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A Month of Doubt

Life in the house of health proceeded as normal. Well, for the most part. The customers came and went. The shelf that had been ripped down had been replaced; the items on it, too. The incense smoked as usual. The tea was just as warm. The pillow under the counter was just as soft.

Yet Roja could find no peace.

Not since the day the visitor came, the mushroom man, had Roja felt calm. The atmosphere of the house of health, which had caught her emotional fall like a bed of cotton, grew spikes out of its walls. The incense filled her nose like a poison and choked her; the tea tasted bitter and stale.

Initially, talks with Jezzy had helped a lot.

“What we're doing…”

“Mhm?” the goblin had replied.

“... I know it's for a good cause, but… Then why does it feel so wrong?”

“Oh Roja,” had the goblin said with the familiar vanilla in her voice and flowers on her breath. “You have a good heart, a pure heart. Like a true and trusty devotee of Allianthé, you see value in all life. And all life does have value, of course.” A pause. “But some life is more valuable that other. Like those of the people we're helping.”

For the first few weeks, this reasoning had formed a shield around her conscious. Yet no matter how much Jezzy consoled her, the elf would be reminded of the alien guest every time she was asked to gather more of the mushroom. No matter how much time passed, no matter how many times she opened the hatch and descended the ladder, no matter how many mushrooms she ground up, she could not overpower her senses and shut out the burning glare of the two fiery red eyes of the creature in the rune cage. Every rung on the ladder, every chop of the knife, every grind of the pestle–it was as though she was grinding down her own spirit. With time, she couldn't help but feel that Jezzy grew tired of her.

“Jezzy, nothing feels right! I, I can't keep doing this!” Roja kept saying.

“You can! I have faith in you,” Jezzy would always promise, but never more than that. The conversation would never survive for much longer after that. As the days became weeks and the weeks became months, the pair talked less and less. Jezzy went on longer errands more often. It was as though the shop had become Roja’s, as Jezzy would disappear for weeks at a time, only to come back with a curt greeting and a demand for a report over the past few days. Roja began to feel old, but familiar thoughts return:

You're worthless.

You don't deserve to be happy.

It should have been you, not them.

The one day, as she reached the final rung of the ladder and turned around to lock eyes with the mushroom creature, it was as if something within her snapped. The red hot eyes were inside her head; she no longer perceived them with her eyes, but with her mind. She felt her breathing accelerate and whimpers escape her mouth. The tunnel–the black canal under Arbor. She had escaped, but she heard the monster, the spawn of Egrioth. It was here, with her, in the cave. She wasn't in the cave anymore, she was in that tunnel. Her arm was bleeding–it was still attached, if only barely. She was limping, escaping as fast as she could from the chasing horror. There, ahead, she saw the door into the inner trunk. If only she could reach the activation runes. Then she would escape inside and be safe. Just a little longer, just a little further! She tripped and fell forward, her hand landing perfectly on the rune. YES!

Then the image faded, the room faded. She saw brown wooden walls melt away and that all-too-familiar light of the mushrooms radiate into her vision. Only one light was missing. She lifted her hand quiveringly and noticed iridescent stains on her fingers. Her breathing turned to panicking sobs. She looked up and saw the mushroom creature standing above her, eyes like an inferno waiting to swallow her up.

She didn't have time to scream, the mycelium was too quick. White roots burst out of the ground and covered her mouth, ears and eyes and lifted her up by the legs, her one arm swinging wildly in the air. She struck nothing but the wall, bruising her hand sore with every hit until it eventually drew blood. She neither saw nor heard anything, and only her nose hinted at the close and moist presence of the creature, the stink of dampness thick on the air. A million thoughts raced through her head, her wild imagination playing a hundred thousand reels in her mind of her death at that hands of this thing. However, then–as though she fell into water–her head went cloudy and thick, her senses dulling and struggling against a viscous medium.

There. Peace and tranquility.

Roja couldn't believe herself. This was anything but peaceful. Then the dulling sensation redoubled its efforts and she felt sedated.

The parasite struggles. I will take pleasure in unraveling the fabric of her being thread by thread.

Was it the creature casting these thoughts into her?

It is denser than bedrock. Every moment I suffer its existence is a sin graver than each cut she has dealt to the colony.

It was! The creature spoke into her mind! But how? How was this possible?!

There was a pause. Then the mycelium unwrapped itself from her eyes. Before her, she beheld the upside down view of the creature in a squat, its cone-like forearms crossed over its chest in what she would consider to be an indecisive manner. It showed no expressions beyond that that she could even begin to interpret, except that the eyes showed no sign of love.


The viscous sensation intensified once again and she felt close to passing out. Even the voice in her head felt cotton-wrapped. However, something in her brain told her that she no longer had a reason to be afraid. At least not at the moment. Consider yourself lucky, parasite. The Council believes you can be of use in laying a trap for the antithesis. You will help us or be destroyed. Choose.

She felt the presence loosen up her mind again and her thoughts became nimble. “H-h-h-help or die?! W-with what?! What's the antithesis?! Wha–” The cloudiness returned and she felt her brain go limp.

Her thoughts are like a storm in a pond. I see not how she can be of anyone's assistance, even the antithesis’s. She is more harmless than a fly and less useful to the life chain.

There came another pause. In her stupor, the elf didn't even know how to even think of a response. Then came an elation, like the presence relented. The mycelium roots loosened their grips and dropped the elf on the floor, where she sloshed about like a confused slug.

As the Council commands. She will guide the antithesis down here where it will be ground down into dust and spread to the Teacher's astral winds.

“He… Hey! What's, what's the antithesis?” demanded Roja as she staggered to her feet. The creature barely acknowledged her with a small glance.

To you, this thing is known as “Jezzy”. It has been declared the eternal enemy of the colony and the Council demands it be disposed of completely, down to the smallest speck of Lumen.

“Jezzy? Lumen? What?"

Please, Council, see reason. She cannot possibly–... Yet another pause, one which shifted the tone in the room and even seemed to make the creature uneasy. Roja couldn't make sense of much, but there was an unmistakable thumping on the air, physical like the deep notes of a horn.

Ba-dump… Ba-dump… Ba-dump…

She noticed the creature deflated a little. Yes, of course. I will… Respect the Council’s decision. The mushroom walked over to the elf. Roja suddenly felt herself levitate off the ground and be spun around, cast into odd angles by an invisible force.

“Hey! HEY! Let, let me down!” Then she quieted down as the creature leaned in.

You have been granted amnesty by the Council. You will not think another thought unless I command you to do so. She felt the creature sigh. Every day, every minute, every second you have been down here, your doubts, your self-hate and your urge to please this “Jezzy” have oozed out of you like pus from a wound. I did not want to listen; I wanted to shut you out. However… The creature picked up the knife, spotted with the iridescent spores of its kind. ... You have consumed Lumen. Your resulting affinity for accessing the Astral Plane, however weak, forces me to hear your thoughts as though you were yourself a cantar. You would think watching your own kin be systematically hacked apart to be eaten was a cruel fate, but being imprisoned in this cellar, forced to hear hundreds of frail minds trot around above thinking about the most miniscule, minute, unimportant details like they are world-ending threats–I can scarcely think of a worse punishment. A thousand years of rot upon you and all your kin!

The mental assault thundered through her head like a migraine. Roja was already dizzy from hanging upside down, but the headache intensified the nausea. She felt something bubble from below and a throatful of bile exploded out of her mouth. The cantar recoiled and dropped her, letting her once again fall onto the ground torso first. Roja flabbed about in her own vomit and noticed that her nose was running. As she swabbed a finger underneath, she noticed its crimson colour. “I… I'm not well…”

The cantar hissed and slapped off the bits of vomit that had doused it's leg. Disgusting. Yet oddly fascinating. I will make a note that your kind also vomits up your stomach fluid for extratestinal pre-digestion. A valiant last effort to exercise your hate towards my kind, but alas… The creature waved a hand over the small burns. They healed near instantly. ... A failed one. Now, is there anything else that you want to do to me before you finally obey and assassinate the antithesis?

“K-... Kill Jezzy?” Roja pushed herself onto her one elbow and slowly brought her buckling knees up under her torso.

She listens at last. But she doubts. Always with the doubts.

“I… I couldn't! She saved me! She's been there for me all this time!”

A murderer. A thief. Her crimes against my kind, crimes you too have perpetrated, are innumerable. If you refuse to obey, I will hollow out your husk and seed your flesh bag with new spores. Your meat will feed the colony for years.

“But why?! Why do you need me?! What good am I to you if you just wanna find Jezzy?! You found this colony, right?!”

The Council called out to me for all these years. As their Pilot, I am attuned to its voice at all times, listening to it, feeling it. Its burning glare grew cold. It is a bond a million times stronger than any sort of “friendship” your kind can hope to achieve. I feel their joy, their fear, their pain. Every cut, every chop. But… There was a long pause as the creature paced around the kneeling elf. Roja felt as though it was undressing her with its eyes, but in the most analytical way imaginable. I do not know what she looks like.

Roja blinked. “That's–”

... unexpected, is it? Really? Is that so? Tell me, did your knife feel any different when you cut Node-Zhyk as compared to when you cut Node-Waym?

Roja fell silent, but she felt her cheeks flush with guilt. “I… They…”

Oh but of course. They were just mushrooms, weren't they? Perhaps that will be the start of the eulogy we will sing after you're gone: “Roja, just a goblin…”

“But, but I'm an elf!”

Long ears, frail mind, nothing but doubt and ambition in those tiny excuses for heads… Frankly, I do not care what you think you are. All I see is meat and mental issues packed around a small speck of Lumen, and all I want you to do is to accomplish a single, menial task. Is that so hard to understand?

Roja was at her wit’s end. “B-but why me? I-I don't want to hurt her, I–”

Because she knows, you stupid thing! She knows everything! She knows I am looking for her; she knows I want her dead; and she knows that as soon as she comes back here, she will not leave alive. And you know how she knows that?


Because she is attuned to the Lumen! She has studied it. She knows how to manipulate it. She listens to the colony. She knew I would be coming, so she was gone when I came.

“You, you lie!”

She didn't care for what happened to you; she would have locked me away when she had come home and cleaned up your mess, or better yet, let the colony take you and feed on your corpse for the next year! What, you thought you were her first assistant?

“She, she wouldn't!”

Then she felt the migraines again. Once again, her head was being forced open like a heavy tome and she felt the cantar flip through her memories. Your vision–your friends all gather before you to forgive you for your mistakes. Convenient for a first time high, isn't it?


Porchina the shesnouter–told to leave her husband for her lover as though it was preordained! Isn't it funny how she came to Jezzy with doubts, only for her second vision to tell her to go back to her old husband again?

“That's not fair!”

Jezzy feeds off of doubt, parasite. Her business isn't to help people; it's to keep people coming!


The presence faded, but the scenery remained the same. Roja’s face was grimy with vomit, sticky with blood and wet with tears. Before her, the mushroom stood unbreathing, unmoving, unrelenting in its glare. “I… I need to find Jezzy.”

Be quick about it. My vengeance cannot come soon enough.

“... I need… To find Jezzy…” Roja crawled towards the ladder and slowly ascended with shaking movements. The mushroom followed her ascent with analytical interest, the same sort one might watch a wounded insect live out its final minutes. Then it turned to the mushroom grove with elation. It lifted its arms and the cave slowly filled with glowing, iridescent spores. From the pool of vomit and drops of blood, small red and blue nubs began to grow, mycelium eating into the goo with patient gusto. From deep within the grove, rotund little cantars the size of cats came waddling out and started digging new channels into the wood of the Tree of Life for new mycelium roots to grow in. Some climbed up the ladder to harvest whatever they could find in Jezzy’s shop to take down to the colony for consumption.

Finally… After all these years, I can return to my duties.

Then the grove slowly began to heal.

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An Hour of Fright

After visiting the house of healing for the first time, Roja went back again and again. She had stopped drinking at the tavern and felt herself grow braver, stronger. She took initiative during her odd jobs and got more opportunities as time went on. The money she made, she saved to make more trips over to Jezzy, where they would sit down for tea and chats. She would share stories from before her time in the militia, of the people who had been around her growing up, of boyfriends and girlfriends, lovers gained and lost. The two of them shared in laughs and tears, and eventually, the shop became Roja’s second home. She would watch the store while Jezzy was out on errands and whenever she had to wait in line with other customers, she would chat them up and learn about their lives. People of all species came in with heavy hearts and left elated, their clothes always carrying that familiar scent of earthy smoke. They were never many, but so the shop was mostly empty, but the odd person would stroll in every now and then–often they were regulars–and ask for Jezzy. After a time, there came an evening just before Jezzy was about to close that Roja had finally worked up the courage to ask something that had been weighing her heart ever since she had come here for the first time.

“Jezzy?” she asked.

“What is it, Roja?” replied that familiar flannel voice as she took stock of the shelves.

“Could, could I please start working for you?”

Jezzy balked slightly and turned around. “Come again?”

Roja swallowed. “I… I want to work here. For you.”

Jezzy stood dumbfounded for a blink. “R-Roja, I’m very happy you feel that way and that you’ve come so far, but… I could never pay you. I don’t make enough money to pay myself, almost. Y-you have been one of my best customers, I couldn’t possibly–”

“I’ll work for free!” Roja insisted. Jezzy sighed.

“Then how will you eat, dearie? No, it just wouldn’t work.”

“Please! Please, I beg you. You are the most important person in my life and, and I want to make it up to you for saving me. Please.”

There was a pause, within which Roja dared step a little closer. Jezzy took a deep, contemplative breath. “Alright.” Before Roja could skip into the air with joy, she added, “But you eat what I give you, got it? See if you can fit under the counter. If you can, you’ll sleep there.”

Roja was beside herself. “Oh, thank you, Jezzy! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!” She rushed over to the goblin and hugged her tightly. Jezzy chuckled and hugged her back. They stayed like that for a minute before Jezzy pulled away and flicked a small tear out of her eye.

“Oh my, ‘scuse me,” she said with a sniff. “Sorry, it just… It really makes me happy knowing my treatment actually helps people.” She beamed with pride at the elf, who blushed with a small smile. Jezzy clapped her hands and rubbed them together. “Well, newbie! Guess I ought to show you around.” She paused. “Well, you already know most of the shop, but a little repetition won’t hurt.” Jezzy thus showed her in detail all the items on the shelves, from floral oils to foot ointments. She pointed out each item’s specifications, its producers if it wasn’t herself, and ideal price range.

“If the customers start haggling, play along. As long as this goes for over five, you’ve made a profit.”

She then took her into the neighbouring room where they would drink tea. She showed her the cupboard with the different kinds of incense and explained in detail which she liked to burn at what times of day. The energising, citrusy incense sticks would be burned early in the day, then in the afternoon she would switch to deeper herbal notes, sometimes in combination with different spices. She showed her how to brew tea and how many leaves she would need per cup. She taught her how to make ointments at her workbench, how to grind with the pestle, when to make a poultice and when to make a salve. Finally, they arrived at the hatch in the back of the room.

“And for the grand finale, let me show you the most important room in this building.” She lifted the hatch and descended a small ladder. Roja followed right after and immediately smelled the musty odour of a dank basement. It was a pocket in the world tree, no larger than the room upstairs. The walls looked pocked as though worms had eaten into the wood, only that it had been no worm. The immediate sight that greeted her upon descending, was a miraculous marvel of red and cyan light. Mushrooms as tall as bar stools and as wide as shields filled the room with a dim, but radiating light. The cave had a draft, but it blew away from the hatch above–it was as though there was an unnatural wind in the room. The iridescent glow brushed over the both of them, and her nose filled with an almost oily air that immediately ticked off a reaction in her head. Memories, emotions and dreams all began to circle in her mind, a weaker but still potent version of the vision she had had the first time she had come here. Jezzy noticed her dazzled expression and chuckled. “You feel it too, huh? Yeah, these are the mushrooms that gave you your visions.”

Roja stepped over to one and brushed her hand over it. The mushroom expelled a gentle rhythm, almost like a heartbeat. The surface was slick and moist, and when she pulled her hand away and looked at it, a dim glow remained in the mucus in her palm. “They’re beautiful,” she whispered as she wiped the mucus off on the pant leg. Jezzy nodded proudly.

“Yup! They’re my most important asset. Just a pinch of this in a bowl and some heat, and the customer can meet their dead friends and family, see themselves as gods, experience what it is like to be someone.” She gave Roja a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Then they can put their efforts into making that dream a reality.” Roja nodded and grinned from ear to ear. Jezzy, meanwhile, went over to a small table and took a large knife. She picked up a sharpening stone and gave the knife a few good rubs before she walked over to one of the mushrooms which seemed to have been cut a little before. It glowed a little weaker than the rest. “So,” Jezzy said, placing the knife just over the edge of the cap, “should I ever need to send you down here to prepare a poultice, you will take this knife, make sure it is nice and sharp, and cut a piece no bigger than your thumb–like so.” With expert movement, she cut a finger’s worth of mushroom and caught it in her hand. “Make sure to always cut from the top, as that way, you smear the cap mucus on the inside of the piece. It has a floral smell and intensifies the visions.” Roja paid the utmost attention, taking mental notes with gusto. “After that, you take a pestle,” she made a twisting motion with her hand, “grindgrindgrind and then you tap the side of the bowl, and it’ll begin to conjure heat. It really is that simple.”

After that, Roja took to her tasks quickly. She cleaned and stocked the shelves, took care of the customers while Jezzy tended to her patients. At night, she slept under the counter and for her meals, she drank and ate what Jezzy served her, which was, perhaps not unsurprisingly, much better food than she had been eating up to that point. Vegetable broths, porridges, pottages and stews–Jezzy was a magnanimous host to her, and Roja kept taking mental notes of all the kindnesses she could never repay.

One day, many weeks after she had started, Roja was manning the shop alone. Jezzy was out on an errand, but at this point, this was quite routine. She expected that maybe one or two customers would come by to check in, see if Jezzy was in, but she would just tell them to come back later unless she could offer them any assistance herself. Jezzy had began to teach her simple runes, so to pass the time, Roja would read the modest selection of scrolls on the matter that Jezzy kept in her shelves, practicing how to draw runes with charcoal on the floor. Sometime around noon while she sat behind the counter drawing, she heard the familiar patter of footsteps in the alley outside–a little heavy, perhaps, but it was likely just the shesnouter who was coming back for a second vision. Her first one had encouraged her to leave her current husband for her lover, and Roja couldn’t help but snicker to herself thinking about what it could be this time.

“Welcome to Jezzy’s house of healing,” she presented in a sing-songy voice as she arose from her squat. “How can I assis–”

Her eyes fixed on the shadow opposite of the bead curtain. Against the outside light, it looked like nothing she had ever seen. A pair of round, radiating eyes glowed through the curtain, and the creature entered. It looked like an enormous cylinder, wearing as it did from head to toe a drape. Its eyes were in the middle, so it looked like a walking tent. In all her years, it resembled nothing she had ever encountered, but the eyes awakened within her an uncanny and gradually more panicking vision of the last time she looked into a pair of viciously glowing eyes.

“C-c-can I help you?”

The creature said nothing. It simply walked up to the counter and stared at her. Roja felt herself shrink. The eyes drilled through her skin and into her soul–it felt literal. It was as though her mind was laid out on the table and the creature flipped through it like a book. She grabbed at her head, her hands pressing against her skull to level out the pressure of an oncoming migraine. It was as if her heart was in her ears, a thundering drum thumping through her mind and rummaging around in search of something. Then the sensation lessened considerably. The creature turned away, the drape now concealing its eyes. It stormed for the tea room next door. Roja was still recovering, but managed to shout, “H-hey, you can’t go in there! Hey!” The creature ignored her completely and stormed through with such vigour that it tore the bead curtain separating the rooms and knocked over a shelf. Vials and jars of oils and ointments shattered against the floor and panic set in for Roja. This creature–she had to subdue it somehow. In the neighbouring room, the creature seemed to squat down to the floor and look around frantically. It had come to steal the mushrooms!

Instinct overtook her. Roja grabbed a large jar of dry beans and sprinted into the neighbouring room. The creature hardly had time to notice her coming before she hurled the jar at its eyes. The jar pulled the drape off and shattered against the place where the eyes had been. The creature stumbled back in a daze, tried to recover its balance and then tripped. It fell onto the hatch which, being built out of thatch and twigs, snapped under its weight. It tumbled down the ladder and Roja heard a dunk at the bottom. She ran over to look, but stopped halfway as she noticed something familiar among the jar shards and the dry beans on the floor. Were those… Mushroom fibres? She continued over to the hatch and looked down. She could barely keep herself from gagging. There, at the bottom of the ladder, laid some sort of amalgam between a mushroom and a humanoid. It was glowing, just like the mushrooms in the cave, and its glowing eyes had been shut close. Roja descended quickly and inspected the body. The creature had no mouth, but it did have a round spot on its stem on which its eyes sat, giving it an almost face-like feature. Its body plan seemed lithe between the joints, then thick towards the end of the limbs, like it was wearing cones for gloves and shoes. Then there was the cap, which grew out of its head for an additional meter almost, and nearly twice as wide as the body. No wonder it had looked like a barrel under the tarp.

Roja felt her breathing accelerate. She had just killed someone again. Or something. Either way, the Deathguard would come for her soon. For ten minutes straight, she laid curled up on the ground, trying to control her breathing just like Jezzy had taught her to. After that, she paced around, using every fraction of her mind to think of a plan. She eventually got some linen sheets and tied up the creature just in case it would spring back to life. After a while longer, she pushed and pulled it into a corner of the cave. Then she sat down opposite of it, armed with a sharp shard of crushed pottery.

After what felt like half a day, she heard frantic footsteps upstairs. “Roja?! ROJA?! Roja, are you downstairs?!”

“YES!” she shouted, “AND THERE’S A MONSTER!”

Jezzy came down swiftly and said, “A monster?! What do you–WOAH!” The sight of the mushroom person made her nearly jump her own height into the air. As she moved over to inspect it, Roja began to cry.

“I, I didn’t know what to do, and, and, and it just came in and it was covered and, and then it just stared and me and then it, it just ran into the tearoom and I didn’t–” He broke down when Jezzy came over to console her.

“Oh, Roja, it’s okay. It’s okay.” She pulled her into a tight hug. “Thank the Gods you are alright. When I saw the shop, I worried something awful had happened, and…” She cast a glance over at the creature. “... It seems that it did. I am so sorry, Roja.”

Roja shook her head. “No… No, it’s my fault, I–”

“No. No, this isn’t your fault. This… This is mine.”

Roja blinked and wiped her swollen eyes. “Huh?”

Jezzy let her go and walked over to the creature. She scraped a palmful of dim mucus off a nearby mushroom and drew a set of runes in a crescent around the unconscious creature. “... I have encountered this creature before.” When done, she twisted her hand and bars of light shot up from the runes. “There… That should keep it from escaping.”

Roja furrowed her brow and frowned at her. “Wait, so you’re telling me you know this thing?”

“No, not… Exactly. I don’t know what it is, but… I know what it came here for.” She gestured around to the mushrooms in the room. “This is its home.”

Roja balked. “What?”

A sigh. “Years ago, I had just opened my shop here in Arbor, but back then it was a leatherworker’s shop. See, my father–Voi preserve him–had a shop in the Underground, making all sorts of tunics, vests, aprons and whatnot. He taught me the trade ever since I could hold an awl.” She glanced to the side. “But here in Arbor, well… Leather comes from animals and that means that at some point, that animal must have died. Now it’s not illegal to work or wear leather, but you know as well as me that it’s a bit… Unsavory.” Roja conceded a nod. “So that’s why I set up shop here in the alley, where only clientele who knew who I was, would ever think to look.” She then pointed to the hole over which the hatch had been laid. “Then one day, in that exact spot, I stepped on a moist part of my floor. Before I knew it, the floor gave in and I fell down into this hole. It was here that I, uh, found the colony.”

She took in a deep breath and walked over to sit down next to Roja. She patted the ground for her to join her, which she did in a sheepish manner. “I remember the exact moment I fell. I held a length of linen in my hand–part of a tunic I was reinforcing–and as I fell down, the air was just greasy with this earthy musk, the very same that you smell when making the mushroom poultice. This place must have been overflowing with spores. That’s what the grease on the air is, I think: spores.” As if to demonstrate, she shook one of the nearby mushrooms and they both watched it release a dimly glowing cloud. “Then came the visions, oh the visions. I saw my birth, then a hundred different lives, then a thousand different deaths. I was a queen, a beggar, a warrior, a leatherworker. I was a priestess of Allianthé, I fought alongside Jaxx, I rode rolly pollies in the desert. And in one of my lives, I was a mighty runescribe.” A pause. “At the time, I suppose I must’ve found the vision interesting, because I delved deeper into it and learned of all my inventions and contraptions: I made runes for heating homes, obelisks that formed shields around settlements, self-moving carts, and so much more! Then the memories stuck around and when I woke up, I suddenly knew–I knew!–rune magic!”

Roja recoiled in disbelief. “What?!”

“Yeah, it’s crazy! I woke up and all of a sudden I could make stones produce light, clay boil water–”

“No! I mean–what about the story about your apprenticeship as a novice of runescribing?! About your lover who went off to fight with Jaxx?!”

Jezzy frowned sheepishly. “Well, I had to make something up! I couldn’t just say ‘I snorted a ton of spores and suddenly knew rune magic’, now could I?”

“Y-you could have just said that you had learned it!”

Jezzy sighed. “Those kinds of stories don’t work, Roja. If you tell people you’ve learned rune magic, they start asking questions like ‘oh, from whom’ or ‘oh, what for’. No, if you don’t want people to pry, attach the lie to another tragic story, like a heartbreak.”

Roja chewed on her words and couldn’t help but agree, though her nod was reluctant at best. “Well… Then how did you meet this thing?”

Jezzy cast it a glance again. “It lived here when I came in. After I came to, I had already seen me and was approaching. When you said it had stared at you, I immediately understood what you meant, for I still remember those eyes. I remember the terrible headache they gave me. I did not feel welcome in the slightest. However…” She held up a finger. “... The creature hadn’t accounted for my newfound ability, and luckily, it seems it didn’t know what rune magic was. So I drew up a trap for it as it approached. As soon as the creature touched me, I had it transported to a far off place, never to be seen again.” She frowned at the creature behind the bars. “Or so I thought.”

Before Roja could follow up with questions, Jezzy added: “After that, I experimented some with the mushrooms and realised what we both know: that they have potent hallucinogenic potential, and that these hallucinations are not just in the head–they can manifest in reality itself. So I refurbished my shop and opened a house of healing. I wanted to share this gift with the needy, the people whose world had come crashing down, those who needed to realise that salvation was just a dream away.”

Roja furrowed her brow. “Then… Why are you taking money for it?”

“Well, I couldn’t just give it away, could I? To my knowledge there are no substances like this in the known world–this could be the only colony of these kinds of mushrooms! If I told everyone about it, it would be chopped down and snorted in an hour–not to mention how the Deathguard would react to Arbor’s populace exterminating a rare species!”

Still, Roja couldn’t wrap her hand around it. “B-but… This is wrong! This, this is this creature’s home, isn’t it?”

Jezzy nodded with a sad frown. “Yes, it is, and what I am doing is terrible to this one individual, but… Roja, think of all the people we are helping! Think of where you were before your vision! These mushrooms, they improve lives, they heal broken souls. I… understand if you think I am a monster, but please know that all I’ve ever wanted was to help people. The visions I saw, the lives I could have lived–they showed me that nothing in the world matters more than being there for someone else. Out of all my thousand deaths, the ones that haunt me in my sleep are the ones where I died alone. I would not wish a lonesome existence upon even my worst enemy.”

There was a silence. Roja’s eyes shifted between the mushroom creature and Jezzy. The silenced reigned for a while longer before Roja said, “I don’t think you are a monster.”

The next day, they opened the store as usual.

The Pike of Southbank

Humble Beginnings

“Dear reader,

Before you continue, I gotta warn ya: I am not a nice lady. This will not be a story of a pretty little princess who grew up in her little room up in the Paint Caves, who had the mommy and the daddy and the fat-ass inheritance. Ain’t gonna be any magic school, no little ponies in the meadows, no handsome prince, none of that! Nah, this here’s a story from the real Tricity, the real oh-gee snoutahumpin’ Southbank, baby, my humble lil’ alma mater. A brief introduction, of course: I–yours truly–am the Mama Zazah Chipotle (that’s ribbit for “bad ass”). Between myself and my fellow greens, ain’t nobody had this much moolah this side of the Belt. See, I am what’s known on the streets as an “ahntreyprehnuhr”. I run a business, a little something-something I call the Guild of Green. Whenever there’s trouble in the Bank, people come to me. Why? ‘Cuz I get problems solved, dearie.

Now, you might be asking: What problems you got, luv? To which I answer, which don’t I? The Southbank is a jungle, a beast-eat-beast world. It is just across the river from the bloody paintos, yet the difference here is night and day. The Council? They don’t care about us.

And we, hehe, don’t care about them.

So, you’ve probably already got me figured out: Mama Zazah, rich goblin bitch and one of the top bugs of the Bank. Think again: I might be rich, dearie, but I ain’t alone. Like I said, this is a battlefield. Whot’s a little lady to do against big’uns like the Tuskless Cartel, the Nighthowlers or the Rolly Boys?

Whatever I can do to get rid of ‘em, that’s whot.

So, where does that leave us? I suppose I oughta tell you how I got here. Well, it’s kind of a long story, but–”


Zazah woke up with a start. Her face and torso were ice cold and soaked. She gasped for breath, snorted and coughed. Her vision was blurry, but she could tell the room was dimly lit. It reeked of fish, which indicated that they were somewhere on the World Belt River, but she had no idea where. Only thing she knew was that she was bound to a chair and could hardly move. Before her stood three shadows, the girth of which determined that they could only be snouters, large goblins or some kind of bearlike beastfolk.

“She’s awake, boss.”

A furry hand clasped around her cheeks, squeezing her lips into a funnel. Zazah squealed and focused her eyes into the clearing face of a tiger. Fuck, she thought, it’s Pozan. Ten-Stripes Pozan, a bulky beastman with orange fur, round eyes and, contrary to his name, a lot of black stripes, leaned in close until they were less than an inch apart. His breath rank of smoked fish.

“The rat awakens… Finally…” He released his grip with a twist that nearly snapped a neck tendon and started pacing in front of her. Zazah coughed some more and struggled to remain stone-faced.

“... Look, Pozan…” The tiger growled in response. “I did not squeal.”

“Ho-ho-ho, much too late for that now, little Zazah. The time for excuses is over!” he crescendoed. He reached out a hand and one of his lackeys gave him a sharpening stone. The tiger flexed the claws on his left hand and began to sharpen them slowly and menacingly. “Only way you’re getting out of this now is to squeal more.” He squatted down in front of her. “Names.”

“Look, Pozan, I–AH!”

A hot sear pumped out of her right cheek, where three fresh, bloody stripes now wept forth tears of blood. The act had been almost too fast for eyes to see, but Pozan’s eyes were bloodshot and unblinking. He looked like he could see through her very soul.


A few seconds passed and then Zazah nodded slowly. “... Ch-Chinny.”

“Good, good,” said the tiger softly while one of his lackeys noted it down. “Keep going.”

“... L-Lem.”

“A lot of Lems here, Zazah.”

“Wetfoot! Wetfoot.”

“Wetfoot, too, huh…” The sharpening stone switched hands and the tiger took a moment to study the claws on his right hand. “A shame. I liked him. Give him a swift death, make a note of that.” The lackey complied and the tiger’s eyes settled on Zazah once more. “Did I say to stop?”

Zazah shook her head and pressed her lips together. Her eyes dared look around for an exit–any exit, but the tiger stopped her in her tracks. “Eyes here, little rat, or you’ll get a matching scar on the other side.”

“Okay, okay… Hmph…”

The tiger pouted. “Oh, come now, you still have so much more to give! I know there are two more at least and, hey, if you can surprise me, I might just cut your jugular vein before I start spreading your rib cage open just like the lids of that pretty little box your friends stole from me.” He tickled the underside of her chin with his claws, drawing blood. “Come on, comeoncomeoncomeon, come out and play, little secrets!”


The tickling immediately stopped. The tiger’s maniacal smile immediately turned to a stone-cold frown. His lackeys quickly exchanged nervous looks. The tiger leaned in close again and whispered, “That’s a lie.”

“It isn’t.”

“That’s a filthy FUCKING LIE!” He picked up a nearby chair and smashed it against the wall. “DON’T you slander my blood-brother’s name like that.”


“I WILL CARVE A FUCKING REGENERATION RUNE INTO YOUR HEART SO THAT IT KEEPS BUMPING WHILE I FLAY YOU IF YOU DON’T FUCKING TAKE THAT BACK!” He grabbed her by the throat and squeezed so hard that Zazah was certain this was the end. However, little by little, the grip loosened. This was it–he knew. He already knew.

Zazah swallowed through the pressure and managed to squeeze out, “Ask him where he was during the attacks.” With that, the tiger let her go completely and stepped back. He paced in frustration, fingers alternating between massaging his chin and running over his scalp. He eventually turned to two of his lackeys.

“Find him. Find him right now and do not fucking rest until you find him.” As the other two sprinted out of the hut, he turned to the last one. “You. Kill her.” The lackey unsheathed a dagger.

“H-HEY! I helped you, gods damn it!”

“And now you’re useless to me. Make it quick and then come look for him.” With that, the tiger sprinted out too. The remaining lackey, a fat shesnouter with no tusks shifted her glance over to the goblin and approached with a quick pace. She shifted the grip on the hilt before settling on an upwards stabbing motion.

Then he went around her back and cut the robes holding her. Zazah immediately pulled them off her and patted her cheek. “Fuck, that was close.”

“That’s an understatement,” mumbled the shesnouter and sheathed the dagger again. “I haven’t seen him that angry in, well, at least a month.”

Zazah patted some dust off of her tunic and hurried over to a nearby table where most of her stuff still remained. “How far do you reckon they’ve gotten?”

The shesnouter stealthily peered out the doorway. “I’d say to the market, just about.”

“Perfect. Stuff me in that sack.” The shesnouter did as told, but not before they had thoroughly smeared the bottom with as much fish guts from a nearby corner as they could. They added some of the guts to the sack, giving it a mouldy-looking colour. The shesnouter sighed at the shabby presentation, but shook her head.

“Fuck it, that’ll do. They’ll come looking for me soon.” Zazah held her breath and crawled into the sack and the shesnouter swung her over her back.

“UGH! Disgusting!”

“Sssh! Pretend you’re a corpse,” the shesnouter said before she exited the hut, which proved to be part of a warehouse. They were on the Breaker’s Pier, a small village built on poles in the river between the Southbank and the Northbank of Tricity. Despite copious access to fish, rice and floatatoes, this part of the city just didn't seem to want to grow wealthy. Something would always hold it back, and that something was crime. They passed bugkeepers attending to the many boatbugs along the pier, shoveling wet kelp into waterborne troughs from which the huge insects ate greedily. Fishermen and pondkeepers eyed the shesnouter with shaded glances, mumbling amongst themselves and occasionally spitting. Merchants lined the pier selling the fruits of the river, engaging in a shouting competition with the river birds. She would occasionally pass small bands, typically two-four youngsters, dressed in rags with one or two extremely out-of-place high-value trinkets: a gold ring, a silver earpiece, ruby-covered brass knuckles. These sorts were the source of all the woes of the Southbank. And it wasn't that Zazah necessarily thought herself better than them.

She just wanted to be in charge.

The shesnouter didn't stop until they were way across the river, deep into the rice fields on the Southbank. Here, snouters sat chewing straws in the shade and croakers squatted by the paddies to study the growth rate of the fishes living in them. Goblin merchants stood and haggled with some of the farmers, but other than that, this place was tranquil, almost safe.

The shesnouter entered a small shack by a poorly maintained floatato pond. Once inside, she finally opened the sack and let Zazah out on the floor. The goblin rolled out on the wood and had to keep herself from vomiting. “Blergh… Fucking disgusting.”

“You're welcome,” replied the shesnouter dryly.

“Yeah, right… Thanks.” The goblin stumbled over to a basin of cloudy water and doused her face and body. She unlidded a jar next to the basin and stuck her hand in; when it came out, it was covered in white ash, which she rubbed into her hands and washed off quickly. “I was so close…”

“It was a gamble to begin with.”

“Soooo daaaaamn close!” snarled the goblin and stomped over to a small table and sat down on the floor. The shesnouter was making a small fire in a cracked, bulbous hearth. While she inspected a small clay pot for damages, the goblin continued to fume: “The promotion was mine. Pozan knew I was loyal.”

A chuckle. “You were never fucking loyal, little rat…”

“Well, I kept up appearances, didn’t I?!” She slouched over and crashed her face into the table top. “Where did I go wrong, Hysha?”

The shesnouter Hysha spat into the clay pot and rubbed its insides with a tar-black rag. “Who’s to say? In this business, just knowing too much might be enough. Considering you knew about Descindi’s betrayal, well…” She turned to face her, a knowing look on her face. “You knew too much.”

“He’ll probably be coming for me now, too. Fuck…”

The concave clay pot amplified the noise of Hysha adding a bunch of peas to it then filling it with water from a small vase. “Nah, he’ll have his hands full with Pozan. You, on the other hand, gotta lay low and find some way to start over. I doubt anyone in the Pikes will want to have anything to do with you now. But hey, look on the bright side! Between Pozan and Descindi, one’s bound to kill the other, so when that’s done, you’ll only have to deal with one of them!” She paused. “You’re certain he did it, right?”

Zazah sighed and rubbed her eyes with a groan. “Yeah, pretty sure. Pozan had entrusted the location of the artifact to me, but I figured sharing it with Des was no problem. I didn’t actually expect him to steal it.”

Hysha cut a smirk. “... But you wanted him to, didn’t you?”

Zazah snickered back. “Pffft. And start a gang-wide war between the two highest ranking members?” She winked.


A Moment of Respite

The atmosphere among the commoners of Arbor seemed tenser than usual. Then again, between the wrath of the Egriothspawn, the unclear fate of the Queen of Life, the arrival of the Fairy Goddess, and the construction of the Tree of Firmaments, there was little space left to find calm. Conversations were shorter than usual; eyes shifted groundwards more often; unknown noises conjured skittishness even in braver individuals. The rumour mill ground and ground, whispers in alleyways became conversations in the open.

“I hear she’s actually gotten a big following recently.”

“No, she’s not dead. Get a hold of yourself.”

“You know, there are people you could ask about that…”

“Well, I heard that…”

“... Actually, what Jason told me was…”

“... No password, no entry…”

The quern of conspiracy milled diligently, and one who had recently dabbled in the flour of fear was the young elf Roja. She had served as a scout in a militia band known as the Auburn Dusk, a group of locals who gathered to break the sanctity of killing to rid the island of the Egriothspawn. Their leader and her dear friend, Laethan the Sharp, had gathered them under a secret oath: "We kill the threats to the Tree of Life in the Lifemother's name, so that life may persist". Membership was highly exclusive, but in hindsight it was clear that Laethan had just picked the first ten people she could name and gone ahead with that. Roja had always been a good archer and a better spotter–even at such a young age, she had caught the attention of many for her precision and truesight. She had gotten used to praise and had taken it with condescending courtesy. During the assault of the Egriothspawn, however, she had suffered irreparable damage to her bow arm. Worse yet, her party had been attacked because she had failed in her duty: in the moment when it mattered, she had grown lax and lazy, believing that no wild beast could ever escape her sight. Yet the shadow beasts had been clever, and the whole party had stumbled into an ambush. It had been a massacre, and only Roja had escaped. Tragedies compounded further as she came home: There, constables of the Deathguard waited for her and took her in. Of course the secrets of an amateur ragtag band of commonfolk would leak. Someone had probably shouted their "secret" oath at the top of their lungs in a stupor. Memories of her comrades, some of whom she had grown to love quite dearly, flashed across her mind night and day–sometimes of the nights of drinking and collegial debauchery, other times of the cadavers the beasts had left behind. Now, whenever she could make it outside, she spent the days taking on odd jobs to earn a living–anything to just make time go by. The money left over after covering food and rent went into a small clay jar, and at the end of the month, she would head down to the tavern to spend it on a night of debauchery to drown her anxieties. Nobody knew her name, but everybody knew what she was: a killer. Rumours were quick to rope strangers into others' lives, so people stayed away. Thus, when Roja drank, she was drinking alone.

She had downed a beer in solitude by the time she came to her table. It was a goblin three-quarters her size, with hair like springs of copper and a smile of white chalk. She broke Roja out of her depressive stupor and said, “Hey, are you alright?”

Roja looked up out of politeness, but hesitated to respond. The goblin grinned. “It’s unhealthy to drink alone, you know.” She slammed her own cup down on the tabletop and took a seat. “What’s your name?”

The elf blinked away, not daring to make eye contact. “R-Roja…”

“Roja? That’s a beautiful name. I’m Jezzy. Y’know, I saw you last month and you moped in just the same way as you do now. Is everything alright?”

Roja swallowed and looked into her lap. “Y-yeah. Yeah, I’m good. Thanks for checking in.” When she noticed that the goblin didn’t budge, she at last looked her in the eyes. They were a dark chestnut, filled to the brim with the sort of light that caused hope in some and cancer in others. “If, if you’ve got friends waiting for ya–...”

“No, no, no one’s waiting for me, Roja.” The goblin shrugged. “In truth, I, uh… I came to see if you were here today.”

Roja balked ever so slightly. “O-okay?”

Jezzy nodded. “Yeah, I’m here for you.”

Roja cast small glances left and right. She swallowed and looked back at the goblin. “A-are you with the Guard? Am, am I in trouble? Please, I've told you everyth--”

Jezzy lifted both hands. “Oh no! No, no, no! It’s nothing like that. Gods, I’m so sorry–that did not sound like that in my head.” She clapped her hands together softly and held them under her nose. “I’m sorry, let me start over. My name is Jezzy. I’ve come to you tonight because I saw you last month–well, actually I’ve seen you lots of times–”

“H-have you been spying on me?” Roja said in a cracking voice, confusion overcoming her. Jezzy tried to rein her back in.

“No, no! It’s just–... Oh Gods, I’m making a mess. Okay, see, I work with people who have it really hard, alright? You caught my eye, so I decided to check up on you. Phew, I’m sorry, I did not make a good impression there, forgive me.”

Roja lowered her guard sheepishly. “... I… Caught your eye?”

Jezzy nodded. “Yes. These past few months since the attacks, with the Goddess missing and… It affects people. People begin to ask the hard questions: Is Arbor still safe? What can I do about these feelings? Who do I go to? Who can I talk to about this?” She opened her palms towards Roja. “Do these questions feel familiar?”

Roja’s eyes crept back down into her lap. “... Yes…”

Jezzy nodded again. “I completely understand. Well, I have a proposition.” While she stuck a hand into the breast of her robe, Roja took a slow sip of her beverage. The goblin then placed a small wooden coin on the table and gently pushed it over to the other side. Roja picked it up and examined it curiously.

“What is this?”

“This,” Jezzy began, “is a coupon. I run a house of healing down not too far away from here. I specialise in people whose wounds are not of the body, but of the soul. If you ever feel like you need someone to listen, or if you need to listen to your own heart, don’t be afraid to come by.” She pointed at the coin. “That will get you one free treatment.”

Roja’s eyes shifted from the coin to Jezzy and back. A flash cast her out of the moment and into a dark tunnel–a canal underground. A sharp pain shot up her phantom arm and she heard the trickle of blood, of drool, and then a growl.

“-ja…? Roja?”

Roja snapped back to reality. Jezzy offered her a worried frown and reached out to pat her hand. Roja nodded, feeling a sudden cold sweat on her brow. “I’ll, I’ll think about it.”

Jezzy offered her a sad smile. “Alright. Think about it.” Then she stood up. “The backside of the coin has a map. It’s by the clothier’s workshop. The sigil on the door is the same as on the coin.” Roja flipped the coin again–what looked to be an oddly shaped cup adorned its face. Jezzy walked around the side of the table and once again took her hand. “Be well. Until we meet again, alright?”

Roja nodded slowly. “Y-yeah. Until then.” She watched as the goblin exited the tavern, and then began to realise that she hadn’t felt this lonely since before the incident. The creeping sensation filled her like a plague. The joy of being seen, being spoken to, to speak to another person–not just for a job or something, but… Someone who cared. She felt thawed, nimble, like grass at the onset of spring. Yet the emotion was fleeting, like a snowstorm in April. She could not bear this existence for much longer. She needed to improve, to talk to someone, to… To be whole again. In a swift swig she emptied her cup, paid her tab and left. The next day, she would visit the goblin.

Could this be it? Roja stood outside a small stump, flanked on both sides by somewhat shabby-looking home-trees, with the clothier’s workshop behind her. She took a moment to look around. The map seemed to indicate that it would be here, but… Where was the symbol?

Then it caught her eye. The odd cup was engraved into the bottom right corner of the stump, but it seemed… Hidden, somehow. Why wouldn’t it have been carved any bigger, or carved it somewhere else? A skepticism overtook her and she began to feel her feet turn. Why did she trust this goblin, whom she had known for less than fifteen minutes? What, what had made her come here in the first place? More and more instincts began to vote in favour of flight, but the heart stood steadfast. She had seen her when no one else had. That was reason enough to go inside. She was already at rock bottom, after all; how much worse could it get? She squeezed into the alley between the trees and eventually found an opening in the back of the stump, covered over by a curtain of threaded beads and stones. As it rustled, it heralded her entrance, and a familiar voice rang out from the room next door.

“Just a moment!”

Roja took the time to take in the sights. Weak lights powered by rune magic dotted the walls. Small chairs fashioned from wood stumps sat neatly around a table, and shelves of fur and wood behind a counter were filled to the brim with all sorts of reagents. Ashen remains of magical circles, slates of wood carved with runes and colourful stones littered the counter and made the whole room look lived in. The air caressed gently at the nose with scents of ointment and incense. A minute later, Jezzy came out, pushing aside the bead curtain of the second doorway. “Welcome to Jezzy’s house of healing! What can I–oh! Oh, Roja, you came!”

Roja felt herself bubble with joy. “Y-you remember me?”

Jezzy offered a dumbfounded grin. “W-well, yes! We just met yesterday, did we not?”

The elf felt herself rush with blushing heat. “Y-yeah, of course! Sorry, it’s just…” Emotion filled her chest. “It’s, it’s been a while since anybody talked to me.” Small tears filled her ducts and trailed down her cheeks. Jezzy pouted and came jogging over, taking her hand in her own.

“Oh, dearest Roja, don’t cry. You’re safe now. You’re in a safe space. Come, comecomecome. Let’s get you something warm to drink.” The goblin guided her into the next door room, which was smaller than the shop, but much cozier. As she brushed aside the curtain, Roja was greeted by warm, dim lanterns. A small fountain inscribed with runes of perpetual motion enchanted the room with the gentle whistle of a stream. The scent of incense was stronger here, but never nauseating; it struck a perfect balance of smells, lifting every breath into a state of calm. The goblin sat her down on a comfortable pillow next to a low table and shuffled over to a small shelf. She picked up a pot of bronze and filled it with water from a small basin, and with a pat of the rune on the side of the pot, the contents began to slowly heat up. While she dabbled with cups and tea leaves, Roja leaned back on the pillow.

“So… You’re a… rune scribe?”

“Only a novice,” Jezzy chuckled. “I quit my classes early to settle down with the man of my life.” She poured the now-hot water of the leaves in each cup and set them on a small tray. “Or, well, so I thought he was. It was a short affair between the two of us. I was a ‘settle down and start a family’ type, and he was more of a ‘move to the Tricity and fight for the legendary Jaxx’ sort of type.” She snickered and set the tray down on the table. “It all seems so much easier when you’re young.” She placed a cup in front of Roja and she took it in her one hand. It smelled of mint and flowers. As she brought her lips to the rim, her mouth was filled with a scorching heat that immediately made her pull the cup away. Jezzy reached out a hand instinctively, but slowly retracted it with a warm smile. “Careful, it’s still quite hot.” Roja nodded and wiped a small spill that had landed on her shirt. As the two drained their cups sip by sip, Jezzy probed Roja about her story and her memories. As time went on, Roja felt the words form more easily and before her cup was half-empty, she was already on the brink of tears, her mouth running non-stop about her hubris, her mistake and all the nights of lying awake in horror, tortured at the whim of the what-ifs. Jezzy listened with patience taking in her words with calm wisdom, probing the points where she seemed to hold back and respecting her borders when Roja felt uncomfortable. When both had had their fill of tea, Jezzy brought her palms together. “So… Here we are.”

Roja wiped away a tear and offered a small smile. “Yeah… Here we are.”

Jezzy smiled back and leaned forward. “So what do you intend to do about your situation?”

Roja breathed in slowly and looked out the bead curtain. “I’ll be honest, Jezzy–before yesterday, I didn’t care much for whether I lived or died. If I had fallen out of a hole in Arbor and crashed into the ground below, I probably would have fallen in silence. But after meeting you… I don’t know–I feel this fire in me that I haven’t felt for months. I, I think I want to go on, but I don’t know how…” She paused and Jezzy nodded for her to continue at her own pace. “I… I keep asking myself: Am I worthy? What right do I have to live when I took that right away from all of my friends, my siblings-in-arms? How, how canI face them in the Afterworld if I just keep on living as though nothing happened?”

Jezzy nodded slowly. “It’s always easy to let the mind sink to those kinds of thoughts, y’know: Am I worthy… I think it’s also important to think about why we ask ourselves those kinds of questions. Like, why do we put ourselves through that, do you feel me?” Roja nodded. “There really is no easy answer to that question, but I think it’s very important to remember that your life is yours to live. If you spend your time thinking about what others would think, you won’t leave any space left for what you yourself think. There are many others and only one of you.” She chuckled softly, but Roja seemed reluctant to join in. Jezzy’s laughter quieted and then she sighed. “Well… I do have a little something we can try to see if you feel any better.” She stood up from her pillow and went to the back of the room, where she lifted a small thatch lid and climbed down into the floor. Roja blinked, but waited patiently for her return, the only sound accompanying her being the running fountain. There was a slight knock from below, or perhaps a chop, and then nothing. A minute later, Jezzy ascended with a small clay bowl, stained along its walls by soot and oil. In the centre laid a small heap of spongey mushroom bits, some of stem and some of cap. She took a pestle from the shelf where she had brewed tea and ground up the mushroom coarsely. She then added some bits of scented wood to the bowl and patted the rune on the side. As she brought the bowl over to the table, its contents began to smoke. “Lean over,” she said softly. Roja was reluctant at first, but eventually slowly leaned forward. Jezzy nodded smilingly and whispered, “Breathe…”

Roja took a series of deep breaths, the smoke filling her throat and lungs. Yet she felt neither pain nor the need to cough; the smoke descended into her chest like a lukewarm oil, settling gently around her heart. Then, slowly, she felt her heartbeat slowing and growing louder. All other noise drowned in a sea of cotton, and the only sound was the gentle pumping in her chest.

Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum…

Her vision blurred, the dim light brightening and splitting into a multitude of colours, some of which she had never even seen before. Her nose smelled a million scents, traveling all throughout her lifetime from the scent of blood at her birth to when she first set foot in the house of healing. Before long, the light gave way to darkness, but not in a frightening sense–this was a darkness which shrouded her in warm blankets and sprinkled the sky with a whole beach of stars. She saw animals dancing in the stars–no, they were the stars! Great cats, magnificent birds, a regal stag–the sky filled with life and possibilities. Then, for a brief moment, she saw the faces of her friends. They were there, as clear as Jezzy had been mere moments ago. She reached out, and they reached out to take her hand. They touched, and she felt it. She felt it! They were really there, right in front of her. Roja wanted to scream. She wanted to squeal. She was already crying. Then her closest friend Laethan opened her mouth and whispered, “We forgive you.” Roja’s eyes flowed over. She collapsed to her knees and whispered back: “I’m sorry.”

“We forgive you…”

“I’m sorry…”

”We forgive you…”

“I’m so sorry…”

The whisper faded out of earshot and the vision of the night sky dissipated. Slowly, but surely, Roja realised that she was back in the house of healing, her eyes bloodshot and her cheeks sticky from dried tears. In the other corner of the room, Jezzy was humming to herself while she cleaned out the bowl with a stiff brush. “They forgive me,” she said with a slack jaw.

“Of course they did,” chuckled Jezzy. “They know you’re not to blame.”

Roja leaned forward onto her knees and wiped her face. Jezzy came over with a cup of something herbal smelling. “Here,” she said, “this’ll ease the nausea.”


“Yup. The first time is tough on everybody. You may feel fine for a bit, but come dinnertime, you’ll be spitting out your lunch before you can even begin to think of carrots.”

Roja blinked. “I-I didn’t eat lunch.”

“Oh. Well, better drink it to be safe anyway.”

Roja forced it down as told–it was like taking a swig of a spice rack. If the smoke wouldn’t make her vomit, this certainly would. She pushed herself to a wobbly pair of feet and followed Jezzy out into the shop. She took her spot behind the counter and Roja in front of it. Jezzy grinned and held out her hand. Roja looked into it. “The coupon, please,” smiled the goblin. Roja was dumbstruck for a blink, then immediately fished out the little wooden doubloon and placed it in the goblin’s palm. She nodded her thanks and placed it in a small jar. A wooden clacker suggested there were many more inside. Roja suddenly felt a pang of anxiety.

“I-I can come back here, right?”

“Oh, of course you can, dearest!” said the goblin. “Come back at any time! I’m usually always here.”

Roja nodded erratically. “So, to-today was free, right?”

“Today was free,” confirmed the goblin.

The anxiety gnawed at her still. “But, but next time won’t be, r-right?”

Jezzy offered her a soft smile. “Why don’t we save that talk for next time then, hmm?”

Roja froze briefly, then nodded. She then turned around and headed for the curtain. Just as she was about to exit, she heard, “Oh, and Roja!” She spun around and saw Jezzy’s chalk-white smile. “Remember: It’s your life.”

Roja nodded slowly, then smiled back and left.

... Ba-dump… Ba-dump… Ba-dump…

Underneath the thatch lid in the back of the house of healing, there was a gentle pulse.

... Ba-dump… Ba-dump… Ba-dump…

Not gentle in the sense that it was calm, but rather that it was weak.

... Ba-dump… Ba-dump… Ba-dump…

The cellar was dark–not pitch black–but dark. The only lights were a few rune lanterns and what seemed to be a little piece of a starry sky, though torn and ripped like a mistreated painting.

... Ba-dump… Ba-dump… Ba-dump…

The beads of the doorway upstairs rustled to a gentle halt, and the starry sky quivered with fickle light. A brief anomaly of magic brought on by the scent of smoking mushroom converted the thumping into a miniscule strip of decipherable information, audible to no one but gods and exceptional individuals:

... Heeelp… ussss…

The Blood Swarm

The Scream of a Billion Wings

Winter in the Striped Lands hardly sunk to freezing temperatures. It was a land of plenty, nuzzled in the warm tear duct of the Eye of the World, where storms were scarce and earthquakes, rare. Neither volcanoes nor hurricanes were anything more than anomalies, and the blazing heat of Itzal was tough, but oddly fair. Climate-wise, the Striped Lands proved to be a haven for all mortal life that settled. Instead, the land had been cursed with a disease as stubborn as the climate itself: resources. Some of the most fertile land in the world was most of the time inaccessible because of the rampant parasitism of the locals. Whenever anyone would try to plant themselves a home, ten others would storm over to root it out of the ground. The lands were a buffer between thousands of souls, each too jealous to let others have it better off and each too greedy to abandon the fight.

Some, however, would inevitably try, but lucky were the few to escape - and for others, the promise of untold riches, bursting bellies and eternal glory called and called like echoes in the hills.

A gut-wrenching stench oozed through a hastily erected tent, trapped ever more tightly by the blazing heat from the fireplace. The winters were normally calm, yes, but as though sent by the Black Sun itself, a storm unlike any that had struck the Striped Lands before brought with it a layer of frost over the endless meadows. The small camp surrounded itself with a wall of whatever its inhabitants had brought with them: sleds, sticks, sacks and pottery. The wall would scarcely hold back a fly. Yet they could not go on. Not yet.


Draznokh held the old sow’s wrinkled hand in his with quivering emotion. The rasp of the old crone’s breath was the only sound in the tent, despite the presence of eight other snouters. Occasionally, the rasp received company in a quiet sob from the attendees. Otherwise, only the wind from the outside came to dance with the dying gurgle.

Cataracts clouded the crone’s small eyes as crusted lids slowly parted. They saw nothing, but the bond between family, honed for decades and then some, guided them to settle perfectly on the face of her grandson.

“Draz… nokh…” she droned, her grip tightening ever so slightly. Those present leaned in, breaths held as though a mere sigh could kill her. The grandson swallowed.

“Y-yes, Greatmother - I’m here.”

“... Draz… Oh… My little boy…” whispered the crone, the last of her moisture welling up like yellow bile in her eyes. “... Are, are we… home?”

Draznokh’s back began to buckle - the onset of grief made his shoulders too heavy to bear. A crack split his voice briefly as he replied, “Yes… Yes, we are…” Behind him, the silence, too, began to shatter as more and more snouters failed to maintain their stony faces.

The crone snickered weakly. “... Did I… Ever tell you…” There was a long pause as her lungs grasped for air. Gurgling slime suggested they were already drowned. “... Did… I ever tell you… what home is?”

The grandson’s focus was briefly reconquered out of sheer puzzlement. He tightened his grip and roped his other hand into it. “I… am not sure I follow, Greatmother.”

The old crone coughed, but managed a weak, but very evident smile. “... Home, my dear boy… is everything. For as long… as there have been snouters, we’ve… We’ve fought for our homes.” KHA-hoh-KHA-hoh… Urgh…. “... A homeless snouter… Has two choices…” With her nigh final strength, she flexed two fingers on her opposite hand. “... When home is gone… So is… The curse… The Bull’s fury dissipates… Thus, the snouter is… Free to wander in search of… A new home…”

Draznokh blinked and opened his mouth to respond, but the crone cut him off.

“... Or... One lets the fury… consume them…” The crone’s eyes grew stern and wide, anger boiling behind her pale pupils. “... One choses to slay… To kill… To undo those that took… the home away…” She sucked in a breath through her teeth. “... And upon the fields now sown with their guts; upon foundations laid with their bones, their skulls in the soil, forced to forever stare up into the sky they took from us…” KAAAAAAH-huh-hegh-egh…

“G-Greatmother, calm your–” started the grandson, but he silenced himself when the crone turned her head and stared through him, through his flesh and deep into his flaming soul: the ember of Anat’aa stirred.

“... Flee, or retake the home - cost what it may, take what it may. This land is yours, and for as long as you and your kin are alive, it shall remain yours.”

Draznokh swallowed again and watched the eyes of the old crone roll back. Adrenaline pumped through him and he leaned in. “Greatmother?! Greatmother, please!”

“... Home… Carrots in the garden… The knock… of little trotters…” The muscles in her hand softened, and a gentle sigh escaped her. The gurgling had stopped, and so the wind once again danced alone on the soundscape.

As tears and wails of grief assaulted his ears, Draznokh felt a small sensation in his hand which kept him from completely choking on his tears: a ring, bejeweled like none he had seen before.

Years later…


A palm soaked with sweat caught a bloodfly square in the centre, its black mush staining Draznokh’s bark-brown skin. He snarled and wiped it off on his tunic, his glare scouting the horizon. Swarms like a mahogany fog stalked the wetlands around the Lick far below, leaving behind trails of yellow soil and clean-picked corpses. Acres of soils, ploughed and overgrown, and none of it filled any mortal bellies. Draznokh would have cursed, but it was high noon and their prospects looked poor enough already. A gravely shuffle on the air revealed approaching steps and Draznokh turned to see his cousin Zlot, a wildheart many years his junior. He offered the youth a nod and clapped him on his shoulder. “Come to see the sights, have you?”

Zlot flattened himself in the grass and wormed his way to the brink of the hill, eyes glancing over into the wasteland below. He propped his head up on his crossed forearms and snorted. “So these at the Vootlands, huh?”

Draznokh nodded. “Aye… These are the Vootlands.”

Silence. The youth eventually let out a sigh. “Eeeh… Not what I’d hoped, to be honest.”

Draznokh rolled his eyes. “You’re seeing it at its worst, cousin. Think–” The hesnouter cast his arm in a wide arc. “–houses, farms, lumbermills, piers! Villages and walls, cousin! An acre for every Voot!”

Zlot snickered. “Better not say that too loudly. Krang’s gonna hear it.”

“Bah, he knows already,” Draznokh muttered and spat. The sun suddenly burned a little hotter and he breathed deeply to calm himself. He squatted down next to the prone youth. “Bet you someone like Krang’s had a hundred small clans in his tribes, each with a dream of retaking whatever corner of the world was theirs one time and declare independence.” SMACK! cracked his hand and he wiped another speck of goo on his tunic. “... There aren’t many of us left now. Noz and Yolder will be too old to haul the chieftain’s baggage soon. Once their backs give in, Krang will toss them aside like he did with Rustan and Loik.”

Zlot’s humour had soured. “That piece of–”

SMACK! went the palm again, but this time against Zlot’s head. Draznokh snorted sharply. “Not at noon, cousin.”

Zlot grit his teeth. “You– I–! UGH!” He pushed himself to his feet. “I’m going to Jura!” As he stomped off, Draznokh groaned quietly and then felt the sun’s rays worsen. He straightened his legs back to a standing position and slouched over. As he shuffled back, he reminded himself that he had forgotten in the moment that Itzal cackled at violence, too.

Few sowed more fear in a soul like the visage of Grand Agricultist Krang Half-Head. A terrible fight with a giant had brought him a grievous wound to the neck and skull, and both had healed at uncanny angles. His head was permanently titled to the left and one eye sat higher than the other, as though seen through a broken mirror where the lines in the shattered glass were made of scar tissue. Neither of the pupils looked straight ahead, but that only made any conversation with him that much more uncertain. A true and tested servant of the Vile Three–the Horned, the Crazed and the Killer–he had a short patience and shorter fuse. As Draznokh came back, the Black Sun’s position revealed that it was time for the afternoon sacrifice, and this time, it seemed that the Grand Agricultist had a special guest.

An old giant hill, cleared and cleansed of the mandibled menace, had been converted into a fortified cave village, tunnels dug by wolf-sized ants spewing out smoke from the many fireplaces inside. Palisades covered up many of the openings, and small, but densely grown fields surrounded the hill on almost all sides in a radius of a tenth of an acre. Fruit trees, nuts, berry bushes, legumes, winter roots, cereals–the field had variety, but not enough. He- and shesnouters were picking pests off of the plants and eating them; some had great swatters fashioned from a fan of branches and smacked aggressively at clouds of locusts that stalked the plants like a miasma. A dance of war practiced through months and years of suffering with this terrible blood swarm, wherein the farmer sought only to strike the insects and never the plant. The insects could dance too, and so the war continued.

Atop the great giant hill, an temple of stone and wood had been fashioned, a great altar to the Vile Three and the Black Sun–a testament to the depths of wicked desperation that the snouters had sunk to. A line of villagers snaked its way up the hill, traveling into tunnels and out a different opening like a worm through an apple. Villages carried baskets and pots of their most valuable possessions: bone jewelry, fresh vegetables, family heirlooms, and odd bits and pieces of metal and paper from the cities in the East. They were meagre offerings, but surely whoever was visiting would see reason given the circumstances.

Draznokh walked over to one of the shesnouters in line and asked, “Sister, who graces the Grand Agricultist with their presence?”

The snesnouter faced him and swallowed, gingerly lifting a hand to shield her face from the sun as she spoke as though it was a curse to just mention him: “It’s the Horned One.”

Draznokh pressed his eyes and lips together in frustration. There would be no reason to be had, then. It was then that his eyes blinked open again. Perhaps…

Atop the pyramid, the bull eyed cruelly the little snouters who skittishly presented him “gifts”, the pile before him barely reaching him to the knee. His throne of lumber creaked under his weight and he bluffed a torrent of rage, which sent the Grand Agricultust at his side into a jump.

“Evidently, the tribe of Pate is not fond of guests,” he remarked in a voice that could curdle dairy.

Krang wheezed in fear. “Now, now, magnificent overlord! Th-this is only a quarter–nay, a FIFTH of the gifts!” The bull sneered and Krang swallowed. “I-if this pile doesn’t reach up to His Hoovedness’s belly button by the end of today, why, then I’ll, I’ll…” In a panic, he grabbed one of the agricultist novices next to him and drew a bone dagger. “I’ll spill the blood of this boney twig!” The novice squealed and the train of offerings stopped briefly. Krang stabbed the dagger in the direction of the onlookers. “DON’T YOU DARE STOP! MORE! MORE SACRIFICES FOR HIS MAGNANIMOUSNESS!”

The bull rolled his eyes and planted his cheek on a propped-up fist. “Very well… Proceed with the gifts. You may ready the sacrifice right away–I think I can see the end of the line over there.”

Krang blinked and hurried over to the edge of the pyramid. “O-over where?”

The bull’s voice deepened. “... Did you just check to see if I was wrong?”

Krang spun around and prostrated himself. “No! NO! Not at all, Your Delightfulness! Oh please. Oh please, punish me if I have been naughty, oh pl–”

“Shut up.”

“Eep! Yes, alright, yes. Hey. HEY! WHAT’RE YOU LOOKING AAAAT?! KEEP THE OFFERINGS COMING, DAMN YOU! MOOOOVE!” From a belt under his bulging stomach, he rolled out a whip fashioned from scraps of goblin skin and started whipping the bypassers. The bull seemed pleased, every lash tightening the small smile on his greasy muzzle. The bypassers whimpered under the lash, but it was not an uncommon sensation under Krang. The stiff green strips lefts pocks and bruises, but even the skinniest snouters largely shrugged off the pain after the initial strike. After whipping for a good while, the Grand Agricultist hung the whip from his belt once again and shuffled back over to the bull’s side.

“S-say, Your Most Obscene Overlord?”

The bull afforded him less than acknowledgement–in the same way one might freeze for a millisecond to listen for a possible gnat in the room, he too lifted his eyes slightly and held a stiff pose for a mere blink. The agricultist seized the moment.

“S-since you have graced us with you presence… P-perhaps th-there is a reason for your visit?”

The bull maintained eye-contact with the growing pile of offerings. “And what would that be, little flea?”

“C-c-c-could it have something to do w-w-with the swarm, perhaps?”

There came no response. Krang swallowed.

“Th-th-then perhaps the wicked sh-shadow beasts?”

Still nothing.

“G-giants, then?”

The bull sighed. “Such ingratitude…” The snouters all froze. The bull pushed himself to his hooves with some effort and gestured widely. “To think–I offer you land, resources, skills to work them both. And pray tell: what do I get in return?” With a solid kick, he sprayed the pile of offerings out across the fields below. Many who were unfortunate to be caught in the blast were knocked onto their backs. “Mouldy carrots and rusty coins…”

Krang and the other agricultists huddled around him. “NO! No, no, no, there, there is so much more,” he pleaded. “You want blood, yes? How many jugs?! Sweat?! We can get you sweat! Oh, we’ll wipe every brow in the land and jar it good for you, lord, just you–”


The snouters curled up like frightened snails. The bull reached out and Hoepebreaker manifested in his hand. As he clapped the head of the hoe into his free palm, whimpering prayers began to seep out from many of those present. The bull patrolled slowly from left to right, surveying the snouters. His nostrils flared with such rage that steam seemed to ooze out of them. “Requests upon requests upon requests… First you want me to deal with the swarm… Then the beasts… And finally, ridiculously enough, the giants.” He spat, and as the phlegm struck the ground it left a crater. Many in the crowd were crying. The bull sneered so that every tooth was visible. “Perhaps it is finally time that I return you all to the soil from whence you came…”

Just as he raised the Hoepebreaker, however, a hesnouter rose up. “STOP!”

Silence. For the blink of an eye, the world seemed to freeze, and neither the snouters nor the bull knew quite how to react. A mortal had just commanded a god. In the moment, Draznokh lifted forth a ring–the very same ring given onto him by his Greatmother on her deathbed. Everybody held their breaths. The wind, too, seemed to briefly stop. The incessant buzz of blood flies, as natural a part of the soundscape as running water and rustling leaves after all these years, seemed comfortable in comparison to the silence–too bad it was missing, too. Draznokh held his pose despite the atmosphere, but the beads of sweat on his face quickly became streams. The air seemed to boil like a geyser before eruption. Hardly more than eight seconds could have passed, but it felt like hours had passed before the bull lowered the Hoepebreaker and reached for the ring. A pair of timber-thick fingers clutched the metal with surprising care and brought up to the bull’s face. Draznokh let his arm fall and slap against his hip. Then he closed his eyes, ready for salvation or the Afterworld.

“... I accept.”

Draznokh’s eyes blinked back open. The others too dared to hope. Krang was quick to follow up: “Y-you accept what, sire?”

“The swarm. The beasts. I will get rid of them for you.”

The snouters exchanged looks. “And the gi–”

“THE GIANTS STAY!” thundered the bull and the snouters cowered again. Then he calmed and returned to a tranquil inspection of the ring. “... I made them to till the soil, after all,” he said absent-mindedly. “Scum.”

It took Draznokh a moment to understand that he had been addressed. He took a knee and lowered his head. “Yes, Great Horned One?”

“How did you happen upon this ring?” He turned it in his enormous hands for a few moments more.

“It-it was my Greatmother’s. She bequeathed it to me upon her deathbed. I-... I do not know its story from there.”

The bull turned the ring one final time in his hand and then shot Draznokh a perusing glance.


Then he pocketed the ring, picked up Hoepebreaker and thundered towards the staircase down from the temple, forcing the snouters to dive out of the way. They all stood there dumbfounded, watching the giant minotaur cross over the fields below without squashing a single plant, his direction seemingly heading for the hive of the blood swarm. As he faded out of view, their eyes turned to Draznokh, and the whole tribe broke into a massive cheer. The hesnouter was lifted up as a celebrated hero, and Draznokh could barely absorb what was happening.

“Draznokh, Draznokh, Draznokh!” they cheered. The hesnouter recollected himself and eased his tense muscles for a little bit, allowing himself some self-appreciation. Behind him, Krang and the agricultists stood slack-jawed, dumbfounded by what had just transpired. Draznokh realised the golden opportunity he had been given and shouted, “The bull has given us his blessings! Waste no time reaping his bounty!” The snouters sat him down and offered him a respectful silence snouters rarely offered anyone. Draznokh pointed out across the fields below. “His harvests is still assailed by the wicked swarms! Do we expect His Gruesomeness to hand us everything on a platter?! Go! Go out there! Reap, plow and sow–retake what the swarm has taken! Lay the fields fallow and prune every orchard! Next year, we will eat until our bellies burst!”

“YEEEEAAAAH!” The Anat’aan spark within every snouter burst to life and a fiery passion sent everyone present down the hill to till, swat and harvest.

The bull stuck a hand in his pocket and fished out the ring again. As his form collided with and broke down all the trees in his path, he chuckled bemusingly to himself. To think, of all the places this thing could have ended up, it had been in the hands of some old wrinkly sow. He caressed the grimy, filth-ridden beard under his chin, his dirty fingers sliding across pockmarks, no, scars–misshapen scars that seemed to dent and bend in inorganic ways. With a playful movement, he brought the ring up to his chin and slotted it partially into one of the scars. It fit like a glove. His chuckle became a mouth-wide guffaw and he stopped upon the hill that was overlooking the hives of the blood swarm below. He planted one foot in front of the other and raised the hand with the ring triumphantly towards the sky.

“GALAXOR! I HAVE A PIECE OF YOOOOUUU!” He raised both arms in a victorious cackle, cereals, corn and leafy greens sprouting from the ground with heroic speed all around his feet. The setting sun painted the horizon blood red, and the ground began to shake. Cracks in the ground spiraled out from his filthy hooves as roots and mycelium began to crawl out of the earth. The forests behind him quivered and howled; the leaves rustled with rage and bloodthirst. Out between the woods came demonic beasts of burden: huge oxen with six horns and glaring red eyes, black horses with eight legs and barbs for manes, elephants with four tusks and curving horns, muscular donkeys covered in thick veins. Giants oozed out of the forest like an oil spill; mangy, rabid dogs came sprinting and ran in circles around the bull as though they were part of the ritual. Roosters and hens nearly two metres tall and armed to the beak with thick talons and feathers hissed a furious oath of vengeance. The clouds coalesced and sunk to the ground, forming a dense fog that conjured crackles of lightning and fire. The bull lowered his hand and swiped the Hoepebreaker slowly from the left to the right. The fog snaked down to fill the valley below, and sparks of light blasted the hives of the swarm. Piles of rotting flesh, ready to be brought south for gods-knew-not-what-purposes, exploded with shock and sent an unspeakable, putrid rank oozing over the fields. The black bile and decaying tissue rained down upon the bare-picked soil, and there it decomposed in a flash and became feed for new plants, which sprouted immediately. Bulbous little roots squeezed small postules of yellowy sap out of the ground, accompanying the retching decay with a grimy musk. The bull pocketed the ring and grabbed Hoepebreaker with two hands.


He swung horizontally with all his might, and starting from the right edge of the horizon, the fog was pushed ever leftwards, like a hand brushing sand off of a table. A thousand blades of wind cut across the field of fresh plants, oozing corpses and panicking blood flies, slicing every living thing into strips. Wherever the blade cut, crimson soil followed–many flies were so fat on mortal blood that they popped like giant zits. Their hives, structures of flesh and dirt hardened after years of exploitation of local life, cascaded like grass before the scythe. Larvae which had enjoyed the safety of the hive, poured out of the shattered tunnels like the insides of a crushed egg. The bull stabbed the long end of Hoepebreaker into the soil, spearing one of his soldiers with it, and clapped his hands together. The oily dirt on his palms began to smoke and smoulder, and as the squeal of the blood flies were at their loudest, he pulled his palms apart like a match over a strip.

“... and burn.”

The fog, the bulbs, the blood upon the soil–in an instant, the entire horizon blasted into a terrible inferno. The shockwave sent many of his minions soaring back into the forest, and the heat and noxious fumes made many others buckle. The wildfire rose higher than the hill they were on, and the cacophony of popping exoskeletons and sizzling flesh within was only complemented by screams of those among the piles of flesh who were still alive or were being fed as living flesh to the blood fly maggots. The bull grinned from ear to ear, the suffering entering his ears like the most wonderful symphony. The flames died down quickly–they did not need to stay around for long as no living thing could survive that heat for longer than a single breath. Before them laid a scorched hellscape, but only for a moment: Where there had for years now been a beige wasteland of locusts, flies, gnats and corpses, a veritable eden of greens, yellows, reds, blues and purples shifted into the landscape like a mirage. Only it was not a mirage, but a miracle. In the blink of an eye, the blood swarm in the Vootlands was no more, and all memory of its terrors was securely locked within the traumatic experiences of mortalkind. The bull slowly turned to his minions, all of whom had resisted their flight response out of fear that whatever the bull could do to them, was worse than what they had witnessed. The bull snorted quietly and spat on the ground.

“Go out into the wilderness. Find these shadow beasts and destroy them. Let none survive.” Whether it was out of relief that they were allowed to leave or out of genuine bloodthirst, the army of beasts and plants rampaged back into the woods and out across the Striped Lands. The bull then turned around and surveyed the land beneath. He descended from the hill and and strolled through the newly sown fields, letting his hands caress the tall reeds as he walked by. He knelt down and scooped up a handful of soil: despite outward appearances, the soil quality was poor. The swarm had done obscene damage to the life here which would take generations to recover. He thought for a bit, and then a rumble gurgled in his stomach. He winced ever so slightly, a squint betraying a sensation of pain. He positioned himself a little better, squatted down and went, “HNNG!”

The children of Egrioth who for months had ravaged the Abundant Fields, would soon find their continued killing spree to be a much harder affair. Whenever they would set foot on cultivated land, the ground would split and tendrils of roots and mycelium shot out like the tentacles of an octopus and attempt to drag the beast into the depths of the earth. Beasts of burden split into two groups: those who chose the hunt and those who chose the post. The hunters roamed the land in search of beasts, traveling in packs and hosts and grazing on the bounty of the land. Mortals previously terrorised by the shadows could always pray that in the final moments before their deaths, they would be miraculously saved by an oncoming charge of horned elephants. Those who chose the post, settled in with the mortals, forsaking the plight of foraging in favour of feeding by mortalkind. In exchange, they offered protection, carrying capacity and, for any non-snouter, help to pull the plow. In doing so, the mortals domesticated them and they domesticated the mortals, ensuring that neither could live the same life without the other ever again.

And upon the ember-cleansed fields of the Vootlands, a towering pile of manure offered copious nutrients for the surrounding soils, distributed by an army of flies, dung beetles and worms. It would remain there for ages to come, so impossibly dense and massive that farmers for miles would have compost for generations. Bits and pieces of the mound would be distributed further, seeding compost and fields with rich bacterial flora which produced quality soil of the highest fertility. It was honked and reeked to high heavens, torturing those not accustomed to it with gut-wrenching nausea, and was the first holy site of the bull: the Stain.

The Great, uh, Till, Part Three:
Seeding the Waters


The rock went flying into the far reaches of the stratosphere, disappearing with a neat little blink. The bull furrowed his brow and noted down a sorry excuse for a number on a spreadsheet drawn into the mud.

“... Three… No, two…”

He then raised the Hoepebreaker perpendicular to himself and inspected its curvature. A free hand scratched some topsoil out of his beard. After an inspection that seemed more like a ritual formality than a genuine inquiry into the potency of his weapon, he lowered it again and placed a new rock on a small protrusion from the soil at his feet. He clicked his heels together, pushing his cellulite-webbed thighs together with a sticky squish. He tossed his head around his neck for a swing, breathed in deep through the nose and swung his club upwards in a rightwards-going arc.



Like the former, this rock too went soaring into the distance. After a brief inspection of its trajectory, the bull scratched down another number.

“... Three…”

It was then that a desperate posse of snouters came limping over from below the hill upon which the bull stood. They were pock-marked and studded with insects bites; many looked pale and weak from bloodloss; some had open wounds and gangrenous digits. The strongest among them, a once-mighty hesnouter whose powerful belly fat had deflated into starved flab, crept forward and looked up at the bull, who once again had taken to inspecting his club.

“Lord, please!” begged the hog with a back-up chorus of weeping whimpers. “Please help us with the blood swarm!”

“Fix it yourselves,” retorted the bull and readied another rock.

The snouters wept. “But lord! We can’t! They are too many - the sky is black with flies! The fields are yellow with locusts!” He slapped at his bleeding skin. “Our bodies are red with bloodsuckers fat on snouter blood! We’ve tried swatting them; we’ve tried smoking them–by Misri, lord, Zuup the Unfull even tried to eat them! Nothing’s working!”

The bull was quiet for a bit. Then he thundered a rumbling groan. “... Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine… I remember the days when cosmic flies would tickle me around the rump…” His eyes stared a thousand yards into the distance. “... My tail could never seem to hit them where it hurt. Let’s get this over with…” He packed up and swung his hoe over his shoulder. The snouters cheered as loudly as their sick bodies allowed as the bull stomped past them.

“Thank you, Oxen One! O-oh wait! Wait, please! My lord, it’s this way!”

Unbeknownst to the bull and the snouters, his day of golfing hadn’t been without consequences. Thousands of kilometres away, on the far side of the planet, a still and otherwise unoffended region of Shangshi-La had been peppered and pocked by meteorites crashing into the water. Steam had risen and formed impenetrable fog that sent the local birdlife into a blind flight. Fish near the surface had been boiled alive, and that which had been lucky enough to escape soon became the victims of that which came out of the fog.

Out of the curtain of white came men of green and brown, skin shining like polished metal. Their bodies were smooth of texture and lean of form, but betrayed a visage of weakness. The first hand to snatch a fish proved that they were anything but. These tall, lanky creatures descended from the edges of the craters they had hatched from and descended into the waters of Shangshi-La, blending into the deep rivers like wood and ferns. The only indicator of their presence was, just before they would strike, the victim would discern just barely a pair of fiery red eyes in the water before them.

A small distance away, a small village of beastmen was engaged in their daily routines of fishing, gathering and tending the crops. The waters of the Shangshi could be harsh at times, but fair for the most part. It was a life of variance and challenge, perfect for a rowdy beastman. Here they ate the growths that lived by the river and cultivated some of them, too. And as always - the river’s bounty was there to fill in the rest. It wasn’t paradise, but almost something better; one had to work, but never to the bone. Life here struck a balance of tough and fair, just like the Shangshi.

It was then that one day, the balance shifted. Dusowa was only one of the children playing by the riverside when it happened. He couldn’t quite remember what had happened exactly, but some visions just never left his skull since. He recalled only right up until before the tragedy. Him and seven other children had played catch by the river. A boy older than him had caught the clump of mud and hay they used for a ball and stepped into the river to do so. As he had made his way back up on the bank, the river behind him had lit up like a blood-red starry night. After that, his memories became a blur. He remembered running away after that, the taste of blood in his mouth and the stink of fear in his nose. On occasion, he saw webbed hands and crimson eyes in the shadows. He saw meteors of slick, slimy flesh descend from the sky and crush his friends and his parents. He saw tongues longer than arms; he saw shadows be kicked through several tents in a row.

He had been the lucky survivor. Maybe there had been others, too - he did not know. He had only ran and ran until he had reached the next village over. There, he had told his story, or what little he remembered of it.

There was, however, one last detail he could not explain properly, even though he remembered it clear as day. He wasn’t sure if it was because he didn’t know what it was or because the very thought caused his breathing to accelerate and his body to cringe in fright.

An endlessly long chorus of croaks, celebrating the rush of battle and slaughter.

The Great Till, Part Two:
When Nature Strikes Back

Hummus had gotten to work immediately. He had initially gathered up some straggling goblins that he hadn’t previously tilled over and tried to teach them to farm. Issues were twofold:

One, they didn’t have any horns, so how were they supposed to till? One or two tried with their hands, but the land was just too vast.

“Iz too much, Big Guy! We, we iz tired!”

The bull snorted angrily. “After a sloppy job like that? Put your backs into it!”

One of the goblins started crying. The bull rolled his eyes. “Oh please. The giants have toiled for weeks already and have you ever heard them cry?”

Two: The giants.


“SLUPGLIP, NOOOO!” Three goblins ran over to a fourth goblin (or what remained) as a giant strolled off with a mouth full of goblin legs.

“P-p-pleaze… Tell my… Fam’hih… I…” Slupglip’s eyes rolled back. “... Luh… Bleh…”

Hacking, tearful blaring choired between the three remaining goblins. One of them grabbed a fistful of grass to blow her nose. “WHY?! He was so young - so full of hope!”

The bull was unamused. “His flesh will fertilise the soil. Now bury him!” The goblins looked on in horror.

“W-with our hands?”

The bull clapped his stalagtite club into his free palm. “... If you have alternatives, I’d find them fast…”

That was the final drop. With a harmonious scream, the three goblins got to their feet and ran off into the woods. The bull let out a groan and rolled his eyes. He slumped over the bank of a nearby river and picked up a nearby boulder. With an absent-minded toss, he skipped it across the surface, sending small tsunamis in all direction with each splat. The boulder finally crashed into the opposite bank a few hundred metres away. The bull sighed. Had he been too harsh? Had his didactics been lacking? Perhaps it was the tool issue, in the end? After thinking about it long and hard, he nodded. It had to be a tool issue.

Just as he reached that conclusion, a small group of beastmen staggered out of the woods, their fresh birth confusing them to the point of drunkenness. The bull didn’t care much for their shapes or phenotype; he already had a different one in mind. He rocketed to his feet, thundered over and grabbed one beastman by the face.

“H-hey, what th–HMMPH! MMMPH! MMMAAAAAAAAAH!” The screams were unbearable, enough to rip the remaining beastmen out of their trance. But they couldn’t run; their feet wouldn’t let them. A crimson, wicked light blasted from his palm and deep into the face of their comrade, casting a blood-like shadow over the minotaur’s form. The beastmen may be beasts, but before them stood The Beast, a veritable shaitan and the most gruesome being they had laid their eyes on. With time and morbid curiosity, their gazes shifted to their comrade again. His small body grew tall and fat; arms swelled with muscle; feet became cloven hooves; what hair had been on the head coalesced into a stiff, fuzzy mane that ran down the back; the shoulders swallowed the neck and pulled closer to the chest; finally, the face grew long and tusked. When the transformation was complete, the bull dropped the creature to the ground and admired his creation.

“Yes… You will till the soil well.”

What stood up from the ground horrified the onlookers. It stood almost two metres and was over half its height in width, bulging with muscle, fat and cartilage. A shovel-like snout with massive tusks grew out of its face like a trunk, and its main strutted with hormonal rage. Like a predator on the hunt, the beast immediately descended to all fours and charged at the soil behind the bull, using its powerful neck muscles as a lever for its snout plow. It fed on the roots and fungus underground and, almost instinctively, saved some for planting afterwards. The only beastfolk felt fear pump strength back into their legs, but escape was impossible – the bull had turned his gaze back to them again.

“... And now for the rest of you…”

Time passed, and the territorial snouters soon spread out across the whole of the Striped Lands and beyond. Sometimes they met other races and settled near them peacefully (for now); sometimes they came to blows. Sometimes these blows led to victory; other times, the snouters were whipped back to whence they came. Their expansion was a constant tug of war with internal power struggles and infighting, which would lead to blood feuds and raids between villages. As months became years, the snouters had gathered into tribes which had settled into farmsteads raising crops like yams, spelt, emmer, corn, roots and leafy greens. One tribe in particular, the Voots, had settled by the river they called the Lick. Here, the Voots had found a veritable eden. The river curled and curved in scenic slopes, and the land around it was fresh and fertile. Mineral-rich mud from the river could be extracted and mixed into the soil to boost vegetable growth further. The Voots grew to become a mighty tribe in the region, and the spring feasts of winter roots and vegetable sprouts were legendary in the area. There, raging, hormonal hesnouters would rip each other to shreds over the hands of the finest shesnouters.

“HEAR ME, ANAT’AA!” roared Drukpuul the Fat. He was an elephant of a hesnouter, standing nearly three metres tall and blocking the boiling sunlight for much of the crowd. He raised his arms to the sky and shook with seizuric movements, eyes rolling back in a berserking trance. “LIGHT MY FIRE – INFERNALISE MY SOUL! HELP ME SWALLOW LIFE AS YOU DO!”

“HEAR ME, MISRI!” bellowed his opponent, Four-Tooth Zkrooth, swinging his club around with reckless abandon. “BLOOD WILL BE SPILLED IN YOUR NAME TODAY! FILL ME WITH YOUR FURY SO I MAY FILL YOUR OCEAN! RAAAAAAARGH!”

From outside the ring, hundreds of hesnouters were squealing and beating their chests (and each other) in rabid support of their respective favourites. Curses and death-wishes were spat between crowd and gladiators in broad daylight like they were ragged breaths. As the gladiators unleashed their rage upon one another, the crowd collectively cheered their bloodlust to the blue-domed heavens, the hot wind of the coming summer rolling over them in a tide of sweat and temper.

It was a weakling among them that saw it. Spregk by name, he was the smallest of a litter of four brothers, almost a runt. Stupid and frail, the mob of grunting, squealing hesnouters was the only place he could ever let loose his rage at how he had been born, the injustice of his existence, without being walloped by his elders and juniors alike, and even shesnouters at times.

As his heart strained and his body heat climbed steadily over the point of no return, the violence of the crowd grew fuzzy in Spregk's flapping ears, the sound slowly subsumed by a singular ringing. He staggered. He felt drunk, as though he had eaten ten-day-old fruits. Everything blurred. He saw double.

Spregk's head lolled up to the sun above, and he saw its true face.


There was another sound, rising up behind them. It was hidden under the roar of the brawling crowd. In his delirium Spregk could no longer hear them, but he could feel this. It was coming close.


It was the Lick. The river was surging, rising up like a farm-canal overfilled, a great muddy rush. Spregk saw tall, big snouters waist-deep in the water. He saw them screaming but did not hear them. The masses didn't even look- their backs were turned to the river.


The first mud-brick hovel collapsed in the flood, reduced to wet straw and sludge. Spregk saw a nursing mother torn from her snoutlets by the force of the current.


The bend in the river that had caught the corpses would later be called Blowfly Gulch, so many were the stinking cadavers heaped up by the flood. Rotting flesh sloughed from their bones and pooled together, seeping rancid greenish juice and maggots, polluting the Lick for a mile. In this bend alone lay hundreds, and thousands more were starving for want of unspoiled grain. Everything they had was rotten: their food, their clothes, their guts, their spirits. No tribe, storm, or giant had ever slain so many Voots, so quickly, as the First Great Flood.

And yet, despite the veritable calamity that had reduced the Voots from a dominant power in the region to a flea no bigger than the likes of the Dapps or the Quoms, this did not deter new settlers from claiming land by the Lick; in fact, with the Voots out of the way, more tribes poured into the valley like it was a flood all over. Tribes like the Pates, the Croopuls, the Nu-Voots and the Vlokks (to name a few) tilled and fought over the ruins of Vootland.

The bull, who had decided to pass the spring in the area, had heard about the calamity and journeyed across the rolling fields to the broken land. On his travels, he had encountered small Voot enclaves of vagabonds and ruffians, shadows of greatness who robbed hunters and farmers for a living. To him, they pleaded, begged - why had the calamity struck? What had been different? What in their traditions had upset Itzala so?

“Fools!” the bull had shouted to the cowering masses. “To think my powers conceived such mindless bumpkins!” He had slapped the nearest unfortunate soul so hard the boar fellow had crashed to the ground. “Have the shelves of fat you call a forehead blinded you completely?! Itzala obviously did this for one reason!”

The fearful onlookers had awaited the answer with baited breath. The bull had scowled them all into the soil and clenched his fist in front of him.

“You forsook farming for fighting!” With that, the bull had conjured forth his trusty stalactite, which since last time had acquired a shovel-like head fashioned from dense, broad bone. The snouters shuddered as one when they saw it. Its likeness had been quoted in stories whispered ominously by the riverside, tall tales spun by only the most tabloid of daffotales:

The Hoepebreaker.

The fear took stronger root. There were many snouter shoulders in that hoe head. The bull had then, with a single strike of his weapon, turned all but one of the refugees into black, fertile soil, the kind which would have taken centuries to cultivate. To the final survivor, a small and hapless shesnouter, he had given a message:

“Tell the valley to never give up the field for glory ever again. I will be watching.”

After sending her on the way screaming, the bull had turned his eyes to the sky. Raising his hoe to the heavens, he shouted, “ITZALA! I know you’re hiding in that burning lake! Show yourself!”

The day dimmed, as though under cloud, though there was none. The rich black earth dried and cracked, and the cracks spoke with the voices of the snouters that had died to produce it. "Ah, Hummusaharrqawatrr, you old cow… there is no lake. No glittering stellar pasture in heaven for you to return to. The dreams of infancy are far behind us now. I have found richer waters." The clay smiled, its cracks growing broader at his hooves, a ragged net with Hummus at its center. "They were having such fun, Hummus. How cruel of you to snatch that away!"

"Yeah? Well… Shut up!" started the bull and then paused. The pause overshot the rhythm of a good follow-up, but eventually he added. "Now listen here, you clod! They deserved it. Even a flood is just temporary - get up, shake off the water and go back to the field. If you can't do that, you have no place being a farmer." The bull gave a normative snort and patted the head of his hoe into his free palm.

"Indeed. A flood is merely a passing thing… for the survivors." The earth contorted in a drunken swirl, faces of the myriad dead rising and sinking under the mud.
"And there will always be survivors, a new generation to till the mud their mothers died in. To till and till and never escape the wrath of my capricious river… You have cursed these people far more terribly than I. Fret not, young ox! I come to congratulate you, not chastise you."

The bull snarled, but lowered his hoe. With a sharp glare, he raised a finger and stuck it in a nostril to dig around. "You have an odd manner of congratulations," he muttered. A booger the size of a grape stuck to his finger nail and was promptly smeared across his front teeth. "But thanks. I do try."

The words hung limply under a hot bright sun. Summer heat rose from the dry black soil. There was no one there but the bull. He looked around and blinked. With a disappointed huff, he shuffled off with a sneer on his lips.

"That damn sun…"

The Great Till, Part One

In characteristic fashion, the bull had maintained his tantrum at a surprisingly stable level. His path of destruction had not ended underground, nor on the surface. Even before the Big Bang, he had been on the surface of the planet that was to become Galbar, performing a new pastime. With his horns, he had dug up channels in the dead soil. When he had reached a sufficient distance and taken a small breather, he would turn and do the same thing in the opposite direction. All the while, he muttered a promise under his breath.

“Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill…”

But as time went on, his mouth got tired and the consonants changed.

“... Gill, gill, gill, gill, gill, gill…”

Eventually, the vowels slipped, too.

“... Gull, gull, gull, guw… Guww…”

By now, he had plowed several kilometres of field. He let out a long, exhausted groan and turned to look at his work. The gray soil had become a little grayer, mostly resulting from shadows cast from the many new dirt heeps all around. He nodded in satisfaction and sat down to rest.

Then, an overwhelming, chaotic flash drowned the entire planet in colour and light. In seconds, his work was eradicated and then overgrown with grasses, ferns and forests. Animals began to awake and divine power flickered and crackled all over the horizon - a giant tree popped out of the ground, crystals rained from the sky, and cackling laughter came from the woods from tiny green menaces. The bull blinked and looked out over his field; in a second, it had become completely overgrown. It saw there agape for gods know how long; long enough to see an eternal sunbeam form over the massive tree on the horizon. The bull seethed and once again dug its horns into the regrown soil. As he snarled his way forward, pushing over stock and stone, tree and trunk, goblin and fowl, it spat out a new word, his anger twisting his tongue until consonants no longer fit the intent:


And till, he did. He tilled so efficiently that by the end of the day, he had prepared hundreds of acres of soil for this new, untested phenomenon that he had yet to understand that he was supposed to teach people. Taking a small break, he pondered how he best could get revenge on the universe for never respecting him. It was then that a small, blackish red hexaped strolled past him with a bit of grey fuzz in its mouth. The bull eyed the creature curiously, for it had never seen its like. The creature, on the other hand, paid him no mind.

“You. What are you?” the bull demanded.

“Am ant,” replied the ant.

“Ant? What is ‘ant’?”

“Ant am ant,” answered the ant.

The bull furrowed his bushy brows, dry dirt breaking off his muddy forehead. “Are you like that smug-faced asshole who sucker-punched me in the jaw and deserves a shallow grave covered in cow dung?”

The ant stopped to ponder this. “No.” It moves on. The bull eyed it intently. The ant still paid him no mind.

“What’re you doing?” asked the bull.

“Collect and bring food for Queen,” replied the ant.

“What’s a Queen?”

“Queen am Queen.” The ant had the patience of a saint. “Am mom, too.”

“You are?”

“No, Queen am.”

The bull was now genuinely interested. The ant, meanwhile, was soon joined by other ants strolling by with fuzz in their mouth. The bull blinked. “There are more of you now!”

“Yes,” replied the ant. The others ignored him. Soon, the ants had formed a trail going back, presumably to their hive. The bull inspected the fuzz in their mandibles a bit closer. It looked fungal. He scratched his beard.

"What you've got there?"

"Mushroom," replied the ant. The bull raised a brow.

"So you eat mushrooms?"

"Yes. They grow all over forest. Lots, lots, lots." It had stopped to converse with the bull, stalling the whole trail behind it. The bull hummed in amusement.

"So you prey upon it?"

"Yes. It grows everywhere, so can prey. Not like insect; insect die if preyed; mushroom endless."

The bull nodded. "Thank you for telling me. Say, where can I find these mushrooms? It sounds like you have a lot to spare, and I am quite hungry."

The ant pointed an antenna back the way it had come, which by now was pretty much a mapped out route thanks to all the ants waiting to move on. The bull nodded its thanks and followed the ant trail into the forest. After a walk that took hours for an ant, but about five minutes for the bull, he had arrived at a small hole under a tree. Ants walked into the hole emptimouthed and came out with bits and pieces of mycelium in their mandibles. The bull pursed his lips and stuck his hand into the hole. Feeling around gently, he eventually struck a vein of mycelium. Whispering, he asked, "Anyone there?"

The response came like morse code. A series of electrical signals skipped through the mycelium and into the bull's finger, then divine power deciphered them as easily as speech. "Who's there?" a million voices asked inquisitively.

"A friend," replied the bull. "I am here about the ant situation. Heard they were enjoying a bountiful harvest of mushrooms, so I came to see what the fuzz was about."

The mycelium's voices hummed. "Ant situation? Oh! You mean my porters."

The bull raised an eyebrow. "Your porters?"

"Oh yes. They bring food in heaps. All I have to do is sit here and snatch it up from the ground. Sure, every now and then they get a bit rowdy and bite a part or two of me, but honestly, I'm getting the better deal."

"You don't say…" mumbled the bull. "What do you think of the ants?"

"Bunch'a chumps if you ask me. It all started when a few just came in here and died. They were delicious! Then some came in and dumped a bunch of detritus. That was delicious too! I don't get it, how can they waste so much good food? Oh, oh, and get this: they've even gotten rid of all my parasites! I've actually never been better! I wish I could pinch myself, for I've been living a dream."

The bull hummed and looked over at one of the ants coming out of the cave with fungus in its mouth. "You there, ant. What do you think of the mushroom?"

"Big chump. Just sit there, get eat. Grow out of junk, become food. Even has other food grow on top. Is genius for us. Stupid mushroom." It clicked its mandibles in a tiny laugh. The bulk smirked.
"Yeah. Funny how that works, isn't it?" He stood up and walked back to his field. Finally, after his tormenting, yet short existence in the Galbarverse, he understood his purpose. He would teach everyone the dance he had danced with the nebula in his previous world: the dance of domestication.

Behind him, plants were beginning to settle in his tilled fields. To keep them clean until he knew how to make proper use of them, he took a few of the ants and gave them shovel-like mandibles. He then grew them to the size of wolves and set them to till his field, as well as to graze on unwanted vegetation. Any and all waste was to be mulched and placed back on the fields to be broken down by detritus feeders, the funny mushroom among them.

Then, the bull sat down to admire his field and its toiling workers. At one point, the sky cracked open with blood and his fields filled with insects and parasites that immediately swarmed to suck it up. The aftermath of the rain proved fantastic for the fertility of the soil. There also showed up some emissary talking about dreams and whatnot. The bull waved him away and told him to come back later. This… Tilling thing - and the domestication - was the start of something big, he knew it, so now all he needed were students to learn the dance.

Caught in a Storm

It had lasted for an eternity. It had lasted for a second. The mushroom had long since passed from the land of the living, and it had only just entered its hunger slumber. In the event of the Big Bang, time skipped millennia in all directions. Simultaneously, the mushroom was dead and alive; it was being stretched and squashed, bent and straightened. The only constant was a constant bombardment of energy; an amount that could be measured in neither joules nor degrees. Energy nearly smelted the surface; the cave channels dug by the bull that were not sheltered under at least several tens of meters of rock were shaken and boiled. Light like a supernova filled many of the caverns through brief cracks and left all sorts of marks behind, some burns, some living. Yes, living matter was beginning to infest the caves. Unrefined, wild matter, but it was alive nonetheless.

And sustenance had come at last.

The first victim was an unfortunate mold that spawned right next to the catatonic mushroom. One would think that it had not been sleeping, but prowling, for like a predator, a curtain of slime molds shot out of the biscuit-sized mushroom and consumed the hapless mold. Having tasted flesh, the fungus continued searching, finding spores, bacteria, plants, even small critters - none were safe from the ravenous creature. In a short while, the mushroom had covered its entire cavern in slime molds. Mycelium had begun to dig into the earth around the cave, finding the soil now rich in minerals and other fungi trying to establish itself. The temperature had warmed considerably, and the air was moist and dank: perfect for a growing mushroom. As the mycelium thickened and the slime molds expanded, the heart of the fungus at last shook off the last of its sleep.

It began to recollect. A memory rocked its mycelium, and across the planar barriers, the memory became movement.

The explosion of energy that had inundated the Material Realm, had caused the simultaneous initiation of multiple overflows in various points and locations across its counterpart.

Everywhere and all at once, the parallel dimension on the other side of reality was immediately awash with energy, the sheer potential of which was enough to, for a split second, form cracks in the barrier separating the two realms. Very quickly, however, the Astral recovered, with the very same essence that caused their appearance helping in mending them shut.

The force of the energy rebounded on the ethereal walls of the realm, turning in on itself and heading back towards the deepest recesses where the very first existences were just beginning to awaken.

“I… Think…” came a groggy voice, echoing out into the emptiness of the Astral Realm. “We… Think…”

One of the first to have gained even a semblance of awareness had, unsurprisingly, been that very same creature the overseer of the Astral Realm initially had thought of as an intruder. The fledgling fungal mind resonated with the ever-present astral energy suffusing its immediate surroundings; as blisteringly hot as it was frigid cold, the primordial essence called to it, and the consciousness obliged - the proverbial moth racing towards the flame.

Just as its material body would consume anything in its way in search of sustenance, so would its astral self open itself up to the vast expanse before it, taking everything in. The moment it did, a second, miniature Big Bang rippled through the entirety of its existence. A myriad thoughts and emotions that would never have had the chance to be thought of and felt, overtook the being, no, beings.

Like the crew of a small boat, the mycelium consciousness found itself stranded in the middle of a raging mindstorm, precariously teetering on the verge of capsizing. It retracted wordlessly - screaming was unknown to it. It felt fear at first, its forming essence tossed across the wild seas of the birth of thought, emotion and the mind. It felt confusion, which stuck together with fear, but searched for answers instead of places to hide. Confusion turned to curiosity, as patterns in the mindstorm began to show. A part of the mycelium mind chose to break out of the malleable consciousness and willingly jump into the storm.

“I fly!” it said.

“Come back!” said a section of the remaining consciousness. But the separatist had already soared above and beyond the tumultuous waters of cognition. It read the waves and the patterns like a text. It could never hope to overpower them, but it did not need to; with time and understanding, its movements could be learned and even harnessed. The separatist turned to the left and was swallowed by a current of rage and sorrow, but it was not harmed by its destructive nature. Instead, it surfed on the current, sailing it back to meet its fellows of the mycelium consciousness, which in itself was beginning to break apart as more saw the separatist’s mastery of the emotional storm.

“Teach us!” The cloud disintegrated further. “Teach us to master this realm as you do.” The separatist stood unharmed, but not untouched. The trip through the vast realm of the Astral had changed it, and it was no longer a cloud-like form, but a vaguely humanoid shape, hidden underneath a wide contour of a mushroom cap. It reached into the cloud and played with its malleable form. A thousand voices were still and attentive, gazing back at the capped one. Eventually, when a break in the storm stilled the emotions somewhat, the capped one spoke: “Now! Follow me!” With a powerful pull, the capped one pulled the incorporeal cloud into the storm. The capped one did as before and scouted out the patterns, yet with a need to divert so much focus to the cloud in its hands, its calculations were slower than usual.

A wrong step to the right led to one arm being pulled wide, flinging cloud spores into the storm, never to be seen again.

Two steps more than necessary led it to fling spores to the left. It persevered, but the buzz of the cloud betrayed fear and distrust of the capped one’s capabilities.

“You will doom us all if you cannot focus!” a section of the cloud shamed. The capped one felt a new sensation, one that stirred up the storm around them.

“Control yourself!” demanded another voice. The capped one felt its form ripple and rip - it had lost the pattern and was now trapped within the wicked winds.

“We’re dead! We’re all dead!” cried the cloud.

“N-no! Stay calm! You’ll only make it worse,” cautioned the capped one, but even it was losing hope. It pushed some more steps forward and then felt a sharp sting of pain. The winds had torn at its skin, threatening to undo its entire shape. In a last-ditch effort to survive, the capped one collected what it had left of the cloud and laid down on the astral ground, its cap functioning as a shield against the storm. The shield being part of itself, however, meant that the capped one felt every bite of rage, every cut of sorrow, every sting of fear, and the storms threatened to blow it away with every breath. As the capped one's essence began to fray, swirling torrents of grief and ecstasy intertwined with tendrils of loneliness and camaraderie. Colors with no name, beyond mortal comprehension, pulsated in violent harmony, the hues and shades representing the ever-shifting state the consciousness had found itself in.

Suddenly, the capped one, submerged in this maelstrom of sentiments, reached a point of utmost despair. "Is there no way out? Can anyone hear me?" it cried out, desperate and silent, into its mind. This elicited a renewed, mixed reaction as a chorus of voices from the cloud responded, some mocking, others in sheer disappointment.

"You! Our beacon of hope? Hah!" sneered one voice.

"Why did we ever trust you?" another lamented, dripping with regret.

Yet, outside its mind, this intense inner struggle manifested in a spectacle never before seen. The astral form of the capped one radiated an intense, blinding light, illuminating the dark corners of the astral realm. Its brilliance was so overpowering that it caused ripples throughout the dimension, momentarily pacifying the turbulent storm of astral energy that had been, unbeknownst to it, swirling around itself for quite some time.

The blinding radiance from the capped one didn't just ripple through the astral realm, it pierced through the layers of dimensions, reaching spaces far beyond the reach a mere mortal existence such as itself would ever try approaching. Obviously, this did not happen by virtue of its own power, no. The main culprit for this amazing feat had been none other than the mark the overlord of this realm had left on it in passing. This mark acted as a beacon, allowing the deity to keep an eye on the creature's evolution, even if only from the periphery of his attention.

The sudden burst of energy from the mark was impossible to ignore. It tugged at the deity's essence, almost as if calling out to him. As the waves of energy washed over him, he discerned the turbulence, the raw emotion, and the profound struggle of the fungus, now manifested as the capped one. Intrigued and somewhat concerned, the deity decided to move closer, his form gliding effortlessly through the astral plane, drawn inexorably to the source of this disturbance.

Emerging beside the capped one, the deity studied it, seeing beyond its glowing astral form and into its very essence. The change, the evolution, and the sheer potential of this being was evident. It was a peculiar amalgamation of mycelium thought, primal emotion, and something more, something nascent that even the deity had not foreseen. A smirk of satisfaction briefly played on the deity's faceless form. "Ah, I was correct with my foresight," he mused to himself. "This creature has grown... interesting."

Gently, almost tenderly, the deity extended a tendril of pure energy towards the capped one. It wasn't a physical touch, but rather a connection at a deeper, more intimate level. The deity intended to probe once again, yet this time sought to understand, to see what had led to this spectacular explosion of energy and emotion. As the tendril made contact, a jolt of understanding passed between the two beings. Raw memories, thoughts, feelings, and experiences from the capped one flooded into the deity's consciousness. Simultaneously, the deity’s sheer magnificence and awe inspiring, radiant aura pierced through the mycelium’s mindscape, acting like a counterforce to the fierce, metaphysical winds that plagued the inner world of the fungus.

In that brief, infinite moment, a connection was established, and the capped one realized the storm had stilled. The awesome sensation of the deity’s power left the creature weak in the knees and arms, and so it dropped the cloud, which sank gently towards the astral floor. The capped one did not know what to say or do in response, so it stood there dumbstruck, another whole new sensation. At its feet, the cloud disintegrated completely, and the ethereal ground sprouted with small, slimy red knobs and nibs that oozed a faint glow. As the slime expanded slowly outwards in search of sustenance, more central regions sprouted small, crimson, veiny baubles that seemed to pump and flex, nearly bursting with energy. Tendrils of astral mycelium spread out along the slime trail from these central regions, and the mushrooms kept growing. All along, the capped one gradually recovered its awareness and addressed the astral overlord: “Teacher! Mentor! Sage! How? How did you still the storm so easily? Who are you, great being?”

To a god, listening in on a mortal existence’s thoughts was as easy as water squeezing through a gap between two rocks. They had to, or else how would they be able to know their subject’s wants and needs, should they really care that much about their creations in the first place. This specific deity, however, hadn’t really bothered with such things, even before being brought into this Universe. There was one exception… but that being had long perished by now, probably.

The morbid thought soured the deity’s mood some, and for a split second the divine aura flickered, giving plenty a chance for the storm to return. Fierce psychic winds, razor sharp and biting, blew over the capped one. Nevertheless, it didn’t take much time for the aura to stabilize the place once more - serene quietness now only remained. Then, a voice, more akin to a whisper, replied.

“A being, sure. Great? Unsure. It takes a lot for someone to be labeled as great; I used to know someone that was great, yet I do not consider myself to be their equal…" The tone in the voice of the deity betrayed feelings of remorse and longing, and after a few moments of silence, it continued.

“You seek power over yourself, you seek to solve that which troubles you. I can certainly provide help, but you must first answer me this: who are you?”

The capped one hesitated, a fibrous hand lifting to touch its face with a gentle pat. “Who am I?” A stillness followed, and a weak waft of cool wind betrayed an aura of uneasiness within the creature. Around it, the glowing mushrooms and slime mould eyed it curiously. A cloud of crimson spores oozed slowly out of one mushroom and floated gently towards the capped one. “Who are you?” it repeated.

“Saviour? Saviour!” a mycelium vein burbled with excited pulsations.

“A fool with heart and no head, nothing more.” A fattening mushroom trunk twisted austerely.

Slime mould lapped at the capped one’s four foot-like appendages. “A guide, perhaps? A pilot, even?”

“A pilot?” replied the capped one.

“Pilot, pilot!” the mycelium cheered.

“Puh! It is hardly worthy of such a title, the coward. Had it not been for the Teacher, the capped one’s foolish attempt to–”

“Pilot! Pilot! Pilot!” the mycelium and slime mould coalesced into a pedestal beneath the capped one’s feet. Ghosts of spores morphed into currents on the wind, washing over the Pilot with red, glowing dust, painting beautiful patterns across its fibrous form. Looking down, the Pilot could see more mushrooms sprouting out of the astral ground, some growing pseudopods and even proper feet to move around. The spores spread across the nearby fields of emotions, drawing the colony to spread further into the astral realm. The capped one, now no longer alone in that title, looked up at the mighty visage of the god. “I am the Pilot.”

"Pilot, hmm... Pilot, pilot, pilot…" The deity mused, mulling over the word for some time. He looked down from above at the small existence that led the charge, before surveying the ever-expanding mycelium consciousness around it.

"An adequate title, if not admirable. Do you consider yourself the representative of the collective, or are you just one of the many pilots amongst your peers? You certainly have the support of many, but do you have the support of all?"

The Pilot looked around. “I-it is clear that not all believe that I am worthy of the title.” It exchanged glances with the non-existent, yet very perceivable stern expression of some of the larger mushrooms. “But I… I believe I speak for many here, at least.”

“We shall see for how long,” conceded a mushroom sharply. “Do not make a mistake again.”


“We object!” came a protest from a field of little red fungus knobs. One of them grew swiftly in size and pushed itself out of the ground. “We lost too many due to this one’s recklessness. We will choose a Pilot of our own - one who thinks and strategizes. We will not follow the guidance of this spontaneous dancer. We will grow our own path.”

“Oh… I see–”

“Then we withdraw, too!” proclaimed the large mushroom who had just promised their support. The capped one deflated. The mycelium and slime moulds connecting the colonies began to wilt and curl, eventually pulling away to see new lands to expand into. The Pilot sighed.

“Then I hope we should not come to blows in the future, friends.” To the sound of no response, the Pilot turned back to the deity, its mycelium throne wilting and separating as the support of the outer nodes faded away. “It seems my estimate was exaggerated.”

The deity nodded his assent; "Everything happens for a reason. Fate has ordained that you walk a different path than others, and it is up to you to prove that your path is the correct one…"

With that comment, the deity closed in on the, now, lonesome fungus. His solid, golden eyes forming iridescent, nebulaic colored swirls. "On that note, I believe a little competition never hurt anyone," he added and rose up from his crouched position. Suddenly, his eyes flashed, his aura gaining a domineering aspect that allowed no dissent; the Astral Realm quaked, bending to the deity's will in a bid to funnel astral energy into the entirety of the mortal existence before him - Pilot and non-pilots included.

"You shall lead and be led, for learning how to do the former assumes you have learned how to do the latter."

And with that, the deity returned to its previous, neutral disposition, before addressing the Pilot - and by extension every other bright and potential leader of the fungal colonies. "I will allow you all to make this realm your home, but make sure to treat it as such. I assume I don't have to explicitly say what will happen, should any danger come to it due to your actions, right?"

“Of course, Teacher,” replied the Pilot. It fidgeted briefly. “May we call you that? Teacher?”

The deity raised a proverbial eyebrow at the immediate response from the sentient tuber. "You… may, albeit teaching opportunities will be few and far between… Farewell, and good luck," the deity said as his visage vanished, merging into the astral backdrop.

The Pilot and its colony then set off on the path of discovery of what sentient life was all about. All the while, they sang praises to their Teacher who had show them how to still the storms of the Astral Realm. They did not know it then, but their affinity for songs of prayer would later earn them their name:

The Cantars.

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