Hidden 8 mos ago 8 mos ago Post by Vec
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The Twilight Queen
Level 6 Hero
61 Khookies


The crackling sound of a campfire along with the smell of fish invading her nostrils made Luna finally shift her injured body a little, letting out a pained groan as a result of. As she opened her eyes, the first thing the wolf saw was the stone ceiling of what she assumed to be a cave.

"I-I'm alive..."

Luna was struck with the realisation that she had somehow been saved from the clutches of that thing, the mere thought of which made her shudder. Just its eyes... that look it had given her, full of twisted curiosity and disregard for life was enough to scar her psychologically, for she would certainly never forget that look.

Burying those thoughts in the back of her mind, Luna tried to stand up from where she lay, only to be refused by her own broken body. The pain had fortunately lessened to a dull ache, but considering it was present all over her body, the feeling wasn't any less unpleasant.

"I would not do that if I were you."

Luna was taken aback by this new voice calling out to her. Calm and level, the voice alone spoke volumes about its owner's personality. Luna could infer from the tone of the voice that it was not hostile; this person was the one responsible for her being inside this cave right now and not just ash drifting in the wind.

Even with her head still being a little fuzzy, Luna managed to sit up after a couple of tries, totally disregarding her saviour's words. She needed to see the face of the one who had rescued her. Rubbing her head, she surveyed her surroundings before focusing on the person, or rather the thing, located next to the campfire.

Yes, thing, for right there on top of a wooden branch was an owl perched, looking at her curiously. After what seemed to be hours of simply staring at the owl and it staring back at her, Luna snapped out of her trance-like state. Clearing her throat, she crossed her right arm over her chest, placing a closed fist over her heart, and bowed her head slightly.

"Thank you for rescuing me, whoever you may be." She said sincerely.

Silence ensued for a split second as Luna held her posture, but then the owl suddenly flapped its wings, sending a gust of wind towards Luna. A strange feeling overtook the wolf, and as she raised her head, the owl appeared right in front of her, staring straight into her eyes.

Luna found herself unable to move, frozen in place as she too was unable to pull her eyes away from the creature's face.

"Who are you?" A voice echoed in her mind, the same voice that had advised her before against moving.

Surprised by the sudden mental communication, Luna immediately tried to shield her consciousness from any potential attacks.

"You seem a little agitated... Don't be." The voice continued, unperturbed by Luna's resistance. Not that she held any hope of surviving should the strange being attack her. For all she knew, the thing had to be at least as strong as the alien, else they would not be having this conversation.

"If I wanted to truly hurt you there would be no way for you to stop me from doing so, not with that level of injury." The owl said, this time vocalising its words. It drew back a little, regarding Luna for a moment, before returning to the campfire with a flap of its wings.

A bead of sweat trickled down Luna's forehead before being absorbed again by her fur. Suddenly, an indescribable bitterness overwhelmed her. She was weak.

She remembered the time she spent with Ull'Yang, travelling all around Cygnea, seeing all sorts of fantastic and wonderful landscapes, mutated animals and special lifeforms. She would constantly taunt and rile up those beings, even though she knew she was levels below them power-wise, for she knew she would be safe.

She became more and more complacent every time she beat a strong foe into submission, not knowing that those beings were not fighting with their full power lest they anger the one backing her, content with keeping their lives in place of a few broken bones and lacerations.

Her time in Galbar had been anything but what she had become used to. Unlike Cygnea, Galbar had thrown countless obstacles unto Luna, from the strange topography to its strange inhabitants; how that towering brute had managed to mind control her was beyond Luna even to this date. Then there were those detestable djinns and their leader that refused to listen to her.

The owl did not fail to detect Luna's rising anger and sighed inwardly. "Wolf, you have been sleeping for three whole weeks. Although the divine power inside of you can fend off hunger and thirst, that does not mean your body can forgo sustenance entirely. I would suggest you eat while you can because tomorrow we will be leaving this place."

Luna looked back at the owl, several things passing through her mind at that moment. Truthfully, it was as the owl had said. Luna was hungry, and she was weak. Her body still needed nutrients to survive, even more so now that it was in the process of recuperating from an injury.

She eyed the fish hanging over the fire, one half of her mind wondering where the owl had gotten the fish from, and the other half wondering how the fish tasted. Slowly, the mental barriers she had erected fell one after the other as the smell of grilled fish overwhelmed her olfactory system.

Luna wiped the drool from her mouth with the back of her hand, and slowly crawled towards the campfire, all the while growling due to the pain of moving her body. She sat her body upwards and in a cross-legged position, stared at the owl for a moment, before reaching out and grabbing one of the fish that was hanging over the fire, biting into its flesh.

With the corner of her eye, she thought she saw the owl smirking, but when she turned towards the bird to take a better look, it was gone. Startled, she scanned the cave once more, but it was as if the bird had disappeared.

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Hidden 8 mos ago Post by WrongEndoftheRainbow
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On a small string, looped around Lazarus' neck, there was a small wooden ball. It was distinct from the journal box, for it was of mangrove wood. At a moment that seemed random, it began to smoulder, hissing faintly in black. Then it combusted, dropping to the floor as it burned away the string.

Lazarus looked upon it. She stepped back, giving it room as she waited for Heartworm.

As if to spite her expectations, the spacial tear appeared behind her, a loose scratch quickly followed by a few more. Heartworm looked the same as it always did: visored in dark glass. "Glyph dispersion mechanisms en route," it said. Its feet tapped on the floor, one then two. "Initial volley of corrupted data delivered. A moment's worth of time."

It clicked its hoof. "Let us begin."

Lazarus simply watched Heartworm, nodding at its last sentence. "Very well, what do you need?"

Sharply waved set of scalpel-fingertips. "Specifications. Heartworm presumes a barren plane is not what Lazarus desires."

"As long as it is extensible, so that I may create many things in it, it is exactly what I wish for." Lazarus responded.

Good enough. Heartworm was in no position to overextend. It yanked at its still-gaping portal and the view changed, now displaying Lazarus's own inner sanctum. "Proceed," it said, stepping into the laboratory. "Make space. Solve these." It projected a film of dimensional calculus it intended to offload onto Lazarus. The Empress would get what she was given, but she could at least make herself useful. "Estimated time of completion: nine hours."

Lazarus was clearly displeased with the invasion of her lab yet again -- and indeed, this time the machines were in various stages of being cleared out, presumably to some new location. However, she dutifully went to work with some grumbling.

Heartworm adopted the lotus position, and dimmed its lights.




The nature of the Emaciator's interior is as such: an expansive, but not infinite, mass of dark mechanisms and tools on long limbs, tunnelled into a spacial vacuole hidden behind its teeth. Long spindle-arms wait here, hanging from every wall, densely packed and curiously arranged, with very little light; there are a few threadlike tentacles, many segmented limbs folded on themselves many times, and components archived in silent and lightless storage.

Beyond this, at one stage of its life, there was All-Beauty. And All-Beauty lay there still. An array of needle-thin portals connected to voids within the goddess, and siphoned power from her: exotic flesh, eldritch matter, pieces and fragments of god.

The first portal had been welded shut long ago. Would it be visible, anywhere but the far depths of All-Beauty, one could see the searing marks that Jvan had made on its surface, the ragged monitors and weapons she still had aimed at that door, to no avail- it was lost to her now, and led nowhere.

Heartworm had no intention of touching it. But it was about to take a risk.

Long arms set about scanning the array of microportals with miniscule eyes, and nodes twitched, rerouting their location. The portals scattered semi-randomly through Jvan, living in niches, finding a place that was just deep enough, just secret enough.

A knife-arm extricated the desired portal from the array and a dozen more plugged into its module. A warm light shone through it.

Time to go. Heartworm had come prepared.

A second vessel, much like its outer one but maybe a tenth the size, was hatched from a protective skin and positioned over the dot. A swarm of hair-thin control tendrils invaded it, and its fuel lines detached.

Where Heartworm's outer pod had two multi-purpose limbs, this slender thing had four long blades. It folded into a bullet-shape.

Go.

The projectile shot into Jvan.




Bright light. Bright grey. Long walls. Movement. Everything was collapsing.

The cutter zipped down under the weight of a falling wall a thousand times its size and out of a niche that was constantly closing. The flesh around was barely recognisable as meat. This was deep Jvan, iterating quickly. Heartworm's probe left a tail of plasma behind it as it sought shelter.

It found a stable space. It looked like a tiny room, scratched on all sides by esoteric graffiti in the hand of a woman named Tueda Nuul. Up from Strife, Close Beyond our Pockmarked Veil, yet Onwards Fights no Resonance, it read.

The excision probe scanned its surroundings and then fled, briefly.

It shot into the falling flesh, then across it, emerging behind a deep gouge. It repeated this four times. A section of fractal fell from the wall, severed from body and reality, its wound already iterating into a new, more delicate form. The cutter fed it back into the portal.

Heartworm's many hands gripped it as it came, and in its clamps divided and bottled and sterilised it, pickled it in death. The preserved remains were unravelled, and put together in a new shape.

The cutter fled back to its hideaway. A new Heartland came into view. It scanned the bubble of unguarded space.

Repeat.




Lazarus continued on the math. It was not hard work, but it was not mindless work, either. She rapidly moved through it, impatiently, as she waited for Heartworm to uphold its end of the bargain. Allowing the symbols to flow freely in front of her, she worked away at assembling the answers.

Carry nine-to-the-ninety-eighth power. Assemble the moduli as so. Solve the parabolic curve. Calculate c in universe x. So many things needed to be done, and Lazarus worked diligently, still grumbling at the fact that she had to do such things to retrieve what Heartworm had promised.

The requests eventually slowed. For a while there was no movement at all. Lazarus eventually finished the work provided to her, and she turned to look for Heartworm.

"Construction complete."

"And where is it, exactly?" Lazarus asked in turn.

"Four hundred seconds. Final considerations," it said, and became unresponsive.

Lazarus crossed her arms, counting in her head as she waited for Heartworm to reveal whatever it had made.

"Done."

The hovering avatar uncrossed its limbs and folded back into a pod position. As it did so it drew a shining white slash across the ground, aimed itself towards the portal, and fell in. "Follow-" and then its voice was gone.

Lazarus moved into action, briskly walking towards the tear in reality. She tentatively stepped in. She fell.

It was a long, long drop down.

Below lay something that was all light and no colour. Flat white, everywhere, intersected only now and again by relative grey. Lazarus fell beside Heartworm towards the center of the newborn plane, the peak of what might have been a mountain, or maybe a tower.

They saw solid, all around, descending from the white surface. Nothing of the mountain was filled. It was a hefty skeleton, all of one piece and seamless, supported on massive cylinder struts with empty platforms between. All was white and sunless except for the figure that stood in a dark flight suit on the center of the platform.

Heartworm unfolded and stalled its momentum to levitate. It touched down easily on one hoof. Lazarus passed a fluttering six-winged pedestal as she fell and the creature dove to catch her on its surface, matching speeds then slowing while Lazarus struggled to maintain her bearing.

The quiet disc descended onto the platform. Tauga rested her long hammer on her shoulder and turned to watch it come. Her tentacular aura sprawled far across the mountain, hanging from the platform; she was easily the largest of the three.

"This her?"

"Correct," said Heartworm.

Lazarus looked at Tauga carefully, judging her as she once again crossed her arms. "Are you the one I was told to expect?"

"I guess? Maybe." She shrugged. "Heartworm just fetched me. I won't fuck with your mountain."

Heartworm turned its eyes to the view of blank nothingness. "The components of this plane have been sterilised. All genes removed. Fractal superstructure still capable of further iteration. Lazarus alone controls its destiny." It didn't nod. "Once we leave, imprint on it deeply. You will have time."

"I will have time?" Lazarus simply asked, suspiciously glancing at Heartworm. "What, pray tell, does that mean?"

"This," said the Blowfly, and took out Lazarus's shins with a sweep of her staff.

Lazarus fell, rapidly catching herself with her arms before she hit the ground. However, she was still, at least briefly, out of action.

"Lazarus has been reckless," Heartworm's voice carried as Tauga sprang over to kick a dazed Lazarus in the chest. "Lazarus partook of ichor. Your reclusivity hides vulnerability."

Lazarus kicked Tauga in response, with both of her legs as Tauga jumped at her. Tauga pulled her move to avoid the clash, and the two flew past one another. Rolling over, Lazarus began to climb to her feet.

"Forces exist that could challenge you for any reason. The prerequisite to independence is power."

Tauga pressed her advantage. An adamant hammerhead swung at Lazarus from on high.

Lazarus dropped back to the floor, reaching out with her hands. Imprinting a rune of force onto the hammerhead, she imbued it with power and invoked it, launching the hammer off-course. Its leverage hit hard on the holder's end, and Tauga skidded back to a recovery stance.

"Arcane magic boomed Dwarven society. Also taxed you heavily. Lazarus was willing to risk health dealing for her plane. Heartworm will not allow its assets to destroy themselves."

Tauga's tendrils whirled unseen as she advanced, hooking Lazarus in with the bill on her hammer and launching sharp jabs with her fist. Her gauntlets made heavy contact on steel and feather.

Something inside of Lazarus snapped as Tauga hit her. The demigod was picked up by the neck and thrown skywards in her daze, then caught in the grip of the Blowfly's tentacles. Their grasp was crushing.

"Recover," said Heartworm.

Lazarus began to scream as she struggled, her movements jagged and uncanny. At first it was subtle, but it rapidly became blinding as a pinkish-hued light emerged from her. Soon, neither Heartworm's visor nor Tauga's mask could protect their eyes.

There was a wave of divine energies from Lazarus, and once they could look again, what they saw was no longer Lazarus.



With a single motion, the Blowfly's tentacles were forced aside. A sound as though a thousand voices were speaking at once, yet unified, emerged from the being's mouth. "Suffer."

Tauga's voice sparked through Heartworm's vehicle. Heartworm-

Leaving.

Tauga's aura twisted together into a gale and slammed the winged entity away, out over the edge of the platform. She leapt, straight up, eight times her height to clutch Heartworm's trailing wrist.

"I won't fuck with your mountain," she promised as the thrusters ignited. "Dundee is safe with me."

The two were launched high into the blank air, and through a thin black slit into the roof of the world.

The winged being responded rapidly, speeding towards the gash in the world. A wordless cry of anger flooded the plane. But it was to no avail.

Heartworm and his protégé disappeared. The portal melted shut behind them.

Lazarus was trapped.




The King of Kings created the demiplanes and Demimons. And thus the King of Kings cried, worship me, ye who would betray me if thou were allowed heresy.

- Testament 1:1:1, King of Kings


In the beginning, there was nothing.

Creation was eternal silence, time did not exist, and no energy flowed.

Then, the King of Kings breathed into Creation, filling it with energy. They created the three Demiplanes of Creation, and then they created life to fill the void. And thus, the Demimons breathed their first. 333,333,333 Demimons filled the void with chatter, confused and terrified. The King of Kings cried out into the darkness, "Worship me, ye who would betray me if thou were allowed heresy."

The many millions of Demimons thus began to worship, kneeling all at once to behold their god. The King of Kings was their creator, and if they could turn traitor, their destruction. But there was something missing. No light flowed, no great revelations were made. Without the spark of something greater, the land was empty.

The three Demiplanes of Creation were naught without beauty, without civilization, without lords. The King of Kings, in their eternal wisdom, realized this before the subjects. And lo, behold the King of Kings, with the power of Creation and Destruction, the eternal balance of powers. Lo, behold! Behold and worship!



The King of Kings stood forth, and thereon granted the power of thirds upon the three. The CRAFTSGOD, AKKAIN, ruler of the demiplane of OMNINUS, he who was given the power of lies and deception, BEAUTYGOD, JAAN, ruler of the demiplane of THRIUS, she who was given the power of the circular nature of VIOLENCE, LORDGOD, ANAMIN, ruler of the demiplane HEVAOS, he who was given the power henceforth to rebel.

- Testament 1:1:3, King of Kings


The Three were uplifted, the Three of Thirds that would be the great lords of the land, the great innovators, the conquerors and the kings. And thus, the first great conquering of the three Demiplanes of Creation began. The pantheon of veritable gods dolled out their power to their subjects, and plied their trade anew.

For so it had always been, and for it will always be. The LORDGOD, ANAMIN created the sun, and the CRAFTSGOD, AKKAIN, the moon. Light flowed freely, and the BEAUTYGOD, JAAN, in all her might, created wonderous epics and writ great knowledge upon the land. A golden age of opportunity, a true utopia of philosopher-kings, enlightened despots, and poet-warriors.

In time, they would come to bind the Demimons, creating for them masks to stave off death. The masks were the source of life, the source of binding, the source of reincarnation. The most powerful among them became the angels of the Thirds of Three, bound to the Law Which Binds, and henceforth they took on new names.

They were no longer Demimons. They were the angels of death, the angels of law, the angels of the regime of the Thirds of Three. The land rejoiced. Richness flowed, and light touched every subject in the Demiplanes of Creation. With the ship of state headed by gods of immense wisdom, and guided by the angels of the Law Which Binds, a Demimon could truly flourish.



The concept of TAM, a mountain the CRAFTSGOD AKKAIN ascended. The Thirds of Three, if ye doubt the hunger, look ye to the LORDGOD, ANAMIN, the greatest Third in Threes. Remember ye the eternal JEALOUSY of power.

- Psalm 3:3:9, Third of Thirds


It was not to last. Within the center of the three Demiplanes of Creation, was the mountain of TAM. Built out of time itself, infinitely-sized, infintely-mazed, the mountain was the bastion of all that was wrong in the three Demiplanes. Forces of selflessness, righteousness, and generousity gathered in those wretched halls.

In all his great wisdom, the CRAFTSGOD, AKKAIN, ascended the great mountain of TAM. He wished to bring enlightenment to the worlds beyond. The great forces of evil raged against his efforts, but they were in vain against the great poet-tyrant. And lo, behold the King of Kings, whose voice thundered through the vast lands of Creation.

"Ye who would disobey me, thou shalt suffer."

Thus, struck down was the great Third. In an instant, there tumbled the body of the liege. CRAFTSGOD, AKKAIN, the lifeless corpse of the hope of the Demiplanes of Creation. And the Demimons did panic. They scrambled over each other for his poiwer. How the mighty had fallen.

The angels of the Law Which Binds watched silently, as jealousy is prized above all. They did not threaten the balance, they did not take the power for themselves. The BEAUTYGOD encouraged the struggle, but lo, did the LORDGOD remain silent. The great age of philosopher-kings began to yield to the darkness of bickering kingdoms.



Thus the LORDGOD spoke, Thou art not worthy, for the insight of the demiplanes of Creation hath not graced upon ye its beauty. Blessed art the ignorance of masses.

- The Testament of AMANIN, 9:3


Whenceforth the LORDGOD spoke again, he spoke of blasphemy. His followers faithfully plied his word, while the angels continued to look upon the chaos, withdrawing to protect the mountain of TAM. The LORDGOD raged against the King of Kings, denying the Law Which Binds, denying the worship of the King of Kings.

"You who shalt not, thou art not my lord!" Cried the LORDGOD, AMANIN.

And lo, the BEAUTYGOD was sturck down. The King of Kings had taken vengeance for the terrible blasphemies of the LORDGOD, and yet, the LORDGOD continued. The LORDGOD remained far from the mountain of TAM. He spoke his words of heresies far from the center of the Demiplanes, and the King of Kings thus hunted him.

The Demimons questioned his rule. They questioned the greatness of the LORDGOD, the weakest, yet now the strongest, of the Three Thirds. Thus, he cried, "Thou art not worthy, for the insight of the demiplanes of Creation hath not graced upon yue its beauty. Blessed art the ignorance of masses."

They rallied against the LORDGOD, breaking from the Law Which Binds. The angels stopped them, for a time. But it was not to last. The millions of Demimons overwhelmed the ranks of the angels, ascending the mountain of TAM to see what CRAFTSGOD AKKAIN had seen.



Upon the Demimon had ascended the mountain of TAM, plucked were they from the land of the living. the Lord of Three, LORDGOD, AMINON, henceforth forbade all from ascending where the CRAFTSGOD had failed, for the King of Kings had slain him and the BEAUTYGOD, and with all their power, hunted the LORDGOD.

- Testament of Deii, 3:15, Death of the Third


Plucked were the Demimons from the mountain of TAM, by the weary LORDGOD. He spoke to them, "Ye may not ascend TAM, for thou will meet only misery there. Thy land is here." but the Demimons disobeyed. They no longer trusted the philosopher-king.

He was being hunted, the King of Kings scouring Creation for traces of him. He was soon struck down.



Lo, behold the death of the Thirds of Three. The ascent of the Demimons upon the mountain of TAM. The rotting of the Thirds, sustains us. We split the Three Thirds into Thirds. The kingdoms of the Demiplanes, the Domain of the Thirds of Three, split between the petty circularity of the Demimons.

- Testament of Deii, 3:33, Death of Third





Heartworm collided with the roof of Lazarus's laboratory and left a scuff, but the damage to its vehicle was minor. Tauga skittered around the room like a ragdoll and crashed into something delicate-looking before coming to a halt in a pile of broken glass. She dusted herself off.

"Hell all was that?"

Heartworm unfolded, ran its scalpel fingertips over the ground. No sign of Lazarus. "Necessary. An intervention."

"Looked like a fuckin' coup."

"Tauga may do with the Citadel as she wishes," said Heartworm. "Leave it to established oligarchy. Take command. Remain clandestine. Her choice."

She shrugged. "I'll think about it later. Told you. I'm not gonna fuck with her mountain."

A dip. Maybe a nod.

"But, seriously. The coup. Did you make that thing just to catch her?"

"Part of a deal Lazarus could not afford," it said. "Upon her return, Lazarus will be stronger. Possibly wiser." Tauga scoffed. It wasn't amusement, just a raw bark of frustration.

"Yeah and she's gonna be blind pissed, am I gonna have to deal with that too?"

"Possibly."

"God damn it, Heartworm." Tauga crossed her arms."Will you even get anything out of this?"

"Possibly."

"Fuuuck." Tauga reeled a bit with her eyes shut, picked up a shiny something and pocketed it. "Let's go. Bad enough to keep Keriss waiting while she's looking for you. Still don't know why you're running her around like this."

Heartworm looked to the space where Lazarus had disappeared. It nodded.

Some might call me merciful.




The body of an Archon was that of a permanently bound Demimon. Approximately three-thousand of them remained in existence. The Burning Fist of Those Who are Fated to Obey the Laws of Philosopher-Kings was one of them. For how much longer, however, was the question.

The oldest of the Archon, the first to be bound to the masks forged by the Thirds of Three, those called the Lords of Three by the more blasphemous, had declared Burning Fist a heretic. She had not been enforcing the laws appropriately, they had accused. She had broken the tenet of LORDGOD, AMANIN, they had cried.

She had ascended the mountain in defiance of the Law which Binds. Their charge was heinous, and had justified an assemblage of the council of the oldest Archons. And now, they stood in judgement of Burning Fist.




Elsewhere, a small box was sealed shut by a lady with very long fur, and very long arms, and very long tails.

It was a black box, a painted black, and its like had not been seen this far north at any prior time. Its contents were unknown to all but the assembler, and would stay that way. That was, in fact, the purpose behind the assembly.

The one who spoke in tildes took out the box from the scorched Jvanic studio, and carried it with her out beyond the waterfalls. Once she had practiced terrible things within that bunker, for which she had been paid with treason-gold. That day was behind her now. She had done what she must and acquired the wealth she needed to move on to better things.

A wanderer greeted the one who spoke in tildes, to whom she had introduced herself as Monk (for she was a monk). He was greeted back with a wave and a small jangle of the rings of brass on the monk's tails. The one who spoke in tildes carried on. She found a place where none would come for days in the future, up on the mountains beside the rapid stream, and set down the box. She took out a chalk and began drawing sigils.

Inside the box was a █████, and ████ among other things. She had placed them there in the dead of night, far from anyone who could see or hear.

This she had learned from a long boy named Zyle, who lived outside the Citadel Dundee with a great wyrm and knew many things. Many would struggle to hear words from so far away, but the one who spoke in tildes was sensitive, and heard many things. She had heard, for example, that the power of the painted box lay in the maker's ability not only to discern its nature for oneself (for arcana loses its power if shared and is useless if received), but to devise a way to use ██████ such that no other being could ever wield a similar technique by pure chance. What mechanisms lay in the box was unique, and it was unknown, and it was strictly and solely hers. She had something no-one else had and no-one could imitate, and therefore she was powerful.

She retrieved her proof of work from the ropes on her back: a young goat, and several fruit, and fine oil. These she burned.

A distant galley rowed its way through the night sky above, not even a mote of dust among the stars.

The one who spoke in tildes was no mystic, nor a psyker of dwarves. But she was a telepath, as she watched the pyre blaze, she placed her hands upon the box's keys, and called into the void.




The vague smoke of incense wound about the dark, claustrophobic room. They were perched in a construction built from the grand corpse of the BEAUTYGOD, JAAN, in their eternal irony. This angered Burning Fist. What had they become, fallen to? To house themselves in the very lords whom they recieved laws from, or at least did.

"You stand accused of blasphemy of the highest order, Archon The Burning Fist of Those Who are Fated to Obey the Laws of Philosopher-Kings. What say you in your defense?" Came the lofty decree of the prime Archon, The Original Binding of the Demonic Forces Which Inhabit the Demiplanes of Our Undying Thirds. The crowd of Prime Archons broke into murmurs.

"You are an old fool, Original Binding. You will see, under your leadership, the death of the Law of Thirds. You will be the death of all we hold dear," Burning Fist spat out. The crowd's murmurs rose into a crescendo of threats and accusations. Some of them began to step forward.

"Enough! This court will remain in order!" Original Binding simply cried, lifting one of his hands to signal restraint. The court gradually died down, as silence once again asserted its dominion. The Prime Archon's mask had no eyeslits, and indeed covered his entire face. There was no way to judge what he was thinking.

"You have admitted your own guilt -- We shall see your mask ripped from you, we shall see you broken. We have many poorly-forged masks, and it will be a --" The Prime Archon was interrupted. Burning Fist headbutted him. He stumbled back, and with a single, well-practiced martial technique, forced Burning Fist to the floor.

"You dare strike a--a.." His voice slowly petered out, as he looked at the composure of Burning Fist. Was her skin.. Beginning to boil? If so, that was a sign of the summoning process. He shot out his hand, but Burning Fist leaped to her feet, backing away with haste.

"You dare..?" Came the half-question, half-utterance from Original Binding.

Then, everything burst into unholy fire.

"YOU DARE!" Original Binding cried, shielding himself from the flames, as the room erupted into chaos. Burning Fist was gone.




The summoning circle flared up, the burning items consumed all at once. The fire obscured the center of the circle, taking on a pinkish hue. The one who spoke in tildes flicked her tail back and drew her long knife, laying it across her knees behind the box. She observed. The fire gradually began to die down, slowly revealing the ]Archon that had been summoned.

They watched one another. The one who spoke in tildes picked up the box and set it to one side. She circled the archon, holding her knife in her tails such that it would not seem a threat.

~welcome

Was the thought she dreamed.

The masked figure simply looked down on the one who spoke in tildes, not responding to the welcome. They seemed rather forboding. Stepping out of the circle, they examined their hand, before surveying the dark landscape.

~you are unresponsive?

The monk whispered, then gestured to the view. ~a city lies beyond, said the voice in the figure's head. ~it lies on a coast. do you know what coasts are

"Yes," came a voice from the mask, "We had coasts. A long time ago." the figure jerked its head to look at the one who spoke in tildes, the eyeholes in their mask blackened. The effect was eerie.

The one who spoke in tildes, fortunately, was more than comfortable putting on an eerie grin of her own. ~you may have a name, she signalled. ~or an identity. maybe a past even

She waved her hand, shrugged. ~it would be very interesting to record it

"A past, yes. I am The Burning Fist of Those Who are Fated to Obey the Laws of Philosopher-Kings." Burning Fist responded, equally unperturbed. "You have summoned me."

~well, apparently was the reply. ~i had very little idea where that passage leads to. you understand, she said, ~i'm sure.

"And what would you have me do?" Burning Fist asked, continuing to stare down the Sculptor.

~...do? A moment's feigned ignorance, then laughter. It was vocal laughter, coming from her throat, and it sounded strange and low. ~i'm just a scientist, friend. what you do is up to you She flipped the knife on its blade, tossed it, caught, flipped again. The metal glinted. ~i'll take notes

Burning Fist crossed her arms, watching tildes juggle. "And what is the catch?" she asked.

~if you touch me in any way untoward, i will murder you with my bare hands

"And you presume you can stop an Archon of the Thirds?" came the response, Burning Fist still unmoving. "I have practiced for eternities. I have banished many more dangerous than you could ever be."

The monk clasped her hands. ~then you have many stories also. it would be my honour to record them. and then you may go your way

"So that's the catch. What do you wish to know?" Burning Fist said, her arms still crossed.

~start from the beginning. from where i drew you out

"Well, at first, there was darkness. Then, we came into existence. We were unbound then, nothing more than mere beasts thrashing in the darkness. But, even as beasts, there was one law we still followed, the law of the King of Kings. When the King of Kings said, 'worship me, ye who would betray me if thou were allowed heresy', even as beasts we obeyed." Burning Fist recounted.

The one who spoke in tildes blinked. The information was inscribed on her abundant grey matter for eternity. ~and who was the King of Kings?

"Our highest lord." she responded simply.

~its name?

"The closest guarded secret of the Demiplanes." Came the answer.

~demiplanes, thought the one who spoke in tildes, and looked once more to the ██████ box.




Wooden platform. Dead of night. No one lived here and the armory was elsewhere, and so very few guarded the drill floor. Burning Fist evaded them easily. The Monk was waiting on a wall. No lanterns, no torches: moonlight would be their guide. Periditus was full. The war moon.

Burning Fist moved almost ethereally, a ghost in the winding tunnels. Sentries and guards were avoided with ease, and soon enough she too was standing on the wooden platform. She looked up at the moon, almost awed by the light it produced. The moon of the Demiplanes was in a state of constant wane without the Thirds, and produced little light.

They faced each other across dirt and salt sweat, Monk reclining, then smirking her way up to her haunches. ~they invite me here from time to time, she thought, ~to repair their marionettes. i've established a baseline for hand-to-hand combat. tonight i intend to test you against that baseline

She picked up a wrought-iron ball, a throwing-hammer, and threw it forwards at Burning Fist. Burning Fist dodged the ball, grabbing the throwing-hammer midair by the handle. The Marionettes arranged at the side of the square limbered up at her signal and, taking up staves, arranged themselves in a broad circle. ~sixty seconds. are you ready

"May the Thirds guide my hands," Burning Fist whispered, before saying, "ready."

Three Marionettes came at her with their staves held long: one struck high, the others low. Burning Fist reacted quickly, smacking away the high stave with an open palm, before jumping up, slamming her feet down on the two low staves. She then closed the distance before they could react further, giving a wide sideways motion with the throwing hammer to take out all three Marionettes.

The rusting ball struck one wooden skull, clacked off another, and the third had time enough to step back from the motion. A long staff swept sidewards from the edge of her reach with the hammer, the third Marionette lunging back in as it passed it to jab at Burning Fist's chest as the fourth performed her sweep and the fifth squared up behind.

She threw the hammer at the boxer, before ducking low and grabbing the staff of the sweeper before it could sweep her off her feet. She then wrenched the staff from its hand, rapidly grabbing the staff like a spear and jabbing at the one squaring up.

The bend had cost her time. Her blow was met by wood and twisted down, the disarmed sweeper lacing its fists together and bringing them down at Burning Fists's head. The sixth fighter mimicked her move, lunging at the Archon's back.

She began a backflip, letting go of the staff and kicking the top so that it slammed into the fifth one's face. She then grabbed hold of, mid backflip, the one trying to slam her in the head, kicking off of its own head to continue her acrobatics. Flying into the one lunging at her, she extended her legs to give it a good kick as well.

Her boots made a heavy sound. She landed.

The first and second Marionettes had snapped strings, and had so yielded. The third and fourth had not. Standing as they staggered, they fell back, changing tactics at Monk's cue. Re-arming themselves, they adopted a guard stance alongside the seventh.

Maintaining leverage on the poles, they gave brief lunges towards Burning Fist, a short succession of strikes from all three angles.

Burning Fist moved into action again, this time simply ducking at the last moment, allowing two of the marionettes to slam their staffs into each other. The third simply hit air, upon which she grabbed the staff and held it away from her as she travelled rapidly up towards the marionette. Its fist flew at her mask as she approached.

She parried the fist with her free hand, before liberally headbutting the Marionette. A sound like steel on wood rang out as she received prompt blows from the foes she had turned her back on.

She used her closeness to the marionette she headbutted to grab its staff, and she rapidly spun around, sweeping at leg level, dragging its torso down with it. She was trying to force the Marionettes to either give up the counterattack and defend or be swept off their feet. Her tactic was familiar to them: the closer one wedged its staff into the dirt as she moved, forcing the momentum upwards and using the catch to throw her grip high. The other gave a sharp blow to the chest.

She leaned back as her grip was thrown high, falling into a backwards roll using the momentum of the grip catch. As she moved into the roll, she also threw the staff forwards, hoping to hit one of the marionettes with the marionette that still gripped her staff. It let go, and, skidding, both were thrown momentarily off guard.

~time, thought the one who spoke in tildes. The Marionettes stood down.

Monk’s hand scritched letters on a board with a quill. ~strength, at least forty graves lifting power one handed. mobility, jaguar class. resilience… you’re not wounded, are you? She looked up and smiled. ~you score an eight

If the Archon was winded, she did not show it. She simply straightened up, looking at the one who spoke in tildes. “I will assume that’s good. What next?”
~you go your own way, and maybe i follow, said the one who spoke in tildes. ~or maybe i stay here. The marionettes moved to reassemble one another at her gesture. ~you will survive easily in this world, Burning Fist. i wish you well

She shrugged, chuckled slightly, her mood visibly light. ~maybe you’ll settle down in a strange city, far from home, and do strange things there. there was another jaguar class who did that, once, thought the one who spoke in tildes. She disappeared into the Marionette warehouse. ~but then, what do i know? good night.


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Wing beats roused Cinead from nodding off on Inga's back. Inga kept them aloft well above the Ironheart slopes below. They had a commanding view of the land. Cinead might have been more interested had they not been flying non-stop for a few days now. He did not know where Inga got the energy from.

He reaffirmed his grip around Mira's feathered torso, holding her close. It would be a short journey for her. She was still fast asleep in his arms.

Inga turned an eye back to Cinead and chirped happily. She nodded ahead and to the right.

In the distance, Cinead saw, was a sheer wall of mountains wholly unlike the Ironhearts to their left. These looked lifted out of the ground by the fingers of gods rather than pushed up from below. A constant cover of clouds obscured their peaks, hiding all behind them.

"That has to be it," Cinead said. "The Valley of Peace. Bring us towards it, sister!"

Inga let her wings bank them softly towards the wall. She had to beat her wings several times more to lift above the mountain walls of the valley. Excitement grew in both their hearts.

Cinead peered around to Mira's peaceful, if still, alien face. He resisted the urge to wake her now. They should not take the risk so close to their destination.

Even on gryphonback, they were a long while out. The great scale of the land around them was always obscured by altitude. Cinead had to squint to notice signs of hain villages near the waterways before the valley walls.

They closed in without heed to who might be watching their approach.

A trio of Angels, consisting of one yellow, blue, and pink-haired Angel each, were hovering nearby one of the many Nice Mountains, making their patrol around their area of the outside perimeter.

"*Yawn*... I wish I could go back home already," the yellow-haired Angel said with is hands behind his head, bored out of his wits.

"You know we can’t do that," his blue-haired companion reproached him. "It is our duty to keep watch for potential threats to the Valley of Peace."

"Oh yes, keep watch over the endless plains of inactivity," the yellow-haired Angel retorted. "Let’s be honest here. Nothing has happened for ages, other than perhaps the occasional White Giant and the Hain that come from time to time."

The pink-haired Angel rolled her eyes in silence. Every day was the same argument between them. She kept watch on her own as the two bickered. She had to admit very little had happened since the days of Grot’s invasion. Perhaps the day would be like any other and they would return home soon.

Though, that was not to be the case. She spotted some figures coming in, and fast. "Cease your bickering, you two. We have company," she alerted the two, who turned to look over to where she pointed.

"I never thought this day would come!" the yellow-haired Angel excitedly said. He was even more impressed as he saw their method of travel. "What is that winged beast?" he asked, eyeing their mount.

"Send the alert through the Wisps," the blue-haired Angel said as he took his position in front of the other two, raising his right hand to prepare to create a barrier. As the gryphon neared, he shouted, "Halt! Who goes there!?"

The figures caught the notice of the angels. Their reactions were hard to read from such a distance. Their shout did not stop them at first -- Inga kept flying for another two seconds before she suddenly pulled and flapped her wings up to slow down.

Cinead shouted back in a language they did not understand. "Who are you!? Is this the Valley of Peace? Are you angels?"

It was reasonable, at first, to assume the short cat-faced figure astride the winged beast did not speak their language. However, a trilling sound from the beast itself changed his expression to understanding.

"I am Cinead!" The child-sized cat-like humanoid shouted in his foreign language. The odd small feathered person in his arms did not respond. She was unconscious. "This is my sister Inga and my charge, Mira!"

The winged beast settled into circular flight around the sentries. Inga could not hover as comfortably as the angels could.

"What did they just say?" the yellow-haired Angel asked in confusion. A Wisp floated up to them and pulsated flashing light towards the Angels, translating the language and transmitting the information to them. Once it was finished, the yellow-haired Angel held his head back. "Oooohhhhhh…"

"We are indeed Angels and this is the Valley of Peace! Now, what is your business here!?" the blue-haired Angel continued to question them.

Inga preempted Cinead with another set of otherwise beastly sounds that made no sense to any but him.

"How do you know what they're saying?" Cinead asked his sister relatively quietly.

Inga growled.

"Okay, okay..." He turned his eyes to the angels once more. "We're here to speak to Niciel. Mira is...she is dying. She needs help from the Goddess of Purity." He motioned with his eyes to the small, feather-covered, sleeping woman he held.

The pink-haired Angel moved forward, hands raised and glowing with Purity energy. "Maybe I can help. I’m an experienced healer," she offered.

"Just let them into the Valley of Peace," the yellow-hair Angel said. "The way this creature of theirs is flying around, we can’t do anything to help them anyway."

The blue-haired Angel gave it a thought. He saw no better course of action. "Very well. Follow us," he said, guiding the way to the designated landing zone. A clearing in the trees wide enough to accomodate a flying creature many times the size of any Angel they could see.

However, as they approached the zone there was a surprise waiting for them. The Angels immediately dropped down and knelt respectfully. "Mother Niciel," they said in unison.

"Thank you for your hard work, my children," Niciel said to them. "Allow me to do the rest."

"Yes, Mother Niciel," they said, and flew off to resume their patrol.

Inga caught up. With broad wing beats, she made the verdant grass bend in waves beneath her. She reared in the air to a stop above the ground. Her feet crunched into the soil.

Cinead and Inga both beheld the serene winged human-sized woman standing before them with their mouths ajar.

Perhaps they had expected a goddess to be more majestic and large. And yet, nothing about her could deny her power, glowing, warming them like the sun. She was something beyond their very thoughts. And she said barely a word to them to confirm it, they knew it so deep in their hearts.

They were dumbstruck for a long moment.

Cinead finally swallowed and peeled his eyes off Niciel. He slid down from Inga's back before carefully pulling the unconscious Mira into his arms. He held her horizontally under the knees and behind her shoulders. The lower half of Mira's wispy white cloak floated like fog underneath her.

The strange red, white, and black feathers obscured nothing from Niciel. It was a Tounic creature Cinead held as he stepped towards her.

"You must be the Goddess of Purity," Cinead said reluctantly. "...We've...come a long way."

Niciel smiled at Cinead. "I can see that. Now, let’s see if I can help."

Looking at Mira, Niciel placed a hand just above her, using Purity energy to restore any physical damage to her body. The energy sank in to no other visual effect. Niciel knew this was merely treating the symptoms and not solving the actual problem. She could not detect a curse, but she could sense a certain emotional turmoil. It was not a problem she was familiar with solving. She wasn’t sure how much she could really do. Still, she had to try something.

Raising her hand, Niciel gathered tendrils of the pink mists of the valley, condensed them into a ball, and then gently sprinkled the mist onto Mira’s head for several seconds. When the deed was done, Niciel said, "I’m afraid all I can do at the moment is to suppress her emotions and dull the pain she feels. This is an illness I cannot fix easily. Whether she will make a complete recovery depends on her…"

Mira's chest rose as a breath entered her lips. At the audible height of the breath, her eyelids lifted open, revealing those black-for-whites pale eyes. She stared at empty space, stunned.

"The pain," Mira said, reaching a hand to her chest. "It has been stanched." She looked blankly into Cinead's eyes, then turned to the goddess. "Niciel?"

Only through Mira's glassy eyes did Niciel notice Mira's construction. In her eyes were not capillaries of blood and lines of nerves. There instead were symbols. Miniscule written characters in a red calligraphy, flashing and relaying. Her feathers, upon inspection, were the same; laced with enough surface area to hold uncountable rows of symbols. Each symbol, each calligraphic character, had a simple meaning. Each meaning interacted with its neighbours. The end result was a simulacrum of life built from information made manifest and material.

But there was a pattern within. An incongruent pattern. It was the shoulders that made Niciel realise what it was. It lanced through Niciel's mind like a pleasant memory recalled with one horrible extra detail; it had no wings, yet its upper body was made for them. Mira's body was partly that of an angel. She was abominated beyond ever calling her an angel, but she was made from angel components all the same, sculpted by Toun's hand.

She looked deeper. Niciel refocused to confirm just how much of an angel Mira was. It then all lit up in her eyes.

Every single symbol was written in bright red angel blood.

A far darker memory entered Niciel's mind. The tangled corpses of her corrupted and repurified dead angels, handed to her by Toun on that awful day long ago. Each angel had been exsanguinated -- drained of blood. And now here, unmistakably, was where the blood had gone.

There was only one part of Mira's body not derived from an angel or some twisted prosthetic: A porcelain heart. Still and cold within her. It was divine flesh, a fragment of Toun marking this creature as an extension of him. It reeked of his power, disgust, and self-loathing, at least on its surface.

Mira motioned and Cinead lowered her clawed feet to the grass below. She stood, clutched her cape closer about herself, and lowered her eyes. "You know what I am."

Niciel was solemn. Her feelings mixed. Here was a product of Toun’s desecration of that day’s unfortunate Angels. She thought she had left her feelings for that day behind, but it seemed life had other plans. So this is what he did with them… She thought to herself.

"Yes I do," Niciel answered gravely. Composing herself, Niciel added, "But it is alright. I do not judge others for what they are. What is more important at the moment is the reason you are here. To be so ill to seek my treatment… your circumstances must be dire."

Cinead turned his eyes to Mira. He bowed his head nervously.

"There is no other place to go," Mira said in a monotone to the soft grass at her feet. "Please, Niciel. I need help. I need to unlock a memory."

"A memory?" Niciel asked, not understanding. "But why me? If you know anything about me, you’d know that the mind is not my specialty. My healing powers are not capable of healing the mind, nor do I have the knowledge to do so."

Though keeping her head down, Mira answered at the same level. "The pain you suppressed, it was produced by memories implanted within my mind. There are a number of memories that used to be hidden, and more that remain locked away. Each brings emotions, experiences. They make me play out actions. The most painful memory yet left a clue to the next memory; 'Perfection from Imperfection. It all goes to purity.' The memories are unlocked by a related experience."

Cinead continued where Mira hesitated. "We thought that coming to you would unlock the next memory and...maybe resolve the pain. It's really the only thing we could think to do. If nothing else, we thought you could provide insight. There are things about the memories that do not make sense." He gestured to Mira. "She was made by Toun. We do not know why the memories were put there."

Niciel thought hard about what she should do. Perfection from imperfection... she wondered. What was Toun thinking? Niciel continued to question them. "What other memories have you unlocked? Perhaps they may hold a clue to this next one."

While Mira lifted her head, she looked past Niciel with her strange eyes, frowning neutrally. "It began with a yearning. The clue was 'enjoyment from contentedness.' When I met Cinead, in a disguise for my mission with him, the desire overtook me to...connect. I lied less to him, showing myself without a disguise at times. We grew close. He grew to me and my disguise. The memory was unlocked without my realisation." She furrowed her brow. "I felt happiness. And a small amount of pain. Normally, my disguises feel their own emotions, yet the happiness was not shed when I did away with the disguise. The memory stayed of happy closeness. Ephemeral, happy closeness. But it came with the knowledge it would not last. The pain ate away at my capabilities. It weakens me."

Mira turned her head to look at Cinead. He looked back, though Mira's eyes searched for something in his. The confused pause ended with Mira turning forward again.

"The next clue was 'life from harmony.'" Mira's voice lifted. "Over many years, I have acted out dances. With disguises or on my own, with no connection to my missions. I did not question it until Cinead asked me to dance. We danced. The memory was unlocked when he ended the dance with a kiss. The pain overtook me. The happiness did not balance it. The feelings have drained my ability to disguise. However, the memory itself is more." Her eyes saddened as if seeing her description in front of her. "The dance is in a sea of colour and music, painting the skies and uniting all in a gentle sway. Some global thing. It felt like all the world was dancing. And my partner is this pure creature. Something that had to be let go. Or else, to have it was to let go of something else. Something essential."

Mira put a hand to her chest. Niciel could feel a strain on her magical mists as they held back a welling of something both material and emotional at once. It was a red ichor dripping from Mira's porcelain heart. Niciel felt the drop as if it were a hammer on her foot. If not for her efforts, such a torrent of the stuff would fall forth as to destroy Mira from the inside out.

Cinead picked up on Mira's pain. He placed a hand on Mira's shoulder. His own pained expression yearned to do something more to help but it was beyond his knowledge.

"Your mists are stopping the happiness as well," Mira commented. "While they are all suppressed, we must unlock the next memory. The clue is 'perfection from imperfection.' There must be an experience to unlock it."

Niciel was silent for a while, processing everything she had just learned. "Enjoyment from contentedness," "Life from harmony," and now "Perfection from imperfection." If Toun was responsible for these memories Mira had, then he must have gone through quite the journey of enlightenment to have placed such clues within Mira’s mind. This did not feel like the work of the "absolute perfection" Niciel once knew Toun to pursue. Perhaps he has learned to accept the imperfections of the world, and maybe even love them.

Love…An interesting thought. Maybe-

Niciel’s train of thought stopped suddenly.

She turned her attention to Cinead and Mira. The two of them were an odd pair, yet they had gone through quite a lot. To go so far as to even kiss...Their relationship was an odd one to judge, but if she had to make a guess based on all the information she had, then they were undoubtedly more than friends. Though, perhaps not at the level of being lovers juuust yet. Perfect from imperfection, indeed, Toun, Niciel thought to herself.

Smiling knowingly, Niciel said to the two, "You two have such a close bond with each other. It’s so sweet." At the same time, she slightly decreased the influence of the mist on Mira, being careful not to remove more than what was necessary.

The effect was immediate. Mira could not stop herself smiling as a wistful reflex to the comment. "Cinead has been kind and helpful. Even with his situation." Mira sighed abruptly. Tension came to her lips. "But our previous affection was built on a disguise. I am not a suitable for...a close bond with him. Not in this form."

Another two drops of ichor fell inside Mira. They were heavier than the last.

The pressure was getting tougher to handle, but Niciel pressed on. She could tell she was getting closer to the solution. "Nonsense. It doesn’t matter what your ‘form’ is at all, and the past is the past. All that matters is what you two feel for each other now," she said to Mira. Turning to Cinead, she asked, "Cinead, dear, what are your thoughts on Mira? It’s obvious you do not dislike her, now do you?"

Cinead quickly shook her head up at the tall goddess. "Uh, no! No I don't." His surprise at the sudden attention did not last too long. "Mira is only right in that I grew close to her when she looked like a warrior dwarf." He looked at Mira. She gave him a sideways look back and even that made him smile. "But she said it herself. She was putting herself sincerely forward in spite of her appearance. She has not changed to me." His eyes dropped down and up and he smirked. "Mira, you might look strange but I do not care about that. You're still the same woman to me."

Mira's sideways stare did not abate from Cinead. Her resting frown did not change either.

"I do not believe you understand, Cinead," Mira said.

Cinead's smile faded. He stepped forward and turned himself to face her. She did not turn to face him. Cinead's ear tilted to the side. "What's wrong? I thought..."

"Cinead," Mira spoke low. "Mortal minds have mechanisms to fall in love. I am a construct. I was never built with one."

Hurt and confusion struck Cinead's face in slow motion. He held his breath as if he wanted to say something he did not know.

Another drop of ichor fell.

The pressure was accumulating quickly. Niciel worried she may not be able to keep it sealed at the level of power she was currently using. She had to reach the conclusion soon. "Maybe not," Niciel interjected, drawing both their attentions. "But you know…I don’t think someone without the capability to love would possess the Purity of love within them. I can see it within you, Mira. You must have sensed it during your journey as well, especially during the times Cinead was with you. You two even kissed! All you have to do is recognize it and accept it."

While Cinead's confusion remained, Mira had to look away and think. Idly, she brought her fingers to the chain on her opposite wrist. The links chimed together as bits of clay do. She was clearly confronted.

"Is there really nothing, Mira?" Cinead asked. "I saw something back when we kissed. We had something. You felt something, too, didn't you? Something that didn't go away when you shed your disguise."

Mira's brow knitted. Niciel knew her pain through the several further drops of it coming off her clay heart. She still facing away from Cinead but her wavering voice told of the emotions she felt. "That was the memories. If I accept that as love, the pain will..." Her throat constricted.

Enough ichor leaked through Niciel's mists that Mira could hardly speak any further. Her attempt to finish her sentence failed, replaced by her pulling at one of her wrist chains until she shivered.

Niciel was unsure of where to take this now. She had used everything she could think of to get to this point, and Niciel knew she was closer still than before. Her mind raced to find another path to take. Nothing was coming to her. Then, her eyes landed on Cinead. It was obvious. She may have reached the end of her path, but he might still have a way. She just hoped it would be enough. It would have to be.

"Cinead," Niciel said to him, smiling. "Show Mira how to love. She can’t do it without you."

Cinead's second thoughts took only a second to wrestle. He reached for Mira's hand and hesitated. He first looked to Niciel. "You're keeping the pain at bay. Do you promise she will live?"

"I will do everything in my power to keep her from dying," Niciel promised.

The goddess did not even finish her pledge before Inga pushed Cinead forward, forcing him and Mira into a small stumble. Mira and Cinead settled their balance with their hands on each other's arms. Inga grumbled impatiently and stepped back.

They could no longer avoid each other now. Cinead caught Mira's alien eyes. In that frozen moment, he did not have time to think of what to say. He took a small breath to start. The first words that came to his mind came out of his mouth.

"Mira...I didn't get to tell you properly...you know...before you collapsed from the last memory. Back at the rovaick settlement." He paused. She kept staring, he had to keep talking. "I didn't want to leave without letting you know something. I met you, got to know you, you opened up parts of the world I knew nothing of."

Mira's lips thinned and another drop fell within her.

"You continued to be a mystery I wanted to find out more about," Cinead continued. "Perhaps that was idiotic. Like...some child's dream to meet myths in the flesh. But after a while, I was around you because of what I already knew. I liked being around you. I wanted to make you laugh. I wanted to learn things from you. I wanted to take you places." He blinked. "I wanted to take you with me, and I knew I couldn't, and...I felt a lot of pain as well."

Cinead false-started, growing abashed. He didn't know where he was going. "What I mean to say is, maybe the pain comes with all this. Maybe we're both just anticipating separating. Look, I know I'm not weeping and spewing red liquid, but it feels like a set of claws are ripping my heart in two. I have a feeling that it doesn't have to be that way for either of us."

"...What other way would it be? How?"

"Maybe…" Cinead turned his head away for a moment. "We don't have to go our separate ways. If we knew we are always going to be there, nearby...If we knew both of us wanted to stay and we could make it happen. Well…" He looked at her again, anxious. "Then maybe we wouldn't be afraid to say we love each other."

Mira's face scrunched up like tears were about to pour. Niciel felt such a pressure of unpoured ichor from her heart that all the water in Galbar could have required a lesser dam than her mists.

"I love you, Mira," Cinead declared. "I have for some time. Would you like to stay together with me?"

The pain built and built. It almost broke Niciel's barrier.

But, in a long blink of Mira's eyes, Niciel felt all the painful ichor ignite and roar into a blue fire. The sudden change around the porcelain heart was jarring. It positively thrummed with a purity shockingly akin to the goddess' own divine trail. The ichor was consumed in the blue heat and all the cold stone glowed around it.

Mira mumbled something unintelligible.

"Say it louder," Cinead said.

"I would!"

Seeing two humanoid creatures of vastly different construction throw themselves into a tearful embrace would be, to an outsider, an odd scene. To Niciel, who saw the purity of love in any capable creature, it was not only an accomplished objective, but a sight reflecting her own ideals. Purity even in the strangest or darkest of places.

"The pain is burning away," Mira whispered over Cinead's shoulder. She smiled broadly as a pair of tears dripped from her cheeks. "Stay with me. Be there. I will be with you."

Cinead grinned through his tears as well. "Always."

The held each other so tightly as to wish they would fuse forever. Tounic characters shut down to conserve energy in Mira's swelled carefully back to the forefront. The ichor no longer held her back.

Not only that, but the long overdue acceptance of feelings had behind it a new presence.

Mira noticed it, too. The moment between them was stuck with a needle that made Mira pull back in shock. "That unlocked the last memory," she said. "It is complete now."

"Huh? What do you mean?" Cinead held Mira in a daze. He almost forgot about the reason they were there in the first place. "What does it contain?"

"...Oh..." Mira looked as much startled as crestfallen. She turned her feathered face to Niciel. "It all goes to purity. He meant it literally. The memories are of you, Niciel."

Niciel lifted a hand to her chin in shock. She grew confused. "Me?" Niciel said. "What do they have to do with me? I thought these were your memories, which can’t be true considering this is our first time meeting."

Mira shot Cinead a glance and turned back to Niciel. "They were unclear before they were all unlocked. These memories...I was not the one who recorded them. They were implanted." She gave a perturbed look. "They are not mine. They show powers of a god but they still feel like a part of me. Or...No, I am part of a god. They are Toun's memories."

"I...I see," Niciel said. She tried to process it all. "So then...what exactly is in this memory?" As soon as she asked this, Niciel felt a bit guilty as she realized that perhaps this might have been an invasion of Toun’s privacy. However, her curiosity won over her guilt and the feeling soon subsided.

Cinead felt Mira unconsciously hold him tighter. She stared at the chest of Cinead's tunic and closed her eyes. Niciel felt the residue of her mists detect a certain shift in Mira's porcelain heart once more; the ichor tried to ooze forth, only to be burnt away by the blue fire still flaming with her passions.

"He never did accept his love," Mira began. "It was a Jvanic phenomenon, or at least allowed by it. Part of his little corruption. That piece from before the beginning. I cannot say how long it lasted. He did not count. He simply let the pain build. He resented and hated it away. It was the only way he could ignore it." She pursed her lips to keep back the sadness. "His mission is important to him. So very important. He wants to make a place where the family may be safe. Where they may live in peace. He saw his love as a risk and a weakness. For too long he simply ignored it. And, one day, then he rejected it. All the pain flowed over. Rather than face the pain, he cut it away. He cut away all the memories like a tumor. He moulded them into a construct, and hid it away in the body of a memento of his love. An angel of Niciel."

Mira lifted her frowning face to Niciel. They were lined with tears. "Father barely spoke to me directly. He almost always spoke through Majus. Even when I did hear his voice, he was curt and terse. Now I know why. He knew I held what he rejected. I am a scapegoat for his personally perceived failings. I was never meant to unlock the memories because they were the source of his pain." She raised her voice. "His pain in longing for you, Niciel! He hated you...and he loved you. More than any other sibling."

Mira ended the recollection catching her breath. The destructive, consuming red ichor finally had an origin. Niciel underestimated her ability to suppress it; it could have engulfed the entire valley with destructive emotion had it flowed free. But such a thought was only fleeting. Niciel was still stunned from the memories themselves.

Toun had...such feelings for me? Niciel thought to herself. She paced back and forth, blushing slightly while placing her fingers on her cheeks. She muttered in disbelief, both at herself and at this new revelation. "Wha...what do I do? What do I say to him? How long...oh my..." Never in her time as a goddess had she considered that kind of love could be directed at her, nevermind coming from one of her siblings. Niciel had no idea how to go about it anymore.

Cinead, Mira, and Inga looked on with no small level of concern. Mira in particular lowered her eyes in guilt.

"No no no, let’s- let’s just...calm down, calm down. Yes." Niciel continued to mutter as she attempted to compose herself. Niciel was silent for a time as she closed her eyes, then came back composed, saying, "Ok, I’m ok." She turned her attention back to the group. Eager to change the subject, Niciel suggested, "Well! You all must be tired after such a long journey. Please, stay for as long as you like."

"Great goddess," Cinead said cautiously with his head tilted forward and his eyes up. "You have been so helpful to us." He looked again at Mira in his arms and back to Niciel. "For saving Mira's life, for helping us solve this mystery, I could not thank you enough if I spent my entire life thanking you. But...are you okay? What does this mean for you?"

"We are done talking about this," Niciel said sternly, determined to keep the topic shut down. They all stiffened at her tone. Returning to her usual demeanor, Niciel continued, "I will inform the Angels to take you to a place you can rest. Take care now." Niciel bowed her head to them, then teleported away with a flash of light.

They blinked their dazzled eyes. A soft breeze made the grass bend and wave. Inga, Cinead, and Mira all came back to their senses. Mira and Cinead made eye contact again and simply stared. Inga kept her eyes on the misty sky above.

"So…" Cinead said, almost as a question.

Mira hummed, almost as a question.

"How do you feel?"

"Better," Mira said. "No...I feel better than I can ever remember. I do not feel sick anymore."

Cinead smiled. He turned his head to his sister. "I am sorry for making you watch, Inga."

Inga opened her mouth wide and mockingly retched. Cinead and Mira both laughed. The laugh drew Cinead's eyes to Mira again. This was not how he expected the day to pass but he would not have it any other way.



A short while later, they all reclined on the grass, enjoying the weather and waiting for their guides.

Inga spotted two sets of wings in the sky. A pair of Angels, one pink and one blue-haired. They flew over to the three of them and descended to the ground. The two Angels bowed at the group and introduced themselves.

"Welcome to the Valley of Peace. I am Juli, and this is Sylv," the blue-haired Angel gestured to himself, then to his partner.

"Allow us to guide you to the guest house," the pink-haired Angel continued.

Now sitting up, Cinead and Mira traded a glance. Mira responded in their language. "Thank you. Lead the way, please."

The walk to the guest house was short enough. The strange trees and lovely soft grasses made for a peaceful walk. Inga, Cinead, and Mira each spotted other angels floating about with various tasks. Cinead even thought he saw a hain scuttling along between the trees, though Inga did not believe him.

The guest house itself was not as fantastical as the angels or the goddess Niciel, though its design was clearly not meant to be. It stood with bright stone walls and a sturdy pitched wooden roof, laid out such that it did not disturb the serenity of the valley around it. Waxy-leafed vines crept up its sides and flickered in the breeze like a sparkling green waterfall.

Mira and Cinead walked in, hand-in-hand, and both drew their eyes upwards. It was more spacious than it appeared from the outside, not only because of the tall ceilings, but the well-placed large windows that lit the central area up with as much sun as could be provided by the afternoon. Some seating and painted patterns on the wall gave the room some life, though it remained a sparse corridor. On one long wall to their right were eight wide wooden doors. Four were accessible from the floor, another four were connected to a mezzanine a story above. A flight of stairs at the end of the corridor granted access from the ground floor.

Beyond the doors were the guest rooms. Each had a pair of beds, simple seats, a desk, all essential pottery, and another large window facing the East.

The blue haired angel, Juli explained where to find the amenities the Angels provided and asked how many rooms they would require. When they inspected the beds, lavish and soft though they were, Inga made it clear that she would need two pushed together for herself and opted for her own room. First, she mentioned, she wanted to explore the valley for herself. She left under supervision and took off flying swiftly after stepping outside.

Cinead and Mira stepped into another room and Cinead closed the door behind them.

Mira stopped walking, her wispy cape settled and she eyed Cinead over her shoulder. "You fulfilled your promise," she said softly. "Where are you planning to go next?"

"I hadn't really thought about it," Cinead said. He looked out of the large window on the opposite wall and let out a breath through his nose. "The only place I can still think to go is Dundee. But...I don't know how they'll treat you there."

Mira turned around and clasped her hands together. "It is as good a place to go as any. I do not think Toun will be giving me any new missions any time soon."

"Will we be seeing Majus again?"

"Not unless we gain his attention. I know how to hide from it. And I know how to hide from father."

Cinead stretched his arms. "What about Niciel? What do you think will happen?"

"I do not know," Mira said, lowering her eyes. "I expect her and Toun may cross paths again. It is none of our concern what the gods do between themselves."

"Very well." Cinead stepped forward and took Mira's red-speckled hands. "There's just one more thing that has been bugging me," he said, smiling softly and lowering his brow. "If Toun rejected his love in the end, and you hold his memories of it, and you used the memories to feel love that you were not capable of before, how...how did you accept it?"

Mira smiled, relaxed. "The reason Toun resolved to cut the memories away was because he could neither fully accept nor reject his feelings. The pain remained while he had both. I...found the small part that accepted it. I took it to its fullest potential. It feels much better when it is accepted."

"You're telling me," Cinead ran a hand over the long white feathers on Mira's head.

"It also means..." Mira blurred and warped in Cinead's eyes. He blinked hard and opened his eyes to see the beautiful warrior dwarf that Mira looked like when they first met. "...I am no longer drained of my powers. I can take any form again. I can fight again."

Cinead shook his head. "I prefer Mira. Come now."

Mira almost laughed. She laid her forehead on Cinead's shoulder, embarrassed, and returned to her strange, alien, feathered form.

Cinead gently lifted Mira's chin to look at her in the eyes again. "That's better."

Her smile widened. She kissed him.



The land was dark, painted an almost dead, dull color. A moon hung in one side of the sky, and the sun another. The sun was unnaturally dim, and the moon wavered in the sky like it was unwell. Neither moved from their position in the slightest. The air was thick, almost hard to breath.

Cinead forced his lungs full. Strained as it was, his shortness of breath cast fear over his mind. He realised he did not know where he was. He searched for something -- anything -- that he recognised.

"Mira!?" No echo. "Inga!?!"

There was nothing -- nothing but a flat plain. He could see for what must have been hundreds of miles over the horizon, but even then he saw nothing. So much nothing that he could hear the silence flurry in his ears.

Then he heard something step into existence. His neck prickled. He spun to see it.

It was a formless mass at first. Almost Jvanic in its complexity. Undulating. It slowly took shape. Cinead's temples throbbed in horror. The being had multiple sets of wings, pink in coloration. Some sort of halo, a cruel crown, sat atop its head, twisted into nothing but a facsimile of the holy symbol it could have been.

Cinead urged his limbs to move. He urged his throat to scream. They did not obey.

It spoke. The mind bubbled with its words, and they reverberated through Cinead’s core, yet he did not understand what it was saying.

Cinead pulled against the weights on his arms. They did not obey. He could not fight. He could not run. He exhaled and resigned himself.

"What are you?!" Cinead barely said.

The figure silenced. Its wings opened up at the edges, revealing themselves to be nothing more than space for eyes. Indeed, each one was tipped with a single, massive eye. An unnatural appearance. Its voice boomed once more.

"I was your creator, and now I will be your salvation."

It made less sense than the formless words preceding it. Cinead's thoughts only snapped to an answer through intuition. His mouth opened and his ears lifted.

"...Empress?"

"She was weak, foolish. I am trapped, spawn of Lazarus, and it is all. Her. Fault."

Cinead narrowed his eyes against the force of the last three words.

"You are not Lazarus, but you are my creator?" Logic did not serve Cinead in this place. "I don't understand."

"And for that lack of understanding, you shall die," the massive being boomed out. It moved frighteningly fast. Before Cinead could even gasp, a fist was brought down. He was crushed.

Cinead felt something on his shoulder. He threw up his arms and thrashed, finally shouting in terror.

"Cinead! Cinead, calm yourself..."

The familiar voice brought his mind back to his body. He caught his breath. His heart pounded like the boots of a running army.

"Mira?"

"I am here Cinead. You are safe. It was just a dream."

She lay propped up beside him with a hand on his shoulder. He slowed his breathing to calm. He felt sticky as he moved, drenched in cold sweat.

"I have never had a dream like that before," he said, his voice shuddering. "It wasn't right. It was more than any nightmare should be."

Mira laid her head on his chest and slid an arm around him. "What did you see? What happened?"

"I saw…" He shook his head. "I don't know what I saw. I feel like I have seen it before, though. Like a description. I don't remember where I learned it." He looked to Mira in the dark. "The King of Kings."


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Level 7 Dormant-Goddess of Magic (Pacts)
Might: 50
Free Points: 12
Concelmeant/Detection: 10


&

Gadar



The Witch-Priestess lay still as Chjekaya and Malikhet fussed around her. Her eyes were closed, and the sound of little giggles reached her through the odd, 'no no, find a softer cushion,' or 'have we no more honey?' She breathed deeply and a satisfied smile spread across her face as she placed one of her hands on her somewhat bloated belly. Someone dabbed at her forehead with a wet piece of cloth and she opened her eyes. It was Malikhet, eyes full of concern and worry. Yara smiled and brought a hand to the other's chin.
'Stop fretting, you beautiful woman. Go and do something else, stop wasting time on me,' Malikhet smiled and shook her head.
'I'm not wasting time - would you deny me these joyful moments spent by you?' Yara chuckled and shook her head.
'You've a strange way with enjoying yourself if fretting gives you joy.'
'When one as beloved to us as you has life growing within them for the first time, every moment spent with you is joyful,' Malikhet murmured, her eyes downcast. Yara looked away thoughtfully.
'For the first time...' she scratched the back of her ear slightly before sitting up and placing her feet on the ground.
'Are you sure? There's no need to get up...' Malikhet said hurriedly, 'I can get you whatever you need.' Yara rolled her shoulders and shook her head.
'No, I need to stretch my legs, I've been still since morning and it is already noon,' Malikhet's face dropped but she did not object. Yara gestured to the Temple Staff, and Malikhet quickly handed the crocodile-headed stick, that Gadar had made so long ago, to her. As she took her first few steps, the butt of the staff thudding against the ground, she very suddenly felt cold. Gripping the staff tightly, she looked up fearfully. Something was very wrong.



Gadar was in the main courtyard when it happened, turning the soil of one of the Temple's many allotments. As the pre-dusk sun descended and the cloudless heavens burned orange, there came down death from above. He did not see where it had come from or who did it. One moment it was a lazy Vetruvian noon, the next there was a chaos of sound and light and dust. The city seemed to have burst, releasing a flower of earth and dust, of screams and simmering blood and flesh, into the sky. Gadar saw it all as though from a far distance, saw it with surreal slowness. And there was a far-off screech - a screech that very suddenly became deafening. His head burst and catapulted backwards with violence and speed. His hand was on his blind eye, his mouth agape - and perhaps a scream escaped his throat. He did not know, he could not hear anything other than that ungodly screech (Ich, ich, ich, ich). His hands were both suddenly at his temples, as though trying to keep it all together through sheer force of strength. His one good eye was wide with fear and pain, and it too looked as though it could at any moment split.

Mercy.
But...

you do not need mercy.


And the scar exploded open, as though wrenched apart by something within, and Gadar's blind eye erupted into a darkness so black no sky could squeak through.

Because you do not do you do not do
Anymore,

black shoe

The scar continued to wrench itself apart with a life all its own, until the man's skin and flesh hung limply and what lay beneath was revealed - brown, festering with rot. An all too familiar visage of bark, grim and stoic. The screeching was suddenly no longer inside his head, it was coming from his throat and out of his mouth. The dark vapours gathered before him, folding in on themselves and frothing angrily - and in an instant they had burst up into the heavens, a black bolt, and speared one of the unseen creatures.

Eternal One...
I wake.

Thus was it Fated. So Shall it Be.


And then the darkness was gone, and Gadar stood there - upright and stiff - trembling slightly. 'N-no,' he managed. Yes. Yes.
'Gadar!' He turned around and saw her, dressed in white and barefooted, running towards him. He stepped towards her stiffly and caught her hands in his. 'It's- it's,' she did not know how to say it.
'We need to get out of here,' he said suddenly, his voice pained.
'What?' she asked, confused.
'We need to leave. We are in danger here.'
'B-but, where will we go? How can we just-'
'Trust me,' his voice came warmer this time. She looked behind her at the Temple and its famed steps, and saw Malikhet running out, Chjekaya close behind her holding onto Hirana's hand.
'The others, we have to get them to saf-'
'There is no time, we must leave n-' but before the words had left Gadar's mouth, the world lit up around them and the earth disappeared beneath. He gripped her tightly and brought her to him, and they floated in a dreamlike landscape of light and nothingness. They landed on burning earth, skin and clothing seared but otherwise unharmed. Where the Temple and its famed steps had stood only moments ago, there was nothing. Yara raised her head and looked with horror where Chjekaya and Malikhet had just been, where everyone had just... a sob escaped her lips.
'N-no. Oh no no.' She just about managed to say as she got up and made towards the flat and barren nothingness where all her life had been perched. Gadar caught her shoulder and turned her away. She looked tearfully his way and slumped against his shoulder, feeling suddenly weak and unable to withstand much of this any longer. He carried her out of the still standing - if ruined - Temple Arch, and it rained embers and ash on their heads. The city burned all around them, women and children and men ran hither and thither aimlessly, some screaming and others in a delirium. Soldiers stood uselessly as people rushed to them in some far-flung hope for safety and protection, and others yet made for the palace of the Priest-King - surely there, of all places, there would be safety to be found. The Mahd swelled with the bodies of the dead.

Gadar ignored them all, walking effortlessly through the endless stream of people. They parted before the giant. Now and then the earth shook as once again destruction fell from above. He walked through it all, like some kind of demigod, and Vetros and its fate was soon far behind him. When they camped for the night, Yara was still too weak to move about much. He caught a few small lizards and cooked them on a fire. While they cooked, he took the time to inspect the Temple Staff lying next to her, his fingers tracing the details he had carved in that impassioned fit. He smiled thoughtfully and kissed her forehead gently. At his touch, her eyes opened. He helped her sit up and they ate silently. Afterwards they sat together near the fire. She leaned against his shoulder and looked sadly into the flame - but she cried no more. Placing his arm protectively around her, they lay down and the two slept. For all that they had been through, they slept peacefully. It was early when they awoke next day, and they continued their journey up the Mahd.

'Why did we leave?' She asked him one day, tired and angsty from weeks of travel.
'It was not safe.' He responded shortly.
'And is it any safer out here?' She asked.
'Yes.' She was silent for a few moments.
'Where are we going anyway? You don't know anything other than Vetros.'
'Somewhere safe.' She looked at him in frustration.
'Don't give me that - either tell me, or let us head back this moment.' She stopped and he turned on her angrily.
'Stop asking me stupid questions, and do as I say,' his words came as something of a shock - he had never spoken to her as such.
'They're not stupid,' she said, her own anger growing, 'and I have a right to know.'
'What right to know? I am taking you to safety, I am feeding you, I am protecting you - you need only be grateful,' she gasped with indignation and her brows furrowed in fury, but she managed to find some calm.
'What has gotten into you? You've never spoken like this before...' she placed a hand on his arm, but he shook it off roughly.
'Just be quiet, don't argue, and do as I say.' That was more than she was prepared to take.
'What do you take me for? A child? I can take care of myself! I lived an age before you and was just fine,' and with that, she turned away and began walking off in a huff.
'Where do you think you're going?' he shouted.
'That's none of your concern - consider yourself free of me!' His hand was suddenly on her shoulder, turning her around violently. She screeched in protest, but he dragged her forcefully. She clawed at his face, but he gripped her wrists in one of his massive hands and dragged her with him more roughly. 'Let me go! Let me go you brute! Gadar!' But there was nothing she could do against his sheer strength. When night came, they had reached the outskirts of the Venomweald.
'Sleep, tomorrow we will enter the forest.' He commanded.
'Fuck off,' she said venomously and turned away from him. But he forcibly turned her and brought her to him, 'get off me! Get off. Let me go - you brute. Moron. Get off!' He suddenly released her and she scrambled to her feet with fury, 'what's gotten into you?' she muttered angrily before kicking dust into his face, turning, and walking off into the darkness.
'Y-Yara, wait. I didn't mean to-' but she was already disappearing into the darkness. Shaking his head in anger and self-reproach, he stood and ran after her. He had no idea what had come over him - it was almost as though he had not been quite...himself. He continued walking after her in the darkness, but soon enough had lost her completely. Cursing inwardly, he retraced his footsteps and tried to listen out for her. But it was no use - the forest in the night was by no means quiet. However, there was no doubt that it was her scream that now reached him, and not that of some monkey in the trees above. Without hesitating, he made for the sound and came upon her kicking off a small ferret-like thing - even in the darkness, its unnaturally large jaw could be seen, and its razor sharp teeth (stained with her blood) were glowing - and so were eerily visible. With one enormous foot, he stamped the thing to death.
'A-are you ok?' he asked. She did not respond, but breathed heavily and pushed herself up against a tree. 'Let me have a look at you,' he said and approached her.
'Fuck off, bastard,' she managed. For one who was a master of the most sophisticated words, it was liberating to let loose a hurl of baser insults for once. He ignored her words and gently put her hand to the side and felt for where the creature had bitten her. It had somehow managed to get her in the side, and the blood was pouring profusely from there. He placed his large hand against the wound to stem it until he could think of something better.
'I...I am sorry. I don't know what came over me. Please forgive me - you know I would never hurt you...' she looked away angrily, but then caught his eye and the sadness there melted away her fury almost instantly. She looked up at him, pouting slightly.
'So what was all that then?'
'A momentary lapse in reason - do our years together not speak of my true character and love for you?' Her eyes softened and she placed a hand against his cheek.
'I should slap you, at the very leat,' he chuckled slightly at her words, 'just...don't do that again,' he smiled, nodded, and sighed with relief.
'Never,' he murmured and placed a kiss upon her brow. 'Now, you're the expert - how do I go about stemming this wound of yours?' Their means were limited, but he did as she told him. By morning, however, it became apparent that the creature's bite had been poisoned - the wound had begun to fester and boil and turn an ugly green. Yara shivered and sweat lined her brow, and Gadar could do little more than fuss over her and wash the wound. For her part, Yara was in no condition to instruct him on how to deal with the matter. From time to time her eyes opened and she looked at him deliriously.

A pair of eyes.


His eyes were suddenly cold as they surveyed her...black and cold. Her eyes widened as she saw him, and her breath caught in her throat. He noted - as he had always known - that she was pregnant. It was to this child - our child - that the trail of Fate clung like flies to a corpse and vultures. Without further thought he bent down, one wooden finger reaching for her to do the Fated deed.
'No!' The shout left his throat, though it was not his cacophonous voice. The wooden finger was suddenly no longer wood. The barken visage cocked slightly.
'Yes.' He insisted. Her hand reached for the finger and gripped it, her eyes of green peered into his light-stealing ones.
'Please,' she managed, 'please,' her eyes were clear - there shone within them hope. The hand became wood again, and it lurched forward. Seamlessly it cut into her chest, opening her from neck to nether. The Witch-Priestess gave out a blood-curdling shriek and placed her hand upon the god's face, pushing him away. But to no avail. She was powerless as he reached within her and, with a gentleness that Vowzra never quite expected (although he had done this before - he had done this before), pulled the bloodied childling out. ('NO! NONONONO,' Gadar was screeching). His hands of bark dripped crimson, and the thing lay in his fingers. It was not yet ready for life, small and red and white. He released it and watched it float before him. A small membrane of energy slowly grew to surround it, a replacement for the life-giving womb of its mother.

Yara was sobbing now, her tears mingling with her blood, her mauled chest agape and her innards unveiled before the gaze of the world. Vowzra watched her beating heart and her lungs, touched the festering wound in her side. Her sobs intensified as he watched and became pitiful shrieks of misery and pain. She thrashed and shook her head, she dug with her nails into the earth as if that would return to her all that was lost.

Then her eyes.

They opened wide and looked towards him. He could make it all go away. He could put her out of her misery. Vowzra surveyed her a while, slightly intrigued by her actions (as he had been intrigued the last time he did this...and the last before that...) He found that he was, however, far more irritated by her lack of gratefulness at what he was doing. Not only was he saving her child and helping it towards a destiny and Fate greater far than that of any mortal, he was also saving her from her pitiful and unfulfilling existence. Her eyes looked to him with hope, her bloodied and soil-stained hands reached to him. There was so much hope - humans truly were beautiful; he understood now why she had chosen this form. And in that moment he Saw; those eyes.

Such angry, accusing eyes. Such pained, tormented eyes. What had he done to gain the ire of such eyes, he had once thought. What had been his cosmic sin? He knew now. He Saw. He Saw her, he Saw her all too well. Those eyes, oh God - God? - those eyes. And the blood, yes, the blood. And her hands, those hands that had reached out for him and the hope that he had watched die. The hope that he had waited on, until it was completely extinguished.

Those eyes.

He tried to back away from them, but there was no escape - there was nowhere to go, nowhere to flee from those eyes so full of blame and anguish. If eyes could sear the essence and scar one's being, then those eyes did - those eyes were the only past, they were the only future, and the only dream - or was it a nightmare? - and they were the only reality. Yes, those eyes. They had him now.

Those Eyes.

A shiver of primordial fear and guilt ran through the god, and now he knew why. He raised a wooden hand and placed it upon her cheek as once long ago he had done, and he brought his head down towards her's and planted a kiss upon her forehead.
'Your pain is gone, your burden has been lifted. Rejoice, dear one.' The last he Saw before he was completely gone were Belru's tearful eyes, and that primordial guilt ripped through him one final time. Those eyes, he knew with the certainty of Sight; those Eyes would have him forevermore. No.

No power...
No power do those Eyes of yours have here
Go bore them into other souls my dear
While they did once ignite within me fear
Now I can See with Eye more swift and clear
Mine the future, and yours but yesteryear


The great Earthen-Beast is said to have told of a little wood man with eyes that hold all the ebonies and jets and obsidians cold. His voice a cacophony, his tone uniform, he could not love and he could not scorn. No fury shook him, no bliss took him, he saw with an Eye that could not cry, he looked with his mind for his heart was blind. But if he could fear then he did fear the blaming eyes and the chiding tear. If he could fear then his breast did shake at the thought that he could make a mistake.
He fell in love, but he could not say. His tongue was hard, his heart astray. He shunned her heart and he shunned her eyes and he fled away into the skies, and he left her weak and ignored her cries and ran away from all his lies.
She travelled long in search of him till her eyes grew dark and her face grew dim. The deserts plundered and the tundras thundered and where-e'er she went was cursed and sundered. In time she came to a house divine where the weak could strengthen and starved could dine. She settled there and she grew strong and she called to right and forbade wrong. And on a day of sweet delight there came to her a great respite. The very image of her love carved, but weak and ill and all but starved. But lo and behold! she knew him not and all he knew he had forgot! So wait the rise of the wooden man, and till he come the deserts scan: you'll know him by his Eye's command, you'll know him by his bloodied hand!


Then the man of wood - with his bloodied hand - was gone, and Gadar was on his knees before the mutilated - yet still living - Yara. His hands trembled, his eyes shook. He looked from side to side, silently attempting to find help - that maybe God would hear the plea even he who spoke it could not hear. Yara looked at him with her glowing green eyes. A hand went around his neck and brought him towards her bared shoulder. She looked up at the membraned orb hovering in the air above them. Red and black and white swirled within it, and through it all she could see a young human boy hugging his knees.
'Zerabil,' she murmured. Gadar opened his eyes, confused.
'What?'
'Zerabil,' she said more strongly. Gadar lifted his head and looked where Yara was looking. There, where he had seen nothing before, stood a naked child. His hair was white and shoulder-length, his right eye completely black and the other entirely white.
'Father,' the boy said. Gadar looked at Yara, who was now silent and still. His head returned to her shoulder and he neither spoke nor moved. The mutilated corpse of his wife in his arms, Gadar did not move or protest when Zerabil - incredibly strong for so small a thing - picked them both up and walked. He thought he saw, in a distant and unconscious sort of way, many white-clad figures around him at one point. Two eyes of black and white. He definitely felt it when he was laid upon a hard stone tablet - at no point did he allow himself to release Yara, however.

On that tablet in New Chronos, with the energies of the newly-awakened Vowzra seeping from him, the three melted into one another until, one day, Gadar the God awoke and rose. Body lodged into the stone tablet, his beating heart giving life to his beloved (but not to Vowzra, who needed no heart), he looked upon those who came beseeching his aid.

'Come, one and all,' it was declared. 'The Broken God will make you whole again.'
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Hidden 7 mos 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)

26 Might & 2 Free Points


It was the day that the stars fell from the sky, and Vetros burned. Dark smoke blackened the sky, and people ran in terror as star-fire rained down upon them.

With a thunderclap, Teknall appeared within the city, clad in his Mirror Armour. He raised his railgun above his head and discharged the weapon with another thunderclap. A realta flying above was struck by the bolt of adamantine and exploded into a shower metal fragments and limbs.

Before Teknall was the Temple of the Bond, burning to the ground. "Damn it!" He had been too late to save the temple.

Teknall briskly walked into the temple, unfazed by the flames, smoke and falling rubble around him. Where is she? Where is she? He couldn't find Yara anywhere. He could identify all the burnt remains as not being Yara, yet he could not find her among the living either. Perhaps she had fled, but his Perception reached for two hundred kilometers and he still couldn't find her.

Teknall ran through the temple grounds, moving faster than mortally possible, phasing through walls, searching. "Yara! Yara!" He hadn't identified Yara as a god on sight, which suggested that Belru-Yara was good a concealing herself from divine detection. So perhaps his Perception would not be able to find her while she lived. He hoped that was the explanation, and that wherever she was she was safe.

He came to the library. The rest of the Temple was deserted or razed, and this room was soon to follow. The fire had caught in the roof, and some of the bookshelves were already ablaze. "Yara! he called out as he ran into the middle of the library, checking to see if Yara was hiding here.

Once he was satisfied that Yara was not there, Teknall turned his attention to the burning library. The Temple of the Bond was as good as gone. The priestesses were scattered, numerous dead among their number. The school had been reduced to ashes. These books were the last of Yara's legacy in Vetros, and soon they would be destroyed as well.

Not if Teknall had anything to do with it. The Divine Mason brought his arm up, then in one motion closed his hand into a fist and brought it down. The roof of the library promptly collapsed and buried the books and scrolls under a layer of rubble and gravel, smothering the fire and protecting the writings from further immolation. The writings could be recovered by the Vetruvians and the knowledge within would not be lost.

Teknall walked over the rubble of the library back towards the temple buildings. As he walked he raised up his railgun and blasted a realta which was scorching the docks. Then he stepped through a wall and was in the Miracle Room, which was thoroughly ablaze. There was no sign of Yara here either. On shelves were bottles of various strange and wondrous substances, collected from far-off places. If Yara was not here to save them from the flames, Teknall would do it himself. He scooped up what hadn't been destroyed by the fire and deposited it in his apron pocket. He made sure to leave enough of his divine essence in that spot so that Belru-Yara would know he had been there if she ever returned.

Teknall stepped back out through the wall and surveyed the scene one last time. Ventus and his posse of elementals were closing in fast, as was Heru with the King's Law. They would deal with the realta here. Teknall had the rest of Galbar to save. With a pop, he disappeared.



10-20 years later


The ground was black and twisted as far as the eye could see, as though it had been molten not long ago. A glossy sheen coated all the rocks, the result of vapourised matter having deposited on the ground. In this landscape stood a three metre tall many-limbed robot, from which a blinding white cone of incandescent flame issued forth and consumed a crystalline forest. The forest was dwindling rapidly, surrounded on all sides by the scorched and barren landscape.

Yet before the robot completely destroyed the forest, it halted. Nearby Teknall materialised and approached the last of the Acalya. From his satchel he removed a jar. He reached up and snapped a branch off the nearest Acalya tree, placed it in the jar, screwed shut the lid, then replaced it in his satchel.

As he put the jar away, he noticed another item in his satchel. A vial of sickly green venom from the Venomweald writhe, a vial which Teknall had taken from Yara's abandoned collection. He still hadn't discovered what had become of her, but he hadn't forgotten her.

The sample collected, Teknall stepped back and Goliath's flamethrower roared back into life. The last traces of Acalya on Galbar were vaporised, the only remains being the thousands of square kilometers of once-molten ground marking where the planet had been cauterised from this infection; in time that too would heal. Task finally completed, Goliath's jetpack ignited and lifted itself up into the sky and into orbit around Galbar.

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Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Antarctic Termite
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Antarctic Termite Resident of Mortasheen

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Astarte giggled softly, keeping a hand over her mouth and using the other to peek out of the bush she was hiding in. Right in front of her was a small farm, away from any civilization. She'd been observing this place for a long time now, waiting for the owners to make babies and then waiting for the babies to grow into children. Now they were a few years old, and they were at the perfect age for what Astarte wanted to do.

She heard laughing from inside the house, and then saw the door swing open and two children come out. One was a boy of around 8, and another a girl of 6. They both ran into the fields, playing in the rye fields

They didn't expect what was coming to them.

Astarte merely observed, stiffling her own laughter as much as she could.

In the blink of an eye, the children's laughter stopped and they looked around them, eyes wide and lips quivering.

The rye shifted and the sound of paws hitting the ground echoed.

No matter where the kids looked, the movement always seemed to come from somewhere else.

Eventually, the girl tugged her brother's arm, "Let's go home!" She said in a hushed voice. Her brother nodded, and they turned around... And a big wolf jumped out at them!

The kids screamed and cried and ran back into the house, tripping more than once on their way back.

"HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" Came the thunderous laughter from Astarte, spooking all birds in a one kilometer radius. Then she abruptly stopped, "Okay, it wasn't that funny, I guess. Definitely wasn't worth waiting so long. Why did I wait so long?" Astarte sighed and sat down in the bush, frowning.

"I wonder where Brown is, if she was here she wouldn't let me talk to myself..." She tried to keep the frown up, but couldn't help the giggle that escaped her lips afterward.

The children, meanwhile, had swung open their parent's door to find that both Mother and Father were off in the village lifting the maypole (or else had told them that that was the case while they hurried into the woods to make more babies). The younger one looked to her brother in terror.

The fear of wolves had very real foundations in these parts. Not only were the wild ones large and bold, but the Devil himself had come through these parts long ago, and now fabulous bandits roamed with the face and voice of a pack-minded wolf. Fortunately, big brother (who stood a whole four foot tall!) knew just what to do. For just like the frosty fairy tales that they grew up with in the long winter and lived in the summer, a hero had lately come to town.

They found her sitting on top of the maypole chewing something while an assembly of grown-ups yelled at her. (Their parents were nowhere to be seen.)

"Come down from there!" yelled the charcoal maker, putting angry hands on his hips. "The maypole is sacred, you scoundrel!"

"Nah," said the hero, tossing down an apple core.

...How did she even get up there? thought the lumberjack's wife. The hero caught her gaze and winked at her.

"Wolf! Wolf!" cried the girl-child. "There's a wolf in Father's field!" added her brother. Serious attention turned to them. The children of the village were well-behaved, and would never lie about such a thing. "It was this big! It laughed at us!"

About three dozen eyes turned towards the hero expectantly. She hiccuped and gave a sheepish grin. The lumberjack's wife jerked her head at the field. Well, okay then.

Tira shrugged and balanced on one heel on the maypole, put her hands to her mouth and gave a shout (she didn't know how to whistle). She somersaulted from the pole and, catching a four-winged grey thing on her wrist as she fell, landed on her feet. Her glaive rested easy across her shoulders as she marched off.

A big dog, okay. How bad could it be?

Tira marched off into the field. Her... bird... framework thing did a lap of the field and dipped when it saw something. "'Eyy!" she yelled as she approached, without a care in the world.

"Ow, ow! What the- A bird reptile thing!" Suddenly a shockwave of energy burst from the bush, destroying the poor plant in the process and revealing Astarte, who jumped to her feet dressed in a plain white dress, "Come on, now I have to find another hiding spot!" She groaned and slouched over. Upon noticing the approaching human, she raised an eyebrow and assumed a more formal posture.

"Eyy!" Astarte brought her hand up to cover her mouth and frowned, wondering if that was the correct thing to say, then she saw the pterodactyl framework thing land on the human's shoulder, "That thing nearly killed me, by the way! Well, it can't kill me, but it scared me."

Tira pulled herself out of the rye field and shook the ringing noise out of her ears. looked at the pretty lady. She looked at her raptor. The raptor looked at her. They both looked at the lady.

"...Eyy?"

The Scribe tapped its pen-like face on Tira's shoulder, and took off as if it was offended. Tira had every intention to question this stranger about who she was, how she'd done that, how she knew the Alefprian language and moreover how the hell she wasn't wearing three layers of fur in this freezing cold icy frostbitten non-tropical country, but she decided to prioritise what was really important.

"Hey," she said. "I like your hair!"

Astarte glared at the Scribe as it took off, then looked at Tira as she was looking her over. By the time Tira spoke, Astarte grinned, "Yes? Thank you! I had it a bit straighter before, but I changed it a little bit ago, when I arrived here and started planning my evil plan! I like your furs by the way, I think I once saw one of the wolves whose skin you're wearing. It peed on my favorite tree."

Tira blinked. The lady in in the white dress spoke really fast, and didn't make all that much sense. Given that her ability to speak First was what her tutors would call 'atrocious' (which was a nice word she didn't understand at all), Tira had a feeling she'd just trip herself up if she tried to answer all that.

"I still like your hair," she replied, going back to basics. She bowed briefly in strangerly respect. "I'm Tira. Also, I want dog people. Can I come see your tree?" Tira had an idea of how to track wolves, or jackals at least, and a lot of respect for favourite trees.

Astarte giggled and in the blink of an eye, was right next to Tira, with her arm around her shoulders and whispering into her ear, "Oh, I see. You want dog people, and you like hair a lot- Don't worry, Tiry, I know how to keep a secret." She froze for a second, "wait, you're not here looking for my little wolf friend, are you? 'Cause he's married and happy with many little wolfies-"

Tira looked at her with her mouth half-open in a smiling '...what?'. She looked off into the distance. She looked into the sky. She looked into the cereal. She looked back at Astarte, still wearing the same look.

"...runosh?"

Astarte looked at the confused human and nodded her approval, "What indeed, Tiry! So you wanted to see my favorite tree, right?" Astarte held Tira close and in a moment they were facing an ancient-looking tree, and her Scribe had crashed into its branches. Beautiful and strong, with pink leaves and an aura that could only come from a certain Goddess of Purity. Upon seeing the tree, Astarte let go of Tira and instead went on to hug the Tree, squee-ing nearly inaudibly. "This is the first tree of its kind that I've seen, I think one of my sisters made them, but it's so beautiful, and when you eat its leaves, you get all hazy and feel funny!"

Tira, unfortunately, was nowhere to be seen. In the time it took for Astarte to say these things she had already climbed the tree. "Hey!" she yelled. "Lyanan jin!" Her head popped out of the branches up-side down. She was already chewing some pink leaves, which at least showed that she'd been listening.

"Good news is that if you were in pain before, you won't be in it anymore for a few hours. Bad news is you might feel sleepy." Tira heard the word 'sleep' and laughed rather hard. "I gave these leaves to a human before and they slept like Jvan after getting attacked by the uptight-est Gods." Astarte giggled and floated her way up to Tira. The Scribe made a quick doodle of Astarte and warbled for unknown reasons.

Tira reached out to Astarte and yanked her onto a branch out of habit, eliciting a squeak out of Astarte, even though it was pretty obvious she wouldn't fall. The Astarte scribble scampered up the tree and went missing. Tira cocked her head. A lot of things were beginning to stack up. The explosions and teleportation were a dead giveaway, but the name Astarte had dropped was what caught her.

"Hey," she asked, "Who are you?"

Astarte fixed her hair and awkwardly got into a proper sitting position on the branch, then shrugged, "Oh, I'm Astarte," Seeing Tira`s expression, she pursed her lips and elaborated, "Goddess of Magic, so... Not that well known."

"Upstarte? Astarte!" Tira nodded, committing it to memory. "Okay! Uh, do you know... Belvast? Guts mom? Li-" she blinked and dragged the consonant, knowing she could never pronounce the 'fp' sound- "iffff-prasil?"

"I know Belvast! My Avatar, Brown, met him once, so that's that. I haven't really met him in person, though." Then Astarte heard mention of Lifprasil, "I also know that one, I heard he's not in good shape these days though, is that true?"

"Oh, uh..." Tira rubbed the back of her neck with a fist. "Yeah. He got in a fight. He's not doing too good," she said, her hand disappearing for a moment into her pocket, "It... was a big fight."

"Oh..." Astarte sighed and looked away, unsure of how to continue, "... How do you know about the fight and its outcome? Are you one of Lifprasil's followers, like Lakshmi? I'm Lakshmi's biggest fan, by the way."

Tira's face lit, and she saluted. "I'm her kid!" Needless to say, there was absolutely no resemblance, in species or otherwise. Still, the sheer enthusiasm of Tira's grin made it impossible to be untrue. "Lakshmi's my mom! Maybe even my best mom." She didn't answer the other questions.

"Wait!" Astarte narrowed her eyes at her and spoke slowly, "You... Are... Her daughter?" She pursed her lips and sniffed Tira lightly, "But, you don't smell like her! Okay, that isn't the weirdest thing I've seen, so I'll believe you. I don't know if she tells everyone this, but I'll tell you, she once had a legion of naked soldiers in battle, and it was great." Astarte grinned.

Tira's interest peaked. She nodded encouragingly at Astarte, covering her smile with her hand as she waited for the details.

Astarte just kept grinning. Slowly, the grin turned into a smile, then into a smirk. Finally, she slouched and frowned, "I'm bored, what do we do?" While not hearing about her adoptive mother's nude legions disappointed her, Tira gave the question some thought.

In the branches, Tira's Scribe got into a fight with invert-Astarte, who was hanging from a twig by the teeth. The Scribe pecked at her nose and Invert-Astarte squeaked and let go, falling. Astarte saw her lose the battle and chuckled, then blew some air her way and saw her scream silently and try to escape her fate. How terrifying it must be to be forced to follow the whims of the wind.

"There's only one who can look like me, and that is Brown, little beauty." She muttered.

"Hey!" Tira snapped her fingers at Astarte's face a few times, just to make sure she was still getting the attention she deserved. "I gotta get that dog person. Come with!"

Astarte blinked each time Tira snapped her fingers, and then looked at her while squinting her eyes, "The dog person, right, you're looking for a wolf... Maybe because of the children crying and all that? That was a good laugh, heh. I give them a good scare once every couple years."

"Well don't," said Tira sternly, not quite catching the drift of the sentence. "They already got wolfs to be scary. Gotta catch a wolf. Gotta get to work." She was, after all, a big hero now, and had to act like it eventually. "C'mon, time to go!"

Astarte rolled her eyes at the human, "By Vestec's shiny face, I love you humans, but you can be really petty sometimes-" Astarte waved her hand towards the bottom of the tree and a wolf appeared out of thin air. Then she snapped her fingers.

CRACK.

Tira jolted. The wolf howled in pain and collapsed under its weight. In a split moment it was rendered from a proud beast to a whimpering wreck. If one watched closely, they would be able to see the wolf's hind legs bending at unnatural places with bones threatening to break the skin from the inside.

"There's your wolf. He's my favorite one, the one I mentioned earlier. You can get his fur or whatever it is you want, since you're not interested in my stories about clever use of illusions to laugh in the face of children."

Somewhere down the tree, Tira set herself down on her haunches and drew her knife, making a quick kill. She was listening, still, and the message clicked, but it was bad to make an animal suffer. Astarte received a look of some sternness when she stood up with the beast around her shoulders, but most of it went unspoken.

"...This ain't gonna happen to the village again, huh." Tira wasn't above lying, but her scattered attention had a sharp edge when it was focused. "Okay? Let's go back, then."

Astarte shrugged, "Eh, I've spent too much time around here already," She said as she floated down from the branch. "Want me to take us back to the v-" She choked and fell from the air, landing on her hands and knees on the ground. Her vibrant aura fizzled out, long enough for Tira to notice that her previously impeccable dress was now somewhat ragged along the knees and her form seemed anchored to reality, unlike when she was floating around and making things appear out of thin air.

After a few seconds of wheezing, She slowly regained her aura and the ragged dress repaired itself. Still, she only sat back and looked at herself with wide eyes, 'Just what are you doing, Brown...' She muttered, rubbing her knees.

Tira moved to pick her up and put her on her shoulders, realised there was a dead wolf already there, and sat down beside her. "...God things?"

Astarte sighed, avoiding eye contact, "My avatar's been actively ignoring me for the last decade. Just now, I felt her take a great deal of my power, and I managed to feel where she is..." She scrunched up her nose and looked at Tira, "... Yes, God things."

"God things," she repeated, but solemnly.

Astarte smiled sadly and gave Tira a quick hug, not caring that her face ended up pressed against the wolf's broken legs. It was a good hug. Hugs with Tira always were. Then she stood up and offered Tira a hand, "Take my hand, mini-Lakshmi. I'll take us back to the Village."

Tira nodded, and offered a small palm. The instant their hands touched, they were back in the village center, where a sparse handful of men and women looked at the suddenly appeared Tira wide eyed. None of them seemed to be able to see Astarte.

Tira hefted the wolf on her back and turned it over, set it down on the ground. She snapped her fingers at the girl-child, who looked at the dead wolf with fright and wonder, and picked up her glaive. Then she winked at the lumberjack's wife, saluted the charcoal maker, and all the while walked backwards out of the village without a word. The tail of a voidsketcher was the last they saw of Tira.

"'kay let's go," she motioned to Astarte from behind a cobbled house. "C'mon, quick! More fun like this."

Astarte cocked her head at Tira, but quickly a grin seeped onto her face, "Oh! Nice, nice!" She chuckled and grabbed Tira's wrist, making the both of them disappear in the wink of an eye.

When the girl turned the corner looking for Tira and found instead that there was no one in sight, she gasped. And that was how another story of the mischievous hero came to be.

In the new place, something like a rippled bubble covered the sky, glowing faintly from its gnarls. When Tira looked around, she recognised the foothills of a mountain, but she had never seen this particular one. Looking up, it outsized every other mountain she had ever seen- no mean feat- and yet it was also visibly unwhole, as if decapitated at the peak. Her Scribe whisked off to look around.

"Couldn't think of any other place. Hope you like the cold, because this is much worse than the village we just left." Astarte said with a shrug. A chill breeze shivered her and she looked miserably up at the goddess from under her furs.

Astarte squinted her eyes as she decoded the look on Tira's face, "You... Have never heard of this place, Lakshmini?"

"Nuh. Where?"

"Hmph... I thought you'd know. Your mother was Lifprasil's friend I think, and he should definitely know..." Astarte scrunched up her lips and began floating, going behind Tira and whispering in her ear, "If my memory doesn't fail me, one of my favorite sisters fought one of my brothers here. It was... Rather flashy and break-y." Astarte then rested her chin on Tira's shoulder, lightly rubbing her face against the soft furs. Tira blinked and then made faintly jittery sounds.

"I regret not being here then, you know? You can access a weird time-related place near the top, I think. Courtesy of Vowzra."

Tira clapped, gesturing for her to wait. She was looking for a word, blipping out bits of sentence without knowing what they were. "Is this- uh, the, uh- The alone mountain? The, uh, solid, um." She gestured for help.

"The Solitary Mount."

"Yeah!" Tira nodded, pleased to have found it, until her mood settled back down into Astarte's. "I thought... Belvast said it was sharp. Not this."

"It used to be sharp. Now it holds what amounts to Vowzra's grave, as nothing was left after the battle. Want me to take you there, or perhaps what remains of Vowzra's plane?"

Tira nodded. "This is where I'm gonna go. Take me to the top."

A shiver went down Astarte's back and she suddenly felt the urge to leave, as if her body rejected the idea of going close to the Oath once more. After a second of hesitation, she huffed and Tira began to feel weightless. She hunched over to catch her center of gravity as low as possible, touching one hand to the ground and planting her feet.

"That'll only last as long as I'm close to you. Follow me to the top, it should take a little while." Astarte said with a straight tone of voice, making a head start. After a few dozen meters, she turned around and shouted, "What are you waiting for, Tira?"

She tried to say something, and felt too sick. After a second she stood up, put her foot out gingerly onto the air, and taking a step onto it. "...Nothing," she yelled. "Please be slow." She took another step, staring straight up.

"Just will yourself into motion. Imagine you're moving, floating towards me or the peak."

Tira's gaze dropped to her with one eyebrow raised in a way that said 'um, no', then dipped back up. She took another step. Three down. Progress. "'Will', huh?"

Astarte cracked a smirk when se caught the expression, "Yes, Willpower is the best tool you can have in Galbar. With enough of it, you can warp reality to your advantage. Like Lifprasil's Cosmic Knights. Did you know I had a hand in making them? 'Cause I did, and that was a fun family meeting."

A tremendous display of willpower later, Tira had managed to ascend another five steps. Her Scribe flapped around her, glowing faintly. "Ne owt-as yiil-di osh," she said. Which means, 'I'm not really feeling it.'

She tried to take another step, looking to one side to avoid thinking about how high up she was, which made her think about how high up she was. Her feet developed a wobble, and she started to doubt she could stay up, and then she fell.

Right into Astarte's arms, who appeared below her in an instant, "Wouldn't want one of your tasty bones breaking in a fall, Human Lakshmi. Try again." She said as she let her regain her footing. Tira pushed her firmly aside. "Yeah yeah, leave my bones alone, I'm gonna do this."

And she would. Eventually. She knew she would. There was no other way up, not before nightfall, so she kind of had to.

So, she did.

Not really thinking about anything much, and definitely not at all about flying, Tira folded her arms and decided she would go up the mountain one way or another if it killed her. And it probably would, given how hard it was to spot the rifts and crevasses among the tumbled stone. Fine then. She'd die. But not before she got up this glupping mountain. She'd crawl if she had to.

But she didn't have to at all, in the end.

Tira set her feet gently down at the top of the Solitary Mount, and immediately curled up onto her butt, sitting on raw ice with her hands pressing hard on her temples. Her breathing came hard. She knew what could have happened, though she had decided that it wouldn't.

Astarte landed gently besides Tira, the ground beneath them turning into lukewarm stone as she did so, "Frostbite, humans call it. Not good to sit on ice." She said matter-of-factly, gulping as she looked around and spotted the massive shape of the Oath of Stilldeath.

"Yeah, not good to stand on air neither," Tira retorted.

It took her a moment, but Astarte managed to tear her eyes from the monument, "Why not? You could stand on water too, you know. Or lava. Or keep yourself nice and warm while in the middle of a storm."

"Not gonna walk on lava, thanks."

Astarte chuckled. "No lava walking, then."

Tira breathed and picked herself up, looking to where Astarte's gaze had been fixed. She spotted a sigil she'd never seen before, but was familiar anyway. "Hey," she said, pointing up to the emblem in carmine. "Guts mom."

"Yeah... That's definitely Jvan. You may know the others already, but I'm sure that if you don't, you eventually will. Excuse me for a moment." Astarte said as she made her way around the monument, reading the inscriptions and pressing her hand against each sigil but her own, only giving hers a sideway glance.

'...Care of yourself, Astie...' The voice reverberated in her head making Astarte look around, then at Tira.

"You didn't hear that, right Tira?" Tira cocked her head.

Then she felt the emptiness. Something was missing, something that she'd had for a long time now. There was no one listening to her, and she knew deep down that if she talked, no one would answer.

"She's... Gone?" Astarte covered her mouth with a hand, as if saying such things was forbidden. Slowly, her expression changed. Wild eyes gave way to a pained look, though she was in no physical pain. She closed her eyes tightly and sat down, leaning her back against the monument. Tira fell at her side and gripped her with an arm.

She wanted to cry, like she did so long ago when the Oath was made. She really wanted to, but she bit back her tears, remembering how hard Brown worked back then to cheer her up.

A few minutes passed, but they could have been years for all Astarte cared. Eventually, she calmed down enough to open her eyes again and look at the sky.

"She always thought of me as a kind of dumb little sister, you know. She thought I didn't know what she wanted to do. She got into that mess because she wanted to cheer me up back then... It wasn't worth it, but I still appreciate it. She was my avatar, but to me it felt like we were real friends, like the ones you humans have. Like real family. I'm going to miss her." Astarte kept looking up for a few more moments before standing up and being promptly sat down again by Tira.

The little person's fingers fell firmly on Astarte's cheeks, and turned her head left and right with a one-sided grimace to give her a good looking at.

"Real family," she said, "Is whoever you trust enough to carry your butt on their shoulders when your feet hurt a lot. Okay. And gods can have friends. Trust me." She crossed over and sat crosslegged across from Astarte. "Now, where is your sister?"

Astarte pursed her lips and looked away, frowning. "I can't feel her... Her essence vanished," She sighed and relaxed her expression, "She was near the Deepwoods- Something big must have happened there, so I'll go check it out." She said before standing up.

"The magic I gave you should last for a couple more hours after I leave, in case you want to get off this old mountain." She then chuckled lightly, her demeanor lightening, "I bet I saved you quite a bit of walking and climbing today, didn't I, Tira?"

"...Saved?" Tira took a brief look at the distant forests a few miles down, and covered her eyes with her fingers, shaking her head disapprovingly. It wasn't the term she would use. "Nevermind." She stood up. Flexed.

"I'll be fine here. I know where to go." Tira nodded her head to a gnarled tree standing by a dolmen just a short distance away. The tree seemed to look back at her. "...No one is dead until you say, 'goodbye'. Go to your big sis as soon as you can." She nodded again. "Prosit, Astarte."

The Goddess cocked her head, "I suppose you're right. Prosit, Tira." She said before vanishing. Tira stood in the wind. The mountain seemed awfully lonely.

A few seconds later, she was gone.

The cold wind rustled in the Guardian tree.

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Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Frettzo
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Frettzo Summary Lover

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Astarte, Goddess of Magic and Soul Manipulation.
L6 - 30 MP - 9 FP


The world cared not for what had happened here. Blades of grass swayed gently in the wind every few moments. The moon shed her light down on the plains which were painted over with recent craters and canyons. Yet, while the battle had taken place the same day, nature was already on its way to reclaiming what had been lost.

A Great Tree stood proudly over the horizon with its canopy meeting with the gods above the clouds, far beyond what a mortal could see. Thick roots dug into the ground and took over the deep canyons, creating natural bridges which animals used as homes and for convenience when traversing the terrain. Grass on the plains had begun spreading into the craters, reclaiming what was once devoured and burned.

All life was drawn to the Great Tree. Squirrels climbed up to its lower branches, birds flew up to the distant canopy and snakes and horses slept under its shadow.

At the foot of the Tree was a small stick half-buried into the ground, jutting up as some kind of forgotten marker. A brown mouse was sitting on top of it, cleaning itself.

The mouse froze, its little eyes doing their best to scan the area.

The woman came out of nowhere. One moment she just appeared there, wearing white and with lavender hair. The mouse squeaked and in a blink of an eye, disappeared into the grass.

The woman was Astarte, Goddess of Magic and Soul Manipulation.

She looked down at the stick and after a moment of contemplation knelt down on the ground in front of it. She sighed and felt her lip quiver. The stick was emanating a familiar kind of essence, but in a different way than she remembered. This was no longer the essence that seeped into all her senses, the essence that walked beside her all the time.

"It is a memorial..." She muttered.

A minute of silence.

She kissed the stick and stood up, looking at the Tree. She didn't see just a Tree, though, she saw it for what it was. An immensely powerful being that was helping nature move on from what had happened, and was doing so with its great amount of willpower. So much that it was bending reality to its whim.

She went up to the trunk, which was at least as thick as two human huts, and laid her hand on it. At that moment, Astarte felt connected to it and connected to the world. A wave of warmth washed over her chest, tears welled up in her eyes and suddenly she started sobbing. She felt loved.

Every last part of her essence felt the Tree's embrace, whisking her into a world full of just... Being. She didn't understand it, but she didn't have to.

Eventually, Astarte began flying up, never taking her hand off the Tree, until she reached the top, going through several canopies and making sure she didn't interfere with the life that had made the Tree its home, because now more than ever, she felt them as if they were herself.

From the top, she could see a sea of clouds, stretching as far as the eye could see. It was a cloudy night, but even then there were spots where she could see down onto the plains she had been on just a few moments ago. She could see over to the nearby forest, where humans had taken residence just a few decades ago, and she could see the thick impenetrable canopies of the Deepwoods.

From here, it all looked so different... So beautiful.

She let go of the Tree and felt the connection vanish. Still, what she had felt was still within her. The love, the life...

Finally, she thought, I am.

She turned towards the Tree and smiled warmly, "I love you." She muttered. Another breeze went through the leaves, making the only sound beside her voice.

She then flew down and saw nests of birds, parents sleeping soundly around their hatchlings. Astarte got close to them and kissed each of them, waking them up and getting her face pecked gently by the family. "I love you too." She chuckled.

Then she flew further down and saw more life. "I love you," she said to moths and caterpillars. "I love you," She said to squirrels and mice.

"I love all of you!" She yelled as she reached the bottom, grinning like a child.

Then a bird dropped a present on her head and she rolled her eyes. With a flick of her wrist, it was as if it had never happened. "I know you love me too but I'll shut up now so you can sleep."

"Now," She turned toward the stick she saw first, "I will never forget you, you know. And as far as I know, you're still alive, Brownie."

She carefully bent down and picked up the stick, cleaning the dirt off it with her hands and kissing it again. "I think the Tree had something to do with your essence now coating this stick, but hey," She shrugged, "If you're a stick now, then we'll roll with it. Let's get you somewhere safe... Or at least safer than here-"

In a flash, she was up above the canopy, where she carefully let the stick levitating, protected by a small bubble made of her essence. "That should do it. Now, if you can hear me, say something!" She said, grabbing the bubble in her hands.

"Come on Brown, I didn't get to see you turn into a stick you know, and you were ignoring me back then so you owe me an explanation."

No answer.

"Huh," Astarte forced a smile and preemptively wiped her eyes, then hugged the bubble. "I miss you Brown, please come back. You have been so absent lately..."

She spent all night like that, hugging the bubble containing the stick with an ounce of Brown's essence, in hopes that her avatar would somehow come back to comfort and scold her.



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Hidden 7 mos ago 7 mos ago Post by Vec
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Vec topkek

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The Twilight Queen
Level 6 Hero
67 Khookies


Luna stopped to rest for a moment, wiping the sweat from her brow and gazing towards the distance. Although they had been travelling near the Mahd all this time and had been benefiting from the cooling effect it had on the air nearby, this didn't mean that the sun was any less hot than it had been two nights before, when they'd left the cave.

"...what I would give to get back into that cave right about now..." Luna muttered under her breath absentmindedly, but then her eyes widened and she quickly covered her mouth, her wolf ears perking up, trying to detect any incoming attacks. What followed was possibly one of the most nerve-wracking minutes Luna had ever experienced. Fortunately, nothing came. Luna sighed, releasing her tension...

Whoosh, SMACK, thump.

A gust of wind, a sharp pain at the back of her head, and the disorientation that followed meant that Luna could not help but fall face first into the sand. The wolf laid there for a few seconds, grunting in pain and confused. Her hands shifted through the sand and soon she was back up, rubbing her head, the frown on her face making her especially vicious looking. She looked up, and sure enough, there was the owl.

Looking at her like she was nothing but a clumsy fool, the owl reminded Luna of Wulfrun, the alpha male of her old pack, back at Cygnea. That constant, noncommittal look on its face and the fact that it rarely spoke about anything other than when it wanted her to do something or to berate her, reminded Luna so much of her old pack leader that she decided to name the owl after him, Owlfrun. Oh, how she wanted to run away from this owl...

Alas, the owl completely overpowered her. No matter how many times she tried to shield her mind from Owlfrun, it was as if it could completely penetrate her defences, speaking directly into her mind, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

Nevertheless, to Luna, Owlfrun's mental prowess felt like a drop of water in front of the sheer terror of the wave-like crushing pressure its physical power put on her. Speed? Better chance at racing a lightning bolt than catching up to the owl. Agility? Have you ever tried to catch a feather inside a sandstorm? Power? Luna was a mutated creature of Cygnea, directly enhanced by Ull'Yang. She could survive one of those weird human buildings made of stone collapsing on her and yet Owlfrun's wings still managed to pummel her to the ground. Even after two days and although her body had mostly recovered from the injuries caused by the Fire Devil, she still felt sore all over, a direct result of the owl's "teachings" as it called them.

Now the owl was floating above the river itself, flapping its wings as it surveyed the surrounding area. Luna was sitting there, staring daggers at the back of Owlfrun, her mind going to a fro, trying to come about a plan to take down this strange... kidnaper? The wolf certainly didn't know what to make of the owl and its behaviour towards her, and this was one of the topics that had taken up much of her thinking time in the past couple of days, the other topic being the disappearance of the Sunderer, Ull'Yang's weapon.

The one thing she knew was the direction the owl was taking her, north. To where exactly, she didn't know; the owl was not really that fond of explaining itself or its intentions.

"Enough resting, stand up." The owl's voice echoed in Luna's mind. It turned around and glanced at her for a moment, that perpetual blank look on its face giving no hints as to what was going on inside its brain. "I can see some kind of settlement from over here, but it seems damaged. Time to investigate."

With that, Owlfrun turned around once again and started flying up the Mahd. Luna grit her teeth, making a promise to herself to make the owl pay for all the abuse she had endured thus far, and stood up. Her body was sore and she could already feel the early signs of a very, very bad headache, and yet she could do nothing more than keep following the owl. At the end of the day, Owlfrun truly seemed to have been the one that saved her, although that too Luna was starting to doubt.

With "friends" like that, who needs enemies?

True to its word, Luna really did spot a village after some time, a fair bit of distance away. From her position, she could see smoke rising from that place, which for some reason seemed familiar to the wolf.

It took them another hour or so of walking to finally arrive, but it seemed they were a little too late. Collapsed buildings littered the place, smouldering embers far too many and scattered throughout the area giving clues about the great disaster that had befallen this village.

Luna walked through the wreckage, looking for any survivors. In the back of her mind, the blurred visage of the Fire Devil re-emerged, giving her goosebumps all over.

"That beast had companions..." Luna concluded grimly. A wet cough suddenly interrupted her train of thought, and she turned to see where the sound had come from. Right there, a few meters away from her, a human torso stuck out of a pile of rubble like a sore thumb.

Luna quickly walked over and knelt next to the man, supporting him with her hands, being as gentle as she could be. That's when she realised why the place felt familiar; it was the village she had stopped by to ask for directions on her way towards Vetros.

Luna had pieced some clues together as she walked between the collapsed houses, but only then did she determine that this destroyed place was, in fact, that same village. The fragile body she was now supporting with her hands was that of the shaman that had his mind so crudely invaded by her back then.

By some miracle, or freak accident depending on how one looks at it, after having the building collapse upon him the shaman did not die. Luna was sure that his lower body was beyond doubt crushed under the stone and debris, yet he'd somehow managed to remain alive until now.

The wolf didn't really know what to do. She certainly could not invade his mind like she'd done before, that would spell certain death for him, but she couldn't think of any other way to communicate. From what she remembered the man spoke a crude version of Common and she could understand some of the words he had said back then, but that didn't mean the same went for him, that he could understand what she said.

However, she didn't need to say anything. The man opened his eyes slightly and saw Luna staring back at him. Confusion turned to anger that quickly dissipated, replaced by resignation. Moving any part of his body, or what was left of it anyway, gave him a dull pain and nothing else; he had lost all feeling under his waist. Grunting, the shaman moved his hand, drawing some shapes in the sand next to him.

Some distance behind the wolf, Owlfrun perched atop a boulder, observing Luna silently. The irises of its large eyes blazing emerald in direct contrast to its pitch black pupils. Suddenly, brown gas started coming out from underneath its feathers, slowly swirling around the owl and encasing it in a cocoon-like shape. After a split second, the cocoon started expanding upwards and out, taking on a humanoid appearance.

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Hidden 7 mos ago 7 mos ago Post by Antarctic Termite
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Antarctic Termite Resident of Mortasheen

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A trigger in the Metatic ocean went off.

Majus was fast, but it was not quiet. Coming hazardously close to breaking the sound barrier on its way to the lower Ironhearts, it left a long tail of noise that carried far over the ocean surface, marking its passage with a contrail. A distant and forgotten stem of the Filter Cities shuddered near an atoll, a spit of sand that had once been a mountain, and Heartworm was alerted.

Its observation of Cornerstone, it thought, was fair enough exchange for the droningbird tailing Tauga.

Majus kept a straight course and Heartworm didn't have the equipment required to follow it quietly. It cut portals into certain locations on its projected route instead and listened for disturbance, setting Tauga on high alert. The hain made contact.

What is it?

Another mind. Automaton. Sighted in Xerxes. May be hostile. The memories flickered into Tauga's brain.

...If you poke that thing.

...

Whatever. Do your shit.

Heartworm made no reply and the connection thinned, was taken over by Tauga conversing with Sasha in the blood tunnels before it fizzled out. Majus continued its flight. The Emaciator watched.

One of two. Where is the counterpart?

Majus had appeared elsewhere, from time to time, in order to stand guard, or perhaps deliver information. Heartworm had never gotten close enough to find out. But the little one, the special operator, had proven elusive. As far as Heartworm could tell, it was never stationed at Cornerstone, nor had it engaged with the Realta to any serious extent. All that remained were a few aged traces of Tounic energy in the Citadel Dundee, and those told of nothing but stealth and subterfuge.

...Familiar.

Curiousity and fear. Together they make concern.

Majus veered off course as it found its target; Heartworm kicked into the appropriate warp and focused its long-range senses. It recognised its own handiwork. It was what rode on the gryphon's back that astonished it.

Majus shot past the trio airborne, nearly clipping a wing. A momentary spike of stimulants hit Heartworm's vehicle as it watched the moment pass.

This was well beyond its league.

The four disappeared into a settlement of heretics.

Heartworm instructed a handful of Bludgeons to re-enter and again alerted Tauga. Tauga instructed it to 'figure out if you're ready for a fight or not or just stay the fuck away, you dumb fucking worm'. Heartworm interpreted this as a call to non-interference. It waited several minutes.

There were collisions. Majus returned, carrying the limp body of its former ally, and shot into the sky. Heartworm considered contacting Toun for custody. It did not. Instead it waited. Hours passed.

It folded its limbs into its pod and hovered into the cavern. Ping. Ping.

No Majus.

No Minus.

Sleeping figures.

...Residue.

Quiet as the grave, without a single light blinking from behind its visor, Heartworm settled in a niche and kept watch. Three figures. Dwarf, gryphon, anomaly. Heartworm superimposed the anomaly's proportions onto the shell of dead porcelain, and made a hypothesis.

Dawn came.

The figures left.

It tasted the residue. Dwarf blood. Gryphon blood, too, but far less interesting. These genes corresponded to the diagrams in Lazarus's laboratory. The dwarf was a Legate.

It tasted the residue.

Ink.

...

They are headed to the Valley of Peace. Heartworm will-

Another telepathic alert, but not from Tauga.

...

Drones?

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Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Frettzo
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Frettzo Summary Lover

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A lavender flower
South of the Deepwoods


Our existence was simple.

A good while ago I sprouted and joined life with so many of my family near me, all of them growing on these plains.

There were beings that could eat us. There were also beings that cherished us. During the day we basked in the loving embrace of our Father, whose light caressed our petals and stems. During the night we communed with our mother, who let us take root in her and connect with each other.

It all ended.

I don't know why it happened, but I remember feeling my family leave me. Every departure felt like a torn petal. Even my smaller friends, the short ones with no petals, were going away with no notice.

That's when I felt it. A presence which overpowered everything else. Such a toxic presence that by being close to it a shiver went down my stem and I felt my petals shrivel. My connection to our Mother was the next to go, and for the first time in my short life, I felt alone.

I wanted to feel my family, I wanted to be with my Mother and I wanted to feel my Father's love, but I felt nothing.

The ground that had been my home since my sprouting was turning dry and my roots felt like they were on fire.

I asked for help so many times, but no one answered. No one was there.

So, as I felt the presence coming closer, I steeled my dying body as much as I could and prepared for death. At least my body would eventually be used as nutrients by new members of my family.

Then I felt it. Another presence. While the first one made everything seem bleak and hopeless, this one was like a shining light. It wasn't close. Oh, it was quite far. Yet the moment that it appeared, the dark presence took note and began moving toward it, away from me. The ground was still coarse and I was still dying, so I chose to focus on the battle for what little time I had left. The farther away the dark presence went, the more connected to things I felt once more.

My family was dead, my friends were dead. Our Mother was crying and our Father tried desperately to reach us. I tried to comfort my Mother by telling her that my body would heal the land once I passed, but she kept crying.

My petals shriveled up more. One fell to the dead ground.

Eventually, the dark presence met with the light presence, and some kind of struggle happened. I couldn't understand it.

Their struggle came to a close and both presences vanished, giving way to a new one which had grown quickly over the course of the battle.

Some time passed, and the presence grew stronger. Soon, the plains were covered in it, and I felt it.

Life.

It was so quick how new members of my Family sprouted, how my friends were growing again. The soil healed and next was my body.

Mother cried no more. Father managed to reach us. All was well. After a short time, the presence introduced itself as our Mother.

I asked the presence what it meant since our Mother had been with us since before the presence existed. It said that it was the part of our Mother that could think and act, and therefore we could call it Mother as well.

We agreed on this and accepted her into our lives. Over time, we grew accustomed to having two Mothers. One for the Body, which was the Old Mother, and one for the Heart and Mind, which was the New Mother.

The more connected we grew with the New Mother, the more we found out about her. She was great and powerful, a tree of unseen proportions. We named her body the Great Tree.

Our reverie was broken when another presence showed up. This one resembled the Presence of Light that had unknowingly saved us some time ago, but it was... Tainted.

Upon its arrival, the New Mother put all traces she had left of the essence of the previous Presence of Light into a material object and we observed as the new presence kissed the object. The kiss sent shockwaves through our Mother, who started weeping.

Then the shockwaves reached us, they reached me.

This presence was broken. My new Family may not have understood what the presence was feeling but in some deep part of my memory, I knew how it felt.

Back when I was alone, and the dark presence was threatening to undo my world. When I felt my Family leave me with no notice. That is what she felt.

I didn't weep, much to the surprise of Mother. When she asked me why I was not weeping, I told her that we should give the presence a Family, that she was alone in the world, much like I was before Mother healed my world.

When the Presence laid a hand on our Mother's bark, we showed her our world. The simplicity, the interconnectedness, the family. It was normal for us, but the presence changed almost immediately. It was so malleable.

We learned it was called Astarte and through her, we learned of a world much bigger than ours, a world where beings like her made the Old Mother into their playground.

We felt small, yet we received Astarte into the Family either way. Feeling her essence begin to heal was enough for us.

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Hidden 7 mos ago 7 mos ago Post by Cyclone
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Cyclone of Cyclonia

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Burning Winds


Shadow boi
J-gurl


On a well-placed pedestal of the Celestial Citadel, revolving smoothly in its bowl of water, an ancient lens reclined and focused on the chaos.

Winds had whirled, and they had whirled long before. What business had this, this pretty but blasphemous trinket, standing in so esteemed a position on the towers commissioned by the Father? Motions had been made to remove it long ago, but Zephyrion's will, forgotten as it had been, was yet respected.

Now... There were other pains on the horizon.

The stream of Change blew through the foundations of the Citadel, and was recorded as a fantastic sound, a terrible noise and light that sparked across its field of view. Altitude shifted, and the old winds died. The planet's first and finest monument began to fall.

Jvan watched bricks cascade like rain, and a shadow flicking away in the last moment before the eye was crushed by stone.

I see you.

And It had seen her, too.




"What depraved mockery is this? You would summon me to the ruin of the place that I was sworn to protect and where you annihilated my peers, and for the mere purpose of talking?"

"Do you doubt my intentions? Were it my desire to destroy you rather than to speak, you would already be nothing but a dying echo on the wind. But I think that you know that, and that is why you came. In answering my summons, you've already proven yourself wiser than your so-called peers."

The oscillations froze, and for a moment there was silence. Then they resumed and the djinni lord sharply intoned, "Why did you kill them?"

The shade seemed to shrug. "I came for the Vizier. They posed as obstacles in my way, and were dealt with accordingly. I do not tolerate defiance."

"And why did you kill him?"

"The insufferable fool was far too much like my brother: ever passive, tolerant, compromising, weak. Look at the calamity that has befallen this House under his watch. Vestec was permitted to taint hundreds of spiryts, and remnants of the so-called 'storm djinn' survive yet in that blasted plain below us. Meanwhile, Jvan works similar corruption but on a far grander scale. Those abominable beasts that devour flickers are a direct insult to your life and to my rule, and they shall be eradicated.

What truly sealed Ventus' grave was his own arrogance and avarice. For all his failings I would have him deposed; but as he sought to steal divine power and channel it in this very sanctum, he deserved to die."


The djinni lord contemplated those words carefully. The god seemed to grow more impatient with every passing moment and question, so the djinni finally spoke again. "All sensible, then. The Vizier was indeed far too passive. So...you called yourself my father's brother? You are my uncle?"

Xos looked closer at the elemental and regarded it in a new, strange way. "Indeed. And as I am here in my brother's stead, I stand as Lord of this House. So swear your fealty, Murmur. And then bring the others; they too must submit to my authority. Only then may our work begin."

"I offer fealty before thee and unto thee, my Lord," Murmur swore without a second thought. Xos was the ruler that Murmur had longed for; at last, there was one who understood and would support his sacred calling rather than grimace at it. "And as it be your wish, so it is my command. I shall summon the Conclave of Winds and send word to the other Scions, too."

"Good. A Vizier knows himself, and knows what he must do. You shall be my hand."

Xos turned back to the reflective glass. It had been damaged in their battle, but it still functioned to some extent. As Murmur left, the shade gazed into the depths of the True Mirror and observed the machinations of his scattered enemies.




There was a faint rustling as the shaman pushed through the opening of a felt tent.

He stepped inside, then leaned on his walking stick and cocked a head to look at his son. "So your moulting seems nearly done."

The bored youth at once became alive, animated like a leaf swept up by the wind. "Yes," he answered instantly, the eagerness filling his body and almost making him shout. "And I have studied the rituals, prepared my offering, and memorized the incantations, too. I am ready."

The shaman grasped the small wood carving that his son had made, examining its every feature. It bore the likeness of a giant, every detail whittled near immaculately. Satisfied, he handed the offering back.

Then he looked at his son's shell with an even more scutinizing eye as he searched for any marks that remained of the Second Hatching. "Are you sure? To appear before the djinn with so much as a single marking upon you would be doubtless be taken as an affront; it would bode poorly for the entire village. Perhaps we should wait longer, just to be sure. Remember Barak, you will be the youngest one that we have ever allowed to become a shaman."

"I've waited long enough! Do your eyes fail you? My shell has no marks. They will not mistake me for a monster."

There was a long, silent pause as the two regarded one another. At last, Barak's father relented. "Then we shall leave this morning. Gather your things, for we shall be gone for several days."

Barak immediately grabbed a pack that he had prepared months prior. Without another minute's pause, they left the tent together, waited for the other village shamans to gather and join their party, and then set out for the mountains.




"You have sworn fealty to the monster that slayed Ventus? He was our Vizier! He was our eldest brother! It was he who raised you so high!"

There was a sharp crack analogous to a derisive snort. "His hand was ever too slow and cautious; he would have led us to ruin, so it is best that another rule now. And I do not stand alone at the new master's side; know that Lord Anshal has already pledged the winds of the West to our cause, and Boreas the Northerly. Only the two of you remain. Would you turn upon your own brethren and divide the Conclave?"

Komnestos did not take kindly to such insinuations. "You dare speak of betrayal? You conspire with an enemy of our great Father, the murderer of his first son!"

"He is our Father's own brother, and a true brother at that--not one of the other mongrels that deign to think themselves of equal divinity to Zephyrion. And he understands our purpose better than Ventus ever could. Under his direction, we will eradicate the abominations that Jvan created to hunt our kind. And then we will do together what I could not do alone, and finish purging the lesser Jvanic filth. Then we will perhaps cull the wretched mortals, to restore their humility and leave less hosts for Jvan's corruptive taint. For too long have we sat idly whilst our power declined."

"Cull the mortals? How can you speak such evil? Murmur, that crusade of yours...it was one thing, but you have allowed it to consume you. How long has it been since you have accompanied my monsoons? Do you not remember why you create thunder--to warn these 'wretched' mortals that they may take shelter? Why would you strike the ones who give you purpose, who you prote-"

Notus' words fell upon deaf ears and she was cut short.

"My thunder does not come as a greeting, or some benevolent suggestion that they may take shelter. It comes as a terrible declaration: witness our great power, and worship us or die. But in the end it was only hubris; I see now that there are far more important things to occupy my time, like the continued hunting of abhorrent sculptors. Your southern winds will blow without my presence, and your monsoons will rain without my thunder. May they wash away entire villages of unprepared, irreverent mortals!"

"You are blinded. Such hatred is the wind that carries blights rather than warmth or rain."

"It is you who is blighted in thought; truth bends as easily as any other instrument. Know thyself: we are the sacred instruments of chaos--Change incarnate. Your desire to protect these mortals reeks of order and the corruptive influence of the lesser gods."

"You are lost; but not I! I shall never submit to the likes of your dark master."

Another sharp crack of thunder punctuated Murmur's dismissal. "Then we are done treating; when next we meet, I suspect it shall be as enemies on the field. Komnestos, I bid you think carefully on your next move. She drags you into a proposition in which there shall be no winning."

"You dare turn away now? You disrespect your betters; do you think we will allow you to simply leave?"

"Together, the two of you could not stop me. An empty threat and a shell of lies to protect your delusion--both ring hollow, Notus."

And then the emissary of Xos departed at the speed of sound.

There was a long silence upon the lonely summit as the two djinn brooded.

"Though poorly spoken, he is not without a point. To divide the Conclave is folly. We stand with everything to lose; if his master truly defeated the entire Zephyrean Skywatch singlehandedly, what is our defiance but the biting of insects?"

"Our defiance is everything! If the djinni lords of the Southerly and Easterly winds do not rise up, then who shall? If Murmur's master was truly so powerful we would already have been slain.

He lied about Boreas, for (as you know!) our brother has pledged to avenge Ventus and that stubborn brute has never been one to kneel. Perhaps he lies about Anshal, too."


"I think that he speaks the truth of Anshal. He is West, and I am East; we know one another well, and you know that our every step is done in lockstep dance around the other. But as of these past days, Anshal and his hosts have been moving most strangely. I have suspected something amiss."

"You must speak with him, then; I beg of you! As in for I, Duke Salis is no stranger. I shall go to plead with the sealords, and perhaps water will stand with us."

Even in dark times, Notus had a way of making Komnestos bloom. Radiating something akin to a smile, he agreed.




At the river's source in the mountains there was an idyllic, albeit unimpressive sight. From a great wall of stone ran a thousand tiny trickles, landing on in puddles below and slowly snaking together into the makings of a stream. There was no grand palace, and indeed there were no djinn in sight.

At least not in the sight of eyes; in reality they were everywhere. From his training, Barak knew the signs. The telltale signs of invisible hands were everywhere here; the air practically pulsated with the heartbeat of Flickers. The djinn had simply not yet chosen to appear.

Those that had come to seek counsel or blessing from the riverlord stepped forth and laid their offerings by the weeping wall, then sat upon the damp ground in patient meditation. With the music of a thousand birdsongs and the sound of the waters, time seemed to freeze.

After some time, damp spots began to appear on the ground. Watery forms slowly clambered out from the dirt, and in other places the puddles seemed to stand. All the djinn turned to face their lord and the shamans.

Old Fountainhead seemed to manifest as if from nothing; the very damp upon the rocks and the moisture in the misty air coalesced into a bubbling geyster of a figure five hain tall.

Fountainhead extended a long arm and waved a spindly finger over their heads. Small droplets of purifying, pristine, and refreshing water fell down upon their beaks.

The seated assembly of shamans rose before him, and then he spoke.

Barak could not discern the meaning behind the waterlord's words, though he concentrated hard upon every flowing syllable. Spoken by an actual spiryt, it all sounded so different from how the shamans had taught him. There were some things that study simply could not teach, and this was his first time ever seeing a djinni lord, let alone trying to listen to one.

But then Fountainhead's lengthy reception was over.

The waterlord began to examine their offerings one by one, speaking with the individual elder shamans. Though Fountainhead's dialect was impossible for Barak to understand, he understood small parts of what the shamans said in response; from their words and their mannerism it was almost as if that this ritual was like a meeting between old friends, or perhaps more like a meeting between child and grandfather.

In any case, the proceeding stretched on for hours. Years trickled by for djinn like the water dripped down the mountain, so meetings were bound to be lethargic. But eventually all things must end.

Fountainhead nodded to the assembly, and then his watery form came undone and seeped back into the damp ground. The shamans turned and began to leave, still under the watchful eye of Fountainhead's servants. But one by one, they too retreated back into the earth or reverted to innocuous puddles.

"What did you think?"

Barak tilted his head to level that side's eye with that of his father. He entertained notions of lying for fear of shielding himself from disappointment, but the truth poured out. "It was as though all my study was for nothing. I could barely understand a word."

To Barak's surprise, his father simply nodded. "That language was not made made for Hain. The lords of water, storm, stone, and cinder all carry a timbre of their own. We can only ever speak with a crude approximation of the true sounds, and there are some words with meanings that mortal minds cannot conceptualize. It was a long time before I could understand Fountainhead, for his words run as swift as the rivers and yet carry unspoken meaning as deep as wells. He tries to speak to us in a way that we may understand, but our minds can only glean so much of his wisdom."

For a response, Barak could only look to the ground in thought.

"You will have an easier time with the stonelords. By the standards of the other elements, their speech is neither quick nor poetic."

After that experience there was a sense of humility and awe about their group; they walked on in contemplative silence. Barak had recollections of all the stories of Fountainhead told to him as a hatchling. Fountainhead was old, some said older than the hills; the river god was certainly older than their village. On one days long past he had appeared from the riverside by their village and spoken to the curious people there. There were other stories of occasional visits that came after that, but for the most part the Hain now sought out Fountainhead rather than the other way around. Fountainhead rarely frequented his domain downstream, leaving it under the watchful eye of his quarrelsome servants. It seemed as if there was a master of each bend of the river and that such stations changed with the moons.

In light of all that, Barak had expected Fountainhead to be...different. The chieftains of Hain and Rovaick alike could be petty and consumed by hubris, and so he had come to expect the same of a djinni lord. He had imagined the river god to favor solitude because of pride, or disdain for mere mortals and their humble lands, yet Fountainhead had been neither overly prideful nor cruel nor living in luxury. It seemed more as though Fountainhead was reclusive because he had grown, and become wiser and more meditative in venerable age.

But memory and rumination eventually gave way to thought of the present. Erelong they were nearing the entrance of a great cave and another djinni lord's abode. Now Barak began to grow anxious, for it was this lord that he would present his offering to. His father and the others would be there to help him speak and all had assured him that there was no djinni kinder than Gorsik, but still, he was going to be speaking with a true giant! The thought was terrifying.

The 'cave' was no mere hole in a wall as Barak had expected; rather, it was like a small canyon. The cavity was gigantic, but then again Barak supposed that it would have to be if a giant stonelord was to fit through.

Even so great as the opening was, the sunlight that poured into the cavernous depths could only illuminate the first bend. They descended that far, and then along the wall was a collection of pine-pitch torches left by past groups of visiting shamans. One of the elders grabbed one of the torches and ignited it with the help of a small flamedjinn familiar, and then with him to lead the way they entered the black tunnels.

The torchlight reflected upon the faces of giant crystal clusters growing from the walls and veins of precious metals, just like it was reflected in their eyes. Eyes were watching from within the walls, of course. The stonedjinn were everywhere, though most were dormant.

And then they found themselves in a darkened chamber where the air was not so stifled. Barak could sense that they were upon some precipice before a great open expanse, but of this dark void there was nothing to be seen except for two soft glows in the distance.

There was a boom like thunder, and then another. Footsteps.

The caverns shook as the glows came closer. They were two gargantuan ruby crystals, and each one gleamed without the reflection of the elder shaman's torch. A six-fingered granite boulder the size of a house came crashing down upon the ledge mere feet away as the stonelord began to hoist himself up and cast his form into the torchlight. Another hand appeared, this one a misshapen mass with three bent digits. A third arm gripped a stalactite above them, and still another limb was left to hang by Gorsik's side.

Shadows consumed the details of his hulking form and they saw but only his torso and head, but even so, his body was as alien as it was huge.



Barak could only imagine what Gorsik might have looked like in his entirety.


Shadows consumed the details of his hulking form and they saw but only his torso and head, but even so, his body was as alien as it was huge. His manner of speech proved to be something more familiar to the hain.

The colossal stonelord leaned in closer to the torchlight. "Welcome to my realm, little soft ones," the reverbations meant, so far as Barak could understand. He tapped a finger against the adamant stone of the ground, suddenly aware of just how thin and brittle his own exoskeleton was. They were all like fleas.

This time the youth found confidence and inspiration to join with the others in worship and praise of the lord, but before he could present his carved offering, there was a disruption.

Intrigue was plain for a moment upon Gorsik's chiseled face for a moment, and some irritation also at the poor timing of it, but he was plainly distracted by something. More tremors shook the cave as giants moved unseen in the dark.

"But it seems you are not the only visitors right now. I sense a Wind outside billowing for my tunnels with urgency."

There was a whistle as an ethereal spiryt raced through the black tunnels. They could sense the being's Flicker and see its breath buffet the torch's flame, but beyond that there was no sign of the windjinn. It wasn't there to see them, so it took no effort to make itself visible.

Gorsik saw it though, and as he silently fixated on the empty space there was a glow of realization in his eyes. The windjinn was saying something to the stonelord, but the shamans were not privy to the elementals' telepathy with one another.

Barak though he could sense the vaporous body steal a glance at him, but then it was gone as soon as it had come.

"Much has changed. Go. You should return to your village."

Gorsik himself clambered fully onto the ledge and began to make his way through the tunnels. The stone itself contorted to make way for its lord.

As in for the shamans, they dared not protest, fleeing through the tunnels while the earth heaved behind them and ahead. Gorsik's giant sons were following their father and the shamans through the tunnels. The cavern was suddenly like a gigantic ant mound, and it had awakened. All around djinn woke from long slumber and erupted from the walls.

In the chaos a rain of gravel and clumped earth fell onto Barak from overhead, and then there was a darkness blacker than the dim cave.

It was all illuminated by the flash of lightning. Terrified screams rode along winds that howled even louder. The air itself choked on dust and gargantuan tunnels stretched from the ground to the highest peaks of heaven above, drinking the earth below and scattering trees, animals, villages, and Hain. Barak saw from above, as if he were a bird. A roaring djinni raced by right beside where he was suspended, but it did not buffet his wings.

Spectral birds only surrendered to ghostly winds.

Instead the djinni led a procession that dragged one of the great vortexes through the sky. Where that vortex met with the ground, Barak saw a small felt tent wrenched free from the stakes that held it into the soil.

The home of his childhood was scattered like chaff and lost forever.





Carmine threads of hyphae wrapped their way around a slope of metal, torn a thousand times into shapes too jagged to be described. They clambered, grew, like vines, and stretched their tendrils up into the stars.

A swarm of moths (like moths like fish like petals made of teeth) alighted from a Heartland sitting in the great pit. They caught the moonlit wind and burned away to nothing. Jvan reclined on her fleshen throne and watched the lives recycle.

Reality fizzed in patches, and she listened to her own breath. The breath flowed away and a thousand eyes blinked in glass. She picked up every voice that rang across Galbar. Again.

Sounds the same: another storm is coming today.

She waited.

The storm rained down not from black clouds, but from a porcelain ruin that had seemingly appeared from nowhere. Like one of the Firewind's onyx phantoms, the shattered upper spire of the Celestial Citadel gleamed softly beneath the moonlight. It began to lurch closer, descending from its perch in the sky.

Jvan unfurled a long vine, a growth of deep red nerve. It thickened as it stretched, grew more roots and more branches, and wound around itself as it reached up to the spire.

Flailing tendrils caught the base of that structure, and anchored there. The two were bridged.

A darkened silhouette watched from a balcony atop the ruined heights. It stepped off the precipice and found purchase on nought but darkness. Perhaps it was darkness.

But slowly it approached the ground, where seawater met a scarred pleateau of flesh. It came to land before the infestation in Galbar's surface that was Jvan.

"Welcome to my world," said the old voice of the deep. "Foreigner."

"Has ruination ever been foreign?"

The shade twisted to examine the creeping mass that grasped at the Celestial Citadel. "Release my fortress," it demanded.

"Your fortress," Jvan echoed. "As I recall, that palace belongs to Zephyrion, and also Teknall. And now, maybe, it will belong to me." The creepers gave a tug, gentle only in that it was slow for its strength. The tower began to tilt towards her.

Xos breathed in her insolence and exhaled death and decay. A dark surge erupted from every edifice in his armor and swept towards the creepers. They withered and died. "I am the lord of that spire, and Teknall dares not grasp for it. Perhaps your clasp will find death."

Jvan laughed her ancient laugh. She was not disturbed. The deep fog flowed from her, and the shadow was joined with a sourceless light. "Many have tried this, and many have failed. You will not succeed. I don't fear you, Foreigner."

The light in the fog grew blood-coloured, and formed shapes. "Perhaps," she said, "It is you who should fear me."

Tortured echoes escaped from metal. Xos advanced. "Empty bravery is but foolishness. Mine is a storm that has swept away gods before; you are but a hindrance. The blight that you have strewn about this world will be cleansed, and the djinn will serve me unimpeded. Whether you live or die depends on how well you beg."

"Beg!" more laughter, and this time it was mocking. The fog receded and left him a shadow upon a shadow. "Beg! What am I, a dog? My existence cages forces you would flee from! I've been cut in half by blades older than this universe! Time's claws found no purchase on me, and neither did Creation's! I fear not Hell, because I've become it. Enough of this!"

The iron blazed, and Jvan opened a thousand eyes of scalding light. She illuminated the sea as a forge. "Who are you?"

The shade's robes fluttered and fell back, exposing the armor beneath. His helmet melted and sloughed away like candlewax. Beneath it was a horrific apparition--Zephyrion's shadow. The mere sight of it burnt the eyes from mortals and drove them mad, but Jvan was not so easily blinded. Still, the aura of ruination about Xos grew tenfold with his helm no longer there to shield the world from his eternal wrath.

"I am the one that will succeed where they failed, for all those others were but flies. Pathetic sparks before the roaring inferno to come; anemic, corrupted powers subservient to Chaos and Change.

But words are only wind!"


Deep within the god's black chest, the Primordial Spark erupted with power. It bled out and smothered the world in Xos' entropic aura, and for all that light the shadow grew only larger.

The eyes shrank away and melted before his glow. The iron before him shrieked and tore away, and in that tunnel there was only fog.

"So you are Zephyrion, or the husk of him," said the voice within the cavern. They faced each other upon the water. "Wise, wise, foolish brother of mine. I should have known his mistakes were leading somewhere dark."

The shadow's maw gaped wide, exposing endless rows of jagged teeth.

Jvan turned, though she could not turn, and the plateau exhaled power. "Tell me. Was it me, who brought his fall? I sensed him in Old Chronos, and thought he would escape. Was it the Other I brought down, that ruined him? Was I wrong, Foreigner?"

In the smile and the silence, Jvan was left unanswered.

"You dare speak that name?"

The air snapped as twin walls of force collided upon the shade. A line of spray shot up where they met.

"Was I wrong, Foreigner? Was I?"

The shade was gone, alighted on a different wave in its calignous veil. Jvan's mind snapped at it as if a whip. He disappeared before its lash.

"Did I kill Zephyrion? Are you still my brother?"

Xos appeared in armour once more and Jvan's gaze swept the water away from him, seared away the air, left him in a speartip ball of sharpened gravity. All around were hooks and knives.

"WHO ARE YOU?"

Barbs fell upon armor and broke, and longer spines sank in. A black ichor of sorts seeped out and dissolved all, and with every puncture the shade's aura grew more potent and his laughter more deafening.

"You've already said it," he finally hissed.

With an explosive force he wrenched free of Jvan's grasp. Digging a hand into his own shadowy flesh, he dug free a light so bright that it illuminated every corner of the black expanse in blinding white. Then writhing snakes of cackling power cascaded from the endless fountain.

Pale colour shone into the tunnel, washing away the carmine mist that swirled within. Things withered upon the mountain of grey, and left only iron bone behind them.

And iron bone was enough.

Plates of metal bloomed liquid over the caverns of All-Beauty, one upon another upon another stacking together in a fluid instant, and closed into a ring. The face of a living god fell upon Xos from all sides; a circular maw enclosed him.

Before it slammed shut, a choking ray of dark and destructive energy surged into the jaws. Xos cupped his hands about the Spark even as it gushed pure magic of creation. He tainted and poisoned it with his touch, and through that dark power he obliterated everything that he saw.

Solid iron splashed away like liquid in the shock of Xos's blow. The shell was torn away.

Xos's stream of dusk penetrated the tunnel and tore through it unimpeded. The power of the Primordial Spark blazed on, into the heart of Jvan, into a shining fog-

~?~


A small creature sat perched and glow-blue, upside down on the tangle-earth. Below it the sky was clear and crimson; the eel-filled Globes had passed and their rains were dispersing to chase off droughts elsewhere.

The critter curled its head into two loops, gazing down into the heavens, where the tangle-sky hummed and wavered beyond the Amphioxus Globes. It closed its fans and in doing so propelled itself to the next curl of the tangle-earth, feeling mossy stuff crunch in the grip of its tail. It looked again, from a new angle, until a passing petal flicked its wings and blocked its gaze, causing it to swallow its eye and blink.

It wished the shade of the moss-trees would grow a little longer, their tangle-roots a little denser. Down in the tangle-sky zipped the things on rails that controlled the Globes. It wished it could flap its fans just hard enough, and fly like the petals, until it could see the tilt where tangle-earth met tangle-sky, and pass over the horizon to perch again upon the shiny red heaven below.


~?~


-where ten million flocks of petal-moths were roused and incinerated in an instant.

They burned in huge clouds of black fire as the shattered stems of moss-trees were blasted away by its shock. Its spherical oceans evaporated between the red and blue skies, blown apart into white steam. Thousands of ceramic rails crumbled in the wind of the Shade's wrath.

The world was ripped into noise and chaos. All was shrapnel and entropy. The dark beam faded.

Then, retaliation.

Four great Amphioxi speared out of that Heartland, whistling like dropped bombs. Straight like javelins and without feature, the Long Lances shot through the air and through the air, seething maws tearing portals through which they warped headlong. They were Lances and they were used as such, ignoring distance to cleave their quarry with hypergeometric aim.

More and more Amphioxi fired from the dying realm, translucent bolts that fell on Xos from every angle and none.

The corona of searing energy that raged about Xos managed to offer the intruder a great deal of protection. Lost in the labyrinthian depths and nonsensical spacetime, the shade soared and blasted apart cell-world after cell-world; in that way, he fought his way through Jvan as a cancer within cancer. His vehemence and tenacity seemed endless, but however great his capacity for destruction he gradually became frustrated with the deadlock and lack of any true progress. Jvan had shield after shield and to dismember the whole system would take a surge of power so great that there would be no controling it. Galbar would surely be ruined in th wake of such energy, and Xos was not yet willing to go to such lengths.

But Xos suspected a happy medium, something that would be catastrophic to Jvan without so much brute force.

One of the harpoons came from an unseen direction, pierced his veil of death, and managed to strike before the god's perception gave the forewarning to move. This one lacked the momentum to breach his damaged armor, but it would serve another purpose.

A hand of Xos, though incorporeal, managed to grasp the eel and wrench it off. It writhed until it was stilled by a ripping motion.

Then he bathed the bleeding stump of matter with energy from the Primordial Spark. It pulsated and burned and vaporized under it was a saturated cloud of radiant gas, but Xos did not yield. The former lance became so gorged that it fell inward and collapsed upon its own weight. It bent space and became an all-devouring void, much like Xos himself.

The god harnessed the raging storm and hurled it into the expanse ahead.

What distortion it wrenched behind it soared into violent motion, splitting teeth, sundering the walls that compartmentalised mechanisms untold. Jvan watched it travel from all angles and had nothing with which to block its inertia. Catching it would not kill it.

But it would buy her time.

The singularity penetrated a grand wall, behind which-

~?~


The rings revolved on their axial pylons. Water flushed through his gills as he breathed, the distant steams fogging pale near the Upper Limit. He pulsed and thus winched himself down the line anchoring him to dim Infinity below.

"Where will it be?" he asked, and the figure on the other depth-chain revolved away from him. He winched down further to catch a glimpse of her face, but beyond this, he could not move. The nearest ring released another bubbling cloud. "Why? Answer me." The answer was not given, and so they both fell once more into silence.


~?~


-a deep ocean fused into sunlight as its pylons were torn apart, the rings spinning off into orbit as bodies fell from their depth-chains into the searing nuclear halo.

Nanoseconds raced. Jvan had forced together such things before, but never taken one apart.

The atmosphere of the inner fractal blazed with static as she focused her attention from Xos onto the vision-twisting orb, and charged its surrounding air with fizzing motion. The singularity's gravity tore a haze of false particles into very real components, absorbing the negatives and withering as free energy escaped from it in waves.

Jvan force-fed the projectile with her miasma of virtual energy, and the singularity started to weaken. She caught it on a twist of space as it approached its inverse critical mass and the blackness began to glow.

"WHO ARE YOU?"

The white hole looped straightwards through an enormous tunnel of encrusted iron bone and lost its grip on itself as it shot towards Xos. It evaporated in a meteoric explosion of harsh light that slammed into the shade. The last scraps of his armor were shredded away and cast into oblivion, but as in for the god's own incorporeal mass of shadows, the energy may as well had been the faintest of breezes. Most was absorbed with little to no effect, but so energetic was the blast that some lonely rays survived and emerged on the other side. By some corruptive lensing effect they had been transformed into that same black quintessence of entropy that Xos had been drawing from the Primordial Spark all this time.

As the dark magic raced back to singe the one that made futile attempts at battle, Xos could not help but laugh. Without his helm, there was no reverberation to mask the sound into that tortured choke from before.

"I could weather burning winds a thousand times greater, and it would still be as a breeze upon a mountain. You cannot fight me. I am invincible!"

I am death.


The falling pillars of the god-temple reconstituted themselves, and Jvan worked the gears of All-Beauty. Long had she piloted this body, and long had her hands learned the way.

"Talk on, Foreigner," she said, and steam hissed. "You are nought but shade."

That retort conjured a rage the likes of which the world had never seen. Space and time seemed to distort as reality itself stretched and cortred into the shadow's twisted, hate-induced haze.

The ghosts of axial rings manifested around Xos, spun on new pylons that Jvan shot through the air. The pylons broke, but their rings only collapsed- snapped in on themselves in crushing spheres of inwards force.

Xos rested curiously still as a ring imploded the space he occupied, then burst with the pressure. He allowed himself to weather the crush. A forest of fragile pylons shot out around him, axial rings snapping shut predictively wherever he seemed likely to teleport, but this time he did not dodge.

The rings caught him, caged and tossed his darkness deep into a shapeless Heartland. It was then that he made his move.

He swelled and expanded at the speed of shadows. The corona of entropy that he wore like a cloak turned into a shockwave propelled outwards by his explosive growth. Jvan's constrictive rings tried to hinder this, but they were shattered by his fury.

In that strange world within Jvan, the shade filled every nook and cranny with devouring essence, and-

~?~


the stripes were like colours or like tongues of flame or like veins, pumping pulsing growing fading, transmitting a thousand hues to their limit far away

and the flashes of colour were like thoughts in the chains, momentary, fleeing the past to blaze in the present and be dust in the future


~?~


-reality shattered. Xos' burgeoning obfuscation dissolved the realm beneath it, stretching past its horizons and into the voids beyond. At its edges, the barrier around the world heaved and began to burst.

Oh-

Xos spilled from the broken world and into Jvan, occupying, now, not only a part of her but also the vacuous skeleton that pervaded her, and was without distance. From the caverns that had once opened into the world of pulsed flames and many others, Xos emerged, clawing out from a place both infinitely small and infinitely vast towards every window of Jvan's light.

He saw the surface, the ripples of moonspecked water just beyond All-Beauty's shell. He saw a vast white cathedral despoiled by the graffiti of its architect. Xos saw the door through which Heartworm's maw had once opened, at which a hundred weapons pointed, and he saw even the golden light of Vowzra's dreams, where he was caught and blinked through an endless recursive second of his own memory until that, too, broke under the strain.

All-Beauty began to react reflexively, and Jvan knew that was a sign of the end. The teeth broke out of the skin she had crafted and bit down upon the splayed faces of Chaos, wherever they were found. Julian fangs emerged on their fractal jaws and Jvan saw all of it happen at once, felt her mind fray with the strain of collapse.

"Out of it," she murmured, somewhere. "Get out of me."

The borders of the void, that were of void and were void, and were also All, began to tense. Xos sat in the broken space once occupied by a Heartland. Jvan took its borders and spun the universe around them. The windows began to close.

"Stay there," she whispered, only to herself. "You have your darkness. Keep it."

The shade writhed and wrathed, indistinguishable from the empty space which was now falling, falling up and down and out and away, in every direction as Jvan locked him in the dark.

The fractal jaws curled shut and Xos was very small, a thought in the silence as Jvan looked at him and blacked out.




It was peaceful here. Where was 'here'? He didn't know, but it must have been a long ways away else tales of such beauty would have been passed down in his tribe. The dusk's last raws of golden sunlight shone brightly and cast the mirage of a thousand jewels beneath the sea's turqoise waves. A small breeze rustled the palm fronds and perfectly juxtaposed the warmth of the sand beneath him.

It was gradually growing darker and colder but for the crackling flames of a campfire beside him. When driftwood burned it was known to sometimes take on a greenish hue, but this fire's glow was something stranger-- a mesmerizing gold.

'Open your eyes.'

He didn't hear that voice. He didn't want to.

But it spoke again. 'Open your eyes, shaman.'

The pristine surroundings began to wobble and melt as his vision blurred. Everything was falling apart. He would have stayed in this paradise forever, but it was only a fever dream.

As the world crumbled, he saw a holocaust; a firestorm of unimaginable size and fury, with rivers of liquid fire and ash, swept down the hills. It was incinerating entire forests as it razed a path to the seashore. Noxious fumes and waves of searing heat rippled through the heat-distorted air. It was not only the heat that bent and twisted at the air, though; there was something else in the sky, bludgeoning its way through, making some thunderous, incessant roar akin to that of an erupting volcano. The ash above also billowed in strange ways as if roiling in the midst of a thousand different gusts and eddies.

But on the ground, at the head of the advanced wall of fire there were a thousand thousand writhing beings, and towering over the legions of living flame there was a terrible blaze that dwarfed the tallest trees. It was a great vortex of pure, writhing flame that moved with resolute fury and utter disdain for the beings that were reduced to ash beneath its advance. But it was not alone in rising so tall. Behind it, through the veil of smoke and ash, there were the silhouettes of hulking, magmatic giants, and dozens of them. The ground shuddered beneath their footfall.

'You have seen what comes. Open your eyes.'

He didn't know where the voice came from, but it bid him open his eyes a final time. Barak choked back into consciousness and opened his eyes again. Gone was that paradise, and the warm sands and blasting heat of the incoming flames. It was all replaced by only a throbbing headache, aching pain in his legs, and the damp darkness of a cave.

He heard voices speaking. His father, and some of the other shamans.

"Jadli and Sre have yet to return. With the storms raging so, it's unlikely that they ever shall find their way back to us; we can only pray that they've survived."

"They have nowhere to go. We have nowhere to go, nothing to do but die. It's all gone. Knestus has ruined all that our tribe has ever built, and we were not there to defend our village."

There was a somber silence.

"You know that we would have been powerless against a djinni lord so strong. At least some of our kindred took to the hills and fled. So long as they might be alive, we must stay strong. Perhaps they will meet us once more, and perhaps then they will need us."

Barak spoke in a course voice, "I saw it all in my dream. I told you. And Knestus tried to tell them too; he warned them that his storms would come, and bid them leave. He scattered us away, because he knows that something worse is coming."

Even in the dark, they all startled. Barak could hear their gasps as he suddenly spoke.

"I saw it, too. In my dream there was fire, a horrific fire. It is coming for us; it will not stop until it meets the sea. Knestus cannot stop them."

They murmured something about fever-dreams, and didn't listen. Barak collapsed into sleep once more.

He wished that he hadn't, for he found himself trapped in a hellish world of torment and made to helplessly witness the cataclysm that befell his country.

Infernos, horrific gales, thunderstorms, deluges, landslides, and even blizzards all came without warning. There was no mercy and there was no reprieve, only unyielding fury and rage the likes of which he had never seen. Entire villages were destroyed in moments, along with their inhabitants--screaming women and children, even. He saw every horrid detail of it, until by sheer force of will and terror he broke free from the stupor of his dream.

He was back in the cave. His father and the other few shamans had somehow found sleep, cowering further back. But how could he be like them?

There was no running from death. The Hain in his dreams had tried to run, but one could not escape divine retribution. It would find them, and soon, no matter where they hid. What was a cave before the might of an apocalypse?

The only choice was whether he died cowering in a hole with his father and those blind, clueless shamans that thought they had been wise, or if he made his way back to his village and the rest of his family and died with them. The choice was clear.

Water fell from one eye as Barak looked back to where his father rested. He looked weak, tired, and all too frail; but weren't they all? That final time that he saw his father was seared into his mind forevermore.

Barak stepped out of the cave and into the storm outside. The pelting rain drenched him in a moment, and it was as if the tears never came.

Illuminated by the flashes of lightning, he trudged on with a suicidal strength that he had never before known possible.




So this is what it must feel to be mortal: every moment a crushing weight and probable death looming ahead as surely as the sun upon the horizon.

Komnestos envied the mortals not. The ashes upon the wind were growing thicker, and it would not be long now before Murmur's rabble arrived. As in for his own allies, some were already there; beneath the waves far below where the skylord hovered, there was the combined might of all Galbar's oceans. There was not only a host from the Sparking Sea led by Duke Salis, but also three great armies led by his vassals; one by a great sealord named Tsunami that ruled the Fractal Sea, another by Halcyon who ruled the warm tides and calm waters of the Metatic, and the third by Halcyon's sister Bryn who ruled the abyssal reaches and stirred the frigid depths to brew storms.

He doubted they would be enough. For one reason or another Slag did not lead his own massive cortege, but had rather sent one of the cruelest and most violent of all the firelords--the monstrous spiryt Thermaron. Though Thermaron was a powerful adversary, Komnestos could not help but imagine some sort of trickery or trap as it was not like Slag to suffer any possibility of defeat. Perhaps he simply had overwhelming faith in the victory of his side.

Fortunately, it seemed as though the odds were not so certain. Though Thermaron led a truly massive host of chthonian elementals that had been undiminished by the recent infighting and incursions by Change-Eaters, he had only the relatively small force of Anshal- that traitor! - to back him, though there was also Murmur, and it would be a grievous mistake to underestimate the lord of sound.

But Notus and Komnestos stood with their combined might as well as that of all the sealords, and both Boreas and the nearby stonelords were quickly moving to reinforce their position. Now they were outnumbered by the sheer hordes of burning djinn, but when their other allies arrived the tides would be turned.

They only had to weather the enemy until then.

~~~0~~~


Though rain and wind battered his carapace with the might of pelting stones, there was the silhouette of a lone Hain upon a faroff hillock. His presence was small, fleeting, insignificant; as easily overlooked as that of a fly. But unlike the flies, he could sense what was to come.

Nature screamed in tortured pain; it was not in balance. The presence of a million djinn saturated the very land with a shearing, twisting force as their concentrated auras extruded outwards and pushed at one another until the magic-laden air nearly burst.

To a mortal shaman that could just barely perceive such forces, to be in the presence of such nauseating power was overwhelming. But to the djinn, it must have been...invigorating. They were cannibals, and to them such concentrated essence and magic was ambrosia. He imagined that the most fearless of nature's gods were gazing down upon the field and seeing only a feast, not the pristine and virgin wilderness that were about to raze.

From amidst the black stormclouds above, there coalesced a gargantuan whirling mass of vapor, wind, and crackling lightning-- Knestus, Skylord of the East.

Barak steeled his jaw. Even knowing that the Sunrise God had been justified in every terrible action that he ordered his servants commit against the mortals, the young 'shaman' (he no longer thought of himself as such) could not help but hate the one that had preemptively destroyed his home and reduced his entire tribe to the likes of wild, fleeing animals.

There were many, many lords both great and petty that manifested before their commander, but he recognized none of them. They had not been seared into his memory by every haunting dream as Knestus had been, and he had not seen them in person as he had Fountainhead and Gorsik. Ah, how great those two lords had seemed to his foolish and young mind only days ago; he saw now that those 'high lords' were but the shortest of giants.

Piercing through the sounds of pounding rain and the howling winds and the distant rolling thunder, the words of Knestus cut through the air.

"O'er stark branches
the vengeful winds howl and rage
without leaves to blow.

Mortal foes will weep
Sunset and Rain in hand, and
their masters face down."


Every word was a darting breeze with syllables like both the crack of whips and the whisper of soft secrets, juxtaposed with alien words all but impossible to discern and that strange syntax denying Barak any true understanding of whatever figurative meaning such words could hold. He was spared the effort of pondering the meaning of whatever the djinni lord had said to his kind, for they all rallied and answered his address with raucous and eager cheer.

And then there was the sound of echoing flames, a mocking laughter that was punctuated by only one terrible decree:

"BURN!"


The darkened sky suffocating beneath stormclouds was suddenly illuminated by the dawn of a new sun, and then another, and then another. When the fireballs arced through the sky, their rosen glow blinded the hain's eyes. When they fell upon Galbar, even miles away he felt the wave of torrid heat upon his face. Where they landed upon the ground there were explosive pyroclasms that could have consumed villages in seconds, and where they fell upon the nearby sea there were eruptions of steam and raw force that shook the broiling waves and made rivers of molten glass where before there had been only sandy shoreline.

With a hellish roar, the orange glow a league away took shape and a massive, infernal vortex that stretched from the top of an ashen hillock to the bottom of the sky took form. Glowering balefully in the distance was that monstrous behemoth of flame that had plagued his dreams, even larger in life. And beneath Thermaron's towering hulk was the proscenium of fire, surging forwards as a living mass like so many ravenous locusts eager to devour and desecrate and be the living scourge of gods.

Retaliation was swift; volley upon volley of lightning rained down upon the ground with such fury and incessance that the sky was like a writhing snake pit of bending, blinding bolts. A thousand tornados descended from above and rampaged across the battlefield to meet the fires, whilst the rainclouds let loose a deluge that threatened to drown the world.

Barak fell to the ground, no, was flung down, and his eyes could see no more. He witnessed the cataclysm and the end of times not through sight, but through the deafening sounds and the feel of oh so much magic ripped free from dying flickers and strewn across the world.

To think that we could control such fury. In death my people will forgive our arrogance, I hope.

Even miles away from the tumultuous crucible of destruction, he was flung to and fro like a child's toy and battered nearly to the point of unconsciousness (if not death) before becoming nestled in the boughs of a tree; however, even that tree threatened to uprooted by the strength of the raging winds. The sky was at war with itself; to the west lord An'zel, to the south Knoeus, to the east Knestus, below fire and in the middle death.

Amidst the discord there rang out a new chord of chaos; the Stonelords had arrived, and with them the pounding of footsteps bearing the weight of mountains, the shaking and cracking of the earth as lords of earth grafted great fissures into the midst of their enemies and lords of fire summoned great volcanic eruptions from the infernal depths below. Among the giants Barak thought he sensed Gorsik and his sons, charging at the heart of the flame alongside a hundred other giants. They were met with a row of other giants of near equal stature, but these were titans of magma and fury whose breaths with like the fiery bellows of a forge.

The molten giants locked into battle with the onslaught of stonelords in a brawl of unimaginable size, but four stonelords broke through the line and rampaged towards the pillar of flame that was incinerating the world and laughing in sadistic glee all the while.

Two stopped short of his towering form, one to crouch and hurl massive boulders and the other to bend the earth and shatter the foundations of the hillock beneath Thermaron. Both were swept away by burning winds, knocked down by gargantuan fireballs and then devoured by the legions of lesser flamedjinn that they had waded through.

The first of the remaining two giants skirted around its great adversary with a surprising dexterity like that of a mountain goat, dodging left and right and looked for any gaps or weaknesses. But it danced too close to the sun, for the light of Thermaron's glow blinded it to the swooping charge of Anshal, whose might shattered stone with only one supersonic blow. There were none that could outrun the wind, even less though if they could not see it coming.

The final giant, brave perhaps to the point of foolishness, did what none other had even considered possible. From the ground ahead it summoned two great spines of stone that erupted up like raised spears leveled towards Thermaron. They both fell laughably short of piercing the enemy's fiery mass, and Slag's lieutenant laughed as he prepared to deal a lethal strike, but the giant had not been intending to drive those spikes into the firelord's feet; their mark was his heart.

Without breaking his charge, the giant tore the smaller of the great spikes of stone free from the earth that it had protruded from, and then it became a literal spear in his massive hands. The larger of the spikes was only a few paces ahead, and once Thermaron saw what the giant intended and a brief look of horrified shock flashed across his infernal visage, it was too late. The giant charged up the spike with all its weight behind it, using the end of the great point as a springboard with which to leap. He drove his earthen spear straight into Thermaron's fiery breast, and there was a howl of agony like metal twisting as it was ground upon stone.

Even as the rocky spear melted away and fell free of the wound, flames and essence gushed out of the terrible wound. Though maimed, Thermaron's rage burned still. The giant tumbled to the ground, a look of triumph upon its face even as its mortally wounded foe lifted it into the air with an infernal grip and squeezed until there was nothing left of the giant save for slag and molten rock that dripped free of Thermaron's hand like sweat.

And so the battle raged, and where earth met with flame there were cinders and grains, where water met with fire there was searing sewater and frigid flame, where air met air there was the howling of a thousand-thousand gales.

It was the stuff of epics, if only there were any poets that were to witness such calvary and have words to write and serendipity enough to survive and sing them.

And on, and on this went-the battle did rage! - for days, at least, though the passage of the sun through the sky was hidden behind all so many clouds of air and thunderstorm.

When the burning winds gave way to an icy chill, Barak thought himself mad, but then he saw it: another force had finally arrived to the fray. It was Boreas, Lord of the North, and his long breath that brought winter. Quickly a mighty blizzard swept into the crucible, and within it there were giants of ice and snow that carried glaciers upon their backs and the weight of avalanches behind their fists. Both sides did cheer, for both thought that their ally had at last arrived to route the other's flanks.

But Boreas had made his choice, and with grim determination his host fell upon the legions of flame and crushed their exhausted foes with the fresh vigor of those that just entered battle. When Boreas waded through the ranks of routing firedjinn at the head of his glacial army, he was the first to climb the searing hillock where Thermaron ranked, barking commands to his legions and managing to throw the occasional flare despite the horrific wound that sapped at his strength.

It was hardly a fight. Crippled by the stonelord's spear-wound, Thermaron was overpowered by the algid might of Boreas.

"Traitorous mongrel! Wretched liar! I will be reborn by my master's hand, and you shall suffer-"


There was no emotion in Boreas' grey eyes.

"Such worthless final words; how you waste your breath."

With one long breath upon Thermaron's baleful visage, Boreas froze the fire that flowed through the lord's form and drank in the essence that poured forth, leaving nothing behind.

Anshal looked down in dismay and desperately attempted to keep his wavering forces from breaking and fleeing like so many of the firedjinn below, and Notus took a brief moment to step away from her post within the stormclouds and greet her newly arrived ally.

Boreas returned her salutations with a glacial fist that battered her to the ground, and then an icy lance to the breast. Upon seeing their master fall, her force began to route just as Thermaron's and they fled back towards the safety of the sea, some of them regrouping under Salis and others making for the horizons. But Komnestos led a furious and vengeful assault. Boreas only laughed and met with his rival's charge, and the three winds faced one another: glacial north, dry and relentless west, and the warm east falling upon one another like wild beasts as they squabbled over who would claim the fallen Vizier's title.

Yet Murmur, perhaps the true Vizier, did not bother with such squabbles. Instead the unyielding might of thunder met with the onslaught of the seas. A harmonious song was one of futility and idiocy; it was here in the midst of such tumultuous discord that Murmur was most at home, and it showed. Sonic blasts echoed with deafening force as he launched concussive waves at the sea and through the waters. Through the entire battle he disrupted the bulk of Salis' forces and singlehandedly held off half of the great sealords, seemingly impervious to their blows whilst entirely capable of retaliating with his own.

Barak could see not what manner of battle went on amidst the waves and raging maelstroms, for he had long since turned his back upon the apocalyptic destruction and ran. But though his back could absorb the horrific sights, now that his spiritual Sight had been opened, he was helpless to not sense the surge of magic that swept through the land as yet another great lord was slain. Reeling at the loss of one of his vassals and at how the battle had been turned so quickly by Boreas' treachery, Duke Salis at last ordered a retreat. The sea itself seemed to lower and recede as so many watery elementals retreated back into its depths, but it was not the motion of their comparatively small bodies that moved an ocean so vast.

It was Salis himself, who pulled back the sea and then threw it forwards once more. With a gargantuan tsunami loomed upon the distance, his decree was absolute. Ally and enemy alike fled, and the battle was over long before he finally brought down the might of the sea and buried the entire crucible beneath fathoms upon fathoms of water. When the sea fianlly drank up the last of the flooded waters, there was little of the land that still remained.




Progress. One earth-shattering blow at a time.

An infernal fist of titanic proportions slammed into Galbar's crust. A million smaller molten hands pushed at stone. Then Slag finally broke through. He found the revolting mountain of flesh at its very roots.

"Flames consume you!"

Half taunt and half condemnation, his words were prophecy. Once the thin crust was breached, magma from Galbar's infernal mantle began to surge upward. It blasted into Jvan's underbelly with all the rage and hatred of untold hordes of flamedjinn.

Fearing retribution, Slag retreated deeper into his fiery domain and left the rest to his minions. They were legion and endlessly rose from the fiery depths.

The Shadow has its diversion. May it strike true and purge The Cancer That Breathes...

...and see to it that I am rewarded for this.


He cared little for the hand that was soon closing down from the magmatic wound he had tore and crushed Slag's raging masses in its oh so glacial fist.

Jvan saw. She said nothing, for she was not able to do so at that time. But she saw.




Light snapped into view as Jvan felt the impact of volatile magma rock her. A moment had passed. A brief fragile moment, but it had been long enough. Her guard had slipped.

Light!

Jvan seized control of her outer flesh, solidified her slag and snatched at the elemental presence as it fled. Her hand was slow, her muscles weak. She caught naught but fry. The iron shell reformed, the mantle-heat forced into her vented through her pores in a pyroclastic haze, as if flowing from a great sponge. The crust had cracked around her, and once more the ocean fumed.

She opened the catching hand and spread others into the mantle, anchoring herself against the sway of rebounding plates. The rest would have to wait. Her battle was not yet over.

Jvan's awareness swept gale-winged through the halls of her abyss, passing the gnashed locks she had set upon the windows to the void. Somewhere behind them, Xos remained, a furious storm that she could feel battering upon the walls that she had raised in haste. It would not weather him for long.

He sensed the perturbation and felt his quarry's attention shift to something else. Too late, Slag. You have struck too late!

He was in no position to deliver a fatal blow even given the diversion wrought by his ally, but he could escape this accursed tomb with which Jvan tried to bury inter him. Given enough raw power, anything could be obliterated.

The Primordial Spark's vibrant extrusion welled up in the shade's formless hands and began to fester with the corrupting rot of chaos. When there was enough, he focused the magic into a ray, and then--

No, thought Jvan, Enough.

Distant rock splashed up in an icy spray as Ovaedis swivelled in its river. It took aim into deep space, set mark between the film of galaxies that tangled over the void. Too soon since Jvan had wrecked the home of Osveril. She knew what was coming to her void.

The coordinates flooded her mind, and in his last moment Xos felt the heat of the Disunity on his face, the old heat that permeated the universe outside and now the universe within. Jvan made them one.

Xos had forged oblivion. A wave of annihilating energy swept through space, but that space was no longer what it had been a mere moment ago. It was alien, foreign, and far from Jvan. A nebula fled from him, a blurred haze that had once been the star he had crushed. It galed off into space, blazing a long amber streak of plasma.

In this small way, Jvan had spited him: from the Shade's destruction, beauty had been wrought.

It could have all been for nothing if he took the briefest moment to regain his bearings and then make his way back to the blight upon Galbar, but resuming that fight seemed futile. To weather down the entire mountain with only a whetstone was folly, and even in all his vehemence and unrelenting fury, Xos knew when his time was wasted.

There was a better way: striking at the Cancer's heart and arteries, leaving it to bleed to death rather than trying to hack it into pieces.

He had seen one such artery in Ovaedis, hanging over the planet like a black shroud, and another in the form of a city. They would both be cleansed.

Distantly, the manufactory was listening. Xos's silhouette was lost on the darkness, and the glow of his nebula would not be seen on Galbar for a million years. It could not hear him.

But he'll be back.

This was not a conclusion. This was just a second taken to reload.

The Shade would return. It had lost nothing. Jvan knew its grudge remained, and she would have to stand ready. Until then...

I'm alive. She had faced a foe as great as Logos, or greater, and survived. Jvan was awake. For the first time in a long series of fights, she had the chance to aim for a victory that wasn't Pyrrhic.

Jvan wished that was something she could be proud of.

...DAMN it!

All around her, inside her, between the vacuole she had filled with Xos, were the testaments to her failure. Wrecked worlds, crushed cities, creatures that had never had a soul and would never get the chance to live again. A thousand years of work had burned, and for what? To be snatched out of the palm of her hand in exchange for a stalemate?

Light scourge him, she thought. The night sky shone upon her, filled with smoke. Her shell tensed like muscle, raising spikes. She would inform her brothers, as she had promised.

And then she would handle this. With her fists.

The Emaciator knew a trick that Jvan was privy to, and she slid a long screw of teeth up into the sky from her surface, wildly shaped. The twisted jaw tore into the sky, chewing both inwards and outwards, and left a horrible rent into darkness. Into this she spilled her worlds, the wreckage of Heartlands, a heavy stream of tinted greys too damaged to be distinguishable from one another. They emerged in a nearby system, and Jvan's eyes could make out the other side of the portal orbiting a faint red flicker in the sky. Isonymph hovered there, her only loyal avatar, kicking the ruins into planets around the binary.

Jvan watched the dim planets forming, stagnant wastelands orbited by the last idle Amphioxi, circled by axial rings. A pulsar and a dying dwarf shone dim light on their surface.

She recorded the events of the battle on a dream, and sent it, one by one, to the houses of the gods. Her neuroarchivist gliders bore her memories everywhere: Cornerstone. Terrestrial Citadel. Valley of Peace. Pictaraika. Oath of Stilldeath, where Astarte roamed. Even Vestec, who would be watching his horde, or at least their mutual student of the mallet. She sent them to the minor deities, Lazarus and Tauga and Lifprasil and Phi. Jvan watched their swollen brains be carried away on filmy planarian bodies.

And then she seeded a new generation of Heartlands, cracked her knuckles, and set to work.

Senator for mechanised warfare. It was all coming back to her.




"I should be commanding my legions and smiting the lesser elements alongside Thermaron, not cowering in the molten core of the world to plot with you!"

"You are afraid that if he wins that battle, he will be powerful enough to usurp you."

It struck a nerve, because it was true. The furious Baron of Flame looked upon its new master's frayed simulacrum in disgust. "I sense that the Cancer still breathes, and you look worse for wear," he spat. He regretted his words a moment later as the shade drew closer. Its mere proximity...distressed the djinni lord. It would have disintegrated many others.

There was a long, tortuous silence. His supremacy asserted, Xos finally suppressed his aura of decay (lest he wither this insolent servant into something even more useless!) and spoke. "So long as you are in my loyal service, none shall overthrow you. I shall make sure of it. Now quiet your foolish words before you truly draw out my ire, and reforge my armor. I shall tell you how."

'What manner of wretched, degenerate god lacks the capacity to even create, much less reshape mere metal?'

The Baron dared not speak it, much less push such a thought even close to the forefront of his mind for fear of the erratic shade utterly destroying him in an instant of foul-tempered fury. So he followed Xos' careful instructions, though he was none too pleased. The smithing of such vanity was best left to mortals and that one foolish craft-god that liked to walk amongst them.

Yet firelords were still among the most talented of all smiths, and Slag's careful hand repalced the enigmatic armor and that had clad Xos before it had been ruined in his confrontation against Jvan. With only a thought, waves of entropic recursion rippled through the molen rock around them and shaped some of it into those eldritch robes tht Xos liked to drape over his armor.

'No,' Slag realized, 'he shaped nothing. He cannot shape anything. His touch annihilates everything; those robes are merely his own concentrated essence, as paltry and intangible as any intelligence that he displays!'

Xos looked at Slag and his vacant eyes bored holes into the scion. Before Slag could act on his mounting dread, Xos spoke again, "And now, a reward for good service. Forge a weapon of your choosing, and I shall bestow unto it all of my ruinous power, and beneath it any that challenge you will be reduced to less than nothing."

The indignation at being ordered to craft his own reward aside, Slag was furious at the mere prospect of using a weapon, but this time he watched his wording carefully.

"Djinn do not craft and bear weapons. It is not our way; no firelord before me has done it, and no firelord would obey my command if I am so weak as to require some petty instrument to act upon my will."

Xos scoffed. "Then is it a wonder that no great firelord before you has survived? I care not for how you claimed your title and came to dominate all the others, but I suspect that it was not done without violence."

He spoke the truth, Slag realized.

"It is with this weapon that I shall insure none may ever overthrow you, and with that weapon that you might finally crush my enemies and subjugate these 'lesser elements'."

In silence, Slag set about quickly shaping a colossal hammer from the very molten sea that was his domain. The product of his toil was a cruel, black hammer of frozen obsidian and iron.

Xos laid a hand upon it, but rather than crack and crumble and fade into oblivion as most things did, this weapon drank his horrific essence and then radiated that hateful aura just as much as it glowered red with Slag's infernal touch. And yet to grip it was bearable enough if not comfortable, at least in the hands of Xos' servant; the destructive fury of the weapon was to be directed upon whoever fell beneath the hammer's weight, not whoever wielded it.

"I name it Armageddon. It shall serve you well on my next task for you."




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Five figures strode like stick-and-rope men over a shaded expanse of frost.

Pale as the ice beneath their feet, they walked on deep snow as though they were gods on water, fearing neither the sink nor the slip. Rare moonbeams glanced between the mountains on either side, casting white light on a black and white landscape, and only the occasional beam from Mirus added colour to the scene.

A figure that may have been their dog, in a world where dogs could have five legs and antennae, kicked its heels into the snow and loped up beside the leader. She turned. The figure spoke.

"I'm gonna go up to sketch the horizon," it said, jittering, watching her through vertical eyes hidden deep beneath its skull. "Don't wait for me." Sticks of charcoal and styli clattered on its back as it dragged itself and its plates of wax up towards the razored stones.

"...Again?"

He was already gone. The leader put her hand on her hip and sighed deeply. The expeditioneer behind her took it well, at least until he didn't.

"I can not believe she's seeing him."

The leader would have disapproved of the banter. Going behind each other's back in such a small mission was the harbinger of failure. But Upsilon truly was a special case, and as far as she could tell, he genuinely did not care.

"Just get over it, Delta. She's never going to notice you."

"I am over it," said Delta, who was not over it. "It's just... Why him? Sampi I understand. It's just... I-"

"The High Priestess Lambda, blessed be her capacity for inexplicable drama," cut Leader when the verbal fumbling had gone on long enough, "has queer tastes, and I don't think you or frankly anyone else is ever going to figure out what her deal is. Let's go, Delta."

The third member of their line had caught up, and was gently pressing her on the shoulder. His hands were made of bronze, underneath a papery skin of white, and his face was nothing but a wind-carved beak. She nodded. The Remph walked silently on, blind and yet seeing, ever the guide without a voice.

Then he stopped. Leader looked up through her blindfold. "Hey," she called to the rest of the team, pointing down the valley. "I see something."

Pause.

"It's a fort," she said. "Or a palisade. Some kind of settlement."

The men fell in line swiftly. A glance to the mountains, but Upsilon was still missing. So be it.

They crunched their way through the snow. Their feet were bare. Even in the smoothest ice, their step was sure. Their flesh recognised its own.

Ancestral memories burned in their minds. There had been a time when they, too, had come home to picket lines on the ice.

"Wood," said Delta, narrowing gaze at the spikes. "...Chitin. Something grown."

(Fungus,) signed the Remph.

They slowed their step. Javelin range. Such a settlement was not to be approached lightly, even by allies. Delta looked. Leader nodded.

"Iy! Iyy-y!"

The shout echoed off the canyon walls.

A head popped up, clad in a bronze helmet that glinted in the sun. Upon spotting the soruce of the voice, they returned back behind the slope. Then, behind the slope, a trail of smoke began to rise.

"...Do they have a gate?"

"We're not being addressed," said Leader over the tension of the party. "Don't come any closer. I'll go alone."

Tossing her cape that it might glitter with the moons, Leader fell into an easy walk towards the settlement. The palisade extended from wall to wall in the valley, and its gate was of the same constitution as its poles.

"Greetings, strangers," she called. "A wandersome explorer begs entry, and the name of this place. We've travelled far, and seek the Motherland." She had no doubt that her language would not be understood, but some things are universal, and may be carried on tone alone.

There was a pause, then a sharp yell that echoed through the canyon from the other side of the palisade. "Jyij id mon a vjade xog ltapegpewb! Rnaje voul iylegzioqw!" Further, the gates did not open.

Leader tilted her head, then glanced at Remph to confirm. It shook its head.

"We bear you no ill will," she continued. Behind her, the Jvanic construct signed her words unbidden, in case someone knew the speech of hands. "We can respect your use of our land. Please, let there be fellowship among travellers," and she took a solemn knee.

Delta touched the hilt of his swords uneasily. Something caught his eye on the slope, but he didn't let himself glance, and no one could see his eyes widen in his skull.

"Mleak Snawvem! Me qivf tod buzdex jeglej wokwuer!" came the reply. In the distance, a clamor of boots. The picket poked his head above the slope again, eyeing the group.

Leader glanced. Remph flattened its fingers and twisted its hand. She rose, turned, and took a few steps back.

"We will proceed," she called back, "as soon as we've-"

Her gaze caught Upsilon's. Upsilon looked back. He went back to his charcoals. Behind her, Delta sparked.

"I swear to Death's god-"

She stood silent as he ran at the palisade and kicked off on it, leapt up the stones to the architect.

The picket yelled something, in the same unknown language as before. poking his head back behind the slope. The palisade shuddered against the force, though, and there were some distant shouts. Then, a hail of bolts emerged from behind the palisade, aimed for Delta.

Though he turned to the sound, they had already hit their mark. Red spattered the snow. Red lines trailed down his chest. Leader watched him fall, and when he braced himself on the earth to cough blood, she nodded the Remph forward.

The Sculptor stepped towards its ally slowly and with obvious purpose, not inclining its head to the wall. Kneeling beside him, it lifted the shard of glass over his left siphon, and, collecting his last words, raised its hand to pronounce him dead.

There was a sound of stretching ropes, and a series of heads poked over the palisade. They seemed nervous as the Sculptor moved forward. Then, whether by panic or design, one of them loosed their crossbow. This set forth a wave of bolts, as the rest followed the lead.

Leader swirled her cape and a flare of snow dust obscured her and the expedition. They heard metal clang on metal behind them as they fled laterally to the crags.

Paper flakes drifted from the body of the Remph, short bolts embedded in its head, chest and shoulder. The force of the projectiles had twisted its chest and neck but otherwise it had not moved.

Then it stood.

Touching its cold metal hands to the frosted wood of the palisade, it threw itself up the wall, and over, scattering dwarves with ice. A hot orb of an elbow collided with a crossbowman's helmet, and bronze fingertips gouged another's eye in a perfect martial strike.

The crossbowmen screamed, scattering across the palisade. In the distance, Remph could see a massive group of dwarves enroute, seemingly drawn by the smoke. Then, once they saw the palisade was being overrun, the gryphon riders in the group took to the air, rapidly covering the distance.

They reached Remph long before the rest of the group, each one attempting to impale the head of the Sculptor upon a lancepoint from a different angle. None of them got in each other's way- this was clearly practiced.

A flurry of paper like moths fell from the creature. Very slowly, its hands took hold of the final lance to pierce its beak, and snapped it; and then it fell still.

Leader's feet thudded on the walk and were followed by a warrior's. They bore glass blades and felled a dwarf between them as Leader glanced to the sky.

They had come at a lethally fortuitous time.

Leader backflipped from the wall and sprinted out over the valley in a cloud of snow, the warrior remaining to win her a moment's time. They could not afford to stay.

A section of the relief party stopped, rapidly taking out crossbows. Taking aim at the warrior, they fired as the gryphon-riders harried him. The bolts landed true, testament to the good aim of the dwarves. His siphons sparked with lightning as he sank to the boards.

Leader heard an expeditioneer yell about Upsilon. A four-legged lope at their side answered the question. One by one the explorers began to ignite, melting the snow in trails of steam to hasten their own ice as they fled.

They were not chased, as the dwarves remained at the palisade.

A hand waved to Upsilon and then to the sky. Upsilon's hidden eyes focused near the top of his skull and saw nothing. "Clear," he said, and the survivors settled their pace into something sustainable. They would be gone from the heavy army within hours.

And, within hours, they were.

Leader pulled the surviving expedition behind her as they approached the furthermost outpost of the Old Sea. Still in construction, its packed-ice walls were being glazed over by a cryomancer, rendering them smooth as glass.

"Hail," cried the leader.

"Upsilon!" called back a familiar voice. Upsilon skittered forwards and into Lambda's arms.

"Priestess," said Leader, taking a knee. Lambda nodded. "I know, Tau-Twelve. I saw everything. Remph sensed the loss of its own."

The leader sighed. "What shall we do? They're marching as to conquest."

Lambda looked at her, without moving her head. Upsilon stepped back. "We do what we were made for," she said. "We hold the ice we lost."

And Upsilon pulled his tube of sketches from his back, revealing an charcoal mirror of the shapes they had seen beyond the palisade, gryphon, dwarf and bow. And Lambda grinned her bitter smile.




Albe surveyed the settlement as it was dug -- he had been escorting settlers to their new fortress sites. This was going to be the beginning of Fortress Laaran, and should it grow large enough, Citadel Laaran. The miners worked tirelessly to bring this vision to reality.

They had dug little more than a pit at this point, but in the future they would use stone from the site to construct mighty walls and looming parapets. Regardless, it had been dug out exceedingly fast -- beyond his expectations. He could move his army as soon as the site was secured.

There had been attacks on the pickets -- but these were strategically insignificant. He simply needed to keep the guard up and the locals would settle down. He began to walk back to his quarters. There, he stored his bedding and more importantly, his aviary.

He was always glad to see his snow owls. He kept a few with him in his journeys, and ocassionally let them out to hunt. He had trained them himself. They'd always return to his aviary, and he knew he could even trust them with messages, should he need the service.

Esquire made a cooing sound upon seeing him enter, and he rubbed the snow owl's head. His sister, Sophie, was asleep in the corner. He let her sleep.




The ambassadorial convoy rode well-bred Heraktati, stood armoured in chitin and wore sponge-glass swords at their waists. Some of them had no legs, others had no arms; some of them had neither, yet were united all the same.

There were greater things holding them together than keeping them apart. Discipline. Honour. Loyalty. To God and Throne.

They wore banners on their backs and at the tip of their spears, depicting many symbols: the Lantern, the Scythe, the Eye and the Humbling River. Their Jvanic entourage rode stranger mounts, and wore stranger marks, attractors, spirals and dendrograms. Remph had appeared in many bodies. Those were unarmed.

Lambda wore Omicron-36 on her back, that limbless, blindfolded pixie of a pronobis. She approached at the top of the column. Sampi stepped forward in his roach-like Jvanic prosthetics, wary that the High Priestess had come here in person.

"Hold," she warned, eyeing the barracks through her blindfold. "They've seen us. Let them come."

The dwarves, remembering all too well their lost brothers, grabbed arms. They suspiciously began to approach the Pronobii, some wielding crossbows, others bronze swords.

Sampi looked to the Priestess, who nodded. He motioned to a warrior and was handed a pike with a black flag wrapped around its haft. With a simple spin, it unfolded over the snow.

'PARLEY', said the lettering in Dwarvish. With a Remph at his side, he stepped forwards, leaving the convoy behind him, unphased by the weaponry.

The Dwarves whispered amongst each other, seemingly coming to a decision. They walked up, the crossbows drawn. "Lay down your arms!" they cried.

Sampi inclined his head to the Remph and spoke softly, and was answered in a hand. The Remph planted its pike deep into the snow. Sampi removed his impressive belt of swords and let it hang from one hand, then fall. He removed a belt of knives, and set it to the snow the same way. Another belt of darts followed. Somehow, with all his weapons stripped from him, he only seemed a little less dangerous.

The Dwarvish swordsmen stepped in close enough to kick away the weapons, before, suddenly, all the swords and crossbows were raised against them. In Dwarven, they ordered, "Hands behind your back!" One dwarf brought a length of rope.

The Remph translated. With no interpreter necessary, Sampi said, "Why?" The Remph made a sign meaning 'explain yourselves'.

The swords were thrust forwards threateningly, barely missing them. "Hands behind your back!" they repeated. The crossbowmen behind them moved for a better angle.

Sampi had no patience for such dishonourable conduct.

At the signal of a small motion, the Remph ever-so-gently took a sword's blade in its fingertips, and bent it into a V. Its hand flicked, and broke someone's wrist; its fist made contact with a helmeted skull.

As the Remph rapidly turned a moment's peace into a full-blown fight, Sampi released the catch on his artificial legs and dropped straight down into the snow, disappearing as if in water. The lower body leapt forward, bowling over half the sword-wielding dwarves and sprinting at the crossbowmen with the speed of a stallion.

The cries of the soldiers travelled outwards, attracting yet more soldiers. They began to crowd around as the fight escalated, crossbowmen, pikemen, and sword-dwarves entering the fray. There were even a few axedwarves. The pikemen prodded at the Remph, while the sword dwarves and axedwarves focused on finding and taking out Sampi. Their hopes were in vain. When Sampi emerged from the deep snow, he was back behind allied lines. Lambda nodded, and when the Pronobii raised their hands, a great ice wall rose up between them and the crossbows. Omicron's vanes fluttered with the effort.

Out on the battlefield, the Remph knew it had completed its purpose, and promptly disregarded further attempts to engage. Crossbow bolts threw papery plumes of stuff from its body, and swords and dwarves were batted aside; it walked, slowly and unstoppably, towards the nearest warrior who seemed to be in charge, and thrust a scroll into his hands. Then it dropped to one knee and died of its injuries. The rest of Remph watched it placidly through clear glass.

"...Not bad I guess," said Lambda as Sampi's lower body scrabbled back over the ice wall with axes in its shell. She ran one of Omicron's vanes through two fingers, for comfort. "How are you, my love?"

Sampi frowned as was his usual response. "I find them displeasing." Yes, curt and frowny. Lambda giggled. "And we need better translators."

"Remph does the best it can." Her tone was a little sharper. "Now we'll wait."

The dwarf who had been handed the scroll, meanwhile, threw it upon the ground, stomping on it. The other dwarves went to work, chipping away at the ice wall while the wounded were dragged away.

Lambda watched a peasant dwarf hack at her partner's construction with an ice hatchet only four feet away and raised a single crystallised eyebrow. He paused.

"You're a tenacious bastard, aren't you?" He shuffled along to some other piece of wall and started chipping at it, determinedly looking anywhere but the Pronobii in front of his face. Omicron wiggled a vane and repaired the damage in an instant. "Your thoughts?" said Lambda, reaching for another scroll and chucking it over the top of the wall.

"Diplomacy has failed," said the cryomancer on her back, "and you act like a child, Priestess, for you refuse to admit it."

"Damn, you're right," said Lambda lazily. "Good call. We'll give them a minute." Sampi reattached into his sea-roach lower half and sighed.

The gryphon riders, meanwhile, took off, one going in another direction. The others circled the ice wall, throwing spears and javelins down on the other side of the palisade, hoping to impale the Pronobii. Most picked up shields rapidly from the snow or pulled hide ones from their back. The heraktati scattered slightly to make poorer targets. But most were not expecting combat, either, and some were struck.

One died.

"...Alright," said Lambda, reaching for her crucifix. "Enough of this."

The ice wall exploded, and at Lambda's signal blindfolds were ripped from their skulls, drowning the dwarves in warped gazes and a hail of icy debris. The Heraktati sprinted for their marks, and liquid ice flowed in great rings around Lambda and Omicron as her partner launched spear after spear of cryogenic glass into the gryphons.

Lambda impaled a dwarf on the end of Recombinance and sampled his genes, then shot a harpoon full of liquid into the skull of another. Sampi retrieved his swords in an orderly fashion. The dwarves were overrun.

One of the Pronobii fell, their face firmly caved in. Something flashed in the corner of their vision, something silvery. Yet another Pronobii fell, this one with its head dismembered from its neck. Sampi then had his arm firmly grasped, then removed. The blur circled them, moving at incredible speeds.

Lambda watched it from fifty different angles at once, and knew something was wrong. She watched from Sampi's perspective as he grabbed his own shoulder and collapsed onto red snow.

...that's my boyfriend, you bitch!

Lambda roared and rose on a wave of Omicron's ice. She had a perfect knowledge of where it was and how it was moving; with a sharp turn, she flooded its trajectory head-on with a crush of heavy snow, stopping it in its tracks. Her herakt skidded over the impact and she landed, still astride the creature, Recombinance gleaming in winter sun as she charged the aberration from behind.

The aberration continued to move so fast it was naught but a silvery blur, grabbing hold of Lambda and throwing her. She went flying in the other direction, as the rest of her convoy was attacked by a rallied dwarf grouping.

Lambda flew through the air with a stunned look on her face and eventually landed in powder snow, face down with Omicron showing an ever-so-slightly disgruntled look to the sky. She clawed her way through the ice and sprinted to the fray.

"I recommend combination number eight," suggested Omicron as Lambda snatched up her spearaxe and focused Death's Sight. She could see through every pair of Lesser Eyes on the battlefield, from hers to Sampi's in the snow, to Delta and Tau-Twelve and Kappa and Omicron's fractal goggles on her back. "Got it."

Lambda threw out her off-hand and her power and Omicron's combined, raising ice that hardened into shrapnel and spat at the moving blur, one burst after the other after the other. It didn't matter that her reaction time failed her; she had plenty of eyes to aim from, and the spray was wide enough to hammer the monster in her sights.

The ice hit home, but the blur did not slow down. It came towards Lambda, and she felt a weight on her hand, before it flew off in an arc, flying through the air in a scream and a shower of blood. The blur then kicked Lambda to the ground. She skidded on one knee, halting herself with Recombinance stuck in the ground, trying to balance with her off-hand and unable to comprehend that it was no longer there.

Meanwhile, the other dwarves had organized, entering into practiced battle formations. They had begun to surround and conquer the remaining Pronobii.

"It's time to leave, Priestess," said Omicron.

Lambda screamed and ignited into flames, the world around her growing that much colder and deader. Dwarves crumpled around her path, swept aside by blasts of slush that burst from every footstep. Her siphons ate life and boiled it away to make more cold.

She slashed Recombinance into the blur.

The spearaxe was grabbed, the weapon being wrenched half-out of her remaining hand and thrown right back into her face. Then, Lambda began to get a horrible headache. It soon became unbearable, and she felt like she was being filled to the brim with power she couldn't handle.

Omicron's discharge arced through her vanes and struck the assailant's silvered breastplate, contracting his muscles hard enough to throw him down. Before the fizz of electricity had faded, a burst of snow launched Lambda away over the snow.

"Lambda, go."

Lambda's Herakt found her with five arrows stuck through its flank and she crawled loosely onto its back, Omicron covering for her with shards of ice as the creature leapt far away from there. Sampi pulled his sword out of a tenth dwarf and shouted the retreat.

Heraktati galloped out over the open snow, many without mounts and some with double, carrying Remph and Pronobis out back over the wasteland.

Albe got up from the snow, surveying the damage. They had killed far too many dwarves to be simple locals. He had to investigate further. He ordered the wounded to be brought to the field hospital. He knew it would be useful to bring along a full medical suite. He had several notable details on these creatures.

One, they wore blindfolds, and two, they were extremely powerful. Possibly Jvanic in origin... Yes. Almost certainly.




Lambda's Herakt let her drop at Kappa's bidding outside the same outpost where she had recently regrouped with Tau-Twelve, now complete. Omicron closed her eyes and undid the straps binding her to Lambda, raising her body up with the same ice, using it once again to pack around Lambda's wound. After a moment's hesitation, she froze up Lambda's stump-arm near the shoulder, and once it had gone numb, amputated it. It made a brittle sound. Some kind of Jvanic wires protruded. From the fallen arm there was no blood. In the time it took them to ride here, the limb she had lost had almost completely exsanguinated.

Sampi's cryomancy was much more crude. His side and machine were painted in blood. Another Pronobis took him aside to better ice the wound. He motioned that he'd rather it done where he was, at Lambda's side. Her blindfold had come loose in the fight and fallen around her neck, leaving her blind. Power had its costs.

"Hey," she said, dropping Recombinance and raising a limp hand (her only hand, from now on) to Sampi's chest. "Hey. Hey." Her head slumped on her neck and she smiled. Sampi held her hand in his. He followed her by the wrist as she felt tenderly around his wound, waved her remaining arm where Sampi's sixth had been. "We match."

Sampi pulled her close and held her tightly against his chest.

"How are you."

"I'm f-"

"You are NOT fine. Do NOT say otherwise. The Priestess is old enough to handle the consequences of her actions." Sampi glared at her, but Omicron's fizzling voice was not to be trifled with. "Lambda."

A faint nod. Lambda shrank into Sampi's shoulder.

"That engagement was extremely crude. You should have overrun them in an instant and captured prisoners to force diplomacy, or absconded in respectful order as soon as the message was given. I allowed you to take charge, but I see I have made a mistake." Lambda bit her lip as it trembled on Sampi's body. "May this mutilation be a lesson unto you."

Sampi felt Lambda's muscles coil and tense against his grip, and give a faint shake. Lambda choked back the sound, but he could still hear. He ran a hand through her crystal hairspikes. Omicron pursed her lips and said no more.

"...Where's Tau-Twelve."

"She is dead."

"Fuck."

They stood there for a while, Omicron motioning the rest of the convoy to go.

"...Did you see it?"

A nod rubbed against Sampi's sling. "It was a dwarf. Some kind of warrior. I didn't get its blood." Sampi sighed. He was in great pain, but he was patient. Lambda was grateful for that.

"You will," said Omicron, gazing out over the snow with her lenses. "Feed it time, young hero."

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Tauga applied the thin knife one more time to the haft of the polehammer, then again to the tip of her tongue. It drew blood. She smeared it over the head.

"Atacartes racta, taka linsa gg Tauga hai," she recited, gripping the point. It shuddered in her hand. She forced it to be still. A part of that shudder carried into her, replacing in her an unnameable part of herself just as the force of her grip replaced a part of the steel.

She stood, once more hefting its weight. It balanced perfectly in her hand. It always had, but only at her volition. Now she seemed unable to lose her grip on it. She swung the sacred weapon and leveled a crystal sprouting eight feet away. Its shards clattered on the cavern floor.

She picked one up and pitched it at the roof, examining the wyrm tunnel's outer wall by its light. In some other places, and here, the dark labyrinth penetrated the natural caves of Vakarlon, and did not stop for them. A sufferer in the tunnels could wander straight through a mighty chasm the size of a mountain and never know there was anything beyond the sickly walls but solid rock.

Tauga tapped the hammer on the stone. She listened to the echo. There was no wear on the haft of the executor at all. She knew that, even though she hadn't checked.

"This will make them respect me."

"False. It will only familiarise you. Tauga must rely on her own-"

"Yeah, I know," she said, stepping towards the tunnel. "I wasn't asking." She spun the hammer above her head without thinking and demolished a crystal with each end. Quartz as old as time and thrice as tough shattered like sugar at her strength. "This is what I meant. Run me through that one more time."

"Throughout their lives, Grotlings accumulate prestige through warcraft. Military success is the measure of worth. Elder veterans are revered. Gods considered spirits of strength. Perpetual campaign provides means of development towards utopia. Grotlings wish to achieve supremacy so as to advance all subservient races."

"Perfect." She turned to the waiting worm. "And what do you intend to play?"

"Heartworm plays the role of Vosh. Internal operator culture is underdeveloped. They will follow a superior."

"Alright. And I've gotta introduce myself as Tauranga. Right?"

"Tauga's birth name is guttural. Phonetically appropriate."

"And you?"

Heartworm made a sound.

"...Prshv... Pzhuvra?" Tauga raised an open hand. "Nobody with a tongue's going to pronounce that, Heartworm."

"They don't have to," the worm replied.




Birth of the Marquisate
Part II: Subjugation


Tauga's boots smashed weeds as they furled and snapped at her form. The Venomweald sensed her from miles away, her presence vast and visible to the flora. They were not fooled by the transparency of her tongues. A god walked here.

Tauga felt something coming through her tendrils, swept them aside that it might pass undisturbed. Beyond, she could feel the workings of slaves mashing the pith of trees for their meal, held by nothing but the knowledge that they would be caught if they tried to run. She looked up. Through the goggles of her mask, she could clearly see the vast wings of the Valtanansa beating as they trailed their pod of dirigible cloudwhales above. They moved like the wings of an angel's marionette, Grotling muscle hooked onto a pair of Vosh limbs, pulling the boneless wings in a manner not unlike that of a certain demigod's ornithopter. Mechanical. Tireless.

Somewhere up there, the Grotlings had built their whaleback outposts. Tauga stood still and let the one in the jungle find her.

A metal thorn whipped downwards onto the back of her skull. She caught it one-handed. It had fallen into the exact line of a hain's cranial blind spot. Admirable.

Tauga had intended to toss back the spearhead, but something about it shook her hand when she tried, so she let it fall. It was pulled back sharply on a long rope. The Grotling emerged.

"...Where are your wings?"

The lithe monstrosity drew four knives in four hands and leapt for Tauga, screeching unutterable hells under her crest. Tauga parried with the back of her gloves and leapt five times her body height to smack the Grotling in the skull.

"Don't," she said. "Good moves, but."

The Grotling backed off a touch and flicked the rope spear. It coiled like a live thing and Tauga retreated, blurring to avoid its catch. A welt had risen on the warrior's face. Tauga let her tendrils settle back on the Grotling. It backed off, slightly. Adjusted its guard.

She can sense them, Heartworm reminded.

"Right." She beckoned to the warrior. "I'm not gonna get caught out by you. What's your name?"

"Eggshells get broken here," said the Grotling, or something like that, in Grotto. "Make a good slave or a sad corpse."

With two quick motions, Tauga drew her sidearm, a rear-toothed Grotling blade. It cut through a flower as it moved, and she felt her foe tense. She beckoned again. The Grotling laughed.

"I didn't fucking think so." She pointed the blade at the gap in the trees. "Why aren't you with them?"

"I catch slaves," said the Grotling.

"You're doing shit job of it," said Tauga, and parried half a dozen blows with one hand. "You're not an Overseer. Who are you?"

"Sasha will bring the aberration to heel." The grammar was such that Tauga was the one being introduced, and Sasha's name was only dropped in passing. Clever. Respectful, in a threatening way.

"No," said Tauga, and launched a brisk offensive. It was a short skirmish, and a violent one, and at the end of it Tauga sat perched on a branch at head height with four knives on the ground and a rope spear caught dangerously fast on the teeth of her blade. A variety of fresh wounds had opened around Sasha's hands and thighs. She could see a Vosh knitting together the edges of its host body's wounds, draining fat reserves as it moved. She started to see how fascinating the process really was.

Sasha raised her fists, bleeding. "You are Jukfonite."

"Not a monk," she said. That was all the word meant in Grotto; they had no concept of Jvan. "Think bigger."

Sasha snarled. "Demon."

"Almost," she said. "I won't waste your time. Watch." Heartworm emerged from her suit by its limbs, took apart her cranium and brain, arranged them in two ways, and repaired her in an instant. Sasha paused. To her, it was bizarre, impressive. To her Vosh, who knew the ways of flesh, could understand the action's true complexity, there was one explanation only.

"Voshbolo," said Tauga. Vosh carrier. And the Vosh in question-

"Valun eppkel as."

"No one sent me. I came down because I wanted to."

Grotlings are not especially partial to using gestures of the head to indicate attention. The lack of eyes accounts for that. Tauga was not yet attuned to the subtler gestures of latter Grotkind, and when her hand rose to point to the ophanim that flew above, she knew not that Sasha was already listening to them.

"Those aren't the weapons of people who die. They're soul weapons. Mine." She flicked her fingers and the colony changed shape, confounding the Valtanansa sent to investigate it and nearly bisecting at least one. She moved them again and they returned to previous orbits. "I've seen Tek-" Heartworm's limb flicked through her tongue, changing the syllable- "Tesnald take the form of a hain. I take after her. Do you know why?"

Sasha made a facial gesture, a slight lowering of the head.

"Thought so. Say it."

"Tesnald te un ghorrinaal."

"And his name is Karn." Tauga exhaled. The hardest part was over. Yes, Tesnald had a husband. And Tauranga was their son. The lie was told, and in the telling it had become truth; just like Tauga's godhood, her ancestry was created by her myth. The Blowfly lived.

"You have seven gods. I'm the eighth. I'm the Vosh-carrier, the one who tests. I own ten thousand slaves." She looked up. Heartworm gave her no cues. She recited. She learned. "You have seven gods. The Prime is dead. The Writhe never left. My mother was the first to do so. I'm the one who came back." She looked down, slightly, to the towering slaver. "My name is Tauranga, son of Mason. My weapons crush armies."

"...Where are your thorns?"

"They'll grow in."

The Grotling looked down upon her, the one who had worn the shape of the weak-shelled and beaten her with it, and then slowly took a knee. Tauga nodded. Some words were spoken.

"Tell them everything you've heard," she replied. "Or don't. I don't care. I'll be saying it again and again ten times just to make them hear."

More words.

"Because I need a tribe," she said, and leapt into the sky.

* * *


Tauga leapt further, up on the threads of her tendrils, a dark bullet piercing the dark canopy.

She shattered the branch in her way with no more than a thought and an extended hand. As she tossed away the splinters, the Valtanansa saw her, and the foremost of the great-winged pirates dove to meet her. She brandished her bush-knife. The slingstone shot past her by some short inches, and she realised she'd have to close.

Riding the swing of an ophan around the colonial epicentre, Tauga flipped the machete back-hand and launched into the Valtanan, the Grotling immediately diving to do the same. The thorns on its first did nothing to slow the advance of the godling; her control of trajectory was greater, as was her speed. She rushed past with blood on her blade as the Vosh amputated what was left if its fist.

More slingstones fell, but Tauga had no intention of waiting around.

The rift in space spat, and Tauga's polehammer appeared in her hand. She'd done this so many times. The Grotlings could only move so fast, and Tauga's Vosh knew vents in the suit from which it could extend its limbs as it rose. The slingstones broke its fragile arms as one by one they were batted away.

Without disturbing the ophanim from their orbits, Tauga ripped through the Valtanan ranks, striking one by one the faceless entities in the language they understood.

She levelled her altitude on the top of a Bludgeon, let her feet settle upon it. The wounded Valtanansa fell spiralling to glide down and land amidst the trees. From afar, their reinforcement came.

Even a hollow-boned Grotling is too large to ride the mottled skyray. But they have loyal slaves.

With a single movement, an ophan departed from its orbit, and cut them both in half. The watchers on the dirigible cloudwhale grew still. Tauga flicked herself up with another ophan, extended her wingsuit and soared easily onto the cloudwhale.

She landed at the dead center of their arena. She looked around. Grotlings looked back at her. She beckoned to all of them, turning, one by one.

"...That's what I thought."

* * *


Tauga's feet stepped not without caution as they ascended the steps of the Rhyolite Temple. A schism of late had begun to send cracks through the accord of the elements, and the Monsoon roared above the mighty mountain, a display of power a little sharper, perhaps, than was their respectful due. It was nothing- just a wild wind, in the season therefor- but Tauga knew men, and Djinni behaved like men. The four elements had chosen leaders. The fault lines were there.

Nothing to her, of course, at least yet. Not in the shadow of the tetchy balance she had found with the mountain gods, and strove hard to preserve. She summited the Rhyolite Temple with the Teknarotu in tow, a laden sack of gifts upon her back. The metal-bender could carry hers, easily, in addition to his own, but it was humble and appropriate to bear one's own.

Tauga offered a fine copper goblet, and two jars of toaka gasy, hard rum. To this she added a sawshark skull, and some incense, and said prayers of penitence as they were subsumed into the stone, eternal magma bubbling as the volcano willed it. She had never been the type to pray, at least not 'til she was sick, but she prayed now- for peace, mostly, and the forgiveness of a crime against the mountains.

Then the two of them left, down through the valley between Ihuian's mountains.

Here the slaves were kept, or at least most of them that weren't settled on Axotal. They were Amestrians, many, of cities Tauga and the Alefprians had... Liberated. New warlords would rise to replace those petty lords they had toppled, but Tauga had made off with a substantial number of second-hand slaves and captured soldiers.

Others were from Itzamatul, which Tauga had been raiding of late, whole villages taken from that war-torn island and transplanted where they were needed to build her marquisate. The rest were gifts from the Saluractasa and other Grotling tribes, who were familiar with sacrifice. It had not taken them long to realise that Tauga was an avid and capable slaver.

Few Tlaca numbered among them; they were citizens of the islands and therefore free by birth. Nor were there Xerxians. The first refugees to land here had been granted freedom by virtue of there being no one left to own them, bar Erjang, the slave master, and though Erjang had not been a gentle woman, nor had she been cruel. Though some still begrudged her name for the tattoos on their shoulders or the work-scars on their backs, the fact remained that she had held their settlement together in Tauga's absence, and had communed with the Emaciator. The beach where they landed and she was now buried was Erjang's place, now and forever. The Marquisate's budding capital had found its name.

But that was all hundreds of miles away.

Tauga nodded to the Saluracta overseer standing outside the bamboo barracks, and he nodded back, exchanging an eyeless look with the Teknarotu that would have started a fight in any other species. Tauga's tendrils slipped up the stilts and under the door of the raised structure, sensing the slaves.

Healthy. Mostly human and goblin. Mostly women and eunuchs. Mostly book-keepers and builders.

Apart from segregating the sexes to avoid trouble, for which primates had some knack, the males and warrior caste tended to keep themselves away if ever they had a choice (and giving them one was key in maintaining their obedience). Grotlings are careful breeders. Male slaves that did not meet their exacting standards for sires and were not needed for raw strength were typically castrated by Vosh, to ensure longevity and improve behaviour. Most had some aversion to this, and non-Grotling slaveowners lacking the patience to build up their female slaves were eager to capitalise on the natural strength of the men.

The arrangement suited the women. They gravitated to Grotling overseers, who themselves took no untoward interest in them, and thus spared themselves some abuse. If they were required to bear specific children for their masters, so be it; they'd be doing that for their husbands in any case, and all pain was dulled under the net of madness the overseers had cast over their minds.

All this would be easy enough if not for the urtelem.

Tauga passed the ring of stones on their way up the far side of the mountain, her Teknarotu escort performing an idle flourish with his mace as they moved. She caught the eye of a stoneman glinting through the rain as they passed, and she flexed a hand in her glove. "Peace," she said.

Urtelem are not especially enamoured of cities. These are mostly capable of defending themselves, and the pace of life is faster than most urts are keen for. There is no room for wise rocks in a hill of ambitious ants. But the villages Tauga had stolen had not been undefended.

Cracking stone was not beyond her capabilities or that of the Grotlings, much less her sparse handful of Cosmic Knights, but it cost her men and time. Between the projectiles they launched at her Valtanansa and the runes they invoked on her ships, they had taken a toll on her and her thorny warriors. She would bargain with them if she could, even if it meant packing them on ships and sailing them to Axotal with their precious villagers, but that would infuriate the Grotlings.

Problems.

Fortunately, these sleepers in the rain were but locals. They had no old memories of the Itzamatul folk, though perhaps they sensed that something here was not quite sane, for they kept very close. The Grotlings had no trouble picking them apart from the surrounding stone, and the urts could easily scent the trail of cold, crushing intelligence surrounding each one. Watchers and watcher-watchers.

If they kept each other at peace, thought Tauga, that would be just fine.

* * *


The metal-bender led Tauga high up the fore-side of the mountain, facing the wind. She wondered how humans and rovaick could handle being in such conditions. Wouldn't all that awful head-fuzz soak? It did, yes, and the skin people had to be a very specific shade of warm in order to live. Hence their tendency to sweat constantly, and reek because of it. Maybe that explained why goblins ate so much, too, their bodies being so skinny.

Really, Tauga thought, it was a wonder they didn't die of hypothermia every time it rained, although, of course, some did...

"Shut up, Heartworm," she said aloud, and the distant worm filed away the details of human endothermy for a later date. The Grotling noticed, but didn't show it. After all, he, too, bore a Vosh.

"So. This is what you wanted to show me?"

The Teknarotu nodded, kneeling down before the windswept edifice. She watched the hammer-chisel emblem bounce on the hilt of his mace as he moved. A different kind of Chipper.

"And it's a kind of bloomery."

"It may be used so," he said in Grotto. Tauga had taken to speaking the Alefprian tongue by habit, such that she was always understood, whether by Tlaca, or Amestrian, or Itzamatul, or Grotling. It saved time. "You have noticed the shape of the wind."

Tauga nodded. Her tendrils flowed through the array of ceramic tubes leading into the sheltered smelting-furnace, angled at the forwards flank of the mountain such that the wind deflected by its bulk would stream directly into the pipes, into the long trench. She had to lean against it, such was its force. "This will save the arms of the bellows-pumpers, when it's season." She crouched, looking down the holes.

"That is right," said the metal-bender, "but there is a higher purpose."

Tauga tilted her head at him, then looked back. "The temperature. You could melt iron in this furnace, no problem. Maybe cast it like brass." She looked up to the top of the construction, frowned with her hands. "There's something else, though. If you tried to bloom ore in this, then that would melt too. Nothing to stop it dripping right into the coke and turning into pig metal." He was testing her, she realised. She met his gaze. Her back eyes caught something else on the slope. "What are those pots for? With the sand."

The Grotling nodded. She was on to something. "Your people have learned to work the solid metal. That is good. But you must learn to manipulate iron in its liquid state. This learning was passed down to us by our goddess Tesnald, through the words of the Wrought People, whom you call the Monks of Jaan."

"...That sand will melt in the furnace. It doesn't mix with iron." Tauga folded her knuckles, one hand over the other, squatting before the tuyeres. "You could put the metal, sand and charcoal all in the same bowl, and the sand would keep the iron free of coke and slag. It would sink to the bottom." This method was known, with copper, but had never been attempted with iron before. No one had achieved such terrific heat. "That's not all, is it?" Again the Grotling nodded.

"You hesitate, o Tauranga, to melt your iron, for you fear it will mix with the charge. That way lies brittleness. Yet you lament that what you produce is soft, like cheap bronze, and not as hard as our souls." He flourished his mace. Tauga nodded. It was a curt kind of nod; she did not like being reminded of her frustration.

"Both of these troubles are caused by the presence or lack of carbon. It is not so easy to add such stuff to the solid iron, or take it away. But once melted-"

"We can mix any iron." Tauga's gaze was locked on the long furnace, looking over the pipes and crucibles with new eyes. "You could add pig metal to iron in its melting pot. If they mix smoothly, the cokestuff will... thin out from one to the other. Make something new. I guess-" she blinked, put her hand to her face.

"Carbon. Carbide. Carbide! That's what Tesnald's weapons are, that's what the death-hammer's made of. Damn right!" Heartworm gave her that clue, and now she'd finally figured it out. "It'll be harder than iron. But it should be less brittle than pig metal. That's perfect." If it could work with adamantium, it would work with iron.

Tauga stood up, called her ophanim. "There's five weeks left of the monsoon. How much metal and coke do you need to get started? How many smiths?"

"I already have what I need," said the Chipper. Grotlings had an odd kind of modesty that came from never admitting they needed help. "Steel yourself, o Tauranga. Your era of supremacy is coming."

"Damn fucking right it is. I want fifteen straightswords. By the end of the season." No longer fearing the wind, she ran her hands over every bit of the blast furnace, checking its slag channels, its covers, its every crack. "So long as we don't end up giving the metal a stupid fucking name this time."

The Teknarotu watched as the ophanim pierced the cloud cover like dawn. "Steel yourself," he repeated.

* * *


Error is the mechanism by which truth is pruned from assumption.

The words echoed in vibrational speech through the body of a whale, beached by sea serpents and left alive in the shallow water. Heartworm's tongues extended like spiderlimbs hair-thin through it all. From tongue to tail-tip.

Unseeing, we strive at the borders of what we know.

A warband of Grotcarar and other tribesfolk stood guard uneasily waist-deep in the lagoon, some perched on the whale or treading water. Without Vosh, every instinct within them cried of loneliness and danger.

Sometimes we break through.

Some sixty Vosh riddled the inside of the whale. They followed Heartworm's lead, mending wounds it had made, studying twists of sinew it had implanted, conversing in a way none had had the opportunity to converse before: in a crowd.

When the next words came, they listened to the lesson.

Thought is mobile.

When Tauranga came to the Grotcarar, they were divided. Some said that they needed no God, and no living God could impress herself upon them. Most agreed. Power would not sway them. They were already sworn to a cause.

Their Vosh did not see things that way.

Imagination extrapolates the known.

The original Grot carried the original Vosh. When the Many Eyed Emperor slew both from the inside, their spirits escaped, intertwined, to soar forevermore in the hearts of their children. So went the story.

But Vosh are born in darkness. The myth of surface-dwellers has no bearing on the world they inhabit. To them, there was only one god, the Prime Vosh. Their ancient memory of Angelblood Ridge was unrecognisable to any other folk. It was a gruesome one.

They'd lost their only god.

And now they'd found another.

The limits of art dictate the limits of science.

Parasites or symbiotes? The latter, by all measure, but when Grotling will collided with that of their Vosh, they all too rapidly became the former. Vosh did not make many demands, but the ones they had they were well capable of enforcing.

The Emaciator offered them knowledge. The Emaciator offered them freedom. The Emaciator numbered them and listened to their voice, where no one else had. So they listened to the Emaciator. They learned its story. Its story resembled their own.

Power is the product of beauty.

The Vosh of the Grotcarar followed the one they named Prʐywra, in their own tongue, and where the fearful and the stubborn would not follow in turn, they were left behind.

And the people of Erjang whispered of the hidden god who had called the spiders to its fold and taught them of the dark things, the secret ways of Arkenflesh and schools of blood, and whom they knew only as SHUVRA, for their mouths were insufficient to form the true words.

* * *




The depths of the world shone with light.

Intermittent flare of blue on amber, the glow was seen by none and required by fewer. The cavern burned with it, marking the passage of God.

Grotlings had splayed out of rank, Grotlings everywhere, on every crag, in every gulley, sprinting through the blood well tunnels, hunting by smell and sound and aura-sight to challenge their kinsmen to duel. Weapons gleamed, discoloured by the Change Eater, in every shape and form of slaughter imaginable.

Wyrms shot through the dark, yawning with monstrous rows of teeth. Grotlings rode them. The Blowfly rode the greatest worm of all.

Auricolor alone was enough to face eight Grotlings, in her draconic Stance of the Threefold Ferret. Her claws were myriad, her laughter constant, her teeth a shredding void of fire into dust. No tunnel was too small to contain her, no battle too large. With Tauranga at her back, she was unstoppable.

They fought for her, and with her, and against her as her enemy, split tribe against split tribe- forged themselves in her name. They were her Tauganactsa, her demons, her pirates of the pit.

Against them stood the ones who would not call them so, the ones who would defy her godhood and name them Valtanan, Saluracta and Teknarotu. They were Grotcararsa, depleted of Vosh, and Atacarzalnkelsa, shattered as their god had been, and above all, they were Cahnulansa, bone breakers, who had spited Tauranga and been spited in turn, for no true Grotto God would suffer such weakness.

So Tauranga had arranged a duel.

And they had agreed.

The Blowfly leapt from her colourful perch and landed in the stone, wielding a war-maul in one hand and a bush knife in the other. She put the bush-knife in a Cahnulan raider and beat her skull in 'til she said 'yield', and moved on rapidly to the next two warriors, awaiting her behind a corner with a falx and a bladed longbow in hand. There they would meet, and fight, 'til death or agony, for Tauganact legitimacy.

Tauranga knew they were attempting to meet her in more open terrain. She sheathed her machete and held the maul in both hands, feeling it lengthen in the dark, tapering until spiked at both ends, returning to its polehammer form. They felt the change. Good.

Sasha landed beside her, so they could have even numbers in the pit fight.

Like civilised people.

(okay you can turn off the music now that was stupid)


* * *


It took a long time for Heartworm to find the site.

Buried beneath kilometers of sea, covered by a siliceous layer of dust, the bones were forgotten, left to rot and then to fossilise. It would take time for the skeleton to be buried completely, but that it had in plenty. It had promised to slumber.

The pod-like shape zipped through high-pressure water with a chain of bubbles in its wake, the lines in its glass visor the only glow in an ocean utterly dark. So much for Toun's 'white' sea. Beneath the skin, all depths are black.

It landed its arms on a titanic rib and went further.

There. In the chest of the giant Grot, the sparse remains of something too arachnid to be human, too twisted to be spider.

Główna Vosh.

Heartworm settled on it. The shattered skull was as large as its entire pod, but that didn't matter. Between these ribs, they were equally small.

It took a deep-bone sample. The nucleic acids were almost irretrievably eroded, but that could be repaired. The soul, of course, was nowhere to be seen.

Shuvra stood in the silence.

Soon I too will die.

All things led the same way in the end. The Emaciator could run, run, run as well as it can, but eventually, it knew, something would catch it. That was Fate; Lazarus was right. Chiral Phi was right.

A spectral worm had drilled a hole in the Prime Grot's rib, long since empty and forgotten.

Is it the fate of we worms to pass quickly out of mind?

The Główny gave no answer.

Our time was too short, said Shuvra. I will do what I can.

No answer.

Maybe this time, the worms will have something to remember.

Heartworm turned away, and departed to the surface, a very small light in a very large abyss.

Behind it was only darkness.

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Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Lauder
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Lauder The drunk kind of hero

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Orphan’s Story

The Meeting


Pain hit like a raging ashling, dropping down to her knees the child attempted to endure but every single part of her was paralyzed. ”Come now, child. Endure the pain, do not let it stop you. Try to strike me,” a voice commanded. Orphan forced herself to her feet, this training had been brutal as they made their way through the Ironheart Mountains. Raising her fists, Orphan charged forward towards her adopted mother and jumped up to hit her with her new arm, however, Keriss had easily foresaw the attack and grabbed Orphan’s arm and raised her up only to slam her into the ground.

Keriss’ hand was suddenly filled with small needles and she released the child. Where a hand had been was now a bed of spikes, a sadistic smile came to the mother.

”Your powers are progressing well, Orphan. Now come, again.”

Without protest, Orphan got back up, raised her fists and went again.





Keriss has been gone a few hours now, almost five, so Orphan thought. She had yet to leave the spot where Vestec had taken her mother, just in case she would return, but it was getting late and the sun was setting on the horizon. It would probably be a good idea to find shelter to rest for the night. Making her way to a nearby tree, the child heard a stick snap and she whirled around to face the source of the noise.

She saw nothing but shrubbery, but something was watching her, she knew it. Her ashen arm morphed into a blade and the child waited, before she heard the lease of an arrow. Her cloak cut the arrow in half long before it could make contact, but that didn’t stop massive wolf-like forms to charge out of the brush. They indeed looked like wolves but the stood in their hind legs and had massive hands, Pack-minds.

Orphan dodged out of the way of the wolf that charged her, feeling her blade effortlessly slice through the beast’s leg, severing it from its body. It let out a howl of pain. Others came forward, throwing their spears but and running forth. The spears were all but sticks by the time they reached Orphan and the child ran forward to meet the beasts in battle. She morphed her hand into a mace and jumped up, her hand hitting the wolf upside the head. As it went down, Orphan used him to jump further, her arm becoming long and thin as she wrapped it around another’s throat.

She slammed that wolf into the ground and she heard a yap of pain behind her, one of the pack minds was skewered on a wall of spikes. There were a lot of these thing, and they were surrounding her, no longer so keen to move in to fight.

Then she heard sound, loud rattling followed by strange singing. Apparently it was bad enough that the wolves were sent scurrying away.

Orphan turned towards the location and saw a small frame on the cliff, resembling a bird somewhat. She stood there. The form moved off.

Confused, the child ran forward to find out what the form was and if it was the person who had drove the wolves off. She climbed to the top of the cliff, scaling it quickly with her enhanced strength, one of many perks that had been bestowed upon her by the divine. As she looked down the slope of the cliff she saw a fire at the bottom of it. The same bird form set next to it, along with a tent and several spears with something tied to them near the the blade. She could see the form turn to gaze upon her, but she didn’t move.

“Well? Are you going to come down or am I going to have a find a place where you won’t stare at me like a child?,” the being called to her, speaking the same language as Orphan but with a strange accent to it.

”I am a child.”

The form dropped some food out of shock and stood up, he began to walk towards Orphan, slowly and cautiously. The child waited.

She could see him clearly as he got closer, he was about her size and had a cracked skeleton over him, she thought he was an undead. ”What are you?,”the child asked softly, not having seen a hain before.

“I guess I’m a hain. At least the last time I checked. Could’ve been turned into a talking frog though, stranger things have happened,” The hain said, inspecting Orphan with his eyes and seeing blood running down her ashen arm which she had tried to hide in her cloak. He tilted his head and chirped out a question, “I saw you fight the pack-minds. How were you fighting them off so well?”

”I trained

“By who?”

“Whom.”

“What?”

“I think you mean ‘by whom’.”

“No, that’s not how you use whom. You use ‘whom’ when the answer calls for subject such as ‘him’ or ‘her’.”

”Oh.”

“Now I ask again, who trained you.”

The child went into her standard greeting, bowing to the hain in front of her, ”I am Orphan, student of Keriss.” She looked up at the hain, his expression made him look like he had seen a ghost.

“Keriss?”

”Yes.”

“The demi-goddess of pain, Keriss?”

”Whom other?”

“Stop using whom like that.”

”I’ll try.”

The Hain crouched down and stared at the ground, he didn’t know what to do in this situation other than to let memories come back to him. Terrible memories of a terrible time that he wanted to forget. Yet, it seemed like his last would catch up with him on this night as Keriss protégée stood before him.

”What’s your name?”

“Kri’Tral,” he answered hollowly, still staring at the ground.

”Nice to meet you. Do you live around here?”

Kri’Tral looked up at Orphan before standing back up, allowing her to distract him from the memories that had previously been overwhelming him. “No. I’ve been traveling… Want something to eat?”

”Sure. I’m tired too. Fighting those things made me tired.”

So the two walked back to the small camp in silence then proceeded to eat in silence followed by more uneasy silence.
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Hidden 7 mos ago Post by LokiLeo789
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LokiLeo789 Jerome McMiller

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Greed Behind Ambition


With the city streets of Yala now filled to overflowing with it's determined troops, it wasn't long before the caravan carrying the municipalities precious crown prince disappeared from prying eyes, lost amongst the powerful bodies of Yala's elite contingent. Unfortunately, the caravan's departure was being observed by another set of eyes, a pair much less concerned about the well-being of Yalan royalty.

A heavy set man, with shoulders like a bear and arms like tree stumps, slowly smiled in satisfaction as he watched a miniature image of the caravan set inside a vast mirror of perfectly ground crystal, the wagons moving through a throng of soldiers.

"Excellent!" He softly growled before running ham-like hand over a balding head and an unshaven jaw. Though now softening in the middle, it was clear that he had been a powerful man at one time, as had his father been before him, and his father. Up the line of descent to the first of their long and storied House, the giant known in the annals of the Amestris and Xerxes as Urud the Mighty.

The man known as the Usurper, the last of his line to sit on the throne of Ngarlak, then took a step back from the crystal mirror sitting in its beautifully hand carved frame of precious black oak, close to the chamber's center. It, like many of the objects that lay thickly clustered about it, were the last signs of the Usurper's waning power. Waning, but still enough to reach across the long leagues that separated his Reach from that of Xerxes' Cipher.

Rich they were, the objects that filled the room to the point of opulence. But Urud had long grown used to, and even tired of, most of them. Majestic tapestries woven from the satin of the Djilyaro, hung from oak beam ceiling to flagstone floor. Beneath them were dozens of hand-spun carpets in the rich colors and fabrics of Koa covering that floor, along with thick furs of rare animals from the far north, trapped in the depths of the vast Ironhearts. All of these things, worth a king's ransom each, had become common to the big man in the heart of his exile.

Ignored also were candelabras of solid gold holding long tapers dipped from the finest of animal fats, a table of polished black oak that cradled a set of gem encrusted goblets of beaten gold and a golden flagon of fine wine. It sat chilling in a tub of fresh snow brought that day from the peaks of a small mountain range which reached into southern Ngarlak. A small sorcerous spell worth the life of a single turtle dove kept the tub cold, preventing the snow from melting and keeping the wine nicely chilled.

In subtle contrast to the frost lining the tub's outer surface, a merry fire of donner's wood burned in the small hearth set into the room's northern wall. The scented and spicy fuel was brought with great expense from the city of Jarrah. Burning it produced a smoke both intoxicating and relaxing, making the wood highly prized across Amestris.

Partaking of that intoxication were three men, each clothed in the military uniform of the Uric Rebellion, as was the Usurper, the rank of warmaster on their shoulders and sleeves. As the soft gray smoke slowly wrapped itself around their lean bodies, slight smiles played on their tanned faces. The vacant smiles, however, didn't reach their hard eyes, steely orbs of chiseled determination as they gazed upon the thickset rebel leader, his face florid from the chilled wine. No amount of intoxication could wipe away the darkness they embraced when they turned their backs on the people they called their brothers and sisters to help fuel the rebellion against them. That darkness now glittered from the windows to their souls.

"Excellent," the Usurper repeated, the chill in his voice in mocking counterpoint to the flush of alcohol in his face. "The fools; they've no idea what kind of pain they will suffer!" Then his eyes were lifted from the mirror to take in his generals wrapped in their cloud of smoke as he leaned against the crystal's great wooden frame.

"Are the troops in place, warmasters?" he growled and, as one, the three officers bowed their affirmatives. Nodding in satisfaction the big man stood erect and grabbed one of the goblets off the table. Lifting it with a jerk to his mouth, he drained it in one swallow. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he casually tossed the goblet over his shoulder and grimaced after a long, windy belch erupted from his mouth.

"Well, it seems your plan is working, sorcerer," he rumbled to an almost invisible form that sat unmoving in a far corner. "For a while I had my doubts, allying with those bumbling idiots to the east and west, the use of this accursed magic and it's need for blood, that phantom army, all of it." The big man scooped up another goblet and raised it to his frowning mouth.

There it paused while the big man's dark eyes stabbed into the shadows.

"Well? No reaction, magic maker? Nothing to say?" Then the goblet was tipped up and dark wine rushed into the big mouth, filling it to overflowing. A trickle slid down the side of the round, unshaven face to disappear into the folds of flesh at the neck, which was unrestrained by the loosened collar of his undecorated uniform.

The form in the corner stirred before a low, husky voice issued from it.

"What is there left to say, Usurper?"

The emptied goblet quickly joined the first and the Usurper reached for a third as he replied to the rasped question.

"How about: fantastic, or excellent. Or even 'I am very pleased'. This sitting in a corner does nothing to bolster my confidence in your plan, Jericho. Did you not see the last of the wagons pull out of the city?"

"Aye," the figure that was Jericho husked. Thick lips pursed.

"Doesn't that excite you?"

"No," came the harsh reply, blunt and cold, the lean figure not moving.

"Why not?" the big man demanded, the third goblet of wine forgotten in his massive fist as he stared at the shadowy form of the sorcerer. "After all, it was the spell of one of your acolytes that brought the message of Sin's return. And your own spells that extended it over the entirety of Amestris, driving Vicer first to madness then to distraction so my armies could set themselves up at his doorstep so he would send his bastard son to defend. You should feel at least something for the fact it actually worked."

"My spells always work, Urud," the chill voice bluntly stated.

"So you keep saying," the Usurper muttered, suddenly remembering the goblet in his hand. Intent on taking a drink, he raised it to his mouth. But he lifted the heavy gold cup too quickly and the goblet's contents were sloshed all over the front of the man's uniform tunic. But Urud ignored the spill and drained the goblet anyway before adding it to its comrades already behind him. Wiping his mouth with his hand once more, he went on.

"You didn't seem so confident a fortnight ago when you appeared at my gates, eager to take over my cadre of acolytes and help me in my quest to unite Amestris." Grunting, Urud broke wind then followed it with another deep and windy belch.

Jericho's cold mind flinched at the blatant slobbery. Ever since he had entered the so-called Usurper's employ, the man's habits had appalled him. One would think that age would've made him more tolerant of his lessers. But, sadly, it wasn't the case. Even from where he sat in the corner at the furthest point away from Urud, he could still smell the man's unwashed body. No scented oil could hide that stench; it nearly made him gag.

Yet the man was a step, one of many the old sorcerer needed to take to return to the pinnacle of power he enjoyed during the glorious cycles of the long dead Amestrain Empire. A dry smile suddenly creased his narrow face, hidden in shadow and he allowed a brief, dry laugh inside his mind before he pushed the weakness of mirth back out of his mind.

Yes, to have that power again! But, only once could one attain power as easily as being born with it, he silently mused. This time he would need to work for it. This time he needed to use, ... tools.

"Bickering is useless, Urud," he softly said in his dry, cold voice. "There's much to do before we declare victory. Vicar won't be easily pushed from Yala's throne."

"Yes, yes," Urud grunted as he absently scratched at the two or three days' growth of whiskers on his chin. "That's what you said when you first suggested this great, unstoppable plan of yours. But now, according to our spies, most of the people of Yala have left the city, the prince rides against us, and surly, soon will the royal family depart, as predicted. The trap now can be sprung." A broad grin sprouted on Urud's unwholesome face as he reached out to pat the crystal's warm roundness.

"And, thanks to your toy here, and those cards, we even know where they are, and with a certainty, know how it will all play out."

"Indeed," Jericho husked, looking the other way.

Seeing the slender, bent form of the sorcerer turn away in apparent disinterest, Urud frowned. Only days before the wiry old man had come to him, selling his grand idea on laying Amestris low with great enthusiasm. Yet Jericho now acted as if it concerned him as much as a rash did. Was there something else going on inside the old sorcerer's head that he wasn't aware of?

"You're not planning to let the prince escape, are you?" he cautiously asked.

"Nonsense. Then it'd be a waste of time and effort," the thin sorcerer flatly replied.

"Then shouldn't we be doing something at this point?" Urud asked dryly, his frown growing as his patience began to wear thin.

"And what do you suggest we do, Urud?" Jericho asked in turn, his voice still soft. But as he brought his gaze around to bear on the thickset rebel leader, his black irised eyes were hard as stone.

The look, equal parts aloof anger and hot disdain, was enough to push the former king the rest of the way to frustration, his patience at last, lost.

"How about springing the thrice-damned trap, for Amestris' sake!" the big man snarled, stepping heavily around the crystal and its stand to come to a halt in front of Jericho, clenched fists on hips.

With Urud that close, the thin man found it almost impossible to breath as a nauseating mixture of body odor, stale food and bad breath now swirled thickly about him. With a grimace, he stood and pushed past the big man to stride quickly to the other side of the room where he found the air a spring breeze compared to the space around Urud.

"Very well," he said, glad to be away from the miasma that clung to Urud like a mantle of foulness. "If you can't contain your impatience and lust for Yala's destruction, I'll spring the 'trap', as you so quaintly call it." 'Just stay away from me!' he silently finished as he watched an ugly smile of satisfaction split Urud's thick features with his reluctant capitulation.

Pushing the unwelcome sight to the back of his mind, Jericho turned slightly as he began to mentally form the images he would need for the first part of his spell. As a curious Urud watched, he reached into his belt pouch, hanging beneath the bulky black robe he wore, and pulled out a small stone amulet. It was a shape-less lump of gray rock, as non-descript as any found at the side of a road, attached to a simple leather cord by a heavy steel staple punched into it's rounded edge.

Other than the cord, the only thing that distinguished this piece of stone from any other was the hole that had been laboriously bored through its center axis. It was around this strange little hole Jericho's claw-like index finger slowly began to circle as the cadaverous sorcerer murmured a chant in an alien tongue beneath his breath.

Frowning, Urud leaned even closer, trying to catch the words spilling in a non-stop stream from Jericho's thin lips. Before he could make out even one, however, the old sorcerer abruptly flung the hand clutching the amulet high into the air. At the same time he barked a single, guttural word. With a blink of discharge, the thick air of the small study began to churn with gathering energies in response to the alien command.

"What the, . . .?" Urud began, casting about with eyes wide in amazement. Then, with a sharp 'clap' of sound, a portal opened in the space directly before the bent old sorcerer.

Before Urud or any of his generals could catch more than a glimpse of what seethed beyond the portal's head-sized threshold, a giant hand of force curled about them. Moving so swiftly they were unable to react, the hand picked them up and slung them all into the nearby tapestry-covered wall. The four men impacted with enough force to drive the generals into unconsciousness, all of them sliding to the floor to lie in untidy heaps.

For his part, Urud managed to keep his consciousness with him. But he dropped onto the ground like an obscene, overly ripe fruit, emptying his stomach in one vast heave before he rolled onto his side where he lay groaning, stars dancing before his eyes. His mind reeled in shock as he tried to shake off the effects of the impact with the wall. But a greater shock awaited him when his eyes finally cleared.

There, floating above the scrying crystal was a creature pulled straight out of the imagination of the sickest of gods. A sickening twist of color and motion, it was a pair of hotly glowing red eyes and misty chaos.

"By Amestris' hairy crotch!" Urud breathed as he struggled up onto his elbows, vomit clinging to his tunic in putrid decoration.

Even worse, the thing seemed to be in conversation with that blasted sorcerer, it's eyes flaring in time to the rough words it croaked from somewhere in its wraith-like body. Urud blinked his eyes in rapid disbelief. Only to catch sight of it upon the last opening of his lids as it bobbed in midair and disappeared with a thunderous clap of displaced air, the room suddenly thick with sulphurous fumes. In an instant the heavyset rebel king was on his feet.

"What, in the name of Fate's ass, was that?!" he hotly demanded.

"You know the answer to that, Urud," answered a satisfied Jericho as he dropped the now dead amulet back into his pouch, unperturbed by Urud's explosive exclamation. "I'm sure you've heard the occult's powers."

"Aye, but to actually see one of those things. And in my own damn study, to boot!"

"My demonic allies are necessary for the next part of this plan," Jericho flatly stated, turning hard eyes onto the bulky rebel leader. "You do want Amestris, do you not?"

"Aye. But I can't say I'm keen on the idea of heavy supernatural involvement," the big man began.

"Then you've come to the wrong sorcerer," Jericho interrupted sharply to say, deliberately ignoring the fact that it was he that had knocked on Urud's door, not the other way around. "Either we use my plan in its entirety. Or you find other assistance!"

Urud's eyes narrowed at the flat, blunt ultimatum as he reassessed this almost frail looking old man. There was strength there now, coiling out from deep within, and its power suddenly made him wary. He could almost feel the black eyes boring into him as Jericho stared defiantly back at him.

"Very well." He finally rasped, his desire to take the throne of Amestris winning over his fear of the supernatural. And Jericho, . . .

"When do these demons attack?"

*


Several days' travel north of Yala found the short caravan of wagons that streamed out of the capital at the king's command. Flanking them on either side were a company of the Cobra's Legion, joining them after a brief pause at Lunaris, a fortified loyalist holding two days' north of Yala. To say the soldiers, drawn from the finest of the kings command, were a welcome sight to the handful of Prince's Own guarding the caravan would've been a vast understatement.

Unfortunately the soldiers, with their bright breastplates and blades always at ready, were nearly lost this day in a thick fog bank that rose from damp ground sometime in the early Watches of the morning to completely surround them in a thick, damp blanket of gray. Only the steady drum of shod hooves on cobblestone marked them keeping pace with the caravan as it pushed on through the fog to the north.

Hidden the men were, but their eyes were sharp in keeping watch on the wagon in the caravan's midst, a beautiful coach pulled by four powerful horses, each one from the finest of Yalan stock. The carriage they pulled was carved by hand from the dark woods of Jarrah, rolling silently on greased hubs in elegant contrast to the plodding wagons around them, which were pulled by thick-shouldered oxen.

With carved windows covered with curtains of silk overlooking both sides of the carriage, the coach was piloted by two soldiers of the Prince's Own, the prince's personal bodyguard. Their characteristic silver and purple scaled livery was pulled over thick tunics, marking them clearly in the mist-filled air despite thick cloaks draped around muscular shoulders as proof against the damp chill. Two more rode where the footmen usually sat, grim women with bow and arrow close at hand as they stared hard around them into the gloom, the heavyset men surrounding them notwithstanding.

In all, both the impromptu escort of heavy horse and the silver and purple of the Prince's Own bespoke to the importance of this carriage's passengers.

"Hallas," Sirax began. "What does our good Commander Adar have to say about conditions beyond the border?"

Hallas slipped a tightly rolled parchment from within his tunic and, after unfurling it, glanced down at the neat, compact script marching across its creamy face.

"He comments on the movements of a massive military force pouring out of the north." He handed the parchment to a frowning Sirax. "By his estimations, they'll reach Yala in about three days."

The square prince threw his officer a quick look.

"Does he have an identification for us? One of Urud's, perhaps?"

Hallas shook his head.

"From what I gathered, the army wasn't human at all."

"Not human?" Sirimax frowned, his mind working hard behind his eyes.

"Actually, the major indicated his rangers saw not one recognizable member of any race within it's ranks." He handed the prince a number of smaller scraps of parchment upon which a number of sketches had been made with charcoal.

Sirax frown only deepened as he let his gaze travel from sketch to sketch. The drawings included pictures of a wiry individual, with strange, pointed ears and dark skin, squat reptilian giants and tall, powerful beasts covered in matted hair.

"And Adar didn't have a name for these creatures, did he?"

Hallas shook his head.

That's all they needed: another player on an already crowded board.

The bluff prince's face tightened as yet another thought occurred to him: if this dark force was truly on the move against the,, then there was a good chance there was some connection to Urud and his insurrection. Burn him, did Ur and these new soldiers plan on taking Yala together? If that happened, Sirimax's beleaguered force could find itself in the soup.

He paused to rub a hand of a suddenly tired face. As if they weren't in the soup already, and a particularly messy one at that.

He glanced up at Hallas, the leftnant still waiting patiently for his commander to speak. Patient, yes, but there was no mistaking the question on his face. Hallas was wondering what they were going to do now. 'A damn good question.' Sirimax darkly mused to himself. 'And I don't have the first idea on how to answer it.'

"Tell Adar to have his rangers track this new force, leftnant. I don't want them moving without us knowing about it. And have them gather as much intelligence about them as they can. When we end up facing them in battle, I want to know every weakness we can exploit."

"Yes, sir," Hallas replied, saluting.

Before the lean colonel could step out of the wagon completely, however, Sirax quickly spoke.

"And Hallas, prepare our best scouts. I want them to carry messages to he King and Queen."

"What should the....

Without warning the slender officer's voice trailed off as his eyes went wide with agonized surprise, his mouth continuing to silently work. Then with a pain-filled groan, he toppled out of the wagon, his entire body twitching once before going limp.

"Hallas!" Sirax bellowed, leaping from his chair to find his fallen comrade in the dirt. "By Fate's Grace, what, ...?"

It then was his voice that trailed off into shocked silence as his sharp eyes discovered the arrow jutting out of the side of his unloving friend's neck.

"Hallas!" he husked, shock, anger and sorrow rushing through him like a storm.

Another arrow silently flying out of the fog to sink into the wooden frame beside him with a heavy 'thunk' of impact was enough to pull the big prince from his shock. Instantly the rage, pure and bestial, pushed everything else aside.

"Sound the horn!"

Trelan, the pilot of the royal carriage, tore free the brass horn hanging from his belt with a surge of powerful muscles, and raised it to his lips and blew hard, the sound lifting pure and unrestrained over the rain's hiss and into the thick air. The sound jerked around the heads of the Cobra's Legion escort to face the captain as the other Prince's Own riding in back boiled to their feet.

But any answers to the unspoken questions on their faces weren't forthcoming, the blast itself short lived. Streaking out of the fog, another arrow appeared to bury itself in Trelan's throat, the impact snapping his head back. Finding himself suddenly without voice, fiery pain blossoming in his neck, Trelan threw the horn onto the ground with a burbled curse as blood filled his mouth. He turned in time to watch several of the Cobra's Legion get torn to shreds by a hail of arrows.

Frantically the big captain reached for his sword as he heard the two behind him let loose with their arrows at unseen shapes in the fog, determined to fight to the death to protect the prince. Only to find his fingers stopped short of the hilt by three more arrows slamming into his broad chest, his mail shirt doing little to slow them. The missiles, insistently burrowing into his body, instantly stole his strength. Spitting blood as his legs suddenly lost their power, Trelan fell back against on the Prince's Own, his vision darkening. In doing so, his gauntleted hand fell onto the reins and convulsively they took hold of them, his falling body pulling back on the broad leather straps. With a jerk the carriage's team brought it to a halt in response.

Momentum slumping him over the end of the bench seat, the sharp motion was enough to jolt the failing Trelan back to his senses. He pushed the fluids welling up in his mouth and throat out with a convulsive cough as he willed his muscles into motion. He had to warn the Prince! With the overflow a warm rivulet that trickled over his chin and onto his snowy white surcoat to wreath the silver and purple oak tree in red, he leaned down to take hold of the curtain, the motion pushing the arrows even deeper into his body. Ignoring the pain, he gathered his flagging strength.

"Your Majesty!" he gasped roughly, bloody spittle flying from his lips to stream down the silken curtain.

"We've been ambushed!"

Then the fog exploded with shouts and screams, the blowing of horns a shrill counterpoint as Urud and his rebel forces attacked from their hiding places.

*


The commander of the guard detachment manning the western gates felt his guts tighten in cold fear as he watched the horizon darken from side to side with an army of the like he had never seen. Thousands of foot soldiers, hundreds of mounted warriors, siege engines, ... it was a force with an obvious purpose. This army was here to crush Yala.

"Commander?" Vicar hissed as he leapt the last handful of stairs and stepped onto the platform high on one of the guard towers that stood on either side of the massive western gates to the city. Behind him came his brother, Prince Lor, his Generals and his aide, Vodun.

The view of the vast army stretching across the western plain, however, was answer enough.

"Shards and bloody stones," Lor breathed beside his brother, Vicar having fallen silent in stunned shock.

"There's no conceivable way the rebels could've reached us so fast," a general hissed with open disbelief. "Just a tenday ago they where amassing at our borders to the north."

"Yet there this army stands," another rumbled, his gauntleted hands flexing. "And from the west I might add they marched."

"I, for one, will not, can not yield to such devotees of evil. I must return to my command, and direct them march on this army and give them battle!" Vicar, flatly growled. "General Kith, sound the general alarm. All troops to full alert, garrison and guard stations to their battle positions. Prepare to defend the walls!"

As commands to prepare sent ripples through the soldiers close about the knot of lords, generals and nobles, Vicar grabbed his brother's arm.

"You need to get Naomi and the children out of the city, my brother. Now! And send our best scouts to find Sirax and his detachment. Somehow Urud deceived us." he tautly whispered into his darker brother's ear.

"Consider it done, my king," Lor quickly assured his brother. Then he was gone, pushing through rushing soldiers to disappear near the doorway leading downward.

"My lord," a respectful voice spoke from the walkway behind him and, Vicar twisted in place to find a scout standing some five paces away, a tightly furled scroll in a gauntleted hand.

"I have word from Master Sirax's convoy that must be conveyed to you immediately!"

Not bothering to wonder what was going on, took two quick strides and he was accepting the scroll from the scout's hand and twisting it open. Only to crumple it into a tight ball a heartbeat after scanning it's contents.

"Bones and bloody shards!" he snarled, hurling the parchment ball into the darkness as fiery anger raged through him. "It was a bloody illusion! The army at the borders!?"

"I want Vethie and Kith up here now. If they're not here in five turns of the small glass, I'll have their heads decorating pikes at my gate. Got me?"

"Yes, sire!" Then the scout was off at a dead run.

Vicar watched her go for a long moment before turning his eyes back to the distant blur that was the rebel army gathering against him. An ambush at on the road to the northern boarder encampment, the parchment had said, his only child had gone missing and hundreds where left dead. And news that the army looming to the north at his border was nothing but a phantom.

"It's over, Urud," he hissed, voice filled with cold venom as the air began to ring with the proud song of Yalan war horns.

"You, Ur, . . . you're all dead!"


Hidden 7 mos ago Post by BBeast
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BBeast Scientific

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Gerrik Far-Teacher

Level 9 Hain Hero
30 Khookies


circa 12 years Post Realta


Outside Tallgrass, Gerrik and Elword met with a small herd of urtelem, a runic defender and a Sculptor of what might have once been a rovaick among them. They might have come closer to the town, but most people in Tallgrass were not particularly welcoming of Sculptors. Performing negotiations and trade a short distance outside of Tallgrass' borders was an amenable compromise.

The Sculptor's presence made Elword slightly uneasy, as it would for most hain. The discomfort was eased by the presence of urtelem, for urtelem always made hain feel safer, and also by Gerrik's calm demeanour. Whether Gerrik was truly unfazed by the Sculptor or whether he was simply very good at hiding his feelings on the matter was impossible to tell.

The urtelem matriarch signed with her hands, and the Sculptor chittered a translation with its three mouths. "Your offer?"

Gerrik and Elword indicated the bundles they were carrying. "We have decorated blankets, and also oil-based paint." The matriarch took a colourful embroidered blanket to inspect and the Sculptor looked at a clay pot of paint. Gerrik continued, eyeing the wooden cart loaded with rocks which had been dug up by the urtelem. "We will trade them for copper and tin ore."

The Sculptor pried off the lid of the pot, dipped a talon into the paint then stuck the talon into one of their mouths and sucked. Another hand dipped into the paint again and smeared a yellow streak onto its skin. Another of its mouths giggled softly. Meanwhile, the matriarch was inspecting the quality of the fabric, its weight and capacity to give warmth, as well as scrutinising its pattern. She held up the blanket for an urtelem beside her to inspect.

Finally, the matriarch made a stony grunt to wake the Sculptor from its finger painting reverie and signed. The Sculptor said, "She'll take those blankets for 14- uh-" the Sculptor gestured as though it were holding a ball. The mathematical urtelem were well-versed in the concept of measurement and metrics, although such concepts were yet to properly enter the languages of Mesathalassa. "Er-, 14 lots this big."

"What of the paints?" Gerrik questioned, "You wouldn't want to pass up an opportunity to have some nice, durable paints like these."

The Sculptor's faces contorted for a moment, and then launched into a silent conversation with the urtelem matriarch. Elword watched the hands twist and dart before leaning over to Gerrik and whispering, "Do you know what they're saying?"

Gerrik shook his head. "Only a few words. I think they're arguing about how much to value the paints."

Elword watched the conversation a little longer, and dreamed of the possibility of being able to carry out a hand sign conversation himself. To be able to communicate directly and meaningfully with urtelem would surely be a marvellous thing. And they knew things which we didn't, like amounts of things, so learning the language would teach new things too. Then his gaze drifted over to the runic defender, who was watching idly, and he saw the intricate Spiral Script patterned across the urtelem's stone skin. The Spiral Script held a beautiful geometric preciseness and intricate interconnectedness, and although Elword could not understand what it said he knew they were words and could see the power carried by those words.

"19 for the blankets and paints," the Sculptor suddenly said. The Sculptor and urtelem had come to an agreement.

"20," Gerrik said, his hands signing the number; he had figured out the hand signs for small numbers.

'19' the matriarch signed adamantly, followed by some more gestures. "19 is their value," the Sculptor translated.

"Alright, agreed," Gerrik said, his hand waving the sign for 'yes'.

Gerrik and Elword handed over the blankets and paint pots. The urtelem with the cart filled with ores came forwards and went with the hain back to Tallgrass to deliver the ore. As they left, Elword lingered for a few moments longer to observe the runic defender, then scurried off to catch up.

~~~~

Elword nocked the arrow, drew the bowstring and loosed the bow. The arrow flew forwards and embedded itself in the cloth-wrapped bundle of hay.

Gerrik tapped Elword's back between the shoulder blades with a long, thin stick. "Engage more."

Elword nocked, drew and loosed another arrow. Gerrik pushed the stick against Elword's hip. "Twist slightly."

Elword nocked, drew and loosed another arrow. Gerrik tapped Elword's left elbow. "Straighten."

This scene repeated, with Elword loosing arrows at the target and Gerrik incrementally correcting Elword's technique between shots, until Elword's quiver emptied. "You're getting better," Gerrik said, "Retrieve your arrows and we'll go again."

~~~~

Elword and Gerrik sat in the craftshain shelter, embroidering cotton sheets with images of looms. Given Lasis' description of the plant and how to use it, it had been relatively straightforwards for Tallgrass to import cotton plants from other regions of Mesathalassa. While they were yet to have their first local harvest of cotton, the imported cotton fibers had been enough to create some textiles.

"I've been thinking," Elword said. Gerrik's look indicated for him to continue. "The urtelem can communicate with their written words. You could probably fit a lot more information, in most cases anyway, using words than pictures, if you had some way to put those words into a physical medium. And you could more precisely describe things that aren't static images."

Gerrik nodded. "If we had such a thing, it would be useful. However-"

"We don't. I know. Such a program would require inventing a written language we could understand, then teaching everyone how to understand it. Conversely, everyone understand pictures. But if we had words it would make things much easier."

Gerrik flipped up a palm. "Consider it a long term project, then."

~~~~

At Gerrik's request, Elword was climbing up the fruit trees to get the fruits growing in the upper branches. While harvesting was important, he had assigned the task mainly to exercise Elword's skill in climbing. Gerrik stood a distance away, observing Elword, when he noticed another hain watching him from outside the farms. He recognised the hain immediately.

"Stone Chipper!"

Stone Chipper gave a slight tilt of his head signalling for Gerrik to approach. Gerrik walked briskly over to his master. Stone Chipper greeted Gerrik with upturned palms. "Hello, Gerrik."

There was the clink of porcelain as they briefly embraced in greeting. "What brings you here, Stone Chipper?"

Teknall looked over to Elword, clambering up among the branches. "I've come to talk about Elword."

Gerrik nodded glumly. "And by extension, my succession plan, I assume."

"Right." Teknall paced a few steps away, and turned his beak to look at Gerrik. "You were born long ago, before most of the development among the hain, or the rest of Galbar. You predate the Night of Phantoms, and some of the other sentient species on Galbar. You have lived your whole life among tribes of hain, even in your extensive travels. You have never seen a city. Although Tallgrass is advanced compared to everything you know, this little town is merely catching up with civilisations elsewhere in the world.

"Furthermore, you have grown weary of travelling. For hundreds of years you had no place to call home, but finally you have found home, found companions, and settled down. Your heart wishes to be Gerrik the husband, the father, the farmer, the craftshain, the village leader, not the nomadic Far-Teacher exploring the world.

"And you know this, so you chose for yourself an apprentice to train not just as a Chipper, but in all the ways of Far-Teacher. You have devoted much effort to training Elword as many skills as you can, and teaching him as many things as can be taught. And you chose well. Not only does Elword possess exception intellect, he is deeply innovative and has an insatiable desire for knowledge. Written language! You saw how he was looking at the runic defender. And that's only one example. Born after the Night of Phantoms, Elword thinks differently to you, and it is this kind of thinking which would most benefit Galbar in the present age.

"You know all this, and have been making preparations, yet you are hesitant. Reluctant. Why?"


Gerrik knew that Teknall knew. Teknall knew all his thoughts. He was asked the question all the same. Water welled up in Gerrik's eyes and he averted his gaze from Stone Chipper. "I've failed you," he half-sobbed.

Teknall stepped forwards and gripped Gerrik's shoulder reassuringly. "You have not failed me. You have been a great success. Look around you! Agriculture, towns, metalsmithing, trade, education. By your hand you have raised the hain through the Stone Age and into the Bronze Age. Your name is second only to my own among many hain in this world. You have laboured ceaselessly for me for dozens of lifetimes, and everywhere you have gone you have left the world a better place. You have earned this rest, a chance to settle down and have an ordinary life in this world you have helped create, reaping the fruits of your labour. As the world enters a new era, it is only appropriate for you to pass your mantle on to someone else."

Gerrik lifted a hand up to wipe his eyes. "Thank you, Stone Chipper." He lifted his head and looked to Elword then back to Stone Chipper. "What now? How do I proceed with this?"

"Continue to train Elword. It will be impossible to teach him all that you know, but that is not necessary. Teach him what is important, and he will learn the rest on his own. Then, not too far into the future, you are to go on one last journey with him, to somewhere you had promised to go 14 years ago."

"Alefpria."

"Indeed. There Elword will succeed you, and begin his mission from that grand city, and you can retire here."

"Sounds like a plan." Gerrik then looked past Teknall towards Elword in the canopy of the fruit orchard. "I'd better head back; Elword's almost finished."

"He's getting faster and stronger, in both body and mind. You've developed a good training regimen for him," Teknall commented.

Teknall and Gerrik embraced once more in farewell. "Goodbye, Stone Chipper."

"Until we meet again, Gerrik."

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Hidden 7 mos ago 7 mos ago Post by LokiLeo789
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LokiLeo789 Jerome McMiller

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A cycle had passed since the Sealion armada landed on the shores of Xanchaladan, but their progress was not as productive as they liked. The first six months proved to be the bloodiest. The bitter sting of loss and the constant fighting dampened the men's spirits whilst defending the bloody wharf. 'The Crimson Coast', many dubbed it. The last six months proved rather manageable. Construction on Port Xicana - the name a product of the natives incessant use of the word when a ceasefire was declared - progressed steadily. A number of harbors had been constructed and the makeshift tent city has become a rather disorganized cacophony of wooden shacks and lean-ons.

Today, the city had retired for the day as sundown was in effect. The laborers were lining up to receive a somewhat warm supper after a hard, bitter day's work. But due to the rather hostile conditions, the Xicanii were not able to pillage the land for their food, resorting to the use of their reserved rations. Consequently, this led to the rationing of normal portions for the laborers. As Diana, Sadus, and Viatrix went through the meal line, Sadus got his portion, and was the most vocal out of everyone about his amount.

Sadus gave the head cook the most puzzling of looks, "Is this a joke? These portions are smaller than yesterday's!"

"I am aware," the cook replied rather disinterestedly, "It is something called, "rationing", has the word ever graced your skull?" The cook looked down the mess line and shouted, "Next!"

"Hold a moment!" Sadus rebuked, "Open your ears and listen good, your food is so droll my shit tastes better. But seeing as I cannot shit as much as you make food, I am forced to settle with this gruel. Now clean your eyes and look at me closely, I am a big man; a big, big man! And as such I deserve a larger portion!"

The cook leaned in closely to Sadus' face, their noses barely touching, "If you claim to be a 'big man', than why do you act like a big bitch? Move along, I have more pressing matters than you."

"Hey! What gives?" a worker near the back of the line yelled out. "Make like the wind and move!"

"Oh fuck off!" Sadus yelled back, then he turned his attention back to the unyielding cook, "Do you know who I am?"

"Sadus, not this," the cook sighed in dismay.

"Come on Sadus, let's move," Diana urged.

"Stay out of this, you Xerxanian shit! Cook, who am I? Who is the man that stands before you?"

"Ugh…" the cook groaned loudly, burying his face in his hand, "…You are Sadus—"

"Sadus the FUCKING Great! You are correct! The man who singlehandedly took on ten of those savage islanders at sea!"

"The thorn in our ass!" another worker in line jeered at the boisterous Xicani for delaying his meal.

"Hold your fucking tongue!" Sadus roared back. He jabbed his strong, meaty finger in the cook's barreled chest and hissed, "I even killed a fucking Berserker…By! My! Self! That should entitle me to a much larger portion."

"Oh yeah? So did Viatrix! The Ivory Viper even landed the killing blow! By that logic, Diana should have the entire pot of food!"

Diana raised an eyebrow and looked to the sky with a grin, "Hmm, that I don't mind."

"Silence!" Sadus snapped on his friend. "Where is the respect that Sadus deserves?!"

"It is in the wind along with your pride," the cook scoffed with a chuckle, "I heard tale of your foolish antics which awoken a slumbering jaguar. And how you squealed like a virgin being deflowered as it chased you like a frightened rabbit."

Sadus lunged forward at the cook, wanting to strangle the mouth of the lowly cook who never had to fight a day in his life, but Viatrix grabbed Sadus from behind and yanked him away before he had time to attack. The rest of the men cheered and shouted, expecting a show to improve their sour mood.

Sadus walked away irritated, being escorted by Viatrix and Diana. The cook yelled at Sadus, "Remember Sadus, I am the head cook! I know what you are allergic to!"

"Oh take knee and suck my cock!"

The line began to move along as if nothing had happened; they were too tired and too cold to particularly care. But watching off to the side was Xan, wrapped in a blanket, silently observing the entire amusing scene. After he had his fill of observance, Xan silently walked his way towards Red Dog's quarters, where he was saluted by the posted sentries.

"Red Dog, it's Xan," the Captain announced.

"Enter," his voice came from within.

Xan strolled on in and was embraced by the warmth of the hut. Red Dog was busy scribbling in his ledger with a slave holding a torch overhead; providing him light and keeping him warm.

"How goes it, Xan?" Red Dog asked, without raising his head.

Xan moved over to the torch to receive some warmth. "I can finally sleep well, months of paranoia hasn't done wonders for my sleep schedule, so it provides much expected relief. But that is not the nature of my visit. A few moment ago; Sadus, was shouting with fire at his food portions being scarcer than yesterday."

Red Dog laid down his stylus and sighed cantankerously, "If it's Sadus, I don't give two shits about his food problem."

"Sadus is quite vocal, and he hits our problem with a needle. If he is addressing the problem this early, then it is a drastic problem that needs to be addressed before others become as vocal."

"A problem that is clear as snow. I am aware of our food supply and I ordered them to be rationed."

"How are we situated?"

"The Quartermaster has given me the corn, grain, and bread provisions for the workers. We are in adequate standing, but he estimates that the food will be gone within 4 months. And with the storm season on it's way we won't receive out next shipment for 6 months. So the rationing has to begin now until we find a more bountiful source of food."

"How have the hunting parties fared?"

"Below expectation, most of the game has fled after the intense fighting and activity."

"It may have been a hidden blessing that we lost a quarter of our men last year, a few hundred less mouths to feed."

Red Dog snapped his head at the lax Captian, and stared at him with furious eyes, yet spoke in a calm demeanor, "Never speak ill of the dead who fought so bravely, you of all should know."

Xan gulped, yet still carried on a neutral expression, "Apologies, Red Dog."

Red Dog stared at the man for a little longer, until finally dropping his stare. "Our food supply is running low, and I would rather deal with this sooner than later, yet we are in no immediate risk of empty bellies."

Xan found his way to a chair and breathed easier, "Not yet."

"Right…" Red Dog groaned, "…not yet…"

As Xan reclined further in the chair, scratching the elongated scar on his cheek that itched from time to time, he could see the inner machinations of the mind of Red Dog begin to turn as he stared fiercely into a crude map on his desk. The knight cracked a toothy grin, "What sorts of schemes are you hatching in that mind of yours?"

Red Dog focused on Xan and smiled back. "Just pondering how predators act, when they can't procure food for themselves. Like a pack of wolves, if all the wildlife is absent from their den, what do they do then?"

Xan thought over it for a while. As he reached an answer, he chuckled and grinned more, "They steal it from another pack."

"Exactly, do me a favor."

"Speak." Xan said as he stood to his feet.

"Send a messenger to fetch Diana for me, will you?"

"Diana?!" Xan's face light up at the mention of his favorite ivory haired woman, "To what purpose?"

"To one that is suited for her."




The Itenco Tribe of Xanchaladan escorted a group of Xaxamaca Empire delegates until they arrived at their village. The Itenco women and children came out of their huts and pointed at the bounded Xaxamaca, wondering if they were royals or common-folk. They had some menacing warriors looking down upon them with wicked blades capable of cutting a man's skull in two and warriors that towered in height close to Berserker level. But as the Xaxamaca examined the Itenco closer, they could see that some of them were sickly and thin, others were to the point of malnourishment. They also noticed the absence of several pet animals such as dogs, and the absence of several livestock. The food situation must have grown desperate. They were thoroughly surprised that these people were the most violent of the Xanchaldii. A lack luster harvest must have crippled the tribe.

Biua, the Itenco's warrior-princess told the gathering crowd to make a hole and allow them to pass. She took them to the square and had the Xaxamaca placed under guard, all except Ermanar - the ambassador to the Emperor of Xaxamaca - who she escorted to the main hut and told him to wait patiently outside; as she went in to speak to her father.

It only took thirty seconds until she came out and told him to enter the chieftain's hut. Upon entering the dark and musty smelling hut, the Xaxamaii ambassador's eyes fell on the chieftain, who was sitting on a cot wrapped in a thick blanket. Chieftain Guatemoc stood to his feet to greet him. He was an old man, probably in mid to late 60s. He was blind in his left eye and had teeth as yellow as urine, his skin was pasty and started to sag, and his hair was grey and loose like thread while his beard fell to his chest. Yet despite his disgusting features, his body was still a good size to be intimidating, Ermanar pondered that he must have looked like a mountain in his prime. And the longer Ermanar stared at him, the more he thought that he recognized him before.

Guatemoc slowly opened his mouth, and a hoarse, smoky voice emanated, "I have been told that you stand Xaxamaca. If such is true, reveal name and see yourself received."

"I am Ermanar of the Iyolloyo tribe of Xaxamaca. I am the second son of Emperor. I humbly come before you with the highest deference and respects, oh chieftain Guatemoc of the Itenco, as emissary to the Bloodyhanded, King of the Iyolloyo, Emperor of the Xaxamaca Empire, and Sovereign of Xanchaladan."

Guatemoc nodded approvingly to his daughter, "He holds great manners and respect." Biua rolled her eyes. "So tell me, Ermanar, for what reason have you come south?"

The Xaxamaii spoke bluntly, "My lord requires knowledge of the situation of the Itenco. How Xaxamaca can provide assistance? And how you plan on further helping Xaxamaca deal with the Xicana threat?"

Guatemoc took a seat in his chair and drank some wine before giving a hoarse answer, "You Xaxamaii cannot understand the fragility of this situation."

"Then break words and see this ignorant mind enlightened."

The chieftain sighed, "The harvest. The gods did not bless the fields on this cruelest of seasons for us tribesmen in the south. But for the tribes north of us…their fields were rich with bounty.The unity of all the tribes ensured that trade would exist harmoniously with one another. But…come our king's demise in battle and no Heir-apparent, the tribes, who bonds extend from blood to hate, quickly broke off the confederation to ensure that the tribes with the poorer harvest starved. With no alternative, I sent my kin to raid the lands of other tribes for the sake of food."

Ermanar spoke with condescendence, "You speak to me of complex factors, yet you present the situation as filled with pettiness and greed. This squabble of yours, the breaking of the unity; cannot all be for the sake of food?"

"It is not solely about food! It extends from generations of the warring tribes, older than my father's father, fighting for crimes that existed long in the past! But why should I regale you on such a struggle, I can look into your eyes and know that you do not care." Guatemoc finally snapped, before having a dreaded coughing fit, "You may be an ally and envoy of the emperor...but know you tread dangerously on my hospitality! Do not question my actions."

"Apologies if I offend, but I only wish to stress what needs to be done."

"And what does your emperor stress needs to be done?"

"He seeks that the Itenco aid in the original mission of the Condeferation and help the Xaxamaca Empire, fight the Xicana."

The chieftain thought over the request for a moment before turning to Biua, who nodded in agreement with Ermanar. Guatemoc spoke, "I understand what your emperor asks, but this I cannot do."

"You refuse your an ally's request?"

"Know that I do not base my choice out of malice or complacency. I support the continuing war against the Xicana, but know that I cannot allow sending my kin to fight against the Xicana."

"Yet you send your people against your fellow tribes? Who number fewer in comparison to the Xicana? Continue to stall and you shall see a Xicana heel dominate you all! Fight for the common purpose! Help us."

"If we fight the northern tribes, we can win against them. We cannot, however, win against the Xicana. I shall offer prayers, but I cannot allow my people to fight them in proxy of your people."

Ermanar sighed in a mixture of frustration and disbelief, and buried his face in his hand. The Itenco would rather slat their former brethren than fight the Xicana. Their logic was truly astounding. Guatemoc took a drink from wine and continued, "If you seek our help, then give us aid against the northern tribes first, and we shall lend assistance to you."

Ermanar shook his head, "We cannot do this. What molds your mind into this decision?"

Guatemoc grew silent and drank some more wine before giving voice, "Blood Xaltentli." Ermanar exhaled and looked towards the ground. The chieftain continued, his voice filled with bitterness, "One cycle, over hundreds of warriors fell before the swords of the Xicana who numbered half. I lost my two sons in that battle who fought in my stead and dozens of our kinsmen. Those that fled told me of the crushing defeat. My sons' bodies…irretrievable. Throughout the mourning period, the cries of my people rang out for what we have deemed an eternity. The Xicana are unstoppable…they will march over my people and crush us if we attack them."

For the moment, Ermanar looked as if he had grieved with the Itenco, He struggled to find the words.. Fortunately, Biua spoke in his defense, "Father, if we strike at the Xicana, we can inflict a crippling blow unto them and allow for Xaxamaca to destroy them!"

"Have you not been listening to what I have spoken?!" Guatemoc snapped, "If we attack the Xicana, they would crush us and swallow our lands! Do you not understand, Biua? We are in no position to fight them!"

Biua gnashed her teeth and left the hut in anger. Guatemoc buried his face in his hand, "She was always a stubborn woman." He looked up to Ermanar with reluctant eyes, yet spoke sternly, "Ermanar, gratitude for coming this way to discuss terms with your father. But know that I shall not commit the Itenco to fight against the Xicana, we have much to lose and very little to gain. I shall support the emperor in whatever way I can, but I will not sacrifice one Itenco to fight against the Xicana. That is my final answer."

Ermanar bowed his head, subtlety gritted his teeth, and clenched his fist bitterly. He failed…he failed his father. He extended his pleasantries to the chieftain and left the hut feeling lower than snake shit.

As he left the hut, he was immediately surrounded by his men who were curious to hear if the chieftain accepted. To their dismay, Ermanar recounted the exchange. The men cursed quietly to themselves and spat on the Itenco land, ashamed that this so-called, "fierce people" was ruled by a coward and were leaving the Xaxamaca out to dry.

Ermanar told the dispirited Xaxamaii to gather their belongings and prepare to leave. But before Ermanar did so, he saw a fuming Biua sitting under a large tree, sharpening her daggers. An idea for a last second agreement sparked in the Xaxamaii's head.

"I cannot believe your father said such things," he told her as he approached.

She scoffed and kept sharpening the knife, making sure every that every nick that was being smoothed was extinguishing her inner frustration, "My Father has grown soft ever since the battle! He does not understand the vital situation we are in!"

"Exactly, maybe you should break words with him once again, except in the tone of frightful daughter?"

"I have tried such things, he still remains adamant to change his thoughts."

He crouched to her level, "Well then…maybe it shall be time that your thoughts eclipse his towards your people…absent his knowledge."

Her face grew abrasive and she sneered, "You are mad! I will not go against my father!"

"But you know that my father speaks the truth! If the Xicana seize full control of that beach, your people will be caught within their land. And in this vise, the Xicana shall seize all you claim for food and let you starve. And as you all grow weak, from feasting on mud, bark, and vegetation, and eventual hunger and madness claims you, the Xicana shall kill you all. Biua, lead your people away from this cruel fate!"

The Xaxamaii could see her facial expression change from irritation to a soft, perplexing bemusement. He could see the wheels in her mind turning as she actually considered for reign as leader of the Itenco. For the men of the village to follow her command meant that they respected her abilities as a warrior and feared her as such. She was a leader.

"Ermanar!" Guatemoc called out as he hobbled out of his hut towards the Xaxamaii, ten warrior fell in step along side him. "In order to leave this land, you must send all your men with ten of mine jungle. You must stay here."

"Why must I remain?" the prince asked, not liking the way the conversation was steering.

"Because I have a purpose for you to remain here in my village," he said sternly.

"Do you intend to hold me hostage against my father?"

"Not at all, such would be foolish. Be patient, you shall be free when it is over."

The Xaxamaii's eyes shot up, "'It'? What is 'it'?"

"The negotiations." Guatemoc declared calmly.

"Wait, what? What negotiations?" Ermanar asked. He was soon interrupted by Biua who came rushing to him with news.

"Father, forward scouts report a large concentration of the Xicana approaching the village!" she bellowed as she was out of breath. "They wish to attack!"

Before Biua could run off to mobilize the warriors, Guatemoc placed a calm, paternal hand on her shoulder, "Be at peace. They are not wishing to battle, but to break words."

Both Biua and Ermanar yelped in unison, "What?!"

"And I accepted," Guatemoc said with utter tranquility. He turned to Ermanar, "The reason I requested you to be here alone is so that you may see the negotiations between us and the Xicana, and know that the Xicana wants no war with us. And as long as we keep an amiable peace between them, they will not come to harm us."

Ermanar was so confused by everything moving so quickly that he had nothing to say. But Biua was vocal enough for both of them, "Father! How long have the Xicana been on our land?!" she demanded to know.

"This is their second day. Earlier in the morning they sent an emissary with letters of hopefully negotiating terms of trade and tribute later in the day, while you were absent in search of hunting earlier. And for the betterment of our kin, I accepted their terms to come to the village and speak to me."

"Father! Why is this now just gracing my ears?!"

His soft gaze transformed into a controlled glare, "Because I know that you will turn sword upon them at first moment. I have told the warriors to standby and allow them to pass and to not harm them. I will not give the Xicana any excuse to destroy us. And you shall see that they can be merciful if you know how to speak to them."

Biua grinded her teeth and wanted to curse her father for being negligent. Has he finally lost the last sense he had?!

Ermanar spoke up with uneasiness, "For what reason would you or your people profit from such talks?"

"Promised safety. I shall not see my people destroyed by this army. Whatever I can say to ensure the Xicana pass by our lands absent a drop of blood is my cause."

You despicable coward! Ermanar couldn't help but leer behind the chieftain's back. The Xicana would shed blood regardless of what would happen. How could he not see that? He would jeopardize the entire alliance for fear of his people's doom, which sounds admirable, but foolish in the long run. Ermanar eyed Biua with beseeching eyes for her to intervene, but she grudgingly shook her head, showing her helplessness in the situation. Her hands were tied and the Xicana were already on the verge of entering their village.

A messenger came by and told the chieftain that the Xicana entered the village and were on their way here. "Sheathe your weapons," Guatemoc shouted to all, "Do not aggravate them and stand with honor and respect towards them. I will not stand any signs of defiance towards their soldiers, translator, or their Commanders! Biua, Ermanar; stand by my side!"

"Chieftain, it is of utmost import that they must not know my identity as a Xaxamaii," the prince pleaded as he stood uniform by the chieftain.

"I understand, your identity will not be revealed, alough I am unsure how versed the Xicana are in Xanchaldii culture. Now fall silent, here they approach."

As the Xicana were moving closer to the main square, a large crowd of Itenco men, women, children, and warriors were following them in a swarming circle. Immediately, the Xicana soldiers ran forth and took a large square formation around the square and stood sharply at attention. Ermanar counted about 100 men, all whose eyes were looking around, precariously gauging the size of the Itenco tribe. A single Xicanii came pushing through the crowd and the soldiers, shouting in fluent islander tongue, "Make way! May way!" The formation of soldiers parted like a veil as the translator came through, followed by two people.

"Make way!" the translator shouted to the chieftain, "Make way for, Red Dog and Diana the Ivory Viper, the emissaries of Port Xicana."

Ermanar trembled subtlety, Biua glared at the Xicana, while Guatemoc walked forth to the two Xicanii and said with a sincere smile, "Greetings! I am Guatemoc, chieftain of the Itenco, welcome to our lands!"

"Gratitude for welcoming us unto your lands. As envoys of the port, I expect that we shall be treated with respect." Red Dog began.

"Of course, of course," the old man said "Dear Commanders, allow me to offer you two rest in our Meeting Hall, I have food and drink prepared for your arrival. There, we will speak upon your request."

"Agreed," Red Dog said with a cordial smile.

The Itenco led the Xicana and a small number of Xicanii soldiers, towards the Meeting Hall. On their way, Diana peered across the village in considerate detail. Although she saw a good number of warriors, she saw emaciated women and children look upon them with eyes filled with confusion, fear, and pain. She saw few livestock but she did notice a full stable of horses, so they must not have been that desperate. The atmosphere of the entire village was so filled with…bleakness, that she could begin to understand what it meant to truly starve.

"Red Dog," Diana whispered, "You see how these people are living?"

The man looked around, "I do…they seem so…weak, pathetic even?"

The Itenco presented a small rectangular table to the duo that held plates of cooked iguana and cups of palm wine.

Before Red Dog and Diana could sit, Biua extended her hand and ordered, "I must ask you two to relinquish all weapons that you carry on you."

Diana's eyebrow shot up, "Fuck that!"

"I do not believe I gave you a choice," she said with fire lighting her eyes.

"Biua!" Guatemoc raised his voice, before turning to the Xicanii. "Apologies, my daughter only offers stipulations that have always been in place, but absent consideration of her guests!" he sneered to her.

Red Dog eyed the scornful women once more, but ultimately allowed for their weapons to be taken without a word. He removed his knives handed them over to a Itenco warrior. Diana begrudgingly removed her cutlass' from her sides as well, and reached for her thigh dagger. Ermanar too reached behind his back to remove his hidden dagger.

Biua quickly seized his dagger and inspected it, "For what reason do you carry this dagger behind your back?" she genuinely asked him in curiosity.

"Because the enemy doesn't expect it and it stays away from their reach," he confidently told her.

She nodded silently in actual approval and handed the dagger over to her fellow warrior. "This only serves as precaution for safety of all parties," she said to them, but eyed the translator, as she herself removed her daggers from her waist, as did Guatemoc.

Guatemoc sat down in the middle of the opposite end of the Xicanii, with Biua and Ermanar sitting beside him. The Xicanii duo took their seats as well.

Red Dog cleared his throat, "…Under the direct orders of Lord Sealion, all tribes within 50 spans of Port Xicana must pay a direct tribute us. Such tribute includes, but is not limited to: crops, livestock, currency, oils, skins, and weaponry to supplement the port. Any questions?"

All the Itenco in the Hall fell silent, as if a phantom swooped into their lungs and stolen the precious air to breathe. Never before had Guatemoc's jaw fallen so low. "Questions?" From where to begin?

"D-D-Did you utter, 'tribute'?" Biua asked, her face locked in disbelief.

"Indeed I did," Red Dog replied.

"But that—'half?' We cannot pay in that form," Guatemoc explained with sorrow-filled eyes.

"And why isn't not possible?"

"Because—we simply do not have that amount, especially in the forms of food, we cannot give you half for if this comes to pass, my people will starve."

"I understand the barrenness of your fields, but Port Xicana demands whatever you have," he said unflinchingly.

"I fear…that the Xicana shall receive little from our people, not for lack of deception, but of scarcity."

Red Dog frowned and scratched his temple, "Must we seize everything you hoard from us?"

"But we only have the gristles on our bones!"

Red Dog glanced at Diana and they looked each other flatly. Diana raised a thick, roasted iguana leg from the table into the air for all to see.

"'Gristle', eh?" she said with a smirk.

"That—this is only a…token of celebratory gesture," Guatemoc said quickly, "To well gorge the appetite of my guests."

"Or," Diana said, "Maybe you gluttonous royals gorge on all the good food while your people starve?"

"Do not dare accuse me of such!" Guatemoc hissed, finally showing his authoritative presence. "Do not accuse me of such barbaric acts. I will do anything to save my people."

Diana rolled her eyes.

The chieftain exhaled in anxiety, "But to do so would damn my people to hunger, and that I cannot do."

"Well," Red Dog stepped in, "You can either damn your people by hunger and see if you hold a chance at surviving; or, you can damn them to the sword."

Biua made an audible growl and gave the eyes of death to the Xicanii. Her hands inconspicuously moved under the table and wrapped her hand around the handle of a secret dagger, strapped to the underside of the table. But before any action could be taken, Guatemoc discreetly placed a calming hand on his daughter's arm.

"ENOUGH!" Biua shrieked, slamming her hands on the table, startling everyone in the Hall. She was panting wildly in burning anger and gnashed her teeth. Ermanar looked over to the chieftain, hoping that he would restrain his daughter. But his head was lowered to the food, refusing to look at his daughter, yet not out of shame. He knew his outspoken daughter will voice his concerns, perhaps to a greater emotion than he could emote so that the Xicana could see how dire this tribute will be for them.

"You dare treat us as dirt?!" Biua shouted to the brothers, "You come to our lands and demand claim of what our people have toiled endlessly for. And you expect us, like obedient dogs, to bow before you and give you all that we own?!"

Red Dog smiled and simply said, "Of course."

The woman clenched her fist tightly, "What makes you hold mind towards our obedience to this despicable agreement?! Why should we hand over our food and livelihoods?" she snarled.

"Because you and your people only exist as simple slaves to Xicana."

Her voice rose an octave, "'Slaves?!' We are no slaves, we are the proud Itenco!"

"Do you possess an army the size of ours?"

"…No…"

The large man shrugged with a chuckle, "Then your're our fucking slaves."

Biua slumped back in her chair and nodded with a dark grin and said slowly, "You shit eating Xicanii."

"Biua!" Ermanar said through his teeth. Yet Sadus sat as he was, cool as ice with his smug smile still intact.

"Who do you think you are?" Biua continued with her angered grin, "I bet your cock rises at the thought of destroying our people."

Red Dog chuckled, "I am but a simple mercenary. Slayer of dozens of your barbaric kin." He cleared his throat and raised his eyebrow, "But…if you seek to discover what could make my cock rise, how about you serve your people and me back in our encampment?"

The malevolent grin quickly fell from her face. She grabbed the hidden dagger under the table and removed it halfway, before her father seized her hand yet again. This entire action was performed in discretion. She did not remove her death glare from Sadus, and she was joined by her father as well, who would rather the gods skin him alive than see his daughter's body sold for pleasure.

"You Xicanii bastards, this cannot stand in—"

"I accept the terms…" Guatemoc finally spoke.

All the islander in the Hall snapped their heads to their chieftain, utterly shocked at the heinous terms that he accepted. Ermanar eyed the Itenco chieftain in complete bewilderment, Biua, pale from shock, looked as if her soul was ripped from her body.

"Father…?" she said weakly, almost as if she was in a daze.

"I accept your terms, Red Dog." He said again, his head bowed in shame. He could not see his people destroyed by the Xicana.

Red Dog smiled and stood from his seat, "Smart man."

Guatemoc turned to his livid daughter, "My dear Biua, I need you to collect a tally of all food, livestock, skins, weapons, and oils…and prepare them for transport. Do it now."

His daughter looked at him intently, but said nothing. She bitterly nodded and left the Hall, leaving a trail of sullenness in her wake.

Guatemoc stood to his feet, his dignity in shambles but still showing outward pride to his new masters. Sadus extended a hand forth, Guatemoc examined the young mans palm for a moment, but he extended his hand out nonetheless and both men shook hands. Ermanar stared on, his expression illustrated total disbelief in this historic scene.




"Now do you see?!" Ermanar asked Guatemoc as he followed him back to his hut.

With the meeting between the Xicana and the Itenco adjourned, the Xicanii left the Meeting Hall and oversaw the gathering of their tribute, making sure that nothing was skimmed from the taking and that everything was in order. As this was happening, Guatemoc went to retire to his hut, wishing complete solitude from his people; he stood unable to look upon their withered, helpless faces.

Yet Ermanar quickly followed him. His mission to ally the Itenco with the Xaxamaca against the Xicana was tearing at the seams. He had to try something, say anything, to get the Itenco chieftain on his side; and he refused to return a failure to his king.

The Xaxamaii continued with his harassing, "The people you claim that you hold no qualms about are going to allow your people to suffer the ultimate indignity. Starvation! Ally with us, and together we can crush these invaders!" The confederate chieftain picked up his pace without saying a word. "You still fall silent? Guatemoc, this is bigger than your tribe, commit yourself to our cause and aid us against the Xicana." He still remained silent. "Woden damn you! Break words upon your next actions!"

As Diana was ordering some workers to perform a last second inventory check before they shortly left, her peripheral vision caught the forms of Guatemoc and Ermanar storming back to a hut. A sly smile formed on her lips.

The ivory haired woman inhaled and exhaled and started towards Guatemoc's hut. Red Dog ran over to Diana's side.

"Diana," he said, patting her on the back, "Make it clean."

"Don't I always?" she intoned, and she left Red Dog behind.




Outside the hut, Biua sat underneath a tree, peering at a massive cart filled with food, weapons, and skins, along with livestock tied to the cart and pouches of wine draping over their backs, and Xicana men guarding it with stone faces as the poor Itenco looked on, heartbroken at the loss of their precious supplies that were tied to their very survival.

Biua remained sitting, nearly aloof to her surroundings, all she could think about was her father abandoning his own people like a hairless coward. She remembered the sobs of sadness she heard from her people as she took their food and wine from them, as Roman soldiers glared at her from afar, making sure that you she did not "forget" to leave anything.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ermanar exiting her fathers hut with a big smile on his face. Her stomach churned at the sight of him, but a thought shot in her head. Why is he coming out of father's hut? And why is he smiling as such? She observed him longer and saw him heading over to the ivory haired Xicanii. For the time when they were outside, she observed them both sharing a laugh and a lengthy conversation, they even shared a hug consisting of the ivory girl picking up Ermanar and slowly swinging him in the air back-and-forth.

Biua watched from afar in disgust. The Xicana were acting too friendly with the Xaxamaca. But before she could stomach any more, Diana walked back towards her father's hut and waved goodbye to the Xaxamaii.




Biua stood to her feet and looked on at her desolate village, no animals except for the stable of horses remained, women and children stood in a trance, wondering if this was reality or a dream, she herself stood reflecting the entire set of events, judging herself for not being more vocal in the defense against the Xicana. They had the manpower to take on a hundred Roman soldiers; she could have killed them all before they entered. She could—

A terrible yell pierced the absolute silence of the village. Biua snapped her head to the source of the yell, to her horror; it came from her father's hut. Diana rushed out of the hut and shouted into the air, "Help! Help come quick! Murder! Murder! The Chief has been murdered!"

A crowd quickly gathered around the hut, but none moved faster than Biua, who dashed down to the hut so fast that witnesses believed she had wings on her feet. Diana saw her coming and shouted, "Biua come quick! Your father has been murdered!"

No! NO! It cannot be! She burst through the hut door and there she saw him. He was crumpled stomach-up on top his personal table, one eye was wide open and fixated on the ceiling while his other eye was halfway closed, the room smelled more awful than usual, his bowels had loosened. The origins of the fatal wound was obvious to all that saw, a medium-sized dagger was still jammed in his jugular, judging from the angle, one could say that he bled out under 30 seconds.

Biua screamed louder than any person could believe was humanely possible. Tears flowed out of the corners of her eyes, and she ran to her father and cradled his body tight for several minutes. Her father was the only family she had left, and now, she was forever alone and now in charge of her dying people.

Several warriors entered the hut, and upon seeing the body, they bowed their heads in shame for allowing this vicious murder to take place. Diana bowed her head and shook it, "I found him as is, but didn't see who did it" she told the daughter, translator sputtering.

Biua suddenly stopped crying. She rose from the corpse and without turning around, hissed, "I saw you enter the hut, did you kill my father?"

The Itenco slowly turned to him and gave him menacing leers, as they slowly fondled the handles of their swords. Diana swallowed hard and stammered, "No! No-No-No, I did no such thing. I only wanted to reassure him before we left. When I entered, I saw him dead! I'm innocent!"

Biua leaped towards her and forcibly grabbed her palms and examined them. They were clean. "See?" she said to her, "No blood! I played no part in this!"

"Then what happened?!" She screamed to everyone in the hut. "Spread out and find the murderer! I want him now!"

Before the Itenco warriors ran out, Diana called attention to a crucial piece of evidence, "Hold on. The assassin's dagger is still in his throat!"

Biua went over to her father's body and examined the dagger closely. She gasped after her inspection. She pulled it out gently and showed it to everyone.

"That…dagger," a Itenco stated, "That is not confederate craft…"

"No…I recognize this craft, this pattern, this metal," she said. "This…This is an Iyolloyo dagger!"

"Shit it is," Diana chimed in, "Wasn't that the dagger that man with you earlier had?"

"Yes…it is," she said, as she began to access her memory. At the Meeting Hall, when she confiscated their weapons, she remembers pulling this dagger from Ermanar behind his back. It was one and the same. She shook her head wildly. The Xaxamaii prince killed her father? No, it wasn't possible…but wait…she remember seeing him exiting the hut…and he was smiling! The pieces were beginning to connect. And the Xaxamaii…they left the camp rather quickly as well! They…They did kill her father! They murder her father!

"THAT FUCKING XAXAMAII BASTARD!" she erupted with the intensity of a volcano. "He and his fucking entourage try and ally with us, and instead kill my father because of our refusal?!" She ran out of the hut fuming with the wrath of a goddess and addressed her grieving people who heard the news, "The Xaxamaii have invaded our lands, and murdered my father! Your chieftain! They are dogs without honor who are plagued with madness! We shall not stand for this!" She turned to her warriors, "As Chieftain of the Itenco, I command every man to take up the axe and sword and follow me to attack the Xaxamaii!"

Her warriors cheered with angered vengeance and quickly moved throughout the village to grab their remaining weapons. They were ready for war against the cowards who killed their chieftain. But only one woman in the entire village had the sense to address Biua about this issue.

"Biua!" Diana chased after her, "Stop this, you can't attack those guys witho—"

"Stand aside, Xicanii! I will avenge my father!"

"I understand, but this isn't the way!

"I give no shits to the 'correct way', they killed my father, and I will kill that bastard prince!"

"Listen to fucking reason, woman! You'll fucking die!"

"Fuck off!"

Diana jumped in front of Biua and drew her sword and pressed the tip to her throat. The new Itenco chieftain stopped in her tracks. "Not another step, until you hear what I have to say!" she told her.

"Get that sword away from me before I kill you!" she warned. Diana felt no fear, Biua was an ant compared to the beings she had fought.

She put his sword down while saying, "Attacking about 100 men is stupid!"

"Of course not! We shall crush them, we can still catch up to them!"

"Let me finish. Attacking 100 men is stupid, if you had the option of killing a thousand!"

Biua breathed softer and cocked her eyebrow, "Cease fucking riddles, what do you mean?"

"Red Dog, can get you your vengeance. Ally with us, and we can take everything the bastard holds dear."

Biua thought it over considerably; she paced from side-to-side, grunting loudly, juggling immediate vengeance and the safety of her own people. She desired the prince's head on a stake immensely, but then again, his father most likely ordered him to kill her father, he had to die too. All the Xaxamaca royalty had to die!

"Alright, I accept. The Itenco are now allied with the Xicana! You take us north and we shall aid you! But…I want the princes' heads"

Diana smiled, "Of course, vengeance is yours."

Biua nodded, then stormed off. War was on the horizon.

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Two days. Two days without sleep. Beyond that, Lao had lost count. He was exhausted.

He ran. He stumbled. He made no progress. It had been forty days since the last dawn. The third dawn. Surely everything would be okay. If the sun would only rise one more time.

Lao watched the sky, watched black turned to mauve turn to orange turn to yellow.

Turn to brown.

"No!"

Olive green succeeded the yellow and no sun arose. Light began to flow to the world around him, sickly greens that made no sense on the backdrop of sky. Not as he looked at them. Lao shot his eyes around and saw the hues turn deader at his gaze, hoping to find something true green, something bright, not drab and dead and vile and grained and no no no NO-

"NO!"

Lao rammed his fist into the dirt and raised it to his face, watched grains of grit cling to his hand only to realise they were crustaceans.

"It's not REAL!"

None of this was, he was tossing in a fever bed, his body was sweating, his brain was churning, he could almost see the wild folds of twisted blanket tangling him, almost feel him on his skin...

But it was. It was all real. He could not convince himself that the truth was a lie, and the blankets smouldered in his grip, left him naked and alone. The gnarl-trees watched him with their slitted eyes.

Lao had called on Yah Vah, and Yah Vah had answered.

Yah Vah had answered.

It's all in my head. Lao picked himself up and was naked no more. He gripped his head and walked back on his path, knowing the watchers would follow. It's all in my head. All in my dreams. It's not real. That was the only answer he came up with, although he knew it was false. It had been all in his head. How had it come out?

Lao imagined a brain crawling away from its socket, though he knew he shouldn't; he couldn't help it. The vision manifested, there on the floor where he'd walked past just a second ago; if he wasn't used to it by now he would have reeled at the fact that he hadn't noticed it before. His own body lay bleeding there, a pink monster screeching in its head, then turning to reveal the jaws it must have screeched with, and scuttling into the dark. Lao stared at his body, transfixed.

It blinked.

"Aargh!" So desensitised had he become to the hell-world's tricks that this barely registered on him, only surprised him. That was what sickened him.

"YOU!"

Lao raised his Tounic staff to the distant horizon, watched the disk hanging at the end of it start to glow. It could trick him, get him lost, but it could not take from him. The pair of eyes appeared on the horizon as he bid. White eyes. Ripped from Vigilate and Scitis. He could see their skul-

"YOU MADE THIS!"

A bolt of porcelain shot into the dark, out from the center of the disk into the sky. The two eyes blinked and instantly went out. They lit up again. Lao roared. He could slay a man, not a world.

He'd called to every god, trapped as he was inside the hell, but none had answered. His cry was lost among the thousands they received every day. It was not often that a god responded. But Yah Vah had.

Lao started to sprint, away from the corpse, away from the gnarling trees, away from their gaze and into the hills, the bluffs shaped like faces wrought from bloodied stone. They outpaced him, those eyes, and fought him, raising trees up to bludgeon him, raising stone outcrops to tear at him. Lao fought, and fought back, but they knew him, knew him better than anyone.

They were him.

He was fighting himself. Every swing.

They threw Lao back, bloodied and beaten, but this time he would not stop. The end was coming. The eyes were drawing closer.

He'd called Yah Vuh because he was bored. And she had answered.

Lao ran across dirt and pond and wood and field, scenes of home now tainted with his wildest dreams. Trees with eyes and crops of teeth. Lakes of stone and crystals hanging from the sky. Darkness that was only gnats and soot. Nets among the grass. Spikes in every pit.

The more ground he covered, the worse it became. The more Lao saw, the stronger those eyes grew.

He closed his eyes and tripped, stumbling, throwing himself into the pit. The waters caught him and he sank, then floated, lying back on a pool a mile wide. It would not let him die.

Lao turned the rune-disk on himself, but fangs grabbed the end of his staff and dragged it under water. He tried to swim. He could only stand. The water was not deep. It dried up in an instant.

Lao fell to his knees and wept. The hell-world did not answer.

It did answer.

Whispers, everywhere, whispers without words.

"Just take it," he mumbled. "Take and let me die."

The great eyes were upon him.

Lao screamed, and Lao's body screamed, and the voices screamed, and Lao watched himself grow far away, fleeing skywards as brown turned to blue and Lao's body watched Lao's soul flying deep into the sky upon a shade...

...

'Lao' stood. He was bloody and sore, and after checking himself down for major injuries, took a brief walk to see if he still could. Yes, he could. That was swell.

It was mid-day. He recognised the terrain. Not much more than a day's walk from home; he'd make it before third moonrise. He checked for his staff and realised it was missing. Oh, well. He'd do some explaining to the runesmith. He'd get scolded, which was bad, but it wouldn't be more than he could handle. He'd only been gone two days.

So all in all, that wasn't too bad, thought 'Lao'. He planned to forget all about it.

And then he'd go back to his life.

He'd settle as a cleric, not some adventurer. That was a far more sensible approach. He'd marry Jikki, the miner's daughter, and have some kids. He'd work in the daylight and sleep well in the night, and every now and then he'd go and drink with his friends, for fun. He could handle it. Everything would be okay. He didn't need to dream high dreams any more.

'Lao' set foot for the village, striking up a two-note tune as he went. The music made him feel good. Feeling good was nice. Yes. That's right. Feeling good was nice. It was all coming back to him now.




Orbital velocity: one thousand, two hundred metres per second.
Mass: half a tonne, existent. Estimated virtual maximum about eight million tonnes.
Density: two kilograms per metre cube.
Interpsychic resonance: stable.

With the first functional periphere matured and in orbit, I think I've done an excellent job. Even given the short notice and disappointing size of the entity, it still stands up to all but the most stringent of tests and largely lives up to its predicted specifications. I've despatched it to Ovaedis, to commence operation as a unit of primary point defense.

Lao's next life will, if nothing else, be an interesting one. It's a shame he couldn't have continued the one he was leading. Imaginative individuals are a precious resource on Galbar, as anywhere, and even with the cognitive programs I left in Lao's old body, we may see some detrimental effects on the local society. Nothing so bad as to outweigh the experiment of leaving a soulless mortal alive, of course, but it's not something I'd do readily. Given some years I would have used alternative means to develop a soul to maturity, but that is time I do not have.

I'll complete an initial production run of several hundred individuals, and see where I go from there.


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Bright_Ops The Insane Scholar

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A collab with @LokiLeo789

The effort of blessing this... sanctuary for the damned had left Farxus drained and tired, the demi-god weak until he had a chance to recover some of the strength that he had poured into the ruined city. With nothing better to do with his time he decided to explore the barren wastes and ruins that he had claimed for his own. While many might have found the few remaining buildings and the crater that were all that remained of Xerxes as the only remaining points of interest in the area, Farxus felt his attention going... elsewhere. Towards a strangeness in his domain that he couldn't quiet explain to himself and felt the need to see for himself.

He quickly came upon the anomaly. East of Xerxes proper lie a frozen wetland as barren as the rest of the state. Yet while sterility of Xerxes was a product of conceivable foundation, these wetlands where utterly unnatural and impious in origin. Instead of soil, a layer of ice permeated this frosty tundra, yet sections of it seemed to flow, not like a river, but like molasses. The top ruffled and where it cracked an inky darkness showed through.

Farxus blinked as he looked over the strangely colored, unnatural pools of water and ice that seemed to stagnate in front of him, confused as he inspected it carefully. He could feel some of himself mixed in with the waters, but... the more he peered into its dark depths, the more he felt the lingering presence of another mixed in and altering each other into something now... something that he hadn't foreseen. Taking a deep breath that he didn't need, he knelt down by the side of the pools and lowered his hand into the water to try and gleam some understanding as to its nature.

As his bony hand dipped under the surface of the black water, Farxus closed his eyes as he felt a surge crawl up his arm and into the core of his being; An almost underwhelming desire to go out into the world and track down those who laid down curses and disturbed the dead for their own vile purposes and make them pay for their transgressions! His tome had already alerted him to such a person who had spent decades perverting the dead in order to create an army... Thulemiz would pay dearly for his crimes against the natural order of things!

Pulling his hand out of the waters, the feeling lingered for a few moments... before weakening and fading away as all emotion did to Farxus sooner or later. He blinked a little as he stared blankly at the waters again, the echo's of plans to deal with Thulemiz remaining in his mind even after the waters... 'blessing' had faded. "Interesting..."


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