“Ugh, glad that is over with,” the snake muttered as the ship sailed through the sky towards the centre of the Foot. The Nebulites had been deposited at the delta of Taipang and the snake could return to his other duties. He plucked at his beard.
“He Bo? What was next on my to-do list?”
The servant bowed dutifully. “To this servant’s knowledge, His Lordship does not keep a to-do list.”
The snake turned and raised an eyebrow. “Oh, is that so. Well, have any prayers arrived of late? Any desperate requests for my presence?”
“His Lordship would know that better than this servant would, with all due respect,” He Bo replied politely. The snake sighed.
“I should make some sort of postal office - a centre aboard my ship where prayers could be collected and archived. Having to remember everything is just so… Tedious. Very well, give me a minute while I recall what I can…”
He Bo stood by faithfully as the snake curled up his tail and sat down, leaning his temple on a balled fist. He closed his eyes and dove deep into his mind. Thousands of calls for aid echoed through his skull like droplets in an empty cave and a tired expression spread across the snake’s face. Eventually, though, after sifting through the Nebulite prayers begging him to come back and help them, he heard the words of pygmies, specifically a family of hunters.
“... Interesting,” he mumbled in the way one does when searching for attention.
“What is, Your Lordship?” He Bo asked politely.
“A number of pygmies are saying that the Xishan plains are much too barren and the jungles, much too empty.”
“The Xishan plains are naturally barren due to lacking precipitation. The presence of the great twin peaks Xishan blocks the storms from the Saluran Strait.”
“Yes, I am aware, worthy servant,” the snake assured. “However, I am in agreement that they are still much too empty, as my jungle is.”
“Will His Lordship answer this prayer, then?”
“Yes. Yes, I think I will.”
The ship took a sharp turn and set a course for the jungles of Nanhe first.
After travelling across the world multiple times, the snake had to admit that Nanhe was not the biggest jungle in the world. That truth stung slightly - it always felt like a victory knowing that one ruled the largest things in the world. However, nothing beyond the sea could sport a biodiversity such as the one seen on the Dragon’s Foot - each river, unique in its species. However, that was just it - each river was unique. Roaming the rest of the continent were only boars, dragons and the occasional camel. Certainly, some of the animals from the Seihdh river ecosystem had begun to make their way around the Qiangshan mountain range, but the snake confessed that the majority of his lands were empty or sparsely populated.
Today, that would change.
Shengshi had already walked a distance from his ship, which now rested neatly on the waves of Nanhe. Around him, the dense woods formed thick walls that would be nigh impossible to break for mere mortals. Though the snake passed through them with ease, he clearly saw the issue of having woods this dense. He would begin with the most obvious obstacle, one he observed even obstructed the great farmer apes in the distance.
With its restricted insect and fungus life, the forest floor had gathered years and years of detritus, almost none of which had been processed into healthy soil again. The snake confessed the stench alone was a definite indicator that the forest floor was in desperate need of a clean up crew. Thus the snake took a large rotting leaf from the ground. In his hand, the leaf became worms, beetles, flies, wasps, ants - insects of all kinds. They dropped onto more leaves below, and every leaf they touched transformed in the same way. After the forest floor underneath the snake had entirely become insects, they stopped multiplying in the same manner. The ants began to gather around their queens and carry them off to make their hills; worms dug into the soil; the beetles began feasting on the dead plant matter; wasps soared off to make their hives.
The snake then picked up the gooey remains of rotten fruit and watched it become a series of mollusks. These snailed their way out of his hand and began to feast as the beetles did, more of them spawning as they ate.
The snake took a rotting branch and watched as it became arachnids of all sorts. These immediately began to spin webs in the trees and keep the rampant flies and wasps from reproducing beyond sustainability. Some of the webs became colourful butterfly larvae, some of which quickly spun pupae, metamorphed instantly and sprung out as amazingly beautiful butterflies. The soil began to refill with nutrients from the maggots’ and insects’ work. Around the thicker spots of detritus spawned tall mushrooms, some nearly reaching the canopy above. Some snaked their way around the trees like constricting anacondas. Some mushrooms manifested as tiny white caps that blossomed in the millions, like chalky strands of grass. As the soil finally grew healthy again, flowers began to sprout around the feet of the trees, flanked by shrubberies.
Already, the woods were beginning to feel purer, livelier. The snake wasn’t done, however. From the soil around him rose great apes similar to Anu, only these had black arms, shoulders, chest, legs and rings around their eyes. Otherwise, they were white. These panda-patterned gorillas took a moment to grow familiar with existence before they went off into the woods in their respective packs. The snake hoped these wouldn’t fight too often with the farmer apes - these, at least, weren’t bound to the river.
Around the canopy, thousands of macaws, birds of paradise and other avians spawned and began to sing their songs. The already present Gardeners seemed a little uneasy at their new neighbours. Branches became great anacondas that began to stalk the woods for tasty frog monkeys. In the puddles on the forest floor spawn poison dart frogs and massive cane toads. A myriad of other amphibians also spawned and began to look for the nearest rivers.
Tigers similar to those around the River Seihdh jumped out of bushes onto newly forming water buffalo and small elephants, though none of these creatures had the overall menace and bulk of their northern cousins. Mice came out of the ground. Some of them grew wings and became bats. Finally, the stones lying around broke apart and became rhinos which immediately began to defend their young against vicious tigers. Satisfied with his work, the snake left this young life to its own and continued towards the great Xishan plains.
The Xishan plains was and had always been a rather uninteresting sight. Certainly, to a degree, it was stunning to behold - endless plains of yellow grass set under a scorching dawn with the occasional bypassing boar. The snake shook his head. This would not do at all.
He flicked his hand and tall pillars of mud and clay rose out of the ground, sparsely covering the whole of the plains as far as the eyes could see. From within the pillars, curious termites crawled out to behold the surrounding world. The snake flicked his wrist again and many of these termites metamorphed into wild bees, flies, wasps, mosquitoes. From the ground sprouted hundreds of acadia trees, scattered around the savannah. Fat-trunked baobab trees sprouted in small groups. From the roots of these magnificent plants spawned buffalo and wildebeest with colossal horns. Antelopes and gazelles bounced out of the grass, eagerly skipping at the joy of creation. Alongside them came zebrae and small horses. Watering holes and rivers running off the Xishan tributary filled with birds, both flying and landbound, small hippos and crocodiles.
The snake put his hands on his hips and hummed. The plains would need some carnivores. He picked up a nearby boar bone, snapped it in half and dropped it on the ground. Out of nowhere came packs of wild painted dogs to battle over the marrow. The skies above filled with naked-headed vultures, and small badgers began to stalk the grasses in search of newly spawned mice, rats and meerkats.
Finally, the system would have its apex predator. The snake went over to a boulder and placed his hand upon it. There came a deafening roar from within and the stone cracked to reveal a pack of enormous lions, nearly seven feet tall. The males had manes of bloody crimson and sprouted long, black, menacing horns out of their foreheads. The females had smaller horns, though they were still a sight to behold. They immediately began to skulk towards the shade underneath an acadia tree, where some bees already were making hives.
The snake, now a little tired and quite satisfied with his work, set off back towards Nanhe. The Dragon’s Foot was perhaps not the largest continent, but none could dispute that it was a haven of life.
The snake thinks DF doesn’t have enough life yet, so he turns Nanhe into a combination of the Congo and the jungles of Southeast and East Asia. He then turns the Xishan plains into the Serengeti. The animals will be written about on the Wiki.
Before: 5MP/3FP 2MP: Make a jungle ecosystem in the Nanhe jungle. 2MP: Make a savannah ecosystem on the Xishan plains. After: 1MP/3FP
The Logs of the King’s Council - To Nurture a Paddy
57 years after the founding of His Majesty’s holy city, Talemon, Garden of Late Spring, 7th day - His Royal Highness Anu’s city of Talemon.
I confess improving the effectiveness of the rice paddies has proven to be a larger task than I initially thought. Earlier experiments incorporated additional water in the paddies, but this seemed not to have a noticeable effect beyond making the harvest considerably harder for the shorter pygmies. Subsequent experiments attempted to increase the nutrient content of the water in the paddies. Leftover rice was added to stimulate growth, but this delivered insufficient results. It was later removed again after the smell of rot and alcohol filled the experimental paddy.
However, lately, we have stumbled upon a possible solution to our issue: A few weeks back, a farmer came to me telling stories of fish in his paddies. Initially, he had seem them gnawing on the stalks of his riceweed and had decided to fish them out of there before they ate his plants; however, as he observed the fish closer, he found that they were not at all eating the plants.
They were eating the parasites on them.
We have thus concluded that the fish at the very least seem beneficial to the riceweed. If we are fortunate, the Beihese fish and rice may exist symbiotically if His Lordship wills it.
Zhu Rongyuan, His Majesty Anu’s secretary of state.
57 years after the founding of His Majesty’s holy city, Talemon, Garden of the First Flood, 6th day - His Royal Highness Anu’s city of Talemon.
Eureka! The experiment has been a success! Opening the paddies to the river and allowing fish to swim in has provided great leaps in growth. It has been roughly a whole garden since the introduction of fish, and the results are noticeable against all odds. Already under the Garden of the First Flood, we are beginning to see grain sprout. While harvest is still several gardens off, growth such as this is unprecedented!
The fish, too, seem to be prospering, their growth is unheard of - violent, even. We have held the fishermen back for now - it is possible that any damage to the stock may impact the god-given growth we have witnessed up to this point.
On a relevant note, a farmer came to me yesterday and pleaded that I should follow him to his paddy. A gruesome development had occurred. I shall investigate this tomorrow at dawn.
Zhu Rongyuan, His Majesty Anu’s secretary of state.
57 years after the founding of His Majesty’s holy city, Talemon, Garden of the First Flood, 9th day - His Royal Highness Anu’s city of Talemon.
Oh, blackest bile of cruelest fate! I knew it was too good to be true! The farmer of three days past, whom I have learned is named Abegunde, brought me to his paddy today, and from half a li away I could tell what had befallen it. The paddy rank of rotten fish long before we arrived, and when we arrived, I found that algae had outgrown the rice and killed the farmer’s field. Yesterday was spent salvaging what remained of it. The farmer and his family will naturally be compensated for their sacrifice for the good of the nation. As befit a family of five like his, they will receive twenty quarter chips for the granary. That should last them until the next sowing season and then some.
Still, the source of this algae explosion remains largely a mystery. All the officials I sent out today came back and confirmed that there is indeed algae in other paddies, but nothing as dire as this. Tomorrow, I will return to the Abegunde’s farm and investigate.
Zhu Rongyuan, His Majesty Anu’s secretary of state.
57 years after the founding of His Majesty’s holy city, Talemon, Garden of the First Flood, 10th day - His Royal Highness Anu’s city of Talemon.
What remained in Abegunde’s fields did not satisfy any of the hypotheses:
The other paddies experienced no bloom similar to this, so it cannot have been the river itself. Detailed accounts from Abegunde’s family, as well as his neighbours, revealed no hidden plot of fraud with the intention of receiving rations from the King’s Granary. The algae had not been planted nor brought from the river.
I confess I am at a loss. It pains me to admit it as a scholar, but it’s the truth. There is a distinct possibility that it was the presence of the fish that triggered the bloom, but the issue has not spread to other paddies yet.
Truly, I am without guidance. I will return to this research at a later date, but for now, the fish will be culled to a bare minimum required to keep the parasites off the rice. The Pygmies, at least, will feast on the river’s bounty over the next weeks. Let that be a joy in this otherwise bitter series of events.
Zhu Rongyuan, His Majesty Anu’s secretary of state.
Zhu Rongyuan logs his attempts to increase rice yields. At first, he finds that fish in the paddies eat parasites off the plants and encourages farmers to have fish in their paddies. However, he later comes across a paddy that has been swallowed by algae that have killed both the plants and fish. The owners of the farm are reimbursed with rice from the Granary, but Zhu struggles to find the reason behind the paddies. He drops the experiments until a later date.
Siwen, the King’s Council start: 5 +1 role minoris +1 role majoris End: 7
Rog-mohog sat next to a heap of broken sticks open which laid a sad, mouldy cowhide. His unibrow hung low with annoyance over his small eyes and between his underbitten jaws his molars were making quick work of a dry, old slab of yesterday’s pork tah-tah. His teeth struck a particularly stubborn stretch of sinew and the ogre made a dry “pfft” with his lips before collecting the string in a ball of phlegm and spitting it out on the scalp of the knocked-out-cold Oogor lying bloody face down on the ground beside him.
“Y’know,” Rog-mohog mumbled to the unconscious, in-desperate-need-of-medical-aid Oogor, “you make for a terribull bloomin’, wossname, builda’. Don’t botha’ askin’ for your reward, ye git.” He got to his feet, planted an additional kick in the side of Oogor’s bruised rib cage and strolled down towards the village below. He had smelt it in the air: The fires of sacrifice had been lit at the foot of Big Rock. Rog-mohog had an offering to attend to.
The crude altar to the great Boar Spirit already had amassed a great gathering. All three clans were represented - wait, no, only two were. The chieftain stopped midway through the crowd, confusing the others in front of him who were very much used to the familiar sensation of Rog-mohog trampling down the unfortunate in his path. The chieftain squinted his eyes, staring hard out over the crowd and causing several sketchy-looking individuals to dive for cover behind their comrades.
“OI!” the chieftain suddenly boomed, inciting some fearful squeals. “Where’s the bloomin’ Ox clan at?!”
There was a collective shrug. From the altar came a frail voice, “whot he say?!” Rog-mohog turned to look upon the decrepit, feeble form of shaman Wololo whose torso seemed to inch closer to his feet with every passing day. The message was passed on through the crowd towards the elder, then repeated four times next to the elder’s ear before it finally reached its intended audience.
“Ooooooh, the Ox clan!” the shaman Wololo finally said and the crowd sighed in relief. “They’s out lookin’ for more, wossname, oxen.”
Chatter spread through the crowd like wildfire. The chieftain sent it running for the hills with a loud “HUUUUHN?!” followed by: “Why’s they goin’ out now?! Roight before a bloomin’ offerin’?!”
Wololo did his best to shrug. “They boss said they found some cows up norf. Wanted to get’um before they went off.”
Rog-mohog growled a groan and continued through the crowd towards the altar, satisfying the unfortunate before him by ending the uncanny pause in their suffering. Once at the altar, the chieftain beckoned in no particular direction and desperate pig squeals soon drowned out all other sounds. Rog-mohog’s wife, Porky, carried the boar-to-be-offered by one hind leg and handed it to her husband, offering him an airborne ‘mwah~~’ with her free hand. The chieftain took the pig, ignored the kiss and slammed the pig down on the altar with such force that the beast was knocked out cold, and probably severely broken. He then deposited it on the altar and nodded at the shaman. Wololo feebly nodded back and turned towards the altar with the revolution speed of the galaxy. He grabbed the shard sacrificial stone and raised it to the sky, shouting:
“OH, GREAT BOAR SPIRIT! We offa’ you this here piggy so that you can eat nice ‘n proppa’ and make sure we do it too. That a deal?!”
Wololo then poked feebly at the boarskin before an assistant came over and helped him cut into the heart. There was a pause, one in which most of the ogres liked to believe the spirit was answering the shaman in his mind or something similar. Statistically speaking, however, there was always those among them that was convinced the whole spirit shebang was just a scam to get them to give up a hog once a month. However, ever since Ub-lub the Herritik had invited the chieftains of old to a civilised debate about the flaws in their religion (chief among which was that they offered boar meat to a boar god), and subsequently met the convincing counter-argument known as “fyst, club ‘n deff”, few dared speak up about the matter. After enough time had passed, the shaman took another afternoon to turn back to the chieftain and offer him a toothless smile.
“The Boar Spirit’s happy to help,” the shaman Wololo assured. The chieftain nodded.
“Roight, what’s it told to do?”
The shaman tugged at the boar’s bloody heart inside the bloody carcass, and the assistant once more dutifully helped the elder out by ripping the heart out, cutting it into neat little pieces and offering them to Wololo. The elder took one and put it in his mouth. It was not as dramatic as the method of his youth, where every offering had been a tutorial in how to butcher one’s enemies in the most brutal of ways, but modern problems required modern solutions. He did his best to chew the meat to get all of that sweet spiritual knowledge out of it, but his dry gums would have more luck piercing stone than to chew apart raw, gooey boar meat. Eventually, he just swallowed and hummed fraily.
“I fhink…” he started. The ogres leaned in to listen. “I fhink the Boar Spirit wants us to build better pens for ‘um.”
Porky peeked out from behind Rog-mohog. “Whot pens?”
“‘Xactly,” Wololo confirmed.
Rog-mohog knew not to ignore the spirits’ commands - doing so wasn’t very smart, and it was a known truth among ogrekind that they weren’t particularly smart, or at least, they weren’t the smartest. So humble were they that they understood this - truly, they did. They were pretty high up there, naturally, but even ogres had to draw the line somewhere. Rog-mohog understood this perhaps best of all - that’s what made him the smartest.
Naturally, therefore, the only smart thing to do was to do as the Boar Spirit said!
“We build pens, then,” the chieftain commanded to the sound of a collective groan from the crowds.
“Why’s we gotta do thaaaaat?!” came a complaint from the back.
“Worked all week on me hut, I did, ‘n now we’s gotta made pens ‘n boggers,” came another.
“We get free lunch, roight?”
Rog-mohog growled and the complaints quieted down. When it came to ruling ogres, the general rule was that strength was the key to power, and strength comes in many shapes and forms. It wasn’t that Rog-mohog was particularly mighty; plenty of ogres outsized and outweighed him. Rog-mohog wasn’t necessarily particularly wealthy, either; he had a number of boars, yes, but his herd size paled in comparison to ogres like Crunch.
No, what Rog-mohog had in terms of legitimacy was a mind like his father’s. Therefore, none dared oppose him. Most ogres knew to punch and kick, but someone titled ‘the Brainy’ was bound to know a third attack - and who could defend against such a secret technique?
So sure, infighting was certainly common in the tribe, but only a small, teeny, tiny minority dared directly speak threats and challenge the big boss himself. Rog-mohog knew this well, and milked it for all it was worth.
“To answer all your queshuns,” the chieftain started and walked over to the first who had complained. It was a lady, from the goat clan judging from the sour stink of old milk and the horned ram skull dangling from a dry sinew necklace about her neck. She was a head taller than him, but shrunk to half the chieftain’s size as he approached. Rog-mohog stared her a few feet further down. Then, he grabbed her by the thick fur around her neck, destabilised her and used her own weight to toss her over his leg, sending her tumbling into a nearby tent, bowling down six others in the process. The chieftain kicked a cloud of dust in her direction and spat, “GET TO BLOOMIN’ WORK, YE LAZY GITS!”
None dared speak up, for the chieftain’s word formed a lid on the conversation so heavy that ‘up’ became a fictional direction. With hung heads, the ogres began to gather bone, sticks, tall grass, rocks - whatever could be used to made fences and walls. They begun to dig away at the surface of the steppe around their camp with some aid from the shovel-nosed pigs - it was necessary to keep sufficient mud for the pigs to wallow in when it got hot. Ogres went over to the nearby brooke running down the mountainside, gathered water in their hands, lost half of it on the way back, and dropped it on the exposed clay to create mud. They stomped and trampled the wet mix, and the boars rolled around in ecstacy.
The fences themselves were of shoddy quality, however, and even blind pigs could easily escape them. As it turned out, half the workforce had abandoned the project before it even started, leaving the other half to start it alone, which subsequently caused another quarter to leave out of sheer belief that their dwindled number would never ever finish the project - ever. Now Rog-mohog was annoyed - angry, even - and rounded up all the workers again. This next time, however, he divided them into work teams and gave one on each team a club each.
“Roight,” he told the clubbers as they admired their crude weapons. “I’s gunna give you a job now, aight. When the others start workin, you-- Crumpus, Crumpus! Pay attenshun!”
The ogre known as Crumpus stopped watching the neat little dung beetles on the ground and stood back up. “Sorry.”
The chieftain sighed. “Roight! When others start workin’, you keep an eye on ‘um. If they stop workin’, you smack ‘um ‘ard ‘n good. Got it?”
The ogres exchanged malicious grins and patted their palms with their clubs. The chieftain nodded in approval. “Good. You’s my taskmasters - someone do somefin’ bad at work, you smack ‘em ‘ard so they don’t do it again.”
“Roight!” the taskmasters yelled and stormed off towards the pens-in-production. Rog-mohog watched them with pride in his chest, then light disappointment as one of them already begun to hammer away at someone who actually had been doing their job, only that the job consisted of sitting still to tie sinews to the bone fences.
Oh, well, at least the work was moving along smoothly.
X) Offer a sacrifice to the Boar Spirit for guidance. Among other things, the spirit tells them to build pig pens. A) Improve food: The Ox clan completely ignored the sacrifice to the Boar Spirit and went north to tame some oxen, much to the disapproval of the chieftain. C+X) Improve infrastructure: Start building pig pens. Fail miserably because ogres are terrible at focusing on things for very long. Start over again by introducing a taskmaster force to police those who take break. ???. Profit.
The ground shook under Yullian’s feet. He looked up, a great turtle that dwarfed the grassy hills of the countryside was meandering on great legs in the distance. It’s entire body was a silhouette of purple mist, shrouded in the fog of distance, but the outline was clear. Yullian’s eyes widened, a hollow wind swishing by him as he thought.
Slowly his pygmy legs stretched and his body grew lithe and athletic rather than bulky until an Olympian of a dreamer took form. With a monochrome smile, Yullian kicked off the ground, his great sprint a rash of incredible bounding leaps. As he gained speed, the hills each became single steps -- his plain form darting from crest to crest with little exhaustion.
Finally the mighty legs of the mountainous turtle broke from the fog of distance, their incredible scales and sea bottom color blanketing the horizon as Yullian grew closer and closer. Yullian’s grin grew cheshire and with one final leap, he bounded right onto the leg of the mighty creature.
Zhong Wang scanned the crisp rice paper before him. With a ginger pinch he moved the rice paper to the side, ancient characters scrawled down its length. His eyes flicked to the new paper -- Shengshi’s handwriting swooping and dashing expertly before him. He gulped, he was hearing the very demands of the flow in his head -- his eyes translating the edicts of a God.
The room he sat in still smelt of worked wood and staining oils now mixed with the complimenting smell of a fire that whispered in a stone pit. The chair he sat in looked more ornate than comfortable, with rolling grotesques smoothly marked into the wood, giving it the look of a tsunami of interwoven snakes -- and if not for the goose down stuff cushion on the seat and back, it may have been. The dreamers furs had been replaced with a simple solid black, white trimmed robe he had found in his dresser, completing the image of the scholar.
He tugged on his long, thin beard, kept in the Temüjin style, his black eyes flickering. A small wooden plate sat beside him, an untouched row of roasted vegetables sat cold next to a slice of poultry that save for a few pinches, was equally untouched. Even the wooden cup besides it found itself stained with undrunken wine, Zhong Wang’s mouth defiantly dry.
“Master Wang,” Nergui piped up from the entrance to the study, her hands were folded in her lap and head bowed in respect. Without looking up from the work of Shengshi, Wang let out an indicating grunt. Nergui looked up from her bow, the fire light catching her single blue eye and reflecting off her golden orange, “Wen Yang has said he has finished chronicling the acts of leadership in the style and biography of Elder Chagatai...”
Wang nodded, still not looking up, “Good... good...” His voice was distant.
“Master Wang, if I may?” Nergui stepped into the room, her eyes following the untouched food. She didn’t wait for Wang to answer before she leaned over him and pushed the plate closer to the man. He blinked, her arm coming between him and the rice paper. With a slightly gaped expression he looked over at her, his eyes bloodshot and strained.
“You need to eat,” Nergui insisted, the narrow nose of Temüjin’s clan giving her a demanding look.
Wang sat back in his chair, his arms dangling to his sides, alabaster brow furrowed, “I know what I need to do.” He snapped. Nergui raised her brows in surprise and Wang pinched the bridge of his brow, finally closing his eyes.
“I’m sorry, but there is a lot of work to be done,” Zhong Wang exhaled, “I’m equal parts giddy as I am... stressed, I suppose.”
“You know,” Zhong Wang cut her off and pointed at the rice paper, folding one leg over the other as he leaned back, “According to the divine words of his Lordship Shengshi, you have breached your role as my apprentice in daring to demand an action of me.”
Nergui took a step back and turned her head to give him a sideways glance, “Do you intend to reprimand me?”
“If you were Li Jian, sure,” Zhong Wang quipped, “But you have a point,” He looked over to the food, “I suppose I got caught up in it all.”
“I’d say so,” Nergui nodded with an unamused face.
“I’m sorry, again,” Zhong Wang reiterated, “Thank you for your concern, Nergui. I appreciate it.”
“I wouldn’t do it otherwise,” She gave him a slanted smile, “I hope we will see you in the evening for supper.”
“Who’s cooking?” Zhong Wang turned to look at her as she started her exit. Nergui stopped and tapped her chin, “Wen Song.”
Wen Song could not quite wrap her head around the odd vegetable in her hand. It responded stubbornly to her kitchen knife, and no matter how long she boiled it, it didn’t turn to porridge. She picked one up, its dark green, leathery exterior taunting her with a grin-like sheen. She bit into it, the vegetable snapping satisfactorily between her teeth. Its flavour was mostly empty, but it had a delicious freshness to it, completed by a gentle bitterness in the background. She swallowed and hummed, looking back into the boiling pot where a few of the vegetables cousins defiantly refused to break apart. She muttered to herself as she added some handfuls of millet to the boiling water along with some sliced carrots and a handful of salt.
These ‘cucumbers’ made for a terrible porridge base, she proclaimed internally.
The door to the kitchen suddenly swung open. An athletic looking man entered, a huge sack hefted over his shoulder, putting a strained look on an otherwise pleasant face. A single red bar striped down from his forehead, splitting his face in two. Giving Song not much more than a nod, he thumped the sack onto a counter near her and clapped dust off his hands, “Couple of passing birds and some more vegetables from the garden... don’t ask me why they put them in the same sack.” He shook his head and put his hands on his hips, as if waiting for something.
“Oh, they did that again? I thought I’d told them to keep them separate!” Song huffed and pulled open the bag to fish the bloody birds out. “The blood makes the vegetables to bad! Now I gotta wash them all again… Ugh!” She put a carcass on the counter and stuck her hand into the sack again. “Oh, always leaving me with the nasty work… Anyway, thank you for bringing it in and--” She took a moment to properly scan the man. “Who are you?”
“Right! I don’t think we’ve actually met before,” The man started, his eyes glancing at the bag, “My name is Huang, oh!” He pushed the bag, the vegetables on the bottom threatening to shift the bag off the counter, “Maybe you’d like a little help with the preparation?”
“Huang?” Song repeated suspiciously. “The Wen family doesn’t have a Huang. What family are you from?”
Huang pursed his lips, guilty eyes glancing away from Song, “The Wen family does... have a Huang.” He muttered almost to himself, “It’s not something I’d like to really get into, especially if we are just meeting -- I don’t even know your name.”
Song’s hard eyes became a scowl and she tightened her hand around the kitchen knife in her hand. “No, the Wen family does -not- have a Huang. I would know because I am Wen Song, daughter of Wen Tian and Li Sima--” she pointed an accusing finger at Huang’s face. “-- and I have neither cousins, siblings, nieces, nephews, uncles nor aunts with that name.”
Huang’s guilty eyes shimmered back a teary frustration, “Of course you don’t.” He took a step forward, “My entire life has been a wash of hearing things like that.” He pointed his own finger, “But did you ever--” He huffed a frustrated breath, voice cracking, “Have you ever considered what happens to the baby that no wanted?” His face was red, “A mistake.” He bit the inside of his cheek, “K’nell adore the Chagatai clan for taking me in, but--” He shifted and began to turn away, waving a hand with a ‘bah’. “I don’t need this, I just deliver the vegetables.” Song’s finger faltered and she gasped. “Oh my gods, I’m so sorry, I didn’t--!” She looked side to side in search of something. “I got suspicious, I’m so sorry! Here, can I offer you some porridge? Please, I didn’t know you were adopted!”
Huang flinched at the word, turning back to Song, “It’s... it’s fine.” He let out a long sigh and checked his eye for a tear, “It’s a sensitive topic.” He mulled for a second, “But you know, it is nice to finally be able to say that out loud to someone from my birth family.” He gave a weak smile, “Maybe porridge would be a nice idea.”
Song scooped up some millet gruel into a clay bowl and offered it to Huang. In between the dull, gray grains floated a couple of sad whole cucumbers and a number of hard carrot slices.
“Say, Song?” Huang peered down at the bowl, gingerly taking it from the woman.
“A thousand thanks, and all that... but...” Huang cleared his throat, “This is for the Academy supper isn’t it? That’s what they told me the bag was for, at least. And I’m just thinking.” he put the bowl on the counter, “The Academy supper.” He reiterated, “Maybe you’d like a little extra help preparing for it all? I think have a few ideas for...” He poked a cucumber.
“Oh, that’s fine, I’m almost done,” Song insisted politely. “Please, have a spoonful.”
Huang dipped a spoon into the porridge and looked back up at his gullible host, her awaiting smile edging him on. With a squint in one of his eyes, Huang slurped -- and crunched -- all in one bite. He gulped, “Gods that’s ter..” He paused, “Tasty.” He pounded a fist to his chest to help him swallow, “I’ll need your recipe.”
“Really? Oh, that makes me so happy to hear! It’s really simple, really - water, millet, cucumbers and carrots. Oh, and salt. Lots and lots of salt.” She was about to dip her finger into the pot, then retracted it with a giggle. “Oh, silly me, no, that’s for the hardworking scholars.”
“Salt?” Huang looked up from his bowl, his tongue still awash with the overwhelming amount, “I didn’t even notice... it must’ve boiled out,” He frowned.
“Oh, really?” Song perked up and frowned into the boiling pot. “I was certain I’d… Oh, well, if you say so!” She walked over to a nearby sack, stuck her fist into it and pulled out a punch of salt. The white powdered drizzled onto the wooden floor like snow. She dropped it into the miserable porridge and stirred around. “There, that should be enough, I think!”
Huang leaned over her shoulder and appraised the boiling mess. With a flick of his finger, he launched a tiny sprinkle more, “Extra for a little luck, eh?” He winked.
“You’re pretty smart,” Song praised, then frowned and gently pushed him away. “Also a bit too close. I’m spoken for, I’ll have you know.”
“Oh no!,” Huang waved his hands, “I have no intentions on a family member. Just a man who knows his food, is all.” He hummed, a funny little smile coming to his face, “Well hold on now.” He rubbed his chin, “What man could have snagged such a prize as our resident master chef? Don’t tell me it’s Li Jian.” He held out a stopping palm, “You are too good for the likes of him!”
Song blushed a little and stifled a vain giggle. “W-well, if you must know, I am to be wed to the most handsome, dreamy, creamy (oh creamy!) man who ever walked this godly world--” She drew a breath and exhaled a sigh of adoration. She cupped her hands on her cheeks. “Urangtai.”
“Urangtai,” Huang said slowly, “Well that’s terrific.” He smiled wide, “When is the wedding!? I must attend!”
“Oh, it’s… Still being planned,” Song confessed with a huff. “My husband-to-be is just so busy and hardworking all the time… He just wants me (and our future forty children) to be happy. Oh, he’s just perfect, isn’t he?”
Before Huang could answer, an alabaster head poked in from the front entrance to the kitchen. Batbayaar looked between the two with a disinterested face before announcing in his deep voice, “Dinner time.” With a jump of his brows he nodded and slipped back out.
Huang closed his gaping mouth, still caught mid word, “Song, how about I help you bring out the food?”
The two busted out of the kitchen, arms completely full with steaming bowls and utensils. The dining room was still rather plain, with only a few decorations here and there on various shelves, and most of them taking the form of mini shrines to various gods of the Dreamers. The centerpiece was a long rectangle table carved out of a dark wood and polished to a shine. At the head, Zhong Wang sat with his hands placed in his lap, fingers entwined and a chatting Nergui relating some casual banter in his left ear, a curl on his lips. To his right, Wen Yang sat idling with a single copstick. Down the line was then Li Jian, Batbayaar, and Wen Taishen with a loop of empty chairs leading back to Nergui.
The first bowl was placed in front of Zhong Wang by a smiling Huang. The master looked up at the man as he placed the utensils down expertly. Wang squinted, Nergui growing quiet. Craning his head so he could get a full view of Huang he suddenly asked, “Who are you? You’re not Li Ying.”
“She was feeling ill today, so I took her delivery--” Huang started, his words interrupted by Song pointed an accusing finger at Wang.
“Master Wang, you’re being insensitive! This is Wen Huang, my long lost brother. He was raised by Chagatai’s family and later adopted into mine. He’s just doing his best, don’t call him out.”
Wang held up his hands for silence, a little too used to her outbursts, “Wen Song, please.” He shook his head, “Both of you, just finish your task and please sit.” He looked over at Huang, “I’m sorry, take a seat Wen Huang.”
“Wait,” Huang looked at Wang, “Finish or seat?”
Wang looked over at Nergui, the days work plastered on his face. Nergui cleared her throat and addressed Huang, “Finish your task and then sit.”
Huang smiled over at Song and the two completed their rounds diligently, a small chatter starting over the table once more. As the last two bowls were placed, Huang took a seat across from Li Jian, Song sitting beside him.
Li Jian looked up from his bowl, not having yet taken a bite. He pointed a spoon at Huang, “Chagatai’s family, eh?”
Huang nodded and Li Jian put his elbows on the table, folding his hands suspiciously, “Well I spent a lot of time with the Chagatai clan.”
“Did you?” Huang blinked, a nigh invisible blue sparkle flashing in the corner of his eye. Jian sneezed suddenly and nodded, “No, I didn’t.” He blinked at his own words, “I’m sorry, what I meant to say is absolutely not.” He looked down at his bowl with a slight wonder, “I’m trying to say, I’ve never met them.”
“Li Jim, what are you on about?” Nergui suddenly snapped.
“It’s Li Jian,” Jian corrected.
“That’s what I said, John,” She furrowed her brow, “Are you feeling alright?”
Jian scoffed and puffed up a little, “I feel like shit.” His shoulders drooped, “No wait. Really, I’m not fine.”
“Long Tim!” Wang narrowed his eyes, “Cursing at our dinner table? Really? I understand the day was long but...”
Wen Taishan reached out to pat Li Jian on the shoulder. “Jacob, are you alright? Would you like me to bring you something?”
Li Jian scurried the hand away, “I’m...” He huffed.
“Wen Taishan,” Zhong Wang cleared his throat, “Could you escort Limp Joe to his quarters, I fear work has tangled his mind and stomach.”
“You don’t understand!” Li Jian started, “I think that’s a great idea!”
Taishan nodded and took Li gently under the arm and tried to pick him up. Defeated, Li Jian hung his head and followed Taishan’s lead. As their voices became lower and lower, Taishan quietly said, “I’ll bring some hot tea and porridge to your room when you wake up, alright, Jonathan?” Then the door closed behind them.
Huang pinched the bridge of his nose, and shook his head. Zhong Wang tucked a slant in his cheek as he watched the door close. As it clicked he looked down at the goop before him, “My friends.” He started, “May we pray our thanks to the Lord of the Harvest, Shengshi, and to our Elder Mothers and the God of Tendlepog.” He paused, “Now let us eat.”
It was almost instant. The first spoon slipped out of Nergui’s mouth and splattered across the table as she started to gag, Yan joining in with a retch of his own. Zhong Wang blinked wildly as water dripped out from the corners of his eyes, “S...saaaalt. So much...” He coughed, “Salt.”
Song blinked. “Oh, come on, it’s not that bad.” She took her own spoon and shoved a tall heap of the glue-like gruel into her mouth. A second passed before she spat it back into her bowl and coughed. “BLEH! Gods, that’s terrible! Huang, you lied to me!”
“Well now hold on!” Huang scrunched his nose and held out a spoon of his own goop to her, “That’s a heavy word.” He jabbed the spoon and took a bite off of it, “Mine is fine.” He pushed the bowl towards her, “Go ahead.”
Song looked at him in disbelief and immediately take a spoonful of his gruel. A surprisingly sweet taste trickled down over her, clamping her mouth shut. She looked over at Huang, a gentle blue twinkle in one of his eyes as what may have been an objection forming turned into a happy little hum.
Huang turned to the others, “See?”
Zhong Wang looked as if he had gained a new wrinkle on his late thirty year old face as he stared at the scene before him. Nergui had a corner of her sleeve in her mouth as she attempted to rub the salt from her teeth, Yang was braving another taste with the tip of his tongue, and Huang sat patiently while Song hummed a happy tune, seemingly content with the food.
Zhong Wang threw his cloth napkin into his bowl and stood up, “I have work to do,” He announced, a disappointment in his voice. He looked at Song, but simply sighed before starting to leave. Nergui popped up and quickly trailed him, muffling something through her sleeve. Yang gave the remaining two a look before letting his spoon plop back into the bowl. With a gentle shake of his head he stood up to leave.
The door clicked and suddenly Song was released from her humming, with Huang bursting into a fitful giggle. Song looked around in utter confusion and then back down at her bowl.
“Wh-where did everyone go?! What happened?” She picked up a limp cucumber. “Oh, how could I have been so stupid… I added way too much… Urangtai’s gonna hate me.”
“I don’t see how that has to do with any of this,” Huang kicked his boots up to the table and leaned back in his chair. A content smile formed on his face as he tucked his arms behind his head.
“He’s going to hear all about this, and that’s going to make him doubt my cooking, and he’ll start eating other women’s cooking, and then he’ll have an affair and start a family with them, and--” She slumped down in her chair and slammed her forehead on the table. “I’m no good…”
“Aw, come now,” Huang comforted, “I mean for all we know, he already eats other women’s cooking. I bet this won’t change a thing.”
“W-... What?” Song whimpered heartbrokenly.
Huang gave a sympathetic pout and swung his legs off the table. Sitting up right he turned to Song, his face bearing the look of a sudden revelation, “You know, Song, I just thought of something.” His voice was uncharacteristically cheery for the conversation.
Song broke out of a quiet sob and looked up with teary eyes. “What?”
“I know of a way to ensure that Urangtai does indeed love you, and not only that, but how to ensure that he could never look at another woman let alone think of them above you,” Huang tapped his chin thoughtfully, “Oh my, you’d be absolutely smothered with his love, I’m sure of it.”
Song gasped and rocketed to her feet, all despair replaced with desperate joy. “Really?! How?!”
Huang held up a palm, “Song, what I’m about to tell you must remain a secret... for now at least. Do you think you can keep such a secret... from all?”
Song nodded fiercely.
“Well,” Huang leaned in conspiratorially, “I know of a God.” he paused, “Not one you’ve likely ever heard of, but one who is willing to personally help you win your lover over.”
Song’s eyes went wide. “R-really?” She lowered her voice and leaned in. “Who is it?”
“Yullian,” Huang said softly, looking over his shoulder almost for show before dropping to a complete whisper, his eyes flashing a sudden gold, “Me.”
Song slowly pulled away, seemingly trying to verify whether what she had heard actually had been said. “Huang, it’s-... It’s arrogant to call yourself a-...” She shuffled her feet sheepishly. “There… Is no Wen Huang, is there? You tricked me completely.”
“Oh no, no!” Yullian flashed a frown. He flicked his wrist and a long stemmed flower with curling pink pedals appeared in his hand. He tucked it into the stunned woman’s hair and nodded, “I didn’t trick you so much as you suddenly became my little partner in fun, and now that we did something I wanted to do, I think it is only fair we make sure my new friend’s husband is indeed her ‘yours truly’. Imagine that? All in one afternoon you’ve befriended a god and by the week is over you’ll be sleeping under the arms of your beloved, warm and cozy.”
Song looked down still. She twiddled her thumbs and looked up momentarily. “Can you really do that?”
“Lady, you’ll have to fight your way to the door -- between your forty bright eyed children and loving husband, you’ll be surprised to ever feel anything but completely devoted to,” Yullian gave a single nod.
Twinkles filled Song’s eyes and a stupid smile began to form on her lips. She nodded in a slow, dreaming manner and even blurted out a small giggle. “I really like the sound of that. Okay, what do you want me to do?”
“Well for now,” Yullian tapped his chin, “I’ll need you to simply relax, it must be jarring meeting a god so suddenly, let alone getting a wish granted just like that. So take the day off, soak in the sun, smile. If you run into Li Ying, tell her the weird bird is gone. Just really enjoy yourself.” Yullian gave a happy smile, “Oh and..” he wagged his finger and cleared his throat, “I forgot, after I do this for you and help you realize your wildest romantic fantasies with your beloved. AHEM.. Erm.. I’ll have just one itty bitty favor to ask of you in return, nothing big though.”
“Anything!” Song replied eagerly.
“Great!” Yullian silently clapped his hands, “Then I’ll visit you tonight after Heliopolis has set and then and there we can sort it all out. Enjoy your day... friend.” Yullian winked and left the room. Song stood still for a quiet moment. Making sure nobody was around first, she then skipped into the air and squealed silently to herself while victoriously throwing her arms in the air. She bounced around in circles, giggling triumphantly to herself.
She would get her love! She would win!
Yullian starting: 2MP 4FP
0mp (discount) spent on temporarily cursing Li Jian to have their name misspoken and reverse their vocal affirmatives.
0mp (discount) spent on temporarily cursing Wen Song to hum happily whenever she tried to speak.
Their faces, priceless. Ending: 2MP 4FP
Hermian Academy start: 0 +1 Minor role +1 Major role +1 Funtime with friends
End: 3 prestigios.
We open with Yullian finding the great dreamer city. We skip to the academy where an obsessed Zhong Wang is scouring the works of Shengshi. A concerned Nergui enters his study and insists that he eats and then after a brief confrontation and apology, Nergui invites him to have supper with her and the other apprentices, cooked by Wen Song.
Wen Song is cooking really bad porridge, her culinary skills more than lacking. A man by the name of Huang (Yullian) enters the kitchen and drops off a delivery of food for the pantry. Song declares she never met him before and he convinces her that he is a bastard of the Wen clan. Song buys it and she offers him the gruel. He upon finding out that it is extremely salty, suggests that it isn’t and without taste testing, Song believes him and adds MUCH more salt.
Casually she drops that she is madly inlove with Urangtai and then dinner is called. At dinner, Wang is too tired to even question Song’s explanation of who the hell Huang is and lets him join them for dinner. Li Jian is not buying it however, but before he could counter Yullian’s disguise, he is cursed and hilarity ensues. Eventually Jian is forced to leave the room, Yullian is safe once more.
A short grace by Wang and they dig into the gruel. Immediately they all start hacking at its saltiness and Song is upset. She claims that Huang lied to her, and in response Yullian has her try his own gruel, which curses her to hum happily as if it is just fine. Sick of this shit, Wang leaves for his study and is followed by his apprentices.
Yullian uncurses Song and she bawls her eyes out, worried that word of her failure will leak out and force Urangtai to leave her. Yullian reveals his godly nature and gets her to calm down, agreeing to not only make Urangtai fall madly in love with her, but to never have eyes for another woman ever. Song is pleased and then Yullian agrees to do it in return for a favor later on.
“Right, issat how you want it, bruv?” Oogor asked and pointed a fat sausage of a finger at the poor excuse for an attempt at a tipi. Rog-mohog thought to himself that the way the sticks were stacked somewhat reminded him of an unlit bonfire. The pelt lazily wrapped around them appeared as though it was meant to keep the sticks nice and cozy, and the half-attempt at tying anything together with sinew was reminiscent of thread’s natural tendency to knot itself together.
Rog-mohog dug two log-like fingers deep into his eyes and let out a groan that could’ve been mistaken for a minor quake. In a voice like grinding stone, he muttered, “No, Oogor… Tha’s not how I wanted it. You bloomin’ thick in the noggin or somefin’? I wanted a house - a house - ‘n all you’s given me’s a lump’a sticks wrapped in a bundle. What’m I gonna do withit, huh?”
Oogor hung his head. “Oi, I worked pretty hard on it, y’know.”
Rog-mohog retracted his leg, skipped once to close in and sent a mighty kick into the stick bundle, sending it straight into the nearby mountain wall and shattering it into splinters. Oogor winced and hunkered down underneath his hands. The chief stomped over and grabbed the shivering male by the messy hair on his scalp. He tugged the whimpering ogre’s face up to his own and gave it a salty scowl.
“You’s gonna make a bigger, better hut for your boss, or I’m gunna smack you so hard you gonna have a twitch, I swear on me dad.”
Oogor nodded desperately. “Sure, sure, sure! Got you covered, bruv! You can trust me!”
“I don’t, you bloomin’ git, so you better make it good.” He let go of the hair and Oogor sprinted over to salvage what he could from the wood piles. Rog-mohog growled to himself and stomped off. A moment’s concentration on thinking about what weapon to beat Oogor with eventually brought him to a cliff overlooking the rest of the camp in the making down below. Herds of animals flocked around the outer rim of the settlement, shepherded by furry giants wielding sharpened sticks. More and more ogres managed to erect decent tents in time, and primitive fences made of bone, grass and wood were slowly being erected around designated animal pens.
“Oi, big boss.”
The voice broke Rog-mohog out of his contemplation and he turned. It was Wololo, the tribe shaman, his crooked stature seemingly caving underneath a huge boar pelt over his shoulders and head. He supported himself on a staff made from the trunk of a sapling oak. Rog-mohog bobbed his head at him. “Wha’chu want, sham?”
“Is almost time for prayin’, boss,” Wololo responded in his feint shadow of a voice. Rog-mohog nodded again and got to his feet with a strained sigh.
“Oight. I’m gunna find a right fine hog. We’re giving to the Boar Spirit today, right?” Wololo nodded. “‘S right, boss. Boar Spirit needs a toppa’ if he’s gunna keep our pigs fat ‘n cows milky.”
“‘S natural,” Rog-mohog reasoned and descended the mountain. With difficulty, the old, crepid shaman snailed down after him.
The camp seemed to part before the chieftain, many ogres either slinking away sheepishly or standing up to nod or grunt a greeting. Therefore, the stroll to the outer edge of the camp took merely a few minutes. There were three great clans he had to govern - his own, the Pig Clan, the Ox Clan and the Goat Clan. In the Pig Clan, Rog-Mohog did not have the biggest herd - not by a long shot. That honour belonged to his cousin, Crunch the Lad. To say the least, Crunch and Rog-mohog did not get along very well, not even as subject and leader. Since it was prayer day, though, he could not avoid interacting with Crunch to ask him for a donation. Of all the things in this world Rog-mohog did not like, interacting with Crunch was fairly high on the list.
The furry visage of Crunch came into view among the shepherds. The ogre stared Rog-mohog down and the chieftain stared back, sparks igniting between them and scaring the pigs. Crunch stabbed the butt of his stick into the grassy ground and grunted in tow with a few curious pigs.
“Oi, wha’chu think you’re doin’ here, HUUHN?!” Crunch bellowed at the chieftain. Rog-mohog eyed Crunch up and down, then judged the boars trundling around their legs.
“Here to snatch a pig for prayer day.”
Crunch gurgled up a ball of phlegm and spat it at the ground. Sadly, it hit one of his boars and it looked at him, betrayed. The shepherd left the stick standing in the ground and shoved the chieftain aggressively. “Oh no, you’s not! Snatch one of your own, you git! These’re my pigs, got that understood in that thick noggin, huh?!”
Rog-mohog staggered backwards, then snarled and curled up his fists. “Boar Spirit gunna be bloomin’ mad at you if you don’t gimme a pig right this moment.”
“Then he can be mad for all I care. Sod off!”
Rog-mohog roared and sent a stone-like fist straight into Crunch’s jaw. The shepherd had barely any time to react and fell straight to the ground, knocked out cold. The onlookers blinked at the chieftain shaking his aching fist. The boars around them ran in every direction, squealing. Thinking fast, Rog-mohog sprinted for the nearest one and caught it in a hold. He picked it up by one of its hind legs and hauled it over his back. It squealed and kicked, but this was necessary for the good of the tribe.
He turned at eyed the still-unconscious Crunch. A smile spread across the chieftain’s mouth. Boy, did he love being the boss.
Wenbo had not quite grown used to the view from the clouds - how could he ever? For his whole life, in the same way as every other Dreamer with the exception of Mom, his feet had been planted in good, solid earth with every step and only his mind had even considered the dream of flight. Yet here he was alongside his whole family - aflight aboard a divine ship. Below him came first a sea of white, covering the bedrock of deep blue far, far beneath like a patchy lid. Tendlepog had long since disappeared behind them - tears had been shed in litres across the faces of his clan upon seeing it vanish beyond the horizon. At night, however, they were forever reminded of its existence as they looked up. A somber smile slowly stretched across Wenbo’s face as he loosely fingered the medallion around his neck.
“... The twins will never die… But be united in the afterlife for eternity…” He snickered to himself and felt moisture slide down over his right cheek. He dipped two fingers into the corner of his eye and sniffed.
“What’re you thinking about, dear?”
Wenbo swiftly ran his sleeve over his eyes for a few wipes and turned to face the equally somber half-smile of his wife. Before he could answer, she cupped his cheek in her hand and dabbed away the few remaining tears with the sleeve of her opposite hand. “Was it Chagatai again?”
Wenbo nodded. “All of them, actually, but yes, mainly him.” He gave a heavy-hearted chuckle. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? I who campaigned for us to remain spend my days longing for those that passed on.”
Ai placed a hand over his heart and laid her head against his shoulder. Wenbo caressed the back of white-haired head. “Maybe it is, but it’s not unexpected. You have a big heart, Wen-Wen - one that doesn’t simply break all ties just because it’s worlds apart from its dearest friend.” Wenbo sniffed again and cleared his throat. Ai sighed soothingly and pecked him on his cheek. “It will never pass, dear, but--... Well… We set out to make the most of life here while we still remain. Then, once our end approaches, it’ll be as God said - we will see them again.”
The mighty thunder of the great tower gong shattered the mood and sent both Dreamers diving to shield one another. A faint shout followed the gong, followed by a slightly more audible shout, followed by--
“LAAAAAAND HOOO!” came the booming voice of a Servant on deck. Wenbo and Ai blinked at one another and scrambled to their feet. There, far, far beyond the clouds, nearly to the point that mortals eyes were insufficient, stripes of green, yellow and gray stood out between the blue and white sheets. Soon, the rest of the Dreamers had gathered at the bow and were marvelling at the approaching land far below. Eyebrows were raised, however, as the ship didn’t seem to lose altitude. A few mumbles and questions began to bubble up between the Dreamers. Wenbo walked over to a nearby Servant and asked, “Pardon, master Servant - why aren’t we landing?”
The Servant struggled to hide its discomfort at being called ‘master’ and bowed as low as it could without tipping. “Forgive this one for not being clear earlier, my lord - this is not Jiangzhou’s destination. The Lordship’s land lies beyond this continent.”
“W-well, what’s this place, then?” Wenbo asked and peeked back over the side. Below them were endless green speckled with gray stone tops in between. A particular patch of green looked somewhat uncanny, even from the sky.
“This patch of land is known as the Kick, my lord,” the Servant replied dutifully.
“The Kick,” Wenbo repeated with a rub of his chin. He continued staring down at the unfortunately uneventful woods. His family, too, sat staring at the mesmerising view of something so docile, yet so foreign. With the exception of young Song, no Dreamer did anything but stare down at the endless sea of trees.
Then, as if there suddenly had sprouted a white wall before them, the ship crashed through a thick, warm mass of clouds. Hot, heavy rain whipped against their bodies like a steamy shower. A few reveled in the standing hot bath they were receiving, dancing around in circles on deck; others dove for cover behind and under anything they could find. Wenbo hid behind the dragon’s head at the bow, much to the entertainment of Ai, who stood smirking at him all the while. The occasional lightning bolt crackled between the violent clouds, scaring the rest to jump for cover as well.
A Servant came over to the huddling Ai and Wenbo with a smile and said, “Please do not worry, my lord and lady - His Lordship’s presence causes the lightning to avoid the Holy Vessel. Remaining on deck is entirely safe.”
A lightning bolt bounced off the sacred planks behind the Servant and the Dreamers let out collective screams. Several of the children hunkered down in their parents’ arms, bawling their eyes out. The Servant turned lethargically to the completely unharmed spot and glanced upwards.
“Well, mostly safe,” the Servant corrected and walked towards the Palace. Underneath a table, faint pleas from Song begged Urangtai to keep her safe. The man seemed to curse, her usurpation of his hiding spot having pushed him halfway back out into the rain. Wenbo and Ai blinked at one another. The hot clouds began to dissipate and their wet clothes grew cold and heavy. They had barely had the chance to feel it, however, before the Servants came out with hot tea and blankets for all the Dreamers. Wenbo and Ai huddled together under the same blanket and each accepted a cup of smoked black tea. Its scent was mouthwatering.
“H-hey! I see more land!” came a shout. It was Wen De, their youngest son. He stood next to them at the bow, hopping up and down as he pointed maniacally at the horizon. Wenbo and Ai shuffled to their feet and peeked over the side. There, slowly unwrapping itself from the cloudscape stretched an endless land of green and an eternal plain of red, separated by a range of enormous mountains. To the Dreamer’s utter confusion, these mountains seemed rather content sitting still in the earth, similar to their smaller cousins, the boulders.
“Ey, Urang? What do you think that is?” asked Wen Tian and pointed at a strip of red running out into the boiling strait like a bleeding vein.
Urangtai squinted, Song’s vice-like grip on his arm. He sputtered for a moment in thought before nodding, “It looks like blood.” His eyes widened, “Maybe it is a land of giants.”
“Conclusions!” Zhong Wang tipped his head over the rail with a certain skepticism, “It could very well be a water rich in mineral.”
Wen Tian let out a quiet ‘huh’ and tapped his lips thoughtfully. Wen Bei hoisted her youngest one up in her arms and came over to the rails, peering at the distant red river. The baby in her arms cooed fearfully at the distance to the ground.
“I’m with Urangtai on this one - really looks like blood from here,” she agreed with a frown.
The ship dipped downwards slightly and a few of the Dreamers had to grab onto the surroundings. The enormous gong rang out once more and the baby in Bei’s arms began to squeal. She offered it a sigh and tried to lullaby it to sleep, but was drowned out by a booming call: “ALL BOW BEFORE HIS LORDSHIP, SHENGSHI OF THE THOUSAND STREAMS!”
The palace doors swung open, sending Dreamers on the deck jumping into the air out of sudden fright. Out marched a thousand black-robed Servants, all thundering praises at the command of one crimson clad one in the front. The Dreamers scurried into position, but were quickly rounded up and brought to the very front of the crowd. As the thousand servants fell to their knees, the fifty or so Dreamers stood sheepishly before the approaching snake. Many of them fell into kowtows; some bowed; some had no idea what to do. Regardless, the snake lifted merely a hand and smiled.
“Have you all enjoyed the journey?”
Wenbo and Ai nodded smilingly. “We have, Your Lordship,” the couple confirmed. The others nodded as well and echoed the sentiment.
“That is a relief. I cannot imagine the pain of longing some of you must be going through… It is never easy to leave behind family. I will miss my dearest friend, as well, but to leave behind your own flesh and blood… Do not be afraid to shed tears if you must - tears shed in honour of friends and family are always a blessing.”
Some heads in the small crowd sank and a sniffle or two were heard. The snake cleared his throat and gestured to the green expanse surrounding the ship below. “If I may, I wish to direct your attention away from those tears for now, however, and instead focus it on the land beneath us.”
The snake slithered over to the railing, followed by the Dreamers. “I welcome you to the Dragon’s Foot,” he smiled. “It is an old land - ancient beyond any other landmass in this universe. Life walked this soil before there were fish in the sea; before the black moon Veradax shadowed the night sky. The mountains of Qiangshan are older than the continent of Atokhekwoi; the river Beihe, older than the land of Kalgrun.”
The Dreamers nodded along as if they knew about these places. The snake continued, “Upon the greatest river in this world - Nanhe - we shall land and summon forth your new home.”
The ship’s bow gently cut into the water and enormous waves pushed out on either side of the hull. However, as the Dreamers saw, even these tsunamis were but ripples in comparison to the inland sea that was Nanhe.
“W-where’s the bank?” Wen De asked nervously.
“During the flood season, Nanhe swells to be one hundred kilometres wide, young master De.
“Oh snap,” De whispered. The snake slithered over to Wenbo and Ai and placed a hand on their shoulders.
“Are you ready, then?”
The two blinked at each other and the other equally curious Dreamers and then slowly nodded at Shengshi. The snake nodded back and snapped his fingers. The red-clad Servant in the front of the thousand kneeling rose up and went into the palace. A minute later, the gong sounded for the third time. The snake raised his hands and thundered, “Chuanwang! Arise from the depths and hear the summoning of your creator!”
Another minute passed. The Dreamers bobbed their heads up and down and from side to side to see if they could catch a glimpse of anything happened. Then, as if the inland sea was parting, waves upon waves of water pulled away from the centre of the river to reveal a landmass of purple. Only, it slowly dawned upon the onlookers that it wasn’t a landmass at all, nor was it a mountain, and when a head the size of the very ship they stood on aimed one sky blue eye on the deck, the Dreamers collectively swallowed. The snake clicked his tongue disapprovingly.
“Oh, my dearest little turtle - did those nasty fire giants do that to you?”
The water and trees quivered as the colossal turtle whimpered with a gruesome bass. The snake hushed soothingly and patted a small fraction of the beast’s stone-like snout. “There, there, little one - it’s good that they didn’t get both your eyes. Have you had time to heal?”
While the snake conversed with the turtle monster, the Dreamers stood slack-jawed in awe. Wen Tian nudged Urangtai and said in a quivering voice: “B-bet’cha can’t surplex that, huh.” He laughed nervously.
“Not even Elder Chagatai could,” Urangtai managed to whisper out, “Nor Bataar. Elder Altansarnai... maybe.” He gave a nervous chuckle.
“Maybe,” Wen Tian agreed.
The turtle rumbled again and silenced the bubbling chatter among the Dreamers. The snake turned with a smile.
“Agrees to what, Your Lordship?” Wenbo asked.
“To serve as your home.”
“Our home, Lord?” Zhong Wang spoke up, “If I may...? In what capacity?”
“Your request was to travel the world in comfort. Chuanwang shall make certain of this.” He gestured to the turtle’s shell. “Upon his back, I shall built you a city to serve as your carriage. It will seem dauntingly large at first, but I assure you that, in time, your descendants will have filled it to the point where extensions to and even permanent colonies outside its borders must be made.”
Wen De blinked. “W-with all due respect, Your Lordship - how c-can we live atop a turtle? What will we eat? Where will we gather materials for our work?”
“Great questions, young master De.” Once more, the snake pointed to the shell, in an even more dramatic manner this time. “Your city shall be divided into several sections - one of these will be a great farming estate which harvests will feed all the residents aboard. There may come a time when even these will require expansion, but that time will be many generations from now. As for materials, Chuanwang’s shell offers nothing in terms of clays, stone or metals. These, you must gather from the world around you. As you traverse the land and seas, you will come across various deposits of natural resources. The city’s industrial complex will offer enough storage space to gather large quantities of all of these.”
“In other words, we will live as nomads?” Wenbo proposed. The snake nodded.
“Precisely. I foresee that in the future, the mortal world will very much depend on your great trade routes for all manner of resources you gather from across the world, and you will likewise depend on them for various other resources. Cooperation, growth, wealth - prosperity.” The snake seemed to almost swoon out of sheer anticipation and joy.
“We aren’t complete strangers to the idea,” Zhong Wang nodded, “Before a lot of our families had our own gardens, we followed the Tree Eaters around.” His eyes fell on Urangtai, “You may be a bit too young to remember those days.” He looked back at Shengshi, “My Lord, I do not think there could be a better gift.” He folded his hands together and bowed his head.
“A joy for me to give you, our dearest Dreamers. Now, to construct this city will take time - a long time, and no doubt be a little uncomfortable for my dear Chuanwang here.” Once more, he patted the turtle’s colossal muzzle. “Therefore, I recommend that all of you go to bed for the night, and that you do not ascend back onto to deck until Heliopolis stands at its zenith.”
“Go to bed? But it’s midd--ugh!” Wen Tian barely managed to speak before Wen Bei elbowed him in the stomach. Wenbo and Ai both nodded.
“Of course, Your Lordship. Best of luck to You and to the… Turtle.”
“Chuanwang,” the snake corrected. The turtle huffed.
“Of-- of course. Forgive us, great Chuanwang.” The older couple kowtowed, stood back up and went into the palace. Most of their children and grandchildren followed along.
“My Lord,” Zhong Wang piped up once again, “Would I be out of my standing to request an audience with you at your earliest convenience?”
“Then you have it now, young master Zhong Wang,” the snake replied and gave him a sideways smile.
Zhong Wang folded his hands, “As your Lordship is likely already aware, the Dreamers are versed in Shengshese writing and reading. Our Elder Mother Xiaoli had also bestowed upon us the knowledge of ‘The Flow’.” He pursed his lips, “I was wondering if I may read the sacred writings at the source.” He pushed his explanation further, “I myself was a student of Elder Zhongcheng’s ‘Contemplations’ as well as Elder Mother’s ‘Flow’.”
“Ah, a scholar, I see,” the snake mused and leaned down to get a closer look. He chuckled to himself. “It pains me that I did not seize the opportunity to converse more with your father during the feast, young master Zhong Wang. To see that even civilisations as young as yours dabble in morals and philosophy… Oh, it warms this old serpent’s heart.” The snake placed a hand on Wang’s shoulder. “I grant you unlimited access to my libraries. Whenever you may wish to read or study my literature, simply call upon a Servant and have them take you to my study. I am looking forward to hearing your own ‘contemplations’.”
Zhong Wang bowed his head, “I regret that my Elder never named his contemplations beyond that -- although fitting considering his preaching of pragmatisms. I too look forward to discussing this further.” He tilted his head back up, “I suppose I shall get my ten hours of sleep in now, should your Lordship require nothing further of me.”
“Yes, go rest, young master Zhong Wang. Tomorrow, your new home will be ready.”
The Dreamer turned and entered the palace. As the gates closed behind him, the tremors of tumultuous torrents rung through the deck planks. The muffled soundscape of the outside filled with the rumble of stone, the whistles of wind and splashes of water. Boulders shattered and clumped together; hot metal hissed as it collided with cool water; and through it all, Chuanwang unleashed strained groans and pained roars.
Few of the Dreamers found they could sleep properly that night.
Just about all the Dreamers had gathered early in the feast hall for breakfast, and all around the table, anticipation sparked like static shock. Chuanwang was a great beast, and even now they could hear exhausted droning coming from outside. Ai picked up her teacup with a quivering hand as another roar echoed through the planks of the ship.
“He sounds hurt, mom,” went one of the young and tugged at the hem of his mother’s robe. The mother picked up her child and held her close. Wen De pressed his lips together and gave his father a glance. The old Dreamer Wenbo sat with tears running down his cheeks and struggled to hold back whimpers. More and more faces turned to him, and Wen Bei asked, “What’s it saying, dad? Is it in pain?”
“Very much so, Bei,” Wenbo replied and sniffed. Ai pouted and laid her head on his shoulder. Wenbo swallowed. “However, it’s-... It’s also very brave. It’s known pain before and-... And it seems that it wants to help us. Well, either that, or it’s just very eager to please its creator.”
Some smiles spread throughout the crowd. Wenbo rubbed some teary exhaustion out of his eyes. Ai made a half-smile. “Are you sure you’re alright, Wen-Wen? You laid crying all night on Chuanwang’s behalf. Don’t think I couldn’t hear you.”
“I’ll be fine,” Wenbo assured. “As soon as he feels better and His Lordship’s work is done, I’ll be fine…”
Ai nodded. “Let’s hope he finishes early, then.”
The Servants brought the breakfast course: Various lightly fried vegetables, steamed goods, white rice and millet gruel. The Dreamers naturally missed Mother’s cooking, but all had to agree with her sentiment that it didn’t hold a candle to the eternally dedicated cooks in Jiangzhou’s kitchens. A number of them dreaded the rapidly approaching hour they would be left to their own devices and be forced to cook on their own. Ai in particular was not at all confident that her stalkplum stew could measure up to even a simple rice congee produced by a Servant. A few hours passed this way, with small meals speckled between sessions of tea and conversation. Before long, enough hours had passed that dawn stood at its peak. Wenbo patted the corner of his mouth with a handkerchief and adjusted the horned crown atop his head. He and Ai rose first, followed by the rest of the host. By a train of Servants they were led to the gates of the palace. The Dreamers all sucked in agitated breaths.
The gates were pushed open; the Dreamers walked outside.
What greeted them stole away that breath they’d drawn.
Before them, the great shadow of Chuanwang darkened the whole ship as before, yet atop the massive turtle’s shell grew enormous, pagoda-like spires of crimson bricks linked together by massive, red stone walls. From their perspective, it was massively difficult to see what was behind those walls, but the tallest among them to barely see the faintest signs of rooftops beyond the walls. So caught in the magnificence were they that they barely noticed the snake approaching.
“Do not fall in love just yet - you have not even seen the inside,” he snickered.
The Dreamers snapped out of their awe just in time to see Chuanwang turn about face, revealing his left side to the ship. There, down the entirely of the shell, all the way to what would be the ground if the massive turtle retracted its legs, ran a long, robust staircase leading up to a great red gate. The snake begun to climb the stairs and waved the others along.
“Come on now - come witness my finest work.”
Eagerly Dreamers ran up the stairs, making certain, however, not to run past Shengshi himself. Nevertheless, as the steps began to number in the hundreds, the enthusiasm died down a little. Some children, especially, sat down on the steps to sulk, much to the dismay of their parents.
Song, the thin alabaster-haired woman of Urangtai’s chagrin, whispered silk in his ear as she clung to him and every step he took, “Urangtai, why don’t you carry me in those arms of yours?” She let out an excited giggle.
Silk as it may be, Urangtai’s face twisted, “I uh, I don’t think that’s a good idea, Song.” He mumbled, an ounce of discomfort dripping from his voice -- her obsessive eyes scanning his face.
"Well, why not?" she protested and groaned dramatically as she climbed another five steps.
“I...” He shook his head, finding a different set of words, “What if I dropped you?”
"Am I that heavy?" Song pouted. "Would you drop me?"
“I would.” His eyes opened wide, “n’t! I wouldn’t. I don’t know Song, maybe I could just get a little space?”
Luckily, before the frustrated girl could form a retort, a bellow came from the snake atop the stairs, followed by awed gasps from the rest of the Dreamers. The couple rushed up the remaining steps to witness the other side of the great red gate:
A long paved road ran roughly a hundred metres ahead, branching into various smaller roads along the way. As the group followed the road, they saw several cold kilns ready to be lit and set to fire clay, and multiple forges and smithies. To their right were large, empty wooden platforms and long, rectangular stone houses, doubtlessly the aforementioned storage areas.
"Welcome to the industrial square," the snake said. "This is where you will work with the materials you gather as you travel the world. As of now, I have built you smithies, kilns, tanneries and carpenter shops. In time, you may repurpose old shops or construct new ones as you uncover new trades to pursue."
Wen De blinked at a nearby kiln. A stupidly excited grin crossed his face. "Such amazing craftsmanship! Oh, I cannot wait to get started! I'll make some pots first - with fine patterns!" Wenbo and Ai chuckled proudly. The snake nodded as well.
Urangtai looked to the forges, his mind splitting with thoughts. The daze of the dreamers recent blessing still buzzed in his ears and he knew right then, he wanted to master the ways of metal. He tugged away from Song, the woman already having forgotten his pleas for space and took a step towards the flat face of an anvil. Despite being so many steps away, he could almost feel the cold stone under his fingers.
Surprisingly, Song had not clung to his arm as he walked away, for she had been pulled into conversation with her mother and sisters about the beautiful palace teasing its position behind an inner wall.
The rest of the group followed the southward-going road towards yet another gate. The snake pushed it open to reveal massive fields, already ready to sprout. In the centre of the area grew a great field of wheat; on each side grew smaller patches of alternating vegetables; south of those, behind a low red brick fence grew tall fruit and nut trees of various kinds. Insects buzzed blissfully about the area, and scattered between the many gardens were both silos and houses. To the far back of the district stood a tall, rectangular building, broadside facing the Dreamers. The snake raised his hand towards it.
"This is the granary. Here, your harvest may be stored for a longer time than if you were to keep it in baskets at home. A fire in the bottom keeps the air dry, and there are vents at the very top for hot, moist air to exit through." He gestured to the rest of the area. "The rest of what you see is known as the agricultural hub. I expected that most of you will work most of your days here to support your growing population. Already, I have planted wheat, carrots, cabbage, spring onions, garlic, cucumbers and millet for you. Due to the city's placement, however, I strongly suggest that you do not plant anything that is too reliant on consistent water supplies. Rain will come, certainly, but Chuanwang cannot support any rivers or mountains on his back - the only water that will be available to you here will be that which you gather, boil or catch." He drummed his chin as if trying to remember anything else. "Ah, yes, livestock - you can find water buffalo to the north past Qiangshan. They make for suitable companions and can eat the grass, flowers and moss growing on Chuanwang's shell."
Wenbo and Ai nodded along, with Zhong Wang right behind them. Wen Tian walked over to a carrot stalk and pulled it out of the ground. It was the largest one any Dreamer had seen - it could almost feed three.
"Expect that level of quality if you sow the fields yourselves, dear Dreamers," the snake promised with a grin. Wen Tian's eyes flickered with amazement and he bit into the vegetable, dirt and all.
"This is so good," he whimpered happily, a few children looking longingly at the vegetable.
"Moving on," said the snake and continued along the centre of the hub, up towards a particularly large gate in the great inner wall. Ai and her daughters whispered possible purposes of the mysterious majestic building barely revealing itself from behind the crimson bricks, and as the snake shoved up this gate as well, it became abundantly clear that among them, the most creative had been right.
Before them stood a tall palace of red and gold, topped with black stone tiles. Flower gardens filled the spaces between the walls and the paved roads, and the fragrance was heavenly. The snake swung out his arms proudly and shouted, "This is the Dreaming Palace! Not to be confused with the Palace of Dreams, no - it is but a mere smoking match compared to the beautiful chandelier that is K'nell's home. Still, I have tried to make it as close to my perception of a castle worthy of a god." He pointed at two houses flanking the road on each side. "These will one day serve as guard posts when the royal family will need them."
"Royal family, Your Lordship?" Wenbo asked emptily.
"Why yes! The Wen Clan are royal blood now. I thought I told the servants to call you by the titles 'lord' and 'lady'." He eyed Ai and Wenbo.
"Huh… They… Might have done so," Wenbo mumbled. "I confess I've been a little clouded in the head on account of everything that's happened."
"Understandable," the snake soothed. He turned back to the palace. "Due to its size, the palace will also serve as your temple to the gods. Make certain to be faithful to them first and foremost, and only greatness will await you."
Zhong Wang stared longingly at the building before turning to Shengshi, “My Lord?”
“Forgive my asking, and do not take the question as a buffer for my awe at your work,” Zhong Wang folded his hands, clearly a little nervous, “But where will those not of Wenbo, reside?”
"Ah, yes - we will get there soon. I believe your home is next on the tour."
Zhong Wang bowed his head, “Thank you, my Lord.”
"You may explore the inside of the palace later everyone. Please come along for our next destination." The snake slithered around the great palace, and many Dreamers stopped on multiple occasions to marvel at the architecture. The paved roads stopped and became a lightly cobbled path flanked by flowers as far as the eyes could see. Small ponds of rainwater formed in small indents in the ground. An idyllic aura filled the air.
“... I could live here for a time,” Wenbo thought out loud. Ai squeezed his arm.
“Well, good thing we will, huh? Imagine it: waking up to this view, then step into the fields and work… It’ll be just like home! With a bigger house!” She sighed in relief. “No more drafts through that dumb curtain door.”
“... I worked hard on that,” Wen Fei muttered to herself.
The snake pushed open a great gate behind the palace and the doors unveiled another massive building complex, this one almost larger than the palace. It consisted of three increasingly taller and wider buildings, ending in a great stone block with a black-tiled roof. The snake beckoned over Zhong Wang.
Zhong Wang folded his arms behind his back and stepped forward, eyes flickering with appraisal.
“This is your new home, young master. I present to you the Hermian Academy - a research institute for mortalkind to use on the quest for knowledge, religious epiphanies and technology.”
“I-” Zhong Wang stammered for a moment. He slowly breathed out of his nose as he held his pose straight up, “I am honored, my Lord. I would like to see the inside and set up as soon as possible.”
“You may - the tour is almost over, anyway. The inside contains multiple studies, empty rooms and a large library. If you wish, I can add some of my own literature to the shelves.”
“I would appreciate that, my Lord,” Zhong Wang tipped his head into a bow.
The snake nodded. He then pointed at Zhong Wang and turned to the other Dreamers. “Zhong Wang will be granted the title of Master from this day forward. I elect him to be the headmaster of the Hermian Academy, and he is to lead research and science in the name of spirituality, prosperity and harmony.” The snake nodded at Wenbo. “See to it that he and his students receive the proper funding to do so, Lord Wenbo.”
Wenbo tasted the title of ‘lord’ in his mouth and found it wonderfully sweet. “O-of course, Your Lordship. Master Zhong shall have whatever he wishes for.”
“Good. He will need assistants, too. Master Zhong, are there any among these Dreamers that you deem as worthy of being your assistants, disciples or colleagues?”
Master Zhong Wang tipped his head once again, “Your Lordship, I know of a few.” He looked to the crowd, “Li Jian, Wen Taishan, Batbayaar, Wen Yang, and Nergui.”
“A fine selection,” the snake praised, knowing full and well that he knew none of them. “Then you have heard your mission, I suspect. Are there any questions?”
“Is there anything else we should know, or keep in mind before we begin our tasks?” Zhong Wang asked.
“Only that I make my highest recommendations to seek out every culture you meet - learn from them; teach them what you know. Know that the Hermian Academy is not only for the people of dreams and rivers, but that it is a school for all who wish to enroll. If you encounter other mortals that express interest in enrollment, it is your duty to accept them. Is that understood?”
“Quite well,” Zhong Wang bowed his head without hesitation, “All will know your generosity this day.”
The snake bowed low before the Dreamer. “I am eternally grateful that you so dutifully take upon yourself this task, this mission. Keep up the effort, Master Zhong, and greatness and fame will await you and your teachings.”
“Then may the glory of the Zhong name ride upon whatever greatness comes,” Zhong dipped lower than Shengshi and folded his hands forward, “Our first task shall be a written code of our Elder’s words blessed in your name.”
“I am looking forward to reading it,” the snake chuckled. “You may begin your work, prized scholars.” The snake tipped back up and turned to the rest of the Dreamers. “Very well, our tour continues out the western gate - if you would follow me…”
The rest of the Dreamers walked off behind the river god, with Urangtai looking over his shoulder at Zhong Wang, a buzzing smile on his cousin’s face. His eyes then jumped to the ones Zhong Wang had chosen, from the gruff yet intelligent face of Li Jian, to the gentle curves of-- Suddenly Song’s face appeared in his line of sight, a smile he didn’t know he was wearing turning to a straight line. The girl flashed him a menacing grin, took him by the arm and picked up speed.
The snake opened the western gate to reveal an open courtyard at the centre of which was a ring of sandstone. At the far end of the courtyard was a tall brick building with a tall tower to house a lookout. Three small shacks lined the wall to the group’s left, and at a distance to the left and forward a bit was a strange, open range with a collection of upright wicker disks at the far end. The snake gestured to the various buildings.
“Welcome to the Military Quarter. Any good city needs a proper defense, and a moving city will likely not be any different. While Chuanwang can offer some aid, it would probably be best for everyone and everything onboard if he remained largely still.” A few of the Dreamers nodded in agreement. The snake continued, “The headquarters and command centre would be the building behind me--” he thumbed at the large house with the lookout on top, “-- followed by the barracks for the soldiers on duty--” he pointed at the three buildings by the wall, “-- a shooting range-”
“A what?” one of the Dreamers blurted out. Shengshi sneered.
“Please do your best not to interrupt me, child…”
The Dreamer raised her hand and Shengshi pointed at her. “Y-your Lordship, forgive me - what is a shooting range?”
The snake frowned. “Well, it is exactly what it sounds like, is it not?” Once more he pointed to the range. “It is an area where you practice archery.”
“Practice… What now?” Wen Tian supported. The snake blinked in surprise.
“Have you not learned of archery before?”
The dreamers shook their heads. The snake hummed.
“Huh. Imagine that… Well, no time like the present, I suppose.” With that, he snapped his fingers and an intricately carved bow materialised in his hand with five arrows. “The art of bow making and fletchery may take years to perfect - not to mention the very art of archery itself. First, one must find adequately bendable branches - a sort that does not break easily, yet does not require an ox to bend. Mulberry, walnut, ash and ironwood are all viable materials.” He tugged at the string. “Next, the sinew. It should be solid and lasting - poor string will snap at the least convenient time. Animal sinews make for good string.” He handed the bow to Urangtai for him to test. “That is about it. Proper selection of materials make a great bow - skill in use, however, cannot be taught, at least not by me.”
Urangtai stretched the string back, the bow creaking under his hard earned strength. He looked over at another Dreamer, “Bataar would have loved this.” The other dreamer nodded vigorously.
“Let me see,” A compact looking dreamer by the name of Zhong Ming held out her hand. Urangtai handed it over and Ming twanged the string a few times, a pleasant smile forming on her face.
“You could teach him the skill in Heaven,” the snake said with a somber smile. He offered Zhong Ming an arrow and pointed at the shooting range in the distance. “If you could walk over to where the sand begins and aim for the centre of that disk, please?”
Ming looked over the arrow, eventually finding the notch in the back and putting it all together in her mind. She knocked the arrow and pulled back, her elbow a little too far out and her forward arm doing little more than holding the bow. The sloppy form quickly turned into the string blasting out from her fingers and snapping across her nose. She dropped the bow and cursed loudly, a red line forming on her otherwise blue speckled face.
Before anyone could offer to take her place, she had picked up the bow and the arrow again. She adjusted her back arm, but kept a sloppy position -- having little knowledge of the tool in her hands. This time, however, she managed to launch the bow in the nick of time -- her arms straining under the weight. The arrow shot off from the arch, straight and true -- just not at the target. It slipped far above the disk and slapped against a wall, causing everyone to flinch. The snake snickered and patted her on the shoulder.
“With practice, you will make it one day.”
Ming dropped her eyes to the ground, slightly deflated but not beaten, “Thank you, my Lord.” Her voice betrayed a jaded perfectionism.
“That concludes the tour of the city, dears - well, not all of it. There is still the residential area and the market district, but I reckon that one needs little to no explanation. The Lord and Lady Wen, as well as the heiresses or heirs to their titles may take up residence in the palace--” He closed his mouth and hummed. “... Though I suppose you are so few and intimate that class division really is not necessary. Tell you what - take up shelter wherever you may wish; be fruitful and multiply; then, one day, you may utilise all of this city’s assets to their fullest potentials.”
The Dreamers bowed as deeply as they could. At the front stood Wenbo and Ai, Wenbo nearly at the verge of tears. “Y-your Lordship, words cannot express how much--...” He let out a whimper and Ai comforted him with a squeeze of the shoulder.
“We are eternally grateful, Your Lordship,” she finished helpfully.
The snake nodded and bowed back, albeit not as low. “It was the least I could-- Oh! I just remembered something.”
Wenbo, Ai and several others looked up. “Your Lordship?”
“Yes, there was distinctly something I was going to make you - something to make interacting with others a whole lot easier… Oh, what was it again… Oh yes!” The snake slithered over to a tree, broke off a thick branch and began whittling away at it with a claw. Wenbo blinked and raised a hand. Shengshi nodded at him.
“M-my Lord, what are you making?”
“A translator. It will help you talk to other mortals that are not familiar with your tongue.”
“Wait, not all mortals speak the same language?” Wen De thought out loud. The snake shook his head.
“No, not really. A few speak approximation of others’, but nothing that can easily be deciphered by mortal minds.” He gave the object a final scratch before handing it to Wenbo. It was a small, wooden carp . The snake hummed. “Well, are you not going to say hello?”
Wenbo blinked. “O-oh, of course, uhm.. Hello?”
“Howdy,” the carp responded. Wenbo, Ai and the others jumped. As the carp spoke, its head and tail seemed to move in an uncanny resemblance to a living fish. “How you doin’?” it continued.
“I’m.. Doing quite well, I suppose,” Wenbo answered. “How about yourself?”
“Oh, y’know. Not much’s goin’ on. Life’s a little wooden, if ya will.” It snickered to itself and Wenbo frowned out of a frustrating lack of understanding. He looked at Shengshi in desperation, and the snake smiled back.
“I call it the Babblefish. Just ask it kindly and it will translate any sentence spoken to its user. This means that, if you want to understand what someone else is saying, you must hand them the fish before they speak.”
Wenbo frowned. “That sounds a little…”
“Inconvenient?” the snake proposed.
“N-no, that’s not what I meant!”
“Do not worry. It is meant to be this way. Connection requires trust, and to share is to build trust. Show the other first that you mean them no harm by offering them this fish. Then, once you speak, it will translate your message to them, and you will tell them that you come in peace and the ability of this fish. You will tell them of the wonders of the world and inspire them to learn your language, just as you will learn theirs.”
Wenbo looked back down at the carp and it gave him a sassy wink. “I understand,” said the old Dreamer. “Good,” the snake replied and looked over the gathered crowd. “Placing the fish on Chuanwang’s shell will let him understand you, by the way, so whenever you wish him to do anything in particular, that is how you do it.”
“Understood, Your Lordship.”
The snake gave the Dreamers a smile and flicked away a divine tear. “You know, I cannot quite express just how proud I am of all of you… It warms this divine heart to see so many eager faces ready to bring a golden age to this world.” He sniffed quietly and rubbed the last of the tears out of his eyes. “Well, I will have to leave you now. For your first destination, I recommend travelling around the continent for a bit - explore and see the Foot. Just… Stay away from the east. There desert is a dangerous area.”
“Of course, Your Lordship.”
The snake looked back towards the hub and sighed. “Well. Good luck, then.” With that, he skipped into the air, gliding lethargically back towards his ship.
Ming stepped over to Wenbo, “Eld- Lord Wenbo,” She corrected herself, “I was wondering if maybe--”
“Lord Wenbo!” A young dreamer held out his hands, “Can I try the fish?”
Wenbo handed the youngster the carp and Ming tucked a slant into her cheek. The youngest quickly ran off with the carp, giggling at it. Ming watched him leave before turning back to Wenbo.
“Lord Wenbo,” She started again, “I was wondering if you had thought about who should be in charge of...” She let her voice trailed as her eyes bounced around the military quarter, “All this.”
The old dreamer scratched the hair black hair underneath his crown and hummed. “Well, uhm… I suppose whomsoever would like to volunteer may be deemed eligible,” he proposed ponderously.
“I volunteer,” Ming bowed her head.
Wenbo scanned the small crowd. “Anyone else?”
Nobody challenged her. Wenbo gave Ming a smiling nod. “Then the job’s yours, my dear. I name you… Uhm… General Zhong Ming, commander of the City Guard! Make us proud.”
Ming did her best to force her smile into a serious, stern look, “You can count on me, Lord Wenbo!”
Wenbo squeezed her shoulder proudly and then turned to the rest of the crowd. “Well, I think it’s about time we set a course, wouldn’t you all agree?” Chuckles, hums and cheers sounded back. “Right,” Wenbo continued, “where should we travel towards?”
Wen De raised his hand. “Oh! Dad! We could head north and check out those mountains over there!”
“And that red lake!” Wen Bei supported.
“It was a river, Bei.”
“I know what I said.”
Wenbo hummed. “We could, I suppose - though I’m curious as to how Chuanwang would climb them without, uhm… Tipping the whole city.”
Wen De let out a disappointed ‘oh’.
“We have plenty to settle into,” Urangtai suggested, “Just send our companion on a flat path -- I want to check out a few of those workshops, and I’m sure some others might want to as well.” Several others gathered around Urangtai with similar sentiments. Wenbo nodded.
“So be it. Then we either go west or south.”
“South sounds like a scorcher,” Ai mumbled. “I vote west.”
“West,” Wen Bei voted.
“Can we go south after?” Wen Tian asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“Then I, too, vote west.”
In the end, the vote to travel west gathered a majority. The lord and lady smiled at one another and made their way back to the Academy, where they would attempt to reach Chuanwang’s head.
As they left, Wen Yuma patted Urangtai on the back. “Well, shall we check out those shops?”
“Let’s--” Urangtai wobbled to look past Yuma at a busy Song, “Yeah, let’s get going.”
Dreamers fly to DF aboard the Snake-spress. They spot some odd things from the bird’s eye view and nearly get zapped by the Saluran lightning storms. When they arrive at DF, Sheng tells them to chill for a day while he makes them their new home atop Chuanwang, the beeg turtle. The Dreamers do as he says and the next day, they are given Mengcheng, the City of Dreams. The tour is basically just a written account of the map below. When they get to the Hermian Academy, Snake makes Zhong Wang and some others into a holy order named the Hermian Acadmy, whose mission is to research and teach the world’s mortals about stuff. When they get to the military quarters next door, Snake teaches the Dreamers to make bows and arrows, and then gives them the Babblefish, which is a translator artifact that translates anything into the user’s language.
Start: 5MP/8FP 1FP - Make Mengcheng, the Dreamer city, atop Chuanwang. 2FP - Make the Hermian Academy holy order. 1FP - Teach the Dreamers bow-crafting and fletching. 1FP - Make the Babble Fish, a small wooden carp that can translate every language into the user’s. This means that whoever is holding the fish can use its powers, so it cannot be used to translate back without giving the other conversationalist the fish. End: 5MP/3FP
Nation/Clan/Kingdom/Tribe Name: The Hogtusk Tribe Represented Color: Peru. Race: Ogres Breed: Furskins Capital: Big Rock Ruler: Rog-mohog the Brainy
Type of Government: Chiefdom. The Hogtusks are led by a chieftain whose position usually is legitimised through strength, skill or herd size. In addition to the chieftain, the clan shaman holds considerable power as a spiritual figurehead.
Religion: The Hogtusks practice a form of animism where the nature around them is inhabited by several spirits. These potentially number the millions, but due to a lacking affinity for counting, the Hogtusks primarily stick to five Great Spirits. These are routinely honoured through sacrifice and prayer. The five spirits are,
The Owl Spirit: The sneaky hunter - an aspiration for all who walk the woods in search of game. The Owl Spirit teaches the Hogtusks to be mindful of their steps and their grunts when sneaking up on prey, something that can be quite difficult for such menacing humanoids. Still, they try their very best.
The Boar Spirit: The meaty meal - the Great Boar Spirit is the most important one to the Hogtusks, being a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The Boar Spirit teaches the Hogtusks to savour every meal and to treat their livestock properly so that it one day may feed many mouths.
The Dog Spirit: The barking mutt - the Dog Spirit is a symbol of war to the Hogtusks. Few beasts can be as rabid as a wild wolf, and when vicious sentiment oozes through the camps like a plague, the Hogtusks know only one solution. When the dogs howl and bark in the night, the Hogtusks prepare for war.
The Ancestor Spirit: The old folks - in Hogtusk mythology, the soul departs the body after death and becomes a star in the sky. The whole starscape is known as the ‘ancestor spirit’. They teach the Hogtusks the knowledge of old and tell them over and over again to remember it properly this time. Crafters often seek their advice when they wish to pursue old and new skills.
The Wild Spirit: The lotsa things - as the name implies, the wild spirit in the untameable aspect of nature. It incorporates all the other spirits into itself and becomes a representation of nature itself and manifests itself in everything from stones to animals to ogres. It’s a tricky spirit, and is often described as an antagonistic force. Death and disease are often attributed to the wild spirit.
Geographical Location: The Hogtusk Tribe is in large part nomadic - they live primarily alongside great boars, oxen and goats, and decide where to settle based on where the livestock decide to graze. The only permanent settlement that is manned all year round is Big Rock, a large number of tents surrounding the spiritual centre of Hogtusk society - the Big Rock. It is single tall peak in the middle of the Steppy, also known as the Big Empty Place. The peak overlooks several pig- and oxskin tipis and lean-tos.
For centuries, ogres have roamed the Ard Tops, a mountain range to the south-west of the Big Rock, making life a pain for everyone and everything around. Largely primitive and reliant on instinct to survive, these ogres quickly learned that picking fruit off trees and roots out of the ground could probably feed one or two mouths, but were but scraps to the whole family. It didn’t take a genius to realise there were bigger boars in the wood, and it was, in fact, not a genius who took up the first club and set her eyes on a small swine from the lower parts of the mountains. The news of these juicy beasts quickly spread, and it didn’t take long for the ogres to hunt every single boar around the Ard Tops. During this time, the ogres grew numerous and powerful, and their large forms necessitated large meals; therefore, as the large drop of pig’s blood soaked into the forest soil, the ogres faced a terrible problem: What on earth were they going to eat?
A massive die-off ensued, with ten-foot-tall giants clad in thick, brown fur dropped to the ground like flies. The ogres flocked to their primitive shrines, begging every spirit their limited minds could think of to help them out of this predicament.
The spirits sadly didn’t oblige.
In the end, the ogres were reduced to a mere shadow of the menace they had been before. Slowly, but surely, the evidence of their rampage across the land began to fade as life returned to the hills. Seeing the animals return sent the ogres into a frenzy. Spears were made; arrows, fletched. After such suffering and such hunger, the ogres would eat again.
However, history would not pass as so. One group of ogres, known to the Hogtusk nowadays as the Proffyts, recalled the lessons of the Ancestor Spirit and halted the ogre hunt. They reasoned instead that they should beseech the Wild Spirit, apologise for their senseless rampage in the past and instead offer to live alongside the boar - learn from it, care for it. The message took a long time to sink in, during which the Proffyts feared the boars would be hunted to extinction again. Turmoil spurred; brawls and skirmishes between the different clans sent many into exile. In the end, the Proffyts were defeated, forced to leave their ancestral home in the hills around the Ard Tops and cross into the endless sea of grass known as the Big Empty Place. Leading the exiles was one named Mohog, and as the sun peeked over the horizon one day weeks after their exodus, the ogre found his eyes locking onto a familiar form on the horizon. It was a boar - one larger and fatter than he had ever seen. Water filled his mouth and he reached for his spear. With the teachings of the Owl Spirit echoing in his mind, the ogre began to sneak in on the boar. The distance became just right; the ogre flattened against the ground as silently as he could as the hog turned around. It scanned the tall grass, but found nothing and went back to eating some mushrooms. Mohog seized his chance. The ogre rose into a crouch, pulled back his arm and aimed--
Then he dropped the spear. The clack as it struck the ground caught the boar’s attention again and it set off into a sprint. Before long, it had vanished from his view. Mohog swallowed the disappointed spittle in his mouth. The Wild Spirit had possessed him, surely, he thought - not even an ogre was stupid enough to let such a juicy boar simply bugger off.
Yet there he knelt, the spear no longer in his hand, and his eyes locked on the mushrooms the boar had been eating. He plucked one and gave it a sniff. It smelled of dirt. He took a bite. It tasted like dirt, only juicier. While not overjoyed at the flavour, it was a considerably large mushroom, he had to admit, and as he dug around in the earth some more, he found that it grew deep - and had siblings. He collected as many as he could and carried them back to his clan. That night, they ate properly for the first time in weeks.
The next day, Mohog and some others found more mushrooms and began chasing boars with offers of food in exchange for a haunch of meat. Needless to say, the boars were not interested.
The next day, Mohog and even more found additional mushrooms and laid them in a pile. Then they hid some distance away to observe. Sure enough, eventually there came a boar - then some more. After a time, a large pack were gnawing happily on the mushrooms the ogres had gathered for them. The ogres were content and gave each other proud pats on the back.
Then, when the mushrooms had been finished, the boars left. The ogres sat in the grass with empty expressions, staring at the pile of mushroom crumbs.
The next day, Mohog and the whole clan lined up into one great wall, covering a sizeable amount of ground. Each ogre had a handful of mushrooms in their hand and a bucketload of patience in their heart. And so, they waited.
Dawn became midday; midday became evening. Ogres began to sit down and mumble to each other. Out of all the plans, this had to be the silliest one yet. They all looked exactly like the type of creature any sensible smaller animal would instinctively avoid. Thinking anything would approach them was utterly--
A roar of surprise had sounded from the end of the line. An ogre waved his free hand while the other was feeding an increasingly frightened boar. The others slowly gathered around to witness the miracle - a boar had willingly approached them.
The following weeks were spent much in the same way, and as weeks became months, more and more boars flocked to the ogres. A small herd accumulated, and the herd soon began to birth young. The old were killed and eaten, and the breeding population were protected and fed. The ever increasing need for mushrooms took the ogres further and further out on the Big Empty Place and along the way, they encountered oxen, which were tamed in much the same manner, albeit with fewer trial attempts.
After many years of wandering the large plains, the ogres came upon a single giant peak in the middle of the Big Empty Place - or rather, they had seen it miles away and walked towards it. They had found it mesmerising from a distance, and around and atop the peak they grew familiar with the local goat populations. These were tamed in much the same way. Then, on his way up to the summit of the mountain, Mohog suffered a terrible accident and was killed during a fall. The ogres grieved for him, for he had been their salvation from the vicious cycle of hunting and dying. However, as the legends say, Mohog was carried up to the night sky by the Ancestor Spirit themself, and enshrined forever as the great Norf Star.
Now, his son, Rog-mohog, must take up the mantle as chieftain and ensure the continuation of this young herder civilisation, starting by making them a home.
Divinely provided protection and reform in leadership had made all the difference. At first, the raiders had mocked the new Wuhdige phalanx, snickering at the bucklers about their left arms. However, as the first waves attempted to break the line as they always had, they found that their spears and clubs struck something other than flesh and bone.
As a single unit, the Wuhdige phalanx, commanded by the newly appointed Shieldboss Woi’e, bashed their plates against the enemy charge, snapping spears and sending clubs straight back at their swingers. The enemy forces quickly fell into disarray as the vanguard was disarmed and dazed. Then, the phalanx broke, with screaming, painted Wuhdige horde unleashing itself upon the broken Elu-Wogweh assault. They donned a new paint now - the red, yellow and dark brown mask of the war god Damasta glistening across their faces as they charged after the routing enemy.
The small raiding party stood no chance at all. What they thought was going to be a quick fishgrab and capture of some berry-pickers had turned into a complete run for the hills. Wuhdige morale had been restored for the first time in months, and the warriors came home to thunderous celebration. Aloft a large group’s shoulders sat the great Shieldboss Woi’e, tearful with joy at the applause in her name. Fires were lit and fish were fired - their victory warranted a feast. Berries were munched, mushrooms were dropped on hot coals and left to cook. Celebratory paints in honour of the Red Boy were drawn on everyone’s bodies and the Wuhdige danced and sang around a great bonfire until the night was old.
As celebrations neared the end and most Wuhdige had fallen asleep in their burrows, Aloo approached Woi’e and patted her on the back.
“You did it, Shieldboss,” the chieftain praised. “You beat back those lumps.”
Woi’e snickered and nodded. “Was just doin’ my job, chief. Party was small this time; might be bigger next time.”
Aloo closed his eyes and bobbed his head. “I’m not worried - you got this. You lead our warriors into fighting, and you do it well.”
Woi’e blushed and rubbed her neck. “Well, uh… That’s nice of you to say.”
“It’s the truth,” Aloo insisted. “You do it so well, actually, that-...” He put a hand over his mouth in a teasing manner. “Oop - better not say.”
“Not say what?” Woi’e asked with a frown. Aloo shrugged playfully.
“Keep up the good work and you’ll find out.”
The shieldboss gave him a blank stare. “Can’t you gimme a hint at least? So I can kinda guess?” “A hint? But then all the fun’ll be gone,” Aloo reasoned.
“Pleeeeeeaaaase?” the woman begged. The chieftain sighed and scratched his chin.
“A’ight, fine - but only the one, okay?”
The woman nodded enthusiastically and rubbed her palms together in expectation. Aloo hummed pensively and poked at his lips as he tried to formulate a vague hint. Eventually, he raised one finger and said, “It has to do with fish.”
“Fish?” she said in a slightly disappointed matter. “Like, I get more to eat?”
“App, app! Just one hint, remember.” Woi’e huffed. The chieftain gave her a wink and spun on his heel, walking towards the cave. “Get yourself some sleep now! I’mma join your warriors tomorrow.”
Woi’e blinked. “What happens tomorrow?”
Aloo turned and gave her a thumb up. “Tomorrow, we attack.”
Woi’e wanted to protest, but the chieftain had already entered the cave before she could force out the words. She sat herself on a nearby rock and grabbed her muzzle in thought. An attack so soon? The enemy could be expecting it after the victory today. They would have to get the upper hand from the start… Maybe if they…
She kept grumbling over strategies even as she went into her burrow and laid down to sleep alongside the rest of her family. Even as she dreamt, all that flowed through her head were battleplan after battleplan.
It would be generous to say it was morning. Already long before dawn did the slick, slippery sounds of warpaint lick through the air like a wet tongue. In nigh complete silence, shields were strapped onto left arms and spears were equipped in the right. Even matte bone tips stood out in the darkness, so they, too, were coated with dark brown paint. The paint was made with thick, greasy bear fat - harvested from a fresh cadaver a hunting party had stumbled upon in the woods. The paint stuck to them like fish oil, regardless of whether they walked or swam. Dawn began to trickle over the horizon, and the war council inside the Hohm Cave produced the only voices in the whole camp.
“... A’ight, so…” the chieftain whispered. “Me and Woi’e will swim around the beach, down to the Elu home, with half our warriors. You, Duh, gonna stay here with the rest and make it look like you way more than you actually are. That way, they’ll think we’re still at home.”
Duhwah nodded understandingly and looked at Woi’e. “Then what? They’ll call our bluff after a while, no doubt.”
The Shieldboss nodded. “After we take the Elu camp, we gonna move back towards Hohm on land, retaking all our hunting and gathering hubs and outside camps. It’ll be risky, but… If it works, we’ll own the whole island.”
Duhwah furrowed his brows. “What if their camp got lots of warriors in it? Or what if they attack with everything they have while you’re gone?”
Woi’e sighed. “Like I said, it’ll be risky. Hohm got good defenses, and we got a breather after yesterday’s win to really gather some food. You can hunker down for a bit - they ain’t gonna get past the spike ditch.”
Duhwah pressed his lips together. “Sure, we could, but what about y’all? What if you run into their big party?”
Woi’e and Aloo exchanged looks. “Well,” Aloo said, “let’s hope that doesn’t happen.”
Duhwah shook his head. “This plan sounds dumber and dumber by the second.”
Woi’e nodded. “Yeah, but… It’s the best we got.”
Eventually, Duhwah nodded. “It’s the best we got… Good luck to y’all out there.”
Aloo gave his champion a nod and walked over to embrace him. “You, too, champ.”
Woi’e waited for Aloo with her spear in her hand, and the young chieftain soon followed her out with his own. Duhwah crossed his arm over his chest, the paint in his face colouring his expression quite stern. They would have to succeed - they had not the warriors for another defeat. If they lost this, the Wuhdige tribe would come to an end.
It was not before night had fallen again that the Wuhdige warriors approached the Elu camp as they had done two years prior. From the ocean, it seemed that the camp once more was largely abandoned, with only a few selka strolling about. Woi’e looked up at the sky. The night was still quite young - a streak of red still shone in the west. She turned to the warband and motioned for them to swim as far out as they could, until they no longer could see the camp, and go to sleep in the water. She would come later to wake one up and take watch. Aloo and the others nodded and silently dove back underwater to swim further out. Woi’e remained staring and observing the camp. Her buoyancy kept her afloat with minimal effort, so it was a simple task to spy on them from the sea. Among the oddities she noticed in the camp was an odd rack from which hung fish cadavers - and they did not just hang there as if someone had thrown them onto the rack and left them there; no, they hung there deliberately. For what reason would someone hang up a fish to dry out, Woi’e pondered with the subtle scratch of her head. One of the Elu came waddling over to the rack and Woi’e followed her movements closely. The female inspected the many fish, turning and lifting them. Then she took one down and, with some effort, ripped off a dry, flaky piece and nibbled on it.
“... eah, ‘s ‘ood,” was all Woi’e could hear, but she could piece together that this was some method of preparing the fish. Did its flavour improve, perhaps? Or was it so it wouldn’t go bad? She sniffed the air and frowned. No, it certainly smelled like it could go bad. Still, it would be interesting to attempt this technique back home at Hohm.
Then, mid-ponder, she spotted them: Out of the Elu cave came a massive force, greater than any she had ever seen - at least a-... She counted on her fingers, but found she ran out of them much too fast to get a good count. They did not outnumber the Wuhdige tribe, but they certainly outnumbered her force. She dove a little deeper and prayed to Damasta that her war paints were dark enough to blend in with the sea. On the shore, she heard distant chatter and concentrated every fiber of her being into decyphering what was being said. Luckily, or perhaps unfortunately, the voices were closing in. Woi’e froze completely and shut her eyes, appearing to be nothing more than a small rock breaching the sea surface. The voices were clear as day now, and they spoke:
“... So ye’re sure about this?” the first voice said. The Wogweh accent was like poison to her ears, but even frowning could potentially break her cover.
“Yeah, we gotta do it, R-... Rogan,” the other voice responded, and Woi’e knew it was Egoo, the last great warrior of the Elu that they knew of. The voice continued, “If we beat them down once and for all, we control the island. We won’t have to worry about being spread out too thin anymore.”
Roganweh clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “Even so, their defense is too strong. Many will die in the fighting, son. This would’nae have happened if ye--”
“If we had taken time to gather more food during the fall, I know! Y’all have said that plenty of times. Don’t forget, raidin’ was your idea in the first place!”
There came a scoff. “Es not like we told ye ta be dependent on it. Now ye have poked the wolf too many times ta go back. The Wuhdige are angry and the seasons are changing.” A few steps in the sand. “Listen, son - ye don’t have to get yerself killed. Let them get overconfident ‘n come here. Let’s ambush them like last time.”
“We don’t have enough food to wait, Rogan. The trees are picked clean ‘n the seas are fish-free. Winter’s coming soon, like you said, and the only food left is at Hohm. No, we ain’t got time to wait for them to attack. We gotta hit ‘em with everything we got and steal everything they got. They won the last time, but they won’t win against all of us.”
There was another disapproving noise. “Suit yerself,” Roganweh muttered. “But the Wogweh won’t follow ye ta die in the spike ditches.”
“W-what?” Eloo gaped. “What do you mean, you won’t follow us?!”
“Exactly what that means, ye lump. If ye wanna raid the Wuhdige, fine - do it fer all I care. But I’m not havin’ a part in it.” Roganweh’s voice grew a little more distant. There came a furious growl.
“What about our deal, Loganweh?!”
“Es -Roganweh-! Ruh! Ruh!” the Wogweh retorted. “And ye don’t make the demands here, Eloo. Ye’re our vassal, not our ally. If ye get attacked, we’ll come back, but we’re not coming along just ta die - not after what happened last time we raided them.”
There came a thud in the sand. “But… But then how do we beat them?! You have half our boys!”
“We will have some food sent fer ye while ye wait. Maybe tomorrow - maybe in a week.” There came a snort and a clearing of the throat. “Ye should really be grateful fer the help we’ve given ye already. Ye control almost the whole south beach ‘n the Wuhdige are not even shades of what they were two years ago. That ye did’nae gather from the land while ye had the chance is yer own fault.”
A few more thuds hit the sand, likely fists. “You… Dumb-...”
“Careful now, Eloo,” Roganweh cautioned. “Remember who yer chieftain is - and remember his brother.”
Eventually, Eloo responded, “Yes, Roganweh.”
“Good. Wait here until they attack ye and ye can wipe them out as before. We’ll return ta Dun-ar-Wog ‘n prepare yer food fer ye.”
Footsteps disappeared into the night, then were quickly followed by louder, more disorganised footsteps, like a group making its way across the beach. Woi’e dared open her eyes and saw, merely seven or so metres away, the broken Eloo cursing at the sand while in the distance, half of the assembled forces made their way out to sea. The shieldboss nearly wanted to scream with joy, but focused every fiber in her being at remaining still. She heard muttering suddenly, and realised it was Eloo. The mutters grew louder:
“... Wait…? All we’ve done is wait…” Woi’e one open eye saw Eloo strike the sand once more. “No… To the depths with him - with all of ‘em. They think they’re better than us? They think we need them?” He rose up and kicked up a cloud of sand into the water, barely missing the frozen Woi’e. “I’ll show ‘em… The Elu’ll show ‘em all.” He stormed off towards his now very confused host and started barking orders at them. Not much later, the selka set off into the woods.
Woi’e couldn’t believe it. To think the Wogweh had abandoned the Elu’s mission for total control over the island, or at least abandoned them to carry it out on their own! It was almost too perfect. She held her breath. Could this actually be a trap? Had they seen them in the water earlier and proceeded to plant false information deliberately to make them overconfident? Woi’e swallowed. Eloo was perhaps not the sharpest spear on the rack, but Roganweh was something entirely different - arrogant, perhaps, but certainly capable. It wouldn’t be far-fetched for him to think of something like this.
A moment passed as she pondered. She could return to the others and tell them that the time to take the camp was now, and that if they were quick enough, they could ambush the Elu party that same night.
But, and it was a considerable but - what if the Wogweh would then come back and attack them from behind? Perhaps the wisest move would be to return to Hohm and notify them of the divide, perhaps even exploit Eloo’s overconfidence and eliminate the Elu forces from the equation entirely, then proceed to retake the island from the north? Either way, their plan from before was optional now. She swam back to the others.
“And they’re gone now?” Aloo whispered. Woi’e nodded. The warriors had taken the news with joy and glee, and already it seemed many were eager to storm the camp. Aloo, however, raised a hand as mutters became mumbles and mumbles became talk.
“Sshh. We ain’t so far away that they can’t hear us,” he whispered loudly. “Now, Woi’e, wha’chu think? This a trick?”
Woi’e exhaled some hot air and shook her head. “I-... I don’t know, chief. It could be either. They sounded real enough, but it’s too good.”
Aloo bit a finger. “We can’t wait, either. They said they would be back with food, right?”
“Darn… A’ight. Duhwah and the others can hold off an attack, no problem. The Elus are few now - no way they can break through. Their camp’s undefended, too, right?”
“Yeah, it looked that way.”
“So if we take it and make our way back to camp on land, worst that’ll happen is that the Elu’ll be gone when the Wogweh get back, right?”
Woi’e nodded slowly. “Riiiight, but--”
“Then we do that,” Aloo whispered smilingly. The others tried to contain their applause to small ripples in the water. Woi’e shook her head.
“We wanna keep what we take too, right? If we take land as we go home, the Wogweh will just sweep in and take it back. No, we gotta swim back.”
Aloo shook his head. “They won’t expect us to attack from behind. And if we kill ‘em all, they won’t have anyone to go back to.”
Woi’e’s mouth flattened out. Many of the warriors nodded in agreement. “Well,” said the shieldboss quietly.
“I say we do it,” said Aloo’s uncle Joku.
“Sssh! Keep our cover!” Aloo whispered loudly. “Woi’e, we agree?”
The shieldboss capitulated with a nod. While she didn’t like the idea of slaughter, she couldn’t argue that wiping the Elu out couldn’t solve their problem. The chieftain’s expression flashed a malicious grin and he raised his spear out of the water. The selka dove and made their way to shore.
Duhwah sat on a rock, resting his chin on a balled fist. He stared out across the sea and the beach, peeling his eyes at any anomalies in the waves or the trees that the dawn’s rays uncovered. Two days had passed since the war party left and the ceaseless itch of anxiety threatened to wear out the ageing selka’s heart. No one had come to attack them and no one from the outer camps had come screaming for aid. This only led him to fear that the chieftain had fallen prey to an ambush like the one two years ago. Aloo was young still and without an heir, and Tokkan was, well… It didn’t help either that the late Jotokan’s brothers and cousins all had gone with the chieftain. If they had been killed, a family other than the Tokuans would have to take the mantle as chieftain, and frankly, Duhwah doubted the tribe could sustain a battle of succession like that.
Those thoughts were pushed aside, however, for Duhwah soon spotted distant shapes on the sand. Hohm was impossible to attack from the forest - the cliff around which the camp was built was much too tall to climb down from, and it extended that way for just long enough that the forests on top, while good cover, could hardly be considered a proper place to ambush from. Therefore, any attack would either have to come from the sea or the beach. So when Duhwah saw these figures make their way across the beach, he called his retinue to arms. Before long, about twenty Wuhdige stood ready behind the spike ditches, over which had been built waist-high walls of packed sand. They weren’t much, Duhwah conceded, but they kept anyone from jumping the gap, and were therefore just enough. Still, they needed their bucklers to defend against ranged attacks.
However, as the forces drew closer, the retinue began to recognise them. Duhwah’s brother Dohn shouted, “Duh! They ain’t Elu! It’s the chief!” Duhwah rubbed his eyes and, as the warriors in the camp begun to cheer and applaud the approaching victors, Duhwah did indeed recognise the familiar grin of Aloo. Behind the chieftain walked Woi’e, who seemed less enthusiastic, though kept a polite smile. The war paints were neatly complemented by crusted blood on all the warriors’ pelts, and as they entered into the camp over a wooden bridge across the spike ditch, Aloo announced, “The Elu are gone!”
Thunderous applause broke out in the camp and selka embraced and kissed each other left and right. The warriors were picked up and thrown up and down like the champions they were. Aloo raised his blood-caked spear into the air and began to sing praised to Damasta, which many others joined in on. Promises of a great games tournament to celebrate were thrown about, and in the middle of the triumphant joy spreading through the camp, Duhwah went to Woi’e with a concerned smile on his lips.
“H-hey, Woi’e, what’re you sulkin’ for? We won!”
The shieldboss sat with her face in her hands and drew a quivering breath. “We… We killed them.”
Duhwah scoffed. “Well, ‘course you did. That’s what you sent out to do, right?”
“No, you don’t understand,” she whispered in a state of shock. “We killed all of them. They’re dead. Every single one of them.”
Duhwah’s smile faded a little and he let out an awkward ‘heh’. “W-well, they was the enemy, right? They deserve to--”
“And not just the boys, Duhwah - but the girls and the pups, too.”
Duhwah recoiled with a quiet gasp. He turned his head slightly and saw Aloo let out another war cry as he raised his spear to the sound of celebration.
“They-... They were like animals… And we slaughtered them like animals…” Woi’e looked down at her hands. She quickly ran over to the sea to wash them clean, but seemed to scrub and scratch long after the blood had come off. Duhwah took her by the shoulder and pulled her away. She stared at him in terror.
“Woi’e! Listen! You did-... You did your job, okay?”
“My job was… Killing pups, Duh?” she asked with a shrill voice.
“N-no! ‘Course not! But now the Elu are gone and… Well, we only have to worry ‘bout the Wogweh now. We’re… We’re safe thanks to your win.”
Woi’e looked back down at her hands, slowly opening and closing them. She sniffed and cleared her throat, and as she begun to whimper, Duhwah gave her a comforting hug. He shot another look back at his chieftain and prayed to the warm Alae that this would be the Wuhdige’s last encounter with war.
The shields turn the tide of battle completely and the Elu-Wogweh alliance suffer a devastating defeat during a raid. The Wuhdige decide to take the fight to them and start reconquering their island. Woi’e and Aloo lead a force to the Elu camp like before and when they get there, they find that the Elu and the Wogweh are having a bit of a fight. The Elu have become dependent on raiding since they didn’t harvest enough food during the autumn, and the Wogweh scold them for it and refuse to help them raid anymore after the defeat they suffered. The Elu are upset by this, but the Wogweh state that they see the Elu as little more than vassals and that they are to wait until the Wuhdige attack them instead so they can ambush them and crush them like last time. The Wogweh forces subsequently leave to get food for the Elu camp, though they are vague about when they’ll return. The Elu leader, Eloo, is unwilling to cooperate and takes his warriors to attack Hohm. The Wuhdige attackers are thrilled that their enemy is divided, but they wonder if it’s a strategy to make them overconfident. After some back and forth, Aloo decides that, even if the Wogweh come back to take their lands, they can take the opportunity to wipe out the Elu. Woi’e reluctantly agrees and the Elu are slaughtered down to the last selka off-screen.
The war party returns home to Hohm to thunderous applause, but Woi’e’s traumatised by the fact that she had to kill pups in addition to grown ups. Duhwah tries to reason that she was just doing her job as a warrior, but agrees that Aloo’s a bit fond of blood and hopes that this is the last encounter with war for a time.
A sorrowful year had passed since the fall of Jotokan. In all the years since arriving on Wuhdige Island, the selka had never known suffering akin to that which had plagued them on nearly a weekly basis for the past twelve or so months. The Elu, long since exiled from the tribe for their actions, had only solidified their hold on the southern half of the island. With the aid of their mysterious ally, they gained ground by the week. The Wuhdige territories had always expanded without an enemy in mind - there was no real force that could truly make a stand against attacks on the fringes of their land. Even as those very fringes closed in around the outer edges of Hohm, the Wuhdige forces struggled to stand up to the vicious Elu onslaught.
Luckily, the Wuhdige had not been idle since their last chieftain’s death: Surrounding the settlement of Hohm were deep ditches in the sand lined with sharpened sticks. Selka were poor jumpers, even while charging, so the pits made any assault against the Home Cave settlement fruitless - however, in order to sustain the settlement, the Wuhdige were forced to keep the seafront open, and attacks on fishermen and women were not uncommon.
Understaffed and exhausted, the shattered Wuhdige forces had long since lost any semblance of morale - rallying them to strike back was out of the question when even the thought of self-defense seemed offensive to them. The conscription of the females had helped considerably in the beginning, but occasional losses over time had begun to add up, and what had once been twice the numbers of the enemy had been reduced to equal.
Aloo, scarred and grizzled and without a shred of the childlike joy he had displayed no longer than a year ago, sat between Duhwah and Woi’e with his legs crossed. The “boy chief”, as he had been dubbed, had wasted no time since day one of his rule devoting his life to seeing the Elus and their allies slaughtered - he himself had sent plenty to the Spirit Birds. However, a single, or even a group of exceptional warriors could not change the tide of war, and while Aloo’s skill was greater than his father’s ever had been, Duhwah, and later Woi’e, had both realised that he was a killer, not a commander.
The problem was making him realise that.
Aloo pointed at the map before them. “They’ll be there by tonight. You two gather up the boys and girls and meet me at the bridge at sunset. Tonight, we’ll beat them back!”
This was an all-too-familiar speech at this point, and both Woi’e and Duhwah sighed in unison. Duhwah spoke first: “Chief, what boys and girls? They ain’t up for fighting - you remember what happened last time - we got absolutely crushed!”
“That was last time, Duh! This time will be different!”
The champion tightened his fists into balls and grit his teeth. “You know darn well it won’t, Chief. It’ll be exactly like before - like it’s been all year! We gonna run into the woods and they gonna pick us off one by one!” Aloo flared his nostrils and rocketed to his feet. He kicked a rock into the cave wall and sounded a bellowing roar. Woi’e flinched and kept her mouth pressed together to a close. Duhwah stood up and gave Aloo a stern glare.
“Face it, Aloo, we’re no good for attack. We should hunker down and pick them off as they attack our fishers.”
Aloo turned around and pointed a finger at Duhwah’s face. “That’ll take far too long! You know as well as I do that they get support from across the strait - new boys show up with spears in hand every month.” Aloo shook his head and sat down on a rock. Duhwah closed his eyes and took a few careful breaths.
“Never did I think I’d live to be one of the oldest in the tribe,” he mumbled, “but ain’t life somethin’... All the elders are dead ‘n the cubs ain’t growin’ nearly fast enough…”
Woi’e grumbled to herself. “Any attack gunna cost us a lot’a lives… Duh’s right, chief. We gotta hunker down.”
Aloo shot her a vicious glare. “Woi’e, you too? Am I surrounded by wussies?”
Duhwah snarled. “It ain’t wussy to think smart, Aloo! You should try it once!”
“What did you say, you ol’ lump?!” Aloo roared back and stood up. He reached Duhwah to the chin and was not even half his mass, but Duhwah could not strike him - even if the chieftain struck him. Aloo had abused this rule in the past and a boiling sensation within him seductively suggested doing so again.
All three of them turned to the cave entrance. It was Julo. Over the past year, he, too, had grown scarred and grizzled, and his youthful handsomeness of the past existed no longer. His voice rang with worry and the three assumed only the worst.
“What? What’s up?” Aloo demanded, pushing his way past Duhwah.
“They coming for our fishers again,” Aloo reported. “A girl’s already been snatched up. The others are making their way back to the beach, but they can’t swim fast without dropping all the fish.”
Aloo nodded and grabbed his spear which rested by the cave mouth. “Tell them to safeguard the fish at all cost. We’ll hold them off. Duh, Woi’e - come on!” The chieftain charged out the cave, sounding mustering calls in all directions. Duhwah and Woi’e exchanged rivalling looks.
“You comin’?” the champion asked. The giant woman took her spear in hand and nodded with a sneer. “Gotta do my duty for the chief,” she said.
“For the chief, then,” Duhwah agreed sarcastically.
When the two arrived on the beach, the sea was already crimson with war. With water up to his waist, Aloo fought with the ferocity of a wolf and the strength of a bear despite his size. Around him laid the floating carcasses of four warriors, soon to be joined a fifth. Behind Aloo, however, the frontline was pushed back. Julo and four others were desperately holding off eight blue-painted warriors, and as Duhwah and Woi’e joined the fray, Julo had lost two of his warriors.
Duhwah and Woi’e turned the tide, however - with a deft, agile jab of his spear, the first of his opponents fell nigh instantly, pierced right in the liver. Woi’e grabbed her opponent’s spear tightly as he dove in to strike, then ripped it out of his hands and planted it solidly in the warrior’s neck. Slowly, but surely, the frontline recovered, and soon, the numbers were equal on both sides, then reducing on the enemy’s. However, by that time, Aloo had almost fought his way far out of range, and on the horizon, Duhwah saw the foam of another approaching force.
“ALOO!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, but the chieftain was too far lost in his bloodrage. Even as the sea grew too deep for Aloo to stand, however, the chieftain displayed the viciousness of an aquatic predator, diving deep and pinning his enemies on his bone-tipped spear from below. Still, no mortal boy could take on those reinforcements alone.
“Woi’e, hold my flank!” Duhwah shouted as he dove into the water.
“W-wait, what?!” Woi’e shouted back and was nearly pierced by an incoming jab from Duhwah’s previous opponent. In a powerful grab, Woi’e seized the spear again, snapped it in half and dove her own spear into the selka’s chest. The last of the first wave was subsequently killed by Julo.
“Wh-... Where did Duh go?” he panted and tried to wipe the blood off his forehead with a bloodier hand. Woi’e blinked at the approaching foam towards which Duhwah swam, and Aloo’s proximity to it.
“He’s going to save the chief… Hurry! Fetch some rocks and good throwers!”
“I’m goin’!” Julo shouted and sprinted off as fast as he could. Woi’e, meanwhile, began collecting leftover spears and javelins scattered around the beach.
Out at sea, Aloo glided through the water with his spear out front like the tooth of a narwhal. The raiders fell one by one, but one by one wasn’t nearly fast enough; in mere moments, the now red-furred chieftain was surrounded. He scowled at the surrounding adversaries, all of whom now held their spears ready to toss should the chieftain try anything. One of them swam a little closer and flashed Aloo a broad grin of sharpened teeth.
“Yer a wild one, laddie - wilder than any I’ve laid me eyes on before. What’s yer secret?”
The chieftain growled. “... Elu blood, and plenty of it.”
The stranger let out a single scoff. “Oh, esn’t that adorable. Ought to congratulate ye, though - you’ve had yer fill fer sure. Thanks to ye, ten Elus won’t feast happily with their families tonight. Hope yer proud o’ yerself.”
Aloo roared as menacingly as he could, but his developing throat still lacked the appropriate bass for that. “You and the Elus started this - don’t even begin to pretend otherwise! Why are you doing this?! Who even are you?!”
“Oof, it’s been a year already ‘n ye still don’t recognise us. Well, ‘tis been a couple o’ decades since our, what, great-grandparents split? Honestly, don’t ken, don’t care.”
“... What?” was all Aloo could manage. The stranger nodded.
“Aye, aye, come on - say it with me now…”
Aloo still looked uncertain and the stranger looked somewhat disappointed. “What, yer parents never told ye? How bloody disappointin’, no wonder ye never figured it out, then!” He punched the water surface angrily and a few of the surrounding warriors exchanged uncertain stares. The stranger gathered himself again and groaned. “Alright, fine - s’pose you’ve earned the knowledge fer yer killstreak. I’m Roganweh, brother ta chief Arganweh o’ the Wogweh tribe.”
Aloo blinked at the surrounding warriors again, carefully weighing his options. “... Loganweh?” he said uncertainly to entertain his adversary.
“Logan--... See, this is why I hate ye islanders: Ye can’t pronounce a damn thing! ‘Es Roganweh! Ruh! Rrruh!”
“Luh. Lllluh,” Aloo taunted with a smirk. The stranger scowled back.
“Now, see, here I was thinkin’ I’d take ye as a slave or somethin’ - who knows, ye might make a good pit fighter or somethin’. Yet here ye are, mockin’ me right in my face - makes me think there esn’t any reason to spare ye.”
Suddenly, Aloo noticed something: a dip in the waves coming from their beach. Thinking fast, he knew it to be the only one foolish enough to try to get him out of this mess. He flashed Roganweh another smirk and shrugged.
“Alright - have your way. I don’t even know what pit fighting is, but it sounds boring as counting pears.”
Roganweh bristled up at the statement. “Now ye lis’n here, laddie. Pit fightin’ is the finest game there is, ‘n if ye mock it in front of me one more ti--”
“Booooooooooooooring!” Aloo taunted again. Roganweh grit his teeth together and nodded at the warriors, all of whom began closing in around Aloo.
“Hey! Not gonna fight me yourself, you wuss?!” Aloo challenged. The foreigner shot him a sideways scowl.
“I don’t have time fer krill, ‘n yer below that. Say hello to the Seaking fer me.”
“Hah! I ain’t meetin’ the Spirit Bird tonight!” Aloo shouted and held his spear out. He looked to where he had seen Duhwah - the champion drew closer, but it was apparent that he hadn’t bought him enough time after all. His smirk faded as he weighed his options once more and found them all to be less than ideal.
The foreigner shot him a look. “Ah, right, the Elus did say somethin’ about those birds… We made certain they forgot about them soon after our alliance… No matter - the dead can’t be choosers, either way.” He turned to the warriors. “Take his corpse to Dun-ar-Wog - the chief’ll want somethin’ te sacrifice te Kirron.”
“Aye, boss,” one of them went and before long, Roganweh had dove beneath the waves along with two others.
Now, surrounded by six others, Aloo felt his odds improve. They were gravely mistaken if they thought they had him surrounded - at sea, he had an additional dimension he could move in.
However, just as he was about to dive, a lunge came from all six directions. He dodged five of them - a sixth embedded itself in his right leg. He screamed - or made an attempt to. The water kept it to a bubbling snarl and expended much of his air supply. A quick look upwards told him that his pursuers were gaining on him - with one leg down, his speed was severely reduced, even underwater. He cast a look to the side - where in the gods’ names was Duhwah?!
Then, above him again, the sea turned red. It was blurry and dark, but he saw in the shine of the Garden that Duhwah had finally caught up with him and his enemies, and were using the dark waters to make quick work of them. Aloo seized the opportunity to surface for a fresh breath, but on his way up, he noticed Duhwah seemed to the fighting a losing battle - tremendously so. In his heart stirred an urgency that ignored the need for air and sent the selka chieftain propelling towards his champion, spear leading on.
Duhwah, meanwhile, had the brute strength to deflect the blows coming for him, but lacked the dexterity to return any. Thus he was forced to draw further and further back, and he was running out of air. To his frustration, his attackers dared not get too close to him, opting instead for speared jabs. He was certain they knew that he would outclass them completely at an arm’s distance.
Then, just as a jab came a bit too close, one of the assailants was speared through the hip by Aloo coming in at a sideways angle. Duhwah cheered on the inside, but he saw the sluggish movements of his chieftain, and the crimson cloud around his leg. The fire of duty reignited within him, and even as he took a few jabs and cuts to his right arm, he managed to swim over and grab him, immediately thereafter taking him to the surface.
As the pair came back into open air, both the chieftain and the champion sucked in loud gasps of air. Aloo coughed something fierce, and Duhwah pounded him on the back.
“Chieftain, are you al--AGH!” A spear stabbed Duhwah through each of his calves before his assailants, too, had to breathe. They surfaced much too close to the champion, though, and even through the gruesome pains, Duhwah spun around with a snarl on his face and hammered one of the attackers with his fist with such strength that the selka passed out face down. His partner fared little better, for he could barely turn around before Duhwah gripped his neck and snapped it with a single hand.
Silence at last. There, floating among corpses, the pair felt the adrenaline fade and the pain consume them. Duhwah turned weakly towards the beach. During the battle, they had floated far away from the island. He turned the other way; they had almost swam closer to the mainland.
“H-hey… Chief?” Duhwah said weakly. Aloo still held on to him, but the grip was weak and his skin was paling, visible even through the fur. The champion turned in every direction, but it was hopeless. No one had come for them in the heat of battle.
Or so he thought, up until the champion looked up.
Like a second Lustrous Garden, an golden structure shaped like a very odd pear descended from the heavens on top of a circular stream of water that only seemed to feed itself. The champion kicked and paddled with his free limbs in spite of the agony to pull himself and the chieftain out of the way of the structure, but it seemed to be uncannily aware of exactly where they were. It landed neatly on the sea next to them and remained there calmly, like if a whale decided to take a nap on top of the water surface against all natural evidence. Duhwah eyed the structure with awe-struck eyes and shook the groggy chieftain.
“Look, Aloo! Look! It’s--.. It’s beautiful!”
The chieftain didn’t respond verbally, but his drowsy eyes fell upon the sight for a swift second before they closed again. Duhwah felt a pang of panic and looked up at the structure. He thought he saw some shapes onboard and called, “Help! Help! My chieftain is very hurt!”
For the following moment, he felt the terror of the possibility that they hadn’t heard him - or worse, didn’t care. However, as soon as that thought entered his mind, there came from the top of the structure two enormous limbs of… Water? Duhwah’s eyes once more snapped open in awe - this was the work of a god, for certain. Was it Lugo?
The limbs wrapped gently around the two of them and brought them onto a platform atop the structure’s middle section. They were gently put down and immediately surrounded by odd, sand-coloured shapes with even stranger pelts. They spoke in a terribly strange tongue, sounding almost like aggressive music, and began to clean and wrap the selkas’ wounds. Duhwah couldn’t believe his eyes. He blinked at the surroundings and tried to make sense of the situation. He decided to ask, “Hi, uhm… Where--owch! Where are we? Who are you?”
The odd figures didn’t answer him, but a few gave him what looked like smiles if you imagined they had a snout, as well. He felt a bubbling anxiousness inside - while the care was most appreciated, he would at least like to know who his saviours were, as well as their intentions.
“Ah… To think I would actually experience a deus ex machina moment… Priceless.”
The deep, oily voice had caught Duhwah off guard and he rolled around looking for its source, much to the dismay of his physicians. They mumbled something to each other and the voice chuckled.
“Please, remain calm - my precious servants will see to it that you are bandaged and fed.”
Duhwah felt a rumble in his belly - it had been a while since his last proper meal. However, still curious as to who their saviour was, he once again asked, “Who, who are you?”
There came a quiet hum. “A sensible question - it is my first time seeing your kind as well, so I propose we exchange our identities to solidify the beginning of this new friendship?”
“... F-friendship?” Duhwah asked quietly.
“Why, of course! Any worthy mortal can consider itself a friend of Shengshi.”
The voice coloured in an imagine of a powerful character, and Duhwah soon laid his eyes upon a colossal creature whose scales glittered in the evening light like miniature stars. It had a bulk that even Duhwah could only dream of, and a stern, yet intrigued face adorned with a sly smile. Its body ended not in feet like his own, but instead balanced on a long, girthy tail. In all honesty, he was quite ugly to Duhwah, but simultaneously magnificent in so many other ways. The creature once more eyed Duhwah and Aloo up and down.
“Now, friends, may I know what and who you are?” Duhwah swallowed. He bowed his head as low as he could as he laid there on the floor. “I’m, uh, I’m Duhwah, champion of the Wuhdige tribe. That boy over there’s my chieftain, Aloo.”
The creature nodded. “Interesting. I reckon you must be the selka I have heard so much about. Tell me, what were you doing in the water so bloody and beaten? Would it have anything to do with the corpses down there, by any chance? Are they your allies?”
“No! Not at all,” Duhwah bellowed, making the creature raise an eyebrow. The champion calmed himself a bit. “Uh, sorry, friend Shengshi--”
“Your Lordship will do,” the creature interrupted in a polite manner.
“Your what-now?” the champion responded.
“Lordship,” the creature repeated. “It is a title - like chieftain.”
“Your… Lodoship,” the champion attempted. The creature frowned.
“Pronounciation difficulties, I see. No matter - since you have been deemed worthy, you are permitted to refer to me as ‘master’.”
Duhwah looked confused. “M-masta’.”
“Close enough,” the creature conceded. “Now, they were not your allies, judging from your reaction to my assumption. Were they raiders? Rivals?”
Duhwah hung his head. “Honestly, I don’t know, uh… They’ve been attacking us for nearly two years now - it all started when we kicked out the Elu family and--”
“So it is a family dispute?” the creature suggested.
“Yes! Or… No, we don’t know. They’ve got help, you see. Strangers we’ve never even seen. They don’t even talk like us - or, they do, but really weirdly.”
The creature hummed, sitting down on his coiled up tail. “So they are raiders that originally were part of this tribe of yours, and they have also received foreign reinforcements?”
“Yes, masta’,” Duhwah assured. “Our chief’s pretty reckless, so I had to swim out and save him. He held the raiders away from Hohm, but got himself pretty beaten for it.”
The creature nodded. “Your loyalty to your chieftain has not gone unnoticed, young Duhwah.”
The champion mumbled the word ‘young’ to himself before asking, “W-what loyalty?”
“Why, you came at his rescue at the risk of losing your life. I saw from high above that you swam quite far from the beach to save one who truly had overextended his assault. I can think of few other examples of such devotion to one’s master. You, Duhwah, are an exemplary servant.”
“Servant?” Duhwah asked weakly. The creature nodded.
“Indeed, Duhwah, and hear now that being a servant is not an ailment - in fact, to serve well and properly is a skill and a trait that can only be found in the finest of individuals. Individuals like you, for example,” the creature said with a grin and pointed at Duhwah’s blubbery chest.
The champion frowned. “U-uh… Was just doin’ my job.”
“And you did it well,” the creature boasted. “So well, in fact, that I will bestow upon you a gift - a gift for the whole tribe.”
As the master said so, a pair of the sand-skinned creatures came over to Duhwah and Aloo carrying shiny discs from which oozed a most heavenly fragrance. Duhwah felt his mouth water and even Aloo’s eyes groggily opened at the smell. Duhwah noticed and broke his eyes away from the food, turning instead to the chieftain. He crawled over to the dismay of his physicians again and lifted the chieftain’s torso gently.
“Chief! You alright?”
“Duh,” Aloo whispered weakly. “What’s that… that smell?”
“Hey, chief, we’re gonna be okay! The masta’ says he’s gonna help us out! He seems like a great guy.”
“I certainly hope so,” the creature mumbled a little sourly.
Aloo nodded slowly, his lips curving into a weak smile. “Good… Hey, Duh?”
“I’m… Sorry… I was a dumb-... Dumbass.”
Duhwah nodded sideways. “Yeah, kinda…” He snickered. “You’re still the chief, tho. Can you sit up?”
Aloo flexed his muscles a little and, with great strain, managed to keel forward, kept in balance by Duhwah and a number of servants. One of them came to Aloo with a disc in one hand and a pair of straight sticks in the other, and Duhwah watched with furrowed brows as the creature picked up food with the sticks and put it in Aloo’s mouth. He turned Shengshi with a curious look.
“Why doesn’t he use his hands?” he asked. “Hands are used for work, young Duhwah. During work, they grow dirty and rugged - they thus have no place near the mouth.”
The champion shrugged. “It’s worked out well for us so far.”
The creature smiled slyly. “Is that so? Not a single bellyache or case of gut disease?”
The champion rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well, uh…”
The creature nodded. “I recommend at the very least to wash your hands before eating. Speaking of…” A pair of servants came over to Duhwah, took the chieftain out of his arms and laid him down carefully again and began to wash his hands with wet towels. The champion eyed the servants anxiously and turned to Shengshi, who nodded back.
“Please do not resist. I reckon you will be eating with your hands anyway, so I am taking precautions for you.”
Duhwah looked down at his hands - they hadn’t been this gray in a long time, and frankly, he liked them better with a little dirt on. It made his fur look more colourful. Nevertheless, he nodded as appreciately as he could and took his disc. He dipped his hands into all the foods on it, tasting the residues with increasing enthusiasm.
“This… This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted,” he whispered. Shengshi chuckled.
“The kitchen of Jiangzhou offers only the finest, be it for gods or mortals. I would offer you some wine, but that may upset your blood clots a little.”
“Wine?” Duhwah asked.
“You will no doubt encounter it at some point. Now, as for the gift…”
“Aloo! He’s coming to!” Duhwah exclaimed.
“Right, I suppose we are waiting, then,” Shengshi muttered to himself.
Aloo’s eyes were still barely open and his breathing was weak, but at least now he sat by himself. He shook his head in an almost drunken manner. “Duhwah…”
The champion shuffled closer again. “What is it, chief? I’m here, bro.”
“The friends of our enemies… They call themselves Wogweh… Know what that is?”
Duhwah’s eyes snapped open and he sucked in a breath. “So that’s what happened to them, huh…”
“Has the identity of this mystery foe been uncovered, then?” Shengshi asked absent-mindedly.
Duhwah wolfed down the rest of his food and hummed pensively as he chewed. “Way back in the day, ol’ gramps used to tell us about the first Wuhdige… Tokuan, Agoh, Yupa, Elu, Dondweh and Wogweh. All six tribes went along from the First Beach, but when we was about to swim over to Wuhdige island, the Wogweh backed out and stayed on the mainland… Haven’t seen ‘em since.”
“Any clue as to why they allied with your enemies?” the snake asked the two.
Aloo took another bite of food and swallowed it whole. “... Dunno. He said somethin’ about pit fiightin’ and slaves… Whatever those are.” Duhwah shrugged, too, but the snake hummed in understanding.
“A society built on slavery, I see…” The god turned towards the mainland, where in the dark, faint flickers of flame could be spotted, even with mortal eyes. He nodded to himself. “... I reckon they are raiding your settlement to capture your people and plunder your resources. Has anyone gone missing since their attacks begun?”
The two selka looked at each other. “Now that you mention it,” Duhwah mumbled. Shengshi nodded again.
“A slaver society is not ideal, but sadly, quite a simple solution to a lot of the problems plaguing young civilisations. I reckon you have struggled before with worker and soldier morale?”
“Struggling right now, actually,” Aloo muttered, inciting a short-lived frown from Duhwah. The snake nodded yet again.
“With slavery, you can avoid the morale problem by seeing the workers and soldiers as property, not lives. They can be treated like insects, if the master wishes, killed or spared at the mere snap of a finger. Pit fighting may share similar traits - it describes a situation where warriors are put in a small arena and set to fight one another to death, often as entertainment for others.”
Duhwah grimaced. “Who would wanna watch other people die?”
“If it’s Elu,” Aloo began to suggest until a deathglare from Duhwah put him off it.
“A soul driven by vengeance, I see,” the snake muttered disapprovingly and pointed a clawed finger at the chieftain. “You should learn from your servant, young Aloo - a reckless master invites only his own death.”
Aloo stood as frozen, though he personally could not quite understand why. Maybe it was the actual menacing shape of the creature before him, or the tremours that his voice sent through what felt like the very fabric of existence.
“So… What should I do, then, masta’?” the chieftain asked.
“Seek council with this man. Age is often a sign of experience, and this man is many years your senior. Now, to change the subject yet again, I must ask what you wish as a gift for your people, young champion,” said Shengshi and turned back to Duhwah with a slightly impatient smile.
Duhwah turned to Aloo and shrugged. “W-well, see… We ain’t sure. Can it be anything?”
“Anything that can be considered a gift, yes.”
“Can we wish the Elu away?!” Aloo asked loudly.
“What did I just say, little mortal?” Shengshi snapped back and Aloo seemed to shrink into nothing. He then turned back to Duhwah. “I will not exterminate a whole society for you, no. Meddling with mortal conflicts upsets the harmony of the universe.”
“Then… Can we have some tools that will help us defeat them, at least? Keep them off our island?” Duhwah asked.
The snake furrowed his brow. “You looked as though you had not eaten for a week just a minute ago. Are you certain you should not wish for an abundance of food for your people?”
Duhwah shot Aloo a glance and nodded. “We only go hungry ‘cuz the Elu and Wogweh keep stealin’ our food. If we had the means of defendin’ ourselves, we could retake the fishing grounds and pear forests.”
The snake scratched his chin in thought, then eventually nodded. “Very well, then. You shall have your tools of war. What is the weapon of your foe?”
“They, uh… Mostly use spears and clubs, I think.”
The snake nodded. “I see. To counter jabs and slams, you need a proper tool of defense.” He eyed the island in the distance with a thoughtful expression. “Tell me, do you have any oxen on your island?”
“Thought not. How about tall grass?”
“That will do,” the snake said. Suddenly, the massive structure upon which they stood turned towards the Wuhdige beach. Once there, the chieftain and the champion were set down on the beach by two giant water limbs, much to the awe of the Wuhdige onlookers. After them came the snake. He raised his hands in a welcoming gesture and bellowed, “All selka of the Wuhdige tribe - I am the Master, Shengshi, and at the request of your champion, I have been tasked with providing tools of defense against the foreign invaders.”
The selka seemingly didn’t quite know how to react. Shengshi sighed. “You’re used to this by now… Pretend they’re awestruck. Yes… Yes, you are awestriking,” he mumbled to himself with a smirk. Duhwah and Aloo looked at him curiously and shrugged at each other.
Then, as the snake raised his hands again, a two pine trees at the far back of the Hohm camp, which had served as a backdrop for decades by now, all uprooted and soared over to Shengshi with a mighty speed. There, they landed with a loud thump to the sound of Wuhdige “waaahs”.
“To counter the enemy onslaught, mortals, I will fashion you shields out of wood. These will be a little heavy, yes, but they will hold firmly against any weapon the enemy can use against you.”
The Wuhdige looked at one another and in the crowd, one hand was raised.
“Yes?” Shengshi went.
“What’s a shield?” came a voice. The snake sighed.
“Hold on a minute. I will show you.” He twisted his hand, and as if the tree was putty for a moment, a globule of wood floated out of the trunk and moulded itself into a round buckler suitable for a selka. He took a dead fish from the beach and turned its skin into straps and strapped it onto his oversized arm.
“This shield, hold on, it’s a little tight… It will serve as a wall between you and the enemy’s strike. If they come at you with a club, deflect it with this and use your other hand to strike back. A spear will get stuck or bounce off - seize the opportunity and strike them dead.”
The surrounding Wuhdige eyed the shield with awe and confusion. Shengshi rolled his eyes discreetly and handed the shield to Duhwah. “How does it feel?”
Duhwah strapped it on and swung his arm about, nearly losing balance on account of his wounded legs. “It’s a bit heavy.”
“Good,” Shengshi said. “That means it’ll withstand plenty of strikes.” He proceeded to make enough discs for all the warriors of the tribe, and all forty of them lined up to each receive their own slice of wood strapped with fish skin. The selka stood scattered around on the beach, all testing and trying out their fresh equipment. Some picked up clubs and began to practice; others picked up spears and tried to wield that and the shield simultaneously. As they practiced a manner mixed between clumsy and crafty, the snake could not help but snicker to himself. He took the moment to climb back aboard his ship and look down at the ever-learning warriors.
“Yes, Your Lordship?” the head servant answered diligently.
“I think we will move further inland. These selka truly are something else.”
After about a day of practice, the selka were tired and at least a little wiser. Duhwah and Aloo gathered everyone on the beach, many taking in the strange sight of the odd wrapping about their legs. Aloo limped forward with some support from his brother Tokkan.
“Wuhdige! We’ve finally gotten an edge in the fight! But we won’t attack just yet.” The selka looked at one another and Aloo sucked in a breath. “I’ve been a bad, bad chief, and driven y’all darn hard - harder than I shoulda. Y’all get a break for the night. Me and Duh’ll be watching the beach.”
Relieved laughter and cheers exploded from the crowds with unexpected loudness and many simply laid down in the sand to sleep. Duhwah and Aloo chuckled.
“So, Duh, what was the name of that god again?”
“Oh, uh… The masta.”
“Yeah, yeah, that was it, I think.”
“Huh. Damasta, huh? Well, better get working on his shrine. After the others nap, of course.”
“After the nap.”
One year’s past since the last post. Raiders are attacking and Aloo’s gone all Kratos on the Elu, so he kills them whenever possible. Duhwah and Woi’e don’t like this, but since Aloo’s chief, they can’t really do anything about it. Aloo gets caught in the open and meets the enemy commander, Roganweh of the Wogweh tribe (one of the original six Wuhdige tribes, see first post for the 0 backstory they’ve gotten before) from the mainland. Wogweh’s a slave despot tribe, and Roganweh hints that they enslave people, have pitfights and sacrifice life selka to Kirron. He then leaves Aloo to be killed by his men after Aloo taunts him, but Duhwah comes to the (sorta) rescue and the two nearly fight their way out. Then Shengshi shows up in a deus ex machina moment and takes the two selka on board. He has his servants dress their wounds and feet them and then offers Duhwah a gift for being loyal to his duty to protect the chief. Duhwah asks for some tools to help them in the fight, so Sheng gives them wooden shields. The selka train with them a bit and then go napping. Also, because the selka called Shengshi ‘the master’, his god name to them is Damasta.
Shengshi start: 0MP/3FP 1FP - Give the selka fifty wooden shields. Shengshi after 0MP/2FP
Wenbo knew not quite how long he had walked. The meadows and fields had sort of floated by, much like the lazy clouds above, until his aching feet brought him to the familiar hilltop. An itch gnawed at his cheek and he raised a pair of fingers to sate it. As he pulled away, he noticed a moist, chilling sensation on them - he was apparently in tears. With a snort and a few blinks, he rubbed the moisture out of his eyes. Covering one of them in a facepalming manner, his other, blue-ringed eye fell on a small dent in the flower patches. He sighed to himself and sat himself down in the dent, plucking for himself a small straw to chew on. He surveyed the landscape:
As far as his eyes could see, flowers and grasses of a thousand different shades and colours bloomed and thrived, reflecting the light of heaven in the form of a rainbow of beauty and life. Insects buzzed sweetly from petal to petal and had sweet little debates about the mathematical perfection of hexagonal structures in beeswax. The crops throughout the valleys he could see all danced with the breeze in sweet idyll. Even the trees, in spite of their wooden appearance, seemed to enjoy themselves.
Perhaps he truly was insane. How could he consider leaving a place like this? All for… For something they always had had. He rested his forehead in his palm and groaned quietly. He had made such a fool out of himself in front of everyone - in front of K’nell!
How could he face them now?
His eyes ran down the side of the hill and fell upon his house. From his angle, he could just barely see the far edge of the shrine wall.
It wouldn’t be easy. One does not simply decline a divine request - especially not from his mother’s creator. He would need a reason; a single ‘no’ would be much too impolite.
Chagatai had the right idea: The truth prevails, always.
He put his palms on the ground to push himself up, but stopped. Could he truly do this? Denying the great Shengshi His wish? What would happen to him if he did? What would happen to his family? His future? His people’s future?
He intertwined his fingers together in his lap and closed his eyes with a sigh. They had everything here - safety, food, family. Here, on their ancestral land of Tendlepog, they had a life…
His eyes gazed skyward. He could not help but wonder if there existed others creatures out there, beyond the cliffs and the endless blue sea, or if that perhaps was the reason they had been summoned.
Did the Dreamers even look up at the same sky as the rest of the world did? If so, did it look the same all over the world?
Wenbo had subconsciously laid himself down in the grass, his eyes gazing unmovingly at the heavens above. Was there grass elsewhere in the world? Did the land feel the same to his feet on as it did here?
He took out the walnut-sized stalkplum from the fold in his robe. Did they grow elsewhere, too, outside of Tendlepog?
As his mind fell deeper and deeper into the well of though, his eyelids grew heavy and before long, Wenbo had fallen asleep.
Wenbo’s eyes snapped open and he sat up much like the swing of a catapult arm. He took a few startled breaths and scanned the surroundings. The familiar hills had been cast in the crimson of sunset, and tall trees cast even greater shade across the drowsy plains. However, something was off.
Wenbo lifted his hands off the grass. They were wrinkled and dripping, as if he had kept them underwater for hours. He then noticed that he was indeed sitting up to his hips in deep, black water. He scurried to his feet, but found himself unable to move them. With frustrated groans, he rolled over and began to claw his way towards higher ground, but the further he climbed, the more clearly he saw what held him back: A thousand hands gripped his ankles tightly. The air reeked sharply of rot and salt, and as his struggles waned, his groans were deafened by thundering waves breaking upon approaching cliffs.
Wenbo dared look over his shoulder as the horizon cast him over the moving mountains, past the endless dunes of sand, and onto the giant cliffs above the sea. He was suddenly completely dry - much too dry, in fact. His skin began to shrivel and blister before his eyes, the wounds spurting forth squirts of wet sand. Soon enough, his limbs turned from muscle and bone to water and sand, and before him spawned an enormous, snake-like beast of pure gold. Wenbo swallowed, his new watery form making that particularly hard, and the beast gave him a bow. Wenbo bowed back.
Wenbo turned around. He saw his house before the rising dawn, red, white and yellow rays bathing the humble shack in enough light to nearly set it aflame. Wenbo reached out to push aside the curtain in the doorway, and the house approached and obliged. As he stepped inside, the house expanded immensely, until Wenbo was the size of a flea in comparison. All the furniture disappeared. All that remained inside was himself - alone. Then he became just tall enough to reach a basket that was conveniently placed on top of the nearby moving mountain. Wenbo opened the basket and peaked inside to find that it contained his entire family, all smiling lovingly at him.
Wenbo felt a pang in his chest and tears formed in the corners of his eyes. A single tear dropped into the basket and the scenery changed again, this time to a completely circular pond, next to which sat a two-horned snake and a white skin ball with a creepy smile drawn on it in charcoal. Wenbo found himself standing next to the snake and the ball and gave them each a curious look. The ball gave him a wink. “Do you?” it asked.
“Do I what?”
“A THOUSAND FAMILIES!” the snake suddenly screamed at the top of its little lungs, nearly sending Wenbo into orbit. He did come pretty close, though, and as Wenbo drifted there above the clouds, he felt suddenly a soft, icky sensation eel its way across his cheek. Before him, a cloud metamorphosed into an eye, which then split into two eyes and flew above Wenbo to stare down at him.
“Are you even listening?” the eyes asked.
Wenbo frowned. “Am I--”
Wenbo snapped his eyes open yet again, only this time his hands were considerably drier while not quite having reached the consistency of quoll jerky. His head rubbernecked about in several directions, taking multiple tries before noticing the frown above him.
“Oh. Sorry, I fell asleep,” Wenbo said with a weak smile.
“I could tell,” Ai replied with a sigh. She patted the grass and flowers next to her husband and sat herself down beside him, staring forward at the horizon. Wenbo snorted with a wrinkle of the nose and twiddled his thumbs together.
“So…” he eventually said. “How was the feast?”
“It was great. We missed you a great deal,” Ai replied monotonously. Wenbo swallowed.
“Th-that’s good to hear. I’m sorry I didn’t come. I--”
“Had to go sulk?”
“I was going to say ‘think’, dear.” Ai scoffed. “Like you thought your speech through?”
Wenbo deflated. “Ai, could you please avoid bringing that up--”
Ai held up a finger and Wenbo quieted down instantly. “No. No, I don’t think I will. What happened, Wenbo? You presented it so well to us. What changed? Crowds have never been a problem for you before. Was it God’s presence?”
Wenbo sucked in a breath and looked sideways. Ai nodded. “Alright. So now that you’re name’s sullied and you have been portrayed as a selfish fool, what will you do?”
“I’m not selfish!”
“Well, you sure sounded that way!” Ai gestured in the direction she had come from. “Everyone there thinks that the only reason you want to leave is to go on some childish, reckless adventure - and that those who go along will forever be shut off from their homes, they families, their futures.”
“Ai, you--...” Wenbo pulled some desperate breaths. “You believe me, right? You believe me when I say I want to leave not just for the wonders, but for the good of our family - our people?”
Ai looked away. Wenbo took her hand. “Ai, please.”
“We already have it well here… What could there possibly be outside that we don’t have here?”
“Ai, can’t you feel it? Tendlepog is safe and, and beautiful, but… We’re not free here.”
Ai frowned. “What do you mean? Of course, we are.”
Wenbo shook his head. “I should rephrase that - we are free here, but not free to go anywhere but here.” Ai’s frown faded a little and Wenbo gestured to the distant, dark mountains. “Look, beyond those lazily drifting tops, there is nothing but endless desert - it’s impossible to pass through without the Warden’s consent, and he only answers to God.” He then gestured to the opposite direction. “Then there’s the Forbidden Forest, which we are not allowed to enter. We have ourselves a space in between.”
“Our space is massive, Wenbo! You have never even seen the other side of the continent!”
Wenbo nodded. “You’re right. I haven’t, and if I explored my whole life, I certainly wouldn’t be able to see it all… But what about my children, and their children, and their children’s children. How many generations will pass before all of Tendlepog is explored?”
Ai took his hands in her own. “All too many, Wenbo - you’re thinking about hundreds, if not thousands of years from now! Are you really so sick of this land that you want to go out into a spiteful, unloving wilderness we only know from stories? Mom and mother probably even altered those stories to make them seem less gruesome!”
Wenbo looked to be digging desperately for a proper retort, but the look in Ai’s tired eyes shut him up. He hung his head forward and caressed his wife’s hand absent-mindedly. Ai, too, let out an exhausted sigh and rested her head on his shoulder. For a long while, they sat in silence, disturbed only by beautiful birdsong, which Wenbo was a bit sad to realise was quite an intense lover’s quarrel.
As the seconds turned into minutes, and the sunset grew ever dimmer, Wenbo asked, “Do you remember the first time we came here?”
Ai let out a single snore and smacked her lips a little. “Sorry, I must’ve dozed off. Did you say anything?”
Wenbo gave her a smile and planted a soft peck on the top of her head. “I asked if you remember the first time we came here?”
Ai let out a soft “oh” and made herself comfortable on his shoulder once more. “I do - quite clearly, as a matter of fact. I was sixteen and had only just come back from our trip to the clay pits. You asked me to meet you here, and when I came, you presented me with this necklace.” She patted a bluestone-tipped necklace around her neck, strung with a length of woolen thread. She then looked up and kissed him on the cheek. “Then you asked me to marry you.”
Wenbo giggled triumphantly to himself. “You have no idea how nervous I was. I had climbed mountain walls, snuck into the Forbidden Forest, confronted mother - but none of it had ever made me as scared or nervous as that moment did.” He hooked an arm around her shoulder and pulled her closer. “But I owe that moment everything - my children, my house, my fields… All exist because you were there.”
Ai blinked and giggled. “Is flattery your new strategy, great Thinker?”
“No, I’m serious, Ai - without you, I… I would be entirely different; my life would be entirely different.”
Ai snickered. “Yeah, you would’ve ended up with Bayarmaa instead.”
Wenbo rolled his eyes playfully. “I would’ve, yes, but didn’t - ‘cause she was much too outclassed by--” He poked her nose and pecked her on the cheek. “You.”
Once more, Ai giggled, and despite her ageing appearance, Wenbo only saw the smile of the beauty from the decades past. She collected herself again. “Alright, out with it. What’re you trying to get at? Are you trying to flatter me into going off on that wacky adventure with you? Because my mind is set in that regard.”
Wenbo nodded slowly. “I know… And that’s what hurts the most about the whole thing, really.”
Ai’s smile faded a little and her brows furrowed together. “Heh. What do you mean by that?”
Wenbo sucked in a slow breath. “Life here on Tendlepog really only has any value to me because of you and my family… Chagatai… Li… Temüjin… Bayarmaa… The paradise we are surrounded by is beautiful, idyllic.” He then shook his head slowly. “However, the shock of leaving that behind cannot even begin to compare to that of who I would be leaving.”
Ai narrowed her eyes and pulled away from Wenbo’s shoulder. “You’re… You’re going all the same, aren’t you?”
Wenbo didn’t look back at her, but kept his eyes looking forward at nothing in particular. “Yeah… Yeah, I’m going.”
Ai’s face drained of what little colour it had and her black eyes began to glisten with moisture despite the evening darkness. She pulled her knees to her torso and wrapped her arms around them. “You’ve always been like this.”
Wenbo nodded slowly. “I’m sorry, Ai, I--”
“No! No, you’ve always been like this! You’ve always gone out on crazy, stupid adventures with your brother, or with our son, or even on your own - and every time, you’ve come home either bloody or broken or gods know what else!” Ai stood up and Wenbo reached out to her.
“But you’ve always come home!” Ai sobbed loudly and Wenbo pulled back. His wife dragged the tears out of her eyes with the back of her sleeve and grit her teeth together. “Every single time, you’ve come home to me - but this time, that’s not possible!” She kept rubbing her eyes as if drying up a deluge. “How can you do this to me, Wen-Wen? Your own wife?”
Wenbo grit his own teeth and stood up. “Ai, it’s because I need to see the world! It’s like God said, it, it’s in my blood!”
“No, Wenbo! You belong here - with me.” Ai shuffled over and embraced the frowning Wenbo. “With all of us…”
Wenbo sighed and embraced her back. “Ai, don’t-... Don’t make this harder than it alread--”
“I won’t let you - what part of that don’t you understand?!” She glared tearfully into his eyes.
“I don’t care! If you’re not coming with me, then, then--!”
Ai’s glare immediately became a shocked gape. She clung tighter to the folds of Wenbo’s robe. “Then what? Then what?!”
Wenbo himself was now desperately holding back tears, and utterly failing. He took Ai’s hands by the wrists and calmly pulled them away from his robe, Ai staring in disbelief all the while. He shot a look down the hillside where the Garden shone a bleak light onto the roof of his cabin. He looked back at Ai, who shook her head at him.
“Don’t… Please don’t,” she begged.
Wenbo let go of her wrists and set off into a sprint down the hill. As he ran, he heard Ai screaming his name after him, tears clogging up her throat on multiple occasions. He could not let that stop him now - he would see the world beyond; he would see all of it; he would--
He slipped on the dew-moistened grass and crashed into the mud. Behind him, he heard approaching footsteps. He rushed back to his feet and kept running. A pain stung him. His leg - it bled. He cursed under his breath, but nonetheless persevered towards the wall of shrines.
“Wenbo!” he heard from behind. It stung worse than the pain, but he kept up his accelerated limp. He could see it clearly now - the shrine to Shengshi. Once he reached it and said his prayer, it would be done. He would be in His hands and due for transport upon His arrival. He knelt down beside the shrine and folded his hands.
“O blessed Sheng--”
Ai tackled him to the ground. Wenbo struggled, but his wife planted a well-placed smack on his cheek that very nearly knocked him out cold. As he weakly shook his head to recover, Ai grabbed him by the folds of his robe and lifted him up a little, her alabaster hair hanging down over his face.
“Are you insane?!” she bellowed straight at his face. Wenbo didn’t answer. Ai adjusted her position a little to regain balance and accidentally planted her knee on Wenbo’s wound, inciting a sharp groan. The rage in Ai’s face subsided and she looked down at the bloody bruise. She then pressed her lips together and sniffed. “Look at you… Can’t even run fifty feet without getting yourself hurt.” Ai shot the shrine to Shengshi a look and then shot one at Wenbo as well.
“Don’t you even dare to move,” she snapped. Then she stood up and walked inside their shack. Wenbo laid in the moist grass, still recovering from the blow. He snorted and realised he was tasting blood. The outside world truly had nothing on Ai when it came to danger.
She came out the house again, carrying a small pot of salves and a roll of woolen bandages. As she bandaged Wenbo’s leg, the ageing dreamer let out a relieved sigh. “... I wouldn’t even last a day out there, would I?”
“Doubt it,” Ai teased. She tied the bandage together tightly and poked at it until Wenbo groaned for her to stop. She gave him a weak, slightly sadistic smile and looked back at the shrine. “You’re really that set on going, huh?” she said somberly.
Wenbo sat himself up and sighed. “Yeah… Sorry, Ai, but you can’t stop me.”
She shook her head. “That snapping stubbornness of yours is going to be the death of you, I swear…” She sucked in a breath and paused for a long time, so long that Wenbo thought she had started crying again. However, eventually, she let out a single word: “Fine.”
Wenbo frowned. “Fine what?”
“Fine. I’ll go with you.”
Wenbo furrowed his brow. “Ai, are you serious?”
“When am I not?” she retorted. Wenbo took her hand in his own.
“You know as well as I do what you will be leaving behind - what’s at stake.”
“Yes, I know that perfectly well.”
Wenbo glared at her. “You’ve spent all evening scolding me for my choice to leave, and now you suddenly change your mind? What, after I get a little bruised--ow!”
Ai poked him on the wound again and Wenbo shut himself up. “Oh, don’t think for a second that I’m taking any of that back. I am furious, livid that you’re going through with this. Still…” She pursed her lips. “... What would my life be without you?”
Wenbo drew a quivering breath. “I…”
“No, I won’t give you a say in this, either. If you’re so snapping determined to leave me behind, then I might as well come with you. I am your wife; if I don’t support you in this, who will?”
Wenbo looked away sheepishly. “That’s a little cold.”
“Well, boo-hoo, it’s the truth,” Ai replied snarkily. “Now, tell Shengshi you accept.”
Wenbo nodded with a wry frown. “He prefers ‘His Lordship’, actually.” Ai rolled her eyes.
“I’m sure he does.”
Wenbo made a face and crawled over to the nearby shrine. He cleaned himself up the best he could, shuffled his knees into a proper stance with some wincing due to the cut, and bent his head. “Great Lord Shengshi… This servant Wenbo has made a decision on His Lordship’s magnificent proposal.”
For a moment, there was no response. Ai peeked over his shoulder at the shrine. “Consider being a little more sincere. You’re being unnecessarily humble.”
Wenbo waved for her to quiet down. “Trust me, He prefers it that way.”
As soon as he finished, a warmth embraced the two, characterised with a dense humidity and a faint scent of chlorophyll. A liquid sound trickled in the background, along with a few plucks on what they could only guess was the string of a harp.
“... Aaah… Wenbo. After all these weeks, I was beginning to think you were not going to call me at all.” The deep, oily voice of the snake felt as though it came from every direction simultaneously. Ai had assumed a personality completely opposite of the one before - now, she appeared to be cowering behind Wenbo. The voice took note.
“This must be your wife - oh, I am so glad Xiaoli introduced to you all my little marriage experiment. Tell me, dear, what is your name?”
Ai looked at the shrine with a frozen expression. The clay bowl of river water looked back with oppressive interest. She felt fear clog up the words in her throat, another thing the voice took note of, remarked with a sigh.
“See, Wenbo, this is what I told you about before - most mortals simply freeze up when they are first exposed to a divine voice. It is so inconvenient…”
“Ai, Your Lordship,” she finally managed. “I’m Ai.”
There came a monotonous hum. “Try again.”
“Like I did,” Wenbo whispered loudly. “Like mother taught us.”
Ai mouthed a ‘really’, to which the voice responded. “Really.” She swallowed and once again began to unclog her throat. “Th-this servant is named Ai, Y-your Lordship,” she eventually said.
There came an audible nod. “Very good, very good. Oh, you two certainly make a lovely couple. I simply cannot wait to see the little children, as well! I have already found you a perfect spot, far to the south. It is out of the worst heat and very much safe from all manners of attacks. It will simply be perfect for you.”
Wenbo gave Ai a sheepish look. There came another hum, slightly disappointed in nature. “I sense that you are about to suggest some alterations to my proposal.” Wenbo took a breath, failed to formulate a sentence, then took another. “Your Lordship - this servant failed to convince the others of the grandeur of His Lordship’s proposal. If this one may be so frank, many believe the gifts offered do not outweigh the dangers of the outside world. Much of what His Lordship promised, the Dreamers are already accustomed to.”
The voice was silent. Wenbo continued. “No dreamer has known a day of starvation in their lives so far; no dreamer thirsts for neither water nor wine; and no dreamer is short on wealth. Tendlepog is, to most, a paradise.”
There came a quiet hiss and an invisible, oppressive glare bore down on the two. Still, there was no rage in the voice when it spoke, “I see… I will be honest, I had not expected the living standards there to be so… Well, perfect. Then again, my dearest brother K’nell is a crafty fellow.” The voice hummed for so long it began to sound like purring. Wenbo and Ai exchanged terrified looks. Then the hums stopped.
“Oh, very well,” the snake said eventually. “I will grant any who come with me another blessing. In addition to everything mentioned before (the wealth, the crops and all that), I will bestow upon you one more favour.”
Ai and Wenbo looked at the incorporeal eyes expectantly. The voice then went, “... What is it that you are missing?”
Wenbo looked to Ai, who nodded reassuringly back. “Well,” he said, “when we suggested leaving, God came to us and warned us that it is possible that, if we leave, we may never return. In a sense, we are, well, trapped here.”
“Being trapped in paradise cannot be so bad?” the voice suggested a little sarcastically.
“No, no - it isn’t - but we’re still trapped,” Wenbo insisted. “Sure, we can walk Tendlepog for eternity and never explore or populate it fully, but we can never leave and see the wonders of the outside world - and if we do, we may never return to see our loved ones.”
The snake hummed in understanding. “So it is freedom you want?”
Wenbo nodded. “We want to be able to go wherever we want, whenever we want. We want to explore, see the world, and live as inhabitants of this universe, not as people of a continent.”
“I see… Would flight satisfy your needs?”
Wenbo looked at Ai, who shook her head. “Your Lordship is most generous; however, flight alone may only scratch part of the itch.”
The snake hummed inquisitively. “Go on.”
“His Lordship sees the bonds we tie with our families and friends. We would like to travel the world without sacrificing those bonds. All Dreamers should travel as one great flock, migrating from land to land as one great family - exploring in the day and telling stories around a fire at night.”
The snake hissed pensively. “I see… So any solution that lets all Dreamers travel freely as one across great distances would be satisfactory?”
“Travel comfortably,” Ai added. The snake clicked his tongue in a surly manner.
“Alright, be orderly, please. Do not interject your demands so rashly. Very well, though - travel comfortably, you shall. Anything else you would like this solution to incorporate?”
“If His Lordship could let us travel the land as well as the sea using this solution, these servants would be incredibly grateful,” Wenbo added.
“Gratitude will be expected for certain,” the snake muttered. “I take it you would prefer sustenance, shelter, water and safety to be included as well?”
“Does His Lordship really mean that?” Ai asked.
“Of course, I mean it,” Shengshi retorted. “I hope you are not assuming I am only doing this for myself.”
They both waved their hands. “Of course not, Your Lordship!” Wenbo and Ai assured in unison.
“Good,” the voice hissed. “I suppose I now have to remove the clause regarding permanent settlement, as well…” Shengshi muttered quietly to himself. “No matter. I shall change it to this: In return for my gift, your settlement shall forever be loyal to me. Not a day shall pass without prayer, and once every three moons, you shall sacrifice to me a small portion of your harvest. Do this, and the gift, in addition to all aforementioned blessings, are yours. Tell your people of these new terms and see if they are more inclined to come.”
Wenbo and Ai nodded slowly. “Of course, Your Lordship,” Wenbo said. “But… What if they still won’t listen?”
Shengshi sighed. “Then I will make due with those that do. As long as I have two specimen of separate genders, it will be enough. However, a more natural migration is preferred - for both you and me.”
Ai placed a hand on her abdomen and shook her head at Wenbo. “We shall do our best to at least bring along our own family, then, Your Lordship,” Wenbo promised.
“That is good. Make certain it is not by force, though - I reckon my brother already has shared his thoughts on that subject.” “Of course, Your Lordship,” Wenbo assured.
“Well, then - best of luck… My grandchildren.” They could nearly feel a cosmic blink as the voice disappeared. Wenbo looked at Ai, who was still in recovery behind his back.
“Hey, you alright?”
Ai blinked a few times and gave him a weak frown. “Y-yeah… Wow, I understand now why you were so enthusiastic after the first time he had talked to you. His presence is so… Different from God’s.”
“Yeah,” Wenbo agreed. “Yeah, it really is.”
Ai put her tired head on his shoulder. “So… What now? Are we gathering everyone again?”
Wenbo shook his head. “No, I’ll go to each of our siblings one by one… But we’ll start here at home.”
Ai looked concerned. “Do you think Ren will come along?”
“... I don’t know,” Wenbo admitted.
For a while, the two remained there in front of the shrines, planning what to do before the sky would rip asunder.
Wenbo goes to the hill by his house to sulk. He’s pretty upset about how the presentation of Shengshi’s plan went and considers pulling out. He then doubts that, too, wondering what’ll happen to his family. He starts thinking about the wonders of the outside world and falls asleep. While sleeping, he has a crazy af dream.
He is woken up by Ai who scolds him for being shitty at convincing people. Wenbo asks if she believes in him and she’s like, “we already got it good here. dafuq you wanna leave for?” Wenbo, realising he lost, starts talking about the time he proposed to her on the hilltop. Ai’s entertained, but says she won’t change her mind even if he flatters her. Wenbo says he knows and that he’s going anyway. Ai, feeling betrayed, gets angry. They fight for a few seconds before Wenbo charge down the hill towards his house where he’s gunna tell Sheng he’s going alone.
On the way, he trips and hurts his leg. Ai tackles him to the ground just as he’s about to pray, scolds him and then bandages his leg. Realising that she cares too much for him to let him go on his own, Ai decides to come with him. Wenbo asks if she’s sure and she says “what would my life be without you?”
They contact Sheng together. They tell Sheng the dreamers ain’t impressed with his goods and that they want something bigger and better. Sheng asks what they want and Wenbo says they want to go wherever, whenever, as one big group. Shengshi agrees as to give them that and all aforementioned blessings as long as he receives daily prayers and seasonal sacrifices. They then say goodbye and the post ends with Wenbo saying he’ll go and ask every dreamer family personally.