiced in knowing her eldest wasn’t partaking in the investigation of Xerxes, the rest of her sank in the realization that her son was marching to war. 

To say she was dismayed her husband intended sending their eldest to was was a vast understatement. But, as queen of Yala, she couldn’t dispute Vicar's logic, or his choice. For a matter appearing to carry as much weight for Amestris as this vision did, only Sirax would see this war to a successful end.

"Then let us send him with all speed, my husband." She gently urged, fighting off the urge to cry out loud in emotional pain. "So our son may return to us the swifter, unharmed and with word of his success."

*


Filling a small room with a rumble, the low murmurs being exchanged by the room’s occupants ceased when the heavy, organometallic door leading inside suddenly banged open to admit the wiry war king, cloak sopping wet.

“Victors,” Amartía said in greeting as he pulled a cloak from his shoulders and handed it to a Dagon, who immediately disappeared back out the door, pulling it closed behind itself. The war king then quickly scanned the faces that turned towards him, warmly lit by the torches on the wall. 

The examination was quick. After only a moment, Amartía's attention moved from the occupants to the chamber itself. It was a sparsely decorated room deep in the heart of Ciphers' underground chambers, its only decoration a big map of Amestris on the northern wall and a great wooden table in the middle, presently heaped high with parchment, cloth and paper maps. A brazier glowed redly in the corner in a vain attempt to dispel the damp chill that pervaded the room’s very gild from the rain pouring down out a gray sky of ash outside. Something it had done for nearly a ten-day now.

Around the table only three chairs had been set, simple arrangements of sturdy wood and strapping befitting the temporary headquarters of Xerxes' armies. Instead of choosing one and joining the three men already seated around the table, the imposing king strode to the brazier to extend his hands over the glowing coals to drive out a measure of the chill that had nested there in his short run from the upper levels.

“We can afford to wait no longer. Let’s get this underway, yes?”

“An excellent suggestion, your Majesty,” Brother Alric smoothly agreed from his place at the table. The Dagon Victor glanced at the other two men seated beside him with a smile.

“And let me make a suggestion of where to start, your Majesty,” rumbled one of those two, the low, gravelly voice belonging to the Dagon Victor to the right of Alric, Brother Garth.

Before speaking, Garth had been carefully studying his hands, great masses of bone and muscle as though they possessed some flaw, instead of being the engines of destruction that had served him well during his long military career in service to Vorwza, and now to Amartía. He now raised his eyes from his hands to quickly look around the table.

“Perhaps we should discuss how we’re to follow the assault on soon to come.”

“Indeed,” said another of the Victors, the slender Silent Brother Asmod, Amartía's commander of the Victors. He sat across from Garth and favored the man with a quick look. A look of anxiousness sat on the finely chiseled features, the hawkish nose and chestnut skin marking him as an alien of Amestris.

“With the power Lifsprial seems to possesses, it’d be foolish to waste the opportunity to sweep the rest of Amestris along with Xerxes.”

Certainly not as impressive in appearance or posture as the powerful Garth, Asmod nevertheless carried himself with the inborn grace of nobility. Grace that was only partially mocked by the shock of white hair topping his oddly aristocratic face—now marred by the sneer of a Dagon—a mop that stuck out in all directions as if somehow immune to a comb’s power, an unrestrainable mane that tumbled almost to his shoulders. In odd but powerful counterbalance to that hair sat his eyes, burning blue-white with intensity, twin daggers of the finest steel to pierce any trap and cut through subterfuge.

“That’ll certainly be one of our topics of discussion this day, brothers,” Alric said before Amartía could speak, acting the part of mediator. “As well what Lord Sin has planned after this war is over." Alric smiled reassuringly at the frowning Asmod. “Have no fear, Silent Brother, we’ll address all situations and topics in due time.”

Asmod snorted at Alric’s placations as he pulled the closest map on the table into the space immediately in front of him.

“If we are operating on Alric's due time, then we’ll have to wait till the next moon cycle to began talking,” He deadpanned, the burly victor beside him bleakly smiling in agreement.

"Due time is due time, my friends." he bluntly reminded them in Alric's stead. "But I called this impromptu meeting not to discuss the probability of Lifspirl conquering the rest of my lands or what I plan to do after this war.

The room went silent.

"No, instead I have made a decision." His voice was a reedy whisper even as his eyes blazed to near full intensity.

"A decision, you Majesty?" Alric intoned, eyebrow raised in question to Garth, who simply shrugged.

"Yes, a decision. One that will permanently sever any ties left remaining between you and your lost brothers."

"It is our hope that our lost brothers will find enlightenment. Just as we did." Asmod said in quiet reply, the pain of loss still fresh in his heart. Garth and Alric nodded in agreement.

"Yes, they were blind to the truth: blind to the shackles that bound them to Vowrza, blind to the pleasures of desire, blind to the rest of the world. But you, you three-hundred fold, found the light within my words and followed me to freedom. No longer are you vicegerents of a useless god, but warriors of desire, both mine and your own. So a sour name like Vowrza's Victors isn't befitting of your new found status. No, a new name is in order. A name truly representative of your nature and service to ourselves. You are my Legion. My Legion of Vice."

Garth, Alric, Asmod and all two-hundred and ninety seven legionaries all prostrated before Amartía in the courtyard of the Cipher, their eyes downcast and their right held to their beating hearts.

Amartía! Amartía! Amartía! They chanted in unison, their voices clearly heard over the bearing of rain and scream of ash.

In one final and resolute act, Amartía held his hand to the sky, and slit his wrist. Crimson blood flew freely from the wound, soaking into the dirt under his feet and charring it to blackness. "Partake of my nectar once again, and pledge yourself, once and for all to the Legion, to our desire."

And they did.

*


"Believers and Disbelievers both will they be.
Men and women once of honor, strength and virtue.
Now of vision, boldness and desire.
Chosen from many to carry the burden.
Heroes all, the Legion of Vice."





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One Week Ago - White Ocean Coast


The small lumpy bone felt more significant between Conata's fingers than she wanted it to be. It was barely larger than her palm, standing out from the brown rust on her skin. Even though she had forgotten about its existence until now, it was no mystery to her why it made her feel sad.

The water lapped on the beach in front of her. Conata looked up at the sunrise from her seated position on the beach. She could just throw the bone away right now. It would be gone, then. She would never turn back. Maybe then it wouldn't bother her so much.

Soft footsteps padded behind her. "Conata, Do you feel like joining us to eat?" Gio had approached. His low voice made Conata sigh and hide the bone in her closed fist.

"It is just grey rocks for breakfast again. There is little enough game out here save for birds, and I do not think anyone can be bothered this morning."

"I'm not hungry, thanks, Gio," Conata mumbled. She did not face him but she could hear his robes rustling to lean over, probably to see her face.

"Are you okay? You have been sitting away from camp for a while."

Conata blinked, hesitated, and curled her lips. It was no use trying to hide her feelings when they were always on display. "I found something from home," she said, opening her fingers to reveal the lumpy bone. "It's been in my bag all this time. Just a...goat bone from father's-...or Choukkud's flock. Back when I was small, I would chase them around for fun. This one was from the foot of the fastest one, Big Billy."

Conata could feel Gio's sympathetic smile forming. "Feeling homesick?" he asked.

"It's not just that." Conata rolled the bone between her fingers. "I ran away." The rust intensified. She was finding it hard to speak, even if she was trying to hide it. "I didn't say goodbye, I didn't say sorry, I just...ran." She began to go leaden, defeated. "They won't want to see me again. I set out without wanting to go back, but...now I realise that I can't, even if I wanted to. I've ruined things."

Gio stood up straight again and turned his head to look back at camp. The tiny waves lapped two more times. He then exhaled through his nose and settled to be seated next to Conata. "I do not think you have ruined things," his calm voice said. "They would be sad that you ran away, but we all knew them. They loved you and raised you. They will understand."

"No, you don't understand." Conata shook her head and peered up with a frown at Gio. "I made an agreement with Choukkud that I would wait until my seventeenth birthday to do anything like this. He promised to tell me everything he knew about where I came from. Then and no sooner." Conata looked forward, drew up her knees, and hugged them. "What if all this turns out bad? What if I don't find Alefpria or this guy Lifprasil that's supposed to know who I am? I broke my end of the bargain with Choukkud. I...I won't have anything left."

Gio looked down, eyeing the shapes in the sand. He spotted a discarded cockle shell and picked it up to dust the sand off against his broad azibo chest. "So, you broke a promise. He is still your father."

"What do you mean? I betrayed him." Conata spoke muffled into one knee.

"Well..." Gio paused for a moment. His tone shifted on a tangent. "You know, I was meant to take over my father's position as the medicine man in our settlement -- Ruvac, Polia's, and mine." Gio daintily bit off half of the seashell and ground it between his back teeth while he continued. "I was scared to leave to come with Ruvac and Polia. I knew nothing of Tounic calligraphy and I did not especially need it for my duties. But my father told me that if I did not go, I would end up regretting it for the rest of my life because this was the one chance to go out and learn about such a new thing as Tounic, even if there was the chance that it was useless. He did not want me to regret taking the chance. I certainly do not regret setting out." He swallowed. "The state you left Rulanah in was one that we could all see would only make your relationship worse with your parents if you stayed. Can you say that you could have stood to wait for another year and a half, getting more and more resentful?"

Conata hesitated and then shook her head. "I probably would have hated them. I hated them for trying to make me stay in the first place."

"That would be regrettable, no? You would not be sitting here so rusted and homesick if you did not still love them a little."

"...I guess."

"Look, I do not think Choukkud and Wutni would have wanted you to hate them. I do not believe you would have wanted to leave having hated them, either, even if you could have gotten a little more information that...well..." Gio leant in and hushed his voice. "I think this Alefpria place will have that information if someone like Majus recommends it." He straightened. "Still, they will not stay angry forever. That path will remain open if ever you need it."

Conata's rust receded somewhat, partially replaced with dull lead. "It was still a bad idea to not say goodbye. I just couldn't stand being there a day longer. The whole place made me feel so..." She trailed off.

"I understand. We all make mistakes sometimes. Don't dwell on it if it does not help you." Gio tossed up the other half of the seashell into his mouth and chewed with a friendly grin. "As for now, you'll have plenty of time to think before making further mistakes, and even then, it is all learning. We're all learning here, really."

The lead and rust on Conata's skin began to show subtle flecks of bronze. She quirked the corner of her mouth and turned an eye to him. "How'd you get this wise, anyway?"

"That's a long and boring story," Gio answered.

"If you say so." Conata cringed by way of stifling a snort and shimmered with some traces of bismuth. "'It was your one chance to go out and learn about Tounic calligraphy,' was it? Here I thought you came to Rulanah so you could get the courage to tell Polia."

Gio's smile dropped and he tensed up. In a poor effort to play the comment off, he tried looking across the sand for another seashell. "Hm? What do you...Tell her what? I do not understand." His face was flushing a deep green.

"Oh, I'm sure it's nothing." Conata looked out to sea. Her rust was all but cleared for more iridescent bismuth. "It would be a bad idea for it to stay nothing, though. A very bad idea."



Present - The Hilt


"This is a very bad idea, Connie!" Polia shouted. Even without speaking the djinni language, it was clear enough now that Conata had answered the lord's challenge.

Vitrum raised his sickle-bladed fists and bellowed over Polia's protests. His large, glowing mouth swung open and shouted power into a diagonal swing down.

Conata shouted right back. Her entire body wrenched around, swinging her cleaver down to meet the incoming sickle. It was thrown with such momentum that Conata's body angled forward and pirouetted with the follow-through.

CRING!

A spray of black shards flew and scattered on the ground. Not only was Vitrum's blow deflected by the time Conata's feet met the ground again, but one of his blades also thudded to the grass, broken off.

The cleaver did not stop as it whirled around. Conata crouched and jumped high, somersaulting forward in the air. The cleaver's point swung underneath and made a vertical oribit, before Conata uncurled and landed, throwing the cleaver over her head with both hands and a shout. The cleaver slammed into the front of Vitrum's chest, lodging into the black stone with a sharp clack! A large sheet of obsidian fell away from another spray of shards. He bellowed again.

Conata had to pull with all her might to release the blade. It was so heavy that it made her stumble just by bringing it back around behind her.

Vitrum was stumbling as well. He wasn't dead. She could keep this up, she thought.

With an ascending grunt, Conata hefted the blade up further to aim a cut at Vitrum's skull. She leapt forward. The blue glow of the skull grew with the black around it. She noticed the movement of his torso right before she felt a dull sound against her side. The back of Vitrum's swinging fist. He had lured her into it. After the initial jarring crunch of obsidian on metal, Conata flew a distance and hit the dirt shoulder first, rolling.

She flung a hand to the ground to lift herself up, coughing. She was too shocked to feel the pain. More thudding footsteps against the ground prompted her to stand faster. She rolled to her back, lifted her legs, and flung her body upright and standing, just in time to see Vitrum closing the distance with monstrous footsteps. Her arm ached. Behind the lord, Ruvac, Polia, and Gio were watching on helplessly. The lesser obsidian djinn still stood sentinel. Conata had dropped her cleaver.

Vitrum's remaining sickle was raised and thrown down. Conata sidestepped. It thunked into the ground at the last moment.

She needed to get at her metal again

She jumped back just as his other fist wooved upwards towards her and still found air. The current it pushed flowed over her torso.

It was right over there. She just needed to...

Crackling against notions of human anatomy, Vitrum stepped forward and his arms both swung up, around, and forward to try and clap Conata between his fists. Conata jumped and reached out towards her cleaver.

Crack! The arms bounced apart below Conata's feet, right before she landed back on the grass below.

That's it. Split it up.

"No djinnnn of earth moves with your finesssse!" Vitrum stepped to follow and took another wild swing with his sickle. Conata juked underneath the massive black blade. "It shall nnnot save you. It saved no djinn of winnnd from I!"

Conata extended both her open hands. She then drew her elbows in while forming fists. Vitrum did not notice the pieces of metal flying in from behind him. Their combined impact threw obsidian flakes out in a spray of flakes from Vitrum's back, forcing him to stumble. He shouted in frustration.

Conata took her chance. She darted under the djinni lord's pillar-like legs, half-turning to avoid the wickedly sharp edges. She sprinted a short distance, slid to a stop, and spun around, throwing her hand out and facing the turning Vitrum.

The metal responded again, wrenching off Vitrum's back and into an orbit around Conata.

"You would wwweather me awaaay!?" Vitrum halted his offensive. He leant forward to face down Conata. "No water djinnnn found my defeat eitherrr!"

His retribution was swift. Vitrum extended his sickle arm up and drove it into the ground, much deeper this time. It sent a rumble through the earth that ended quickly with a belching soil cloud under Conata's feet. It came with an upside-down shower of obsidian shards, engulfing her.

Like so many claws raking against her metallic skin, scraping and chipping, she felt little in the way of pain but even less balance and control. She clambered for absent footing. A great spiked black fist emerged from the settling dust to change the former. It was impossible to dodge. She wrenched her eyes shut just as it knocked the wind from her.

The ground hit her in the back and she curled in pain, wheezing in a breath. She could taste dirt in her mouth, the black shards as well.

They had a different taste to what she had expected.

When the flying dirt did stop raining on the upturned ground, Conata opened her red eyes to see white scratches covering every inch of her arms and legs. Her clothing was in tatters, but for her thick leather tabard. She turned her head to behold Vitrum's eternal grin hovering over her. His hand wrapped around her torso before she could process the feeling. By the time she helplessly began thrashing and struggling, she was pulled up looking like a trapped ferret. Vitrum's grip was sure as stone.

Conata stopped and glared back at Vitrum with renewed defiance. She could not move her arms, which made manipulating her now-half-buried metal nearly impossible. She tried desperately to think of what to do.

"You arrre defeated." Vitrum declared. Conata's breathing hastened in a panic. "I shall consummme you as an exammmple to all other innnterlopers."

He hadn't trapped all of her.

"I'm not done yet, you arrogant brick!" Conata's iron feet swung. She splayed and clenched her toes a few times. It was clumsy, but she just needed to keep the lord occupied. Just for a few moments. "You just want to keep this place all to yourself!? What do you get out of this place, huh?! You don't farm or hunt! My friends say you don't even eat like mortals! You're just being jealous and greedy!"

"You know nnnnothing of this place? You feel not it's powerrr? And you think it belonnngs to mortals?" Vitrum's skull-like visage did not betray the confusion in his tone. "You are no djinnnn. What mmmanner of creature are-"

He spotted Conata's eyes twitching away from his face and reacted immediately. His head spun, his body turned, and he extended his free sickle hand. His sickle shattered as it felt the full impact of a solid sphere of hastily welded metal fly into his open hand with enough momentum to bend his elbow. He struggled for a moment longer, before he began to push back.

"Haaa haaaah! Yooou would trick me like a honourless fire djinnnn!? You neither listennn nor do you learnnn!"

That wasn't meant to happen. The sphere was meant to break his face. All of Conata's features tensed in a struggle. Vitrum was vying for control of the metal.

"Your massstery of the earth is lackinnng, interloper!" Vitrum rotated his skull-shaped head to face Conata again. "Your defeat shallll remainnn!"

This wasn't the end. It couldn't be. Conata tensed and began to glow a bright orange, pushing the metal as hard as she could. Vitrum's arm holding back the sphere began to quiver. She growled through clenched teeth. "I...Won't...Give...Up!"

Vitrum began to growl in his own struggle. The sphere began to heat up, steaming off the moisture the metal had picked up in the dirt.

"What!?"

Obsidian stones crumbled up from Vitrum's legs and torso and ran up his arm. He tried his best to divert mass from his body to hold back the sphere. It heated to the point of bulging between his fingers. The glow of the metal in both of Vitrum's hands brought his dark features into stark contrast.

Conata's leather tabard shrivelled to black and flared with blasing orange fire. "I won't...let...you...hurt anyone else!"

White hot gobbets of metal seeped out between the growing mass holding back the sphere and flew onto Vitrum's face and body. His face darted between the melting metal and the now white-hot Conata with bristling wire hair.

"What mmmanner of creaturrrre are you, interloperrr?!" Vitrum demanded.

The surrounding grass shrivelled and smoked in a ring around them. Conata's very shape was getting lost in the eyes with her blinding light and heat. "You're...about...to find out!"

The heat intensified to the point of engulfing the area, casting deep shadows from every surrounding object. It was impossible to see anything. Conata only needed to sense the metal around her. Her last plan was desperate, but she knew what to look for. It was working.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOINNNG!?" Vitrum's pleas were laced in suffering and fear. He screamed. "CEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!"

A breeze began to flow as the sheer blasting heat caused nearby foliage to burst into flames.

She had never felt this kind of heat before. She might just melt.

"CONATA!" She heard Polia shout out.

Something flowed over in the universe. Conata felt something new.



A chill ran up Conata's upper arm. She pulled her blanket over her shoulder. It was cold all of a sudden.

"She's waking up."

"Conata? Conata, can you hear us?"

Gio and Ruvac could be in such a rush sometimes. Conata just wanted to sleep in this morning. She felt tired after...

"Connie, please be okay, please..."

"Polia?" Conata croaked. Something had happened. Consciousness flooded back into her mind, as did the sensations of feeling, smelling, and looking. She cracked her eyes open a sliver and saw three familiar shapes. Her friends were standing over her. She winced at the sun, it was so bright. It...

The sense of feeling metal returned as well.

There was another shape was behind it. Towering. She could sense it there without even seeing it. She began to a deep breath through her nose and tried to open her eyes wider. She gasped in the rest of her lung capacity.

Standing just behind the three azibo speaking to her was a radiant humanoid figure so tall that he could look at her over Gio's head without even maintaining the proud posture that held up his build. A broad, powerful build made entirely of lustrous metal.



The cause of Conata's wince, she found, was not the sun, but the sun reflected off the huge figure's head and shoulder. There was something familiar about his muscular build, though he was no hain or rovaick shape. Making up his lower body were curtains of torn metal sheets in layers that obscured any legs that might have existed.

"Who are you!?" Conata started in a panic.

The silvery giant answered in a droning hum of speech. "You knowww my nammme."

Scraps of memory spilt out of Conata's sleep-fogged mind. Sensations. Such that she only knew through her sense for metals, not any images, sounds, nor textures. One taste. Obsidian. It tasted of silicon. The implications were too much for Conata to process. She propped herself up on one elbow and ran a hand over her face. She was a dull, wavily textured metal that yielded to the touch. A disoriented Mercury.

"I don't understand, what happened? Why are you made of metal? And...why aren't you trying to kill me?"

Vitrum, as was confirmed by not only his speech but his height, spoke in an even tone that was hard to read. "You defeated mmme, forcing my very flickerrr into a new formmm, alike to yourrrs. I am no longer obsidiannn. Thusss your nature to me isss determinnned, for your powerrr is reserved for godsss."

Conata lowered her brow. The only indication that any of this made sense was Majus calling her demigoddess. The word repeated in her head.

"By defeating meee in a contest of elemental mmmight, you have wonnn my fealtyyy."

The others still did not understand what Vitrum and Conata were conversing about. The language was mysterious. They exchanged worried looks. Polia spoke up in the pause between the two.

"Conata, I don't know what you did, but you and that earth djinn made a crater. With you inside of it." She had red around her eyes as if she had been crying. "We would have been burnt alive if not for Ruvac's deflection font. We went up to you two and this guy-" she pointed a thumb to Vitrum, "-appeared out of the crater, carried you out and brought you to us, pointing to get us to attend to you. You weren't hurt, but we nearly burnt ourselves checking. What's he saying? Where did he come from? What even happened and...what's going on?"

Conata took a moment to scrunch her eyes shut and collect herself. She sat up properly and held the blanket across her chest -- the intense heat from before evidently consumed her clothing. "It's the same earth djinn lord as before. His name is Vitrum, he says I changed his form and that I won his fealty, I think." She nervously ran a hand through her wire hair and down her neck. "I'm really confused."

Polia looked back at Vitrum with a new dose of fear. She murmured out of the corner of her mouth to Conata. "He's...not going to hurt us, is he?"

"Vitrum, you won't hurt my friends, will you?"

"I shall nnnot."

Conata switched back to the southern rovaick tongue. "He says he won't."

The comment did not assist Polia's anxiety, neither did it help Ruvac and Gio's, Conata noticed.

"So...where are the smaller ones?" Conata asked her friends.

"They fled into the earth when you two...combusted," Ruvac said. "Look, if he's decided to do what you say, maybe we should just tell him to leave us alone and get going? We don't want any more trouble here."

Conata stared back at Vitrum's metallic face for a silent while.

"Conata?"

She raised her hand. "No, I want to talk to him for a while. He said some things that I want to ask about."

Ruvac and Polia exchanged a look. Polia looked down to Conata again. "Look, Conata, even I'm scared at this point. I don't want you accidentally offending him or something. If you don't know what you did to beat him, who's to say that you can do it again if something goes wrong?"

"I don't care." Conata faced Polia. "I have to do this. You guys can wait at the edge of the crater if you like."

"Connie, that's days away-"

Conata lolled her head back in frustration and groaned. "Then set up camp! I'll make sure they won't attack you, I promise." She lifted her head back up and lowered her voice again. "I'm not leaving until I talk with him."

The three azibo all hesitated, looking around with worried brows and nervous hands wandering to sudden itches on their skins. Gio broke the silence. "Perhaps...we should grant a pair of hours, at least." He stood up. "Polia, let's trust Conata. I will set up our tents."

Ruvac reluctantly stood up as well. "Need anything else, Conata?"

Conata relaxed her face and shook her head. Ruvac turned and followed Gio.

Only Polia and Vitrum remained. Polia was looking at Conata, biting her lower lip. "Be careful, okay?" she said quickly, before standing up and following the others.

Conata nodded. That kind of recommendation from someone as outgoing as Polia resonated strongly. Once Polia had her back to her, Conata chewed the inside of her cheek. Something must have really scared her in the fight. She felt bad for making her friend so afraid.

That was soon put aside, Conata looked up at the lustrous djinni lord standing in front of her.

"Okay, Vitrum, if you say I have your fealty, I want some answers from you." Conata sat up and wrapped the blanket more securely around her body. Her skin solidified into a defiant iron. "Can you do that for me?"

"I cannn answerrr."

In an effort to seem more confident, Conata stood up, tying the blanket around her body like an oversized robe. She was clumsy about it, still requiring a hand to hold it up. She mildly processed how similar she felt in aesthetic to the azibo-form statue of Toun back in Rulanah. Though it was hard to feel godly when she barely stood as tall as Vitrum's legs.

"How did you know I'm a demigoddess?" Conata began.

"I merely obserrrved the power of a god. It is obviousss to any who know what to sennnse."

"Oh for-..." Conata slowly let out a hiss. The first answer was already as bad as Majus' excuses for information. "I came out travelling through here to find someone who knows who my real mother and father are. Do you know who they are?"

Vitrum clasped his hands behind his back and looked out at the obsidian spire nearby. "I knowww without certaintyyy. There are but twooo possibilities by my experiennnce."

Conata's iron calmed to warm copper. "Go on."

"My creator, the First Gallle. Zephyrionnn. He is the god of allll that shifts and changesss in the universe. Allll in naturrre that ebbs and flowws, that burrrns and dieees, that growwws and forrrms, is His doinnng." Vitrum turned his new stern face down to Conata. "Youuu have great powerrr over the earthhh. Such that surpassessss great elementalll lorrrds. Such cannn be attributed to the power of our progenitorrr."

Conata gave Vitrum a sideways look and peered down at her hand holding up the blanket. "I don't know about that. I'm only good with metals. I don't know why I was able to turn you into metal, but...you earth djinn can move around any kind of earth, can't you?" She looked up to him again.

Vitrum nodded.

"Yeah, I don't think so. I mean, it would explain why I can speak to you, but...that's about it." Conata tilted her head. She was feeling some warmer hope. "What's the other possibility?"

"The otherrr is what originally drew me to this placcce." One of Vitrum's huge arms pointed out to the black spire before them. The flush metal of his body did not so much as creak, just like Conata's. A shame she wasn't just a djinn like him -- that would make things much simpler. "The one that placcced that spirrre. His mark is evidennnt all arounnnd this plateauuu. The god of honourabllle combat, to which I paid hommaaage many times in my life. Winnnd Strikerrr."

"Wind Striker, huh? What makes you think he's my father?"

"I have spennnt centurieees honing mmmy combat abilitieees. Long ago, many djinnn such as myselllf were martialled by Vizier Ventusss, lord of all djinnnn and mmmajordomo to Zephyrionnn himself. Weee were to fight chaosss above an army of hainnn. To tear apart evilll angellls twisted by giggling corruptionnn."

Conata listened on intently. She had never heard of evil angels before, whatever they were. However, she did know about chaos cults of Vestec. They had been the enemies of Tounic rovaick for as long as she could remember.

"After observinnng Wind Strikerrr, a god amonnngst the hainnn and a creature of unnnsurpassed courage, I followed his exammmple to perfect myselllf. I felt the callinnng of warriorhood since I first sennnsed his powerrr. The honourable protectionnn of this home of djinnnn. As I said befooore, I changed forms many timmmes and found nonnne that were without weaknnneses. Lost, I prayyyed. Winnnd Striker guided me by innnstinct to this sacred placcce. I promisssed Himmm that I would protect it from allll others to earnnn his favour and becommme the perfect warriorrr."

"So that's why you've been killing 'interlopers,' huh?"

"Indeeeed. My powerrr grew in this placcce. My childrennn took up guardiannnship of the earth here. I waited, but Wind Strikerrr's voice has been quiet to meee as of late. Nnnow you arivvve. Conataaa, the metalll creaturrre of courage, power, and skillll. You bested meee, and I believe you were sent by Wind Strikerrr to guide meee. This new formmm is part of that guidannnce, for I have never experiennnced it beforrre."

Conata stood still and copper, staring at the spire and pondering.

Vitrum waited patiently. Even though the silicon djinn's face was not especially emotive, it was reasonable to assume that he understood Conata's desire to think.

They stood until a breeze came by and blew some burnt grass across their vision.

Coanta blinked and then spoke. "Hey Vitrum, why do you want to become the perfect warrior, anyway?"

"It is my wish to protect the worrrld from Yivvin and Vessstec. Malnaturrre and chaosss."

Conata gave Vitrum another fleeting glance. "Look, I don't know whether I'm the daughter of this 'Wind Striker' guy. Today has been the first I've heard of him, but...you know...I'll give you my advice if you want it."

Vitrum caused a quiet thud against the ground as he stepped to face his body to Conata. He had feet still, it seemed. "I am swornnn to your word."

Conata tried and failed to keep eye contact. She felt out of her element, though her skin remained a defiant iron. "First of all, stop killing everyone that comes through here. Most people just want to pass through. Let them travel. Only fight them off if they bother you. Most of them are innocent, they've got nothing to do with chaos or this 'Yivvin' thing you're on about. Keeping this whole big beautiful plateau to yourself is just greedy and mean-spirited."

Vitrum harked without so much as a twitch.

"Secondly, if you want to protect the world, maybe you should teach what you know to others as well as continue to hone your skills fighting. The one who taught me to fight says that you have to be able to teach other people in order to know something with true mastery. Also, with more people learning how to fight, it's easier to protect the world. Back when the realta attacked, I would never have been able to protect anyone even if I was capable at the time. I lost friends because there was only one of me. On top of all that, defending this crater means you don't even get to defend the rest of the world! Let people help you. Thirdly..." Conata stepped up closer to Vitrum, trying not to trip over the blanket around her. She flicked her fingers and pulled off a gobbet of the brittle silicon. "Find a better set of metals to make yourself from. Silicon isn't good for much on its own, it's too hard and chips away, see? Try...experimenting. Iron with some other things in it works pretty well, and there's plenty of that in the mountains. Does that all make sense?"

She stepped back and looked up at Vitrum's face. He lifted a hand and peered down at his palm. There was conflict on his expression.

Conata's face softened and her iron gave way to copper. "Look, maybe I'm being a bit harsh. You were violent to me before, but you want to protect the world right? Protect the people living in it? You haven't given up with what you want to do after all this time, I can see that much. I admire that. You can stay here if you like, keep getting better, just...try to be nicer than you have been, okay?"

"This ordered channnge is alienn to me." Vitrum said. Even in his droning tone, Conata could hear the conflict scraping along in his words.

"...I can try to explain it better if you like. You're the first djinn I've ever really spoken to, I don't know if...well..." She trailed off.

"Conata, my liege ladyyy, channnge is my naturrre. I comprehennnd what you asssk. Its foreignnn countenannnce is merellly the stones to pave on my road to courrrage. My childrennn and I swear to followww your words. In your honourrr, to sealll this promise of change, I name myselfff Aeramen, Lord of the Hilt."

The ground began to shake once more. Conata held out one arm to keep balance. She pocked with magnesium. "Is that you doing that?!"

"No, it is my childrennn. I instructed themmm to don their new formmms. They have commme back from the deep earrrth to show themselllves." Vitrum, now Aeramen, looked out onto the clearing adjacent to where they stood just as the soil parted for hundreds of sparkling metal djinns that stepped up into ranks and files. Their forms became clearer as they all fell into place.

Each of them was made purely from a single metal each. Most were made from bronze, with some larger ones leading groups of them in iron. Three of them, the largest, were made from mithral, a metal that Conata had only seen in scraps before. However, the most surreal element of it all was their shape. Instead of the vaguely humanoid piles of obsidian that made up their previous forms, the metal that formed the djinn was shaped into lean and noticeably feminine forms. Despite the lack of definition in comparison to Aeramen, Conata could tell by the way they shaped the textured lines that were their 'hairstyles' that they were mimicking her. They did not have her eyes, face, clothes, or hands -- the ends of their arms were still axe-blade shapes -- but the army of herself was just recognisable enough.

"...Wow." Conata stared shocked, mouth slightly parted, a mix of polished tin with scars of shining bronze. The sight before her was more metal than she had ever seen at once. Beyond the way their mimicry made her turn tin with embarrassment, the thought of all these things owing her fealty was simply overwhelming. Given what these things could do with only obsidian, she hoped that her advice to Vitrum wasn't misinterpreted for the sake of any that might anger them.

One of the mithral leaders stepped up to the pair with a large, misshapen lump of alloys in its hands. The troll-height Conata-shaped mithral djinn did not operate its vacant facial features like Aeramen, so it took Conata a moment to realise that the alloys were the metals she used to fight with just previously.

"Oh, thank you," Conata said, snapping out of her dumbstruck state and taking the metal in her one free hand. She put the distorted lump aside for later.

The mithral djinn did not back away just yet. It-...she revealed something in her other hand -- a fist-sized cluster of strange, dark, native metal crystals encased in a chunk of grey rock. Conata glanced between it at the djinn.

"A gift to youuu from usss, Conata, for directinnng our dessstiny forwarrrd." Aeramen said. "The most adamant mmmetal of allll. It was the poinnnt of my fissst back when I was a djinn of deep stonnne. I could nnnot shape it to use properlyyy when I grew in powerrr and siiiize. Youuu may finnnd it more usefulll."

"Okay..." Conata was unsure, but she didn't turn up the opportunity to sample a new metal at the best of times. She raised a hand and flicked a finger. It did not move. She tried harder, using her whole arm. Only then did the crystal cluster move through the air to join the rest of her metal. "Woah, you weren't joking." It felt heavy to her powers. Belligerent and adamant, like Aeramen described.

Conata brought the cluster to her hand, expecting it to be heavy to hold as well. She was surprised at how light it felt. Still, if it was that hard to move with her power, Conata wondered if she could even shape it either. Questions for later, she supposed.

"Thanks for all this...Aeramen." Conata looked to the djinni lord as the mithral lieutenant stepped away. She still didn't know how she should be acting. She paused and glanced over at her friends at the edge of the clearing. "So, I have to keep travelling. It feels weird to just up and leave after all this. Is there anything else you guys need from me? Are you going to be okay?"

"We shall continue with your guidannnce in our hearrrts, daughterrr of the gods. I shall pursue my quessst, you must pursue yourrrs."

"Right," Conata smiled up at the silicon giant. Her tense tin gave way to some bronze. "I hope you become the best protector our world has. Just be nice, okay?"

"I shallll, my liege."

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Lauder The drunk kind of hero

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Sibling Dispute


"What in Fate's name are you doing, brother?," Keriss began in a rather tame fashion, her voice still filled with an exceptionally angered tone eagrdless, "I want to know why you have corrupted the minds of these people, these... Victor's as they were once called." The doors to her brother's throne had been thrown open, viciously and savagely did she step in. Keriss was beyond angered at the creation of this so-called 'Legion of Vice' as they only seemed to be blinded by Amartia's plans.

She expected this to be cause of some form of mind game on her brother's part, more fearing his growing influence. The ashen one stomped up to her brother, not bothering with any formalities with him for he deserved none in her eyes. If she had retained her wings, they would be spread in a vain attempt of intimidation. "I see through your bravdo, brother. I will not stand for your quest to convert all those to blindly serve you and you alone. Not now, not ever," Keriss growled as she stood over the throne with her now unimposing stature.

Amartía didn't bother to meet his sister's gaze, instead he scrutinized his nails with an all to recognizable aloofness. "Keriss," He began as he picked at a glob of wet ash clinging to the underside a horny covering. "You've developed quite a disgusting habit of meddling in people's business." The wet ash finally came free and he went to work on another. "Work on that please. I would hate to see my dear sister's good name go down in ashes."

Keriss gritted her teeth at Amartía's words, her fists clenching. ”It already has for all I care.” She willed the wet ash back into place in an act of annoyance. ”The mind is not a place for you to meddle, it is my mother’s domain and you have no right to go corrupt minds to follow you,” she snarled, watching as Amartía blatantly disrespected her by not meeting her gaze. ”Look me in the eyes when we talk, you arrogant prick!”

So he did, in an agonizingly slothful way, he met her gaze. But only amusement shown bright in his eyes, a sort of child-like glee that defied the very tone of the conversation. "Mother? Your mother is dead Keriss, I thought you knew." Amartía intoned, speaking genuinely. Suddenly his voice developed a hard edge.
"I also assumed you knew your place. Both before me and in this divine system of things. Must I reiterate it to you again?" A threat.

A stunned look came upon Keriss’ face. Quickly did the anger flood back into her expression, though she did her best to avoid letting her emotion get the better of her in this instance. ”My place? My place?! Do you think that I am beneath you? For I am not! I am about as equal to you as much as Tauga is my friend,” she growled, stepping forwards in a threatening fashion. It was clear that she was not going to back down to the likes of Amartía. "Nor think that I fear you, welp. You cannot intimidate me.”

Amartía shook his head in disappointment and pointed an accusing finger at Keriss' chest. "Yet Tauga is subservient to me! Just as you are. You just refuse to realize it. Look! You're already kneeling!"

Suddenly, Keriss was no longer eye level with Amartía, but now subject to his scrutinizing gaze from above. She was genuflecting with her right hand to her chest, an act of devotion and loyalty. Amartía grinned savagely. "I neither need fear or intimidation to get what I want. Only power and a will, both I seem to possess in overabundance."

Keriss gave a look of angered confusion as she was forced to drop onto her knee and be humiliated by the likes of her brother. She refused to be subject to this perverse game. ”Enough of this!” the woman roared launching herself back onto her feet, ash flooding in from the doorway. ”No longer will I help you fight your war! You do not deserve my aid!” The ash formed a ball and smacked Amartía upside the head, a retaliation for being forced to bow.

Yet, when Keriss opened her eyes, she was once again standing over Amartía in similar stance to that of before; her unimposing form towering over the Enas who still picked at the ash under his nails. Her previous attack had disappeared all together. "Are you sure you want to do this?" he warned, his hint of excitement clear in his voice.

No words escaped her mouth, nothing could be said to him at this point. Instead, she cocked back her fist and unleashed it towards her brother’s head. She felt something of a thrill to unleash the rage that had been built up inside her for so long, excitement for the first time in a long while. Keriss eyes bared that savage delight as well, eager to bring pain to Amartía, the one who had continued to degrade her.

But she never got her chance. Suddenly, Keriss was no longer in the Cipher's throne room, neither was she in Xerxes. No, she was in bed, tucked in tight. The air was still and a flame barely flickered nearby. It was steady and bright enough to relieve the darkness of the room, but it was not enough to read by. The items around the candle cast shadows that radiated out as branches on a willow tree would. The wick blackened and the wax slowly turned to liquid, running down the side and onto the clay plate. She was in a cottage. It was little thing that hunkered low on a moor like a child in the elements trying to keep warm. Yet it looked alive and welcoming with a thin silver trail curling from the crooked stone chimney. The sides were the same grey slabs as the low walls in the dales and the roof was a darker slate. Needless to say, Keriss was confused.

Next to her bed rested a young man, someone she recognized. It was her father. "Don't tell me you've drifted off of on me. We aren't even halfway through the story." he cooed. A massive scroll lay unfurled on his lap.

Her head snapped to the young man, her eyes widening at the sight of Vakarlon. Keriss stumbled backwards falling out of the side of the bed, away from her father. The last time she saw the trickster god was after her fight with Tauga and she had been told many times over that he was dead. "You are not real," she said lightly, pulling herself back before her back reached the wall, "Not real." She could feel her heart begin racing, terror running up her spine.

Vakarlon stumbled out of his seat and over to a clearly startled Keriss, concern written on his features. "Keriss, you fell asleep while I read. You must of had a nightmare or something." His voice wavered. His heart couldn't bare to see his daughter this way. "Vulamera said this would happen. Your powers are wild and unpredictable at this age. I should have taken you to the citadel instead of trying to raise you here. I was foolish." Vakarlon's voice was a harsh whisper. Carefully, he reached for his squirming daughter.

"No," she hissed, pressing her back further onto the wall until she could no further. "Stay back!," she commend jetting her arm forward to attempt to hit the illusion with a stream of ash, but nothing was produced and she saw now that her scales were green once more. Everything was false; this was all a lie, a farse. However, a name dide bring back a forgotten memory, the crown. Her mother had enchanted the thorned crown upon her head so that she may control the mind should she need to.

The demi-goddess took a deep breath and concentrated to eliminate any illusions being played upon her, cancelling out any attempt to sway her mind. The crown cleansed her mind of the illusion.

Within the blink of an eye Keriss was back in the Ciphers throne room, still in the punching motion. But Amartía was nowhere to be found. "That's quite a useful tool you have there, that thorn crown." A disembodied voice spoke out of the gloom. "A dead loved ones final gift to her daughter. It's heartwarming. But your situation hasn't improved."

"Is that supposed to scare me?," Keriss questioned, her eyes darting around to attempt to find the source of the voice. She willed the ash to begin gathering around her, ready for him to attack her.

The disembodied voice cackled. "No. I'm just warning you But lets face reality Keriss, your weak. Disappointingly so. You're an ant facing a lion. What chance do you really have at beating me in a fight of any kind?"

"A chance," she responded simply, before launching shards of ash all around her. The could hear them coming into contact with the walls, shattering against them. Keriss left it to chance that something would hit Sin. Her eyes moved along the room, watching the shards hit the walls and watching for any other movement.

And movement there was. Like a speeding bolt, Amartía placed a devastating kick in Keriss abdomen, sending her flying. Sin was no longer human at this point, instead he had shifted into a hideous beast of controlled rage. "Check behind the throne next time." He jibbed, jabbing a pointed nail in the dais' direction.

Keriss felt herself hit the wall, the floor coming into contact with her side. It was going just as well as it had last time, Keriss getting the absolute shit beat out of her. The demi-goddess growled before turning her head to the Enas, her eyes growing black.

Within the blink of an eye Amartía would find himself in the center of Xerxes, a bright sun looked upon the city. Dead dagon littered the street, ash covered the ground, the city deserted by all life other than hiimself. It was Amartía's nightmare come to fruition, he had lost the war against the Cosmic Knights. There was nothing to rebuild, no people had come back to Xerxes in a parade.

A familiar figure sat upon the corpse of a dagon, it was Tauga. She seemed to be staring through the Enas, her mask off. "Amartía, why did you abandon us?," the Bowfly asked no one in partifular, her head turning to survey the losses. "Every one, dead. Not one fucking thing for this city," she continued before getting to her feet and beginning to walk towards Amartía, [b]"Well, the fuck do I do now?"

Amartía had no response. He looked as if it pained him to muster a reply as he gazed upon his broken city. Xerxes: his greatest failure. Sin stumbled over to Tauga. "I-I didn't mean to, … w-w-we were supposed to win ... supposed to rebuild…" Sin had shifted back into his normal form.

Tauga did not seem to notice him and she waltzed through him, as if he were a spirit. "Everything gone," she sighed as the hain continued to walk away from Amartía, before stopping at an intersection to look back at the scene behind her. "Good bye, Amartía." The Bowfly then continued to walk away, leaving the ruins to be forgotten.

But Amartía wasn't finshed with her. Suddenly the scene shifted and Xerxes was back. It was now a sprwaling metropolis, its avenues filled to the brim with the hustle and bustle of afternoon traffic. But its square was the center of attention. A massive mounment rest there, one of legendary air. Three monolithic figuers stood in grandur upon a granite pedestal, each chiseled by the worlds finest of sculptors out of Ironhearts purest marble. The figures were all recongizable; Keriss stood off the the left, Tauga off to the right, and Amartía in the dead center. Heros of Xerxes The pedistal read.

The real Keriss stood before it in rapt awe. Without warning, the statue of Amartía came to life and regarded her. "I fancy myself an actor, surly that prefromace proved convincing?" It was clear Sin was only toying with her.

Once more did Kerss' teeth grind together, forcing the scent to fade away back to the real world with the both of them in the Cipher. She felt anger run through her veins once more, but this time it was different. The air itself seemed to be drawn towards her while the ash seemed to retreat from her, rushing past Amartía. "I am done with you toying with me!" she roared. "Then come and get me." He cooed in her fathers voice, gesturing for her to come at him. The air around her seemed to erupt with a flash of light. A wave of pure destruction lauched in all directions, vaporizing the wall she was next to and anything between Amartía and his sister.

Amartía cackled. "Well isn't this precious!" Without as much as breaking sweat, Amartía effortlessly dodged the wave by taking to the air, but wave surged forward uninteruppted and oblitatared his bronze throne. Sin stilled.

It was when he stilled that something hit him from the back, a rather substantial amount of ash bore into his back. Keriss herself, lauching herself up at him to force her fist right under his ribs. A psychotic laugh filled the air as this happened, a laugh of someone who had succumb to pure madness. The sound was produced by Keriss herself, the ash amplying the sound to where it was deafening. And Amartía only surrended to the barrange, counting each and every blow that Keriss landed on his body outloud.

"One,... Two,... Three,... Four,.. Five,..

The barrage only continued between Keriss' blows and the ash striking him where ever it could, soon enveloping him. It got into his eyes stung his nostrils and got into his perfect little nails. Soon enough Keriss allowed herself to grip his left shoulder, but instead it was with her mouth. Serrated teeth digging into flesh and bone as she bit down.

Suddenly a hand clamped her mouth in place, its grip jarring. "I have rewared you for finally dethroning me." Without warning Amartía ripped Keriss off his shoulder, teeth, sinew and all. "But you must now pay the balance." With scream in rage Amartía took off into the air, Keriss still in hand. He slammed her through the roof of the Cipher, acceleraing wildely. "Mortals are my playthings!" They passed through the low hanging layer of clouds crowding over Xerxes."Their lives are better spent fulfilling my desire, my will!" Wind whipped in their faces as they reached past each layer of the atmosphere. "So don't you ever make mention to me your mother. Her domain means nothing, she is nothing. The mind is the domain of demigods, mortals are the domains of demigods! And nothing will stop me from manipulating it and them! Amartía suddenly stopped. A void of inky blackness surrounded them. He was eerily calm. "If I lift you any higher, and let you go, you will be instantly obliterated, just like my throne." With slothful vigor, Amartía raised his hand to Keriss' crown. "But someone,...something, has to pay for what happened to my throne." Amartía grinned savagely. "And this will do perfectly." With a gentle flick of a finger, Keriss' thorn crown drifted effortlessly into the void.

The maddend look from Keriss had very quickly faded and was replaced by horror, beginning to struggle and reach for her the crown. It was the last thing she had to remember her mother, one of the last things that she truly cared about in the world. Tears surged to the edges of her eyes as she furiously tried to reach for it, watching as it drifted away. Moments passed as she eventually last sight of it, that was when she gave up. Her arms fell to her side, no more movement coming from her other that studdered breathing and wet tears rolling down her face. The last thing she had to remember her family, nothing would be able to brig it back. Keriss, horrified expression said it all, how much she had given up.

Suddnely they were back in the Cipher. Amartía was in his throne and Keriss was at the threshold of throneroom. Her thorn crown was wrung around his finger, twisting back and forth hypnotically. "You have no idea how much energy that took to mantain. You somehow manged to see through my illusion and break through it with sheer willpower. You're a special one, sister." Amartía tossed Keriss her crown. "Now, what did you want to tell me?" He smiled wolfishly. "I'm all ears."

Keriss pulled the crown close to her chest, hugging it tightly as tears of relief streamed down her face. Her eyes darted up to Amartía for a moment before turning away from her brother and walking out of the throne room without another word. There was nothing that she could say, the experience had drained her.

Sin sighed. "Quite an expriance indeed" he murmured as he patted the wound on his left shoulder.




Hidden 3 yrs ago Post by Antarctic Termite
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Antarctic Termite Resident of Mortasheen

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Whisper.


It was by the guidance of Zotash'e that Whisper eventually reached Flux's Well.

It had other names, of course. None of the Rukban tribes knew the name or nature of that ancient dancer, not really. There were stories. Some had not even a grain of truth in them, though they were far more believable than what had actually happened. That an older nation had once settled in these parts, and the garden hills were their burial mounds, for example. Speculation that became fact as it replaced the myth of reality.

All these stories and all these names had been passed down to Whisper by Zotash'e. They'd spoken of many things. Whisper doubted Zotash'e would remember much of it. The story of a whisper's world had been told and heard, and it was the spirit of that night, not its words, that would remain. The tune, not the verse.

A shame, maybe. Zotash'e had a flute, and they'd chosen the words together. At Whisper's request, it was one of the shaman's prayers, worked into a song.

Strange nights these were.

We wander like the birds
Birds of the hills
Wherever there's a wind.
See you?
You should follow him.
Child, you should follow him.


We're chasing for the clouds
Clouds and the rain
We're following the wind.
See now
You'll be safe with him.
Sister, you'll be safe with him.


He's lost on a wish
He's higher than skies
Listen little sister dear
Open up your eyes
See now
See him near


If we lose our way
This is what we'll pray.
Pray it to the spirits
Of wind and rain and clay.
See you?
See the way?


* * * * *


But all the legends in the world could not obscure the truth. Whisper knew the history of this place. To her, it would always be the Well of Flux.

She saw it as it was meant to be seen- From afar, at the break of day, a verdant silhouette, growing closer, until it was before her, around her, above her, a canopy, a sound of birds. Acacias shed their fuzzy yellow florets at her side, and Whisper flowed in the paths between the mounds like a lost river on its way to the spring at its heart.

There by its terraced center did she rest, wondering at the mind of its Sculptor.

These groves were not static. In time the hooves of a thousand horses led to drink had worn down the sides of the pool, prompting repair by the tribes that made use of it. Others had dug into the sides of the mounds seeking wealth and finding nothing. Shrines to the younger djinni of the region had appeared atop the larger hills, and one night the stone people had appeared to build a barrow of their own at the edge of the maze, upon which they had established a softly coloured orchard where restless skeletons might sleep in a tomb of glass. Pretty curls of those same twigs and veins later made their way into the jewellery of the Rukbans, and the spines of its faeries into their tools.

All this, thought Whisper. All this, out of parasitism and pain.

Few elementals had ever taken the Jvanic route. It was not often in their nature. And fewer still survived. The deepest throes of the ascension left them vulnerable. What then, was Flux? Lucky? Freakish? The oldest? The most powerful? /No,/ Whisper knew.

Flux was synthesis. Nothing more and nothing less. A collision of natures had been resolved in him. That was all.

This place stood monument to the union of nature at its grandest scale and art at its deepest esotery. In Flux, the living legacies of Jvan and Zephyrion stood side by side with no contradiction. Whisper looked at his story and recognised it as the beginning of her own. Pain. Parasitism. And in the end...

Flux never had to control a war, came the thought.

It was quiet here. When night fell, Whisper left that place, taking her first faeries from the lens tree.

What union exists
In proud and weird betwixt?
Do ashes live
When all is burned to dust and mist?


Do gardens to us show
The stranger end to all we know?
Can ashes give
A place where paradise will grow?


Will anything survive
The ones that ash of life deprive?
Should ash forgive
When gardens burn instead of thrive?


* * * * *


She had spent long enough in the golden barrens.

Whisper was not yet ready to leave the nitrogen sea. There was still one more place for her to go, and that was south- Far south. So she departed. She meant to make haste, having already gathered much data from this region and spent much time away from her family.

The route she now chose took her through a region that was new to her, though in time she recognised it by what she had seen from space- In this case, less by colour, and more by motion. Despite herself, Whisper felt her journey slow as fascination with the landscape infected her.

Man and god alike had forgotten the Changing Plains. The Gilt, the Barrens, the Firewind- All these places had been generously populated, and yet the fields of chaos tossed and turned as if still aching from the pain of the Devil falling down from heaven.

Yet why was this so? Whisper searched her heart for a memory of Jvan's teachings, and found nothing. And this bewildered her, for the shattersteppe, burned and broken and humming with destructive magic, was full of life. Whisper could hear it sing.

Constant tectonic motion and volcanism had rendered the rock barren of soil, yet porous and immensely fertile. Rain turned the plain into a maze of shallow pools overnight that dried just as quickly, their water lost to aquifers, only to be forced back up into hot springs- Shallow lakes and streams layered with microbial mats as colourful as Whisper's sisterhood in the sky. At night the landscap was lit up by orange magma hissing from cracks that had opened hours before, by the blue of liquid sulphur rivulets burning as they trickled between the dark stone, and even the off-white of lightning, lightning in bolts, sheets and balls that leapt between clouds of ash and water and the peaks of stone spires charged by the restless friction below.

No grasses blanketed the rock as they did in the savannahs, nor did trees form a canopy. Yet still there were plants. Strange things they were. Some grew in hours, spiky tufts of bright green nothing that speckled the crevices, so as not to be lost to the chaos before they flowered. Others bore multiple stems and roots that clambered over the stone, all wildly bent and twisted from a lifetime of turmoil. Still others had no roots at all, lying dormant until rain fell on their leaves. Things grew that were not plants- Lichens that etched the rock itself, crystals grew until they were crushed. Tubeworms from Jvan's ocean had somehow risen from the depths and established themselves as they would in the abyss, and land crabs scuttled thereon.

Even the bare stone plain that dominated the landscape was exceptional. Much of it was black, but the madness had accelerated geological time and added layers of dark primary colours that were then twisted into mad patterns by the cracking earth. Landmarks that would be rare anywhere else were everywhere here. Stacked rocks, pinnacles, vast canyons, stone mazes and waterfalls abounded.

Aihtiraq had shown her a way to see all of these factors colliding and colluding, and for the first time Whisper began to appreciate her new sense as something more than a lulling distraction.

As days passed and her sense of environmental nuance was heightened, a fresh realisation eventually struck- There were no elementals here.

Well, a few. She had heard them far away, thunderous things. Whisper supposed they were the remains of the storm djinni, or a new crop of such. But where were the spirits that usually guarded every stream, laughed in every breeze? Eaten by their ravenous brothers and sisters?

Or had they simply never spawned, in a land where nature was in the hands of true chaos, as it had always been, since the dawn of the world when the Citadel was uncut marble locked in an untouched planet?

Is this what the Diaphanes are tasked with creating?

A world of wild Chaos. Where djinni control was fought for in battles that stood to be lost, not simply exchanged. Where things grew, not by the favour of their environment, but in spite of it.

Vestec did this, thought Whisper. The Sword With No Hilt. She scorns him, and yet this is what I'm modelled on. This is who we are.

The last thought came from nowhere, and yet Whisper knew it to be true. The change-eaters were a Jvanic interpretation of a Vestecian phenomenon. Storm Djinni, reinterpreted, revised, softened and sharpened.

Maybe we'll die just like they did.

That wasn't true. No. Jvan was too good at what she did.

Of course she was.

A change-eater traversed the Changing Plains, and found herself at peace.

A stranger tide we carry on
Holding flames and hungry smoke
Shouldering the Devil's yoke
On a world that wishes we were gone


Breathing of the cancer's curse
We sing for warmth for love for hope
We gnaw out our own hanging rope
To satiate a killing thirst


Yet I wonder, yet I see
The victory of All-Beauty
A law born of the dark decree
And wonder why that comforts me.


* * * * *


About this time Whisper began to hear the echoes of alchemical theory on the telepathic song-lines. It was far from the first time she had listened to such arts, though they frustrated her. None of the reagents or conditions specified existed in recognisable form in the Ring of Lex.

She had tried to replicate what she could, anyway, only to find that she had neither the time nor the support from the sorority. Change-eaters in Lex could not survive by lazing, yet nor did they struggle. As such their arts were elaborate and their technologies simple. They gardened. They herded. They whaled. They did not need to make goods or potions.

Nonetheless, the lyrical exchange was stronger here, wittier, and harsher. Whisper homed in on the cry of the local Sculptors, thinking that they were lone wanderers, much like herself. And she was wrong.

There was an indigenous sapient native to the Changing Plains after all, Whisper found. They were... Rough.

Vestec's insidie lived clambered on the rocks like gargoyles or hungry baboons. They ate small animals they kicked to death with their talons, large animals they hunted in packs, and a cocktail of drugs derived from volcanic flora. At night they slept in rough hammocks spun between whatever two jutting rocks they could find, even if they seemed liable to collapse any second. Maybe especially if.

But they slept in the daytime too. And sometimes they just piled on top of each other for... Well, brawls and group sex seemed to be pretty much the same thing for them, and apparently the intimate physical connection of curling up and sleeping in an awkward pile of scarred muscle and fifty-seven gangly limbs fell into that spectrum too.

All of the 'tribes' Whisper found were a mix of mature adults and young children. Adolescents, it seemed, had to be nailed down to make them stay put, and none of the Voren- as they called themselves- had the motivation nor the nails required to do that. None of them even really knew how they kept their numbers up. Sometimes they just wandered across one of their own on the fields of chaos, bashed them across the head, and if they weren't too hungry they were allowed to stick around.

The Jvanic monks of the shattersteppe called themselves Fleshshapers, and flesh they shaped. Lethal physical trauma was abundant among Voren, and these oddballs were never far when it struck, ready with faery and thread to stitch and slice, cauterise with fire and purge with herbs and twist bones back into shape with rope. They transfused and transplanted, even, from any living thing they could find, taking advantage of the Voren's adaptive immune system- The genes of which read, as far as Whisper could tell, 'You see that leg? That's my leg now. Fuck you.'

Their own modified blood facilitated the process, and they carried wagons laden with bits and pieces preserved in barrels. Often storing these pieces became a hassle, and the Fleshshapers would combine them into something weirder. They were good at that. No two Voren looked the same after a while, and the Fleshshapers made good use of... Pets. Whisper learned that if you lashed three arms together wrist to shoulder, they make a good grabbing tool.

So... Adults, children and Sculptors. And slaves, near the edge of the plains, but nobody counted those and they didn't last long. And, well, maybe a few small demons. Demons that were also slaves, that they managed to fish out of blood wells in exchange for whatever they could find, which was usually each other after they got bored of exploring the caves for precious stones.

When Whisper first encountered the Voren, their immediate response to her presence was to take up their javelins and try to hunt her, to no success whatsoever. When the change-eater tried to pull her trick of standing in a humanoid shape, they seemed to take it as a challenge, and eventually she learned to play along.

Play was the correct term. Though Whisper could toss an insidie across twenty metres of bare rock with a flick of a tail and lacerate the skin from their chest with nothing more than a twitch, the people of the shattersteppe only laughed and shrieked and fought harder, scampering across the plain with catlike speed. Despite everything, they were actually enjoying themselves. They hadn't had a fight this good in years- No, ever!

Eventually the extended family grew tired, in that they had either been beaten unconscious, had passed out in exhaustion, or were actually dead. It was hard to tell. Whisper piled them up into a tidy bundle and waited.

Only the tribe's Fleshshaper remained, inhaling sulphurous lichen fumes out of a bowl and watching with lazy interest as she busied herself distilling a mix of spirits and oil of vitriol. She was the strangest Sculptor that Whisper had yet seen- Many limbs growing in two rings around a spoke with a fluted head, locking together to form something like a basket, or a spring, or a wheel. Hard to tell.

When prompted, she explained that the brew was producing ether, a liquor made of which could induce sleep. It made her family easier to work on, and there was plenty of work to be done. Whisper apologised. The Fleshshaper congratulated her on beating the living shit out of her relatives. It gave her an opportunity to have fun.

Morning came and the Voren were eager to try again. This time Whisper hovered above them and knocked away anything they threw. Between the work of the Fleshshaper, whose name was Fucking Big Mallet (after her backup anaesthetic), and the grogginess that gripped them as their natural blood rush from the previous night wore off, they soon calmed down and decided Whisper was a friend.

With some explanations from Fucking Big Mallet, who for a time joined her on her journey, Whisper soon learned that the Voren actually had a thriving artistic tradition. Their language had a complex system of synonyms and affixes allowing any and all adjectives to turn vulgar. Their stories lauded kismesitude- Romantic passion characterised by jealousy, frustration, rivalry, and mutual loathing. They flyted as easily as they breathed, settling disputes with verses that could put most Djinni to shame.

Whisper, having not forgotten her quest, took avid notes.

Listen now, you spineless bitch,
Step into the fray
You never got the chance to run-
Your love arrives today.
She leaves you groaning in a ditch
And wishing she would stay.


She tears you down and wraps your eyes
Makes you into her whore.
She says she hates you, lover dear,
And leaves you wanting more
For nothing ever satisfies
Until you're on the floor.


Your love will stretch you on a rack
She'll fuck you up and fuck you blind
But still you love with all your heart
The girl you sold your soul to find.
For, after all, she loves you back-
With bruises sweet and hands entwined.


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Hidden 3 yrs ago 3 yrs ago Post by Bright_Ops
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Bright_Ops The Insane Scholar

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Under a sky of navy blue lay a figure, splayed on black sand. Threads and tubes extended from her, from her skull and back and joints, winding across the sand in every direction. They stretched out and up and away, into infinity. They bound her to something she had never seen, and could never reach.

She sat up.

A thick mess of tubes dragged across the sand as she raised her head, and the woman held herself in segmented arms. She was emaciated, half-finished, a jagged skeleton with glowing cores at her joints. She touched her face for the first time, and found it cracked and blindfolded. There she lay in the desert, tenderly exploring the ragged surface of her body with her hands.

At last she stood. Nausea gripped her, as if she were a bottle of insoluble fluids being shaken. Something thick filled her mouth and she coughed it out. It dribbled from her chin as she adjusted to the pose, and, slowly, began to walk.



One step at a time, the woman made her unsteady way over the sand, unable to see where she was going, or why. When she'd walked a few metres, her foot splashed faintly into water and silt. She drew it back, uncertain.

Watching silently at first as he inspected the twisted female form before him blindly step into a puddle as she attempted to find her feet, Farxus couldn't help but ponder exactly what he was witnessing. By all rights the woman before him shouldn't have existed as she did on this plane at all; Even a damaged soul could find itself starting to heal here, but the woman in front of him was... well, it was as if someone was actively building a fully developed soul but had only left the process half finished, or at least was having difficulty putting it together properly.

Taking a deep breath with lungs that didn't require air in the first place, Farxus stepped forward with the faintest of noises as the sand shifted under his feet or was brushed by the edges of his cloak. When he spoke his voice sounded like the slamming of a coffin lid, the ghostly wind that blew through the sealed tomb; A voice that would be the final one that a mortal would hear, but strangely enough it wasn't an unkind one. "Would you care for a hand Miss? You seem to be having trouble walking at the moment."

She choked, a little, then snapped an "I'm fine," and finally came to a complete halt. Her hand went to her mouth as if unsure of what she was doing. "I'm... I'm not fine." Her fingers pulled away with a string of fluid, turning, trying to feel what had been inside her. "I'm... I'm..."

The figure twisted her head, as if to listen for the voice that greeted her. "I'm not... Where are you? Where am I?"

Under normal circumstances Farxus would have been content to stay back, have a brief conversation with whomever was in front of him and then leave them to their own devices... but under the circumstances a more personal touch was required. Striding forward over the dark sand, he reached out and carefully took her bonelike claw in his own bony hand and gave it a small squeeze to let her know that she wasn't alone. She held it, counting his phalanges with her fingertips, frowning with deja vu.

"Where you are doesn't have a name, but it is the first place that those who are dead and dying arrive when they die before traveling to their final destination. However, I've found that those who have a close brush with death tend to visit this place as well, which is why you are here now. Tell me, do you know what your name is?"

The figure nodded. "My name is Yolluun, of Reas'Thul," she answered firmly, then gripped Farxus's wrist as if to anchor herself, looking up and past him with covered eyes. "No! No. My name... My name is... I'm..."

Releasing the demigod, she ran her fingers abruptly through the crop of tubes in her skull, and seemed to recall. "Lambda Nineteen. That's it. Lambda-19. That's who I am. That's me." Saying it aloud seemed to settle her, and Lambda-19 repeated it until she fell into quiet. "...But how can I be here?" she asked abruptly, fumbling for his hand as if afraid that he'd walked away. "I thought... The prophets told us... I'm not dead. Am I?"

After it became clear what she had been looking for, he reached out to take her hand once more in order to settle her nerves once again. "You're not dead, Lambda. As for how exactly you got here..." He trailed off a little, as he honestly had to consider that himself. "I do not know. All I know is that you are here but you're not meant to be yet. However since I appear to have you at a disadvantage, my name is Farxus. Despite the circumstances, it's a pleasure to meet you."

"Farxus. Honoured." The figure moved uncertainly, looking for a memory, then put her fist to her chest and gave a shallow bow. "I think I'm meant to be dreaming."

Tilting his head a little, the demi god of undeath (and the closest thing to a death god left) gazed at the bowing figure before him with a degree of confusion as shards of memories that weren't his own came to the forefront of his mind. Despite the woman's current state of being, it was clear that she was a Pronobis, of some kind... which was strange.

Because the Pronobii were meant to have been wiped out with his predecessor.

"I don't think you're the only one... to the best of my knowledge the last of the Pronobii died shortly after Reathos stupidly got himself killed fighting Vestec. How are you alive?" He asked softly; It was't a question that he had to ask anyone that often.

It seemed to take Lambda-19 a while to correlate what he was saying to what she knew. "The last of the Pronobii... How am I alive. How am I alive." She looked up, and put her thumb into the band of her blindfold. "I think..."

More memories, unclear and yet complete. Farxus saw the inside of an amnion veined with glowing red. Umbilica coiled around Lambda-19's limbs, caught between her fingers. Little blood-scorpions swimming in the bubble, biting and building at her cores like wasps at the hive. A tear. A flaw. A sarcoma that demanded mending. The blue darkness of deep water just outside, where absolute emptiness was being drained and filled with energy. Power harvested from the void.

"I think I'm being born," said Lambda-19, lifting away the sash that covered her eyes. Crow eyes. Vivid blue pupils dotted onto a white sclera that swam with glyphs.

Privately, Farxus was inclined towards the idea that she was being 'made' rather then born, but despite his lack of social interactions that lasted longer then a few minutes he had enough tact not to say so. Still... the fact that one of the gods was reviving the dead species of a departed god was a concerning one to say the least. "I see... he muttered as he tried to stall for a few moments to think.

"You seem to be receiving memories from someone called Yolluun. What exactly do you remember?" A question born as much of curiosity as it was to give him time to try and adjust to the enlightenment that he had just received.

She looked up, and around, over the river she'd come so close to falling into. "Nothing. Just the name. Yolluun, Arcadia, Gehenna, Nimueh, names and names... I remember things, but none of them line up. Conversations, places, ceremonies. This is the first memory of my own." Back at Farxus. "But why are you here? The Great Prophet... She said..."

Lambda-19's cracked face flew into shock. "Reathos. The Great God! The Great God is dead! Did Chaos grow so strong? What will happen to the lost souls now?"

In hindsight he wasn't at all surprised by the fact that the knowledge that Reathos was gone was an overwhelming one. One that honestly should have been explained with more skill, and tact, than Farxus had really given it. It was too late now, through...

He nodded his head to confirm her fears a little. "I do not know the full story myself. I didn't come into existence until after Reathos was gone and I do not have much in the way of memories or what his thought process was like at the time. Personally I believe he made several mistakes in how he did things. Primarily his fatal decision to challenge the god of chaos to a battle to the death in the realm of madness itself. Though I will be the first to confess that it is easy to say such a thing with the benefit of hindsight."

The unborn soul stared at him, then out over the river again, and finally down at the dust, holding herself.

Was it bold to claim that the being who came before you did things wrong, considering that Reathos was a proper god and he was merely a shadow of what Reathos had been? Most likely, but Reathos was gone and had left him to pick up the pieces of the mess he had left behind.

"I can, however, meet your other two questions with the same answer. The reason I am here is to take care of the lost and the damned; To try and fix this awful mess that Reathos's death has brought and offer aid to those who have been affected by it in one manner or another."

Though she didn't turn her head from the sand, Lambda-19's eyes rose back to meet his. "When the Great God was alive," she began, "He made us promise... No, we were in debt to him. Everything I see in my memories comes from Reathos. So in his name we swore to go out into the world, and strike down everything that had lived too long. For the Great God. That was going to be our crusade."

Her hands clasped, and she went down on one knee. "We... No. They made a solemn vow, which I inherit. Am I absolved, now that he is dead? Or shall I not rest until I see it carried through?"

As he gazed down at the kneeling woman before him, Farxus blinked a little in surprise at the gesture. Without a second thought he stepped forward and placed a hand on her shoulder, shaking his head as his voice almost took on a shy, bashful tone as he requested "D-Don't kneel to me. I am no one's lord or master."

It didn't look as though she would stand without an answer, though. Allowing himself to cough awkwardly, he quickly cleared his throat as he recognized that she had asked a very important question. It was one that he actually had a simple answer to. He shook his head. "No. It is not the duty of death to pursue the living like a damn Herakt. All things die sooner or later... even immortals like gods will die and fade away given enough time. We do not have to chase when we are already waiting at the end." She nodded.

There was a pause... before one of his hands tightened into a fist with the creaking of bone as a fire entered his voice. "However... there are those in this world that defile the natural order of things. They force the dead out of their graves, denying their souls the chance to make their final journey and rest in order to serve their own selfish whims. I will see these fiends removed from the world and..." for a moment he faltered, unsure of himself for just a moment as he looked down at the sand below them.

Thus saith the Prophet- Accept in thy heart the end that awaits, for only ill would lay in the return, thought Lambda-19.

"If you offer to help me do that... I promise that I will never forsake you, or forget your assistance."

"This I accept, and this I swear, in place of the old oath," answered the figure, and rose. She seemed taller than before. A warrior's shadow clinging to a frame. "I'll pray to hear from you again... Farxus."

Lambda's hand flexed. One of the cords at her back flicked and tightened. "I don't know when that will be, though," she admitted. "Or where I'm going."

A small, almost shy little smile appeared on Farxus's features as he raised his head to gaze at Lambda, simply answering "Do not worry. I'll find you."

The Pronobis warrior nodded. Her threads were tightening, one by one, pulling her back into wherever her body was. "I..." she began, then lay a hand on Farxus's shoulder. "Thank you."

Lambda-19 fell apart into flakes of snow and paper, and faded back into her coma. There was quiet. No wind to blow, no crickets to chirp. But something was stirring on the sand; cords and tubes, leading from nowhere into curled bodies that lay blindfolded on the bank of the river. They darkened, went from lines to shapes to ill-defined bodies, and then back again, like figures drawn in pencil, until there was nothing left.

Little by little, the Pronobii were rising from their grave.



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Hidden 3 yrs ago Post by Lauder
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Lauder The drunk kind of hero

Member Seen 0-12 hrs ago

Keriss


The crown…

She had almost lost the crown to her brother. It may have been an illusion, but the experience had pained her all the same Keriss held the crown in her hands, staring at the beauty that was the thorned crown. Those thorns could be felt stabbing at her scaled hands, her grip tightening on the object. How could she allow herself to almost lose the crown; the one thing that was of high sentimental value to her.

Keriss could not bare the thought of losing such a sacred item, yet there was no way that she could keep it attached to her. But she must find a way, for losing it would mean the utter destruction of her mind, or what remained of it. So she sat there, gazing past the object in her hand with the a concentrated look. What way could Keriss keep the crown of the mind safe from being taken from her? Perhaps she could hide it somewhere no one would dare look? No, she would be away from it. Mayhaps ask somebody to watch over it? Too much of a liability to trust someone to watch it and the only person she could trust was the Blowfly. With a frustrated sigh, the demi-goddess let her head hit the side of the tunnel, one of the lesser used ones.

Her grip of the item tightened and tightened, the thorns pushing between the scales of her large hands. Those amber eyes gazed down, blackened blood began crawling down her hand. When had her blood become black? Was that one of the new features having come from the ash? If so, then she could see no important reason as to why the ash had corrupted what was inside of her.

Inside of her…

Thoughts began to formulate inside that suffering mind of hers, eyes flicking from crown to bleeding hand. Dots seemed to connect for her. If she could only trust herself to watch after the crown, then perhaps she would keep it safe inside of her.

Gently did she set the crown on the floor, bringing her hand close to her chest. Keriss then took her other hand and began digging her nails into the bleeding wound. She took a deep breath and continued to push in, pain spreading through her arm. For a moment did the woman falter, grimacing in pain as she pushed to the bone of her hand. It was as if a fire engulfed her hand, blue fire that refused to cease. A gulp ran through Keriss as began to feel the sharpened nails pierce the other side of her hand. Then she was all the way through, quickly retracting her fingers and gripping her hand as black blood spilled out in buckets.

Keriss dared not look, her free hand grabbing the crown and pulling it to the injured one. With the injured hand, she gripped the thorned crown in her hand. ”Mother, I will not forget you, I refuse to risk the thought of losing you to anyone,” she spoke, pained tears coming to her eyes. The woman cleared her thoughts as well as she could and concentrated, the black blood began to wrap around the crown, crushing it. It began to be drawn into Keriss, splinters and all. Though, the worst had yet to come as the worst pain that she had experienced shot through her limb. Her teeth grit, she gripped her forearm and attempted not to scream out in agony as she absorbed the artifact into her. Keriss slumped to the side, tears running down her face as the pain would soon become unbearable.

Seconds felt like minutes, minutes felt like hours as she awaited for the pain to cease. It was an eternity before the feeling subsided, but the job was done and the crown was one with her now. With her hand very much still bleeding, Keriss attempted to get to her feet, sliding up the wall. She took deep breaths and looked at the other wall, ash flowing into sight before coming towards her. The woman held her hand out to it, it accepted and wrapped itself around the wound, stopping the bleeding.

Now she could not lose the thing that reminded her of her family, of her mother. It was a blessed thought that would have brought a smile to her face had she not still felt dead on the broken on the inside.

There was but one thing that the demi-goddess wanted. She wanted to make her brother feel exactly the pain that she had felt when he had taken away her crown.

Keriss wanted vengeance.




The Suffering One had come up with her plan to destroy the being that dared to wrong her many times over. She would need to take away his “playthings” and that would take time for she knew that it would be a bad move should she do it in the open, certain death. Instead, Keriss would need to develop something that would allow her to destroy his creations while she remained unnoticed. Though, the question more was what she would do in order to keep the attention off of her for the time being. With a scoff, she tapped her foot on the ground for a moment before beginning to take a seat, ash forming into a comfortable seat.

Tapping could be heard coming down the mostly unused tunnel, earning the attention of the demi-goddess. A dagon, such a hideous and lowly creature, strolled down the tunnel towards Keriss. It seemed that it had not thought anyone was down here as it gave a look of shock when it spotted her sitting in that ashen throne of hers. The dagon stopped and looked at the ashen one, contemplating on whether it should walk away or speak to the general.

”What? Do I look strange to you, mortal?,” Keriss hissed, eyes narrowing at the filth that stood in front of her. Her mouth hid behind her hands as she interlocked the fingers, staring down the dagon. Her amber eyes bared hatred towards the being, scanning the dagon.

”I was on my way to the Cipher, thought this was a shortcut,” the dagon spoke in a deep voice, not sounding intimidated by the presence of the demi-goddess. However, Keriss saw through the voice; how he gulped, how he shuffled his feet around, how his breathing grew slightly faster. ”I will find a different path,” he turned away.

Ashen tendrils silently followed, suddenly wrapping themselves around the dagon’s hands and legs forcing the being to the ground and dragging it to Keriss. Now it remained still there, suspended upside down in the air as the demi-goddess got to her feet to stare inspect the dagon. ”No. Please, stay. I have plans for you, welp. You will help me destroy the Enas.” A wicked smile overtook Keriss’ face.

At those words, the Dagon began to thrash around as much as he could in a desperate attempt to become free from the tendrils that bound him. ”I will not revoke my faith! You cann-”

Something forced its way into his mouth, forming a gag.

Shush. Soon, you will renounce that faith of yours. First, I will break your body. Then, I will break your spirit!,” Keriss laughed, throwing the dagon into the throne which shifted into a table which strapped down the dagon. The demi-goddess gleefully skipped over to the side of the table, laughing maniacally. She ran a nail alongside the side of the dagon, some blood red scales coming off as they snagged on her nail. Setting her hand on his chest, eyes growing black as her sight flickered from his face. Soon, she pressed down on creature’s chest slowly before she began pushing down on the ribs. Pressure began to build up before a crunching sound began to be heard.

The dagon roared in pain, the feeling being amplified to unbearable levels by some mysterious power. It became very hard to breath, but he felt the general lift her hand up from his chest which helped to alleviate the pressure but not the pain. However, new pain emerged in his hands. He desperately turned his head to see what the demi-goddess began to slowly rip out his claws. Keriss stopped half-way, giggling quietly.

”Do you renounce your allegiance to the Enas?” the demi-goddess questioned, maddened and sadistic eyes staring right into the dagon’s own. Unfortunately, the poor full made the mistake of shaking his head as opposed to nodding.He released another pained roar as Keriss ripped the nail out, moving to the next. Then the next, then the next. It seemed like hours had passed, Keriss sadistically laughing as she pulled out the dagon’s claws slowly. Eventually, she would find herself without anymore nails to pull out. The torturer repeated her question.

Once more did the dagon shake his head, soon finding the back of his hand travelling across his face with the force to snap a regular man’s neck. It hurt, but not as much as the other forms of torture.

”Fool, your Enas hardly thinks that you exist. You are his plaything and nothing else. Me? I can make you stronger, immune to the feeling of pain!,” Keriss stated, seeing if the offer would do anything to make the dagon reconsider who he truly served.

”At- at least the E-Enas does not t-t-torture those who follow h-him,” the dagon choked out, hardly able to speak with such pain running through his body. Another slap went across his face, this time knocking a tooth loose.

Another sadistic smile went across the woman’s face, as she left the side of the table. Minutes passed before she returned, this time with a bucket of blood that she so happened to procure from the lovely blood storm. Keriss suspended the dagon in the air once more with ashen tendrils, this time just not upside down. The bucket was pressed against his lips and his nose soon found itself clogged with ash. That crimson liquid began to pour its way into his mouth, he gagged after he tried to spit it out only to realized that Keriss would not stop pouring. Grudgingly, he accepting and began to drink the blood before choking on it some more after he failed to swallow it all. The dagon felt ready to burst at any moment.

Suddenly the dagon was on the ground, fists coming into contact with him. Kicks barraged his side and all he could do was hold up his arms to try to block some of the blows. Not even that helped for the general just continued to kick and punch until, very painfully, the dagon began to throw up the blood that Keriss had forced him to ingest. Just as quickly as that happened he found himself back on his back on the table.

”Do you renounce your faith?,” Keriss questioned once more, and the dagon simply refused. With an annoyed growl, the demi-goddess stated to the beast, ”Very well.”




Days passed with torture method after torture method being subjected to the dagon before he finally broke, not able to handle anymore pain. He renounced his faith to the almighty Enas, proving to Keriss that their tolerance was not infinite. ”Good, good. Now to dispose of this wretched body and give you a true blessing!”

Keriss jammed her hand straight through the dagon’s chest, willing for the ash that was of her body to convert the dagon into a more desirable form. First the scales of the dagon become as gray as the ash that converted it. Then the form began to change, the dagon became smaller as the ash converted some of his mass to form large leather wings. Muscle drained to form a large, slender tail, capable of whipping a man’s skin off his back. His lips receded to show the pink of his gums, all his teeth sharpening and becoming unevenly jagged. Roars of pain converted to high pitched screeches. Eyes glowed yellow, head rounded perfectly, skin smoothed. Finally, Keriss drew back her arm, ripping it out of the poor fool’s chest, the ash healing him. He fell to his knees, gasping for air like a newborn baby.



”Good, good! Now rise my champion! I shall give you a new name for your rebirth!” Keriss said, pride overcoming her for the first time in ages. However, something felt wrong about all this, feeling no better than her brother. ”I name thee, Mortas, Prince of the Ash!”

Mortas looked up at Keriss, getting to his feet - only coming up to chest level. He remained silent, his eyes going to look at the ground.

”I will not bother to have you swear your allegiance to me for I can kill you at any time should you become disobedient. Understand?” He nodded. ”Good. Now, flee the city and go past the Ironheart Mountains. I want you to train yourself in the Venomweald.”

The champion departed immediately, having to sneak past dagon on his way out. After getting out of the tunnels, it was easy to get out of the city. He must obey.




”Really now Keriss? First you lose to Amartia and now you go and do the same thing he did? The mind is not your domain.” A voice stated from behind Keriss. Upon turning to the voice, a horrified look came upon her face. It was Keriss, the Keriss that she was when she was first born; proud, confident, ruthless, sane. It was the forgotten side of Keriss. ”Why are so filled with contradictions?”

”I am not! You know that Sin is going to deserve what comes to him and I am going to make it happen!” Keriss hissed, stepping back as thoughts began to race through her mind.

”Yes, you are! You are no better than him! Look at you! Who are you now?! You are not me! You are no daughter of the mind!” the past spoke, stepping forward in a confident fashion with wings spreading. The sight intimidated Keriss who pushed her back against the wall, breath becoming fast. ”You are a mess. You do not deserve the name Keriss. Figure out who you are or else your mind will destroy itself.”

Voice began to reappear in her head once more, except not the voice of the ash but of herself as she thought and thought about who she was. Who was she?

Who was she?





Hidden 3 yrs ago 3 yrs ago Post by Slime
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Slime (Former) School Idol

Member Seen 4 days ago




Helvana, the Corvian Witch
Level 1 Demi-Goddess
Might: 6
Followers: 3


Several days had passed since Helvana, Lloyd and Gwyn had departed to the White Ocean. From what she could tell from the map that Vestec gave her, they were still ways from their destination; it could take months until they reached the White Ocean. They had long since ran out of food from what they gathered from the village before departing, so they had to hunt for more. Since Lloyd was still recovering and Gwyn was too young, Helvana was the one taking care of it.

But for now Helvana and Lloyd were taking a break and resting beside a campfire while Gwyn was looking around the place and playing with the crows. Having just finished their meal, Helvana began to peel off the black rubber over Lloyd's left arm and he moved it around to test its state.

"How are you feeling?"

"It feels a little numb, but it doesn't hurt at all. I just need to get used to it again and I'll be fine."

"That's good to hear. But what about your eye?"

She said reaching towards the impromptu eye patch and peeled it off. There was no scar left by the cut, but the iris was now blank.

"I can't see with it after all..."

"That's a shame. I don't think I can heal it more than that. Would you like to keep the eye patch?"

"No, it feels better like this. And I don't care how cool I look with it on."

"Aww... Fine. You better work that arm back into shape then. I'm not going to be doing your work now just because I'm stronger than you."

"... If I keep the eye patch will you let me off the hook?"

"No."

"Alright, it was just a joke anyways."

He stretched his arms, relieving the tension on his left arm after being immobilized for almost a week, and laid down on the ground while Helvana kept on staring into the fire.

"Are you sure it's alright to let Gwyn wander off like that?"

"Yes, my crows will keep him safe. You can entrust his safety to them."

"Well, if you say so. Still, I'm used to worry about him. I've been like that for a few years now.

"I understand, but he's being cared for, so you can relax. Besides, don't you enjoy spending time alone with me?" She flashed him a smile.

"A little. I don't like your teasing sometimes, but you're nice overall, so I let it pass."

"Just a little, huh?" She tossed a lump if darkness into the bonfire and laid down as well, wrapping her hands over her stomach. "Well, I did cause you two a lot of trouble, so I suppose that's fine. Anyways, we have time to spare. I told you to keep that arm strong, but you can rest for now." She then closed her eyes, intent on taking a short nap. "Let's hit the road when we're done digesting our meal."

"Okay." Lloyd was a bit drowsy from the meal himself, but he kept on thinking of his village. In just two weeks Helvana flipped his world upside down, but he somehow didn't mind leaving his old life behind. Maybe he didn't have much of an attachment to the place to begin with and he just didn't know it.

Still in thought, he looked to Helvana, her face sporting her gentle smile as she calmly breathed in and out. Lloyd sighed and smiled himself. "Honestly, you're so much cuter when you sleep." He closed his eyes and was soon taken into sleep.

When afternoon came, the three gathered their belongings and continued on with their journey. The day was bright and the sky had almost no clouds in it. Helvana had previously stated her dislike for staying in the light for long, but it didn't annoy her to the point that she'd avoid it. Apparently the darkness that composed her cloak would deteriorate over time by receiving light of any sort and she would have to use some of her power to maintain it, so to save her the trouble and the energy, she kept it inside Lloyd's bag.

At some point Oscar cawed to Helvana and she extended him her arm. He cawed again, delivering a message only Helvana could receive.

"Hmm, that's interesting. What else do you know?"

Caw.

"I see. Warn me if anything else happens." She scratched Oscar's neck before sending him back to scout duty.

"Did something happen, Helvana?" Gwyn inquired while looking up to her.

"A metallic bird showed up and my crows are keeping it away from us."

"Metallic? I don't think that's normal."

"It most likely isn't, but if it was dangerous I would be on my way to deal with it right now. We don't need to bother with it."

Lloyd and Gwyn looked around and in the distance they saw crows flocking over something; that was probably where the metallic bird was. The thought of such a strange thing being around made them worry a bit, but they decided to trust Helvana in this and continued on.




A good week of traveling had passed. The trio was taking shelter from rain inside a cavern and had just prepared a bonfire. They removed their boots and left them near the fire to dry them up, then sat down near the fire themselves.

They kept silent for a good while, but out of a sudden, Helvana groaned and started to rub her temples.

"Are you alright, Hel?"

"Not at all. I'm feeling one annoying headache right now."

"Did you get sick?"

"No, it must be this place. I'm feeling a powerful aura in this region, most likely the work of a god. Can we leave yet?"

"We just settled down, Hel. We'll be holed in here until the rain stops, so can't you bear it?"

"Aren't you two feeling it though?"

"I'm feeling okay."

"Me too. If it weren't for you we probably wouldn't have known of this aura in the first place."

"Wha... *sigh* Fine, I'll try to bear it for now." She said while massaging her temples. "Do we at least have anything to eat?"

"Some leftovers, I guess. I'll see what we have, just give me a moment." Lloyd began to rummage his bag in search of anything that might be left from the morning.

While she waited, Gwyn sat down near hear and touched her arm to call her attention. "Hey, Helvana, do you want to go outside?"

"Yes, I do."

"Will it make you feel better?"

"Probably."

"Then let's go together."

"Huh? But you'll get wet if you do. What if you get sick?"

"But we're all wet already. And you can use you cloak too, right?"

"Well, yes, but at least we have a fire to warm up in here."

"We can keep warm if we play a lot."

Helvana sighed then smiled gently. "Are you spoiled or just trying to make feel better? Fine, I'll make a cloak for you too then." She caved in rather easily. Helvana created a lump of darkness in her hands and carefully molded it while adding more darkness to it.

"Hey, Hel, I found some leftovers from breakfast. I'll warm them up for you."

"You don't need to worry about that anymore. We're going out for a bit." She finished the impromptu cloak and handed it to Gwyn.

"Yay. Can you put feathers on it like yours, Helvana?"

"Sure, just return it to me later."

"Wait, you're going to play in the rain with Gwyn?"

"Yes. I'll take responsibility if he gets sick." She said while standing up and picking up her own cloak and putting it on. "Come Gwyn, let's play a bit." She offered a hand to Gwyn, who took it with a smile.

"Wha... H-hey!" Helvana and Gwyn left the cavern whilst ignoring Lloyd. He sighed in annoyance and placed the leftovers back into the bag, then sat down near the fire again. "She just does whatever she wants, doesn't she? Still..." He looked outside and saw Gwyn happily playing with Helvana. It was nothing more than jumping on small puddles and dancing in the rain, but they did it with smiles. "I don't remember the last time Gwyn was like that, even when playing with other kids wasn't the same as this." He said to no one in particular as he continued to watch them play.

Helvana lost track of time while playing with Gwyn, her headache had ended at some point too even if they didn't get too far from the cave. Only when the rain stopped and rays of light shined through the clouds did they return to the cavern. Lloyd had already put out the fire and was preparing the bags.

"Are you two quite done?"

"Yeah." "Yes, that was great." Helvana and Gwyn said smiling. "Are our boots dry?"

"Yes. Put them on and we'll be ready to go."

Helvana and Gwyn took off their cloaks and put their boots on leisurely, then bagged their cloaks.

They left as soon as they were ready, but Helvana stopped in her tracks soon after.

"You know, I've been thinking..."

"What is it?"

"We'll take a long time to reach the White Ocean, right? So I've been trying to think of a way to get there faster."

"You can fly, right?"

"If you think I'll carry all of you and our bags all the way there, then you'll be disappointed."

"Do you have an idea then?"

"Yes, I don't know if it'll work, though." She whistled and soon after a crow landed on her outstretched hand. She hugged the jet-black kindly and whispered. "Accept this gift of power." As she infused her power into the crow, it thrashed and cried out as it jumped off of Helvana's arm.

"What are you doing?!"

"Hopefully something I won't regret." She said with her face full of worry. The crow's thrashing diminished as the demi-goddess' power settled down and its frame began to grow. It's beak became serrated and the tip arched downwards like an eagle's and its talons grew sharper. The crow grew and grew until it was as tall as a tree and then it spread its wings, they easily spanned over seven meters.

"Wow..."

"Amazing..." That was all the brothers could mutter in their amazement.

Helvana reached out her hand and the crow lowered his head to her level. She gently held the crow then embraced it. "I name you Frederic. May you serve me dutifully." She released Frederic, who turned around and lowered his body so the travelers could hop on his back. Helvana climbed on the crow's back and looked at the still dumbfounded brothers. "Well, boys? Will you be coming or not?"

"Y-you can't be serious...right?"

"Come on, Lloyd, we're gonna fly! How cool is that?" Gwyn pulled on Lloyd's hand eagerly.

"B-but what if we fall off it? This is too dangerous."

"Pfft, wuss!" Lloyd shot her an angry glare.

"You just have to hold tight on it. Right, Helvana?"

"Of course. And even if you fall I'll just catch you. Or do you want me to glue you to his back?"

"That won't be necessary. I'll go..." He climbed on Frederic's back looking as pale as its master. Gwyn on the other hand was as excited as one could be.

"All set? Then let's go!" With her command, Frederic beat his wings took to the air, the strong wind generated shaking even the trees. In just a few moments they were tens of meters off the ground.

"Waaaaaaaaahhh!!!" Lloyd desperately clung to Frederic.

"This is awesome!" Gwyn on the other hand laughed loudly without a care in the world.

After a long time of flying, Lloyd calmed down a little and Gwyn lost most of his adrenaline. Despite the speed that Frederic was flying, the wind wasn't hitting them with much force, but they all clung tightly all the same.

Gwyn and Helvana were now looking down to the ground, while Lloyd still clung tightly to Frederic. "Hey, Helvana, what about the other crows?"

"Don't worry about that. They can keep up." As if to reassure that a few crows flew by them, only to quickly fall behind them again. "I made sure they could keep up with Frederic. I thought of everything before I did this."

"Hey, Hel." Lloyd called from behind.

"What is it?"

"Did you think of how to feed a bird this big?"

"Guh... Ah, yes! of course I did. You don't have to worry about that."




A couple more days had passed since then. They were forced to make a detour because a volcanic eruption covered the sky in soot, so they headed further north. They would take a few more days to reach the White Ocean because of it.

The sky was mostly covered in clouds that day; it didn't seem like rain was coming, but a cool breeze blew by.

The three had just set up camp near a small lake and Lloyd made a bonfire, while Helvana and Frederic went out in search for food. The sight of several dozen crows in the sky would certainly scare most animals into hiding, not to mention a giant crow, so only Oscar accompanied her while Frederic had to search for his own food somewhere else. Positioning herself over a hill with Oscar circling above her, they scanned the plains for anything that moved. The grass was quite high, so things would go unnoticed by Helvana, but not by her servant. This was mostly a game of patience now, hopefully it wouldn't take too long before something showed up.

After a few minutes something caught Oscar's attention. He cawed to Helvana, who leaped into the air and threw several quills in the direction Oscar pointed at. She walked to where the quills had landed and under the tall grass laid a hare pierced by her projectiles. She picked it up and glued it to her dress with her tar-like darkness then moved somewhere else to repeat the process.

When she was about done hunting, a good four hares dangled from her belt. "This should be enough for us. Alright, let's go back, Oscar."

When she got back to the camp, Helvana found the bonfire and two sets of clothes abandoned. She looked over to the lake and saw the two brother bathing and they hadn't noticed her return yet. She left the hares near the bonfire and went to the shore. "Hey, boys, I'm back." She called them.

"Wha-" Lloyd ducked in reflex to hide his naked body.

"Welcome back, Helvana." unlike his brother, Gwyn waved at her with a smile.

"I managed to gather some food. We can start our meal anytime."

"Okay, just...give me a moment." Lloyd said, a bit awkwardly.

"Take your time, I'll freshen up a bit before eating, too." She removed her boots and undid the sash holding her dress then removed it too. She then entered the water and headed to where the brothers were.

"Hey, wait, we're here right now!" Lloyd said as he turned his back to Helvana.

"So what? It's not the first time you saw me naked anyways." She reached the brothers, the water reaching only up to her stomach. She lowered herself until the water covered her breasts then let out a sigh. "So this is what bathing is like? Sooo refreshing." She almost went underwater in experiencing the water's cool touch.

"Hey, Helvana, come play with me before we eat."

"Fufu, aren't you pushy. Okay, we do have plenty of time."

"I-I'll go get the food ready. I'll call you two when it's done." Still hiding his body under the water, Lloyd went to the shore. Left alone with Gwyn, Helvana spent her time playing with him.

A while later, after Gwyn had already left the water himself, Helvana still swam around in the lake without a care. She even found places where the water went deeper and dived a few times to explore the lakebed. At some point while diving, she sensed something faint somewhere on the bottom and looked around for it.

After returning to the surface several times to catch her breath, she finally pinpointed the source of what she felt and dug into the dirt until she found something, a ring. She swam back to the surface and stopped somewhere she could have a foothold and analyzed the strange ring: it was jet-black in color and smooth with nothing covering its surface. It looked plain, but it was the power it gave off, even though she didn't know what it was, that caught her attention.

She would've been studying the ring for gods know how long if it weren't for Lloyd calling her. "Hel, the food's ready. Come while it's hot."

"Eh? Ah, I'll be there soon." Now back to real world, Helvana slipped the ring in her right ring finger and left the lake. "I'll study it more after I'm done eating."

After they had finished eating, Helvana returned to studying the ring. Lloyd and Gwyn suspected there was something wrong with her as they noticed that she had eaten little given that there were leftovers. Not only that, but she also ate quickly, as if she was in a hurry.

"Helvana, are you okay?" Said Gwyn with a worried look. At first she didn't react to their approach, but she looked at them when they called her.

"Hmm? Yes, why do you ask?"

"You got quiet as soon as you finished your food and you didn't eat as much as you're used to. Did I overcook the hares?"

"Of course not. In fact, it was delicious. It's just that I found this ring on the lakebed and it has some sort of power in it, so I wanted to study it more." She stretched her hand to show them the ring.

"Ooohh. It looks good on you, Helvana."

"And did you find something out about it yet?"

"So far I can tell that this is a divine construct, that is, it was made by a god. And I'm seeing Vestec's hand in this... To think that I would find a relic made by my own father. This is quite the lucky find. Other than that, I can tell that another god I don't recognize took part on its construction."

"Nothing else?"

"Nothing."

"Maybe your daddy sent it your way, Helvana?"

"That would be great wouldn't it? To be cared for." She displayed a faint smile on her face, but it looked more melancholic than happy. "But that's unlikely. Vestec said himself that he'd only help me if I directly called for him or if I was in danger. This is probably just chance finding." After she said that, there was an awkward silence, though it only last a few moments. "Well, that's quite enough sulking. Should we get going or will we rest a while longer?"

"I'm fine with leaving. What about you, Gwyn?"

"I don't mind it."

"Alright then." Helvana stood up from the ground and put out the fire. Then she looked at what was left of their meal. A whole hare and a small amount left by Gwyn remained. "The leftover food... No, I already ate enough. We'll keep it for when we need it."

"What's this? You really aren't going to wolf down what's left? The world must be ending."

"What's that supposed to mean? I know I eat a lot, but that was mostly me learning about new tastes... Probably." She averted her eyes, but then looked back to Lloyd. "Besides, it's good to have a stock, we won't always find food lying around. And I don't know if I can grow fat at all, but I'm not willing to test that."

"It would be bad if you did. You'd only slow us down."

"Oh? Did you learn that attitude from me?"

"Maybe."

"Hehehe, you two are getting along well."

"I wouldn't call picking on each other as getting along, Gwyn. But anyways, let's get going." The three of them collected their things and Helvana whistled to Frederic, who landed near them shortly after. Before climbing on the bird's back, Helvana made a bag of sorts from her darkness to stock the food. "Is it safe to eat that now?"

"Of course it is. Why wouldn't it?"

"Well, I thought... Never mind. We'll see if it's edible later."




"Wow..."

"It's...so big..."

"Really impressive...isn't it, Hel?" They had finally arrived at the White Ocean after weeks of traveling. And now, blue as far as the eye could see, before them and above them likewise. It was the first time any of them had seen so much water in one place, so it was indeed a breathtaking sight. But Helvana was by far the most impressed. In fact, it was as if she was frozen in place with such a sight. "Hel, are you still there?"

"Why..."

"Hmm?"

"Why... Why... WHY?!"

"H-hey, Hel, what's the matter?"

"Why is it not metallic?!"

"... Huh?"

"This is the White Ocean, right? The Metallic Sea. Why is it called metallic if it's not metallic?!"

"I believe you mean Metatic?"

"... What?"

"This is the Metatic Sea, not Metallic. When you first mentioned it I thought you said it wrong."

"And how do you know it's Metatic and not Metallic?"

"Some traders and travelers that visited our old village talked about the White Ocean and they always called it Metatic."

"I see..." Helvana's face was twitching for some reason. Was her being wrong that shocking to her? "I bet you're laughing at me right now, daddy! I don't even care, laugh all you want!" She said as she pointed to the sky.

Somewhere, in his realm, Vestec sneezed. He looked around then grinned. "Someone must be saying good things about me. I didn't even know I could sneeze. The things you learn."

"Sorry for acting like that. When Vestec called it Metallic I expected it to be made of liquid metal or something, so I was somewhat disappointed."

"Why bother over it though. It's easy to confuse between the two. I don't even know if Metatic is a word, actually, so maybe some people thought it was meant to be Metallic."

"It's just... It feels as if I was tricked. By my father no less. Anyways, shameful outburst aside, let's set camp for now."




I reached the edge of the ocean the hunters called White. It was not white. Only its foam, and the stinging reflection of sunlight on its surface. Maybe that was what they had named it for. There might have been other reasons.

At the start of my life I was reluctant to enter water; Whether I was wiser then I cannot say, but that is no longer the case. There seemed little reason to change the course of my journey now that there was an ocean in the way. I thus continued into its waves. Below them, there was a great meadow of sand and seagrass, where dugongs grazed alongside conch and ray. Life moved slowly there, and, perhaps in pointless imitation, so did I.

The water was a new medium and I wasn't used to moving through it. I tried walking, and found that I didn't have the strength, nor sand the stability, to go anywhere fast. Weaving myself into other shapes allowed me to swim, in the way the ribbon-eels did. Later still, after experimenting with many different shapes and arrangements, I found a large colony of salps, and imitated them, becoming a tube that pushed water through myself with my fibers. This seemed a far more efficient way to move, though I did not give up swimming or walking until the waters became too deep to easily submerge for long. My attempts to dive to the bottom were increasingly met with nothing but silt and rocks, but I explored it anyway.

There were few fibers to consume in the ocean, and I began to grow smaller. My answer- If answer it is, for I still don't fully understand the mechanism by which it works- Was found on a piece of driftwood where algae had grown. These green threads I absorbed easily, and yet found not so easily discolored. Nor did they stop growing once I had absorbed them, so long as I did not spend too much time in the depths. The sensation of having living things growing within me may have been disconcerting, or exciting. I'm still not sure. Is it the same substance as the leaves of trees in Mesathalassa? Possibly.

I spent many weeks in the open sea. Eventually a bright light was visible on the horizon whenever I surfaced in daytime. It was white. I do not know how the hunters could ever have seen the white edifice in order to name the ocean after it, if they ever did. But I tasted the light of God flowing from it in great streams, and so I fled. After that there were no more islands in the great sea, only whales and hunting tuna.

Now the water is growing shallow again. I see coral in the silt, though I cannot hope to predict that I will find another seagrass meadow. The fish are colorful, the dolphins frightening, for they pursue me and try to tear at me like a toy. Perhaps it is their way of being social. Perhaps they simply see me as a threat. I was forced to blow one apart in the end. After that they did not come. The not-quite-bird, however, has never left the sky above me. Maybe it was always there.

The waves are breaking again. They are not so different to the waves in Mesathalassa, though I have traveled very far. I do not know what lies beyond.





The purple-black thing washed up like a drenched sock with no particular shape, beaten by waves and evidently not strong enough to pull itself up, at least not while it was weighed down with seawater. After an hour or so spent drying on the sand, it pulled itself up and wrung itself out, forming two rather catlike legs, then a torso, and then a head and arms, both rather pointy. A forked tongue lolled from its 'mouth' like a ribbon, and vivid red patterns emerged in its woven 'skin', glowing faintly. A bone ring glinted on its long finger.

Very cautiously, as if completely new to the concept of dry land- And who knows? Maybe it was- the fabric creature took one step forward, looked around, then suddenly dropped to a low crouch, startled by the sound of a crow. It promptly got distracted by the texture of the dry sand at its feet, and lifted some in its hand, watched it fall. Then it looked up at the crow again. The two stared at one another, equally baffled, and the bizarre fiberling seemed to come to a decision. Very slowly, unraveling and creeping like a mold, Violet closed the distance towards the resting bird. Just as it was about to pounce the crow, something else stepped on the sand near them. Startled by the presence, Violet bolted in the opposite direction, only to be struck by something heavy and sticky. Despite this, Violet's movements weren't affected much and it kept on running away, but, again, it was struck and this time not one, not twice, but four times. The sticky dark mass solidified and prevented Violet from altering its shape and all it could do now was wait for the attacker to reach them.

"Now what would this thing be?" A hand grabbed Violet and lifted it up. "A bundle of hair? And moving on its own at that." The woman moved Violet around, inspecting it further. "Still, trying to attack my crow like that. Maybe a punishment is in order, hmm?" She narrowed her eyes and grinned impishly. Violet seethed, making a sound like rough fabric grinding against itself as the woman's adorned ring finger passed close by. She didn't yet notice the significance of the movement, and passed it off as fright. "So you can feel fear. What an interesting little thing you are." The woman removed most of the sticky substance covering Violet and it regained some mobility. They immediately started writhing in the woman's grip, but to no avail; Neither escape nor assuming its preferred shape was possible. "Don't struggle too much. You look fragile, so if you try too hard you might tear yourself up." Hearing that, Violet eventually complied. Unheard thoughts buzzed tensely in their head. The human-but-not-quite-human was still wearing that ring, and while she did so, Violet would not dare escalate the situation with magic of its own. And given how small Violet was at the moment, the woman could just as easily capture it a second time. "Don't worry, hairball. I've taken an interest in you, so I won't hurt you."

After that, the woman took Violet to a camp site. It rustled audibly at the sight of the bonfire, but the woman reassured Violet. "I said I wasn't going to hurt you. If you don't like fires, then I'll just keep you away from them."

"You're back, Helvana. Why did you dart off like that?"

"... What's that on your hand?"

"Just a little thing I found on the beach. It was about to attack one of my crows, so I captured it." Helvana. So this was the woman's name. "Good job on alerting me, Oscar."

Caw.

At her command the bird took off and returned to his scouting duty.

"And what exactly is this thing?"

"Ohh, it's soft."

"Be careful with it, Gwyn. It didn't attack me, but I don't know if it's violent. I still don't know what this thing is, but it's alive and sentient." She said glaring at Violet.

The smaller male probably-human ran his hand over the mass of black and red, which promptly gripped back, matting into a talon-like hand once again. Gwyn gasped in surprise, then cautiously pulled away his arm and most of Violet came with him, emerging from the mass first to the wrist, then the elbow, then a full shoulder and head reaching out of Helvana's grip with no obvious source for where the extra size was coming from. Four long, pointed ears twitched in the air. Violet wasn't new to being treated like an animal, but these people were either rather more confident or far less wary than the Mesathalassans, and the sorceress with the ring was deeply disquieting. Weaving their mass into something recognizably humanoid might be a step towards getting her to let go. Maybe. Possibly.

"Wow..." Gwyn voiced his surprise and gently held the "hand" Violet had made of itself.

"Imitating a human form... You must be sapient then."

"What're you gonna do with it?"

"I'll probably release it. So long as it doesn't attack my crows or the two of you I won't harm it either. I did take an interest in it though, so I'd like to keep it if possible." She smiled a bit while looking at Violet.

"Hel, it's a bit late for me to say this, but...you have a weird taste in things, don't you?"

"Excuse you. It was this weird taste of mine that got me interested in you two as well. Besides, so what if it's weird?"

"Well, it's not as if it matters. But I don't know if keeping this thing around is safe, even if it can understand us."

"Don't worry about it. I don't know if it's safe either, but we can at least agree to not harm each other. What do you say, hairball? You can't speak, but you can nod that head of yours at least."

These probably-humans were talking, but Violet either did not recognize their language or had forgotten it since Mesathalassa. The human-but-not-quite-human, on the other hand, was very much clear. That was... Concerning. Especially when she posed Violet a question.

Violet had a way with questions.

After several long seconds of twitchy glances, unraveling and rewinding, shuffling red patterns and vague tugs on Gwyn's arm without any real purpose or meaning, the bundle eventually nodded, once, then paused, as if stunned, then nodded again several more times as if it had only just discovered that it could. Then it disappeared back into a shapeless ball of fur, almost frightened by the infinite possibilities it had opened with this decision.

"Alright." Helvana said with a smile, then looked at Lloyd and Gwyn. "Get ready." Lloyd picked up one of his cooking knives and made Gwyn stay behind him. Slowly, Helvana retracted the darkness that held Violet and in no time they were set free. Free to move, but not to do anything suspicious, however, as Helvana was still keeping a close eye on them. Sunlight glanced off the smoothed surface of the furball, faint waves of movement showing the way it had molded itself to its prison, however temporary. A few threads wound into a ropy peak to one side, cautiously, waving until it found a low-hanging branch and towed itself rapidly up. Violet netted into the canopy and stopped, the outline of a humanoid form faintly visible again. It was looking down.

Helvana looked up to Violet with a smile. "See? The hairball seems pretty harmless to me."

Lloyd lowered his knife, but kept on holding to it. "I guess, but I still have my doubts."

"Lloyd, can I get near it?" Gwyn asked, then came out of hiding. Violet twitched in his direction, a little startled.

"Okay, but not on your own." The brothers approached Helvana and looked up to the tree as well. "You better take full responsibility for this thing."

"Of course I will. Do you think I'd just dump it on you two?"

"Umm, Helvana, can I touch it again?"

"You liked it that much?"

"Hey, Gwyn, what did I just tell you?"

"But I'll be fine if Helvana is with me, right?"

"Yeah, I have a feeling that the hairball won't hurt any of us so long as I'm around, so I'll make sure to protect Gwyn."

"Don't get too cocky just because you're a demi-goddess, Hel. What if this thing is secretly stronger than you and you just don't know it?"

"I understand your concern, but I promise I won't let Gwyn get hurt. If it really is dangerous I'll just throw myself in front of it while you escape with Frederic, alright?"

"Don't be so selfless like that, you idiot. But so long as you're around I guess it'll be fine."

"Alright, I'll give you a lift, Gwyn."

"Okay. Sorry for making you worry, Lloyd." Helvana picked him up and she slowly lifted from the ground until they were on the same level as the tree canopy. Helvana flew closer to the humanoid Violet and Gwyn reached out his hand. "Easy... I'm friendly, you see?"

It took a moment, but eventually the furball moved, hanging by its back legs, monkey-like. The boneless and oddly jagged hand made a reappearance, copying Gwyn. For a moment they were mirror images, each as new and curious as the other. They locked hands again, boy and bundle.

This time it was Violet who did the pulling, though not on purpose, it seemed. The fabric creature pulled itself down and hung from Gwyn's arm by knotted fingertips. A ribbon poked out of its mouth like a forked tongue, flapped vaguely in Helvana's direction as if tasting the air, which actually surprised her. And then the shape of the face was gone- Only a long strip of cloth draped generously over the boy's forearm where a second ago there were lanky limbs. This one, the tangle had decided, this one seemed safe to touch.

Gwyn looked over Violet with a beaming smile and innocent laughter. "Look, it likes me too. And it's so soft too." He said while running his hand over Violet.

"Good to know you made a friend, Gwyn." She said with a smile, though it was half faked. Something told Helvana that Violet didn't like her. "Let's get down now." She lowered herself back to the ground and let go of Gwyn.

"Look, Lloyd, what do you think?"

"I still think we should be careful with it, but maybe this thing's not so bad." He slowly traced his fingers on Violet. "Wow, it really is soft." He gently petted the hairball, seemingly entranced by its softness.

"Huh, it was easier to convince you than I thought."

"T-this doesn't mean I trust this thing yet, okay?" He said, forcing himself to stop touching Violet's soft fabric.

"Sure. In any case, the hairball issue is out of the way now. We can laze out a bit more before setting off."

"Fine by me. I'll stock the left overs for now."

They all returned to the bonfire to rest a bit more. Gwyn made sure to stay a bit further away from the fire in order to not disturb Violet, though he found that wrapping the odd critter around his neck rather than his wrist kept him warm enough anyway. The gentle sea breeze and the distant waves relaxed them and invited them to sleep. Oscar's distant call interrupted that thought, however, and Helvana stood up to receive the bird's message. He landed on her arm as usual and cawed several times.

"He says there's a second metallic bird around."

"Another one?"

"Hmm... I must say I'm curious about these birds now. I should catch one of them for study later." As she thought about it, other crows were heard. It drew the attention of everyone and they all looked at a nearby grassy hill, then suddenly the crows near it flew off. "Go." Oscar immediately took off to scout what caused it while Helvana took the crow mask glued to her belt and put it on in preparation for what was coming. She accompanied Oscar with her gaze, waiting for his report. He completed his flyby and cawed. "Wolves?" Just when Oscar was returning to Helvana, a loud howl broke the silence and made her wince for a moment. Looking back up she saw Oscar plummeting to the ground. "Oscar!" She leaped and flew towards the falling bird and safely caught him, he was still alive, but seemed to have passed out. From above she could see beyond the hill and just behind it she saw the creatures: dog muzzles, tails, gray fur, standing on their hind legs and wearing light armor. "Pack-Minds." There were four of them in total. The robust looking wolves were glaring back at Helvana and spreading out with careful movements while occasionally snarling. Helvana quickly glanced back and saw that Lloyd and Gwyn were also out cold. "This is bad..."

Helvana quickly retreated to the bonfire and carefully placed Oscar near Lloyd and Gwyn. The wolves were slowly surrounding her, preparing to attack. She lifted her mask a bit and whistled loudly, one of the wolves barked in response and another one looked around. "You boys are pretty bad. I think you deserve a lesson you won't forget." She said ominously. Beating wings were heard and the wolf barked, drawing the attention of the other three to what it saw. Seeing the giant shadow of Frederic looming closer made them turn tail and run, but the giant bird had already set his eyes on his prey. With a swift movement, Helvana threw her quills at the fleeing whelps, making two of them trip and fall on their noses, while Frederic dived in and picked up one of the remaining two with his beak, killing it, then swallowing it whole. The other one met the same fate.

Helvana approached one of the pinned down wolves, he whined in fear and looked back at her. "You hurt my friends, now you'll suffer for it, beast." She stepped on his back and altered the black ring into a weapon: the crude sword resembled a pointy stick covered in thorns more than anything else, but it still had a worthy edge. The wolf whined and panted in fear, but they were silenced when the sword pierced his back and heart, robbing him of life.

Suddenly, Helvana felt a churning in the barbed sword and she analysed it in search of any changes. "Did I just..." The wolf's soul was sucked into the sword. This surprised Helvana, but also brought her clarity. The ring, she realized, could assume the form of any weapon that the user's most attuned with, but she didn't know what other properties it had and now she found out. Shaking the surprise off of her, she looked at the other wolf, who desperately tried to free himself, and walked towards him. Without mercy, Helvana killed it like the other one and its soul flowed into the sword as well. With the crisis solved, she turned the barbed sword back into it's original form.

There were tearing sounds nearby. The four high eartips were visible again, gnawing- Or going through the motions while tangling and ripping fur from the first Pack-Mind. It was accompanied with hot snapping sounds and sizzles. The surface of the carcass was boiling, exploding under Violet's fingertips, its pattern perfectly hiding the blood. It hadn't fed well in months.

Helvana watched the scene unfold and upon noticing her gaze, Violet froze. For a moment, the ears disappeared and the face peaked, becoming a stuffed ragdoll imitation of Helvana's mask, and the fiberling raised a hand, their simple bone ring a pale mirror of the demigod's. Are we so different? the thing seemed to ask, with no obvious answer. Can we coexist?

There was a burst of its own magic and Violet fled into the showering dirt. It would return in safer company. It preferred to stay with the boys. Helvana looked back at the dead Pack-Mind as if in thought, then grabbed by its feet and dragged it back to the bonfire. Lloyd, Gwyn and Oscar were still out cold. Helvana checked up on them, they were still breathing and didn't seem to have been harmed. Sighing in relief, she removed her mask and put it back on her belt. Returning her attention to the Pack-Mind, she removed the armor it was wearing and then looked at Violet, who was back on Gwyn's side. "So, hairball. Are you still hungry?" Violet perked up their ears and after a few moments shuffled towards the wolf to feast. Helvana once again watched the process as the Pack-Mind's hairs disappeared into Violet and its skin boiled. "So you feed on hairs and skin." Violet nodded their head in assent. "You really were going to kill my crow, huh? Just don't eat any of them and you'll be fine."

When Violet was done with their second helping they were visibly bigger than before. Helvana offered them her right hand. "Come here. I won't hurt you, I mean it." Violet was a bit hesitant at first, but after a while they accepted and wrapped itself around Helvana's arm, but completely avoiding her hand. Finding that strange, she looked over her hand to see if there was anything on it, but the only thing there was the ring. "You don't like my ring?" Just then she heard Lloyd groan and shuffle behind her and she remembered the horrifying wolf carcass lying beside her. Grabbing it by the leg once again, she threw the carcass beyond the hill before Lloyd could wake up.

"What...happened?" He said, holding his head and sitting up slowly.

"We were attacked by Pack-Minds. They're wolves that walk up straight. Vestec told me about them, said they lived in the northern regions. I didn't expect them to be this far south. He also didn't tell me their howls can knock you out."

"And what happened to them?"

"I resisted their howl and killed them. If I weren't around... In any case, how are you feeling?"

"Dizzy. And I have a headache."

"Nothing else then. Good." She sighed in relief again. "We should depart as soon as Gwyn and Oscar recover. More of them could show up."

"Alright."

While they waited for Gwyn and Oscar to wake up, Helvana showed the leather armor she took from the Pack-Mind to Lloyd. Its size seemed to fit him well enough, though a tailor could adjust it into a better fit. Some minutes later both Gwyn and Oscar were up and about. Violet left Helvana's arm and returned to Gwyn while they prepared their things. Before long they were all set and departed southbound on Frederic's back.



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Signian Calendar, 3rd Megennium AA, Year 8750, Winter.

Cygnean Godworld, Vermillion Continent, an unnamed forest.


As the sun licked the horizon with its crimson colored rays of light, signaling the end of another day, the night prepared to take over the sky, covering it with a dark, hazy blanket filled with stars.

Realizing that it was time for its warm friend to go, the sky in turn bode farewell, waving its ethereal hand towards the setting sun, and summoning the east winds as escorts, along with the clouds and the rain.

Drip, drip, drip.

Amongst the sounds of rain pattering against the solid ground, a low growl was heard coming from within a cave situated on the rocky foot of a small hill. With the sounds of the forest in the background, the dwellers of this cave tended to each other's needs.

A mouth filled with sets of sharp teeth ever so gently tugged at the soft back scales of a mewling drakeling, adjusting its position so that it can better access the meal its mother prepared for it. The baby dragon looked at the hunk of meat in front of it with curiosity, before looking back at its mother, as if asking what it was looking at. Its instinct told the small dragon that it was food, but it had just hatched and had yet to leave the cave, so it wasn't sure.

However, after its mother nudged it, pushing it towards the meat, it relaxed some and started eating. As soon as the first bite went down its throat, the wyrmling let out a growl full of delight before diving further into its very first real feast.

The mother dragon watched her child eating its fill, her look filled with care. Nevertheless, deep down she instinctively knew that moments like these would be few. Her child would need to learn how to fly properly and hunt on its own very soon. On the one hand, her child was lucky. The guidance it would take from her and her partner would surely prove invaluable to its future survival, unlike what she had to deal with whilst growing up.

While she was having those thoughts, she heard the faint sound of flapping wings. She raised her head, turning it towards the cave entrance, and let out a low, whistling sound. After a few seconds of silence, a similar sound of affirmation came from outside the cave, confirming the arrival of her partner.

The sounds of heavy steps echoed inside the cave as the dragon entered, its green, glistening scales dripping water all over the cave floor. As he came in, his eyes fell over the wyrmling as it ate, clearly amused by the mess it was making.

Shifting his body over towards his partner, he gently poked her nose with his own. She, in turn, returned the greeting with a deep, almost purring sound. He let out series of noises, asking about her day and other various things, to which she promptly answered back.

By the time they caught up with each other, the baby dragon had finished eating its meal and was in the process of digesting. With a satisfied smile plastered across its scaly face, the wyrmling nestled itself near its mother and slowly drifted to sleep.

After making sure the small dragon was deep in sleep, the mother broke the silence. "So... how bad is it?" She slowly asked.

Her partner looked at her for a moment before closing his eyes and sighing. When he opened them once again, his face contorted in anger, two tongues of flame escaping his nostrils and charing the exposed surface of the stone wall of the cave black.

"That damn wolf and his lot are getting more and more provoking as time passes. Ever since his son managed to evolve, he became even more domineering. I came across two packs of his wandering around in our territory and had to chase them out by force."

She frowned as she heard her partner speak. "Do we really have to stay here? Can't we move to some other place? I don't want to put our children through needless danger..." she told him and gently licked his scales.

"...or you," she added.

He noticed the look filled with worry in her eyes, and could not help but falter a little inside. His territorial instincts told him that abandoning their land was not a good idea and that he should defend their lands from the wolf and his pack, not run away from them. His parental instincts, however, told him otherwise. Especially when he looked at his firstborn sleeping, and his mind drifted to his other three unborn children in their eggs, tucked under their mother's belly.

He connected his forehead with hers and looked deeply into her eyes as he comforted her. "Don't worry, we'll think of something" he muttered to both her and himself.



Some hundred miles distance away from the cave, in a gloomy grove hidden deep inside a forested area, a group of beasts had gathered. Even the dumbest animal would instantly cower in the presence of one of these beasts, not to talk about a pack of them.

With even the most regular adult member nearing the size of two, fully grown bears, with a biting power capable of crushing ironwood, a type of wood renown for its hardness, to smithereens, and claws sharp enough to cut through stone like butter, it is not surprising at all that this pack of beasts is capable of contending with even the strongest of predators.

And if it wasn't just their individual strength, these beasts have unprecedented coordination and teamwork, as well as loyalty to their leader, their Alpha. This is the Fangtooth Wolf Pack.

At this moment, some twenty wolves were gathered around a boulder, talking to each other in whines and whimpers. Suddenly, an utterly frightening aura spread over the area, encompassing all the wolves and making them break in sweat. All discussion immediately came to a stop, and all the wolves there watched as their Alpha slowly climbed on top of the boulder.

An emaciated, grizzled wolf stepped up and scanned its pack with its two beady eyes. A terrifying scar ran through its body, from neck to pelvis, completely devoid of fur. The mere presence of the Alpha, coupled with this formless aura of utter ferociousness that it unconsciously leaked was enough to instill fear to the fiercest of beasts.

The Alpha broke the silence, letting out guttural sounds that reverberated through the grove. "That bastard Green-scales keeps getting in the way of our pack's survival. With his hogging of the most fertile lands near the river and the areas surrounding the river, where all the best prey is, we are left with the worst hunting grounds. If this continues, we'll soon face extinction!"

The Alpha's words were met with the furious growls of his kin. With a sinister smile, he continued his speech. "Will you yield to that oversized lizard? Is the Fangtooth clan filled with spineless mutts that would rather put their heads down and die than fight for survival?"

The pack of wolves started feeling their blood boil and their battle spirits lifting. They let out a series of growls, snarls, and barks, signaling their readiness for battle.

"In two moons from now, we will attack Green-scales! It's about time the Fangtooth Pack got rid of that bastard once and for all!" The Alpha said and howled, with his pack following suit, their combined killing intent reaching the skies.

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