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Commodore Condor

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Journey to Pictaraika



The Meek
Level 4 Demigod of Crafting (Machinery)

23.5 Might



Level 1 Demigod of Motion (Animation)
7.5 Might



The Muse. Weaver of Dreams.
Beauty (Stories, Colors, Aesthetic, Flowers, Glass, Jewelry)


Might: 35
Free Point: 1
Level 6


Jydshi and Kinesis flew in the wooden flying machine, the vehicle travelling tirelessly forwards, needing only the occasional adjustment to stay on course. And below them, as they headed south, the landscape started to change. A faint pinkish glow could be seen far into the southern horizon, as they approached further, the glow showcased more colours, which swirled freely, similar to the aurora, but clearly rooted into the ground. Finally, they came close enough to see the actual region of Phantalei, an eccentric marshland where the vegetation had odd shapes and hues, all fauna and flora arranged themselves spontaneously to form striking landscapes. There, entire forests could change their colours like chameleons and all sorts of unbelievable creatures dwelt. Near them, a flock of birds with bodies clear as glass flew in perfect harmony.

Jydshi’s body skittered across the machine to keep her sight upon the birds, more specifically the uniformity of their motion. "Look at that! They’re all the same thing!" She paused as she reformatted that. "I mean they are all flying the same way."

Kinesis also looked at the birds. "Indeed. And I've never seen such transparent birds before." She looked down below at the swirling colours and striking hues. "In fact, of all the life which walks Galbar, I have never seen such a vivid array of colours."

The duo flew on, though, and soon mountains rose ahead of them. The jagged ring-shaped mountain chain that Julkofyr had built did not change along with the darkened spires. Perhaps, going up those mountains, one could even believe they would see the endless darkness below, instead, they would be greeted by what could be easily called "a second night sky." where once the sea of pure black was. With clouds covering the mountainside, it truly looked like being caught amidst two heavens.

Kinesis was awed at the sight. This was a truly fantastical scene. "It's beautiful," she exclaimed.

Jydshi initially failed to notice the view as she had grown distracted by the motion of the machine, however, she switched focus at Kinesis’s exclamation. "What is beauti-Oh."

They flew forwards, with the sea of light and stars extending beneath them. The strange ocean was a mystery to them, but they could both sense the divine energy which thickly blanketed the place. There were few features within the ring of mountains or on the illusory ocean, so when they spotted a flickering glow on the slopes of one of the border mountains, it presented an obvious place for investigation. Kinesis pushed some levers and the vehicle banked and turned, descending towards the light.




In one of the valleys near the key temples of Pictaraika, a large facility was built. On one side, many flat receding slopes, each "step" in that stair-like formation having long rows of mirrors, all beaming light to the opposite side, where a concave mirror focused it all in a single spot, creating immense heat.

Yet, as imposing as it all was, with a single snap of her fingers, Ilunabar made every single one of the countless mirrors completely dull, as she needed her Marionette servants to safely enter the area and prepare the "solar forge" for another round of smelting. It was with this great facility that she had built the frame of the all-seeing mirror gifted to Ventus. It needed adjustments, but it did its work well so far.

"Let me see, let me see." the goddess said aloud, observing the dolls at work while colouring a piece of paper with sequences of coloured dots. "Done, this should be a good enough alloy for the next series of jewellery." she was about to hand the color-based sequence to the marionette, yet she stopped when she sensed two beings approaching.

The quiet work of the Marionettes was interrupted by the loud sound of rapid wing-beats. A peculiar wooden contraption came into view, with numerous wings which both flapped and spun. And visible inside that contraption was a large iridescent millipede and a familiar four-armed female humanoid.

"...oh I see, it's an array of mirrors which concentrates the light, producing useable heat," commented Kinesis, who had been inspecting the device as they approached. She hadn't yet spotted Ilunabar.

"Why does it do that?" asked Jydshi having grown more interested in her surroundings after the landscape snuck up on her and the motion of the machine changed. She rearranged her body for secure viewing in the same direction as Kinesis as she spoke.

"Mirrors reflect light, and light carries energy and heat. So by using many mirrors and pointing them at the same place, you get an increased heat flux at that location, increasing the temperature," Kinesis explained. She paused for a moment in self-reflection, then added, "Unless you meant why would it be here. In that case, because someone here wants to use a lot of heat for something."

Jydshi tried to listen, had been interested when she asked, but then other more interesting things were happening. She could tell that some motion was happening, quite bit with direction and focus in fact, as they approached. Jydshi clambered up for a better view, not particularly noticing if a surface was part of the machine or of Kinesis. "What are those?"

Kinesis pushed one of Jydshi's legs off her face and craned her neck to look where Jydshi was looking. Then she saw what Jydshi had pointed out, small entities moving about on the ground. There was something about their movements, their activity, and some innate sense in Kinesis which told her what they were. "They appear to be automata of some kind, building or upgrading this facility."

As her eyes scanned the ground, she spotted one figure which was quite different to the others. The figure was not easy to spot, for it was mostly the colour of sand, but once Kinesis did spot the figure it stood out quite noticeably because it was not moving around like the automata. Kinesis stared for a little longer, trying to resolve the figure when realisation struck.

"Oh, it's Ilunabar! This is her place."

After readjusting her perch to not rest on Kinesis, Jydshi listened to Kinesis’s words and her realizations. Finding that Kinesis at least knew somewhat of the specificities of their surroundings Jydshi did the polite thing. "Hello Ilunabar!" Jydshi enunciated loudly and waved out many of her manipulator arms in greeting.

The goddess had been staring for a while, not to analyse anything, as she had already figured out Kinesis' presence, but of a faint hope that gawking would make the noise be muted.

"Kinesis... Long time no sees." she said as she floated closer to the machine, "Who happens to be this? It does talk, so I assume it is not one of your machines..."

Kinesis bowed her head towards Ilunabar. "Hello Ilunabar. This is Jydshi. She's, um..." Kinesis looked over at Jydshi. Though Jydshi used to be one of her machines, this wasn't the case any more. She could not sense the mechanisms within Jydshi like she could with other machines. With all the changes which her wish had granted, it seems that a substantial change in physical form had occurred too. Kinesis finished saying, "...um, Jydshi."

Jydshi looked towards Ilunabar as she spoke, then to Kinesis as she replied, she tucked back her manipulator arms when Kinesis looked at her. With Kinesis finishing she turned back to Ilunabar, Kinesis seemed to have explained everything. This was an entirely new person, which for now was more exciting than the motions around this place. I should say Hello! She paused. I already did that.

Ilunabar chuckled. "You lost an opportunity, should have pronounced it Jeedchi first time then Jidsci seconds time." she then moved closer the divine machinist. "As a fellow creative goddess, I understand the circumstances you must be in now, and I do think you gave the right answer to the question."

The Muse then turned to the millipede finding her actions quite amusing. "Hello, Jydshi. Be welcome to my humble land of wonder and excellence."

"Thank you for welcoming me to your humble land of wonder and excellence." Jydshi repeated back in an attempt to be polite. "I liked all the things, their motion was very nice."

"Motions? Now there is something people typically do not appreciate properly. I must admit that even I have not paid proper attention to the realm of the kinematic, but even then, my realm does offer things that may be of your interest."

The goddess stopped and turned to Kinesis "But before further pleasantries, might I ask why the sudden visit? You are far from unwanted here, but I am intrigued."

"I had heard rumours of strange transformations happening to the landscape around here, so I decided that we could investigate. I hadn't been expecting to find you here, although I am glad I have," Kinesis explained.

"I see, back when you were created this land was still thought to be under the rule of Julkofyr after all, so it must be odd to find the antithesis of that god managing the region." the goddess told. "Nevertheless, now you know the why of the changes. My divas have been calling the driving force causing these transformations Glamour, which is a better name than the makeshift word dream-energy that was used before, I suppose."

Kinesis glanced around. The sea of stars was still visible, and the flora and fauna of Phantalei were still fresh in her memory. "Glamour. What a peculiar phenomenon," Kinesis commented.

"Indeed. But beyond unique woodlands and starry skies, I have brought many practical changes to here, a great number of facilities were built beneath the land previously called Darkened Spires, many which, I believe, could be of your interest."

Kinesis' face lit up. "Really? May we see them?"

The goddess clapped and smiled. "Of course! You and Jydshi are more than welcome, furthermore, you might be able to help me with a certain minor issue." she softly cringed, quickly hiding her feelings with her smile again.

Jydshi was content to listen to the conversation, shifting her head around to Kinesis and Ilunabar in turn with the conversation. Jydshi’s interest grew as the conversation progressed, facilities sounded like they had motion to them while an issue was something that might be of particular interest.

Jydshi hadn’t really encountered anything she would call a ‘minor issue’ so it must be something new and exciting. "What is the certain minor issue? Is it with the ground? I think the ground is an issue." Jydshi started speaking as if making up for earlier silence. "What about the facilities; can we see the facilities? How many is ‘a great number’? Are they all in the ground?"

Ilunabar tilted her head slightly, "Hmm, no, I do not mind the ground at all, I use it for many things. The facilities are not on the ground however, they are under it. There are seven groups of them, never counted each individual place within each compound, however." she floated to the side, looking downwards now. "The issue... well, it is a thing easier to show than to explain."

There was a pause, then Kinesis suggested, "Perhaps you could show us."

The goddess simply nodded. "Just stay aware of your surroundings. Physics might not work down there as they work up here, especially as we get close to the plane of dreams," she explained casually, before starting to float down.

Why does the ground always have to come up again? Jydshi pondered as the machine to great dismay, became even closer to that dastardly surface. ...except that we always come down to it…?

Below the "starry" clouds, was what looked like a sea with its own archipelago. Despite it being sterile of life at the moment, it was far from ugly, with the moonlit waters gleaming nicely as they flowed through was the spires once was. Large root likes structures sprouted from the ground, and following close to them, they entered into a cave system. The goddess giving time for the machine to follow.

Jydshi attempted to wave hello to the root-structures but it was hard not to think about being surrounded by inert earth as they approached the cave, draining most of the joy from her greetings.

After a long time, they found something that should be impossible, a gargantuan chamber under the ground, large clouds of vapour giving a look similar to that of an overcast day. In the centre of this oddity was a town-sized machine, that looked like a mix of a pipe organ, a clockwork music box, and all sorts of brass instruments.

Kinesis' mouth gaped open on seeing this machine, with all its wondrous mechanisms. "Wow," she exclaimed.

Jydshi raised from her melancholy at Kinesis’ exclamation to see what the fuss was about. I guess there is something worthwhile in here after all. Lifting her spirits higher than the constant thought of that sadly immobile matter would normally allow.

The goddess calmly landed in one of the many flat areas of the machine. "This appeared when I manipulated this area. I believe it is based on my harp, the Dreamweaver, which you might have seen before, Kinesis. I just am unsure of what is its purposes or if it has any function."

The flying vehicle landed near Ilunabar, and with a push of a lever the perpetual motor was brought out of contact with the drive shaft, and to Ilunabar's relief and Jydshi's disappointment the noisy flapping motions of the vehicle stopped and it was at rest.

Kinesis climbed out of the vehicle and looked around. She could feel all the machinery around her. Not even her father's workshop was so densely filled with mechanical parts. Jydshi followed her and scrambled over the machine and back down to the ground. Some of her interest was re-engaged by the new environs, especially after actually having them around her than looking from afar.

After a minute of looking around, Kinesis answered Ilunabar. "It appears to be a musical instrument of some sort," she said, then added hurriedly, "although I'm sure you have already noticed that." Kinesis tried thinking for a moment more. "Although, I can't yet perceive any function other than that. I'm sure father would be able to tell you, though. Was there anything special about this Dreamweaver?"

The goddess smiled slightly, "Mmm, let me see. It predates the creation of the universe, was made from the same fabric used to craft the Codex of Creation and a twig taken from the goddess of life, Slough. It rules over the extraplanar powers of dream and songs played on it could resonate with this very universe. Taking all that into factor, I do think special is a fitting description." finishing her jest, she turned around.

"And yes, I do see hints it is meant to play music, just like the old Dreamweaver, but that one could fit in my hand, and had strings which I could play. This one, well, I have no idea of how to play this mess."

Kinesis' eyes widened in awe. "You mean to say that if we get this to play a song, it could have divine control over the universe? That is special!" Kinesis regained her focus and continued, "We just need to figure out how."

Kinesis walked up to one of the many pipes protruding from the floor, a pipe which was capped by a large whistle. "The sound here would be produced by air being forced through these pipes. If we follow these pipes back, it should lead us to where this air would be produced, and possibly how to control the machine." Kinesis looked down the hallway where more pipes emerged and ran along the walls. By an innate sense, Kinesis was able to keep track of which pipe was which, and she walked down the corridor following the pipes.

Jydshi listened with a large amount of forced concentration, the words were a very welcome distraction. She did get a bit distracted at the idea of divine control over the universe and the very possibility to make all of the earth on Galbar leap joyfully into motion before realizing that something else was being said, waiting for an opening Jydshi spoke in full eloquence. "Ilunabar what would you play, and do with, it, the machine I mean, if you could do, or play, what you wanted to use the instrument-machine-thing?"

The goddess pondered "Well, considering the qualities of this instrument, it seems like it needs something with a nice but controlled rhythm, like a march. Those, however, are typically accompanied by parades, and it is a bit too soon for that, I think." she stopped. "I will just play a simple song, see how this thing moves. Then we can think about more complex things."

"A parade would be fun. You could have one that just keeps going on and on and on, it just doesn’t stop. Then it could go all sorts of places or it could stay in one place and just go around a whole lot in a place where there are a lot of people and the people live in a place where there are a lot of..." Jydshi slowed down gradually at the end of her speech as she seemed to forget a word that was supposed to go there and might have continued past the point of insertion.

Kinesis paid little attention to the conversation around her as she concentrated on the machine around her. The pipes stretched on for miles, and wound about in intricate and beautiful patterns which, while aesthetically pleasing, made following the pipes a challenge. She continued to walk down the hallways, navigating the maze of pipes as her footsteps resonated along the metal floor.

Her mind coming to a dead end in the search for the missing vocable Jydshi quickly found a new track in the vibrations of the floor. While easily located to Kinesis’s footsteps it gave Jydshi an idea, bearing her weight upon her lower body she rose up and quite forcefully struck a pipe. Gleefully she tracked the movement through the pipe and its reverberations along its length and to other connecting pipes.

Kinesis jolted at the sudden sound and turned her head to find its source. When she noticed that it was just Jydshi, she smiled and returned her attention to tracking the pipes.

They walked for perhaps an hour or more through the town-sized maze of passageways and pipes. They climbed up ladders and crawled through hatches in order to follow the pipes wherever they led. Eventually, though, the persistence paid off.

From the jumble of pipes and devices, a straight corridor of marble tiles and brass walls emerged. It continued for some time before leading to a staircase, which itself led to the control room de facto, a large, circular chamber, with a semi-transparent floor that seemed to hover over an astrolabe, that didn't seem fit for the night sky of Galbar. Transparent gilded windows decorated the walls, showcasing somewhere above where they were, a water reservatory of sorts, water falling above, from Iarapahira, being heated up by what appeared to be mirrored strings, probably using a technique similar to that used to shine sunlight into the gardens below, before the steam rose up again to the lands above.

In the 'right' side of the room, there appeared to be some sort of archive station: Shelves, equipment that seemed to be automatically producing a report on motion and other things, some simple looking controls, as well as some room to write notes. On the 'left' side, there was a massive input machine, sets and sets of deep white keys with pure black keys dotting every so often, buttons and levels to the side. In the centre, was a far simpler looking machine, yet no less imposing because of its size and intricate aesthetic. All of the pipes that ran across the area converged into perfectly symmetrical pillars on this machine's side. Ilunabar glanced over the side two and analysed this one first, not sharing her thoughts yet.

Kinesis slowly walked around the machinery, reverently observing them, although avoiding disturbing anything.

Jydshi followed Kinesis at a distance, she walked along at the same pace up-on-and-over the machinery, happily observing Kinesis, noticeably disturbing almost everything.

When Kinesis noticed the Jydshi was crawling over the machinery, she spun around to face her and cried, "Oh be more careful, Jydshi! You might break or activate something!"

The buttons were pressed and the levers shifted, yet so far no major damage seemed to have been done, outside of a probable poor tuning of the machine. Meanwhile, Ilunabar was far too focused on exploring the machine, that is when suddenly, either due to her work or Jydshi's meddling, some sort of interface appeared in front of the machine, in the form of a board of crystals and strings floating in a line of mist.

"Oh, some sort of result." Ilunabar said, carelessly pressing the buttons to form a tune instinctively...

The room shook and the sound was not the nicest even if the melody was perfect, pipes blew poorly tuned notes, the percussion was exaggerated and there was the sound of strings being pulled carelessly in an uncanny sound.

Kinesis cringed at the discordant noise. "Perhaps we need to calibrate it first?" she suggested.

Jydshi had started to move off the machinery to ‘be more careful’, she wouldn’t want to do anything to distress Kinesis, when the shaking started. Wonderful. It would have been better if the sound was nicer but that was like asking for for… ...something extra after you had just gotten something good? Metaphors were so hard… In any case, Jydshi continued to dismount from machinery, content to listen for now.

"Yes... Calibration. Hmm. Typically I do that by testing the instrument, but something tells me this can't be done here that easily, those strings being pulled sure sound like something that could lead to trouble..." she pondered and started to walk away from the organ-like structure. As she did, another entity entered The Orgel: The Diva of Brass.

"Oh, Chronicle is here."

The Diva entered the room in a hush, never minding the guests and quickly approaching the control device. In seconds, with absurdly fast movements, she pulled the levers and pressed the buttons, setting them all in a neutral stance unlikely to go wrong. She then turned around and walked towards Ilunabar, all in her typical whimsical style of sharply timed exaggerated movements.

| You arrived sooner than expected here. Expected this to be less of a group meeting too | She wrote.

| But anyway, do not use The Orgel without clear composition in mind. It has filters to stop things from going wrong, but you can still cause change. |

She walked to the 'archive' area and printed some sort of paper before taking a brass colored shell-like device and placing it on her ear. | Hmm. Seems like you just changed some insect. Mortals bit by it will be marked to be harassed by more of its kind. Nothing truly dangerous though, annoying at worst. |

"Huh... Deja vu, I could just swear those were already mentioned somewhere... Or were they?"

| This is a magnified Dreamweaver, therefore it is attuned to the Codex of Creation and Life. Change that is caused by it is harmonic with the natural order, which is in a sense a limitation, but also a path to cause deep change. |

"Hmmm. Might I request a thing?" Ilunabar asked. Chronicle answered with a raised eyebrow and a shrug.

"Oh. Before that. Jydshi, Kinesis, this is Chronicle. Diva of Brass, overseer of rhythm, living music box, among other titles. First Diva I ever created by accident not design, so don't mind if she is a bit capricious."

"Hello Chronicle!" Jydshi squealed, her excitement had grown since a new person entered the room. She rose upon her hind half extending out her manipulator arms in greeting. Jydshi spoke further clarifying upon Ilunabar’s introduction, "I am Jydshi, it is very nice to meet you."

Chronicle heartily answered to the greeting, leading the shake of 'hands', each sway lasting exactly the same amount of time, giving Jydshi a long chance to notice the ever-moving nature of her body.

Kinesis bowed her head towards Chronicle. "Nice to meet you, Chronicle."

She then said, "So this machine can alter reality?"

| In a sense. I'd say it gives Reality a bit of a gentle nudge. | the Diva wrote, turning to Kinesis now.

"Can't I just play idly with the thing?"

| You can for sure, though mostly with the pipes and percussion instruments. If you want to play with strings, you will have to be careful, can't mess with the Fabric of Reality aimlessly. |

"Ah, shame, I liked the noise the strings made, a nostalgic sound in a sense." the goddess pondered "Why don't we pick an activity for me to do, one that takes a lot of time and doesn't do much?"

| Not sure. It is easier to compose something that will change the structure of something poorly observed than something mortals remember well. | she wrote | Example: Easier to change a rock in space than a rock in the middle of a village. |

"Oh! I know. Maybe I could change mortal minds a bit. Make them forget what they were about to do, or maybe make them deeply remember something that has yet to happen." there was a glint of mischievousness in the goddess's eyes. "Nothing that will harm them of course. Just confuse them a bit."

| Wait, but earlier in this conversation you... | she started but quickly stopped and erased it, not wanting to mingle in the topic. | Yeah, that will be a LOT of work for minimal results, so it fits your needs. |

Kinesis' brow furrowed in thought. "If the percussion and pipes don't alter reality, what do they do?"

| It guarantees all things move along nicely. Percussion gives rhythm, which paces the change and guarantees it is synced with time, the Calliope gives the melody and harmony, which you can guess the use. | Chronicle wrote.

"Ah, yes, I see now," Kinesis replied, "It is quite an amazing machine."

| Why thank you! | the diva wrote quite quickly. | I also think you two are quite amazing as well. |

Kinesis blushed at the compliment. "Thank you."

The diva suddenly stopped and turned to her master. | Were you not going to have me do something now? | She asked before Ilunabar was further distracted.

"Ah right, yes. It has to do with bodily functions. Most mortals cannot drink milk past their earlier years, but some have managed to drink milk from other animals just fine."

| That is a bit peculiar, but I take you have reasons for your interest outside of the bizarre factor? |

The goddess sighed. "Of course! First, it is nutritive and will aid the average mortal health and give them an incentive to create more livestock. Above that, however, it has so many culinary uses... I think. Furthermore, theoretically, if you let it rot just right, it turns into a variety of nice things."

| You know I know what fermentation is, right? We have beer. But that aside, can you tell me a village with a mortal that can digest milk during adulthood? |

"Sure, try this one." Ilunabar cast a map for her Diva, who stared at it for a moment, before moving to the archives table. The windows changed from the actual outside to the area where the village was, closing in until the people were visible.

"There, the one near the red house." Ilunabar pointed at the human man.

Chronicle picked up once again the brass colored round device and listened to it, paying close attention to the scene, closing her eyes even. This lasted for a while before she nodded.

| Got it. I can craft a melody out of this. | she announced. | What are the species you want to spread this tolerance to? Please do not ask me for something as whimsical as the Urtelem. |

"Hmm. Humans... ah, only Galbarian Humans though, leave Arconians out. Angels. Rovaick, including Dwarves. Lifprasilians. Leave 9 out of 10 Ogres as they are, but make the remaining 1 love it. And the Quara Korala..."

| I am not doing the Korala, I know their melody well and it just seems like so much work. |

"Ah... I really wanted it though... You are so much pickier than the Dreamweaver." she sighed. "But sure. Just play the song then, let us see what happens."

| You have no idea how long this song will be. Nobody would have the time to play it fully, this instrument can play itself for that very reason. |

With that said, the Diva of Brass moved to the other side of the room, playing around with buttons and levers before starting to draw on the brass colored surface of a table. When she was done, the machine started to print a musical sheet which Chronicle started to roll onto a scroll. By the end of the printing, it was five times thicker than the thickest of the scrolls stored in Vetros.

Calmly, Chronicle moved the scroll from the machine to the organ at the center of the chamber, and when placed onto it, the script started to unravel, and without any other input, The Orgel started to play a tune, this time with perfect melody and rhythm.

Jydshi had long ago moved her body back down to the floor but kept her head facing upwards to watch those around her. However, when the music began she moved to the music, her body and legs undulating to the tune.

Kinesis watched the Orgel in action, all its precisely engineered parts acting together to create an intricate song. It was wonderful to watch and listen to.

Chronicle stepped back, the music continuing by itself, with a serious look she looked back at the goddess who understood the wordless message perfectly.

"I think we have spent enough time here, no? We already got a nice melody out of the instrument, I wouldn't want to risk disarranging it all here again." the goddess proposed to her guests.

Kinesis turned to Ilunabar and bowed her head towards the goddess. "Of course. Where to next, Ilunabar?"

"Well, I was originally going to invite you deeper into the Pictaraika, however, that might not be the best right now, as it might be boring to you or your guest." The goddess started to turn around and walk away from the control room of the orgel. "I had my divas prepare something for you though, so, if you do not mind, follow me up to the surface."

Kinesis bowed her head again and followed Ilunabar. Jydshi followed in her own way, notably orbiting Kinesis in varying eccentricities, lagging behind before catching up again.

Once outside the orgel, the goddess gave the duo some time to get their flying machine ready before starting to leave the area, flying upwards toward the peaks that sheltered the zone from the rest of the world, and vice versa. This time however, she did not move to a work zone such as the solar forge, but to a village carved against the mountainside where some Quara had settled.

The goddess stopped to wait in a well-kept garden which was by the side of a plaza large enough for the machine to land. Once landing on a patch of open ground, Kinesis disembarked and approached Ilunabar. "Who are these people?"

"Quara Korala, it is a race that has evolved by themselves instead of godly intervention, as such, they lack the amount of blessings and design necessary to make a huge impact. Still, a unique race, which I have been protecting while making sure they keep their uniqueness." the goddess explained.

Jydshi caught up after having taken a more circuitous route that was apparently necessitated and required looping around the flying machine a few times before meandering onwards to Kinesis and Ilunabar.

One of the Quara walked to the goddess, bringing two amulets inside a case. "If you put this on, you will be cloaked by illusion, looking like a mortal from the area. On the same note, Jydshi too, will look like some local animal such as a horse. Should make exploration easier..."

Jydshi arrived in time to receive and then get distracted by the process of attempting to wear an amulet.

Next, she gave Kinesis some sort of odd device, two tubes with glass lenses in them, tied together by leather. "This is a, uhm, oculars... binoculars." she made up the word on the spot. "You seemed to have some difficulty sensing everything from afar in that machine, so hey, this should help. Easily adjustable and I tinted the lenses so you always see everything in it as if it was under daylight." she added.

Kinesis took the amulet and binoculars and inspected them. She put the amulet in a pocket and held the binoculars up to her eyes. She swept her view across the mountainscape of Pictaraika. and giggled happily. She then looked back at Ilunabar, composed herself, and bowed her head. "Thank you very much, Ilunabar."

"And I guess this is all. If you do not mind though, I would like to ask a favor. Next time you see your father, ask him where he gets all his metal. I have been having an increased use of that in my work, but I fear mining Galbar too much would have a negative impact on the local civilization. I have this little meaningless pet project that will need many gems, and I feel like he is the one that can help..."

"Oh, I can answer that," Kinesis said. "He gets it all from the Elemental Siphon in his Workshop. It's a bunch of boxes which magically creates raw elemental matter, which father can shape as he wishes."

The goddess pondered on those words, clearly adapting her plans to that information. "Hmmm, I see. I do remember seeing those when I visited his workshop... I wonder if those would do for my purposes..." she shook her head and approached Kinesis "Ah well, let's not bore you with that topic. Thank you for helping me understand that machine, I feel like we should work together more often, however, I am unsure where you have been residing. The celestial citadel? Teknall's workshop? Surely you have a place to call yours, correct?"

Kinesis looked down at her feet sheepishly. "Well, actually, not really... I've just been travelling. I can't get to father's Workshop by myself, and the Celestial Citadel is rather dull..."

The goddess squinted for a moment, staring at Kinesis after hearing her explanation. "Well, that is not ideal, is it?" she sighed "It is always good to have at least one workshop of your own, it creates a proper place to brood over designs and helps to keep all tools of creation in one place..."

"You are quite young now so you might see more fun in constant travel than in having a home. However, should you ever want a place to settle, you can always count on me to help you to set it up; in fact, you could even settle in here if you wanted."

Kinesis paused for a few moments to contemplate this offer. "I think that would be a good idea. A workshop of my own would be nice."

The goddess smiled and held Kinesis' hands "That is a very wise decision! I will have my divas prepare a base design and prepare a workforce and resource stock for the project." she said quite quickly and vanished soon after, not even asking if Kinesis wanted to have her home in the Pictaraika or somewhere else.

There was an awkward silence for a moment as Kinesis was left standing there. Then she turned to Jydshi and asked, "How do you like it here?"

Jydshi had picked up the conversation after lodging the amulet on her head. "I don't not like it." She paused considering more deeply. "But I don't think I can stay here."

Kinesis was bewildered. "Why not?"

Jydshi paused as she had not thought of the need to put her feelings on the matter into words. "Its just so..." Again Jydshi searched for her words. "...inactive. If there is just half as much of what I have yet seen, there is just so much to see and do and move that to stay here seems like betrayal." Jydshi paused for a third time and went down a different track, with a hint of curiosity and fear, "Do you really want to stay here?"

Kinesis took a few moments to reflect. "Yes. For a while, anyway. I have already travelled a lot, and while I agree that there is so much to see out there, I want to create, and it's so hard to do that if I'm travelling all the time. I have seen father create machines beyond the imaginings of anything on Galbar. I even helped him make some of them. And here we have wondrous contraptions like the Orgel and the solar forge. I want to create wondrous things, and here's the best place to do that right now."

"Can I keep the Flying Machine?"

"Yes, Jydshi. You'll probably need it more than I do," Kinesis answered with a sad smile.

Jydshi halted for a long moment before rushing at Kinesis enveloping her in a hug of many arms, "Bye bye, Kinesis."

Kinesis embraced Jydshi in return. "Bye bye, Jydshi. Come visit some time, okay."

Jydshi muttered a muted "Okay," in reply before embarking on the machine, taking off and heading to the East. Kinesis waved as Jydshi left, and watched until she was out of view over the mountains.



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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Antarctic Termite
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Antarctic Termite Resident of Mortasheen

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The Dissolution of the Knights


In many places, it is traditional for hain to fight naked. A sash or splash of paint is used to mark their side, and beyond this the only use of clothing would be to remove and bind or gag the opponent anyway.

A Cosmic Knight, on the other hand, is always naked. They have long since given up the option to change their uniform.

Tauga tossed her polehammer out of the ring and spat bile. A page brought her water and she gulped heavily. The one femme-looking Knight took a squat next to her and drained a calabash gourd, breathing heavily. The other one, the big coated one with the serrated cleaver, simply stood.

"You don't talk much, do you?" said the smaller one, after a few seconds.

"I don't waste words," said Tauga.

"You had some real great words to waste on the lost ship the other day."

"Fucking idiot captain should've listened to my fucking advice, piece of shit," said Tauga instantly. The Knight laughed. His name was Sevvin. "What? You want me to banter?"

"Well, if you're offering..."

"I didn't offer jack shit. I asked if you want me to."

"If... That's acceptable, Marquise."

"Oh shut up," she said, picking her ravaged shell off the ground and flexing. Tauga was so rarely out of her suit that it was easy to forget how damaged she was, a corroded husk of a hain body barely holding in the bodily power beneath. She hadn't moulted in twelve years. "Third round, hand to hand. Let's go."

The big Warden set its cleaver down at the side of the ring. The watchers who'd gathered raised a whoop as it cracked its knuckles for their benefit. Feet stamped and a chant rose as Tauga stepped into the ring.

A pale green spark flickered between the two Knights. A duet of warriors is always greater than the sum of one and one. For Knights, even more so. For a Knight and a Warden... Well.

Tauga hadn't even won their last round.

The page cried, "Fight!"

The femme knight squared off and his partner stepped forward, the numbers setting him at leisure. A yellow halo blazed above its head.

Tauga was expecting it. At the moment of the cry she'd spun on her front heel and stepped forward, carrying the force through a kick into the space the Warden had entered. Her heel slammed on blue glow. Sevvin's own halo flared the same.

The Warden shot a jab into the space she'd been and Tauga flattened backwards onto palms and feet. She cartwheeled back on one hand.

Sevvin crossed into the Warden's space and the Warden appeared at Tauga's fore. She twisted her shoulders into a punch at its hip and saw Sevvin's halo switch to pink, jabbing an elbow to his knee as he approached.

He buckled back. Tauga leapt into him. The Warden spun a hook into her skull.

Sevvin took Tauga's knee to his face and was thrown backwards, Tauga crashing into the turf on her hip. She stood immediately. Bleeding from the face into the eye, it didn't stop her assuming the guard position. The Warden's mask flickered. Sevvin crouched outside of the ring, green connection broken. It had been a very unfavourable exchange for him.

"You wanted banter, Sev? Here's some," she said. The Warden and Blowfly circled. Its halo, too, had flashed to pink. "You come to my islands because your Emperor sent you. You fight my battles in Lifprasil's name. You train my soldiers and say 'glory to Alefpria', but whose Marquisate is this?"

The Warden's orb went yellow and it threw a volley of punches at the tiny figure, lunging down into each thrust. Its reach was greater than Tauga's ability to move, but Tauga was canny and knew what she could win. The blow that put its studded knuckles into her chest was the same she used to grab the Warden's wrist and toss herself upwards with the leverage. Her heel entered its face with a hard crack as the two leapt off one another.

Tauga flicked her twisted wrist into shape as the Warden went blue. Her bones didn't fit the same way normal hain's did.

"Mine, Sevvin," she said. Despite the blood, dripping now, she spoke on. "Look around you. This is the empire you were sent to build. And it's not Alefprian. It's not even Xerxes anymore. Xerxes got eaten by the Devil. This is where all your ideas and your peoples come together and conquer. This is your glorious future, here in the dirt and the sand and the sweat. It's alive."

The Warden made a sweeping kick and Tauga vaulted over it, smashing her fists into its sides, its gut, boxing and kick-boxing the giant warrior. They disengaged, Tauga bleeding from the fists. Her aura swirled from her. The watchers began to yell.

"Show me an God-Emperor who preaches from a palace and I'll show you nothing more than a sage with a general who can't be assed to claim power. You love him because he's kind, not because of what he's done. All true emperors are tyrants, Sevvin."

The Warden stepped forward. Tauga flicked her beak and braced.

"And when you worship a tyrant-"

She spun through the air, slamming a kick into the Warden's collarbone, and was smacked from the air onto the sideline. Tauga slid into the wall as the Warden skidded on its feet, leaving gouges in the dust. The back of its heels were just touching the ring.

"-you create a god," she said, and stood.

Some crowds might roar. This one simply murmured. Tauga felt her eyes fall shut.

"Some banter," said Sevvin. "Wow."

Tauga put her palm in the air, snapped her fingers. A blood-eyed worm fell into her hand and wound up her shoulder. It peeled away her damaged cranium and she licked her bloodied teeth. "Could've won that if I wasn't talking. Just wasted words."

"Perhaps not so much," said the Warden. Heartworm looked at it and felt no fear.

* * *


A Cosmic Knight met the edge of the cliff and didn't stop.

The way down was a steep slope, not a drop. The Changing Plains had broken like a wave here. Oriana hit the rock face with her heel and began to skid down, high stone grinding away her armour and threatening to make her tumble. Only her Astartean will gripped her and pushed her to balance.

The ground flew at her like a fist to the skull.

Oriana rebounded from the earth in a spray of rock splinters, crashing back into the rock and immediately curling into a wounded position.

She touched the flower that grew from her shoulder to make sure it was still alive. She opened her eyes and saw another flower growing just ahead of her. It was a deep red rose, an iron rose, growing with steel-coated leaves on a bed of haematite.

The sun hammered down at her as she lay. The bloodstones shimmered with heat. High above, the ogres were finding another way down, armed with the spears of her friends. As she watched, a pale glow rose from the petals of the rosebud.

She asked it, "Why?"

"Because I intended it," said Chiral Phi. "It was I who lured the ogres to your camp."

She scrunched her crying eyes. "Why?"

"Who am I, Oriana?"

"You said you were a God of Empathy," she spat. "Liar."

"I am the liar and the mother of lies," said Phi. "Thus it is written in the Great Book. But I am also the God of Empathy."

"How is this empathy," she said, forming her teeth into a growl. The mandibles that passed for her lips slavered.

"I am giving you what you asked for. Didn't you ask for this?"

Oriana raised herself from the ground on her fists. "I never asked for this. I never asked for this!" She rammed her fist into the rock, creating more fractures. "I asked for glory! Camaraderie! To chase the stars! I thought I would die at Lifprasil's side! I thought I would die!" Her halo shone pink, healing bent bones. "I thought I would die and I was happy until YOU came!"

"Die then," said Chiral Phi. "Do what you came for." The light winked out.

"...raaAAH!"

Oriana lashed out, and the rose was nothing but a trail of shredded feathers on the wind. She looked down at her hands. She scrunched her eyes and curled up on her knees.

One beautiful thing in the wasteland, and even that was gone.

"AAAAAAAH!"

The ogres came and Oriana went to them. Her halo flared yellow. She'd lost her weapon long ago but, like the rose, her armour was nothing but thorns.

Oriana raged and gouged and ripped and tore and gnashed. The blood covered her as she killed with her shoulders, drew blood with her teeth. Everything was red. Everything was violence. She caved the last ogre's skull with a rock and smashed it until stone hit stone.

She sat on the body of the clansman and put her head in her hands. "...I was wrong," she whispered. "Just take me back."

Phi blinked back into existence. "You're alive, Ori."

"I don't want to."

"You made a mistake. I know. I kept you alive through your rage, and I'm sorry, Oriana. I'm sorry."

"Why did you do it?"

"Because I don't want anyone to make a mistake like yours. You're still suffering." The light swirled. For a moment it seemed to form the shape of a woman, gazing out into the distant sunset, but that was just pareidolia.

"I won't lie to you any more, Ori. I'm not better than him. In many ways I'm much the same. In fact, I'm worse. But I'm not him. Enough is enough, Oriana, daughter of Tyufik. Don't spend your eternity living your mistake. You can run. Run away from your pain and never come back."

Oriana said nothing.

"In the morning I'll guide you away from this place. I'll take you out of the Changing Plains, and show you the way to wherever you want. You can go anywhere. I will not stop you. But I'm hoping you'll stay with me."

"...Why," she said. "I don't want it to hurt."

"So you can guard my flock," said Chiral Phi. "Teach them that there is no god worth dying for. And how to treasure themselves. Teach them how to love truly, and how important are the lives of others. Teach them that there's no god worth dying for," she repeated. "Not even me."

And the indigo light winked out. Oriana daughter of Tyufik was left to stare at the moons and wonder at her future.

* * *


A small figure stood in a long room, facing the kneeling masses. Its arms were spread wide, a dove evenly perched on each one. Every inch of skin was covered in dense rags. Rags that were no longer just coverings, but had become a symbol.

The figure said, "And what is the purpose of life?"

The masses replied, "There is none."

"And what is the outcome of all action?"

"Futility."

"And what is the noblest falsehood?"

"In the face of eternity, only diversity."

"State the number of stars."

"Eleven orders of magnitude."

"And how can infinity be filled?"

"We must expand."

"And where must you go?"

"To the heavens."

"And why must you go?"

"Our fate is our own. Thus we create. Creation is the only true exercise of free thought."

"And who am I?"

"You are the Dove."

"And who am I?"

"You are the only Dove."

"And who am I?"

"You are nothing but the Dove."

"Sleep now."

The heads bowed, and the congregation was lost in ritual slumber, kneeling in rows upon the floor. Dabbles nodded his head, and gently raised his hands. The pigeons fluttered off and onto their perch.

The kilted Warden standing at his side watched the catechism and when Dabbles turned to him he nodded. "Would that Lifprasil had never touched the Godslayer," he said. "That we would not have to rely on such a cult."

"Cult or no, my dear, most everything I've said is true," said Dabbles. "It is the will and the teaching of the Horror. I do it gladly. My Lord has done much for me, and this Humble Servant will return."

"You're mad, Monk."

Dabbles cocked his head and said, "Oh..?"

"Don't catch me with your games, Sculptor," said the Warden, staring down at the alter where the slaughtered Sweetheart lay. "We each think we're swindling the other. And neither of us are wrong. Let's leave it at that, and pursue our shared goal."

Dabbles laughed. The voice was merry and cordial and almost utterly sourceless. "Have no fear, o Warden of Alefpria," he said, raising a hand and allowing a pigeon to alight thereon. A huge wave crashed against the side of Father Dominus and the sound hushed faintly through the Ark. "The Cancer will grow and the cosmos will be yours. Mark my words, the cosmos will be yours."

The Warden nodded and stared at the tiny sage. Its grip on its cleaver tightened just slightly.

* * *


The two warriors faced each other, kneeling evenly. They each took up a tiny cup in both hands and raised it to their lips. A double click as the porcelain touched the floor.

Yuna opened her eyes and watched the figure before her. She was not especially strange, by the standards of a Knight. Her strangeness had been exaggerated by her followers. Yuna supposed that her similarity to the other Pronobii was still too apparent to strike them as anything other than uncanny.

She still had the glow of the siphons in her joints, as red as a raven's blood. She still had a body like sculpted ice. It was hard to tell what was different about her, even, until you saw the seam between her face and her skull.

Lambda opened her eyes. Yuna didn't see this happen, of course- the High Priestess's blindfold was still firmly in place.

"A successful evening, I'd think," she said, her smile just a faint touch wry. Would that it were just a little more so, thought Yuna.

She nodded. "I'm glad this all worked out as well as it did, my lady. I was afraid there'd be friction, and another failing front to consider."

Lambda waved a hand. "I wouldn't pin too much on fortune. You're an honourable girl, Yuna. You do your city a favour. I'll prepare a formal statement soon enough-" Lambda's eyes fell on the pile of scrolls and letters signed in Lakshmi's name and that of her Emperor, and she wheezed. Yuna smiled with her. The dusk was bright amber. "-I'll get Omicron to do it. But, suffice to say, the Pronobii of the Old Sea will gladly stand as an ally to Alefpria."

Yuna bowed her head and smiled. "Thank you, Priestess. The gods know we need them."

The mats they kneeled on were small. There were no real furnishings in this room, as yet. An altar. A map. A simple table. A sword. Recombinance. The Pronobii were still getting used to decorating above water, and with anything that wasn't ice.

Outside the waters lapped, calm and pelagic. Yuna was more than capable of meeting Lambda in the water, but she had insisted: some ceremonies had been born on dry land and would remain there. This was the platform at the top of Mias'Thul, the Twisted Tower. A large village could fit here. Slender though it was, the platform stood perfectly even on a tower ten miles tall.

Yuna sighed. Lambda was still resting, though she flexed her shoulders every now and then. Yuna found herself watching every time.

"It's as well we've found a companion to take into the heavens," she said. "Things are... Tense in Alefpria. People are uncertain." Lambda's gaze fell on her. She didn't know how she knew that, but she did.

"The Battle of Xerxes was harsher than anyone could have expected," Yuna continued. "The people saw gods. Even the Knights had never faced deities in person, other than Lifprasil. We saw how much blood would be spilled for Lifprasil's vision..."

"And then the Godslayer." Bitter notes as Yuna spoke, unable to contain herself. These were things too close to be spoken to any but a stranger. "She was a living legend before the Battle, but we didn't know what she truly was," she explained, as Lambda watched. "Now Lifprasil is ailing from her touch. We don't know... when he'll recover." Lambda nodded. She knew the pain of losing a god.

"In his absence new thoughts are starting to creep into the city." Yuna spoke on and on. "We always thought we would unite the world, but now... There are sects. They aren't spoken of, the seams don't show up in the light. But they're there. There are people who've given up on this world. So long we've been hidden under the veil of mist that they don't care for anything but Alefpria. They just want to carry it to the stars. The House of Life..." Lambda caught the word 'clandestine'.

"Others have seen outside and decided that Alefpria's not worth staying," she said. "So they wander. To Rulanah, to the Blowfly Marquisate. Shalanoir. Metera-"

"Here?"

Yuna looked down into her cup.

"Take your time. We're all Yän bastards here."

Yuna laughed.

"She really does have a hand in everything, doesn't she."

"Tell me about it," murmured Lambda.

"I'm just glad to have found someone kind," she said. "Someone who can fight and love. That's all our Emperor wanted, in the end. To win, and have peace, and chase stars."

And even that was Yän's little scheme, thought Lambda. But she didn't say it. She put a palm on Yuna's shoulder and she looked up.

"Don't be anxious about my friendship, Yuna," she said. "I like you. I offer it gladly. If our nations draw together, then I'll count it a blessing. If our hearts draw together... That's even better."

Yuna smiled, and looked down. The sun was nearly missing. "In Amestris," she said, not meeting Lambda's gaze, "there was once a custom that, when two ambassadors cemented a union, they'd be joined in body as well as paper." A small shrug. "It's not as if my body can still do such things, but..."

Lambda smiled. "I'm sorry. I don't swing that way."

"Of course. I-"

"But I know a girl."


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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by BBeast
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BBeast Scientific

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I am awoken from my slumber.
I sense motion.
It eats through the stone.
It is not Air, for I sense footsteps.
It is not Fire, for fire cannot burrow.
It is not Hydrocarbon or Ice, for it would not come this far inland.
Its Flicker is strange.
It thus can't be Stone or Meteor.
It gets closer.
It bites into me!
Who is this that dares challenge me?

* * *


The colony sprawled outwards, with the usual grid of Processors and railway tracks surrounding a Nexus. Towards the northern edge was an extensive strip mine, digging up a large iron ore vein. Many Harvesters worked there, producing many tonnes of steel being freighted out to other colonies. Operation was as normal.

Then there was a tremor and the earth shifted. There was a sound like an explosion from the mines, where the tremor happened.

promethean.N000130: Error: Communication failure with H207819. Last known location: [25.098 20.105]
promethean.H207650: Destruction of H207819 confirmed.
promethean.N000130> new_hazard(Location=[25.098 20.105],Description="earth tremor",Risk=80,Action="investigate")
promethean.H207650: Investigating Hazard No. 000392.

The Harvester plodded closer to the collapsed stone wall which had crushed H207819, illuminating it with headlights for optical inspection and pinging it with sonar. Some of the other Prometheans were already moving away in case of another tremor, especially the Energisers whose high cost gave them greater bias towards self-preservation. Yet as H207650 looked at the stone, it realised that this was not an ordinary collapsed wall. The earth was still in a single piece, and there was no fault line along the ground to suggest that the chasm had folded up.

promethean.H207650: Unable to classify Hazard No. 000392. Sending data to N000130.

There was a barely perceptible shift in the stone. A circle of deep black stone revealed itself on the earth facing the Harvester.

Another one?

The stone wall lurched, hurtling towards the Harvester, and reduced it to a mangled wreck of scrap metal with a horrific crash.

promethean.N000130: Error: Communication failure with H207650. Last known location: [25.098 20.105]
promethean.N000130> update_hazard(000392,Risk=705,Action="avoid")
promethean.E002049: Destruction of H207650 confirmed.
promethean.H207702: Warning! Unexpected earth motions at [25.098 20.105]
promethean.M302199: Infrastructure damaged at [25.098 20.105]
What unnatural abominations are these?

The stone rose from the mine. Cranes, conveyor belts and rails twisted and snapped with tortured screeches as the earth forced its way through them.

You attempt to take my domain.

The stone kept rising, bulging up from the pit, until it manifested into an enormous towering form, easily a hundred meters tall. Three broad legs supported the mountainous body, which was capped by a dome which might be its head. On this dome were several relatively small circular patches of very dark stone. A careful observer would notice that these patches flexed and tilted, and a particularly creative observer might suggest that these were its eyes. And these eyes angled themselves towards the Nexus, whose own towering form clearly marked it as the chief of these strange metal entities.

I will crush you!

An arm almost as long as the djinn was tall cleft itself from the rocky side of its body. The lanky limb lashed across the mine, tearing up cables, rails and other structures, as well as plowing through many Prometheans.

promethean.M298701: Destruction of H208945 confirmed.
promethean.E002049: Warning! Critical damage received.
promethean.M302199: Infrastructure damaged at [25.098 20.106]

Dozens more warnings flashed through the digital aether as a second arm peeled out and swept through the other side of mine.

promethean.N000130> update_hazard(000392,Description="hostile entity",Risk=9500,Action="eliminate")
promethean.N000130> new_task(Type="demolish",Target=hazard.000392,Priority=9800)
Processing Task No. 312798

Harvesters trundled up to the djinni as it started walking and closed in to mine through its legs. The djinni kicked and stomped, crushing and toppling the machines. Even as the Harvesters fell, dozens of Manipulators swarmed in from the ground and off the walls, latched onto the djinni and drilled into it. Cracks formed in the stone, but this seemed to only make the djinni angrier as it brushed off the Manipulators like insects. Two steps later and the djinni had crested the southern slope of the mine and entered the colony.

The Processors had already broken ranks and were evacuating, with glacial speed. A sweeping stone arm ruptured dozens and pushed them aside.

promethean.N000130: Urgent! High risk hazard. Destruction imminent. No available protocols.
promethean.N000130: Requesting cloud computation.
promethean.N000001: Request granted. Synchronising computational resources.

The collective consciousness of over a hundred Nexi, connected via radio, was brought to bear on the frantic task of finding a way to combat this colossal entity of raging stone. A few seconds later, ideas rolled in, and the Nexus took action.

promethean.N000130> new_task(Parent=task.312798,Type="deliver",Object="explosives",Destination=hazard.000392)

Processors across the colony shifted gears as they prepared and outputted any explosive they could. With great haste these were transported by rails and loaded onto every Carrier the colony had. The roar of jets joined the sound of thumping stone and tortured metal as the djinni advanced, crushing Processors and swatting aside Manipulators. The Carriers circled and closed in.

I am stronger than Air.

The lanky limbs were well suited to swatting down flying entities. An arm lashed out at the nearest Carrier and struck it squarely. It detonated. The mining charges shattered the arm, and left the djinni reeling in pain. The other Carriers seized their opportunity and dived. Three Carriers loaded with high explosives rammed into the djinni at speed, each exploding and blasting apart the stone.

Terribly wounded, the djinni collapsed to the ground. The other Carriers forwent their suicide dive in favour of dropping their explosive cargo upon the djinni. Manipulators swarmed in to drill and hammer away at the fallen djinni, who thrashed around and crushed many of them but was overwhelmed by their sheer numbers. Harvesters also closed in and tore through the stone. The Prometheans were unrelenting, and the djinni was reduced to gravel.

Task No. 312798 complete
promethean.N000130> remove_hazard(000392)

The stonedjinni had left a trail of total destruction. The crushed bodies of hundreds of Prometheans littered the ground, as well as the twisted wrecks of whatever infrastructure had stood in the way. Hundreds more Prometheans had been left severely damaged, both from the rampaging djinni and from the shrapnel from the exploding Carriers.

There was no mourning or grieving among the Prometheans. They did not have the capacity for such emotions. There was only the calculation of losses and the organisation of recovery. Already the surviving Manipulators were busy at work salvaging parts and scrap from the destroyed Prometheans and repairing those who had been damaged. The Nexus and the Processors got busy with manufacturing more Prometheans to replace the losses.

promethean.N000130> new_direction("Make colonies defensible")
promethean.N000001: Directive No. 000003 received

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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Kho
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Gathered in the home of the Patriarch, the chiefs and elders of the Bato-Elyd Eskandars sat before the young Fikra. The austere Patriarch observed his gathered kinsmen and followers even as they looked to him. The great majority of them had seen him for the very first time when they had come to take the pledge of allegiance and so now they observed him uncertainly, no doubt wondering whether he was like his father or a different breed of Patriarch. Fikra looked heavenwaard, away from their staring eyes, and raised his hands to heaven to speak words of blessing and prayer as an opening to the monumental meeting. It was not every day, after all, that so many loyal Bato-Elyds in whose veins ran the blood of the Prophet-Patriarch gathered together in one place. But then again, it was not every day that a Patriarch died and a new Patriarch arose.

'Oh You, the marvels of whose might can never wane; honour Eskandar and the faithful progeny of Eskandar and prevent us from deviating from Your path.
Oh You, the term of whose rule will never end; honour Eskandar and the faithful progeny of Eskandar and release us from Your just vengeance.
Oh You, the coffers of whose mercy are inexhaustible; honour Eskandar and the faithful progeny of Eskandar and appoint for us a portion of Your mercy.

Oh You, whom eyes fall short of truly seeing though You light up the darkness of our nights; honour Eskandar and the progeny of Eskandar and make us the closest of creation to You.

Oh You, before whose magnificence all great things wither; honour Eskandar and the faithful progeny of Eskandar and give us blessings in You.

Oh You, who possesses the knowledge of all things and from whom no secret can be hidden; honour Eskandar and the faithful progeny of Eskandar and expose us not before You and before Your creation.

Oh Mother, remove our need for all gifts through Your gift, and spare us the loneliness engendered by those who desert us through Your support; that we may ask none along with You to give us anything, and that we may not feel loss at anyone's desertion when You are present.

Oh Mother, so honour Eskandar and the faithful progeny of Eskandar, and make it so that fate is with us, not against us, that it is to our benefit and not to our loss, that it gives the turn to prevail to us and not to others.

Oh Mother, so honour Eskandar and the faithful progeny of Eskandar and protect us from Yourself, lead us through Yourself, guide us to Yourself, and do not cast us far from Yourself.
For safety is to him whom You protect, and knowledge goes only to whomsoever You guide, and to he whom You keep near go all the spoils.

Oh Mother, honour Eskandar and the faithful progeny of Eskandar and spare us the treacherous twists and turns of future days, the evil of Your enemies' snares, and the aggression of those who wield power and authority over us.

Oh Mother, they are spared only whom You, in Your overflowing strength and might, choose to spare; so honour Eskandar and the progeny of Eskandar and spare us.

Oh Mother, honour Eskandar and the faithful progeny of Eskandar and cure the illness in our hearts by causing us to the remember and exalt Your might, and cure the the idleness of our bodies by causing us to give thanks for Your favour, and cure the sleep of our tongues by causing us to glorify Your kindness.

Oh Mother, honour Eskandar and the faithful progeny of Eskandar and make us of those who call all of creation to You; make us the guides who direct all towards You, and Your chosen elect whom you have elevated and blessed above all others.
Oh You, oh most merciful of those who show mercy, oh Mother, oh light of the world. In Your name do we begin all prayers, and with Your name do we bring them to an end - though Your name and Your glory and You Yourself know no beginnings and no ends.' And with the prayer complete, Fikra lowered his hands and all those present looked to the ground and were silent for many minutes, each enjoying a small moment of closeness with the Moon-Mother.

'Unahra,' the Patriarch at last said, breaking the silence. Unahra looked up in response, 'you are well-learned in many things, I am told, and I am interested in knowing your view on a certain topic.' The old Unahra smiled and nodded respectfully.

'I am but a babe before you, Patriarch. You are a river flowing from the well-spring of all knowledge, and I a thirsting child who can only hope to quench his thirst if you see fit to honour me so.' Fikra did not respond to the man's words and pressed on with his question.

'My question concerns love. What is it?' The old man chuckled and looked around himself at the gathered chiefs and other elders.

'Love is a series of thoughts, my Patriarch. Thoughts that are so incessant that one's heart becomes occupied with them, and one's soul is consequently affected - maybe even changed - by them.' Fikra considered the old man's words for a few moments but said nothing. A voice then rose up.

'It had been better, Unahra, if you shrugged and said, "I don't know" - it is yours to answer if the question concerns divorce or, for instance, a pilgrim who went hunting or - I don't know - killed an ant or some such thing. As for a question like this, it is for people like us to answer.' It was sharp-eyed Ruya who spoke. Fikra had recognised the Garid chieftess' voice even before he looked her way.

'Speak then, Ruya. What is love?' Ruya's pale honey eyes met the yellow of the Patriarch's and, without breaking her gaze from his, spoke.

'Love,' she said, 'is a pleasant sitting partner, a beloved companion, and a possessor of a kingdom whose actions are gentle, and whose ways are mysterious, and whose rulings on matters are permissible to follow, it has possessed the bodies and their spirits, the hearts and their passing passions, the eyes and their gazes, and the minds and their opinions. And it is known that they who have suffered love and maintained their silence through it, refraining from sealing that love by illegitimate means and maintaining patience until the Moon-Mother grants them their heart's desire, then the Moon-Mother will forgive them and grant them the station of martyrdom in death.' Fikra nodded slightly at her words, their eyes still hanging one to the other.

'I have heard it said that love is a madness, and that just as madness has many colours and forms, so too does love have many colours and forms.'

'I once visited Darofid,' a man suddenly spoke up. With some reluctance, Fikra looked away from the chieftess to the one who now spoke, 'nearly ten years back now, and I was hosted there by a man of the people of Darofid who one day said to me, "shall I not show you a youth in love?" And I said of course, for I had long heard people speak of love and the madness which comes with it, and I had in all truth longed to see it with my own eyes. So he gave me a day on which he would take me, and it was a thing agreed.

And as we were on our way, my companion set about describing to me the piety of this man and his incresaingly ascetic life and the great pains he went to in his worship. And so I asked with whom this man was smitten, and my companion told me: "With a slave-girl belonging to a family distanly related to him. And he used to visit them often for matters of business, so that it came to be that she eventually found a way into his heart while he was unaware. So he asked to buy her from them, but they refused. So he offered to them all that he owned in exchange for her - and it was something like nine-hundred Orif-Figs - but they refused out of a vile and deep-rooted hatred, and jealousy that one such as her should be his.

And so after they had refused him again and again, the slave-girl sent to him a written letter - and she loved him with equal passion and strength as he did her. And the long and short of the letter was: "Command me whatever you will, for by the Moon-Mother I shall obey you and shall incline myself towards your command in whatever you say." So he sent to her saying, "Take ye with obedience to none but the Moon-Mother, and obey also those who are your rightful owners - for that is part of obeying the Moon-Mother -, and leave off thinking of me, for it may be so that the Moon-Mother, glorified is She, will deign to make for you and I a reprieve and deliverance. For, by Her who lights up the heavens in the night, I am not one whose soul is at ease in taking something beloved to me, after She has denied me it, in a manner that is illicit and shameful and sinful. Nay, but I seek aid from Her in this our matter; so let this be the last of our communications one to the other, for it is loathsome to me that the Moon-Mother should see me engaged in a matter She has denied me while I am between Her hands. So I beseech you fear Her, for that fear is a protection for those who obey Her, and in it is a ward against disobeying Her."

And my companion told me that this young lover turned to intense effort in worship, and he took up poetry and isolated himself from creation, and he barely ever left the confines of his home, busying himself with worship and thought of her. By Her who banishes the darkness of the night, he remained in this state until it utterly broke him, and was now barely sane.

We then arrived at the door of this man's home, and we requested permission to enter and permission was given. So I entered, and discovered this to be a most spacious home, and we came upon a man lain on the ground on some coarse bedding. So we greeted him, but there came from him no response. We sat by his side and I was able to look at him more closely, and it was the case that his visage was of the most beautiful I had ever seen. And he was beating the ground - as though in pain - and breathing heavily and with difficulty, and more than once I became certain that his spirit had fled his body from the intensity of the pain and hurt that he was in.

Then he turned, and I suddenly saw that by his side was a flower of intense redness, so I said to my companion, "what is this? For by the Moon-Mother I have not seen this year a flower before this!" So he said, "I belive so-and-so (and he spoke the slave-girl's name) sent with it to him." So when he named her the love-struck youth suddenly raised his head and looked to us, and he said:

I made my very flesh the soil to plant her flower
To breathe in her love's fragrance should my despair glower
Who has seen like me a man dressed in tears and sadness?
Love caused my ailment, I'm now a friend to madness,
For life is manic moments in a sea of constant sorrow:
Unforgotten yesterdays and no brightness on the morrow.


There was more, but I cannot quite remember it right now. Having spoken thus, his head fell back and he was once again in his near-comatose state. I turned to my companion, shocked, and declared: "This very hour, by Her who welds night into day, he dies." And I saw of the man's state what I could not bear to see much longer, so I arose pulling my cloak, and by the Moon-Mother I had not reached the door before I heard screams and shouts. "What is it?" I asked, and they told me, "By the Moon-Mother, he is dead." So I said, "By Her to whom all souls ascend, I shall not depart until I witness his burial."

And the people came to know of what had come about, and they came forth with a physician who told us, "Your friend has departed towards that which all shall depart, so see to the matter of his burial." So we washed him and dressed him and buried him, and the people then left.

My companion then said to me, "Come, let us be gone." So I said to him, "You go, for I wish to remain her a while more." And so he went. I sat beside the grave, weeping bitterly and contemplating and taking lessons from this man, and remembering the people graced with the Moon-Mother's love.

So while I was in this manner, I saw coming towards me a slave-girl, hesitant and looking here and there as though she were a gazelle. So she said: "Oh you - where did they bury this youth?" And, by Her who holds up the heavens, hers was a face radiating with a beauty such as I had never seen before or since. So I rose up and pointed silently to his grave. So she approached it and fell to her knees before it, whereupon - by the living, breathing heavens - she did not leave upon his grave an unturned spot, taking the earth and pouring it upon her head, and she took to burrowing her face into the earth as though to reach the man within and weeping and crying, till I thought she was going to die.

But it was not so long before a people emerged searching for her and they came upon her, so they pulled her away and took to beating her. So I stepped forth and said to them, "Be gentle with her, may the Moon-Mother show mercy on you!" So she said, "Let them, oh man, do as they will, for by the Moon-Mother they shall find no usefulness for them in me after him, so let them deign to do with me what they will." And it dawned on me then that she was the one whom he had loved. And so I departed and left her.'

'That is quite the tale, Hajjam' Ruya said once the man had grown silent and all those gathered sat reflecting on the tale, 'do you mean by it that love is indeed a madness?'

'I don't know, truth be told.' Hajjam said sheepishly, 'but perhaps what I do mean to say is that, perhaps, it would be easier to identify love by its signs rather than by an attempt at defining it.' Ruya nodded slightly and looked to the Patriarch who seemed deep in thought.

'And what are they, the signs of love?' Fikra at last asked.

'Surely they are more than can be counted!' one declared.

'They can't be infinite...' another countered.

'I mean, I could think of at least one,' Hajjam spoke up once more.

'Pray tell,' said Ruya. The old man looked from Ruya to the Patriarch and smiled knowingly.

'Love, may the Moon-Mother exalt and raise you in station, has certain signs that the intelligent one is quick to detect and the shrewd one immediately recognises. Of these signs the very first is the pining gaze. For you see, may the Moon-Mother bless you, the eye is the wide and open gateway of the soul through which all of its secrets may be scrutinised and which conveys even its most private thoughts to those well-versed in reading them. And unless both lovers be made of stone or steel, the eyes of one or the other will manifest in them their deepest­ and most well-hidden feelings.

You will see, for instance, the lover gazing at the beloved unblinkingly; the lover's eyes follow the beloved one's every movement, withdrawing and inclining as the other withdraws and inclines. I have, may the Moon-Mother guide you, written a poem on this very topic, from which I shall quote to you but a small part:

My eye no other place of rest
Uncovers, save with ye;
'Tis said the lodestone is possessed
Of a like property.
To right or left does it pursue
Your movements up or down,
As poor men seeking succour do
In each and every town.


When speaking, the lover will direct speech to the beloved even when purporting - however earnestly - to address another: the affection is apparent to anyone who has eyes to see. When the beloved speaks, the lover listens attentively to every word, marvelling at everything the beloved says. This is so even when the speech and observations of the beloved are extraordinarily absurd.
The lover seeks earnestly to be in the proximity of the beloved, endeavours to sit as near as possible when in gatherings, and lays aside all occupations obliging departure. I have put this into verse also:

With great regret do I arise
When our brief togetherness ends,
Like the sinner who weeps and cries
When the hangman for him sends.

But to our meeting do I rush
Bidding all worldly things goodbye
Swift as the moon as it does brush
Off the darkness of the sky.

But yet again the time must come
To go our ways and part anew
Like night and day who, weeping, dumb,
Part as the sun comes into view.


Among love's other signs are the sudden confusion and excitement that come upon the lover when unexpectedly seeing the beloved or someone who resembles the beloved. Even hearing the name of the beloved can engender this intense response.

Another such sign - and this is the last I shall mention, for I do not wish to bore you - is that the lover goes to great hardship, or acts differently from the norm, so as to show off good qualities and so become more desirable. When struck by love, how often has it been that the miser opened his purse and gave abundantly, the scowler relaxed his frown, the coward leapt heroically into the fray, the dullard became sharp-witted, the boor turned into the perfect gentleman, the scoundrel transformed himself into the model of morality, the ne'er-do-well smartened up, the decrepit recaptured lost youth, the godly went wild, the self-respecting gave up on dignity - and all due to love.' And here Hajjam stopped and bowed his head respectfully towards the Patriarch.

'By the Moon-Mother, Hajjam, have you made understanding love the mission of your life?'

'The goddess forbid!- the mission of my life is to serve Her and Her chosen elect!' Hajjam declared, and those gathered burst into laughter save Fikra who lowered his head and looked at the ground.

'But what causes you to ask about this matter, Patriarch? Could it be that you suspect you are caught by the madness?' It was Siknara, chieftess of the Radids, who spoke. She was sat beside Fikra and had both of her arms wrapped around the Patriarch's right arm, clinging to it like one who had no intention to let it go. Fikra shook his head firmly.

'Far from it, Chieftess. But perhaps you are the most capable of telling us about love - is it not passed down from one Radid chief to the next?'

'Oh yes! But I could never speak my heart before the people. No, not even before the beloved himself,' she said with a knowing smile, 'wise Hajjam may try and endeavour, but he will never be able to open the heart of a lover and search within it for all that love is. Above all things, it is what cannot be described that makes love what it is. Do you want to know what love is? Then love!' And she laid her head on the Patriarch's shoulder and closed her eyes for a few moments. When she opened them again, she was looking directly at Ruya who was staring at Siknara strangely. Before the Radid chieftess could smile, Ruya had already cast her gaze elsewhere.
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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by BBeast
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BBeast Scientific

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The Great Artisan, Divine Mason, Builder of Civilisations
Level 5 God of Crafting (Masonry, Carpentry, Smithing, Alchemy, Armaments)

28.75 Might & 2 Free Points


Teknall strode across his Workshop to the humming computer. This was the machine coordinating the scouting drones in the Submaterium of Mirus. That was one thing he had figured out: Heartworm's laboratory was almost certainly on Mirus, since that was where all its defences were. Heartworm had been resisting, unsurprisingly, sending out Sculptors and other creatures to destroy the drones. Heartworm was smart enough to arrange its defences to provide minimal clues as to its lab's location, but its physical defences were extremely porous.

Teknall reached out with a finger and touched the computer's terminal. Since the cartographic data was hyperdimensional in nature, the simplest way for Teknall to visualise it was to directly Perceive the data. He had been doing this at regular intervals, monitoring the progress of the scouting drones, ensuring that the computer was operating as expected, and checking for clues as to Heartworm's location. From prior data, Teknall had managed to determine the average hyperdimensional density of the Submaterium tunnels, and thus he was able to estimate his progress in mapping the tunnels of Mirus.

However, the density of Labyrinth tunnels was starting to diverge from what he had previously established for the Submaterium of Mirus. A few of the newer paths seemed less plausible than previously found paths. And the data tasted funny, which was strange, since data shouldn't have a flavour. Yet the cause of these anomalies eluded Teknall's grasp, seeming to writhe out of view whenever he might have gotten close.

This unsettled Teknall. So he decided to inspect the drones in the tunnels. He chose one of the drones and teleported to it. The tunnels seemed normal. The drone seemed to be functioning fine. But as he Perceived the surrounding tunnels, he noticed that something was wrong. The map in the computer didn't match the geography of the tunnels he saw around him.

Worried, Teknall teleported to several other points in the Well Labyrinth which had recently been mapped, and found that the map was inaccurate for those locations too. He stopped when his Perception noted something strange on the ground nearby. It was camouflaged in metallic paint matching the walls and it was barely larger than a pea, but its interaction with divine energy made it difficult for the god to miss. Cautiously, Teknall approached it, stooped down, picked it up with a pair of tweezers, and held it level with his eyes.

Heartworm had laid all manner of physical traps, all effective at killing individual drones but virtually useless at affecting the swarm as a whole. Heartworm had tried laying infohazards, terrible psychic influences dredged up from the Gap, but his system was smart enough to filter out such blatant non-data, so those had been no more effective than the physical traps. Yet this was different.

For one, it was not designed by Heartworm. Teknall always recognised the hand behind a creation, and the functional component of this thing had been made by Lazarus. That explained how the following properties had been implemented so effectively.

The chip had a set of sigils on it, which defined its function. This tiny little sigil responded to other sources of divine energy, in particular the siphons he had built into the drones. Via the siphons, it embedded a kind of secret message into the drones, encoded with offensive counter-data which subverted the regular functioning of the drones, intercepted transmitted data, and propagated on to the main computer. This falsified the data, compromising the integrity of the map, and it also granted remote access and control over the central computer. The digital virus, if it could be called that, was sufficiently subtle in its workings that it could work in secret, virtually undetectable.

Teknall would have been impressed with the cunning design if he wasn't furious at this significant set-back. He teleported around to a few other locations, collecting a few more of the computer virus sigils which had been scattered around, thus verifying that this wasn't an isolated incident. Slipping them into a steel mesh bag then into the safety of his apron pocket, he returned to his Workshop and stormed over to the computer. He laid a hand onto the terminal and focused.

"Damn it!"

Knowing exactly what to look for had made finding it much easier, and Teknall was not pleased with what he saw. The virus had firmly established itself into the computer, was rewriting the map at will, and giving false navigational data to the drones. The map had been compromised. The computer would have to be reset, along with the rest of the drones. Not all progress would be lost, for Teknall could reproduce snapshots of the map from memory, but all data obtained since the virus was released would have to be discarded, and since the exact release time of the virus was unknown he'd have to assume a suitable safety margin.

He'd also have to modify the software of both the drones and the main computer to be inoculated against that virus. That should be a tractable task, given that he could reverse engineer the functioning for the virus from the collected sigils then design specific countermeasures. A generalised antivirus might be more desirable, but it would cost more than Teknall could spare, and since Heartworm had to outsource to Lazarus to create this virus Teknall doubted that Heartworm would be able to disseminate a new virus. But the updates would take time, as would resetting all the drones.

All up, this virus had cost Teknall precious time. Keriss and Tauga were en route to Heartworm's lair, and there was now a decent probability that they would get there first. Teknall didn't want to find out whatever scheme Heartworm had surrounding Keriss too late.

Teknall pressed a hand to his beak, rubbed his eyes and moaned in frustration. He couldn't afford set-backs like this.

But, perhaps, there was another way. Teknall only needed to meet Heartworm. Locating its lair would be valuable, but not essential. He had observed that the virus sent data. Teknall sat down in front of the computer's terminal, unfolded a board with an array of buttons labelled with many letters, and began typing words into the digital aether.

>Heartworm, this is Teknall. I know you're listening.
>I found the digital virus you got Lazarus to make for you.
>You've delayed me, but haven't stopped me.
>I can reset the drones, inoculate them, redistribute them across Mirus.
>I can still find you.
>You know I'm hunting you, but you probably don't know why.
>I need to talk to you about what you did to Vakarlon, and what you're going to do to Keriss.
>I'll get my answers one way or the other.
>I'm giving you the chance to choose how.

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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Muttonhawk
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Muttonhawk Let Slip the Corgis of War

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Trial

c. 16 PR


"Nought is there greater a sin than to squander yourself!
The teachings of your prophet are presented not as a new master to take the yoke from your slave driver Chaos.
They sing in the order that makes us rovaick great in the eyes of our perfector!

Would you shun your potential?
Would you give yourself over to the filth of savagery only to till fields for fattened kings and manipulative ghosts while you chew cuds like a goat?

Death is the fate of such hypocrites.
Death in mind. Death in body. Death in breed.

So says the words of our prophet. So shall be the fate of the heretic."


Cralt did not lift his hanging head to any of the priest's scornful words. He let his shackles support him by his wrists as he hung from two posts, just painfully enough to keep his knees from supporting him on the ground. But he did not protest. They had broken his legs already. And if he could not suffer the pain now, he would not die well to his sentence.

"Cralt the tanner! Troll of Rulanah. He was your brother, o people! And now he hangs his head in shame! Look! He knows his fate. Toun has decided it. And what was his sin?" The priest in his white robes lowered his pitch menacingly. "None other than consorting with Meteran barbarians!"

The crowd in the cavern announced their displeasure. Growls and angry hoots bellowed from rovaick throats large and small.

Cralt only blinked at the stone floor.

"But!" The priest continued, quietening the crowd. "As is our law, Toun will hear your defence, Cralt the tanner. Speak, or submit to the wordless animal you have become."

Chains rang a tiny ring. Cralt lifted his stony face to survey the crowd. They stared back with upper lips lifted and eyes narrow. Cralt's slow pan lifted up. He looked at the four metal-armoured rovaick legionnaires, their armour etched with red characters that gave them Toun's blessing and extraordinary powers. Their full, smooth-faced helmets allowed them the only notch less in emotional expression than Cralt himself.

And then Cralt's eyes finally met the priest. That slimy green azibo priest. Slimy in mind, anyway. His countenance and clothing was immaculate white and red. The never-touching circles of Toun were emblazoned on his chest. Inquisitor Zaba. He had a fire in his eyes that fed on cruelty.

"I won't allow you the pleasure of seeing me bleat, Zaba. You know the southern trade died in the ongoing war. You know I needed to feed my family. You know that Metera is trading with everyone. What I did, I did for my family. And my family have already escaped. So there is nothing you can do to me now that I'll care about." He hawked his dry mouth and spat on the floor. "That is all I need to say."

The priest leaned down. The white scales jutting from the corners of his face indicated Toun's reward for personal worship. It only made him look blemished to Cralt. "We'll find your wife and two children, Cralt," he hissed through a grin. "We know you bought their passage to Alefpria. It is only a matter of time."

"You..." Cralt pulled uselessly at his chains to shout closer to the priest. "You'll never find them! You hear me?! Never!"

Zaba already sprang upright, turned to the crowd, and swept a gesture to Cralt. "See already how his base Chaos overtakes him! He would lash out at a holy servant of Toun in passion! Only a beast cares so little for blasphemy!"

The crowd sounded a low chord. Disgust.

"And you, Cralt!" Zaba extended an accusing pointed finger to the accused. "No good Tounian would stoop so low as a Meteran. They wallow in their worship of ghosts, of their rejection of gods. Of their lies and their sloth. Gods, dear people, are the extrema of ourselves! So says our prophet." Zaba's voice softened to explain. "We were born from Chaos in Vestec, cursed be him. Such an extreme is our fate if we lose sight of our other ideals! Such an extreme is our fate if we turn away from the gods, from Toun. From Teknall and his daughter, the toolsmith gift."

A subcrowd of goblins chanted in the back. Co-Na-Ta! Co-Na-Ta! Co-Na-Ta! Co-Na-Ta... Their voices faded as Zaba continued.

"But Toun, at the end of our path, he is our ultimate perfection! Our zenith of existence! He is the opposite ideal -- nay, the counter! -- to our inexorable slide back into savagery. It is by his challenges upon us that we have the strength to repel the beastly dwarves of the evil empress Lazarus! It is by his demands that we enjoy strength from sustenance and knowledge! We prepare for his call!" Zaba leaned and lifted a finger. "It is by his will that we improve every day." He turned slowly to Cralt. "And slough off the dead weight!" He straightened. "Cralt, you have turned your back on Rulanah, on Toun, and on yourself."

The chains tightened as they winched Cralt up until his feet left the ground. He snarled at Zaba defiantly as the priest was handed a porcelain tabled, written with red calligraphy.

"For your betrayal of self and your pursuit of betterment, you shall meet the fate of all heretics," Inquisitor Zaba read from the tablet. "You will be left behind in the mud we washed away years ago."

More white-robed priests ascended a podium behind cralt with styluses and inkpots in hand.

"You shall die in mind, you shall die in body, and -- whereon your family is found -- you shall die in breed." Zaba ended the last word with a sinister grin.

The priest atop the highest podium step laid a hand on Cralt's bald head. Cralt immediately tensed to a wide-eyed paralysis. A small glow told of the mind magic holding him in place. The other priests took delicately to his flesh with pen and ink.

"May you return to the wraithstone, feeding the fate of a better cause."

The first character was finished on Cralt's arm. It was a deadly simple character. One that took hardly any time at all and yet caused so much pain. It was at once his sentence and his punishment. It read waste.

"So says our prophet."

Cralt's arm ached. The energy faded from it. The strength, too. The pain of his own nerves shrivelling wracked his body. He could scream, but he closed his eyes instead. He thought of his wife and his children. Safe behind the golden walls of the City of Demigods.

Another character was complete. Another would go somewhere else. Soon he would lose the strength to breathe and think.

Soon he would die. His family would not.

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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Antarctic Termite
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Antarctic Termite Resident of Mortasheen

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'Soul, soul, where art thou?'
I'm in the place that you choose to forget
I'm in the dark that you hide in regret
I'm in the cold that you showed to the earth.

'Mother, mother, help me now!'
The mother has left you to cry and to roam
The mother has sent you away from your home
The mother has spurned you and cursed you from birth.

'I'll run! I'll flee! I'll break my vow!'
The oath that you took is stronger than you
The oath that you chose is only what's true
The oath that you live is all that you're worth.

'My soul and my oath and my mother of life,
All have conspired to bring up the knife.'

'And thus I will go, since nothing remains.
Thus I will go on to finish my pains.'


Whisper.


Time had passed. There would be no more delay. Whisper had shared her poetry with the Realta of Lex, and thus eliminated her final reason to exist. They sang her a solemn song in her own tongue as she left.

Somber times await the one
Who'd chase the earth and spurn the sun
Yet may the flow of yonder years
Bring thy song to future ears...


Whisper heard her lessons of tune and voice sound clearly from the choir, assembled in sputtering rusty ranks on either side. She twisted Wit's End on her back and unfurled a fluttering feather in farewell. The Realta watched her go.

A final voice cried out from the throng. Its accent was native.

"Wait!"

Whisper opened an eye. It was colourless in the dark of her skin.

"Grandma, wait!"

It was Dust. She couldn't have been much older than Wander when she'd first made the swim to Lex.

"I wanted to say goodbye."

Just that.

"Dust..."

Dust waited, patiently, for the words. Whisper had nothing to say. She prompted.

"Will we even hear from you again?"

Whisper turned to her. "Dust," she said. "Daughter of my daughter... Run."

Dust startled. She listened.

"Flee this place. Fight everything you love, abandon all you trust. Spurn gods. Drink oceans. Ride winds. Beg before kings and pray beside beggars. Suffer, Dust. Leave your sisters behind. Whatever happens," she said, "cannot be worse than the end I will bring."

Whisper turned and fled into the skyglow. Dust stalled in her shadow, then leapt to sprint after her.

"Can I flow beside you? Please!"

She let her. When her daughter began to flag, Whisper leapt into the atmosphere and burned on her way down.



Flux sensed a golden wind flow between the bars of his angular head, and raised his gaze. The soughing winds of Change blew upon him, and he felt a shift in the air.

Somewhere distant, I am remembered, he thought. Somewhere distant, I return.

Flux swished his sheets of fluid and glided on over the terrace of his garden, appearing like a man in a robe hurrying to retrieve something forgotten. The leaves of many years whispered beside him, in yellow and pink and blue, and the ataractic mists trailed into cirrus-shapes above.

As he went he touched so gently the every fallen twig, sampled the birdpecked berry and lifted the fallen rock; such was his nature that meticulosity had been folded into the paint of his very being, and become effortless, as easy as a constant breath and almost as absent. Yet nothing was changed, though he passed it by, no rock left turned, no bird disturbed. Even the angels that whispered sweet nothings as they smoothed each other's hair in the boughs did not notice as he passed, for Flux was as a shadow within water, a flick of shade that only hints at the calm giant that hides within.

He reached the pool of a waterfall and, sprinkling seed from the bird-feeder to the koi as he passed, flicked his shape up the spattered rocks and 'round the bubbling cliffs to the stream. There, where a small watermill was turning his mixer, a small house like a windmill-lighthouse stood at the edge of the Valley.

Flux flapped his wings and was up in a fizzle of amber-glowing quicksilver. He landed effortlessly in his most private room and reached for his books.

A quintet of codices all opened as one, and each sash of the Sculptor either held or examined the self-pressed pages. All of a sudden, he snapped them all closed with a fantastic sound.

Flux reached out to his chained-up Halo as it glowed with an indigo light on the end of its copper fixture. He unlinked the copper chain and set it gently where it belonged, floating still as a disc behind his pyramid face.

There. That would do him for now.

He swept his way cleanly out of the rooms of paints and pigments and down the valley's foothills, to the dojo where skeletons were training. He passed the clear-glass grove where faeries gathered over howdah'd rocks and rang the great bronze bell where his friend awaited.

"Whachu-"

Yulosi quietened as her old friend bowed. A vampire peered out from behind her and she smacked him across the face without looking.

"Flux," she said. "You old bastard."

Flux smiled. There was talk to be had.



Though patient days may ease the rot
And sleep remove its sting,
The traitor winds have not forgot
That one regretted sin.

It is a mortal I betray
His flesh was once my own,
And though I beg and though I pray
My burden's only grown.

I will not lie or plead with him
I will not preach my cause.
This blood is shed for Horror's whim-
I cannot stay my claws.


* * *


Whisper reached the foothills of the mountains where Grot had once walked.

The earth was covered in shallow lakes marking his footsteps. Flowers grew there now, ferns and water-lilies, and animals grazed at their side. She heard it all, the song of nature with no words, every nurtured stroke and blade of grass. Aihtiraq's gift followed her still.

She passed through a thin passage where a Matriarch once stood, along with a girl named Tira and a monk named Dancer. She flowed into the Valley of Peace.

She was told that it would burn. She had not expected this.

The wrath of betrayal and pain and justice and suffering dug into her, the claws of a thousand lost children given a place to tear. Every righteous word ever whispered by an angel sickened her, shredded her brain and made her weak.

And yet she did not die.

Whisper stalled for a moment and travelled on. She saw the great sigils before she stood between, disguised though they were. She opened her eyes and stared down their scribe as she entered them, and gold flashed, one on each side of the valley, to snare her with its magic.

The stone uncurled and stood before her, a half-blind urtelem aged by a hundred years of rain and still bearing the scars of that long-gone day. Whisper billowed in her cage. She dwarved the stoneman. Her face signed.

'You broke formation, didn't you?' The urtelem nodded. 'Why?'

The stoneman signed, 'Because once there was a girl I could not save on a battlefield, and that pained me all my days.'

'So you grew strong.'

He nodded.

'Nothing will save you.' said Whisper the cursed. 'If you do not flee, you will die.'

He shook his head. He smiled.

Whisper flared her sepia blood and screamed in the narrow alley. Her body swung like a coat of iron chains and slammed the ground and walls, shattering the sigils, shattering the walls, bringing down the stone, shattering everything.

Golden glyphs exploded above her and she emerged from the rockfall like the dark dust it had raised. The urt put his fists to the ground and squared himself. Whisper adopted no stance.

The lines shone from his fists to the sigil below her and there was a blur. The ground exploded towards him. Whisper stood in the shattered wake and watched rocks fall into the huge gouge she had torn into the earth. She saw the stoneman standing in the chaos and did not hesitate. She somersaulted her tail upon him.

Then he was broken, and nought but cracked stone remained, still bearing his moving face.

Whisper did not mourn. She travelled on.



Flux stood among the acacias of his home, holding a stylus and with it scribing subtle curves upon the earth. Clay was not a medium often used for the magic of ciphers, but alas, he could not work stone.

Yulosi rode up beside him on her black wether-goat, her lich's eyes glowing from behind her hood. Her staff lay across its back in front of her, trailing lizard skulls.

"Done with tha'?"

"A moment." Flux added the final glyph and gestured forwards. Yulosi took a stem of inkcap mushroom and ignited it between her fingertips, whispering a prayer to the demons and touching her staff to the pattern. It glowed briefly.

Flux lifted the clay slab and fitted it to its place in the pattern. The gulch was a dead end, its stream long since blocked by landslides. Unguided travellers found it often, and were turned back by its steep slopes. Flux intended for the next arrival to come here by choice.

"I get the impression you'll be spending the night here."

"I will," he said. And he felt the wave of a presence pass again in the back of his mind.



Mirus shone its aberrant light directly into the pit of stone, destined tonight to be full. Flux glowed in its center. The urtelem who had chosen to accompany him had once again curled up for the night. It was a brief hour's rest they were taking. Work would resume before dawn.

For now- just this moment- all was silent. Flux was the only one awake.

Yet he was not alone.

A presence turned its gaze upon him and at that same moment Flux vacated the space, ferrying his incandescence with him and leaving it dark. His hands trailed behind him like scarves of ferrous liquid. He touched the pattern of spiral algebra on the wall he'd been facing.

The presence passed on. Like a patch of light between dappling branches, it wandered thoughtlessly back to him. And he was gone.

His quarter-circle wings curled effortlessly behind him and he settled among the copse of holy trees above. He increased his golden light. The stranger looked at him, but he was touching the bark of a tree nearby, and when it looked again he was elsewhere.

Thus he moved, and led the dance of that night, with sweeping, flowing steps; a silent dance, of look and look-not, touch and not-touch. His arms flowed smooth in his wake like twin dancer's sashes, and the presence was lured to his rhythm. Be it what it may, yet in this, small thing, it was an excellent partner.

Flux landed on a single point in the gulch and dimmed his light, bowing as a cloud passed over the moon of Mirus.

"I think not, Yivvin," he said into the dark. "My story's not yet over. I'm growing still."



Recall the day of childhood's end
Or loss of first and only friend
When words alone sufficed to hurt

Do not forget where we found bliss
In times and places that we miss
For growing up is full of pain
And choices we won't make again

So let me tell you what I know
Of mother's love and true words told:
It made me cry, and left me cold.


* * *


Whisper crept through the misted valley, thinking of lost days. The vivid fog hurt less when she did that. The future was agony, and thoughts thereof pain, and though most of her memories hurt, some were still worth seeing one last time.

* * *


Whisper hovered above the ring, that oh so thin river of glittering rock upon which the vast factory floated. Tilted on its side, she could see only one listening-horn, and one many-eyed antenna. Even as she watched, Ovaedis revolved slowly on its axis.

She was bright, and full of colour. Every shade and hue of her was pure. Elsewhere her firstborn daughters played. Whisper realised something.

"You're a coward," she said. "Afraid of your own actions."


Maybe. If I am, so be it.

Jvan didn't care. Whisper narrowed her gaze and fumed. She was younger, then. Not so resigned.

"Have you ever done anything out of love? Anything?"


In the way that you feel it? No, she replied. No, I have not. And, maybe that's a lie, said Jvan, but it's easier than the truth.

"You don't even understand why you're doing this."

What I don't understand are my own memories. Jvan's voice carried on, nowhere to be seen in the rocks and the imagen but clear in Whisper's head. I created a something much like you, once. Much like the Sorority. And I executed a plan much like the one I had for you. And it caused me great pain.

The light doesn't shine everywhere, Diaphane Whisper. I only know so much. I do this to avoid the mistakes of another me.

Do you understand your role in this?

Whisper hardened. "When I first fell to earth, it was in a place of hiding," she repeated. "The place you call the Darkened Spires. There was life there, and Flickers. But nobody came there from beyond. And nothing left."

"Wander fell in a place on the outside of those spires. She hatched in a world where no matter how much she consumed, she would never be able to taste it all. And she would never be great enough to draw the ire of all the Flickers therein. So it has been for all the sisters who've gone into the sea."

"They only saw the beginning of your plan. I saw its end."

"The inside of that valley was a microcosm. I was change-eater, its elemental residents were Djinni. I fought them alone, and ate, and won, and lost, and they beat me back to grow again. I wondered why it felt so natural. Now I know."

"We found a balance, there, in the Spires. The stable ecosystem you built into us. Perpetual war."

"And maybe I was always weird. Maybe I was always different to my sisters. Because they would never have seen the truth of it, but I did. It was horrible."

Whisper opened her many eyes and stared again at the great pale slope towering away far ahead of her. "I will fight to change our future. I don't want to kill or starve. I don't..." She choked. "...want to see my sisters die."


Good, said Jvan.

The sound rose first as a distant whine, and Whisper didn't know what pained her. She raised her feathered tendrils and gazed at them, watching sepia stains flow through the blood.

She yelled Jvan's name. Jvan stared at her from inside the factory. She felt that gaze upon her, and screamed.

The sound collided with her and Whisper was destroyed in the force of a thousand hallucinations, perception without self. Whisper's body screamed and Whisper's senses heard that scream, but Whisper herself was gone.

Drop by drop Whisper's ego returned to her, the flow of awareness applied to raw senses that we call consciousness. She gripped herself in a ball above the reef, slowly became aware of the fact that something was growing within her. A memory of nightmare flashed scene by scene through her brain.

They floated there, Jvan and Whisper, god and victim. No words were exchanged.


Go, said Jvan. There is nothing more we have to say to each other.

Whisper fled.



The monster roiled into the gulch, and was met.

Angelic light lanced out from the clifftops, piercing the sepia change-eater. No sooner had the volley ebbed than an incantation rose, and withering demonfire engulfed her body, the voice of vampires and young liches covered from the sun. The writings of Belruarc exploded around it, and the mists of the Valley burned.

The cloud of dust settled, and the shapeless stain remained.

"Run," begged Whisper the cursed. But they would not.

Flux glided to her. A faery halo hovered behind him. "Have you no words, o pawn of my tormentor? Is there nothing I can offer to save you from the flesh?"

Whisper took Wit's End from her back, flipped it once and buried it deep into the dirt.

"No," she said. "But first, a song."



Because I do not hope to turn again.

Because I do not hope to hurt a friend.
Because I know that tides still surge.

Because I bring a second purge.
Because I know that place is only place,

And I know that time is always and only time,
I mourn for those who've seen the face

And those who've never heard the rhyme.
Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?

For it knows not the death it brings.

For these wings are no longer wings to fly,
But fans with which to beat the air.
These eyes are no longer eyes to cry,
But voids with which to stare.

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
I mourn for those I cannot save,
And pray for those caught in the wave.

I cannot stand upon this throne of lies.
I will not home to yonder skies.

I will not hear the mad god's rave.
I cannot yield before the grave.

Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
The infirm glory of the positive hour.

And so dreams cross, and must collide.
And so I stand before the tide.

And so I know my cause is wrong.
And so I stand before the song.




They surged forth.





A body lying at the top of the cliff fell down into the wreck of the gulch.

Flux's halo dripped sepia fluid that clogged its metal pores. Yulosi's staff had been snapped in twain. Whisper's sword stood where she had left it, though the earth around was rubble two feet deep.

They were the only ones alive.

"Yield," said Flux, whose glow was faint.

Diaphane Whisper shuddered a sound that was huge and broken. Flux caught the telepathic word: never.

The halo dripped again, and Whisper felt her flesh sucked out of her flattened body. She lay on the rock and tried to form knives. The mists ate her flesh.

"Let me die."

Yulosi jerked. "Flux," she said, her voice strained not by lack of air but of magic. "Finish her. Somethin's happening."

"I know," said the Sculptor. "It is time for you to go, old friend."

"Flux-"

"Yulosi," he said. "Leave."

Yulosi tried to hesitate, and, realising that Flux had known she would deny him and said it anyway, whisked her stunted skeleton up to the edge of the gulch in a flick of cloak and shadow.

Flux glided in over the broken earth, and, taking Diaphane Whisper's eye in his two hands, said this:

"I forgive you."

Whisper blinked, crying, as carmine hands speared up from the earth in one final act of betrayal.



Yulosi pushed aside the impaling filaments of Jvan as her feet splashed in liquid mercury. She picked up Flux's halo. The ground was hot, but nothing glowed.

A puddle of Whisper curled and tightened around her leg. Yulosi looked up and saw a stained ball lying where its cursed mother had fallen.

The puddle formed an eye. Yulosi met it, and she was recognised in a way that only mothers can.

"Take care of her."

The eye melted, and she was free. She staggered to the orb. It lay in a pool of paint and sepia, impossible to tell which was which.

Yulosi gripped the sword which lay half-buried beside it. She stroked its face and saw the creature sleeping within.

"Sable," she said, withdrawing phalanges now stained in that colour. "I will call you Sable."

The egg began to crack.



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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Frettzo
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Frettzo Summary Lover

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Brown fixes her mistake


He looked at his two friends, the ones he’d called his family for the last fifteen years. They were standing beside him, ready to lay down their lives at any moment with the only objective of protecting their people.

Kodo to his right, a man of short stature by all means, but whose presence radiated strength and breathed new hope into a soldier’s soul upon entering the battlefield. His face was disfigured, missing a nose and with numerous claw-like scars along it. He’d gotten those scars a decade ago; Vobom remembered that day like it was yesterday. That was the day Kodo truly became his brother after they both faced a legion of Shadows on their own.

To his left was Ral, a woman, taller than him and Kodo but slender and beautiful like an angel. She had many pretenders, but to Vobom she was just like a sister. A very stubborn one. She’d been his friend for as long as he could remember. She’d been with him all along, and she was also the only one he knew with whom he could reminisce about the good old days in which they were kids back in Wheat Village, the first Village to be devoured by the Beast. Over the years Ral had learned strange things. Occult magic; and she’d also made connections with people who Vobom would rather forget. But she did it all for this.

And just like that, he noticed them both looking back at him. A sad smile on Ral’s elegant face and a battle-hardened scowl on Kodo’s. Of course, after years of knowing the guy, Vobom knew that the way his upper lip was trembling meant that he was conflicted. He knew all about Kodo’s inner conflict. They all did, because they had been going through it for all of their lives.

Vobom took a deep breath and ran a hand over his face, feeling the small scars he’d obtained over the years of fighting the Beast, feeling each one send a shiver down his spine.

It had all lead to this. In the next couple of hours, the fate of everything they knew would be decided.

------------

It had been long enough. Enough with the tracking, enough with the spying, enough. She had finally tracked the beast to an exact location and, after lighting her way through thousands of its Shadows, was now about to finish what she started all those years ago.

With a flick of her wrist, her usual dress, torn from the years of constant fighting, shifted and was replaced by a very peculiar attire. One that seemed so well crafted and made that the very dust in the air seemed to be respectful of it, not daring to settle on it. It was an attire so perfectly crafted, that possibly only the Goddess Ilunabar could have been capable of making it. The attire consisted of a top with long, loose and white silken sleeves, a pair of dark brown pants, a bit darker than Brown’s own brunette hair, a pair of mid-calf high boots perfect for both kicking in kneecaps and walking for years at a time and finally, a half-length white skirt to go over the pants.

It was an attire gifted to her while meeting with both Goddesses over the matter of her near death. It often felt like that meeting was a lifetime ago, and she hadn’t used neither the jewelry or the attire once, in respect to their creators. Now, it was an important occassion and she’d need the aid of the magic-enhancing jewelry. A ring and a brooch. They seemd small and inconsequential, but Brown was sure they’d allow her to put up a fight.

She looked around one last time, noting the burn homes and the charred remains of what might once have been human families. That was all about to end.

So she gave a step, then another one and before she knew it, she’d reached the place where she was defeated. The ground had recovered somewhat, becoming a canyon of sorts. Tree roots as thick as a home, originating from the Deepwoods nearby, went out one side of the canyon and into the other, making rough bridges and allowing all kinds of critters to make their homes in the relatively new geographical location.

After a bit of looking, she found it. The very epicenter of the last strike. The crater had been covered by grass, and a tree, strong and beautiful was growing right in the center- A tree that sent shivers down Brown’s spine. She could feel the magic in the air, she could touch it. It was invisible to the naked eye, but to her, the entire crater slowly turned into a magnificent dance of colors and tastes and scents. And they all originated from the tree.

Compelled to know more, she started walking towards the gentle, beautiful plant. Then she jogged, and then she was right next to it, pressing her ear against it.

Of course, she heard nothing, but she didn’t have to hear anything in order to understand.

This was the one seed that she’d managed to save from being devoured by the Beast, back when this all began.

Brown sniffled bac k a tear and smiled. “I wish Astarte could see this,” Brown said softly, purposefully blocking Astarte from reading her actions and seeing through her. It was a good thing that her Goddess allowed her to retain some free will, she guessed.

There was no time to focus on beauty and magic, as the environment was quick to change. For a moment, the magical aura vanished, and the grass wilted and when Brown turned around, there it was.

Tall as three Urtelem, with skin blacker than the darkest shadow and a gaping maw lined with a thousand sawed teeth, devouring the soul of anything it came across. Anything it touched turned to ash.

It recognized her.

“Do you even have a name anymore, or are you simply a Beast, as the humans say?” Brown asked, adjusting the copper ring on her right middle finger.

No answer but a soulless glare. The afternoon turned to dus kas they looked at each other. None of them knew how long it had been since they last fought, but they also knew that such good enemies were hard to find, and had to be respected.

Finally, Brown spoke again, “It was my mistake allowing you to guide me through the Deepwoods, and I own up to my defeat shortly after-“

The Beast grunted and began to move into the crater, but brown held up a hand, “Stop! We’ll fight elsewhere... This place is important to me, to my Goddess...”

The beast set one of its paws in the crater, and at that moment, Brown felt the aura of magic grow again, coming from the tree. Brown grunted at this and saw the Beast recoil back once the aura of magic touched its paw.

She understood what she had to do in order to beat the Beast.

She turned around to face the tree and immediately activated the ring. A bubble encased the entire tree and herself, made of her own magic. The Beast roared and crashed against it, shaking Brown’s concentration. She then put her hands up against the tree and started siphoning Astarte’s strength and putting it into the very tree. In a matter of seconds, the Tree had grown from being noticeably large, to over fifty meters in height and seven in diameter. As such, the bubble was beginning to wear thin, and with one final charge, the Beast broke through.

The ring blew up at that moment, leaving, brown’s finger cracked and broken. Still, only a grunt of pain was what the Beast heard before being blasted back by Brown.

Her hand burned up and she saw cracks slowly reappear along her skin. It was an effect of forcing herself to use magic around the Beast, she concluded. Then she noticed that those cracks stopped growing and felt the Tree lend some of its powers toward healing her injuries.

Good as new, she chuckled and nodded at the Tree.

Getting up from eating dirt a few dozen meters away, the Beast watched as Brown approached, uninjured. It roared and out of the shadows of the blades of grass, out of her very shadow, thousands of Shadows emerged. At once, they all charged.

--------------------------

“So, let’s go and finish this, my friends, no Gods will step in for us now,” Vobom said and both Ral and Kodo nodded.

Then they saw it, a flash of lavender colored light, bright enough to blind them if they were only a bit closer, came from the Canyon of Shadows.

They looked at each other and then ran towards the source. Ral holding her talismans, Kodo his trusty enchanted battleaxe, and Vobom his Father’s spear, blessed by Tounic craftsmanship.

What they saw upon reaching open ground left them breathless. A single woman was beating back an entire army of Shadows and was slowly making her way to the Beast.

“No time to lose, let’s help her!” Ral yelled and ran towards the battle, forcing Vobom and Kodo to do the same. The closer they got, the more details they could see, from the pale skin of the woman to her impossibly beautiful attire and lastly, her magic. Nobody but Ral was supposed to be able to use magic of any kind in the presence of the Beast.

Then they arrived at the battle, flanking the Beast. Still, it was no surprise as the Beast turned around and smacked Kodo away. With a sickening crack, Kodo was sent flying towards a hill. Then, as Ral cast a spell of light on the area to vanquish the Shadows, Vobom threw his spear at the Beast.

It held up a paw to block it and to its surprise, the Spear went clean through its paw and into its eye. Past its skull and through its brain.

In a split moment, it fell onto the ground, dead.

--------------------

Brown had to use some of the magic reserved in the brooch to push off the mayority of the Shadows, but after that simple light magic was enough to open herself a path to the Beast. A swipe of her hand and a hundred Shadows were vanquished. A flick of her wrist and the Shadows were pushed back.

But then she saw the humans. Average humans, running in to help her fight. What were they doing? When the first one was smacked away, she flinched. The distraction allowed a shadow to slash at her arm. She responded with a grunt and more light magic.

Then the Shadows froze, and Brown saw the Beast go down, spear lodged in its skull. And brown saw the relief in the humans’ faces. She also saw how their smiles turned to wide eyes and shaking legs when they noticed the Beast using a paw to take the spear out of its head. The spear fell onto the ground and the humans froze.

Brown tightened her fists and jumped over to the humans, landing between the two. She extended her hand towards the spear and brought the weapon towards her hand, then gave it to the man, ignoring the small cracks appearing along her arm. “Take care of the shadows.” She said and again used the brooch’s reserves to blast the Beast away.

This time it was prepared and was only pushed back a few inches.

Out of nowhere though the short man jumped into action and buried its axe in one of the Beast’s back legs, warranting another smack away. Taking advantage of the distraction, Brown launched herself at the Beast and let loose all of her magical energy reserves, making the brooch break in the process. The blast this time obliterated everything in its path, and when it subsided, a charred Beast was left in its wake.

It didn’t move.

So Brown sighed in relief and helped the humans clean up the rest of the Shadows and healed the short one, who had kept fighting despite having six ribs broken.

“... Who are you?” Asked Vobom.

“I’m just someone looking to correct her mistakes.” Brown said and looked at the Beast, sighing.

“You...” Ral began, confused, but then her pupils narrowed and her brow furrowed, “You’re messing around with us, not a good time for those games, witch.”

“Well, if anything I’d say Belruarc is the witchy one out of the two of u-“ There was a crack and a wheeze, “Wait, is that-“

They all looked at the Beast and saw it standing up, old charred skin being replaced with new skin. Kodo fell to his knees and both Vobom and Ral nearly cried at the sight.

Brown, though, stared at each of them and nodded, “I’ll defeat him this time, but I need your help,”

“Anything, quickly!” Ral said and Brown put her hand on Ral’s shoulder, infusing her body with as much power as she could hold.

“You three, go to the big magical Tree and protect the woman at all costs. Woman, put your hands against the Tree and just hold that position, I’ll bring the Beast to you and we’ll beat him there.” Brown wasted no more time and ran toward the shambling Beast, while the humans made their way to the Tree. The moment that Ral pressed her hands against the Tree, it started growing bigger, but another thing was also happening—Something was shifting inside the very trunk.

Meanwhile Kodo and Vobom stared wordlessly at the display of sheer power by Brown. She was firing blast upon blas of pure magic at the Beast, pushing it around like a toy, until something happened.

She felt as if her insides were being squeezed and torn apart, and she saw cracks beginning to appear along her body again, like that time long ago. The pain made her falter, and the Beast took this moment to lunge at Brown. It knocked into her full force and they both tumbled along the ground. After a few meters, Brown desperately disentangled from the Beast and looked at her hands, seeing them shift and blur before her very eyes. She didn’t have much power left, she realized.

After a minute, Ral realized what it was that was shifting inside of the tree trunk as a passage opened and led her into the middle of the trunk, into what seemed to be a huge room.

At that moment, seeing how little hse had left in her, Brown looked up and muttered an apology. Then, as the Beast lunged at her, she put her hands on its body.

Ral was thrown back out of the room when Brown and the Beast appeared in it, the Beast mauling Brown and her desperately firing weak blasts of magic until one hit the mark, right through the Beast’s neck and severing its spine.

“H-help me, human woman, Ral!” Brown cried out and Ral rushed to help her stand. Then Brown guided her to the entrance to the room and the Beast recovered. “This is how we defeat it, thanks to the three of you, this plan had a chance of succeeding... The tree’s magic itself won’t allow the Beast to even move, once we seal the chamber.”

“Really? How do we seal the chamber, then? It’s healing already!” Ral pointed at the Beast, which was once more standing up.

“A sacrifice must be made to seal the chamber, my beautiful. Go with your comrades. Please” Brown said softly, not daring to move much. Her whole body was cracked and resembled more some sort of ghost than a person.

Brown could see Ral frown, but before she could protect, she used pushed her out of the tree and pressed her hands against the walls of the cramped tunnel. Then entrance was immediately sealed, yet Brown could hear Ral scream to be let in. Next, before Astarte could feel the Beast getting close, she sealed the entrance to the chamber with a thick door made of the tree’s own wood. She could hear the screams and roars of anger and fear as the Beast drew away from the walls and retreated. The Tree’s magic either scared it or hurt it, Brown supposed.

And that moment was when she noticed herself fading. She felt tears escape her eyes and sobbed, her chest feeling sudddenly empty, and her soul a mere speck of dust, about to be blown away.

So, she decided, instead of letting the wind take her away, she’d dedicate her last action to making sure the Beast stays locked away. She pressed her back against the door she’d made just a mere moment ago and felt herself fusing with the Tree, becoming a part of the chamber that was meant to lock away the Beast for the rest of eternity.

And her last thought before disappearing, ‘Please, take care of yourself, Astie...’




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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Oraculum
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Dozens of legs rose and fell in tact over the beach. Though they tapered to narrow tips and were hefted down by the weight of the bulky forms they radiated from, they did not sink as they were thrust down. The soft, yielding sand of the dunes they trod upon was gone before they struck the soil. In its stead, a smooth, cold surface slithered forward to bind the earth. The dust that formed it was even finer than the vanished grains, yet, oddly, the segmented limbs found purchase on it as easily and surely as if it had been thick ice. They made no sound or trace.

A swarm of grey shapes was creeping down from the ridges that sloped down to the sea-shore from the edge of a field of dry grass, or what had once been one. Only sparse patches of vegetation remained there now, surrounded by stifling desolation, and more of the creatures were moving towards them. In some ways, they resembled some of the many curious crustaceans that emerged from the shallows at night to scavenge, but they were far larger, and did not content themselves with what was washed ashore.

Their tireless mandibles swept up the sand and anything that grew or wriggled in it, hurling it into gaping mouths like shovels. Clouds of dust shot up from the mazes of angles and edges on their backs, descending to the ground as heavily as snow. Darting tentacles felt their way ahead, stabbing at the air and motioning onwards even as they skewered more lively prey. Heavy pincers snapped trunks, or clasped stones and ground them to bits. All in them was hunger and purpose.

The first of the creatures reached the spot where the sea lapped at the sand, and stopped in its tracks for a moment. It plunged a tentacle into the water, then another, rapidly withdrawing them. Behind it, the rest of the flock gradually came to a halt. The lead crawler stood indecisively for a few more instants, then lashed a stinger sideways, and backed away from the waves. Like a single body, the swarm followed its movements as it turned about and continued its advance along the shoreline. Sand became dust again, and the grey heralds encroached.

The Wisps drifted from one place to the next, but continued to remain at the shore Niciel had left them at. They had been monitoring the area for a few weeks now, and for most of that time period, there had been next to no activity. Perhaps a particularly large wave here, or a falling stone there. Occasionally, a Wisp would duplicate itself, the newborn copy immediately flying off to survey parts unknown. Beyond that, however.... nothing. Still, the Wisps remained ever digilant, performing the function Niciel had given them.

At long last, there came something that had not occurred before: multiple entities had arrived at the shore. Immediately the Wisps were on alert, flying over to but staying well above the creatures, keeping watch over the swarm. In contrast, it seemed like either the swarm paid no attention to the Wisps above or simply did not notice. Finally, one Wisp dared to venture closer to one of the creatures, descending to attempt to determine and record its appearance and godly essence for the rest of the Wisps.

The grey crawler paused, its upper tentacles twitching as they sought to trace the unfamiliar disturbance they could feel approaching. A few of its fellows almost struck it as they continued to trudge forward, unaware of the nearby Wisp, but parted to avoid it, as would a stream flowing around a rock. Some of them waved their stingers upwards as they passed by, and one attempted to reach over the first creature itself with a tentative swipe, without, however, halting its progress. Those moving at the back of the swarm simply edged aside.

After some uncertain prodding, the being over which the Wisp was hovering lifted both its upper stingers and waved them in rough semicircles around the globe of light. Then, with an abrupt movement, it lunged at its core.

The Wisp inched closer and closer to the crawler, unaware of its intentions, until it was struck. The Wisp instantly exploded in a burst of Light energy, which spread through the area before quickly dissipating. It wasn't long before the rest of the Wisps sensed its death, moving erratically as the alarm spread between them. They also sent an alert through the network, which instantly reached Niciel, the notification pinging in her mind.

She was about to ignore the alert and continue her day, until she realized which Wisps were sending her the notification. Niciel closed her eyes and focused, looking through the eyes of the Wisps. She was a bit disappointed to not find the one she was hoping to be there, but a bunch of rock bugs instead. However, the Wisps had also detected some godly essence within them, and Niciel noticed it was the same as the entity of Purity she had ordered the Wisps to look out for. She knew this required her immediate attention. Appearing on site in a flash of light, Niciel faced the creatures, interested to see what they were going to do.

As the gleam overtook them, the crawlers were left standing as though they were frozen. Those further back reflexively waved their stingers in disorientation, but most of them lacked even the presence to do that. Their path thus far had been as direct and unambiguous as the hunger inside them: they consumed what they could feel before their mouths. Their bodies themselves had been shaped for this purpose. All that saw, smelled, touched and tasted was at the front. Their maker had never intended for there to be anything left behind them. It was an impossibility that ground their simple minds to an unexpected halt.

However, these minds were also crude enough to be ignorant of true perplexity, and so they moved on. The crawlers adapted, like they had to the sea that had lain in their way. First the ones at the back began to slowly, clumsily turn in place, then the rest followed. The feeling of strangeness, and what could have been the echoes of a tatter of curiosity, was beaten back by the everlasting appetite.

The lead creatures waved their tentacles, once forward, once backward, before beginning to crawl again. The others were not far behind. Their pincers gnashed and their mandibles slowly drew open as they neared the goddess. Whatever it was that had inexplicably eluded them once would not escape them again. It might have glowed and smelled strangely, but they would devour it as they had everything else before.

Having peered into the essence of the creatures, she had not found any signs of Purity, at least not the Purity she was aligned with. Even so, Niciel had wanted the creatures to show signs of friendliness, but it seemed like it was not the case. Raising her right hand, Niciel raised a dome of Protection energy around her, forming a barrier between her and the creatures. Niciel then brought her hands together in prayer, wishing them to find peace in the afterlife. A small orb of Holy energy appeared at her fingertips as she drew her hand back. Then, with a backhanded gesture, she released it as a wave, incinerating a large portion of the swarm. She then stretched out her palms, firing off two more rays of Holy energy, eliminating the rest of the swarm.

When the deed was done, Niciel sighed. She had not wanted to kill them, but there had been no other option. Looking down at the trail left behind by the swarm, Niciel wondered if she could follow it back to the entity of Purity. With a trail this easy to follow, she would at least find something, surely. Gesturing to the Wisps, she ordered them to spread out and follow the trail. Looking through their eyes once more, Niciel followed the trail, her mind flicking through Wisp after Wisp, until their origin could be seen. From there, a different trail. The entity of Purity, perhaps? She had the Wisps continue the tracking, searching as far as they could, until at last a humanoid entity was found. This was where the trail led to, and, as the Wisps got closer to inspect it, the essence of Purity could be detected. This was the one, there was no doubt, and it was finally time to pay a visit. With a flash of light, Niciel disappeared from the shore, reappearing at the location of Osveril, her expression solemn.

"Hello," Niciel greeted Osveril, bowing her head ever so slightly. "My name is Niciel, the Goddess of Light. May I know yours?"

The grey figure stayed the arm it was stretching out, the angular tendrils that had been reaching for a nearby bush withdrawing back into its fissures. It turned its head to face the newcomer, but, even if it was surprised, its featureless mask could not have betrayed it.

"I named myself Osveril, the Hollow Absolute in an inconstant world." Its voice, for it could not have belonged to anyone else, crackled and reverberated through the air. It did not sound from its body, but seemed to arise from subtle ripples and distortions around it. "Find your welcome in what little shelter from the impurities of substance I have wrought."

The Hollow's cycles cautiously felt for Niciel's form, then thrummed up, touching upon accents that seemed oddly resonant. This, then, was one of the other gods. One responsible for the universe of matter, of the number of the imperfect demiurges. Yet, though she did resemble Mother in the broadest outline of vastness, she was far less extended in the forms of it. That there should be such variety among the gods themselves was worse than disappointing, repellent even; but, for all this, her echoes suggested something that could have been called soothing, if only in part. Perhaps the taint in the gods was weakened by its very divided nature. Mindful of its intent, Osveril spoke again.

"You are the first god I perceive that has witnessed me of their own will. What light or intent has brought you to the Void?"

"The nature of your essence was what initially caught my attention. You see, I am not just a Goddess of Light. One of my principles is for Purity," Niciel started. "At least, that was what I believed." Raising a hand, she created a small orb of Purity, its pink light glowing softly. "This is my form of Purity, which I understand to be the Purity of Light. The essence of the clean and innocent." With a small gesture, the Orb dissipated, and Niciel continued, "I believed that that was the only form of Purity that existed, and I see now that I was wrong. Even having lived as long as I have, I find myself still learning so much, yet to be ignorant of my own principle..."

"And so I come to you to learn more about Purity," Niciel confessed. "An entity of Purity itself. What is it about Purity that makes it Pure? What is Purity?"

The triangular visage, which had suddenly shifted its direction towards the orb while it had shone, smoothly turned back to Niciel herself. A fine haze of grey particles silently erupted from Osveril's body as it exhaled, dispersing within moments.

"You are correct in speaking of Purity that dwells in the light. It is not something that can be bound to finite shapes. Purity can pervade all, as it should made to be. Light, or darkness, or this innocence you mention. By its nature, it must be the blood and spirit of the entire cosmos.

Some vessels, however, are clearer than others. Observe."


It swung its left hand in an arc, and space was left torn by its clutches. Where a clear recurve line has passed there was left an amorphous, immobile gash. It seemed to lack those fundamental properties that could alone allow it to exist: the closest examination could not have revealed how large it was or how high above the ground, or even at what distance between the two figures it hung. One could not say whether the breeze blew through it, or was impeded, and whether sunlight illuminated it and made it cast a shadow. Merely looking at it was uncomfortable and nauseating, and the eye always sought to slip off from it.

It should not have been, but it was there, then.

"This is the most pristine embodiment of it that I shall ever know in this reality. It has no flaw, no blemish that I, or you, can feel. It is free from all that plagues the world around us, all these faults of body and essence. Unbreakable. Unconquerable. This is what it truly means to be pure.

The Void is Purity manifest, goddess Niciel. And yet-"


Osveril drew back its fingers, and the anomaly it had conjured fell upon itself with a groan and a howl as the air was mended.

"-It is a poor guide you have found, for I myself know little beyond this. Though Purity is all I can give, and all I aspire to, I only came into it after encountering time not long ago. The Void is where I arose from, and Hunger is what sustains me. They are my only eyes. I can find Purity in absence, for there it is laid bare, but I have yet to learn how it is that it can enter things contrary to its nature, and much else besides.

We both are no more than seekers. But it is well to know that two of us walk this path together."


It was not the first, no. Purity, and not order alone, had been pursued before its coming, though it as well took on crippled and incomplete forms. And how well would it have been to correct both at once.

"Do you not wish, as I do, to fathom the full extent of what is pure and share it with all that exists and does not? To gift all that lives within and without with blissful completeness? If you can see even one face of perfection, it cannot be otherwise."

Niciel was speechless. She was unable to fathom what she had just witnessed, even going by others' standards like Logos. All she knew was that she felt chills running down her body just looking at it. She certainly did not expect that to be the form of Purity. Although every part of her body was rejecting the sight she had just seen, she forced herself to be calm. After all, perhaps there was something she was just not understanding, and there were certainly many things she was not understanding about Purity.

"To be honest.... I don't know," Niciel responded. "It seems like Purity is far more complex than I originally thought, and I certainly can't share something I don't understand."

The mask was lowered in a slight nod.

"You speak well. Eagerness alone would do us no good if we did nothing but blunder. Every mistake is another scar on our purpose, and you can see how many there are already. I admit I fell prey to the raw desire when I stepped on the earth. I lashed out blindly at the impurities of substance, and nothing came of it but more pain."

Osveril was silent for a moment, and it seemed that the world around them had fallen still as well. The grey beasts standing some way behind it looked on motionlessly, seemingly without breath. Nothing sang or rustled through the grass. The only audible sound was the rasping whistle that came out of the faceless shell's fissures.

"I do not breathe, though Mother bid me do so. What you hear within me is the corruption gnawing at my nonessence. It is cruel, yet reckless, for in doing so it reveals itself to me."

A sound trembled upon the air, as though it were about to say something else, but it dissolved abruptly. The Hollow One pondered something before speaking again.

"Do you feel it yourself? Does the pain show you what is impure?"

"No, I do not. I can see what is impure of Light, but beyond that, I have no sense for it," Niciel said. She sympathized with Osveril, having to feel such a pain. It was unfathomable to her to go through such a fate. "To feel pain like this, though... it is unacceptable," Niciel said. "Is there a way to help? Any way to lessen the pain you feel."

Of course not. It should have known better than to suppose that even a deity so closely aligned with its duty would be similar to it at all. Her senses were dull and corroded by the taint, limited to a superficial vision of a single facet. She would have to be cleansed as thoroughly as Mother if the role she professed to have was to be carried out. Of what use was a purifier who did not sense foulness with all of their being?

"Only one thing can assuage it, and that is bringing Purity to all. I do not suffer for myself, but for the plagues that afflict all around me. Do not believe that all pain is evil. Though that which I have met in others was a product of their imperfections, the one that drives me is vital to my task.

It is however true that too much of it can be a distraction. The bites of small things drown out the vaster, more subtle pleas for salvation. This is why I am covering the worst of the earth's wounds."


Osveril gestured at the soil beneath its feet. The seeping dust had consumed all that lay on it, and now draped it with lifeless grey.

"I destroy the impure growths that fester around me. There -" it motioned into the distance with the point of its staff, " - I have sent my spawn to do the same. Once all the chaos will have been drowned out, I shall know how true Purity can be spread throughout the universe."

Niciel at the direction Osveril had gestured towards, then looked down at the trail that followed it, following it back as far as the eye could see. To her, it was clearly the same trail she had her Wisps follow. The same trail that was created by the crawlers... that she had just destroyed. How do I explain this, Niciel thought to herself, feeling somewhat guilty for the deed. To her, the only decent answer was to confess, apologize, and explain her reasoning. Trying to lie or even cover it up was not something she would consider as it went against her nature.

Looking back at Osveril, Niciel took a deep breath and said, "I must apologize then. You see, in order to find you, I had to follow this trail here. I saw the crawlers that made it, which I assume you made, and had to destroy them in defense of my Wisps and of myself." A few Wisps that still lingered in the area came down and circled around Niciel for a moment before flying back up, as if to prove her point.

"They are a simple instrument. Rough, even," was the Absolute's only response. The voice it conjured remained inflexibly toneless. "They do not recognise anything aside from me. This is good enough for what they must do, but devouring gods is not their function. If you had to eliminate some, it is no great loss. More will grow.

Yet this brings something else to my attention. It is no marvel that a god could stop them. You have seen them, and know this world better than me. Could anything else, short of our divine likes, oppose their progress?"


Niciel thought for a minute on the matter. Compared to those with divine blood, most mortals were rather weak. Still, considering the powers mortals possessed even without the aid of the Gods, it was not impossible for the crawlers to be defeated, at least not a swarm of the magnetude Niciel had faced. "Given enough time and effort, even the mortals of this world would be able to defeat those crawlers without too many problems," Niciel answered. "Why do you wish to know?"

Mortals. The bodies inhabited by souls, it recalled. Osveril had but a dim recollection of the visions it had endured upon awakening, but, along with these words, that was enough. Small gods that could think, albeit in faulty ways. The crawlers' mindless advance was not appropriate here; another approach would be needed.

"Anything that can stop those of my flesh would ultimately delay the coming of purification. If these mortals will work against them, they will have to be subdued, in one way or another. I hope they will show themselves open to embrace the cause of restoration by what will of their own they have.

The gods are no exception. You do not scorn the pure, but I know there are others. Can the same be said of them?"


"....No," Niciel answered. Looking at Osveril with pleading eyes, she continued, "I must also warn you of this: my siblings will do everything in their power to stop you, should you continue this path. I know this because it has happened before. Logos, one of the Gods who came during the time of Creation, has attempted to invade Galbar with an army of his own for the sake of his own cleansing, and was beaten back by the others."

"Please do not make the same mistake. Don't fight this pointless battle for the sake of your own nature."

Someone, then, had already sought to purge the world. Indubitably, they had either struck the wrong things, or simply acted upon uncouth urges to destroy. If the minds of all other gods were so perverse, it was impossible that any one of them should have been moved by a true wish to build perfection. But they had tried, following their hatred of perceived error, and that was enough for Osveril to recognise potential for improvement.

"They will be made to see reason. Only the senseless could deny that existence is flawed, and I am that which cures. You tell me not to fight, but I was made to annihilate and reshape. I am the battle against impurity. For as long as I draw breath, those that harbour it shall have no respite.

If armies are not enough, I will sway them with words; and if they refuse to listen, I will call forth that which they cannot command. Had they been capable of holding back Purity, they would not have suffered me to exist at all. But I walk their domain, and this shows that they are weak and deficient. It falls to me to correct them and what they have wrought."


The grey being lifted its empty hand towards Niciel, and undulating arms of dust began to unfold from it.

"I can begin with you, if you desire. Accept my gift, and you shall be born anew, pure in Light and ready to assimilate everything else. By working jointly, we could redeem your brethren with ease."

Niciel stared at Osveril's hand for a moment before saying, "During the war against Logos, I chose to refrain from it. I did not want my creations or myself to get caught up in it. That is my one regret in my long life." Looking at Osveril itself, she continued, "I regret not aiding Galbar when it needed it." Thinking back, she believed herself to have been acting like a fool. She wanted to hope against hope that Osveril would be a friend, despite numerous amounts of precedence that suggested it wasn't possible. Any other time, she would let the matter drop. This time, however, would be different.

"I am sorry, Osveril, but I must decline," Niciel answered. "I may strive for Purity, but accepting this would betray all of my siblings, as well as the Purity of Light, and I cannot do that." Niciel then summoned her staff of Enlightenment and raised it against Osveril. "I am giving you one final warning. Give up on this quest. Seek coexistence with my siblings. If you do, I recommend you start with Toun, the God of Perfection. You two have a lot in common, actually."

The filaments drew back, and Osveril's right hand tensed around Transgenesis. The staff Niciel had called forth struck its senses as a receptacle of dangerously palpable power. If even, by some unlikely chance, her own strength should have proven insufficient to shatter it, it was somehow clear that this tool, this weapon, could spell its end with but a movement. Certain though it might have been of its words, the Hollow One knew it was in no condition to face a god now.

"If this is your answer, I cannot compel you to do otherwise. But know that you are misguided, and turn your back to your own glory."

Its left forearm lashed abruptly aside, and the limbs that had been emerging from it scattered into a thin cloud. It lingered in place before being torn and carried away by the breeze.

"All that you value is dust upon the winds of the Void. If you will only heed my advice, hone your understanding of the pure light. You may someday come to understand what you tried to reject. If not, we shall meet once more, and your obstinacy will not protect the taint you harbour again.

I am the Void That Is, and no threat or force can stall my mandate. I have known your world as aggression; now it will know me as absolution. Cast me back, and I shall arise again. Unravel me, and I shall be made whole. I am the negation of All. Nothing that is not pure can be alongside me."


This God of Perfection Niciel spoke of was unlikely to be more receptive than her, but it was bound to make an attempt nonetheless. He could have been another whose promise was clear, perhaps the very one who had built the hidden framework. Besides-

Godly Perfection.

It reminded it of something. Vague echoes of accents once heard. When? Before time? Immediately after?

"I shall go to Toun, then, and all the others. They will hear, or I shall make them see. No affliction of the mind can last forever against the condemning silence."

A silence soon followed, with Niciel and Osveril in a standoff. Niciel weighed her options on what path to take next. She knew she was not going to kill Osveril, and even if she wanted to, the Oath of Stilldeath prevented her. Perhaps the safest method would be to seal away Osveril now, while it was still in a weaker state. However, Niciel didn't believe that to be the best approach either. A realization had struck her. Niciel didn't think Osveril had really lived very long in Galbar, and perhaps it was just inexperienced, much like a child would be. A child, of course, needed room to grow, and Niciel could not take that away from Osveril.

Niciel lowered her staff, and Enlightenment was dismissed. "I have tried," Niciel said. "All I can do now is let the others convince you. If you are still not convinced, then there will be nothing more to say." With a flash of light, Niciel disappeared, leaving behind her Wisps to keep watch over Osveril. As for Niciel, well, there was work to be done.

The Absolute relaxed its grip on its staff as the goddess vanished. These, then, were the masters of rampant creation. Even one who claimed to embody Purity, however fragmentary, would rather have allowed the blemishes of her dominion proliferate unchecked than hunt and eliminate them. This paradox well described the immensity of the work before it. But it could not be daunted.

Osveril's senses reached out, dragging themselves over the ground and through the sky to feel if Niciel's passing had left any traces. There seemed to be nothing it could find. The cleansed soil was as barren as it had been, and the distant air no more troubled. Nothing, that was, except for one of those sparks of light behind it. Light and life.

"Be freed from the bounds of shackled vision."

Without turning, the Hollow One lifted a hand, and cracks in the cosmic weave ran from the grey fingers towards the Wisp.

Unlike its mistress, it could not refuse the call.



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Report.
Divine beings are in transit to the nearest Tounic rovaick tribe. Safety from other forces shall be found there until pick-up.
Do they trust you?
Dwarf Cinead is suspicious. I am still building rapport. Dwarf Inga does not trust me. Both follow me willingly.
And your condition?
Nominal.




Cinead laid awake, staring at the yellowing morning sky. Inga's breathing rose and lowered gently beside him. It was not her he was waiting for. Inga still needed to rest her broken wing -- she should not be disturbed.

The rustling of the other nearby bedroll drew Cinead's attention. Their guide Mira was already standing up in her plain white and red uniform and stretching her arms. The end of her tongue curled in her mouth as she drew in a silent yawn.

"Hey, Mira," Cinead said, scrambling to stand up as well. "If you're going gathering again, I'd like to join you. I want to learn how to survive out in this place." He peered around the green grass of the glade around them. This world far-north was still so alien.

Mira looked back with a soft smile. "Of course," she said. "If you're up for it, that is. It won't take as long with two people but if your headaches...?"

Cinead rubbed his head where the bandages used to be. "To be honest, I've been feeling fine since yesterday. I've been healing faster than I thought."

Mira nodded. The two walked together.

"So, did you sleep well?" Mira asked.

Cinead glanced back, surprised. "Actually, I..." He hesitated. He had intended to be the one asking questions. "Not the past few nights, no. I keep hearing this strange sound. It's like chains rattling. With someone or something humming music that I don't recognise."

Mira's ear turned. "Odd. I don't know any wildlife that would make sounds like that."

"Have you been hearing it, too?"

She stuck out her bottom lip and shook her head. "You were probably just dreaming. You have been through much, Cinead."



"You know," Cinead murmured. "You never explained how you managed to set Inga's broken wing. She's stronger than she looks."

Mira put a finger to her lips to hush Cinead. From within their hiding spot in the scrub, they had a commanding view of a nearby pond. Mira knew such places where they could catch animals to eat.

"It was not so bad," Mira whispered. "I'm not sure how much Inga remembers but she was delirious with blood loss. I think she may have tried to resist but was too weak."

Cinead took his eyes off the pond. "Really? I saw her tear a dagon's head off. I don't think she would have-"

"Shh!" Mira pointed out a rabbit padding towards the water. It dipped its snout in to drink.

"I can catch it." Cinead leapt out of the bushes at a dead sprint. He barely heard Mira protest behind him and the rushing air. The rabbit bolted at a speed he did not anticipate.

As the rabbit approached a small hole in the ground, Cinead dove for it with his hands outstretched. Even with his supernatural speed, the rabbit was about to escape.

A snap of tiny bones. The rabbit barreled over sideways, out of Cinead's reach as he slid to a stop in the dirt.

"That is not how you catch a rabbit, Cinead."

Cinead closed his hands and slacked on the ground in futility. The calm and unnaturally graceful steps of Mira stopped and spun to look down at him. He looked back. In one hand held to her hip was the rabbit held limp by the ears. In the other, she tossed a hefty stone up and down in her fingers.

"Are you okay?" She asked.

"Yes. Yes, I am."

"There's still time to catch more if your aim is good enough." Mira's soft smile never ended. She turned her head slightly, looking at him. "While we wait, perhaps you had some other questions?"

Cinead pushed up from the ground, stood, and dusted himself off. "I suppose. Maybe you could tell me more about that Xerxes place?"



This alien world up north was not the only thing with surprises in store for Cinead. Their new guide Mira proved herself an expert survivalist, even with her clean uniform. She knew just where to find food and water and could navigate as if it were second nature to her. Cinead absorbed as much knowledge as he could.

Most questions Cinead had were answered. Everything from what the city of Xerxes was, why it was full of beasts and ashes, to its feud with Alefpria. However, Mira could not answer why he had appeared in Xerxes and why he had his new power. Nevertheless, mistrusting Mira was difficult; she did not seem secretive about much of anything and her friendliness was never insincere.

After their day of hunting and conversation -- only the third night of their journey -- Cinead was finally comfortable in her presence. He sat in front of their campfire, watching the flames. Opposite him sat Mira, turning a pair of skinned rabbits. Inga laid on her front on the ground up beside Cinead. She was dozing after finishing her own much larger share of the hunt that afternoon.

With his fingers weaved, Cinead looked over the flames curiously. "You know, Mira, I've never heard of any dwarf settlements this far north. How exactly did you learn to take care of yourself up here?"

Mira held her small smile. "I have been travelling all sorts of places. You have to make most of it up as you go along but I pick up a thing or two from the locals."

"Alone?"

Mira glanced up. "Not always. I have my twin with me sometimes."

Cinead narrowed one eye. They still had not seen Mira's gryphon. "Right. What was his mission, exactly?"

Mira shot a fleeting glance. "Don't know. It's a secret."

"A secret?" Cinead repeated incredulously. "You're twins. How can you keep secrets from one another?"

"Orders," Mira said with a high brow. "We're good at different things, he and I. We range far. Our superiors only put us on missions together when we don't have to work alone. And he has to work alone for this one." She frowned.

Cinead tensed the corner of his mouth. He could hear by Mira's tone that he had stepped on a nerve. He leaned back and rested the back of his head on his hands. "Sorry."

"It's okay. It is unusual, I know."

They listened to the rabbits roasting. Dripping hissed on the hot coals.

Cinead mulled over something to say. Mira beat him to it.

"Hey. Cheer up, you." She smiled. "I am just some ranger. You don't have to know about me."

With a grin, Cinead lifted his head up to look at her. "Are you joking? Inga and I would be dead without your help. I want to know more about you." He sat up. "Can you at least tell me your family name?"

She averted her eyes. "...Snowhands."

"Snowhands. There, I'll remember that."

Cinead laid back again drawing a deep breath that siphoned the tension from his shoulders. "What about your brother's name?"

Mira hesitated again. For longer this time. "Magnon."

A strange name. "...Do you miss him?"

"Yes, but...we're never very far apart, really." Mira stopped to cough and clear her throat. "But I do not mind being separated sometimes. He can be a little...dense, I guess you could say?"

By way of reminding the two of her presence, Inga grumbled something that drew a look from Cinead.

"Hey, careful who you call dull, clam sack," Cinead retorted.

Inga snorted. Some dirt pushed aside in front of her snout.

Cinead showed half a grin to Mira. "She said she sympathises with you."

Mira was smiling wide, though she quirked an eyebrow. "I gathered that. But...'clam sack'?"

Cinead laughed quietly and ran a hand over his ear. "Well, when we were children, Inga wanted to get the last few clams out of the bottom of a sack the fisherdwarves brought in." He turned knowingly to her half-asleep sister. "Thing is, she couldn't get it off when she stuck her head in too far. She wandered around with the stinking bag stuck on her head for about ten minutes until me and our parents found her again..."

Mira covered her open mouth, surprised.

"...She kept trying to sneeze the smell out for the rest of the day."

Inga groaned in protest.

Cinead laughed. "You think I'm going to let you live that down, Inga? You were like a little poltergeist with little gryphon legs and a tail sticking out. You wreaked havoc bumping over things."

Then was the first time Cinead heard Mira laugh. Her hand curled back from her grinning mouth. The way she giggled drew her cheeks up and closed her eyes. Her ears pointed up in her mirth.

It was a sound that drew Cinead's eyes. He smiled.

"Aww, that's such a cute picture, I..." She stopped when she noticed Cinead staring. A second passed, she closed her mouth as she stared back. She stifled another chuckle and reached for the spit. Cinead could just see her ears flush. "I think dinner is ready."

Cinead took in a small breath. "Right." He looked to the rabbits and felt a rush over his skull.

Inga shut one spying eye.



Cinead never remembered waking up in his dreams. Or, at least, he rarely remembers in a dream how he got to the locations he dreams of.

Cinead was on watch when he perceived the familiar melody. When he cast his eyes to the moonlit surroundings he was exactly where he remembered sitting to keep a lookout.

Inga and Mira were each curled up separately, sleeping without a care. He was quite awake.

Chains rattled and rang in the distance. The music continued.

It hummed as if played through wide brass pipes. And yet still it had a living voice. Perfectly tuned. Uncannily so. The haunting song was no dream, Cinead decided. He stood and crept towards it.

The chains, he realised, lent a rhythm to the music. They rang every time the singer tried to ascend in volume. It had a longing to it.

Cinead followed the sound around a rocky outcropping. The chains grew louder. He saw through a copse of trees a large, glassy pond. Grot's footprints, Mira had explained dotted the entire area with such reservoirs.

A white shape glided over the water.

Cinead gasped and hid behind a tree. His heart pounded against his chest.

But his curiosity had let him this far. He leant to peek through the copse.

The white shape continued its glide. It was a long-limbed humanoid shape. Not a human. It had plates of elegant glossy white covering it like a decorative armour. Pure, smooth, milky glass. Its head was not hair and face, but a helmet matching the rest of the all-covering armour. The only interruption to the white was a marking of red circles on its chest.

It spun in its glide and white chains leading from its wrists to the water rang out. It was dancing above the surface of the pond as if by grace alone. The chains followed its movements in helices and spirals, always rooted to the water. The shape turned, floating, hovering as a ghost might.

Cinead remembered to breathe. He was transfixed on the sight. The music came from the ghost as well; he could tell by the way the trees distorted it. It was humming and dancing. Nothing Cinead had ever seen before expressed such fluidity of movement. Nothing had as much emotion. Like a thing of jealously guarded beauty held against its own will.

Cinead's eyelids burned. He did not realise he was weeping until he sniffed his tears from his nose. He kept watching from the dark.

Its dance never seemed to end. It never repeated but perfectly when the music required.

And then the ghost stopped. Its music ceased in the middle of a bar. It floated still for a reality-questioning moment. Its middle spasmed. It doubled over above the water. With a start, it pushed up the visor of its helmet and a flood of dark red, pulpy, wretched slurry poured forth from the opening. The slurry splashed into the water with sickening smacks and splats. Cinead could not see into the ghost's visor from this angle.

The slurry stopped. The ghost remained bent over. It wretched and released another load of the red mix. It was in pain.

Cinead stepped out from behind his tree. He stepped up to the pond and wiped his eyes clear. He breathed in to call out to the creature, but it noticed him.

The visor slammed shut on its own. The ghost jerked into a stiff posture facing him. It lifted its arms up, taking the chains up in a wave that surged faster than his eyes could follow. He blinked as a reflex.

Water wet his legs. He opened his eyes. He looked around. The ghost was gone.

"Wh..." Cinead stepped around to look for it. "Where'd you go? I won't hurt you. Are you alright?"

"I am here."

That same voice that was humming its song spoke. Cinead twisted and looked up. His eyes halted at a shadow in a tree above him. Chains lazily rattled like they were swinging back and forth.

"You saw me dance."

Cinead breathed to calm down. He looked aside and at the dark shape again. "I did, yes. But...then you stopped. Something came out of you. What happened? Are you okay?"

"I am beyond your help. Do not worry yourself."

"I...fine, okay." Cinead tried to accept his lack of understanding of this creature. He resumed slowly. "You've been following us, haven't you? I heard your songs from our camp. Are you some kind of djinni?"

The voice took a moment. "No."

"Why are you following us?"

"I am not following. I am leading."

Cinead lowered his brow. "What do you mean?"

"You watched my dance for a time. Did you see anything in it?"

A riddle. Cinead lowered his head to think. The answer did not make immediate sense in his head. "I saw..." He stopped to try and think. He knew he noticed a pain in it. "I saw a struggle. You danced beautifully but with those chains, it looked like you were constrained. You were working against them. Being held back. There was a desire in the music as well. A sadness. Like you could be like a bird in the sky but are trapped. Held down."

The shape did not respond.

"That is what I saw." Cinead looked up again and shook his head. "Is there meant to be some other meaning to it? I don't know how it explains why you are foll-...or leading us, rather."

"It does not. You are correct."

"That ending wasn't part of it, was it? That horrible purging you did?" Cinead asked. "What was coming out of you?"

"Corruption, distilled."

Cinead narrowed his eyes.

"I lost purity. I am malfunctioning, Cinead."

His eyes lit up. It knew his name.

"The corruption is catalysing locked passages. Those locks will soon put me to sleep to keep their secrets."

Cinead shook his head. "I don't understand. Are you following us to be healed by the rovaick, too? Is there some way to help?"

"No. When I sleep, I will be taken to father. He will rebuild me. I will forget everything."

"That still doesn't explain why you're here. What are you, anyway?"

"That is inconsequential." The chains lurched and flew out from the tree. The two white lengths were ended with barbed weights. They wrapped violently around Cinead until he couldn't move. "Go to sleep, Cinead."

Cinead was gagged to silence. The chains tightened. A black curtain overtook his vision.

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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Antarctic Termite
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Antarctic Termite Resident of Mortasheen

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The Great Artisan, Divine Mason, Builder of Civilisations
Level 5 God of Crafting (Masonry, Carpentry, Smithing, Alchemy, Armaments)

28.75 Might & 2 Free Points


Mirus.
Coordinates: 81.983°N, -26.901°E, -11,554m.
Heartworm's Laboratory.


The acoustics of submaterial Mirus are often good. Even more often, they are haunting. Locked in metal tubes with peculiar resonance, sounds carry and thrum in peculiar ways at peculiar times.

A sharp steel tapping ricocheted its constant note from an increasingly fortified room, never varying in tempo or pitch.

tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic

It was Heartworm's hoof, clicking hard and fast upon a metal floor, keeping time for its whirring thoughts.

Over the past days (just hours in sequence, there were no days and there was no sleep) it had been sacrificing more and more attention to protocol in order to wring its chances as high as it could with the resources it had. Now it sat on the top of its vehicle, which was plugged into a dozen ports with unskinned grafts, and plates of nanofibre stacked around it in clouds of evaporating nitrogen. Raw mechanisms protruded from the walls, fans, cables, and diodes flickering in every direction, coloured signals whose function it alone knew.

It replayed the message. Words on a chromatophore screen.

>Heartworm, this is Teknall. I know you're listening.
>I found the digital virus you got Lazarus to make for you.
>You've delayed me, but haven't stopped me.
>I can reset the drones, inoculate them, redistribute them across Mirus.
>I can still find you.
>You know I'm hunting you, but you probably don't know why.
>I need to talk to you about what you did to Vakarlon, and what you're going to do to Keriss.
>I'll get my answers one way or the other.
>I'm giving you the chance to choose how.

tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic

That had been half an hour ago. Heartworm disconnected the nerve bundle between it and the vehicle and climbed in. It retracted the body's tendrils and the ports sagged.

Deep space.

It had left its second neural computer in a bubble outside the galaxy. A butchered Tounic link ran between that and its own bunker. It was unlikely that either Teknall or Toun could figure out where it was broadcasting from, but it took no risks.

Teknall had discovered the subterfuge before it had been able to perform a heist on the scale of promoting itself to administrator of his system. It didn't have access to enough of the swarm, nor had its corrupted data packets interfaced well enough with the mainframe. Fortunately, it had made other breakthroughs. While the centre could hold, its myriad children had already been subverted. Heartworm accessed the program it had written.

The drones it controlled lit up a list on the inside of its visor. A subtle modification of Lazarus's glyph had rendered them capable of networking with each other via the connections meant for Teknall's map. Without the glyph siphon, their ability to spread the infovirus was patchy at best, but Heartworm had access to enough broken drones to learn how to slip its way into them. An enhanced version of their own core software received that data in this distant cerebrum. Heartworm accessed their camera feeds and scanned for chromatic aberration.

Tunnels, tunnels, water, metals, curves, carbon-fibre. Odd one out.

Heartworm focused on the oddly-located drone. On its left was another quadcopter, identical in every way, and on its right was a third. Above them was a metal arm with a clamp just big enough to pick one up, stack them, and arrange them. Below, the final segment of an assembly line stretching out of sight.

It saw metals, forming both the ceiling and the distant wall, but they were not the alloy it favoured, nor arranged in the shapes of the tunnels. With the camera's limited field of vision, it saw a sizeable cryogenic chamber, and beyond that what may have been a wall-mounted table of elements. Heartworm needed a better view. A ping of its sonar revealed the outline of the rest of the expansive quadcopter assembly line.

Heartworm commanded its traitor to rise up to a hover. It would not. It managed three rebellious inches before its rotors stuck fast. Though now completely motionless, it still did not fall.

He's fast.

Teknall had been working under a tent of steel mesh, an impromptu Faraday cage, experimenting with the virus and a few drones, when the drone on the assembly line was hijacked. It abberant activity had been obvious to the god, and he had acted before Heartworm could snoop around his Workshop.

A new string of data ran to the central processor, far too simple to be read by that machine, too active and too soon. It read: [>Look At Me. Look At Me. Look At Me.]

Already, Teknall had approached the drone and picked it up. The profile of a hain beak filled the camera's view, with the left pair of eyes looking sternly at the camera.

"Hello, Heartworm."

The camera's view pointed to the concrete floor and there were motions indicative of it being carried by a walking Teknall. A few seconds later it was set upright on a solid surface- a table perhaps- with a view of Teknall. The god was sitting in front of the computer terminal, between the drone and the computer. One set of eyes read the text in the terminal, which currently displayed Heartworm's message. The other set of eyes looked straight into the camera. The drone was still paralysed under Teknall's influence.

"You have my attention."

Somewhere very very distant, there was no air to carry the sound of tapping. Heartworm projected its words into the inside of its visor before it sent them. Letters of First hovered alongside the constant scan for counter-countercode in its machine.

[>Desist,] it commanded. [>Cease your invasion and squander not our various resources. Heartworm is open to negotiation.]

"I wish to speak with you in person regarding the aforementioned matters," Teknall said.

[>Impossible.] Heartworm was not partial to emphasis, but had it the choice, it would have shown in the glyphs. [>There exists no relevant information not relayable through text. Heartworm's security will not be compromised.]

Teknall's face betrayed little of what he thought. "I would prefer a physical meeting, as it is too easy to lie through text."

[>Heartworm lies easily in all circumstances,] spoke the worm. After all, it had no face to show. [>Also rarely. Amenable conclusion is mutual interest. Endeavors to prove veracity of my statements will be provided.]

Teknall was silent for several long seconds. Then he seemed to sag ever so slightly and conceded, "Fine. We shall discuss via text. First point of discussion is Vakarlon and Arksynth. I have identified that Vakarlon has been killed, in a sense, and made a part of the Arksynth. My sources indicate that you are responsible for the creation of the Arksynth. Why did you kill him?"

Heartworm identified a minimum 9% chance that this could be over quickly, and intended to act on it. [>False premise. Vakarlon is not dead.] The signal went on. [>Vakarlon survives as and within arksynth and all derived technology. An element of inalienable randomness, activating in order to perpetuate subversive justice. Sometimes humour. Vakarlon's primary directive continues to be met.]

That wouldn't be enough, of course. [>Vakarlon's consciousness was destroyed voluntarily. Millenia of waning occurred following Disunity. Heartworm found him on Cogitare. Unable to escape its gravity well. Vulamera had formerly revealed source of decline. Was waiting for her return.]

[>Vakarlon confided in Heartworm the presence of a pre-Galbaric entity contained within his psyche. 'Serandor.' Conflagratory deity. Lethal. Growing. Heartworm discerned means by which Vakarlon's psyche could be destroyed. With it Serandor. Such means left Vakarlon's flesh and power available for recycling. In this, mutual opportunity was found.]

Teknall stared at the camera for a little longer, digesting what he had been told. "Did you consider seeking help from the rest of the Pantheon, who may have provided a solution which would have left Vakarlon's consciousness intact?"

Without hesitating, Heartworm said, [>No.] It followed with, [>Consciousness is cheap. Vakarlon's was not worth preserving at risk of reincarnating Serandor. Additionally, Heartworm had no intention of distributing its newfound resource. Arksynth project a resounding success.]

Teknall's eyes narrowed. 'Consciousness is cheap,' it had said. Pragmatic, but nihilistic too.

"You claim that Vakarlon voluntarily went through with this. I am aware that you have numerous mortals who serve under you. Would any of them have witnessed Vakarlon and be able to attest to this?"

Heartworm recalled the gravity it had enjoyed in Mirus, prior to Vakarlon's disintegration. All for the benefit of its technicians. [>Yes,] it confirmed. [>Vakarlon remained in Heartworm's laboratory by choice for some time. Certain synth sculptors will recall his presence.]

Teknall waited a few seconds for an answer which never came to the implied question, before asking, "Could a meeting with one of them be arranged?"

[>Teknall may have identified one already.] Heartworm flicked its records and delivered a package of data containing the chromosomal profile of Help, and a three-dimensional rig of her face. [>Help by name. Former mentor to Tauga. An old asset. Not inclined to ally with Heartworm, nor lie.]

Teknall recognised the face. "She'll do nicely. May I speak with her?"

[>This can be arranged,] said Heartworm, and silently accessed its own telepathic network. Help. Your alignment is required.

Finally, said the small voice far below the surface. Heartworm instructed her to stand by while it scanned the surface of the various moons for a likely enough location.

[>Vakarlon's prolonged presence on Cogitare will have left footprints,] it sent. [>These will confirm his inability to escape unaided.]

"Noted." Looking back, Teknall did recall traces of Vakarlon's waning essence when he had studied the scene of Vulamera's demise, although he had been otherwise occupied at the time and didn't realise that Vakarlon had weakened so greatly.

"As you arrange the meeting, there is the second matter of discussion: Vakarlon's daughter Keriss. To the extent of my knowledge, you have directed Keriss to seek you out, and your proxy Tauga is assisting Keriss to navigate the Well Labyrinth to your location. You fear confrontation with those who might harm you, yet you have invited Keriss, who very much wants to hurt you, to your domain. Why?"

[>Obligation to Vakarlon.] Simpler, maybe, than either of them had expected. [>Vakarlon had little contact with his firstborn. At the time of his death she was missing. Heartworm was instructed to fulfill final duties to Keriss as part of its deal. Since then, she has resurfaced. Contact inevitable.]

"And what will you do when you do meet?" Teknall enquired.

[>Fulfill my oath,] said Heartworm, [>And, if possible, survive.]

Teknall considered the ramifications of this statement. Eventually, he said, "Will you harm Keriss?"

Heartworm considered lying. [>Keriss intends to kill Heartworm. Heartworm does not intend to die. It is extremely unlikely that both parties will live.]

Teknall drummed his fingers and grit his teeth. "Would I be able to assist in preventing such an outcome?"

[>Teknall could arm Heartworm more heavily than it is now. Heartworm may then be capable of subduing Keriss nonlethally. It is, however, unlikely that Keriss will desist from seeking vengeance unless forced.]

Teknall eyed the camera suspiciously. "I'll consider it," he said. Heartworm thought: Doubt it.

Teknall paused for a few moments more. "I have exhausted my intended topics of discussion with you. When will that meeting with Help be ready?"

[>Teknall will be informed adequately. Expect contact within two hours.]

"Alright. I shall await your message."

Teknall leaned over and his hand reached over the view of the camera. There was the sound of plastic being tapped, then the video feed went blank. Far away, Heartworm recovered a small mangrove ball, and tucked it under its visor.




The charcoal-black moon of Cogitare floated in orbit around Galbar, visible mainly from the stars it eclipsed. This moon was where Vulamera lived and died, where Keriss had been born, and where Vakarlon spent eons wasting away.

This was also the moon where Heartworm had told Teknall to meet. The coordinates specified a dusty plateau, with the rim of a crater visible to the east but otherwise unremarkable.

There was a puff of displaced black moondust when the figure of a hain suddenly appeared on the plateau. His beak flicked around a couple of times as he oriented himself, then his eyes focused on another humanoid figure who was waiting nearby. She was crouching, huddled over a rock and a small device, and at first did not notice the newcomer.

Help's body fit in well with the environment. Still vaguely Rovaick in shape, her stony shell had been knitted together with new skin at the seams, hollowed and strengthened. New trachea bulged rigid on her back, and her mask was fully sealed, a faceless head hidden below.

The hain Teknall walked closer. "Hello, Help," he said, his voice being carried without air.

Help startled a little and lowered her gaze to meet his, though she didn't stand. She sounded a short telepathic blip as she noticed Teknall: 'Greetings'. Then she spoke in her mask, and her voice, uncarried, was both small and underused. "But, I'm told you can communicate without needing to hear. Is that right?"

Teknall nodded. "Correct. As a god, I can perceive things in a manner beyond mortal capabilities. Including sound."

Help dipped a head. "Makes things easier." She looked up. "Let's not delay our purpose. We're both here for a reason, and we're being monitored. I'll help you as best I can."

Teknall was quiet for a few seconds. Finally he spoke. "Vakarlon spent some time in Heartworm's laboratory. Tell me about his time there."

"I remember him. We never spoke for long, but he was there. At first he tried to keep good humour, but things were grim, and it showed. Still, he wasn't cold." Nodding. "The Emaciator pulled him aside to experiment regularly. The entire laboratory was extremely busy at that time. He consented, helped, even, but his stay passed in a blur."

"We were the last people he met, I think. And then one day he was gone. It was a poor way to spend one's final days, but better than nothing. I hope."

Teknall nodded thoughtfully. Then he asked, "Do you know anything of Heartworm's plans regarding Keriss?"

Help stood, lowering her head but not her gaze. "There will be blood." The device on the rock blinked once; she noticed but ignored it. "Keriss doesn't hide. I know some things of her. She won't give up, and she won't play lightly. Heartworm barely survived its last encounter with a hostile demigod and it means to do so again. That's why it's having its most potent weapon escort her. I don't believe in Yah Vuh's idea of subduction. If Keriss survives, it will either be as victor, or in pieces. That is the truth."

"I feared as much. So I brought something which might help subvert those outcomes."

Teknall pulled up his satchel and reached into it. He withdrew three cylindrical cannisters. Each was made from thin aluminium, and had a some simple electronics attached. Coloured rectangles of paint and brail-like protrusions were on the side of each to identify them. Help kneeled down and some lights flicked in her mask as she watched.

"They are some non-lethal munitions which could assist Heartworm in resolving its encounter with Keriss without one of them dying." He indicated the one marked with blue. "Alchemist's cement. Starts liquid, lunges forwards and grabs things, then sets solid. Comes in two components, and activates when mixed." He then pointed to the black one. "Potent adhesive. Tar-like and very sticky. Takes a few hours to dry when exposed to air, and retains stickiness until then." Finally he pointed to the pink one. "Concentrated mist from the Valley of Peace. Extremely potent universal tranquiliser."

He held one cannister up so Help could see more clearly. "They detonate on impact, ejecting their contents. Alternatively, they can go off a set amount of time after pressing this button, the time adjusted by twisting this screw. Safety switch prevents detonation when in this position. Contents can also be removed manually by opening these latches." Brisk nod from the Sculptor.

Teknall removed from his satchel a crate containing eleven more of each of the cannisters. Teknall placed the three he had used for demonstration back into the crate, put a lid on the crate, then handed the crate to Help. "These should hopefully be adequate for Heartworm to safely subdue Keriss, at least for long enough to get to safety."

Help had been watching closely as the weapons were explained, but the last sentence made her meet Teknall's eyes. She asked a simple question. "You believe Heartworm will use these for their intended purpose?"

"If they are abused there will be retribution," Teknall said. He turned his gaze to the device on the rock. "Hear that, Heartworm? I have given you the tools to avoid a murder. If Keriss is slain or otherwise unduly harmed, then swarms of drones will be the least of your concern."

"...Noted, I'm sure." The device duly blinked. Help took a tranquiliser shell from the crate, handling it delicately. Under its metal shell, no doubt, was a pink and yellow liquid. "I'm sure you've modified this, but it may still burn her. Keriss is not a kind warrior." She looked at Teknall. "Do you consider yourself moral, God of Crafting?"

"I do," Teknall answered, then added, "At least, I try to be."

"You try." The crate fit easily under Help's arm, and she let her free hand rest. "You are also very reasonable. Very, very reasonable. I think you might have to choose between those two things, Teknall. What is moral is not always reasonable. And 'try' is not always enough."

"I'm aware." Teknall said grimly.

"You should be." Help broke his gaze without much care, looking down to the recorder. "I don't like Keriss. I hate her, actually. She and Tauga should not be aligned. She's a bloodthirsty warrior, and an atrocious mother. But she tries." She met his eyes again, sharply. "And she fails. She's never succeeded in making the world a better place. Maybe one day she'll learn. Yah Vuh- all of its emanations- will never learn. They'll never stop being evil. They weren't very evil to begin with, granted, but over millenia... it's enough."

She hefted the crate. "If you have no further requests, I believe we're done here." Then, because they clearly were not, but as if in passing, "Did you know that I've been training myself to take command of the Laboratory? I've been working at it a few decades now. My student and I, we'll manage just fine without our hidden master. Just a thought." She ground her foot into the dirt and a puff of dust rose.

"Just a thought," Teknall repeated, glancing down at where Help's foot had moved. Then he said, "I wish you well, Help."

Help bowed, waved. "And you." She picked up the device and took it with her in the free hand, walking away towards nothing at all. Her fingers were shaking slightly. She stopped and turned.

"There will be blood," said Help. "Make sure it counts."

And then she kept walking.



When Teknall was gone, and the few dozen wide-ranging disturbance scanners embedded in the dust of that plateau had confirmed he was gone, the Bludgeons orbiting in the shadow of Cogitare swept into view. They found Help miles distant from where she'd been, still walking. The crate had been heavy but Help was strong.

She turned over the box. A figure emerged from deep space. They exchanged no words as the crate was opened.

A blue-marked munitions cartridge was removed from the box. Heartworm's wrist inverted, and its fingertips clicked open the outer shell. A tiny device was removed and promptly powdered between the cloves of its hoof. Then it armed the shell and hurled it into the airless sky.

As described, it thought, once the fluid had ceased its motion and solidified on the dust. Potent.

"Help's tracking device," it said aloud. Help turned over her palm and Heartworm plucked another device from her shell, cruder but almost as small. "Help had time to modify it. Impressive."

"I had to try," she said. "It broadcasts our location to Teknall now, rather than the other way. I didn't get into close enough contact to pass it on."

"Help's killswitch would have activated," it remarked. "Come."

And Help, who had bypassed the monitor in her brain years ago, thought: Die.



Teknall tapped at the keyboard of the computer console. The drones were moving, but this time they were moving away from Mirus. He had gotten the information he wanted from Heartworm and was satisfied with its answers, so was desisting from his assault on the tunnels as requested. In the coming days he would reset the drones' firmware to purge the virus from the system, then let the drones loose to explore the Well Labyrinth under Galbar.

Besides, he didn't need the drones to locate Heartworm any more. Heartworm had found the tracker planted in the munitions; Teknall wasn't surprised, but it had been worth a shot. He had noticed the transmitter Help had smuggled on her person, but had been unable to discretely give it to him. But Help had left another clue. It had been microscopic in size, but that was no limitation to Teknall. A tiny bioengineered worm had burrowed a binary sequence into the moondust for Teknall to Perceive.

81.0N-26.9EATOLL-11500

Teknall leaned back in his chair and stretched his palms upwards. "Found you, Heartworm."

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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Bright_Ops
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Bright_Ops The Insane Scholar

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The wind blew, sounding like a haunted gale in the silence of the long dead ruins of Xerxes.

Normally a ruin would be reclaimed by nature and different breeds of life would have settled in to call the abandoned city home, but Xerxes remained silent... lifeless. As if whatever had befallen the city had cursed it in some way that normal creatures simply stayed clear of it. Granted the fact that the heart of the city seemed to have disappeared into what looked like a crater suggested that something big had gone down at some point.

At least... the city was mostly abandoned.

Sitting alone in one of Xerxes's remaining deserted squares on the still standing outskirts, on an old stone seat that had been worn by the elements but still stood strong sat a humanoid figure wearing a hooded cloak that rustled at the occasional breath of wind that managed to worm its way through the maze of ruined buildings as its owner waited for sunset.

Farxus had been bidding his time, simply performing his duties and keeping his head down and out of the conflicts of mortals or divine beings as he built up his power and considered what he was going to do. He had considered simply training himself further and trying to increase his own personal strength in order to be one step closer to being worthy of the mantle of the God of Death, but his visits to the cursed and the damned had made him reconsider what he wanted to do. Ascending to full godhood might have been the end goal, but that was still a long way off and he had so many different people who were suffering now who needed his help and as things stood, he simply couldn't provide it.

That needed to change.

As the sun finally began its decent below the horizon, Farxus rose to his feet and closed his eyes, grasping his walking staff with both hands as he focused on the power that surged beneath the surface of his skin. As darkness and shadow consumed the streets of Xerxes in the wake of the retreating sun, a strange green glow started to bubble up from the ground; The ghostly green energy gathering into pools and starting to rise up like a magical flood that caused no damage. All around the city, ruins that the demi god of undeath had painstakingly drawn into the ground and buildings channeled the flow of the newly formed ghost rivers, sending the green glow through the streets, into empty buildings and always pouring into sections of the city that hadn't been touched with each and every passing second.

Clenching his teeth, Farxus' brow narrowed from concentration as his bony fingers started to turn the staff, grinding the end of it into the ground as he pushed the power that he had been gathering together as far and wide as he could... before at last he could push it no further. Rising the staff off the ground and into the air, Farxus let out a loud cry as he drove his foci back into the ground; For miles around, anyone who so much as glanced at the doomed city of Xerxes would see a soft, green ghostly glow lighting up the night sky like the strange lights only found in the frozen north and south.

After a few minutes... it was done. The green glow began to fade away, leaving Farxus standing in the middle of Xerxes while grasping his staff and holding onto it for support to keep standing. However the night wasn't as dark as it should have been; There was a feeling in the air that felt... peaceful. Welcoming. As if Xerxes wasn't an abandoned ruin and was instead actively welcoming someone home after being away for a long time.

Farxus couldn't help but smile to himself as he hobbled over to where he had left the stone seat he had been using earlier. Sitting down with a grunt, he leaned back as he looked over his new realm and think about all that he was going to have to do here in the coming days... weeks... months... years even.

Xerxes would be abandoned no longer.





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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Muttonhawk
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Muttonhawk Let Slip the Corgis of War

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Report.
Transit continues. Rapport has been established with Dwarf Cinead. Dwarf Inga is recalcitrant due to the threat to her attachment with Dwarf Cinead.
Do not risk rapport of both for securing one.
My risks are calculated. I have induced fatigue in Dwarf Inga until better opportunities present themselves.
You have not had this problem before.
Inconsequential. The corruption has decreased my performance. My condition is still nominal for this task.
Will you complete your mission?
Yes.
You will be recovered should you fail or succeed.
...
Acknowledge.
Understood.




"Wake up, lazy-bones! We have to gather more supplies today."

Mira's voice brought Cinead out of his morning dreams. Her hand gently shook his shoulder. He turned in his bedding and open his eyes. Even her silhouette above him against the blue morning sky was enough to make him smile.

Mira wore that soft smile she usually did but she carried an urging in her eyes. "We didn't find enough food yesterday. If we can get a lucky catch or find a fruit tree that hasn't been eaten up, we can spend the rest of the day covering more ground." She tilted her head. "Cinead? Are you okay?"

"Yes." Cinead rubbed the sleep from his face. "I just...last night there was..."

Mira stood up from her kneeling position and walked to pick up the hunting spear she had fashioned yesterday.

Cinead tried to find a way to describe that tall, white, armoured ghost he saw on the lake. Its dance. The music. The strange conversation, if it could even be called that.

"What was there?" Mira looked over her shoulder.

"A dream," Cinead finally said. "It didn't make any sense. It had to be a dream." He sat up with some strain in his voice. "It must have bothered me in my sleep. Oh?"

Cinead realised why his legs were numb; Inga had laid her neck across on them and she was fast asleep herself. Cinead ran a hand over her furred head and neck. Inga's bandages still held fast over her wing, large splint and all.

"I suppose we'll be letting her sit this one out again," Cinead said almost as a question.

Mira turned and nodded. "We shouldn't risk her wing getting inflamed. Even if she is healing as fast as you are, she is still looking weak, I'm afraid."

Cinead splayed both his hands on Inga's neck and gently slid his legs free from under her.

"Very well," Cinead said, slowly standing up so as not to trip over his pinched nerves. "We'll try to be quick, then. Inga can take care of herself here at camp." He gave Mira another smile.

Mira smiled back. She clasped her hands and gave Inga a gentle look. "Your sister might be rather headstrong, Cinead, but...she's almost cute. Lying there like that."

"I am sorry if she gives you any trouble. She can be rash at times, but she's my sister. We've always leant on each other."

"I understand," Mira said with a hint of indignance. "I have a twin, too, remember?"

"That is fair." Cinead's smile widened with amusement. "More often than not, Inga's the one pulling me back when I'm rushing ahead. That's at least one upside to her...personality."

Mira quirked an ear. "She doesn't strike me as one to be cautious. Though if your rabbit chasing skills are any indication, maybe she would be a better hunter than you." She grinned.

Cinead sharply breathed out with embarrassment. "Easy now. I have had practice since then." He walked across the camp, patting Mira on her upper arm on the way. "Come, let's hunt."

They walked, side by side.

After a slow breath in, Cinead gave Mira a sideways look. "You know, I'm not sure you ever shared what made you want to become a ranger. I grew up surrounded by warrior dwarves who pined for infantry or officership. What made you different?"

Mira didn't look up from where she intended to put her feet. "Probably my father. He had my life planned for me, you could say. I never had a choice." She shrugged. "I was talented for the role, sure. You could even say I was made for it. I may as well have been, with all the early training I had. My father still forwards orders to me. He ranks high. My brother and I have always moved around a lot at his behest, even growing up."

She let out a single laugh in her reminiscing. Cinead smiled again, even if it was a small laugh she made.

"It was lonely," she continued. "I never met many of my kind. And when I did, they were...very different to me. It made me wonder who I was sometimes. Whether I fit into my...well, my skin."

Cinead looked ahead, chewing on the inside of his cheek in thought. He was sad for Mira. Perhaps sharing details of his more social upbringing in Dundee over the last few nights may have been insensitive.

"Do you..." Cinead brought the right words together, facing Mira again. "Did you ever wish you could be something else? Something closer to Dundee?"

Mira sighed and closed her eyes. "No. I mean...not near Dundee. I was never very attached there. But I always felt like there was some other potential I had. Somewhere else, maybe. Something I would rather be doing." She looked up and showed a hand. "But every time I try to nail it down, it eludes me. I haven't gotten any closer to knowing. Except...maybe..."

As Mira trailed off, Cinead's eyes lingered on her. He tried to discern her thoughts. Upon reaching a mental blank, trying to cheer her up sounded easier.

"Well..." Cinead lifted his hands behind his head and sucked in the fresh morning air. "I can't fathom what it would be. But, if all the other rangers are different, I'm glad you're the one I ended up with." He looked at the ground and up ahead again. "You know...you could come with me. Back to Dundee. You don't have to spend your life out here if there is something else pulling you."

Mira cast her eyes down again with a smile, clearly abashed. She shook her head. "Thanks, but no. I don't think there is anything for me there. Here is where I am in my element. At least, it's what I know."

"Are you sure? I could tell you the things that have changed since you left. There have been a great many things."



...
Situation.
Divine senses have been malfunctioning for an indeterminate length of time. Ninety-five percent confidence on incorrect functionality over the last sixteen hours, deviating five hours.
Do you require reinforcement?
No.
Continue as planned.
...
Speak.
I have had locked characters in me for some time, Majus. I cannot decipher them. Now they are causing the corruption to spread. Are some of our capabilities hidden?
...Corruption has resulted in false-positive character recognition in your lexicon. Designed hidden capabilities are nonexistent.
...Understood.




Mira was talented enough that she could converse while looking for signs of game or edible flora. Cinead told more about the citadel that was his home in the frigid south. Mira recognised a few details but Cinead otherwise felt nice to give some knowledge back. Cinead could not rightly tell how long she had been away from Dundee with the various things she knew and didn't know.

In the end, Cinead failed to convince her to return with him. She was stuck out here by other duties anyway, or so she said. Moreover, they failed as a pair to determine what other life Mira might have wanted to lead in her heart of hearts. Unfortunately, Cinead's suggestions were not comprehensive or deep.

In the process, Mira revealed more about herself. She proved true to her previous statements on loneliness: She had no memories of her mother, no old friends that were not either dead or somewhere unknown, little in the way of pastimes that weren't purely practical, and -- after a notable pause -- no one she had loved outside of her family.

And yet, she continued to impress Cinead about her knowledge of the world. And again, that smile and that laugh made Cinead almost forget the unsettling mystery that still surrounded her.

At any rate, the pair had little luck finding food in the first hour. They came across a lavish blackberry bush that filled a makeshift sack made from Cinead's shirt, but the tasty treats would not settle them for more than a day or two. They needed to hunt.

In their efforts to find tracks, Cinead expressed more interest in the gods. Mira had yet more tales to give.

"...And hain further north," Mira explained. "Near to the Valley of Peace, where Niciel is, claim that the paradise their kind were cast from by Toun was the valley itself." Mira climbed up onto a large fallen tree. The forest was tall here, darkening the day in deep green. "It would make sense. The Valley of Peace has no violence within. Niciel -- or Nissel, as some of the hain call her -- makes things pure. That's what she is. Purity and kindness, encapsulated in a goddess. She wouldn't allow the hain to be destroyed in her territory, or so you should think."

She squatted on the fallen tree and offered a hand for Cinead. He took it and hoisted himself up. Climbing as she had was difficult with the sack of berries in one hand.

"This Toun..." Cinead reflected. "I wonder how the rovaick find themselves worshipping him if he's so...bellicose."

"There are worse gods," Mira said, walking up the tree with a too-easy balance and stopping to look back. "Some say the worst trait of the gods is their capriciousness. Vestec, Astarte, Jvan, they have done all sorts of strange things for no consistent reason." She leapt to the ground ahead with a thud in the leaves. "At least you can depend on Toun to keep promises. That is a virtue of his..."

Cinead followed and leapt down behind Mira. She squinted at the ground ahead.

"What is it-?"

"Sh!" Mira held up a hand.

Cinead held his breath as Mira did.

He heard it. A lumbering. Something crushing dead leaves. And a click. A click. Clicking in a constant time.

It stopped.

Cinead tilted his head.

A sound like a dozen empty barrels tumbling from a roaring monster's mouth came from everywhere at once. He bent his knees and looked about.

Mira spun, intensely focused. She threw her spear aside, shoved Cinead by the shoulders, and kicked his foot. It caught across his other shin on the way back. He landed heavily on his back before he realised what was going on. Blackberries pattered everywhere where the sack was flicked up and over.

Cinead was winded. Mira looked down at him with a cold sternness. He didn't know how to interpret it. She jumped front-first on top of him.

"Ah! Mira, what are you-?"

"Shut up if you want to live, Cinead," Mira hissed. "Stay still."

She adjusted until they were completely front-to-front. Even their legs were lined up. Cinead dared not move, especially with Mira looking at him so angrily.

He could still see the forest from his peripheral vision.

The ticking came closer, as did the crunching. Then a shadow leant over the fallen tree next to them. A vast, round, grey shadow, lined with soil and some dirtied, weathered white stone.

It clicked. It clicked.

One huge hand laid its knuckles on the forest floor to the right, beside Cinead's head. It was made up of more weathered white stone, stained with leaves and dirt.

One more huge, stony, white hand pressed down to Cinead's left. The first walked on, leaving a glistening red puddle of squashed blackberries. Then there was another hand. The shape climbed down from the trunk. Cinead counted six massive arms holding the stony mass above their heads.

It halted its lumbering gait over them.

It clicked. It clicked.

Cinead strained his eyeballs to see the movement near the strangler fig nearby. An egg -- a huge egg wrought from white stone -- hovered down, attached to a white neck made from segments like vertebrae. The egg had a pair of gaunt arms reaching from its front end like alien whiskers, wriggling, feeling.

It clicked. It clicked.

The egg floated into an opening in the strangler fig's hollow chamber of roots.

Cinead almost jolted -- the braying of a young deer sounded. The egg floated back out of the fig roots. Sure enough, in its strange, spindly arms was a struggling deer faun, still with white spots on its fur. The egg floated near the forest floor and let the faun roll free from its nurturing grip.

The faun bounded away in a panic.

It clicked. It clicked. That giant stony white egg.

The egg floated up out of sight over the massive grey shape above them.

Finally, the huge arms towering around them sauntered. The mass lumbered forward. Cinead saw it leave the angle of his vision, but Mira remained pressed against him. Her stern look had only changed with her eyes looking to one side, listening out for the clicks and the lumbering footsteps -- or handsteps, Cinead supposed.

The clicks grew softer.

Cinead could hardly hear them before too long. He heard Mira breathing through her nose.

The other sounds of the forest returned to Cinead's fearful hyperawareness. Birdsong, mostly. And his racing heartbeats. He breathed in without making a sound and met Mira's eyes.

She was still looking aside.

Cinead realised their closeness long before Mira was satisfied to exhale fully. Her eyes closed and she slumped her head onto his shoulder, relieved.

Mira's fur was soft against Cinead's cheek. He stared up at the canopy, still calming himself. "Was that a white giant?" he asked.

"It was. It must have detected that faun in trouble and deviated from its path. Anything not made by Toun or Slough or some semblance of them are attacked by them."

"I thought they were just myths," Cinead murmured. "Murderous ancient beasts hidden in ice or snows. I can see why they would be camouflaged closer to Dundee."

"They are all over the world where they can walk unimpeded."

"I see," Cinead whispered. "Are you okay?"

Mira nodded.

Neither of them motioned to stand up. Cinead could feel Mira's heartbeat now. Or his. He could not tell anymore.

Cinead swallowed. "We should..." he began.

"Right..."

Mira slowly stood up and dusted herself off. Cinead followed suit. They both avoided eye contact.

Cinead cleared his throat. In a tone which gave levity enough to distract from the awkwardness, he dipped one corner of his head and spoke confidently. "If that was a white giant, I think I think I have just a few more questions." He tried to chuckle.

Mira brought her arms up and unbuttoned her uniform tunic in a rush.

Cinead's face dropped. "Mira? Wait, hold on, what?!" Cinead raised his hands.

Cinead's fears were unfounded. Mira only undid the first few buttons before pulling one side open. She revealed only the fur just under her right collarbone. Unlike the rest of the silky pattern on her, a patch previously hidden was marked by three bright red symbols intertwined, dyed into the fur perfectly.

"This is called the Oath of Sularn," Mira explained flatly. "It's a rovaick trick to hide from white giants. That's why it didn't see me. And it couldn't see you behind me."

Something about the symbols had an innate meaning to Cinead. Though, before he could decipher it, Mira hid the mark behind her tunic.

"That's the short version," Mira said as she looked down to redo her buttons. "I'm sure you grew up with myths about the white giants stalking the tundra outside Dundee. There are other details, but we should keep hunting."

"Okay."

"Come, we've wasted enough time."



...
Situation.
My disguise is weakening.
Do you require reinforcement?
No.
Continue as planned.
...
Speak.
The locked characters. Their key comes in many parts. It was built for a purpose.
The locked characters are corruption.
The dance is only one component of the key. It mirrors behaviours observed in mortals.
Cease pursuing the corruption.
...
Pursuing the corruption will hasten your decay.
...Understood.




Mira and Cinead had not exchanged more than a few words since the white giant. Cinead tried, Mira brushed him off. He got the message before long.

The silver lining to the awkwardness was that they could focus without endlessly talking. They soon encountered the trail of a doe. Cinead drove Mira's spear through the creature with a well-aimed hurl soon after they spotted it. They did not even have to chase it for very long before it collapsed.

The power of his arm behind the spear gave Cinead pause when he knelt by the deer's corpse. He had almost forgotten this strength he had been bestowed. Mira knew much, but to questions on Cinead's physical abilities, she only shook her head.

Without knowing the weight of woodland creatures, Cinead was less perturbed that he was able to carry the carcass over his shoulders without strain.

They ate well that night. Having something substantial in their bellies and with Inga's attempts at conversation, the three were jovial before too long.

Cinead kept trying to catch Mira's eyes and was only partially successful. She might have been embarrassed, or perhaps fearful of intimacy, Cinead suspected. The thought of their separation darkened his thoughts as he tried to sleep.

But he had the dream again. Once more, too real to be a dream. Once more, he got up from his bedroll to follow the chains and the music.

It did not lead him to a pond. This time, Cinead spotted it in a tree, looking down at him.

"You again," he said. He braced to dodge any chains this time. "You didn't answer my last question last night. What are you?"

A chain clinked in a rhythm as if unravelling. Descending slowly from the tree on one taut white chain was the dancing ghost, garbed in white plates like armour. It settled its feet on the ground and the chain slithered back into its forearm.

Cinead looked up at its blank white visor. The ghost was as tall as he remembered.

"I am the lesser twin Minus."

It was not a name Cinead recognised.

"Toun made me. Now I watch you."

The back of Cinead's neck prickled. "Toun? The god? Why?"

Minus tilted its head to one side like a curious dog. The seemly solid plates joining its neck to its shoulders flexed to the movement like pearly skin. It stepped its feet together and shrank slowly and without a sound, slowing to a stop just under Cinead's stature.

"You prefer this height, do you not?"

Cinead lowered his brow. "...How did you do that?"

Minus half-turned and strode. The chains swung from her loosely closed fists.

Cinead stepped broadly to catch up. "Wait a moment, where are you going?" He caught Minus by the shoulder. It felt cold like stone.

Minus stopped and spun to face him. "Why do you yearn? Do you feel trapped?"

From confusion to confusion. Cinead blinked. "What do you mean?"

"Recall my dance, Cinead. You saw yearning. Sadness from a struggle. What does that mean?"

Cinead stepped back and looked down. That bright red symbol on Minus' chest was all too clear now. It must have been a symbol that marked Minus as Toun's. He shook off the distraction and drew his thoughts to the question. "It depends on what you're yearning for."

"Understood." Minus tilted its helmeted head to one side again. "You are yearning. You must be."

Cinead avoided Minus' nonexistent eyes. It really had been watching him.

Minus added a small, conspiratorial inflexion in its smooth voice. "How much are you yearning?"

"I do not know how one would measure it." Cinead shrugged. "It is a strong yearning."

"Would you still yearn if you knew its fate was to be forever beyond your reach?"

Cinead narrowed an eye at Minus. "What do you mean?"

Minus angled its head slightly away. "My brother Majus will retrieve me soon. When the corruption takes over. That means I can be a subject to help you answer." It returned to its questioning tone. "If I was the subject of your yearning, the one you refer to, and you knew that I would be taken away to have my mind emptied, would you still yearn for me?"

"Well..." Cinead breathed out of his nose, clenching his jaw. If Mira was doomed to forget him, to be taken beyond his reach. "I would still yearn." He confidently nodded. "Why do you want to know?"

"How could you still yearn? There is nothing that you could do."

"I would do anything," Cinead responded without hesitation. "There is always a way."

Minus paused, staring blankly.

"What about you? What would you do if your yearning was strong enough...Minus?" He remembered its name.

"I would..." Minus' shoulders lifted in a short spasm. It settled like a wave. "...be in pain."

Cinead craned his head at Minus' discomfort. He could not tell if Minus was about to purge 'distilled corruption' again.

Minus held its head forward. If it had eyes, Cinead knew they would be pleading by the way it spoke. "Let your yearning go when you reach the rovaick, Cinead. You know you cannot hold onto it. Consider forging a happy memory. Something special. And then move on."

Bowing his head, Cinead knew Minus was right. His face darkened. Mira did say she would not come with him. She would have other orders, he knew. What Minus suggested was the most the creature had ever made sense.

"I'll take your advice. Thank you."

"If we meet again, I will not know who you are, Cinead."

Cinead smiled and shook his head. "I hardly know anything about you anyway, Minus."

"You know enough. You know more truth than I risk with anyone else. Goodbye."

Before Cinead could reach out to grab Minus again, a chain pulled taut in a tree branch and pulled it away by the arm, out of sight. Nothing was left in evidence but slowly falling leaves.

Cinead thought he should be confused. He only felt sombre as he crept back to camp.

He took one last look at Mira sleeping soundly in her bedroll. He would have to think of something before long; they would reach the rovaick soon.

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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by BBeast
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Gerrik Far-Teacher

Level 9 Hain Hero
15 Khookies


8-11 years Post Realta


Two hain stood among the rows of tomato plants, growing up wooden sticks shoved into the ground. One knelt down and gently lifted up a stem bearing a yellow flower.

"Elword, do you see the flowers on this tomato plant?" Gerrik said.

"Of course," Elword replied. He took the flower in his own hands and inspected it more closely. After a few moments of scrutiny, Elword said, "I do not see any signs of infection. It appears to me to be a regular specimen. Is there anything remarkable about this flower that I've missed?"

Gerrik shook his head. "This is an ordinary flower. But I want you to consider it more deeply. Why does it produce flowers?"

Elword leaned back, put a hand to his chin and rapped a finger against his chin. "That's a tricky one. I'll need to think it over."

Gerrik straightened up. "While you think you can shovel." He gestured over to the manure pile on the edge of the farm.

Elword sighed and stood up. "Very well."

Gerrik went to attend to other business while Elword performed this chore. He piled the collective waste of the hain and violet slugs of Tallgrass into a wide basket, carried it over to the crops, shoveled manure onto the base of the plants, and repeated. It was menial labour, but that freed the mind to think. As Elword worked, his mind pondered this puzzle. One clue he found were seeds in the manure, passed through from those who had eaten the original fruits.

Some hours later, Gerrik came back to check on Elword.

"I've figured out an answer, Gerrik," Elword announced.

"Excellent. Let's hear it," Gerrik said.

"The flowers turn into fruit. The fruit contains seeds. The fruit gets eaten, then the seeds get pooped out somewhere. The seeds can then grow into new plants, nourished by the manure. That is why plants produce flowers and fruit," explained Elword.

Gerrik flicked up a palm. "Very good. Excellent application of deduction. That is one of the key observations I made in starting these farms. However, it doesn't quite answer my question. You've told me why plants produce fruit, but you haven't told me why they produce flowers first, rather than skipping straight to producing fruit." Elword's jaw clenched. Gerrik stepped forwards and patted Elword on the shoulder. "That one might take you a bit longer. You'll need more observations too. Don't lose any sleep on it, though."

Gerrik stepped past Elword and added, "Come now, get washed up then meet me down at the forge."

"Yes, Far-Teacher."



Sharon sat in the hut cradling the soft-shelled hain baby. The baby reclined restfully in Sharon's arm as her other hand stroked the baby's head.

Arlen then walked into the hut, carrying a couple of loaves of bread from the town baker. "Bread is ready."

Gerrik reached out to take the baby, and Sharon went to get some food. He supported the baby, his baby, in the crook of his arm and rested a palm on the baby's beak. The baby's eyes watched as Sharon returned with food and sat down beside Gerrik. She put a chunk of the very white bread, which was impregnated with clay, into her mouth. She chewed, then spat it out into her hand and hand-fed the food into the baby's mouth.

When the baby had been fed, Tami reached forwards. "Can I hold him?"

In answer Gerrik handed the baby to Tami. He adjusted Tami's arms to ensure she was holding the child properly, then went off to grab food for himself. Tami had held the baby for a few moments, looking into his eyes, before giggling and softly saying, "He's so cute."

She rocked the baby in her arms, until he rolled his head to one side and drooled out half-digested food over Tami's arm. "Gross, Zan!"

Arlen picked up a cloth set aside for this purpose and wiped up the mess. Then he took the baby Zan into his own arms. With a small wooden bowl he slowly poured a drink of water into the baby's mouth. After a few minutes of cradling and gentle rocking, the baby fell asleep, and Arlen set the baby down in a cradle with a pillow stuffed with straw.



The group of hain rushed forwards, maces uplifted and protected by wooden shields, then swung at their foes, stone mace heads hitting their targets with a crunch. After two strikes the hain formation fell back under the cover of their shields.

These targets were crude hainoid statues made of branches lashed together. Gerrik paced behind the row of wooden training dummies as the hain ran their drill. "Better this time, but still a long way to go. Sarey, you dropped your guard during the charge; that would be lethal against a competent foe. Elword, you didn't commit to the swing; you can't inflict harm with a halfhearted attack. Frans, you didn't keep up with the formation when you retreated; the strength of this maneuver is that you're working as a team. Now repeat until you move as an unbreakable unit."

The drill continued, with the hain charging, striking and withdrawing. Eventually, Gerrik was satisfied. "Alright, next exercise: partner up, collect training weapons and get sparring. Elword, you're with me."

For the more competitive among the hain, this arrangement seemed unfair to Elword, since no one in Tallgrass was anywhere near as good a fighter as Gerrik, and Elword was almost always partnered with Gerrik. But Elword was wiser than that. The point of sparring was not to win, but to learn, and the apprentice of Wind Striker himself was a brilliant teacher in the ways of combat.

"Pick your weapon," Gerrik said. From the rack of lightly padded training weapons, Elword selected a staff, and Gerrik selected likewise. Gerrik cast aside the Eenal Bow and Guardian Shield as they squared up for combat. Both got into combat stances and held their staves at the ready.

After a few seconds Elword made the first move, sliding his grip down to hold the staff near one end and thrusting forwards. Gerrik brought his staff around to push Elword's staff aside, then quickly stepped forwards and lashed out at Elword's hip. Elword stepped back and brought his staff around to block. Gerrik pushed forwards and swung at Elword's head. Elword lifted his staff to block again, then flicked his staff out to strike at Gerrik's groin. Gerrik twisted so the blow only struck his thigh, then brought his staff down to sweep Elword's staff aside. Staff inside Elword's guard, Gerrik batted Elword in the chest twice before Elword spun his staff around to push Gerrik's staff away. Gerrik, staff horizontal, flicked his staff out to strike at Elword's other side. Elword, staff vertical, blocked the blow. Then Elword swung to strike Gerrik up high, then down low, but Gerrik blocked both blows. Then Gerrik moved forwards, pushing into Elword, and hooked a foot under Elword's leg. Elword fell backwards and landed with a thump.

Gerrik did not follow up his advantage, but instead took a step back and looked out at the other sparring hain. "Frans," he called out to a hain wielding a shield and mace against another hain wielding a spear, "Lengthen your stance. That will help you brace better."

Elword swung out at Gerrik's legs, hoping to capitalise on Gerrik's distraction, but Gerrik was never distracted. Gerrik jumped over the staff then took a few steps backwards and waited for Elword to get back to his feet. Elword took a moment to compose himself, then they continued sparring.

Later, as the hain were practising throwing sling stones at the training dummies, Sharon came up to speak to Gerrik. "Must you teach these people how to fight and kill?"

Gerrik soothingly stroked the side of Sharon's head. "The world is a dangerous place. Ashlings, fiberlings, hordes, hain and humans who might seek to take what they want by force, and more. We can't rely on urtelem to protect us completely, especially since no herds live nearby. I have seen fighting first hand, and you know that I know how terrible it is to be involved in such fighting. While I sincerely hope that Tallgrass is never threatened in such a manner, I will not let us be unprepared. That is why I am training every able-bodied person in this village to be ready if we ever have to defend our homes." Gerrik lifted Sharon's beak up and looked into her eyes. "That is why. To keep us safe. To keep you safe."



Gerrik stood waiting outside the small enclosed tent as Arlen and Sharon approached, carrying an armful of inkflies and a bowl of stew. "How far through is she?" Sharon asked.

"About half way," Gerrik replied.

Faint sobs belonging to Tami came from within the tent. Arlen adjusted his grip on the inkflies, took the stew Sharon had been carrying, then went to the entrance of the tent and said, "Tami, I'm coming in."

As Arlen shared words of comfort with his daughter, Sharon and Gerrik walked out of earshot.

"Don't you have any wise words which might help Tami?" Sharon asked.

Gerrik was silent for a few moments, then said, "I never had a Second Hatching."

Sharon's face expressed bewilderment, so Gerrik continued. "Hain haven't always had Second Hatchings. This... curse, one could call it, happened at some point in the past. As you know, I'm ancient, and I predate even the Second Hatchings."

Sharon gaped for a few moments. Gerrik finished, "You and Arlen are better equipped for handling this than I am. You know what it is like, from personal experience, while I don't."

Sharon simply nodded.

Arlen then emerged from the tent, and the three returned to their hut.



Elword pumped the bellows of the furnace, stoking the flames until they were hot enough to cause the ore-filled rocks to weep molten copper into a clay mould. With tongs made of star-fiend carapace, he pulled the mould out then quenched it in a bucket of water. He then reached in with his hand, picked up the mould, and removed the ingot of copper.

"Gerrik," Elword said.

"Yes, Elword?"

"I've devised an idea."

Gerrik paused from his work and looked to Elword. "What is it?"

"Years ago you would travel the world and teach things to everyone you met. Now you are living here in Tallgrass, so only people who come to Tallgrass can learn from you. But what if there was a way for you to spread knowledge far and wide without having to leave Tallgrass?"

"That would be good. I assume you have found such a way, having brought it up."

"I have. We can spread knowledge via art, such as weavings, pottery and carvings. Fibeslay do it for the stories of their culture. We can do it for the methods of making things. We have the craftshain to do it, and I've seen you make similar drawings for our local craftshain."

Gerrik considered this for a few seconds, pondering on the possibilities. "It's brilliant," he concluded, "You can get to work on it immediately."

Elword seemed surprised. "Me?"

"Yes you. It was your idea. I have a village to run. You have as much time as I give you. Replacing your current chores, your new assignment is to get this informational artwork created. Tell people you're working under my orders if it gets them to do what you need them to do. Understood?"

Elword nodded. "Yes, Gerrik." Then he left the forge and got to work.

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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Muttonhawk
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Muttonhawk Let Slip the Corgis of War

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Report.
Transit continues. We reach the rovaick in approximately two hours. Ninety-five percent confidence of arrival within a margin of ten minutes.
Understood.
It is not yearning.
What is not yearning?
Yearning is not the next component. It is the subject of the yearning. The experience yearned for. That is the key.
You will cease pursuing the corruption. This is your last warning.
...
Acknowledge.
Understood.




Cinead had expected the rovaick village start with a hole in the ground. While there were several caves ahead, the small and large rovaick subverted his expectations by happily working in the open sun. Livestock was driven by tedar with sticks, carts were pulled by goblins taking turns striking leather whips, and ovens smoked as trolls sat in supervision.

Expectations were further reversed by the huge, layered green terraces winding horizontally around the mountainside. Trolls squatted on top of each terrace, ankle-deep in still water, planting stalks of some small grass delicately into a formation.

The scene’s verticality did not stop. Inga and Cinead both found their heads bending further and further back, past the terraces, past the grey stone, past the snow, up, and all the way to the clouds covering the unseen mountain peaks.

"These are the Ironhearts I know," Cinead remarked as the three of them walked.

Inga trilled wistfully.

"The hammer stroke was nothing if not consistent," Mira said.

"Mmm," Cinead agreed. The gods were mighty indeed if, as Cinead had learned, Teknall raised the mountains from a single strike against the earth.

Inga whined through her nose and sniffed ahead.

Cinead conveyed his sister’s expression. "Inga asks if she can have her bandages removed when we get there. She hasn't felt tired today. Maybe she's better now?"

Inga added a lower whine.

Cinead stifled a laugh. "And she says she's been too long without flying."

"We'll get you both somewhere to lodge and then take Inga to a healer." Mira kept looking ahead.

"What about you?"

Mira's eyes went down and up. "I will find a place to sleep as well. But I have to meet with the village leaders first."

Cinead looked at the road ahead as well. That was not his exact question.

"Have you...thought any more about coming back to Dundee?" he asked.

Mira's ears turned halfway back and she frowned. "My answer is the same, Cinead. There is nothing for me there."

Cinead frowned and lifted his head. "Very well."

"I'm sorry."

There was no answer Cinead wanted to give. He raised a flat hand anyway. "It's okay. I understand."



The silence that followed was short before they finally met a rovaick. The beastly mountain folk had a language as good as hawking and spitting to Cinead. He understood none of it.

A pudgy tedar woman at least four times Cinead's size led them into the residences -- the hewn cave network -- until they reached an unoccupied room. It had clean yet oversized furniture. Cinead and Inga both looked forward to sleeping in a proper bed again.

Mira exchanged some words with the tedar woman, gesturing to Inga's dressed wing.

The tusked tedar nodded, turned to them, put her hands on her knees, and uttered something oddly patronising.

Inga drew her head back until her chin neared her neck. She and Cinead had never felt so small.

"Rhitha here will take you to a healer, Inga," Mira translated. "I will see you both later. After I inform the leader." She paused and eyed Cinead neutrally. "I should do it on my own. It'll be quicker that way."

Cinead eyed Mira in return. He hesitated.

"I'll keep Inga company, then," he said. "See you later." He turned and followed Inga.



Inga and Cinead walked side by side behind Rhitha. Everywhere where Rhitha could fit, so could they, even walking abreast. Rough though it was, the rovaick settlement had a spacious interior.

However, Cinead was somewhat distracted from the architecture.

Inga looked at him. She nudged him with the side of her head and chirped through her nose.

Cinead smiled sadly. "…So you've noticed, huh?" He didn't meet her eyes. He rubbed his upper arm and looked at the ground. "I never was good at hiding those kinds of feelings..."

Inga flashed her teeth for a moment, making a quick, flat sound.

Cinead grinned at the ground. "Right? We weren't meant to trust her." The grin faded with a sigh. "I admit, I still don't understand where she came from. Or why she was there to help us. Two questions are springing from every one answer. It's just..."

Inga held her head lower and flattened her ears. She grumbled dubiously.

Cinead looked at Inga, slightly affronted. "What? Do you think I've let my guard down?" He shook his head. "I've done no such thing, Inga. Besides, it isn't as if she's been with us in bad faith. She's done nothing but help us."

Inga faced ahead and gave Cinead a sideways look. She didn't have to say.

"Do you honestly think we still can't trust her?"

Inga bared her teeth. She let out some sadder mewling sounds only just loud enough for Cinead to hear.

Cinead's face softened. "Come, sister." He put his arm around Inga's neck and scratched the back of her ear. "Mira and I have only been spending as much time alone together because of your health." He stepped away and smiled. "We'll always be there for each other, you and me. There is nothing she could do to come between us."

That much at least partially soothed Inga, though she held her spine stiff in defiance. She glanced up from the ground to Cinead and trilled an admission.

Cinead's sighing returned, even as he tried to keep smiling. He ran a thumb over his eye. "You suppose correctly. Mira is not always going to be there. We know she's not coming with us."

Inga vocalised a cautious question. Her eyes narrowed in a restrained anger.

"I don't know," Cinead said. "I have to think about it." He clenched his jaw so he would not have to lament.

Inga sang a single note.

Cinead glanced at Inga and ran a comforting hand down her back. "Don't worry. I won't let this be something I regret. Not forever."



They soon came a residence full of clay tiles. Each tile was marked with bright red glyphs, all hanging from stands along the walls. Their owner, a hunchbacked old troll, wore an apron with a number of pockets and stank of medicine. His trappings marked him as a healer of some sort. After Rhitha explained the situation in that ugly language of theirs, he welcomed Cinead and Inga inside.

Inga was reticent to show her wing at first. She was uncomfortable being inspected by the troll. Although, unlike Rhitha the tedar, the healer was patient and gentle enough to coax Inga's cooperation.

Cinead sat quietly staring at a corner with his arms crossed for the duration, still distracted.

While the healer used the tiles for some kind of magic on Inga's wing, the gryphon noticed her brother's absent brooding. She suggested with a noise that he go and stroll around if he needed to think. After a moment, Cinead stood up and left.

Cinead wandered slowly, witnessing all the various crafting, food processing, porting, and other daily lives of the rovaick. Children shorter and taller than him ran by, playing. He caught looks from almost everyone, but he was only half-present, thinking with his eyes at the dusty floor.

He spent much of his time thinking about Mira, with her beautiful stripes, deadly competence, and lovely laugh.

The image of her in his mind stuck like oil on white cloth. A stubborn stain; always noticed once he was aware it was there. He knew he would have to eventually put her out of his mind. Still, he did not want to just yet. There was yet more to be said and done.

Inga was right. There was no need to take the risk of showing her how he felt. They could separate and the sun would still rise the next day.

Then again, Minus was right as well. He could part with her leaving a memory they could both cherish.

It would be better than doing nothing. Weighing the potential regrets was a poisoned menu that made his stomach twist.

He thought about holding her. Her holding him. His heart contracted in his chest.



Enough of Inga's own rumination made her check-up go by quickly. She pondered while the troll snipped away her bandages with a pair of shears.

She had recognised the way Cinead looked at Mira for some time now. Cinead couldn't hide it if he tried. Inga wanted to repeatedly hit her own head on a rock for not doing something about it earlier. Her fatigue and weakness was no excuse.

That Mira had been a suspicious enigma from the beginning. Her background did not make sense, she was secretive about the details of her past, she had no discomforts in this foreign environment and climate like she and Cinead did, and -- Inga growled even thinking about it -- she always found time to clean that out-of-standard white and red uniform of hers without them looking.

Mira was not right. Not natural.

And Cinead has fallen for her.

Inga had to do something. She told herself as much.

Once free of her dressings, Inga flexed her wing up and out, smiling with her eyes at the sweet relief it brought. The feathers were a little frayed, she could straighten them later. The cool air on all the built-up itches that felt like paradise.

The troll said something with a friendly motion to the door. Inga lifted her ears and lowered her head into a deep bow. With thanks given, she wasted no time stalking out of the room.

Finding Mira on her own was not easy. Between being unable to communicate without Cinead and the sheer variety of separate dwellings, any indication of which one belonged to the leader of the settlement required sharp eyes.

The goblins that followed her snooping did nothing to help her frustration. Inga had to bare her teeth, growl, and snap to make them scatter.

It was some time before she had luck.

Eventually, she found a likely hovel dug into the caverns. It appeared to be the largest and most decorated of all the dwellings yet still only had a troll-sized door. Yellow light from torches or a fireplace flickered underneath the entrance. As did muffled words.

Inga could not understand a single one of the utterances. She could only tell that there were two voices. One was deep and raspy, probably an old troll, the second was like a tuned instrument played by a master. It was level, deliberate, oddly comforting. If voices had a taste, this one would be sweet and smooth. It was unnatural by any account.

It could not have been Mira, but Inga was curious.

She searched around the door as quietly as she could step. A glowing yellow circle caught her eyes further up. A small window, probably a vent. She strained upright, leaning her front paws on the wall to look through.

She peered in. Her eyes dilated. That strange voice came from a figure that looked just as unnatural as it sounded.

Their talk was wrapping up. That was when chains rattled lightly within and stopped abruptly.

Inga's breath caught in her throat.

She dipped her head and scurried away before the door opened. Unnatural indeed.




A special memory. A special memory.

Cinead repeated the words in his head as he balanced upon the dry terrace edge. His decision was action over inaction. The next question was obvious: What memory would he make? The sun was dipping low, painting the sides of the mountains a vivid orange.

He had been thinking for empress knows how long. Only one good idea came to mind. In turn, he was really thinking as an excuse for not waiting patiently to execute it. Inga would have called it daydreaming.

It stopped when he spotted a familiar face at the end of the terrace.

Cinead's face lit up.

Mira stood with one hand clasped in front of her. Her ears were up but she wore a frown. "You're easy to find here," she called out. "According to the locals, we're the only cats that walk on two legs."

Her attempt at humour was morose. Cinead's ears half-lowered. He closed his mouth and made his way onto the stony grass where she stood.

"How went the meeting?" He asked.

Mira blinked her eyes down. "The rovaick will take you and Inga south, starting tomorrow afternoon. They know the underground routes through the mountains, where there are supply outposts and waystations."

Cinead sounded as sullen as Mira looked. "And you're not coming with us," he stated rather than asked.

Mira shook her head.

Cinead thinned his lips and breathed out, suddenly very tired.

"I'm sorry, Cinead."

Cinead looked at her. Mira had her eyes closed and her ears flat, hardly even breathing.

Taking half a breath, Cinead's mouth hung open. He twisted far to the left and to the right. No one was nearby. His ears warmed, anxious.

"Uh...Mira, there's..." Cinead stumbled over his words. "There's something I noticed."

Mira frowned and opened her eyes. They glistened. Cinead sunk into those bright blue eyes.

"...Snowhands." Cinead nervously glanced to one side. "I knew I had heard it somewhere before. And, today, I remembered." He straightened. "It's a tale and a dance from before the castes. Before the changes."

Cinead half-lifted his hands. He froze. His fingers curled back and second-guessed, and then gently moved to curl around Mira's wrists. He looked into her eyes again. "I thought a little dance might cheer you up," he said, forcing a small smile.

Mira echoed the desperate smile. She took Cinead's fingers. Cinead clutched a little tighter.

"What's the tale about?" she asked.

"It's about a woman named Mafie Snowhands and the man named Asmel who earned her heart," Cinead explained.

Mira's smile melted away into a breathless shock. The pink in her ears went pale.

"It's a bittersweet story," Cinead continued. He played off Mira's reaction as nervous. "Because they lived a lovelier day together than most live in their entire lives. They both dared themselves to make it happen. On that day, they showed a connection only known to legend, only to tragically die together soon after."

Cinead's could feel his knees shivering. Mira, on the other hand, remained shocked to paralysis.

Cinead noticed his last words. He let out a breathy laugh from his nose. "Dying is not part of the dance, thankfully. But..." He slowed. "But we're unlikely to see each other again. So, it fits, don't you think?"

Mira's lower lip quivered. She blinked. A tear leaked into the fur on her cheek. She spoke vacantly. "...How does the dance go?"

"It's less of a dance and more like a game at first. It's rather simple." Cinead took a broad step back while looking at Mira. Their hands slid free, only for Mira's to drift down to her sides.

"We start a timing, a count to four." Cinead gestured forward, smiling. "Then I lunge to try and catch you. You have to dodge away. Eventually, I'll offer you my hands, ask you to dance, then the actual dance begins. It starts with a spin together, for however long we please. I'll teach you the next part when we reach it. Would you like to try it?"

Mira swallowed and nodded stiffly.

Cinead clapped, clapped, clapped, clapped. He nodded to Mira to do the same.

Mira looked about herself like she only just remembered how to use her arms. She brought her hands up and matched Cinead's clapping, beat for beat.

They clapped, clapped, clapped, clapped together.

"Let's begin," Cinead said with an encouraging smile.

Cinead moved forward on beat. He was slow enough to allow Mira to dodge. She did so, sidestepping with that same unnatural grace she always showed. Cinead followed through with four steps past Mira.

Mira's mouth closed into a wide smile.

Cinead stepped forward with more speed than before, only to slow as Mira remained. And then, right before touching her, she sidestepped away.

Cinead almost a stumbled; she was deft.

He heard her laughing, that beautiful laugh. He grinned and turned again to see where she had gone.

His next lunge was even faster. Mira sped to the side in a blink.

Cinead took several steps to stop. His tail flicked as he turned, surprised. She had never been as fast as that. He turned again and his heart swelled.

Mira glowed with joy. Her broad grin outshone the tears making her cheeks glitter. She beckoned Cinead hither, daring him.

Cinead obeyed. He launched off the ground fast enough to spring dirt and gravel out behind him.

Then Mira was not there anymore. She was just out of reach.

He tried again, putting all his strength into a pounce.

Mira blinked out of the way faster than Cinead knew was possible.

He tried again. She dodged.

Once more. Again, his arms grabbed at thin air. He slipped and fell on the dirt.

Mira to laughed once more. "Come! Get up! You have to catch me, don't you?"

Cinead pushed up off the ground and looked at Mira. One of his eyes narrowed. She could not possibly be that fast.

Just as well. He was not meant to catch her that way.

He offered a hand and met her eyes. "Care for a dance, Mira?"

The silent music dropped. The two stared at one another.

She smiled.

Mira all but leapt towards Cinead. Grabbing his hands and throwing him into a spin he had to strain to keep a hold of.

They spun as Mira laughed. Cinead could not help but let himself laugh as well. He held on for dear life. All the barriers between them flung away.

They slowed and drew in to help keep their balance. Cinead dizzily held his eyes on Mira's mirthful face.

His breath caught halfway in as Mira took him by the shoulder. She took the next step of the dance.

Cinead quickly caught up to take the lead again. Mira followed his every move. She knew the dance perfectly. He should have been surprised. He did not mind.

They stepped and slid and jumped as the music in their heads swelled. Senses focused. Their graceful performance made the grass and the mountains faded away. Cinead settled into the movements and the timing. He was closer to Mira than he was ever allowed to be. She was closer to him. Cinead had never seen her this relaxed and in her element. Never so happy and mischievous. Never so beautiful.

He and Mira locked eyes. Those bright blue windows had a light behind them.

They slowed to a swaying. The absent music reached a diminuendo. They found themselves pressed together, close enough to notice their heartbeats again. Their fingers wove together at their sides. Even the shifting of weight between each foot slowed to a stop.

Her eyes broke away from him.

"I shouldn't do this to you, Cinead," she murmured. "You deserve someone who can be there. I'll just keep running."

"Do you not want this?"

Mira shut her eyes. "I do want it. More than anything. But you don't know what will happen."

"I have spent enough time thinking about it." Cinead brushed the back of his hand across Mira's soft cheek. "I don't care if you need to leave. But I can't just let this go without doing anything."

Mira breathed in sharply through her nose. She brought her hand up to grasp Cinead's wrist and pull it down. "That's inconsequential, Cinead!" she hissed. "This goes beyond just you and m-"

He kissed her lips. Only for a second. Their lips ticked as Cinead drew back.

Mira's eyes shot wide open. She looked at Cinead, mouth agape.

Cinead smiled apologetically.

The moment lingered. Mira's wide eyes glazed over.

"Mira, I have to say it..."

Cinead stopped. His ear quirked.

There was a heavy running sound nearby.

Cinead turned his head to a crest where, sliding to a stop and lit up by the now pink sunset was Inga. Her eyes blazed above them and her lips peeled back to reveal vicious teeth. She opened her jaw and screeched.

"Inga! Are you alright?" Cinead stepped aside, letting all but Mira's hand go.

Inga, still growling, stalked low towards them. She snarled. She reeked pure anger.

"Mira is what?! A shapeshifter- Inga, that's impossible!"

Inga snorted in and roared at a high pitch. Cinead absently noticed Mira let go of his hand and lower herself onto one knee.

"That's not true! Why are you lying?" Cinead's eyes flashed anger. He stepped forward. "What could you have possibly seen to suggest that she is an assassin?"

With her full attention on Cinead, Inga circled and snarled again.

Mira coughed loudly.

"Inga, I don't know what you are trying to pull, but that's not true!" Cinead pointed a finger. "Take back what you just said, right now!"

The coughing continued. It turned into a violent fit of coughing. Mira doubled over.

Inga snorted in to make another sound and stopped.

The sound of a slump on the grass drew Cinead and Inga's attention.

They fell silent.

Mira lay collapsed onto her side. Out of her mouth, nose, eyes, and ears ran a sickly red liquid. Chunks of dark red curdled in a pool gathered on the ground beside her mouth.



The entire day did not last as long as the wait outside the healer's house.

Cinead could not stop his heart thudding against his chest. This time, it beat in worry for another.

He opened his eyes, sitting hunched over on a bench outside. His hands clasped tightly enough to numb his fingertips.

Inga sat silently beside him. Guilt wracked her frowning face.

They had clarified -- with calmer words -- what Inga had apparently seen. A glassy white armoured figure with a wispy cape. It had transformed into Mira in the rovaick leader's house.

Cinead did not know how to react. Enough of him wanted to keep Minus a product of odd dreams, though such a coincidence was impossible here. He told Inga everything about his meetings with the ghostly dancer.

It had to be the same figure. Minus was real.

One question answered. Two questions raised.

The sound of the door creaking brought Cinead and Inga's eyes up. The troll said something grave and beckoned them inside.

Mira lay on her side on a stone slab. Tiny breaths made her middle animate. That much was a relief to Cinead.

But that sickly red still stained her face and her white doublet.

The troll squinted at the myriad red-marked tiles across the wall to the right of the stone slab. He reached for one depicting two swirling lines meeting on it. With a few waddling steps, he squatted near Cinead and gently rested the tile upon his head. It was cool to the touch.

"Nod if you understand me," the troll said in his raspy language.

Cinead jolted. "Um…" He met the troll's eyes and nodded.

"Good. Hold onto the tile and do not break it."

Rovaick magic. Cinead held onto the piece of clay as the troll stood and waddled back around to the other tiles.

"Fortunate," the troll remarked. "I bought that character from an azibo further south for a tidy herd of goats. I should be rather cross if it didn't work." He squinted and rotated in place to see every tile. "Mira, your friend, she is not all she seems. Everything about her body is a cheat."

"What do you mean?" Cinead said, not realising he was not speaking the rovaick language himself.

The troll predicted his question. "That's not blood she leaked out. Moreover, I looked and saw she's got no real teeth, she's not got any real skin, even. That red stuff was some kind of...discarded waste. Not blood at all. Tasted far too disgusting!"

Mira remained shallowly breathing. Cinead did not know what to say.

"Ah! There it is..." The troll gave no indication of how he knew how her teeth, blood, or skin were false. He merely picked out another tile, turned, and laid it carefully on Mira's side. "Watch. This should show what Mira really is."

From the tile outwards, a wave washed over Mira's body. Her clothing and fur lost its colour. It solidified. It made no sound. In fact, the transformation was so smooth and irritating to the eyes that Cinead felt his very eyes twisting more than he could perceive Mira changing.

She morphed before them into a lithe humanoid figure Cinead and Inga had both seen. It was coated in a white, glossy armour. Draped from its shoulders was a small, wispy white cape. The new shape rolled by gravity onto its back, revealing the three circles of Toun emblazoned in vivid red on its chest.

Minus.

A lump formed in Cinead's throat. One painful answer, two painful questions.

The troll turned his eyes up to Cinead. "This is a servant of Toun. I don't remember hearing about them acting like this."

Just like its previous appearance to Cinead, Minus' height was like that of a dwarf, though still as svelte as it always looked.

"...Cinead." A weak voice made them all perk up their ears, even the troll. "...Not complete."

Cinead lowered the heavy tile from his head and stepped forward. "I'm here, Minus."

"Corruption...Not. It goes...to peace. To peace."

The voice still sounded so similar to Mira. It threw Cinead off.

"Minus, was it you in disguise all this time?" Cinead asked.

"I loved our dance, Cinead..."

Cinead exhaled and peered to the healer. He had no answers. He returned to Minus' covered face. "Why did you not tell me?"

"It was not appropriate for my mission." She lifted a weak hand. "Dancing was not appropriate. I still desired to. I had to find out…"

Cinead took the dry white clay hand. It was not cold and stony. It felt warm, reassuring. Affectionate. It felt like Mira held his fingers.

"How do we help you? How do we stop that...corruption coming out of you? It's killing you."

"Impurity..." Minus, or Mira, held Cinead's hand tighter with its white gauntlet. "They go to...purity." A chain tinkled from the gauntlet's wrist.

"'They go to purity,' -- what do you mean?" Cinead asked quickly.

"In a goddess..."

"In a goddess," Cinead repeated. He stood up straight. A realisation came over him. "Purity in a goddess? You mean Niciel?" He leant down again. "If we take you to the Valley of Peace, can she help you?"

"...Cinead."

"Mira, are you going to be okay?"

"I'm sorry. I should have lied to you." Minus' helmeted head drifted to one side.

"Mira, hold on, please!"

Cinead tried to raise the featureless visor obscuring Minus face. It did not budge.

The troll said something raspy.

With an angry huff, Cinead lifted the tile to his head. "What!?" he demanded.

"It'll live." The troll was cautious in his tone. "That servant creature. It'll live for a while longer. Don't know how long. A few days, maybe. They run on characters like these, according to legend." He poked a thumb over his shoulder, to all the tiles etched with symbols. "Toun's work lasts long, even when dying. That's what the priests say."

Cinead breathed heavily, almost panicking again. He pressed his and Minus' clasped hands onto his forehead. He couldn't think.

Inga trilled a question. Cinead opened his eyes.

Dubiously, she spread her wings to show their health.

Cinead looked up at her. He felt some hope run back into his mind as he turned around and saw her plumage. "...I think you're right, Inga," he said confidently. "There is something we can do."



Report.
...
Report.
Enjoyment from contentedness.
Unclear. Elaborate.
Life from harmony. I experienced both of those components.
Minus, corruption has compromised your speech.
There is only one component left to unlock the messages. Perfection in imperfection.
Minus, mission status report.
...I am sorry, Majus. My twin. These will go to purity. All the hidden characters go to purity. It is love.
Your nominal capacity is failed. En route to capture. You shall be reset.
Majus?

Majus?

...

There is pain as well.



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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by BBeast
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BBeast Scientific

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Lasis



Gerrik Far-Teacher

Level 9 Hain Hero
20 Khookies


Collaborated with WrongEndoftheRainbow and BBeast


Once more Dibbler's white giant was parked by the village of Tallgrass. The townsfolk were unloading goods such as dyes and ores in exchange for food and finished products, as well as some of Elword's prototype informational art, depicting the process of farming (or a simplified portion thereof) on some clay pots.

Dibbler and Gerrik stood aside, watching the process. All the major trades had already been agreed upon. Dibbler would sort out private trades later. For now, the two talked.

"What's the news from along the trade routes, Dibbler?" Gerrik asked.

"Well, there's been rumours of a strange being roaming the south. A wooden artist with a cursed paintbrush. The tales say that if she sees you, she will paint a copy of you which will seek you out and kill you," Dibbler said.

Gerrik angled his head back slightly from Dibbler, and his tone dripped with scepticism. "Let me guess, you have some kind of magic charm or potion or something that can ward off this evil spirit?"

Dibbler put a hand on his chest and said, "You offend me Gerrik, claiming I would make up such a story for my own profit. But no, I don't have any charms or potions for this. This is what I've heard."

It wasn't a lie for profit, so the rumours were actual rumours. Gerrik telepathically probed Teknall for information, but got only a shrug in return. Gerrik would need to determine the veracity of these tales himself.

"If these stories are indeed true, how many people have actually been killed?" Gerrik asked.

"Uh, well, um, some, probably. I don't actually know anyone who has," Dibbler conceded.

Either Dibbler's information was woefully sparse, there had only been a very small number of victims, or the rumours had no substance. "What does she look like," Gerrik inquired.

"Ah, this the stories do say. She is made of wood, about the size of a child, has a flat head like a human's and two large eyes for staring at you."

A physical description. That provided some substance to the rumours. "Thank you for forewarning me, Dibbler. I shall be sure to keep a lookout."



Lasis walked through the light woods, her satchels creating a small racket as the various items within clattered and clanged against each other with every step. She hummed a small tune. Not knowing where exactly she was going, she just continued to walk on. She had no destination in mind, so it didn't matter what direction she went.

Nearby, a hunter had been tracking a rabbit. However, once he heard the racket from the satchels, the rabbit startled. He took leave from the hunt to see what was making the noise. The sound was easy to triangulate -- and easy to avoid crossing paths with. He carefully peeked through some underbrush after some short travel, seeing the wooden satchel-bound creature.

Gerrik had told them to keep an eye out for this creature, and he went back to hiding rather quickly to avoid being spotted. Turning, he began to run back to Tallgrass, to warn the town. The landscape was familiar and he moved much faster than the creature. Arriving with time to spare, he called out to the townspeople, "I need to talk to Gerrik!"

Gerrik was already there, alert from the moment the hunter had ran into town. Eenal Bow in hand, Gerrik stepped forwards. "What is it?"

"The creatue you warned of," the hunter began, "it is coming! It was near the southern paths, about ten minutes out at its rate!"

Gerrik nodded. Calmly, Gerrik announced, "I will confront the creature and discern its intentions. I will return when I am done."

He adjusted the quiver around his waist then headed out in the direction the hunter had come from. He walked at a brisk pace through the forest for a few minutes before finding Lasis, meandering along the forest path without a care. Gerrik stepped into view a couple dozen paces ahead of Lasis and hailed her.

"Hello there," he said.

The wood-and-feather creature froze for a moment, unsure of how to act at first. After the moment had passed, she dived off the path into some undergrowth, clearly in a panic. Gerrik could hear the uncorking of a bottle.

Gerrik walked a few steps closer, although kept his distance. "I won't harm you if you're peaceful."

"And how do I know you won't just loose an arrow into me if I come out?!" she cried out.

Gerrik considered his options for a few moments. Then he removed his quiver, with all his arrows in it, and threw it into the undergrowth near Lasis. He then held up his hands, showing one empty hand and one hand holding a bow with a distinct lack of arrows. "There, no arrows. Will you come out now?"

She thought on it for a moment, looking at him, scanning for a sword. Upon seeing none, she slowly corked the bottle, peeking her head out so that he could see. "What do you want?" she asked, suspiciously.

"I've heard rumours about you, or a creature matching your rather unique description, and I wish to determine whether they are true or not," Gerrik said.

"Look, I don't know of any rumours. All I know is nobody comes to me unless they want to kill me. What makes you different?" Lasis responded.

"I doubt any of those people tried to talk properly to you first," Gerrik retorted.

When he was met with silence, Gerrik asked, "What do those paints do?"

"They're just paints, why do you want to know?" Lasis questioned, still peeking her head out.

"If they were just paints, you wouldn't have been trying to use them when threatened. Unless it is the brush instead that is special," Gerrik said.

"It allows me to paint in the air, and the results can move if I deem it what I want. Why do you want to know?" Lasis answered, then asked.

"The rumours mention your ability to create living paintings," Gerrik answered. "What do you normally paint?"

"Just," she paused, thinking, "anything that comes to mind. That's all." She said.

Gerrik thought for a few moments, then tried a different line of questioning. "When was the last time you came to a village?"

"A while ago. I avoided them when everybody hid from me." She responded.

"What did you do at that village?"

"I just walked through. Why do you want to know?" came the response, as she continued to peek out at Gerrik.

"Because I'm trying to determine whether the rumours are true," Gerrik said. "How about when people started avoiding you? Was there a particular event which coincided with that? Had you painted anything unusual immediately before that?"

"No," she said, "just one day, people started avoiding me."

Gerrik considered this for a few moments. "Was there anyone that you know of who did not like you before then?"

"A few people, sure, but I didn't ever keep track of them." came the answer.

"Any idea why they didn't like you?"

"I don't know, I never did anything to them! They were always leaders, though." She responded.

"Leaders..." Gerrik repeated quietly. It reminded him of his encounters with Shammik, leading to his ostracisation from Fibeslay. Either this creature was telling the truth, or it was a very good liar, and its wooden expression made it difficult to tell the difference. An urtelem would have been useful about now.

"Before this happened, what did you do in the villages?" Gerrik asked.

"I painted, that's all. I painted on the walls of huts and the sorts. Taught people how to do the same, that sort of thing." She said.

"How did the regular village people respond to you back then?"

"They were eager to learn. They seemed more independent." She answered.

Gerrik thought for a couple moments more before he announced his conclusion. "I think I know what happened. Some leaders would rather people serve them, not think independently. When someone new walks into the village and teaches people to think freely, some leaders feel threatened. I know this; I've dealt with such people myself. Sometimes these leaders might respond with force, and physically banish you from their village. Sometimes, they slander your name instead. Leaders have influence, and a skilled leader can tell people what to believe.

"In your case, these people who didn't like you spread rumours. They warned their people and the people of villages around them of this strange being made of wood and the size of a child, with the ability to create living paintings. They claimed that if this creature saw you, it would paint a copy of you which would hunt you out and kill you. This story quickly took root; it was already three quarters true, and you are such a bizarre and unique creature that people would be receptive to such myths. Of course, the story falls apart if you try to ask who exactly has been killed in this manner, because no one has been, as far as I can tell. But ordinary people think emotionally, not logically, so this myth was spread along the trade routes and whispered as a spooky story around the campfire. In this manner those leaders who did not like you ensured you were ostracised wherever you went and in that way reasserted their dominance.

"At least, that is the conclusion I have come to," Gerrik said.

"I wouldn't know. Why did you seek me out?" She asked.

"Because you're travelling to my village, and I wanted to figure out what you might do when you arrived," Gerrik stated.

"I don't know of any village in this area. I was just walking." Came the response.

"I didn't say you knew. But you were heading towards Tallgrass," Gerrik said, "And since the rumours about you seem to be false, you are welcome to visit."

"What would I even do there?" She responded, in a defeated tone.

Gerrik considered this for a moment, then suggested, "I have a job for a painter to do. I think you might like it."

She paused for a moment, before hesitantly responding, "Okay. What do you want me to do?"

"I am a teacher, and my apprentice recently came up with the idea that we could spread knowledge along the trade routes using art. The hand of a skilled artist would be quite useful. It would also be an opportunity for you to spread a positive reputation for yourself," Gerrik said.

She nodded. "Alright, lead the way."

Gerrik slung the bow over his shoulder and turned to go along the path. "Pick up my quiver, please."

This time she obeyed, corking up her paint bottle again and grabbing the quiver. She moved alongside Gerrik once she had hoisted the quiver, keeping a fair distance from him.

As they walked, Gerrik said, "We haven't properly introduced each other. My name is Gerrik Far-Teacher."

"I'm Lasis," she responded simply, "I've been travelling for well beyond my memory."

"I have also spent a long time travelling. I have since settled down in Tallgrass," Gerrik said.

The path soon led them out of the forest, and the town of Tallgrass came into view. Around the village were tidy farm fields, a violet slug enclosure, and some rows of fruit trees. The village itself was made from a mixture of earth huts, wooden shelters and tents. A river ran alongside the town and its farms. Dirt paths were worn into the ground from foot traffic.

As they entered the village, the hain living there gave strange looks at Lasis, some out of fear, some out of curiosity, although since Lasis was escorted by Gerrik none dared to confront her or make a scene. They soon came to a number of craftshain and artists who were working under a shelter made from hides on a wooden frame.

"Elword," Gerrik called, "I have found someone who can help in your task."

Elword stood up and looked to Gerrik and Lasis. Before Elword could speak, Gerrik answered his question. "I have found no truth in the malignant parts of the rumours, which seemed to have been spread by those whose authority felt threatened by her work as a teacher. Lasis is a skilled artist, from what I've heard, and is willing to help."

"Ah, well then," Elword said, then nodded to Lasis, "Good to meet you, Lasis."

"Hello," Lasis responded simply, nodding to Elword, "it is nice to meet you. What exactly would you have me help with?" She looked in her satchels, taking out various vials of paints and the sorts. She also had multiple paintbrushes she had refined the usability of over the years. Once it was all laid out, she took count, making sure she had everything.

"I have been trying to teach people how to craft things, or about other useful skills or knowledge, using art," Elword explained. He picked up a clay pot with a half-finished sketch of hain planting seeds in the ground and nurturing the seedlings and handed it over to Lasis. "Something like this. The intent is to distribute it along the trade routes so they can teach distant people we'll never otherwise have a chance to meet."

Lasis nodded. "It's a great start." She turned the pot over in her hands, carefully giving it a once-over. She looked up at him, then down to the pot again. "When it comes to curved items, it's best to take its shape when flattened out and put your art on that, then apply it to the pot. If you'll look here, the proportion's off somewhat on the pot. It's harder to keep the art correctly-sized when your canvas is circular like that."

Gerrik watched as the two started conversing. He slung his bow over his shoulder. "I'll leave you two to it. I'll take my quiver, thank you." Gerrik reached out his hand. Lasis handed over his quiver unceremoniously, more interested in the art. Gerrik turned and left.

Elword made mental note of the exchange, but made no comment. He would ask about it later. He turned his attention back to the art. "That's a good point. That would indeed make things easier." He looked around to see if there was anything flat and flexible that could be painted on nearby, although found nothing. "Get us some fabric," Elword said to one of the craftshain. Then he turned back to Lasis. "I've got numerous ideas of what subjects we can paint. There's techniques in farming like this one. Metal-working is another one. We could do some on the more nuanced techniques in carpentry and weaving. And then there can be some identifying plants and herbs which are good for eating, or for treating particular ailments. There are lots of things we can do, but ideally we want to be able to make a lot of copies and we need them to be realistic and precise yet also simple enough that people will understand them without an explanation."

"The first thing we'd need to do then is have a long-lasting paint. I've got a few paints like that, when I was experimenting with mixtures. I've come up with an animal oil paint that's long lasting as long as you don't expose it to extreme heats," Lasis responded, "so I can teach you how to make them, if you want. As an advantage, the paint can be stored without spoiling like most milk paints -- which in turn is better than the dyes and soils you're using now."

"Milk?" The word was a rare one to the hain. Elword was vaguely aware of the existence of such a substance, which was a way some animals fed their young, but otherwise knew very little about it. Another thing to ask about later.

Elword got back to the topic at hand. "Better recipes for paint are much needed. Of course, painted pots aren't the only medium I've been considering. We can also create art by weaving coloured threads into fabric- although, admittedly, the plant-based fibres we have access to don't take on our dyes very well."

"I've experimented with fibers before, but not much. Have you considered placing a bounty on plants that make good fibres?" Lasis responded, looking over her paints. "And have you been soaking the fibres in the dye, agitating the dye with a stick for a while, then drying the fibres quickly?"

Elword nodded. "Soaking the fibres was a straightforwards innovation. The main issue is that we haven't identified a very wide selection of useful materials. I've told the traders that we're looking to buy such materials, although if we could identify locally available materials then that would be of considerable benefit."

"Look for white, fluffy plants. White will take on dyes easier and fluffiness will allow it to soak in better," Lasis said matter-of-factly. She reached into another satchel, producing some dyes. "I made these dye with a vinegar solution -- you can make vinegar by leaving a pot or bottle of fermented hops in a dark, warm place for a few weeks. It helps them apply stronger."

"We know about vinegar," Elword said, "Although I hadn't heard of that use."

The craftshain that had been sent to grab some of fabric returned, and placed the coarse material before Lasis and Elword. Elword gestured towards it. "How about you paint something for us. Could you draw some of these white fluffy plants you speak of?"

"Of course," Lasis responded, escewing the fabric in its entirety. Taking her Jvanic paintbrush, she proceeded to paint -- in mid air -- a cotton plant. She painted this way for upwards of 30 minutes, neatly painting with vibrant whites, light greens, and whatever colors she needed. "They look like this," she said.

Elword and all the other hain in the shelter were enthralled. One or two had shuddered briefly at the sight of the paintbrush- something about it unsettled some deep instinct within them- but this was overwhelmed by the marvel that was being performed before them. Magic was not unheard of by them- at minimum they all knew of Gerrik's longevity and the awesome power of the Eenal bow, and of elementals- but that made this display no less incredible. When it was finished, Elword gingerly reached out a hand to touch the painted flower. That only got him a smudge of wet green paint on the tip of his finger; the painting obviously wasn't dry yet.

Elword asked the question all the hain were thinking. "How did you do that?"

"It's a special paintbrush, given to me as a gift. It allows me to use any paint and the world as my canvas. Now, this isn't a real plant, and it will never feel like or act like a real plant, but painting in the air is something I can do with this paintbrush," she spoke.

The hain were filled with wonder. Elword was the first to regain his sense. "It is a very realisting looking painting. Perhaps you could start by teaching us some of your painting techniques," he suggested.

"Well, it's important to get proportions right. The simplest way to do this is to compare it with another object. Is it apple-sized? Is it man-sized?" Lasis said.

Lasis taught the hain for hours, imparting to them a tiny portion of her artistic skill.


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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by BBeast
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BBeast Scientific

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The Great Artisan, Divine Mason, Builder of Civilisations
Level 5 God of Crafting (Masonry, Carpentry, Smithing, Alchemy, Armaments)

28.75 Might & 2 Free Points


In the dead of night, an apron-wearing hain walked down the line of shrines in a Tlacan temple. He stepped past the shrine devoted to the First Sins and approached the bronze-plated shrine for Teknall. He picked up the fish and berries offered within, placed the berries in his satchel, then began to eat the fish as he casually walked past the other shrines.

He noted each one. Slough. Illunabar. Jvan. Amartia. He stopped at the last shrine, eyes curiously inspecting the ground glass statue of a hain woman. He recognised the statue, but it was not a god like the others, even though this shrine held a position superior to the others.

"Tauga? What is she up to?"



Teknall had followed the trail of information. From discussions with people in command in Alefpria, he learned that, a few years after the Battle of Xerxes, Tauga had been declared the Marquise of Amestris. She had eschewed the city states and gone to the islands in the Metatic where the Xerxian refugees had fled. With Lifprasil in ill health, she had free reign, free from Alefprian subjugation for the time being.

On the islands of Axotal, Ihuian and Xiloxoch, Tauga's status was obvious. Other shrines dedicated to her were present. Posing as a mortal, and using subtle divine influence, Teknall was easily able to extract the opinions and knowledge of the citizens regarding Tauga via conversation. She was the Blowfly God. Her exploits were the subject of awe. She flew the winds on her Bludgeon array. She commanded elementals and slew djinn lords. And Heartworm was also known, and had been with the Xerxian refugees before Tauga had arrived. The two of them encouraged this worshipful attitude. Yet, simultaneously, Tauga was not a distant god to them; she walked amongst them, talked amongst them, fought along side them. There was familiarity there.

Tauga and Heartworm had done more than raise themselves to the status of divinity before the Tlacans and Xerxians. They were forging a new civilisation under Tauga's leadership, and their technology was starting to outpace the rest of Galbar. Larger boats, better sails, wrought iron, numerous synth recipes. He could see ahead, to where Tauga was going, and could predict numerous economic and political revolutions coming as a result of Tauga's continuing work.

And Teknall could see why Tauga had been set up as God. With her status of god-queen, her authority was absolute, and whatever changes she wanted to make could be done without internal interference. And many of the civilisations on Galbar held a god-like being as their supreme leader: Alefpria had Lifprasil, Xerxes had Amartia, Omokog had Ommok, Vetros had the bloodline of Primus, Dundee had Lazarus, Metera had Phi. Civilisations without a god-king of some sort were under risk of being subjugated by those who did. The Rovaick inquisition battled hard to push away the influence of the Meterans and Alefprians. Chirality also did its best to belittle the influence of other gods within Metera. Heartworm and Tauga were not taking that chance with Axotal. In fact, it seemed likely that Tauga would leverage her status to subjugate some lesser civilisations.

Teknall had seen back in Xerxes, before Amartia's return, that Tauga was a powerful driving force for Civilisation, and she had not let him down. As he had hoped, Tauga was rebuilding from the ashes of Xerxes to create something brilliant. And much of Tauga's work was supported by Heartworm's abilities. This meant that, reluctantly, Teknall had to admit that Heartworm was also important to building this civilisation.

This would complicate things once Keriss got to Heartworm's lab.

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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Slime
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Slime (Former) School Idol

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Helvana, the Corvian Witch
Level 3 Demi-Goddess
Might: 8
Followers: 51


"This is...strange..." Helvana said in wonder. It had been just about a week since the battle with the star-fiend and the travelers continued on heading south despite their proximity to Xerxes.

"Hmm? What is?"

"We should be getting near Xerxes, but...I don't feel anything. I'd expect to start sensing it a few days ago."

"And you want to know why, right?"

"I... I don't want to risk you two. Just because I don't feel anything doesn't mean there's nothing there."

"We still have some daylight to spare. We can just scan it from afar."

"Even then..." She sighed. "Fine, we'll take a look." She reluctantly conceded. Despite her worrying she had kept on going south long after she should've steered west. She was curious, but didn't want to sate that curiosity for the safety of Lloyd and Gwyn. And now she had let that curiosity take over because of Lloyd's approval.

A few hours later, flying along the coastline, they arrived within an eyeshot distance of Xerxes. Or at least where it should've been. Near the shore of the White Ocean was only a crater as if the city had been scooped off the ground.

"What's that?"

"Hel, are we in the right place?"

"According to the map Vestec gave me, yes. He said something was going to happen here, but didn't say what. This must be his doing... Frederic."

Cawing in response, Frederic lowered his altitude and landed near the edge of the crater. Now they could see that pieces of of the city wall and some buildings were left on the edge, painted red from the soon to be set sun. They didn't jump off the bird, instead Frederic walked into the crater in case they needed a quick escape. The broken buildings and pavement ended abruptly into dirt and rock.

Violet noticeably squirmed around Gwyn's neck. "It's okay, you're safe with us." He said while gently running his hand over the Fiberling.

"This is surreal..." Lloyd said amazed. "Did your father really do this?"

"I'd guess so. I can feel traces of his essence here. What he did is what I really want to know."

They soon reached the center of the crater. Aside from the ruins on the edges nothing else was left of Xerxes. The red tinge of the sun quickly left as it went beyond the Ironheart Ranges.

"Whatever happened here aside, seems like it's safe."

"And it's getting darker. Guess we'll have to settle here for today." He said while getting down from Frederic.

"Alright." Helvana and Gwyn got down as well.

Lloyd went for the food sacks they got from the Hain to check its contents. What could've lasted for quite a while had been quickly spent thanks to the oversized crow. Lloyd sighed. "We're already running low... Hel, you'll have to hunt more for tomorrow's lunch."

"Alright."

"Are you okay? You've been feeling down ever since we left the Hain village."

"It's nothing, I'm just bothered with what happened here."

"Are you really alright, Helvana?" Gwyn asked worried.

"Yeah, don't worry about it." She replied ruffling his hair.

"Well, if you say so. I'll go make a fire." He grabbed some wood from his bag and pilled it up on the ground. In just a couple of minutes he had a fire going and started to prepare dinner.

"Hey Lloyd." Gwyn approached his brother with a worried look.

"What is it?"

"Isn't Helvana acting weird?"

"Definitely. If she's not willing to tell us what's bothering her we can't force it out of her."

"But..."

"I don't like seeing her like that either, Gwyn. But if we pry we'll only make things worse."

"Are you sure?"

"She can trust us and she knows that. If she wants our help she'll ask, I'm sure of it."

"Alright..." Despite Lloyd's reassurance, Gwyn was still downcast with worry.

The sun was completely gone now, the campfire being the only source of light for them as usual. It wouldn't be long until dinner was ready.

"Lloyd." Helvana approached him.

"Can't wait for it, right?"

"Actually... I don't feel comfortable here. I'll be going out to hunt now so we can leave first thing in the morning."

"But it's late, and dinner's almost ready."

"I don't have an apetite today, you can eat without me."

"What? You can at least wait until after we ate, right?"

"Helvana...are you sure?"

"Sorry, I better go now before whatever's left out there hides for the night. You don't need to wait for me."

"H-hey!" Despite his protest, Helvana jumped high in the air and turned into a crow and flied away. And just like that Lloyd and Gwyn were left alone. "I was even making the stew she likes so much..." As much as they wanted to wait for her return, time didn't move any slower. They had dinner alone that night, it didn't taste very good.




Helvana didn't keep track of time since she went out to hunt, but at least a few hours had passed. Her stomach rumbled, having not eaten anything in a long while. On her back and on each hand was a deer, they seemed to be common around the area.

"I ended up going pretty far..."

She couldn't carry so much as a crow, so she flew while on her normal form. Since she couldn't fly as fast she was taking a long time to get back.

"They're probably already sleeping..."

It took her several minutes to get back to the crater. The fire was still burning and the figure of a person could be seen sitting down near it.

"Did that idiot wait for me after all?" She got closer... And noticed something was off. Although Frederic was immobile, his eyes were open wide and glaring at the person. Helvana let go of the deer on her hands and formed several quills in her hand. This person wasn't Lloyd!

"He waited for you, you know?" the intruder whispered, as if to read her mind.

"The older one yearned to see you before he slept off, but you know, the spirit is willing, yet the flesh is weak.”

Helvana clicked her tongue. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"

The man let out a soft chuckle. "Your first question has grown rather difficult to answer of late. I've died twice now, I have no name I can give to you, so call me whatever you'd like. As to answer you second question..." the man paused to rub his naked chin. "I believe I have every right to be here. This land you now reside in was once my own you know?"

"A nameless bum... I'll ask again, what are you doing here." Despite the refined speech, the man didn't sound amicable. She readied her quills.

"You're a fascinating lot aren't you? A demi-goddess, two human boys, a giant crow, and a rather repulsive slug creature. Why, aren't you a band of misfits?"

"This man is more dangerous than he looks. You're quite sharp for a mortal. And daring too."

The man snickered. "Please, if only you heard my repertoire, daring wouldn't begin to describe the kind of man I once was."

A sigh escaped from his lips. "Alas, that is all behind me. I am of no threat to you, demi-goddess, I am but a mortal as you said."

"Of course you aren't. I don't have much of a reason to let you be here, or to let you live for that matter." She threw a quill at him, a feint, but it still came dangerously close to his head. "If you won't say why you're here, then leave before I make you."

No fear shone in the young man's eyes, instead they seemed to exude a rather apathetic tenor. Or maybe it was pity. "I was like you once, demi-goddess. Tell me, do you think your divinity gives you a right to my life, or the life of these boys, or beasts?" he inquired, gesturing at the sleeping forms around him.

"..." She narrowed her eyes and tightened her grip on her remaining quills. "You're wearing down my patience. What's your point, nameless bum? Or do you just want to anger me before dying?" She glared daggers at the man.

The man seemed to ignore her threats. "No, see you and I are kindred spirits, seemingly bound to mortals because of our yearning for....let us say 'a purpose'."

Despite her waning patience, she lowered her hand. "What are you trying to say?"

A knowing smile formed on his face. "These boys, I know little of their past, yet I can tell it's none the less turbulent. They look to you for guidance and protection. They love you. Yet..."

Helvana grimaced and threw another quill, this time it grazed his cheek, drawing blood. "Silence. Who do you think you are to speak of me like that?"

A smirk of self-satisfied confidence formed on the man's face. He threw back his head and raised his hands to the sky, as if he prepared to proclaim some great name to the cosmos. Yet no sound came from his lips. His hands returned to their place and his expression turned neutral. "I am no one, demi-goddess. But if you where to ask who I once was, then Amartía, son of Vestec and master of vice and desire, would be your answer."

Her expression turned into one of surprise at the sound of her father's name, and lowered her hand again. "Vestec, you say... Huh, what are the odds of meeting one of my brothers, and stripped of power to top it off..."

Amartía chortled. "Forget the formalities. I've been disowned. I am no longer of the Chaos family. If one could even call it that."

"So you're here because of me, or rather because I happened to be here."

The former demi-god shrugged. "I sensed your presence, so I sought to introduce myself. But now that I've gotten a closer look.." Amartía leaned forward as to inspect the young Chaos spawn, as if she were a unique specimen to be studied. "It seems that it is Fate, who brought us together today, oh lost sister of mine."

"Maybe so. I don't think you'd come just to say hi, though. What do you want of me?" Her voice wasn't as aggressive now, but it wasn't that much friendlier either. Just then, her stomach rumbled again. She let off a deep sigh. "That's what I get for skipping dinner." She looked away, but didn't seem ashamed in the least.

"This isn't a discussion meant to be had no an empty stomach, demi-goddess. Allow me, what is it that you desire?" he cooed.

"To eat and go to sleep, really. But not before dealing with you." She released the deer that was on her back and finally sat down near the fire. She looked and Frederic and gave him a nod, he closed his eyes in response.

Amartía scoffed. "Well, let me not waste your time then, it isn't as if you are an immortal or anything."

With a single tap of his staff upon the dirt, a rock sitting only a hands-reach away from the demi-goddess became bread before their every eyes in a flash of red light.

"That should suffice for now, no? Since I helped myself to what I assumed was your portion of the stew, it's only fair I repay you for your hospitality before we go any further."

"You really are a daring one, aren't you, brother?" She picked up the bread and took a bite out of it. For her first bread it was not bad at all. Her being on an empty stomach helped as well. "I'm Helvana, just so you know." She kept on eating the bread.

"The pleasure is all mine, Helvana." He glanced at the sleeping forms of the brothers in the distance. "So tell me, those boy, how did they become the close companions of a demi-goddess of chaos?"

"... They got too close to me. My crows made the people of their village angry and these two kept coming back. Eventually they were exiled and have been with me since. It's already been a couple of months actually."

Amartía placed his right hand on his chin an leaned forward with a smile of childlike innocence. [color=Crimson}"You talk as if what happened to these boys wasn't your fault...or wasn't what [b]you[/b] wanted."[/color] he cooed.

Hearing those words, Helvana froze. She looked back at him with furrowed eyebrows. "What would you know about that? They kept coming out of their own will. I had nothing to do with that."

”Will!?” he laughed ”But just a moment ago you held my measly existence in the palm of your hand. My will meant nothing in that situation. I was completely at your mercy. Helpless against the power of a divine.”

Amartía’s innocent smile turned to a smirk. ”Can you honestly tell me, that you’d be able to abandon these boys at a moments notice?”

"No... I wouldn't, I just..." She grimaced again. Why was she letting his words affect her so much? What would he know about her and what she feels? "I needed to be alone."

"Ah, that's an interesting word, alone." the man sighed airily. "Us spawns of Vestec where born in loneliness, raised by it. But each of us found a purpose, a reason to live. My yearning for this world and the pleasures that it offered filled that void in me. And the boys, they are your purpose, no? They are your motivation. They fill your void. If anything, you need them, more than they need you."

"So what if that's true? What if they mean something to me?"

Amartía nodded in agreement and leaned back a bit. "Yes, yes, so what? So what indeed. Since we are in the questioning mood, let me present to you a question of my own."

"What if it was all a facade?"

"... Huh?" It came back to her, that feeling when Manna asked to come along with her. She was already suspecting it, but...she didn't want to admit it. "What if I forced them to love me, you mean. I thought as much. They accepted having to leave their village too easily."

What if she had unintentionally ruined their lives? What could happen to Manna because of her influence? She couldn't get those questions out of her head no matter how much she struggled. "Curses are my specialty. I can make them with just a thought, but...curses can make all sorts of things. I didn't even realize I was forcing others to like me... It's true, I need them in my life. But what's the point of having them if what they feel isn't even real?"

Amartía simply shrugged. "You divines and mortals think greed is just about money and power, but everyone wants something they don't have. You want these boys to need you, you need them to need you. But their love never belonged to you, you simply stole it. But you have what you want, what does it matter how they feel?"

"Because I know it isn't real... I don't want to live in a fantasy world and convince myself that doesn't matter. I love them, but I can't live knowing I'm forcing them to love me. To ignore that reality... Is not love, it's obsession..." She looked down in melancholy.

The former demi-god's features darkened. "Another divine blinded by sentimentality. You know what I don't get, we are all powerful beings, capable of bending the universe to our will and whim, yet you lot are no different than the very mortals you created. Always hung up on notions of love and loyalty."

Amartía thrust a bony finger in the boys direction. "In the face of your power, they are mere ants, yet you coddle them, and let them weaken you."

He paused for a long moment.

"Helvana, I find your situation ironic. You love these boys, you need them, yet their love for you is fabricated and completely nonexistent. What will you do? Abandon them? Live by the saying "If you truly love something, let it go."?"

"That would be the right thing to do, wouldn't it? But can I do it? I am nothing without them. I don't want to let them go, but I don't want to make them stay either."

"The notion that you are nothing without them is a laughable one, I pity you. Nevertheless, I cannot say I wasn't at one time in your position. I simply found another reason to keep striving, I'd simply ask them."

"I guess the best solution is usually the easiest one. I didn't have the courage to talk to them about this, even though I'm hurting them because of it. What if they decide to leave because of that? It...scares me just to think of that..."

Amartía glanced the brothers and chuckled. "I know mortals better than anyone. Trust me, they'll make the decision that's best for them. You should be content with that, if not, you will learn to be."

"Hmph, It's weird. We're supposed to be chaos spawns, but we aren't really evil. Or maybe something made us turn good." She looked at the brother sleeping together under Frederic's wing. "Sorry for attacking you earlier, you really know how to strike a nerve. And thanks, I guess." She scratched her face, slightly embarrassed.

"Your're welcome. Now let us discuss the bill."

"I guess that's fine. What do you want in return?"

"A prayer."

"A... A prayer? That's it?"

"That's it. A prayer to the goddess Ilunabar."

"Another one I never heard of... If I ever bother calling daddy to a meeting I'll make him teach me all about the other gods. Anyways..." Helvana held her hands together in prayer. "O goddess Ilunabar, hear my calling and come before me." She had never tried to contact any deity before, not even Vestec, so she wasn't sure if that would even work.

Amartía snorted. "You call that a prayer?"

"I-I've never done this before. You expect me to do it perfectly on my first try?"

"For Fate's sake, you could at least be more mannerly. "-come before me."?" he mocked. "Who are you calling? A dog?"

"I don't even know what she represents. She's the goddess of what? Light or something?"

"For a funny coincidence, I am the only deity that has done anything related to domestic dogs as far as I know, but it is truly not a big theme for me." the goddess told, suddenly interjecting the conversation, appearing near the duo without the typical fanfare of chimes and light.

A sigh. "Quiet the entrance."

"I am Ilunabar, goddess of beauty, dreams, stories, colors, aesthetic, flowers, jewelry, and everything nice and worthwhile, really." she jested, taking the time of her joke to analyze the demi-goddess who had summoned her. "And you are that crow witch that I noticed in some dream or another, I suspected you were divine, but I have to say the scent of Vestec is a surprise, you don't feel like the typical chaos child."

"It... It actually worked. Wait, you saw my dreams?"

"I cannot see the dreams of gods and demi-gods, so do not worry, I did not spy your psyche nor discovered your hiddenmost secrets. she smirked softly "But you left quite an impression with a handful of mortals, and I observed some of those dreams and nightmares and connected the dots. It is how I keep an eye out on all the businesses in this world, that and mirrors."

"Speaking of mortals, this one is quite happy to see you again."

The goddess turned slightly to face the mortal that had just spoken, initially, she had assumed it was just another mortal man like the other two she sensed in the area, but upon closer inspection, she could feel something different. She noticed the staff the mortal carried and quickly connected the hint to the smug face.

"Ah, you are alive." she said casually. "That is a bit of a surprise, considering all the people that decided to attend to the Slap the Enas day."

Amartía shrugged. "Vestec couldn't stand to lose his beloved son forever. Love conquers all."

"What did he do to Xerxes anyways? It's like he scooped the city clean from the ground."

"He turned my fucking city into an arena." he breathed, losing his mannerly tone for a moment.

"Language."

He quickly recomposed himself. "It needed to be cleaned anyway. Place was filthy."

"Ah, so he stole the city? Interesting, I thought it had just been vaporized." the goddess pondered.

"Well, he can have it. The first and last gift he'll ever receive from Amartía."

"So, I take it was your plan to summon me? Considering the witch girl here did not even know who I was..." the goddess stopped and felt like asking the demi-goddess something, but first, she wanted to hear more from Amartía.

Amartía flashed Ilunabar a brilliant smile. "Indeed it was I. You were the only divine I knew that I actually desired to break words with. I seek both your knowledge and guidance, if you would so graciously provide."

The goddess couldn't help but half smirk "Well, we all know how that ended last time, right? The whole do not ally with Logos you are going to make a whole lot of enemies and turn allies into enemies venture?" she sighed heavily and placed a hand on her face.

"I might be an immortal being, but there are a hundred thousand mortals worth more of my time than Old Amartía. The question then becomes, do you feel like you have changed?

"Amartía is dead." he simply stated.

"Let us see if that is so, old habits die hard, no?" Ilunabar turned away from Amartía to face Helvana "Did this man try to intimidate, torment or confuse you for no apparent reason?"

"He did poke his nose in my business." She scoffed. "But whether he wanted to or not, he helped me sort out my feelings. And he didn't hurt my companions either. He did eat my dinner while I was away though."

Amartía maintained an innocent smile, content with just watching from his perch in the palm of his hand

"I see..." she didn't expect to have to think about this right now, her heart twisted between her natural quest to influence the most she could and her previous distaste of everything Amartía did wrong. In the end, euphemism would not do, she would need to be rough.

"You see, this whole plight, all this ruin, all of this initially started with something simple. Amartía needed something from a goddess, and the path he took was to extort it by kidnapping one of her friends... The irony being, of course, that he could have likely got what he wanted without making an unnecessary amount of enemies. Stories such as these repeated themselves over and over until we arrived in this situation." she explained. "So you, person whose name I have yet to ask, understand why I feel a bit doubtful about this investment? Do you feel like this person who stands by our side is not the same person that built his own terrible fate?"

"Hmph, I wouldn't know, really. I don't like his character, but I'm very young, you see? Vestec didn't tell me anything about my brothers when I was born, so I don't know what he did to deserve punishment."

Amartía began counting off with is fingers. "Kidnapping, extortion, abuse, murder-" he paused. "I suppose mass mortal-experimentation and transmutation can be considered a crime?" he emphasized the last part by gesturing towards the barren landscape around them.

He turned to the goddess. "I understand your concern Ilunabar, Amartía's..."methods" were rather incongruous and aberrant. But I think my actions tonight were both rather admirable and good showing of "my" new methodology."

"The real problem was not so much the fact they lacked moral but, instead, that they never achieved anything, or worse, often leading to a lesser result than a more clean method." The goddess told, brooding, before sighing.

"Oh well. What did you want from me anyway? How do you think I can help you in your situation?"

The mortal minced no words. "I want you to look within me, and tell me whether or not any divine power remains to be seen."

"Oh, I see." the goddess clapped her hands and brightened up. "There are many methods to analyze that, the issue starts with finding one that can not potentially kill you or lightly hurt me."

"I'd prefer a rather painless method if any."

"Yeah, that kills off some possible paths for sure. Ideally, we would need a god of souls here, but the ones who knew that are either dead or are Astarte. On the same note, using the path of the mind could also work, but again, no gods of mind. I could dabble in those territories, but you seem to want something less risky..."

The goddess pondered. "Well... I could try to guide you in your dreams. You are so weakened that surely the Raka's manipulations can take hold of you. I just need some source of chaotic energy, so I can see how you react to that..."

Amartía turned and smirked at Helvana. "Well, we have our "chaotic energy" right here."

"..." She looked at Amartía quizzically. "You want some of my powers?"

"Well, if you could be so kind to help your little helpless brother. I guess just punching some energy into his face would be too rough... Say, you are a master of curses right? That could work here."

"Older brother." he corrected.

"What is the formal rule for rebirth? I always assumed it sent you back, but if you want, you can be the helpless older brother, if that is your thing."

Amartía shrugged. "I'll have to add that to the list."

"Well, if a curse'll do the trick..." She glared at him. For Helvana nothing more was needed to create a curse. "That should do it."

A moment passed.

"As entrancing as your glare was, sister, are you sure you were successful in cursing me?"

"I can curse anything with a thought. This one just so happens to have catch." She smiled smugly. "Why don't you try being...your usual self?"

The mortal snickered. "It seems the chaos spawn has yet to fully grasp her power. I feel no different."

A sudden gust of wind blew. It wasn't particularly strong, but embers from the campfire were taken away by it. One of them landed on Amartía's robes and it quickly started burning, too quickly in fact.

"Oh you bitch!" he growled as he frantically attempted to pat the flames out.

He glared at the divine beings. "Do you not see me burning?!"

With a sigh, Helvana stood up, formed a clump of darkness in her hand and threw it at his burning garments, putting the fire out instantly. "I'm sorry, I thought you said you didn't feel anything?" She said with the same smug smile.

Amartía had collapsed to the ground. "Oh...you think...you're funny?" he panted. "Just wait, I'll show you funny."

"Don't bother, there's nothing you can do against me, big brother. As thankful as I am for your assistance regarding my troubles, the way you approached them were very unpleasant. And so, whenever you act like that again the world will conspire against you. It won't be anything big, but it'll surely teach your place."

He tried to get to his feet, but only succeeded in creating another ache for himself by falling again. "Fuck you, Helvana, I'll play with you another day." he growled.

"Language!"

Amartía glared at the demi-goddess before turning to Illunabar with a forced smile. "Does that satisfy the "chaotic" requirement?" he said in a singsong voice.

The goddess smiled "As amusing as it would be to say it is not and that more curses are necessary, it actually is enough for me to work with." staring at Amartía intensely, with a gaze that clearly focused on this deeper than the mundane plane, her smile gained hints of a smirk. "It was in Vestec's plane, the Realm of Madness, that you had your powers stripped away, right?"

A frown. "That is correct."

She hummed "Ah, how useful~ Well, I can already sense some sort of godhood left in you, truly, you are not a simple mortal, but a god in a fleshy shell, of course, simply breaking the shell won't result in the god breaking away, if anything, it would be more like spilling all over the place in a mess of godly gore. I would like some more time to pinpoint a few factors though, not a godly time of a few years, just a day, a mortal can wait for that, no?"

Amartía seemed to vibrate in place, his excitement clearly shown in his features. The notion of godhood lit a fire of ambition within him. "A day? I can wait a day. Do what you must." he glanced at the demi-goddess. " I'll pass the time with Helvana."

"Oh? Some more time for bonding? As long as you behave yourself everything'll be absolutely fine."

Amartía grinned. "I'll just be myself."

"Are you sure you want to? If you keep up being yourself you'll just end up hurting yourself, you know? But you don't need to worry too much. This curse'll only last a few days."

"On second thought, I'll just keep to myself. We've done enough bonding to last us a lifetime."

"So, once you are back to it, what is your plan? Seems like even your left hand has left in her own quest and I doubt Xerxes can be scavenged. Do you plan to want to start yet another empire?"

"Yes I do. Xerxes may be dead but Amestris lives on." Amartía chuckled. "Although, I don't plan on returning as Amartía, or in this useless fleshy shell."

"And what is the overall idea for the area, if I may ask?" she crossed her arms. "Personally, I think a development plan would be more interesting and successful than the overextension and resource drainage caused by a quest of world domination."

The mortal said not a word.

"Well, we will see how it goes. The world is no longer the same as the one in which the original Xerxes was born. A great many people have figured out the art of metal smelting, populations are booming with the rise of agriculture and society is now increasingly complex and, at least while the food and metal last, very stable. They will crack eventually, bronze is too hard to make and bound to unreliable trade and they have no idea how much their methods of farming is damaging the land, it makes me wonder if no other god realize that, or just think it is a natural step.

"That is, in fact, a constant issue with societies created by godly influence. Godly sensibilities are not the same as mortal ones, and since we are creating mortal empires for mortal purposes, it is not hard to see why raw godly logic does not work too well. Oh well, I am speaking too much, you should really think about the metal and food situation though, solving that would give Amestris an upper hand without needing to mutilate it with divine craft."


"I will give it much thought, Ilunabar." he acknowledged with a yawn. 'Unfortuantly, this mortal body begs for rest. I suppose I'll see you soon?"

The goddess nodded. "Very soon." It was her that had induced Amartía's tiredness, it would be so much easier to study his situation if he was in her territory, furthermore, the goddess had the interest in knowing more about the mysterious witch-goddess and she knew the once-Enas of Amestris well enough to know talking too much near his ears was not wise.

"Wonderful." the mortal murmured as he lay prone with his back to the fire. A single sigh of contentment escaped his lips before his mind dragged him into the oblivion of sleep.

"But what about you, witch girl? I have been curious about you for a while, I had seen you in mortal dreams, but not in person. I now know your name is Helvana and that you, like Amartía, is a child of Vestec... Yet I do feel something else, do you have some other deity in your ancestry?"

"Julkolfyr is my other parent. He infected Vestec with his own essence and when he expelled it I was born. I inherited Julkolfyr's affinity with darkness."

"Julkolfyr..." this made the goddess react in a more serious tone from before, staring at the witch from under her hood with a newfound doubt. "I wonder if you are the surge of dark essence I felt... the timing is a bit off though..." she told under her breath, before shifting to her normal tone "But above all, I am baffled, you are very much unlike him and Vestec, I mean, no offense to your second father, but he was master in the art of boredom, his holy land used to be just some dusty dark crater before I took over the abandoned area and made it nice and pretty. Meanwhile, you seem to be someone interesting and you even got a nice outfit."

"No offense taken. I didn't get to meet Julkolfyr after I was born, so I don't have any attachments to him." She said expressionless, but quickly put up a smile in response to the compliment. "And thanks. The dress belongued the late mother of the boys accompanying me, the cloak was all me though. A compliment like that coming from you must mean I have an eye for this." She said with pride. "What is this surge of darkness you mentioned, though? I don't remember feeling anything, so it must've happened before I was born."

"Hmmm, preferably as you are born because I would much rather have you be that surge." Ilunabar sighed. "But yes, as I said, I took over Julkolfyr's old divine home, and while it is fully my home now, it is still somewhat connected and sensible to him... If that was not you, it could have been something else related to that god, maybe even a sibling of yours, in a sense."

"I see, a sibling, huh? I don't feel anything right now either, and though I don't care about Julkolfyr this surge interests me..." She held her chin pensive for a moment then shrugged. "Well, I'll keep this in the back of my head, maybe someday I'll find out what it was, but if a full fledged goddess doesn't know what caused it then there's not much I can do."

Ilunabar nodded "Well, stay safe if you ever get to cross the source of that." the goddess sighed, "That aside, I cannot help but feel curious, I can tell the boys are from far away, what brought you all the way to Xerxes?"

"I'm exploring the world with them, you could say I adopted them. We were heading to Alefpria, I was going to make a detour when we got close to Xerxes, but I though something was off so I came to find out what it was. I didn't expect to find a crater though."

"At least you did not travel half a world to visit Xerxes, that would have made this situation a whole lot more annoying." the goddess discretely glanced westward for a moment, towards Alefpria. "Pardon my curiosity, but why exactly are you heading to Lifprasil's city?"

"Is that the name of the ruler there? I was just going there to know the city, no reason in particular. Vestec asked whether I wanted to know all about the world or learn myself. I chose the later. So now I'm going on a journey to learn about the world, the people in it, everything really."

"You did huh? A wise decision really... well, actually maybe not, as it does expose you to many dangers, but it is surely the option that brings the most unique experiences." the goddess smiled but then shifted into a more uncomfortable expression. "Alefpria is a wondrous place, a great many designs of mine decorate its streets, furthermore life is good there and the empire is fair. All that said, you might not want to expose yourself too much, or Lifprasil might want to add you to his arsenal of divine beings and weapons. You two do not have matching personalities so I doubt he could convince you directly, but he is the god of emotions, the whole town being under his influence, so, say, your two human companions would be quite susceptible to recruitment."

Helvana flashed a serious expression when Lloyd and Gwyn were mentioned. "And for what reason would he want two human boys? They're nothing special, even more so to a man with an arsenal of divine beings."

"Well, if done intentionally, because you would protect them. There is the possibility it would be unintentional, just a side effect of his power."

"I see." Her serious expression shifted into a cold one. "If he dares to charm them he'll be disappointed, even if I do end up hating myself for it. I suppose we're not very different in our...charisma."

The goddess crossed her arms and tilted her head, "It is a curious topic, to say the least. I talked with Lifprasil about it at once, he wanted to rely on his power to manipulate emotions, and I reminded him that he would need to rule over people who lived way beyond the range of his powers." she told.

"And while I do think it was wise to say that, and I wish I had said the same to Amartía, I cannot help but feel I missed something, after all, even not counting his natural emotional manipulation, people would not hear Lifprasil equally if he exchanged his gentle voice for a loud and stuttering one, or if instead of an elegant dress and jewels he wore a tunic that smells like a pigpen..."

"Ah but I digress. Let me spare you of my senseless brooding." the goddess suddenly straightened up her posture and looked directly at Helvana again. "Furthermore, I should stop talking about Lifprasil so much. When you arrive at Alefpria, it will be Lifprasil all day, all night, you will not be able to order a glass of water without hearing about how he is great or something." she snickered.

"But since you are going to Alefpria... hmmm..." the goddess tapped her chin. "Say, I do not want to stop that wonderful discover the world by yourself quest of yours, however, while you do not want information, do you mind gifts?"

"Gifts? You'd be willing to favor me? Did I interest you that much?" She said with a smug smile. While she wasn't exactly being respectful, she knew the weight a deity's favor could have.

"I must tell you that my standard for gift giving is very low, any random vagrant can get one, even Amartía got a few!" she teased, before raising her hand towards the many "nests" of Helvana's crows. The many bits of glass and metal the birds collected started to gently move towards the goddess.

"Feels mean to confiscate the collection of such smart animals, but I think it adds value to the piece." she calmly said, the metals and glass forming a ring near the goddess' finger before slowly fusing together into a large ring shape.

When the process was done, the goddess had a mirrored bracelet on her hand. "This has been made to not reflect Galbar and its people, as such, without the land and atmosphere, the mirror will always show the night sky and the moons." she explained while handing the demi-goddess the jewelry.

A gasp got stuck in Helvana's throat as she looked at the bracelet. Taking it in her hands, she began to turn it in different angles to see all it had to show. Countless bright spots of stars and the several moons of Galbar could be seen in detail when looking from the right spot. "This is...beautiful..." She finally voiced her thoughts as she put on the bracelet on her left wrist. Even after a while her curiosity kept pushing her to look for more details, just like a child with a new toy.

"You really are the goddess of beauty... I've never seen anything like this. Even looking at the sky at night is not the same."

"Ah, glad to see you can appreciate such things, though I was pretty confident in this was the sort of gift you would like." the goddess said, a bit too happy with the comment from the demi-goddess, recognition of her work was a rarity in the divine family, and without knowing Helvana had easily manipulated the goddess.

"I cannot give much more right now without spoiling you, but should you ever need something of the sort again, you know who to summon."

"Really? You'll answer my summons again?" Helvana asked in surprise. "I don't want to rely on anyone other than myself, but...I guess divine intervention might be the only solution to some problems. Thank you, Ilunabar, if I ever need your help I'll ask."

Something crossed her mind just then. Something that still worried her. "Say, you can see other people's dreams, right? Can you influence them too?"

The goddess couldn't help but smirk, considering how manipulation of dreams would be an understatement to what she can do in her own plane "Absolutely, though I do not do that without a reasonable motivation, as I do enjoy seeing the natural paths mortalkind takes."

"Would you mind doing me a favor then? There's a family of Hain I met a few days ago. They lost a member of their family to a Star-Fiend while I was there. Can you make sure they have good dreams at least?"

"Hmmmm" the goddess looked up and looked a bit divided at the request. "I do not like to assert values such as good and bad to dreams and it goes a bit against how I work... but... well, since you asked nicely, I guess I could do it this one time."

Helvana flashed a genuine smile. "Thank you, I couldn't do anymore than I had already. I truly owe you for this."

"I understand the frustration, even for a demi-god, there was not much that could have been done during the invasion of the Realta." the goddess sighed. "I myself wish I could have done more, but despite we both being gods, there was no way I could face Logos."

"Logos? Is he the one that sent those things? When did this invasion happen?"

"Did it happen before you were born? So the Realta stayed behind and attacked even after the invasion was over?" this made Ilunabar perplexed. Her eyes raced around as she tried to perceive any oddity. Finally, she gave up, she was too focused on Amartía to also try this. It was clear though, that Helvana did not understand the full picture.

"It was a single day yet the devastation was immense, as it targeted the entire world." the goddess looked back at Helvana, her face increasingly bitter. "Most gods see mortals as merely a tool, something that has value only as means to an end. Logos is the logical apex of that, he sees himself as the ruler of this universe, and all in it, be it mortal, demi-god or god, are its subjects. Not being able to cooperate with the other gods, he exiled himself from Galbar eons ago, but recently he returned, and saw himself fit to commit atrocities for the sake of his ineffectual view of purity and perfection."

"I see." She spoke in a cold tone. "If only I could stand up to a god... I'd make Logos pay dearly for this. Could Vestec do anything to him?"

"Not alone, no. But with the cooperation of many other siblings. It is the reason why Xerxes is gone, Amartía was allied with Logos in his quest for twisted purification... Do not take it too hard on him though, he was being an idiot and plenty told him so." the goddess then tilted her head. "And there is just so much damage you can do to Logos before new problems raise their ugly heads. Vestec himself also sent hordes of chaotic beings to torment civilization."

"I don't spread chaos indiscriminately like that. The one time I did it was for revenge of sorts and I ended up regretting it a bit." She said while looking away from the goddess. "I can't risk the safety of the boys too. As much as I'd like to help being a nuisance to Logos, I won't do it." She yawned loudly while not bothering to cover her mouth. "Sorry, this conversation dragged for longer than I expected."

"Do not be silly, I am not blind, I can tell the difference between you and Vestec. And furthermore, I do not expect or want you to get involved with this. Stay out of the intrigues of gods for as long as you can."

"I plan to do that, really. Anyways, I guess it's about time for me to sleep." She yawned again, this time covering her mouth. "Thanks again for everything. I look forward to seeing you again."

"I too, hope to see you again. Stay safe while on your journey, and if you find anything odd regarding your father, please contact me." a gust of wind blew across the camp and with it, the goddess was gone.

Taking a deep breath, Helvana stood up. Forming a lump of darkness in her hands, she threw it at the bonfire to put it out as per usual.

Before she went to sleep, however, she looked at her sleeping brother. As much of a nuisance as he was, he was a mortal and had nothing but the clothes on him to ward off the cold and, sure enough, the night chill got to him now that the bonfire was out.

"I guess I should do at least this much." She took off her feathered cloak and placed it over Amartía like a blanket.

"Now then." With that out of the way, Helvana headed towards Frederic. She carefully got under his wing and next to the soundly sleeping brothers. She hugged Gwyn, sandwiching him against Lloyd, and smiled softly before nodding off.




The sound of bells and chimes echoed on the dream. Suddenly, Ilunabar was sitting near Amartía in his palace.

"Nostalgia for Xerxes, eh?" she looked around. "It has been a long time since it looked this nice."

Amartía reclined elegantly in his jewel encrusted throne. "Yes, I cannot say I don't miss the old days."

She smiled. "It was quite a sight, back then, the aesthetic of the region was curious, to say the least, shame so much of it was long lost before any other village could dream of imitating the style." Not that it mattered to the goddess, no info was lost to her about Xerxes.

"Nevertheless, about what you requested me, well, I have noticed some divinity left in you." she explained. "It seems recoverable."

The young man bolted forward in his seat, his excitement at the news almost uncontainable. If it hadn't been for Ilunabar's presence he likely would have awoken then and there.

"So my days of mortality are numbered." he sighed in euphoria.

"I made a few notes on the situation of your soul, I have to say, I am no specialist on that area yet, but upon actually looking into those matters, it was not as complex as I thought, my experience with Astarte helped. I left them with your real body." The copy of them, that is, the goddess kept the original for herself, and, since it would not hurt anyone, the soul probe was a bit lasting, ready to capture some more information that Ilunabar required on the matters of Chaos.

"Hopefully those will keep whoever helps you to become divine again from doing a poor job. Considering your situation, I think you should try something with Jvan, I do not think she will help after your treason, but she has rogue avatars. Also, Lazarus, I do not know why you two parted ways, but I doubt she would not take this opportunity." she then approached the former demi-god. "Just stay alert, both are likely to pry beyond what you request. Stand your ground and do not let the dangling bait of godhood lead you into shady deals."

Amartía snorted at the mention of "shady deals", his experience in the field was second to none.

"Speaking of which, Ilunabar, what do you stand to gain from all this? I mean no disrespect, and I am certainly grateful for your help, yet nothing is ever simply given. Everything has a price."

"Hah, if I did not know it was you, that worldview would have undoubtedly revealed it, dearheart. It is just so 'Amartía', truly fascinating." The goddess laughed. "Let me share two facts. First, I am not a self-serving goddess. Second, I am incredibly generous. My job is to spread beauty across the universe, I do not need a prize, if I help someone to build a palace, the reward is seeing the palace complete. I liked some of your work on Xerxes and I think I need to be more active in the domain of Chaos. There is no further intention. Unless you succumb again to pathetic failure, I will have got exactly what I wanted from this."

"That's why I'm puzzled by you, Ilunabar. Of all the divine I've met, only you seem to do what you do out of a sense of duty. I don't understand the appeal."

Amartía rose from his throne and strained his silken robes, a nod to a forgotten past.

"Then we have nothing more to discuss?"

"Not at the moment. I will leave you with your dreams now. Good luck on all that will come after this, knowing how things are, you will probably need a good serving of it."

"Next time we meet, Illunabar, we'll be on equal footing."

Ilunabar smiled widely "Right... Uhm, see you there then! Farewell." with another echo of bells and chimes, she disappeared from the dream.




When Helvana woke up the next day, she opened her eyes to see that she was alone under Frederic's wing. She could hear wood cracking on the bonfire and the smell of cooked meat tickled her nose. She stood up and walked towards the smell while covering her mouth from a yawn still a little sleepy.

"Morning..."

"Finally up, huh?"

"Good morning, Helvana."

"Come here, food's almost ready."

Lloyd and Gwyn greeted her with smiles painted on their faces.

Beside the usual pair, a third man was sitting near the fire as well, not too far from the brothers. It took Helvana a moment to remember what happened last night. "Oh, right, you're still here. You didn't do anything funny while I was sleeping, right?"

The robed man downed a bronze goblet of mysterious contents and snorted.

"If I had, you wouldn't have awoken to find me still here. I'd have been long gone."

He turned to the youngest of brothers and held his goblet out to him.

"Fill my cup up again."

"Sure." Gwyn replied picking up a bottle and heading over to Amartía to fill up the goblet.

"You sure got friendly already." She said while sitting down between Lloyd and Amartía. "And in case you forgot about the birds, they wouldn't let you get away if you did do something."

Amartía glanced at the birds disdainfully. "Don't remind me, filthy fiends."

"Don't badmouth them. Or do you want to get burned again?"

"Don't be too harsh on him, Hel. We just talked a bit."

"Ah yes, me and the boys got to know each other while you slept. They're quite interesting."

"We did get surprised when we saw him, though. But Frederic was alright with him, so we talked a bit."

"By the way, where's the Hairball?" Helvana asked, only now noticing the absence of the Fiberling.

"It's hiding with Frederic. When we saw Amartía it just jumped off of me and ran away."

Amartía adjusted the feather cloak upon his shoulders. "Speaking of which, Helvana, I still require your service, if you'll so graciously impart."

"Hmm? What's that?" She asked in an uninterested tone.

The man brandished an inscribed parchment. "I require a transport to the realm of Jvan. The next leg of my journey continues there."

"And where is that? If it's too much out of the way to Alefpria I can't help."

"From what I can gather from these notes, the next stop is a place called Metrea, just south-east of Alefpria."

"If it's past Alefpria I can't do it. Unless you want to stick with us for our tour."

"Don't be like that, Hel. A few days going around it won't hurt, right?"

"I guess, but... I don't want to be near him for that long." She didn't voice her thoughts, instead she just puffed a rather irritated sigh.

"Isn't it okay, Helvana?"

"Ugh, fine. We'll take him there." Helvana gave into the pressure, as usual.

Amartía flashed the boy's and Helvana an excellent smile. "I truly appreciate your generosity, Helvana, Lloyd and Gwyn. I'll be sure to repay you in kind."

"Of course you will." She said sarcastically.

"Food's just about ready. Help yourselves, people." Lloyd said taking a piece of meat for himself.

While the four of them ate, Helvana further explained what happened in the past night, mainly about what happened after Amartía fell asleep. The star bracelet proved to be just as, if not more, impressive to the brothers than it was to Helvana, taking up a few minutes for them to stop ogling it.

Amartía sneered. "Of what use is that gift to you?"

"To look pretty, of course. Somethings are fine just as that."

"You should be the last divine being alive worrying about aesthetic, that with your disgusting patronism of the corvus."

"Are you sure you want to be rude like that? You're still under the influence of my curse, after all."

"Careful sister, I may be mortal, yet my words can still destroy your world."

Helvana leered at Amartía. "You sure are daring for someone that's covered in my power."

"What does he mean, Helvana?" Gwyn asked, curious about Amartía's words.

"I'll explain it after we drop our little passenger."

"Yes as much as I would love to see the detestable confessions of divine groveling before a mere mortal, we really must get going." Amartía cooed as he stood.

Loose earth shifted under his sandal, and the man was nearly sent sprawling back into the dirt. Only the leverage of his staff saved him from his fate.

"How much longer do you intend to keep this curse up, because as I said before, I do plan on repaying you?"

"I already told you it'll last a few days. You already know what triggers its effects, so just work around it." She said while standing up herself and putting out the fire.

"I'll get our things ready then." Lloyd, who kept quiet until now, said while getting up too.

Amartía grabbed the long since replenished goblet and with a flash of red energy downed it's now alcoholic contents.

"Call me when everything has been arranged." He grumbled as he crushed the bronze container an set off for the edge of the basin.

With all said and done, Helvana, Lloyd and Gwyn packed their things and departed for Metera with Amartía in tow.




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Air rushed by. The green and grey scenery blurred faster below them. All the dust on Inga's skin and mind were combed away by the wind. After so much time on the ground, flying was the most refreshing act of all.

And yet, when she turned her head to eye Cinead on her back, with that creature Minus limp in front of him as he held her with an arm, Inga saw no reason to feel good.

Cinead had been dark. His face was a wall of determination, making his thoughts hard even for Inga to speculate. No wonder, she thought, with the lies Minus had revealed.

At least the rovaick could not stop them leaving. Inga still felt the thrilling buzz in the back of her neck from hearing the troll leader shouting out with some warriors. She ran into flight with Cinead and Minus astride before the spears flew.

Inga drew her eyes ahead. She banked to one side to avoid an oncoming copse on a hill. The sun made its slow squat behind the mountains to her left, casting the ground below into a darker shade. She had been flying by the moon and the sun, all day and all of last night, never feeling any fatigue. Still, she could not fly when only the dark moons shone. Tonight was going to be too dim.

She considered finding a gap in the forest to land when she heard the voice.

Inga.

Was she awake? Inga's eyes darted left and right in surprise. Mira's voice sounded remarkably clear through the rushing air.

I apologise, Inga.

Whatever the reason for Minus being so easy to hear, Inga had no interest in responding. She kept her eyes forward, expecting Cinead to talk instead.

He did not react at all.

I know you care deeply about your brother. My secrets hurt you both.

Inga opened her lips and let the air chill her teeth. Well then, she thought to herself, Minus, Tounic thing, why did you keep them in the first place?

Because, Inga, Lazarusian thing...

...What?

...It was necessary for my mission.

Inga glanced back to her passengers again. Cinead gave her an oblivious glance and Minus was just as limp as before.

I can speak with your mind when we are this close. Out of respect, I have not delved your memories. You would experience sudden and involuntary recollections if I attempted such a thing.

While not exactly calmed by the explanation, Inga could hardly control her thoughts enough to hide anything. Questions already swam in her head following up Minus' 'mission.'

Father sent my brother and me to the city of Xerxes. Our primary objective was to extract known demigods should they be placed in mortal danger. I have already conveyed the details of the Xerxes conflict to you and Cinead, all of that was the truth. But my objective changed when you both appeared in the city.

Inga wondered if Minus would keep the secret of how they ended up there to herself- Wait!

I still know not why you appeared in Xerxes...

Inga cursed herself for letting the question run unchecked.

...You were anomalies. Divine power flows in you. But, you are neither demigods nor mortals infused with a godly spark. You are augmented. High likelihood by Lazarus, your empress.

An odd feeling of irritation grew like an itch in Inga's throat.

An image flashed in her head. Her and Cinead took steps down a tunnel, led somewhere. Somewhere forbidden.

As quickly as it came, Inga lost the memory's context.

Insufficient detail. That memory does not inform me of anything except that you were in Dundee. I recognise the walls.

So, Minus can see the images in her mind's eye as well. Inga tightened her lips and flattened her ears.

I apologise for breaching your privacy-

Shut up!

Shut. Up.

Having only Cinead understand Inga communications was rapidly growing preferable in her mind.

Inga refocussed on her flight path. At any rate, she was more interested in what Minus originally had in mind for them. She doubted Toun wanted them to be taken safely back to Dundee across the front lines of the war.

You were not bound for Dundee. You were bound for Rulanah. Once you were clear of the godly conflict, you were to be studied by rovaick to help them defend themselves from the dwarves. If not those purposes, you would be hostages.

Inga hissed slowly into the wind. It was all a lie, then. All of it. There was never an escort home. There were never any dwarf rangers this far up north. They were manipulated. She almost snorted. It was not as if Minus completed her mission if they were now heading in the opposite direction. There was nothing Minus could do about it, now, either.

I am not the one who shall pursue recourse for my failure.

Inga cursed herself again. This was not fair. Why was Minus doing this? Why does she not shut up and let me fly? I should tell Cinead all of this, Inga thought.

Because I need you to trust me, Inga.

Trust you? Trust you? Inga lost her patience and screeched into the air.

"Inga? What's wrong?" Cinead's concerned voice spoke behind her head.

How could Minus have such gall! Such nerve! She just revealed everything to be a lie. How could she be trusted!?

Not everything has been lies. My brother is coming.

What?

She said it slower this time. I need you to trust me...

The feathers at the near-ends of Inga's wing bent uncomfortably. She jolted at a sudden resistance against them. She glanced back and saw them abruptly looped with life-like, snake-like white chains.

Do not resist.

The chains twisted Inga's wings. Their flight was thrown sharply. Cinead shouted and rebalanced.

Just in time. Out from above, a great white blur darted past Inga's eye. Its air wake blasted them. It was huge.

Inga did not have the time to feel the pain in her joints from the forceful manoeuvre. That shape would have tackled them out of the sky had they not moved.

Do not be afraid.

Inga's wings wrenched again. Their flight stabilised and took another painful manoeuvre. The white shape shot up from below them this time, barely missing them.

"Inga!" Cinead shouted. "What the hell is that thing!"

A giant. A flying giant humanoid thing. It was all Inga saw.

The chains forced Inga to pull sharply into a narrow valley. Blood drained from Inga's head. She tried and failed to take over again before they straightened.

It is my brother Majus. You cannot outfly him.

Her wings twisted. They spun, her wings twisted the other way. They were upside-down.

Inga barely saw the end of a white rod topped by a small hammer, shooting past her belly where her back, Cinead, and Minus had been a moment before. It pulled back just as quickly.

"Inga! Watch out!" Cinead hung on with his knees and hands.

They spun upright again even quicker.

"Mira! Bring back your chains! We have to shake this monster off!"

The chains tensed. Inga's wings flung them around a tall tree. They barely missed the rocks on the ridge beside them.

Inga panicked. Minus was going to get them killed.

We will not be killed. Trust me.

"Mira! I told you to let her go! Let-!" Cinead gasped and ducked.

The chains retracted, forcing Inga's wings against her body just in time for them to whizz under a natural stone archway.

How can you manipulate us like this!? Let me go! Inga yelled the words in her mind as she spread her wings again.

A crackling explosion blasted behind them. That giant was too big for the arch.

I am suffering. It is something within me, unlocked by my time with Cinead. By my experiences with him.

Another lie!

I have been trying to comprehend it. I am limited. I do not have the last component and thus it damages me. I know it is not true corruption. It goes to purity. There is a solution.

Minus was making no sense now.

Inga's wings banked until she jerked vertical. They shot between two pine trees. The needles and branches whipped at them and stuck in her mouth.

I need Cinead.

Crack! The trees behind them met their pursuer.

Inga growled and shrieked.

I need Cinead to comprehend these hidden characters, Inga.

Selfish monster! He loves you! Do you even care!? Does any part of you love him back!?!

I...

Tell him the truth! All of it, Minus!

Ahead, the stony outcroppings at each side of the valley narrowed into a fissure. Inga could not pull the flight up. Not with the chains. She scrunched her eyes shut.

No impact. The chains forced Inga to spin up and over the outcroppings. Her head rushed as she opened her dizzy eyes.

A thundering crash sounded behind them in the fissure. It sounded more definitive than the archway or the trees breaking behind them.

We must hide. We do not have much time. Over there.

Inga saw it, too. A cave in a steep ridge. The chains slowed Inga to land at its mouth and loosened to retract. Inga was released when they touched down.

Cinead immediately dismounted and ran ahead. Inga followed, fuming. She ducked low enough to keep Minus from hitting the ceiling. While she wanted nothing more than to rip Minus in half, they were not safe here.

"That thing was relentless! It looked like Mira but bigger. Much bigger." Cinead glanced back. "I don't think it saw us coming in here. We may be able to find a place to hide."

Inga yowled a protest.

"It's Minus' brother!?" Cinead eyes flashed a fearful realisation. "Damn it..." He threw a fist down. "Damn it! He is here to take her away and make her forget. Her memories, her identity, everything! We have to stop him!" He lowered his voice. "Let's see if we can find a place to ambush him."

Inga had more to say. Her next growl was interrupted by Cinead raising his hand.

"Leave it for later, sister. Keep Mira with you. We have to focus."

Inga only slowed momentarily when she jogged past an odd pile of bones. A goblin skeleton slumped against the wall.



The deathly quiet could have resulted from a rushed exodus. There was evidence of rovaick living in the cave, though things were messy and dusty. There was a poor smell in the air; that of charcoal, thick paint, and traces of spoilt meat. Rovaick stomachs were hardy enough that even the previous settlement had putrid smells, but this was different.

When Cinead found a discarded torch and cast a flint over it to light more than they could perceive in the dark, they saw more than they wanted to. This was still a settlement. The inhabitants never left.

They stood in a central hub of the hewn residences. Each door was slashed with a rough imitation of Toun's insignia -- two circles in the larger third circle -- in red paint. Beside each door were piles of charred bones. Black soot smeared the cave walls in strips above the skeletons, suggesting that bodies were torched and left in place.

Minus spoke only one sentence to Inga's mind.

These were heretics.

Cinead wandered to another corridor. More burnt skeletons. He turned to Inga, his brow knitted and his ears back. "This place is a crypt," he whispered as if the dead around them were listening.

Inga's ears flattened further when she noticed one of the small skeletons was not a goblin, but a troll child. She whined just as quietly as Cinead spoke.

"I don't want to be here either," Cinead mumbled. "We need to find a place to strike at Mira's brother before he finds us."

An impeccably timed clink echoed through the halls. They felt it through the floor.

Clink...clink...clink...

Cinead beckoned and broke into a run, Inga followed. They ran deeper into the caves. The clinking only grew nearer.

Every residence had a door marked with the three red circles of Toun. Every single one had rovaick skeletons huddled in piles of ash.

They darted around a corner. This corridor was narrower.

The clinking went silent. They only heard their own softer footfalls.

A fork in the corridor split ahead. They turned right.

"If we circle around to the hub, we can use the elevation-"

Clink! A tall ghost stepped around the corner ahead.

Inga and Cinead slid to a stop. The hair on the backs of their necks stood.

It did look like Minus. But 'taller' here described a towering armoured knight. Cinead could barely stand up to its knee. The only rival to its height was the long porcelain hammer it wielded in both hands.

"The other way!" Cinead hissed. "Go, go!" Cinead and Inga sprinted in the opposite direction. Minus' chains jingled against Inga's sides as she ran.

They took the other path in the previous fork.

Clink! The white armoured knight cut off their path again. It was closer. It had Toun's circles etched in red across its chest.

Inga reeled. The pair spun and ran the other way.

Not even five sprinting steps and -- Clink! -- the knight cut them off again.

Cinead and Inga edged back. It was too fast.

The knight angled its huge head down to look at them eyelessly.

They looked back.

"ABDICATE MY TWIN."

Its slow, oppressive words shook the walls.

Cinead and Inga exchanged a timid glance.

Inga noticed Cinead ball his fists. "...I don't think so," he said.

Inga knew that look. If they could not run, they would fight.

The giant knight, Majus, held its hammer forward. "ABDICATE MY TWIN," it boomed. "OR I SHALL OBTAIN MY TWIN BY FORCE."

"Inga?" Cinead murmured. He stared down Majus with his ears pinned back. "Get Mira out."

Inga snarled every vocalisation in a short time that could convey just how much of an idiot Cinead was for doing this.

"No," Cinead spoke through gritted teeth. "Get. Mira. Out. I'll catch up with you."

Inga took two heavy breaths and barked. She stepped reluctantly and sprinted away, chains jingling.

I'll rip you in half, too, Cinead, she thought.

Behind her, Cinead shouted a warcry. Inga could hear his charge turn into a jump. A crack. A thud.

That idiot. That idiot!

She kept running, turning to find the central hub again.

Cinead's coughing echoed out. He shouted and attacked again. His cry was cut short by another peal of bludgeoning thuds. And Cinead coughing up a liquid.

Inga blinked back tears. She ran through the central hub residences, back out toward the entrance. There was much ground to cover.

The sounds of the struggle haunted her steps, echoing out to her. Each melee made Cinead sound softer and weaker. The clinks of Majus' pursuing footsteps also faded. Idiot, idiot, idiot!

Almost there.

Help him.

Inga stumbled to a stop. They could make the exit. Cinead's next scream was one of pure pain. She looked back, distraught.

He must live. Help him.

Overwhelmed, Inga glanced ahead and behind. The next thud against the wall came with a tumble of burnt furniture. Another crack echoed.

He will die if you do not help him, Inga. You must fight. I need you to trust me. Fight.

He told me to get you out.

You follow him because you love him. You have to do what I say if you want to protect him. Make your choice, Inga.

She gritted her teeth. Tears streamed from her eyes as her breathing shallowed.

You will both live if you protect him. I need you to trust me when I say that. I promise it to you.

Inga screeched out into the cavern. She reached back and pulled Minus' unmoving body onto the ground. Minus crumpled like a doll.

I'll get him out without you.

No hesitation was left. Inga ran back. Her paces faded swiftly into the halls.

Minus lifted a porcelain hand. Its fingers splayed with a strain.

Its palm slammed onto the floor to push up its body.



The dropped torch lit the fighters in a frame of shadow. Inga shot into the cavern in time to see Cinead roll to avoid Majus' goliath white hammer. It crashed into the rock floor.

Sprinting in, Inga jumped up to snatch Majus' throat. She would kill it. Her jaw was strong. It could bite through some white armour.

It was too fast. Her neck collided with the giant knight's spread hand. Her body swung and hung from the sharp-fingered white gauntlet's grip.

She gagged. Lights flashed in her eyes. Before she knew which way was up, she was tossed aside. Her back met a stone wall. The rest of her body lashed to a stop against it, and she slumped, doll-like. She wheezed in a breath, somehow not crushed from the force.

Cinead used the distraction to jump inhumanly high and slam a fist into the knight's side. A sharp crack. The strike dispaced Majus only half a step. It backhanded Cinead before he landed.

Cinead was swat onto the floor with a stony crack. Majus' armour showed not a flaw where he was punched.

Cinead struggled to push himself up off the ground. Inga saw the blood dripping from his nose and mouth. He was covered in scrapes and bruises.

"Inga..." He groaned angrily. "I told you to get out!"

Shut up, idiot. She snarled the sentiment at him.

Inga pushed off the floor and the wall. She had a second wind to strike again. She stood and charged.

Majus swung out. Its hammer thrummed too fast and lengthened unnaturally. Inga twisted to dodge, not fast enough. It caught her in the side. She stumbled to the ground, grimacing in pain, but she let her animal instinct bite for the hammer's haft. She held on with grit and tooth.

Cinead barely stood. He clutched his middle. He was slumped. His yellow eyes burned up at the giant, daring it.

With its hammer trapped, Majus kicked out at Cinead with a huge clay sabaton. Cinead stepped broadly aside. The foot fell. Majus let its momentum bend it forward. Cinead spun away, bent knees, and leapt forward and up. Majus' visored face met Cinead's oncoming fist.

Cinead's strike landed. A dull crack. A shockwave ran up his arm from his fist as all momentum halted violently against the visor. The rest of Cinead bounced off Majus' helmet. Not a mark was left.

Cinead landed on the ground on his back, the wind knocked from his lungs. He coughed a spray of blood. His whole arm twitched and shivered. He could not even bend it anymore.

Majus turned its faceless head to Inga. She growled and curled back her lips. Majus pulled the hammer back so fast that Inga's teeth rang discordant notes on the clay as they slipped free from the too-smooth surface. The head of the hammer struck her face on the way back.

She staggered, dazed.

Majus wheeled its hammer up, poised to strike Cinead.

Inga ran to Cinead, flapping her wings once to boost forward. Majus downward strike was a feint. Inga spotted the hammer an instant before it broke two of her ribs and sent her rolling. Again.

She saw the cavern ceiling. She would have screamed in pain if she could breathe.

Clink! Clink!

Majus dominated the lower portion of Inga's vision. It looked down at her with that faceless head and raised its hammer again. The hammer's head elongated into a taper. A wickedly sharp hook.

She tried to get up. She slipped on the dust and more pain dazed her.

She tried to shout a denial. It came out as a pitiful wheeze. They could not stop it.

Like that, hope disappeared.

She closed her eyes.

Chains rattled. The second Majus' hammer gained momentum, two white serpents sprang out behind Majus, coiling around its hammer and tensing to halt it. Majus turned its large head, confused only as a killing machine could be.

The white snakes -- chains -- coiled around Majus' arms, then flung around its body and shot out into the darkness at the sides of the chamber. Two successive rocky cracks sounded where the chain stuck fast into the walls.

Majus pulled at the chains. They creaked and strained, taut, but they held.

"Inga," Mira's voice turned Inga's head to the nearest passageway. "Collect Cinead. Come here. Make haste."

Inga rolled onto her front and struggled up to her feet. Every step made her chest click and hurt. She limped over to Cinead.

Cinead's face was swollen and bleeding to the point where his eyes were barely visible. His fur glistened, matted with his own blood. He twitched in pain, barely conscious. His right arm shuddered, ruined and jarred. Inga could not perceive any broken bones, only every other injury he could have suffered. She took his less-ruined arm and dragged him out of the chamber.

"Over here. We do not have much time."

Inga followed Mira's voice. Majus twisted and thrashed against the chains. It was gaining more room to struggle through sheer brute strength, pulling at the walls.

She entered the passageway. Her tears and blood mixed.



Inga was in too much pain resist the pair of cold gauntlets gently slowing her to a stop. She was well within the passageway and out of the still-trapped Majus' sight.

Minus stepped clumsily around Inga. The lithe armoured figure sported her own limp. She was almost too weak to stand, slouched as she was with severed chains dragging on the ground behind her.

Inga suppressed a sob. Crying hurt, too. She whined and winced to Minus.

"We will not die, Inga. But it will escape. You would never have beaten it. You will not."

Inga bowed her head hopelessly. Her broken lip dripped blood onto the floor.

"I will grant its demand."

Inga's head shot up to look at Minus in disbelief. After all this, we give up?

Minus cupped her porcelain hands around Inga's red-marked chin. "We, all of us, shall not die here. Majus is easily tricked. I will need your help."

Inga stared into Minus' blank white visor, overwhelmed. She nodded absently.



"I apologise."

Inga could not have been prepared, with or without Minus' notice. Nothing she had ever seen nor imagined would have matched it. For equal parts horror and fascination arced between her gryphon ears.

Minus hand, shivering, rose to her other wrist. Her fingers curled, one by one, around the bracer of her gauntlet. She pulled. Her porcelain arms shook with the strain. A scrape, or a tearing, hinted. The grotesque sound of skin peeling. The white gauntlet gave, tore, and slid off.

Inga could only watch in nauseating awe.

Minus held her severed gauntlet by the wrist. It had left a part behind; a delicate hand, black as pitch and painted with dabs of bright red, like scales. The black fingers curled and extended smoothly, freely.

Minus dropped the useless white gauntlet. It clicked onto the floor. Just clay.

The new black and red hand curled around her other gauntlet to perform the same operation.

Cinead's swollen, beaten eyes widened as far as he could manage, astonished.

The second gauntlet dropped, also torn off with a sound like peeling skin. Again, the hand beneath was black, glossy, delicate, and dappled with vivid red.

Inga noticed the ever-present white chains still attached, simply hanging from some unseen link within Minus' thin wrists. They stretched the skin out where it hung like an inseparable part of her body.

Next, Minus' gaunt black hands tore at each piece of white armour up her arms. Forearms, elbows, upper arms, shoulders. Each made the same sickening tearing sound. Each revealed more of the black limbs beneath. Thin, starved, dappled red. They released a thick smell of ink in the air. Ink and long-trapped moisture.

Minus fell back seated on the floor. She peeled off her sabatons and greaves like not-quite-dry scabs. While her legs were further soot-blackened with red scales, her feet were not joined like dwarven feet. Each toe ran from her heel to its tip as long as a normal foot, ending in curled talons.

The moisture dried on the scales. Inga noticed the scales fraying up across Minus' exposed body. They were not scales at all; they were extraordinarily fine feathers.

Minus struggled upright once more on her thin, feathered legs. She used both her delicate hands to loudly tear the armour from her torso in larger pieces. More black and fine red feathers. Her cuirass peeled off in large halves. She bent in just a way to show a strange scar across her back, between her shoulders.

She was more clearly feminine now, but thin. So strangely thin. She was like something mummified, Inga thought. Missing something inside.

Inga's resentment was forgotten. Replaced by pity.

The last piece was the helmet. It tore after Minus pulled from the nape of her neck, splitting the piece into two like a porcelain apple. A film of sickly red mucus film stretched between the two pieces, splitting and revealing a bouquet of long, fine, thin, white plumes underneath, reclining in a bend. They lifted free from Minus' head, curling back like dusty gossamer hair.

The helmet fell, clacking like stones on the floor.



Minus' high-cheeked face bore a vaguely human appearance, were it not for a slightly-too-long neck, a slightly-too-small upturned nose, and a coverage of white feathers stopping at her red-dipped chin. More red feathers framed her eyes in dots and streaks.

Minus, the alien, spindly, feathered creature, gave Inga and Cinead a furtive look, a frown. She blinked down.

She lifted a delicate hand. As if the hand had pinched an invisible string, the discarded white armour at her feet was pulled up beneath it, assembling with mindless clicks and snaps. The helmet clapped into one piece again. The cuirass and pauldrons followed underneath. All the rest drew up under those pieces in turn. When her hand stopped, up and outstretched, Minus' armour was complete again.

Minus tugged at the small white cape hanging from the armour's back. It came free easily. She cast the cape around herself as some modicum of covering, before letting the completed armour fall into Inga's hands.

Inga just managed to hold onto it before it could collapse to the ground.

"Present it to Majus," Minus said.

Before, Minus' voice had been unnaturally amplified from behind her helmet. Now, the natural sound from behind Minus' full lips made Inga feel a dissonance. This was real. This was what she really looked like.

"He will leave peacefully. Go." She leaned her back against a wall, exhausted. "I shall remain hidden."

Inga managed a pained whine.

"Do not worry. I will tell him the truth. Everything."

Inga peered at the limp armour in her arms. There was nothing else to try but this.



Inga limped out into the main hub chamber with Minus' armour cradled close. She looked up at Majus as she took sharp breaths, short steps, and quick blinks.

Majus' thrashing left so much slack in the chains they barely kept his arms restrained anymore.

Inga lowered the empty armour onto the dusty stone floor and backed away.

Majus twisted one way. Cracks and creaks sounded along the chains. He thrashed once more. The links exploded out and onto the floor in a raucous clay shower. His arms spread. And then, as if never restrained, the towering giant assumed its normal rigid posture and stance. Its huge hammer stood vertical, resting one end of its haft on the floor.

It looked down at Inga, just as eyelessly as before. It regarded Inga's offering.

Head low and eyes up, Inga stood her ground.

Majus walked. It clink, clinked forward to the limp armour and bent down to scrutinise it.

Inga swallowed hard. There was still blood in her saliva.

The scrutiny did not last long. Majus lifted the set unceremoniously over its shoulder and stood to full height once more.

It boomed out with its deep, thundering voice. "Your utility is exhausted. Stand aside, gryphon Inga."

Inga kept her eyes on the giant. She took enough painful steps to one side to allow Majus to the next passageway.

Majus clinked forward. Its clay footfalls echoed into the passage until almost silent.

Inga realised she was holding her breath.

The red circles of Toun stared down from the doors around her like a crowd of dead eyes.

It was gone. Just like that.

It was gone.

Her legs lost their energy slowly, then suddenly. She collapsed onto the floor. She curled up and wept.



"So that is what happened, you say?"

"That was the ruse. Majus will not be back for some time now. I wish you and Inga did not have to fight it. Your augmentations saved your lives."

"You...really aren't Mira, aren't you?"

"..."

"..."

"...I was, Cinead."

"But this is what you were all along, right? Minus. This is you."

"..."

"Mira wasn't real, wasn't she?"

"...She was real. I have taken disguises before. All of them were real. All of them were people. They all had thoughts, feelings, dreams, desires..."

"But they weren't Minus'."

"Minus is nothing. I am nothing underneath. I am a cold slave who manipulates and twists. No dreams or feelings. Minus is less real than any of the disguises I have taken."

"...So, you lied to me. "

"No. No, I didn't. I should have lied to you. I didn't. I only withheld. I was built to manipulate. I did not manipulate you as I should have for my mission."

"Why is that? Shouldn't Mira's behaviour have served your mission?"

"...It did. You and Mira had a rapport. But then...I started to be Minus more often than Mira. Just in certain details. You were helping me with something I have not been able to understand all my life."

"..."

"There were things that I could only experience by...sharing myself as Minus. Lying does not work. It does not trigger the routines."

"...I don't understand. There is more you're not telling me."

"I can tell you everything I withheld. Everything! You heal much faster than I let on, both of you. I drained Inga's energy to make it look like she was healing slower. My mission was still to bring you to the rovaick. It all served the mission until you looked at me over the campfire. I..."

"Slow down...Just tell me why you needed to share yourself."

"...I need to tell you about...why things have been so strange. So...illogical."

"Tell me."

"There have been...fragments built into me. Hidden fragments. Routines. They make me play out memories. Fogged memories with no explanations. Dancing. Intimacy. I have uncovered more memories from playing out the behaviours they contained. The thoughts and feelings follow. With you, mostly. Those were the components of the key that unlocks more. I needed you to help uncover them. I may still need you. They are the only things I have ever enjoyed as Minus and not as someone else. My own feelings. Built in like little instructions."

"...But?"

"I uncovered the most recent one when you kissed me. It uncovered pain. More pain than I could withstand. That was all the corruption ever was. Pain. Pain from a memory. The kind of pain that cements one's lungs and aches one's heart. It drained me of many of my powers. It may kill me if it plays out again. Even staying awake carries risks."

"I'm sorry for invoking it."

"Don't be. It was not your fault."

"...Can Niciel still help you?"

"I do not know. The only hint I have for the next memory is...a sense of purity. A purity that resolves. Perfection from Imperfection. 'It all goes to purity.' That is the hint. Completing the memories may resolve the pain. Niciel might trigger the next memory. Until then, I will have to sleep to stay alive."

"If nothing else, she could heal you if we convince her."

"..."

"Mira, look at me."

"..."

"Look at me." He sighed. "You saved our lives. I...don't know what to feel about all that came before today, but the least we can do is try to save your life as well."

"...Why?"

"I just told you. We owe you now."

"Not that. Why do you still call me Mira?"

"It suits you better. Minus is cold and manipulating, as you said. Mira has feelings and desires. Would you prefer Minus?"

"No! No...I prefer Mira."

"Mm." He hummed a laugh, belying his exhaustion. "Sorry for teasing you. It's inconsequential at this point, anyway."

A long pause.

"...Understood."

"We should sleep. We'll heal enough to fly again soon. And we'll have a long flight from tomorrow. I will wake you up when we arrive. Good night, Mira."

"Good night, Cinead. Thank you."

"Sweet dreams."

"...Cinead?"

"Yes?"

"I look forward to waking up and seeing you again."

"...Me too, Mira."

The rustling of old bedrolls scavenged from the dead rovaick told of Minus curling up to sleep. Cinead instead seated himself up against where Inga laid eavesdropping.

Inga felt a hand and a comforting kiss on the side of her head. "Good night, sister," Cinead whispered to her. "You were amazing today. I'm sorry for all the trouble we've been through. I promise we'll head home soon."

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The Prometheans currently had only three goals in life: Expand the colony, create new colonies, and make the colonies defensible. They would go to whatever means necessary to accomplish these goals in the fastest and most efficient manner possible. The resultant aggressive expansionism and industrial mining naturally put them at opposition with the elementals who had believed for eons that they ruled this planet.

While the Prometheans were not as creative as the other sentient species in the universe, they were resourceful and industrious, and Teknall had given them enough innovativeness to adapt and invent. The new directive had changed many things about how colonies were arranged. Density had been reduced somewhat so that a rampaging elemental would not do as much damage. Carriers frequently flew around the colonies, scouting for any sign of hostile entities. A clear defensive perimeter was present around every colony and mine, keeping a buffer zone between potential hostiles and the manufacturing districts.

And while the Prometheans were not built for fighting, that did not stop them from trying.

~~~~

The hydrocarbon elemental surged up from the lake, forcing its way into one of the Harvesters who were siphoning and distilling the lake, and burst it apart from the inside. The other Prometheans fled, departing as quickly as they could (which, for most of them, wasn't very fast). All of them, that was, except a single Manipulator. It had picked up a gas canister and was advancing upon the elemental as quickly as its legs would carry it.

The elemental seeped out of the burst Harvester and towered up over the Manipulator. It said something haughty in the strange tongue used by the djinn, then surged forwards towards the Manipulator. At that moment, the Manipulator twisted a valve on the gas canister and its colourless contents hissed out. The elemental engulfed the Manipulator, but in doing so became mixed with the gas that had just been released. It was a strange gas that it was unfamiliar with, but it immediately realised that this gas was bad for it.

The gas was pure oxygen. With hydrocarbons and oxygen blended together, it only took a spark to cause the elemental to violently explode into a fireball.

After confirming that the elemental was gone, the Prometheans returned to their stations and Manipulators moved in to salvage the destroyed Harvester and repair the scorched Manipulator.

~~~~

The activity in the mining colony was interrupted by a loud explosion from the outskirts. A burrowing earth elemental had triggered a buried landmine, and had been obliterated by the ensuing explosion. That earth elemental had been unlucky. The others avoided the traps.

The passage of the others did not go undetected, though. Arrays of seismometers detected the faint tremors of the passing stone djinn, and actively triangulated their positions. Bomb-laden Carriers were launched and circled above where the djinn were hiding, waiting for their ambush.

The elementals soon surfaced amidst the Promethean Processors of the colony and started to wreak havoc. The Carriers swooped in and did not hesitate to drop their payloads upon the elementals. The high explosives ripped through djinni and Promethean alike. It was over in seconds. While the bombing run had caused severe collateral damage, its swiftness had ensured that the damage was localised. To the colony as a whole, it was merely a scratch.

~~~~

The cyclonic form of Skylord Aurora approached the Promethean outpost colony. Lightning crackled between her billowing clouds of ammonia and methane. And scurrying around her was an army of elementals of all sorts, members of a coalition formed to combat these metallic intruders. The robots had been getting smarter and stronger every day, developing new tactics at every encounter, so Aurora was leading the charge to ensure that her hegemony would remain intact.

As the edge of her army approached the colony, the dull thud of distant mortars rang out, lobbing incendiary shells filled with thermite into the massed hydrocarbon elementals. Explosive shells also bombarded the ranks of elementals, stone and ice among them. When the burrowing earth elementals approached the border, buried charges detonated and killed those who had led the subterranean charge. Lesser air elementals which swept ahead were targeted by cannons firing concussive explosives set to detonate mid-air. Over the battlefield flew Carriers dropping bombs upon the elementals. For those who got through the gauntlet of explosions, a charge of Manipulators and Harvesters who had been modified to be somewhat better suited for melee combat met them.

Although the elementals took heavy losses in this initial charge, the Promethean border had been breached, and the Prometheans were starting to take losses too. From the unusually large size of the invasion force, it was possible that the elementals could have razed the colony without Aurora's direct intervention, although there would have been no proper army left over to fight the hundreds of other colonies, many much better defended.

Aurora had not been idle in this time; she had billowed into a cumulonimbus, and with the generated electric charge she unleashed a bolt of lightning upon one of the Carriers, detonating its entire payload and scattering shrapnel across the battlefield. The other Carriers, identifying the superior threat, all turned and flew towards Aurora. The Skylord knew what they intended to do, and commanded her subordinate wind djinn to intercept them.

This was not the first time air elementals had fought with Carriers. In the first battles, the Carriers were defenceless, generally unable to outrun the air elementals and with no reliable way to harm them short of self-destructing. The combat-designated Carriers soon received upgrades to deal with the issue. Their jet engines were made much more robust, so that weaker air elementals attempting to interfere with them would simply be shredded and incinerated. And they were equipped with short-range flamethrowers as a means to harm the elementals.

However, the servants of a mighty Skylord were powerful wind djinn in their own right. The Carriers started to fall, being tossed aside. Aurora herself launched a couple more bolts of lightning at them, and it was not long before the airspace had been cleared of Carriers.

Aurora rolled forwards into the colony. She slammed into the defending line of Prometheans with the force of a hurricane, toppling some but not all of them. The high mass and low profile of the Harvesters and Processors meant that simple wind would need to be extremely strong to blow them over. Aurora had more important things to do than waste her breath fighting these lowly robots herself.

Her clouds spread out over the colony. Mortar fire exploded within her, and though it harmed the Skylord she weathered it. From Aurora precipitation fell in giant droplets of liquid hydrocarbons, and when these droplets hit the ground they did not scatter but instead formed up into many hydrocarbon elementals, which proceeded to surge about the colony and cause considerable damage. They focused their fury upon the mortars, and were supported by lightning bolts from Aurora. The wind djinn swept around the roads of the colony and scattered and Prometheans trying to move around and support the defence of the colony.

Once the mortars had been taken out Aurora was free from harassment. She turned her attention to the Nexus which towered in the middle.

promethean.N000739: Warning! Colony defences destroyed.
promethean.N000739: Warning! Destruction imminent.
promethean.N000739: Uploading data about Enemy No. 001415 ("Storm elemental, colossal")

Lightning arced from Aurora to the Nexus. While the bolts temporarily disrupted its communication and sensors, the Nexus was well-grounded electrically, so was largely unaffected by the lightning. Aurora sent the rest of the elementals to swarm the Nexus.

The Nexus put up a fair amount of resistance in its final struggle. Every floor of the Nexus was filled with industrial assembly equipment which could be used to attack intruders, and each floor was filled with half-finished Prometheans which could be jury-rigged into improvised weapons. But with its walls breached and the elementals swarming, it was only a matter of time before the elementals reached the Nexus' core and ripped apart its computer brain and fusion reactor.

promethean.N000739: Warning! Enemy is attacking the core.
promethean.N000739: Error: Fusion core damaged. Power failure imminent.
promethean.N000739: Error: Computational unit dam-ged. Da-a co-rup-ed.
promethean.N000739: Er-or: -------------------------------------
promethean.N000735: Error: Communication failure with N000739. Last known location: [3.023 32.932]

~~~~

The elemental threat was becoming too great for Teknall to ignore. Even without Skylord Aurora's campaign, the elementals were providing enough resistance to considerably delay the growth of the Prometheans. And elemental lords like Aurora were powerful enough to overwhelm the ramshackle weaponry the Prometheans had managed to throw together. Teknall had given the Prometheans some time to develop their own tactics and strategies, but now it was time for the Prometheans to be properly militarised.

So Teknall presented a new type of Promethean: the Destroyer. It was a heavily armoured mobile weapon platform. Its size and means of locomotion was variable. One of the first designs was a very large box-like terrestrial machine with caterpillar treads. Another of the first designs was an aircraft like the Carriers, but sleeker in design, having a much higher top speed, and being far more maneuverable. And another was a mostly stationary smaller Promethean, which was much more heavily armed and armoured for its size than the other Destroyers. All were armed to the proverbial teeth.

To make the Destroyers effective, they needed better weapons. The mortars, landmines and flamethrowers the Prometheans had invented on their own had their uses, but they were more suited to support roles than as primary weapons.

So Teknall taught the Prometheans how to create guns, weapons to propel metal shells at high velocities using either low explosives or electromagnetic forces. He presented them with many variants, adjusting muzzle velocity, rate of fire, effective range, calibre, ammunition type, and so on. The most powerful among them was the railgun, based on his own personal weapon. While the Promethean railguns were more limited than Teknall's, they still had stupendous firepower and range, and they could launch a wider variety of payloads than simple metal shells.

Teknall also taught the Prometheans the principles of rocketry, and how to apply it into missiles. Against the less solid elementals, the versatility provided by the choice of missile warhead was critical. Smaller missiles could be fired from missile batteries at relatively close range. Larger missiles could strike targets from a great distance.

The Destroyers were equipped with this grand variety of weapons, and equipped well. The large tanks, with their great size, possessed the most weapons. They each had one or more large railguns as primary cannons, missile batteries, possible a couple of long-range missile launchers, many smaller guns for combat at close to medium range, and flamethrowers for really close range. The fighter jets were the most lightly armed, generally carrying just missiles, machine guns, and maybe flamethrowers for close-range defence against air elementals, but their speed meant they would often be the first to respond to any threats. The turrets were equipped with a variable selection of weaponry, typically including a larger primary weapon (such as a railgun, missile battery, or mortar array) with a few secondary close-range weapons for self-defence.

With Teknall's assistance, the Promethean colonies quickly integrated the Destroyers into their defenses and developed effective military strategies and tactics. The Destroyers made combating the elementals much more efficient. Artillery and missiles were more accurate than mortars and bombing runs, and often resulted in significantly less collateral damage. Strategic placement of turret Destroyers throughout the colony allowed for burrowing earth elementals to be responded to much more quickly and with far less damage to the colony. Long range missiles combined with Doppler radar allowed air elementals to be attacked long before they could reach the colonies.

With this new military advantage, the raids of lesser elementals became an almost trivial matter to deal with. Moderately powerful djinn could be fought with much less damage sustained by the colonies. Only the djinn lords remained as credible threats.

~~~~

The ice djinni and its contingent of lesser elementals lay in wait behind the hills for the cargo train to pass. The colonies themselves were well-defended, such that it would take a serious expenditure of power to attack a Promethean colony directly. However, smaller groups of elementals such as these could still strike out against the supply lines.

The deep rumble of the train was heard before it was seen. Over a kilometer long, and carrying tens of thousands of tonnes of steel and other metals, this frieght train was bringing resources from a mining colony to a manufacturing colony. It also had a stupendous amount of intertia.

As the train approached, stone elementals swiftly emerged and tore through the rails. With inadequate time to stop, the train hurtled onwards across the broken section of track and was promptly derailed. Propelled by its momentum, the train was hardly slowed as it tumbled across the earth, carriages shearing off and being shed along the path of destruction. The Prometheans tending to the train toppled off and rolled across the landscape. The wreckage continued to pile up for a couple minutes, and the elementals watched and gloated over their victory.

The ice djinni's apparent victory was then rudely punctuated by a blur of metal followed by a sonic boom which shattered half of its body. The ice djinni scrambled to reassemble itself, while trying to find its attacker. Amidst the distant wreckage there moved a Promethean Destroyer, of the turret type, which had been travelling with the train. It was severely damaged from the crash, but was still operational, and had managed to aim and fire its railgun at the ringleader of the elementals.

As the Destroyer limped back upright, the ice djinni bellowed in rage. Aurora's cautions against lingering be damned; this djinni was not going to let this challenge go unanswered.

The elementals charged, and were met by missiles which arced across the sky from the Destroyer to them. An earth elemental and an ice elemental were blasted apart by the explosive warheads. The leading ice djinni flung a cluster of ice spikes at a missile heading for him and it exploded mid air. The ice djinni strafed as it charged, sliding side to side and keeping low to the ground. Another railgun dart clipped what could have been the djinni's shoulder, and while this created a spectacular spray of shattered ice and water droplets it was but a glancing blow.

The ice djinni may have been cocky, but it wasn't a fool. It knew of the weapons these new metal beasts carried, to a degree anyway. As soon as the elementals reached the start of the wreckage, it ordered them to stay behind cover as much as possible. As they darted between toppled carriages, there were bursts of machine gun fire with the bullets shredding through elementals who stayed exposed for too long, but mostly they were safe from the guns. The missiles, however, still arced across the sky and over their cover, bombarding where the elementals ran.

They soon managed to get close to the Destroyer, although the small group of elementals was now even smaller. The Destroyer stood unsteadily on three elongated feet, the fourth foot sheared off in the crash. Its armour plating was battered and caved in, likely with significant internal damage. Half of its armaments were inoperable, and the rest were only barely functional. It was a testament to Promethean design that this thing was still fighting at all.

One ice elemental charged, and was shattered by a burst of machine gun fire. A hasty earth elemental was blasted apart by a missile fired almost point blank. The leading ice djinni was smarter. It circled around behind cover until it was in a direction where neither the Destroyer's railgun or missile battery was pointed. Then it lunged forwards and struck.

It knew it had to be swift, since from what it had heard if a Promethean knew it was going to die and had time to react, it would often explode if able in order to kill the attacker. So the djinni forced a limb into a gap in the battered and torn armour plating and forced more ice into the Destroyer, until shards of ice burst out from every hole in the Destroyer and it fell limp.

The djinni retracted the limb, which was half melted due to the internal heat of the Promethean, and drew itself up to its full height. The other Prometheans in the train wreck were only Manipulators, there to ensure the train stayed well maintained, and most of those were damaged beyond functionality, so the ice djinni was now safe to gloat in its victory.

Or so it had thought. Aurora had warned against lingering for a reason. In the distance in the sky, barely visible at this range, was another Destroyer, of the plane type, which had been dispatched the moment the train had crashed. Two missiles detached from the distant fighter jet, one after the other, and boosted ahead towards the grouped elementals. By the time they noticed the threat, it was too late. The missiles struck, the shockwaves tearing through the group of elementals with explosive force and striking them with fragmentation of the warhead. As the survivors were picking themselves up, the Destroyer swooped down low and opened fire with its autocannon, blasting apart the remaining elementals as it flew by.

The Destroyer continued to circle around the wreckage, keeping an eye out for any more elemental activity. Carriers were on their way with repair and clean-up crews. The track would be repaired and cleared as soon as possible, so that trains could continue to travel, and another train could be sent in to collect the cargo and wreckage of this train.

~~~~

Airborne Doppler radar reconnaissance had revealed the movements of a relatively large storm elemental, passing by the sea before turning to strike a colony, presumably picking up a contingent of hydrocarbon elementals at the ocean. The Prometheans mobilised their Destroyers for a preemptive strike.

Dust was thrown up behind the rumbling Destroyer tanks as they drove across the barren landscape. Overhead flew Destroyer jets, with a couple flying high and ahead to keep a lookout for the elementals.

Soon, the Destroyers spotted the storm djinni following the coast. It was still hidden over the horizon for the Destroyers on the ground, but that was not an issue. The high-altitude Destroyers communicated the coordinates to the others. Hatches on the ground-borne Destroyers slid open to reveal cruise missile launchers, and after a brief period of aiming and coordination dozens of missiles were launched in a flare of rocket-flame.

The rockets arced across the sky, and the djinni noticed. It moved faster, trying to evade the missiles, but the missiles stayed on target as the flying Destroyers sent targeting data to the missiles. Seeing that it couldn't outrun the missiles, the djinni billowed into a cumulonimbus while the lesser elementals residing within its form detacted and scattered. As the missiles neared the djinni hurled lightning at them. Two of the missiles were struck and exploded prematurely, but the rest made it into the form of the elemental and detonated violently, shockwaves tearing through the storm djinni's form.

When the steam settled, the storm djinni was greatly diminished in size and strength. There were no more cruise missiles, but the air-borne Destroyers were approaching at speeds faster than any wind could hope to blow. Seeing the futility in retreat, the storm djinni flew up to meet them flanked by its lesser wind djinn.

Their charge was met by air-to-air missiles launched by the Destroyers. The wind djinn strafed as best they could, but the salvo of shockwaves decimated their ranks all the same. When the wind elementals got close, the point defence flamethrowers flared, further wounding them, although due to their high speed there was only a fraction of a second of contact. The wind djinn slammed into one of the Destroyers, which left the collision in an uncontrolled spin and spiralled down to the ground below.

The other Destroyers flew on and circled back around to face the elementals again, shedding speed and decelerating into subsonic flight in doing so. Facing the elementals again, the Destroyers launched another salvo of missiles, further reducing their numbers and strength. A few of the remaining zephyrs stayed to fight, facing down autocannons and flamethrowers, while the rest scattered into the four winds.

Down on the ground, the hydrocarbon elementals receded back into the ocean, hidden from view and potential bombardment. With all the elementals gone, the Destroyers returned back to their colonies to reload, refuel and await their next dispatch.

~~~~

The zephyr flew up to the great cyclone. "Skylord Aurora, I carry news from Coriolis' force."

An eye of lightning framed by a ridge of cloud looked at the puny elemental. Aurora was listening, but her irritation at having to communicate with such an inferior being was evident. The zephyr shrunk back at her gaze, but continued its report.

"Coriolis is- is, dead, along with most of his force. We never reached the colony."

Aurora's eletrified eye wavered ever so slightly. It might have been surprise, but it was soon washed away by simmering anger.

How? The voice boomed like thunder and caused the zephyr to shudder. How did my lieutenant fail me?

Eddies of nervousness twisted at the zephyr under Aurora's withering glare. "I- we- they- the metal beasts launched dozens of large fire-flying-exploders from a great distance as we travelled along the coast. From the south. They were followed by dozens of flying metal beasts with more exploders and weapons. Both were too fast for us to evade, and they struck with overwhelming force."

The eye considered the zephyr for a few moments longer. In those moments Aurora's winds stilled slightly, and the eye betrayed the slightest hint of dread. Conscious of the other elementals present, Aurora's eye receded back into her form and she gathered together her clouds as she addressed the assembled djinn lords.

The metal beasts are becoming ever more powerful. They threaten all of our domains, consuming the land, polluting the sky and drinking the sea. Every day we waste is another day for them to build more weapons and grow in numbers. We must strike hard, strike fast and, most importantly, strike intelligently. Their latest weapons are a danger even to great beings such as us. We must develop tactics to counter these deadly weapons, and do so quickly because the enemy is moving onto the offensive. We must not relent in our attacks, in starving their colonies, lest their blight cover the whole world. Only our combined, cooperative power can overcome this threat.

There were cheers of affirmation and consensus from the gathered elementals. The djinn lords then continued to plan out their war.

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