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Allies in the Dark - The Gray Hag

Year 30AA, late winter, Ha-Dûna...

“A-are you sure this is a good idea, Burud? Y-you know what they say about her, a-after all! Oh, there’s gotta be another way!”

“Shut up, Murtagh! The Dûnans are paying for what they’ve done to us - to this whole country. You know as well as I do that this is the only way.”

“B-but is it, though?” The two were, in truth, beyond lost deep inside a forest to the far east of Scawick, almost beyond the Tordentind Mountains. They had been travelling for a full two weeks to get here - three days ago, they had reached the border of the woods. At this point, they were certain some sort of terrible charm had been cast upon them to throw them off their trail. They were, after all, chasing a legend - a local myth said to be dwelling in the deepest, darkest middle of these ancient woods.

A witch.

Burud kicked away a snow-covered, rotting stock and stepped over a frozen root. Murtagh had never seen a man so determined - fueled by a need for vengeance, he was an unstoppable machine, trekking through these endless woods for days on end, when all energy should have been spent weeks ago. Murtagh could hardly keep up. Then, as Murtagh had to keel over to take a breather, he noticed one of the roots on the ground looking slightly more twisted than usual.

“Hey, Burud? This root’s a little weirder than usual.”

There came a wet spit from up ahead. “They’re all weird here - these are cursed woods, after all. Nothing’s normal here.”

Murtagh squinted at the root. “No, no, you don’t get it… It’s… It’s pointing somewhere.” He knelt down to inspect the root’s direction. Burud sighed up ahead.

“Alright, I’ll play your game… What’s it pointing at? The trunk?” Burud stepped over and shot the root a lopsided view; at that moment, he also noticed that it seemed to, quite literally, gesture in a certain direction. “Well, I’ll be damned…” The root pointed off the beaten path, in a direction that not even the local fauna had seemed to step in - there weren’t even signs of critters having ever made a path through the snow in that direction. “... Could this be it?”

“What were the directions?”

“‘Go into the woods and keep walking until the forest itself shows you the--... It was pretty obvious now that I think about it, actually,” Burud confessed. Murtagh scrunched his nose.

“Well… After you, chief.” With that, the pair placed the first pair of feet in the snow which had laid untouched all season. Almost immediately, the woods shifted, as though the scenic view they had been shown for three whole days had been just that - a view. The old trees grew eldritch and overgrown, and the bark grew wicked faces which seemed to glare or grin at them as they went by. The sounds of birdsong and wind in the branches had disappeared completely - the silence was deafening.

Murtagh jumped suddenly, scaring Burud into drawing his axe. “By the gods, Murtagh, what’s wrong with you?!”

“D-d-d-d-did you hear that?!”

Burud held his breath and looked around. Murtagh’s eyes darted in every direction. “Did I hear what, exactly?”

“Th-th-there was a laugh - a laugh on the wind. S-s-s-sounded like a ghost!”

Burud groaned. “Kid, there’s no such thing as ghosts! It’s your own mind playing tricks on you, I bet.”

Murtagh then jumped again, Burud grabbing his shoulders controllingly. “Murtagh. calm down!”

“THERE IT WAS AGAIN! Oh, Burud, I can’t do this. I can’t, I, I--” SMACK! The younger man shut up as Burud’s palm clapped him hard across the face, then he stiffened with obedience and fear as his superior grabbed him by the collar and pulled his face in close.

“Man yourself up, you squirt! We’ve come too far to piss off now! Listen to me - there is nothing out there. Now… Let’s--”

“B-b-b-but I hear it, Burud! As clearly as I’m hearing you, and, and, and-- OW! Stop hitting me!”

“Then stop fffffreaking me out, you shit!” Burud spat back. “Calm yourself down -right- now, or I’m gagging you with your own balls - do you understand?”



Murtagh nodded carefully and Burud let go of his collar. The two shared a mutual stare for a few seconds before a sudden scent caught them both by surprise. It was smoke - smoke with a faint hint of herbs and meaty flavours. The two widened their eyes and one another and quickly set off into a sprint. The scent grew stronger and stronger as they ran, their nostrils filling with the scents of applewood cinders and venison stew. Jumping over one final stock and rounding a corner of thickly growing trees, they saw it - a hut, centered in a clearing that somehow was darker than the woods around them. Inside flickered a flame in the hearth, and the two quickly realised how dearly they longed for proper shelter. They scurried over to the wooden door and, after some back and forth about who got to knock, Burud gave the planks a gentle bang.

“Coming,” came a frail voice and Burud and Murtagh frowned at one another.

“She sounds ancient,” whispered Murtagh.

“Well, according to the stories, she’s been around for centuries - way before we came.”

“Three hundred and forty-eight years, just about - give or take a decade.” The wooden door slid open, revealing a face so twisted by age that neither Murtagh nor Burud could be certain of whether she was wrinkly or bark-skinned. Her eyes had long since passed the definition of what could be considered hollow - unless one squinted hard, it was hard to tell whether she had eyes at all. Her nose stabbed at the air like the beak of a long-dead crow, with warts popping up all over it like the forest floor in the mushroom season. What little hair she had left hung in strands that could better be described as webs, looking as though they had been holding onto her skull for many lifetimes. The smile she offered them didn’t have a single tooth, and the gums looked to be rotting away in her mouth. It would be accurate to describe her frail frame as more bone than both skin and flesh, and her dress was a collection of moth-eaten rags haphazardly wrapped together with stinking animal furs. The witch studied their expressions with quiet amusement before posing with surprising energy for her appearance. “I know - aren’t I just the pinnacle of beauty?”

“How in the gods’ names are you so--” Murtagh swallowed the rest of the sentence as Burud punched him in the throat.

“So ugly?” asked the witch with a shrug. Murtagh nodded through his gasps for air. Burud groaned from the depths of his lungs. The witch snickered. “No, no, no, I love it when people ask - they’re always so afraid that it’ll be, y’know, ‘offensive’ or something, but it’s actually a fun story! Come in, come in! I’ll tell ya.” She herded them inside and went over to the kitchen table, where a fresh wooden tray of oatcakes sat steaming. She gestured for the two to sit down on each their small tree trunk stool next to a small saloon table. She stepped over with uncanny agility and put down the tray, taking a biscuit for herself and sitting down on a stool opposite of the visitors. Burud looked at the tray with skepticism, but helped himself to a biscuit as well as the witch’s gestures grew too intense to ignore.

“You knew we were coming?”

The witch scoffed. “Of course, I knew. I’ve known you two were coming for the last three days. Truth be told, i thought you two would give up.”

Burud swallowed his cookie bite and frowned over at Murtagh, who had also helped himself to a biscuit. “We would have arrived sooner. You’re not an easy woman to find.”

“Pffft, come now - I think the trees were actually quite helpful in showing you where to go. Not their fault you two can’t take a hint.” She then burst into a cackle that neither Burud nor Murtagh felt they could participate in, not even politely so. The witch then immediately stopped laughing, her eye twitching slowly. She sat in silence for two seconds exactly, not enough to be awkward, but just enough to be uncomfortable. Then, as soon as she had frozen, she thawed, her toothless smile returning. “So, anyway, I had this rival, right?”

Burud put down his biscuit. “Look, lady, we don’t have all--”

“Shushushush, let me tell my story, alright? Basic courtesy, son.”

Burud groaned. “In all honestly, lady, we’re not here to--”

“And zip!” As the witch waved her hand, Burud suddenly began to scream in agony. Murtagh dropped his biscuit and looked on, white as a sheet, as Burud’s teeth became like plaster, twisting out of his mouth and digging themselves into the meat of his lips like thread on needles, sewing them shut as blood gushed into his mouth and down his throat. The man fell down on the floor and clawed at his mouth for the pain to stop, only worsening the damage as nails and fingers tore at flesh and skin that was never meant to be exposed to this sort of treatment. Murtagh’s breathing was as quick as his heartbeat, and the witch let out a soft “prrt” through her lips.

“Alright, while the whiddle bebby cries himself to sleep on the floor, do you wanna hear my story, my boy?”

Unable to do anything else, Murtagh nodded slowly. The witch clapped happily and grinned from halved ear to whole ear. “Great! That actually means a lot to me - I don’t get visitors very often, so it’s nice to talk to somebody, y’know. So anyway, I had this rival, right? Used to call her the Wicked Witch of the East, or between you and me - the Wicked Bitch with the Broad Side - heyooo!” She paused for applause that never came. “Anyway, we had a fight, because she was a bitch and I hate her, and we did some mean shit to one another - I mean really mean shit. Come on. Come on, ask me what kind of mean shit.”

“Wh-wh-wh-what kind of m-m-m-mean shit?” stuttered Murtagh as he constantly shifted over to the still-screaming Burud on the floor.

“Ho, boy! Strap in, ‘cuz that was a reeeeaal bad year everyone involved. Think we levelled, like, six villages and burnt down a whole forest or something. Oh, and she made me like this. Can you believe it? Around two hundred years ago, I was the most beautiful girl in all the land - now I look like something some deviant dug out of a grave to have a last little round with on a lonely night.” She shrugged. “Pretty crazy, right?”

Murtagh swallowed. “Wh-wh-what happened t-t-t-to the other witch?”

“The bitch, y’mean? Oh, I killed her.”

“K-killed her?”

“Killed her dead.”

“Killed her dead?”

“Dead, deadiddy, dead-dead. Made her tongue twist backwards, run down her throat and lick her lungs to shreds from the inside. That felt so good.” She offered the crying Burud a glance. “Okay, I’ve told my story - let’s hear yours.” She snapped her fingers, and in the flash of a second, Burud’s mouth went back to normal, his wounds healing as though they had never existed. Immediately, the warrior pulled out his axe and scrambled to his feet.

“What in the demons’ names are y--”

“And back you go!” sighed the witch with a roll of the eyes and waved her hand. Once again, the hut filled with Burud’s screams as his face pruned like drying meat, his eyes shrinking into mere raisins and his tongue turning into a stiff stick of jerky. After a while, one could only hear him wheeze.

“NO! You’ll kill him!” pleaded Murtagh as his mind finally snapped and he scurried down off his stool to help his comrade. An invisible force stopped him, however, and he was forced back onto his stool, trapped there by an unseeable chain. The witch shook her head slowly.

“Relaaaax, I’ve got him. This is my field of expertise - I make dying take time. If I wanted I could make him live like this for, oh, I dunno, years. He’d need help to eat and drink, of course, but you could give him anything as, y’know, he wouldn’t be able to taste much with a tongue like that.” She shrugged. “Or, y’know, you’d need to done none of that, and I’d just let him thirst and starve until I felt like he’d suffered enough - he wouldn’t die unless I said so, of course; he’d just thirst, and thirst, and thirst and starve, and starve and starve, until he could no longer remember what it’d be like to have a full belly or a wet throat.” She stood up from her stood, stepped over to Burud’s wheezing, dried up corpse of a body and squatted down. “Now, when I turn you back, will you be a good boy?”

Utterly defeated, Burud wheezed something that sounded affirming. The witch nodded.

“Good, because if you even think about doing something stupid again, I will have your skin peel off so slowly that you’ll be able to feel every fiber snap loose from the muscle beneath - and I don’t think I’ll remember how to reverse that spell.” With that, she snapped her fingers, and Burud’s body instantly returned to its normal state, though the man remained on the floor, eyes devoid of hope and fervour.

“B-Burud?” whimpered Murtagh, unable to look over due to the invisible force. “BURUD?!”

“Ugh, you two are so noisy!” complained the witch as she sat down down on her stool. “Come on, why do you think I served you cookies? Eat more, talk less.” She had another biscuit and offered Murtagh a lopsided frown as she chewed. “So, never asked, why are you actually here?”

Murtagh swallowed. “W-w-w-we need a curse.”

“Pfft, obviously.” She rolled her eyes as though Murtagh had just told her that water is, in fact, wet. “Well, come on, give me the details - who, what, when, where?”


“Ha-Dûna where and who?” the witch asked impatiently.

“Ha-Dûna,” said Murtagh again. Upon seeing the witch’s confused squint, he elaborated, “L-l-like, all of it.”

“All of Ha-Dûna?”


“As in all the lands, the people, cows, pigs, chickens and grain?”

“All of it.”

The witch blinked skeptically to herself before raising both eyebrows and bobbing her head from side to side. “Phew. That’s a tall order, kid.”

“T-tall order?”

“Too tall. Much too tall for old Resla.” She shrugged. “You’d have better luck asking the gods for something like that. At best, I can give you an afternoon of raining frogs, but that’s about it… And even that would be an ordeal.”

“Th-then… A, a Dûnan village?”

“Better, but I gotta clarify for ya that curses, well, they’re stronger the fewer people they affect. So if you really want someone to pay, I’d recommend aiming for a certain family or even just one person. I could hex a village for you, of course - poison the wells, sterilise the men, give the children lead poisoning - no biggie. But that’s not exciting enough, is it? If you two came to me, then I think you have it out for a certain someone who’s done you a lot of wrong.”

“... Yes… There is one,” came Burud’s exhausted voice. Murtagh realised the force no longer was gripping him and rushed over to help him.

“Burud! Are you alright?”

“Alriiight! One person - now it’s getting hotter.”

“One family - if she goes, so will her family. Her ilk must be wiped off this world for good.”

Resla grinned her toothless grin again. “Oh, I like the sound of that. Give me a name and I’ll figure out the rest.”

Burud sat himself up weakly and looked the witch in the eyes. “Hilda. Hilda the Leoness.”

The witch pursed her lips and quietly tasted the name on her lips. “Hilda, Hilda, Hilda… Sounds familiar - can’t quite put my finger on it, but sounds familiar. Eh, I’m sure I’ll remember when I check up on her. Alright. How would you like her cursed?”

“Make it slow - as slow and as painful as you can.”

“Emotionally or physically painful? Or both, maybe? She sounds evil enough that we can include both, right?”

“Both. Both is good.”

Resla rubbed her bony hands. “Alright, I think I have some ideas. I’ll need a little something from you two, though, for the curse to become as potent as possible… And I’ll need some payment for the service.”

Burud sat up a little stronger, supported by Murtagh. “What do you need?”

“Well, for the curse itself, I’ll need a good sacrifice. Does this Hilda have a child, by chance?”

Murtagh looked uneasy, his eyes shifting over to Burud. Burud, on the other hand, looked dreadfully determined all of a sudden. “Yes. She has many, actually.”

“Oh, good! That’ll make things so much easier. Tell you what - if you could get your hands on one of them, we’ll just use that. Otherwise, I’ll have to ask you to head into the Prairie to fetch a leon or to bring me the head of a ranglefant or tongue of a drighina, and, well, out of those four options, a child is just so much easier to get, y’know.” She snickered to herself, ignoring the terrible weight of the conversation which seemed to be crushing Murtagh and, to a lesser extent, Burud.

“And what… What’s the fee?” asked Burud warily. The witch snapped her fingers.

“Oh yeah! Almost forgot - hand to remember stuff when you’re almost three fiddy, y’know.” She held up her hand and pointed at her ring finger. “One from each, please.”

Murtagh’s breathing quickened again. Burud grit his teeth together. “Our… Our fingers?”

“Ring fingers, specifically. A lot of power in exactly that one. Most people think it’s useless, but it’s actually that one finger that holds the most power in the whole hand, seeing as it’s just left to gather strength on its own, almost never being of use to anyone. Being cast out and seen as hopeless by others makes you powerful - self-reliant. Like me!” She giggled to herself before immediately shifting to a colder mask. “So yeah, that’s the price. Hand over your fingers and bring me the child - after that, I can guarantee you that Hilda will never be at peace ever again.”

Murtagh and Burud looked at each other again. Murtagh’s quivering lips told Burud everything he needed to know, and the senior took his companion weakly by the colour and brought his face closer to his. “Remember all the people she’s killed, Murtagh - how she’s spat on our people for decades. Our own flesh is a small price to pay for justice.”

“W-we’re talking about killing a child here, Burud… We’re talking about killing a child and giving up our limbs in the process.”

“One limb, Murtagh! One tiny finger in exchange for the juiciest vengeance we could ever have.”

“A child, Burud--”

“HER child, Murtagh!” The younger man grew quiet. Burud’s eyes have an intimidating darkness in them, one that no moralising speech could pierce no matter the gravity of this heinous act. “Her ilk is no better than herself. They will grow up to become slavers, raiders and rapers, butchering our people and allies throughout the realm for decades to come. Come on…” He placed a hand on his heart. “... Do it for Wenya.”

Murtagh’s eyes opened slowly and began to fill with tears. “Don’t you fucking mention her name to me. Not here. Not now.”

“They killed her, Murtagh. Those two Dûnans killed her and Hilda defended them like they had beaten some dog in the street as part of some sick game. I bet she took part in the murder herself.”

“Shut up…” wept Murtagh. Burud drew him closer.

“... This is our chance, lad. She will fucking pay.” A minute passed where the only sound was Murtagh’s silent sobbing, his tears dripping down onto Burud’s face. Eventually, he hulked a louder sob and bobbed his head up and down. Burud nodded back, taking his axe from his belt. Still weeping, Murtagh pulled off his right glove and put it between his teeth, laying his ring finger down on the tree trunk stool. Burud looked him in the eyes to see if he was ready, and upon receiving a nod, brought down his axe. The finger was lopped off in a single strike, and Murtagh rolled back, screaming into his glove through biting teeth. Burud took off his own glove and hesitated slightly as he held the axe over his own finger. He frequently looked back to the witch, who had by now placed her head neatly on the balls of both palms and left it to observe the situation with a toothless grin.

“Oh, don’t let me distract you. Go on,” she giggled. Burud closed his eyes and hefted his axe.

“Oh! Keep your eyes open - don’t wanna split your hand or anything,” added the witch quickly. Burud sucked in a breath through the nose and, opening his eyes in a split second, brought down the axe. The finger hopped right off, leaving a quickly growing pool of blood over the stood, with more running down his palm as he slowly lifted up his hand. His body pumped him so full of adrenaline that he could hardly feel it right away, but he was nonetheless compelled to groan painfully and gasp for air, clutching his hand to his chest. A slow clap brought his eyes back to the witch.

“Bra-vo~! Solid effort by the both of you!” She tossed them each a length of linen, ripped from her own rags. “You two are really desperate for revenge - I like that; nothing beats a good vengeance story, in my opinion.” With a giddy gait, the witch hopped off her stool and collected the two fingers. She then crossed the room and deposited them into a clay jar. “Alright. The pact is sealed. Bring me the child at your earliest convenience, and we can begin.”

Burud finished helping Murtagh wrap his hand and pushed himself to his feet with great effort, the shock of adrenaline almost paralysing him. “W-will we find you here as we have today?”

“Yup! But don’t worry - next time, I’ll let you waltz right in as soon as you arrive. Would you like anything for the road, by the way?”

The two Scawicks supported each other with grips around their shoulders and shook their heads in unison. The witch shrugged. “Alrighty! Then I wish you a safe journey home! Toodles!” With that, she snapped her fingers, and the two suddenly found themselves standing at the border of the woods, a mad cackle haunting them faintly on the wind. Murtagh could barely stand, and soon fell to his knees in exhaustion. He was about to cave forward into the snow, too, but Burud caught him.

“Murtagh. Murtagh! Stay with me!”

The young man gave Burud an exhausted glance. “What have we done, Burud?”

The elder was shaken, but tried to maintain his determined facade. He did his best to help Murtagh back to his feet again, and the two slowly started making their way back towards home. “What was necessary to get our justice, brother.”

A Bastion of Culture 2 - Virtue

Year 29AA, middle winter, Ha-Dûna...

Hilda sat across from a colleague théin, one of younger, more slender and leaner build than her and of a mood a thousand times brighter than her own. Between them stood a small table reaching them to about the kneecaps; on top of the table was a smaller wooden square, painted with black lines in a criss-crossing pattern. A heap of small, uneven stones laid in one bowl for each, dark for Hilda and light for her opponent. The board has a number more of these stones, spread out like walls up against each other. Hilda stared a pair of daggers at the smug smirk on her opponent’s face and placed down a charcoal stone next to one of her white.

“That’s it for your line, Materix. I win,” announced the Leoness. Around them stood a small crowd, all of whom looked to disagree with the statement. The théin Materix shook her head patronisingly and sighed.

“Hilda, Hilda, Hilda… You’ve left yourself open.” With that, she picked up a stone and placed it on the opposite side of their line, where Hilda had unknowingly left an opening. With that, Materix’ stones had surrounded Hilda’s flank, and her line was compromised. Hilda blinked and squinted at the spot.

“You’ve removed one of my stones, haven’t you?” she snarled. Materix’ smug turned to a frown.

“That’s sorry loser talk. No, Hilda, I did not touch your stones. I won fair and square - that’s all.” A ring of metal quickly silenced her explanation, though, as she saw Hilda’s left hand had wrapped itself around the hilt of her long dagger.

“You’re undoing that move right now, missy, or I’ll send your axe-hand to your mother in a sack.”

Materix blinked back. “She’ll have you executed for that, you know.”

“Jailed and put to work in the temples, at worst,” Hilda spat back, putting on a lopsided smirk of her own. “That’s just the kind of spine she has nowadays, after all. Say, you think I’ll cut through the bone on my first try, or will I have to give it a second chop?” Instinctively, Materix pulled her hand to herself. That instant, the crowds next to them parted, and in came Boudicca, her sword unsheathed and ready in her right hand.

“Hilda, that’s enough. Leave my daughter alone.”

Hilda turned her head and raised a lazy brow at the sanndatr. Then, in a near-instantaneous move, she grabbed Materix by the neck of her tunic and pulled her in close, dagger resting at her throat. The crowd and Boudicca instinctively stepped in closer, and Boudicca managed to place her sword on the nape of Hilda’s neck. “Enough. You’ve had your fun.”

Hilda grit her teeth and drew a caged breath. “Who do you think is faster, hmm? Can you take my head before I coat this here table and floor in Mini-Boody-blood? Oh, I’m sorry - what I meant to ask was whether you’ll have time to find me a cozy bunk and some clean clothes in the Temple of the Moon?” She pulled the now whimpering Materix closer, the knife drawing a droplet of blood. “It seems I’ve been a -very- naughty girl.”

“Hilda, I’m warning you--”

“Oh, -now- comes the warning? Seems that we have plenty of time left, sweety,” snickered Hilda and gave Materix a kiss on the forehead. Boudicca growled and swung her sword arm back, but stopped as Hilda let Materix go and stepped back. The girl hurried over to her mother and was immediately surrounded by many more from the crowd coming to tend to her. Hilda shook her head slowly. “Back in the day, you would’ve taken my head without a second thought, woman. What happened to you?”

Boudicca snarled and sheathed the sword. Hilda rolled her eyes. “... And even as I stand here, you put down your weapon. Where’s the Boudicca that would kill a man for spitting in the wrong direction?”

“She never existed, Hilda,” answered Boudicca, “and if she ever did, she’s been long dead.”

Hilda sucked thoughtfully on a tooth and scrunched her nose. “Yeah… Yeah, suppose she has, huh. Shame.” She sheathed her dagger and turned around. “She was a good friend of mine.” Then she left, the crowd parting before her like grass blown down by a hurricane. When she was sure she had left, Boudicca spun around to her daughter, shoving her way through the thick wall of people to embrace her.

“Materix! Are you alright? Let me see the cut!”

Materix slapped her hand away and grit her teeth. “Mom, I’m fine!” Her breathing was ragged with anger. “Why did you let her do that to me? Just like that, without any repercussions!”

“Materix, I’ll think of something for her - some time in the--”

“In the dungeons? In temple service? You think that’ll do her some good? You’ll just be proving her right!” Materix pushed her away and Boudicca got a good look at the faces of the others around them: Their frowns seemed to suggest that Materix’ words made quite a bit of sense to them. Boudicca growled and grabbed her daughter by the hand, pulling her away from the rest. She fought, groaned and snarled, but could not outmatch the strength of her mother.

“L-let go of me! Answer for yourself, you stupid--!”

“One more word, Matty, and I’ll have Kaer Moyen beat you for childish behaviour!” The two rounded the corner out of sight of the rest.

“Oh! So -I- can be punished! For speaking, no less! Yeah, that seems fair! Hey, everyone, watch out! Ha-Dûna’s top criminal coming throu-ough!~!” They rounded another corner and Boudicca slammed her into a wall, nearly knocking the air out of her. “Ah! Ow, mom!” But before she could continue, the expression on her mother’s face sent terror running through her skin, bones and the wood in the wall behind her. It was the sort of face that every child, and anyone who’s ever been a child, fears more than anything - one that can outfrighten darkness, wolves and even death itself. The giant woman glared down at her daughter before lowering herself to her eye-level, which only seemed to make her more intimidating.

“You think I don’t want to kill Hilda? Even her threat to take your hand made me want to slice her up into pieces and bury them all over the Dûnlands. When she drew your blood, it took every inch of my body to not take her head, do you understand?”

Materix tried to remain defiant. “Well, then, why didn’t you? She’s obviously a thorn in your side - why not just get rid of her?”

“Thinking like that will make you a terrible théin, Mat. We can’t kill someone who hasn’t killed anyone else. Only murder warrants murder. If we succumb to our wrath and kill anyone we don’t like, society as a whole will crumble.” She brought a hand behind her daughter’s head and pulled her slowly in for a safeguarding hug. “... Tell you what - she laid her hands on a fellow théin and drew blood. I’d say that falls under the Dlíbók definition of violence against one’s own kin. That warrants fifty lashes, if I recall.”

Materix pulled away a bit, a smile forming on her lips. “Really?”

Boudicca frowned. “Yes, really, but wipe that smile off this instant. We do not take pleasure in punishing others, even if they’ve done you wrong.”

Materix frowned back. “Yes, -mom-.”

Later that same day, Boudicca had gone for a walk down to the shoreline beneath the city, walking along the rocky beach to the wish and wash of the winter ocean. Fishing boats braving the icy waters were making their way to shore with the day’s catch, and the gulls were circling their hungrily in hopes that they could catch whatever fell overboard. The ocean winds tested the warmth of her plaid and furs, but constant movement kept her warm enough to last. A particular rise in the stone ground invited her to climb it, and there she stood, scanning the horizon of the sea, as though expecting something to come. Nothing would, of course, and in truth, she mostly did this because it soothed her.

Within her realm, Celestine sat upon the throne that lay within her visitation chamber. It had been a short amount of time since her accidental visit to Cadien’s realm. She was currently receiving no visitors, and thus her eyes were closed as she focused her divine senses upon the surface of Galbar, studying the mortals that lived upon the surface in an attempt to learn more about them and the cultures that they had created. It wasn’t too long before something tugged her attention towards a particular conversation. An argument, followed by anger, and then a scolding. But there was something more there, restraint followed by honor and reason. The base foundations for what Celestine championed: Chivalry. Such actions came without any teaching and Boudicca, as Celestine learned she was called, seemed to be a perfect candidate to be the first to receive a boon from the newly born goddess.

Focusing in upon the particular mortal, Celestine studied her movements and saw an opportunity. Boudicca was alone enough that mass panic would not ensue. Perhaps it was time to extend her recognition of exemplary conduct. Focusing on the area nearby, Celestine extended a tiny fragment of herself outward to craft an illusion in her image, and began to project it down unto the surface of Galbar.

A small comet of silver light would impact behind Boudicca, and after the light faded she would see an illusion of Celestine rising from a kneeling stance. Her red and gold cloak flowing gently in the breeze, and revealing her lengthy silver hair that lay concealed beneath it. Opening her eyes slowly, Celestine took a moment to study Boudicca in more detail for a short time. After a moment of silence, the illusion would speak, a slight echo in her voice adding further evidence that this was merely an illusion and not a goddess manifesting upon Galbar. ”Greetings Boudicca. I am the goddess Celestine, and your actions have earned you a piece of my favor.”

While she initially had reached for her sword, the figure’s self-idenitification as a goddess stopped that hand rather quickly. The warrior dropped to one knee, needing to stabilise herself atop the rise on which she stood, and then bowed her head. “C-Celestine, great Celestine!” She paused. “F-forgive me, but… Our faith is small and, and ignorant. I fear I’ve…” She swallowed. “... I beg most humbly for your forgive when I say I don’t, don’t know of you. Please! Give me a chance to redeem this grave sin!”

Celestine’s illusion gave a slight smile at Boudicca’s rapid apology. Giving her head a slow shake, she spoke once more once her hair had settled once again. ”Be at ease, Boudicca. I am very recently coalesced and have virtually no distinct followers, you have done no wrong. But you have acted in accordance to several of my commandments, even though you do not know them. It is with those acts that I have chosen to bless you as the first of what will hopefully be many knights.”

It was now that Celestine’s illusion began to move. It raised its left hand and placed it upon the sword that hung upon its right hip. Drawing the weapon slowly, Celestine’s illusion would place the flat of the weapon upon Boudicca’s right shoulder, and then her left. With each tap Boudicca would suddenly realize the chivalric commandments that she had been unknowingly following fairly well. As this took place, Celestine’s illusion would speak softly. ”I dub thee with the title of Ser, and beyond that I grant you the knowledge of my chivalric commandments. May you continue to exemplify them as you have been, Boudicca.”

With that done the illusion of Celestine would slowly stow her sword, and made motion to pull something from the air. Though this motion ceased as the illusion took notice of the potent divine magic already residing within the sword that Boudicca possessed. Given her recent time in Cadien’s realm, Celestine was easily capable of recognizing the magic imbued within it. This gave pause to her actions, as she did not wish to gift a sword to someone who did not need one, nor did she wish to potentially insult Cadien by giving something so similar. Lowering her hand for the moment, the illusion of Celestine both thought aloud and posed a question. ”Typically I would bestow a sword to go with that title, but it would appear to me that you would have no need for something like that. As the first knight, I will offer you a choice: Do you wish for some other form of armor or weapon, or do you wish for a different kind of blessing altogether? I am not as mighty as some of the other gods, but I will do what I can with my limited ability. Perhaps in time, if you continue to shine as an example of chivalry, I may bestow more gifts when I am better able.”

With that said, the illusion of Celestine would fold her arms and wait for an answer.

“A… A blessing? Ser? Knight?” Boudicca snatched a second to rub her eyes. A certain twinkle in her eye hinted that she understood everything, but still had great difficulties grasping the basic concept - the title was awarded to her for virtuous behaviour, yes, but she hadn’t done anything - she had just done her duty and stood right by it. She swallowed and sighed. “Forgive me, this is a bit to take in. I wasn’t expeting all this on my Reiyasday walk, is all…” She paused briefly. “May I ask for, for a blessing to my people rather than myself?”

The illusion of Celestine smiled at Boudicca’s words. Even when given the choice of any gift she wished she thought of her people before herself. Celestine was confident in her choice for the first knight. Giving a nod, Celestine’s illusion spoke once more. ”Of course, Ser Boudicca. I will answer your request to the best of my ability. Name your wish.”

Confidence filled Boudicca’s frame, and the giant straightened herself up somewhat, as much as she could while kneeling respectfully still. “Unrest grips at my people’s minds - our rapid change from a warring state to a peaceful hegemony has left many of our seasoned veterans without anything to do; they thus take their anger out on their kin and comrades. I know not if this is too much to ask, but we have no place for these warriors to expel their energy in the form of combat, save street brawls and the like. Would you help us create a place where combat can be turned into a source of joy? Of accomplishment? Of, of chivalry?”

Celestine gave a few nods as Boudicca explained her predicament. Moving gently, Celestine’s illusion approached Boudicca’s kneeling form before pressing two fingers to her forehead and speaking once more. “I hear your wish, Ser Boudicca. Thus, I shall teach you of tournaments so that your warriors have a means to expend their energy and better themselves in organized and regulated combat.”

As Celestine’s illusion spoke, the point upon Boudicca’s head that she touched would glow with a white light momentarily, signaling the infusion of the promised knowledge into her mind. When that was finished, Celestine lowered her hand from Boudicca’s forehead and stepped back once more to speak again. ”Should there be doubt regarding my existence and where you learned of this information, you will merely need to invoke my name and I shall send a sign as I can. Rise, Ser Boudicca. Let your people know what you have learned.”

Boudicca did as told, standing up a little taller than before. Her head had been filled with suggestions of tournament organisation, optimal arena sizes, various activities and the like that they hadn’t given much thought to during, for example, Helgensblot or any of their other holidays. She gave a tooth a quiet suck. “I will. Do you have any other tasks for me, great one?”

Celestine gave her illusion’s head a shake before speaking for one last time. ”Nay. All I require for you to remain within my favor is to follow the chivalric code I have taught you, and do not stray. Fear not, for I am watchful. You have been chosen. Also, as a final gift before I depart: Know that I shall strive to grant reward in the afterlife to those who follow my chivalric code. Your faith shall not go unrewarded.”

With that, Boudicca would likely notice that the illusion of Celestine was fading. There was perhaps time for one final question before it was gone, but little more.

“I see. Thank you, then, great one. I’ll live up to your expectations to the best of my ability.” With that, she bent the knee again until the vision faded completely.

Within her realm Celestine opened her eyes as she pulled all of her senses back to one location and ceased actively observing Galbar. Rising from the throne, she took a moment to stretch before beginning to walk towards the doorway that led to Antiquity. She figured that it would be wise to seek out a method to secure Boudicca’s soul sooner rather than later, as from her memories in the lifeblood mortal wars could be unexpected and brutal. She didn’t want to make the promise of a reward and fail to deliver, after all.

Back in Ha-Dûna, Hilda had entered one of the smokehouses to have herself a pipefull to relax the nerves. Now she had done it. Not even this Boudicca, this utter parody of the great chieftess she had known for decades, would let such a blatant attack on her own daughter go so easily. Hilda had joked, challenged her to give her capital punishment, because she had been confident she wouldn’t do it; now that some time had passed, however, the eerie lack of reaction sent shivers down her spine. In truth, she had no deathwish - Hilda was very much content with living: Barring her right to plunder and raid as she had for decades, she had a husband, three kids, many friends, and even one or two very, very, very good friends. Her rank entitled her to her very own tún, and she and her family worked it so well that she herself could almost afford to train as a soldier all year.

She took a deep drag from her pipe, catching a shifty stare from another smoker across the room who immediately looked down in his lap. Yeah, she had everything: wealth, family, power and, most importantly, aura - her presence brought tremblings to her subordinates, and her spirit had invigorated every soldier who had ever fought beside her.

Exhaling a huge plume of smoke in a sigh, watching it join the greater fog cloud hanging under the ceiling, she frowned. She had a few lifelines left in this city, but they wouldn’t be on her side for long if she kept up this attitude. They had their own lifelines, after all, and at some point in the web, those lines all led back to Boudicca and the champions of their peacekeeping cause.

The curtain door was pulled aside, and the opening filled with a giant shadow that could only belong to a select few in this city, and Hilda recognised its contour well enough to know who it was. As the shadow stomped towards her, she pulled a defeated drag and sighed the smoke out. “Alright,” she began, “just make it quick, plea--”


A leathery wack clapped against her cheek with such force that it knocked the pipe out of her lips and hand. While she was far from concussed, it still took Hilda a good few seconds to even blink, much less grasp what had just happened. A wet whap came from the floor and Hilda looked down. She then knelt down and picked up the item. “A… A leather glove?”

“I challenge you to a duel, Hilda - may the best of us win.”

Hilda blinked at Boudicca’s stern expression, then shifted to the glove in her hand. “What?”

“In five days’ time, we will host a tournament - one with games, fights and challenges for all my théins and hildargeach. You’re coming to, and I’m going to grind you into the dirt for what you did to my daughter.” She leaned in. “I know you don’t like it very gentle, though, so I’ll be as mean as you’d like.”

Hilda blinked again. “What?”

“Don’t be late. Five days from now - our battle will commence at midday atop the hill beyond the south gate. Follow the crowds and you’ll find it. Prepare yourself however you wish - I want to fight you at your best.” With that, Boudicca spun on her heel and left again.

Hilda remained dumbfounded. The others in the smokehouse were equally out of it, though it was hard to tell if it was the situation or the pipeweed that had caused that. Finally, Hilda uttered yet again the only work she could think of:


A Bastion of Culture 1 - Song

Year 29AA, middle winter, Ha-Dûna...

Boudicca held her chin up on her thumbs sticking out of her folded hands. She sat atop her bed, a number of animal skins criss-crossing a mattress of dry reeds, hay and grass, legs crossed and knees supporting her elbows. It was one thing to change a friend - another to change an enemy. The restructuring of the Dûnan identity as one of peace and diplomacy didn’t sit well with everyone - the théins like Hilda the Leoness had been furious, originally. Battle was her life, and to not be allowed to exercise it was a great dishonour to her and her men. Boudicca had to admit it, too - peace wouldn’t sit all too well with her personally, either.

Still, it was the preferable outcome, and after a long and arduous discussion between herself and the other théins, they had all come to the same conclusion: While war brought glory and revelry to the fighters, those swept up in the chaos suffered greatly - and there were always many, many more that didn’t fight than those that did. As the greatest power in the region, they had an obligation to rule it justly and peacefully. The théins who wished had been put in command of the professional soldiers, the hildargeach, and would spend their days drilling them in tactics and survival in the wilds. The warriors weren’t many, but in time, they would be good - very good.

The théins who hadn’t chosen military employment served as administrators in Ha-Dûna or were sent out to the various villages to function as chiefs. Valix had been among these, bringing with him migrants and supplies to the small mining town of Ha-Klan over Risenberg, earlier known as Gleann, the first village to fall in the conquests. They were often accompanied by one druid each to serve as spiritual guide. If the village already had a druid, then there was no need. This way, Ha-Dûna had once again begun to strengthen its foothold.

However, it hadn’t been easy to get them to accept a capital-sent chieftain. Some villages had shown signs of rebellion, which had had to be put down. Instead of killing the rebels, however, Boudicca had requested that they be given a choice: death, or to be taken prisoner instead, to be brought back to Ha-Dûna to serve as monks and nuns in the temples to the gods. This would be their new alternative punishment as part of their shift to diplomacy - the temple thralls.

Today, she was to speak before the people and give their thanks to the gods for their aid in the city’s recapture. She had written the speech in her head in its entirety, but in truth, it wouldn’t hurt to beseech the gods for courage before such a performance. She knew just the one. Rising out of bed, she made her way past the central hearth and out through the wolf skin curtain door, stepping into the snowy town core from what had once been the Hall of the Weary. She turned to the left, pulling her plaid and furs ever tighter around herself to ward off the cold. She received greeting bows from passersby going about their daily duties, and she greeted them back with a pound of the chest and a straight-armed, flat-palmed wave. As she pondered how much she regretted not wearing her cap to ward off the wind, she turned the corner of a longhouse and reached the ageing Circle of the Eight. Already, a number of druid apprentices had gathered there with their mentors, being evaluated on the sincerity and ability of their prayer. The mentors stood at the ready with birch branches, ready to whip those who took too lightly to their task. Occasionally, Boudicca would hear a smack! and a pained moan. She paid them no mind - though greeted them when they greeted her - and knelt down before the megalith statue to Macsal: a tall, rough stone triangle where the only triangular characteristics of the stone were that it had three tips. It bulged and caved in places, but the side facing forward had been chiseled and sanded flat through days and weeks of intense sculpting long ago, and now displayed a beautiful mural of a handsome, brown-haired and clean-shaven man, sitting in green and golden grass under a tree and singing for all the animals of the world. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

“Great Macsal, Holy Poet… Please hear my prayer… My heart is set, but my mind is clouding me. I have the will to lead my people, but I know not if I have the voice to charm them - to sway our former enemies to becoming our friends. Is there a way I can show them all the importance of peace? The keys of stability?”

The stone was silent, though, and still,
and from across a distant hill,
like sea waves crashing on the main,
there came a wind gust, loud and shrill.
It seemed to bellow through the air
and twist and turn and toss with flair
until it came upon the théin
and died upon her auburn hair.
The singer carved into the stone
seemed to stir, perhaps to groan,
and something in his rocky vein
moved and spoke: you’re not alone.
And in the stone a smile was formed
and rippled till the air was warmed,
and colours here and there now stained
the rock until it was transformed.

Go stir your people up and speak
Our tongue will speak with you
Speak words that are not strong or meek
And nothing you’ve prepared:
The outward peace that you now seek
Will not emerge if you’ve despaired
That there is peace in you

Boudicca bowed her head ever lower, almost to a kowtow. She swallowed and took a deep breath. “I… I think I understand. But what if I say something wrong? What if I say something I will regret? What if… What if they misunderstand me?” The air rippled around thesanndatr, and from the inked and smiling stone rose a roiling shadow. From the shadow appendages crept, and with their emergence colour spread. The roiling inky mass formed up and took a more solid shape until there hung above the stone a feminine almost-human thing - only that its skin was a multitude of wondrous colours, very much like the heavens. And as the smiling woman above the stone looked upon thesanndatr, the colours left her skin and hair until a perfect human floated there. And although she appeared in all ways human, there was a certain swirling of colour in her eyes and luminous allure that danced about her. Without knowing how or why all those fears in Boudicca’s breast were swept away; and only an excitement and a desire and inspiration to speak beautifully remained.

For a few moments the strange magic hung between Boudicca and the creature, until she leapt lithely from the stone and looked around. It was not frantic - or did not seem to be -, and there was no worry or anxiety - or at least, Boudicca did not think there was. At last the creature stopped looking around and turned to Boudicca, shivering slightly in the crisp morning air (for her strange, low-cut dress was ill-suited to such cold climes and windy morns). ‘How strange, only now I was with the others and now…’ she laughed slightly - nervously? - and her brows furrowed (was it fear?) and she seemed to jump whenever a distant smack would sound.

The druids who had been praying at the other stones had already scurried over to behold the miracle. “It’s a gift - a gift from Macsal!” they praised. “Macsal has given Ha-Dûna a most beautiful young lady!” The shouts seemed at once to effect a change in the woman, and her variegated eyes seemed to twinkle and lips to dance.

“Hush, hush!” Boudicca cautioned and held out a flat palm. It was clear on her pale face that it took every ounce of her concentration not to join her peers in sheer awe at what had just occurred. With her other hand, she reached upwards to the lady on the stone, wetting her winter-dry lips as she thought of what to say, “A-are you alright?”

The woman looked from the commanding Boudicca to the druids gathered about her, then back to Boudicca again, their excitement playing in her eyes. ‘I am my lady,’ came the serenade of her voice, and she lowered her head, bowing ever so slightly in that universal and instinctive show of humility and respect. ‘I am Shaeylila, a lowly plier of songs and poesy, you honour me with so gracious a welcome,’ she fell silent for a few seconds, as though listening to something. Her eyes rose... and fell on those of Boudicca, ‘and I am told there is a strangled song that weeps within your breast, my lady. What hurts and woe have made it so?’

Boudicca instinctively laid a palm on her chest. “A, a song?”

“Have you doubts, good sanndatr?” came a voice from one of the druids behind her. “Macsal will often metaphorically use musical or poetic words to describe ailments of emotions and the like,” she declared proudly in a well-read manner. Some of her peers whooped quietly in awe at her encyclopedic knowledge. Boudicca frowned.

“Is that what you meant?”

Shaeylila bowed again, her eye lashes shimmering in thought before her head rose up again. ‘Yes, you seem to be sick at heart my lady... but I am a stranger here, and perhaps my hearing is- ahem, I mean, perhaps I am reading too much into too little.’ She glanced at the gathered druids for a long thoughtful moment, eyes seeming to wander off in thought, before they focused again and she smiled. ‘My but there are… so many of you here. And who is this Macsal you’ve made mention of again and again?’

“Why, Macsal is your creator, is he not? The great, the outstanding, the unbeatable poet of--”

“Kaer Guni, please, just--...” Boudicca raised a palm and took a breath. “Please, leave me to talk to her by myself.”

The druid blinked and the others, too, looked confused. “But sanndatr, this is a great holy event! We must log every single--”

“Later! Later, I promise. Now leave us be for a time.” The crowd slowly, very slowly began to disperse, disgruntled by their leader’s orders. Boudicca sighed in relief and looked back at the song. “Forgive them - they are eager, always eager, to meet any sort of creature the gods hold dear. I barely had room to think. They didn’t scare you, did they?”

Shaeylila watched them depart and turned back to Boudicca with a knowing smile. Taking the sanndatr by the hand, she drew her towards the stone and sat down against it, on the strange white snow. ‘Not at all! They are all… very sweet. But certain words , these matters of the heart, are sometimes best not heard by so many ears. Especially not the matters that plague a leader’s heart,’ she paused and tidied her dress, then gestured to the other woman. ‘Come come, sit. Speak to me. I don’t know about this Macsal, but I will listen.’

Boudicca nodded slowly and did as told, sitting down next to the stone of Macsal, as sitting on it would be blasphemous. She twiddled her thumbs slowly, trying her best to ignore the cold snow melting into her tartan plaid and checkered pants. Eventually, she drew a breath through her teeth and spoke, “I am troubled by some of my peers’ attitude to peace - we have been at war almost constantly for five years, and while most appreciate a good breather like the one we have now, I fear that we will need only one unruly troublemaker to break this fragile peace we have. I do not know what I can say to my people that will not fuel sentiment for these troublemakers - if I appeal to our pride as a unified people, this pride will be used to push down those that are not us; if I appeal to our strength as victorious conquerors, they will ask why we have stopped showing it; and if I mention neither, they will see me as meek and cowardly. I… I don’t know what to do, what to say.”

Shaeylila was silent for a while, brow bowing gently and lips creased. At last, however, she looked at Boudicca, lips chattering. ‘This white stuff… snow... I can’t feel my- oh me.’ She flushed red and leapt lithely to her feet, looking down at her wet and ruined dress of silk. She patted the remnants of quickly melting snow away and then considered Boudicca for a few moments, before she spoke through blue and shivering lips. ‘Maybe, my lady… rather than placating them with what you say you should instead put something on display. A story! Do you perhaps know the tale of Great-horn Brin’s battle against the Thrice-born Terror? There is a lesson there perhaps more eloquent than words.’

“Oh, gods, you must be freezing! Again, forgive me! You, trell! Fetch this lady furs and a plaid!”

The apprentice, seemingly picked at random from a crowd, immediately set off in a sprint towards a nearby hut. Boudicca sniffed the last of her sternness back inside and raised a brow at Shaeylila. “I have not heard this one, no. Would you tell it to me?”

Once the trell in question had brought the furs - at the song’s inviting glance helping her into them, and receiving whispers of delight and warmth before scurrying off again - Shaeylila turned back to Boudicca, hugging the cosy furs to her. ‘My, so this is what cold feels like. Brrrr.’ Her rosy cheeks were flushed with the cold and a delighted smile decorated the delicate features of her face. ‘But yes! The tale.’ She stood before thesanndatr and spread her hands so that little blobs of ink spiralled from her palms and formed up into a great dark mass of battling warriors. At the centre of the mass were two great figures, one with a prominent horn atop his head and the other boasting three heads, three sets of arms and feet. They danced about each other and Shaeylila’s voice seemed all at once to provide the shouts and cries of battle, the clanging of weapons and twanging of bowstrings, and the grunts of the two great figures as they leapt to and fro and clashed against each other.

On the fields of Falaro
‘Twixt the mountain and the sea
Great-horn Brin took up the bow
And the sword audaciously

Struck he once and struck he twice
And his foe flew far away
He was struck with blows that dice
Grunted them off with a sway

And the god of victory
Standing watch above the fray
Praised the Terror endlessly
And for Brin had naught to say

‘Oh you great god far on high
‘Have you no eyes for my deeds
‘With my blows my foe does fly
‘And his blows fly off like seeds!’

When the Terror was gone down
And when Brin the victor stood
The god looked upon his frown
Who thought he was great and good

‘Lay your weapon down, oh Brin
‘Throw your bow upon the wind.’
As he did, where once had been
Weapons which at death had grinned

There was now but dust and air!
‘Know: your weapons long ago
‘Fell before the Terror’s glare
‘And the strike of his arrow!

‘Only by the happy grace
‘Of my will and decreed fate
‘Were you spared a great disgrace
‘And a weak and slavish state!’

Oh then Brin fell on his face
And near broke his horn in twain
And he spoke a word of praise
And he damned the haughty vein -

‘May they never prosper who
Are too great in their own view!’
Then brave Brin went back off home
Never more in pride to roam.

With the epical verses and inky performance complete, the dark figures melted back away into Shaeylila’s hands and returned to that rose-tinted beige at which the skin of people here seemed to hang. She looked at Boudicca expectantly, biting her lower lip ever so slightly and her eyes of whirling colour wide. ‘D- do you think a performance like that would set the scene for what you have to say, my lady?’ She paused for a few seconds, ‘because if not, there is also the tale of the Great Vile King - whose greed and hubris grew so great that he quaffed and gobbled up everything, even himself in the end!’

“That was…” Boudicca trapped her nose between her palms. “I am torn here, too - the story has a great moral, certainly, but pride in ourselves is…” She looked over her shoulder. No one was watching them intently from what she could see, so she shuffled a little closer. “... Pride in ourselves as the rightful sovereigns of this land is a large part of what keeps us going. The conviction that we are the chosen people is powerful - very powerful. Of course, I…” She paused and suckled thoughtfully on a breath. “... I supposed it could be framed as a return to moderation - a hope that we can still be proud of our role, status and deeds without believing ourselves superior to others… But will they listen to such a message? Will Hilda listen?”

Shaeylila pressed her lips together and brought a forefinger to her nose in thought. “Hmm, Oh! I know! Maybe what you need is something… tailor-made. In an attire that really speaks to your people. But for that, tell me more - who are you people? Why have you been at war so long? Who is this Hilda?’ She turned around and started walking off, ‘come! Let’s walk!’

“I should’ve led with this, really,” chuckled the sanndatr and followed her, eventually taking the lead on the tour through the city. The route took them out of the city core at first, taking a right towards the industrial district where the air grew thick with the fumes from molten glass and burning wood. Pottery lined the edges of the gravel road, and the pair had to dance between the currents of sleds and pulks pulling frozen clay and lumpy metal to their rightful places. “While Ha-Dûna has existed for merely one score and four six years, the people who would call themselves the ‘Dûnans’ after its founding have journeyed together for decades before that. In truth, we are not one people, but four - the gaardskarls, the clennon fen, the herjegalling and the brasforts - all of whom hail from various places to the southeast. At least, that’s what my mother told me.” She paused. “When we first came together, we stuck together - fighting off the Ketties and bandits and that sort of scum. ‘Course, fusing together four different tribes takes love, will and effort - our history isn’t without infighting; in fact, that’s been much of the reason why, ever since Ha-Dûna was founded, we’ve focused on becoming one people. Already here, we encounter issues: Too many of the théins are gaardskarl or brasfortsian, and not enough are druids; they have a fondness for battle and conflict, and I’ve never known a single gaardskarl who didn’t carry harsh sentiment against foreigners. Likewise, not enough clennon fen are théins - their ascetic roots keeps them from chasing any sort of leadership role that isn’t rooted in divinity. So I’m stuck with warmongering théins and peace-suing priests. Are you following so far?”

Shaeylila looked over at the sanndatr with scrunched up brows. ‘Yes my lady. Angry karlfortasians and gardmarks who don’t like outsiders…’ she pursed her lips and looked around with raised eyebrows, ‘so I, uh, better keep a low profile,’ she scratched her cheek and drew the plaid up so it covered her face to the eyes. ‘And peace-loving dravidian-priests and glennon vens wandering around not wanting leadership. Got it. So what happened next?’ Came her now-muffled serenade. Just as Boudicca started again, the serenade picked up once more. ‘Though I- uh.’ She sighed and her eyes grew dim and downcast, ‘I don’t know if a speech or a performance is going to fix all this, my lady. It already sounds so terrible and it’s only the beginning. I’ve never really… dealt with these kinds of things.’ She stopped walking and the plaid fell somewhat. ‘Seems like some cruel playwright perfectly set-up a tragedy.’

“Don’t say that, this is stressful enough already,” Boudicca confessed with uncharacteristic honesty. The smoke of industry thinned, and the pair soon exited the fumes into a livestock market, smells of sweat, fur and manure washing over them like a tidal wave. They had to compete with moos, bleats and grunts to be able to hear each other, and their promenade would come to a stop many times as traders herded cows, goats, sheep, elk and reindeer to and fro like they were irrigating the city with flesh. “On top of this, the last five years have been nothing -but- war, and I fear my officers have grown to like it, and our neighbours are beginning to get a taste for it. The loss of Ha-Gaard to our former allies at Kirin’s Rest only shows that we are increasingly alone in this land - our neighbours aren’t quick to forget what we did to them five years ago, and I’m already beginning to feel that the quest to become a cultural centre did not carry the appeal I thought just some months back…” She looked at Shaeylila and frowned at herself. “I’m sorry for overwhelming you with all this - it may have been fool’s hope that all of this should be solved with poetry.”

Shaeylila’s eyes seemed to harden with anger and she let out a frustrated sigh. ‘Yeah…’ she murmured sullenly. Looking towards the great town, now that they were at its outskirts, a small ripple of colour grew in her eyes until it was a great spark. She turned to Boudicca with a conspiratorial smile, biting her lip slightly. ‘Wh-what if…,’ she hesitated, ‘those people back there said... I am a gift from that Maxwell right? W-well… what if Maxwell… isn’t very happy? What if he is actually quite upset by all this fighting - fighting and killing and goring and not a single poem or song, no epical record by all those vainglorious warriors, no performances, no wisdoms... ’ she paused and glanced at Boudicca with a guilty smile, ‘what if Maxwell is really quite angry? What if even now he is preparing a great furious song condemning before all the world the death of all art that Ha-Dûna’s constant warring has brought?’ She paused, eyes wide, ‘do you think that might shock them towards more cultured pursuits?’

Boudicca pulled away and turned to the sky as though reflecting on this compelled her to apologise to whatever was up there. She caught herself just before her knees were about to give out and cupped her chin in her hand. “Hey… Hey, that’s a great idea! Rebellious, though, my officers may be, they have no wish to be mentioned in Macsal’s cursesongs!” The giant woman took Shaeylila by the shoulder and grinned from ear to ear. “This is perfect! Tell me, tell me! What should I say? How should I frame His anger?” Shaeylila’s elation was all to clear and she seemed to bob up and down in response to Boudicca’s happiness and relief.

‘His anger?’ Shaeylila paused, and the smile slowly faded from her lips. She looked at Boudicca, and where there had been a spark before her eyes now seemed to crackle. She extended a hand to thesanndatr’s cheek. ‘I will show you.’

Thesanndatr stood upon a handcrafted pedestal of wood, carved with intricate images of flames and daemonic battle, at the centre of which was the staring visage of a furious clean-shaven youth. Beside her on the ground, wearing an equally forbidding countenance, was the one everyone was saying had been sent down by Macsal. Anger crackled in the siren’s eyes, and the giant sanndatr’s own eyes seemed to reflect no less a fury. Tension hung in the air for what felt like the longest time, before the Macsalian thing looked down to the ground and spared the gathered people the gorgon in her aspect. The sanndatr glared outwards, a crowd of beards, of scars, of dirt and of cold, red cheeks staring back with baited breath. It was then that the giant raised her arms to the sky and boomed,

“With me, people of Ha-Dûna, as we begin this confession by greeting the gods: As with every dawn, we give thanks to the Sun, to our Mother, Reiya, who helps us keep warm in winters such as this, and pulls our crops out of the soil so we may eat our daily meals without a worry in the world.” She pointed to the horizon.

“We give thanks to the Moon, to the Nightwarden Gibbou, who keeps the wolves at bay when our tents lay exposed and our children are asleep, and ships us off into the realm of dreams.” She pointed to the ground.

“We give thanks to the Stone, to the Boar of Earth, Boris, who gave us the ground we walk and the tools we use. The eternal mountain never breaks down, no matter the passing times.” She arced one arm across the heavens.

“We give thanks to the Stars, to our Beacon of Hope, Seeros, who inspires us every day to do our utmost for both friends and family; the million lights that glisten above when all other lights go out.” She turned around and gestured to the shore below.

“We give thanks to the Sea, to the Ocean Father Claroon, without whose seafood bounty, we would have starved long, long ago. The steady tide brings us high water on which to sail our boats, and spring rains and autumn storms bring our city both crops and feed.” She placed two hands on her temples.

“We give thanks to the Truth, to the All-Knowing Fìrinn, for guidance in these times of ignorance and confusion. The mirrors reveal all, and the holy glass he gave us has let us divine the struggles ahead with graceful accuracy.” She pointed to the forests beyond the city.

“We give thanks to Jennesis, the World Tree, to whom we owe our eternal love and loyalty for all that grows, for the forests that give us game, wood, fruits and nuts. Her power is mighty and her ire is great - may we ever live in her grace, and always respect the line between woods and mankind. Finally…” She gestured to the crowd.

“Let us give thanks to Macsal, the Immortal Poet, whom we must thank for our songs, our lyrics, our dances and theatre. Without Macsal, much of what we think of as Dûnan would simply not exist - the Worldsong would not be here to help us listen to the worries and counsel of the very earth and sky. So let us praise him, and let us praise the Eight for their kind vigilance over our people, which has allowed us to grow into the great civilisation we are today.” She took a brief break to let the message sink in.

“Let us also give praise to Caden, whose strength lifted us above our Sigeran foes in this war; to Taeg Eit, whose will and law kept our people and our marriages together through thick and thin; to Naya, whose colossal heart carried all our sorrow for us so we could fight on despite our losses; to Artafax, for giving us walls and houses unbreakable to any bandit; and to Vandra, for the fire to last all seasons. We thank the gods; we thank them all - we must thank them all, for these past five years have shown that we have grown insolent; we have grown spoiled and ungrateful in the face of the gods, and our people have never been further out of reach of their favour than we are now.”

Ripples of malcontent moved throughout the crowd. Boudicca held up a silencing hand. “There is no denying it and every man, woman and child here knows that quite well: We chose Sigeran. We chose Sigeran over the true gods!”

“The Sigerans chose Sigeran!” came a retort, supported by furious “yeas”. “We stayed true - that is why we won!”

Boudicca raised a hand again. “We didn’t stay true at all! Had we done so, we would’ve never gone to war in the first place. Our rampant massacre of our neighbours to the east was what drew Sigeran to us to begin with!” Whispers flowed between heads like water through a shifting delta. “Had we been true to the teachings of Reiya, to the gospel of Gibbou, to the faith in Seeros and the songs of Macsal, then we already would have known where these sorts of black thoughts would take us!” Before the retorts could come, she took the initiative. “I know what you will say in defense: We had no food - our people grew too many, too fast! And I know this, too - I said the same thing! Our growth took us plundering without a care in the world for how it would affect us in the coming years - how our standing with not just our neighbours would suffer, but with the gods as well!”

“... No… When faced with such grand devastation as a famine, the pious, the virtuous, will not take from others what they want; instead, the virtuous will fall to their knees in prayer, for the gods are good - they are kind - and they will help us if they see our suffering.” She gestured to the many snow-covered fields beyond the city walls. “And lo and behold - Reiya saw our dire need, even after we had taken to the axe, and gave us fields of unprecedented growth! The pious is rewarded; the vile, punished.” Murmurs grew quieter - the sharpness in their words had been dulled.

“We turned hoes into clubs; plows into shields - we neglected the earth and soil for blood and wealth. We used axes and adzes meant for shaping wood into objects of art and architecture, to slay innocents by the thousands. Spears meant to hunt the Highlands’ bounty with, were instead turned on our neighbours - even those of Dûnan blood! We gave up our long poetic traditions for war cries and ceaseless boasting. Our borders may be longer than before, but there is no Dûnan soul left to fill it. Our neglect for culture has gone so far that Macsal himself, furious as we’ve made him, is even composing a cursesong for our people! One that may plunge us into centuries of misfortune!”

At the very moment that mention of the cursesong was made, a collective gasp arose and with it the head of Shaeylila snapped up. Her eyes were as roiling ink and her hair seemed to harbour lightning.

Brothers of the axe and sword -
sires of much war.
On my tongue there is a word
come from Macsal’s shore.
This is but a taste of rhymes
that the angered poet writes,
for he hates to see your crimes
and he hates all haughty heights:

Pause before the ruin and cry
For those long rhymes turned to sloth
Lore that sleeps will quickly die
In the dust its plighted troth
While bloodshed by dawn and dusk
Knibbles at our wit and art and oft destroys them both.

The world around the song seemed to darken even as streams of colour and ink surged about her, and the inks were given form and the verses came alive. The ruin of art stood unveiled, and around it humanoid shadows shed crimson tears even as the ruins disintegrated into dust and a great surge of gushing blood exploded from it until the scene fell away and only the crimson gore remained.

Sheathe your fears and hear the flow
That whispers through the world and sighs-
Let your thirst for beauty grow
And from your burning heart let rise
The words that conquer spears and bows
And binds back severed links and ties

A great blade cut through the endless cascade of blood, and the inky ichor exploded into audible sighs, and the sighs became a hum and song reverberating through the world. Beneath the humming song the sword fell away and was a staring, flame-eyed youth sitting below a burning bush. His chest beat with a flame, and when he stood a field of spears and arrows stood against him. He walked through it unafraid, a song of flame dancing and billowing from his eyes, and all about him the spears and arrows melted away and became extended hands which he pulled from the earth and united with the extended hands of others.

And should those nursed on war rise up
To strike with gilded tongues the call
And should they think to claw and sup
On blood and meat from where you fall
Then meet them with a tongue that spurns
Their furies and stand proud and tall

The earth fell away beneath the fire-eyed youth and great demons with golden tongues ripped and clawed at him, ripping him limb from limb and consuming what remained. And even as they stood in the darkness, their bellies bloated and the flame emerged from their melting forms. Above it all the youth, a giant, rose and stood. He remained like that, slowly growing into the undeniable image of Macsal himself.

With tongue of ink and lyre for hand
Strike up the chords and loose art’s heat
And like a raincloud, beauteous, grand
Pour down upon the thirsting wheat
And quench the thirsting of the land
And wipe the tears that drown in blood
And sing the furies that wars fanned:

But if this is no age for art
And words of beauty find no place
In any hard and war-forged heart
Then make your peace and rest your case
And let the age of weeping start
For how can they bring endless peace
Who dealt to beauty death’s cruel dart?

The full-grown form of Macsal was gored, and blood of unknown colours frothed forth as the god fell; and from the blood there grew a hill atop of which was the great shadow of Ha-Dûna.

Oh Ha-Dûna on the hill
Pearl of poesies of old
Now your poem is grown still
And the heat of art is cold
Now the rhyming god is shrill
Pledges only ruined disgrace:
They who kill off all their art sure in time art will kill!

Dark clouds billowed about the inky Ha-Dûna, and the visage of Macsal - half tearful, half furious - formed in the inky heavens and looked down upon the hill, and into the gathered crowd. Only the ambient sound of rushing winds and the promise of a storm remained in the ink. After a half-minute, the whole thing dissipated and Shaeylila’s gaze returned to the ground and she was silent and still.

The onlookers were white as sheets, no lip left unquivering. The silence choked out even the instinct to scream, and a minute passed as though frozen in time - only the wail of babes still overcoming the terror of the display could be heard. The shock shattered when there came a thump in the snow - on the front rank, one woman, her husband and their children had fallen to their knees, lifted their arms to the podium and shouted, “MACSAL! FORGIVE US!” The sentiment washed over the crowd like a crashing wave, and soon, the hundreds, the thousands of Dûnans who had filled the city core to the brim and spilled over into the streets beyond all collapsed in wailing prayer, begging and pleading for forgiveness. Boudicca offered Shaeylila a knowing nod, the song’s eyes twinkling back, and let the masses lament their sins. This would be a breakthrough for their people - their need to change their ways was now more evident than ever.

The Curse over Grimholt

Théin Gomarix sat atop his elk, scanning the highland surroundings with great admiration in his eyes. The curving hills between patchy forests and rocky canyons offered much-needed nuance and texture in an otherwise snowed-down landscape. Behind him trailed a small warband, all looking very much exhausted from the journey thus far. The commander sucked in a deep breath through the nose and said, “You know, Kaer Obee - I think I have another verse in mind.”

Kaer Obee, who had aged during the war about as well as milk, offered him a wrinkled, tired stare. “Splendid, brother… Would you -please- give us your -best- performance of it?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” chuckled Gomatrix to the chagrin of his companions. He took another deep breath and spoke,

”Snow ‘pon yonder hill is a wondrous sight,
Mayhaps as great as my own might.
One, one-two, one-two-three flakes fall;
The snow’s as deep as I am tall.
A smile from Ynea, this winter be,
A kiss at my druid, my men and me!”

Kaer Obee sighed. “Brother, please do not use a goddess’ name so frivolously in verse…”

“What? She’s a Cenél goddess, Bee-Bee - she can’t do me anything, as she does not exist.”

“Please do not call me--”

“For there are only fourteen gods, my Bee! And neither Ynea, Malgog nor Seva are among them!” The commander fisted the air triumphantly. Kaer Obee took a deep, impatient breath.

“I pray we are alone on these plains today…”

Gomarix turned to look over his shoulder, a white shock all over his face. “Woman, you are married!”

Obee blushed and scowled back. “I meant alone from any Cenél spies, you stone head! And that’s ‘sister’ to you, théin!”

“Hmph! Why, I have never. You ought to learn some proper manners before you speak to me in that manner, siste-- Oh, look! We’re here!” Before Obee could even begin to retaliate, the officer clapped his elk’s buttox with a flat palm and rode ahead. The druid could only suppress a deep, furious growl. When they got a clearer view over the slight hill brink, the anger subsided somewhat, though. They had arrived. There, opposite a dip in the landscape with a thick forest, tree saplings had begun to reclaim what had once been the clean-shaven hill up to a castle at the foot of Tordentind, the eastmost mountains in Dûnan territory.


“Or at least what’s left of it,” came a sober comment from one of the guards. She was silenced by a hard glare from Gomarix. The théin took his axe from his belt and lifted it to the sky.

“By Caden, what glory awaits us up ahead! Soldiers - today, we stand at the brink of oblivion, as so few warriors are sent to reclaim what was once the Eastern Gem of the Dûnan civilisation! There are none I would rather share this experience with than with you, loyal sons and daughters of the Trueborn Folk. Together, we will surely triumph, and those who may fall will await nothing but glory eternal in the afterlife! Now… CHARGE!” With that, the commander rushed forward down the hill and into the woods. The others exhumed a collective groan.

“He knows it’s most likely empty, right, mother?” one of the warriors asked in concern.

“At this point, I’m not sure anymore,” Kaer Obee confessed and all of them followed at a much slower pace, albeit still a small jog. Twenty minutes later, they heard the echoing creak of ancient wood, reasoning that Gamorix had opened the gates of the palisade fort and moved inside. When they themselves reached the open gates and stepped into the fortified village, they looked around for their commander. “Brother?” Kaer Obee called. “Théin Gomarix?”

They moved down the main path, passing by houses as empty as could be. The streets, once alive with trade and music, were completely deserted. The warriors huddled together somewhat, wearing mixed emotions of concern and confusion on their faces. “We heard it’d be abandoned, but I, personally, was at least expecting a few squatters or Cenél settlers. What’s going on?”

Kaer Obee felt her breathing quicken. “Théin Gomarix? Are you here?”

They then turned a corner to see the town square. There, in its centre, their commander laid dead. More specifically perhaps, his torso did. His other limbs had been arranged in a neat pile on his belly, his head topping the pile with a twisted expression on its face. His elk had been butchered, too, its limbs and entrails surrounding its owner’s pile like a wall. Many of the warriors screamed, and the others immediately went into high alert. That was when a wooden crash shook them even deeper to the core. The gate had closed itself.

Despite the fear of the warriors there was no charge, no sudden eruption of violence. Things seemed grimly quiet despite the grisly scene before them. Things were stilled, grimly so as the warriors collected themselves. The only noticeable change a chill breeze sweeping past.

“I-... I wanna go home,” came a quivering confession from one of the warriors.

“Hush now, my daughter,” Kaer Obee soothed, but she seemed anything but calm. “Let’s just… Slowly make our way back to the entrance and see if we can get it open.” Their morale stabilised by a tangible purpose, the group slowly began moving backwards to where they’d come from, leaving the mutilated corpse of their commander behind.

“What caused this, mother?”

“I-... I don’t know. It could… It could’ve been the Cenél gods, for all I know.”

“They exist?!”

“I don’t--! I don’t know, but let’s not take this discussion now. Move faster!” They quickened their pace, keeping their voices to loud whispers.

The winds picked up as they got closer and closer to the gate working their way back. Getting colder and colder in spite of all else the chill stayed and surrounded the Dûnan warband.

A door slammed open in sudden motion, nothing came out, it slammed back with the breeze. Soon others joined in this cacophony, strangely hounding the band as they moved back through the town. Shifting and other noises could be heard around corners, wind or perhaps something else that could be waiting.

One of the warriors at the back of the party hunkered down, pulling her hat down over her ears. On the other side, those at the front set off in a full-force sprint. Kaer Obee was stuck in the middle with the remaining third of the soldiers. “HEY! COME BACK!” she shouted while her companions tried to haul the last one with them. She refused to move, even kicking and screaming as they began dragging her with them. Those who had run ahead quickly disappeared out of sight behind the various houses and ruins, their footsteps and shouts deafened by the thunder of slamming doors.

The slamming cacophony of doors continued as the few warriors tried to corral her along. The wind and cold worsened, each could begin to see their breaths before them as they trundled along.

Then it stopped. The chill remained, the wind was absent, the doors no longer swung on their hinges by any unknown force. The warriors could barely move, as shaken as they were, and after all the chaos, the sudden silence seemed almost less natural. The anticipation gnawed at their bones like rot, and every cell of their bodies pulled them closer and closer to the gates, whether by sprint or by walking. They kept quiet, convinced that any sound would alert the evil spirits again, for it had to be evil spirits.

Passing corners each seemed to hold untold danger. Only frozen splatters of blood, arrows from unknown archers, and Dûnan weapons left abandoned, stained and broken.

Grim scenes that foretold the fate of those that ran off before, their assailants still left unknown, excepting the idea of evil spirits, haunting things of ill-fortune and ill-fate. The group grew ever closer to the gate, both with grim fascination and fear and hope to escape.

“I think we now know why the last settlers never wrote back,” one of the warriors whispered through whimpers. Kaer Obee comforted her with a squeeze of her shoulder. When they came to the gate, they found those who had run ahead earlier - spread in bits and pieces across an area of twenty square metres, their blood and skin curdled and frozen as though they had been dead for weeks. Kaer Obee and the four warriors that were left all sounded screams on reflex, which only scared them more, and they tossed themselves at the gates to drag them open.

They were thrown back with an overwhelming force, bringing them to the ground, landing on their backs. One or two managing to skid for a bit on the frozen entrails of their compatriots.

It became clear not just that they were not alone, but that figures were watching them from the doorways here.

Shrouded and tall, the forms of warriors for sure in build. They were men surely, too short and tall to be any kind of troll. And yet there was something so off in the way they stood and watched, motionless although they had been there the whole time. Yet what was most in concern although their clothes were darkened by well use, is the arms they carried. Axe and shield, bow and arrow, fresh blood covering near all.

At least seven had made themselves visible from the doorways, but if they were responsible for all this or otherwise had some connection to evil spirits…

“P-please! Spare us!” pleaded Kaer Obee. “We are but humble settlers! We will leave if you claim this land!”

Silently the seven walked out towards the remaining members of the warband. At each step the Dûnans felt the strength drain ever further out of their bodies, whether fear or something else. The figures surrounded the Dûnans at a distance, excepting one who approached Kaer Obee.

It lifted up the Druid with one arm, grasping an axe with the other. The stench of death and rot was nearly unbearable as Kaer Obee was brought face to face with the...

It spoke with a rasping and gasping voice, "Humble. Settlers. Nothing Dûnan about that."

It paused, drawing Obee ever closer to its face, before throwing the Druid down and speaking once more to the group, "Grimholt stands again. No Dûnan blade or blood will take us."

“H-hey, isn’t that--”

“Y-y-y-yeah… That’s Barth - I could’ve sworn Vegard took his head before, before…” Kaer Obee quieted the two soldiers down with a quivering shush and swallowed.

“W-we understand. If you let us go, not a single Dûnan shall ever set foot on your soil again…” She took a shaking breath. “B-but if you kill us, I guarantee you that, come spring, they will send another party of settlers - then another - and another. We w-will tell them never to venture here again! We swear!”

"Sworn oaths mean little from a Dûnan." Thus came the snarling reply, however he-who-was-Barth looked around at his party standing so still around them. "If Dûnans come again dismemberment will be the least of their worries. Pick druid."

Barth pointed towards the remaining warriors of the warband. "Two."

“T-two what?” the druid whimpered.

"Pick the two that will carry you." With that Barth slammed the back end of his axe against Kaer Obee's leg causing a most unpleasant cracking sound. "Something to keep your memory clear." The druid screamed and took her leg, holding it up limply while the adrenaline still held. Her breathing could barely keep up with her pained sobs as her woolen kneesock darkened with blood, and the others instinctively backed off at first, afraid they would be next. However, two of the warriors whom Kaer Obee had soothed earlier each hooked a grip under each of her arms and pulled her with them, their backs now up against the gate.

The Men of Grimholt let them leave.

The Northern Chiefs 1 - Resilient as Ice

It was no easy task, traversing the Blackwoods in the deep winter - its black pines darkening even more the already deep blue polar night; however, they had no choice, either. The reindeer had journeyed this way, after all - the highway of hoof prints in the snow revealed nothing less, and it was not the first time the Weike had been afoot during the zenith of the winter’s cold. The flock was erratic, these days, frightened by great migrations to the south. A campaign of sorts, heading into the Lúpmí. The chieftain hadn’t believed it when he had heard it at first, but having seen the tracks and the flocks of men, women and even children moving to Reginsvik to pledge service to the cause, he could no longer choose to ignore it. Good riddance, the younglings had exclaimed - they were ignorant of the way of the world, after all; they were innocently oblivious to the implications of this great assault.

The elders knew, however, and as did chieftain Sabba.

The Weike had long been dependent on the southern trade routes with the Dunná and the Rákká, and the peoples of the Yellow Plains. They had good relations with most of them, too, and their own crafts and products were well received among their buyers. However, with an invasion like this one, the trade routes that had just opened up again after the turmoil in the south, would once again be left sundered and weakened.

His people would be left sundered and weakened.

A bray up ahead made him hunker down. His followers slowed down, too. A knock of bone against bone and several more grunts and groans hinted that they had arrived. Sabba placed a finger over his lips and beckoned respectfully at one of his followers in the back. She was a middle-aged woman, his sister, in fact, Aile. She stepped forward slowly, her reindeer hide mittens bringing a small feathered mallet out from a red and blue wool satchel at her waist. In her other hand, she held a small skin drum. She offered her brother an assuring nod, who returned it. Then she walked past him into a clearing in the snowed-down woods.

As she stepped into the opening under the moon, she began to sing, beating the drum ever so gently with the mallet as her voice carried through the frozen winds. The reindeer stopped what they were doing to look up, eyeing the woman curiously as her feet edged ever closer to them, her soothing song begging for them to stay. Her voice was not alone, though; the wind chimed in, as well, adding ethereal high notes; the trees wished and swayed from side to side, adding the rhythm of their knocking branches; even the snow seemed to twirl around the woman to dance with her. The reindeer, listening to the chorus of the woman, the wind, the trees and even the lichen, joined in, braying and groaning to the melody. Aile’s fervour grew and her song intensified for a few bars to greet her new friends with mutual respect - they responded in turn, kicking and digging at the snow with their horns to the rhythm. Shortly after their greeting, Aile brought the song to a close, and the reindeer seemed immediately much friendlier to her, the calves approaching to knock heads with her torso. Aile giggled and waved the others over invitingly. The rest of the Weike crossed the forest border into the clearing, and the reindeer remained calm.

“Well done, Aile,” praised Sabba curtly and caught the incoming head of a curious buck in an embrace, the buck grunting warmly. Aile scratched the buck under the chin and grinned back.

“Hee-hee - that was easy! The reindeer in these parts have been quite lonely, they told me - seeing people again made them really giddy all of a sudden.”

Sabba frowned. “Is that so, huh? Then Sarak and his Loike must’ve travelled east, as well…” He sighed and shook his head. “This is troublesome news.”

“Look at it on the bright side, chief!” came a young and energetic voice. Aile and Sabba both turned to eye a smiling lad of seventeen winters, his pale face rosy in the cold. “More reindeer for us, right?” Sabba frowned.

“Firstly, they’re not ‘ours’, Kveie. They’re unbound souls, free to join us or leave us at their leisure.” The young Kveie rolled his eyes with a smirk - he had obviously heard this lecture many times. “Secondly,” Sabba continued, “our clan hasn’t got the herders necessary to drive all these reindeer from place to place.” He gestured to the flock - in this clearing alone, there were at least a hundred heads; if Sarak and the Loike truly had ventured east, then the west would hold at least a thousand heads more. “We cannot greedily request them all to join us - their stampede across the region would impede the functions of the other spirits.”

“Pfft, alright, calm down, gramps. I was just askin’.”

“Gramps?! Now you listen here, young man--”

“Sabba!” Just as the chieftain grabbed the lad by the collar, Aile took her brother by the shoulder warningly. Sabba looked down at the lad, whose face had lost its smugness to a twinge of fear mixed with uncertainty. The other Weike were staring disapprovingly at both the lad and the chieftain, and even the reindeer stepped over to intervene, braying coarsely for the chieftain to let go. He did, and Kveie staggered back to regain his balance, adjusting his collar properly. Sabba looked around, seeing the people flinch slightly when he looked at them.

“... We’ll camp here for tonight,” he commanded sternly and looked down at Kveie. “I will be taking this boy fishing… Any objections?” The others were silent. Sabba nodded. “Good. Now get to it.” While the others were setting up tents, Sabba pulled young Kveie along, two quite nicely polished fishing rods in his free hand. Multiple times did Kveie try to run for it back to camp, but the chieftain was always there to drag him by the collar. When the youngster got violent, Sabba would respond with violence, and Kveie would lose upon the first, well-placed hit to the belly. After thirty minutes of this sort of back and forth, they eventually reached a frozen-over river. Kveie grunted sharply.

“Oh, would you look at that. It’s frozen - what did you expect? ‘Go fishing’... Pwah!”

Sabba sighed and grabbed a large rock, stepping out onto the ice. There, making sure to spread his weight as widely as possible by descending to all fours, he began hammering at the ice. “When a barrier obstructs your path, kid, remove it,” he muttered. Kveie scoffed, but eventually a hole was made and the two of them dipped the bone hooks of their fishing rods into the water. There, they waited in silence. For a long time, they only exchanged looks every now and then. Then eventually, Sabba opened his mouth slightly.

“Where does all your anger come from, kid?”

Kveie scoffed quietly. “Maybe it comes from you calling me ‘kid’ all the time?”

“I call you what you act like.”

“I act like I am treated.”

“Oh, grow up. You know very well that it’s your own behaviour that’s the problem here.”

“Oh, do I? I think I might be a little too young to understand these things.”

Sabba snarled and pulled back a right hook. Kveie lifted his arms in reflexive defense, his hook flying out of the water, fishless as expected. Sabba did not hit him, however, but lowered the fist slowly instead. “It’s just… I see a lot of myself in you.”

Kveie grit his teeth together and dipped his hook back into the water. “When has that ever been an excuse to treat someone else like a brat?”

“It isn’t… However, I just don’t want you to repeat the mistakes I made.”

“What, like the fact that you’ve never had kids of your own?” The following silence brought a sudden sting to Kveie’s consciousness, and his following statement had lost much of its smug momentum. “A-actually, I didn’t mean that… I took it to far and--”

“No, you’re right. While that wasn’t the incident i was thinking of, it has, in truth, been one of my great shortcomings, that.” He nodded slowly. Kveie frowned.

“Say… Why haven’t you actually gotten yourself a girl? You’re the chieftain, after all. Shouldn’t ladies be lining up to be with you?” Sabba shrugged apathetically.

“They have been, but I’ve turned them all down. When I die, the role of chieftain will pass to my sister’s son, Tveia. He’s a good lad, that one - the clan will be in good hands.”

Kveie’s frown deepened. “But why? Why have you told them all no?”

“There’s only one lady for me, son…” mumbled the chieftain mysteriously and looked up at the bright half-moon, contrasted by the dance of the Afterlight. “... Black hair… Broad shoulders… A woman with no sense of fear nor weakness…”

Kveie blinked and shook his head. “Forget that I asked…”

Later that night, Sabba gathered everyone in the camp for the sermon of the day. Behind him, Aile and her children sat drumming and humming. The chieftain and some others had fashioned a small altar in the centre of the camp, built out of snow and decorated with feathers, bones and branches. The chieftain took a deep breath and spoke, “It is now that we give thanks to the North God for granting us another day of only encountering the softer hardships of winter. It is in the North God’s grace that we exist, and if their mercy is spent, we will all surely perish. We offer them this bounty as thanks.” With that, the chieftain knelt down and placed a fat salmon on the altar. He then folded his hands in prayer and continued, “Then we must remember those who have passed on into the Afterlight - they life forever in harmony with the spirits of this world, and we must ever remember that we are welcome among them as family. Fear not death, everyone, but embrace it - for in death, we are given new life, like winter becoming spring. Praise the sagely dead.” The whole camp started to sing along with the shamans, and the chieftain started dancing around the altar, tossing up snow with kicks and jumps. Others joined in after a bit, all wanting to show their appreciation for the ancestors and the North God.

The Weike had been reduced, yes, and much suffering was still to come. However, they would ever persevere, for they were survivalists - and the North God was on their side.

@Stonehammer Yay! Welcome!
The Founding of the Omniversity

”So… You all know why you’re here…” The stink of alcohol permeated the room as Gibbou wobblingly wagged a wine glass from side to side in her hand, her feet propped up on a large, round table. Seated on each of the other three non-existent corners of the circle were Qael, Artifex and the Patron. Gibbou eyed them all decisively before lifting her glass into the air. ”We gotta build a school!”

Qael had no idea what was going on. He just got an invitation from Gibbou to meet up. Apparently Artifex was invited as well. As was some strange sibling he hadn’t had the time to meet yet. Unlike the laissez-faire attitude of his sister, Qael was sitting propped up on his chair, looking awkwardly around. Four of his six eyes lit up with various shimmering colors. He just hoped it wouldn’t be a waste of time. Well, then finally Gibbou laid the cards down on the table. “A… school?”

”Da’s right!” A burp. ”The people of Galbar are stupid, so we gotta educate them!” She fisted the air and rose to her feet, one of which was still on the table. Her pose would’ve been impressive had it been a different pose, or no pose at all.

“Weeeeeeeeeell, she’s not wrong.” The Patron commented as she eyed Gibbou with amusement. She was slumped in her chair, arms stretched behind the backrest, paying attention but affecting the opposite as best anyone could. The olive-skinned woman had been, quite literally, pulled out her realm by the Goddess of the Moon and, while clearly as confused as Qael, seemed to prefer playing along over asking questions. To that end, she added, “I want secret libraries, though. Maybe forbidden towers? Oh, and some of that wine. Dragging me here and not offering a glass? Pft, rude.”

”Oh, shizz, I’m sorry…” slurred the moon goddess and snapped her fingers. A glass appeared before every god, filled to the very decadent brim with wine. ”... Also, who are you again?”

“Hglprmmm?” The Patron managed while drinking the glass in one long swig. A pair of rivulets spilled from the sides of her mouth and ran down on her dress, which was fortunately made of what seemed to be wind. Well, fortunately for her. A small spray of drops almost immediately bombarded everyone else around the table. She paused, carefully put the glass down, and answered while extending her arm and leaning over the table for a handshake, “I’m me! A god, I think. Who are you? I didn’t drag myself here.”

”Good question…” mumbled Gibbou faintly and didn’t shake the hand as much as she limply accepted it, her eyes staring into nothing. She quickly recovered, though, and smiled broadly at the god to her right. ”Arty! So nice you could, ‘scuse me - hic! - make it! How’re you?”

”I’m doing well, thank you for asking” the goblinoid shaped god replied while attempting to clean the Patron’s spray of wine from his garments with a handkerchief and failing rather spectacularly to do so. He frowned at the wine stains and then gave up ”or I was. Till this one’s” he waved a hand in the direction of the mess making god ”complete lack of table manners got in the way of my good mood.”

The Patron, having lazily slumped back into her chair, lolled her head in Artifex’s direction and complained playfully, “Hey! This is my first table. Did you just pop up knowing everything about tables? Mmm, I don’t know, tsk, seems unlikely to me.”

The goblin raised a finger to object, seemed to think about it for a moment and then replied weakly ”well. no. But in my defence at the time of my birth they did not exist,” before sighing, lifting and sipping at his wine with refined grace before attempting to get back the point ”So. Gibbou. This school. Where is it going?”

Gibbou conjured forth a map in the centre of the table. It showed the entire planet, bulging outwards to give a spherical sense. She lifted her finger and, face slammed down on the table, pointed in the middle of the Mydian Sea. ”Here!”

”Well it’s central. if a bit... out in the middle of the ocean?” Artifex said scepticaly before scratching his chin thoughtfully and then adding ”hmmm, though that could be an interesting challenge,” before pulling out a piece of parchment upon which he began to sketch on while the others spoke.

“Could make it float,” The Patron noted as she carefully leaned over and grabbed Qael’s glass of wine, giving the God of Magic a little wink as she did. Now doing her best to sip at the liquid she went on, “Or maybe a volcano? Might get a bit toasty though.”

”Active volcanoes do not make for good foundations,” Artifex commented, ”Floating could work. I believe Qael has already done something in that department?” the goblin looked up from his sketches and over at the god of magic for confirmation.

The god of magic had honestly no intention to drink the strange liquid before him. Especially not considering what it seemed to do to Gibbou. Still, it felt incredibly rude of the strange goddess to just take his goblet. She could’ve asked! No, no Qael wouldn’t make a fuzz of it. “On air… to be specific.” He quickly clarified. “A small island floating in the air. Though I fear mortals have yet to discover any way to fly so I would not suggest it.”

”Wass about a normal island, then, y’know? Jussss…” She pointed on the spot again, missing it by a few centimetres, and the map spawned a bump meant to be an island. ”Like that, y’know?”

“Boooooooooooring,” The Patron droned, before pivoting to add, “But maybe it could be underground? Have a portal lead to it, or a whirlpool? Or have a whirlpool be the portal to it. Could work for the floating island too. Oh, or-” She paused and stared at the empty bottom of her second glass, seemingly rethinking any further suggestions.

“Or an island.” Qael said in quite a passive aggressive fashion. “A normal island would be a good place to start.” The region of Mydia was indeed uniquely suited for such a school. Toraan couldn’t seem to get its act together. Local warlords were fragmenting the land and nobody seemed to be capable or willing to unite everyone for longer than one needed to destroy their neighbors. Meanwhile the goddess before him, the one without a name, seemed oddly out of place within these negotiations. Unlike Artifex and himself, she seemed chaotic. Without structure or organization. She just spouted out her thoughts in a drunken haze. Qael’s remaining two eyes turned to look at Gibbou. Well, the stranger was not alone he supposed. Qael’Naath stood up in preparation of his case: “Magic should be taught. Obviously. It’s the only knowledge worth knowing. Through it mortalkind will be able to observe and understand the world around it. I thus propose the school to be singly focused upon the arcane studies.” When he was done he once more sat down.

After taking a refined sip from his own wine Artifex said that ”I agree with the island. As, mmm, fun as this one’s ideas are, we do want people to be able to get to this school, and those of a scholarly disposition aren't always the most, ah, resilient to the trials of adventuring upon the waves.”

In order to finalise the matter, the god reached into his jacket pocket anr retrieved a pebble, which he placed onto the spot Gibbou had pointed to, giving them a basis for their creation.

”That said, I disagree that Magic is ’the only knowledge worth knowing.’” Artifex did not stand to make his argument and instead maintained a conversational tone ”Do not get me wrong, those who master the art can weave wonders most sublime. But it is not the be all and end all of knowledge. You could argue it is the pinnacle if you so desire, but even the glossiest of shining spires need a solid foundation. It is technology with which societies are built, with tools and machines that can be used by the masses. There is overlap of course, magical artifacts blur the lines, but I do not think it wise to ignore the potential of the material world to focus only on the magical.”

”Hear, hear!” praised Gibbou. ”Oughta have stuff for other people than magicians! Like, like temples to stuff - stuff like us!” She fisted the air triumphantly. ”Dibs on making dorms!”

Well… maybe Artifex had a point. Some less magically inclined mortals could benefit from a less magical education. But the god of magic chose not to mix with those. It would seem that Artifex had plenty of his own ideas already. The god of magic was quick to brush aside the trivial ideas Gibbou brought up as well. It wasn’t that dorms weren’t important, it was just that…well they weren’t important to him.

“A greenhouse and orchard for ingredients.” He mumbled out loud, and as if it was commanded blue glowing flying sand took shape around the god of magic in the form of a greenhouse with an orchard in the back. “Obviously a star observatory spire.” A spire took shape from the blue glowing, flying sand that just appeared. Showing it with a dome roof. “Large balconies suspended in the skies. Choirs. Spell-circles. Dissection altars. Grand dance halls. Runic auditoriums.” Every room named summoned another depiction of that room. “Hmmm, perhaps a complete alchemical laboratory for the joined wing.” He said mostly towards Artifex who suggested the joined wing in the first place.

”Glad to see you’re onboard.” Artifex said, nodding with approval ”Now lets see. First, the more practical concerns.”

The god pulled out a small sharp knife and began to slice segments off his sketch paper, each one coming alive for a moment, fluttering towards the pebble island he had made on the map. Wherever the architect’s blueprints landed their diagrams came to life, forming structures from pen strokes in an instant.

”First off, docks, for the arriving students” Artifex explained as the first of his diagrams came to life, creating a sheltered stone harbor, its high walls guarding its ships form storms while its long piers would allows dozens of vessels of all shapes and sizes to dock with the island.

”Paths, store houses, plumbing, a place to grow food to sustain them and store water to water them” the god added, crafting infrastructural buildings around the docks and center of the island that all would need, while also raising up a large swath of fertile farmland that would ensure the island would not be massively reliant on imports to feed itself and building large cisterns to catch rainwater for the people to drink from.

The god nodded to himself, before beginning to add the places to learn of the scientific arts, making them a mirror of the magic god’s own structures for sake of symmetry. Spaces of craftspeople of all trades were made, from forges to woodworking shops, glassmakers to potters. places where resources could be shaped and fashioned however the students wanted. Then came the labs and workshops, places for things to be built and assembled. there was little focus on what should be made there, instead the god focused on providing spaces where any kind of invention could be made. He also added a series of wharfs near the docs, so that the islanders could produce ships and a large shallow and especially sheltered section of the docs dedicated to safely testing experiments with new designs. Heavily reinforced places, ones that put the sturdiest fortress walls to shame. Any who had experience with the god’s Inventors knew exactly why this was.

He also created a swath of wild land, packed with natural resources, from ores and gems hiding in deep natural caves to woods and glens teaming with wildlife from all across Mydian. any material an inventor might need could be found if they were willing to brave the untamed lands beyond the University.

A long twirling wisp of smoke emerged from the Patron’s extended finger, and as it swept over the tiny diagram little mounds of vapor rose on the island. With a little smile she explained, “Tells. So the students think this island has been around for a while. Also, a good excuse for catacombs!”

The smoke outlined a vast network of interweaving, chaotic, catacombs whose entrances would be focused on the academy and the supposedly ancient tells, but would extend far below the island. As a final touch little spots across the catacombs, hundreds of them, began to glow. “Tombs, with spell books and treasures and secrets. For the adventurous.” The Patron openly grinned and leaned closer to the menagerie of pebbles, living diagrams, and apparitions of smoke.

She poked the academy in a few places and imposing, gravity defying, spires appeared. Long suspended bridges branched out between them forming a sort of upper academy, connected to the larger structure on the ground by the spindly bodies of the spires. The Patron elaborated, “And for masters, an upper academy. Somewhere to put all the spells that’d kill the students. It is a school after all. I’d think it oughta be safer than just poking at those spells floating around like everyone’s doing now.”

Gibbou lifted her face from the tabletop in a jolt. She pointed at the model of the academy and, suddenly, a row of large, square-shaped houses popped up by the courtyard, all decorated with gothic statues of muscled men with bat wings and faces like fruit bats. There were at least eighty windows in coloured glass on each side, meaning forty rooms per floor, and each room was furnished with two beds, two desks and a chest for each, from what one could see through the tiny model windows. In total, there were five dormitories. ”Yay, dorms!” cooed the night goddess before zapping the other side of the campus. There, even more lavish dorms popped up, these ones arranged into three great towers all linked together with bridges on every third floor: Each floor had four rooms, and there were a total of five floors, each furnished with a single bed, a desk, a bookshelf, a cabinet, and, if one looked really closely, the same fruit bat gargoyles over the door frame. ”If people feel uncomfortable sleeping -here-, then…” She sniffed. ”Then I’ll be sad…” She had another swig of her drink.

The fact that this new goddess was so concerned about hiding spell got Qael a bit on edge. Who was she and why did she care so much for hiding his creations? Perhaps she had a point, but there were less dangerous ways to hide information that should not be known yet. He himself locked it behind trial and tests. Not with hiding and obfuscation. Alas, he did not want to have the discussion now. There were other matters at hand.

“Libraries.” Qael’Naath mumbled, realizing all of them except the newest goddess had nearly forgotten them. “Not the hidden ones. Normal ones. Though surely you could come up with an easier to use medium to carry the information?” He asked Artifex, before returning to his own musings. There was already an archive of magical knowledge. One that had been growing for two decades now. Why replicate such an achievement? From those ponderings appeared once more a blue glow. Though this one did not assume a physical form. Instead it held a concept for a higher realm. One in which people could study the knowledge stored with Sancta Civitas’ Library.

”There are many advanced forms of information storage that I have seen down the mortals path, though ironically as record keeping technology improves its ability to withstand the ages fades. Compare stone engravings to writing on parchment for a current example,” Artifex replied before proposing that ”for now I suggest we stick to the classic stone. If we want to give the impression of age then it’s the most logical material to have survived. not that they need to stick to that material once they start adding to the work.” Artifex proceeded to populate the little libraries with stone tablets featuring knowledge old and new, while also adding saltwater papyrus like plants to the shallows of the ocean, and small colorful diving beetles who protected themselves with ink sprays to live among them, and large wading seabirds who would pray on the beetles and whose feathers would make excellent quills.

”hmmm. Though perhaps...” he then said contemplatively, before plucking out a feather, pot of ink and sheet of papyrus from the parts of their rapidly growing tableaux. Then he put the feathered down on the table, retrieved a fine needle and began engraving runes on it.

While Artifex busied himself, the Patron gave Qael an amused look and set about doing exactly what she’d promised to. The god’s playful smile grew and she leaned closer to the little mockup on the table before declaring, “But also, secret libraries. In the upper academy. Ones that don’t need stone or paper or ink.”

Once more little wisps of smoke flowed from her fingertips, but this time they stilled into a number of pools, each one becoming perfectly reflective. Within the little pools magical symbols appeared and began to shimmer, before the patron tapped each one and watched the symbols rearrange into new ones. The Goddess carefully placed the little smokey pools inside the apparitions that were the planned upper academy and explained, “Some mortals have been using a book that works like these. So I’ll add a few here. Just plop a spell into the pool and it and all the others will be able to access it.”

Having finished engraving the quill, Artifex picked it up, dabbed it in the little ink pot and started writing down instructions about how to do the bit of magic he had just done.

”Humm, what else…” grumbled Gibbou. ”Oh yeah!” She slapped down another building, this one veering slightly off the campus centre. Inside its tiny windows, one could see loads of long tables and benches to boot, and all along the middle of the house were firepits with metal pots suspended over them. ”Without their food, a scholar’s no good!” she mused happily as she also added fruit gardens and crop fields next to Qael’s reagent garden. ”They’ll have to get some foods from the surrounding islands, but I’ve heard the local, whassit, Akwanz? Whatever, there are locals who’d gladly help ‘em out.”

Artifex finished writing as Gibbou added more agriculture to the island, squinted at it as if unsure if she was adding redundancy or was just to smashed to notice his own plots, and then shrugged. he retrieved a second sheet of paper, dabbed the quill in the pot, placed its tip at its op and then let go. the quill, rather than fall, hung poised above the parchment before it began to write on its own, copying the document Artifex had just written word for word. artifex smiled, then made a second quill with the same runic engravings and repeated the process, resulting in two quills scribbling away to copy the original document.

”You can never have too many ways to backup knowledge” he said to himself, before adding a tablet containing instructions on how to make this text repliating magic to the library.

"AH!" blurted Gibbou. "Almost forgot!" With a slap of her hand on the table, she turned the empty spaces around the university into peaceful gardens for study and meditation. One grove in particular sprouted various tranquil trees with leaves specifically designed to muffle sound and provide the visitors with the optimal quiet experience. Then, around the various hills and groves, she put down small prayer houses and temples. ”There we go. I’m good.”

Qael rubbed the tentacles running off his chin for a second. The gardens, yes. How could he forget!? They were paramount for mental endeavors. Even The Library back in Sancta Civitas had one. A significant one at that. Gibbou’s gardens were no doubt beautiful but they lacked a certain…spark. “Allow me.” He said as he extended a single finger at the gardens. They were bathed in a soft blue glow for a second, as certain aspects of them returned. To respect Artifex’s balance (and eventual unity) between magic and technology, he only altered just about half the gardens. Turning them into something more magical. With floating gazebo’s accessible only through floating stepstones, or a meditative place where carved stone orbs would rise up from the ground and orbit around you in auspicious patterns. These would be the places where mortalkind’s serene creativity would flow like water, that in certain places flower up the waterfall now.

Artifex, eyeing this magical enhancement to half the gardens, added a few minor touches to the other side. A number of exquisit statues were raised, made of glass, marble and bronze formed into elaborate abstract shapes that pleased the eye. A small river was added running through the gardens, fed from a fountain, that gave the pleasant ambiance of running water to the area. He also added some hedge mazes, sundials and a hedge that could be used to track the time of year.

Having watched Qael and Artifex closely, the Patron chewed on her lip and started crafting her own garden, one placed firmly between the two major halves of the academy. It started as a shallow pool of water, no deeper than a few feet but as many as a hundred meters across. From it rose a great plume of fog, but one which grew heavy and clung to the water. The water below it grew dark, and soon it seemed to suck the light out of the already foggy air above it.

There, in the dark, little plants took root and grew. They started out as little more than lilies, but soon grew thick purple roots that found the soil deep below. Anchored to the world the plants became trees rising from the water, trees whose leaves glowed a faint blue and illuminated the Patron’s garden. Platforms rose close to them, each one a tiny amphitheatre with a stage of sorts below a descending ring of seats. Around each platform were columns of obsidian, arranged to hold up a covering dome that glowed faintly like the leaves from the trees which loomed above it.

From the edges of the garden were invisible stepping stones, as black as the water and just millimeters below its surface. They led to the platforms, and from platform to platform. A nearly invisible network of stones connecting the misty gardens pavilions. The Patron, now fussing obsessively over her mock garden, added all sorts of glowing fish to the midnight water, alongside a number of underwater plants for them to hide and nest in.

It was only after she’d spent nearly as long as Qael and Artifex combined on her garden, much of it spent on choosing the particular hues of the fish, that she looked up and, in a remarkably self satisfied tone, announced, “And done! The central garden.”

”So… Should we add some staff? Y’know, someone who knows the deal - could maybe tell people what this place is all about?”

”Magic within this institution must be overseen by the appropriate agent…” Qael’Naath mused as he stroked his chin-tentacles. There were no mortals alive whom he could offer the charge. At first he thought about his daughters. Auriëlle could never be chained down to such a place and while Soleira would make a fine guide for mortals, her magical capabilities were still painfully lacking. His mind darted to other places. An Eloxochitli perhaps? No, he needed something approachable for all races. Something that could guide them as well. Someone from Anghebad? Alas, they were only barely scratching the surface of their Labyrinth. They made him proud but were not yet ready for the task. But as his mind went over their Labyrinth, he found his answer. He squeezed his fist for a second, and then opened it again. Showing a fired-clay figurine of one of the axolotl-looking creatures and put it on the table. ”The school’s headmaster of magic.” He presented it to his siblings.

”A frog, huh. Neat.” Gibbou conjured forth a slice of bread as she regarded the statuette. ”Y’know… A place like this is bound to get pretty dirty. Y’all think everyone would be responsible and clean up after themselves after doing their stuff and things like decent mortal beings?” She looked around the table. ”Yeah, no, I agree.” She took a crumb of her bread and, in a second, it flourished with mould. The mould twisted and turned, eventually shaping into a person-like figure with three legs, two hands - one swallowed by the mushroom growth - and a bioluminescent ghostcap for a head. Gibbou placed it down proudly. ”Now we have a janitor!”

”Well now. that raises all sorts of interesting possibilities. A living member of a species that never existed” Artifex noted as he looked upon the axolotl Qael had made, ”I predict its life will be a rather interesting one. Now then,”

The Artifex leaned back in his char, swirled his wine and then took a sip, clearly contemplating. Then he nodded to himself, before pulling to rings that he was wearing off his fingers. ”I think the office of head of technology shall be headed by a mortal. The best, possibly decided by competition, but that does not mean I don’t want them to be completely without the kind of continuity and wisdom provided by magic’s ageless ruler. ” The smaller was placed inside the other and the space inbetween filled with a black mass as he spoke ”So I’ll give them an assistant” The mass suddenly grew eyes and abstract limbs, propping itself up onto them. The god made a vague depiction of a mortal, their general appearance and even species ambiguous, and set it next to the axolotl. The prototype obediently scampered over to this model, before clambering up it and sitting to rest on its shoulder like a tame raven.

”Ain’t that somethin’. This’ll be such a project, y’all!” clapped Gibbou giddily. Turning to the Patron, she frowned pensively. ”You. You adding anything?”

“A librarian would be useful,” The Patron bit her lip in thought, “Someone to take care of all the books and tablets, and my spell pools. They’d need to keep the students from killing themselves whenever some master dropped a book in the lower academy too. So not a pushover, hm.”

Her fingers drummed on the table for a moment, before she grinned and set to work on her own little figure. This one was large, far too large to walk about the university. Rather, the giant furball with a mouth full of jagged teeth and two long twisting horns was given a chamber in the catacombs. A vast cavern with glowing crystals, a small lake, and what almost qualified as a forest.

However, from the beast’s cavern the patron plucked a little tree. She twisted it until the foliage resembled an old man grown from wood. Growing from the figures shoulders was a long sweeping robe made from yellow leaves, and from its head sprouted two long wooden antlers. Once she was done she pulled a tiny thread from the beast and connected it, not just to her one wooden figure, but to the entire little forest where the beast lurked.

The Patron leaned back into her chair contentedly and said, “Our librarian, and one that won’t die once some angry kid shoots a fireball or drops a boulder on him.”

”How about that… So, how’re we doing, folks? Anymore thinga-magiggs y’all wanna add?” She refilled her cup.

“We must find a way for students to reach and return from the school.” Qael still noted as he observed the wider map. Boats would be fine for the Amazons and the Night Elves. But for the people of Sancta Civitas, Anghebad and civilizations even further the journey would be perilous and dangerous. Once more did he clench his fist, only to reveal a fairly sizable figurine of a giant lobster. From the side though, you could see inside its chest. Which was separated in several rooms and one-way magical windows that showed the ground below and the skies around it. “An emissary, guide and method of passage. All in one.”

”For a more straightforward bit of help” Artifex said as he popped a large tower down on the port’s wall, and atop it a beacon that lit up the night, guiding ships towards the safe harbor. Then he enhanced the light so that it could be seen from much further away by any who sought the island, so that they would never lose their way while they sought the island.

“And just to be safe,” The Patron commented as she placed a room deep below the tower, accessible only through a number of spelled doors in the catacombs, “Something to keep the island hidden, when it has to be.”

She eyed the little room, and the spells etched both into its walls and the walls of the catacombs that stretched out in every direction around it. With a snap of her fingers the little room glowed and soon a vast blanket of magical, disorienting, fog descended on the little diorama of a school and the mock seas around it.

”Neat! Dunno why we’d need that, but neat! Anything else, folks?”

“No.” Qael said, in response to Gibbou’s question. This place of learning had already become quite a grand creation. Uniting four gods their power into it. What more could it need still?

”I think these plans are functionally complete. All that remains is to make it real, and to find a way ‘explain’ why there is suddenly a new island with an ancient university complex in the middle of the Ocean where none was before” Artifex replied ”there are, after all, people living in the ocean who might ruin the illusion if we just put it there as a blatant divine act.

“Oh,” The Patron stood up and looked down on the table, conjuring a little sparking cloud that grew with every moment. She started twirling her finger in it as she spoke, “That’ll be easy. Just spin up a little storm, add a dash of magic to it, and tada!”

The little storm grew to cover the entire table, taking on a sickly purple hue. Below the sea’s waves became enormous breakers as the rain that pounded it started to glow like the purple lightning above. The enchanted deluge struck the little mock academy and the false water around it, mixing with the sea and rendering anyone touched by it unconscious. Magic ran deep into the sea. Wherever it went any memory of the expanse of ocean where the academy was to be placed was erased. Washed away in the storm.
The tempest grew until it was spilling over the sides of the table. It was only then, when it was finally large enough for her liking, that the Patron sat back down and explained with a content little smile, “And now nobody will know.”

”Perfect! And here. We. Go!” As if slapping a button, Gibbou hammered the tabletop with her palm. Immediately down on the planet below, the centre of the Mydian Sea began to toss and churn. A gruesome, mighty storm washed over the surrounding islands, flooding forests and villages in rain and seawater. Coastal villages screamed as a pillar of clouds and lightning could just barely be seen at the very edge of the horizon - a hurricane of power as though sent by the gods. Something about the storm seemed to hint that it had not simply gathered there out of natural causes, and as it passed, Akuan communities swimming to the shore told every islander that a miracle had happened: At the center of the storm they’d found an island. One of great development and technology, filled with buildings and landscapes more advanced than anyone had yet seen. All the cultures of Mydia agreed - they needed to hasten to unveil the secrets of this site.

The Reconquest 3 - Ours Again

Year 29AA, early winter, in the stronghold Caisteal Na Grèine, situated between Scawick and Ha-Dûna.

“Very well… We have taken inventory of weapons, supplies, clothing and medicine. Our clearest shot at retaking Ha-Dûna is in front of our very eyes.” Hilda the Leoness slammed her palm on the table, rattling ceramic cups filled with drink. “If we wait out the winter, we may never get a shot like this again.”

“Why not? According to our scouts based in Kirin’s Rest, the Sigerans are broken asunder - morale is shattered, their food supplies have been dry for months, and people are either defecting or deserting every day. It wouldn’t surprise me if we’d be arriving in a ghost town by spring,” countered Valix of Leothe. Hilda rolled her eyes.

“It’s evident that you have been far too busy escorting Kaer Pier to pay close attention, théin Valix - with the loss of Scawick’s support (good riddance, if you ask me), our túnskiolding numbers have been reduced considerably - even if they weren’t good for much, they could at least have served their duty as levies…” Valix offered a cold hum. Hilda paid him no mind and continued, “According to your own words, we have reason to doubt the self-proclaimed “queen” of Kirin’s Rest and her support. The Undûnan are not to be trusted under any circumstance, so we might even have to account for her turning on us.” The table before them displayed a crude map drawn in charcoal upon a wolfskin. Hilda straightened herself back up and gave a pensive hum.

“Perhaps, but half our warriors march alongside her. They will no doubt keep her in check if she tries anything. You must also remember that we also have the support of these… Oraeliari - the winged ones.”

Hilda’s face offered a raised brow, her finger twisting a few locks of her large black mane. “Oh yes, the winged ones, the angels of Reiya - the Reiyar. Proof once again that ours is the greatest people, chosen by the gods to bring order and civilisation to these wild lands.” She put her hands triumphantly on her hips. “Their presence only proves further that the time to strike is now! Who knows how long this blessing will last?”

Valix hummed. “... That is a fair point.”

“Isn’t it?” snickered Hilda. “Théin Boudicca, there is only one possibility here.” Boudicca, who had been listening from a chair not too far from the table, nodded slowly with her chin balancing on her fists.

“Spread the word,” she said. “Anyone who can carry a spear, wield a bow, swing a club - all are coming with us. Make certain to equip everyone with whatever sunforged weapons we have, and pack sleds and carts with food and medicine for the trek and a long battle.”

“It won’t be a long battle, Boody,” soothed Hilda.

“Then pack the supplies for when we settle back into the city. Once only our civilians are left, I would not want them to drag all of it for the whole week’s trek.”

“Oh, very well, then,” Hilda conceded and walked off. Valix and Boudicca’s eyes met.

“Ha-Dûna is finally within our grasp, Val.” The warrior nodded and walked off, as well. Boudicca sucked passively on a tooth, stood up and walked over to the map. The wolfskin was blacked with the continued erasure and redrawing of features and details. The entire artwork was centered around their home - that beautiful home which they hadn’t set foot in for almost three years now. She looked up again and drew a slow breath. Soon now - soon. She then walked off to seek out the Reiyar leader Tevuri.

“Oh, great Tevuri, please - would you enlighten me as to what sorts of sacrifices the Sun Goddess truly prefers? Please?” The angel was surrounded on all sides by druids hungry for any information they could receive.

Tevuri gave them a perplexed look as he walked. “Whatever do you mean, Humani? A sacrifice is unbefitting to the Goddess. She does not require nor preach for them to be. Only those with falsities in their heart would ever think that a sacrifice of any nature would please her. Oraeliara only wishes that the world would be at peace, in happiness, and that fellow mortals cared for one another, opening their hearts to love and growth. The best thing you could ever do to please her, is to live your life and help those that require aid.”

“Oh, you’re too modest in her behalf, great one! Every god adores sacrifices - food, crafts, vows. It’s well known!”

“Very well known, in fact!”

“Is it?” He mused. “I’m afraid we are unfamiliar with other deities. Do they speak to you? Do their avatars teach you of what they ask? From what I’ve gathered from this situation, one should always be careful of who they devote themselves so completely to. And never put our own words behind their voices.”

The druids exchanged looks before turning away. “Well, ahem… We thank you for your wisdom. Walk in the gods’ blessings, great Tevuri.” Then they shuffled off sourly. The angel wasn’t left in peace for long, however, as Boudicca approached instead, her arms crossed across her chest in a posture that radiated authority.

“Great Tevuri, we have decided to strike today. Are you and your soldiers ready?”

Tevuri looked down at the warrior and studied her for a moment, giving an inquisitive eye. "My people are ready to help you retake your home. What are the enemy forces?"

“From what our scouts tell us, only stragglers remain. They have supposedly been joined by your kinsmen, too, but their numbers cannot even measure against ours. Ha-Dûna is ours for the taking.” She clenched her fists triumphantly.

At the mention of his kinsmen, Tevuri frowned. "The Neiyari are here? But how…?" He shook his head. "They are not to be underestimated. If they have a Saint with them, fear shall rule the hearts of your soldiers. Let us handle them, we have the most experience."

“I won’t argue that. They’re all yours. If possible, though, I pray we can avoid bloodshed. The city is what we want - if we can retake it without spilling more Dûnan blood, then the gods will surely see that we are worthy again of their favour.”

"I shall inform Soluri and gather my men." He said, giving her a nod. Boudicca nodded back.

“Tonight, we will dine in the central resthouse. This, I swear.”

He gave a small smile. "I look forward to it."

The sunstone castle gates vomited out a great band of warriors, following Boudicca like a flock of lethal sheep. The highlands spread out before them like the a violent ocean frozen in stone, its thousand hills, cliffs and tops giving the Dûnan force, as well as potential other forces, ample opportunities to move unseen.

From the other direction a lone rider came. Seated atop a highland stag that looked nearly as old as he looked. The man had a long, braided, grey beard and was dressed in furs. Bird skulls, wooden discs depicting the four seasons, feathers and beads hung from him. A staff laid on the stag’s back vertically. It was a gnarled, twisted, thing, seemingly taken from a live oak. It was carved with intricate runes though. Only one thing did not look weathered upon him: a white painted medallion of an owl hung from his neck. He was softly humming and could be mistaken for a traveler simply going about his way. Yet as he grew closer, there was a focus to his expression. Boudicca raised a brow at the traveller, then nodded for Hilda to lead the warriors onwards as she herself strode over to the stranger.

“Good day, father. These are dangerous lands to travel alone in these times - may I know what circle do you hail from, so we can escort you to the nearest resthouse safely?” She looked him up and down again and furrowed her brow. “What happened to your robes?”

“That’s very kind of you, young lady.” The old man spoke with a soft, slightly hoarse sounding voice. “But I’m not from a circle, and I’m not from here searching for a resthouse. And thus, I do not wear the robes” No true Cenél would ever need a rest house in these lands. They knew the caves, the hills, the forest, the burrows. They had to, or you died. He looked friendly, almost grandfatherly though. His face looked terribly weathered though. As if it had been exposed to too much sun and snow as well somehow. “I am looking for the leader of the army that’s marching here.” He said, motioning at the people passing them. “Could you be so kind as to point them out for me?”

Boudicca pursed her lips. “Not a circle, huh? Are you--... Ooooh, no, I understand.” She eyed him up and down again, her gaze growing momentarily skeptical. “I command this force. I am Boudicca of Ha-Dûna.” She hammered her leathered chest in salute.

Darragh quite doubted the young girl actually understood. Nonetheless, as she introduced herself as Boudicca, he gave her a gracious bow before dismounting. “Ah, but of course!” He exclaimed. “Word travels fast.” Then he began to speak with a hushed voice. “I am Darragh of the Cenél tribes and I have come to offer you our support. In every way.”

The warrioress nodded. “Cenél, huh. I was at Grimholt myself - would that our peoples had met under better circumstances back then. Hopefully, reason will prevail once more and we can return to things as they were before the Conquests.” She looked around and chuckled politely. “Why are you whispering, friend? The druids cannot hear us from here.”

“Because I do not trust your druids. Any of them.” Darragh whispered as he turned so he stood beside Boudicca but with his back towards everyone else marching by. “Nor would we want things to return as they once where…” He continued. “But those are conversations for a later day. For now I have come to offer you our support of the Fakir of the Cenél tribes. Together with the support of the White Owl. Do you accept, Boudicca of Ha-Dûna?”

Boudicca frowned. “Now hold on, I’m still talking here. Forgive me if I seem suspicious, but our tribes haven’t seen eye to eye on many things, and now you come to pledge your warriors to me and our cause - seemingly out of nowhere?” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Why?”

“Boody!” came a yell and she turned her head slightly. Hilda waved from down in a shallow valley, where the Dûnan portion of the force were treading over rock and stone to ascend a steep hill. The alviri had simply flown past it. “You coming?”

“Yeah, give me a bit.” She turned back. “Why?”

“Because my people and our way of life was once shunned, ridiculed and even endangered by the druids. And when peace returns, I would not have my people suffer like that again.” That was the formal reason. The reason agreed upon by all the Fakir. But there was a deeper one. One not all had agreed upon, but enough for Darragh to mention it. “And because the Sigerans slaughtered our kin as well… Ha-Dûna doesn’t know this yet but this land… it demands blood for blood.”

Boudicca furrowed her brow and eyed her force over her shoulder. “Take no offense from this, friend, but we have no doubt our current forces can hammer what stragglers remain among the heretics to little more than pieces. While we appreciate your pledge--”


“Coming! Right, while we appreciate your pledge, there are… Other fronts where Sigeran influence is growing stronger. Perhaps that would better suit your capable fighters?”

A small grin formed on Darragh’s face. “I would not want to hold you up needlessly. Tell me where, and my people will take care of it.”

Boudicca nodded and eyed the sky briefly. It was overcast, so she walked over to a large stone. Brushing off some of the light snow around its foot, she uncovered patches of moss. She turned back and pointed in the same direction as the side the moss was growing on. “Not six days ago, our scouts returned from the north with word of banditry by the waterside. The hoodlums left clear Sigeran tracks - butchered corpses, wicked altars - all of it. They’ve been picking off only the smallest hamlets, so they cannot be many. However, search for them by the sea, and you will find them no doubt.” She lowered her arm. “Doing this will serve both your search for vengeance and the Dûnan cause - I will vouch for you if you wish to speak to the druids in the future about their treatment of your people.”

The Fakir took a slight moment, even though he knew how valuable it was, to ponder on the task. It felt beneath him. Something too easy. Perhaps it was a test? Or perhaps Boudicca did not want them close to the druids? Alas, she gave her word. That was a start. “Consider the bandits taken care of.” He said as he mounted his highland stag once more. “We will be seeing each other.” With those final parting words, he ushered his stag on and headed north.

“Go in the gods’ grace,” the warrioress finished before turning back to her force, her cloak dragging in the snow. When she reunited with Hilda at the front of the warband, she flashed her a lopsided grin.

“What was that all about?”

Boudicca frowned. “Nothing much. Just someone coming to swear fealty to our cause.”

Hilda flexed her browns. “Another one, huh? Dûnan?”

Boudicca hesitated slightly, running her tongue along her teeth. “Yeah,” she said eventually, her eyes scanning the horizon as she did. Hilda raised one brow, then nodded with pursed lips.

“Not bad, sister. People join our cause left and right - the meek truly do gather around the strong to worship them at their feet!” The Leoness hefted her spear high into the air triumphantly. Boudicca nodded slowly.


The warparty travelled for five days and five nights, camping in the meadows and hills of the highlands. On the way, they met various roaming bandits, many of whom they chose to chase down with the help of the Reiyar. Those who survived were given the choice: Join the Dûnan cause and repent, or meet Sigeran the Hungerer in eternal death. Most joined to live another day.

By the end of the week, the warband had reached the outer borders of Ha-Dûna, ruins of the beginnings of a palisade gate blocking off the main entrance into their once-prosperous home. With the help of the Reiyar, the debris was shoveled out of the way without issue, and the warriors entered slowly. There had been estimates of what sort of resistance they could have expected, but even those proved too optimistic. Within the hour, the warband had reached the city centre, greeted only by the ghosts of their opponents. First when the palisade gates of the city centre were opened did the warband see their first faces - their former comrades who had deliberately or not ended up on the wrong side of the conflict. There were fewer than fifty of the once nine hundred strong Sigerans, and all who remained showed not a hint of despair at their defeat. In fact, nothing but relief could be seen on every face. Boudicca pushed herself to the front and looked around at the hungering faces.

“The true daughters and sons of Ha-Dûna have come home, traitors. You will be given this one chance to surrender. Deny us, and we will unite you with your false god.” She drew her sword and hefted it high. “Pledge your loyalty, Sigerans, to the druidic gods and the Dûna, and you will be our sisters and brothers again.”

Immediately, those who could walk and crawl approached her to beg for forgiveness; others were helped over. The reluctant few who remained steadfast in their beliefs were quickly taken away to be executed, many of them convinced that they could not be forgiven no matter what anyone said. Once the stragglers had been returned to the Dûnan fold and sent to be back of the line to be fed, Boudicca went to the Hall of the Weary, the great resthouse of the archdruids. Storming through the curtain door, she thundered her way to the end of the hall, sword drawn and glistening in the limited light shining through holes in the thatch roof. When she reached a bed at the far end, she grabbed the fur blanket and pulled it aside, sword aloft.

There laid the starved corpse of Teagan, the Sigeran Priestess. Boudicca lowered her sword and frowned.

“As expected, not even your god of death could keep you alive, you demon. May the winters bite you hard in the deathlands.” With that, she cast the blanket back over her and stepped outside.

She met with the others outside the resthouse, making her way to the centre of the city core. There, the Statuette of Prolificacy glistened golden in the sun, untouched despite the years of strife. Boudicca touched its belly with a smile and sighed in relief. “Even in their evil and wickedness, they could not bring themselves to strike down this gift of the sun…”

Hilda chuckled and patted her on the shoulder. “What, planning number three to celebrate?” Boudicca pursed her lips in thought.

“It would be a worthy offering to her, I feel… Maybe, maybe. How about yourself?”

Hilda shrugged. “I will have to talk to Fender about it. It’ll have to come after we settle down properly, though - the farmlands must be resown; houses, rebuilt. The chosen people are home again - the lands will flourish once more.” Boudicca nodded wordlessly.

Ever so silent, even for a being so large, the avatar of Reiya stepped forth over those gathered before the statuette and grabbed it within his mighty hands. He spun around and began to walk away with it in hand. The Dûnans didn’t understand what happened straight away, and Hilda suddenly called after him: “Hey, HEY! What’re you doing!” Remembering herself, she quickly added, “Mighty Solus - what are you doing?!” Bouddica instinctively reached for her sword as well, and many hurried to follow the giant pleadingly.

The Reiyar grew nervous and took to hovering over them. Solus paused in his step and turned again to face them. "This gift… Is taken. The cause of… Your wars… Your greed… Our fault. Oraelia does not… Wish… To see you this way. She… Blames herself for… What you've become. Keep the Basin… Keep the land… You are not… Ready… For this. We are sorry." And without waiting, he began to walk off again. The Reiyar in the air, followed with hard expressions.

“This is--! This isn’t right! This is unfair!” screamed Hilda and was joined by many others. She gave chase, but was stopped by Boudicca. She tried to wrest herself free, but the warrioress held her tightly.

“Stop, Hilda! If we fight them over this, we might never be favoured by the sun again!”

“SHUT UP! You got to touch it! You got its blessing before it was too late!” Her eyes flooded over and she cried after Solus and the Reiyar. “COME BACK! PLEASE! WE BEG YOU!” Men and women alike trailed the giant in tears, collapsing to their knees in prayer and rising back up to get closer when necessary, all weeping for mercy and forgiveness.

“How can we get it back? How can we be forgiven?!” the druids at the front of the column wept at the giant’s feet.

"Tend the land… Make peace… Find your… Roots. This is… Oraelia's will. Only then…" The giant rumbled. The Reiyar flew off towards from whence they came.

The druids slowed down to ponder this, while many of the peasants followed weepingly for hours more. Solus was silent now and the Reiyar that flew behind him seemed sad. For who, no one could say, for they were quiet as well.

Back in the city core, Boudicca and Hilda still remained, Hilda having slumped to the ground and Boudicca hugging her supportively. The warrioress ran her fingers through the Leoness’ hair wordlessly to the sound of her whimpers. “Now it’ll be like the days our grandparents warned us about in their stories,” she sobbed. Boudicca didn’t respond. “... Babies born unable to breathe or see… Cold and dead before they can even walk.”

“Hilda, listen to yourself! The future will not be so! We, we’ll get the statue back somehow and--”

“What do you know?!” snarled the Leoness back. Boudicca recoiled. “My grandmother had ten children, Boudicca! TEN! Do you know how many survived to grow up? TWO!” She pulled her legs to her chest and stared emptily into the air. “... Four of them died before their first summer… One of them died during their first winter… The remaining three passed away in before they reached the age of ten…” She looked at her hands. “... Will my future babies follow the same fate?”

Boudicca felt her stomach turn to icy stone. Their newborns would no longer be protected by the sun, and not even their druids’ extensive knowledge of medicine and midwifery would save the thousands of deaths that would come until they could be forgiven.

There had to be changes.

In the deep woods behind Ha-Dûna, where the Dûna had been found and declared the meeting place of the Circle of the Long Stride, the druids of Ha-Dûna gathered for the first time in many years. A week had passed since the capital had been retaken, but there was no celebratory spirit to be found around the great stone. Being the last druid of senior rank in the circle, Kaer Pier stepped forth to the rock, placed his hand upon it with rusty familiarity and spoke, “In the name of the Eight, this humble servant of the gods wishes the Longstriders welcome to this much too long-awaited moot of the Circle. Let there be no ill thoughts among us, and let no conflict arise as we speak before our sacred defenders on this day.” He then stepped back and took a deep breath. “So… What have we found out? Kaer Cwenn?”

“The Statuette has been taken to the Caisteal Na Grèine, where the Reiyar and Great Solus, too, seem to remain. While we may not get the statuette back here until we bring peace to the Highlands, we may be able to negotiate some sort of pilgrimage for our most vulnerable mothers and fathers to receive the sun’s blessing.”

Kaer Pier nodded. “We will send a delegation their way as swiftly as we can. Only our most humble and devoted will go - I will hold an election in the Circle of the Gods tonight under the stars of Seeros for clairvoyance. And what of the dark-winged Reiyar the survivors spoke of?”

“They supposedly left as soon as they saw us coming.”

Kaer Pier nodded again. “Let us pray we may never encounter them again. Now… How do we change to please the sun once more?”

A hand rose up in the air and Kaer Pier invited Kaer Myvon to step into the circle. The middle-aged man took a step forward and held up a piece of bark for all to see. Upon it was written a prayer in the Ketrefan script. Kaer Myvon took a deep breath and spoke, “My fellow druids - it is evident that our behaviour over the past years has been gravely sinful. I have an hypothesis for why that may be…” He gestured to the bark piece. “Gaze upon this… For decades, now, we have been writing in the Ketrefan script. A small matter, I know, but not an insignificant one - all this time when we have thought ourselves Dûnan, we have held on to our Ketrefan roots, and thus we became like them.” Murmurs bounced among the druids. “Our conquering ways came as a result of our Ketrefan hubris, and there is not a doubt in my mind that, if we were to purge ourselves completely of their influence, we may once again be favoured by the gods.”

The murmurs carried an agreeing tone. One hand was raised and Kaer Pier invited Kaer Semble to join the circle centre. “Forgive my disagreement, Kaer Myvon, but what will this change? Only the druids use this script, and there are larger issues in this world that the manner in which we write.” Kaer Myvon wagged a finger.

“I respect this view, sister, but I must disagree: It was us, the druids, who started the Conquests four years ago - we have made every decision that has brought us here. Under our leadership, Ha-Dûna has lost its favour with the gods.”

“Now hold on, Kaer Myvon, isn’t that--”

“No, no, he’s right,” Kaer Pier added somberly and patted Myvon on the shoulder. “Whether it be our Ketrefan heritage or not, the truth remains: The druids are responsible for this. So, Kaer Myvon - what do you suggest?”

Kaer Myvon tossed aside the piece of bark and took out another. The writing upon it was foreign - it seemed not to make much sense at first, but Myvon pointed at the various glyphs and explained their pronunciation and combined meanings. “I suggest we change our script to one of our own - sever our final link with Ketrefa and make ourselves, our bureaucracy, truly Dûnan. Then…” He continued. His voice put on a coat of reluctance, but persevered regardless. “... Then we step down as the leaders of Ha-Dûna.”

Outraged cries sounded from the other druids. “Wait, who else can lead if not us, though? Who can interpret the will of the gods if not us?”

“The gods are important - our greatest allies! We exist to worship and praise them. However, we have seen what can happen if their will is interpreted falsely - or if their will goes against what is right!”

“This is the talk of a defeated man, Kaer Pier - let us be sensible! No one in Ha-Dûna has the divine mandate to lead!”

Kaer Pier frowned. “No… No, there is one.” The voices quieted.


Kaer Pier stepped over to one of the mirror-like puddles surrounding the Dûna. He knelt down and hovered his hand over the water. The image of Boudicca springed to life, and there came agreeing murmurs from the druids who at this point were surrounding the puddle.

“Boudicca? But she’s no druid!”

“Indeed, yet she is charismatic, strong and clearly favoured by the gods. She has been the champion of many sports and games, and is an accomplished heroine of our people - a true daughter of Ha-Dûna.”

The druids nodded at one another. A few voices scoffed. “What, do you mean to suggest that she will lead us? What link to the gods does she have? She has never tasted the waters of Hir!”

“That may be, but nothing stops us from functioning as her subjects - her advisors and voices of the gods. Little will change - we will only turn to her to use our interpretations of the gods’ wills to lead our people.”

“You mean like a queen?!” came an outraged cry and the tone suddenly shifted to malcontent. “We will not have a despotic lineage take control of our people ever again, Kaer Pier!”

Kaer Cwenn raised her hand, quieting the others. “What if the title was not hereditary?”

The others hummed ponderously. “Go on,” Kaer Pier offered. Kaer Cwenn nodded.

“The gods’ wills are many, but from what we know, they share many views on what is an ideal person of virtue. Perhaps… Perhaps they could guide us to such exceptional individuals when Boudicca’s time has passed?”

“You mean like… We would go to search for a successor based on whom the gods deem will grow into a worthy leader?”

Kaer Cwenn nodded. The druids looked at one another. One by one, their heads began to nod. “That… That could work. The gods would naturally guide us to only the most virtuous individuals.”

“Indeed,” Kaer Cwenn agreed.

“Then so be it. Starting today, the archdruids are no more. Instead, we will continue to support Ha-Dûna as we always have - and the new sanndatr Boudicca! Long may she reign in the light of the gods!”

“Long may she reign!”

As the crowd quieted down, Kaer Pier drummed his staff to the ground to centre attention on himself again. “Now… We must also discuss other ways to regain our favour with the gods. The great Solus demanded that we should make peace in the land. During the Conquests, it became clear that many of our less refined countrymen showed gruesome undûnan behaviour. While we should all realise what this sort of behaviour entails, we cannot trust others to do so. Therefore, it is mandatory that we keep a record of the exemplary traits of Dûnan civilised behaviour so all may learn.” There came murmurs of agreement from the others. Pier gave Myvon a nod. “Once your script is complete, we will produce this codex of law so that we and all our descendants will be familiar with the true Dûnan way.”

Myvon nodded. “It would be a great honour to help create this.”

After the moot, the druids ventured out into the city to aid in restoring it to its former glory. The reparations would normally have taken years, but the Circle of the Long Stride devoted all their collective power into persuading the godly elements to grant them the power to rebuild ruins into building, mend broken materials, produce resources where none or few were available, and heal those injured during the work. Within a month, as the snows grew heavier, the city had been rebuilt again, just in time to hunker down for the winter. In the process, they helped finish the temples to the gods that were never built, houses to the gods built in wood and stone placed all around the city in an orbital pattern around the city core, planned precisely with the use of the map in the Town Hall.

While they were in the spirit of building, the Dûnans took note of the querns still used to grind grain into flour. Some druids reported having seen Scawicks employ the wind of the sea to power their querns through some sort of propeller setup. They had called this a ‘mill’. The druids took some time to draw and sketch it out, but eventually managed to create something similar, adjusted for the mountain and the sea winds of their home city.

Boudicca on her part was at first overwhelmed by her election to govern Ha-Dûna. However, she knew well that now was no time for reluctance. She wasted no time bolstering the Dûnan forces for the inevitable backlash they would suffer from their untrustworthy allies. Ha-Dûna needed to be moderators of peace, yes, but there would be no peace in the Dûnlands if the policing force was too weak to fend for itself. She rounded up the théins and drilled them and their soldiers in a formation she called the oksi aug órni: The most veteran soldiers would hold the two flanks of a line, where the weakest warriors made up the centre. If the centre caved, the two “horns” of the ox would charge the centre from the flanks, surrounding the enemy; the “eagle” archers would provide arrow cover before impact and then reinforce the centre line from the back, replacing the tired soldiers there if possible. Thereafter, she preached to her people a need to assimilate the Dûnlands into the ways Dûnan Dlíbók and its laws - this could not take place militarily, however; no, the Dûnans would assimilate others through example. If they could return to their old ways as the jewel of the Highlands, then others would surely adopt their way of life simply out of common sense. Others would see the glory of Ha-Dûna restored, and the city would once again become the capital of Highland druidism.

In honour of this political shift, the bards created a new music genre: the Dûnan opera. Great plays would be shown on stages around the city and the nearby towns of the accomplishments of Dûnan heroes, all performed with lavish costumes and sang in a special technique known as strûpisangi, accompanied by harps, flutes and drums. Time would show whether all these efforts would pay off.

Meanwhile, in Scawick...

“WHAT?!” thundered Burud.

“That’s right, brother! Not only have the Dûnans taken back the city, but they’re also saying they’ve changed their ways and will go on as paragons of peace!” The man spat on the ground. Burud grabbed his axe and hefted it to the sky, his spectators raising their fists in rage.

“Peacemakers, my ass! By the gods, their arrogance knows no bounds!” He scanned the crowd. “Mark my words, all of you - we will not bow to any stinking Dûnan in this life nor the next!”


“We will sooner see Scawick burn than to kneel before some filthy broad!”


“Come! Let us show them what we think of their ‘peace’! For every head you take, you shall eat for a year - I will see to that myself! FOR SCAWICK!”

“FOR SCAWICK!” With that, bands of raiders charged out of the coastal village to raid Dûnan hamlets. Ha-Dûna may have been recaptured, but this was only the beginning of the dark times.

The Dûnland War had only just begun.

The Merchant Kings 2 - A Match for the Ages

It was an uncharacteristically hot evening on the southern shores of Sso-Hwah. The palms stood as frozen in the windstill air - the inhabitants of the jungle sang their late night songs a little quieter as they had no gusts to compete with. At the borders between overgrowth and dry flats, rach Rose sat on a small wooden chair with a skin seat. He was hunched over, neatly chipped bone studs running the length of the shell of his long ears, his chin resting comfortably atop his intertwined fingers. He wore a leather harness that protected his torso, but left his arms uncovered to help his body stay cool; over his legs, he wore a kilt fashioned from skin strips and studded with bone, as well.

Opposite of him sat chief Tsarri of the Hui-Prra, dressed in, surprisingly, a black shadowtiger pelt, with thick fur bracers around his wrists and long strings intertwined with tiger knuckles dangling from his earlobes. His teeth, which he bared menacingly, had been sharpened with flint. His hands held tight grips atop his powerful thighs. Both his toenails and fingernails had, too, been sharpened to almost clawlike points.

The two of them had sat in silence, staring at one another. Behind them were lined up nelven warbands, all armoured for battle in the heat, most bare-chested and hardly dressed in more than kilts. They all wielded their pi-xxois and xwenkkos with intimidating presence, hissing sharply at one another. With regularly intervals, the warriors almost walked up face to face with each other, flicking their tongues out of their mouths and making animalistic faces. They squatted down and flexed intimidatingly at their opponents, and some would even growl to get attention, then jump out in the middle to do gymnastic exercises, such as handstands, cartwheels, flips and more, being cheered on by their comrades and cursed by their enemies. Eventually, Tsarri rose from his seat and stepped out, doing a high squat in the middle of the field and placing two fists on his lower abdomen with a sharp, challenging huff. Rach Rose stood up to meet him, and the two collided foreheads and snorted aggressively at one another.

“Ya got balls, kid, comin’ ta my jungle just like that,” the chieftain snarled to the hisses of his warriors. Rose purred in challenge.

“After you snatched a whole sled full of flowers? Roses no less! How could I not answer such a challenge?”

Tsarri snickered. “Where’s ya proof, huh? What makes you think we took it?”

“Come on, Tsar-Tsar - we found tiger fur all over the site of the ‘accident’ - by the way, do boulders really fall like that? Fairly certain they don’t.”

“Shit happens, Rosie - shit happens.” He stepped back and eyed the warriors Rose had brought. He shot hot streams of air through his nostrils. “Is this all you brought? Half look to be missing mother’s tits; the other half, wifey’s caress. What, has masculinity lost its meaning in Fragrance?” The insult brought wheezing laughter to the White Tigers. The Fragrancians unleashed almost deafening insults back, impossible to decipher on account of their volume. Rose flinched and motioned for them to quiet down.

“Harsh words, Tsar-Tsar; we’ll make you eat every single one.”

“Oh yeah? Do tell me how, exactly.”

“How about a dance?”

The chieftain raised a brow. “And which dance would that be, my lady?”

The rach smirked. “Toc-saox. My best versus yours.”

There came whoops from both sides. The chieftain tugged at his stubby chin. “Alright, alright - I’ll play your little game, provided you’ll play one of mine, too.”

“What’ve you got in mind, you sub-nelven brute?”

“Hoo, feisty, just how I like them,” the chieftain said and flicked his tongue sharply. “Only one game can follow up a dance - xxois-wooah!” The White Tigers threw their hands in the air and started grunting in a cheering manner. Rose sucked in a breath through the teeth.

“You sure that’s what you want them to play?” the rach mumbled and clicked disapprovingly. Tsarri snickered and clapped his hands to his thighs.

“What’s the matter, my lady? Did we scawe yoo, humm?” He drummed his chest and threw his arms out wide, stretching himself to his full height, torso musculature flexing menacingly. Rose would be lying if he said he didn’t feel intimidated.

“Ugh, this is why your jungle is seen as nothing but backwater in comparison to our glorious--”

“HEY, BOYS! I THINK WIDDLE WOSIE IS SCAWED!” The White Tigers roared in laughter as their chieftain jumped from edge to edge of his warband, cupping his hands behind his ear and drumming his chest to challenge his men to be louder. In no longer than a few seconds, the White Tigers were deafening whatever complaints and counter-insults the Fragrancians could throw back. Morale among the Fragrancians was weakening, and Rose felt the stares of his countrymen hardening the rach took longer and longer to think of a good reply. The other side was chanting and singing:

Behold, the man of tiger blood:
A man with skin of hardened mud;
A man with bones to rival stone;
A man who can’t be killed alone!





Behold, the son of moon and beast:
North and south and west and east -
Nowhere in life is safe from him
Yes, ev’n in death, he’ll do you in!





The rach struggled immensely to think, and it was visible all over him. The Fragrancians had all stopped their ruckus at this point, realising that they couldn’t compete with the fervour shown now by the White Tigers. The rach was halfway ready to acknowledge defeat when he felt a warm hand caress his sweaty shoulder. The anxieties clawing at his soul were momentarily alleviated, and he felt his old, secure self return. “Where have you been, my heart?”

“Yesterday’s kheft didn’t sit very well with my system. Took a while to get it out,” mumbled Lavender jokingly. Rose scoffed and rolled his eyes.

“Gross, Lav.” The warrior gave the rach a quick kiss on the lips and stepped in front of him. The White Tigers began to quiet down upon smelling him, and Tsarri turned away from his warriors to sniff the air.

“My, my, now ain’t that just the most familiar smell. Come to dance, have we, Lav?” the chieftain rumbled and stuck out his tongue. Lavender proceeded to take off his chest harness and uncork a bottle of lavender oil. He slowly poured it over his pectoral muscles and rubbed it in with slow movements. The scent oozed forth and almost knocked the Tigers back. Tsarri cringed.

“By the gods, man - in moderation, please!”

“‘Moderation’ isn’t my kind of word, pussy cat,” the warrior replied and then lifted flexing arms above his head, kicked his right leg up in the air and then hammering it to the ground, entering a low lunge. The moonlight glistened on his oiled body, and his black topknot spiked the heavens like a singular horn. He hissed sharply at the chief, who recoiled and snaked his head side to side, calculating his response to the challenge.

“Oh-ho, I see. You’ll step it for Widdle Wosie, is that it? Was that your plan?” The chief offered Rose a click. “Understandable, little seedling - you’re not ready to face me either way.” The chieftain blew Rose a kiss, who waved it away harshly. He then looked down at Lavender, who now had gone down into splits. “Good form, kid - not gonna lie, if you were one of my men, I would’ve adopted you as my own son.”

Lavender laid his torso over his left leg and grabbed his foot with his hands, barely suppressing a chuckle. “You ask every time, and as with every time, here is my answer: Thanks for the offer, kitten, but my heart is already taken.”

“Understandable,” the chieftain offered and hissed back at the rach. “Finally, you’ve brought an actual man to my borders - now I won’t have to worry about any women being hit.” He spat on the ground and the Fragracians brandished their spears. “But a chieftain can’t face a captain - that’s just not right. No, no, no - rank must face equal rank, such is tradition! Fursa, come out here!”

While the White Tigers reorganised and oiled up their champion, Rose offered a scoff to which Lavender snickered. “I had hoped you would be breaking that cretin’s neck within the hour…” muttered the rach. Lavender shrugged.

“I’ll be breaking someone’s neck. Don’t worry - we’ll hit him where it hurts. Someone as proud as Tsarri will be bugged for months over a defeat like this - especially after riling up his men for so long.”

“So… Got a plan?”

“You suggested the dance first, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I took care of it. He ate it up like unhooked bait.”

Lavender ran an oily hand through his hair and took a long whiff of the air. He then leaned in. “Well, of course, he did. He’s an idiot. What did he suggest after?”

Lavender raised a brow, then bobbed his head from side to side. “Not my first guess, but not unexpected, either.” Rose took his hand in his own.

“You’re not playing, right?”

“You kidding me? No! No, I’ll place my bets on the dance and the third challenge.” Both of them turned to regard the Tiger champion - he resembled the chief in that he, too, was a mountain of muscle with sharpened nails and teeth, but he had a wider jaw and stronger brows. He was also bald, and the sheen of the moon cast a blinding light off of his oiled scalp. Rose drew an anxious breath.

“Be careful, my heart.”

“Always am,” Lavender responded and kissed him softly on the lips. As they broke apart, Lavender spun around and drummed his chest in challenge. The Tiger champion Fursa did the same, wheezing menacingly. Lavender met the wheeze with a growl, and before long, the two clashed foreheads and bent down low and forward. Then clasped hands and tested each other’s strength. The Fragrancian warriors got a second wind as they saw that Lavender could, in fact, push back Fursa. However, Fursa refused to be pushed away so easily, and the White Tigers got reason to celebrate, too, when Lavender almost lost his footing.

Rose’s breathing quickened and he blurted out: “Should we perhaps get started with the games, then?” The champions stopped and the warriors quieted down. Tsarri clicked disapprovingly.

“Ugh, since you whine so much, I guess we can. Again, Lavender, how can you stand this woman?” Fursa and Lavender broke apart and each returned to their own comrades’ sides while preparations were made for the drum dance.

“He can be quite manly once you get to know him,” retorted Lavender with a chuckle as he pulled Rose to the side. Tsarri offered a polite click back.

“Why did you do that?” Lavender hissed at Rose a few steps away. Rose shrunk.

“I… I didn’t want you to--”

“To what? Appear weak? Rose, come on, I -had- control.”


“Ap, ap! -Don’t- steal my thunder again. You make me look bad. Calm down and let me do my thing, okay?”

Rose sighed anxiously and forced a smile. “Yes, my heart.” Lavender raked his hair with his fingers. He then put one hand on each of Rose’s shoulders and kissed him quickly on the cheek.

“Now man up and join the crowd. This’ll be over in no time.”

Eight warriors from each side formed two crescents of a circle surrounding Lavender first. The warriors all held small drums and Lavender received two lengths of thin linen, which he tied around his wrists so that each of his arms sported a long cloth. He spun and tossed himself around for practice, the sheets soaring after him like representations of the air flowing around his body. All around the ring, whether friend or foe, the men clicked and purred flirtingly at his moves. Lavender’s chuckle was somewhere in there, too - it was evident that he revelled in the attention.

“Ya ready, son?” Tsarri asked and Lavender slowed down. He tightened the wraps on his wrists and took a deep breath.

“Yeah,” answered Lavender and tied a third length of linen over his eyes.

The chieftain clicked. “Then we will begin!” The drummers started slow, beats coming from all sides of the circle. This was to confuse the dancer first - keep them on their toes. Lavender started skipping in place to the beat. The beats grew louder and louder as to test the dancer’s perseverance. Lavender kept skipping, the oil on his skin hiding whether or not he had yet to break a sweat. The men around the circle started chanting:

Warrior, warrior, warrior of the night!
Is he, is he, is he born of might?!
Can he triumph over death?!
Can he grow as great as gods?!
Warrior, warrior, warrior of the night!

One of the drums sounded louder than the others. The dance had begun. With a flying high kick, Lavender skewered the air with his foot, casting himself out of the way of an incoming javelin. The javelin, being tipped with a length of obsidian, snapped, leaving the hilt and half the blade on the ground while the edge stuck up from the sand like a spike. Not a second later, he kicked himself back, snatched the javelin from the sand without getting cut on the spike and did an airborne pirouette. He landed right where the drum had been the loudest and hammered the drum with the hilt, making sure to stay on beat as he cartwheeled back to the centre of the circle. Another louder drum thundered, and Lavender flipped through the air off to the left, dodging the javelin. He picked it up and returned it to its drummer.

The number of louder drums picked up. Next came two javelins, but Lavender couldn’t return both in time without missing the beat. He thus skipped around the circle for the remaining percussions of the metre before returning the last javelin. Rach Rose watched as Lavender nearly danced right into a tall, lethal spike of razor obsidian, only narrowly stopping right before it. It had no doubt been sheer luck, but the man showed no sign of surprise, merely continuing on without so much as testing the confines of the rhythm. The dance went for three minutes without a single stop, and on the final measure, the dancer had to return as many as four javelins to their owners. By the time the dance ended, Lavender was shaking, the ring filled with closer to sixteen obsidian spikes that he had all avoided. One had grazed him slightly, and blood ran down his thigh in a black line. Still, he stood, and the White Tigers didn’t even look mad at his performance - in fact, they cheered louder than the Fragrancians.

“HAH! Now -that- was a dance!” praised Tsarri and slapped Lavender on the back. Lavender chuckled politely and clasped hands with the chieftain.

“Let’s see your little Fursa beat that?”

“Doubt he can, honestly,” the chieftain mumbled and Fursa behind him lowered his head in shame. Tsarri rolled his eyes and squeezed Lavender’s hand tighter. “Those were no sissy Fragrancian moves, son… Face it…” He leaned in to Lavender’s ear. “... You’re no flower. You were born to be a Tiger.”

Lavender sighed and pulled himself away. “Alright, settle down, kitty. I’m taken, like I’ve said a thousand times.” Tsarri clicked playfully and wagged a finger.

“Oh, ho-ho, I will get you yet, son - Fursa! Get ready!”

“Y-yes, chieftain!”

While the Tigers’ champion prepared himself, Lavender was surrounded by Fragrancians coming to congratulate him and hand him drinks and towels. Lav accepted a cup of lowee and sat down to wipe off the worst of sweat.

“How do you even do those kicks?!” asked one of the warriors.

“Yeah, don’t you get super tired after just one?”

Lavender chuckled. “Why, in the beginning, I did, but years of diligent training and the goodwill of the gods have given me the stamina I need to serve Fragrance as well as I do today.” There came approving clicks from the crowd. “Remember, train yourselves every day, keep in touch with your sages and have them help you take care of your body, and stay pious to the gods. The great moonfather Kipo smiles upon those who have the will to grow strong!”

“Yes, Lavender!” many half-squealed in their whisper.

Fursa’s dance wasn’t even close to as impressive. He frequently stepped off the beat, and while he never mistook which drummer had thrown the javelin, he often failed to hit the drum with the hilt on time. His dodges were simple and uninteresting, and while he has never hit or grazed, it didn’t feel like a dance, but more like a game of dodge-the-spear. Needless to say, Lavender was the undisputed champion. After the chieftain had given Fursa a stern talking to, he spanned his arms as wide as he could and thundered, “Next up - xxois-wooah!” The White Tigers cheered and the Fragrancians shrunk. Lavender put his hands on his hips and turned to the nail-biting Rose with a smirk and a click.

“Don’t worry, I won’t get hit. Remember our plan and calm down.”

Rose clicked anxiously and pulled his fingers out of his mouth. On the opposite side of the field, Fursa already stood ready with the spear. The javelin used in xxois-wooah was different from the standard Fragrancian pi-xxois: Rather than being a relatively short shaft with a long obsidian tip that would snap upon impact, the game spear was one long shaft of wood with both edges sharpened. The goal of the game was to throw the lance at one another and for the other to catch it before it hit the ground. If it did, the catching party would lose. Lavender and Fursa stood opposite of one another with around fifteen metres of distance between them. The chieftain eyed them both.


Both clicked their confirmation. “Begin!”

Fursa cast his throwing arm back, hopped a few steps forward and sent the spear soaring at Lavender. The man may not have been much of a dancer, but he could throw spears, that was for sure. The lance barely quivered in the air, but flew as though it was meant for nothing else, and would have skewered Lavender straight in the chest if the man simply hadn’t stepped to the side and let the lance plant itself deep in the sand. There came a collective groan of disappointment from the Tigers, and even some of the Fragrancians clicked their disapproval. Fursa threw his hands in the air with frustration and Tsarri growled.

“Come on, Lav, really? This is too low for someone of your calibre.”

Lavender shrugged and pulled the spear out of the ground with a bit of effort. “Am I not allowed to choose what games I participate in?”

“If you wanted to do that, you should have been here from the beginning,” the chieftain muttered angrily and caught the spear as Lavender gently lobbed it back to him.

“Sorry, I had shits to take that were more important than this. Shall we just get on with the third challenge already?” The chieftain exhaled hot air through his teeth.

“I’m startin’ to think I might have to teach you a lesson, too, son…”

“Finally! I may have my challenge yet. That’d be great!”

Tsarri growled. “Oh, you want a challenge? Let’s get you a challenge. Let’s make the third game a bit bloodier, shall we?”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way.” Lavender took the linen from before and wrapped it around his knuckles. The chieftain lifted his arms to the nightsky.

“The gods decree that, if the two games lead to a draw, a third must be had! We haven’t had a lot of physical contact tonight. Let’s make it a wrestling match to the death.”

“Sounds good to me. Fursa?”

The Tiger champion spat. “Hope you’ve said your last prayers, budling.”

“Likewise, pussy cat.”

Once again, the warriors formed a ring around the two, though instead of drums, they all held their javelins tightly. The circle was wider this time, wide enough to fit every warrior. The space in the middle made for quite a battlefield, almost a diameter of six metres. The warriors rubbed themselves in with new coats of oil and assumed their stances opposite of one another. Each combatant entered a high squat, hissing and flicking their tongues and one another. Fursa clapped at his thighs; Lavender drummed at his chest. Rose couldn’t help but grab his hand to keep it from quivering - Lavender had come out of many fights without so much as a scratch, but he never knew when his divine luck would run out.


The two nelves collided barely even seconds later, and Fursa immediately got the upper hand, catching Lavender’s attempt to lock his arms, smacking those arms out of the way and spinning Lavender around, catching his throat in his right elbow. Just as Fursa was about to place his left hand behind Lavender’s head, however, a well-placed punch to the jaw managed to stagger him enough for Lavender to break free, bend down and almost trip over with a strong grab around his core and a foot behind Fursa’s left. However, Fursa caught himself with his right leg just in time not to fall, and did it again as Lavender kept trying. Fursa lifted his fists above his head and brought them down with meteoric force on Lavender’s back, smacking him to the ground. Lavender tried to catch the breath knocked out of him, but before he could, Fursa had already laid his legs over his back, Lavender’s right arm trapped between them. The Tiger champion cackled. “Is this -it-?! The great Lavender of Fragrance, floored in a matter of minutes?” He grabbed the struggling right arm and tilted it a bit to the left, then a bit to the right. “Nooooow… Which side should we snap it, boys?”

Half the Tigers hissed ‘left’; the other, ‘right’. Lavender squirmed to get loose, but the grip was tight. He looked up at the Fragrancians, all of whom were telling him to persevere and fight on - break out of the grip! Lavender suddenly regretted having spent so much energy during the dance - he could’ve sorely used it right about now. He looked up at Rose, who was nearly in tears. If Fursa broke his arm, he would no doubt be killed by the next attack. He couldn’t do that to Rose - he couldn’t leave him like this. As quietly as he could, almost to the point where it could hardly be called ‘sound’ at all, he whispered, “Gods, give me strength…”

A simple rush of wind brushed past his ear. With it came a sigh, unassuming and soft, yet to him strong enough to drown out all other sound as it echoed in his mind. Ethereal hands ran along his form, unseen but felt. Finally, a warm and compelling voice burned in his ears, louder than anything he'd ever heard, but still somehow kind on his hearing. "So long as you dance, you shall have my favour, my sweet," the voice sang softly, and he felt a surreal touch run along his chin. "As you shall have the favour of all who watch you spin to your own tune." Another sigh rushed through his ears, and for just a moment an ethereal horned, winged woman rose from before him, her hand moved away from his chin. As soon as the image came, it vanished, as did the surreal sensation.

The shock nearly made him lose sense of his struggle, and his arm went flaccid to the point where Fursa had to see if he had given up. Then, before the spectators could get similar ideas, Lavender redoubled his efforts, flexing to release his arm. Fursa blinked - in the span of seconds, he had grown stronger - much stronger; in fact, Fursa couldn’t reroute enough of his own strength to his legs before Lavender broke free of his trap and rolled away. The Fragrancians exploded into a wild cheer, and the White Tigers were speechless.

“H-how did he do that?! That grip should be impossible to escape!” came a sharp whisper. Lavender pushed himself up to a kneeling position, brushed his black hair to the side and snickered.

“Not for me,” he said and clicked suggestively. The spectator who had spoken up fell back into formation, blushing. Fursa charged at Lavender once more, but an unnaturally strong second wind had overtaken him, as though the cheers of the crowd infused his breath and muscles with power. He danced out of the way and skipped over to the other side of the ring, posing triumphantly with one hand saluting the moon. The crowds whooped and drummed their spears on the ground. What was this sensation? Fursa came thundering towards him again, and Lavender avoided him again, as though their fight had become a game - entertainment for the masses.

“Get him, Lav!” came a shout. Ah, it was Rose, his precious Rose. Well, Lavender felt that he was nothing if not a crowd pleaser. He turned around, did a cartwheel into a backflip and planted his feet in Fursa’s chest, sending the large man hammering to the ground with unnatural force. The warrior looked to be struggling to stay conscious as he shakingly lifted his head off the sand - spots of black coloured the ground where his skull had landed. Lavender danced another round around the ring, cupping his hands behind his ears.

“End him, end him, end him!” the Fragrancians cheered. The White Tigers were covering their eyes at the sight and their noses at the smell of blood. The chieftain stood there grimacing. Lavender snickered and exaggerated some searching gestures to the struggling body on the ground.

“Oh, you mean this guy? Whaaat do you want me to do to him?”

“Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!”

“Oof, such a menacing request - my, my. Oh well, as the crowd demands.” Lavender flattened himself down next to Fursa, who still hadn’t gotten his bearings. He then grabbed his arms, forced him onto his side before locking the arms behind his back and then laying himself on his enemy’s back. He locked his elbow over Fursa’s throat and squeezed. “Here we go, folks!” Then he squeezed - the man underneath him squirmed weakly to free himself, but there was no hope. Worse yet, whenever the crowds would grow quieter, Lavender would let up slightly, giving Fursa the opportunity to suck in a desperate breath, only to worsen the chokehold. Eventually, Tsarri growled.

“By the gods, just let him die already!”

“I dunno… What does the crowd think?”

“Kill! Kill! Kill!” the Fragrancians continued, and now the White Tigers joined in in the hopes that their comrade would be shown some mercy. Lavender clicked in acknowledgement.

“As the crowd demands,” he whispered and, with a final squeeze and a twist, snapped his opponent’s neck. Fursa laid limp the following second. The Fragrancians cheered as Lavender rose up and threw his arms in the air. The White Tigers had lost all the fervour they had, and Tsarri clicked somberly as he walked over and inspected the corpse, turning his limp head from side to side with morbid jerks of movement.

“Didn’t take you for a torturer, Lav,” he whispered coldly. Lavender cast a glance over his shoulder and snickered.

“Fighting is a show to please the crowd - one man’s torture is another man’s glory, after all.”

The chieftain eyed him blankly. “What?”

“You’re a crowd pleaser like myself - surely, you understand that the morale and enjoyment of the spectators must come before the wellbeing of the fighters; otherwise, they will be left dissatisfied and sate their bloodthirst through other means.” He scratched the chief under the chin. “Can’t have nelves wantonly killing nelves, now can we?” He then spun around and walked back to the Fragrancians to be carried by the warriors like a hero. To take his place, rach Rose stepped forth to meet the shattered chieftain. Tsarri eyed him briefly and clicked his acknowledgement of his existence. Rose clicked back.

“Ready to hear your terms of defeat, then?”

Tsarri waved dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, we know. Stay out of your lands and pay compensation for the roses. What do you want?”

The directness took Rose by surprise, but he couldn’t let the iron cool. “Roses are valued as among the most fragrant flowers we have here - you will repay us in something that can equal or equate to its value. Seeing as your… People have nothing that can compare to roses, we will settle for three sleds of junglewood.”

Tsarri sucked in a slow breath. “Fine, you shall have it. Meet us here again in a week, and you will have your carts.” He lifted one of Fursa’s cooling hands. “Did you know Fursa was our nelflings’ finest wrestling instructor? They’ll be devastated to know he’s dead.”

Rose shrugged. “Shouldn’t have let him fight Lavender, then - deep down, after all, you are aware that your people is inferior to the civilisation of Fragrance; he couldn’t have won.” Just as he turned away, Tsarri grabbed his hand.

“Fursa had the upper hand from the very start - then, just as he was about to end him, Lavender turned the fight completely around. How could such a thing happen?”

Rose hissed and pulled his arm free. “Accept that your man lost and mine won. Maybe Fursa had a lapse of judgment allowing Lavender to break free, or maybe he was toying with all of us and had control of the situation all along. If you even consider accusing us of cheating--”

Tsarri growled and lowered his head. “No, no, I would’ve noticed if he had pulled some chao-ggao nonsense… He won with his own power, but…” Before he could finish, Rose turned away again and kept walking.

“Keep your conspiracy theories to yourself, kitten. We’re done here. We’ll see you in a week - do not be late.” With that, the Fragrancians headed back north.

While walking, Lavender was praised and worshipped by his peers, and many stuck close to touch and smell him, clicking happily whenever the champion would return the gestures. Rose himself kept a steady pace some distance behind, and eventually grew a little anxious at all the attention his oia’ssi was getting. He sped up, plowed through the crowd and grabbed Lavender by the arm, dragging him a little ahead of the rest of the group.

“Woah, hey, I was going to get to you, Rosie,” Lavender whispered with a chuckle. Rose frowned, but kept looking forward so Lav wouldn’t notice. Lav giggled. “Oh, I get it - that jealous, huh?”

“I’m -not- jealous. I just…” He sighed and slowed down, matching the pace of the men behind them. “You really had us going back there, you know… For a second there, I actually thought you… You would…”

“Would what, die?” Lavender threw out as though it had never been and would never be the case.


“D’aaaw, Rosie was worried about me…” A quick movement seized Rose’s hand and placed it to Lavender’s lips. “You’re so cute when you're anxious.”

“Please don’t be attracted to my stressed side. I’m having a whole pot of tea when we get home… This whole ordeal has not been good for my heart.”

“What’re you talking about - I’m doing great!”

“My bodily heart, Lav!”

“I’m just teasing, Rosie.”

Rose sighed harshly. “Dumbass.”

The Reconquest 3 - Allies in Times of Darkness

Year 29AA, in the fortified fishing village of Scawick, situated on shore northeast of Ha-Dûna...

Boudicca slammed her fist into the peat wall, causing dirt to drizzle from the roof. Encircling her was a crowd of bitter men and women brandishing all sorts of improvised weaponry, and on the floor before her knelt two women, hair and face mucky and dusty from fighting on the ground. Their hands were tied and red - both with their own and with others’ blood. The two women stared at the floor with trembling eyes; their teeth ground together anxiously with tectonic might. The warrioress offered a low growl that made the two women flinch.

“... Why did you do it?”

Théin Boudicca, please, we--”

Boudicca hammered the thatch again. The crowd hissed down at the women. “Why?!”

“They talked down Kaer Wella! We couldn’t just stand there and--”

“We’re guests here, Gwynne! Guests! It takes every ounce of their good-heartedness not to butcher us all, do you understand? First the fights, and now…” She squeezed the bridge of her nose. “... A murder.”

“It wasn’t murder!” shouted the other one. Boudicca turned slowly, her wolfskin cloak adding predatory intent to her glare.

“Then what was it, Signe?”

“Justice!” she shouted. A quarter of the crowd shouted her down.

“JUSTICE?! Justice will come when your heads are spiked in the town square for all to see!” came a thundering voice. Bouddica stormed across the room to calm the rowdiest ones.

“Yes, yes! They will be punished, we’ll see to it!”

“Yes, but two lives for one?” came a voice from the other side of the hall. Boudicca turned to see the braided head, olive skin and scarred face of one Hilda the Leoness, a théin of Ha-Dûna like herself. The warrioress drew a deep breath - she had all sorts of respect for Hilda, but she couldn’t afford to let her pride compromise their goodwill with the Scawick - or whatever it was that they had.

“They both took part in the murder. They must both be held accountable,” retorted the warrioress. Murmurs of agreement came from the Scawickan quarter of the room. The Leoness remained visibly unconvinced.

“Listen, Boody. It is true that these two have committed a serious crime against our friends, the Scawicks…” The Scawicks growled; Hilda smirked, “... But again, to take two lives to pay for one is simply not just - no matter what sort of undûnan behaviour is expressed.” The Scawicks grew rowdier once more, and Boudicca had to physically step in between them and the rest of the room to avoid a bloodbath.

“What do you suggest we do, then, Hilda? Take their right hands as per the Dûnan law?”

“Just their hands?! They’re murderers!” the Scawicks roared.

“Now, now, let’s be rational about this. We’re in the middle of a war, and from what our scouts are telling us, more and more are joining this war as the days go by - and these new factions don’t necessarily have the best in mind for our people. Can we really afford to lose two of our best girls?”

“What?!” whispered Boudicca anxiously at her. Hilda didn’t look back, though; she was busy smirking at the seething Scawicks.

“By Taeg Eit, no! They are -not- walking free!”

“In case you haven’t noticed, Burud,” Hilda declared, “the Dûnans in this town outnumber the Scawicks by the double, almost.”

“Half of you are still suckling at your tits!” The most vocal of the Scawicks, a giant of a man with scars running across his exposed chest like a labyrinth, stomped forth from the crowd to stand toe to toe with Hilda, who while standing shorter than him, radiated a presence that easily brought her up to equal height, if not taller.

“-True- Dûnans can hold a spear from the age of three, loose arrows at the age of five. What can Scawicks do? Tie knots?”

A fist like a brick thundered against Hilda’s jaw, staggering her backwards. Burud’s attack was swiftly repaid with a spike-like knee to the groin. The Scawicks screamed their warcry and the Dûnans did the same, but just as the fists started flying, Boudicca blew the horn from her hip and immediately deafened out the brawl. Every face turned to her.

“STOP THIS!” she demanded. “We’re getting nowhere if we kill each other in the process. This is supposed to be an alliance! We’re all Dûnan here, and--”

Burud spat, the orb of phlegm hitting Boudicca on the cheek. The warrioress took a second to realise what had just occurred and slowly brought a hand to her face. “Typical Dûnan piss,” thundered the giant. Boudicca eyed him in shocked disbelief. The rest of the Scawicks exited the peat hall. “By midday, you’ll have brought us at least one of their heads. If not, we’ll show you what true Dûnans do to folk we hate.” With that, he, too, left the building.

His words weren’t given time to linger for even a second. As soon as he finished speaking, the Dûnans in the building broke into a frenzy, cursing and shouting at Boudicca for justice against the dishonour done unto her by Burud. Boudicca couldn’t hide it, either - her face had contorted into a black, furious scowl, eyes aimed at the doorway Burud was diving through. A hand touched her shoulder and Boudicca turned to see Hilda smiling supportively at her.

“There is nothing pettier than someone who spits in the face of someone as good-hearted as you, Boody.” Boudicca hissed and shrugged her hand off.

“This would not have happened if you hadn’t pissed him off!” At this, Hilda shrugged apathetically.

Scahicks are dumb as rocks - they’d be pissed off if we used big words.” She gently massaged her swollen cheek and licked at it from the inside. “Come on, you, too, knew this was inevitable. Dûnans, we… We’re just a little above these kinds of people. They know this, and it makes them jealous; so they act out. They would’ve known to keep their mouths shut if they hadn’t so… Conveniently… Been out fishing when we took this village all those years ago. Imagine that… A whole village - out fishing. Ain’t that something?”

Boudicca’s face turned to cold stone. “Yeah… It’s something.” Hilda raised a brow knowingly.

“Keep in mind who your friends are, sister. At least we have the proper breeding and culture to know to respect a woman’s honour.” She held up her palm. Boudicca eyed it briefly before clasping it with her own hand. Hilda smiled and pulled her in for a strong hug. When they separated again, Hilda looked at the seething crowd around them, then down at the two murderers and sighed. “How about you take a breather, hmm? You look exhausted. Go to your husband, see your daughter and your son. You’ve been working your damndest since we came here.”

Boudicca deflated a little. “Maybe… Maybe I should.”

Hilda smiled. “Do that. I’ll keep the gang under control. Don’t worry.”

“You will do that, right? Promise me.”

“Oh, yeah, I promise.”

Boudicca sat atop a small stone on a hill, surveying the sloping highlands further inland from the Scawick shore. On her lap sat her son, Boudin, reaching for the small flakes of snow falling slowly down from the heavens above. The warrioress was deep in thought, barely noticing when the infant would pull playfully at her braids and clothing. Every inch of her was screaming for her to go back - to make sure Hilda wasn’t doing anything foolish. However, other parts of her explained that she herself wasn’t the only moderate among the Dûnans, and that someone surely would stop her if she got too enthusiastic. But still…

A strange note rang out. Then another, louder but calm and it went on and on until a glow emerged on a hill down from her. The glow grew into a tear upon the fabric of the sky, suspended just above rock and stone. From this tear came golden light and then it grew larger still until at least it stood at a height taller then several men.

When it grew no larger, it came. Before her own eyes emerged a giant figure from the portal, made of the same substance, sunlight. He walked further ahead and stood silently, overlooking the land. Then that head turned to her and though the giant had no eyes she could feel its gaze.

Then they followed, not as tall as the giant but no less imposing. Striking golden hair, still taller than their tallest man, most wearing armor, all carrying weapons, carrying supplies and they still came by the dozens but most surprising… They had wings and they sang songs in a language she did not know but a song was a song and theirs was beautiful.

Yet besides this beauty, the giant still held its gaze to her and it was fast approaching. Boudicca nearly dropped her son as she fell backwards off the rock. Nestling her child as safely as she could on her left arm, she used her right to draw her sword, pointing it threateningly at the giant and its entourage.

“You stay back! Don’t come any closer, or by the gods, I swear you will be returned to whatever master you serve!”

The giant came closer still but did pause before her. It said nothing for several moments and then a voice akin to a roaring inferno boomed.

"The Sun Mother… Sends us… Are you… Friend or foe?" There was much weight to those words and now several of the winged beings had flown closer, hovering in the skies like vultures, hands upon hilts.

Boudicca’s stance faltered slightly; her blade lowered by a bare inch and her eyes hardened to study them some more. Then, as the initial shock of their appearance began to wear off, the blade sunk lower and lower. “The, the Sun Mother? Has Reiya sent her aid?” She fell to her knees, her child cooing giddily on her arm. “Forgive my actions, mighty one - I was caught off guard. I, like other Dûnans, are faithful servants of the Sun and all her creations.”

As the giant studied her, the winged beings relaxed as well when they saw her lower herself. The giant then spoke again. "Dûnan. Rise. Take us… To your people."

Boudicca rose slowly. “Y-yes! Of course! Follow me!” She sheathed the sword and hoisted her child onto her cloaked shoulder, making her way back towards the village by the water. It was a quick procession after the last of the winged beings had come through the portal. She could hardly count their number but it had to be in the hundreds. They came with a great many supplies as well and everything about them was somehow taller and larger. The giant lumbered at the front, with several golden winged beings. She felt fairly confident when in their presence but though they seemed curious about her, they did not at all seem surprised to see her.

When they neared the village the giant spoke again. "Bring… Your people… To me."

“Understood.” She hurried into the village through the stone gates. Regardless of who she was supposed to bring back, though, the whole population eventually came running to witness the miracle that was the giant’s arrival. Boudicca managed to shepherd the Dûnans into a separate group from the Scawicks, and sparks flew between the groups. Like Burud had pointed out earlier, one half of the Dûnans was indeed made up of mostly children, from infant to middle teenagers. The rest was a much more diverse mix of all ages, though most were young adults. Still, the adult portion was as large on its own as the whole of Scawick’s population, and the locals seemed shamefully aware of it even as they glared threateningly at their guests. Boudicca took a deep breath and stepped forth, gesturing to her half of the populace. “Here they are - every Dûnan in town. What do you wish of us, great one?”

The giant stepped forward and clapped its hands once. New realization fell upon her and she knew she would be able to understand the beings… The Oraeliari. The giant clapped again and a beam of light touched the earth between the two groups. When it faded, a pile of sunlight weapons lay in a pile, gleaming bright. A third clap and a stone building erupted from the ground inside the villages walls. Another clap, but nothing of note changed before there eyes. Then the giant clapped again and another beam of light landed, this one closer to the Oraeliari. When it faded, a pile of red rocks was visible. The giants hands went down to his sides and there was silence at last. From the ranks of the Oraeliari, there with golden wings flew forth and landed in front of them. One stepped forth, wearing armor of bronze.

"Hello Humani. We are the Oraeliari, hailing from a land known as the Luminant. We have heard your plea and Solari has answered in the name of Oraeliara. I am Cardinal Tevuri, this is Cardinals Amara and Ponfiri. We have come to aid you in the name of Oraeliara, your Sun Mother. We hope to bring about a sort of, alliance between fellow worshippers. What say you?" He asked with a warm smile.

The Dûnans all fell to their knees and raised their hands in praise. Even the children were forced to join the adults as to show respect. Many tried to struggle free. The druids amongst them tried to shuffle their way closer, all while dipping even deeper in their gesture of worship than their peers. “I am Boudicca, good cardinal, théin of Ha-Dûna. We wholeheartedly accept your aid, fellow servants of Reiya,” Boudicca thanked deeply. She drew her sword, balanced her son a little better on her shoulder and stabbed the point into the soil. “You have been good to us even though we did not ask - of course we will help you in turn with whatever you may wish, in good faith.”

“Now hold on just a damned minute!” came a furious roar from the opposite side of the gathered people. Boudicca and the Dûnans turned in angered surprise. The Cardinals turned their heads in unison to shouter but gave no reply.

The voice belonged to Burud, and the Scawicks had already lined up with weapons drawn. “What in condemnation is this? You, you’ve come to help -them-?! Even though we have been faithful to Reiya for just as long, you come in -their- hour of need?!”

“Be silent, Burud! You are disrespecting our allies!” warned Boudicca. Burud spat.

“Where were you two years past when these very same Dûnans burned our homes and butchered our neighbours?! Where were these weapons when we couldn’t defend ourselves from bandits in the gruesome winter thereafter?!” A young man, no older than eighteen, came running out the gate.

“The stone house! The stone house is filled to the brim with grain, with carrots and beets! Our winter is saved!” Burud’s face showed not a smidge of joy; in fact, like the other Scawicks, he only grew angrier.

“Where was the food when these Dûnans took it in the war, forcing us to starve for the whole winter?! We are only as few as we are now because of -them-!”

“Burud, calm yourself!” shouted Boudicca, but the Dûnans, too, began reaching for their own weapons.

Tevuri's smile faded, replaced by a worn down frown. He sighed, "We were fighting a different war, your conflict unknown to us." The other Cardinals gave solemn nods. "Please, there is no need for violence. We come to help all Humani now, not just one faction or another. We do not know your pasts and we do not know your pains but if you wish to blame us for your struggles, you may. We will help you now, in any way we can, for this is what Oraeliara- Your Reiya, would want. Is it not?"

Burud pointed his axe at Tevuri, then back down at the Dûnans, who had begun pushing the children and their caretakers behind them. “I don’t give a damn what the will of Reiya is if all she wants is to support these fuckers. You won’t steal their blame from them with your honeyed words - they’ve beaten us, stepped on us and killed us, and we can’t even be given justice without some messenger claiming to be from the gods swooping in to give them yet another gift for their piety!”

“Well, we -are- the chosen people, Burud,” taunted Hilda as she stepped forward to extract a spear from the pile of sunlight weapons. “I see this as nothing but proof.”

“You filthy broad!” thundered the giant and charged at her.

Tevuri was faster. In an instant a fiery sword erupted from his hand and swung it at Burud's axe, casting it from his hands. He then grabbed the man by his shirt and pulled him in close.

"Do not speak ill of our Goddess again, Burud. I say this for your own sake, for her avatar listens even now." He released him but did not move. "You are angry, you want justice, I understand this but you are at war with an enemy who will use every advantage against you. More loss of life will not help you, but it will help them." He raised his voice. "But this wrong will be righted, one way or another! I swear upon the Goddess that we will see it so, by any means but it must not be now. When this conflict ends, you will have your justice, reparations will be made. But I beg you, please, you must wait."

Burud scoffed mockingly and stepped backwards to the other Scawicks. “So that’s it, then, hmm? We’re… Hostages, in our own homes, no less. The Dûnans have free reign to do as they please, and we have to wait with our justice.” The Scawicks were practically foaming at the mouth. “Oh, you bet we will have our justice, Cardinal.” He picked up his axe on the way and pointed it at Hilda. “We will not rest until we have our heads.”

Hilda rolled her eyes, and many Dûnans laughed. “You keep telling yourselves that. Great Tevuri, please - allow us to show you to a suitable area for you to rest. Have you brought your own tents and the like?” Meanwhile, the Scawicks retreated back into town with furious stomps.

Tevuri said nothing for a moment, deep in thought as he was. He whispered suddenly, "Even now you are unworthy of her gifts." Then he shouted, "Very well! You," He pointed at the Dûnans. "Gather your items, I have seen such a look before and there will be no peace between you and them. We are leaving. Burud!" He yelled after the man, "Take your village, keep the food and may the Goddess protect you." He then nodded at the other two Cardinals and they flew off.

Boudicca and the others blinked. “Wait, are you leaving? Are we all leaving?” They suddenly got incredibly busy rushing to pack.

"We have not the time for infighting. But make no mistake, one day you will have to pay for your crimes. We all do, in the end." He said, watching them go. The Dûnans shrugged and hasted to gather as much of the supplies the town has just been blessed with as they could. They took all the sunforged weapons, as well, and pocketed what remained of the sun rocks left from the Oraeliari. The Scawicks didn’t dare to protest, as they feared the Dûnans’ new allies would retaliate on their behalf. Even Burud and his closest didn’t outright attack, but kept shouting curses and threats after them. After two hours or so, the Dûnans were ready to move, Boudicca and Hilda leading the travelling band.

The host of Oraeliari and Dûnans then marched off, leaving the village of Scawick behind. The giant was the last to leave, having watched it all unfold with an ever impassive gaze, before meandering after the group.

Days went by and they traveled southwest, deeper into the Highlands. Soluri guided them now, and both human and aiviri followed. They shared stories, shared food, and learned from one another. All the while, Tevuri and the Cardinals held private discussions, asking of Ha-Dûna from time to time. Perhaps they were shaken by what they saw, or perhaps it was something more, no one could really know for sure. They were there to put a stop to the false worshippers, human agendas and crimes would have to wait. Right?

Upon the seventh day of travel, the giant stopped upon a bluff overlooking more hills. It was there he raised his hands and brought his hands together like a clap of thunder.

What rose from the ground before them was breathtaking.

A large castle with a great hall and many towers, seeped in the warm glow of yellow light. It towered over the land like a beacon for the lost. Around it a good ways erupted a stone wall, wide enough to allow people on top and with gap between, serving as the entrance. The Oraeliari seemed relieved all at once and broke out into cheers. The Dûnans weren’t far behind, collapsing to their knees in loud and pious praise. Even the children stood or knelt frozen in awe, even their wild imaginations not able to imagine something so magnificent. Quickly, the caretakers began shepherding the children inside to warm up, while the others hurried to dig pits in the ground where they could keep their supplies cold and safe. Boudicca stood surveying the work, resting her hand on the pommel of her sheathed weapon.

A beat of wings and Tevuri landed beside her. "There is no need to dig, Soluri has made the underground level of the this Holy Site large and expansive." He paused. "I do not know your history here or what your people have done, but we did not wish for that to happen. Your bad blood with your kinsmen will need to be dealt with one day."

Boudicca halted the work and looked up at the angel, crossing her arms over her chest. “Great Tevuri… We are so grateful for everything you have given us and are giving us - your aid and support in this conflict will be invaluable, and likely allow us to retake Ha-Dûna in a day. That said…” She gestured to the direction from whence they had come. “You said it yourself: You do not know our history here nor what we have done; our bad blood isn’t something so simple that it can be “dealt with”. I honestly thought it could, but our time in Scawick has only proven that whatever bridges we had between us and our neighbours have been reduced to cinders.”

Tevuri gave a slight nod. "We know the feeling all to well." He stood a little straighter, "Perhaps as the days go by, I can learn more. I find Humani fascinating. You are unlike those that share our home. But for now, tend to your people and in the coming days, we shall talk of war."

Boudicca nodded and tossed her chestnut hair out of her face. “I fear it may come quicker than we expect.”

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