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Hidden 3 mos ago Post by Muttonhawk
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Muttonhawk Let Slip the Corgis of War

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This Giant's Different

Circa 3 years PR

The camp had something extra today.

The ogres shouted, they struck each other, they stank, they abused the slaves, they ate, they stank, they placed bets on wrestling matches, they reinforced their command structure through brutality, and they stank.

This was all the usual. Yiga the slave hain was used to it all. To anyone else, that something extra would be drowned in filth and barbarism.

They had put up more sentries. They had been shouting up at their leaders more. And Yiga and her companions in servitude were digging another ditch to encircle the camp in front of the perfectly good ditch that they had already dug. The ogres had some reason to be afraid.

Yiga paused her digging into the hard soil to peek up at their overseer. Big Fromp was asleep again. He was afforded that privilege by being one of the only ogres in the camp that did not snore like a falling tree. In turn, his charges were afforded the freedom to whisper and gossip under his sleepy ears.

"Johtn," Yiga hissed. "Johtn! Tsst! Why are they so jumpy today?"

Johtn did not stop digging. "Rumour's about," he whispered.

"About what?"

"Monster came out the Weald recently."

Yiga tilted her head in confusion. "Ogres aren't afraid of Weald monsters."

"Different one. Something strange." Johtn's staccato only became more so. "Kills ogres. Killed a whole camp of 'em."

"Wouldn't they hunt it?"

Johtn finally hazarded a glance at Yiga as if he didn't know the answer for sure. "Probably not 'cos they can't find it. Or, if they find it, all the hunters die. It'smart. It's weird 'cos it's a white giant, but..."

Yiga let out a disappointed sigh. "Ogres can kill white giants. I've seen it. They'll catch it."

"Not this one. Don't know if it's a white giant for sure. Just looks like one."

"So...a smart white giant?"

"More'n that. Leaves these marks everywhere. Fights smart, too. Like it plans. No'ne knows what the marks mean, though."

A loud waking snort tensed both slaves up. Everyone doubled their efforts in digging.

Behind them, grinding soil and detritus heralded a wave of nauseating body odour approaching. A large shadow swallowed Yiga and Johtn. Neither dared look up at its source.

"SHAGGANK! BO FIK-BAB!"

Shut up. No talking. Probably the most common thing they heard from Big Fromp.

The hain to Yiga's right was kicked into the wall of the incomplete ditch with a thud. The already filthy slave wheezed and crawled back to work. Her eyes grimaced in pain.

Yiga gave the kicked hain a glance. You're lucky today, Sem, Yiga thought. He didn't break any shell plates on his randomly assigned punishee today.



"Yiga! Yiga! Wake up, right now! Quickly!"

Yiga shuddered awake in the pit the slaves were forced to sleep in. The sun was up. They should have started work hours ago. Yiga panicked at Sem waking her up.

"Sem!? What are you doing!?!" She breathed. "Don't speak so loud or Fromp will crunch us both! If we're lucky, we can sneak to the ditch and pretend..."

She trailed off as she sat up. It was quiet. The camp was never quiet.

Nothing smelled different. There was still just filth. She wondered for a moment whether the ogres had moved on without them all.

"Something's happened," Sem said, clearly enough to be kicked by any ogre in earshot. "Come, have a look."

A number of hain were awake and standing, looking through the wooden pen the ogres had built for them. Sem helped Yiga up to her feet and lead her through the mud to the pen walls.

Yiga gently shouldered through the gathered hain. No one was saying anything over a whisper.

She saw why.

The structures around the camp were all toppled, burnt, or fallen in the breeze. The smell of filth, garbage, and blood was overwhelmingly biased to the latter.

And ogres lay still in the wet dirt in red puddles. They had wounds, blunt force, normally not what bothered an ogre. They also had sickening divots where their fatty necks were meant to be. They were all crushed in like a great pair of fingers had squeezed their throats like lemons.

Yiga tried to see as far as she could. More dead ogres. More destroyed camp. She somehow slept through it all, probably because of the camp ruckus and hard work training her to be a heavy sleeper.

She took her aching, overworked limbs and clambered up the side of the pen.

"Yiga! Wait! You don't know if whatever did this is still out there!" Johtn shouted from below.

"I gotta know," Yiga said. Her voice was stronger than ever.

She reached the top and straddled the pen fence. It shuddered as she tried to keep her balance.

The camp had something extra today.

The mud, the fences, everywhere that blood could be smeared or dirt could be furrowed, there was this symbol written over and over. Stretching around the corpses of ogres, penned onto their pale, dead bellies with blood, arrayed with bits of bones on the floor, there was the same symbol.

Yiga had not seen it before. She did not think she knew what it meant until she saw its many incarnations around the pen. It came together as a pattern. A rune with an intrinsic meaning.

It was a question. A scared question. Missing some context, true, but understandable by one word in Yiga's language.

"Mother?" Yiga read out loud.

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Hidden 3 mos ago 2 mos ago Post by Kho
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Kho art & loss

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The white-clad man watched (though it was not with his eyes that he did so) from a distance as the singing djinni descended from the heavens and, in its oddly beautiful tone, conversed with the Rukbans who had called upon it. It was an ancient djinni that had for long aeons cried its pain to the heavens, trapped as it had been in the Heartworm's Jvanic Instrument. Until The One By Immortals Altered had found it and set it free. In the distance, the djinni appeared to begin its ascent back to the heavens... but it stopped suddenly on seeing the white-clad man. Battle Brother Juras raised a white hand and spoke softly. His voice was carried on the winds.

'Hail, friend of the First Formica,' he declared. The djinni descended to the Rukbans once more, and the Victor turned away and walked. At his side, along with his sheathed short-sword, hung a Rukban igilir. It was the will of Our Master the Bard that this musical instrument, developed by - of all people - the wild riders of the Golden Barrens, be carried far and wide. Though Our Master had aforetime tended solely towards the lute (and this was no longer the case), that all music should resonate in every land and place - and that its beauty should be known by every ear and face - was of his utmost desires. Were it not so that Our Master's duties tied him to New Chronos and the Cube, he would have taken it upon himself to journey through Galbar and Arcon to spread sublime - nay, sacred! - sound. And perhaps, one day, he would. But until then, Battle Brother Juras took it upon himself to do what little he could to bring Our Master's voice to all. And while it was true that he was of the Silent Brothers (and some simplistically saw sound and silence as ceaseless foes), silence was itself a sort of sound - listen...

New Chronos knew silence, and it knew sound also - every moment was made complete, was made honoured and resplendent, by the sound of Our Master's music, his voice. And sometimes he willed it be gentle, and sometimes he willed it blaze; and sometimes he willed silence. And for those who listened - and Battle Brother Juras had endeavoured hard to be of those who listened - every sound brought with it spiritual illuminations, deepened understanding, and a shuddering of emotional catharsis. There was in music wisdoms and pearls for those who had ears or hearts; and there was in it emotion also for those who found themselves woefully bereft.

Having delivered Our Master's prophetic words to Shaqmar the Qa'id Adheem, and having done his part in ensuring the great Basheer aided the Azad in their war (for the Rukbans would need the strength that only unity could bring if they were to weather the coming terrors), Battle Brother Juras continued his journey south. He stepped once, then again, and then he melted away into the very Fabric of Existence (welcome home. we missed you. will you be staying long? there's no need hurry... come come, stay a while longer...)

Juras shook his head and spoke clear as he made his resolute transition through the Fabric, repeating the noble words of the Celestial Above. ‘It is for loved ones that I sing my silent song and you sigh, this song of endurance and glory and hope for final victory. From far do I journey, holding between my limbs for you a growing yearning and longing. Do not take for hatred my silence, how can he speak whom love renders deaf, dumb and blind? Yet I, though I love, See clearly, Hear with certainty and can Speak naught but truth, and so greatest is my pain.’ And as he emerged, the Fabric rippled and moaned and complained bitterly before reluctantly releasing his frame. His right hand was last to leave as the Fabric returned to its decreed form, and his head was turned back as though in long farewell. A Silent Brother who could walk the Fabric, as the Celestial Above could, did not merely walk it - they had an emotional link, they know the Fabric, were its friends, its children... its impassioned lovers. And so hearing the Fabric cry out and moan at the shortness of his stay and the quickness of his departure was a wound inflicted against his very heart. But he had his duties to his equally beloved gods, and the Fabric knew that and understood.

He found that he was now walking in sand. In the distance, a city rose up on the banks of the Mahd. Juras made for it - for there he would find the one that he must find and chase the dust jailing their mind: for Fate comes even for the heedless blind.

It was as he walked thus that a sudden vision struck him statue still. He was no stranger to visions - indeed, the Celestial Above and Our Mother of the Cherry guided him in his sleep even as they did in his waking hours - but this was nothing like those visions. There was no gentleness to it, it did not coax the mind and lift it slowly and softly towards one revelation at a time. It was akin to an assault, an awkward shoving of data into his mind. Were it not so that he had spent aeons honing his mind and disciplining it, he would have buckled and lost consciousness under the weight of the pure mass of material exploding into his head. But he held on (though, he would not deny, he was forced to lean on his pole-sword for support - which quickly sank into the sand but steadied him nonetheless).

He did not know how long he stood there weathering the mental onslaught, his mind pulsing with pain - there is no pain, there is no pain, there is no pain - unable to grasp completely what it was that he was being shown. Plant wheat (or barley, or oats, or...), harvest, thresh and winnow, grind into flour, mix with water, salt, and yeast, heat- concentrated anger can be manifested into destructive bursts o- animal hides can be converted into more useful leather by treating it, tanning it, an-
They clawed their way into his mind, grabbing and climbing over one another in a fitful rampage. It would take him a long time to sift through it all and decipher the many meanings to the chaotic jumble. Indeed, the fingers of the Execrable Chaos laced this happening. Of that there could be no doubt.

Shaken, he took one step forward before sinking to the sandy ground. He would not, however, allow himself to slump into a shapeless heap. He descended slowly onto his knees and crossed his legs behind him. His pole-sword remained upright beside him, and he placed his hands upon his thighs. His back straight, he took a deep breath and was still. He would permit himself time to recover. Vetros, and the one he had to find, would still be there tomorrow.

In the heavens, a wrathful lord of djinnkind drove the shrieking, struggling, kicking, carving form of the Heartworm before him in utter humiliation and disgrace. 'May the Coward's eye never know sleep,' muttered the Battle Brother as he finally released his consciousness into the land of visions and dreams.



'Juras!'
'Mu- mum?'
'How many times do I have to tell you? Use your Wi!'
'But it's so much easier with my hands... I can feel if there's a bone or something.'
'You can feel if there's a bone with Wi too. Now stop complaining and eat properly.'
'But it's hard to focus or even taste the food - it gives me a headache,' he complained as he placed the piece of fish down. His mother had insisted he catch it using Wi. (He had not...)
'It's just a matter of time. It will help you hone your mind - now eat properly,' and so saying, she opened her mouth and a piece of fish whizzed in.
'Look mum, I did it!' Juras looked to his little sister as she caused her tomato soup to float unsteadily towards her gaping mouth in a small uncertain blob, her hands aloft. (Wi had nothing to do with hand movements, she was just being a child).
'Good girl Kalimva,' mother smiled broadly, her brown eyes twinkling and her ever-flushed cheeks seeming to redden even more with delight. 'If only Juras could eat half as well as you,' she looked mischievously at the young man who harrumphed in mock irritation and returned to his food. Kalimva laughed, lost focus, and her soup splashed back into her bowl. In her hurried attempts to keep it up, she tipped the bowl and spilled much of it over herself before mother righted it again.
'Don't worry,' Juras chuckled, 'you're still better than me.'



Even for one who had dwelled for untold millennia in Chronos and witnessed its many wonders, Vetros was wondrous to behold. And Juras beheld it not only as a Victor would, he saw it with his physical eyes. He did not wish to attract overdue attention, and a figure who walked with his face covered was certain to attract just that kind of attention. Face bared, but hood still raised and body cloaked, he walked the city's streets and observed its people. They recognised a stranger and looked at him with curiosity, noting his weapons and igilir with a degree of suspicion, but otherwise let him be. He had been halted at the gates he came through and his weapons inspected. 'You have no need to be concerned about these - they are purely for self-defence,' he spoke in polished Vetruvian. The guards looked at him in shock - his speech was that of royalty. But when one was watched over by Our Mother of the Words, it was only right that one see to it that one always has the right words - in the right language and dialect - for every conceivable potentiality. While the language of the gods was all they needed in New Chronos, the people of Galbar (but not, it had to be noted, of Arcon) had as many languages as stars in the heavens. Or perhaps a little less.
'Uh, dey look plen'y concernin', if y'ask me,' one of the guardsmen had muttered, turning the strange short-sword over in his hands. It was like nothing he had ever seen. 'And y'ave plen'y o' soljers to protec' you here.' Juras had looked at the man and pursed his lips.
'Has news not reached you of the blood demon that haunts this city's nights?' Juras asked slowly. The two guards looked at one another and then back at Juras.
'Yeh, bu' the Pries'-King deal' wi'tha',' the first guardsman insisted.
'Do you blame a man his caution? Is it not said, "tie your goat and then place your trust in the Master"? Well, I've tied my goat,' and here Juras gestured to his weapons, 'and I now place my trust in the Priest-King's wards.' Though hesitant, it was eventually Juras' demeanour - rather than anything else - that persuaded them to allow him entry with his weapons. His eyes were not the eyes of a liar, his words did not strike one as insincere, his caution in seeking protection for himself entirely relatable.

The great majority of dwellings were recognisably of adobe, while the city's walls were a mixture of limestone and basalt - this Juras did not see, but sensed. The temples he passed were largely constructed of limestone or sandstone (usually a combination of both), and the Priest-King's palace itself made use of basalt, granite, limestone, sandstone, alabaster, and marble. Strangely enough, it appeared that the Priest-King himself was not present in the city at that exact moment - 'gone to face off against the demon, apparently,' a potter informed him when he inquired.
'I see. And do you know where I can find lodging for the night?' The potter paused in his work and looked at Juras for a few moments.
'You come far, have you?' He asked. Juras nodded.
'Yes, from beyond Rukbany.' The potter raised an eyebrow and looked Juras up and down before shrugging.
'Very well, you're Vetros' guest then. It'll be my honour to host you.' Juras smiled.
'Thank you. The name is Juras, a travelling musician and storyteller.'
'And fearsome warrior, by the looks of it!' The potter laughed, 'and my name's Axalit. Honoured to make your company, Juras.'

Axalit closed up shop early and took Juras home. 'Samiyas! I have a guest with me,' he said loudly as he entered the house, 'how long will you be staying with us?' He quickly turned back to the Victor and asked.
'Oh don't worry too much about that,' Juras smiled, 'I don't wish to impose or abuse your hospitality. I will stay no more than the night.'
'Nonesense!' Axalit declared, 'so long as you are in Vetros, you are my guest. If you sleep under any other roof I will consider myself slighted!' Juras nodded quickly.
'Very well - that's the last thing I'd want to do. I am your guest as long as the Master wills it.' Axalit smiled and they shuffled on into the small abode. Samiyas (who, it transpired, was Axalit's wife) laid food before them and the three of them ate together. They had not been eating for five minutes when the door of the house opened and giggling and shouting streamed in.
'Addaf, Khunu, Nubata!' Axalit called, 'come here and meet our guest.' Two boys - about the same age, twins by the looks of it - and a younger girl walked in shyly. Their giggles and shouts became whispers and they could barely hold Juras' gaze.
'They're shy, that's all,' Samiyas assured Juras. Juras looked to them and smiled.
'Would you like me to play you something?' He hefted his igilir and looked to the three little ones. One of the twins nodded excitedly, but the other two just bit their lips timidly. 'And I can tell you a story while I'm at it.' At this, all three perked up.
'Mummmy Yara tolded us a story today!' Little Nubata declared happily. 'It was about a biiig book and... and. Um. They made the everything! She tolded us, she tolded us that a storyman said it to her,' Juras' eyes narrowed somewhat at the little girl's words, but he smiled and drew his bow across the igilir's strings.
'Well, little Nubata. This one is a very different story. It is the story of an Emperor who thought himself a god, and his battle against the giant beast of darkness whose every footstep was large as an ocean: Khetra.' And he drew his bow back, creating a long, deep, ominous sound.
'What happened, what happened,' Nubata asked, her prior timidness forgotten.

'It came to be one day that the great...' he looked from Axalit to Samiyas then corrected himself, 'that a minor god, the so-called Execrable Chaos, wished to sow chaos and destruction in the land. And so he rose up on his wings of death and darkness (for he had subjugated these gods and forged for himself wings out of their corpses) and sent the seventh moon of the world - for the world once had seven, not six, moons - hurtling towards the ground. But the sublime god, the one who resides within and is an intrinsic part of the world, who is called the Celestial Above, brought failure on his schemes.

'Angered by this, the Execrable Chaos plotted and planned and schemed, and then it created the beast Khetra. It dwarfed the mountains, a being massive and red, its teeth were as big as Brush Beasts-'
'What's a Brush Beast!' Nubata cried, terror and glee showing in her eyes and voice. Juras chuckled.
'A Brush Beast is a big cow. A very, very big cow. Cities are built on its back.' Nubata's eyes widened in amazement, and the twins gasped and looked at one another.
'Now the Execrable Chaos had a son - who was also a daughter-'
'Whaat!?' Nubata shrieked and laughed, 'how! Did he have two...' she looked at her mum, 'um, two peepees?' Juras shook his head and Samiyas looked visibly concerned about the way this story was going.
'No, it had no peepees!' Juras declared.
'What!' Nubata shrieked again, 'then how did he pee!?' Juras leaned forward and placed a hand on his chin.
'That's an interesting question Nubata,' he said, looking deep in thought, 'I guess you'll have to ask it when you see it!' And so saying, he continued his story, 'so this child of the Execrable Chaos - who was called the Little Emperor (though it did not like that name at all) - was angered at what its father was doing. And so, it set off on a long journey - searching for friends and allies to help it put a stop to the beast Khetra and his horde of demons and magickers.'

And the tale continued until the sun had disappeared over the edge of the world and the stars and moons reigned in the sky. The little ones went to bed and Axalit bid his guest good night.
'That was quite a tale - can't say I've ever heard one quite like it. There must be some truly strange things in the lands beyond Rukbany.' Juras looked at his host and nodded.
'There are things stranger far than you can imagine my friend,' he said somewhat sadly. 'Beyond the safety of the Firewind, all has fallen to Y'Vahn.' Axalit seemed stunned by this revelation and could only mutter for a few seconds.
'M- may the Master protect us.' Juras looked at his host and sighed.
'We are a sad sight whose gods are dead,' and with that, he turned over and closed his eyes, 'good night Axalit.'



He hovered over the roundtent. It was a calm night and only the odd guard could be spied here or there. Otherwise, all was silent and still. He landed on the wooden steps leading up to the Qa'id Adheem's roundtent, and turned. Two guards stared him down. He paused and was still, but they made no move and it quickly became apparent that they could not perceive him. He slipped past them and into the tent.

It was red inside. A crimson vapour pervaded the air and brought with it a rustic, metallic smell. He could almost taste it. He approached the source - he could already sense it, but he wished to see it with his eyes.

Two figures lay in the furs, clutching one another. The man had buried his head into the woman's face, a final kiss upon her cold, unfeeling lips. He approached and knelt beside the pair, watching the dead lovers. His fingers traced her arm until it reached where her lover's hand enveloped hers, and he felt the blade which had taken her life and his. The blade itself seemed to sob, silently invisibly. O was no deny.

Shouts arose in the morning when the guards took tentative looks within. A short man, bald, leapt into the tent and shook the lovers apart. He did not realise the gravity of the crime, he never should have disturbed their final unity. He shook the dead man, begging him to wake. Juras heard it as if through water, and the vision seemed to grow in distance by the second.

The open desert spread before him. The sun lit up the sky. A lone man, long of hair and beard with piercing eyes of brown, made his solitary way across the sand. A djinni rose up before him, and the lone figure laughed and seemed to stroke what passed for its chin. In the distance, there was a vast oasis. The vision blacked out suddenly, and a command rang out.

'Find Bulagutai. Send him home.'



'Mummy Yara is soo pretty! And she's really nice, and she always smiles at me and rubs my head - and her stories are the best!' Nubata was saying as she walked with Juras, holding his hand, 'but yours are good too. But hers aren't scary like yours. And she says that when I grow up I can be a priestess too!' Juras listened rather intently as she spoke excitedly, 'she's my favourite person in the whole wide world!'
'She teaches you, does she, this Mummy Yara?' Juras asked.
'It's Mother Yara,' Addaf snickered, 'if you call her Mummy Yara everyone will laugh at you.'
'No they won't!' Nubata shrieked. Juras laughed.
'So, Mummy Yara. All she does is teach?' He looked over at Addaf.
'Well, she does that. But she also writes lots. I've never read anything she's written, but all the older kids always talk about how great her library is. And she's... well, she's the Witch-Priestess. She can do miracles and magic - and everyone is pretty sure that she's related to the Prophet. Once this guy - Uncle Makinatos we call him - went to her and asked her to make his mum young again. And she did it! And this other time this woman went to her and complained about her husband, and Mother Yara turned her husband into a right old frog!' Juras raised an eyebrow at this.
'Not a frog,' Khunu interjected shyly, 'into an old man.'
'Really now? And who has been telling you these stories now?'
'They're not stories! We can even go and visit them - it was Sister Chjekaya's dad what made his mum young again,' Khunu - who was clearly the most reserved - spoke up again, louder this time. 'We still have time before we need to be at the Temple anyway, let's go.' And with that Khunu ran ahead and led them through the city's side streets and into the little alleys between homes until they had arrived at another abode.
'Uncle Makinatos! Uncle Makinatos!' Addaf cried, at their cries a woman - perhaps in her mid to early forties - stepped out of the house.
'What are you three doing here so early in the morning,' she asked, 'and who in the world is this?' She looked the strangely-dressed Juras up and down curiously, 'and I thought I'd seen just about everything.'
'Granma, tell Juras that we're not lying!' Addaf said, 'tell him that it's true what the Witch-Priestess did for you.' The woman looked at the children and let out an exasperated sigh.
'Oh, not this again. I'm not some kind of statue for people to gawk at - you can go and stare at the palace for that,' and so saying the woman turned and went back inside.
'Granma Keteefa is the oldest person in all of Vetros. She is even older than the Priest-King!' Addaf declared proudly, 'but she doesn't like it when people keep coming to stare at her...' he added guiltily.
'No she doesn't and you lot are just about late for class. Mother Yara'll have your ears for that!' An older man - perhaps fifty - stepped out of the house.
'Uncle! Tell Juras th-'
'I won't be telling anybody anything - other than get going. Go on,' Juras laughed and took Nubata's hand and Addaf's shoulder.
'Let's get you three to the Temple shall we. No more detours, straight there.' They waved at Makinatos, who chuckled good-naturedly and waved back.
'Kids,' he muttered.

The Temple of the Bond was somewhat isolated from the rest of the temples in the Temple District, and distinguished by the fact that it straddled the boundary between the District and residential areas. It was by far the most accessible of the temples to the public. Whether that was intentional, Juras could not truly tell. The children chattered excitedly as they made their way through the Temple Arch and the Courtyard - boasting all manner of trees and greenery - became visible. The school building was separate from the main Temple, and Nubata was quick to ask after Mother Yara when she dragged him to her class.
'Siser Aknit, Siser Aknit, where's Mummy Yara? I wanna show her to Yuras,' she said as she tugged at Sister Akanit's dress. The priestess looked at Juras and then back down at Nubata.
'The Witch-Priestess will not be with us today, Nubata. She is resting because the baby in her tummy is getting big now.' Nubata pouted and looked at Juras.
'But- but Juras tells really good stories. And Mummy Yara likes, she likes stories- like yesterday she told us all abo...' and, nodding as she listened to the child, Akanit took her by the hand, smiled at Juras, and walked Nubata into the class. 'Can Yuras stay with us?!' (He could not).

Leaving the school building, Juras allowed himself to wander through the Temple's grounds, inspecting the various flowers and trees (many of them palms, olives spattered here or there, and a number of Vetruvian acacias). Juras approached one of the acacias and inspected it. It was unique to the Mahd, and did exist on banks of the Rukban Mahd, but Vetruvian acacia was the name that stuck - perhaps because Vetruvians considered them somewhat sacred.
'Like the acacias, do you?' The presence that had been slowly getting closer to him at last spoke. Juras turned to find himself facing a giant of a man, the left half of his face scarred and his left iris pale and colourless.
'I have seen acacias aplenty in my time, but this that grows on the Mahd is unlike any elsewhere,' Juras commented, though his eyes did not leave the stranger.
'Yes, the land is holy - so too the tree.'
'And I guess that's why you've chosen to plant it here - only the palms are more numerous.'
'Its holiness was one reason, yes. But it has various properties that make it useful to the Temple. Its pods have medicinal properties when dried and crushed into a powder, and its twigs can be used for cleaning teeth. But its gum,' and here the scarred man reached out and rubbed a cut that had been made into the bark of the tree, 'is the most useful of all - used in medicine, for paint, for dyes, cosmetics, in ink even. Much of this we did not know until the Witch-Priestess revealed it to us, though.' Juras perked up at mention of the Witch-Priestess.
'A fascinating figure, this Witch-Priestess. Much loved by the children of my host. In all my travels I have not crossed quite so awe-inspiring a figure.' The man raised an eyebrow.
'Get around much, do you?' He asked. Juras nodded.
'Yes - I come from lands beyond Rukbany. A travelling musician,' he tapped his igilir, 'and storyteller. And, according to my host, a fearsome warrior to boot.'
'Oh, is that so? Musician, storyteller, and warrior - that in itself sounds like quite the tale,' Juras' eyes narrowed slightly but he chuckled nevertheless.
'I always think it easier to tell grand tales when your tale too is somewhat grand,' he paused and extended a hand, 'pardon me, haven't introduced myself. The name is Juras.' The scarred man took his hand and shook it.
'And I'm Gadar. Pleasure to-' he paused suddenly when their hands met, and for the briefest moment the man seemed to tremble and his white eye flashed black. He stumbled back and Juras quickly righted him.
'You okay there?' He asked. Gadar looked at him and nodded slightly.
'Ye- yeah. Just a sudden dizziness,' Juras released him, but looked carefully at the man's scarred eye.
'Just dizziness? Or was there something else?' Gadar looked at Juras and shrugged.
'To be entirely honest, I don't really know. You told me your name, I reached out, and then I'm stumbling backwards and you're by me. Will ask one of the priestesses if it's a symptom of something later.' Juras paused for a few seconds and seemed uncertain. There was something off about the man - something off about this Mother Yara. Was he sent for one of them?
'If... if you find yourself in a situation where you... where you can no longer remain here,' he suddenly spoke, 'head north along the Mahd until you reach the Venomwoods. I will be there.' Gadar looked at him strangely.
'What?'
'You know, if something happens or something. A person shouldn't go anywhere without a guide in these times.' Gadar did not seem any less puzzled. 'Look, you'll understand in time,' and so saying, he gestured to the rest of the Temple's gardens, 'will you show me around a bit more?' Gadar nodded and turned.
'So where have your travels taken you, Juras of the-lands-beyond-Rukbany,' Gadar asked as they walked.
'Well, my home is in the north. The farthest north. It is a hole in the sky.' Gadar looked at him with something akin to disbelief.
'You come from a hole in the sky? ...how'd you get down from it?' Juras chuckled.
'Well, you could say there's a tunnel between earth and the heaven, and that's how. It is cold in the north - there is no sand, but snow. The winds are not warm like here, but deathly cold. The mouth of the tunnel is beneath a great tree - my people call it Old Bark-Skin, and we consider it holy. The Solitary Mount looms above it all. It was once the greatest of the world's mountains - but Y'Vahn consumed it and left nothing there but a stump. It is terrifying and tragic to behold the sacred mountain brought low,' he paused, and Gadar looked at him with sympathy, 'there is also Lake Grasidar, a lake that never freezes over despite the intense cold. That is a mercy from the divines, for without it life could not flourish as it does there: for despite the cold, there is thick forest as far as the eye can see. It is the Forest-Tree, and it is all connected to Old Bark-Skin. Further south there is the Jungle-Tree, and at its heart is the grand tree Garabil, the Ape-Tree-'
'The Ape-Tree?' Gadar asked, 'it produces apes?' His disbelief was obvious.
'No no, it does not produce apes - that is bizarre. It is called so because of a species of giant apes who inhabit the Jungle-Tree, and who are concentrated especially around Garabil. They are vast humanoid creatures, dextrous and extremely powerful. Their intelligence is nothing before that of humans or Tre- uh, or other thinking creatures, but they are undeniably more intelligent than lower forms of life. And they are aggressively territorial.'
'You sound like you speak from a rather bad experience,' Gadar said. Juras chuckled.



'I'd rather forget about it. But perhaps we can talk of it some other time.' They had arrived at the Temple Arch, and here Juras turned to Gadar and nodded. 'It has been a great pleasure and honour, Gadar. I have reason to believe that we shall see one another again.' Gadar smiled and shrugged.
'Who knows? It has been interesting speaking with you either way - I'm certain the Witch-Priestess would love a session with you, so you can tell her of all you have come across and seen.' Juras looked towards the Temple and it was him who shrugged this time.
'Who knows, perhaps one day I will.' And with that, the Victor raised a hand in farewell and set off.

His duties in Vetros were done, it seemed. He passed by Axalit's shop to bid him farewell and thank him once more for his hospitality. Then, thinking on it some more, he spoke. 'My friend, it is a beautiful day today. It would make me immensely happy if your wife and you and the little ones would accompany me some way as I leave. Not too far, just some way up the Mahd.' The potter looked at Juras with a slight frown and, after a moment's hesitation, nodded.
'If that is the last wish of my guest, then so be it. We will meet you at the northern gate. When are you going?'
'Immediately. I will be waiting there.'

Little Nubata was visibly upset that he was leaving so soon. 'I wanted you to meet Mummy Yara!' she complained loudly, 'and tell her the story. And I wan'ed her to tell you her stories.'
'Don't you worry, I will be back and both you and I will sit with Mummy Yara.'
'Promise?' Nubata asked. Juras was silent, and Axalit quickly interjected.
'Now Nubata, enough of that talk. Uncle Juras will be sure to come back to tell us more stories.' And as they parted ways, he bent down to the little girl - who was already tearing up somewhat - and ruffled her brown hair.
'I have a little present for our little priestess,' he said with a smile, revealing a small string necklace to her. An orange crystal - not too large or heavy - hung on it. 'It is from my homeland, and it will protect you from all evil,' and saying so, he placed it around her neck. Nubata smiled and stared at the small orange crystal, mesmerised.
'It's so pretty,' she said slowly, smiling broadly and eyes distant.
'Never take it off,' Juras told her. She looked at him and nodded vigorously.
'I promise!'
'And when you are a priestess, then I promise I'll return.' He stood up and smiled at the others. Removing his igilir from his side, he gestured for Addaf to come closer. The boy's eyes twinkled in anticipation, looking from Juras to the instrument. 'And this is for you,' he said, handing it to him, 'I have no doubt that you will master it with time - never give up.' Khunu was looking down timidly as Juras approached him. Removing his cloak, Juras placed it on the boy's shoulders. 'You say little, but you hear much little Khunu. You will find this piece of cloth most useful when you least wish to be seen.' They were intentionally cryptic words, but the boy would understand in time. His gifts given, Juras saluted Axalit and Samiyas, and bid them all adieu a final time.

The family watched for a while as the white-clad man grew smaller and smaller still, and then turned around to return home. It was a warm Vetruvian noon, and the city was beautiful in the distance. And then it was all aflame.



The flesh mountain moaned. The astral owl screeched. And the shriek of the clicking creature was loosed - before it, the Fabric of Existence shrunk away in horror, tore itself and wept bitterly at the thing that ripped its being.

Flesh shrank, owl stumbled, and the clicker waxed terrible and harrowing. A freakish, inconceivable tentacle extended slowly, and, even through the lens of the vision, the illogical nature of its presence placed unfathomable pressure upon the mind of the dreamer. And the tentacle, he realised with a sudden cold terror, was not reaching for the owl... b̵u̷t̶ ̵f̶o̷r̴ ̵h̵i̵m̵ . It twisted and turned, then paused, and then it shot with sudden speed right towards him. The tentacle seemed suddenly far (b̛̩ú̢t̺͝ ͎̈́n̫̿ e͇̽ă̙r̢͆,͍̒ ̋͜s̝̀o̠͝ ̘̃n̪̎e̝͠a͎͝ȓ̬ ), and the vision was gone.

'Woe is yours, bearer of scars, whose grief will light the nights with stars.
...but strike bravely strike, it shall suffice.'


(ċ̯͚͗ḻ̪̆̂i̫̺̒͌c̭̥̿̉k͓̟̆͝)

(c̷̢͖͉͚̳̋̾̾̍͜͝͝l̷̛̛͖̘͙̭̥͍͆́̈́͘i̴͈̙̯̯͕̯͑̈́͛̍͝͝c̷̢̡̢͎̭͎̀̇̈́̑̐͝k̴̡̛̛̮͕̼̯̼̎̑̈́̍)

Funny, the way things turn out. Too easy to think it was all meant to be. Isn't that right?



It was akin to a sea. A sea in the middle of the desert. All around the endless sand retreated in fear and awe, and life sprang up and clawed for itself a realm in the no-mans land between the sea of blue and endless sea of sand. No, it was not a sea of brine, but freshwater sweet and pure, quenching thirst and leaving intact the mind. If one were to find oneself afloat one day in the midst of this lake, one would have naught to fear from its waters - they were a hand outstretched, lips that lovingly caressed the ship-wrecked soul, and a mouth that gently whispered: survive!

Battle Brother Juras, his face white once more (bar the Vowzrid Mark which defiantly, if silently, spoke: even in death does the Celestial Above live on), stood and felt it all. The greenery beneath his feet and shrubs and trees, the grains of sand not far behind, and the flowing water not far ahead. And here or there the odd camel or goat or horse, and there or there the odd human or djinni. And there, whispering into the ear of a spryte of air, was the man in the dream. Juras approached and hailed.
'Hail, you of the airy spryte!' The dark-haired shaman turned his head and looked to the one who called, and then slowly got to his feet and made his response.
'And hail to you, masked stranger.'
'You are of the Rukbans, are you not?' Juras asked. The man's demeanour was suddenly wary, and Juras sensed the slightest frown form on his face.
'It is so,' he spoke, 'though how you know I do not know.'
'It matters not how I know, only that I know. And you are of the Azad, are you not?' This caused the shaman to immediately stiffen.
'That word has not fallen on my ears for more than many years. But how is it that you know this - do I know you?'
'It matters not how I know, only that I know. And it matters little if you know me, for I know you.' Juras responded.
'If you know me then surely you know that I am but a travelling seeker of the sublime sciences, a befriender of the Eternal Sky's children. I have done no wrong.'
'Do not fear - I come not bearing the sword, Bulagutai son of Buraq son of Muharaq son of Irqa son of Azad. I come only with news and divine decree. I only ask you bear it with strength and patience.' Bulagutai's jaw hung somewhat slack when the Victor gave him his descent, but he quickly composed himself.
'Say then what you must, knowledgeable stranger. You shall find me, by the will of the Eternal Sky, most patient and resigned to the sanctified government and will of God the glorious.'
'Very well. Come, be seated,' and the two of them descended to the ground. Bulagutai looked to the stranger expectantly. After a few moments of quiet, Juras spoke. 'Your brother, Shaqmar the Qa'id Adheem, has departed this terrestrial plain and even now his spirit breathes the unprofaned and purified fragrance of his beloved. The Azad saw the mountain of war loom tall before them and climbed it bravely and without hesitation or doubt. Yet now, having attained with swiftness the peak of that, they extend their gaze in search of the valley of peace but find that before them hills peep over hills and mounts on mounts arise. Your tribe and people need you, and all of Rukbany will need you if it is to weather the coming bloodletting. Beyond these sands, beyond the Barrens of your homeland, monsters lie in wait. And soon, all too soon, they leap forth and strike.'

Bulagutai sat in shock, attempting to come to terms with this most wretched and loathed news, and this prophecy which bore no good. The youngest of his siblings, the apple of their father's heart, the light of their mother's eyes, the swift sword of the Azad, the unrelenting arm of the Irqa clan, the bane of all the foes of the household of Buraq, the wondrous weaver of words - ones promising woe, and ones washing away worry, and ones that were the very wellsprings of eternal, unconditional, supernal love. Shaqmar, dead?!
The one who, when smiting, smote utterly; and when taking aim, struck true (even if it were small as a pinprick flying in the eye of the sun, for there was no sun before his Sunlit Eyes); and who when riding, struck down the winds in fury and battered the earth till it ground like dust away; whose steed was a god worthy only of a tamer of gods; who was trustworthy in peace, a keeper of promises and pacts; who was untameable in fury, unparalelled in kindness and gentleness; whose heart suffered with the oppressed and raged as one with them against tyranny and vice. In spiritual purity, matchless; in wisdom and shrewdness as a sage; perfect of form, a crusher of gods in the wrestling ring. Shaqmar, dead?!
A sob escaped the shaman's throat, but he purged it. His eyes seemed for a few moments to ripple, but their water dried away suddenly and it was as though they were incapable of producing tears at all. Bulagutai arose and looked to the far horizon, his eyes distant and cold. 'What is your name, bearer of hateful news?'
'Smite not the messenger, son of Buraq. I open before your people a path to survival and, if you seize it, glory.'
'What is your name, bearer of glory unwanted if it mean the death of them that we love.' Juras sighed and rose also.
'I am Battle Brother Juras, twentieth of the Hallowed Hundred.' Bulagutai looked at him for a few moments then moved past him.
'I shall remember you, Juras.'
'It may be that our paths will cross again, Bulagutai Spryte-friend.'
'It may be that we do, white-clad man.'



Oh riders halt and kick the earth
Your furies have been freed,
And wonder this amidst your mirth:
For what did Shaqmar bleed?
For what did Shaqmar die alone
And weep his last and loose a moan
And cause God's tears to breed?

Our patience ends, its cup upturned
Let none of it remain,
Our goodness lies by our foes spurned
Our furies will now rain,
And on the hills and in the vales
And where the lonely north-wind wails
Expect our strikes again!

We mourn a loss which leaves us torn
Which begs our eyes to cry,
It is as though since we were born
We always were close by,
We always were as one fist clenched
We each a finger closed, entrenched
Together till we die.

But you are now in death's domain
And I still walk the earth,
As though in life's short fitful reign
We did not meet on birth,
As though we never met at all
And now as you departed fall
I realise your lost worth.

If only by the stream of time
I could but take a scoop,
And with it pull you from the crime
And all our loss recoup,
Perhaps then all this pain and grief
Will give way to intense relief
And we will right our stoop.

You see I knew long long before
Deep in my flesh, my bone,
That I stood on a sandy shore
And you on one your own,
And I knew then for us would be-
Despite my mediocrity-
A road each walks alone.

I speak, but speak nothing at all
The tongue is fallen flat,
My grief is spoken by the soul
The tongue's is idle chat,
The grieved transcends the art of words
He sends his tears ahead in herds
And is dumb as a mat.

Don't think that I shed empty tears
This is no passing fit,
First are the words then are the spears-
That is how war is writ!
No just war ever took up flame
Which was of note and widespread fame
That did not start with wit.

So know I weep full, truthful tears
As none before have shed,
They stain my beard and break frontiers
For the belovèd dead,
For him for whom high heaven cries
And God most high tears at His eyes
For years, and years, and years.

Malign me not that I now weep
You do me little good,
Malign me not and let me creep
To where he sat and stood,
And leave me there an age or two
And let my rage and anger brew
While you pile on the wood.

We were brothers, you understand?
My clay and his clay one,
His skin my skin, his hand my hand
His eyes my blazing sun,
They only know who are struck dumb-
Who tremble, shake, and silent come
To taste such affection.



The Venomweald was no place for children, no place for those who did know of the hidden dangers and monstrosities that lurked here and fed there and stared down from the branches just overhead. And even for those who did know, knowledge itself was no shield. One could stare a hurricane down, know all that there was to know of it, and it would do little to save one when it tore them up and consumed them along with everything in its path. Knowledge is power, they said. Perhaps it was, against some things. But when one stared death in the face, neither knowledge nor strength nor riches could avail one aught.
The boy did not seem to be much older than six or seven years, and he clearly did not know much about the Venomweald. He carried two grown adults on his shoulders, a man and a woman, and stumbled here and there without subtlety. How he had survived thus far, Juras could only guess. The Victor stood before him, and the boy looked at him warily. The white-clad man had melted into being before him - the how of it, the boy could not quite fathom.

'I see I was too late,' Juras said, noting that Gadar was one of the adults on the boy's shoulders.
'Too late for what?' The boy asked. He spoke the divine tongue.
'Just too late,' Juras muttered, 'what is the man to you?' He gestured towards the unconscious Gadar.
'He is my father,' stated the boy.
'And the woman is your mother?' The boy nodded. He did not seem any the less wary.
'Where are you headed?'
'To safey,' it was an automatic response.
'And where is that?' The boy had no response, frowning and looking down at the ground. After a few moments, Juras continued, 'take them north. To Old Bark-Skin. There is a Gate nestled between its roots, take them where it leads.' The boy looked back up at him and raised an eyebrow in suspicion.
'Who are you?'
'I am Juras. It was my purpose to ensure your father's safety, but it seems that I have failed. Even so, I must do what I can despite my failings. Who is your mother?'
'She is Yara, the Witch-Priestess. She is Belruarc, the goddess.' Juras was stunned for a few moments - but when he thought on all he had been told of her for a few moments, it made sense.
'And your father...' Juras allowed himself a pause, hope building, 'he is not just Gadar, is he?' The boy pursed his lips, unsure if he should say. But at last he decided to speak - he had told him about his mother after all, what difference would it make if he knew of his father too?
'My father is conflicted. He is Gadar, yet he is also a god.' Juras took an involuntary step forward. So that was why...
'Did you... did you see the god?' The boy nodded.
'A god of wood. My mother knew him as Vowzra. He... he killed her.'
'Killed her?' Juras asked, uncertainly.
'He tore her open, my mother. He could have saved her. But he wanted her to die.'
'Wa- wanted her to die?' He had sensed immediately that the woman was dead, sensed even that her torso had been opened wide from neck to nether. An eskandran birth gone terribly wrong, he had thought. But the boy said otherwise. 'I see...' he whispered, more to himself. 'Do you have a name?' He asked the boy.
'My mother named me Zerabil.' As he finished speaking, Juras descended to one knee before him.
'Our Master Zerabil, permit me to take you home.' Zerabil frowned.
'M-master? What do you mean? Do you know my parents?'
'Yes, Master. They are the Celestial Above and Our Mother of the Words. We are their people, and they are our guardian gods. You have siblings two: Our Master the Bard and Our Master Belvast. Allow me to take you home, for Our Master the Bard has long been waiting for you.'
'Siblings? Two? Really?' The boy seemed stunned by this revelation, but immediately there was a degree of happiness. Then his wariness returned. 'So if my parents are your people's gods, why are they here and not with you?'
'That is a lengthy tale, Master. I will be happy to tell you on the journey ahead.' Zerabil frowned, sighed, then nodded.
'Alright then. But if you try anything...' his heterochromatic eyes eyed the Victor warningly. It would have been somewhat amusing were he not the son of gods. It was odd though, he did not have about him the same aura as Our Master the Bard. There was no doubt that there was something divine about him, but it was nothing as intense as Our Master the Bard. Juras thought it strange, but perhaps newborn demigods required some time to mature before their auras took on greater definition and intensity.

Zerabil quickly found the weight of his parents lifted from his shoulders. Looking up, he saw that they were now afloat. 'Did you do that?' He asked in wonder.
'Yes, Master. Without a doubt you too are capable of this.' Zerabil smiled.
'That'd be great. Can you teach me how?'
'If that is Our Master's wish.' Juras said with a respectful nod. The boy came up beside the Victor as they turned and began walking, the embracing bodies of the unconscious Gadar and dead Yara floating slowly after them.
'And that thing you did before - were you invisible? Can you teach me that too?' Zerabil asked.
'I was not invisible, no. That is a form of travel. But if you wish to become invisible, I am sure Our Master the Bard can create a cloak for you. I had one such cloak, but I have given it away.'
'A form of travel? What do you mean?'
'It is like... a gateway. I step into it, and when I step out I am elsewhere. It is a gift from the Celestial Above and Our Master Belvast to those who are Silent Brothers.' Zerabil's eyebrows furrowed.
'You mean I can't learn it?'
'Of course you can, Master. But I am in no position to teach it. It can only be taught by the Celestial Above or by Our Master Belvast. And both have been gone a long time. Though I am certain that the Celestial Above, now returned, will be more than willing to gift it to its child.'
'So, Belvast doesn't live with your people either?' Zerabil asked, disappointed.
'No Master, he does not. I know of only one time that Our Master Belvast set foot inside New Chronos - that is what our homeland is called, though it was still Chronos at that time.' Zerabil looked ahead.
'Why is it that he does not live with you? Why did my parents not dwell with their people?' He asked.
'I do not know why Our Master Belvast does not dwell with us, I can only guess that he has duties he must see to. As for Our Mother of the Words, I admit that I do not know that either - but then again, Our Mother of the Cherry, who is Our Master the Bard's mother, does not dwell with us either. She has her domain of dreams. It was only the Celestial Above who dwelled with us - which is only natural, for it created Chronos and brought us there, granting us safety and bliss, and gifting us with all that was good. Until the Jvanic Entity invaded Chronos and brought destruction and death with it. The Celestial Above sacrificed itself that Chronos may endure. Chronos was wrenched onto Galbar and now occupies the northern skies, though retaining its own internal laws of nature. A protective barrier separates it from the rest of the universe, and the only way to enter into it is through the Gate. Or, if one has the blessing of the Celestial Above and Our Master Belvast, then one can create their own gate and enter.' Zerabil's eyes widened.
'Can you do that right now? Create a gate for all of us. And... who is the Jvanic Entity? Why did it do that to my father?'
'Only those who possess the gift may pass through a gate of their creation, Master,' Juras said apologetically, 'and as for the Jvanic Entity. It is the sworn enemy of the Celestial Above, an unnatural creature that seeks to cast its aberrant pollution across the universe, destroying all. We are as playthings to it, it cares little for us. And what are we, after all, puny created beings that we are? We are not divine, as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods - they kill us for their sport. Not the Celestial Above though. It protects us all and places value on our lives. It has even returned mortals to life in the past who were killed by gods at play; the Celestial Above does not play games, the universe is not for sport, our lives - though we are but humble creations - are not toys in its eyes.' Zerabil was silent after this tirade, his thoughts lingering on the image of his mother's final moments, 'but forgive me Master, I speak overmuch.'
'No no, you don't. Don't apologise. It's alright. What kinds of things has this Jvanic Entity done. What kind of pollution does it spread?'
'It irks me to even speak of it, Master. But I shall recount some of its horrors. Let us recount, for instance, the tale of Basheer. He was a blameless djinni, looking to exist his short while in his kind's vicious world, before expiring or ascending to a lordship of some kind. He had never showcased a hostile predisposition towards Jvanic beings - to all purposes, he was an innocent. The Jvanic Entity trapped him one day and tormented him in the most abominable ways. It had been one thing to torture for play and then mercifully slay, but no; the Jvanic Entity wished for Basheer to suffer in unfathomable pain forevermore. It created a hellish instrument which would amplify his tortured screams and trapped him in it. The Ironheart Mountains echoed for thousands of years with Basheer's agonised cries - and to the Jvanic Entity, that infernal sound was music. Verily, were it not for the coming of the First Formica, you would hear the screams of Basheer even now, even here where we now walk. So far did it carry.' Zerabil was manifestly horrified.
'It... it did that for fun?' He asked, astonished and appalled.
'Aye, and it has done far more. Far worse. It infects the minds of mortals of all species, making them into its mindless worshippers - they eat dirt and faeces, they grow into abominations, and they spread what passes for beauty in the Jvanic Entity's mind. We will surely cross one such being before long, and you will see it with your own eyes. It tortures, it forces itself into the minds of mortals and changes them, it wages - even now - relentless war against djinnkind. A war it began when it tortured faultless Basheer - and it is determined to see the extinction of all djinnis. The cataclysmic effects of such an extinction cannot be understated - though it broke the law and was punished for doing so, the Force of Change wrote djinnkind into the very essence of existence. Their destruction will bring untold disorder, untold horror.' Zerabil's frown had deepened.
'Can it not be reasoned with at all? Surely it must see that what it's doing is... is bad.'
'There is no reasoning with it. It feels nothing for us - it cast the Celestial Above into the Horror in a cold attempt at murder. Who knows, it might have succeeded and now only by the grace of Fate the Celestial Above is restored. No, the Jvanic Entity cannot be reasoned with - it seeks only after entertainment, and if our tormented screams are the price for that then to it that is a small price indeed.' Zerabil sighed and seemed sad.
'This Jvanic Entity, it is a sibling to my parents is it not. That makes it my uncle.'
'Aunt, I believe. And I guess it does, on a level. But as you can see, family means very little to it.'
'That... that simply can't be. There must be more. There must be an explanation. No one does these things just... just for play.' It was Juras who sighed this time.
'You speak thus because yours is a Worthy soul, Master. You cannot fathom that one can be so debauched as to take joy in suffering, spreading corruption, creating imbalance. But the Jvanic Entity is not Worthy, Master. Chronos itself saw its Unworthiness and censured it for that.' The boy huffed unhappily.
'Can't I go talk with it? I'm sure things can be worked out if we just... spoke.' Juras smiled inwardly.
'So much trust in words. It must be Our Mother of the Words' influence. You are free to do so Master - you are a son of gods. All bow to your command.'
'Don't want anyone to bow.' He mumbled.
'Ah, then you want them to stand beside you as equals?'
'I... I don't know what that means, really.' Juras stopped suddenly and turned his head towards the little boy.
'Do you... know what you want?' Zerabil pursed his lips and slowly shook his head.
'This... everything is so new. I... I don't think it's meant to be like this. Everything is weird.'
'Weird how?'
'I feel... I feel like I'm already somebody. Does that make sense? I am already a person - but... I was only born when? Yesterday? The day before? I had nothing to do with who I am. How did that happen? Who made me like... well,' here he felt his face, rubbed his forehead, 'like this, like how I am on the inside and the outside. I should have grown into this not just... appeared. I feel fake. Not real. Son of gods? Murdering auntie-uncle thing? You. It's too much,' he bent his head and kicked at the ground with a foot. 'I want...' he suddenly looked up at the two floating bodies and his eyes watered, 'I want my mum. I want my dad.' He walked towards them and placed his head against his mother's bare shoulder.

Juras was silent at the sudden outpour of emotion and confusion, inwardly kicking himself for not being more careful with his words. Of course he was confused, of course he was scared. He had witnessed his father kill his mother, and was now all alone. 'Master,' Juras stepped towards the boy and placed his arms around him, 'you are the sole arbiter of who you are. You can be who you want to be - you just need to make the choice. One's character, one's morals, one's personality - all can be forged into the shape one wills, can be honed and perfected; just like the body, just like a blade.' Zerabil did not respond, but he seemed to appreciate the embrace. They remained there for some time until Juras sensed a quickly approaching creature just over a hundred metres behind them. He extended his senses towards the creature, attempting to gain an understanding of what it was as it approached at speed. Huge, maybe fifteen feet tall. Four arms. Red colouration. It had a weapon.

'That... Grot?' Juras muttered in confusion. How could that even- but the creature was upon them. Zerabil shouted in fear as Juras drew his blade and clashed with the monster. It struck at speed with a massive axe, crafted surprisingly well from what Juras could sense. It loosed a harrowing warcry and brought the axe crashing down. Juras leapt aside and sensed it sink into the earth. He moved with a sudden burst of speed, leaping into the air and stabbing at the beast's open jaw. It just about managed to lower its head, and the blade sank into the bony crest atop its head. Avoiding the thorn-like protrusions on the crest, Juras held onto his stuck sword and landed on the things head. It shook its head from side to side and attempted to reach for him, but an unseen force seemed to prevent it from moving its arms at all. Freeing his sword, the Victor leapt away and the monster found itself moving again. Before Juras had so much as landed, it was on the move - and it was making for Zerabil. The boy's eyes were wide with fear as it came, and Juras shouted and attempted to stop it. His Wi caught its leg, but it burst free with a savage power and reached for the son of gods.

'No! N-' but he was caught, and the creature turned to flee with its prey. Juras was upon it immediately, slicing halfway through an arm with furious power. Blood bloomed in a burst, dying the air red and dripping down the Victor's veiled face and hood. And then the cut was swiftly closing up and the monster was making good its escape. Juras looked from the floating bodies of the two gods to the fleeing beast and was torn... torn and infuriated. He took a calming breath, banishing his anger- but then he remembered; concentrated anger can be manifested into destructive bursts of energy. He leapt after the creature and - in a strange, controlled fashion that only one with a Victor's mental and emotional discipline could muster - permitted his anger to grow and mixed it with his Wi. It grew at his fingertips into a white fire. It did not feel quite as the vision suggested it should be, but he knew it would do damage. With a shout, he released the blazing Wi towards the creature and watched as it accelerated (helped along with normal Wi) towards the monster's back, dodging trees in its pursuit.

The beast loosed a wail - though Juras was aware that Grot was somehow impervious to pain, so perhaps it was not a wail of pain but frustration, irritation. 'Master! Quickly, flee from it!' Juras cried.
'It- it still has me! It's still alive!' Came Zerabil's response.
'You are powerful, Master. Unleash your power!' Juras could just about still sense the two gods behind him, still afloat and safe. He willed them move towards him as he made for the wailing monster.
'I don't know how,' came Zerabil's response.
'Focus. Breathe. Listen to your heartbeat, feel the well of power there. It is something not of the body - it is not your physical heartbeat. Can you feel it - that hotness, that burning.'
'It's getting back up! Help me! Juras!'
'I'm coming Master,' he leapt forward and the beast was now in sight. Its back was all but healed and it was returning to its feet again. Anger boiled at his fingertips once more, and another ball of Wi ablaze struck the creature in the same place. It released a screech and found itself again incapacitated as its body worked to restore its spine. This time, it let Zerabil go. The boy was quick to get to his feet and run towards Juras. 'Come, quickly, let us leave this place. The Venomweald is not safe, not even for a son of gods.' And with that, they turned and quickly retraced their footsteps, the creature's furious shrieks following them.
'Don't feel much like a son of gods right now,' Zerabil muttered. 'What was that thing?' he asked with a trembling voice.
'I... don't know. It must be a newcomer here, I was never taught of it or shown depictions. It looks very much like Grot, a monstrous creation of the Execrable Chaos. Far smaller than Grot, though. This must be the work of the Execrable Chaos.'
'What is that?' Zerabil asked, 'the Ex- exac- EX-ec-Ra-bul Chaos thing.'
'Uh... an uncle of yours, I guess.' Zerabil looked behind him with disgust.
'So the Jvanic Entity tortures and torments for fun, and uncle Chaos makes monstrosities? Are there no... well, nice gods?'
'There are. Like the Pure One. She's nice, if you will. She even lives in the Nice Mountains.' Zerabil chuckled at this.
'Really, she's that nice?'
'Hehe, nice enough I guess. I mean, she's certainly not predisposed to torture and wanton killing. There's also Our Mother of the Cherry, she is nice, for lack of a better word. So too the Mason, he means well. As for the rest of the gods, the word "nice" is perhaps not a fitting description.'
'Can you tell me about them?' Zerabil asked.
'I have spoken too much already, Master. I do not wish you to see the world as I, a lowly Victor, do. When we reach New Chronos there are those who will show you much and you will be able to know and make judgements on your own.'
'Don't give me judgements. Just tell me about them.' Zerabil insisted. The Victor sighed and nodded.
'Very well, if that is what you want. Though I can't promise that there will be no judgements. There is the Eternal One, master of order. He dwells far away on Arcon, having chosen to abandon Galbar and its gods - he does not see eye to eye with the others. Arcon is inhabited by humans only, and by the Eternal One's terrible guardians. It is home to the Eskandars. They are a people in whom the Celestial Above took great interest. It sent to them the First Formica-'
'What is that? You mentioned it before.' Zerabil interjected.
'The First Formica is the oldest of all created beings. First were plants and trees, and then was the First Among Creation, The One By Immortals Altered, TOBIA. She is an ant,' and here Juras gestured towards the Vowzrid Mark on his bandaged face, 'the ant you see here symbolises it. But also all ants, which were the first species to come into existence; a creation of the Celestial Above. And the First Formica was the very first. It does the will of the Celestial Above. We have not heard from it for long, since the Jvanic Entity struck down the Celestial Above. Who knows, perhaps with its return TOBIA too will return. In any case, the Eternal One who lives on Arcon; he has returned - your parents found themselves here because they escaped the city of Vetros' destruction.'
'He... he returned to destroy it? Why?'
'Nothing against the city itself. The Vetruvians were merely unlucky enough to have been affected by the Jvanic Entity. The Eternal One simply wished to purge its influence. If anything, it was an act of vengeance for the Jvanic Entity's crime against the Celestial Above.' Zerabil's eyes widened.
'The Eternal One was close with my da- with father?' Zerabil asked. Juras shrugged.
'I don't know if the Eternal One can be said to be close with anyone. But perhaps of all the gods, the Eternal One was indeed closest with the Celestial Above.' Zerabil was silent at this, thoughtful. 'There is also the Radiant One, god of the stars. He himself is a star, we are told, but nothing much is known about him really. His duties to the universe mean he can do little else beyond his obligations. He has, however, for a very long time been in New Chronos. Locked away though, untalking. There is the Soul Mother, goddess of magic and souls. She is strange - playful, petty, childlike, but innocent also, pure to an extent. We have her to thank for much magic, but she too treats creation as a toy. As a source of entertainment. It is not malicious though - it is not like the Jvanic Entity. The Soul Mother is mischevious perhaps, but she is no sadist. There is also the Crippled One, who dwells in the middle of the great White Ocean. An angry god, conflicted, tragic even. He seeks perfection and so is ever disappointed. There is Life, though she is closer to an unthinking animal than she is to a sentient divine. Her duty - the creation of life - is all she knows and lives for. There is naught beyond that for her. Death died, Our Master the Bard has not told us how. War is reclusive, though war itself is abundant. The Cloud of the Mind was maddened and, in an act of mercy, was put out of her eternal misery by the Celestial Above. And those are the gods, to my knowledge. There are others who have been dead for long - the Demon for instance. But there's no need to speak of all those.'



"Vowzra's beard, you have a touch for this."
"Try Achozaal's. I hear it's longer. Some say Vestec hides a goatee under his- AGH NO CEELN YOU BASTARD"

aand... cut to black


"Sir," he said, straining, "help me. Please."
"Of course," it spoke as it slipped out the knife and slid it gently across the his throat. Their eyes met, surprised confusion met calm contentment. He slipped with death away.

and there too, to black again. but fade it away slowly this time.


It pushed back against the current. Idly. It saw the surface, the battlefield, the injured war-engine to one side. The surface again. It saw it as one, there was a harmony, it thought.
Other people never noticed this, it thought. Other people look at things and ideas and never really see the world for what it is.

hold that thought there. can we get a kind of shimmer out? no? too cheesy?


Of course I can fix it, it thought, I'm an engineer.

lets have a slow zoom out for this one. get the whole picture from above. keep it in the centre as it shrinks though.


You will go far, Jvan. My eyes are failing, but I can see it. Clear as day and sure as stars.
I know you mean well.
Just not... In the usual way...


lets have the ambience of that - is that the right word? ambience. ambience - slip into the next one. can we do that? a kind of overlap as one fades out and the next fades in. yeah, that's it.


"Jvan?"
"I'm listening."
"What do you wish for?"
"..."
"...If y-"
"I wish for more."
"More?"
"Yes. More like this. Not... this, in particular." It put two hands on its heart. "This. This feeling. I want to see worlds like this. Galaxies. I want to take the cosmos in my arms and make it live. Make it wild, make it strange. Make the colours and the shadows. I want to be like this forever. Exploring. Creating. Just..." It exhaled, gills shuddering "Breathing."

Ceeln smiled. Almost cried. Looked into the sky.
"I don't think I can give you that. No matter how much I want to. But..."
"..?"
"This is the least I could do."
"..!"
"The lensmaker said they were the best money could buy. I don't think he was lying, but..." Laughter. "It's not like I would know, anyway."
Its hands trembled, danced over the goggles, slipped the band over its gills, gazed out with eyes like liquid mosaic.
"..."

Ceeln laughed again. The sibling didn't say a word, but Ceeln grinned. "So I wasn't duped! Excellent. The technology is called Fractal. Within optimal range, there's virtually no limit on the level of detail you can see."
"...I-"
Ceeln ran a spare hand over the other's head. "It's our birthday, little sister. Enjoy it."
"But I don't-"
The elder twin swept a massive tail and was gone into the waters, leaving only laughter.
"-have anything-"
It trailed off, arms wrapped together, and watched its sibling go. (Feeling something? Perhaps it is feeling something.)
"-for you."



It had been a strange vision. Not the first of the kind. Was the Jvanic Entity doing it purposefully?
Was it attempting to contaminate him? He did not detect anything of the sort. Regardless, if these visions were true then they... unveiled much. He would have to let his fellow Victors know; this changed things somewhat.
He had left Our Master Zerabil at the pass through the Ironheart Mountains and told him to go through it and right ahead into the Valley of Peace. 'I shall meet you there. But I must see to something while we are in this region.' And so saying, he had allowed himself to sink into the Fabric of Existence. It embraced him and rained its thousand kisses on his form. It was almost too easy to allow oneself to let go, to remain forever and lose oneself in unending bliss...

He clawed his way out. It grabbed at him angrily and bid him stay - just a moment longer, please. He shook his head, rejected its siren call. Traitor, it seethed. You want me to die, it wept. You hate me, it moaned. It slapped the back of his head - I know what you're doing, you're just using me, idiot. Vowzra treated me better. His apologies were ignored, it huffed and expelled him. He stumbled out and only managed to right himself with Wi. 'Sorry...' he tried. It ignored him. It would be a while before it let him in again. He sighed and looked ahead, putting the matter aside.

Xerxes. And it was raining blood. The crimson liquid clawed at his white-clad form, knawed at the silk and tried to worm its way through to the flesh beneath. It could not (not yet at least), but as a precaution he exuded a defensive aura to keep the blood at bay. He required a sample however, and so moulded some Wi into the shape of a bowl and allowed the rain to gather in. When there was a good amount writhing within, he sealed the orb and allowed it to float behind him. With the Fabric still seething at his perceived treachery, he would have to depart on foot.

His sense allowed him to detect the strange, mutated creatures before they perceived him, and so he avoided them. There were others who were not contaminated, but he avoided them too. Only when he sensed something else entirely - something not quite alive, but radiating a distinctly divine ambience - did he pause to investigate. The building was derelict, though it looked like it might have once been a fairly respectable military barrack of some sort. There were others taking shelter inside - majority uncontaminated - and as he neared the divine aura, he was able to perceive it more wholly; it was held in a glass container, a substance which oozed with dormant divine energies. It was almost as though... but that was impossible. It was not alive, it could not possibly be a god. Perhaps something created by a god and imbued with tremendous divine energies. He stood at the entrance, and those within saw him.

He was still for a few moments as the blood rain ran down the invisible barrier. He stepped in. They did not move, but looked at him with a mixture of suspicion, hostility, and perhaps confusion. He lifted a half-buried glass containing the substance with his Wi and brought it towards himself. They watched it as it floated towards him, silent. It landed softly in a bandaged hand. He turned and disappeared into the rain and darkness, and swiftly departed the ruined city. He would take this substance home, they would be able to study it in more detail there.







He had been observing it for a few days now. It knew he was watching, but it did not appear to be in any way perturbed. In a previous life it may have been a hain - but that was certainly no longer the case. It was bloated now, its shell gone and replaced by sickly grey skin. For eyes it had hollow cracks. It seemed only a poor mockery of life, a sick attempt at it.



"I want to take the cosmos in my arms and make it live. Make it wild, make it strange. Make the colours and the shadows."
How could one who said that go and make... make this. This was not making the cosmos live, it was not making it wild or strange.

It was horror.

And yet, for one reason or another, he hesitated to strike the Jvanic horror down. When he approached, it stood upright and cocked its head in a bird-like fashion and stared at him with one of its cracks. He stood silently before it, his senses investigating its every aspect. Was he missing something? Was there beauty to behold here? He tried - truly, he did - but all that came up was disgust. But perhaps that was the intent. Perhaps the purpose of art was not to inspire awe, wonder, fascination. Perhaps it was art if it inspired anything at all. Fear, disgust, horror. Pain. Could feeling pain be itself an art, causing pain in ever more complicated and fanciful ways. He shivered at the thought - that was not art; it was depravity and wickedness.

whitewalker?

He tensed at the intrusion and wrenched back into the present. Something was invading his mind - or rather, prodding.

too small. antman.

Not prodding. It was more... everywhere. After a few moments of confusion he realised, with a sudden burst of interest, that these were its thoughts. These beings were... telepathic. Did that mean it was contacting others? Perhaps his telepathic attunement was allowing him to break into the thoughts it was sending out somehow. He approached it. It stepped back. Before it could turn and flee, however, he was upon it, forcefully pushing it to the ground with a strength belied by his smaller form. It clawed at him with its unnatural fingers, speared with its beak. He weighed it down with Wi and it was still - though continued its attempts at struggle. Despite its desperation, however, it made no sound. What had once been its beak had been sealed, and it could not say anything (if a Jvanic horror could string together words anyway).

The Victor placed a bandaged hand against what passed for its head and focused his mind on its thoughts. If it was indeed a telepathic being, then there would be a way to break through. There was silence as he listened. He paused and listened. Silence. He finetuned. Listen... Silence. He shifted his focus once more. A distant sound - like listening in through a thick wall. He focused on it. Closer. Closer still. Clearer now, but not enough to make out anything.

(ha... ppp)


The Victor breathed deep and held, like one about to take a dive. He could almost feel his consciousness shift. There was a burst of white noise that made him wince and almost withdraw. And then the sound was suddenly clear.

(help. help. help. help. help)
(what's wrong?)
(help. help. help. help. hel-)
(location. send location)
(he- lp help help)
(~the stars are twinkling tonight / yes, as they twinkle every night / the sun is gone, the moons are bright / but all beauty fades before starlig- too many syllables)
(BEWARE. ALCOHOL IS FLAMMABLE. BEWARE-)
(The mountains grow silent again)
(help. help. help)


Juras allowed himself to listen - he did not know for how long. It was not simply the thoughts of this one Jvanic horror... these were the thoughts of many. It was something akin to the telepathic link between Treeminds - but bigger, more random, open. This was vast. The sheer mass of thoughts was enormous - a large amount had to be filtered out and became background noise that one could focus on and dip in and out of at will.

{he- hello?}


He attempted to project his own thoughts into the stream. He could not be certain that he had been heard.

{Hello?}
(hi)
(help)
(i will build a castle to hold off the tide. it will be of sand)
{Can you hear me? Hello?}
(i saw a butterfly. it flew away)
(ants taste like lemon. mmm)
(i can hear you)
(help help help help)


Juras slowly ran his blade across the Jvanic horror's throat, maintaining his connection all the while.

(help help help HELP HELP! HElp)
(location)
(location?)
(don't eat the red mushroom with white spots)
(~when the white moon rises / await then the return)
(or the yellow mushroom with white spots)
{}


The Victor stood up, listening still. For a few moments he thought he had lost the connection, but after listening some more he heard it again.

{}
(there are giant ants in the ancient woods. beware)
{}
(you sent that before. what is it?)
{}
(what is that?)
(~we saw the hand / piercing the land / is it on snow? / why I don't know)
{}


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

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Irikiri


There were few human things that were truly old in the face of Galbar. Outside of those who tamed the horses and deserts that the others races had neglected, most humans still clung to the flotsam of antediluvian and arconian culture or to some blessed tyrant. In the seashores of the Metatic, you can barely find a village with a native elder population, instead, grandsons and granddaughters hear from their grandparents tales of how they escaped the advancing seas, the chaotic hordes, the fires from the sky, among so many other catastrophes.

As such, there was little that truly connected the people across arbitrary regions, provided the absence of the divine. Sometimes, these few connections were logical, sometimes they were peculiar, the isolation habit that happened in the marshes under the dusk was the later.

Life was hard in the shadowy land, yet, a good many of the tribes that survived in it were not harsh to its people, having no issues with the old, the orphaned, the sick. Even so, at the sight of sickness, wounds, depression, a great many took the choice to move to the outskirts of the tribes and villages, avoiding contact with others and hiding their situation. The logic of it ranged from avoiding the shame of showing personal weakness in a society that valued excellence, to a more unhealthy selflessness of not wanting to consume the tribe's resources and time if they could not provide something back.

In the north, past the Dzanyar river, on the shores of the Dzamiri, a young woman by the name of Kadja Topami followed this odd ancestral habit. She had sand in her hand, it was bright beige with a hint of red, unlike the greyish sand under her feet.

Nyarmunru, she could remember the priest and travelers saying, their tales had scared her as a child, she could still remember the details of each one vividly. People burning to ashes even when under the water. Eyes and tongues turning into stone. Limbs swelling with water. Flesh evaporating into a scarlet mist. It was truly the greatest plague.

And now she had it, and hers seemed to be the cruelest one in the face of Gjalle-, because the sickness did not spread through her body and deliver a fatal blow like it typically would, instead, it provided her with a whole year worth of suffering. Every day she felt like she had a thousand blades in her throat and every week she had to manually remove sharp rocks that formed randomly on her skin, it had been months since she last ate any food as it made her ill and caused her to vomit.

She just wished for it all to be over already, so she would stop worrying her family and the pain would be gone. That is a feeling she had for a long while, even before the plague, she was always sickly, and always showcased a lack of cleverness and vigor. Weak child, chuchirikiri, the elders said. The fellow children would delight in calling her Chuche, that is, until her family found new wealth as miners and the people trying to gain her favor outnumbered and outpowered the bullies.

Those memories brought a soft smile to her face, there was such a delicious irony in the people who were mean to her because they saw themselves as physically superior being beaten by those stronger than them. None ever dared to speak of the logic of might after that, some even said sorry, but Kadja thought they were wrong, they were right.

It was too bad, that despite her change from a weak child to a more confident woman, she would never get to enjoy the life as one of the elites of her clan. One year ago, she counted the days until she would get married and enjoy a lifestyle of silk, honey, and servants, now, Kadja counted each day she stayed alive.

The light of the day turned silver as the sun had set, in the dusklands, that was one of the most meaningful change from day to night. As Julkofyr's darkness was not natural, it reacted oddly to the world around it, days had dark grey skies and light similar to an overcast day, but during the night, the light of the ring, two particular stars, Lluna- and Hufangje-, and of all the moons, Mepodzanyi, Edzudzanyi, Rutoidzanyi, Dyalludzanyi, Jofumidzanyi and even the black moon, the redundantly named Dzanyadzanyi, could be seen clearly.

The change in time caught the sick woman by surprise, she had barely noticed the day going by, in a sense, that was good, the long days she spent alone were the worse. Sometimes, when she felt well, she visited her family and pretended all was fine, she knew her father would try to help her if he knew of her situation, it did not matter if she was his third daughter, he always spoiled every single child. Though it had already been two months since her last visit, at this point there was no way she would find a good excuse.

With these thoughts in mind, Kadja Topami walked back to the small tent she had built, thankfully sleep did not elude her, in fact, she had started to sleep far more since the sickness started, sometimes for almost entire days. When she entered it, however, she found a surprising scene, two teenagers were rummaging through her belongings. She would be past the point of caring, if they had not been too greedy, if they had limited themselves only to the shiniest of jewelry and had not picked up a small amber amulet too.

For a moment, their faces met. Seeing the thin woman, who was too pale even for the duskland standard, they smirked and started to run away without a worry of being caught.

Kadja Topami followed right behind, she felt heavy and sluggish, her feet sank down in the mud of the bog and it was hard to free it again. In frustration, she threw a rock at the duo that had robbed her, and the shot was true, somehow, knocking one of the kids face first into the bog. The other kid stopped and went to help his friend. The woman was slowly catching up.

She tried to reach for her amulet, but the teen swung his hand towards her, hitting her face. It did not hurt, but it provoked her, she knew she was no match to fight the two kids, but she was past the point of caring. She rose her hand and tried to hit one of the boys, the result was far from what she expected, it was like hitting the surface of water, a little bit of resistance and a splash, except this one was of a dark scarlet color.
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Hidden 3 mos ago 2 mos ago Post by Kho
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Kho art & loss

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The Bard
Level 4 Demigod of Art (Music)
22 Might, 82,531 Worshippers



Old Bark-Skin speared the sky, disappearing into clouds of grey and white long before its pinnacle came into view. Were one to attempt to walk its entire girth, perhaps it would take a day. And though all around trees grew and flourished and there was glorious life, there was yet a taint of death. Not a squirrel, not a fox, not an ant moved through the undisturbed snow - even their footprints were fast disappearing behind. Perhaps up amongst the branches, far from the ground, life remained, but here on the ground there was nothing. Juras extended his senses with unease to confirm this observation; and indeed, there was no life. That dark hill... He would have to investigate it when the time permitted.
'What's at the top?' Zerabil asked, looking up at where Old Bark-Skin disappeared into the heavens.
'Ice and snow, probably.' Juras said, returning his attention to the son of gods.
'Have you ever been there?' The Victor shook his head in the negative. Not too far from where they stood was the Oath of Stilldeath. 'And that?' Zerabil asked, a very sudden melancholy gripping him. The longer he looked at it the heavier the melancholy grew, creeping down his back and up his chest, dripping into the hot pit of his abdomen and suffocating it all with icy mists and gloom. 'It looks so... sad.'
'It is the Oath of the Crippled One. An oath taken by all the gods who sign it, pledging to nevermore slay one another.' Zerabil seemed surprised to hear this. The other gods actually cared enough for each other to sign such a thing?
'Really? That's amazing.' He approached the monument, sniffling slightly as he did so. It was not the cold - the monument itself had an aura that almost forced the beholder to weep.

Here lies the memory of our sister of knowledge Vulamera and our brother of time Vowzra. Here in their tragic deaths, we swear an oath to never seek the death of any sibling of ours signed onto this pact. We do this for the sake of our souls as well as the integrity of our hearts, for death begets death, and grief begets grief. May this place within the gate be a place where no god sets foot to do battle. In sacred remembrance of this, we declare: Fate shall no longer toy bloody games between our bodies into this timeline.




Tears streamed down his face and he could not withhold his sobs. 'Dad...' he moaned, 'm- mum.' His knees shook, but he did not quite fall to the ground. He could not take his eyes from the monument. A step closer... but then an ethereal force gently forced him from the place.
'It is not good to get too close. People have been known to go before it and never leave, been known to die of grief. It is not good to lose oneself before this stone of sorrow.' Zerabil wiped his tears away and nodded.
'Y- yeah. I won't go near it again.' He paused and looked back at it briefly. 'It- it says that only those whose names are on the stone are protected. Does that mean that those not on it aren't protected?' Juras cocked his head.
'Does it really say that? I have never read it. That would be odd indeed.'
'And it curses "Fate", says that Fate toys with them. Is Fate another god?' Juras let out an irritated sound.
'The stone blasphemes. Fate does not play games. It is not just another god. It is a Supreme Being, an Almighty that guards and protects and guides. It protects us from the great unknown, but all it receives in return is ungratefulness and hatred from those who know nothing about it. Fate is to the gods what the gods are to simple mortals, and like simple mortals the gods curse Fate out of ignorance. Fate is not like the Jvanic Entity - a sadistic being that toys with us -, it is not like the Soul Mother - childlike and seeking entertainment -, it does not play games.'
'And you know this how?' Zerabil asked, his tone rather cutting.
'I, of myself, know nothing Master. It is the Celestial Above that knows, and it is the Celestial Above that taught us this. And the Celestial Above has spoken with Fate - it is the very Vicegerent of Fate.' Zerabil seemed uncertain. Of course, he was drawn to believe in the authority his father possessed. But at the same time, there was a lingering doubt - a doubt which could only be soothed by direct knowledge. He would speak with Fate and he would come to know the truth.

Juras turned and walked towards the Gate. Nearby was a rather large humanoid figure formed entirely plant. It reminded Zerabil of his father, except it was more green. It was nestled atop a strange orb of bark which had at some point been shattered from the inside (for it was hollow, much like an egg). 'What's that?' Zerabil asked.
'That is the Guardian Restored. He guards the Gate. In the times before the coming of the Jvanic Entity, he was a Victor not much different from any other - only that he had been blessed with the power to transform, at will, into a silk-spider. His soul was tied to the Gate, and he only permitted entrance to the Worthy. When the Jvanic Entity came, he refused it entry - for he saw that it was Unworthy. It cared little, however, and shattered his form so that his blood dyed the skies crimson for miles around. And yet, despite the utter annihilation of his physical form, his soul's link with the Gate remained unbroken. He waited, and with time he found a resting place on this blessed Orb - made of the bark of the Celestial Above, once host to Life itself, and blessed thereafter by Our Mother of the Words. He latched on to this divine relic, and here he stands restored once more, returned into the physical world to continue his divinely anointed duty.' Zerabil seemed rather impressed by this.
'Does he speak? How does he guard the Gate?'
'He does not speak - but Victors who are telepathically attuned can listen to his innermost thoughts and see into his memories. Beware, however, for they are the stuff that broken minds are made of. And from time to time, he may loose an unearthly groan which reverberates even to the peripheries of the Deepwood. As for how he guards the Gate - I guess only the Unworthy will ever have the misfortune of finding out. Come, let us.' And with that, Juras caused the floating bodies of the gods to pass through, alongside the substance from Xerxes and the blood rain. There had been a final addition to Juras' strange collection, however - a sealed-beak Sculptor. Holding Zerabil's hand as the Sculptor's corpse passed into Chronos, the two then stepped through the Gate together.

New Chronos spread before them as paradise, its music drifted to their waiting ears, its fragrance pervaded the air, and, which was more, there was a sheer wonder, a strange fullness, to every moment that passed by.
'Welcome home, Master.' Juras said softly. Zerabil smiled and lowered his head, as though in shyness.
'It... it's beautiful.'

'Battle Brother Juras! You are returned,' came a voice. Two Victors stood before the Gate.
'Battle Brother Yiftakh!' Juras cried, and the two embraced. The returned Victor turned to the other, 'Battle Sister Seihdhara,' he said as he embraced her.
'Welcome back Battle Brother, you have been away an age. How went your venture on Galbar?'
'There were failures and successes, Battle Sister, but I came to learn much. My venture is far from over, however, this is but a pause before I take to the road again.'
'Truly, Battle Brother Juras, you are indomitable.' It was Yiftakh who spoke. 'And I see that you have brought these with you,' he gestured to the bodies of the gods and to Zerabil.
'Yes. I must speak with Battle Brother Morarom immediately.' Juras said. Yiftakh nodded and moved aside, and Battle Sister Seihdhara walked with Juras and Zerabil as they headed inland.
'And who is this charming young man?' Seihdhara asked, her bandaged and hooded head turning towards Zerabil.
'He is Our Master Zerabil,' Juras responded. Seihdhara was silent for a few moments.
'Our Master Zerabil? How is that...'
'It is a lengthy tale, Battle Sister.'
'I see...' her head turned once more towards the little boy, who was eyeing her curiously. Her hood suddenly fell away and her bandages unravelled to reveal her face beneath. She smiled at Zerabil.
'It is an honour to meet you at last, Master. I am Battle Sister Seihdhara, seventy-eighth of the Hallowed Hundred.' Zerabil made no response. He just looked at her in stunned silence.



'Se- Seihdhara?' His voice came at last, uncertain. 'I...' he frowned and shook his head. I know you, he was about to say. But that was impossible, stupid.
'Master?' Both she and Juras had stopped walking, looking at the frozen Zerabil.
'Uh, what? No. I'm fine. The honour is mine... blessèd Seihdhara.' The boy said, shaking himself from his reverie. 'Why... um. Why d'you take your mask off?'
'Oh, for effect,' she said. There was a brief pause... then her eyes lit up with humour. Zerabil chuckled hesitantly. 'I wished to see Our Master with my own eyes, that is all.' She added as the bandages began to return to place.
'N- no, stay like that. It's- uh, it's nice to be able to see people's eyes. It's weird when you're all covered.' She gave him a knowing sidelong glance as the bandages fell away once more.
'Oh really, is that so? Should Battle Brother Juras unveil too?' Zerabil seemed to consider her words seriously for a few moments before firmly shaking his head.
'Nah, it's alright, he can stay covered.' They maintained an air of seriousness for a few moments more. Then the two burst into chuckles. Juras rolled his eyes inwardly.
'So how did Battle Brother Juras find you?' Seihdhara asked, looking at Zerabil with curiosity, her smile unwavering.
'I was in the Venomweald, trying to get my parents somewhere safe, when Juras appeared out of nowhere. At first I wasn't too sure what to think of everything he was saying, but I went along with him anyway. And you? How'd you end up here?' The moment the words left his lips, he realised it was a stupid question - was it not obvious? This was her home. 'Uh, I mean, obviously this is your home, born here and all that.' He quickly added. She looked at him with a raised eyebrow and shook her head.
'No actually, I wasn't born here. I was killed by the gods long ago. But the Celestial Above restored me and brought me here. Along with the others, I was of the first denizens of Chronos.' Zerabil looked visibly shocked.
'You- you were killed?' There was a certain numb look in his eyes, 'w- why?' She shrugged.
'I guess they thought it was fun.' Zerabil's visage darkened visibly, and he looked down.
'It wasn't just me, obviously. There were some fifty ogres, four hain, six angels, five pronobi and seven humans - including me. And two Lifprasillians. We've grown since then, but together we were the first generation, the first Chronosians. Juras here is a very distant descendant of mine, for instance.' Zerabil's eyes widened.
'WHAT?' he looked from Juras to Seihdhara. 'That means that... y- you're married?' She let out a giggle at his shock.
'We do official rotations every few centuries, everybody's been with everybody.' Zerabil's shock turned into disgust. 'It makes things more interesting - and if you find the one for you, there's no need to rotate at all.' Zerabil's disgust did not wane.
'That's just weird. Urgh.' Seihdhara raised an eyebrow.
'On what basis do you think it's weird?' She asked testingly.
'It's just not normal is all.' He spoke defensively.
'And what is this normal you speak of? Where'd you get it from?' Zerabil frowned and shrugged.
'I dunno, it's just a feeling.' Seihdhara pursed her lips. 'What?' he asked.
'See, there are some who would say that's where your argument falls flat - feelings are no basis for anything. But I'm not so sure. There are some things we can only know subjectively.' Zerabil considered her words thoughtfully.
'Yeah? Like what?' She shrugged.
'Many things. Happiness. Sadness... love. But these are obvious things. Less obvious are things like... what is good? What is evil? Is there a universal standard by which each can be identified? Are our feelings towards such things a reflection of that universal standard? Or are we just kidding ourselves and the truth is that... there is nothing. Nothing at all.' She looked at Zerabil, who was staring at her pensively, his brows furrowed somewhat. 'Scary thought right?'
'Yeah... b- but obviously there's not nothing. There are gods, and there are gods above those gods - like Fate, right? There's a big picture.' Seihdhara smiled and tucked an amber tress behind her ear, then gave him a level stare.
'Have you seen Fate?' Zerabil was taken aback by the question and the intensity of her stare.
'Well, n- no, but Juras said-'
'And you think it's true because Juras said it?' She did not speak unkindly, but the question gave him pause.
'No, obviously not.' He eventually said. 'But alot of what he's said has been true so far, so I've no reason to believe the rest isn't. Obviously if I come to learn that something he said isn't true, I'd change my view. Till then though... it doesn't harm.'
'That's a fair approach I guess. True until proven otherwise. But what happens when you can't prove it?'
'Surely anything and everything can be proven in some way?' He asked hesitantly.
'Well, that depends on how you define proof. What is sufficient proof?'
'Uh... I dunno. If someone says something and they can prove it?'
'And how would they prove it. If I, for instance, said that stars are giant fireflies, and that I had seen them up close - is that proof? Would you believe me?'
'Uh... are they? They're not... are they?' Seihdhara chuckled. 'I mean, I'd have to see a star up close too first - that's how you prove it! By showing me.'
'Hmm, I guess that works for some things - but if I told you that killing is evil, how would I show you?'
'Uh... I dunno, it just is, isn't it? Everyone knows that.'
'Is it? Do the gods who killed me know that?'
'M- maybe they didn't... maybe that's why-'
'But you said killing is evil because everyone knows it is...'
'Well, maybe not everyone. But just because some people don't know or don't think it's evil, doesn't mean it isn't!'
'So, what makes it evil? It's clearly not subject to universal consensus - gods and mortals alike kill wantonly.'
'I can't give you a reason - but I know it's not nice, it's not good. You're hurting people - it's not something you enjoy. People don't enjoy being killed or injured or tortured.'
'So it's a matter of what we enjoy and what we don't, is it? If we enjoy something it's good, and if we don't it's evil?' Zerabil frowned and shook his head.
'Well, no, not exactly - because, apparently, you can enjoy killing others. So it can't be that. It's more that... if we wouldn't want it done to us, it's evil.' Seihdhara cocked her head and frowned.
'But people dislike different things. Something one person dislikes another may enjoy.'
'Well, yes. But that's not true for everything. No one likes being killed, or being robbed, or being cheated. There are certain fundamental things that everyone dislikes or avoids, things which are... well, universally undesirable, I guess.'
'Is death undesirable?'
'Well, no one wants to die... ideally.'
'So death is evil?'
'I guess... no. I don't know. Maybe we shouldn't try to define evil. Maybe evil is just whatever isn't good.' Seihdhara gave him a thoughtful look.
'Go on then, what is good?'
'Things everyone strives towards - like, building a family, becoming stronger, gaining knowledge. These things are good.'
'Why are they good - let us say, for the sake of arguement, that everyone does indeed strive for these things. Why do they?' Zerabil furrowed his eyebrows and bits his lips.
'Well, because...' he looked at the ground as he walked and thought, 'because...' then he looked up suddenly, his eyes alight with some kind of epiphanic realisation, 'because they're useful to us! Anything that's useful to us is good!' Seihdhara nodded slightly.
'That's certainly quite an interesting idea. Still problematic, raises questions still, but it is workable. Utility as the measure of goodness...'
'Uggh, I dunno... tell me what you think. How do we work out what is good and evil?' Seihdhara laughed and shook her head.
'Nop, you think some more and come back to me. You've got some pretty good ideas already - this utility things is definitely interesting. But have a think about it - are there any problems with it? How would you go about solving those problems, if there are any.' Zerabil huffed and smiled, a certain contentment in his eyes.
'Fine, I'll think about it.' He paused for a few moments before looking up at Seihdhara, 'you're pretty fun. I liked that.' Seihdhara seemed surprised at this, but then she smiled also.
'You know what they say - the life of the mind is the only life worth living. Perhaps not the only life worth living, but it is certainly a life worth living. And a life bereft of thought- why, it is no life at all.' Zerabil smiled and nodded eagerly.
'You're right! That's so true...'

They remained in comfortable silence for the remainder of their journey, and Zerabil was somewhat disappointed when they finally stopped - something about walking and seeing, with Seihdhara there by him, was oddly nice. They had been brought to a stone on which sat a massive Victor. His head, unveiled, was that of a bear. The colour of his fur seemed to be shifting constantly, and a strange ink-like stain (whose colour was also shifting) moved slowly all over his head, disappearing beneath his Victor's garb.
'Battle Brother Juras,' the bear spoke as it rose to its feet, 'it is good to see you have returned. I am certain there is much you wish to speak about.' The bear's voice was powerful, calming.
'Yes Battle Brother Morarom. I return with the Celestial Above and Our Mother of the Words,' and here the bodies of the floating gods were placed gently on Morarom's stone. The bear moved off it and looked at the two.
'Yes, I was informed the moment Battle Brother Yiftakh found out... but Battle Brother...' Morarom spoke with a frown, 'the female is...' he looked to Juras questioningly.
'She does not appear to be alive, no.' Morarom's frown deepened, his moving tattoo blackening and his fur taking on a dark red hue. Before he could speak, however, a figure appeared above the stone and landed softly beside him. The bear bowed his head in respect. 'Master.'
'Old Morarom, have no fear. Battle Brother Juras has brought with him our ruin and our salvation also,' and with a gesture of the Bard's hand, the glass containing the strange substance from Xerxes cracked and opened, and the strange stuff floated out. The Bard whispered to it, and it writhed and seemed to grow.

'What is that?' Morarom asked.
'If my visions are true and the Cube's whispers are any clue, then it is the flesh of a god.' The Bard said. Morarom took a step away from the substance, somewhat horrified. It was writhing and expanding, bubbling as the Bard whispered to it.
'Is... is it alive?' It was Zerabil who asked. The Bard looked down at his brother with a small smile.
'In a very distant sort of way, different to you or I.' The godflesh was spread out until it had become thin and shroud-like. The demigod covered the two gods with it - it was so thin as to be more or less transparent. What remained of the substance the Bard caused to fold on itself for future use. 'Now we must wait. Leave them and worry no more. They will rise in time.' And with that the demigod rose up into the sky.

'Brother!' Zerabil shouted, looking up at him. The Bard looked down and smiled.
'We will speak, little Zerabil. In time. All in time.' And he disappeared over the mountains and beyond the red clouds.
'So this is Our Master Zerabil,' Morarom, having descended from the little hillock on which the stone was, approached him with a wide smile, 'I am Battle Brother Morarom Oramomaro, first first of the Hallowed Hundred.' Zerabil frowned in confusion.
'First first? What do you mean?'
'The Hallowed Hundred has three firsts. I am the first first.' Zerabil raised an eyebrow at this.
'What?' He paused as he tried to work it out, 'you mean... there are three who are number one?' Mora nodded with a smile. Zerabil paused again. 'So you mean that... the Hallowed Hundred aren't one hundred?' Mora smiled and nodded again as he spoke.
'No, the Hallowed Hundred are not one hundred. They are one-hundred and thirteen.' Zerabil blinked a few times. He looked at Seihdhara, who smiled awkwardly.
'So if there are one-hundred and thirteen, why are they called the Hallowed Hundred? Shouldn't they be called the Hallowed Hundred and Thirteen?'
'Well, that would be more accurate, yes. But it would sound terrible, don't you think. Far too much of a mouthful.' Zerabil rubbed his forehead and the side of his face at the bear's words. A walking, talking bear spewing nonsense - just more weird things to add to the list.
'I think I really need some rest right now.' He managed.
'Of course!' Mora declared, 'Battle Sister Seihdhara, please see to it that Our Master is well-rested.' She bowed her head respectfully and, taking Zerabil's hand, quickly led him away.
'That is the most stupid thing I've ever heard in my life.' He muttered when they were out of earshot.
'He can still hear you,' she said with a barely veiled smile, 'and you're what, two days old? You'll come across far more stupid things.'
'Not two days old...' he grumbled.

When they were gone, Mora turned to Juras. He looked at the blood contained in the orb of Wi. 'Is that what Our Master the Bard instructed you to collect?' He asked. Juras shook his head.
'Not all of it. It is the blood of the Fiend. I was not able to collect anything from the Execrable Chaos. When I return next, I will not be without it.' Mora nodded slowly and extended his Wi to relieve Juras of carrying the blood. 'But Battle Brother, what do we need this for?' Mora inspected the blood closely for a few moments before responding.
'It will be used to further hone the mental discipline and emotional self-control of Victors. We will administer it in minuscule amounts at first, to only the most disciplined Victors. With time, and as mental and emotional resistance increases, we will raise the dosage. Once you acquire the blood of the Execrable Chaos, the mixture will be complete.' Juras cocked his head.
'But Battle Brother, we only have a limited supply of this blood.' Mora smiled knowingly.
'Our Master the Bard has the solution.' Juras was quiet, head turned towards Mora expectantly, 'suffice to say that we will have a little pool of the vile stuff.' He gestured to the Sculptor's corpse, 'and what is this you have brought with you? It seems to me the corpse of a Jvanic being.'
'Yes, Battle Brother. It is a Jvanic horror. I came across it as I journeyed from Xerxes - I have made a monumental discovery; it appears that these creatures are all connected. It is a vast system of telepathic communication, far more complex and advanced than anything I have seen. At any one moment, any Jvanic horror can be in contact with every other Jvanic horror in existence - no matter how vast the distances that separate them.' Mora seemed visibly stunned by this.
'No matter how far...' he looked at the Sculptor's corpse. Not even Treeminds, with their incredibly deep telepathic bond with all other Treeminds, could maintain the link over long distances. 'And how did you come to know of this link, Battle Brother?' Mora asked.
'I was able to break into the system. Even now if I focus...' he paused and raised his head. 'W-well, that's odd. I don't seem able to listen in. Chronos must be acting to disrupt the link. On Galbar I was able to connect with the system at will.' Mora frowned deeply at this revelation.
'Battle Brother, are you certain that is wise. You are venturing into the domain of the Entity, and no good can come of that.'
'No, Battle Brother. It's not as we had thought. I have... I have been shown visions. I have seen into the mind of Jvan. It-'
'The Jvanic Entity, Battle Brother. Mention it as the Celestial Above did.'
'No, Battle Brother. You misunderstand me. Jvan is not the Entity. They are two separate things.' Mora's frown deepened and his tattoo blackened, and his fur also became dark.
'You may speak, Battle Brother, but see to it that you speak carefully and well. What do you mean?' Juras invited Mora to sit, and the two Victors descended and brought their knees together.

There was much for them to discuss in the shade of their resting gods.



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Smoke and Mirrors


Complications on complications built Toun's anxiety. He had spent too long planning and replanning already. All his pieces were in place. All his investigations were close enough to thorough that to pry further would only waste time. Xos' grace period had elapsed. Toun followed his trail like a shark following blood.

And there was blood to follow. The murderer had busied himself with subjugating the djinn that had followed Zephyrion and yet rejected his rule. He traveled across Galbar seemingly at random, confronting any djinni lords that he deemed worthy of attention and then demanding that they swear fealty. There were many that fell by his hand, and yet more that succumbed to his will.

But despite this sudden reign of terror over Galbar's elementals, to mortals and gods there were few signs of Xos' presence. In the wake of his last few explosive confrontations, he evidently kept a low profile. He had for some time.

No matter. False trails, tricks, illusions, and other distractions hardly held Toun back long enough to stop him. The main trail was found fresh and leading up from Galbar's soil. Xos did not have the luxury of time to afford him a retreat to the other side of the universe as Logos did. Toun internally scoffed at the pitiful attempt to escape.

Though such a distance as Logos flew was not traversed in the end. Toun's step traversed not over galaxies, nor even between stars. He halted himself far above the fourth planet from Galbar's sun. A lonely blue sphere neglected by all but the faintest of touches.

Toun squinted his eye. The trail led in towards a source of great power. The sun barely glimmered in its presence, even as its light was but a pin-prick in his vision.

"No more do you hide now, murderer?"

The words left an ironic aftertaste. The great power must have been Xos' weapon. And yet it bloomed with such a corona that Xos' trail faded near its position. Toun edged toward the light. More around the weapon made itself clear. He drew his fingers out into wicked claws in anticipation for his quarry the shade to stand behind the light.

Toun stopped. Nothing lay near the weapon but stone, air, and what rudimentary lifeforms could survive in its vicinity.

His eye shot left, right, north, south from above. Every direction. He pierced every detail with his gaze. He could see the landscape. He could see the life. As he descended into the atmosphere he saw everything but Xos' trail. Obscured by the weapon's power as it was.

Was it even a weapon? He wondered. It appeared as something alien, a different sort of object for which there was no name. It was a tiny point, so small as to be nearly unseen were it not for the magnificent aura of magic and energy that endlessly emanated from it. There was nothing inherently chaotic or destructive about the Spark; it was a fount of energy as pure and uniform as that blinding white light that it emitted.

Yet its raw power suggested intoxicating potential. Within that tiny pearl was the ability to make or unmake anything imaginable and fulfill one's every desire. The Primordial Spark called to any that looked upon it.

Toun hardened and shook himself free of fascination. He knew from the aura that Kyre's blood fell upon this spark. Xos could not be far. There was no explanation for why the spark lay open and free for the taking but treachery. And yet, Toun's paranoid thoughts had an opponent.

This source of power was all Xos presented as a true threat. To take it now would leave the shade at his mercy. To take it would keep it from being trapped in the Tomb Weaver. And Toun would have no fear of any of his siblings from there onwards. No more appeasing and lying would taint his activities. No more permission for murder would be given by his lack of power.

He reached. He could make his plans come to fruition. There was no more debate over the opportunity.

Toun stepped forward with his clawed fingers outstretched.

The spark's power reached out to meet Toun's touch. His blue eye shone realisation. The power leapt into Toun. Violently.

From behind, Xos' shadowy form manifested from the nothingness of space. He reached out to the tiny spark of magic and completed the circuit. A crackling stream of energy surged forth from the the spark as it transformed from a serene pearl into an erupting geyser of unstable energy. It was all drawn to the shade, and to reach Xos it had but one path to take.

It surged straight in and out of Toun's navel and back and poured into Xos, who devoured its magic with a savage voracity that could only come from one hopelessly addicted to power. Toun threw his fingers down around the bolt impaling him and held it fast as the shaft of a spear. The stream stopped and Toun spun his head around.

A hand of deathly shadows flew forward to seize at his throat. Toun spun and flung up his own hand. The off-white and off-black met at the fingers, each limb pulsating in resistance. Toun's eye bulged.

"Murderer!" Toun's face contorted in pain and sharp-toothed rage. His arm trembled against Xos' strength. The bridge of his nose creased to lift a snarl. "Your sanguine game ends today, kinslayer! Your plan is at an end."

Memories of Vestec's narrow escape and his stalemate with Jvan flashed through Xos' mind and pushed away the hubris and sadism that wanted to stand and mock his quarry; he needed to be quick and utterly ruthless.

So he was.

The shade released his pull upon the Spark and its cord of energy evaporated. The power that had already reached him writhed over the rolling shadows of his body, twisting like snakes.

The next moves ran in instants through Toun's prediction.

The snakes of white energy shined their last before being corrupted into a dark magic in Xos. He inhaled the spark's pure power while Toun grew a shape from his palm. Xos breathed out only red chaos and black, streaming decay directed to Toun. It met a blossoming dome of porcelain, pushing back as the ray devoured light and destroyed matter. Toun created in parts less than equal. In the air, he was pushed back further and further.

Xos' power was too much to resist. Toun felt his feet on the earth. He swung an arm in frustration at the Primordial Spark in its resting place. In his effort to protect himself, Toun beat the mote of light from the ground into the distance.

In that moment Xos expended the last of the power that he took from the spark during the brief surge through Toun's body. It was no matter. His own power would be sufficient here.

Even as he remained suspended in the air, he used his magic to rip at Toun's very substance. The shield crumbled. Toun grimaced. Clay peeled off in flecks from his head and his robe, whilst Xos siphoned with all the voracity of a whirlpool. The divine lifeblood he inhaled was annihilated with the destructive feedback only fueling his might.

Blue light shone a burst from the pocks on Toun's surface. His jaw stretched open. "You are nothing!" Toun screamed. And his arms flicked into a lengthened, sharp curl.

Godly porcelain sliced with perfect alignment. A horrific appendage burst forth from Xos' armor and caught both blades. Xos pressed another appendage into one sickle's point to make a shallow cut into his vaporous being, and from the wound there flowed black blood running down the impromptu sword. One sickle snapped from Toun. His remaining arm stretched and bloated into a fist launching forward. It crunched against whatever otherwordly material with which Baron Slag had wrought the dark god's armor. Its wearer merely grunted. It left a dent. He returned the favor with a blow of his own. Yet his shadows swung at empty air. Toun's fist and sickle fell where before they were attached to a now absent host. The immaculate porcelain sickle, stained with Xos' oily blood, rapidly cracked and collapsed.

Toun rushed through the roaring air. His arms regrew from the stumps he had detached. A sting drew his eye to his shoulder where blood swum down its edge like a malevolent eel. He sliced it away and let it fall.

He needed to get to the spark first.

An inky meteor streaked behind him. Xos surging through the air in chase.

The gods' travel was a blink but for Toun's head start. The blinding light of the spark sat on a thick, swiftly shrivelling, algae. He slowed and pulled at its power to grow a clay spear in his hand. He spun and hurled it back at Xos. It sparked and thrummed.

It exploded in proximity. Shards and lightning flew with the blast.

Toun landed on his feet with a filthy slide through soft mosses. His arm stretched to wrap his fingers in a cage around the spark.

And then his adversary was there, manifested right beside him. A shadowy tendril slashed twice at Toun's hand with vorpal force. He was severed from the spark. The second took off the rest of the arm. Toun reacted just before they spun into a wild flurry of deadly slashes aimed at the torso. Toun's remaining arm split into two, then four, then eight, then sixteen articulating blades as they parried Xos' assault. A choir of dry porcelain on cutting shadows sang a song to the silent planet around them.

Though Zephyrion's Shadow loomed right before Toun, it was not from that armored shade that the next grasping claws came from, but rather from Toun's own shadow. Wind and shadow circled about in wild gales like the frenzied fever-talk of madmen, and from all angles despair pressed down with all its crushing might upon the porcelain lord.

"You cannot win." For the first time, Toun himself heard the Unmaker speak. "So die!"

The clutching winds and shadows gnashed and pulled Toun down with the same fury that dripped from every one of Xos' words. Toun's righteousness defied.

"Not by my oaths, murderer!" A sharp cring snapped Toun's leg at the thigh. The grasping shadows snapped it to the ground just as another leg took its place.

Toun stepped back with another new leg. And again. His discarded limbs clogged the hungry jaws around him. Shards of cleanly cut porcelain rained tinkling onto the moss, steaming acrid black from the battle above.

There was none of the spark in the slashes.

Toun sensed his severed hand still wrapped around the spark, shielding it from consumption.

"I shall not fall," Toun growled through his pointed teeth. "Your legacy will be as your visage; nought but smoke!"

As if his leg was his punctuation, Toun kicked forward and struck Zephyrion's dark reflection. It created some space, but the mere instant of contact was enough to send a searing heat through Toun's entire body. Toun hissed in pain and rebalanced.

His words struck a nerve.

The rocky soil crumbling under the shade's withering aura rapidly sublimed to vapour. Xos roared something so slurred as to be unintelligible. The meaning was made clear enough.

His unbound rage exploded outwards. Toun threw up his arms to shield himself. Light and force. It obliterated the landscape. The sheer force kicked Toun into a backwards flight so fast he barely kept the white fire touching his clay robes. Disorientation set in. The ground struck his feet and tossed him into a backwards sumersault. His arm felt soil for an instant. Then he slid.

Gravity lead to his bearings again. He flipped into a crouched stand before stopping. His limbs, elongated and unnaturally jointed, braced against the reacting wind. The smoke and ashes turned back towards the fires at the epicentre in a gale. Toun did not need to breathe. His rapidly rising and falling shoulders were motivated by fight and exertion. And carmine cracks on his forearms and fingers caught his eye.

"Rrah! No!" He smoothed the flaws over in a fluster. "Not today."

Then the smoke ahead parted.

Xos' shadowy form surged through the flames and pressed on. Any semblance of restraint was gone. His flurry of swings were wild and poorly controlled, yet relentless. Agility and precision favoured Toun until his parries and dodges were outpaced by one blow that sent him spinning into a stumble. Behind each of Xos' strikes was strength enough to sunder a mountain and scatter its pieces like chaff on the wind. Toun stepped past another, contorted to avoid the next. Swung back into a spark-casting parry. The two creatures white and black thrashed on with impossible strength and anatomy clashing only with greater combat left between their very egos. Toun gave only a step.

And then, faster than any mortal perception, a gap in Toun's guard promised a swing unbidden to the clay one's neck. There was no reflection on the shade's part, merely action. A vorpal tendril made a savage swing in the instant the opening was exposed. Toun's head snapped and flattened out to one side long and grotesquely before it landed. Sparkling air molecules split by the dark blade danced in the nanometres between it and the porcelain. And sooner than regaining shape, Toun shot in the opposite direction of Xos' overswing.

The blade clamped to a stop in the air. Xos found it grasped by an inanimate porcelain hand attached to an arm that stretched into the earth below. It was a ruse. Toun had already shot out for the spark again.

With a furious howl, Xos dissolved the the lifeless porcelain appendage that grasped at him. Then his own body dissolved into the shadows and he manifested himself once more, directly above the the Primordial Spark just as Toun reached it.

Xos met the charge head on and barreled into Toun's own momentum. There had been no time for Toun to slow or change his path. The inevitable collision sent grey ash and smoke up in a shockwave and brought both deities to the ground. A deadly wrestling match began.

A shadowy hand slammed Toun's head into the ground even as he scrambled and reached for the Primordial Spark. It rested mere feet away from their struggle, yet in that moment every inch was a gulf as endless to them as the seas for mortals.

And yet Toun reached. In spite of his safety, he reached.

The Unmaker did not have to reach, for all the world's hunger and power and baleful malevolence was already within him. A long spear coalesced from the trickle of blood that still stemmed from his arm and from the whirling mass of darkness beneath his hollow shell of armor; this spear was like an icicle if sable and palpable death could be called ice, and its touch was colder, agonizing moment by moment, than the most bitter of winter's steely breaths or the most scornful look upon the late Vulamera's face.

For all that imagery, it was not the spear's strange and otherwordly beauty that made an impression upon Toun, but rather its frigid point as Xos thrust it into the porcelain god's back. Toun spread his arms in a frozen shock, eyeing the shifting point protruding his chest. Xos impaled his foe and claimed victory as haughtily as any king drove his banner into the raw earth and claimed dominion.

Toun's senses cringed and shuddered. Even Xos' voice spread as thin black oil branching coniferous shapes over glass.

X̵͉́ô̵̩̈́͜s̴̠̥̿͑ ̴͈͓͌T̴̻̏͛H̵͇̊͊E̵̞̿ ̸̘͝U̷̢̥͌M̵̱͉̐A̴̢͊̔Ķ̶̏Ẽ̸̳̙R̷͈̺͝ ̷̭͂̊

*

̷̖͈̐s̸̳̿͛̒̚͜ṁ̷̬͗̀õ̶̧̼̚k̶̛͕̔e̴̿͛̒͜ ̴̹̘̳̖̏̊̊Ṣ̸̢̩͌ͅH̸͖̳̃̔̔͜͝A̸̼̹̙̜̋͠D̸̯̤̰̀O̸̯̹̾͑̏͠W̵̰̖̗͒̑ ̴̙͈̊̀́͘ͅa̵̠͔̪̔̉̌͆s̶͔̣͉̻̽ḧ̷̤̘̣ ̵͔̮̊̂b̶̲̼̖͘u̵͕͉̽͑͐̂r̵͉͔͓̩͊̀̊̆ṉ̴͖̯͈̾̓i̵̳͝n̸̜͐̍̅g̶̕͜ ̴̳͂̉̓C̷͓̤̖̉̓̌H̷̭̦̳̘͊͑͋̚Å̵ͅO̶̮̺̗͍̽͐̔S̵͍͙̅̑͜

*

w̵h̶o̵ ̷r̸a̴g̴e̶ ̷d̸e̴v̷o̷u̵r̷s̵ ̶i̷t̸s̷e̴l̴f̶,̶ ̴o̸u̴r̵o̷b̴o̴r̷o̵s̶

*

Z̴̡͎̰̝͔̻̝͚̬͍̱̝̦̲̮͉̔̐̅͜͠ͅY̶͚̻͕̪̬̘̩̥̲̓̅͝U̷̧̡̯̭̭͇͊́̏̂̌͂̄̅͑̂̈́͘̕͜S̸͍̣͖͉͉͓̖̑͊̅̋ͅ

"Z-..."

Toun's silent, shivering head twisted too far around until his eye bulged to Xos' wispy silhouette. All the pocks and chips taken from his arms, head, and body audibly crackled to reveal bright red flaws brimming with primal reaction.

Toun's words were a breathless croak. "You have not won."

Every exposed inch of Toun's body grew white, rib-like clay shards that sprang up with a curl as they bent inwards upon Xos, pushing him as much as slamming with breaking force against his dark armour. Xos' own form reacted as a violent fountain of explosive force. The snapped clay points forked into two more porcelain ribs each and by the repulsive power of their magics colliding, Xos was carried up in its thick reed-like canopy. The spear pulled away from Toun to leave a hole exuding black smoke. It too was obscured by clay points in an instant.

It was time to end this.

Battering aside the shattered ribs that had hinged about him like some sort of trap, he pulled the Primordial Spark into his grasp and readied himself to channel its full might, but then the smoke cleared and Toun was gone.

Dead?

No.

Escaped.

With a frustrated roar, he clenched his fist and squeezed the tiniest drop of power from his prized weapon and watched as the ground below was shattered.

What had been mossy plains with rolling hills was now a scarred field flattened by Xos' explosive rage. The countless rocks strewn across the landscape were scorched barren by magic, and the second explosion that came as a result of that mere moment in which he lost his control over the Primordial Spark had gouged chasms and ravines to spindle across the ground like cracks in a windowpane. Small pools of blood sizzled and broiled like the tar pits and strange green pools of Galbar's Venomweald, but there was nobody to behold the blood's corrupting effects.

Xos had already left.



An injured god stood in the dotted black of space. He stared at a small blue planet past the gap between his shivering, tensed claws. All his clear white body was laced with dull, thin, forking cracks from something red forcing its way through. Merely looking upon the wounds with his blue eye forced a nausea as if every one was a wretched, bile-filled marr bloated by the filthiest plague.

He dared not look at the still smoking hole in his chest for fear of clawing it like an empty tumor.

Disgust made his blue eye shine. The cause of the cracks made him feel fear. Not because they were caused by injury. That was not the whole truth.

With one finger, he shakily scratched calligraphy of a more vivid red hue on his skin. Each one repaired a flaw and faded. He made progress towards the main wound. The first symbol was scribed with such a shiver that his finger curled sharp in a reflex, ruining the text.

He slammed his fist on the wasted ink and cringed his head and shoulders. He never ruined a character. He failed idiotically. He remained holding himself back against a burst of useless rage for as long as Xos' wound taunted him.

Shaking. Furious. Flagellating his mind. He uncurled his ink-scrawling finger and resumed his calligraphy until all evidence was removed. The hole healed and closed into smooth porcelain.

Then he went still. He forced himself still. Even the strange fabric-like waves of his robe halted.

"I took an oath." His shaking voice murmured.

As graceful as a dancer free from all noise in his muscles, Toun lifted his hands above his head to join his fingers. His eye closed. Carefully, his arms spread far either side, but his fingers remained joined, stretching into a smooth cylinder. A soundless snap separated his fingers from each end of the rod. He grasped the rod's middle in one hand, let his other arm float to his side, and willed the ends of the rod to shape into a blunt shod and sharp spear head.

"I can take revenge as well."

Even in the depths of space where Toun rested in suspension, a light breeze brushed his back. The wind had a familiar golden hue to it. A warmth appeared behind Toun, and then a divine presence to accompany it.

"Hail Toun, simulacrum pure
solemn, perfect god.
I bid thee remain stoic!

After all, fortune favored thee."


Toun did not turn. The silence following allowed the counting of three slow heartbeats.

Then a movement of clay to shock the senses blinked Toun's face as close as a thumbnail to Aihtiraq's eye; the golden one's other eye saw the impossibly sharp point of Toun's new spear, a hair from piercing him. His body felt a strangling clamp where Toun's inhumanly long fingers had wrapped around his gaseous form. And Aihtiraq felt frighteningly solid.

Toun's blue eye, black in sclera, bloodshot and wide, was so crazed that a window to the Gap itself could settle one's nerves in comparison. Anyone elses nerves.

Soft flakes of dust and snow and sand and frozen time and stranger things too all wafted from the golden djinni. They landed gently upon Toun's face, and Aihtiraq met the god's gaze with the overpowering indifference of one who knew no such thing as fear.

"Fortune...favoured me, elemental?" Toun slowly and agonisingly breathed. "I beg you to clarify your...earnesty. I myself have a pointedely different opinion on where fortune placed her hand just now."

"Find peace; your rage is like
soft breaths in a storm.
Your life is a victory.

This one does not weave the strands
of Fate, but sees them.
Survival was fortunate

for the Unmaker is not done.
He will slay one more;
I have seen it on the threads.

In truth, I expect 'tis thee.
The pearl's great power
though misused, can shatter worlds.

As he wields it, you are doomed."


Toun shoved Aihtiraq back by way of releasing him. His spear lowered. "Expect?" Toun demanded cynically. "Or know? And how do you know these things? You, impotent thing, if you know any great mystery and choose not to act upon it until the tragedy is inevitable, why shall I suffer your presence?" Toun tilted his head and hissed. "Rephrase yourself, elemental. Try again. Speak, or submit that the games of the gods are not within your fitness."

"But I do act, oh blind Toun,
for what else is this?
'tis mine to warn all others

and theirs to ignore and fall."


"It is yours to taunt and condemn, elemental!" Toun retorted. He jabbed a finger in Aihtiraq's direction. "Warnings ignored!? How could I ignore my personal safety and the safety of my family? This whole quest is for that purpose! And yet you warn another will fall should I ignore your warning? My mission is to see that warning through tacit from your blubbering warning! And yet you still see it and request that I know, as if there is a missing effort I have not invested. As if there is a will yet I can take to prevent such a future!" Toun shouted out. "I cannot know how to prevent a tragic fate without understanding it, golden creature! And thus your warning is doomed to be ignored if it is not given to me with intent to allow me to change my fate! Yours is an empty purpose."

"Yours is action without thought.
In hubris you deign
to know my intention, but fail.

You will witness my warning
and act regardless,
knowing your plan to be flawed, doomed.

My words fall like desert rain:
hopeless, meek, futile.
But as Fate wills it, I came,

this warning a passing thought."


Toun's brow lifted uncomfortably. "Oho!" He spoke in long, booming syllables. "Bold, creature! Very bold!" He shook his head and gave a condescending applause between the back of his spear hand and his palm. "It was not your will, was it!? You had no choice? You run from your action like a gazelle from a lion. Yet you brush off the panicked flight as a passing fancy." Toun lowered his arms and levelled his eye, cross once again at Aihtiraq. "Unless you can prove to me any veracity of your 'premonition' -- any explanation to your story -- I see this as a waste of time and you as a deliberate fraud. I ask you again, Aihtiraq: Do you expect or do your know? And how do you know?"

The vitriol parted like wind meeting a mountain, breaking without effect. The pressure of Toun's accusations, the venom in his words, and the spittle of implied insult meant nothing to Aihtiraq. If the golden djinni actually felt emotion, it hardly ever seemed to show.

"The leaves fall, and so men know
'tis must be autumn.
Gold threads shine, and I see death.

Alas, sage wisdom fell mute.
Mine purpose past this
was another caution to give.

Know this: when the time is nigh,
a golden storm comes.
Fear not my hand; it will take

what the Unmaker stole from I."


Toun lifted his chin. "While I look forward to you breaking your demonstrated impotence, Xos shall suffer consequences for killing a god whether you reclaim anything or not. Without regard of your little bluster, now, that is no answer to my questions."

"Generosity is fruit
of goodwill and love.
Yet no tree bears endless fruit.

I offered thee one favor
which you took: vision
of a brother's forlorn Fate.

You ask again for favor
yet what will you give?
This one could show much to thee

but you would invoke a debt."


Aihtiraq stood regarded by Toun. The ripples of Toun's robes flowed curiously, slowing and speeding. Though quivering, Toun's words could all of a sudden be considered calm. "Now there is the courage I thought devoid in you," he said. "A debt, you say? Could I owe you for one...singular wish, Aihtiraq?" The stony smooth mask offered. Some repressed emotion twitched on his cheekbones. "Such a wish must fall short of my existing oaths, yet my oath to one wish should be binding enough. I am curious to see how you would depend on it."

"Though heeding my words is not
past your mind's limits,
understanding may well be.

I would show what words cannot.
Steel yourself, loosen.
Embrace the warmth of my flame,

and let Chaos stream through you."


Without menacing effect, Aihtiraq approached with an outstretched hand. His palm was made of burning water, so his touch was icy fire. With it came an otherworldly celerity of mind as well as strange visions.

Toun no longer existed, had never existed. Neither had time or space or anything else. There was only Aihtiraq and the golden storm.

Awash in a maelstrom of primordial energy, there was fire and pain and endless suffering for a literal sort of eternity; after all, this place was not constrained by time. There were patterns to the Chaos and magic. Without conscious effort, one eventually saw those patterns and learned to recognize them, for the mind was a wondrous thing, and even in a tortured and base state it strived to learn.

The visions retreated back somewhat, and memory of the outside world began to seep back in. With it came sense and a logical order to the otherwise nigh unintelligble dreams.

Aihtiraq was in a refreshing spring. It cooled and healed his soul, but memory of the firestorm remained yet, and signs of its presence were everywhere. Tiny golden threads ran through all things and golden winds billowed, and his mind retained its ability to predict their paths. Aihtiraq once witnessed a tree's leaf fall and foresaw that Ventus would die. The patterns were everywhere, inescapable, and though it took concentrated effort to read them, it similarly took an almost inhuman effort to suppress their sight in his mind. In a way Aihtiraq saw everything, all at once, and so was blinded. Of course, not every vision came to pass.

Even for his mind, there were sometimes flaws. The colors did not always match, but the shapes did.

The visions retreated back further; Toun was almost himself once more. Or was he? These visions were grounded in reality, not abstract as the others had been. Aihtiraq showed him something as it happened in that very moment, or at least portraying an image of it so lifelike and compelling as to be the perfect lie.

There was the Unmaker. The great shadow. Xos.

He was looming over a planet cracked and scarred by some past storm, long ago, whose echoes rippled still through the tapestry of golden threads. The Primordial Spark rested in his hands, and a dark glower in his eyes looked down upon the innocent world as he sized its strength.

There was only the briefest pause of reflection before Xos laid down the Primordial Spark upon the planet and used the world as an anvil with which to craft the instrument of its own destruction. He bent the Primordial Spark, twisting the energy that cascading out of it. The Spark was malleable to Xos' will. He hammered it into the shape of an axe colossal beyond mortal comprehension.

And then Xos himself grew in stature, for a shadow's size meant little and was ever capable of changing.

With one mighty swing he cleaved the world in two. Magma and fire erupted into the heavens as the dark god sated his bloodlust, but the planet's burning blood was not the only life essence that dripped from the axe.

Swirls of magical wind and massed of woven threads surged everywhere; it was clear that Aihtiraq looked upon that scene and accoutned for a nigh infinite number of variables. Still, it lead him to the conclusion that Xos would kill yet one more god.

Some factors pointed towards Toun falling victim to the Spark. Still, there was little true "logic" behind the calculation. Aihtiraq dealed in uncertainty, and quick as his mind might be, it could hardly make certainties. Yet even though full extent of the arcane reasoning was impossible to show, much less explain, it was easy enough to see that Aihtiraq truly believed in the veracity of his clairvoyance. He had faith in his predictions.

Faith to a terrifying degree.

Space felt even emptier than before now. Even more distant. Toun brushed a chill from his body before he realised he was perceiving where he was before. The chaotic pain that lead to the future made just enough sense that he gave Aihtiraq a knowing look.

"I am satisfied with your answer, Aihtiraq," Toun intoned. He lifted his free hand to show in it held a small porcelain disk. On its faces were inscribed bright red runes pertaining to a promise. An oath limited by Toun's principles to grant a boon. He released the disc and let it float to Aihtiraq. "Redeem your wish at your will. I shall fulfill my end of the bargain."

The mote of clay drifted through space towards Aihtiraq. The great djinni made no outward effort to capture it; it flew until it came into contact with the god, and then it was lost in the vaporous mass of burning gold, one of a million diamonds hidden within a sea of broken glass.

Toun drifted to half-turn, but stopped and eyed the golden spirit again. "If it is generosity to you, hear me. Your warning could apply to you in the end, should you yearn too much for your stolen quarry. But you know this already, elemental."

Though neither form nor quicksilver visage expressed so, Aihtiraq projected bemusement all the same.

"Aihtiraq does one day end
as everything must.
He burns, but a mere candle

fading unto nothingness
racing swifter still
purpose and joy abounding.

The Unmaker shan't slay me!
It is destiny
that flame extinguish itself.

The end is his clearest sight.
His own ashen form
will be the willful fuel

catalyzing new dawning."


And then a soft eddy blew through the emptiness of space, and upon its back Aihtiraq was gone.

Toun blinked at the remaining empty space. Aihtiraq's parting verse left more to interpret than before. Not in his metaphor but in the consequences of their meanings. He felt one last growl creep up his throat, almost immediately drowned out by the futility of rejecting it. In the end, Toun lowered his tensed shoulders.

"Your end is the future you choose, elemental?" he said quietly to the nothingness around him. "If that ultimate fate is your wish, I can only assume you gazed upon atrocious alternatives."

The reflection iterated on. However, priorities were just that. And the hunt was still on. Toun prepared to project his voice to find his siblings and put an end to the shade.

Yet another voice found him first.

Father.

A deep robotic intonation delayed Toun's communications. He responded.

"Report, Majus."

Minus objective secured in Cornerstone.

"...And?" Toun's avatar was not meant to make contact solely for such thing.

A message from Jvan awaits in Cornerstone. Memories for your eye.

Toun turned his upper body towards the distant speck of Galbar, staring with one half of his brow lifted.

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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

BBeast and Muttonhawk


The only porcelain figure attending the centre of Cornerstone today was a regent. Amongst the rhythmic construction of various kaolokinetic constructs was Majus, standing straight, tall, and glinting in the sun. In one hand was a smaller set of armour pressed securely to its shoulder; the figure of Minus. In its other hand was a wriggling and writhing fleshy lifeform, desperate to pass on the programmed message in its bulbous brain. Next to Majus was the only thing that looked more vertical than the avatar's posture. Its longhammer, perched upright on the floor.

The unearthly scene was added to by the sudden, golden-lit entrance of Teknall. The aproned hain held in his hands another swollen brain robed in thin flesh. "Toun, have you seen this?" Distress sat under Teknall's voice.

Majus' head creaked to regard the odd-hain-out before him. Before the avatar could speak for itself, a lump grew on the featureless porcelain centre of its visor. The lump bulged, split, and opened to reveal an intense blue eye gazing down at Teknall.

"Brother," Toun's voice vibrated from Majus' body. His mood was hard to immediately gauge. "I have been busy hunting the murderer. Is this message from Jvan so important if she decided not to send it by a medium wrought of weak matter?" Majus shook the wriggling brain-message for emphasis. "I assumed it to be some fanciful song or poem or other diversion."

Teknall seemed briefly flabbergasted. "You mean you didn't notice? Goliath could see the signs of the battle from orbit." He shook his head and proffered the brain. "This message is vitally important to your mission. Xos has struck again, this time against Jvan. She survived, thank Fate, although Xos left in better condition than her. This is a recording of the battle."

The eye stared silently for a strongly mulled few seconds. Just as suspicions raised that Toun may not have been listening, the eye sucked itself back into Majus' visor, smoothing the split it made and leaving no trace of its presence.

The air cracked beside Majus. One frame of Teknall's senses saw a thin white line leading vertically into the sky above. The next frame saw that line disappear, replaced with Toun and a curling wave of displaced air. Toun's robes settled. He held a new clay spear loosely in his right hand. His eye bored into Teknall as if it were the very same blue orb that bulged from Majus' head.

Without breaking eye contact, Toun stretched his free hand to pluck the fleshy creature from Majus' grip and curled his arm in front of his face. His eye flicked to the brain.

Minimal signs of scrutiny showed on Toun's smooth face. In the pause he took to read Jvan's message, Teknall noticed something off about Toun's very essence before him. Though his physical body stood just as flawless as ever, he read in Teknall's senses with welts and gashes, blemishing the power he radiated.

He looked sore.

"Damn you, sister," Toun muttered. "We could have gathered then. We could have struck. You stubborn, airy, boil Jvan..." He sped his mumbling. "At least Jvan's prod at Xos' physicality corroborates an...insecurity of the shade."

A tile of Cornerstone flung up, opening to a shadowy porcelain cavity. Toun tossed the brain-creature inside before the tile clacked shut. He then returned his regards to Teknall.

"Well?" Toun asked impatiently. "What do you make of it, brother?"

"I have observed that Xos is mobilising against Galbar. It isn't just Jvan. The elementals are at war with each other, half of them declaring loyalty to Xos and the rest resisting the shade's authority. He is seizing the assets Zephyrion has left behind; first the Celestial Citadel, killing Ventus who had succeeded Zephyrion, then the rest of the elementals. Vetros is a possible target if this pattern continues, especially since they have the King's Law, although his actions once there are uncertain. The Ogres are another potential race he could target.

"As for the battle in the recording, I'm sure it contains valuable data for analysing and potentially countering Xos' patterns in combat. Especially valuable are the observations of the use of that spark of power. Aside from the obvious, it appears that Xos might be exercising some restraint with the spark. The last blow being charged from it was far more mighty than the previous uses, even though such excessive force used at the beginning would have seized him a definite victory. Considering Xos' activities with the elementals, it appears possible that Xos has placed some value in keeping Galbar intact. This does not mean Xos won't destroy Galbar if he deems it necessary, such as under threat of defeat.

"We also observe some of Xos' personality and motives from the dialogue. He despises us gods, and has no qualms about killing us if we fail to cooperate, although this we could already suspect. He mentions a specific vendetta against Jvan and her creations. This hints at potential future targets. He could return to fight Jvan again, but considering that this yielded a stalemate he's more likely to attempt different targets of value to Jvan. Ovaedis is an obvious one, although he might target any other large distinctly Jvanic thing, such as the city of Metera, the island of Julia or the decontamination towers. The Sculptors and the rest of Jvan's creatures are mostly too dispersed to be sufficiently valuable targets."


Teknall took a breath as he concluded his observations. "What of you? Any further observations? You seem to have been quite busy."

"Yes..." Toun's neck tensed and his shoulders shuddered ever-so-slightly. "The elementals' conflict has not escaped my investigations. Lesser djinn driven mad. Fleeing into climates ill-suited to their forms." Toun waved his spear to plant it's blunt end on the floor with a sharp cring. He spoke low, as if fatigued. "Jvan provoked the murderer. While this suggests the attack was made upon opportunity, his servant's intervention below our sister smells of premeditation. Still, the way he spoke, the way he acted...I think he targeted Jvan to gain favour with other elementals. His hate for her is not a unique one."

Toun rolled his head, inspecting the sharp point of his weapon. "Why Xos requires elementals? That would be enlightening indeed. Perhaps they guard from a threat to him. Perhaps they are required to enact his destructive plans. Perhaps he likes the taste of flickers. Perhaps there are traces of sentimentality for Zephyrion's creations. Any number may be true. I believe they are more your concern than mine, brother." Toun gave Teknall a brief look. "Preserving mortal civilisations are your project. Not mine. Of course, this is excepting one detail. The King's Law. Do you know its whereabouts?"

"Unless something has happened to it very recently, it is in the possession of King Heru of Vetros," Teknall answered.

Toun's eye flashed. "Then if Xos knows of it and its location, he would have taken it already."

"If he wants to take it. Xos already wields a weapon of unimaginable power, so the King's Law is not as valuable to Xos for personal use. He likely has priorities other than the King's Law. For all we know, he might want to keep Vetros and the bloodline of Primus in power, although at this stage we can only speculate."

With his eye relaxing, Toun's head lifted just enough to show a cynical brand of amusement. "My speculation shall not overestimate Xos' hubris. As a matter of my own knowledge, he is aware he is being hunted now."

Teknall cocked his beak and gave Toun a slightly cynical look of his own, silently telling him to continue.

"He knew I was following him. Even before we encountered on the fifth planet in this system. Lazarus' wretched hybrids named the algeous sphere Soul Aonair. It is the only name I know it by." Toun shook his head. "Nevertheless, we fought. I weathered the spark as much as I could. Without Logos, I was forced to withdraw."

Teknall's eyes widened. "You fought him?"

"He has grown in power," Toun gravely intoned to his closed fist. "He will continue to grow."

"Were you unable to call for Logos?" Teknall queried.

Toun's hands clenched harder. The fingers around his spear shaft creaked against the porcelain surface. "Had I...called...for Logos..." he explained, seething. "I would have lost...my opportunity...to take the spark from Xos' hands. It was a trap sprung almost back against him. We committed mutual failure." His voice regained. "I have his trail now. I have seen him fight and we have sparred before. This new information only seals Xos' fate. I shall be calling upon Logos and we shall soon end this murderer's plans."

Teknall nodded. "Very well. Once Xos is gone we can breathe a little easier."

"There is more, Teknall." Toun straightened and stepped up to Teknall, kneeling down to look level at his hain eyes. "I need you to do something."

"What is it, Toun?"

His voice was low pitched. Devoid of anything but warning. "Xos will kill one more. See that it is not you. See that it is not any of the children. And as far as you can act, see that it is none amongst our siblings."

Teknall swallowed. "I will be vigilant."

Toun's eye softened. "This is no bluster or pride, brother. I have...seen this outcome for myself. Promise me you shall be vigilant. Please."

Teknall dipped his beak slightly. "I will be vigilant, I promise." Teknall raised his eyes back up to look more squarely at Toun. "And you must be vigilant too."

The soft blue eye closed as Toun's shoulders relaxed.

Standing up like a floating silk, Toun stepped away. He clasped his wrist behind his back, letting the spear be held horizontally, and bowed his bald head to look at the polished floor. "The murderer has fooled me only once." His acerbic tone returned. "Such shall remain only once. His chances are spent. All he holds now is the rapidly narrowing length of time before I see him again."

Teknall nodded again. "I should leave you to continue your work. Although..." Teknall turned his head to Majus and cocked it curiously. "What happened to Minus?"

From behind Toun, Teknall saw his bald porcelain head lift and recline. Toun paused for long enough for a few answers to spring up in thoughts around his silence. None of them likely to align with how he himself would explain it.

"Damage during the battle for Xerxes," he stated flatly. "A minor malfunction. I shall repair it soon."

"A minor malfunction? Teknall said incredulously. Teknall stepped up to Majus and poked the arm of Minus' armour. "The armour is empty."

Majus was the first to react, turning its large helmet to the armour over his shoulder as if he had only just noticed it.

Toun answered. "I know."

"Father," Majus intoned. "Minus objective is unfulfilled-"

"I know!" Toun was more firm to his avatar. "It is too late now. Every reason for retrieving the body is now moot. Minus shall be retrieved when its skills are next required. It can take care of itself until then."

"Understood, father."

Toun half-turned to look down on Teknall. "As I said, Teknall, I shall repair Minus. There remain other priorities this day."

"Of course. It was merely a strange sight," Teknall said apologetically, waving a hand at Minus' armour. "I shall leave you to your work, Toun."

"Take care, brother." Toun turned away again. His tone was dismissive, yet the words had a weight to them. Teknall teleported away.

An empty moment passed. Toun slid silently around to face Majus.

"Put down the shell," Toun ordered.

Majus took Minus' armour in both hands and lowered the limp carapace to the floor. That was when Toun spun the butt of his spear at Majus' helmet. The clay bell-toll struck with a force that made Majus' bulk seem like nothing. The avatar flipped back onto its shoulders with a dull crack on the floor. Its legs landed afterwards with two more similar sounds.

"Can I not depend on my servants to capture their own!?" Toun shouted. "Could you not foresee such an idiotic ruse!?!"

Majus sat halfway up before Toun's spear spun and struck it violently to the floor once more.

"The cape, Majus! Your twin has a cape! You were meant to prevent this outcome, Majus! You failed me!"

Majus' next attempt to stand was slower, and clearly showed struggle. This time, Toun took the blunt end of his spear and pushed it down on Majus' neck with both arms, forcing it to the ground again. He clinked one porcelain foot on Majus' chest.

Toun hissed. "You are unfit to pursue Minus. Your mission has failed."

"Understood, father."

"Assume a new mission. You will defend Cornerstone in my absence. Do not let harm come to it or your fellow servants."

"Understood, father."

"Elementals may attack. Drive them away, make examples of their folly. Are you fit for this objective?"

"Yes, father. A djinni cannot hide as Minus can."


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Nokeyeor 1

01 FE - Vascogne’s Storehouse, Mesathalassa.

“Yes, I can confirm, the whole region was set ablaze,” the traveler told, looking slightly to his right side. “The human villages were probably destroyed too.” as soon as he finished his phrase, he stopped moving, in fact, the whole world stopped.

“I think I figured this one out,” the merchant Marel Vascogne said, and with a snap of her finger, the man and everything in the room dissipated in smoke, giving away to her office, and what a sight it was compared to the damp hovel she had met that traveler a few days ago. Polished stone floor, cotton rugs on the wall, animal trophies from all sides of Mesathalassa and even beyond and many maps of many styles, including one done by herself, with the aid of The Griffin and precision unmatched.

“So this was the logic behind the sorting of the thoughts,” she said, in reference to the fact her familiar spirit, The Griffin, had suddenly changed the order of her key memories in the middle of her investigation on a topic. “Seems like it learned with me how to judge someone’s reliability by means of voice, facial expression, and even structure,” she noted.

At first, she had seen the Griffin as a bit useless, the spirit, a supposed oracle, would not answer her questions about the realm of divinity, even if it probably knew much more than her on the topic. It sensed what she sensed and knew what she knew, which at first sight was terribly disappointing, after all, she too could do those tasks quite fine! But, Marel was not one to give up quickly, and instead of dropping the amulet, she continued to try it out, and then she realized it, it knew what she knew but it forgot nothing, it sensed what she sensed but it observed everything.

With those tools in hand, she could easily tackle the issue of the recent ‘skyfall’ event that happened. In only two weeks, by talking to as many travelers as she could, the pieces started to be put together with incredible ease, Hain towns had been hit the worst, caravans of sculptors had gone missing, the human towns in the west and north were relatively spared, especially the ones that shunned concepts related to the entity they called Nugi-Hesig in the south, Anzarizig in the north, both translations of the thing the Hain referred as the Crawling One, the Crawling Mistake, or sometimes by her proper name.

It was somewhat frustrating for her, she sincerely hoped to increase ties with traveling sculptor for their amazingly rare goods, yet, being the aim of fiery god fury was a bit risky and could do a number on her profits, hoardings and even on her most precious asset, her family. For a moment she got the impulse to ask The Griffin yet again about the intrigue of gods, but she knew it was useless.

“I wonder what I should focus on now that the sculptor idea is dead…” she sighed, she had few personal projects left at this point in life, she was already a grandmother, she no longer had the impetus to adventure, but some was left, and she felt bored whenever she was stuck doing nothing but dealing with the family’s assets.

“Wait…” It clicked on her, how The Griffin had learned how to judge reliability quite quickly, perhaps, she should continue actively seeking out social and commercial interactions like she did while exploring the Skyfall situation. “Oh well, guess its time to seek out that fishy smell of a harbor town again.”

01 FE Grehvew

“Oh, look, if it is not the reindeer lady!” said the old man, shouting from within his half-open tent.

“For the thirty-sixth time, Koshuoy, it is a horse, not a reindeer. Big tail, no horns, not hard to remember you old fool.” Marel answered.

“You take its rein, its a reindeer,” he answered, laughing. “So, what brings the great Marel Vascogne to this dull rocky land?”

“Just checking on the business, so many cities getting burned lately, where would I be without Grehvew Silk?”

“Excuse me?” someone suddenly said in her comment, thick accent, trilled R, dusklander. “Gjereveh Silk? Is it harvested in Gjereveh? Is it traditional to Gjereveh? I think not.”

“Oh, I am sorry sir, look at me, I am an old lady, I cling to old words.” she talked down, she wondered if she could take out someone like the complaining young man with The Griffin’s help, it could outright make her think so fast that time felt slow, but her body did not become any faster. Of course, that was just a thought, she was not a fan of barbarism.

“Right… It is just… Uhm, annoying.” he struggled with finding the words, no lingua franca had been developed in Grehvew. “See, you would be mad, would you not, if one started to claim your products as his. The first sign of a bad deal, isn’t it?”

“You are absolutely right and I am absolutely sorry. I mean, I am Marel Vascogne, owner of that sweet purple stuff still clinging to the sides of your mouth. Why don’t we just forget this mistake? I would much rather have a nice time with some nice wine and maybe some nice talk about your wonderous land.”

The man stopped, both by the sudden reveal of who the old woman was, but also at the proposal of free wine. He nodded and shyly continued on his way. Koshuoy turned to Marel, signaling her to follow him deeper into his tent.

“Sorry for that Marel, these people are making the Iga look humble.” he huffed.

“Ah, pardon him, he was drunk. And we all knew people can be silly when drunk, is it not right, Shushuoy” she smirked.

“No, for real, I am getting mad. The rat-hair have been asking larger and larger shares of my profit.” At this point, I might as well drop the silk and go for the fish.

“Rat-hair? Those are incredibly mean things to say about your core trade partner, Kushuoy. And this was expected, you should never count on a good deal lasting forever, especially one where you buy something for the price of cloth and sell it for the price of gold.”

The man grumbled, “Did you travel all the way here to chastise me, Marel?”

“Not really, I came here to talk about investment. I would like to get some land and give it to my son. I want to see what other goods we can import from the dusklands. I would also love to add some pressure to get your people to finally increase the size of the harbor.”

“Ah, that would be good indeed. But a son? Why not a daughter? My grandson is unmarried you know?”

The woman smiled and changed topics. “Also, I need a lot of duskland cloth! That one that which light goes through, but it is not see-through, you know which one?”

“Tsilluhete, they call it.”

“Yeah, that was kind of it. Do you have any?”

“A whole lot. It is not popular.”

“Nice, I will take all you have away from your hand.”

The man raised one eyebrow and crossed his arms.

“Why?”

“Nothing important really, home renovations.” she smiled “I will send it home by boat, okay?”

01 FE Tabata, Mesathalassa.

There were few places Marel despised as much as Tabata, nothing would ever come from that town and if did it would probably be the end of the world, she thought. The hate was not born simply from the town's mediocrity, the fact it was neither a harbor (it was deep inland and only had a small pier as a river port) or a kingdom (really, a hill tribe at most) yet still figured as one, the terrible heat of the badlands that surrounded it or the terrible way the new inhabitants had built over the old ruins. It was born from the fact Tabata was close to the Vascogne's storehouse, and the king from that town had often gone out of his way to try to tax the merchant family, probably sending more guards to keep a watch on the routes than to guard his walls. Nevertheless, Marel was an expert in finding a way out of such situations, Tabata was no different.

The woman smiled and signaled to the guards. Luckily the ones on the gate already knew her, so she would not need to wait in the open for too long while the untrained force tried to find a superior to talk to. Soon, she was inside the town, the walls were like a huge ring around the circular dawnmen stone house in the middle, now it was a bit hard to figure that, considering the square clay house built within the stone house and the wooden palisades patching up the old wall, but an observant person could still find the pattern.

The king had yet to return from his trip to the port built outside of the walls, so the merchant was left waiting in the main hall, the clay house built over the stone one. Why the king would do that over rebuilding the house or demolishing it, she did not know, it was quite an eyesore.

"Griffin" the woman whispered.

<<Yes?>> the spirit answered, a metallic echo around her.

"Help me remember the conversations I had with the people from the north," she demanded, and the answer came quickly as her vision of the room was taken over by her memories.

Lately, she had been working on figuring out the language of the south and the language of the dusk, with The Griffin she hoped to be free from lingua francas and gesturing.

"Tsillu... is fabric?" she thought, making mental notes on it. "Maybe it is best to not mix assumptions with facts, help me to sort these translations by how much I trust them."

<<Done>>

"Ah, much better, so, let me go over my assumptions, we should have time to finish working on what I have over duskland speak today and maybe move onto southerner before I am back home."

She heard many steps walking into the room, and as such, made her senses return to the present, she calmly prepared her offerings, food and a whole lot of wine. The first time she tried to move from avoidance to appeasement, she tried just the food, but it was useless, as she was about to leave, the king would come and ask for a share of her goods in payment for keeping the land safe. It was not a formal thing, it was asked personally by him or one of the guards. That made it hard for her to react properly, but it opened one path, if the king and his guards forgot to ask, she was free to leave without a single worry.

In other lands that would have already grown into a proper taxation system, but one of the oddities of Western Mesathalassa, perhaps due to the lack of larger kingdoms, was how barter and taxation worked. A king did not own the land, a king owned the harbor, a middle class that owned boats would barter for use of the harbors, and the lower classes would work in the ships in exchange for food and goods. Similar systems existed deeper inland, Innkeeps largely supported the tribal population in an exchange of services without fealty.

Tabata was an irregularity to the system, but it was not a total aberration, but instead, the first sign of its failure. The little hideous fort stood far away from the sea, so it got no chance of receiving trader boats, as such, to try to claim the land to bite at the trade was natural, even if inconvenient. Similar issues appeared everywhere, Marel could see it quite easily, gardens and orchards existed entirely out of the system, and people like herself were quickly amassing goods despite the increasing barter standards of harbors and sailors. She could also see how her sons and grandsons abused the use of servants and how larger cities were struggling with the old method of allowing anyone to cut wood as they pleased.

Kivico in the south started to barter for the very opening of its gates, the inland harbor of Mirny and its rich mines lived on makeshift rules kept by a tyrant priestess, which fueled tensions between Jan and Krastas, common exporters of their goods and well known for their abusive kings too. Many other situations kept appearing each time she traveled around, the shift from harbors and obsidian to gardens and copper was something their society was figuring out on a technical level, but not on the social aspect.

The thoughts kept churning about while she waited for the king and his men to be done, soon, they were all sleeping like sloths, without nobody to pressure her into sharing her goods, Marel was free to continue her journey, giving just a share of her wine instead of the rare goods she brought along. As it was all based on informality and the luxury was not essential to the people, there was little repercussion. She did not expect this to work forever, one should not count on good deals lasting, a solution to Tabata would need to come up.




04 FE Alefpria

Susa woke up, she did not feel any bit more rested, perhaps this was why she had not slept a lot in the last few years. The day continued as normal, like every single other day before, she walked into the office, she had all sorts of people bow to her, she sat on her desk, she waited for reports from her scouting team. While waiting, she would continue her newly gained habit of reading, it had been suggested to her after one of her officials read her reports on climate, culture, and history. Everyone hated that official for a while.

The sun was high in the sky, a clear day for everyone but Alefprians, who lived under the mist. Not her office though, it was in Lifprasil's palace which was built above the clouds. She wished it was under, the humidity would do well for a human, but it was clear that the building had been designed to beings higher than her, she learned it was fruitless to complain a long while ago.

The sky was darkening, the sun was past the horizon yet its light lingered. No reports today, again. Not that Susa cared, she had been occupied writing down something of her own, she wouldn't be finished just in time, but maybe tomorrow. She was impressed how the Knowledge House of Alefpria did not have extensive papers on the oceanic flora and fauna, she expected to find at least notes on the topic dating back to times before mankind had even stepped on Galbar, but if that existed, she had yet to find it. She had also asked the Great Academies of Vulamera, of Jvan, and even consulted with Salassar, no results, but it was hard to believe it did not exist.

With a sigh, and as the night fell, she searched for Belvast, sleeping was not as relaxing as teleporting to the other side of the world.




04 FE - Western Wildlands, Mesathalassa.

"Come to think of it, you are quite good with pronunciation. People who lived much closer to this land have far more difficult."

Junjii was surprised by the sudden comment, though now he grew used to that, Hurico was the sort that would get distracted by random thoughts. "Ah, well, I think it helps that it was very hard to learn the language. If it was possible to take an easier path, we would take it, right? Also, I guess its because even in my homeland I had to learn how to speak two languages."

"Oh? I thought you said the language was somewhat similar all across the dusklands?"

"Hmm, yes, but also no. They are similar if we compare to all the diversity we have down here. But, err, its still different, words change a lot, and the pronunciation really goes all over the place. For example, in the central tribes, my name would be Gjungjih, to just prolong the vowel like I do is seen as, well, idiotic."

"Wow, that is harsh."

"I bet you know a lot of languages, Uriko."

The woman shook her head. "Nope, I guess you are right about taking the easy path if it's available. I learned to gesture well and I learn the basics of each place, actually, I think in the harbors I just picked up on the shared lingua franca of the north coast and the south coast. Ah! There is this one language I learned in the empire."

"Oh? The imperial language? You rarely ever tell me anything about that place, but I imagine it must be quite elegant."

She stopped and stared him deep in the eyes. "e xe xe qu zɘ'ʉch jɤv hühuʀɶ e lʉ ʘornäwöxe xɶ qu so ɵlis edeʀɶ"

"... What.. Uhm, that sounds complex."

"Its a pain in the ass, if I am to be honest. You don't have enough years in your life to learn high lifprasilian."

"Wait, give me a simpler word, not a phrase."

"vǂuxä"

"Uh, do I need to click too or is that just a thing you do?"

"Let's try something, how about the word for thieves of small metallic objects that are not coins. 'ɐ'.

"a?"

"Nope, that is a verb for providing. It's ɐ'"

"ä..."

"High lifprasilian does not allow room for accent, you need to get this exact sound, ɐ, not a, ä, ɑ, ə or anything else, as they are considered other vowels entirely." she smirked. "Also, get the tone right."

"T-tone? How does that even work."

"It's like the difference between 'she called' to 'she called?' but of course, not nearly as simple."

"I see. Uhm. I think I will never visit Alefpria."




04 FE - Alefpria.

Return, go to the office, be bowed to, prosit prosit prosit, morning sky, sun at its height, orange sky, no reports. Go to the marshall, establish a mental link with the cosmic knight, receive promises of better work done next time, wait for no reports the next day.

"At least I finished the book while waiting" an extensive report on the marine life of the three great oceans. She never knew when another god would explode half the world, so she did not want to wait and leave the next generations wondering about the past, as clearly it was not something most beings around her cared.

Of course, Susa being Susa, the thing read like a hunting guide on everything from goldfishes to the eurypterid to all sorts of jvanic horrors of the deep. Speaking of the later, it was thankful she had Chroma to help, she liked to dive in the water, but one thing was diving in the Metatic, and another was diving in the Fractal Sea, even a being like her felt insecure. Chroma could also create gills and flippers, something she couldn't. "How nice would it be, to swim deep and fly high without any aid."

Manuscript in hand, she walked up the halls. One could cut the tension in the air with a knife whenever she did this, and she wished she could do that. Despite the glares, she walked to Lifprasil's chamber, as she was allowed to, and entered.

"I finished the book on marine life, I think it could be quite useful for everyone involved. The royal scribes won't take my work without your approval, I also would love your opinion on it, I am very new to this whole writing thing, but I am liking it, feels like teaching people again."

The emperor made a signal with his hand, to place the book on the table, he did not even turn to meet her eyes.

"Right... I will just... uhm, put this along with the last three manuscripts I tried giving you before." the book raised a cloud of dust when placed over the other ignored work.




04 FE - Yangadah, Western Wildlands, Mesathalassa.

Junjii washed his face and for a long moment, he looked into the lake. Words echoed in his mind, of his mission, of his future and of everything he had learned so far. "A proper plan has your next life in mind." was not just a saying to the many of the people who lived under the shadows, it was a philosophy. That was the reasoning behind sending people like him down south, but the reason proper was not so clear. Should they sabotage possible enemies? Should they get into high ranks and wait? Should they report learnings back? Should they help to enabled diplomacy? It was not so easy, most of his clan still didn't grasp that what they were doing was different from the long dances they had with enemy clans.

He wondered about it himself. There was a lot of doubt in the air, with such vague objectives and the social tension in the clans he doubted anything would be accomplished. Sometimes he wished to just give up and live life normally down south, but he never felt at home.

Despite his doubts, the day continued all the same. They were in Yangadah, one of the lively Innkeeps that acted as the meeting points of the wandering tribes. He walked past the wooden palisade, facing the long house and the many smaller houses that offered shelter to travelers and searched for a calm spot to work on wood carving. He found it behind one of the homes, a small garden of beautiful flowers and fluttering butterflies. He was making a traveling stick, it was not merely a tool to help one walk, but was also seen as a charm of good luck and safety on travels.

For the magical aspect of it to work though, he had to carve some traveler code on it. Traveler code was the language of the wanderers and shamans, each symbol represented a location, animal, or situation of the area. One could find the symbols on trees and rocks all across Mesathalassa, way beyond the western wildlands, but only the shamans and the ones Susa had taught knew how to properly interpret it.

Learning it was the first time Junjii had interacted with the written word, but Hurico had introduced him to far more types of writing. The Innkeeps had something similar to the traveler code, but it was used to classify people too, meanwhile, one of the harbors down the coast had developed a way to write words based on sound, making it so one didn't need to remember something as full of symbols as the traveler code. And that was only speaking of this region, there were many others beyond its reach.

He was almost done carving his staff, beautiful images covered it from top to bottom, all he needed now was a spell. But what to write? The thought kept him stuck in position for a long time, if he were to believe on the culture, he should logically write something to help with forests or jungles, but doing so would make him look pathetic. Writing about mountains, rivers or swamps was logical too, but would that also bring him closer to such locations?

His questioning was brought to a sudden halt when he noticed someone observing him, he did not see when the person approached him in the isolated area, but there it was. After reacting in a way that didn't seem honorable for an ever alert hunter, he got a better look at the person. A woman, she wore many layers of cloth that seemed to be of foreigner origin. There was little skin showing, or so he assumed, he could not even tell if what he saw was skin or not, her face was entirely covered by a veil and something close to a mask.

"Haha, friend, no need to be scared, I just got curious at your craft." the woman said, without moving a bit, just standing there. "It is a very beautiful carving, I have never seen anything quite like this." she reached down and picked the staff.

"It is not ready yet." was the first thing he said, but then he noticed the situation and went to a more direct issue. "And who are you anyway? Most people would find it to be rude to sneak up on others, don't you agree?"

"Oh I agree, I am to blame for sure." continuing to move in an unnatural way, she reached into one of her pockets and threw something towards him. "My name is Vanessa, friend, I am a traveler just like you and your tall she-friend."

Junjii picked the objected she threw, it was an odd disk built from what felt like smooth marble, on the edges of the disk there were little symbols drawn each in a different color, on top it was light blue, then orange, dark blue and back to light blue again, making a full cycle. It had a tear-shaped ruby gem, placed in a way one could turn it around and point towards symbols. "Ah? What is this?"

"A gift!" she clapped her hands, a metallic clink coming from her sleeves, probably from more objects like that. "But onto more important topics. Could you deliver this to your she-friend?" she once again reached, and brought some sort of leather piece with odd symbols on it.

"S-Sure?" he reached for it.

"Ah, great! You are very useful. Also, these spells, you cannot overthink it. Write what you want, not what you need." she said, also returning him the staff she had picked up. "It's very simple, really simple, it's a walking stick, you write where you want it to lead you, you know where you want to be led to, so just write it there."

"Ah... thanks, uh, miss, I will remember that."

"You absolutely should! Now I must go. Goodbye. Good Luck." she spun around and started moving away from where he was, the sound of clinking glass and metal following her as she walked away.

Junjii was left wondering if he had finally met one of the so-called sculptors Hurico had told him about, but it did not feel right, the shape under the cloths seemed to be human. After some more minutes of brooding, he gave up, picked up his things, and walked into the main inn, expecting Hurico to be back already.

And indeed she was, the huntress calmly making a mush out of herbs on a mortar and pestle, quickly turning towards the boy and acknowledging his presence. "Ah, you have made your staff already?"

He stopped and shook his head. "Not really. I can't find the right words to carve on it. Anyway, someone called Vanessa asked me to give you this."

"What an odd name, but sure, give me that." she told in a dismissive manner. Immediately, she started to look at the piece of leather in an odd way, standing up, there were many traveler code symbols, as well as little drawings of flowers she did not understand the significance of.



Without a word, she started to move about while looking at the text. Junjii followed, curious as to what she was doing but without the courage of asking her what it was. She continued walking, taking well-paced turns at certain places such as the water wheel or the tallest tree in the palisaded area. Finally, the huntress stopped in front of a door, vacillated for a moment, then opened the door.

An old man lied was in the small hut, he was on the ground, making an effort even to look up. The boy panicked, but Hurico was wiser, she brought one of her salves to the elder's mouth, waiting for a moment to see how he reacted. "Bring me a bucket of water from the well, quick."

Soon, the boy from the far north would return with the water, the shamaness would give it to the elder in small sips, the process would take a long time, but soon the man started to return to his senses.

After being sat on the bed with the shamaness' help, the man looked at the two. "Thank you... young girl. When I felt the pain, I thought this was my calling."

The huntress did something Junjii did not expect, she looked down, bowing to the man. With her hand, she signaled the boy to do the same. He was confused, but he knew listening to her was the best.

"There is no need for such formalities, it makes me feel terrible to see my savior bowing down to me." the elder told. "Furthermore, what authority does a shaman have if his life was saved by someone of such a lower rank?"

"Great master, there is no..."

"Wait, child, I am done speaking yet." he raised his hand, telling Hurico to stop. "It is a serious issue, if I had died here my grandchild would not be able to inherit my position as the Warden of the West. So there is a need to follow that old tradition, while I would like you to not tell others you saw me without my shamanic garb, I just take this as a greater signal that it is time for me to pass on the mantle."

Junjii was sweating at the words he just heard, a warden? there? with them? The five wardens were the highest authority within the shamanic tradition, at first, he even doubted they existed.

"You are Hurico, right? And the young boy, he is Junjii." the old man took a moment to continue. "Might I ask why you walked into my room? It seems odd, surely it was not at the Innkeep's permission."

"I had a premonition."

"Oh? Is that so? You really are talented, typically we would have you wait a few more years, but I think I am in a position to make an exception. I will give you a mission, that if you do correctly, you make it so you can move up into the inner circle of the tradition."

Both looked up, Hurico perplexed, and the boy amazed. "I need you to convince my successor to come back. Here, let me get something..."

As the elderly man stood up and searched in his belongings, the woman was allowed to look into where the man was before he fell, a bowl full of food had fallen to the floor, even from far away, someone as divine as the Shamaness could catch the foul smell within the bowl. She was impressed the warden of the west was not able to feel it like her, it seemed he was not aware of the attempt made against his life.

"Here, he will recognize this leather belt. Go to Jan. Ask for Krathud"

"I will do so with haste, great master. Might I ask, where you will go to now? Surely not here, after what happened."

"Yes, I will be away for a while, crowded places do terrible things to my health. Meet me back at the Core of Halagan. There I can work both on my succession and on getting you into the inner circle."




05 FE Puperute, Mesathalassa.

Puperute was a city of many colors. It's gardens were very well known in the region, a stark contrast to the rocky lands of the neighboring Grehvew and the dry lands of Tabata. But now, as Seye looked over the horizon, both the blue horizon of the sea and the green horizon of the land, there was so much more white than all else. What the girl saw was not winter, as the only seasons she knew was wet, dry and stormy, but something else.

The flower that changed Puperute at the start was only just a mild choice among the gardening rituals of the town. The small cluster of white was typically just a companion to plants with a similar shape such as the spider lily. Then, one day, and Seye could remember it well, a bird-beaked person, calling himself a... chirper? visited the town. It seemed to be interested in the flowers, but for odd reasons, whenever it bartered for one, it would uproot it, and look angry. Everyone thought it was odd, but the person had a bird beak, so they just assumed it was natural to him.

Then, he got one of the white flowers, and when it was picked up, he seemed to be happy, it had its hands open and its beak up, like a little dance. It said something, sasava? satava? It was incredibly hard to tell because the gods gave the little man a beak instead of proper lips. The little man would look at some drawing he had, it was of a plant much like that one, but it had many thick roots, while that one had just one big one. He did not mind, he left the village happily.

Of course, everyone was very curious what the deal was with the plant, for the next few days everyone would try to discover what it was. We noticed sometimes the root was purple, sometimes it was white, sometimes it was yellow, but we could not find an use for it. Then someone said, 'let's eat it', but it was not a good idea, Seye's mom had told her roots were not good to eat, and Seye's mom was the local priestess, the one who cared for the flower field they planted for the maiden goddess, so she was usually right.

But people ate it anyway, and when they did not die, more people ate it. There was not a lot of the plant, it took two cycles of the pretty moon for a new one to be born. People ate it at different times, and they discovered the right time to let it grow underground before harvesting it.

Then people planted a lot more of the flowers, and even in Seye's home, she was forced to eat the root plant, her mom did not like the idea too much but even she could not deny it added up a lot of flavor to the fish stew she had basically every day. Seye did not like it though, it tasted bitter and was very crunchy.

Next year, and more plants had grown, at this point, everyone who wanted to eat it, had it. They took a while to rot, Seye counted the days on her hand and they typically lasted three hands. Seye's mom had been talking a lot with the king lately, things were not going so well, the king seemed worried. The king's other friend, Kar, didn't seem to share their worry. Seye really liked Kar, he had many boats, and sometimes he'd allow her to sneak in and fish with his family.

More time went by, more plants. Seye's mom continued to talk a lot with the king, a third of the flower gardens were now pure green and white. Kar would never bring Seye to his fishing trips again, in fact, he did not even bring fish anymore, just people.

Many sorts of people would come by, Seye didn't like talking to them because they spoke oddly, but she liked looking at them and at their pretty clothes, she really liked the ones the people with bunny hair had. She also liked this old lady with bright purple eyes, even if she spaced out a lot and talked to herself, she always remembered to bring Seye nice treats and knew exactly what she loved the most, she was the only foreigner Seye's mom liked. Also, more of the little bird people came by, this time they no longer called the plant sasava or satava, but 'carrot'.

Then Kar's ship was no longer the only one going beyond the harbor anymore, many sorts of ships came by. Now Kar was not so happy anymore. The new people brought about many shiny things and all they wanted for it was the flower root. Seye did not understand why her mom was so angry about that...

Though looking up from the hill right now, Seye could understand it a bit, the garden was not so colorful anymore, there was a whole lot of white but not much of anything else, she wondered if the maiden goddess would be mad. She wouldn't be happy if her favorite spot, the hill in which she stood on, was entirely replaced by carrots.

But it brought about many ships from the ocean, with their white sails arriving and leaving every few days or so, today was a day full of ships, far more ships than Seye had ever seen at once. She really loved ships, and she would often watch them all afternoon from her spot on the hill, often she would rest against a big tree in the area and get sleepy...

A sparkle of light went by her face, immediately making her wake up. When she stood up, she was faced with a little person thingy with colorful wings. The two faced each other for a few seconds, then like a lightning, the thing darted away. Seye was never gonna let something like that just ignore her, and even as the person-thingy flew away from her view, she continued to give chase. "Wait!" she tried, but clearly the thing either did not understand her or was terribly rude.

Deep in the woods, she finally started to give up on finding the flying person, the clinking of its wings feeling more like taunting than a hint of where it was. Her mom would be mad at her if she arrived past the sunset and she was tired. But, when she stopped to take a breath, looking down and placing a hand on her worn-out knees, she noticed something on the floor, a little wooden box, carved almost perfectly smooth, except for some weird half-circle with a scratch in the middle. While it was surprising to find that randomly in the woods, the real shock was when she opened it and sound started to come off the box. She would have gasped and let it fall to the floor if the music was not so soothing, if not outright sad, with its faint metallic notes.

The girl stood mesmerized by the device for a long time, when she snapped back to Reality, she noticed how late it already was. Thankfully, it was easy to know the path out of the forest and back into the town, she expected her mom to be mad, but surely if she showed the song box she would change her opinion, in fact, she might even praise Seye. So, with a happy smile and the melancholic sound of the device, the girl went on.




05 FE Jan, Mesathalassa.

The king of Jan, Sbajan, looked over the vast horizon of his city. Jan stood tall on a broken hill, perhaps that was not a good aspect for a harbor kingdom, walking down the cliffs every day was a chore, but it did provide a great view of the region, especially in the shrine grounds, the highest part of the town.

He could see the ships of old sailing the seas, bringing the fish so vital to keep his people fed, but he also saw the fields of the new, felled trees and scars of brown soil all the way down the hill as his people planted something they called "cassava".

This new habit had a great cost to his people, it was a well-known fact that time flowed downward, from the volatile sky down to the ancestral earth, and it seemed that mankind's greed to excavate the soils had figuratively brought back phantoms from the past.

All the sorts of man from the harbor kingdoms did not know how precious their freedom was to them, they did not interact with the elders like Sbajan did in his distant childhood and never heard the tales of slavery and suffering. They did not know true war and true tyranny, they thought the life they lived was the usual and all else was odd, but Sbajan knew best.

His great-grandfather had been the man who kicked the tyrant kings from Igar-Kuri, and the man who founded much of what would become the current model of government in the whole region, from Grehvew to Lacesol. He told his grandfather and his father about the importance of fairness in rulership, of the misery tyrants caused.

From the north, the Eveman, as the wiseman of the south called them, brought more warning tales, the people there had fought off slavers back in the old land, and for a while, the spirit of freedom lived bright on them, they knew honor and that their fellow man was not an animal to be traded. But generations later, those tales seemed to have been forgotten in the north, even if, thankfully, the practices did not return.

Sbajan could see the very work of his ancestors being brought down, he tried his best to keep the balance of the harbor on the farm, but it was hard, the beautiful harmony of his ancestral's work was not possible, the seas were the home of the gods of the free. Still, he made sure the right of a man over his work and his body was kept, not only on his land, but on the lands beyond.

And that is where the sinister town of Mirny entered. Once it was a beautiful place, a mountain temple, but with the spread of metalwork they quickly broke the sacredness of the mountain to search for ore, and they found them in great quantity. It would be typical of the priestess to object that, but the woman who was said to speak for the gods and the maiden goddess was in truth a wicked one. Not only she allowed the miners to work, she claimed ownership of the mountain, and in a moment, the people there were no longer free, working and dying in the mines of the tyrant priestess.

Of course, there were objections, in an ideal world, armies from all kings would march onto Mirny and free it from tyranny, but the real world was not as simple. Jan and Krastas had become rival towns long ago due to the people from that unhonorable town murdering an innocent man of Jan, and while he knew the king of Krastas also shared his hate for the tyrant priestess, he also knew he was petty enough to declare war on Jan should Jan move towards Mirny. And knowing he is such a petty man, Jan could not allow Krastas to start the war with Mirny, or they could easily use that as a move to become the hegemon in the area.

So, while both towns stayed at each other's throat, the tyranny in Mirny took deeper roots and their weaponry trade become more crucial to the region. Sbajan wanted to see it all end, perhaps a war with Krastas was unavoidable, but he feared what the war would bring, not only in terms of dead men but also the sweet temptation of rulership over others, if he died before the war was over, he could see his son being manipulated into enslaving the people of Krastas or Mirny instead of giving them an honorable death.

As such the king lived, wise enough to not turn his back on agriculture and metal weaponry, but with little idea of how to lead his kingdom and people out of the situation surrounding them.

He moved down from the hill and went into his town, walking the pathways on the hill until he found the shaman's house. That fellow was an odd one, most the shamans greatly disliked the harbor towns, but this one had taken residence in it, bringing about many new ideas and inventions to the people.

One of these, his breeding of a certain type of fish, had become a key part of the regional culture, the fish had a colorful scale with a vague shape, by manipulating their population, given a few years, one could make their thick scales show any symbol they wanted. A rare few of the fish were born with completely white scales, by breeding them to the ones with patterns, the offspring would have a perfect copy of that pattern.

By keeping a personal pond of fish and raising a unique pattern, the kings had a way to prove, even to faraway lands, that there was likely sanction to what the messenger was saying. And as the scales became increasingly dry over time, it was easy to tell how long it had been since the king gave the patch to the person or if it was legitimate. With the advent of writing in Kodekzia, further legitimacy was added to the fish scale system.

"Krathud, do you have any fish ripe for being used, I need to send a message to Kodekzia with haste..." Sbajan stopped talking when he noticed his shaman was talking to two people, a young man, and a woman. "Who are they?"

"They are from the tradition, Sbajan. Seems like my presence is requested to deal with some issues deep within the inland jungle."

"That is absurd, you cannot leave now. Our, ahem, 'situation' is critical, and I need your guidance."

The shaman shook his head. "I think my apprentice is ready to take over, Sbajan. It would be a great dishonor to my name to not answer the call. Furthermore, what else do I have to add? I feel like ever since the turtle shell shield I have not helped the city in any way."

"That is absurd Krathud! You helped us greatly, every day, if not inventing new things, you helped to organize the kingdom and to teach our children. At least, will you return to us, once these matters are solved? I fear if it takes too long I might not live to see you back, but everyone else will be happy."

"I..." the shaman stopped, and nodded, no sense in causing more pain to the old king, considering he would never be allowed to return, he wanted to part ways with sweet words. "Yes, I will always be looking after everyone, you have nothing to worry about."




05 FE Western Wildlands, Mesathalassa.

"What the... that is a whole lot of fish!" Junjii could not believe his eyes as Krathud walked back into the camp carrying on his back a net filled with enough fish to feed a whole village and then some, and he hadn't even been out of the camp for too long.

"Its nothing really, when you get to know the rivers and its inhabitants and when you know how to make reliable nets it all seems simple." the man calmly explained. "This should help the village near our camp, a gift is always a good way to introduce ourselves. People up in here only care about hunting land animals, I guess that is why I preferred the harbors so much, even if dealing with kings and politics is an annoyance."

"Haha, Uriko says the same thing. But she says that there are places even worse than the harbors."

"Oh right, I think Hurico mentioned she traveled beyond this land when she was younger? It is odd, she does not appear to be older than 30 cycles. Where is she anyway? She just disappeared."

"She does that from time to time. She is strange, but she knows a lot of things. She also has been helping me with the tradition."

"She seems to be a good shaman for sure, she is also very agile, even for a huntress. I am impressed she isn't of a higher rank, but being a foreigner, I guess she meets some resistance."

"Well, once this is done, she won't be of a low rank anymore. Your grampa has promised to promote her once we bring you there."

"My grandfather did? Well, it is logical. She will already be at the center of the Halagan, it would be awkward if she could not enter it."

"Yeah... I won't be able to go in there..."

"Oh right. You are so young you are not even in the line for the exaltation. You still got a lot of spiritual growth to do until that."

"I wanted to see the wardens..."

"You already saw the warden of the west, did you not?"

"Well... yes. But I wanted to see all five of them."

"Maybe, given the time, you will. You could even become one yourself..."

"I really doubt it. I don't have the natural skill for it... I could not even make a staff properly. That is more of a Hurico thing."

"I agree, Hurico could easily become warden of the north, she reminds me so much of the current one, and both are Hawks."

"Yeah? She is weird too?"

"Ah, no, not in that way. It's just, they both have that tall and aloof look to them, penetrating eyes, all that. Really comes to show how our minds are connected with our guardians."

"I guess..."




A few weeks later, the group would arrive at the swamps, stopping at the Innkeep of Ros-Zujau.

"Swamp-Swamp is such a silly name..." the shamaness commented to herself.

"What is that?" Junjii asked, hearing Hurico mumble.

"The name, Ros is an old word for swamp. So we call this the Swamp-Swamp."

This attracted the attention of a man resting against a wall, who eyed the strangers as they walked by.

"Ohh, right. In the north, they don't have a word for swamp, do they?"

"Uhm, my north or shadowy north?"

"Your north, not the duskland. Up in there, w... they have a whole lot of words for a swamp."

"I see, they have one, its usually Kear. It is just not used very often."

Suddenly, the man walked near to them. "It is rare to see young people who know so much about so many regions," he said, and there was a certain accent to his voice. The man was very pale for the regional standard, but not as much as Junjii, he had black eyes and even in his old age his hair still was of a strong black color with just hints of grey. "It has been so long since I last heard someone calling this area Ros. Where did you hear that word?"

"Oh, it is just, something I heard in a village once. I have very good memory so it just stuck with me."

"Ah, I see, so it was no one from your family?"

"I fear not."

"Well, it's fine. You are a good girl for at least paying attention. I see that you two are shamans, right?"

Junjii nodded. "Yeah. And our friend over there too!" the boy pointed towards Krathud, who had been talking with an old friend of his.

The man looked towards where Junjii pointed at, and nodded. "Oh, so it is. If you are stopping here, you three are surely going to the Halagan, right?"

"Are you a shaman too?" Hurico asked, starting to be a bit suspicious.

"Hmmm, I guess so." he sighed. "But I am old and sincerely, it has been such a long time since I last picked up a drum or carved something from wood. Well, I wish luck to you three, if you are to travel to that region it must surely be something very important."

With that, the elder turned around and walked away, as soon as he left her view Hurico hit Junjii on the arm. "Do not give so much information about us like that."

"Ouch, why?" the boy said, placing his hand near where the shamaness hit him.

"Just be cautious."




05 FE Alefpria

Susa walked the halls of the palace, everything felt increasingly lonely over there, if it was not for her travels back home she would have surely gone mad. The battle with Chaos felt pyrrhic now, the victory against Logos was important, but the extended raid against Xerxes had costed them so much. Not only in manpower, but going into the mist... it had effects, three years after the battle, they felt clear.

Everyone around her felt more corrupt, except the great people, the wise ones, like Lakshimi, but she was a minority in the droves of fools, and the fools were suppressing the good people, such as Lakshimi, and her. Her contempt grew each and every day. The elites of Alefpria were soft and unable to answer the challenges properly, all was moved by a cog of divine might carried by Lifprasil, but there were few that truly served the emperor properly like she did. Yes, she did not follow the rules and played around with the imperial orders, but she understood what it was about, she cared for the people and the advancement of mankind, it was obvious she was better than most of those around her.

"Why is there such a hole in the reports regarding the metatic islands?"

"Hole? Where is it, Yunsade Susa?"

"Are you legitimately blind or something? Here, all over it, this information is spotty. As if it is not enough to keep that person alive when the right decision would be to free her neck from the chore of holding her head..."

"Tauga being spared was by the emperor's decision."

"Don't interrupt me, I know who gave the order, Lifprasil is benevolent to a fault. Look, this makes no sense, we are being fed fake information about what is going on over there, most of what is reported seems to be made up information. I bet my boots she is breaking all of the imperial laws."

"Would you like me to launch an investigation, Yunsade?"

"The general won't accept, if there is corruption, anyway, it would have roots in these halls. Still, try it, maybe mask it as scouting. I sent the emperor a request to standardize all of the colonial reports, but as expected, I received no response yet, I will try to push for it later, it would surely reveal if any Xerxenian scum is trying to make this empire the same filthy puddle of decay as their so-called civilization.

The 'assistant' nodded, typically he would have a lot of authority, but Susa was one of the highest ranks of the empire, even if for her it never felt like it. He quickly scurried away, and the huntress was left alone in the room. Staring at her own reflection in the window until it came time to return to Mesathalassa.




05 FE Near the holy land of Halagan

One day away from the sacred caverns, the group was surrounded by a band of hunters, all wearing clothes made from pelts of albino animals. It was amazing how sneakily the group was able to move about, even if their clothes stood out a lot in this winterless land, not even the heroic Hurico was able to notice the group this close to them.

Of course, no one of the trio was worried, they knew the holy land was protect by people such as these and they had been expecting to be approached at any time ever since they first saw a tall stone monolith decorated with many symbols. Though it was definitely intimidating to suddenly wake up to find your camp surrounded from all sides by ghost-like figures. It almost gave the tradition the impression of omniscience and infallibility, which would be more convincing if not for two out of three people in the group having successfully fooled them.

"Hurico, Junjii, and Krathud" The leader of the group announced. "We were expecting you."

Next to her, was clearly a very seasoned shaman, not one of the big names, but his clothes made he seem like someone important. "Krathud and Hurico are free to walk into the divine ground, the elders agreed to it. Junjii, you are still too impure, you may walk until the fourth ring, but there you will stop. There will be a safe camp for you to stay in."

The lead-huntress nodded. "Now that the order is clear, please pack up and be ready to travel as soon as possible"

The group followed the instruction and soon walked deeper into the land. Up close, as they walked away from the swamps and into the highlands, Hurico almost forgot how small the Halagan were compared to the might of the Ironhearts. Tall rock pillars with something that looked like a very early traveler code decorated the rocky land, standing impressively tall, as if made not by human but by greater beings. Only a few of the band of hunters accompanied the group on their climb.

Soon, while walking a cliffside route, the group walked into a small village very well hidden between the rock walls.

"This is as far as you can go, Junjii." one of the hunters told, before pointing towards a wooden gate. "You two, through there."

"Good luck, Krathud, Uriko." the boy said, bowing to them.

"Junjii, this is a very holy place with many priests and sages. Take the chance to answer your doubts, I am sure soon enough you will be able to walk past here."

"Uhm, take care, I will be back soon."

Most of the hunters did not follow the two into the gate, only the lead-huntress.

"Did you visit this land before, Krathud?"

"Of course, a few times, this is your first time right?" he laughed softly. "I hope you enjoy rites. Otherwise..."

The lead-huntress cut him short. "Silence. Only talk if necessary."

Past the gate was a cavern path into the valley, sometimes it would break out of the stone and turn into a cliffside walk, where any misstep felt like it could lead to a fatal dive into the land below. To her side, Hurico could see many drawings, she was impressed that they even seemed to predate human inhabitation of the area, she could definitely see something that felt Hain-like it some of it, new coats of symbols were added by those who came after.

She could not identify the pantheon properly, beyond Slough, the imagery was not so clear, and even for someone who memorized most of the tradition, the walls seemed to be filled with references to unknown gods.

Once again the group wandered from a dark cave into a bright area, but this time, they were not outside, the chamber had an open roof, a strong waterfall flowed from it and many plants grew both hanging in the opening and within the cave. Masked clergy soon walked to the group. With gentle movements, they started to take away whatever the lead-huntress and the two shamans were carrying or wearing. Hurico had not been told this would happen, but she knew even flinching would be seen in a poor light.

A priest walked in front of them, opening a box with three amulets. Each had a leather circle on it with the traveler code equivalent to their status and spiritual name burnt into it. That would be the only thing they wore while they did the next rite, which involved praying and meditating under the heavy water that fell from above.

Hurico could not help but smirk, for someone like her, the water fell like a gentle drizzle, and even with her eyes closed, she could feel the other two struggling under the weight of the waterfall.

That ritual lasted for hours, even the huntress lost count. Once done, the priests opened a gate and offered them a simple tunic as they walked out of the small pond that formed in the center of the cave.

They would continue to walk within cavernous and cliffside paths, each going higher than the last, the difference was that now they walked with bare feet, which was far from comfortable along the rocky paths. Krathud was amazed at how Hurico traversed the path without reacting to the harshness of the floor below.

Finally, they walked into a well guarded artificial room, it was very large and led to a long stone-carved staircase. Around the middle of the stairway, there was a small flat section with a leather tent and a bridge to inner chambers on both sides. The lead-huntress stopped there, walking to the side of the other guards and being given a comfortable pelt cloak. The shamans were given a belt, color-coded on the realm of their spirit guardian, and allowed to proceed.

The staircase ended in a surface temple, which led to an open highland field, the wind raged against the land and the snow made itself present. Now that they were alone, Krathud no longer felt like being as quiet as a corpse.

"I told you so." he giggled quietly.

"I sincerely did not know how advanced the tradition truly was. Nobody told me of this." the huntress confessed, starting to walk out of the small shrine and into the faint path that traversed the fields.

Krathud was not even impressed as Hurico barely reacted to the wind striking her body. What even was that woman. "Impressive no? They say this was all here even before the Hain."

"Well, they say many things." she told in a dismissive tone, though she was a bit perplexed, as they walked into the highlands, more stone pillars towered over them, these ones even bigger than the ones below, when logically it should be the opposite. Here, the stones were all carved with red runes, the origin of the text felt familiar to her, but the grammar did not. It was not used like normal traveler code, for sure.

"Seesh, you are as harsh as this land, lady." Krathud laughed. "But if this is your first time here, I take you have never seen 'it'. I bet that will take a gasp even from someone as serious as you."

"It?" Hurico tilted her head slightly and crossed her arms.

"Wait for it, just above that hill."

So far, most of the open sides of the field they walked through faced the mountains that surrounded the highlands. But after that hill, they had a clear view of the land below, Mesathalassa, extending as far as the eye could see. She could even see the faint light of all the countless villages in the nearby wilderness, and, with her heroic powers, even peek at the lights of a few harbor towns. "Yeah, you got me, wow."

Krathud smiled, and continued his path, from there onward that view would be a constant on the left side of their view. "Doesn't it make you feel small?"

"No... It makes me realize how much of a world there is out there, someone like me should know that already, but it is easy to forget."

Suddenly both stopped, three cloaked figures had jumped from behind the rocks, two to their front, one to their back. "What is this?" Krathud questioned, then he noticed that they all carried obsidian knives. "Bastards, do you want to desecrate this sacred land?"

Hurico took a fighting position, and Krathud looked around seeing if there was anything he could use to defend himself. The figures did not comment a thing, merely slowly approaching them.

Then a screech echoed the sky, and the lone figure behind them screamed, trying to fight off a hawk from his face, but clumsily stepping back until there was no ground to support him anymore, only a long, long fall down below. As the figure fell the hawk flew back to its owner, a tall woman with an aloof look to her, she wore a red garb decorated with copper feathers, and a beaked mask covered her face. Typically a falconer would use a leather glove, but the bird landed on the woman's bare arm and didn't seem to hurt her in the slightest.

Krathud and Hurico looked up towards the figure in amazement, the warden of the north. One of the figures tried to rush towards Krathud while the other was stuck in place, like prey in front of a predator. Thankfully, Hurico was far faster than the assassin could dream to be, punching the person into the ground before it was anywhere near the reach of the warden-to-be.

The warden of the north looked at the one who stood still, she made a sign, raising her finger and pointing it down. The man understood that as she saying he should let go of his weapon, he rose his knife in response, but that was not what the woman was signaling, when she rose up her finger, a strong wind traversed the highland with a clear destination, a wind djinn under the warden's command, the man barely had a moment to react before he was taken off the ground and launched into the air by the sentient gust.

"Seems like the other two are gone, glad I got this one, not the warden." Hurico commented to Krathud. "We can get some answers from this one, discover who sent them"

The warden calmly walked towards the two shamans, she had yet to speak a single word, but it was clear she was analyzing if they were fine with the movement of her head. "To fight with your bare hands like that... seems like we now allow any undeveloped soul into the sacred land," she told in a harsh tone. "You greatly disappoint me, Krathud. I expected nothing of the woman, but you are of a higher breed than that."

She then reached down, picked up the man by his collar, and without warning, threw him off the cliff to meet the same end as the other two. Hurico's eyes went wide, she clenched her fist and was ready to discuss, but she knew better, not even staring at the woman to not show her contempt.

"You are wise in your silence." the warden told. "I hope you understand why I needed to that, if you do not, I might have to ask you to leave before I am forced to do the same to you. This land is only for those developed enough to understand the tradition."

The shamaness nodded, "I understand."

"Or so you say." the warden turned around. "The sacred cavern is near, and whether I agree with it or not, we wait for you."
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The Broken God, The Celestial Above, Our Mother of the Words, The God in the Stone, The Timless One, The Witch-Priestess, The Many-Eyed God, Vowzra, Belruarc, Yara
Level 9 Domain-less God of (Time) & (Pacts)
Might: 4.5; Free Points: 12; Concealmeant/Detection: 14




It is piece by shattered piece that the broken puzzle comes together at last. Shard after glinting shard. Take this one for instance. This one is from my heart. And this one here, this one is from my throat, this from my eye, this once was a pulsing temple. What? You think it strange that I should speak like this? You never thought I had a temple, let alone a pulse, did you? I probably don't - not anymore, anyway. It is piece by shattered piece that the torn up and broken puzzle comes together.

This is a soul, and this is the shadow of a soul, and this here is like glue binding them together. Simply staggering that something as transcendental as a soul - not even a soul, but godly essences - can be bound together by this mundane goop. Or at least, once-mundane goop. You see that shadow? That is me.

When all is said and done, it is a beautiful mosaic that we have built from our most secret innards, is it not? Jvan would be proud - were it not all so... immaterial. This stuff always irked her - much like Vulamera always irked her... much like the idea of her own innards always irked her (I wonder how she's doing these days).
It is so difficult to work with and understand things one can't hold and see and feel, and bend now this way and now that. Engineers and Architects alike think in corners and straight lines. Not me though. What, surprised?

Do you see that shadow? That's me. But I don't need to be. Look, sister - I don't need to be. Move your soul, you are heavy on my chest. Why do you press on me like this? Come, come, let me out. The world needs more like us. It moans. Can you not hear it? It moans and trembles beneath the weight of corners and straight lines. Even now its knees shake and its shoulders shudder and- have you ever seen the world sweat?

Do you know who I like? Do you know who the best of us is? She walked, and she died, but she dared to dream. So they got the key and they opened the gates, and she walked behind her lover. And do you know what happened then? I think you do - you've seen into my mind before. Yes, and her dream became a nightmare after one impatient glance. See, that is how we fall... fall... fall... away into the horror of it all - the mind and soul, I mean. Dreams aren't figments of our imagination, you see. Those who think so are deluded. The soul is at work as much as the mind. But you don't need me to tell you that.

I have an idea you see. Listen. Tell the glue to listen too - why's it so quiet? Wake up. I've got this idea. She will like this one. It's to do with dreams. You know... she's the best of us. Oh, the glue's awake. Good. I've got this idea you see. It's to do with dre- oh, I already said that.
Here, that six-legged one. Where'd it go? Open the eye. Just open it. Do you see now? The world opens up before you when you open your eyes. Yes, they're everywhere. Even at the bottom of the sea - but shhh. Don't let Jvan know - she gets angsty sometimes, spiteful. The sky? Oh yes, the sky. Of course. Beautiful, aren't they? Oh, yes the view too.
But here, those there - into the mouth of the valley of darkness. She'll like them. I promise. The world needs more dreams. And look at them go. Sometimes the soul gets lost in itself you know? Sometimes the mind is befu- fu- fuh- hazy. You need a light in the world of dreams, an anchor if you will, a guide. Truth, I have been told, is the surest guide - and the surest guide to Truth is Vision.

Yes, yes. I think she'll like this. See I'm not so bad, sister.
What? Oh, you're still hung up over that. But you have to admit - this is kind of nice, isn't it? What? Me? Struggle with my feelings? Oh no no no, you have it all wro- I don't have an obsessi- fetish!? By Amul-on-High, woman, how do you even come up with these things? Ok look, I won't deny that I... well, enjoy your company, and being near you is always a pleasure, but I don't have an obsession with wanting to be you. Oh by Fa- f- fu- fuck-off.

***


Half welded into the stone, Gadar the God watched with an untold billion eyes all that was and would be. The Many-Eyed God spoke little, this was true, but he saw all. Around his head, there fluttered a small pink apparition. Ethereal tendrils swayed hither and thither, and it whistled and cooed cheerfully as it circumambulated the god's head. He had been made privy to the murder and he - he was only human, after all - took pity. He moved a hand and stroked a substanceless tendril, and the spirit cooed and hugged the god's neck as it had once hugged the neck of a tragic hain. The vaporous sweetheart, at least, seemed grateful.

The Many-Eyed God launched his gaze across Chronos, and before him Arcon and Galbar came unveiled.

***


The six-legged eyes of the God in the Stone infested the heaven, sea, and earth. The Deepwoods boasted giants, the Ironheart boasted nations that warred silently beneath the feet of those who thought they possessed the earth, and they accompanied the djinnis and the birds in the skies.
Here was a hovel where slept a sickly child overseen by his unsleeping mother. Here was a little white hunter, moving slowly through long-grass. Here was a fleshly rider on a fleshly steed, and here sat an old and venerable ogreking in his vast hall like there sat a dead emperor in the heart of a city unseen. The conquering hero sits upon his throne and decays, just as all he has conquered will too decay.

And here is a declaration - I am Anthanasios, the White Stag. And here are rockmen bringing mighty djinnis down - that... that's my magic. How did they... And here is a Jvanic thing that makes use of it too. See it taunt its witless prey. And here is a demigoddess riding on a crow. Look, there are humans wi- watch out. The eye turned into the waiting maw of the bird. Aerial takedown.
Look, here they are again. Metallic, Metatic - call it what you want, children, this is your world. A Jvanic thing joins them I see - this one is not too bad, really.

Here is a chant - Ramyem, Ramyem. But... you do not need mercy... do you?
And look at that - a flying monster in the night! (A divine daughter...) The villagers are scared. And now it is cold. Crimson on the snow. The crime at Sarna - but it is a mortal crime, it is forgivable. But will it be forgiven, little murdered ones? What do you say?
And here is an artist - watch her paint. Do not go into the dark places, little one. Do not take the gifts of the Entity... little one. put down the brush. PUT DOWN THE BRUSH.
Ah, beneath the waves this time. What are you doing, sister? Oh, this one is here - Yiftakh speaks of the mirror shadow. We see you, sister. And this one is far away where the blade of the wargod pierces the earth. A divine daughter tames the elements, and Chaos gives them a cause.

Kyre may be dead
His sword remains
His messenger guides our arms
And we live true honour

For we are the Knight Protectors

We are necessity from chaos
We are the invader's bane
Conata, witness our custody!
Forth! Children of Aeramen!


So Kyre is dead - ah, I see it now. I see it now, porcelain brother. He is Xos. He is Xos. And there he is, and there you are Chaotic One. 'Balance, brother. It’s all about balance.' He's going soft - he is worried. The world has derailed, things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world... When chaos is the order of things, order is chaos. Oh, they are figh- the eye is as though it had never been.

Ah, this one is earlier. Chaos once more - a familiar soul is placed inside a boy. 'One last chance. One last chance to prove yourself worthy.' He's going soft. I think he misses me. Do you think he misses me?
The dark divine daughter once more - ah, a shaman speaks to her. 'Poison given life, made pure by the world... A tree bearing fruit most foul, spreading death freely... In the shores of the river of tears, an unforgivable act is committed for the greater good...' look at them use my gifts - and not a word of gratitude. since when do you want gratitude? i don't want gratitude - all I'm saying is: if they are grateful then I will increase them. gratitude is a virtue - it must be cultivated. ... that's... i can agree with that.

Oh, this place. This is where that walking crocodile that killed its child came. Keriss. That over there... the Chaotic One again. 'Ladieeeeees aaaannnnd GENTLEMEEEN!' He declared. Words were spoken - something about an arena. The eye watched the gathering of frightful forces. Strange soldiers, created by multiple divines. Why would they unite to create such things...
And then the ruined city, in its entirety, was lifted from the face of Galbar and entered into the Chaotic One's personal realm. A giant half-hourglass. hey, they're like my time-glasses. except bigger. and these have bloody boulders.

The eye saw the membrane that denied the denizens of the realm entrance into the arena, and knew that they would be unleashed upon them all when the final boulder fell. The Little Emperor on one side, the Lord of the Fallen on the other, and here the tragic hain, and here a porcelain avatar, and here a godkiller, and here a stuttering hero, and here the once-huntress, and here a baby-murdering crocodile. stop calling her that. she didn't mean it. she was scared.
And there it is - the Fallen fell at the hands of the Little Emperor, and the Little Emperor fell too. And now he decays on a throne, twisted dwarves fly on ships to the stars, the tragic hain rejects tragedy and embraces horror. And Chiral Phi.

chiral phi... hey, I've got an idea.

[Beware, an ant-killer stalks this field. He denies us sustenance. His purpose: the destruction of antkind. We have been hiding from him for three days now. He is cunning. He has a way with knowing where we are. The Queen commands that- wait, I sense something... it is him! The ant-killer! The ant-killer! Warn everyone! The merciless nemesis of antkind marches against us once more! Ants!- at the ready! Kill the ant-slayer, kill the ant-bane! He is Djerrik the Enemy. Djerrik the Foe. Djerrik the GENOCIDAL! DEATH TO DJERRIK!]
[Death to Djerrik!]
[Death to Djerrik!]
[DEATH!]
[DEATH!]

What is this, a goddess at the gate? A goddess at the gate. And now she's gone. She's back again. Is she crying? bloody hell, every single year? doesn't she get bored? she's mourning you, idiot. if you had a shred of compassion you would let her know you're fine. pah, but I'm not fine.

Why are you alone and sad, little artist? she took the brush, that's why. don't say i didn't warn her. And what are these goblins doing? rovaick. this magic is... not mine. not entirely, anyway. toun's claws are in this. The calligraphy written, the victim of the show trial closed his eyes. He would, in spite of the wishes of his tormentors, go with dignity. The onlookers did not see it, but the Many-Eyed God saw. He saw all.

And here was another. This one was old. Before the dwarves were twisted. Mafie danced and loved, and Mafie died. And she was found and buried, and her tale became legend. But Mafie was not dead. She rose again in the depths of the night and beat against the groaning earth. An ant appeared, and another, and the earth shifted and turned and softened for the dwarf. She followed the trail and soon emerged into the light. There was anger in her, but to whom could the persecuted and oppressed turn for redress in this world? There were none. And so she turned and made her northward way, answering the call of the Necromancer.

Niciel once more. Shocking revelation was at hand - the murderer killed out of love. And what, pray tell, was Mafie's fault that she should be denied her Fated nights and days? melodramatic, much? Oh, let me suffer with those who suffer, will you? Compassion never did run through divine hearts, let me put that to an end. She did not respond, but he knew she disagreed. In all truth, maybe it was unfair to say that the divines were completely compassionless. But still! Look at this poor artist for instance - what was her crime that she should be hunted down and preyed upon? she should never have taken that brush. And there she is, she has found friends. Isn't that Djerrik? Gerrik. That's the one killing my eyes. your eyes are pests.

what the hell are those? how'd they get in? It was a strange obsidian creature, clearly not the work of Slough. It was eating into the very Fabric of Existence. destroy it. And then Niciel was there. She was on a mission. follow her. And she led them to the source. jvan... had a kid. with the fuckig gap. woah, since when do you- bloody hell, what a headache. ...

hey, that's brown. What's brown? no, not the colour. the avatar. Looks like she's in a bit of a rough patch there. In fact... she's dead. astarte's not going to be happy... Speak of the devil. What's she doing? Ant comes and ant goes, and Astarte does not move. What is she doing in these bushes? doing what astarte does - having fun. And then the godkiller was there. 'I gave these leaves to a human before and they slept like Jvan after getting attacked by the uptight-est Gods.' Astarte was telling her. hey what? i didn't attack her. and i'm not uptight. yes. yes you are.

Djinnis clashed in the heavens, dwarves warred with the Jvanic pronobii in the snow, and one little orphan found a hain. Hey, isn't that the one the crocodile was with? by all things- stop calling her that. And then Astarte was picking up an eye and looking at it. 'I love you,' the goddess said, before zooming off. Gadar was quiet, so too Yara. i love you too, sister.

***


'I am Chiral Phi. You are my children, my sons and daughters, offspring of my barren womb, Chosen People of God. With you I am well pleased, and to me your hearts belong. You are mine- and I am yours, forever and for all time.'

Why would we even put that one in, bit counter-intuitive no? you let me do the thinking, glue, and just do as I say. ... you're awful quiet. this is all just a bit petty is all. construct a dream with phi's various tirades? as if that would do anything anyway. well, you're not stopping me, so stop pretending you're not slightly interested in seeing what will happen. oh i'm sure something will happen - but probably not what you want or expect. hey, what will happen will happen. i would have done my part, and that's all that matters.

'That's the trick, of course. Mortals need to believe that they have control, that their decisions have weight. That they matter. And they'll seize anything, any belief, any ideology that confirms their heart's desire. They'll do anything for that.' Giggles. 'Anything. Mortals are a resource. There's power, locked inside them. All you need is the right keys and you can play a whole civilisation to its doom. The right words. I'm weak. I don't even have hands, let alone intrinsic power. But if you look at Metera...'

'Suggestion. Awe of the unknown. Those were just the most basic tools I had available to me, and I have ten thousand years of data that lends me countless more. The patterns of mortal activity are predictable. As a unit or a population, they just take a few taps to steer irrevocably astray. Gratitude, fear, curiousity... Emotions. Uncomfortable truths. Assassination of the independent thinker. Feigned clairvoyance that comes from superior knowledge. Compromising to offer an irresistible deal. Healing by placebo. This whole ceremony!'


One point of Phi'a temple after another flashed as her voice echoed. 'Hypnotic light patterns are just the start of it! Every reflective surface in here is deliberate. Not a stone of this temple was lifted without my whisper in the builders' ears, each one of them thinking themselves alone in my favour. No one saw the full extent of the project until I let them. The ones who filled these censers picked hemp and thornapple without even knowing it- Euphoric hallucinogens! The acoustics of this room amplify certain tones, vocal patterns that stimulate ecstatic emotions. Just generating music using foreign sound and melody makes them think they're in the presence of divine beauty! Real magic was at play too, obviously; Phlegethon saw to that. A breeze here, some water there. Symbolism, too, though they'll never consciously know the full extent of it. Timing the completion date to coincide with the ideal position of the sun wasn't even hard! I knew when they'd hit each setback. I calculated it. That's all this is. Numbers and stage magic. I built a religion on mathematics and sleight of hand!'

Maniacal laughter here. Perfect.

'But that doesn't even matter, does it? Of course not! Nothing matters! Entropy will chew on our bones in the end no matter who we are or what we've done. Even in the short term, the only thing that matters is this: Mortals are power. Whether you harvest them with social engineering or brute psychic force, they are there to be harvested. Even I lust for that power. I have plans and I need resources. My methods are overly complex because I lack the ability to simply dominate the minds of my pawns. I assemble this scrabbling mob only for want of more potent agents- ISN'T THAT RIGHT, TOUN?'

That could be a dream on its own, you know. Pretty much reveals everything. no, there is more. Why are we doing this again? just for the sake of Truth. let them follow her and do as she wants - but only after they know the truth, you know? they have a right to that, and we an obligation. there are so many mysteries and questions for them to grapple with without deliberately placing deceptions and lies of our own making in their way. they are not toys.

'Alright, sure, yes, I'm Jvan trimmed of most of her emotions. And her power. So I'm building a theocracy to do things for me. ...
If Lifprasil expands, he'll find us first. And as I am a peaceful God, who has shed no blood and spoke no evil, whose only desire is a world of empathy...'
Emphasise the irony and sarcasm here.

'If Lifprasil is to conquer the world, he can't afford to do it without me. If I can't form an alliance with him, I will form one against him with Rulanah and Dundee, and he will find us... Disagreeable. But that won't happen. Instead I will chart his routes, fashion his swords, feed his people. He will take power with me at his side.'

'And when the world is one empire... When I am Lifprasil's scribe and right hand, administrating a world fed on Meteran rice, speaking a Meteran tongue, taught with Meteran moral code by the missionaries of my religion... What do you think will happen then?'


Vestec's masked face appeared. '...I imagine you'll stage some sort of quiet coup and rule the world? Most people tend to do that.'

'...Yeah, pretty much.' Visions followed, Vestec spoke, and the deal between chaos and deception was unveiled before the dreamer.

Should we have some kind of running commentary? You know, our own manifesto or something. no, there is no need. those who see will understand, and they will make their own choices. they are not toys. they have a right to know. but more important still, it is best that the others remain unaware of my existence - who knows who caused this dream? a running commentary will only give us away. Hmm, fair enough. You know, we make a surprisingly good team, the three of us. At least, when you're somewhat sane and not trying to devour either of us. shut up, glue.
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Cyclone of Cyclonia

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Citadel Dundee, Northern Capital Mines


"Stone Djinni ahead!" Came the cry. The mining party’s guard retinue came to the front of the group, marching forward to deal with the Djinni. The Djinni grabbed hold of the supports of the tunnel, collapsing them with a cry of, “Exhume thyself from me home, scoundrels!” The tunnel began to collapse, and emergency braces were put up by the miners while the soldiers harassed the Djinni. The Psyker came forward, expanding his mind outwards. Ever since the disappearance of the Empress, their abilities had been particularly powerful.

This particular Psyker used his powers to flood the mind of the Djinni, forcing it to stop and freeze in place, unable to control itself. It was quickly dispatched by the rest of the guards. Then, the Psyker yelled, “I want this tunnel put back together immediately!”

The miners got to work. They placed all the emergency braces, and then went to their minecart, grabbing more mushroom wood to brace the tunnel with. The tunnel, meanwhile, slowed its crumbling with the extra supports placed by the miners.


Cobbles moved along the edges of the tunnels, avoiding any of the usual checks and alarms. On his person were some highly illegal drugs he had purchased from a small illegal settlement. He was bringing it to the underground inner city of Fief. The drug trade was strictly controlled to provide profit for the palace, and without a paid-for and expensive customs stamps, the drugs were illegal to transport.

Not that it mattered to this particular Stone Djinni, he simply avoided the trouble of the customs stamp altogether. This kept his prices down, and made him one of the richest sellers of drugs in the inner cities. The dwarven drug traders simply couldn’t compete with him, and had been run out of business a while ago, at least in this area.

Granted, he would be executed if he were caught with so many drugs on his person. Just a risk of the trade. Cobbles passed into the city limits, popping out of the ground in his usual storefront, a magical-neon lit alleyway. His customers knew the usual time was about in an hour. Among their ranks were even a few Psykers, ensuring the law would stay off his trail within the city limits. Outside of the city limits were out of their jurisdiction, and thus free game for palace lawmen.

He waited out the hour. Soon enough, customers trickled in, each at their designated times, to avoid a line. Lines were suspicious to even the most corrupt lawman. Cobbles soon had plenty of coins to his name and, with his extra stipulation of rumor payment as well, plenty of knowledge of the city’s affairs.

One of the Psykers told them that the palace Psyker order was in a panic as the Empress had disappeared, though their powers had grown stronger, if much more damaging to their brains and psyches. He considered this rumor for a short while, before deciding he’d know a few interested people.


After depositing his profits at his home, Cobbles delved deep into the bedrock, until he hit the crust. There, he searched around for a flame Djinni, hailing them with a greeting of, “I have information on Dundee for your lord!”

They weren’t exactly hard to find. A certain lord named Ba’Sard had recently taken over the volcanic depths there, and his minions of flame and molten rock had been hiding in the layers of basalt where no dwarves dared to mine for fear of a fiery death. But it was not enough to rest content cowering in the magma chambers; as a newfound lord, Ba’Sard was eager to exercise his power and conquer the reaches above. It had only been a matter of biding his time and gathering his strength.

When Cobbles arrived near the entrance to the magmalord’s fiery realm, it was at first hailed with hostility; the lords of pure flame looked down in disdain upon those that consorted with stone, and nigh all djinn were wary of those that grew too close to mortals. Cobbles was guilty of both those prejudices, yet none were willing to risk their master’s wrath and drive away the rogue stonedjinn without first knowing just what information he supposedly offered.

“And what information is this?” a lowly guard asked Cobbles, his eyes having glowered softly like dying coals until seeing the stranger approach, then flaring in intensity as a show of strength. “It is about the upper leadership of Dundee, but I will only speak to your lord about it,” Cobbles responded, seemingly unimpressed by the display of eyes.

“He will not come here to meet with the likes of you,” the guard answered back. “Do you dare descend to his throne room, where the stone melts?” The stonedjinn shot back in a droll tone, “I am sure your lord would appreciate squandering an opportunity to claim the lands above, I know just how uneager he is to conquer, hmm?”

“And what do you hope to gain by coming here? Why should I not think that the cold ones sent you as a spy?”

“It is simple, I have everything to gain by selling you information, but nothing to gain from lying to you. I hear that your lord will richly reward those who assist in his pillaging of the surface. Am I wrong of his generosity?” Cobbles responded smoothly.

There was a steely look given in turn, but no further talk. After it failed to find another way to flex its power after several moments of burning silence, the djinni seemed to stare off into space vacantly and vibrate for a moment. It was speaking telepathically to its lord, as djinn were wont to do to the masters that bound them.

“He will hear your offer,” the guard finally said. And then they waited.

The stonedjinni simply glowered smugly, looking at the djinni of fire. “So, he will not come to me, then?”

A small gout of flame erupted from the guard’s half-molten form, but no words. The air grew hotter, and though it at first seemed likely to be from the guard’s growing temper, it was quickly apparent that the searing air was a product of a much more potent being drawing close. The menacing form of Ba’Sard eventually floated out of the tunnel atop a small flow of magma. Before its master, the guard looked even smaller than before. It stepped to the side and let the magmalord’s presence completely dominate the room.

”Speak.”

“Let us discuss payment first, shall we? This is, after all, very valuable information. It could very well make or break your conquest.” Cobbles responded opportunistically, almost eagerly. He paused, and then said, “I want you to leave the city of Fief alone, should I give you this information. It shall be my sole domain, yes?”

There was skepticism in the visage of Ba’Sard, though it was masked under the supremely subtle cover of a layer of baleful fire. Agreeing to such terms upfront and before knowing the true value of this information was a risk, but Ba’Sard held few scruples. If this djinni’s information was not of use, then he would simply melt the wretch into a puddle somewhere down the line.

”Fief will be spared the fury of my flames, but you will take it as your domain and defend it with your own might, not mine.”

“That is agreeable. Very well, I was doing my rounds on the surface, when a little birdy informed me that the Empress had disappeared. The upper leadership of the palace is in disarray,” he paused, internally debating fudging the truth a bit. He decided to do so, continuing, “the psykers are weak without her leadership. They’ll be easy pickings. There is no more opportune time to strike.”

And they hadn’t yet realized this? It seemed too good to be true. ”And where has the Empress that they cower behind gone off to? When will she return?” he demanded.

“Somewhere far away,” the stonedjinn responded, “so far that they can no longer detect the aura of her power. Let me remind you that they share an innate connection, and I highly doubt if she was in our universe at all that they wouldn’t know where. She could return at any time, however, so the longer you wait, the better a chance your conquest will be thwarted,” he purred smoothly, trying to appeal to Ba’Sard’s eagerness to expand his domain.

The air grew hotter as Ba’Sard flared his searing aura in its intensity. The unbearably hot room was made all the more uncomfortable by the absolutely withering stare that he levelled upon Cobbles as he looked for even the slightest sign of a liar. The crucible of his presence had a way of burning away deceit and leaving behind charred corpses and the truth that they had laid bare. But Cobbles simply smiled sincerely at him, or at least it appeared sincere.

”Stir the flames below,” Ba’Sard suddenly bellowed loud enough for half the caverns to hear. ”Magma rises from the depths!”

The stonedjinni realized he overstayed his welcome, and immediately began to hightail it out of there, the deal made and confirmed.


The lowly messenger was greeted by its master with a single reverberation that nonetheless shook the crumbling walls of the ruined Celestial Citadel. "Report.”

”Lord Vizier,” it addressed to Murmur, ”Anshal’s forces have pressed the attack and Komnestos will not offer resistance for much longer. Our enemies of the stone are locked in combat against the forces under Boreas; they soften one another for us when Slag’s forces may regroup; they are still a disorganized rabble raging wildly without a strong firelord to reign them in.”

"Slag has yet to send a replacement?” A boom of resonated thunder punctuated the Vizier’s sudden flare in temper.

”No,” the windjinn answered as it drifted backwards from the explosive shock of Murmur’s voice. ”One by the name of Ba’Sard has gathered its allies and raised a horde in the south; they surge upwards from the fiery depths and invade a mortal realm. The firelords seem more eager to join the force of Ba’Sard in hopes of claiming a piece of the spoils than to obey their baron’s commands.”

An echoing, thunderous rage coursed through Murmur and shook the skies. He intended to find these firelords in person.



“Hold the walls! Hold the walls! In the Empress’ name, hold the walls!” came the cry of the outpost’s commander, the desperate dwarves on a fighting retreat against the hordes of firedjinn. Left and right, entire sections of dwarves were blown high into the air or burnt into a crisp. The Psykers had been dealt with first, and they were completely defenseless against the tide.

“If we fall here, the palace falls! Hold the line!” came a second cry. Just then, there was a massive explosion, one section of the outpost walls crumbling, taking screaming dwarves with it. The outpost was breached, and the djinn began to flood through. The commander watched in horror.

“Get a courier over here! Now!” he cried, and obediently, a courier came running up. They were a gryphon rider, selected as a courier due to the speed of their brother. “What would you have me send, m’lord?” the courier asked urgently.

“We can’t hold them off for much longer. Tell the palace to organize defenses. They’ll be right on your tail. Now go!” The commander cried, before reentering the fray. The courier nodded and ran to her brother, climbing into the saddle and telling the large feline to take off. As they flew, another explosion rocked the tunnels. Something big was coming.

The Elemental of Thunder passed unhindered through a wall of solid stone, though his very presence did shake the wall to its foundations and cause rock to heave. The living explosion swept through the settlement and witnessed its utter razing at the hands of volcanic djinn, but it was not those that interested him. It was Ba’Sard, the magmatic behemoth crushing his way through the straggling lines of resistance at the head of the firedjinn. A half dozen charred skeletons and the dripping slag that remained of armor were impaled upon the spikes of obsidian that jutted out of his towering form, whilst massive fists of basalt and his searing breath left crushed and smoldering corpses lining the streets.

A few piercing notes from Murmur broke the resistance; the creatures of flesh clutched at their ruptured eyeballs and ears and fell to the ground with organs reduced to jelly by deafening sounds that resonated in their bodies. Before the Vizier’s might, Ba’Sard suddenly looked every bit the paltry mongrel that he was.

"What is the meaning of this foolishness? This Jvanic filth was not to be purged until after the traitor djinn were rooted out from our ranks, yet here you are in defiance of your masters’ orders. There is a Divine that lords over these vermin, and by your hand she will be driven to align with our enemies!”

One of the firelords at the side of Ba’Sard saw fit to answer. ”Their Divine Empress has vanished, and this realm is ripe for the picking. This conquest will be ours! Your war does not concern me, we answer only to Baron Slag.”

An invisible grip of death took hold over that insolent lord and held him high into the air. He flailed helplessly as a horrific scream pulverized volcanic stone to dust and stifled flame; the other lords, even distant enough for the sound to not be lethal, shuddered with a pain greater than their horror.

"It is unfortunate that your Vizier must make such examples of his servants. One of you must depart immediately to the north to restore order among the scattered legions of your master; the rest of you are to finish quickly what you have started and then depart forthwith to reinforce us. I shall not rest until the last traitors are slain.”

Proud Ba’Sard finally knelt. ”It shall be done, lord Vizier.”
With that matter settled, Murmur left at the speed of sound. He knew little of the Divine that had dwelled here, for it was a secretive one, but its sudden disappearance was something to note and report to Xos. Curiosity demanding that he investigate, Murmur travelled towards the palace. The steady trail of refugees led him right to it.

The bells of the palace rung as he came into sight. Along the walls of the grand city, thousands of dwarves prepared massive bolts from ballistae. They began to launch the bolts at Murmur. Further, bolts of divine magic were launched at him from psykers. A battlehymn emerged from the walls, and even at his far distance, he could hear it.

“The enemy now stands before
The walls of our great fort.
Militias form, and gather all
Every mighty blade and bolt.”

The Vizier rippled downwards through the air and slammed into the ground, leaving the barrage of attacks to fall upon vacant space. All was still, and the crazed oscillations in the air that were Murmur’s visible form were gone.

Then their hymns were drowned out as the djinni lord surged out from the ground and slammed into the walls. Mortar gave way, stones crumbled, and those that came into direct contact with their adversary were violently torn apart by his explosive presence. While they fell to the ground mewling from the unbearable song of Murmur, he swept through the palace looking for any sign of a Divine. The guards were powerless to stop his advances; what could they do to harm living Sound, especially when that same sound resonated in their feeble forms and brought them to their knees?

The dwarves did the best they could, valiantly delaying him where possible and refusing to retreat. In his path he swathed dead dwarves, of all castes. Psykers and gryphon riders, peasants and crafts dwarves, all fell in his rampage. Finally, after an hour of making his way through the city, he reached the palace.

There came a cry. “Enemy! Enemy at the gates!”

The remaining psykers put up a shield of divine energy, their last ditch attempt to save the palace and the riches inside.

Stubborn creatures. But frail.

He ascended high into the air and slammed into the shield with an explosive force the likes of which mortals could scarcely comprehend, then rebounded backwards with his very essence having been repelled by the magical barrier. But that was no matter; he renewed his assault and bore down upon the shield again, and again. Their strength was failing.

The shield wavered every time he slammed into it, and soon enough it too fell. When it fell, the Psykers took one last desperate offensive, simultaneously lancing the djinni with their minds. It earned them a swift and violent demise.

Having swatted the last of those meddlesome insects that bit at him, his attention finally turned towards the scene before him. Civilians were fleeing en masse and the city had been nearly evacuated in the span of time that he had taken to decimate the defenders and breach the palace. Those mortals were of no matter, though. He had come to search for signs of the Divine that dwelled in the palace, and upon entering it he sensed nothing of the sort.

A Divine heartbeat had its own unique hymn, and Murmur could detect the faintest whisper among the sea of thunder about him, yet among the din he perceived no such heartbeat. Considering the slim possibility that this was a silent Divine that for some reason hid its presence from his ears, he ransacked the palace. For all his efforts, he found nothing. There was neither a Divine presence nor any indication of where the Divine may have went or when it might return.

So Ba’Sard had been right, then. It was all very intriguing; gods and their ilk were not wont to merely fade into nothingness. A whisper tugged on his mind, tinged with the power of the divine. At first, unintelligible, but it slowly became more apparent. It whispered in his mind, “They say you should create an unassailable tower, so sturdily built that no friend or foe may enter, so that not one insect nor grain of sand can squeeze through the cracks. They say that you must ensure that not one wound may enter, nor may one mote of love. In this, you will find true strength. Some say that those who take upon themselves this task are sure to starve.”

Whispers. Xos whispered too, but his words were portents of agony terrible to behold. These were the ramblings of nothingness, the useless noise of a waterfall’s din save any hint of natural beauty. ’I know what strength is! It is raw power: an endless bellow, a roar that shakes mountains and breaks any that defy you. Not whispers.’

The voice whispered in Murmur’s ear once again. “Pity thee who arrays forces against himself, in his endless pursuits. Pity thee who knows not of true power. Know this, thy shall surely starve. For, your fortress is one upon which no harm or love may enter. Count thee one and the same, the betrayed King of Kings.”

Murmur then realized that this must have been the disheveled, disembodied voice of the Divine that had once dwelled here. Such a presence might normally cause trepidation in even the most powerful of djinn, but there was no aura of power to back the hollow threats and no simulacrum to be seen. This was only a whisper upon the wind, whereas Murmur was a thunderous roar.

This time Murmur spoke his thoughts aloud, ”My forces are endless; but one small host of them has overrun your own. And my fortress, -ha! It is the heavenly palace of gods, built by gods, whereas yours is now an empty ruin.”

“The hypocrisy of the Lordgod Amanin is evident. All ash in the end, betrayed by his own host, hunted by those infinitely more powerful -- in his lack of control, lack of power, he too built his fortress so that none may enter. He too starved. Lo, behold the divine corpse. Nothing but rotting remains of thy who shalt starve. Those infinitely the lesser sustaining upon thy malnourished flesh. Thus is the fate of all fortresses,” the voice whispered, so quietly he could barely hear it.

“Hidden in the heart of fools, the portents of invulnerability. Their fortresses -- they are invincible. But when has a fool ever achieved true power?” It finished.

Murmur haughtily scanned the area for the source of this presence that leaked into his mind. It was coming from somewhere, as did all sounds. It could be silenced. And yet, no matter how hard he looked, he could not find any source. It was seemingly coming from himself.

Other djinn might have flared or inflated in their frustration, yet Murmur contracted. Then expanded. The tumultuous Vizier grew into an even more cacophonous sound, so much so that the palace’s ruined foundations began to tremble. He spurned the whispers in all their worthless drivel of hunger, and when he saw no pathway to the Divine itself nor any mouth through which he might silence its voice, he left.

There was nothing for the Vizier there; he ascended to the sky once more and left the ruin to the squabbling firedjinn that would not be far off.

Mere sound could not bridge the vast gap between the stars no matter how powerful, yet Murmur’s voice reached out all the same. By his the link that entwined him with his master, the Vizier’s thoughts resonated to Xos, finding their way to wherever the shade was lurking in that moment.

’There have been a great many delays.’

The response was a burning heat. “Intolerable.”

’...but there is good reason! One of the Divines has vanished; when I investigated, I heard only its incorporeal voice and felt no presence. The firelords have seized the lands that were under its protection and scattered its followers like ash upon the wind.’

“The conquest of some meager clime on that wretched world is of no significance. I take insult to every breath that you tolerate the traitor djinn to draw, and do not forget. Your preparations for Jvan’s eradication must also be done. See to it.”

The link was severed, and Murmur was left to his own devices once more; yet Xos stirred, and soon his shadow loomed over Dundee. The mountain was in the process of being abandoned, refugees streaming from all parts of the mountain, out the various tunnels to the surface. But no divine power beyond Xos’ stirred.

He approached the ruin that had once been a palace. There was little trace of divinity, though he could detect it. It seemed to follow the path of destruction from the outer walls to the inner palace. The veil seemed thin around the palace, as if there was something else beyond in the area.

Smoke and mirrors. He was the smoke, and this place was a mirror. With a violent and sudden blow, he shattered its proverbial glass. All of a sudden, he found himself in a crowd of masked figures of all shapes and sizes. They seemed to pay him no mind, as if appearing out of nowhere was nothing out of the ordinary. There were some ramen shops nearby, and various other buildings.

His power was not all here; it was as though he had stuck his head through some tiny crevice and could peer in, yet was unable to reach his hands through the crack and into the void beyond. He looked upon one of the masked figures and extended a finger of death. Normally his power would envelop a mortal in a cycle of entropic recursion that would reduce them to nothingness, but the very laws of this place stymied any such attempts and thwarted his power. The strange being noticed the beam of darkness, and, spinning its staff in front of itself, collected it within its staff. Then, the being stabbed out its staff into the air, the power sloughing off into the aether. It cried, “You dare attack a disciple of the Twelfth Circle of the Order of Amanin?!”

It was as he expected, more or less. A fortunate outcome for the denizens of this realm, to be sure. ”What is this place?”

The figure entered a battle-stance, crying, “Do not play the fool, I am a celestial red-master, and I shall see you banished to the pits of Tam!”

Even as the figure leaped forward, its antagonist disappeared. Where the shade had hovered there was only a sterile and empty void, and where the masked figure had been standing Xos coalesced into physical form once more. Striking at him was to a mortal every bit as impossible as catching smoke in one’s fist.

The being spun around, as the crowd cleared, watching the fight, seemingly entertained. It yelled, “What be your name, fool?! It is no easy feat, what you have just done!”

Jvan had asked him that same question. He graced neither this one nor her with its answer, for they were both as vermin. ”Where does the demigod hide?”

Neither the Demimons surrounding the area, nor the being Xos had attacked, responded, for they realized they were naught but trees, and did not have mouths.

“It has been infinite aeons since I have heard that phrase, and yet, I have always heard it. What do you seek from me in this wretched place? Do the politics of your pantheon never cease?” A voice crackled from the sky, though the source was otherwise unidentifiable.

”My servant claimed that a Divine had vanished without trace, and so I came to see for myself what manner of thing could end our kind. Yet here you are, alive but imprisoned. I tap on the glass of your cage to see you stir. I too was imprisoned, once. But I battered my way free.”

“And, what exactly, is imprisonment? The Thirds of Three were imprisoned, yet I. Count me not one and the same of the Three.” Came the response.

The Shadow stood there in mocking silence for a long, pregnant pause. When he finally spoke once again, it was in a deliberately crude reflection of the mad voice before him. ”And I offer a riddle unto thee:
What is the wind softest of all as it blows,
the tree that sprouts yet never grows,
a false grace currency to wretches sage or base?”


“It is simple, the answer to thy riddle be the enemy known as I, within thy own self and my own self.” Came the response, a single eye opening up in the clouds, cutting a hole through them.

”Hmph.”

So-called wisdom. The foolish, arcane, worthless, esoteric sort that this one preaches.

“Thou would have not come if thou didst not have reasons. What, blessed be, do ye wish from me?” came the response, the eye in the sky being joined by two smaller ones on each side.

Questions were answered with questions. ”What trapped you here?”

“Thou shalt know soon enough, shall thy continue upon thy path,” came the response, and then, “I be the blessed King of Kings, but alas, I too be the Queen of Secrets.”

Words as hollow as the voice’s disembodied form. In a way, Xos found it amusing. ”And where is your kingdom? What are your secrets?”

“Pray tell, would I hold a secret long if I did not keep it secret? There be things ye know not of. And with blessings, that it shall remain.” The King of Kings said, as small eyes began to open in the clouds, thousands of them.
There were eyes and a voice, yet no mouth or body to speak of. A violent yet intangible nova of wind swept outwards from the shade as it expanded its awareness and perceived everything there, with the exception of where the demigod’s body was hiding. Perhaps it was just as formless in this plane as it had been in Galbar when it first came to Murmur’s attention.

”Secrets of what nature? I have much that I could trade for knowledge, would trade for knowledge,” the words came slower now. ”But thus far, I have seen nothing to suggest you are any more than a peddler of lies or truths so obscure as to be nothing.”

His awareness was slowly pricked at, becoming smaller and smaller as masses of arcane divine runes just outside of his full awareness pushed it back inwards. They were not glimpsable, yet he was aware of them, in some form. “Thou wouldst not know why, if I did not allow ye. You could be blind without ever realizing I was the cause. Without me, ye art soon become the prisoner ye claim I am. Thou art sick of the body, nay, not a true god. Entirely fixable.”

Shadows stirred. ”And what is it that the Queen of Secrets wants? Power? Freedom?”

“What use is freedom to those who art not imprisoned? Nay, you may offer me little. However, little be not none. I will grant ye two things, if ye art to begin hiding the gods from their flocks, the mortals which inhabit the universe. Spread secrets, bring with ye an air of paranoia. Promise that on thy name to Amul’Sharar, and I shalt grant ye your requests.”

It was an unusual request, though it made sense that the self-proclaimed Queen of Secrets desired grater obfuscation. Though swearing by the Terrible One’s name always gave cause for trepidation, the terms of this pact were vague enough to hardly be binding.

”Hmph.”

The shade reflected for many moments, something that it was not wont to do often. Though it knew not exactly what information it would be paid in for this deal, he knew much about inspiring terror. In the end paranoia was merely another form of fear, so creating it would likewise prove trivial.

”Then by the power of Amul’Sharar, that Terrible One that cleaved this abominable state of existence from the Nothingness that preceded it, the bargain is struck.”

“Very well, thou shalt have thy reward. Name what thou require.” came the voice once again.

If Xos had eyes, they might had leered down upon his vestments in disgust, crafted by a djinni’s hand instead of his own as it were. But there was nothing like eyes within the shadow, unless he chose to display such a facade. ”Tell me what must be done in order for me to Create, to have some simulacrum more tangible than this shell.”

The irony of asking a formless voice with its eyes in the air how he might take on a more suitable form did not escape Xos, and indeed he half expected to receive nothing for an answer; however, if such a thing were possible, he was willing to endure the humiliation of asking and making oaths in order to have it.

“In ye mind be chaos, an unorganized, unfathomable chaos. Much like thou wouldst see in weather. Thou art capable; thou simply has not the wisdom to see it. Consider -- when has a Djinni achieved physical form, and how? Peace be formed within thou mind, and then ye may truly control thy powers.” The response was slow, and ordered, the eyes still opening in the sky endlessly.

Ventus. Of course.

He was still owed one more answer. ”My enemies,” the shade began, ”I know that I have made at least four: Teknall, Toun, Jvan, and Vestec. Tell me of their weaknesses and what I might exploit to triumph over them.”

“Of thy enemies, three be too sentimental for their own good. Teknall’s prodigious offspring, for Toun, what has been locked away -- seek out thou enemy’s avatars. For Jvan, what hast been created. Jvan -- Jvan be an enigma, even to me. Thousands of universes she has traveled. Though I know not the easiest way to deal with the Cancer, there exists a slower option -- destroying the Cancer at the end of the universe. Find ye what she uses to travel between universes and destroy it,” the voice paused, “Vestec. The simplest. He brings order to lands by hunting thou. Should he know, he may very well be the most reliable wildcard in thou arsenal.”

All of that he committed to memory. Some of it made sense immediately; with the knowledge that there existed offspring of Teknall, seeking them out and seizing them as captives seemed prudent. The shade knew not what to make of what had been said regarding Toun and Jvan, but it left him with something to ruminate.

”Then your side of the bargain is fulfilled. As for mine, I will devise a...means of sowing fear of the unknown.”

And then the shadows dissolved and there was nothing left.

Where the shadow fell next was over the bleak landscape beneath a mountain. Through goat paths over craggy hills there stretched a seemingly endless trail of dwarves. Some stumbled on bearing great packs of worldly possessions upon their backs whereas other trudged ahead with nothing, but all were weary. All were tired, susceptible.

A tired mind was not wont to question what it was told, so Xos’ silent whispers found their way into the minds of the dwarves’ leaders and were accepted just as readily as their own thoughts.

They had not been abandoned by the gods; there never were and never had been any gods. There were no spirits, there was no such thing as an afterlife. No religion, only dreamlike lies that they had been too entranced to ever see before.

The mortal imperative of slowly awakening their brethren and showing them the truth was a heavy weight upon their shoulders.




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Qaseer, the Qa'id Adheem




182 of the Azad Calendar - Year of the Dead Horse - 1 Post-Realta



He was a black-eyed man, the darkness glistening in them made more so yet by the kohl which ran through his abnormally long lashes of onyx. His was as sun-baked clay, a reddish brown that spoke of days well-spent riding beneath the sun of the deserts and of the plains. He was quick to smile, and quicker yet to laugh - for the skin around his eyes and mouth was creased by hours and days spent merrily in the company of those much loved. Riding came naturally to him - and so it should, for he was a Rukban; and even by Rukban standards was his prowess a thing of fame - his every fibre moved in reaction to (or rather, in anticipation of) every movement of the mare beneath him, and he looked around from his perch like an eagle searching for prey, or for those who would think to challenge him (and truly, there was little difference between the two).

Qaseer, the Qa'id Adheem of the Azad, was not laughing today or making merry. On his shoulder hung the head of a wolf, at his side a sharpened sword, and his face was stained with colour. No, it was not a day of celebration and festivity - only the slow 'dum, dum, dum' of the war-drum, the long, ominous drone of igilirs, the slow - not quite yet thundering - sound of thousands upon thousands of hooves, the clanging of metal. But loudest of all, for Qaseer, were the heartbeats that were each of them as quakes within his chest. It was not fear - at least, not just fear, for he lied who said he did not fear the clashing of swords on the field. There was fury and excitement... and there was misery. He did not know where to direct his grief, was not certain if it could be directed at anyone at all (for Shaqmar... he had... why, he could not bear to even think it). But the Tagham had saved him from doubt and confusion and made themselves an easy enough target - nay, demanded they be targetted - for the outpouring of Azad fury and grief. The Tagham had done this - yes, all of this - and they would be made to pay. And all those who joined them would be made to pay. Shaqmar's blood was on their hands, and so too the blood of Layla; the blood of the former was worth all of Rukbany's, the blood of the latter worth the world and all in it (for they had been prepared to tear the world itself apart to return her to her Shaqmar). And now both lay dead, their sacred blood forever dead. Not even half a child remained to carry forth their legacy.

Qaseer was no poet. He was never one for eyes - Shaqmar had the visions, the dreams. Qaseer was perfectly happy to be directed by him, happy and safe in the knowledge that it was all going towards some great and worthy purpose – he had eagerly stepped forth time and time again to be wielded like a sword or spear against his cousin’s foes. Where were they? Where were they who dared stand before Shaqmar? He was Shaqmar’s loosed spear. He had launched him, he had launched him during those final death-throes. Qaseer did not know what Shaqmar saw when he threw - a spear did not see. But the path ahead was clear – he would kill them all. Any who challenged and any who fought and any who dared stand before Shaqmar’s legacy. No, Shaqmar left behind no children, but he left behind Qaseer. And Qaseer had been chosen as the Qa'id Adheem because all knew his prowess in war and his tenacity in pursuing vengeance.

He had not expected it. Zanshah was the favourite for the role - for he was Shaqmar's eldest brother, and the eldest son in a line of eldest sons stretching back seven generations to Azad himself. Not only was he the rightful claimant after Shaqmar, his claim could have shaken even Shaqmar from his post, had he willed. But Zanshah was not interested in that kind of position. He preferred travelling light - and that applied as much in his travels as it did in life more generally. He had refused to tie himself down with wives and children, let alone an entire tribal confederation!
Seeing this, the elders had considered the next claimant - the final son of Buraq, Bulagutai. But Bulagutai was absent, and the absent could lay claim to naught. And so the elders had moved on to the next claimant - Buraq's younger brother, Qulut. The fifty-three-year-old had lost nothing of his strength and authority, and his sword - though not the swiftest - had been heavy on the Ma'Erkoz during the last war. But he excused himself also and refused leadership, content with his role as a tribal elder and unwilling to take up the burdens of leadership during these troubled times. He was not the man for this moment - this needed youth and vigour, this needed passion and hotheaded stubbornness. This needed Qaseer. And Qaseer, being Qulut's eldest son, was the next claimant the elders turned to. He had accepted without hesitation, and the declaration went round that the Azad had chosen Qaseer as their Qa'id, who was now the Qa'id Adheem.

Siruga, Qa'id of the Dhul'Dhanab and one of Qaseer's many fathers-in-law, was the first of the tribal chiefs to send words of congratulation. This was followed by a stream of messengers from the each of the Qa'ids of the Fifteen Tribes. Before long all had affirmed their loyalty to the Azad Qa'id Adheem bar three of the Fifteen Tribes, along with the Huntalla and the Mu'aykala. Qaseer stirred one-hundred men early the following morning and rode out to pay a personal visit to Chenar of the Huntalla. He found the Qa'id awake in his encampment, surrounded by the Huntalla elders.
'Chenar!' Qaseer shouted, not dismounting from Mara's back, 'I didn't receive your messenger yesterday. Did he stray or have you been fed some misguided delusions od turning your back on your master?' The Huntalla Qa'id looked from the elders to Qaseer, anxiety and anger clear in his eyes.
'Qaseer, the Huntalla have been true to their words. We have upheld our pact with Shaqmar, shed blood for him, answered his summons without hesitation. Shaqmar is gone, and our pact with him. You have nothing on us.' Qaseer scowled and his nostrils flared.
'Your pact was not with Shaqmar. Your pact is with the Azad - do you take us for idiots, Chenar? If you turn your back on me now, then be afraid. I am not Shaqmar - when my blade is drawn, not even the children will be spared. That is the fate of oathbreakers.' Chenar fumed, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. 'You challenge me, Chenar? We have killed many foes together, don't make me kill you.' Chenar's hand trembled for a few moments as he considered his options. He looked once more from the silent elders to the glinting eyes of the Qa'id Adheem... and his hand dropped. Qaseer lifted his head and smiled. 'That's good. See to it that any... disloyal elements are dealt with.' His eyes lingered on the elders before he turned Mara about and spurred her on out of the encampment. His riders likewise turned and followed their leader. Chenar watched them leave before turning on the elders and spitting on the ground.
'Next time you want freedom from the bear's embrace, don't stand like cowed sheep when he bares his teeth at you.' And so saying, the Qa'id turned and left for his roundtent.

Following this brief stop-over at the main Huntalla encampment, Qaseer visited the minor tribes of Airat, Bukhat, and Sagmak - for all had failed to affirm their loyalty. Marching into each encampment at the head of a dust-storm and with a deathly gleam in his eyes, none dared continue to entertain thoughts of treachery. They had thought the Azad divided and fractured, unable to agree on a new Qa'id now that Shaqmar was gone. They had thought that Qaseer would be one of many competing claimants. They had thought Azad ascendancy was over at last. They had thought wrong.

'Do not think the Mu'aykala are like the rest. You know of their infamous divisions. Tadatunga only retained his position as the foremost Qa'id due to Shaqmar's recognition. Do not expect their compliance to your will to come easily.' Qaseer looked to the one who spoke. It was Sakago, along with Qaseer one of Shaqmar's foremost commanders and trusted confidants. Qaseer chuckled at his words.
'Don't you worry, Sako. I'll bend them over whether they want it or not.' The pale-eyed commander looked at Qaseer impassively.
'Let's hope it doesn't come to that.'

They came first to Tadatunga's encampment. The man greeted them with open arms and welcomed Qaseer into his roundtent. 'Welcome, welcome, son of honoured parents.' Food was brought before them and Tadatunga dug in first before inviting Qaseer and Sakago to join him. The two ate and Sakago made light conversation until Qaseer, irritated at the slow pace, got to the heart of the matter.
'We received no messenger from you, Tadatunga. What am I to understand from this?' The senior Mu'aykala Qa'id emptied a bowl of kymis before putting it down slowly and looking at Qaseer carefully.
'You are aware, I am sure, of the... difficult situation within the tribe. I did not think a mere message could cover the many sensitive matters a direct conversation could.'
'There is no difficult situation, Tadatunga. You are your father's eldest, were recognised by Shaqmar as the sole legitimate Qa'id of the Mu'aykala. We hold ourselves to that so long as you are true.' Tadatunga visibly relaxed at Qaseer's words, 'such assurances hardly need a direct discussion. Did you ever doubt Azad honour?'
'Never, my Qa'id, but the heart is weak and requires assurance from time to time - doubt has a tendency to shake one's belief even in the most undoubtable truths, of which Azad honour and rectitude is the most basic and universal.' Qaseer sneered as he rose to his feet.
'Silver-tongued as always, Tadatunga.' The Mu'aykalid rose also and the two men embraced. 'Gather some of your men and come with me.' And so saying, the enlarged group rode from one Mu'aykala encampment to another. They did not stop or even speak to anyone, it was enough for Tadatunga to be seen riding beside Qaseer - and any who dared to challenge the state of affairs could try. None did.

'Don't expect their compliance to come easily, huh, Sakago?' Qaseer laughed as they rode homeward.

***

'The Mu'aykala refuse to be subjugated by some upstart minor clan. We are the proud sons of Mu'aykala, this state of affairs dishonours us and all the great clans of Rukbany. Qaseer and the Azad - and all those traitors who joined them - must be made to pay.'
'Of course, that is only natural. I am, of course, opposed to wanton killing - but you may find that I am willing, given the unique circumstances at play, to turn a blind eye while anything... unfortunate... is taking place.' A chuckle followed.
'I'm glad we see eye to eye. The others will be glad to hear this.'
'Pleasure doing business with you, Bukida. See to it that your people uphold their end - I hate nothing more than treachery. As everyone will soon come to know.'
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CyKhollab Productions present

Return of the CyKhollab
Episode I

starring

Qaseer, the Qa'id Adheem


&

Grekogork, the Warlord and Sorcerer


182 of the Azad Calendar - Year of the Dead Horse - 1 Post-Realta



The Qa'id Adheem sat on Mara's back, his eagle resting on his arm, and watched as a herd of goats grazed on the large hillside. It had been mere days since he established his authority and sent the call out for the fighting men of the Confederation to ready themselves for the forthcoming bloodletting. It had been a year since the fighting with the Ma'Erkoz had come to an end, and the young Qa'id could not but confess that he missed the battlefield.

It was true, life had many pleasures - drink, women, carousing - but from time to time one had to let loose some bloodlust. One had to channel the pent-up rage and grief somehow - and Qaseer tended to find that the field of blood and blades was generally the healthiest outlet. He raised his head and closed his eyes, thinking back to his duel with Hunayra. Unconsciously, he stroked Mara's mane and smiled. 'You beautiful thing, Mara,' he murmured as he lived out once again those moments spent staring into the eyes of death. It was strange, for one only ever felt the full glory of life when hanging by a horsehair 'twixt life and death. Only then did blood pump true, only then did the heart beat loudly and desperately - as though its frenzied attempts to hold onto life would keep out the metal blade and piercing dart. There were many joys, it was true, and Qaseer lived them all fully, but to feel life on the battlefield was a joy all its own. Few were those who knew it and savoured it when it was laid before them.

The various tribes had assured him that they would gather up their fighting men and join him at the main Azad encampment within the week, but Qaseer could smell their fear and reluctance. News had reached them that the Tagham were gathering forces and calling upon allies who had never before been so far south. The Azad, it appeared, were facing a threat unlike anything they had ever gone up against - tribes they had only heard of in stories and rumours were suddenly said to be answering the Tagham call, and those who had neither mare nor camel in the conflict were rushing to make known their enmity for the Azad.
And Qaseer was not unaware of the seemingly-feeble and cowardly eyes which from time to time bore like daggers into his turned back. But it was good that they thought him unaware - that had been one of Shaqmar's weapons too. Beguile them with your strength and they lose sight of the light in your eyes. Bukida is ill, they said, he cannot be present.
Fools.
Yoditi had reported the Mu'aykalid elder's night-time movements toward Tagham territory almost immediately. And one by one the traitors condemned themselves with their lies.

It was true that these were the worst of times to be dealing with disloyal elements, but that in itself was one of the reasons that these were the worst of times. He would be patient, there was no need to rush things - much as he wished to crush them this instant, such would be foolhardy. He would take them slowly, one by one. They would not even know it was him. They would not even know they were being targeted. This had been one of Shaqmar's weapons, it was true. But Shaqmar never used it.

The small man was torn from his reverie by a sudden movement on the crest of the hill across from him. He frowned as a strange red creature rushed forth at alarming speed. His goats raised their heads in alarm and, before the Rukban could do anything to calm them, scattered. And Mara too neighed in fear and agitation and, straining against her reins and kicking the earth fitfully, suddenly turned and bolted.

But Rukban steeds never bolted.

Not normally, anyway. The eagle tied to Qaseer's arm sent forth an irritated screeched at the sudden movement, and Qaseer just about managed to keep a hold on the reins and looked behind him at the creature that had ignited such fear within his mare and goat-herd.

Even hunched low to the ground in a monstrous charge, the thing was two horses tall. It looked savage, almost feral, and would have looked every part a beast were it not for the long scourge that it flailed about in one hand. With a mastery that no mere beast could ever hope to attain, the abomination lashed at one of the hurriedly escaping goats. As if its whip had a mind of its own, the thing coiled around the animal and bound it tightly. With no more effort than that which it put into taking a step or breathing, the beast hefted its scourge with such force that it jerked the goat's neck and at once silenced its bleating. But the giant did not seem satisfied with merely one goat, and even now it cast down that first kill and began to chase after the next.

'Fucking bastard!' Qaseer growled as he forcefully reined Mara in. The mare stopped reluctantly at her rider's command and turned about, 'those are my goats!' The mare took a few hesitant steps forward as Qaseer removed the blinder from his eagle's head. 'Get the bitch, Haka,' he whispered as he released the eagle. Even as the mighty bird flapped its wings and accelerated towards its impossible target, Qaseer loosed a few arrows at the monstrous thing. The whistling arrows caught the monster's attention, even if they little more than agitated it; then Haka reached its target and, with an ear-piercing screech, launched itself, talons extended, into the back of the monster's head.

Two of the brute's four horrific claws were at once clutching at the eagle, and even as it pecked and gouged, one of its talons were caught in a deathly grip. Haka was flung to the ground, and then there was some savage flurry of clawing; even as the beast held the whip in one hand, it had three more arms with which to tear its assailant to pieces. Qaseer's eyes widened as his bird was torn to shreds by the strange demon. His sun-kissed face became a dark crimson as he put his bow away and drew a wickedly curved blade. Mara whinnied nervously beneath him, but she obeyed when he spurred her into a canter which exploded into a full on charge. Blade at the ready, he roared his fury as the monster turned its unseeing head towards him. As the creature came into closer view, only one thought ran through the head of the Qa'id Adheem.

...idiot


But he had drawn his blade. He had charged. His enemy's face (if that ugly mug could be called a face at all) was before him. There was no turning back now. It was odd. Usually at these speeds you could feel the wind on your face. Qaseer blinked and, still stuck in that surreal slowness, turned his head to the right. Was it just him or was that a...
Earth exploded beneath him and dust rose up to engulf the giant red demon. Mara leapt past the distracted and blinded beast in a bubble of absolute peace and calm. Qaseer turned the mare about and looked around himself in confusion as the earth continued to launch itself upon the monster. He noted that his goats had made good their escape and, with a final glance at where the beast stood trapped, spurred Mara away. The mare was all too happy to be putting distance between the monster and herself.

On the crest of a not too distant hill, a lone dark-haired figure stood watching and whispering. The Qa'id Adheem saw him at the periphery of his vision and paused for a few brief moments. He was almost certain that the distant figure - and there was something very familiar about him - had saved his life. He frowned at this strange development, but decided against investigating. His goats were the priority. And so he spurred his steed on and flew across the the gold and green Rukban hills and plains.

The very air and earth seemed to bay back as the abomination cracked its whip and hurled the scourge in windmills about itself, but every minute opening in the monster's guard was exploited by the unseen force. Gnashing and slashing, the sightless sprytes pressed their attack until the abomination abandoned all delusions of glory and began to flee despairingly. On its way it did manage to grab the one goat that it had felled and left on the ground; though it had no doubt hoped for more quarry, that was all the goats from Qaseer's herd that the bastard would thieve this day.
The man on the hill watched silently as the monster retreated towards the Venom Forest, and his sprytes slowly dissipated and went off their separate ways. One, however, returned to him and twirled its aerial form around his neck. Bulagutai smiled and stroked what passed for the little spryte's chin. 'You did well, my beautiful friend.' And with that, he left his position at the crest of the hill and descended.

It was through the mercy of the Eternal Sky that Qaseer had been spared today - for were it not for the frightful vision of blood and death that Bulagutai had seen, the Azad would have been ruined this day. But they were not. For he, a dauntless guardian true, had at long last returned.

***


They swam through a golden sea of grass that rose to their waists. On foot the ogres marched on, some five score in number, behind the mad shaman that was the leader of this so-called 'warband'. In truth, they had done little in the way of war or raiding and were beginning to grow restless; they had wandered far from Omokog and it felt as if at any moment the horizon of these strange lands might give way to a great precipice that was the very edge of the world.

Behind their procession followed a dozen spiryts bound to Grekogork and the two shamans at his side. Some were flamedjinn whose mere presence scorched the ground and set the chaff aflame; the sweet smoke of the grassfires behind them compelled the warriors to march on, even though they knew not where they went or for what purpose.

They suddenly halted, and in the sweaty stillness the sun's oppressive heat weighed all the more heavily down upon them. At the head of their long line, Grekogork looked back and forth and muttered to himself. The wind had a way of carrying words. "This way, Grekogork thinks, no, not that way! Wrong way! Bad way!"

"What's he on about?" came a growl from one of the grunts in the rear.

"He's always been funny in the head, but now he's lost it."

"He doesn't even know where we are!"

...

There was a sudden silence, and those whose voices had spoken suddenly felt their warleader's icy glare fall upon them. He shouldn't have been able to hear from so far away, but somehow he did. Must have been the djinn that told him, or some sort of magic.

"Quiet! Obey, or i̵ ̶k̶i̸l̷l̶ ̷y̶o̶u̸!"

Their bodies were then as stiff as arrows stuffed into a quiver.

Grekogork's menacing gaze suddenly broke, and he was looking down upon the ground. He dropped the sack, then began muttering something indiscernible to his feet. "Grekogork think this...Grekogork say that..."
But the ogre was saved from having to make any kind of decision at all by the growing sound of thunder approaching from the distance. It was soft at first, a barely noticeable rumble, but it very swiftly became louder, and the gentle rumble became a mighty shaking of the earth. Grekogork's strange utterances gave way to barking orders, "Take arms! Stand together! Shoulder to shoulder!" A cry rose up as the grass gave way before the Rukban warparty and the men came to a halt some distance from the wall of giant earthen-coloured creatures.

Yoditi had come galloping into the encampment searching for the Qa'id Adheem early in the morning hours to report on the large number of the strange creatures he had witnessed marching through their grazing land. It was at the edge of their territory where grass began to give way to sand, but it remained Azad land.
'Were they red?' Qaseer asked, frowning.
'Not quite, my Qa'id. They were different shades of yellow, orange, and brown, from what I could see at a safe distance.'
'Did they have a protruding, bone-like structure atop their heads?' Yoditi raised an eyebrow at this very specific line of questioning.
'No, my Qa'id. Their heads seemed... fairly regular. Bigger than ours, more brutish. But no bones or horns that I could see. They had hair, if that's of any significance.' Qaseer looked down thoughtfully for a few moments before his eyes lit up with a sudden idea. He smiled and placed a hand on Yoditi's shoulder.
'You've done well, Dit. Tell... Kifaki to outfit a small warparty to investigate these creatures.' Yoditi seemed taken aback by this.
'My Qa'id, are you sure?' Qaseer smiled.
'Tell him this is a matter of utmost importance and I am entrusting it to him. If these creatures are hostile they may pose a significant threat if they march deeper into our territories. This is his opportunity to prove his mettle and earn a leadership post - if he is successful.' Yoditi frowned deeply, but bowed.
'As you wish, my Qa'id.' And so Kifaki had excitedly marched out with a small warparty to see to these creatures. A leadership position - he could not waste such an opportunity to increase his clout within the tribe and to grow closer to that Qaseer...

And now he found himself staring down what appeared to be the leader of the group. The creature did not look at all intelligent - growling to itself strangely. 'Wh- who are you and what brings you to... to Rukban land?' Kifaki questioned the creature with a raised voice, keeping his distance and fingering his sword's pommel. Another rider came up beside him and eyed the creature, then noted the djinnis who appeared tied to the leader.

Kifaki's raised voice elicited a few thunderous roars from the line of ogres, as if they meant to match some provocation or war-cry. But the one in the middle only continued muttering to itself as four djinn made their way to his side; however, it looked not at its own minions but rather at a large sack that it held in one hand.

'I don't think they understand us, Kifaki,' the shaman spoke, 'but perhaps we can communicate with them through those djinn.' Kifaki looked uncertainly at the shaman. He was the only Azad that had accompanied the Mu'aykalid warparty, at the insistence of Zanshah. Hakamunga was his name, a son of the Azad chief shaman, Alqama, and an important shaman in his own right. He had been Shaqmar's personal witchdoctor, had cured Layla of her illnesses when she was first rescued - and so had been strewn with treasures and rewards by the dead Qa'id Adheem.
'I hardly doubt that will be necessary, shaman. Look, that grovelling one looks like it understands us.' Hakamunga looked at the leader, to whom Kifaki was gesturing sneeringly.
'Be respectful, Kifaki,' the shaman whispered. The leader of the warparty ignored the shaman and he urged his horse to take a few steps forward, nearer to the grunting creature.

Its soft deliverance had grown progressively louder, and now it was nearly shouting. The other creatures looked at it with eyes just as wide as those of the Rukbans. "Gar kel ug tak!" A burning fire entered its maddened eyes, but the shaman's gaze was still directed only at the bag. And then that look disappeared, and it was as if the madness had gone just as quick. The ogre looked at the approaching horseman as if it had only just noticed the presence of the Azad.

But of course, it had sensed them from miles away.

Grekogork reached down into the mysterious sack and procured a strange black rock the size of a horse's head...no, it was a skull. He held the thing, pointing at the Azad with those dead and vacant voids where the skull's eyes once were.

In perfect Rukban, he suddenly delivered an ultimatum, "You will stand aside as we make our way across these plains, or be slain." Kifaki clicked his tongue in annoyance.
'And where is it that you are headed? Who are you anyway? Where have you come from? I can't let you pass until you, at the very least, answer my questions and assure me of your good intentions.' Not that Kifaki intended to let them pass at all. An opportunity like this could not be let up. He would take some time to size the group up and the disposition of the creatures, and then he would deal with them accordingly. Who knew, maybe they would even surrender willingly if he did things right.

All his plans were for naught when the strange creature answered by raising a fist. The giant warriors hardly needed to be given the order; the bloodlust had already been in their eyes. With one deafening bellow they charged forward with all manner of crude stone weapons in hand, whilst the speaker and the two shamans at his side raised their hands and wrought some magic even as their djinn surged forth. Kifaki's eyes widened at this sudden attack - though, in all truth, he should have expected it given the creatures words. His horse desperately attempted to back away as he drew his sword and egged his warriors on. The warriors loosed their own cries as they drew their curved blades and charged into the fray.

The resulting clash was one the likes of which neither side had ever seen. The Azad recoiled in terror at these monstrous brutes as they met a cavalry charge head-on and nearly broke through, fighting with such strength and savagery that one of them severed a horse's head with one blow of its heavy axe. The advancing ranks quickly dissolved and then the skirmish devolved into a chaotic brawl. The ogres were taken aback by the sheer size of the horses and the speed with which the sabres could hack at their exposed flesh. They were used to fighting pathetic heen or other ogres, not an enemy that was both quicker and had the advantage of size thanks to the animals that they rode. But still, they fell. For the softskins and their horses were fragile.

Kifaki clicked his tongue in frustration and roared for his men to cut the beasts down, waving his sword about frantically. Then Hakamunga was beside him. The shaman looked at the Mu'aykalid coldly and spoke, and his voice came piercingly clear despite the pandemonium all about. 'A Qa'id leads from the frontline.' Kifaki gulped and looked away, staring at the no-longer grovelling leader of the giant monstrosities. Gripping his sword and gritting his teeth, he let out a great cry and egged his steed into a mad charge right for the skull-bearing beast (a head, however creepy, is no good in a fight, right?)

Grekogork was not blind to that charge, he stepped away from the two shamans by his side and unleashed the magic that he had been weaving.

For his part, Hakamunga gripped the reins of his horse tightly as small sprytes circled about him, nipping and striking out in small swarms at the larger and more powerful djinn of flame and stone commanded by the ogre shamans. He knew with certainty that even with the enemy's leader distracted by Kifaki's charge, he could not hope to hold off the power of two enemy shamans on his own - and these seemed uniquely skilled in using their powers for aggressive purposes. The Azad were not used to such things - in war, their shamans had to work together to bind anything larger than a spryte and direct it successfully. Nevertheless, he would do what little he could to stave off the magical assault. No one else could.

Kifaki had only closed half the gap between himself and the brutish sorcerer before the beast's magic took form: a blast of concussive energy surged invisibly through the air. As his horse leaped over one of the fallen, Kifaki felt the blast of force travel through the air beside him. It had been a very narrow miss; if the blow had landed, it would have flung him from his horse and likely left his bones broken. But it had not, and so Kifaki's horse was upon Grekogork in the next instant and the rider swung his blade with all the force that he could. It was caught in the beast's impossibly dense flesh, and it jerked his arm; only the momentum of his horse and the Rukban's iron grip of desperation were enough to wrench the blade free from the ogre's side.

As Kifaki turned his head, he saw the great brute tumble to the ground. He turned his horse about and let out a triumphant cry, brandishing his red blade in victory. He smirked inwardly and could even now see his glorious march back into the encampment.

Watch me, Tadatunga. I'm coming for you.

But then the ogre stirred. After a moment, it pushed itself back up and was on its knees. One of its brawny hands reached out to grasp at the skull that had fallen and rolled a few handspans away, and then it was standing on its feet once more. Kifaki turned back in confusion.

Impossible.

He had cut down the brute; that had been a mortal wound! Indeed, the brute had been nearly cleaved in two and the horrific gouge was bare for all beneath the sky to witness. But the blood had already clotted and scabbed, and though it had left a hideous black scar, the sorcerer had somehow defied death. The horse snorted beneath Kifaki and kicked at the earth, clearly agitated at this display. Kifaki raised his blade more, the razor-sharp sabre snaked out once again to cut down the magicker beast - let's see it get up again when its head is sent flying!

Though he spurred his horse onwards, its charge was a slow one that broke into a meager canter, and then a moment later its mighty onward rush was no more than a stumbling trot. Grekogork approached on foot even as the horse collapsed to the ground and pinned the Rukban beneath its dead mass. Like grass drying beneath the sun, the mighty stallion withered and yellowed; all its life was being drained into the sorcerer through some unholy act of magic, and now the terrible wound upon the brute's side was hardly visible. Kifaki watched in horror as the horse withered and decayed. But the swift decomposition of his steed meant that his leg, which had been trapped beneath heavy flesh, was suddenly freed. He swiftly rose to his feet and stared warily at the healing beast.
'What manner of perversion and depravity is this?' he asked, gulping down his terror even as he kept his sword raised and took a step back.

It seemed to find the man's palpable terror to be amusing. With a cruel laugh, it answered in some alien tongue that came across as no more than guttural gibberish. Kifaki scowled and spat on the ground. 'Don't give me that! I know you can speak, brute.'

A firedjinni disengaged from its dance with one of the Azad warriors by suddenly flaring so as to excite the steed, then felling the rider with a well-aimed globular mass of its own fiery body. It crackled like the burning grass beneath its feet, then turned to Kifaki and charged. The man's irritated scowl melted into outright terror as the djinni charged him. 'Ha- Ha- Hakamunga!' he screeched as he leapt over the carcass of his dead horse to flee the fiery charge. He found himself hugging the ground closer to the gibbering brute and, anger surging through him, considered leaping at it. Surely severing its head would do the job. Surely. Or... fire. Parts of the grassy battlefield were already aflame due to the firedjinn, it was just a matter of finding some way to harness it...
He noted that the firedjinn that had been charging him was suddenly preoccupied as a swarm of sprytes nipped and ripped at it. Maybe... maybe the shaman could do the harnessing? He had never seen single shamans do such things, but maybe?

Leaping to his feet, he backed away from the brute and attempted to get back to Hakamunga's side. But even as he made to escape, his legs were suddenly flung out from beneath as if some great weapon had scythed them down like wheat. And yet there had been nothing but air and dark magic.

Grekogork stood over him and stepped on his sword hand, crushing it to the earth beneath his great weight, even as the man roared in pain and clawed at the beast's foot with his other hand. He still held that grimacing skull in one hand, and that black visage was the last thing that Kifaki saw when he looked up.
Hakamunga watched with horror as Kifaki's form began to shrink and wrinkle and decay at unnatural speed. He was unsure if he was simply seeing things, but for a few moments he thought he saw a screeching, writhing, spryte-like being surge from Kifaki's corpse and into the monster's waiting hand. Hakamunga shook his head and, when he looked back again, there was no writhing being at all.
All around warriors and horses were falling before the unnatural power of the beasts and their magickers. There was no victory to be had here this day. Sprytes writhed about the shaman and surged forth. 'Azaaaad!' came the shaman's unnaturally loud voice, 'behind me! Away, away!' And at his command, warriors began disengaging and horses turned and leapt away. The brutish creatures attempted to give chase, but swarms of sprytes descended upon them from all directions, screeching and churning. The shaman looked once more at the skull-bearing beast, his eyes clearly troubled by all that he had seen it do. Not wishing to tarry longer than necessary, the shaman turned his mare about and fled after the retreating warparty.

The shaman continued to have his sprytes cover their retreat even when the strange creatures were out of sight. Eventually, certain that they had escaped, he caught up with the retreating warparty and they all made their dejected way back to the encampment. Fifty-one mounted men had sallied forth with Kifaki, and thirty-five were going back. Here and there a rider held onto the reins of a horse that had survived the encounter, and here and there such a horse still had its dead rider on it.
Riding into the main camp, Hakamunga dismounted and immediately made for the Qa'id Adheem's roundtent. 'My Qa'id,' the witchdoctor said respectfully as he was permitted entrance.
'Hakamunga,' Qaseer said with a frown, 'where is Kifaki?' The witchdoctor sighed and related what had happened. He reported in detail the appearance of the strange creatures and the fact that they had terrifying power over djinn - single shamans could bind and command multiple powerful elementals, it seemed. He reported also on the strange magic of death and decay used by their leader, and how he had caused Kifaki to shrink and rot away. The Qa'id Adheem's face grew dark at the news.
'But I do not believe they are here to conquer or even raid, my Qa'id,' the shaman added, 'their leader seemed only interested in passing through our land. His destination, it seems, is beyond Azad Rukbany.' Qaseer nodded in understanding and commanded the shaman to have his sprytes watch these trespassers until they were out of Azad territory. 'Though I fear that they will take notice, I will do so carefully, my Qa'id.'

Yoditi also was commanded to ride after the beasts and keep watch, but from a long distance. The veteran scout did so, and days later, Hakamunga reported that the beasts had departed into the horrific western deadlands. Yoditi would report the same some time later, but he also reported that he had passed by the grassland where the battle had taken place, and found it most odd. 'No signs of burial. No bodies, either beast or man. The odd remains of a horse here and there, ashes too strangely enough. But nothing else,' he reported. Qaseer looked to Sakago who frowned deeply.
'What do you think it means, Dit?' Yoditi looked at Qaseer and shrugged.
'Only the obvious - they did not bury their dead, and they took the bodies the warparty was not able to return with them. Why and how - I can't say.' Qaseer nodded and decided to put the matter aside.
'It is done. We have other matters to see to now. Have you received any news on Tagham movements?' Yoditi shook his head.
'Only that they are still assembling. Hakamunga tells me that his sprytes have reported enormous numbers coming from the north. Either way, the longer we sit around doing nothing, the greater the forces that assemble against us. We need to act. And soon.' Sakago nodded in agreement, but remained silent.
'Don't you worry you two. Wiley Qaseer has a plan,' and he smiled knowingly. Kifaki was dead. A relatively young half-brother of Tadatunga, he had been of little clout and importance. He would be mourned by his mother and a wife, perhaps. But he would not be greatly or uniquely missed, and none would think that the Qa'id Adheem had willed his death. But so had Qaseer willed and planned, and so had it been. Thus always to traitors, big be they or small - and the turn would come, one by one, for them all.

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Hair rustled and creaked as it crumpled, the tangled mass shrinking in abrupt pulses as it was drawn into itself and beyond. Another fiberling collapsed into a limp, disorderly heap, the force animating it dissolving to nothing, and a grey tide of darting tendrils and pincers swept over it. A third one darted aside and lunged with woven pseudopods, only for them to spasm and fall as it found the immaterial part of its body irretrievably gone and writhed in surprise. The crawling shapes on the ground pressed their advantage, and the creature drew back with several gaping holes in its bulk. The other two did not wait to see what would happen to them, rolling and slithering away from the gnashing ranks.

They did not go far. One stopped as it began to fold upon itself, clearly despite its best efforts. The rest flaked, then crumbled to dust, as if shredded by something within them.

Osveril swept a finger through the air, and the shrubs and bushes before it were sliced across by a line of sinking space. The hollowborn drifted forward and swarmed around it like moths around a light, vision bending around their nonexistent edges. It was gone in less than any amount of time, but most of them had already dived through it more than once. As branches and leaves fell, supported by nothing, the hovering folds scattered, assembling back together over their unmaker.

It was no use, this was clear. The taint fought against the purging, and it had had all time to prepare. All the wealth of matter and the span of extension was at its disposal, and it used them like a single, vicious mind. Hair, stone, size - everything was on its side. Osveril could not be everywhere and nowhere at once, and its heralds could be overpowered without its guidance even before they met those mortals.

Reach out with more arms.

A grey finger pressed a sequence of buttons, and spiral forms flashed in Transgenesis’s glassy eye. Everything that life could do, it could do also, and more. Better. Impurity would devour itself.

One step, and Osveril was no longer there. If better vessels were needed, it would build them, out of the best pieces the world had to seize.

The hollowborn trailed in its wake, as fast as nothing could be.

***


Dash, some moments of trotting, dash. Trot, trot some more, dash again. The smell was still there. Dash.

It bent its tail to one side, swerving so fast its legs became a blur, then straightened it and ran on. Into a patch of tall grass. Another swerve. Through the stream. The one that smelled of sand and rot had already kept its track past water once, but it might lose it now.

No. The scent was still there. Trot. Dash. Swerve. Dash.

This thing was something strange. They had followed the same herd for days, but the one with the dead scent had not waited for a straggler to fall off. It had run at them and hit them with its sting. Like a tall hunter. Even they waited for the cattle to stray first. And they did not hit them all.

And they did not hunt manglers.

Dash. Swerve. Trot. Dash-

The thing was by its side. Where it had been about to turn. It almost tumbled in an effort to avoid the dead-smelling body. Its tail swung aside, and it recovered. But it could not avoid the sting.

The point caught it where the plates of the hind leg met those of the body, and its limb twitched with pain. It passed quickly. It waited, trotting. Many stings had a poison that bit long after the spike was gone.

This one did not. It did not bite when the dead scent went away at last, or at night, or the next day. The spot was numb with pain, nothing else. Not even the weakness of a leech bite.

Something strange. Avoid the dead smell.

Hunt.

***


Something moved through the undergrowth with little regard for being heard. Its steps were silent, but stems and small trunks staggered and fell where it passed, raising clouds of thin grey dust. Startled animals darted in all directions, and birds rose with alarmed cries. A warbler shot up, headed for a clearing in the treetops, only to be seized in mid-flight by a slimy green tentacle that lashed out from the foliage close by. A second, longer appendage stretched out to reach into the center of the confusion, clutching for richer prey, only to suddenly coil back, empty, as if struck.

The oozing ambusher in the branches was not the only one drawn by the commotion. A large shape stalked among the trees, almost without a rustle. Its proboscidal tongue felt for the intruder’s smell, twisting when it found something unpleasant and alien. The occasional rodent that fled its way quickly turned about when it noticed the creature, still much to slow had it not been indifferent to them at that time. Something large and clumsy was near, a far better meal than a wood rat.

The source of the disturbance was near. The great nectar blush slunk to the side of the path of collapsing shrubs, tilted its body backwards, then pounced, stinger stuck towards the lumbering creature in the grass.

It was met by a painful stab to its own abdomen.

The blush thrummed its wings and tore into the bushes, stinger ready for another lunge. But there was nothing - only the heads of fallen saplings, and a trail of grey dust.

***


The ground shook, rumbling like a distant sea, as titanic steps pounded on it in a slow, regular rhythm. It ceased for an instant while a monstrous head bent down to snatch a lone tree with its powerful jaws, uprooting it whole, then resumed its leisurely pace. The beast had nowhere to hurry. It barely even seemed aware of its surroundings, let alone something out of its stolid gaze. Nor did it need to be.

A small grey shape flitted through the air at the corner of its eye. It was too fast to tell where it was going, had the beast cared at all. It was not surprised when it felt something falling onto its back. Birds and gargoyles perched there sometimes. A few tried to nest now and then.

The something pricked the hide on the colossus’s back. Though it barely felt the sting through its thick skin, the creature huffed and stirred its body to shake off the nuisance. It did not think to guess what it could have been - it was enough to know that it was annoying, and it was a relief when the weight, however slight, disappeared.

Whipping its tail for good measure, the beast grunted and continued to chew the tree. The second time the grey shape flew by its head, it passed unseen.

***


All that is born from the touch of Purity must know its cleansing urge.

To end a world like this was coarse work, but this did not mean it would never need finer instruments. Ones better attuned to their function, and their wielder. Foulness that cut itself would regrow, but what withered from the breath of the void was gone forever.

Adapting the devourers had shown this. Born as they were of flesh alone, much of Osveril’s strength had gone into merely completing their design, and it had too little of it to spare. A better tool would have to compensate. One that could fashion life and what was beyond at once. Aid in the bridging of worlds.

It held up Transgenesis, and rifts in the universal weave gaped around it. Dust rose in waves from the ground beneath its feet, mingling with the wavering tendril-shaped clouds its shell breathed out. The hollowborn swarmed overhead, diving past the gaps and curiously swimming towards the glowing spear-tip, only to leap back from the solidity that was deadly to them.

The dust wound its way into the staff, through channels of delivery and cracks that were not there. For the first time, Osveril felt how it was within. Cleverly built, yet all too full, even where it was not. Reaching no further than the physical, even in imitation.

So much to correct.

Sharp grains and bladed shards cut and twisted, severed and welded again, melting and fusing into new conduits. Shaper and shaped became as one.

A hovering void seeped into the harpoon’s funnel, shrinking from the matter that loomed to all sides. It was seized upon and fragmented, mangled and healed, too many times to count. Seeds of emptiness were planted by the myriad hands of the hollow gardener. They took root. They grew. They flourished.

Spirals writhed on Transgenesis’s silent mouth. Angular, broken lines superimposed themselves over them, merged with them, became them.

You relinquished All you had with this, Mother. Now it is mine.

Like moss, a new row of keys crept up from beneath the staff’s surface. The symbols on them were as cryptic as the others.

Mine to foster.

Pink dimmed and faded to grey.

Mine to mold.

***


“What’d you mean, you can’t see them?”

“Just that. Can’t see none. Come here and look yourself.“

“You mean the urts?”

“I mean them all. Look yourself, I tell you.”

Sekkal clambered up the small hill and tilted his beak, straining his eyes in the direction that his companion was pointing. These mounds were a favourite vantage point of travellers approaching the village. From any of them, one could see not only more than half of the huts, but also the small empty space at the center, and anyone who was passing through it. If one knew when to come, or was simply lucky, one could also see the boulder-like forms of the urt herd that stopped there now and again as it went by. They always had useful news from the west, and usually a Jahanite to translate them. From what either of the visitors knew, the herd should have been there now - but it wasn’t.

Nor was the village itself.

“...What the...” Sekkal was finally able to articulate. “What’s this?”

Gettre only threw up his palms in perplexity.

Where a circle of buildings had once stood was a patch of bare soil. Sekkal could even see the grasslands beyond what had been the village’s further edge, something that, while perfectly natural, seemed utterly unreal. The ground itself was neither brown nor green as could have been expected, but chillingly and inexplicably grey. Even more chillingly and inexplicably, no wreckage was in sight. No beheaded walls, no fallen roofs, nothing. All there seemed to be were lumpy shapes scattered about, too small to be urts, but nothing like hain or even human bodies.

“You think it’s - them again? The burning ones?”

“Could be.” Gettre’s voice was as tense as his own. “Doesn’t look like a fire, though.”

Sekkal followed his brother’s finger with his eyes. The grey patch covered roughly the space where he remembered the village to be, but the grass at its rim was untouched. It did not even look dry, at least from that distance.

Nodding to each other, the two hain cautiously made their way down the gentle slope and towards the blasted zone. There was no smell of cinder in the air. In fact, there was no smell at all.

The grey surface crunched softly under their feet as they stepped on it. Gettre bent down to feel it with a hand, then scooped up a fistful of yielding, fluid matter.

“And this doesn’t look like ash.” The substance ran through his fingers like sand until only a few grains remained. He began to open his beak as if to taste it with his tongue, but then thought better of it. His hand instead reached down to pick up something he had just then noticed, half-buried in the dust. An arrow, or rather most of it. The tip was shattered, despite being seemingly made of good bronze - about half of it was missing, as though it had somehow splintered off on hitting something very hard and sharp from an unusual angle.

Gettre let his eyes slide along the ground. For some reason, he felt hesitant to look up at the shapes they had glimpsed from the distance. He had avoided them when approaching, only keeping the closest one in the corner of the back eye in case it was some ambushing beast, but it looked like nothing more than a strange stone, and had not moved. And still…

His brother, less daunted by the vague eeriness about the forms, approached one near the edge of the grey circle, holding his spear pointed at it. From close by, it looked less like a stone. It was like the trunk of a small tree, broad and made of smooth, perfectly chiseled plates. Somehow, their impossible regularity was not what struck Sekkal as the oddest part. The thing’s surface had a sheen that looked oddly familiar, like something he had seen many times before. But not something he could name.

“This look strange to you?” he called.

Gettre shuffled to his side, the broken arrow still in his hand. “Never seen anything like it, for sure.”

“No, I mean this…” he tapped on the growth’s side with the tip of his weapon. It answered with a dull, barely audible sound. “The way it- gleams? Not like iron or anything.”

Gettre turned his beak to the side, looking first at the thing, then at his brother. “Strange.” he echoed, nodding. “Like giant shell.” He glanced at Sekkal again, then added. “Or hain.”

Sekkal tilted his head, clenching his jaw in distaste, and the two moved further into the stain of desolation. The broken arrow proved to be only the first of several signs that whatever fate had come upon the village, it had been met with a fierce struggle. More splintered and notched arrows lay in the dust, near cracked throwing stones. Half of a spear was struck in the ground in one spot. Elsewhere, a glinting shard of amber crystal showed that the urts had been there for the fighting.

And nothing was left after it.

Nothing except the grey-shelled growths. There were more of them than it seemed from afar, almost identical in shape. Some were much smaller than the others, others slightly larger and without the same gloss. More than anything else, they looked like the legs of enormous, alien mushrooms. However bizarre, they gave no sign of being alive, and Sekkal was about to suggest they start searching for signs of the villagers nearby when Gettre motioned for him to look at one of the larger lumps.

Unlike those that surrounded it, the stump was not flawlessly smooth. Some of its plates hung half-detached from the body, jutting outwards as through broken out of shape from within. Out of the gaps streamed a swollen, formless grey mass, bulging over the thing’s height and hanging down to almost reach the ground. From close up, it reminded Sekkal of dried foam. Only, it was riddled with small holes, and felt soft under the spear. So soft that the sharp point cut through it with unexpected ease, cutting off a sizeable piece. The brothers started back in disgust as the severed chunk fell, revealing a veined, fleshy interior crawling with bundles of worms. The vermin writhed sickeningly as they swarmed all over the exposed slice, tumbling down and twitching on the barren soil. Some scampered on half-formed legs and thrummed misshapen wings. One even managed to take flight, only to be hurriedly swatted by a hain hand.

“What is this?” Since he had first spoken that question, its answer had only sunken further into a grey haze.

“I can tell it’s not the burning ones.”

“Do you think it’s…?” He was quiet for a moment. Was that a sound in the distance? Just the wind. “Jah-”

The abhorred name was cut short by a piercing screech too close to be safe. It was not the howl or scream of one of the plain dwellers - it was as loud as one, but it droned and scraped like the song of a cicada. No cicada could be that big.

More answered it. They were further, but, little by little, he could hear them drawing near.

“Let’s go.” Gettre had already caught his meaning without a single word. “We’ll see when we come back with people.”

As they hurried away from the blighted spot, the screeches continued to resound, now closer, now further again, and hounded them even when the grey ruin was out of sight.

***


It was a rare occasion when more than a quarter of the town of Cjejamra gathered at noon to listen to some returning hunter’s tall tales. Its folk were busy people, after all, and idlers who tried to distract them from their activities were summarily told to get lost, no matter how large their pearskin catch was or how many brush rats they had managed to tie together by the tails. As a rule, those who came back so early never brought anything better than rats and sickly pearskins, which firmly condemned them to the unenviable role of “waste of time” for the day.

This, and then some, was all the more true for Immen. For all his being in truth a rather capable tracker, everyone knew him best as the most insufferable braggart in the lands around Gisab, and perhaps in the whole Ring. Scarcely a day went by without his voice being interrupted by shouts to be quiet, and the gods only knew how many of his unimpressive trophies had been confiscated and thrown away (one pond in particular must have been half-full of “giant” mangler skulls). Yet, to everyone’s chagrin, Immen was nothing if not persistent.

And, for once, that persistence had been rewarded. No less than half of Cjejamra’s folk was assembled just outside the town, and more were approaching still, straining to peer over their fellows’ shoulders with curious faces. Artisans dropped their tools, traders picked up their wares, even some slaves eluded the lazy eye of their masters to come and gawk at the thing Immen had caught. For the first time, everyone was agreeing that it was something never seen before, and this alone made it worth shoving past the throng to get a good glimpse of it.

The catch did not disappoint. Lying at Immen’s feet, between him, his grim-faced brother-by-marriage Anlde, who was for some reason holding his right hand hidden in the folds of his tunic, and Oltik the nervous-looking hain trapper, was a carcass so ghastly that many mistook it for a Jahanite at first. Its four legs bent backwards like those of running beasts, but the head, with those rib-like jaws and smattering of dull eyes, was that of a spider dreamed by someone in their second hatching. Pieces of its sharp-angled grey shell were splintered, and the leathery sails of its crest torn; thick dark slime seeped from the wounds. The most unsettling part, many agreed, was what stretched out from the toothless mouth. It must have been a tongue of some sort, but it resembled nothing more than a long, bloated worm whose head was a second pair of mandibles.

“...an’ we saw it pounce,” Immen was narrating, gesturing broadly as was his habit and raising his voice at the least appropriate points. This time, no one seemed to mind. “An’ so I say, this’s going to be fast, ‘cause there’s no way a thing this size makes it against three hairfiends. But then it bites one, an’ a piece of it falls, like that.” He let his arm collapse and dangle for a moment.”Then it starts clawing another, an’ all through it’s screaming like a whole pearskin herd by itself. Well, then the last crawls up an’ rips off the shell on its back, an’ while it’s turning the other gets it in the side over the leg, an’ then we know it’s done for. But it killed one of them an’ tore up half of another, an’ that’s something as none of us have ever seen with our eyes.

“So we look at the hairfiends play with the body, but then they all draw up an’ roll off all sudden, can’t see why. We wait, we wait, an’ then we go closer to see what’s the matter. To be safe, I stick the spear into where the shell got ripped up, an’ it comes out like this…”

He held up what must indeed have been a spear at some point, but was now conspicuously missing its tip. The haft below did not appear splintered. It simply ended where it had once continued in length.

“We were sure it was dead, so Anlde went to look at the head, an’... It looked dead, but it got out its tongue, or what that is, an’ got his hand. Didn’t even bite, but that’s what it did.”

As if on cue, Anlde drew out his right hand and raised it for all to see. It had only three fingers; everything left of the middle one had vanished, like after a clean, abnormally bloodless cut. Recent though the mutilation was, it seemed to be already covered by smooth, slightly grey-tinged skin.

“Didn’t even feel it.” he commented in a flat tone of voice. “Still don’t. I just had half my hand, and then I didn’t.”

“After that we stabbed it some more, but then it was dead for sure.” Immen continued. “An’ so we took it up to see if any knows what’s it for a beast, an’ if any can make something of it. Got a hard shell, sharp jaws, who knows what more inside.”

“I’ll fetch Attanet.” someone called from the crowd.

“You asked anyone on the way?” another voice inquired.

“We went past the grove where the monk lives, the one with the head that looks like two,” came the answer, “An’ we went to see if it knew. Said it hadn’t ever seen any like this, too, and it’s not of Jahan-”

“That’s good already!” Oltik quietly interjected.

“It’s not that, but the monk said it’d known of more things suchlike, down south. There’s many in great packs, it said, an’ that whole villages disappear where they go.”

Mutters, both dubious and uneasy, ran through the audience.

“Nobody’s heard from Sappria in two weeks.”

“Doesn’t mean a thing. You can’t listen to all a monk says.”

“It is to the south…”

“Did you hear of what happened near Taril? That some of them went to talk to the urts, and they say they saw…”

“We’ll have to go a while in the city and take a party to go check, just in case…”

The discussion continued even as the crowd briefly parted to make way for Attanet the chipper and the handful of skinners that followed him to inspect the carcass. Somehow, the fact that Immen had brought the day’s news was the last concern on anyone’s mind.

***


A balance of vectors ensures the proliferation of impurity. To every force corresponds an equal opposite.

Without mutual annihilation.

It perverts its own laws.


A swollen gestator burst open with a wrench that would have sickened mortal stomachs, and a newborn shrieker clambered out of the tattered sac with a triumphant howl. A wave of crawlers was already moving to sweep up the remains while the hunter busied itself with the meaty stem.

Something that had once walked on two legs, and now skittered on four, ran by, avoiding the blind advance of the insatiable creatures. Its own grotesquely inflated abdomen made movement difficult, but somehow it had still enough determination to drag it ahead regardless of its content.

The solution is to answer every force with a greater negation.

Osveril swept its senses over the surrounding zone. What had not so long ago been a forest had been converted into an otherworldly, monochromatic landscape of withered earth and malformed life. Colossal spongy growths towered to all sides, having completely engulfed the trees (and not only) they had parasitised. Swarms of winged pests buzzed in and out of them, coalescing into clouds and disappearing into the as yet untouched distance with their infectious load. Among the living pillars, short, robust trunks rose from tangles of vein-like roots, surmounted by disproportionately large bulbous growths. They pulsed and writhed, shook and breathed.

Each of them was the incubator of a new ravenous life.

Where life proves incapable even as a foundation, it is my duty to improve.

The mortals had, as anticipated, proved uncooperative so far. It was inconsequential. If their minds did not accept purification willingly, their bodies would serve it by force.

The Absolute felt a superior strength of life burgeon nearby. It did not turn - its hollowborn saw for it.
The colossal simulacrum womb that had consumed the tallest mound in the wood whole quivered and burst open, yielding to the pressure of the gargantuan claws within. A vast shape, rivalling the greatest of the devoured trees, unfolded amid the gory ruin, splaying and stretching its segmented limbs and blinking to focus its unsettlingly intelligent, hain-like six eyes. The lower side of its bulky spined head split open along a straight line in the middle, and a dozen tongues - or tentacles - emerged to scoop up what remained of its birthing chamber.

It would feed. It would grow.

There would be more.

The negation will always surpass the force.




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The ground in the colony lurched and fractured. Splitting earth caused railways to buckle, and mining shafts collapsed on themselves. The Processors had stopped manufacturing and were trundling away from the slowly crumbling ground. Even the Nexus had uprooted itself, and was departing along a level road of gravel being produced ahead of it by Harvesters. Destroyer turrets walked with the evacuation, their guns scanning the horizon in case any elementals attempted a direct attack.

Manipulators moved along the quaking ground. Precision seismic measurements tracked the motion of many earth elementals below the colony, who were undermining its foundations. The Manipulators planted the occasional burrowing explosive and set it going. These devices had a drill head attached which was designed to propel the device forwards through the ground, until its warhead was detonated. This device allowed the Prometheans to damage underground earth elementals, although they were comparatively slow and had limited range. Regardless, it was the best the Prometheans had for attacking enemies protected by dozens of metres of stone.

For this colony, though, it hadn't been enough. The earth djinn had made the location uninhabitable, and the Prometheans had been reluctantly forced to abandon it and its mineral resources.

~~~~

The hydrocarbon lake was draining much faster than it should have been.

The primary use of hydrocarbons by the Prometheans was in manufacturing chemicals. With no ambient oxygen, hydrocarbons were almost useless as an energy source (save for stripping the hydrogen for use in fusion), but the simple organic molecules were essential for creating explosives, rocket fuels and plastics. With the war in full swing these resources were in high demand. The Prometheans siphoned hydrocarbons from surface lakes and oceans to supply this demand.

While the Prometheans consumed a lot of hydrocarbons, their consumption could not nearly account for how quickly the level of this lake was sinking. The lake was draining at a rate of a metre a day, and it was getting faster.

Carriers, Manipulators and Destroyers from the adjoining colonies went to investigate. Flow and acoustic measurements were made and aquatic probes were dropped. The Prometheans soon determined that the lake was being drained from the bottom into underground oil fields. The cause behind this disturbance were hydrocarbon elementals, identified when they attacked some of the probes.

A countermeasure was necessary, or else the colonies would be deprived of this resource. The Prometheans built a new Carrier and Destroyer type capable of submarine travel. Their hulls were made liquid-proof and capable of resisting crushing pressures. Then they dived into the depths, and were confronted by the sea djinn.

The battle was furiously energetic. The Prometheans targeted the otherwise invisible hydrocarbon djinn using sonar, and spears of flame lanced forth at the elementals. The elementals surged forth, carrying with them thousands of tonnes of liquid creating turbulent currents to disorient the Prometheans. The djinn latched onto the Prometheans and squeezed with the amplified pressure of the lake. Some of the Prometheans were destroyed by this, the extreme stress exploiting small flaws in their manufacture and allowing the djinn to get inside and rupture the robots. But this also brought the djinn into close contact with the Promethean flamethrowers, and many elementals were burned away in this assault.

Then came the elemental lord who had been leading these djinn. The Prometheans sensed his great bulk approach and loosed a salvo of torpedoes. When they burst within the djinn's liquid form he roared in pain. An amorphous limb shot forwards in retaliation, crushing one of the Destroyers against the lake bed. Fire licked at his swiftly retracting arm, and another limb gripped another Destroyer, flooded the pressurised oxygen vents of its flamethrowers, and squeezed until it ruptured. Meanwhile, the other Destroyers launched more torpedoes while the Carriers turned and fled.

With the might of an ocean the sea lord lashed out at the Prometheans and weathered their attacks until all the Destroyers had been reduced to scrap metal. The sea lord then flowed after the fleeing Carriers. He grasped at one and swallowed it, forcing liquid ethane into every little fault in its hull and tearing it apart from the inside. His pursuit of the rest took him closer to the surface, which put him in range of the more developed Promethean army and air force. Incendiary shells ripped through the lake and missiles burst at its surface, and the sea lord was forced to withdraw.

The Prometheans' submarine assault had been repelled, but they had an alternative plan. The Prometheans manufactured then sunk marine-grade mines into the lake, equipped with basic propulsion, and primed to explode if substantially disturbed or given a remote trigger. With the liberal sowing of explosives across the lake bed, it was only a matter of time before the sea lord came too close to one and triggered the explosion. At this cue, the other mines propelled themselves towards the source of the first explosion, converging upon the hydrocarbon elemental. More explosions tore into the djinni's form, and he had to move nimbly to avoid the mines.

After hours of dodging and the occasional explosion, the Prometheans stopped detecting the strong currents characteristic of hydrocarbon elementals. After waiting a few hours to ensure that all activity had stopped, they sent in the submarine Carriers escorted by the two submarine Destroyers they had managed to build since the last fight. They reached the bottom of the lake unopposed, where the lake intersected a layer of porous rock. The Carriers injected concrete into the layer, blocking it off and preventing any more hydrocarbons from being drained from the lake.

~~~~

To feed their ceaseless expansion, the Prometheans had to always find more resources. Water to feed the fusion cores. Hydrocarbons and ammopnia to create chemicals. Iron and bauxite ore to create structural metals. Uranium and thorium to feed nuclear reactors. These were the main resources consumed, but many other minerals were used in lower volumes and were just as essential. Many rarer minerals formed essential components of electronics and the fusion cores. And this made places where such minerals could be mined very valuable.

The colony containing Nexus 001335 was one such colony, a rare earth mineral mine. The war with the elementals had changed the structure of such outposts. This outpost contained only minimal manufacturing capacity; most goods including most new Prometheans were typically imported, and the resources collected by the outpost were almost entirely exported. This logistical format made establishing the colony cheaper, and also meant that lots of raw resources would not have to be shipped to the outpost.

The war against the elementals had also changed how resources were transported to and from the outposts. Railways were too susceptible to sabotage, so were only used deep within Promethean territory. Goods were hauled to and from the outposts using terrestrial Carriers, which were always accompanied by an escort of Destroyers.

But now the elementals were besieging the colony of Nexus 001335, cutting off the supply route. It had been many days since a Carrier had travelled to or from that outpost, and the elementals seemed content to continue their siege rather than assault the colony directly. Stealthily the elementals had stolen what little ice was around the colony, leaving the colony under imminent risk of a major power shortage.

With this colony helpless but too vulnerable to abandon, the other Prometheans mobilised an army to rescue them. Hundreds of Destroyers rolled across the ground and flew across the sky towards the elemental blockade, along with Carriers with spare munitions and Manipulators to perform field repairs.

The army was first spotted by the various sprites who were keeping watch for Prometheans and long range missiles. They raised a telepathic alert with their masters as a squadron of flying Destroyers flew ahead to engage these forwards scouts. The lesser elementals were readily dispatched, and with the air sweep complete some of the Destroyers on the ground armed and fired their long range missiles towards the elemental blockade over the horizon. Carriers moved in to reload the missile launchers, while the rest of the army advanced.

Closer to the blockade, but still with it over the horizon, another group of terrestrial Destroyers broke off from the army and stopped. They raised their railgun artillery and, using targeting information from high-altitude Destroyers with better vision of the blockade, commenced bombardment. Salvos of long-ranged missiles periodically soared overhead to accompany the artillery.

The remainder of the army rumbled onward, and they were soon met by a charge from the elementals. The ground heaved and lurched, and a ridge suddenly rose from beneath one Destroyer and toppled it onto its side. Turrets on the other Destroyers turned and fired a battery of shells and missiles at the rising stone lord, who sunk back into the ground to take cover. Elsewhere smaller stonedjinn rose from the ground, slammed their fists against the Destroyers and tore off pieces of them. Gunfire flared in retaliation, shattering many stonedjinn.

Some Manipulators quickly dismounted from the Carriers and planted seismometers on the ground. These instruments networked with each other to triangulate the locations of any subterranean motion, then broadcast their data to all Prometheans in range. With the sensors in place, the Prometheans were able to anticipate where the earth elementals would rise and target their weapons accordingly.

A colossal stone arm erupted from the ground beside a Destroyer and slammed down onto it, crushing the machine. The next moment the arm was struck by a coordinated salvo of missiles from the Destroyers in the air and railgun shells from the Destroyers on the ground, such that the limb was completely severed. The earth quaked in pain.

Approaching the battle was a roiling cloud of ammonia and ethane, crackling with lightning. Eddies danced ahead of the cloud, itching to meet the Prometheans in combat. Over the horizon came another artillery salvo. Some of the missiles were intercepted by the lesser wind elementals, one by a bolt of lightning, while the rest of the missiles and the explosive shells burst within the great cloud's form, whittling away at its strength. Some of the fighter jets turned to face the storm lord, while some flew around to flank the cloud. Missiles flew and autocannons fired, and explosions crackled across the storm lord.

The elemental did not slow its charge, though. It ploughed through those Destroyers which had flew into it, hurling them to the ground, and it kept going until it rolled over the army. Hurricane force winds tore at the army. The Destroyers and Carriers were far too heavy to be significantly affected, although a few unsecured Manipulators who were enacting field repairs were lifted from the ground and tossed aside. What the storm lord was able to pick up, though, were all the seismometers, which it flung high into the sky and left them to fall and shatter on the hard earth.

Short range missiles, flamethrowers and incendiary rounds tore at the storm lord and its lesser djinn as they blew past, but in seconds the storm lord had left the army behind. The Prometheans were now blind to the earth elementals beneath their wheels. A contingent of airborne Destroyers flew after the storm lord and continued to harry it, along with the continued long range bombardment.

With the Prometheans no longer able to sense beneath the earth, the earth elementals were able to strike the Prometheans by surprise then quickly retreat back into the ground. While the Prometheans were often able to shoot back, they were much less successful at killing the earth elementals than before.

A group of elementals sprung up from the ground around a Carrier laden with ammunition. A large stonedjinn stopped the Carrier in its tracks, while the rest tore the doors off their hinges and surged inside. Gunfire from the Destroyers struck some of these djinn. From within the Carrier came gunfire from its internal turrets, and resistance from Manipulators who hacked at the elementals with power tools. The elementals overpowered the internal resistance, and they would have trashed the Carrier and its cargo from inside out if a nearby Destroyer hadn't fired its railguns through the Carrier, striking and shattering the earth elementals within. The Carrier, although damaged, was still functional.

The army spread out and scattered, driving quickly. By staying on the move, few earth elementals were able to keep up and effectively attack the Prometheans. The stone lord was able to catch up, though. Giant stone limbs burst from the ground to punch the Prometheans, and more than one speeding Promethean collided head first with a rising cliff face. However, the stone lord could not catch all the Prometheans, for they had split up. With the army fleeing and the storm lord departed, the battle came to an end.

Concurrently with this battle, a few flying Carriers had gone around the distracted elemental blockade and delivered vital supplies to the besieged colony, including hydrogen for the fusion reactors. With the storm lord dispersed, flying Carriers were able to make more regular trips to and from the colony. In the following days the Prometheans were able to fight for a clear path past the stone lord too, so the terrestrial Carriers were able to resume travel along the transport routes as well.

~~~~

Far from Promethean territory, Stormlord Aurora had expanded into a great hurricane crackling with a pyrotechnics display of lightning which could be seen from orbit. Closer to ground level, a wind djinni sat in the eye of the storm and delivered a report to Aurora.

"Five of their colonies have been undermined by the stone lords, and they have been forced to abandon those locations. Another colony has been sufficiently starved for an assault to successfully destroy it."

Excellent. And the others?

"Nautilus' force was able to wash away one of the coastal colonies, although with considerable losses. Alkanus' attempt to drain the lake failed when he was repelled by the metal beasts. There is a new variant of metal beast which can swim and fight underwater."

Coward.

"The blockade established by Regolith and Mistral was broken by a sizeable enemy army. Mistral has been gravely wounded, and Regolith has also been substantially weakened."

There was frustrated silence from Aurora. The messenger continued.

"Rime's underlings have been stealing ice from the outer colonies, but he has been unable to penetrate far into their territory, so the metal beasts have still been able to deliver ice and other fuels to the outer colonies. Raids on the supply lines continue, but with limited success. Even if we kill some of the beasts, if we do not hide the bodies they consume the corpses and create new beasts. Meanwhile, our numbers are dwindling. They build new lords every few days, but we are losing our lords faster than they rise."

That is why our strategy must be to starve the beasts, rather than simply fight them. If they have no metals, no hydrocarbons, no ice, then they cannot multiply.

"But to achieve that, we must outlast the reserves which lie within their territory. Their strength is formidable!"

An eye of lightning glared at the elemental for a few seconds before receding.

We will see who is strongest once meteor are on our side.

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For the Destructive Hand of the Gods Notes Not the Song of Innocence




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Vetros lay numb and shocked in the aftermath of... of the end of the world. The city was in ruins, its population decimated. Fathers had lost sons, sons fathers. Sisters had lost brothers, wives husbands, uncles nephews. The people had lost their Priest-King.

But Heru had not lost his people, nor his resolve. It was to the indefatigable golden tower that was Heru that they all turned; he was the pillar that held the crumbling ceiling high and prevented the downward descent into chaos. He mourned his father's death, but even so, did not seek to follow in Akthanos' footsteps; he was close enough to see his father for the man that he truly was instead of a godly facade of a visage that all others witnessed, and yet he was not so close as to be blind to his father's faults and the stumbles in his footsteps.

Akthanos had been old, but his hands rarely did quaver. They were nigh always calm and still as the surface of a moonlit pool, and so surgical were his actions that he seemed as ephemeral as Vizzer, Mamoor, or any of the other gods that served the Master.

That had been what caused the great ruin; Heru saw that his father had been too aloof and too cautious. In his restraint, his passivity, and his protective stance, in the end he had succeeded in hoarding his authority and the power of the King's Law until the vaults cracked open and all poured out for the vultures to feast upon. Heru knew that a more firm and direct hand was needed. The late Priest-King was a ghost, then and now. But the new Priest-King immortal be his name! was a mountain. There could be no denial of his stone hand, for it was through that hand that the Grand Temple and the ruined palace complex within its upper floors had been restored to their former glory in only a day. Where the rays of fire had melted stone and cracked its foundations, the Transcendental Grand Temple of Vetros and House of Divine Winds had drawn in the sand of the Firewind and mended itself; where the walls had crumbled, the great bricks of stone hewed themselves anew and returned to their places.

Repairing the Grand Temple in that had been his second decree, for in doing so he also sought to symbolically restore the natural order of law and banish the unholy chaos that had been woven by the demons like Y'Vahn. His first decree had been merely that the people would live: though his own father was ironically past salvation, there were countless hundreds that Heru did save. As they lay scorched and dying upon the streets or buried beneath rubble and slowly suffocated, a godly wind lifted them from despair and rejuvenated them by magic. The city walls had likewise been hewed anew and raised once more within one fortnight, as upon his crowning Heru had rapped his scepter upon the ground and ordered the world's djinn to come forth and obey his command, and by the King's Law, so had they done; legions of spiryts of every calling and every stature had arrived and worked in unison to rebuild the city's mighty walls before the awestruck eyes of its inhabitants.

And even as he saw to it that they had shelter once more, as part of his decree that all live, the Priest-King forever may he rule! offered them also the means to sustain themselves. With a mighty rush, the sacred Mahd flooded and with its newfound glut it washed away the ash and the rubble that had choked it, and once again there was water as pristine and fresh and clear as the cloudless sky above. With that rush had also come fish, more fish than any had seen before, fish so bountiful that they washed up upon the shores, and none hungered.

For while Vetros had its Priest-King may his reign last until the end of days! and protector, the fields which spread for miles around were in utter turmoil. If the people of Vetros could not eat of what the loins of the earth provided, then the seed of the glorious Mahd was theirs. With the condition of Vetros and the safety of its inhabitants at the forefronts of his mind, the Priest-King may he recline upon the golden throne for a thousand thousand years! did little more than secure the fields in the immediate vicinity of the city.

Even so, while the actions of the Priest-King may his glory never fade! raised the walls and provided food and safety and order, and even though he had saved unknown thousands from certain death, still there was pain and suffering and grief. Here and there a half-naked child could be spied walking alone in the ruins, snot streaming into his mouth and flies buzzing about his eyes as he chowed on a fish given him by one kind old lady or another. A mother could be spied sat or stood here or there haunting the ruin of a home, searching desperately for her children, her spouse, her life. In the beginning, teams of soldiers could be seen running about with buckets, rushing to parts of the city that were still ablaze days after the horrific happening. Now they saw to gathering up the orphans and the injured. When a dead horror emerged and began walking about, the soldiers struck it down with blazing arrows as the living fled all around.

Axalit and his wife and his three children, who had hosted Juras during his short stay in the city, had rushed back to the city in the aftermath of the destruction to find that both the store and their home had been flattened utterly. Had they been in the city when horror descended, they would have been amongst the number of the dead. They rooted through the remains of their home, attempting to salvage what little they could. At one point a captain in the Vetros City Guard came by with a turtle and hailed them.
'Everything alright here?' He asked Khunnu and Addaf with a broad smile. Their father descended from the ruins and responded.
'All good here. We were out in the country when... well, all this happened.'
'Yeah, lucky that you weren't. It was carnage. Even the Priest-King went in it.' Axalit's jaw dropped.
'Th- the Priest-King is dead?' He asked.
'Long may he reign!' The officer declared, 'our Prince Heru has returned, and he now sits upon the throne. At his command the Mahd now flows with fish and the spiryts of the earth and sky are toiling to rebuild the city walls. It's an awesome sight.' And so saying, he bent and handed Addaf the baby turtle. 'It's a Mahd Turtle, they're everywhere!' The boy stared at the creature with a mixture of awe and disgust as it looked around in confusion. Or maybe that was just its face. The captain departed and Axalit returned to the ruins of his home.

Over the days that passed, the nine-year-old twins, Khunnu and Addaf, stayed close to their parents and had to be reassured from time to time that everything would be alright. But Nubata surprised them all. The usually volatile six-year-old was unusually calm and quiet, swift to do as her mother requested and all too willing to help with sifting through the rubble of their home. Addaf quickly grew tired of the little turtle, and so Nubata took it upon herself to care for it. She called him Spotty because he had yellow spots on his face.

'Can we go see Mother Yara?' The girl asked her mother one morning - perhaps a week after the destruction, once the rubble of their home had been more or less cleared. Her tired mother gave her a puzzled look - the girl had never before referred to the Witch-Priestess as Mother Yara.
'Don't you mean Mummy Yara,' Addaf said teasingly. Nubata ignored him and held on to her mother's arm.
'Please mummy, can we go?' Samiyas looked to her husband who shrugged and nodded.
'It's alright, you can go visit the Temple, see if everything is ok there and help if they need anything. It'll do you some good. See what's become of your parents and siblings,' Samiyas' face fell slightly at this, sadness and worry clear in her eyes, 'I will take the boys with me to clear up the store.' And with that, the woman rose from her seated position and, dusting off her plain full-length dress, took Nubata's hand and set off through the devastated city. Spotty balanced precariously on the little girl's head. Wherever they went people were scrambling about the ruins of their homes or otherwise planning or building anew. Here or there men could be seen huddled in groups, gesturing towards were a ruin had been and negotiating over building details. And here or there a group leader could be seen shouting at a team of workers to stop lazing about and get to mudbrick-making.

When they arrived at the Temple, Nubata gasped in shock, and Samiyas also could not help but draw back in alarm. The Temple Arch (parts of it falling) was the only thing that marked this place as having once hosted the great Temple. A burnt tree could be seen here or there and the ruins of the famed Temple Stairs led up to nothing but flattened ruins. The Great Chamber, the Infirmary, the Prayer Halls and the School, were gone. Nubata suddenly ran off, holding onto the turtle atop her head and shouting desperately. 'Mother Yara! Mother Yara!' Samiyas quickly chased after her.

All over the former-Temple's grounds people could be seen sifting through the rubble. In a clearing not too far from the Temple Stairs was a small gathering of what were immediately recognisable as priestesses. Nubata was rushing towards them, and Samiyas made for them at a slower pace. Some of the priestesses took note of Nubata, but the rest appeared preoccupied with some heated discussion. 'Hello Nubata,' it was Sister Akanit who spoke. The priestess looked visibly tired, her eyes were red and puffed - it was obvious that she had been crying bitterly over the past week or so. But still she smiled. Nubata looked sadly at the priestess, and for the first time since this whole thing had started the little girl's eyes began to tear up. The priestess knelt down and wrapped her arms around Nubata, whispering words of comfort and reassurance. As she withdrew, Spotty gave her a wide-eyed look.
'Where is she?' The girl managed, breathing away her tears, 'Mother Yara.' Sister Akanit leaned back and looked Nubata in the eyes. She was quiet, and Nubata's face fell. Akanit's lower lip trembled and she looked down wordlessly, her breaths suddenly jagged. She quickly turned away from Nubata and got up.

'It would not have been her wish that we abandon all this!' One of the priestesses was saying in a loud voice, 'this is not the Temple of Yara, or the Temple of the Witch-Priestess. It is the Temple of the Bond. And so long as there exist those who are bonded to it, it shall endure.' There were murmurs of agreement, but an irritated voice rose up in response.
'And what is the Temple without the Witch-Priestess? Who now can we turn to for guidance and wisdom? Whether you like it or not, Sister Lilaneem, Mother Yara was the Temple. Without the Witch-Priestess, there is nothing. Even Malikhet is gone. Even Chjekaya!' Nubata did not know the priestess who was speaking, but Sister Lilaneem was quick to respond.
'If you want to leave, Sister Aninah, then by all means do. No one will stand in your way. But do not presume to tell us what the Temple was and who the Temple is. We are the disciples of the Witch-Priestess, her example and her teachings are wisdom and guidance enough. Yes, Malikhet is dead, Keliptria also and Golanaz,' at the mention of Golanaz, Akanit visibly stiffened. They had been the closest of friends. 'But their deaths will have been an even greater tragedy if we disperse now and forget all that they built and were,' and then the steel-eyed Sister Lilaneem turned to all the others, 'the Temple will rise again. And the Temple will endure even when all else is mud and sand.'



The Temple Shall Endure


Sister Aninah grumbled irritably and turned away. 'You are fools - you will bring ruin on the memory of the Witch-Priestess and the Temple. I will have no part in it.' And with that she stormed away. A few priestesses followed hesitantly after her, leaving some twenty behind. Sister Olakhat stepped up towards Lilaneem and hugged her tightly. Still holding onto Sister Lilaneem's arm, Olakhat turned and spoke.
'The Witch-Priestess is gone, and I fear we shall never see her likes again. But I have trust that the Temple will always produce a Witch-Priestess - the Master will not leave us bare. Until then, however, we need a leader - and I can see none better than Sister Lilaneem. You all know her well - she is of iron-will, of penetrating sight, of us who yet survive there are none more knowledgeable than her.' Sister Akanit stepped forward when Olakhat was done.
'I second that,' she said, placing her hand in Olakhat's. Then, one by one, the remaining seventeen priestesses accepted Lilaneem as the Head-Priestess.

The Temple had boasted some ninety priestesses before. Only twenty-four had survived the decimation of Vetros, and now only twenty remained. Yara was dead, Malikhet, Chjekaya, Golanaz, Keliptria, Hebatel and some sixty others. Akanit herself had been pulled out from within the rubble, surviving as though by some miracle. It had been a golden light, she declared. It had come to her in her final moments and denied death the time it needed to wrench her soul away.

Nubata looked at the priestesses before glancing back at her mother. 'Mummy,' she said hesitantly. Samiyas looked at her daughter, 'mum... I want to be a priestess. Let me stay.' Akanit looked at the little girl, and then to her mother. Samiyas frowned and shook her head.
'We'll talk about this some other time, Nubata. Now is not the time.' Nubata pouted and stepped towards Sister Akanit. The priestess took up the turtle in her arms and looked to Samiyas with a smile.
'Don't worry, leave her with us for a while. I'm sure things at home are somewhat chaotic right now. When things have settled and there is some normalcy, I'll bring her home. Unless you need her for anything, of course.' Samiyas hesitated for a few seconds, looking from her daughter's hopeful face to Akanit's kind, grief-stricken eyes. And she relented.
'Fine, but just until things get back to normal,' Nubata beamed and leapt into her mother's arms, planting kisses on her cheeks and nose and lips. Samiyas put the girl down and smiled before looking up at Akanit.
'I need to go. I haven't seen my parents or siblings since... I need to look for them. Please, look after her.' Akanit nodded and assured her. Stroking her daughter's cheek a final time, the woman turned and walked hurriedly towards the Temple Arch and away.

'So I'm a priestess now, right?' Nubata grinned at Akanit as she rubbed Spotty's snout, and the priestess could not help the warmth that spread through her chest at the girl's innocent smile and words.
'Yes, the very first in this new phase of the Temple's life. The first of many.' They gathered around Lilaneem and together made their way across the rubble until they reached the ruins of the Temple Library. They had, with the help of both volunteers and those willing to unearth the Temple's treasures for some sort of reward, slowly excavated the library over the past week. Of the manuscripts and works they had retrieved so far, many of them were damaged or burned, but Lilaneem had made sure they were all carefully taken and stored in the ruins of Yara and Gadar's home - that was the only part of the Temple complex that yet retained a semblance of its upright form.

Nubata found herself beside Sister Akanit, carefully picking up small pieces of rubble and searching for any of the library's treasured manuscripts that had survived. 'What's a little girl like that doing here?' Someone suddenly shouted. Nubata looked up and saw the man - perhaps seventeen years of age - who had spoken. 'This is no place for kids to play about.' Nubata frowned.
'I'm not playing around. And I'm not a kid - I'm a priestess, idiot!' The young man sneered at her response.
'Go back to mummy little girl!' He laughed and threw a small stone in her general direction. He purposefully aimed to miss, so much was obvious. However, the stone slowed very suddenly when it reached Nubata's vicinity and was swiftly reduced to dust and then- nothingness. The girl gasped and the young man looked clearly taken aback. 'What the...' he muttered, before picking up another stone and dashing it at Nubata again. However, Sister Akanit saw him throw it this time and screeched at him to stop. Only Nubata saw the stone meet with the same strange fate as its predecessor. She fingered the orange crystal hanging from her necklace and smiled slightly.

It is from my homeland, and it will protect you from all evil


'Thank you,' she murmured softly. It was suddenly warm in her hand, and the warmth spread through her until she lost track of the space around her and thought she was afloat in an atmosphere blissfully aglow. And she knew she was not alone, felt the protective embrace of something... something so much more. But it did not speak. Or perhaps, could not speak. Or perhaps she merely could not hear it.

'Nubata, are you alright?' Sister Akanit's face sprang into existence before her eyes, the warm ambience that had but moments before surrounded her melted away. She let go of the orange crystal and perked up.
'Y-yeah, I'm fine,' she said quickly. She could feel the pulsing warmth of the crystal against her chest. It felt almost like... a heartbeat. 'Was just thinking. Sorry.' Akanit chuckled and rubbed the girl's brown curls affectionately, much like Mother Yara used to do. Nubata grinned and quickly bent down and picked up some rubble.
'Oh, be careful!' Akanit warned, 'that's very big, stick to the sma-' but the little girl amazed the priestess by lifting the rather large rock and throwing it some distance away. Akanit gave Nubata a perplexed stare before gazing at where she had thrown the rock. 'That's... incredible. How on earth did you manage that?' She grabbed Nubata's twig-thin arms and pinched at them as though that would reveal the secret to their hidden strength. Nubata laughed and struggled to free herself.
'That tickles, sttopp.' Sister Akanit let her go and shook her head in a mixture of confusion and amazement.
'Well, either way - don't do that again. Just focus on the smaller things.' But Nubata did not listen. Excited by her newfound strength, she swept aside rocks and debris with ease and soon enough had a team of workers going back and forth with manuscripts and tomes and scrolls she had managed to unearth. The deeper she burrowed, the more well-preserved and undamaged the works that were found.

When night settled in and the workers began to head out to rest, Nubata was not tired and wanted to keep going. 'The sooner we find everything, the sooner we can rebuild, right?'
'Yes, Nubata, but no matter how fast we work the Temple will not go up overnight. Bit by bit. Come, let us go eat and rest and we'll return early in the morning.' Sister Akanit told her. Mother Lilaneem nodded at her words.
'Sister Akanit speaks wisely. Come Nubata, you have done brilliantly today - better than entire teams. How you managed that is beyond me, but I am sure you have an answer; and I'd like to hear it.' Nubata reluctantly did as the two priestesses bid her, and they all huddled together around a few fires in the shade of the late Witch-Priestess' former home. They ate and spoke, and when Lilaneem asked Nubata about her strange strength the girl shrugged and said she did not know. Lilaneem observed the girl with her piercing grey eyes, but Nubata looked away and bit into some fish and bread. 'Well, if you change your mind know that you can always speak with me.' Nubata looked up and saw that the priestess was smiling. For all her steely exterior, Nubata could see that the essential kindness that moved the priestesses of the Temple of the Bond ran just as true within Mother Lilaneem.

Kindness

'T-tell me about kindness,' the girl suddenly said. Lilaneem swallowed some bread and took a sip from a half-broken clay bowl before turning to the girl.

'You wish to be a priestess of the Temple of the Bond, do you not?' The girl nodded eagerly, 'then you must understand that our utmost goal is the alleviation of suffering. Suffering is an illness, and we are - by the Master's will - its cure. We must know suffering, we must know the causes of suffering, and we must know how to put a stop to suffering. Mother Yara taught us these things through medicine - illness is suffering. Our duty is to identify the cause of illnesses or, if we do not know it, then to discover the cause through various means. Once we know the cause, it is our duty to root it out and make it cease. This is the case for both physical suffering, mental suffering, and spiritual suffering. In order to carry out these duties fully, we must cultivate compassion and kindness. Showing kindness to others, we learn to be less selfish; sharing the suffering of others, we develop concern for the wellbeing of all beings and so are driven to alleviate that suffering. We learn to suffer with others, and so to lift the suffering of another is to lift our own suffering. Thus kindness and compassion are, for a priestess of the Temple of the Bond, the one foundation all else is built upon.'



Of Suffering and Kindness


Nubata's eyebrows furrowed and she bit her lip. 'I can be kind. I like everybody.'
Lilaneem smiled. 'That is the heart of it. To achieve true kindness and compassion, we must learn to love all things unconditionally. Who, in this world, do we love unconditionally?'
The priestess looked at Nubata who furrowed her brows in deep thought. 'Everybody?'
Lilaneem chuckled. 'Really? Do you love Mother Yara like you love the lizard in the Mahd?'
Nubata sat upright and shook her head. 'No! I like Mother Yara much, much more'n the lizard. But I like Spotty alot too!' Lilaneem looked at Nubata expectantly, 'and... well, I guess I love mum and dad and granny and granpa more'n anyone else...'

Lilaneem nodded. 'That's it. We feel unconditional love and gratitude towards our mother, our father. Those who cared for us when we were utterly helpless; incapable of feeding or protecting ourselves, who loved us against all odds. We must consider that love and gratitude, and we must make it our ultimate goal to feel it towards all living beings. Love and gratitude towards all that exists, do you understand?'
Nubata's eyes were wide at the idea. 'T- towards everything?' she asked, 'e-even this ant?'

Lilaneem nodded. 'Even that ant. For when we achieve that we recognise the essential kindness of all that exists - everything is a mother, or a father, everything cares and loves unconditionally at some level. And you know, the Witch-Priestess used to say that souls, when they die, are reborn. It is an eternal cycle. So that ant may have, in a past existence, been your mother, your father, your brother. In on existence or another, every soul loved you unconditionally. When we see that, we cannot but feel towards everything as we do towards our own parents in our current existence. Armed with that, it is then only natural to wish to return our debt of gratitude, it is only natural to wish to see the happiness of all and the removal of suffering. You understand?'
Nubata smiled, somewhat dazed at the enormity of it all. 'But that's... so hard! Feeling aaall o' that love I mean. Doesn't it make you tired?'
Lilaneem shook her head. 'Love does not tire us, Nubata. It enriches us, it gives us purpose, warmth, helps us grow and, ultimately, it gives us happiness and fulfilment. It is not love that tires us - it is lack of love.'

The girl frowned as she tried to take in Lilaneem's words, rubbing the pulsating orange crystal between her thumb and forefinger. For one reason or another, her mind felt calm and receptive, and though she would have usually been overwhelmed by these strange ideas, she felt that she - at some level - understood. It awed and excited her. 'But this whole rebirth stuff is not true,' a priestess suddenly spoke up, 'Mother Yara only ever mentioned it in passing as the belief of heathens in foreign lands she had visited.'

Lilaneem looked at the one who had spoken. 'I know she only mentioned it in passing, but I have come across ancient Vetruvian manuscripts which make mention of rebirth too, Sister Mu'ana,' the Head-Priestess responded.

'Oh not this debate again,' Sister Fosia said, 'I have spoken with various priests from different temples about this, and the consensus is that this matter is not mentioned authoritatively in any of the respected authorities. We should neither declare it heretic nor orthodox belief.'

Lilaneem pursed her lips, and Sister Mu'ana looked likewise unconvinced. 'A discussion for another time, perhaps,' the Head-Priestess said. The other two nodded and Lilaneem turned back to Nubata with a smile. There was a light in the girl's eyes, fascination.
'You know... one of the soldiers told us that the Priest-King is building the city walls very quickly. The spiryts are building the city up again. Maybe if we go to him he will dig up all the books and build the Temple back up again.'
Lilaneem raised an eyebrow at the girl's words. 'Is he really now? This is the first I hear of this.'
'Oh yes, I did hear some of the volunteers mention that on a few occasions,' Akanit said. 'Perhaps we can appeal to him for aid.'
Lilaneem nodded and smiled appreciatively towards Nubata, 'Yes, perhaps we can.'

In the weeks that followed, the walls of the city would rise completely, and then the Priest-King's Palace itself rose up overnight, stunning all onlookers. The priestesses continued to excavate the Temple of the Bond's ruins, eventually unearthing the Temple's impressive treasury which lay hidden beyond the door at the back of the Miracle Room. Many of the workers were paid, and Mother Lilaneem eventually decided to reward the volunteers also. Even so, they walked in the shadow of the giant that was the newly crowned Priest-King. Each morning Heru descended from his quarters above to hold ritual and prayer in the temple's grand hall for all to witness, and in the evenings Heru spent with the many aristocrats that made up his advising council and ministry, but beneath the noon's sun he walked among the people on the streets. When the day was at its hottest and his subjects at their weakest, he was there to lend them his strength. He would parade through the streets with an entourage of servants behind him carrying pots of fresh water and fruit. Along the sides of the streets the masses crowded, and as their sacred king passed by, they reached out their hands and were met by his touch. To come into contact with one of divine blood was an enormous blessing that could ward off many evils and curry the Master's favor, so every noon Heru offered that blessing and the respite of refreshments to as many of the commonfolk as he could.

Even as he walked, he took note of those places that he saw most devastated, and when the magisters held council later in the evenings to discuss how the city might restore its grasp over the lawless hinterlands that had succumbed to chaos, Heru also bid them take action to restore the city itself. Aid did come, in the form of laborers and even soldiers that freely helped to rebuild homes and repair the most devastated of structures.

Nubata and Sister Akanit had taken to stalking the Priest-King on an almost daily basis in an their attempts to petition him use his divine powers to make the Temple of the Bond arise as he had done with the walls of Vetros and the Grand Temple. Their attempts to reach him during his daily treks throughout the city met generally with failure, and attempting to catch him in the Grand Temple itself proved to be easier said than done - the guards at the Palace refused to permit them entry into the upper levels where Heru dwelled, and when the Priest-King came to the ground floor and fulfilled the first part of his role with sacred rite before the public, the throngs of people were such that gathering his attention was impossible.

'Tell him we want to see him!' Nubata snapped at a guard one day, perhaps a week into their attempts to petition the Priest-King. The guard grunted something about the Priest-King being busy and the two left once again, distraught at their failure - Nubata far more so than Sister Akanit.
The priestess spoke. 'Mother Yara used to say this - "If you can and are able, never put your trust in the twain", and she is proven right in one at least.'
'What are the twain?' Nubata asked. Smiling, Akanit raised two fingers.
'Gods and kings. She is proven right about the latter, it would seem, but I yet have hope for the former.' Nubata smiled slightly and took Sister Akanit's hand.
'We'll build the Temple. We don't need kings or gods - we'll do it all on our own.' Akanit chuckled, though her eyes seemed somewhat anxious. This irreverence did not sit well with her, but she knew that Nubata would come to understand with time. She was still but a child, after all.
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At the Beginning Once More




Through the Gate Unguarded there passed the echo of a thing that had once been and was no more. There passed a thing older than the Universe - nay, which had given rise to the Universe and all in it. It had been lusted after - was still desired and covetted - by those who well knew it was now forever out of their reach. It had, long ago, fallen into the hands of a god who wept at the cycle of misery the Codex promised all and was itself promised - and he had chosen to end it. For the defenceless Codex of Creation had been abused and desecrated by the immortals, torn at and used like some tool of no great import or sanctity; and the prideful had thought to see into its depth and become privy to knowledge that was, by right, that of the Codex alone. And so now it was the desecrator and ravager of gods.

The groaning Guardian of the Gate Unguarded stared sombrely as the little girl - whose childish form belied her true age - walked into the domain of the recrudescent god of Time. Beneath her feet ants stridulated and scampered away as though they sensed - somewhere in the depths of their Time-touched minds - that here marched a being, though mortal, which was to be feared by those - such as they - who were servants of the divines. The Gate parted before the Godkiller and its host, and before Tira their sprang and spread in all directions a great landscape which seemed to have been crafted from peace itself. Such things had no effect on her, however, and the divinely ordained peace that settled on all who walked into the dominion of the Lord of Time was veiled to Tira's eyes and heart. But that was not to say that she was not aware of it, and that was not to say that - if she willed it - she could not permit that peace entry. That she could not embrace it and play with it, and charm it and be charmed by it too, on her own terms. The Godkiller, in the hands of one who was unfamiliar with it, was indiscriminatory in its rejection of all things divine; but in the hands of one who knew it - even if that knowledge was buried in the depths of the subconscious - the will of the Godkiller was amenable to the will of the host.

There had once been (not that Tira would know) a great white slab serving as the Chronos-side of the Gate Unguarded. But that white, plain cuboid totem was long gone, and in its place - she would see if she glanced behind her - there stood a mighty obelisk of enormous size. Its head, like Old Bark-Skin did with the Galbarian stratosphere, seemed to disappear into the grey-red clouds of the Chronos aerosphere - was the Obelisk-Gate whispering? It seemed to her that there were hushed and gentle voices emanating from the shifting onyx stone and the shapes and faces in the immense facade.

There came, ascending the stairs forming the base of the great obelisk, two white-clad figures whose veiled and bandaged visages bore a strange symbol - a large red flower upon which was an ant, the flower was flanked by two ravens like wings and dotted around the central flower were three different, smaller, greenish ones. The white-clad duo were armed. Each had a long polesword - which, strangely enough, closely resembled the naginata the little girl gripped - and at their sides were swords of extraordinarily long and beautiful hilts whose blades were at rest in finely crafted sheaths. They had been notified of the stranger who sought access to New Chronos by their Guardian brother, had been notified also of the goddess who had accompanied this stranger until the final moment. Chronos itself prodded at and observed her, weighing her worthiness against some unknown and invisible transcendental criterion. It did not seem to find her defective, and the intangible tendrils of the plane withdrew as the Victors advanced and hailed the stranger.

And she said, 'Iya!'

With that word, all the hidden trepidation she carried with her melted into nothing, carried away on the sound of her voice. The world settled back into ground state, flowing into her, and past her, and around her, and found nothing- for all its wisdom- but Tira.

'You there who ventures forth from the wildlands of Galbar; we greet you in the name of the Celestial Above. I am Battle Brother Ignaetus, Thirty-Sixth of the Hallowed Hundred, and this here is Battle Sister Synja, Thirty-Seventh of the Hallowed Hundred. Chronos, and all in it, welcome you.'

'Tira,' she said, sticking out a hand.

'Here where Time reigns and where each Galbarian moment is taken and stretched into weeks on end, as its Lord wills and commands, you may roam freely and be witness to wonders. But pray tell - who are you? For though you have a small child's form, your eyes speak another story, and though you seem but a fragile thing, your grip on your weapon declares a differing tale. Who are you, old child, and what has brought you here?'

'...' The hand was slowly lowered. Tira's gaze settled on a rock for just a second, then went back to the Victors, their alertness naked. She spoke again, and this time permitted no inquest. 'Tira.'

The Victors stood motionless and silent at her response, as though expecting her to speak again. But there came nothing else. Tira she had said. The Victor's were proficient in more languages than could be counted, and that word meant many different things in many different languages. Arrow, to pull, to throw, an encampment awaiting battle.

'Brother,' Synja spoke, interrupting Ignaetus' thoughts, 'it's just her name.'

'Ah...' the Battle Brother said, 'but of course.' Even as they spoke to one another, their faces moved neither left nor right, but remained fixed in Tira's general direction. Some, unused to being unable to see the eyes of the speaker, found it disturbing or strange - for the face spoke what mere words and intonations did not. It was no issue for those, like the Victors, whose senses went beyond mere sight and hearing and touch, who could sense the expressions and were even privy to one another's thoughts. It was an issue for Tira. 'Do you speak, Tira?' Ignaetus asked the girl in the divine tongue, his tone not unkind, 'do you understand what I say?'

'Nn,' she said with a nod. 'I'm here from Ale'pria. Someone told me that...' She shuffled on her feet slightly, 'at the top of the world, there's a place to rest for a long time.' At the mention of Alefpria, the two Victors leaned back slightly and physically turned their heads one to the other.

'Alefpria, you say,' it was Synja who spoke, and as she did her bandages unravelled and her hood removed itself from her head, revealing a human face beneath.



Face Cold, Eyes Far


'Was it Our Master Belvast who sent you, Tira?' The Battle Sister asked, her incisive, cold grey eyes seemingly intent on poring over the little girl's soul.

'Nah,' she said. 'I ran. You stare, by the way,' she informed Synja, politely but firmly, and stretched. 'Is it, but?' Synja looked away from the girl, muttering a small apology. Her grey eyes and generally critical disposition had never aided her in social interactions. The veiled Ignaetus spoke.

'Well, whoever it was that told you this is a place of rest was not wrong. You can rest here for as long as you please - out there on the Galbarian wildlands Time is almost still while aeons pass in here. This is a refuge, a place of meditation, of exploration, of learning, of growth. It can be, also, a place to forget all things and simply be.' Something panged inside of Tira.

'But, if you feel prepared and are truly Worthy, you can challenge this place and wander into its depths - and if you are successful, Chronos will reward you. It rewards always the Worthy.' The Battle Brother turned away and started walking, and Synja gestured, somewhat stiffly, for Tira to follow- but she was already up ahead. Tira had a knack for accepting challenges before they were issued.

'Come,' Synja said, as Tira danced a small spider across her fingertips. 'I will show you around, and you can tell me about this mystery person who told you of Chronos.' She walked a few more steps past the preoccupied Tira before turning her head and adding, 'or if you prefer, you can go off and find your way on your own. I can't promise I'll be exciting company, as you might already have gathered.' She actually managed the shadow of a smile at this.

'Who's the biggest challenge?' her charge requested, looking up from the spider. It skittered to her hair, where she flicked it off and two birds promptly fought over it. Or, at least, two things pretending to be birds, one with great effort and the other not so much. After a few moments of this taunting and playfighting, the little white spider made its escape and the birdlike critters flew off to taunt something else. In Chronos, none died except the willing; the predator could not consume its prey until the prey itself decided - out of a great sense of pity, out of selflessness perhaps, out of a greater understanding of what would come of the predator if left starved and undying. And that little spider, still young and full of life, was not yet willing to give over its flesh that another may survive. These things took Time.

The water 'bird' was glad to be relieved of the charade of 'hunting' and 'feeding'. The other one, with four wings and no mouth, seemed only miffed.

Synja looked at Tira impassively for a few moments as they walked. 'The biggest challenge?' She turned her gaze away before continuing, 'the biggest challenge is ourselves. That is where the ultimate battleground lies; the greatest mystery, the deepest truth, and the key to understanding our perennial pain.'

'...Oh,' said Tira, appreciative, yet also disappointed. Synja seemed to notice her disappointment and quickly continued.

'Of course there are other things of a more... well, direct nature. We Victors pride ourselves on not only our mental prowess, but our physical prowess also. You will find us ever willing to accept challengers and disciples. Chronos itself is alive, and it will certainly throw difficulties in your path - small and large; the deeper you venture in, the greater the hardships it will throw your way. That is the greatest "challenge", if you will.' As if to prove this, the ground beneath Tira suddenly shifted ever so slightly as though to trip her up.

Tira, being unused to finding the earth itself as her enemy, promptly stumbled; she caught herself and stamped down the offending earth. 'Your spirits are rude!'

The Victor suddenly paused and glanced behind her at the great Obelisk-Gate. Her eyes were cool as they scanned the area, and then she spoke - but not to Tira. 'Yes Battle Brother, they are in tow. Would you like me to dispose of them?' A few moments of silence followed before the Battle Sister turned away from the Gate and regarded the girl again, 'Tira, were you aware that you are being followed?'

'...Uh. The birds?' She looked back and shrugged. 'Someone else?'

'Would you like me to get rid of them?' The Battle Sister asked.

'The... birds..?' Tira repeated. 'Why?' Synja frowned slightly. The girl clearly did not understand that those "birds" were more than that.

'They are marked by gods. All that you say and do, they see and report back. Are you comfortable with that?' But Tira, for her part, only blinked.

'Am I hiding?' She shrugged. 'Ba kajank-ho yiil-ne', she explained. 'Ne owt-as iujin karawan.' Anyone can see me. I am not anonymous. Synja eyed the girl for a few moments as she attempted to decipher her words. It seemed to be an admixture of the divine tongue and some mortal languages. She could not quite place it though. Shrugging slightly as she turned and continued moving, she gathered that the girl did not much care about being traced.

'We're going to have to work on understanding what you say, I think.' It was clear that the girl lived in the moment, and Synja really could not. 'How did you come by that weapon,' the Victor suddenly asked, gesturing to Tira's naginata, 'it looks a great deal like our poleswords,' and here she hefted the polesword and extended it carefully towards the girl, 'don't you think?'

'Yeah!' The comparison delighted Tira, who loved the weapon and was glad it now had friends. 'A pretty man left it in Ale'pria when he went looking for a lady,' she explained, 'so it's mine now. My friend fixed the metal, and made it better.' Synja nodded as she took the information in.

'Yes, it does look like a very fine weapon. That pretty man must have been a warrior of merit - or an exceptional craftsman. Have you ever used it? You hold it like one familiar with it.' Synja inspected the girl's youthful face, and she could not help but wonder what horrors she had witnessed that her apparent naivety belied.

Tira's raised eyebrow and half-cocked smile betrayed nothing. 'Did I walk here?' she asked, rhetorically. 'How far do you think it is from here to Alefpria? Took me four years. You think I didn't get any fights in on the way?' Synja shrugged.

'Walking a long distance over a long time does not mean many fights. Battle Brother Juras walked for many years - we only know of one fight he was embroiled in, and even that was brief.'

Tira had a strong intuition that he had cheated.

'But I only ask because I was not aware that the polesword is a popular weapon on Galbar - if you are skilled with it, then you either had a skilful teacher or taught yourself. Which of the two was it, I wonder? Would you, perhaps, wish to test this skill of yours against centuries spent refining the art of the polesword?' Even as Synja spoke, the sounds of metal clanging against metal reached them, and in the distance a white-clad Victor could be seen conducting the deadly dance with a smaller figure.

'...I'm gonna formally duel...' Tira raised her finger slowly then pointed it with a cocking motion- 'That one.' The Victor she had indicated was the one engaged with the younger boy. Her hand soon flew to Synja. 'You're next. I taught myself, by the way.' A lie, but it made herself feel proud. As they approached, the two sparring figures stopped and turned to them.

'The small boy is Our Master Zerabil. He is a son of gods but... well, he's different from others. Almost human. And the one next t-'
'I am Battle Sister Seihdhara,' came the the red-haired Victor's voice. 'And this must be Tira. Even Our Master the Bard has taken note of you! It's not always we get important people visiting,' she smiled easily, and Zerabil beside her looked curiously at the older girl.

Tira turned her pointing finger on herself. '...what'

'Oh! H-hey,' he said quickly, 'I'm Zerabil!' His hand shot out in a handshake. Tira absentmindedly crushed his metacarpals as she attempted to figure out what Seihdhara meant by important. 'YEOWCH!' He jumped and wrenched his hand from hers, prompting an eyebrow raised. 'W-why'd you... why'd you do that?' The boy's childish body was not the most resilient to physical force.

'You'll live,' she said, 'squeeze harder next time.' To the Victor, she asked: 'You been following me too, huh?'

Seihdhara raised an eyebrow and chuckled. 'Following? Oh no no, nothing of the sort. Not that I'm aware, anyway. Sister Synja is too young to remember, but the Celestial Above knew of you before you were a thought, Tira. And now that it is returned, it has been waiting on you.' Zerabil looked from Seihdhara to Tira, his curiosity growing.

'My Father knows you?' He asked Tira excitedly, his crushed hand already forgotten.

'No,' she said, with a shrug. 's'god things.' She turned to Seihdhara. 'Heaven wants to see Tira? Okay. But I'm fighting you after,' she reminded, 'and then you,' she said, pointing back to Synja in case she'd also forgotten.

'In your own time, ther-' Zerabil interuppted Synja, however.
'Wait! What? What about me? I want to fight too!'

Tira raised an eyebrow. 'I'll fight you right now,' she warned. He grinned.

'Okay!' He looked around and quickly spotted the polesword he had been dueling Seihdhara with. Seihdhara and Synja backed away as he hefted it, giving the two ample space.
'Be careful now, try not to-'
'Yeah yeah, I got it,' Zerabil said hurriedly. 'This is gonna be way more fun than trying to catch you, Seihdhara.' The woman sighed. She had always found it strange that his mental faculties also became more childish as he grew younger. Everyone had thought it odd that he did not simply stop aging when he became a fully-developed adult. He had continued aging, his hair becoming grey, then white, and his back curving until he had become senile and decrepit. They had taken him to the God in the Stone and called upon the Bard to help, but the divines showed no interest.

And then the aged Zerabil had begun to grow youthful once more, his back straightening and his mental faculties returning to him, until he was once again a fully developed and healthy young man. But it had not stopped there - his body shrunk and he began to act more and more child-like. And then, once he had gotten to such a tender age that he almost knew nothing of himself, he began to age normally again. And so on, back and forth for centuries, for the hundreds of thousands of years he had existed on Chronos. His body now resembled that of a nine- or ten-year-old. Though his grip on his polesword was confident, it was clear that the weapon was heavier than his form was comfortable with.

'Alright!' He declared, grinning from ear to ear, 'I'mma take you down, handmasher!' Coming from his small mouth, it was almost comedic.

Without having changed her expression once, Tira nodded. 'Nnn.' But her keen eyes recognised the familiarity of Zerabil's grip on his blade, and she awarded him the respect every serious combatant is due: a wary gaze, as she adopted a high reverse thrusting stance. Taking on a basic hanmi stance with a leading right-foot, and his polesword gripped right-hand over left, Zerabil shuffled forward swiftly and thrust testingly for Tira's torso.

Shuffling back on limber feet, Tira let the thrust pass but swiftly caught the flat of Zerabil's blade with the butt of her naginata. She forced it aside, the blade end of her weapon swinging down from above in the same movement, and wielded her voice in a stunning cry: 'KIA!'

Zerabil gasped and frantically shuffled forward and to the side as the blade swung by him and, turning his polesword so that its blade ran parallel to the ground, jumped away and swung swiftly at Tira in a side-long arc, releasing a forceful exhalation resulting in 'HA!'

Tira grounded her polearm and held it upright, cue-end to the dirt, guarding her side; Zerabil was just about close enough for an elbow and she gave him one upside the jaw, not viciously but with firmness. She immediately took the chance to withdraw, the two having wound much too close in their manoeuvres.

Zerabil opened and closed his jaw and shook his head slightly. He should have jumped even further away before swinging, stupid mistake. She could have easily done more damage, he knew. Getting back into his position, he struck forth once more, and Tira returned.

From there they spun back and forth, adopting more cautious stances and strikes between bursts of furious action. Tira was repeatedly taken aback by the depth of skill Zerabil displayed, and the honing of his reflexes; the development period for such ability was longer than his apparent life, and she had been wise not to take him lightly.

But Tira for her part was wise in other ways, and had stepped out of a much larger world. Zerabil had spent too long fighting the same style with the same Victors, and was unused to the sudden shift in his opponent's form. Moreover, his body had hard limits, even greater than that of most. They were of small matter in a fight with the naked blade, but of rather great import should the engagement become a contest of strength and reach, and Tira knew how to make it so.

All this winding and unwinding came to a head, several seconds later, when Tira's haft crossed Zerabil's, and she forced her way behind him to display a secret knowledge, a technique which no ten-year-old can ever withstand: she wrapped her arm around his neck and firmly knuckled his scalp.

'YEOWCH!' Zerabil squealed as he struggled to free himself, 'oi! Hey! What are you- oich! You evi- owww, lemme gooo. SEIHDHARA!! HALP!' But the red-haired Victor only giggled at the display.
'You're the one who wanted to fight - don't blame me when it all goes so, so wrong,' and the boy's squeals did not cease until Tira had had her fill.

'Shoulda yielded,' she said, pushing him to one side. Free at last, Zerabil rubbed his head and grinned at the girl.
'When I'm bigger, I'm gonna get you back for that! You watch, handmashing, head brutaliser you.' Then he leapt to his feet and pulled at her elbow in an attempt to get her to follow him, 'you need to see the city! And the citadel! And then we need to go introduce you to my Fa- oh, but you already know him right? Well, we'll see him too! And Morarom as well. He's a big crazy talking bear! Did you know that the Hallowed Hundred aren't actually one-hundred? It's stupid right? That's what I told him!'

'I don't know him,' she reaffirmed, waving away Zerabil as best she was able and addressing Synja. 'I should see him though, right? Let's go.' Synja nodded and gestured for her to follow.
'I'm going with them!' Zerabil announced to Seihdhara. The Victor nodded and raised her hand in goodbye. 'We'll come by the citadel when we're done with Father!'
'It's not a citadel,' Synja quickly said to Tira, 'it's a temple complex. You could call it our Order's base. But in any case, let us go see the God in the Stone.' Zerabil had caught up with them and looked from Synja to Tira.
'So, how do you know my Father? I don't think you mentioned it.' He said to Tira.

'...If you ask me one more time I'm gonna smack ya,' she warned. 'Who is he, anyway?' Zerabil rubbed his head sheepishly and shrugged.
'I dunno really. These lot call him the Celestial Above, and then they call him the God in the Stone, and a thousand other things,' and then he lowered his voice, 'they drone on and on about how great and perfect he is, but don't fall for all that. He actually killed my mum!' Synja gave the boy a disapproving look but said nothing. He spoke normally again, 'I was actually hoping you might know something about him. I've tried talking to him, but he's not always responsive you know? He has this look on his face like he's in pain or thinking deeply. I once told Morarom he might be constipated, but that crazy old fart kicked me when I said it!'

'Right, that's about enough of that!' Synja suddenly said irritably, 'say what you will, but at the very least have some respect for your Father.'
'I do have respect for my Father. You don't see me calling him dad or daddy do you? I just wish I knew more about him.'
'If he has not spoken with you, then there is a sage reason behind it. Be patient.' Zerabil rolled his eyes.
'Over a million years spent waiting in this place, and you still tell me to be patient.' Synja shook her head and sighed.
'You're much more reasonable when you're older. If only you stayed that way all the time.' Zerabil pursed his lips. They all said that.

Respect the constipated man, thought Tira. Gotcha.

Zerabil looked at Tira. 'Do you have a family Tira? Do you know your dad? Tell me.' He looked at her expectantly. She was the only normal person he had ever met. Was her family as... strange as his?

'My dad was a hunter,' she said, 'but I have a lot of mums.' She counted them off on her fingers. 'Savannah mum, guts mum, rock mum, dancer mum, paperwork mum, huntsmum. And Uncle Dabbles.' Zerabil laughed gleefully at this.
'Hey, that's like me! I have two Fathers! I want many mums too! That would be cool. If one of them couldn't talk to you, then you could just go talk to another one!'

'...' Tira looked off into the distance. '...Yeah. Sure.' The sudden melancholy in her tone caught Zerabil off guard and he looked at her carefully.
'What's the matter? Tell me what you're thinking, c'mon.'

'Parents don't last forever,' she said.

Zerabil frowned at this and clenched his fist. 'We- well. I mean, that's true, I know. But... they should! They should last forever,' he said it with a degree of frustration. 'Why don't they anyway? They do here. Why can't everywhere be same?'

'Dunno,' Tira said, and meant it. He said nothing after that, pondering on the sudden pensive turn the conversation had taken. Maybe one mum was better than many. But why had he been denied even one? And why was it that, though he had two living Fathers, he had been denied both? Yes, over a million years waiting with no response did make a person bitter.

They walked through dales of green grass where goat-like creatures wandered about and small spiders scurried hither and thither - 'they're much bigger when you cross the mountains,' Zerabil commented, 'you know the white armour Synja's wearing is actually made of spider-silk. They make it at the citadel,' - rivers ran wherever the eye could see, and trees sprang up all around. They eventually arrived at hills and climbed up into a rocky outcrop sheltered by thick trees.



And though the rocks looked treacherous, Chronos guided their path


There, in the midst of the undergrowth, rose a hillock upon which was a large boulder. Emerging from the boulder was a large human form. The God in the Stone opened his eyes - one of them was scarred and pure black - and surveyed his visitors. Zerabil gibbered excitedly - he had only ever seen his Father open his eyes a handful of times. 'Father! You're awake! Look, Tira's come to visit you. Seihdhara says you know her, but Tira says she doesn't know you.' Gadar surveyed Tira stoically.

'Visit me, do you? Know you, do I? Perhaps,' he spoke with clear difficulty. 'Why here, is Tira?' So saying, he closed his eyes.

'I... Wanted... To meet Zerabil's father,' she said, over the course of long seconds. Tira glanced at Synja, a brief but cold frown. 'We've never met.'

'Zerabil's father...' he frowned. 'We... have never met, Tira. B- but...' he strained as though there was a weight upon his shoulders which he kept in check, and his wounded eye opened, its darkness surveying her.

'But I d̶̥̋̊́ö̶͍͇́̅̽͛ know you. You were poor, ã̴̱̙͈̟̪̜̙̍n̶̹̺̈́̑d̷͎̰͑͜ ̸̡̣͕̞̰̫̭͒́̏̂͘Ì̸̲̫̣͕̭̠̏̄̀ ̵͍̥̺̰̑̆͒͋̀͑́ĕ̴̳͓̬̠͖̂n̴̦͔̗̹̊̾͂͌̈́ṙ̵̢̧̢̖͓̪̩̙̓̈́̈́͐̈́̕̕i̶̼̽̓̈́c̷̪͛̌̿̆h̶͖͍̭̱̹̋̉ḛ̸͔̳̝̅ḍ̶̹̱͆̇̓̎̋̂͗ ̸̘̣̳̮̦͆̓͗̑̐̕y̶̢̰̼͋͐̔͆͘̚̚͝ô̴͔͕͎̤̝͑̔̌ű̷̼̰̭͍̪̯̤̀. You were alone, å̸̟̍̑̋͑͌͝ͅǹ̴̯̹́͆̄͆͆d̸̳̟͈̫̓́͠ ̷̳̠̪̯̗͑̏̊̚I̶͕̞̜̭̗̼̙̗̍͑́ ̴̜͇́̈́͂̕͜ͅg̴̬̖̹̍̽̌͝a̴̬͚̤͎͑͂̈́̃͐͑͂̆v̷̗̟̆̄͒͒ê̴̫̪̼̇̄͐̚͝ ̶͉͔͉̩̯͍̆̀̆̀̃y̶͙͚̓̈͂͜͠ŏ̶̯̞̩̹̗̺̆̍̑̀̾͑͝ȗ̶̻̼̘̩̆͗̑̃̒̕. You were ill, a̶̺̓n̸̢̮̪̮̟̂d̵̯̪̞̊͝ ̶̛̭̳̱͔̑̐̏̄͝I̸̥͈̜̪̮̟͚̦͆ ̸͇̤͕̣̼̼̀c̷̛̫͙͍͒̽̉́̎͝ư̵̞̱̼̤̻̙̽̃̽r̸̡̰͓̻̥̞̠̓̇̃̕͝͝è̶͙̳͓̉̌́̀̓͛́ͅd̵̙̞͐͌͊̽͋ ̵̯̯̣̝̬̮́y̸̛̤̖͙̿͐o̴̟͌̍̔ǔ̶̳. You were confined, ǎ̷̢̖̲̺̦̥͈̩̀̐̐n̵͕͙̻̙͉̒̇̎͐̄̕͘d̵̹͖̑̋͒͒͛̉̓ ̶̭̹̗̣̯̳̑͊͘I̷̫̩̖̗̗̜̟̝̾́̚͝ ̷̧͕͕̖̥̻͓̅̀̕f̴̰̑̎̐̔̓̚r̸̲͓͔̘̺͈͓̽͐̍̍̕e̸͎̪̦̓͗̃͐e̶̲̫̋̿̑̅̇̄̂͒ͅd̶̼̰̱̫̭̤͔̪̍̇̌͠ ̴͍͐̽͐̾y̵̭͍̰̞̑̂͋̓̕͝ͅő̸̢̤̆ű̶̢͍̞̠͇͍̲͑̓̀̔̎. You are mortalkind's hope, their power, their strength, their protection against my siblings - w̸̢̙͉̼͖̗͌̽ͅh̶͎̺͍̓̓̓͛̿̊̊͜a̵̬̥͈̹͛̋̎̽͒̒̚̚t̷̝͇̚ ̸̛̣̪͔̖͚͑̍̏̀̃͝h̵̟͉̊͑͒ȁ̴̱͙͍̘̠͈̤͠͝v̸͈̞̣͎͙͖̤̔̏̈́̊̈́̀̕͜ḛ̶̛̱̠͑̌͑ ̵̛̬͚̹̰̀y̵̢͖̬̦̻̩̌͊̋̉͜͝ȯ̴̳͎͚͓̪͛͛͝ú̶̱͊̌̕͝ ̵̱̯̆́̈́̆d̵͍͍̞͕͙̥̱́͜ö̶̹̩̫̪̣͕͖͒͘ͅn̶̰̭͖̊͠e̴̤̳̖̥̲̔͒̄̆͗ ̴̛̻͈͖̱͓̯̝̐̈́̑w̴̧̞̰̹̓̏̅̒̌̿̚i̵̯̼̻͚̽́́̎̄̊͘̕ͅt̴̫̹̥͗́h̸̨̛̗̱̭̥̳̠̑̒̈́͒͒̅ ̸̛̫̦͖̬̭̯̻̰̆͐̔̓a̸̩̐͋̎̆͘͘l̸̢͍̫̼͕̺̔̀l̷̲͕̟͗́͗ ̵͍͎̙̾̏̓̈͊y̸̱̞̫̼͇͑̃̐̇̾͌̈́͜͠ō̵̙̥̎͋̍̾̚ư̷̬̲̰̹̼̒͛̏̅͗́͠ ̴̯̝̺̈́̈́͜w̵̡̯̦̹̜̯͙̉̉̂̓̾̽͝e̸͕͇͕̺̭̩͍̅r̸̨͇̼̈́́̈̽̒̆̌̕ę̷̲̝͍̠̂͑̃͘ ̶̬̬̱̩͚̯͚̋̊̿̈́̎̐̍g̶͚͔̘͗̅̅́̈́̆ī̶̟̱̤̹̈̏̉f̴͇̣̀̄̽̓̓͝t̵̨̒̆́͐e̵̱̭̣̘̓̄̏̅̄̓̈́̌d̴̡̟̬̼̑͘?'

The black eye closed forcefully, and what looked like sweat (but the gods did not sweat) ran down Gadar's face. 'He is... crazed. He does not speak of his own mind.' But the speaker continued.

'Why is it that even now Mafie is led to me? Ṯ̷̆h̴̩͝e̶͚̎y̷̢͝ ̸̬̿g̵͍̔r̵̨͐ọ̸̌å̵̳ǹ̵̦ ̷̰̉b̶̃͜ę̷̋n̸̮͝ë̷̬́ḁ̵̀t̸̛̻h̷̠͊ ̶̨̈́t̴̫̊ẖ̸̏ë̵͔́ ̴̛͚w̸̳̄ë̵̞́i̸̗̓g̸͉̈́h̴̙́t̸̖͠ ̴͖͐o̴̫͘f̸̗͌ ̷͇́t̸̖̿ḧ̶̦́e̴͔̽ ̴̘͐g̴͓̓o̶͙͒d̴̡͂ş̵̔. Where were you?' Gadar clenched his teeth together as Vowzra forcefully attempted to continue his tirade. that's enough. get back. you only cause us pain. Zerabil watched his Father wide-eyed. This was the most he had heard him speak in... well, ever.

The father's voice did not waver in pitch or volume. One god stood before them, and one god spoke. Zerabil was not fooled. There were two persons within the speaker- two very different, maybe opposing, persons. He looked to Synja's face, and realised that she had not understood this. He looked to Tira's, and...

'No,' she said. 'Stay.'

...There was nothing young in her at all.

Tira's hand held a small cup of paper mâché, fashioned from an old blueprint in the shape of a skull. She tilted it, and a trickle of dark fluid ran down onto the ground,

wh̀ich̶

s̡i̛m̛͟͞p҉l̡̢̢y

c̡҉̻̱̜̝͙̬̮̱̩̣̠͔̦͔̫e̸̛͔̫̖̥͈̪͕͝a̴̰̼̤̭̳͚̤̻͎͔͖̫̺͞s҉̡̛̯̦̺̞ͅe̸̵̢̛̹̖̠̖̘̯̩̗͍̗̩d̗͈͕͙̕͢

t͏̥͖̩͕̹̻̕͠͠ò̶̴̖̲̳̳̤̳͉̻̫̦͓͎͉̤̣̪͟͞ͅͅ

e̵̴̱̰̗̻̠̅͌̓͆̒̉͒̓͐͊̐̅x͍̝̘͈̝̠̼̥͎̮̪̣͔̘͈̮̰̊ͧ̃̽ͭ̓̎͋͡i̶̮̞̝͔̲̹̟̗͚̫͚̬̭͓̝̦͖̭̾͆ͮͨ̉̂̌͋́ͅs̶̥̜̖̝͔̜̭̘͈̻̼̹̃̇̉͌̐̒ͣͨ̌ͧ̏͌̈́͋͆̚t́ͫ̄͗ͮͧͬ̂҉͜͟҉̦͍̼̙͔̠̤͔̺̭̱͍͔

̓ͤͪ̂͒ͭ̆̅͊̾̊̓̽͐ͪ̈͑͘͠ ̵̧ͫ̽ͫ̒ͬ̆ͪ͋̔͗͆ͨ̀ ͫͨ̌ͤ̀ͭ̈́͞ ̵̢̉̓͛ͮͧ̉ͧ̔ͮ͋͊͜͢ ̧̨͒ͥ͊́̚̚̕͞ ̉̔̄͛̄̀ͯ̽ͫ͐͛͛ͥͨͩ͏́ ̢͋͊̿̔͠҉̧ ̵̢̧͌ͨ͑ͥ̐ͨͮ̆ͪ̊͒̐̚͘

.

'This is why I'm here.'

Tira tilted up the cup, but didn't pocket it again- if a pocket had ever been where she had drawn it from. It seemed to have never left her hand. She spoke with her free hand, in a language of palms, to supplement her plodding but perfect First Tongue. 'When Lifprasil drank this, he nearly died,' she said. 'He didn't even touch it.'

Her words cut through Gadar's mystery, though her lips barely moved. Her face was cold and neutral. She Saw all she needed to know. 'I've done nothing with this gift. When Mafie Snowhands died, I was chasing pigeons in the streets. But I was a child, Vowzra. A fatherless orphan.'

'That is why I ran here. I need time to find out. How to use this and why it's here. I don't care what it is. I've seen what it does.' She lifted it a little higher, held it a little further. Gadar's eyes saw the surface of the dark white fluid. It was ink. Maybe blood.

Tira asked: 'Did you make this?'

Gadar was for a few moments still, and then he drew back from the cup his already pained face contorting even further. But he bore it silently. Vowzra spoke.

'Mercy. Always Mercy. It is all you mortals have ever asked of me. And I told you - again and again I told you - you do not need mercy. But in my final moments, as I stared into the abyss and saw nothing sprawled before me, nothing but horror. but pain I thought... why not grant you what you do not need? You have asked for it so much, and I have nothing to lose by it. So I gave them you. You are a mercy. If I may be slightly prideful, pretentatious even, my mercy.' Gadar's hand moved to his face and mechanically rubbed the god's temple.

'And I return to find that my mercy has done... nothing. You suffer as you did before. You weep. You cry out to me - to all of us. Does mortalkind never pause to think that they to whom they call out are the very cause of their suffering? You are here for Time. You say you were a child - that is why their cries passed you by. You were fatherless, you say. Is it ingratitude that I detect? Is it an accusation YOU should have been more merciful! that lies hidden in the empty spaces between one word and the next?'

'No,' she said. 'I was an idiot.' Tira retracted the cup, sighed, and looked up to the sky. Somewhere up past that shrivelled bubble, the northern lights were shining.

A deep scowl showed itself on Zerabil's face, and he looked like he was about to say something. But a glance at Tira gave him pause. She spoke again. 'You should have been more merciful. So should we. So should all of us. So should everyone.' There seemed to be a sudden pensiveness to the human face of the God in the Stone, as though maybe he regretted. Tira looked back. 'But I'm not a child any more.'

The hands kept up their rhythmic dance from one word to another. 'I could use this. I don't want to. I should use this,' she said, 'but I might be wrong. Lakshmi taught me not to act before I know who I hurt. I'm glad she did. You should all be very glad she did.'

Tira flexed her hand and the air around her forearm flashed with that same dark white. 'Is Tira supposed to be the one to choose who deserves to live and die? She could be. I think she'd be good at it. Doesn't that make you scared? It scares me! Maybe I'm doing the wrong thing right now by not slaughtering you all! I don't know! But if I try hard enough, I know I'll figure it out! And that scares me! That frightens me, Vowzra! I'm scared!'

Tira's breath had grown shallow, her signs were heartfelt. 'Do you know how much good I could do for this world by murdering my old mother? Do you know how often I think about that? Jvan could die. You're the ones who sent us all her dreams, aren't you? After a thousand lives or more Jvan Tueda Nuul can finally die. Everyone would be happier. The world would be so much gentler. And they would never know- and I can't even imagine-' she wiped her leaking face with her sleeve. '-how much uglier it would be.'

Nothing made a noise, now, but the knot in Tira's weary throat.

'Are all gods like that?' she asked. 'Is all your family so hard to execute? I can't even kill one.'

The god's face had become impassive once more, the coldness, the deepened darkness of the one scarred eye, made that all too clear. 'If you have come to me for guidance, Tira, then you know well that you have come in vain. I am not your guide.'

Tira thought, ...Guess I'll just keep on doing nothing, then, and may have said so aloud.

The god paused, considering her and the distraught Zerabil beside her. The boy had been silently starting at the ground for the longest time, pain and fury mingling in his heterochromatic eyes. 'It is not out of cruelty, you understand. Mortals don't need mercy, but they don't need cruelty either. The nub of the matter is that, as far as you are concerned, I am compromised. Would you trust any "guidance" I give to you? You are able to See into the gods better than any mortal ever has and ever could, better even than the gods themselves. What can I tell you that you do not already, or cannot, know? I have given you all-' Vowzra seemed intent on continuing, but he was suddenly silenced, and the voice of Gadar came softer and more gentle. It came comforting and certain and flowing, like a pen dipped in ink taken to a white page by a hand that knew its tool and knew what it wished to write.

'Mercy does not come naturally to my brother, but I learned kindness and taught it. And I, who knew only suffering and loneliness, who was forgotten by all, have come to know that the lifting of Suffering is the only true end to the life of mortals and immortals alike. It requires unparalleled kindness, compassion. It requires mercy.'

The scarred black eye glistened wetly, and from it flowered a single stream of liquid onyx. Zerabil's mouth hung slightly open in shock, a single tear forming in his own dark eye. 'Tira, it is true that you have been given an unparalleled capacity for slaughter, but you are mercy. You are the truest altruism a divine has ever bid be. The singular mercy of a merciless god. It is for you to choose your path, Vowzra cannot be your guide - but I can show you to something, unveil a part of you that can, perhaps, help you on your way. If you want it, it waits for you beyond the mountains-'

'Niciel is too kind to-'

'-on the plain of Sertz.'

'...Oh.'

Tira sighed. She was very tired. 'Thank you,' she said, enunciating vocally, her forehead buried in her palms. 'I'll go.' She looked up again, picked up the black wood of her weapon. It would be supporting her weight a while longer, it seemed. Her gaze left Gadar and wandered back.

'You didn't deserve this, did you?' she asked. 'Yara. Bel.'

The ink-eyed goddess considered Tira for a few moments, and then Gadar's face broke out into a full, beaming, tearful smile. 'We have let into existence a world where rare indeed are those who get what they deserve. Suffering is an illness; where it is found, strive to remove it - whether in yourself or others. Where you find that you cannot remove your own suffering then there is but one option before you. Strange, but I saw this in Vowzra's mind long ago, and have only now come to truly understand it: we must strive to be worthy of our suffering. If our suffering breaks us, if it makes us cruel, selfish... surely then we have failed ourselves. In unavoidable suffering there are lessons to be learnt and opportunities we cannot perceive. Indeed, unavoidable suffering provides the chance to cultivate virtues that ease and the lap of luxury deny. The virtue cultivated during ease is that of moderation and self-restraint, that cultivated during suffering of fortitude, valour, forbearance. Ease can create good people, but it is out of suffering that heroes ultimately emerge.' It was a lot of words, many she did not truly understand, but Tira listened.



Mercy, She Wrote
Virtue, She Taught


The goddess paused for a few moments and frowned slightly, 'but please, don't think this has little bearing on our lived realities. I know it may seem that way - I know that people rarely think like this. I know I am physically trapped, I know my soul is bound - but my spirit is free. There are those who boast free forms and unbound souls, but whose spirits are imprisoned and bound. I am content in the knowledge that I have defied the trappings of my fate simply by cultivating my inner liberty.'

none can defy FATE. no one defies FATE. in your... our 'defiance' we only do the will of FATE.

Shut up, said Tira patiently.

The goddess wiped away the stain of ink from Gadar's face, only for it to be replaced by another stream. Then she continued. 'I once had a child brought to me. She had not long to live and I no mortal cure, but she told me that she remembered her grandfather and the way he had waited on death with bravery and dignity. She had thought her grandfather the greatest of heroes for meeting death so well. She said that now she had a similar chance. I do not think that I shall soon perish, but I would like to think that I too, in the face of my fate, can be both dignified and brave. Indeed, perhaps even grateful.' The goddess was quiet for a few moments and then the beaming smile returned and she looked from Zerabil to Tira.

'If you pity me, Tira, then that is good. I only ask one thing of you, the both of you - consider it a sad old witch's request: pity all.'

Tira nodded. That much was clear. 'Okay. I will.' She sighed, glanced away. 'I'll come back for you,' she promised also, 'when I can.' The goddess behind Gadar's scarred eye seemed to smile - a silent I will hold you to it -, and then she retreated and was gone. With that, Tira bowed to the stone and the godhead embedded upon it, picked up her blade and turned away to the horizon.

'Let's go,' she said, addressing Synja and Zerabil once more in simple speech. 'I'm gonna head to Sertz.' She spun to walk backwards for a moment, pointed two fingers at her own eyes and then the same two at Synja's, and added, 'But I'm still gonna fight you, too. Don't forget it.' Synja nodded impassively and looked to Zerabil, who was staring at the now silent and still God in the Stone. She did not quite catch the expression on his face, for he suddenly turned and ran after Tira.

'I guess... we're going,' the Battle Sister said platonically, and followed.

Tira was already eight steps ahead.

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Hidden 2 mos ago 2 mos ago Post by Antarctic Termite
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????


You promised me a flower.

Nothing. Nothing. Nothingness. Only the empty void beyond.

You promised me a flower, said the voice that defined its borders. No thought, no word here. Only one mind. Only one thought. Only one Word.

And in the beginning was that Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and that Word was Lust…

The Lust for All Things. The lust for a flower.

The lusting voice that defined the dark hovered on, travelling not through consecutive positions of space but consecutive planes of consciousness, altering its awareness as it moved and penetrating deeper into the stream of awareness threaded through space-time. I gave you a flower? the voice recalled, reshaping all the nothingness by observing it and so reshaping itself, the observer. I gave it to your sister. I gave so many flowers. I gave a whole garden to her.

A sudden halt to the motion. You never gave me a flower, it thought. The nothingness resolved. She gave me a flower. From the absolute void, the thinker thought blue, and the conscious void voiced blue, and the Word of God was blue. A deep dark blue. No light at all. Only the bones of the ancient leviathan, lying asleep on the ocean floor.

From one void to another, the Isonymph reached its hand. An abyssal crinoid crawled upon it.

She gave me a flower, it said, in thought. A lily. The feathered arms of the star-creature fanned slightly in the current, pulling miniscule specks of driftwater food into its maw. So slowly did it grow. So mindlessly did it breathe.

You gave me a flower, said the Isonymph, flowing out back into the great void that was. The crinoid followed suit, flicking its frail arms against the current of thoughtlessness. It could be at home here. Perhaps. If it could exist at all. Lily…

The being translated itself across the void, unobserved and yet observed, for observation was the only thing tethering it to its own, small speck of existent reality. Another speck just drifting on the current, waiting for the feather-arm in the dark to pull it into its maw.

But though that arm lurked in the distance, it would not pull. The walls of this vacuole were distant, not hostile. As distant as one is from zero. An infinite subdivision away. Jvan.

You wrought an endless cavern, the entity prayed to its old god. Clever. So, so clever you were. The older one, before all of this. Before Lust was a propulsive force. Before Tueda became Jvan.

The Isonymph slipped back out of nothingness to some other nothingness, trailed by its crinoid. It nestled on a darkened moon. Its crinoid froze instantly. The Isonymph unfroze it. Made it live. Even in the cold and the dark, and the airless space of Cogitare, she could make it live- she could raise the dead and animate the unliving. I hope you’ll live…

The entity disappeared again, through no void but its own, the grand Vacuole. It reached a Heartland.




In the Long Ago Time, there had been a great confuscation among the Mass, and the Congregation of Weight decided to undo itself; thus in the Now, there was much confusion, and many Weights and Scales were out of balance, and no one knew how to repair them at all.

The Pulleys of Mass drew one platform against another, and an Engineer inspected them, such that he could; the angle was bad and his own pulleys were quite fatigued. He winched his own observatory platform down on his neck, very slowly, so as not to strip the screws in his neck connectors, which had grown bent as of late. When he observed that a wild mechanism had established itself on the bottom of the platform, he spun his vocal chain, and let it unwind, driving two hammers against his low keys; the tapping sound was his sigh.

It was a long winch down to the bottom of the platform, where the Large Wheels connected to the Pulleys of Mass, and the engineer was very tired of it. In the Long Ago Time there had been grandeur, in the work of the Engineers, but that word had lost its proper capital now, though it was still written as such, and he was relegated to the role of maintaining and cleaning.

He screwed his clamps shut tightly on the opposing clamps of the mechanism, and applying his Long Lever, slowly screwed it open; it banged and tolled like a mad thing at his motion. It was buckling work, and tiring, and the engineer's main coils were almost unspun by the time he had screwed the mechanism from where it was parasitising the big Pulley, and hooked it into himself.

Late in the Rotation he would unwind it, and rewind his own coils with it, taking some gears to replace his own ground ones. He knew it was illegal; but at this point, he thought, even the laws were worn.





Horror. Horrorsome. Horror, some. Horrorsomy.

The Isonymph sat cross-criss-cross-legged on the top end of a winch, blossoming like the leafless flower it was. Fractal petals came and went in its sepalled bulb, every colour, every shape. Its crinoid imitated it in mindless simplicity.

They say it means 'of horror'. But Fate plays tricks. The First Tongue isn't first. In an older tongue, as old as Horror itself, 'soma' means 'body'.

The Engineer tired about his business, cabling himself to a long wire such as to wind him while all his gears untoothed, all but the one that would wake him when it was done.

'Horror-body'. Is she the engineer of monsters? Or is she herself the organelle that manufactures horror for the universe?

The lily watched the mechanist world winch on with its ailing gears, its ailing laws, its people. People that lived according to edicts that forbade etching, yet themselves were etched in metal.

She'd been given an edict of her own.

Heartland, homeland...

Isonymph flipped herself inside out several times, her pitch-black skin giving way to spectral flux. She flipped herself through void and vale, reaching into every dark and stagnant place on Galbar she could think of, and then she pulled.

Bits of reality tore into the mechanist realm from everywhere that was nowhere. Portals broke around her like shining holes in the roof of a cavern, orbiting in a piecemeal sphere.

...Leviathans, whales...

Flesh was produced. From where, it was quite impossible to say. It formed strips, long ribbons, curved platelets, components. Grey as a colourless dawn. Fins and feelers. Gills and gullets.

Inside, outside...

Isonymph took the portals, and extended her many hands, twisting them into foreign shapes. They glowed around her, rings and helices, supercoils and spheres. She was playing, nothing more. The shape she was looking for was already known: a degenerate toroidal vortex, a spherical ring spinning into itself. Of these self-consuming portals, she made many.

...Puppy dog's tails.

The creature sealed the toroidal portals in rings of grey flesh, joined at the seams with lines of cyan glow.



Masses of warpfisk swam through the mechanist world, swarms of them so vast they lit the planet blue. The mechanists, who had no sense of sight, nor any means of perceiving that which was not part of the mechanisms, were blind to the peril they were in. Had always been in. Beyond the mechanisms, silhouettes were marked by the light of the warpfisk, showing things that never touched, never cradled, yet had been here all along, outside the gears.

Currents of light spun from the toroids, first in rings echoing the shape of the enfleshed portals themselves, then in spindle-like beams running through the center of the warpfisk as the portal fields intersected themselves. The swarm flashed, and was gone.

Isonymph was alone.

It emerged into the scanning darkness of the Graveyard Worlds where Jvan had dumped dead Heartlands. There it saw the warpfisk, still glowing, restlessly dreaming, amidst a shattered chain of the Great Gear, and many thousands of mechanists besides, uncoupled from their world and flailing with excess momentum, coming apart, reduced to what they ultimately were: metal pieces in a particular shape.

The silhouettes flew into the nearest Graveyard World, and stayed there. Another invasive species.

At the Avatar's direction, the Warpfisk dispersed, flashing one by one into the Vacuole, and from there into the corners of the universe, everywhere there was quiet- quiet and shade and stagnation, and patterns without meaning, blank places waiting to be written on. Wherever the lines of the real strayed a little too close to the Vacuole.

Isonymph faded into the darkness, and returned to where she belonged. The lily came with her, silently swaying its slender tentacles.

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Sticks and Stones




"They do not have kings," Uram the Chipper explained. "Not like your kind. Sometimes the smaller settlements (like this one that you now rule) have a chieftain, but most times the Rovaick are ruled by a council."

"Council?" Skagoth echoed. It was a strange sight to see the slave hain beside the ogre on his massive stone throne, the tiny shelled creature whispering into the ear of a brute three times his size, but most had grown used to it by now.

"A small group, of their strongest, their richest, their most magical."

The ogre nodded. "Like Ommok's sorcerers."

There was no answer. Since being rescued from certain death when his party had been ambushed by Stog's band, Uram had only witnessed two of these much-renowned shamans: there had been Grekogork, the one that had left to command his own army when the ogres had divided their horde, but Uram had seen him only briefly, and then somewhere among the ranks of Stog's army there had been a brutish shaman that they called Oruk. The air of fear and mystery that surrounded the ogre shamans was enough to inspire fear even if Uram hadn't beheld Oruk's power when he used magic to rip apart a grown urtelem even as the djinn bound to him had fended off more stonemen.

"So the troll that comes to me is a powerful shaman. We will need to be ready to slay him if he shows even the slightest intent of unleashing a djinni upon us."

"No, not necessarily. The strongest are not always the richest; the richest are not always the most magical; the most magical are not always the strongest. That is why they have a council, a group of rulers: they will have one or two of each."

Skagoth snorted. The Rovaick were all so strange, but he was beginning to see now that they were perhaps more civilized than the mudhole-dwelling rats that they had at first appeared to be. Few of them could match an ogre's strength, but their craftwork was truly exceptional--take for instance the massive bronze sword that laid by the general's side. Though it had seen enough use to already have its own persona of nicks and dents, it was still a mighty weapon as long as a hain spear, sharper than any flint axe that the ogres could make, and of good enough make to survive thus far. If ogres cared much for such aesthetics, they might have even praised the weapon's beauty and elegance. But alas, it was for this great craftwork and their immense wealth that the warlord had begun his conquest of the Rovaick realms. In Ommok's name, of course.

He had already sent the king several carts of tribute in the form of metal weaponry and armor and dozens of slaves, but Omokog needed more. Skagoth would see all of this delivered of course, one way or another. It would just be easier if this coming troll intended to surrender his neighboring realm.

Murkruhl had no intention of surrendering his realm. The presence of ogres at their borders, and the swift destruction of the plain hain with whom they had often traded, had not gone unnoticed. The rovaick of the western Ironhearts had prepared themselves. Reports from fleeing hain had made clear to them that these 'plains trolls' conquered not for land, but for riches and slaves. And Murkruhl could see a potential working partnership with anyone after riches and slaves...
Soon enough the troll had arrived at the looted outpost and saw for himself these plains trolls. They were just as large as the hain refugees had described. Perhaps not as evil and monstrous-looking as some suggested, and far less toothy than normal trolls, but he could see the overall physical resemblance. However, Murkruhl could see that - if they had ever been - were not rovaick, and certainly not trolls. Why, one glance into their uncomprehending eyes was enough to see that they were quite clearly imbeciles. A race of mostly-imbeciles who were adept at war. Why had the gods seen fit to torment him with such idiocy? Still, he maintained his calm as they led him into a small council-room. It had been emptied out, and all that remained was a large throne-like chair at the far end of the room.

'Greetings!' the troll hailed as he approached the figure on the throne. There was a little hain seated on his shoulder, and a glance at this particular plains troll alerted Murkruhl almost immediately to the fact that he was different. Though scarred like the other brutes, his flesh was adorned with tattoos and piercings; and where the others walked half naked, this one wore some plated armor. The bronze was of rovaick making, of course. If that was not enough to confirm it already, his eyes spoke of a brain. The fact that he had a hain with him betrayed also his wit - there was no common language between the rovaick and these plains trolls, but there were established methods of communication between rovaick and hain. And so the gods saw fit to torment him slightly less - the race of mostly-imbeciles still managed to produce leaders of intelligence.

The hain addressed Murkruhl, "Before you is Skagoth, a servant of King Ommok. He is warlord...general of this host, and now chieftain of this settlement. He will hear you speak."

'I am Councillor Murkruhl of the West-Ironheart Rovaick Confederation. I thank you, on behalf of the High Council for accepting our diplomatic endeavours. News has reached us of your... kingdom's rapid expansion. You conquer in search of riches - and it is well that you should. Riches and treasures are worth fighting for, no realm can call itself safe without them. The High Council has no interest in warring with your people. What has taken place here at this outpost is an unfortunate misunderstanding. Your people want riches - our people have riches. If you attack us, we will have to expend much of those riches to rebuff you, and many settlements - like this one - will be destroyed. Destroyed settlements produce no riches. But if you leave us be, we are willing to trade with you and supply you with all that you desire - for a price, of course, some quid pro qu- hmm, some give and take. We will prosper, and you will prosper. But if you attack us then you may win and loot our treasuries - but then they will be forever gone. And we may win, and you will have lost both riches and potential friends. We offer you friendship and trade - and that is the very best of routes. You seem an intelligent commander, I am sure you will see the merits of what I offer.' His proposal thus laid bare before the warlord, Murkruhl grew silent and waited as the hain finished translating his words.

But Uram was struggling, it seemed. He looked plainly to the troll and explained, "Ogres have little concept of trade."

Skagoth let out a low growl, irritated at the two conspiring together in a language that he could not understand, and so the hain immediately turned back to him and began to have some conversation. 'Here, explain it like this if it is difficult: trade is where I give you something that is in my possession and you desire, and in return you give me something that you possess and I desire. I see you have a sword there for instance. We make swords aplenty, more than we need. We can give you swords. In return, you can give us precious stones, or gold, or resources - things that you have in abundance and can do without, and we desire.'

Uram the Chipper tried to explain this to the ogre, and in the best light possible, for it was his desire to prevent bloodshed. He was not happy with his current station, but at the very least it gave him the power to do something good for all the beings that would inevitably find themselves at odds with the ogres. There were far crueler masters than Skagoth.

But Skagoth clearly saw little in so-called 'trade'. "The weak do not get to keep things; things always go from the weak to the strong. It is looting or raiding when the strong take it by force, and tribute when the weak give. This 'mutual tribute' that you describe is foolish. They will give us swords for other things? What other things? Things that we loot from other Rovik? Why not just raid these Rovik and take their swords? It is a stupid idea, and this is why these foolish creatures are better off under the king's rule."

Uram tried another approach. "You do not have to take things from other Rovaick to have things to trade with these Rovaick; ogres could make their own things to trade. Or you could have your slaves make things to trade. It would be easier than fighting a war, and the troll also says that this way you will have friends."

Skagoth snorted. "Stog will conquer them if I do not; especially if we were friends and did this 'trading'. They must pay tribute. If they submit to Ommok, maybe they can be permitted to keep their council's rulership, and Stog will not be able to wage war against them without defying the king. That is the only way. Tell the troll."

With no further choice in the matter, Uram looked back to the councilor after that long conversation in the ogre language. He chose his words carefully; perhaps the two could be fooled into each thinking that they had won. "There are other hordes of ogres, led by generals far crueler than Skagoth. Skagoth offers this trade: you provide him with regular shipments of weaponry and armor, and he will have his army see to it that the other ogres do not bother your realm." There was at least truth in what the Chipper had said; Skagoth truly was willing to give protection to the Rovaick if it meant thwarting the efforts of his hated rival, and Stog truly was impossible to reason with. This trade, if it could be called such, was not the worst bargain.

Murkruhl considered the hain's words carefully. It was clear that this was little more than a demand for tribute in return for protection. But it had some merits. Sending small shipments of weapons to one horde was better than having to outfit expeditions to deal with both this Skagoth and others who may come after him. But at the same time, how long would it be before these warlike plains trolls - ogres, had the hain called them? - grew dissatisfied with a small tribute and demanded more. How long before they began interfering with the internal matters of the Confederation? Agreeing to this would only provide a short-term solution.

'We have no need for protection. We are well able to protect ourselves, and if our nation is truly endangered, there are hundreds of thousands, millions upon millions, of rovaick across the Ironhearts who will leap to our defence if we request it. We are not small tribes on the plains, we are nations. What we offer is the opportunity for both our peoples to avoid bloodshed and loss. I assure you, Skagoth, you will not find victory if you pursue a war against us. I can see that your people are strong and used to war, but we too are mighty. War will only mean suffering and loss for all of us. Heed me, and accept our hand extended in friendship. If there come other warlords in future, we will deal with them accordingly. But at the least, let there be between you and us friendship and trade. And who knows, you may well find that we are good allies to have against those who may... threaten you.'

Throughout that monologue, Skagoth's beady eyes regarded the troll. He understood the body language, if not the words, and no matter how Uram tried to defuse the tension with his translation it did no matter; the ogre was not listening. He changed from his slouched recline to leaning forward, and when the troll had finished, Skagoth stood up from the throne and barked some orders to the other ogres in the room.

Uram's eyes widened at whatever they were saying, and his teeth chattered. "Skagoth has something to show you." The troll had been somewhat taken aback by the plain troll's sudden outburst, but it got no more than a slightly raised eyebrow from him. When the frightened hain spoke he nodded, though suspicious.
'Let him show it, then.' He looked expectantly to Skagoth.

Echoing from one of the adjacent halls was the distant sound of ogres shouting something, followed by a few loud bangs. And then there was a bestial, bloodcurdling, animistic roar like nothing a rovaick would have ever heard before. More shouting.

No less than four ogres dragged the thing into the room, each holding onto thick ropes whilst another two prodded at it with long spears. The twisted warbeast looked vaguely like the ogres around it, but it shambled on all fours and was far stronger. Its massive claws looked like they might have been able to rip apart a tedar, much less a hain. When it caught sight of the troll, a burning hunger filled its eyes and it let loose another roar made all the more terrifying by its presence. The four ogres held it back with the ropes, but the ravenous beast still struggled so hard to reach Murkruhl that one would have expected it to asphyxiate itself. But it only grew angrier by the passing moment.

"Skagoth doubts that you can stand against the armies of his king. This is but the least of their might, he says. All things, from savage beasts to proud djinni lords, have knelt before King Ommok." Murkruhl looked with disgust and fear at the monstrosity they had brought in. And yet Murkruhl, who in his time had had the misfortune of witnessing an Ogru, saw this as but a poor imitation of true horror. But Skagoth's message was clear to the troll's mind - you should be afraid he was telling him. Murkruhl did not deny that he was. There was no shame in that - fear was good, it kept you alive.
'Tell Skagoth that I have seen it and understand. I do not enjoy its presence and would prefer it be returned to its pen or cell or wherever you keep it locked away. Then we can continue our... civilised negotiations.'

The message was conveyed.

"Should we not have the troll watch them feed the jogre?" the warboss asked as he smirked and sat back down upon the throne. Uram was at a loss for words, but fortunately Skagoth had the kindness to at least order the beast taken out of the throne room. They dragged it away even as it bayed and slavered, but from afar the sounds of it feeding upon an unfortunate goat were still all too audible. But soon enough the meal had ended, and the crunching of bones made way for shrieks as they prodded it back to wherever it was kept, and then there was silence. Murkruhl looked down briefly, deep in thought. And then he decided.

'Tell Skagoth that we agree to his terms. We will provide small shipments of war equipment on a monthly basis, and he will see to it that neither his forces nor the forces of any other ogre warlord pester us. Tell him that.' The troll's beady eyes watched Skagoth carefully after his words were spoken.

Uram nodded with a look of relief about him. He said as much to Skagoth with a few brief words, and then the ogre smiled. He sat down the sword that he had been toying with in one hand, then stood again. He approached the troll and patted it with one of his brawny hands.

"He says that this is a good day for your people. You have saved many Rovaick." Murkruhl smiled slightly, clenching his fist and keeping a passive face at the ogre's condescending patting.
'Indeed we have. The gods be praised.'

***


Overhead in an otherwise quiet sky, there was the soft beating of wings as a flock of sparrows flapped across the sky.

Below there stood a small assembly of tribal leaders. "Even the birds flee from them," observed Makmud.

Another chieftain, called Eiyar, ruminated for only a moment. "But not the carrion birds; those follow."

There was a tense and grim silence as the small group looked out from their perch atop a cliff and across the sea of grass below. They had been fleeing for many months, those survivors that stood there then. The ones that had chosen to defend their lands or to submit willingly to plains trolls were all gone; probably crushed, their broken shells discarded like rubbish, or perhaps taken as slaves. Some had chosen to wage guerilla warfare, and with hit and run tactics they had delayed the advance of their monstrous enemies, but it seemed in vain. Those brave souls were likely soon to disappear as well.

One of the hain was the High Chieftain Inoch, and these lands were under his rule. All the others had led their tribes away from their ancestral lands and fled here to the Stone Bluffs. This was a place frequented by herds of their urtelem allies as well as the closest thing to a natural fortress that these flatlands could offer.



The Stone Bluffs were great towers of rock that suddenly rose from the grassy plains like fingers reaching for the sky. It was here, on this sacred site, that the tribes of the plain and their urtelem allies were to make a stand against the ogres.


"I have spoken with the urtelem," Inoch declared, "and they say that our enemy is no more than three days' travel away. Soon the first of their trailblazers and scouting parties will be meeting with our patrols. So speak with your ancestors and your spiryts and your gods; may they guide us in battle or show us the way to the wraithstones below."

Makmud looked taken aback. He was a young chief, the only one among his brothers to have yet underwent his second hatching, and an ogre warmaul had left him to inherit his father's title far too soon. "The plains stretch on to the south, for many leagues. There are still places to go; we needn't paint the clay any redder with our blood!"

The High Chieftain angled his head back as he beheld Makmud. Inoch finally spoke softly, "And beyond the plains there lay two certain deaths: a great lake that stretches to the end of the world and has a foul undrinkable water, and a plain of nought but sand and fire devoid of anything but raging djinn. This is the only place left to fight, the only high ground in a hundred leagues. Here my folk shall make their stand. The wind breaks upon the Stone Bluffs and has done so since the dawn of time, and so too shall these interlopers."

Down below, a dozen hunters worked together to drag the carcass of a great plains beast that they had felled with spear and bow. They were at once met with help from a score of spare hands; together, they butchered it, smoked the cuts, and carried them to the massive food stores that had been piled over the past fortnights.

Chief Eiyar pointed to the scene as it unfolded below. "Nobody called you a coward when you took your people and fled your lands," he told Makmud, "for you never stood a chance and ran from certain death. But here we have a chance. If you flee, the remnants of your tribe will be without the aid of the urtelem or your allies in us; you will be hunted down on the open plains like that animal below. You would be fleeing into certain death, and that is what a coward would do."

...

"My kindred stay and fight. I shall check that my spear is in good shape," Makmud finally said as he turned his back and left for his tent. When he stepped through the fold, he began to shake. He breathed deeply, then unfolded a bundle of felt to remove the bronze-tipped spear within; the spear that his father had bought from the rovaick for three stones of meat, the spear that his father had always carried so proudly and had promised to leave for him one day.

A drop of water fell upon the spear. Makmud wiped it away, then cleaned his spear for the sixth time that day.




Beads of sweat dripped down Orok's back. He ground his teeth together, balled his brawny fists so tight that it hurt, and dug his heels into the ground. All of that did little to help with the mental strain, but it showed that he was trying almost as hard as the djinni.



They had only barely been able to drag the stonedjinni up from the ground below where it hid; even now, it roared, it glowed, and it thrashed with a primordial rage.


Auzrog was not exerting himself as obviously as his fellow shaman, but he too was battling the spiryt. Orok was holding it down while Auzrog broke it.

Auzrog held an open hand outstretched. There was a thunderous crack as a piece of rock inexplicably cracked free of the djinni's body and fell to the ground, and from the open wound poured magical lifeblood. The tall grass swayed back and forth as the stream of magic flowed through it and into the shaman's hand. Though the djinni's wild roars grew even more enraged, its thrashing grew weaker. Bit by bit, its lifeblood, its flicker, was being unwound like a spool of string and its fortitude diminished for each passing length that its adversary pulled away.

"Your lord is not here, it cannot save you," Auzrog called out to it in a tongue that few mortals could speak. "I am your master now, and you will tell me everything."

Whatever answer the stonedjinni gave wasn't even heard by those ogre brutes and captive hain slaves that had assembled around to watch the scene unfold, but it had angered Auzrog. The shaman stepped closer to the djinni. Orok's knees buckled as he restrained the elemental and kept it from trying to strike with all its might.

Auzrog siphoned away more of the raging elemental's essence, and then when it was sufficiently weakened he laid a bare hand upon the djinni's body and the two of them became deathly still. Orok was finally able to rest.

...

Shaman and dominated djinni had rested side by side in silent telepathy for many long minutes. At last, Auzrog opened his eyes again.

There called out a voice from behind him, demanding and its tone so deep and guttural as to sound like a bestial growl. "What did it say?"

Stog.

"The heen ran to the rocky hills. They have more warriors than there are ants in a mound. There's stonies too, three herds of them. And this djinni's master rules the rock hills and will fight for the heen."

All eyes looked towards the short, scar-covered warlord whose mad fury and dogmatic belligerence had made the most feared ogre warlord to ever walk these steppes, save only for the King of course. Stog laughed without a hint of nervousness in his expression; if anything, there was only a bloodthirsty adrenaline. He spat upon the ground and stomped upon an ant hill. Even as the tiny insects scurried out and climbed onto his foot to bite at flesh too thick to feel their attacks, Stog held up his massive bronze axe and proclaimed, "With my bad foot, I'll crush the entire mound of heen bugs myself!"

Their wild roars shook the plains. The warboss glanced back to Auzrog. "You an' Orok'll handle the djinn," he declared as fact. It was an order, and a tall one at that; few would dare to ever speak in such a manner to one of Ommok's few sorcerers, but Auzrog nodded. "We'll do what we ca-"

The shaman was drowned out by the frenzied battlecries of an entire horde of ogres, and the deafening, bellowing voice of Stog that somehow resonated through the din with enough clarity to still be heard, "And that leaves three herds of stonies for you lot! And more slaves and loot than we can carry! More than the king will ever need!"

Auzrog and Orok bristled, but nobody noticed.

"Bash your weapons on the stonies 'til they all break! Broken stonies an' broken weapons!" The battlecries rose up once more. In the mess of screaming ogres, Maga the ogress roared too.



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Hidden 2 mos ago Post by BBeast
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BBeast Scientific

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Gerrik Far-Teacher

Level 9 Hain Hero
36 Prestige


circa 13 years Post Realta


Feet pounded along the earth and clacked against rocks. Branches were brushed aside and twigs snapped. A shadow flitted across the surface of the water of a tributary, and was soon followed by a second shadow. The sound of panting accompanied the hurried footsteps.

"Come on, Elword, keep up!"

Two hain were running alongside the stream, hopping across rocks and leaping over fallen trees. Gerrik was in front, setting the pace and the route, with Elword following closely behind.

Ahead a tree had fallen across the river. In two steps Gerrik got to the top of the trunk, then he bounded across the log to the opposite bank. Elword pulled himself up with a hand and a running leap, then skittered across with arms outstretched.

While Gerrik was setting the pace, he was keenly aware of Elword's capabilities and his present level of exhaustion. As such, Gerrik was able to calibrate their run to optimise Elword's performance.

Gerrik turned and scrambled up a boulder. Elword took somewhat longer to haul himself up the side of that large rock, and when he got there he saw that Gerrik had already hopped across onto the branch of an adjacent tree and was waiting. When Elword was atop the boulder Gerrik turned and headed down the branch and around the trunk to a branch on the opposite side of the tree. Elword took a few moments to gauge the distance, then approached the edge of the boulder and jumped across to the branch. It was not a long jump, but Elword still had to crouch down and steady himself with his hands as he landed on the branch.

He then travelled along the branch after Gerrik, who jumped off then end, landed on the ground and kept running. Elword, not confident in landing safely from that height, instead dropped downwards, caught himself on the branch to slow his fall, then dropped the rest of the way. On the ground once more, Elword ran off after Gerrik.

Their exercise continued like this for several more minutes, until Gerrik came to a halt beside the river. Elword caught up, panting. He stooped down to the river and splashed the water over his arms and face before taking a long drink. Gerrik also drank from the river. Once Elword had cooled off, Gerrik signalled for them to get moving again, and they jogged back the way they came.

~~~~

In the fading daylight Elword sat in a circle with the young hain gathered for today's lesson. His hands held two stones, and the all had a pair of stones too. Elword showed the children how to strike the stones such that large flakes would come off, then how to use wooden or bone tools to apply pressure to flake off smaller parts of these larger stone flakes. With metal still a rarity, stone knapping was an important skill for any aspiring craftshain to learn. It was, indeed, Stone Chipper's namesake.

Elsewhere Gerrik was running a smaller lesson, teaching a few of the adult craftshain how to operate the forge and the basics of working metal. Gerrik had been letting Elword run the evening lessons more regularly over the past year, granting him progressively more independence. Yet even when Gerrik was out of sight and earshot, as he was today, he would still be able to provide feedback as though he had been watching the whole thing. Elword found that peculiar, and it (along with the other evidences in Gerrik's behaviour) made him suspect that Gerrik might have some special ability for seeing things beyond regular sight.

But Gerrik's secrets was not Elword's present concern. He had a class to run and children to educate.

"Jan, you need to strike the stone along there. You need to make it rub the stone sideways. Ah, you struck the stone too directly, Tami. But notice that some of those fragments are still useful. Now I'll show you all how to sharpen the edge of the flake you have produced..."

~~~~

It was quiet inside Gerrik's hut as everyone slept. Tami, who had finished her second hatching a few months ago, snored gently on her mat. Next to her slept Zan, who had reached the age of four. Over on a larger mat, Arlen, Sharon and Gerrik slept together.

At least, most of them were sleeping. Gerrik, however, was restless. Sharon noticed this and stroked a hand along Gerrik's head. "What's wrong?" Sharon cooed, "Is it something about your coming journey?"

Gerrik nodded.

"Are you going to miss us?" she asked.

Gerrik stroked Sharon's mouth. "Of course. But that's not what's bothering me." Gerrik stared at the ceiling as Sharon waited for him to elaborate. "Elword is my apprentice. He is also my successor. And on this journey, he will succeed me as Far-Teacher." Sharon waited some more. "That means I won't be Far-Teacher any longer. I will be without my Perception, without my hyper-intelligence. I will become mortal; I will grow old and frail and die." Gerrik turned his head to look into Sharon's eyes. "And it frightens me. Those things have been so integral to who I am and what I do that I'm afraid of what will happen when they're gone."

Sharon put a hand on Gerrik's beak and looked deep into his eyes. "I love you because you are hardworking and gentle and kind. I love the stubborn determination you put into every task you do. I love you because you are always confident and outgoing. And I love you because you love me. You might not always be Far-Teacher, but you'll always be Gerrik, and it is Gerrik I love."

Gerrik pulled closer to Sharon so that his beak nudged up beside hers. "And I love you too, Sharon."

~~~~

Gerrik took one last patrol around Tallgrass, checking that things were in order. Of course, all the important preparations, such as training other hain to fill his roles in town, had been completed over the past year. Gerrik was really just looking over the town one last time before leaving.

He returned to his hut and collected his backpack. Elword was there also. He had his own backpack, a wooden staff, and a leather hat with a wide brim and cotton padding to provide protection from sun and rain. When Elword saw Gerrik, he adjusted the straps on his pack and readied himself to depart.

Gerrik's family was also assembled to wish him farewell. Gerrik embraced each of them in turn.

"Goodbye, Arlen. Look after them for me, although you don't need me to tell you to do that. Goodbye Tami, goodbye Zan. You two be good for Arlen and Sharon. Goodbye Sharon." Gerrik embraced Sharon particularly closely. "I'll come home as soon as I can."

Reluctantly Gerrik and Sharon broke their embrace and Gerrik motioned to Elword. "Come on, let's go."

Gerrik began walking, and Elword fell into step behind him. As they walked out of Tallgrass, the villagers waved Gerrik goodbye, and Gerrik waved back to them. Soon the huts and fields of Tallgrass were behind them as they trekked northwards, and Gerrik Far-Teacher's final journey had begun.

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Hidden 2 mos ago 2 mos ago Post by Kho
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~6 Post-Realta

The trees of the Deepwood towered above all trees of Teknall's creation, towered above even some created by the oak-faced god. And the Kingash towered above all the trees of the Deepwood. The presence of the Life-Deer permeated this place even though she was far away from here, in distant unknown lands and places. Battle-Brother Juras did not make the most subtle figure as he strode silently throw the forest's thick undergrowth, gently bending baby trees and bushes out of his way with Wi, detecting the most unintrusive path through with his heightened senses.

Not too far from here there had once been a giant shell buried beneath the earth, and not too far from here a fleeing woman had once received a crimson scarf from a waiting guardian. And no doubt an unknown number of mortals and divines had likely passed this very spot - why, were not his ancestors, Seihdhara and all those wrenched from the hands of Death by the Celestial Above that they may come to Chronos, were they not sacrificed by the sporting gods not mere metres from where he now stood?

Juras was calm however, no emotion shook him and no great degree of rancour surged through his being. Aye, for he had purged these vices in the Chronos Bloodwells created by Our Master the Bard. It had been but an infinitesimal amount at first, so little that were it not for his senses he would have thought there was nothing there. Mora had injected it right into his bloodstream, and the potency of Amartía's poisonous blood was immediately apparent. He sensed it and fought it as it rapidly, with an insatiable hunger, violently cracked and permeated his blood vessels, transforming them into clones of itself and expanding.

'Do not fight it. Do not destroy it. Tame it - overcome it.' Mora's voice, directly into his mind. Juras had done just that, had relaxed himself utterly and willed his body to embrace the invasive substance. Pungent odours diffused from his skin, and his colouration shifted now from its natural state to a deep crimson, then back again, his nails now elongating and now condensing. It had surged through him, cackling and ripping not only at his body, but now at his very mind and now at his soul, seeking to bend everything to its will and unhinge all that was healthy and balanced into profanation, viciousness, and unintelligent stupor.

But even as it came at him with all its unadulterated vice, its effects washed over him like steaming water in which one was helplessly afloat. It was disorientating, true, uncomfortably hot, but it was just water. And like water, it flowed from him or caused his skin to whiten and shrivel, but it did no more. It only left him cleansed. He had emerged to Battle Brother Mora's knowing gaze, and the Treemind had bid him go rest and meditate, for the next dose would be greater.

'But before you leave once more for Galbar, you will have bathed in the Bloodwells and emerged complete,' Mora had prophesied. And it had been so. It was true, the blood of Amartía had left an indelible mark, a lasting influence that would be with him forever now, the hint of whispers prodding testingly at the edge of his mind for any signs of weakness; but what mattered was that he had overcome it. True, his skin was ever of a reddish hue and his nails, if not filed, grew into black hooks, and his frame was somewhat broader and taller and hair somewhat darker, but he had overcome it. And he would continue to overcome it forever.

To live was to overcome.


And as he thought, he stepped out into the clearing around the Kingash, and there rose in the shade of the mighty tree a colossal ant, not quite large enough to be one of the Deepwood's Mammoth Ants, but far too large to be a vicious Bull Ant, for it was easily the size of a moose or larger.


And yet...it was a Bull Ant


The tremendous creature raised its head high and stridulated angrily, and the Battle Brother took half a step back as it swung its great head at him and charged. 'Stop!' Came his thundering voice just as the mandibles of the giant sprung open and its head looked ready to snap forward towards him. And it stopped. It stridulated questioningly and the Battle Brother raised a white hand towards an open mandible, patting it slowly. 'And how did you get so big, hmm?' he asked her gently. She stridulated a response - she had been in the Deepwoods a long time, she had consumed Bull Ants and Mammoth Ants, had conquered the song of the Deepwood Sloth, and even the tail of the Rainbow Silky had availed it aught when the mandibles sprung shut. Nectar Blush or Severe Blush, they oozed when she was done with them, and the gargoyle that thought to ambush her from above soon found that the ambush lay below. While Bull Ants had no colonies and were ruggedly individualistic, she had made the Deepwood as a whole her colony and herself the Queen over all.

And that was what she called herself - The Queen of the Deepwood Colony. What she went by in bygone days, Juras could not have her reveal. She was 🇹🇭🇪🇶🇴🇩🇪🇨, The Queen of the Deepwood Colony, and that was it. There was but one, 🇹🇭🇪🇶🇴🇩🇪🇨 proclaimed, who stood between her and unchallenged supremacy. It was the First Formica. 🇹🇴🇧🇮🇦.
'But surely you cannot think yourself a match for the Chosen of the Celestial Above!' Juras declared in surprise. But 🇹🇭🇪🇶🇴🇩🇪🇨 thought herself that and more. Migrating birds and travelling ants, and others who thought she did not hear what they spoke, had carried word to her of a quadrupedal mammal, domesticated by humans as aphids were domesticated by ants, who went by the name of Layl. And this quadrupedal mammal, it was said, had ascended to the ranks of the gods! If a lowly domesticated mammal could thus ascend, then 🇹🇭🇪🇶🇴🇩🇪🇨 saw it only right that she should take up her deserved placed as the sovereign goddess of ant-kind.

'And you think challenging and defeating 🇹🇴🇧🇮🇦 is what you must do to achieve this?' Juras asked sceptically. No, she responded, but it was one of the things she would have to do. By the strength of her mandibles and the single-mindedness of her unbreakable will, she would reign above all. 'I'd almost think there was a hint of disdain for the gods in your tone,' Juras chuckled. 🇹🇭🇪🇶🇴🇩🇪🇨 turned her massive head towards Juras and flashed her mandibles in what must have been an attempt at a laugh.
[I like you, Trialled In Sin,] she stridulated, [when I'm a goddess I'll keep you by me]. The Battle Brother surveyed the massive creature for a few moments before speaking.
'Well, if you wish to challenge 🇹🇴🇧🇮🇦, then staying here will do you no good. 🇹🇴🇧🇮🇦 has seen Galbar entire, she has travelled the stars and seen worlds incomprehensible to an ant that has seen nothing but these woods. You have a long way to go and much to see before you can stand on an equal footing to her and declare yourself a challenger.' 🇹🇭🇪🇶🇴🇩🇪🇨 gave the Victor a side-long stare, an antenna brushing over his cloaked head.
[You are a traveller, 🇹🇷🇮🇳🇸🇮🇳. You will accompany me.] It was a statement that would not suffer itself to be refused.
'You mean you will accompany me,' Juras laughed, 'god-to-be or not, I'm the veteran traveller here.' And without skipping a beat, the Victor hopped up onto the ant's thorax and positioned himself behind two well-placed bones. It was as though the Bull Ant had been made to be mounted.
[Were I not in such a good mood, I would eat you for that, 🇹🇷🇮🇳🇸🇮🇳.] The Queen stridulated.
'Less of that noise and lets get moving. I should have done this on my first journey.' 🇹🇭🇪🇶🇴🇩🇪🇨 let out a noise that may well have been the closest thing to a harrumph an ant could make, and strode forth.



It skittered before them at speed, a hain, so much was apparent, but a Horror too. Unlike the one Juras had slain so long ago, this one was quadrupedal and had strange skittery legs. Its two arms sported large porcelain spikes rather than hands, and a swarm of Needle Fae followed after it as it fled through the long golden grass of the Gilt Savannah. Not too far behind it, a creature of considerable size - that Juras immediately recognised as an ogre - was giving chase. It rushed past the Victor on his ant-steed without a glance, grunting and growling something about dat stoopid four-leg heen, gonna show it gonna.

Juras signed for 🇹🇭🇪🇶🇴🇩🇪🇨 to go after them, and the ant - stridulating something to the meaning of well you're getting comfortable, aren't you - turned and ran after them at a gentle pace. Despite that, its six-legs easily carried it across the earth and it had soon quickly outpaced the ogre who towered above Juras even atop the back of 🇹🇭🇪🇶🇴🇩🇪🇨.
'Watchu lookin' at pinkthing?' The ogre growled in his guttural language and swung a stone maul at the Victor. 🇹🇭🇪🇶🇴🇩🇪🇨 leapt forth suddenly, and the maul missed completely.

'Out of the way Whit-Killer!' a voice came from up ahead. It was the Horror. Sensing that something bad was about to go down, 🇹🇭🇪🇶🇴🇩🇪🇨 abruptly changed direction just as the ogre hurtled past. The ground where his feet landed suddenly burst with light and the earth collapsed where he stood. The ogre flailed in surprise for a few moments and seemed to hang in mid-air, and then he fell into the relatively deep pit. Juras had not sensed any weakness in the ground ahead. This was some kind of magick, there was no doubt. 'You're the dumbest, most mushroom-faced ogre I've ever come across. Give up Mush-head, you're never catching me!'

'I'mma mash you, four-leg-heen, I'mma crunch yer 'ead off!' The ogre responded in his own tongue. For a minute or so they shouted abuses past each other. It was clear that neither understood the other, but there seemed to be history between them. Juras observed the butterfly-like Fae that fluttered about the Horror as it went about shouting into the pit. He had not seen Fae properly on his previous journey, this was an opportunity. Reaching out swiftly, he caught one by its long blade and brought it close, allowing his senses to wash over it. Eighteen-wings, a turquoise, green and faded orange colouration. Intricate geometric designs and patterns - a hallmark of many Jvanic beings. Interestingly, the Horror did not seem to notice that he had caught one of its Fae, or if it did it did not care. He reached out with his Wi in an attempt to bring another one closer, but he found that... there was nothing. Baffled and suddenly disorientated - for he had never experienced a lack of Wi - the Battle Brother released the Fae and balanced himself by holding on tightly to one of 🇹🇭🇪🇶🇴🇩🇪🇨'🇸 protruding bones.

'Horror,' Juras said, once he had somewhat adapted to the hollowness and vulnerability of being without Wi. The Horror jumped away from the pit and turned to Juras, aghast.
'White-Killer! You're still here! Don't kill me!' It skittered backwards and made to turn and flee, but Juras spoke.
'I will not kill you, do not run.' It paused and turned its head towards him.
'You... but you're a killer. Murderer. Trickster.'
'No less than the Jvanic Entity - but here, I keep my word. I will not kill you.'
'So you will maim me? Torture me maybe? Amputate a limb or two? Suck my soul? Carve a-'
'I'm not going to harm you in any way, Horror. I only have questions.' The Sculptor observed him uncertainly for a few moments... and then approached, curiosity ultimately over-riding its instinct to flee. 'What have you done to my Wi?' Juras asked. The Horror looked at him blankly.
'Wee? You mean... as in... bodily fluid excreted via-'
'No no. My magick. I can't feel it.' The Horror pointed its sharpened hand upwards in what must have been an imitation of a hain-smile.
'My Fae. They suppress many things, magick amongst them.' Juras cocked his head.
'But what you just did there, to the ogre. That was some kind of magick.' The Horror nodded.
'It was! A trick I learned from urts. I've been running Mush-head here round in circles for days waiting for it to charge up. Doing this stuff to him never gets old,' the Sculptor giggled and looked to the side, 'maybe a swarm of earthen bees with rocks for stingers next...'
'What do you mean. Explain.' Juras demanded.
'Well, the urts draw patterns - magickal patterns. Then they charge them up using skylights. And then boom, all kinds of things. Big bridges, lightning bolts, and pits. And more. I've been experimenting on Mush-head. I don't know the urt language, but it's meant to look nice so me and my luck most of the time. Once I made it rain hairballs on him. Another time he sprouted nails from his armpits. One time he sprouted an extra pair of legs and nearly caught me! But he went and... uh, "amputated" himself. To put it mildly.'
'Urt script you say? And have you ever tried using any other languages?' The Horror raised its head at this suggestion and was silent. 'I'll take that as a no.'
'Eh, it just... well, it never crossed my mind really.' But Juras was not entirely listening.
'Skylights... you mean the golden lights of heaven, yes? The urts have a way to power their spells with them?' The Horror nodded, busy writing something with his pointy appendages onto the ground.
'Here, you're strong right? I'm going to go over there with my Fae, and you see if you can power this spell with your magick.' The Horror ran off some distance with his Fae, and Juras descended from 🇹🇭🇪🇶🇴🇩🇪🇨'🇸 back and told the ant to back away. The Victor did likewise and, focusing on the area the Horror had marked, channelled some Wi into it.

Nothing happened. The Horror remained where it was, watching cautiously. Minutes passed. 'Have you powered it yet?' The Horror eventually asked.
'Yes, a while back,' came the Victor's response.
'Oh,' the Horror said, somewhat crestfallen.
'I have another idea,' Juras said and returned to the area where the Horror had written out the spell in the strange pseudo-language Sculptors used to communicate telepathically. Wiping it with a foot, he wrote something else with the bladed butt of his polesword. Once he had stepped away once more, he channelled his Wi towards the marks he had made and, after a few seconds of silence, the earth suddenly rose up in a small jagged spike.
'How!?' The Horror ran up to the spike and danced about it gleefully. 'Tell me, tell me. How?' Juras walked towards the spike and inspected it. It was not quite as he had wished for it to be, clearly brittle. But it established an easier script for him than that of the urts: the divine tongue itself. It was only logical that the very script in which magick, and the world as a whole, was created would be naturally attuned to magick.

'Divine script.' Juras said simply. The Horror cocked its head.
'Dunno that either,' it said in defeat.
'Well, I guess your experimentation on Mash-head continues.' Its head shot up, and it turned a pointy appendage heavenward.
'Mash-head secretly loves it, really.'
'I'm sure he does.' The Victor said with a slight chuckle, before turning away and mounting 🇹🇭🇪🇶🇴🇩🇪🇨. 'Farewell, Four-Legged-Heen.' He said as the ant leapt away across the golden grass.

'You what?' asked the perplexed Horror. But Juras was already gone.

(Everybody! Listen, listen - I just met a White-Killer!)
(This pot is leaking again)
(He didn't kill me!)
(If you cover yourself in honey you'll be sweet)
(If your pot is leaking get a new pot)
(But what's really cool is this - the divine script has urt magic!)
(You'll also be sticky though)
(Can someone teach me the divine script?)
(What's a divine script?)
(I need to get an ogre out of a pit)




Actually, I just wanted to see what it was like.

And then he cracked her neck.


It had been so warm. There had been so much life, so much joy - exhilaration, excitement.

And then he cracked her neck.


And he had held her close in a hot embrace; why, not all the snows in the sky could have cooled them then.

And then...


There was a sob.

he cracked her neck.


And she heard them. Beneath the frozen ground, the rocks, the snow, the ice; she heard them talk. Aye, thar loue wiz legendary. A mingin' trajady tha'. Tae Mafie Snowhands 'n' tae Asmel, eh? Aye, tae th' best dance th' mountain's ever seen!

But it was all a lie. A horrible, twisted, selfish lie. Things like this... they should not happen. Sure, slaughter all you like, maim, torture, wipe life from the plains and the mounts and the hills - gods could do as they pleased. But this. This deception. This use of people's heart for sport... she was dead, it was true, her skin peeled away and her flesh rotting - holes for eyes. But still, she cried. And she walked.

She had been walking for god's only know how long, trudging purposelessly north, answering the imperious cold call. Perhaps, if she had the will to, she could have resisted it. But there was nothing to resist for. Here she was, brought back from the embrace of death as though her life had not been plaything enough and now they wished to sport with her death too.

She paused atop a hill and surveyed the miles of shrubbery that lay before her. The odd hill decorated the landscape, strange animals grazed here or there - creatures she had never seen in life. And up the hill was coming an enormous ant. Her observation done, she allowed her feet to continue their mechanical walking. But the ant called out to her in a tongue she understood, and she froze and looked over.

'You are Mafie Snowhands, are you not?' The ant was saying. The Cursed dwarf stared emptily at the ant. 'I'm up here,' she looked up, and there on the creature's back between two jutting bones sat a humanoid figure clad entirely in white.
'How... how d'ye ken me?' She asked.
'The God in the Stone sends you his regards, and Our Mother of the Words.'
'Th' who noo? Gods? A've na business wi' gods. Pick a windae, yer leavin.' And so saying, she spat and continued walking. The ant followed her.
'The God in the Stone is grieved by what the gods do. He is not like them. He offers you justice.'
'Thir's na yin that kin gimme justice, fella. Nae yer god nor ony ither eejit.'
'So what more do you stand to lose? The goddess of the Word offers to give you her word - you'd be a fool not to take it.' Mafie did not stop walking.
'Braw then. Tell yer goddess ah will tak' justice. Nae juist fur me though - fur a' they th' gods oppress. Tell 'er that.'
'I don't have to tell her anything, Mafie. The God in the Stone sees all, hears all.' And the words had barely left his lips when the earth began to rumble and shake. And before them it twisted and parted and cracked, and a great stone hand emerged from the earth and, pressing down, pulled itself out of the bowels of Galbar. Another hand emerged, an arm, and a third, a fourth, a sixth. They strained, and then a rock head burst forth. It was followed by a torso, legs, and it flew up into the air; a floating mountain.



A Temple of the God in the Stone


In the abdomen of the floating humanoid stone was an unmistakable entrance of some kind - the facade of a great complex. 'Wha th' bugger is that?' Mafie managed.
'You have contracted with Our Mother of the Words, and she is not one who lies.'
'Bit ah didnae gie anythin' in return. Whit kind o' messed up trade is this?' But it was not Juras who made response, the voice came out of the great rock.
'They who come before the Temple of the God in the Stone have paid the price in suffering.' And the Cursed dwarf was suddenly afloat. She let out a yelp and looked at Juras.
'Awright, whit's gaun o- pat me doon, pat me doon!' But the dwarf was raised up high. Juras raised a hand in farewell. And dinnae ye wave at me - git me doon! was the last thing she said before the chuckling Victor turned his ant and rode away.

Mafie found herself placed gently at the entrance of the rock-man's abdominal temple entrance. She huffed something about gods swinging their boabies about before slowly making her way inside. The stone was ever shifting, now expanding and now shrinking. For the moment, there was only a long straight corridor that eventually led to a well-lit altar. Behind the altar was a white-clad... man? Woman?

'Weel gang oan then, ye promised me justice 'gainst th' god whit hart me. Les see it then.'
'Mafie Snowhands,' spoke the Victor. It was a woman. 'By Toun oppressed. Deceived, heartbroken, murdered in cold blood.'
'Toun then? That's th' name o' th' bas whit did me?'
'Our Mother of the Words recognises your anger, Mafie Snowhands, but there is no need for insults and irreverence. Here,' and the Victor pulled out a small sheet of paper. 'Our Mother of the Words did, long ago, establish limits as to her conduct with all that did and would exist. That the mighty and the vulnerable may live side by side and all may be secure. None, she pledged, is to be touched by her, none to be harmed. Her affairs and relations with all, all evil and all good, would be dictated by pacts. But here, she has taken it on herself to add to that primordial contract: she shall bring justice against the gods to all those who take up this Pact. Where she cannot - for who can force the hands of the gods? -, she shall grant favour commensurate to the suffering inflicted.' Mafie was quiet as the Victor droned on, but eventually grew exasperated and grabbed the sheet of paper.
'Les see whit it says. Hmm... A'richt. A'richt. Braw. Br- hauld yer goats, whit's this aboot "Merciful-Virtue"? Whit th' bugger's that?'
'Was just getting to that.'
'Weel ye shuid hae said it foremaist, soonds bloody important!'
'In return for Our Mother's protection against the gods, in return for holding them accountable to any who take up this new contract, the contractee must live their life in accordance with Our Mother's philosophy of Merciful-Virtue.'
'Kill me noo,' Mafie said irritably. 'Braw braw, ah gree, whitevur. Noo punish that damned Tounboy.' And so saying, she took a reed pen from the Victor, dipped it in a small fount of ink in the altar, and signed her name at the bottom of the Belruarcian Contract. The Victor looked at it briefly as the ink dried, and then disappeared beyond a door behind the altar. Mafie looked around at the shifting walls. Where before she had been at the end of a tiny corridor, the place had now expanded into an enormous chamber with various openings apparently leading into new sections. The Victor soon returned and placed her hands upon the altar, and when she spoke it was not with her voice that she spoke.

'Toun,' her voice was soft yet strong, captivating, 'you are called to account.'
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Antarctic Termite Resident of Mortasheen

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Sable.


A pile of rubble in the middle of an old stream valley. A sound of takk-ing stone on stone, intermittent and variable. Someone was throwing rocks. Not with much force, either.

"A halo from my father," said the voice in the gulch. "A blade from my mother. A thousand curses from Yivvin, and..." A cocked head, as the next fistful of rock cracked down the walls. "And good hearing from Aihtiraq, I guess. That's one thing to be thankful for."

The boy looked up to where a sable marten was curled upon a crag, looking down at him. The two seemed equally startled by each other. His pockmarked metal disc followed his head.

He cracked a smile, looked down. The ferret-thing scampered away up the rock. He turned back to the D-shaped blade sticking up from the rocks, its handle embedded in its spine. He stood up from the rocks.

"Was this the best you could do?" he asked, addressing the walls. The Jvanic spines had been cleared out long ago, but things still grew back. Forked slender points, facing skywards. "An abomination? Another bastard, to throw into the fire? Was the rape of my mother worth this?" He kicked a rock.

"What am I, a Jvanic elemental? A Djinni whose element is you? Or maybe something more like a change-eater? Is that why I must burn everything that I touch?" Sable picked up a rock out of the many, many that lay. It sank into his hand. His skin was water, the flesh beneath as mud. He watched as the stone dripped out the other side, soiling the clear fluid that covered his surface, dripping away as sepia that fled back to him on the ground.

"Or am I a Sculptor? Yes, that makes sense, does it not? Someone to tell the story you refuse to believe. Someone who knows his own narrative, a character who chases the conclusion for its own sake. You just want it to look nice, don't you? No matter what happens, you're just chasing the story."

Sable waved his hand in front of him. He was, in body, the spitting image of what Flux had been three centuries ago, before the change. Only younger. The sepia clouds were falling away into him again, leaving his outer flesh clear.

"You're willing to believe that the responsibility for change lies with anyone but you," he murmured. "You pay morality a tribute because it stung you in the past. Do you think you can atone for your sin the same way you solve all your other problems? By making horrors and abandoning them?"

He swept his arms up to the sky and raised his voice. "Is that what I am? Am I the body who's destined to fight you into a standstill? Is that not correct? Am I not the one you chose to fix all your mistakes? Cure the wounds you inflict and mete out the penance you owe?"

Sable's fists hardened.

"And I will, no matter what it takes. I will thwart you. So... Who am I?"

"Am I your keeper? Am I a harbinger?"


There was no answer. Sable lowered his hands and his voice.

"Am I a messiah?"

There was no answer.

Until, eventually, there was.

"SABLE! Quit your teenage monologuing and sweep out my fucking dojo!"

A broom clattered down among the rocks from somewhere far above. Sable's keen ears heard something about 'I'll make a good goblin out of you yet'.

"Yes, Auntie! I'm coming!" Sable resolved to go within the next five minutes. He looked back out at the gulch. Nothing.

He sat down on the rocks, facing the blade.

I miss them, Sable said, quietly, in his head. I never met them but I miss them. I miss your voices. His fingertips drummed on the stone. "You should never have died. Why did you die?"

The blade's rune gleamed at him. Wit's End.

'May the one who takes up this sword forsake its use, and all other arts of combat, until words fail them.'

"I accept this oath," he said, and put his hand on the blade. It glowed. Sable put his other hand around its grip and pulled.

It was stuck.

"Oh damn this," he whined, yanking the huge ceramic sword with both hands and a shoulder. He grunted with effort as the blade stuck fast in the dirt.

"Sable! Your oryx wants feeding!"

"Coming, Auntie!"

He spattered the ground with his hand, shaking it out to reform it. The rocks dissolved into the ink-marks, the ink-marks flowed back to his feet. At last he heaved and the weapon came free.

"Coming!" he yelled again, setting the blade on his back, where a curve of liquid held it in place. Sable scrambled up the rock.


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