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The Journey to Tendlepog: The Final Chapter

The arrival of Kree and Serenis had initially sown some doubts and discontent among the sailors, especially from the Noble on account of the number of instruments that had been ruined at the dragon’s descent. However, that did not stop the heartwarming environment from returning as what could be repaired, was repaired, and stories previously only shared among sailors were told to their new guests. Before Zhengwu set off from the Serpentine Isles, Qiang Yi summoned Serenis to the helmspost, where all the other officers onboard also had gathered.

Qiang Yi nodded at the present personnel. “Thank you all for coming - and our greatest gratitude to Your Holiness, too, for allowing these servants to bask in Your presence.” The gathered personnel all bowed to Serenis.

No, I should be the one thanking you for allowing me to travel with you,” Serenis replied, shaking her head. “I know I can’t contribute much to your crew, so I’m grateful you’re willing to have me here.” Kree, who was with Serenis at all times, yawned as he rested his head on her shoulder.

Qiang Yi straightened himself back up and smiled widely. “Your sacred self is too polite - in fact, these servants were hoping that Your Holiness would be willing to aid us on the last stretch.” Qiang Yi turned around and received a paper roll from Zhen-zhen. Zeng En, who had mostly recovered by now, save for a missing left hand and foot, made great efforts to place down a table in front of the captain. Despite of his struggles, no one seemed willing to help him. When the table eventually found its place, Qiang Yi unfurled the scroll and laid it down for all to see - it revealed a map of the eastern hemisphere - the most accurate description of it that they had, anyway.

Qiang Yi pointed at a black blot surrounded by a few curved lines. “These are the Serpentine Isles,” he said, his finger moving to upwards along the surface of the map until it reached the starlike shapes of Swahitteh-Tendlepog. The finger eventually fell on the southern point of one of Tendlepog’s arms.

“This is our destination. We will make landfall here and proceed on foot with the gifts. The carpenters have already prepared palanquins and rickshaws to the best of their abilities and opportunity.” He nodded to Li Shan who returned the nod. “Reaching Tendlepog will be relatively simple - as long as we keep a northward course, we cannot miss it. However, according to His Lordship’s details, the shores of Tendlepog are not easily reached.” Qiang Yi looked to Serenis. “This is where these servants hope Your Holiness could come in.”

I see,” Serenis said, looking over the map. In truth, she didn’t actually see anything, and the map’s vagueness didn’t help matters either. Still, if there was something she could do to help, there wouldn’t be a reason to refuse. “But what, exactly, do you need my help for? What makes this Tendlepog so difficult to land on?” Serenis asked.

Qiang Yi pursed his lips and walked over to the railing, gazing out across the sea. “According to His Lordship’s instructions, His Holiness K’nell once informed him that Swahitteh-Tendlepog possess a rather unconventional trait: They are constantly spinning.” He turned back, a frown darkening his face. “His Lordship suggested that we should come up with a plan as we arrived, and we have!” He grinned at Serenis. “Your Holiness, if it is not too much to ask, these servants humbly request that, as we approach Tendlepog, Your sacred self flies ahead and finds us the safest place to make landfall.”

Serenis nodded. It made sense in her mind. “Of course. I won’t let you down,” Serenis answered, smiling confidently. Tapping Kree lightly on his head, Serenis whispered to him, “Come on, Kree, wake up. We’ll have some work to do soon.” Kree blinked and looked up at Serenis, then yawned as he began to stretch.

The officers all smiled at one another and Qiang Yi bowed deeply to Serenis. “Our deepest thanks to you, O holy spirit Serenis. We estimate that we will be approaching Tendlepog in a few days, depending on the wind. You may leave tomorrow, unless Your Holiness would like to time alone to explore the continent first?”

“No need to wait any longer. I will scout it out now,” Serenis said, nodding before leaving the helmspost. As she walked, she clapped twice, signaling Kree to transform. Kree then jumped off of Serenis and into the air, flying off a short distance before expanding in size. Serenis had tried to stress to Kree the importance of not transforming while on the ship, and it seemed to have paid off. As he approached the ship, Serenis took a short running start before jumping onto Kree. Together, they flew off towards to continent of Tendlepog.

Qiang Yi and the others bowed to her as she disappeared, then seemingly went back to their planning.

A week had passed since Serenis had left on her heavenly mount. The rickshaws and palanquins had been prepared and loaded with wares and supplies. They rested safely below deck for now, the carpenters regularly inspecting them for flaws and areas to improve. As they worked their craft, the ceaseless beats of soles against the deck above them nearly drowned out the flush of the ever loudening waves. The shore was approaching fast, its uncanny drift across the horizon frightening some of the sailors. A new council of officers had been called to the helmspost.

“Zeng En,” Qiang Yi called and gestured to the shore. The quartermaster crossed his arms over his chest and nodded. “Yes, captain?” he said. Qiang Yi’s brow furrowed and he drummed the map on the tabletop. “Have you made any progress on the plan to transport the goods to land yet?”

The quartermaster sighed and moved his hands to his hips. “The plank is finished, captain - to use it, however, we must be conservative with the number of people we send over per round. We estimate that it holds five men at the time - two if we add a rickshaw or a palanquin, and even using it at all entirely depends on us finding a piece of land safe enough to dock against.” He gestured to the cliffs along the shifting shore. “As you no doubt have seen, that may prove to be a challenge.”

Qiang Yi let out a disapproving groan and turned to the railing. He slouched over and tightened his fists around the wooden bar. “Where are you, sacred Serenis?” he whispered.

Kree descended until he was parallel with the ship’s deck, allowing Serenis to jump off and land safely, causing a few of the present crew members to jump in surprise. She then clapped twice, and Kree began to shrink while landing on the ship himself, skittering over to Serenis and returning to his favorite position on her neck. “Good work, Kree. Get some rest now,” Serenis said, stroking Kree’s head as he closed his eyes.

Making her way to Qiang Yi, Serenis began to greet him, “I have returned, Qiang Yi, and here to report the location of our landing site.

“O-oh, Your Holiness Serenis!” Qiang Yi said and bowed deeply, followed by the other present officers. “H-how very convenient, this servant was just thinking about y--it means, how nice to see that You have returned!” He cleared his throat into his fist. “Please, share with us Your discovery.”

We’ve found a piece of the shoreline where the Zhengwu can land safely. It’s several hours away, and the shore itself is quite sandy. There should be plenty of space for the ship to rest on the ground,” Serenis reported.

Qiang Yi nodded slowly and looked to Li Shan expectedly, but the master carpenter shook his head. “Afraid that will be difficult still, Your Holiness,” the carpenter began. “It is true that the ship’s bottom is smooth enough that it could potentially be dragged ashore, but…” He paused and looked to the others. “... The hull is still largely made of bound bark, straw and wood - most of that will likely be scraped off if we try to pull the ship ashore.” The carpenter shrugged defeatedly. Qiang Yi bit his finger in thought.

“What direction did we need to sail in to get to this place, You said?” the captain asked Serenis.

After reaching Tendlepog, Kree and I turned right,” Serenis answered thoughtfully. “That sandy shoreline was the first location I found.

“Right… So due east, northeast, then, is that correct?” the captain asked.

Yes, that sounds about right,” Serenis nodded.

Qiang Yi furrowed his brow - as did many of the officers. “We will have to pick up speed, then. The continent rotates due east.” With that, the captain stormed down to the deck and barked orders for the main sail to be furled and for oars to be brought out. Zhen-zhen moved over to Serenis and smiled wryly.
“How long has it been since you saw that place?” she asked in a friendly voice.

Perhaps three… no, maybe four days ago,” Serenis said.

Zhen-zhen put her hands on her hips and pursed her lips. “Alright, so, that’s, uh…” She blinked at the floor. “... A slight deviance in placement from what you may remember. Big number, hard math.” She shook her head. “This is why I didn’t pass the Wise caste exam,” she said with a smirk. “Either way, any other details you recall about the landing spot - nearby cliffs, reefs, distance to nearest river or body of freshwater? Uh, depth of shore waters?”

Hmm…. I didn’t see any reefs… there were rather high cliffs on both sides of the shore, though…” Serenis began to recall. “Past the sandy shore was a large plain of dust. There might have been a river of water, but beyond that and a few bits of vegetation, there didn’t seem to be anything else for a long stretch of land. And... depth of… shore water… I-I don’t know either.

Zhen-zhen shrugged. “Qiang Yi’s a bit uptight about his plans - don’t mind him. He appreciates all the help you’ve given.” She gave her a grin. “We’ll improvise, alright?”

Serenis looked slightly disappointed, but nodded, smiling weakly. “Sure,” she said.

The collective grunts and groans of the paddling crew did little to drown the crushing waves slamming against stone and cliff. They were closing in now - the white beach taunted them from the horizon, but they rowed faster than the continent spun now, even if it only was by a fraction. Qiang Yi had taken a spot at the helmspost and shouted ‘row, row, row’ in a predictable rhythm to avoid the mindless chaos they had experienced the last time during their encounter with that monster. Zeng En and a few others stood readily by with the plank, a long structure of several bound stocks and ropes that formed a flexible, yet stiff and firm rope bridge that would be bound to the shore upon successful landfall.

“Keep the course steady, first mate Zhen-zhen,” Qiang Yi called out. He pointed to Serenis. “Serenis! If you would please, could you give us a bird’s eye view of the situation and keep us away from any cliffs and reefs?!”

Serenis nodded and ran towards the edge of the ship, signaling Kree to transform. In seconds, she was back in the air, keeping an eye out as instructed. Now that she had a second look, she could see things that she had missed before. “Rocks! Port side!” Serenis warned.

The faint call barely reached the shipdeck, but Zhen-zhen’s keen ears picked them up still. With a diligent pull, she dragged the tiller to the left, sending the ship on a hard starboard turn. Zeng En stood by the railing, keeping a fixed eye on the cliffs.

“They’re gone!” he eventually called. Zhen-zhen resumed the ship’s course and gave Zeng En a grin and Serenis a wave.

Serenis returned the wave and resumed her surveillance on the waters below. Other than the rocky outcrop they had just avoided, all seemed good for the time being. Still, she kept her eyes open. There was little time to relax right now; her job was not yet done.

The ship was nearing the beach now. Behind them slowly disappeared the cliffs they had spent the better part of a day outrunning. It took another half of an hour to finally reach the shores. With ten servants lined up along the starboard side, ready with the stone anchor, Qiang Yi gave the order. The anchor was dropped and nearly immediately crashed to the shore below.

“Lay down the plank!” Qiang Yi commanded. Zeng En and his assistants toppled the contraption of the side of the ship, hooking it tightly to the railing on one end. The bridge was extended forward, crashing into the sea at first. The sailors grabbed what parts of it that they could reach and lifted with all their might. The bridge did not budge.

“What happened?!” called Qiang Yi.

“The bridge, captain!” Zeng En yelled back. “It’s stuck in the sand!” Qiang Yi grit his teeth and waved his hands at Serenis.

“Serenis! Have Kree pull the bridge out of the sand and place it on the beach!”

Ok!” Serenis said, gesturing Kree towards the wooden plank in the sand. Kree watched quizzically, unsure of what was going on at first, but soon got the memo when he saw what the crew was doing. Putting his head underneath the bridge, he arched it back, lifting the plank into the air while also creating a small shower of sand. “It’s done!” Serenis called out.

With diligent roars, the Strong steered the bridge towards the shore with Kree’s help. It would have been impossible without the dragon, but now they could properly control the bridge. However, as they attempted to fasten the bridge to the sand on the beach, the bridge would not reach - it was as if there was a wall between the sea and the shore. Qiang Yi came over to the plank crew and looked in bewilderment at the phenomenon.

“B-but it’s right there! Has the continent sped up or something?!” Qiang Yi exclaimed and looked back at the faraway cliffs behind them. Zeng En, now thoroughly exhausted, shook his head in disbelief.

“I have no idea, captain…” he mumbled as he let Yong Mei take over his post. “It’s as if… As if the beach is an illusion or something.”

Qiang Yi blinked and scratched his chin. He once more eyes the cliff to the west and the highlands that stretched out from it for miles. He let his eyes follow the cliffside along the horizon, comparing it to the flat beach in front of them. Zhen-zhen came over to him and nudged his with a raised eyebrow.

“Figured it out yet, captain?” she said with her hands on her hips. Qiang Yi pursed his lips. He looked to Serenis by the bridge and called out: “Serenis! Are you certain this was the only beach around?”

It’s the only one I could find on such short notice!” Serenis called back. “But I can still go find another place to dock if we need to.

Qiang Yi scratched his head to the point where he nearly ripped out hair strands. He once again looked at the cliffs to the side. He planted one foot on top of the railing. “By Nanhe, I hope I am right about this…” Zeng En looked over. “Right about what, captain?”

Then, in a sudden burst of energy, Qiang Yi threw himself overboard towards the beach. As the crew let out screams and howls of horror and panic, the captain reached out in front of him and closed his eyes.

With a hard, yet wet slap, his body smacked against a flat, transparent wall in the air. Stunned for a second, he quickened to as what approximated to adrenaline coursed through his form. He clawed desperately along the invisible wall, the textures scraping the sand off his fingers, but no matter how much he grasped for safety, he only managed to slow his accelerating descent. Suddenly, what he had felt was a rock turned to wet clay in his ruined hands and he tumbled towards the foam below.

Is this how I die, then? the captain thought as he fell. He closed his eyes and parted his lips for one final prayer before the wind was knocked out of him. Qiang Yi blinked his eyes lazily as his mind tried to grasp what had happened. He felt around for what he had landed on and felt a fibrous texture around him. He rolled his head as far back as he could and saw the celebrating crew on the opposite end of the bridge, and upon turning his head a little to the side, saw Serenis atop Kree.

“Th-thank you,” he said to Serenis.

You’re welcome,” Serenis replied, before turning to face the beach. It was clearly not what it seemed to be. Qiang Yi didn’t just collide on nothing; there had to be something there, something they weren’t seeing. However, Serenis noticed one little spot in the air - a hole where Qiang Yi had pulled out the mud clump. It hung there in an uncanny fashion, like a brown ball midway through its journey across a field. There evidently was a wall there - the question was how tall.

Hmm…” Serenis pondered as she stared at the spot, then looked up. An idea began to form in her mind. Looking back at the crew, Serenis walked over to them, saying, “I should’ve seen it earlier. This isn’t a beach. This is a cliff. If Tendlepog truly spins, then it’s collision with the other continent should make it so that beaches wouldn’t form like this. There’d be a cliff wall all around the shoreline.

Qiang Yi nodded slowly. “Yes… Yes, then this truly was a cliff!” He got to his feet and walked uneasily back to the celebrating crew. “Zeng En!” he called.

“Never -EVER- do that again,” the quartermaster growled loudly at him. Qiang Yi grimaced sheepishly.

“Yes, I’d rather not. Listen - we have to bring the bridge up to the top of the cliff and use it as a ladder! The beach is an illusion, just as you said.”

Zeng En blinked and looked up. “A-alright, but… Where is the edge?”

Qiang Yi frowned his brow in the same direction. “I don’t know - we will have to trust Serenis and Kree to lift the bridge up. You and your Strong will make certain the bridge remains bound to the ship, is that clear?”

Zeng En hammered his broad chest proudly with one fist. “Yes, captain!” Qiang Yi grinned and turned to Serenis. “Serenis! Could you and Kree carry the bridge to the top of the cliff? We will secure it down here!”

Ok!” Serenis agreed. She relayed a few instructions to Kree, who proceeded to fly up to the top of the cliff, then stick his head out and lower himself down to where he needed to be, holding the bridge up with his head and securing it onto the top of the cliff. “It’s ready!” Serenis said when the job was done.

The crew looked up at the bridge-now-made-ladder that seemed to hang onto nothing. Many of them recoiled a little, whispering fearful explanations between one another. Qiang Yi muttered a little, grabbed onto the rope and looked to the rest. “We will ascend to the top and bring with us as much as we can. The ladder may not be wide enough for two of us at once, but it can handle as many as we get put along its length. Bring rope and wood so that we can hoist up the wine and rickshaws.” He took a deep breath. “The palanquins can remain aboard the ship.” Then the captain began to climb.

One by one, more and more crew members flowed to the ladder and began to climb. Kree had secured the lines well - even as the entirety of the remaining thirty crewmates had climbed and brought with them wine and equipment, the bridge had not budged. Qiang Yi counted the heads present atop the cliff and nodded.

“Alright, everyone made it up. That’s good.” Qiang Yi turned to Serenis and fell to his knees. “Your Holiness Serenis and Kree, the sacred, these servants cannot even begin to thank You for Your aid in this. This, uh… This servant also personally apologises for its commanding tone during landfall. It was unnecessarily rude and coarse.”

There is no need to apologize, Qiang Yi,” Serenis said, holding a hand up. “It was necessary in the situation we were in. And honestly, I wouldn’t know what to do without your commands. We just did the jobs we needed to do.
The crew encircled Serenis and all fell to their knees. Qiang Yi chuckled. “Your Holiness is much too humble. These servants all owe their lives to You for what You’ve done for us. Without You, we would never have made it ashore. Please, if there is anything we can do for You, tell us.”

Just being with with you and your crew was more than enough,” Serenis answered. “The stories I’ve heard, the laughs we’ve shared… this felt more than a mere journey to me. It felt like spending time with friends, no, with family. I’m very thankful for this time. I’m sure Lady Arae would approve of you all as well.” Kree then decided to stick his head into the conversation and softly growl. “Kree and I could use a few provisions, though. We’ll need them when we depart,” Serenis added.

Qiang Yi and the crew looked up with sheepish expressions, then at one another. Their heads returned to the ground. “Th-that is… Something we sadly cannot grant. Our people do not eat, you see - at least, not for the purpose of sustenance. However, if Your Holiness would like any water, we will gladly offer You as much as You could want.” There were several shameful headshakes among the crew. “We’re terribly sorry,” one of them whispered.

That’s alright, then,” Serenis said. “Kree and I can search Tendlepog for food when he needs it.” Kree bumped his head into Serenis’ side and snorted. Serenis patted his head, then continued, “If there’s nothing else that requires my help, then Kree and I should be off. I did say I’d only travel until we reached our next destination, after all.

“I-if it’s not too much to ask, these servants beseech Your Holiness to give them another task to accomplish for You as a thanks - tradition demands it.” There were hums of agreement throughout the crew, occasionally echoes of ‘tradition demands it’.

Serenis tilted her head sideways as she gave the matter some thought. She thought of the crew of Zhengwu as nice folk and didn’t really want to trouble them any more than they had to be. Then an idea flashed into her mind. Nodding, she decided to go with it. “Then offer prayers and thanks to Lady Arae as well as Shengshi. Unlike myself, she is a true goddess, and she is the Goddess of Family. This crew is very much like a family, if not one already, so do incorporate her into your traditions. She will not ask for much, and will not offer much in return, but as long as you retain your love for each other, she will not let your family fall.

The crew members looked at one another, nodding and smiling. A chuckle coloured with Zhen-zhen’s voice bounced across the soundscape. Qiang Yi hummed approvingly. “Then we shall do so. On our honours as Servants, we shall erect a shrine to Her Holiness Arae aboard our ship and praise her as well in daily prayer. We thank You once more for Your aid. Please don’t be afraid to seek us out again if You see us on your travels, Your Holiness.”

Serenis bowed, then proceeded to walk over and jump onto Kree. As Kree got up and spread his wings, Serenis bid farewell to Qiang Yi, “Safe traveling!” With a mighty leap and a flap of his wings, Kree was in the air, the two soon a speck in the distance.

The servants collectively rose and looked at Qiang Yi. The captain nodded to the left and right and then looked down at the ship far below.

“Someone will gave to remain here to maintain the ship. I want one third of our crew to remain - who volunteers?”

Sure enough, some hands, mostly belonging to the Skilled and the Noble, soon sprouted into the air. Wang Huangxia, having only recently recovered, was among them. Qiang Yi put his fists on his hips and furrowed his brow as he counted. “A bit fewer than hoped, but I cannot fault you for not wanting to remain here all the time. Li Shan, have two of your carpenters come with us. The rest can remain. Wang Huangxia, you and the Noble that remain here will scout for a source of water and see to it that the tank aboard the ship is full.”

The servants all bowed. “As you wish, captain,” Huangxia said in a slightly sour tone. Li Shan pulled his apprentice Tong Lao aside and gave him some specific instructions. Zeng En and Zhen-zhen gathered the expedition crew and prepared them for the journey, filling what flasks and gourds needed to be filled, and checking footwear and the like.

Qiang Yi winced a little and looked down at his bandaged hands. They had fixed him up quickly after he came back to the ship, but his hands would likely not be functional until their quest was complete. His eyes grew misty as he imagined all the sights that he would never get to record in his poetry. He felt an elbow in his side and recoiled.

“Oi, captain, what’s with the slouch?” Zhen-zhen said with a sly smirk. Qiang Yi started briefly, then shot her a sideway glance.

“That stunt of mine was silly… I lost my hands and I could have lost my life - all to prove if the illusion was what it was.”

Zhen-zhen made an exaggerated chin grab and squinted at Qiang Yi with pursed lips. “Yeah, it was silly, alright - downright dumb, if you ask me.” Qiang Yi deflated. “... But! It looked heroic and the poems will remember you for it--” She looked down at his broken hands and frowned. “... Well, when they’re written down, anyway.”

Qiang Yi rolled his eyes. “Thank you, first mate, for cheering me up,” he said airily. Zhen-zhen elbowed his side again.

“Hey, you did it for us. That says something about the character of a leader.” She gave him a warm grin. “His Lordship would be proud of you.”

The captain’s eyes became saucers and he cleared his throat. “Y-you think?” he said and prodded his stumps together sheepishly, wincing with every prod.

“Absolutely! He’ll put you on a monument for sure! You know what your title would be?” Her cheeks flushed and she let out quiet snickers. Qiang Yi furrowed his brow and smiled uncertainly. “The… Brave?” he proposed.

“The Skipper,” Zhen-zhen burst out with a chuckle. Qiang Yi smiled wryly and rolled his eyes. Zeng En called out and the two turned to him. “We are ready to leave at your order, captain,” the quartermaster said. Qiang Yi nodded firmly.

“Very good. Those that remain with the ship will maintain its position, integrity and access - if the ship or the bridge falls, we can no longer return home. You will made certain that does not happen. Furthermore, in honouring our promise to Her Holiness Serenis, you will construct a shrine to Arae aboard Zhengwu and praise it daily along with Ashalla and our Lord. Any question or queries?”

“No, captain!” the remainers boomed in unison. Qiang Yi nodded.

“Very well. May His Lordship keep you safe, and may the Queen of Oceans be with you, and may the Loving One bless you with familial bonds and warmth for one another.”

“And to you, captain,” Wang Huangxia said on the remainers’ behalf. The expeditionary crew looked at one another, took deep breaths and set off towards the centre of Tendlepog.

After the crew had pushed past the original vegetation of the cliffside, and a brief stint through an uneventful forest, the soon found themselves in a land very bizarre. All around them was a sea of white dust, and the iron smell of broken rock. Vegetation had thinned to a plant here or there, specks of yellow-green on a canvas of alabaster. The heat bounced off the sheet of dust, and there was no water in sight. Worst still, it soon became apparent that they were lost, their footprints never quite forming, and their eyes flickering over mirages of broken promises.

After several hours of this madness, a number of crewmates grew paranoid and aggressive. It did not take long until an argument broke out at the end of the caravan, one which soon spread to the front like wildfire. Qiang Yi, Zhen-zhen and Zeng En moved to the back, arriving at a scene of spiteful insults and vicious threats, primarily spat by two robe-clad membres of the Noble. Qiang Yi racked his brain to remember their names, but Zhen-zhen stormed over, put her hands on her hips and shouted, “Tu Er, Po Lan, what in Nanhe are you two doing?!”

“Back off, squirt, it’s your fault we’re in this mess!” the one likely known as Tu Er shouted in the smaller girl’s face. Po Lan stomped over to Qiang Yi and stuck his finger in his face, causing the captain to back away with wide eyes. “Captain, look where you’ve taken us! Nowhere! We haven’t seen water for ten hours and our skins are emptying - what have you got to say for yourself?!”

Qiang Yi blinked and opened and closed his mouth, unable to form a sentence. Zeng En crossed his arms over his chest and glared at the man. “You dare cast such accusations at the captain’s face, Po Lan?!”

The man backed off, but returned the glare. Meanwhile, behind him Zhen-zhen and Tu Er were nearly butting heads. The girl grit her teeth at the menacing man, her fists clenching and unclenching. However, she eventually took a deep breath and stepped backwards. “I don’t feel like fighting, Tu Er. Just calm down and fall in line, and we’ll forget your attempts at harming morale.”

Tu Er spat a ball of water on Zhen-zhen’s robe and sneered at her. “Make me.” Zhen-zhen’s eyes momentarily flashed red and the little girl pounced the other servant, her fists hammering mercilessly at his face. Qiang Yi and Zeng En both gasped and sprinted over to pull her away, but as they left Po Lan to his devices, the servant ran away. “You will all die in here! Escape while you can!” he screamed as he ran.

There was a sudden whinny and the thunder of hooves. A figure appeared on the horizon, a lot closer than one would hope. It was dressed in dark glinting thorns and swung a large sword back and forth over the head of a midnight colored mare, hooves aflame. As it passed Po Lan the sword swung down, the blade slipping through him while leaving no a sight of harm. The servant collapsed, and the charge continued in a straight line towards the others.

The caravan froze as one. The squirming Zhen-zhen and Tu Er both immediately halted mid-punch as the Warden barreled down on the quarrel. The mare suddenly turned, stamping to a halt before the group. The Warden pointed a finger at the group, “What is the meaning of this!?” His voice boomed, leaking the smell of wet soil.

For a moment, no one neither answered nor moved. Even Li Shan at the front of the caravan remained petrified. Qiang Yi blinked a few times, then took a step forward. “O-oh sacred spirit, for-forgive these servants for breaking out into such needless squabbles on Your holy territory - they are but humble travellers bearing gifts for His Holiness K’nell. Th-they recently made landfall and have been trekking through these lands for a week, but they have not seen water for hours - and water is quite necessary to our subsistence, You see. Its absence incites a desperation in us that--”

“Fools!” The voice rumbled angrily, “You walked with the dust, not across it, that is why you are lost.” He shifted on his mare in an angry silence. A gentle tickle could be felt in the servants’ minds and the Warden suddenly spoke again, “However, you are faithful, and even in your folly you shall be granted reprieve.” A shadowy crow flew over head and the Warden pointed, “Even now the Lord K’nell watches.”

“H-He does?” Qiang Yi whimpered. Around him, all the servants fell to their knees in prayer. The captain permitted himself to look at the Warden’s black-armoured face, though his eyes flicked away swiftly. “Forgive this servant for asking, but… Who does it have the pleasure of addressing?”

The dust began to shift as the Warden stared in silence at Qiang Yi. Po Lan, who was a distance away began to stir, the dust around him shifting. The Warden looked down as the flames of his horses’ hooves began to douse, the dust rising slowly.

“Our Lord has arrived,” The Warden rumbled, and then all at once a gentle flush of cool water rolling in from the horizon, shallow and wide. The dust coated it like a sleeve as it washed over the praying servants knee’s, the landscape turning into one of swirling white and crystal. The servants’ eyes became saucers as they spread their fingers out into the shallow, foamy flow. “It’s a miracle - a gift from the Lord of Dreams!” came a shout from the front of the caravan, eliciting echoing sentiments and calls from the rest. Tu Er blinked at the water and tossed himself around in it like a hog in mud, cackling maniacally as it soaked his robes. Po Lan blinked to life, sat up and spotted Tu Er. He let out an equally crazy chortle and went sprinting over to his earlier enemy to drink his fill. Qiang Yi, Zhen-zhen and Zeng En all remained kowtowing, though they could not help but giggle at one another as water seeped through their skin and reinvigorated their thirsty souls.

The blue sky seemed to be mirrored in the white speckled flood below, all sounds drowned but the gentle laughing and praising. It was only when the soft string of an unseen violin played did the servants suddenly feel a pressure in the air. There before them, though they didn't look, a gentleman stood aloft the gently shifting flood. His voice swirled, “Welcome, servants of Shengshi.”

The celebrating servants all froze for a moment, before rolling over on their tummies and prostrating themselves. Qiang Yi glanced left and right to make certain the whole caravan remembered their manners. “His Lordship sends His warmest greetings, O Holiness K’nell, Lord of Dreams, Sovereign of Sleep, Exalted Creator of Hermes, the Love of the River, and beloved brother of Shengshi, Lord of the Thousand Streams.” He and the rest all dipped their heads a little lower, if possible.

“His greetings are well received, as are you,” K'nell replied, “You diligence in your duty does not go unnoticed, I assure you.” There was a pause, “Might you rise so I may see your faces?”

The servants rose in unison, bowed and then looked forward, though none of them dared make direct eye contact. K'nell tapped his chin and walked by Qiang Yi, “Would I be wrong to say that you are their brave captain?”

As if programmed, Qiang Yi once more fell to his knees as K’nell walked by. “Th-th-this servant is the captain, yes - Your Holiness intuition is impeccable. This servant is most grateful for Your Holiness comment about bravery!”

“Very good,” K’nell smiled, “Present your gift and finish your quest so I may congratulate you and your compatriots on your journey.”

Qiang Yi bowed proudly and turned around. “Bring forth His Lordship’s gift.” Five rickshaws were quickly rolled up to Qiang Yi, each loaded with a large, fifty litre pot of wine, a different flavour for each pot. Qiang Yi stepped aside and gestured to the rickshaws; the sailors who had pulled them took a few steps back and fell back on their knees. “His Lordship Shengshi of the Thousand Streams wishes to give His dearest friend, Lord K’nell of Dreams, Sovereign of Sleep and Exalted Creator of Hermes, Love of the River, a gift of two hundred and fifty mugfulls of wine, fifty mugfulls respectively of apple wine, mango liqueur, longtsao wine, palm wine and, of course, blueberry spirits. His Lordship prays they will satisfy Your Holiness’ pallet.”

“How kind!” K'nell praised, “Be sure to give my deepest thanks to your Lord the next time you see him.” He tapped his chin, “But you shouldn't leave empty handed, no.” There was a pause as K'nell thought, “Should it be within your pleasure, I invite you to rest and recuperate on the bountiful plains of Tendlepog until such a time I come to an idea for a gift in kind. You may bring your entire crew while my faithful Warden,” He Tilted his head to the grumpy horseman, “Shall ensure the safety of your vessel in the meantime.”

The crew members raised their heads to look at one another. Qiang Yi shot a glance at Zhen-zhen and Zeng En, who both beamed like Heliopolis itself. “If His Holiness allows it, then these servants would be more than honoured to accept. Thank You, blessed Sovereign of Sleep. Thank You from the bottom of these servant’s hearts.”

“Then you are now my welcomed guests,” K'nell grinned wide, “You may take from my rivers, collect from my fields and forage from my mountains. But,” He raised a finger, “Do not go beyond the inner mountain ranges and into the central forests, not without further invitation.” He looked them over, “While you sleep here, you will find paradise awake and in your dreams, and when you are finally rested and I have a gift in mind, there will be a final task from me should you accept.”

“A-a task, Your Holiness?” asked Qiang Yi carefully. The others gathered around closer to listen in.

“There is delicate cargo that I wish disposed of,” K'nell folded his hands behind his back, “Who better to do such a task than the brave sailors of Shengshi. I will not let you leave without the proper provisions and equipment of course, and should you refuse then I will even still see you safely home.”

Zhen-zhen, Zeng En and Li Shan all exchanged glances. Meanwhile, Qiang Yi’s eyes were glistening with joy. Zhen-zhen gave his pack a prod and whispered, “M… Maybe we should think a--”

“These servants offer their services, Your Holiness!” Qiang Yi exclaimed and bowed. Zhen-zhen and the rest froze momentarily, but quickly bowed, too.

“It will be dangerous,” K'nell warned, “I will accept your response in the coming days, after rest has taken you all.” He paused, “But your enthusiasm is most refreshing.”

“O-oh,” the captain began. “Naturally, O sacred Sovereign! We shall rest and have ready for You an answer.” Yet again, he bowed, inciting everyone behind him to also bow.

“Very good,” K'nell nodded, “I advise you send one sailor back with the Warden to inform your crew of the new arrangement in the plains. As for the rest.” He snapped his fingers and a set of footprints appeared in the drying dust, “Follow these to your new place of leisure. I will be watching you, ensuring your safe arrival.”

Qiang Yi pointed at a gi-clad servant, who set off in a jog back the way they came. “These servants are eternally grateful for Your hospitality, Your Holiness.”

“I'm glad to hear it,” K'nell smiled, “I am equally grateful for your lords gift and your services.” He clapped a hand and shadowy figures jumped out of the air itself. They scurried and picked up the containers of wine, running off as quickly as they came. “I should think of a gift,” K'nell mused, “One for the servants as well as the master.” He turned on his heel, “Yes, indeed.”

The Learner, The Martial Dancer


Hermes + Xiaoli

Hermes stared down past the bump that had taken over her belly and at her feet. Reddish soil slowly rose up around them, and with a loud shluk Hermes pulled one out, leaving a fine imprint of her sole. A few thoughts crossed her mind as she stood staring at the imprint, the brook she stood in rolling past her shins, clear and crystal. She stood outside the walls of the estate, in the very brook that convinced Xiaoli to settle; since then it had been renamed Chunshui in honor of its service as their home.

The Dreamer’s quoll cloak hung on the branch of a tree nearby and her pants were rolled above her knee, she was here on a hunch. She leaned down and scooped up a handful of the clay and rolled it between her fingers. It was firm and silky, and stayed in the same position she left it -- for the most part. A few crumbles fell off the ribbon forming between her fingers and she frowned. Finally she decided to scoop up a larger handful, she turned and dumped it into a small stone pot for later.

A few shluks later and she was out of the brook, only the very bottom of her pants dripping with water. She picked up the pot and her sandals with one arm and swung her cloak over her back with the other. The brown and white speckled garment fell to her calves and engulfed her shoulders in a warm fuzz, leaving a gentle smile on her face as she walked through the gates of the estate.

There in the courtyard Arya danced to the tune of her own humming, reminiscent of the Palace’s song. The girl had her hair up in a loose ponytail, and as she spun, so too did her dress twinkle in the light of Heliopolis. Lady Xiaoli had done wonders fixing it for her, the blood had been the hardest to get out, but it looked good as new. She also wore the bell that Choppy had given her, now on her right wrist. It rang lightly as she moved her arms, but nothing answered its call.

She danced with her eyes shut, having practiced to the point where she had grown comfortable with the courtyard’s surroundings. Her legs moved with uncanny grace as she moved in a rhythmic pattern, swaying like a leaf on a cool breeze. Occasionally she incorporated a fighting move, but whether it was intentional or not, was hard to determine.

Hermes couldn’t help but smile at the girl, proud of how much she had grown and how quickly she had learned. She walked over to her workstation, which had grown considerably bigger since its days as a simple butcher table. She placed the pot on one of its three tables, under a reed shielded awning. She put her hands on her hips and turned to Arya, “What day is it?”

Without pausing or even opening her eyes to disrupt the flow of her dance, Arya hummed. ”Kalmarsday...Maybe?” before doing a small twirling jump.

“That’s tomorrow,” Hermes frowned slightly, “Today is Li’kallasday.” She pushed the pot onto the sunniest part of her table and looked over a paper stamped to the wood with a stone, the designs for a time telling creation drawn across crudely. She sighed, it was far from adequate. She rested a hand on her protruded belly and scoured her notes.

“I’m certain the exalted creators will be more than satisfied with the days’ names.” Xiaoli came out of the family house with a basket of laundry. She strolled out through the gates momentarily, then almost as soon as she had exited, she came back with a steaming basket of freshly washed clothes. She carried it over to some lines of thread that she had tied between the roof of the family house and a nearby pole. She flipped the articles neatly over the threads, taking great care to avoid nasty folds and the like.

“Hey,” Hermes looked away from her work and at the laundry with a slight disappointment, “Did you ever get the chance to wear that numbat shirt I made for you?”

“O-oh,” Xiaoli cooed quietly. She turned and gave Hermes a forced smile. “Yes! I did, aaaaand… Well…” She cleared her throat and pulled a wet skirt out of the basket. “... It was very, uhm, soft! Very soft and, uhm… Open? Oh, yes, it would breathe well in the summer--”

“You didn’t wear it,” Hermes stood up straight and put her fists on her hips.

Xiaoli let out a sigh. “I’m sorry, dear - I wanted to try it on, but then it ended up in the bottom of the laundry pile by accident, and, well…” She fished the shirt out of the basket. The already amateurish attempt to make a shirt had seemingly not survived a divine wash - as such, it was a little ripped.

Hermes’ face turned serious, her lips pursed into a line. Slowly the edges of her lips curled and she started to laugh, “It was so ugly, I was so embarrassed.” She laughed, “I didn't know if you’d actually try it on!” She cackled.

“Oh, dear, don’t say that! It wasn’t ugly, it was…” She snapped her fingers looking for the right words. “... It was a valiant attempt!” She gave her a sheepish grin and swung the rags over the drying line. “I’ll see if I can mend it after it dries, okay?”

Hermes face glew just a bit, “You’re wonderful.” She turned back to her work and then shook her head.

Xiaoli blushed a little. “Oh, you flirt,” she snickered. She gave the workbench a quick stare. “Say, what’re you working on, dear?”

“Well,” Hermes scrunched her nose in thought, “You know how I decided to break a day cycle into twenty-four segments? I’m trying to figure out a way to keep track of them during the day -- so if you wanted to know how many segments were left, you could know.”

“Oh yeah, you’re working on your time management project again.” With a quiet ‘hup!’, Xiaoli lobbed a water-heavy pair of pants with adjustable midriff over the line. “What methods have you tried so far?”

“Arya and I tried a controlled burning of some rope,” Hermes admitted, “But that was a mess.” She looked up to the sky, “Did I clean that up?”

”Yes.” Arya hummed again, ”But only after it got out of control.” she snickered.

“Shh!” Hermes said through a smile she was trying to force away.

Xiaoli let out a frustrated sigh. “Okay, where did you burn it?”

“Outside the walls,” Hermes defended, “It was near the water, we’re just missing a few patches of moss is all.”

’That and some sweetgrass. It smells really good when you burn it at first. Then not so much.” Arya giggled.

Hermes shot Arya a betrayed look, then looked at Xiaoli, “There’s not much else I can do with -- well,” She put a hand on her stomach, “Not much besides tinker and think. Oh! Do you think we could melt ice really slowly?” She looked at her notes and frowned, “No, that’s stupid. Especially during Lustrousitime.” Her finger on a marker for the season of spring.

Xiaoli took a deep breath and nodded slowly. “Alright, uhm… What are you basing your time on? You said they fell into twenty-four segments, but what are these based on?”

Hermes blinked and looked up from her papers, her eyes slightly pink with fatigue, “The movements of Heliopolis -- what if I used shadows? Oh but then what about night-time.”

Xiaoli shrugged. “I mean… Most people will be sleeping at night, won’t they?” She lobbed the last article of clothing over the line and strolled over to the workbench. She put a warm hand on Hermes shoulder and stared in marvel at her work. “You are so diligent, you know that?”

“That’s true,” Hermes put a hand over Xiaoli’s fingers, smiling, “Thank you.” She turned to Xiaoli, “Well keep the center of the courtyard clear, maybe I can try and build a shadow-thingy or something there, that’s where Heliopolis is strongest.”

Xiaoli’s eyes went wide. “O-over my mural?” She took a gander at the stone carving of the eastern hemisphere that she sculpted in such detail and her face contorted into a pout.

“Oh,” Hermes blinked twice, “Of course not.” She smiled, “I’ll find the perfect place for it, don’t worry.”

Xiaoli’s pout remained for a moment. “... I certainly hope so,” she mumbled sourly. She looked around the courtyard. “Ideally, it should face the south and receive influence from both the east and west, yes?”

“Yes,” Hermes nodded, “Maybe outside the southern gate? We can make a dias for it --er when I have an actual design in mind.”

Xiaoli gave her a sly grin. “Just tell me if you’d like some help with the drawings.” She ran her eyes over Hermes’ notes and let out a gentle chuckle. “Your writing is improving by the day, dear.” She picked up a stray paper and inspected it. “You might be ready for calligraphy soon.”

“You think so?” Hermes looked at her with a certain joy in her eyes.

Xiaoli nodded encouragingly. “Yeah! Your strokes grow prettier and prettier - how’s you speed? Write a sentence for me.”

“Speed is my specialty,” Hermes mused, dipping a stray brush and quickly --albeit clumsily-- jotted down some of her observations about the clay on a stray piece of paper.

Xiaoli winced ever so slightly, but made great efforts to give Hermes a broad smile. “Wonderful, Hermes! Just…” She hummed curtly. “... Just slow down a little on the horizontal strokes so they don’t accidentally cross over the vertical strokes, okay?” She gave her a peck on the scalp.

“Oh,” Hermes cocked her head as she looked at the characters, “I'll try.” She turned to Xiaoli and grinned.

“I hope I’m not intruding,” A grainy voice suddenly swirled. Hermes twisted as quickly as she could manage, “K’nell!”

The gentleman stood under the gateway, arms crossed behind his back and a buzzing smile on his face. Arya snapped her eyes open immediately at the sound of K’nell’s voice, twirling to a stop as she stared at the god for the first time in person. She cocked her head, a smile forming in her eyes, then lifted off the ground and flew towards him, arms outstretched, saying. ”Oh K’nell!”

There was a soft ‘oof’ as Arya’s hug connected and the Gentleman gave her two tiny taps on the back, “There there.”

Xiaoli froze up, spun on her heel and fell to her knees and hands the blink of an eye. “Your Holiness K’nell! Such a honour to receive a visit from Your holy presence.”

“Yes,” K'nell gave a respectful grin, his eyes flickering, “Your home is quite the sight, Xiaoli.” His eyes fell on Hermes’ belly, and then her muddy legs, “Ah, I do hope your taking care, dear. It is quite the burden you carry.”

“I am!” Hermes smiled and put her hand on her stomach, “To what do we owe the honor of your presence?”

“A thought,” K'nell began to walk towards the two, motioning for Arya to follow him. “In light of some thinking, I've decided on two things: first to bless your home, and second to bless your guest.”

“My, Your Holiness,” Xiaoli said with a giggle. “Your sacred protection and permission for us to settle here are already blessings beyond what we could ever repay. What more could we possibly deserve?”

K'nell looked at the kowtowing girl, “Rise, Xiaoli -- The blessing is already done. It stands just for you all to witness it, so that perhaps in the future, its physical presence will remind even the simplest of animals of the first two blessings bestowed.”

Xiaoli first sat up on her calves, then slowly rose to her feet. She looked discreetly around for the blessing the god had mentioned. But when she saw none, a gentle curl too the God's face.

“Walk with me, my dears,” K'nell charmed, “ It's just outside the gate.”

The God turned on his heel and began to walk away. Hermes looked at Xiaoli and took her hand, following the God from behind. Arya let out an ‘ooo’ as she floated leisurely around K’nell, her long dress flowing behind her. The girl’s mind was abuzz with whatever blessing K’nell would bestow upon her. Did she even deserve one, she wondered? Xiaoli squeezed Hermes’ hand and took a deep breath as she was pulled along.

Just outside the gate, the God stopped and turned. There standing guard over the opening was two obelisks, each just a few feet taller than the women. One stood a solid black like the platform of Limbo while the other was an alabaster white similar to Hermes birth colors.

The God waved a hand, “One will mark all who live or are invited into your home,” He pointed to the white obelisk, “It will not be a physical mark, but a mark for my weavers. They will know to give them only their best dreams.” His eyes glanced over Xiaoli, “Even to those who find trouble dreaming.” Xiaoli blinked and looked away flustered.

Before anyone could speak, he introduced the glossy black obelisk, “And here I house another gift for you. I have instructed one of Tendlepog’s nightmares to enter this stone. As such this obelisk will stand guardian over your home, and should anyone enter uninvited or else cause harm to this estate, out will emerge my own retribution in the form of that nightmare.”

He folded his hands behind his back and turned to the women, “It is with a certain joy that I present these to you: a sort of token of our original agreements and relationship.”

Xiaoli could not help but once again fall to her knees and hands. “Your Holiness’ graciousness and generosity is truly divine in nature. These gifts will be treasured immensely.” She permitted herself to look up at K’nell with misty eyes. “... If-if it’s not too rude, this servant would like to express its most sincere gratitude for the alabaster obelisk… This servant looks forward to seeing the Palace.”

“Ah!” K'nell seemed to have forgotten something, “Which reminds me, implication of the obelisk aside: you are cordially invited to the ballroom of the Palace.”

“A b-ball?” Xiaoli said with blinking eyes, Hermes putting her hands on her shoulder with a gleeful smile. “B-but I can’t--...” She turned to Hermes desperately. “My dear, I cannot dance as well as you yet!”

Hermes let her hand fall into one of Xiaoli’s, “I had no idea what I was doing the first time, at least you’ve danced before. Besides, you have me, too.”

“After all,” A cheshire grin grew on K’nell’s face, “A slip here and there is well worth the prize of--” He looked at the pair, “You’ll have to excuse me, I am getting ahead of myself.” He turned to Arya, “But let us not forget my second promise today.” He held out his hand, palm up.

Arya paused from her viewing of the beautiful obelisks, and turned to K’nell with wide eyes. She looked at his hand curiously, then without hesitating and with grace, the girl placed her much smaller hand within his own, then looked up at K’nell.

“There is a choice to be made,” K’nell said, “You have spent much time learning in the palace, under me as my ward. It is now for you to decide if you wished to be marked as such, and blessed with my protection beyond what you have already acquired. Should you agree, I shall tap the back of your hand, and a mark similar to Hermes’ shall appear, letting the world know who looks after your well being and turning away the wisest of antagonists. Should an antagonist not stirr, and should they distress you, they will be marked with nightmares until forgiven. Do you accept this blessing, my dear, shall you become one of my wards on Galbar?”

A few tears began to fall from Arya’s eyes as she listened to the proposal. She thought on it for but a moment before saying, ”I’d love nothing more… to be…” she choked on her words but began to nod.

K’nell gave a simple tap on the back of her hand and a spiral twirled about her skin, centered with a purple dot. K’nell let her hand fall back to her side, “Then you are, and you shall always have a home on Tendlepog and in the Palace.”

Wide eyes gazed upon the new mark, it was beautiful as ever. She looked back up at K’nell before hugging him again as she said, ”Thank you thank you thank you!” It meant more to her then perhaps any of them knew, but to finally have a home, was simply bliss.

K’nell gave her a few pats on the back, a gentle smile on his face, “Very good, dear, very good.”

The Angels
and Fire Giants

As Jiangzhou broke through the thick clouds and fog above the Saluran Mendidih, a group of five servants knocked on the gates to Shengshi’s chambres. All of them were dressed excessively well - no less than expected by the snake’s personal butlers and maids. Two of them were carrying tea trays, though the second tea tray was full of biscuits and fruits; one was carrying a mop and a bucket; one was carrying fresh ink and paper; and the one at the front, who was dressed the finest, was carrying a few scrolls. A minute passed before the snake pulled the doors apart and smiled.

“Ten thousand years and more to His Lordship, Shengshi of the Thousand Streams,” the servants said in unison and kowtowed with trained ease despite the objects they were carrying.

“Ah, what a wonderful joy to have such loyal servants orient me about the daily affairs. Please, come in.” The snake led them inside. The servants with the refreshments immediately placed their trays on the table and began to prepare the tea and cakes; the servant with the ink and paper went over to the snake’s calligraphy desk and begun to clean it and take inventory; the servant with the mop began to diligently wash the floor and dust off the many surfaces inside the room.

The servant with the scrolls walked up to Shengshi and bowed. “My Lord, this servant brings a list of the ship’s affairs and status, as Your Lordship requested.”

“Wonderful,” said the snake. “Tell me, what did the reinforcement of K’nell’s forces cost us?”

The servant nodded and unfurled the scroll. “In terms of wine, Your Lordship, while our finest barrels were spared, everything that was strong enough to burn was unfortunately sacrificed. Furthermore, a unit of six Echoes managed to board the ship during the assault - they killed thirty of our warriors before we managed to subdue them.”

The snake’s brow fell low over his eyes. “A tragic loss… Have their belongings been returned to their families?”

The servant nodded slowly. “As per tradition, Your Lordship.”

The snake nodded somberly. “Good. Tell their families they have my blessing if they wish to form any children - though, please add that they may not form more than what they lost.”

The servant nodded with a smile. “They are certain to be overjoyed at Your Lordship’s blessing. This servant will tell them as soon as we are back on the water.”

“Very good,” said the snake. “Are there any more news?”

“Yes, Your Lordship,” said the servant. “As You requested, we posted sentries along the ship’s railing as Jiangzhou left Tendlepog. Last night, a report came in from one of the stern sentries: Zhengwu was spotted off the northern coast of the Kick.”

Shengshi smiled warmly. “I wish I could share with them just how proud I am… How was the cloudscape?”

“It is unlikely that Jiangzhou was seen, Your Lordship,” said the servant. The two servants with refreshments knelt down before the snake, each lifting a tray up towards the snake. He took a tea cup and a piece of mango.

“Very good. I cannot bear the thought of shattering the crew’s morale - their prayers already tell me the journey has been more arduous than expected.” He took in a quick sniff of the steam lazily dancing out of the cup and popped the mango in his mouth.

“Now, if that is a--”

“YOUR LORDSHIP!” came a call from outside the gates and they were swung open by another group of five servants, all running inside and casting themselves to their knees and hands. The snake frowned and straightened up - the surrounding servants all nearly dropped what they were holding.

“What is it? What news do you bear?” the snake demanded anxiously.

“Th-the Giant’s Bath, Your Lordship! The western grasslands! The Qiangshan Mountains! All are surrounded in smoke and flame!”

The snake’s eyes shot wide open. “What?!” he roared and stormed out onto his veranda.

The servants had spoken true - there, far below the ship, fires raged at the borders of the grasslands south of the Cauldron, and the scant forests between Qiangshan and the Giant’s Bath had been replaced by black columns of smoke. The snake let out a sharp snarl and looked further to the west, his divine eyes spotting the armies of fire approaching from the raging Mount Eldahverr. Behind him, the group of frightened and whimpering servants gathered.

“W-what is His Lordship’s command?” the messenger asked in a shaky voice. The snake breathed through his fangs a few times before finding the calm to turn around.

“A declaration of war has been sounded. We will sail down to the Giant’s Bath and secure it first - the gateway to Fengshui Fuyou must be protected at all costs.”

The servants nodded and bowed. As the ship began its descent towards the ground, they ran throughout the ship and ordered the crew to assume battle stations. Shengshi slithered down to the dragon’s head and mounted it. A sneak attack in his absence - a most cowardly tactic.

He would have his vengeance.

Thunderous thumps echoed through the lands, as the massive fiery figure of Vulkandr slowly appeared from the corner of the towering Cauldron. Below, most of his fellow Jotundr were following him underfoot, groaning and moaning while they checked their surroundings. Their quarrel ahead was a giant pool of steaming water - one that was half the height of the mighty Fire Titan. It, however, didn’t necessarily interest Sartr’s forces as they were more focused on what laid beyond it - a great forest filled with dry timber waiting to be ignited by their hand. The giant rock creature would continue to advance, issuing a stentorian bellow as his troops proceeded to hasten their advance towards the jungles ahead.

They’ve proceeded to burn the closest bits of foliage and ignited a forest fire. The deeper they would go, the more destruction they would cause. However, just as they barely pierced through the outer borders, Vulkandr halted as he raised his head into the howling winds. He could sense something approaching… something huge. He issued a loud grunt that commanded the other Jotundr to cease their activities and listen. For a long few seconds they listened closely, only hearing the faint sound on an approaching gust of wind that blew over their fiery shoulders.

And then, emerging from the clouds above, they could all see a massive ship descending from the heavens. Looking at it’s grand form from below was a sight that absolutely confounded them as the jotuns began to gurgle loudly in absolute confusion as to what they were seeing. Being that they’ve encountered such a monstrosity only in the mere hour of existence was enough to cause them to grow anxious. What and who were upon this massive wooden vessel? And while it was created out of the very thing they wanted to burn, it still didn’t saturate the feeling of anxiousness that emanated from them.

Vulkandr’s immediate instincts tried to force him into issuing combat with the floating vessel, however it was no mindless golem without a brain. The giant would then bellow out frustrated another holler towards the jotun, who immediately proceeded to issue a hasty revaluation of their current actions, and began to disperse from the already burning trees. Their fight with the divine would not take place here and in the form their opponent manifested in.

And thus, the giants of flame began to walk southwards away from Shengshi’s flying airship and Giant’s Bath. However, they wouldn’t be heading back to their Master just yet. They would merely proceed to hug the Cauldron’s wall and proceed to engage the area of forest to the south - where no other god seemed to defend its borders.

None to their knowledge anyways...

As the ship’s hull broke the water surface of the Giant’s Bath, the snake noted with squinted eyes that the humanoids who had been sieging his home had all but vanished. He traced their many ashen tracks southwards and let out a hiss.

“I see they know how to pick their fights…” He took a deep breath and pursed his lips. “... Sartr made them wiser than I had expected.” The snake hopped off the dragon’s head and slithered towards the edge of the deck. He took a moment to stare outwards across the small basin he called home - its seemingly bottomless amounts of freshwater contrasted by the fact that most gods likely could see its bottom. Such was the blessing of Fengshui Fuyou’s gateway.

He breathed in a proud nosefull, satisfied with his victory over the fire giants. However, his moment of pride gave way to fear as he heard a faint roar. He gazed northwards and, straining his divine eyes, spotted red, curved lines with wings flapping through the air over Qiangshan. For now, though, he could not quite make out what they--

Then he saw it: a colossal beast, dwarfing every other red line, came soaring over the mountaintop, letting out seven roars in unison. Even from here, the snake could make out many of its details - reptilian scales, draconic heads, massive wings. The snake had not seen clearly what the red lines were, but he saw this one. His brow moistened and he looked into the Giant’s Bath.

“Dragons…” he hissed. He turned to the servants behind him, who all bowed. “I will enter Fengshui Fuyou and make certain nothing has harmed it. Stay here and guard the gate.” He dove over the side before any of the servants could ever confirm that they had heard the order. The gateway to the sphere opened a mere smidge and let the god inside.

The servants looked at each other in fear. “B-but we don’t have any weapons…” said one. Another crossed her arms over her bosom and sighed. “Let’s just pray that the mere presence of Jiangzhou will be enough to scare off any assailants.” The servants all nodded somberly to each other and slowly moved towards the palace in unison.

They shouldn’t have tempted fate. Before the Servants could take more than a handful of steps one of their number spotted three flying figures approaching the ship out of the corner of his eye. The Servant turned around and pointed a shaky finger. “Oh, by Shengshi, it did not work! Incoming fliers!” A number of servants turned their heads and began to run about with flailing arms until one of them stopped and squinted. He grabbed his nearest panicking colleague and yelled, “STOP! These are not dragons! Look!”

Sure enough, these creatures had neither red nor brown scales, nor scales at all, really. They had feathery wings and humanoid forms, and as they approached slowly, it became clearer and clearer to the servants that something was terribly wrong.

By the time the figures reached the deck, that something was clear. They’d dripped enough blood onto the Servants below during their descent for the crew of Jiangzhou to know they were injured, and badly at that. One of them stood out, but not for any positive quality. Rather, it was because the winged man was bleeding from dozens of puncture wounds and was cradling an arm that looked to have been all but shredded.

That one collapsed almost as soon as he landed. All that saved him from a painful tumble into the deck was his female companion. She was bleeding too, but it seemed her own injuries weren’t so severe as to prevent her from catching her companion and helping him lie down on the deck.

The servants quickly surrounded the group, many folding their hands in prayer, others calling for bandages and stretchers, with some breaking apart from the group to fetch those. One of the servants approached an additional step, bowed and said carefully, “Shengshi’s blessings on the three of you - these servants will hastily carry you to our softest beds and dress your wounds - though, if it is not too much to ask, w-who are you?”

The woman opened her mouth to speak, but she was cut off by the other male, and apparently uninjured, member of her party, “I am Akam, and those two are Eline and Makab.” He gestured to his bleeding companions, “We are the children of Asceal, the Goddess of Light. I must ask to see the God of Rivers, our mother told us he was nearby and we could seek his aid.”

The servants looked at one another. The closest one fell to his knees in a kowtow. “Your sacred selves are more than welcome aboard His Lordship’s vessel, divine children of Her Holiness Asceal.” Behind the crowds, three stretchers each carried between two servants came sprinting out the palace gates, followed by another six servants carrying bandages and small pots of ointments and clays. The closest servant raised his head. “This servant is named Yun Ran, a representative of the Wise caste. His Lordship is unfortunately inside Fengshui Fuyou, but we assure You that He will return shortly. Meanwhile, these servants hope that You would allow them to take you below the deck to Your beds.” The stretchers were laid on the floor and the carriers all bowed as they gestured to them.

Eline spoke up from behind Akam, her voice as pained as it was filled with worry, “I’m- I’m fine. Just take Makab. I think he passed out.”

Her conscious brother craned his neck to face her, “You’ll both go Eline. You’re going to pass out too if nobody stops that bleeding.”

The winged woman looked like she might argue, but something in Akams eyes convinced her to bite her tongue and nod. She let the servants carrying the stretchers take both her and Makab. Once his siblings were out of earshot Akam looked back to Yun Ran, “I can walk. I wasn’t injured in the attack.”

Yun Ran nodded slowly. “Very well… We shall bring You down to their rooms soon. Although, if it is not too much trouble, this servant wishes to ask some questions.” Yun Ran ran a hand through his gray beard. “Please, if Your sacred self would not mind telling us, what happened?”

“That’s no problem” Akam met the bearded man’s gaze and, “Mother told me to inform Shengshi, anyway. We were resting in the eastern mountains when we were attacked. A winged lizard, a massive thing longer than this ship is wide, came around from the other side of the peak. We were forced to fight the creature. It managed to hurt injure my siblings before Makab... Killed it.”

The winged man grimaced, “My mother told me to find Shengshi here, but it took longer to arrive than I’d hoped. We had to avoid what must have been dozens of monsters similar to the one we encountered before we’d even cleared the mountains.”

Yun Ran nodded again. “Then His Lordship’s observation was flawless - dragons have seized Qiangshan mountains.” He let out a somber sigh, the servants who had remained with the two lowering their heads in defeat. “His Lordship will have to plan a reconquering or, or at least a sufficient defense… The Giant’s Bath cannot face a draconic threat so close. The risk is simply too great.” He cleared his throat and adjusted his small, cup-like hat. “His Lordship certainly already knows this, however - would Your sacred self like to see Your siblings, master Akam?”

Akam glanced at the door his siblings had been taken through and nodded, “I would.” Yun Ran nodded and beckoned Akam to follow him into the palace.

Meanwhile, in Fengshui Fuyou...

As soon as the snake had entered, he had felt discourse in the waters - a clog in his sacred system. His fears had been proven - there had been a breach, and a cataclysmic one at that. As the snake sped through the water with such haste that the water in front of him began to boil, the disruption in the Flow grew ever stronger. In the distance, there, he noticed interruptions in the currents. His eyes flared with rage as he saw the culprit: a clay dam, constructed with the despicable and spiteful intention of halting the flow. There could be no other reason - it was too elaborate and solid; this was no natural phenomenon.

With his two fists spear-pointing his form, Shengshi torpedoed through the clay wall, his charge reinforced by the rivers ripping through the cracks and tearing down the wall. With the centre of the wall in shambles, the rest of the structure crumbled underneath the staggering weight of the World Spring’s might. Shengshi noticed the river waters rumbling ahead down the dry path. His eyes became reptilian slits and he reached out to the water, clenching his fist in the air. The murderous flood suddenly began to slow into a gentle trickle. He noticed the floods on either side of the wall begin to calm down, as well. They would slow down naturally.

Meanwhile, on the dry riverbed of Kalmere...

The wolves and bears had feasted on the unfortunate fish left to choke to death on the soggy soil. The panicking salmons and trouts in the small pocket of water behind the beaver dam flipped into the air and tried to skip to freedom - alas, they had nowhere else to go. Inside the dam, a mother beaver, wounded and bloody, made a last stand for her children against a rabid dire wolf. As its snout broke another few branches, the mother beaver saw her opportunity and snapped her teeth at the wolf’s nose, inciting a whimpering retreat. However, no respite was coming for the beavers, for where one wolf head had broken in, two move began brawling over the slit in the wood. The children made frightened squeals and the mother made some futile attempt to fight back, but flight was not an option, and she was all out of fight.

Then, as if by the grace of the divines, the wolves pulled out of the dam, letting out confused whimpers. Then their whimpers grew fainter and fainter. Slowly, the mother beaver made a brave trek outwards, only to find her paws splash against the soggy soil. She looked down and saw the water slowly rise. She stuck her head out and saw happy salmons skip high over her dam and into the returning river right in front of her. The wolves stared menacingly from the woods, and even the bears soon found that they had to retreat. The beaver mother’s pups swam over to nuzzle her, and she nuzzled them back.

They were saved.

Simultaneously, on the Lihe plains...

Lihe had reached a width unimagined, stretching nearly to the bioluminescent woods on either side of the plains. Countless animals laid either dead or dying in the once most wonderful grasslands on the island, the floods slowly pulling them below the water surface as they struggled against the ensnaring soil. The fish that had not been caught in the initial meatgrinder that was the flood slowly began to surface, the carnivorous of them swimming over to nibble on the corpses in the water. Some crafty predators had managed to fish some bodies out of the mud and happily feasted by the forest line.

Then, in a slow creep that suddenly grew into a massive leap, the waters retreated, forcing many a panicking fish back to the river centre and releasing many helpless animals from the grasp of death. With the water no longer holding them down, one by one the animals broke out of their traps. Finally free, the beasts scattered to the woods. Within the river, the remaining fish feasted on the leftovers of the flood, growing strong and fat.

Many lives had been lost that day - many orphaned pups, fawns and cubs wandered the woods in solitude. It did seem, however, that the flood had passed. They would take care in the future, though - they had to.

A moment later, in Fengshui Fuyou...

Shengshi’s ragged breaths broke through the docile soundscape of the running water around him. The mud walls had been disintegrated down to the grain, but still, the snake let out a furious roar. He looked around for further proof of the assailants. Upon seeing naught but fog and clouds, he dipped his each of his hands into the two affected streams respectively and lick his right one thoroughly. His eyes squinted with anger.

“The nerve… The nerve to damage my precious Lihe like that, and to have it appear as if I was behind it… This wound upon my face - upon my reputation…”

He hammered the water with his right fist and snarled. “I will drown them… I will drown every last one of your dragons, do you hear me, you burning demon?! EVERYONE!”

He scowled into the distance and let his tongue examine his left hand. His eyes widened and he took a deep breath which was let out a groan. “Of course… Of course it -had- to be his…” He snarled furiously and set off into a torpedo-like swim towards Shiquan Mountain.

As he closed in, he propelled himself out of the water and soared up towards the top. As his tail slapped against the wet stone, he turned and shot his fist forward towards one of the rivers stretching out from the mountain. The river slowed to a near-halt, over streams beginning to flow over and around it to take its place. The slowed river suddenly dove under the surface like an eel.

“Jia-Long… Defender and caretaker of the World Spring and the Never-Ending Riverlands… I, your lord and master, Shengshi, command you to rise from the depth and answer your call to service!”

The water surface rumbled and bubbled. Gradually, two points approached the surface of the water and broke through, revealing themselves to be enormous antlers attached to a colossal draconic head. From the head stretched an unending, snake-like body with two small arms and legs, adorned with beautiful chalk scales and an alabaster mane that whipped around in the wind. The dragon kept rising until its head was level with Shengshi, five hundred metres above the surface of the water. Down below, its body still stretched deeper into the rivers.

“This servant gives its most sincere greetings to His Lordship, Shengshi,” Jia-Long said in a soft, feminine voice and tipped her head forward. The snake nodded and bowed back.

“Welcome to life, Jia-Long. I am certain you know what you task is.”

The dragon nodded. “This servant is to take care of His Lordship’s lands and assure that no intruders sabotage it ever again.”

The snake nodded with a grim expression. “That is correct. Any damage inflicted upon Fengshui Fuyou leads to catastrophe on Galbar. We cannot allow the world to suffer such destruction at random.”

The dragon let out a hum. “Understood, Your Lordship - Fengshui Fuyou will forever be save under this servant’s protection.”

The snake grinned somberly and bowed. “I have faith in you, Jia-Long. You are the guardian of the rivers. Good luck.”

The dragon blinked. “Th-thank You, Your Lordship.”

With that, Shengshi hopped off the mountain and into the river below. He swam over to the river with the gateway and, once again, slipped through a slight smidge.

Jia-Long watched her master slip through the portal and clapped her tiny hands sheepishly as she looked around the mostly empty sphere.

“Well… I could try to make some tea, I suppose.”

The Learner


Hermes + Xiaoli

The Warden’s fiery eyes narrowed and Diana’s crooked smile widened. The two stared at each other for an uncomfortable amount of time, the Warden atop his mare, and Diana under her umbrella. Finally the Warden rumbled, “I don’t like this.”

“I’m afraid there is nothing you can do about it, good sir,” Diana winked.

“For now,” The Warden pulled his reigns, “Should you make the slightest mistake, I will kill you.”

“Oh my,” Diana turned away bashfully, “Don’t be such a flirt.”

The Warden let out an angry grunt.

Hermes leaned her iron club against the guest house and picked up a heavy stick. The even heliopolis was just over the treeline, giving the sky a pink hue. Plenty of light still spilled into the courtyard, but it was clear the day was soon to be over, the chores having taken longer than expected. With a swift hand, Hermes tossed the stick to Arya, “Okay, are you ready?”

”Of course.” the Arya said cooly, with determination bustling in her eyes as she gripped the stick. Hermes hefted her club over her shoulder and turned from Arya so they were both facing the same direction, shoulders aligned and two meters apart.

“Okay,” Hermes said with a trace of giddiness, “Do you remember the starting stance from my notes?”

”Yes!” she said enthusiastically, and followed suit. She took a deep breath, relaxing herself, then exhaled. She looked to Hermes expectantly. The Dreamer held her club, hand wide apart and slightly tilted up and back. Arya side glanced Hermes, and replicated her stance. There was a slight pain in her side, but Arya ignored it. Very slowly and deliberately Hermes took a step forward, her hands coming close together and the club coming down in a slow-tight arc. She made another step, similar to one of the dances that Arya had learned, the club dropping defensively while simultaneously winding up for another attacking arc.

“Breath in when pulling back,” Hermes instructed, “Breath out as you attack,” The club was sent in another arc, following by a second one. Little by little the ‘dancing’ style of fighting unfolded before Arya, until they had pushed almost to the end of the courtyard, the style being forward aggressive while somehow still being very defensive. When they reached the end, they turned and began to do the same movements, but this time towards the north house.

As they practiced, Arya stumbled at first, her footing unsure of itself but as time went on, she began to see the rhythm of the dance. How it ebbed and flowed with grace, taking leaps of aggression but falling back with defensive postures. Coupled with the training she received from Split, and the dancing lessons from K’nell, Arya was quickly getting it down. A smile on her face all the same, though her side was beginning to hurt her. She didn’t seem to care that much.

”Hermes?” Arya asked.

“Hm?” Hermes swung her club wide, it looping around and gently swinging over to rest on her shoulder. She turned to the girl, “Yeah?”

Arya twirled the stick around her head, letting it hit the courtyard tile with a thud (causing Hermes to flinch), before she leaned on it and looked to Hermes. She then asked, ”Have you you ever, killed?” she said shyly.

Hermes’ brow furrowed and she looked over at the many drying pelts by her butcher station, “Do you mean, like, not an animal?”

”Yeah…” Arya said softly.

Hermes bit her finger in thought, “So, here is the thing.” The woman leaned her club against the eastern building and folded her arms, “Only in self defense, and they were nasty little things with sharp teeth and evil eyes.”

”That sounds horrible.” Arya sighed, and stood up, grabbing the stick and practicing again. After a moment of silence, she finally said, ”I...I don’t know if I could do it.”

“I hope you don’t ever have to make the choice,” Hermes sighed, watching her ‘student’. A small smile formed on her lips, “But I will say this, you learn very quickly.”

A wide smile formed in Arya’s eyes as she heard the compliment. She turned her head to look at Hermes and said, ”You learn quickly when a Kostral is teaching you, or you get hit.” she said with a giggle.
Hermes cocked her head, “Kostral?”

”Oh! Now I can teach you something.” Arya lulled happily before saying, ”Kostrals were created by Narzhak, they have six arms and no legs, though they usually use a pair to walk. The Kostral I found was named Split-Tooth, she’s my friend. I hope she is okay.” She fell silent, twirling the stick around as she sidestepped an invisible attack. She then said, ”Split was pretty tall, I guess all Kostrals are. She taught me a lot before we got seperated.”

“Hm,” Hermes seemed disappointed at first, “I’ve missed a lot since I came back to Tendlepog.” She shook her head, “Well I’m sorry about your friend, but I’m sure she is okay. She sounds like it would take a lot to get her hands full.” The dreamer walked over to Arya, observing her form.

”Yeah, you would have been impressed when she fought the Lurker. I’m sure she won, Kostrals are all pretty much warriors. They like to fight.” Arya mused.

“That does sound like Narzhak,” Hermes put her hand on one of Arya’s shoulders and squared it with the other, her foot reaching out to push Arya’s feet a little further apart.

”Ooo, thank you.” Arya said. ”So, have you ever sparred using this technique?”

“No,” Hermes shook her head, “At it’s full speed, it’s a little too dangerous for friendly fighting.” She snickered, “Unless we had really big feathers or something.” She paused as if she just had an idea, “I’ll make a note of that.”

Arya hummed, thinking on what Hermes had said. She was a little disappointed but then again, if it was dangerous and Hermes was expecting- it was probably a good idea not too. Hermes clapped a hand on Arya’s shoulder, breaking her from her thoughts “Oh! Would you like a demonstration?”

”Sure!” Arya said happily.

With a wide smile, Hermes quickly shuffled over to her club and hefted it over her shoulder. Walking back to the center of the courtyard, she squared her feet in the starting position. She made the first swing, as slow as before. She did it again and then took in a deep breath. A ripple of sound suddenly boomed as she turned into a blur, the club dancing along with a fuzzy figure. It dipped, swung, juked, spun, turned, blocked, parried and riposted all in tandem with a cleverly laced dance and hard to place feet. The figure began to flash different colours and shapes, making the dance disorienting but all the more beautiful.

Arya was instantly shocked at the display. She had no idea Hermes could move that quickly and she was puzzled by it, until she realized it was the sandals. How else would she have been able to beat Kalmar in a race? Her eyes went wide with giddy excitement as she balled up her fists and began to cheer. All the while, she knew that one day, she wanted to be able to do the same thing. It was simply beautiful to behold.

“It’s hard to describe how beautiful she is, sometimes,” came a voice from behind Arya. There Xiaoli stood, arms folded over her bosom and a smile across her face with a slight bite over the lip towards the right edge. “It makes for very abstract poetry.” She gave Arya a wink and a click of her rose petal tongue.

Arya turned around to look at Xiaoli and said, ”Indeed, Lady Xiaoli. It is an art of its own.” Arya turned back to view Hermes dance, with a soft smile. She then said, ”Hopefully one day, I can do that too.”

“You will,” Hermes panted as she stopped, her entire body an array of different warm colors, with blurry shapes dotting her skin. It slowly faded back to alabaster, but her hair remained a dark mahogany, “Or some version of it at least.” She smiled at Xiaoli for a moment before looking at Arya, “If we have time tomorrow, we can practice again.”

”Okay!” she said giving a little jump, but visibly winced as her side hurt again. Xiaoli cracked a sympathetic smile and produced a cloth from one of the many pockets she had sown onto her skirt. She closed her hand around it for a second, then opened her fist to reveal the cloth again, now warm and damp.

“Here, let me take a look at that again.” She shuffled a bit closer to Arya and placed the heated cloth over the bandages. There was an immediate sting that slowly gave way to a gentle numbing sensation. Arya let out a small gasp, placing one of her hands on Xiaoli’s shoulder. She then said, ”Oh, that feels really, really good. Thank you, Lady Xiaoli.”

She gave her a wink. “It’s good that you are feeling better, but, uhm… May not want to overdo it just yet. I may be divine, but it’s better to let the body heal naturally than to rely on god-given powers.” She gave Hermes a look. “Your dance is… Really coming along - like, really.”

Hermes grinned, “Thank you,” But then she fell serious, “But- but you’re right, we should go a little easier, just for a bit.” She gave Arya a glance before looking up at the setting Heliopolis, “It’s a little late anyways,” She blinked, “I haven’t stayed up this long in quite some time.”

”I suppose you both are right.” Arya grumbled before looking at Hermes, ”You go to bed this early?” she asked confused.

Hermes yawned as if proving a point, “Sometimes.” She gave her a funny look, “I’m not called a Dreamer for nothing.” She looked over at Xiaoli, “How are you feeling?”

Xiaoli stretched her arms over her head with a soft groan. “Been working on that wall -all- day and I am beat. Any of you want supper before bed time or was dinner enough?” She planted her hands on her hips and raised her brow expectantly at both of them.

Arya shook her head, ”No thank you. I’m still quite full.” she said chipperly, patting her stomach.

“After all that moving around, I don’t even want to tempt fate,” Hermes poked Xiaoli’s side and made her way towards the eastern building, “Let’s retire.” She looked over her shoulder, “I’ll see you in the morning, Arya. Hope you enjoy the palace.”

”Okay! Sleep well!” Arya said to Hermes with a smile.

“N-no tea or--?” Xiaoli took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and then let out a quiet ‘okay’. She gave Arya a smile and a curt bow. “Have a good night, dear Arya.”

Arya began to wave to the pair, ”Goodnight, Lady Xiaoli!” and as the left, she let her hand fall to her side and looked at the setting sun. She then whispered, ”They go to bed reeeaall early huh.” With stick in hand, Arya then floated up and disappeared over the building.

Even this late, the heliopolis still shone through the round wooden-framed paper window and cast a fuzzy, orange light across the bedsheets and blankets. The shadows of Hermes’ abundant equipment stacked against the walls formed uncanny black blots on the otherwise white paper wall decor. Xiaoli buttoned up her bed dress and let out a quiet sigh.

“It’s nice to have guests here, don’t you think?” she said softly and turned to Hermes.

Hermes tugged her lighter ‘sleep-shirt’ --as she calls-- it over her head and straightened it out. “It’s really nice,” She agreed, “This may sound kind of weird, but it’s almost like --” She paused bashfully, “Well it’s just good to know that I can teach.”

“Ooooh?” Xiaoli cooed knowingly. She laid down on the bed and rolled onto her stomach. “Almost like what?” she said in a playful voice and added a giggle.

Hermes slipped into the bed, “You know.” She rolled her eyes over a smile, “It’s like how it could be in the future.” She scooted close and gave Xiaoli a knowing look, “Hey, Xiaoli?”

“Hmm?” Xiaoli hummed softly.

“Remember when I was… well when I ate the mushroom?” Hermes leaned up on an elbow.

Xiaoli’s brow furrowed and her mouth straightened out. “Your pillow talk may need some work, dear…”
Hermes snickered, “Oh come on, I was just going to ask -- well, if you could do that steam-thing again.”

Xiaoli’s face turned from a straight frown to a flirty smirk. “Oh…” She bit her lip a little. “Well, since you asked so nicely--”

There was a sudden and loud bang in the courtyard. Xiaoli immediately pushed herself up and shot stares in every direction. “What was that?!” she snapped quickly as she skipped onto the floor and rapidly approached the door. Hermes grumbled and ripped herself out of the bed, stomping over to the door.

“I don’t know, but I--” She threatened under her breath as she slipped on her sandals. Snatching her club she continued her march outside. There, across the courtyard in the golden light of the setting heliopolis was a woman dressed in a dark dress, the entire butcher station on its side. The stranger stood with her fists on her hips and a mirthful smile on her lips.

“There, much better,” She grinned at the duo, “It was far too even.”

“Gah!” Hermes cursed as her eyes scanned the fallen pelts, “I was going to make a cloak -- er well -- I was going to have Xiaoli make a cloak!”

“Hermes, I appreciate it, but can we save it until later?” Xiaoli then turned to the stranger and copied her stance. “Exalted Creators’ blessings, stranger. Forgive my tone, but is it customary where you come from to ruin precious furniture? Not to mention breaking in?”

A white streak fell through the air, before stopping to a halt next to Xiaoli, Arya gave a small wave, before landing on the ground. Arya cocked her head as she looked to the stranger with a quizzical expression in her eyes. She then whispered aloud to no one in particular, ”That’s not nice.”

“Forgiven!” Diana smiled wide, “And your welcome.” She paused and suddenly clapped her hands together, letting them fall into her lap, “Oh my! It’s Xiaoli, Hermes and Arya.” She gave a toothy grin, “Oh, how I’ve been hoping to run into some sort of intelligence. I met the Warden, you know, but he was too giggly for my like and quite the raunchy talker.”

Xiaoli’s eyes widened momentarily, then collapsed into a furious scowl. “Who told you about our location? Who are you?!” She clenched her fists and let them hang down her sides. Hermes backed Xiaoli up, puffing up and holding the club menacingly.

“I’m K’nell, dear,” Diana chuckled, “Or well, in the same way you are Shengshi.” She gave the avatar a wink, “Please, call me Diana.”

Hermes lowered her club in confusion, looking to Xiaoli, who blinked in a dumbstruck manner. She straightened up her back and folded her hands over one another. She took a deep breath through the nose and clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “So you are - you have his sacred scent - yet His Holiness K’nell would never send anyone to trouble us in this manner. What are you doing here and who sent you?”

“Huff and fluff!” Diana scolded with a smile, “A dear friend can’t visit without some grand meaning?”

“A dear friend would, first of all, knock like a respectable creature and, secondly, not ruin my lover’s workstation. Your ‘visit’ is quite rude, and--”

“I think we can both agree that I most certainly did knock,” Diana winked.

“You know what she means,” Hermes huffed.

Diana raised her hands, “Oh I do, trust me. Xiaoli is quite the talker, sometimes it’s like you can’t even get a word in, and when you do, it just sounds dumb in comparison.” She laughed to herself, “Isn’t that right, Hermes?”

Hermes seemed a little shocked at this and Diana leaned on the toppled table, “What, no tea?”

Xiaoli sucked in a long, furious breath through her nose. “I’m sorry,” she hissed, “we drank the rest just this morning. We will make certain to notify you as soon as the harvest approaches.”

“Oh,” Diana’s smile was unwavering, “Always the glutton, huh. It’s not like any of us really need to eat or drink, but here we are.” She chuckled, “Just draining Tendlepog for our own satisfaction.” She stood up, “Well, I for one think you all are doing the right thing, culling the little --” she waved a disgusted hand over the quoll pelts, “Ugly things.”

Arya said nothing as the women spoke to one another, choosing instead to listen and watch the exchange as her grip tightened on the stick she carried. The newcomer wasn’t very nice, and the spite she held on her breath was targeted at the two woman who had taken her in without question.

Diana hummed for a second, almost reminiscent of K’nell before spotting Arya in the corner of her eye, “Oh silly me.” She grinned wickedly, “Arya, darling. We’ve been keeping you from the conversation, how rude.” She put a hand on the guest house, “Are you staying with these lovely people?”

Arya looked to Xiaoli and Hermes for a moment, then turned back to Diana and said, ”Um, yeah? Why else would I be here?” she said feigning innocence.

“Sharp!” Diana’s eyes widened, “Of course, of course, love -- Just don’t go blowing any holes in these walls. I’m sure it took quite a while for the two to build -- well Xiaoli mostly.”

Arya eyes expressed anger as she said, ”I’m not the one who’s destroyed anything.”

“Okay!” Hermes hefted her club, “I think it’s time to leave.” Xiaoli backed up the statement by pulling her sand to her hand, shaping it into a straight shortsword.

“Oh foo,” Diana waved a dismissing hand, “But if you insist, I can come back at a worse time.”

“I--” Hermes stopped as she mulled over exactly what Diana just said, “I think I insist.”

“Well look at you,” Diana beamed, “Thinking!”

Xiaoli grit her teeth and in what felt like the blink of an eye, she kicked off the ground with enough force that she left an indenture in the soil underneath her and a small, yet loud, crack in the wall behind her. The skin-less river girl thrust her shortsword forward at stomach level as she soared, approaching faster than mortal eyes could catch.

Like a cloud of darkness, Diana seemed to follow Xiaoli with ease, reminiscent of K’nell’s own greater reaction ability. She moved out of the way with a cackle, no worse for wear, save a small knick off the hem of her dress. She let out a wide grin, “I see we’ve devolved into violence already.”

“It’s alright, really,” Diana hummed, as she started on her way “I’ll just come back another time.”

Xiaoli let out a few agitated pants and pointed a shaking finger at Diana. “No, you -won’t-,” she spat through her teeth. Hermes put a hand on Xiaoli’s shoulder.

“I’ll talk to K’nell.”

Xiaoli suddenly collapsed to her knees and put her face in her hands. The sword slowly dissolved and the sand wrapped itself around her body once more. A few whimpers preceded her words: “I-... I couldn’t hit her - my fastest strike and she dodged it like it was some leaf on the wind.”

Hermes squeezed Xiaoli’s shoulder, “Arya, why don’t you relax inside, take my notes if you want. I’m going to get Lady Xiaoli something to sip on.”

It took Arya a moment to register what had happened, then it was over. She looked to Hermes as she spoke, dropped her stick and then said, ”No, let me make some tea, it’s the last I can do. She needs you, I think.” Arya said, before slipping back inside, not waiting for a reply from Hermes.

Hermes sighed and sat down next to Xiaoli, “Hey.”

Xiaoli’s eyes were red as the sunset when she looked up. She sniffed a few times and let out a series of sobs as she cast her arms around Hermes’ neck, pulling her close with a wail. “I’m so--” she sniffed. “I’m sorry I’m so useleeeess!”

“You’re not useless,” Hermes bent her knees and slid an arm under Xiaoli, hefting her into a bridal carry. She turned back to the Eastern building, “I mean, you built all of this by yourself. That’s a lot, I’m a little jealous even.”

“Buh--” she took a moment to wipe some tears away. “But I can’t protect us if she comes back, Hermes! What are we supposed to do?!” She leaned her head on Hermes’ chest.

“We do it together,” Hermes pushed the sliding door open with her foot and walked inside, “Also, I’m going to talk to K’nell about this, I’m sure he can help find a solution.”

Coming up to the bed, Hermes gently dropped Xiaoli onto the covers. The woman put her hands on her hips and looked over the red eye’d River-girl, “Oh, Xiaoli,” She made a face.

“W-what?” Xiaoli pouted and curled up a little, facing the wall.

Hermes sat down next to her and put a hand on her back, “I think she got to you.” She gave her a gentle rub, “But you’re okay, okay?”

“Got to me?!” Xiaoli snapped. “Of course, she didn’t! Not at all! -NO!-” Hermes recoiled and gave her a look.

There was a pause. “Maybe…” Xiaoli finally huffed.

“She had me too,” Hermes admitted and put her hand back on Xiaoli, “I haven’t felt that stupid… in a long time. It made me miserable, really.” Hermes groaned and stretched out next to Xiaoli, “Buuuut, we are fine -- now.”

“You chased her off, and I’ll talk to K’nell about the rest.”

Xiaoli let out another sad huff, but eventually turned to face Hermes. “Hey, Hermes?”

Hermes seemed to be pulled from a thought, “Mmyeah?”

Xiaoli leaned in and planted a small peck on the spiral on her forehead. “Thank you,” she whispered.

An Odd Meal

Xiaoli went to stand up but Hermes arms tightened. The two sat outside under the shade of one of the many trees. Pollen had started to dust on the River Girls skirt, the two having been there for quite some time. What had started as Xiaoli comforting a nauseous Hermes had turned into a very prolonged hug. She went to move again, but Hermes’ grip pulled her back.

“Nuh uh.”

Xiaoli let out a playful sigh. “Dear, I’m happy you still want to cuddle, but I have to get back to work - otherwise, we won’t be doing anything else all day.”

“Pregnant,” Hermes defended and pushed her face deeper into the crook of Xiaoli's arm.

The river girl giggled sweetly and pecked Hermes’ forehead. “Alright, -you- won’t be doing anything else all day,” she conceded. She tried to pull her arm out again, but found that even as she put some strength into it, all she managed to accomplish was pull Hermes along and on top of her lap. She hummed curtly and leaned her chin on her free fist.

“You dork,” she snickered quietly and ran her free hand through her hair affectionately. Hermes smiled up at Xiaoli and stretched her arms until her elbows popped.

“Mmhm,” She nodded, “Oh, so I was reading through Abanoc's book, about food again.”

Xiaoli could not quite hide a grimace. “Was it another chapter on desserts?”

“No,” Hermes gave her a cross look, “Hey -- wait you said you liked the Bark-n-Mush.”

“And I do, my dear, but--” She squinted. “... Maybe not every day for a month?” She shrugged casually and shifted her a sheepish look to the side.

“Mhm,” Hermes poked her side, “Well lucky you, then. The book suggests I start a garden, so I always have a variety on hand.”

Xiaoli blinked, then grinned from ear to ear. “Oh, really? How magnificent! What will you be planting?” She snapped her fingers. “Oh, do we have space for rice paddies? Okay, maybe not - but I could make space!” She looked down at Hermes. “I just really miss rice…”

“I don't know,” Hermes admitted, “I figured I'd look around and find stuff to bring back. The book was very helpful in explaining seeds and the like. Maybe some sweetgrass, a few things from the mountains. Oh! I can check the marshes too, who knows, maybe there will be rice.”

“Oh, could you?” Xiaoli planted a soft kiss on Hermes’ cheek. “You are such a darling, you know that?” She gave her a teasing wink. “By the waaay… Since you already are going for on a trip, could you see if you find some root vegetables? Anything will do, but radish and cabbage would be wonderful. Oh! And garlic - we. Need. Garlic.”

“You can count on me,” Hermes smiled wide, rolling off Xiaoli’s lap and to her feet. She brushed some pollen from her wool pants and sucked in a breath, “If you get a chance, can you set aside a spot for the garden?”

Xiaoli nodded with a grin. “I’ll draw it out right away. You won’t miss it.” She got to her feet and dusted off her woolen shirt and skirt. “Want me to patch you some lunch before you leave, dear?”

“Oh,” Hermes shook her head, “No, I think I’ll be okay. My stomach is still a little queasy. Thank you though!”

Xiaoli gave her a wry smile and folded her arms. “Alright, alright. Be on your way now, you beautiful adventurer.”

Hermes smiled and then with a sudden blur, the world turned to pins.

The ocean smashed against the sea cliff of Tendlepog, sending forth a salty spray. Hermes stared on with amazement. No matter how many times she visited the beaches of Tendlepog, she was always struck with awe at the ever moving might of the cliffs. She managed to peel her eyes from the waves and to the plants hugging the cliff top.

She shuffled on over to a particular plant, its leaves broad and low, with tiny stalks covered in buds and flowers. With a knowing grin, she ripped one of the meaty leaves off and nibbled on it, “Cabbage.” She swallowed and felt the leaf pang in her weak stomach. She shuddered and slid her bag off her shoulders.

Placing it on the ground next to the cabbage, she carefully tore some of the fruits and seeds from its stalks, placing them in her bag. Content, she slung the bag back over her shoulders and stood up. She turned. Her eyes widened as they stared at a treasure most curious. By some trees further away from the coast were strange plants ripe with fat pods.

The Dreamer jogged over and fell to her knees. She curiously pulled one of the pods close and smelled it. It smelled like a plant. She shook her head, “I don’t know what I was expecting.”

She plucked the pod and opened it up, revealing fleshy seeds. She quickly popped one in her mouth and bit down. Her eyes narrowed knowingly, “So this is a pea.”

Bringing her bag to bear, she collected as much as possible before turning back into a blur.

After a quick stint in the plains, Hermes had made her way up the mountains, bag now full of peas, cabbage, sweet grass, and even a spicy root she had found growing next to the trip vine, she aptly named it fireroot. The first thing she found in the wet foothills of the mushroom forest was wild carrot and even some wild onion, their bulbs rather dainty but their leaves strong and odorous. She had collected a bunch anyways, selecting the biggest of the bulbs.

She trudged up the mountain side, looking for garlic in particular, but eyes open to just about anything edible. She sniffed a few fungi that grew along the mushroom trees, licked a couple of exposed stems of some small woody plants, and bit into a woody root to no avail. She spat a few times and continued her journey.

Nimbats scurried out of her way as she approached a ring of tiny mushrooms, some snap fruit growing above. Hermes smiled and reached up on her tiptoe to grab some of the snap fruit. She plopped down her bag and knelt to carefully place them alongside her bounty. A salty smell caught her nose and she looked down.

Her bag had smooshed a yellow capped mushroom, the alluring aroma seeping out as the stem bubbled weakly. Curious, Hermes plucked the mushroom and held it to her nose, the aroma dancing in. She blinked and licked it, it tasted savoury. With a single bite she tossed it in her mouth and chewed, really savoury. She swallowed, reaching down again to pluck some more and toss them in her bag, but not before eating another.

With her bag now full of various plants and seeds, she decided it was probably best to head home before looking for rice. She picked up her bag and the ground rippled like a puddle. She froze, “That was weird.”

“I know, right?” A stone squeaked. Hermes yelped, and jumped. The ground seemed to ripple away as she did, as if she had leapt into a lake. She turned away quickly, tiny little shapes in her peripherals that she couldn’t quite focus on. The world was saturated with deeper colors, everything looking a little more real than usual.

“What’s wrong?” A mushroom asked.

“I got to go home,” Hermes chirped, and she covered her beak in shock.

Xiaoli felt rather satisfied with the water markings: Two rectangles made of thin lines of water stretched outwards from the southern wall, leaving an opening for a possible path to the main door on the westmost end of the wall. Thinking she could do her angel a little favour, Xiaoli had even taken the time to till the soil within the marked rectangles.

“Hermes will be so happy,” she mused with a giggle, skipping around a little. She then strolled back to the courtyard and began to turn the gravel into neatly squared, white stone tiles. The process was slow - Xiaoli took great care in sculpting each and every tile. Eventually, the patterns atop each tile began to flow together until the whole courtyard revealed one great stone carving that portrayed the map of the world covering Swahhitteh-Tendlepog and the Foot and Kick. Xiaoli clapped her hands free of dust and put them on her hips, grinning with satisfaction and pride.

“Now… What else should I...” Xiaoli mumbled to herself as she gave the marked inner wall a look. She stared long and hard at the rock arrangement and the wooden planks stacked about, shooting frequent looks between them and the blueprints in the centre of the courtyard. She took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders a little.

“Yeah, I could probably do this! I’ll just go to bed earlier tonight,” she said confidently and placed her hands on the stone. As she took several deep breaths, the stone began to fuse into a porridge-like substance, wrapping itself together and snaking upwards along several strategically placed vertical wooden pillars. Xiaoli felt moisture collecting on her forehead - she pumped more and more power into the construction, but its construction speed did not increase. Eventually, she was forced to halt construction halfway, having fallen to her knees from exhaustion. She cursed under her breath and stood up.

“Well, guess I need to rest a bit before Hermes comes home, so she won’t return to this--”

There was a crash in the treeline as Hermes walked out of the thickets, inciting a short scream from Xiaoli. Leaves were stuck in her hair and she wore a wide dilated stare. Her sandals were off and dangling from her fingers, each step seemed careful, as if she was balancing on poles.

Xiaoli immediately zoomed over to her. “Hermes?! Hermes, are you alright?!” Xiaoli sent her hands out to pat Hermes all over to inspect for damages. Hermes looked over her with a massive smile.

“Wow,” The dreamer seemed in pure awe her free hand reaching out and petting Xiaoli's face, “You're so pretty,” tears began to well in her eyes as she pet vigorously. Xiaoli’s pupils shrunk.

“Did somebody poison you?! Are you sick?! Oh, Hermes, what happened?!” She held her face close to hers. “Breathe on me - what did you eat?”

Hermes cackled and hushed Xiaoli, “What are you even doing here? It's too cold for you.” She turned away and shushed at nothing in particular.

Xiaoli blinked. “Too c-cold? Hermes, have you--...?” Her eyes became a furious scowl. “Did Shengshi give you anything drinkable?! I swear, when I see that snake again…” She kicked a nearby pebble.

“I gotcha,” Hermes wrapped her arms around Xiaoli and waddled back and forth in place, “It's gonna be allllll okay.”

Xiaoli let out a frustrated sigh and tried to undo Hermes’ grip. “Hermes, please, you are not well. How about we go to bed, okay?”

Hermes stood there with a lazy smile. As if not hearing Xiaoli's words, she shuffled the two of them into the sunlight that speared over the treetops. She closed her eyes as the golden glow hit her, “There we go.”

“Herme-... Oh, this is getting silly. Dear, don’t -make- me put you to bed.” Xiaoli made her best efforts to wiggle out of the Dreamer’s grip.

Hermes frowned and let go, “I'm just trying to help.”

“Help with what, Hermes? I’m not cold, if that’s what you think. You know I don’t feel cold!” She poked a finger at Hermes chest and leaned forward with a squinting frown. “Now, tell me what you ate - otherwise, I’m putting you to bed this instant.”

Hermes pouted and stared at Xiaoli's arm. She slowly rubbed her fingers in circles over her sandy skin and stared on, “I ate a lot of things.”

Xiaoli sighed and caressed Hermes’ cheek softly, the movement causing her to recoil ‘'woah’. Xiaoli furrowed her brow and made a straight face.“Did you eat any very bitter berries or drink water that smelled funny?”

“Noooooo,” Hermes dragged her words as she rubbed patterns across Xiaoli's arm stopping at her wrist and poking it. She squinted and moved Xiaoli's wrist up and down slowly, inciting a raised eyebrow from the river girl.

“Well, you’re obviously not sober… Did you eat some hallucinogenic plant? Like a funny flower or… Or a mushroom?” She pulled her hand to her slowly.

Hermes gave her a wide guilty smile and cackled. She moved forward in an attempt to recapture Xiaoli's hand, her slow lunge very delayed.

Xiaoli took a deep, deep breath and let out a quiet, “okay”. She helped Hermes along by holding her hand open and undefended for Hermes to snatch. “Hey, Hermes? Would you like to play a game?” She put on a sly smirk.

“It's too cold,” Hermes rolled Xiaoli's hand between hers.

“... You never say I’m cold normally,” Xiaoli pouted quietly; however, the cold could be an advantageous point to strategize from. “Oh, Hermes!~” the river girl called out playfully as her hair began to let off a gentle column of steam. “Would you like a hug?”

“You're so sweet,” Hermes smiled, tears forming in her eyes, “And pretty.”

Xiaoli blushed a bit and gave Hermes a flirty wink. “I know.” She then pulled her into an affectionate hug, the sand on her body comfortably warm like that of a beach in the afternoon sun. Hermes rumbled happily and pressed tight.

Xiaoli took a deep breath and, in spite of their height difference, picked Hermes up with ease and proceeded to carry her towards the bedroom house.

“Ah!” Hermes yelped as she was lifted up. She waved her arms, “I don't like this!”

“Look, dear, I’m really sorry, but you ought to sleep this off, alright? I’ll put you to bed, make you some tea, sing you a song or two - does that sound alright with you?”

“We are up to high!” Hermes screeched, her hands clinging to Xiaoli for dear life. Her sandals still dangled from her fingers as her knuckles whitened.

“No, I believe that’s just you, dear,” Xiaoli mumbled with a sigh. As they arrived at the bedroom house, Xiaoli kicked off her sandals and hopped into the hallway, making the ride slightly bumpier for Hermes than expected, the woman letting out sharp yelps at every sudden movement. Nearly losing her grip around her waist, the river girl hefted her up a little with a quiet ‘hup!’ and swung Hermes over her shoulder. The woman let out a curdled scream.

“I’m falling!”

Xiaoli sighed. “No, you’re not! I have you perfectly under control if you would just -stop squirming-!” Xiaoli clumsily tried to wrangle the woman on her shoulder as she pulled aside the door to the bedroom. Stepping inside while making certain Hermes did not bump into the doorframe was no simple task, and Xiaoli had to squat down to achieve it, causing Hermes to whimper. Finally, Xiaoli reached the bed and gently put the Dreamer down on top of the blanket, sneaking her bag and sandals away to the floor.

“There,” she said as she began to tuck her in. “That wasn’t so bad, right?”

Hermes heart was clearly pounding as her fingers remained tight around Xiaoli’s clothes. Her were eyes wide and intoxicated, “I don’t... like this.”

Xiaoli sighed and gave her a compassionate smile. Once she had tucked in Hermes, she hopped onto the bed with a ‘hup!’ and rolled up close to her. “Don’t worry, dear…” Xiaoli yawned softly behind a cupped hand. “I’ll stay with you until you get better, alright?” Hermes hid her face into one of the pillows and nodded silently, fingers tightening.

Hours passed in relative silence, with only fearful whimpers coming from Hermes now and again as well as calming shushes from Xiaoli. As much as the river girl wanted, the dreamer never seemed able to fall asleep. Bit by bit she became more lucid, and slowly her eyes of intoxication turned into pink eyes of exhaustion and her blushed cheeks turned sour with nausea. Finally Hermes seemed to drift away, if not a little uncomfortably. She was only gone for four hours, suddenly waking up as the evening Heliopolis began to set with a bubbling stomach ache.

“Never again,” She gripped her stomach as it groaned.

Xiaoli stirred to life, seemingly having dozed off after waiting for so long. She giggled. “There’s my angel,” she said softly and kissed Hermes’ hair. “Hang on, I’ll make you some tea and food.” She slowly sat up in the bed and shuffled to the edge. She eyed the backpack intently. She opened it up and extracted some vegetables before strolling out of the room.

Hermes watched Xiaoli, her chin on the bed, as she left. She narrowed her eyes in thought as she looked at Xiaoli’s ankle. She rolled onto her back and it hit her funny: Shengshi has no ankles, and neither does Xiaoli -- technically, but she has an ankle bump anyway. Hermes shook her head, “Gods are weird.”

Roughly twenty minutes later, Xiaoli returned with a tray: The tray was topped with a teapot, two cups, and a bowl of delicious-smelling soup. The river girl placed the tray on the bed and poured Hermes a cup of tea. “Here… Drink this.” The tea in the cup was green - almost grassy, scent-wise, contrasting starkly with the rich, meaty fragrance of the soup. Hermes gave it a studious sniff and slowly brought it to her lips. She winced at the heat but let it slip between her lips, the liquid reminding her how dry her mouth really was.

The flavour was, surprisingly, quite rich in itself, albeit a little bitter. It left a lingering impression of cleanliness and purity with each sip, and every droplet pulled with it the impurities of the mushrooms, little by little.

Xiaoli stirred the soup a little with a spoon, scooping up a spoonful and holding it in front of Hermes’ face with a giggle. Hermes sat up and put her hand over Xiaoli’s guiding the spoon, “Thank you.” She clamped around the spoon and quickly slurped the soup up.

Hermes’ face suddenly turned curious as she smacked her tongue off her palate, “Chameleon squirrel?” She cocked her head, “When did you get that?”

Xiaoli shrugged. “You know… They skip around here from time to time. One happened to switch colours on a nearby tree trunk just as I was preparing to cook - I thought it would taste wonderfully.” She dipped her finger into Hermes’ soup bowl and licked it clean. “... Which it did, if I may say so myself.”

“You know,” Hermes sipped at her tea, “I could always go hunting for us. Might be good practice, I’m sure the kids will want some meat to go with their--” She looked at her bag on the floor, “--cabbage.”

“That would be lovely, dear! I’ll make us a larder or something to cure the meats. We will eat like ladies every day - but what would you hunt?”

Hermes looked at the spear that leaned against the wall, “There are fish, there are bilbies. Could even try for more squirrels. Something just doesn’t feel right about eating a Tree-eater, not after…” She plucked her shirt, “They were so generous.”

Xiaoli gulped. “Yes… Generous.” She cleared her throat. “But that sounds like a wonderful plan - don’t focus on capturing squirrels, though, please. They’re a bit of a hassle to butcher.”

“I won’t” Hermes smiled, “But we can start that project after we take care of the garden, I found so many things to grow.”

Xiaoli let out a happy sigh. “Alright, that sounds like a plan.”

The Journey to Tendlepog: Chapter 5

Two weeks or so had passed since they weighed anchor at the southern tip of the Kick and set off along the continent’s northern coast. Along the entire shore, forests had been blooming and prospering with verdant glory - yet the crew had not spotted as much as a single beast skulk between the trees. On one occasion, a red-feathered bird had been seen atop one of the palms, its crimson plume like a beacon of light in an otherwise dark green abyss. Rumours spread throughout the crew aboard, some proposing that the continent was younger than first thought, and that the Exalted Creators simply had not yet had the time to populate it; others proposed that the continent was cursed, and that all life that made futile, pitiful attempts to spawn there would soon find their offspring to die and rot before their very eyes.

As the horror in the rumours was reinforced with every retelling, so did the crew grow ever more reluctant to go ashore to fetch water. Eventually, as they neared the northern islands, Qiang Yi found that even mentioning the shore poisoned the deck with fright and uncertainty. The captain found himself at a loss, and as the third week passed and they neared the final planned resting spot before the northward trek to the Dragon’s Crown, a fight broke out on deck.

Qiang Yi stormed down from the helmspost, ordering three of the closet deckhands to follow him. Already had a crowd encircled the two brawlers.

“What is the meaning of this?!” Qiang Yi boomed and the crowd parted to reveal the skinny Gong’er biting his brown granite teeth into Lai Lei’s arm - Lai Lei silenced a scream at the sight of the captain. The two sailors quickly got to their feet and looked to the floor. Qiang Yi scowled at them both and straightened his arms down along his sides.

“What is the meaning of this, master Gong’er, master Lai Lei?” he repeated. “For what reason do two brothers of the Flow exchange blows aboard this sacred vessel?”

Gong’er fidgeted where he stood, his hands shivering and his eyes trying desperately to escape Qiang Yi’s. Lai Lei appeared to be sweating. Eventually, they both fell to their knees before the captain.

“Captain! With all due respect,” Gong’er started. Qiang Yi looked at the prostrating man. Gong’er shot an accusatory finger at Lai Lei. “He started it!”

“Huuuuh?! I hit yer head to hard, ye puddle?!” Lai Lei roared as he rose to one knee and looked ready to pounce.

“Silence!” Qiang Yi boomed. Lai Lei fell back into a kowtow. “Gong’er, we do not accuse without proof to back the claim. Master Lai Lei, master Gong’er claims you started this conflict. What gives him the right to claim such?”

“I ken not, captain! We two were discussin’ the forests on th’ shore as usual, then this wee puddle pounced me ou’a nowhere. Bloomin’ mad, he is--!”

“Thank you, master Lai Lei!” Qiang Yi interrupted sourly. He turned back to Gong’er. “Master Gong’er, you stand accused of unwarranted assault against your brother of the Flow - how do you plead?”

Gong’er’s head quickly shot up. “Innocent! I’m innocent, captain! He was the one who struck me firs--!”

“Silence!” Qiang Yi pinched the bridge of his nose. “Alright. Start from the beginning. What were the two of you discussing?”

“The empty forests,” Gong’er said simultaneously as Lai Lei said “The cursed woods.”

“Duly noted,” Qiang Yi muttered. “What sparked the conflict?”

“I told ye, captain! The wee puddle struck m--!”

“What part of the conversation may have lead to that?” Qiang Yi snarled. Gong’er looked down.

“H-he said the curse is probably related to the stone we brought aboard,” Gong’er mumbled. “That the stone we plan to gift His Lordship is the stuff of evil. This was a downright false statement - no such beautiful stone could ever be cursed - so I struck him.”

Qiang Yi squinted. The surrounded crew began to whisper and mumble with everything from outraged hissing to anxious whimpers. “So you admit to striking first?” the captain said.

“Yes!” Gong’er threw his hands into the air. “I struck him first - but only because he insulted His Lordship’s property!”

Qiang Yi turned to Lai Lei. “Master Lai Lei, does this confession sound correct to you?” The deckhand nodded and wiped his brow.

The captain hummed and looked around the crew. His eyes then fell back on Gong’er. “Your intentions, master Gong’er, were noble - I am certain any of us would rise in defense of His Lordship’s sacred property any day. However, your category for what His Lordship’s property is is simply too broad..”

Gong’er’s boney face looked slack-jawed at Qiang Yi. “Category…? Broad?”

The captain nodded. “Master Lai Lei has, in fact, not insulted His Lordship’s property - as it has yet to be delivered to His Lordship, and is therefore not His property.” There was some dissatisfied rumbling in the crowd. Qiang Yi furrowed his brow and pursed his lips. “Secondly, the stone we recovered is a foreign material - our knowledge on it is limited only to its colours and general shape. I cannot see why it would be an insult to propose that the material possesses certain traits - even if those traits are detrimental. Frankly, the only crime I find master Lai Lei guilty of is intentionally damaging crew morale.”

Gong’er fell back into a shivering kowtow - Lai Lei sat dumbstruck on his knees. Qiang Yi scowled at them both.

“As the Flow demands, you shall both be punished accordingly. Since you are both of the Strong, the punishment will be selected based on your relationship as comrades of the same caste.” He pointed at Gong’er.

“Gong’er, the punishment for striking a brother and falsely accusing him of a crime he did not commit is one fistful of salt across the back.”

Gong’er looked up, eyes wide with horror. He swallowed, his voice cracking up slightly with frightened sobs. “Y-yes, captain,” he whimpered and slowly began to pull off his gi shirt with shivering arms. He laid flat on his stomach. From under deck came two somber deckhands carrying an ornate wooden chest marked with warning notes and labels. Qiang Yi took a deep breath.

“As captain of this vessel,” he began, his voice somewhat shaky. “... I shall carry out this punishment. Gloves, please.” A nearby carpenter handed him a pair of leather gloves. The chest was placed next to Qiang Yi and the captain reluctantly began undoing the intricate lock. Lai Lei blinked sympathetically at Gong’er and the captain.

“Uhm… Captain, is this really necessary? I mean… The wee puddle didn’ really hurt me tha’ much--”

“Such is the law, master Lai Lei. Violence aboard this holy vessel cannot be tolerated. Such a breach in discipline would no doubt shame His Lordship.” He wrapped his gloves hand around a handful of the white, crystalline poison and held it up for all to see. “His Lordship’s rules are divine and absolute - let this time be the only time we must remind each other.” The captain then turned to the floored Gong’er who had folded his hands in silent prayer. Qiang Yi took a deep breath and, slowly, began to sprinkle the salt over the man like a gentle snowfall.

The effect was immediate. The deckhand twisted and writhed as the salt burned across his skin. Several deckhands moved in to restrain him, but still his body spasmed in agony. He cried and wept for forgiveness, but his words quickly became incomprehensible as they were drowned out by screams and wails. The onlookers all cowered before the gruesome act transpiring before their eyes, some falling to their knees and begging Qiang Yi to stop.

Lai Lei crawled over to Qiang Yi’s leg and pressed his forehead against his foot as he grasped at the captain’s violet robes. “Please, captain! He’s had enough! He’s learned his lesson!”

Qiang Yi felt his lip quiver and he dropped the last of the salt. The deckhand on the floor had stopped squirming a few seconds ago, likely having passed out from the pain. The captain clapped the gloves free of the rest of the salt and tossed them aside.

“Someone give him a well-deserved rest and his back a proper wash. He took his punishment like a pious servant.” He looked around at the crowds. “Let us avoid having to see that again.”

There were hums and nods of consensus among the onlookers. The captain lowered his eyes down at Lai Lei. “As for you, master Lai Lei, the punishment for propagating information that can shatter morale is a week in the cells.” The captain let out a sigh. “However, since we have no cells aboard, you punishment shall be improvised…” Qiang Yi pointed down at Gong’er who was slowly being lifted up by two others.

“You shall be responsible for nursing master Gong’er back to health and be his brother - not just of caste, but of soul. If either of you exchange blows again - you will both be punished.”

Lai Lei blinked, then nodded frantically. “I-... I’ll care for him as if he was my true brother,” he said. He then helped the two others with carrying Gong’er downstairs.

Qiang Yi let out a sigh and looked around at the crowds. “Since you are already here, I may as well take this time to address the ongoing rumours aboard: I see now that I have allowed this fear of the Kick to poison the pure and honest souls aboard this ship for too long.” The crowds rumbled and mumbled. “I will take criticism for this myself - I should have shot them down before; had I done so, this fight may not have happened. The fear permeating this ship is not healthy - it makes us doubt our mission, neglect our faith, and make enemies with our neighbours. Therefore, I forbid the spreading of such rumours for the remainder of the voyage, is that clear?”

There were nods and words of consensus. Qiang Yi nodded.

“Good… Back to your stations.”

As the crowds dispersed, Qiang Yi walked over to the bow of the ship. He stood for a moment and admired the figurehead to Ashalla. It was a shame that it could not capture the majestic presence of the Ocean Goddess, but it was still just so magnificently carven. He made a mental note to have an equally majestic effigy made in the honour of Shengshi and placed at the stern. A suitable passtime for the carpenters as the journey dragged on.

The sound of footsteps closed in behind him and Qiang Yi turned to see Li Shan clinging to a crutch, though seemingly almost recovered. Qiang Yi smiled from ear to ear and bowed.

“Oh, master Li Shan - what a joy it is to see you well again. Your condition has certainly improved over the last four days.”

The carpenter let out a laugh, followed by one or two coughs. “Yes, it has been tough, but I may finally return to my work. The crutch is just for my right leg - my arms are still as strong and dexterous as ever.”

Qiang Yi chuckled. “I do not doubt that for a second, master Li Shan. Actually, if you do not already have a project in mind, may I make a request?”

“My hammer and chisel are yours to command, captain,” Li Shan said with a nod. The captain gestured to the figurehead.

“Your previous work of art was of stellar quality, master carpenter - no doubt has the Queen of the Ocean spotted it already - it may even have been the reason Her Holiness chose to save our ship from sinking.” He gave Li Shan a bow. “Your skill is impeccable.”

Li Shan flushed and scratched his neck sheepishly. “Oh, no, don’t say that - it was thanks to my team that we managed to produce it so quickly.” He bowed back.

“That’s good to hear. I wish for you to complete a second statue, though this one is to be placed at the stern - a tribute to our Lord.”

Li Shan looked up and blinked. He immediately straightened himself up and cleared his throat. “Captain, do-... Do you really think that His Lordship would accept such a lowly attempt at portraying His glory?”

Qiang Yi stepped closer and put a hand on Li Shan’s shoulder. “With your skill, it will -not- be a lowly attempt. I am certain that His Lordship will be more than satisfied.”

Li Shan looked down for a moment and then stared Qiang Yi in the eyes with newfound resolve. “Then it shall be done, captain! Sail the ship well, and the effigy will be ready by the time we reach the Serpentine Isles.”

Qiang Yi grinned and clapped the carpenter’s broad shoulder. “That is wonderful to hear, my friend. You will certainly bring His Lordship’s favour upon us with it. You may commence as soon as you are ready.”

Li Shan bowed and walked towards the stern. Qiang Yi turned back to the figurehead, folded his hands in silent prayer, and turned back to the stern, as well. However, as he walked back, he noticed a few sailors who had been talking, disperse upon spotting him. Qiang Yi frowned.

He ascended to the helmspost, giving Zhen-zhen a nod and receiving one in return. From the helmspost, Qiang Yi found the deck to be busy as normal - yet occasionally, groups of feet would gather behind the sails or just underneath the railing, before quickly dispersing again.

“I do not understand - why do they cling to the fear of a curse that likely does not exist?” Qiang Yi said in a frustrated tone and turned to Zhen-zhen. She gave a sheepish shrug.

“I dunno either, captain,” she said. “Maybe the monotony of the waves is getting to them?”

“The monotony of the waves?” Qiang Yi repeated quizzically.

Zhen-zhen nodded. “I’ll be honest, captain. Nothing has happened for two weeks, and had I not had maps to check and tillers to steer all day, I would likely have gone mad from boredom.”

Qiang Yi scratched his chin. “Is that so?”

Zhen-zhen nodded again. “The crew are likely making up stories and the like about the empty woods to have something to talk about - you know, after talking about the weather gets stale.”

Qiang Yi nodded slowly. “So distractions are in order, you say? What would you suggest?”

She shrugged. “Each caste would be interested in different things - I reckon the Skilled would be happy just crafting stuff; the Noble would probably like some tea or to play music; and the Strong probably would not mind a spar on occasion.”

“Sparring?” Qiang Yi said skeptically. “How will we make certain those do not turn into fights? How can we even control whether a fight is a spar or a brawl?”

Zhen-zhen gave him a straight-faced frown. “Captain, I am fairly certain the Strong know very well what the difference between a fight and a spar is.”

Qiang Yi recoiled a little and cleared his throat. “I-if you say so. Regardless of that, though, we did not bring tea onboard! How will we satisfy the Noble?”

“Alright, so we don’t have tea - could you convince the Skilled to make them some instruments, then?” Zhen-zhen tilted her head to the side. “Aren’t you supposed to be a creative man, captain?”

“I asked for solutions, not sass, first mate,” Qiang Yi said sourly as he drummed his chin with some fingers. “That could work, though. I will ask Li Shan for counsel.” Qiang Yi strolled down the staircase to the deck, then down the staircase to the belly of the ship. There, he found Li Shan and his carpenter team busily carving away at roughly-shaped statue of the snake.

“Oh, captain!” Li Shan said in surprise. “W-we still need a bit more time, I’m afraid, but--”

“Oh, pardon my intrusion, master Li Shan, but I have an urgent request.” The master carpenter and his apprentices put down their tools and looked at the captain with a hint of anxiousness.

“Did something happen, captain?” said Li Shan. Behind him, Tong Lao was dusting off some sawdust. “Did the hull fix break apart?” he asked.

“No, and no - do not worry, nothing has happened. It has just come to my attention that we lack distractions for most of the sailors onboard - particularly for the Noble.”

The carpenters looked at one another. “Yes, but what would you have us do about that, captain?” Li Shan asked quizzically.

“Well, I was hoping that you could make them some instruments - you know, something to keep them occupied and to keep the rest of us entertained throughout the journey.” Qiang Yi picked up a broad plank. “This plank, for example, could make a fine guzheng - well, a makeshift one.” He pointed to a thin log. “Carve that out and fit it with two strings - add a bow and you have an erhu.” The carpenters scratched their chins and necks in thought.

“Well, we could do it, captain, but--...” Li Shan began. “... We cannot promise the quality will be particularly good, considering what we have on hand - not to mention that none of us are particularly good musicians.”

Qiang Yi folded his arms together. “W-well… You could ask the Noble for advice in that regard. You know… You make the tools and they tell you how they are supposed to sound?”

Li Shan let out a sigh. “We’ll… We’ll see what we can do, captain.”

Qiang Yi nodded in satisfaction. “Wonderful, master Li Shan. I will be looking forward to your results.” The captain strolled happily towards the front of the ship’s belly and Li Shan looked to the others.

“We’ll finish the statue first - then we’ll find someone to help us out.”

Qiang Yi then went to see Yong Mei, assistant to the quartermaster Zeng En who was still in recovery. Yong Mei was not as tall as Zeng En, but equally well-groomed and muscular. She had skin of fine gray clay and long, black, earthy hair tied in a small topknot. Upon Qiang Yi’s arrival at the storages below deck, Yong Mei greeted him with a smile and a bow.

“Greetings, captain,” she said with a bubbly, yet somewhat shy voice. “W-what can I help you with?”

“Ah, lady Yong Mei,” Qiang Yi said and bowed. “I have a proposal for you to bring to the rest of the Strong.”
Yong Mei blushed. “A p-p-proposal, captain?! B-but we just--”

“A proposal for the whole caste, lady Yong Mei,” Qiang Yi said sourly. Yong Mei squinted.

“Woah… The captain is a greedy man, I see.”

“A proposal for a change of law, lady Yong Mei! Focus, please.”

“Oh,” she said curtly, and with a hint of disappointment. “Very well, what does the captain propose?”

Qiang Yi let out a relieved sigh and nodded. “Seeing as I have received some feedback regarding a lack of distractions aboard, I propose to let the Strong once again be allowed to practice martial arts on deck, and even engage in sparring -under- the observation of a judge.”

Yong Mei looked dumbstruck at first, but then a grin formed on her face and her eyes beamed at the captain. “R-really, captain?! You mean it?!”

Qiang Yi recoiled as the huge woman began to skip happily around in circles. “Y-yes, lady Yong Mei. No longer shall your caste be denied the essential culture of martial arts. I must, however, stress once more than I will require there to be a judge at every sparring.”

“N-naturally, captain! Oh, by the Exalted Creators, what a day!” The woman set off in a sprint to deck, and not a moment had passed before Qiang Yi heard cheers and whooping through the deckboards above. The captain snickered quietly to himself.

Perhaps now they could forget the talk of curses and evil spirits for some time.

The Talk

The midday heliopolis poured through the windows of Hermes and Xiaoli's house. Middle spring scents were in the air and today Hermes found them pleasant. The popping of cloudlings had increased, the spring cohort being born from the sugary blossoms. The Dreamer bit her finger as she thought to herself. She sat on a nicely made wooden chair, slouched ever so slightly and deep in thought.

What was Xiaoli thinking, she asked herself. The events of the morning were terrifying and in her mind, not quite justified. She was well aware Xiaoli had said she'd never do it again, but it still sat funny in her stomach; what if something really had happened, would Xiaoli have an outburst of violence? She shuddered at the thought, especially when she placed the scenario far in the future.


“Yeah,” Hermes didn't even bother to look at Poppler, “I just don't want to upset her.”


“Of course I'm mad, that was ridiculous and dangerous,” Hermes looked at the cloudling incredulously. There was a gentle ‘Zzt’ and Hermes sighed, “You're right.”

The Dreamer scooted off her chair and slipped on her sandals. Tightening the clasp, she scurried out of the room and into the hallway, almost ramming right into Xiaoli.

Xiaoli barely managed to slow down in time to avoid collision, having to lift the stone tray with tea cups in her hands far above her head. She blinked once or two. “A-are you in a hurry?” she said carefully as she lowered the tray to chest level again.

“No,” Hermes shook her head, “Sorry, I was looking for you.” She eyed the cups, “Tea?”

Xiaoli nodded faintly. “Y-yeah… I just thought, y'know, we could eat lunch.” She put on a somewhat forced smile. “I made sweet grass and walnut salad, too, though I left that one on the table in the main house. Would you like to join me?”

“That's sweet of you,” Hermes gave her a half cheeked smile, “Sure, I wanted to talk with you anyways.”

Xiaoli nodded a little frantically and turned on her heel, balancing the tray with uncharacteristic clumsiness. She led Hermes out of the family house to the courtyard, which she crossed at a northwest diagonal until she reached the still unfinished paveway to the northern house. The two followed the path to the central slider doors, which Xiaoli slid apart to reveal the neatly furnished dining room sporting a low table with a wool-upholstered pillow on each side and a sweet little pink flower in a vase on its top. The walls each had one painting on a wall-tall, metre wide paper sheet - one of them a painting representing the mushroom forest; the other, the tree-eater plains. The leftmost wall had shelves with bowls, plates and cups shaped and fashioned from rocks of varying colours and compositions, and the rightmost wall had a small clay oven with space on top for a pot - which in this case was a stone basin topped with a small steamer basket.

Xiaoli put the tray down on the table and walked over to the steamer. She lifted the lid off and extracted two woolen towels. She replaced the lid, walked over to Hermes and offered her a hot towel.

“Here - for your hands.”

“O-oh,” Hermes tangled with the tiny towel and cautiously sat down on one of the pillows. She squeezed the warm towel in her fist and looked around, “You’ve been busy, huh?”

Xiaoli smiled. “Nothing less than perfect! Of course, I’m not even close to done - I’m thinking at least two more paintings on each side, then perhaps I’ll cover the wooden floor with a carpet - or possibly a reed mat.” She poked her chin pensively and shifted between the floor and the walls. “I think reed mats will be best, actually - oh! But that’s for a later date! First, lunch!” She skipped over to the shelves, grabbed two bowls and two sets of chopsticks. She then shuffled over to the table, placing down Hermes’ bowl and cutlery before her own.

“Please, have some salad!” she insisted as she placed out tea cups.

Hermes looked at her bowl and then the pile of sweetgrass and nuts. She sighed, her stomach brickwalled with what was on her mind. Furrowing her brow she looked up at Xiaoli, “Hey, Xiaoli?”

The river girl gave her a smile as she poured tea, then sat down. “Hmm? Yes?”

Hermes put her arms over the table and held out her hands, “I have something on my mind, and I need to put it to rest.”

Xiaoli’s brow furrowed and she looked away. She picked up her teacup and sipped it sheepishly. “The tea is better when it’s hot…”

Hermes’ palms fell on the table and she dragged her arms back. She pursed her lips and sighed, “Right.” She took her cup and sipped at it tentatively, “Its- it’s good tea, Xiaoli.” She sighed into her cup and placed it back down, “I just want to talk about it, don’t you? We can get it out of the way and then we can go back to being happy.” Hermes whined, “Please, Xiaoli. You’ve been avoiding me since this morning.”
Xiaoli’s lips pressed against each other and she frowned at the floor. She grabbed the teapot and refilled their two cups. She looked briefly at Hermes, then back to the floor. “A-... Are you sure you wouldn’t like some salad first?”

Another sigh and Hermes rubbed the side of her face, bringing her fingers to pinch the bridge of her nose, “Sure.”

Xiaoli’s smile returned briefly and she pinched a few stickfulls of salad onto Hermes’ and her own plate. She took a bite of walnut and let out a sigh through her nose. After swallowing, she gave Hermes another curt glance.

“Did it taste alright?”

Hermes looked up from her plate, swallowing after a lethargic chew, “Yes,” She sighed, “Of course it does. You always make wonderful food, but--” She looked off to the side, “I’m not Shengshi, I’m the mother of your children.” She fiddled with the now cool towel, “We can’t avoid each other and we can’t avoid talking about our problems.”

Xiaoli kept her eyes on the tea in her cup. She sucked in a deep breath, then another, then let out a sigh. “Alright… Let’s talk, then.”

“I know you said you’d never do it again already, but that was really scary, Xiaoli,” Hermes jumped right in as if she had been holding it back, “It was very scary, and-- and it wasn’t a healthy reaction. I just want to make sure you really won’t react like that again, I want to make sure that something isn’t wrong because I-”

Hermes groaned as a tear fell, she wiped it away, “Sorry, I’m not even sad-- it’s the,” She shook her head and continued, “I just want us to be as healthy and happy as possible, and this morning you gave me a lot to worry about. I know I was being anxious and my words started it, but..” She shrugged and rubbed her eye, “I don’t know.”

Xiaoli’s eyes still looked down, but she raised a fist to wipe away what one could assume were tears. “I thought I explained it this morning - the knowledge within that book, the possibility of the twins taking your life with them on the way out… It felt like the cave again, Hermes.” She looked up and to the side, shooting the outside a furious scowl. “... The thought of your life in danger, it--” She took a deep breath and let out a hacking breath. “For a moment after you said that you may not--” She swallowed. “--I felt like the world was mocking us - I could not hold back.”

She paused. Hermes slouched, “Okay…” She seemed to think for a moment, “But Xiaoli. In the cave, there was an actual threat that could be dealt with through fighting. There was none of that here, and I’m not saying you can’t be mad or sad, but,” she paused, “You can’t be so violent, especially with this new world we are entering; that’s why it bothers me. That sort of violence isn’t healthy for any of us, and I never seen you that way before -- I just want to make sure that that was the only time I ever will.”

“And it was!” Xiaoli said in frustration. “I already said it was a one time incident this morning, didn’t I?”

“I guess I’m just not over it, yet.” Hermes folded her arms, “Just… just promise me again, one more time. Please.”

Xiaoli closed her eyes tightly and blinked some watery beads away. “Did you think I would hurt you?” she mumbled somberly.

“You really scared me, I didn’t know what to think,” Hermes sat up, “You punched a hole right next to my head.”

Xiaoli’s face paled and her mouth gaped slightly. “So-... So you actually thought that--” Her eyes welled up and she lifted a hand to wipe them dry, but could not seem to dry them completely. “Wh-why… Am I like this?” she whimpered. “Have I scared you before, Hermes?! Have I?!”

“No, Xiaoli,” Hermes sighed and slouched again, “You haven’t, and I know you’d never hurt me on purpose.” She closed her eyes and held out a hand, “Can you- come, come here.”

Xiaoli let out a curt sob and swiftly crawled around the side of the table to sit next to Hermes and clung to her arm. “Hermes, I--!” She coughed and sniffed. “I promise! I promise to never do it again! I promise--!” Her word was interrupted by another cough-like sob.

Hermes rubbed her back, “I know, Xiaoli.” She made a slant with her lips as she thought, her brow furrowed, “Xiaoli, can I ask you a question?”

Xiaoli looked up with wide, glinting eyes. “H-huh?”

Hermes looked down with concerned eyes of her own, “You don’t… You don’t.” She exhaled through her nose, “I don’t know how to say this.”

“What? Hermes, I don’t what?” Her brow furrowed in uncertainty.

The dreamer chewed on her thoughts for a little before finally saying, “You don’t ever treat me like you’re my servant… do you?”

Xiaoli blinked and pulled back. “Would… Would that be a problem?” she asked quietly.

Hermes blinked back, “Well,” she said slowly, “Remember how you said we are equal? We are partners.”

Xiaoli let out a sigh. “W-well, yes, but--” She took a deep breath. “--it feels better for me to think that way. Don’t get me wrong - I don’t think of you as a master! You are my partner - my love - my equal! It’s just…” She took Hermes’ hand and squeezed it. “... I don’t mind being servile.”

Hermes squeezed her hand back, “But… just never put me before you or on a pedestal. We are equal in this, Okay?”

“Equals, yes!” Xiaoli replied. She pouted a little. “It’s just how I am, Hermes… I consider you my equal, of course, but I cannot forget that I am a servant at my core. It comes as naturally to me as, well, breathing comes to you.”

The dreamer breathed a little, as if punctuating a point to herself. She sighed and nodded, “Okay, I trust you; just as long as it stays healthy.” Hermes paused, “I do like all the little things you do, too.”

Xiaoli smiled faintly, even releasing a quiet giggle. “If it helps, I really like doing those little things, too.”

Hermes let out a long exhale, a small smile forming on her lips. In one fell swoop she tugged Xiaoli into a hug and squeezed, “Please don't ever avoid me again.”

Xiaoli froze momentarily before her arms eventually wrapped themselves around Hermes’ back. “I--” She took a deep breath. “I won’t… I promise.”

Fearful Heart

The Lustrous Garden made its way towards the horizon, the warm rays of Heliopolis chasing away the night behind it. Xiaoli looked up for a moment through the foliage above, taking in the purple, almost red light that poked through. Around her the chameleon squirrels were starting to wake up, skipping between the branches and blending with the bark as they shot Xiaoli curious stares. A nearby patch of flying moss soared down from a branch above and landed on her shoulder with a wet slap; with a chuckle, the river girl brushed it off gently. In the distance between the trees, she spotted the faint yellow straw roofs atop the mansion houses. Past a few more trees, she saw the wooden walls and the stone foundations. Past the last few, she entered the clearing and skipped happily over to the family house.

Xiaoli burst in the door, skipped into the air and boomed, “Good morning!” as she belly flopped onto the mattress.

“AH!” Hermes woke with a start, neary bouncing off the bed. Her wide eyes narrowed and she smacked Xiaoli with a pillow, a laugh forming, “You see-” she yawned, “seem pretty happy.”

“Yup!” Xiaoli beamed as she dusted some sand off the pillow. “I had a chat with His Lordship, and he really provided some solid wisdom. It's…” She sucked in a deep breath through the nose. “It just feels like a boulder has been lifted off my heart.” She grinned, biting her lip slightly, and threw her arms around Hermes’ neck. “Also, I'm just… Really, really happy.”

“Mm, that's great!” Hermes gave a mirthful smile as she shook off the last of the sleep. She scooted into the embrace.

“Oh, and speaking of His Lordship, he sends his warmest wishes and, listen to this, has pledged himself to defend the Dreamers for as long as he lives!” She let out a silent squeal and kicked her legs about frantically.” Everything is just going so well!”

It was Hermes’ turn to beam as she suddenly squeezed Xiaoli before holding her away, “This is amazing news!” She stopped and smiled wide, “Shengshi… K'nell… our family is blessed. Oh, Xiaoli -- I couldn't be happier.” She squeezed the river girl again.

Xiaoli let out a fusion of a happy hum and a giddy giggle, digging her face into Hermes. She held the pose for a long moment, occasionally moving her head to peck at the areas of Hermes’ face that she could reach. Hermes chuckled happily at the affectionate assault, returning a few pecks of her own before holding Xiaoli away and peering in her eyes, “Xiaoli?”

“Yes?” the river girl spoke.

“Do you think,” Hermes said slowly, plucking one of her stray hairs from Xiaoli's woolen shirt, “That since everything is taken care of, and the house is nearly done, we could go on a little trip?”

Xiaoli's smile fainted a little, turning into a somewhat wry, yet straight face. “Hermes, dear, you know we can't do that. You have a baby on the way after all.”

“Abanoc's book says I have time before I really start showing,” Hermes debated, touching Xiaoli's arm, “Besides, I've been cooped up for a month. That's a first for me.”

“W-well, what if something were to happen? I know you've been practicing diligently, but what if we meet something that neither of us can fight? Or what if we get separated, or--” She cut herself off and squeezed her hand affectionately. “I just think that we shouldn't be reckless for a while, you know?”

Hermes looked off to the side, “Maybe,” she slumped against the headboard, “But it's been so long.”

“I know, my love, I know.” She placed a hand on Hermes’ muscular stomach and laid her head on her shoulder. “But still, we cannot take a--” Her eyes shot wide and slowly turned to Hermes. “Hermes?” she asked in a worried voice.

The Dreamer drained of color, “What? What?”

“Did-... Did His Holiness K'nell do anything to you while he was here? Anything spirit enhancing or the like?” Xiaoli patted her stomach searchingly.

“No,” Hermes squirmed, “He just- we just talked about the battle,” her voice was upset at the mention of it, “and other things, but nothing like that.”

Xiaoli gaped, then let out a single gasp. Her eyes welled up and as she turned to Hermes, the edges of her mouth curled upwards.

“H-Hermes I… I think there are two souls inside you!”

The Dreamer reeled away slightly, “I know; me and the baby. Xiaoli, are you okay?”

Xiaoli blinked. “N-no, silly! In addition to yours! There are two souls inside your belly!”

Hermes hesitated and then put her hands over Xiaoli's, “T-twins!?” She grinned stupidly, “Twins!”

Xiaoli let out a quiet squeal. “Y-yes, it must be! Oh, by the Exalted Ones, Hermes, we will have twins!” She blinked and then suddenly furrowed her brow. “We will have twins… I must add another bed to the room next door!”

Herme’s happy smile suddenly faded, “Twins.” She looked uneasy for a moment then forced her smile back, “Yes- another bed.”

Xiaoli's eyes flicked back at Hermes. “Hermes, is something wrong? You sound...” She raised a hand to caress her cheek. “... Talk to me, my love.”

“It’s nothing,” Hermes took Xiaoli’s hand from her cheek and held it, lacing her fingers around Xiaoli’s. She looked sad despite her smile, “I’m probably just being emotional again because of the-- pregnancy.”

Xiaoli sighed and cocked her head to the side. “Is it about the adventures?” she asked and pulled her hand away, shuffling over to the edge of the bed.

“No,” Hermes’ voice dripped with the beginnings of sadness, she let her hand drop as Xiaoli’s disappeared. Xiaoli looked over her shoulder.

“What is it, then?”

The Dreamers eyes shimmered and she turned away to hide them. She mumbled but it was barely audible even to Xiaoli. She let out a slightly frustrated sigh. “Hermes, dear, I'm sorry, but could you say that again, please? I didn't quite hear it.” She shuffled a little closer and leaned in. Hermes leaned close to her.

“I-” She managed quietly, “I might not survive twins.” Her eyes fell on the ever present book of Abanoc, she opened her mouth but then closed it.

Xiaoli did not move. “W-what?” she barely whispered. Her face slowly turned to face Hermes, its colour pale as ice and her lips quivering.

“It’s dangerous,” Hermes shrunk, “And twins: it’s very dangerous.” She wiped a stray tear that was forming, “I don’t want to worry you -- but I’m scared.”

“No! No!” Xiaoli stabbed a finger at Hermes chest, her eyes like waterfalls and her teeth grit together. “You are -NOT- saying those horrible things to me, is that clear?!” Hermes’ shimmering eyes broke and she closed them, beads running down her own cheeks as she cried quietly. Xiaoli’s neck gave out and her forehead crashed to Hermes’ chest.

“How-... How can you-... We were-...” The river girl sucked in a deep breath and sent her fist through the headboard next to Hermes’ head with a furious scream. The dreamer’s tears stopped as she jumped, looking at Xiaoli with scared eyes. Xiaoli pulled her fist out slowly, the pure sand polluted with splinters. She let out a long wail into Hermes’ chest, murmuring “it’s not fair” over and over.

“Xiaoli, you’re scaring me now,” Hermes looked down with a furrowed brow, her eyes still ripe with worry.

Xiaoli lifted her head, her squinting eyes ringed with red. She pulled away and rose out of bed. With several more sobs, she exited the room. Hermes sat there with a hollow feeling in her chest. She felt sick, more than usual. She leaned back in confusion, a splinter on the headboard snagging the back of her head. She swore and turned, slamming her own fist into the damaged head board. Trickles of crimson covered her fist as she took it out and she groaned, letting her head fall into her hands.

“I just want to go back to bed,” She whimpered to herself as her stomach turned. She felt guilty, and the guilt was eating at her chest but her anxiety kept her frozen in place. A swirl of emotions conquered her head, and she wasn’t too sure which one she was suppose to be feeling, her mind split between her emotional state and her actual fears. She felt regret.

There was a violent scream outside, followed by the rumble of something heavy crashing to the ground; judging from the snaps and cracking, it was likely a helpless tree. Hermes scooted up against a pillow and stayed like that for a while, before finding a small flame of resolve. She soaked it in and creaked out of the bed.

Padding across the floor of the house, she made her way outside, her arms wrapped around her stomach defensively. By the northern edge of the clearing, violent whips of water sprouted in every direction, occasionally complemented with tree splinters, and a single fleeing shadow crow. After a few moments, they stopped, the only sound on the wind being a loud wail.

“Xiaoli,” Hermes weakly shouted, jogging towards the wail, “Xiaoli.”

She came upon the clearing and saw the river-girl curled up against the pulverised remains of a tree trunk, its length covered with cuts until reaching the middle - which had been ground into sawdust. Xiaoli’s clothes were torn and ripped from splinters and sharps, and her skin was fractured across several spots.

Hermes let out a hot sigh and plopped down next to the river-girl, “Xiaoli…” Her voice was weak and slightly spooked, “You can’t--” Her voice wavered, “You can’t do this. You’re really scaring me.”

Xiaoli let out a sobbing cough. “Ishjuss--” She grabbed Hermes arm and clung to it desperately. “Ishjussai--” She pressed her forehead against her shoulder. Hermes gave another hot sigh and kissed the top of Xiaoli’s head.

“I’m pregnant,” Hermes said, her voice slowly coming back, “I get scared, I get nervous and I get horrible ideas-- but you, you’re my rock in all this. What I said was just from a worried mind, and I know it’s been rough on you too, but --” She looked at the broken trees, “This really scares me, seeing you do this.”

Xiaoli sniffed a few times and looked up at her. “I--” She let out another cough. “It’s just that I-... I cannot afford to lose you. You are--” In a near-unnatural fit of speed, she sat up and cast her arms around Hermes. “You are my existence - my purpose. I cannot even… Begin to imagine a life without you.” She rubbed one of her eyes. “Even the possibility of you not-... Well, it frightens me - frightens me to the point of fury.” She looked at the tree behind them. “I put you and the children in danger… What if one of the splinters had hit you?” Her head keeled over on her knees again and she began to sob once more.

Hermes wrapped her arms around her stomach again and tucked her knees up, “I don’t want to think about that.” Her mind began to spin, the adrenaline slowly leaving her body and leaving an empty bubble in her stomach.

Xiaoli sniffed again. “I cannot even allow myself to think about it…” She looked at Hermes. “I’m-... I’m so sorry for this. It’s just…” She rubbed her eyes with her thumb and her index finger. “... No, there’s no reason. I won’t frighten you again.”

Hermes suddenly leaned over and spat vomit. She rasped a quarter of an apology before suddenly puking again. Tears welled up as she threw up a final time and after a few painful gasps she leaned back and blinked away tears, “Xiao-” She choked on the air and cleared her throat, “Okay,” Her voice was a fine gravel. She reached out and patted Xiaoli’s arm between rancid burps, “Okay.”

Xiaoli sat there like a cat next to water. For what it was worth, her tears had dried. “A-are you well?” she asked uncertainly. Hermes flashed daggers for a second before softening.

“Mhm,” She wiped some spittle from the corner of her mouth. She sucked in a few calming breaths, her heart clearly pounding anyways and her gut clenched.

Xiaoli sat dumbstruck for a moment before she let out a single snicker. “What a morning,” she mumbled and shot Hermes a weary look. “I’ll go get you something to drink, hmm?”

‘Oh’ was all Hermes managed before suddenly retching again. She quickly scurried behind the stump and emptied her stomach again, half of it just being hot air. Her face was beat red and she let out a single gag before calling back, “P-please.”

“P-please never scare me again,” the woman burped painfully, her throat scratching.

Xiaoli smiled sadly and sniffed. “Yeah… Yeah, I’ll do my best. Just-... Just please don’t tell me anything else the book says about the survival rates of birth, is that alright?”

“I don’t think I’m--” Hermes paused and made an airy sound, “I don’t think I’m going to be reading about it again.” She coughed a few times, “Also, I’m kinda mad -- I am mad that you broke the bed.”

Xiaoli blinked and cast her eyes down shamefully. “Yes, that was uncalled for. I’ll fix it in a bit, okay?” She got to her feet.

“Okay,” Hermes sat up and pulled loose hair from her face, “Thank you. It was very close to my face and it spooked me and I’m pregnant which means I don’t exactly have the best control over some things right now.”

“Y-yeah…” She sniffed again. “It won’t happen again, I promise.” She picked up one half of the mauled trunk and walked a few steps before she turned to Hermes again. “I love you, Hermes - more than anything on this world, or any other.”

“I know, and I love you too,” Hermes gave her a small smile.

Xiaoli smiled warmly and picked up a stone, turning it into a cup in her hand. She raised it to Hermes. “Would you like sparkling or normal water, by the way?”

“Sparkling,” Hermes gave her a cheshire grin, with only minimal spittle on the side of her mouth.



Xiaoli could not seem to fall asleep, despite her weary body. The revelry that had followed the arrival of K’nell and Shengshi to the mansion grounds had been tear-jerkingly joyous, purveyed with conjured drinks and foods for all to enjoy. K’nell had sadly left a little early, and Shengshi had retired to his designated guest room in the youth of the night - leaving the river girl with a somewhat anxious weight on her heart.

She shot a glance through the darkness over at the quietly snoring Hermes on the opposite side of the bed. Xiaoli sucked a quiet breath through her nose, gave the back of Hermes’ head a little peck and silently rose out of bed. She quickly undressed and redressed into some more appropriate clothing, slid the door aside and snuck out.

The cool, damp moss kissed her naked feet a few times before it gave way to the prickly gravel of the courtyard. Xiaoli looked down and winced - she would definitely cover this with tiles eventually. Her quiet steps brought her across the courtyard to the guest house, which door she gently pushed aside. The inside was dark, the hallway leading to three lesser rooms. Xiaoli stepped in, took a step forward and pushed the middle door aside quietly. Her eyes blinked and shot glances left and right.

Shengshi was nowhere to be seen - any proof of his presence had been erased through neatly folded bedsheets and blankets; the rice paper and ink stone on the desk had been replaced; the curtains had been pulled aside to let in the fuzzy gardenlight.

Xiaoli felt the weight on her heart grow, complemented by a boiling sensation the heart’s centre. How could he have simply left?! Without saying goodbye, no less! Had all this talk about learning and adapting been lies and deceit?!

Then came a sound - a sharp, yet light sound, barely audible, like the faint song of a harp string. Xiaoli’s eyes blinked and she quickly slid the doors shut and ran from the mansion complex. She crossed through the undergrowth and overgrowth of the surrounding woods, her gait turning into a sprint. The branches bit and clawed at her face and clothes, but she pressed on all the same. After a few moments, she reached the edge of the woods - the tree-eater plains. There, by a watering hole surrounded by resting saplings and watchful mother trunks, the snake sat plucking at his harp in the gardenlight. A curious elm trundled over and caressed the snake’s back with its trunk, to which the snake chuckled before gently pushing it away. Xiaoli blinked a few times before she made her way over.

The snake’s music halted for a moment as the footsteps approached, but promptly continued, albeit with a quieted volume. Xiaoli said nothing, but sat herself down in the sweetgrass next to the snake, admiring the reflection of the Garden in the water. A sapling awoke at her presence, its roots tripping over one another as it ran for the safety of its parent.

For a long moment, the only presence in the empty soundscape was the snake’s claws skipping between the harp strings, the calming song complementing the entrancing light of the Lustrous Garden in the sky. Xiaoli let out a somber sigh, her arms holding her knees against her chest.

“What is the matter, my dear?” the snake spoke softly through the notes. Xiaoli turned her head slightly and glanced upwards at him. While his eyes followed the strings, she felt his attention on her as if they sat face to face. She sighed again.

“My lord, I-... I am conflicted,” she said shamefully. The snake nodded. Xiaoli continued:

“One thought have clouded my mind for a month now; another, for a day.”

The snake hummed. “Share your second qualm, then, for it may be easier resolved.”

Xiaoli’s mouth straightened and she faced forward again. For a moment, she said nothing; then, she asked ever so softly: “My lord, how much of you is in me?”

The snake’s fingers froze for a moment and he looked down at her with pursed lips. As he began to play again, he squinted pensively at the waterhole ahead.

“Your body and mine have little in common, as you no doubt realise. Your form is composed entirely of the materials in that little beck in the jungle. However, your soul is so much more.” He pulled a few strings particularly hard, stirring some of the surrounding saplings to life. The snake gestured to the sparkling Garden in the sky with one hand.

“Your soul, dear Xiaoli, is large fragment of my own, extracted and shaped with the purpose of creating a near-equal - one who could counsel me and act on my behalf. That was your original purpose, remember?” The snake flashed her a wry smirk. Xiaoli looked down in shame.

“Are you ashamed of me, my lord?” Xiaoli asked as her forehead fell upon her kneecaps. The shake chuckled and shook his head.

“How could I be ashamed, my dear?” Xiaoli slowly looked up at him, her eyes glittering with tears in the faint light. The snake put his guzheng away and turned to face the girl.

“I can feel it, you know: your undying love for dear, young Hermes.” Xiaoli blushed and looked away, a small smile forming on her lips. The snake chuckled and gently caressed her black hair. “It pulses through your essence like ripples in a lake for all divines to see.” He gave the flushed river girl a knowing smirk.

“R-really?” Xiaoli almost whimpered. The snake let out a hissing laughter.

“No, I am just playing,” he snickered and flicked his tongue at her. Xiaoli faked a scoff and rolled her eyes. The snake’s snicker turned to a chuckle, one Xiaoli joined in on.

As the laughter calmed down, Shengshi gave her a soft smile. “I do not think the others can feel it, but our two souls are of such a common origin that our essences are near indistinguishable. You are me, Xiaoli, yet you are your own soul - simultaneously me, my sister and my child.” The snake sighed and faced the Garden in the sky again.

“I suspect the reason you are asking relates to the life growing within Hermes as we speak, yes?” The snake gave her a knowing look. “My most sincere congratulations on that, by the way - remind me to send Arae a gift for her trouble.”
Xiaoli blinked and then nodded enthusiastically at Shengshi. “Yeah, I will! Thank you, my lord.” Her smile waned a little. “Yes… I wanted to know so-... So I could be certain of whether our children will have divine souls. To be born divine, yet have mortal origins - it would doom them to a life of turmoil and escape from other unsavoury parties. I-... I don’t want that for my children.” Xiaoli looked down at her kneecaps again. The snake hummed.

“Their origins will not be mortal, dear,” the snake said. Xiaoli looked up.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Yours will be among the first children upon this world. They have yet to be born, yet already are they legends among their future people - the first to trace their roots back to Hermes, the First Dreamer, and Xiaoli, the Avatar of Shengshi. Their origins will be immortalised throughout history - regardless of their ability to bring about miracles or not. With your lineage, their race is tied to me in blood and spirit. -That-, dear Xiaoli, is the true relationship between our two souls.”

Xiaoli blinked. “So you’re saying…”

The snake nodded. “Nevermind the potential for your powers to transfer over to them, which, frankly, I do not believe will happen. The very process of you two…” He paused. “... Forming such a child under your circumstances likely requires so much divine energy in itself that little to nothing remains for the actual child.” He pointed a clawed finger at her heart.

“No, the divinity that you will be passing on to the Dreamers is my undying loyalty as their protector.”

Xiaoli felt her eyes well up. “M-my lord, do you mean it?” she said through the quiet whimpers. The snake nodded, his smile waning.

“No one and nothing shall undo the Dreamers so long as I exist. This, I swear.”

Xiaoli could not help herself. She rocketed to her feet and jumped at the snake’s chest, wrapping her arms as far around him as she could stretch. The snake snickered and closed his arms around her, too.

“Thank you, my lord… Truly,” Xiaoli said.

The snake shook his head. “It is the least I can do for my own blood. Now, what was the second query?”

Xiaoli’s smile waned, but slowly returned to a wrier state. She pulled away and put her hands on her hips. “I see you couldn’t let the moment last a little longer?” The snake raised a brow and smirked.

“You know I am not too fond of hugs, after all. Now speak your mind.”
Xiaoli sat down again and drummed her hands on her thighs. “Well, my lord, this question has been with me for some time… It relates to loyalty.” The snake craned his head backwards and let out a drawn-out “oooh”. Xiaoli nodded and continued:

“A month ago, Hermes and I were discussing the ideals of the Flow - particularly in relation to respect and loyalty. Long story short, the discussion made me doubt the idea about absolute loyalty to one’s master, regardless of atrocities or crimes. Am-... Am I wrong to doubt, my lord? There are just so many instances now where my actions of respect towards the Exalted Creators have been looked upon with skepticism, or been outright rejected. I feel so… Confused.”

The snake laced his fingers and placed his chin on top of them. “No… No, you are right to doubt,” he said. Xiaoli looked up with blinking eyes and slightly parted lips.

“M-my lord?” she said.

“I’ll admit I was green still when I thought up that particular rule. A few points of wisdom had not yet occured to me at that point.” He raised one finger. “Firstly, a drop of clear water in a pool of mud does not make the mud clear; neither can a speck of mud in a crystalline river soil the entire stream - meaning that a consistently cruel master will not be worthy of anyone’s loyalty despite occasional efforts to compensate; and that a consistently good master will still be worthy of loyalty despite occasional atrocities.”

Xiaoli nodded slowly. “Iiiis… Is that a new addition? I cannot seem to remember it.” Shengshi nodded and raised a second finger.

“Secondly, the line between a loyalist and a traitor is as fine as Nanhese silt - the cruel master will see anyone leaving the ranks as a traitor, but those who oppose the cruel master may see the defectors as loyal to their own cause. Likewise, those who support the cruel master are seen as loyal by the master, but regarded as traitors by the oppressed. Which one of these is in the right?”

Xiaoli cocked her head to the side. “W-well, those who remain with the master are loyal to their master at least, no?”

The snake nodded, a hint of pride contrasted by a pinch of shame in his voice. “Yes, that is true, saintly are those whose loyalty remains steadfast to the good sovereign - but there is a keyword there: the -good- sovereign.” The snake leaned in. “What are the qualities of a true master, Xiaoli?”

Xiaoli blinked and looked back with firm eyes. “As a true master speaks, the voice is like the wind to the grass - with every breath, the grass bows. As a true master watches, the sight is like the light of Helipolis - all-touching, all-seeing. As a true master listens, the ears are like a flood - as it spreads, it consumes all in the four directions. As a true master acts, the hand is like the delta - it forks out in every direction, giving go all who are in need.”

The snake nodded proudly. “I could not have recited it better myself.” He clapped for the blushing girl. “Now tell me - what does all this mean?”

Xiaoli nodded. “A true master is charismatic, observant, open to criticism and requests from its servants, and generous.”

The snake nodded. “Very good. A poor master mirrors these qualities with their opposites. An uncharismatic master gathers no support; a master blind to the affairs of the kingdom will soon see it fall; a master unwilling to hear criticism and the voices of the people invites rebellion and instability; and a greedy master warrants a replacement. Is this not true?”

Xiaoli nodded. “So it is.”

The snake nodded back and held up a third finger. “Thirdly, all masters are to be respected, but only the good ones are to be served.”

This made Xiaoli cock her head in a confused manner. “B-but how do we know which leaders are good?” she asked.

“I believe we just defined the rubric,” the snake said with a smirk.

Xiaoli blinked. “B-but… Can it really be that simple?”

The snake made a frown and shook his head. “As some rules, this one is a rule of thumb: However, most master that match this definition of good will be worthy of loyalty; most that fit this definition of poor, will not be.”

Xiaoli blinked again and looked down. She then looked back up with a smile and bowed her torso to Shengshi. “... I… I think I understand. May I ask, though, what does ‘respect’ in this context entail?”

The snake nodded. “Act towards them as you would towards any other master - regardless of their actions and character, their position is still above yours, meaning the standard mannerisms of the five relationships apply.”

Xiaoli nodded firmly, stood up and bowed. “Yes, my lord.”

The snake smiled warmly and bowed back. “Please give Hermes my warmest regards. I must return to the ship before it hits a reef on the shore - and please, Xiaoli… Please do not forget to visit now and then.”

Xiaoli straightened back up and grinned. “Of course, my lord. We will bring the children over some day soon.”

The snake chuckled. “I am looking forward to seeing my grandchildren - or possibly children.” He gave her a knowing wink.
“Farewell,” he said, picked up his guzheng and slithered off.

“Farewell, my lord,” Xiaoli said.

The weight on her heart had lifted, leaving only the flutter of joy and clarity in her chest. She would have to share this with Hermes soon, but for now, she felt like enjoying the brilliant light in the sky for some time longer.

The Journey to Tendlepog: Chapter 4

“Steady!” Tong Lao murmured loudly through the dreadful torrent of lethal water pouring through the cracks in the wood and barkwork. They had finally managed to lean some planks up against the wall - soon, they would tip the planks to the side using wooden poles and, with Li Shan still in recovery, his apprentice, Tong Lao, sitting in a tall, tared wickerbasket, would be pushed over and begin to tie and hammer away until the plank stuck. Tong Lao felt a choking clump in his throat - already, three of his carpenters had had to be rescued from saltwater exposure. He stole a glance over at the three figures, all of whom were each tended to by two others who watered them and washed off the salt.

“We’re ready, sir,” said the man to his right holding the stick that would tip the plank.

Tong Lao took a deep breath. “Do it,” he said. The two reluctantly nodded and pushed. While the sudden sensation of floating freely in water was initially daunting, the carpenter could not allow himself to lose focus. Through sheer force of will, he kept his mind from succumbing to panic, even as the only barrier between him and death was one inch of old, tared straw. He peeked out of the basket and saw the approaching wall. A stinging pain bit into his foot like the fangs of a beast. He looked down and felt his heart freeze - the basket was giving out.

“SOMEONE GET ROPE! HE’S SINKING!” came the shouts from the outside. They were backed up by the hammers of panicking feet against wood, but Tong Lao felt himself grow strangely calm. As he felt the sand fall off his feet, he took in a deep, shaking breath.

Aah… So it would seem my time has come after all… Mei Hua, make certain our daughter grows up to serve His Lordship well… I’ll be swimming ahead.

Suddenly, the hammering stopped. Tong Lao turned his head slightly, searching for the sound again - had he died already? Then suddenly, the basket flipped backwards and crashed to the floor. Tong Lao clutched his head and crawled out onto the dry floor to see the--

Wait, dry floor?

He looked up to see his crew mates in a state of dumbstruck awe, some seemingly unable to move while others fell to their knees and hands. The crowd kept whispering prayers and praises to the Exalted Creators - though one specific name came up often.

“Her Holiness Ashalla watches over us!” one of them exclaimed.

“It’s a miracle! The Queen of the Ocean has blessed us with a miracle!” another one shouted roofward. Some sprinted upstairs to spread the word. Tong Lao laid on the floor, his eyes unblinking in the face of the sight: Where the crack in the hull had been less than a minute ago, there was now ice - crystalline, beautiful ice. Tong Lao felt his hands almost automatically fold together as he whispered a weeping prayer of gratitude to Ashalla.

“Oh, thank you, You blessed, most blessed sovereign of the sea,” he managed to squeeze through the hulking sobs of joy.

However, a gentle dripping sound brought him out of his euphoria and he spotted small droplets pitter and patter against the floor in front of him. He traced their origin back to the ice and let out a fearful gasp, pointing at it with a shaking finger.


His crewmates quickly broke out of their trances, too, scrambling to grab the materials and tools requires to bind and stuff the hole up properly. Cold moisture clung to everyone’s faces as they made certain not to break the ice during the repair. Eventually, enough cloth, rope, bark and planks had been stuffed into or wrapped around the hole that Tong Lao felt brave enough to say:

“I-... I think we did it.”

There were weary nods of consensus and joyous laughter around the carpenter group, all of them much too worn out to celebrate. Tong Lao squeezed the shoulder of the woman on his left, who gave him a tired smile.

“I will inform the captain. You have all deserved a rest.” The carpenters hummed and voiced their agreement, trekking further into the ship to sleep. Tong Lao looked at the former crack again and let out an agitated sigh of relief before he climbed back up on deck.

The deck was busy as ever, Tong Lao having considerable trouble making out the captain’s purple robes among the crew members zooming left and right with materials, water and sand. He tapped one of the least-looking passerbys on the shoulder.

“Pardon me, comrade, but would you happen to know where the captain is?”

The deckhand shrugged. “Heard ‘e was ‘eadin’ te shore. Said ‘e was goin’ te gather us some lumba’.”

Tong Lao nodded. “Thank you, comrade.” The deckhand nodded and continued his work. Well, seeing as the captain was no longer on board, perhaps he could pay his master a visit, Tong Lao thought. The man walked over to the central mast, the place he had last seen Li Shan. Upon arrival, he saw that he was still there, the stumps on his legs having grown a little longer. Tong Lao knelt down next to him in a seiza position and inclined his torso.

“Master… Are you awake?” he said gently, though firmly enough to be heard over the bustling deckwork.

The man in front of him opened his crusty eyes and his mouth formed a faint smile. “Lil’ Lao…” he whispered coarsely with a snicker. Tong Lao’s mouth straightened out and he looked down with squeezed eyes. He gave his left one a curt rub before looking back at Li Shan.

“Yeah… Yeah, it’s me. Are you well?” he asked. Li Shan lifted a quivering hand up to Tong Lao’s face, but could not seem to lift it high enough. The apprentice caught it and held it firmly. “Lil’ Lao…” the carpenter repeated faintly. Tong Lao squeezed his eyes shut again and held the hand so firmly he was certain it would break. After a moment, he loosened the grip again.

“I-... I have some good news. We managed to seal the breach - all thanks to the Queen of the Ocean. You should have seen it - one moment, there was water - the next, nothing! It was an unfathomable miracle! You’ll have to come down and inspect the work we did… Although I,” he snickered somberly, “I’m almost certain you will chew me out for it.”

Li Shan didn’t respond. His eyes had shut again and his head laid resting against the mast. The apprentice’s skin lost all colour and he shook his hand gently.

“M-master..? Master?! MASTER!”

Suddenly, he was pushed aside, losing his grip on Li Shan’s hand. “Please forgive us, Tong Lao,” said one of two women who had taken his place by the master carpenter. The speaker then began to pat sand Li Shan’s legs from a sack he had brought with him around while her partner slowly poured water into the carpenter’s mouth. The water bearer looked at Tong Lao with somber eyes.

“Forgive us, comrade. Master Li Shan has lost a lot of water. His spirit is very weak. We’re afraid we… We cannot promise that he will be the same when he recovers.”

Tong Lao slowly got to his feet and have the women a somber nod. “Keep up the good work,” he said with a cracking voice as he flicked away some tears. As he walked off to the stairway downwards, he shot a glance over at the shore.

Hopefully, the captain had been just as lucky as they had been.

Qiang Yi stepped off of the makeshift raft and onto the white beach of the Kick. He took a deep breath and savoured the familiar scent of jungle and moisture, yet found himself put off by the ominous lack of wildlife sounds, the only sound clouding the empty soundscape being the other crewmates pulling the raft onto the shore. The occasional bird squeak aside, the forest ahead was devoid of life. A cooling sensation irked him.

“We will gather what we came for and leave post-haste…” he said firmly. “Be wary of any movements in the foliage.” His crewmates can him a nod, and with axes and saws at the ready, the group entered into the woods.

The first trees to fall were the ones similar enough to the original tree used to make the frame for Zhengwu - visual similarity was, however, not a very adequate quality to assess from, so many of the initial planks were too soft. Qiang Yi picked one up, bent it slightly and shook his head in disapproval.

“No, this one will not do, either - look for an older tree. There may be some over there.” The servant nodded and followed Qiang Yi’s finger deeper into the woods. Qiang Yi stepped over some of the undergrowth and stopped next to a servant of the Strong who was busily chopping up a smaller palm. Qiang Yi eyed the tree and shook his head again. “That one may do for rafts, but little else. We will use the trunk to reinforce the raft we have, but afterwards you will move over there in search of larger trees.”

“Yes, captain,” said the sailor and kept chopping. Qiang Yi sighed and stepped further into the jungle. There were no rivers here, either - only creeks and becks between the tall and short trees. Had His Lordship not given any thought to this place? Had he perhaps considered it unworthy of his blessings? Perhaps…

Perhaps such a reason was linked to why everywhere was silent.

Qiang Yi felt his brow moisten. He turned back towards the shore, but not long had he walked before one of the sailors came running over to him.

“Captain!” he said and extended a hand. Qiang Yi nearly jumped out of his skin.

“Please, master Gong’er, don’t frighten me like--”

Qiang Yi’s eyes fell upon the material in his hand - or more specifically, the pile of material. It was black as the night, yet parts of it reflected light like a mirror - twinkling at alluringly at the two.

“What… What is this?” said Qiang Yi as he picked up a small, black grain. The sailor known as Gong’er shrugged and shook his head.

“We don’t known, captain. We found it by the hillside over there. Do you think it’s valuable?”

Qiang Yi rolled the black grain between his fingers, inspecting its every blinking surface. “It is quite heavy for its size, this grain. It may be related to gold.”

“To gold, captain?” Gong’er said excitedly. Qiang Yi nodded.

“Have the men make a wicker basket. We will gather as much as we can of this sand and bring it to His Lordship as a gift when we return home.” Gong’er nodded frantically while grinning and sprinted off into the foliage. Qiang Yi gave the grain in his hand one last lookover before flashing it a wry smirk and pocketing it. He then strolled back to the shore.

A few hours had passed and many trees had been felled and turned to planks. The raft they came on had been outfitted further with palm trunks and leaves. It was filled with planks and sawdust to the point where they had to paddle back to the ship twice. Qiang Yi stood on the shore, staring outwards across the sea past the ship. He took out his brush and gnawed lightly on the top of its handle.

He heard footsteps behind him and turned. Out from the woods came two sailors, Gong’er on the left and one known as Lai Lei on the right - between them was a tall wicker basket that seemed to nearly drag the two sailors down to the ground with it.

“By Nanhe’s delta, this stuff is heavy!” Gong’er exclaimed. The two put the basket down before Qiang Yi and the captain knelt down and ran his hand through the black sand, scooping up a handful and letting it drizzle down. He could not help but feel like there was something about this mineral - something potent.

“Stellar work, master Gong’er, master Lai Lei. Once we are back on the ship, make certain to store it safely so that it does not spill. His Lordship’s gift shall remain whole until he receives it - nothing less is acceptable.”

“Yes, captain!” the two sailors voiced simultaneously. Soon thereafter, the raft returned and the three men boarded. The were ferried back to the ship, and the raft was then tied behind it after use. As the crew zoomed back and forth, bringing the wounded below deck and the newly arrived materials to the damaged areas, Qiang Yi moved up to the helmspost. He scanned the deck. Slowly, but surely, the wounded crew members were restored to vitality, returning to their work.

“His Lordship certainly made us durable - when we’re not busy falling into the sea, that is,” came a voice from behind. Qiang Yi turned and felt his lips part in a smile. By the newly fashioned tiller that led to the fresh rudder sat the familiar bookworm, except that she was missing her book this time. She flashed Qiang Yi a playful grin.

Qiang Yi let out a gentle chuckle and nodded. His eyes fell on her left arm, its chalk-white sand gently contrasting her otherwise dark beige body. She followed his gaze and let out a snicker. “Right?” she added.

“Yeah… He certainly did.” He paused. “Where’s your book?” he asked.

Zhen-zhen shrugged. “Dunno. Might’ve gotten lost during the attack for all I know.” She straightened her back and bowed her head in respect towards Qiang Yi. “It doesn’t matter in the face of my duty, anyway.”

Qiang Yi’s smile faded a little and he walked over to place a hand on her shoulder. Zhen-zhen flinched a little and slowly looked up, her smile also missing.

“Don’t blame yourself, Zhen-zhen,” Qiang Yi said. “I’m happy you wish to be more diligent, but know that no one aboard this ship blames you for what that monster did.”

Zhen-zhen’s eyes grew misty for a moment and she looked away. “I-... I wish I could avoid it, captain, but…” She paused, sniffed and cleared her throat. “There is at least one person aboard this ship who blames me for it, and she isn’t really the forgiving sort.” She hid her tears behind a broad smile and gently patted the hand on her shoulder.

“Thanks, though. You’re a good man, captain,” she said warmly. Qiang Yi felt his cheeks blush and cleared his throat.

“Th-thank you, first mate Zhen-zhen,” he said and pulled away, eliciting a smug snicker from the girl. Qiang Yi flashed her a slight smirk.

“Set a course around the northern coast of the Kick, helmsman,” the captain said.

“Yes, captain!” she answered with a smile.

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