A day had passed since Ashalla’s visit, and the Jiangzhou had moved into the Giant’s Bath, drifting lazily in circles around the centre of the pool. The lush overgrowth of the jungle below had, with time, crawled up along the crater side, clawing to the stone banks of the Bath itself in the form of verdant shrubs and plump trees. Lillies and lotus littered the shore, and mudworms were frolicking on the tiny, ring-like beach encircling the pool adjacent to the crater edge. A few Servants had gathered on the beach to say their farewells to this world, and a host of Talemonesians from Biashara had come to marvel at the presence of divinity, forming a praying crowd on the eastern side of the crater. The snake sat atop his tower, plucking at the strings of his harp absent-mindedly. A small flock of birds perched atop the roof of his castle tower, singing joyously along with the harp.
“How go the final preparations?” mumbled the snake in no particular directions. Out of the shadows, almost, He Bo came out and kowtowed.
“They proceed as planned, Your Lordship. All will be ready within the hour.”
The snake blasted a puff of air through the nose. “Within the hour… To think…”
“My Lord?” He Bo offered.
The snake shook his head while still facing away from the servant. “Nevermind. See to it that there are no delays. We leave when the preparations are completed. See to it that everyone is aboard - those that are not, will be left behind.”
“As His Lordship commands,” He Bo affirmed dutifully and disappeared back into the palace. The snake let out a sigh and continued to survey the landscape to the song of the birds and the harp.
The water overboard splashed in tune.
Or perhaps not entirely in tune, for, while there was a rhythm to its rushing, it was not so much musical as the prosaic sound of something paddling, one sweep after another. It came closer, until a thud sounded from the lower side of the keel, followed by grumbling and a scrabbling sound. Something black and wormlike emerged from beyond the parapet; then, a misshapen iron clutch that grasped its edge, then another, and, finally, a head with more than one mouth too many.
One of the hands saluted by rising in a clenched fist, which almost sent the figure flying back down. By some miracle, however, it held on.
”Superintendant Vrog, reporting to His Lordship for audience!” it gargled, loud enough to spook away the singing birds. In a lower tone, another mouth added, ”Permission to speak freely,” and a third, “And to come on board, it’s a spitting bother to hang here.”
The snake spun around in a haste, knocking his harp over and causing it to partially crack. “Ugh! Foul creature! Who are you?! What are you doing here?!” He gave the air a sniff and grimaced. “Did Narzhak send you?”
”Heh, thanks.” The various mouths bristled with the smiles of sharp and unclean teeth. ”I’m the big one below’s special-works gutface. You could say he’s sent me to do scrap, but here? I got a thing as brought me that’s just between you and me.” He picked at one row of teeth with a finger. ”Bit hard to talk when I’m swinging here, though.”
The snake blinked bepuzzled, but quickly reclaimed his furious expression. “No - no! Forget I asked. I care not who you are or what your business is. Now begone from my ship, lest I will make you!” As if to stress his point, the snake pointed angrily in a direction leading away from his ship, which, in all fairness, could have been any.
There was a collective grunt from under Vrog’s helmet. ”Always like this, ain’t it,” he wheezed, ”Always the same spit. Soon as I turn up, it’s on with the get outs and gut offs. Nobody cares what I got, if maybe I just want to have a cup-” one of the black tongues dipped out of sight and came back with a brightly polished steel flask, ”-because it gets spitting dull crawling around with ghouls for company, or what. Nope! Always the threats! Is it cause I look like a slagheap? Didn’t get asked, if you want to know. And now you too. Gut it, Shengshi, you’ve drunk with the boss himself, and you know he ain’t better than me in a thing. So what’s up now? What’s happened to ya?”
The snake smacked his lips uncomfortably. “I, uh… Well.” With a huff, he curled up his tail and sat down upon it. “... I apologise. I failed to realise that you, too, are an outcast. Forgive me - I was rash and uncouth. It has been a, a rough week.” He gestured to the floorboards before him. “Have a seat, if you wish… And are able to sit still.”
”Hrah, ‘s good. Gut knows I don’t help my case sometimes.” With a series of dimly nauseous sounds, Vrog hauled himself on board, landing with a squelching crash. He rapidly picked himself up and shuffled closer, crouching in the indicated spot. For once, he only left a few faint traces of filth as he passed, no doubt thanks to his watery arrival.
”So, fore we get down to talks,” he held out a hand, and the flask landed on it as if he had just tossed it up, ”wasn’t spitting about the drink. Helps in scrapping times, I can tell ya.” A hooked finger snapped off the lid, releasing a strong waft of sweet and spirits, and slid the container over to Shengshi’s coils. The snake sighed and took a swig with a cringing expression.
“Where did you get this filth? The Cauldron?”
”All my work,” Vrog rapped his belly with his finger with pride, though it was hard to say if it was sincere. ”Got the idea from a friend. I ain’t much for the flavour, so it’s yours. Reward a slave you hate if it’s not for you either.” Another flask, much less shiny, materialised in his hand, and he took a gargling sip. ”Speaking of which,” he continued, ”I feel you got a scrap-pile to do, so I won’t hold you long. You know whatsaface, K’nell been out for a while now, right?”
The snake sheepishly put the bottle down and pursed his lips. “Yes, he has. Were you a… A friend of his, by chance?”
”You could say that. Not really his his, but…” he made a few gestures which could have been supposed to point at himself and someone absent, if in a rather roundabout way, ”Sort of his his. You know what I mean. I’d been trying to get to sort of him, catch up about some scrap, but you can guess, no luck. I got it you were in with him - real him, so it been the same spit for you too?”
“If by the “same spit”, you are referring to leaving this world to mortal hands, then yes - it has been quite the same spit,” the snake conceded. “What is it to you, though? Has Narzhak sent you to stop me?”
Vrog’s mouths gaped briefly in befuddlement. ”Is a gutted pandemic with you people,” one of them muttered, before they gathered themselves together. ”Not really what I meant, but gut me if I can blame you. Place’s always been a spithole, and’s only been getting worse. Narzhak, though…” A mouth made a poor attempt to whistle with its ragged excuse for lips. ”You’re lucky he doesn’t know. The way he’d already lost his spit when he found out about K’nell was slagged something. He ain’t keen on desertion.”
The noisome being rubbed his fingers together. ”Me, though, I’m not messing with that. You want to go, you go. Been thinking ‘bout that myself. That’s why I’m here, actually.” He snapped a finger up to point at Shengshi. ”So, this thing here, it stays our little secret, you and me. Boss’s not gotta know. Just gotta tell me, though, where K’nell’s gone gutted off to.”
“Your discretion is most appreciated,” the snake replied politely. With a few wrinkles of his nose as he eyed the creature before him up and down, he drummed his finger tips together and hummed pensively. “You speak much of what I, too, believe in, so I reckon we are, deep down, brothers of the same view - that this world is no longer meant for us. However, I must ask - if I were to give you the key to the gates of heaven, what would you do there? I have never met you before, but your…” He once more stared down at the remains of puss and filth riddling the form, as well as scraps of crusted blood and rotting guts between its multitude of teeth. “... Form seems catered to a narrow selection of purposes, most revolving around murder - and I would be doing my beloved brother a very disrespectful dishonour if I let a killer into his peaceful realm.”
”That’s the thing, isn’t it?” A few of Vrog’s mouths struggled to put on a melancholy smile, though their efforts were marred, besides their deformity, by the macabre residue around them. ”Ripping things up, gutting, killing, that’s all I’m made for. Been doing a good bit of it all around, you ain’t wrong. But it’s the same spit as my looks. I’m slagged sure not the one who’s asked for this. I kill ‘cause I’m told to, break things ‘cause I’m told to. Be good to try something different for once, you know? Just, I dunno, go around, taste things, maybe get better at…” he motioned at the clean flask, ”making ‘stead of breaking, yeah? No gutted way to do it here, not with them four eyes always over the shoulder. But another place, that’s another thing. If you’s leaving, you get that, no?”
The snake looked sympathetically upon the abhorrent heap of guts and metal, flicking his tongue at the pungent odour emitted from it. “So you are saying you wish to make an effort to change, is that it?” The snake snorted a giggle, then it evolved into a cackle. He slapped his tail a multitude of times and wheezed for air he didn’t truly need. Eventually, his laughter died down and he wiped a tear or two with a clawed finger. “My… First laugh I have had for a while. Such humouristic irony is difficult to come by these days.”
Vrog splayed his asymmetric hands out with a range of grins over his face. ”Feel that, that’s already something else I can do. Wouldna call it this much as calling the hits myself for a change, but you get the gist. Maybe they’d like me over there much like some people here’d want me to get out.”
The snake smirked. “To think a creature such as you, molded and conditioned to murder and slay, can devote yourself to such deep, foundational reformation - yet I, a holy entity of creation, cannot even change myself along my own moral guidelines. Oh, you… Vrog, was it? You amuse me.”
”Ain’t really that hard if you think of it.” Vrog scratched the back of his head, without moving the arm itself more than an inch. ”Just gotta be smelling something that makes that worth it. Me, I want to get out of this slagyard, so get to it. You… I dunno what them morals got going for them, but it’s gotta be hard finding spit you can’t have straight up if you’re a god. Maybe it’s that.” He poked at his drink with a tongue. ”Listen to that, when’d I start philosophying? Gut me if I know what I put in this stuff.”
“Philosophising, and yes, I would frankly not have expected it from one of your form - although, Narzhak was deceptively wise for his, so I suppose the lesson here is to never judge the scroll by its cover.” The snake shrugged. “But, one question remains - and that is whether you the qualities necessary for me to trust that you wish to turn your life around as you say.” The snake squinted. “How do I know you are not lying?”
The finger scraped the head again. ”Beats me how, less you got a power like that,” Vrog mused, ”I’d not advise poking into my head, or he might know. ‘Sides, I don’t know it matters. K’nell’s got to be gone to a place he knows good. He’s boss there. I get in and start scrapping stuff up, I’ll be first to get the smackdown.”
The snake hissed. “True. Very true. Tendlepog can be paradise to those who treat it well - and purgatory to those who seek to ruin it.” The snake snapped his fingers. “Very well. I will tell you the secret to enter heaven. Swear that you will not harm its residents and the key is yours.”
”Good by me.” The mouths sneered again, and Vrog’s left hand closed a second time in the fist salute. ”I swear it on my head I won’t bring pain to any there.” He relaxed the hand. ”That do it?”
The snake smirked. “Yes, that will suffice.” He gestured for Vrog to lean in. “Now, the key to enter heaven, or Moksha, as it goes by, is to meditate upon it.”
Insofar as it was possible to discern, Vrog looked pensive. ”That’s another one I haven’t tried before. How’s that work?”
The snake tapped his temple. “It should not be too hard. Simply take in its beauty, its energies, and have them fill your mind with its wisdom and peace. Once your mind harmonises with Moksha’s spirit, a copy of your soul shall enter it on your behalf, while your mortal form disintegrates and joins the Pyres.” He then shrugged. “Perhaps your divine origins could even help you along to achieve this outcome faster?”
”Could be. I’d already been one of the first in once. Maybe I’ll even find a better use for this mound of spit than that - as helps somebody, I don’t know - but that’s for me to figure.” A few tongues prodded skywards like curious snakes. ”Full of peace, that’s gonna be a first,” he smirked, ”I owe you one, Sheng. You’ve been a friend. ‘Fore I go, I’ll make sure he” a finger pointed downward, ”remembers you like that, no strings to it. Least I can do for this.”
The snake nodded. “Your visit proved to be everything I had not expected - pleasant, most of all. Thank you for coming, Vrog… And thank you for being a friend in a dark time.” The snake bowed seated. “I pray Moksha will accept you as it accepted my brother, my children… And my better half.”
”I’d better hope it does.” Vrog nodded and rose from his crouch. However, he did not move further. ”You get me thinking, though. If that many of yours are there already and you know the way, why’ve you not gone there too? Not like they ran from you to get in.”
The snake shrugged. “I likely will some day. I just felt it would be appropriate to move my belongings into my realm and seal its gates first,” he said with a wink. “I reckon time in heaven passes much quicker than here, so perhaps we shall all be reunited there within the week?”
”Who knows, maybe we’ll be. Not the first time I’d have weird run-ins in that kinda places. You’re right about closing gates, never know what spitters could get in.” With heavy steps, Vrog shambled back to the edge of the deck. ”Well, got some scrap left to do myself ‘fore I disappear. Hand in my resignation and all. Been good smelling you.” In a cumberous half-vault, he was balancing, rather precariously, on the parapet.
“Farewell, Vrog! May you find your way into Moksha!” The snake gave the mass of sludge and filth a wave and a shake of the head.
Vrog raised a claw in a waving motion, then, in what was either a dive or losing his balance, toppled overboard. There was a loud splash and a string of muffled cursing before the rushing sweeps came again, this time fading more and more until they became one with the sound of the waves.
The snake cast a final glance after his new friend and chuckled to himself. As if divinely ordained, He Bo came out of the shadows once more, making a quick kowtow.
“All is prepared, My Lord.”
“Good. The wait is over, worthy servant. Soon, we will have peace eternal.”
The servant gave an affirmative hum. “Yes, My Lord.” He then rose and disappeared back into the palace. The snake took a deep breath and raised his arms. The centre of the pool began to bubble violently before the familiar arc, which hadn’t opened since the intruder dammed up his realm all those years ago, rose out of the waters, the dew dripping from its top hinting at the mirage of Fengshui Fuyou on the other side.
The snake hesitated. He cast a look behind himself, gazing across his jungle one final time. He would miss it - it and its beasts, its inhabitants - perhaps more than anything. As the ship slowly drifted forward towards the portal, he cast a look towards Moksha, too.
“I should have taken your offer, my friend. I hope it remains open.”
Then Shengshi, Lord of the Thousand Streams and King of the Harvest, left Galbar forever.
A thousand miles away in the empty oceans south of Kalgrun, there drifted a lonely stone turtle. Lonely? No, for atop its back lived a buzzing village of Dreamers, hardy and committed to their work day in and out. They had been content knowing that no one would come for them and that their hardworking life on chaotic Galbar would be rewarded with an eternity in Moksha’s glory. Like so, life had continued for decades.
Today, however, would be no day of work. Ill tidings had spread from the palace, the same that had spread three years ago. The emperor had taken ill, and the last child of Hermes and Xiaoli was lying on his deathbed. The crimson shadows of the red silk curtains couldn’t bring colour to the dying man’s face. Surrounded was the bed by as many of his people as his room could hold, with even more waiting in the hallways outside. His cold hand was held closely by his weeping daughter Bei, her shoulders each held warm by the hands of two of her brothers, Tian and De. Next to them sat Yang, painting a sheet of rice paper with the will of his father, and Mei, Ping and Anhe all knelt praying on the opposite side of the bed. Wenbo smiled weakly at all eight of them.
“... And for my youngest daughter, Anhe… Oh, Anhe…”
The woman, now in her later thirties, shuffled a little closer. “Y-yes, father?” she sniffed.
“... You were a beam of light from heaven above to all of us… You should have our jewel box from the mountains of Atokhekwoi.”
Gifts couldn’t make any of them truly happy at this point, but she smiled politely nonetheless. “Yes… Thank you, father. I’m honoured.”
Wenbo laid his head down on his pillow and sighed. “Good. Good… I just hope it’s enough. To think I--” He suddenly coughed violently, keeling upwards in ways he hadn’t moved for days. His children immediately tried to lay him back down and give him some water.
“Don’t strain yourself, father!” Tian cautioned. Wenbo snickered.
“To have children like you all - is that not a piece of Moksha in itself?”
The eight of them teared up even more, as did the rest of the people in the room. A considerably more scarred and bruised general Ming struggled to keep her composure. Somber pops rolled around the hall from saddened cloudlings. The emperor took a deep breath.
“I would say, ‘do not weep’, but not all tears are of evil. The greatest regret of any father is to leave his children behind in a world worse off than the way it was to him. I pulled you all along for this… This ‘adventure’...” He gave a sniff and squeezed Bei’s hand as tightly as he could. “Because of me, all of you were born in this mortal world. Can… Can you ever forgive me?”
The children looked at one another, and Bei gave a sobbing grin. “Father, c’mon. There’s nothing to forgive.” Wenbo pressed his lips together.
“Adventure is, is in our blood, dad,” Tian added with as big a smile as he could muster. “We’ll all be united in Moksha anyway, right?”
“Yes… In Moksha,” mumbled the Dreamer King. “Ai…”
“You’ll see her soon, father,” Yang said soothingly as he tried to not get tears on his paper.
“... Yes… Soon.”
The king breathed his final sigh. The desperate calls of his children and people faded away into nothingness. He was pulled out of his body, floating above the disappearing crowd closing tighter in around his corpse. He soared far above, above Chuanwang, who almost seemed to look up and give him a wink. Wenbo felt the pull upwards accelerate, and in the sky far above, he saw glowing flickers of flame, licking menacingly at the nothingness surrounding them. So, these were the pyres.
However, just as he exited the upper atmosphere, he was once more tugged away - or rather, he felt as though he was being pulled in two different directions. The feeling disappeared, then returned, then disappeared again. Finally, his vision blurred over from an unfathomably bright light, and all sensations went haywire. He felt burning heat and brittle cold simultaneously, and the colourful void that filled his vision blasted his ears bloody with sound all while remaining dreadfully silent. His mind felt pulled and pushed, kneaded like dough by the experience. It went on forever, and it was over instantaneously.
A sweet familiar smell woke him up. He was staring up at a blue, feather-clouded sky, with red grass crowding the edges of his vision. The ground was soft, silken almost, and the wind was gentle to the skin. A number of grunts and crunches caught his ear - as did curious little pops on the wind. A shadow blocked out the light of the sky and Wenbo’s eyes needed time to adjust.
An unseen hand grabbed his and he heard a voice swathed in an accent that he hadn't heard in a lifetime, "Welcome home, brother."
A day has passed since Ashalla came over, and Snake’s prepping to bounce on Galbar. Who should arrive in the moment but Fat Vrog (Frog) in all his yucky unglory! He introduces himself and receives a gentle “fuck off” from the snake. However, as time and conversation pass, it becomes clear that Vrog’s just looking for a way off Galbar, too - preferably through this mysterious super dimension he’s heard so much about. Snake says Vrog looks too murdery, but Vrog says he’s a changed lump of guts and tentacles now - wants to go out and away from Narzhak’s influence. The snake sympathises and eventually tells Vrog how to get into heaven, saying that Vrog’s amazing personality and convictions swayed him. Vrog’s thankful and rolls off. Then Snake enters FSFY and is never seen again.
Years later, in the seas between Kalgrun and Istais, Wenbo dies surrounded by family. He is raised up into Moksha, where he is welcomed by a familiar voice. That concludes the story of the Dreamers.
Years later, in the seas between Kalgrun and Istais, Wenbo dies surrounded by family. He is raised up into Moksha, where he is welcomed by a familiar voice. That concludes the story of the Dreamers.
Yeah, nothing was spend here.