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A King’s Duty 3 - To Govern One’s People




To rule … His responsibility - dropped into his lap like an anvil. It was much too early.

“King Turmerick?”

It had been no sooner than a fortnight ago that the mere twenty-seven men har returned from the skirmish to Monsax, bloodied and beaten into a mere fraction of the fifty strong that had been sent out. Turmerick had been playing [abbr=A Fragrancian two-stringed string instrument similar to an [i]erhu[/i].]xuakla[/abbr] with his sister Clove, enjoying her sweet, soothing song that made him forget all about xweh-bach and all about the stress of his future responsibilities. She sang to him songs of old legends, such as the tale of the warrioress Cilantra and the first great Nelven expansion across Sso-Hwah; she sang to him myths of the gods and the Nelven creation - how the moon so wounded by all the horror in the night, wept tears of silver and shadow, which pitter-pattered down across the land and became the Night Elves.

“King Turmerick?!”

Her song had been interrupted at the climax. Into their fathers hut where they had sat had come rach Rose, followed by six men carrying a stretcher. Their father’s corpse had laid upon it like some butchered animal - he had barely been covered by anything, and the stench of rot had already begun to set in. Turmerick hadn’t heard his sister’s cries, not his mother’s when she had found out. Even as the two of them had closed around him in search of comfort and to give comfort, he hadn’t been present. It was as though his world had collapsed in on itself, and now, two weeks later, he stood outside the entrance to his father’s hut, hand resting on the pommel of his sword.

“King Turmerick?!”

The boy snapped back to reality and turned to face the druid Laurel, who offered him a rose. He had barely registered that the whole town had gathered behind him, all staring at him and the king’s hut behind him. Next to him stood his mother and sister, both dressed in their finest dresses, and the aristocracy lined the first rows of the crowd. The king swallowed nervously and accepted the rose. He hadn’t practiced his lines - he hadn’t had the focus. He didn’t know what to do, so even as whispers grew like weeds in the crowd behind him, he couldn’t do anything. Eventually, he felt a warm hand capture his own and he looked up to see the kind, silvery eyes of his mother.

“Turmey…” she whispered and gently guided the hand holding the rose. “... You are the heir, so yours is the first rose to be laid at the tomb’s door.” Together, they knelt down and laid the rose at the doorstep of the king’s hut. Turmerick suppressed a sob.

“So… He’s truly gone, then?” he whimpered and Queen Clove pulled him gently over to his sister, and the three of them hunkered down and laid their heads against each others’. Meanwhile, the druid continued to distribute roses to anyone who wished to lay them down at the doorstep, and a long line formed to do so. Princess Clove looked up and gave her brother a soft kiss on the scalp.

“He… He is,” she sobbed quietly, “... but don’t worry, little Turm. We’ll take care of you for as long as you need us.”

“For as long as you need us,” his mother echoed. King Turmerick found that he couldn’t process their words properly. His shoulders grew heavy with the thought of duty. As the line of people circulated around the plaza before the king’s hut and placed down their roses, the night passed quicker than one would imagine.




The shadows had grown stark by the end of the ceremony, and the sun was peeking sneakily over the horizon. The royal family, now that their hut had become the king’s tomb, stayed with the Rose family. Rach Rose had humbly offered for them to stay for as long as they’d need, as he had been there in the king’s last moments and heard his last will to his family.

“Your father, he…” rach Rose began as he and Turmerick sat alone in the living room of the Rose mansion. The nobleman suppressed a sob, and Turmerick felt his head grow heavy. He tightened his fists and looked away from the rach’s eyes. “... He came with some final wishes. He sadly didn’t have time to write them down, forgive me - I assure you, my account is true. I swear it, my king - I swear it.”

“O-okay-- I mean…” Turmerick felt his face freeze over with cold sweat. “... Y-you may speak, rach Rose.”

The nobleman bowed his head. “Great son of the moon, your father, he… I understood that you would be under quite a bit of pressure right now. Too much for any lad who only has seen twenty-five droughts. So… He proposed we would aid you until you come of an age where you feel more in control - more certain of yourself.”

Turmerick gingerly sucked on a tooth whilst looking down, flexing his long ears stressfully. “Did, did he say anything about how you would… Aid me?”

The rach clicked in affirmation. “Naturally - your father stated very clearly that you were to apprentice in every office and learn everything there is to learn about leadership and governance.”

The king swallowed. “That… Is something he would say, I suppose… What’ll, what’ll become of my kingdom?”

Rach Rose sucked in a slow breath. “You needn’t worry about all that. Your father stated further that the affairs of the state were to be handled by myself and my rachfi, rach and rachfi Nilla, rachfi Jasmine and the seers Laurel, Cacao and Chive. Your kingdom is in very, very good hands.”

The king drew some concerned breaths and sniffed. “B-but…” Rach Rose’s hand on his shoulder silenced him and he looked up to meet the nobleman’s smiling eyes.

“Understand, son - we’re doing this to help you; to help Fragrance prosper. Forgive my frankness, but if we left the role of leader in the hands of a young boy such as yourself, well… Are you familiar with the baqualo herders out on the Xorsha?”

Turmerick clicked a no and hung his head.

“Do you know when to sow the wheat and when to sow the rice? Do you know when the jasmine flowers bloom? Do you know when the almonds are at the ripest?”

The king suppressed a whimper. “... N-no…”

The rach sighed and placed his forehead against his. Turmerick whimpered. The rach’s breath smelled of death hastily scrubbed away by chewed mint leaves, and his rose perfume did its best to drown it out by drowning everyone around him. “Your kingdom is safe, son - trust us. Once you come of age and feel ready, we will give you back your kingdom. Doesn’t that sound like a deal we can both be proud of?”

A moment passed before Turmerick said, “I guess…” Rach Rose clapped his hands together softly and smacked his lips in satisfaction. He snapped his fingers and the rachfi Rose entered through a carpet door, dressed in beautiful, white clothing that contrasted her dark skin and black hair - exquisitely bejeweled and wealthy even for a nobless.

“Belladonna, my love, would you bring the king to his mother and sister, along with whatever they may wish for of food, drink, games or comforts. They are to be treated as one of our own flesh and blood - no wish is too much for them to ask. After you’ve done that, send word for the seer Cacao. I have some notes I wish to have set in writing.”

The rachfi Belladonna Rose bowed, approached the king and kindly escorted him out of the room. Turmerick cast one last glance over his shoulder to catch rach Rose rubbing his hands victoriously. A burning sensation within him couldn’t help but wonder if he had made a terrible, terrible mistake.

The two of them had exited into the courtyard of the mansion grounds. The homestead of rach and rachfi Rose in Fragrance was humbler than those of their aristocratic peers, but it was nothing compared to their villa back in Scenta. It consisted of four clay huts within a perimetre fenced with wicker walls. The main hut served as the family’s house and main building; north of it was a guest hut currently occupied by the royal family; south of it was the Rose family’s bath house, which was almost as large as the guest hut; finally, a small house reserved used as a food store. Of course, queen Clove, princess Clove and crown prince-crowned-king Turmerick had no reason to complain; sure, their temporary home was smaller than their previous one, but it had been lent to them through the compassion and honour of the Roses. Besides, they all fit - mostly.

The pair entered the small hut and were met with the sudden gazes of the queen and the princess, both of whom smiled as soon as they realised who had come. “Turm, you’re back!” whispered the princess gleefully and took her brother’s hand affectionately. His mother reached out to touch his belly.

“The rach wishes to inform you that whatever you may request while you are guests here, may be granted to the best of his ability. No expense shall be spared if the royal family demands it,” the rachfi whispered respectfully, knelt down and offered forth her hands, palms facing up. The queen looked at her children.

“Would any of you like anything?” Turmerick shook his head. Clove smacked her lips with interest.

“Could you bring us some chamomile tea and some maokl, please?” she asked.

“Some chokham, too, if you could,” added the queen and touched the rachfi’s hands. The rachfi slowly brought her hands back to her sides, rose up and left the hut. Silence fell upon the hut once more before the queen asked, “So, what did you and the rach discuss?”

Turmerick shrunk. “I… I’m not sure I wanna talk about it.”

Both the queen and the princess blinked suspiciously at one another and shuffled a little closer to the king. They both placed a hand on one shoulder each and offered his worry stares with quartz eyes. Turmerick looked down in shame, twiddling his thumbs gingerly. They gave off a dry rubbing noise than only seemed to intensify the awkwardness of the situation. The princess leaned in and rested her cheek atop his head. “You don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to, Turm… We support you no matter what you said.”

“You… You will?” whimpered the boy.

The queen sighed. “Of course, we will. We, we have no one but each other now. We cannot afford to anyone. We have already lost one too many.”

Turmerick wiped some tears away. “I, I…”

“Hussshh… Shh, shh… Don’t feel like you have to tell us anything. We’ll be here when you are ready,” reaffirmed princess Clove. The prince nodded, and as he kept crying, his family only hugged tighter. The night quickly passed like this - after they had eaten, Turmerick went to take a bath at the mansion bath house, allowing himself to take in every facet of the beautifully shaped clay tub and the silver-decorated room. His fascination wouldn’t be allowed to last, however, because as he stood admiring the metallic stars filling the domed ceiling, the fire under the tub was lit by the rachfi, who had entered with oils, herbs and ash in various containers. The rachfi bathed him herself, despite his insistence that she didn’t have to. She scrubbed him from top to toe and cleaned his extremities thoroughly, wetting his hands and feet with water before rubbing them in with ash and then quickly rinsing them in water again. As she then let him soak in the herb-infused bathwater, the king asked:

“Rachfi Rose…?”

The lady, who was busily washing herself over, too, offered a click to let the king know she was listening. Turmerick drew a slow breath through the nose and looked up at the ceiling of the bath hut, which was barely visible in all the steam from the hot water.

“Is, is it a rachfi’s duty to wash the guests?”

He received at first a surprised giggle in response. The rachfi ran her fingers through her black hair, infusing it with herbal and flowery oils as she laughed - her voice was like his mother’s, Turmerick thought, though somehow even smoother. She turned to him with a smile that was hard to make out in the shadow and steam, and spoke, “No, but as with any wife, it is a rachfi’s duty to obey her husband’s commands - and he has commanded me to see to the great son of the moon and his family’s every need.” She then turned back to her oils. The king frowned and blew bubbles at the top of the water.

“Do you do everything he says?”

“More or less,” came a soft reply.

“But… Why?”

The rachfi cocked her head to the side. “Did your mother never tell you? Not your sister, either?”

“Tell me what?”

She scoffed as though someone had asked her to explain why water is wet. “Well, the way it’s always been, moonson, is that the woman cares for the home, the children and her man, so that the man can be certain those and that which he values are in good hands when he goes out to hunt.”

The king furrowed his brow and flexed his ears. “But… The rach doesn’t hunt.”

The rachfi sighed. “That’s true, but… Well… He’s very busy with his military career and with his office as the new governor of Monsax.”

Turmerick blinked. “What’s a governor?”

The rachfi smacked her lips looking for words. “A king of sorts, except beneath the king.”

The prince held a small breath before eventually clicking in gradual understanding. “I see… So the rach leads his own village now? Will he leave Fragrance?”

“Oh, no! No, no, no,” the rachfi assured him. “Rach Rose is eternally loyal to Fragrance and the great son of the moon of the Enzan. He’s simply making sure more land is claimed for the city and your future rule, my king.”

Turmerick tasted her words and found them sweet - a little too sweet, perhaps, but he reasoned that they were flavoured by her kind spirit. He nodded with a weak smile and made himself a little more comfortable in the tub. “I’m glad to have so many loyal subjects. I can’t wait to be king now!”

The rachfi gently ran her hand through his hair, though her expression was obscured by the steam except for her face. “Yeah…” she whispered soothingly, “... we await that day eagerly.”

After his bath, the king returned to his chambers. Outside, he heard his mother and sister sit with the rest of the Roses, playing music and enjoying themselves with them. He didn’t feel like joining them - he couldn’t bring himself to ignore the mood still hanging over the village, all for the simple illusion of politeness. He sat down before the mount of his family sword, the Enzanchenn. He stared long and hard at its golden sheath, its sunlike hilt and overall majestic appearance. Despite those qualities, it had been useless in his father’s fight against the vampire. It hadn’t protected him, it hadn’t brought him back home alive, it…

It had just gotten him killed.

He felt his nose itch again and his eyes well up. He tried to swallow the whimpers, but a few broke through still. He collapsed forward onto his hands and drew a sharp breath. “Why… You were supposed to teach me everything I needed to know… So why did you have to go and die? For what?”

There came no response, as expected. Turmerick looked over his shoulder and listened carefully - the music was still playing in the yard, followed by soft applause. He sighed his relief and looked back at the blade. Sharing his sorrows with it seemed to… Calm him somehow. He reached out and grabbed it by the hilt, dismounting it and pulling it to himself. He immediately needed his second hand to support the weight. It was heavy - much to heavy for him to use still. He would need to grow much stronger.

“Turmerick?”

He cast a glance over his shoulder. There was no one there. He stepped over to the curtain door and peeked outside. Nobody there - the other were behind the large hut.

“Turmerick.”

“Hello?” whispered the king quietly, looking around anxiously. He couldn’t locate the source of the voice for the life of him, and it carried an eerie resemblance to… To…

“The sword, Turmerick. Look at the sword.”

The king did as told and, as he held the sword pointing upwards with both hands, he could have sworn that he caught a glimpse of his father’s face in the sheen of the hilt. The shock nearly made him drop it, but the voice spoke soothingly: “Turmerick. It is I, your father.”

The king collapsed onto the floor and once more eyed the doorway. “F-father?!” he tried not to whisper too loudly. “Wh-what’s going on?!”

“The sword given to our family by Kiim’Jaav’Guul has the ability to store souls. In my dying moments, I chose to preserve mine so that I could council you even after death.” He paused. “... I see now that I was right to do so.”

Turmerick began to bawl and the sword gave a sympathetic sigh. “D-daddy, I-... I miss you so much! Why did you have to go and--”

“I did what I thought was right. I see now that I couldn’t have been further from the true path. I knew the day of my death was close, but… I hadn’t expected it to be this soon.” The sword exhaled sharply. “But we can dispell the emotions later - for now, you need to listen to me.”

Turmerick barely had time to recover from the emotional shock before Safron continued, “I do not know what the rach told you, but if you’re staying at his home, then my fears have become reality - the aristocracy holds power over Fragrance and our line are their puppets to parade for the people.”

The prince shook his head in disbelief and confusion. “Father, I don’t--”

“You cannot let him know that I am still here. Rach Rose has only power in mind. If he realises he does not have complete control over you, your mother and your sister, then he will find ways to dispose of you.”

Turmerick felt his breathing accelerate; his heart thundered in his chest and threatened to escape through his ribcage. “Oh gods… Father, I’m scared, so scared!”

“Sssh! Don’t be, my son. Here’s what you will do: You will live as though nothing has happened - you will apprentice and learn under the rach and all the other aristocrats. When the time comes, and you will know when, you will retake power in Fragrance and restore our line.”

“Father, I-... How do I--”

“Don’t lose hope, my son! You will never break unless you allow yourself to be broken. For now, do your best to excel in every class - become a paragon of our people; gain the trust of your peers. You will need their support when you lay forth your claim to the throne. The rach will no doubt try to marry your mother and sister to one of his cousins in Scenta. Do whatever you can to keep them with you here in Fragrance - they are your only family left.”

“I-... I will try,” came a whimper. The sword stared back.

“You’ll do me proud, son. I have no doubt. Now, go out into the courtyard and join the others. You will need to build your network early, lest it’ll be weak and disorganised when you need it.”

Turmerick clicked a weak affirmitive and wiped his eyes again. “I’ve missed you, father.”

There was a pause. “And I, you.”



Gibbou



Gibbou drummed her fingers on a table. Her acts as a protection goddess had been, uh, helpful, sure, but she felt like her presence was still lacking. The expansion of iskrill and Neiyari across the human sphere, as well as rumours of vampirism in Mydia and Vrool ransacking villages and the like. No, she needed more of an intimate proximity to the action - or rather, she needed a part of herself to be. Twilight had never been much help, and she doubted she could convince him to ever be, so it was about time to try a second time. She stood up and went about her dome, collecting various metals and materials she had dug up all around her moon. She dumped it all in a pile in the dome’s centre, snapped her fingers and the dome tunneled through the moon to the sunny side. She donned her shades and amplified the sunlight’s rays on the metallic heap until it melted. Then, she got to work.

With hammering tools and diligence, she turned the molten metal into armour plates - a full set of divine steel with hardness, lightness and flexibility the likes of which had never before been witnessed in the universe. The plate began to cool, and Gibbou took the time to carve and shape beautiful details into it. Once cooled, she padded its insides with mail and leather which together became lighter than feathers. She finished up the last little details and finally mounted the armour on a rack to view it properly.



It was perfect. It was as light as a feather and as hard as diamond. It was surprisingly flexible, and its only weak spots were between the legs and behind the knees. It would serve perfectly as an extension of her will to protect and defend. Now all it needed was some divinity. Gibbou placed her hand on her chest and, biting her teeth together at the pain, pulled out a fraction of her holy soul. It felt worse this time, as though the piece she had taken left a larger hole than the last one. She shook her head and the pain away and placed the orb on light in her hand against the chest of the armour. It melted into the metal and cloaked it in a flash of silvery moonlight. Gibbou took a step back, her dome digging itself back to the dark side of the moon. The armour’s light brightened, and noises beyond the ring of metal and light soon escaped it, becoming a voice.

”... Ugh, what… What’s happening?” came a soft, dazed, feminine voice.

Gibbou suppressed an explosive giggle. ”It, it worked! Oh sister, it worked!” She jumped triumphantly into the air until the sensation of the armour’s bewildered stare burned at her skin. ”Oh, sorry. Uhm… Welcome to life, my dearest creation. I am Gibbou, goddess of the moon and the shield of life, and your maker.”

The armour hummed. ”Maker… Yes… Gibbou.” Gibbou felt the armour’s invisible eyes look up to regard her, and a non-existent smile formed on its equally non-existent lips. ”I am… Thankful for the opportunity to exist.”

Gibbou swallowed - all good so far. She didn’t seem roguish like Twilight at the very least. Not yet, anyway. ”What is your purpose?” she probed her. The armour hesitated.

”I have yet to be given orders, maker. I stand at the ready.”

Gibbou gasped. Did, did this one just say she was awaiting orders? From HER?! She could barely contain her excitement, and her dancing hands showed that she couldn’t at all. She would have to play her cards well to ensure she didn’t end up with another useless avatar. ”You will be given the following task: Go down to Galbar and ensure the safety of its innocent mortals. Your mission - your purpose - is to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and I have therefore given you a form that cannot be broken by anything, maybe not even godly might.”

The armour drew a proud breath. ”Affirmative, my maker. I will ensure the safety and quality of life for all innocent mortals.”

Gibbou felt her eyes well up and she had to look away. The pride in her chest threatened to choke her to death. ”You, you will act as my agent on the planet below - the shield of the night; the bulwark of the dawn.”

”My plate is the armour of creation - my mail is the barrier against evil. I am your agent to command as you wish, great master - Gibbou the Magnificent.”

”The Magnifi--” Gibbou blushed and felt she barely had the heart to send her down to Galbar after all. However, she was too good to just sit here for the remainder of creation. ”Y-you will do alright, my dear. I… I baptise you Titania, the Shield Against the Darkness.”

The armour let out a touched sniff. ”I… I am honoured, my master. No one has ever given me a name before, and I am so happy you were the first to do so. Thank you.” Gibbou embraced her and Titania let out another sniff. ”I am so happy. Thank you… My master.”

”Oh, my dear Titania… You already make me so proud. I have no doubt you will keep doing so down on, on, on Galbar. Now go - fulfill your mission.” Gibbou reluctantly conjured forth a portal and Titania was pulled in, her helmet wearing an invisible smile of diligence and dedication.

”I will. I swear it.” She was then pulled through the multiple dimensions of space and time, colours flashing all around her, until she appeared right in the middle of a large, yellow grain field, looking up at the blue, tranquil sky. There, she remained. A considerable moment passed before she said, ”Master.”

A voice came into her head. ”Mmm? Yes, my pride?”

”I cannot seem to move. Is something wrong with me?”

The voice audibly frowned. ”You can’t move? Now hold on a minute, let me see…” While magical noises came from the other side, Titania picked up some other noises approaching.

“Oi, oi, oi, now woss this, ey? Someone left a bloomin’ fine heap a’ silver just lyin’ in the fields, hmm?”

“Well made, too. Bet this’d fetch us a nice price in that burrow we just passed by.”

“Who’d’a just leave all this roight ‘ere, of all places, though?”

That was when Titania realised that her head had been picked up, and her eyes looked down to see the rest of her lying in a neat, silvery pile on the ground. Her head filled with confusion and anxiety as she tried to move, but couldn’t for the life of her. ”Master, I can’t move! Something’s wrong with me!”

“Woah!” said the one holding her and her field of vision fell to the ground again, where it stared up into the faces of three short, stumpy, greasy-haired trolls. “Bloody ‘ell, did you hear that?”

“‘Ave we just stumbled into a heap of talkin’ silver?” The three of them exchanged looks before each unleashing celebratory squals. “We’re rich, mates!” They immediately scuttled to pick up every last piece of her and sprinted off in a merry giggle.

”Help me, masteeeeeeer!” shouted Titania, helpless as she was distributed across three different forms.

Above, Gibbou finished analysing her spell from earlier. ”Oh no! I forgot to put something inside you! No wonder you can’t move - you’re just armour! Let’s fix that up nicely.” She looked back down at the surface of Galbar, but saw nothing resembling Titania. ”Titania? Titania?!” she shouted. After no response came, though, she fell to her knees.

She had screwed up… Again.





A King’s Duty 2 - To Lay Waste to the Enemy




King Safron sat across the room from a weapon mount, upon which had been placed the blade given to his dynasty by divine mandate. Could this be a sign? A sign that him and his son were destined to conquer their neighbouring states? That Fragrance was destined to become the sole power on Sso-Hwah? The only Nelven people to unite all the clans and states into a single kingdom - ruled by a single king.

The thought made him sweat. No, surely he was playing himself. His house couldn’t very well be the ones. His grandfather had shared many stories of the world before the foundation of Fragrance as it was today - how they hadn’t even had buildings, but all lived in caves and holes; how they spent their days foraging for fruit and mushrooms, offering half to the shrines of their great gods, the Moonwell and the Tree of Fragrance. Their days were far from peaceful, however, as control over the shrines was a manner of power, and the question of who had this power was a constant struggle.

Today, an agreement between the states of X’ao-Hwah prevent anyone from exerting direct control over these sites, but Fragrance potentially had the manpower and technological edge over their neighbours.

… And now, a divine mandate.

Approaching steps brought him out of his bubble of thought and he turned to see his son. The young boy Turmerick gingerly entered into the king’s room, holding one of his wrists with his hand. The king clicked his acknowledgement. “My son - is it time?”

Turmerick clicked a yes. “Rach Rose and the rest are waiting, father.” He paused and looked down, pibbling small mick, mick, mick noises on the very tip of his pursed lips. “Are… Are you sure I can’t go with?”

“Absolutely, my son,” the king replied with a stern vent of air through his nostrils. “Slaying those possessed by xweh-bach is no task for a young prince.” He eyed the doorway behind them. “Go see to your mother and sister - ask if there is anything you can help them with.”

“But father, I--”

“It is a -king’s- duty to lay waste to the enemy. The prince’s is to learn. Now go do that very duty, and I will do mine.”

A deathly quiet moment passed before Turmerick left. The king looked back at the sword on its mount. It is a king’s duty to lay waste to the enemy, his father had told him. Safron hadn’t finished the quote, however: ... and to empower his people. Empower… He looked out between the now-open awnings they used to roof the half of his room that was outside the cave part. The light of the moon winked temptatiously at him. He recalled the single condition for accepting the blade: ”Use it,” one of them had spoken. He narrowed his eyes at the moon, and the awesome colours that danced around it seemed to speak to him: All you have to do is to reach out and take it, it spoke to him.

The king rose up, retrieved the sword from the mount and stormed out of the room. Outside of the palace entrance, rach Rose and a warband of fifty nelves sat atop baqualos, their bodies painted with blindingly radiant, organic curves and shapes of sun ink. None of them seemed at all comfortable with the arrangement, but it was better to suffer temporarily and live than to die an agonising death at the hands of a vampire. The warriors bowed upon seeing the king and rach Rose spoke, “Ah, great son of the moon - we are eager to receive your blessing so that we may--”

“Belay that, rach Rose. I’m coming with you. Laurel, fetch me sun ink and harness.”

The warriors exchanged looks and the rach droned in bewilderment. “G-great son of the moon, surely, your life is much too dear to--”

“I will lead this skirmish, rach,” the king commanded as the druid Laurel approached as hastily as she could, blinded as she was behind layers of linen blindfolds. In her hands, she held a bowl which, even through layers upon layers of cloth and leather, still managed to emit a small, radiant glow. Rach Rose clicked his tongue in disapproval as the druid uncovered the bowl, dipped her hands into what everyone within the area experienced as a small window into a burning day, and started painting the king’s bare torso and legs with long, gibbounian lines.

“With all due respect, great son of the moon, we believe it would be best for you to remain. The seers say, after all: The wise send men in their stead so that they may lead another day. Please, allow us to--”

“The seers have been wrong before.” Laurel, who was currently painting his chest, let out a sharp tsk. The king noted her reaction with a click, but didn’t comment on it. “The weapon granted to my house is unblooded. Its use is paramount.”

“Does the great son of the moon know how to use it?” the rach commented somewhat snarkily. The king scoffed sharply.

“Watch your tongue, rach Rose. I am your king.”

The nobleman scrunched his nose. “Of course. Forgive my outburst, great son of the moon.”

The king sucked on a tooth and closed his eyes before the bright light of his war paints. The druid Laurel eventually drew back and hummed. “It’s done, great son of the moon.” The king stole a look downwards and instantly regretted it. He snapped his fingers and one of the servants came over with a blindfold, which he tied about his eyes. His shoulders and body were dressed in light clothing and just enough furs to keep warm, but not enough to smudge the ink. He was brought a baqualo with large baskets on each side with supplies, mounted it and spoke, “We ride!” With that, the king set off northwards, trailed by his war party.




Monsax was a four day ride from Fragrance, but it felt like a month to the king. Thoughts of the possibilities for his people if only they grew mightier and more powerful ravaged and clawed at his mind. He knew that his companions knew - more than once had he caught them grinning back at him, though no necessarily for the same reason as him. Sure, they all wanted Fragrance to grow greater and stronger, but they also knew well how the laws of land distribution worked in their society: If you claimed a piece of land and the previous owner didn’t refute the claim, for one reason or another, it was rightfully yours. Of course, killing someone over their land was taboo - it would lead to the blood sickness, after all, not to mention the death of a Night Elf! Therefore, Fragrancians, as well as the other Nelves of Sso-Hwah, followed a sort of unspoken rule: If you wanted someone’s land, you would threaten them off it rather than outright kill them to take it. If they refused to budge, you would send someone else to do the job in your stead.

The prince of Monsax, however, had failed to understand the purpose of that rule…

They arrived at the dawn of the fourth day. Monsax was by no means a town the size of Fragrance, but it had palisade walls and a population larger than many - at least in the two hundreds. It laid nestling up against the canyon wall, much like their home, but seemed to have built stairs up along the wall to reach softer rock to dig caves in. They otherwise lived in huts of wood and mud, and the entire village was silent as the grave. The party quickly found themselves a cave and laid their plans:

“Rach Rose, you will take Camo and Mile around the cover of the wall - see if you can climb over it. Hemp, you, Mon and Elberry will circle around the other side. I will take the rest to the main gate and call him out.”

The nobleman blew some hot air, but clicked in acknowledgement. “As you wish, great son of the moon.”

They all assumed their positions and laid in waiting. The king drew a deep breath, clicked for the others to cover their ears as he covered his own and he shouted, “Prisoners of the demon king! I am king Safron of Fragrance! If there are any of you left, open this gate and come out! We are here to liberate you from the tyrant who murdered his father!”

The town was silent. Safron and his escort approached the gate. Upon closer inspection, it wasn’t even bolted close, and an open smidge allowed for passage through. The warriors followed their king inside, where they were met by ghost town. The dirt road streets, formed naturally by traffic rather than actual labour of infrastructure, showed clearly the debris of struggle and panic - broken pottery, spillage of oils and fluids, week-old corpses and sunbaked trails of blood caked the spaces between the empty houses. The king swallowed.

“There could still be survivors. Search every house for any signs of life. I will reconvene with the rach.”

“A-alone, my king?” asked one of the warriors worriedly. The other clicked in equal disapproval. The king scoffed.

“Finding survivors to join us in the main goal of this mission.”

“Still, we should make certain that--”

A shadow too swift for anyone to see jumped out from inside an alley and cut open one of the warrior’s throat, a fountain of crimson turned black by the nightsky flushing out and spraying down his companions. The nelves took just too long to realise what had happened and another one among them was snatched into the darkness by the same shadow, screaming all the way.

“R-run!” shouted the king in an untrained voice and the remaining warriors scattered to the wind. “No, stick together!” the king continued and bit his teeth together at the pain of his own voice. The warriors were lost in panic, however - he could only pray that the rach had heard him.

Another squeal. He turned the corner and melt a small squad of ten, all of whom pointed their javelins at him the second their eyes met. “Hold your spears - it’s me!” Just as he finished talking, however, the shadow charged into the farawaymost flank of the squad, instantly gutting two javelineers. The king snarled as the squad broke apart and began to scatter. He grabbed one of them by the throat and said, “Get back in line and kill this monster!”

“No way! This was a suicide mission! I ain’t dying for this!” the warrior whispered harshly back, slapped away the king’s arm and ran for the gate.

“You coward!” Safron roared after him and turned to inspect his other soldiers. While some attempted to reform their ranks, the vampire bowled them down the instant they readied to throw, breaking them apart again. Quickly - much too quickly - the forces were whittled down until the king, too, was forced to retreat, under the cover of javelins coming from behind improvised barricades by the gate. In his rage, he gripped one of the javelineers and whispered sharply, “Where is the rach?! Have you seen the rach?!”

“No, great moonson!” the warrior replied faithfully and tossed another javelin. The king gripped the hilt of his blade.

“It knows about the sun ink, no doubt. Form a cactus and wait for it to come to us! It might impale itself upon our spears.” The soldiers did as ordered and formed a ring, thrusting their spears out in front of them. There, they waited. They waited for a long time. Nothing came. The king felt sweat condense on his forehead. “Steady, steady…” Still, nothing came. The soldier’s stances began to falter, both from fatigue and the morale shock of the blood and guts of their comrades pooling in the street. There eventually came a gentle hum from the street, and slowly, the shade came strolling nonchalantly towards the soldiers.

A thousand corpses drowned in mud,
Coloured black by earth and blood -
Now grab your comrades, hand in hand,
And run away from Amon’s land.


The shadow chuckled. “Like it? I wrote that myself!”

One panicking warrior squealed, leaned back and tossed his spear at the shadow, who danced out of the way with ease. The panic spread, causing many more to hurl their weapons at the vampire, who continued to dodge them as though they were feathers on the wind. “Woah, there, is that a way to treat an artist?”

“Save your spears, men!” the king whispered again as the warriors who had javelins left began to distribute them to their companions. “Prince Amon - why have you done this to your father’s kingdom? Our people were close and--”

“Oh, please - Monsax was seen by Fragrance as a barbaric lump of rock and clay without civilisation. Do not come here and spout that sort of airy nonsense.” He gave one of his bloody hands a lick. “Your people were never interested in us, and the only reason you’re here is to opportunistically steal away my subjects whom you have looked upon as dirt for so many years. Well, think again, king Safron - you will not have a single Monsaxian join your ranks tonight.”

“Because you killed them all, didn’t you?”

“No, not all of them - most of them got away, really. Tell you what - if you manage to kill me, I will tell you which way they went.” He looked down at the corpses in the street. “However, I think I already have proven my ruthlessness - how about I show my mercy this time?” He hissed sweetly. “Everyone except king Safron may leave. Go home to your families, live another century. Don’t waste your lives following a foolish king.”

King Safron snarled. “Don’t listen to him, warriors - you are the pride of Fragrance; the pride of your king - and I-- h-hey, wait!”

The formation buckled immediately. The remaining twenty-seven warriors who had encircled their king all fled south, back towards Fragrance, leaving king Safron stranded in the mouth of Monsax’ gate. Amon snickered as he placed a hand on Safron’s shoulder.

“Wow, I did -not- actually expect that to happen! I knew they were scared, but oh my.” His fingers squeezed until the king’s shoulder began to snap. The king fell to his knees with pained whimpers. “Oh, grow up, Safron - what, you’ve never experienced hopelessness before? No, of course, you haven’t. You’ve always been on top of everyone else - just like the rest of Fragrance.”

The vampire released and the king gripped his broken bones. “W-why? Why do you choose this way of, of sin and death? You know this is unsustainable! You will die!”

“I would’ve died either way, Safron. I would rather know true power for a few years than slave under the heel of my father for one century, then your kingdom’s the next. If I die in a year, I would not regret it for a second - I have made a name for myself, and all of the Land of Great Shade fear king Amon of Monsax.” He picked up the king by the fur around his neck and burrowed his fist into his abdomen. Safron vomited up blood and brought a quivering hand to the wound. Amon snickered. “N’aaaw, shame it had to end this way. Who’s next in line now? What was your son’s name again? Was it Cinna? No, no, no, he got banished, that’s right. Then there’s just Turmerick left, hmm?”

The king’s eyes flared and he unsheathed his sword with the quivering hand. The vampire eyed it with a raised brow. “Woah, that’s a pretty one. Let me guess - it’s made of gold? Okay, okay, okay, I’ve always wanted to try this. I’ll give you one swing - one swing, so make it count - you aim for my head. I won’t dodge, promise.” He put the king down, who staggered weakly. Amon restabilised him. “Woah, woah, don’t lose your balance, my king. Okay, take your swing.”

Safron drew deep, dying breaths. He wouldn’t last much longer - so much remained unsaid. If only he could have seen his family first - offered them his final orders before… He sharpened his gaze and, with his limited strength, lifted the sword and swung horizontally at the vampire’d head.

Clang!

Safron looked up and saw Amon nonchalantly gripping the blade of the sword with his teeth. He snickered, and Safron felt his final shreds of hope dissipating. ”Ee-ee ‘oo, ah? O’ys ‘uan’hed ‘oo ‘ai ‘aching a ‘eh’on ‘ih ‘ai ‘ee’h. ‘Wa ih.” However, as he bit, the metal didn’t budge. Amon frowned and bit down some more. The metal did not even bulk. Frustrated, he gnawed so hard that there came a snap - then more snaps. Before either of them could figure out what was happening, Amon’s bite broke all his teeth and the vampire staggered backwards, clutching his bleeding mouth. A single gaze was exchanged between the two of them before king Safron swung again, this time taking the vampire’s head. Amon fell over dead in the sand, and the king, too, fell to the ground. His breath became heavy - too heavy. He touched the deep wound in his belly. It barely stung, his body too weak to sense pain anymore. All he felt was cold.

“Oh, that’s unfortunate,” came a voice. The king couldn’t move his eyes anymore, but something about the voice seemed familiar. A tickling sensation and scraping noise revealed that he was being relieved of his sword. “We’ll bring this back to the prince. Bring the king’s corpse. King Safron died valiantly in battle against a blood demon.”

“What about the prince?”

“Leave him to us. Monsax is under our control now, and if we’re lucky, the newly crowned king will require someone to oversee it. This might spell promotions for all of us, dear friends.”

There came a series of snickers and the voices faded to collect materials for a stretcher. Ah… So that’s how it was. Well, what should he have expected? He died for nothing and relieved his town of twenty-three good men and women. This was a suitable fate for him. With that, he drew his final breath.



Blood for Blood



Twenty-five years after Antiquity...

“RANDAAAALL! NOOOOO-HO-Hoooo!”

The mangled corpse of the large, mustached man laid molested in the bloody grass, flanked by the equally slain bodies of his brothers Stein and Craigh. Beside the giant knelt the druid Gene, clutching the limp head of her husband in her arms. Their sons and daughters held his hands, tears and snot wetting their faces and whimpers and gasps gagging their throats. The entire village had gathered around, which had over doubled in size since its foundation. The great sorrow spread throughout like a sickness, and soon, every pair of eyes experienced a terrible deluge.

“What has happened here?!” came the thundering voice of Kaer Teagan, daughter of the late Kaer Mihr. The crowd parted as the archdruid approached the corpse and laid a hand on Kaer Gene’s shoulder. “Who did this?”

“I-... I, I don’t know, he, he, he… Oh, gods…” the woman wept and laid her hand against his cold, ravaged torso. Gene’s brother, a farmer named Arilt, stepped forth, his grim visage matching the blue tartans of his family.

“We found them like this in the meadow… There were signs of a struggle, and all the sheep they had been herding were stolen.” He took to his belt, taking out a broken half of a bone figurine, holding it out to Kaer Teagan. “This was found on the battlefield…”

The archdruid took the shard and gave it a lookover, her eyes widening as she did. “This is no figurine of Dûnan make… No, this… This is…” She held it up for the crowd around them to see. “Our beloved Randall, Stein and Craigh were not taken by wolves or bandits, people of Ha-Dûna!” The crowd gasped.

“Then, then who, Kaer Teagan?!”

The archdruid grit her teeth. “Look! Look upon it - its markings and crevices! This, this was cut by Glaennon hands!”

“Gleannon?!” came multiple outraged shouts. Those of gaardskarl blood, in particular, looked to the frothing at the corners of their mouths, faces stained red from tears taking on a darker shade of rage and tartan cloaks waving violently as their wearers stomped furiously at the ground. The archdruid nodded and snarled loudly.

“Such treachery! Our people have always been at peace with the town of Gleann over Risenberg - not once have we lifted the hatchet with evil intent.” There came an outraged “yeah!” from every mouth. “But it seems our kind-heartedness has made us naïve and weak in the eyes of our so-called friends. This act of aggression -must- be answered!”

“Eye for an eye! Life for a life!” chanted parts of the crowd. Others began to shrink back, frowns filling with worry.

“In hours like these, brothers and sisters, the stone god Boris is unrockable - the sea god Claroon, unrelenting! We must be like the avalanche - like the storm - and strike back with breaking force! Take axe; take spear; take bow; take shield! We will make the Gleannon pay for their betrayal!”

A small, but powerful voice broke through the following warcries as both men and women brandished whatever tools they were carrying with bloodthirsty fervour. It spoke, “But wait!” and the crowd quieted down to face an elderly druid - not an archdruid, but well respected among the people of Ha-Dûna. Kaer Logan, daughter of Kaer Pinya, continued once she had acquired their attention: “The sun goddess does not condone violence in any form, my brothers and sisters - if we go to war without consulting her, it could very well spell the end of our favour with her.”

The crowd exchanged looks before looking back at Kaer Teagan, who scowled at her subordinate. “Are you defying the word of an archdruid, Kaer Logan?”

The old lady blinked. “If preaching the word of Reiya is considered defiance, then--”

“Be quiet!” came a scream from the ground and the crowd turned to look down at Kaer Gene, many years Kaer Logan’s junior, but with a face with rage that could age stone. There came gasps as they all realised the transgression she had made in treating her elder as such, but weighing it against the stress of her loss made no one comment on it further. Kaer Gene arose, flanked by her and Randall’s children, all of whom kept the same gazes overflowing with a thirst for vengeance. “The sun goddess preaches peace, that is correct, but what peace is there is allowing those we have known to be harmless neighbours to slay our loved ones unchecked?!”

The crowds growled in agreement. Kaer Logan shrunk together as disapproving glares fell upon her. Kaer Gene pointed her staff at her and shouted, “I will not stand by while our husbands and sons are taken from their wives and mothers by brigands and barbarians who roam and raid in -our- lands without a care in the world! The Gleannon will pay!”

“LIFE FOR A LIFE! BLOOD FOR BLOOD!” chanted the crowds and Kaer Teagan brought Kaer Gene in for a tight hug. Kaer Logan was pushed and chased back into town with insults and mockery.

“My daughter,” Kaer Teagan spoke quietly to her through the chants. “I cannot overstate how sorry I am on your behalf…” She gently kissed her subordinate’s forehead. “... You are absolutely right. In this case, the sun goddess is bound to see reason and sanction, nay, bless our retaliation against our foe. Understand, my daughter, that this murder - this crime - must be answered tenfold.”

Kaer Gene nodded. “What must I do?”

Kaer Teagan looked to the still chanting crowd. “Take as many as will come with you. Go to Gleann and slay anyone who dares resist you. They will without a doubt do the same to us if given the chance. If we retaliate now with full force, they will not expect it.” She leaned in a little closer. “Pacify those who surrender peacefully, and make certain not to burn any fields nor granaries, and leave any livestock you find alive. When resistance has been crushed, take the town for Ha-Dûna.” Kaer Gene’s expression seemed to falter with uncertainty, but Kaer Teagan took her softly by the chin and gently lifted it up so their eyes met. “Only then, my daughter, can your beloved Randall’s spirit be truly avenged.”

Kaer Gene’s nostrils flared and her brow darkened. “Yes, Kaer Teagan. It shall be done.” The archdruid hugged her again.

“Do this, and your and Randall’s sons and daughters will want for nothing. The archdruids will see to that - in memory of the man who could bring a smile to any face.”

Kaer Gene began to tear up again and dug her face into Kaer Teagan’s shoulder. “Thank you, sage of sages - thank you!”




“It went as planned, then?”

“Even better, actually. Young Gene took the death of her husband and in-laws with a heavier heart than expected. She personally leads our forces as we speak, actually.”

“Very good, very good. And you’re certain they will remember not to damage their supplies? Our granaries will be empty come midsummer if they are lost.”

“I am aware - you don’t have to remind me all the time. No, I am confident that they will obey. With Gleann’s farmlands and harvests, the sun-blessed women of Ha-Dûna can continue to boundlessly bring new life into this world in honour of great Reiya and her daughter Lucia.”

“Indeed… Say, what is next beyond Gleann?”

There came a chuckle. “Why, that list is quite long, actually…”




The very next day, a ragtag band of one hundred furious Dûnans armed with spears, axes, bows and clubs all thundered across the hills of Risenberg, bearing down on the small village of Gleann on the other side. Its villagers had not expected an assault. As the warriors descended the hillside, improvised militia charged uphill to meet them; however, before they could begin to climb, the earth swallowed their feet and broke their charge completely. Roots sprang out of the ground and wrapped themselves around their throats, snapping necks like they were twigs. The Dûnan druids leveled the low palisade walls of the inner village with devastating landslides, and warriors poured in by the tens, bashing in skulls and fertilising the ground with the blood of villagers. Tartan cloaks were all red on this day, as corpses were stacked high and buildings were looted until barely the skeletons were left. Even local druids that tried to stop the slaughter were cut down. As ordered, the crops, granaries, smokehouses, animal pens and other food-related infrastructure were all spared; however, the number of prisoners was likely much lower than Kaer Teagan had expected. No matter, however.

The Dûnan Conquests had achieved their first victory.






A Letter in the Night


Time: 17th of March, 634 AC (4907 YDC) - 02:11 in the night.
Location: Amshadr, the Red City - the Red Gates.



Oil braziers flared on the battlements of the Red Gates. Arquebusiers of the city watch flowed lethargically from tower to tower, the vibrant city life finally crawling away from the night markets and back into the cracks and crevices below loosely referred to as streets. The city was rarely quiet, but for a few hours when the night was darkest, its citizens could enjoy a warming, soothing taste of absolute peace.

Tonight, however, the guards were not granted any such tranquility. Down by the gate, Ali Sahed, a barrel of a man clad in the pompous, cumbersome uniform of the city watch, supporting his snoring body on his trusty arquebus, was suddenly awoken in a start by the approach of cloven feet. The rhythm told him it had to be a camel, soft pads slapping against the floor of Sentinel Bridge over the Nahr before the gate. The rider soon appeared as a shadow among dimming braziers - robed and turbaned, hunched and bobbing with exhaustion. Ali blinked and followed standard procedure, picking up his arquebus and holding it ready, though not pointing it the stranger. He spoke, “Who goes there?!” and watched the stranger raise a quivering hand.

“Peace of Aziz upon you - don’t shoot! I bring news from the north - news for His Leadership, sheikh Said!” By now, the guards atop the wall had noticed, too, and standard procedure was followed there, too, guns peeking over the battlements at the approaching stranger. Ali frowned.

“That’s very good, sir. Hand over the message and we will have it delivered to the stewards by tomorrow.”

The courier slowed his camel’s approach and brought it into the light. The brazier illuminated a red-dusted face with an unkempt black froth of a beard. His hands were blistered from the reins and his eyes were crusted with sand. Even though he had ridden, he panted as though he had ran the distance himself. He shook his head. “Please understand, brother - this message is -only- for the sheikh. I beg of you to give me entry into the city.”

Ali sharpened his frown. “Brother, I understand that you may wish to see the sheikh - I do, too, sometimes, in hopes that he will raise me and my comrades’ salaries by another ten sahels. But--”

“This isn’t something trivial like a plea for monetary support! Please, let me pass!” urged the stranger and Ali scoffed, bringing up the nose of his arquebus. Clicks sounded from the battlements above, as well.

“I don’t think you understand the situation, ‘brother’. It’s the middle of the night, and the sheikh does not want to hear you yapping about your lost goats. Now find yourself an inn or something and wait until the morning.”

The stranger grit his teeth and looked up at the top of the wall. “Allow me then at least to speak to your commander.”

Ali lowered his gun, rolled his eyes and let out a sharp tch. “... You’re asking me to wake up the captain?” After a brief moment of consideration and another visual scan of the stranger’s shape, Ali pulled out a white handkerchief, turned upwards to the battlements and gave it a wave. A symphony of clicks accompanied the disappearance of arquebuses behind the edge of the wall and the guardsman turned to the stranger. “Wait here.” He then stepped over to the gate, fiddled out a key and opened a small door in the larger door, stepping through it.

Nearly an hour passed, and the stranger grew restless. He had dismounted his camel, which was now nibbling on the potted plants lining the Sentinel Bridge walls. He would look up at the battlements intermittently, being met by shadowed faces staring back down. Had the city always been on edge like this?

At last, the door in the door sounded a creak and out came Ali followed by a lazily uniformed, pot-bellied officer with a brow so low it was a wonder that he saw anything at all. The commander offered the stranger a scoff for a greeting and muttered, “Well?”

The stranger swallowed and bowed. “Peace of Aziz upon you, master. Forgive me for asking you to come out this late--”

“You are damned right it’s late!” thundered the officer in response. “I will have you whipped if this is a prank of sorts, by Aziz, this I swear!”

“Duly noted, duly noted,” the stranger replied and bowed lower. “Please, I beg of you, great master - I must see the sheikh! It’s a matter of life and--”

“The sheikh is asleep.”

“I am aware, master - your subordinate told me as much.”

“Then why haven’t you left? What in the world can be so urgent that you, a faceless nobody, who comes to -my- city in the middle of the bloody night, have to see the sheikh? Are we facing an invasion?”

The stranger grit his teeth. “Master, please, if--”

The officer turned back to the door. “Sergeant Sahed, see this man to the nearest inn. Don’t bother to pay for his room.”

“We might!” shouted the stranger finally. The officer stopped and sighed.

“We might what, exactly?”

The stranger swallowed. “... We might be facing an invasion.”

The officer remained facing the door. Ali turned slowly to the stranger, who spoke, “My name is Khazim Homai… I’ve ridden from the fortress in Shoog with urgent news for the sheikh. You must let me see him - otherwise, we may all be doomed by the time the year is over.”

The officer slowly turned back around and exchanged looks with Ali. On the battlements, the crowd had returned. Khazim sighed at his failure, but at least now he had their attention. The officer nervously righted the tall, leaning, cylindrical officer’s hat atop his head and dragged two fingers down his chin. “I must beg your forgiveness, brother Homai. I jumped to conclusions and assumed your intentions were otherwise.” He bowed curtly. “I am Akbar ibn Shaykhir, commander of the Amshadr city watch. Please, come with me.” He entered through the door in the gate and Khazim followed, towing his camel behind him.




Time: 17th of March, 634 AC (4907 YDC) - 03:52 in the night.
Location: Amshadr, the Red City - The Royal Palace, reception hall.



The young sheikh Said abd al-Aziz ibn Fawzi gave his groggy eyes each a thorough rub. He would never get used to this job, he felt - his father had left him with too much to clean up, and now rumours of invasion were on the horizon. He had barely had time to get dressed before his servants and advisors had plopped him into his quia and had a dirty courier plant his unwashed feet on the floor of his fathers. The sheikh felt the acid of ennuie build up in his veins, but if this man had defied his watch and advisors to bring news to him, he either had no love for life or came in genuine interest of preserving the sheikhdom. The courier looked confused upon seeing him, but quickly cast himself to the ground before the sheikh and spoke, “B-blessings of Aziz be upon you, great sheikh of the four tribes of men. F-forgive me, I must not have heard of your father’s passing. I know it’s not in my place to say, but… Your father was a great man and you have my condolences.”

The sheikh frowned and rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, that’ll do. Your thoughts and prayers are appreciated. Now, will you explain to me why you have pulled us out of our bed - us, your sheikh and master?”

Khazim swallowed. “Of, of course, sultan of sand and stone. I bring word from the garrison in Shoog - I have ridden for a month to inform his gloriness about the activities of the Zikomel… And a new force.”

The sheikh sucked in a breath. “Get to the point, messenger. Tell us about this new force.”

“They call themselves the… The Unbroken Host, great sheikh.”

The advisors exchanged glances and the sheikh narrowed his eyes. “You came all the way here to tell me that?”

Khazim blinked. “Master, I’m not sure I--”

The sheikh waved. “We have known about the Host for months. They are of no concern to us. The Zikomel and the other barbarians in the north have always skirmished and raided amongst one another - ever since the beginning of time. With the exception of the Jamal all those centuries ago, not once have they moved south on the warpath, and never will they again.”

Khazim shook his head in disbelief. “... B-but great sheikh, this time it’s--”

“Oh, it’s different now, is it? Have they made a move on the garrison in Shoog?”

“W-well, no, but--”

“Have they raided the homes of our subjects yet?”

“Not yet, but--”

“Are their armies gathering on our borders?”

Khazim’s head fell forward in defeat. “N-no, great sheikh.” Sheikh Said rubbed his forehead and let out a sigh.

“To think that you came all this way to tell us that the barbarians are at each other’s throats again… You may leave.” As guards came to collect Khazim, a flash passed through his eyes and the courier exclaimed:

“A new faith has arisen among the tribes of Samermek!”

The sheikh held up a hand and the guards stopped. “... A faith? What sort of faith?”

Khazim nodded. “The scouts in Shoog report whispers of allegiance to a foreign God-Seer, one of immense power and wisdom. We think they are related to the Unbroken Host.”

Said frowned and leaned over to one of his advisors, who whispered into his ear. The sheikh sighed again. “Oh, yes, the God-Seer of the Unbroken Host. We have heard of him, but assumed that he was no more than a pest in a distant land. However, if the garrison commander at Shoog believes the spreading of his faith to be destabilising to the region, then we will send missionaries northwards to correct their schisms.”

The guards seized Khazim’s arms and the courier spoke, “Great sheikh, I don’t think--”

“No, -we- don’t think you should be here anymore. You have utterly wasted our time with useless warnings of threats that are nothing compared to our nation’s current situation. We are trying to rule a country of millions with a billion different mindsets, and your naïve, paranoid observations of gnolls and pig people across the border are nothing less than irrelevant. Captain, find him a cell where he can spend the night.”

The rightmost guard nodded and Khazim was dragged out of the room, all the while shouting, “Great sheikh! Please!”

Once his yelling faded into nothingness, the young Said squeezed the bridge of his nose and groaned. One of his advisors knelt down next to him. “With all due respect, great sheikh, the royal coffers cannot afford to supply a mission to the tribes of the north. They are too spread out and our men will require higher wages to hire in the sowing season.”

Said nodded. “Thank you for your wisdom, emir Mamun. We will wait until the dry season to move northwards. For now, we will return to rest. Tomorrow, we will once more plan the delegation to Al Rawiya.”

Emir Mamum al-Saltan nodded: “As you wish, great sheikh.”

Gibbou




Nothing beat a nice cup of tea and a soft beanbag in the night - and considering it was always night in Gibbou’s realm, that was saying quite a lot. The night elves down below had been the first to come up with this idea - tea, particularly in the aftermid hours between one and two glasses after midnight. While they didn’t have much in the way of biscuits (not in Fragrance, anyway; Naomalheb was a different story), the moon goddess preferred her tea alongside an overfilled plate of butter biscuits. The sweet, buttery taste complemented perfectly the floral aroma of the tea, and the warm fluid washed away the greasy remnants of the cookie upon the next sip. A match made in heaven - on her moon, which was in heaven. She filled with pride at her pioneering capabilities - first sunplate and now cookies and tea. What could possibly ruin this evening?

As it so happened, her duty called, perhaps in the most literal sense. A shout blasted through her mind, backed soon up by a multitude of others.

“By the moons! There’s too many!”

“Curse this moonless night!”

“Stand fast! The gods watch over us!”

Gibbou kicked herself to her feet, spilling her place of cookies all over the floor in her hurry to the windows of her dome. She stared down at the source of the pleas - a small outpost in the Northern Highlands. She set down her teacup and conjured forth a model of the area with moon dust, observing small dust figures barricading themselves against a washing horde of other, more vile-looking figures. Boy, had these come up a lot lately in people’s prayers.

”Ugh… Iskrill…” she muttered and gave one of them a closer look to analyse its components: horns, claws, inhuman joints and an evident thirst for anything resembling manflesh. She shook her head. ”... And people keep berating me for vampires… Sheesh…” She clapped herself lightly on the cheek. ”No, Gibbou, focus! Goddess of protection now - goddess of protection!” She took a deep breath and focused in on the centre of the outpost.




The outpost was a small thing. A single stone tower, and a smaller building, surrounded by a wooden palisade. It was positioned atop a hill which overlooked the nearby Neiyar River. The twenty or so defenders now busied themselves to the task of fortifying the gate and arming themselves.

A female mage in armoured robes seemed to be leading them, not much older than thirty. A pair of small horns sprouted from her head. “I’ve served at here for five years!” she shouted defiantly. “It has not fallen before. By Cadien and Neiya, it will not fall tonight!”

At least thirty iskrill advanced up the hill, having disembarked from a series of crude canoes. They were armed with equally crude weapons, made of copper, stone, and even bone. They let out war cries in their unintelligible tongue as they ascended.

A small sliver in the clouds above parted suddenly and a beam of moonlight struck the ground like a lightning bolt. A cloud of smoke exploded outwards, and as the light receded, a voice spoke in the heads of the defenders: ”Worry no longer, sons and daughters of Cadien, for the Moon shall see to it that you will experience a peaceful night once more.” The smoke dissipated, revealing a large pile of armour, a full set of breastplates, helmets, bracers, shin protectors and studded leather skirts for each soldier in the camp. Next to that pile was another stack, this one providing every soldier with a large, round shield. However, while they had much the similar form, these items didn’t have that golden sheen of their Acadian armour, no… These were silvery and heavier.

This was steel.

The soldiers stared at it in astonishment. “Neiya has sent us aid,” one of them whispered in awe.

There came another crackle from above and the clouds parted again, this time burning down at the pile of armour and shields and branding every breastplate and buckler with a pale, white disk in the centre. ”This gift is not of Neiya, mortals - she hasn’t lifted a finger in your defense! This is the boon of Gibbou, your eternal defender in the night!” There was a pause for effect. ”Mistake us not again!”

The mage looked almost offended at the assertion that Neiya had not helped them, but the rest of the soldiers were more pragmatic, and hastened to remove their old armour in favour of the new. Shields and breastplates were cast aside, in favour of the stronger, heavier steel. There was not enough time to fully clad themselves in the new armour, but everyone managed to get most of it on, just as the first iskrill poked its head over the wall.

Rather than simply break through the gate, the iskrill had opted to instead use their talons to dig into the wood and climb. Now they poured over the palisade, landing on their feet and surging forward to meet the defenders. The mage shouted a command. A line of spears was formed, and the battle was joined.

The Iskrill came, and the Acadians killed them, as countless generations had done before them. The mage lashed out with fire and flame, while the soldiers skewered them with well-aimed spear thrusts. Some did manage to get past the spear-tips, but their weapons were rendered useless against the new armour. The Acadians fought on, until at last, their hated foes were forced to retreat.

They had not lost a single warrior.

Up above, Gibbou clapped her hands as though they were dusty and nodded. Not bad, not bad - they had known what to do and done it well, surviving without a single loss. Seems that steel was more effective than she had thought - immensely powerful against stone and copper. She conjured forth a steel breastplate and mounted it on a stick on the other side of her room. She then conjured forth a bow and arrow, the arrow being tipped with bone. She drew the bow and loosed upon the plate, the arrow tip snapping against the metal. She tried again with a copper tip. At first, it bounced off, but straighter shots helped it hit the target perfectly, Gibbou finding a deep dent in the plate afterwards. She saw that the arrowtip also had been pressed into a clump, however. With bronze, the result was similar, but this arrow penetrated the armour, killing the metaphorical person inside. Same with iron and steel.

The plate was weak to ranged attacks if they hit it dead on; however, much would bounce off if the angle wasn’t right. This was valuable knowledge.

Still, if the world was to be armoured and ready for the onslaught of the forces of evil. She would create a factory of armour, one that could provide the mortal world with the necessary means to withstand all manner of attacks. This factory would have to be moving, too, so the enemy couldn’t simply capture the place it was located and deprive mortality of its goods. It would also have to travel across the entire world, because mortality was in danger all over. She clapped her hands together and focused down on the World Anchor.




The mountains thundered as though it was the Day of the Sword again. Inside its many caves, the Cragking Thunder and his two sons were debating over what it could be - surely there were still ten years or so left until the usual quakes! But as the quakes stopped, it became clear that these were no usual tremors. At the foot of the mountain, where crags meet forest, a colossal female mallard, at least twenty metres tall, spread its wings and unleashed a thunderous “QUACK-QUACK-QUACK!” that boomed out across the forest. It had a coat of rusty iron feathers, between which was dow of spun steel; its beak was a trunk of bronze, containing more of the alloy than many villages; its feel were made of brass, an alloy so rare to these lands that one had to wonder if it had even been made. The Maillard dug its beak under its right wing, sating an itch with metallic scratches. Then, it squatted down for a minute, shaking some shudders out of its head. When it rose back up, a stone egg had been planted on the ground under it. It cracked and the top, breaking open to reveal…

A copper shin protector.

The Maillard looked at it with what could’ve been a proud smile. Then, it turned westwards, waddling its way towards the Prairie and the sea. Its circumventure of the world was about to begin.




Letters from the Duke of Zhou 3 - The Fall of Wu



To the respected duke of the Song warrens,

Thank you for your kind words in your last letter. It truly is a shame that master Gu Xuanyi had to be replaced, but know that I, as well as our mutual friend in Qin, both pray that the new master Qi Guiyang will smoothly assume his new position in office. It sounds as though your warren is blossoming considerably, my dear friend. I am overjoyed that such is the case, and am honoured that you once again come to me for advice.

I must admit, however, I began to worry when you mentioned in your last letter than your brothers and cousins have begun to urge you to declare war against the state of Wei. I am glad you entrust me with such information, and I would double your courier’s wages if this is a tonesetter for future conversations, but I must with all my heart and soul advice against it. I understand your family’s perspective - Wei is doing quite poorly right now and you would surely win - but I implore you to look inwards to your warren instead. Your victory last month against the skirmishers of the north, as well as your successes against the encroaching Shu and Han are encouraging, certainly, but your people are no doubt weary of war and battle. Allow this old hare to once more offer some wisdom from an old story - this one is actually not that old, in fact, and its characters were both quite real in their time. This is the story of when the scholar-gentleman Li Ke was invited to counsel the venerable duke Wen of the Wei warrens.

In days past, the venerable duke Wen of the Wei warrens asked the wise scholar-gentleman Li Ke: “What led to the downfall of the warrens of Wu?” The scholar-gentleman Li Ke answered, “Many wars and many victories.” At this, the duke scoffed, “Many wars and many victories? Why, these are the sources of fortune and prosperity for warrens! Tell me again, what led to the downfall of Wu?” The patient scholar-gentleman explained, “Many wars make the people exhausted; many victories make the lords hubristic. When arrogant lords governed a weary people, this eventually led to their downfall.”

For you see, my friend, among the kings and dukes who have enjoyed war and spent their men through the ages, there have yet to be a single one who has not fallen. I therefore encourage you again to dissuade your brethren from this battle - allow your warriors to return to their families, to sprint about in the garden fields, to reap the fruits of the seeds they sowed before your great campaigns. Do this regularly, and the Song warrens will remain long after both you and I have joined our ancestors.

As always, I am honoured to be considered a trusted colleague and advisor to one as venerable and exalted as yourself. I pray your endeavours all go as planned and wish you great fortune and safety in the days to come.

With great respect,

Duke Kong Rui of Zhou.



Snippets from the Dûnans - A Tavern Story




It was late in the afternoon - the sun was beginning to set on the horizon, warm reds inking the clouds dim shades of pink. The day’s laborious tasks were over for the Dûnan peasantry, and most gathered around the mealhouses on the outskirts of town - large longhouses made for hosting up to twenty people each. In total, there were two of these around Ha-Dûna, placed strategically where the terrain grew too harsh and cumbersome for exhausted farmers to make their way all the way back to town. The northernmost establishment, the one also furthest away from the town proper, had acquired an air of age and usage, musty smells of old thatch and smoked wood filling its insides. Its patrons were, however, still as eager customers as ever, filling every bench flanking the three hearths lining the centre at three points and exchanging jokes and stories over bowls of stew and brown bread. A roaring chorus of laughter came from the benches closest to the door.

“You’re talking piss, Gondar!”

“No, no, no!” Gondar snorted the teary snot back inside his nose. “When Macgram came back, she not only found Fionn hip-deep in his daughter, but the herd he was supposed to watch had skipped to the hills over Blikkenberg!” The chorus resumed, intermittently interrupted by wheezes and coughing. “And!” sniffed Gondar, “and it took ‘em three days to get ‘em back!”

After everyone’s sides were properly stinging, an older man tugged thoughtfully at his bushy mustache. “Kids these days, I swear… Macgram oughta take that lad’s hand for laying it on his daughter - especially since it nearly cost him his whole herd.”

“Always one for the harsher punishments, aren’t you?” mused Gondar.

“Classic Arald, that,” rumbled another.

“It’s what the old gaardskarls did back in Jarnstad - it worked wonder, y’know,” protested the mustached man.

“The old gaardskarls are just that - old! Ha-Dûna has different laws, Arald - thought you’d know that after three years.”

“Can’t teach an old sage knew wisdom,” mused Gondar again and chuckled into his clay cup. The mustached man growled quietly. Gondar sucked on a tooth and wriggled his nose. “No, no… I reckon he and Macgram’s daughter’ll both get a stern talking to by Kaer Pinya before the druids’ll make ‘em marry and go at it under the grace of Reiya and Taeg Eit. ‘S how it usually goes.”

“Ain’t right,” Arald rumbled. “Why should they get to decide that?”

“They don’t - the gods do, old fool,” snapped one of the others and Arald glared back.

“What was that?! Got something you wanna say?!”

Gondar stood up and waved for them to calm down. “Hey, hey! Lads, we’re having a good time, alright? Let’s not ruin it with squalor. Vlanders, be respectful. Arald raises a good question… It ain’t always right that the druids can overrule the plans parents have for their children, but… At the same time, cuttin’ of the hands of a somewhat touchy lad - is that right? Taeg Eit will be happy as long as they marry.”

“It’s the old way.”

“For the gaardskarls, it is. Rest of us, the ciennon fen, the herjegallings and the rest - for us, that ain’t the old way.”

The mustached man finished his cup of drink and growled. “I’m heading home.”

“Oh, Arald, come oooon… We were having such a great time!” The man didn’t reply, instead pushing the animal skin door curtain aside and stepping out into the autumn afternoon. The three other lads on the bench sighed - a different bench had taken on the responsibility of keeping the mood light and bubbly.

“So… What now, Gondar?”

The man hummed to himself. “How about another story - this one from outside the Dûnlands.”

“Which one’s that?”

“The Reaper of Ramhome.”

The room went silent. All eyes turned to Gondar, who accepted the stares with defiant confidence. “I’m serious.”

“Gondar, we-... Is this a good time? We ain’t exactly out camping.”

“C’mon, horror stories are perfect for this kind’a mood. Besides, it’s along the same lines as our earlier conversation. You, come join us.” Their own conversation having wilted away, the other benches were pulled closer by their occupants until a halfmoon had formed in front of the man. Gondar received another cup of kefir and leaned in so the flickering shadow of the hearth danced across his dirt-shaded face. “Long, long ago, there was a beautiful young lady named Robin, and she was beloved by her whole village. She had yet to marry, waiting so eagerly for her sweetheart to one day arrive. Then, one day, her sweetheart did arrive - a tall, strong man came to their village in the night, tired and weary of the road. It was love at first sight. In their lust, they snuck out into the woods and had their way. Taeg Eit saw this and was furious - the agreement of marriage had yet to be made, and no druids were there back then to right their wrongs in the eyes of the gods. So she sent a tremorous troll and seven swathes of reaving raiders at the village, until all that remained within the fortnight was Robin, kneeling in its ashes. She begged, begged for forgiveness and for someone to take her sorrows away - she had lost everything: home, friends, love. From on high, Naya cursed her arrogance - sorrow is for us to keep, see - and took away her beauty and her love for others, forcing her to wander the world for eternity until she would realise the true meaning of sorrow.” He paused and eyed the crowd. “... No one saw her for ages… Until there once came a cloaked figure to the town of Ramhome. None of them knew her story, and none had time to learn it. She went from door to door, slaying everyone in the village with her terrible spear. Did she do this to learn what sorrow is? Maybe she thought that, to learn what sorrow is, one must see others suffer?” He shrugged. “None by the gods know what she truly thought, for none lived to tell the tale of Ramhome…” The crowd exchanged uncomfortable frowns, and Gondar smirked. “And some say… She’s still roaming the highlands to this day.”

The room was silent, only the gingerly slurps of water or goat milk being heard in the background. Eventually, Vlanders slapped him on the back. “Way to bring down the mood, goatbrains! Tell ye what - I have another story! Story of our favourite hero, ladies and gentlemen!” The crowd turned to the man, who at this point had risen up, found his pipe and was patting the bowl full of pipeweed. “Yes! The song of Gaard Goldhair!” The crowds cheered and started clapping along. Gondar rolled his eyes and snickered into his cup. The song rumbled in the walls until the curfew set in, and laughter and cheers followed every verse:


Ooooooooo!
In ‘Trefan lands of slaves and shit,
Our people were so deep in it!
Then outta nowhere came our laird
The handsome Gaard with golden hair!

Ram-dee-dam-dee-dam-dee-daa!
Rangelly-dangelly-ham-dee-daa!

His body rivalled those of trolls -
By gods, no muscles were as swole!
He swung his club with holy might
And ploughed Ketrefans through the night!

Ram-dee-dam-dee-dam-dee-daa!
Rangelly-dangelly-ham-dee-daa!

The walled-in bastards followed him
To far off forests dark and grim -
But did they catch him? By Caden no!
Our hero dragged -them- back in tow!

Ram-dee-dam-dee-dam-dee-daa!
Rangelly-dangelly-ham-dee-daa!

His mind was blessèd by the gods;
He won against outrageous odds;
And while the king was after him,
He drank his wine and fucked his queen!

Ram-dee-dam-dee-dam-dee-daa!
Rangelly-dangelly-ham-dee-daa!

Alas, the tale of Gaard did end:
When he his people did defend,
The Ketties slayed him, that is truuuuuuuuueee…
*Tap*
*Tap*
*Tap*
*Tap*
BUT IT TOOK A HUNDRED MEN TO DO!



A King’s Duty 1 - To Know One's Land



It had been weeks since they had last heard from Cinna. Termurick knew it was only the start and that he would never see his brother again. Part of him was grateful, spitefully so. Cinna had been a demon of a child and a monster of a brother, always pulling him into all kinds of trouble, hurting him, insulting him…

And yet… Bonds of blood do not break so easily. He looked up. His lap balanced an untouched ceramic plate with his breakfast on it: kheft, xoag and chuam, respectively a mash of basil, salt and durum flour; a lukewarm salad containing chopped raisins, spinach, mushrooms and okra, all heavily seasoned with rose pepper, salt and rosemary; and a pemmican-like pudding of bison meat, fat and whatever else one could find in a bison, seasoned with salt, pepper and cinnamon. It smelled heavenly, but Turmerick couldn’t find the appetite to taste it. The atmosphere in the small dining room of the King’s half-hut, half-cave felt oppressive: every hair on the shadowtiger fur upon which he sat felt like a barb; the hunting and war trophies lining the cave walls were screaming at him as though they still lived; the friendly moonlight peeking at him through the openings in the roof awnings felt cold.

Worst of all, perhaps, were the two hard eyes glaring down at him across the room. “Son. You aren’t eating,” came the harsh whisper and clicks of King Safron. Turmerick flinched.

“I’m, I’m not hungry, father.”

“A growing prince must eat his every meal, lest he’ll become a weak king,” the king responded and pinched a piece of chuam between two trunks that could barely be described as fingers. “Clove, you, too. A princess must also eat the food she’s given, lest her--”

“‘Lest her husband’s mother will despise her.’ Forgive me, father. I will eat faster.” There were four of them now - their father sat in the innermost part of the circular room, the majority of his surroundings being cave walls carved handsomely with the story of his reign; on his right sat their mother, Queen Clove I, a beautiful woman of 154 years with skin as dark as blackberries and hair as black as the abyss. Only her white eyes, ashen body paint and quartz-jeweled, alabaster dress were visible in the shadow of the night - there was no woman more beautiful in all of Fragrance; opposite of her, on the king’s left, sat Princess Clove II, who to the king’s chagrin had only inherited her mother’s hair, but her father’s light plum skin. Efforts were made to bring out her assets, such as charcoal paint around her eyes and milky paints paler than her mother’s for her markings, but the whole town knew that she would never live up to her mother’s beauty. Finally, opposite of the king, sat Prince Turmerick II, pale plum skin made paler by quivering nerves in the oppressive shadow of his father. Reluctantly, he took a pinch of kheft and licked it off his fingers. It was delicious - some commoners would likely have killed for this sort of food - and Turmerick couldn’t bare to swallow it. The family returned to silence, the subtle slicks and licks of tongues and chewing teeth making up the only sounds in the room.

Then the queen let out a sigh evidently conditioned to be as soft as dow. “Once again, my most sincere compliments to the cook. Old Erbal has certain outdone himself this time. Where did he even get this basil?”

King Safron raised a blue brow. “I could ask him for you, my moon.”

The queen tittered softly. “Oh, no, that won’t be necessary, my stars. I would like to acquire some apples from him, as well, so I can ask him while I visit the kitchens.”

“Very well, then.” Silence ruled again - while normally a good thing, the atmosphere weighed it down to a suffocating level, and Turmerick could see his sister feel it, too. After the energy of the food filled him with enough bravery, he channeled it all into opening his mouth while facing his father.

“Father - I have a request.”

King Safron stopped mid-bite, milky eyes shifting from the juicy pinch of xoag to his son across the small room. He put the food back down on his plate and wiped his finger on a linen napkin. “What would that be?”

Turmerick swallowed. “I… I wish that you would show me our lands.”

The three of them all blinked at the prince. “Where’s this coming from?” asked the king, his voice carrying a parasitic infestation of surprise.

“Ci-... Cinna is gone. That means I am next in line to become king.” The prince sucked in a breath. “I… I want to see the lands I am to rule.” Silence briefly reconquered the room. The king offered an amused scoff and clicked his tongue approvingly. He slapped his palms on his thighs one time in applause and stood up, crossing the room to stand before the miniscule prince. He knelt down and squeezed his shoulder.

“I never thought you would ask, my dear boy. Eat up and meet me outside as fast as you can. I will have Nut ready our baqualos.” With that, the king hurried out with almost giddy steps. The prince followed his step with an almost uncomfortable stare and turned back to his mother and sister, who both clicked their tongues approvingly.

“Thank you, my sweet, little boy. I’ve not seen him this happy in at least seventy years,” praised the queen and collected her husband’s plate. The princess shuffled over and touched her brother’s shoulder, Turmerick almost cracked a smile upon seeing his sister’s white-toothed grin, speckles of food dotting the slits between the dents.

“Already doing better than Cinna,” she whispered with a wink before she crawled back to help her mother clean. The compliment was genuine, but it didn’t feel like a compliment. A clump of guilt buried itself in his chest, one that seemed to develop needles the longer he dwelled on it. He finished his food in a hurry and sped on after his father.

Outside waited the king, dressed in in his skin tunic padded with buffalo fur, leather pants and a long shadowtiger cloak. Upon his head, he wore a circlet fashioned from the many branches of the Tree of Fragrance, their most holy site on the outskirts of town. He clicked for Turmerick to hurry up, and the prince quickly tossed on the lesser cape their servant Nut gave to him as he mounted his baqualo. The buffalo-like beast shook its mighty mane, sending tremors through the considerable smaller prince. The king mounted his own beast, sitting himself comfortably upon the linen blanket laid over its back. He looked at Turmerick and snapped his fingers for attention. “Are you ready?”

Steadying himself, the prince clicked a yes. He felt like he could never get used to having such an enormous, powerful creature between his legs, but he would have to try if he were to become king. The king breathed out in acknowledgement and gently dug his heels into the baqualo’s sides, pulling a rope that was bound around its muzzle to the left. The beast shook its head and clopped leftwards with a slow, quiet pace. The prince followed suit and his beast did, as well. The rustling and hustle of the town around them made it difficult to ask the king about the surroundings. The king’s hut stood atop a slop, halfway built into the mountainside where the ancient caves of the first Night Elves who settled the lands of Fragrance had been. The hut was fashioned from mud over a wooden skeleton, roofed with linen awnings where the walls extended out of the mountain. It was wrong to call it a hut - only the exterior resembled anything like that. In truth, the vast network of caves and halls inside made it the largest refuge from the sun in all of Fragrance. Immediately after leaving the king’s home, however, the townscape became visible: the Fragrancians preferred caves, like any sane nelf, but for those who wouldn’t afford a good plot of land by the cliffside had to settle for single or two-floored, cylindrical houses built of mud plastered over a wooden skeleton. As became evident when they reached the lower town by the water, those that couldn’t work with mud settled for wood.

The first crescent of buildings forming a perimetre outwards from the king’s hut and the cliffside, were the homes of the aristocracy and highborne. These were plantation owners, royal family and merchants, constantly travelling between their homes here and their lands across the river or closer to the sea. Their houses were large - larger than the king’s hut - and fashioned from wood and mud. Some were even two-floored, and each one was surrounded by a thin, shoulder high wall of wicker. The richest had built huts into the cliffside like the king - these looked almost like gates into mysterious mountain halls. Turmerick had visited several of them before, and while they were not as large as the king’s, a few of them certainly looked wealthier on the inside.

There came a trickle of water, followed by quiet chuckles. From the back of his baqualo, Turmerick could see into someone’s yard as they passed by. A large bath had been filled with water, evidently scented with mint and vanilla. It smelled beyond heavenly. Three nelves sat chatting in the bath - two girls and one boy. Turmerick caught one of the girls’ eye and she smacked her lips invitingly. The prince felt himself blush.

“Do you know who’s house that was?” came a sudden question from his father. The prince quickly recovered his focus as they turned the dirt road corner where the houses began to swing rightwards down the slope.

“Y-yes! That was the manor of rach and rachfi Nilla!”

The king clicked agreeingly. “Correct. Do you know what they do?”

“Rach and rachfi Nilla own the town’s largest vanilla plantation. F-four acres, with another six reserved for other spices.”

“Correct again. Do you know why they are rich?”

This stumped Turmerick’s train of thought. “... Because… Because people like vanilla?”

The king nodded. “Vanilla is a labour-intensive plant to grow - rachfi Nilla’s father was the one to acquire the land first. He maintained an acre all on his own, allowing for vanilla to be produced and enter the perfume and spice market in sizeable quantities for the first time. He died very young due to exhaustion from all the work, but his wife used their accumulated wealth to hire a workforce and acquire more land.”

“How could they pay for all that?” The king chuckled and reached into a pouch on his belt. He pulled it a long, black stick - except that it wasn’t a stick, but a bean pod. Turmerick furrowed his brow. “Vanilla…”

The king pocketed the bean. “That’s right. With the items they had bartered for through the years, as well as the promise to pay their workers a wage of one vanilla pod per harvest, they acquired all the land and wealth they own today. As a king, you must understand the powers at work in your kingdom - they are your mightiest tools in your possession, and the worst of enemies if they oppose you.”

They reached the second ring of the town - the centre of the olfactoriums, cookhouses, perfumaries, incensaries and herbal tents, all scattered between market stalls, wooden and mud houses meant for commoners, and public bath houses. These were really just wicker fences surrounding communal tubs overflowing with hot water scented with herbs and flowers to hide the fact that they didn’t switch the bath water too often. The sizzles of hot cooking oil, bubbles of stews, a million perfumes and a thick blanket of incense in the air - all waged a grand and beautiful war for the attention of the prince’s senses. Joining the battle came the gentle tones of street performers barely touching the strings and surfaces of their instruments, all while whispering and humming their sweet songs. The commoners greeted their king and prince with clicking tongues and smacking lips, and the king greeted them back by laying his palm on the heads he could reach. The prince did not follow along - he knew he had no mandate to do so yet.

“Great son of the moon,” whispered a florist poetically as she offered the king a bouquet of sweetpeas. “Please, accept this little gesture from your admirer Cacaoa.”

The king exhaled in amusement and spoke,
“Forgive my curt and soulless words -
My heart’s in glee like summer birds,
For this, for sure, I did not see -
Alas, at home, she waits for me.”

Turmerick barely had time to even attempt to understand what had just happened before the florist retracted her flowers and bowed. “Understood, great son of the moon. I pray your wife is still well and beautiful.”

The king clicked his thanks and the pair moved on. Turmerick tried to ride a little closer. “Father, what was that?”

“Hmm… No, I agree. Not my best verse.”

“What? No, I mean, why verse at all? What just happened?”

The king turned sideways and glanced curiously at him. “You mean your brother never told you?”

The prince hung his head. “Cinna didn’t tell me much of anything, really.”

The king sighed. “... I should have expected as much. It irks me that I didn’t think of training you sooner. I was just afraid that it would widen the already great rift between the two of you - between him and his family.” He closed his eyes. “Either way, allow me to explain what just happened…” He brought his baqualo to a halt and turned to point an intentionally shaky hand back towards the florist. “You see, when a commoner of the opposite sex offers you something of value to them, you can either accept or decline the gift. However, if you wish to decline, you must do so in verse.”

Turmerick frowned. “But why?”

“Always been,” mumbled the king with a shrug. “The seer Laurel suggested once that it’s an ancient tradition put in place by Mag’tsaal himself.”

“The singing god?”

“The very same. Now, keep in mind, if you were to accept the gift, that means you owe the commoner in question a favour. In accordance with a king’s need to be generous, this favour must always give back more than the king received.”

The prince’s frown deeped. “But why did you decline by saying ‘she waits for me back home’?”

The king gave his chin a gingerly scratch. “I… I will tell you that when you’re older.”

They continued past an olfactorium, bright, flickering light blinking at them from inside the workshop. The king pointed his intentionally quivering hand at the light and asked, “Do you know what that is?” The prince clicked negative. “That’s fire, fire used to heat a large clay kiln.” He held his right arm in front of him horizontally and ran his left hand over it. “The top is flat, and lined with lots and lots of small copper pots filled with almond oil. They then add sweatpeas, vanilla, sweet alyssum, wisteria or other plants while the oil is warm, but not boiling, and allow them to steep. This infuses the oil with the flowers’ scents, but doesn’t cook it. Only the best olfactorics manage to preserve that perfect balance between where the oil is too hot and not hot enough to extract the most scent.”

Turmerick brought his mount closer in hopes that he could spy inside, but there was no such luck. The smell was amazing, though - like a blooming garden. However, a ruckus of clanking metal and snapping fires roared from the inside, and the prince retreated.

“By--...! Petuni, I will have you whipped through the streets if you spill my oil like that again, do you hear me?!” came a furious whisper from the inside, immediately followed by tearful apologies in the whispers likely belong to Petuni. The king sucked in a breath through his teeth.

“Let’s move on. We generally keep these markeds and workshops away from the higher town on account of sudden noises like that.” The pair continued to the third ring, which was hardly a ring and more of a collection of huts, gardens, fields and sheds. The smell here was wholly different from the upper city, hardly floral and much more animalistic. The prince could’ve sworn shadows turned to hide in the alleys between houses as they approached, and in those same alleys, he could barely make out squatting figures composed of hardly more than skin and bone. He decided not to inquire, but instead probe the soundscape of the area. Many of the huts were workshops that produced terrorisingly loud, gnawing sounds.

The prince grit his teeth together at the hazardous noise and asked, “What is that ruckus?”

“Those are querns, my son. This is the part of the city where much of the loudwork happens.” The king opened a pouch and stopped his baqualo. From the pouch, he pinched two nips of raw cotton, leaned over and offered them to Turmerick. He put them in his ears and watch his father do the same. “Yes, loudwork’s gruesome, but necessary. This is where we allow the workshops that almost break the Great Peace, but remain within the legal range. Still, it’s far from acceptable, so we banish them here, near the water where the area is more open and sound isn’t as loud.” He pointed at various huts and sheds. “Querns, woodworkers, oil pressers, potters, those sorts of businesses.”

Turmerick frowned. “Wait, oil pressers and potters aren’t that loud. Why are they here?”

The king pointed back the way they came. “It’s not just an issue of sound - oil presses in particular require space for storage and space becomes an issue in the second ring. Also, considering the oil is made from almonds, a good deal of nuts have to be cracked.”

Crack! came a sound from inside one of the shops, followed by many more, as drupes were crushed and ground into a flour.

Turmerick flinched. “What happens to the nuts after they’re crushed?”

The king hummed. “I believe they are heated over very low heat to extract the oil, which is then potted and sold up the street. Speaking of pots, they are down here for the simple reason that they occasionally tend to break and make a ruckus.” With that, the pair of them continued on towards the town gates, a wooden palisade wall with twin doors that hadn’t been closed for decades. A long train of farmers ventured in and out carrying full or empty baskets, clicking their greetings to the king. Flanking the gateway were two guards on each side, clack in fur and padded hide tunics and armed with obsidian pi-xxois, a long javelin. They bowed as the king passed by.

“Past the gates here, my son, we exit X’ao-Hwah and reach the Keh-Hwah . Here, the sun shines too brightly during the day for any nightkin to walk about.” The canyon opened up into a river delta running into the Sao-kweh, The river delta was flanked on each side by acres of grains, fruit trees, spice plants, flower fields, herbs, vegetables and much more. The whole of the shore and the hills up towards the drylands above the canyons had been turned entirely to farmland, checkered with irrigation canals in the lowlands. The highlands were mostly fruit and spice trees. Shattered between the fields were small collections of huts and houses belonging to the workers. Everywhere, farmers zoomed back and forth in their work, the slap and hack of tools striking soil and cutting stems louder than much of what had been happening in town. By the very shore, the prince could make out what he knew to be fishing boats. The king continued forward and it took Turmerick a second to react and follow along.

“Do any of these lands belong to rach and rachfi Nilla?”

“No. These fields belong entirely to the peasantry. Their plantations are further south. Would you like to see them?”

“I would, actually,” the prince agreed. King Safron nodded and summoned one of the guards by smacking his lips at him.

“Bring us a raft to ferry me and my son across the delta, and fetch us an escort of six strong.” The guard clicked in acknowledgement and jogged off. Turmerick frowned.

“Why an escort, father?”

The king’s brow darkened. “Truth be told, the lands south of us, including the lands belong to rach and rachfi Nilla, are contested territories. Do you know what tribe lives to the south of us?”

The prince scrunched his nose. “The Hui-Prra?”

“Correct. Fragrance and the Hui-Prra haven’t had the most peaceful history - they envy our access to the Tree of Fragrance and the Moonwell, as well as our defensible lands; on the other hand, we long for their fertile flatlands and bountiful timber. Our wealth is greater than theirs ten times over, but our people cannot survive on spices and herbs. We need wheat, yams, okra, beans and roots; we need hay for our animals during draughts and wood for our buildings after fires and rockslides; we need acres to grow our cotton and flax… You get the point.”

“W-well, couldn’t we just…”

“Take their land?” The prince quieted down and the king nodded. “Oh, yes, that -is- a possibility. While their lands are richer, our warbands are greater, better equipped, better trained; however, it wouldn’t be enough. Our losses would be too heavy to sustain, and Fragrance would be left almost as weak as the remnants of the Hui-Prra. No… While we may skirmish every now and then, all-out war is something neither I nor chief Tsarri want. When you one day become king, you will need to understand which fights to pick and which to avoid.”

Turmerick clicked half-heartedly. It seemed he would have to study his neighbours closely. After a time, their raft arrived, and they dismounted to ford the river. On the other side, new baqualos were provided for them and the pair continued southwards along the coast, quietly followed by a group of six warriors. Their journey brought them past smaller workshops that screamed loud blasts of air, flickered hot-white lights and unleashed mindgnawing ting-ting-tings at anyone unfortunate enough to be in their presence.

“Whitesmiths…” mumbled the prince. The king nodded.

“For those whose work is so loud that they disturb the Great Peace, we have no choice but to banish them here. We cannot outlaw them, of course - copper is almost as precious and important to us as saffron and roses; however, they are simply too loud to keep inside the city.” The workshop was in truth a kiln next to a roof suspended on wooden poles. The prince’s eyes met one of the workers’ and the commoner clicked and bowed his greeting. The king took note and clicked back. “While our people generally don’t associate them on account of their poor hearing and loud speech, their wares fetch enough of a price on the market that they actually live quite well out here. For the most part.” The prince considered what his father’s final sentence meant.

After a while, the number of larger huts diminished and gave way to shacks, tents and lay-tos almost built haphazardly around the fields. The fields themselves were neatly maintained and well-irrigated, and almost stood out among the otherwise poor surroundings. Working some of the fields were what Turmerick observed to be skinny, beaten nelves, wearing rags for clothing and giving off an unwashed stink that the prince could smell nearly fifty feet away. He shook his head disapprovingly and asked, “Father, what are those?”

“Slaves, my son. Criminals or prisoners of war and raids sent to work in the fields or, in this case, the pepper acres of rachfi Jasmine.” Turmerick blinked and looked closer. Indeed, a few paces away from the ragged nelves, he saw a mountain of a man wearing considerably nicer clothes of hide and leather, armed with a whip. He turned to his father again.

“Why do we force criminals and prisoners to do this sort of work under these conditions, father?” The king’s face seemed to revert back to its stern standard, and his eyes stared miles ahead into the southern jungles.

“Your brother got three men killed and nearly killed you, too. For his crimes, he was exiled. In truth, I treated him unfairly in the eyes of the law. He was my son - I couldn’t give him the punishment his crimes truly deserved.” He reached up and plucked a jasmine flower from a shrub they passed by. “... In truth, manslaughter is punishable by death.” The prince gasped quietly. “Yes… I was too weak to execute your brother, my own son, so I ignored the laws. For this, Haroses will surely punish me someday. The law is nothing to scoff at, my son; as a king, it is your greatest ally and your greatest enemy.”

“But if you’re king, can’t you decide what the law should be?” But to this, the king clicked his disagreement.

“No, my son. No matter how mighty the king, they will forever only be as powerful as the people who support them. A king who cannot follow his own laws, or makes too many changes to suit themselves, will be a short-lived king.”

Turmerick nodded slowly. “And who supports the king?”

The king smiled. “You’re catching on, my son. As a king, the more support you can get, the better.” They turned left towards the hills leading up to the arid wastes above the canyon. In the distance, Turmerick could hear yelling and collision of objects. He looked behind him and saw the guards put cotton into their ears. “However,” the king continued as he patted the dots already in his ears a little deeper, “some supporters are more powerful than others - rach and rachfi Nilla, for example, are important allies to our family; as is rachfi Jasmine and her family; rach and rachfi Rose, as well as their family in Scenta… Perhaps most important to a king, however, are his warriors.”

They arrived to see a vast dry waste, stretching longer than the eye could see. Turmerick realised now what the yelling earlier had been, for here it was much louder. In several small stone rings lining a central pathway stomped by sandaled feet, warriors dressed in only linen loincloths sparred with wooden sticks, the stink of sweat and blood oozing from the whole area. As they ventured further into the mustering grounds, a small group came to meet them. They were all clad in padded hide tunics with light kilts about their legs, while the two men in the lead were also cloaked with a large buffalo skin cloak each. They all bowed their greetings and clapped themselves on the chest. “Long live the son of the moon!” said the oldest among the two out loud.

“Long live!” sounded the group, as well as anyone around them who heard the call. The king clicked approvingly and dismounted, walking over and placing his hand on the shoulder of the one who had spoken.

“Warchief Gardenia and rach Rose, good night. May Kipo’s dark ever shield you from the Chien-Xorr. How goes the evening’s training?”

“Hail, great son of the moon, king Safron,” greeted the older nelf, who the king had identified as warchief Gardenia. “The desert is cold and the wind bites hard, but the elements only strengthen our men.”

The king nodded. “Good. Rach Rose, how many have we now?”

The nobleman, a middle-aged nelf in approaching his second century, offered a polite bow. “Great son of the moon, your latest reforms have much bolstered our potential for war. With the promise to pay their wages in incense, we have managed to recruit an additional twenty sons our forces. We have never been mightier!”

The king clicked. “Acceptable numbers. I want them bled as soon as you think them ready. You have no doubt heard the rumours from the Chi’oa-Hwah, I expected?”

The warchief and rach both smacked their lips in acknowledgement. “Indeed, we have, great son of the moon. News of his death have spread far and wide by now. We will squeeze this opportunity for all it’s worth,” the rach said proudly. The king nodded.

“Good. However, I want the skirmish to be of the lowest possible risk. His death is mysterious enough as is - if it’s xweh-bach, our losses may be immense. Have the seer paint the warriors with sun ink before you leave.”

“Of course, great son of the moon. Your wisdom is unquestionable,” offered the rach with another bow.

“They won’t enjoy that one bit,” mumbled the warchief. The king scoffed.

“They will endure it is they want to live. You said it yourself - the elements strengthen our men.” The warchief was quiet. The king then reached out and patted his son on the shoulder. “You better take some time to get to know these two over the next decades, my boy - you will be joining them in a decade or so.”

The prince grimaced and met the eyes of the two officers, who both offered polite bows back. “My, is that the young prince? Why, I haven’t seen him since he was the smallest, little nelfling, barely past his first decade. Prince Turmerick, we would be honoured to have you apprentice under us when the time comes.”

“Most honoured,” echoed the rach. “Forgive me for asking, but how old are you now?”

“I’m twenty-five,” mumbled the young prince to the nods of the officers.

“My, then there’s not even a decade left.” The prince swallowed to the sound of chuckles. “But worry not, young prince - ‘tis the duty of a king to soldier.”

His father clapped him supportively on the back. “Well said! Well, we must be going. The future king has much to see, still, and dawn will rise eventually.”

The warriors all stepped aside and stomped their salute. “Of course, great son of the moon. Have a safe journey.” The pair continued on, followed by their escort. They rode deeper into the wastelands, shrubberies and dry grasses disappearing before an evergrowing onslaught of sand, dust and rock. While it would likely have been deathly scorching out here in the day, Turmerick felt his fingers stiffening from the cold of night. All he had learned today was wrestling over his attention, but one thing stood out in particular.

“Father? What happened deeper into the valley?”

The king growled. “... Rumour has it that the king of Monsax has been slain. However, no rumours of an actual attack on the town have reached us so far. The options are therefore either assassination or, as I fear may be the case, cold-blooded murder.” The wind picked up for a moment, tossing a small wirl of sand around them. “... It has never been a secret that the prince of Monsax, Amon, has been envious of his father’s position. If he indeed has usurped the throne, he may have caught xweh-bach...”

The prince hung his head uncertainly. “In either case, why would we want to risk our own people to take a town such as that? One potentially infested with a demon?”

The king looked to the stars. “Do you know the plight of nelvenkind?”

The prince followed his gaze. “You mean our disadvantage in the sun?”

The king’s face grew grim. “No, this goes deeper than so. Nelves age slowly, very slowly.”

“Well, everyone knows that, don’t they? The source of our long lives!”

“Indeed. However, as you may have noticed if you have ever met a pronn-ai-ai, they can birth nearly eight generations in the time it takes one of our own nelflings to reach maturity. A single nelven life is the culmination of decades upon decades of training, learning, love and hardships. To suffer even a single loss robs the tribe of emotions, experiences and opportunities that will take half a century to recover, if they even can be recovered.” He paused and raised his hand towards the sky. “If we can get the people of Monsax to swear allegiance to Fragrance - have them join us instead - this will give us a population boost to be reckoned with. It may finally tip the scales and allow us to take the south - perhaps they will even surrender upon seeing how many we are?”

“But what if they don’t?”

“Chief Tsarri and his people suffer from exactly the same plight as we do, my son. If he knows defeat is certain, he will not risk it. Of that, I’m certain.” Up ahead, the familiar sound of hard materials colliding brought back memories of the whitesmith. However, as they approached, the source of the sound was revealed to be coming from a large pit up ahead, within which dark shades contrasted with the yellow sand of the desert. A pair clad in thick clothes ascended from the pit with a baqualo in tow, clicked their greeting at the king and prince and moved on, baskets on the beast’s back full of white crystals. The prince reached out at took one of the smaller crystals out from the bypassing basket. The texture felt very familiar. He wondered if it was…

He gave it gingerly lick. “Salt?”

“Correct. Fragrancian salt from Xorsha is worth its weight in pepper. We found this vein just last year - the people are loving it. We hope to use it to form relations with the inner canyon tribes. Although, we are still uncertain of how common it is as a commodity. Scentia reportedly has found nothing like it, but they do not have the easier access to the plateaus like we go.” He offered the prince a nod. “When you are king, you will need to keep in mind what resources are at your disposal and how badly your people demand them.” The prince nodded. The king looked around and drew a deep breath. “I think that’s enough for today. Let’s head back.”

“Father?”

“Yes, my son?”

The prince reached out and squeezed his father’s hand. “Thank you. I look forward to my following lessons.”

The king clicked approvingly and squeezed back. “So do I.”



To Become a Druid

Part 2: The Early Years



Volv Eaoir hadn’t exaggerated - their lessons had started the very next day. To begin with, the eight initiates had been divided into four groups of two and been subsequently given to four different mentors: Gion and Chass had been given to Cer Bron, a gruff-looking man with a scar over his blind left eye; Tolk and Fina had been given to Cer Cayn, the Night Elven druid who had gathered the nelfling apprentices; Logo and Iro had been given to Cer Voin, a giddy Night elven woman with bright tattoos all over her body and a blindfold over her eyes; and Pia and Call had been given to Cer Tess, who seemed rather satisfied with the arrangement.

The first lessons focused almost entirely on intercultural exchange - the humans would learn of Night Elven culture, and the nelflings would study human culture. Additionally, they would spend the first four years of their education learning each others’ languages fluently. To begin with, though, the mentors functioned as translators.

The first day, the children and nelflings learned to greet each other properly. As such, the nelflings were given ample amounts of moss to put in their ears so they could practice their voiced speaking, while the humans were given exercises and tongue twisters to be performed while whispering. From dawn until midday, all the children who had human mentors did was practice their pronunciation; the nelflings who had human mentors had joined them, many-layered blindfolds around their eyes to make the experience less unpleasant. For the children under the guidance of a Night Elf, they sat blindly in the night practicing alongside their nightkin peers until midnight. When the apprentices had each practiced until midday or midnight, the time came to learn the respective greetings.

Pia stared intently at Call, whose sweaty brow and flat mouth indicated obvious discomfort with the time of day (or the fact that it was day at all). Even through the thick blindfold, Pia could see pained, quivering eyelids trying to block out the powerful midday sun. Cer Tess offered his shoulder a supportive pat.

“Shoch’ak’. Pia-hsa ta-cha-k’ok’,” she whispered calmly to him. Pia frowned with confusion while Call looked down at his knees in embarrassment.

“‘Eh… ‘Elloh,” he squeaked. Pia couldn’t help but snicker and Call grit his teeth shamefully. Cer Tess shot Pia a strict glare and the girl piped down. She then squeezed Call’s shoulder again, softer this time. “Ee-ok’ shoch’ak’.” Call tried again.

“‘Eh… ‘Elloh. Ma-ee na-eem--”

“Name,” Cer Tess corrected.

“Nee--... Nah-eem…”

“Name - neh, neh.”

Call’s frown hardened even through the cloth. “Nah, nah.” Cer Tess sighed.

“Hso pok’-see-toch. ‘Nah’ ak’-loch. ‘Neh’ loch.”

Call snarled and hammered at the ground, causing Pia to flinch. “Tseet’ loch!” he whispered sharply. Cer Tess nodded understandingly.

“Tseet’ loch’ee-oh. Seek’ k’ee-ar’fach’ee-oh. Hso tro-eet’ paa’loch’ee-oh,” she said with a small smile. Call looked away

“Hsee tro-eet’ paa’loch ak’kolch…” Cer Tess sighed again.

“Hso rak’ kaam’ak’.” She then looked at Pia. “You give it a go.”

Pia snapped into focus again. “Wh-wha?”

“I said, give it a go.”

Pia frowned. “B-but he hasn’t finished yet!”

“He said he’s tired and needs a break. Maybe he’ll feel more at ease if he hears that his companion has been practicing as diligently as he has.”

“He probably just wants to hear me fail like he did…”

“That can also help him feel more at ease,” said Cer Tess with a snicker. Pia’s cheeks flushed and she offered Call a quick look. She could tell he was staring back. She drew a nervous breath and sighed.

“Ch-... Chao’shee--!” she said slowly and loudly as though speaking to someone hard of hearing. Call instantly covered his ears and groaned. Cer Tess took Pia by the shoulder and pulled her in close.

“Quieter, Pia - so quiet you can barely hear it yourself.”

“I-I’m trying, but--!”

“Calm down. Give it another try - and remember: So quiet you can barely hear yourself talk. Also, it’s ‘tsao’hsee’, not ‘chao’shee’.”

“I-I know that!” Pia’s frown darkened. “Why do they have to whisper all the time?! It’s so… Stupid!” She hear Call groan again and looked up to see him cover his ears defensively, his brow revealing the irritated glare aimed back at her.

“Hsa tsa-ee paaok’ loch!” he whispered sharply at Cer Tess, who hissed back through her teeth. Call instantly backed down. The druid grabbed Pia firmly by the arm.

“L-let go!” struggled Pia.

“Pia, listen. What Volv Eaoir said yesterday wasn’t a joke, you understand? You are here now, and this is your new life. I know - I know how -awful- this training is in the beginning, but I promise you that you’ll come to like it eventually.”

“N-nooo! I wanna go home!” Cer Tess pulled her into a hug, which Pia desperately tried to get out of like some trapped beast. “Stop!”

“If you need to take your rage out on someone, take it out on me,” whispered the druid soothingly into her ear. Pia pummeled and bit at one of the arms holding her trapped. Cer Tess whimpered a little, but held on. “You hate it here, I know. You miss your parents, your brother-- agh! You hate Volv Eaoir, you hate Call, you hate me - you hate everything and everyone you’ve seen and met over the past night and day.” Pia’s strikes were growing weak with weariness and the girl unleashed challenging screams and shouts as she pulled and tore at Cer Tess’ now-bleeding arm. Call wrapped his arms over his head to block out all the sound. “But we don’t hate you,” Cer Tess continued. “You’re unique - there’s only one Pia, and none of us would trade you away for anything or anyone. You’re one of us now.”

Pia’s sloppy strikes reached their limit and the girl slumped down into Cer Tess’ arms. The druid offered her a small smile and caressed her cheek. “You’re one of us.”

“... You don’t even know me…”

“Well… It’s not like we won’t have time to get to know one another, right?”

Pia looked away with a scoff. She then pushed herself out of the now-weakened grasp and sat down across from Call again. Looking down on the ground again, she mumbled under her breath: “... Ch-chao’shee--...”

“Tsao’hsee,” corrected Cer Tess as she pulled strips of cotton off the hem of her robe to wrap around the bleeding bite marks on her arm. Pia scoffed at her and looked back at Call, who was wearing a somewhat pitiful expression.

“Ts-how’see…” Pia scowled over her shoulder. Cer Tess sighed, but nodded for her to continue. “... See-... See Pia choh-loch.”

Call’s frown hardened and his lips pursed. “Hso sok toch?”

Pia blinked and looked helplessly at Cer Tess. “What’s he saying now?!”

“Quieter, Pia. He didn’t quite understand you. Here, do this with your tongue…”

The rest of the afternoon was spent reviewing the tongue twister and voice exercises from earlier and trying to perfect the pronunciations. Many more outbreaks of anger took place from both Call and Pia, and by the time the sun was setting, Cer Tess’ arms were full of cuts, bite marks and bruises. Pia had acquired a black eye from her and Call fighting at one point, and she had retaliated by biting a bloody mark into his lower right arm. The knives they were glaring at one another could’ve cut someone at range. Cer Tess had promised them - one proper greeting. One proper greeting, and they could call it a day. Pia had been close - she just couldn’t manage that soft palatalisation. It was Call’s turn now - their battle could potentially be settled any minute. The nelfling opened his mouth:

“‘Ello. Ma-ee nah--... Ne’-eem is… Call. Na-ees tee-- too! Meet’ yee-- yu!” The two of them looked at Cer Tess expectantly. The druid scrunched her nose.

“Hsok’ hso dar mak’ ro-faal ma-ee loch.” Call drew a hopeful breath as Cer Tess wagged her head pensively from side to side. “Cho-faal’ee-oh. Hso kaam rach’ak’.” Victoriously, Call threw his hands into the air, got up and ran to the hut they had been sleeping in the night before. Pia looked at Cer Tess as though she had stabbed her in the back.

“You let him go for -that-?!”

“He’s been trying hard all day. You have too. He showed me his best, and it was good enough for his first day. Therefore I let him go to bed. If you do the same, I will let you go, too.”

Pia frowned, but managed not to let her anger and frustration surface for a change. She whispered quietly to herself to warm up before opening her mouth properly to say, “Ts’ao’see…” she opened and studied Cer Tess’ expression, who motioned for her to continue. “... See Pia choh--... chohl’loch.” She felt that familiar sting in the nose whenever the tear canals activate. She had failed again. Call had skipped off without issue and she had failed again.

Cer Tess sighed. “... We’ll continue tomorrow. Go get yourself some sleep.” Pia blinked.

“B-but that was worse than before!” Cer Tess shrugged.

“It may have been, but I doubt it’ll improve by you getting frustrated while battling those falling eyelids.” She got to her feel and eyed the darkened sky. “We’ll be starting early tomorrow, too. Get yourself some sleep.”

“B-but…!” However, Cer Tess walked away, leaving Pia alone on the plateau. The Nelven groups were beginning to prepare for their lessons. With a defeated bend in the neck, Pia retreated into her, Cer Tess’ and Call’s hut to sleep.




The weeks passed quickly this way, and while the constant exposure to the same faces over and over didn’t exactly lessen the brewing tensions between the apprentices, they eventually got so used to one another that they couldn’t even be angry at one another anymore. After the first week, all the groups would switch from day to night and night to day. This switched back and forth every week, and the apprentices felt it only served to tire them out even more. The weeks turned to months, and months turned to years. Their respective foreign vocabularies grew ever richer as their mentors introduced stories of the gods and sacred lore into their daily routine. The students learned the story of creation, how Or and Kii created the sun and moon; how Por created the ground and Laa, the sea; Chann, the woods and Ros, the sky; Finn, the mind, and Ma’k’, the heart. They learned of the cultures and customs of one another - humans learned to whisper properly and politely to their nelfling peers, and the nelflings learned to sing and talk using their voices. The children were schooled intensely in different kinds of flowers, their scents and textures, as well as medical and olfactory applications; the nelflings were taught about colours and how to paint, exploring the spheres of visual art. In their free time, Cer Tess took Pia and Call to study birds and animals in their habitat to learn more about nature’s balance.

“An’, an’ t’at? Vat iss t’at?” Call squeaked giddily and pointed at an enormous owl resting atop a tall tree. Pia, meanwhile, was dozing off on Cer Tess’ shoulder. The mentor grinned from ear to ear.

“That’s an owlix, Call,” she whispered back. “They are the children of Kii. Every new moon, they are born, and for a whole month until the moon is reborn, at which point they die and, too, are reborn.”

Call narrowed his white eyes. “Onlee a mons? Why sso sho’t?”

Cer Tess shrugged. “One of life’s great mysteries, I suppose.” Call narrowed his eyes.

“Sho’d not troo-et noch?” he whispered. Cer Tess snickered.

“It’s pronounced ‘druid’ and ‘know’, Call, and no, I don’t think we should. It’s important as druids to understand that the world, the way the gods made it, it’s not for us to understand in its entirety. We need only understand our godsgiven mission and carry it out to the best of our ability.”

Call remained unconvinced. ”Ch’ot loch…” Cer Tess sighed.

“Call, today we speak k’ee-cho-ag, not tsao-cho-ag...”

Call clicked his tongue through a frown. ”Tsao loch. Hsii tsao-cho-ag see-tach’ee-oh.”

Cer Tess closed her eyes. “One day, my son, you will encounter humans who need you aid in the middle of the night. By that time, you must’ve moved on from thoughts like that that only seek to divide daykin and nightkin.”

”Hsee seek’ pok’ loch k’ho’? K’ee-cho-ag k’ee-ta loch; tsao-cho-ag tsao-ta loch. Ar hsok’ ro k’ee tsao hsach loch. Hso hsee chee toll-fach ak’sal, ro’sok?” Cer Tess shook her head.

“We are your family now, Call.” She scooped up Pia into her arms and pulled Call in for a hug, though he seemed reluctant. ”Hsii tok’ hsamsa loch.” Call growled angrily, but didn’t fight it.




The second, third and fourth year were dedicated to fully understanding one another. The children were tasked to make scented oils and perfumes from plants and growths they could forage in the forest, and were schooled heavily in what they dubbed “whisperspeak”. They were taught to carve nelven wood glyphs and understand them with their palms. They were taught how to navigate the world in the dark of the night and the deep caves and caverns around Godlach’s area, as well as the importance of both oral and bodily hygiene. They had also been practicing gestures and sounds for a while, and Pia and Call sat facing one another one day. Call was wearing his sweat-yellowed linen blindfold. Pia was nervous - she had been practicing her gestures for the last four weeks; today, she had to show her skill.

They weren’t overseen by Cer Tess this time - she was busy evaluating Gion and Chass across the plateau. No, instead Cer Voyn kept a close eye on them, her bright tattoos beaming just as much as her smile. The mentor clapped her hands and glanced at the two of them through her blindfolds.

”Tah, ar-hsoe. T’ompi k’ho?”

”Hsee, jah, k’o-tii loch.” Pia replied. Call nodded in agreement.

Cer Voyn giggled. ”Ah, hsee hso chee k’at pak’ loch-ee’oh! Ak’k’o-tii, llo - shoch’ak ro-faal, ak’cho-faal, ah…” She offered a sympathetic shrug. ”Ak’k’o-tii-ak’! Pia, hso shan tso’ak’. Hso Call hsiak’ see-tach, Call-hsa hso ak’aa-ee chee hsok’ see-toch-ee-oh. Fak’hsia ro’sok?”

Pia sighed in relief. This one was easy. She opened one half mouth and clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth twice. To her panic, though, both Cer Voyn and Call shook their heads.

”Pok’-see-tach. Hsok’ ro aa-ee ar fak’hsia-ee-oh. Ee-ok’ shock’ak’.”

Pia calmed her breathing and pursed her lips, placing her tongue behind her lower front teeth and clicking it against the roof of her mouth. Cer Voyn smiled.”Loch! Hsoa hsok’ hsil ar cha-ee-ee-oh - choo rrap: ppo; srrah lak’: wah! Loch k’ho?”

”L-loch.” Pia responded politely, readying herself for the next question. Cer Voyn noted her silence and continued:

”Tah, jann hsa-ee: Call hso ppan loch, hso oo-tach chee cha-k’ok’. Ro’sok’?”

Pia narrowed her eyes. Trick question.

Hsa pi hsee t’a sha-oo?” Cer Voyn smirked.

”Ro-faal. T’a loch.”

Pia rose to her feet, then stopped. She still didn’t have all the pieces. ”Hsee hsa ro-faal-ro-pok’ rak’shii?”

Cer Voyn shrugged. ”Ppan loch. Jaaaah… Cheen-ppan loch!” Pia clicked her tongue sideways and walked around Call’s back, laying a flat palm on the lower end of his back muscles. Call swallowed - it was evident he was a little uncomfortable. Cer Voyn patted his shoulder.

La-shoch loch-ee-oh, tofi-hsee. Hso hsok’ cheen-aff oo-akk-la chamkii-loch.” Pia, meanwhile, sat back down opposite of Call and Cer Voyn clapped her hands together softly. ”Ro-faal, Pia! Tah, jann hsa-ee - hso cha-ee tso ak’toll-fach, seek’ Call chee mah hoh rafach loch, hsa chee ka’rak’ nak’ee choom rachon?”

Pia furrowed her brow. ”Hs-hsa chee ppal?”

”An! Ro’hak’?”

”Ppal shaa-chon chee tt’an loch, shaa-chon chee aa-che-an mah-pah rafach tok’ hsam-kach.” Pia replied determined. Cer Voyn smiled.

”Ah, pang ro-faal! Pang saaf, fanfi-hsee! Tah, oo-an hoh-ee! Call hsok’ barr-parr-ee-oh k’ho?” She giggled and Call gulped. Pia nodded firmly. ”Tah… Hso Call tok’ aa-ee-mak’ loch, ka’rak’ nak’ee choom rachon?”

With that, Call rose up, his face a dark shade of plum, visible even underneath the old blindfold. He sniffed sheepishly and looked off to the side shyly as he spoke, ”Voyn-kar, hsii, hsii fach k’ho?”

Cer Voyn put her hand on her cheek and giggled. ”Lo, fach-ee-oh! Troo-et chee shaak’ loch!”

Call looked in the direction of Pia, who looked to be underestimating the gravity of the gesture that was about to be undertaken. Reluctantly, he sat back down on his knees, collecting his feet underneath his bottom and hanging his head. ”Choom’ak’...”

Pia frowned, but shrugged, crawled over and put her palm on Call’s belly. The nelfling whimpered in discomfort for the duration of the gesture, which he felt lasted ten times longer than necessary, and kept an elevated breath even after Pia had retreated. Cer Voyn clapped her hands again.

”Ro-faal! Ro’hak’ hsa nak’on choom, nah?”

”Tsao-mak’ totsi ma’kra’ loch ar hsiich, nak’on kanchoo-aa Ma’k’ chee hong moh tok’ paa’loch. Pia replied, feeling almost shocked that the gesture took that much out of her partner.

”Ro-faal, ro-faal! Chang-k’ong loch, fanfi-hsee! Pang ro-faal!” Cer Voyn shot a glance over at Call. ”Hsii kaam’ak. Hoh Call chee jann loch.”

While the children had been learning anything and everything regarding the Night Elves, the nelflings had been heavily schooled in the ways of daykin. They had been taught to use their voices to produce clearer and more distinct sounds, and were given lessons in painting with colours, singing and understanding stories presented with petroglyphs without touching them. They had also been trained to use their blindfolds as less of a blocking device and more of a light dampener, even though many complained that this was immensely painful on the eyes in the beginning. Most importantly, perhaps, were the hand gestures they had been taught. The break neared its end and Call and Pia once again sat down opposite of one another, Cer Voyn overseeing the two of them with a smile as bright as the sun.

“Okay, I think we’ll switch to k’ee-cho-ag this time. Would you be alright with that, Call?”

Call frowned, his hands halfway covering his ears. “Y-yeah…”

“Wonderful!” Cer Voyn cheered. “Did you bring your moss?”

Call sighed and pulled some moss out of the arm of his robe, stuffing a handful into each ear. Pia nodded at him and he nodded back. “Okay, Call, here’s your task. Pia has yelled something to you over a distance and you want to confirm that you heard her. How do you show this?”

Call frowned and looked down at his hands. Gingerly, he raised them above his head and presented two erect thumbs. Pia nodded, and as did Cer Voyn. “Very good! What else can this gesture symbolise?”

“Approval! Uhm… Cheerfulness? Support!”

Cer Voyn nodded. “Yes, all of those. Anything else?”

Call blinked behind his blindfold. Anything else? What else was there to show? He hesitated. “... Yes?”

Cer Voyn made a lopsided smirk. “Yes, there is.” She copied his gesture. “Sometimes, this may simply mean ‘upwards’.” Call made the kind of frown one makes when fresh fruit tastes unripe. Cer Voyn continued, “Particularly when humans build, the master builder will use this gesture to show that the workers should lift something higher. Likewise,” she inverted the gesture. “This can mean both ‘down’ and ‘bad’, ‘no’, ‘sadness’.” Call groaned and Cer Voyn giggled.

“Come now, that was only the first question. You did well, and there’re stlll three more.”

”Hso kan’pah-ee-oh,” whispered Pia with a weak smile. Call didn’t return much beyond a quiet scoff.

“Next task - demonstrate applause.”

Call flinched instinctively. “Do I have to?”

Cer Voyn nodded. “Indeed. Applause is a very important part of daykin cultures! If you feel like it’s uncomfortable, just put more moss in your ears.”

“I mean, it’s not just-...” He looked back at Pia, who still kept her small smile. The nelfling took a deep breath, sighed and breathed in again. He then started clapping his hands loudly, shouting, “WOO! WOO-HOO! Yes! Amazing! Bravo, bravo! Huzzaaah!” He didn’t look to be enjoying it one bit, but at least the sound was genuine. Cer Voyn joined in with a gleeful chuckle, and Pia couldn’t help but clap along, too. Call grimaced and eventually gave up, his sore hands clapping down on his kneecaps. Cer Voyn kept up hers for an additional few seconds.

“Very good, my son! Very good! Just… Next time, try to look like you’re enjoying it, too, alright? Nightkin might not see your face for its details, but the daywalkers will see your entire history on it.” She whooped one final time and then continued, “Okay, next task…” She turned to Pia and said, “Pia, your hair’s stupid.”

Pia turned and made a face. “Huh?”

Cer Voyn pointed at her while facing Call and said, “What expression is that?”

Through his own blindfold, Call observed. “A frown.”

Cer Voyn nodded. “How can you tell?”

“Furrowed brow, slight downwards nod as she pulled her head back. Mouth’s straight.”

Pia rolled her eyes and sighed. Cer Voyn pointed again. “Now what?”

“She’s pouting.”

“How can you tell?”

“Cheek’s propped up on her fist. Lips are loose or neutral. Brow’s still furrowed or flexed in some manner.”

“Yeah, yeah, keep staring - I’m just Pia with the stupid hair, la-dee-da…”

“Very good, my son! Now--” She poked Pia in the side and the girl squealed.

“Ow!” she whimpered and stroked the sore spot. “What was that for?”

“Call, how is she feeling?”

Call shifted to her in surprise. “Well, hurt, obviously!”

“How can you tell?”

“She just said--”

“Visually, my son.”

Call swallowed. “W-well, she’s… She’s frowning, showing that something’s upsetting her--”

“Does a frown always show that someone’s upset?”

“W-well, not always, but often! It’s usually some kind of disapproval. Furthermore…” He ran his eyes over his partner again. “She’s rubbing the sore spot. Her eyes are glistening more than usual, indicating that she’s about to cry--”

“AM NOT!”

Both Cer Voyn and Call covered their ears. Pia shrunk together. “Sorry…” Cer Voyn shook her head.

“No, no, this is good. People who have been hurt are liable to act out, and whereas nightkin would usually turn to speaking, daykin will often turn to yelling. You have to be ready for that, Call, to make sure your ears don’t start bleeding the second you try to help someone wounded. What else do you see?”

“I see… She’s glancing away.”

“Why is she doing that, you think?”

Call grit his teeth. “I-... Is it embarrassment?”

“Yup!”

“I’m not embarrassed!”

Cer Voyn chuckled. “Okay, that’s enough for now, I think. You both did very well. You both pass!” Call and Pia exchanged looks, mixed joy and relief on both faces. Cer Voyn reached out and squeezed both their shoulders. “You’ve both deserved a break. I think. Get yourselves some grub and enjoy the day. Tomorrow, we’ll practice some more.”

Pia and Call both nodded, bowed as low as they could while sitting and chorused. “Thank you. Tok’ maak.” Then they turned to one of the huts and walked together.

“Y’know… Your accent’s almost gone,” Pia noted. Call clicked his tongue approvingly.

”Hso ok’ mak ak’ro-moll-ee-oh.” He sighed. ”Ee seeh nan… Nak’ee zok’, nah?”

“I don’t know… Although…” She joined in his sigh. “... I wonder how my brother and parents are doing.”

Call stopped in his step and gave Pia a sympathetic frown. Pia stopped a few paces ahead, her eyes beginning to glisten. She immediately brought a finger to her right and wiped it thoroughly. “D-don’t look at me like that. I’ve accepted it, okay? I’m here now, and there’s no going back.” Call approached and put took her hand in his own. Pia sniffed. “... It’s weird, really. Among us, this is what boys and girls in love would do.”

Call recoiled. ”Hsoa tok’ droch k’ho?”

“No, no, no!” She held up their interconnected hands. “This. Handholding.”

Immediately, Call disconnected his hand and took a step back. Pia blinked, then giggled. “What, you didn’t know?”

Call looked down at his hand in disbelief. ”Hsee… Mak ‘hso aa-ee’ ak’toch, nah?”

“No-ho, nnno, you didn’t. And even if you did, by the way, I would’ve said no.”

He shook his head as though he had just seen flying pigs. ”Haho-kam aa-ee chee fal loch k’ho? Seek’, seek’ shan-hsa ta-cha-k’ ar hsa aa-ee shee ro’hak’?”

Pia waved and nodded upwards and Call rolled his eyes. ”Tah…”

“Yeah, it’s hard sometimes…” They had reached their hut. “Well, I’ll stay out for a bit longer. You’re going in to rest your eyes?”

”Loch, nah… Haho t’ong-ee-oh. Ro Cayn-kar chan, ar ka Call-hsee fafe t’al, faal-moll?”

“Yeah, sure! See ya tomorrow, Call.”

“See ya.” As Call ducked under the flapping pelt “door” of the hut, Pia ventured out across the grassgrown plateau in search of Cer Cayn’s delicious smelling pot of stew which he should be heating up around this time. Soon, the second part of their training would begin, and she was starting to feel eager to learn the practical duties of a druid.


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