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The Ferryman

The charred remains left naught behind, or so the blind would think…
In truth, just then, one was assigned to bring them to the brink.
The brink of what? Why, life of course! It lives as best it can.
Now comes a time of deep remorse, next to the Ferryman.

A leftover product of the former universe: death. It reeked of it. Of course, the cosmos wasn’t a great, big screaming void of suffering, but the stench clung to it like the mouldy odour of an old washroom. The death and suffer of the primordial universe had long since peetered out on its own, flocculating into globules of non-living energy that could not even be separated anymore. Powers oozing from the origin of creation - so raw and basic that they only possessed instinctual processing power - still managed to think, hmm, maybe someone should ensure that doesn’t happen again.

And so it was that Anath Homura’s message snuck through a cut in the fabric of space and time, echoing between the realms of the multiverse until they bounced off of something. A pair of eyes rolled open. A misty hand grasped at a long staff. A pair of mysterious feet settled in the bottom of a cryptic boat. The hand on the staff tightened its grip, and the robed arm leading up to the rest of the body flexed its muscles. A second hand coiled around the staff at a higher point and pulled down as well. A blink of a million worlds passed by before the vessel emerged through the cut in the fabric - a small, grey dory with a tall bow and an equally tall stern. Standing a bit further behind than in the middle of the boat, a lanky, featureless figure sailed a constantly forming and disappearing river through the empty space above the palace. A purpose laid stuck in his head like dust glued onto a wall: Find the souls of the dead and take them somewhere - anywhere - just so long as they do not just sit around and cause havoc.

Sounded reasonable enough, he thought.

The Ferryman sailed gently, for he needed time to smell the world he had been birthed into. Dared he sail too fast, the coldness of space would pollute his soul-smelling nose. Yet the universe was in its infancy; he soon realised this when there were no souls to smell - none except those of the other divines brought into this reality, and some weak, very weak signals coming from the world below.

The Ferryman scratched his bald head in thought. Had not the powers of the universe been urgent? Why make him now if there was nothing to ferry? After much a-pondering, he found himself gently miffed. First day on the job and nothing to do.

Well, he could wait either here or down there. He saw colour flick across the world below. Something was happening there.

Seemed like a good place to start.

Making Friends - Surely a Mistake

“Shit… That was too close,” murmured Manek, a pox-dotted hand rubbing a sun-blistered neck and adjusting the wet turban fashioned from rags that sat atop his head like a cowpie.

There came a groan from his left. “I think that son of a bitch dislocated my shoulder…”

“Oh, shut it, Sadwa, you dumb bitch. You reap what you sow - you go for the biggest guy, the biggest guy breaks your arm, simple as.”

The small man with the bulb-like shoulder grit his teeth as he glared at the knife-wielding skeleton of a man who was arguably more lice-infested beard than meat and muscle. “Oh, well, your statement must be a whoooole grilled pheasant, that, because that sounds rich as all hell. Who pushed me at that fat lump, huh? Oh, let me guess - his name rhymes with– agh! Ow, ow, ow.”

The boned man squeezed a laughter. “Oh, widdle Sadwa aw owie-owie? Arm aww hudhie?”

“Skinny, stop kicking the ox,” silenced Manek and slapped him over the back of the head. Skinny tilted forward and pecked at Sadwa’s shoulder with his forehead, inciting a pained squeal. As their argument intensified, Manek groaned and sped up. Ahead of the three of them, a fourth man made stoic steps through the woods, greasy black hair glittered with forest floor detritus flowing down a moth-eaten reed sack that functioned as a tunic. A blood-crusted sharpened stick that doubled as a walking stick filled his right hand, and his weak body needed all the support it could get. Despite his frail appearance, though, his grim, wrinkled expression radiated loyalty to an unnamed purpose. Manek cleared his throat and lowered himself slightly with great respect.

“Krassus,” he greeted. The man offered him a grunt of acknowledgment, barely audible against the background cacophony of the other two idiots. Manek continued, “What’s the plan now? I mean, that was–...”

“Another fluke,” the leader stated without turning his head. “Scipio was out of position; Fat Luck wasn’t fast enough; Skinny and Sadwa were…”

“Skinny and Sadwa?” Manek finished.

“Precisely,” Krassus concurred coldly without casting a glance backwards, yet it seemed as though the simple mention of their names came as a windshear that shut the two up in shame. Manek rolled his eyes at them and sneered at Krassus.

“Remind me again why–”

“You will not finish that sentence,” Krassus warned and stopped. Manek froze in his steps. Skinny and Sadwa blinked like a pair of puppies. Krassus shared a glare with each of them and sighed. “It seems that after every blunder, we must remind ourselves what we are…” He pointed at Sadwa. “Raper. Shunned and cast out from your home for grotesque and animalistic acts against your brother’s wife. Rumour says she will never bear a child again. You are an affront to gods and men alike.”

Sadwa hung his head in shame. Krassus spat on the ground and turned to Skinny. “Murderer. Four people, nonetheless - all because, what, because you wanted to? Why, Skinny?”

Skinny swallowed. “They, they were looking down on me and–”

“And what? You thought killing them would prove your point? You disgust me.” The colour drained from Skinny’s skin, excentuating the hollows between his bones.

Lastly, Krassus turned to Manek. Manek made a hard face back. Krassus eyed him up and down. “What, you aim to meet the truth with pride? Tell me, Manek, what pride is there to be had in infanticide, hmm?”

“You’ve proven your point, sir…–”

“Oh, no, I don’t think that I have, Manek” Krassus hissed back. “You ask me every single time – without fail – why I shepherd the most worthless, ungrateful and hopeless looters, brigands and highwaymen on this side of the 18th Node.” The three winced. “The answer – every time – is that we, Manek, are scum. Filth. Waste that not even the rats will dine on. We are subordinate to cockroaches, that’s what we are. Do you know what that means, Manek?”

The shattered, pox-dotted man didn’t dare to look up. “We stick together with whom we’ve got.”

“That’s right,” breathed Krassus coarsely. His eyes shifted slowly between the three of them. “We stick together with whom we’ve got. When the world turns its back on sinners like us, we have no choice but to live in the darkness with those who dwell it with us. We hate each other, but we depend on each other. No man an island; no wolf a pack. We lie, cheat and steal so that we may live another day. We hunt the most dangerous prey of all - redemption. We dine on rotting dogs and drink filthy water in the hopes that, one day, a little droplet of light with penetrate our darkness and grant us that chance - that once chance to forgo all the consequences of our actions and step back into the day.” He stuck his hand into his tunic and took out a bronze-coloured dime. On one side was the unmistakable horned head of Xavior.

“Whe-where’d you get that, boss?” whispered Skinny as though they were in a temple.

Krassus cast him a short-lived glance and spun on his heel. “We keep moving.” As the black-haired man stormed off deeper into the woods, the three remained for a second to exchange uneasy looks. Manek sighed.

“I’ll… See to that shoulder, Sadwa. Here, take a seat…”

By nightfall, the little band had found an enclave in the woods at the border between node 22 and 26 that they were sure hardly even the trees knew about. So hidden was this place that they were uncertain whether they would find the exit again. In order words, it was perfect. Here, the group laid down to rest, lighting no fires as they didn't trust their hiding spot that much. They probably weren’t being hunted, but one could never be too sure.

However, around an hour past midnight, Sadwa rustled to his feet and let out a silenced yawn. With filthy feet, he strolled his way over to a nearby tree to answer nature’s call. As he let the streams flow freely, he remarked the somewhat odd sound at the impact point. Rather than the deep, hollow drum of liquid pouring over the forest floor, a wetter, flatter pitter-patter instead dominated the soundscape. Sadwa frowned and looked down. There, just barely visible in the forest darkness, he could make out, well, something… A rock? It was… Somewhat gray, he supposed, so why not. He shrugged to himself.

Then it moved.

“AAAAAAH!” came the scream that awoke the rest.

“Sadwa, that dumb cunt,” groaned Skinny and rolled to a seat. Krassus and Manek were already storming into the woods in pursuit of the sound. It didn’t take them long to reach him, laying there whimpering on the ground caressing his splinted arm, which had been twisted into an inhuman angle. A fist took him by the hair and jolted him from the ground, a sheen of metal closing in at his throat.

“STOP!” shouted Krassus. The metal halted on a soft indent against Sadwa’s skin, a trickle of red dripping down the quivering throat. The moon revealed it to be a knife as silvery as fish scales, held in the tight grip of a uniformed man in a long silver cloak with dripping wet hair. Manek swallowed.

“Shit, it’s a fucking paladin,” he squeezed through frozen lips and looked for escape routes. Krassus instead held up a hand. He put down his sharpened stick and reached out his other towards Sadwa and the captor.

“Evening, sir. See you’ve got my friend in your hand. What would it take for you to let him go?”

All he got in response was a flaring, nasal breath like that of a furious bull. Sadwa tried his best to stifle his sobbing as every hulk ground his throat up against the knife. Krassus reached forth his other hand and held them open for the assailant to see. He nodded for Skinny and Manek to drop their weapons as well. “Hey, we’re not going to hurt you, sir. That man there is a good friend of mine - if you don’t hurt him, we won’t hurt you.”

The man scoffed. “You think you can hurt me, huh? Huh? Is that why you pissed on me, huh? To taunt me?” The breathing intensified. “IS IT?!”

Sadwa sobbed as his every orifice expelled what it could expel in an effort to empty the body. Krassus tried not to break eye contact with the man despite the shameful display. “I’m sorry, he did what to you? Oh, that’s awful! I’m downright ashamed on his behalf, sir! Downright ashamed! If you give him back to us, I will make sure he doesn’t eat for a weak - swear before the gods.”

The man heaved a deep breath and pulled the knife back a little. Then not even a second later, he put the blade right back where it had been and pulled at Sadwa’s hair with such violent strength that he threatened to scalp him. “This is a trick, isn’t it? You’re, you’re trying to trick me - make a fool out of me like everyone else. That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it?”

Krassus took a small step forward. The angle of the moon allowed him to get a better look at the stranger’s face. What had no doubt once been a well-kempt beard, fine hair and stoic features had been twisted by an eternity in the woods. He looked wilder than them - not even wolves had such savagery in their eyes. “No tricks, sir. You’ve got my word.” He feigned a polite chuckle. “Hell, do we even look like the sort who eat multiple times per week?”

The man softened again. “... Eaten, beaten, robbed of my node, sent on the run and now peed on? I’m… I’m no better than some stray dog…” A flash of silver left small blindspots on their eyes as the moonlight sheen reflected off of the dagger dropping to the ground. “I’m supposed to be a god… Here I am, smelling like a pigsty with no followers, no friends… No one but the voices, oh the voices…” He released Sadwa, who dropped to the ground with a snotty thump, and started slapping himself in the face. “Do you know how that makes me feel?! DO YOU KNOW HOW THAT FEELS?!”

Krassus had to employ every inch and drop of discipline in his body to maintain his calm. He had been skeptical of Manek’s hypothesis that this had been a Benean paladin on the run, but a god? Could it be? Could they have have found their ultimate haul? He tried as subtly as he could to swallow his excitement and gestured for the man to continue. “How does it make you feel?”

The man froze mid-slap. “... What did you just ask me?”

Krassus felt sweat accumulate on his forehead. “H-how does it make you feel? What you just said?”

The man blinked. “You… You actually want to know? A-are you approaching me with… With interest?” Instinctively, another knife appeared in his hand out of thin air. Krassus heard slack-jawed whispers behind him and felt the tremors in the ground from the shaking feet of his companions. The man held his knife arm spring-loaded like a cat ready to pounce. “Is, is this a trick?”

“Not a trick, divine one - no, Magnificent One,” Krassus corrected and bent the knee. That knife - all the proof they needed. His companions, save for the already-floored Sadwa, both prostrated themselves in an instant. “If something ails the Ultimate Being, then we as servants must naturally know so we can help repair it!” He bent the other knee and lifted his hands to the man in prayer. The man was stunned.

“M-M-M-Magnificent One? Ultimate B-Being?” he whispered under his breath.

“My humblest apologies, Master of the World. My useless, unlearned tongue cannot precisely formulate adequate cognonyms to describe your superiority over us and everything there is. I cannot regret my mistakes enough–”

“No, no, that’s… That’s fine…” The man tasted the monikers under his breath. “W-well… Since you asked… It… Makes me feel… Aaaangry,” he explained slowly. “... I feel like… I don’t get the… The respect… That I as, as y’know a divine being, deserve. N-nobody… Nobody listens… Ever. P-people can’t, can’t just… Shut the ffffffffffffffuck up… And, and, and, and that pisses me off. It pisses me off so much… So much, so much, so much, SO MUCH, SO MUCH–”

“Celestial Master,” Krassus implored calmingly. During the man’s outburst, the three hand closed in on him slowly. Manek and Skinny were tending to the whimpering Sadwa while Krassus adressed the god. The man eyed the three of them with glassy eyes and that bull-like breath again.

“A-are you going to leave me?”

Krassus frowned at the very question. “My Eternal King…” He bent the knee once more. “... We are your loyal servants. Your wish is our command - we would never leave you. In fact…” Slowly, Krassus reached out and gently took the knife from the man’s hands without resistance. He permitted his eyes to scan its appearance; his hands to feel its weight. This was unlike any metal he - and anyone he had ever known, he suspected - had ever held. It looked as sharp as polished obsidian. He cut as softly as he could across the top of his palm, crimson streaks flowing out immediately as the metal effortlessly parted tissue and flesh. The blade was so fine that there was hardly any pain until a few seconds after the deed was done. What a magificent weapon… He rubbed the blood across his palm and touched his face, leaving a bloody print. “Let this hand be the symbol of my loyalty, Great Master. Should I, Krassus, ever leave you or your service, let it serve as a reminder that you may take my hand, my head and my life. Please, let us know your name so we may swear our oath formally.”

Now it was the man’s turn to stare slack-jawed. A good minute passed before he started fidgeting and patrolling in a small circle, whispering to himself. Krassus remained motionless, while his companions exchanged worrisome looks. After another minute, even Krassus had to shut his eyes in blind hope that this would work. The adrenaline pumped in his veins - every part of urged him to run in case this wouldn’t work. But if it did work…

No… No, no, no… Yes… No… No, that’s stupid… Crimson Hands…? No, bad metre…

Krassus opened one eye. Could it be…?

“VERY WELL,” declared the man louder than he needed to. “... I have… Elected. That you three - four, sorry, four–” Sadwa cried as Skinny and Manek tried to pop his arm back into place with a great deal of effort. “... Will serve as my eternal disciples… Servants… Followers…” He swallowed and pointed at Krassus. “Henceforth…” A second of quiet passed. “... You shall be known as… As…” Another second. Krassus swallowed. “Krassus.”

Krassus blinked and nodded slowly. “I, I thank you for naming me–”

“APP! Not finished. Don’t interrupt me.” The man stared into the distance with thoughtful eyes. “Krassus… Krassus…” He tasted the name. “... Krassus… King Krassus… Prince Krassus… Cardinal Krassus…” Finally, the god pointed a second hand and declared decisively, “Krassus Ecclesiast, Grand Synodite of Cotazur, Cosmic King of the Crucible."

There was a moment of silence.

“I thank you for my title, Cotazur, Cosmic King of the Crucible.”

Cotazur nodded in approval. “Please, Nestor Over Nodes and Nations will do just fine,” he threw out smugly and moved on to the rest. “You, shit-stained bitch,” he said as though it was a compliment. Sadwa, Skinny and Manek all looked up with horrified smiles. Cotazur kicked Sadwa gently and, with the most sickening, cringing and ear-shattering sound known to man, every bone in his broken arm and shoulder twisted itself back into place. Sadwa didn’t even scream. The pain was too severe for that. Cotazur didn’t seem to care and nodded approvingly. “Taking it like a chomp, a champ. You shall be known as… What’s your name?”

Before anyone could answer, Cotazur continued. “Well, it won’t matter. It was probably as stupid as you are for pissing on me.” He drilled a finger into Sadwa’s temple that threatened to pierce both skin and skull. The others could do nothing but watch. Sadwa had long since passed out. “You sure can handle your pain, huh. Then it’s settled. You shall be known as Lazarus Delendum, Grand Bulwark of Cotazur, Unrelenting Destroyer of Enemies.”

Stepping on the passed-out body as he moved onto the next, he faced Skinny who was at the break of tears. “What’s your–”

“SKINNY!” he squealed.

Cotazur frowned. “Well, that’s no way to speak to your master.” With a surgically precise grip, he forced open Skinny’s mouth with one hand and conjured yet another knife in his other. “Maybe that tongue of yours needs readjustment.”

“Nestor Over Nodes and Nations,” Krassus pleaded.

“Krassus, didn’t I tell you to call me Eternal Lord of Lords and Lands?” Cotazur spat back as he held the knife right over Skinny’s mouth. “Hmm… That beard, too - you look like a tumbleweed, y’know…”

“Eternal Lord of Lords and Lands,” Krassus corrected. “His name is Skinny. Forgive him, please, he is just nervous in the presence of the Almighty.”

Cotazur looked at Krassus and then back at Skinny. Then he spat a laughter into the bearded mess of a face. “Your NAME is Skinny? Oh, my word, what a pathetic and disgustingly descriptive name. It’s almost so hopeless that I nearly want you to keep it. Nearly.” As he grumbled on a new name, the knife tick-tocked from side to side over Skinny’s still gaping mouth. “No, you’ll need a better one. I won’t have one in my battle battalion by the name of Skinbo, no, no, no, siree… Still, what can a walking anatomy lesson like you do for me…”

“‘Eaah…” pleaded the gaping man.

“I’ve got it! Henceforth, you shall be known as Excels Supremitus, Grand Assassin of Cotazur, Utopian Prince of All Creation. Your skinny frame is sure to let you sneak in all over the place, hmm? Hahahaha.” He let Excels go and moved on wordlessly while the man massaged his jaw tearfully. Manek resigned to his fate and stood still in the face of danger. Cotazur nodded with respect.

“Look at you. No fear in those eyes. I admire that. Much like myself, you possess an unyielding fighting spirit and cannot even fathom of the idea of retreat. You stand your ground, like me.” Cotazur’s fist punched Manek’s shoulder, and anyone without the god’s rose-tinted glasses could see that the blow had knocked him several steps back and nearly dazed him. “What is your name?”

“M-Manek,” replied the weakened looter.

“Oh, no, that won’t do. Such a small name would be invisible next to your peers’. You shall henceforth…” He drummed his fingers on Manek’s other shoulder, leaving bruises. “Rictus Erectus, Grand Commissar of Cotazur, the Alpha, Omega, X, Y and Z of Literally Anything You Can Think Of.”

Rictus could barely stand. “I think, I think you punctured something…”

“Yes, Rictus, I could not have said it better myself. I have punctured something - the stagnant state of this world. With you four lieutenants at my side, my ambition to shape this world into its true form can be realised.” The following dramatic pause gave the others a chance to breathe. Krassus jumped on the chance to speak.

“Then… Where are we heading, Cosmic King of–”

“Just Cotazur is fine. How many times do I have to repeat myself here?”

“Cotazur,” Krassus corrected instantly. “Where are we heading first as part of your grand plan?”


Krassus nodded. “The plan, yes.” There was a pause. “We have a plan, yes?”

“No, that’s your job, you ffffffffffucking IMBECILE. You are the GRAND SYNODITE! This is what you FUCKING do!” Cotazur kicked over a tree.

Krassus nodded. “Forgive me, Cotazur–”

“MASTER Cotazur.”

“Master Cotazur. I am still adjusting to your magnificent tasks. I have a plan already, you see.”

Cotazur blinked. “You do?”

“Oh yes, oh yes. A grand plan. A plan to assure your rule for all eternity.”

Cotazur nodded approvingly. “Well, then, no time to lose. You will share it with me on the way. We journey northwards,” he proclaimed and walked off.

“The Master is as wise as he is mighty - north is indeed where we’re going!” yelled Krassus after him before kneeling down to help his companions. Lifting Lazarus up by the arm, he glanced over at Excels and Rictus. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Are you insane?!” whispered Excels sharply. “If we go with him, we’re dead, you hear me? Dead!”

Krassus sighed. “Look, I don’t disagree with that assessment, but this is a god we’re dealing with. Imagine what he could give us.”

“Yeah! The slowest fucking way out! He nearly killed Sadwa - Manek here is going all pale!”

“I don’t feel so good, boys,” Rictus sloshed and coughed. Krassus sighed.

“This won’t be a forever thing, okay? We’ll stick around with him for now… We’ll find him an army of brigands in the north–”

“Fucking Fat Luck’s plan, dude?!”

“Yes, Fat Luck’s plan. I know some people in Tilum’Velik - we couldn’t convince them before, but… Maybe we can do it now… Imagine the loot, Skinny…”

“I AM NOT ONE TO WAIT, MINIONS!” came a shout from the woods ahead. The four of them hurried. Excels shook his head as he supported the increasingly paler Rictus.

“... And I thought I was crazy…”

Waking Up - The Second Mistake

Lined eyes groggily opened to face a stone ceiling. It felt as though a layer of dust took flight off of Cotazur’s face as he weakly smacked desert lips and turned his head. Where, where was he? He tried to push himself to a seat but stopped in his movement as a fiery pain stabbed him through the torso. In that instant, a rush of memories returned. The rock, the voices, the beast…

The wound.

He laid back down with a thump and tried lifting just his head instead. His crusty eyes settled on a belt of reeds around his waist, their yellow colour only slightly tainted by spots of red just over the centre of the stinging pain. He was close to healing - how long had he been out?

A rush of fabric hinted at an intruder and Cotazur pushed himself to a seat despite the pain. Wet pats of naked feet pittered against damp stone and the flicker of a torch unveiled more features of the room, or more specifically, the cave. Cotazur sucked in a slow breath and, gathering his strength, summoned a small dagger into his hand. The steps came closer; Cotazur swiftly hid the dagger behind his back.

Come on now, you little shit - coming to finish the job, huh? Come on… COME ON.

“Oh!” said a gentle face as the torch rounded the corner and came into view. Cotazur stiffened. Before him stood a young woman, only just barely at the end of her teens, holding a bark tray with something steaming. The god pulled his legs a bit further in; the dagger hand was wound up like a spring. The girl’s smile waned, but only barely. “Oh, no need to be scared of me, stranger. I mean you no harm. I just didn’t know you’d woken up already.” She knelt down next to him, prompting Cotazur to realise he had been laying on a reed mat on the floor. “You were barely breathing when we found you. My father sewed your wound shut as best he could - the belt is just to make sure it stays clean.” She lifted a small bark bowl off the tray and set the torch in a hole between some stones.

Her words relieved some tension in Cotazur’s body, and his intense eyes stared into hers with drilling properties. The girl met them briefly and returned the stare with a short-lived smile - Cotazur could outstare a fish. Her eyes were quick to return to her task. The graying man’s intense gaze shifted to the steaming bowl. “How long have I been asleep?” he demanded as he took the bowl from her a little too harshly and gave it a sharp sip. The girl recoiled slightly but showed only momentary annoyance at his behaviour.

“We found you three days ago,” she answered. “You didn’t show much sign of life beyond your breathing until yesterday evening. My father’s hand nearly blistered at the warmth of your fever, I’ll tell ya…” she giggled politely. Cotazur stared wordlessly back. “And then,” she continued with a flat mouth, “you rambled quite a bit in your sleep. You… Cursed a lot.”

Cotazur blinked for the first time since he had awoken. “What did I say?”

The girl blinked back. “W-well, from what I remember–”

“The exact details - WHAT DID I SAY?!” he screamed suddenly. The girl threw herself back.

“H-hey! Hey, okay, it’s alright. You’re safe, okay? No, no need to shout, alright?” She swallowed and eyed the cave entrance. Cotazur panted like a sprinter. The girl stood up. “I am sorry for disturbing you. I’ll leave you be.”

“NO. No.” In a second, Cotazur was standing up and blocking the entrance. The girl froze.

“How are you–”

“No, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, would you–...” Cotazur held up his hands in a small gesture. The girl positioned her body sideways in defense. “Would you… Stay, please? I’m… I’m really… Just really…” He searched visibly for words, his eyes darting back and forth like flies swimming in milk. “... I want to thank you, for nursing me back to health.”

The girl’s lip quivered. “Y-yeah. Of course.” Her eyes bypassed him and yearned for the exit. “I’ll… I’ll get you some more broth, sounds good?”

“No, I mean, I am really, really grateful. Like, I cannot overstate my gratitude, really.”

“Yeah, uh-huh, that’s very kind of you to say.” Another desperate glance. “You sure you aren’t hungry? A-actually, I can hear my dad calling me and–”

“You know what? I want to give you a hug. How about a hug, hmm? Come on, bring it in here.”

“Actually, I really think I should–”

“No, no, no, you have to let me show my gratitude first. Come on, see? Now we’re hugging and I am showing you–”

“P-please, you’re– being–...”

“- that I am very, very satisfied with your service, or possibly favour for me–...”

“- you’re— hurting… m–...”

“- which I will be sure to repay in kind.”


Like an empty sack, the girl collapsed to the ground as soon as he released her, white foam dripping out of her mouth. Cotazur blinked. “Hello?” He gave the girl a gentle kick then looked around. “Hello? Did you fall asleep?” Sensing beads of sweat form down his back, he knelt down and shook her. “Hey! Hey, what’s going on?! Are you playing a trick on me? ARE YOU PLAYING A TRICK ON ME, YOU FUCKING WHORE?!” He picked up the corpse and shook it so hard that many more bones inside the fleshy bag began to rattle. He pushed it up against the wall and smacked it bloody, though no reaction other than the straight physical ones could be discerned upon that once sweet face. Cotazur’s breathing was the only sound in the cave.

Pat, pat, pat…

No… No, it wasn’t.

“Grisha?” came a gruff voice. “Grisha, are you alright? I heard shouting and–”

He turned the corner and saw the maltreated corpse of the girl.

“Gr–” was the only sound he could muster before his throat opened up and spilled blood all over Cotazur’s arm. The now crimson dagger glistened in the light of the torches around the cave, and Cotazur’s breathing overtook the soundscape once more.

Fuck… Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck…

“Kolja? Grisha? Is everything okay in there?”


A long distance away, a blood-drenched man was crossing an eternal black desert with crimson storms and plague-green skies. His left hand wielded a dagger; his right wielded a rapier. Both had gluttoned themselves on both flesh and blood that day. Cotazur’s face lacked any emotion; as did his eyes.

“This wasn’t my fault,” he repeated to himself for the 13 771st time. He had counted. For every time he said it, the world agreed a little more than this hadn’t been his fault. The voices said so.

“This wasn’t my fault.” 13 772.

On the horizon, a crack of lightning revealed a colossal, pillaring silhouette through the red sand on the wind.

“This wasn’t my fault.” 13 773.

“I’m a good person.” 4 156.

From the approaching node, a deep growl rumbled through the ground.

“This wasn’t my fault.”

A crimson shadow in the wind appeared from behind the node, its silhouette revealing several arms, heads and legs.

“This wasn’t my fault.”

Another roar signaled the monster’s charge. A ten-armed, twenty-legged beast with four heads and eight jaws fell down upon him from the hill of the node. The monster got the first strike, descending on the god in his guilt-tripping trance. Three arms slapped Cotazur to the right, sending him flying several hundred metres. A crater formed around the man and he pushed himself slowly to his feet again.

“It… It wasn’t my fault…” He coughed up bloody phlegm. “I didn’t deserve to be treated like that.”

Tremors rocked the earth as the monster barreled towards him. Cotazur’s trance still had him trapped, but his rage was beginning to sense its direction. His eyes filled with a ravenous fury that would see his clothing even redder than it already was.

“That, that fucking whore… She tricked me. That fucking pussy, he tricked me… They all, they all fucking tricked me. Over and over, and over, and over…” He kicked off against the beast and jabbed the dagger up into the roof of one of the beast’s eight mouths. The creature screamed and closed the jaws around the arm in question. Cotazur grit his teeth and snarled, jabbing the rapier into one of the other four heads as best he could, but the god was outarmed, outlegged and outmouthed. His left leg was caught in another mouth, and his right arm was grabbed by four arms which proceeded to pull with the might of three elephants. Cotazur squealed in agony and managed to kick one head hard enough to break one jaw, but that wouldn’t help him much.

“FUCK! You… Piece of…” He retracted his right arm as best he could, but even divine power could hardly combat four, now five, six arms pulling in the opposite direction. “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!” In a desperate shift of momentum, Cotazur carved the dagger in his left hand out through the head it had been stabbed through and, getting just the element of suddenness that it needed, carved off the fingers of four out of six arms holding his right. The monster’s grip slipped, partially lubed by all the blood, and Cotazur’s right arm was free, though dislocated to the point where he couldn’t use it. Still, with one arm free, he swung it back and used the momentum to charge up a better kick, breaking the jaw holding his left arm. The monster stumbled back, now down three out of eight mouths and beginning to seriously contemplate running to lick its wounds. In its agony, it dropped Cotazur to the ground. The god, riding on pure adrenaline despite a dislocated arm, a nearly chewed-off arm and a broken leg, jumped at the monster again, though with much less vigour. His right arm could still move, so with it, he grabbed the rapier still stuck inside one of the heads and just started stabbing furiously.

“I AM INNOCENT! I did nothing wrong! I did nothing wrong!”

His hand conjured forth an axe and he switched to a chopping motion.

“I did nothing wrong! It wasn’t my fault! It wasn’t my fault!”

The axe grew bigger and heavier, yet it still kept up its speed. In fact, the speed increased as the chops grew bloodier.

“Wasn’t my fault! Wasn’t my fault! Wasnmyfault! Wasnmyfault! Wasnmyfault! Wasnmyfault! My-FAULT! My-FAULT! My-FAULT! My-FAULT! FAULT! FAULT! FAULT! FAULT! RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!”

The pulp remains of the monster were being dug several metres into the ground by the ceaseless chopping. The axe blade was the size of a fully grown man, yet Cotazur swung it with such speed that one could mistake him for chopping carrots. Only after a full hour, when the hole was a half kilometre deep and the monster long since had been ground up finer than the sand on the wind, did Cotazur stop chopping. Within a minute, the axe had shrunk down to a simple hatchet. Empty eyes studied the ground, almost searching for the remains of his foe which could not be said to exist anymore. Any and all traces were completely and utterly gone. He was victorious.

A small smile cracked across Cotazur’s red-stained face. A small chuckle escaped him.

“... hehehe…”

He slowly began to ascend from the hole, his laugh intensifying over the coarse of the journey.

“... Ahahahaha…”

He dragged his useless leg behind him like a pulk. He ascended the hill on which the node stood and placed his hand upon it. In that instant, the sands on the wind fell to the ground; the green clouds parted to reveal a glorious sun bathing the land in nourishing light; the black dunes of sand turned to endless green, forested lowlands intermittently interrupted by small hills and cliffs before rising to the sky in the south in the form of colossal white mountains; in the far distance, the raging seas became tranquil shores with long, pearly beaches. In a final hurrah for the tumultuous waters, great fjords carved into the land and mighty rivers flower outwards from the taller inland areas.

Cotazur gazed around the hill of green grass and the forests extending for miles down to the sea and up to the mountains. He ushered a final “hah” before he dropped his axe to the ground and collapsed again.

“I am…” He coughed more blood. “... Flawless.” Then the world blackened again.

Birth - The First Mistake

Upon the death of Peninal and the birth of the new gods, Cotazur had existed. In fact, he had been brought to life and limb in the very same instant as his peers. However, before any sentience had kicked in for the gods, including himself, there had been just a handful of seconds - a slow inhale’s worth of time - when instinct had occupied the whole of the mind. In that brief moment, hardly enough time for any newborn, god or not, to process any sensory input, the instincts of Cotazur had sent him running off with divine speed. At that moment, he hadn’t even considered why he did it - after all, he hadn’t had a mind to think with. But the very second after, when all the gods’ minds had settled neatly inside their heads and the first voices began to speak, Cotazur was hiding behind a nearby boulder.

Why in the world was he here, he had thought. He should have immediately gotten up, walked back to the rest and pretended like nothing had happened. But how could he? What would they think of him if he did that? What would he say if they asked? How would he even present himself? “Cotazur the Magnificent”? “Cotazur the Proud”? Just “Cotazur”?

A sharp C-A-W shook something deep within him. No, no, no, this wasn’t the right time to get up. They were, were, were obviously discussing something very important - yes. He wouldn’t want to interrupt that.

But wait, wasn’t he also important? In fact, he could hardly think of anyone more important that himself! Why, he demanded, was he not over there right now, proclaiming his greatness for his future admirers? Yeah! Why?! He had decided. He would get up and demand their attention.

A grey-maned head peeked over the boulder just in time to see a maddened female rip teeth out of a corpse with an ear-shattered snap. No! No, no, no, no, no, no, not yet, not yet. Holy fuck, these people were crazy! What sort of person - no, creature - just up and rips out a tooth from someone, even if it’s dead? Oh, he’d show her, that demoness - he’d rip her teeth out some day!

Cotazur slapped himself across the face with a mighty clap. Then he dove to the ground and covered his head under his arms. Fuck, had they heard him? He went quiet as the grave for ten solid minutes. He heard a long, polite monologue of sorts, followed by some curter responses and, finally, the gentle growl of some large entity. It was at this point when Cotazur dared peek over the edge once more. The crowd had grown smaller, and beside the colossal black pole that everyone seemed to fuzz so much about, there stood a colossal three-necked monster - a demon of unspeakable evil, exponentially more damned for every head on its scaley form.

The man curled up in complete silence again, at least to an outside viewer. Inside his head was a chaotic forum of voices. This was surely Hell, masked by innocuous green hills and blue skies. Oh yes, that had to be it. Yes, yes, yes - the voices were in agreement.

One amongst the forum proposed a most logical segue: Hell though it may be, it was clear he had been sent here for a purpose. The voices hummed in agreement, oh yes, oh yes. This was to be his moment. He knew how great and mighty he was, Cotazur - the Cotazur. He had barely been alive for an hour and already he knew his purpose, his mythos, his legend. His was a fate of glory, and it would start by uniting those madmen by the pillar against this tremendous threat.

He cast another glance over the edge. Some enshrouded cloud with a lantern was addressing the nests of filthy bipeds around the pillar. Alright, perhaps now was the right time. Fuck that stupid fart in a dress - he would speak and be heard, damn it!

“Attention, everyone! You need not fear that disgusting, abhorrent beast before you! Your saviour and salvation stands here in the flesh, and you can already no doubt–...”

No, that was stupid, he judged.

”Attention, everyone! You need not… Fear not!”

Fear not, yeah, that was better.

”Attention, everyone… Everyone - KNEEL!”

Yeah, he would enter with power. Make it known to all that he was in charge. HIM. Cotazur! Cotazur the Mighty, the Magnificent, the Magnanimous, the Masculine, the Most Serene…

The knock of stone against stone shut up the voices in his head. Shit, they had found him. They had found him and someone was dropping a mountain on his head. He tightly shut his eyes and awaited the end. An hour passed, over the course of which his breathing grew increasingly erratic. By the sixtieth minute on the dime, his eyes snapped open again. He had survived. Quivering eyes turned skywards to find no mountain on a descent towards him, yet he could not seem to still his breath.

They had tricked him. Yes, that’s what had happened: They had tricked him with some kind of spell. What craven would await its faith weeping and pissing itself in the grass behind a rock like some, some, some craven?! They would pay. By all this world’s powers, they would fucking pay.

In his hand materialised a giant claymore, almost as long as he was tall. He tossed himself on top of the rock and screamed,


He kicked off and charged at the pillar, squealing like a stuck boar. Behind him, his cape followed him like a batallion of horses. Rage clouded Cotazur’s every visual nerve, shrouded them to the point where he could not in fact see that he was pathetically alone, save for one giant hydra peering at him with concern. Yet Cotazur’s charge showed no sign of slowing down; in fact it sped up. So the hydra did as any sensible creature would do and untwirled two of its heads from around the pillar to assume a wary combat stance.

Cotazur had begun to observe it. He saw it clearly - he knew he was charging at a giant the size of a hill. Yet he could not stop. He had, after all, proclaimed that he would fucking end it - to turn tail would look stupid. So he charged on, swinging his sword in the air like branch on the wind.



One of the heads consumed the god’s torso in a small nibble, picked him up and threw him some distance away. Cotazur tumbled across the grass with whimpers and coughs, rolling to a final stop at the edge of the hill. Shocked and tired, his head lifted from the ground, brown and dusty with dirt, to behold his adversary who mostly just looked to feel sorry for him. He tried to push himself up, but found that he was bleeding. A weak hand rubbed at his abdomen to find a deep cut as though from a blade. Ignoring the claymore that laid bloodsloshed some distance away, Cotazur pointed a dooming finger at the hydra.

“You… You monster… You have wounded… Me…” He felt his vision blur, but pushed through the pain and crawled to a high squat. “This… This isn’t over… I will… I will end you, and I will show this whole world that I am capable of… Of…” The blood loss overpowered him and Cotazur tumbled down a hill yet again, the world fading to black.

The Schnapps Trade

Evoker & the Rómssa

The eastern mesas of the Varia provided good shelter against the northern winds, and despite the childans’ natural resistance to the cold, they needed to be wary of the elements nonetheless. The Rómssa, as the group in the Hárstákki caves referred to themselves, had moved away from the heartlands of the tundra and settled here, where they were safe from both the cruel weather and roaming bands of wound-up men seeking wives by any means necessary. Here, the women had developed a method of, if not actually warming themselves, at least warming their bellies. In the tundra mires to the west and the lowland wetlands to the east, a plethora of sour and sugary berries sprouted throughout the spring and summer. Chief among these and the most coveted by the Rómssa was the cloudberry, the gold of the tundra: these berries were often sour, but the tartness was quickly overtaken by a sweetness and a round finish that could never be replicated in other crops of nature. The berry-pickers of the Rómssa who returned with even just a small pouch of these berries would be treated as an equal of the band leader - in practice taking over as leader - and many would do their best to convince the picker in question to share with them the secret of where they picked - never would a picker share such a dear secret. Like a secret technique passed down through generations, the secrets of the cloudberry locations were passed from mother to daughter and no one else. The women of the Rómssa would on occasion bring trusted friends along, but only to ensure that their rivals wouldn’t dare spy on them, and even then the friends would be left a good distance away from the actual spot to stand guard.

Why were cloudberries so coveted, though? Sure, a nice berry to snack on in the late summer was always nice, but surely they couldn’t be all that interesting on their own. While saying this out loud would surely get you the whole band on your neck, there was a motive behind the picking beyond just eating the berries. The Rómssa did not have much in the grand scale of things, but they had their caves and they had a basic understanding of pottery. In some of their deeper caves, there existed the perfect environment for brewing the band’s most important source of joy and trade income: schnapps.

Rómssa schnapps was a surprisingly strong, spiced alcoholic drink which could be brewed from anything remotely sweet. The berries would be crushed by foot in baskets so that the juice poured out over the cave floor. The women had chiseled small channels in the stone floor leading to a small drop deeper into the cave, under which they placed pots to catch the runoff. The berry juice would then be boiled over a fire and spiced with the plants of the warmer southern wetlands: hops, angelica and caraway seeds. The spices not only provided very welcome flavour nuances to the wine, but also had extraordinary medical properties: Angelica treated coughing and diarrhea; caraway stimulated fertility and warded off curses and evil spirits; and hops warded off disease and calmed the nerves and hearts. Finally, the mixture would be stored in pots deep within the caves and left there to age and develop its character.

And no other berry cooperated better with these flavours than the cloudberry. This made cloudberry schnapps a substance more coveted than gold among the Rómssa - and among their rivals.

It was late summer. Sákka and her young daughters Súnna and Máddji, whom she had respectively had with a mysterious hunter from the forest and a charming wandering soothsayer - sat inside the cave stirring in a pot of boiling juice - cloudberry juice. The delicious scent could almost outcompete the thick smoke from the fire. Súnna paid close attention to her mother’s technique, mimicking it with movements through the air; little Máddji was too young to understand much of what was going on, so she had been given a stick of angelica to snack on. This would be the eighth pot Sákka had made this summer - her ancestral cloudberry patches had bloomed like never before. The other seven pots sat safely within their storage cave, vaulted behind a door of reeds sealed and hidden with magic. Such a seal was necessary when it came to cloudberry schnapps - its taste was as close as the average Rómssaing came to divinity - and stealing had occurred in the past, usually resulting in the cutting of someone’s tongue.

But recently, a strange, foreign entity had come to the Rómssaings for their wine…

The quick patter of feet signalled an approaching figure from behind. Without casting a glance away from the intensive process of stirring the boiling juice, Sákka said, “Who’s there?”

“Sister,” came the voice of Sákka’s younger sister Uksáhkká. Sákka afforded her a small glance, but even in the darkness of the cave, she could see in the flicker of the flame the sheen of sweat all over her body. She furrowed her brow and asked,

“Is something the matter, sister?”

Uksáhkká looked to be frowning. “I wouldn’t call it a problem, but… They have come back.”

Sákka frowned back. “Who’s come back?”

“The ones they call the Primes… They have come for more.”

Sákka let out a vexed growl and wiped her sticky hands on her fur tunic. “By the Father Spirit, they were just here! How thirsty can these wicked people be?” Uksáhkká offered her a shrug. They then each grabbed a fur that was lying in a pile nearby, took hold of each side of the ceramic pot and gently lifted it off the fire and onto a black-burnt pelt on the floor. Sákka stomped out the fire and said, “Súnna, bring your sister somewhere and go play, okay? Mommy will be back soon.” Then she turned to her sister and the pair headed for the cave exit.

Outside in the clearing in front of the cave, most of the band had gathered, some warily armed with stone spears and others keeping a safe, yet non-threatening distance. At the front stood the leader Helve Two-Teeth, an ageing crone, negotiating humbly with the group of small metallic creatures before him who probably all measured at half the leader’s height at most. Their shapes differed quite a bit, some of them were sharp and dark while others were round and bright, but they were all made of metal and light.

“... Yes. We Require Caraway And Hops. How Many Units Can You Provide, Childan Leader Helve Two-Teeth?” Said the foremost Prime, its voice stiff and rough and flat. It spoke with no movement coming from its body whatsoever while its two spear-wielding companions stood to either side of it with their smooth glassy faces blinking yellow. The leader sighed.

“As I said, you will have to be more specific: Is a unit the seed and pod by themselves or are you requesting pouches of the stuff? We can offer you both, but the answer as to how many will vary depending on what volume you have in mind.” She sucked on one of her two teeth.

The Prime’s face flashed red for a second, until it came back to yellow. “Error. We Require The Traditional Beverage We Traded For In The Past. With More Caraway And More Hops. Can You Produce Pots Of The Requested Beverage?” One of the Prime’s companions, one with particularly feline-like ears, twitched while its face flashed pink.

The leader sighed again. “Look, if you want schnapps, you can have schnapps - it’s been a tough summer, though. We only have a little to spare this time.” He snapped his finger. “Eijá! Go and find our guests some of our best produce.” A young woman hurried into the caves with two others in tow. Meanwhile, the crone turned back to the Primes and said, “So you’ve gotten the taste for schnapps, is that so? What, uh, what do you like the most about it?”

The foremost Prime’s face flashed yellow for a few moments, the machine almost appearing frozen. After a few more moments of this, one of its companions patted it on the head, which forced it to twitch and step back. The one who had tapped it was a rather feminine-looking one, with triangular mock-ears on top of its head and lithe, slightly worn down parts. It bowed a little, the movement unusually smooth for someone of its kind.

“I apologize about that, his Uplifting Ceremony was held only a few weeks back, so he doesn’t quite know how to use his body yet. I am the female One named Evoker, Leader Helve Two-Teeth.” Said the cat-like Prime, her voice sweet and full of intent unlike her newer, shinier brethren. “To answer your question, we Primes have not tasted the schnapps Beverage. We obtain it in the name of the Boss and distribute it to worthy Astalonian Homurans as we wish. The kitties tell us that they enjoy the warmth in their abdomen and the releasing of their inhibitions.”

The leader furrowed her brow. “Is that so…? Well, I suppose that is as good a reason as any. We’re no strangers to eager customers, but I hope we may be so rude that we may ask for a better deal now than last time. The food your delegation offered was, if I may, downright inedible.” She gestured to a pile of metallic scrap in the corner of the clearing.

Evoker only gave the pile of scrap a short glance before focusing back on the crone. “My apologies, Leader Helve Two-Teeth. What do you wish from us in exchange for the schnapps Beverage?”

“Some proper food,” the crone said with a wagging finger. “We would like meat of mammoth and grain of barley; whatever roots and fungi you come over as you gather this would also be fantastic.” The other Rómssaings nodded along in agreement.

Evoker’s visor turned off for a few moments, until it turned back on and settled on blue. “Leader Helve Two-Teeth, The Boss is interested and has offered a rebuttal. We are not able to offer the items you requested at this time. We can offer two Second Generation Prime Astalonians to aid you in your hunts and gathering efforts for a period of Ten Years, as long as you provide custom-made schnapps Beverages on a regular basis as well as aphrodisiac concoctions. Keep in mind our two agents will have to return to headquarters every year for refueling unless you can provide a suitable source of Aethelic Energy for them. Do we have a deal?”

The childans looked puzzled at the words spewing out of Evoker’s throat. Sákka leaned over to her sister and whispered, “What aphrodisiac concoctions?” The crone seemed to follow the same line of thought:

“I, uh, I must say I don’t quite follow - the order of schnapps, I can get, but the subject of aphrodisiacs, you will have to take up with my sister, our shaman. Is Ristinn here?”

“She’s out picking herbs and digging for roots,” came a swift response. The chieftain frowned.

“Say, have the homurans purchased this aphrodisiac from us before? What was it like? We might be able to find some for you here and now to verify if it was that.”

“I cannot confirm what ingredients the aphrodisiac concoction contained as it was a different Prime who purchased it, from a different group of Childan no less. Do you know of the female Prime Astalonian called Knuckle, Leader Helve Two-Teeth? Have you come across her? She has been missing for some time, so we do not know what Childan group she purchased it from. The Boss requires as much aphrodisiac as you can provide.”

“Haven’t had the pleasure,” the crone confessed. “If we do not know what this aphrodisiac is, though, I cannot in good faith make any promises that we’ll be able to provide it. I hope you can understand. How about we settle on the schnapps in exchange for meat to begin with, hmm?”

“Agreed. These two will be your assistance for the next ten years,” Evoker nodded towards the other two Primes present, “They’ve yet to choose names, therefore I hope you can guide them in this regard. About the schnapps Beverages, the Boss would like two deliveries a year of at least two five liter pots. Would it be acceptable with you if we came by for collection at the end of Summer and Winter, Leader Helve Two-Teeth?” Evoker leaned her spear against her shoulder and lifted her hand up to try and shake the Childan’s, despite the sheer size difference. The crone scratched her head.

“Can’t say I know what a litre is - is it a term to denote volume? I reckon it’d be large pots since you ask for them twice a year, and that would be doable: Five large pots. However, let’s take it back to the timespan of the trade deal. Please take no offense, but we have only traded once before, and that did not go so well for us. I therefore request that we start with a smaller deal than one spanning ten winters. I’m not sure if I will even be around in ten winters’ time; wouldn’t want my band to inherit something that - again, no offense - could backfire on us. What say you if we instead start with one year’s trade, hmm? You may come this winter and next summer to collect, and we will welcome the help of your two Primes for the same period of time. Agreed?”

Having not lowered her hand at all during the Chieftain’s spiel, Evoker replied. “Agreed, Leader Helve Two-Teeth. As a way to clear our name, we will not collect any schnapps Beverages today and we will bring you a gift worthy of your patience this coming winter. Would you prefer a tool, a weapon, or progress?”

The childans exchanged looks and the leader turned to her colleagues with a shrug. Upon turning back, she mumbled, “Would it be possible to be a bit more specific?”

“By ‘progress’ we’re referring to knowledge on more efficient procedures and tool-making that you could use to manufacture more units of schnapps in a shorter period of time.” Evoker explained, lowering her hand. ”Sponsored by the Boss, provided by Astalonian Homurans.”

“Then, uh,” she began and turned to her fellow bandfolk. “Alright, show of hands: a tool?” A few raised their hands. “A weapon?” Considerably more hands. “Progress?” A couple of hands, but many seemed to be on the fence.

“Not sure what part of our technique could be improved - the amount of schnapps is rather more dependent on the Father Spirit’s bounty, innit?” came an argument followed by hums of agreement.

“I concur,” said the crone and turned to the guests again. “If it pleases, then, we ask for a weapon in exchange for the schnapps.”

Evoker stared at the chief for a moment, then nodded and offered her hand again. “It is settled, Leader Helve Two-Teeth. The Weapon will be delivered as soon as possible.” Evoker then looked at the other two Primes, her face flashing purple, and then back at the Chieftain. “It is customary to shake hands once business is concluded, Leader Helve Two-Teeth. It is a show of good faith.”

The crone nodded and approached with a large hand held out in front of her, which Evoker took and shook. “Then let our mutual faith be good,” wheezed the crone cordially through the pain of iron limbs squeezing her fragile bones. Upon completion of the gesture, she wafted her hand as discreetly as he could and drummed on her chin with the fingers of the opposite one. As she did, the young woman she had sent for some schnapps earlier returned with a head-sized ceramic jug. “Say, why don’t you take this to those homurans - as our own show of good faith.” Helve took the jug from Eijá and handed it to Evoker with both hands. “It’s red currant schnapps, picked summer last. They’ve had good time to develop their flavour, I think - I pray our friends in Astalon will feel the same.”

“I’m sure they will, Leader. Thank you for this generous gift.” Evoker agreed, slinging her spear over her shoulder until it locked in place with a loud clank, then grabbing the jug with both her arms without much issue. “One last thing, Leader. May I ask you a final question?”

“Mmm? Yes?”

“Have you or your people dealt with a particularly deadly strain of fungus infection, with the capability of bringing back the dead?”

The whole band fell dead silent. Helve drew a slow breath and turned around halfway, beckoning towards the rest of her people. “Would someone see if they could find… that?” A group of four headed towards a tent at the far end of the camp. The crone turned back and nodded slowly. “Aye… Some months back, our Biijá went out looking for her sister, Tuá - Father Spirit guide her lost soul. She had been missing for the whole day, picking berries in the marsh. Biijá looked for her for a week before her corpse was found in the bottom of a ditch beneath a cliff…” Some huffs of sorrow hacked from the back. Many left the semicircle out of fear that their hearts would succumb to despair. The crone could barely hold the tears away herself. “Now, now, the Father Spirit taught us that death awaits us all in the end - our land is a paradise one day and a den of wolves the next. Only Tuá hadn’t left us after all - at least, her body had not. Biijá was on her way bringing her home, but… Halfway there, she says, she reawoke from the dead. At first, she was beside herself with joy, but she was only her sister in body - inside, an evil spirit had taken refuge.” A sinister nod. The crone clutched a talisman about her neck. “Biijá managed to escape through a miracle of the Father Spirit - a winter light descended to whisk her away in the nick of time. She lost a leg to the monster, but at least she kept her life.” She thumbed over to a woman sitting some distance away on a rock, one leg missing. She looked distracted, or empty, rather, staring into a campfire searchingly.

“I understand, Leader. To confirm, was the hijacked corpse of Tuá left to roam the woods? Is it still out there? Was that the first time you had such an encounter?”

“Aye,” said the crone. “It isn’t Ristinn’s first time, though - our shaman. She’s seen its like before many years ago, which is how she managed to deduce that an evil spirit had overtaken Tuá’s gentle form. I would show you to her, but she is still out.”

“No need for that, Leader. We did not expect to come across the Hivemind here but as per our duty, we will attempt to cleanse the area. Your Prime Assistants will hunt down Tuá’s body and cleanse it of the infection so that she may be given a proper burial and will keep a look out for increased rates of infection amongst flora and fauna. Be very careful, Leader. This infection has been causing trouble in the south for years now.” Evoker adjusted her grip on the jar of schnapps and curtsied. “I will take my leave now, Leader. I will return bearing gifts within the month.” She declared and walked into the trees.

This summoned forth a bow from the crone as well as everyone else who were still present. “Thank you, good Evoker. May the Father Spirit guide your way safely!”

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