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To Tame the Wilderness, Cage Match


An ocean of red sweet grass stretched as far as the eye could see. Here and there a small divet formed from stampeding trees pocked its flat surface, collecting water and thirsty wildlife. The expert eye knew that if you ever saw a swarm of cloudlings huddled by the ground, that an unseen puddle was hiding behind the mound. It was with this knowledge that Altansarnai decided to leap over the swarm, her leather boot slamming into the plush ground on the other side. She shot a black eyed look behind her, a sharp smile forming on her face: she was right.

She pumped her arms and pushed her legs forward into a sprint. Since childhood she had grown tall, her limbs retaining a good amount of muscle despite her longer frame, easily pushing her run forward. To compliment her athletic activities, she wore close fitting garments, keeping her shins and arms free to the Tendlepogian air, just like her mother would. The similarities didn’t stop there; as age took her, her face took on the sharp angled jaw of Hermes, as well as her high cheekbones and flat cheeks -- she was the spitting image of her mother, save for her messy blue hair that whipped behind her.

”Pop!” A cloudling with dark grey fluff whipped by her.

“Oh, I see,” Altansarnai huffed between running breaths, she craned her neck, finally giving attention to the runner chasing her.

“Even Dumpling is faster than you!”

“Snapping thing can snapping fly!” Chagatai swore between gritted teeth, his larger build struggling to keep up, sinewy legs pushing harder. The man exhaled and gulped in a large breath.

”Zzt!” Dumpling protested.

“Shh!” Altansarnai suddenly stopped, a large herd of trees blocking her view forward. A few of the adult trees turned to her idly, but then went back to sipping at a rather large puddle. Chagatai huffed as he came jogging to her side, slapping his hand on her shoulder.

“Where is Temüjin?” He said between breaths.

Altansarnai patted his hand before shrugging it off, “I told him to meet me here.”

“The big puddle?” Chagatai cocked a brow, getting his breath back, “Specific.”

“He knows the spot,” Altansarnai rolled her eyes.

Chagatai crossed his arms and looked about, “So you saw a new herd roaming the area.”

“White coats,” Altansarnai scanned the area, “White as snow. I never saw a Tree-Eater like that before.” She turned to him with enthusiastic eyes, “Do you think they will listen to you?”

The man rubbed the back of his head and tried his best to look humble, “Well, I don’t see why not.”

“I only ask because nobody else seems to,” Altansarnai snuck in a smile.

“Certainly not you,” Chagatai shot his own smile back.

“Woah now, let’s tie it off here,” Altansarnai held up a hand, “If I’m going to be verbally kicking your ass, I would rather do it where others can share in the fun.”

“Respectable,” Chagatai nodded and looked forward, his eyes squinting against the midday heliopolis in search of the white Tree-Eaters. He made a face, “Now you are sure that it wasn’t just a really light coated one?”

“When I say it was as white as Mother Xiaoli the day you nearly shattered her favorite dishes on my birthday, then you better believe it,” Altansarnai gave a curt nod.

“So about as white as you the day you said you could handle that pack of devils just fine but then I ended up having to come save your proud ass?” Chagatai raised a brow.

“You’re about to see red in a minute,” Altansarnai shot him a look, “But yes.”

“Now when you say red, do you mean as red as-”

“Chaggie!” Altansarnai snapped through a smile and the man gave a self-satisfied laugh. Dumpling popped alongside him and Altansarnai gave the cloudling a faux-hurt look.

“You two are seriously going to cause a stampede with all that noise!” came a hushed whisper. Approaching them in a low squat came Temüjin along with his twin daughters Chinua and Borte. Trailing behind them again came Khublai, Temüjin’s eldest grandson. Chinua and Borte looked at Altansarnai with wide, awe-rich eyes and bowed. “G-good afternoon, auntie,” they greeted in unison, their matching purple noses wrinkling as the heliopolis light shone them in the eyes.

“Oh hi--” Altansarnai gave a high pitched greeting, leaning into Temüjin suddenly, whispering harshly, “--you brought your kids!?”

Temüjin shrugged. “As soon as I told them what I was doing, they insisted.” He leaned in a little closer. “You know how much Chin and Bort look up to you - please just give them this.”

“Right,” Altansarnai wrinkled her nose in the fashion she did whenever she felt guilty, or was lying -- badly. She stood up straight and smiled, Chagatai pinching the bridge of his nose.

“A few steps back,” He whispered behind her, Altansarnai adjusted her smile accordingly.

Chagatai shook his head and shimmied past Altansarnai and Temüjin, “Well, give your uncle a greeting too, yeah?” He poked Khublai’s cheek and then looked at the twin daughters of Temüjin.

“Hi.”

“Hey.”

They both gave him a nod that offered little more than an acknowledgement of presence. Temüjin shook his head. “Hey, show my brother some respect, huh. Do it properly, you’re way past twenty, for K’nell’s sake…”

Chinua wrinkled her nose again, though not due to the light. Borte looked away. Then both went, “Hello, uncle Chagatai.”

“K’nell knows I’m glad Bataar isn’t here to see this,” Chagatai muttered loud enough for Altansarnai to crack a smile. He stroked the striped mountain tiger cloak hanging off his left shoulder and nodded, “Well let’s go see these white Tree-Eaters then, Altan?” He turned to his wife and she nodded, her smile fading.

“Right.”

“White tree-eaters?! Woah!” Khublai grinned from ear to ear and poked Chagatai eagerly for attention. “Those exist?!”

“I trust that they do,” Chagatai assured him, “But let’s find out.”

The young boy tugged even more ecstatically at the man’s cloak. “Hey! Will you wrestle a tree again and use it as bait for them to come out? Will you?”

Chagatai looked over at Altansarnai proudly and the woman rolled her eyes -- but was clearly amused. The man shook his head, “No I think we should just try and watch them for now, there is no telling what they are thinking, or what their temperament is.”

“Well then we shouldn’t burn too much of the shadow clock,” Altansarnai nodded, and turned about.

“Do you remember where they were?” Chagatai asked.

“Of course, I just have to get oriented,” She muttered as she continued to spin, the trees taking up most of the view.

“Mind if I try something?” Chagatai folded his hands behind his back.

“No need,” Altansarnai pointed past him so quick she nearly hit his chin, “Over there!”

All eyes immediately followed her finger, a fresh set of hoofprints having bent the grass and turned the dirt.

“It’s probably theirs,” She explained.

“A fantastic observation, auntie!” Chinua exclaimed while Borte rose two cheering arms into the air, a tiny Dumpling popping along. “When do we give chase?”

Temüjin crossed his arms over his chest. “We need any vines to capture them?”

Altansarnai held a smug look and Chagatai shook his head. The man then turned to the others, “No vines needed, we don’t know this herd -- I’d rather avoid upsetting them right away.”

“I hate to admit it,” Altansarnai piped up, “But Chaggie is right, if we scare them off now they may never come back.”

“Exactly,” Chagatai nodded, Dumpling suddenly zipping into his long alabaster hair, “We will take it at a jog, and slow down as we approach.”

“Good call,” Altansarnai winked, somewhere between genuine and sarcastic.

“Twice in a row,” Chagatai started to follow the tracks, “Frightening.”

Temüjin nodded. “Then you’ll do your thing, brother? The chat with the beasts?” Khublai stood with saucer-like eyes looking up at Chagatai. “Will you?” The boy echoed almost pleadingly.

"I hope to," Chagatai turned back and nodded, "See if we can't strike an arrangement."

The jog was long and quick paced, but with trained breaths the dreamers managed to follow the tracks in near silence. Only the huff of Khublai could be heard as they pushed further, avoiding large tree herds and one stormling swarm of cloudlings, probably enraged at a tree-eater or the like.

Finally on the red horizon a sheet of white formed, causing Altansarnai's eyes to widen with glee, as if validating that they are indeed real. She put a hand up and dropped to a crouching walk, the others quickly doing the same. Chagatai quickly approached her.

"White as you said…" his voice trailed in wonder.

"I told you," Altansarnai jokingly sneered, and Chagatai gave her a stiff push, nearly knocking her over. She shot him a look and he smiled, melting her own look into a grin.

“Woah!” went Khublai through heavy breaths, his energy somehow reigniting his vigour regardless of fatigue. Chinua and Borte clapped excitedly for Altansarnai and Temüjin surveyed the herd intently. He pulled at his alabaster facial hair and furrowed his brow. He turned to Chagatai and gave him an upwards nod. “You want to head in first, brother?”

"Probably the best idea," Chagatai nodded. He slapped a hand on Altansarnai's back as he passed and scurried through the taller sweetgrass, keeping his knees bent and ready.

It wasn't long before one of the massive white heads of the Tree-Eaters reared from a puddle of water and looked right at him. Slowly all the others also lifted their heads from their drink.

Chagatai looked behind him, his group well hidden in the sweetgrass a stone's throw away. There was a loud snort and Chagatai turned back to the beasts. His ears twitched with understanding.

"I mean no harm," Chagatai answered, "I have never met your herd before, I was just curious."

There was another snort, almost dismissive but often heard from the Tree-eaters. Having no natural predators made them easy to stand near, so long as they weren't surprised or spooked. Chagatai smiled and turned, waving his hand at his hidden comrades. The first to appear was Dumpling, the little grey cloud zipping out of Chagatai's hair. Second was Altansarnai, Temüjin by her side and the twins a little too close behind her with Khublai on the side.

"They are even more beautiful up close," Altansarnai smiled and put her hands on her hips. She took in a deep breath, "Gotta love that musky smell tree-eaters always bring."

Borte held her nose while nodding ecstatically, interrupted by Chinua slapping her hand away with a warning glare. Khublai gave his grandfather a smirk, one which Temüjin returned with a slightly bewildered smile. The little boy then snuck up to a tree-eater cow, likely being noticed all along by the surly creature. Temüjin quickly realised what the boy was up to, but it was much too late.

Khublai clenched and unclenched his hands before squeezing tightly the udders of the cow and pulling.

Immediately the tree eater was enraged, it's hind leg bucking out, smashing into Khublai's arm with a resounding crack and sending the boy toppling. The herd all moaned loudly and the enraged female suddenly charged, eyes blinded with rage. It snapped its mighty jaws threateningly, heading right for Chinua.

As the beast bore down on the woman it was suddenly knocked off course, the body of Chagatai slamming into the beasts side. Caught off guard, the top heavy creature was knocked off its feet, the muscled dreamer wrestling it all the way to the ground. The female roared but Chagatai's grip held like steel, the two bodies colliding into the ground with the dreamer on top. The tree-eater snorted and Chagatai snorted back. There was a surprised grunt and the rest of the herd snorted in response.

While Chagatai spoke with the entangled female, Altansarnai rushed passed the onlooking herd, her knees skidding across the sweetgrass as she came to a halt by Khublai's side. The little child howled and cried as Altansarnai prodded his arm. It was evidently broken. Temüjin and Borte came rushing over, Borte taking her son in her arms carefully. She gave him a stern, sobbing warning not to do that again before she rose and carried him away from the herd. Temüjin squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed them free of exhaustion. “See, Chinua, this is why I told Borte not to bring him along…”

Chinua was still white as the wool of the tree-eaters, her mouth whispering the final verses of the psalms Bayarmaa had written for the gods some years ago. Temüjin groaned at his daughter and turned to Altansarnai with a grateful nod, then to Chagatai. “Is she listening?”

"She regrets not killing your grandson, but she's listening," Chagatai's eyes never left the female. Slowly the largest of the herd, an old grizzled male, came trotting up to the scene and stomped a wide hoof next to Chagatai. The dreamer turned his head and snorted defiantly at the beast. The beasts rose on its hind legs and pounded its front hooves into the ground below with a thwack.

Chagatai looked down at the female and then up at the male. Slowly he rose to his feet, the female scurrying back to its feet before trotting off no worse for wear. The male locked eyes with Chagatai, and the dreamer let out an aggressive snort, arms spread wide, palms open.

"Chagatai," Altansarnai used his full name, worry threaded her voice, "What on Galbar do you think you're doing."

"Challenged," Was all Chagatai managed, his focus completely on the bull.

"Yes you are if you think you're a match for a bull tree-eater," Altansarnai hissed, "Get out of it now."

But it was too late, the bull charged. It opened its massive maw so wide it could swallow clear to Chagatai's shoulders if it wished. The dreamer twisted his foot and as the bull came close, he juked to the side, his hands snapping out for a grapple. The weight of the bull yanked Chagatai to the ground, throwing him into a clumsy roll as the beast charged past.

Before the bull could loop back around, Chagatai was already back on his feet, a taunting snort exiting his nose. Chinua had run over to her sister to aid her nephews recovery - she also seemingly cared a little less for tree-eaters now. Temüjin looked to Altansarnai with a frustrated shrug. “He can’t bring that thing down alone. Should we distract it, maybe?”

Altansarnai’s eyes locked onto Temüjin’s and she barely whispered, “Forgive this.” Her eyes darted to Khublai, her yell shaking from her throat with anger, “What in snapping K’nell’s name where you snapping thinking?” The kid was nearly blown back from the rage of her voice, her eyes still a crystal calm.

Mid-charge the male’s head turned in surprise from the outburst, Chagatai taking advantage. The dreamer flanked to the side, his wife’s fury still being unleashed on the broken boy. Chagatai managed to curl his arm as he approached the now slowing down male, its attention steely on the enraged Altansarnai and screeching child. With a deft swoop, the muscled man swung himself onto the beasts high back, one arm wrapped around its neck.

The beast’s eyes widened as it began to buck. Chagatai squeezed, wrapping his other arm around the beasts neck as well. Hoarse bellows broke from the beasts lips, its herd watching anxiously as Chagatai held on with his life.

“Get ‘em!” Altansarnai yelled from the side, a tear ridden Khublai behind her with his mother and aunt.

Chagatai snorted into the beasts ear, his face a beat red and sweat dripping from his brow. The beast snorted back and then suddenly buckled it’s legs, dropping to the field below. Chagatai’s eyes widened, managing to maneuver himself safely off the beast as it quickly rolled in an attempt to crush him. Scrambling --covered in grass stains and sweat-- the dreamer suddenly got an idea and as the beast rose again to battle him, a gaping roar on its maw -- he shoved his entire arm in.

The males eyes widened with surprise as the dreamers hand snaked down its throat. The beast gagged and backed off, coughing out the fist of the man. A scratchy snort came from the surprised beast, the tree-eater threatening to hack up mucus.

“Well… that’s one way to do it,” Altansarnai gave a confused clap, but the beast and Chagatai remained focused, their eyes never breaking from each other. Chagatai snorted, the beast responded. Chagatai slowly circled the beast, a predators look in his eye. The male stood its ground, head cocked up and maw open wide.

Snort.

Chagatai snorted back, his bruised hands lowering. The beast began to lower its head as well. There was another snort. Temüjin blinked at the two of them and Altansarnai wrapped a loose arm around his shoulder.

“He’s got him now,” Her eyes were glued on the fight.

“Well, snap. Who’d’a known wrestling and snorting could make for conversation?” Temüjin mumbled with a scratch of his head.

“Oh please, that was my entire wedding,” Altansarnai laughed, the two fighters now standing aloof. Slowly Chagatai walked up to the beast and held out a loose fist, the beast met him the rest of the way and with a gentle headbutt, the two began to walk to the herd.

“If anyone… IF ANYONE,” Chagatai yelled, his voice audibly strained as he followed the male, “Pulls another godsdamned udder, I’m going to beat them with a tree.” The male bellowed in what could have been a laugh.

The two turned back to the group of dreamers, the herd now behind them, just as curious as the onlookers.

Borte and Chinua shrank a little and looked down at the tearful Khublai. “You hear that, Khubby? Granduncle says grabbing udders is bad. Will you do it again?”

“N-...” A sniff. “No,” the boy sobbed.

Temüjin shook his head in disbelief. “The fact that you need to be told that,” he muttered. “So, what happens now?” he asked Altansarnai.

The woman shook her head, “This is a first-””

“The dominant has invited me to the hunt in the evening,” Chagatai answered, “Impressed by my endurance -- I agreed. Our tribe and his herd will become friends, the old fashioned way.”

He stepped between Temüjin and Altansarnai, his voice dropping to a whisper, “Is the dominant still looking?”

“Nuh-” Altansarnai snuck a glance at the male, who was now tending to the young female that was tackled, “-no.”

Chagatai collapsed to the ground, “Phew.” The man breathed heavily, face down. His hands gripped the sweetgrass and a tiny Dumpling peeked out from his hair.

Temüjin slid over and pulled out his waterskin. “Here, you’ve deserved it, brother. How’re you doing?”

The man blindly waved his hand behind his back, eventually snagging the skin. He tipped it up and slide the nozzle under his face -- there was a loud guzzle and smack. He lifted the waterskin straight into the air. Altansarnai took it from him.

“Oh, he’ll be okay -- right Chaggie?”

His aloof hand formed a thumbs up and then fell back to the grass below. There was a low muffle and then Chagatai rolled to his side, “Altan… Altan!”

“What what!?” The woman furrowed her brow.

“We have that,” He rubbed his fingers together, “weird paste-”

“The numbing balms?” Altansarnai corrected.

“Yeah! --At home, right?”

“Mhm.”

“I’m going to need an entire Mother Xiaoli style bath of it, side order for little Khublai over there,” He craned his neck to look at his great nephew, “And a splint -- we need to go Wenbo’s.”

“I can set it,” Altansarnai looked over, “It’s a big one, should be easy.”

“Nah, nah. I brought him along - I should at least fix him up when he acts stupid,” Temüjin sighed and picked up a relatively straight stick off the carcass of a tree-eater’s prey. He unfurled his knuckle-bindings and squatted down by Khublai, splinting up the arm firmly and neatly. Borte and Chinua gave him sheepish smiles, only to receive a head shake in return.

“... I could have set it, dad,” Borte mumbled.

“I’m sure you could’ve, dear,” Temüjin said absent-mindedly and brushed Khublai’s white hair. The boy gave him an embarrassed look. “There - that’ll teach you to know when to prank and when not to prank.”

“Saved by a broken arm,” Chagatai said as he gingerly stepped over, as if nursing a bruised leg, “If not for that I’d be putting you to work for just as long as that bone’ll take to heal. He looked over at Chinua, “You alright?”

Chinua nodded slowly. “Y-yeah… Thanks, uncle… Sorry for not really helping.” Khublai sat between her and Borte with a quivering lip.

“What were you supposed to do?” Chagatai dismissed her apology, “It’s not every day you get charged by a tree-eater.”

“Nor is it every day you fight one,” Altansarnai pinched her chin, standing off to the side as her eyes sized up her husband, “I don’t know if I’m more impressed, or pissed that you did it.”

“As if you wouldn’t?” Chagatai defended and Altansarnai shrugged. The man shook his head, “Right, let’s head back and rest -- we have a long hunt later today…” His eyes fell on the twins, “All of us.” Then fell to Khublai, “Well most of us.”

Khublai sobbed again and Borte soothed him. Temüjin grinned. “Yeah! I’ll have Ansong whip up something while we wait - her stalkplum stew is the finest there is!”

“Well I don’t know if her’s is,” Altansarnai checked a fingernail.

“Oh it is,” Chagatai nodded vigorously and Altansarnai scowled, the two sharing a playful glance. The eldest dreamer rubbed a bruised arm, “Well no point putting it off then, let’s go.”

Borte scooped her son into her arms and the group walked off, stomachs growling and bodies aching.




Miss you, bae <3 ;_;
The Tribe of Wen: The Great Summoning


Dawn broke over the horizon, yellow beams peering through between the moving mountains in the far distance. The evening dew began to settle atop the pinkish straws forming the fields of sugargrass around a small, primitive clay hut with straw and stick roofs. The clay on this hut looked middle-aged, discoloured in areas where maintenance had necessitated new clay or straw. Numerous extensions and additions had been made over the years as well, a larder attachment and various sheds surrounding the house. As the first rays poured in through the doorway and glistened through the linen curtain covering it, a few of the shapes laying on a woven straw carpets stirred to life, awakening the rest. The first head to lift off the ground was feminine, with the soft, lean features of Xiaoli - though a little wrinkled and saggy with age, long alabaster hair flowing down over her shoulders much in the same way it had done for most of her life (except for that short period in her teens that she insisted nobody bring up). She rubbed the remaining sleep out of her eyes with two fingers and smacked her lips. She looked out the doorway to meet the blinks of sunlight and began to shake the shoulder of the shape next to her.

“Wen-wen,” Ai said assertively. “Come on. It’s morning.”

Wenbo sucked in a breath and groaned himself to a seated position, the blanket covering the whole family moving along with him and away from everybody else. The smallest of the shapes curled up and began to mutter. Wenbo gave the closest one a smile and patted his shoulder. “Alright, Qi, you heard grandma. Time to get up.”

The little boy curled up even tighter. “Don’ wanna!”

Wenbo chuckled. “You and me both, son, but grandma’s word is law in this house. C’mon now.” He took Qi gently by the arm and hoisted him up so he sat. The boy gave him a surly stare, but slowly got to his feet, adjusted his long tunic and walked outside. Next to where the now-standing Ai had laid sat a fourth figure. “Dad?” he went as he rubbed his eyes.

“Yes, Ren?”

Ren tried to subdue a yawn, but was alas unsuccessful. “Did-... Did you see which direction he went?”

Wenbo shrugged. “Think he went left towards the beck. Ai, dear, did you see if he brought along a pot?”

Ai looked down next to the doorway where there stood a few pots of varying sizes. The frown on her face already answered Wenbo’s question.

“Alright, he forgot. Cai, could you go get some water for porridge?”

A fifth shape next to Ren sat up, revealing a sixth shape up against the house wall. That sixth shape let out a long groan and sat up, two fists rubbing a pair of groggy eyes. Wen Cai, granddaughter of Wenbo and Ai, made a wry frown and got to her feet, quickly wrapping her linen robe around her a little tighter as she walked past her parents and grandparents out the doorway, bringing a tall pot along with her. Wenbo followed her with his eyes as she left and then gave his son and daughter-in-law a shrug. “Did something happen?”

Wen Ren’s wife, Naran, sat up and combed her hair with her fingers with pursed lips. “I think she had some difficulties with that Khublai boy last night. She didn’t tell me much, but given that she’s been together with that possé quite a bit lately, I think that’s what happened.”

Wenbo nodded and scratched his cheek, looking up at Ai who wore a slightly amused smile. “Young love is always just as fun,” she giggled.

“I don’t love him, granny,” Cai muttered as she pushed the curtain aside and placed the pot down next to the hearth. “In fact, I think he’s a big, fat jerk.”

Wenbo hummed. “I’d say he’s on the leaner side, myself, but--”

“Shut up, grampa! You know what I mean!” Cai shouted. Qi rocketed to his feet and stormed over. The shouting elicited weak cries from a small crib at the far end on the straw carpet and Naran went over to soothe its inhabitant.

“Wen Cai! You will -not- speak that way to your grandparents, is that clear?”

“Oh, snapping-- Ugh! Just leave me alone!” Cai screamed and went outside again. Qi thundered after, shouting, “Young lady! Listen here--!” Their shouting faded into the unintelligible and Ai sighed with a shake of the head.

“Every week, there’s a morning like this,” she muttered. Wenbo chuckled.

“Now, now, she’s around that age now… I still remember camping outside for days with Chaggie whenever you got like this, way back when.” He gave Ai a playful wink and she returned it with a wry grin.

“Oh, ha-ha. I wasn’t -that- bad, was I?” She went over to the hearth and began to stack small branches of dry mushroom wood and various other kinds.

Wenbo hummed. “Well, there was that one time when it took you a whole week to calm down after I kissed Bayarmaa on the cheek when she finally managed to finish her play.”

Ai snickered. “You totally deserved that. I was your girlfriend and you’re not supposed to kiss other people than your girlfriend.”

“She’s my sister, Ai.”

“So am I, silly.”

Wenbo rolled his eyes and giggled. “It was only a kiss on the cheek.”

Ai furrowed her brow and sighed. “A kiss is still a kiss, Wen-wen. I hope that week in the woods made that perfectly clear.”

Wenbo looked over to Naran who was nestling their youngest, Hao, at her breast. She gave him a confused look. “Take notes,” he said. “This is how not to act proportionally.” Naran nodded slowly, evidently not having paid attention to the conversation. Ai gasped.

“How not to act proportionally?” Ai said with feigned shock as the fire settled in the hearth. She reached for a black-keeled bowl, filled it with the water from the pot and then scooped rice into it from a nearby bag until the water covered the rice with an approximate ratio of six to one. She peered into the bag and frowned. “... Not to kill a good laugh, but could you go to the larders and fetch some more rice, dear?”

Wenbo sighed and nodded. He pushed himself to his feet, straightened out his robes and pushed the curtain ‘door’ aside. As he stepped into those pinkish fields, he gazed to the four winds to survey the beautiful land:

To the north passed one of the great moving mountains, its lethargic pace in reality much faster than many other natural movements. Wenbo momentarily remembered the day Chaggie and he had gone there for their little adventure. He had never quite been the same since, his dear brother. He wondered if it still haunted him, that experience.

To the east were endless pink plains glistening in the heliopolis, broken up only by a special field rather close to their huts, its stalks quite different from the surrounding sweetgrass and flowers. There were stalkplums, a plump, yet awfully hard grain that really was closer to a root in taste and texture. It made for a somewhat dull flour that had to be washed thoroughly before use, but once washed, Ai made the most delicious pancakes with it. Around the stalkplum fields were also smaller fields of vegetables like carrots and cabbage.

To the south was a swamp, but as opposed to what one may think of swamps, this one was extremely important. It was here that they had used the knowledge bestowed upon them by Xiaoli to cultivate the local species of wild rice, something they now ate basically every single day.

To the west, he saw the dots of houses and patches of fields much like his own. The rest of his kin and extended family had settled all over the plains, each carving out patches of land to support their families on. His eight children had all built their houses close to his and regularly came over to visit. Wenbo sucked in a joyous breath - this truly was an idyllic existence.

As he made his way towards the larder, he stopped by the house’s shrines. Nine shrines had been built along the western wall of the house, each honouring a god that had aided Hermes on her travels across the world. In order from left to right, there were shrines to Narzhak, a flat stone labelled with the god’s name adorned with rust sand and a wooden club; Kalmar, a labelled flat stone upon which laid the dry bones of a hunted quoll; Li’Kalla, a labelled flat stone with a small spot of soft fur on it which one could boop with a finger; Ashalla, which was not a stone, but a bowl filled with sea salt and sand from the distant shores; Shengshi, which was a bowl of river water from the nearby beck; K’nell, which was a number of flat stones stacked to look like the platform of Limbo as described by Wenbo’s parents; Eurysthenes, which was a flat stone with various bones and threads to represent puzzles; Arae, which was a stone covered in the names of Wenbo’s whole clan; and Abanoc, which was a roofed basket of prayers written on bark.

Wenbo bowed before all of them as was the morning routine for him and went on to the larders. There, he grabbed a large sack of rice and turned around to see Cai approaching. He gave her a curious look and set the sack down on the ground, running his hand through his black hair. “You feeling better, dear?”

Cai didn’t say anything, but grabbed the sack of rice, swung it over her back and went towards the hut. Wenbo stood scratching his hair, but put on a satisfied smile. Ren came towards him along the same path his daughter had gone and nodded at his father.

“Did you manage to calm her down?” Wenbo asked.

Ren shrugged uncertainly. “Eh, ‘calm’ is a generous word. She’s not shouting anymore, but she is far from happy. I really wonder what that Khublai boy did.”

Wenbo smirked. “Temüjin was always a bit of a prankster and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of his grandkids picked up on that trait. Maybe he made a joke that didn’t quite hit the mark.”

“Heh… Yeah, maybe.” Ren rubbed the side of his blue-speckled nose and looked towards the fields. “Shall we get some work done before porridge is ready?”

Wenbo followed his gaze and nodded. “Yeah, it’s almost harvesting season now. Ought to keep a keen eye on the plants to make sure they don’t rot right before they ripen.”

“My thoughts exactly. I’ll get the spades.”

Wenbo watched his son run off with a proud smile on his face. The spades had been left over at the house of his second eldest daughter, Meihua, however, so it would take some time for Ren to return. Wenbo chuckled to himself - he could take some time off before work; he had earned it, he assured himself. The aging dreamer descended the hill and wandered through his fields. In the distance, the heliopolis kissed a small hilltop enveloped in a blanket of pink grass. It was there that he, ages ago, had married his wife in the same way his mothers had married. Now it was his favourite little spot to ponder and nap. He took long strides up the gentle curve of the slope and reached the top with a whistle on his lips. He found the indent in the lawn where he usually laid and settled down.

The wind caressed him motherly; the skies were clear as day; the light of Heliopolis casting out its rays - all was perfect in the moment.
“... Wenbo…”

A voice on the wind pulled Wenbo out of his idyll. He rubbed his eyes and looked down at his farm below. “... Snap, Ren’s quick toda--”

Ren was not in sight - nor was anyone else.

“... Wenbo…”

The dreamer slowly rose up, his head rubbernecking to the four winds. No, no one else could be seen. His eyes suddenly fell upon a nearby bush. It danced gently in the wind, almost beckoning him closer.

“... Wenbo…” the voice called again and Wenbo approached the bush. He held out his hand and touched the branches.

“... H-hello?” he said to the bush quite carefully.

“... Wait, what are you doing?” the voice went. Wenbo recoiled from the bush and looked around.

“Look, Temüjin, wherever you are, this is not funny! We are much too old for pranks!”

The voice hummed. “This is, most assuredly, not a prank, Wenbo.” It was at this point that Wenbo realised an oddity in the voice - it seemed to toss direction to the wind, coming from both everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. What was certain, however, was that he heard it - and it was speaking to him.

“Come now… Do you not recognise the voice of your grandfather, my child?”

Wenbo blinked. “I-... I have no g-grandfather - my mom was the first of her kind, and-and… My mother was--” He cut himself off, his heart freezing momentarily. For as many seconds as he could, he made great attempts to remember age-old lessons on humility and courtesy taught to him by his mother. He planted his palms in the soil, sat down on his heels and lowered his torso.

While there was no vision of the creature speaking to him, Wenbo could almost hear him smirk. “... Ah… So you recognise me after all…”

Wenbo took a second to dab the sweat forming on his forehead with the sleeve of his robe. “What does His Lordship wish of me-... No wait, wish of this one?”

There came a flat hum. “He Bo, make a note to contact Xiaoli about her priorities when raising her children, would you?”

Wenbo blinked. “Your Lordship, with all due respect, who is He Bo?”

“Oh, my,” Shengshi went, “I was not supposed to think that. Quite a long day today, you see - pardon me for a moment, would you?”

There was silence. Wenbo sat up, feeling his heart in his throat. It took him several moments to stabilise his hyperventilation, but just as he had managed to calm himself--

“Right, right, pardon that,” the oily voice of the snake excused. Wenbo froze again. “Right, where was I…” There was an audible purse of lips, then a gape as a lightbulb flashed. The tone shifted, the oil in the voice growing thicker and darker. Wenbo could feel the stern eyes of the River Lord upon himself, like two reptilian orbs glaring down on him through the ether itself.

“... Wenbo, son of Hermes, son of Xiaoli - hark at your Lord, for I bring to you a great mission and a great gift.”

Wenbo remained unmoving in the grass, his mind clogged with awe and confusion. Eventually, he managed to produce the word: “.. Wha-...”

There came a sigh. “... Yes, I know this may seem confusing to mortal minds - I will admit that it is my first time, as well - talking to mortals this way has a tendency to cause, well…” There came another pause. “Shall I just elaborate, then?”

Wenbo barely blinked and slowly nodded. The snake took a deep breath. “So be it. Wenbo, yours is among the oldest and most well-established tribes of Dreamers. The tribe of Wen is legendary among your people as the first to sport three generations - making you the very first grandfather among your people.” There was a pause. “Your mother has spoken highly of you - she says you are an inventor and crafter bested only by your parents, and that your house is the greatest among your people…”

Wenbo looked down the slope at his shack and furrowed his brow. “... I don’t think--”

“Oh, seize the humility, son (do not actually seize it, by the way - it is quite appreciated). Your mother would never lie to me - she is me, after all. She also tells me you are quite an adventurer and explorer, and have composed numerous works of art and toolwork over the course of your life - even going as far as to invent the sickle to make the stalkplum harvest simpler… My, you truly are gifted, son.”

Wenbo sat back up onto his heels and tried to gather his words. “M-my Lord, this is all quite humbling, but--”

“It is praise - it is supposed to be. Again, I appreciate the humility you show. It truly is a symbol of good character, that. Now, hark once more, for your mission is this: Take your family, the whole tribe, along with whomever wishes to join along, and bring them all to the southern tip of Tendlepog; there, I will meet you personally and bring you to your new home…”

Wenbo blinked. “... Our… Our new home?”

One could almost hear the nodding. “Yes, Wenbo… A land fat with ripe fruit and sweet water; a land where the winter keeps no one hostage; a land where all your wit, might and unity with be tested over and over again, only to strengthen like stone under pressure and heat. Settle here permanently, and your mission shall be completed.”

“T-tested, my Lord?

“Indeed, young one, and here is where the great gift comes in - should you and your tribe accomplish this task, I will bless you and your whole lineage with eternal prosperity for as long as the blood of Wen runs through the veins of a dreamer.” There came a pause. “I will never let you starve nor your crops fail, and wherever you walk, wealth shall appear in abundance. Your cups will never empty and your guests will never leave thirsty. All this and more, I, Shengshi, promise you and your kin, my child.”

Wenbo swallowed and looked distantly at the ground below. A time passed. Then another one. In his head, he heard occasional hums and lip smacks from an increasingly impatient god. Once more, Wenbo looked down to his home where he now saw Ren looking for him. He sucked in a shaking breath and inclined his head forward as he sat. “I… May this servant have some time to discuss this gift and mission with his siblings and family?”

“Naturally,” the oily voice allowed. “I will be expecting your reply at your earliest convenience.”

Wenbo nodded, but as he did, a question popped into his mind. He heard the call of his son below the hill and suddenly fumbled his words as he tried to formulate the sentence. “Your-your Lordship! How do I contact you?”

There was a pause, and for a moment Wenbo feared the god had broken the channel. Then the voice came. “When you are ready, go to my shrine by your house and pray. I will hear you and we will converse further from there.”

Wenbo blinked down to the distant wall of shrines and nodded slowly. “As You wish, my Lord.” Then the mighty presence disappeared and Wenbo noticed just how fatigued the whole experience had made him. Breaking the hillside came a winded Ren.

“Dad, couldn’t you have waited for me?” the son said and then immediately shifted his tone towards concern. “Dad, is everything alright?”

Wenbo looked at him with anxious eyes. “Come, my son - we must gather every dreamer we can find. Our Lord summons us.”




Xiaoli sat on a round rock next to the large black platform, her head propped up on her two fists and an uncertain frown about her face. She found herself flickering between the platform and the crooked woods behind her, as if painful memories shook morale hard enough to consider retreat. Her eyes locked onto the platform for a moment longer than usual. It had an oppressive presence about it, not at all like its creator. In that respect, perhaps, her own creator had a tendency to make things that acted and looked quite similar to himself - wealthy, fruitful… Opulent. Not at all like the holy K’nell’s wild variety of benevolence and malevolence.

“Arya will be here to see us off soon,” Hermes mentioned idly as she pushed through some underbrush. She was dressed in the leather adventuring clothes from her wedding day, her Narzhakian club set on her back, a long curved sheath on her belt, and her Abanocian bag slung over her shoulder. She stepped up to the rock and put her hands on her hips, “Wen Wen stopped by the estate after you left.” Her brow furrowed as her eyes flickered over Xiaoli’s face, “Are you alright?”

Xiaoli blinked back to the present and gave Hermes a reassuring smile. “Yeah! Yeah, just thinking a bit.” There was a pause. “Hermes, do you… Do you think we are better prepared now than we were last time? For a whole new quest, I mean.”

“We are a lot… different than we used to be,” Hermes nudged Xiaoli and the river girl shifted, giving Hermes enough room to sit next to her. She turned her head to Xiaoli and smiled, “Back then I was… brash, emotional -- well more than now at least. Easy to anger, slow to think. And you…” Her voice trailed as she stared at Xiaoli, suddenly flashing a sheepish smile.

“... And I?” Xiaoli muttered and raised a brow. However, it quickly broke apart with a chuckle and the river girl twiddled her thumbs a bit. “We’ll see how much I have changed in that aspect, I suppose. Suppose a mother’s sternness isn’t of much use inside what could potentially be a nightmarish dreamscape - a fit of berserking in case you get hurt, however…” She made a playful smirk which fell apart rather swiftly. “Pardon, I should not be joking about that.”

“Oh Xiaoli,” Hermes draped an arm over her wife’s shoulders, “You just do what you did to that tree a long time ago, and I think we may be the most dangerous thing in Limbo.”

“Oh, gods, I didn’t wanna remember that scene, but I reminded myself of it and now all I feel is shame…” She dug her face into Hermes’ shoulder and groaned. “Sweetgrass, please stay safe. I don’t want to break the dreamscape completely.”

“Don’t be ashamed, love, that was so long ago,” Hermes threaded a finger through Xiaoli’s hair, “As I said: we are very different people now and to think, this time we at least have K’nell’s blessing.”

At this, Xiaoli nodded with increasing enthusiasm. “Yeah… Yeah, I suppose so.” With that, she got to her feet, dusted herself off and held out a hand to Hermes. “Shall we commence this quest, then?”

Two long shadows suddenly descended upon the clearing, growing smaller as they came until two figures could be seen touching ground right in front of the pair. Arya beamed a smile at the two as her feet met grass. She wore a simple blue dress, her hair curled down her back and the sword Wreanun, floated beside her. Laurien smiled warmly at the pair. She wore shengese attire with her hair let down loose as she always did. Before anyone could say anything, Arya attacked the two with a fierce hug, enveloping the both of them in her grasp.

"Oh how I'll miss you both!" she said.

“That was rather immediate,” Xiaoli teased playfully before her eyes fell on the sword. “What is that?”

Hermes squeaked from the sudden impact, but then let out an embarrassed smile, “Oh right,” She patted Arya off of her, eyes flitting to the sword, “I never did get to hear what that was all about, after all.”

"A gift from father. Wreanun-" she out held her hand and the sword shot into it. There was a bright flash before them and when in faded Arya was covered in white armor, save her head. There was a childish smile on her face as she said, "Is his name. He and I are going to do great things." she said excitedly.

Hermes nearly jumped at the sudden flash, giving a weak smile, “Okay, but please try not to startle the Warden, you know how he can be. Erm.” She shifted, eyes on the sword, “And stay safe, okay?”

Xiaoli stood humming as she ran her eyes up and down with a look that leaned towards disapproval. She tried her best to hide it and nodded at Hermes. “Yeah, like she said, please stay safe. We will be back in no time.”

Her enthusiasm faltered at her mother's looks. She let her arms fall to her sides, letting Wreanun float beside her. "Oh… Of course." she said sheepishly.

Hermes sighed, the exhale turning her lips into a warm smile. She flicked her eyes away from the sword and back at Arya, “Good, now give your moms another hug and then go be the best adventurer out there -- you can tell me what you’ve done while I was gone. Oh! Do you remember our martial dance?”

"Of course I do… but wait. Didn't you have some questions for me or something like that?" Arya said, giving a hug to Hermes. Laurien then approached Xiaoli and bent down to give her a hug, she then whispered, "I'll keep her safe, don't worry."

“Oh,” Hermes leaned out of the hug, “I just wanted to tell you that I love you but didn’t want to embarrass you in front of your dad, and also -- could you look after the estate? You don’t have to stay there, but now and again make sure it isn’t in flames, maybe?”

"Oh… Um. I…" she started looking away. "This isn't easy to say but… We're leaving." she said sadly.

“Oh,” Hermes chewed on her cheek, “I can have Wen-Wen do it I suppose, but when are you getting back?”

“And where are you going?” Xiaoli added with her hands on her hips.

Arya shrugged looking at Xiaoli, "There's a place we have to go to first. The Eye of Desolation, then probably the vast continent south of it, or Kalgrun. Wherever mortals are. We're founding orders, to protect people. I'm not sure when we'll be back, but it won't be years like last time. I promise that."

Then Laurien said, "I know where most places are on Galbar, the Eye is my first home. It'll be an easy journey. And, this time Arya has me for the long haul. We'll be safer than most, I can assure you that." she said to the both of them.

Xiaoli put her hand on her chin. “Well, according to His Lordship, there are apparently mortals on the Foot and Atokhekwoi, though he has never actually seen them. As for the other places, well, one would have to look for themselves.” She smiled sweetly, pulled Arya down to her height and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She did the same to Laurien. “You truly are our daughters with that kind of wanderlust in your veins.”

"So I've heard! I think they're called Selka or something along those lines." Arya said smiling.

Lauren then bent down to hug Hermes. She held her for a moment and said, "I'm sorry about yesterday. I was not in the right mind with fathers arrival. You didn't deserve the silent treatment, mom."

"It's okay, love," Hermes squeezed Laurien, "I understand… But seriously if I don't hear from you two in at least a year, I'm putting my sandals on." She gave them a pointed look but her smile betrayed pride at the sight before her.

With a happy sigh, Laurien took her place beside Arya as the two sisters looked at their mother's. "I'd expect nothing less, mom. Now, you two be careful. That place is… Well you know better than I. I love you both, so so much, watch each other's backs, there's a lot of people waiting for you out here." Arya said on the verge of tears.

"Thank you for everything. I'm honored to be called daughter. I love you guys, please be safe." Laurien said, with a sad smile.

“Don’t worry. Your mother has me to protect her, after all,” Xiaoli said with a smile. “We’ll be fine!”

"And your other mother has me to look after her," Hermes shot Xiaoli a slick grin before looking back at her daughters, "Will you two be needing the flute?"

Arya shook her head, "No, I don't think so. Besides, I'll feel better if the others have it. Oh…" she said sadly, "We haven't said goodbye to them yet… That'll be… Hard." she said.

“You mean little Qin?” Xiaoli asked.

"Y-Yeah." she said beginning to cry.

Xiaoli sighed sympathetically and went over to hug her. “It’s never easy leaving a friend, particularly one as sweet as Lai Qin. However, you have a new mission now, as you said, and Qin will hear of all your glory and heroism as she grows up. Who knows? She might even come join you in time.”

"Don't forget to say goodbye to the twins either," Hermes patted Arya's back and looked over at Laurien, "Chaggie and Wen Wen are all worried about you two."

Arya nuzzled into Xiaoli's shoulder before saying, "That… That would be nice."

"We'll go see the twins, and everyone else too." Laurien said with sad eyes.

Hermes gave Arya one more pat on her shoulder, and then Laurien. With a smile she sighed and turned to the black stone platform, "I suppose we should get going…" Her voice trailed with her gaze, the weavers flitting across the dim atmosphere of the glade. Xiaoli nodded agreeingly.

“Yes, this task will only finish as quickly as we work, after all,” she said with a wry smile.

"Well," Arya began, backing up to stand before them, "Don't let us keep you." she said sadly.

"Farewell, mothers. May your journey be swift." Laurien said, slightly bowing.

"Just don't make me chase you down when I get back," Hermes wagged a finger as she took a wide step up ontop of the platform. Her other hand reached out for Xiaoli's, which accepted it eagerly. With a final look, the dreamer turned to her daughters, and then a great flash.






The Wuhdige Tribe


Rain drizzled through the great crack in the cave ceiling. Jotokan sat next to some dry sticks, a rock in each hand. With his tongue sticking out his mouth, he made diligent attempts at making the rocks spit on the sticks so they would catch fire. He sat there for a little while.

“Did you pick the right rocks?” came a familiar voice from behind. Jotokan shot a glance over his shoulder to see the familiar thick figure of Selenu. He gave her half-hearted shrug and struck the rocks together again.

“Maybe not,” the chieftain mumbled and fell backwards onto his blubbery bum with a huff. His wife made a face and sat down next to him, grabbing the rocks out of his hand and giving them a go herself. As they sat there in a silence only broken by the clack-clack of stone against stone, the chieftain’s eyes shone a ponderous glaze. His wife flicked a look over and smiled wryly.

“This game’s really got you deep in thought, huh,” she went as one of the stones finally yielded a twinkling speck of spit. It was not enough to light the sticks aflame, but it was encouraging nonetheless. She increased her efforts with more frequent clacks to the rhythm of Jotokan’s agreeing hum.

“... Yeah… Ain’t seen determination like that since, well…” He stopped and tugged thoughtfully at his whiskers.

“Since yourself in your younger days?” Selenu proposed with a sly grin.

“Kinda, I guess,” the chieftain agreed. “Was something about them eyes - had this fire in ‘em. I was pretty wrong about that boy - the Julus raise ‘em good. Still, I’m not sure how I feel about having them in the Home Cave.”

“You want Eel instead?” Selenu asked with a raised brow. Jotokan looked equally curious, if not a little appalled.

“That’s your brother, you know - your family, who might be living on the beach if he loses.”

Selenu made a momentary scowl that morphed into a frown. “I know that! I know, it’s just… Eel’s never been much. When we were pups, he never played any games with us - he always got big brothers Eole and Elueh to do all the hard work for him. He just got the nice stuff, like eating and sleeping. He really ain’t no true Wuhdige.”

Jotokan made a disapproving frown. “Not everyone gotta be a true Wuhdige, Selly, just… I mean, it’d be nice if everyone was, but that ain’t happening and you know it. True Wuhdige happen once or twice in a lifetime - everyone has some issues.”

Selenu pouted. She then looked up at Jotokan with round, affectionate eyes. “You don’t,” she said quietly and put her head on his shoulder. Jotokan snickered.

“I ain’t as strong as Duh,” he proposed. Selenu snorted a laugh and punched him playfully in the gut.

“He’s your champion! He’s supposed to be stronger, you fish-head!”

Jotokan chuckled. “A’ight, a’ight, I give up!” The two giggled a bit to one another before another blanket of silence wrapped itself around them. After a minute, Jotokan went: “Champion, huh…”

Selenu looked up with a “hmm?” and Jotokan once more reached for the stone, smacking them against over another over the sticks. “Always was a bit hard for me to think why gramgrampa made such a role. Chieftain’s supposed to be the strongest in the tribe, but thanks to the champ, he never is. Makes you wonder why the champ ain’t chief.”

Selenu cocked her head to the side thoughtfully, watching her husband patiently hammer the stones together as if the seventy-eighth time would be different than the last. “I think they wanted it to be like a family, y’know.”

“Wha’chu mean?” said Jotokan as another speck of spittle sprang from the stones. Selenu shrugged.

“I ain’t no expert, but the chief got a lot of say in things - maybe some people want that power, to get to have a lot of say. The champ keeps the chief safe from those people, y’know.”

Jotokan nodded slowly. Selenu scratched her cheek. “Then, I think, it’s about honesty. Champs are supposed to say when they think the chief’s acting a bit weird, y’know, when nobody else want to say it.”

Again, the chief nodded slowly. “So like a brother, then, y’think.”

Selenu shrugged again. “Yeah, something like that. A brother you gotta build that bond with from the bottom again. Tests both the chief and the champ, y’know. Ain’t easy to accept a stranger as a brother, though nobody here is truly strangers, is they?”

Jotokan hummed as the rocks finally spat enough spittle to sear a dry leaf on one of the sticks. “I’unno, tribe’s getting pretty big nowadays. We spreading out more and more by the year, now.” He huffed. “I hope winter’s gonna be okay for those living outside. Lotta Wuhdige are in Julo’s position. If they have a bad time this year again, well… Might have more Julos knocking.”

Selenu huffed. “Won’t be long before someone challenges the Tokuans, then,” she mumbled. “Ours is the best spot in the cave, after all.”

“Yeah, hoping it won’t come to that,” Jotokan muttered as the rocks finally managed to produce the spittle needed to light the sticks aflame.

“Whey, nice,” Selenu snickered and shuffled a bit closer to blow on the embers while Jotokan added some more sticks and leaves.

“Hey, Selly?”

“Hmm?” the female hummed between blows. Jotokan gave her shoulder a caress and made some popping noises with his lips.

“How goes the berry picking, by the way?”

Selenu sat back up, the fire now adequately sized for the two of them. The smoke crept upwards and escaped through the crack in the roof. She shrugged and cocked her head to the side. “It went a’ight today. Got some apples, some pears, a couple of raspberries and blueberries. No browncaps, though. Was hard to carry them all, too. Little Agye kept dropping her blueberries in the sand.”

“Did she carry them in her hands all the way?” Jotokan asked with a furrowed brow.

“W-well, how else was she supposed to carry them? With her feet? In her mouth?”

“N-no, no! ‘Course not. Is just… Why didn’t you use a stretcher or something?”

Selenu gave him an appalled look. “Joto, stretchers are for dead people. You really want our food on those?”

Jotokan frowned. “No! Was just thinking, y’know, could maybe carry more food if you had, like, a mini-stretcher or something - y’know, like a… A…” He snapped his fingers as he thought of a good word. “A tray?”

“A tray?” Selenu repeated skeptically. “You mean like a board?”

“Yeah, yeah! Like a flat thingy that you can put other thingies on so you won’t have to keep them in your hands or mouth.”

Selenu leaned her mouth on her fist as she thought. “Y’know, maybe that could work… Get some sticks, bind ‘em with seaweed… Put some berries on it. Poof! A board of berries!”

“Exactly!” the chieftain cheered. Selenu suddenly raised an inquisitive finger.

“Wait, what if the berries roll off?”

Jotokan’s smile gave way to a flat mouth and he hummed. “Uhm… You could try to make it… Deeper?”

“A deep board?” Selenu said skeptically. “You just said it would be flat!”

“Look, I changed my mind, okay? It would be better deep!” the chieftain proclaimed.

Selenu sighed. “A’ight, a’ight, you stay here and I’ll see what me and the girls can whip up.”

The chieftain nodded approvingly and Selenu set off out of the cave to experiment with containers. Jotokan sat staring into the fires with no heed for time, brooding with a fist in his mouth.

“Pa?” came a voice from the cave mouth and the chieftain turned to see his oldest son Aloo carrying a whole cod. The chieftain blinked. “Oh, hey, Aloo! What’re you doin’ here? You hungry?”

“Y-yeah, pa, ‘course. It’s dark out.”

The chieftain peeked out. “Oh, huh. Sorry, son, your ol’ pa got a little carried away. Been thinkin’ a bit, ‘s all. Here, come here. Fire your fish.”

Aloo smiled wryly and waddled over. He sat down, impaled his fish on a nearby stick and held it over the fire. They sat in silence for a moment before Jotokan asked, “So, what’ve you been doin’ today, son?”

There was a shrug. “Y’know, the usual. Odue wanted to play catch again, so we played for a while. Then Egee got mad ‘cuz Agyo threw her rock at his head. Odue and I had to break up the fight.”

“Huh… They calm down in the end?”

Aloo shook his head. “Nah, they got pretty angry next round, too, and ruined the rest of the game, kinda why I’m here to eat.”

The chieftain shook his head. “Ain’t good sportsmanship to get so angry over a game. How’s Egee doin’ nowadays, actually?”

Aloo frowned with pursed lips. “He’s worried. He knows his pa’s a wuss and--”

“Son, we don’t say mean things about tribesfolk, a’ight?”

“But he is! He ain’t no true Wuhdige!”

“Ssshhh! Not so loud,” Jotokan cautioned and looked over his shoulder towards the cave mouth. “... Yeah, alright, Eel’s a bit of a… Wuss, but he’s accepted the challenge and he’s gonna take it in a two days. He even chose the challenge himself! If he’s good at one thing, it’s eating!”

Aloo made an unconvinced frown and looked back into the flames. “Egee’s pretty upset, anyway. He doesn’t wanna live on the beach. People apparently get really cold at night out there…”

“Yeah… Can’t imagine what it was like before gramps found stone-spit.” Jotokan poked around in the fires with an evergreen branch, its little pines letting off a burnt incense. Aloo bit into his cod and gnawed on it passively. He looked up at his father multiple times and huffed occasionally until his father blinked down at him with a partial frown. “What?”

“Was just thinking about Egee’s uncles and brothers… What if they got really into the competition and Eel loses? What if they all get real angry?” The young selka bit into the cod’s cheek and chewed with furrowed brows. Jotokan made a face.

“What of it? They’ll calm down like any good Wuhdige would and that’ll be the end of it.”

Aloo shook his head. “No, I-... I don’t think they will… Egee’s already really mad all the time, and I think his brothers aren’t much different. I heard Egii went over to the Julu camp and started lobbing rocks at their roofs.”

“What?!” Jotokan exclaimed and grabbed his son’s shoulders. “What else? What happened then?!”

The young selka wiggled left and right, momentarily stunned by mighty shakes by his father. Eventually, though, he formed the reply: “I-I-I-I dunno! I think he snatched up lil’ Joppo and went to beat her up--!”

Jotokan was already at the cave mouth before Aloo could finish his sentence. Swiftly, he ran over to Duhwah at the beach and explained the news. Then, together with ten hunters and the champion, the chieftain stormed into the woods, the spectacle attracting quite the crowd. It did not help that it already had gotten dark - they searched with primitive torches at first, and when they burned out, they resorted to their eyes. Jotokan, his brother Joku, and his cousin Toko, son of Tokuhe, formed a scouting team of three who surveyed the western reached of the woods, the area closest to the Julu camp.

“... Darn it, I can’t see nothin’ in this dark,” Joku muttered. Toko hummed in agreement.

“Well, neither can I, but if y’all wanna actually find the girl, we gotta--”

There came an unintelligible shout from the north. Toko stopped the other two with an outstretched arm. “Did y’all hear that?”

“Hear what?” went Joku.

“... ieftain!” came a second shout. Toko pointed northwards. “It came from there! Let’s go!”

The three sprinted as fast as their stunted, chubby legs could carry them over stock and stone, under branch and leaf. The autumn moisture had begun to set in, a chill foreshadowing the events transpiring in the approaching clearing. Jotokan and his followers broke the treeline and witnessed six other shadows, all tracing back to six shapes before a great fire. Five of the shapes turned and four of them nodded in greeting.

“There you are, chief,” said Duhwah, his voice tainted by sorrow. Jotokan approached, but Dohn, brother of Duhwah, walked into his path and placed a hand on his shoulder. He shook his head and sucked in a breath.

“Roughen your mind up, chief. It ain’t pretty.”

The chieftain furrowed his brow and approached the other figures, one of which began to wriggle. “Oi, chief!” came the familiar voice of Egii, followed by a few angry, yet teary breaths. Jotokan looked down at the familiar muscular shape.

“Egii, what did you do?” the chieftain whispered in shock.

“What I had to do to keep my home,” he muttered regretfully.

Jotokan blinked and pushed his way past the rest of the crowd.

There, before the bonfire, laid a small selka girl, barely old enough to no longer be considered a pup, her fur crusted with blood and her skin pocked with bruises. She still breathed, but it was faint and weak. The woods parted again and into the clearing came Julo, his wife Okeke, his eldest son Julu’e and his second oldest son, Jugu.

“JOPPO!” Okeke screamed and stormed past the crowd to embrace her daughter with frightened tears. Julo’s eyes grew so fierce one could even see his fury in the dark of the night, and it took three selka to hold him away from the kneeling Egii.

“Why?! Why, you ugly lump?! Why did you go after my girl?!”

Egii’s hung head barely turned. “... Now you know what happens when you challenge the Elu, you krill.” The tall selka rose up and brushed off the hands of his shocked captors. “Forfeit the game, or more of your kids gonna get a beating.” He pointed at Julu’e, who was much too young to be here. “Next up, it’ll be your boy.” Julo grit his teeth and dragged and struggled against the three selka grasping onto his body.

“Oi! Egii!” Jotokan shouted and thundered over, pointing a finger straight into the face of male of roughly equal height, but of inferior musculature. “This ain’t okay. Not at all. You can’t do this over a game! It’s-... It’s against the rules!”

Egii snickered and glared at the chieftain. “The rules? I didn’t like doing this, but breaking the rules wasn’t why. The Elus belong in the Home Cave and no Julu gonna change that!”

Jotokan snarled. “No… Had you waited two days, a Julu probably couldna changed it… But an Elu just did.”

Egii’s eyes widened and he even recoiled a little. “Chieft-... What did ya say?”

“You heard me right, you dumb rock! ‘Cuz of your darn, dumbass stunt to try to scare away the Julus, you just got your family kicked out of the Home Cave! Go home and tell your family of your stupid, no-Wuhdige ways and pack up your things!” The chieftain folded his arms across his chest. “I don’t want no cheaters and beaters in my cave!”

Egii blinked and stood frozen for a moment. “No…” he suddenly whispered.

“Wha’chu say, stupid?” Jotokan snarled back.

“No! The Home Cave is Elu home! We ain’t leaviiiing!” With that, the giant sent a heavy right hook into Jotokan’s cheek and sent the chieftain smashing into the ground, where he laid for a moment. Duhwah’s eyes stood staring, then turned to Egii in a blood-red rage. The champion, along with the other present selka, all jumped at the assailant, hammering and pummeling the selka until the chieftain recovered his consciousness and yelled, “No! Stop!”

The fight broke up shortly after and the twelve selka formed a hateful circle around the broken body of Egii. Jotokan rose up and entered the circle, looking down at the hardly-breathing body with sympathetic, yet furious eyes. He looked to the others. “Take him to Eel. Tell him the Elus are out of the competition and that they gunna be sent to the old camp of the Julus.”

The selka nodded and together picked up the male, carrying him into the woods. Julo, Okeke and Julu’e all sat around the limp, beaten body of Joppo. Jotokan approached at squatted down next to them. “She alive still?”

Okeke nodded with teary eyes. “Y-yes,” she cried, “thank Alae.” Jotokan nodded somberly and sniffed. He turned to Julo and Julu’e.

“Julo. I might’a misjudged your family when we first met. Y’all might be rash, but at least you ain’t bad.” He looked over his shoulders. “The Elus might’a gotten too comfy in the Home Cave… ‘Bout time we switched them out.”

Julo’s rubbed his water eyes. “Chieftain, y’mean…”

“Yeah… Pack your things. Tomorrow, y’all moving into the Home Cave.”

The Julus collectively sniffed and nodded. “Thank you, chief,” Julo said with a shaky voice. “We ain’t gunna disappoint ya.”








Many years had passed since the birth of Anu, and the pygmies were beginning to grasp the skills taught to them by the King’s Council: They kowtowed before their master Anu and the councillors; they began to understand the use of sticks and poles as weapons; they could build tiny tents of boar hide to live in; and they had a language - some could even write crude characters. Their population had grown considerably from the first ten, already numbering the triple and growing. Still, however, the pygmies had much to learn, and subsisted largely on diets of boar meat and stews made of wild rice cooked in boar stomachs. As a gesture to their king and lord, the pygmies often sacrificed live boars and always let Anu take the first bite at any meal, much to the satisfaction of the councillors. The people had fashioned their king cloaks and clothes of hide and fur, all to honour the great one’s presence.

Despite this Anu remained adamant that the Pygmy work to earn his respect, to earn the right to sit eye level with him, this in line with his own blossoming world view. On these plains of the Ivory King, strength of will and the drive to succeed was law, obey and grow else fall short and remain on the receiving end of his ire, their place forever at his feet.

Some pygmies had protested before, their arrogance overtaking their instincts - one had even challenged the Ivory King. Much their surprise the defier was praised, one such worthy to stand at eye level. He then promptly crushed her skull. To all those present a lesson was made brutally clear, a gorilla was not questioned by jackals. To challenge him was to stare down death, a show of strength, but a fool’s gambit. He was no surmountable obstacle, no he was a king, and his power as solid as the bedrock beneath the plains.

The councillors had cautioned him against excessive force, advising instead whipping or imprisonment to be worthier punishments. Yet they, too, agreed that the King could not allow mutiny, especially not the kind with deposing intent. The pygmies subsequently understood that their place in society - at Anu’s feet.

As the capital began to take shape - a large, central tent surrounded by tiny hides on sticks and primitive lean-tos on the northern corner of the great grasslands - the pygmies fell more and more in line, grateful to their King for granting them food, shelter, community, safety and spiritual guidance.

However, it was a day in the late summer, as the northern rains hammered against the soggy hides of Anu’s tent, that a strange guest came to the village - a colourful bird bearing a message. The four councillors stood glaring at it as it spoke, four pygmies each holding a large palm frond over each councillor to shield them from the rain.

Anu’s hands flexed then balled up as the message relayed, his expression unreadable. As it finished his golden eyes fell upon the council of four.

”Well?”

All four looked horrified at the message, Fu Lai’an covering her mouth as she choked on tears. Zhu Rongyuan shook his head with furious vigour, his long beard slapping at the air like a wet towel.

“There is nothing to it! This is vile! Blasphemy! A plot planned by the wicked Wind Demon to destabilise the harmony between life and death! She said it herself - the ash forms the basis for life!”

Qiang Quan folded his arms and nodded with a glare. “If one breaks the circle of life, life will end. Their solution holds no water - a long, dreamless sleep is no alternative to death by flame. It is the way of the unworthy who think themselves above the cycle.” He punched his fist into his palm and growled.

Yong Cai shook her head disapprovingly. “Life is no construction that can simply be put on hold - it is organic, breathing. A house cannot be build if the wood is stored away. It is madness, Your Majesty.”

Fu Lai’an swallowed a clump. “T-to think they would stab at the hearts of the living with such gruesome words…” She sniffed and sobbed into her palm. “... Have they no conscience? Is the Wind Demon so low as to rely on populistic panic to turn the opinion of her?” She shook her head and looked away. Zhu Rongyuan bowed to Anu and extended his arms forward, left palm covering his right hand.

“Your Majesty, these servants beseech You - undo this vile, lying demon. Its words cannot be allowed to spread among Your Majesty’s people. Its betrayal cannot go unanswered.”

Anu’s lips were set in a thin line, his chin resting in the crook of his index finger and thumb. ”Those who choose this way, choose to ‘save’ their souls instead of be put to the flame, choose the cowards way out, and I will have none of it in my camp.” he asserted. ”When death comes, we all burn.”

The present pygmies all kowtowed at the King’s word - the advisors, too, even as the wet mud clung to their dressings. “A worthy statement, Your Majesty - His Lordship is undoubtedly proud to see His Son, a champion of harmony. His blessings will be Yours without question and bring Your Majesty’s empire to greatness, surely.”

Qiang Quan cast himself over and grappled the Alma as it realised it was no longer welcome. As he wrestled it in the mud, he looked to Anu. “Your Majesty! What shall we do about the demon?”

”Gods are certain to rally against this ‘demon’.” he adjusted himself. ”I have little knowledge of the divines beyond my fathers. Tell me of them.”

The Alma eventually blasted Qiang Quan off it with a powerful gust of wind, flapping its wings maniacally and flying off. The warrior was immediately tended to by Fu Lai’an, but he had luckily not sustained any damage. Zhu Rongyuan sneered at the colourful speck in the sky. “This world has several gods, Your Majesty - and several demons. The greatest among them, the Creator of the Exalted Creators, is Dajianshen, the great architect of Existence. However, according to His Lordship, He is an observing god - this Holiest of Beings does not interfere with the Exalted Creators without reason.” He sat down on a roll of hides that a pygmy brought over and began to draw in the wet mud.

“Beneath Dajianshen come the Great Pantheon, upon which sit the twenty-four Exalted Creators, including the evil demons. These are: Abanoc, the Record-Keeper; Aelius, Sovereign of Justice and Heliopolis; Anzillu, the Unseen; Arae, the Dragon Queen; Asceal, Sovereign of Light; Ashalla, Queen of the Sea; Azu--Pardon, this servant means the Wind Demon,” Zhu Rongyuan corrected and dabbed his forehead with his sleeve. “Chopstick Eyes, Great Marquis of Markets; Eurysthenes, Blessed One of Conundrums; Katharsos, Lord of Death; Kalmar, Herald of the Hunt; Kirron, the eccentric Blood God; K’nell, Sovereign of Sleep and good friend of Your Majesty’s father; Li’Kalla, the Rainmaker; Melantha, the Duchess of Darkness; Your Majesty’s other father, Narzhak, King of Strife and Steel; Ohannakeloi, the Stone Crab; Orvus, God of Desolation and perhaps a misunderstood character, according to Your Majesty’s father; Parvus, Master of Insects; Phystene, Mother of Plants and Trees; the Flame Demon; His Lordship Shengshi, Lord of the Thousand Streams and Sovereign of All Rivers,” Zhu Rongyuan tipped a bow as he spoke of Shengshi, “Urhu, the Wanderer; and Ekon, King of Fear.”

Finally done with the list, Zhu thanked Shengshi for not giving him lungs.

A tiny smirked danced across Anu’s face, but it could have been a trick in the light. ”You seem to allocate the title of ‘demon’ to a revered few.”

Zhu Rongyuan nodded. “The title of Demon is not given lightly, Your Majesty. It is bestowed upon the evil gods who have murdered, betrayed or mistreated immensely these servants’ people or wronged His Lordship in the cruelest of ways - they are not to be trusted, not to be named, and never, ever to be prayed to. Nothing good comes from allegiance to their wicked natures.”

”The personal grudges of my father are not my own, but the assault and murder of innocent Servants whose strength know no bounds will not be tolerated. This ‘Wind Demon’ has upset the balance of the world in a vain and selfish bid to enforce her own brand of false security.” the demigod paused for a moment. ”She has raged against the system and took it upon herself to change it, and for such reason, no hatred binds my heart, only respect, but she has solicited a cowards path, and for such this one will not stand.” Anu nodded towards Zhu. ”We will stand against the Wind Demon and her camp.”

The councillors all bowed in agreement. “His Majesty’s stance is worthy. Hers is a path of disharmony, one His Majesty cannot support. His Majesty’s choice is righteous,” Zhu Rongyuan stated.

”Then there's only one course of action. We beseech my father and stand with him in this crusade.”

“A worthy suggestion, Your Majesty; however, this servant must ask who will remain to govern the pygmies? The trek to Hemen is a long one, and one to Nanhe would be even longer. Surely, the pygmies are still too uneducated to govern themselves.” Zhu shot the gathered pygmies a frown.

Anu was silent for a moment. The pygmies were quick to learn yet were still soft. To govern would surely prove beyond their capabilities. ”Some of you must remain then. Our traveling party will be light, but these people of mine shall not fall out of line, not because of this divine war.”

Zhu Rongyuan nodded. “Very well - then this servant offers to remain.” He kowtowed pleadingly. “Take the others instead. This one is both old and slow, and His Majesty’s escort requires haste. This servant has full confidence that His Majesty has learned enough that there will not be an immediate need for it.”

”As you say Zhu, so it will be. They are in your care.” he asserted, rising and placing a gentle hand on the elder’s shoulder. He then shifted his gaze to the rest of the council. ”We leave at first light tomorrow.”

“Yes, Your Majesty!” the three of them boomed and bowed. Zhu nodded, his long beard dangling freely in the moist air. He then turned to the pygmies and raised his hands. “People of Anu - salute your king!” As commanded, the pygmies fell to their knees and hands before Anu. The Ivory King gave regard, released them, and set for his throne.




The next day, the group set out on the journey back to the Giant’s Bath, this time at a much faster pace. They trekked along Beihe this time, the vibrant life greeting Anu with the same enthusiasm as usual. Anu likewise responded all the same, acknowledging their obeisance and then releasing them, unlike the pygmy usurper, they naturally knew their place. Along the way as they rested, Qiang Quan schooled Anu in martial arts, teaching him the way of the pole and the club, as well as hand-to-hand combat; Fu Lai’an revealed to him the many kinds of edible and non-edible plants along the river and also gave a theoretical course on tea brewing, as they lacked the necessary equipment for a demonstration; Yong Cai brought him along to inspect the local building materials to determine which could be suited for a palace. He was slow to catch onto the non-combat related subjects, but learned regardless, deeming any and all knowledge worth his due diligence to master. One day, Fu Lai’an carved him a flute from bamboo and insisted that a great king would need to master the arts to appeal to both commoner and nobility.

”You expect to perform like some sort of jester for guestrite?” he scoffed, holding the flute to the light.

“Not at all, Your Majesty,” Fu Lai’an replied calmly and added a sweet giggle. “It is merely recommended that a king master what appeals to all citizens - music is such a skill. Furthermore, it is an important part of self-cultivation towards achieving personal excellence.” She kowtowed before him in the jungle soil.

”Does father play?”

The servant nodded with a smile. “His Lordship plays several instruments, Your Majesty. His favourite is the guzheng. On quiet, peaceful days like this one, one can hear beautiful harp notes from His Lordship’s tower, music that harmonises with the natural sounds of the jungle.”

This earned a huff from the demi-god. ”Indeed sounds like the most gratuitous of pastimes. Couldn’t a member of my cherished court wow the nobility and the masses all the same?” he chortled.

Fu Lai’an joined in on the chuckle and cocked her head sweetly to the side. “Your Majesty, none among Your court could ever elicit such a glorious celebration as what would follow a performance by the Ivory King - that, this servant can guarantee.”

”Bah, I’m sure they can, why else would they grace my court. They are to act as an extension of my will and might no?”

The enchantress sighed gently. “An extension rarely measures up to the very core, Your Majesty.” She took her own flute and tested a few notes. “Please, would His Majesty like to join me?”

The ape stifled a breath and held the flute to his curled lips. ”Well, it’s seems I’ll be lashed if i refuse.” he joked.

“Not lashed, Your Majesty, but we’ll think of something,” she jested with a wink and played a few notes, showing vividly where she placed her fingers, then gestured for Anu to try.

He imitated her stance albeit a bit clumsily, but found his place and nodded. At first, the timid tones were both sharp and flat, the ape king’s fingers still not quite used to small, accurate movements like hopping between the holes of a flute. However, as his diligence suffered constant challenges from impatience, the conflict channeled itself into a simple, yet interesting little tune. Fu Lai’an let out an impressed ‘ooo’ and clapped her hands together.

With a frustrated sigh he held the thing out for Fu Lai’an to take. ”This one has had enough for today. I’ll master music another day.”

Fu Lai’an giggled and took the flute. “The most important part of learning something is the very beginning. His Majesty will undoubtedly master it in time, indeed.” She cleaned both flutes with the sleeve of her dress and put them in her bag. That moment, Qiang Quan broke through the foliage, bowed and said, “Your Majesty - it has been an hour. Shall we keep moving?”

The ape hoisted himself help and held out a hand for Fu to gradb ”Yes of course.” he said

Fu Lai’an nodded gracefully and softly took the king’s hand, letting him help her to her feet with a gentle, “Thank you, Your Majesty.” Yong Cai also came through the foliage, bowing to Anu. “The trek left is quite short,” she said gleefully. “We will be at Hemen by nightfall.”

”Let us be off then, better to not keep father waiting.” he jested.

With that, the band once more set off, and surely enough, they arrived at the Giant’s Bath by nightfall. There, in the middle of the deceptively small lake, the colossal ship of Shengshi rested contently, quiet harp strings clinging through the air. Qiang Quan skipped into the lake and waved the others along. The other two first undressed before they jumped in, Fu Lai’an dropping a slightly smug comment about Qiang Quan’s eagerness getting the better of him. Anu on the other hand had a sheen of opaque silence about him, yet if anything was bothering him he showed otherwise as he bowed before his father’s vessel and with a voice like rolling thunder called to him.

”My father, I Anu have come to you. I ask for your permission to board your sacred vessel.”

A moment passed and the harp strings stopped. Then, there came a warm chuckle and the river formed a staircase up to the deck. “Please, come aboard, my son,” said the deep voice of the snake.

A rumble of footsteps hammered against the deckplanks as thousands of servants lined up on the main deck in front of the palace. The councillors ascended the stairway first to make certain everything was in order before they joined the ranks closest to the palace gates. As Anu ascended the staircase, all seven thousand servants kowtowed in unison and bellowed, “TEN THOUSAND YEARS AND MORE TO ANU, THE IVORY KING!” In front of the palace gates stood Shengshi with his arms spread wide in welcome.

”I pray you are well, father?” he bemused politely as he bowed at the waist.

“Oh, worthy son, it is a joy to have one’s children come from afar to see them. I am more than well. How goes the conquest of the world? Are you staying true to the Flow and listening to the advisors I put in your care? I notice good Zhu Rongyuan is not present.” He looked around with a half-smile.

”Ah yes, Zhu remains at my camp in order to manage the affairs of state in my absence.” he replied as he gestured to the remnants of his council. ”These cherished members of my court joined me on this journey. As for my conquest it has began, slowly but surely I will see it so.”

“The affairs of state? My, have you already formed a kingdom of your own?” The snake squeezed Anu’s shoulders proudly and smiled. “Hah! As expected of my son.”

A smile crested the king’s lips. ”Time waits for no one, dear father. Speaking of which,” the sheen returned as Anu paused. ”do you have a spare moment?”

“Why, yes, that I have. Please, join me in my chambres. I will have the servants bring up whatever you want to eat and drink.” With that, servants pulled open the gates to the palace and the snake slithered inside and up to his tower along with Anu, the councillors and roughly twenty more servants.

The chambres were rather empty as usual, but the small tea table was quickly stacked high with dishes of fragrant foods from the kitchens below. Wine was poured in Anu’s cup and Shengshi raised his own in his honour. “First, a toast - to the conception of… Have you thought of a name for that empire of yours, my son?”

A stillness settled over Anu. A name worthy of conquers? A name worthy of an empire spanning the world? ”Talemon.” he replied clumsily, the word seemingly spawning from the void and tumbling out of his mouth. Somehow, it felt appropriate. ”The Talemon Empire.” he said resolutely, this time reaffirming it within himself.

The snake snickered. “The Talemon Empire… That has a rhythmic appeal to it… Very well! To the Talemon Empire, then!” He raised his cup and downed the wine - as did Anu. The taste garnered a small curl of the lip and a small glance at the contents left in the cup. It tasted bitter at first, but was pursued by flavours of peaches and jasmine. It seemed to have little effect on the demigod whose blood was of alcohol itself.

”I’m sure you heard the message from the Wind Demon?”

Shengshi’s brow furrowed. “Yes, you have evidently been listening to Zhu Rongyuan if you call her that,” he mumbled. “I have indeed heard it - as have the Servants, and likely every other sentient being in this innocent world.” His smile had faded and his eyes turned to the view out his veranda door. “A condemnable offense, if you ask me - one that cannot go unanswered, but what of it? Have you come seeking counsel?

Anu returned the cup to its place and followed his father's gaze. ”Zhu refuses to tell me of the demons’ true name. Nevertheless I come bearing a request. I ask that you permit me to join you on this quest for retribution..”

The snake blinked a little, then snickered. “The -goddess’- true name is Azura. The servants have a tendency to tweak a little the many cultures and phrases they learn depending on their proximity from Jiangzhou. It is a natural evolution of customs and tradition, however, so I let it slide. As for your proposal, it is welcome. With my alliance with the hunter Kalmar shattered many years ago, I have few I can truly rely on. I am reaching out to potential new comrades, but while many certainly are threatened by the implication of Azura’s maddened mission, few have the motivation to amend the damage she will do.” He shook his head. “But I have you, and you are welcome into my coalition.”

”Thank you, father.” he began, shifting somewhat in his seat. ”An alliance broken with Kalmar? ‘Herald of the Hunt’?”

“Yes, yes, a poorly handled affair, that,” the snake admitted. “We do not see eye to eye on many things, but with this new conflicted with Azura on the horizon, well… I really do wish I had not broken it, after all. I may have let my anger get the better of me…” He sighed and pinched a piece of fish between his chopsticks.

Anu imitated. ”And reinstating it would be out of the question?”

“While I personally rather would not,” he put the fish piece in his mouth, chewed and swallowed, “it may not be up to me in the end. We must do everything in our power to preserve the balance of life and death - even if that means allying ourselves with brutes and barbarians.”

”So you had particulars in mind then?” he breathed as he set aside the chopsticks and gestured for a second cup of wine. A servant immediately refilled his cup from a pitcher.

“Yes, I believe there are those who will see reason where Azura does not. Chief among these are Kalmar, Phystene and Ashalla, all of whom have tight connections to life. However, Phystene and I have our… Differences, and Kalmar, well, I have already explained. That leaves Ashalla. Kirron and Narzhak may also be convinced to join our cause, I believe, though that may require a degree of diplomacy. However, if we can unite a force of three or more gods, we will already outnumber them - and with you, we are even stronger.”

The demigod downed half the cup of wine in a single swig and set his lips in a thin line. ”So we take the offensive with the superior numbers we hope to have and take back this commodity called souls. What becomes of the ‘rebels’?”

The snake shrugged. “In all honesty, my son, I would rather not see them killed. I have murdered a brother before and there is little joy in it. It only feels as though you are removing an essential part of this world from the universe itself. His name was Vakk, lord of Talk. Thankfully, his sphere remains, but I cannot imagine what would happen if the wind disappeared - or worse, the light. No, too much life depends on both of these forces to simply rid the world of its keepers.” He shook his head. “Still, a punishment would be in order. Imprisonment seems suitable.”

”So we war and imprison to restore a flawed afterlife?” Anu swallowed a piece of fish. ”The seeds of doubt have been planted. There will be whispers of this for generations and if no change is wrought, this will only come to bare again. As I’m sure you did as well, I quelled dissenters fairly quickly. Some no doubt, are cowards to the bone, and would rather disobey their creator and sleep eternally then join the cycle.”

The snake’s eyebrow rose. “The system is not flawed. It is as good as they come - a solid method for recycling soul matter. Whatever dissenters there are must be reeducated or, yes, as you suggested, quelled. Thinking one can avoid doing one’s part for the good of all life is the peak of cowardice.”

”Is that not what the rebels are doing? Doing what they believe is best for all life?” Anu sighed and finished the cup of wine. ”Truth be told I see no other outcome then…” a pause. ”There is no doubt they will upset the balance again should they escape bondage.”

“What they believe is best for all life does not take into consideration the life that will be,” the snake muttered and shot a sideways glance out his door. He pinched another bite of food and tossed it into his mouth. “It is rash, irrational and selfish. As for their escape, surely, the cooperative efforts of multiple gods to seal them away would be quite difficult to escape, no?”

”Even the divines are imperfect. No prison is inescapable, but that is neither here nor there as of right now I suppose. We have a war to win first.”

The snake wrinkled his nose and nodded. “That we do, indeed. Raising the necessary forces for an all out conflict will take time, however, and in addition to an attack force, I must keep one posted here on the Foot to keep the Flame Demon at bay…” The snake blinked a few times and then pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Say, my son, how soon are you willing to test your military capabilities?”

For the first time in years a toothy smile graced Anu’s face. ”As soon as I have an army to lead.”

The snake nodded with a knowing smile. “Marvellous. The Flame Demon’s infestation has gone on for far too long. It would contribute considerably to our cause if a great warrior I trusted could keep the wicked forces at bay while Azura is dealt with.” The snake extended an inviting palm. “Would you be willing to do this in your father’s name? For the glory of your empire and yourself?”

Anu took it without hesitation. ”For all of the above a thousand times over.” he declared.

The snake grinned and squeezed proudly. “Ah, that is good to hear, worthy son. Your conquest will be a source for the poets for aeons to come.”

”When do we begin?”

“When our forces are ready, my son,” replied the snake. “And when yours are, too. I will come to you in time with the necessary instructions. Now, go forth and carve your name into the annals of creation, my child.”

The ape bowed and radiated determination. ”So it will done.”




The Wuhdige Tribe


A full half century had passed since the arrival of the first later-named Spirit Bird, and by now they had taken many of the original discoverers of their home island with them. Tokuanhe had passed a seal’s age ago, and his son Jokuanhe had been ruling for the following twelve years alongside his wife, Julempe. Donwah and Dondo’e had both competed eagerly for the title of tribe champion in the beginning years, but as time had gone on, it had seemed that neither was able to utterly best the other in any activity the selka could think of, whether this be running, hunting, rock throwing, lifting or even wrestling. In perhaps a bit of desperation to get them to stop, Jokuanhe had thus named them both champions, though this had sown some seeds of rivalry between them. Likewise, Tokuhe had also risen to the challenge and requested to compete for the title, but Jokuanhe had denied him the right, reasoning that his own son had not been of age at the time, and that Tokuhe would have needed to rule in his stead should anything happen. This had been an adequate trade, Tokuhe had thought, and life continued in peace for the Wuhdige.

However, as the years passed and Jokuanhe’s son, Jotokan, as well as Tokuanhe’s youngest Yukuanhe both grew into adults, the battle for succession slowly began to split the clans. First, Tokuhe, being the oldest, claimed the title of successor for his own, arguing that Jotokan was still young and inexperienced - much too immature for the title of chieftain. Jokuanhe had defended his son, but his very need to do that had already proven to the rest of the tribe that the chieftain’s son still was illeligible to rule. However, quickly Tokuhe was challenged by his younger brother Yukuanhe, who reasoned that Tokuhe was old and frail - much too weak to lead the great Wuhdige tribe. Tokuhe rose to the challenge, and was as such given the right to select the game they would compete with; however, he was much too certain of himself and chose a mastered art from his youth, though one he had not practiced for many years since - rock lifting.

Yukuanhe had been reluctant to accept - while Jokuanhe had always been the fastest and deftest in their siblings flock, Tokuhe had a secret technique that allowed him to lift nearly any rock. While both Jokuanhe and Yukuanhe had always thrown his stones and sticks further and harder than Tokuhe, neither had ever bested him in rock lifting. However, the youngest brother knew his advantages: Tokuhe was indeed old and frail - not in seven years had he shown his skill, excusing himself with an ageing back and aching legs. No one had seen him lift much heavier things than pebbles. It was rude to pick on your elders, so no one had ever pestered him about whether he could still claim his title as the greatest rock lifter, but Yukuanhe had been certain that the old seal’s muscles and bones were much too weak to best him.

He thus had accepted and the tribe had gathered before the Home Cave to witness the duel of strength. Jokuanhe, an old and aged seal whose spirit had began to call for the Spirit Birds, had barely managed his way out of the cave to see the spectacle. Even from the far reaches of the island, the split-off families like the Julu, Woiwoi and the newly formed Yugweh made their way over to see. The perfection of cliff-tears, now-dubbed stone-spit, had allowed for more spread out and larger camps, no longer solely reliant on body heat to survive the icy nights. It also allowed for big “fire fish feasts”, which were rampant in the background of the event. The rules had been laid out: There would be ten rounds with increasingly heavier rocks. The one who could lift the most would win. The event brought in more selka than had gathered outside the Home Cave since the burial of Tokuanhe and Odende. In the background the fires were raging as selka threw some fish on their barbed spears and held them over the fires.

The competition began. For the first five rounds, both parties showed both strength and skill - Yukuanhe’s raw power radiated around him and oozed outwards through sweat, groans and the pumps of veins. However, the gray Tokuhe proved to be a most able opponent, his flawless technique allowing him to lift many kilos worth of stone with seemingly no effort at all. Yukuanhe’s curiosity gnawed at his mind - how did he do it, the old blubberball?! However, as both parties were required to lift simultaneously to avoid any cheating, the younger brother never got the opportunity to study Tokuhe’s technique. As the match reached its halfway point, they both shook hands lovelessly and went their separate ways to mingle with their closest. Yukuanhe sat racking his mind over how the old seal did it while he ate his halfway lunch, his great stature surrounded by his own kin - all who praised him, hugged him and marveled at his strength. However, the youngest brother heard none of it - all he thought about was how his elder could put up such a challenge in his vastly frailer form. Despite the blubber, he knew a good gust could blow away the old clump. So why, why and why could he not win?!

The next set of rounds began. Reinvigorated by both food and fury, the giant Yukuanhe took his place next to the small boulder. Opposite of him stood Tokuhe, his visage as determined as Yukuanhe’s own. The following two rounds went by, the seventh round characterised by growls and grunts from Yukuanhe’s exhausted form. How, by his own pa, how?! How did his brother manage to lift these weights without so much as a single sound beyond a quiet hup! - he could not figure it out.

The eighth stone was rolled over. The size had grown to the point where one normally needed two selka to carry it. Yukuanhe coughed and felt a metallic taste in his mouth. He took a moment to study his adversary: Tokuhe had an almost intimidating ability to hide his weakness despite his age, yet even dulled eyes could see that the old selka was tired. The crowds held their breaths as the competitors took their stances. Yukuanhe exhaled two vents of hot air through his nose and bent his torso forward, curving his back and flexing his shoulders. He wrapped his arms around the stone and awaited the signal. He dared not look up for fear of being disqualified, but he knew the geezer’s stance already was radically different from his own. Naturally, no others would share the competitors’ secrets for fear of the game losing its fun and flair, but right now, Yukuanhe cursed that culture.

“Go!” went the judge and Yukuanhe flexed his back muscles. They ached after all the lifting - a deep-rooted pain that he had felt many times before when lifting rocks, and a common ailment among the greatest in the sport. Strangely, he thought as he lifted, all others but Tokuhe had felt it… Now that he thought about it, didn’t Tokuhe actually straighten his back when he--

“ARGH!” came a roar from the opposite side. Yukuanhe had lifted his boulder to his chest at that point and the judge called for the competition to stop. As Yukuanhe dropped his rock into the sand, he saw Tokuhe kneeling a few metres before him, one hand clutching his lower back and his other resting on top of the boulder. Surrounding him were his wife, children and friends, all patting him all over to in an anxious effort to help.

“What happened?” Yukuanhe called. “We wasn’t finished, y’hear!”

The judge whispered something to Tokuhe, who shook his head. The judge nodded somberly and went over to Yukuanhe, grabbed his hand and raised it into the air.

“Tokuhe gives up! Yukuanhe’s gonna be the new chief after Jokuanhe!”

The crowds exploded into a cacophony of celebration and complaints. Yukuanhe took a moment to let it sink in, then raised his other hand in victorious celebration. As he laughed joyously, however, more and more of the other selka noticed Jokuanhe had fallen over. As more and more were notified, all the present selka rushed to his side.

The chieftain was dead, and in the distance, the great Spirit Bird approached to take his spirit to the Cave of the Family Jewels, the new, sensibly named afterlife now that the great Ocean of Fish was deemed to be fake. Yukuanhe was promptly named chief. During his rule, Tokuhe passed away, having been left crippled and broken from the competition, and Yukuanhe did not rule for long anyway, for a fever took him a mere three years after his ascension to chieftain, leaving Jokuanhe’s son, Jotokan, to rule the Wuhdige. It had been fifty years since the first arrival of the Spirit Birds, and the last of Tokuanhe’s sons had been claimed by it.

Jotokan, already far over middle-aged, had been aged by a determination to prove Tokuhe’s accusations of immaturity and inexperience to be gravely wrong. As such, he had spent the years since the very start of the succession dispute striving to become a true Wuhdige, leading hunts and fishing trips, digging and building burrows, being a loving husband and father and participating daily in sports and games. In terms of popularity in the tribe, he vastly outranked every other runner-up for the chief spot in the Home Cave, and while he initially brought the tribes tightly together, he created a dependency on his own personality - a glue sustained by his own character that held together increasingly ambitious and competitive clans, and so it was a beautiful day in the autumn when the apples and pears grew thick and juicy and the mushrooms were plump and nutritious that Jotokan received the news:

“Chief! Chief!” Duhwah, son of the deceased Donwah and Yui, shouted as he came running into the Home Cave. The chieftain gave his champion a concerned frown and stood up - as did his wife, Selenu, and his children, Aloo, Kulee and Tokkan.

“What’s got you pantin’, Duh?” Jotokan asked with a scratch of the head. Duhwah spent a few minutes catching his breath, holding up a finger to signal a pause. Selenu gave Jotokan a uncertain look. “Look, Duh,” she started, “This is why you can’t always be the rock-thrower. You gotta be the catcher, too, sometimes.”

“Oh, shu’h… Uhp!” the warrior groaned and finally straightened himself up. “Oh’kay, I think I’m gooh’d,” he mumbled with a shake of the head.

“Alright, then, what you got to tell me so much you sprintin’ harder than ol’ Eliul when he hears ‘fired fish’?” Jotokan asked as he plopped his hands on his well-toned, yet slightly blubbery hips.

“It’s, uh, pretty related to the Elus, actually, chief,” the champion said sheepishly. “Or, uh, more specifically, the Julus. The boy Julo has been pretty loud about his wantin’ some room in the Home Cave, as you know…”

Jotokan snorted and shook his head with a roll of the eyes. “Julo’s still just a boy, Duh. He’s loud, yeah, but it’s his gramma and grampa’s fault that they moved away to begin with. If he wants a spot in our cave, by ol’ Yop in the clouds, he gotta come take it himself.”

Duhwah made a sheepish grimace. “Now, uh, chief, y’see… He’s here already.”

Jotokan recoiled in surprise and on cue, a young, smirking selka came into the cave with a frivolous gait, followed by ten others. He put his hands on his hips and looked around, admiring the inside and the paintings the selka had made on the walls. “Now -THIS- is a home!” Julo exclaimed and turned to his followers, who seemed to be the rest of his immediate family. “Got a nice, warm feel; keeps the snow out; no wind… ‘S perfect!”

“Julo, what’re you doin’ here?” Jotokan asked impatiently. Julo ignored him.

“I think we’ll sit ourselves down oveeer… There!” He pointed at the spot of the cave right next to Jotokan and the other Tokuan descendants, the part of the cave specifically carved out for the Elus, complete with neat drawings and symbols on the wall and ceiling above it. Jotokan grunted and clapped his hands together to catch his attention. Julo gave him a roll of the eyes. “Hey, chief,” he mumbled.

“Oi, Julo! What you think you’re doin’, huh, comin’ in here and claimin’ what ain’t yours? That’s the Elu spot! Last time I checked, you ain’t Elu, nor have you been since your gramps Eliap and Joo left ‘em to make your Julu name. If you want back in, go to your cousin Eel and see if you can get him to let you. Just know that he ain’t too fond of ya.” Jotokan gave the smaller selka a stern scowl, but received only a snicker in return.

“Now, chief, chief, don’chu think I’ve done that? Kelp, I’ve pretty much begged the blubberball to let us stay here, but he ain’t lettin’ up. We ain’t got’ny space, he keeps sayin’, but we know them Elus ain’t as many as they used to be now. Too many girls, our grand-uncles and grand-aunts had, lots of them got with other clans - your woman’s also Elu, if I recall.”

Selenu gave him a glare. “Yeah, but we two ain’t related, you fish-head.”

“We are, and you better like it,” Julo snapped and stuck a finger up in Selenu’s face. The girl hissed and slapped him and Jotokan struggled to break up the following short brawl.

“Alright! Calm down, you two! Julo, you ain’t welcome here with that ‘tude of yours, but you know how we can settle this right. You know the rules - if you wanna get a spot in the cave, you either gotta be born in it or compete to live in it. Thems are the rules!”

Julo snickered. “Yeah, sure, I know ‘em. Been prepping real good for them, too. I wanna challenge my cousin for his spot in the cave!”

Jotokan and Selenu stood staring at one another for an awkward moment. Julo crossed his arms over his chest proudly and his followers sounded a cheer in his name. Jotokan sucked in a breath and nodded at Duhwah, who set off in a running gait out the cave. While they waited, Jotokan sat down and motioned for Julo to do the same, which he did.

“Julo, son, what happened to ya? Your pa and ma were pretty happy folks out there in the wilderness, as their mas and pas had been. What changed?”

Julo snickered and shook his head. “Yeah, they was happy, alright… All that freezin’ and starvin’... Was supposed to be part of the experience, y’know - ‘no strong boy ever got their fish from ma’s hand’, gramma used to say, but she grew up in this here cave. She ain’t known nothin’ about actually growing up out there. Ma and pa heard that line all their lives - they’s quickly started thinkin’ it was the truth, y’know. But we, nah… We’re done with that. We been freezin’ and starvin’ enough.”

Jotokan sighed and waved over Selenu. “Hey, Selly, fetch these goodfellas some fish, will ya? And some apples while you’re at it.” Selenu nodded with a frown. Their daughter Kulee came along, too, while their sons Aloo and Tokkan sat down on each flank of their father. Jotokan continued, “Sorry to hear that, son… We always knew y’all had it bad, but… Yeah, never knew y’all had it this hard. Can’t help but ask, though - why didn’t y’all just… Ask to move back? Could’a made y’all some fine burrows out on the beach. There’s still room and--”

Julo snickered interruptingly. “Now y’see that? Back home, I could’a never asked my woman to fetch fish and apples like that, ‘cuz we ain’t got none. Yeah, we could’a moved back, but you’re smart, chief - you know Eel and the Elus wouldn’t have let us live near the cave. We would’a gotten that spot right by the tide line, y’know, where the burrows fill with sea water at night and nothin’s really changed.” He shook his head. “Nah, chief… We throwin’ our rock high and hard. We either goin’ for the big home or we…” He sighed. “... We gotta leave, chief.”

“Then leave,” came a hostile snap from the cave mouth. The selka inside turned to see Eel, a fat, sneering male with a greasy whisker-stache, backed up by six mightier-looking relatives. Julo got to his feet as his family parted the path between them and clapped his hands happily.

“Cousiiiiiiin,” he exclaimed with fake enthusiasm.

“Shut up, you krill,” Eel snapped back. “You know you ain’t welcome on Elu turf!”

Julo gestured around him. “This ain’t Elu turf, couz’, this is the chieftain’s turf - like all Wuhdige land is.” Eel shot some hot air out his nose and Julo frowned. “Like it or not, the Julu are Wuhdige, and we can freely roam around like the rules say.”

Eel thundered over to Jotokan, smacking his shoulder into Julo’s on the way, and shook hands with the chieftain. “Hey, chief, nice to see ya.”

“Nice to see ya, too, Eel. Hope the seas got a lot of fish for ya today,” the chieftain answered. Eel shrugged.

“Eh, Eole got some cod and Elueh caught a few herring. A good catch, I’d say,” went Eel with a warm smile. Jotokan raised a brow.

“You, uhm, you didn’t check the waters yourself?”

Eel patted his large belly and let out a chuckle. “My, chieftain, chieftain, you know I ain’t no fast swimmer. I’d never catch up to ‘em. No, no, good to have brothers and sisters around who can take care of lil’, ol’ me, I say.”

Jotokan made a short-lived frown and nodded. “Yeah, sure. If it works for ya, then I suppose it’ll be alright.” He pointed to Julo. “Julo here’s challenged you for your family’s spot in the Home Cave.”

Eel snapped around and stared Julo down. “Oh, he’s still here? My, chieftain, you ain’t gonna let him do that, are ya? The Elu’s been in this cave since the first days - why, ol’ Elop’s jewel would darn straight crack if we ever left it, I bets!”

“He still has challenged you, Eel,” Jotokan repeated. “Wha’chu say?”

Eel looked back at Julo who was still smirking at him, and then back at Jotokan. “W-why… N-nah, ‘course not! I ain’t recognise this challenge from a darn Julu! Nah, he can go straight home to his there hole.”

Jotokan sighed and shook his head. Julo grinned and made a wide, extravagant shrug. “Welp! Looks like this is it, folks! We ain’t gettin’ it here thanks to this big, wimpy sardine over here.” He thumbed over his shoulder at Eel and the fat selka turned an embarrassing shade of pink.

“W-what did you call me?” he asked with an outraged tone.

“Called you what you is, you wimpy, fat sardine!” Julo taunted and cackled. The rest of the Julus joined in on the laughter, and it was evident that even the Elu Eel had brought along seemed to disapprove of their leader’s answer to the challenge. Selenu came in the cave mouth with two fish, offering one to Julo - however, it was snatched by Eel who bit off its head and pointed the headless, limp cod at Julo’s face. Selenu recoiled and Jotokan rushed to her side, scowling at Eel.

“You take that back, you darn krill! Or else I’m gunna slap you silly with this here cod!”

Julo just stood there smiling. “Yeah, ain’t weird you got so fat if you keep eatin’ every time you’s actin’ like a lil’ scared sardine! Hah!”

Eel’s eyes went wide and he turned to his siblings, all of whom were either burying their faces in their palms or about to do it. The fat selka grit his teeth over the mouthful of fish and swallowed. “You’re just a lil’ strip of kelp, Julo! Fine! I’mma take that challenge, which means I get to pick the game!”

“As is the rule,” Julo agreed. Jotokan let out a sigh of relief, just as his daughter came in with an armfull of apples, one of which Eel snatched as she walked by him.

“Well, a’ight!” Eel said as he took a bit of the apple, chewed and swallowed. “I choose fish-eating!”

The present selka all recoiled a bit in surprise - all except Julo. Jotokan shook his head and patted Eel on the shoulder. “Look, Eel, it’s a fun suggestion, but we don’t wanna waste food like that. We got lotsa fish, but not enough to watch two selka stuff themselves and--”

“It’s fine, chief,” Julo assured him. “I like this challenge. Maybe I can finally eat my fill of food for once.”

Jotokan remained skeptical, but Duhwah patted him on the shoulder to show his support for the idea. Selenu, looking rather torn now about her allegiances to her original family, also patted the chieftain in agreement. The chieftain’s two sons Aloo and Tokkan also nodded their opinion. Finally, the chieftain gave in and said, “A’ight, fine, fine. Duhwah, take a couple of boys to the sea and fish us another week’s worth. Selenu, fetch some girls and pick some fruit and berries and browncaps. We gunna need as much food as we can get for the winter, so I hope one of yous get full real fast.”

Eel smirked and patted his belly again. “Nothin’ to worry ‘bout, chief. That scrawny krill won’t last long.”

Jotokan sighed. “I hope not, by ol’ Yop. A’ight… You both happy with the challenge?”

Julo snickered. “Sure am, chief. When do we start?” Eel nodded with determination.

“A’ight, we startin’ in three days. We gonna need to stack up the food piles first. What’re the stakes?”

Julo raised a fist into the air. “If I win, the Julu will take the Elu’s place in the Home Cave! The Elu’s gunna be living on the beach!” Jotokan nodded and looked to Eel who raised his own fist.

“If I win, the Julu won’t just go home to their holes - they gunna leave the Wuhdige for good!” There came several gasps, even from the Julu themselves, but Julo nodded.

Jotokan furrowed his brow. “These terms agreeable?” he asked both parties.

The contestants nodded. Eel glared at Julo and punched his fist into his palm and then left the cave. Soon, the chieftain’s family, Duhwah and the Julu were all that remained. Jotokan sighed and rubbed his temples, Selenu hugging him for comfort. The chieftain looked up at Julo who still stood smiling at the waddling figure making its way away from the cave. He pursed his lips and let out a pensive hum. “So… Really that set on gettin’ in, huh?”

Julo nodded. “You have no idea, chief… A’ight, we’ll be back in three days.”

“Three days,” the chieftain agreed. With that, the Julu went out the cave entrance and away from the main camp. Selenu rubbed her chin against Jotokan’s shoulder and sighed.

“Really got big changes ahead, don’t we?” she remarked.

Jotokan nodded. “Yeah… Real big ones.”





Shengshi

5MP/8FP


The mortals would have to wait. That wicked goddess… He knew she was insane, but this… To do this - to -HIS- people, no less! Such utter disrespect for siblings could not be forgiven. As he had told his servants, war would come, indeed.

Yet now, the snake cursed himself - Azura’s attack on the mortal races could not have come at a less convenient time. An alliance, torn in half, with himself to blame. Well, not entirely, but he owed it to himself to criticise his own recklessness in the ordeal. The snake dug his face into his right palm. The flight back to the Foot had been quick and motivated by a rage-fueled haste - the Atokhekwoian mortals would have to bear with his absence for a little longer. Naturally, the threat of attack from Satravius and Ekon were already gnawing at his mind, but what they killed would at least return to the world in the form of fuel for new life.

No, no… Azura was a much greater threat.

He had as such hastened back to the Foot to assure himself that the Alma had not infested it. He knew there were no mortals there yet, but perhaps they had attempted to poison the minds of lesser life. His plans for prosperity could not allow for such an interruption. No, he would have to strike back somehow… Usher in an age of growth and birth that could lead to more lives - longer lives.

Perhaps enough to overwhelm her.

The snake stopped his vicious train of thought. No - he would not bring himself so low as to force the life of this universe into this disgusting conflict, all in the name of prosperity.

No - an age of growth and birth would come, indeed, but it would not be a weapon against his maddened sister. No, it would not be a weapon at all - it would be his gift to all life. The greatest seasons of all, he would claim as his own - a time when life would bloom in swathes of colours, forms and scents. Throughout the year, in many floral forms, food for all of Galbar and existence would sprout from the ground and--

Or… Perhaps a concentrated effort would be better?

Yes… Yes, the snake could see it now. Naturally, some growths would bloom several times throughout the year, but no season would be as great and magnificent as the autumn. It would be a brotherhood of two times:

The Great Spring, when the crops would be sown by wind and limb and allowed to grow throughout the warm summers;

The Grand Harvest, when the crops would be grown after months of work and labour and finally consumed by its predators. They would sprout like a cereal sea, a plain of grains, covering the horizon with green and yellow, exclaiming to all life upon Galbar that they would not go hungry this winter. Yes… YES! The snake felt his heart thunder with excitement.

Naturally, the plants would benefit as well; after all, theirs would be a blissful and plentiful existence - one would be a fool not to participate in the great spreading of these food plants. Animal life, mortal life, nature itself - all would contribute to their growth for the betterment of all creation. A thought occurred: Would it not be grand to fashion for this world a tool to aid in this supremest of seasons? Something that would shine an even brighter light upon this top of times? This pinnacle of periods?

Indeed, it would be grand.

The snake summoned a servant with the snap of his fingers. He Bo entered into his chambres a figurative second later and kowtowed.

“His Lordship called?”

The snake raised his hand. “Loyal He Bo…” He gestured out his doorways to the landscape surrounding Nanhe. “Tell me, is this jungle not the greatest feat of godhood?”

“Without a doubt in the world, it is,” the servant replied.

“Then tell me, should its guardian not see to it that its inhabitants were fed and cared for in bountiful bliss?”

“As the Flow dictates, he should,” the servant replied.

“And does not this principle translate to all of creation, as the guardian is not a mere river spirit, but a god tasked with bringing prosperity to the world?”

“As His Lordship reaches out, prosperity follows,” the servant replied.

The snake nodded. “As the world fills with life, this life must be fed and protected. I have a plan, worthy one - a plan that will add an additional rock on the great pyramid of fortune: I will take the mantle of responsibility over the blooms and sprouts that make up the diet of mortals and beasts, and I will see to it that all upon this world that see it fit to rely on these plants be given wealth in food and safety for when the icy winters strike.”

The servant pressed its head even lower. “A suggestion to be celebrated, Your Lordship. However, will this declaration not anger His Lordship’s sister, the sacred guardian of the forest, Phystene?”

The snake pressed his lips together, but his gaze remained stalwart and proud. “My dearest sister Phystene has no heart for wealth. She understands the need for growth and consumption, but not for the value of this system to a society. She may see the value of a season of plenty, but little would she care for that season’s intent to further mortalkind.” He shook his head. “No, I am confident that this is a niche that, at best, will not bother her and, at worst, may only mildly upset her.”

“Understood, Your Lordship,” He Bo said faithfully.

“Now, as for why I summoned you, worthy one - I require a stick of wood and a handful of clay.”

“At once, Your Lordship,” He Bo said and disappeared out the door.

He would need to spend some time learning the language and ways of plantlife, naturally, but he would also need another edge in the upcoming war.

… Maybe he could try to make a warrior like Anu?





The Moving Mountains


Chagatai watched his parents from a distance, broom in his hand as he swept the stone tiles in front of the dining house. Altansarnai stood next to Hermes, holding the fishing spear as the two adults talked. The onlooking boy rubbed his nose with his sleeve and went back to work, waiting. Hermes leaned in and gave Xiaoli a quick peck and Chagatai made a face, Altansarnai grimacing from a distance. Altansarnai tugged on Hermes hand but she leaned in and whispered something to Xiaoli that made her smile. Chagatai rolled his eyes and after a few more delays, Altansarnai and Hermes finally left on their hunting trip.

Meanwhile, Wenbo, Ai and Li were hanging up the daily laundry. Wenbo kept scouting eyes on the main gate, but made certain to turn away every time his mother’s hawk-like stare found its way over to him. It did not help much that Ai also glared dagger at him, though in a concerned way - like if the daggers were packed in bird dow. Little Li, on the other hand, loyally pretended to perform his task by actually performing it, all the while giving Wenbo regular thumbs up to reassure him that he was indeed doing as commanded. Wenbo nodded approvingly at the young soldier, and as Xiaoli closed in, he winked at him.

It was time.

“Hey, Li? What did you say you wanted for dinner again?”

"Duck!" Li shouted a little too loud and grabbing at the hem of Xiaoli's dress with perhaps too much enthusiasm.

“Duck?” Xiaoli giggled in surprise and patted her little son’s hair. “My, but that takes a lot of time to make, you know! Especially if you want the skin crispy and flavourful. How about something a little easier, hmm?”

Wenbo tossed a shirt over the clothing line. “Well, Li does seem really eager - and duck is amazingly good, even when it’s rushed a bit. I’d love to have duck tonight!”

Xiaoli hummed indecisively. “Well, uhm… Ai, would you also want duck tonight?”

Ai shot a sideways glance at Wenbo and folded together a dry robe. Sweat began to moisten Wenbo’s forehead as time passed. Eventually, though, she said a curt ‘sure’ and frowned disapprovingly at Wenbo. Thankfully, her back was facing Xiaoli, so their mother was none the wiser.

“O-oh, alright, then! Li, since you’re evidently so eager, would you like to help?”

"Uh," the small child plotted his hands together indecisively, looking over at Chagatai in the distance. The other boy gave him a 'do it' face but Li looked back at his mom, "I wanna play with Wenbo and Chaggiei."

Wenbo stifled a groan and snapped his finger, calming himself in a second and looking at Li with a friendly smile. “But hey, Li! How can the Twins keep on going strong if we have no sustenance? Like the war supply lines, we -heavily- rely on our great support--” He knelt down and pressed a finger against Li’s chest, nodding proudly at him. “--you, our precious brother and squire.” Xiaoli merely shook her head, smiled and rolled her eyes, but didn’t say anything. Ai buried her face in her palm.

"Okay!" Li beamed, his golden freckles wrinkling around his cheshire smile. He grabbed Xiaoli's hand, "I wanna help." Chagatai seemed to relax in the distance, turning to sweep at the stairs.

Xiaoli gave Wenbo a wry smile and a raised brow and pulled Li along. “Alright, dear, alright… First, we got to find a duck…” As they went to the larders, Wenbo dropped the loincloth he was holding back in the basket and patted Ai on the shoulder.

“Keep up the hard work, sis! We’re counting on you!” he said as he sprinted towards Chagatai. Ai groaned audibly. “You idiots,” she called just loud enough for Wenbo to flash her a quick grin midrun. He hooked his arm around Chagatai’s shoulders and squeezed.

“Alright! We set to go?”

"I snuck a bag with some snacks by the gate guardians after breakfast," Chagatai nodded, "It'll be a few hours, but then bam! The perfect rocks."

“Yesssssss!” Wenbo celebrated, “alright, let’s head off!”

With that, the boys zoomed out the gates, Chagatai snatching the backpack he tucked behind the black obelisk on the way, and together they entered the forest in the direction of the moving mountains.

It took a few hours, plus a short break filled with a breakfast pastry and some fresh water, but eventually they exited the forest and began their trip up the grinding slopes of one of the mountains. The trees gave way to canopies of mushrooms and flying moss. The boys were at wonder, only having seen this part of their home once before.

"It tickles," Chagatai giggled as some of the flying moss landed on his arm.

“Gmph-hrrmph!” Wenbo exclaimed as a particularly eager patch clamped itself onto his face. He stopped in his tracks, grabbed it tightly and pulled at it with all his strength. A couple of hefty tugs later, and the moss came off, squirming in his hands. “Phew… Yeah, you could say that,” he said with a wry smile and scratched his dirtied nose. He shot a few glances in every direction. “How far left, y’think?”

"I dunno," Chagatai shrugged a he studied the mushroom cloaked ground, "I guess anytime, just keep your eyes peeled." Wenbo nodded and walked with a focused squint.

He stopped for a moment to study a monito del monte, the tiny critter squeaking him an anxious message about quolls. Chagatai shrugged at the tiny creature, "I think I'm a bit big for a quoll."

Suddenly the wind blew through the mushroom forest, causing the hanging snapfruit to chime and whistle as they jostled. The whole place had an eerie feel and an even eerie voice carried on the wind:

"A bit big for a quoll. But too big for me?" There was a barking cackle. Chagatai froze, his arm hairs on end as he whipped about in search of the source. Wenbo instinctively grabbed two dry mushroom stalks off the forest floor and shoved one in Chagatai’s hands.

“Hey! HEY! We’ve not looking for trouble, but if you are, we’ll give it to you!” he shouted as bravely as he could, inciting a voice crack.

"What sort of trouble could you ever give me?" The voice hissed. There was rummaging behind the twins and they spun, but nothing was there.

"So tired, so plump, so full of sweetssss." The voice droned on and cold sweat formed on Chagatai's brow.

"I- I am the son of a warrior! I can fight!"

Suddenly the bushes to their left burst and the twins flinched as Li came tumbling out with a big grin on his face, "Momma said I could play!"

Chagatai was paler than pale, his eyes turning to fury and then anxiety at the sight of Li, "Li… no!" Wenbo waved him away frantically.

Suddenly a striped canine erupted from the forest-line, a jaw unhinged and snapping as it dragged Li to the ground with ease. Chagatai screamed and rushed the wrestling ball of flesh and fur. He shoved his stalk between the two, wrenching the jaws off of Li. The sobbing child fell to the ground covered in dirt, blood and tears and Wenbo slid over to him to help. The beast snapped at Chagatai, the jaws clenching around his arm, large teeth pushing through his skin. The boy screamed and as a hot fury entered his chest he wrapped his free arm under the beasts throat and flexed. He flexed and pulled, the jaw popping off his arm. He shifted and brought both arms around its neck squeezing angrily with loud grunts as the beast flailed.

"Stop-- I…"

The voice steamed from the emptying lungs of the beast as Chagatai squeezed, his face beat red and tears staining his cheeks. There was a sudden pop and the beast fell limp. Chagatai's chest heaved as he continued to squeeze the throat, only slowly letting go once his elbows pressed white from strain. He could still feel the pressure in his arms, a ghost sensation as he looked down at the dead tiger-dog and his whimpering little brother. Wenbo’s horrified eyes blinked between Chagatai and little Li’s bleeding arm.

“Oh, crap. Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap! Uh, UH!” Wenbo pulled off one of his long woolen socks and began to bandage the wound with it, just as he had seen mother do when Altansarnai got a deep scrape. But how was it again? Was it supposed to be tight or loose, or-or…

Li’s sobs became pained groans as the adrenaline dissipated. Wenbo’s heart nearly jumped out of his chest. “Chaggie, he’s hurting bad! He’s--!” He blinked back over at noticed Chagatai’s arm was even bloodier. “Chaggie, you’re bleeding!”

The older twin looked at Wenbo with adrenaline and shock in his eyes and then down at his arm, a trickle of blood dripping down. He looked down at the dead tiger-dog and then at Li. He walked over and scooped his little brother up and started walking down the mountain. He froze suddenly and turned back to Wenbo, "Come on."

“But Ch-Chaggie! We--” He swallowed as he saw the sheen in his eyes. He scooped up the tiger-dog with a grimace of disgust on his face and hurried after him. “Seriously, we gotta wrap up that arm - we can’t just walk all the way with you bleeding like that!”

"Just keep moving," Chagatai all but whispered hoarsely. Wenbo couldn't see, but he was holding back tears. The older twin rolled his bleeding arm into his shirt as he carried Li, pinching his own wounds.

Little else was said, Chagatai falling into thought as he mechanically made his way back home. Eventually Wenbo mustered the courage to attempt to wrap Chagatai's arm properly as he walked, managing a less than perfect wrap that Chagatai nearly shoved off.

The slope cleared and the forest appeared. It seemed like minutes despite it being hours but eventually the trio walked through the gates of the estate. All their siblings were silent, eyes wide and pale with terror. Blood seeped from Chagatai's dressings, dripping as he moved Li in his arms, the young boy having fallen asleep from all the pain and shock. Altansarnai suddenly forced herself into movement, charging into one of the estate buildings.

A minute later, Xiaoli rushed out the door with such ferocious speed that she very nearly tore the poor slider door off the wall. Her eyes scanned the courtyard in a second and fell upon the trio. The avatar’s eyes flashed both fright and fury and she stormed over with quick steps.

“What did you do?!” she thundered as she knelt down next to them and took Chagatai’s arm in her hand a little forcefully. Wenbo choked back tears.

“We didn’t mean it,” he sobbed, while Chagatai remained silent.

“What did you do?!” she repeated as she scooped Li into her own arm and materialised a proper set of linen bandages using a fistful of grass. she ripped out of the ground.

“W-we just wanted to go adventuring…” Wenbo continued with large tears rolling over his cheeks.

“What did I tell you the last time you did that, huh? What did I tell you?!” With a few deft wraps and tugs, both Li’s and Chagatai’s arms were protected by a tight bandage each. Xiaoli grabbed Chagatai by the jaw and turned his head about, her burning eyes looking for more scratches.

"It was my fault," Chagatai whispered to Xiaoli, as if attempting to hide his voice. His eyes avoided his mother’s, looking down and away. Xiaoli shook her head, the rage and anxiety moistening her eyes.

“You always say that, but I know you boys - it was your idea, then Wenbo egged you on. It’s always like that. The only reason you survived is because you got lucky.” She snatched the tiger-dog from Wenbo’s arms and put it on the ground next to her. “A tiger-dog is merely a quoll compared to some of the other things lurking in the woods. You are aware of this, yes? What if you had encountered a group of devils?! What then?”

Wenbo raised his hand. “We’re sorry, we-... We were sure it was going to be okay and--”

“Well, it wasn’t, was it? You two knew you aren’t supposed to venture too far from the mansion and you still did it - and you almost paid the ultimate price to learn why.” She gave Wenbo a quick check, too, before standing up, Li still in her arms. “You two are not allowed to leave the courtyard until I say you may, is that clear?”

Wenbo raised his hand again. “But mom, we--!”

“Is that clear?!” Xiaoli snapped. Wenbo shrank.

“Yes, mom…” he conceded.

Chagatai stayed silent, nodding at the command. He held his head down, hiding a few tears. The other kids began to gawk and he turned away from them.

"May I go to my room?" He asked with a hoarse voice.

Xiaoli shot him a look, but conceded. “You may.” Wenbo looked at his brother with concern. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ai holding a frightened Bayarmaa. She stared at him with disapproving, yet immensely worried black eyes.

Wordlessly Chagatai began to walk off when suddenly a boom of wind erupted from the gates. The flash of color turned into a steaming Hermes, club in one hand and sandals on her feet. Chagatai flinched as he heard his mother's concerned roar.

"WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN!?"

Eyes of flaming red stared at Wenbo, and bounced to Chagatai, only softening at the maimed Li. Her eyes zipped to Xiaoli, searching for an explanation.

“Sweetgrass, get this - they’ve been out adventuring. Judging from the tiger-dog, they likely went to the mountains - exactly like they were not supposed to do. I’ve already grounded them for an unspecified time, but if you would like to add anything, feel free.” Wenbo actually squatted down and covered his head against the impending scolding.

Hermes huffed, "I! You!" She gritted her teeth against her temper, "I was worried sick! I flew circles around--" She closed her eyes and dropped her club. Pinching the bridge of her nose she attempted to swallow her fury.

"Are you boys okay?" Her voice was straight, and not all that comforting for once.

Chagatai looked away with guilt, "We are okay, now."

Hermes looked at Xiaoli as if asking for the truth.

Xiaoli sighed. “They got away with a few bites. With some rest, they should grow. The wounds will scar in time, though, so I hope they serve as reminders of what you’re not supposed to do.” She put her hands on her hips and frowned, her rage evidently having subsided a little.

Wenbo gave Hermes a sheepish, shameful look and his cheeks became a shade of pink. Hermes wiggled her nose in thought and crossed her arms, her voice a hiss, “I’ll talk with you two after dinner.” She gave them both an angry look and stomped over to her private house, club in one hand. She opened the door and before entering she turned back around, her brow furrowing as her face contorted again. With a grunt she slammed the door, leaving the courtyard in an anxious silence. Chagatai went defeated to his room.

Wenbo swallowed and looked to at Xiaoli, who had turned to the family house, nuzzling the sleeping Li with all the worry and care a mother could muster. The younger twin sat on his knees in the middle of the courtyard for a minute, a multitude of thoughts running through his head like a polluted river. As he sat there, Ai came over and sat down next to him. Wenbo gave her a quick glance and groaned.

“I know, I know… ‘I told you so’, meh-meh-meh. I don’t wanna hear it.” Something crusty poked his cheek, and as he turned to face it, something sticky smeared across his face. He recoiled at touched the smear, then saw Ai with a sad smile on her face and a jelly tart in her hand.

“It looked pretty bad,” she said softly.

Wenbo blinked, cleaned the smear off his cheek with his thumb and accepted the tart. He took one bite, chewed for a minute and swallowed. A tear accumulated in the corner of each eye and he nodded. Ai sighed and pulled him in for a hug.

“Told you so,” she snickered. A hand fell on each of their shoulders and pulled them apart enough for the blue-haired Altansarnai and a peaking Bayarmaa to poke their heads into the hug.

“So tell us what happened already,” Altansarnai demanded with curious Hermian eyes.




“Do you want some water?” Ansong asked sweetly, her almond shaped eyes staring from a round face. Chagatai didn’t respond, he just sat. His nest was a wooden stool, and he faced looking through what may have been the worst window in the entire estate, as through the shutters was only two meters of alley and then the blank face of the inner wall -- but stare he did, eyes in thought, but lids heavy.

Ansong seemed insulted by the silence but didn’t mention it as she sat next to the boy, pulling up her own seat. Zhongcheng watched from his bed, fingers black with charcoal as he scribbled on a bark tablet.

“You know it can’t always be your fault, you know,” He said as he bit his tongue, but Chagatai didn’t say anything.

“I mean it,” He continued, “They all have a choice, and they made a choice.”

Chagatai mumbled something and Ansong perked up, “What’s that?”

Chagatai looked over at his sister, “To follow me.”

There was silence.

“It was my fault.”

“I’m going to get you some water,” Ansong sat up and rubbed a crinkle out of her dress. Zhongcheng scratched his nose, leaving a smudge of black and mudding up the fanciful crimson pattern that covered the left half of his face.

“Can you bring me one?”

“Of course!” Ansong tilted her head and shuffled away from the pair. The room fell into silence once more with only the scratching of the charcoal against bark paper making a sound. Finally Zhongcheng put the bark down and rolled to sit up.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not done thinking bout it.” Chagatai looked over his shoulder at his brother and Zhongcheng held up his hands, a clever smile on his face. Zhongcheng stood up from his bed and folded his hands behind his back as he made his way out of the room.

“Sometimes I find thinking’s better done outside the head,” He flicked his bark over at Chagatai and exited the room. The tablet bounced off of Chagatai’s shoulder and clattered to the ground by his foot. He looked down and his eyes widened. It was crude, but unmistakable… a warrior holding a beast in a chokehold, a group of smaller people huddled under the fight.




Xiaoli pushed open the slider door into Hermes’ new personal room. Here, she kept books, inventions, toys-in-the-making, presents, secrets - really, anything that she wanted to surprise her family with. The river girl sighed quietly as she wrapped her hand around the hilt of the great club absent-mindedly. “Sweetgrass, are you there?”

“I’m at the desk,” Hermes voice came from around the corner. As Xiaoli turned the corner, Hermes sat hunched over her desk, cloak draped around her and even pulled up over her long messy hair, hands propping her head up. Xiaoli pulled a tall clay barrel over and sat down on it, gently brushing the hood off her head and then continuing to caress her cheek. She shook her head and looked towards the door.

“Sometimes, I really don’t know what to do with those boys,” she mumbled wearily. “Yesterday with the quoll and now this… It’s like-... Ugh…” She moved her hand to Hermes’ hair. “I think they are supposed to be like this, but… No, something feels wrong.”

“It is wrong,” Hermes looked over at Xiaoli, her eyes black with rings of red, “We are punishing them for being like us.” She let her hands fall to the desk with a thump, “I mean, they didn’t listen to us. They disobeyed and nearly got themselves killed and I want to stomp that out of them, but I don’t want to accidentally kick away their-- well… what we were… what we are.” She sighed and ran a hand through her wind-knotted hair, “Sometimes I don’t know, Xiaoli, sometimes I just don’t know.”

“Shh, shh, shh, come here,” Xiaoli whispered and wrapped her arms around Hermes. Hermes leaned into the embrace and sighed deeply, “Maybe--” Her eyes looked down at her notes on the various plants of Tendlepog, “What if I took them with me from now on? We slap their wrists for disobedience but after, we can indulge their wanderlust safely.”

Xiaoli sighed. “Hermes, you know how the boys feel about hunting. Sure, they might like the adventure, but you can’t kill anything on the way, you know. Not even quolls and squirrel bats.”

“Hm.” Hermes rested her chin on Xiaoli’s shoulder and thought for a moment, “I-- I can do adventure trips, no hunting, no killing, just exploring. Anything to keep them out of trouble… I can’t do this again, my heart was about to burst when I was out looking for them, and seeing little Li all huddled up…” Hermes stopped and closed her eyes tightly, and pursed her lips, “I don’t want to think about what could have been.”

Xiaoli kissed the top of her head and placed her cheek against it. “Yeah, let’s not think about that, dear…” She sniffed and cleared her throat. “Yeah, exploration trips could be fun! Would definitely do them some good to see other parts of the countryside and, hey, maybe there will actually be some peace and quiet around here for once while you’re out?” She pulled away and gave Hermes a playful wink.

“Ugh, my poor wife,” Hermes put a hand on Xiaoli’s cheek, “Stuck with the crazy ones while I soak in the sights of the forest. When Arya gets back, I’ll have her babysit and maybe you and I could finally get some quality time away.”

Xiaoli let out a happy sigh and leaned her head into Hermes’ palm. “That would be amazing, dear.” Her smile went wry momentarily and she raised a brow. “We could take a break in the Palace, though! It’s, you know, been a while since we last went.”

“Oh,” Hermes made a thoughtful face, “I mean… yes! We can try, love.” She let her hands fall down to Xiaoli’s, “My dreams have been weird lately though, I’m having trouble with that sort of control.”

Xiaoli’s brows furrowed together. “You’ve mentioned this before, I think. Is it the colours again?”

“It’s...no.” Hermes leaned back and tapped her chin, “There are words in the leaves… I can’t really remember very well. Years ago when the twins were babies I had a similar dream, and now it’s sorta come back. It’s probably stress, you know. What with all the kids..”

Xiaoli made a face and nodded slowly. “Yeeaah… Probably the stress. You want to try tonight and see if it works?”

“That would be great,” Hermes offered a smile, “It’s just-- well I keep waking up worried about the kids, but you know what I think?”

“What’s that?”

Hermes shifted in her seat, draping her legs over Xiaoli’s lap as she tugged an arm over the back of her seat, “Remember when we got reports of the Alma? I think their soothsaying got all wedged up in my mind and is making me anxious at night, I mean why wouldn’t it? I prayed about that though, so I shouldn’t be so worried, but here I am.” She gave a nervous smile.

“Oh, dear, don’t worry about that,” said Xiaoli and hugged her closer. “I can only imagine how His Lordship’s taking it…” She shook her head. “Yeah, it was -some- soothsaying, alright. All it did was frighten the children to tears. I didn’t even know Temüjin could understand half of what she said and still he wouldn’t shut up for an hour after it was over.”

“I don’t think it helped that our house guardian…” Hermes cocked her head to the side, looking for the right word, “Well, you know.” She stuck a finger in her mouth and blew up her cheeks to make a loud popping sound. “Feathers everywhere.”

“It took me a week to get all those stains out of Altansarnai’s shirt,” Xiaoli muttered with a groan. “Like, I am very appreciative of Father’s gift, but does it really have to be so… Brutal?”

“Oh dear,” Hermes snickered and poked Xiaoli’s nose, “You know as well as I do that it is made up of the horrors of the dreamscape, I’d say its rather tame-- er.” She thought back to the pack of devils that once wandered past the obelisk without giving it an entrance gift and then tried to raid the pantry, “Well it does what it’s supposed to do at least. The kids listened really well after that, too.”

“That, they did; that, they did,” Xiaoli agreed as she grimaced at the thought of other possible horrors of the dreamscape. “Anyway, you shouldn’t think about that. Neither you nor any of our children are going away anytime soon, even if Chagatai and Wenbo are doing their best to make it so.” She sighed frowning. “They won’t face the flames, okay?”

Hermes smile faded into a serious nod, “I trust you.” She sighed and looked around the room, “Xiaoli?”

“Hmm?”

“Dinner isn’t for another half mark on the shadow clock, yeah?” Hermes looked back at Xiaoli with big black eyes.

Xiaoli gasped. “Oh no! I completely--!” She made a fist and sucked in a breath through the nose. “A whole mark, I’m afraid,” she said dejectedly.

“Oh…” Hermes looked around again, “Because I was going to say if Laia was tending to it, perhaps we could get away with hiding away from the kids a little longer.”

Xiaoli snickered airily and gave Hermes playful smile as she shook her head. “Oh, you big, beautiful, silly-...” She placed a peck on her lips and smirked. “... wonderful woman.”










The Wuhdige Tribe


Many years had passed, now, since the tribe arrived on the island, and the tribe had grown greater than its founders ever could have expected. There were now almost one hundred individuals, and the cramped cave was now neighboured by small pits in the ground roofed with sticks, leaves and dirt. There were a multitude of families now, some of which had even taken new names after disputes with their original clan, or just to distinguish themselves. Where the Wuhdige had been five lesser clans, it now consisted of seven, with Aga and Egwoi, together with their two children Hagwoi and Ege, breaking out of the Agoh family to form the Woiwoi family, and the Eliap together with his wife Joo had broken with the Elu after a dispute over rights to sleep in the cave. They had moved a little further down the beach and renamed themselves the Julu. While they kept in contact with the main tribe, they seldom willingly came over to visit.

But today they came. Today was a bleak day. The clouds were a mixture of gray and black, signalling imminent rain, no doubt. A circle of selka surrounded a single selka, placed upon a stretcher made of wood and hides. It was old Yupe, finally worn of life and thus had gone away to the faraway seas where the waves were made of fish and the sea foam was fresh, fatty milk. Tokuanhe, now an aged selka and in need of a stick to stand over longer periods of time, stepped into the ring and cleared his gruff throat.

“Thank you all for coming,” he began. “We’re here today to remember our ol’ pa Yupe and share the good memories he gave us, uhm-...” The large selka snorted and cleared his throat. “Suppose I’ll start off, uhm… To me, ol’ Yupe was like my pa. Whenever I did dumb stuff with Odende and we got in big trouble, we was always there to help us out and make us, y’know, not do that stuff again. Yupe was-...” The was another sniff. “Yupe turned me from boy to man, people. I owe that ol’ blubberclump everything and,” yet another sniff, “and I’m gonna miss him, y’know. Gonna miss him real bad.”

There was a clap of fin-like hands and the giant stepped back into the circle. Next up came Odende, his bulky form rivalling the sheer size of Tokuanhe. The champion nodded respectfully at the chieftain and turned to the corpse. “Yeah, uhm… Like Tokky said, uh… It ain’t easy sayin’ goodbye to an ol’ pa. I-if fact it’s really hard. Dunno exactly how I’m gonna say it right, ‘cause ‘he was good’ simply ain’t cuttin’ it. He was more like… Uh… The best, maybe. He was really more of a pa to me than my real pa, and now I know what you thinkin’ - Odende, you can’t say that - but say it, I do! Yupe was the best pa in the world, and, uh… Yeah, and now he ain’t here anymore, so, uh… Thanks for everythin’.” For the first time in years, the giant with arguably more muscle in his body than its remaining contents, shed a deluge of tears as he turned back to the circle to the sound of applause.

Next up was Toku’e, Yupe’s wife. She sniffed a few times, leaned down and clapped the old selka affectionately on the cheek. “I’m gonna miss you, you blubberball. Many of you probably don’t know this, but Yupe actually brawled my first man for the right to have me.” There were gasps and somber giggles around. “Yeah, yeah,” she nodded, stifling a tear. “It isn’t easy to say goodbye to such a brave hunk of fat and fur who wanted to give his life for you to love him - I mean, how do you react to that?” She shrugged and looked down at the peaceful face. “Even now, it’s not really like he’s dead - he looks exactly like his sleeping self. I kinda…” A sniff. “I kinda wish I hadn’t seen him like this now, for now I kinda just… Expect him to wake up in a few hours.” He looked to the many women and girls around. “Take note, girls - this is what love does to ya. It, uh… Uhem! It gives you years and years of unforgettable joy and then, then punches you real hard… Right in the gut.” The ring could have filled a small pool with tears at this point. The old selka woman knelt down and planted a wet, near-toothless kiss the grey-furred head. “Thanks for all the fun, Yupe - I hope the great sea of fish is as full as they say. I’ll see you soon, I reckon.” With that, the female painfully rose back to her feet with considerable effort, her sons and daughters coming over to help her. Yupu gave one of his mother’s arms to Oduye, who had grown into a young teen now, and looked around.

“W-well, since I’m already here, I’m gonna say some words, too. Pa was--” There was suddenly a bright light in the sky and all the selka cowered with shocked screams and whoops. A beautiful bird with feathers like a rainbow and weird glistening stones on it descended from the sky and perched itself on a nearby branch. The selka all looked to it with great awe and curiosity. Tokuanhe and Odende along with their sons instinctively moved to the front line to defend their families. The bird cocked its head around for a bit, seemingly harmless. Elop smacked his scarred lips together and grunted. “Nice bird, but it seems uninterested. We oughta not ignore ol’ Yupe, though. Can’t send him off without a, uhm, sendoff.”

Tokuanhe rolled his tongue around his teeth and nodded. “Hmph, yeah. Just scared us a bit, ‘s all. Come on, everyone, show’s over. Back to thanking ol’ pa Yupe--”

“Good people of Galbar…” the bird began to speak and all the selka turned back, only to recoil a couple of steps as they concluded that the bird had indeed spoken to them. As it continued, the selka closed in around it, then recoiled again upon seeing the fate of the funny-looking bird-dog screaming inside the dancing lights.

“Oof, that looks painful,” said Tokuhe as he scratched his head.

“Yeah, but what -is- that? Some kinda… Kinda-kinda-kinda…” Agu’e tapped his chin looking for the right word.

“That, boys, is fire,” grumbled Tokuanhe. The other selka looked to him with raised brows. The chieftain eyed Odende, who gave him a knowing nod. As the message reached its conclusion, the chieftain rumbled thoughtfully.

“They put our spirits in rocks or we allow ‘em to cook up in the sky, huh…”

“Chieftain,” went Elop. “What is this ‘fire’ you mentioned?”

Tokuanhe furrowed his brow. “A long, long time ago, me and Oddy were hunting with my ol’ pa Tokuan. This was long before any of you kids were born, by the way.” Many of the pups and children hung their heads. The chieftain looked up at the bird again. “It was a rainy day. The sky flashed and grumbled. Pretty sure ol’ Yop up there must’ve had a pretty bad day - after all, -somebody- forgot to fill his offering bowl with--” Okako’e elbowed him in the stomach and the chieftain oofed. “Right, anyway, Yop had a bad day and was lobbing his flashes all around. Suddenly, right, this flash hits the tree -right- next to me, and I duck away. I look at the tree again and what do I see?” He pointed to the bird.

“That bird?” Agoi said confused.

“No, dumby! The fire! It was all over the tree and it was, like, super hot!”

Elop pursed his lips. “Like how hot?”

The chieftain furrowed his brow and umm’d. “Like, uh… Like when a lot of people are sleeping on top of one another inside the cave, and uh… Yeah, that, but a lot hotter.”

The surrounding selka nodded slowly. “Woah, that’s pretty hot,” Elop agreed. The chieftain nodded.

“Yeah, it really is. So when I saw that bird-dog-thing get burned, I felt his pain, and I’m telling you all - if that is what happens after death, then none of us wanna do that.”

Jokuanhe raised his hand. “But pa, being stuffed into a cryssal… Cryspal… Cristel… A fancy thing sounds pretty painful, too!” He waved at the bird. “Hello, birdy! How big is the thing?”

The bird cocked its head at him, looking either very confused or not at all interested. Jokuanhe deflated.

“Went about as well as you thought it would, huh,” Tokuanhe taunted playfully.

“It spoke like a minute ago, gimme a break,” Jokuanhe retorted defeatedly.

The chieftain snickered, but quickly put on a serious demeanour again. “Either way, I think going to sleep somewhere is a much better thing than dying in a fire, ‘cause fire’s bad.” He looked at the surrounding selka, who nodded more and more eagerly as the statement settled in. Tokuanhe smiled wryly and waved up at the bird.

“Hey, birdy! We’re interested. We don’t wanna die in a fire, thanks. You have our contempt.”

“Consent, dear,” Okako’e said patiently.

“I know what I said,” the chieftain retorted.

The bird stood perched on the branch, still as a statue.

“Pa, I literally tried speaking to it a minute ago and--”
“You shut up, boy, or I’ll--”

The bird suddenly flapped its wings and soared calmly over to Yupe’s corpse and perched itself onto his fat belly. Many of the selka gasped. Odende’s eyes grew wild with fury and he picked up a rock.

“Dang it, Tokky, that ain’t a common bird, it’s a dumb, magical seagull! It’s gunna eat Yupe!” The champion lobbed the rock over the bird’s head. “Giiiiit outta here, you dumb seagull!”

“Pa, wait!” Dondo’e shouted and stopped him before he could grab another stone. The bird suddenly flew up in the air and flapped around in circles as if chasing invisible prey. Then, as unexpectedly as it had taken off, it landed right back down on the selka’s belly. On its wings suddenly grew an uneven clump of colourful rock in a slot on the funny, shiny stone thing, hard to see, but visible nonetheless - though not to the selka with poor eyesight, so a few of them went, “What’re we looking at?” Once the rock had formed, the bird pecked at it gently, gave the selka one last look that both could have denoted curiosity and disinterest, and flew off.

The selka stood there scratching their heads. “Woah, that was not how I expected this to happen,” went Tokuanhe.

“What did you expect, dear?” Okako’e asked with her hands on her blubbery hips. The chieftain shrugged.

“I’unno! At least a flash or something! Like, uh, like fire, you know!”

“I thought they were all about no fire, though,” Elop said with a confused shrug.

“I mean, they look like they are, but-- Ugh, you don’t get me,” Tokuanhe muttered and kicked a rock. Okako’e giggled and grabbed his arm affectionately.

“One question about fire, though,” said Eliap with a raised hand. Tokuanhe gave him a suspicious frown.

“Make it quick, lil’ Julu,” he grumbled and Eliap gulped. There were still some sour bonds between the great clans and the new ones, and Eliap had to tread carefully to not invoke the chieftain’s ire. He swallowed and nodded.

“W-well, you see. Inside the cave, it may be really nice and warm, but, uhm… As soon as you leave it, it gets pretty cold, honestly - especially during the winter, and--”

“You know, you chose to live that far away,” Elop snapped sternly and crossed his arms over his chest. Eliap shrank and nodded.

“Y-yeah, we did, but still--”

“Look, Eliap, boy,” Tokuanhe began and sat his large posterior down in the sand with a quiet blam. The other selka all sat down, too, a circle forming around the chieftain, Elop and Eliap and his family. “We don’t want you four living so far away - really, we don’t.” Joo nuzzled their youngest, a nameless furball, at her breast while their oldest, Julup, a small, playful pup, ran around his parents in circles. “Your kids, they-... They gotta run so far to play with the others. I mean, we’ve had this chat before, I know, but--”

“We’re fine,” Joo said aggressively. “Your worry is nice to hear, though, thanks.”

The chieftain grumbled. “A boy without play becomes a pretty dull man,” he cautioned, but as Eliap was about to speak, Joo cut in.

“Look, chief, we’re really happy as we are. The downbeach is nice and calm, and really, we’re fine. Just fine.” In the crowd, Jokuanhe looked down at his partner, Julempe, who covered her face with an embarrassed palm at her sister’s words.

Elop gave Eliap a worried look. “Right,” he said and sighed. “So, what was that about fire you wanted to ask the chief?”

Eliap closed his eyes sheepishly and nodded. “Right, uhm… Yeah, as I said, it gets pretty cold, so I wondered if you know how to make fire, chief. We don’t really have anything to warm ourselves other than, well, each other.”

The chieftain pursed his lips thoughtfully. He dug some nearby old bones of a fish out of the sand, picked the longest bone and began to pick his teeth. “Alright, see, I get your problem. It isn’t easy to stake out of your own, and trust me, it’s even harder to be the family who gotta watch you try and try and hear you always turn down our help.” He shook his head and spat out some fish scales from breakfast. “Can’t really help you, though - both me and Odende only ever seen fire be made, but dunno how it’s made. Sorry.”

Eliap hung his head and Joo stared daggers at Tokuanhe, who returned the stare with an innocent shrug. Then, however, Odende rose. “Actually,” he rumbled, “that’s not entirely true.” All the selka turned to the stern champion in surprise and Tokuanhe pushed himself to his feet.

“What, you saying you know how to make fire?” the chieftain asked, to which Odende shook his head.

“Dunno how to make it, really, but I got some ideas.” He shot a sideways glance down at Eliap. “The boy and the girl deserve it - they’re brave to set off on their own. After all, our pas and mas weren’t no different, Tokky.”

At this, the chieftain nodded. “What you got in mind, Oddy?”

The champion scratched his chin. “You know that time we had that rock throwing game, right?”
“Which time? The one with just you and me? Or with just the boys? Or the whole tr--”

“The one with just you and me,” the champion specified. The chieftain nodded with a “yeah?”. The surrounding selka leaned in as if their chat was getting quieter, which it really wasn’t - if anything, the excitement increased the volume.

“Remember when I hit the cliff with that rock and these funny lights came out of the cliff wall?”

“Uh… I may not have been looking,” the chieftain admitted. “But I think I remember that you got really excited all of a sudden.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, that was it. I hit the cliff,” he made a flat, standing palm and punched it with his opposite fist, “with the rock, and these lights came out of the wall.”

Tokuanhe nodded slowly, the other selka looking a little confused. “But how does that work?” Elop question. Odende shrugged.

“I dunno! Maybe I threw the rock so hard the cliff started to cry?” He did a quick flex and several women giggled flirtatiously. “Either way, when I saw this magical seagull and the stuff it showed, I recognised the cliff-tears in the fire, so here’s my idea: Fire is made when things like trees are touched by cliff-tears.”

There was a collective “ooooh” among the crowd. Agoi raised her hand in protest.

“B-but Tokuanhe said the tree was hit with a flash and then caught fire? How do you explain that?”

Odende put his hands on his hips and smiled smugly. “Why, that’s quite simple - you see, the flash was just ol’ Yop throwing something really, really, really hard, because he was in a bad mood, and it hit the ground underneath the tree, which was also rock!”

Agoi squinted. “But how can a tree grow on ro--”

“Shut up, it works, okay?” Odende snapped. Agoi huffed and crossed his arms over her chest. Odende looked at Tokuanhe who was scratching his chin thoughtfully.

“Well?” said the champion. “Wanna try?”

Tokuanhe looked down and raised a brow. “Weeeell, uhm… Guess it doesn’t hurt to try. Well, after we finish saying goodbye to ol’ Yupe.”

Odende blinked - as did the others. “Oh, right. Sure.”

And so the selka finished up the last rites before they carried the stretcher off to the sea, swam out a distance with the corpse in tow and dropped it. As it sank to the bottom, some tears were shed, but most of the crying had been done during the speeches. Now, however, it was time for something completely different.

In a hurry, the selka gathered dry sticks, dry leaves, dry fish - really, just anything dry they could find. The experiment required a proper sample, after all! Naturally, the chieftain had not used those exact words: “Find whatever you don’t want or need. Need some good stuff to burn, people!” At last, a sizeable pile had been made and rocks of different shapes, sizes and colours had been gathered. To warm up, Odende did several rounds of push-ups, sit-ups and jogs around the camp, much to the cheer of the girls and women. Tokuanhe gave him a slightly envious scowl.

“Alright, alright, you warm yet, Oddy?”

“Yeah, hold on - almost,” he stood up and lifted his arms over his head, giving the onlookers a proper view of every muscular dent and crevice on his torso, “done. Phew!”

“Odende, you’re so handsome!” came a shout from the crowd and the champion smirked.

“I swear, every darn week,” Tokuanhe muttered and snatched the champion’s arm, pulling him along as he waved to the crowd. Meanwhile, his two sons snickered and shook their heads.

Once Odende was in position, he picked up a rock. A target had been painted on the cliff wall in fish blood, and the champion had never felt more certain that this was his purpose. With a move like a rubberband, he threw his arm back and catapulted it forwards. The rock flew through the air with great speed, the air itself parting before i--

Clack!

It smacked against the cliff wall and fell inert to the ground. Odende gaped and Tokuanhe hummed pensively. The surrounding selka let out a collective “aaaw…”

“Maybe try… Harder?” he chieftain suggested.

The champion picked up a second rock and scowled at the cliffside. “You think you’re so tough, huh?!” he snapped at the cliff.

“W-well, it’s rock, pa--” Donwah began.

“Shush, boy!” the champion retorted and powered up a second shot. Once again, the stone soared through the air, its initial speed like a diving hawk, a stone of heroes, it was, as i--

Buck!

This one, too, fell inertly to the ground. Odende’s face turned a shade of pink and Tokuanhe shrugged. “Maybe the cliff just doesn’t feel like crying toda--”
“RAAAAARGH!” Odende roared, then grabbed five rocks and proceeded to throw them one by one. “YOU. WILL. NOT. MOCK. ME!” The final rock smacked into the wall with a flat nuck! and then smacked against the rocks below it. The surrounding selka all stared at him with saucer-like eyes. Odende picked up the final rock and got ready to throw it when Tokuanhe put a hand on his shoulder. “Look, Oddy, just lea--”

“RAH!” the selka shouted as he tossed, but his form was destabilised by Tokuanhe’s interference, sending the rock on a sideways spin. “Bah! Tokky, look what you made me do--!”

The rock smacked into the cliff wall, this one conveniently at quite a satisfying angle, and indeed made the mountain cry. Sparks jumped from the stone and over the dry materials, igniting them in a near instant. Odende and Tokuanhe looked on in awe as the surrounding selka celebrated and shouted, “Hurray! Fire! Fire!”

A few sparks then skipped to the nearby roof of a burrow, immediately setting that on fire. “Oh no,” went the selka, “Fire! Fire!”

Tokuanhe grabbed Odende’s shoulder. “Oddy, how do we make it stop?! I don’t remember!”

The champion shrugged wildly. “Hey, you asked me to make fire! I have no idea stop it!”

The chieftain stared in panic as the fire hopped to another burrow. Oh, why did they have to dig them so closely to one another?!

“Uh, uhm! Quick, offer it a fish!”

Elop lobbed a fish at it. It did nothing, save sizzle a little.

“It didn’t work, chief!”

“Uhm! Offer it a fancy stick!”

The selka quickly began to search for fancy sticks, until Jokuanhe raised a hand in the air. “Wait a minute,” he called out. “Sticks are also wood!”

“Darn it, you’re right,” the chieftain cursed angrily. “Uh, uhm, cover it up! Maybe it’ll go away!”

Grabbing the largest fur they could find, that of a bear they had brought down a long time ago when it raided their fish stores, the selka charged at the nearest fire. They took deep breaths and covered one of the burrows with the hide. Sure enough, the fire soon died out as it was choked to death. The selka looked at one another and celebrated.

“Hah! We did it!” Tokuanhe cheered until Okako’e punched him in the gut.

“No, we didn’t, you blubberball! That was -one- fire!” She pointed to every other burrow surrounding the cave entrance, which were all on fire. Then, the hide they had used to put out the one also caught fire. The panicking selka all gathered on the beach, staring as their outdoors homes went up in flames.

Then, as if ol’ Yop had taken pity on them, it started raining. The fires began to hiss and fizz as they battled the rains, but alas, they could not conquer the superior power of water. The selka stood staring at their half-burnt camp. Tokuanhe and Odende looked at one another sheepishly.

“W-well,” Tokuanhe said to Eliap who looked on in horror. “Now you know how to make fire, huh.” The chieftain elbowed the boy playfully and turned to his tribe. “Right, so, there was a teeny-tiny accident - BUT we learn as a big family not to dig our burrows this close together again, and hey, nothing of value was lost, hmm?”

“Literally -all- my things are gone!” came an outraged cry from the back.

“Yeah, okay, so -some- things of value were lost. But nobody died, right?”

The crowd was quiet as selka looked for their family members. Nobody said anything, so the chieftain clapped his hands together. “See? No worries, then! Burrows can be redug and re-, uh, re-roofed!”

The selka gave him sheepish looks and the chieftain rubbed his nose. “Alright, let’s get cleaning, people.”

With a collective groan, the selka began digging around in their still hot, collapsed burrows. One of them, Aguhe, dug through the charcoal sticks and found a charred fish. She gave it a suspicious stare, but she did indeed feel quite hungry, actually. Since she already held a fish in her hand, she shrugged and bit into it. Her eyes went wide as the flavours entered her mouth and she shouted, “Chieftain!”

Tokuanhe came over followed by Jokuanhe, Tokuhe, Odende, Donwah and Dondo’e and eyed her up and down. “What? What did you find?”

Aguhe held up the fish. “Here! This is actually really tasty?”

“Is that the fish we threw into the fire?” the chieftain asked suspiciously.

“Yeah! Try it, try it!”

The chieftain grimaced, but eventually shrugged and bit into it. A few chews later and the fish was suddenly shared around for all to try. It was an entirely new sensation - a crisp, bitter skin with a warm, almost flaky interior. The selka all grinned maniacally at one another.

“What should we call this, chief? I mean, it’s fish, but it’s not just normal fish!” Yupu said with a chuckle.

The chieftain thought long and hard, humming all the way. After a few minutes, he grinned and raised his fist into the air triumphantly. “It shall be known as firing!” The surrounding selka all clapped and chuckled, then danced around the camp all night shouting, “Fire the fish, fire the fish!”


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