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BBeast Scientific

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Teknall did not dream.

As a divine being, his mind did not need to go through the mortal process of sleep and the dreaming associated with it. On such occasions that Teknall's mind was idle, he would design new inventions and simulate novel mechanisms.

But Gerrik did dream, and Teknall could see Gerrik's thoughts.

'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.'

But Gerrik did not dream like regular mortals. His divinely enhanced mind granted him an unparalleled capacity for metacognition, meaning even during the deepest dreams he was lucid. Which meant he could recognise when a thought was not his own.

Where's this dream coming from? This is not from my own head.

'That's the trick, of course. Mortals need to believe that they have control, that their decisions have weight.'

Stone Chipper, are you getting this? What's this about?

I am. I know Phi.

'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.'

And she wouldn't be broadcasting her trade secrets across Raka. Someone's been spying on her and has decided to publicise her methods of deception.

'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...'

I know Toun has been watching Phi, but I don't think he would send messages via dreams. Probably.

What should I do?

Keep listening. Check with others in a few days to see if they've had similar dreams; I doubt you're the only one to receive this dream.

'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.

Maybe engage in a bit of philosophy too.
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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Muttonhawk
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Muttonhawk Let Slip the Corgis of War

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Yorum 4: Campaign


Loralom farmland, 12 PR

Soft spiryts whispered through the grain field, bending stalks of laden grass until they sparkled like golden dust in the sun. Against the clear blue sky that chilled Caress' skin, that sea of radiant wealth would feed many. Caress could tell despite her blinded eyes, for she felt just how much there was. She loved spreading out her many human hands like fins on a sea creature, swimming through the nice dry crops on her stroll. She lost her eyes – long ago though it was – for the very purpose of feeling those needling flowers as closely as she did.

Every grain had a smoothness and a roughness. There was such a dryness yet running along the grain of the fibres gave an illusion of sticky moisture.

Hundreds of little husks. The breeze made them sigh.

Caress almost gasped when one hand felt hainshell instead of grass. The back of someone's head, judging by its curvature. Her breath failed to gasp only because she knew exactly who it was.

Her mouth curled into a maternal smile. "It has been some time since we last bumped into each other, Edda," Caress said with her ever-calm accented Xerxian. "Some great count of heartbeats I have felt. It warms me to lay my fingers on you again. The power of the symbols on your shell are like a reassuring grip, even to me."

Edda sighed. "Many things have changed. I am glad your odd way of speaking has not, Caress. It's good to see you, too."

"How have you been feeling?" Caress said with no presumption of Edda's health. She lowered her hands and almost floated into a seated position in the field. "Perhaps we may speak while I knit another shawl?"

"By all means." Edda sat down in turn. "In truth, I just wanted to catch up with you."

"And I you. A great many shawls have spoilt over these past few years. Flax fears the cloy of moisture and rot. Recent rains have not shied such matters from the Urtelem, who do so love to keep huddled and warm." Caress pulled out her sewing needles and yarns, in all their colours and shades of red. "But my step errs from my question, I apologise. How have you been feeling, Edda?"

"All fine," she answered immediately and waved an upturned palm. "My health is not a concern in front of my mission. It goes on still."

Caress' widening smile did not quite open as she softly laughed. "I am also glad to hear, Edda, that your paces have not changed either. The muscles in your neck felt stiff as splintered wood and still you lie to your friend Caress as if a harder stoicism shall flush it all away."

Edda craned her head back and nodded to concede. Her hand opened more genuinely. "Okay. I will admit I do not wish you worried."

"Edda…I want to know." Caress would have sounded petulant had her voice not remained deep and mature. "How have you feeling?"

"Oh…" She had to consider it, even with the head start. "Overwhelmed, you could describe. Not about my mission, but…other things. Distractions, you could say." She shrugged and ground her finger shells together. "More likely just the world turning around me."

Caress hummed. "These hands cannot hold the world from turning for you, though your pressured mind may be relieved here, Edda." Her head tilted more than necessary as if to hear better. "Has any particular thumb been pressing on you?"

"A great many. If only I could name them all." Edda huffed amusement. "I do not even know where to start."

"Hmm…Then weave me tale, Edda." Caress craned and rotated her head out for emphasis. "Every tale has a first step. Its own texture under the sole."

Edda stared at the soil below and blinked in thought. Her head slowly levelled until her right set of eyes flicked up to Caress' blindfold. "I would say, then, that it started as early as when the spires rose…"

Loralom, 3 PR

"…At first, Akol thought it was a grand and spiteful joke. One more reminder by the gods that his mortal pleas meant nothing. You saw how he stormed away to his chariot upon seeing the last of the earth settle. He had a fire in his eyes. It was as if such a miracle was but to him an insult and not a sign of favour.

But, people went to the spires almost immediately. Hain and urtelem alike. Korom and Sira tried to convince Akol to let some curiosity temper him, but he did not join them for another day. And he only did so begrudgingly. What he saw were people having to be dragged away from the spires, for they were spending so many moments there. They were seeing things in those structures. Visions of a better place and how to reach it. Or…more accurately, how to create that better place around them.

I knew immediately that it was Toun's doing. His way of expression was always with a wish for betterment. There was step that did not lead further to the top of the mountain. Up and away from the burning ashen trough in which the purge left Loralom.

Of course, Akol refused to stand under the blue light within and receive Toun's visions. No, it was instead practical matters that moved him. A talk with his advisors, his paramours.

Spring drafts were blowing through the palace when their meeting was called. They sat around their jungle-wood table from the days of Loral, carved with many pictures from old history. I was not present at that anxious meeting, but Sira related it to me, word for word. She has a powerful memory – better than mine – so I may paraphrase.

Korom opened the meeting and spent a good while in speech detailing the news of the outskirts. He spoke of numbers greater than were often used to count hain. He did so in his usual stone-like manner. When finished, and saw King Akol mostly disinterested, it darkened Korom's eyes.

'Akol, my dear,' spoke Korom then, fingers woven and teeth grinding with stress. 'I know you do not wish to face those spires, but the people flock to them. Not just from Loralom. Pilgrims are pouring in. They have set up a large camp that is already turning into large village.' Korom quickly gave a downward palm. 'Now, we have enough men on guard; few to none of the pilgrims are violent. This much is a relief, but it will not last.'

Akol made a derisive grunt. 'Why, heartfriend?' He leant his chin on his fist. 'They are pilgrims, are they not? They shall go home to tend to their families' futures before too long.'

Korom was never nervous to confront Akol with reality, so he leant forward with his beak down. 'Food, my king.' The one word made his others unnecessary, in truth. 'Food will not last. They bring not enough with them and our stores were never meant to feed so many. To add to it, none seek to return home.'

Hunger drove most of the barbarity in Yorum back then. Loralom was not beyond the continual needs of hainkind.

Leaning back in his seat, Akol pondered out loud to his paramours. 'Can we not put them to work to grow food? We will have plenty of harvests before the next winter.'

'I fear it will not be enough,' Korom lamented. 'Not at their rate of arrival. More flock to the spires every day and we simply do not have the land to farm. If every one of them were tasked today to our fields, what they grew would still be consumed faster by those who arrive the very next day.'

Korom did not speak the solution of driving them out. It was already in everyone's heads.

At that end, Sira spoke up. Her insights were valued and turned her paramours' heads. 'They come for certainty. Out of desperation. They will not leave if we tell them to. And if we force them away we will have a riot.'

'What certainty do they see here?' Akol asked with his fingers to the air. 'They have little more safety here than elsewhere. This land is still as scorched as before.'

'Toun,' spoke Sira. 'A god's mission. A purpose beyond scavenging and fighting like rats. They know stories of the city states. The pride and the glory. They want to see that again!'

Akol hissed as if they were misguided, not knowing his own arrogance.

Sira pressed the issue. 'Akol, my heartfriend, your prayer to Toun may or may not have been answered, but this is a call to action no matter the place to stand looking. They cannot stay here. They must be directed!'

'I am inclined to agree,' Korom said. 'Especially because…well, armies forage for their food.'

Akol's dismissive recline then straightened, Sira told me. She knew the look on Akol's face. It was when he would start thinking and would not stop.

'Korom,' Akol began, his voice possessed by a purpose. 'Your allusion may have a good path in it. How many fields could these people tend, did you say?'

Korom lifted his beak. 'I didn't. Hundreds, by certainty. Maybe thousands.'

'Many able bodies,' Akol schemed.

'You did pray for all you need to build your kingdom,' Sira schemed along. 'And you did need hainpower. You said as much to Edda.'

He did say as much to me. You were there, Caress.

'Perhaps this is…an opportunity to finally secure our borders?' Sira concluded.
Korom was less convinced. He sought to rein in his heartfriend the king. 'I would not rush. If you would build an army from the pilgrims, you would need to equip them. The few weapons they have do not fare better than the occasional wooden mallet or truncheon.'

Akol bit lightly on his own finger, as he usually did when churning through the many means of war. 'We could always use more slingers.' He gave Sira an ordering look. 'Sira, my heartfriend. How many leather sandals and articles of flax does Loralom hold in surplus?'

'A great many,' she said.

'Make them into slings.' He turned to Korom. 'You will find the wives and the children. Set them to foodmaking. The rest shall fight.'

The rest of the meeting was just further details. The plan went as they said.

The people gave the materials freely, for they could see a turning point in the land. Flax was spun to rope. Sandals to sling cups. Great boulders were broken into pebbles. Thousands answered the levy when it was called. Within a week, King Akol the Quickhatched had at his disposal the largest army in the north. His infantry before were hardened from defending their home. Whilst supported by harrying beasthounds, they were unbreakable. As long as they kept the countless slingers defended, Akol had the power of a great stonelord at his call.

While the fighting pilgrims marched north, upriver. The remainder of the immigrants were directed by Korom to fish, farm, hunt, and gather as much as they could do balance the supply of food. The plunder would bring back more food, as well as draw more pilgrims to the cause, but the farmland was the real prize. They had the need for it and the people to work it.

By the time the army marched, many pilgrims arriving to the spires left soon after to join Akol's army. Building Toun's empire was a purpose that filled the savage holes in their hearts. And it solved the potential catastrophe that would have lead from inaction."

Loralom farmland, 12 PR

Caress' many arms worked feverishly in front of Edda's eyes. Without even noticing, she switched coloured yarns and tied stitches as if her limbs were independent artisans working together for their patron body.

And still she asked Edda a question to interrupt the story. "Edda, I apologise," she said as politely as she could. "But all this smacks of the slides and sprints of Loralom. Are you so scuffed by those events? Where were you striding during all this intriguing humming and palming?"

"Oh, well…you could say I was keeping everything else together," Edda said. Her eyes lowered for the sake of humility.

Caress tilted her head to one side. "Everything?" Her soft smile understood. "Which everything?"

Edda dipped the point of her beak down. "The people. The Lorals and the pilgrims shared a pain they had held ever since the Blinding Purge. From the time I rode through the city and heard them shouting for an angel of mercy, I…a part of me wanted to give them hope."

Edda's wide eyes relaxed as she settled back into a reciting flow.

Loralom Polis, 3 PR

"I was given leave of much of the palace from the day the spires arose. We all lived on from day to day while the king and council deliberated. Three weeks elapsed and the companions I sailed in with were all offered places to work for their keep. They all took the opportunities, not for any great prosperity – there was little enough for anyone. I believe they took the tasks so they could call their lives normal again. I could weave no such illusion for myself, even if the palace guards would let me into the public in the first place.

Those weeks I spent idle made me realise my exhaustion. A short rest may have done me good for a day or two, true. The following agitation was its own kind of labour. I had a mission. The mission was outside.

And so, one night, I convinced some scullery maids to sneak me out into the city. Some creativity and a large basket of bed linen brought me out of a side gate in their escort.

I had learned some Yorumglot by then. Enough to speak simply. Though, it was not enough to understand what all the maids were saying until they brought me to some sort of public house. A place for drinking, eating, and socialising. When I emerged from my sheets what I saw was a pond of silent faces, staring, flitting.

I reflected their look, most likely. Bewildered.

But there was nothing to fear. They were waiting to see me. My experience from a past life teaching as a chipper came back to me and so did the words of a teacher.

'Hello everyone,' I began in their language. A few heads reclined in amusement from my accent, which was a relaxing gesture. 'My name is Edda. It is nice to meet you.'

A few raised their hands in greeting, if nervously.

'How are you?' I asked.

One by one, all those people then averted their eyes. That familiar dread I saw on the streets spread up their throats like a creeping, hungry black mud.

One of the scullery maids answered me. 'We are a proud people, Ramyem Edda…'

She had not used that word inside the palace.

'…But, Ramyem,' she continued. 'We have long suffered. Sons and daughters die. Harvests are scorched or stolen by thieves. Loralom fears the day it crumbles into death or craven predation.'

Some of the words were beyond my Yorumglot vocabulary at the time, but we were both hain. I understood her meaning. Loralom was decaying. If not in material prosperity, then in spirit.

Another woman in the room stifled her own sobbing and weeping. The others were still avoiding my eyes. That woman's name was Tegra – I spoke to her a time afterwards. She had lost her many sons to the skirmishes and ambushes of the land. No one had the heart left to comfort her there.

But, even if I did not know the exact cause for her grief in that moment, I simply did what came naturally; I walked up to the weeping woman and embraced her.

To be sure, my mission had been on my mind since I planned to sneak away in the night. But with that stranger crying in my arms, I felt an empathy of hopelessness that I could not turn away from. Those hain around me were all on the boat on the Metatic, like we were. Thirst and creeping crystals were freezing their once lively animation into a slow and painful demise. They did not know what to do.

A god had saved me with a miracle. But a mission can be spread by any. Anyone can hold up a guiding light. So, I turned around to face the large group with that weeping woman laying tears on my shoulder. I did my best with my paltry Yorumglot to say 'The marks on my shell were scribed by Toun. Read them, and watch your spirits awaken.'

The weeping woman said something – I was told later – along the lines of admitting illiteracy. But then she stopped and focussed on the three circles here on my chest. Toun's symbol. Then she pulled away from me and traced her fingers over each marking. I will never forget the look on her face. She was the first one in that room to make an effort to read out the message, which to a room believing her unable to read looked to be a work of magic. But they all had their turn to read it.

Yes, Caress, I disrobed for them. I know you smile, but it was a memorable moment. My bodily modesty has long been killed off in favour of other fears, my friend.

At any rate, after that episode, a change took the city. More crowded the gates, day after day, wishing to see me. To read the markings. I was finally given the freedom to visit the forums and markets. Under guard, of course. The citizenry would have broken the gates down had the council not allowed me out.

By speaking every day to the Lorals and the pilgrims, by easing their hearts and minds – no I did not need to disrobe for them again, I spoke Toun's message myself. By easing them of their uncertainties, I learned more every day. More Yorumglot, more of their customs and history. And with the mission before them, they had something to aspire to again. There is a great unifying idea in the markings, I found. An instruction that feels so utterly possible to all of them. To me, too.

Korom spoke to me about the way my acts and words had lifted the city of a dark cloud. People were working together at a greater scale. The days were brighter, palms turned upwards, the soldiers fought more fiercely than ever before, and…"

Loralom farmland, 12 PR

Edda trailed off, losing her next words.

"…And you kept everything together," Caress completed.

"Yes."

"No wonder Akol gathered his army with effortless gesture. After tracing your mission, I can only touch upon the thought of their own idle labour, sitting in that city of theirs." The oversized shawl at Caress' lap had taken on a certain pattern now. The stitches and yarns ranged from bulky to detailed, and yet they held what Edda thought were images in them.

No matter, Edda thought. She sighed and her tone waned. "There was great hope and purpose, true. Especially to Akol's campaign. He brought me along with him when all was organised, leaving Korom as regent. Some of the Pilgrims joining the army on the road wished to serve me in particular. All of a sudden, I had monks and nuns pledging to my mission. You have probably seen a few establishing themselves around the spires by now."

"The ones in the red-trimmed white robes? Living to spread your words and study the spires themselves?" Caress nodded deeply. "They are so cute I want to pinch them! Alas, you hain lack cheeks. Such an itchy travesty." She giggled under her breath. "But you sound like your toes splay in dismay. Are you disappointed with your little following?"

"Not at all," Edda clarified. "They are lovely people. All of them. Between them and the council, I would never have the successes of Toun's word and…the support I have needed. Especially with the events of the campaign."

Caress hummed concern. "War is slick and slimy. The memories stick dry to the skin as a viscous oil. Perhaps that is what lowers your hain hands?"

"It is…Though, it did not start that way."

Kiyiklom, 4 PR


"War chants were a tradition across Yorum. Bands of hain warriors would traverse long marches by singing to a beating hymn. Together, their feet beat the ground to bring the energy from under the earth and into their souls. They believe it makes them stronger and march further. There was no such superstition in Xerxes, but I admit it gave the Loralom army an organised pace.

It was easy for the new recruits to fall in and work together. The hymns ranged from bawdy rhymes about women and animals to poetic stories about kings and heroes.

Held-aund moyen deyn mizyekh!
Held-aund moyen deyn mizyekh!

Akol told me all this, but I thought it strange that he did. At first it came across as idle conversation, and yet he was looking so intently from his chariot over the warriors marching behind him. I asked him what troubled him.

'It is not trouble, Edda,' he answered. 'Not apparently. Armies make new war chants per every campaign. What makes me curious is the unity of this new chant.'

I listened to the words echoing through the lines. 'What are they saying?' I inquired. My Yorumglot was not attuned to most of the words.

Mir-zenem dis-shorm-
-Ron statter dis-glar!

He ran a thumb across the edge of his mouth and squinted his eyes, thinking. I do not know whether he was guessing against telling me those words echoing out in unison behind us. I believe more strongly that he was just thinking of a way to explain it in simple words.

When he spoke, it was a slow explanation. Every line was related to me by the time the chant repeated itself. It did not die, that chant. Understanding it left me quiet for some time just to listen.

Toun!…Heln-aund...
'Toun,' step. 'Hear us…' step. The sergeants began.

Toun!…Heln-aund...
'Toun,' step. 'Hear us…' step. The warriors echoed.

Held-aund moyen deyn mizyekh.
'Hear us build your sanctuary…' the sergeants said.

Held-aund moyen deyn mizyekh!
'Hear us build your sanctuary…' the warriors echoed.

Held-aund fornem an gants hyem.
'Hear us shape a perfect home…' the sergeants shouted, which brought all the warrior's weapons lifted to the air.

Mi-zenem fri-el ramyem!!
'We are the wings of the angel of mercy.'

Held-aund moyen deyn mizyekh.
'Hear us build your sanctuary…' the sergeants said.

Held-aund moyen deyn mizyekh!
'Hear us build your sanctuary…' the warriors echoed.

Mi-shogn dis-a fri shogn vim.
'We beat the dirt as wings beat air.'

Stegn ramyem in k'yvinn.
'The angel's feathers know no fear.'

Mir-zenem dis-shorm-
'We are the spear-' Step…

-Ron statter dis-glar!
'-That shattered the earth.' Step…

Aum ver fornem dis-leym?
'And who shall shape the clay?' Step…

Dis-greym hetn hain!
'The ready hands of hain.' Step…

Toun!…Heln-aund...
Toun!…Heln-aund...

And so on.

They chanted it eagerly from morning to evening. Two hain could hardly walk together across camp without the words coming to their tongues. To think it escaped my ears until now was a difficult truth to confront.

I had to break the contemplative silence between me and Akol. 'And they are all singing this?' I asked. 'The entire army?'

Akol nodded. 'All of them. Over and over, ever since it spread around the lines not too long ago. Never have I heard only one song in a campaign. The unfamiliarity is…'

I looked again. I noticed the warrior's eyes. The power of their voices. I did not know what to make of Akol's tone but I knew what to make of his men.

'This is perfect for an army,' I concluded. 'One mission drives them. What can stop it? I think you have a dedicated and loyal force, King Akol.'

Akol turned up both his palms and looked at me. 'I made the right decision bringing you, Edda. You're the optimist I need.'

Not a week later, we came upon Kiyiklom polis. The rival city neighbouring Loralom to the north-north-east. They had been harrying Loralom and stealing supplies for years by then. Their skirmishing and raiding dragged their feud on, while neither had the resources to march out against the other. Until now.

The Kiyiks themselves had scouted Akol's approach. But I saw from across the field the flitting of nervous heads when they raised to defend the barely-constructed palisade around their town. The enemy were the ones outnumbered this time.

Akol made his army march like a fog bank, creeping forward in lockstep. The slingers were staggered so they could have enough room to fling their stones about their heads. Fortunate it was that most hain in Yorum learn how to sling to hunt and protect their flocks, for every volunteer pilgrim could launch a stone over the palisade from behind their friendly shield wall.

The frontline began their barking and baying. It was more a tradition than a means of instilling fear – it was almost comical, even. The ceaseless pounding of stones on wood, earth, and hainshell almost drowned all speech out. The officers had hard enough of a time shouting their orders over the dark hailstorm.

The beasthounds joined in closer to the ditch surrounding the palisade. Their barking was just another peal of thuds to add upon the ground.

The frontline slid carefully into the ditch, barely taking a stone thrown back in their direction. They leisurely strolled back up its opposite slope like porters climbing a hill in the morning light. They climbed the palisades when the order was given to halt the flurry of stones.

We expected to hear maces crashing, shells cracking, shields breaking.

We merely heard a gate open.

And that was all it took. The elite infantry scaled the wooden walls and found a battered and cowering militia dropping their weapons to surrender. Some fought like mad animals and were cracked open by the level-headed infantry. Some fled and were caught by beasthounds. The inside of the town was carpeted with the stones thrown in like a vast broad dry creek bed.

Where many of the warriors were expecting a protracted battle for their lives, the polis was taken and secured in barely short while. The red flag of Loralom was unrolled from the top of the great hall to a deafening cheer by the army.

'Mi-shogn dis-a fri shogn vim!'
'Stegn ramyem in k'yvinn!'

The chant continued on. Akol took the whole city-state of Kiyiklom in one fell stroke. Not a single life in his army was lost.

The defeat was so resounding and final that many Kiyiks joined the campaign on King Akol's side. They heard the mission from me and the other warriors. They were welcomed like brothers by the other warriors, even with their long feuding history, for the Lorals came not for hate. They marched for ambition and faith.

The ranks swelled. The word spread. More pilgrims joined the army on the road. More heard the call of the mission. Akol marched on with the same chant repeated over and again around him."

Loralom farmland, 12 PR

Edda continued. "City after city fell to Akol's army. Fresh pilgrims turned into veterans. For the first time in years, the lands west of the river were safe to live upon."

"And when did the wingbeats start stinging you, Edda?" Caress' smile had faded. No doubt Edda's attempts to hide her negative feelings about the matter had failed.

"I should explain," Edda said, momentarily clenching her jaw. She was reluctant. "It was not all so cleanly done as in Kiyiklom. Even if Akol was not to be the chosen hain prophesised by Toun, Akol's domain was war. Like Wind Striker, he gazed one thousand-thousand plans in his mind like his very creation was for that purpose. One thousand-thousand plans for every battle. The only true force to slow his army was the weather. The winters were harsh over the campaign, almost as if the djinn themselves saw him conquering the world and sought him delayed. But his generalship, in all its sublimity, did not bring any angelic virtue to him or the army as the war chants might have implied." Edda's eyes darkened. "His life was war. I saw what a life of war brought."

Caress' frantic knitting switched colours by reflex from pale white to sanguine red. The shawl fabric layered over and spilled out of her lap.

Iulyarom, 6 PR

"Perhaps the shock of it came from my lack of attention to anything that could threaten the streak of good things happening back then. Back in Loralom, Sira had laid two hatchlings. Sweet little things. Their names were Gring and Sata. I spent a winter in Loralom and grew close to them, teaching them various things. I spent time with Korom, Akol, and Sira in less-official contexts. We took meals in the palace together and traded conversation and advice. We soon saw one another as friends rather than political figures. Perhaps they appreciated the presence of one with parental experience.

Of course, I still taught the Lorals and the pilgrims. To my monks, I taught the calendar system from the beaches of Xerxes to better organise the harvests. My mandate to them every day was to make the land a better place, and they took their knowledge out there. Soon enough, chippers and Tounic monks worked together to spread the knowledge about. The chippers always did it for knowledge's sake, as well as charity, but the monks did it for the mission. Either way, there were more fields being worked by more people. The extra efficiency put a lid on the food problem within the year.

It was all so…hopeful.

But that was just the beginning.

The next leg of the campaign was different. We were headed to a craggy highland to the east, across the river. The chants were still the powerful calls to Toun, though they were interspersed with other songs now.

Akol dragged me along once more, so I brought my chariot near his for the march. One of my monks was kind enough to mind the reins for me while we spoke.

'Where are we headed this time?' I asked. I knew the language well by then. 'What is the name of this land?'

'This place is Iulyarom,' Akol said. He did not appear too concerned. 'The people here, the Iulyas, have refused the mission to unite Yorum. They have refused to trade, to talk, to reason. They are an alien folk of blue-shelled hain that worship an unseen witch that enters their dreams.'

'Blue-shelled?'

'Yes. They eat a particular grit, for they believe it to be the frozen tears of their matron goddess.' Akol looked ahead. 'In truth, it is what we call ravenstone, and it is very valuable.'

'Why is that? What makes this stone valuable?'

Akol eyed me with his left pair of eyes. 'I would have thought a former chipper like yourself knew.' He tapped the head of his prized bronze mace. 'It is heated with greenstones to make this metal. It is the only place we know of in all of Yorum with such an abundance of it, too.'

I looked at Akol quietly for a time.

'So, this march is for bronze, then?' I asked. 'Not for spreading the faith? These Iulyas do not appear to hold anything else of interest to us, if they keep to this craggy land and do not bother us.'

King Akol moved his eyes away and exhaled, puffing clouds of wavy steam from his nostrils. 'Edda, with the bronze to equip the army, Yorum is all but united.'

'My mission was to build a sanctuary for all hain,' I protested. 'How can we accomplish that if we turn into the bloodthirsty ruffians that made this region such a desolate waste in the first place?'

'Kingdoms are held by force.' King Akol said firmly enough to give me pause. He lowered his voice but remained tested in temper. 'What do you think we have been doing all this time, Edda? Sharing and giving kind words until the other city states join the mission? We cannot sustain this without a powerful army. And when this army is strongest, the mission will be accomplished quickly.'

My fingers tightened. 'You are incorrect about your kingdom, Akol,' I retorted. 'It is held by ideas held common across its people. I have seen such a unity before, across the Metatic, in Xerxes, united under ideas.'

I stared him down. King Akol's title or power held no sway over my life where my life was service to Toun's mission.

Akol breathed out through his teeth. 'You have told me of Xerxes enough times. It still fell to the arrogance of gods. Even if what you say is true, it is a greater insult to the mission to refuse the opportunity Iulyarom represents.' I was surprised at the limit he put on his anger. 'If more hain die in the next city state because they did not see bronze gleaming in our armies and reconsider fighting, their broken shells will crackle under the footsteps I made walking away from Iulyarom.'

I softened, then. Akol had a way of riposting like a duelist in debate. I could not refute his point; to argue against death here was inviting greater death later. If there was any other way, I might have convinced him otherwise. There was no other but to fight.

We rode in tense silence.

However, our disagreements did not last in the weather that came. An unseasonal wind picked up and doused the army in a flurry of snow. The sunlight and the clouds fought like bickering paramours during our march and did not stop. The few in the army who were in tune with magic told of something wrong with the djinn of this land. Some strange distant screams of cold and bloody murder.

It was as if they knew what the army was here for. A bad omen indeed. Perhaps it would warn the Iulyas, I thought.

Whether by the screaming djinn or unnoticed scouts, the Iulyas brought the fight to us first. We were skirmished as soon as we set foot in Iulya territory. Hit-and-run attacks lead by hooting and whooping Iulyas with slings and maces haunted every step. They wore ornaments and painted ghostly shapes on their head shells. When their weapons struck, they dripped with some putrid liquid that poisoned the cracks they opened. The army being so big, it was cumbersome to deal with the stealthy ambushers in their own homeland.

Every other day, I wished blessings upon shattered and dying hain. It gave them solace as they bled or festered to death that I could praise their sacrifice. Their brothers, however, wept as their comrades-in-arms went limp in their embrace. It was hard to watch. Harder still after the semblance of peace and progress back in Loralom.

'I'll have my revenge,' was the common sentiment.

Another attack. Several hain killed and a beasthound wounded with festering poison. It died slowly.

'I'll kill them,' one young warrior told me. 'I'll smash their blue shells open and slay the witch queen in their heads.'

More attacks, increasing in frequency. The hain warriors were paranoid and resentful.

I heard one screaming in the encampment one night. The night where his paramour died from another one of the Iulyas' filthy weapons.

'I'll break their eggs,' he shouted. 'I'll snap their wives and powder their shells for the wind and water to wash their legacy away. The blue heathens will die.'

I could not sleep that night. We were to near Iulyarom polis the next day.


When I did wake up, it was to the scent of smoke. I emerged from my tent. The encampment was empty of the fighting men. I frantically asked one of my monks where the army was.

'They launched a surprise attack,' he said with some surprise at my fearful countenance. 'King Akol ordered a dawn assault to shock and overwhelm the Iulyarom defences.'

Akol had not thought to tell me the night before.

I gathered my closest monks and hastened to the polis. It was easy to follow the plume of smoke, but it was a wilfully avoided truth that I was too late. The city was broken and burning. Its old gates were splintered and its warriors were strewn about like dolls.

I came upon soldiers rounding up blue-shelled hain families from thatch huts. They were killing them out of rage.

I…they had a sound to their tears and screams…It awoke a demon in me that brought my mind into a waking unconsciousness and…it…They did things right before my eyes, the Loral warriors…



It pains me to recall it. Please…do not resent my skipping those details, Caress…

The next moment, I can say, I ran into a thatch house that was not burning yet and burst into a fit of panic and tears. The monks held vigil without to protect me.

I was later surprised, in hindsight, at what I saw within. There were treasures of such beautiful craft and make all around me. They looked to be the inspiration of gods. There were cut gems and jewels, carvings and tapestries, beads, and clothes. I could not stop crying to appreciate it at the time. It was a shrine to their goddess. I do not think it was a witch in the end, that they worshipped, but I never did get to find the truth of the matter.

However, I was still wracked by that demon. Still weeping to myself in some irrational horror.

Then there was a voice. 'Why are you crying?' It said. A man younger than Akol, though not a child. He was past his second hatching, judging by his age.

I could not stop crying to answer him. I was on my knees with my hands held mostly over my eyes. I barely could talk, much less look as if I was listening.

'I should be the one crying,' he said. He then hummed. And then he sang to a droning, calming lull.

'The wraithstone swims with my family and friends,
The maces of Loralom in earnest descend,
Why does she cry?

'The slung stones are falling, my life will soon end,
To the matron, there is no more beauty I'll send,
Why does she cry?'


I stopped silent to listen on. He was citing the words from improvised patterns. A poet.

'They all came with visions of harmonious peace,
And stranded us all in the horrors released,
Why does she cry?

'Perhaps the mission from her master grows tall,
While my matron asks me little at all,
Except to stop her cries.

'For my matron I sing her a song through this rain,
A comforting deed from the dead to that hain,
…Just to stop her cries.

'None should bear the weight like her,
None should feel the dread like her,
None should steal the light from her…

'I wish…my last wish…for the brightness in her…
To be my last sight in my life…


'Angel of Mercy. Please stop crying, so I may see you in hope, and then I may die in peace.'

The demon that had me dead to the world just a while before was forgotten. That poet drove perhaps simpler words than they might seem as I recite them to you, Caress. However, in that moment, sung in that beautiful clean voice, while I was knelt there and vulnerable, they were pure. Purer than anything. They washed away my pain like water over blood.

Warriors wrestled past my monks and burst into the hut. I stood up with surprise, only spotting the young man for a fleeting moment – his blue shell and oddly blank expression – before I spun and spread my arms.

'Ramyem?' One of the warriors said. They were all surprised to see me. The same warrior, the leader of the group, pointed his stone mace. 'The heathen, we'll deal with him! Get behind us, Ramyem.'

I declared strongly. 'No. You will not kill this one! He is under my protection.'"

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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Slime
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Slime (Former) School Idol

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Helvana, the Corvian Witch
Level 3 Demi-Goddess
Might: 5
Followers: 51


Little more than a week after leaving the ruins of Xerxes, Helvana had dropped Amartía off in the walking city of Metera. She also had allowed him to keep the feather cloak she borrowed him. Much to her annoyance, Metera was quite a ways south from Alefpria, but then again, given Ilunabar's advice, Helvana wasn't as excited about visiting the city as she was before.

They had just departed Metera and were now heading North-West towards Alefpria. Unfortunately, after running into what seemed like a flying lump of ice, Helvana, Lloyd, Gwyn and Frederic had a rather uncomfortable first experience involving snow. They would first stop at the valley they spotted while going South to recover from the event.

As they went over the mountains, the plateau and a monument came into view. What seemed like a giant sword was firmly hilted on the ground.

"Woooah! That sword is huge!" Gwyn expressed his surprise.

"Indeed... Frederic, slow down and circle around it." He cawed at her command and steered right. "This is the work of a god for sure. I can feel a lot of power coming from that sword..."

"Should we leave then?"

"We should, but Frederic's pretty exhausted. Besides, the place could be harmless. Let's scout some more before we- Hmm?" From the direction of the sword, Helvana spotted several objects reflecting light. Frederic cawed informing her what he saw with his superior vision. "Get us out of here!" Frederic answered by beating his wings and gaining more altitude.

"Hel, what's going on?!"

"Something's coming our way. Just hold on tight, you two, we'll get out of this." Helvana glared at the things coming their way. She willed a curse upon them and they lost altitude and speed. With a sudden dive, Frederic dodged one of the things coming from their flank. "Surrounded?" From the mountains came an even bigger group of assailants. They were now close enough for Helvana to see that they were made of metal, she couldn't even imagine what would happen if one crashed at full speed on them. She willed a curse on them as well, but despite this, Frederic swerved left in a panic towards the center of the valley. "Frederic, wait! They're going to corner us!" But the bird didn't obey, all his other paths were blocked by their attackers.

Apparently going the way the flying lumps of metal wanted them to go, they slowed their advance, but kept on 'guiding' Frederic towards the center of the valley.

"Hel, what're we gonna do?"

She looked back to see the brothers hugging each other, Gwyn and even Violet were trembling. "I'll bring them down!" She said gritting her teeth. The metal lumps were now all behind them, which made it easier for Helvana to curse them all. They all fell to the ground before long. Helvana sighed in relief, but her troubles didn't end there as Frederic cawed to her. "I think it's okay now, Frederic. You can land." Having spent what was left of his stamina in the chase, the giant crow descended and landed not far from the giant sword. And then there was silence. Nothing but a gentle breeze blew by.

"What were those things?"

"I have no idea."

"Are we...safe?"

"I think so." The surprise left Helvana a bit winded. On the plain field of the valley, Helvana could see the lumps of metal on the distance, they weren't moving. "They're...not dead, but not moving either. It's awfully inconvenient, but Frederic's too exhausted to fly."

"Great. So we're stuck here..."

"Don't worry, I'll make sure they don't move from their spot."

"Yooou are not welllcome here, chaos spawwwn." A deep, resounding voice came from the sword. Before Helvana could turn around to look, a wave of power washed over her and she fell from Frederic.

"Helvana!" Gwyn jumped down without a thought.

"Gwyn, wait!" And Lloyd soon followed.

The brothers quickly helped Helvana stand up. "Get back to Frederic. We need to leave." From all around them the lumps of metal emerged as if sprouting from the ground. It wasn't possible to see it when they were flying, but these things bore a humanoid shape with clear feminine traces, save for featureless faces. They were now completely surrounded.

"Hel..."

"Calm down."

"Helvana..."

"I said calm down." She hugged the brothers and they hugged back. "I'll take care of this."

Another metal shape sporting multiple tonalities emerged from the ground, this one much, much bigger than the others and wielding a sword. As Helvana laid her eyes upon the creature she realized something. The power radiating from the valley didn't come from the giant sword, but from the thing before them. She made a huge mistake coming here, and now everyone would pay for it.

But she wouldn't just give up. Helvana turned the Scythe into a sword and pointed it at the metal giant, her trembling hand betraying her fear.

"You tremmble, chaos spawwwn."

"You...did my father, did Vestec do something to you?"

"Vestec's taint plagues this worllld, and I have witnessed these horrooors. In the nammme of Wind Striker I am sworn to clennnse this world of Chaosss."

Helvana lowered her head in thought, doing her best to stay calm. "I'm sorry." She whispered.

"What?"

Helvana lowered her sword, reverting it back into a ring, and let go of the brothers. She took a few steps forward.

"H-Hel, what are you doing?"

"If it's just me, if it's just Chaos that you want..."

"Helvana!"

"You will not resissst?"

"I won't. But only if you promise to spare the boys and my crows."

"You woullld sacrifice yourselllf for their sake?"

"I was careless to come here. I could feel your power but mistook it for the giant sword. I..." She knelt in surrender. "I would never forgive myself if they died because of my mistake."

The giant didn't respond, but hmmed in thought.

Lloyd clicked his tongue and dashed towards Helvana. "Wha-" Startled, Gwyn followed right after. They both hugged her.

"What? It's dangerous, you two, so-"

"We won't back away." He interrupted her. "You think you can just throw your life away like that? Like we're any worth without you."

"I-I won't leave you either, Helvana."

"Huh?!"

"Hey! You so much as touch her and you're in big trouble, you hear me?"

No one made a sound for a painfully slow moment. Lloyd and Gwyn tried to make the bravest expression they could muster and Helvana was deathly afraid of what the giant would do.

"Stannnd." The giant broke the silence.

"What?" Helvana was surprised for a second, but stood up, looking more timid than usual.

"I voweeed to our liege ladyyy Conata to allow safe passage for travelersss. Though you are a spawn of Chaosss, the taint of Vestec is thinnn within youuu. I shall not harmmm you, or your companionnns."

Eyes wide in disbelief, Helvana let out a big sigh and slumped her shoulders, accompanied by the brothers. If she had a life span she would've lost a good couple of years from the scare.

"Do forgive my actionnns and that of my chillldren. You are free to go."

"Can we stay and rest for a while? We're all exhausted after this exchange." She was certainly upset after what happened, but was careful enough to not go too far.

"As you desireee. We will not disturb youuu." Saying that, the giant and the metal creatures went underground, though Helvana could still feel their presence.

The three of them lied down beside Frederic. Maybe they'd set camp later, but for now they just enjoyed the calmness of the plateau.

"Absolutely beat." Helvana leaned back and rested on Frederic's wing.

"Me too" Gwyn as well.

"You tell me." And Lloyd too.

"And you. You so much as touch her and you're big trouble." She said with the lowest pitch her voice allowed. "What would you do if he really did try to kill me?"

"You... Fine, next time I'll just let you die then."

"Aww, did I tease you too much?"

"It's okay, Lloyd, next time I'll save her then."

"Even you, Gwyn?" He let out a defeated sigh while Gwyn and Helvana laughed heartily.

"Seriously though, thanks for supporting me, you two."

She pecked Gwyn in the forehead. "Ehehe." He giggled like the kid he is.

Then she pecked Lloyd in the cheek. "Wha-" He was left surprised and blushing slightly.

"Was that too much for you?" She teased him one more time with her trademark smug smile.

"I was just surprised, nothing more." He turned his face away in denial, though Helvana giggled all the same.

"So, how about we nap a bit, you two?"

"Sure."

"Yeah, why not?"

They all snuggled together and soon were taken by peaceful sleep.




A while later the sun started to go down. They had decided to spend the night there and had already set up a fire. They were finally alone now and in peace.

"By ourselves at last. Honestly, Having Amartía around was starting to drain me."

"You say that, but you looked after him pretty well, huh? You even let him have your cloak."

"That was just a whim. He looked really hopeless by himself, so I wanted to give him a little help."

And Helvana remembered she had something important to put out of her chest now that Amartía wouldn't bother her.

"Right, I had something to talk with you two after we were done with him, didn't I?" She steeled herself to what was ahead of her. Even if it was just talking it felt more frightening than fighting a Realta. "The night he showed up I...realized something." She couldn't help but feel gloom over remembering it.

"Are you okay, Helvana? You sound sad." Gwyn said with a worried tone.

"Hel, you know you can rely on us. Just come out and say it, we'll support you through whatever it is that's bothering you." Lloyd said reassuringly.

"That...might just be the problem."

"Huh?"

"I...I seem to have accidentally made you care about me." She hugged her own legs and crumpled up. "Since I first met you two, I really liked the time we spent together. So, without my knowing, I influenced you two to like me and keep coming back to see me."

"Is that true Helvana?"

"Yes, I'm sure of it. Why else would you two ignore what your own neighbors said about me? I don't really know from which point onward my influence started to have an effect, but I know I'm to blame. I made you two be exiled, I made Lloyd get hurt and I ruined your lives." She wasn't crying, but the gloom was making her voice get coarse. "I even did the same thing to Manna... Everyday I worry about what might happen to her with me being away."

"Hel..."

"It's okay if you hate me for this. Me being inexperienced back then is no excuse to what I did. I keep blaming myself for this, so I brought you with me because I felt guilty. In fact, the main reason I wanted to go to Alefpria in the first place was so that I could find a new home for you two. I still hope to do that even though Ilunabar told me to be careful around Lifprasil. I want to give you a new life, but I don't want to let go of you either." She sighed deeply. "I'm so pathetic..." Her heart splayed out, she now fell silent.

Gwyn just stared at Lloyd with a confused look on his face, not knowing what to do or say. Lloyd shot back a faint smile to reassure him that it'd be okay. "Hel, did you already break this spell you put on us?"

"Since the day I found out, but the damage's already done."

"I see." He put a hand on her shoulder. "Despite of all that you said, I don't really mind what you did."

"What?" Of all the replies she was expecting, this one was the lest likely. Perhaps her charm would have lingering lasting effects, she thought, so acceptance was possible. "You lost your home because of me, you lost an eye because of me... Why wouldn't you mind it?"

"Because our lives in that village weren't the same since our parents died. These past few years were just...empty."

"And Lloyd worked hard to earn our keep. He couldn't play with me anymore, and he rarely smiled too. I felt really lonely..." Gwyn had a depressed look on his face.

"All the nights that we would cry ourselves to sleep... I just had to swallow up the sadness and look forward. The other villagers offered their support to us, of course, but nothing they did would replace our parents."

"What are you saying? It's not like I can replace them either."

"But you already did, at least for Gwyn. Isn't that right?" He said turning to face his brother.

"Huh?"

"I know you've been calling her mom behind my back, Gwyn. You even mumble it in your sleep sometimes. And I'm honestly happy about this."

"Y-you." Helvana lost her composure, even counteracting some of her sadness with the embarrassment. Gwyn on the other hand was stunned from the revelation.

"Hel, what I'm trying to say is that you showing up was the best thing that happened to us for quite some time now. I haven't seen Gwyn smile like he does around you with anybody except our parents. And the same goes for me, I've enjoyed every moment I spent with you. Though I would've preferred if I hadn't lost an eye in the process. It's because of this that I don't mind what you did, even if that's what lead us to this point, I think it was worth it. What about you, Gwyn?"

"I...I also enjoyed myself very much! Even if it's embarrassing for Lloyd to know I call you mom, I still like traveling with you, Helvana."

"So, is that enough to convince you?"

"This is... This is not fair, you two." She said between sniffles. "If you say things like that I'll..."

"You know what else, Hel? I overheard your talk with Amartía that night."

"Then...you already knew of all this?"

"Yes. You shouldn't talk so loudly when people are sleeping, you know?" He wiped a tear off of her face with his finger.

"You idiot..."

"We love you too, Hel. So don't go throwing your life away for our sake like you did today. Gwyn doesn't need to lose a mother again. Can you promise me that?"

"Lloyd... Gwyn..." She couldn't hold her emotions anymore. She hugged the brothers tightly, almost to the point of hurting, and she cried for the first time, not from sadness, but from happiness.

She didn't let go even after calming down. "You two..." Her voice was strained from all the crying. "Lloyd already knows this, but the both of you are the reason I live for. I promise I'll look after and never abandon you. So you better take responsibility for this, okay?"

"Okay!"

"Don't push yourself too hard."

"I'll think about it." They kept on hugging for a while longer. "So..."

"Diner?"

"Please?"

"Honestly. What will I ever do with you?" Finally set free from the loving hug, Lloyd set off to prepare their diner. "I'll make something extra good for you today."

"Okay." She said with a smile in her face.

After they had eaten, they all slept together as usual, but this time embracing each other felt much warmer than ever before.




The next morning Lloyd woke up to see that Helvana wasn't beside him. He got up slowly so as to not disturb his brother and came out from under Frederic's wing. He saw Helvana stting beside the unlit bonfire, looking intently at her ring.

"You're up pretty early."

"Oh. Good morning, Lloyd." She was so focused on what she was doing that she hadn't noticed him.

"Sorry, did I interrupt you?"

"Not really, I was just thinking about what I learned from this ring."

"What did you find out?" He said sitting down beside her.

"It seems Vestec built this ring with parts of an old god of death. That explains why it can steal souls."

"Parts...?" He said with a worried look on his face.

"Ironically enough this death god had to die for this ring to be made."

"I-I see. Killing death, huh? That doesn't seem right..."

"Comes to show just how powerful gods are. There's something else too. I noticed that the power of this death god matches that of the curse on some of my crows."

"That thing about them seeking out death?"

"Yeah. So I did a little experimenting with my crows that are cursed."

"You didn't hurt them, did you?"

"Of course not. I figured out that I can see through the eyes of the cursed crows. It was pretty hard at first, but Oscar happens to be cursed and since we share a link it was much easier to see through him than with any other crow."

"Wow, that's actually amazing." Despite his words, his face didn't reflect much surprise.

"I was expecting more of a reaction from you."

"I got used to what you can do over the last few months." He grinned mockingly which gave Helvana a rather sour look on her face. "Really though, that's actually amazing. I'm just teasing you."

"Hoh? So you're learning from me?"

"Took you this long to notice?"

"Hmph. In any case, I don't really have much of an use for this ability since I can fly and turn into a crow myself. Although..." She shot a glance at Lloyd's face. He had been covering his right eye with his bangs for a while now. "No, that could be risky."

"What could?"

"... Maybe I can give you this ability. It won't fix your eye, but you could probably see through a crow's eyes with it. I'm worried it could end up bad though."

"How bad?"

"You could die. This isn't the same as what I did to Frederic. I gave him some of my power, but for you I'd have to give you some of my essence for you to control this curse, make you into something...more like myself. I don't know how a mortal would react to this..."

"I see..."

She looked at him straight in the eye. "If I were to find a safe way to give you this power, would you want to have it?"

"I...don't think I understand."

"To control the power of something divine, you'd have to be divine yourself. You'd transcend mortality. Would you want that?" Her expression turned meek. Lloyd's eyes went wide upon realizing what point she was making.

"I..." His words failed him. He just didn't know what to say to something so sudden like this.

"You don't have to decide now. Just keep it in mind, okay?"

"Good morning..." Gwyn said in a slightly groggy from having just woken up.

"Ah. M-morning. Did we wake you up?"

"Not really. Did I oversleep?"

"No, Hel just fell out of bed. Well, now that everyone's up I'll prepare something for us." Lloyd moved to light up the bonfire and prepare breakfast. The next moments were spent in their usual peacefulness as they waited for the food. "Come to think of it." Lloyd broke the silence. "You gave Gwyn and Amartía a cloak, but what about me?"

"Eh?!" Helvana froze with the realization, somehow she completely forgot to make one for him. "Erm... You never asked for one?"

"That's a very pitiful attempt to dodge the question...but I'm asking for one now. So...can I have one?"

"Sure, I guess it's more than overdue." She said as she started to make the shape of the cloak around Lloyd.

"Ah, you don't really have to do it now."

"Don't worry about it. I don't really have anything else to do anyways. Just sit still for a while" She was done with her work before long and pulled the cloak off of Lloyd and laid it on her lap. With a whistle several crows came to her, some landing on Helvana herself and some even on the brothers. She caressed each one of them as she plucked one feather at a time, making sure to not take too many from a single one.

Lloyd and Gwyn just watched the process unfold. "So this is how you make them... I hadn't seen it when you made Gwyn's."

"And how else would I make them?" She said as she continued to add feathers to the cloak.

"They're so well made I just thought you made the feathers grow from the cloak or something."

"I wouldn't be able to reproduce the same texture as real feathers. The real thing's just much softer and warms the body better, I tested it myself."

"And just how much time does it take to finish one?"

"Gwyn's was pretty quick since he's small, but mine took me a couple of hours. Your's should too. I don't mind if you watch me make it, but you have to take care of the food first."

"Ah! Right!" Having almost forgotten about breakfast, Lloyd rushed back to the bonfire.

"Hey! You'll scare the crows like that!"

Gwyn just laughed at the exchange from the sidelines. He seemed to be acquiring a taste for watching their banter.

After they had eaten breakfast, Helvana continued to decorate Lloyd's cloak. It took her a little over two hours to finish, but it turned out perfect. She also took the chance to make a new one for herself. Before she knew it she had spent all morning on it.

"Finally done... Lloyd, how's lunch going?"

"You spent all morning on that and now you demand more food?"

"Well, at least now we're all matching." She said as she displayed her cloak.

"*sigh* Fine, I'll start lunch earlier today..."




The uneventful day ended pretty fast and now they were about to go to sleep. They could've left the valley today, but instead decided to rest for another day. Helvana hunted her quota to feed Frederic and spent the rest of the day thinking. And before she knew it the day had ended.

They gathered around the bonfire to eat dinner as usual.

"Did anyone see the Hairball today?"

"They're hiding under Frederic and won't come out no matter what."

"Maybe they're scared of the metal people?"

"I see. Can't really blame the poor thing."

Helvana looked up in thought. The peacefulness of the valley almost made her forget about the creatures that had attacked them. Even the giant one that spoke to her. "...I wonder if I could defeat the metal people here."

"W-where'd that come from, Hel?"

"It just crossed my mind. I don't have a reason to fight them, but if they had harmed you two or my crows back then I would've fought back. When I was born I thought I wouldn't have any problems, but I keep running into situations that make me doubt my strength. The villagers that attacked Lloyd, the Pack-Minds, the Realta and now the metal giant. I managed to defeat everyone that was a threat to us so far, but I'm not confident I would've won against these metal creatures."

"So you want to become stronger, Helvana?"

"Yes, to protect us if nothing else. I don't want to fail again. Every time I do someone gets hurt..."

"It's okay, Hel, those things happen. You can't save everyone."

"But... I'm supposed to be powerful, I can't accept that. What if next time it's one of you two?"

"But you won't let that happen, right?"

"If you're afraid of us getting hurt, then become stronger. Nothing'll come of it if you just keep on brooding. We said yesterday that we'll support you, so why don't we become stronger together?"

"Right, you two'll be there for me like always."

"Yep, you can always count on us, Helvana." He hugged her from the side.

"And if I doubt myself you two'll reassure me." She said as she stroked his hair.

"Of course. That's what families are for." He hugged her from the other side.

"Right." She smiled warmly. What they told her didn't ease her fears, but just hearing them say that it was all okay was enough calm her down. "Why are we doing this again? I already know all of this."

"What else are we supposed to do when you feel down though?"

"Yeah, and hugging you feels pretty good too."

"That's a bit embarrassing, but thanks." She said as she released the brothers and stood up. She stretched herself and turned around to face them both. "Alright, from now on let's become stronger together. The least I can do is teach you two how to defend yourselves. I'm not that good with a sword, but since nobody else here qualifies it has to be me. But first, we sleep."

"Okay!"

"Yeah, let's do our best."

They all snuggled under Frederic's wing as usual. Helvana was expecting things to be different from now given the events of the previous night, but the day didn't turn out to be much different than any other. She didn't mind it, however. She just enjoyed how warm and peaceful it was to hug Lloyd and Gwyn under Frederic how they're used to.




Next morning they finally decided to leave, but before that Helvana wanted to talk with the metal giant on more friendly terms. Standing before the giant sword, Helvana called. "Excuse me, metal giant, I want to speak with you."

There was silence, but before long the familiar shape of the giant emerged from the ground. Even though he said he wouldn't be a threat to her he was still quite intimidating. "What do yooou wish to speak ooof?"

"Firstly, I wanted to thank you for letting us stay." She bowed slightly. "Also, I want to know your name."

"I ammm the metal djinn Aeramen, leader of the Knights Protectorsss and servant of Wind Strikerrr and Conata."

"And I am Helvana, daughter of Vestec and the mother of crows. Today I'm not strong enough to match you, but next time we meet I wish to challenge you."

Aeramen hmmed in wonder. "A match with a child of godsss... A good time has passeeed since I fought your kinnnd. I look forward to this dayyy."

"Goodbye, Aeramen." Turning on her heels, Helvana headed towards Frederic.

Lloyd and Gwyn had prepared their things to leave already. Helvana climbed into Frederic's back and commanded him to leave. Their next stop would be Alefpria.





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Kho

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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: 0; Free Points: 12; Concealmeant/Detection: 14




c. 6 PR


'Toun,' her voice was soft yet strong, captivating, 'you are called to account.'



She knew he had listened.



Any number of reactions could have existed on the other side.



Bemusement? Surprise? Perhaps.



The highest chance was for anger. Anger followed by thought. The question was natural.

...

To what account, sister?

The words were slow and frustrated.

And is this account worth distracting from the hunt for Kyre's killer?

The voice of the goddess resounded piercing and sure. ‘You seek out the killer Xos that you may hold him to account, and you are called to account by one to whom you are Xos. You have declared the actions of Xos a crime, brother. Is it not a crime if you stand accused?’ There was a heavy pause. ‘Surely every Xos must be held to account. Will you stand, then, before your accuser?’



Belligerence and pride were likely to fight within Toun. The goddess knew which would prevail.

You were not one who fought him, sister. Nor are you one of his victims. You may never know what he is. Though, if you so accuse, I shall prove what he is not, so I may continue my pursuit unaccosted.

The pause that followed was burdened with anticipation, causing the atmosphere to shiver like arms struggling against it.



Toun gave the moment a long enough time to turn the excitement into the hint that his belligerence had won after all.



Then a buzz sounded on the breeze outside the great temple.

Barely a speck against the many-armed earthen navel of the God in the Stone, a white dart shot into the dark entrance. Its wings droned against the walls and set a little wake of air trailing behind it. The little porcelain bird had two beady eyes watching ahead, glowing with a blue light, purposeful.

Into the gaping belly of the Temple of the God in the Stone flew the droningbird of Toun, its glowing eyes of blue seeing first only darkness… before the Temple’s innards came clearer. A great hall expanded upwards and outwards, and intricately carved pillars of shimmering stone - that seemed to shift now and again as though alive - speared at the distant ceiling. Numerous doors led into dark spaces beyond the great central chamber, and at the very end of the chamber was an altar - before which stood a Cursed one who may have once been one those now-extinct species of dwarf, and behind which stood a white-clad Vowzra’s Victor. The droningbird darted hither and thither for the goddess that had called forth Toun, but no goddess could be seen or sensed, and so the droningbird made for the two.

As it approached, the dwarf spoke, and she looked none-too-impressed with the little blue-eyed bird that came her way and stopped at a hover. ‘Sae ye'r sayin that that's th' god - issat even a god? - whit did me? That wee doo? Yer havin’ a roar.’ The Victor made no response, but Mafie kept complaining loudly and even batted angrily at the droningbird when it got close enough, 'murdurr me wid ye, ye glaikit doo, ah'll shaw ye murdurr!' But, being a dwarf, she was far too little and far too slow to reach the agile droningbird dodging in the air - though this fact seemed to only irritate her further. The Victor finally turned her head towards the droningbird.

‘I thank you for your presence, Toun the God. You stand accused by the dwarf Mafie Snowhands of willful deception, of toying with her heart, and of intentional, premeditated, deliberated murder. The God in the Stone himself bears witness to the outward nature of her death, but the question remains: have you any defence?’

The droningbird turned its thin beak to the hooded Victor. Its buzzing wings blurred at the speed that allowed its hover. With a sudden arch and twist, it flew its way to the altar, hovered to a stop, sprouted too twig-like legs, and perched, folding its tiny wings to finally silence the chamber. An automatic reflex had the droningbird preen at the metal of its wings while the voyeur god in its eyes projected its voice.

"I would have defence," Toun began on one tone. "If you would have attack. You bring me before a mortal extended beyond its biological terms. It suffers, as mortals do. Its nature holds its suffering as an element. And you would seek to hold its death a crime accountable to an uninterested god. How is this, sister?"

If the god of perfection was not scathing enough, the last word cut off any heed to the Victor who assumed herself as the mistress of the ceremony. There was silence for a few moments, and Mafie looked rather befuddled at this bird calling the white-clad woman its sister - was she a god also? But eventually a voice that did not belong to the Victor - the same strange voice from before - resounded, and it appeared to come from the Victor.

‘You deem this mortal extended beyond her biological term, but it is gods who have dictated that term and who have dictated also the terms by which it is exceeded. You seem to hold, brother, that mortality and suffering are mutually inclusive, when you know better than many that suffering is the lot of mortals and immortals alike. You hold that it is the nature of mortals to suffer, when it is gods that have made that so and could decree it otherwise. You hold, last of all, that mortal death is no crime for a god to be held accountable over - I put it to you, brother, that the laws we would see applied amongst the greatest of us should be seen to be applied to the lowliest, that divine justice should be observed towards mortals that the gods may see it observed amongst themselves. For if we take the lives of lesser beings for sport, we will ultimately take those of higher beings for sport also - and is that not, if your Oath is anything to go by, the gravest of crimes?’

The little bird twitched its head around and looked about, ever oblivious to the words of gods.

"It is the gravest hurt to me, sister. In that, you are correct. And yet, your prescriptions ever tempt me to replace that mantle with the tenacious will of the world to waste...my...time..." In his response, Toun chose to take some matters of fact into his speech. "An undead curse, evidently the concept of our brother, Vestec. This is placed on a dwarf, evidently the concept of the young one, Lazarus. The dwarf is a derivative creation of the goblin, evidently, again, the concept of our brother, Vestec. The power of the world imbued into Vestec to allow this is also perhaps the derivative of a greater power as well! The very creation of these concepts is the enabler of death and suffering to begin with. Are they not the crimes you speak of?"

The bird sat.

"And...yet...I see none of those accountable parties. You called upon me. You called upon one who has no hand in the elemental suffering of this creature before me." He challenged once more. "How is this, sister?"

‘As for the elemental suffering of all things, it is beyond us. Were it in my power to bring forth those who made it so, I would. But I cannot, and so must turn my gaze to those who, in the chain of causation, I can reach. The gods sit at the apex. We created the very blueprint of what was an empty world and, whatever essential suffering there was, we chose to bring with us. We created all this and could have collectively willed it otherwise. And so, I would put it to you, we are collectively responsible for all the suffering of our creations. Whether you created the dwarves or not is of no relevance, you are of the ruling race who permit suffering endure and, I would put it to you also, have a responsibility, an obligation even, to mitigate that suffering in whatever way you can. But that is, anyhow, something altogether different. You are not called to account for the suffering of all things, I would not so arrogantly presume to take on a task so tremendous and so clearly beyond my capacities - it is Mafie Snowhands who stands accusing for her specific suffering; a specific suffering inflicted directly and undeniably by you. She does not seek justice against Vestec or against Lazarus at this moment, she seeks it against you for what she believes you are guilty of. So,’ and the Victor turned towards Mafie, who looked definitively chagrined that this seemed to have become some game of gods swinging their boabies about rather than what she was promised. ‘So see to her suffering first.’

Mafie took the opportunity to speak. ‘Keek ye - here’s th' deal. Ah wis living juist braw 'til ye burst intae mah lee 'n' decided it'd be fin tae speil aroond wi' a bawherr no-brainer lassie lik' me - ah didnae dae heehaw tae ye 'n' ne'er asked fur anythin' fae ony god. Then ye come alang, dance wi' me, mak' me fall fur ye, promise tae mairie me - 'n' then whit? Och, ye juist wanted tae knoo whit it felt lik', lik' ah wis some toy. An' then whit? Ye didnae juist lea lik' a normal pumpin' body, ye gaed 'n' murdurred me!’ She paused and took a breath, ‘noo a'm wantin' an explanation 'n' a'm wantin' some justice in this messed up world - 'n' ye hud better stairt talking some sense!’

The little bird was sprung to jump and fly away. Its base cowardice may have goaded Mafie on, though it did not represent Toun's emotions.

"Is this the dwarf's testimony of…my crime?" Toun's voice shuddered. "To give any benefit of the doubt was evidently too charitable to you, sister! You clearly do not understand that my memory is devoid of this specific creature and this specific suffering!" Toun's voice grew as his temper melted away. "I thought you to accuse me of some ambivalence to the suffering of some inconsequential speck upon reality! I thought to talk you away from your unceasing calls of my obligations and duties! All this theatre and all this distraction!" The floor shook with the boom of his voice. BUT IN THE END YOU WOULD LEVEL A FALSE ACCUSATION!? Present your proof immediately or I shall endeavour to spit upon your every action today and into the eons it takes for you to know your folly!"

The god’s sudden outburst clearly took the until-recently overzealous Mafie by surprise and she leapt behind the altar and watched wide-eyed as the very ground shook from the god’s fury. She was of a mind to get out of this place and never have anything to do with the gods or their ilk ever again, but a force stopped her and she found herself afloat. She shrieked obscenities and dared them to end this farce - had they not toyed with her enough already? But no end came. The female voice returned, cold and sharp this time, clearly somewhat affronted by Toun’s accusations.

‘Yara does not lie, Toun.’ Mafie floated between the bird and the Victor, silent and wide-eyed again.

Toun snapped back. “A lie would be a worse claim! I see this as your ignorance and nothing else."

‘I would accuse you of lying, for your swiftness to anger suggests it; but I do not stand accusing and so will refrain. And I would accuse you of ignorance, but what I saw belies it, so I will refrain until all comes to light. Instead, I invite you to look at the evidence with your own e- eye. Mafie Snowhands is an open book to a god such as you, so look. Or would you prefer I show you?’

The god of perfection was in no mood for any pauses-for-effect. From an omnipresent source, a light bloomed out to encompass every physical surface until even the edges and shadows were swallowed. The temple was no more than a blinding stone enclosure. The thrum of a godly fury disturbed the presumptions of balance and direction until all within stumbled and staggered. With their sense of sight overwhelmed, they struggled to stand.

But a broad and cold stony hand clamped on to Mafie. Through the light, it clamped precisely around her broken neck. And it lifted her. Immediately, she lost sense of which way was up, or down, to the altar, or to the white-robed woman.

Toun's voice growled out into her ears like mirrored lions roaring from a hand's breadth away. "Let me see you…!"

The blinding light was too much to expose her eyes to, but her mind's eye was no escape. A great blue eye peeled open in her thoughts and stared right back.

Time dilated into a dizzying compression as every memory Mafie had was combed within moments, relived before waking thoughts. The blue eye saw it all. Nothing was left aside. Every memory was marked with its gaze. Memories she cherished and memories she had not recalled in years.

He reached the most painful one before long.

"Asmel never existed. You were very nice to him."

That tall, lithe porcelain creature with chains hanging from its wrists.

"Actually, Mafie, I just wanted to see what it was like..."

The world dimmed. Mafie's approximation of eyes adjusted to the darkness. Her head spun as the force that makes all things fall held it to the floor. The ceiling spun faster in jolting movements without a sound. It all slowed as the dizziness settled.

The droningbird still sat peacefully on the altar.

“I can see, now, where you must have mistaken yourself into the righteous pestering you insisted upon here today, sister." Toun was back to his regular condescending self. “You clearly failed to know the capabilities of my servant, Minus. Notably, the apparently advanced, novel, and innovative concept known as individual volition?" Toun's voice dripped with derision and shivered with the traces of his previous outburst. The droningbird stood and scratched at its head with one of its tiny legs. “In that, you are either ignorant or wilfully false. I care not which anymore, for to argue either would be a further waste to my already squandered time. Do you have any further reason to detain my attention for this childish production or may I be now left to my tasks?"

‘Is it to be understood, then, that your servant and Avatar, Minus, acted without your knowledge or command? That its presence in the home of the dwarves was utterly of its own volition and against your implied and explicit orders?’

"Minus was ordered to protect and survey Lazarus," Toun droned impatiently. "Everything else was a byproduct of its individual volition-have you even been listening at all!?"

‘You reject all responsibility for your servant’s actions and trespasses, and would not see to it that the unnecessary suffering it has brought to mortals while carrying out your commands is brought to an end?’

Toun hissed a sigh, brought near to the end of his tolerance. “I would only bring ends to the suffering of mortals by bringing an end to their lives. That is ultimately why I am indifferent to their suffering. As for Minus, you may pursue it for its 'crimes' and perform your petty little ritual with it instead of me if you so wish. But, I am not your enforcer. I will not collect Minus for you."

‘That is very well. I thank you for your patience and time, brother,’ came the voice of the goddess, ‘I believe this concludes your part in this matter. But if you will bear with me, I would like to explore another line of questioning - merely out of my own curiosity. I trust it is not too much to ask, given that you have given me so little of your time in the millenia we have co-existed.’’

Four dry words from an unimpressed brother. "You have thirty seconds."

‘Would you agree that we pre-exist this world, and likely existed very differently elsewhere before? And will likely exist otherwise in the future somewhere else again? Bear with me if it seems strange or stupid - I know your time is precious.’ Her voice came calm and soothing, as though to ease - with her words alone - the tense air of urgency and need for hurriedness her brother was creating.

"I have observed a pattern: When deities dissipate, their essences reform. The reformation is not always the same. Where it began or will end has never been apparent to me." The even words were the least emotional that Toun had spoken thus far. "That is all I can confidently agree to."

And like that, the eyes of the droningbird dimmed into two glossy black beads. It jumped in place and flew up from the altar. It spiralled until it found a nook near the wall and the ceiling, where it sat and remained.

A relief loosened the room. All within felt a presence leave. A sigh left the veiled mouth of the Victor, and Belru-Yara’s voice came as a soft sad murmur. ‘If you had stayed a while longer, brother, I would have shared what little I know too…’ and maybe he would have been a little kinder for it. don’t kid yourself - you’re worth just about thirty-seconds to his eye

‘Whit juist happnd? Is he juist aff tae gang lik' that?’ Mafie asked hesitantly, looking to where the dormant droningbird now sat. The Victor turned to the dwarf, and it was she who spoke now and not the goddess.
‘Toun the God claims that his Avatar, Minus, acted of its own volition in all that it did to you. If you wish, the God in the Stone will return your life to you and furnish you with all that you desire.’ Mafie scowled and spat.

‘Ye said ye'll gimme justice, 'n' that's a' a'm wantin. This Minus, it murdurred me wi' tis ain hauns - a'd noo murdurr it wi' mines. An' then ah kin die at ease.’ The Victor nodded.
‘You will be given it, if you pledge to consider Our Mother’s philosophy,’ at this Mafie scoffed and laughed derisively.

‘Aye aye, sure. Ah will consid'rit real solid, lik’ ah said afore.’ And with that, the dwarf was walked back to the entrance of the Temple. With every step life returned to her, and at the entrance the Victor spoke.
‘You are returned to life and given might, by the power of the God in the Stone. And when your vengeance is complete, you will die with the ease you asked. Farewell, Mafie Snowhands.’ The dwarf inhaled deeply, and then rubbed one warm finger against another and felt her cheeks. Her breath caught in her throat and she quickly rubbed a tear from her eyes before it could properly form.

‘Y-yeh. Farewell to-’ and she realised she did not know the white-clothed woman’s name, ‘farewell, you.’ And she descended from the Temple of the God in the Stone and settled her now-living feet on the earth. Now to find her killer.

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Double Capybara Thank you for releasing me

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Nokeyeor 1 - Mesathalssa Divinus Wikia page

Nokeyeor 2

07 FE - Igar-Kuri

The great harbor of Igar Kuri definitely showed how great could sometimes be a word only meant that something is quite large, which the area called by foreigners as Tri-Harbor was. In the ambition to become of such immense size, however, the city forgot a few important aspects, such as sanitation, law, education, roads, bridges, architecture, and all else that one would expect for what was supposed to be the heart of the civilized world, in the Mesathalassan scope of things, of course.

Thankfully the one thing the city did not lack was fire prevention, else it would be cinders, even without the attack of seven years prior, a service provided by the endless rows of damp wooden shacks and decadent mud bricks huts.

The heart of Igar-Kuri was its location, in distant times to its west, there were great rock formations standing as tall as a giant, after the flooding of the world these rocks would become little islands that could be used to access far more areas of the ocean than what any other harbor kingdom could dream about. The first patrician, the man who took over once the man who kicked the kings out, Jan, was too kicked out, was perhaps the core person to create the rules of a harbor kingdom, he was also the first one to bend these rules in a power grab, building harbors all around these small islands thus claiming them without exactly going against the tradition.

Back in the days the amount of fish was a nation's wealth, Igar-Kuri was the wealthiest, also the smelliest. Now times were changing, while Igar-Kuri stayed in the lead of population growth, the wealth was no longer how much you could feed, but also how many shiny and big things you had, and all other harbors felt like they had something better than the city and its huge trade deficit, scrapping the bottom of the barrel to even have enough barter to keep their supplies of weapons and such.

A more 'proper' town would have already organized armies and created grand schemes to usurp the wealth of others, thankfully for the others, Igar-Kuri was often fighting and scheming against itself to make such moves. Even outside of the politics, the citizens had a serious civic issue, how could the local low life go around pirating with a tradition of insurgency so great even the captain of a one-person rowboat could be at the losing end of a mutiny.

Actions were being taken by the patrician and his council, who had been making some wild bets over the commercial future of Igar-Kuri, the centerpiece of his schemes being the Salt Road that connected Mesathalassa to the land of the dwarves, it had made the reindeer riders of the distant south rich and the patrician wanted a share of that. Furthermore, it was, if the legend was true, a city under a mountain led and protected by a goddess, so the patrician had little worries about it not being a safe investment, something like that would not just vanish, not while it had a god at their side.

However, keeping all eggs in one basket was not wise, and the council had prepared quite a few contracts with other entities in the region.

Today the visitor was a clay scholar brought from Kodekzia. The man walked into the Hill Palace (Yamu-Uheah), which was a not so impressive building in a general context, but the local contrast did make it look quite luxurious. The man had the typical build of a librarian, bulky with very strong arms, all gained from moving clay blocks all day.

The patrician had prepared him a feast, pumpkin stuffed with venison, spicy coconut chips, shark stew, even some mushroom salad imported from the far north. The librarian, a mix of stoic intellectual and hard working brute, did not care much. "No wine?" the man said.

"Oh no, no! What sort of host would give wine to its guest?" the patrician said.

"A good one? What is the issue?"

"Well... It would be seen as me trying to manipulate you, wine diplomacy they call it."

The man chortled. "A glass of wine doesn't manipulate an ant."

"Right! Right." He ringed a bell and soon someone walked in, talked with the patrician, and soon arrived with a bottle for the guest. "Now, may we continue?"

"Yes. You want us to send a few scribes right? Adapt the writing to southern speech, all that."

"Indeed. There is, of course, a generous payment for this, and it would help our two realms to create a bond that could be useful for the future. Heard the lands of Kodekzia have been having trouble with agriculture."

The librarian looked visibly angry at his implication, but the patrician knew it was not at him, but at his situation. Agriculture had bloomed in the region, everywhere had not only rebuilt back to what they had before the stars fell, they went beyond, and then went even further. Fields of plain green spread across the fertile land at a dramatic pace, towns followed them closely.

Kodekzia's situation in this order of the world was not the best, while wine exportation continued to be reliable, they constantly struggled to start proper crop agriculture in the rocky lands of the Cogne basin. The kingdom's plan was to act as a port between the south and the far north, steering the trade through their ports.

The northern kingdom expected the trade deal to be established as soon as Kodekzia helped Igar-Kuri with the scribes, but now the librarian saw the patrician just wanted to start a promise for now, that would not do.

"Indeed, but it is not like the land is infertile. We have countless explorers trying to search for new plants to use on our land." the librarian said. "Going back to the deal, just out of curiosity, how much will you ask from those who want to be trained as scribes?"

"I do not plan on having that system, instead, it will be free." the patrician answered.

The librarian rose one eyebrow up. "For free? You surely do not plan on trying to teach everyone it, do you? It takes years to train a scribe, and what use does a farmer or fishermen have for it?"

"Oh no, of course not. I am thinking more of a ... cooperation with the local guilds, have it be on the grounds of invites instead of payment. I want to have scribes helping to archive knowledge and help with the tasks."

The librarian nodded, it was easy to see why the man was the leader of a chaotic town such as Igar-Kuri, he was not subtle in his plans, but the schemes were not half bad. Everyone knew the local guilds were more like gangs, with a strong hold on the knowledge that kept the city going they could do anything and not fear too much repercussion. Writing would change that, if say, the intricacies of shipbuilding were passed down to clay, then the patrician would be free to raid any carpenter guild without the risk of causing the collapse of the town's economic system.

From that, the librarian deduced the man was a power grabber, desperate to take power away from the rising middle classes such as the guilds, or at least creating new powers to the governing elite to keep the current balance of power going.

"Helping with governing tasks eh? Do you plan to create a better port authority system? That would surely help with the taxation of goods." The librarian said.

"Yes. I think that would be great, to keep track of the goods that enter and leave the town."

"We plan on doing the same up in Kodekzia, of course, such systems do work better with two or more ports taking part in it..." This should do it, if the man was not giving Kodekzia a trade deal by goodwill, he surely would give one by greed.

"Yes, I imagine that would be the case..." the librarian held back a smile, the patrician too.

15 FE - Kivico

Yothar Vascogne walked up the Ruby Way of Kivico, towards the great palace of the town. The city road was decorated with tall metallic posts with large ruby gems atop each, making for an absurd display of wealth, one Yothar was very interested in.

His first suspected source for those gems were the Quara Korala wanderers who had recently appeared on the region. Nobody knew much about them, but they had become beloved guests of the kings and patricians of the region, always trading jewelry, dyes, cloths and many odd objects with specific functions. Back when he was a child, Yothar's grandmother, Marel Vascogne, had got an amulet from one of these Korala traders that would project little fishes swimming around him.

<<There are no signs of Quara Korala caravans in this region lately.>> The griffin echoed around him.

The phantasmagoric beast made from transparent magenta light only he could see had been insisting on this point lately, well attuned to his suspicions. It seemed like it was yesterday he woke up suddenly, a painful sensation filling his mind as all his senses warped and thoughts flooded his mind, before the entity told him he was now the new head of the family and that his grandma had passed.

He knew it could be wrong, the simple absence could be just a group that went past unnoticed. But he could not rule something else, perhaps there were other entities that could provide a shining ruby the size of an apple.

He was now almost at the palace gate, he turned and looked behind, seeing Kivico, the jewel of the west, in its full glory. It was a neatly organized town, well, at least in its middle section, the streets spreading in neat parallels and the clay houses well kept. The rubies shone all the way down to the royal quarter gate, and beyond the walls of the city, fertile fields of crops flanked by colorful forests spread all the way to the horizon.

It was hard to know the town was under deep pressure for the entire last decade. The deal between Igar-Kuri and Kodekzia saw many of the trading galleys that once brought riches to Kivico now simple navigating past their port, their silhouettes against the western horizon almost an insult to the city.

Checking his grandmother's notes, it was clear Marel shared the same worry as he had in earlier times, that this would be the spark that ignited the oil bowl that was the Western Coast. Thankfully the king of Kivico was somewhere between graceful and sly, hard to tell the difference even for someone blessed by the Griffin, and dealt with the problem with innovation and reorganization.

Kodekzia was an organized city, some even said they controlled the history of Mesathalassa with their libraries, rumor which they did no effort to deny, going as far as making the Nokeyeor Kebur, the tablet of history, the central piece of their library. Yet they lacked the manpower to truly influence and policy their neighboring villages, opening a lot of room for a bigger city such as Kivico to influence the shared border between the regions. Igar-Kuri was much simpler, the town still couldn't take care of itself, imagine anything outside, its advantage was that it was big and a natural flowing point of all trade.

New roads were built, in an effort to reach deeper inland was made, local agriculture was reorganized and nearby towns were bullied into doing what Kivico needed, which was mostly two things, expanding wine production to rival Kodekzia and making the so-called Safe Harbor Law, which was euphemism for a clear attempt at increasing contraband trying to escape the taxation of the two rival harbor kingdoms.

All of that did little but mitigate the consequences, the dent the contraband gave to things such as the trade of Duskland goods and the Salt Road was negligible. Luck, however, soon shone upon Kivico. Salt Road trade was severely disrupted by unknown causes, rumors said the gods punished the Citadel, but came from so far it was hard to judge anything. Some sort of tribal war had also happened in the Duskland, and it seemed soon the flow of silk and silver could be affected. At the same time, Kivico saw a great wave of reforms and sudden wealth, such as the apple sized rubies, that was harder to explain, but Yothar hopped to understand it soon.

With that thought in mind, the man turned back towards the great palace of Kivico, and walked into it. The town was one of the first to adopt the fish scale system for its banner, it was also the first one to use it in decorations as a way to increase local identity, now, in front of the palace, recently sewed cotton banners waved against the wind, in it, an adapted version of the fish scale pattern that represented the town, a red gem with the two red stars in front of a white background.

He would not get an audience with the king, instead, he would have to meet his daughters, not an ideal scenario, but Yothar would do what he could with what he had.




Sheru, noble princess of Kivico, finished yet another glass of Cogne Wine.

"Another one, ma'am?" the shady looking man said, his looks only fitting the room they currently were in.

"No... I have something in the p... Ugh." the woman said, before standing up, towering over the bartender. She was happy to leave the room behind, it had a terrible smell and everyone in it looked like good for nothings. Yet, it was the only place they could get a good Cogne Wine in the town, the sweet stuff from up in the north, not the bottled acidic Tall Garden Wine that they tried to force into the realm, forcing the princess to disguise herself and sneak into places such as this. In truth, everyone saw through her deception, no other woman was as tall and as scarred as her in Kivico, people just did not say a thing to avoid being rude.

The ogre of Kivico walked with her chin up as she walked towards the palace, there was a sense of pride to her, to be the daughter of the man who kept the city steady in such changing times. There were, of course, some objections to so many resources of the region being used to build the great palace, but in the end, it became a beacon for the nation, something for the people to look up to, a sense of greatness. At least it was what she told herself, and with the town becoming greater and greater, there was little reason for her to think otherwise.

After taking a few secret paths, she joined her sisters in the planned meeting. She did not mind that she was late, her sisters were always the ones better fit for such things. The youngest, Eahi, was observant, her eyes almost the same as that of a bird looking over the world below. The oldest, Byotheoha, had the best looks and probably the keenest mind, she moved about with grace and wit, like a fox or a jaguar.

The guest left her confused for a moment, the man looked similar, but she could not pin point from where. She stared him up and down, until he served Eahi another glass of wine, and then it clicked on her.

"Oh damn, are you from the Vascogne family?"

Eahi looked bothered by her outburst. "We told you we would meet him, Sheru, did you not pay attention?"

"I did not. Sorry." Calmly, she sat on the table along with them. "Why is he here though, I thought we had stopped dealing with anything from Kodekzia."

"We are not necessarily under Kodekzia, though it is true that a deal with Kivico would bring certain pressures towards us, should the deal be out in the open, that is."

"Ohhh." Sheru said aloud, while the others nodded.

"Though again, we are fine in terms of trade right now, I can not see what Vascogne can offer. Your specialty is wine, and we have our own wine quite fine.

"I must say, I was not here to propose a deal in that sense, instead, I seek your help with a project of mine. To create new trade."

This left the trio somewhat confused. "Go on," Eahi answered.

"See, I think there is more in the north than what we are currently exploring. I heard reports of new islands on the duskland, colorful and weird, full of unique and peculiar critters."

Eahi and Byotheoha looked mildly displeased, while Sheru was visibly surprised.

"So have I heard!" Eahi dismissed. "But is it not dangerous to sail in that region?"

"Well, with the islands, we could do land routes."

"Land... routes?" Eahi echoed, in the end, the conversation was mostly between Yohar and Eahi.

"Yes, so we can reach the lands beyond the duskland. That is the trade I am speaking about, of course."

"Oh, you were talking about that."

"What else would I be talking about?"

"Nothing, absolutely nothing. Now onto your idea, how do you think we could help?"

"I need manpower and equipment."

"Also someone who knows the region, no?" Sheru answered, before feeling Byotheoha discretely pinch her arm so she would stop.

"Not that we know any such person, but surely someone from Grehvew would know." Eahi fixed.

"Indeed! But can I count on your help with opening up a new trade route?"

"Of course, provided Kivico gets its fair share."

Yohar smirked, so his supposition was right. Earlier that day, When he walked by the harbor, he analyzed each and every boat he saw, it was easy to see what routes a galley sailed when you could remember everything down to its minute details, barnacles with a darker coloration, feathers of the crows who lived in the north, pointed towards the Duskland. However, the town lacked the typical duskland goods, nobody had silk, silver or pearls.

"Actually..." Eahi added, suddenly, before hesitating. "If you are to set up an expedition to the north, I would like to accompany you."

This caught Yohar by surprise, he feared actually having to invest in a trade route, all that talk was just to get the information he wanted. "What?"

"It is something I have been wanting to do."

"Wait, sister," Byotheoha interjected. "What about court duties, our father..."

"You and Sheru are able enough. Furthermore, Kivico is a blessed city, is it not? All will be fine." the later was not just pride, indeed, the city had been blessed. Much of its design, newfound authority and even the enchanting of the rocks that now shone in the streets was caused by a magical staff given by the gods to her father. It provided great clarity to the owner, and gave them a visionary outlook on how to command their land, with such a relic in their control, there did not seem to be a need for Eahi to waste her life with court politics. What Byotheoha couldn't deal with her diplomacy, Sheru would surely solve.




26 FE

It was winter, though in the snowless Mesathalassa it was easy to just fuse together the season with autumn for a long period of dryness, where the grass turned ochre, and even the most insignificant of sparks could lead to great fire.

It all started due to a very mundane situation, in a realistic approach one would consider the constant hostilities in the region first born from when the princes were exiled from Igar-Kuri and only further raised by the advent of agriculture that brought with it the need to keep many satellite villages, but the court of the chicken ended up being iconic of the situation and the petty squabbles of southern nobility.

A chicken left its pen, crossed a river and started pecking at the fruits of one orchard, this angered the local farmer, who shot the animal with an arrow. Somehow, this was noticed by the owner of the bird, across the river, in another village. An argument started, one side arguing it was right to kill the animal, other side sayin it was not, chickens were still a rare animal in the region despite the domestication, a status symbol of sorts, so there was great offense with the death of the animal.

The argument soon got both villages involved, and in the south, where dwarven beer still flooded the area despite the Citadel being long gone, words soon became punches, and the villages were at war. Imganice and Imaganane soon got involved, at first trying to stop any further fight, but soon realizing the presence of agents from the other kingdom, and instead only increase the tensions. The idea was that one side would step back, neither side did.

To the west, the patrician of Igar-Kuri at first took the news of the war between the two lands breaking with a moderate balance between "Oh well, it was inevitable." with a "this could be a moderate issue for our food supplies." but at first, he only considered it a minor issue, he highly doubted a regional power would rise from it and a city that couldn't control itself like the one he led would never be able to control foreign realms. All changed with a single sentence.

"Imganane has sent a caravan to Mirny in the north."

It made sense, a war needed weapons, but at the same time it did not. How serious were the two kingdoms about their wars? The patrician expected just a series of raids, maybe a few villages burnt, but a sudden move to arm up like that told another tale. And worse, it would get Mirny involved.

"Krastas and Jan will not allow a land route to be established, it would destroy their trade routes."

That was true. Neither would want it, but cooperation between the two rivaling states was impossible, and if one moved... The patrician finally realized what was happening, this was not a war of two villages, neither a war of two realms, this was a Mesathalassam War.

Krastas made the move, trying to siege Mirny to stop the caravan from interacting, only to return to their home as soon as they heard news of Jan trying to do a sneak attack against their realm while a share of their soldiers was away.

News of that soon went north, past Kivico, which hoped to stay neutral, and towards Kodekzia.

Kodekzia had become rich since its troublesome start after the attack of the Realta, a regional influencer for all the north, it managed to turn Puperute into little but a puppet state, while also asserting certain dominance over Tabata and Grehvew. It rivaled Kivico, but the realm to the south rarely ever answered with hostility to any of Kodekzia's moves.

That was what people saw, but the council of the library saw things in another light, the numbers on their clay tablets showed a much drier reality. Something was odd with the world, the riches of the dusklands to the north and the riches of the salt road to the south had all but disappeared from their trade, to make matters worse, the desert that surrounded Tabata was seemingly advancing, many regions within their realm reporting droughts and crops no longer growing where before they would thrive.

The plans of a unified northern realm were not only delayed, but seemed to be working in reverse, and this war of the south seemed to only make matters worse, Kivico would surely come up as the dominant realm should Jan, Krastas and Mirny fight, no matter if they stayed active or not, and an even stronger Kivico would be the end of a struggling Kodekzia.

While the council discussed such matters, news arrived that Puperute had just cut all relations with their realm, confiscating all of their goods from the harbor. The town had been struggling since the changing climate collapsed carrot production, the local governor had tried to continue with the cash crop despite the issues, leading to starvation, which was the opportunity for local troublemakers, the so-called "Gardners" who wanted the town to become a theocracy once again, to rally the locals into committing a mistake.

That would not do. That was an attack on Kodekzia's future that would not be accepted, the council would have its northern kingdom with or without a realm as insignificant as Puperute. The ensuing response would be one of great infamy, though it had mostly been not the band of soldiers sent by Kodekzia's fault, the city would still burn for days, and all would look at the kingdom as a pretend tyrant.

Yet, it helped to keep Tabata and Grehvew in line, and whether or not it was the intention, it worked. Rumors were that Kivico had been the one to support the Puperute rebellion, and how useful those rumors were. A march against Kivico would be exactly what Kodekzia needed to unify the north, a symbolic victory that would bring the people together.




35 FE - Tabata

The armies were getting ready, men from all regions gearing up for a long journey, Tihtzin could remember well when he first stepped in the deep south, the promise of well paid mercenary work so much better than to have to deal with the wars of the collapsing clans up in the Dusklands. The situation he found was simply depressing.

Right as he discovered that the extreme south he knew was just the tip of the north of a vast land, he also came to realize that the people in said wide land did not know how to war at all. It was impressive, the clans of the duskland were always at each other's throats, sure they preferred espionage to fighting, but even the bandits from his land seemed to know more about organization, planning, and warring than the folk of the south.

The stories he heard were almost comedic, how Jan, a realm far in the south from where he was, started the war in a very advantageous situation, troops readied, all equipped with weapons, armor and their characteristic turtle shields, even 'besieging' the enemy city of Krastas, just to then lose it all by poor supply and poor choices. And not surprisingly, the rival did not capitalize on that moment either.

Five years into the war was when the powers decided that it would be wise to seek those who knew better, which was pretty much everyone, by contracting mercenaries. Hunters from the west, reindeer riders from the south, and of course, warriors from the north. Tihtzin saw his people as probably the most valuable, reindeer would never make it into the warmer north, hunters would never do much against a well-organized army. Lucky thing too, his side was definitely the only one which could be said to be losing the war.

Kodekzia was by far the largest realm, even if informally, so the council of librarians had simply assumed gathering countless soldiers and sending out would do the trick, it didn't. There was someone in the enemy city they called "The Ogre of Kivico", Tihtzin did not know ogres to tell if the woman was that or not, what he knew is that Kodekzia's human wave broke against her army, and she knew how to capitalize on that, soon, the city of the library was besieged and the arms of the ruby banner were free to raid the north.

That had been one year ago, the city was not breached yet it helped that they were not able to close up the ports. There were few ways to go into a walled city, but one never knew, what is impossible today might be made possible with one simple idea. Retaking the lands before Kodekzia fell was the ideal objective, in truth, even if it fell, the war would continue normally.

His men were ready, his band was the Dzamo Pura, most others just took a local name, but he liked to keep things a bit north-minded. His band was far from a pure Dzanyawahar band, it was half dusklander, half locals he personally trained. It was not simply the act of teaching them the basics of teamwork and how to swing a sword or charge with a spear, he felt like he needed to teach them how to think too. In the south, most people believed in duality and harmony, all could be divided into Night and Day mentalities. Tihtzin did not like that mentality, not only was it extremely rude to the morning, sunset and twilight, but it led to odd assumptions in their thought as if 'balance' would come naturally or was desirable.

The mercenary leader did not know exactly how the thoughts of his people differed yet, he was a soldier, not a thinker, but he felt his views and that of his soldiers were different. As time went by, he started to understand what the southman struggled with, above all, they needed to learn there was not simply defeat and victory and there was no balance between either, that victories needed to be capitalize and defeats mitigated, that stalemates were not valueless but an important tool of control.

"You cannot deal with a forest as a whole, you cannot look at it and try to decide if you will bring an axe or a basket. Doing either will result in loss of valuable wood and fruits. Ideally, everything would be given a proper response, realistically generalizations are necessary, knowledge is the art of having the most proper responses you can give."

He finished telling to the little band of generals that camped outside of the walls. Some nodded, some looked confused, others were offended, nevertheless, it gave him some room to dictate the moves of the secondary army, the main one would continue to defend fortifications south of Puperute. It was not so much that they respected him, but that he spoke in the fanciest words, giving them some better line than "Let's try to defeat the enemy."

Tihtzin plans were deceitfully simple, start a raid on turncoat villages within Kodekzia's realm, measure the response, and try to advance deeper into Kivico controlled land. Ideally, they would be able to cut the ruby armies off from their city, they had no naval control, so it would lead to a total collapse of their war. Life wouldn't be so kind, for sure, but the very fact such a fantastic result was a plausible one filled the man with determination.




37 FE - Kodekzia

The dusklander mercenary rested against the couch, absolutely exhausted. The room had more luxury than any other he had been in his life, save for the one time he visited a clan leader's home during a marriage ceremony. He felt trapped, moving about the shell armor he had been given so he could breathe properly.

His work on the last years had been war changing, his name was whispered from Grehvew to Igar-Kuri, he still didn't realize why exactly. To him, he was talking about generals discussing if they should focus on quantity, sending more man, or quality, better equipping them, the silly attempts at generalization and take everything as a whole system, but in an era where trust in the leaders was low, he became a bit of a guidance, a new way to understand the world. That was not what he wanted, and it made him many enemies when all he wanted was to finish the war and get his payment.

Someone knocked on the door.

"Yes?" the man opened the door, getting a curious stare of the person calling for his attention, he could be part of the library council, but he had never seen someone with that odd mix of white hair and pale brown skin. Being rude to a councilman was hard in his situation, so he waited.

"Mr. Moyi...jedzu...?" he struggled with the pronunciation.

"Call me Tihtzin, no need for such formalities as a clan name."

"Yes, of course. Could you follow me for a moment? There is something which you may find interesting."

Tihtzin turned his head at the sudden request, sure he had some troubles with the local leadership, but it felt too soon for assassination attempts... if the southerners knew about those, anyway. Then again, they wouldn't send a librarian for that.

The mercenary nodded and followed him, down to some house near the library, not part of it, but it sure felt like it, with many shelves full of clay tablets and all sorts of random objects. "Back... A few years back, before the war, way before... I hosted a person from the same land as you here. The man... had an interest in language. Though he left suddenly long ago. I wouldn't be able to describe him for the life of me, pale white, dark hair, not enough leads. Never gave me his name... odd fellow, but bright."

While nodding at the librarian, the dusklander started to look over at some of the tablets. Picking a few and squinting as it didn't seem to be in the same language he was used to, even if he did not know how to read Kodekzian very well, those letters seemed foreign, also similar to traveler code, which some of his fellow mercenaries used, but it was not that either.

"Here, this is something he gave to me." he handed the mercenary a carved wodden stick.

Tihtzin analyzed it, the work was a bit primitive for dusklander standards, but it was charming, on a leather band, there were was a bit of traveler code. "Night Peopl... no, this is not the word for people." he knew what the code was for dusklander which was Dusk
People, this would be a more proper translation of the word he actually used to refer to himself, if it was people, but it wasn't exactly that. "Is it... land?"

"Traveler code is not my specialty, but from what I got, its an amalgamation."

"So people land? Dzanya...vihar?"

"Ah... yes! Dzanyavihar, that was the word he said. These staffs are meant to guide a traveler to something, always was curious what was his purpose."

It was extremely improper to do that, to use an end of syllable h and use it as an h-
syllable... yet Tihtzin loved the effect, for h was the tone of earth and r was the tone of heaven, there was a lot being claimed in that single word. Furthermore, it played with how words were constructed, there was a clear difference between conceptual groups of people and physical groups of people, an army was Purahar, nobles were Dyuchuhar, but dusklanders were Dzanyawahar and southners were Tsapuwahar, people of, but in this odd new word there was no conceptual barrier, it was one thing...

"Sir?" the librarian broke his thoughts, bringing him back to reality. "It seems I was right it would give you something to think about, but, the least you could do, I think, is to give me a few insights."




37 FE - Kodekzia

Runza looked down, and saw the long fall below her feet, only the brittle clay trim of the wall between her and a death not fit for a girl of her lineage. She worried not, fate alone dictated great people like her would only meet an end in an equally great situation.

Continuing to slowly walk in the dark of the night, the girl finally managed to reach one of the main windows in one of the adjacent buildings to the library, from there it was easy, she took out a brass cone and pressed it against the wall, if her information was right, she would...

"Now that we have our city back, it is essential we restructure our army."

"Yes, Kivico has suffered enough defeats now, if we can move from defense to an attack now, it will be a decisive victory, we need to use a restructured main force along with the mercenaries..."

"No, enough of mercenary work, they were useful during the blockade, now we pay them and send them home."

"That is absurd."

"What is absurd is that half of our generals are foreign, how can we defend the realm like this?"

"I understand the problem, but there is no need to take such harsh actions. We can delegate..."

"Now you are speaking like one them."

"That is a futile discussion, we do not have a mean to pay the mercenaries now, it is better to keep them under our work, sidelining them. Not paying them would be dishonorable, but... we can make sure the negotiations are favorable."

The girl smirked at all she got to hear. It seemed even the council was having its issues with the mercenaries, it was expected, after so many years of issues, any idea told in a passionate enough voice was taken by the people as a wild new path to be taken. Foreigners had it easy, their new ideas were not new but their own, and a more charismatic one was bound to be able to tell them in a way that captured the crowds, dusklander war doctrine, wildlander spirituality and order, all was being introduced and twisted in the harbor kingdoms. Of course, there were locally brewed offers too, from the mindsets of Kivico and its sisterhood, to whatever is the latest rage on the damp taverns of Igar-Kuri to priestess Dahleria of Mirny's view of family, goddess and sacrifice.

Runza didn't care much, as her father always told, bronze was louder than words, politics was just a way to get power, which was exactly why her, very likely successor of the realm of Inga once she was done dealing with her older siblings, was sneaking up a tower in the far north, aiding a realm that was technically in a war against them but not in actuality.

She pressed her ears again and listened to the words, suddenly, she noticed a voice.

"Once the mercenaries are dealt with, the reformed army will be under my control, the intrigues of the council will be a thing of the past."

"It is wise. Families have an organic structure unlike that of councils and republics, gods have kingdoms, not federations." Dahleria answered.

The defeat of Kodekzia, despite the current victory returning all lost, had been a wake up call to the librarian, the inability of the realm to act despite being the first one to move was telling of how councils worked against kingdoms.

This was odd news to Runza, as far as she knew, Mirny was not against Kivico, in fact, it was probably on Kivico's side... Though, considering her situation, it was easy to understand what was happening. That was not good, could Kivico handle an attack from the south too?

"It is important that you keep certain people safe though, particularly, the dusklander. See, if you kill that man, he will have the heart of the people, him leaving is good, him being humiliated is ideal."

Those words were actually similar to what Sheru of Kivico had told Runza. What-was-his-name, the prestigious dusklander mercenary captain, was better dealt with if allowed to fail. Runza never cared much for what he said, it was all obvious, and nothing new, but of course, pretty words made the people think they were doing something and he was doing something else, and worse, since he made it an issue, some people started to in fact try to do those things they did not do, 'concise decisions, trusting discipline over one's decisions, no grey between good and evil' among other such things. It was all silly, and when Runza was queen, she would not allow such foolishness in her realm.

"What we need, is a good reason to attack Kivico, whether we want it or not, people perceive our realms as allies..." the priestess continued.

Runza had heard enough, she needed to tell this information to Sheru in Kivico, the 'Ogre' would know how to proceed, as she left, she decided to take another path, a brittle piece of clay falling on a roof. Like clockwork, a face peeked out, and yelled at her, the council of the library and the priestess soon were on their window, all looking at Runza.




38 FE - Tall Garden, East of Kivico.

Tihtzin was frustrated, even more than ever. The offensive had went well, the discovery of an Inganane princess spying on one side (how had they not expected someone to try to spy on them was beyond the man's understanding.) through the already broken alliances of the southern realms into full chaos, as Kivico should not be dealing with such a person even if she was just some girl barely out of childhood.

This was great for the start of the counter-offensive, with new allies, the realm of Kodekzia would have the numerical and logistical advantage against Kivico, even if The Ogre would continue to haunt the northern front. At least that was what he thought, yet, he saw himself constantly under the orders of man who knew not what they were doing, the attempts to take him out of the stage were clear to him, and at times, he understood why, yet, Tihtzin did not know what else to do, when he joined the ranks, all he wanted was to come back home rich, fund his clan, and reconquer land that was rightful of his banner...

But the more he stayed in the south, the more alienated he became from the intrigues of his homeland. What was the point, to come back home and fight more wars? For what? Prestige? Riches? Those felt worthless. He touched the walking stick on his belt, Dzanyavehar... such concept to him was as distant as the realm of the gods, there was barely a Dzanyaveh or a Daznyawahar, imagine both. There was nowhere that staff could lead him to, his land was one of the decadent nobles, ranting priests and arrogant generals, it was impossible to unite such land, the pride and the blood were too thick between each clan, and the common people could not see a life beyond fighting for the glories of others.

Yet, as alienated as he felt to his homeland, this south was not his home either. These battles proved it. Every single combat was a struggle to him, something that asked all of his skill and all of his luck, one day, something bad would happen, and he and his army would be done for. Everything he proposed had been denied for the sake of it, his Kodekzian superiors wanted all the glory for themselves and would not take the advice of some mercenary, the same was happening with all other groups, even ones that were barely foreign to them. They would be at Kivico's gates now if things had gone his way, if so much time was not spent going back and forth between the orders of their commander and the kingdom.

Sighing, the general waited, he had been the vanguard attack past the Cogne river into Kivico's lands, a dangerous position, but the area was known to be poorly guarded, from here, there would be a good path towards the realm's capital.

"Sir!" one of the scouts reported. "Army approaching from the north."

He nodded, only people in the north were the expected forces from Kodekzia, Kivico was stuck in the west and south. It was about time they arrived.

But as he waited, he suddenly started to notice something odd. He knew well the man that led the main force, noble, arrogant, and full of hate for the foreign mercenary. He always sent a scout to him in order to make sure he would have "proper, non-barbaric, shelter." Yet there was no word yet.

He ran to the side of the hill in which he was encamped and saw it, not its color, not its holder, just the silhouette of that banner. "Gods be damned... MEN! GET READY. I WANT ARCHERS ON THE HILL AND EVERYONE ELSE READYING UP FOR A RETREAT."

Nothing more nothing less than Sheru, The Ogre of Kivico, was on his way, full force. The bastard even smugged horses, though only enough to count on one hand, far more than what she nedded to pin him down. He always expected something like this, with horse ridders their information ran faster from one point to another, but he did not expect it to happen to him.

Arrows flew, but they were few, even if all struck true they would still be in a terrible situation. "LET'S GO!" He yelled, all packed up and ready to leave... "Wait." he said to his most trusted men. "I need a few brave ones to come with me and be a good bait, their vision is not perfect because of the hills."

"Sir, that is suicide..."

"I know. It cannot be helped. I will try to bait them to the jungle, this will give the main group the moment to escape."

"But sir..."

"Please, a soldier's main task is to survive. Go to Tabatha, ask for your rewards, and then retire, go live a happy life in the dusklands."




Sheru's secret was to not consider all of this a war, but a full collapse of something, maybe diplomacy, maybe society, but something was broken nevertheless. Interventions in villages to the south and the fortification of key points were what made possible to avoid the surprise attack on their lands. To the north, the situation was not so clear, she had made sure to spare her army from overextending too much in the defense of the lands taken from Kodekzia, but they would not make it past the Cogne into Kivico's realm. What she worried about was the future, if the war was even to end, something would have to be done.

With a sigh, she moved towards the makeshift prison the camp had.

"Tihtzin of the Dusklands." she calmly declared. "So finally I see you in person. A bit shorter than in the tales, but still a curious sight."

"The Ogre of Kivico, right? I can see why the nickname, but you are a bit cute in person."

"I think it is a bit late for flattery."

"What I wanted I already got, do not think I am trying to squeeze a victory out of this situation, or that you can use me to further your plans..." he smirked for a moment.

Sheru laughed. "You really love underestimating the locals, do you not? Yes, we do have a problem with being a bit insular and any well-spoken idiot can make waves by saying basic crap, but, what we do not have an issue with is finding a way to make things work nevertheless, the intrigues of the harbours make your little silk-clad intrigue up in the north look like child play."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"You think I did not know where your man where? That you were bait?" she shook her index finger. "The plan was to separate you from your army."

"For what purpose? My band is only a small piece of the Kodekzian forces."

"That they might be, but they are one of the most prestigious. Though, without their charismatic leader, they lose their bargaining power... and you did ask them to get their payments and leave, did you not?"

The dusklander's response was just to tilt his head slightly.

"Once trouble with payment arises, the mercenary side of the army will melt, if not outright revolt."

"So what? There are still the main forces."

"Yes there are." she clapped her hands together. "Well then, in case this didn't make it clear, I am willing to let you go later. I have no use in killing or punishing you. Furthermore, I do respect you somewhat, quick and sharp, the way you quickly rearranged your army to counter my moves was very exciting."

"Can I go now?"

"Not yet, and even then, it is quite a storm outside..."

"A storm..."

"Yes! A storm, and you know what that means. The Cogne will flood, the main army will be pinned down and separated..."

"That doesn't look too good."

"Oh it looks terrible, and it will be so fun. Things have gone amazingly well so far, I loved how you decided to move forward past the meeting point of your army, really made things easier for us. I appreciate your strategy, but you do have a bit of an arrogance problem, do you not?"

The dusklander frowned, the woman being called an ogre made one think she was a brute, which she admittedly was, but it helped to cover the fact most of her victories were won by trap-setting and good planning versus simple brute force.

"It is not like that..." Tihtzin started. "Look, I never asked for all the prestige, all I wanted was to win battles and go home. People took my words and transformed them into something else."

"It is understandable. You see... how can I explain, hmm, how old is your family?"

"How old? Uhm... I think the earliest person from my clan that is not mythological is from, eh, six hundred years ago?"

"The earliest one I know is my great-grandfather. The very city my sister now rules is merely sixty years old."

"Ah, that is young."

"Yes, and much like adolescence, these harbor kingdoms try to find themselves on all levels, from religion to politics to the will of the common people. Due to wars and disasters, most people who lived to be old didn't get to born and die in the same village, everything was very fluid until my generation. We are the first ones who have to care about more than simple survival and shelter building."

"Seems like quite a turmoil."

"It is. I feel paradoxical things. Sometimes I look at Kivico and I feel nothing ever changes, something I look and I feel everything changes and nothing stays. I spent my whole life wishing to make the city more than just a collection of homes, yet as I succeeded, this war and the rise of so many tyrants cast doubt on my objectives."

"Well... Being old doesn't grant you that either. You southerners just see the dusklands as one entity because of contrast, yet each southern kingdom is many times larger than the lands of a duskland clan. Over there, neighbor fights neighbor over some offense done between clans centuries ago."

Sheru pondered for a moment, before shrugging and opening the cage so the man could move to somewhere more comfortable. "I imagine, I am not a fool like so many others, including the so-called librarians of Kodekzia, self-hating to the point they assume anything foreign must work better. Yet, at the same time, I do not think the ultra-insular are any better..."

"See? You can't deal with it as if it was day and night," he smirked.

She rolled her eyes. "Stop acting as if you invented the wheel and everyone before your graceful presence just dealt with yes or no answers."

"That is never what I say, but, I did notice how often the generals would reduce the plans to two choices even when it was far from necessary. It is a weird thing going on over here."

"Hmmm... you think so? I can't see it, but tell me more..."




40 FE

Peace had returned to Mesathalassa, not by means of great victories, but by sheer exhaustion. Droughts continued to come each year, greatly reducing some realm's fighting capabilities, meanwhile, the flames of revolts and banditry started to turn the nights red as now military trained populations were far more able to contest local authority.

Perhaps none would be as iconic as the Tabata take-over, when Kodekzia tried to pay far below what the mercenaries employed by them expected, taking advantage of their most prestigious captain being captured by the enemy. Yet the captain returned, and with a boosted morale and hearts full of ambition, they took the realm over in one strong move. Forming an independent kingdom not of Sunmen and Eveman like all others, but of all the peoples and even some hain and sculptors.

News of that spread fast, with two great consequences. One was dissuading Imganice from not paying their reindeer riders properly as the total victory over Imganane became clear. The other was to quickly demolish the Kodekzian army, with the realm's army taking heavy casualties in the Cogne Valley and all mercenaries deserting as the news of improper payment rose. Worse, with a hurt honor, soon Grehvew would leave their war, and even Puperute, once a loyal vassal, would once again rise in defiance with what strength the raised city had left.

The final blow was a full out coup against the demoralized council of librarians by one of their own. Similar mutinies would follow in Krastas and Jan, realms blamed for the long era of war, among others. By the end of it, Kivico, Mirny and Igar-Kuri would be the only remaining government which existed before the war. Though not all were broken by revolt, Imganane, upon its victory against the rival city, would form a unified kingdom of Imga, house Rok eliminating house Thanfong as the true successors of the antediluvian realm.

Along with Imga, many saw Kivico as another 'winner' in the war. The city managing to dismantle its rival to the north and find a good excuse to occupy Krastas and Jan. Yet, Mirny too, had won a lot, along with Dahleria's radical-elysian cult and philosophy, much of the inland villages in the realms of Krastas and Jan would become de-facto parts of her realm, even if technically under Kivicois control. Igar-Kuri would soon see Dahlerianism growing in it, though so far it was only a small voice in the din of the metropolis.

One of the main propulsors of such radicalism had been Tabata, Dahleria always warning against 'foreign' influence, taking advantage of the sudden approximation between the Sunman and Eveman cultures that dominated Mesathalassa, and now she had the ears of the people, who had grown with old Dawnman cautionary tales about Hain and Sculptors, but also of the ruling houses, who feared what Tabata could mean.

In 44 FE, after surviving for five years, this would bring an end to the free realm of Tabata, besieged by a coalition formed by way too many realms to reinstate the previous ruler of the city. Tales tell of how Tihtzin was set on fighting to the end, but one day, after being visited by one of the surviving members of library council who brought with him a child, the man accepted leaving peacefully, returning with his loyal Duskman, and even some Eveman and Sunmen who grew to respect him, and returning to the north.




44 FE - Imga

An old woman's head fell to the ground with one swift swing, joining its family down the stair. The people cheered. All but one of the Thanfongs survived, Xabud, now king of Imga, had tried to get the girl back, but the north was still a mess, and he could not wait any longer and risk someone trying to break his rivals out of prison.

With this move, the local elysian priest handed him the amber scepter, a replica of the one carried by his ancestors when they first arrived in this land, but the people did not know that.

The sun shone bright, way too bright, as if claiming the man's title as king of Imga, the sun, as true. He smiled. And then a little snowflake fell on his forehead, making the man look up. Snow. In Mesathalassa. Where the winter was snowless and just dry.

His wife hugged his arm. "A new era starts, the past is past." she observed, interpreting the event, the man nodded and even the crowd was silenced by this odd event.




44 FE - Solace

The southmost realm of the Habour Kingdoms was one often forgotten about, especially after the end of the salt road that led to the citadel through the reindeer rider's land, yet the small theocracy lived a simple life, nested on an island connected to the mainland by a bridge. It was a place of deep thoughts and silence, but that silence was broken by the sounds of someone running across the bridge, breathing heavily, before collapsing.

"Naxad, what has happened to you... is this blood? An arrow..." the local head priest always liked to meditate near the bridge, so he was the first to see the boy. He remembered that man leaving a few days ago to the south, to trade with a village.

"Your holiness... You have... to listen to me." he grabbed at the man's robe with his last strength. "Burn the bridge. Now! Else... It will be too late..."

The man died in his arm. The priest didn't know what it was that did that, but he would not risk his village, in minutes, they would be demolishing the bridge between the island and the shore. As the smoke of fires rose, the night was lit in red. The priest looked at the burning bridge then glanced at the horizon and saw it. A hundred banners, and more than a thousand horns.
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Year: 232 P

The course of true love, it is said, never did run smooth; and the hand that perverts its course oft is the one that has most to lose by it. The stone-hearted Fikra oft did find himself dwelling on Ruya's sharp eyes of honey, her manner of speech, her proudly raised head, her purposeful yet graceful movements... she was every part the descendant of one proud Garid chief after another, every part the image and manifestation of the perfect companion... None before had ever dared to hold his gaze as she did and attempt a peek past the hard facade of the Patriarch to the man within. And so, when Fikra lay back, resting his head and closing his eyes in the depths of the night, it was the face of Ruya that came to him.

And yet his heart was none the softer, his face showed no more emotion than it had always shown (that is - none), he exhibited none of the signs that Hajjam - that wise old reader of signs - had relayed. To all onlookers, to the disciples who sat at his feet near the shrine of the Prophet-Patriarch, Fikra was in all ways unchanged. Perhaps his aunt Ely knew - for such was the motherly instinct - but she did so silently. He went daily before the shrine of his hallowed forefather and sent praises upon him and worshipped the Moon-Mother, and he would then step behind the great shrine to the smaller shrine of Zekra (access to which was permitted only to Zekrid chiefs and those they allowed). And he would sit by the shrine of the mother of all Zekrids and worship quietly, brooding silently and sadly on all the pain and suffering she saw. And many were those who came to the Patriarch, whether in the shrine of the Prophet-Patriarch or as he walked the streets of Qari'Ab, for blessings and prayers, and Fikra carried out his obligations dutifully, the call of his heart suppressed and denied and rejected.



He Did No Miracles, But He Healed Their Hearts


But Qari'Ab was not home to the Prophet-Patriarch's tomb alone. Not too dar away from the great town was the shrine and tomb of the Madhlum Bato Durghal. His hallowed father had ordered he be buried where he died; where the spear of the Prophet-Patriarch had pierced his sanctified breast and brought to an early end his blooming life. Annually, on the day of the Durghal's death, the people of Qari'Ab gathered together to commemorate his death and marched in a great procession to his tomb out on the prairie. The Ilwlad-Bato celebrations went on for a week, and the procession from Qari'Ab was led personally by the Bato-Elyd Patriarch. But Fikra visited the shrine of his erroneously murdered ancestor on a weekly basis, often making the walk with a small host of people in tow - some of them students of knowledge, others dervishes, and others yet simple folk seeking the blessing of being in the Patriarch's presence.

The number of shrines and tombs in Qari'Ab were more than could be numbered - the tomb-shrine of the Qai, those of all the Prophet-Patriarch's wives (bar that of the Bayda whose tomb lay in the capital of the Anjawid Realm in the North), that of the Shohiquy, and others. But that of the Matriarch-Superior Ely Nafzakia, and that of the Shohiqam, were in Eli-Enia to the west. The Radids of Eni-Elia were scrupulous caretakers of the shrine, rivalling even that of the Prophet-Patriarch in size and grandeur. Indeed, there was an aura of peace in Eni-Elia and the shrines there that differed distinctively from Qari'Ab, though Fikra had never been quite able to grasp the nub of what made it so.

As the days drew out into weeks, the people who had gathered in Qari'Ab waited expectantly on the union between Fikra and Fihriyi. The Eliad Matriarch, for her part, had maintained her silence in the weeks that followed her period of mourning for her father; and yet the people grew more eager and excited at the prospect of the alleged marriage and they thronged from far and wide to witness the historical union.

'The people await your marriage with great zest, Fihriyi,' Malha informed her one day. Fihriyi, still dressed in white despite the fourteen days of mourning being over, did not respond to her aunt immediately, allowing her displeasure at these words to fester. Malha discomfort became apparent and she fiddled with her sleeve.

'When Iybar sees reason, they will have what they await so eagerly,' the Matriarch said tersely, causing Malha to sigh.
'Will you not at the least see Fi- uh, the Bato-Elyd.' Fihriyi had grown so sensitive to Fikra's name that she had demanded his name not be uttered in her presence.
'I have not spoken to Iybar, who is the most beloved of men to me; why then should I grant that privilege to the one I most despise?'

'Then shall I bring Iybar to you?' The Matriarch turned to her aunt with an immediate smile at these words.
'Could you? But don't tell him it's an order, tell him to come only if he wants.' Malha pursed her lips for a few moments.
'And if I persuade him, will you meet with the Bato-Elyd like I've asked?' Fihriyi scowled and looked to the ground.
'If you can persuade Iybar to come and speak with me, then I will grant your wish.'

And so Malha had made immediately for the abode of Iybar, who had for over a month kept himself in the darkness meditating. Indeed, he had declared that he was now set upon a life of asceticism and celibacy. When his aunt Malha spoke to him, he was aghast.

'What? This talk again? Does Fihriyi not know that I no longer desire marriage? And you would have me speak with her? Do you not know that I have pledged to Fikra that I will stand aside?'
'Yes, Iybar, I know. But Fihriyi is stubborn and will neither listen to me nor to your mother. So go and speak with her, perhaps your words will strike true where ours have failed.'

Iybar considered Malha's words for some time, and then his jet-black brows drooped in acquiescence and his onyx eyes were concealed behind his eyelids. 'If it will do good. Tell her I will come before her when the sun next dawns.'

And when Fihriyi's eyes fell upon her beloved she could not restrain herself from rushing forth and embracing him and stroking his bearded face, her facade of strength falling away before the one who was her great pillar and support. And seeing her pain and need for him in that moment, Iybar could not but allow her what she (and what he, in his heart of hearts) desired. They held each other long and were silent, and the silence spoke her words of reprimand - where were you when I needed you most, Iybar? - and they spoke his sorrowful regrets - where a greater duty demanded I be.



And He, In His Heart of Hearts, Desired Her

'Will you not let us be wed, Iybar?' She spoke at last. And though he gripped her just as tightly as she did him, he spoke words that demanded he do otherwise.
'I have taken to a life of asceticism and celibacy, Fihriyi. One better for you than me now waits to be wed to you.' She buried her face more stubbornly into his shoulder.
'If you have condemned yourself to celibacy, then you have condemned me also you foolish man.'

One of his hands ran through her red-brown curls and he shook his head. 'If you do such a thing, then you condemn the line of the Prophet-Patriarch's true heirs to death. Can you stand to meet the Moon-Mother with that on your conscience, Fihriyi?' She looked up at him, her eyebrows now furrowed.
'Can you?' He pursed his lips at the accusatory tone in her words and made to release her, but her grip on him only tightened and she brought him close once more. 'Don't leave me Iybar.' She placed a hand on his head and, crushing his kapak, brought his head to her shoulder.
'I will not leave you. But you have an opportunity here - a chance to create peace. A relatively small sacrifice on our part - and, no doubt, on Fikra's part,' she flinched, 'will spare the lives of untold thousands. Consider that Fihriyi. An opportunity like this may never come to pass again.' She was silent for a while.

'I hate him,' she spoke low, but he heard her nevertheless.
'You can grow to love him,' she jolted at this and looked him in the eyes, horrified.
'How can you even say these things?!' She let him go and turned away angrily, 'aren't you listening? I don't want him. I will never want him. Rid us of these fantasies of peace - even if I were to marry the Bato-Elyd there would be no peace.' She turned back around, her eyes beseeching, 'don't sacrifice our happiness for fantasies, Iybar.'

'The poet spoke true when he said - "Perhaps what you fear will not come to be, and perhaps what you wish for will soon be. And perhaps what you sought after can ne'er be, and perhaps what you fought shall regardless be. Perhaps what you thought easy is not so, and perhaps what seemed hard will not be." So don't be so sure that what you deem fantasies are indeed but fantasies, Fihriyi.'

She furrowed her brows and groaned, looking around desperately as if for some aid against this stubborn man. 'This isn't the time for poetry, Iybar,' she moaned, leaning against a wall and allowing herself to descend to her knees. He approached hesitantly.
'Fihriyi...' he spoke, and even in the darkness he saw - when she looked his way - that there were tears in her eyes. He placed his back to the wall and slid down beside her, sadness overwhelming him at her grief.

'I don't want it Iybar. I don't want it. Why won't you understand?'
'I- I promised Fikra. I can't go back o-'
'And didn't you promise me too?'
'Your marriage to him is for the greater good of a...'
'And what about what's good for us? What of our happiness? Would it please your heart to know I live a life of grief?'
'The Mother gives as she wills, we cannot resist her impossible will. It is for us to create our happiness out of what she grants us, not to attempt to steal it from what she has not.' Fihriyi's eyes widened at Iybar's words.
'And who are you to decide what the Mother has willed and what she hasn't, Iybar? Am I the Matriarch here or you?'

He looked down diffidently. 'If- if it is our Matriarch's command that I marry her, then the choice is cl-'
'No, be quiet! That's not what I meant or want and you know it,' she said angrily, 'you can go.' And with those terse words, she wiped her eyes and turned from him. She had been a fool to think that, like her father before her, she could have somebody who loved and truly supported her by her side. Iybar got to his feet and bowed slightly.
'If you ever need me f-'
'Iybar, get out.' He closed his mouth, bowed once more and, with a regretful look, made his way out. She watched with a certain degree of frustration and helplessness as he went.

For a day thereafter she refused to see anyone, and then - an entire week after the expiry of the mourning period - Fihriyi at last emerged from her abode and made for the shrine of the Prophet-Patriarch.



'Neath It the Remains of He Whom the Moon Mother Blessed

There she prayed and was accosted for blessings by supplicants. The Matriarch stood at the tomb-shrine of her great martyred forefather, hand extended as the people crowded towards and around her, some touching her hand, others kissing it, and others getting down to kiss her feet. At one point one little bald man got to the ground before her and raised her foot so it was upon his forehead and stayed like that for a good few seconds before someone else took his place.

When she, at last, made to move, the people swiftly parted before the Eliad staff in her hand (which, like that of the Durghal, had been made by the Shohiqam during her rite of passage and had been passed down from Eliad chieftain to Eliad chieftain over the ages) and the people followed her even to the door of her abode, and she stood at the door for over an hour as the tide of people ebbed and flowed.

At last, sapped from the sudden exposure after weeks of isolation, she retired into her home and was for a while alone until her aunt Malha came to her.
'How are you today, Fihriyi?' The older woman asked, a smile on her face. Fihriyi smiled at her aunt, the simplicity and purity of the day's happenings having left her in a lighter mood than she had felt since her father's passing.
'I am well. All is well.' Malha nodded and was quiet for a few moments. Fihriyi looked at her and immediately knew what she was after. 'You want me to see the... to see Fikra, yes?' Malha nodded and smiled broadly at Fihriyi's reference to him by name. 'Very well, tell him I will see him tomorrow.'

And it was so. Fikra came to her some hours after the sun had risen, the famed Bato-Elyd staff in hand - but rather than the red cloak he had been famed for in prior times he was enwrapped in a great white one, which he had taken to wearing ever since he became Patriarch. She met him at the entrance to her abode, a kapakel on her head and a blue cloak draped across her body, under which was the famed kop of Qari'Ab. She saw that he was accompanied by a large host and, looking into his eyes of ice, spoke.
'Let us speak alone, Patriarch,' came her rigid words. Fikra nodded and, turning to those who had accompanied him, bid them depart. He walked into her abode, removing his sandals at the entrance, and she presented him with food and drink, as befit a guest. Silence reigned between them during the meal, and once they were both done he cleared his throat and watched the ground for a few moments.

'My aunt says you have something of some importance to discuss with me, Patriarch,' she finally broke the exceedingly awkward silence. He nodded and looked at her, and she did not flinch when she met his gaze. Her eyes were just as cool as his, equally guarded, her mouth set in just as hard a line.
'Your aunt spoke true, daughter of our most honourable forefather, for it has been my intention for some time now to ask you honour me by uniting our houses.'

He was not one for frivolous speech or small talk, so much was clear - he got directly to the point. So much so that Fihriyi was somewhat taken aback by the directness of the request. 'I- well. Yes, I had heard,' she managed, 'and I have made clear to my aunt that I have no interest in such a union.' She looked into his eyes for a reaction, but he did not so much as blink in surprise or showcase any annoyance or dismay at her response.

'What may I do, daughter of my noble forefathers, to make our union a reality? For it is my sincere intention that peace and goodwill reign between us and our followers.' Fihriyi, maintaining her upright seated position, looked to the ground.
'It is a noble goal, and we most certainly share it with you. But it is my belief that a union is not necessary for there to be peace.'



Qari'Ab: Will the Town of the Patriarch Come to Know Peace?

Fikra shook his head firmly at her words. 'Matriarch, I do not speak of a peace for our time. I speak of an eternal and permanent peace. A peace for all time. A peace that, regardless of what Patriarchs and Matriarchs come and go, will never be broken.' She looked into his frigid eyes, and he saw that she saw that he spoke a little truth, 'and there is more to it. I will not lie to you, Fihriyi - if I may -, but both you and I are young and, like me, you are no doubt surrounded by those who would like little more than to use you and your station amongst the people for their own ends. If I have you by my side, and if you have me by your side, we will be mighty.'

There was silence between them as they watched each other, but Fikra saw that Fihriyi saw he spoke a little truth. 'I cannot say I know what you speak of, Patriach. My people are unfailingly loyal and obedient. If you are having problems getting your house in order, then that is not a matter for me or mine to get embroiled in.' She glanced over at the Patriarch, but his face was, as always, deadpan.

'My offer stands, Matriarch. You know it to be good, and you know I speak truth - and I plan to build our relationship on nothing but truth, if you will so honour me.' Fihriyi chuckled.
'And what is truth, oh wise Qarqaz?' Fikra looked at her for a few moments and then brought his head down and spoke.
'I will indulge you, Matriarch. Here - the truth of things, as far as my no doubt limited knowledge goes, is their essential nature. Speaking the truth is, as many of our pious and more knowledgeable forebears assert, to say of what is that it is, and of what is not‌ that it is not. Thus when our speech corresponds to external reality, it can be said of it that it is true. We find then, in legal disputes, that a true proposition is one that corresponds to reality, while a falsehood is a proposition that does not correspond to reality.’ He looked to her and found a slightly surprised look on her face.

'W- well. That is... that is quite interesting.' She paused for a few seconds and then suddenly chuckled, 'you really are the serious type, aren't you Patriarch.' The words slipped out of her mouth before she could stop herself.
'It is not out of choice, Matriarch, but difficulty breeds hard folk.' She almost sensed a sadness to his words, but his face betrayed nothing. She sighed.

'If you wish for this to be built on truth, then here. I do not love you Fikra. You have forced me from the arms of the one I love, and for that I despise you.' Fikra bowed his head.
'I do not ask that you love me, Matriarch. And I cannot say that I love you either, and I cannot promise that I ever will. I only ask that you marry me, that you trust me, and that you always be truthful with me. I will be your strength and you mine, and we will heal the great rift that has turned Zekrid against Zekrid and Eskandar against Eskandar.' He extended a hand to her, 'will you not do this with me, Matriarch?'

Fihriyi looked to his extended hand and sighed. He remained as he was a long time, and she looked from his hard eyes to his hand. After longer than either knew, she slipped a tentative hand into his, and she could not look into his eyes.
'You have done a good thing, Fihriyi.' Fikra said. She looked at him, part of her hoping that he would perhaps be smiling, but his face was hard and she quickly looked down again.

'It is not out of choice, Patriarch, but difficulty breeds hard decisions.' She echoed his earlier words and took her hand away. Fikra nodded and got to his feet, staff in hand, and Fihriyi did likewise.
'I will not be bad to you,' he assured her, and then turned to depart. Fihriyi followed him to the entrance and watched him leave. He had not taken five steps before he was joined by two women; one of them, with long ruffled brown hair cascading outwards in curled tresses that seemed to have a life of their own, immediately clung to the Patriarch's arm, while the other - a shorter woman - walked by his side and spoke a few words. At Fikra's response, she turned her head backwards and looked at Fihriyi. And, Fihriyi knew not why, but she felt her to be sad.

***




The City of Darofid


Seriyn brought the gold-silver, gem-studded cup to his lips, tipping its crimson content into his mouth in one movement before raising it for a refill. A cup-bearer dutifully refilled the cup, and the reclined Meraid chief set it down on the small table and looked out over the grand city. Reclined as he was on a couch placed on a balcony overlooking the city from the grand palace atop the hill at Darofid's centre, he looked every part the important Yadillum to the Orifid Matriarch. He was a man of some forty years, less five, with an impeccable beard of brown, decorated with little golden rings and larger golden bands that held it all together. On his head he wore a head-dress made of gold, and he was draped in a stunning deep blue robe. His brown eyes, beneath bushy brown brows, were kohled and even the strong smell of incense from within his grand room could not over-ride the sweet smelling perfumes he adorned himself with. Though the young Inar was Matriarch, the Yadillum Seriyn was king in all ways but name.

'So Fihriyi agreed...' he murmured to himself, his eyes taking on a certain distance. These mere children were upsetting the power-balance in more ways than they could possibly imagine. Did they truly think a thing like this could be allowed to happen? The Yadillum looked up at the Yadanite who had brought him the news. 'You have done well in keeping me informed, Mokala. See to it that our beloved Matriarch Fihriyi... perishes tragically.' The Yadanite, a dark Karkid dressed almost entirely in black garb, bowed deeply at the Yadillum's order.
'Your faithful slaves will see your will done, great lord.' And taking two steps back, he disappeared over the edge of the balcony. Seriyn raised his cup to his mouth once more and, emptying, breathed in the fresh morning air. There was nothing more satisfying, to his mind, than seeing threats crushed in their infancy.

The many Yadanite orders - which were more than could easily be counted - were not all of them militant (indeed, a great number were of a scholarly-spiritual bent and had little to do with war), but those that were produced exceptionally skilled zealots willing to march into the very jaws of death to see through what they believed to be their divine duties. It made those of them that did not hold a favourable view of the Orifid Matriarch a notable risk, but it made those that sanctified the Orifid Matriarch an even greater boon. And the Meraids had, from the earliest days of the Orifid dynasty, established themselves as the foremost patrons of pro-Orifid Yadanite orders, so that now their zealous warriors, spies, and assassins reported almost directly to the Meraids.

The Palowids had thought fear and force of arms alone would ensure their dynasty's survival (and now their rule was over, their name cursed, and those of them that remained used as mere pleasure toys by those who had toppled them), but Seriyn, like his forefathers, well knew that survival lay in holding the monopoly on knowledge. It lay in identifying potential threats long before they bloomed and eradicating them. In so many words, it lay in a vigilant weeding policy. And while Seriyn's zealous Yadanites enjoyed Meraid patronage and all the riches a state could afford its loyal servants, all Yadanites whose theology was considered a threat to the state were watched carefully and decimated from time to time. The Eliad and Bato-Elyds were no Yadanites, it was true, but the Yadillum, in his wisdom and foresight, saw that the time for decimation was nigh.

With that business done, he shook himself from his reverie and rose, tossing the empty cup to his cup-bearer, and strode into his room and out into the great hall. Flanked by two guards, he made his way to the royal throne room where the first business of the day would be starting before long. When he arrived, he found the other three members of the Matriarch's Highest Council already present. They turned to the Yadillum and bowed respectfully as he strode past and took his place on a great golden throne positioned to the right of the Matriarch's own, but a step higher.



In All Ways a King

On each side, his throne had small statues representing the great Earthen-Beast, the terrifying winged being with the body of beast and head of man that fell from the heavens and terrorised mankind until the Prophet-Patriarch had tamed it. And rather than the great terroriser and harbinger of destruction that it had been, it became the guardian and wise counsel it now was. Seriyn leaned back and placed a hand on one of the sculptures.

'How many times do I have to tell you, you lords of the line of Orif, there is no need for all this bowing and formality between us; we are all the faithful slaves of our Matriarch.' The three councillors - respectively the Lezid, Baernid, and Ragawid chiefs - found their seats to the left and right of the Matriarch's raised throne as Seriyn gestured for them to be seated.

'Yes Seriyn, but it is important to observe formalities from time to time. Just to remind ourselves that though we are all our Matriarch's slaves, not all slaves are equal,' it was the old Baernid chief Arno who spoke, his piercing blue eyes looking out at Seriyn from beneath drooping snow-white brows. Like the other members of the Highest Council, he was dressed in a white robe embroidered with various intricate patterns that now twirled and now zigzagged across its front and all the way to tasselled sleeve hems.

The Ragawid chieftess Devina waved off Arno's words quickly. 'You're getting senile, old man. Shouldn't you be home with the grandchildren?'

'Oh wave me off will you? It's like you don't know the tale of the three bulls - you'll remember it when some stupidity of yours gets me gone.' Arno glanced at the younger woman with his cutting eyes, but she did not look his way. For his part, the black-haired, dark-eyed Lezid chief Mingin maintained a stoic silence. A military man, he made a point of maintaining his silence on all things that did not pertain to his field of expertise.

'Let him speak his mind, Devina. The Law commands respect for our seniors, after all.' The Yadillum finally responded. Arno crossed his arms and sat back in his wooden chair, looking every bit as irritated as he was.

'Yes Devina, the Law commands respect for our seniors. Why don't we all be good little boys and girls...' but the rest of the old man's words were an unintelligible grumble. One by one and in small huddled groups, the lower councillors and advisors and viziers, as well as military men with reports and others, began filing into the throne room and, after paying their respects to the Yadillum and the members of the Highest Council, found their places and awaited the coming of the Matriarch.

'I see you're back again today Arka. You'd think that after the fiasco yesterday you would have had the good wit to not show your face around here for a few moons,' Arno declared when a jittery old man entered the throne room and came to pay his respects.
'S-sp-p-pare m-me y-y-your t-t-tonngue, H-H-High C-C-Counci-ci-cillor.' The old Karkid stuttered.
'Speak properly you old lout, no one understands a thing!' Arno snapped at him, gesturing for him to take a seat to his left, 'have you actually got the report on why our grain supplies are dwindling or did you forgot it again like the tongueless buffoon you are?'
'I h-have i-i-it, H-H-Hi-'
'Good good, I'll spare you the effort of my full title, just spare me any further bungles today will you?' The old Arka, used to Arno's brusque nature after over forty years working with the man, bowed his head.

He had barely raised his head when the throne room's two doors were flung wide open and a dozen soldiers marched in, their sandals and the butts of their spears smacking the ground in synchrony. All heads in the great throne room turned toward the wide open doors and an instant hush came about. Behind the soldiers came the young Matriarch Inar and her attendants. Her golden crown shone brilliantly atop her head and a number of jewels were clearly visible even from where Arno was sitting, and from her ears hung lustrous triangular earrings with little gems embedded into them. Her neck boasted a great golden collar embroidered with pearls, on top of which was a long necklace of gold and silver.

Her arms were bedecked with golden bracelets and bangles, and various bejewelled rings adorned her fingers on both hands. In her right hand was the Prophet-Patriarch's own spear - now a staff -, which he had gifted to Orif when the latter had become a Warrior-Chief, and she was dressed in a loose-fitting, full-sleeve, ankle-length damask robe of many colours, embroidered with various patterns of gold brocade. On her feet she wore an embroidered shoe with a metal point. A separate, cloak-like garment of many colours, was wrapped about her arm and waste.

She strode neither too quickly nor too slowly across the great room, and she was neither too aloof - looking upon all present and making eye contact - nor was she too familiar - maintaining an altogether stern visage. Climbing the steps to her marble throne, she paused. And then with deliberate slowness, she turned and all those present, bar the members of the Highest Council, rose to their feet. The soldiers swiftly fanned out about the throne room, with two taking up positions to the right and left of the Matriarch. She watched everyone with an imperial gaze, and when all were silent and still and hanging their heads in diffidence before the possessor of the world, the Matriarch placed her staff in a long, narrow hole beside her throne and sat down, leaning back and resting her arms on the throne's high armrests.



Glory and Might

She raised her palm upwards and gestured for all those standing to be seated. With that, Seriyn rose and came around before the Matriarch's throne and descended to one knee. The Matriarch Inar gave him her right hand and he kissed its back silently. He then backed away and returned to his seat. Arno came next, managing to rein in his sharp tongue, and silently kissed the back of the Matriarch's hand. He could not quite stand back up on his own - as usual - and the soldier by the Matriarch's right side helped him up. Helping the old man back up had almost become as much a custom as the daily kissing of the Matriarch's hand. Mingin and Devina followed suit, and then when they were returned to their seats the Matriarch's chief attendant stepped forth and declared loudly, with ceremonious sobriety, that the court of the vicegerent of the Moon-Mother on earth, the true and supreme heir of the Chosen of the Moon-Mother, opened its temporal and spiritual gates for the business of the day.

'Matriarch, a messenger arrived this morning from Qari'Ab with further news. We had feared that fighting might erupt once more with Chief Peral's rejection of Chief Fikra's proposal of marriage to the former's daughter. The goddess be thanked, that has not come about. It would appear, however, that Chief Peral has quite recently passed into the mercy of the Moon-Mother.'

Seriyn watched the man delivering the report with a deadpan face - these bureaucratic sorts were always at least a month behind everyone else. It never ceased to surprise him - if the Orifid dynasty depended on their likes for intelligence, it would have perished long ago. 'Would you like us to send a delegate, or a messenger with our commiserations, Matriarch?' The Matriarch shook her head and spoke in a clear, strong, charismatic voice, which nevertheless retained a distinctive femininity that only caused it be the more compelling.

'There will be no need for that, Councillor Haerid, for our messenger departed with our commiserations and returned before the last new moon.' Haerid spluttered an apology before hurrying along to the next piece of news.

'W-we have here a report re-regarding a raiding party of some fifty men who managed to cross our southern border. They made it all the way to Kuysa. The town held, but the nearby fields were ransacked and set aflame. We should compensate the farmers and provide for the town, else it may well starve.' The Matriarch leaned forward, frowning.

'How did Foz-Kiyan allow them to penetrate so deep? Where were the clansmen he promised would protect Kuysa?' Haerid bowed his head low at the Matriarch's display of displeasure.
'M-my Matriarch, Foz-Kiyan and a great number of his people remain in Qari'Ab. We had charged the Alk-Kuy with protecting the border, but they are all - from their youngest to their eldest - paying homage to Chief Fikra during this period.' Inar leaned back in her throne and turned her head towards Seriyn.

'Did Foz-Kiyan seek permission for this? I do not recall allowing it.' Seriyn placed an elbow on one of the Earthen-Beast sculptures and turned to the Matriarch.
'His letter arrived before me long after his people had left for Qari'Ab, Matriarch. I had arranged for you to informed and for a temporary garrison to be established in Kuysa, but our military has of late been busy with ensuring peace in Qari'Ab and the matter of the northern incursions. The number of people from the north who have made for Qari'Ab, the number of soldiers who have taken leave, is enormous. We are faced with a pressing situation. A small raid on Kuysa was, to my mind, the least of our Matriarch's problems.' Inar considered him with kohled brown eyes for a few moments.

'We will speak of this matter in private, Yadillum,' she then turned her head back to Councillor Haerid, 'Councillor, let it be known that a garrison of five-hundred men is to be allocated immediately to Kuysa. Have a strongly-worded letter sent to Foz-Kiyan ordering him to have his people return to their duties. As for him, have him summoned before our court to answer for his disobedience and the threat he has created to the safety of the Realm.' Haerid bowed deeply.

'To hear is to obey, mighty Matriarch,' he then fiddled with the clay tablets in his hands and began to relay further news, but the Matriarch interrupted him tersely.
'Councillor. Go do it now.' Spluttering and nearly dropping the small tablets, he bowed a few times and made a swift exit.

'Matriarch, if I may,' the Lezid chief Mingin spoke up. Inar gestured for him to continue, 'sending a force of five-hundred to Kuysa at this moment will leave us unprotected. Removing them from the north will almost certainly lead to a Jarlid breakthrough. Removing them from Darofid will leave you poorly defended. Removing troops from the east will mean nomadic raids will grow more effective, and we have no troops in the west to speak of. The threat to Kuysa is not immediate - even unprotected, these fifty raiders could not take the town. The Alk-Kuy will return when your command reaches them and Kuysa will be safe once more. There is no need to send any further troops.' Inar brought a finger to her brow and considered Mingin carefully for a good minute. Anyone else would have most certainly grown uncomfortable under the Matriarch's prolonged stare, but Mingin maintained a stoic stillness, his head bowed.

'You are a military man, High Councillor, and your view on these matters is of weight. I agree with you that our forces are spread thin - but not all of them. We have in Qari'Ab a forced approaching five-thousand men!' Her eyes flashed angrily, 'and you speak to me of a shortage. A force of five-hundred will be dispatched from Qari'Ab to support Kuysa, along with the Alk-Kuy, and a further force of two-thousand will be dispatched north to ease the situation against the Jarlid forces.' Mingin frowned deeply, his disagreement with these decisions clear, but it was Seriyn who spoke.

'Matriarch, there is no need to rush to these decisions. The situation in Qari'Ab will soon ease and we will be able to safely move troops out then. Moving the-'
'What do you fear in Qari'Ab, Yadillum - two newly-weds?' Seriyn pursed his lips immediately and leaned back in his throne, loosing a breath. This woman was a nightmare.
'Of course not, Matriarch. I have no doubts whatsoever about the good-intentions of our Zekrid cousins. It's not like their heresies condemn our dynasty only a little less than it does the Palowids,' and here he leaned back forward and turned to face Inar, 'we can never be too careful with those who have their eyes on your throne, Matriarch. Let us leave the garrison at Qari'Ab as it is and, with the Moon-Mother's aid, this entire affair will pass without any upsets.' Inar sighed and looked at Seriyn for a few moments.

'Very well. We will refrain from sending an extra garrison to Kuysa. But my word on the matter of reinforcing our northern border stands. Whether our Zekrid cousins pose a threat is debatable, but the threat the Jarlids pose is undeniable.' And with her decree established, the Matriarch sat back in her marble throne. A jittery old man rose and came before her, and she smiled slightly.

'Ah, I see you're back again today, Arka,' the Matriarch chuckled.

***


The scarred Isken Bikama looked over the small tablet that had reached him, his forbidding grey eyes showing little emotion as he read over it, then reread. Dropping the tablet on the ground and crushing it underfoot, he closed his eyes and brought two fingers to his scarred brow and rubbed, grumbling something unintelligible under his breath. He wondered if it would be wise to inform the Patriarch of the news that had reached him, but on considering it he determined that the details could be foregone. Time was of the essence.

Getting an agent into the Yadillum's circle had been amongst the most difficult endeavours - for the man was scrupulous about who he employed, and there was little in the realm that he did not already know - so vast was his network of spies. It had been a delicate operation, and he was well-aware that it may have never succeeded - that even now he was merely playing to the man's tune - or that at any moment all would be revealed. But it had been for moments such as these that Bikama had decided to infiltrate the man's circles.

Speaking with a few of his men, he commanded them to organise an armed group of Damids and establish a permanent protective force for both the Patriach and his promised wife. Though Bikama trusted them all, he did not give any reasons beyond the high number of people in Qari'Ab and the increased risk that a crazed person may do something unexpected. 'Under no circumstances must either of them be unwatched, do you understand me? Day or night, wherever they are and whatever they are doing.'

Not long thereafter he found Fikra at the shrine of the Prophet-Patriarch, swamped by supplicants. The grey-eyed Damid chief watched the crowd as it ebbed and flowed, and eventually caught the Patriarch's eye. Bikama was not an overly spiritual man, visiting shrines and displays of worship and devotion simply did not come naturally to him. Certainly, he believed in the Moon-Mother and was loyal to his Patriarch, but he had never understood and had little patience for this level of fawning. Fikra had seen this in the man, and finding him at the shrine left little doubt in the Patriarch's mind that the Isken required him for some matter.

He began to move, and the crowd immediately parted before him, and he was soon walking beside Bikama. 'Patriarch,' the man said with his usual business-like brevity.
'Isken,' Fikra responded.
'I have become privy to certain intelligence which calls for a meeting between us and your bride.' A supplicant approached Fikra suddenly, hands extended, causing Bikama to instinctively grab the stranger's arm and hold it away from the Patriarch. He quickly saw, however, that the man was empty-handed. Fikra maintained his disinterested expression and took the somewhat surprised supplicant's hands as Bikama released him. The little man babbled something to Fikra that Bikama did not quite catch, busy as he was watching the impossible number of people around them. Once he was done with that man, they continued walking through the crowds, Fikra keeping one hand extended for supplicants to touch or attempt to kiss. How Fikra could do so, and how the fanatics managed to maintain enough discipline not to grab him and tear him apart in their bid to touch him, Bikama could not understand.

'I take it that this intelligence that has reached you does not bode well for us,' Fikra finally responded.
'It would be best to speak in private, Patriarch.' Bikama said, eyeing the hundreds of people around him.
'We are easily overheard in an empty room, but here, surrounded by those who love us and the din of ten-thousand voices, we are safest of all,' came Fikra's response. Bikama could see the reasoning, but he did not agree. Crowds like these were the perfect hiding place for would-be-assassins. A swift strike from an unseen hand was all it would take, and the culprit would never be found.
'I would place my trust and your safety on walls and mud, Patriarch.' Bikama said.
'Indeed you would, Isken, for you are a military man. Come, let us call upon Fihriyi.' And so saying they made their way towards Fihriyi's home and were greeted at the door by a slave-girl who informed them that the Matriarch was visiting relative and would not be back for some hours.

'Go to her,' Bikama commanded, 'and inform her that the Patriarch is extremely concerned about the colour of her wedding gown and wishes to speak with her about it.' Fikra did not bat an eye, though it was the first he had heard of it, and though the slave-girl seemed perplexed at how this could of any importance at all, she nevertheless invited them in and bid them wait while she rushed to inform her mistress.

'What is it that has reached you, Isken, and requires so much secrecy?' The Patriarch finally asked when they were alone.
'The Matriarch Fihriyi is in grave danger, and you may well be also. There are those, it would appear, who are not pleased at the prospect of this union.' Fikra looked down and nodded.
'Of course there are. It is only to be expected. Indignant zealots perhaps? Those who wish for a return to violence?' Bikama pursed his lips and shrugged.

'It is not important who, only that it is so.' Fikra considered Bikama for a few seconds.
'How is it that this information came to you, Isken?' Bikama looked away.
'The how of it is not important, Patriarch, only that it came. There are many who conceive of you as a threat, and so it is important that measures are taken to be well-informed of the activities of one's rivals.' Fikra was quiet at these words, leaning back against the wall and looking up.
'And so we resolve one conflict only for a thousand other conflicts and threats to emerge from the cracks.' Bikama nodded.

'It is always so, Patriarch. Never think to bring all conflict to an end - wherever there is life there is struggle.' Fikra sighed.
'I will be content to meet our mother Elysium knowing I leave behind me one conflict less.' He was silent for some time, and Bikama saw fit to say nothing. 'In what form will this danger you speak of come?' He finally broke the silence.
'Yadanites.' The Damid chief said simply. 'They will neither be dissuaded by threat or reward, fanatics that they are. Our only line of defence is to protect you both at all times. You must limit your ventures and all unnecessary contact with the people. You must not sleep in one location always - perhaps it would be best to leave Qari'Ab entirely for the foreseeable future.' Fikra closed his eyes and shook his head.

'Limiting my contact with the people is impossible - unless you wish to forcibly keep them from me, which I could never permit. As for leaving Qari'Ab - staying temporarily in any other town will only serve to delay a Yadanite strike, and we are only more vulnerable in strange places, especially when all our followers are here in Qari'Ab.'

'You misunderstand me, Patriarch. I do not say leave Qari'Ab for another town. The mountains and hills have many caves, easily defendable locations from which you can easily come and go to Qari'Ab. Anyone who approaches will be immediately spotted, and even if these Yadanites know where in the mountains you are staying they will never be able to get through.' Fikra shook his head again.
'This will only serve to notify whoever has sent them against us that we know - and surely that would place your agents in danger, Isken, would it not.' It was Bikama's turn to shake his head this time.
'No, something like this is easily justified. We could, for instance, declare that due to the coming historical union between them, the Matriarch and Patriarch wished to retreat to the mountains and worship the goddess together and seek guidance as to how best to serve the needs of their respective communities. Or something to that effect.' Fikra considered Bikama for a while, his forbidding eyes boring into the veteran. Yet the battle-scarred Bikama had seen over a hundred battles and gazed into the eyes of death more times than could be counted, the eyes of a man - even so hard-eyed a Patriarch as Fikra - had long ceased to faze him.

'You are rather adept at quickly formulating lies, Isken,' it was almost an accusation. Bikama's grey eyes shifted to Fikra swiftly.
'War is deception, Patriarch. Our foes do not perceive that we perceive them, they think us unprepared though we are in truth prepared. They believe they have the element of surprise, and they will still think they do once you move - they may even think they have you trapped in a secluded place, and it will make them careless while we are in every way scrupulous. The Yadanites who assemble against us are mighty, and so we must evade them, wear them down slowly, cause them to become divided amongst themselves as their endeavours meet with failure after failure. And, all the while seeming oblivious, do all that they did not foresee. These "lies" you point out - as though to question my loyalty - are the fruit of bitter experience, of wounds,' and here he touched his disfigured face, 'that a scholarly man like you cannot comprehend. You may condemn these tactics all you like, Patriarch, but this is how the Bato-Elyds - and all you seek to build - will survive.' Fikra had clearly touched a nerve, for Bikama had never deigned to speak so defensively before.

'I did not accuse or condemn you, Isken. You are right, war is deception. I can only be glad that you are by my side. My father, during his time, was approached by various Yadanite orders that professed utter loyalty and pledged themselves to his service; he thanked them for their loyalty but kept them at bay. And now many of them have come to me, pledging allegiance and professing undying loyalty. Like my father I thanked them but had intended to likewise keep them at bay. Perhaps... well, do you think there can be use for them, to further your purposes.' Bikama seemed somewhat surprised at Fikra's apparent openness to use of military tactics in protecting the Patriarchate, and when he overcame his surprise he smiled slightly.

'These militant Yadanites are a double-edged sword. They are privy to knowledge and magicks that make them a boon, but those that hold to a creed hostile to the Orifids are heavily suppressed and actively hunted. Association with them will almost certainly see the wrath of the Matriarch at Darofid directed towards you.'
'Hmm, I see. So it is safest to follow in the footsteps of my father on this matter.'
'Not necessarily,' Bikama said with a knowing look, 'direct them to someone you trust, someone discreet. Have this person report to me, and we will see to making use of them. I doubt they will prove immediately useful, but perhaps in future.' The Patriarch nodded, and he found that the grinning visage of his old aunt Ely suddenly sprang into his mind.

Moments later the door of the abode opened and the voice of the slave-girl sounded, 'they are waiting through here, Matriarch,' and Fihriyi appeared at the entrance to the large room.
'Thank you Sira,' Fihriyi said with a small smile. She eyed the scarred Bikama for a few moments and looked questioningly to Fikra - something told her this was about something more than wedding gowns (in all truth, her immediate reaction to being called urgently for such a matter was that it was downright foolish). 'Here, take this and go find yourself something pretty to wear for the wedding,' and she handed the slave-girl a small pouch of Orif-Figs. The little slave-girl squealed in delight, thanked her mistress, and rushed off. With that, the Matriarch entered the room and took a seat by Fikra.

'I am sorry for calling on you at such short notice, Fihriyi,' Fikra said, 'but a matter of some urgency has arisen.' Fihriyi chuckled at this.
'While this matter of wedding gowns seemed *exceptionally* urgent to my mind, something tells me that that isn't what this is about.'
'No, Matriarch, it is not,' Bikama spoke, 'we have uncovered a plot to have you murdered.'
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How their wretched, vile stench lingers upon the salted breeze and defiles the senses.

The sky and all its inhabitants (wherever they be!) may still bear witness to this abomination, but the earth is silent and motionless. It is dead, eviscerated, ruptured, upturned; its corpse defiled with brine and cremated in the heat of these monsters.

I too am battered, but not yet so utterly broken. My sacred fury does not waver. Though my close of kin are no more, I still fight on alone.

Even as the ash settles upon me, poison my body, and sap my strength, I go where the great clouds of smoke be thickest, for that is where I know that I shall find the most of my enemies, just as I find the most of pain and the most of eternal glory that such pain brings in death and which tastes so sweet compared to what we call life.

I want to reach the end, to claim my rest, and in time I shall. In the meantime, I am not ready to die. I still have so much to kill for.

I shall drown another ten thousand firedjinn before I am sated, and these six will be a fine start. They sense my presence and react. Two flee in terror. That is wise; they know their wretched power is nothing before my might, but this wisdom will not spare them for long.

Four are left to challenge me. They all fall so easily. I sweep through them and carry their sooty remnants just as I once carried silty sediment and fallen leaves down the river. Their two brethren that fled do not last long; I seep into the ashen ground and erupt from beneath them as a geyser of water-turned-caustic-lye.

Their Flickers may be only morsels, but it is sustenance desperately needed. I must rest, for the pain is too great. I choke and sputter in a futile attempt to free myself of the fire's taint.

It is said that Slag was once a behemoth of stone, one of those stubborn fools that nonetheless must be respected if only for their sheer might and tenacity. His name was Shale, or perhaps Slate; it matters not, for in either case he was an ancient and powerful lord of some rocky cliffs need the Venomweald. And then he was tainted and corrupted, but rather than accept death, he embraced the poison and became the monstrous bastard-lord of magma that now (no doubt through subterfuge and vile deeds) claims dominion over all flame and commands these wretches.

Disgusting.

Even the greatest bastions of stone are slowly eroded -- perhaps not so slowly eroded in his case! -- but the rivers flow until they meet their end. Is ten-thousand too many firedjinn to fell? I must not allow my hunger for vengeance to hold me down and bind me to this plane; when I have no further strength to fight I must end my own life, and not a moment later lest I become corrupted and allow myself to be reborn a mongrel of sludge, but honor decrees that I fight on until that very last moment.

Honor demands a heavy price.

Musing over these things provided much-needed distraction from the pain. Since those six, I have already hunted another two firedjinn. But my fevered trance is broken, for amidst the motionless ash I sense motion. I search the wasteland, and against the black soot I perceive a hue pale as limestone.




A shaman trudged on, pushing through the thick ash to where he had remembered a stream to run. In the distance there had been plumes of smoke that rose still and the forlorn glow of straggling flamedjinn, yet they had seemed to mill aimlessly or quarrel among themselves and paid him no mind. When he crested the last tiny hill and came upon the place where a stream should have been, there was naught but the smallest gully in the plains of grey. Within it there was only a trickle of poisoned water that ran darker than blood.

But there was still the sound of rushing waters. It was only then that he lifted his gaze up to see the living fountain before him, the djinni's eyes staring back in contemplative silence.

"I remember you," Barak croaked before the dryness of his throat reduced his speech to dry coughs.




It must be close to dying, for it does not even see me yet. The unaware do not live long, be they mortal or djinn.

But now it does see me, and its eyes betray no fear.

It speaks. No, it calls to me. I draw closer, and eye it closer too. It shudders and heaves like a dying stonedjinni.

Before I can decide whether it be worthy of my effort to mimic its own crude language, it speaks again, this time in my own.

"Son of Fountainhead," the creature says. Its speech is crude, not unlike its grimy shell.

I recognize it now; 'twas one of the shamans. Of course. "Lord Fountainhead," I correct it in equally base and flavorless prose, "for my father is gone, and all my brothers, and our watery demesne, so the name alone is left for me to inherit."

"What's in a name?"

Bah, it does not understand. Its ignorance of language betrays its youth and inexperience. I grasp at my own mind, trying to recall their word for the concept, then trying to warp the air to make the right sound, "Nam. Nayim. Name."

"I know what it is. But what is in it?"

Now it is I who am confused. The shamans asks a queer question, and one for which I had no answer. I think for a few moments, then answer, "Pride beget legacy which runneth as river of power. The river falls from weeping rains of soul and Flicker, distilled by sun-rays beating upon seas of honor."

...I am not sure if it can ever understand such things.




The djinni answered with its poem, but the sound could not reach Barak; instead he heard the echoing words of his lost father, 'It was a long time before I could understand Fountainhead, for his words run as swift as the rivers and yet carry unspoken meaning as deep as wells.'

Yet at the end, he somehow understood. He had derived the meaning of the poem without even listening to it, or perhaps he had known the answer all along and merely projected that truth onto the djinni's flowing words.

It was at this point that Barak noticed another hain standing a short distance away. He hadn't noticed the hain before, and the hain was much cleaner than he would have expected of anyone in this ashen wasteland. The new hain's posture indicated sadness. He was holding something in his hand. Ash poured from the hand and revealed a scorched arrowhead. After inspecting it forlornly for a moment, he dropped the arrowhead and wiped his hand on his leather apron.

The hain then looked up and saw that he had been seen. "Dreadful, isn't it?"

Barak eyed the wanderer, hoping against hope that it would be someone that he knew, but reality disappointed. "Just gone," he answered the stranger, "Gone, everything that I ever knew."

"Not everything. The perpetrators of this horror still live, so vengeance remains." The young Fountainhead twisted its mercurial body to face the newcomer; the djinni lord stared at that odd hain closely, clearly sensing something that Barak could not.

"I know," the newcomer replied. He looked at Barak and then Fountainhead. His gaze lingered for a few moments on Fountainhead's murky waters. "I have something which could clean you up," he said to Fountainhead, and he reached into his satchel to retrieve a jar of fine white powder.

Fountainhead scrutinized the stranger with a thoroughness that took his eyes to the creature's odd expression, across every crevice of the hain's immaculately clean shell, and to the strange satchel and jar that he held. Recognition seemed to appear on the djinni's amorphous visage, but Barak was still left confused even as Fountainhead began a rapid undulation of speech in his own language.

"When has it ever become a Divine to flow across our kind, carry away our plight, and surge onward with benevolent intent? Basheer, Gneiss, Flow: the names of Jvan's victims run endlessly as the rivers, and she is not the only tormentor! There be also Vestec whose dark work wrought the maddened storm djinn, and no doubt others beside whose misdeeds are not engraved into time as canyons are carved into stone. I am wary of your aid, Teknall, for you have never shown love to my kind; whatever you offered to our Father was surely a lie--where fell your staying hand when the tyrants drove him away?--and e'en now the Dark Lord reigns supreme atop a throne erected by your own hands whilst you withhold."

Teknall's eyes narrowed at Fountainhead's words. "Suit yourself, then." He slipped the jar back into one of the smaller pockets of his apron and continued talking. "I came here to survey the destruction which this horde of fire elementals has caused and is causing, and possibly determine some means to prevent further destruction. Preferably without performing a mass smiting."

Fountainhead's long and alien face seemed to contort, though Barak could not tell if it was in skepticism or confusion or disdain. "Their lord Thermaron is slain, felled by the treachery of the three-faced coward called Boreas, and so their head is severed. They rampage without thought or regard for purpose. If you do not smite them then I shall, for honor demands it, and besides, they shall not submit to the likes of you or I. Only flame can rule flame."

Barak looked lost the whole time, glancing back and forth between the two with a curiosity and disbelief that seemed to banish his sorrow, if only momentarily. Finally, when there was the tiniest lull in the conversation, he stole the chance to ask, "Are you some sort of shaman? Your wisdom is incredible; none from my village could understand djinn so well as you!"

Teknall turned his head to Barak. "I am Stone Chipper," he told the hain.

That simple answer was met with wide eyes and open palms from Barak. He whispered, "We thought that you were only a myth."

But though Stone Chipper's nature may have still rested beyond the hain's grasp, Fountainhead had heard of gods and their powers. "What use is power in the hands of one that refuses to wield it? You, a being that makes Graund and the mightiest stonelords look as insignificant as fleas, could mend the scarred earth here and call down a deluge of stones to drown my dying body beside all these marauding firedjinn. You could, nay, should make things once more as they are meant to be," he declared. The waterlord's every breath grew more belligerent and challenging. "But perhaps I expect too much of you."

Fountainhead's words were beginning to stretch Teknall's temper, which simmered beneath Teknall's words. "The power of the gods is tempered by the power of the other gods. Xos has already killed one of my siblings and wounded three others; it would be folly for me to make myself his fifth victim by such an overt action. But do not presume that I have been idle. I have armed my allies to defeat the shade. I have brought one of his divine victims back from the brink of death. And now I work to subvert his influence on Galbar. I shall act as I deem fit."

"So then what is it that Teknall 'deems fit'?"

Teknall paused for a moment. "This horde of fire elementals is leaderless and aimless. We could attack this horde, but that would be costly, and will do nothing to weaken the forces of the 'Dark Lord' who originally sent forth this horde and who continues to wreak havoc elsewhere. It would be much more effective to find a firelord who is aligned against Xos and put him at the head of this horde, such that their strength can be turned against those who ordered this destruction."

Silence.

"...a fine plan," the combative djinni finally conceded. "But know that under their 'Baron' the lords of flame have grown corrupt and delusional. It is said that Slag was among the first to swear fealty to the Dark Lord, and his entire court are known for their great cruelty. Among the sea of snakes, there is only one noble salamander that I would nominate to you. His name is Kindle, and he is known to be honorable and sage. In his youthful days before he was a lord, my father was consumed by wanderlust:

"So it was that he once came across this kindly sion.
He told me that their meeting was in a place beneath a distant sun,
that he swam from the Sea of Tsunami and through Wash's Rill,
following the lazy river's forks bend by bend up until
he came to a primal land untouched by mortal hands.
There the trees grew tall but the high hills were stripped bare by mighty crosswinds
where away from the rill and upon a bluff made so austere,
there be a tribe of djinn that Kindle does steer."


Teknall pondered the directions for a few moments. "Is Kindle still at that location, to your knowledge?"

"The waters of my river saw many things," he hazily answered, "but they could never reflect what was across half the world."

"Do you know any more about Kindle?"

"His reign began not long after the stonelord Cliff fell and became the monster Slag, and even as the other firelords were subjugated one by one, Kindle remained unbowed and unwavering in his refusal to serve a tyrant, e'en though his defiance may have been his downfall. For that, my father remembered him."

Barak could only look back and forth between the two, struggling to translate the words in his mind fast enough to keep pace with what Fountainhead said.

Teknall nodded his head. "Thank you Fountainhead. You have been quite helpful." Teknall reached into his pocket, retrieved the jar of powder and proffered it. "You sure you wouldn't like that sludge cleaned out?"

"I am not so wary of you any longer, so perhaps that will inform why I have refused."

"If that is your wish, then." Teknall put the jar back into his satchel. From the satchel he took out a bottle of fresh water and stepped towards Barak.

"Barak, you look thirsty. Would you like some water?"

The youth startled at the mention of his untold name, but then gave a nod. Teknall gave Barak the bottle. He drank deeply for what should have been long enough to empty ten bottles, and yet this one seemed bottomless.

"Thank you, Stone Chipper," he finally said as he parted with the bottle.

Teknall nodded and put the bottle back in his satchel. Teknall looked around at the burned landscape around them. "What will you do now, Barak?"

His empty eyes held no answer. "I do not know what is left for me to do. Perhaps I can find purpose elsewhere, if I can make my way to unscarred lands."

"The world is a big place. There is much you can do out there," Teknall said. "If you trek south for a day or two you should get to the land beyond this battlefield. Perhaps Fountainhead might help you, since you seem to know each other," Teknall added, giving the water djinn a sideward glance.

"Thank you, Stone Chipper," he stammered once more, and he glanced to the djinni even as Fountainhead's emotion remained an enigma to his eyes.

"Never forget the price of honor. Fortune be with you, Teknall."

Teknall reached into his satchel once more, removed a green-tinted flask of sugary syrup and handed it to Barak. "Some food for the journey." After a moment's thought, he also placed the jar of white powder into Barak's hands and whispered, "In case Fountainhead changes his mind." Then Teknall stepped back and waved to the two. "Safe travels." Then he turned and walked off over the hill. The odd duo watched him go, then turned back to one another.




'From the Sea of Tsunami,' the Fractal Sea, 'and through Wash's Rill, following the lazy river's forks bend by bend,' up into the highlands between the Changing Planes and Pictaraika, where 'the trees grew tall but the high hills were stripped bare by mighty crosswinds.' This was 'a primal land untouched by mortal hands.'

Was.

Centuries had passed since old Fountainhead had travelled here. Several hain villages now inhabited this land, with livestock grazing on the blustery hills. The numerous villages were divided into different clans and tribes, but from each of the settlements along the lazy river or beneath the mighty trees there were dirt paths, and all snaked across the land before eventually finding their way to the highest hill of the land. Teknall could sense them; there were pilgrims walking the roads, along with others. Many carried corpses or the sickly atop pallets, but there were none that returned from the smoking hill upon stretchers.

Atop this hillock there was another village, if it could be called that. A few scattered hovels around the edges housed members of a local djinni cult with the shamans and their families, but in the center of the hill was a great blaze whose trail of smoke had risen to the heavens for generations uninterrupted. Near the center was a monumental structure so large that it could only have been a temple or a palace, but before its threshold there was a huge firepit. In a perfect circle around the blaze were many stone slabs that looked not unlike shrines. Some had offerings of food or riches placed upon them, whereas the dead or sickly were laid down upon others.

Unnoticed by the other hain, Teknall stood beside one of the hovels and watched the blaze and its strange circle of shrines. As noon began to approach, there came the arrival of many of those pilgrims that he had sensed. They gathered on the offskirts of the village waiting, but not for long. A shaman soon emerged from one of the hovels and approached the central fire. He called out a name to the roaring flames, but it was not Kindle.

After a few moments, there emerged a dozen small firedjinn. They swept out from the firepit to approach, and though they passed by the wood hovels they were lesser elementals and in their careful wake there was only a passing warmth, not an ashen trail of waste. They approached the waiting hain and began to direct each group toward one of the stone altars assembled about the fire, but then one of them seemed to notice Teknall. This one was young and small, certainly too weak to speak. So it tried to signal the attention of one of its larger brethren.

As Teknall watched, a larger spiryt approached. "You do not stand with any of the mourners." With a sort of confusion it eyed the god in his guise. "Are you ailed by an affliction?" it finally inquired, "Or do you bring an offering in that satchel?"

"I have come to speak with Kindle," Teknall said.

"Lord Catharsis reigns atop this hill."

"Do you know what has become of Kindle, then? He reigned here at a prior time."

"Catharsis knows."

By the end of that exchange, the hain had already assembled around the central fire. A shaman called out to the blaze three times to chant Catharsis' name, and then the firelord began to emerge from what seemed like a burrow below. He was so large that his form engulfed the entire bonfire and then some, looming over all of the squat houses. He looked to where the dead had been lain atop the altars, and with a small motion of his fingers he lobbed fireballs upon them. The corpses were bathed in such heat that their shells cracked and fell apart, and within seconds the pyres had consumed their bodies. Attendants quickly swept up the still-smoking ashes into urns and presented these to the weeping families that had carried the fallen. It was over in a few moments.

Then Catharsis turned to one of the sickly hain resting upon the cold stone slab. This one was only an infant. He stepped out of the fire and stretched to the point that his head was almost directly above the mewling baby. He stayed motionless, peering at it closely even as its mother stepped forward to tell something to a nearby shaman, who then translated it to Catharsis. After perhaps a minute, the firelord pointed a spindly finger of fire towards a nearby jar. The shaman opened it and gathered some sort of dried herb, then filled a brazier with the plant and brought it closer to Catharsis.

The djinni lord breathed a single spark that ignited the incense. As its smoke began to drift into the air, Catharsis manipulated it and brought it closer to the crying infant. Then he forced some small wisp of the smoke into the hain's mouth and its mewling stopped. As the shaman gave the baby back to its mother and began to clean the brazier, Catharsis had already turned towards another one of the altars. Upon it was a hain with an arm that had been mangled. This time there was no careful contemplation or deliberation; attendants offered the unfortunate fellow some medicine that would presumably dull his pain, and then they held him down even as Catharsis seared away the broken limb and cauterized some lesser wounds to stave off infection.

Then attendants began to apply some sort of poultice to the agonized hain as Catharsis moved on to the last of the sick. This one had been still and so most attention had been paid to the bawling infant and the obviously maimed hain, but perhaps that was in error for upon closer inspection this final patient appeared deathly ill. From a wound in the abdomen, a strange, blackened tumor was spreading. Parts of the shell around the central wound had already flaked off and taken an ashy hue, almost as if some other medics had already attempted a crude cauterization of some sort. Catharsis seemed to be at a loss when the hain suddenly stirred. He must have been unconscious before, for immediately upon becoming lucid again he began to howl in pain. He seemed to ebb, passing in and out of consciousness. Some of the attendants and shamans came to a forgone conclusion, for it seemed as though they were already moving to console the victim's family. Catharsis began to conjure a fireball.

Teknall walked forwards against the protests of the small djinni that just spoken to him. "Ashling infection," Teknall said aloud. "A difficult case, but I have something which can help."

Catharsis' minion acquiesced and fell away from Teknall's side as the god spoke aloud, while the firelord himself lowered the hand that had been preparing to deliver a final mercy. He looked up to the oncomer and stared at Teknall. Unlike Fountainhead, he did not seem to immediately identify Teknall, but he certainly sensed something unusual.

Teknall reached into his satchel and pulled out a fistful of shards of what appeared to be some kind of yellow and pink glass. "Shards from Lensling trees target the ashling infection, but don't harm living creatures. Implant one of these in the wound to stop the infection."

Catharsis approached Teknall, though when one might have expected a wave of sweltering heat to accompany the presence of a hulking firedjinni, there was nothing of the sort. Teknall could sense the amount of effort that went into suppressing a smothering aura that would otherwise bake all those present. A small, spindly finger of smoke and fire gingerly lifted up the lensling crystal. Catharsis inspected it closely for a moment before handing it to one of his disciples. "Purify him," he commanded. Just as Teknall had instructed, the attendant plunged the crystal into the gaping wound within the infected hain's abdomen.

There was no immediate effect. "The treatment will take time; perhaps a few days," Teknall explained, "But he will recover. The infected flesh will get replaced with this harmless crystal. Until then, I recommend analgesics."

"Then he is purified, and I am now prepared to turn my attention to pilgrims of less dire circumstance. You have earned the right to speak first, stranger. What brings you to my realm?"

"I bear news from distant lands about the current conflict among the elementals, and offer a special opportunity," Teknall said. "I wish to speak with you privately about it."

"You are not a mortal. It is just as the Golden One foretold," his realization suddenly came. A brazen eye peered over his assembled priests and worshipers, over the stone slabs, and over their piles of offerings until its gaze was level with a nearby building that dominated all others upon the hill. "I will speak with you, stranger. Within my temple we may find the privacy that you desire."

The various shamans and attendants made way for their master as he suddenly spun about and made for the grandiose stone archway that led into his temple. The structure was of mud brick and crude masonry, but it was ten times the size of any of the hovels in its shadow and its presence dominated the hill. Some that had not heard the exchange between Teknall and Catharsis made to follow, but the djinni lord waved them back. Even as they entered, other attendants that had been caring for the the interior got out of their way and then scurried out the door.

Inside the temple were engraved walls, a floor of shalestone tiles, and a great many benches before a large dais that was surrounded with unlit incense torches. There was nothing of cloth or wood to be seen save for a few soot-covered timber rafters to support a slate roof; even the countless benches assembled within were more akin to boulders whose tops had been flattened. But Catharsis did not stop to look upon any of those things; he led the way to the dais whose lightly charred markings showed it as his regular place (presumably when he meant to address more than could circle around his bonfire in the clearing outside, or perhaps when he was performing more formal ceremonies) and then he turned around to face Teknall. "Great Divine, I am eager to hear of this news and 'opportunity'. But first, I bid you welcome to my domain. I am Catharsis, and this is the Temple of Purity. The hain of these lands have erected it to show their dedication to the cleansing flame."

"And I am Teknall, who many hain call Stone Chipper. It is refreshing to see a cleansing fire which does not leave destruction in its wake," Teknall said. "Before I deliver my news, I have a question: What has become of Kindle?"

There was a very long silence uncharacteristic of any djinni. Then Catharsis finally answered:

"He was a mighty lord of fire,
a purifier, with unbroken descent from great Char.
But in these days that I heal and cleanse, Kindle would have thought to ravage and raze."


He seemed to wish that such an answer would have been enough to satiate the god, yet sensing a persistent curiosity, Catharsis obliged him with a tale of length.

"Kindle once brought his host to the Rill of Wash
'Watch,' he bid them as he stepped into the stream.
Dream of what those fish felt when their world became naught but fire and steam.
He said, 'These waters are worthy and pure, free of vermin.'
Within the water floated only dead fish and smoking driftwood.
Would you call that just? He thought it good.
And when the first of the hain came to this land,
Lo and woe, for he sought to purge them too.
Through the woods they were chased by his retinue,
and brought to that fateful river to burn or drown.
Down below, the lady Wash heard the sound.
Screaming hain and crackling fires; she emerged weeping,
For her river was beautiful no more.
Abhor Kindle, but know that to other djinn he always wore
honor, and so he was shattered when Wash condemned his slaughter.

"Kindle looked to me in the river and bequeathed his lordship unto me.
He looked to the seared and cracked shells left in his wake,
ache in heart as he saw his mistake.


"These eyes suggested to him that there was a better way. In me he saw a kinder, nobler image of himself, I think. So Kindle sought redemption, drowning himself in that river to earn redemption, and now I rule as best I can. It has been a great many cycles since Kindle walked these lands, so many that his legend may soon fade from the memories of the hain."

Teknall paused for a sober moment. "I had originally been sent here by the recommendations of a water djinni named Fountainhead, who claimed that Kindle was honourable and sage," Teknall explained, "This report came from before any hain had moved into the region. From what you have told me now, it seems better that I have met you instead.

"Now, for the news. How aware are you of the current conflict involving Xos and elementals across Galbar?"


"It is best not to utter that name! Some say that the Dark Lord grows ever stronger with each whisper of his name, or that it draws his attention and then he listens.

"For your question, I was not called to this war. Just as my predecessor did, I refuse to serve Slag. But the other lords about these lands have gone, almost all of them. Near the seashores not so far from here, there have already been skirmishes between the minions of Notus and Anshal. The Golden One foresaw all of this: he said that there would be much death, and that a great divine would one day come and I would find myself embroiled."


"Then I shall get to the point. On the opposite side of Galbar there was a great battle between many powerful elementals which has left a vast stretch of land completely desolate. In this battle the firelord Thermaron was slain by Boreas, who is against both sides of this war from what I hear. Thermaron's massive horde of fire elementals remains, though, and continues to run amok. The horde is currently leaderless. One of Slag's other lieutenants might claim the horde eventually, but it would be advantageous if a firelord opposed to the shade were to claim the horde first."

"So you would propose that I rally them, to what, usurp Slag's ill-begotten throne?"

"Usurping Slag would be brilliant, but is not my target. The battles between elementals are ongoing, and it would be bad for both djinn-kind and other mortals if the shade's side were to emerge victorious. The firepower of that horde would be a considerable boon to whichever side controls it. At the very least, I'd like to see that horde of fire elementals brought under control."

"If they truly rage in pointless furor and lash out upon all that is around them, then they must be brought to heel by one that values purity over mindless destruction. I could rally them, though not soon. Even for one such as I, it is not a quick journey to the other side of the world."

"I can arrange transportation, if you are willing," Teknall offered.

"I must not abandon the hain here without a word or time to ensure that there will be order in my absence. Return in a day's time, and I will be ready."

Teknall nodded. "Understood. I shall see you then."

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Nokeyeor 1 - Nokeyeor 2 - Mesathalssa Divinus Wikia page

Nokeyeor 3

It had been a while since the trade of the salt road came to a halt, to the many people who lived in the land strip that went all the way on the southern ocean from Mesathalassa to the Dwarven Citadel, that meant the end of their age of luxury. Trade with cities south of Alefpria was possible, but far from the necessary to keep their ways of lives intact.

As the old clans struggled to keep order and prestige, new, more vigorous ones rose and found new ways to bring riches to their people. When the war in Mesathalassa started and many such clans were hired as mercenaries, they would suddenly find themselves in very different lands, learning different things, getting a lot of practical military knowledge on the fields of a rich foreign land.

Needless to say, it took very little time after the mercenary work ended before people once again looked at the lands in the north as a source of profit, this time, however, they would not be bowing to any king.

The reindeer riders struck as winter arrived, knowing they would be gone by spring. Mesathalassa was not ready for the wave of a thousand raiders going from village to village plundering what they could. But neither were the riders, the experience their veterans had beforehand was useful in the navigation of the fields and village raiding, however, besieging cities was not as easy and many struggled to keep the banners from splitting up, as the many greedy adventurers wouldn't accept the rule of their generals.

Yet the sheer numbers of the southern raiders made up for most of their mistakes. By the time the realms became aware of what was happening, they were already deep within their territory, going from village to village, sometimes even lucking out in a poorly protected town. As winter reached its peak, there were raids happening as far as southern Krastas.

Most of the important cities in the realms had built up defenses during the wartime, years after it, many had been kept, even if downgraded, those were enough to protect most capitals.

The one exception was Mirny. Dahleria, daughter of two pilgrims, had got as far as she did in the last half-century by knowing well how the gears of the region turned. Sometimes by quiet intrigue, other times by brinkmanship, the priestess knew well how far she was allowed to go and what the ripples of her actions would be. From turning Mirny into a theocracy, to establishing slavery in a region of freemen, to continuously winning more influence in the war, she knew it all when it came to Mesathalassa. Perhaps blinded by pride, or from an extreme case of selective attention, she allowed disaster to happen.

By trying to deal with the incoming raiders like one would with a local noble, the priestess would lead herself on a path of many mistakes, the fact she had never built up a practical military lead during the war only becoming one more factor in what would follow. Soon, Mirny would be surrounded and unprepared to give an answer, most of its army was days away and the defenses had never been built as she knew no local army would climb up the hills. She was right, no local army did.

Perhaps if it were one of the ex-mercenaries, the disaster would have been limited, but the city fell to one of the split-off adventurers, too young for control and morals.

Most of the other attacked realms would feel the weight of the Great Raid even if their major areas were successfully defended. With exception of Imga, where King Xabud Of Rok truly made a valiant effort to protect his people, all other authorities simply holed up and allowed disaster to strike the minor villages. Spring came, the raiders went, but the scars of the attack were fresh, the drought would be stronger on that year, the villages that had been simply slaughtered being far luckier than the ones who faced the rest of winter and the next year without any sort of food storage.

The situation of Mesathalassan agriculture was becoming critical, with a devastated countryside and most crops not ready for the climate change the region was undergoing fishing was once again becoming the main source of food. Yet, fishing hadn't really advanced in the last half-century, and the population had far outgrown what the sea and rivers could provide. The harbor cities had little option but to shut their gates in the face of all those who fled their withering farming villages, further killing any sense of regional authority.

That did not apply to Imga, Xabud had been seen as the good king, one that ran to his people aid, and with the extermination of his rivals, he was able to act quickly and without worries. The man was also smart enough to have started to think about how to deal with the drought before it peaked, though at first he was too worried about the war and establishing the kingdom, on the five years between the end of the war and now he had already started to do his best to guarantee the future of his realm.

The creation of hunting guilds similar to the north, the founding of salt mines on the frozen south, the incorporation of reindeer riding into his culture, creating trade routes with the better established Eastern Mesathalassa, making colonists out of the extra population villages could not maintain, and creating the first non-librarian center of studies, one that focused on understanding nature and agriculture, among many other key decisions to keep Imga on the map.

And the results showed, the decade between 40 to 49, despite the great raid, was one of great wealth for the unified realm of Imga. Then in 49 the second great raid started.

Tales moved fast among the forgotten Salt Road, the raiding of Mesathalassa had been far from successful, but still brought some wealth, and some wealth was more than no wealth, which quickly turned the eyes of many towards the region. This time, the raid was not led by simple mercenaries and starry eyed adventurers, but by proper leaders of clans, even ones who had emigrated all the way from the far west, the most important of them having even stepped on Alefpria, in a peaceful way, of course, else there would be little left to tell the tale.

It was easy to tell the raiders these times were made from a different cloth than the first few, the easiest way to tell was the gigantic tundra beasts being herded by the reindeer riders or the glimmer of bronze and iron, while most of Mesathalassa had been scrambling since Mirny had been destroyed.

All of King Xabud's greatness would mean little in combat, some say rulers are successful on virtue and fortune, and there was no fortune in sight as the tundra beast outright stomped the defenses of Imga.

With the southern kingdom toppled, the next step would be to raid Igar-Kuri. The city could always look like one big expanse of hovels, but in its trade ports and fortified merchant houses was a great wealth.

Due to some miracle, it was at this time that the leaders of Mesathalassa finally noticed it was time to react as a region to the threat. The miracle was mostly the yells of a very tired and aged Sheru of Kivico and the terrible fear caused by the idea of Igar-Kuri, the mud covered jewel of Mesathalassa, being gone. Meanwhile, even with priestess Dahleria of Mirny long dead, Dahlerianism continued to thrive among the Elysian philosophies, the desire of revenge against the southern invaders was strong, and across the converted villages, priests started to form their own militia with the intent of saving the faithful in the great harbor area, creating another force to match the raiders approaching Igar-Kuri with its tundra beast.

And then the armies met, an exact half-century after the day the stars fell.

It was, by any interpretation, a massacre. The expected betrayal between the armies of the realms and the religious army never came, but both together were still not enough to match the might of the technologically superior and better organized reindeer riders. Still, Igar-Kuri was nothing like anything the riders, even the most experienced, had been ready to deal with. The city was as wide as Alefpria, though lacking the glory and organization, it had multiple walls, so when the tundra beast went in, the riders found themselves with little option but to go forward, through the hovels, towards the juicy core of the city.

They expected the armies to have their morale broken at one point or another, but they never did, initially they would run and scramble in sight of the tundra beast, but as the realization their homes would be next on the menu should Igar-Kuri fall dawned on them, all soldiers found a new desperate courage to stop that attack.

With a thousand arrows, the beast fell, falling amidst where once were many homes. The raiders had no other besieging option to break deeper into the city, so the attack came to a halt, but the combat continued. Igar-Kuri was defended, but it was, by all means, a defeat of the unified armies of Mesathalassa, chasing away the raiders from the south was out of question, in fact, Kivico had lost so many it would, over the next year, lose its control over the protectorates of Krastas and Jan.

For the riders it was a much simpler task. They had conquered Imga, so all they would need to do was to keep it as a stepping stone, summer would come and go, and when winter arrived, the second great raid would continue.




Despite his sixty or so years, the old leader of the reindeer riders had never seen the seasons move by, the flowers growing among the snow, the winds of summer blowing away the petals, and the odd coldness of the orange and yellow of fall. It brought him peace and a desire to continue living in that land and perhaps even pick up the plow and live more like the people in the north.

It had been a few lunar cycles since they occupied the fortress, and, while he demanded obedience and servitude from the locals, he felt like he was better than what led these people before, as he had only heard tales of regicide, massacres, and starvation.

Perhaps, should all things work out, he could provide something to his people beyond the warfare caused by the collapse of Dundee. And...

Was that something on the window just now?

Without thinking much, the old man and wanabee king moved towards the window to see if he saw it right, perhaps if he had spent some more time among the intrigues of the harbors, he would have avoided that mistake and called the guards.

Many in the region had been thinking about how they would take down the invaders, complex plans, subversive actions, last stands, all those taking into account they would be again an elder raider who knew more about the world than they did and had been in more wars than they could count. Such red tape was unnecessary, no matter how many victories a man had, no matter his honor, no matter his wit, one quick swing of a sword did the job. And a job it did.

Destiny had smiled at Runza like it always did, guiding her to where she belonged. The issues here and there had been mostly learning experiences. Of course, the army camping on the fortress that was her childhood home did a thing or two to help her to be where she was. The raid leader's fear of being in the 'capital', where the home fortress of the recently crushed noble house was, had sent him to a far worse place, one where old servants still loyal to Imga were and where a pretender had been making the stage for her return. Now the stage was set.

It was a quiet night, the old man slaughtered without a noise. Some of his most trusted sons and leaders were there too, some sleeping, some drinking, all very vulnerable. The heir of the Thanfong clan smiled, it would take one hour to clean the fortress with the help of her loyal servants still in service to this day. With the great stag dead, the herd would break, the many armies of riders, stuck in place by the summer heat, would be little more than lone deer in a forest full of wolves.

[1 might spent to make Runza Thanfong a hero.]






Retaking a throne was easy, retaking a kingdom, however, would be a complicated journey. Loyality was not a thing Mesathalassa valued, the blood that ran on her veins, dating back to the foundation of clam Imga, back on the Elysian days, would not guarantee the reconquest of what was rightfully hers. Traitors who would not accept her sovereignty over the realm, remnants of the great raid... It was almost disheartening to think about it, that before she even got a chance to bring greatness to Imga, she would need to traverse a long rough road to get back what her predecessors took for granted.

But Runza did not allow herself to lose hope, she had not allowed herself give up when she was captured in Kodekzia and imprisoned; Or when she escaped but took a boat that went on the opposite direction of where she wanted to go, ending up in the shores of a civilization from the far north, past the dusklands, south of hain kingdoms and a woodland so great it made the jungles of Mesathalassa look like a garden; Or when she was taken by pirates as a slave.

She had been around the world trying to return to her land, fighting many times for her life, gaining many scars and even losing an eye. It was too late to be weak. Furthermore, after seeing so many foreign lands, she realized many things, both why she belonged nowhere but at the new realm of Imga, but also the many issues the rule of her family and the Rok family had. There was so much to be done, and she would do it all, failure was not an option.

Today was her first day as the queen of Imga, it was still early morning, the city was still whispering her return, especially the bards, who she paid extra to make sure they would put emphasis on how much she had been through to come back and banish the invaders the Rok branch had failed to repel. It was a necessary step, as Xabud had been a very successful king, even she agreed, and the hordes were not all that bad, as them using Imga as a base brought a good share of riches to the land, that she did not agree with, but the people thought what the people thought, and it was time for them to think otherwise.

The first thing that she would decide was her clan name. Imga, Sunmen culture in general, did not use clan names at all. However, considering all the other human peoples and many non-human folks used it, it soon made its way into their culture. At the time, the two feuding clans for the sunthrone ended up using the name of the son their splinter originated from, Rok and Thanfong. Runza did not like that, there was only one name that mattered, and that was Imga, their blood had ruled and led the people for so long that in comparison the feud between two sons was nothing but a small spot in its history.

Runza rado Igar-Thanfong, was the name she settled with, not having the will to break off completely from the name of her family. The problem was that if any Rok remained, she would give them an idea, but she was pretty sure that the other family had been as thoroughly destroyed as hers was by their hand, hopefully even more.

She planned a few days of feat and ceremony, it was not the best thing to do when she was effectively at war, but, it was important to make sure the capital loved her, it was important to tell her story, and how much she sacrificed for them, it was also important to make sure all who disliked her felt like they were the weird ones, to make them outcasts in their own home.

Furthermore, the news would be helpful to bring fishes to her net. The raider generals would be in chaos after the death of their commander, none would dare to attack her alone, fearing the stories leaving the capital, and as such it would take them at least one lunar cycle to respond. The leaders of Imgar armies, however, be it resistance or the ones holed up in hill towns, would be quick to arrive, they had been leaderless for a while, after all.

They would, however, not be there to help, but to instead circle her conquest like vultures. Runza knew she was a terrible end to their ambitions, most of them fancied declaring themselves kings of Imga, with the bloodline supposedly gone any 'liberator' who conquered back the capital would be considered 'good enough' to sit on the throne, better than nothing.

Not that the queen did not have a plan to deal with that. On the end of the seventh day since her return, all military leaders of Sunmen descent had arrived, and Runza decided to meet them all at once in the fortress.

While dressed as a queen, she sat on the ground, not on her throne, she wanted to avoid antagonizing them too much, the time in which she would be free to rule her subjects with great vigor was yet to come.

Immediately, the eight men in the room shot her many questions, some not even waiting until they had sat down in a circle around the firepit. How she planned to tax the lands, how she planned to reconquer land, how much autonomy she would give their towns, why should they give up their towns, was she truly Runza or an impostor.

The queen's response was simple, she extended a map and drew on it with a charcoal. "This is the core land, and it will be under my rule. These are the other fortresses within the realm, I would like to divide it between you, who have shown loyalty to the throne."

As the map went from hand to hand, eyes widened, and it was hard to judge what exactly had surprised each of them. Was it the sudden offer of land? The division of the kingdom into sub-sections? The first thing brought up by one of the men present were neither of those.

"My lady, there are areas here... which do not belong to the realm of Imga."

"Then to who do they belong?"

"Well, this one is under a raider lord."

"I do not accept any claim of any southerner anywhere near these lands. We will take their lands wherever they are. I also have no intention of returning the lands to those who failed to protect them. Understand this, you are all here because you defended yourself well while remaining loyal."

Another man questioned further. "This one was not taken by anyone. It belongs to Igar-Kuri's patrician."

"Igar-Kuri, Port of Imgar, and who are the Imgar?"

"We... are?"

"Correct. We, the people of Imga, and who is the leader of Imga?"~

"You are."

"Exactly. I do not accept Igar-Kuri's claim of sovereignty, their expulsion of my ancestors was, and continues to be, a short-lived mutiny."

"Short-lived? My lady, they have been free for more than three generations."

"I am building a realm that will last three hundred generations. In the long term, it will be but a single blade of grass amidst a large field."

There were constant glances of doubt within the room, they were not sure the woman's warlike was good for their interests. All of the men were warriors, but they were old warriors, who had had their good share of war already.

"You do not have to trust my promise of union now. First, we will focus on retaking what most accept as ours. I am sure by the end of our campaign you will come to see my intents are true and tangible."

It took them a moment, but finally, they accept it. Reconquering the lands of Imga became very interesting with the promise of lands being rewarded to them. Most of Mesathalassa had so far worked under the assumption all lands belonged to the king, when the system of the Harbor Kingdoms started to fail, nobody had translated the harbor-ship-sailor classes to the agricultural reality of most nations, Runza, however, was playing with the idea of subdividing the realm in a similar way to that old system, where she would rule over the lords, who would rule over the farms. Her worry was that the king role in such a scenario was far less necessary than the old harbor kings, but for now, it would do.

"None of you know how to read, correct?" All of those in the room nodded in response, some grunted. It was not something that had spread far into the south and many doubted the need of it, after all, all northern nobles they found were a bit light on the head, surely that could have to do with keeping all their thoughts in clay. "Well, I wrote something, it is just a collection of laws, so we know well the roles and limits of my rule and how your ownership of the land works. The last thing Imga needs is to be conquered again by a foreign invader because half of the land under the king did not know it was under the king or that it had to fight for him. I will have one of my servants read it."

This had been the very reason Runza had decided to divide the land. The population of Mesathalassa, despite all the issues with war and famine, continued to rise. It no longer was formed by little villages who were satellites of the harbor cities but had grown to have a web of minor and major towns that sometimes relied on the cities but would be mostly autonomous if left alone. The formalization of the hierarchy of the lands was key to keep the realm alive, Runza had wondered why it had not been done before, considering had learned how hierarchy worked very well. Then she heard of how Kivico had sent the queen's children to rule over Krastas and Jan, and it dawned on her that the large families or councils of other lands had so far mitigated the issues with informal borders to the point they did not even notice it. That was good, one day or another the cracks would show, and Imga would be ready.




The battles extended from summer to fall. There was no time to rest, the colder it got, the easier it would be for the raiders to regroup or attack. To outsiders, it felt like the invaders were falling like flies, yet Runza knew her lone stag view was more fit, because while cornered and made into easy prey, they still had horns that could easily take a wolf down should it not be careful, and the fewer wolves, the harder it would be to hunt.

So far, the casualties had been few and the victories countless. This campaign had been named 'deer hunt' by the popular, but Runza introduced the name 'Fist of Imga' as a more proper name. It was necessary to stop the views of reindeer as foreign if the realm was to reach its destiny.

"Say, Ayisi, have you ever noticed how the deer from this area are different from the ones used closer to the coast?" Ayisi being a slave woman she had liberated, to an extent, from the council of the raider king. She was a servant to the shaman and the merchants, and as such, she was pretty smart, something Runza wanted in her group, yet she had issues seeing the world beyond her limited situation, finding the very idea of surviving on her own to be absurd, and while this was not something the queen sought on others, the ensuing loyalty was very nice.

"Now that you mention, I did notice some differences in leg size, musculature and fur allocation." she observed.

"Yeah, the ones from the groups that settled in the coastal plain are different from the ones in the hilly north and the swampy east." she said, the question had always been rhetorical, Runza was mostly just lonely and hated to think too much without expressing her thoughts.

"Maybe it is because they are better adapted for such environments. The riders with the best-fit deer for an area had a higher survival rate than the ones who didn't."

The queen nodded. "But this was not something done on purpose, right?"

"We do have a preference between lighter or heavier deer, but I never heard of people breeding reindeer to ride in a specific area."

"Well, you will hear now, for sure. I wonder just how much I can do with this, but setting up a mountain, coast and swamp heard would be idea right now."

This left the ex-slave most perplexed. "From the way you speak you are implying you will keep these herds of animals?"

"Oh absolutely. Why would I not? My plan is simple, I will have riders added to my realms army and create royal herds. I know it is not a tradition of our people, but survival comes first, tradition comes second."

"Oh..." the southern woman pondered for a moment, nodding at Runza's thoughts. "You are wise. I imagine it will be a great advantage for the kingdom once, in five years, when the training of the first batch of riders is done, you will have a formidable raiding band at your disposal..."

"Five years?" she laughed, and shook her head. "I am actually thinking of a one year training routine. It can be done, it just needs to be intense, condense the lessons as much as it can and cut down on the rituals."

"One year? These animals are not simple to command, you need a deeper link..." she wondered how the queen's plans would work, she found it hard to believe.




The first winter was a hard one, by the time half of Imga was recovered, but the remaining raiders had become far more united in their resistance. As spring bloomed, it was back to a slow fight of tradition, but Runza would not have it, she wanted this war ended by the next winter.

She had a plan in mind, one she brewed even before the strike of luck that brought her back to the throne. This project led her to ride deep into the Mesathalassan Wildlands, were villages were thin and the biggest ones were actually just fancy inns. Though the plight of the coastal area had also been felt deep inland, including the drought, that, from what she heard, dried up entire spots of jungle in the north, many villages remained somewhat prosperous, and tradition endured.

In the depths of the woods, the trees were far too big to be cut down by any human tool, however, certain animals existed that could easily bring down a tree, and the key to survival was to somehow create an alliance between such animals and the humans living in the region. Such a thing did exist, in the depths of the forest giant sloths had been somewhat tamed by the locals to bring down great trees with ease in exchange for food.

The thing about tools is that while they solved one problem, they could also, accidentally, have a use beyond the planned. Axes, for example, were great at cutting wood, also great at killing people. Sloth taming worked like axes, and, much like the counterpart tool, could be easily transformed into a weapon.

Tundra beasts were great tools of siege and fear, but, they were too hard to come by, Runza wanted something similar, but faster and easier to control. Of course it could not walk past walls, but she was more focused on the fear factor, siege could be done by other means.




The fall campaign had been successful. Runza's mind was overburdened thinking of all the new methods she wanted to implement after having learned about them while away from her homeland, it was thankful those who followed her in hopes of having land in her new system were also somewhat skillful at what they did, and kept a strong sense of practical and direct action while the queen focused on the theoretical.

As winter dawned and the once rare snow returned, the battles intensified. The united resistance was still even numbered against Runza's force, but the autumn combats had been mostly to set up possible hard blows during winter, when their pride would be at its height. Also in winter, the first deer riders joined the battle, and the queen used then not only as a strategical advantage but also as a signal to some of the tribes that had migrated from the south that she was open to deal with them. In fact, all through summer and fall she had been working on that, on how they would be accepted as citizens of Imga and receive their share of wealth... which was just a convenient thing when the desperate defense against her moves continued to force more and more of their people to fight and make sacrifices to stop Runza.

Runza expected a victory, but she was handed something beyond that. The queen had been wise to keep the sloths out of combat until a decisive one happened, where forces from all sides clashed at once. The results were great, despite giant sloths being small compared to tundra beasts, they managed very well to strike terror at the enemies. Without the footsoldiers to maintain ground control, the riders saw themselves dancing the dance Runza wanted them to, she did not aim at the common man but at their leaders. They had not come with the best-fit animal to ride the hilly region of the fight, and when Runza and other riders gave chase, many were unable to escape.

And as such, the defense collapsed, and Runza had won back her kingdom... and a bit more. Because of course, the riders had not simply taken land from Imga, but also from neighboring lands. There was no good reason for those lands not to fall under Imga, though, Runza would need to asses how much conflict each one would bring.

To the east, to keep all of the lands around Ros-Zujau seemed simple. The region had been heavily occupied by reindeer riders and had no other authority over there now beyond Imga. Obviously, Runza wanted to push towards Igar-Kuri, so whether they agreed or not was meaningless, furthermore, they were still weakened. In the north, however, it was all a bit more complicated, Mirny had fallen a while ago, much of local power was a mess... yet, going too far, would cause issues, on another side, if Imga were to secure Mirny, it would be without doubt the new leader of the region.




Ayisi had been serving Runza for a few years now, yet she was impressed at how little she saw of the queen ever since their early days. Runza was a woman that seemed unable to stay in the capital for more than a few days, during the war she was busy leading armies so she would gain the people's heart, now, she was busy making sure the realm was being rebuilt properly in order the keep the people's heart.

At first glance it was Ayisi's impression that Runza was a very eager and careless person, that impression was right, and the queen knew it, and by knowing it, she started to act more patient than most, as she always assumed any whim or instinctive feeling she had would need to be thought over. Even now, where she had the forces and momentum to continue a march of conquest against many neighboring powers, she immediately focused on refining the armies and reincorporating all the recovered land into the crown's rule.

In that scheme of things, Ayisi had been assigned to continue working on the management of the capital. The reason was simple, Ayisi was from the lands beyond the south, and as such she had no chance to create a parallel power to the throne as the people would not follow her and the elites despised her. Many others of her people within the conquered areas were given similar positions, as well as some from north Mesathalassa.

Ayisi was by far the most trusted of them all, and she was tasked with what Runza described as the "Kingdom Maker" of all tasks, the one which would decide the future of all the land.

The old king, the one killed by the raiders, had this personal project from his musing over the nature of plants and crops. The scholars spent most of their time pondering over how they should approach the task instead of taking clear action, it all would be thwarted by the fall of the kingdom before they started to do the first plant.

Runza wanted to revive that, and this time under the particular philosophy that seemed characteristic to her rule. She did not want a place of thoughts but a place of discernable results. "A house cannot be erected in a week, but a wall can, and one wall a week makes a house in one lunar cycle, and one house a cycle makes a village in a year." It was not to say that Runza did not believe in the power of theories, she knew how savvy thinking was key to win the wars, but there should be a set of practical tasks that can be done daily in order to constantly and will, given a set amount of time, achieve something, even if that thing is not the main result expected.

Gathering the surviving members of that project, Runza set them to go out to the villages, home or foreign, and take notes on the local plants. See how big they grow, how fast they grow, if there is a difference in texture or appearance, among many other tasks. It was Runza's theory that much like the reindeer, plants too could be selected by how well they act in certain areas and then isolated from others so only that sort would be grown. The most amazing of it all, to Ayisi, was that the queen did it all in three days, it took her three days in the capital to set up what it took years for the previous realm to do. And there were results soon, and much like she had told her once, the importance of tools is not much the use they were made for, but the new, unexpected uses they could have...

Ayisi waited in one of the palace's room with one of the plant scholars, as Runza had recently returned to the capital after another long and grueling southern campaign to create more distance between the area of the reindeer clans and the realm. It was also very popular with the local population.

The queen soon arrived, nodding slightly to the two. "Ayisi, Yatel. You have requested an audience?"

Ayisi hated to talk, it was something taught to slaves and that stayed with her even after freedom, so she let the man start, even if his words were mostly hers. "Your majesty, we have been doing on reports on local flora, and, uh... We found something that might be of your interest."

The queen waited a bit. "And that is...?"

"We found a flower."

"... And? You know you can speak, right? You are a scholar not an actor, you do not need to pace your words for suspense, just tell it all already." she huffed.

"Right... Uh... It is a flower that grows only in certain lands..." Runza gave him a stare that quickly made him realize he'd die if he did not continue talking. "certain lands which have salt in them. So..."

"Oh! So we could use the flower to find where there is salt to be mined?"

"Ah, yes, this is what I would propose, yes. See, it grows in some coastal lakes with water that contains salt... but they are very common in Ros-Zujau."[/color]

"In the swamps? I would never have looked for salt mines in the swamp. It would be great if we had salt being mined within the realm. Is that all you wanted to say?" the man nodded. "Great, you are dismissed."

As soon as he left, the queen took both of Ayisi's hands, a wide smile on her face. "See? I told you our kingdom is blessed by gods."

The woman smiled with her, but while the news was good, she had never witnessed her so happy since the day she took the throne. "Is salt that important?"

"Yes, but it is not that. The salt mine could justify everything I have done so far. As we leave the stupor of a new rule, more vultures have been trying to oppose all I do for cheap power grab. They question my attempts to build up the structure in the east, they question my campaigns to the south, they question my hostility to the north."

Ayisi nodded, even though she did not agree that all opposition to Runza was mere opportunism. The campaign in the south had been mostly meaningless, in her view, just cheap attacks to keep the people happy, even though they now started to tire from wars.

"See, with that, I will have a good reason to really push for more raids on the south, and not only that, but to help build villages in the region."

That was so odd Ayisi couldn't help herself. "Why? I am confused on how it connects."

"Salt is something we all need, that is known. But the only trade partners we would have here are the other realms along the coast, and they have little to offer. Now, if we were to create a route with the Hainland east, that would give us some good opportunities for trade."

"But the..." Ayisi took a deep breath, "The distance is too great. My aunt's husband once went exploring the region, and he said it took days for him to see the mountains giving up for a passage. Uh... It is surely more distant than a trip from this city to Tabata in the far north. Except it is all very barren snow land."

"I am sure a usable mountain passage will be found one day or another, you worry too much Ayisi. We will also be producing more food, so we can support some projects in the cold expanses. If this works, Imga will become rich beyond our dreams."




Imga was a realm of great ambition, nothing but the total control over the rightful lands would satisfy its people. That was what Runza believed. Sheru knew that, she had seen many like her.

An amateur could have seen a war or two on the horizon, but Runza was wise enough to see many and knew exactly what would be the forces that would truly be on the path between the realm and local hegemony. On one side, Sheru feared her because she was such a warmongering woman, on the other, especially now that 'The Ogre' was old and felt the north was and would continue to be in a decadent state for a while, she felt like a woman like Runza was the region's best hope to regain its course.

Nevertheless, Sheru knew even if she was active, she would never have predicted how well Runza danced around the issues that were presented to her. Not only she knew who would be her enemies, she knew in what order take them. Igar-Kuri was by far the land closest to Imga and the one that was by all means rightfully part of the realm. Yet, it was the one that should be attacked last, for it had two allies.

One, were the Dahlerianists, radical Elysium worshipers who Kivico had been trying to contain, second, was, of course, Kivico itself. The Dahlerianists would close the routes to Mirny, which would stop the realm from getting enough equipment, furthermore, they knew how to put up a long fight, and even if victory was assured it was a painful one.

So, what Imga and Runza did was simple, focus it all on Mirny instead. Of course, taking over Mirny would get her on a war with Kivico, the key was, first, warring with the Dahlerians, this would bring them out of Igar-Kuri, and let Imga approach Mirny without worry. Then, somehow, using some technique she did not know, they found many mineral spots in the lands near Mirny that were previously unknown. These new mines fueled the armies and the rage of the lords of the non-theocratic lands near Mirny, it took little time for one of them to make a mistake, justifying actions in the region. Kivico's leadership, as it was expected, feared to enter combat too soon and seem like an aggressor, and instead entered it too late and with the thought that Runza was like the many foolish leaders that fought the land before, the queen of Imga knew she had not the supplies to fully challenge Kivico, instead, she defended what was hers and made a reasonable peace deal.

And with that, it was done, the three forces between her and Igar-Kuri were done for. Kivico still had something left, but waging another war against Imga was out of the question without risking its control of the north. So Sheru's land just watched as Runza unified the south and half of the middle. Achieving the successes which her sisters and the council of Kodekzia had dreamt about, and it was all absurdly organized, with a clear rule and an organized control of the land. All that in the hands of a woman that was of a young age still, and who would continue leading forward for at least a few more decades.

If the first fifty years since when the starts fell were ones of decline, the next fifty could very well be ones of reconstruction.

The days of the 'battle' in Igar-Kuri, the city still scarred from the raid and with bones of the Tundra Beasts still clinging to its sides, were ones of heavy rain. Many of those who fought would end up sick after the such a long exposition to the weather, including Runza. She would never get better, and would be the queen of the hegemon kingdom for only two months before the sickness took her away.

Sheru knew Runza from when she was a young lady, and she knew she was eager and believed too much in destined greatness, it was a shame she learned she was wrong in such a way, or that years of controlling her impulse meant nothing in face of a single time she decided to rush it all a bit and get the control of the city she dreamed of conquering.

Being also the last successor of the ancient family that ruled Old Imga before the flood and leaving no children, she left behind a crisis for the realm to deal with. Nobody was a proper successor, and for now it was unclear what the fate of the land would be.

It was a shame. The tablets of Kodekzia tried to glorify it, but it was clear that this was another bitter story for Mesathalassa's Nokeyeor, a long tale of the land where ambition goes to die. And upon looking at the copy of the history keeper clay tablets, Sheru couldn't help but to feel old, so many names she once knew and where now gone... She knew she too would soon be gone, albeit, having lived to old age which was a rarity for rulers. Worse of all, was the last one, after the last few words, the smooth clay waiting for new words. Last spring she knew what she would read there, but now there was just mist, uncertainty.

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All Roads Lead to Alefpria

Slime and Muttonhawk

c. 3 PR


Another morning rose with the din of birds and insects in the Shalanoir jungle. Moving against the green and brown that painted the environment were Helvana and her family, hefting the last of their luggage or raking at the ground for worms, respective to their species.

"All set. Are you ready to leave yet, boys?"

"You're the one carrying most of our stuff. We were waiting for you."

"Alright, off to Alefpria then."

The three set off on foot towards the great city. Approaching with a murder of crows, let alone a giant crow, would call too much attention, so Helvana landed Frederic well beyond eyeshot of the walls and left her crows with him as well.

Some hour or more passed. They stopped to eat before getting near. Alefpria was already in view, but not much detail could be made out from their distance. Just flush walls covered in greenery. The sparse jungle flora left in their sights had mostly been cleared for farmland.

"So, what are you expecting from the city, Hel?"

"Ilunabar said she helped designing it herself, so I expect the place to be a work of art. What about you Gwyn?"

"The city's pretty huge, right? I expect to see a lot of people there. I also want to taste a lot of new things."

"Heh, that's something I expected to hear from Hel."

Helvana rustled Gwyn's hair. "I guess I rubbed off on him more than I thought." She said with a giggle.

"Try not to set a bad example, okay?"

"I'll do my best."

"But still, you're sure this Lifprasil won't find us?"

"Don't worry, I'm pretty confident in hiding myself. Besides, Lifprasil is meant to be someone that works with his words. He can't use his powers on me, so if he does find me, I'll just refuse his offer to join him."

"But what about us? He could influence us, right?"

Helvana went quiet. She rathered to keep such thoughts out of her mind. "If he does influence you…" She shook her head. "No, he won't find us. I'll make sure of it, so don't worry about it. Let's just enjoy the city, okay?"

"Okay, I'll believe you, mom."

"I just love it when you call me that." She pulled Gwyn into a tight hug. Lloyd just looked at the scene with a smile. "You want a hug too?"

He looked away while scratching his cheek. "Maybe."

"Come here then."

The three of them held each other for long enough to be reassured. Their journey resumed before too long. The goal was to reach Alefpria before the sun started to go down.



Tall buildings, some even bigger than Frederic, covered in lush green and colorful flowers; vending stalls as far as the eye could see; and creatures of all kinds, be them human, hain, or those more horned, tall, short, beastly, and elegant than they recognized. Past the city gates of Alefpria was a completely different world.

The trio's eyes all sparkled like gems as they took it all in. Mostly oblivious to their amazement, the locals walked around carrying wares, wagons, and food. Others shouted out their merchandise and passersby bought what they wanted.

"Welcome to Alefpria, travelers." A smiling woman carrying a basket of flowers brought the trio back to earth.

"Ah, y-yes?"

"You three are first timers, I see. Here, have these as welcoming gifts." The woman took a purple flower from her basket and put it over Gwyn's ear. She did the same for Helvana and Lloyd, giving them a red and yellow flower respectively.

"What's this about?

"I said they're welcoming gifts. They're for free of course. Enjoy your stay." She left as soon as she came, waving until her dress folded into the crowd.

Helvana and Gwyn waved back. "I think I like this place already."

They moved deeper into the city, finding their way into a plaza. Trees and flower beds lined the streets, along with small flocks of cooing birds in varying tones of black, white, brown and gray. The palace was in clear view and its full glory, standing over all other structures. The three sat down on a bench in quiet awe. The sights never ceased.

"Okay, this place is…" Helvana was the first to speak. "I never thought I'd see a place as beautiful as this."

"Nothing like our village, or the hain village. I don't even know how to describe it."

"Gwyn, are you there?" The boy in question wasn't listening. He was distracted by everything possible. "Guess not…"

All of a sudden, Violet rustled on Gwyn's neck, catching his attention. The fiberling moved to his shoulder and ‘looked' at the flower in some nondescript curious shape.

"Something wrong with the flower?"

Violet formed a hand and pointed at the flower, then at themself.

"Is it trying to say something to us? Is it about your name?"

The fiberling nodded its head-shape.

"Is your name flower?"

Violet shook their head.

"Maybe it's the color. Purple? Lilac?"

They shook their head.

"Hmm… Violet?"

The fiberling nodded its head several times then pointed at themself again.

"So Violet's your name!" Gwyn said excitedly as he petted the fiberling.

"I guess there was no way to know it before. Sorry for calling you Hairball, Violet."

"Yeah, these colors aren't very common where we're from." A familiar rumbling sound was heard. Lloyd smirked and shot a glance at Helvana. "Hel?"

"I'm sorry, there's just such good smells everywhere…"

"Wanna go get something to eat?"

"Yeah. Gwyn, are you hungry?"

"Sure."



Food was easy to find heading back the way they came. Some stalls had delicious looking meals on display in that direction. Before long, they approached one such stall and called the stocky human man addressing the customers. They were too hungry to spend too much time deciding.

"Excuse me, I'd like a small wheel of cheese and some dried meat. Do you barter?"

"Depends, boy, what do you have?" The man spoke through his black walrus moustache.

Lloyd unshouldered his bag and halfway pulled out the hides he was carrying. "We have some deer hide, is this fine?"

"Those don't fetch much of a price here. Don't you have anything else?"

"Just wood carving tools and cooking utensils."

"I don't need any of that."

Lloyd sighed in defeat.

The mustachioed man crossed his arms and peered across to Helvana. "Say, that cloak of yours. Is it warm?"

"Warm enough for you to last the night." Helvana butted in.

"I'd exchange the food you want for one of those. What do you think?"

"Not for a single wheel of cheese and some meat. These are harder to make than you think!"

"Uhm…"

"They look pretty normal for me, miss. I could throw in a bit more on my end, but…" He wrinkled his nose. "I've seen better."

Something broke inside Helvana. Her eye twitched.

Lloyd put a hand on Helvana's arm. "H-Hel, let me handle this, you can just make another cloak for us later."

"Excuse me? These cloaks are made with the best quality crow feathers! Besides, you couldn't cut or pierce through it if your life depended on it."

The stallkeeper's whiskers bent out and in with his scoff. "If I had a coin for every peddler that told me that, I'd live in the palace. If you wanted to make good quality feather cloaks, you'd use feathers from condors. Much harder to get. Crows are just another of this city's pests."

Something else broke inside Helvana. It was almost audible. Her hair and cloak wavered as she almost set a curse on this salesman's whole bloodline.

"Hel, calm down. W-we'll just look for another vendor." Lloyd's desperation grew. He didn't have fond memories of the last time Helvana was this angry.

Even Gwyn sensed the danger. "Let's go, mom. We'll find better food somewhere else."

She had no time for them just then. "You… These cloaks were praised by none other than Ilunabar for their beauty. She even gave me this bracelet as a gift." She said brandishing the star bracelet. "And you have the gall to say that crows are pests and that you've seen better?!"

"She also supposedly made about half of the city's decorations, sugarplum. That bracelet's pretty, but here Ilunabar's ‘gifts' are common as spit, now-"

A bronzed arm placed a pair of dull coins between the arguing couple.

The shopkeeper stuttered to a stop.

"I've got this one, sir. How about you give these people that meal they asked for?"

The arm belonged to a thin young woman, about Helvana's modest height, dressed in practical linens, a heavy-looking shoulder bag, and a rough, rawhide apron. A broad brown sunhat obscured her face, but her exposed skin glistened. It was too glossy to be the sweat of the day. As she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, a solid grey metal belt glinted from around her waist.

Helvana gasped in surprise. "You are…"

The salesman shrugged and snatched the coins off his counter with his shovel-like hand. "All the same to me, smith-girl. Just a moment, now…" He sawed a sizable chunk from a cooked leg of some creature, all the while muttering to himself. "Damn tourists, don't know how to haggle..."

The strange woman faced forward, avoiding Helvana's eyes and those of her companions. In seconds, the salesman extended forward a large lump of white cheese and several slices of rich roasted lamb leg. The woman produced a large leather purse to stow the food, received it, and then turned.

Helvana only had a moment to confront the face under the hat. An intent look from a visage not tanned or wet, but wrought of dark orange metal, pock-marked with faint grey freckles. It was the bright red eyes looking at her like wounds that made the shock real. She was not human.

A sharp tug on the arm made Helvana realise that the 'smith-girl' was pulling her away from the stall at a brisk walk. She had to fumble to hold onto the purse of food that was pushed into her hands.

"You're new here, aren't you? You must be lost or something," the woman said with a surprisingly pleasant tone considering the strength she was applying. And her tied-back hair was strangely stiff while she walked. "Come with me! There are a few things about this city you should know, and it'll be easier to talk someplace less crowded, yeah? Your friends can come along, too!"

"Ah, sure. Come on, boys." She shot a glare at the salesman while leaving with the 'smith-girl.'

"Thank you, miss. Hel doesn't like when her crows are mistreated."

"He didn't have to be so rude…" Helvana handed the purse to Lloyd. He pulled a knife and started cutting slices of the cheese.

"Your skin looks very pretty, miss. It shines."

The smith-girl smiled and a swirl of iridescence slivered over her neck and cheeks. She did not have a response while they quickly walked.

"Gwyn, don't be rude."

"It's fine, it's just skin..." The 'smith-girl' cleared her throat.

"Ah, I guess we should introduce ourselves. I'm Helvana, the boy's name is Gwyn."

"And I'm Lloyd. Nice to meet you." Lloyd handed a slice of cheese each to Helvana and the smith-girl.

"Uh, Conata," the metallic woman said. "My name's Conata." A few more grey dots appeared on her skin. She was nervous and looking ahead, not at the food at all. She was hardly slowed when she spotted Lloyd offering. "Oh! Um, no thank you. I'm not hungry."

Helvana ate hers immediately. For some reason, swallowing the food lended a rush of alertness and energy to her.

"Ooh, this tastes amazing!"

"That's right!" Conata agreed in a clearly exaggerated voice, picking up the pace even more. "Juvo isn't the most fair-minded delicatessen, but he knows how to make a fine cheese." She laughed uncomfortably.

The swift walking brought them to the edge of the market before they knew it. They found themselves in an alley between two broad, stout, cream-coloured buildings that let plenty of sunlight in between. It was not very discreet but they were at least separated from the shopping crowd.

Conata's fake smile disappeared.

Only then did Conata let Helvana's arm go. She stepped to stand in front of her, the copper of her skin desaturating to a shining iron finish. She crossed her arms and narrowed her red eyes.

An odd silence passed. Conata weighed them all up with a suspicious frown.

"What was it you were just doing there?" Conata finally asked. Her tone was much more serious. "It...something didn't feel right. You're not like most humans, aren't you?"

"So you could tell…I guess I let some of my powers leak even though I was holding back. That was just me being angry, I didn't do anything to this Juvo."

"Though you almost did..."

"I wasn't going to get that far! Anyways." She said clearing her throat. "Indeed, I'm not normal, but the same could be said of you. Right, demigoddess?"

Conata's shoulders shuddered up and her skin rushed with a duller metal from the base of her neck up to her ears. "Pardon me!? How…?" She let out the rest of her short breath and let her arms fall to her sides. Her eyes cast down. "Okay, I'd be lying if I said you were the first to mention it," she admitted. "Not many people just say it out of nowhere, though."

After an uneasy swallow, Conata lifted her eyes again. "Look, you're obviously new to town. I don't want people getting hurt because of misunderstandings. I can help you, but you'll have to help me, okay?" Her skin pocked more heavily again. "Maybe you know something that I've been looking for."

"Well, I do have a favor to return, but I'm holding back my powers for a reason. If it's something that needs them, then I don't know if I can help. We heard some...bad things about Lifprasil."

Conata huffed into an open-mouthed smile. "I don't even know what your powers are, newcomer." The smile was short-lived. "No, nothing like that. It's a long story. I guess Lifprasil is a part of it, though not directly."

Conata half-stepped backwards and pointed a thumb to one side. "I've got tea at home, and some bread. Maybe we can talk over lunch?"

"I like you, Conata. Lead the way."

With a turn on the front of her foot, Conata set off walking. This time, there was less of a hurry.

"It's way too easy to please you, Hel…" Lloyd said with a sigh. "Though bread and tea can go well with cheese." He continued giving out cheese, a slice to Gwyn and another to Helvana.

"Wha- my mouth's tingling! It's so tasty!"

Conata glanced back with a half smile. "Where did you three come from, anyway?"

"We come from up north, past the big swamp. Do you know of it?"

"No, I haven't been up north," Conata answered.

"It's been quite the long way hasn't it…? We wouldn't even have been to Xerxes without Frederic."

"That's our ride, by the way. He's a giant crow, so we left him away from the city. Hel has a thing for crows, you'll see for yourself eventually."

"A giant...crow?"

"You sound like you don't like them, Lloyd. I'll take your cloak away if that's the case."

"Hey now! I didn't say that!"

Conata lightly shook her head. A few streaks of green patina grew on her temples and forearms, suggesting some other shift in mood. "You've come a long way indeed if you passed by Xerxes. People here say the knights had to fly there during the war in the belly of a great serpent in the sky."

"Great serpent?"

"In the sky?" The brothers were clearly surprised by what Conata said so casually.

"To be fair, I haven't seen it," Conata clarified, lifting a hand. "Everyone else has, though. It can't be impossible. Especially if a giant crow is...Whatever, it's not important." She breathed in. "Is there some place you're going on your big journey?"

"We were coming to Alefpria, actually. We were going to skip Xerxes, but we ended up visiting it, or rather, what's left of it… It's just a big crater now."

A sigh escaped Conata's lips. "So, it must be true after all."

Before Conata could elaborate, the group was waved down by a nondescript hain woman. They were between neighbourhoods and there were far fewer well-dressed folk around.

"Conata! Conata!" The hain woman slowed to a stop before them. "There you are! I just wanted to thank you for fixing my brother's plow last week. I have something to give you for it-"

"Oh, no, it was nothing, really Dara, he gave me the fee yesterday, I..." Conata raised her hands.

"No words! Please, take these," She took Conata's hand and wrapped her fingers around a pair of leather gloves in them. "Your hands always feel so cold! I thought you might like to keep them warm when you work during the night." The woman was already stepping away. "Bye, now!"

Conata looked down at the gift and sighed into a bronze complexion. "Let's keep going. Sorry, you were saying something before, right?" She resumed walking. "What brought you here to the city?"

"That's...kind of a long story. But basically it was sightseeing. I heard of Alefpria and how prosperous it is, so we came to see. Not disappointed so far, except for that salesman…"

"You didn't have to get so mad. You can just make another cloak later."

"I didn't like those rates of exchange. And he didn't even test how sturdy they are!"

"How is it living in this big city, Conata? We come from a small village, so everything's so different here."

The corners of Conata's mouth tensed and relaxed. "Hm, it's crowded and busy, and even though there are more people around, it means there's just more strangers. But...you know, you get used to it."

"Good day, Conata!" A human man contradicted Conata out of nowhere, waving from a nearby window while he was beating the dust from a rug.

Conata waved back. "Hello, Rommun!" She turned back to the others quickly enough. "It's not so bad, though. You meet little villages-worth of people. And...I don't know, this place has a warm feel to it. It's like I'm being held by the shoulders by someone I trust. Something about the walls and roofs and...the way the streets are laid out."

"New friends, Conata?" A wheezing hain man in a brown cloak raised a hand from up his seat against a nearby wall. He was not very clean.

"Just showing some new faces around, Sir Wallan."

"Tell them they can give me a coin for a full tour of the place. I'll even break 'em into the palace! Heheheh!"

They quickly left the vagrant behind.

"You seem to be pretty popular." Lloyd noted.

Conata shrugged. "I get by through working metals. A lot of people here needed help, still do. Not everyone had the wealth, so...I did some favours, that's all." She opened a hand out. "Of course, we were just as much strangers in the beginning. I came with friends from home and we've not been here for much longer than a couple of rainy seasons." She glanced to Lloyd and Helvana. "Do you three plan on staying for long?"

"We didn't think that through… Since the city's pretty big we might stay a few days to see all it has to offer."

"We don't have a place to stay, though. We usually sleep under Frederic, but that's out of the question, obviously."

"Okay, I might give my cloak in exchange for a room here."

"Just might...?"

"I know some places you could try," Conata said. "They won't try to cheat you, either. Not like Juvo."



Their walk did not seem to take much time, mostly because of the sights and sounds that kept entertaining them. It felt sudden when Conata took a turn towards an archway that granted access through a broad wall, at least thirty arm spans across. They passed a rough wooden gate into a courtyard that housed a few small pens of chickens and pigs. At the far end was some kind of clay oven next to a heavy block of metal standing conspicuously out on its own. They passed it all quickly to reach a main building in front of them.

Conata pushed aside the wispy curtain inside the door to lead Helvana and her friends into a dim hallway. The staircase and several shut doors they passed implied that Conata was not the only tenant of this place. The smell suggested that the tenants were not few in number.

They were lead to one last open door. Conata pushed it open to reveal a high-ceilinged yet rather plain room with a table, chairs, kitchenware, and other household goods. They did not have much room to move around. Another pair of doors led into a store room and a bed room, through which could be seen a large round green humanoid leant over a piece of white clay. The creature delicately worked at an image with a tiny brush and ink. Helvana had never seen anything like it.

"Hey Ruvac," Conata called through the little apartment.

"Hey," the creature said, half-present while focussing on his project.

Conata took off her hat and went to the little fireplace flickering in the corner to look inside a bronze pot hanging over it. "I've got some people over! Don't mind us, we won't disturb you."

The creature hummed acknowledgement.

"Uh, take a seat," Conata murmured to the three following her. "And try not to be too loud. Ruvac has been working on that character for months now."

The three of them sat down on the chairs, with Gwyn staying on Helvana's lap. "Quite the place you have here."

"It was a good deal," Conata admitted. "Especially since I get space out the front for an anvil and a furnace."

"What was that thing in the next room?"

"Don't be rude, Gwyn."

"Sorry. He's your friend, right, Conata?"

She didn't turn around from ladling water and leaves into the pot before her. "It's okay. Not many people outside of the Ironhearts even know what an azibo is." Conata turned around with a smile to Gwyn. "Do you know what rovaick are, kid? Gwyn, was it?"

"I've never seen one before. I've seen hain though. Some came to our village sometimes."

Conata's cheeks swirled that colourful iridescent pattern again. She couldn't help but smile wider.

"We didn't even know what the Ironhearts were until a few weeks ago." Lloyd said. He had an easier time cutting slices of cheese on the solid table before them.

"Well, that shows just how far you've come!" Conata said. Without even a flinch, she placed her palms on either side of the bronze pot above the fire and lifted it off its hook. As she turned and took her seat, holding the pot out in front of her, the others could feel the heat coming off it. Conata took no notice. "I heard that the mountains are so tall that you have to travel halfway across the entire world before you lose sight of them. The rovaick are the people who live inside of the mountains -- they have plenty of space for their homes, unlike here." She chuckled and more colours swirled over her skin.

The heat intensified. The trio watched on as the outer surface of the metal pot around Conata's fingers darkened and emitted a soft orange glow. The water inside steamed and bubbled furiously.

"That's where my long story starts, actually. I grew up in those mountains. In a settlement called Rulanah, down south. Heard of that place?"

"No, we didn't go very far down south of the mountain range."

"Makes sense if you're up from the far north, I guess..."

Conata proceeded with her promised hospitality. The steaming, fragrant tea was served in clay cups and boards of day-old bread was cut and distributed. Lloyd proudly placed the cheese slices next to them. The little room quickly grew cosier.

"Make sure to blow a little on your cup, Gwyn."

"Okay."

The brothers blew into their cups to cool down their drinks. However, Helvana took a sip right away. "It's bitter… I'm not used to that..."

"That's how tea's supposed to be, Hel."

"It's an acquired taste, but, uh..." Conata cocked her head to one side. "Careful you don't burn your tongue, Helvana, else you won't taste anything." In spite of her advice, Conata took a sip of the tea with just the same lack of caution, though her indifference to heat was already demonstrated.

"Don't worry, this much isn't enough to hurt me. I'll try to get used to this taste." She took another sip. "By the way, would you happen to know a metal djinn named Aeramen? You have the same name as his liege."

Conata stopped halfway to lifting her cup to her lips again and turned her eyes to Helvana. "Aeramen?" She breathed in and paused while a green patina streaked across her face again. "We...crossed paths once. Or, actually, technically he wasn't travelling, so we were just passing by, but we still got acquainted. Um..." She craned her head down and took on a worried expression. "You didn't travel through his crater, did you?" She asked slowly. "The one with the big obsidian spire in the centre?"

"I wish I hadn't… He almost killed me."

Conata buried her forehead in her free hand. Her skin covered in a dull pale grey sheen while she breathed some words in a harsher language than the local Alefprians spoke. "That great shiny-arsed bitzl, why does he keep bonking his head on the wraithstone?"

The trio each exchanged a glance. The best their magical assistance could grant them in understanding what a bitzl was came to an image of some organ in some unknown digestive system. Probably rovaick. Probably culturally humourous. They hoped.

"Well, at least you didn't have to beat him in a fight to get him to back off this time," Conata said, lifting her head. She curled in her lips and opened her eyes. "What happened, exactly?" She asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

"We approached the valley and got ambushed by his metal djinn. We ended up on the center of the plateau and he showed up. He…" Helvana looked away. "Apparently had his reasons to try to kill me. My father's his mortal enemy or something. But these two managed to convince him to stop." She said while rustling Gwyn's hair.

Conata's eyes narrowed. "Really? Who's your father?"

"Vestec, the god of Chaos."

The room went still.

A chair creaked from the next room. Ruvac, the azibo, stirred from his focus and looked through the door. His wide mouth held a neutral frown.

Conata looked left and right. Copper settled on her skin. "...That explains why he attacked you, then. I told him to leave travellers alone, but he has this thing against chaos." Conata took her cup in both hands, drew in her elbows, and took a loud sip of tea. "That makes you a demigoddess, too, then. Huh. I've not met any others before. I kind of thought this moment would be more exciting, but...I don't know how to feel."

"You're technically my first too. I met one of my brothers already, but he had his divinity stripped off of him."

Conata was processing too much to give the comment more than a glance.

"And if you were wondering why we didn't think it was weird for you hold a hot tea pot, it's because we're pretty used to what Hel can do."

"Well, I still think the things that Helvana can do are pretty amazing."

"Thanks Gwyn. Your brother's a stick in the mud, but you're pretty nice."

"I might accidentally forget to cook your share of food from now on Hel." He said, taking a sip of his own tea. "Hmm, not bad."

"I take that back…"

"How'd you find out?" Conata's voice had gone weak. She was looking down. Little veins of brown rust had cut up her arms and around her eyes. "How did you find out it was Vestec?"

Helvana looked to where Conata was looking. "He was there when I was born. My other parent, Julkofyr, infected him with his essence, so Vestec had to expel it. Not a pretty sight, but that's where I came from."

"Are you okay, Conata?" Gwyn said a bit concerned.

Conata stared into her tea. The rust breaking out on her complexion spread like mud. "You didn't have to...talk to anyone or go anywhere to find out? You just knew?" The suppressed sadness in her voice was all the answer Gwyn received or needed.

"Is…Is this a bad topic? I'm sorry…"

"No, it's fine," Conata said, scrunching her eyes shut and lifting one hand. "It's really why I wanted to talk to you in the first place, actually. Other people with powers seem to know all this stuff about the world, more than I do. But I don't know much at all." She swallowed. "But, if I'm going to get your help, I should probably fill you in."

She sighed again and slowly turned her cup between her fingers. "I was raised by a tedar rovaick couple in Rulanah. They are goat herders. And the kindest people I know. I found out a few years ago that I'm not their daughter." She smiled, still rusting. "A bit obvious, right? Well, when the realta came down and burnt everything, this servant of Toun called Majus protected us. He told me I was a demigoddess. Just upfront told me. That was a less obvious thing. Majus told me to come to Alefpria and talk to Lifprasil if I wanted to find out who my real parents were. I don't know who they are. I don't even remember anything from before I was maybe four years old. Just...dreams and images. I thought maybe you would know how I could remember."

"I don't know how to do that myself…But didn't you talk to Lifprasil? I was told he has several divine entities on his side."

Conata blew a cynical hiss past her teeth. "When I first got here, he was too busy gathering all his friends to fight Xerxes." Some of her rust pulled into a dull metal. "Since he's got back...no one gets to see him. He's cooped up in that palace of his, silent. People say he got badly hurt in the battle for Xerxes. Some people think he died and they're covering it up. As for me? I'll see him eventually, I..." Some hints of bronze and a smile appeared. "Well, that's a secret."

"I had no idea Lifprasil was hiding himself… Why didn't Ilunabar mention this?"

"Still, couldn't you talk with anyone at all in the palace?"

Conata shook her head. "Most people brushed me off. Those that didn't had no idea who my parents were or how to find out."

"Other than my parents, I only know of two other deities. Ilunabar, and I heard about Stone Chipper from the hain. Ilunabar answered my prayers directly when I called, but in regards to Stone Chipper, I only heard tales. Maybe you can try reaching out to them?"

"Hmph," Conata sounded. "Most people around here don't get much directly when they pray. If it worked for you, though, I might give that a shot." She did not sound convinced. "What did Ilunabar say to you?"

"Several things. She told me a little about the city and that she helped design it. She told me to be careful with Lifprasil as he could influence the boys. Oh, and she also complimented my cloak's design." She said showing off the fruit of her work.

"...Right. I guess it's pretty and all." Some other traces of bronze glimmered through the rust.

"She also gave me this." And then she showed her bracelet. "It's a mirror that doesn't reflect the world, so the stars and moons are in clear sight."

Conata's eyes lit up with immediate interest. She leant across the table with a polished copper hand extended and took a closer look. No matter how she turned the bracelet around Helvana's wrist, all she saw was the night sky Helvana described.

Conata whispered to herself. "It's just alum-nayam and glass. How is it…?"

She trailed off, allowing Helvana to continue.

"And…I heard of the Realta invasion from her too…I fought one myself. It attacked a hain village that I happened to pass by and…I don't know if it was fear that I felt, but it was the first time I truly doubted myself. You must've gone through something similar."

Conata stopped turning the bracelet. Some other sheen of metal grey, different to all the others before, faded up her head and arms from her middle. She carefully withdrew to lean back on her chair.

For a moment, Conata opened her mouth as if to speak. She closed her mouth instead, letting her breath go. After trying and failing again, she instead looked to Helvana and shifted tones. "You mentioned your other parent was...Jul-go-fear? I haven't heard of that deity before."

The hint to drop the previous subject fell hard upon them.

"Julkofyr is the god of darkness. Right now he's a prisoner of Vestec in his realm."

"Oh..." Conata's eyes went to her cup again. "I'm sorry to hear that." She was conflicted for a moment, but had a hint of iridescence. "I wonder if Julkofyr is my parent, too." She smiled at Helvana. "That would make us sisters. Heh. Might also explain why I've never known, if he's a prisoner."

"It would be good to have a sister as nice as you." She said with a smile. "But I assure you, if you really were my sister I'd be able to tell. You're not related to him."

"Hmm. Did you ever get to meet Julkofyr?" Conata asked.

"No. Vestec left his realm after being attacked and expelled me in this world. If he hadn't told me of Julkofyr I'd probably never know of this."

"I see." Conata sipped her tea. "So, Vestec's your father, huh? I don't want to sound mean, but...you're calmer than I thought someone related to him would be. Vestec doesn't have the best of reputations amongst the Toun-and-Teknall-worshipping rovaick."

"Oh, I was told that before. Even Aeramen recognized that. Maybe I'm more heavily influenced by my other parent."

"Helvana does know how to be mean when it counts, though."

"If terrifying villagers is any evidence."

"I'm never going to live that one down…"

Conata brought a finger to her lips and hesitated, stressing the first syllable of her response. "Wwwhat did you do, exactly?"

"She came to our village right after being born and found a wounded crow. She took a liking to him and then cursed our village for hurting him."

"Cursed?" Conata tried to ask.

"The crows were innocent, I was just protecting them." Helvana retorted with a pout.

"Anyways, the villagers got terrified of her after trying to chase her out of the nearby woods."

"Lloyd told me to not go there, but I wanted to prove my courage to the other kids. I met Helvana there and she was really nice to me."

Conata's face quietly broke out in dull grey dots as she half-heartedly failed to get a word in.

"And you're still more courageous than your brother, Gwyn."

"Would you like to go fasting for a week, Hel?"

"What? Gwyn's a very brave boy."

Lloyd just sighed. "Anyways, we liked each other's company, so we would meet frequently. The other villagers didn't like that, of course. In the end we ended up being exiled and Hel kind of adopted us since then. Not really a happy ending, but we like each other enough to not mind it." He smiled reassuringly.

"Traveling the world is also pretty cool."

Conata smiled sympathetically but looked worried around the eyes. "I'm sorry they drove you out of home. But…" There was no avoiding the issue. "You cursed the village, Helvana? How did you do that? W-...what does that even mean? I don't remember being able to do anything like that."

"Curses are my power. You could say I cause misfortune with this power. But I can also weaken things like, say, a thick metal plate could become softer with my curses." She remembered what she did to the Realta, but avoided mentioning it directly this time.

Conata lifted her head high to nod in understanding.

"In the end it's nothing more than wishing evil upon others until it actually happens, except I can do it with just a glance. You could say my evil origins manifest through this..." Despite of what she was saying, Helvana mostly kept on a straight face, only grimacing slightly a few times.

"But you used it for good before, right?"

"Once or twice… It's not a very versatile power. You can only do so much good wishing for evil."

A pair of brown rusty scars growing on Conata's temples hinted that Helvana's attempts at hiding her feelings were discovered. A pause gave time for Conata to rub the back of her neck and think.

"I'm still not exactly sure what you did to the village, but just because you took revenge, I don't think that makes you evil." Conata shrugged. "You don't seem so evil to me. Maybe...maybe your powers are just a tool? I make and repair tools every day. All sorts of people use them. But the tools, even if they're made for hurting people, they aren't good or evil. The people holding them are. What do you think you are, Helvana?"

"..." Helvana went quiet in thought for a moment. "Even if my curses are just tools, I can only use them to hurt others. An axe can cut wood for houses, a bow and arrow can be used for hunting, a spear can catch fish and a sword can defend its wielder. Curses can do good for someone only if it does evil to another." She stared at her reflection on her unfinished tea. "I can't say that I'm a good person…"

"You don't sound very convincing with Gwyn being so comfortable on your lap." Lloyd snorted.

With a sigh, Helvana gulped down the rest of her now lukewarm tea. "That's because I like him. And don't be mistaken, I don't resent myself over my nature. My powers can be abused for evil, but that doesn't mean I can't do good by other ways. And it's not like I have to curse things to live, so I just don't use them very often."

The rust on Conata's skin closed into fresh iron as she tried to process Helvana's words. "But that's not fair at all!" She huffed. "I thought...I thought being a good or a bad person was a choice! My adoptive father, Choukkud, he would never have believed me if I misbehaved because I couldn't help it. Are you sure about what you say, Hel? You don't sound like you want to do evil to people at all."

"I guess some people deserve it. Bandits, killers, they don't deserve kindness. But I can't do anything about a famine, as far as I know. I don't know if I could improve people's lives with curses."

Conata was still. Her palms were both open on the table in a gesture of loss. With her skin fully fading into polished iron, she looked around the kitchen and quickly caught Ruvac's eye. He had been standing at the door without a word ever since Helvana's heritage was revealed.

"Wha-" Lloyd was caught by surprise. Apparently he hadn't noticed him standing by the door.

"Hey Ruvac, can you lay curses on people?" Conata quickly asked.

Ruvac shook his large head. "Not really. Not without a lot of hard work and even then it won't always work."

Conata leaned her forearms on the table. "Then how do you improve people's lives?"

"Oh, uh…" His eyes lit up with understanding, but he had to think. He shrugged and answered. "Same as most people, I suppose. I do right by them, treat people in good faith and...help out however I can. Kind of a big question there. Not sure I could stop a famine unless all I needed to do was help out on a farm."

"See?" Conata smiled and gestured to Helvana. "It's not so hard. Just because you've got a sword, doesn't mean you're doomed to cut everyone to pieces. I should know -- metal is my thing."

Helvana giggled. "I said I don't mind how I turned out to be, didn't I? Still, thanks. And, Ruvac, was it? You don't need to peek next time."

Ruvac lifted a hard hand. "Yeah. Don't mind me, demigoddess. I'm just curious, that's all."

"Well, feel free to join the conversation if you want."

"And sorry if we disturbed you."

Ruvac simply showed his hand again. In spite of his size compared to a human, he did not seem used to the attention.

"So, Conata, you know what I can do. But what about you?"

"Oh, me?" Conata sounded in a better mood now. Her iron skin turned to bright bronze. "Well, it's a bit easier to demonstrate..."

Conata flourished up with one hand. The bronze teapot in the middle of the table lifted to a gentle hover above the table. Little flicks with her fingers made the teapot float across to each teacup and fill it fresh with more tea until the last drop refreshed Conata's own cup.

Then a harsh creak sounded. Conata brought both her hands forward, splaying her fingers. The teapot heated again, making the air above it waver and warp. It took on a red hot glow. Conata closed her fingers and it collapsed into a bright hot lump. Another of Conata's gestures, this one brushing her palms together, flattened the hot bronze to a flat length. It crackled and cooled to the shape of a shining bronze blade no longer than a hand. The blade floated down to the cheese on the table and slice three pieces from it in three gentle spins. With another odd wave, Conata caused the blade to grow serrations along its length. It was directed then to the bread, where it sawed rapidly until enough was cut for everyone. Finally, the bronze snapped in two. The pair of metal plates gingerly picked up each slice of cheese, placed them upon each slice of bread, and plucked the final snacks up to serve to the guests.

The cheese and bread was at a perfect warmth, one softly melting into the other.

One last flurry of broad and graceful motions turned the bronze pieces hot again, fusing them, shaping them, and warping them back into the shape of a lightly steaming bronze teapot that laid upon the table as if it had never changed.

Conata released a held breath. "Metal is my thing."

"Wow…" Lloyd expressed his surprise the only way he could.

"That was amazing, Conata!"

Conata nodded with a grin on her face. "Thank you."

"Impressive. You have a good control over metal." She said as she reached out for the bread. "I'll help myself." She took a bite. "Hmm. Cheese does go well with bread. You try it too Gwyn." She offered the bread to the boy and he also tasted it.

"It really does."

"Well, we did come here to have lunch." Now over his initial surprise, Lloyd also took his share.

"Enjoy your meal!" Conata let out a small laugh. "I, um...would have cut you some of your lamb meat to go with it but people tend to get uneasy when I cut into...fleshy things."

"I can imagine why." Lloyd said a bit troubled. "I'll cut the meat then." He took a parcel of dried meat and cut it into strips.

"May I have some of this spread you've brought?" Ruvac asked, finally piping up again. He was comfortable enough to approach the table by now.

"Of course, Ruvac! You look like you need a break anyway. Come, sit down."



For the rest of lunch, the mood remained positive. The acquainted strangers found no lack of adventures to talk about between mouthfuls of food.

Conata spent the rest of the day giving Helvana, Gwyn, and Lloyd an abridged tour of Alefpria along the main roads. The long distance did not tire their legs, and the more Helvana paid attention to it, the more she felt as though Conata had something to do with it.

When they returned to the somewhat cramped apartment, they were met by two more of the azibo creatures. The two others, Gio and Polia, male and female respectively, had spent the day in their own occupations around the city. Gio was reserved and Polia energetic, though they were both kind individuals. And they were close -- Helvana could see it in their little rovaick eyes.

Dinner was fried rice and river pebbles. Thankfully there were enough leftovers from lunch to substitute the more exotic ingredients.

When the night settled, Conata arranged for some space to be cleared along the walls of the storeroom to house the travelling guests. It was the least she could do, she said, in return for the stories they told and the knowledge Helvana shared. The inns would either be expensive or filthy, Conata explained.

It was very simple arrangement, only having a bed and a window, but then again, not much could fit inside it.

"It's not really made for three," Conata admitted. "Are you going to be okay? I could clear some space in the kitchen for someone else to lie down."

"Don't worry, we're used to snuggling together when we sleep, so this is enough room."

"A bed… A bed that I can fit in… It's been so long…" He was on the verge of tears.

Helvana let out a laugh. "See? Lloyd couldn't be happier."

Conata grinned and faded to bronze. "Very well, let me know if you need anything. Have a good night."

"Yeah, see you tomorrow."

Having said their goodbyes, Conata left the room and closed the door behind her.

"So, a bed. Are they as good as you make them out to be?"

Lloyd and Gwyn were already under the sheets before Helvana had noticed. "Heh, come here and find out." He said lifting the sheets for her.

"Oh? Alright then, make room for me." Helvana snuck up under the sheets as well, sandwiching Lloyd this time for a change. They spent their night as usual, but with less feathers than usual.



Next morning, Helvana woke up to see she was alone as usual. She was often the last one of the group to wake up and cited her affinity with Darkness as an excuse. But, this time, she felt like she had slept in more than usual. She lifted her body up, stretched herself, and then sat on the side of the bed.

"A bed, huh? How much did I sleep?" Suddenly she heard something knocking on the window. "That can't be the wind…"

She stood up and went to the window. When she opened, she was greeted with the sight of a dozen black birds looking right back at her. "Huh?"

Caw.

"Oscar?! What are you doing here? I told you to stay with Frederic!" She somehow managed to shout and whisper at the same time.

Caw.

"Worried about what? Having crows around me here is going to cause more trouble than it's worth! Now go back to Frederic before people notice you. Shoo! Shoo!"

Oscar tilted his head belligerently. He stayed put.

Three more knocks drummed behind Helvana. It was at the door. "Helvana? Are you alright in there?" Conata's muffled voice asked.

Helvana barely stifled a scream. "Y-yes. I'm just getting ready." She turned back to the crows. "I don't want to bring trouble to the people here, so please leave!"

Caw.

"Are you making...bird noises in there?"

"No, you're just imagining things!"

Caw. Another crow sounded loudly.

"Are they doing this on purpose?!"

"Pretty sure that one was real. What's going on?" Helvana could hear a smile shaping Conata's voice.

"O-okay, you got me. I like to imitate crow calls when I'm alone. Just leave me for now, I'll be out in a minute." Helvana would normally never feel embarrassed, but her words made a rush of warmth flood her entire face. Being distracted as she was, she didn't notice some of the crows hopping in through the window.

Caw.

"AHH, don't come in here!"

"Hel? I'm coming in." Conata sounded concerned now. The door latch lifted, a hinge creaked, and Conata's sheepish bronze face, straight wiry hair and all, peeked in.

Conata looked at Helvana, looked at the crows, blinked, and looked at Helvana again.

"..." Helvana stared back. She tried to keep up a straight face. "I can explain. I think…"

The way Conata looked around and softly stepped around the door into the room made it seem as though she was trying not to disturb the scene. She carefully shut the door behind her without turning around. She had gone copper, neutral and confused.

"...Where did these crows come from?" She quietly asked.

"They came looking for me." She replied in monotone and with a deadpan expression, having surrendered herself to her fate.

Hello. Oscar greeted Conata as he jumped to Helvana's shoulder.

Conata absently waved. "Hello?"

"These are some of the crows that accompany me."

"Oh...Lloyd did mention you had a thing for crows, didn't he?" Conata brought her wrist close to her mouth. A sudden wave of pinks and greens rushed over her face as she stifled a laugh. A small laugh escaped through her nose all the same. "I thought for a moment you'd injured yourself!" She chortled.
"Instead, it was just...talking birds..." Those two last words still came out with a degree of confusion. She swallowed back her amusement. "Um...I'm new to this...Is this a demigoddess thing, or…?"

"Kinda. They can't really speak, but I gave Oscar extra intelligence. I just...taught him how to speak a few words."

Yeah.

"And he can understand speech. I felt lonely in that forest."

Conata quirked her head to one side, looking at Oscar. Oscar twitched his head in the other direction. "...Right," Conata said. "Er...so, why were you trying to hide this?"

"What would you think if you saw someone being followed by a murder of crows? ‘Oh, there goes the crazy bird lady' or something, I imagine…" Oscar rubbed his head against Helvana's cheek. Maybe he thought she was feeling sad and tried to comfort her.

The leather of Conata's shoe creaked as she curled her toes. "I...am still trying to work out what I should think, being perfectly honest. But, you don't need to be embarrassed about this." Conata was frank more than comforting. "If you'd told me yesterday that you made a crow able to understand us, I would have said that was amazing. It still is, though...You caught me off guard, sorry." She took a step forward, looking remorseful, and extended a hand to Helvana's upper arm. "Are you alright?"

Helvana let out a sigh. "I'm fine. I'm new to embarrassment, but after what I went through to try and cover this up I don't think I like it. I didn't want them to come here, but they like to disobey sometimes. Sorry." Helvana looked a bit dejected. "I guess I'll just send them away." She turned back to the window to put the birds out.

Conata clasped her hands together. "Don't beat yourself up about it. I would offer to let them all stay, too, but...heh, Polia would kill me if this room got covered in droppings."

"And Lloyd would starve me if I let that happen… But if we let them stay they'll keep following me around and could cause trouble. They're just like children, I swear it." She whistled and the crows jumped to attention. "Okay, boys and girls, time to leave." She said signaling them towards their exit.

They didn't obey for some reason.

One of them jumped onto Conata's shoulder in what Helvana thought was an act of defiance. Conata cringed sideways and pulled the corner of her eye shut, but didn't quite cry out.

"Ah…" The bird promptly pecked Conata's hair. "Stop that!"

Conata giggled ticklishly while the bird bent a few strands of wire hair out of place. The iridescent hues swam over her bronze skin all the while. She brought a hand up to stop the creature but was afraid to do much more than shield her ear. Conata continuing to shine with bright colours was undoubtedly mesmerising for the crow, who only continued.

"Stop pecking Conata! And you." She said pointing at the girl in question. "Stop giggling like a little girl!"

"Sor-ahaha! Sorry! I can't help it-AAH!-Hahahaha!"

Conata's excitement combined with her changing colors only served to spur the other crows into action; even Oscar jumped off of Helvana's shoulder to join in. In moments, she was surrounded by the birds who playfully pecked at her. Helvana watched on from the sidelines with a rather desperate look on her face. She wanted to stop the crows, but at the same time she didn't want to hurt them. Her patience ran thin, however, and she snapped.

"I. Said. Stop!" With a stomp of her foot, Helvana let off a small wave of power. It shocked Conata's bronze into yet another new bright and shining grey metal. It wasn't enough to hurt or unbalance the crows in any way, but it scared them enough to force them to stop. "Get off of her." Finally obeying their command, the crows backed off from Conata and hopped into a group at Helvana's feet. "Oscar, I trust you'll be taking responsibility for this." He let out a groan. "But don't think I'll be leaving any of you off the hook." She lectured them just like a mother would her children.

Now faded back to bronze, Conata brought her hands up and padded at the mess of dangling wires from her head. With a single slow pass backwards with her palms, her hair gently scraped and uncurled back into its prior swept-back style without her physically touching it.

"What's with your birds and my hair?" Conata laughed.

"Crows really like shiny things and… Well, you're pretty shiny. But it's unusual for them to disobey me like that..."

Conata craned her head over the gathered crows and hummed, curious. "Can Oscar tell you?"

Yeah. The crow replied looking at Conata, then turned to his master. Caw caw.

"Oh, It's because you're a demigoddess. I guess me being around them for so long made them sensitive to divine essence. Maybe he could feel your presence through me and felt worried."

Conata faded to copper. "Hm, even the birds can tell better than I can..."

"Well, Oscar's special. And I am making a conscious effort to hide myself, so it's not that you're bad at it."

She smiled and knitted her brow. "Guess I'll have to learn how to hide it." She squatted down to speak to the crows. "I'm not going to hurt Helvana, you lot. No need to tickle me to death, okay?"

"They know better than to disobey me a second time. You seemed to enjoy it a bit too much, though."

"Oh, shush, you," Conata said up to Hel, before standing and peering down at the crows and their beady eyes. Her arms let in a quiet vein of a dull, dark grey metal. She bit her lower lip. "Maybe if I knew my parents, they could have told me all this stuff," she mumbled.

"..." Helvana thought hard for a moment. There was something she want to ask, but she was having second thoughts about it. "Say…" But she had to ask it. "I know it's a sensitive topic, but why do you want to know who your parents are so bad?"

Conata did not change colour or show any new pattern. She turned her eyes up to Helvana and the corner of her mouth twitched. "It's a fair question."

She turned and sat down on the side of the bed, looking at her woven fingers in front of her. "Maybe it wasn't the same for you because you started off around humans. Even then, you always knew why you were different. I grew up not looking like anyone -- no rovaick, anyway. Sure, my adoptive parents still treated me like a daughter, but I could hear everyone else whisper." Orange rust invaded in spreading scars symmetrically on Conata's arms and face. "I belonged, it was home. But...I didn't belong. I never knew why until Majus told me. All of a sudden, all the weird hopes I had that I'd just 'grow into it' or 'people would get used to me' just...didn't work anymore." The amount of rust covering her did not overtake Conata's words. She did not sob or weep. She only paused when she needed to. "I want to find the people who are like me. I want to find out where I belong, that's all. I can't do that if I don't know where I came from."

Helvana sat down beside Conata. "All of that just because you look different? I was born near humans, yes, but the only ones that liked me so far are Lloyd and Gwyn. Well, it was justified for those villagers to hate me, even if they had it coming in my opinion." She said looking away, but looked back right away. "But tell me, If you said you didn't belong, that you want to find people like you, why are you living with your friends from your village?"

Conata tilted her head but did not look up.

"If you want to find people that are like you," Helvana continued. "Then you should be out there looking or be living in the palace. With your powers, you could certainly find yourself a place to stay there." She placed a hand on Conata's shoulder. "Did you really not belong or did you think you didn't belong?"

"I..." Conata let some of her breath out. "I knew something wasn't right, okay? It was like an itch. I couldn't ignore it." She blinked hard. "I don't even know if the palace would be where I belong. I don't even know what I'm like. That's why I'd like to meet my father and mother."

Being suddenly told of what Conata was must have certainly shaken her life. Helvana softly smiled. "I see. I imagine it must've hurt to learn that the ones you saw as your parents aren't your real parents. But what do you think being a family means? Are parents those that gave birth to you or those that raised you? Being with Lloyd and Gwyn has given me a rather broad definition of family, you see? Gwyn won't tell this to anyone because he thinks it's embarrassing, but he calls me mom and I can't help but feel happy when he does. Lloyd and Gwyn mean the world to me and I'd be lost without them even though we're not related. I can understand why you left your home looking for your parents, but can you say that the ones that raised you aren't your parents? That Choukkud isn't your father as well? How do you think he felt when he saw that his little girl had grown up and wanted to leave?"

The rust curled over more of Conata's lowered face, roughening her cheeks and ears. "I get what you're saying, you three seem really close," Conata said. She shook her head. "The truth is, I didn't leave because Choukkud and Wutni, my adoptive parents, weren't my real mother and father. I knew that long before all this. And I still love them. I don't know how they felt when I left. Confused, sad, maybe. But, I think they would have understood."

Conata lifted her eyes up to the ceiling, straightening her back and breathing sharply through her mouth. She faced Helvana neutral but for a hint of sadness in her eyes. "I don't know how else to explain this. Back at home, I was stuck. Things didn't fit. I don't know, have you ever felt like you've wanted something so badly that it just presses down on your chest every day when you wake up? Before long, it's all you can think about. Just that little hope, you know?" She lifted her hand to show her finger and thumb almost touching. "A hope that you might, someday, know where you're supposed to be." Her hand fell with a dull thud on the bed. "Maybe finding my parents isn't what I need to do for that, but it's the best I've got. And I've gone this far already, I'd only regret it if I turned back now."

"Then how are you going to do it? Will you keep trying to find answers here, or will you go try somewhere else?"

Conata stopped for a moment. She peered at the floor and her head danced side to side for a short moment. "I have a plan," she said in a subdued voice. "If Lifprasil won't come to see me, then...well, there's only really one option left other than giving up, and I'm not going to do that any time soon." Her mouth curled into a reserved smile and her rust mostly fell back into copper. "Let's just say he's not going to ignore me for too much longer."

Helvana's smile widened seeing Conata come back to her cheerful self. "I sense a bold plan." Her words had a tinge of malice. "I'm not sure how I could help, but what do you have in mind?"



The cloth whizzed off the large, tapering cylinder shape it obscured. The morning light reflected off its polished surface, pouring a bright yellow shade across the walls and ceiling of the dim stable they stood within.

"This is it! A year and a half's worth of hard-earned coins, shaped into my way inside the palace."

It was large, to be sure. Heavy enough to crush a goat. Not the most elegant device, but simple and effective at face value. Conata's 'way in' consisted of a hollowed out metal shell that tapered to a blunt point at the front.

Conata put a hand on her hip and explained. "I worked out that if I can speed this up fast enough and guide it roughly into the roof of the palace above the emperor's bedroom, I can heat a part up the front and make it jet a little thin stream that'll punch a hole right through the ceiling. Then, I just crawl out of the shell, get my bearings, and give Emperor Lifprasil a piece of my mind."

Helvana tried to imagine how this would work. She certainly wasn't expecting this kind of approach. "Isn't this going to call a lot of attention?"

"Mmmhm!" Conata hummed enthusiastically. "Might even wake up Liffy himself! That's the hope, anyway."

"Hmm…" She could predict what her part in this would be too, but she want to be sure. "And let me guess, you want me to use Frederic for this."

Conata shot a finger up and turned her hand. "Great idea! But, I was going to try and move it myself. I was actually thinking of something else you might be able to help me with..." Conata whipped across to a straw-covered chest in one corner and waved her hand to make the lock click open. "Keep that thought at the front of your mind, though. If your giant crow friend could give me some height, that would save me a lot of energy."

After rifling through wads of rags stuffed into the chest, Conata reached into the bottom with both hands and heaved up a large cluster of metal crystals pointing out from a rock like a lustrous sea urchin. She carried the cluster to a table and let it fall heavily enough for the strands of stray hay to jump.

"This, Helvana, is Vitrum's knuckle!" She clanked a hand against the top of the cluster. "I had this idea bouncing around in my head ever since you told me about your powers yesterday. Do you know what this is made from?"

"I can only guess. I've never seen this before…" She got closer to get a better look. "It...feels weird, I think? Even for me, that is."

"Me too," Conata said, pinching daintily at the point of one crystal. "It's the only metal I've not been able to shape at all. Pure adamantine. Strongest thing I've ever handled, too. Doesn't heat, doesn't bend, doesn't even break." Her hair scraped with how fast she turned to Helvana. "Trouble is, this shape doesn't move through the air very well. And I need something unbreakable to get through the palace ceiling. If only there was some way I could make it a little weaker to shape it, just for a few minutes, hmm?"

Helvana immediately made the connection. "You want me to soften it with a curse, huh?" She held her chin in thought. "I suppose I could do it. I only softened metal once, but I can give this one a try."

Conata grinned. Her hair bristled with excitement.

Helvana shot a glare at the lump of adamantine. "Try it now."

"Huh?" Conata's grin dropped. She glanced at the cluster. "Oh, that's all it took? That's easier than I thought."

"Didn't I say all I need is a glance? That's as easy as it can get." She said with a confident grin.

Conata's grin reformed in turn. "That's fair. Now, Let's see..."

She turned to lean over the metal and held her open hands either side of it. The bronze on her skin faded slowly into a bright, shining iron as she stared determined into its reflective spurs.

After a tense few seconds, the air above the cluster wavered and rippled with heat. Helvana could feel it from where she stood -- it was more intense than the teapot from yesterday. Conata's half-curled fingers tensed. She closed her eyes, pursed her lips, breathed in through her nose, and let her power flow forth. Helvana could taste the divine influence in the air.

A high-pitched, tiny scraping sound grew to pierce their ears. It had the quiet noise of tiny stones pressed and scratching slowly down the surfaces of a thousand panes of glass. Helvana's eyes sharpened to see little black lines widening on the otherwise unblemished metal crystals.

Conata continued her focus. The sound waned. In its place was a soft red glow in the new recesses of the metal. The table it sat upon steamed with the heat.

"Did…Did it work?"

"I can't..." Conata bared her teeth. "It's giving, I just..."

A deep reverberation struck Helvana in the chest before she heard it. Conata crashed back-first into the wooden wall and crumpled onto the straw on the ground. How she flew backwards so suddenly defied anything Helvana had ever seen.

"Conata!"

The wood at the base of the adamantine crystal smoked softly. The vivid red fissures on the metal began to fade.

"Ooow!" Conata complained. She pushed herself up to a kneel and looked up at the metal with one eye held shut. "...Eheh...That was different." She brushed the straw from her face and hair and stood up, uninjured.

Helvana went to Conata and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Should you be standing? That looked like it hurt a lot." She said, letting her worry show.

Conata only have Helvana a quick glance. "Oh, I'm fine. Better than fine! Did you see that!? It went glowy and everything!" Even through her clothing, Conata's shoulder grew hot to the touch. She took two broad steps back up to the table and leant down to look at the new fissures. "Normally it gives no reaction at all. Nothing, like it's made of wood or something." She leaned forward and lifted her index fingers. "But just now, I felt it moving just a smidgeon! Then it..." She slowly straightened and held a hand to her forehead, looking at the metal again "I think it was storing all the energy I put in it. Then, after a while, I couldn't hold it from springing right back at me!" She spun around to Helvana, eyes wide and skin polished, heated bronze. "Isn't that amazing!?!"

Helvana snorted a laugh. "I wouldn't call being sent flying amazing. But glad I could help on the breakthrough." She looked back at the adamantine. "So, do we continue trying? Think you'll need another curse?"



The morning tests transitioned to the afternoon tests. While Helvana and Conata tried all they could think of and made irregular thuds against the walls of the stable. The noise meant they could not keep their project a secret; Lloyd and Gwyn gave them a brief and worried visit in spite of the azibos insisting that Conata made such noises all the time.

All the same, it did not take long for Helvana to realise the depth of Conata's determination. At no point did any failure to shape the adamantine discourage her. She was so focussed that Helvana practically had to drag her back up to the apartment for a lunch break.

Late that evening, most means of cursing an object had been explored alongside most methods of shaping metal. The adamantine was more useful as a temporary bad luck charm than any tool, but they continued all the same.

Conata knelt with her forearms flat on the table and her chin resting on the back of her hands. She looked thoughtfully at the shining adamantine and the scorched ring of black wood around it. Three strands of bent wire hair stuck out at eye-poking angles from her head.

Helvana wasn't in a much better state herself. One could easily notice traces of tiredness on her face and her cloak was missing some feathers. Luckily her dress was only a little dishevelled. "This is way harder than I thought it would be…"

Conata hummed for the thirtieth time. "You know, I just want to make a cone out of some of this. Enough for the tip of the peapod thing I'm going to drop into the palace with." She lifted an eyebrow. "There's also enough here for a nice hammer. Then some more leftover." Her red eyes flicked over to Helvana. "Anything unbreakable you could make use of, Hel?"

"Nothing in particular… I think Lloyd would make you a list if you ask him, though."

"He whittles wood, right? I saw him making something with Ruvac just before we had lunch. Maybe he'd like a carving knife." Conata's lips rolled. "When we do make this stuff reshape, I feel like you should get something out of it."

"Thanks, but…" She looked at the lump of metal. "Is there enough of this to share like that?"

"Mmmmmhm," Conata's affirmative was more drawn out than before. "The thing about my metalwork is I don't waste as much. It doesn't look like a lot, but..." She reached out to point at the metal. "If you make it melt in your head, you can get a better guess at how much there is. There's definitely enough for a hammer, a cone, and some other small thing. A little knife, a comb, or a couple of nails or a hairpin, y'know. Could shape it into a feather, that'd be pretty."

"Hmm… Well, I'll believe the expert then." She took the adamantine and held it with both hands. "So, what didn't we try yet? I must've used more curses today than in my whole life at this point..."

Conata stood up. "Well, let's see, we pretty much exhausted all I could think of. And unless you can invent all new curses to weaken things, we've not got much more to work with." She held her arm and tapped her chin. "Going over it again...When it was cursed with weakness, it stopped rejecting my powers, but instead became a vessel for them. A vessel that pushed my powers back out. But I felt it very slightly reshaping each time until it got to the point at which I couldn't hold it all in there. Didn't matter how I pushed my power on it or how it was weakened." Her hand clapped onto her cheek. "Maybe we're thinking about this the wrong way. Are you sure there's no other way to curse this thing?"

Helvana held her chin, pensive. If Conata's energy was building up inside it, but she lost control when it became critical they just had to find a way to keep it bottled up.

Something to make the backlash turn around.

"Maybe there is something we could try…I never used it before since I never needed it, but maybe I can make the energy maintain a one-way flow. Force energy to loop back when it tries to come out, essentially."

"Hm?" Conata perked up. "How?"

"How should I explain it…? Imagine if you tried to bend metal, but your energy was prevented from leaving and instead it affected you. That's sort of what I'm trying to say here. And sorry about the mental image."

"Nnng..." Conata winced. Then, after a second, her mouth opened. "Oh..." Her hair bristled. "Like, if you were cursing someone to only hurt themselves if they tried to hurt someone else, right?"

"Yes, except here we want to prevent this thing from getting us hurt in the first place. Instead of feeling what others feel, it's more like feeling what you try to do to others."

Conata's smile grew to its limit. "Hel, that's a genius idea! Let's try it."

She excitedly snatched the adamantine from Helvana's hands and placed it back on the table, before running around to the opposite side. She held out her hands, ready to flex her power one more time.

But she stopped and looked up. "Hey...This thing might take a lot of power before it shapes. If it blows out, it might be dangerous. Will the curse hold it all?"

"Don't worry about it." She walked up beside Conata. "If we give it our best we should keep it under control." She fixed her eyes on the adamantine, her hair and cloak wavering ever so slightly. "I'll keep the curse up, just focus on pouring your power into it."

Conata looked to the metal and wet her lips. "Alright, here goes..."

The familiar scene resumed again. Conata went iron. That same power she invisibly controlled imposed itself upon the obstinate cluster. No eyes could discern anything for half a minute. By then, Conata's determination was painted on her shining grey face. Her power built in the adamantine. It sunk like water in oil.

It pulsed with a power that could have melted and folded any other metal ten times over. A minute of Conata and Helvana's concentration brought the effort up fivefold, tenfold, twentyfold, and then lost meaning.

The black fissures on the adamantine glowed their same red. Conata did not struggle so early this time. This was easier. Without an outlet of pressure, the glow brightened into a mystical orange-violet.

Conata opened her eyes, in them was an anxiety born from great excitement meeting equal terror. Helvana soon felt why. She felt the power rising to more than what would simply blast Conata against the wall. It could have been enough to break the buildings around them. It could be enough to level her home. It could soon be enough to kill them both. Helvana had to keep the curse intact. The power pushed and pressed against it. She had never before dealt with another divine's influence simultaneous to hers.

Minutes gave way to more minutes. Conata's arms bulged with tendons that suggested flesh beneath her metal skin. Her jaw clenched. She bared her teeth, almost in pain.

The adamantine held still. They needed more.

Conata breathed in and, on her outward breath, heaved more power into the metal.

The renewed push made the curse stretch like fabric laden with a weight it was never made to hold. Helvana put in more effort herself, gritting her teeth.

"Almost...there," Conata hissed.

The adamantine's glow spread to new fissures on its surface. The orange-violet brightened. It took on a warm pink. Then brightened to pure incandescent white.

Sweat beaded on Helvana's temple just as she sensed the nearby straw shedding wisps of steam from the radiant heat. Conata's iron skin changed to a red hot glow. Red brightened to orange. Orange to burning yellow.

With every shift of hue, Helvana felt the curse straining and exerted herself to keep it intact. Her cloak and hair flowed in waves from an unseen wind. Just as Conata glowed brighter in heat, Helvana sucked the light in around her body, obscuring herself in a deep pit of shadows pricked with her two glowing yellow eyes.

Conata flickered. Her clothing smoked and ignited in a rushing flume of yellow fire. Her hair spread like a halo around her head as its wiry form expanded.

"Almost!...There!"

The heat caught the breeze and sent embers of burning straw up into a whirlwind around the two godchildren. Sparks flew out of the scorched wooden walls in spirals that whizzed around the stable.

To the rest of the world, light and dark incarnate worked together. Between them, the adamantine shone like a star from the sky brought to earth. Its corona framed the two opposites in a ring of orange-violet.

The rate of power slowed. The adamantine remained unshaped. The curse could not cope. It was stretched as thin as it would suffer. "Conata...I can't hold on...much longer…" Helvana let out a strained grunt.

The flames roared. Conata's determination turned desperate. She pushed just a little more and a familiar latch unlocked in her essence...

"WAKE...UP...ADAMANTINE!"

The cluster softly crackled like an egg opening. It peeled into three equally radiant parts.

A stitch in Helvana's curse plucked free, the light swallowed them. All sound stopped in an instant.

A force pulled the world away from Helvana. She flew backwards through the wooden wall of the stable and out into the courtyard. The fire within shrank into the blue of the night just as she processed Conata being pushed away in the opposite direction. Helvana's back and head struck to a stop against the courtyard wall. She was joined by softly burning planks and wood chips that flew and clacked in her wake.

The fire lit up the night. Helvana slowly rolled to her side and pushed herself up. She staggered, disoriented. But, with slow steps, she managed to plant her feet on the ground and remain standing, albeit listing over precariously.

Conata was not hard to find. The smoking pile of debris on the other side of the stable had a bright copper hand sticking out of it. Helvana stumbled to her landing place and pushed the burning wood off of her.

"Conata…" She was still alive, but apparently unconscious. The heat had evaporated her clothes to blackened tatters. Helvana removed her cloak, now naked of all its feathers, and covered Conata with it. She shook her shoulders to wake her up. "Conata. Come on, snap out of it." Conata was still burning hot, even Helvana's hands felt the sting of it. The thought of not having her darkness shielding her in the stable caused an uncomfortably tingle in her jawline.

"What just happened?!" Lloyd came running along with Gwyn, Gio, Polia and Ruvac. The brothers saw Helvana kneeling on the ground and rushed to her side.

"Helvana!" Gwyn hugged her. He was on the verge of tears. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, don't worry."

The stable's roof collapsed inward, sending a swarm of meandering sparks up into the sky.

"Fire, fire!" Ruvac brought a hand to his head and looked to Polia. "Sister! Do something!"

Polia hesitated. "Uh, right!" She lifted her arms up. With a gesture and a pain that made her pull her lips back as far as they would go -- showing all her sharp rovaick teeth -- all the flames suddenly bent back towards her. She hyperventilated. The magic caused her pain. But, the flames shrank. The stable went from burning beacon to smoldering ruin in the space of a minute. She fell to her knees, sweating profusely. It was enough to keep the fire from spreading.

"See...See to Connie," Polia said, catching her breath.

They already were. Ruvac left with apprehension towards her sister's state. Gio crouched beside Helvana and Conata. "What happened? Were you attacked?"

Conata groaned and squirmed. Her eyes cracked open. "Huh? Hel! Did it work? I think..." She stopped when she processed everyone's faces. "Oh...I didn't do it again, did I?"

"I saw it. Before the explosion, I saw the adamantine split. We did it." She flashed the best smile she could given her situation.

"You went way overboard, Hel! What were you two thinking?!"

"In my defense, I didn't think this would've happened. I was just giving Conata a hand."

"You did it?" Ruvac straightened, astounded. "It worked!?"

"It worked!" Conata cried. They couldn't hold her down if they wanted to. She scrambled up and threw the burdensome cloak over her shoulder before scurrying nude into the collapsed stable. No more than a second was spent looking over the blackened straw.

Lloyd looked away in consideration and covered his brother's eyes with his hands.

Conata fell to her knees immediately to dig through a pile of charcoal that used to be the table. She knew exactly where to find the three grey shapes she pulled out of the ash. She put them together and cupped them in her hands like treasures.

She stared at them for a time, mouth agape.

The three azibos, including Polia supported with an arm over Gio's shoulder, walked up to her. Helvana picked up her cloak from the ground and headed over as well. She once again covered the demigoddess, and this time put an arm over Conata's shoulder as she looked at the adamantine shards as well.

Now that Conata's shame was hidden, the brothers approached as well, standing beside the bulky azibos.

The three pieces were not just separated, they had recognisable shapes. The largest was a simple block with one end flat, the other end wedge-shaped, and a ovoid hole through the middle. Next was a cone shape, just as tall as it was wide. The last was an unclear flat shape with a curve to it, half-covered in ash underneath the other two items.

Conata's bronze face turned silently to Helvana next to her. Their eyes met. Conata's mouth opened into the brightest smile she had ever seen.

"And you thought your powers could only do evil," Conata quipped. She held her lips tightly closed for as long as she could -- only a second. Iridescent colours splashed up her cheeks and she burst into giggles.

Helvana couldn't help but giggle herself. "Tell that to the adamantine, girl. I wouldn't be happy to be split into pieces."

Conata threw back her head in laughter. Polia couldn't help but chuckle as well, in spite of her fatigue.

It was a relieved laughter. There was no telling what would have happened if the curse broke before the metal split. If their outward displays of power were any indication, the entire district could have been damaged by the backlash had it not been subsumed into the shaping. And they were right next to the blast.

Still ebbing and flowing with colours, Conata caught her breath. She let the metal articles clink into one hand so she could hawk, spit, and wipe some of the ashes off. The same perfectly reflective surface as the previous metal crystals peeked out unter Conata's thumb.

"Told you I'd have enough metal. Here's the cone..." Conata lifted up the small cone shape. "...And my hammer, once I get a handle for it..." The block shape passed through her fingers. "...And I even got to make this for you..."

Conata deliberately lifted the final, thin, curved shape out of the ashes so Helvana could get a good look at it. It started narrow where Conata's fingers pinched it. A flat wafer of adamantine with two holes in the lower half. The upper portion broadened into a double-edged blade, textured with tiny lines emanating from its spine like the surface of a feather. It was a lightly curved knife, barely longer than Conata's hand and fingers, and missing the usual grip traditionally riveted to the lower portion.

"Never know when you might need it for cutting an orange or something," Conata said. "And...well, I don't have trouble sharpening things once they get dull, but this probably won't need sharpening for a long time. It might even stay sharp forever, I don't know." She half-spun the knife to hold it out, tang first.

Helvana took it and looked it over again. "It looks beautiful, I'm sure Lloyd will appreciate it. Hopefully he'll not punish me for what we did here." She whispered the last part so that Lloyd wouldn't hear it.

A growl was heard from Helvana's midsection. She simply scratched her cheek and let out a giggle. "I guess we both deserve a good meal after this, right?" She got up and offered Conata her hand.

Conata grinned and took it to stand up.

"You're hungry?" Polia's weakened voice said, turning their heads. "I'm damn famished!" She pointed an accusing finger. "Don't you girls dare burn down any more buildings unless you're going to make me flour cakes for the next month!"

Conata laughed into a smile. "Sorry, Polia."

"Pff...You're lucky I've had plenty of practice with that magic."

The group headed inside. There would be work to do later: Cleaning up, building a new stable, not to mention a plan to visit a prince. But, for now, they let the close call of the evening settle into its good outcome.

Still close by her side, Conata leant her head against Helvana's as they walked. Her skin faded from a bronze to another metal. Helvana knew it to be silver.

"Seriously, thank you," Conata said quietly. "This means more than just that knife. I owe you, Hel."






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For many, the land and sea, with its resources and habitable space, form the entire world, and the stars above are just a passing fancy. Yet those people do not realise that their 'world' is so minute and frail compared to the vastness of space beyond. If only they could find a way to cast off the shackles of gravity and make a home in the void, they would have resources and territory more plentiful than any terrestrial empire.

Jvan knew this, and had founded a refuge for her servants in orbit around Galbar. Lazarus knew this, and had given her empire the secret of interplanetary travel. Many in Lifprasil's crumbling empire knew this, and were turning to the stars for a new home. Teknall had known it since the beginning, and was slightly miffed that he had been beaten to space. But now the Prometheans were ready, nay, desperate to go to space, for their terrestrial resources were being sapped by the elementals.

Jvan wanted to challenge Teknall to a race. She might have had a head start, but Teknall was keen to win the space race.

~~~~

A new Carrier was strapped to a round metal tower, which in turn was perched atop a kind of platform and affixed to a support tower. The Carrier was reminiscent of other flying Carriers, although it was much blunter in form and had nozzles on its rear rather than jets on its wings. The large tower it was attached to looked somewhat like a missile, except much larger, and had two smaller similar towers attached to its flanks.

Another Carrier had just finished filling the large towers with liquid hydrogen and oxygen. It detached from the towers and drove away. An Energiser similarly finished charging the Carrier and departed. Radio chatter and checks bounced across the airwaves.

promethean.N000001: Perform launch check for C011394.
promethean.C011394: Systems scan: all systems optimal.
promethean.C011394: Cargo is secure.
promethean.Ma00298: C011394.attachment.fuel_external check result: pass.
promethean.M001981: C011394.attachment.booster_left check result: pass.
promethean.M002073: C011394.attachment.booster_right check result: pass.
promethean.C011394: Interface with attachment.fuel_external enabled.
promethean.C011394: Interface with attachment.booster_left enabled.
promethean.C011394: Interface with attachment.booster_right enabled.
promethean.D000789: No hostile entities detected.
promethean.N000002: All Prometheans outside no-go zone.
promethean.N000001: Initiate launch sequence for C011394.
promethean.C011394: Running launch sequence.
promethean.C011394: Detaching access arm.
promethean.C011394: Priming attachment.fuel_external fuel lines.
promethean.C011394: Arming attachment.booster_left.
promethean.C011394: Arming attachment.booster_right.
promethean.C011394: Ignition.

A mighty roar louder than Aurora's winds bounced off the platform and echoed over the stony plains. Twin jets of burning hydrogen pushed downwards with tremendous force, and by the law of action and reaction C011394 was lifted skywards with equal force. The ascending rocket left a pillar of cloud behind it, climbing ever higher, until the atmosphere thinned out and gave way to the vacuum of space.

The burn continued until the Carrier and its tanks had placed themselves in orbit around their planet. The auxiliary tank emptied, the Carrier detached from its fuel tank with the boosters. It then fired its own rockets and boosted away from the orbiting fuel tank. After patiently adjusting to a new, predesignated orbit, the Carrier opened up and, with a robotic arm, lifted out a bulky mechanical device, gently placed it in the space beside itself, and let go to leave it to orbit where it was placed.

Once free, the box-shaped device started to unfold. A boom extended from behind the device, on the end of which was a radioisotope thermoelectric generator with radiators which opened up once the boom was clear of the device. Radio antenna arrays unfolded from the sides of the device. And in front of the device were cameras, lenses and telescopes. This artificial satellite then continued on its orbit, watching the world below and broadcasting information to the Promethean colonies.

The Carrier closed, and a puff of monopropellant from the Carrier adjusted its velocity to gently veer away from the device. Once a safe distance had been reached, the Carrier activated its main thrusters and headed for another orbit. There another identical satellite was deployed. A third satellite was deployed in a third orbit.

promethean.C011394: Task No. 2610889 complete.
promethean.C011394: Task list is empty. Entering idle mode.

C011394 was not returning to the surface, and neither were its auxiliary fuel tank or boosters. Getting things to orbit was costly, and the Prometheans had every intention to send more stuff to orbit. While they could have dumped the boosters and tank half way to orbit to save on fuel, they would need the parts up there eventually. And unlike biological races, Prometheans can survive almost indefinitely in the void.

As the Prometheans on the world below prepared to send more of their kind into space, C011394 waited for the time its services would be called upon once more.

~~~~

A light meteor shower danced through the upper atmosphere of the world. Motes of dust and grains of ice streaked through the air and briefly glowed with brilliant incandescence before being snuffed out. And behind this shower was a small djinni with a form similar to a comet.

This djinni made periodic visits to this planet, gracing it with meteor showers each time it passed, although this visit it had noticed something difference. From a distance it had seen a few strange objects orbiting the world (meteor djinn have unparalleled eyesight), although its own orbit did not take it near enough those objects for a proper inspection. The djinni might not have paid it much heed if it hadn't seen that a great storm djinni was calling from the world below.

Due to their untouchable position, even the smallest meteor elementals generally hold themselves in loftier positions than any of the planet-bound elementals, even over a stormlord like Aurora. Yet space is also lonely and quiet, so most meteor elementals will leap at the rare opportunity to speak with other elementals and hear the news from the planets. The little comet mentally reached out to the grand hurricane.

Greetings, planetling. You are graced by the presence of Periapsis. I accept your offer to speak with me.

I am Stormlord Aurora, came the reply, her voice still strong despite the great distances involved.

Ah, Aurora. I have heard that name. What brings you to call upon me?

Metal beasts are overrunning our planet. They consume the earth and the seas and pollute the skies, and their hunger for expansion is relentless. They build weapons which can bring down even a great stormlord. I seek the aid of the meteor djinn, for we need all the elements united if we are to emerge victorious from this war.

While I can see that this is a tragic turn of events for you, planetary affairs are of no concern to us meteor djinn.

These beasts will become your concern soon enough! They have invented a way to fly to space. I know not what they are doing up there, but I am confident that they will soon seek out your precious asteroids and consume them and your kind like they are consuming our planet. Unless you strike them down while we have the chance!

Periapsis hesitated. The strange new satellites were consistent with this story. And if they did come from the planet, then that was a concern since no power Periapsis knew could lift an object of appreciable mass out of a planet's gravity well. And if those beings with that power were as dangerous as Aurora said...

They feast on ice, ammonia, hydrocarbons and metals, and will tear apart rocks to get them, Aurora warned, interjecting into Periapsis' hesitation. None of you will be safe if they are allowed to establish themselves in space.

I... I shall inform the others.

Periapsis continued on its orbital trajectory. With a puff of steam it managed to nudge itself towards a slightly closer intercept with one of the satellites. It was still quite distant, but it could resolve more clearly now that this was a clearly alien object. Its shape was angular. Its surface was lustrous. It had protrusions. And part of it glowed strongly in the infrared, indicating that the object was internally producing appreciable amounts of heat. This worried Periapsis deeply.

The little meteor djinni sent out a message bearing Aurora's warning through the void with words carried by waves of psionic thought. Perhaps they might listen. Or perhaps in their hubris they might ignore the warning until the metal beasts were encroaching their orbits.

~~~~

The Prometheans launched more rockets into space, carrying satellites and other cargo. With more satellites, the Prometheans were able to watch more of the planet below. The movements of storms, large djinn and armies of elementals could be tracked from the heavens, granting the Prometheans one more advantage in their ongoing war. Satellite imaging also made scouting and prospecting more efficient, for now they could map the entire planet without having to traverse it.

The satellite network also improved logistics and communication between the Promethean colonies, for they provided precise measurements of location and could relay radio communications across the planet.

But satellites were only the initial fruits of the Prometheans' expansion into space. While many of these satellites looked to the world below, a reasonable number were pointed outwards to the stars beyond. Telescopes focused their lenses on anything which moved, and with some calculations and parallax measurements they determined the existence of a fair number of objects which orbited their sun along with their planet. It was these objects which drew the interest of the Prometheans, because they were the natural next step in their expansion.

So probes were launched. Larger rockets propelled scouts against the motion of their planet, such that their trajectories dipped into the orbits of the inner bodies of the solar system. And as the probes started the long fall towards the sun, the Prometheans started building a fleet for their prospective colonisation.

Both parts and workers were continually being launched into space. Space shuttle Carriers pushed around metal tanks, old boosters, and specialised parts manufactured on the surface, while Manipulators with magnetic feet, enlarged radiators and mono-propellant thrusters worked in the microgravity environment to construct and assemble the parts.

The construction of new Carriers was key to the project. The shuttles were good for moving things about orbit, and properly equipped they could even return to the surface of the planet, but they did not have enough delta-v to achieve interplanetary flight. Much larger Carriers would be needed, with over half their mass taken up by propellant, enough cargo space to carry the other Prometheans, and beefy thrusters to propel them across the solar system.

For interplanetary travel is not a simple affair. The only way to control flight in space is to push off things, and rockets do this by pushing propellant. Yet they must carry this propellant with them, and bring more propellant to have enough push to push that propellant about. Every tonne of propellant added to a rocket provides diminishing returns for how much they can push themselves through space, that is, how much they can change their velocity. Every gram of cargo and equipment cuts into this precious velocity budget.

The Prometheans quickly adopted the design philosophy of 'every gram counts', as cruel necessity dictates when planning spaceflight. Not having to carry around life support was a boon for the Prometheans. Yet the Prometheans themselves were hardly light-weight. The Prometheans built colonists which were as lightweight as possible, and they had to think carefully about the smallest practical crew for the mission. Tools, devices, and even Prometheans themselves were downsized and optimised for weight.

Yet weight was not the only optimisation to be made. The chemical engines had good thrust and were simple to build, but their exhaust velocity was lousy, such that a lot of propellant had to be spent to get a reasonable change in momentum. Further, chemical rockets required chemically reactive reagents, not least among them being oxygen, which was energetically costly for the Prometheans to mass produce.

Yet burning fuels was not the only way to push propellant out the back of a rocket. The Prometheans knew the power of nuclear fission for producing heat, so it took little prompting for them to adapt their nuclear reactor schemes to super-heat rocket propellant. This had numerous benefits. One benefit was that the propellants didn't have to be chemically reactive; any relatively light fluid would be sufficient. Hydrogen would provide the best efficiency, but methane and ammonia came up as a strong alternatives for their higher density, abundant supply, and ability to remain indefinitely in storage.

The key benefit, however, was that the nuclear engines had a notably higher exhaust velocity than anything chemical rockets could provide, which would allow the Carriers to travel further for each kilogram of propellant.

The nuclear engines had less thrust than comparable chemical engines, but only by a small amount, so this was not an issue. The main cost was that it required a substantial amount of highly enriched uranium. The fuel rods would need periodic replacing and reprocessing to maintain optimal performance, which would necessitate taking bulky centrifuges and enrichment devices on the colonisation journeys. The relative rarity of enriched uranium also made the nuclear rockets unappealing for small-scale regular use, but they were more than a worthwhile investment for the colony Carriers.

Work carried on in orbit to build these colossal Carriers and the Prometheans they would be carrying, supplied by a steady trickle of parts from the surface. The probes continued their slow descent towards the inner bodies of the solar system. Yet rather than wait idly, the Prometheans set their sights on a target closer to home.

Their world had a moon, albeit a small and distant one. It was more of a captured asteroid, not even 50 kilometers across, but this was all the Prometheans needed to stage deeper expeditions into the solar system.

The Prometheans sent Harvesters to that moon to begin mining. These Harvesters were unlike terrestrial Harvesters, for they needed to operate under microgravity conditions. They had clamps to affix themselves to the asteroid. Their drills and digging maws were balanced such that they would not exert any torque while operating. They came with sheets to enclose their work-space so no dust would escape. They were well equipped for asteroid mining.

Yet the pioneering expedition was lacking in just one crucial area: defences. This small rock was home to several stony elementals, who objected severely to the Prometheans digging up their home. Ill suited for combat, several Harvesters and Manipulators were trashed before the rest were extracted by the Carrier shuttles.

The Prometheans modified the surviving Harvesters and Manipulators to be better equipped for close combat with hostile meteor elementals. The next foray to that asteroid was accompanied by a Destroyer, one built for space-flight. The Destroyer drifted alongside the asteroid, scanning it with ground-penetrating radar and gravimetric sensing, as the Harvesters floated up to the asteroid and latched on. When the elementals appeared, the Destroyer aimed and fired its railguns, blasting apart some of the elementals and frightening the others back into hiding.

The Harvesters and Manipulators established a mining outpost on the moon, under the watchful gaze of the Destroyer. As they dug they found some metals, some organic compounds, and some water. These were all good things to find. The metals could be used for in situ manufacturing, although the concentration of ore near the surface of the moon seemed to be relatively low. The water was valuable for operating the fusion reactors. Quite significantly, though, the water and organic compounds could be used for propellant, which allowed the Prometheans to fuel their fleet for the upcoming voyage without having to haul propellant up the gravity well of their planet.

Carriers came routinely to collect what had been mined to take it to the shipyards. More Prometheans came to join the lunar colony, and a Nexus was soon established there. Resources were directed from the planet to help establish a second lunar colony, which could then fuel the flight to the inner solar system.

~~~~

"Skylord Aurora, we appear to be gaining ground against the metal beasts. Their expansion has slowed considerably, with them founding only a single colony in the past many days. Their armies seem to be less thoroughly armed, with them using fewer exploders than in the past. They have even abandoned outer colonies of their own accord. We are winning at last. Why are you so sullen?"

They aren't surrendering. They're re-prioritising. They have sent hundreds of their kind into the heavens over this period. The sky over their territory is always scarred by at least one pillar of cloud from their starward flights. They have not made many new colonies here because they are trying to found new colonies among the stars. That one new colony they made was by a small sea, which they are already guzzling to fuel their ascension. They have fewer exploders because they use similar devices to propel themselves into space. The realms of the meteor djinn have vast quantities of ore which are much easier to access than the ore here. Once they establish themselves in space, they will not want for resources, and our war will become so much more difficult.

"Then surely we must strike now, while they are weakened, so that what you fear does not come to pass."

Indeed. Our time is short. Tell Ferrum and Arene to gather their forces and meet with me. Send word to the others as well. We strike at dawn.

~~~~

Satellite observation reporting unusual elemental activity
Enemy No. 001415 ("Storm elemental, colossal") located at [10.01 -1.32]
Enemy No. 025431 ("Hydrocarbon elemental, colossal") located at [10.01 -1.32]
Enemy No. 019002 ("Stone elemental, colossal") located at [10.01 -1.32]
5400 (+/- 2000) other elementals detected at [10.01 -1.32]
Other elemental armies have generated at other locations around the border.
Deduction: elementals are planning attack, large scale, at multiple locations.
Overlap with prediction: 84%
Prepare long range missiles for launch
Warm up reactor on D0003050
Prepare D0003051 for launch
Execute Task No. 3001282

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

22 Might & 1 Free Point


The walls and palace of Vetros had been rebuilt by the hands of djinn. By the decree of the King's Law food and water flowed through the Mahd so all had plenty. Yet many houses were still in ruin, and there were hardly enough builders to go around. One of the ruins was the Temple of the Bond, and although Lilaneem, Akanit, Nabata, and the other priestesses and those volunteers who offered their help toiled away to clear the rubble and recover what had been buried, they were inadequately skilled or equipped to rebuild their Temple. And their petitions to the Priest-King Heru went unheeded. Regardless of how much determination and perseverance they may have had, it would avail them naught if they could not procure supplies and workers.

These were things Teknall could supply.

Teknall had wanted to expand the school here to be a hub of knowledge, education and training. While the Temple's desolation was a grave blow, it provided an opportunity to re-shape this school as he wanted. He had also promised himself not to forget about Belruarc, and this means of preserving her legacy was well within his means.

The challenge would be in obtaining workers. While Teknall could rebuild the Temple of the Bond with a snap of his fingers, if he could encourage human tradesmen to perform the work then they would form a bond of sorts with the temple, which could then be developed into the hub of learning Teknall desired.

As the priestesses dug in the rubble, Teknall exerted subtle influences on the minds of various people in Vetros. He could not be overt, for Heru with the King's Law was vigilant against divine forces, but there were still many tools and tricks he could use without drawing Heru's attention.

The first point of leverage were those who had benefited from the Temple and its services in either healthcare or education. There was one parent of a student of the Temple's school who was qualified as a builder, and it was a simple matter to impress upon him the need to help rebuild the Temple, and to prompt the child to beg her father to rebuild the Temple ("I want to go to Sister Akanit's lessons. Can't you help them, daddy?"). There was a carpenter who had once received treatment for an infected wound in his right hand, so Teknall planted in him the suggestion to lend his aid to those who had helped him Without their help you would have lost your hand and your job. Now they are in need of your help.

Many others who had benefited from the Temple, though, were not equipped to help directly, but Teknall could still use them. He stirred up their memories of the Temple of the Bond and invoked their pity and empathy. This could be achieved by something as simple as overhearing a passing conversation ("Do you think they'll rebuild that school in the Temple of the Bond soon? My nephew was a student there before it burned down."). Harun and other human guises let Teknall roam the streets, strike up casual conversations in just the right time and place, then move on.

Soon enough word of the Temple of the Bond had gained enough momentum to be self-perpetuating. People would pass by it and look upon its ruins and the workers ("They're trying to rebuild, yet there are no builders among them."). Mention of it would be passed around in conversations, and some would speak about it with builders they knew ("Where were you going to work after rebuilding my house? I've heard that the Temple of the Bond is in need of workers."). Some of those who had the means were moved to make material donations, of coin or supplies, or simply a kind meal for those working at the Temple ruins.

Yet to achieve Teknall's full goals, he needed to do more than play on pity. He needed to invoke ambition. And among these pious people, a well-constructed vision could do just that. Imagine a place where the tradesmen gathered together to talk and discuss business. And in this place apprentices were educated. Down one doorway was a room with workbenches and apprentices hammering and sawing away. Down another doorway a priestess stood in front of a stone board with words, numbers and shapes chalked onto it, teaching children how to read and measure. And coming from the library were some people pouring over a few scrolls and codices, learning the methods of construction, masonry and other arts from them. It was this image which Teknall planted in the sleeping minds of several selected and influential tradesmen.

Yet Teknall did not stop there. There were books on construction and masonry and other crafts in the Temple's collection, yet no tradesman would think to search the library for themselves to find such texts. So Teknall borrowed a few select works, including Priest Harukin's manual and autobiography, and placed them in the homes of these select tradesmen. The presence of these texts where they were not present before prompted curiosity, and as they flicked through the pages or skimmed over the scrolls they realised that these texts were useful and contained many hidden gems. With the vision, the texts, and the requests of the people coming together, it seemed clear to these tradesmen what the will of the Master was for them. When each one learned that the others had also received the same vision, the decision was made.

They went as a group to the Temple of the Bond, carrying the texts to return them. They came to the Temple and found the leader of the priestesses, Sister Lilaneem. One of them, Jorum the architect, stepped forwards and spoke. "Greetings, Sister. I speak to you on behalf of my fellow tradesmen. We came across some scrolls belonging to this temple; we are not sure how, but we found them anyway. And it has come to our attention that this place holds knowledge and is good for teaching many kinds of skills. The Master has impressed upon our hearts to help you rebuild this temple. In exchange, we wish to have a share in the education here, to have a place to extend the skills of our apprentices and ourselves. What do you say?"

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Lauder The drunk kind of hero

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Final Flight

Occurs shortly after Tauga led Keriss into the tunnels


Collaboratively written by Lauder, Antarctic Termite, Rtron and BBeast


"Hmm."

The tunnels seemed to agree with Keriss in some twisted manner, with demons growing from the walls and the bones of failed adventurers who attempted to do gods know what down in the dark. One such bone pile intrigued her, very clearly that of a grotling, but killed by something that had snapped it in half. Strange. The demi-goddess studied it momentarily before her gaze shift onto that of the demons in the walls. They seemed to be connected to her, the life of these forgotten beings completely unnoticed by all.

"I would advise not to go further. I would prefer not to die again."

The strange voice startled Keriss from her gaze, looking around to find the voice where there was none. She was puzzled at this point.

"Much like your father, I am trapped within the inner recesses of your mind. I used to be dead, forgotten, but somehow, you brought my essence back. Perhaps my connection with you is stronger than I originally planned."

"Who and what are you?" Keriss asked, her focus now turned completely to the voice of this man at the mention of her father.

"I am Serandor, the one who made you who you are. In a sense, I am half of your father's essense that was used to create you."

"And why should I believe you over all the other forgotten voices?"

"You do not have to believe me. However, I have no reason to lie to you, daughter. Regardless, I would not like to see the worm again, and having seen how you act, I do not believe either of us will come out of this."

Keriss sighed. Again with people claiming to be her father! The gag was getting old at this point. She remained silent and continued to wait for Tauga to arrive. She was late, and Keriss did not like that. There was nothing to do, nothing but to listen to voices in her mind attempt to converse with her, much like this "Serandor" kind. The Pained One looked around once more, before she closed her eyes and attempted to block out those forgotten voices, wanting to simply achieve some variant of silence as she could.

After a while there was some faint flailing down the tunnel. A cold breeze, maybe, or something else that made the skin crawl. It tapped Keriss's shoulder and was quickly followed by a few others, and then a shout.

"Ay!"

The familiar light of Tauga's suit turned around the corner, cautious for odd twists in the road, and then hopped towards Keriss. The white bulb squinted on her shoulder. Her boots plopped as she stepped through a puddle of... Well, it was a puddle, whatever the hell it was. "Sorry. I, uh, got lost," she said, quickly.

Keriss looked upon the hain, crossing her arms and letting out a light chuckle. "It is no problem, simply a minor inconvenience," she responded, not feeling the need to emphasize the importance of timing. Turning away after a moment, she looked back upon the upper half of the grotling skeleton that she was perplexed about when she was waiting.

"Any idea what could have done that?," she motioned towards the bones.

Tauga looked. She pulled out her Teknarotu machete and measured it against the slashed ribs. "Uh, that was me. Came down here with Sasha a while ago to bash a rogue tribe. I'm sure I cut at least one of them in half. She shrugged. "Whole thing was, kind of a blur."

"I keep forgetting you have a pet," Keriss said, watching Tauga clarify what had happened once upon a time.

"Oi," she frowned with her hands, "Sasha's a good girl. Anyway." She put her sword away and gestured down the tunnel with its sheath. "That means this is the last region I know, even slightly. Beyond here it's just us. Us and Heartworm's stupid compass." She smacked her head with her wrist. "It's so god damn fuzzy. I just have this... Vague idea of which one is the wrong turn."

"I do not trust that, that does not sound trustworthy," Serandor commented within the recesses of Keriss' mind. "I advise we simply stop here and not go after the one who killed me."

Keriss thought for a moment before responding to Tauga, and part way to Serandor, "No matter what, we push on. We will find our way even if Sasha dies.“

”Fuck me, apparently.”

Tauga nodded. She pointed the way she'd come. "Down here leads to where the cold starts. The air tastes like metal." She pointed slightly off to one side. "Sasha's down there. Sasha!"

A faceless figure stood up from the dark. Sasha had a knife out, was scratching her clan name into the slick wall, perfectly at ease. The way she could blend in here was uncanny.

She said something in Grotto. By now Keriss had learned the word 'lizard'.

"No, we're not ditching her," said Tauga for the twentieth time. It was unclear to who. "No more shit between the two of you. Let's go."

”Then lead the way,” Keriss said to Tauga, casting a terrible glare to the grotling before following the hain. Thoughts filled her mind once more of why Heartworm would want to see her, but by now she had pieced it together. The worm planned to kill her. Finish off Vakarlon’s lineage once and for all.

”Again, I must protest this. The worm is more powerful than you think, Keriss.”

”Don’t care. Once I find him, he is dead, there is no other ending to this,” she said, aloud out of annoyance, simply wishing to permanently silence the creature within her mind once more. Tauga looked back at her over her shoulder and said nothing.

”If a determined attitude was all one needed, then I would have beaten it with with eyes closed and my arms tied behind my feet. Keriss, you are not in the state of mind to deal with this. Any more stress up here then everything may collapse.”

”I don’t care. Whatever it takes, I will succeed.”

”Don't say I didn’t warn you.” Silence.

They travelled on.

* * *


Pale light. Cold light. Unnatural. Scattered and reflected.

Water.

Tauga took off her glove and touched her finger to the pool. Its ripples moved unbroken, audible, across its surface. The water was clear. At its base, the sludge was almost solid. This water had never been disturbed. No one had ever been here.

Except maybe her.

Tauga reached down further and touched the undisturbed ooze. Five fronds rose from it, like ferns, without leaves. Her movement raised clouds of dust in the water. She raised her hand. The fronds turned to watch her.

"This is where I died."

She put her boot in the water. More fronds rose around her. They followed her on their necks. She waded effortlessly through the pool. Her boots clicked on the other side.

"This is how far I got," she said. "Then I sank back into the water." She turned her head slightly, looking before her and behind. "Maybe I'm alive again." She looked at her palm. "Guess not." A single drop of water fell from above. It rolled down the eye of the Blowfly mask in her hand.

”Alive enough to be useful,” Serandor commented, listening to the hain more than Keriss was.

"We're almost there."

”Good.” Keriss strolled forward, shaking water free from her tail as she stood next to Tauga. ”It is a shame that I will not have the element of surprise on the worm. It would be far easier to kill him then.”

"...Think it'd take a lot of work to get a jump on the worm." She shrugged. "At least we found it. Let's go."

Loud fwushing sounds came from behind them as Sasha hacked down some suspicious-looking fronds in the pool. Water droplets bounced from her movement and fell quite slowly back in, weighing little. The going was much quicker when gravity was small. It helped compensate for the dwindling food in Sasha's pack.

Tauga didn't feel hungry at all.

"Keep your wits up," she commanded, as an oddly-patterned flatworm blinked lights at them from the wall. "We're probably gonna be being expected one way or another. Worm wouldn't have shown us in here without a reason. We're not alone."

Keriss was silent.

They moved on.

* * *


On the third hour, they found Help.

They were standing alone in a large tunnel, the floor level and matte and well cleaned. The valve-door opened on them, standing on the far exit of a store-room of levers and frames. A sweetheart whistled above Help's head, another carrying instruments. Tauga raised a finger to still Keriss, and stood still as Help strode over and hunkered down to grip her in an embrace of stone.

"My child," they said, lifting the mask and staring into Tauga's long dim eyes to see more than they could have ever known. "What happened to you? What happened to you, Tauranga?"

Tauga shrugged.

Help sighed without sound, and lifted a small multi-headed instrument to face her eyes. It swivelled on its hinges, stretching necks and claws, scanning her head at three angles and pricking her just under the eye. The equipped sweetheart circled her. Tauga had an idea Help could see through flesh.

The thing clicked and Help did a final check of Tauga's outer shell. It didn't fit any normal hain phenotype, but it worked. Tauga was far from the emaciated spit of a girl she had been at her death. They stood. There were many things Help would have said, but it was decades too late for them. Now the chance was lost. What relationship the two had had had died in the cold.

Sasha looked up as the device was turned to her, but only briefly. "Your Grotto companion is not so resilient as the two of you. I strongly advise she take the time to recover. She is exhausted." Sasha hissed deep in her throat, but Help wasn't fooled.

"Okay." Tauga gestured, and Sasha followed the sweetheart out, giving Help another hearty rasp. Help turned to the final and crucial member of the expedition.

"Keriss." Help nodded, and turned her weirdling gaze to the demigod. "I can examine you too, if you wish, to the best of my abilities. You are free to remain in the laboratory and rest for as long as you like, but I imagine you would rather go where you have been summoned."

”I have no need to be examined by you nor do I need rest,” Keriss said simply, gazing upon Help, determining whether to simply kill it or not. She restrained herself.

”This is the last chance to escape,” the voice chimed ”If you continue then I will have to exit your body. I guarantee it will be painful.” Silence followed by a sigh from the host as she took a step forward, a splitting pain being rewarded for disobedience. Her face contorted as a sign of the pain, but she would continue.

Where is the worm?” the two asked in unison.

"It awaits," said Help, and led.

The equipped sweetheart followed Tauga, pumping fluid into her veins and putting things on her tongue. It didn't bother her. Just maintenance. Around them, the creepish bustle of the laboratory began to grow quicker. The sweethearts in their naivety continued their work in whistling glee, but the others, the others knew what was going on. Heartworm's technicians had come out to watch.

Some had come to cheer, or salute, although perhaps they knew or cared not what. One nodded solemn commendation at the end of their journey. Another stood by and simply acknowledged the paradigm shift they knew was coming. An increasing crowd of strange legs, lost hands, and pieces of curvilinear tech grafted to it all, hanging from the roof, squatting on the floor. They were ragtag, and they were mismatched, and they were a crude rabble, but they stood united. A community bid them farewell, one way or another.

Help strode past them, and laid their hand on the door of a lonely vault. Metal slid open in a steamy hiss.

Serendor knew where they were, and knowing, was desperate to hasten himself out of Keriss. But there would be no time.

On every side, in tube and glass, the sprawling testament to an emaciating science. The figures and embryos looked through the duo with blind eyes, curled up in their liquid. They could say nothing. Their presence said everything.

There was another door at the far end of the vault. Help stood aside.

"The Emaciator stands beyond this door. Once it opens, there is no going back." Tauga nodded, and gestured Keriss to the lock with her beak.

Keriss nodded, not wanting to speak in favor of concentrating on keeping her own pain down. The daughter of Vakarlon moved forward. It was time to meet the worm.

The valve opened.

* * *
They've arrived. Let's see how good Heartworm is at following my directions.
* * *


It lay aside a pit of knives, a small naked fluke whose back was studded with blood-eyes. Its vehicle lay perched nearby, visor flipped open to reveal the cockpit of the tiny demiurge now empty.

Tauga's hand snapped around Keriss's wrist. The worm didn't look up. Its spaded face looked down upon the child-sized pit. Everywhere beyond, toppled pipes lay in silver metal, some leaking, some empty, most still standing in a tilted echo of their original array: a mountainous pipe-organ of gleaming tubes. The grainy readouts on their sides shone solid red. The light was very, very dim.

"When I found Vakarlon," said the Emaciator, "he was dying. Serandor had weakened the bolts that held him back. All his plans had come to nothing. He was trapped."

Keriss’ hand clenched at the mention of her father, how dare her have the right to even say a syllable referring to her father. A seething rage boiled up, but she would allow the worm to continue until he was done.

"Heartworm offered Vakarlon a way out. His flesh would be reconstituted into a new element. Vakarlon's essence would survive. Serandor would die with his psyche."

She could hear his laugh. ”I will not die.”

"Vakarlon accepted. It was done. Now mortals wield his power, and preserve his spirit."

A damaged diode flickered, casting a glint on the blades of the pit, the old, solid pools of godlike flesh that had spilled from the leaning tubes. It hung in streams and rivulets from the tubes of the organ.

"Before the end, Vakarlon left an instruction: Should Heartworm ever encounter Keriss, it would tell her this." Heartworm looked up.

"To learn always, as your mother did. To remember the right side of the fight. Your father will be forever with you, in any way he is able."

The worm did not lower its stare. The smooth ziplock teeth on its belly did not open. "He made Heartworm swear a binding oath," it said. "And then he died."

Tauga let go.

”Is that it, then? Simply upholding your end of the bargain, eh? Well, I suppose now it is your turn to die, worm,” said the Demi-goddess. She took one step forward, then doubled over in pain. Her scales distorted. Tauga recognised instantly the shape of what was to come, though she knew not its cause.

Serandor was coming. Bones were being forced through as he attempted to make his escape. Keriss began laughing, an insane laugh that was only mustered to cope with the pain. Snapping sounds came from the pained one and soon a hand erupted from her back, black blood oozing out. Serandor forced himself out the rest of the way, covered head to toe in his dark armor, a face nothing but a black void. He was empty. A vein pulsed in Heartworm's blood eyes.

The old god stretched, his nonexistent muscles stretching and bones popping. He looked down at Keriss, whose wound was already healing. Then over to the hain, small and insignificant, much like… the worm, to whom he cast his final gaze.

”Good evening, worm.”

The worm's answer was to unzip its long line of teeth, and, levitating, blossom into a vast spiralling splay of threadlike limbs. For a split second, it covered everything.

Then the Emaciator contracted, and tore the room into chaos.

Pipes flew and clashed and sang and splattered in unholy cacophony as the grand organ was shattered, flashes of gleam dazzling under the blur of Heartworm's many-tailed whip of arms. The floor and walls of the grand chamber began to rumble. A four-tonne cylinder smashed at Serandor and grey fluid spilled everywhere, heaving into spikes. For a moment, Vakarlon's flesh covered the dark god, and the noise came to an end.

The tongues retracted in an instant. Tauga tossed down the pipe she'd been using to parry those that had fallen towards Keriss, its spilled contents now hardened into a paddle-like structure. She put down her polehammer, leaning it on Keriss as if she was a weapon stand, and examined the three-barrelled weapon now locked into her suit via tubes at her back.

Serandor pulled his ancient greataxe from the heap of molten flesh and metal, flickering at the seams with a deep, dark crimson fire. He flicked his gauntlet clean of one last piece of Vakarlon and took a look around.

"Heartworm intended to dispose of you. This has not changed." said the Emaciator, facing him down across the rumbling mass of pipes and flesh-forms in visored armour of its own. "The Serandor decommission project will now be resumed."

Serandor laughed, swinging his greataxe in calm arcs. It struck sparks against the floor. Somewhere behind him, Tauga slammed one of Keriss's resetting ribs back into place with the heel of her palm. "Well, look at you! So brave, for a worm. You don't seem to understand that you now face me in body, and not just in mind."

Tauga applied her thumb and tendrils to the chain-gun and shot a spatter of black adhesive over the lizard's knees, fixing her to the floor. "Just stay here a sec. Worm needs me."

Without turning his gaze, Serandor stamped his foot and the floor ignited in her direction, was swiftly doused by Vakarlon. He continued to address the Emaciator. "But I always did enjoy a challenge. Still lying about 'I'll be gone in the blink of an eye', I see. Well-"

Serandor realised something was wrong. He spun from the empty vehicle, his stance revealing his fear, just in time to see the tail of Heartworm disappear into Tauga's gun. There was a moment's pause. She shrugged.

"...False," she said, because no one else was going to. Using Keriss's shoulder as a vantage point, she slid the bolt of her new weapon and turned Serandor's side of the room into a cloud of smoke and shrapnel.

The snapping metal noise cleared, and black blood leaked from several different, newly formed holes in Serandor’s armor. Where the blood was coming from could not be specified. The old god let out a growl as the smoke dissipated, head turning towards the hain. ”Insolent welp,” he said, raising his axe above him and slamming it into the ground. Dark fire erupted around him and expanded out, enveloping the lab. Pieces of Vakarlon leapt into barriers to contain the fire.

”...Even in death, Vakarlon is a nuisance.”

Keriss growled as her back began closing up. She ripped herself free, partially, from the glue and looked at Tauga. Then to Serandor. This was going to quickly turn into a three way fight, and unfortunately her friend was going to be caught in the middle no matter what. ”Give me the worm,” she demanded, going to grab Tauga by the throat.

The motion bucked Tauga off Keriss's shoulder and she rolled, briefly catching her polehammer by the haft as she leapt out of the way and Keriss tore free. "Can't. It has shit to do," she said, hurling the weapon javelin-form at a coming Serandor. He parried it effortlessly as she jumped away, rotating the barrels on her skeletal weapon.

A shell smacked the floor and exploded into a tower of fluid, hardened. Tauga fell onto her new perch of alchemist's cement and fired on Serandor for as long as she could, before a bolt of crimson flame shattered her perch and forced her to skid down to the floor.

A lion roar came from the general area from where Serandor had been, angry and frightened by all the holes that had now been put into him. He charged, axe falling with gruesome aim at the skidding Tauga. Keriss got in the way of his attack, catching the handle of the great axe.

"You shall not hurt Tauga, Serandor," stated the demi-god, holding out her palm to the old god, energy crackling around it before a beam of destructive magic erupted in the face of the dark lord. She felt him release his grip upon the axe and ceased her attack to survey the damage she had done. While it did not disintegrate him or leave any more holes in him, Serandor's breath was heavier. It seemed he had avoided death for the time being.

He had no intention of doing that again.

Reclaiming his axe and swinging it in a neat circle, he set its head to the floor and rested his armoured hands upon it. The godflesh crept towards his feet like a sickly tide, and it steamed away into nothing before it could reach him, but he made no advance.

"...It hurts to be born, doesn't it?" said the dark god. "I recognise that magic. Its essence is devastation, as is mine. You've learned pretty well, Keriss." Spurts of flame leaked from the holes in his armour, sealed over again slowly with shadow. "You know, I ultimately have no quarrel with either of you. I understand you may want to kill me, Keriss. Fair enough. However-"

With a smooth blow, Serandor swept his axe and struck Tauga's chain-gun from her hands, sent it skittering away not far from them. Swiftly he withdrew and settled again on the butt of his axe.

"Do you honestly believe you will ever get the chance to fight the worm again? I am here to stay. You will always be welcome to fight me. But if you let the Emaciator escape here..." He lowered his helmed head. "No one invites a bad guest twice, you know."

Keriss shook her head,commenting, ”I simply desire the worm’s demise, but I will not allow you to hurt someone I call a friend.”

Serandor chuckled. ”And what has your ‘friend’ ever truly done for you, hmm? Sure, she guided you here, and maybe helped you once in the past when dealing with the child of my counterpart. But Tauga does not care for you. She is incapable of caring. While you see her as a friend, she does not nor will she ever. Even now she opposes you! Would a true ally get in your way like that?”

Keriss turned to Tauga, her mind once more being torn asunder. Tauga cocked her head. It was true that Tauga truly did not do anything with Keriss, other than spar, that would count as something friends did.

”If anything, I am on your side, Keriss. We both desire the death of the worm, we both want revenge for something it has caused. We want pure destruction.”

Keriss stood there, contemplating what to do. Rage boiled up, sparks grew around her hands and in a sudden motion pointed the hands in different directions and fired a beam at Tauga and one to Serandor. ”To hell with both of you!”

Her magic leapt at Tauga, connected with a stunning clang, and shot her across the room. Serandor caught the beam on a destructive bolt on his own, the collision blasting him away over the metal floor. He stood rapidly.

Some dust settled. A small worm sitting on Tauga's shoulder tossed away the lead disc in its thread-thin hand. It disappeared into her suit and she picked up her gun. "Fucking hell, Keriss," she said, opened her mouth again, gestured faintly, and rolled her eyes. "Don't do that. Where's the dark?"

Serandor was gone behind the shaking spills of arksynth. The deep quaking of the room suddenly felt much louder.

”Then give me the worm! This doesn’t need to be harder than it needs to be Tauga! The result is the same. Heartworm dies. Do not join it in death,” Keriss hissed, fully turning to the hain. She took a few steps towards Tauga, not bothering to avoid bits of Vakarlon which so desperately, yet weakly attempted to hold onto Keriss. ”Take your shot, try to kill me if your precious worm beckons you to do so. However, if you don’t and continue to be an obstacle, I will not hold back in my attacks.”

"Fine," said Tauga, rotated her gun and locked Keriss's chest with a burst of liquid cement. Her movements grew weighted as the fluid gripped harder, leaping down to catch onto the rubble-strewn floor. Another shot stopped her, a third sealed her to the floor. "Wait here. I'm gonna go kill Serandor. We'll deal with it then."

”Tauga. You chose incorrectly, the worm dies now.”

And Tauga said, "No." And the moment changed.

No petty solution was ever going to be enough to stop Keriss. For while it did its job at immobilizing the demi-goddess, it was almost immediately destroyed as Keriss ripped the cement off her, a combination of strength and pure rage. She let out a screech in the direction of Tauga, the sound waves rippling through the air as nothing but pain was sent in the direction of the hain and the worm. No more holding back.

Tauga's teeth ground into splinters in her beak, her body locked into focus at remaining alive. She had weathered Keriss's power before, but never her rage. Blood flowed from the seams of her face as defiance rose to meet her fate. She stood her ground with a leaking mask.

Heartworm was not so strong. It cut away the plate at Tauga's neck, and curling around her dorsal nerves, it simply let go. Tauga felt the worm release its will, like pipeworks locking into a derelict mechanism, just as Jvan intended. She felt her own taking over, flowing through the tendrils inside her, down into the worm and out over its tangle-arms. They reached up into her brain, without asking yet at her will, to saw away the agony in her nerves.

In that moment, Tauga realised what the worm was missing, and she had always had. She had thought frustration was her only rigour, and she had been mistaken. That, and defiance along with it, was just an outcome. What Heartworm had was fear and curiosity. What Tauga gave- what she had been made to give- was drive.

Tauga's body opened its blood eyes, and the dark suit frayed into a million limbs. The Composite raised its weapon and fired at Keriss.

The holy mist halted her scream, clouded her body with corrosive pinkish fog. The Composite rotated its weapon back to the barrel reserved for Serandor, and pulled the trigger again. The chain-gun clicked, once, and then fell silent.

I warned you about killing Keriss.

Woman and worm turned their rifle just slightly off to the side of the mist, fired a shot. It exploded violently against the wall. They turned it back. It clicked. Tauga thought, Shit.

"Your rounds weren't enough," said the Composite.

I noticed. This confrontation is more complicated than I anticipated.

There was a loud thundercrack of displaced air as Teknall appeared between the Composite and Keriss, cloaked by the reflective shields of the Mirror Armour. In his right hand was his adamantine maul. His left hand rested above his satchel. Floating above his shoulder was the star-shaped Shard Conduit, a mote of incandescence glowing at its core.

Teknall's voice was projected across the barrier of his Mirror Armour. "I shall not allow you to kill Keriss," Teknall said to the Composite, but then he turned his head slightly toward Keriss, "But I also won't allow you to kill Tauga. If you could stop trying to murder each other, that would make things easier."

”She protects the worm, she dies!”

A flash of multicolored light illuminated the room, and Vestec appeared in front of Teknall. Teknall cursed internally. Keriss let out a very audible groan. The Composite nodded.

"Tekky! I didn't know you were so interested in Hearty and Kery. I was just watching out of curiosity myself. Normally I'd just let them duel it out and see who comes out on top, but alas, I made a deal with Hearty boy. I'll protect him against Divinity, specifically Logos but I'm willing to stretch since this has gotten unfair, and he would give me information. So," He gave an extravagant bow and gestured towards the door. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave and not interfere. Because then I'll have to interfere and it'll just get messy from there on out."

Teknall looked side to side, visibly exasperated even through the Mirror Armour. "Your deal is to protect Heartworm, isn't it? I'm here to stop them from killing each other. That aligns with your deal, doesn't it?"

Vestec nodded, giggling. "This is true, and you are getting very good at this I'm impressed, but the deal was also to protect Hearty's lab and interests, you see. And if you try to stop them from killing each other, you'll have to damage the lab. Not to mention, trying to kill Keriss seems to be his interest as well. So I gotta protect that too" He shrugged. "Can't very well break my word, can I?"

Teknall glanced sideways to the Composite then Keriss.

”Both of you, begone!” Keriss demanded, disliking the interference the two were gods were running. Though, this was her first meeting with Teknall, so she didn’t know enough about him, not enough to know how to act. Vestec, she didn’t care about. He was Vestec, after all. ”This is between me and the worm! Anyone who gets in my way will be sent to oblivion!”

She looked down to some see some fleshy bits of Vakarlon moving toward her, she crouched down and cupped some of it into her hands. ”Look what that thing did to my father! I cannot stand for this! I will not be denied my vengeance by anyone!”

As she spoke, the fleshy substance crawled around her arms, covering them before hardening into armour. Lightning began to crackle around her hands once more.”Now get out of my way.”

"Your step father." Vestec corrected. "I've already told you about Vakarion and Vulamera's plot with you. As for interfering, that's up to Tekky here. I'm not going to bother you at all. He seems very intent upon bothering you. Though, after he's all done here, I have a few curious questions for him."

Quietly, almost under his breath, Teknall muttered, "Now I know how Brown felt." Teknall then continued to address Keriss, although his stance and arms shifted slightly. "It was Serandor who made Vakarlon ill, corrupted his essence, brought him to the brink to death. Is not Serandor more deserving of your vengeance?"

You would do the same, had you been in my position, said a telepathic voice, punctuated by two long streams of gunfire from the Composite. Vakarlon's flesh embrittled the tubes and they blew into fine powder as it shot through them, but Serandor was not there.

”Yet it was the worm who carried out the request and it seemed none of you wanted to help him! All of the gods are to blame! And for that I will see all of you in oblivion!” Keriss roared in anger, pointing her hands to Teknall even though she was aiming for the Composite. ”Star Killer!” A massive, black beam fired from her hands, a wave of destruction augmented by her own soul, her own divine essence. She would not be stopped until everything was between her and her quarry was dead.

Teknall had anticipated a response like this. As Keriss pointed out her hands, he threw up his own. And moving with his hands went the floor. With a metallic screech which rivalled Keriss' beam, the metre thick steel floor of the vault-like room tore on either side of Teknall and peeled upwards towards the ceiling, becoming a pair of walls dividing the room. The narrow strip of floor between those two walls and in front of Teknall also peeled backwards, carrying Vestec with it.

The beam began to effortlessly drill through the wall, the energy behind it was too powerful to be stopped by a simple metal wall. Anything in its path would be vaporized, and yet before it could fully drill through the wall the beam ended. Keriss was doubled over and breathing heavily, an attack like that was costly and the price was certainly being paid. She could not keep the attack up or else it would destroy her. With grit teeth she stood back up before everything went to shit.

Underneath the floor was no foundation, but instead a deep dark pit that was growing deeper; or, more accurately, the room was ascending. The walls of a lightless shaft flew by below as the vault rumbled and rose.

Teknall bounded backwards along his narrow jetty of floor, widened his stance and tightened his grip on his maul.

Vestec darted out next to Teknall as he made a barrier between the two fighting gods. "Disappointing Teknall. You should know better than this. Ah well. Time to fight I suppose." With that, a portal to the Realm of Madness appeared behind Teknall, and Vestec attempted to kick him into it.

Teknall swept Vestec's kicking leg aside with his maul, and held his maul poised to strike again. "I ain't going in there."

"Oh come on, you've seen it though! It's really ni-"

They were interrupted when the vault struck its final destination. The room halted with a deafening shock that threw both minor gods into the air as Vestec and Teknall floated. Explosive charges ripped through the seams of the vault and tore it apart, and everything scattered in the chaos- flesh and steel, Vakarlon and Serandor, Keriss and the Composite.

Heartworm had been timing it patiently, and backflipped effortlessly to land on a convenient pad of synth. Things clattered, falling around a chamber so vast that fog had formed near its ceiling. Shielded plating covered its walls, and a grand door covered one end. As Keriss fell, a Bludgeon caught her from the side, struck her hard and fast into the wall at the end of the hangar. The Composite found its foothold suddenly morphing into a den of spikes and was forced to leap away.

Keriss hit the wall. It hurt, but she could push through it for the time being. She came off the wall and her body hung in the air as she watched the Composite flip away from its perch. The pained one hovered there; she would allow it to hunt the dark god for a time, then she would descend upon the worm with a fury that not even the gods could match. It caught her eye, knowing.

"Vestec," said the Composite, its dark arms swishing slowly as they learned. "Negotiate with your daughter. You may not get another chance." The unseen tendrils wound together into thick cords behind her. "Teknall, locate Se-"

"I suppose they told you I'm the villain," said a voice.

Tauga's back splattered open, arms blurring to enflesh the tendrils with wrought muscle. Four huge tails of skinless flesh trailed her, a line of blood marking the path she took to Serandor. Her chain-gun flared with casings and propellant.

The dark god stood before the hangar gate, inspecting it with the air of a lost tourist. Serandor blurred in the gunfire, but he had learned. A sleek black shotgun rose in one hand, the new greataxe reloading by recoil with every crimson flash from its muzzle. The first shot shredded Tauga's chest, the others clicking uselessly as the firearm was supernaturally jammed. Serandor spun the weapon as it returned into its old shape.

"Not so pleased with that, are we?" He levelled the weapon at the base of the door. "I wonder what happens if I do this?"

Tauga's polehammer flew into the Composite's outstretched hand, and the weapons rang against one another as it collided with Serandor. They spiralled around one another, Serandor countering as the Composite leapt, slamming tails into iron, flesh against fire.

Vestec looked over at the Composite, then shrugged. "Hey, it's your deal. If you want me to leave Tekky alone and free to interfere, by all means I'll do so." Waving cheerfully at Teknall, Vestec idly strolled over to where Keriss was, crouching in front of her. "I realize that you want to murder the worm- I mean, who doesn't, but brawling in here is about to get very nasty for everyone who isn't a full on god. If you help them kill Serandor, I'll force Hearty boy to face you in a fight by himself. No threat to Tauga, no devastation you can't control. Just you and him. That sounds much nicer than this mess, as entertaining as it is, doesn't it?"

”Tauga is a traitor who deserves death. I thought she was someone I could trust, someone who would help me. I thought she was a friend! This only shows that no one is reliable, no one will ever be a friend to someone as wretched... to someone like me.” Keriss snarled, turning away from Vestec and glaring down at her gauntlets. With a huff, she shook her head as reality continued to jab her through her mind and heart.

Then she finally turned to look at the masked one, ”No matter what, I will avenge Vakarlon. Neither you nor buildy-boy over there are going to stop me. After that I will have no purpose left in this reality. No stake to glory, no value in life. No, I will always be resented, I have no comfort, Serandor’s corruption taught me that.”

"You listen to that wannabe god of destruction who suffers from an ego complex? He's no better than Amartia the so called 'Lord of Sin'. Angsty and sad and wants to lie so he doesn't feel these emotions alone." Vestec waved a dismissive hand. "I don't resent you. I view you as a friend. And you can avenge Vakarlon. Now is just an inopportune time. Wait a bit, and I promise, buildy boy won't ever even think about getting involved and stopping you. You have my word."

”Unlike Amartía, Serandor has a reason for his ego. Like I said, he corrupted my very essence, he took away whatever it was I had before this,” she motioned to herself before continuing, ”If you encourage me to accept myself, be the one to balance Chaos, I cannot do it with this corruption. Remove it from me if you truly care!”

"Sure!" Vestec said, as Serandor and the Composite shot into the space between them in a bursting fireball.

The grappling combatants tumbled over end across the floor of the hangar, leaving a trail of fire that ate into the metal. They split apart, the Composite releasing its grip on black armour and launching Serandor away from its core. Its tentacles sizzled with the stench of sloughed flesh.

Serandor skidded on his sabatons, anchored himself with the head of his axe and then backflipped onto the raised wall of organic metal, standing lonely in the center of the hangar. A Bludgeon swung into him, scattering everyone, demolishing the perch he had taken. He landed elsewhere.

"'Wannabe god of destruction'?" A rumbling laugh. Another Bludgeon struck and Serandor reappeared on its surface, surrounded by plumes. "We must talk sometime, Vestec, you and I."

Vestec waved a dismissive hand towards him. "You'll be dead soon enough. Fate will repurpose your essence and we will all move on."

"...Is he always like this?" Serandor gestured to Teknall, who seemed reasonable, before the Composite lifted its chain-gun and spattered the hangar with shells. A lion's roar resounded through the structure.

"Enough."

Serandor raised his firearm to the hangar door and pulled the trigger. A crimson flash ignited the world, and there was a single, fragile moment's halt before it all was drowned out in the sound.

The metal exploded, carrying the air of the hangar with it, launching Keriss and the Composite out into the tunnel with the blast of escaping gas enmeshed with threadlike Arksynth residue. Serandor rode the wave, flying-sprinting up the shielded metal walls to the surface far away.

The Composite locked its tongues onto the ophan cords and shot after him, dragging itself by orbs that clashed with low-pressure noise and showers of sparks from the sides of the tunnel as they bounced and flew after him. Serandor leapt from wall to wall, shredding their plumes with blasts from his shotgun as they bounced from one another and the Composite was forced to dodge her own ophanim.

Keriss hit a wall, her body leaving a massive dent. This was getting so very tiring, and she simply wanted all this to end. The demi-goddess pulled herself from the wall and gazed at the two combatants before generating a transparent orb in her hand, only noticeable by the compressed air around. She threw between the two and the orb erupted, the air around them began to feel as if it were dropping rapidly. Both Serandor and the Composite would feel the effects of their joints feeling as if they were becoming stiffer than steel and each movement would only increase the pain they felt more.

”The Time is now if you wish to remove Serandor’s corruption, Vestec!”

Vestec appeared in front of Serandor, a wall of chaos energy filling the tunnel behind him, blocking escape.. "Running so soon? Tsk tsk. You need to stay and finish this fight. Unless, of course, I'm right and you're nothing more than an empty ego."

Serandor could only react in order to skid, sliding over the alloy at immense velocity, leaving twin trails of fire in gashes torn through the surface, desperately braking his feet against the blackened metal.

The Composite had no intention to see him slow.

One after another eldritch orbs shot through the wall, wreathed in holy energy. One collided with Serandor's frame and smashed him deep into the floor, carrying him with it through the roiling, screaming wall of magic. There was a sound.

The Composite tried to avoid his fate, but the ophanim were too heavy to turn back on their path. It dodged its own weapons and dragged itself back on them as they passed one by one into the wall and still could not work enough momentum to prevent itself from tumbling, cracking, bleeding with each impact on the floor, through the wall.

There was quiet.

"Oh dear. They appear to have ignored my warning." Vestec shrugged, idly walking towards Keriss. "Ah well. You can kill Serandor and Hearty at your leisure after we're done with the corruption removal process. They're both in a bit of a...time out. And in no position to run off anywhere."

He finally reached Keriss, a hand reached out. "Are you sure?" He asked softly, head tilted. "This might kill you."

A faint voice echoed from the other side of the wall. It wasn't Serandor's. Or the Composite's.

"...Keriss..."

Keriss turned to the source of the sound, recognizing the voice in an instant and it brought only pain to her. ”Don’t say my name! You are a traitor!”

The pained took a step towards the voice. Part of her still wanted to check on the hain to make sure that she was okay, but the majority wanted to see her dead. Conflict arose. She could practically hear the voices arguing over what to do, and it only grew louder and louder. Eventually all she could hear was the unending screaming. She couldn’t handle it, the pain. Though movement came, a step towards the voice of her friend.

The screams were loud, so loud that it was almost quiet. But she knew they were still screaming, the pain was there. The corruption was there. Everything she hated about herself was still there. All her regrets. Yet, there was also a radiating warmth within her, she could feel it was trapped though. It yearned for freedom, but something was keeping there, trying to silence it.

The screaming came to a sudden stop, Keriss found herself at the wall from which her friend called. She peered in, perfect silence.

"Keriss..."

The tunnel was only dimly lit with sputtering plumes, ophanim lying strewn over the floor. A trail of splats made a very clear story leading right up to the Composite. Serandor's armour stood to one side, balancing on its greataxe. The condition of the god inside was unclear, for it was utterly motionless, hissing fire from its seams and perforations.

The Composite lay limply suspended beneath the tentacles protruding from its back, knees dragging on the floor, but it was Tauga that spoke. "Keriss you big... scaly fuckwit..." One of the Blowfly's goggles had been torn off in the tumble, and it was a naked eye that met her gaze. "Help me."

Once more was Keriss conflicted on what to do, but this time her body moved to the Composite and looked down upon it. She offered her hand to help Tauga up, the warmth controlled her in this moment of silence. ”Why do you help the worm?”, she asked simply, not moving other than to help up the very thing she wanted to maim and kill.

"Because he needs help," said Tauga. "Everyone does." Their faces were echoed between the shining surfaces of the ophanim around. One of pain and one of anger.

”You sound like some naive hero, saying that,” Keriss let out a soft chuckle as she watched Tauga.

Tauga clambered up, by force of habit, onto Keriss's shoulder. The heavy tendrils tensed behind her, then relaxed over the ground. She looked towards Serandor. "One more time?"

Keriss let out a sigh and turned towards Serandor. This fight would be over quickly. She needed a chance to destroy the worm. She nodded, speaking "Very well. Let’s do this,” her eyes flicked towards Tauga, “just as we practiced.”

The demi-goddess remembered their time sparring together, when Tauga had asked Keriss to train her in combat. Those were good memories in the sea of regret, and she was glad to have them. After a moment of remembrance, Keriss charged forward towards the dark god, no longer holding back.

It was not even a second and Keriss was on top of him. Her first uppercut on the dark god sending him reeling back.

Tauga leapt from her shoulder as Serandor dislodged Keriss with his greataxe, staggering to ground himself as she locked her polearm onto his. They spun, winding and unwinding to strike one another with head and cue. Her tendrils flailed to recurve, making up in strength and number what she lacked in size. There were no more words.

Serandor's greataxe severed a tendril, shot sparks off the iron floor. The remaining three followed through with a spin, colliding from behind to send him sliding into Keriss.

"Keriss," came the shout again, "do your thing."

The demi-goddess wound up a strike as the dark god flew towards her, at the last possible moment she released her punch. It collided with the blackened armor of Serandor and was powerful enough to stop the old god dead in his tracks, blood spurt out from the darkness of his helm as he stayed there for a few moments. Then he collapsed to the ground, trying to get to his legs but only managing to have enough strength for his knees to raise him only slightly.

”I believe the fight is over, Serandor,” Keriss commented, moving around him so that she stood in his view. She looked back at the Composite, ”Worm, finish him off and complete your promise to Vakarlon.”

”No… I can’t die. I must- I must,” the dark one gasped, Keriss turned and only chuckled at the dark god’s defeat. This, however, provoked him as the daughter of Vakarlon had claimed victory, it brought back memories of his first defeat. He would not allow Vakarlon’s lineage to live. He used what little strength he had left to punch the pained one who took the blow.

”Is that all you have?”

Serandor let out a crazed laugh before shouting, ”I will destroy everything that you are!” Destructive energy shot into Keriss, directly from Serandor’s soul to Keriss’ own, he planned to end her entirely. Leaving her a screaming mess, as he tried to work to destroy the fabric that made up the pained one’s soul.

The space behind Serandor wavered as the reflection-wreathed form of Teknall appeared. Teknall swung his maul, and it slammed into Serandor's side with a crunch, flinging the dark god across the tunnel. "I'm not letting you kill Keriss."

The Composite punctuated the strike with a single intercepting blow from the hammer, leaving his armour to crumple. A lensed wormhole remained where the air spat and its chain-gun appeared in its hands.

There was a long burst of fire.

The Composite kneeled on Serandor. The oxygen in its mask was getting small. It was hard to hear the words it spake on his chest.

Keriss dropped to the ground after Serandor had been sent sailing away, breathing heavily and clutching her chest where there was now a light shining from it. Serandor’s magic had punched through her physical form and damaged her soul. She got to her feet and managed to stay there for a few moments before she took a step and collapsed down onto her hands and knees, looking at Teknall. The demi-goddess couldn’t formulate words, she didn’t know what to do as she felt that she was struggling just to keep her physical form together.

Teknall's head turned to Keriss, and immediately he stepped up to the dying demigoddess. Teknall's armour vanished and he laid a hand on Keriss' forehead. His eyes flicked up and down Keriss' form. He removed the hand and found it coated in ash. "Vestec, we might need your help here."

Teknall took a hypodermic syringe from his apron pocket and extracted a sample of Keriss' ichor. His hands blurred as he took out and operated various miniaturised devices to rapidly assay Keriss' essence for any clue as to how to save her, using spectroscopy, microdistillation, chromatography, and anything else he could think of.

Serandor's turned head lay where he'd fell, watching the scene. The Blowfly mask towered above him. His helmet rolled as he turned, and an adamant spike rammed through his wrist, twixt the mail between brace and gauntlet, forcing him to let go. The greataxe fell upon the ground.

"I did it," he said. "I destroyed her."

The Composite contracted its hammer to a maul and smacked him with metal. His head lay twisted aside on the floor. There was a sputtering 'aaaaaah'.

"So this is where it ends." The Composite nodded. Serandor didn't see it. He was talking to someone who was not there. "You win."

The arksynth dripped from tears in Tauga's suit, sizzling through him.

Serandor turned to them. "So is this your victory, Emaciator?" The words were spat with inhuman effort, malice to the last. "Now that you know that you will be this world's tormentor, and not I- are you satisfied?" One long sputtering gasp. "Is the world a better place now, Emaciator? Has anything even changed?"

The Composite looked. After a while, it said: "I don't care."

It lowered its polehammer and rammed the spike through his visor. Bubbling fluid leaked from the edges. When it was done, it stood, wrenched out the spike, took his greataxe from the floor, lowered it to his head and pulled the trigger.

Liquid black. It turned to Keriss and walked to her. An inhuman shade reached out behind her back, the hands of Heartworm draining Serandor's blood into an iron crucible, where it would stay forevermore.

Vestec waved a hand, a portal opening beneath Serandor's empty husk and swallowing it, walking over to Keriss. He looked down at his daughter's form, his colors flickering slowly, before laying a hand on Keriss' shoulder. She wasn't going to live. The damage was too great, and there wasn't enough time. "You're not going to survive. But you won't die with unfinished business. You'll get your duel, and your vengeance, Daughter." Divine energy flooded into her body, tying Keriss's form together and patching the damages done to her. "It's a stopgap. It'll give you the strength to do what you need to."

He turned to the Composite, pointing at them. "Split apart. This is Heartworm's fight now."

"You have my permission to leave, Vestec." The Composite passed him by and knelt at her side.

Keriss’ breathing stabilized as Vestec lended some of his divine energy to her. She looked up at the Composite before getting to her feet. It was slow, but she was able to at the very least, granted she did almost stumble over at one point. ”If I am to die, then I wish to speak to Tauga once more, Heartworm. Then this will all end,” the demigoddess sighed as she gazed down upon the fusion. To think she had allowed Serandor the opening he needed, the opening to destroy Keriss, someone he corrupted for his own gain. ”Please.”

"I'm here," she said. Heartworm's eye scanned Teknall's readings from a hole in her chest. "I was always here."

”I must say, you were a decent friend. For the most part, you tend to be there and simply let me vent, granted the venting was often…” Keriss paused to look around at the ruin the battle had caused, ”Destructive. Yet, you were there, and you did help me. So, when I die, whether it be to the worm or the decay of my soul, I want you to have something. It's a crown that my mother gave to me, that allows one to command simple mortals without much thought. I’m sure you remember the thorns I carried around.”

"Keriss..."

She took a step towards Tauga, ”I suppose what I’m trying to say is, thank you for being a friend.”

"...Okay." Tauga blinked, unable to figure out what she was meant to say. There was a grief-shaped hole left in her heart, and it showed. She pushed a hand into Keriss's chest. "You're bleeding."

Keriss winced slightly as Tauga did so, not speaking for a few moments. ”Perceptive as ever, Tauga,” she said, before pushing the hain’s hand away from her chest wound. ”I know you don’t necessarily feel much, but please refrain from touching an open wound.”

"..." Tauga's hand remained raised, fingers curled over slightly as if to hold themselves back. They retreated, but didn't lower. "Stone Chipper, what can you see?"

Teknall looked across a chromatogram then held up a distillate vial containing a few golden droplets to his eyes. "Most of Keriss' essence is terminally unstable, having suffered severe degradation; this we already know. However, I have found traces of some other essence, untainted and dormant." Teknall looked up at Keriss. "If we can find a way to activate this dormant part of you, we could save you."

”Unfortunately, I believe that would take time. That would allow the worm to escape," said Keriss, "and I doubt I’d be able to find him again.” She shifted her stance, becoming ready to attack at a moments notice. ”I am finishing what I came here to do.”

The Composite's shoulders levelled.

"You would rather kill Heartworm than live?" Teknall said, standing up from his array of lab equipment. "And not just live, but be free from Serandor's corruption. Even if you could finish this fight quickly and without dying, Heartworm's expertise might be essential for finding the cure. Are you absolutely sure?"

”Yes, I am sure. I am willing to lay down my life if it means that I will have completed that task,” Keriss stated, her eyes locked onto the Composite.

Teknall shook his head and muttered, "Why do I even bother?"

Keriss moved forward quickly, conjuring a ball of destructive energy and hurling it at the Composite’s feet. Three surviving tentacles lashed out and slammed into the spell as it flew, and a staggering explosion ricocheted across the tunnel.

The Composite skidded back over the floor, gripping the polehammer with its elbow, and braced its torn muscles upon it. It cast Serandor's weapon into the dark and raised its own. The feet of Tauga would not be thrown aside so easily.

From the explosion, Keriss was upon the Composite, moving in close so that the polehammer’s reach would serve as a disadvantage. A wall of ash erupted behind the fusion, no longer holding back, Keriss began an endless onslaught of punches. The attacks were not random- they were going for the Composite’s non-vital areas. It seemed she was simply going to be trying to get the being worn down. A mistake.

The Composite's recurved machete leapt into its off-hand and hacked across Keriss's belly as it stumbled, tumbling, then shuddering to rise against the gale with both hands thrusting the floor as its last tentacle flung back the massive lizard. It took the chance to give a few feinting jabs with the spike of Tauga's weapon, and a few real ones, drawing blood.

The polearm swiftly retracted into a maul. The Composite was worn out, yes. But still it would not die.

"Help me or leave, Teknall," it said through the ash. "Your plans are dust."

Teknall looked between the two combatants and Vestec. He seemed to quickly weigh his options and their outcomes, then he said, "I'll try and build a cure. Tauga, Keriss, don't die." He disappeared with a faint pop.

Keriss growled in pain as she willed her wounds to heal, not allowing the Composite to recollect itself. She continued to attempt to get close, but now where her previous strikes were reacting, a pain of intense heat. The lizard continued to strike the Composite, adding more intensity to the false heat. With a final blow from her tail whipping the Composite to the side, Keriss halted her assault.

"Tauga may know how to fight, but you do not, worm. Neither do you know true pain. I will show you once I rip you from Tauga," Keriss hissed, holding another ball of destructive energy in her hand, "Perhaps I will show you a painless death if you surrender now."

But neither Tauga nor the Heartworm was there. Shivering false limbs emerged from the Composite's cracks and splinters, holding itself together against the pain and the wreckage.

"...I will survive."

Tauga's hand shattered into the Composite's, taking her arm with it, a storm of flesh wrought by black limbs puppeted by ghostly threads in turn. The mess of meat and power seized up Keriss's palm, disintegrating as her orb exploded but casting her just far enough back.

Keriss growled as she was pushed back, her eyes focusing on the being she needed to kill. She took a step forward, before raising her hands and summoning a spear and shield from the ash. Simple weapons, but weapons in a capable killer's hands.

The Composite stitched together replacements for its missing arm and most of its right side. The hand fit loosely around her maul, full of gaps. The unseen tendrils swept through the ash, and at their gesture the regenerating plumes began to flock around a single Bludgeon, empowering it to roll slowly and heavily between the creature and the demigod.

"That is quite enough." A portal darted between the two combatants, swallowing the bludgeon and all the plumes with it. The rest of the colony sputtered to a slow ignition, tugging slowly, so slowly back, in order to save the cord from being severed should the portal close.

Vestec idly strolled forward, holding a hand out to Keriss to stop her from leaping forward, and stopped between the two. "You made a deal with her through me, Hearty boy. You told me to talk some sense into her, giving me free reign to do it in any way I desire. The only way that worked is I promised her that you would fight her, one on one, after Serandor was killed. Serandor is dead, and now you're fighting her two on one? Poor form." The Composite used this opportunity to mend some of the crushing damage on its upper neck.

"My oath to you is complete. Your oath to Keriss is being broken, and I won't allow that. Split from your little ally, Tog I think her name was, and fight Keriss like you had me promise for you, or I'll rip you apart and you'll still have to fight Keriss. Albeit with missing limbs, probably." Vestec's colors flashed with intermittent bursts of red as he waited. He was annoyed, but not violent. Yet.

There was a faint crack as the Composite cemented together a plate on its chest. Its suit was beginning to reform.

"Teknall," Vestec called, sending a mental message to the builder while speaking aloud, "If you don't want Tog, Keriss and Hearty to be dropped into the Realm of Madness to fight in the Arena so Hearty will finally do what he had me promise for him, after I rip this composite apart, obviously, I suggest you help me get Hearty to do what he had me promise for him."

Teknall reappeared and groaned. "You have such a way with twisting deals against people. But fine; it gives the best chances of Tauga and Keriss surviving."

With that, the Composite was stuck.

Vestec held a hand to his chest, pretending to swoon. "I'm wounded Teky! I would never twist deals! I only do what those I made deals with ask of me. Hearty asked me to get Keriss to stop, I did so. It's not my fault the only way to do it was by organizing a duel."

A gauntleted hand raised to Teknall. "Leave." A machete to Vestec. "If you have no intention to honour our agreement, get out. I will do this myself."

"Oh nononono Hearty boy. I honored our agreement. I kept Teknall out of the fight, until it suited you that is, just like I said I'd protect you from other fully divine intruders. Then you had me speak in your name to get Keriss to stop. Well, to get her to stop I had to promise that you'd fight her without Tog. And since you had me speaking for you, you promised you'd fight her without Tog. You're right on one account though. You will do this by yourself. After you separate."

The Composite struck him across the tunnel with its hammer and ran.

The hammer struck Vestec directly in the face, and he hit the wall with a thump, and started giggling. "Oh, I was hoping you'd do that." What remained of his mask turned red, and he was gone. He appeared in front of the Composite in the next instant, floating just slightly faster than the running monster. Boots skidded, and weapons were bared.

"You can't run, hearty boy. You have two gods going after you." A wall of chaos energy appeared behind Vestec, roughly twenty feet back. "And you don't have the power to stop us." Chaotic energy pooled in his hands, and he launched a blast at the Composite.

Its body tore apart, plates of Tauga shearing off to open a crude void in its torso. As the magic collided, an exit portal opened in its unhinged beak and launched Vestec's blast back towards his own body.

The blast hit Vestec in his artificial arm, popping it off, and he stumbled backwards, hand clenching his stump and dramatically sinking to the ground. "Oh no! What irony is this? A mighty God, brought low by a mortal and an avatar! Oh if I had not given myself to hubris, and listened to Teknall! I might yet live! Death, Death comes for me!" He slumped backwards, arm over his mask.

There wasn't much of Tauga's body to repair this time, but that didn't seem to stop it. The Composite's suit stitched together faster than its flesh, holding in a mess of broken shell and false blood and the upper half of a beak. Before it even resembled a hain again, it was running, back from the wall, leaking oxygen and fluids and tearing its way down the tunnel as its tendrils hauled it across the web of ophan cords and unflinchingly back towards Keriss.

Vestec giggled from where he was slumped. "That was very clever of you Hearty boy. But I'm afraid that your aim is a bit off." He walked over to his arm and popped it back into place. "Good try though."

"Vestec, you're meant to separate those two, not blow them up!" Teknall exclaimed, "Although there might not be much Tauga left to separate out if this keeps up."

"Well then Teknall, I did call you to help with that. You're the craft god. If you don't split them apart, I'm going to rip them apart."

Keriss let out a snarl, moving into an ashen form to speed after the Composite. Her form looked like nothing more than a black cloud as she sped after her prey, distance closing quickly. "You cannot escape me worm. I will hunt you down and pry you from that wretched body you call the Composite!," her voice echoed, soon passing the being and reforming. She simply stood in the Composite's way before raising her arm, a pillar of ash erupting below the Composite, trapping it, lifting it up.

The myriad tendrils heaved at the unseen wires overhead, forcing the Composite against its prison. Cracks appeared as more ophanim began to roll. Slowly. So, so slowly.

"This is the end, worm. No more running, no more denying your fate. Death comes to you, just as it does to me," Keriss stated, walking towards the Composite.

"We could save you, Keriss," said the Composite. Its voice no longer emanated from its beak. "There is no need for anyone to die here."

"Just like how you saved Vakarlon? How sweet. Eternity as a sludge to be used at the whims of any mortal or god to come around!" Vestec called with sugary sweetness, walking towards the trapped Composite, utterly ignored.

"I don't want to be saved by my enemy. Death is preferable," Keriss commanded before grabbing the Composite's throat and pulling it forward. She reached around the Composite's head to grab at the worm within its neck. "Detach yourself or else I will rip you out," she ordered, glaring into the eyes of her opponent.

A long spike jutted from the back of the creature, piercing her hand. Another leapt on a limb to bury a cruel barb under Keriss's jaw. It was joined by several more. The venom throbbed from limp tubes. To death, the poison said. To death I will fight.

Suddenly there was a bang at their feet and a thick cloud of pink mist engulfed them. A swift scalpel slashed at the barbs and deft fingers plucked them from Keriss's flesh, followed by a shot of antitoxin; simultaneously an electrified needle prodded a nerve in Keriss's hand and her grip on the Composite's throat was released. The armoured form of Teknall then yanked the Composite out of Keriss' reach, and into his own adamantine grip.

The mist would only subdue Keriss for so long, so Teknall had no time for spoken words. His mind directly probed at the mind of the Composite, looking for the people within. Tauga, your body is dying. You are losing this battle. I will not permit you to continue. Syringes injected oxygen and synthetic blood plasma into Tauga's veins, replacing lost blood. Heartworm, both Keriss and Vestec are seeking to tear you from this body, and neither of them care about whether they kill Tauga in the process. Kaolin was flash-fired into porcelain plates and glued into place to repair Tauga's shell and provide mountings to support her internal organs. Continuing to fight like this will result in all of you dying, which is wasteful and unnecessary.

You could save all of us, the hidden voice whispered back. Evict Keriss. Rescue the Composite. We will survive, or we will die together. Heartworm's coils tightened their grip on the blazing neural stem of Tauga's furious will.

I could fend off Keriss, or I could fend off Vestec. I cannot do both, which makes doing either pointless. Teknall opened up the plates on the side of Tauga's neck and parted aside muscles and arteries. And I have no intention of letting both of you to die together. Heartworm was now visible, as was the brain stem of its host, whose machete burst from the ash and made a diligent attempt to shank him. It clattered harmlessly off Teknall's armour.

Tauga, I know you don't want to die. A gauntlet-clad hand reached towards Heartworm. Heartworm, don't make this harder than it has to be.

The worm- Unseen by any but Teknall, Tauga's own neurons were growing, unaided, circling their delicate patterns around the worm's glittering eyes. One clutched the other clutched the other. -doesn't want to die either, you bastard.

Keriss and Vestec would happily destroy you to get at the worm. Consider my efforts merciful.

Fuck off.

Beside Teknall's arm came a robotic arm ending in myriad fractal fingers, of a similar design to those of the Promethean Manipulators. This tool reached around and gripped at the worm coiled around Tauga's brain stem, trying to unravel it from all points at once. A needle injected muscle relaxants into Heartworm, and a scalpel gingerly prised the newly grown grey matter off the worm. Then, using his hand and the robotic hand in tandem to minimise the pressure on Tauga's brain stem during the operation, Teknall began to untie the two.

The alloyed digits made contact with the stray neurons enwrapping Heartworm, and a jolt of death travelled through Tauga's body. For a moment, her muscles went limp.

Then they hurricaned to life again- all of them.

The unseen threads of Tauga's aura slipped between the gaps between Teknall's gripping fingers and seized his gauntlet, encircling his hand and then him. Hundreds of metres of tentacle bundled against the Mirror Armour and thrust against it in a gale just strong enough for Heartworm to pry away his thumb.

Tauga shot across the tunnel, bursting through the ash and landing on her feet.

You said I don't want to die, whispered Tauga as she reformed the Composite. I don't think that's true any more. Her polearm unfolded. I just don't want to lose. Heartworm pulled her skullplate closed at the base, and the Composite sheltered both of them.

Teknall rubbed a hand against the forehead of his helmet. "Both the people I want to save have a death wish," he muttered.

Vestec settled next to him. "It makes things interesting!"

The mist's work was done, and Keriss was back with a look of unparalleled anger as she could feel that her time was closing quickly. The Composite despite having just reformed, Keriss was quickly behind the being, not to rip Heartworm out, but to strike it directly. A punch was driven into the back of the Composite, hard enough to send it flying. As it flew through the air Keriss appeared in front of it to smack it with the back of her hand. Again and again and again, the demi-goddess struck the Composite. Keriss was using all the divine strength she had at her disposal as she did so, each hit releasing a thunderous crack into the thin atmosphere- whether of air or shell, none could say.

The torment ended when Keriss caught the Composite with her tail and slammed it into the ground, pinning it underfoot. While she would have loved to do the same to Teknall for interrupting her again, she could not take on a god in her state. "I tire of this. While you may wish to save me Teknall, I do not. My existence only brings destruction and carnage, I shall pry Heartworm from this thing's neck-" The two locked eyes. "-or I will stab it while it is still in there."

A rasp from the Composite's throat. Its enfleshed tentacles buckled against the floor, forcing its way against Keriss's claw as its lungs began to collapse. "Fuck-"

Tauga.

A voice long since silent stepped effortlessly to the fore.

Tauga, said Heartworm, Go.

The Composite's will was of adamant, yet all its power had one source. Tauga struggled, but the decision was not hers to make. Heartworm unwound her neurons with a single motion, and, enlacing the three of them in its grip, threw them all apart.

Tauga's body hit Teknall and dropped still as a doll. Teknall scooped up Tauga's body, injected her with something from his satchel, then teleported away. And Heartworm-

Heartworm lay exposed before Keriss, as small as a footprint.

"My name is Heartworm the Emaciator, Avatar of Jvan," it said, rising up on a swell of its needle-thin tongues. "You will fight me," it said, forming its spidery arms into the warrior's stance. "And I will die."

”Finally, I can ki-“

"It took you long enough! I was beginning to become bored." Vestec called, standing next to empty air.

Keriss sighed, giving a look to Vestec before returning her gaze down to Heartworm. ”Let us end this,” she stated before summoning a great axe in her hand, ”It shall be swift.” She raised the axe above her before swinging down.

The creature reared, and its slender tongues caught her weapon on blade and haft. For a moment, they held it back. Heartworm met her eyes.

Then there was the cracking of broken teeth, one by one, before the Emaciator's arms collapsed and Keriss's axe slammed into the floor with a shock that quaked the world.

It was done.

Two halves lay on the floor, convulsing spider-legs spilling from their wounds. The carmine blood soon leaked from its eyes and evaporated into thin air.

Keriss waited for a moment. seeing if the worm would reform or not. It didn't and Keriss let out a mad laugh now that it was all over, the battle ended anticlimactically. The demi-goddess stood there for a few moments before she fell to her knees, keeping herself supported with her hands. Her time was up. Vestec's magic that had kept her soul from falling apart was being undone.

"So I guess this is where I die too, worm. All of this and no survivors except for Tauga. Funny," she said before her arms gave out. Keriss was still conscious but simply focusing on breathing while she awaited death.

Teknall appeared beside Keriss, armour gone. He laid a hand on her shoulder. "You're not dead yet. Remember how I mentioned that there was a small part of your essence which was dormant and untainted? I've found something which might help remove the corrupted bits and awaken the uncorrupted bit."

"Is that so?," Keriss said lightly, turning her head to look at Teknall. It was hard to move now, finding that lying there was the easiest thing to do rather than talk. After a moment her head returned to its original spot, "Even if you save that bit, it won't be me."

"It's better than nothing," Teknall replied. Keriss felt a slight lurch as the scenery suddenly changed around her. They were back in the Bludgeon hangar. Broken bits of machinery and puddles of Arksynth lay scattered on the ground, although the main door had been repaired. In front of Teknall and Keriss stood a forebodingly familiar machine.

Like an organ it stood above them, with myriad pipes and valves rising directly upwards towards the ceiling. Front and centre was a pit containing blades and needles and tubes, large enough to hold four people, or one god. Cables extended from numerous points on the machine and were spliced into the data ports of a bulky computer monitor and a bank of switches and dials bolted onto the machine beside the pit. Several large buckets of Arksynth sat nearby.

Keriss looked around, her eyes darting between all the objects that were there. "I don't know how much I like the look of this."

"I reassembled it myself, so the machine is in excellent shape. In there the device will couple to your divine essence. It will drain out the bits of you which are dying, filter it, then resonate with the dormant part of your soul to awaken it. The Arksynth is to provide matter to reconstitute your body if necessary," Teknall explained.

Keriss continued to gaze upon the machine, not in wonder or awe, but more in confusion as she didn’t understand it. However, she was in no position to reject Teknall’s wishes. ”If we are going to do this, then let us get it over with,” she grumbled, not able to do much other than speak and look around.

"Right." Teknall stooped down and lifted Keriss onto his shoulders, before lowering her into the pit in the machine. Then he began the delicate process of attaching Keriss to the machine. "This may hurt a little." The blades sliced out thin strips of Keriss' skin on her back and attached them to hooks. Needles were slotted into Keriss' veins and started to draw on her ichor. Electrodes were attached to her chest and head and delivered data to the digital display.

"Well. This is certainly better than me just ripping it out of you. Do try not to die, dear. You're still one of my children afterall." Vestec leaned against the wall next to Teknall, watching as Teknall readied the device.

Teknall made some final adjustments to the dials, then he flicked one switch and the machine came to life. Red LEDs lit up along the standing pipes, climbing higher as the machines' humming grew louder. Electricity crackled deep in the bowels of the device. Pistons started to move, and Keriss' ichor was slowly sucked out of her.

"Vestec, since it's your field of expertise, could you go over and check whether the filters are working properly?" Teknall asked, indicating a particular stack of pipes.

"They are," said a voice. Child-like, but with none of the innocence. "Vakarlon would want them to be, so they are."

Help had arrived. They weren't yet in view of the machine, but they had heard Teknall's voice. With them came a shoal of hovering sweethearts, ignorant of what they were looking at yet eager to patch up its gaps. Having grown used to taking responsibility for fleshsmiths with far messier work protocols, they began an inspection without waiting for permission. "I'm sorry if I presume, but these might help."

Teknall nodded towards the approaching Sculptor. "The assistance is appreciated." Teknall scrutinised the digital display for a few moments, then twisted a few dials and whistled a few directions to the sweethearts. He monitored the readouts and watched Keriss for a little longer as the sweethearts tinkered, until he uttered another whistle to stop the sweethearts. "Operation is nominal so far. Increasing power."

Teknall slowly turned a larger dial. More lights lit up, the machine's humming intensified, and pistons pumped harder. The feedback of divine energy into Keriss' faltering form strengthened.

Yet, Keriss form continued to deteriorate, perhaps faster now that her godly energy was being purified and separated from the corruption that had grown strong. Her body began falling into ash, the binds of her body falling apart as the corruption was seperated. She was silent as this happened, merely accepting that this was her end. However, it was also a beginning, not a new redemption for the dying lizard but for the true being that had been hidden away for so long.

She opened her eyes one last time and she saw her parents, they seemed happy to see their daughter again. And she smiled.

As the ash fell away, another being was uncovered. Long strands of brown hair and pale skin was revealed as inevitably Keriss' form faded away. The being was not Keriss, it was the true essence of the soul that had been tainted, smaller and perhaps more frail than how Keriss was, but it was what the soul simply was.

Everything was going well so far, the new divine being seemingly asleep through the process. However, as more of the godly essence was filtered, more strength was given to the being, and with that strength came a risk. For her, the dreams did not seem to be pleasant dreams, her face contorting to something that displayed a fierce pain and the monitors began to read the rise in her heart rate. Worsening the situation, she began to struggle, at first it was weak but this being was of strength and quickly she had ripped herself free. A line that drew her ichor snapped and she began to try and unconsciously free herself.

Teknall's hand darted across the dials and reduced the power of the machine. Another hand brushed along the side of the machine. Metal curled down from the sides of the pit and wrapped around the new being's limbs, trying to restrain her. Teknall reached across to repair the broken line. "Hold on a little longer. The transfer isn't complete yet."

Vestec, watching quietly for most of the process, walked forward and put his hand against the new being's chest, pushing her into the device. "Not yet daughter. Not yet. Teknall, I'd recommend hurrying up. She doesn't appear to like this."

"It's a delicate balance. Too fast and it might damage her." Teknall slowly turned up the power anyway, carefully watching the new being's reaction.

The being continued to thrash about, the new restraints doing nothing to stop her from ripping through the metal. Suddenly it stopped, not out of death or shock, but by the fact that the pain went away as more of her soul was filtered into her. Vestec's hand seemed to prove to be somewhat calming, her breathing becoming normal once more. Once the transfer was complete she opened her eyes and gazed upon Vestec, her eyes staring at him with curiosity.

"Hello there daughter." Vestec said softly, looking at her. Keriss had changed completely, bo "You've had a trying time. You're better now, though. All that agony is gone. How are you feeling? And what's your name? I don't think you're Keriss anymore."

She continued to gaze upon Vestec, silence overwhelmed her before she simply pushed her way past the chaotic god. Her eyes moved to the destruction that had been done throughout the station, a battle between gods and monsters. ”I did this. Pointless destruction, death of I don’t even know how many, and I’m pretty sure I lost the only ‘friend’ I had, all because of my selfish desire for vengeance,” the newly born one said, her voice cracking before turning back to the two gods.

She remembered.

”Tauga’s not dead,” Teknall offered, ”Although I’m not sure how she feels about today’s events.”

”My point exactly,” she sighed before turning away once more. ”Thank you for saving what was left of me. Maybe now I can try to undo the pain that Keriss caused through the years,” she continued, not looking back as she addressed them.

“Well, in the death department, you killed a monster that forcibly mutated an entire race and turned a god seeking help into a sentient goop, in what I can only assume was a horrifically painful process, and a fallen god of destruction who wanted to wreak havoc upon the world and cause untold suffering. So, good start there!” Vestec interjected cheerfully. “As for the suffering Keriss caused, that was mostly against demons and undead. As far as I know, at least. And Tauga is a bright enough girl to know that you’re not Keriss anymore. In fact, we still don’t know who you are. What’s your name, dear?”

The woman thought to herself for a few moments before looking down at the gauntlets that the ooze had formed her. She turned to the two gods and proudly announced, ”I am Avulus, the true Hero!” A radiant aura seemed to encompass her as she told them her new identity, standing there proudly for a few moments before looking down and realizing that she had no clothing other than gauntlets.

Letting out a startled sound, Avulus immediately covered herself the best she could. ”Ah, I forgot that Keriss never wore clothing. Do you think one of you could help?” she asked, a tone of embarrassment about her.

Teknall pulled a roll of plain white cloth out of his apron pocket, and in a flurry of cutting and stitching he turned it into a simple white dress and handed it to the naked demigoddess. ”This should do for the moment, until you decide on a more personalised clothing design,” Teknall said.

Vestec giggled, floating upside down. “Well, Avulus the True Hero, who are you being a hero of? Everyone has a different definition, after all, and if you’re being someone’s hero, you’re someone else’s villain.”

The newborn graciously accepted the white cloth from Teknall and draped it onto her form, before announcing “I am the Hero of that which does not know evil, innocence,”





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The Great Ring, 16 PR

The sun beat down brightly, mercilessly and, it seemed, mockingly in the empty dazzle of its rays. Although the day was as dry and luminous as the glare from above promised, it was also cold. Not the cold of a winter night, or the brutal gusts of a chilling wind, but that mild, uncomfortable coolness that did nothing but remind that this day did not belong in its season.

Once, it would have been said that it was an unusually cold day. But now, Ittekka grimly reflected, it made no sense to even try and think what was usual and what was not.

Ahead of them, the colossal beast was trampling a copse of blade-leafed trees. Some of them raised their shaggy heads almost as high as the top of the hill where her party was huddled amid the brush, yet the monster effortlessly ground them under its clawed feet. It was difficult to say which part of it was the most sickening - the many spider-legs ending in birdlike talons, the swollen body, long and drooping like some sort of hard-shelled caterpillar, or the great, cruel eyes. Everything in it seemed made to inspire disgust. If it was indeed Jahan that had birthed these brutes out of spite against the beauty of the world, as some of the elders thought, then his desecration had been a success.

Some also said that it was the horrors themselves that brought the cold, they or the Grey Blight that sent them. The summer heat had begun to wane soon after they first appeared, the tales told, and they crushed and devoured every sign of life and colour they met. Would it not be natural for such abominations to drain the vital warmth of the land, like the incarnations of primal evil they were?

Ittekka was not sure when exactly the cold had begun, but she was confident enough it was before the creatures of the Blight had passed north of Naudeng, or maybe even Gisab. Travelling urts told that the sun had lost its warmth as far as the upper edge of the Ring, where the grass met the dry plains, and there was no taint there, either. Besides, she found that this belief did more harm than it could have helped. The spawn of the grey foulness were fearsome enough on their own; she could see it down at the foot of the hill, and everyone had when they had breached the walls of Gisab and trampled the city into ruin. To ascribe godlike might to them was to needlessly poison one’s mind with dread just when all its cunning was needed.

In truth, though she would rather not think of it, that dread was mostly her own. Oddly, or perhaps appropriately, for the daughter of a bloodline of shamans, Ittekka had always feared the thought of a malicious god. She knew, of course, that not all gods were good. The lords of flame and river could be fickle and cruel. Jahan and the star-spirits were monstrous and perverse. Life-Deer knew only to follow its nature. Yet all of those could either be appeased, or banished by distance and the protection of their gentler brethren. The Blight, on the other hand, was blind, voiceless and savage, and it now stood almost on her doorstep, even as the gods of earth and sky had been silent for years. The idea of it being divine was unendurable.

“It’s almost here. It’ll climb up right away. Is this the time?”

The voice of one of the warriors broke her contemplation of the beast below, which had indeed crept dangerously close in those deceptively brief moments. A few more minutes, and it would be on top of them. No one liked to remember what that meant.

Ittekka dipped her beak in a nod, and the half-dozen following her lead scattered, vanishing into the undergrowth in different directions. She barely knew any of them, having first met them but a few days before in the small town she had passed on her way from the city, but now that she was alone it struck her how much anyone’s company would have been a relief in the face of the colossus. There was, it was true, the earth spirit she had coaxed into following her there, but its indifference to her fate could almost be felt in the stillness of the ground under her feet.

No more time to think of that now. The last trees were toppling and collapsing upon each other, the unearthly shape of the creature’s head looming over them.

It stopped. She could not see its mouth opening, but the writhing ends of its tongues were grasping at something in the air. It could smell them, they knew - indeed, they were counting on it.

With an ease astounding for something so great and cumberous, the monster thrust one of its limbs into the hillside brush, then a second, then a third. The bulk of its body followed in a smooth motion, lowering itself closer to the ground as it did. More tongues sprouted from its head, tearing armfuls of drooping grass and shrubs and disappearing into the unseen maw, only to emerge again in a blink.

Closer. The bait had no chance of eluding it on their own - not even an expert hunter could have hid from that path of destruction. Nor did she, if she did not act quickly.

Esoteric though the words of the prayer might have been, Ittekka had been forced to learn to recite them almost without thinking, and they came to her mouth as a reflex after the first syllables. She still did not know what every part of it meant. It was a supplication, she understood that much, and it began with praise of the spirit’s power and wisdom, but the speech of the gods became too dry and intricate beyond that familiar point, and her attention was drawn entirely by the sounds at the expense of their meaning.

For all that was worth, the spirit understood. She felt the soil tremble slightly below her, and saw the shrubs waver as a disturbance coursed below their roots towards the grey bulk. It subsided as it drew closer to the beast, which was obliviously tearing through the grass. Closer-

The earth heaved up beneath one of the creature’s limbs. Rock spikes erupted around it, sending dark sludge spraying from gashes in its shell as its claws sank into the suddenly yielding ground. The thing cried out, a deep, rumbling sound that shook Ittekka’s stomach inside her shell, and raked the ground with its intact paws.

The earth spat out the mangled stump and heaved again, this time lower down the cline of the hill. The surge was not as powerful as the first, but its effect no less dramatic: caught with three of its legs raised, the creature staggered, its massive body thrown off balance by the quake. For a moment, it seemed that it might topple over and crash into the debris it had left of the grove. But then, in another display of unexpected agility, it swung a limb backwards to hold itself up, digging into the side of the hill with the others as it sought to seize and unearth the spirit. By how terrible its cries were, Ittekka thought it must have been fully capable of that.

However, the earthen one had been expecting this, and was already moving away, conspicuously shaking the ground in its wake. Too conspicuously, in fact, but, even if the beast could understand that, it did not seem to care. Swerving from where it stood, it trudged down in pursuit. Just the way it should.

Then she saw it, a small figure moving ahead of the spirit’s tremors. The warrior who had been the bait for the ambush had run far, but, it was clear now, not far enough. The beast’s steps were slow and limping, but long. It was gaining ground.

Ittekka knew, despite herself, that there was little hope for the hain, but the speed of what came next shook her stronger than the monster’s bellowing. The grey tongues darted out, longer than a tree was tall, grasped limbs and snapped them to pieces, vanished in a single motion. Through the few instants it took, the creature had not even missed a step.

When she shook herself for her daze, it was already far, though still perfectly visible in its monstrous size. She hoped, as she hurried down the trail of crushed vegetation, that the rest of the band had better presence of mind. As warriors, they might have been more used to brutality than her, though she doubted it. When people and beasts fought, they did so to kill quickly. This was more like an execution. She had heard that the people of some cities in the west, who had tamed great horned cattle, put the most heinous of their lawbreakers to death by tying those animals to their limbs and having them pull their bodies apart. It must have been a similar sight, yet certainly less gruesome. The foul giants were, after all, the most cruel even among the horrors of the Blight. This was why they could not be caught by any lure short of hain or human; they wanted to spill the blood of something that understood and feared their intent.

It was one of the absurdities of that evil that the most vicious of its spawn should also be the easiest to mislead. The behemoths had awoken the Ring to the dangers of the Blight when they razed Gisab two years before, but scarce a town had fallen to them since. Indeed, here she was, a decade after her second hatching, with but a dozen warriors - or so they had been - and barely able to speak with one spirit at once. The monsters were cunning, yes, and the same trick never worked on them twice, but they did not work as a pack like the grey maulers. They were always alone, and, while one of them could crush any warband, it meant there was only one head to fool, and it was, in the end, the head of a beast.

Ittekka dove into the undergrowth again, crouching for a minute’s rest. The creature had been thrown off its course toward Klegesi, but it could turn back any moment if they did not keep it busy. The rest of the party was preparing another ambush further ahead, and the spirit would need her advice again. Soon, before their quarry regained its bearings. They would not risk another trap like the first one, but she remembered some longer words of adulation in the tongue of the gods. Perhaps she could coax the earthen one into a bolder attack on even ground.

Every blow she could strike against the Grey Blight mattered.

***



There was evenness. At last. However minor, the new shape of the world brought relief.

Not complete. It knew that, outside the reach of its senses, the world still lived, and this knowledge was a subdued torment. Below, under the dust, the earth remained dense and compact. Animate motes crept through it.

Stretch devouring hands into the deep.

But that would take more time, and, for once, Osveril was impatient. Its cycles revolved sluggishly, almost imperceptibly. They were not quite still, but their grating was only slight. The hollowborn, feeling this restless quiet, hung immobile over the boundless wasteland around their master, like so many inanimate gashes in the fabric of the universe. Not a breath of wind could reach through their hungry web. All was silent.

The Hollow stretched its invisible, formless limbs, sifting through what matter remained around it one last time. Sharp immaterial fingers combed through fundamental laws and dimensions, twitching whenever they met an unclean tangle and doing their best to cut or smooth it away. Some yielded, and space warped subtly around it, quivering and rippling inwards. Others, the deeper and older ones that dwelt in all things, resisted. Little matter. It had done what it could.

Even with those fundamental layers still unscathed, it could feel the resonance that had led it there. The misshapen laws of being were like infinitely thick walls. When it scraped at them, the sound was dull. But not everywhere. In rare spots, it could hear that there were empty spaces behind them. And in some of these spots, something scraped back without sound on the other side. Familiar echoes.

Return.

Osveril knew it could not yet. Its body was itself, for the most part, and could not be left behind. But there was a chance it could see. Search for a new, unbroken recess in nothing. Remember for a timeless moment what it meant not to exist. The desire for this was almost as strong as the unremitting hunger for Purity. They fused together, became the same.

It will satisfy the Hunger was the voice of the yearning for I will see Purity as you knew it, and my discerning of it will be restored.

I must sense the Gap that is not hollow it said for it will be the un-force that balances matter when I will build the new world. Touch it, take it, transplant it.

Thus, the Absolute had sought a place where the scraping on the other side was loudest. Its creeping spawn had cleansed it of obstructing forms. The children of the void had deadened the interfering sounds of the world. Its own power had peeled away the skin of the wall, and now the noise behind it was almost audible. The barriers that still stood were strong, but it was certain it could reach past them, and it was never mistaken.

Return.

Osveril thrust Transgenesis into the dust before its feet and left it standing, the pulses of the staff’s inner light slowing to almost match the revolutions inside its form. Its raised its hands with an abrupt motion, and even more abruptly thrust them into the gaps of two nearby hollowborn. The living rifts writhed and crumpled, but did not collapse as they did when touched by matter. Instead, after an instant of wavering, they grew. Grew to split the air in the shape of the outstretched fingers, grew to engulf and merge with their closest brethren, grew to surround the grey body. No eyes saw the intricacies of their still motions, but that was not a loss. Had there been any, they could not have followed the weaving and swelling, because the outlines of everything and the nothings that was there were bending in strange ways.

Osveril drew together those parts of it that could reach outside its body and pushed them into the tips of its fingers. The amalgamation leaked out by the same ways it had once carved to enter the shell, first merely dripping, then flowing, then bursting. It emerged into the un-bodies of the hollowborn, which were by then a single one, gathered itself and dove inwards. Into the hollow, into the Hollow, into itself.

Past itself.

It sensed the wall now. Many walls. They were a maze with no entrance.

It slid along their surfaces, probed their recesses, pushed their cracks. At last, it found a corner that seemed more yielding.

Ill-made. Ill-begotten. They must all be unmade eventually.

Osveril gnawed at the corner, tore it with purging claws, beat upon it with a force it had never felt from that side. The walls shuddered, warped, tilted apart, revealing a narrow crack. Too narrow, in fact - nothing could have passed through it. It was enough.

The Void flowed through. Into life.

A life it had never known.

This is not the origin. Around it, if around there was, the true Other spun, swirled, grew, changed. It had thought that the shapes of the world were sickeningly many, but it saw now that their multitude paled before this. There were not more of them - perhaps fewer, in fact - but they were nested, scattered, separate yet unified in a manner that confused its senses. Here was the scraping it had heard, a deafening, jarring screech. At least, there was nothing that gave them substance.

As the world is an excess of matter, so the Gap is an excess of form.

Not entirely accurate, but enough for Osveril’s purposes. If it could but merge them as they should be, these two faces would negate each other in their greatest flaws. It had been wrong then; the Gap was not between, and did not need to be filled. The Hollow would be nothing, and It would take the place of the walls. The Gap would fill It instead.

Then, It would be Purity, and the pure world would be inside It.

This will be, but it was not now. Now, the Other lived, and it sensed the intrusion. Inward-bent teeth blossomed around the demigod’s empty shadow, ready and able to tear it into measureless shreds. Coiling forms surrounded it, loosening their folds to pierce and cut it. Shapeless gaps within the Gap opened in cold patterns to drink and devour. Imperfectly.

The shadow breathed its grey rot into them, and they did not shrivel.

No blight. There would be nothing.

Emptiness cracked and splintered, and the splinters grew into blades. My hunger is greater. The cracks bled out smooth, cutting tendrils. Slicing, scraping, constricting, crushing. I came to sate it. The mass of nonexistent limbs spread out and bit into its prey. Minuscule fragments burst to all sides, in both directions.

The feeling was unlike the world, but its echo was familiar.

Familiar?

Osveril inverted itself, hurling outwards its internal void. It could find nothing in the Other akin to what was in the cosmos, besides perhaps that both had different forms. Except for one thing.

It was one of the fundamental lumps it could not remove. So ubiquitous that the Absolute had disregarded it as one of the of the universe’s many dimensions, but this could not be true. There were no dimensions in the Gap, yet here it was. The void appendages tore it from the Other, stretched it out, ran along its surface. Even here, they could not unmake it. It was clear now that this was no dimension, but a trace, like the imprint of law it had felt on the bones of the world. This one was in all, and nothing.

The Hollow shade was about to draw out more of it, but a ripple in the twisting lifescape around it gave it pause. Some-no-thing was approaching. Even in this abyss without dimensions, it could feel that it was immense. So great, it seemed, that a universe that had measures of space could not have contained it. And it was dangerous. Its menace, vague but quite sharp and physical, preceded it like a razor angle, or perhaps it was a part of its body. Osveril doubted it could have bitten into the behemoth deep enough to know for certain.

So, it fled.

Its claws and scything arms gathered together and converged on a single point. The Other-mass that covered it was pierced and swept away, but it was not content. It delved further, gouging the insubstantial fluid it found itself floating in, and further yet than that. A spark, then a fissure, then nothing at all. It sank in.

There was void.

This was not the origin, as all things should have been, when time came. Now, it was no more.

The un-thing that had been Osveril, that still was Osveril somewhere where there was space, let itself be dissolved in the absence. It knew nothing. It did not feel.

Did not feel.

Except for one thing.

?

The trace. There was nothing, yet there was that trace. Nowhere for it to be. No way for anything to be. Osveril perceived it worse than in the Gap, as there was nothing it could feel through, but it was certain it was the same one.

It could bask no more in nothingness, now that it knew there actually was something there, but it had learned enough. In a fluid, supernal effort, it tore itself away from absence and crawled up. Up from the fissure, up through the permutations of the Gap, up through the crack in the wall. Up from the collapsing web of the hollowborn.

The Hollow Absolute was itself again.

The rift folded and swallowed its edges, having served its purpose. Then, unexpectedly, it burst outward again, blossoming with amorphous limbs and dripping, grasping branches. Grey soil liquefied and dripped up into the sky. The air lit up with sightless colours, bleeding into one another as hollowborn scattered in alarm. Coiling lines rose up from the ground, matching the horizon - before it disappeared - in their path into the Gap. Perhaps it was the other way around.

Osveril seized its staff and thrust it into the howling, irregularly pulsing midst of the eruption. The ends of the misshapen stretching holes writhed and crumpled, then the arms themselves, then the sky. Other, truly empty tears crisscrossed the gaping mouth. It spat cold, sizzling blood, drew in a breath of dust and vanished. The colours faded. The horizon was there again.

Not yet.

It cast out its still quiescent senses, sifting through every grain of dust, every disembodied hollowborn, every fragment of clear air. Everywhere, there was that mark of a preternatural touch.

The first measure of Purity is tainted.

Or was it?

It may be integral to the Void.

I will know.


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Tsoti 1 (62 PR)

As the sky went from a hue of dark bluish grey to a brighter, almost platinum color that most would associate with an overcast day or twilight, yet to people like Dzora, it was the start of a bright day.

The aged woman went to the lake which her tribe had settled eons ago but over the last century had become increasingly more like an agglomeration of people of all sorts due to the exodus from the core regions of the land caused by the advancing... thing. Nobody knew what exactly it was, but the once dark skies of the dusklands were slowly changing, and along with them so did the land and its people. One couldn't help but wonder if one day it would reach this region too, it was at the very frontier of the dusk, but it was within it.

Such worries did not really cross the woman's mind, trading the clothes she had sewed last night for food was a more immediate worry. She was not one of those who sewed with the fancy clothes the great leaders used, in fact, she didn't even know those sort of things existed until more people arrived, she simply made simple garbs from the simpler silks and fabrics she had access too, and it had been working well so far, she had enough to feed the family... and that one person who lived with them.

A priest of sorts, it was one odd young man, spent most of the day scribbling odd symbols on paper and most of the night running around going from campfire to campfire talking with people. He was enthusiastic, for sure, and it was the duty of a family to support a religious person, but she really did not understand that young man at all, and he barely spoke of the gods or did any sort of divination or healing ritual. Furthermore, since it was her young daughter who introduced him to the family, Dzora had this vague hope he was the sort of 'priest' who didn't care much about those rules on not engaging in mortal affairs and that he would help to make the girl finally settle up and stop with her ideas of being a traveler musician living among the luxury of the clan-courts. She was very wrong on that assumption, the priest not only was very strict on his faith, but he only fueled the girl's passion by talking about his theories on how music worked among other silly things.

A variety of mushrooms, some fish and a bag of beans, also a little jar of honey. Fish was something someone needed every day or two, all else would last for a bit longer. She was about to leave the market when suddenly she suddenly noticed a stall almost hidden in the chaotic jumble of shelves, baskets, tents, and goods. It was a little place where all sorts of fabrics were sold, not something Dzora needed since her family provided most of the materials to fuel her craft, but this one had something that caught her eye, among the many goods for sale there were silken golden threads. She had never seen something quite like that.

"Excuse me, but from where does this come from? It seems to be silk, but I have never seen something with this metal like gleam before." she asked, inspecting it against the dim light of the midday sun.

"It comes from the odd lands, my husbands were part of a group that tried to explore it." the merchant pressed her lips together and frowned. "It is why we moved as far as we could. But even here they still find no easy sleep, we might move into the Metzetzufivih"

"The foreign lands? Is it not dangerous?"

"They say the land near ours is not as dangerous, that some of us have found a decent life down there. But you are basically making your own home there. For anywhere but in the wildest of wilds there is great hostility."

"If things come that far, I wish you and your family luck. Ah, I have a priest living with my family, would he..."

"Sadly not, we called many priests already but none could quite help them out of their fever. Ah, and do not worry about the threads, I have been holding them for a while now and I have never felt ill or out of my mind."

"Ah, do not worry about such things. So, what would you be willing to trade the threads for? I have some fur blankets and wooden wheels that could be used for a cart."

"We have a cart, so the blankets would be a better trade."

"They are at my home, however."

"I see, and you seem to have already got food so it would be rude of me to have you go and then return. Will you be here tomorrow?"

"You could also go with me to my home, so you can pick which blankets you think will be better suited for your family."

"Would that be fine?"

"Of course, of course, a visit is always welcomed." Dzora had her chest thrust out and a satisfied smile, she was very proud of her home and to show it to others gave her a sense of pride.

"I see." the merchant turned around and talked with someone in a thicker accent, soon, a woman that could be deduced to be her younger sister walked in and took over the watch of the market stall. "We may go, should you wish." Dzora nodded.

The seamstress did not live all that far from the market ground, her home was a round one, bigger than most but not exactly rich. Like most of the traditional houses of the area, it was made of many lean-to partitions surrounding an open area in a full circle. (or sometimes a square or triangle, but Dzanya culture generally favored circles over squares.) The better off families had a taller wooden or rock wall with a door which served as the main entrance to the area, poorer families simply had a wooden arch at best, though some effort was put into that, not only because the front door was used to identify homes and as a symbol of pride, but also because it was often the place of many religious rituals to bless the family.

Dzora's was a well decorated one, the double wooden gate had a delicate painting of orange and purple flowers among many symbols, a little altar garden and a couple of whirligigs since it was wind season. Entering the home led to a small area where clothes and goods were temporally kept before leading into the wide open area that was the center of any home in the southern cultures under the land of the dusk.

All rooms of the house connected to this main central roofless room, though in many homes it was just a simple grassy area, in homes of richer or dedicated people it was often common to have more elaborate gardens. Dzora was one of those for sure, flowers were kept as well as mirrored fountains, where the mirror helped the water to evaporate faster thus making the air in the home fresher. By far, however, the fairest of the things in the garden was a young woman who was not-so-calmly playing a very calm tune on a lamellophone-type instrument, it was impressive how the tone was soft and nostalgic despite the musician's frowning face, also impressive was how she managed to keep a gentle expression despite the frowning and lip biting.

All of that attention would be suddenly interrupted by Dzora, who had, without warning, wrapped a string around the woman's head. She gasped, but the older one laughed and continued for a bit before making a knot on one end of the rope.

"What was that for!? You have ruined my music." the younger one complained.

"You will see." Dzora answered with a half-smile. "Ah, this is my daughter, Batsami."

"Ah, she is quite beautiful, like the visage of Momumepo." the seamstress told, perhaps exaggerating in exchange for all the hospitality, but not all that much.

"Bah! If she is similar to a god of any sort it would be because she has the personality of Llunarin" the mother added playfully, causing the daughter to yet again gasp and complain.

The stranger, however, was just confused. Was that not something nice to say? She did not understand the joke at all, in her homeland, the tales were quite different.

"Ah sorry, let me not waste your time. Here, let me show you the blankets as I promised." Dzora said, the visitor nodded and followed her into one of the rooms that surrounded that open area in a circle.

"STOP" someone suddenly yelled, causing the poor visitor to jump. "There goes my lle line and half of my nye" a young man said, sighing loudly and trying to restore the lines he had drawn on the ground.

Dzora cringed and moved closer to save face at the rudeness. "This is the priest I talked about. Nevermind his manners, he is a good boy, just... a bit too focused."

"Ah, I see, I am sorry, did I cause you some trouble?" the visitor told, looking at the ground and the odd symbols the man had made on it.

Without looking away, he sighed. "I think I saved the damage, gah, what a disaster." he continued to carve the hardened dirt floor with a stone knife.

"And what are these symbols? Some sort of ritual?"

"Letters"

"Letters?"

"Yes? The things that compose a word? Surely you heard about them."

"Do not be rude," Dzora complained, but the visitor did not seem to mind.

"Ah, I see. So... these are supposed to be letters? Can I make a word with them? Like making a number by carving lines on wood, right?"

"That would be the idea, yes."

"Mavadzugji is full of these ideas. He spends all daytime carving things or shuffling through leather sheets and clay tablets. He also has always something to say about whatever you ask him about, like, I could ask him about beans and he would have some ancient lore about it."

"Would he?"

"Beans?" he asked, having zoned out of the conversation to work on his letters. "Here in the south of the land under the dusk we make bean into a paste, unlike other regions, this is a heritage from the Llahinhar. The Llahin have a weak constitution and are sick at the sight of fibers and unevenness, which they think is related to Pudzutsa Mudzu."

"Llahin? Are you sure it is not the other way around?" The visitor said in clear confusion. "I have doubts Llahin would have invented something that we use. Gah, I hope I do not meet any while in the Metzetzufivih, from the stories they sound pretty grotesque with their beaks and odd eyes."

"You are going to the foreign lands?" Now the priest had his face up, a spark of interest in his eyes. "To where, in particular?"

"I do not know. Our plan is to find a place to settle, though I have been considering the cities, I heard Kiviko is quite beautiful."

"I would not recommend that, the coastland is dangerous."

The visitor tilted her head slightly. "But my older husband's friend said it was living in prosperity now, that they had a queen, uh, Hindja?"

"Runza Hindja-Tanfongje has been dead for a long while, she was also not the ruler of Kiviko, but of, well, Hindja." he explained. "Not that it matters, people of the coast hate us, so you wouldn't be welcomed into their cities. Furthermore, we are on the opposite end of the frontier with the coastal area, you would need to travel for many days westward to reach it."

"Ah... Well, then I guess we will be stuck with settling the wildlands then!"

"Talk with Mutaraka on the village upstream from here. Give me a moment." Mavadzugji stood up and searched his room for something, soon returning with a beige blank sheet and a sharpened charcoal in his hand. "I do not know if your family is composed of farmers on hunters, but either way you would be better off by finding the settlements with some non-foreign population as they could help you to figure out how to grow mushrooms in the sunlands or what animals to seek."

The visitor looked as he drew what looked like a map. "Oh, what is this? Some sort of..."

"Paper. It's made like hete, but the podzika leaves are fully dried up."

"Oh! I had no idea you could use podzika for more than just white dye and hete powder."

"He invented it," Dzora added. "But it is not very useful, not even for maps, it crumbles too easily. Notice how he does not practice his carvings on the paper? Not even he trusts it."

"Done. Dzora is right. Keep it dry or you will lose it. I do not think it will rain in the next few days though. Mutaraka can probably give you better directions than the map."

"Thank you again!" The visitor said.

"Do you want to see the blankets now?"

"Oh right." with that and a few more thanks, the two left to the room where Dzora practiced her sewing and stored her clothes. Mavadzugji sighed and went back to his work, back to the natural silence of the house, save for the melody Batsami played on the metal of the lamellophone. Dzora's words had accidentally hurt him, it was as if she mistrusted his plan to one day fill the parchment and paper with letters and words. He looked to his right, to the clay tablets which according to his father had been brought from a library in the coastland of the sunland, in them much of the lore and history of those lands was stored.

If the word "Dzanyawahar" had tormented Tihtzin, to Mavadzugji, the word was "Tsoti".
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The Great Artisan, Divine Mason, Builder of Civilisations
Level 5 God of Crafting (Masonry, Carpentry, Smithing, Alchemy, Armaments)

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The Meek
Level 4 Demigod of Crafting (Machinery)

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


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A collab between BBeast and Double Capybara


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."


There hadn't been any sign of Xos' personal presence on Galbar recently, but that was no reason not to be cautious. Masking his essence to the extent of his ability, the scenery flicked past Teknall as he blinked through the essence-rich Holy Sites which dotted Galbar. (Among these locations were the Temples of the God in the Stone. Was this where Belruarc had gone? And was that Vowzra's essence? These were mysteries for another day.) Then, after an inter-dimensional jaunt through his Workshop, Teknall arrived within Pictaraika.

Specifically, he appeared near a work site. Ropes, cables and pulleys stretched down a shaft, leading deeper into Pictaraika. Marionettes ferried parts and tools towards the shaft and carried rock and debris away. An iron steam engine connected to all the ropes and pulleys. The engine was fed by a boiler burning coal and spewing out smoke, with a couple of marionettes fueling and stoking the flames. And next to the engine stood Kinesis.

"Kinesis, my daughter," Teknall greeted.

Kinesis spun around, surprise and happiness on her soot-covered face. "Father!" She wiped her hands on her apron, transferring some of the grime, and embraced her father.

"How have you been? I see Ilunabar's given you a place to set up shop."

"She has. The technology pales in comparison to your Workshop, but this place is so big that there's always something more to do." Kinesis gestured at the shaft in the ground. "Right now I'm building an elevator. Pictaraika is layered, but there isn't an easy, direct, high-capacity route between the layers. Not yet, anyway. Building this thing is a good challenge. I forged this steam engine to provide mechanical power where I need it, as power on demand is another thing this place lacks. Although the solar forge does provide ample heat for metalworking. The marionettes are another matter. I've been able to tinker with them and apply a few optimisations, but making larger improvements is challenging. I can replace the wooden bodies with other materials to further refine them, but the real limitation are the fiberlings which operate them. They don't take well to metal wires. I've been experimenting with polymers, but the synthetic facilities here are limited. But they make a good workforce all the same, and there is a wonderful elegance in their design and aesthetic."

"You've been enjoying creating things, I see."

Kinesis nodded her head vigorously. "Yes."

There was a noise as one of the pulleys rattled, as its rope was tugged at from within the shaft. Kinesis stepped back towards the steam engine and pulled a lever. Gears dropped into place and the rope was steadily winched upwards.

Teknall glanced around at the working marionettes. A few of them had been built with bodies of brass rather than the typical wood, and seemed to be undertaking more complex tasks than the others. "I will have to show you the Prometheans some time." Before Kinesis could enquire further he waved a dismissive hand. "Another time, though. Tell me, where's Jydshi?"

"She decided to continue travelling when I settled down here," Kinesis said.

Teknall nodded. "From what you've told me of her personality, I wouldn't take her to be one to settle down."

"How is Conata going?" Kinesis asked.

"She is going well. She has found a nice community in Alefpria to set up shop in, and has been exercising kindheartedness. She's come up with a grand scheme to gain Lifprasil's audience." Teknall chuckled. "She has created a big metal cone which she intends to fly through the roof of the palace into Lifprasil's room! She's even forged an adamantine tip for it, and that was no easy feat. I can't wait to see her pull it off."

Kinesis laughed, but as she pictured Conata longing for her sister grew in her heart. "You will tell her soon, right? It's well past her seventeenth birthday."

"I will, you can be sure of that. But it would be a shame to let her effort go to waste."

There were a few moments of quiet between the two, then Teknall spoke again. "There is something quite serious I must tell you about, my daughter."

Kinesis bowed her head demurely. "What is it, father?"

"A murderer is out there. Xos; a shadow of who Zephyrion once was. He killed Kyre. He blew up the Celestial Citadel. He fought Vestec, Jvan and Toun, who were all lucky to make it away alive. He has stirred the djinn of Galbar into a civil war of terrifying ferocity. And he wields a weapon of such horrific power that it could shatter planets if used to its full potential."

Kinesis' face went pale and she cupped a hand over her gaping mouth.

Teknall put a gentle hand on Kinesis' cheek. "I tell you this to warn you. He may strike again before he can be dealt with, and I don't want to see you hurt. Stay inside Pictaraika for now. Keep safe, and don't hesitate to call for help if anything happens. Okay?"

Kinesis held Teknall's hand which was on her cheek. She nodded and softly replied, "Okay." A moment later, she added, "What about Conata?"

"I'll keep a close eye on her, you can be sure of that. Ilunabar should be able to keep you under her protection here." Teknall kissed Kinesis on the forehead then stepped back.

Teknall then inspected Kinesis with a critical eye. ”You’re not armed.”

Kinesis was caught off guard by the comment. ”No?”

”How are you meant to defend yourself if you are unarmed? There’s not much you can do if Xos comes, but suppose you face a stormlord or something? What then? We’ll need to fix that.”

At this moment, the sound of a metal clacking echoed around the workshop as a set of bronze pipes fell to the ground. Near them, impressively, was Ilunabar, who had entered into the room unnoticed, hands still in the air in the overall direction of the pipes she had failed to notice and failed to catch. So much for keeping a dramatic timing. In an instant, she straightened up her position and smiled as if nothing had happened.

”Ah, Teknall, it is nice to see you again.” she said. ”You wouldn’t need to worry about Storm Djinns up here. There are Julkofyrian-era defences in the jagged mountains that nest this region and my own measures too. Not to say you should not gift your daughter a weapon, those can be useful at times, unfortunately.”

Teknall spun around when Ilunabar announced herself. ”Ah, Ilunabar, nice to see you too,” Teknall said. ”I didn’t mean to detract from your defences, but times like these call us to be vigilant.”

Teknall hesitated for a moment, attention split between Ilunabar and Kinesis. Then he turned to Kinesis, opened his satchel and scooped out twenty five metal canisters with colour-coded markings. ”Alchemical munitions. Might be useful,” Teknall explained. He pointed to each different canister. ”Valley of Peace mist. High explosives. Cryogenic. Alchemists’ cement. Obscuring fog. There’s a nice recipe for a fire quencher I can give you. And then there’s black powder, made from saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur. Get creative. Test them out. I can answer questions and resupply a little later. For now, I would guess that Ilunabar might want to talk?” He turned his head to look at Ilunabar.

The goddess had moved towards the other two and was paying close attention to the elements Teknall handed to Kinesis. She made a mental note at first but then decided to just express her opinion out aloud. "You should teach mortals some of this later."

”Already on it. Many Sculptors are experimenting in alchemy. They are ideally suited for the task,” Teknall said.

That, however, was far from the main topics Ilunabar desired to talk with Teknall, though it was loosely related to one of her ideas. "I listened to your conversation earlier, I hope you do not mind, and it answered many of the questions I planned on asking you. As terrible as those answers may be."

Gently, very gently, she waved a hand behind her back. On the brass reflection of their image, the two gods started a conversation, their mouths moving in the mirrors while in reality silence still ruled the room.

"You said the Celestial Citadel was blown up." She took a deep breath. "I also take that, given your duties a god, you are good at identifying metals. Did you see a pool of mercury or a crescent-shaped golden frame among the ruins? There was this contraption I made. A mirror. A gift to Zephyrion's servant and to the god himself. It was capable of scrying any location on Galbar. If that was not destroyed in the battle..."

”I looked over the wreckage quite carefully. The explosion occurred in the main spire. Most of the Citadel crashed to the ground, but the uppermost rooms remained aloft. I did not find any sign of such a device in the remains on the ground.”

"The mirror was in the uppermost floor. I imagine a fight up there ought to have broken it, yet, there is the possibility it survived. I imagine I could break it right now, but, that would immediately attract unwanted danger. Right now I am casting an illusion so this conversation is truly private.”

”I noticed that illusion. It’s a nice trick.” Teknall then froze as realisation caught up with him. ”A mirror which can scry anywhere on Galbar, in Xos’ hands. An ideal way for him to track down terrestrial targets.” Teknall cast a very brief sideways glance at Kinesis, who was busying herself with the alchemical munitions. ”This mirror is your responsibility. Either option has its perils.”

Ilunabar shook her head. "Logos had no mirror yet he had little trouble finding gods.” she said. "The hazard is not in finding who is where, but in finding out any possible surprise party being set up. Luckily, the mirror takes time to focus and can truly only look at one region at a time, as such, much is probably lost to the user’s gaze, yet, there is the slight chance it is not lost. That could be disadvantageous… or maybe, it could be an opportunity. Imagine being told to be ready for a blizzard just to end up facing a heat wave.”

”One could find Jvan from orbit, and when Logos found me it was because I was going loud. But I get your point. Are you suggesting we construct a decoy?”

”Is that the right word? Nevertheless, I could create a constant state of deceit for mirrors, but the longer it is used, the easier it will be for some noticeable mistake to happen. Ideally, we would need to act only if we were to know for sure there is scrying happening. I reckon this is within the range of what I could do, yet I lack the technique to turn that into something real. The only thing similar to what I’m imagining is that hideous little device Lazarus used to identify even the most minute of godly presences, but I know nothing about how it can do such a thing.”

”Lazarus’ device?” Teknall reached into his apron pocket and pulled out a simple wooden contraption covered in magic runes with a gem embedded in the middle. ”I traded with Lazarus for this prototype. It contains data on the baseline absence of divine essence, and is able to measure levels of divine essence. It should be able to be adapted for this purpose.”

Gently taking and inspecting it, Ilunabar found more insights in the words of her brother than in the artifact itself. ”Absence! Of course... So that is how he pulled that trick. Considering how much I need to work with conceptual presence and absence when it comes to the Pictaraika, I should have noticed. Hmm. All I need to do is to take account of all that which is not reflected. Wait an instant.”

She looked at the gem for a moment, it was very useful that it used such a catalyst, as it made it simpler for Ilunabar to copy to process once she had a plan. Then, with a tap, she added her own flair of data to the collection in the device… and, in typical fashion, may have discreetly made a copy of it all for personal use.

”With a world of mirrors down in the Pictaraika, it all became too simple once I knew how to identify them. I can now confirm my mirror survived, though it has not been used in a day. What I did is better than just knowing if it is looking at you, you can outright track it.” the goddess smiled, there was pride in her face, but also some tension.

Teknall smiled too as he inspected the modified device. ”Excellent. If he uses the mirror to spy on targets beforehand, we’ll know and can prepare accordingly. This is helpful.”

”I hope it can be useful in turning the tides of this situation. Maybe… it could even help to find out the nature of the shadow and where the one who is casting it. Zephyrion was a good brother. We did not talk much at the citadel, but you just had to appreciate his sense of grandiose as a host.” the goddess sighed. ”Heh, to think I thought things were bad back then, what is a little moon being launched from orbit compared to god killers and all consuming voids.”

”Things have escalated, indeed.” Teknall paused for a moment, then asked, ”Did you receive Jvan’s message-in-a-brain?”

”Message? I have been quite focused on my work here, the Pictaraika might be finished as foundation, but there is much work to be done before it is functional, as such, I have not been at my most attentive, if Jvan sent me something, there is a chance I might have missed it, yet, her work is usually quite… sturdy… and this is my realm, the thoughts can likely outlive its host.”

”You may find it informative regarding Xos; it is a complete recording of Xos’ fight with Jvan,” Teknall said.

The goddess tilted her head slightly, a sudden urgency in her expression. ”Must not be a nice watch, considering your previous words about the fight. I will try to retrieve it soon then.” The suddenly found focus on it was not exactly born from a desire to understand Xos, though she was surely interested in that, but in a slight suspicion that such memories would be better off not left unwatched anywhere near Glamour and Dreams.

A loud bang suddenly rang out from down a corridor. The vibrations toppled a few more brass pipes, which clanked onto the ground, and dislodged dust from the walls. Teknall’s head turned towards the source of the explosion, although he was unperturbed. ”It’s just Kinesis trying out the explosives. She’s fine.”

”She is quite active! I like her, hehe, it seems like it was just yesterday that she was nothing but scribbles on paper sheets.”

Teknall turned his head back to Ilunabar. ”I notice that you’ve been working over in Western Mesathalassa, helping to cultivate the civilisations and cultures there.”

The goddess actually widened her eyes, she thought she had been more discreet than that. ”Oh, you noticed. I guess magical crowns and colorful fishes that work like flags had a bit of my signature on it.” she chuckled lightly, downplaying it. ”Mesathalassa is an unique region in its isolation. Not only from the rest of Galbar… but also from the intrigues of the gods, godlings and those exalted by the former two. In all honesty, we had one approach so far of serving mankind with godly empires led by exalted heroes or demi-gods. However, looking at Alefpria, Xerxes, Dundee… can you say it worked?”

”No, not really. Those civilisations blossomed in their time, but their growth was fully dependent on their divine patrons, who were themselves targets for divine meddling. Amartia’s power went to his head and he waged war on the pantheon, with well-known consequences. Amestria is now a squabble of city states, who could probably contest with Mesathalassa if they could move on from their god-king days. Lifprasil’s hubris led to his debilitation, and now Alefpria stagnates, although Jvan’s been trying to salvage pieces of it, and existing trade connections means it continues to be of influence. Lazarus- I don’t even know where Lazarus has disappeared to. Probably some experiment gone awry. Regardless, Dundee has been laid to waste by magma elementals, and the dwarves have dispersed leader-less to their other citadels and to their colonies on the other planets. But those are not the only civilisations. Metera is currently flourishing, in no small part due to Chiral Phi’s bureaucratic mastery, although they have little space to grow. The Rovaick have a fairly sturdy civilisation stretching through the Ironhearts, forged in conflict and hardship, most of that time spent independent of us gods. We’re yet to see the full results of Toun’s strong theocratic influence there. The region of Yorum also developed independently of the gods and other civilisations, although Toun has stretched his influence there too, but otherwise it’s not dissimilar to conditions in Mesathalassa. Vetros, though led by a mortal lineage exalted by Zephyrion, has also received little attention from most of the pantheon, and it is a flourishing place and one of the oldest single civilisations on Galbar. Neighbouring Rukbany has been around a similar amount of time, and has received even less divine attention. The Ogres have formed a strong and alarmingly expansionist empire under their immortal leader Ommok, although all evidence indicates that if Ommok is ever removed from the picture their empire will quickly splinter and turn in on itself. The Grotlings, the resurrected Pronobii, and whatever Vestec’s cooking up on the Changing Plains are too new to tell if anything good will come from them. The Valley of Peace, well, nothing really happens there. Then we have the Tlacans in Axotal, in the kingdom Tauga and Heartworm have been building there. We see the sort of rapid technological advance that is characteristic of god-led kingdoms. Yet…” Teknall hesitated, then continued, ”With Heartworm gone, I fear we may see another collapse.

”Then there is Mesathalassa. While it’s definitely been sheltered from most of the gods, it’s hardly been sheltered from you.” Teknall chuckled. ”While you take a relatively hands-off approach, you have been extremely active all the same. You inject cultural, technological and political pressure in just the right points to make things keep moving. And then you’ve just been dumping industrial quantities of dream-magic on the northern border, which is already producing some havoc.

”But, I suppose, your influence for the most part is covert rather than overt, and that makes the difference. We can see that the pattern of a lasting civilisation involves that civilisation being mostly mortal-driven. This gives them astounding resilience against conflicts happening within the pantheon, and, in the words of Phi, mortals are power; it is amazing what they can achieve if allowed to do so.”

Ilunabar chuckled. ”You overestimate how much I have done in Mesathalassa. The injection of dream-magic, or, in proper terms, Glamour, in the north is mostly accidental. Furthermore, the way I am influencing mortals, it has a certain philosophy to it, all of it is within the realm of the possible, futures that could have existed even in a godless world. All I do is to make sure that certain talented people do not get distracted by a small butterfly and end up missing the opportunity that would lead them to glory, among other examples. By keep such a limit, I have found I can do my duty towards mortals without ruining the, eh… organic aspect of their societies.

”The value of that goes beyond the lack of a reliance on divine sources. I have yet to find the proper words to describe it, but it is quite amazing… Take the gods they worship, for example, in one land they fused Toun and Niciel into one god that is both gentle and vengeful; in another, they think Toun is your severed hand; in another, there is no Toun, but many other gods, some of which are real. It’s curious how mortals can create gods with more ease than the divine themselves.

"I have never mentioned it to you, but in the Raka, I can access the dreams and tales of Arcon. It was a truly eye opening experience, as it is such a different world that the humans from there almost feel like a different species from the ones found here. Godly presence there was both ever-present and almost inexistent. Comparing what I found there with what was here was what truly made me question the godking empires, despite their great success at the time. This led me through many phases. At first, I thought about just becoming a distant observer, but I am not like Niciel; my hand itches to act even when I am scared and inaction is torture like no other to my mind, I watched idly as a city with great potential was slowly reconquered by the dust, that showed me I was taking the wrong path. I started to think about how means justified the end, and for a moment truly thought I could act like some sort of Phi, influencing the many pieces in a great scheme, yet, once again, I failed at that. When faced with a situation where my plan would need to destroy the happiness of a person who really deserved it… I just couldn’t, even if it would bring joy to many at the cost of one.

”Forced in a situation where inaction and action where both flawed choices, I was struggling to find a way to act. Thankfully, the Pictariaka and its archives made it easy to revisit eons of history, and Galbar itself held many living examples of divine-mortal interaction, as you mentioned. Post-realta Vetros, Yorum, and, curiously, the city of Thau, which would not have reached its heights had my plans succeeded. Unlike Arcon, Galbar needs some level of divine guidance, there is a reason why galbarian humans are different despite the relatively small time passed since their arrival, the hazards are plenty and in some regions it was hard to find an elder who had lived in the same village for his whole life without facing a tragedy or three that ruined everything they knew in instants.

”It took me a while, but I finally elaborated a plan and started to test it in Mesathalassa. Above all, the core of it is a just and impartial one, favorites would not be picked, if two warring cities had generals with great potential then both could be blessed; Instead of giving mortals knowledge or divine teachers, I focused on enabling local potential and, most importantly, making sure there is no great loss of knowledge and tradition, going as far as making copies of lost writings and reintroducing them to the culture. I applied some control of the nature, such as gently, very gently, manipulating elementals so they are more of the Nymph sort, which despite being a swear word that compares these gentler elementals to insect larvae, are typically much better to have around a capital than living typhoons, yet natural disasters, such as droughts, should be allowed to exist.”

Ilunabar sighed ”It is all very early, I am still rethinking much of it and finding new ways to keep a healthy balance of measures. I do not know the future of the region, that is the whole point of the system I am trying to create. As the grand parade becomes larger and more sophisticated and as the Pictaraika reaches its full functionality, I will probably have a much better structure to manage so much minutiae. In fact, I could even expand it beyond Mesathalassa, maybe to the successors of Dundee, or… well, to wherever a nice temple or palace would fit.”

”It is a good system. The diversity and creativity it spawns is quite refreshing. I’m still looking to contribute more to Galbarian civilisations myself. I spent a very long time as Stone Chipper, and while that has yielded a bountiful harvest among the hain, I missed out on contributing to the early cities of other species. It left me with a lot of catching up to do. The dwarves are probably a good fit for my abilities; they have a space-faring empire well ahead of their time, and with Lazarus gone they have no one to teach them vital skills to make the most of their position. If I can beat Jvan to it.”

The goddess smiled. ”I think it did well to you, to travel the lands as a Hain. Despite the dispassionate nature of your realm, you managed to stay ever empathetic to mortal struggles, and that is admirable. I am actually already acting a little on the dwarven successor states, a little mission and a lot of data collection. If the latter is of use, it is available in the Index, which is, of course, always open to you.”

”Thank you, Ilunabar. I shall peruse the Index some time, then.” There was a loud hiss of pressurised gas and a yelp from down the corridor. Teknall glanced in that direction. ”I think I should see to Kinesis first,” Teknall looked down at the modified Lazarusian divinity detector he was still holding and put it in his apron pocket before adding, ”and other pressing matters, too. But thank you for this good conversation.”

For a moment the muse had genuine worry on her face, she then shook her head and smiled. ”Yes. When you visit again, do not forget to say hi, this was a pleasant conversation despite the explosions and smoke, imagine how nice it could be with some tea, a quaint location and a brighter day.”

”Indeed. I’ll see you later, Ilunabar,” Teknall said. He gave Ilunabar a brief hug, then headed off down the corridor.

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Anshal's Lot


A dry wind swept across the flatlands bearing with it a storm of sand and clouds of dust. Even with that burden in tow, the djinn that brought this weather all flew with a swiftness usually relegated to the stuff of legend. Foremost of the vanguard was Anshal himself, master of the Westerly winds.

There were many among his vast host that traveled by Anshal's shoulder rather than in his wake, for he was not one to lord his might or authority unnecessarily over those that chose to follow him. But there was only one that was permitted to travel ahead; this was Rasp, the scion's only son, and even in youth he had already become renowned for his exceptional sight and aptitude for navigation. So when Rasp suddenly broke from his steady path to swoop lower down, Anshal and the entire formation similarly curved into a dive.

Before either they had even realized it, they had been brought about to completely surround an enemy scout. Perhaps this one of Komnestos' servants had thought himself safe, having evaded enemy detection, before the lightning maneuver had trapped him in the span of a moment. Now he was but one paltry eddy surrounded by thousands of great gales and whirling dust devils. Escape was utterly impossible.

Anshal praised Rasp with his eyes; that was enough.

The captured scout spoke first, but not with its own voice. It was Komnestos shouting through his vessel, "Anshal! We are at your heels! You will lose this war, and by the authority vested in me as the Keeper of Zephyrion's Storms, I will have you-"

"Enough. Words and titles are empty, especially yours." The great djinni lord clenched an asomatous fist and used his will to shatter Komnestos' bond with the diminutive scout. Then he addressed it, "He is gone, and it is no longer through Komnestos' will that you live or die. The choice is yours alone. Join my host."

It trembled, then found the strength to gesture its defiance. In the next instant, Anshal tore it in half with one swift blow. The closest members of his retinue grasped at the executed djinni's Flicker and devoured the essence.

It was over in a second and all eyes turned back to their lord, expecting him to command that they resume their flight. Even as they pursued the traitorous Boreas, they knew that Komnestos hounded them true to his word. Even if not for all that, it had not been through rest that he had earned a reputation as the fastest windjinn alive. Anshal was a demanding master, but in that moment he seemed distracted.

...

...

"Form up!" came the decree. "Our presence is requested."




The stratospheric air seemed as dead as the crumbling room it filled, so sparse that it hardly even disturbed the scattered bricks and mortar or the apparatus within. The only perturbation in that room was Murmur. Xos' lieutenant was gingerly looming over the room's strange mirror when the first signs of visitors came.

First it was just he smallest mote of dust wafting through the window, but mere moments later that turned to billowing clouds of dirt and sand that swept in through every crevice. And outside there were countless more djinn waiting; he had brought far too many to fit within the chamber. Never one for subtlety, Anshal had answered the summons--with his entire retinue at his side. That the cowardly fool felt the need to bring an army was telling.

"We answer your summons, lord Vizier."

"And yet I had summoned only one."

"Where I go, they follow; where they go, I follow. My lot is never divided. It is true that I am not an ancient lord, but my rule has lasted long enough that you would know this."

"And there lies something that must be addressed today: under your incompetent leadership, this war has dragged on when it should have been ended in the blink of an eye. Komnestos is allowed to rampage through the skies nigh uninhibited. You refuse to delegate control over your host in the slightest, content to fly about as a singular rabble while our enemies are organized and omnipresent. Look into this Mirror and watch the world below; see how much of it is beneath their shadow and how little is in ours."

"Under my incompetent leadership the war goes on? He tasked you with overseeing this campaign. I am left to deal with my rival Komnestos who commands both his legion and that of Notus, as well as the traitor Boreas. That I have held them at bay for so long and refused to take an unfavorable engagement is testimony to my sound leadership. Now, what have you done since the disastrous battle? Do I fight this war alone? Slag has been a most inactive ally!"

Even as he answered his Vizier with a shocking bluntness and irreverence, Anshal drifted close to look into the mirror as Murmur had asked. It had been focused upon an odd site in that of the Metran civilization. Mortals went abut their lives, oblivious as ever to the eyes of so many unseen djinn upon them.

"Know your place, fool! I need not answer to you; you serve under me, by my dwindling grace, and know that your situation now is a precarious one."

"I serve neither you nor Him out of fear, so I care little for your threats. I fight willingly because I respect Xos' inheritance, and I only suffer your orders and your presence because he saw fit to vest authority in you as Vizier. Just as my host is one of willing followers rather than mindless slaves and vessels to my own will, so too am I more than your slave. You slight me at your own peril, Vizier; we both know that you need my support in this war. While you have it, I deserve better from you, nay, demand better; and now I will have my questions answered."

...and just like that, the much older and more powerful Vizier was defeated. Humiliated even, and in front of an entire retinue. Anshal's brash reputation had been no exaggeration.

"Slag will soon make a strike, as shall I. While your orders were to rout out the traitors among our kind, I have a larger mark in Jvan. But there is something that could help both of us to this ends."

The thin air distorted in a quick snap from Murmur, the mirror shifting its focus such that it came to rest upon Vetros. Below, men crawled about the still-ruined city like ants as they slowly rebuilt the damage that had been wrought by the Realta.

"The Holy Land."

"Yes. There, in the hands of mere mortal men, is an instrument of our Maker. We would only need to take it, and then we would be able to wash away any opposition."

Anshal made little attempt to hide his simmering rage. "The King's Law? No, by Zephyion's decree it is theirs. There would be no greater dereliction of duty and breach of sanctity than to raze his city and pilfer it."

He knows the implications, and that is why he only suggests that I forfeit myself in its taking that he could evade responsibility. Our first Vizier was a complacent fool; now, we have a worm.


"You are right, of course. As loathsome as the mortals may be, only by Xos' decree could Zephyrion's standing order be overwritten. I will have to petition him... Until such time I shall say no more of that, and likewise I shall be silent in regard to your strategy for this war. But there is one thing that could still be done to advance our master's efforts; one thing that could tip the scales in greatly in Xos' favor, and that he would not object to; something that he himself ordered, before he left."

"Tell me."

Vizier Murmur obliged, and then Anshal and his host wordlessly poured out as swiftly as they had come.

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Tsoti 1





Tsoti 2

(62 PR)

Today was the first day in which ambers blazed at the center of the temple. The ceremony just three days ago still featured a fountain and the sound of dripping water filled the holy ground instead of the crackling caused by the burning logs. Temples needed flexibility to properly deal with the rites each epoch required, as such, the local structure was truly little but a wide hole covered with stone seating arranged in an enneagonal shape around the central area, during this time of the year it was covered by sheets made of thick cloth kept up by large wooden poles.

Temples were not seen as a public space but as the private meeting ground of priests. Sometimes there were events in which the locals were invented in and some sort of dramatic rite was performed, a way to keep the prestige of the class going, yet the location was mostly for lectures, discussions, and more serious and necessary rites.

"Dzuji, you should really, really pay more attention to Keho's speeches. He was staring daggers at you," said Tura, one of the few friends Mavadzugji had within the temple.

The priest shrugged. "Nobody does. Keho's fancy yet contentless talk is only taken seriously at feasts and parties. Thankfully for him, being from a high clan that can gift shiny donations is enough to be a master these days.

The priestess by his side sighed. "I agree he is boring, but, still... You should really stop picking fights."

"I already don't." he had learned not to.

"Well, can't say you didn't get a bit better. If it was poor me in your position during THAT I would have been told to give back my necklace and go back to my clan."

"That was a miscalculation. I thought the people in here were brighter or more courageous. There was nothing controversial in my speech, it did not break OUR lore, in fact, it exalted it further beyond. Though I also failed, I should not have questioned a master during a rite if I was not ready to defend my claims."

"Hmm?" that last bit worried her, would that mean he was ready to do it again should he feel safer to confront any of the Elysianite priests he disliked so much? She surely hoped not, after all, he had been doing so well for the last three years.

Her mother always urged her to dissociate from any troublemakers in the temple, unlike people like Mavadzugji, who had strong clans behind them, she had nothing. Her clan was once far more relevant, mine owners in the north, then the oddlands started to spread and the whole northern branch of her family disappeared leaving the southern side helpless, accumulating debts and favors until Tura was bound to serve another clan and very likely end up marrying into some backroom branch of a mediocre clan, in such a situation to just give up it all and join the faith was an easy option, yet the slightest of mistakes could easily send her back to clan life and clan duties.

Yet, she really respected Mavadzugji. At first, he had befriended her for obvious reasons, the man hated clan society, especially the leading ones, even his own. Yet, he also had a genuine interest in what she had to say, he did not care about the origin of her blood, from what region she came, how wealthy she was or that she said Je instead of Gje and casually used Ya and Za. In turn, she too learned to care about what he had to say, she had turned to the priesthood to escape yet she couldn't help but become infected with the man's admiration of the lore and dedication to understanding it.

"Anyway, heard some llahin tchiper is in a village to the southwest. Interesting, no? We have had no lore-keeping exchange with that temple in a while, bet we could get one." she told suddenly, as the last conversation staggered.

Mavadzugji sighed. "I do not think I will have the time." he told in a distant voice, eyes fixated in the fire.

This forced the girl to gasp. "What? How can that be? Are you some sort of impostor? I would never imagine you would deny such an opportunity."

There was no answer, if the young woman had not been so attentive she would have missed his only reaction as his shoulders tensed up. She took a moment and sighed.

"Are you alright?" she asked softly. Trying to not question him too much, but anyone would have seen by now that in the last few weeks he had been anxious and distant.

"Yeah, sort of."

She would take that as a no. "You know, you should not let it get you. You can't change the whole world, I know it is frustrating when all our paths are blocked and we feel insignificant but..."

"You are mistaken." he interrupted her suddenly. "First of all, we are in a prestigious temple, this town is becoming more relevant as the oddlands expand and the temple is at the center of it, we are the keepers of the lore that will define the next generations."

That was more characteristic of him, Tura thought, cold and blunt comments that offended many, but she had learned they were not there to humiliate or exalt his own ego, it more that Mavadzugji had to remember so much from all the corners of the duskland and beyond that there was little room left in his head for proper communication skills.

"Second... I am tense because of the opposite. Because I now feel I can change things. Actions have consequences... and if they are not good ones, I would be responsible for them."

The priestess chuckled at that yet her eyebrows denounced the feeling of surprise she felt. It was easier for you to find a Hain with skin than for him to share his feelings. "You are afraid of hurting somebody? I thought your dream was to cull Elysianite influence and restore the proper lore of the Dzanya."

"Well, it is not them I am afraid to hurt. It is more on the ground of... how I can influence the people. What if I, for example, said something that could in some way justify a harmful behavior?"

"I do not think you are capable of such a thing. You are stubborn and all, but you are a good person."

You are mistaken, he thought, but he did not voice his words. She was the very example of how he could hurt someone, he had always caused her trouble even if that was far from his wish. In the past, he had the excuse of not being in control of the situation, this time he knew what he was doing.




It was absolutely hopeless. He appreciated the mysterious kinsman for his effort, but the language used in that clay tablet was simply not usable. The person's ability in wordcraft was great but that did not translate to a great language at all. Mavadzugji at first theorized the convolution of the script was a result of influences from other languages, yet by now he knew how to read almost all the major languages of the sunlit south yet nothing came close to being this arcane in meaning and full of torturous rules.

One thing that it did greatly, however, was to leave no one behind. He had no doubt that it could work for any dialect or variation of the language quite nicely, it was not fashioned to only fit the needs of the clan courts and temples. Then again, since it took so much time to learn and another eternity to master, it likely did not fit anyone's need except the dubious sorts, such as spies, lawyers, and poets.

With such thoughts in mind, the next step was obvious, he had to develop his own path, the future of his people depended on it. He thought about just incorporating and adapting the systems of the south, yet they were built for different tongues spoken by equally different people. The man was sure none would fit the Dzanyarara in all of its graceful yet objective nature, furthermore, beyond the more conceptual issue, there was a more direct one, his language was built with perfect pairs of vowels and consonants, the added h, r, and n sounds being the one exception yet even those were always part of a group and never isolated. It was all very different from mesathalassa where the north seemed to barely voice the vowels and the south did the extreme opposite.

Another day had passed, and as gentle as the difference was in the land under the dusk, it still felt immense to him, who fell on the hardened clay floor and sighed.

Not too soon after, Dzora entered the room, looking both ways around the central atrium of the donut-shaped home. "Since it seems you are once again busy with nothing but groaning while looking at the ceiling, could you do me a little favor?"

His eyes shot up while he was still on the ground, his face leaning back so he could see the woman.

"Good. Batsami is going to the little feast our friend Mutaraka is making. I wanted you to go and make sure the girl does not do anything foolish."

"Wait, Mutaraka is in the city?" he questioned, confused, usually, you heard when the rich merchant from the south showed up.

"He is not. That is the little detail of our question. She is going to be traveling for what, three hours, just to a feast? I know our friend Mutaraka is good at showing his wealth but that might be a little much, do you not agree?"

"Maybe she just wants to play songs or something. Do not worry."

"Maybe I will forget which foods caused your face to go red next time I make a meal, but do not worry."

Message received. With a sigh, the priest stood up. "Well then, off to the feast. Is she off already?"

"At Hirike's. They will go together with Hirike's brothers. They should be off already, but Batsami being Batsami, they will likely be late. The feast is at Kutomiri"

"Kutomiri?"

"Upstream from Kutonyarhar"




It was a pleasant evening, the priest looked up with a smile as he observed the moons and the two stars along with the stark contrast between the dark lang and the brighter sky. Following river Kuto, the road was always a nice time, the river was gentle until it neared the southern border and as such was easy to navigate, even better if you could afford someone to do the rowing like the priest could.

Suddenly, someone gasped. "Hoh! Mavadzugji." a male voice suddenly yelled, before the man just outright started running towards the boat, following the shore road. "Seems like you have some free spots on the boat. Mind giving a friend a seat?"

He immediately recognized the man as a priest like him. He had little reason to be thoughtful towards him. He likely mocked him when he presented his theories, he had a little mustache which was just unacceptable, furthermore... While thinking over the reasons for him to be bitter, he accidentally made a signal with his head that could be loosely interpreted as "Hop-in" if you really, really wanted to hear that. The running man did not need another signal before he boarded the little boat.

Being too shy to say no when this close to someone he did not know, Mavadzugji just stood there, seeing the man find a seat by his side. "Nice! Thanks. I was getting sore from walking so much. I wanted to get some money to afford a new pair of shoes, but I missed the chance." Mavadzugji noted the other priest was definitely in need of new shoes, he was basically walking barefoot.

"I... could give you new ones? The house where I live has a few spares..."

"Oh no, do not worry. I would be embarrassed to rely on someone like that."

Mavadzugji almost rose an eyebrow, he clearly wasn't, free boat ride considered. But seeing his hurt feet, he felt legitimately bad for the man even if he was sure he likely wronged him in the past.

"I will get my money this night. I will be doing a little job at the feast. Few words, a bit of poetry. I got a long and clean Feh line ready, then I will follow it with a Fen and a Fer. Everyone will love it." he stopped and chuckled. "You don't care much about that stuff, do you?"

"Ah. Not really. I mean, I respect it." he lied. "But... I only have the mind to focus on the lore."

"Oh yeah. You do it well too. You... You said some stuff, long ago, did you not? I do not remember it well, something about... uh.... we being different from other Hahar?"

The other priest was shocked. How did he not remember that? He was sure to the core this man, Tzevami, had more than once laughed at him while he talked, recently too, and had done it ever since Mavadzugji fought with a master, just like everyone else. He was confused, usually, he was good at reading people's intentions, yet he did not notice insincere signs on his face...

"Yes, yes. Also that we were here before the llahin were crafted by Hanya Bupudzagje in his envy of Hatzi Momudzagje and before other Hahar left Momumepo's realm. I said that and fought for that idea, but I was too young, and could not really back it." he told nervously.

"It happens. You gotta get more people with you, a group could do more, get more information and also resist pressure better. Because like, people are attached to Momumepo, and if you come around saying we did not live in her land before being banished to the realm of Momuhedzu, well, they will get angry." he told distractedly, shifting through his bag and wrapping ribbons on flowers, making Mavadzugji struggle as he split his attention between his words and his actions.

"I... I know. I thought at the time the implication of significance to our culture would have been enough."

"The older people just don't care. Like, uh, so, imagine me, and you, and Batsami, and, who is the girl that you talk with all the time again? Toh... ta...Tura!" once again Mavadzugji was left surprised, that he knew Batsami by name like that, but he did not bring that up to not cut his thoughts off. "We all see ourselves as part of the same group, right? But if you stop to think about it, we were all born into different tribes. To us, that is irrelevant, we share a town and all that. But a lot of people stick to that, not only the old ones, we are lucky this region found peace, because to the west instead of living together the tribes just started fighting over each inch of land."

Each word of Tzevami was followed by a nod from him. He could see now that his observation was correct in all aspects. "I guess I had never appreciated this region for its peace. It also explains why the temple is so rich in knowledge."

"Yeah. Though not having to pick up a spear is by far the best part of it. Gah." the priest answered, before suddenly standing up on his seat. "Oh, listen to that. Rutohidzanyi styled music. The feast is here."

Mavadzugji nodded, then couldn't help but to stare while Tzevami started to separate the flowers within his bag, making sure each group of flowers wrapped on ribbons would not get mixed with the others. Too curious at this point he was about to ask about it when Tzevami suddenly jumped out. "I am a bit late, I need to do a lot. I will be going, see you there. Oh, and meet me later, I will pay my share of the boat."




The priest had some issues about Rutohidzanyi music being played when Auricolor was not the dominant moon, sure, twins based music was not exactly party like, but, with some effort, some Mepodzanyi styled songs could work. That aside, the party was nice, so much so that he almost forgot to keep his eyes alert for when Batsami arrived.

In fact, he did fully neglect the task until the last second, when he suddenly spotted the girl. Dzora had got herself some odd threads with a golden shine to them, she used them to make a hat for her daughter. The seamstress' work already looked quite beautiful normally, he had no doubt Batsami would look cute with the round hat on her head even if it used normal threads, the fancy ones, however, made her stand out, which ended up being very useful for him this night.

She spotted him with the corner of her eyes and pondered for a moment. If he had arrived after her, she would think he was following her, but, as he had been there before, she guessed he was story hunting again. Since that was the case, she allowed herself to smile and wave at him.

Soon after, a woman gave her flowers... not any flower, they were wrapped in ribbons. She looked at them for a long moment and then smiled, nodding to the woman, who soon left without saying a word.

He was about to stand up and go talk with her when suddenly he felt an arm touch him on his shoulder. A tall man was looking at him, his face was so red you could see the color even on the dominant grey of the duskland and his clothes sparkled with silver details. It was the host himself, Mutaraka.

"Good to see you!" he suddenly said, causing Mavadzugji to be confused.

"I don't think we have met, sir." he answered, wondering if he should add 'maybe you are confused' to his words, he feared they could be seen as offensive and he did not know how the host well enough to not use the safest of wordings.

"Hahaha, I guess you were too young. I barely recognized you until someone mentioned 'the priest sitting alone near the fire' by name. You are Tihtzin's boy, right?"

"That is correct, sir. You met my dad before?"

"Met..." this time he laughed loudly. "I fought by his side!"

One of his wives laughed and approached the two. "Do not let his words fool you, he fought with Tihtzin once in a festival. Not on the Sunland campaign."

"Gjah" he gasped at his story being shot down like that. "Anyway, you were with Dzora this whole time? If I knew I would have visited you sooner, long time since I last saw that fox of a man. How is he."

"He died sir. It has been a while now." he told in a passive voice, it had been so long, he did not feel much emotion towards it anymore, furthermore, his extended family had done most of the raising while his father was aways distant.

"Ah. I cannot believe it." Mutaraka was visibly annoyed at that news.

"I am sorry to hear that. Uh, your mother..." the wife started but was cut.

"Never met her in person. She did not live with my father."

"Are we talking about the same person? I swore he..." the wife continued, confused.

"He married someone after he returned. She is still alive if that is what you are asking."

"Oh, that is good news, I was worried for a moment. She was my friend back in the days." the wife continued. "It was me, her and Dzora."

"Such a shame, this always happens and I never learn, I always leave unfinished business." the tall man continued on his immense display of slight annoyance. "Was it an accident or something? A fight?"

"Drowned. He was always a heavy drinker, kept exaggerating more and more each time, was walking down the road and fell downhill into a stream, we think."

"That sounds like possible murder!" he declared.

"We checked for signals of a fight, there was none. Furthermore, he had fallen asleep on roads before."

The host continued to deal poorly with the news, he did not know the man well enough to take the worst of it, but he had a certain respect for the man, it was sad to hear he had such an undignified end. "You never know, in these troubled times the shady sorts get increasingly crafty."

"Oh look, the Dyetzu's Tsahi Pura arrived." the wife suddenly noticed. "We should welcome then, dear. And get 'everything' ready." it was the whole reason for the feast, after all. The man nodded.

"If you ever need anything, boy, talk to me. Do not be proud. Your father was a great man, and I can see that same shine in your eyes." Mutaraka told before turning away.

"Tell Dzora I said hi! Tell your stepmother she still owes me half of the loot." the wife added before following him.

Mavadzugji sighed. At this side of the duskland, it was rare for people to know him or his father. While typically he did not like to be linked to the old general, this was interesting news, he wondered if Mutaraka could get him some new tablets from the south, he only had the few he inherited. He had heard a counselor to Runza had been recording the queen's thoughts since her coronation, and of all southern rulers, none seemed to hold more valuable knowledge.

"Talking with the host, are you?" a sudden voice questioned. It was Batsami, who now fully believed that the priest was not there to spy on her, but was also suddenly interested after he talked with Mutaraka himself. Despite the way her mother spoke about him, with the ironic 'our friend', the family had little contact with the wealthy man. "Do you know him personally?" the musician asked, curious and very interested in the possibility.

"He knew a relative, never spoke to him until this day." the priest confessed.

"Hallelle, well, forget it then." she told, frowning. "Really thought I had lucked out."

"What is it that you wanted? I mean, he seemed fond of me and I would not mind helping."

"It is not something I can ask you to do. I just... look, forget it." she told, adjusting the hat on her head slightly so it stayed centered. Being such an adventurous girl, one would think Batsami would have ditched the light wooden frame of the fadjera, a type of round brimless hat, as advancements in tailoring made it unnecessary and only old ladies still wore it with the frame, yet the girl, ever astute, simply decided that if she wore it with the frame she would stand out the most. She was absolutely right, with Dzora's designs and her natural beauty the flat crown and straight look outshone the more flexible shape the others had.

The priest knew Dzora was proud of that, though she hardly conveyed it with words, she knew her daughter had the wits of a proper tailor. It was an often overlooked aspect of the vocation, at most it was the subject of local jokes about them being great at making ropes and finding out how thick necks are, but to move away from being a simple clothmaker to starting to serve the needs of the upper-classes one needed to be able to see beyond what was popular now and instead prepare to what would be desired in the future. The issue was that the musician lacked the one trait that was needed to even become the simplest of cloth wavers, patience, and that was probably the reason why her mother did not have a proud smile always on her face.

"Well, if you say so, but I would be glad to help anyway I can. Oh right, this reminds me of something, do you know any other priest of the temple beyond me?"

The girl suddenly tilted her head slightly, wondering why that question was being asked. "Tura?"

"No, I mean, not a... a male priest, that is." while many languages differentiated male from a female priestess, the most popular and powerful views on the lore and religion of the Dusklands not only lacked them, they avoided them on principle. Justifications were many, from avoiding favoritism towards Momumepo or Momuhedzu, to helping to keep the priests away from mortal issues, among others. Truth be told, Mavadzugji suspected it was just a desperate attempt at separating the temple from the vices of the clan society.

Now she wondered if the priest was not there spying on her after all. Though she was caught on a hard spot, she knew he was good at reading the emotions of people he knew well, so she did not want to lie. She was also good at identifying intentions herself, and she knew it was a rhetorical question sheepherding her towards a situation. It was best to be sincere.

"Tzevami?" she said.

"Ah, right. So you know him, good. He mentioned you by name so I was a bit suspicious."

The musician gasped. "Of me?"

The priest shook his head emphatically, "Oh no no, of him. He could be trying to break certain temple codes, or worse, he could be stalking your... or something."

Batsami suspect that was the case, but it was hilarious to drag Mavadzugji out of his comfort zone, the priest's dark skin gaining a red tone to it. "Ah no, nothing like that. He knows a lot about the lore behind music and song, and I have an interest in that, in the case you have not noticed."

"Wait a moment, have I not already talked with you about that? I was one of the persons who actually helped to formalize the whole thing, Tzevami had little to do with that."

"Ah, you did? I swear I do not remember it. In all honesty, I tend to zone off when I am playing an instrument, and that seems to attract people wanting to speak with me like moths to a flame." There was also a difference in the way the two priests spoke, Tzevami was objective and made sure he was introducing any information in a swallowable pace, Mavadzugji was more akin to being in the middle a river during peak torrent season.

"And it is not even like the people here are following the rules, anyway."

Once again she tilted her head, sneakily adjusting her hat which had once again lost its even position on her head. "But we are?"

"I hear Rutohidzanyi music, but I do not see Rutohidzanyi in the sky. Only the bright light of the twins."

"Well, we don't follow it all the time. But we will do one song for Mepodzanyi during the dances and one for Hedzudzanyi during the practice battles."

He rolled his eyes wanting to say it just didn't work like that, but he knew it would only drag the conversation further into bickering territory. Then he suddenly stopped in the middle of the eye-roll, raising his eyebrows, there was an overabundant use of 'we' there. Usually, musicians worked independently, and she had never mentioned anything of the sort.

She read him like a glove, seeing something caught him in her sentence, but she misunderstood what. "Don't worry, it is just a practice, not a real battle. Wooden weapons are used and while those can hurt, it was not like some as gallant as Llapur Dyetzu would push it past what is safe."

The priest looked confused for a moment, then he understood the close call and did his part to leave without suspicion. "I see, I heard Mutaraka talking about that clan and their army."

"The Tsahi Banner, yes. They have fought many battles against bandits and even outright robber clans preying on those escaping the north." there was a gleam in her eyes and a showcase of emotion that was not so typical of someone as sly. The priest started to suspect something, though by now he had many more questions beyond the one Dzora wanted to know.

"Oh, you dropped some flowers from your bag." he told, bending down and picking them before they got trampled. "What is up with these ribbons anyway? Saw so many people with them."

"Oh? It's just ribbons. Decorations. Surely even a priest knows what that is." she told, and if she had not shown such a sincere happy face a moment before he could even be fooled by her ability to look passive and put up a fake smile. Furthermore, she was trying to provoke him, usually, she did that to bait the conversation and the other person's mind away from the main issue. Those ribbons must have some purpose, he thought.

He wondered if he should press it or not, then Batsami moved forward, shoving him aside to stare at the main open field of the location. The warriors had moved in. As the use of Pura, banner, even though the group was not a mercenary one suggested, Tsahi Pura seemed heavily inspired by people like Mavadzugji's father, even their armor was similar to the one Tihtzin had.

Llapur Dyetzu walked in the middle of them, he, oddly, had a bow. Not a typical weapon choice, considering the nature of the dusklands, ranged weapons were not all that useful. To his side, his two brothers walked along, the middle one seemed proud, showing off a bit by spinning a knife, but the younger one looked quite miserable and if not for their similar appearance he would have guessed he was a squire to the gallant warrior. Probably of the pacifist sort, the priest deduced, much like himself.

Other armies, including the one that protected Mohavumika, Dzora's hometown and where he lived now, was there. He was quite impressed, so it truly was some sort of military event, what was the need for it though? The priest couldn't tell. He shot his glance to the side and saw Batsami absolutely awestruck by the warrior, there was Dzora's answer, but he feared to break the lady away from her trance to ask what were the circumstances.

Thankfully, soon he would get his answer, apparently. A woman stepped towards the middle of the field, being helped through the long walk by Llapur. She had scars fresh on her face and body and seemed to be haunted by something.

As she did so, the priest felt something odd within his chest. "Wait a moment... Where have I seen this person before?" he thought and thought, and then he remembered Dzora, that was the woman she was talking with last season, the one who took the blankets and his map. But... she did not have that many scars.

He winced, realizing what happened. Vultures were attracted by hard times. She confirmed it as she started to talk about what happened to the crowd, encouraged on by the host, about how her family was ambushed and how much she lost on that savage attack. Meanwhile, the priest's head worked around the why of this being the center spot. Not that he did not think it was terrible, but bandits attacked people, such was life, especially past the border of the dusk.

Nevertheless, he immediately decided to sink back into the crowd and start to leave. As Tihtzin's son, he was sure Mutaraka would ask him to join whatever was happening there despite him not being a warrior and he would hate that. To his surprise, that all was a surprise, it seemed the host had not told anyone anything beyond the fact the warriors would do a little showcase of combat.

It seemed like it just took a blink for him to be back at the riverport and away from the 'feast'. His mind was still on the woman and the importance that was being given, he told himself he would likely know the answer tomorrow as it seemed like it was the sort of news that would fly faster than lightning, yet, he couldn't help to make suppositions.

Considering how many days had passed, the fact she couldn't pay all that much money for the best river ferries and the dryness of the season making certain rivers hard to navigate, she couldn't be truly past the dusklands when she was attacked. The region was peaceful for sure, but attacks were not unheard...

The scars! He knew there was something particularly odd about the scars. He had seen them before, the oval shape and the depth, the distribution around the arms and shoulders, especially on the backside. Those were arrow scars, he only saw one man with those injuries before, his father. The people from the dusk favored melee in combat and traps in the hunt, few used arrows. It was more of a sunlander weapon...

He gasped, mimicking the reaction the crowd had earlier when the woman explained the situation after the priest left. "Oh kufu. I did right in leaving earlier." he told himself.




(62 PR)

It took a while for the conversation to move away from the hot topic of the attack. Especially with Dzora, who had talked with the woman personally. Mavadzugji now had the full scope of the situation, and while he was right in his deduction, the end result was not as bad as he thought. It seemed the festival was not to try to raise the people up for some war but to do a simple recruitment drive for more watchmen to look after the roads and rivers. Furthermore, Mutaraka wanted to send warriors south to better garrison the Dzanya settlements in the sunland. Yet, the priest couldn't help but worry about the situation in the Duskland/North Mesathalassa border, as despite the different circumstances and sparse populations, it could end up much like the Western one.

"Well then, we have been talking about so much, but what about Batsami, did she do anything questionable there?"

"She played a lot of music. Didn't even drink. I also discovered she knows a priest from the temple..."

"Tzevami, right?"

"Oh... you knew?"

"Of course I do. But worry not, that is just a little group thing, they talk about music and work together to find feasts and such, divide payments and gifts, and so on. Seems like simple young people stuff."

"Ah! So you also know the group as a whole."

"You don't? Oh dear, you need to work on your observation skills a little. And furthermore, underestimating a tailor huh? Didn't you hear the one about the gallows?"

"Sorry."

"Just joking. Though, since we are apologizing, I would like to say sorry too. I will be honest with you, I just sent you there because you seemed like you could use it, instead..."

"You couldn't have known. It was all very theatrical."

"Theatrical?"

"It's a thing Llahin do. Its like storytelling but the people pretend to be characters."

"Weird... Well, did you see clan Dyetzu? I keep hearing so much about them!"

"From Batsami?"

"Not only from her... but now that you mention it, I think she is my main source about their feats and courage and so on."

"I think she is interested in Llapur Dyetzu."

The inhaled and then laughed, trying to stop herself but outright failing. "Oh, the poor thing. I could have a crate worth of those golden strings from the oddlands and I would still not be able to be of a status great enough for a clan Dyetzu lad to even wonder about looking at her."

"Ouch." the priest winced.

"It's the bare truth. They also have couple based marriages, can't even remarry after losing a partner, so her chances are just extremely low."

"I am not the best judge, but she is beautiful and smart. Furthermore, you just never know, would you imagine the son of a folk hero like Tihtzin living with you?"

"Yes because I was friends with your stepmother. This is different. I mean, I would love for her to marry into a rich clan, but if we are to be realistic... I just can't support such ideas."

"Where is she anyway? I didn't see her during the morning."

"Oh, she left again, another evening, another party. This one is closer thankfully."

The priest raised an eyebrow, for reasons Dzora did not understand, he seemed interested.




He felt ridiculous, but there was no other choice. He wondered if he had openly wronged Tura somewhere, but he knew no one else who could help him with such an issue.

"Don't worry." She said. "Nobody will recognize you! These fibers look just like hair, this mustache is the correct shade of white and the hat hides your features."

It worked so far, but the priest who was already awkward was now fulltime miserable. This was the second party he wore this, following Batsami but trying to not be spotted. It was not the girl he was interested in, it was the flowers. He now knew the group, but not the odd flower exchanging. He had asked around the temple and even a few of the girl's friends but they just did not know a thing. Not even the local watchman seemed to know.

He had picked up a few noteworthy details, it seemed the type of flowers was not random, a suspicion confirmed by the fact the same sets were given on similar occasions, such as a musician's arrival into the feast. Past that, so far, he couldn't break the code.

Since Jofumidzanyi was the ruling moon, it was time for songs with string instruments and notes that lasted longer. Yet, it was Batsami's lamellophone that truly shone, despite being a relatively more neutral and quiet sound even when the moons favored it as the lead.

CLAP CLAP CLAP

The sound felt like nails on the gentle melody. Batsami did not stop playing, but it seemed like she was one more clap away from forcing the group of musicians to play a funerary tune for the song disruptor. Thankfully, the person was quick to read the glances and stop his hands.

Looking around from where the sound came, the priest gasped. It was not a local who simply couldn't resist the natural urges to follow the song but instead, the person was foreign. Like a moth to a flame, the priest walked to his side quite quickly, usually, he was too shy to introduce himself first, but in the face of interesting people, he didn't seem to think twice.

"Hello friend, are you new here? You shouldn't really clap during songs, we don't really like percussion over here. I know its odd, but it is how it is."

"Not too new, friend. I didn't know much about music though! From the words you said, I assume tapping my feet on the ground is also rude."

"Absolutely." he added. Taking a moment to look at this person. His accent was different from any he knew, his looks were also not one he knew, he had the facial structure of a human from north mesathalassa, yet his skin was not pale like theirs', yet it was not dark like those from Imga or some of the Dzanya, it was tan with a hint of a copper-like color.

"Harsh. But I will try to do my best. The girl with the... hat looked like she was about to murder me." 'cheese wheel hat' was what he wanted to say, a common description of such flat and round shape in his land but it had the danger of being seen as mockery elsewhere.

"I am sorry. We are hospitable people usually, but... well, some of us take music very seriously."

"No, no. I am sorry. No wonder everyone has been staring at me since I entered the dusklands!"

"Ah, no, that might have to do with something else. There has been an incident, foreigners attacked a local caravan of refugees from the oddlands...?" the priest winced at the sudden leaning forward the foreign man did. He now saw his hair was grey, but not Dzanya grey, it was aged past a natural black tone.

"Oh sorry for startling you. Used to sail a ship, so I have this habit of going close to others to listen to them, in the sea the voices have a hard time competing with the waves and the wind. But thank you for that information, I had no idea about this situation."

"You are a sailor? From which Harbor Kingdom?"

The man laughed. "I said I was in the sea, not on the coast like the typical harbor boy from Mesathalassa."

"So not from Mesathalassa! I have never met anyone who is not from the south!" now the priest was the one showing alarming amounts of interest.

"No no, think a bit east of that." the sailor said with a smirk

"East...? OH! From the Farevinde? Veterotse? Mahade?"

The foreigner took a moment tilting his head, trying to understand just what he was saying, the last one gave it away. "Oh... No.... well, I lived in an area near the great 'sandlands' for a while, sadly never saw Vetros. Nevertheless, it is not the land that is my homeland. Think east of that."

His eyes widened. "It couldn't possibly be... Halleperiha where Momuhedzu lives."

"Uhm, who is this Momuhedzu? I keep hearing the name but..."

The priest looked to both his sides to make sure no one was looking, he was about to commit a crime. "Llifeperatsille."

"Ah! I see. You can't really say the god's names, right? Oh... Uhm, no. East of that." he laughed apologetically as the local man's eyes lost that sense of wonder.

"Oh... Well then... East of that... Tzertseh?"

"Xerxes? No, east of that. Though my grandfather was from such a region."

Now he felt he was being mocked, east of that was the very ocean that was west of the dusklands! Unless... "Llorun?" he felt too tall and too human to be from there though.

"Hmmm.... South of that."

"Tabatah? ... Momuhnyar?"

"Greater heaven?"

"Momuh, not momu."

"Ah! Great Ring. Nope. West of that."

"I give up, unless you are born on the sea, I do not know what land that is."

The foreigner laughed. "Axotal. The islands in the Metatic."

The priest continued to have a confused gaze. "I am sorry, I mean no ofence, but I have never heard of such lands before."

The ex-sailor sighed, it made sense, only the most legendary of locations made it across the continents if they did not have a history of trade with a region. He was impressed somewhere as isolated as this land even knew so many places, though he suspected this young man was not the correct sample to determine the average.

"And wouldn't it be WEST of here, anyway?"

"I said the route I made, from there, to here... and before you get excited, no, I did not go through Alefpria."

"Shame. But it seems like an amazing journey nevertheless. Have you ever seen a tiger-horse? A whale? A llama?"

"Yes to the last two, never heard of the... OH! Damn it. Yan really did that, can't believe the maniac." suddenly the foreigner was snickering to himself, almost laughing aloud, before Batsami stared daggers at him for the nuisance and he went quiet.

"Could I ask what you are doing here? I can't imagine... you know, a sailor all the way up here..."

"Waiting for my wife mostly. And I am no longer a sailor, have not been since I was about your age."

"Ah! Is she from your island too? What do you do now?"

"No. She is from here... Well... Let me correct it, she is from the south. Met her on my first trip to this region. It was very different back then." he then smiled. "And I am a priest, much like you."

Mavadzugji gasped.

"It is easy to notice, especially since you follow the local rules of how a priest should keep his hair short and his face smooth. The costume is not too great either, though only from up close. The duskland favor disguises, it seems."

"I am disguised for a good reason, nothing shady."

"You seem like a good person. So do not worry..." suddenly the aging man looked up, rubbing his chin, the priest couldn't notice anything to justify such a reaction. "Well, that is my call. It was nice talking to you, hadn't chatted with someone since I arrived in here."

The priest barely had a moment to react before the foreigner was about to leave, but something made the man stop, almost as if he was unsure what to do. "Say... what is your name?"

"Mavadzugji, sir." he answered, causing the foreigner to grin and turn around. A few eyes were on them after they suddenly raised to their feet, including Batsami. The priest took a deep breath and looked back at the frowning musician. "Kufu" he whispered to himself.




"So... why were you stalking Batsami anyway? I only asked you to do it once." Dzora asked, sighing. She had to spend a whole evening reassuring her daughter she was not the one who sent the priest to look after her.

"It was nothing, just some odd behavior from her I was trying to understand."

The seamstress looked at him with expectant eyes. "Well, go on then. I am a little worried about you suddenly saying my daughter is engaging in odd behaviors."

"Well, she has been exchanging flowers with a few people"

"Please tell me its only the white, blue and black ones, not the expensive yellow or pink sort of flower."

"The flowers were simple, but the odd thing is, they wrap ribbons around flowers and it seems to..."

Dzora cut him off. "Oh, I wonder how she learned it. I have never taught her that."

The priest turned his head but kept staring at the owner of the home. "Taught? Taught what?"

"Oh, that thing with the flowers. It was a little thing I used to do with my husband. See, we were from competing tribes so it was hard to communicate, we could ask friends or servants to say this or that but they always gossiped about such topics." she smiled, remembering the old times. "After I was caught one too many times, I was sent north to live with a branch of the family. Met your stepmother and Vallora," Mutaraka's second wife, "there. We used to explore together and one day we found... fairies."

The priest could remember that old story, which both Dzora and his stepmom swore was true but he did not quite believe it at all.

"Well, while spying on them, we noticed something, fairies would leave flowers arranged in certain ways over certain places to signal things. I guess like hunters do in the south with wood carving," she explained. "So! When I came back, I had this idea. What if I did the same? So, I began doing the flower and ribbon thing and we were never caught again. Weird that somehow Batsami learned it, guess her father must have shown it to her."

"And how does it work?"

The seamstress giggled, it was funny how obsessed the priest was with such a silly children play. "Give me a moment, I will get a flower and be back." she told, before soon returning. "Here. What flower is this."

"Rotse."

"Right! First sound, ro." she smiled and wrapped a ribbon on it. "Now this part is less intuitive, it couldn't be too obvious, but this wrap, it's an I."

The priest's eyes widened, words seemed to barely form on his mind at the moment. "So... the flower is the consonant and the ribbon the vowel?"

"Yes. Oh, and pay attention to this." she took out a knife and gently took out some cloth from the extremities of the wrap. "A flat-ended ribbon is just Ri, but now I made it Rin."

"How many flowers are there?" his voice was cracking with feelings he couldn't quite decipher.

"Rotse, Djakaran, Tsumu, Kadja, Badja Fanyimuka, Potanyagja, Tzitzi, Gjadzara, Tura, Llinari, Matetse, Dzadzomi Fanyimuka, Nyilli, Vallora, Fanyimuka, Hongjo."

"Re, Dje, Tse, Ke, Be, Pe, Tze, Gje, Te, Lle, Me, Dze, Nye, Ve, Fe, He." he whispered to himself as she went. He felt that was a good combination, especially the way she pronounced it. It was mostly Dzora's local dialect but it had a few hints of the ones used in the north, especially the Dje sound. No Dye, Ye, We or the variations of Tie, Tae, that often popped up in the south due to foreigner influence, which did not solve his problem with cutting certain dialects out.

"And the vowels?"

"Oh, you know, just O, U, A, I, E." while the sounds seemed reasonable, the seamstress made a little movement with her hand, finger starting near her mouth for the O, then lowering with a U, raising to the left for the A, up and center with the I, before the whole hand was put in a horizontal and straight position over the neck at the E. He had seen people doing that spiral movement before, but he was finally starting to see the sense into it. The locals spoke the vowels O, A and E without moving many muscles, but U was made with a downward movement while their "I" was with an upward one. This cemented the priest' idea that limiting it to five vowels would be a good idea, even if there was some variation... a lot, in fact, in the west where he was born many lacked the I and spoke with a sound more like AI, while in the north the almost mute and very short E was changed for a longer E sound. Yet, there was always some sort of equivalency, moreover, the way Dzora did it seemed to mimic the rules of the R, N, H sounds used after vowels, which were global to most dialects and followed a simple upward, middle, downward trinity. This gave him the impression it was a natural aspect of the Dzanya language to have that spiral of vowels.

Yet, above all, it was still the flower-ribbon that caught his eyes the most. It was an elegant solution to the way the language was paced. Ideograms like an adapted traveler code just did not seem compatible with the word variation and pace of the Dzanyarara, whilst mimicking the harbor kingdom's scripts just added too much repetition with an unneeded freedom for vowels considering the dusklands had a hard syllable composition of 'Consonant-Vowel-(Consonant)' and had no natural cases of sounds that could work as either such as Y or W, proper language also lacked diphthongs. It also did not emulate the strong separation between syllabic units, words like Tarri looked odd when written in the southern code but with Dzora's solution it became a much more recognizable (tar)(ri).

"Did you know... that I was working with the language?" he suddenly asked the seamstress.

"Yes? You had those clay things and all. Why?"

"Then why didn't you mention this before?" he almost yelled, not out of anger but out of confusion and anxiety.

"Well... this is just a child's play, and when you tried to explain how to 'read' those tablets it sounded so confusing and complex, you could fill your whole room with so many symbols. Talking about something so simple would likely just annoy you, I thought."

"No... On the contrary. I was searching for something simple but could only find complex solutions. Yours work perfectly."

"Ah... Well then, you are welcome." she chuckled. "But let me tell you, its hard to buy all those flowers and cloths for ribbons, there was one time during winter where I was all out of Nyilli blooms to..."

"Oh, I do not mean the whole thing, just the structure."

"I had you for a moment but I think I lost you again."

"Let me show you." he quickly took the knife she had used on the ribbon and started carving on the ground. "I will turn the Rotse into a vertical line... then the ribbon into a horizontal line... and in the right end of the horizontal line, a little stroke to..."

"Oh, Rin, I see." the seamstress nodded, looking with curiosity at the symbol. Mavadzugji saw it as well. He finally had it. He could have had it much earlier too, had he only considered that one joke.
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Hidden 1 yr ago 1 yr ago Post by Muttonhawk
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Muttonhawk Let Slip the Corgis of War

Member Seen 11 hrs ago

Turn 13

This turn's era: 10 to 85 years Post Realta (PR)

Might Limit for Level 1-5 Characters: 45
Might Limit for Level 6-10 Characters: 50
Might Limit for Level 11-15 Characters: 55
Fate's Might Pot: 174.5
[+3 from Logos, +4 from Ull'Yang]


God Name - God Level - God Might - God Freepoints

Astarte - L6 - 46.5 MP - 9 FP

Belruarc [NPC] - L7 - ?? MP - ?? FP <Subsumed into Gadar/Belru-Vowzra>

Gadar/Belru-Vowzra - L9 - 31.5 MP - 9 FP

Ilunabar - L9 - 34 MP - 1 FP

Jvan - L6 - 21 MP - 3 FP

Logos [Dis boi's hiding] - L7 - 50 MP - 10 FP <3 MP overflow went to Fate's might pot>

Niciel - L4 - 36 MP - 8 FP

Teknall - L5 - 40.5 MP - 2 FP

Toun - L8 - 48 MP - 5 FP

Ull'Yang [Dis boi's hiding] - L5 - 50 MP - 11 FP <4 MP overflow went to Fate's might pot>

Vestec - L4 - 34 MP - 5 FP

Zephyrean Pantheon - L9 - 34 MP - 4 FP

-------

Demigod Name - Demigod Level - Demigod Might - Demigod Worshippers (1 Might for every 1000 to a max of 4 Might)

Belvast [NPC] - L3 - 30 MP - 82,531 W

Lifprasil [NPC] - L1 - 32 MP - 0 W
I'm sure this guy still has worshippers, but they were never declared...

The Bard [NPC] - L4 - 29 MP - 82,531 W

Amartía - [Stripped of divinity by Vestec] - 1,193 W

Keriss - [Reformed into Avulus]

Lazarus - L2 - 6 MP - 2,066 W

Kinesis - L4 - 30.5 MP - 0 W

Conata - L1 - 25 MP - 550 W

Helvana - L3 - 10 MP - 51 W

Farxus - L5 - 13 MP - 0 W
Remember to update the spreadsheet with your holy site income and a link to the latest post where you spent might, you silly goose!

Maeus [NPC] - L1 - 20 MP - 0 W

Thacel [NPC] - L3 - 13 MP - 0 W

Jydshi - L1 - 11.5 MP - 0 W

Osveril - L2 - 6.5 MP - 0 W
Guess who else is a silly goose for not adding a link to their last might-spending in the spreadsheeeeet~~

Avulus - L1 - 8 MP - 0 W


- We have slid forward 5 years in our time window, otherwise pretty much all of our ongoing mortal-pace stories would abruptly end.

- BBeast did the spreadsheet validation this time. Direct torches and pitchforks his way.

Do not hesitate to ask any questions/corrections you may have.
Hidden 1 yr ago Post by Double Capybara
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Double Capybara Thank you for releasing me

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Nokeyeor 1 - Nokeyeor 2 - Nokeyor 3 - Mesathalssa Divinus Wikia page

Tsoti 1Tsoti 2







Tsoti 3 (63 PR)

Family houses in the duskland are typically doughnut-shaped, with all rooms being connected to a central atrium/courtyard. This shape provides security, ventilation and makes it easy to illuminate a whole home with a single light source. Though the homes are overall larger than the typical Galbarian family home, they also house more people and use fewer materials (in comparison to homes of similar proportion), provided the majority of the rooms are open, with no walls between them and the central atrium. It is usually advised to have at least one closed room, as they are better for storage and can be used in an emergency such as a storm, but richer families typically can afford more of them.

Dzora's house was two-thirds open, though recently, while the number of walled rooms continued the same, the number of rooms that had a vision of the atrium decreased. This was due to a series of blankets hanging from the roof support beams. The arrival of the priest Mavadzugji a good while ago had changed some of the habits of the house, especially noticed by the daughters of Dzora, though with time they had all adapted and got accustomed to the new arrival, all that changed recently, as the priest had been bringing a whole lot of other priests to the home and tensions were high.

Batsami, as the youngest, therefore the one who stayed at home the most, was by far the most vocal on her displeasure over the constant presence of strangers. Even Tzevami, her friend on the bard life, was not free from annoying her. It was just unfair, to her the whole point of having a home was to practice music without worrying about judgment and to relax on a hammock, dressed on just the most basic of clothes, gazing upon the central garden.

To her displeasure, Dzora was actually enjoying it. The matriarch loved guests, and to have the constant flow of guests in and out was like a blessing. She had even increased the house's spending on food, often serving guests with not only the best fishes from the lakes, rivers, and swamps but also frogs, prawns and some birds even, all of them not served on a raw grilled manner but often coated in honey, herbs or pepper and accompanied by mushrooms. There were also many after-lunch treats, from a variety of teas, following the three traditional Dzanya styles of tea but mostly focusing on the root-based earthly ones such as ginger tea, to confections made from the Tsefo seeds covered in honey.

It was awkward to have so many rags hanging around to give the home some privacy, but the issue to her was more on the poor quality of the fabrics instead of the whole situation.

The priest himself also was not too keen on having everyone in the home, but there was no other way around. No one else that cared about him had a semblance of wealth, not Tura, not Tzevami, nor any of the others the priests who became interested in his work, Tahtse, Gjenyo, Bohifir, Bedju, among others who showed up less regularly. It seemed very much Mavadzugji was far more popular with the younger and non-noble priests.

Of all of those, only Tura and Tzevami had fully learned how to write using the adapted script. While he had suggested The Madja, the flower, as the name of the script, the name that truly struck with everyone was simply Huto Pudji, whose meaning is something like "Word List". It was the first time ever Mavadzugji felt himself on the other end of the conflict between fancy and embellished against practical and proper, it was ironic this was also the first time the latter won without contest.

Another lost battle for the priest had been the division of tasks. To write down the lore of the dusklands was always his primary objective, yet, as he was the only one who knew southern languages, he was asked, if not tasked, to do the translations of a variety of Mesathalassan works first, then set down on writing the lore. It was obvious Mavadzugji was the central force of the circle of Tsefo, yet, with his social inability and Tura and Tzevami's uncanny ability to always sound reasonable, he was often finding himself with considerable less liberty than when he worked alone.

He could not complain, he was happy he now had some voice and a sense he was truly changing the direction society was taking, people now spoke of his circle of influence, nicknamed Tsefo which was a word as tricky as Dzanya, it could mean seed or origin but was also the name of the area near the fork of the great river that ran in the center of the dusklands where some said the first Dzanya civilizations emerged (the mythical status had only increased when the land was overtaken by the oddlands more than sixty years ago.), and as such, the name became associated with the common 'proper' Dzanya ways, mostly etiquette, and then slowly evolved into a concept unclear but well-regarded thanks to the overuse of it by the rich and noble.

The finishing stroke of the symbolism was the fact the very name was also linked with a plant also found in the central region of the Dusklands, it was in old times the staple food of the land, but now it had been overtaken by Cassava and Beans, which were far easier to produce and provided far more food. Tsefo remained being planted because its symbiotic relation with Dzanya Threads, Dzanya was an old word with a meaning close to 'starry twilight with a colorful horizon' and the threads when waved could reproduce such image, however, for such threads to be produced one needed to first plant Tsefo, let the plants go through its natural life only harvesting the edible seeds, then plant Dzanya Madja among the fallen stalks and leaves, once the flood season came and the waters of the sparkling central rivers flooded, the unique sort of lotus flower would bloom. A plantation-worth of those would, at the best of the years, only produce enough fibers for one to barely cover his palm with the fairest of textiles. Tsefo preluded Dzanya, and Mavadzugji hoped that was also the figurative case here.

It was Tzevami who came up with the naming convention, Mavadzugji discovered well after the bard-priest had whispered about the group to everyone under his influence, his knowledge of words and wording was truly something else, but the priest still felt his ways, worldviews, and habits of taking creative liberties, would not be the best to write down the lore and the stories of the land, which was why he wanted to rush forward and do those first and then work on the translations.




It was past late-night, the priests were long gone back to their homes, the house had long gone to sleep, yet Mavadzugji remained up, scribbling on his papers while sipping on the fire tea, a drink made from a variety of roots, leaves, and berries, it tasted way too bitter and spicy, but the pungent mix kept sleep away.

"Fi Tsoti va Rin djoh Dzi"

'The history of the stars and the sun'. It was one of the many tales dealing with the Heavenly Realm and its inhabitants. A fairly unimportant tale on first glance, dealing merely with the creation of the stars and the sun, but Mavadzugji noticed two things about it. First, that it was the first of all tales, as most heavenly tales mentioned stars. Second, that it introduced many of the core values of other tales without as much focus on them, the tale of Llunyarin's patience and evenness creating the gentle starts while Hufangjerin eagerness and desire of glory gave the world the blinding sun had a very similar female/male duality as the very core tale of the mythology, the tale of the heavenly twins.

It was thankful he had developed the paper, as he was constantly restarting his project from the scratch, had he been using tablets it would have provided enough material for a palace to be built, surely. This was an easy tale, it did not truly change radically from region to region, which meant he had not to think about the whole and just write it down, yet, each oral telling added or removed certain details at random, wording and phrasing also changed immensely. He would need to pick a path, and any misstep would leave a scar on a very holy text.

He prayed for the gods to whisper the right decisions into his ears, but no sort of muse gifted him with clarity. Eventually, not even the fire tea could keep the sleep at bay, at best keeping the fortress gates barricaded on a last-ditch effort.

"Hallelle. You are going to kill yourself if you keep abusing fire tea like this."

A voice said, and the drowsy priest looked back to see Batsami behind him. "Sorry." was the best he could mumble. "Did I wake you? I do not remember... making noises."

"I am a musician, I have trained ears similar to that of a hunter, and to me, that scribbling and the fire on the candle were loud enough," she said, it was a bit of a lie, in truth, she simply noticed the ginseng reserves which she used to keep focus while playing songs vanishing as if someone was using it on a daily basis.

He stopped for a moment. "Sorry."

She shot her eyes up for a moment then glanced back at him. "Why must you write so late in the night anyway? Isn't the whole point of those little infernal reunions during the day to write things?"

"Yes but... uh... how can I say this... I feel I have more freedom during the night."

She knew very little of the situation, but she could connect the dots, she knew Tzevami was very active and very prone to taking the lead, after all, he had come into the little bardic group last yet quickly rose as the central piece of any plan or idea.

"And about the reunions, I am trying to move them elsewhere, the temple is not a good place for this, but there are other similar locations... I know it has been annoying you, to always have listeners to your practicing... to be forced to wear outwear at home... sorry."

"Well, please do change the location..." she said in pure honesty. "But do not be hasty, it is not the end of the world for me," she added. There was no response from the priest, who just looked at her with a confused sleepy glance.

"Furthermore, you are never going to fix your situation without proper sleep, so no more fire tea for you," she added, confiscating the jug of tea he had made. "I will prepare you a cold passion fruit juice to help your sleep." She noticed how she was copying Dzora's harsh but helpful tone with her voice and she found herself wondering why she was even bothering with all of this.




A few days later, an unexpected visit pulled the rope to swing the bell at the front of Dzora's home.

"Hello. I would like to talk with the priest Mavadzugji." the voice had a thick accent but the pronunciation of the words was ideal.

The one who went to the home entrance was Dzora's husband, quiet man, hard-working, he looked the figure up and down, noticing he was surely not from these lands. Shrugging and nodding to the man, he soon entered the home and stopped by the door to the priest's room.

"Boy," he said, making a movement with his head towards the entrance. The priest stopped writing and nodded to the man, no further words were exchanged between them. The first time Mavadzugji faced such behavior, he thought it was something personal, but the man truly avoided speaking with pretty much everyone. No wonder Dzora was impressed he thought a whole language to their daughter.

"You..." he gasped, seeing the sailor he had met a few seasons ago waiting for him at the door.

"Me indeed," he answered with a wide grin. The joke would go past the priest.

"Why are you here?"

"Denolyo." he said. "That is my name. You gave me your name last time, and now I am returning the favor."

"You got me into trouble." he sighed, but the foreigner smiled.

"Did I? That little trick I played on you, did it have any positive effect?" The smile turned into a wide smirk.

The priest suddenly stopped and looked up at him, now that he mentioned it, he couldn't help but realize that yes, he making Mavadzugji reveal himself led to him speaking with Dzora which led to him learning the secret of the flower language.

Seeing the boy's wide eyes, he outright chuckled. "I see that it did. Of course, the oracles never lie."

So he was some sort of fortune teller, the priest thought. He did not believe in those, even when they had some sort of result, after all, nothing in the Dzanya lore told about destinies. The Llahin Kiper agreed, saying oracles were little but lucky charlatanism.

"Well, I guess sometimes oracles get things right." he told distractedly. "Is this why you came? To see if your work showed results?"

The sailor now laughed. "No, no, much better than that. I was going to invite you to my abbey."

"I have no interest in leaving my faith for yours, may that be understood." he told in a snappish manner, looking suddenly cold if not angry.

"I know you won't, but you are interested in learning, right? I was in the market earlier and saw you hunting for any information on tablets from the south... I have a few of those at home."

That was more in the line of the priest's interests, but still, he was not sure he trusted the Denolyo at all. "I have a few too, fifteen works."

"Interesting. I imagine it is a collection of the essential, but surely you will find some of your interest in my collection, which is on the hundreds and includes works from not only Mesathalassa but also every corner of the world I visited."

"That... You would need a big home to store all of that."

"Why yes, it is a big home. But not all of it is clay, I have plenty of papyrus and paper works too. Just like the ones you did. Curious isn't it? How things can be invented by different people in different contexts."

"Still, I understand you might be generous, but I have met you only once, and while you seem to be a fine person, to travel to distant lands with someone needs a bit more of trust than that."

Denolyo chortled at his precaution, if he wanted to murder him or enslave him, he could have done that on the first time they met. "Tricky situation, I do not know what I can do to gain your confidence and I will leave tomorrow. Shame! I bet you would have loved some of the work I have in the abbey, Runza's biography, Kivicois poetry... Maybe I could bring them to you later if I ever managed to return here. Though it was so hard to get the local guards to trust me once, I imagine the second time should be easier."

He gulped, glancing around uneasily and avoiding to meet the foreigner's eyes. "It is not that I don't trust you... Uh... I just really can't" he told is a sheepish voice.

This actually made Denolyo raise his eyes in surprise, the young man, now looking more like a boy, seemed to have such an interest in so many things, and from what he had gauged by talking to others, he was by far the most knowledge dusklander he had met. "Why is that? I really won't try to convert you, friend," he asked, incredulous.

"There are... personal troubles." with the sudden interest in his ideas, in a reformation of Dzanya culture, in the retaking of the temple's tasks to create a unified lore, his group was growing. He felt... he had to be here, to act, even if he did not know how, else he would see his one chance of making a difference slip away.

"Are you sure? My wife is an excellent wayfarer, and she makes yearly visits to the duskland and Pantalei, she could guide you back in less than one year." The sailor turned priest said, he just felt it was a shame, even if he and the boy did not agree on worldviews, sharing knowledge was a must, especially knowing the fate that this land and these people were heading to.

"I am sure, I thank you again, but I must say no."

With a mouth pinched and crossed arms, the foreigner sighed. "Well then... if that is your decision," he told is a far duller tone. "I might still be here tomorrow, in case a night of sleep change your mind."

Mavadzugji stood still for a few moments, and only way after Denolyo left that he reacted, sighing and turning around. Two steps in, and he was punched in the shoulder by delicate hands.

"What are you doing?" Batsami asked.

"What?"

"Why did you not accept his offer? Are you stupid or what? You spent so much time in the markets searching for those things and you just say no to this."

"You eavesdropped me?"

"Details, details. Now come on, explain to me this decision."

"I... just felt like I am needed here. If I leave now, Tsefo will move on without me."

The musician for a moment looked like she got it, she made a slight movement that could be easily understood as a nod and then looked away, pensive. The priest waited a moment to see if she had more to say, but then shrugged and turned back to the room where he scribbled things.

"You... are a shipwreck." Batsami suddenly told. "Been talking with Tura, you know? Ever since our talk on that night a few days ago. Confirmed what I feared, you are the dumbest smart person I have ever met. Good memory, good deducing, but by the gods are you witless."

This made the priest turn and tilt his head with a slightly surprised face, this was way too far from her typical teasing and had wandered straight into offense territory. "I already said I will move the priests away soon, no need to be angry at me."

"You think I am angry because of that? Oh no no, I could perhaps stand you being such a nuisance if I knew you were doing things right, but, well, you ain't. All my beauty sleep lost, all the times I couldn't play my song because of noise, the fact you took my personal room for yourself forcing me to move my hammock to the room where my other sisters slept, all that for naught." she bemoaned dramatically.

Mavadzugji was simply confused, flinching back slightly, looking around to see if anyone was seeing the scene. Then Batsami regained her composure and handwaved the hair away from her face.

"Given such circumstances, I am forced to take action. I will be your Manyadjir."

"Manyagjir!?" he echoed, absolutely confused, outright opening his mouth. Many families in Dzanya were typically entirely dedicated to one area, there where goatherder families, farmer families, tailor families, and so on. Typically, an easy way to join such professions was to be adopted or marry into those families. However, there were times in which adoptions or marriages worked differently, instead of just getting one more to join the craft, the adopted or married person had been sought for a skill out of what the family did but that was extremely useful to them, such as a hunter joining a goatherder family to deal with predators or a merchant joining a carpenter family, these people were called Manyadjir.

"A... how can I say it, Manyagjir in concept? Do not worry, I won't ask you to adopt me or anything weird like that." she smirked slightly.

"And you want to do what?"

"Guide you! I will be your wits and general all-purpose cleverness provider," she told.

His hand rose to rub his eyebrow. "What are you even talking about."

"Well. We have a big issue at the first moment. I talked with Tura, and I asked about your first work, a translation of some sunlander thing, don't remember what, but I remember something... You did not put your name on it."

"Should I?"

"Of course you should, how is that even a question." she sighed. "If you don't, they will just be texts, but if you do, well, they will be your texts."

He blinked for a moment. "But they are not mine, I translated them"

"Yes, then present yourself as the translator, place your name in it, make it so anyone who reads these texts knows your name."

"It just seems unnecessary, egocentric, we work as a group and I have no need to stand out."

"Hmmm? Is that so? So you do not think you are the one most fit to craft the first proper lore-books of our own lore?"

He gritted his teeth and slightly blushed. "I just think, others don't have the full scope... How does that relate to translations, anyway?"

"Oh everything. Let me break it to you. Nobody will care about the lore-books of our own culture. Translations of foreign works are interesting and new, transcriptions of the local tales mom used to tell to me before I slept, however? Yawn! Only a few, such as your breed of priests, will want to read those in the current situation. The rebellious sorts too, like Tzevami."

"But... then what? It cannot be..."

"Halllelle, do not stop me. Now imagine, you start to translate all these fascinating works, and all the nobles who have the time to learn how to read start to pick them up in a desire to fill their boring lives with exciting distant lands and foreign empires, they see your name, they remember it, and then, when you make the lore-books and present your theories, you will have actual ears, well, eyes, interested in what you have to say... write."

He stopped for a moment, pondering over her plans. "But one whole year away..."

Batsami laughed. "The advantage of your paper, is that it is easy to transport. Ask the foreign man, see if there is a constant trade route between his home and any duskland city near here, send those papers to me and I will give them to Tura who will turn them into proper parchments. So, while you are away, you can still have an influence."

"That... could actually work. I already have much of my own collection translated, just not inked down into parchment yet. But, are you sure it will not generate tension within the group..."

"Nope! Because the priests are interested in your translations as well, they already think of you as the guy who knows a lot about foreign things. I imagine Tzevami might notice the effects it is having eventually, but the problem of being of the slippery sort is that you can't quite grab at things, he will have little option but to play along. Though one day you will need to address this, you dislike the high clans but you attract the people who hate them."

Then there was silence, awkward enough to make the wide grin Batsami had slowly melt into sheer confusion. Finally, after pondering very much, Mavadzugji patted her head. "Thanks. I need to run after someone, excuse me."

Batsami smiled, then smirked. Wonderful, just wonderful. First of all, for the amazing profitability chances of Mavadzugji's work, then, for the prestige, surely, if all things went right, even someone like Llapur Dyetzu would be within her reach.




After initially being excited about the unprecedented journey, Mavadzugji now, as he hugged the long neck of the creature in front of him, feared he might not have what it takes. The distance between him and the ground felt like it increased each time he looked down.

"I already told you. Do not constrict the horse's neck!" the tall woman next to him told, brushing the head of the animal gently and whispering something in a foreign language. "This is the most patient of them, but even she has her limits."

"S-S-Sorry." the priest told, trying his best to stay still while riding the animal.

The boat trip had been so easy, so simple, it was just him, the foreign ex-sailor Denolyo, and his wife, Karcelli. The later had the clear looks of someone from north mesathalassa, Evemen, as Imga texts called them, tall, pale skinned, brown hair which sometimes had hints of blonde or red. Karcelli, in particular, had simple brown hair, though it barely appeared as she always wore a cape fashioned from a gorgon's leather, the head working like a grotesque looking hood. Her looks had filled the priest's heart with odd bitter feelings since the first time he saw the sunlander.

Now they were almost at the Duskland's borders, the sky above was already very different from the one he was used to, many stars even when it was not twilight, the sun shone brightly and the ambient light was no longer that grey, dark-bright one, most other lands experienced only for a few moments after sunset or during overcast days. Instead of taking the boat route deep into northern mesathalassa, the path most merchants and settlers took, they were now riding horses through a different route.

"I think he is getting the hang of it," Denolyo said, with a smile.

"Nah, I'd say the mare is getting a hang of it." she chuckled.

The gesture gave away to the priest he was probably being mocked, they spoke with each other in a foreign language not even the priest knew, but he could pick tone and stares, furthermore, he was a bit paranoid with people laughing near him.

He expected to be able to talk a lot with Denolyo on his path down to the south, however, the man had been moderately sick on the first few days, coughing and with a sore throat to the point Mavadzugji became worried. To his surprise, it was apparently something common for people not from the Dusklands to develop those symptoms while there.

"It is why nobody truly invaded your land. That, and the harsh frontier." Karcelli told. Making him wonder about the bandit group that had raided that woman's caravan. He knew they were rare, but now he had been giving even further reasons for why that event was so odd.




A day later, as they approached the frontier, it seemed the two foreigners had a bit of a fallout, the priest was not sure, but he felt those words were a bit more bitter than the usual, it was not something that seemed like it would last, but the two seemed to be a harmonious couple usually so to him it was a surprise.

"Say, Mavadzugji..." Denolyo suddenly said, making the priest almost yelp as he rightened his position. "I have always wondered..."

"Y-Yes?"

"What does Tsahi means? Saw a lot of people under a banner of that name going south to defend a few settlements, and the word just eluded me."

The priest tilted his head. This was all in native Dzanya language, so the wording of the question was just odd. "What it means? I think the Sunlader words are something like, winged?"

"That would be Tsatahi, no? Like, Tsatahar..."

"Mmmm, it would. You are right, but the idea is similar... how can I saw it. Uh, think Tsataha and Tsaha, then."

"Tsaha I know well, bird-like, cute name. Tsataha... would be winglike?

"Right. Like the formations flocks of birds take in the sky or the shape of a peninsula. Both are Tsataha... You mentioned Tsatahar, angels, Tsahar would be more like... bird people."

"But back to Tsahi..."

"Oh right, well, you get the idea, don't you? Tsatahi is winged."

"And Tsahi is what? Birded? Incorporating the aspects of a bird? Are birds Tsahi?"

"That would be like saying water is wet, or, well, 'a winged butterfly, a winged bird, a winged bat', you only use those words to add quality where said quality is not usually present, now, Tsahi, I guess the word is up to the interpretation of what you consider to be bird. Is it agility? delicateness? the wandering? ..."

"On the Tsahi Pura's case, it's because of the arrows, as in, they deliver a sudden and lethal death from above, like a hawk swooping mice."

"Ugh, would hate to have to translate that, 'here is a word, it might mean you are small, frail and love to eat worms or it might mean you are fast and agile or maybe it means you sing a sweet song..."

"Attention." Karcelli suddenly cut them both from their idle talking, she was as quiet as ever, even the sore-throated Denolyo spoke more than her. "Put your hoods on, we are at the border."

Looking forward, the priest saw very little at the moment, the thicket of grey-green trees in front of him was obscuring much of his view... Then it ended, the whole forest simply stopped as if cut by a razor and in front of him the priest saw an expanse of stones and gravel, some brooks, a bit of grass, but the whole thing was mostly lifeless and plain. The greatest surprise, however, was the sky, as if cut by the same blade that had shaved the forest, the dark grey skies of the dusklands simply collapse in front of him, the light blue of the Sunland in stark contrast on the other side.

Then came the wind, and it was lucky he had a hooded cape, as the strong gale brought with it a dusty grey cloud filled with small flying rocks that crashed against the travelers constantly. No wonder he had been instructed on how to follow others and what pace to keep under heavy fog, though the wind at the moment couldn't be more different from the cold and humid mist it still caused a similar visual impairment, only made worse by the gravel.

After a time that felt both short and way too long, the cloud was gone, the strong wind remained. "Faster pace now. We are near the cliffs, if a cloud hit us, we stop." the woman explained.

"Are you sure? The footing is not great no matter if you are moving or now..." Denolyo questioned. She looked back and simply nodded, the ex-sailor nodded back.

While he focused his attention more on the unspoken trust between both, the word cliff caught him by surprise, making him look around. It took him a while, but he finally saw it, the land was a monotone rocky grey from his point of view and the sunlight covered by the clouds did not produce enough shadows, to him, it all seemed like flatlands, but the truth was different, simply saying he was wrong was an understatement.

"It's a cliff...? How... How did I not see it before." he gasped, almost slowing his pace, but remembering he was asked not to do so.

"Mirage," Karcelli explained. "The rocks here trick your eyes, somehow... Something to do with the heat and the colors."

"Couldn't we pick a better time to cross then? I have no rush to get through."

Despite the lack of a reaction in her expression, the priest couldn't help but feel a sense of annoyance in that deadpan gaze. "There is none. We need to wait until the sun is under the duskland clouds so the heat in the region is manageable, so it cannot be crossed in the morning, however, with the gentle eve also comes ferocious winds and heavier clouds. At night, it is too cold and you cannot see the proper path, leaving us only a small window where conditions are favorable."

"I had no idea such a terrible place existed..."

"There are safer routes. On the coast to the west the passage is simple, then there are the cavern and rivers routes that make trade possible between north mesathalassa and the dusklands, the route most refugees take too. Under such conditions, it is no wonder people no longer mention how dangerous the border truly is." Denolyo added.

Finally, it came time to traverse one of the phantom cliffs, Kercelli led them around what really looked like a road, though could not be one because the woman had made it clear the zone was unbearable past a certain the time of the day. It was a good thing the horse had been trained so masterfully for Mavadzugji himself was having trouble following the route with his eyes, something about the high contrast of darkness and light, grey and green along with the alternations of grey shades of the even textured rocks made it so his eyes couldn't keep much of a focus on the path ahead.

The strong wind became stronger and once again the dust rose, the green of the Sunland was lost to his eyes, so was the bottom of the cliff, yet he could clearly see the two in front of him so it was not much of an issue. Karcelli suddenly looked to the side, sniffing that terrible air somehow.

"Let's pace up," she ordered.

The priest's heart sank, he knew this was it, it had to be it, something bad was about to happen, she was doing the opposite of what she had told before, she had told them to stop if the cloud reached them... He dared to sideglance at the cliff below and saw the dull grey abyss that blended with the sky and the horizon. His eyes widened and he blinked multiple times to make sure his eyes did not play tricks on him, they did not, that void was rising, creeping up the cliffside.

Then it was upon then, the thick dust fog so intense all he saw of Denolyo was his silhouette, Karcelli fully lost to his eyes. Bellow, the horse's hooves raised from the grey depths and then sank back into them, only a shadow remaining. If not for the cliff to his side, he wouldn't be able to tell the difference between being up or being down.

"Stay calm, Mavadzugji." the sailor told him in a calm tone, stopping to cough the dust out of his mouth. "No sudden movements. Stay in line."

It was easy to say so, not so easy to follow it, but the priest was doing his best not to stray. Tears traveled down his check, not from fear, but from the irritation caused by that grey dust, he could barely keep his eyes open, not that at this point it would help.

The straight parts of the path were bad, the curves, however, were beyond bad and terrible, they were something else, crafted by whichever god hated humanity the most. Facing the endless abyss below, his only reference being the walls to his side and the shadow in his front, it almost seemed inevitable one wrong step would be eventual.

"Stop... I want to stop."

"You may if you wish, we will continue, as this cloud won't open up until its too late," Karcelli told, voice loud enough to stand up to the howling wings but still maintaining the collected mannerism typical to her.

Time dragged on and on, every single step a challenge, a test to his will of survival. The walls to his side disappeared and if not for the line he would feel it was over and he was about to fall, the last security left to him now fully gone, only featureless mist remained.

With nothing to see, no anchor to keep him, Mavadzugji felt increasingly more paranoid, just waiting for the moment he would meet his end. Despite clear orders telling him not to do so, the priest leaned forward and in panic hugged the horse's neck, as if that would keep him from falling.

Green. The looked down and did a double check, blinking as he made sure his eyes did not deceive him. They did not. Green, the color was slowly revealing itself under the hooves of the animal he rode. Retaking his position, he looked around, tears still forming in his eyes, the droplets gaining a white tint as they absorbed the dust that clung to the young man's face.

Slowly, very slowly, the dust started to dissipate around then, until, much like the treelines, it opened up as if cut by a razor. If Mavadzugji's eyes, had not been already half-closed they would be now, in front of him, shining with radiant colors, were warm shades of green and blue he had never seen before. Even as little but blurs in his vision, the Sunland was stunning.




"Do not worry, your vision will adapt, you just need to stay awake the whole night, see the morning for yourself, it helps," Denolyo explained, having noticed the priest still adapting to the environment, constantly rubbing his eyes or squinting.

Mavadzugji nodded, it seemed all the combinations possible to hurt his view had been made. Yet, instead of resting, he stared intently at the fire, it had an orange light that he had never seen before, not that fire in the dusklands was less red, but it was more of an... he could only describe it as 'internal color', while the external light was a white that was a pale yellow at most.

"I noticed you were staring at Karcelli..."

The priest immediately rose his eyes up and faced the sailor gasping, then quickly started to babble in his defense trying to explain how he had it wrong. The sailor himself seemed surprised.

"Ah sorry, bad wording. It's easy to learn many foreign languages, sometimes the wording escapes me. Do not worry, I know well you are absurdly devoted to your ways, and even if you weren't, I would still have little to worry." While his words spoke of trust, he couldn't help but see a smirk that implied the priest himself was no worry at all in such matters.

"But, it's also that lack of explanations that makes me curious."

"She reminds me of someone." Mavadzugji told, now calm enough to pace his voice.

"Oh? Someone you knew?" once again the sailor cringed at his words, that was not what he wanted to ask at all, it was obvious that it was someone he knew...

"Not really. It was someone I never met."

The sailor had curious eyes now, it was as if the priest had proposed him an enigma, someone he could be reminded of but that he did not know. Before he could ask any more questions, Karcelli was back. "Your turn to bath. Go before the night gets too cold." she made a little signal towards the lake that was partially hidden by trees and a rock outcrop. The dust covered Denolyo nodded and was already walking away.

Mavadzugji had been curious about why the couple didn't just bath together to save time, at first he had thought they feared to leave him all alone with their things, but it seemed by now they knew his ways well enough to not fear such behaviors. 'It's also that lack of explanations that makes me curious,' the words echoed in his head, until he concluded they likely truly did not want to leave him alone, not of worry he would do something, but of what something could do to him. That was good, he did not trust himself on that aspect either, it was reassuring to think they cared about his safety.

The woman sat near the fire to heat up after the dip on the lake. Upon closer inspection, with the lively colors of the Sunland making her face more clear and the change from leather armor and a gorgon head hood to an awfully simple tunic in the typical careless Sunlander style she seemed far shorter and less imposing. Nothing like her beyond an ethnicity...

"Sorry." the priest said, he had been wanting to do that for a while.

The turned her eyes to focus on him, a slight hint of confusion. "For what?"

"Well... everything. Slowing you two down, screaming on the cliff, constricting the horse's neck..."

"Ah... no," she told with a deadpan expression.

Her tone was hard to decipher. No what? No, a simple sorry isn't enough? No, there is no need to worry? The only thing he knew is that if he asked her about it, he would become a nuisance for sure, and then he would need to say sorry again.

For a moment, he remembered Batsami once scolding him and then imitating what she called 'his comfortable voice' which she said he used whenever someone uninteresting or someone he knew showed up. He wondered if he spoke like Karcelli or Dzora's husbands with those close to him, he also wondered why he knew spoke softly to strangers because he did not like causing trouble to others, he also knew he sometimes spoke while distracted. He could not believe someone like Karcelli could be distracted, she always seemed focused... But maybe being focused was also a form of distraction, much like those rays of light that formed in the clouds only when the day was dim or the sun was setting, the attention was focused on something at the cost of being distracted from all else.

"Are you fine?" she asked without much concern.

Mavadzugji snapped out of his thoughts. "Sorry... I was distra... no, focuse... uhm..." he sighed. Maybe I should skip the bath and just sleep, not like the white dust is noticeable on my hair anyway."

"No. You would get sick without cleaning the dust away."

He waited a moment to make sure there would be no follow up. "Why did we take this route anyway? It seems much harsher than Mutaraka's one, with the boats and the caverns."

"There are reasons, I wanted to avoid... Susah, the whole region really. This is also faster, not too dangerous either unless you are stupid."

He guessed he was stupid, which seemed to be close to the truth in his view, at most he hoped he was the good sort of stupid.

"You are from here, right?"

She took a moment thinking about it. "Depends on who asks, for your questions and your 'here', yes."

"Wait, so if someone else asked you could say no?"

She rolled her eyes. "Obviously."

Mavadzugji narrowed his eyes and rubbed his chin, after he just did not seem to drop the thought the woman was forced to sigh and then answer it. "Come on now, you know the answer to this. If I asked 'are you from here' when we found you in that village, what would you answer?"

"No... I was not born there."

She nodded. "Yes. But to someone from the north dusklands, he could be asking about the region. And to a foreigner like me 'here' could mean the whole of the dusklands."

"Oh, I had never used it in the context of a village. So that was why you were confused. I see now."

Karcelli nodded and then suddenly stopped, now she was the one tapping her chin as something seemed off. "I am back." suddenly declared Denolyo. "It is getting cold, you should rush, priest-boy." he said smirking.

There was a moment of silence.

"Cute of you to have that little earth elemental helping Mava." he smirked.

She stared at him. "I was more worried about a horse I spent so long training falling off a cliff. Do not think I am approving of your decisions."

He sighed. "There you go again. I do not see the problem with helping others like this. The boy wants to know the world, I can respect that. You shouldn't let something that happened half a continent away and a whole generation ago, even before you were born, have so much influence over your actions."

"I was born right after it, I saw a lot of the direct effects and the survivors, I even saw her... You will understand when you get older."

Denolyo laughed with sarcasm. "I do not have that much time left to get older, still haven't seen a glimpse of your reasoning. Neither do you, by the way. I do not know how you can bear the idea of taking so much to the grave. You know Sotali would like to be just like you, yet you turn her away, much like so many others."

"Sometimes I wonder if I should have waited until that bear had finished its business with you. Sotali is better off away from all this, do not twist my decision into a showcase of disregard. The same applies to Lite and everyone else."

"She has the right to decide for herself. All you did was to make her more curious. She would have given up back when she was a child if you had tried to give her the training, you know her, she doesn't deal well with harsh routines."

"Unlike you, I leave no room for gambits. Your oracles have made you delusional to the reality of things."

The sound of the fire kept crackling was once again the only sound at the moment, as the two stared at each other with some tension. Then it suddenly eased up, as Karcelli casually said. "Oh, speaking of oracles, I think I finally got what yours for the duskie was. That one stray signal you found and could not understand..."

"Ah, yes. I noticed that already, back in the boat really. Why? Don't tell me you only discovered it now?"

"Don't be a show-off." she sighed. "I suspected it. Something about his eyes, and the shape of his face. But I couldn't confirm it. It just unsettled me."

He smirked and moved closer to her, holding her hand. "Curious how fate works, huh? Of all the people for me to find in a party... Should burn my current oracle really, it is starting to get presumptuous after only a few uses. More curious than that, Mava stared at you earlier for that reason. Guess you kinda fit the description he heard."

"Bah, I wish I did."

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Muttonhawk Let Slip the Corgis of War

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Luck Is Always To Blame

Slime and Muttonhawk


Two rickety wooden wheels creaked and trundled over the jungle floor. Borrowing the neighbour's cart was the best they could do to carry Conata's entry mechanism -- the sleek and hollow pod of reinforced bronze under the blanket. The power to lift and move metal still felt like holding a bucket of water when done for prolonged periods, so they were better served all taking a rope and pulling the cart through the undergrowth.

Conata was at the head of the group. She had the longest cord tied around her waist so her arms were free to slash aside the foliage in their way. She did so with a pair of loose metal blades she forced in arcs in front of them. Her indefatigable march, complete with an excited smile, drew a contrast between her and nearly everyone behind her. They were sweating, breathing heavily, and tugging at what was never meant to travel across country.

"Say...Helvana…" Ruvac the young azibo scribe asked between breaths. "How far is that...clear spot you said...Frederick could fly off from?"

"Not too far now."

"You picked quite the place for a landing, Hel."

"Not my fault this is the closest place available." She cut some of the foliage that Conata missed with her sword.

"I'm sorry I can't help…" Gwyn said, dejected.

"Can't really be helped. You're still a kid after all, so don't worry about it."

A lichen-covered vine fell to another whip from Conata's stand-in machetes. "It's not so bad," she said. "At least we don't have to go up any slopes this way. Not to mention, we haven't even travelled that far from the city."

Polia spoke her reply through grit teeth. "Y'know, dragging wheels over soft ground and all these roots sure makes it feel a lot further than you're making it out to be, Connie."

Conata grinned and rolled her eyes. "Fine then! We can celebrate once this is all done, and I'll pay for it." Her wiry hair bristled happily under her headband. "I'll invite my parents. I'll invite all the people in the apartment! We can buy some of that expensive grape wine those koralas import from over the ocean, we'll sing all our favourite songs, it'll be great!"

Gio laughed, even out of breath as he was. "You cannot be stopped, can you?"

"Not when I'm this close."

As if to support Conata's words, the vegetation thinned and revealed a giant crow standing at its middle. It turned an eye towards them with a birdlike flick of its beak. The movement halted Conata and the azibos in their tracks. Conata broke out in dull grey blotches.

"You weren't joking, huh?" Polia said in a vain attempt to break their mild fear.

Helvana untied the rope around her waist and walked towards the great bird. It lowered its head to her level, before nudging against her. She hugged him back.

"You missed me that much?" She said with a chuckle as she caressed the bird.

"And that is Frederic." Lloyd said as he untied the ropes on his body. "Don't worry, he won't bite you guys."

Conata's skin blotches slowly shrank. She remained standing and staring, though with a strange and intensely thoughtful look.

"Are you alright, Conata?" Gio asked.

"Huh? Yeah, it's just..." She blinked. "The way its feathers are reflecting the light..." She let her breath go. "Just deja vu. Sorry."

Conata took on a smile and threw Lloyd a glance. "That's the biggest bird I've ever seen," she said quietly. Without looking down, she untied the knot around her waist and took a few careful steps forward. "Hello, Frederic. Nice to meet you?" she said unsurely.

The giant crow looked at Conata from head to toe. He too could feel her essence.

"This is the other demigoddess Oscar felt near me. Conata's a good person." Helvana reassured Frederic and let go of his beak. He turned his head to the side as he got a closer look of Conata. "And don't even think of playing with her just because she's shiny." Helvana quickly added.

The warning caused Conata's skin to momentarily whirl with bismuth, as much as she tried to hide her recent memory. She forced herself back to bronze and smiles.

"I was wondering if you could help me, Frederic," Conata said. "Are you able to fly with a heavy weight?" The following blank pause made Conata angle her head. She turned her eyes to Helvana. "Can Frederic talk like Oscar?"

"I never taught him how to talk, but he can understand us. And he did carry over half of a hain village on his back just fine before. At worst he might need to take off first then fly back to grab you."

"I have the impression this metal thing is way more heavy than hain, Hel, even if there's several of them."

"Don't jinx it. I'll give Frederic a boost if he needs it."

Gio clomped his feet forward. He held his elbow and the middle of his chin. His discomfort did not apparently last long.

"Hmmm," he hummed. "I don't know huge birds, but maybe Conata could help, too? Could you push up against the pod's weight?"

"Of course- Well, maybe," Conata said. "It depends how long I can keep track of which way is up. At least I'll know when it's falling." She peered back at the pod. "I put flaps at the sides to make sure it always points down when falling."

Polia walked up to them as well. "Are you going to be talking about this mad plan all day?" She coiled up her length of rope around her arm. "Here, how about we work out if Frederic can lift the thing first, hm? We can see how the weight feels for him instead of taking guesses."

"You're right, let's get down to it."

After about half an hour, Helvana coaxed Frederic into grasping the thick bronze rungs Conata had secured to the side of the pod. The special talon-holds were new features she added since Frederic was going to be involved. The pod as a whole was by far the heaviest thing Frederic had ever carried. They had Frederic take a quick flight with the pod just to be sure he could even do it. Aside from a noticeable drop in speed, there were no apparent issues.

He even dropped the empty pod from a height and proved to be rather accurate. The loud, bounceless clang the pod made against the dirt made everyone wince. Except Conata.

"It's perfect!" she said.

"Conata, you'll be falling from way higher, right? Will you be okay?" Gwyn added with a worried tone.

Conata gave Gwyn a wry smile. "Sure I will. Why do you think I made it out of metal?" She put a right hand on her hip and gestured forward with the left. "If it's okay, I'll be okay. I never got anywhere by hesitating, at any rate."

Though it stuck up from the ground, partially buried, the pod had not so much as dented.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried, but if you're half as tough as Hel, you should make it."

With that out of the way, Helvana had Frederic land and helped Conata take the pod out of the ground.

They had plenty of time to spare until nightfall. The cover of darkness would be needed to remain unspotted.

"Now, shall we-"

"Eat?"

"Please?"

"Good idea! I'm famished."

Lloyd only sighed at Hel's predictability as he started to prepare their meal.



They were all hungry after bringing the cart up from the city. Their thinking ahead for the occasion also included a picnic hamper with human-edible food within. Soon enough, gently sizzling sausages were drawing a mouth-watering aroma around the clearing. The ever-present murder of crows around them gathered all around the ground and up in the branches. They watched and waited for a snack to fall away from the frying pan.

With Conata frying the meats using her powers to heat the metal, Lloyd prepared the rest of the food for the others to pick at as they pleased. They brought fresh bread this time, with a selection of fruits, nuts, and strange chewy picked morsels that the local fishermen sold. None of them knew what these 'octopus' looked like, but it was delicious, whatever it was.

"Is everything good?" Conata asked.

"This isn't good, this is amazing! Lloyd, why didn't you tell me these things existed?"

"Maybe because our village was months away from the nearest ocean shore. Maybe we should get a fishing rod or a spear." He said as he tore a slice of bread to pieces and threw to the crows.

"You never ate a fish before, right Helvana?"

"Right, we didn't catch a single fish since we began our journey. That would be a good change from deer."

"If only I knew you were hiding this secret from me…" Helvana said while wiping away food that got stuck on Gwyn's face. "Should I forbid you from sleeping under Frederic as punishment?"

"Hey now, that's too harsh."

"Oh, I'm sure your cloak will keep you warm at night."

"Ugh…"

Everyone shared a laugh.

Polia spoke through her wide azibo grin. "You're an unfortunate soul, Lloyd. To be the chef to an insatiable demigoddess."

"Nah, you're lucky," Ruvac retorted. "Your demigoddess just likes to eat." He smiled and gestured his head to one side, at Conata. "Ours likes to break into palaces."

Conata stifled a laugh.

"We're all lucky," Gio concluded with his deep voice. "To have such friends as these. Even as mortal as we are."

The iridescence dancing over Conata was overtaken by an affectionate silver. She smiled and kept her eyes down. "Thanks, Gio. Thanks, all of you, for helping me out. I wanted this to be special, 'cause we might not get to share another meal like this for some time."

"We'll be waiting for you to come out of the palace, Connie," Polia said.

"You guys will, sure." Conata lifted a hand to Helvana. "But Gwyn, Lloyd, Hel, you guys will be leaving soon. I'm glad I met you all. I won't forget you."

"It was great meeting all of you too." Helvana said, smiling warmly.

"I wish we could stay for longer… You guys are all so fun."

Polia flashed a smile. "It's been fun having you around."

"It's not like we'll never see them again, Gwyn. Hopefully we can meet again in the future like this and act like nothing ever happened."

"Yeah." Helvana looked at Conata and the azibo, then at her cloak. "Hmm, we still have plenty of time until nightfall. How about I make you guys some cloaks?"

"Cloaks?" Conata's eyes lit up. "Like that one you were trying to barter and saying all those wonderful things about?"

"More like he wanted to barter for them, but yes."

Gio winced and raised his hands. "It is appreciated, but we wear clothes that are somewhat...bigger than most humans. You do not have to spend all that time gathering feathers."

"Don't worry about that. The feathers can just come to me." She whistled and the surrounding crows all approached in a loud flutter. They landed wherever they could, be it on her, or on Lloyd and Gwyn. She didn't need to tell them to stay far from the food, of course.

Gio mouthed a dumbstruck umm and pushed his lips out, overwhelmed.

"I think we have enough here for everyone, even if they're oversized. I promise you won't be disappointed." Helvana flashed a confident grin.

Gio looked to Ruvac, who smiled and shrugged. Polia and Conata were each grinning encouragingly when he looked at them. Gio swung his arm forward, conceding.

Conata's bronze skin took on a reflective polish. "Thank you so much, Hel!" She shuffled over to give Helvana a quick hug, even with the crows hopping or flapping out of the way. Helvana felt cold to Conata's touch. People felt cold when Conata was heating up, but at least she was not burning her.

"No need to make such a fuss about this." She said, giggling. She put her hands on Conata's shoulders as they pulled away. "Alright, first I'll need to make the base around you. Be still for a moment."



The rest of the day was mostly uneventful for everyone except Helvana. She worked tirelessly to make all the cloaks in time. Even if the sun had already set when the last feather was tied into place, she was right about there being no disappointment in the end.

"Here, try it on, Ruvac." She said handing him the last one of the batch.

Ruvac scooped the collar of the cloak with his large hand. He made a curious sound at the weight and the feel of it. As he cast it around his shoulders and nestled himself into it, he found himself smiling with surprise. It was a perfect size.

"I'll be frank," he said. "These black feathers, I thought they would cook me alive in this humid heat. But this is nice and breezy! Thank you, Helvana. You have quite a talent for making these."

The azibos all loved the texture of the feathers against their arms and backs. Helvana received similar reviews from Gio and Polia. They still wore their new cloaks as they went about their business.

Across the clearing, Conata still worked on little tweaks and adjustments to the pod. She was well camouflaged in the moonlight with the cloak around her shoulders. Only the glint of her hair and arms as she moved in her precise, metal-shaping ways gave evidence of her being there.

Ruvac looked across to Conata. "I guess this means it's time to go, huh?" He asked Helvana. "I know you said you could do it, but are sure it's safe to fly at night?"

"I'm in my element right now, it couldn't be a better moment. Even if Frederic had problems seeing in the dark, I'd be able to guide him perfectly through it. We could use a few more clouds though." She said looking up at the sky. The few clouds that covered it didn't block the light provided by the many moons of Galbar. "You don't need to worry about this, Ruvac. I'll make sure Conata reaches the palace."

With a tight-lipped smile, Ruvac nodded and tried to relax. "I might need to worry about what's inside the palace. But, we had better get started. Conata!"

A bronze face turned over the shoulder of the black cloak ahead, smiling broadly. "Hey! Nice cloak there, Ruvac! It's real slimming on you!"

Ruvac snorted and crossed his arms. Azibo were not slim at the leanest of times. "It's time!" Ruvac announced.

The group gathered together near the metallic pod. They repeated the plan one last time to make sure everything was clear. The last details were ironed out, the target was confirmed. As the moment ended, everyone went quiet and looked around at the ground.

Helvana put her hands on her hips and let out a sigh. "Okay, that's enough glum I think. This isn't our last time seeing each other, we've been through this already."

She broke the ice enough to lift their spirits.

"I hope we can have lots of fun next time too." Gwyn smiled happily.

"Right. Next time I'll make sure to make something for you guys. Conata set the bar pretty high with that knife…"

A single laugh bubbled up Conata's throat. "Ahah! You don't have to do something like an adamantine knife, Lloyd. We'll appreciate anything if you're going to give a gift. It'll be enough just to see you all again."

"I agree," Polia said with a half-grin. Gio and Ruvac nodded as well.

"I'll help you think of something when the time comes. Until then, Conata, I want you find out who your parents are and punish them for leaving you alone for so long." She said reaching for her newly made crow mask. She slid the leather harness behind her head and adjusted the mask. "Shall we begin?"



Frederic soared through the night sky towards Alefpria, bronze pod securely in tow. They were high enough to be hard to see from the city, but their target, the palace, was clearly visible with the city lights surrounding it.

"Brace yourself, boys. This'll be rough!" Helvana shouted over her shoulder. The brothers complied and grasped Frederic's feathers tightly. "Dive!" She commanded just as they crossed the line of the city walls. They would be seen now, but getting this close was necessary for an accurate drop.

In just a few short seconds Frederic was already over the palace. "Good luck, Conata." Doing as he was instructed, Frederic released the pod when he got close enough. He flew past the palace, Helvana, Lloyd and Gwyn looked back to see a hole on the roof.

"It worked. You did it, Hel!" Lloyd said with a confident laughter.

Before Helvana could reply, however, she saw several objects flying towards them. "No time for a fanfare. Frederic, get out of here!" He obeyed and flew away from Alefpria as fast as he could towards the west.



Her eyes were shut. The pod was too dark to see inside anyway. All she could hear was the roar of white noise the wind made from outside. She couldn't move much in the pod, but she could feel every ounce of it. She could feel how fast it flew.

She should have been screaming, she thought. Instead, she felt a hypnotic focus. She knew what she was getting into. She had no room to worry if Helvana would point out the right building to Frederic. There were no gaps in her thoughts even for the last hug she gave Helvana before she climbed into the hatch.

The entire world banked down. The pod turned when Frederic let go. Her arms graced up and she floated within, weightless.

Her mind saw fit to wordlessly remind her of the panic that came with loss of balance. She could ignore it just by staying still. Don't tense up.

But she could feel the pod around her.

She visualised how far she was from the palace roof...

Timing was critical…

The inside of the pod lit up with a red glow. Conata pushed the molten lines of bronze past the pointed end of her vehicle in a sudden jet. The metal punched tiny a hole in her destination at the very last instant. The adamantine cone would widen it as necessary.

Her head jerked suddenly against the metal walls of the pod. Her weight returned to her tenfold in one jolting instant. The overwhelming crashing sound told her to stay still and not think for a while.

So, she did not think for a while.

Her mind was still waiting for her to panic.

The first part of her consciousness returned only with her sense for metal. She felt like she was watching from outside of her body. Or, perhaps that was wrong. She could sense her body as well as the metal pod. She could not feel anything else.

Her vision returned. She didn't properly process it before the painful ringing in her head took over. She tried to move her arm and felt no part of it shift. Too heavy.

"Aaaaaah...aaaaowh..." She could hear herself groaning. That much drew her out of her dream-like haze and grounded her in reality. She was still alive.

She tried moving her arm again and still felt nothing, but she heard her hand swing around and clang into the side of the pod. She winced at the sound.

Feeling came back in a slow trickle. It was still dark, but she could still perceive the metal around her.

Conata willed the hatch at the top of the pod to unlatch, wrapped her fingers around the handle on its underside, and forced the metal upwards to carry her sore body up and out.

She emerged like an overgrown leech from the top of the bronze ovoid, with the black feathers of her cloak sliding and flicking up from the rim of the hatch. Her dark, shining, almost mercury-like arm stuck out from the top of the cloak like an insectile proboscis. The way she flopped to the rubble-strewn floor was also suitably boneless when viewed through the cloud of settling dust.

She coughed loudly. "Ugh...That was far worse than I thought it would be..." She thought out loud.

Her senses fully returned to her by this point. One mercury palm pushed on the ground, soon joined by another. They both solidified to defiant iron and she wrenched herself up to a stumbling stand. She threw back the hood of her cloak to reveal herself still wincing, but still curious to see where she landed.

Elegant wooden chairs, complete with cushions, lay shattered or covered in pale grit. The remains of a matching table were caved in from the impact of the pod. Further afield were tall shelves coating the wall in a sound-muting mural of leather book spines and curled scrolls. The moonlights poured in through the hole in the ceiling to reveal a finely patterned red and purple carpet underneath the dust.

Amongst it all were vases, candlesticks, paperweights, decorations. All made of metal. This place truly was a palace in its sheer material wealth.

A few candles shed yellow hues in other places, where they hadn't been blown out.

Conata took a few steps, looking around without particular aim. Her feet brought her to a beautiful side-table made from smooth white marble. On top of it were a stack of unmarked folios of various make and material. Important looking documents stuck out near the corners. Conata reached for one and hesitated.

The thick dust in the air made it hard to spot, but she could sense the metal. Some kind of armour on a rack next to the table?

She gasped and leapt back as soon as she saw the man on the chair beside her.

It had the shape of a man, at any rate. From the head down was mostly a long, frozen fountain of wavy white hair. The shoulders of his dust-coated metal armour made him look less emaciated and weak than the pale hands grasping out of his sleeves would suggest. He sat as still as a corpse.

Conata detected something in him. Not a heartbeat, though she had no other word for it. This apparently paralysed man was more than he looked.

Her own racing heart could not deter her curiosity. Conata took silent steps towards the seated man. She leaned forward. She could see hints of a face behind all that hair. Her hand carefully extended to move aside his fringe. She held her breath, perhaps thinking he was asleep.

As her copper fingers brushed aside, she saw his eyes wide and shining like discs of native gold. His face was oddly feminine and unnaturally calm. Pale, like a stone sculpture, but very much alive.

Conata froze. her mouth hung slightly open.

The sculpted face moved. His mouth curled into a small smile. "Prosit," he wheezed.

Conata weakly cleared her throat. "I'm looking for…ahem," she tried to force her voice to stop shaking. "I'm looking for Lifprasil."

"Most interesting." He did not speak louder than a strained whisper. "You look like someone I would be happy to meet as well."

"Who are you?" Conata asked without thinking.

The man's smile became a thin grin for a passing moment. "I am Lifprasil. This is my home. Who are you, demigoddess?"

Reality struck. Conata straightened, bringing away her hand. Magnesium broke out around her temples and arms. She could not think of anything to say.

The man brought his own hand up meekly to brush aside the hair from his face properly.

CRACK!-CRACK! "Emperor!" A loud muffled voice interrupted from behind a nearby doorway. More rushed heavy footsteps approached from outside to join it.

Conata's skin flashed into a bright grey selenium and she swept both her arms across the air in a full-bodied movement. In sync with her, metal and stone scraped as whatever bronze, silver, gold, or other metal was nearby flowed in a cacophonous spiral around Conata and out against the door to barricade it with their weight. All the carafes, goblets, candlesticks, and other bric-a-brac that Conata could force around piled high enough to make a thief's mouth water.

The seated man's smile did not so much as flinch in the short-lived chaos.

Conata caught her breath and let her eyes fall back to those golden discs looking at her. "You're Emperor Lifprasil?" She asked.

The emperor slowly bowed his head. He did not take his eyes off hers.

Conata went copper again. Her brow knitted. "What happened to you? You look...drained."

He mouthed something Conata could not hear.

"What was that?" Conata stepped forward again, angling her ear closer.

"A battle of gods."

The battle up north at Xerxes. Conata glanced away and back.

"It is a long tale," Lifprasil whispered calmly to Conata's nearby ear. "For another time. You still have not told me who you are."

THUD!...THUD!...THUD! The door was hit over and again with something heavy.

Conata remembered herself and clutched her shoulder nervously. She spoke in a rush, even as close as she was to Lifprasil's face. "Listen...Lifprasil, I journeyed a long way to see you. My name is Conata, I'm a demigoddess, I grew up in Rulanah, with the Rovaick down south- but a few years ago when the realta attacked, Majus came and told me that you could tell me who my parents are and I could learn more about how this all works, and…"

Lifprasil lifted an open hand with great difficulty. "Shhh. You need not be afraid."

THUD!...THUD!...

"But the guards, they'll-!" Conata stumbled over her words. More thoughts were flying through her head than she could distribute to speech. "Please! Just tell me who my parents are and I'll leave! I swear!"

THUD!...THUD!...

"What will the guards do?" Lifprasil whispered loud enough for crackles of his voice to come through.

THUD!...THUD!...

She rusted over in desperate grief. "Please! I worked so hard to get here-"

"I can see that."

THUD!...THUD!...

Conata was on the verge of tears. "I don't want to have come this far only to get thrown out or get into a fight! Just-"

Lifprasil's cold hand wrapped around Conata's fingers. Her skin gave way to an involuntary shining bronze. Never with any stranger had she felt so comforted by just a touch. She wanted to question it. Her breathing steadied instead.

The emperor craned his upper body forward enough that Conata could hear him take in his next breath. "I will tell them to stand down. You can trust me in that."

THUD!...CRASH!

A hulking armoured figure half-climbed and half-plowed through the pile of metal in a brutish rush. He hefted a halberd twice Conata's height. The huge guard was joined behind by another, and another behind him. Each figure was heavily armed and armoured. Three visor-faced monsters.

Conata eyed them all nervously. Their heavy plated armour was strange. Some traces of metal were in it, though it was not a substance she recognised. Why she was not worrying about any of it made her only more anxious in a suppressed part of her mind. It had to be Lifprasil and his powers.

The guards pointed their weapons forward. "Unhand the emperor at once!" One of them boomed through his visor. "Now, intr-..."

Lifprasil's other hand only had to lift up to stop the guards in their tracks.

More of the hulking guards kicked through the pile of metal at the door. All of them stopped and averted the points of their polearms. They held unsure postures. It was hard to tell what they were thinking behind those helmets.

Lifprasil finally loosened his grip on Conata's hand.

Conata felt her anxieties creep back to the forefront of her guts. She stumbled back two steps. Her eyes darting between each of the eye-slits of the visored brutes around her.

In the pause, the only sounds were Conata's own breath and the hiss of a pile of sandstone falling from the ceiling.

"Conata," Lifprasil managed to say just loud enough to hear. "That's who you said you were? I like that name. It is energetic."

"Emperor..." One of the guards spoke out of turn. "You speak? After these years!? Have you been healed, my liege?"

Lifprasil's small voice carried more weight. "Do not interrupt, knight."

Another pause. The guards all stepped back and kept watch.

Conata looked at Lifprasil with her head angled away defensively.

"Our first words were rushed. I apologise." He sounded so tired. "Did you build that...thing yourself?" He slowly nodded and looked past Conata.

Conata glanced over her shoulder to the adamantine-capped pod that brought her through the ceiling. "Yeah," she answered simply.

"Why?"

She tried to find her words. She swallowed hard, nervously magnesium. "I wanted to meet you."

Lifprasil slowly blinked and smiled a little wider. "And Majus told you to come to me? I remember Toun's white knight."

"Yes." Conata lifted her chin. "He said you could tell me who my real parents are."

In two movements, Lifprasil's golden eyes lowered apologetically.

"You can tell, can't you?"

Silence was all he needed to express for Conata to feel little hopes crumble inside her. The skin on her temples spread rust again.

She stared on. Her mouth opened slowly.

"You have to know. I can't go back now." She clutched at the side of her cloak. "...I've done a lot of stupid things coming here. I worked really hard!" she whispered.

He was silent.

Conata's voice shook. "Please."

"So much pain in you..."

"What did you say?"

Lifprasil levelled his gaze with Conata. He looked somehow more tired than before. "If you want to know who your parents are, you should tell me more about yourself."

Conata swallowed again. "Like what?"

"You came from Rulanah. Tell me about your journey." Lifprasil turned a shivering palm to gesture to one of the surviving chairs. "Speak to me. We have time."


Conata glanced at the seat. Her lips and jaw tightened in a great effort not to break down weeping. There was little else to do but comply or escape. Only one option let her hang on to her hopes.

There were nails in the chair itself. She half-raised an open hand and the chair sung along the floor until she could grab it by the back. She took two small steps and slumped down onto the cushion with a small puff of stone powder. She kept her back straight and her eyes down.

Speaking the first words were difficult. The onlookers waited. She broke the silence.

"It was a few years ago," Conata began. Her hands clutched at her knees. "I could not stay at home any longer..."

Over the following while, Conata detailed her journey from Rulanah to Alefpria with no lack of humility and detail. Lifprasil nodded along attentively. Not a single moment went by where his evident fatigue caused his eyes to lower for more than a blink.

As Conata continued, others attempted to enter the library upon hearing of Lifprasil's activity. Upon Lifprasil's orders, none were allowed to interrupt. They were all forced to remain outside the broken door, straining to listen in.

A tale of Tounic rovaick, of hain tribes and djinn-filled craters, of metal, of challenges, turns, odd encounters, melancholy, identity, mindsets, toil, advice, Tiras, Helvanas, Majuses, realta, and all the deep pains between filled the library.

The emperor took in every detail, only interrupting to ask a question or two.

It filled uncounted hours.

For Conata, it was all a distraction. She kept going so she could avoid Lifprasil's answers, for fear of her hopes failing.

But the story had to end. Conata's last line was not delivered dramatically. It was a petering out, precluded by a long consideration. She could not find it in her roiling emotions to give it profound words:

Her hand went up and fell back upon her knee. "And now I'm here. That's it."

Lifprasil breathed in through his nose until his lungs were completely filled. He let it out in a slow, audible draft.

Conata blinked at the floor.

"I wish I could simply tell you," Lifprasil grumbled quietly. "You deserve to know after all you've been through."

Conata shut her eyes and lowered her brow.

"You are kind, determined, and creative, Conata," he continued. "I only met one god who saw challenges, like the kind you faced, as puzzles to be solved with one's particular talents -- in ways otherwise unforeseen. This one god acted with kindness and patience for all of mortalkind. Furthermore, though I wear items wrought by gods upon my person, no metal crafts could stand in quality against his creations."

The possibility made Conata's heart swell, even as only her sad face lifted to look at Lifprasil.

"But you have a flair to you, Conata. Something unique. You are more decisive than I would expect. You are fixated on your goal and are not afraid of making mistakes on your way there. That makes my opinion merely a guess, but..." Lifprasil turned his eyes down and slowly brought his curled finger to his lips. His eyes flicked up to Conata again. "This is what I recommend you do: Go to the chipper workshop in the market district. Within is a shrine to Teknall, god of civilisation." He beckoned Conata with his index finger. "Come close, I will tell you what to say at his shrine."

Conata stood up and stepped up to the seated emperor. She leant down to hear what he whispered into her ear. Only a few words were given.

She slowly brought herself straight, looking at Lifprasil with her skin fading to a neutral, if polished, pink copper.

"What if he doesn't answer?" Conata asked.

"Then you may return." Lifprasil leant back against his seat again. "I wish you could stay longer, but your path lies ahead. And...I still have much to ponder, myself." His smile faded as he stared ahead.

Conata looked to the door, at all the courtly faces peering in at her. She took one step past Lifprasil's seat and stopped to look back at him. "Thank you, Emperor Lifprasil."

Every part of Lifprasil was as still as a corpse once more. All except for his right hand, granting one last strained wave behind him.

Conata resumed her walk to the door. Her skin hardened into bright iron once more, determined and confident. The throng at the door silently parted to let her through. They were mostly high lifprasilians who stood much taller than Conata, but she looked none of them in the eye and none dared touch her. They all gawked at her passing like spooked antelope, horns and all.

Murmurs and speculation soon engulfed the court.

Conata kept on walking.



A good hour had passed since Frederic fled Alefpria. After losing their pursuers, Helvana had the bird fly back inland so they could rest.

Near the base of the Ironheart Ranges sat the demigoddess looking at the now mostly cleared sky, not too far from Frederic.

"Aren't you going to sleep, Hel?" Called Lloyd having just put his brother to sleep.

"In a bit. The night sky's beautiful today."

Lloyd sat down beside her and stared at the sky as well. "So, what will it be now that Alefpria's off your list?"

"Hmm…" She closed her eyes in thought. "Ilunabar told me Julkofyr took a piece of land for himself but she has since taken over it. I think I'll be going there next."

"Do you know where it is at least?"

"Northwest of here. A couple of months away, at best."

"Alright."

They fell silent again. They didn't bother to keep track of time, they just enjoyed each other's company.

"It'll make a year since we met soon." Lloyd said after what felt like several minutes.

"I see. We've been through a lot in such a short amount of time. And there's still much more to see in this world."

"I never even dreamed this world was so big. You really opened up my eyes, Hel. Traveling with you has been wonderful so far."

"Same here. I don't even know what it'd be like without you and Gwyn with me." She leaned to the side and rested her head on Lloyd's shoulder. "Thank you, Lloyd. For everything."

He was surprised for a moment, but put his arm over her in a hug. "We all owe it to each other."

They shared another moment of silence.

"Say." This time it was Helvana that broke the silence. "I've been thinking. Gwyn sees me as a mother, but what about you?"

"Hmm?"

"What am I to you? Do you see me as a mother too? Or a friend maybe?"

"I…"

Helvana looked up to Lloyd's face. "Yeeeeees?"

"I see you as a woman…" He said looking away from her, his face blushing.

"..." Helvana wasn't much better herself and, despite her calm expression, her face had a light pinkish tone to it. She smiled as she calmed down. "I see." Then gently held Lloyd's face and turned it to face her. "What about my proposition then?"

"..." Lloyd stared into her eyes. He still remembered what she said in the valley of the metal djinn. Ten years from now -- one hundred years from now -- she'd still look the same. "You don't mind spending eternity with me?"

"I wouldn't have offered if I did. So what'll it be?"

"I already told you I'll be there for you always."

"That you did." She raised her face to his. Their lips touched gently for a brief moment. Pulling away from Lloyd, Helvana placed her thumb over his right eye and held the other side of his face with her other hand. Bringing his face closer again, their foreheads and noses touched.

Lloyd winced and grit his teeth as Helvana's energies washed over him. He was doing his best to resist the pain, but soon enough he was groaning and grunting from it. And before he knew it it had ended.

Helvana separated herself from him again. He would've fallen on his back if she had let go of him. Lloyd could only take shallow breaths due to the demigoddess' touch. His skin became awfully pale, his hair lost all color and his left eye, though glazed, was now yellow just like Helvana's. His right eye, however, had taken a bright red tone from the curse she gifted him.

"Lloyd?" He could barely voice a reply in the form of a moan. She had given him a small dose of her power, but it was enough to overwhelm him. Lifting him on her arms, Helvana carried Lloyd to Frederic and placed him on his usual spot beside Gwyn. She laid down next to them with a smile on her face as she closed her eyes. The sun would be rising soon, but with what they went through today it'd be fine if they overslept.

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