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@Slagar Could you give this a lookover? Factions and stuff are done!

The Hermian Academy

While a certain demigoddess converses with the lord...

The afternoon was possibly the hardest time to work. The principal’s study truly did match the ideals of heshui architecture; however, with Chuanwang’s current positioning, Zhong Wang’s eyes were being seared shut by a particularly nasty ray stabbing at him with all its dying strength as Heliopolis set for another sleep under the horizon. It had been like this for hours -- the only other spot in his office with as comfortable a position as this one had to be the tea table, but he couldn’t very well spill ink on the tea table scribbling notes onto bark strips, could he? With a pair of black-spotted fingers, the principal rubbed some exhaustion out of his eyes.

Knock, knock, sounded the door.

“Come in,” the master answered.

The door swung open slowly to reveal Nergui carrying a tray topped with a steaming bowl, a steaming cup and a bark strip scroll.

“Ah, is it that time already?” Wang asked and pulled his brush through a cloth rag. “What is it today?”

“Wen Bei’s beef noodle soup, sir, as well as the analysis you asked for regarding the flora of these islands.” She gently nudged some piles of tomes and scrolls out of the way to set the tray down in their stead.

“Oh, that quickly? The doctor and her apprentice are certainly swift on the delivery…” Wang took the down off the tray along with a pair of chopsticks. “... Will you be attending the concert tonight, by the way?”

Nergui nodded. “I was considering it, sir. From what you and young Taishan have told me, these ‘Nebulites’ seem like an interesting group, to say the least.” There came a short pause. “Are you?”

“Afraid I will be missing the spectacle, at least. There are a number of passages in this particular volume that require a deeper perspective. I would like to finish as much as I can by tonight.”

“Understandable, sir. Then I hope you wouldn’t mind if I excuse myself for the evening.”

“Oh, please, don’t let me keep you. They are certain to start any minute, are they not?”

Nergui pursed her lips. “Actually, master, they plan to begin at twilight, so about an hour remains.”

“I see, I see.” There was another pause. Wang took the steaming cup from the tray and took a long whiff of its greenish contents. He gave Nergui an expectant look. “Would that be all, Nergui?”

Nergui seemed to snap back into reality with a few blinks. She turned to Wang and nodded dutifully. “Yes, sir.”

Wang furrowed his brows curiously. “Very good, then. I’ll… Let you know if I have any-- Oh, no, wait, you’re going to the festival, right.”

“Right, sir.”


With the atmosphere of the room growing uncomfortably heavy, Nergui bowed slightly and turned to the door. She pulled it open halfway before turning her head and saying, “Actually, there was…”

Wang looked up from his soup bowl. “Yes?”

Nergui opened her mouth hesitantly. Eventually, she shook her head again. “No, nevermind. Have a good dinner, sir.” She closed the door behind her and left only echoing steps down the stone hallway. Wang frowned in concern. Nergui was rarely like this: Usually, she was of a much more confident character, with a keen sense of duty and dedication. He hadn’t seen her like this often. A few pensive chews coloured his face a curious hue as he unfurled the scroll from the physicians across his desk. He had never been much satisfied with doctor Zhou’s handwriting -- Shengshese was already bewildering enough on its own. His keen eyes were, however, well-acquainted with the River God’s calligraphic script, so much of what was written could be discerned from the context.

“... I see,” he mumbled to himself, “... So this new ‘sundrop nectar’ might have a soothing effect on sore throats. That should be treasured, then.” His eyes scanned further down the page. “What kind of name is ‘bellyburn root’? What does it-- oh… Oh, dear.” He slurped another pinchful of noodles. “... That poor lad. She better not be making him try all these.”

Another round of knocking struck the door quite gently. Wang barely looked up from the scroll as he shouted, “Come in.”

“Master Wang, if I may,” came the deep bass of Batbayaar’s voice. Wang looked up in surprise.

“Master Batbayaar? I was certain you would be at the concert. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Yes, sir,” the warrior poet replied and closed the door behind him. “It’s regarding the armament project.”

“The clay weapons? Has there been any progress?”

Batbayaar furrowed his brow. “It’s slow, sir -- slower than the spin of Tendlepog. However, Yum-Yum helped us make a discovery this morning.”

“Yum-Yum? Your son’s cloudling?”

“The very same, sir. It caused a bit of an accident in the workshop this morning, but in the process it led us to an important discovery…” The warrior laid a vague, gray shape on the desk, part of which broke apart brittly. Wang pulled his noodle bowl to himself. The shape appeared knife-like, but like one that had been made of wood, then been put into a burning stove and extracted as an ashen piece of charcoal.

“Batbayaar, with all due respect--”

“Master Wang, did we ever consider pressure as a solution?”

Wang frowned. “Pressure? In what sense?”

Batbayaar picked the ‘knife’ up again and turned it around in his hands. It flaked off some more, so his moves were smooth and careful. “We’ve previously tried to make the weaponry like we make pots: We’ve mixed together a batch of clay using all manner of metallic sands, wet earths and river mud; we’ve shapen it into blades and spearheads; then we’ve fired them in the kilns. However…” He unsheathed a prototype from a sheathe on his belt. It shone with a transparent glaze, save for the twin edges which had been roughly sharpened. “... These may be tough, but they respond poorly to sharpening, and most break when we test them with whetstones.”

Wang intertwined his fingers and rested his nose ontop of them. “So… This pressure you spoke of -- what are you suggesting?”

“Yum-Yum achieved something we’ve never observed before, master Wang. He tipped over a number of boxes from the top shelves just as he removed the moulding tools from this particular type. They hammered against it with great force of a short time, but…” He offered the flaky shape to Wang. “... This is the result of an instantaneous, single effort, and it has held its shape all the way here from the workshop.”

“Yes, and it’s falling apart, master Batbayaar,” Wang replied with a straight-mouthed frown.

“After such short exposure, it’s a miracle it ever held together. Keep in mind, sir, that this is sand that would normally have existed as a powder. Granted, there is a certain amount of moisture in this particular type, but with the right amount of pressure, I believe we can make greater strides.”

“And, if your opinion, master Batbayaar, where will we find a pressure adequate enough? I doubt we could hammer it with boxes all day and night.”

“If we could find a sufficiently hard surface to serve as the anvil, we could use Chuanwang as the hammer, sir,” Batbayaar replied with a half-smile.

“The Millennium Tortoise… As a hammer?”

“A press would be more accurate, when considering its purpose; however, know that this is but a piece of the puzzle, master Wang,” the warrior poet cautioned. “The ideal ratios of sands and clays must still be found out, as well as the firing process - or whether there need be a firing process at all. All will be revealed in time, though -- I am certain of it.”

Wang smiled. “I haven’t seen you this overjoyed about something since the arrival of the cloudlings.”

Batbayaar crossed his arms over his broad chest and thundered a chagataian laughter. “Moksha has advised me to step away for a moment from the gardens of the palace and meditate instead on the various arts we practice within the Academy. Besides, general Ming has almost become a match for me. I must prepare myself for the day my apprentice supersedes me.”

“Will you go from martial artist to claymaker, then?” the principal asked with a wry smile.

Batbayaar tugged at the goatee about his chin. Another chuckle escaped him and he began scooping clay flakes off Wang’s desk and into his hand, depositing them from there into a basket full of scrapped bark strips. “I doubt I will see such a dire change of heart in the near future -- however, a richer choice of trades in the future to complement my writing brush will only give me more muses to draw from.”

Wang chuckled to himself. “It’s a joy to see such determination from you, master Batbayaar. Every apprentice we take in with the years are overjoyed that you remained here instead of choosing the spear.”

Batbayaar’s smile faded a little and he turned to the door. “Oh, I am hardly through with my military career, sir. I will see to it that each soldier educated at the royal barracks will fight with the spirit of our Elder Mothers, and even then my task will be far from done.” He pushed open the door. “Will you be coming to the concert, by the way?”

“Oh, no, I will remain here to analyse some additional passages. Wish the musicians luck from me, would you?”

“Thank you, sir,” Batbayaar replied with a grin. “I will tell the rest of us.” He then stepped outside and closed the door behind him.

Wang snickered to himself and turned the ‘dagger’ around in his hands carefully. “... Pressure, huh.” He felt some droplets of joy evaporate out of his spirit and he looked out the window opening at the Heliopolis rays which were no longer there. A very distant chorus of instruments being tuned could be heard beyond the idle chatter and noises of the city below. The principal pursed his lips before laying the knife back on the desk, slurping some more noodles and returning to his studies.

The Hogtusk Tribe - Turn 4

“I’ve made my decision, ye gits,” Rog-mohog said proudly. For once, Torog and Gork stopped bickering and turned to the chief expectantly. Gork flashed Torog a smug smile and whispered, “I bet he’s gunna see it my way.”

“None’a you are tellin’ the troof, so I’m takin’ the pig ‘n the cow,” the chief declared. Both the others’ jaws dropped to the ground.

Gork raised his hand in protest. “Wot?! That wasn’t even an option, chief, ‘n--!”

“It wos, ye git. I’m the chief!”

“Buh-but…” Torog was at a loss. “Nuh, this ain’t roight. My sow was snatched roight unjustly, she wos. I demand recompun… Recompo… Recompusishun.”



“Well, you ain’t gettin’ it. That’s wot you get for lyin’ to your boss,” Rog-mohog declared and began tugging the cow along by the horn and the dead pig by the leg.

“B-buh… I didn’t lie!”

“Neither did I!” Gork added.

Rog-mohog groaned. “See, now one of yous is lyin’! Let this be a lesson for ye - lyin’ to the chief is never good.”

Gork and Torog stood dumbstruck as Rog-mohog walked off with his prizes. The chieftain heard them begin to argue again when he had gotten some distance away. To think, not only had he gotten himself some lunch, but he’d also fetched himself a cow ripe for breeding. He’d have to bring it over to Lop’s ranch later so he could get it bred. For now, though, he’d bring it to his own hut.

The chief pulled his new property up the hill to his tent at the ankle of Big Rock. He gave his throne by the edge of the cliff a proud look and started lighting himself a fire. However, before he could get a spark going, he heard footsteps behind him. The unmistakable stench and mouthbreathing told him that it could only be one ogre on the planet:

His wife, Porky.

“Wot you eatin’, luv?” came a happy voice.

Rog-mohog frowned. “Pork, as usual.”

Porky plopped her behind on the grass and stared curiously at her husband making the fire. Her eyes flickered between the wood and her increasingly surly man.

“Wot you want?” Rog-mohog eventually muttered. Porky clapped her hands excitedly.

“Oh, you asked!”

“Wish I hadn’t.”

“Nuh, nuh, you gunna like this.” Seemingly out of nowhere, Porky produced a fistful of grasses and herbs. Rog-mohog looked unimpressed.

“You picked some weeds. Good girl.”

Porky frowned. “Nooooo! Smell them!” She shoved them in Rog-mohog’s face, nearly causing him to light the dry grass on fire. He tried to push her away, but Porky was strong - very strong. A few reluctant whiffs later, Rog-mohog actually found the smell to be alright - almost pleasant.

“Wot issat?”

“Herbs, luv. Found ‘em by the stream round the Rock.”

“Wait, wait… Stream round the--... Oh, croikey! I was supposed to get stuff for the readin’!”

“The spirit readin’? That’s tomorrow, innit?”

“How do ye remember such things?” Rog-mohog looked at his wife in disbelief. Porky grinned and poked her temple.

“‘S cuz I’m real smart.” She wasn’t, really - not even for an ogre. However, in this short moment, Rog-mohog found himself agreeing just a little. He eyed the herbs in her hand again. “Wot were these herbs for anyway?”

Porky blinked. “Oh, roight!” She reached into the sow’s open belly, grabbed the intestines and pulled some out. With well-placed bites, she cut out a section, blew the contents out and sat squeezing out the rests. Rog-mohog looked on in disgust and morbid curiosity.

“Wot you doin’, lady? We use the guts for rope, not eatin’!”

“It makes for weak rope,” Porky replied, “But this, this was somethin’ Wololo made up in a dream.”

“Was he smokin’ too much again?”

“Y’know how it is, luv,” she said with a degree of pity. “Anyway, see, wot y’do is… Hang on, gotta chew somma this… (smacksmack) Mmm… Thash real good, MM! Now somma theshe herbsh... Roigh, now y’jush… Spi’ i’ roigh’ in ‘n… (ptew!) … ‘N there! A sosig!”

Rog-mohog stared uncertainly and with some concern at the length of intestine, tied shut on one end and open on the other, into which had been deposited a mouthful of half-chewed herbs and pork meat, and which now looked like a stuffed sock.

“Wot issat?”

“A sosig!”

“Wot’s a sosig?”

“Pork meat in pork guts! See now, see now.” She held it over the fire for a while until the outside was charred and crisp. Then she handed it to her husband, who gave it a sniff. After a skeptical moment, he took a bite. The sosig tasted better than unseasoned pork, but only marginally. The herbs were interesting, but it couldn’t really compare with a thick slab of bacon. Still, it would be a nice way of using up those scraps nobody wanted.

“How is it?” Porky asked. Rog-mohog swallowed and hummed.

“Is a’roight. Wololo came up with this, y’say?”

“He says all kinds’a rubbish. Last week, he was sayin’ we’ll ‘ave self-walkin’ cows, but these ‘ave wheels and we can ride ‘em. He calls ‘em ‘cars’.”

Rog-mohog shook his head. “He needs to smoke less of that burnin’ bush.” He took another moment to ponder before clapping his hands together. “Roight! Proppa lunch time. Uh, Porky! Don’t mind if you make more sosiges, but I’ve got a job for you!”

“Oh!” Porky perked up. “Wot kind, wot kind?!”

“I need you to find me a dog’s toof, an owl feavvah, fresh moss and a dead ogre foot.”

Porky’s expression lessed in enthusiasm. “You mean do your job for ya?”

Rog-mohog shook his head. “No, no, see - I’ve found a boar bone plate.” He patted the boar carcass next to him. “Practically dun half the job myself.”

Porky took a moment to think about this. “Huh… S’pose you ‘ave. Fine! I’ll be right back, then! Love ya!”

“Oh, uh. Same, I guess,” Rog-mohog responded absent-mindedly as he flipped the porkchop he held in his hand to get a nice char on the other side.

Joy, Bonds and Shame

The Garden drifted lazily across the night sky. As usual, Mengcheng was rampant with baby wails and groaning parents; this had become routine, however. Most could sleep through meteor strikes by this point. Chuanwang gave a yawn that shook the waves below and bubbled along calmly. The gentle tremors rocking through the city sparked the occasional giggle or lulled the children to sleep. In some houses, it caused more to wake up in tears. In spite of all the noise that coursed through the city like a breeze, Wen De sat in deep concentration in the light of Moksha. He droned a bassy, melancholic mantra, glistening tracks of tears evident on his cheeks. A troubled breath escaped him and his eyes forced themselves open. He looked at Moksha; it stared knowingly back. Wen De lowered his head and swallowed. He drew the breath back in and resumed his mantra.

A distance away, Zhong Ming walked along the city wall near Chuanwang’s head. She held her strung bow in her right hand, her full quiver ready at her hip. The sea made her uneasy - even after all these years. She trusted Chuanwang with all her heart; she did not trust the ocean.

The colossal turtle suddenly gave a quiet, surprised drone. Ming looked down at the head. “What is it, great turtle?” she asked and unfurled the rope ladder which let her descend down to the head. From a leather satchel, she extracted the Babblefish, which greeted her with a, “Howdy, gen’ral. What’re you needin’ from lil’ ol’ me?” Ming place the fish down on Chuanwang’s head, holding her hand on the fish as well.

“Babble, what’s Chuanwang mumbling about?”

The fish hummed. “‘Parently, there’s a landmass on ahead. Chuanny here’s sayin’ he needs a rest.”

Ming made a face. “Is it new?”

The wooden fish shrugged in spirit. “He’s never seen it ‘fore, at least. How ‘bout y’all check it out, huh?”

“... I suppose the Academy would want to prospect the land at the very least.” She patted the turtle’s colossal head and picked up the fish.

“Hey, gen’ral.”


“‘Parently, just as you lifted me, Chuanny smelled somethin’ iffy.”

“Hey, it wasn’t me!”

“No, no, somethin’ else. Put me back down.”

Ming did as told and the Babble Fish kept listening to the turtle’s quiet droning. It occasionally let out the odd, “mhm… mhm… yup, yup… ooo, is that right… mhm…” Ming frowned impatiently.

“A’right, he’s sayin’ it smells civilised - as in, they’ve got stationary sewage.”

“Gross, Babble!”

“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger, darl’. Anyway, they ain’t far. Just a couple hundred yards past the beach.”

Ming nodded with pursed lips. “Alright. We’ll head in in the morning. Tell Chuanwang he can rest.”

“Roger that, darlin’.” Chuanwang seemed to breathe out in relief before its one crystal blue eye closed, removing its bright reflection from the water surface. Ming satcheled the fish again and stared into the dark land barely lit by the Garden. From the moisture and scent of life she could tell that it was tropical, similar to the Foot. However, Chuanwang’s assessment hadn’t been wrong - the air here felt different. She supposed the answers would come the next day.

The usual expedition force had gathered by the Industrial Square gate. Zhong Wang had brought along Wen Taishan as an expert on botany to complement his own knowledge on the matter; Zhong Ming and two guards by the names Ekbataar and Timur, both of the Chagatai clan; and finally, Zhong Rong, a prospector. Wang went over a list of inventory, which Taishan had to confirm was complete. Ming had the gatekeepers open the great, creaking doors and the party proceeded as soon as the inventory was accounted for. They soon found themselves on a long stretch of white sand, the dry beach air contrasted by moister inland winds. Ming eyed the forest line suspiciously and strung her bow, the guards doing the same.

“We move as one, alright? No matter how interesting any of those plants are, you don’t run off and-- Taishan, TAISHAN!”

Taishan was already inside the forest, giggling joyously at all the foreign growths. Ming groaned and gave chase. Zhong Wang frowned and Rong gave him a shrug.

“Is he usually like this?”

“He tends to be more disciplined, but… Well, it has been a while since we made landfall. Still, they ought to not…” he sighed, “outrun the rest of us. Come on, Rong.”

“Hear, hear.” The two strolled along into the woods, which had already grown loud with scolding and excuses.

“What did I -just- say, Taishan?!”

“I’m sorry, general, really am. It’s just… I mean, have you seen this?” He showed her an enormous flower, one which petals were nearly the length of the clay sword at her hip. “Have you ever seen anything like this?!” He gloved one of his hands and picked a petal, shoving it into a small pot with some difficulty. Ming groaned.

“Flowers are not a valid excuse to endanger the whole expedition, Taishan, regardless of how pretty they are.”

“They are really pretty, gotta admit,” Timur added supportively. Ming shut him up with a glare.

“Regardless of how pretty they are, we -do not- endanger the--”

There came a rustling in the bushes. Ming and the guards turned around with arrows knocked to the bows. “Who’s there?”

A miniature deer with tusks bolted from the bushes, running adjacent to them until it vanished into the undergrowth of the forest. There then came the sounds of more footsteps, followed by voices quickly approaching. What came through the bushes were no deer, except very tall humanoids, who froze when they saw the Dreamers. Both were males, but another voice came from the rear, and a female appeared before going silent as well. Their skin, reminiscent of the Moksha were colored in the pattern of the stars. The taller male was a deep crimson, speckled with gold and swirls of black. He was bald, but his white glowing eyes conveyed intelligence. The shorter male, but still taller than the rest of the dreamers, had black skin with white swirls that glowed softly. His white hair was cut short. The woman’s skin was purple and pink swirls, the same as her hair, but it glowed softly. Her skin was riddled with stars.

All three had spears and bows, with simple quivers. The only clothing they had were cloth strips to cover their more sensitive regions. The taller male spoke something to the larger one, but was given no response. The female tilted her head inquisitively.

“God, they’re tall,” whispered Timur and lowered his bow. Ming and Ekbataar did the same and the general gave the master scholar a glance. Zhong Wang nodded back and Ming opened the satchel at her hip to extract the Babblefish. Holding it out by the tail, she motioned for the strangers to come closer.

The strangers did not move right away. Instead they gave each other looks and whispers. Mostly the males, whispering to the woman. She gave a side glance at times, before seemingly being fed up by the males, who stepped forward, planting her spear in the ground. With a couple long strides, she was before Ming. the tall woman looked at the Babble fish curiously. The Dreamer gestured for her to touch the fish, and the woman swore she could see it winking playfully at her.

Hesitantly, the woman reached out her hand and touched the fish.

“Howdy,” it went in a soft voice.

“H-Hello?” she said.

“Forgive my piscine appearance, madam - it’s just the way my creator made me. I’m the Babblefish. You talk, I translate. Usually, I can only translate one way, but miss Ming ‘ere found a nice lil’ loophole by holding me while you’re holding me. Y’see, I can only translate into my user’s language, so if you’re both using me? Eh? Eh?”

“Then we may understand each other?” she said looking at Ming. Her voice was exotic, rich but sweet.

“As long as we stay connected through the fish, yes,” Ming answered with a smile. She visibly calmed down and straightened herself a little. “We are the Dreamers, sons and daughters of the Elder Mothers. We come in peace, with no intention of harming anyone or anything that lives on these lands. All we ask is that we may rest our vessel at your beaches and peruse the woods for herbal remedies and the ground for mineral treasure.”

“Dreamers?” The woman said, as if thinking. “I’ve heard that name before… Oh! That’s right, you know Arya, correct?”

The Dreamers blinked at one another. Zhong Wang stepped forth and put his hand on the fish. “We know -of- her, but none of us have actually met her. Well, except for me once or twice in my youth. There should be a few more of us who would know her personally, though.”

The woman blinked, before frowning. “A shame, she speaks so highly of the dreamers. But where are my manners? Welcome to Nebulan, I am Lily, Daughter of Orvus and Rowan, sister to Ava. Thought I cannot say for sure if you are allowed to stay, I’m sure no one will really care. Come, I am sure Arya would like to see you.”

“O-oh, we--”

“We would love to come along,” Zhong Wang interjected with a smile. “I am Zhong Wang, headmaster of the Hermian Academy. This is Zhong Ming, my niece, general of the Dreamer forces.” Ming nodded politely. “We will follow if you’ll take us.”

She nodded at the both of them. “That is Cassian and Apollun. Please, follow us and be weary. We are not the only ones that now call this place home.” she said, letting go of the fish. She walked backwards before picking up her spear and speaking to the men, before she beckoned for them to follow.

Into the jungle they went.

The foliage was thick, green and abundantly beautiful. The trees were old here, and giant with their canopies blooming in size and teeming with life. Large colorful lizards basked upon warm rocks were the sun's rays could hit and the birds flew every which way, singing their myriads of songs. Insects both small and large buzzed about, dining what they did, but the foreign group stayed on edge throughout the trip as they passed creeks, ravines and went over hills. Their eyes were constantly on their surroundings. Every snap of a twig was met with a whisper and raised spears. But as they drew nearer to their destination, they began to see more of their kind, the tall beings wore simple clothing and were exotically beautiful. All had weapons of some sort as well and they were never alone either. Some even flew! But most importantly, all eyes were upon the Dreamers as they walked and there were many hushed whispers.

Lily usually dealt with the onlookers, waving disapproving hands at the others and speaking words. They came in so many colors and patterns, that it was easy to tell them apart. Eventually they reached a very large clearing, guards practically everywhere holding spears, always looking outward. There were many farms here, not as grand as the dreamers but of a different design and different crop. There were also many simple houses, with leaf roofs and wood. But perhaps the jewel of the area was the magnificent structure that rose to meet the stars. It was a plethora of colorful rocks that twinkled in the sunlight.

They walked past the mega structure and went onward as children, some roughly the same size as the dreamers, ooed and awed at the newcomers and try as she might, Lily could not dissuade them. Most curiously were the pale skinned, pointy eared children who were much smaller than the colorful ones. They looked nothing alike and were perhaps a different species entirely. As questions were made, they at last came to a clearing of two immaculate wooden cabins, spaced a ways apart. There were many flower gardens here and rocky paths.

As they walked to one cabin, the door opened and out walked a woman of white. She wore a light blue dress and a had a top her head a wide brimmed sun hat. Her smile widened as she floated over to them and without even waiting she began to hug each and every dreamer while saying, "Oh what a pleasant surprise! I was wondering when you all might show up. Welcome! Welcome to my home!" She beamed. The hug itself was the warmest one they had ever received and that warmth was not the heat kind, but the sort that made the soul feel safe, and less weary. The Dreamers hummed gleefully and bowed to her.

“D-did you expect us, Lady Arya?” Ming asked uncertainly. “Y-you are Lady Arya, correct?”

Arya looked at Ming, her expression unwavering. "I am indeed." she said bowing to them, before rising with unnatural grace. "It was always in Wenbo's soul to explore. I would have found you eventually but I am glad that you've come to me. Now, where is my dear brother and sister if you don't mind me asking?"

“The Lord and Lady, correct?” Zhong Wang asked. He wore a calm demeanour about him, if not one slightly tinted with heartfelt pain. “Lord Wenbo is unwell. The lady watches over him daily.”

A look of worry washed over her face as she looked upon Zhong Wang. "Where is he?" she asked.

“At the royal palace, my lady. He is being tended to by our finest physician - one every one of us would trust with our lives.” He bowed his head. “You needn’t worry.”

”Worrying is what I do best, I’m afraid.” she said with a small chuckle. ”I shall go see them soon, but for now I’m guessing you have many questions?”

“A number,” Wang confirmed, “the majority of which regard this island, these people and your esteemed self, Lady Arya. Would you mind if my assistant for today chronicles our conversation?”

Taishan blinked. “W-wait, I’m your assistant?”

“Nergui isn’t here, well, is she?”

Taishan nodded. “So it seems,” he mumbled and produced a roll of bark strips connected into a scroll by flax thread. Zhong Wang nodded approvingly. “What is this land?”

Arya giggled. "We call these islands the Eye of Desolation. It was formed thousands of years ago by my father, Orvus, who in the infancy of this world… Threw a meteor at it. From destruction, came life itself. Funny how that works." she mused. "This island is called Nebulan, home of the Nebulite people. Years ago Orvus returned and built upon it the foundation for this fledgling civilization. It has only improved since."

“Certainly quite a feat. Would you tell us about the Nebulite people? What is their culture like? In all our years of travel, we have yet to meet their likeness anywhere else.”

"Where would I even begin?" she said. "The Nebulite people are scattered across the world. Each group now different than the others. Here they are a simple farming people, who enjoy crafts and the arts. There is peace here… Or there was until a certain avatar decided to bring… Creatures with it. But that is not a pleasant topic of conversation."

“I will not pry, then,” Wang assured. Taishan scribbled furiously down the conversation. “What manner of crafts do they practice here?”

"Wood working, stone masonry, fletching, weaving, just to name a few. Some I've taught to fight and others I've taught to dance. Oh! And let's not forget clay working." she said smiling widely.

“Dancing, is that so?” said Wang with a smile. Ming perked up. “Yes, our Elder Mothers were quite fond of dancing. The art of the War Dance was even passed down through our parents - well, some of them.”

“Batbayaar is teaching me,” Ming blurted out. Wang gave her an acknowledging nod.

Arya eyed Ming happily. "I remember those days fondly. Waking up full of excitement at the chance to dance. Mom was a good teacher." Arya reminisced. "Batbayaar sounds familiar, but my siblings had… A lot of kids. I'd love to see you dance though." she said to Ming.

Ming cleared her throat. “The dance is less of a dance and more of a… Elder Mother must’ve explained the basics to you, yes? The martial dance?” Taishan took a breather and dipped the worn brush in ink.

Arya nodded. "Of course dear. I've even added to it over the years."

Ming’s eyes twinkled. “C-could you show me-- us?”

Arya smirked, ”Of course, but not now, I’m sure there are more questions to be had, and I’d like to see the Lord and Lady first.” she said with a wink.

“A request that can be met,” Wang agreed. “You have given us knowledge, so it’s only fair that we grant your wish as well.” He bowed curtly. “If you would follow us to the beach…”

Before she followed them, Arya turned to Lily and said, ”Double the defenses and if anything happens, pray.” Lily nodded before turning to the other Nebulites. Arya then began to follow the Dreamers.

As they passed through the jungle, Ming quietly noted, “You aren’t leaving anything to chance, are you? Is this mysterious foe that powerful?”

”There are many of them.” Arya said quietly, ”They haven’t attacked yet… But I can hear them every now and then. They probe our borders, checking our defenses. One can never be too sure when they might strike.”

“That’s terrible… Can the village withstand them, you think?”

”The Order I have taught, will do their best. We should be fine.” she said reassuringly.

“A standing force?” Ming proposed. “An order of elite warriors? Batbayaar’s told me that we should make one of those for the royal family when our young grow up.” The glistening of the beach filled their views. “... We’re close now. Chuanwang should be right over here.”

Sure enough, the resting turtle laid by the beachside, droning a quiet snore to the beat of the waves. The city on its shell was alight with the buzz of life, and the many buildings stood bathing in Heliopolis’ rays.

The Nebulite woman paused before the view, her mouth agape. ”Well…” she began, ”He’s beautiful.”

“He’d be happy to hear that,” said Ming and brought the group to the great staircase leading up the turtle’s flank. They ascended the flights together and the gates opened upon recognising the group. Inside, the market square was buzzling with hundreds of Dreamers, primarily young children. They zoomed around through the streets, but many stopped and stared at Arya with open mouths. As one stopped, more followed, and soon the streets were flanked with curious Dreamers all the way to the inner city gates. Ming and her soldiers formed a protective triangle formation around Arya and occasionally had to reroute curious toddlers straying too far from the flanks.

Arya couldn’t help but giggle at the sight. ”My oh my, so many little ones! You’ve all been very busy I see.”

“Yes, a phenomenon spurred on by divine aid,” Wang explained. “It was odd when it happened, but it was all explained quite recently.” He stopped and bowed. “If you will excuse us, Taishan and I will return to the Academy and archive our findings.”

Ming nodded. “Alright.”

”Farewell.” Arya said to the two Dreamers. She then turned back to Ming, ”Divine aid? Who helped?” she asked.

The other guards remained to guard the door, and as Ming and Arya entered the courtyard of the royal square and moved towards the palace, Ming thumbed over to a great statue depicting a humanoid shape in all its heroic glory. “That would be Yullian the Helpful.”

Arya looked upon the statue and frowned. ”I’m afraid I’ve never heard of him.” she said.

“Neither had we until quite recently. They’re a pretty mysterious being, for sure. Only one that really knows them is, well…” She swallowed. “Wouldn’t wanna bring that up before we see the lord and lady.”

”If you insist, but I would like to know more about him, if this person wants to talk.” she said warmly.

“She wouldn’t,” Ming insisted with a sad frown. “Apologies, but her spirit is quite ill and she rarely talks to anyone anymore - not even her own children. I mean… I suppose I can ask someone to introduce you, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up.”

”Hmm.” she narrowed her eyes if thinking. ”You would be surprised what a little compassion can do. I’d like to try, all the same.” she said smiling.

Ming appeared unconvinced and gave a pitying nod. “As you wish. I’ll see that it’s done after our meeting with the lord and lady.” As the arrived at the palace gates, they were approached by a robed man trailed by two boys in the middle teens. They all gave Arya hard, curious stares. Ming bowed. “Lord De. Lord Tu, Lord Yun. Moksha’s light bring you peace and tranquility.

“May Moksha’s light bring you relief and understanding, general. Who have you brought?” asked De back with a smile.

“This is the lady Arya, our aunt and leader of the Nebulite people. We have come to see the lord and lady.”

De blinked. “Aunt Arya, is that really you?”

She nodded, ”Hello De, it’s so good to see you again. And who are these two?” she said, looking Tu and Yun.

“My, what ages it has been! I was, well, I cannot even recall how young I was when we last met. Either way, since then, I, too, have started a family of my own! These are my sons Yun and Tu - well, two of my sons, anyway.”

“The oldest…”

“... and handsomest,” they boasted one after the other.

“Boys, not now.”

She chuckled. ”Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. Oh I’m so happy.” she said cheerfully.

“Oh, what for, aunt Arya?” De asked.

"To see my family thriving." she.

put simply.

“Oh,” De chuckled. “Of course. We are happy to have been so fortunate, and even happier that you would come to visit us.” He nodded at Ming. “Mother and father are upstairs in the royal chambers. Do they know you are coming?”

“We haven’t sent word,” Ming explained.

“Would you like me to tell them?”

“No, I think they would prefer the surprise. What do you think, lady Arya?”

”A surprise would be wonderful.” she mused.

“Then your arrival will be our little secret. Hear that, boys? No telling grandma and grandpa, alright?”

“Sure, dad. Have a nice day, aunt-- uh, I mean, grandaunt Arya,” Yun said with a bowed. Tu followed along. De smiled proudly and bowed along.

“Moksha’s peace be with you.”

“And with you, my lord,” the general replied.

Arya bowed humbly to them. ”Likewise, have a blessed day.”

The three remained behind as Arya and Ming continued into the palace and up the stairs. At the foot of the third floor flight, a middle-aged lady was wiping her hands with a cloth. She blinked at the arrivals. “General? Have you come to see the lord? And, uhm… Who’s this then?”

“Doctor Zhou, may Moksha bring you wisdom and knowledge. I am bringing the lady Arya to see the lord and lady.”

Zhou made a face. “Huh. Well, if that isn’t something. You wouldn’t happen to be related to our aunt Arya, would you?”

Arya laughed, covering her mouth. After a minute she said, ”Zhou, I am your aunt.”

“Fascinating,” Zhou answered and stuffed the rag in her satchel. She approached and cocked her head to the side, wearing a sly smile. “To think that even though I last saw you so many years ago, you haven’t aged a day. If you happen to know the recipe for an immortality potion, I would love to know it.”

”Hmm, if only there was such a thing.” she said, rubbing her chin. ”I would gladly give it.” she smiled.

“Yeah… The afterlife is eternal, but the ‘life’, well… Not as infinite. Now, regarding the lord, well… He has a terrible cold - he’ll be fine, but keep your distance to avoid spreading the disease, if you would.” She looked up the stairs. “I’m going back to the Academy to fetch some more sootheleaf and knacker root. While you’re up there, would you make sure the lord drinks his medicine? He never does when he’s alone.”

“The lady isn’t with him?” asked Ming.

“No, she went to see to the reconstruction of the broken grain silo. She should be back later, though.”

”Not to worry, I’ve never been sick in my life. But I’ll get him to drink his medicine.” Arya said softly.

“One time’s always the first. Take care now!” Zhou went off down the stairs.

Ming went up a number of steps. “Worry not, lady Arya. Even if we don’t see lady Ai today, Chuanwang will likely need a few more days to rest up. We won’t leave right away.”

”Oh my dear, I can always go find her if I need too.” Arya mused.

“Understood. This way, my lady.”

They continued up to the fourth floor, where the stairs gave way to a long hallway that split into three directions - left, right and centre. The centre one was short, leading up to a finely adorned door. Ming knocked on the door and waited. After a moment came a frail voice, “Come in…”

Ming pushed open the doors and entered. “Oh, it’s you, general. Have there been more news of destruction and loss?” Wenbo gave a sneeze and sniffed.

“My lord,” Ming said with a deep bow. “You have a visitor?”


Arya entered after Ming, a wide smile on her face. ”Hello, Lord Wenbo.” she said playfully.

Wenbo gaped. “A-Arya?” He sat up in his bed and tightened the loose robes about his figure. “Wha-... How--... It’s-...” He smiled. “It’s wonderful to see you, my sister. I would be better dressed, but, well, you’ve caught me in a bit of a predicament.” He sneezed again. “What do we owe the pleasure?” Ming, meanwhile, took a step back and went outside.

Arya held up a hand, ”Now now, you’re sick remember? Don’t worry about a thing.” she said walking over to him, and embracing her brother. ”It’s good to see you again.” she whispered. After a moment, she pulled away to look at him, a small smile on her face. ”It seems your home landed upon mine. I was hoping you would find me eventually, intentionally or not. I would have looked for you years ago… But I had duties to my people.”

“Your people? What sort of people do you govern?”

”I was going to tell you… All of you, but then Tendlepog became something else entirely. Around ten years ago, Orvus and Ohannakeloi created a people in his, mine, and Laurien’s image. Shortly after, Orvus and Laurien disappeared and I was left to watch over the Eye of Desolation. I’ve had my ups and downs… but things are much better now.” she smiled warmly.

Wenbo nodded. “I would be honoured to listen to your story if you’d tell it, sister. I’ll have Bei set the teapot to boil and Tian bring up some sweetbread.” He sniffed and stared out the window while wrinkling his nose. A moment passed before he muttered “ugh, nothing” and turned back to smile at Arya, sneezing promptly thereafter. “There it is.”

Arya beamed him a large smile before she began her tale of the last ten years. She told him how she met K'nell upon Tendlepog, how she met the Selka prophet, how she reunited with her old friend Split and then her arrival upon the Eye. Then she spoke of how she dealt with her loneliness and her thoughts and feelings about Orvus and Laurien seemingly abandoning her with no one to turn to. She did not tell him any of her thoughts about Paradise and what she did was vague at best.

Her stories went on until they got to the present and how she met Ashalla, Arrayn, Karamir, and then Shengshi all in the span of days. It was then she told him about Laurien's deceit and betrayal and the pain she caused. She mentioned the avatar Abraxas and his dealings with causing the moon to fall and the motes to spread. She spoke of Vrog and the creatures he brought, and how scared she was for her people. Then she grew quiet.

"I should say that Abraxas didn't just lay siege to our world… He mortally wounded Kalmar. The God of the hunt is dead and in his place, Karamir has ascended." she took in a deep breath. "But before that… Orvus had to give up his divinity to stop his avatar and in doing so… I've become a demigod as well." she said, looking at Wenbo to gauge his reaction.

Wenbo bit into a crumbly piece of sweetbread with fruit, his black brow furrowed greatly. “... This is a lot to take in… Mother and mom told us about the fall of Vakk, but… To think two more have passed.” He gave Arya a stern look. “You haven’t told anyone else, have you? That gods are, fundamentally, mortal?”

"The fall of Vakk? When did he…" her voice dropped and she blinked. "It seems I wasn't told everything, but no, I haven't told anyone specifically. Though the Nebulites know that Orvus is no longer divine." she said.

“... That information…” He grit his teeth and his voice became a whisper. “It cannot be allowed to spread. As much as I apologise for saying this, sister, I was careless just now and spoke too soon - Vakk’s death should’ve remained a secret, even to you.” He eyed the door. “It’s our duty as leaders, after all, to maintain the piety of our people.”

"You sound so much like mother." Arya sighed. "I understand where you are coming from, I do. But keeping secrets does no one any good in the end. But we shouldn't have this talk, not when I haven't seen you in years."

“Agreed.” Wenbo poured another cup of tea for the two of them. “So… Demigoddess. That makes three divine relatives. If I didn’t know better, I would almost say the Dreamers were the babies of divinity.”

"You practically are." she giggled before taking a sip. "And what's this I hear about a Yullian? That's not a name that strikes any bells."

“Right, Yullian. They are an elusive character - last seen a few weeks ago. Frankly none of us knew about them before they revealed themselves by constructing a colossal statue of themselves.” He frowned. “Apparently, they have been living among us for ten years, speaking as themselves to no one - except…”

She raised a brow. "Except…?"

“... My granddaughter, Song.” He drew some long, quiet breaths. “... Anyway, they aren’t around anymore. At least, we cannot find them.”

"Hmm Song, what a pretty name. I've already asked General Ming if I could meet her. I've been told she's not willing to talk to anyone. What happened, if I might ask?" Her voice was soft.

“If possible, I would rather not talk about it. It’s a shadow over our city that is still very much in the process of healing. Forgive me, Arya, but I would rather it be so.”

She smiled weakly and gave a small nod as she sipped her tea. "Besides that… Things are well here?"

“Apart from that, and a few other things, existence aboard Mengcheng is blissful. We have all the food we could eat, all the houses we could fill, and only truly need to stop our exploration of the world to fill our storages with resources or, if the seasons are dry, our pots with clean water. Most of that comes from the rain, though, and the skies have been kind this year, praise be to Li’kalla.”

She chuckled. "I think the rain is the last thing on Li'kalla's mind but I am happy to hear that life is good here. It fills my heart with joy, it does."

“A rain goddess that thinks not of the rain?” Wenbo chuckled. “Interesting characters, the divines… I suppose I should start referring to you properly now, shouldn’t I, lest mother scold me for my manners in the next life?” He bowed his head and smirked. “Your Holiness.”

Arya rolled her eyes. "Ugh. Please no, at least not around me."

Wenbo grinned. “I’m merely jesting. Tell me, are the Nebulites fond of music?”

"I've taught them dancing but alas, music always escaped my grasp. If they are anything like me, they'll love to listen to it." she mused.

“Then let us come over and play some for you. I’ll-I’ll do my best to come along! I’m not so old as to let a cold get the better of me.” The old dreamer began setting aside teacups and plates so he could rise out of bed without tipping them over.

”Wenbo… You know you shouldn’t leave bed. In fact, you probably need to take your medicine.” Arya chided.

Wenbo slowed down and muttered, “I just drank it.”

”Still… We could always bring my people here?” she said.

“Well… How many are you?”

"Not everyone would be able to attend, a few will have to stay behind to protect things but we number at about two thousand or so." she said thoughtfully.

Wenbo furrowed his brow. “I… I doubt we could host close to that many. Not to be rude, sister, but our policing forces have not the numbers to oversee… That many.”

”Then the beach will suffice. We’ll just have to be extra vigilant.” she said, putting a balled fist into her other hand.

“I trust your people to be civil and well-cultured in Shengshese etiquette, given what mother had us go through. We cannot provide snacks and wine for all of them, unfortunately, but that is to be expected when your people are so numerous. We will see what we can make of tea, perhaps.”

A sheepish look crossed her face. "Uh… Well, they're civil but not very well versed in Shengshese etiquette I'm afraid. But really Wenbo, it's okay. We can bring food and drink as well." she said.

Wenbo furrowed his brow. “Well… I trust you, then. Have them gather on the beach and I’ll ready the band on our part.”

"I can do that but first… I need to see Song." she said, getting up.

Wenbo groaned. “Arya, please…”

"I can help her, now more than ever before. It is my duty, Wenbo. I will no longer stand idly by while people suffer, powerless to help." she said firmly.

“She’s--!” Wenbo swallowed. “Will you enchant her, is that it? Lock her feelings inside herself with magic? Divine power can heal many wounds, sister, but can it truly fix those that bereave the soul of joy?”

"Perhaps it can, perhaps it can't. There's only one way to find out, brother. A little compassion can go a long way." she said, her expression saddened.

A hand dragged itself slowly across Wenbo’s face and he sighed into it. After a few seconds, he called, “General Ming!” The door swung open and the general entered and bowed.

“Your orders, my lord?”

“Take my sister here to see Song. Stop by Fei on the way and pay her a small visit, too. If she is to see the spark, she may as well see the flame, too.”

Reluctantly, it seemed, Ming uttered firmly, “As you wish, my lord,” and turned to Arya, gesturing to the doorway, “If the lady would follow.”

"Thank you, Wenbo. I'll see you soon." Arya said softly.

“You won’t be thanking me after you’re done,” Wenbo replied somberly, facing away from the two. “I wish you good luck. Help her if you can. Moksha’s tranquility trail your feet.”

She bowed and then followed Ming out the door. They walked down the stairs, the general silent and strict in her demeanour, though leaks of emotion dripped through occasional twitches in her eyes and the shape of the curve of her frown. She kept one hand firm on the pommel of her blade and the other swinging back and forth to the rhythm of her steps.

Arya's face was neutral as they walked, yet there was great thought behind her eyes. The streets they passed through were abuzz as was usual in the afternoons. Even as Heliopolis began to redden the sky, the Dreamer children flew back and forth across the paved roads, running in circles around Arya and making all sorts of comments about her height, complexion and brightness. The outnumbered adults did their best to shepherd them away.

It brought a smile to Arya's lips and she did not mind, giving reassuring comments and kind words. Nonetheless, the parents apologised for their children’s behaviours. The torrent of happily squealing children seemed endless, culminating into a small wall outside one specific house. While the children all individually sought to gain Arya’s attention, Ming rapped on the front door and waited. A minute and another round of raps passed before the door opened and out looked the groggy face of a woman Ming’s senior by about a decade. She looked surprised when she saw who had been rapping and said,

“Heeeey, general? Out of everyone I would expect, you are not one of them. Unless--”

“No, Fei, I have not changed my mind.”

“Figured as much,” she muttered. “What do you need?”

Ming stepped to the side and thumbed at Arya, who was still under assault by the tidal wave of curious kids.

”Hello Fei.” Arya began as a couple girls pulled on her sleeves. ”I’ve come to see Song.” she said.

What little colour Fei had in her face left and she gave Ming a hard look. “Is she serious?”

“Afraid so. We’re heading over to her house later. Thought she should know a bit more about her situation before we did.”

Fei drew a long breath and pinched the bridge of her nose. “You know how I feel about this whole thing, Mingy - I already take care of, of…”
“Yes, and you’re doing a stellar job, Fei, but…” Ming shifted her look to Arya and back. “She might be able to help her.”

Fei did the same, but eyed Arya for a little longer. “... If you say so, general. Come on in, you two. I’ll go get the oldest.”

Ming nodded and stepped inside, beckoning Arya after her. She followed, bending down to enter through the doorway. The inside of the house was incredibly roomy, almost deceptively so judging from how it looked from the outside. Along the walls were bunk beds stacked in towers of five, and hammocks were stretched between the towers and the walls where no more could fit. Along the centre of the room ran long tables flanked by benches, and the hall ended in a great hearth at the far end where a massive clay pot stood steaming. A number of the bunks spawned heads, and from every corner of the room came more children to marvel at the stranger. Fei and Ming tried to shepherd them back to their beds.

“You can either go outside and play, or stay inside and sleep! There’s no middle ground!” Fei scolded as she pulled one of the more enthusiastic children by the arm back to the bunks, the boy crying all the while.

”Are all of these… Her children?” Arya asked, bewildered.

“Not all of them,” Fei replied as she pushed another flock outside. “While the majority are hers, these are all children that were either unwanted, orphaned or somehow left without a willing caretaker. So yeah, by majority, I mean that there are, maybe, four or five that are not hers.” She clapped her hands free of dust and bowed to Arya. “By the way, I am Wen Fei, third daughter of Wenbo. I manage this orphanage.”

”Orphanage… Interesting.” Arya murmured as she looked around at all the small faces.

“I would have gone with ‘stressful’, but interesting comes close, too, I suppose,” she agreed and took a seat by the table, gesturing for Arya to do the same. Ming remained standing. Four children, three boys and a girl, came over and sat down next to Fei, opposite of Arya. Their eyes looked everywhere but to the front. Fei frowned. “Lady Arya, let me present the eldest children of Song and Urangtai: Gan, Yongbei, Ulagan and Nuya. Say hello now, children.”

In quiet, empty voices, the four bowed their heads slightly and whispered, “Hello…” Fei sighed.

Arya sat awkwardly at the small table and on the chair, but smiled at the children, even if they would not look upon her. ”Hello Gan, Yongbei, Ulagan and Nuya. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Arya, sister of Lord Wenbo and Lady Ai and your great-aunt. I’ve come to help.”

The children were silent. Fei groaned. “What do we say when someone offers help?”
Eventually, the one introduced as Gan muttered a faint “thanks…” Fei took him by the ear and he repeated himself louder. The other children bowed their heads slightly.

At the display, Arya stared daggers into Fei. ”You may leave, niece.” she said softly.

Fei blinked. “Huh? Why me?”

”They won’t talk to me if you are standing over them and chiding them to speak. Now please, go.” she said.

Fei scoffed, looked to Ming and found no support in the general’s eyes. She got to her feet and walked outside with a surly demeanour. The children all sat with pursed lips and shifty eyes.

Once she was gone, Arya clapped her hands together and immediately the room popped with uncanny warmth. The temperature did not rise, but the hearts of the little dreamers would see Arya in a new light. She was no longer some odd stranger, but a beacon of kindness in the dark waters that surrounded them and clouded their vision. Ease and tension, slowly drifted away as emotions began to rise.

”I understand your sadness and your anger.” she began, ”Please… Speak to me, let it all out.” she said warmly.

“Why?!” Yongbei suddenly shouted, scaring his siblings.

”A question we all ask, Yongbei.” Arya said.


“That’s dumb,” Ulagan muttered.

”Is it?” she asked. ”Now, your mother… What can you tell me about her?” she asked softly.

The children grew ever gloomier. Nuya began to sob and Yongbei crossed his arms furiously across his chest. Gan stood up and walked away. Ulagan glared at Arya and said, “We don’t talk about her.”

”I see.” she said, sympathising with them as she watched Gan leave. ”You know… My father kicked me out of my home. It was cruel and mean and I did not understand. You have my sympathy children. We don’t have to talk about your mother, not unless you want to.” Arya then reached across the table and wiped a few tears away from Nuya’s eyes. ”It’ll be okay, little sunshine.”

“Why did your dad make you leave?” Nuya mumbled through the sobs.

”He did not know how to love, and he was afraid that he would never be good enough for me.”

“That’s dumb,” Ulagan interjected angrily. “Why was he not good enough?”

She turned to Ulagan, ”He was though, Ulagan. It was his own self worth that kept him from being able to see that he was good enough. It wasn’t instantly, but a long time and when he finally found me again… He apologized for what he had done.”

“How long?” the boy snarled back, scraping cuts in the tabletop with his fingernail. Yongbei and Nuya sat wordlessly and stared at their laps.

”As long as it took.” Arya said, staring at his hands.

“How long?!” Ulagan snarled again. Nuya began to sob again and Yongbei got up and left.

”I’m going to go find out.” Arya said, standing up. She turned to face Ming, her expression wordlessly blank. The room’s strange warmth, returned to normal.

The general uncrossed her arms and put one hand on the pommel of her blade, bowing. “My lady?”

”Take me to Song.” she said, the kindness in her voice absent as she looked ahead.

Ming sighed. “My lady, are you certain?”

”No, but now I have too.” she put simply.

Ming bowed curtly. “As the lady wishes.” She turned to the door and went outside, Arya following along. The pair made their way to the far right side of the turtle where the dust in the streets was thick and the sounds of children laughing and playing were distant. They zig-zagged past empty houses waiting to be filled with new Dreamer families in time, god-built shelter that was resistant to the elements, but not to insect infestations. Eventually, they came upon a house which made itself unique in that it had a guard outside. She perked to her feet as she spotted the general and bowed.

“G-general! Initiate Zhong Jianbing awaiting orders!”

“At ease, dear niece,” Ming replied. “Is she awake?”
Jianbing eyed the door briefly. “Yes, general. At least, she was a moment ago.”

“Very good. Take a break, initiate.”

“R-really, general?”

“Yeah, go get yourself some supper. I hear Wen Bei will be making beef noodles at her stall. Hurry along if you want to get some before it runs out.”

Without a word, the initiate set off on a sprint back to the livelier part of town. Ming made a short-lived smile before eyeing the door again. She turned to Arya and said, “I will be here if you need me. I don’t know what you have in mind for her, but… I trust you’ll do your best.”

”I hope so.” Arya whispered, entering into the house after a brief pause.

The inside was black as night save for the dimmed evening light passing through woven linen curtains. There was an awful congregation of rank sweat, rotting food and other bodily odours cursing the air. From what Arya’s divine vision could see, the house was largely empty save for a table, a chair, empty wine pots and the faint contour of a bed towards the back behind a wall. Before she could close the door, there came a voice:


Arya ignored the voice and took another step inside. A clay pot shattered against the wall a distance away.


She did not flinch as the pot shattered. ”Song…” Arya said sadly. ”Please, let me help you.” Her foot squeezed some rotten food.

Song spat. “Is ‘go away’ any clearer?!” Another pot smashed against the wall, this one slightly closer to Arya. “GO AWAY!”

”No, I won’t. I’m going to stay here and help you. Because I haven’t been able to help anyone else, and I’m not going to leave knowing that you are wasting your life away, while your children need their mother.” she said, balling her fists while only slightly raising her voice.

“STOP! STOP! SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP!” More pots smashed apart, this time at the floor around Arya’s feet. One or two actually hit her directly. Song was standing now, a starved skeleton of a Dreamer with black, ruined locks of hair and a weakened body wrapped in rags. Her breathing was heavy, as if throwing things made her winded. “SNAP OFF! I DON’T CARE ANYMORE!”

”Why don’t you care, Song? Please, I just want to know. You don’t know me, but I want you to know, that I care for you.” Arya said, taking a step closer.

Song picked up the stool by the table and swung it in the air. “I don’t need your PITY!” She swung at Arya. Arya paused and blinked as she dodged the swing. Oddly, it went by very slowly. ”You… Are correct, Song.” she said, taking a step back.

“SHUT. UP!” Song took another swing. “Why?! WHY WON’T YOU JUST LEAVE ME ALONE?!” At this point, she was slowly moving the stool through the air in a manner that could possibly be a threat to a pillar of dry sand.

Deftly, Arya grabbed the stool in the air, preventing Song from swinging it. She opened her mouth to speak, but instead narrowed her eyes in thought and said nothing. As gently as she could, Arya took the stool from Song.

Weeks of neglecting to eat and drink properly had finally caught up with her, and Song collapsed forward against Arya, hammering weakly at her torso. “Snap oooout… Get the snap oooouuut!”

After a moment of letting her hit her, Arya reached out and embraced Song into a warm hug. Song seemed too weak to resist, though she still kept screaming for Arya to let her go and leave. As the hug lasted, she began to sob and beg to be alone. She eventually tried to lie and say that she felt all better, only to break back into furious scolding when it didn’t work. And still she hugged Song, something compelling her to hold the girl against her torso. She realized that before Song could even think about helping others, she had to help herself first. She slowly began to run her fingers in her hair, combing what she could.

Eventually, Song whimpered, “Why do you torment me so?”

Still Arya said nothing. She thought hard however, and from her fingertips, a small glowing comb appeared. It’s purpose, to comb hair, was but a side effect to what else it caused. It had a small aura of compassion, that only worked when hair was being combed. It was her first artifact and it seemed right.

“What makes you think you can just, just waltz into my home - not even my home - the house they threw me in and think that you can just--” She made another attempt to push and pull herself loose. “I hate you! Go snap yourself! Go--!” She coughed and swallowed her curses.

”Let it all out Song.” Arya whispered, while holding back her own tears.

“Who do you even think you are?! I am royal blood and you have NO right to, to, to… To treat me this way!”

”A friend.” she said simply, at last combing the entirety of her hair. It was then she let go of Song and held her by her upper arms. She still tried to wriggle herself loose.

“A friend?! What sort of friend ignores my demands to leave me alone, traps me in a hold and then so selfishly tells me to talk about my feelings as if they’re not for me to keep!” She tried to form a ball of phlegm in her dry mouth, but failed. “You, you are a pest. Leave. Me. Be!”

She let go of the girl, her arms falling to her side as she clutched the small comb. She shrugged and went about, beginning to clean up the place with unnatural speed.

Song watched in disbelief. “Are you deaf, is that it? Did they send me a deaf servant in hopes that it would cure my heartache?”

She continued to clean, by picking up the broken pottery and rotten food and placing it into a pile by the door. All the while she listened to Song. So it was heartache. Fei had said a name… Urangtai. Something had happened to him, for she knew he was no longer with the living. Yet, still she said nothing.

Song kept a surly glare and slowly made her way back to bed. “Well, whatever it is, feel free to leave at your earliest convenience.” She laid down on the wooden bed with a creak. “I will die here, alone and unloved. There is no other fate for me.”

Arya continued to clean, occasionally glancing back at Song with wondering eyes. She felt unloved? Alone? It seemed hardly possible in such a place, but who was she to judge such a thing? Song was deeply hurting and no one knew what to do, not even her really.

“Are you done yet?” came an eventual complaint.

”No.” was all she said.

“Well, hurry up. Night is approaching.” The outside was indeed getting rather dim.

”That it is.” she said back to her.

There came no answer. Song laid in bed facing the wall, angry breathing being the only sound she made. After a time, she began to sob.

Sensing this, Arya stopped cleaning and went over to the bed, sitting down next to her. It was probably the last place Song wanted her, but Arya knew she was close. So, she began to hum a tune, one that was Dreamer in origin, called the ‘Summer’s Heart’. She forgot who wrote it, save only that it was a long time ago. Back when her siblings had been teenagers. Many a tear, back on Tendlepog, had been shed while she hummed.

After a while and a number of sniffs, Song asked, “What song is that?”

”Summer’s Heart.” Arya said after a pause.

Song swallowed. “I’ve… I’ve never heard that one before… At least, no one’s sung it in my presence.” A moment passed. “Why have you come here?”

”I wanted to see my niece.” she said.

“That’s it?” came a sour reply. “You wanted to see the niece you have maybe seen once or twice before? Why?”

”Because she is suffering, and it breaks my heart to know it.” she said softly.

“Of course, I’m suffering! The love of life is gone!” She curled up into a ball. “How can I go on? The father of my forty children and the reason I exist - gone.”

”How did he pass?” she asked gently.

“He--...” The sobbing worsened to the point where she couldn’t speak. “Go away…”

”I’m sorry… That was insensitive.” Arya sighed.

“Go awaaaay…”

Arya stood up and wiped herself off. She walked over to the door, but before she opened it she turned her head and said, ”Thank you for your time, Song. If it all you want to talk… Just pray to me.” she said solemnly, before opening the door and leaving her behind.

There came no answer save for sobbing. Outside, Ming was waiting faithfully along with Jianbing. As Arya closed the door behind her, the general and the soldier both bowed.

“How did it go, my lady?” Ming asked.

”About as well as you probably expected.” Arya sighed. ”Her grief and sense of self worth are low, and she believes herself to be alone, and uncared for. She loved Urangtai deeply, didn’t she?” Arya asked.

“Love doesn’t come close to it. She was fanatical. Clung to him like a tick wherever he went.”

“We eventually pieced together that she likely got some help from Their Holiness Yullian in actually making Urangtai fall in love with her again. How they did it, we still don’t know, but… Well, it’d be hard to fall in love with, well…” Jianbing shut herself up and put her hands innocently behind her back upon seeing Ming’s glare.

“Either way, my lady, we must return to the city. Lord Wenbo has already made preparations for tonight’s concert.”

”This is concerning news… It would have been nice knowing that, going into this… But for now, go tell my brother I’ve been delayed. I’ll need to go get my people ready! It shouldn’t be long.” she said, beginning to take off.

“Snap, she can fly?!” Jianbing yelled after her.

“Ssh! Not so loud. Stay at your post until your replacement arrives.”

“When’s that?”

“Shouldn’t be too long now. Just make certain she doesn’t, y’know…”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jianbing replied knowingly and saluted. Ming saluted back and went off back to the city.

Night had fallen and most of the children had gone to sleep. Torches lit up occasional areas of the city, but it was largely cast in darkness - except for the right gate. It was open and surrounded with flickering torches. On the beach below, a number of Dreamers dressed in their finest clothing had brought morin khuurs, guqins and drums. They were tuning their instruments, lead by Batbayaar and Wen Bei. Bows sawed at the strings and sticks hammered against drumskins. Batbayaar and a few others unleashed the gentle bass of kargyraa throat song while the women backed up with the lighter khoomei. They tried to practice as much as possible before the Nebulites arrived.

And arrive they did, up above the trees and through the forests, tall, exotic beings, wearing simple garments in tow. With them they rough baskets of food and other crafting items. At the forefront, was Arya. With her was a man and woman, who more closely resembled the Dreamers, then they did the other Nebulites, and upon closer inspection, there were many more intertwined in the group.

It was time for the festival to begin.

The Seas of Galbar

Somewhere off the northern coast of Linguja…

Wenbo stood on the veranda of the royal bed chambers, at the very top floor of the Mengcheng palace. It was dark out, but then again, it was always dark out under the sea. The vicious drums of meteors striking the surface had long since subsided, and all that coloured the deep water soundscape now was the buzz of their own city below. The contrast of red flickers of flame dancing in the shade of the abyss was almost ominous - such light had likely never reached this deep before. Another quiet prayer escaped his lips to thank Yullian for this opportunity - now, even the deep seas could be mapped and explored.

“Still up, father?” came a sweet voice and Wenbo turned to see his eldest daughter Bei, who approached holding a torch. Wenbo struck a half-grin.

“It’s difficult to tell what time of day it is down here. Neither Heliopolis’ rays nor the Garden’s sheen can dive this deep.”

Bei deposited the torch in a nearby bracket and sat down in a chair by the veranda door. “I miss the day, to be honest. All this darkness all the time is, frankly, a little depressing. Why are we still submerged?”

Wenbo hummed. “To be fair, my dear, I cannot really answer that adequately. The fire of the sky stopped quite recently, didn’t it?”

“A few days ago, if I recall correctly.”

“Oh, is that so? Well, in that case, I will have a word with Chuanwang about our ascent.”

Bei smiled warmly. “Thanks, father.”

“Please, don’t be so formal, Bei-by.”

Bei flushed red and giggled. “S-stop! That name was never clever or funny!”

“Indeed, it was always quite un-bei-able, wasn’t it?”

A snort escaped Bei’s laughter. “Dad, you’re awful!”

“No, little Bei,” Wenbo protested with a smirk, “I am Wen-derful.”

“If my husband turns out like you, I will jump off this turtle.”

The two kept chuckling for a short moment before an odd sound cut through. It was like a squeal - a very distant squeal, but not one made by a Dreamer. Wenbo frowned.

“Did you hear something?”

“Y-yeah?” Bei voiced with concern.

From within the darkness of the water surrounding the city, lines of light appeared in a small area. They shimmered and twisted and blinked. A long, slender red form with tentacles and a great eye could be seen briefly as the originator of the light before inky blackness swallowed the scene. A low, haunting otherworldly call sounded shortly afterwards.

A rumble trembled through the city and both knew it was Chuanwang.

“He is uneasy,” Wenbo mumbled. Bei swallowed.

“Dad, tell him to resurface.”

“Agreed. Let’s go.” The pair rushed through the palace with quick steps. They had barely made it down to the third floor before they were stopped by Ai wearing an equally concerned expression.

“Did you hear that?”

“We did,” Wenbo confirmed. “We are on our way to tell Chuanwang to swim to the surface.”

“Oh, good. Be swift. We don’t know what the ocean holds.”

They exchanged nods and Wenbo and Bei continued. Out in the courtyard, a few had stopped in their tracks to stare up through the shield bubble that surrounded the city. Some children were sobbing. Around the gate to the Hermian Academy, the guards stared fearfully at the ink cloud.

“You look like you’ve had a nightmare,” Wenbo said to them.

“Th-there was something out there, my lord,” one of them said in a quivering voice. “Something h-huge.”

“Is that so? What did it look like?”

“We’ve… We’ve never seen anything like it!”

“Dad, we cannot delay,” Bei interjected before Wenbo could probe any further.

“Right,” the dreamer lord muttered. “Worry not, guards, we’ll soon be up on the surface again. For now, open these gates, if you’d please.”

The gates swung open and the pair headed swiftly towards the back wall of the Academy square.

As they walked, another sensation came over the Dreamers. Their skin prickled and their hair stood on end. Another tremble shuddered through the city. Wenbo drew a gasp.

“He’s felt something - a presence.”

“Chuanwang has?” They picked up their pace.

“Yes, and I doubt he will be able to avoid it peacefully from how he describes it.” He took Bei by the shoulder. “Tell all the guards to spread throughout the city. Tell everyone to get off the streets and take shelter inside their homes. If they have a cellar, have them hide down there along with as many neighbours as they can fit.”

“R-right!” She took the old Dreamer’s hand. “Be safe, dad.”

Wenbo smiled. “I won’t pass on into Moksha quite yet. Now go.”

Bei nodded and ran back to the guards. Wenbo continued onwards towards the wall, praying all the while that his voice would carry to Chuanwang’s ears even through the barrier. As he approached, the prickling sensation on his skin grew stronger. The shell beneath Wenbo’s feet twitched and shuddered. Chuanwang suddenly roared and the city was briefly tossed to the right. Wenbo lost his footing and nearly fell off the stairs leading to the battlements. A creaking fence was all that had kept him from an early ascent to Moksha.

“Don’t worry, Chuanwang, just hold on, alri--WOAH!” Another toss sent him to the left, where the fence nearly gave out. Grabbing onto both sides, Wenbo took a moment to stabilise, calling out, “CHUANWANG! SWIM UP!” There came no reaction and the lord grit his teeth. He would have to get closer. He kept climbing, distant screams and weeps coming from the city behind him as another twitch thundered through its stone foundations.

Wenbo reached the rampants with great difficulty and peeked over the side. It was dark, the barrier extending but a quarter of a metre away from the edge of the wall. If he stretched out, he could potentially pierce it with his hand. He drew a deep breath.

“Chuanwang! What ails you?!”

Another quake rumbled through the city, but Wenbo only frowned at it. “Yes, I realise it’s painful, but -what- is causing it?!”

No answer. “Damn it, you still can’t hear me, can you…” Wenbo looked around for solutions. In the meantime, the city’s foundation began to quake even more. It titled forwards, backwards and sidewards, as if Chuanwang was trying to kick something away. A distant cacophony of tumbling stone told Wenbo one of their construction projects had finally reached its limit for what it could withstand. He tried punching at the barrier while shouting for the turtle. All he managed was to pierce it with his fists, although at this pressure the water was much harder than he had expected. Wenbo felt the sting of cold water and a jolt of electricity run from his hand through his chest. He cursed to himself, and the tremors continued for a while until they eventually stopped, along with the prickling sensation.

Wenbo blinked and tried once more to look over the side of the ramparts, frowning as he remembered the futility of it. Once more, he tried to shout, “CHUANWANG! SWIM UP!” This time, the ground seemed to tilt backwards and Wenbo grabbed onto the wall for support. It was still uncertain whether Chuanwang had actually heard him or if he simply was annoyed at the lifeforms this deep, but either way, the goal had been accomplished. He looked up to see the very distant twinkles of day peek through waves and wildlife. It wouldn’t be long before they could see again.

The ascent was lengthy, giving time for the Dreamers’ eyes to begin to adapt to the brightness above. When Chuanwang reached the surface, the barrier peeled back like a bubble as it met the open air. Pure, unfiltered sunlight streamed down into the city. The sound of waves and splashing water washed in from outside, crisp and unfettered by ocean and barrier. A fresh, salty sea breeze blew in and swept away the stale smoke-tinged air which the inhabitants of Mengcheng had been making and breathing for the past few days.

Around the city on the back on Chuanwang stretched open ocean as far as the eye could see. Deep blue rippled and shone with reflected sunlight beneath an azure canvas painted with fluffy white clouds. Nearby frolicked a pod of dolphins, making creaking chirps and curiously inspecting the new arrival. Wenbo drew a gasp and chuckled to himself, the laughter increasing in intensity as it went on. He stretched out his arms and let out a loud cheer, grabbing onto the wall again shortly after as the wind threatened to push him off balance.

“My lord!” came a call behind him and he turned to see general Ming.

“Ming! Come up here! The wind feels wonderful!” He took a deep breath. “Ah, can you taste that crisp air?”

“My lord, with all due respect, you’ll get sick if you stand in the wind for too long!”

“Sick? Me? Nooooo… Besides, doctor Zhou will make me all better.” He blinked as if realising something. “Oh, hold on a moment.”

“My lord, I must insist--”

“Hey, Chuanwang! Are you alright?”

There came a surly rumble that dissipated slowly. Wenbo nodded with the occasional hum. “Right, so your leg got bitten by a tiny weird snake?”

“My lord…?”

“How’d it even bite through your skin? Aren’t you made of stone?”
“Lord Wenbo!”


“There have been multiple accidents, my lord. Please, if you would come along.”

“Accidents?” The joy of fresh air and freedom disappeared in an instant. “Has anyone gotten hurt?”

“It… May be best if the lord sees for himself.” The two then proceeded down the ramparts towards the city.

The cacophony of crumbling buildings earlier hadn’t been exaggerated. The industrial square had fortunately not suffered any damage to the furnaces that could’ve caused an outbreak of fire, but a number of storehouses built by the Dreamers had crumbled, and the pottery inside with them. A number of tents and stalls in the market had fallen over, and perhaps most devastating was the loss of a nearly full silo of grain, a golden sea of freshly harvested wheat laying spread across the streets. Wenbo rubbed a pair of tired eyes.

“Have there been any other accidents?”

Ming hung her head. “Only one, my lord. This way.”

The general led him down the southern streets, almost towards the agricultural hub wall. There, a heap of crumbled stone lay behind steadier constructions. Judging from the age of the materials, it was one of the newer houses, built primarily to serve as a storehouse. However, it was not uncommon for these to have cellars too, or lead to cellars, and this one in particular had been constructed right above a trapdoor down to a large storage area. A number were already digging away at the rocks to access the door, but a small distance away from the heap laid two woven blankets, contours in the fabric revealing still, humanoid shapes underneath. Wenbo drew a sharp gasp.

“... Who were they?”

“They have been identified as the young Zhong Renai and Temur - my sister’s children.”

“My deepest condolences, general. I cannot even fathom what it must be like to, to lose someone so abruptly.”

“My sister is below, my lord. She will likely be in greater need of warm words than me.” She rested her hand on the pommel of her clay shortsword. “How will you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Put them to rest, my lord.”

Wenbo furrowed his brow and stepped over to the blankets. He pulled the closest one away slightly and shut his eyes hard at the sight. “No dreamer has passed on since, since Urangtai. His manner of death made burning the most… Convenient.” He winced at his own diction. “... I should consult Moksha about this, or Zhong Wang. Wang might have a solution.”

“The headmaster will likely be grieving as well, my lord. Renai was a beloved niece of his.”

“I see. That is understandable, then.”

“Furthermore, if I may speak frankly, my lord…”

“Go on.”

“... It should be up to their families to decide how they are returned to the clay.”

Wenbo hummed and eventually nodded. “You’re right, I… I spoke out of line. Their mother shall be the one to decide.”

At that moment came another rumble and the Dreamers in the area all jerked to face the front of their city. Wenbo grit his teeth and Ming threw him a worried frown.

“What is it, my lord? What is he saying?”

“There’s more out there. He senses another presence. Stay here. I will go back!”

“My lord!”

“Stay here!”

Ming froze and glared at the ground. Squeezing the pommel of her blade, she nodded slowly. “Yes, my lord.”

“Good. I will be right back.”

Wenbo hurried through the streets, which were being emptied as people once more retreated into their houses to avoid being tossed everywhere in case Chuanwang had to move. He appreciated that the city wasn’t very long, but closer to the Hermian Academy, the streets grew a little too zig-zaggy to be efficient. He eventually reached the ramparts from before, though, and looked over the side to see what Chuanwang had laid his eyes on.

In the water nearby moved an enormous shape, far larger than any whale or other sea beast Wenbo had seen. It looked bulbous, although its patterning and colouration made it nearly impossible to distinguish its exact outline. Then stripes and colours danced across the creature’s surface. A greeting, territorial but not hostile.

Chuanwang rumbled. Wenbo nodded. “Yes, maintain a friendly attitude. We cannot risk any more conflict.” Wenbo waved weakly and shouted, “Hello! Don’t mind us, please - we’re just passing by!” The sea breeze tossed his long, black hair out of its braid.

The creature’s colours shifted to a speckled reddish-pink. Frills stretched along the edge of the bulbous form, tentacles waved below it, and two giant eyes looked up at Wenbo and the city of Dreamers. The Kraken raised a couple of tentacles and became blue with a few shifting yellow circles, the patterns saying, Where did you come from? Where are you going?

Wenbo smiled. “Aha. M-hm. An honour to meet you, great marvel of the sea. We are the Dreamers, and we last came from the depths after hiding from the rain of fire. We are heading, well, wherever the great turtle takes us.”

The Kraken turned black with red zig-zags at the mention of the rain of fire - a fearful gesture. It shifted back to a neutral speckled reddish-pink, Then the Kraken became a black-blue gradient with more yellow circles and waving arms, a gesture saying, Where before the depths?

Wenbo hummed. “Our last landfall was on the land south of here - lots of mountains and horribly frightening monsters further inland. Though…” A frown coloured his face. “If you mean our true home, I suppose I should say Tendlepog.”

The former continent’s description garnered confusion from the Kraken, but it seemed to understand the latter. The Kraken’s eyes scanned across Wenbo, Chuanwang and the city. Then it sunk back beneath the waves, blending in with the water and disappearing from sight.

Wenbo looked over the ramparts, seeing nothing but the huge shell and the faint silhouette of Chuanwang’s head. “Did he leave?” The turtle grumbled. “Oh, I see. Well, better hope he doesn’t scare the life out of anyone down hubwards.” He smiled and spun around, but before he could set a foot on the stairs, a cold seabreeze soared by. Wenbo inhaled and let out a sneeze. He dabbed his sleeve on his runny nose and cleared his throat. Shaking his head for a minute, he then proceeded back towards the city. And Chuanwang continued to swim slowly through the ocean, with the city on his back.

The Rise of Talemon

“We shall be pure of heart and strong of body…” Fu Lai’an said in a bubbly voice. Before her a large crowd of pygmy children echoed her words.

“Untainted by doubt and never lacking honor…”

“Untainted by doubt and never lacking honor!”

“Guided by the Mẹta, core the World Pillars--”

“Guided by the Mẹta, core the World Pillars--”

Fu Lai’an raised a finger to signal to the children that attention here was especially critical. “Might in the face of one's work; Guile in the face of the enemy; Vision in face of the future.”

The children chimed after: “Might in the face of one's work; Guile in the face of the enemy; Vision in face of the future.”

Fu Lai’an nodded proudly. “Each must strive to embody all three as an ideal for prosperity.”

The children sang along: “Each must strive to embody all three as an ideal for prosperity!”

“For if any is weak in a single one it may falter the whole.”

“For if any is weak in a single one it may falter the whole!”

“So all must strive for a thousand times for a thousand years.”

“So all must strive for a thousand times for a thousand years!”

Fu Lai’an patted one of the closest ones and it flashed her an eager smile. “Now remember, kids - unto the very end of eternity.”

The children threw their hands into the air. “Unto the very end of eternity!”

It had been a number of months since Narzhak’s visit. Since then, Anu had demanded redoubled efforts into a total overhaul of state control over the pygmies. The Mẹta, also known as the Oath, was only one of the steps on the way to a nation devoted entirely to the betterment of the collective.

Within weeks of the visit, the King’s officials had nationalised every rice paddy, assuming full control of production, collection and redistribution of rice. All the farmers were employed with a salary consisting of ration chips, with additional bonuses in store for the hard-working. Management of the farms were given to the very first foremen - the first generation of which had been selected based on excellent conduct as a citizen of Talemon. Such was the temporary system while the Council drafted proper examination processes. At this stage, however, the introduction of the system faced a number of protests, especially from the farmers whose homes were taken from them. While the ration chip salary was higher than what they would normally receive from a harvest, it did not outweigh the drawbacks of losing their land. These protests, however, were immediately portrayed as a betrayal against the greater nation and punished accordingly, and within a year, they had disappeared.

Another source of protests was the relatively immediate implementation of the Ntọala, the castes. To ensure maximum efficiency on every level of society, citizens would now dedicate their lives to perfecting their crafts and skills - much in the same way the Servants were organised:

Carrying the society on their backs were the Laala caste - the builders, farmers, engineers, potters, claydiggers; they were those who worked the industries of Talemon. Their caste was the largest.

Protecting the society from the many new beasts of the plains and jungle were the Ogun - the warriors, warmasons and mansa of the Talemon. Their numbers were few, especially the mansa, but warleader Qiang Quan was certain that both men and mana would appear in the future, allowing for a much expanded military.

Managing the society fell to the Oludari - the administrators, merchants, diplomats, bureaucrats and overseers. This was the second smallest caste, consisting only of the trial foremen and a few personal servants and assistants to the councillors.

Finally, those who lead the society made up the Oba caste, and theirs was an exclusive position. The caste had merely five members, those being the four councillors - and His Majesty.

Initially, this quick overhaul and rigidisation of society fueled great outrage - especially since children were taken from their parents at the age of ten to apprentice for the various crafters, farmers, warriors or bureaucrats, depending on what they showed an affinity for. As with those who protested against nationalisation of farmlands and industry, these rebels were dealt with accordingly. The will of Anu would not be denied.

However, the Council quickly saw that this system had great room for expansion. Furthermore, the clay pits on the Talemonese side of the river were running dry. Crossing Beihe would require vessels akin to that of His Lordship, but sophisticated boats required tools they simply had no concept of. Much could be achieved with sticks and stones, but it would be impossible to make ships in Jiangzhou’s image with such primitive tools. With these three points in their mind, the council approached His Majesty in the second year.

“Your Majesty,” Zhu Rongyuan began. “The people are at last beginning to adjust to His Majesty’s philosophy of the World Pillars. Great prosperity will be within Your mighty grasp in time. However, a number of points remain to be addressed.”

Fu Lai’an nodded. “The Pygmy population number much too few, Your Majesty. At their current rate of reproduction, it will take decades, if not centuries for Tal Eren to become the jewel of might and wealth we all dream it to be.”

Yong Cai pinched her chin ponderously. “While on the subject of wealth - additional claypits must be prospected. We are certain there are more on the other side of Beihe, perhaps by the tributaries running down great Qiangshan. However, to cross back and forth, with clay no less, we will require ships.”

Qiang Quan crossed his arms over his chest. “His Majesty’s warmasons can lend their hands in such an effort. The lions have moved further into the Knucklelands, and we can safely spare a small number to assist the civilians.”

Yong Cai nodded. “Thank you, warleader. What does His Majesty think?”

The big king rolled one his locks in his hand. ”I can exert some power to boost our numbers. No easy task but it can be done.” he acquiesced, nodding towards no one in particular. ”Can river-worthy vessel built with our current resources?”

“Well, our tools are insufficient to make great vessels, but…” Yong Cai tapped her chin. “I reckon we could get by by tying logs together with vines. We have seen that even great trunks can float on the river during floods - if we were to build a platform of them, we could at least create something that would let us float. Pygmies will need to paddle with their hands for thrust, however.”

”Could they handle the weight of clay and men without capsizing?”

“That will have to be tested,” the master architect responded.

”Do so.”

Yong Cai bowed deeply. “Right away, Your Majesty.” She turned to some servants and delegated the order further. Qiang Quan instructed his own to ready a number of warmasons, too. Zhu Rongyuan approached the king a little closer and bowed.

“Your Majesty, regarding the population numbers…”

”Speak.” he said without looking.

Zhu Rongyuan bowed his head deeper than usual. “His Majesty is of divine blood. In order to truly get His civilisation going, there is an urgent need for additional Pygmies. This servant is much too rude for even considering this question, but… Does His Majesty possibly have a way to bend the rules of nature so that His people may grow to be much more numerous in the near future?”

Golden disks landed on the servant, with neither hostility nor compassion. ”Cherished Zhu, I bend nature to my will, so is my birthright.” Iron-scepter in hand the ape rose. ”To me, we make for the city’s edge.”.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Zhu Rongyuan said and followed along after. As did the other three councillors.

As they walked the city's main thoroughfare, Pygmies kowtowed by the tens before their king, it wasn't long at all before the vast stretch of plains opened up before them, only broken in the distance by the farmlands and river.

Anu looked upon the land for a moment, then nodded. With a heave the king raised his ironspike high and drove it into the ground in one smooth motion. It sunk deep, nearly half the thing disappearing into the grass. An instant later the ground began to quake, the earth before them becoming like dough, soft and moldable. From will alone shapes grew rose from the much, all of varying heights and visages, all pygmies. Before long the shaking ceased, and outside the city stood a full cohort of flesh and blood.

The ape heaved a breathe. ”Welcome our new citizens.” he sighed, looking at the council and nodding towards the newborn adults, then padding back down the mainstreet. ”And someone bring my scepter.”

A pygmy servant quickly came over with the Narzhakian scepter. The councillors began to inspect and divide the adults into the Laala and the Ogun castes based on builds. Zhu and Fu took a number for themselves to serve in the Oludari. Zhu then approached the king, bowed and said, “His Majesty has once more proven His divinity. We are eternally blessed to be governed by such a magnificent being.” His watery eyes scanned the crowd. “... Our population has multiplied significantly. This servant will need to assess the contents of the granaries again and recalculate rations…” He eyed Anu with determination burning in his gaze. “This servant recommends the majority go to the farmlands.”

The giant pursed his lips, gazing upon the crowd himself. ”Divide them as you see fit.” he ordered.

“As His Majesty wishes.”

In order to avoid mass starvation, the rations for each pygmy was reduced to little more than the scrapings required to survive. Odd was it not that the overall health and strength of the nation deteriorated somewhat, and some of the older pygmies began to fear a return to the Hard Times - the time before Shengshi had blessed them with food safety. Quickly, a program was initiated at the order of His Majesty - a project that occupied much of his own time with study into his divine power, the abilities of the mansa, and the attributes of his people. Talemon needed workers - even more than they already had. Deep in the recesses of Tal Eren they worked. Mansa; having learned the ways of world-bending by will of word alone thanks to the guidance of the Dragon, constructed spells that warped and twisted natural flesh into something different. Zhu catalogued the working ones into spell lists while Anu and a number of servants took pygmy flesh and his own ichor and joined them together in a basin pit. Deep in the belly of the capital thousands of abominations where sired from the matrimony, beasts without intelligence, monsters with more eyes then teeth and demons with more heads then eyes. All were slain, returned, and reconstituted again until after months of intense labor and bloodletting, progress was made. A hominid, albeit misshapen, was synthesized with the right amount of parts. Unfortunately intelligence wasn’t up to standards. Tweaks were made to the spell list and experimentation went on. With a years work errors were strained from the process until a spell list promising consistency had been synthesised. A template for the most basic of worker, short and stocky with a fur shorter than that of a Pygmy and intelligence affording them the ability to perform any sort of task and a loyalty and obedience so deep self-preservation meant nothing if commanded otherwise. Tests began to be run. Tests Anu meant to see the results of himself.

”Your Majesty.” a pygmy guard said as evening began its descent on the city. The king paid him mind as he crossed the threshold of the temple’s lower levels.

Nowhere near as large as palace, the Temple of Chains the mighty king erected himself was nevertheless great in size. A large plaza open and empty encircled it's centerpiece, a box-like structure of clay and jutting wooden logs, simple and elegant yet a menacing structure in it's own right. Yet the complex only served as crown atop the factory of flesh active below.

Anu moved with a sense of purpose, striding through the main fire-lit corridor large enough to accommodate him comfortably. In his mind’s eye the pit revealed itself, complete with the core serving as the trunk and the main corridors branching off it, beyond the darkened archways of the various secured entrances, as its limbs. There didn't seem to be any reason to why a corridor was placed where it was, or given the length that it had, they just appeared to have sprouted organically off the core as needed, created when the pit was dug from the earth by his divine will. Despite it all, its order was more than clear.

A sudden gust of fetid air swirled up the core from far below and the contingent following Anu found themselves grimacing at the foul smell it carried to their nostrils, the king remained unperturbed moving forward until he was stepping off the final stair onto the packed earth of the core's floor.

Before him sprawled the core, a massive box, with the corridor he was now stepping in, running along its top in the form of a broad walkway that bridged the vast space. A number of guards strode along the walkway, their attention on the space below. That space was further divided into a number of individual chambers, a number of which were pens, regular squares divided from each other by heavy stone walls, with narrow passageways grouping the square pens into blocks of six.

A number of slightly larger pens stood against the far wall, somewhat separated from the rest by both a passageway and a heavy wall. Here magic was at work, a handful of mansa grimly at task creating Ikhobo–the stocky hominds that had been perfected in the last few weeks–from the primordial mixture of flesh and godblood that filled massive pools. Together, they formed a vast grid, regularly patrolled by a dozen guards.

A thin pygmy approached Anu from the catwalk and kowtowed. ”Your Majesty.” she greeted in a soft breath.

”Rise, taskmaster. Has the first batch been prepared?” She did so.

”Yes, your Majesty. Please follow me.” Quickly she set off across the main walkway and into another entrance that's wound down into a great room were an entire cohort of Ikhobo stood stark naked. Zhu was already there, inspecting them himself.

“Ah, Your Majesty,” the councillor said with a deep bow. “Come, come - these servants are certain His Majesty will find the result to be exquisite.” He gestured to the cohort.

Hands behind his back, the big king strode down the line, his eyes critical as he examined the new slaves. Hands clasped at their front, heads thrown back proudly, and their legs separated in parade stance, the Ikhobo were imposing creatures, ready to serve in any capacity.

”Do they meet your approval, Your Majesty.” the taskmaster inquired.

The ape grunted. ”Marginally.” he replied, gazing back down the like. ”How quickly are the pits working now?”

”At full-capacity, Your Majesty. We should have a second cohort by morning.”

Anu nodded, a thoughtful expression on his face. ”What say you, Zhu? Are they to standard?”

“We tested them in the clay pits yesterday. They are perhaps a little slow to adapt to new situations - we had one be crushed underneath a rockslide and it took a considerable time before the others elected to aid it. However, there is no doubt as to how capable they are as labourers.”

”Maybe some added intelligence would do them good. But as long as they do their job, little else matters.”

“Intelligence may be added later. For now, this cohort will be shipped across the river to work.”

”So be it.” the ape agreed and nodded towards the taskmaster.

She kowtowed. ”At once, Your Majesty.” Immediately she and a cadre of guards went marching the Ikhobo out of the hall.

”Might we set on the first set of deviations?” he huffed, glancing at his councilman.

“Our attempts to alter the template have been,” Zhu drew a shameful breath, “most unsuccessful so far. Beyond the simple ikhobo, any immediate deviations have resulted in grotesque, misshapen creations. This servant’s afraid more research is required.”

Anu guffed, his laugh like crashing waves. ”Failure is only a stepping stone, as long as you don't die, it is just another step. Come, we begin immediately.”

While Anu and Zhu dedicated themselves to research, Yong Cai and Qiang Quan were experimenting with rafts along the banks of Beihe.

In the beginning, these were little more than pygmies clambering to trunks and doing their best to paddle across the river. Needless to say, this did not work. The next project involved tying together trunks using jungle vines. This worked better - at least it floated - but still it required one or two pygmies to push it from behind in order to gather thrust. By the end of the year, rafts sizeable enough to carry up to three pygmies with two more doing the paddling had been constructed. These began to bring workers over to the other bank of Beihe. Slowly, but surely, adequately numbrous worker teams began to gather on the bank, using sticks and stones to sample and prospect the mud. Upon inspection, Yong Cai found that it was of quite good quality, much like the clay on the opposite bank.

“Set up camp and start transporting clay back across. Oh, and tell those on the opposite bank to keep improving the rafts. I will not have any of that precious clay lost into Beihe, is that clear?”

“Yes, Master Architect!” the elected foreman answered and went on to bark orders at the rest. Soon enough, lay-tos were erected against the many trees, and a simple perimetre was set by the warriors guided by Qiang Quan. The jungle along the bank was, much in the same way as the clay, similar to its cousin on the opposite side of the river. However, as the warriors noted, the air felt different - wilder, savager. A faint tinge of sulphur clung to the air, and from the mountains far to the north, occasional beastly echoes rung out through the aether.

Still, though, the clay made its way back to the city without too many issues beyond the occasional sinking. After a while, the clay pits moved further and further north, until they reached the Qiangshan tributaries. In the fourth year, it was there the Talemonese fate was forever altered.

Yong Cai had just gotten back to the new claypit camps after a quick retreat to the capitol when one of the workers came running up to her and bowed.

“Master architect! We have uncovered a strange, green stone in the rock by the mountain!”

Yong Cai blinked. “A green stone? That doesn’t sound like clay at all. What are you doing up in the mountains?”

The worker straightened herself back up. “This one and some others went to prospect higher up along the tributaries - the clay there is odd, and the water blinks at us when we stare into it. Up there, we found this green stone.”

Yong Cai furrowed her brow. “Is it jade?”

“What is jade, Master Architect?” the worker inquired.

“Nevermind,” Yong Cai replied and cleared her throat. “Bring this servant to it - and have the warleader dispatch a small warband to escort us.”

“Right away, Master Architect,” said the worker dutifully and jogged off into the camps. Yong Cai pinched her chin in thought as she tried to align the description of ‘green stone’ with anything she had previously heard of. However, nothing she had observed aboard Jiangzhou, with the except of jade and emeralds, matched such a description. As their escort came and they moved towards the area in question, she pondered all the while at the nature of this material.

The journey to this the pit in question was long - so long that Yong Cai doubted that it was particularly effective. It took them a day and a half to reach the beginning of the hills, but upon discovering what the pygmies had found in those prospection pits, Yong Cai took back all her doubts.

“Send for more workers immediately, and begin hacking this stone apart.”

The pygmies got to work, but their leader approached Yong Cai with a curious look. “With all due respect, Master Architect, what is it that has been found here?”

The master builder scooped into her hand a number of small green specks from the sandy clay at her feet through which could be spotted additional stripes of the same jade colour. A smile formed on her lips. “This colour matches that of His Lordship’s tripod pots if they sit too long without proper maintenance.” She pocketed the grains. “What we have found, worker, is copper.”

The city was abuzz as the first coffers of green and red stones were brought to the palace in clay basins carried between two and two. Yong Cai spear-headed the group and entered the palace, kneeling down before her king.

“Great Majesty, this servant has brought to You a gift from the mountain.”

The demigod readjusted himself in his throne to face the servant, passively signaling the cadre of administrators to kowtow and disperse. ”A gift? Present it, cherished Yong.”

The clay tray was brought before the great ape, presenting for him a pile of green and brown chunks embedded in cruder stone. Yong Cai picked one up and offered it to the king. “There is no doubt, Your Majesty - this is copper, a metal. If worked, we can finally replace our stone and wood-tipped spears with sensible weaponry; our crude and lowly stone tools with those forged through flame.”

”Copper.” Anu repeated, taking the ore and lifting it too the light. ”How quickly can we implement it.”

“We have already begun research into harnessing its power. As we speak, the draft kilns are being used to test the melting point of this metal. Within a month, we should be able to work it.”

Nodding he handed the ore back to the councilmen. ”Good, I want the Ogun outfitted as soon as possible. Good work.”

“Of course, Your Majesty.”

The sixth year had come around, and Zhu Rongyuan officially declared the rations were to return to normal. The farmlands had been expanded to account for the enormous population growth three years ago, and now they could finally provide for the people the amount of food they were due. As a result, the population growth broke out of stagnation and production skyrocketed. Copper was brought across Beihe to Tal Eren in great loads. The rafts had improved considerably over the last three years, too; instead of needing pygmies to physically push them in the water, the sailors instead used long sticks to serve as oars, but had to push the rafts themselves once they reached deeper waters where the oars didn’t reach the bottom. As a result, however, the industrial districts’ productivity had bloomed. The Talemonese forces were outfitted with copper-tipped weaponry. The once-humble camp on the opposite bank of Beihe had become its own establishment, complete with farms, worker barracks and more. Additionally, new buildings were constructed which offered commodity goods in exchange for certain salary chips. For good work, Pygmies could now earn clothing chips, weapon chips, animal chips and jewelry chips - all of which could be traded in at the state storage houses in exchange for the respective goods. Anu and the Council had researched new methods of using animal skins and plant fibers to make clothing, and now the Pygmies wore woven clothing. Great scarfs and blankets with beautiful patterns donned everyone in Tal Eren. Anu had sent his councillors out in search of something to break the monotony of the plant fiber colour, and with the demigod’s help, they had found it: Crushing all manner of fruits, plants and insects and mixing them out with animal pee, the fabrics took on a myriad of colours which lasted for years. The weaving skills began to share more and more intricate patterns, many of which denoted great deeds, feats and honours granted to the individuals, in addition to patterns denoting profession and caste. Those who lived closer to the warm north and the jungles switched the blankets for loincloths and instead cut their accomplishments into their skin as beautiful scars. However, the Pygmies were not limited anymore to just beautiful clothing:

About two years ago, the copper diggers had discovered that the glistening rivers the rumours had spoken so fondly about were actually full of a golden substance - one the colour of their king’s eyes. Naturally, this material was gathered and presented before the great ape. Shortly thereafter, it was declared a sacred metal, to be held in highest regard. Some was shaped into jewelry, but most importantly, all of it was hoarded.

That was until a small scouting band came to the palace of Tal Eren one day and knelt before their king.

“Your Majesty,” said their leader, the one known as Okonkwo. He had been tasked with setting up a forward stronghold to the east and secure Giant’s Bath as a safe and sacred religious hub for the Talemonese empire.

The big king set aside his stack of reports but didn’t look up from them. ”Yes?” he grunted in response.

“These ones bring news His Majesty has awaited: Other creatures - similar to us - roam this continent. Far to the east, there exist giants like stars and monsters of flame.”

This caught the ape’s attention. ”Others? Has contact been established?”

Okonkwo nodded. “Yes, Your Majesty, although the monster of flame seem unwilling to maintain it. They are savage and wild - unfit for prosperous relations. The starborn, however… These ones understood not their language, but it was clear from the way they eyed this one’s medallion,” Okonkwo held forth the gold disc around his neck, which was the mark of an officer of the Ogun, “that they have an eye for His Majesty’s holy tears.”

”A greedy lot.” Anu surmised. ”Shore up a defense against these demons of fire, I am unsure of our forced capabilities against them just yet. Alert the Siwen to their presence as well, as well as these starborn and their interest in the tears.”

“Yes, Your Majesty!” Okonkwo boomed and him and his followers saluted the king. A day or so later, they had gathered Qiang Quan, thirty warriors, eight warmasons and two mansa. Together, they spent the next month or so travelling to the Giant’s Bath with a small pot of gold and enough weapons to defend a small perimetre. There, they sat up a small camp and sent out scouts every night to look for the monsters of flame. In that same manner, they sent emissaries to the starborn strangers carrying gold. The emissaries inspected what the Nebulites had to offer in return.

However, very little of it actually seemed appealing to the Pygmies: all they had were exotic animals and stone carvings - nothing that could match the beauty of Anu’s tears. The emissaries returned to the camp with disappointing news every day - whatever the strangers had to offer, it paled in comparison to what the Pygmies already had. That was until the strangers one day after many weeks came offering one of their own to the expedition’s commanding officer.

“No, I will not take her. As His Majesty’s advisor, this servant has no time for galbarian pleasures,” Qiang Quan said with the shake of his head. The strangers had been brought to the camp to display their gift, but the warleader seemed uninterested. “Although,” he suddenly said and looked at Okonkwo, “if this servant’s lieutenant would like this gift, he shall have it.”

Okonkwo blinked and stepped over to inspect the strangers’ gift closer. She was shorter than her peers, though still at least as tall as Okonkwo was. Her shape was lean, soft, frail - it was evident that she had never worked a day in her life. However, that weakness was made up for with the most captivating beauty the Pygmy had ever seen. He reached out to touch her face. The girl looked away a little before the two locked eyes. Okonkwo was already married to another, but this… This was too good an offer to pass up. This would be his claim to greatness.

“She satisfies this one. What do you reckon she is worth?”

The others shrugged. Qiang Quan tugged at his sandy chin. “A fistful of tears, perhaps?”

“A whole fist, huh?” Okonkwo mumbled and ran his eyes up and down the girl again. “... Then I hope she won’t run away in the night. Do it.”

One of the emissaries bowed, unlidded the pot of gold in her hands and scooped from it a fistful of gold chunks and nuggets. The strangers who accepted it looked almost enchanted by its sheen and colour. They said something in their odd tongue, bowed and left the camp alongside the emissaries and some guards. The girl remained, looking rather much like a diamond among coal chunks, there where she was surrounded by Pygmies. She was examined thoroughly, the extent of the tests strangely seeming not to bother her. In fact, it was as if she had been well prepared for this whole ordeal, and while she appeared to be a little shy, it was suppressed by evident training.

The Pygmies marveled, and more than a few began to dream of the possibilities of owning one for themselves. Perhaps, if these strangers could be persuaded to trade more for a few extra tears…

Following that first transaction, the trade between the two blossomed. Gold trickled down the Natal from the Giant’s Bath, and Nebulite concubines were shipped along Beihe back to Talemon. Soon, these were distributed to the members of the Oludari, as motivation and reward for their work within city and labour management. To contain this growing enthusiasm for trade, the humble outpost at the Giant’s Bath was expanded with permanent storage houses, defensive ditches, local clay kilns and pits, farms, and an expanded garrison. Along the river Beihe and the increasingly clearer path through the savannah and the jungles, simple waystations were set up to save the traders the need to bring a load of supplies every time. In the beginning, these were sparse and meagre - having to produce their own food which they then had to give to the traders; however, as time passed and new systems were put in place, the larger waystations were also supplied by independent caravans from the capital. These brought grain, fish and the all new animal products of the savannah and the jungle: With Anu’s aid, the pygmies had learned to domesticate the continent’s boars, jungle’s water buffalo and the savannah’s horse. All these produced milk, meat and hides for the Pygmies, and this produce was refined into products.

Soon, the trade post at the Giant’s Bath, named Biashara, grew from a couple of tents into a bustling marketplace where auctions for Nebulite concubines were held daily. Talemonese leather, gold and pottery were exchanged for the most beautiful and handsome individuals the southern power had to offer, and the Nebulites took it all ravenously. However, merely after two years of this exchange, the heads of Tal Eren concluded that the Pygmy empire shouldn’t give away their gold so cheaply. So, little by little, they choked the stream until no more gold passed through Biashara. This devastated the local businesses, as the other products have always been bought in addition to gold - never by themselves. Furthermore, back in their far off home, the Nebulites had learned to work clay into pottery by copying the Pygmies, so there was no longer any reason to buy it.

No matter how hard the Pygmies tried, no Nebulite slaver would sell them concubines for meagre leather goods. It was as if the tables were about to turn on who had the upper hand in this trade agreement.

That was until there appeared a new commodity in Biashara, one which could match the Nebulite concubines in value and could be mass produced back in Talemon: the Ikhobo.

At first, the Nebulites seemed skeptical. They, too, already had slaves, but the limited lingual exchange between the Pygmies and the starborn revealed that they were quite unsatisfied with the Dari overall - they were slow to breed, prone to revolt and expensive to feed. As it turned out, the Ikhobo provided a fantastic alternative, especially now that a large workforce was needed promptly to finish this mysterious building project they always went on and on about. As such, the concubines were bought in exchange for ikhobo slaves.

These slaves dominated the market, their stocky build, thoroughbred loyalty and augmented endurance proved to be more than attractive to the starborn. These models were outdated in Talemon and fazed out for a more efficient agricultural model known as the Ikhobo-Mde or the Growers. These slaves vastly outclassed the previous during testing, their greater height dwarfing that of a Pygmy and additional arms improved field work efficiency almost tenfold. These models were quickly mass-produced while the Ikhobo where sold or entered the construction sector.

Thankfully, none of that was shared with the Nebulites. Guile in face of the Other, after all - to know the Pygmies were selling them outdated slaves nearing the end half of their lifespans was sure to sour their moods. Biashara flourished and became the second largest town after the great Tal Eren.

Back home in the capitol, the population was further booming. The Pygmies, growth stunted for five years after their population had been quadrupled, would be held back no more. Children had been born by the tens to several families - the agricultural sector would have long since collapsed without the aid of the Ikhobo-Mde. The children that were old enough were taken from their families and sent to study under artisans, builders, bureaucrats or warriors. Some were sent to Biashara to become diplomats to the starborn; some were sent to the jungles to the south to herd water buffalo; some were sent to Qiangshan to work in the mines; some were sent out into the plains to chase the wildebeest.

At the dawn of the tenth year came Qiang Quan into Anu’s palace. He carried with him a long object, one wrapped in beautiful leathers as if meant as a gift. He lowered himself to his knees before the throne and spoke, “Great king - great news have been brought from Biashara!”

The big king lifted his bulk out of his seat and placed a calloused hand on the tanned skin, admiring the work before gingerly unwrapping the thing. ”Do tell.” he intoned with a hint of wonderment.

Within the leather laid a halberd the colour of the night sky, speckled with starry dots that seemed to move every so slightly on their own. It was as if the weapon was a reflection of the heavens in the evening. Perfectly balanced and sized for the massive ape, he it wielded deftly with a few test swings far out of the servant’s way. ”A beautiful weapon, truly. Where did you procure such craftsmanship?”

Zhu smiled and bowed his head. “It was given to Fu Lai’an in Biashara - a result of the greed-consumed starborn’s desperation.” The old servant looked back up. “This was given in exchange for a mere palmful of His Majesty’s tears. According to our translators, it was forged using the life essence of one of their own.”

”A life for a mere handful of gold? We could outfit an entire warband with a boar’s stomach.” he thought aloud.

Zhu nodded, then frowned. “This servant doubts it was procured legally, however; the seller reportedly appeared agitated, and was very clear to the diplomats that the transaction was supposed to be unofficial, and left out of the records.”

Anu’s raised a brow. ”Seems like an affirmable business venture. It must be of great value to require such secrecy, mind the cost just to forge it.”

“Indeed, Your Majesty. We estimate that this style of weaponforging vastly outperforms anything we currently made and can make within a reasonable future.” Zhu shook his head. “How they turn the life force of their own into these weapons is unknown, however.”

”For right now I see no reason for us too, as long as the arms flow I ask no questions.” he finished as he marveled at the detail. ”What to call it.” He murmured.

“Has His Majesty any suggestions?”

”I find my skill in naming things quiet lacking.” he said before pausing to stare into the weapon, almost looking for a name within its inky blackness. ”Hew, perhaps. Or might that not be lacking for a king’s blade? Blackbane maybe? Bah.”

“May this servant suggest the name ‘Skyscythe’?” Zhu asked politely.

Anu stamped the end on the ground causing a thump to reverberate throughout the throne room. ”Skyscythe! So it shall be!” he announced.

Zhu nodded proudly. “A glorious blade for a glorious king, Your Majesty. This servant will see to it that whatever more are offered by the greedy starborn, will be bought.” Zhu tugged on his beard. “One more thing, Your Majesty - the mansa school and the department of war have both been set up in the royal barracks. The Golden Horde will soon be ready for battle.”

The ape held out the halberd for two guards to struggle and hold aloft as he rose and padded down the dias. ”Good to hear. The sooner they begin functioning the sooner order can asserted over this wild rock.” he said as he passed Zhu. ”I want Tal Eren functioning as smoothly and as efficiently as possible, we are setting the example the world will follow.”

“All of Galbar will be at His Majesty’s feet in time. Now, next on the agenda--”

A commotion down the hall silenced Zhu and the two turned to face a Pygmy approaching in a great hurry, tailed by sprinting guards. “YOUR MAJESTY!” called the Pygmy before she was tripped to the floor by a guard and pinned down by a myriad of spears. “Your Majesty!” she called again, desperate inhales cutting apart her words.

”Peace, daughter, peace.” he soothed, placing a gentle finger on her shoulder. ”Speak with sense.”

“Your Majesty, this--!” She drew another breath. “This one comes from the western knucklelands! Our village, it was, it was crushed! Swarmed! Leveled! My family, my, my--” She broke into tears.

The massive demigod was silent, his lips pressed in a hardline as the vestiges of understanding dawned upon him. ”By what.” he said steadily, his voice like boulders rolling down the mountainside.

“The-they were… They were like monsters! Hundreds of them! We, we ran without looking back! Oh, great king, the horror!”

Anu ushered a set of guards to him. ”Shhh, my daughter. You are safe.” he cooed, taking her in his arms.

”Your Majesty!” the pygmies barked in unison, kowtowing low. The muffled cries of the horrified woman became audible as he released her from his grasp. ”You have done Talemon a great service today. Mourn the lost, then rally with your people. Talemon returns injury for injury, and she never forgets.”

The Hogtusk Tribe - Turn 3

Rog-mohog gave his hut a proud, fatherly pat. Even though he hadn’t built it, his authority had directly caused its inception and creation. He never planted the seed, but this tree stood because of him, and he wondered for a moment why his thoughts had drifted to trees. Trees… Leaves… Branches… Branches are made of wood… Wood is a building material… Ogres use wood to make stuff; ‘stuff’ is part of a category of words that describe unspecified items generalised into a single group… Within this group is furniture.

Rog-mohog peeked in through the tent flaps. It was empty, save for a boring mat of goat fur. He hummed. A proper chief needed a fancy chair - one like the Ancestor Spirits described and constantly, smugly teased him for not having. Even now, Rog-mohog could hear the distant snickers of his father Mohog mocking him for not owning a fancy chair.

This would end today.

“MASTA BUILDAS!” he thundered. Nothing happened. He groaned and boomed again, “MASTA BUILDAS!”

A familiar collection of shabby workers wielding rocks for tools slumped up to the chief’s tent. The leader of the workforce, the esteemed Slamjam, snorted out a booger the size of a pebble and grunted. “Wossit, boss?”

Rog-mohog pulled aside the tent flap and pointed inside. “Wot you see in there?”

The master builders crowded the entrance as they looked inside. Polite hums buzzed between them as they tried to think of the answer. “Boss’s sleepin’ furs?”

“Besides that.”

“Oh, uh… Noffin’.”

“Da’s roight, ye gits. Wot kinda chief got noffin’ inside his hut?”

“Well, plenty, actually. Up-slup da Big was known for ‘avin’--”

Rog-mohog sent the protestor flying down the hill. The other builders gulped. “Up-slup was a bloomin’ git! Ancestor spirit says that daily!”

There came nods of agreement. “So, wot you want us buildin’, boss?”

“Build me a fancy chair. A real fancy one - none’a that not-fancy-chair-business.”

The builders huddled together and whispered in the way one does when one wants to be very obvious about laying a plan. After thirty seconds, they broke apart again and Slamjam nodded at the chief. “Roight, boss. We got it. Gunna makes you a fancy chair.”

“Very good,” Rog-mohog praised and waved them off. As the builders slumped back down the hill and collected their companion along the way, the tribe shaman Wololo peeked out from behind the tent with the quickness of pitch.

“Boss, ‘ave you got a moment?”

Rog-mohog grunted. “Aye, wot you needin’, Wololo?”

“‘S about time to read the five spirits again.”

Rog-mohog groaned. “Wot, again? Didn’t we just do it?”

“Is a yearly fhing, boss. Been ‘xactly one year.”

“Issat so? Well, noffin’ to do but do it, then. Wot we needin’?”

“The usual - a boar bone plate, a dog toof, an owl feavva’, the foot o’va dead ogre ‘n some fresh moss.”

“It gotta be fresh? There isn’t any moss around ‘ere,” Rog-mohog complained.

“Gotta be fresh,” Wololo insisted. “Try checkin’ around Big Rock. Might be a cave or somethin’ with some shade ‘n moss.”

Rog-mohog frowned in a surly manner before eventually nodding. “Roight, got it. It’ll be ready by tomorrow.”

“Readin’ the spirits is important for knowin’ what comes, chief. This’ll be good for us.”


Somewhere far to the west…

"So, whoss we gonna do with this'un?" Crunch mumbled out loud as he dangled the gnome by the collar. "Y'fhink it's tasty?"

"Not as tasty as a slice'a bacon roight about now," Snaglag muttered as she picked her teeth with a stray metal pipe.

"Oi, don'chu like mutton better than pork? Ye call yeself a goatie?"

"Who you callin' a goatie?!" Snaglag spat back and shook her fist menacingly. Crunch frowned curiously back.

"You're not a goatie?"

"'Course I not! I'm a ogre!" She stomped off angrily.

Crunch's mouth flattened out until it had about the same appearance as his bushy unibrow and his eyes shifted back to the gnome in his hands. "We're surrounded by gits, isn't we, lil' gnome?"

"Surrounded by what now?" the gnome choked out despite his collar being accidentally clenched so tight that he could barely breathe. "I demand that you release me at once!"

Crunch gave him a hard, pensive stare. "You sure talk a bunch fo' such a lil' fhingy. Is you some kind'a dog, per'aps?"

The gnome's face was turning about as red as that funny cap on his head, and not just from embarrassment at the conundrum he found himself in--oxygen deprivation seemed to be an equally important factor. His tiny hand tried in vain to wrap around two of the ogre's fat, sausage-like fingers to pry them off.

Not understanding the very evident biological signals portrayed by the gnome, Crunch gave the futile effort a confused frown. "Oh, lil' gnome, didn' ye parunts ever teach ya that big boys make short work'a small boys, 'n that it don't work the ovva' way?" He suddenly got a thousand yard stare. "Mine did... Mine sure did... That bloomin' git Nathan in the neighbour hut nevah left me alone... Oi, why's you coughin'? Is you sick?"


"Wot ye mean 'can't brief'? You insultin' my skill at shortenin' stories for the sake of convenience and understandin'?"

The gnome went limp and further responses were not forthcoming.

"Huh. 'S wot I thought." Crunch dropped the gnome to the ground (where it promptly crumpled and stayed) and began poking about in a nearby junkpile. "You don't just say mean fhings like that 'n don't expect anyfhin' to come back at ya. If ye can't accept tha', then I'mma just smoosh ya."

The lack of response from the gnome caused the ogre to look over his shoulder again. "Wot, ye sleepin' now? Oi, don't you ignore me. Wot do you even know about me, huh?"

Nothing, saith the body. Crunch scoffed.

"Bet you was jus' a small humie after all." He plucked a sharp iron rod from the scrap pile. "Oi, Snaglag!"

A moment passed before the ogress peeked over from behind a wrecked balloon frame. "Yeah?"

"'Ave the gits grab as much'a this..." He slammed the iron rod against a nearby rock with enough strength to dent and bent it - however, to his surprise, it didn't break. "... This 'ard sticks as they can."

Snaglag uncovered her ears reluctantly. "Wot was that?"

"'Ave the gits grab sticks like this'un. Owl Spirit's telling ol' Crunchy that this'll be a nice fhingy to shank with."

Snaglag pursed her lips and furrowed her unibrow. "... Issat so..." She pulled a crooked iron pipe out of the wreckage and pressed it against her palm. It drew a few droplets of blood and she sucked in a pained breath. "Owie! Crunch, I cut myself!"

Crunch frowned back in concern. "You ever wonder if ogres was meant to survive past teenhood?"


"Noffin'. Let's get to it."

A moment later, the ogres had grabbed whatever iron splints, rods and pipes they could and hoarded them in sacks fashioned from ripped balloon hides. Gathering up curious stragglers, the ogres eventually began to make their way homewards. However, Crunch was stopped in his tracks by one of his fellow Boar Clan ogres. He drew a long sigh.

"Wot is it, Digganob?"

"Boss, is just, uh... Didn't that gnome say there was more of 'em about?"

Crunch eyed the gnome carcass in his hand. His intention was to bring it home and give it to his kids, but the thought of bringing back even more tickled his fancy quite seductively. "Aye, he did say that... Oi, Digganob, you got kids?"

"Sure do, boss."

"Uh-huh, uh-huh. Woss their names?"

"Gob, Rob, Nob 'n Elizabeff, 'course."

Crunch nodded. "Wot would you say to bringin' home one'a these for 'em to play with?" He shook the gnome corpse teasingly until it started making broken bone sounds. Digganob clapped excitedly.

"Oh, that'd make 'um really happy, boss! But, where'll I find 'um?"

Crunch sniffed and looked around. "Uh... Try stayin' in the ruins. Take about, uh, half of us 'n just see wot you can find. Just remember not to snack on 'em."

"They any tasty?"

Crunch shrugged. Digganob hummed pensively.

"I will--"

"Don't try it."

"--not eat any."

Crunch nodded again - approvingly, this time. "Good. Bring 'em home - alive, if ye can. Kids love it when their toys move on their own."

Digganob saluted clumsily. "Roight, boss," he said and strolled off, herding together about half of the war party. Crunch, Snaglag and the rest strolled on back towards the camp, happily carrying lots of iron, some balloon hides and one very brutalised gnome.

They walked back through a forest that seemed conspicuously lacking in birds, with the few ones around seeming skittish and shy about singing their songs. Indeed, Glough's war upon them was already starting to have some noticeable effects. The ogres tromped along in a generally westward direction, oblivious to the warning signs and telltale demonstrations of gnomish might. There were no more of the tiny creatures to be seen, even past the wreckage where they'd salvaged the iron rods, and they started to grow bored and disappointed. But then, just as some were beginning to contemplate turning around or having their thoughts stray to dinner, they heard a strange sound--it was some sort of high-pitched wailing, coming from a copse of trees up ahead. Digganob gave the trees a suspicious glare, his lazy eye dangling in his left socket.

"Oi, Brutus, check that out." A massive hunk of ogre lumbered its way past Digganob, an oak sapling in his hand. His torso caused windshear as it swung from side to side with every earth-shaking step. He squinted, and his miniscule eyes tried their best to see past a small forest of eyebrows onto whatever was hiding in the trees.

There was a small splotch of red visible through the leaves, its stark contrast letting it stand out even to the beady eyes of the ogre as he stomped forward.

"WHHHHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?!" Treecog shrieked out to the bristly pine in front of him, the only thing that would listen. He was so consumed by grief at his having been exiled a few hours ago that he didn't even notice Brutus until the ogre came close enough for him to smell (which was admittedly still a decent ways away, such was his reek!) at which point he turned about and started. With a yelp, the gnome instinctively ducked around to the other side of the tree to hide.

Brutus' nose was in contrast much more accustomed to the indescribable stench of its owner - learning through abuse was a tried and tested ogre strategy, after all. As such, it effortlessly picked up that something was not quite right - or rather, it was right in the sense that it picked up the scent of the exact creature they were after. The faint cologne of mustache wax was unmistakable, mostly because it was utterly foreign to him, like any other cosmetic or hygienic ointment. With limbs like logs, he reached around the poor pine and mumbled, "Oi, I smell you, y'li'uhl..."

As the great, thundering beast approached, a thousand things went through Treecog's genius mind. There was the Director's words, the fate he'd been sentenced, "Enjoy living off the land and among all the nasty wildlife and local animals, you sub-gnomish cretin!" Indeed, a small part of his mind considered the idea of trying not to resort to flight or flight when confronted by these beasts, but to attempt to set them at ease and live among them, making of his life the new goal of domesticating, training, and ultimately dominating the giants through sheer wits and gnomish ingenuity. These creatures were huge, so it was obvious that they were score quite lowly on the Zekel-Voight-Greasegear; they were probably somewhere between a small dog and a crafty kobold in terms of intelligence...

But they were huge! And smelly! And scary! Those smaller, woolly creatures that had marched into the Crash Site seemed much likelier candidates for cohabitation, and honestly, he'd already come to the half-baked idea of looping around the Crash Site so as to find those so-called 'dwarves' on their way back to wherever they came from...assuming that Glough and the animal trainers even allowed those dwarves to leave on their own.

In the end, shot nerves won out over the appeal of surrender, or of a challenge, or whatever madness whispered for him to do anything save run or hide. The inventor still had a sharp wit about him! He reached up, feeling at the stupid red hat on his head. He was surprised that they hadn't confiscated that upon revoking his party membership, but then again, that wasn't really a symbol of authority or belonging. It was just extremely fashionable. But what had fashion ever done for him? And what had the Red Cap Party done either, for that matter? The hat meant nothing! He tore it off his head and placed it atop a gnarled root sticking out of the ground a few feet away, then scrambled into a nearby pile of pine needles. By the time that Brutus' hands came groping around the other side of the tree, Treecog was already hidden. At least, he hoped so.

Eventually, Brutus' bratwurst fingers felt something soft. With a dumb smile, the fingers clasped around the item - only to find disappointedly that there was no sensation of breaking bones or dying squeals. He pulled the cloth shrapnel to his beaten nose and took a deep wiff, sucking in a number of red scraps. His nose wrinkled as if he was about to sneeze, but he was left grimacing. With a hum that sent tremors through the ground, he turned. This piece of filt had indeed expelled the scent he had picked up before, and no one would willingly tear up such a fancy hat just to run away - of course not. It was a really fancy hat - like, really fancy. He eyed the remains in his hand with pursed, pensive lips. Half of it was salvageable, so he put it on the small vulcano of black hair erupting from his shrunken skull. He didn't have a lake to mirror himself in, but he was certain he looked swell. He spun on his heel, leaving a small crater, and lumbered back to the group.

As he heard the ogre go stomping back the other way, Treecog let out a barely audible sigh of relief. He'd been holding his breath that whole time! But then cold panic crept into his veins--would the beast have heard him?! Hopefully the cracking twigs and pine needles beneath its feet, combined with its laborious breathing, overpowered the sound of his exhalation. The fading sounds of minor earthquakes hinted that the ogre was either too deaf or too simple to have made the connection between a distant gasp and the fact that someone may have been hiding.

Brutus returned to the other ogres, a grin still about his face on account of the hat. Digganob eyed him curiously. "Oi, Brutus, did you find anyfhin'?"

Brutus put two colossal hands over his head. "... No." Digganob's eyes hardened.

"So there really was noffin', huh?"


"Noffin' at all."


"No birds?"


"No pigs?"


"No gnomes."


Digganob muttered to himself. Another voice came up behind him. "Oi, wossat you coverin' on your head, Brutus?!"

"Is noffin," Brutus mumbled back.

"You hidin' somefhin'?"


"Boss, he's hidin' somefhin'," said the ogre and stomped over to remove Brutus' hands from his head. Before anyone could stop him, Brutus had already removed one hand, fastened it around the assailant's neck and tossed him to the ground. Digganob frowned.

"A'roight, Brutus, don't--... Don't kill 'um, roight?"

Brutus let go with a quiet "roight". Digganob put two fists on his hips and looked around. "Well, noffin' here then. Keep going or go home?"

"I'm tired. Wanna rest," came a complaint from the back.

"Me, too!"

Digganob sighed. "Roight, then... Let's rest up 'ere, then. We'll keep lookin' tomorrow."


Treecog, meanwhile, had been listening in silence. So the monsters were going to stay for the entire night, which meant that he too would have to stay for the entire night beneath a pile of itchy pine needles, lest he risk getting caught if he tried to break a run for it. The realization was degrading and humiliating, but not so much as what would happen if they found him and tried to use him as some sort of chew toy...

The Day of Death

Eamhair kept her head low in the shrubberies. She had been jogging for hours now, chasing the beast. She heard its panting a shallow distance away, the rustling in the grass as it laid down to rest. She did her best to steady her own breathing - she was far from equally fast, but her endurance outshone this beast hundredfold. Still, she couldn’t be too careful - the beast no doubt had some energy left, and her aching belly told her that she couldn’t very well afford to spend her own reserves so frivolously. With a swift, silent hand, she took a fist-sized rock in her hand and cupped it into her sling. One well-placed hit should do it - a surprising daze to knock it out cold while she cuts into its heart with her stone knife. She assumed her stance and began winding up the sling.

“YAAAAAARGH!” came a scream from the opposite side of the beast and out the bushes burst her sister Caitir with an enormous wooden trunk in her hand. The beast squealed and scrambled to its feet. Eamhair drew a surprised breath and, thinking quickly, sent the rock flying. However, due to her sister’s distraction, the stone clapped against the beast’s thigh and accomplished little more than a pained roar before it huddled off. Caitir chased it away from the clearing before throwing the stick to the ground in frustration.

“Oh, wolf doo! It got away--ow!” Caitir looked over her shoulder to frown at the glare of Eamhair, who smacked her over the head again.

“You dumb, useless idiot! I was -just- about to knock it out! Why did you just run at it, huh? Where’s your sling?!”

Caitir blocked a third incoming blow. “I lost it, okay?! You were running so fast and I fell and, and then I dropped it, and I called out, but you just kept running, and--”

“Okay, shut up!” Eamhair pinched the bridge of her nose. “Ugh… Now what… Did you see where it went?”

“How could I have seen where it went with you nagging me all like--”

“Caitir, focus! Did it leave any tracks?” The two stared down at the ground. A trail of kicked-up dirt and half-recognisable tracks led into some nearby bushes - the very same bushes were ripped and broken.

“Looks like it went that way,” Caitir proposed and hefted the stock back onto her shoulder. Eamhair hung her sling from her loincloth and made a wry expression.

“You don’t say…” She groaned. “Come on, let’s go.” She set off into a quick gait. Behind her, she heard the distant calls of her sister shouting ‘h-hey! Wait up!” Eamhair rolled her eyes and ignored them. Along her path the tracks zig-zagged between trees, over roots and under branches. Eamhair plucked a tuft of grey hair from a thorny bush. She gave it a sniff and pursued the tracks moving forward from the bush. The tracks were becoming deeper and sluggish, feet often crossing over one another and the occasional rut where the beast must’ve fallen. Soon, she heard that familiar panting. She crept down behind the bushes and stole a glance above them. By the roots of an old oak, she saw the beast lie gasping for air. She wouldn’t even have to knock it out like this. Immediately, she grabbed her knife, pounced out of the bush and drove it into its heart.

The beast had no chance to react. Hands caked in blood, Eamhair triumphantly pulled the stone blade out and reveled as the beast drew its final breaths. Then, there was silence. Eamhair snickered to herself and put her lips to the wound. She was incredibly thirsty after all this running, and blood was both nutritious and drinkable. The rich flavour filled her mouth and she made sure to spill as little as possible - it was a sin to waste the animal’s bounty, after all.

As she began to skin and butcher the beast, the silence grew terribly heavy. She allowed herself a number of peeks around the area, her keen eyes spotting nothing. Another moment passed before she called out: “Caitir?”

There was no response. Eamhair groaned to herself, sliced off a small chunk of the beast’s dripping heart and put it in her mouth. She was slow, sure, but not -this- slow. She had probably lost her. She rose to her feet, packed the meat she had managed to cut loose so far into the beast’s hide. She got to her feet and turned to the carcass with a suspicious scowl. “You’re going nowhere, you hear?” she mumbled to herself before she began to retrace her steps backwards.

“Caitir? Caaaaaiiitir?” Eamhair called. By Kalmar, how far had she ran? She couldn’t very well have outrun her sister -this- badly. At least, not unless her sister had been halted in her steps. Cold sweat cooled her forehead and she picked up her pace.

“Caitir! Caitir!” she called with command and unease and began sprinting through the woods. Branches whipped against her skin and thorns bit at her calves. The adrenaline ignored all of it, however - if her sister was in danger, she couldn’t afford to feel pain.

There came a weak whimper from a clearing behind a tree, followed by desperate gasps. Eamhair nearly fell forward as she turned mid-sprint. In an instant, she gazed upon her sister’s body flat on the forest soil, patches of her usual healthy, bronze skin blackening and paling like mouldy meat. Her eyes looked like old nan’s, white as milk and empty of sensation. Her breathing was irregular at best and she appeared unable to move, yet involuntarily twisted and turned as if her skin was filled with insects.

“Caitir, what’s wrong?!” Eamhair called out and laid a hand on her sister’s shoulder. In an instant, Caitir’s empty eyes locked with hers and she unleashed a deafening scream before first reaching out to choke her, then retracting her hands, then choking herself, then tossing her arms around. Eamhair skipped back, desperation and instinct overtaking reason.

“Caitir! Stop! I’ll-- I’ll bring you to old nan, just--”

“IT HUUUUURTS!” Caitir wailed before rolling over and drumming her forehead against a stone on the ground. She managed to cut herself a wound before Eamhair restrained her. Caitir tried wildly to pull herself lose, then immediately stopped and attempted to embrace her sister before then suddenly battling for her freedom like a caged beast. Eamhair, seeing no other option, wound up a hook and knocked her sister out cold. Luckily, her delusions and the agony of her affliction had already worn her out - Eamhair had only needed to punch once.

Now, however, Eamhair was horrified. What manner of plant or venom had done this to her?! That was when she noticed the trees around her, nearly every single one, suddenly releasing their leaves like they always did around autumn. The issue was, though, that autumn was far, far off. The bark paled into fragile ash and the roots began to smell of rot. Eamhair remained no longer. She left behind the sack of meat, scooped her sister into her arms and ran for home. Around her, the forest blackened and whitened into a monochrome nightmare, a terror which only spurred her to sprint faster. After a while, her lungs and heart could barely keep up with her panic and she was forced to slow down. Fewer and fewer of the trees around her now had suffered similar fates, but the dead woods behind her were already enough. Her village was not far now. Her heart calming down a little, she permitted herself to look down at her sister again. The corruption had spread, her every extremity now black as soot and each limb pocked with black and white spots.

“H-hey, Caitir,” Eamhair whimpered. There came no response. Eamhair prayed she was still just unconscious and spurred on. “Please hold on,” she whispered.

In a half an hour, she had reached their village, but what met her there was everything beyond what she had expected. Laid between the tents were a number of sick elves like her sister, but these were not from her own tribe. They were Wolfhearts, from further north - a village that they had no amiable relations to, and in truth, had been in a rivalry with. Now, though, the flutes played a different tune, and friend had become foe as this mysterious plague had overtaken them. Eamhair hurried over to their grandmother’s tent and pushed aside the curtain.

“Old nan! Caitir is very sick!”

The old Mir, the one among them who had been created old by the gods, looked up from the one she already was treating, exhaustion nearly pouring out of her eyes like tears. Eamhair pushed herself past everyone else, Caitir limp in her arms. Her sight locked onto the one Old nan was treating: It was the Wolfheart chieftain, a hunter by the name of Labhruinn. He was restrained with vines and sinew, squirming around as best he could while screaming through the sling wrapped over his mouth like a gag. Old nan had wrapped his black spots in sootheleaves, but he seemed rabid. Around him a crowd stood staring, a member of which, Eamhair had become.

“Well, don’t just stand there! Let me see her!” Old nan commanded and Eamhair snapped back into reality. It was clear from the way the old Mir inspected the wounds that she was at a loss for what to do. She would likely attempt the same procedure - sootheleaves really cured most ailments that affected the Everblooms; why could it not cure this one, too? However, with Caitir still unconscious, they had no way of verifying whether she was cured. As a precaution, Eamhair reluctantly bound her sister’s hands and feet; if she still was as rabid as before, she could not be allowed to walk free in the village.

All of a sudden, though, there came panicked cries and screams from the outside. The curtain was pulled aside in a haste and Eamhair saw it was Aodhàn, their greatest hunter.

“Elder Seonag! Elder Seonag! The sky is raining fire!”

“What?” came an empty question from old nan and everyone inside the tent ran out to see. Not much later did their screams add to the cacophony. Eamhair exchanged frightened looks with old nan before sprinting out to see. Indeed, it had been as Aodhàn had described it: Up the sky, which at this time of day would begin to near twillight, there was no Heliopolis, for it was obstructed by a much closer, much more terrifying ball of flame. Eamhair felt her blood freeze. She had lived a short life - much too short, and already it was ending? A million thoughts banged at her skull from the inside, all battling over the place atop the priority list. Should she go in and tell Caitir how much she loves her? Should she find that sweet boy she barely even knew the name of and tell him what she felt for him? Should she place some flowers by the river into which her parents’ ashes had been scattered?

“Eamhair!” Aodhàn shouted and she turned around to face him. The hunter grabbed her by the hand and pulled her along. “What are you doing?! Run!”

Eamhair gasped. “B-but what about Caitir?! And old nan?!”

“It’s too late for them, they’ll only slow us down! Come on!” The hunter let her go and ran for the woods, but Eamhair still remained in the camp, her eyes shifting between the trees and old nan’s tent. She looked back up at the boulder of flame. No way was she outrunning that - not even her. Aodhàn had courage - courage and hope - but the orb was nearly the size of their village already, its shade obscuring the sky.

Suddenly, another shape appeared below it, one smaller in comparison, but still enormous to the elves. It sped down to the village with incredible speed and sat itself neatly upon the soil in the village centre. From the object’s top came a booming voice: “Quickly! Come aboard if you want to live!” Then, along the sides of the object formed weird toothed slopes. At first, nobody dared approach, many still running for the woods. The voice boomed again: “Climb the stairs and come inside, or else you -will- perish!”

Twice was all Eamhair needed to hear it and she immediately ran into the tent, gathered those who were sane, as well as her unconscious sister, and began shepherding them up the weird, liquid slopes. Others turned to face the thing, as well, running towards it as they had ran for the woods. Once they reached the top of the slope, strangers that looked much like them began leading them towards a very odd, yet incredibly glistening mountain. The mountain revealed a slowly-opening cave at its bottom, into which the elves were rushed. When the last of them had come in, the cave was sealed with wooden tent flaps larger than any Eamhair had ever seen. The strangers spoke to some of the elves in a musical tone, offering them woven furs to keep warm.
Then came a shock, one that tossed every Mir and stranger off their feet. The room immediately grew incredibly hot, then cooled as time went on. Then there was silence. The strangers offered Eamhair and her kin some hot water with a very odd aftertaste, and Eamhair took the opportunity to ask the one who offered it to her a question:

“Please, would you tell us where we are?”

The stranger formed what Eamhair supposed was a smile and curtesied without really responding. Eamhair reasoned she hadn’t been understood and dipped her lips back into the hot water with a slurp.

“You are aboard Jiangzhou - my home,” came a deep, oily voice and every Mir turned to face its source. It had long ears like them, and a face that could’ve belonged to a particularly fearsome and animalistic individual, but the similarities ended there: Its skin ended at the borders of its torso, being overtaken by crimson scales; above its ears, it grew great, dull-tipped horns; it stood about two feet taller than them, and its posture portrayed a profound sense of might and composure.

This creature was evidently one of the Gods.

“Who are you?” asked Eamhair curiously. The others listened intently. The creature turned to face her and formed a small smile.

“I am Shengshi, dear one - lord of the rivers; king of the harvests--” A number of the Vallamir placed their fists on their chest and bowed their heads in awed salute, “-- and I have come to aid Kalgrun against the end of the world.”

“Is the world ending?!” came a number of panicked screams. The snake smirked.

“Not if we can help it. Worry not - you are safe now.”

“B-but… The fire… In the sky?” Eamhair asked in confusion. The snake’s smile waned.

“Yes. It has struck the earth. My ship is impervious to its damage, but… Your village.” He shook his head. The elves drew gasping breaths and tears began to roll. Shengshi sighed and slithered over to place a hand on Eamhair’s shoulder. “... It is always a tragic loss - especially when it is caused by something so destructive. However, worry not, for I will find you a new home. One where all…” He scanned the crowd. “... Two hundred of you can live in peace in much the same way as you did here.”

Old nan, who had been brought to her knees during the quake, stood up and asked, “Will this home be far from our ancestral lands? We have hunted these woods for ten years, and we know no other way of life.”

The snake sighed. “Yes. It will be far from your old home; however, that is because your old home is…” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “... Fire has enormous potential for destruction. I am afraid what remains of your lands is…”

“May we see it?!” Eamhair pleaded. The snake’s reptilian gaze shifted to her.

“It will be a painful sight, dear one,” the snake cautioned.

“M-may we see it still?!”

The snake lowered his gaze and eventually nodded. “If you are not faint of heart, then my gates shall open for you to witness the result of Heaven’s wrath. Beware, though - the sight of death is one few can stomach.” Behind him, the gates of the palace slowly opened. “We will seek out more than may need our aid. Once Kalgrun is safe, you will be brought to your new home.”

“W-where will that be?” Old nan asked.

“The Dragon’s Foot, dear one - west of here,” said the snake and slithered off. Eamhair stood staring out the open gates. She slowly exited the palace and crossed over to the edge of the deck, her eyes boiling with tears.

Everywhere around them, as far as her eyes could see, there was ash and flame. Beside the vessel laid the cracked, sooted remains of a large rock, still radiating heat. Every tree she had known and climbed throughout her life here was either gone or reduced to charcoal. A little further beyond, the small walls of a crater crawled out of the ground to surround the great stone. As she peered even closer, Eamhair saw traces of blood, bone and charred skin among the dunes of ash. Slowly, though, the vessel she was on began to float upwards. She lost her balance a moment, and her legs were made weaker as she noticed the full scale of the damage. She couldn’t even begin to formulate thoughts anymore - her mind was wiped empty like the wasteland below. She sat down against the railing, her head resting on her knees, and wondered what she or her people had ever done to deserve this apocalypse.

Five days had passed, and with each day Song found herself closer and closer to Urangtai. Each visit found him more comfortable with her, and her finding a groove in talking with him. Meiyun hadn’t come by since Song had told her off, but had supposedly tried to talk to Urangtai one final time just yesterday, to which Urangtai simply shrugged her off -- finding her unpleasant. Sometimes Song’s beloved would sit in silence, as if remorseful over something or another, but whenever Song talked, he seemed attentive.

It was a beautiful evening over the jungle, the heliopolis colouring the sky a gentle shade of purple. In the palace gardens sat Song with a flower in her hand, awaiting her beloved. Absent-mindedly, she stripped the flower of its petals, whispering, “he loves me,” for every one she plucked. Occasionally, she would add a “very much” at the end. The last five days had been magnificent, and it was all thanks to that fantastic person - no, her master! She would be faithful for something like this! A favour? Pfft! Urangtai was hers now - what could measure up to that?

Scraping footsteps pulled her from her reverie, and as she looked up she noticed a rather dirty looking Urangtai walking across the garden path -- and leaving a dusting of gravel as he walked. In his hands he held a small sack the size of a fist, a proud smile on his face.

“Song,” He called out, almost coughing from the dust that shook from his hair.

“Urang!” Song sang happily and spun to face him. “You came!”

“Yes!” Urangtai nodded, quickly tossing the sack to next to the sitting woman, “But look what me and Yesugei found on the exploratory mission.”

Song eyed the sack. “What’d you find?”

“Open and see,” Urangtai sat next to her, an eager look on his face -- one Song hadn’t seen in quite a many days.

Song gave him a playful smile and peeked inside the bag. Inside was reddish soil that gently sparkled when moved around, with some green and orangish clumps filtering through the soil coagulates.

“Copper,” Urangtai explained, “We dug up barrels full, just like the images our God showed us. We can finally start smelting.”

Song’s facial expression faltered a little, but she cocked her head to the side and smiled supportively at Urangtai. “That’s great, love!”

“Uh-huh!” Urangtai’s eyes glistened over the metal, a hand shaking off the dirt in his hair, “I can’t wait to work the smithies.”

“What will you make?” Song asked politely.

“Better shovels for one,” Urangtai folded the sack back closed, “But, uh, I actually have to go.” He cocked a thumb behind him, “I need to wash up and get this metal back to Yesugei, but can I see you for dinner?”

Song deflated a little and sighed. “Always work with you. Alright, but be home on time today, alright?”

Urangtai gave her a quick smile and nod before dashing off. The dirty man turned the corner and out of sight. A second thumped by and suddenly he was running back, the sack suddenly gone. He smiled through a running pant and came to a halt, slapping his hands to his knees, “On second thought.” He plopped next to Song, “I guess I could stay a while longer.”

Song blinked, but didn’t let her surprise drown out the beam of joy exploding from her smile. “Oh, Urang! You’re so caring for little me! Would you sing for me?”

“I only know the little ditty called ‘glory be to Yullian,’” Urangtai winked, his eyes suddenly sparkling with tiny specks of blue.

Song clapped her hands twice before the words clicked and she gave Urangtai a slack-jawed look. “What did you just say?”

Urangtai’s face suddenly shifted to that of Huang and a wide laughing smile broke over Yullian’s face, “I said, glory be to Yullian, no?”

Song’s face lost what little colour it had and she packed it between her knees where she sat. “Whyyyyyyyyy?!”

“Oh come now,” Yullian leaned back on two hands and admired the azure sky, “You know what today is, don’t you?”

Song droned a groan. “Whaaat?”

“It is the seventh day since our pact was made,” Yullian grinned, completely ignoring Song’s displeasure, “As I said, in seven days Urangtai would be all yours and now he is, pretty fantastic, isn’t it?”

Song looked up, a half-smile on her face. “Yeah… Yeah, he is! He really is!” Completely forgetting how upset she was at their prank, she turned to face Yullian with an inclined head. “I am forever in your debt, Your Holiness!”

“That’s what I like to hear,” Yullian smiled wide. “Oh, did you notice those flowers he found you yesterday? I’d say that was awfully sweet of him...”

“Yeah, I did. They were so beautiful. I wanted to give him something back for those, but then he went back to work, and then it was dinner time, and…” She sighed. “Oh well, having a busy man is a good sign, they say.”

“They do say that,” Yullian nodded idly, “Well, this is it, then. The end of our agreement -- I do hope you enjoy your forty children and life of love and splendor. It was a pleasure.” The demigod slowly rose to his knees and shook off some dirt from his palms.

“Forty children… With him,” Song mumbled dreamily before looking back at Yullian. “Wait, you’re leaving?”

“Oh, I’ll be around, don’t you worry about that,” Yullian stretched to his feet. “Just don’t forget that favor we discussed, I expect results, okay?” He winked.

Song blinked. “Certainly, but… I don’t think you ever mentioned what I was supposed to do.”

“I didn’t?” Yullian stretched an arm over their head quizzically, “Oh, well it’s really simple: every last one of your descendents, including yourself must be completely devoted to my worship.” He straightened out, “Wouldn’t hurt to snag some outsiders into the little cult, let’s call it, but just ensure all your kids and their kids and so one do the deed and we are square.” Yullian cleared his throat, “I’ll know if anyone stops, but if you really want to ensure I don’t overlook a more subtle faithful, always toss the last of any baked good out the window for myself and I’ll get the hint. All good?”

Song gasped. “E-everyone? But, uh…” She scratched her temple uncertainly. “A-are we just going to pretend whenever we pray to Shengshi and K’nell--”

“Hup!” Yullian held up a hand, “I don’t care if you want to pray to anyone else, I really don’t, so long as you and your descendents don’t forget to worship the god who made this pact with you.”

“Oh, so… ‘Completely’ devoted,” she said and gave a wink. “Well, I don’t see any issues with that, then!”

“Great!” Yullian clapped his hands together, “If anyone ever falters, I’ll bleed my wrath upon them and all that. Now! You have one last little blessing, free of charge.” He suddenly poked Song on the tip of her nose, inciting a loud sneeze.

Song rubbed her nose. “Wuh-what did you, uh-ugh--... Ugh, I hate it when I-- never mind, what did you --ACHOO!-- there is came, what did you do?”

“I just gave you your first task as a completely devoted Yullian worshipper, isn’t that fun?” Yullian giddily announced, “Go sneeze on every last one of the denizens of this city, no questions asked.” Yullian winked.

“Wuh-... But won’t that--ugh… ACHOO!” She sniffed and rubbed her nose again. “Won’t that make them sick?”

“I really don’t have time to get into how infections work, but don’t worry -- nothing like tha- hey wait a second, I said no questions. Oh ho! You got me there,” Yullian wagged a finger, “But really, you don’t even have to finish it today (but the sneezes won’t stop until you do). Oo!” Yullian playfully punched the air, “I’m so excited for this new chapter, aren’t you?”

A triplet sneeze came out and Song began to sob.

“Tears of joy,” Yullian sang.

The years began to drift by after that, with Song seeing herself to quadruplets next spring. Oddly enough, she wasn’t the only one -- with those who had caught her sneeze finding themselves with twins and triplets. Life went on in the traveling city, with new families emerging like a rash over the turtle’s back. Song herself found her life exactly as she wanted and in her thanks decided to quickly tutor her children in the ways of Yullian and how to show their worship of the god.

Upon the eighth year, Song found herself with ten sets of quadruplets -- just as she wanted. For four happy months after the birth of her final four, she lived in extreme happiness, having the perfect life she had once prayed for, but when it seemed as if her own personal paradise was perfect, disaster struck.

She wasn’t sure how it had happened, but her husband slowly became more and more distant until one day as if he had suddenly discovered the eight long years of trickery and deceit, he had disappeared altogether. Her worry was turned to ripping grief when a month later Yesugei had reported to General Ming that he had found Urangtai’s body on the grounds below the turtle. He was mangled and not much more than a splatter, having leapt from the turtle in despair -- Yesugei guessed.

Being the only friend Urangtai had left at the time of his death, Yesugei was questioned endlessly upon the matter and suspicion was eventually shifted from him and his tight lipped ways to Song herself -- but her extreme grief and sadness was enough to persuade Ming of her innocence. In the end it was confirmed by lack of evidence otherwise that Urangtai had ended his own life in a moment of sudden insanity.

Unbeknownst to the other Dreamers, after that day Song had attempted to kill herself on multiple occasions, but was stopped each time by Yullian -- eager to see his investment pan out. Song was completely broken, but her teachings of Yullian to her children and to some wayward housewives and husbands didn’t stop after the death of Urangtai -- be it out of blind faith for a better life, or uncomfortable fear. In the end, by ten years the secret cult of Yullian was thriving among the youth, just as copper and metals was thriving among the busy.

The god himself often found himself thinking by the city square that sat flat before the palace gates. It wasn’t so much a spot for the view, as much as a spot to pick out new faces and old from the ever bustling crowd of the growing city. On one particular K’nell’sday, as he sat (as Huang) on a stone platform ringed with copper benches, he found himself staring at the sky above.

When bored with the timid and frail lives of mortality, Yullian often found himself watching the silly little cloudlings bumble about the sky. In truth he didn’t see much difference between them and the other living creatures of Galbar, dreamers included, but what difference there was (namely the ability to worship) was a wide enough gap to keep his more mischievous interests from the small popping creatures.

Also in truth, Yullian was not simply bored, he was finished. Rotating in his mind was a long list of things he had done over the ten years, namely securing a base of worship -- but not much else. Ten years was a short time to a god, but still a long enough time to have gotten more done. Yullian found themselves only a single step closer to becoming the full fledged deity he wanted to be, now having worshippers, but that was a single step on a grand staircase. Never again, Yullian would think to himself (rather frivolously) would he choose to waste ten years on such a simple task.

There was a sudden pop unlike one Yullian had heard before and right before his eyes, a once dazzling cloudling turned dark and fizzled out of the sky. The god squinted, and a few more cloudlings suddenly fizzled out as well, turning into nothing but a burst of dew. It took one more burst before Yullian had devoted enough attention to the popping massacre to notice the culprit -- tiny motes.

The cloudlings were eagerly eating the small motes, and then dying as a result. Yullian frowned and upon noticing that their soul seemed to perish with the motes, he realized this was the last thing he needed. Should his ten year long plan be undone by deadly flying dust, he should paint himself a fool. No, this wouldn’t do, the godling figured -- especially should it disrupt his worship.

Standing up, the god hopped off the platform. He wagged a finger at the stone and it started to sculpt itself. Passing by dreamers froze in their steps, staring with wild eyes at the yawning Yullian, a sparkle of power twisting from his finger and into the molding stone. As the stone began to rise and rise, finally some brave dreamer managed to bark out.

“What are you doing!?” followed by a: “Stop it!”

Yullian gave the man a cursory glance before going back to sculpting. With one final pang a large statue of Huang rose from the platform, one foot planted on the chest of a fallen figure uncannily similar to the dreamer who called out. The statue had their hands on their hips and a jovial laugh frozen in stone. Yullian dusted his hands and mimicked the stance before turning on a heel.

“Go on,” he ushered a hand at the dreamers, “Go get someone important. Hut hut!”

It took a moment or so before the royal court came out of the palace, spear-headed by the ageing, greying Wenbo and the wrinkled Ai. The lord and lady gasped at the statue and waved their hands around.

"What is the meaning of this?!" Wenbo shouted as strongly as he could. Ming and her troops were not far behind.

“I just thought it would be privy for you to know who just saved your unaware little lives,” Yullian put a hand over their heart, “Tis I, Yullian -- A god.” The smug smile on Yullian’s face grew as he seemed to pause in expectation.

The surrounding Dreamers exchanged looks. "Why I--" Wenbo tried his best to solve the conflict between respect and outrage flaring up in his head. "Yullian. So… Then my granddaughter's 'imaginary friend' was no such thing after all. What have you done for us?" Approaching them was the very broken Song escorted by her uncles Tian and De.

“I have given you quite the chance to notice how great I truly am,” Yullian boasted, “By erecting this statue,” He gave his image a firm slap, “I have put your precious city in an aura of protection, if you will. Your mortal eyes may have not seen it, but my divine wisdom foresaw a great and terrible danger.” Yullian mulled around dramatically, “Little specks of dust withering souls themselves threatened to descend upon your people. But as long as my statue stands, I don’t think any such negative attributes shall be added to any souls in this city.” The Godling seemed amused for a moment, “On top of that, this aura will also let you dive under the waves without worrying about drowning on your turtle friend.”

Wenbo and Ai blinked. "That's… That's most generous of Your Holiness," Ai started, "but is this out of goodwill? Our people have had dealings with those who want something in return. Does that category also include You?"

“Nope,” Yullian put his hands on his hips, and grinned, “Pretty great, huh?”

Song had been brought to the front, where she knelt soberly next to her grandparents. Wenbo's eyes shifted between her and the demigod. Eventually, he said, "So, granddaughter of mine, it would seem that this mysterious spirit you and your children have talked so much about exists after all." On the old man's head, Bean Bun stared judgmental daggers down at the young lady, popping suspiciously. Song looked away wordlessly and Wenbo pleadingly turned to Ai. His wife sighed and knelt down next to Song to embrace her.

"Song, our dear Song… We are all in deep sorrow over the loss of our beloved Urangtai, but… Please, we need you to confirm whether or not you know this god. We…" Her voice became a whisper. "... It may be naive to trust them…"

Song looked up at her grandmother's sympathetic smile, then around at the ground, at the children her depression had caused her to neglect, and finally at Yullian. She nodded weakly and mumbled, "They speak the truth… They are Yullian, and they keep their word."

Wenbo hummed. "How long have you been walking among us, Your Holiness? And… And how long have you known my granddaughter?"

“Long enough,” Yullian nodded and folded his arms, “And I must say I really enjoyed what you all did with the place -- really.”

Wenbo looked around. “It’s only a natural result of the countless joys and honours bestowed upon us by God and the Lord.” He eyed the statue with a partial frown. “... We are honoured to count Your work among those additions.”

“As you should be!” Yullian grinned, “It should also be known that prayers to myself by yon faithful and those who recognized my greatness has a direct connection to you populations recent expansion. So you see? My name is a name of help.” The godling clasped Wenbo’s hands between his own and gave a curly smile, “One not easily forgotten, too!”

Wenbo awkwardly shook the hand and forced a smile. “W-we are most honoured, certainly!” The smile became more and more genuine. “To think that we were so fortunate as to have a guardian such as Your Holiness - our people have never been more numerous! Our farmers have certainly worked their share to feed the younglings.” A small girl came over and tugged at the hem of the elder’s robe. Wenbo chuckled and hoisted her into his arms. “A blessing without compare, is to see one’s great grandchildren while still alive.”

Yullian seemed to bask in the compliment for a moment before nodded eagerly, “I’m so glad that you enjoy my gifts as much as I enjoyed granting them.” He turned on his heel, “But for now, I have quite the agenda to fill.”


“I’m a-” Yullian turned back slightly, “I’m a god, yeah? Gods have a lot they have to do, no?”

Nods spread out through the crowd. “Yes, I suppose,” Wenbo said. Yullian smiled playfully and as fast as they had appeared, they were gone. The Dreamers did not look too carefully for them - a god could disappear like smoke on the wind if they so desired, without giving mortals any hope of finding them.

It was then, a few hours later, that the sky rained fire. Pyres the size of Chuanwang’s head flared up in the heavens and began to approach, and the Dreamers stormed into their houses in vain hopes that they would protect them. It was then that Wenbo, the gift of fluency in any animal tongue still ripe in his mind in spite of age, hobbled his way over to Chuanwang’s head with the aid of his wife and children. With a frail, exhausted voice he called, “CHUANWANG! DIVE!”
The monstrous turtle was reluctant, knowing full well the consequences of such an action. However, as more and more voices chimed in and made themselves understood with the help of the Babble Fish, the beast understood the situation. It filled its colossal lungs with air and dipped its head under the surface, the rest of its body following slowly.

It was just as Yullian had said. Around the city walls, a glass-like bubble extended far above them, protecting them from the crushing depths. The turtle dove deeper and deeper, schools of very confused fish parting before it. A whale passed over them and whistled a curious tune. The Dreamers who had huddled away in their homes came out to witness the sight. Everywhere was dim and dimming, but above the shine of day still twinkled through the waves. Great echoes through the bubble hinted that some of the flames had stuck the surface, and even the mighty Chuanwang was shaken by the shockwaves quivering through the sea. This continued for hours, and pained rumblings from their turtle mount made the Dreamers weep. Wenbo, exhausted from his run, was brought to his chambers by his children. Ai remained to keep morale high and gathered all the children and their parents in front of the palace to sing hymns to their God and Lord. Morin khuurs sang their songs of string to drown out the booms above, and eventually, the music deafened the chaos shaking the oceans. Chuanwang’s cries quieted down, but the Dreamers’ song continued, its spirit filling them with peace and tranquility even as the vile dangers around them faded away.

“Within in the dreams lies a great palace;
The name of this palace is that of the Dreams;
Far to the east runs the great rivers;
The might of the rivers does sail those streams.

Much do I miss endless lands of green;
Tree-eaters chasing the saplings far;
Life with You, God, how would it have been?
In time, we’ll know in Your great Moksha.

Great beast of Shengshi, o bear us far;
Carry us into the distant dawn;
Grant us a journey akin to what our
Siblings are living out there beyond.

Great God, great Lord, we all pray to you -
Safeguard us in this time of fright;
Help us defend our children true;
Please do not let us leave Your sights.

Thousand year turtle, we’re safe on you;
We will here rest without fear of death;
Lord and God, our faith renews;
We sing your praises with every breath.

How we wish to be with our kin -
Thousands of siblings of ages past;
Great God, great Lord, help us go in
Into great Moksha when we have passed.

Great God, great Lord, help us go in
Into great Moksha when we have passed.

Great God, great Lord, help us go in
Into great Moksha when we have passed...”

The hymn continued into the night, echoing into the surrounding sea. As fire boiled the water around them, however, the Dreamers were safe.

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