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“HAH! YOU LOSE AGAIN! SUCKEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEER!” Gibbou flipped both birds at the figure across the long table, in front of which laid a large, pyramidic arrangement of brim-filled shotglasses, frozen in fear at the sight of their drained brothers and sisters on the opposite end. The figure was speechless, mainly because it had no mouth. Major Rockington of Lightside was a specimen of granite fortitude, a stone of stoic silence, indeed. Its unclearly defined visage was nonetheless in shock and awe at the sheer brutality of the Moon Goddess’ rampage through the liquor cabinet(s). Gibbou let out a simian scream and drummed her chest, still stinky and sticky with yesterday’s vomit. She picked up one of the glasses and hurled it at the major, against whom it shattered into a thousand pieces. Rockington’s expression could hardly be described as anything but stone-faced. Gibbou offered a sour mixture of a hiccup, a laugh and a retch and picked up another glass, tossing it at Kubrajzar. She then danced around in a circle, chanting, “IIIIII AAAAM THE CHAAAAAMPION! IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAM THE CHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMPIOOOOOOOOOON! NOOOOOOOO TIME FOR LOOOOOOOOOOOOSER’S ‘CUZ IIIIIIIIIIIII AAAAAAM THE CHAAAAAAAAAAMPION” She then hopped onto the table. “OF THE MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON!” She then squealed another scream, one that sent the moon foxes running for the craters. Rockington didn’t know what to say. Gibbou ignored his mountainous silence, skipping down from the table again and bouncing her way over to the other side of her glass-dome house, where there stood a tall barrel filled with javelins. A distance off from the barrel stood a target, next to a pile of broken targets. It was wooden, depicting a humanoid figure - or at least an approximation of one - complete with spikes, horns and a mean grin. Over it hung a large cloth sign stretched between two poles on each side of the target. It read, in big, mean, red letters:


Gibbou cracked her knuckles sloppily and gave the non-existent air a sniff. She pulled a javelin out of the barrel with an arm like a tentacle and made great efforts to balance herself. Squinting blindly, she sucked in a breath through biting teeth and tossed, missing the mark so spectacularly that she could feel the distant, mocking cackle of major Rockington. No matter, though - she had her solutions. Strolling over to a small table topped with a mirror pane, she reached for a tipped-over box sitting on it, white powder spilling out of it like a fallen sack of flour. She dunked the rest of its contents onto the mirror, packed it into neat, index-finger sized lines, cleaned her nose out and pressed her face against the glass. She took a deep, deep breath, dragging herself along the mirror with knowingly open eyes, staring her own reflection down into the ground. The kick was almost immediate, and she pulled away before completely finishing the line, grasping her flaming nose.

“OH FUCK, oh fuck, oh, oh, oh, ooooooooh shit… Gaaah… Aaaaa-ah-ah… Fuuuuck me, oh--... MMMmm… Guh, ugh…” She sniffed many, many times, her mind clearing up with lightning speed and her limbs trembling with a sudden influx of energy and focus. She couldn’t help but slap herself sore all over her face, the substance dulling her pain completely. She leaned over and stared her reflection in its pink, bloodshot eyes. She hated it - it was everything she couldn’t stand; this person in this mirror, she had killed millions - she had forsaken the world below and left it without its protector, and she had been defeated by evil herself, proving once and for all that she, Gibbou, could never be the protector she had aspired to be.

She would never be the Shield in the Night.

The goddess snorted another line. She couldn’t have these thoughts - not now - they needed to go away, far away, never-come-back-away. She eyed her right hand - she had been biting her nails a lot lately; she had eaten away at her fingers, too, scabbed and scarred as they had become. A memory flickered from a night earlier in the week (or was it month? Year? Anyway…) when she had had a glass extra before bed. She had had a nice book in her hand - the Story of… Whatever, she couldn’t remember now - and then that glass had become another glass, and then she had gotten hungry, so she had taken her hoe out to tend to her garden, and then she had remembered that she lived on the godsforsaken moon, so of course there had been no fucking garden to tend, had there? And--... No, she had spears to throw - what was she getting upset over now?

She hastened over to the barrel and withdrew a spear with all the expertise of a coked-up athlete. She took only a second to aim before throwing, the spear impaling the Neiya target straight through the forehead and taking the rest of the torso along for a few orbits. Gibbou threw her arms into the air and screamed, “YEEEEEEAAAAH! I WIN! GIBBOU WINS! GIBBOU! WINS!” Her knees gave way underneath her, and she held the celebratory pose as she knelt, the rush of dopamine filling her up like the warmth of a campfire in a winter storm.

“Hey, Gibs,” came a voice. The moon goddess felt the warmth disappear in a flash, and slowly she brought her hands to her ears and took a quivering breath.

“You’re not real, go away.”

It snickered. ”Yeah… Yeah, you keep telling me that. It’s honestly kinda cute that you want to believe it, too.” Footsteps inaudible in the vacuum of space paced around her. Gibbou shut her eyes and bit her lip. ”That was a good throw, by the way. 8.5/10 in my book.”

”I’m just having a bad trip. You’ll be gone in a minute.” Gibbou whispered. The response was a whistle.

”Babe, you know I never, ever go away. The harder you push, the harder I pull, until we both stumble off the cliff and into the endless, black, lonely abyss of nothingness - but hey, at least the two of us will be together, right?” Gibbou felt her chest tighten. Her heart scoffed at her. ”What, do you think you’re the victim here?”

”I’m-... I’m no victim. I--”

”... Need to be protected?”

”No, I can protect myself, just--”

”... Just like you did against me?”

”FUCK YOU! I’m doing perfectly fine on my own! It’s just--”

”... It’s just that sometimes, it’d be nice to have family around, right?”

”... Or someone who would kiss you?”

”... Or maybe just friends to be around?”

”... Like us.”

”No, that’s--!”

”You will remain as you are. Pitiful and weak.

”I cannot believe you fell for my act - did you think you could ever beat me?”

”Your body is the only perfect thing about you.”

”... Maybe… Maybe asking you to be the guardian of the night was a bit too much. You’ve disappointed me, Gibbou. You really have.”

Gibbou pressed her forehead against the lunar ground, her cranium aching from her hands pushing against her ears. ”Orey wouldn’t… She wouldn’t say that!”

”Oh, sure, but she’s thinking it! You know she is! They all are, babe, and you know why?” Gibbou swallowed, biting her lip nearly bloody. ”It’s because… They are right.”


Gibbou perked up, looking around. The moon was barren as ever, save for a few celestial foxes eyeing warily the creature talking so loudly to itself. The voice offered a surprised whistle. ”How about that! If it ain’t one of those millions of prayers you receive every day. Hey, wanna play a game?”

”Just leave me be,” pleaded the moon goddess as she rolled over into a fetal position. The voice clicked its tongue disapprovingly.

”Oh, come on, you were in such a good mood just five minutes ago. Come on, it’ll be fun! Here, I’ll start.” Gibbou felt the currents of divine essence shift and looked up to behold an image of the mortal in danger, fashioned in ever-changing moon dust. It was a young nelven woman and her newborn, both pressed up against a cliffside. Gibbou could not see what had her cornered, but their dressings indicated that they were bandits. She was in tears, her baby weeping with incomprehension for its mother’s stress. The bandits surrounded her ever tighter by the second. The moon goddess pushed herself up so she could look at the image better. The voice snickered again. ”Lookie here, a mommy and her baby in the process of being robbed. Or, well, I suppose if we’re being realistic, the bandits’ll share her around the camp until she’s on death’s door and feed the baby to the shadowtigers, but hey, that’s just speculation…”

”I… I need to help her.”

”App, app, app! The game’s not set up quite yet.” A full neck turn from the image, there appeared a bottle. Gibbou felt a sting in her chest - not one of pain, but one of need, like staring one’s lover in the eyes. A realisation dawned on her and she slowly shook her nead.


”Soooo here are the rules…”

”I can’t…” she pleaded.

”... You can either save her - I’m sure you’ve already figured out a bunch of ways to do so… Turn the bandits into bats, give her super strength, teleport her away, lotsa ways out of this…”

”I, I can’t, I…”

”Oh, for sure, you may fuck it up entirely, like you always do. Not guaranteed, but you most like would, and then it’ll all be on you. It’ll be your fault that she was raped, or worse, and her baby, murdered, or worse. It’ll be your fault and yours alone.”

Gibbou couldn’t even answer anymore, so choked up was she that ever sobbing felt like vomiting. The voice sighed.

”... Or… You can take the bottle - leave her to her fate. It’s her fault that she got caught, anyway. Nothing you can do about it, really.”

“KIPPOM, PLEASE!” the voice called out again. The baby squealed louder. Gibbou clawed at the skin around her ears, drawing godly blood.


”Well, I happen to know of a good way to chase away the voices.” A tink-tink of nail against glass sounded from the bottle and Gibbou’s bloodshot eyes regarded it hungrily. Her breathing slowed as her stress seemingly vanished at the thought - the voices, they would be gone.

The image unleashed a cacophony of screams and dark laughter as the bandits finally reached her. Immediately, Gibbou sat back up and took the bottle into her hands. She pressed her lips against its opening and drank as though her life depended on it. She could hear the voice snicker. ”Yeah, that’s it. That’s how you shut us out. No, no, don’t stop. Gotta down the whoooole thing. Thaaaat’s it.” As she drank, she could hear it - she could hear it all. The mother crying and screaming for them to stop; the men laughing and grunting and egging each other on; and the baby was nowhere to be heard.

A hollow dunk that could not be heard signalled the bottle's soft crash to the lunar surface, Gibbou retching at the flavour of its contents. She could practically hear the skin tighten around the voice’s many-faced smirks. Her body falling into turmoil between depressants and stimulants, Gibbou felt her mind grow mushy.

”Did you ever consider how you may be more Twilight than Titania?”

Gibbou lifted her groggy eyes, her sight foggier than mountaintop clouds. However, for a few seconds, she saw her - her reflection: beautiful, innocent, powerful - everything everybody loved about her.

But it wasn’t her.

Its face winked and the voice snickered as the figured faded away. ”See you tomorrow.”

Then Gibbou fell asleep.

A Grand Trolldom 1 - Munch

Cragking Thunder gave his stony chin an audible scrape through centuries’ worth of mossy overgrowth thickly coalesced into one enormous, now braided beard. He had done this quite a bit over the past few days, sometimes for whole days and nights, as though fishing for a thought that never seemed to bite. He had, in fact, been sitting on his stone throne scratching his chin for so long that several tonnes of gravel, moss and sand had formed giant piles on the cave floor beneath him. He sniffed thoughtfully with such noise that the mountain walls shook.

Then with a rumble of his belly that challenged tectonic movements, the fishing line of the mind finally caught onto something.

“Gen’ral!” droned the king with reverberating bass.

Crush, the Gen’ral snapped to attention, having been dozing off nearby. He quickly, for a troll, rose and snapped his hand into a salute. “Aye Cragking!?” he bellowed, his mind still waking up.

The Cragking gave his chin another scratch. “Hang on…” He squinted, his tar-like mind digging through two thousand years of memories to acquire the one he had just made. His belly thundered again, and Thunder’s eyes lit up once more with remembrance. “I’m hungry, lad.”

Crush thought to himself for a brief moment, letting his own mind shift through things, before he too realized something. “Aye...Me too, iz it ‘unting time?” he asked, looking around the cave of the throne room of their small kingdom. Since their adventure with the blade all those years ago, the place had grown quite crowded: Ranglefants had moved in by the score, along with askeladds and even the odd draug here and there, having been chased out of their homes in the lands below as humanity expanded evermore. Such a rapid demographic growth had brought with it a need for personal space given to the many families and individuals living inside the cave, which had caused some to dig new holes in the walls, or to dig burrows in the floor and cover them over with dirt and moss. Bonfires raged through the night, frail askeladds needing to keep warm in the high mountains - here, askeladd shamans would tell stories and show off neat, flashy hexes for the entertainment of the others.

Food had become scarce, though - very scarce. Thunder hummed once more.

“Ye ken… I had a thought the other day… We’ve seen hummies down below, aye? They keep, wassit, those four-legged thengs that make all those noises and leave droppings everywhere, aye?” He scratched his chin again. “What if, right… What if we did that, too? Then we would nae have to hunt all the time.” He hummed yet again and looked around on the trolls scuttling around on the floor beneath his mammoth feet. Some stopped to wave giddily at him before continuing. “... But how do we feed this many trolls?”

“We’d need a whole lot to feed em,” Crush replied, he too looked at the various trolls going about their daily business through the winding caverns of the kingdom. “maybe...we get sum hummies to like, pay us tribute? cuz those four leg thengs don’t like us, they run when we come, remember? Wed ave to get a, smaller git to, do what dem hummies do with em.”

Thunder nodded so his neck shed another ton of sand, dirt and overgrowth. “Ye’re as wise as ye’re tall, lad.” With effort, he extended his arm, which had been bent in some way or another for weeks, straightening it out into a pointing gesture, aiming at the cave entrance. Using the power of the Cragking Crown, his voice hammered the air like the crack of a storm, Thunder’s thundering message quaking the very bones of all who heard him: “MY LAD - I TASK YE WITH BRINGIN’ BACK A HUNDRED HUMMIES WITH ALL THE MANY-LEG THENGS AND RUCKUS THEY CAN HERD! THIS IS THE ORDER OF THE MOUNTAIN, OF I, THUNDER, KING OF ALL THE TROLLDOM!” The closest smaller trolls fell to the ground, clutching their ears with squeals and cries.

Crush too had to somewhat cover his ears, before giving a curt salute “Aye aye great Cragking!” He slowly walked towards the entrance of the great cave, helping a few of the smaller trolls up after the King’s loud command. He came upon the troll shades upon their pedestal, and delicately picked them up and placed them upon his face, it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared. Before he left though, he turned to the nearly packed throne room, looking for any Rangles or Askeladds he could convince to help him out. He quickly stumbled upon one of the many bonfires around the cave, where an askeladd shaman was midway through a shadow puppet show for some ranglefant trollspawn, all of whom clapped their disproportinately huge hands together with thunderous applause. The shaman stopped and looked up at Crush with a raised brow, waving slowly.

“‘Ey there, man - ‘ere for the show? Or is this abou’ that ordeh?”

“de show is real gud, but, aye, i need some ‘elp for de order, i may be big an’ strong, but a hunded hummies is still a big task.”

The shaman gave her potato nose a rub and stuck a thumb under each strap of her skin suspenders. “Hundred ‘ummies, ha? That sure’s a bit, innit.” She shrugged lazily. “S’pose I got a minute.”

Crush lifted his hand in a thumbs “oight, i ‘ppreciate the ‘elp, i’ll, uh, let ya get ready.” He slowly trumbled towards the entrance once more. The askeladd followed right behind, bringing with it a moth-eaten linen shirt and a sack - a repurposed sheep’s stomach, to be precise, filled with a little something to eat, most likely. The two strolled out the entrance into the darkness of the deep night, and the askeladd looked up.

“Reckon we ‘ave, uh, ‘bout four hours afore the sun’s back out. You be aroight, gov?”

“Aye! got meself some fancy glasses,” he pointed to the shades sitting atop his face “Gift from de gods, I’ll be fine in da sun.”

“Oh, well, ain’t that nice,” commended the shaman. “By the way, I’m Scrap - came from the Smelly Swamps, born and bred.” She politely held out a tiny hand. “‘Appy to be of service to ya, gov!”

Crush carefully took the hand, being careful not to crush it, as was his namesake. “A pleasure to meet ya,” He turned his head towards the horizon “hmmm, ‘ave an idea where we should start? hummies are rare round dees parts nowadays.”

“Dunno, gov. ‘S usually the big bosses who keep the books ‘n all that. Though if I am ta guess…” She hummed, then stuck her hand into her sack and pulled out a turkey’s wishbone. It had already been snapped, so she haphazardly stuck the snapped-off piece back on, only to snap it again and toss the bone off the mountain. She carefully studied the way it rolled, following its direction with eager eyes. When it started drifting, she pointed in its direction - the east. “That way.”

Crush shrugged “good ‘nough fur me.” He trekked eastward, making sure Scrap kept close to him. There was no telling what they could find in these woods and hills that would be crazy enough to fight two trolls. Crush’s assessment was correct in that anything crazy enough to take both of them on could not be found; in fact, nothing could be found at all. The woods were as empty as they were dense, as though all signs of humanity had turned and ran off with their non-existent tails between their skimpy legs. Scrap gave it a few hours of walking before she groaned.

“‘S like they’ve all evaporateded!”

Crush looked around, raising a log to look underneath it, seeing nothing but bugs scattering around. “Huh,” he spoke “Dats strange, culd’ve sworn der were hummies here before.”

“We didn’ eat ‘em all, roight?” The pair exited the woods, being greeted by the wave-like hills of the southern Highlands. There was not a village to be seen - at least not from their current position. “Shait, we might’a ate ‘em all.”

“We might’ve eaten dem all,” Crush scratched his mossy beard that clung to the bottom of his face. “We might need to go further.”

“How much further, gov? We’re already at the edge of the woods ‘n stuff. Where can we go from ‘ere?”

“Hmmm,” Crush thought once more “I don’t know, but we gotta at least reach some of dem hummies, or else me pa would be furious.” The pair continued across the open hills, Crush’s earthquake steps sending tremors that could no doubt be felt for kilometres. Scrap gave her nose a rub and then suddenly clapped her tiny palm on Crush’s foot, as that was all she could reach.

“H-hey! Smoke! I see smoke! Over there, boss!” Following her tiny finger, one could indeed see lazy columns of smoke in the far distance, wagging to and fro in the wind behind a hill.

“Aye! Good eye Scrap!” He squinted his eyes, looking towards the smoke “That might mean some humies are nearby, we gotta be sneaky, don’t want them hearing us.” He crouched and began to slowly walk, which did, admittingly very little to make him more sneaky.

Scrap was much quieter, but Crunch's long steps had her sprinting and panting like a whipped animal. By the time they reached halfway over the brink, they could already hear the screams - however, they had started a little too early to be caused by them. Scrap wheezed her way to the top of hill and whooped. "Boss! They'z under attack!"

As Crush topped the hill, he saw the chaotic sight before him. There was a village that was for sure, but a good portion of it was currently engulfed in flames. He could see humans running in fear, screaming in absolute terror that he had only seen when he made sudden appearances. There were also various humans armed with their pointed sticks and clubs, they seemed to be fighting something, yet, Crush could not see it.

That is, until he heard a savage roar, it was horrid, even to a troll it shook him to his core. That was when he saw the wave of flesh. They were savage beasts, that Crush could immediately tell, their flesh was a pallid grey, they were adorned with limbs both working and useless, their bodies twisted and contorted into strange forms and shapes and their mouths were filled with horrid spikes of teeth. These creatures fell upon the humans, tearing at them with crude weapons, claws, and teeth, savagely eating upon the flesh of any human that had the unfortunate fate of falling to their onslaught.

“What in the blooming ‘ell is this!” Crush loudly proclaimed, gazing towards Scrap.

“Shait if I know, gov!” responded Scrap in a daze.

“Well! What do we do?!?” He directed his gaze once more towards the village, the humans were fighting fiercely against these creatures. Crush had never seen such savagery before.

“Well, king said we ‘ad ta capture humies, so we gotta snatch some while they’re still around. Well, what’re you waitin’ for, man?! You’ve got the big ‘ands, go get ‘em!” Scrap shouted and she started digging through her musty sack and pulled out a lock of hair and a cup of stiffened grease. She slathered her thumb in the stuff and stuck some hair to it and then wafted her stick around, dancing around in circles. A long tendril of hair extended from her thumb and shot forward to ensnare a squealing man running in their semi-general direction. The man kept screaming as the tendril pulled him towards them and did not shut up even after Scrap had snipped the tendril with a dagger and left him tied up and kicking on the ground. “My, these cunts’re noisy. Well, go on, then!” She started conjuring another tentacle.

Crush nodded “right.”, he rose to his full height and rushed towards the burning village, scooping up any of the running humans he could, they were willy, their fear turning them into expert runners as another terrifying, gigantic creature barreled towards their village. He scooped humans up left and right, until he had a whole bundle of screaming and kicking people slung over his shoulder. He rushed to grab another, a woman running for her life screaming her lungs out, but, one of those pale beings pounced upon her, within seconds her screaming had stopped, her throat torn out by the horrid mangled teeth. It ate for a few seconds upon her flesh, before turning its sickly head up towards Crush, its grey eyes starting straight towards his soul. It uttered a loud roar, and the troll could see other pale creatures gathering nearby, clearly unwilling to attack, but still aggressive towards the massive troll.

“Scrap!” Crush loudly proclaimed “A little ‘elp here!” He quickly grabbed a neary beam from a house, waving it in front of him, keeping the beasts back as they snapped and jabbed towards him with their crude weapons and claws.

Scrap finished tying up a third prisoner and then hurried over to help Crush, panting tiredly. Reaching into her bag again, she pulled out a lock of straw and a piece of flint and tinder. Despite her exhaustion, she expertly knocked some sparks over the straw, lighting it aflame. She then danced around in a circle, this time slapping her stick at the ground in every direction, and then blew on the smoking straws in the direction of the pale creatures. The smoke hurled forward like a steamy breath in winter, and then expanded violently around Crush’s feet, tiny sparks in the smoke becoming like flies aiming for the eyes of the vile beasts attacking him. The enemy unleashed hyena-like squeaks as they grabbed at their sore faces, and Scrap waved for Crush to retreat. “They gonna get us, gov! Le’s go!”

Crush tossed his wooden beam, clobberin one of the beasts in its head, he rushed back towards scrap and the other prisoners, effortlessly scooping both up, slinging the humans over his shoulder and carrying Scrap in his free hand. He could hear the roars of the beasts and he afforded a quick look behind him. Only to see a horde of pale flesh drawing closer. This only incentivised him to run fast, as fast as he had ever run before, desperately holding onto the humans and scrap as he did so. The sounds of the horde rapidly fell silent behind them as they ran deep into the woods, and only when the sounds had vanished for a while did Crush finally slow down, eventually coming to a stop as he catches his breath, slowly putting down Scrap and the tied up prisoners.

“Any idea what the ‘ell that wus Scrap? I've never seen those...things, before.”

The small askeladd was visibly shaken, pulling her straw hat off and wafting some air into her face. “No bloomin’ idea, gov - wuz bloomin’ scary cunts, they wuz. Looked like humies ‘n spoidahs ‘ad a baby or somefhin’.” She glanced up at the human prisoners, who were all in different stages of grief. “So… Whot now? Got humies, but ain’t got no four-legs. Whot we do, boss?”

Crush slowly sat down, causing a puff of moss and dirt to erupt around him. “We gotta find ‘nother village I guess, one with four-legs.” He turned his head towards the humans “First, any of you know where four-legs might be? Second, what wur those, things that wur attacking you?”

“Four legs, what?!” shouted one of the women.

“We know nothing about these four legs, please just let us go!” pleaded one of the men.

“MOMMYYYYY!” cried one of the children. Scrap scrunched her nose.

“Well, they’re ‘elpful, fe’ sure. Roight, four-legs’re ‘em big, uh, four-legged fhings wiff the tasty meat.” She gestured descriptively with her hands, conjuring forth quite a creative interpretation of what a cow was. The humans were very much confused.


Scrap groaned. “Ugh, an’ they say we’z the stupid ones?! By Fhunder, this’ll take all week!” She dug through her sack. “‘Ang on, I fhink I got somefhin’ to make ‘em talk…”

“WAIT, WAIT, WAIT, WAIT!” shouted some of them; others screamed. “Is it an animal you’re after?! Like, like a pig?!”

Scrap blinked up at Crush. “Woss a pig, boss?”

Crush thought for a short while “If, I recall correctly, its one of dem four-legs, but small, we’re looking for one of dem bigger ones,” Crush spoke towards the human, keeping his voice low and quiet, “I think dey have uhhhh, pointy bits on head.”

“Y-y-you mean a cow?” came a quivering suggestion. Scrap scratched her chin thoughtfully. She then dragged her foot back and forth over the forest floor until it cleared of debris and only a flat of dirt was left. Then, snapping her fingers, she released the speaker from her hairy ropes and pointed to the ground.

“Draw it.”

The woman hesitated, looking elsewhere with rapidly shifting eyes. Scrap’s eye twitched. “You’re drawin’ it roight now, slag, or I’ll get worse stuff than ‘air on your body!”

“OKAY! Okay!” the woman squealed in reply, falling to the ground and drawing a very simple looking stick-cow, horns and snout and all. Scrap hummed.

“This it, boss?”

“Ya that’s it!” Crush bellowed out “that's the uh, cow.” He looked at the woman “Ya know where any are?”

She looked hesitant for a bit. “W-we had some i-i-in our village.”

“Beata, you Runnibrook bitch, those are ours!” shouted one of the men.

“Well, if it’s between your cows and our lives, Nelian, then I choose the cows!” she retorted and turned back to the trolls, holding her hands up pacifyingly. “We got a deal? We go free and you get your cows?”

“Well,” Crush began “We’re gonna need some of yous to teach us how to uhhh, keep them living, help feed kingdom and whatnot, also.” He turned his head towards the direction of their village. “Those pale things might still be in ur village right?”

The woman looked dreadfully disheartened; the others started crying and weeping again. “P-please don’t take us away, please!”

“Oi, shut up!” shouted Scrap and slapped one of the children across the face. It went quiet on the spot, looking at her with fearful eyes. She looked up at Crush and shook her head. “Man, humans ‘ave no idea ‘ow to raise their bairns, do they?”

Crush shrugged “I wuldn’t know.” He flopped back down and stroked his chin of rock and moss, sending a few piece of debris falling. “Hmmmm.” He hummed out loud. “Sad hummies won’t work well, too sad to aid Cragking, hmmmmm.” It was clear his mind was overworking to figure out a solution to the group’s conundrum. “But, we need hummies to figure out dem cows, but hummies don’t wanna help, hmmmmm.” It stayed that way for a few minutes, a small pile of dirt had gathered in his lap from his pensive thought. Until, he loudly proclaimed “Crush has idea!”

“You hummies know cows, why not hummies teach me and Scrap cows at village, den we take cows back to cragking and teach other trolls da cows!” His face was filled with joy and excitement as he looked at both Scrap and the humans for approval.

The humans shifted between each other with wide open eyes. “Y-you want us to teach you h-how to hold cows?”

“‘S whot he said, innit?” Scrap confirmed impatiently.

“U-uhm--... Okay! Y-yeah, we can do that, sure! I-if you help us get rid of those terrible Skrill, then we will teach you…”

“Humans teaching trolls… May the gods forgive us…”

Crush nodded “Sounds good to me! Now those uh, Skill, they’re those pale thingies right? shouldn’t be, too hard, right Scrap?” He looked towards his companion, notably unsure of his words.

“Uuuuh… I dunno, gov - they seemed pretty rabid.”

“Ya...your right...but maybe sum of dem have left? that’d be easier.” He replied.

“We’ve, we’ve been attacked by them before. Th-... Oh gods,” sobbed one of the men. Scrap pointed a fat, scabby finger at his nose.

“Spit it out, or I’ll stick this splinter under your thumbnail!”

“That’s not a splinter - that’s a stick!” the man complained.

“A matter of perspective, ya moot. Now say whot you woss sayin’!”

The man swallowed through the tears. “I-... I remember they just took people last time. Lots and lots of people. M-my father and, and, and my uncle, and-... And then they just left with them. W-we never saw them again and--”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, cry me a river’n all that. So, we headin’ back, then, boss?”

Crush nodded, slowly getting up “Aye, we made deal with hummies, we get rid of rabid pale things, they teach us about dem cows.” He looked around for a brief moment, before picking up a lone fallen log.

“Righto. Take us back, then, boss!” the shaman offered and grabbed onto his leg.

“Waitwaitwait, you’re not gonna leave us here, are you?!”

Scrap blinked at the humans. “‘Course we are. Right, boss?”

Crush looked at the ‘umans “well, you’d be safer ‘ere, but if any of u’s can fight, we can bring ya along.”

All of them suddenly got quite busy staying bound. “No, no, we’re good! You two’ve got this!” they cheered. Even the children seemed to join in, smiling as encouragingly as they could fake it. Scrap looked up.

“Well, that’s that! Take us away, boss!”

Crush chuckled “well alright, we’ll be back once we dealt with dem pale things.” He lowered his right arm to allow Scrap to clamper onto him. Then he began to trudge back towards the village, vaguely retracting his steps when they ran from the creatures the first time. Eventually, they came once more upon the hill just beyond the village, peering over, the two trolls saw a ruined assembly of huts and wood, the pale things walking and crawling around, feasting upon what little they hadn’t already eaten.

“Aight scrap,” Crush whispered “any idea of a plan?”

“Just gotta crush ‘em, roight?” She punched her palm. “So we crush ‘em!”

“Ya you right.” Crush replied. He stood up straight and uttered a roar, with scrap in his one hand and the massive log in the other, he charged forth from the hill. The pale creatures were caught horribly off guard, scattering all about as the massive troll, with another troll in his arms, charged into the village. Crush swung about his weapon and scrap using her magic to toss around the pale things. But soon enough, the two were surrounded, a massive horde of flesh on all side, yet, they did not attack, they didn’t swarm at them like they had the humans, instead, they kept their distance.

And then, above it all, a shout was heard, the voice gravelly and harsh. “Stoneskin!”. The horde of pale skins parted, and a massive horned creature walked through. Ragged red fur clung to its form and its head looked like that of a wolves, yet the skin of the muzzle had been torn away. Various pieces of metal were put upon its body, and in one hand it held a massive hammer-like object.

“Glad to see that you’ve returned, Stoneskin.” The creature continued, the other pale things seemed to keep their distance from this figure, some even bowing in reverence. This large creature stared at the two trolls. “I wish, to speak.”

“Speak ‘bout what?” Crush replied,

“I do not wish to fight you, Stoneskin,” They began “I have no desire to see more of my kin fall, its clear we both have interests in this village, and so,” They stretched their arms out, gesturing around the area. “let us talk, shall we?”

“Dun’ like this, boss… They’re too friendly - just like draugs. Can’t trust ‘em.” Scrap hid warily behind Crush’s trunk-like leg.

Crush let his right arm pat Scrap, guarding the smaller troll in case the pale things surged forward. “Aye, we’ll talk, what u want? Hummies told us to clear ya from the village, in exchange they teach us about cow thing.”

The large being chuckled “I see, going soft on us Stoneskin? dealing with the Unmarked is something neither of us do often.”

“Sometimes, ya have to,” Crush replied “We need cow for great Cragkingdom, for food.”

“Ah yes, the great endeavor of flesh for all.” The being gestured once more to the pale things around him. “Something me and my kin relate to,” He grinned, and gazed towards scrap. “See? we and you are not so different.”

Crush took a slight step forward, bringing his form up and straightening himself. “You will leave dis village, that is our demand for talk.” He gazed around to the pale things, hoping he was giving off a sense of authority.

The creature stared at him, its grin slowly falling, it gazed too at its “kin”, before turning its attention back to Crush. “Very well, Stoneskin, but, in exchange, you will not interfere with our hunts again, this village will be safe, but if you come across us again, you will not stop us.”

Crush thought for a moment, looking down at Scrap, who eyed the beings with suspicion, before offering Crush a shrug. “Sounds like a deal ta me, boss.”

He turned his head back to the creature “Very well, wut is ur name? so we know if we meet ‘gain.”

“Helmut, Lord of the Palefire Brood, yours?”

“Crush, son of Cragking Thunder.”

“Very well Crush, I believe we are done here.”


Helmut raised his arm wielding the hammer, emitting a loud screech, it reminded Crush of a dying hog squealing as it was speared. And in seconds, the pale creatures retreated from their encircling of Crush and Scrap, gathering up bones, flesh, and metal scraps, before vanishing in massive waves behind the huts and buildings, scurrying off from where they came.

“Until we meet again.” Helmut spoke, before too running off to join his kin.

Soon enough, the two trolls were left alone, in the shattered ruins of the village. “That wus...weird.” Crush finally spoke.

“You tellin’ me?! Woss is those fhings anyway?!” Scrap kicked a charred plank into the sunset, all of two feet. She stuffed both hands in the pockets of her hide overalls and sniffed passively. “So thassit? Who was they anyway? Whot was all that about ‘huntin’ and that? We don’t want no competishun ‘round ‘ere.” She stuck a pinky up a nostril.

Crush could only shrug “I dunno, we shuld ask me pap about dem pale thingies wen we get back to Crag, de seem dangerous.”

He stood there for a moment, staring at the distance to ensure the creatures had finally vanished “Well, lets get em hummies and bring dem back.”

He let scrap clamber back up upon him before heading off. Once more tracing his steps back to where they had deposited the humans. And only getting slightly lost on the way there. Finally, they arrived back to the group of humans, who had huddled underneath a few trees for shelter.

“I got good news.” Crush declared as he came into view.

“Did you shoo them away?!”

“Did you kill them?!”

“Is-is my family okay?”

Scrap shut them all up with a loud clap. “HEY! Quiet down when the gen’ral’s speakin’!” She cleared her throat and gestured up at Crush. “Go ahead, gov.”

“Dank ya Scrap.” Crush spoke, before turning his attention to the humans “We chased dem pale thingies off, they wunt bother ya no more, i think some of ya kin managed to escape, but I can’t say fur certain.” Crush did slightly hope what he said had some truth to it, he still needed the humans to help him out with those cow things. The humans seemed courageous enough now to summon forth some form of happiness in their stupour of trauma. Some even smiled. That was until Scrap clicked her fat tongue against her yellow teeth and snorted.

“Now don’ get too happy. We ‘ad a deal, remember?”

The humans swallowed as one. The woman from earlier whispered, “Yes… A deal… D-do you have any cows of your own? Anything you can practice on?”

Scrap looked up at Crush. “Shit, we don’, do we?”

“nope, we weren’t prepared for this, pa didn’t tell me what those four leg things were to begin with.” Crush replied, scratching his head. Scrap scratched her head, too.

“Humans! Show us where there be cows!”

They all looked uncomfortably at one another. “W-well, the thing is…”

“Our cows were the first to be killed and eaten by the Skrill… I doubt there’d be any left for us to show you. Unless…”

“Unless you saw their corpses lying around. That might’ve told you what to look for. Did, did you see big, four-legged corpses lying in the grass?”

“So you wuz lyin’ after all, huh?!” Scrap snarled and raised a hand threateningly Beata cowering. Then, however, she lowered it and sighed. “Remember if we saw anything like that, boss?”

Crush eyes widened as his brain tried to remember what had occurred. “Oh ya!” he finally declared “dey did look like furry juddra, more small heads though and some had horns, dat dem?”

“Sounds ‘bout roight,” Scrap nodded. The humans looked shocked, though it seemed founded less in fear and more in confusion, perhaps even pity. The woman blinked as she tried to find the proper words.

“S-so… You know what juddra are, right?”

“Know ‘em?! Pfft, lady, lady, lady… Where we’re from, juddra roam around everywhere. S’like they own the place - them ‘n those boaks… And the boraks... And the felgars… And don’t even get me started on the madriel.” Scrap kicked a small pebble to vent her frustration. The woman stuttered in disbelief.

“Th-then if you have so many juddra, why do you need cows?”

“PFFFFT! Stupid humie! That’s ‘cuz… Is ‘cuz…” Scrap’s eyes grew smaller and smaller with thought, and slowly, her fingers made their way up to her chin to nip at it ponderously. “... Oi, boss, why do we need cows, actually?”

“uhhhh.” Crush too had to stroke his chin to think “I, uh, dun know, me pa said to find hummies and four legs so…..if Juddra like cow, we don need cow….” One could most definitely hear the stones turning inside his head. “so….wut now?”

“Uh…” Scrap’s own tectonic brain inched forward a millimeter. “We ‘ead back, I guess - tell the king.”

“W-wait, you’re just leaving like that?” exclaimed one of the humans.

Crush looked at the humans “well, s’pose we culd take yas back to yur village. If yas want.”

“W-well,” the humans hesitated, “how about you just let us free, and we’ll get back on our own.” A few of them struggled against the binds of hair. Scrap rolled her eyes quietly and snapped her fingers; the binds went limp and collected on the ground around the humans’ feet.

“Righto, off ye go.”

The humans shifted between the midget and the giant, and then kicked off into a sprint in the general direction of wherever, hoping more to get away than to get home. Scrap pocketed her hands and kicked a stray pebble. “So, we goin’ home?”

“Ya, lets” Crush replied, taking the lead back towards the Cragkeep. The two of them showed up before the Cragking Thunder with this surprising knowledge, and the Cragking agreed that choosing to herd the local animals was indeed quite a wise move. He commended Crush and Scrap both for their great wisdom, and gave them each a juddra of their own as reward, picked from a flock that happened to pass by not too far away from their cave entrance. Soon, trolls rushed out of the cave in the night, picking up juddra herd by herd and bringing them back to the cave for milking. When these juddra eventually escaped again during the day, the trolls had to rush back out to capture them again. They did the same with felgar, boak and boraks, though these respectively proved too agile, too evasive or simply too fat for most trolls to easily capture and bring home. Undeterred, however, the Cragking’s subjects persevered, bringing home catch after catch and storing them in containers fashioned from large rocks for later consumption. So was founded the very first milk and meat-runners, and everyone forgot that the mission also was supposed to include the capture of a hundred humans.

Oh well.

The Tyrants of the Moon and Night

Owl hoots.

Owl hoots in the eternal night.

Shadows too dark to see with any eyes not made for this land, casting themselves on mushroom trunks that grow for tens of metres into the air, forever hidden under caps that block out both the Sun and Moon.

A distant squeal - the owl has caught its prey. A mouse, most likely - one that so eagerly fed on one of the smaller mushrooms on the mycoforest floor. Its corpse, when gulped back up by the hungry owl, will feed those very same mushrooms in time.

A slick and a thump - an unlucky cat slug just fell from a tall sun-cap and splattered against the tiny white floor of fungus grass below. A nearby enoki bush, as large as a small tree, parts to reveal a hungry giant hedgehog. Normal black and brown slugs are common meals for this apex predator of the island, but to find a fresh cat slug - now that is a feast. It waddles over to the gooey mass of flesh and gives it a whiff - it may be blind, but its sense of smell and touch are second only to few others. Then, with sharp front teeth, it expertly tears into the slimy slug meat. This male needs to grow big and strong to impress the females in its area - competition is tough amongst the giant hedgehogs of the Black Paradise.

A wheeze and a fwoo! The hedgehog peeks up to smell the air, snout glistening with slime in the incredibly dim light of the omnipresent bioluminescent lichen and moss. It stands incredibly still, listening intently. It may be an apex predator, but it is not alone in that role. It sniffs the air more closely and begins to back away. As it suspected - something stepped on a nearby colony of puffballs. It retreats back into its bushroom; it did not get to eat its fill, but at least it can save the energy consumed rather than spend it fighting a fight it may not win.

The groans and stretchings of the mushy floor of the mycoforest made sneaking up on anything a feat requiring years upon years of practice. While catching a cat slug may not be the hardest task for the top predator on Neverday Island, it will only resort to such a goopy meal in the utmost need. If given the chance, it will hunt for sweeter meats, chase it for hours if need be. However, in an environment wherein sound, smell and touch are your only tools, even snail-like prey can become a challenge. The lichen’s glow offers little light for the eyes to use, but using what little there is, the top predator spots an invisibly faint movement in the bushroom by what its now-goopy fingers says is the corpse of a cat slug. The predator approaches the bush, its quieted steps enough to alert its inhabitant. Faintly, the bushroom stirs and the predator steps back. Its prey has flexed its back, and the predator knows that, among the thousand small buds and sprouts of the bushroom, there are now a myriad of toothed barbs that will bury themselves deep under its skin in a heartbeat and take hours to remove. Should they snap while inside, the predator may die of an infection within the month - these hedgehogs crawl and dig under all sorts of dangerous fungi.

However, this predator is no fool. It is not on the top of the food chain for nothing. It steps back to evaluate the situation, the faint light of lichen washing over its face.

This is a night elf.

She readies her weapon, a flat-headed club of mycowood. The key to fighting a giant hedgehog is to break its back, incapacitating its ability to flex its back muscles. When that is done, one can roll it onto its belly and finish the job. Easier said than done, though - the night elf will have to use all her cunning to outsmart the hedgehog.

Stepping to the right, she assesses her options. The hedgehog turns in a heartbeat, expertly retracting and flexing its spines to meet the threat without compromising the cover of the bushroom. She tries to outspeed it, dancing in circles around the bush while looking for an opportunity - however, as with most other places, it is simply too dark to aim a proper strike. She realises quickly that she will tire faster than the hedgehog and slows down. She waits, big, milky eyes staring at the bushroom; big, bat-like ears with hooked owl claws and animal bone in the lobes, listening intently for any sort of movement; broad, masterful nose probing the scentscape for anything she can use to her advantage.

There it is - the hedgehog has terrible luck today. Another male waddles into his territory, ignorant of, or perhaps just ignoring, the squatting night elf sitting by the bushroom of its rival. Long has it craved this land, so ripe and overflowing with juicy mollusks and nutritious macro-shrooms. Everyone can smell it - the intruder has unleashed a sour scent that rips at the nose-hairs: The intruder has signalled its call to duel.

The defending party has no choice - if it does not respond, it will be seen as weak, and its competitor will begin marking its territory and begin calling for mates - ITS mates. The sour smell intensifies - the defender has answered. The intruder waddles menacingly over to the bushroom, a blind snout testing the enoki between which its opponent hides. Not even nelven noses are close to the smelling capabilities of these hedgehog snouts, and nelves thus do not know that the nasty stuff that gets stuck all over their spines and barbs, actually has a smell. The defender jabs with its spines, but the intruder smelled this a long way coming - the male of this territory has a stink to it that makes it frightfully disadvantaged in his battle. The defender listens intently - the fungal grass rustles all over. The intruder is confusing it, using its back legs to kick up soil and mushrooms and make itself sound larger than it actually is. The fresh scent of exposed soil unveils the truth to the defender, though, and it keeps its calm, much to the increasingly impatient intruder’s chagrin. The defending party truly has fortified itself well, the spores and scent of its bushroom stronghold masking its scent just well enough that the intruder cannot smell exactly where its spines are - if it attacks, the intruder can dodge, but this will be a long siege if they keep going like this.

It is perhaps at this moment that the intruder chooses to notice the third party in this duel, the sweaty, sea-salted scent of the nelven huntress growing increasingly ominous by the second. The intruder was certain this would be a quick fight - the defender was already in deep trouble; it only had to sneak in and take its territory while it struggled against its foe. However, it seemed that both the defender and the huntress were most cunning, indeed. A secret deal, they had wordlessly made - the huntress would spare the defender today, and in exchange, she would get an even fatter prey. The intruder realises this all too late, for as it prepares to waddle away in panic, a crushing clack! sends the hooting owl flying, and the intruder lies dying amongst the fungal grass, its back paralyzed by a swift and expert whack of the night elf’s paddle-like club.

The hunt is over. Satisfied, the huntress pulls a length of glowberry vine off a nearby sun-cap megafungus, using it to tie the carcass to her paddle. This is a good catch - it’ll feed her and her family for a few days, a week if they portion it out. Eyeing the bushroom as she leaves, she offers the hedgehog there a few clicks of gratitude. The hedgehog answers by excreting a sour and bitter stink - a clear signal that she is not welcome in its lands ever again. The nelf takes the hint quickly before any spines catch her feet and leaves for her home.

She was on a roll now, the huntress - this was her third hedgehog bull in four months. With this, she would surely be given permission.

Yes, the chief would have to let her go now.

Her stride quickened with anticipation, eager steps skipping across white fungal grass and moss that seemed to blink with colour as she stepped on it. Suddenly her eyes and face filled with a tickling sensation and she got to waving, spitting and swatting. Small, aggressive wafts of all were all over and eventually disappeared. She stood still for a second, spitting and dragging her tongue against her teeth.

“Damn moths,” she whispered to herself. The wheeze of bats zoomed above as those same moths quickly became the prey of the dukes and duchesses of the sky. A distance away again, the kings and queens offered some curious hoots. She picked up her pace again - wouldn’t want the owls growing too interested in her catch. Still, though, she had to tread carefully - these weren’t her woods, after all; anything could happen here. She made certain to keep her eyes as peeled as could be and her ears as open - if she accidentally planted her foot in hedgehog dung, she would have a bad day; an anthill, a bad week.

She froze. There was a terrible buzzing on the air, like a storm. It was distant still, but if it came any closer, her fantastic luck would turn to the cruelest misfortune. She dove down into the bushrooms, covering herself in the soil, mud and goo of the forest floor. She tried her best to do the same with her catch, but the noise was getting too close now for her to make any sudden moves anymore. The buzzing was deafening, frightening all other wildlife in the area into hiding. It zoomed and whooshed here and there for a bit, stopping in certain places and then continuing on to others. The huntress knew very clearly what it was, hence why she had been so quick to hide.

It was a Vespian.

The workers didn’t come often to her parts of the island, but she wasn’t in her parts now - and she had heard rumours that the workers of the Storming Hive, located on southwestern coast, would sometimes stalk the nightblack woods in search of foraging nelves - few other meats were tastier to them, better even than fresh meat of titan crabs. The worker would not get her meal today, though. Thankfully for the nelf, her hastened disguise had worked, though - the Vespian took off shortly after arriving. That was the nelven advantage in their fight against this enemy: Four hammering wings holding up a nelf-sized insect produced a deafening amount of noise - one would have to be deaf, daft or just really unlucky to not get out of sight and smelling range in time. Fighting off Vespians, however, was a very different challenge, one few nelves ever survived. Even with the advantage of darkness, camouflage and silence, the Vespian venom and ability to fly were more often than not simply too powerful in a fight between the two species - and Vespians multipled much faster than nelves did. She waited a bit longer despite the fact that she knew even a low buzz in the distance meant she was far, far out of its auditory and olfactory range. She wriggled out from under the blanket of mud and slime and brought her catch along. She had to shake it a bit, for even in the curt minutes she had laid still, there had been more than enough time for all kinds of crawlers to probe around in its fur to look for an opening to feast from. The huntress flicked the smallest of them away, but would pick up one of the larger ones between every third or fourth flick, give it a whiff and take a crunchy or slimy bite. Beetles and grubs were good road snacks, after all, if one made sure to eat the right ones. She picked up a large one which had a bulbous lower body that excreted a vile stink - in an instant, she tossed it as far as she could in a single reactionary move. The bileback was nothing to scoff at - its acid spray had melted many a nelven nose in the past. Her pause didn’t last much longer after that - maybe she had one or two more grubs before she continued homewards. The Vespian’s presence had helped her solidify where she was, though, and she picked up her pace. Indeed, in under an hour, her nose smelled familiar plants and odours; her feet knew which stones to avoid and where the anthills were. The lichen here shone with a homewarm hue, and the bats screamed in a welcoming manner. The huntress hopped and ducked and slid, entering a cage of myconroots underneath a colossal sun-cap. She expertly danced between the roots and entered into an open cave under the mega-fungus, wherein glowing lichen and moss had been purposely cultivated in tall, ivy-like nets along the walls. Upon them, insects and slugs all grazed with lethargic glee, themselves taking on faint glows from their diets. The cave split into a multitude of tunnels along the walls, some lit by the lichen and others, blacker than night itself. The huntress looked around the cave and lowered her oar club to the ground, the wet corpse of the hedgehog sloppily spreading out on its back.

“Aren’t you a little old to play in the mud?” came a quiet whisper and the huntress caught herself smiling. The moss on the ground lit up around one pair of approaching feet, the flashes dimly hinting to a male form - clothed in a loincloth adorned with feathers, chitin and cowry shells, and with a vest of giant bat fur. The huntress reached out to him, her hand landing on his belly, and he returned the gesture.

“I’m home, Gyatso.”

“Welcome back, Ngaso. So, you’re going to tell me what happened, then?”

The huntress squatted down and started untying the hedgehog from her club. “Oh, nothing dire, that’s for sure, but it was unexpected. The tracks took me much farther west than I had anticipated, so I couldn’t make it back home before I felt my body ache from all the walking, so I ended up sleeping outside.”

“As you do, as you do. Any hole’s a home when you’re far from family, as elders say, but why did you stay out for another two nights, then?” The male clicked in slight disapproval. Ngaso clicked back with a tinge of submission.

“W-well, I got caught in the moment and continued following the tracks.”

“For two days?”

“For two days. See, chasing migwü is no small task, y’know.” The huntress patted her hip until she found a stone biface underneath one of her many hip straps.

“Ngaso,” Gyatso sighed.

She looked to be busy gutting the hedgehog. “Yeah?” she answered passively.

“You and I both know that migwü don’t migrate.”

Ngaso pointed her biface correctingly in his direction. “Don’t migrate far, you mean! They are still quite a challenge to spot and catch!”

Gyatso sighed again. “Alright, you win this discussion, but I still don’t understand how it could take you three days of rest and four nights of hunting just to come home with a single bull migwü.”

Ngaso slowed down her carving and pursed her lips to burble thoughtfully. She looked around, flexing her ears and nostrils. Gyatso frowned and squatted down next to her. “What’s going on with you-- woah!” With a swift hooked arm, Ngaso pulled Gyatso in next to her and brought him around so they both faced the exit. She once again looked over their shoulders, glaring suspiciously at the many tunnels leading deeper into the cave. Then with a lightning motion, she stuck her hand in under her salamander scale vest. Gyatso squealed.

“What’re you--!”

“Ssh!” She looked over her shoulder again whilst digging. Gyatso whimpered in embarrassment.

“This is so icky!” he complained.

“Stop fussing so much and pay attention.” She extracted her hand again and held up for them both to see, but not so visibly that any other eyes could catch them. It was difficult to see, but the two of them could just barely see a crystal with an orange hue between Ngaso’s finger and thumb - one the size of palm. Gyatso was about to squeal again, but Ngaso covered his lips before he could. The man looked to be jumping where he squatted, unleashing his overflow of excitement in any way he could. Finally, upon calming down, he hunkered together with Ngaso again, this time taking the secrecy as seriously as her.

“Where’d you find it?”

“Ssh, don’t wanna say that here!”

Gyatso looked over his shoulder yet again. “Does Zilandra know?”

“‘Course she doesn’t. Why do you think we’re keeping this so secret?”

“Got it. So… How will you get it to the Master? That’s probably the biggest chunk I’ve ever seen, you know - he’ll make you a za’a’a on the spot.”

“That’s why I was gone for so long, man - I found a route.”

“Oh sssh--...! Where?”

Ngaso’s right ear twitched - as did Gyatso’s left. A groan of moss and lichen sounded behind them - approaching footsteps. Ngaso hastened to hide her find and gave Gyatso’s cheek a kiss. “Can’t tell you now. I will when the deed is done.”

Gyatso nodded and kissed her back. “Alright.” Then they both rose and turned to behold another female, arms crossed over one another over a belly full of life. Skeptical milky eyes beheld them both, and then came a low, warning growl aimed at Ngaso, who returned the noise in challenge.

“And what’re you two conspiring about?” she asked.

“Nothing much. I just came home from my hunt and just happened to meet Gyatso right here. What, aren’t we allowed to chat?”

The woman’s growl grew quieter, but her glare didn’t subside. “Depends on what you’re chatting about. Don’t think I don’t know you two - you’re up to something, aren’t you?”

“And why do we -have- to be up to something, Zilandra, do tell.”

The woman paused and squinted. “Don’t think I won’t tell on you when I find out what you’re doing. Your zü’ik will shame you into the ground!”

Ngaso shook her head. “After we’re done, I highly doubt that. That’s why they’re zü’ik.” Gyatso gave her a reassuring nod.

“So you -are- up to something!” Zilandra accused. Ngaso sighed.

“Listen, Zilandra - we don’t have time to listen to your nagging for much longer, so I will be taking my food and head home, okay?”

“I hope you choke on it,” Zilandra replied venomously. Ngaso rolled her eyes.

“Understood… See you around, Gyatso.”

“Mm. See ya, Ngaso.” As Ngaso picked up her butchered prey and brought it past Zilandra, she could hear the woman approach Gyatso with a warning whisper.

“... I don’t like you talking to her, you know.”

“Well, that’s your opinion, isn’t it? She’s zü’ik.”

“-We- used to be zü’ik! What happ…” The whisper faded into nothingness for a short while as Ngaso turned the corner and stepped into a smaller tunnel. Then came a deafening whisper that was almost a voice: “I’M NOT POSSESSIVE!” Ngaso snickered to herself and turned another corner. She ducked under a curtain she knew was there and stepped into a dimly lit room. She felt a familiar sweaty smell and sighed warmly.

“Welcome home, Nga. You were gone for longer than you said you’d be.”

“Yeah, well, took a detour. How’re you doing, Trung?” The man in the corner, sat atop a massive mushroom cap cushion, held a small, sleeping child in his arms. Ngaso sucked in a breath and stepped over to touch his and the child’s belly. “Shoot, I didn’t wake him, did, I?”

“Don’t think so,” whispered Trung quietly and paused to listen to its breathing. “No, you didn’t. He’d be crazy if he saw you now.” Ngaso grinned giddily and caressed the boy’s black hair.

“Little Ngung… Has he met his zü’ik yet?”

“Yeah, I took him to see Hung and Ngoi yesterday. Ngung and Ngoi clicked right away, but time will tell if Hung’ll be part of his zü’ik at all, honestly. They seemed outright hostile towards one another.”

Ngaso sat down next to him. “What did he take his food or something?” Trung shrugged.

“Could be, could be. I was too busy eating with Silla to really pay attention.” He looked over at Ngaso to see her fiddling under her vest. “Hey, can you not? I’m holding a child here.”

“Wha-- no! Why does everyone keep--... Nevermind. Look at this!” She pulled out the orange stone, letting it catch the light of the lichen. Trung squinted, then widened his eyes and took a deep breath.

“Oh, Night, that’s…” He lowered his whisper. “That’s tau-tau’nüt. Is that real--... Oh, by the Stars…” Ngaso nodded smilingly, but Trung’s brow quickly knotted itself together and he eyed the opening to their cave. “Wait, if you have this, why did you come home? Why didn’t you run straight to the sea instead of taking the risk?”

Ngaso clicked over at the butchered hedgehog. “Well, I had to bring back food for my zü’ik, didn’t I?” Trung eyed the catch and sighed with a roll of his eyes.

“You didn’t have to do that. Me and the rest, we’d, we’d be fine! This is way more important than--” A finger closed his lips.

“I will not let you finish that sentence.” She then leaned back into the mushroom cushion and gave the ceiling a glance. “No matter what happens when I give this to the Master, I won’t leave my zü’ik behind, you understand? You are my friends - my organs. Without you, I will die.”

“As the elders say,” Trung concurred. They sat in silence for a few seconds. Then the man placed a hand on her belly and nodded. “Alright… Take whatever’s left of the jerky in the basket and whatever leaves are left as food for the journey.”

Ngaso nodded. “Is Ngie roosting tonight?”

Trung knotted his brow in thought. “It should be day right now, but I’m not sure. You may have to travel on foot. Be very, very careful.”

“I will check just in case,” she responded and hurried over to the baskets at the other end of the small dirt cave to pack her supplies. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back before you know it.”

Trung clicked happily. “Be safe, my friend.”

Ngaso clicked back and ran outside. Luckily, no one else were out in the public areas of the cave, so she didn’t have to sneak as stealthily. Once she had climbed back outside, she hopped atop some smaller rocks and then continued to ascend a spiral ladder of rods buried into the trunk of their home mushroom. It was a long climb - thirty metres, almost - but she eventually reached the top and climbed through one of the many holes buried through the sun-cap sponge. This was the tougher part, for there were people in here, too. Immediately as she climbed inside, she was met with some judging stares. She sniffed politely and clicked her greeting, moving over to touch the stretched out hands of the closest of them. “Good night,” she greeted.

“Going somewhere, Ngaso?”

Ngaso stopped as she was about to turn the corner. Shrugging, she clicked pensively. “No, just wanted to see the night sky, pretty much.”

The group exchanged looks. “That’s a bit late now - sunrise’ll be here any minute.”

“Oh, it’s, it’s just a quick look. The shamans said tonight would reveal my horoscope, and I came home from a hunt just some time ago.”

After a pause, there came a quick scoff. “Alright, suit yourself. We’re not sharing any eye-ointment.”

“Understood. Have a nice day!”

“Mhm…” Ngaso hurried on through the tunnels in the sponge, encountering many other faces in passing, none of which she stopped to greet, however. She would have to be swift - if only she could find Ngie and take off before sunrise! She turned a final corner and skipped up a slope, seeing the uncannily bright night sky above, reds at its horizon hinting at the approach of dawn. She paused for just a second - the sight here would never seize to amaze her: As far as the eye could see, there were green, fuzzy mushroom caps the size of plateaus, growing over and under one another like bubbles in boiling water. Many had small trees and shrubberies growing on top of them, while others were completely barren and baked after centuries of exposure to sunlight. These would crumble under the own weight in time, allowing new sun-caps to grow and momentarily exposing the myconforest below to the terror of the Sun. Ngaso hurried to snap herself out of her awe. Ngie! She had to find Ngie! She sped off in the direction of the disappearing night sky, seeing a faint, milky light at the distant end of the mushroom cap. She panted her relief - Ngie was still here.

There, at the very edge of the cap, huddling in its shadow, a fully grown owlix was getting ready to take flight. Ngaso called out, “Ngie!” and it stopped, looking in her direction with enormous, glowing eyes. Ngaso came to a stop in front of it, fishing a piece of jerky out of her pack. “Heeey, birdie! How’re you feeling?” The owlix snapped up the piece in one bite and gulped it down as though it was a lonely crumb. It looked at her expectantly afterwards, but a frown on its avian face revealed that it could guess what she was after. Ngaso ran her fingers through its feathers and dow, scratching it here and there to sway it to her side. “Sooo… I need you to take me to the ocean…” The owlix recognised that sentence very well, so that was all she needed to say. However, it kept looking at the reddening morning sky and then gazed down between the cracks in the caps below, where it would fly if it was to roost for the day. Flying down there, though, would be out of the question - it was much too dark for the owlix, and they would no doubt be spotted. Ngaso held up another piece of meat. “I don’t have too many of these, so please help me?” Ngie let out the equivalent of an owl sigh and took the bite, hooting grumpily as it turned its back to her and allowed her to climb on. “Remind me to hunt a hedgehog for you and you alone, you wonderful beast!” Ngie didn’t respond, but something told Ngaso that would be a minimum requirement. The great bird kicked off and spread its enormous wings, fashioned so that, despite its wingspan being as long as ten nelves would be tall, the owlix glided through the air without making so much as a sound. This expert hunter of the night flew like a ghost, inaudible even to the nelven sentries readying themselves for the dayshift. They thus slipped by unnoticed and soared over towards the beach, landing in the middle of a great coral and seashell plaza that stuck out from the white beach like a cliff in a grassplain. A great, bleached coral altar was erected at the tip, the salt of seawater encrusted upon it like plaque on a tooth; around it laid pots and baskets of every size, some empty and some filled everywhere from halfway up to the brim with the bounty of the fungal forest - mushrooms, stones, berries, meat, rare weeds and moss, and much, much more. They were offerings - offerings to the Master.

Ngaso looked around - the plaza was abandoned at this hour of the night, very much due to the fact that the blinding, burning rays of the sun were peaking over the horizon in the east, catching her eyes with murderous intent. Hastily, she pulled out a rolled up length of vine from under her vest and tied it around her eyes. Robbed of her sight, she descended to all fours and crawled her way over towards the altar as carefully as she could to avoid cutting her palms and feet on the coral floor. Behind her, she heard the flap of wings - Ngie sounded impatient.

“It’s okay, Ngie - I’ll be just a moment, don’t--... Wait, Ngie, don’t--!” Alas, a great buffet of wind forces her to grab onto the ground as the great owlix let out a defiant hoot and, within seconds, was nowhere to be heard. Ngaso drew a deep sigh and kept crawling forward. “... Make that another week or so of sleeping in the wild…” She came to a halt a few metres in front of the altar, listening intently to the surroundings - the deafening thunder of the sea nearly choked out all other noise, so she had to focus. She knew well that just within the border of the fungal forest, there was a great village - the largest on the island - home to the Altarkeepers and the priests of the Coven of Utzuul. They weren’t Oi’wet like herself, but Za’a’alim, and as the strongest tribe with the tightest connection to the Master, they had a say in who could and could not make use of the altar - and a measly Oi’wet huntress like herself could not.

However, she’d be damned if she would have to give her tau-tau’nüt to some acolyte who then would take all the honour for the find and be rewarded in her stead - no, this was her accomplishment, and regardless of the consequences for herself and her tribe, she would take the risk if the reward meant glory for her zü’ik. She felt a sharp wall in front of her and clapped it gently - it had to be the altar. Using it as guidance, she brought herself to her feet before it, patting the rough surface with utmost care as to not cut herself. She took a deep breath, testing hypotheses for how to use the altar in her mind. She had been to offerings a few times before, but only her tribal chief had ever been allowed near the plaza; now that she stood here herself, she was clueless.

“I summon the Master,” she whispered and waited. The sea lapped at the beach and plaza, but was otherwise silent.

“I, Ngosa of the Oi’wet, call upon the Master of the Seas!” Again, the ocean was unresponsive. The growing anxiety telling her that she could be noticed at any point grew stronger and stronger, and the pain of the rising sun on her skin added more and more reasons for her to run back into the forest.

“Please! Is anyone down there?!” She turned an ear to the forest. Nothing out of the ordinary had come yet, but it could happen at any moment. That was when Ngosa remembered something - at the beginning of every offering, just before the Master had come out of the sea, there had always been a sound - hollow dunks followed by a reverberating hum, as though someone had beaten a very large empty skull. She ducked into the shadow of the altar and lifted her blindfold ever so slightly - the leading priest had carried something to every ceremony - of course! That was what was used to summon the Master! It had been a, a horn of some kind - a tusk as long as a nelf was tall. All she had to do was find it and, and, and it wasn’t here. Her breathing picked up speed - the horn wasn’t here! She slapped herself in her face - they surely brought it with them back into the village between every offering. She cursed her incompetence - she had put herself in an incredibly dangerous position by coming here, and she hadn’t even prepared. In frustration, she punched the altar and immediately squealed - the sharp teeth of the coral had cut her knuckles and fingers bloody. She pressed the wounded hand to her mouth, tongue licking the cuts as clean as possible. However, quickly thereafter, her ears picked up the faintest of sound coming from the forest; she lifted her blindfold again and squinted over the edge of the plaza, but couldn’t get a proper look in the light of the dawn. She tried smelling the air for a hint, but the winds by the ocean blew in over the land, and all her nostrils filled with was the stench of rotting seaweed. She decided the best course of action was to lie still, pray that whatever was coming wouldn’t see her shadow against the backdrop of the morning sun. However, she miscalculated.

“HEY!” came a furious snarl, and Ngosa instinctively pressed herself up against the altar, the coral digging into her back. Ascending the hill to the top of the plaza came two women, dressed heavily in robes fashioned from fibres and fish skin, armed with clubs fanged with shark teeth all around the plank-like head. They wore special soft shoes that gave them an excellent grip on the coral plaza, while sparing their feet any injury. Their eyes were covered under a net of black lichen that cast a shade over their eyes while allowing them to see perfectly fine even at dawn; their ears were covered from the sun, but left open to every angle with the use of flaps that could both dampen and amplify noise; and their noses were perfectly exposed to the air - they had every sensory advantage over here, and she was as visible to them as white marble in a pile of coal. They approached her with murderous intent, grabbing the hilts of their clubs with both hands. “You scheming blasphemer! You have no right to be here!” As the closest one raised her club, Ngosa rolled out of the way, her back only being saved from the claws of the floor by the grace of her skin vest - her arm and knee were not as lucky, however, and Ngosa whimpered painfully as she crawled over towards the edge of the tall plaza, leaving a trail of blood as she hastened away. She followed the sound of the ocean to the edge of the cliff-like plaza, the updraft telling both her skin and ears that there were powerful forces churning at the bottom.

She heard the two pairs of feet trap her on the corner she had escaped to, and the smell of her own blood was becoming stronger than the stink of the ocean. She heard the two women snicker to each other before one of them whispered, “Did you think you could come onto the Altar of the Oceanborn and make an offering just like that? Such insolence; such arrogance.”

“A heretic like you deserves nothing more than to be cast upon the sea - to be chum for the spawn of the Tyrant-Under-The-Moon.” Then Ngosa felt two arms grab hers and pull her to her feet. She struggled, but being blind, weak and wounded made her resistance meek and sloppy. She felt them turn her around, and the offensive blast of sunbeams singed at her skin as though she stood next to a bonfire. She was pushed forward slightly, and she felt her cut feet peek over the edge.

“No please… PLEASE! I can’t swim!”

“The Reef-Lord cares not whether you float or sink. If anything, it will be mercy if you drown before you are found. Now, gaze into the depths and be reunited with your ancestors in the Abyssal Paradise.” With that, Ngosa felt another push, and her belly screamed that she was in free fall. A few seconds later, she broke the surface of the water headfirst, crashing through a wave in the process of falling. The force pulled her body further underneath, immediately dragging her far away from the plaza. Then she stopped briefly before the force of the ocean pushed her the other way, back towards the lethal coral wall. Barely having time to react, she kicked off just in time to that only her feet, which already were cut open, were once more clawed asunder by the wall. Then she was dragged back out. Desperately, she tried to swim for the surface, but the current wouldn’t let her. She tried to escape the tow of the waves, but the sea was stronger. As air became scarce and her nose and mouth filled with seawater, she began to lose strength. She was bloody, tired and choking. Her blindfold loosened after a bit and floated off, allowing her eyes to see the blurry sight of the ocean, red as it was with the light of dawn. She had failed - she had failed in a most cruel manner. All she wanted was for her and her zü’ik to be seen - to be heard. Now, she would not only lose her life, but the treasure that could have given them so much, would probably wash up on the beach for someone else to claim.

Oddly enough, her weakened state of mind made her oddly contemplative, and she reached under her vest to retrieve the amber stone for one last peek. She wasn’t sure if she did that at all, really - she could very well have imagined it, but as her fingers, real or not, caressed the jewel ever so slightly, she heard a deep, reverberating thunder surround her. This was it - the gates to the afterlife were opening for her. However, barely conscious, she still felt something, and a second rumble was followed by a slimey, forceful sensation. Wasn’t it just her luck, Ngosa thought, that she couldn’t even die before being ripped apart by one of the Abyssal Lords… She felt her body grow limp and she lost consciousness. Darkness gripped her and she felt her soul grow fluid. She floated out of her form, and a blinding light stronger than the sun offered a paradoxically inviting call for her to approach. She blinked and took a step.

Then, like a dagger to her mouth, she felt air surge down into her lungs. She coughed violently and squirmed - she was suspended in the air, held aloft only by a fat, wriggling belt around her belly. She heard that thunder again, like an earthquake that vibrated through her form, but it was no natural force, this - this was a voice, and the light of dawn kept her from seeing what produced it. The voice hammered at her ears again, instinctively causing her to cover them in agony.

“STOOOOP, PLEASE!” she wheezed, kicking and squirming for freedom. The grip around her torso remained tight, however, and no matter her efforts, she couldn’t break free. It was then that she noticed the world around her darkening, almost to the point where she could open her eyes. Upon doing so, she looked straight up into three pairs of eyes, blinding menacingly down at her from above. She realised quickly that the darkness around her was the shadow of this massive creature, and she found herself overcome with an instinctive need to escape, like a mouse in the clutches of a sadistically playful cat. However, the monster held her still, only offering a silent glare. Then, in notes so deep that even nelven ears struggled to hear them, another quake rumbled through the ocean. Not long after, a small head peeked out from under the waves. At first, Ngosa’s cloudy vision mistook it for one of her own - its long ears and dark skin immediately brought connotations of the Nelven. However, as she looked closer, the creature’s piscine features begun to stand out more and more - webbed hands and finned forearms kept it afloat; its head had an impressive crest of fins and spikes in a myriad of powerful colours; and its face was smooth and glazed like that of a fresh fish. She swallowed - it was one of the holy people, the chosen of the sea.

An apzü.

The creature made itself as small as it could and spoke to the monster in a much quieter and much more tempered version of the quaking language, but even Ngosa could still tell that there was divine and ancient power behind every word, even if it was a dialect. The monster quietly thundered an answer and the apzü looked up at Ngosa and spoke, “Landwalker - does this stone belong to you?”

Ngosa blinked over at the orange gem still held by one of the monster’s four manipulator limbs. She nodded increasingly fast. “Y-yes! I-I brought it as, as a gift! A gift for the Master!” The apzü nodded and translated. The grip around Ngosa’s waist loosened slightly, allowing her to breathe more comfortably. The titan of the sea drew its six eyes from her to the apzü and tasted the words. It thundered something back and the translator nodded.

“Her Ladyship Vydianuxurl wishes to convey her most sincere congratulations to you for coming all this way to bring this stellar gift to His Lordship Raangarmodrul, Grand Warden of the Northern Seas, Gate-Keeper to the Abyssal Paradise, Patriach of the House of Raan, Tyrant of Gexou and seventh spawn of the Immortal All-Tyrant Kaarnesxaturl. She says that, if she was to judge from your appearance, you have gone through quite the ordeal to come here.” Drops of Ngosa’s blood still pittered against the water surface below and the nelf swallowed.

“I… I came for my zü’ik... We don’t have much, but we were hoping we’d… That this gift could…”

“OUR LADY!” came a sudden call from the coral plateau on the beach. The Vrool’s thunderous dialogue had drawn a crowd, and now at least a hundred nelves dressed in the same heavy robes and shoes as the guards earlier came running over to the altar, from which they stood at eye-level with the Vrool. Once there, they collapsed to their padded knees, torso pointing to the sky and head hung forwards, hands collected neatly in a cup stretched out before them. In the lead was an old priestess, handsomely decorated with hedgehog spines gathered in a wide necklace around her throat, a mighty headdress fashioned from an owlix skull, and the bones and skeletons of fish decorating her sleeves and ending in skull “gloves” over her hands. “We apologise dearly, Our Lady!” she pleaded, backed up by the whispering whimpers of her fellow acolytes and villagers. “She was never meant to come here - our guards tried to stop her before she could insult Your Lady’s patriarch’s holy altar with her filth! Please, let us wrest the names of her zü’ik out of her so they may all be offered to Our Lord with all haste!”

Vydianuxurl silently regarded the acolytes. She thundered another few sentences or so, and the translator nodded. A tendril lifted the apzü out of the water and placed her atop the altar. Swiftly, the acolytes shifted their stances to face her instead. “O holy Oceanborn apzü, good aunt Kanani Tama’Kai o'te'Akau-Raki, we are thankful that you have come! Please, let Our Lady know that--”

“SILEEEEEEENCE!” screamed the translator so loudly that it nearly dazed the nelves. She pointed to Ngosa and continued, the acolytes barely having recovered. “Lowly, unfaithful scum such as you may not refer to me as “aunt”. You dare obstruct a loyal subject of the Tyrant from bringing her offering to Him?!”

“B-but now is not the time of offering--!”

“Now is not the time of offering?! Such foolishness; such sightlessness! Are you, a Nelf, so lost to your age that you cannot see past your own, graying eye lashes?! Her Ladyship is grievously wounded that your guards could even consider taking the life of someone so devoted to the Lord that she would defy tribe and Altarkeepers just to give Him this magnificent gift.” The Lady held up the piece of mushroom amber, its orange colour catching the red dawn and blasting rays like blood across the plaza. The acolytes swallowed as one - its beauty was incomparable. They extended their hands forward again and whispered for forgiveness.

“Forgive us, Drowned One - we could not see; her gift truly is beyond our feeble imaginations! Pray tell - what will she be given in return?”

The translator scoffed at their pleas, but translated all the same. A moment passed before the Lady offered her rumbling reply. The apzü nodded slowly and turned sideways so she could shift from the acolytes to Ngosa. “The Lady shall deliver the gift to the Lord today - His verdict will be given at sundown. Until then, you are to dress this one’s wounds, and treat her as though she was apzü.”

“As though she was--?!”

“AS THOUGH SHE WAS APZÜ, YES! You heard correctly, Grand Acolyte Kwosé. If even one word reaches the depths that you have shirked this duty, the Lord will rip the entire tribe of Za’a’alim out of the Fungal Forest and drown each and every one of you in the blackest abyss.”

The nelves couldn’t utter a single word in response. The apzü nodded slowly, the backdrop of the sun looking to finally be getting to her. She turned to face her Lady and let her place the weak, bleeding form of Ngosa in her arms. She carefully descended from the altar and spoke, “You two - get up and carry this one to the House of the Coven. Give her food, rest and healing. Be thorough, or you and your zü’ik will feed the Lord’s next clutch.” Quickly, the kneeling nelves got to their feet and hurried to carry the wounded Ngosa down towards the forest and into the village. Ngosa felt her exhaustion overtake her - sunburns all over her frail skin didn’t do much good either. As the welcoming shadows of the forest loomed overhead, she closed her eyes and faded into deep slumber.

Ngosa had no recollection of the day’s sleep - it had been too deep for dreams. All she remembered from the day before was pain - the pain of light in her eyes, the pain of sun on her skin, the pain of the cuts all over her body, and the pain of that thundering voice that never seemed to leave her skull. She was shaken awake, finding herself on a bed surrounded by tent walls - a new sensation, seeing as she had never slept on one before. The mattress was made of sea sponges, kept only slightly moist by the air itself, which was thick with humidity. Over sponges had been laid a sheet of the softest seal fur, and her head rested on a pillow of owl dow. The room smelled wonderful, herbal steam rising from fissures under the walls. She heard some clicks and turned to regard the face of an acolyte, so designated by the appearance of his clothing. He seemed reluctantly respectful towards her, refusing to look into her eyes and instead bowing his head to her. He then pushed himself away, stabilised himself on his knees and held his hands forward in surrender. “Honoured One - forgive my disrespect in awakening you from your slumber. The Great Tyrant summons you to the altar.”

Ngosa tried to move, but crippling aches from all over her body stopped her movement dead. The acolyte nodded slowly. “Be careful, Honoured One - you lost quite a bit of blood yesterday, and some of your cuts were quite deep. Much of your body, too, was burned by the cruel sun. With honesty, I confess I admire your conviction to your zü’ik for what you endured.”

Ngosa sighed. “Th-thank you…” There was then a pause. Her body had been covered with bandages and ointments, and even without the pain, it had been difficult to move. “C-could you help me up? I cannot seem to--”

“Please, Honoured One - let us get you a palanquin.”

“Oh, no, that won’t be--!” But before she could finish her sentence, the acolyte had already hastened out of the tent. She clicked in slight discontent - this was all going so fast: One day, she’s an enemy of the most powerful tribe in the land, and the next, she’s practically royalty. She knew the gem would be worth quite a bit, but she had never imagined this sort of treatment. Footsteps outside indicated the acolyte had returned, and he had brought friends. Three more joined him into the tent and gently carried Ngosa out into a palanquin fashioned from shroomwood and upholstered with sea sponges covered in a carpet of plant fibre. A drape of vines and fibres hung low over the seat to shield it from the sun. She was placed softly down on the cushions and the acolytes took their places by each of the palanquin’s four handles. Then, before Ngosa could properly prepare herself, they lifted her up and began carrying her towards the ocean. She didn’t know if she could get used to this lifestyle - it was eerily comfortable, and a shift in class like this one would give her frightening habits, surely. They stepped out onto the beach, where the moon was making its ascent towards its zenith. Ngosa felt the palanquin tip backwards slightly as the acolytes ascended the slope up to the altar. She smelt the ocean and heard the waves crash, and before her, she saw an even bigger Vrool than the one who was slowly making its way back into her memories by the second. This Vrool was enormous, its presence radiating terrifying authority like any apex predator, but amplified by a thousand factors. Its silvery skin glistened in the moonlight, and tendrils fat like tree trunks lapped sloppily at the coral altar with deceitful weakness. Ngosa’s palanquin was placed down before the altar, and she stepped out to see the plateau and the beach below packed with acolytes and villagers, many from other tribes than the Za’a’alim. No one from the Oi’wet had come, but they had surely not had the time to travel all the way in a single evening. Stepping up next to her was the apzü from the day before, flashing Ngosa a smirk.

“Nervous?” she asked. Ngosa blinked.

“W-what?” The apzü amiably placed a hand on her belly and a finger over her lips.

“Don’t worry, landwalker. The Lord was incredibly pleased with your gift - you have done well. You have done so well, in fact, that He Himself has come to personally grant you your reward.” Kanani gestured up to the tyrant and Ngosa followed her hand with her eyes. The giant’s eyes fixed on her, and even though the apzü had described it as such, Ngosa couldn’t find a shred of kindness in its eyes. Kanani spoke a few sentences in their language and the tyrant thundered. The waves themselves seemed to roll harder and faster, attacking the beach with terrible momentum and knocking several onlookers onto their backs. The clouds briefly flew by faster, covering the moon and inviting even black darkness over the ceremony. Then, it calmed, and the translator nodded. She climbed onto the altar and raised her palms to the air, all the onlookers kneeling and presenting their hands in surrender. Ngosa skittered to do the same, but Kanani gestured for her to stop and stay standing. “HEAR THE TYRANT’S COMMAND!” shouted Kanani, the nelves grabbing their ears in pain. Kanani smirked and continued, “This one, Ngosa of the Oi’wet, has offered the Tyrant a most beautiful gift! Even as thoughtless specimen of her own species attempted to have her killed in the act, she persevered, and the Tyrant was given His prize! Loyalty and service to the Abyssal Lord and Tyrant of Gexou is its own reward, but acts like these are too few and too far between - they should thus be commemorated, so all will remember the strength of allegiance!”

As her speech came to an end, something climbed out of the water - they were apzü, but smaller - dwarven, almost - and rough with barnacles all over. Some had piscine or requine heads, and their finned feet and hands made them out to be some form of subspecies of the higher apzü. These were, however, quite clearly a laborer caste, perhaps one that covered the whole subspecies, seeing as they were so uniform in shape and size. They climbed up onto the altar, one arm carrying sacks fashioned from fish skin. These were put down on the floor before Ngosa, one after another, until the pile reached her almost to her hips. She swallowed and looked to Kanani, who smirked knowingly. “Go ahead,” she said, “these are all yours. Open one if you wish.” Ngosa did as suggested and opened one of the sacks. The sight immediately stole her breath, and all who stood around her were equally smitten by its contents.

Every sack, which was about the size of a large pumpkin, were filled to the brim with pearls. Ngosa collapsed to her knees in shock and looked up at the grinning Kanani and the silent Lord, her tongue twisting itself as she tried to formulate words. Finally, she managed to say, “Th-this is too much! All I gave was but a small piece of--”

Kanani wagged a finger at her and clicked disapprovingly. “Now, now, do not deny a gift from His Lordship - that is most disgraceful.”

“B-b-but---... All this! This is so much more than I gave! How is this fair?!”

Kanani scoffed condescendingly and knelt down next to Ngosa. She took a pearl between two fingers and hooked Ngosa’s shoulders with her arm, bringing them both to a stand so they could regard the pearl’s sheen in the moonlight. Behind them, the crowds were over themselves with awe. “Allow me to tell you a story from the depths, my dear Ngosa: Down there is a world completely unlike the surface - the servants of the Reef-Lord never go hungry; we live in such luxury that we only swim to stay in shape - our chariots can take us anywhere, should we wish for it; we have riches from all around the world. These pearls?” She flicked the one in her hand back into the ocean. “These are just the ones that have collected in the corners of the mighty Tyrant’s abode.”

Ngosa was speechless. The Tyrant’s glare was unmoving, and she could see in his eyes that he understood everything the apzü had said, and agreed with every point. Kanani continued, “However… What you have brought the Grand Warden, what you call tau-tau’nüt, it exists nowhere but on this island, and a piece as large as the one you found has not been found for over a thousand years. Not a billion pearls could even compare to the magnificence of this find.” She patted Ngosa approvingly on the shoulder and let her slump back to her knees. “Now, I must, of course, warn you not to fall into hatchling sickness.”

Ngosa slowly collected herself and looked up at the Tyrant. “Hatchling sickness?”

“Indeed.” She followed her gaze and snickered. “Don’t worry, His Lordship and his subjects are all quite aware of it, and many even take pride in it. It is what we apzü call that mixture of greed, insolence and arrogance that the youngest of the vrool express in their first few centuries. With all the power and agility of youth, they think themselves invincible, and amass great hoards and followings, only to be taken down by older Vrool who outmatch their experience by several centuries. Now that you have been made the richest of your kind, you shall forever live in luxury, but know that you cannot let yourself fall asleep on your laurels. As a wealthy woman, you must secure yourself against those who seek to overthrow you, and surround yourself with your most loyal subjects. Your zü’ik will become legendary, perhaps so legendary that you will form your very own tribe or even collection of tribes - capable of standing against the Vespian tide from the West.” She cupped her chin in her hand. “Until then, though, take care and be on the lookout.” With that, she skipped off the edge of the altar and dove into the abyss. The Tyrant of Gexou, Raangarmodrul, glared at her for a minute longer, rumbling something under his beard of tendrils, before he, too, descended into the ocean again.

Ngosa struggled to calm her breath. Before her laid enough wealth to live for a hundred generations, and it was all hers. Footsteps approached from behind, and she looked up to see the Grand Acolyte Kwosé stare at her with wide, milky eyes. She swallowed, shifting between the pearls, Ngosa and the ocean, and then offered her hands in surrender.

“Honoured One, favoured by the Tyrant - what will you have us do?”

Ngosa looked around and saw all the other acolyte copy the gesture. She stole a minute to collect her thoughts, but realised she would need days to completely absorb everything that had happened. For now, she took a handful of pearls from the top sack and handed it to the Grand Acolyte, who whimpered with joy upon seeing them. “For now, help me carry this back to my village.”

A Bastion of Culture 4 - Wealth

Year 30AA, late autumn, Ha-Dûna...


As per the new commandments of Dlíbók to better collect, measure, catalogue and distribute state funds correctly, I, Kaer Thian, have been tasked with accompanying tax collector théin Driod of Klan to collect the capital’s due from Ha-Dûna’s people. I swear by Fìrinn that this is a true account of the events that will transpire along this journey, and I swear to Taeg Eit that I will not accept any sort of payment or favours in exchange for muddling with these records. May the Eight and the Seven all offer my oath their blessings, and punish me dearly should I break it. This account will follow the traditional recording style employed by Kaer Mirh, may the gods rest his soul, as early as year 14 before the Founding, with later addendum sections on economy and measurements as outlined by Kaer Myvon and the others at the Ha-Dûna Office of Agriculture.


The mandate given to tax collector théin Driod of Klan covers the collection of taxes on the grounds of the following four chapters of Dlíbók:

The eighth chapter outlines the Law of the Farmer. I am here quoting the paragraph on Taxation of the Farmer:
“Every farmer under the sight of the gods who is not under the jurisdiction of a temple, but owns their own land and works it all year, must pledge one fifth of their grain harvested, of a quality which the tax collector finds adequate, in the months of Haust and Hratep to the resthouse in their home village; if no such resthouse can be found, the produce will be sent to the resthouse in their neighbouring village. In the event of drought, floods, disease or raiding, the farmer may be exempted from tax if the collector finds them eligible.”

In Ha-Dûna, there are a total of five resthouses:
  • The House of the Weary,
  • The Barley Hall,
  • The East Gate Hall,
  • The South Gate Hall,
  • The House of Pilgrims.

Then, the tenth chapter outlines the Law of the Earth and Clay. I am now quoting the paragraph of the Taxation of the Craftsman:
“Every crafter under the sight of the gods who is not under the jurisdiction of a temple, but works their furnace, whittler’s knife or potter’s wheel, must pledge one fifth of their produce, of a quality which the tax collector finds adequate, to the resthouse in their home village; if no such resthouse can be found, the produce will be sent to the resthouse in their neighbouring village. Furthermore, if the crafter has no such products to offer, they must instead offer grain equal to two snes. In the event of drought, floods, disease or raiding, the crafter may be exempted from tax if the collector finds them eligible.”

The city has two additional sectors that will be chronicled by my colleague, Kaer Teagan “the Crone”. These are the sectors of fishing and lumbery, covered by the following chapters of Dlíbóka. I will add these to the addendum section.

The ninth chapter outlines the Law of the River and Sea. I am here quoting the paragraph of the Taxation of the Fisher:
“Every fisher under the sight of the gods who is not under the jurisdiction of a temple, but who spins their own nets and fish their own grounds, must pledge one fifth their catch in the months of Haust and Hratep, dried or smoked, and of a quality which the tax collector finds adequate, to the resthouse in their home village; if no such resthouse can be found, the produce will be sent to the resthouse in their neighbouring village. Furthermore, if the fisher has no such catch to offer, they must instead offer grain equal to two snes.In the event of drought, floods, disease or raiding, the fisher may be exempted from tax if the collector finds them eligible.”

The eleventh chapter outlines the Law of Wood and Trees. I am now quoting the paragraph of the Taxation of the Lumberer:
“Every lumberer under the sight of the gods who is not under the jurisdiction of a temple, but tends to and takes from great Jennesis’ woods, must pledge one fifth of their lumber and firewood, of a quality which the tax collector finds adequate, to the resthouse in their home village; if no such resthouse can be found, the produce will be sent to the resthouse in their neighbouring village. Furthermore, if the lumberer has no such resources to offer, they must instead offer grain equal to two snes. In the event of drought, floods, disease or raiding, the crafter may be exempted from tax if the collector finds them eligible.”

As mentioned above, my subject, the théin Driod of Klan’s mission is to collect the taxes owed by the crafters and the farmers of Ha-Dûna.
I note that the failure to meet any of these requirements invoke punishments in accordance with chapter four, the Law of Punishments, from the paragraph on Failure of Duty, quote:
“Whomsoever shall shirk their duty to the tax collector by not providing their fithe in an adequate way shall be subjected to fifty lashes by the village théin. If the accused is found to have hidden away their whole or part of their fithe rather than pay it in full, they will be subjected to sixty lashes and their fithe taken.”

The above-mentioned paragraphs are all relevant to the region, to be used as reference for myself and for my future readers in the assessment of my work. I will make sure to add additional paragraphs should we encounter categories the above-mentioned cannot satisfy.


Reiyasday, 12th of Haust anno 27 after the Founding.
Ha-Dûna east.

We left at first thlénn, beginning our trek through the Workman’s District. While I am already quite fond of Ha-Dûna, nothing makes me quite as satisfied with my home as when the worthy crafters all line up along the street with their goods lined and presented for the tax carts. Below have been outlined the representatives from the workshops we collected from in order of profession, as well as what they offered as tribute and the amount offered.

  • Potter Brian of Clan Metsep, gaardskarl: Three pots capable of carrying one and a half snes; five pots capable of carrying one snes; five pots capable of carrying half a snes.
    I found myself particularly fond of master Brian’s pottery - théin Driod, too, was of the same mind, and asked the man why he had not offered some of his lesser work and saved these masterpieces for his family or bypassing merchants. To this, the good man Brian answered, “Had the gods wanted mediocrity, they would not have founded Ha-Dûna.” To this, théin Driod agreed, and in exchange for his diligence, he was given a voucher for a week’s worth of resthouse supplies for him and his family.
  • Potter Ragna, daughter of Ralfe, herjegalling: Two pots capable of carrying one and a half snes; eleven pots capable of carrying half a snes.
  • Potter Sienna, daughter of Sienna, gaardskarl: One snes of wheat and one of rye.
  • Potter Karl of Clan Tegosep, gaardskarl: Two snes of wheat.
  • Potter Pierre of Clan Blanche, brasfortsian: Twenty pots capable of carrying half a snes.
  • Potter Ciónn, daughter of Kaer Diónn, clennic: Two snes of wheat.
    Potter Ciónn refused to part with her work, and then after the tax collector offered her the option to pay her fithe in grain, she refused that, as well, stating that her family had no such grain to give. Upon inspecting her house, a secret stash of grain was found behind her wall. As per law, she was taken into the street and given sixty lashes. Her grain was taken, as well, as per the law.

Today’s goods were all delivered to the Barley Hall, as that is the closest.
Gibbousday, 13th of Haust anno 27 after the Founding.
Ha-Dûna east.

  • Smelter Tavish, son of Hama, clennic: Thirty bars of copper, ten bars of silver.
  • Smelter Enné of Clan Tegosep, gaardskarl: Two bars of bronze; six bars of copper; one bar of silver.
  • Smith Oleg, son of Tór, herjegalling: Six five axes; one bar of copper.
    After we had left Oleg’s smithy, we found that one of his axes had been shoddily crafted. We returned and théin Driod demanded he give us a proper tool. Oleg informed us that he had no more axes he could afford to part with, and gave us a bar of copper instead.
  • Smith Megan, daughter of Kaer Pier, brasfortsian: Fifteen axes; fifteen sickles; thirteen pickaxes.
  • Jeweler Giome of Clan du Pierre, brasfortsian: Two snes of wheat.

Fìrinnsday, 14th of Haust anno 27 after the Founding.
Ha-Dûna east.

  • Fletcher Gaard of Clan Ur-Gaard, gaardskarl: Two hundred arrows and three yew bows.
  • Fletcher Vegard of Clan Metsep, gaardskarl. Three hundred arrows.
  • Carpenter Vegard “One-Eye”, son of Grim, herjegalling: An elk cart.
  • Carpenter Dima of Clan Tegosep, gaardskarl: Two snes of wheat.
  • Carpenter Pené, son of Zid, kirinian: Two snes of wheat.

  • Logi, son of Tór, herjegalling. Three vials; one bauble capable of holding half a snes.
  • Isutorix of Clan Leona, clennic. One and a half snes of rye and a glass vial.
    When asked why their fithe was so small this year, Isutorix explained that her father, the late Déodin of Clan Leona and master of the Leona Glassworks, passed away from the black cough, setting their work back months. The Eight and Seven rest his soul - after some discussion between me, Driod and Isutorix, the théin saw reason to accept this limited tax and move along, on the agreement that Isutorix would pay one and a half fithe next year. She agreed.

Today’s goods were all delivered to the Barley Hall, as that is the closest.

Borisday, 15th of Haust, anno 27.
Ha-Dûna east.

We left once again at first thlénn, this time for the farms beyond the walls. Today would be the longest hoard, théin Driod told me - a two-day long hoard, in fact. It would also be the first harvest in Ha-Dûna in many years; the gods have been good to us in the times since the Reconquest. Of course, this meant, as the théin remarked, that we had to keep our eyes well-peeled, as times of great change may bring unexpected surprises. Below are arranged the clans and family heads of the twenty túns on the eastern half of Ha-Dûna’s arable land, both between and beyond the city and the Misanthir, arranged in order of visitation:
  • Clan Metsep, gaardskarl, at the Metsep túns. 12 snes of wheat; 17 snes of oats; 9 snes of barley; 12 snes of rye.
  • Clan Tegosep, gaardskarl, at the Tegosep tún. 36 snes of wheat.
  • Erimex, daughter of Kaer Obee, clennic, at the Druïtha tún. 20 snes of wheat.
  • Egil, son of Halfdûn, herjegalling, at the Druïtha tún. 13 snes of rye.
  • Clan Blanche, brasfortsian, at the Blanche tún. 32 snes of barley.

Today’s goods were delivered to the House of the Weary.

Jennesday, 16th of Haust, anno 27.
Ha-Dûna east.

  • Kyrre, son of Ralfe, herjegalling, at the Mionn tún. 12 snes of rye.
  • Clan du Pierre, brasfortsian, at the Pierre tún. 8 snes of oats.
  • Clan Ur-Gaard, gaardskarl, at the Ur-Gaard tún. 10 snes of oats; 10 snes of barley.
  • Clan Ur-Met, gaardskarl, at the Ur-Met tún. 4 snes of barley; 7 snes of oats.
    When asked why their fithe was so small this year, the head of Clan Ur-Met, Old Mother Binya, explained that they had already shipped off most of their grain to the breweries and the mills. The théin explained that this was the equivalent of tax evasion and sentenced the old mother to be punished; however, her oldest son, Frinn, offered to take the punishment for her, and was thus given fifty lashes for his mother’s foolishness.
  • The Shepherd family, herjegalling, at the Ur-Met tún. Two snes of wheat.
  • Clan Ur-Sikra, gaardskarl, at the Ur-Sikra tún. 11 snes of oats; 16 snes of wheat; 17 snes of rye.
  • Clan Ur-Qir, gaardskarl, at the Ur-Qir tún. 11 snes of wheat; 9 snes of rye.
  • The Herder family, herjegalling at the Ur-Qir tún. 14 snes of oats; 7 snes of rye.
  • Clan Sûr-le-Mont, brasfortsian, at the Mont tún. 20 24 snes of barley; 9 snes of wheat; 11 15 snes of rye.
    The clan Sûr-le-Mont offered to pay four additional snes of barley and rye each as compensation for her cousin’s inadequacy. See comment under “Clementine, daughter of Brior” for additional context.
  • Clementine, daughter of Brior, clennic, at the Mont tún. 8 4 snes of rye; 6 2 snes of barley.
    While reactions to Clementine’s contribution were originally approving, the weight of the sacks proved too considerable compared to the amount of grain supposedly within them. Upon further inspection, the théin found that a good quarter to a half of each sack was filled with white sand. The local théin, Aifric of Sûr-le-Mont, was summoned to give her sixty lashes as the rest of the grain was found within Clementine’s house. The théin Aifric apologised for her cousin’s behaviour and compensated the tax collector by paying her share from her own stores.

Today’s goods were delivered to the House of Pilgrims.

Claroonsday, 17th of Haust, anno 27.
Ha-Dûna east.

  • Clan Ketersep, gaardskarl, at the Ketersep tún. 22 snes of wheat; 4 snes of rye; 2 snes of barley.
  • Clan Leothe, clennic, at the Leothe tún.15 snes of wheat; 11 snes of barley; 3 snes of rye.
  • Clan Saune, clennic, at the Saune tún. 6 snes of wheat; 8 snes of oats; 4 snes of rye.
  • Clan Ur-Dûn, gaardskarl, at the Ur-Dûn tún. 12 snes of wheat; 7 snes of rye; 1 snes of barley.
  • Clan Leona, clennic, at the Leona tún. 21 snes of wheat; 6 snes of barley.
  • Martha, daughter of Trant, clennic, at the Leona tún.2 snes of rye; 1 snes of barley.
  • Clan Ur-Dirr, gaardskarl, at the Ur-Dirr tún. 2 snes of barley.
    When asked why their fithe was too small, the father Bron of Ur-Dirr explained that they had suffered a great robbery a week before tax collection. Naturally suspicious, the théin ordered a search of the clan tún, but found nothing. The théin asked why the robbery was not reported to the théin Aifric, but the man refused to answer clearly. To quote: “We tried to, but things got in the way.” He refused to elaborate on the nature of these “things”. Still, as the fithe was, in the end, inadequate, the théin Driod once more summoned the théin Aifric of Sûr-le-Mont to give the father Bron of Ur-Dirr fifty lashes.
  • Clan Klan, clennic, at the Klan tún. 6 snes of wheat; 6 snes of barley.
  • Clan Vitesse, brasfortsian, at the Vitesse tún. 20 snes of oats; 10 snes of wheat.

Today’s goods were delivered to the House of the Weary, the House of Pilgrims and the South Gate Hall.
Ideally, the House of the Weary should have taken a larger share of the goods we gathered in its proximity, but their larders and silos were already quite stocked from the summer harvests. Therefore, the House of Pilgrims received the leftover fithe meant for the former resthouse.

Seerosday, 18th of Haust, anno 27.
Ha-Dûna west.

While the east and the farms along the Misanthir have a majority population of our familiar Dûnan clans, the resurgence in our civilisation after the Reconquest has one again brought back many of our old friends from the north and south, east and west, all of whom are happy to be invited back into our diverse and wonderful city. The majority of these have settled on the lands by the Farmer’s Market and the Sun Gate, no doubt as these directions manage the channels of traders and pilgrims travelling to and from their old homes. Below are arranged the clans and family heads of the twenty túns and lesser steads and grazing grounds surrounding Ha-Dûna in the west, arranged in order of visitation:
It strikes me as curious that many of the ikdûni prefer to pay their taxes in animals and animal products rather than grain. Many of them seem not to see the point in purchasing grain for paying the tax. The théin Driod, ever a wise and compromising man, offered them to pay as the crafters would - one fithe of any product. I hope this decision will not upset those who obeyed the system as set.

  • Clan Laird, clennic. 14 snes of wheat; 11 snes of barley; 4 snes of rye.
  • Clan Mogwive, nubveian. 6 heads of cattle; 3 sheep; 3 goats.
    After our translator could not seem to convince the matriarch of the Mogwive that grain was our main form of taxed goods, the théin compromised by letting them offer animals instead, despite the fact that this may cost the resthouses great resources if they aren’t slaughtered soon.
  • Clan Gorm, herjegalling. 7 snes of wheat; 3 snes of oats.
  • Clan Vlok, mink. 12 snes of oats; 2 baskets of eggs.
    One of the clan bwobushkyas tried to offer the théin a bribe of oatcakes to take a smaller fithe than what was calculated. Normally, this would have warranted a lashing of twenty lashes as mandated by the Law of Punishments, from the paragraph of Obstruction of Official Duty (See addendum for full quotation from Dlíbók), but the théin Driod seemed reluctant to have an old woman whipped for such an attempted bribe, especially after her sons and daughters begged and explained that she has been growing foggy in her elder days. Their fithe was extracted as planned, and they were left with a warning.
  • Clan Muskvit, mink. 12 snes of oats; 13 snes of wheat.
  • Clan Misambe, nubveian. 6 chickens; 3 goats; 2 racks of dried mutton; 2 racks of dried elk; 3 racks of dried bison.
  • Clan Wowomembe, nubveian. 8 heads of cattle.
  • Clan Ur-Gursep, gaardskarl. 12 snes of wheat; 19 snes of rye.
  • Clan Ur-Gwynsep, gaardskarl. 10 snes of oats; 7 snes of rye.
  • Clan Côte, brasfortsian. 12 snes of oats.

Today’s goods were delivered to the South Gate Hall.
Macsalsday, 19th of Haust, anno 27.
Ha-Dûna west.

  • Clan Sirjin, clennic. 5 snes of rye; 2 snes of wheat; 6 snes of barley.
  • Tamba, son of Isogwe, nubveian. 1 sheep; 1 goat.
  • Piotr Andreiiwoch, son of Andrei Andreiiwoch, mink. 1 goat.
  • Karav Sheevyoiwoch, son of Sheevyo Abariwoch, mink. 4 snes of wheat.
  • Dimir Dimiriwoch, son of Dimir Vlariwoch, mink. 2 sheep; 6 sacks of sheep’s wool.
  • Sabmi of Núrmi, son of Savas, meike. 8 racks of dried reindeer; 2 racks of stockfish.
  • Murtagh “the Scawick”, son of Briain, scawick. 2 snes of wheat.
  • Bonursan Yip, son of Bonursan Chirrut, doserung. 1 rack of dried goat; 2 racks of dried mutton.
  • Ramansan Nomir, daughter of Ramansun, doserung. 6 snes of wheat; 1 rack of dried mutton.
  • Ratinmaar of Bast, son of Ki’ogmaar of Bast, bastian. 2 pots of goat cheese; 2 pots of butter.

Today’s goods were delivered to the South Gate Hall.

Reiyasday, 20th of Haust, anno 27.
Ha-Dûna west.

  • Khammed, son of Isherta, doserung. 1 head of cattle; 2 snes of rye.
  • Clan ap Mirh, clennic. 12 snes of wheat; 3 snes of rye; 5 snes of barley.
  • Clan ap Angus, clennic. 12 snes of oats.
  • Frankois Amoir, son of Julippe Amoir, brasfortsian. 6 snes of oats; 2 snes of rye.
  • Clan Yngling, herjegalling. 1 snes of wheat; 3 snes of rye; 6 snes of barley.
  • Clan Ur-Lepti, gaardskarl. 6 snes of wheat; 6 snes of barley.
  • Clan Shepdur, gaardskarl. 3 snes of oats; 12 snes of wheat.
  • Mendela, son of Mugedo, swadi. 2 goats; 3 pots of goat’s milk.
  • Kuhbelo, son of Koisa, swadi. 5 chickens; 2 baskets of eggs.
  • Ragnar, son of Iver, herjegalling. 3 snes of oats; 7 snes of wheat.
  • Clan Fjaering, herjegalling. 4 snes of rye; 3 snes of barley.
  • Clan Verite, brasfortsian. 16 snes of wheat; 17 snes of rye; 11 snes of barley; 14 snes of oats.

I remark that the various cultures of the peoples we have visited today fascinate me to a great degree. I remark that my next work shall be a treatise on these so we may better understand those who come to our fair city in the future.

Today’s goods were delivered to the South Gate Hall, with excess being brought back to the House of Pilgrims in the city centre.


This concluded the two week-long endeavour to gather the taxes in the agricultural sector. May my peers and our descendants judge this account as true, and may any who wish raise any remarks regarding my method and credibility speak up so we may all do Fìrinn’s bidding of reaching an ever truer Truth.


From the Law of Punishments, paragraph on Obstruction of Official Duty:

“Whomsoever shall obstruct an official of the Ha-Dûnan Office of Government in the process of their duty, whether this be by physical obstruction, bribery, threats or extortion, shall be subjected to twenty lashes by the village théin.”

From the Law of the River and Sea, paragraph on the Taxation of the Fisher:

“Every fisher under the sight of the gods who is not under the jurisdiction of a temple, but who spins their own nets and fish their own grounds, must pledge one fifth their catch in the months of Haust and Hratep, dried or smoked, and of a quality which the tax collector finds adequate, to the resthouse in their home village; if no such resthouse can be found, the produce will be sent to the resthouse in their neighbouring village. Furthermore, if the fisher has no such catch to offer, they must instead offer grain equal to two snes.In the event of drought, floods, disease or raiding, the fisher may be exempted from tax if the collector finds them eligible.”

From the Law of Wood and Trees, paragraph on the Taxation of the Lumberer:

“Every lumberer under the sight of the gods who is not under the jurisdiction of a temple, but tends to and takes from great Jennesis’ woods, must pledge one fifth of their lumber and firewood, of a quality which the tax collector finds adequate, to the resthouse in their home village; if no such resthouse can be found, the produce will be sent to the resthouse in their neighbouring village. Furthermore, if the lumberer has no such resources to offer, they must instead offer grain equal to two snes. In the event of drought, floods, disease or raiding, the crafter may be exempted from tax if the collector finds them eligible.”

Living Like a God

“More grapes, Your Excellency?”

“Please, Stacy, as many as you can peel.”

“More wine, Your Fantasticness?”

“Only if you’re getting wasted with me, babe.”

Twilight’s gold, silver and platinum-ringed hand left a red print on the right cheek of his servant’s ass, eliciting a hidden squeal from her. She bit her lip and poured herself a cup as well, the avatar smirking broadly. She wore the standard uniform of women in his court, and truth be told, there was not much to wear. They were in his personal chambers, a marble terrace overlooking the great Southern Sea, furnished to the brim with statues, tablets and monuments detailing his power, beauty and grace. It was midday, and as with every day, his room was rank with the stinks and scents of every luxury imaginable - a great bite of a debaucher’s paradise. As the woman joined him and the seven other women in various states of sobriety on the enormous silk bed, she licked her lips. “Anything for the beautiful…”


“... The almighty…”


“... The all-knowing…”


“... Za’watem--” She stopped as she saw Twilight’s face turn to cold stone. She froze, catching the eyes of the other women, all of whom either rolled their eyes or snickered quietly at her. The avatar took a deep breath and rubbed his nose. He ran his tongue over his teeth in thought and gave a sniff, staring into the air. The woman started quivering, her quest for finding where she had taken a wrong step slowly dragging her into a state of panic. “Y-Your Awesomeness, d-d-did I say something wrong?”

The avatar’s face twisted with frustration and emotion. Slowly, he lifted up one finger and hovered it before her face. “You’re new here, right? She’s, she’s new here, right?” He turned to the other women, all of whom nodded in many different states of wakefulness. The woman in question whispered prayers to herself. The avatar took a deep breath. “Who am I, Tiffany?”

The woman looked around for this supposed character. The avatar repeated himself, still talking out into the air. “Answer my question. Who am I?”

The woman pointed at herself as though doing so would set off a bomb. “M-me, Your--”

“Yes, you! You’re Tiffany, right?”

“M-my name is Arene--” Before she could react, he grabbed her chin in his hand - the grip was soft, but all who looked on knew that Twilight’s breath alone could tip a tree. Her cocoa skin paled - her hyperventilation only competed with birdsong outside for the champion spot of loudest noise in the room.

“Listen, listen, listen…” said the avatar softly. “Whoever taught you how to treat me, girl - they missed some details, alright?” The other women looked knowingly at Arene, whose eyes met their with accusations of betrayal. “Your name is Tiffany - and Tiffany, you do -not- call me what you just called me, you got that?”

“Y-y-y-you mean Z-Z-Za’wa--mmph! MMPH!” With two fingers, he pinched closed her lips and sealed them with a magical zing!, leaving the woman to stagger backwards and claw at her mouth while tears and blood dripped from her face. The other women looked quietly away while the avatar let out a peaceful sigh.

“That is right, deary - calling me that implies I’m on the same level as the other zawhattems or whatever they’re called. No, Twilight’s not like them - Twilight is his own king; I am the Demigod of the Night, richest man in the whole world, and my own high priest.” He hooked his arms around the torsos of two of the women in his bed and pulled them in, the two of them politely giggling along while their eyes conveyed a desperate need to flee. “None are on my level.”

Arene had curled up on the ground, whimpering and holding her bleeding face in her hands. Twilight rolled his eyes and snapped his fingers. The mahogany doors to his bedroom swung open, ushering in a tide of heavily tattooed old men wearing nothing but loincloths and hats that each resembled the male genital. Adding further to their shame, their backs had been stripped entirely of the ink they had been blessed with as entrants into the caste of Za’wal, and instead been replaced with a number, which had taken the role of their name. Twilight pushed a route through the pile of womenfolk and climbed out of bed at the foot end, servants hurrying over to wrap him in his morning kimono. The men stood waiting, their heads bent forward in shame which allowed their flaccid headgear to hang low over their foreheads. Twilight gave his golden goblet a sip and pointed lazily at the crying Arene.

“Right, dickheads… Which one of you brought me this one, hmm? Was it you, Seventeen? Was it?”

The man with the number 17 tattooed onto his back caved to his knees and sobbed. “Your Fantasticness, I just--”

“App, app, app! None of that - none of that whining. Why’d you send her here, actually? Why her in particular? She’s not even that hot - just look at her face. It’s all scarred now.”

“Y-yes, Your Fantasticness, of course. H-how foolish of me, I-I-I see it clearly now! She’s ugly! So very ugly!”

“Woah, hey, don’t be an ass, Seventeen. She’s a lady, for gods’ sakes.” The avatar dragged a hand through his hair. Arene was slowly escorted out to be sent away. “Right, so… Why did you pick her exactly?”

“W-w-well.. It’s h-her family, Your Superiority. A-an alliance with her family could--”

Twilight groaned and turned back to his bed, walking over to caress some of her women under their chins as though they were dogs. “Ugh, again with the politics. I keep telling you to drop it - we will be fiiiiiiiine.”

“A-actually. about that--”

“... Have I not spent the last twenty years establishing myself as the top dog in this area? Whatever they throw at me, I’ll turn into, what...Puffed rice and coconut milk? We have -nothing- to worry about, people. Now if you’ll excuse me, I was in the middle of something...” He gave his goblet another slurp and started undressing again.

“B-but Your Awesomeness--”

“WHAT?! What is it, Seventeen?! What could -possibly- be so important that you are risking your very life just trying to tell me right now?”

The priest had long since passed the line between sobbing and bawling. His colleagues, too, were in tears at this point. Seventeen took a deep breath and wailed, “They’re heeeere!”

Twilight rolled his eyes. “Ugh, settle down, you big baby - who’s here?”

“Fwom the, fromm ze… (Sniff!) … Fwom Zuanwa, ugh-hurk…”

Twilight took a deep breath. “If it’s those wanna-be priests here for their taxes again, I’ll pay with their heads, I swear by the gods…” He shouldered his kimono back on and walked over an ornately carved sword display, whereupon was mounted his sword, Tsukigami-no-Kokoro. He looked outside into the sunny day and muttered. “... Or a very bad concussion - depends how long they’re willing to wait, I guess.”

“B-but Your Omnipotency, there’s more!”

“You know, every time you in particular open your mouth, Number Twelve, I just really feel like breaking a puppy’s neck. You just have one of those voices, you know?”

The man in question shrunk together like a drying mushroom, and another took his place. “Your Remarkably, please!”

“Now you, Number Four, you have a voice like satin, and I’m admittedly still at half mast after being interrupted for the tenth time now. You have ten seconds to get your point across, or I’ll have you’ll be joining us in bed afterwards.” He turned and looked over at the horrified priest, then grimaced. “Oh, ne-ver-mind, you are ancient. I keep forgetting that, sorry. Ugh, yikes, scratch that invitation. Actually, you can narrate the action when I get back to it. Oh, yeah, that’d be some sexy play, now that I think about it.” He unsheathed his sword and studied the way the sun bounced off the milky blade. He swore his breath as a hit to the wall left a dent rather than a cut and sighed. “Well, I’m waiting - tell me what’s up so I can get back to the ladies.”

“W-well, as Seventeen said, there are people here from Zuanwa--”

“It -is- the fucking tax collectors, isn’t?!” Twilight brandished his blade menacingly.

“NO! No! No, Your Magnificence, it’s… It’s your son.”

Twilight blinked, sheathing his sword again. He walked over to the footend of the bed and sat down, twiddling his thumbs in his lap. “Which one?”

“By wife or by age, Your Illustriousness?”

“By wife, please.”

“Then it’s the son of magnificent huntress of the Ta’zesh, Eronwe of--”

“Wait, who?”

The priest looked to be dying inside. “The huntress of Ta’zesh, Eron--”

“Speak clearly, man.”

“Crystal, Your Justice.”

“Oh! Crystal! Riiiiiiiiiight, right, right… The one with the, the…”

“The mammaries, Your Pride, yes.”

“Oh, gods bless those magnificent tits. I needed four hands just to hold them without them spilling all over… So I grew an extra pair. Ah, good times…” The avatar smirked reminiscently as the priests looked to be struggling with finding motivations to live.

“Yes, Your Handsomeness. Her son has come to see you.”

“Which one?”

“The oldest, Your Stellarity. The impeccable student of Za’wal, the zealous and brave Rusal of--”


“... Twolight Number One, Your Supremacy.”

The avatar exploded into a snorting laughter, some of the women joining him on account of being high on way too many substances. Otherwise, the room was silent and cheerless as the grave. Wiping away some tears of joy, he sighed contently. “One of my better jokes, that...Come on, it’s super funny, isn’t it? It’s funny ‘cuz, ‘cuz… Ah, you understand it:”

“Yes, Your Hilarity. He is here to see you.”

“Welp.” The avatar stood back up again and tied the sheath of the sword to his belt. “Better go say hello to the little squirt. Play with sticks or whatever.” He turned around and beckoned over the women who were away. “Come on now, girls, don’t be shy. Kissy-kissy. Mwah! Mwah! Luv yoo. Don’t smoke all the weed while I’m gone.”

“We won’t, daddy!”

Twilight clicked his tongue and stood back up, turning to the doors and strolling lazily outside, his council of “dickheads” following out of a slave-like sense of servitude. The entourage travelled across the enormous garden of Twilight’s estate, marble towers and temples of gold and silver to himself intermittently scattered between thick forests of all kinds of wine fruits and narcotic plants, all protected inside a beautiful stone wall. All sorts of exotic carnivores roamed the forests, from shadowtigers to owlixes to leons - most importantly for Twilight, however, this garden was his primarily source of entertainment, as guests who were high off their genitals were set free in the woods to survive for days and nights as its inhabitants would hunt them down to feast. Currently, though, the animals had been caged, and the garden was home to groups of naked guests tasting its many drugging fruits. They immediately prostrated themselves upon seeing Twilight, who waved at them with all the grace of a king. When he arrived at the gates to his estate, which were both made of pure gold and were really testing the strength of their hinges, he pushed them open and stepped outside to see a crowd of hundreds, spearheaded by one familiar face. All of them were armed to the teeth for all that was worth, and Twilight’s divine hearing heard groaning bowstrings from many more places than ones in which he could see people. He looked over his shoulder and noticed that his priests had hurried down the hundred-step marble and gold staircase to join the army. The avatar ignored all of it, however, and opened his arms as he slowly walked down the stairs. “Junior! How nice of you to visit your old man!”

“Be where you are, tyrant! I, Rasul of the Za’wal, have come to--”

“Twolight, that’s not your name, come on. Give your dad a hug now, come up here.”

Rasul glared. “As I was saying, I have brought all the peoples and tribes you have wounded and tortured throughout your rule, and we will no longer--!”

“Pssh, let’s not talk about that right now. It’s been so long, son!” The avatar stopped halfway down the stairs when he saw his son take a combat stance and point his obsidian spear at him. “Now, now, you shouldn’t point sharp things at daddy. Remember what your mommy-...”

“YOU NEVER GAVE A SHIT ABOUT MY MOTHER! You didn’t care when she got the fever and died ten years ago. It was YOUR fault that she died, because you threw us out! And for what?! Because she said she wasn’t feeling it one night, is that it?!”

“Kinda her fault for not feeling it - I mean, come on.”

“Twilight of the Za’watem caste…”

The avatar’s gloating smirk disappeared in an instant. “What’s that, boy?”

“...You are hereby accused of multiple cases of heresy against the gods…”

Slowly,Twilight continued to descend the stairs. “You better stop right there, kid.Your old man has a few rules in the house that you’re dangerously close to breaking.”

“... Violence against your subjects and those of your caste…”

The chilling sound of steel sounded from Twilight’s sheathe. His son eyed the weapon with quiet acknowledgement and continued, “... Violence against our own family and both men and women of your own court… Lying, stealing, pretending to be of a different caste... Murder of hundreds of people.”

“If you don’t stop right there, I might add another to that list, kid.” Twilight was now only a few metres from his son, and the army hastened to surround him, a phalanx of spears closing in around him. “I might add many, many more.”

Rusal didn’t back down, but kept his glare as adamant as his father’s, perhaps even more so. “In the sight of the gods and representatives of every caste, father, you are hereby sentenced to death for your crimes against Zuanwa and her people. Now, attack!”

Instantly, the world around them went black; in a second, it had shifted from day to night, and the moon was out despite the fact that, in every sense of reality, it should be a little past midday. Immediately, the army panicked, squeals and screams sounding as fidgety militia accidentally stabbed their neighbours, which only led to greater panic and more accidents. Coming from almost everywhere at once, Twilight’s voice cackled. “Wow, -this- is what you had in store for me?! A fucking ambush?! Wow, you can’t be my son if you’re -this- slow, can you?”

“STAY CALM! He’s just testing us! Find him quickly and--” Rusal’s commands were cut short by the song of cold steel as it sliced through skin, bone and flesh as though it was air. A wet crunch sounded as his head and body dropped to the leafy jungle floor and the moonlight cast a beam upon the corpse for all to see.

“Guess we’ll add ‘murder of family’ to that, too.” More screams at the sight of the corpse further intensified the panic. Many tried to avenge their leader by searching for the avatar, but it was no use in the mosh pit of people running for their lives with weapons in hand. As the people dispersed and ran back home, the avatar stood pondering over his son’s corpse. His boy, who had been his firstborn - the son of his favourite wife - laid dead… And he felt nothing. If anything, Twilight felt relief that he had shut him up. The avatar let the day return again and observed the ruined fields before his estate. There laid roughly twenty to twenty-five corpses around, some stampeded to death and others still suffering the last of their feeble lives. Twilight made a lopsided frown, and after caving in the heads of those in suffering, he went inside, packed some lunch in a bag and tied it to his sheath. Now that one wave had come, he would no doubt get no respite from incessantly visiting children and lesser chiefs who would come to claim his head. He needed his peace - his peace and quiet and sexy women. Therefore, he journeyed out once more, looking for another place to settle anew and repeat the cycle all over.

It had been good, though. It had been really good. Maybe he could beat his record next time?

The Merchant Kings 3 - The Lesser Sex

“... And so, Cilantra bashed aside the shadowtiger, saving her brother from certain death!” The little girl on the bed clapped her hands together in excitement, so loud to the point where her mother had to grab them and clap them together a little more softly. The girl clicked in timid understanding.

“Mommy?” asked the little girl as her mother caressed her gently across the face.


“What happened to Cilantra and the Huntresses?”

The mother’s lavender face darkened further, and she was in the process of parting her lips to answer when another whisper deafened them both: “Woman! The baths - now!” The woman, none other than rachfi Nilla, drew a silenced, frustrated breath and stopped her hand on her daughter’s cheek.

“I’ll tell you tomorrow, okay?” she whispered and gave her daughter, who had seemingly shrunk at the sound of her father’s voice, a kiss on the forehead, then one on the belly. She then rose to her feet, tucked at and straightened her white dress and collected her hands in a fold under her bosom. She exited the room of their daughter, stepped swiftly through the main hall of the main hut, exiting into a vast, diversely sown garden under the moonlight, intermittently furnished with tables, sitting pillows, incense burners and beds under the open sky. Soft giggles sounded out from the baths by the edge of their walls, right by the road up to the former king’s hut, and the rachfi made her way over, taking position by the bamboo partitions separating the baths from the rest of the garden. An alluring ooze of mint and honey snaked its way to her nose, but the rachfi did not seem affected at all. “What is your bidding, my love?” she asked without an ounce of affection. The giggles continued. Taking a deep drag through the nose, she knocked softly on the partitions. The laughter stopped, and several trickles of water from behind the partitions hinted that her rach was with great company.

“Is that you, woman?” The rachfi had no time to answer before the rach continued. “Good. Bring a pot of chamomile tea and five cups--”

“And maokl! Lots of maokl!” came a deep voice followed by an excited splash and some laughter.

“Yes, and maokl. Anything else, brothers?”

“Do you have anything stronger, Nilla? Daybreak’s not too far off, after all.”

“Oh, splendid point, Sweetpea. Woman, bring us a bowl, no, two -deep- bowls of that kwut you bought, as well! And make it quick - these men are thirsty!”

“Waaaayy!” came at least five cheering voices, followed by more splashing. The rachfi closed her eyes and stood there with her fists tensely closed. She could feel that boiling discontent fill her belly - rage at the disrespectful manner of her husband’s speech. She grit her teeth to the point where it was nearly audible and--

“Hey, woman! Are you there?” came another shout. The rachfi gasped briefly for air to purge herself of the heat of fury.

“Yes, my love,” she responded cooly. “Would yourself and your brothers like anything else?”

“We’ve already told you what we want. Now run along,” came a sharp response. As the rachfi walked back towards the house, she heard sarcastic remarks about whether it was her time of the quarter. She stepped inside the main hut again and sucked in a deep breath. Then she grabbed her hair with both hands and let out a silent scream inside. She keeled forward, her mouth agape in suffering, but not a single sound escaping it. She knew she would be heard and, because of her disgusting husband and his friends, would be shunned as noisy and hysterical. It would be a social death sentence for a woman of her standard.

A woman of her standard…

What was her standard, anyway? Like a machine, she had entered the larder and produced a pot of kwut, and like a slave, she had without protest prepared their damn tea and their damn fruit pudding. She poured the wine into two deep bowls and took one in each hand, bringing them outside. Her feet danced quietly, trained for years in strict manners, across the firm paves planted in the dry grass. Yes, she had always been wealthy - from the day of her birth, her mother and father had showered her in riches. She had been dressed in silk, silver and sapphires, worn rings and necklaces, and even been a courtier under King Safron - she could have even been betrothed to him had it not been for those wicked Cloves from Scenta…

But what would it have mattered, anyway? She had had all that power, all that wealth, and then it had all been lost. No, lost wasn’t the correct word; she glared at the bamboo partitions ahead of her - stolen, was more like it. She stopped outside the partitions and whispered coldly, “My love, your kwut has arrived. I will leave it here and--”

“No, bring itinside. The water’s too nice to leave.” There came three or four other chuckles. Rachfi Nilla’s grip on the bowls could have shattered them.

“My love, I do not believe it is appropriate for a Rachfi to--”

“Woman, just bring the damn wine. The lads won’t mind, would they?”

There came a wet sniff. “Actually, Nilly, I can go get it. Wouldn’t want her presence souring the mood, would we?”

“Hawthorne, what I tell my woman to do is none of your business. If she comes in, she comes in. Now come in, woman.” While Rachfi Nilla begrudgingly stepped inside the partitions, a blindfold over her eyes, Hawthorne rolled his milky eyes and splashed his hands under water to cover himself up.

“Come on, Nilla, this is a breach of my dignity.”

“Hawthorne, you’re such a wimp, by the gods,” snickered Sweetpea and thanklessly took one of Rachfi Nilla’s bowls, slurping its pale content. “It’s just a woman, c’mon.”

“Well, -some- of us have the virtue to save ourselves for our boyfriends, okay? Ugh, thanks the gods she at least had the basic decency to put her blindfold on. You’ve trained her well, Nilly.” Rach Nilla took his own bowl and gave it a sip before passing it on.

“Would you believe me if I said she already came with those skills? Truly, she’s of proper breeding, this one.” He reached out a dripping-wet arm and hooked it around her waist, the reluctant rachfi being pulled in wordlessly. She was thankful the blindfold was on, for she could not for the life of her wipe away the hateful glare in her eyes. “Wouldn’t trade her for anything. She has bred me two wonderful sons, she has.”

“And a daughter,” she added quietly. The rach stopped himself before continuing the next sentence.

“What was that?”

The rachfi drew a quiet breath. “Nothing, my love.”

“No, say it. I don’t think the lads heard.”

The four other men in the tub leaned in like snickering hyenas surrounding a carcass. The rachfi closed her eyes behind the blindfold and sighed some hot air. “You have given me two wonderful sons and a daughter, my love. I could not be more thankful.”

“My, my, three children. Not bad, Nilly, for a fort year marriage - Chig’wach must’ve kissed you right on the belly, I bet.”

“So it seems, so it seems,” rach Nilla replied smugly. The rachfi discreetly tried to snake herself free, but the rach's grip tightened. One of the men named Bloom snickered wryly.

"She any pretty? Your daughter?"

The rach clicked thoughtfully. "She's no Queen Clove, but she's decent, I suppose." The rachfi felt gall fill her throat.

"Oh gods, Queen Clove… That midnight skin’s as fine as freshly spun silk, I'm telling ya," told Sweetpea. “Shame neither the prince nor the princess got it… My, had it been my seed inside her instead of the king’s, rest his soul…”

“Rest his soul, rest his soul,” the other men echoed.

“... Then my boys and girls would’a been black as fireglass, I tell you that!”

Bloom clicked with interest and made a sideways frown. “How much do you want for her?”

Rach Nilla swallowed his mouthful of kwut. “Want for who?”

“Your daughter, man. How much?” The rachfi lowered her gaze to behold her husband, at least visibly, seriously considering the offer. Bloom was a chihrk, one of two in all of Fragrance and Scenta. He commanded his very own warband, having gathered as much power over the military as he could after the death of the king. Now, he was the second most powerful man in Fragrance after Rach Rose, possibly the most powerful, if it had not been Rose who paid his wages. Rach Nilla bobbed his head ponderously from side to side.

“What can you offer?”

“She’s eighteen!” burst the rachfi suddenly. The bathtub quieted, only the slick of water sounding as shoulders and torsos moved to regard the wife. Rach Nilla’s grip about her waist tightened threateningly.

“The chihrk asked how much we are willing to give our daughter away for - it is a most valid question, woman.” He loosened his grip again and the rachfi felt her breath hasten with anxiety. The officer rolled his eyes at her and leaned in.


The rach looked boorishly up at his wife and sighed. “But Bloom, my old friend, my dear old friend… You already have a wife, don’t you? The sages won’t look very kindly on someone who shirks their duty to their woman to lie with other women, after all.”

Bloom shook his head. “That useless slut has granted me nothing but daughters for a hundred years. I’m thinking about divorcing her - the sages will allow if our fourth child, too, becomes a daughter.”

“That’s terrible, brother,” whispered Sweetpea sympathetically and placed a palm on his shoulder, which Bloom took in his own hand softly. “I pray you’ll get yourself a beautiful son to carry on your legacy.”

“Oh, Sweetpea, thank you.” The officer leaned over and kissed the man on his plump, silver-pierced lips. Their passionate kiss elicited some musing whistles from the others, until Hawthorne splashed the two with some of the mint-scented bathwater to the sound of loudening chuckles.

“Oh, get a room, you two!”

Meanwhile, the rachfi remained in her husband’s grip, stone-faced and scornfully forcing herself to think of other matters, like what sort of texts she and her daughter would read tomorrow, or the trip to her sister in Xiang she had been telling herself to make. She couldn’t remain. She needed to breathe - now.

“My love?” she whispered as cordially as she could manage. Her husband afforded her an empty hum. “You must no doubt be getting hungry. How about I go back inside and fetch that maokl and tea you requested earlier?”

“Yes! The maokl! I’m going to starve to the bones at this rate,” declared Sweetpea and caressed Bloom’s cheek. With this, the rach agreed and let his wife go.

“Awfully thoughtful of you, my love. Go on, then - don’t take the whole night, though, you heard Sweetpea - the man’s starving, the fat bastard.”

“Get off my back, Nilly - I’m building muscle, you hear?” There came an offensive splash of water followed by laughter.

“Hey, don’t get water in the kwut, you idiot!”

To the harrowing cacophony of their mocking cackle, the rachfi left the partitions and stepped back into their house. There, she found the nearest wall and collapsed against it, letting herself lower to the ground as fury and frustration choked her up to the mouth. She would escape this place.

Some day.

The Merchant Kings 3 - Gains for the Gods


“Hnng… HRRRNG!”

“You can do it! PUSH, MAN! PUSHPUSHPUSH!”

“RRRRRRRRRAAAAAAH!” Tulipan’s muscles could come bursting out of his skin any moment. The fresh, fat palm trunk in his rough, hardworked hands weighed could be weighing almost twice as much as him for all they knew - and that was part of the fun. Its bark sported tiny needles which dug into his palms, so blood mixed with the sweat and dirt; Tulipan paid it no mind, though - he knew no pain. He was the man; he was a monster - a beast, the KING of beasts!

“TULIP! TULIP! TULIP!” the other men egged and clapped their hands, pounded their chests and slapped their thighs. Tulipan’s comically massive arms slowly brought the trunk up to chest level, his crooked back attempting to straighten out. His breathing was almost deafening, groans and growls booming in his ears to the rhythm of his heart. He was close now - just a few more inches and the trunk would reach his face. He would be the strongest - strong enough to challenge even Lavender!

Then a sound - a wicked snap that sent a cold cringe down everyone’s spine. The trunk hit the ground with a thunk and Tulipan descended to his knees, his jaws locked in a silent scream. Then, a wheeze, one which slowly caught hold in his vocal cords, producing a very quiet wail, like a child slowly realising it has been hurt immensely. He knelt unmoving, though, and the onlookers shifted between each other and his sorry state.

“H-hey, Tulip? You okay?”

“M-m-m-m-mah back…” he quivered in response and fell backwards, barely able to move a muscle.

“Is -that- what that snap was?!” came a gasp. Then silence.

“By the gods, that’s awful…”

“Yeah… Shit…”

“Yeah… So does that mean Dandelion wins the bet?”

“I think it does, actually.”

Tulipan gasped for more air. “Guys, it really, really hurts--”

“Alright! Dandelion? Where’d he go, damn it.”
Tulipan rolled onto his belly. “Guys, I… I can’t move my arms very well… Nor my legs.”

“Pfft, yeah, yeah, walk it off, big guy. You won’t let a little muscle ache get you down, will ya?” The crowd had already dispersed, half returning to finish their daily workout at the training area, the other half going to get herbs to pay off their lost bet with. A smaller man named Syrin squatted down next to Tulipan and patted him comfortingly on his paining shoulder. “Hey, don’t look so down. You’ll be right back up in no time.”

Tulipan cringed and looked sorrily up at his colleague. “I… I don’t think this is a normal muscle ache, brother…”

“Oh, come on, when’d you become such a girl? What, you’re gonna tell me that you, Big Tulipan, got done in by a trunk?”

Tulip swallowed. “‘C-course not! Just… Would you get me a sage?”

“Oh, quiet down… Have some xoag and you’ll be right as night.”

“Syrin, I’m telling you, I think something is--” He gasped as he tried to move his arms again. “... I think something is very wrong.”

“What could -possibly- be wrong? Did you drop the trunk on your arm?”

Tulip forced himself onto his elbows, the pain straining his face to the point where veins began popping up. “By [abbr=Fragrancian god of Night and Might]Kippom[abbr], I wish this didn’t hurt so badly…”

’Kippom?’ Hm, that’s what you went with? A deep voice wondered from within his head. Tulipan swallowed.

“What was that?” he mumbled. Syrin clicked curiously.

“What was what?”

”Oh, hey, Cades! Got called, too, did ya?”

It would seem that way. ‘God of Night and Might’. Hm. Do they think we are the same?

Tulipan tried in futility to reach his ears. “What is going on?!”

“Hey, woah, Tulip, calm down, what’s up?” Syrin tried to restrain him gently. “Hey, look at me - are you okay?” A crowd started forming around them,

Pfft, heck if I know. Probably. Would make sense, kinda - from what I know of these, uh... There was a rush of paper pages. ... Fraygranzians… Is that they think the moon’s the soul of a big, mighty man. I suppose they’ve sorta just fused us together as a result. Funny how that happens, huh?

But there are two moons. What does the second one represent?

Hey, guy with the bad back, what does the purple moon represent?

“There are two voices in my head, Syrin! They’re talkin’ about the moons and shit! Am I going crazy?”

“Gods, man, you weren’t kidding! Hey, Cinnen, go fetch a sage! Well, I don’t know - anyone!”

There came a stunted sigh. I’unno, they won’t tell me. Probably his boyfriend or something, if I know these people right. I mean, it is purple, after all - these boys like purple.

Well I suppose they have a fine taste of colours, if nothing else. Anyhow. Young mortal, what seems to be the issue?

“Now it’s talking to -me-, man! It’s talkin’ to MEEE!” The muscled giant had been restrained by three others, all of whom were trying to calm him down. However, his arms were twisted onto his back, causing the grounded man to weep in agony. “ACH, MY BAAACK!”

Think he might’a done a lil’ snip-snap on that middle back, y’catch my drift?

Hm. Oh dear. Yes, this is quite grim. He may never fully recover…


...I suppose I might as well fix that.

Then suddenly, a purple glow enveloped his body. The pain faded, as his abused muscles were mended. An ache still remained, but Tulip could once again move his arms and legs.

The man suddenly stopped squirming, then slowly pushed himself to his feet as the others climbed off of him, noticing his sudden change in behaviour. Tulipan flexed and unflexed his arms, squatted up and down a few times, then shot both hands into the air and whistled so the others had to cover their ears. “I’M CURED!” he whispered triumphantly and the others cheered with him.

“Then what the hell was that just now? Did you play with us all along, or?”

“No, no! It was in super bad pain, then all of a sudden, I get these two voices in my head. They start talking about the moons, and then one of them mentions my back, and boom! I’m healed!”

“That’s because you were talking to the gods, you bafoon!” came a sharp whisper from outside the crowd. Cinnen had returned with a silver-skirted man, his bare chest bejeweled with rare stones suspended on silver necklaces, piercings and nipple rings. His fingers were ringed with all kinds of stones and metals, and his black beard was braided in silk. The nelves parted the route between the sage and Tulipan, and the sage went over to slap the giant across the face. “Show some damned respect, you subnelven slug. Down on your knees and hands - all of you!” His command rang out despite never exceeding a whisper, and soon, all the nelves were on their knees. The sage drew a slow breath, sitting up and looking around to make sure everyone had assumed their proper positions of subjugation. Then, placing his palms together at the belly, fingers facing down, he whispered, “Great gods - I am the sage known as Crocus the Capable. I was summoned thinking there would be only one idiot to save today, but found many who have so foolishly forgotten their masters of the Night Realm.” He bowed forward into a kowtow again. “Forgive them, please.”

Oh, no harm done, the voice said dismissively, this time for all of them to hear. All of you, rise.

They did as told, waiting patiently for the next order under the eagle glare of the sage. Meanwhile, another voice made a soft hum.

Aight, cool. So you got this, you think?

I suppose I do. Why? Are you leaving?

I mean, I can hang around if you want. Not like I’m doing much. Only if you want, though - don’t wanna intrude or nothin’.

“Why are there two voices?”

“Sssh!” the sage snapped.

I am Cadien. God of Beauty, Strength, and War. The other voice is Gibbou. Goddess of Night, Moon, Protection, and um… have you picked up anything else lately?

Nah, it’s alright, you got it.

“K-Kaitian?” the sage mumbled. “Tulipan, who on Galbar did you summon?”

“I-I-I dunno! I called out to Kippom!”

“Yeah, he said Kippom, but are there two of them? Who else did you call for?”

Woof, how these folks have fallen… But they’re my creations, so... There came a defeated sigh.

“What was that?!” the sage gasped. “Have we wronged you somehow, great Kippom? Your voice sounds pitched with sadness.”

No, no… Gibbou said in a faked deep voice. No, just thinking on the past and, and being manly.

“Ah. Naturally. Great Kippom does as he does. But yes, back to this new great one, uh, Kaitian. We welcome you to Fragrance.”

Cadien, the voice corrected.

“Keytian, understood,” the sage replied respectfully. There came a gibbous giggle.

I do not understand how you have this job, ‘Keytian’ sighed. Anyhow. You. Tulipan, was it?

The nelves all scuttered away from Tulipan, leaving him alone in the centre of the crowd. He sat up slowly and pointed at his nose. “M-me, your greatness?”

Yes, you. I must say, as a God of Strength it is gratifying to see somebody commit themself to physical improvement with such vigour. But for one to nearly cripple themselves while doing so is counterproductive. Do your people understand the importance of stretches and warm-ups?

“You mean, like, jogging?” came a voice and a raised hand.

“No, idiot, he means like gwachwoi.”

“Ugh, I -hate- gwachwoi!”

Hate it or no, some preparation is necessary. If you dive into the heaviest exercises too early, you end up like this Tulip fellow here. It’s important to start out with light exercises, to get your muscles used to some amount of strain, so that they may endure even greater strain later on.

“But wait!” came a voice. “Tulipan’s the strongest of us all! Why shouldn’t he be able to lift what he wants right away?”

Because of what just happened. Are you not paying attention? All bodies, even the strongest, have limits. A true athlete must know how to reach those limits without breaking them. Tell me, what are the most common exercise methods among your people?

“Lift stones and sticks, then fight with sticks, gymnastics, running, dancing…”

“Dancing’s awesome!”

“Sure is, brother!” The sound of two clasping hands echoed across the otherwise silent area.

Hm. That is a start. I believe you could do with some more refined facilities, however. Find me a place in your city where I can build.

The sage suddenly piped up, “Great Keytian - may I offer some counsel regarding placement of what I assume is a training ground - thank you a thousand times for that, by the way.”

What is it?

“Put it not in the city, but outside - perhaps right here, even. Exercise is classified as loudwork, after all - it would be terrible for the citizens to have to hear the groan of lads and the hack of stone.”

Oh, that’s my bad. Shoulda mentioned that. Sorry, Cades.


Oh, uh… Nothing, nothing. Nelves don’t like loud noises, is all. Shoulda… Probably… Mentioned that earlier or… Or something.

“Kippom speaks the truth. The great calamity is sourced from cacophony,” said the sage sagely.

How strange. Hm. Very well, then. It shall be built here.

And with those words, the ground began to shift, becoming flatter and firmer. Brush and debris were cleared away. Then, equipment seemed to materialize out of thin air.
There were racks with weights of varying sizes, crafted from metal and stone, and nearby there were a series of benches with metal rods on which the largest of the weights could be fixed. There was an obstacle course, with various hurdles one was meant to leap over or dodge under. There was a raised fenced platform, clearly meant to be some sort of sparring or wrestling ring. There was a range, on which one could practice throwing javelins or heavy stone balls. There were raised metal bars, intended for pull-ups and chin-ups. Cadien had also crafted a series of what seemed to be soft mattresses, where one could perform exercises that required no equipment in a state of relative comfort.

Those were but a few of the apparatuses Cadien had created; there were many more, some of which were not immediately obvious in what they were meant to be used for. There was also a dirt track surrounding the space, and beyond that, a stone wall roughly equal to the height of a tall nelf, clearly intended for privacy or security purposes.


“The gods have given us a blessing, men! As one now - bow and give your thanks!” The sage lead the rest into a kowtow once more and they all whispered as one.

“Thank you, great Keytian!” As soon as that was said, some on the fringe of the circle scuttled off to regard and test the equipment. “Woah, this is so convenient!”

“What is this substance? Is it bronze?” came a curious whisper followed by some metallic knocks of fingernails on the chin-up bars. The sage rose up in a jolt.

“Hey! Get back here and be thankful!” However, as he did so, the rest hurried to their feet and scurried over to the gym to join in. Gibbou’s cosmic laughter rang out and there came a quiet clap.

Not bad, not bad at all. Feel like I oughta add a little something, at least. Here.

The dry soil around the gymnasium lushed with dark blues as the wind blew across the midnight grass. In the midst of the conservative growth, there sprouted tall, straight shrubberies which leaves curved barely and firmly, much like the hair atop a pineapple’s head. The centre of the shrub revealed a dark-leafed flower with a centre of shiny, gelatinous seeds. The sage, having no more nelves to herd back into place, gracefully stepped over and dramatically picked a single seed, the substance bobbing elastically between his fingers. Placing the back of one palm on his forehead and leaning back, clicking his tongue and drumming his feet for attention. “Oh, Kippom, great Kippom - what is this berry Your Grace has given us?”

Gibbou tried to darken her voice even more, sounding as though she was imitating a toad. This, my child, is a Powerflower - eat just one seed of this here bloom, and your, uh, gains will surely be… Better, or something.

The sage eyed the seed closely. “What an honour - what a joy!” He popped it in his mouth and forced a smile through tears and cringing cheekbones. “Thishishthebesht.”

Uh, yeah, least I could do, uh, sage.

“Hey, what’s this?” came another voice and another hand grabbed a few seeds, shoving them into his mouth. Immediately, he fell to the ground vomiting. “UGH! BLEEEH! These are terrible!” The sage slapped him to the ground.

“You fool! This is a divine gift! Forgive him, great Kippom - he meant nothing by it!”

Clicks sounded from the cosmos. No problem, fam. Y’all just… Just be careful about eating too many, okay? Too much of a good thing and all that… So, Cades, you done?

One more thing, the God of Perfection said to the Night Elves. In one year’s time, I shall require you to assemble ten of the most physically fit and able among your number. A competition shall be held, and a champion will be chosen. And with those words, the gods’ presence departed.

The sage Crocus stood valiantly with moisture in his eyes. “Yes. Yes, great gods. The tournament will be LEGEND!”

Tulipan put down the barbell and gave his sweaty head a scratch. He clicked for Syrin’s attention, who was in the middle of stretching his back with some bent-over bows. The nelf held his pose, scalp pointing to the ground and clicked back to signal that Tulip had indeed captured his attention.

“Did you hear what Keytian just said?”

“He said anything?” replied Syrin and levered himself back up with a straight back.

“That’s what I’m not sure of… Hey, pass me the oil, would you? I gotta look good for this set.” Then they returned to their workout.

Allies in the Dark - The Gray Hag

Year 30AA, late winter, Ha-Dûna...

“A-are you sure this is a good idea, Burud? Y-you know what they say about her, a-after all! Oh, there’s gotta be another way!”

“Shut up, Murtagh! The Dûnans are paying for what they’ve done to us - to this whole country. You know as well as I do that this is the only way.”

“B-but is it, though?” The two were, in truth, beyond lost deep inside a forest to the far east of Scawick, almost beyond the Tordentind Mountains. They had been travelling for a full two weeks to get here - three days ago, they had reached the border of the woods. At this point, they were certain some sort of terrible charm had been cast upon them to throw them off their trail. They were, after all, chasing a legend - a local myth said to be dwelling in the deepest, darkest middle of these ancient woods.

A witch.

Burud kicked away a snow-covered, rotting stock and stepped over a frozen root. Murtagh had never seen a man so determined - fueled by a need for vengeance, he was an unstoppable machine, trekking through these endless woods for days on end, when all energy should have been spent weeks ago. Murtagh could hardly keep up. Then, as Murtagh had to keel over to take a breather, he noticed one of the roots on the ground looking slightly more twisted than usual.

“Hey, Burud? This root’s a little weirder than usual.”

There came a wet spit from up ahead. “They’re all weird here - these are cursed woods, after all. Nothing’s normal here.”

Murtagh squinted at the root. “No, no, you don’t get it… It’s… It’s pointing somewhere.” He knelt down to inspect the root’s direction. Burud sighed up ahead.

“Alright, I’ll play your game… What’s it pointing at? The trunk?” Burud stepped over and shot the root a lopsided view; at that moment, he also noticed that it seemed to, quite literally, gesture in a certain direction. “Well, I’ll be damned…” The root pointed off the beaten path, in a direction that not even the local fauna had seemed to step in - there weren’t even signs of critters having ever made a path through the snow in that direction. “... Could this be it?”

“What were the directions?”

“‘Go into the woods and keep walking until the forest itself shows you the--... It was pretty obvious now that I think about it, actually,” Burud confessed. Murtagh scrunched his nose.

“Well… After you, chief.” With that, the pair placed the first pair of feet in the snow which had laid untouched all season. Almost immediately, the woods shifted, as though the scenic view they had been shown for three whole days had been just that - a view. The old trees grew eldritch and overgrown, and the bark grew wicked faces which seemed to glare or grin at them as they went by. The sounds of birdsong and wind in the branches had disappeared completely - the silence was deafening.

Murtagh jumped suddenly, scaring Burud into drawing his axe. “By the gods, Murtagh, what’s wrong with you?!”

“D-d-d-d-did you hear that?!”

Burud held his breath and looked around. Murtagh’s eyes darted in every direction. “Did I hear what, exactly?”

“Th-th-there was a laugh - a laugh on the wind. S-s-s-sounded like a ghost!”

Burud groaned. “Kid, there’s no such thing as ghosts! It’s your own mind playing tricks on you, I bet.”

Murtagh then jumped again, Burud grabbing his shoulders controllingly. “Murtagh. calm down!”

“THERE IT WAS AGAIN! Oh, Burud, I can’t do this. I can’t, I, I--” SMACK! The younger man shut up as Burud’s palm clapped him hard across the face, then he stiffened with obedience and fear as his superior grabbed him by the collar and pulled his face in close.

“Man yourself up, you squirt! We’ve come too far to piss off now! Listen to me - there is nothing out there. Now… Let’s--”

“B-b-b-but I hear it, Burud! As clearly as I’m hearing you, and, and, and-- OW! Stop hitting me!”

“Then stop fffffreaking me out, you shit!” Burud spat back. “Calm yourself down -right- now, or I’m gagging you with your own balls - do you understand?”



Murtagh nodded carefully and Burud let go of his collar. The two shared a mutual stare for a few seconds before a sudden scent caught them both by surprise. It was smoke - smoke with a faint hint of herbs and meaty flavours. The two widened their eyes and one another and quickly set off into a sprint. The scent grew stronger and stronger as they ran, their nostrils filling with the scents of applewood cinders and venison stew. Jumping over one final stock and rounding a corner of thickly growing trees, they saw it - a hut, centered in a clearing that somehow was darker than the woods around them. Inside flickered a flame in the hearth, and the two quickly realised how dearly they longed for proper shelter. They scurried over to the wooden door and, after some back and forth about who got to knock, Burud gave the planks a gentle bang.

“Coming,” came a frail voice and Burud and Murtagh frowned at one another.

“She sounds ancient,” whispered Murtagh.

“Well, according to the stories, she’s been around for centuries - way before we came.”

“Three hundred and forty-eight years, just about - give or take a decade.” The wooden door slid open, revealing a face so twisted by age that neither Murtagh nor Burud could be certain of whether she was wrinkly or bark-skinned. Her eyes had long since passed the definition of what could be considered hollow - unless one squinted hard, it was hard to tell whether she had eyes at all. Her nose stabbed at the air like the beak of a long-dead crow, with warts popping up all over it like the forest floor in the mushroom season. What little hair she had left hung in strands that could better be described as webs, looking as though they had been holding onto her skull for many lifetimes. The smile she offered them didn’t have a single tooth, and the gums looked to be rotting away in her mouth. It would be accurate to describe her frail frame as more bone than both skin and flesh, and her dress was a collection of moth-eaten rags haphazardly wrapped together with stinking animal furs. The witch studied their expressions with quiet amusement before posing with surprising energy for her appearance. “I know - aren’t I just the pinnacle of beauty?”

“How in the gods’ names are you so--” Murtagh swallowed the rest of the sentence as Burud punched him in the throat.

“So ugly?” asked the witch with a shrug. Murtagh nodded through his gasps for air. Burud groaned from the depths of his lungs. The witch snickered. “No, no, no, I love it when people ask - they’re always so afraid that it’ll be, y’know, ‘offensive’ or something, but it’s actually a fun story! Come in, come in! I’ll tell ya.” She herded them inside and went over to the kitchen table, where a fresh wooden tray of oatcakes sat steaming. She gestured for the two to sit down on each their small tree trunk stool next to a small saloon table. She stepped over with uncanny agility and put down the tray, taking a biscuit for herself and sitting down on a stool opposite of the visitors. Burud looked at the tray with skepticism, but helped himself to a biscuit as well as the witch’s gestures grew too intense to ignore.

“You knew we were coming?”

The witch scoffed. “Of course, I knew. I’ve known you two were coming for the last three days. Truth be told, i thought you two would give up.”

Burud swallowed his cookie bite and frowned over at Murtagh, who had also helped himself to a biscuit. “We would have arrived sooner. You’re not an easy woman to find.”

“Pffft, come now - I think the trees were actually quite helpful in showing you where to go. Not their fault you two can’t take a hint.” She then burst into a cackle that neither Burud nor Murtagh felt they could participate in, not even politely so. The witch then immediately stopped laughing, her eye twitching slowly. She sat in silence for two seconds exactly, not enough to be awkward, but just enough to be uncomfortable. Then, as soon as she had frozen, she thawed, her toothless smile returning. “So, anyway, I had this rival, right?”

Burud put down his biscuit. “Look, lady, we don’t have all--”

“Shushushush, let me tell my story, alright? Basic courtesy, son.”

Burud groaned. “In all honestly, lady, we’re not here to--”

“And zip!” As the witch waved her hand, Burud suddenly began to scream in agony. Murtagh dropped his biscuit and looked on, white as a sheet, as Burud’s teeth became like plaster, twisting out of his mouth and digging themselves into the meat of his lips like thread on needles, sewing them shut as blood gushed into his mouth and down his throat. The man fell down on the floor and clawed at his mouth for the pain to stop, only worsening the damage as nails and fingers tore at flesh and skin that was never meant to be exposed to this sort of treatment. Murtagh’s breathing was as quick as his heartbeat, and the witch let out a soft “prrt” through her lips.

“Alright, while the whiddle bebby cries himself to sleep on the floor, do you wanna hear my story, my boy?”

Unable to do anything else, Murtagh nodded slowly. The witch clapped happily and grinned from halved ear to whole ear. “Great! That actually means a lot to me - I don’t get visitors very often, so it’s nice to talk to somebody, y’know. So anyway, I had this rival, right? Used to call her the Wicked Witch of the East, or between you and me - the Wicked Bitch with the Broad Side - heyooo!” She paused for applause that never came. “Anyway, we had a fight, because she was a bitch and I hate her, and we did some mean shit to one another - I mean really mean shit. Come on. Come on, ask me what kind of mean shit.”

“Wh-wh-wh-what kind of m-m-m-mean shit?” stuttered Murtagh as he constantly shifted over to the still-screaming Burud on the floor.

“Ho, boy! Strap in, ‘cuz that was a reeeeaal bad year everyone involved. Think we levelled, like, six villages and burnt down a whole forest or something. Oh, and she made me like this. Can you believe it? Around two hundred years ago, I was the most beautiful girl in all the land - now I look like something some deviant dug out of a grave to have a last little round with on a lonely night.” She shrugged. “Pretty crazy, right?”

Murtagh swallowed. “Wh-wh-what happened t-t-t-to the other witch?”

“The bitch, y’mean? Oh, I killed her.”

“K-killed her?”

“Killed her dead.”

“Killed her dead?”

“Dead, deadiddy, dead-dead. Made her tongue twist backwards, run down her throat and lick her lungs to shreds from the inside. That felt so good.” She offered the crying Burud a glance. “Okay, I’ve told my story - let’s hear yours.” She snapped her fingers, and in the flash of a second, Burud’s mouth went back to normal, his wounds healing as though they had never existed. Immediately, the warrior pulled out his axe and scrambled to his feet.

“What in the demons’ names are y--”

“And back you go!” sighed the witch with a roll of the eyes and waved her hand. Once again, the hut filled with Burud’s screams as his face pruned like drying meat, his eyes shrinking into mere raisins and his tongue turning into a stiff stick of jerky. After a while, one could only hear him wheeze.

“NO! You’ll kill him!” pleaded Murtagh as his mind finally snapped and he scurried down off his stool to help his comrade. An invisible force stopped him, however, and he was forced back onto his stool, trapped there by an unseeable chain. The witch shook her head slowly.

“Relaaaax, I’ve got him. This is my field of expertise - I make dying take time. If I wanted I could make him live like this for, oh, I dunno, years. He’d need help to eat and drink, of course, but you could give him anything as, y’know, he wouldn’t be able to taste much with a tongue like that.” She shrugged. “Or, y’know, you’d need to done none of that, and I’d just let him thirst and starve until I felt like he’d suffered enough - he wouldn’t die unless I said so, of course; he’d just thirst, and thirst, and thirst and starve, and starve and starve, until he could no longer remember what it’d be like to have a full belly or a wet throat.” She stood up from her stood, stepped over to Burud’s wheezing, dried up corpse of a body and squatted down. “Now, when I turn you back, will you be a good boy?”

Utterly defeated, Burud wheezed something that sounded affirming. The witch nodded.

“Good, because if you even think about doing something stupid again, I will have your skin peel off so slowly that you’ll be able to feel every fiber snap loose from the muscle beneath - and I don’t think I’ll remember how to reverse that spell.” With that, she snapped her fingers, and Burud’s body instantly returned to its normal state, though the man remained on the floor, eyes devoid of hope and fervour.

“B-Burud?” whimpered Murtagh, unable to look over due to the invisible force. “BURUD?!”

“Ugh, you two are so noisy!” complained the witch as she sat down down on her stool. “Come on, why do you think I served you cookies? Eat more, talk less.” She had another biscuit and offered Murtagh a lopsided frown as she chewed. “So, never asked, why are you actually here?”

Murtagh swallowed. “W-w-w-we need a curse.”

“Pfft, obviously.” She rolled her eyes as though Murtagh had just told her that water is, in fact, wet. “Well, come on, give me the details - who, what, when, where?”


“Ha-Dûna where and who?” the witch asked impatiently.

“Ha-Dûna,” said Murtagh again. Upon seeing the witch’s confused squint, he elaborated, “L-l-like, all of it.”

“All of Ha-Dûna?”


“As in all the lands, the people, cows, pigs, chickens and grain?”

“All of it.”

The witch blinked skeptically to herself before raising both eyebrows and bobbing her head from side to side. “Phew. That’s a tall order, kid.”

“T-tall order?”

“Too tall. Much too tall for old Resla.” She shrugged. “You’d have better luck asking the gods for something like that. At best, I can give you an afternoon of raining frogs, but that’s about it… And even that would be an ordeal.”

“Th-then… A, a Dûnan village?”

“Better, but I gotta clarify for ya that curses, well, they’re stronger the fewer people they affect. So if you really want someone to pay, I’d recommend aiming for a certain family or even just one person. I could hex a village for you, of course - poison the wells, sterilise the men, give the children lead poisoning - no biggie. But that’s not exciting enough, is it? If you two came to me, then I think you have it out for a certain someone who’s done you a lot of wrong.”

“... Yes… There is one,” came Burud’s exhausted voice. Murtagh realised the force no longer was gripping him and rushed over to help him.

“Burud! Are you alright?”

“Alriiight! One person - now it’s getting hotter.”

“One family - if she goes, so will her family. Her ilk must be wiped off this world for good.”

Resla grinned her toothless grin again. “Oh, I like the sound of that. Give me a name and I’ll figure out the rest.”

Burud sat himself up weakly and looked the witch in the eyes. “Hilda. Hilda the Leoness.”

The witch pursed her lips and quietly tasted the name on her lips. “Hilda, Hilda, Hilda… Sounds familiar - can’t quite put my finger on it, but sounds familiar. Eh, I’m sure I’ll remember when I check up on her. Alright. How would you like her cursed?”

“Make it slow - as slow and as painful as you can.”

“Emotionally or physically painful? Or both, maybe? She sounds evil enough that we can include both, right?”

“Both. Both is good.”

Resla rubbed her bony hands. “Alright, I think I have some ideas. I’ll need a little something from you two, though, for the curse to become as potent as possible… And I’ll need some payment for the service.”

Burud sat up a little stronger, supported by Murtagh. “What do you need?”

“Well, for the curse itself, I’ll need a good sacrifice. Does this Hilda have a child, by chance?”

Murtagh looked uneasy, his eyes shifting over to Burud. Burud, on the other hand, looked dreadfully determined all of a sudden. “Yes. She has many, actually.”

“Oh, good! That’ll make things so much easier. Tell you what - if you could get your hands on one of them, we’ll just use that. Otherwise, I’ll have to ask you to head into the Prairie to fetch a leon or to bring me the head of a ranglefant or tongue of a drighina, and, well, out of those four options, a child is just so much easier to get, y’know.” She snickered to herself, ignoring the terrible weight of the conversation which seemed to be crushing Murtagh and, to a lesser extent, Burud.

“And what… What’s the fee?” asked Burud warily. The witch snapped her fingers.

“Oh yeah! Almost forgot - hand to remember stuff when you’re almost three fiddy, y’know.” She held up her hand and pointed at her ring finger. “One from each, please.”

Murtagh’s breathing quickened again. Burud grit his teeth together. “Our… Our fingers?”

“Ring fingers, specifically. A lot of power in exactly that one. Most people think it’s useless, but it’s actually that one finger that holds the most power in the whole hand, seeing as it’s just left to gather strength on its own, almost never being of use to anyone. Being cast out and seen as hopeless by others makes you powerful - self-reliant. Like me!” She giggled to herself before immediately shifting to a colder mask. “So yeah, that’s the price. Hand over your fingers and bring me the child - after that, I can guarantee you that Hilda will never be at peace ever again.”

Murtagh and Burud looked at each other again. Murtagh’s quivering lips told Burud everything he needed to know, and the senior took his companion weakly by the colour and brought his face closer to his. “Remember all the people she’s killed, Murtagh - how she’s spat on our people for decades. Our own flesh is a small price to pay for justice.”

“W-we’re talking about killing a child here, Burud… We’re talking about killing a child and giving up our limbs in the process.”

“One limb, Murtagh! One tiny finger in exchange for the juiciest vengeance we could ever have.”

“A child, Burud--”

“HER child, Murtagh!” The younger man grew quiet. Burud’s eyes have an intimidating darkness in them, one that no moralising speech could pierce no matter the gravity of this heinous act. “Her ilk is no better than herself. They will grow up to become slavers, raiders and rapers, butchering our people and allies throughout the realm for decades to come. Come on…” He placed a hand on his heart. “... Do it for Wenya.”

Murtagh’s eyes opened slowly and began to fill with tears. “Don’t you fucking mention her name to me. Not here. Not now.”

“They killed her, Murtagh. Those two Dûnans killed her and Hilda defended them like they had beaten some dog in the street as part of some sick game. I bet she took part in the murder herself.”

“Shut up…” wept Murtagh. Burud drew him closer.

“... This is our chance, lad. She will fucking pay.” A minute passed where the only sound was Murtagh’s silent sobbing, his tears dripping down onto Burud’s face. Eventually, he hulked a louder sob and bobbed his head up and down. Burud nodded back, taking his axe from his belt. Still weeping, Murtagh pulled off his right glove and put it between his teeth, laying his ring finger down on the tree trunk stool. Burud looked him in the eyes to see if he was ready, and upon receiving a nod, brought down his axe. The finger was lopped off in a single strike, and Murtagh rolled back, screaming into his glove through biting teeth. Burud took off his own glove and hesitated slightly as he held the axe over his own finger. He frequently looked back to the witch, who had by now placed her head neatly on the balls of both palms and left it to observe the situation with a toothless grin.

“Oh, don’t let me distract you. Go on,” she giggled. Burud closed his eyes and hefted his axe.

“Oh! Keep your eyes open - don’t wanna split your hand or anything,” added the witch quickly. Burud sucked in a breath through the nose and, opening his eyes in a split second, brought down the axe. The finger hopped right off, leaving a quickly growing pool of blood over the stood, with more running down his palm as he slowly lifted up his hand. His body pumped him so full of adrenaline that he could hardly feel it right away, but he was nonetheless compelled to groan painfully and gasp for air, clutching his hand to his chest. A slow clap brought his eyes back to the witch.

“Bra-vo~! Solid effort by the both of you!” She tossed them each a length of linen, ripped from her own rags. “You two are really desperate for revenge - I like that; nothing beats a good vengeance story, in my opinion.” With a giddy gait, the witch hopped off her stool and collected the two fingers. She then crossed the room and deposited them into a clay jar. “Alright. The pact is sealed. Bring me the child at your earliest convenience, and we can begin.”

Burud finished helping Murtagh wrap his hand and pushed himself to his feet with great effort, the shock of adrenaline almost paralysing him. “W-will we find you here as we have today?”

“Yup! But don’t worry - next time, I’ll let you waltz right in as soon as you arrive. Would you like anything for the road, by the way?”

The two Scawicks supported each other with grips around their shoulders and shook their heads in unison. The witch shrugged. “Alrighty! Then I wish you a safe journey home! Toodles!” With that, she snapped her fingers, and the two suddenly found themselves standing at the border of the woods, a mad cackle haunting them faintly on the wind. Murtagh could barely stand, and soon fell to his knees in exhaustion. He was about to cave forward into the snow, too, but Burud caught him.

“Murtagh. Murtagh! Stay with me!”

The young man gave Burud an exhausted glance. “What have we done, Burud?”

The elder was shaken, but tried to maintain his determined facade. He did his best to help Murtagh back to his feet again, and the two slowly started making their way back towards home. “What was necessary to get our justice, brother.”

A Bastion of Culture 2 - Virtue

Year 29AA, middle winter, Ha-Dûna...

Hilda sat across from a colleague théin, one of younger, more slender and leaner build than her and of a mood a thousand times brighter than her own. Between them stood a small table reaching them to about the kneecaps; on top of the table was a smaller wooden square, painted with black lines in a criss-crossing pattern. A heap of small, uneven stones laid in one bowl for each, dark for Hilda and light for her opponent. The board has a number more of these stones, spread out like walls up against each other. Hilda stared a pair of daggers at the smug smirk on her opponent’s face and placed down a charcoal stone next to one of her white.

“That’s it for your line, Materix. I win,” announced the Leoness. Around them stood a small crowd, all of whom looked to disagree with the statement. The théin Materix shook her head patronisingly and sighed.

“Hilda, Hilda, Hilda… You’ve left yourself open.” With that, she picked up a stone and placed it on the opposite side of their line, where Hilda had unknowingly left an opening. With that, Materix’ stones had surrounded Hilda’s flank, and her line was compromised. Hilda blinked and squinted at the spot.

“You’ve removed one of my stones, haven’t you?” she snarled. Materix’ smug turned to a frown.

“That’s sorry loser talk. No, Hilda, I did not touch your stones. I won fair and square - that’s all.” A ring of metal quickly silenced her explanation, though, as she saw Hilda’s left hand had wrapped itself around the hilt of her long dagger.

“You’re undoing that move right now, missy, or I’ll send your axe-hand to your mother in a sack.”

Materix blinked back. “She’ll have you executed for that, you know.”

“Jailed and put to work in the temples, at worst,” Hilda spat back, putting on a lopsided smirk of her own. “That’s just the kind of spine she has nowadays, after all. Say, you think I’ll cut through the bone on my first try, or will I have to give it a second chop?” Instinctively, Materix pulled her hand to herself. That instant, the crowds next to them parted, and in came Boudicca, her sword unsheathed and ready in her right hand.

“Hilda, that’s enough. Leave my daughter alone.”

Hilda turned her head and raised a lazy brow at the sanndatr. Then, in a near-instantaneous move, she grabbed Materix by the neck of her tunic and pulled her in close, dagger resting at her throat. The crowd and Boudicca instinctively stepped in closer, and Boudicca managed to place her sword on the nape of Hilda’s neck. “Enough. You’ve had your fun.”

Hilda grit her teeth and drew a caged breath. “Who do you think is faster, hmm? Can you take my head before I coat this here table and floor in Mini-Boody-blood? Oh, I’m sorry - what I meant to ask was whether you’ll have time to find me a cozy bunk and some clean clothes in the Temple of the Moon?” She pulled the now whimpering Materix closer, the knife drawing a droplet of blood. “It seems I’ve been a -very- naughty girl.”

“Hilda, I’m warning you--”

“Oh, -now- comes the warning? Seems that we have plenty of time left, sweety,” snickered Hilda and gave Materix a kiss on the forehead. Boudicca growled and swung her sword arm back, but stopped as Hilda let Materix go and stepped back. The girl hurried over to her mother and was immediately surrounded by many more from the crowd coming to tend to her. Hilda shook her head slowly. “Back in the day, you would’ve taken my head without a second thought, woman. What happened to you?”

Boudicca snarled and sheathed the sword. Hilda rolled her eyes. “... And even as I stand here, you put down your weapon. Where’s the Boudicca that would kill a man for spitting in the wrong direction?”

“She never existed, Hilda,” answered Boudicca, “and if she ever did, she’s been long dead.”

Hilda sucked thoughtfully on a tooth and scrunched her nose. “Yeah… Yeah, suppose she has, huh. Shame.” She sheathed her dagger and turned around. “She was a good friend of mine.” Then she left, the crowd parting before her like grass blown down by a hurricane. When she was sure she had left, Boudicca spun around to her daughter, shoving her way through the thick wall of people to embrace her.

“Materix! Are you alright? Let me see the cut!”

Materix slapped her hand away and grit her teeth. “Mom, I’m fine!” Her breathing was ragged with anger. “Why did you let her do that to me? Just like that, without any repercussions!”

“Materix, I’ll think of something for her - some time in the--”

“In the dungeons? In temple service? You think that’ll do her some good? You’ll just be proving her right!” Materix pushed her away and Boudicca got a good look at the faces of the others around them: Their frowns seemed to suggest that Materix’ words made quite a bit of sense to them. Boudicca growled and grabbed her daughter by the hand, pulling her away from the rest. She fought, groaned and snarled, but could not outmatch the strength of her mother.

“L-let go of me! Answer for yourself, you stupid--!”

“One more word, Matty, and I’ll have Kaer Moyen beat you for childish behaviour!” The two rounded the corner out of sight of the rest.

“Oh! So -I- can be punished! For speaking, no less! Yeah, that seems fair! Hey, everyone, watch out! Ha-Dûna’s top criminal coming throu-ough!~!” They rounded another corner and Boudicca slammed her into a wall, nearly knocking the air out of her. “Ah! Ow, mom!” But before she could continue, the expression on her mother’s face sent terror running through her skin, bones and the wood in the wall behind her. It was the sort of face that every child, and anyone who’s ever been a child, fears more than anything - one that can outfrighten darkness, wolves and even death itself. The giant woman glared down at her daughter before lowering herself to her eye-level, which only seemed to make her more intimidating.

“You think I don’t want to kill Hilda? Even her threat to take your hand made me want to slice her up into pieces and bury them all over the Dûnlands. When she drew your blood, it took every inch of my body to not take her head, do you understand?”

Materix tried to remain defiant. “Well, then, why didn’t you? She’s obviously a thorn in your side - why not just get rid of her?”

“Thinking like that will make you a terrible théin, Mat. We can’t kill someone who hasn’t killed anyone else. Only murder warrants murder. If we succumb to our wrath and kill anyone we don’t like, society as a whole will crumble.” She brought a hand behind her daughter’s head and pulled her slowly in for a safeguarding hug. “... Tell you what - she laid her hands on a fellow théin and drew blood. I’d say that falls under the Dlíbók definition of violence against one’s own kin. That warrants fifty lashes, if I recall.”

Materix pulled away a bit, a smile forming on her lips. “Really?”

Boudicca frowned. “Yes, really, but wipe that smile off this instant. We do not take pleasure in punishing others, even if they’ve done you wrong.”

Materix frowned back. “Yes, -mom-.”

Later that same day, Boudicca had gone for a walk down to the shoreline beneath the city, walking along the rocky beach to the wish and wash of the winter ocean. Fishing boats braving the icy waters were making their way to shore with the day’s catch, and the gulls were circling their hungrily in hopes that they could catch whatever fell overboard. The ocean winds tested the warmth of her plaid and furs, but constant movement kept her warm enough to last. A particular rise in the stone ground invited her to climb it, and there she stood, scanning the horizon of the sea, as though expecting something to come. Nothing would, of course, and in truth, she mostly did this because it soothed her.

Within her realm, Celestine sat upon the throne that lay within her visitation chamber. It had been a short amount of time since her accidental visit to Cadien’s realm. She was currently receiving no visitors, and thus her eyes were closed as she focused her divine senses upon the surface of Galbar, studying the mortals that lived upon the surface in an attempt to learn more about them and the cultures that they had created. It wasn’t too long before something tugged her attention towards a particular conversation. An argument, followed by anger, and then a scolding. But there was something more there, restraint followed by honor and reason. The base foundations for what Celestine championed: Chivalry. Such actions came without any teaching and Boudicca, as Celestine learned she was called, seemed to be a perfect candidate to be the first to receive a boon from the newly born goddess.

Focusing in upon the particular mortal, Celestine studied her movements and saw an opportunity. Boudicca was alone enough that mass panic would not ensue. Perhaps it was time to extend her recognition of exemplary conduct. Focusing on the area nearby, Celestine extended a tiny fragment of herself outward to craft an illusion in her image, and began to project it down unto the surface of Galbar.

A small comet of silver light would impact behind Boudicca, and after the light faded she would see an illusion of Celestine rising from a kneeling stance. Her red and gold cloak flowing gently in the breeze, and revealing her lengthy silver hair that lay concealed beneath it. Opening her eyes slowly, Celestine took a moment to study Boudicca in more detail for a short time. After a moment of silence, the illusion would speak, a slight echo in her voice adding further evidence that this was merely an illusion and not a goddess manifesting upon Galbar. ”Greetings Boudicca. I am the goddess Celestine, and your actions have earned you a piece of my favor.”

While she initially had reached for her sword, the figure’s self-idenitification as a goddess stopped that hand rather quickly. The warrior dropped to one knee, needing to stabilise herself atop the rise on which she stood, and then bowed her head. “C-Celestine, great Celestine!” She paused. “F-forgive me, but… Our faith is small and, and ignorant. I fear I’ve…” She swallowed. “... I beg most humbly for your forgive when I say I don’t, don’t know of you. Please! Give me a chance to redeem this grave sin!”

Celestine’s illusion gave a slight smile at Boudicca’s rapid apology. Giving her head a slow shake, she spoke once more once her hair had settled once again. ”Be at ease, Boudicca. I am very recently coalesced and have virtually no distinct followers, you have done no wrong. But you have acted in accordance to several of my commandments, even though you do not know them. It is with those acts that I have chosen to bless you as the first of what will hopefully be many knights.”

It was now that Celestine’s illusion began to move. It raised its left hand and placed it upon the sword that hung upon its right hip. Drawing the weapon slowly, Celestine’s illusion would place the flat of the weapon upon Boudicca’s right shoulder, and then her left. With each tap Boudicca would suddenly realize the chivalric commandments that she had been unknowingly following fairly well. As this took place, Celestine’s illusion would speak softly. ”I dub thee with the title of Ser, and beyond that I grant you the knowledge of my chivalric commandments. May you continue to exemplify them as you have been, Boudicca.”

With that done the illusion of Celestine would slowly stow her sword, and made motion to pull something from the air. Though this motion ceased as the illusion took notice of the potent divine magic already residing within the sword that Boudicca possessed. Given her recent time in Cadien’s realm, Celestine was easily capable of recognizing the magic imbued within it. This gave pause to her actions, as she did not wish to gift a sword to someone who did not need one, nor did she wish to potentially insult Cadien by giving something so similar. Lowering her hand for the moment, the illusion of Celestine both thought aloud and posed a question. ”Typically I would bestow a sword to go with that title, but it would appear to me that you would have no need for something like that. As the first knight, I will offer you a choice: Do you wish for some other form of armor or weapon, or do you wish for a different kind of blessing altogether? I am not as mighty as some of the other gods, but I will do what I can with my limited ability. Perhaps in time, if you continue to shine as an example of chivalry, I may bestow more gifts when I am better able.”

With that said, the illusion of Celestine would fold her arms and wait for an answer.

“A… A blessing? Ser? Knight?” Boudicca snatched a second to rub her eyes. A certain twinkle in her eye hinted that she understood everything, but still had great difficulties grasping the basic concept - the title was awarded to her for virtuous behaviour, yes, but she hadn’t done anything - she had just done her duty and stood right by it. She swallowed and sighed. “Forgive me, this is a bit to take in. I wasn’t expeting all this on my Reiyasday walk, is all…” She paused briefly. “May I ask for, for a blessing to my people rather than myself?”

The illusion of Celestine smiled at Boudicca’s words. Even when given the choice of any gift she wished she thought of her people before herself. Celestine was confident in her choice for the first knight. Giving a nod, Celestine’s illusion spoke once more. ”Of course, Ser Boudicca. I will answer your request to the best of my ability. Name your wish.”

Confidence filled Boudicca’s frame, and the giant straightened herself up somewhat, as much as she could while kneeling respectfully still. “Unrest grips at my people’s minds - our rapid change from a warring state to a peaceful hegemony has left many of our seasoned veterans without anything to do; they thus take their anger out on their kin and comrades. I know not if this is too much to ask, but we have no place for these warriors to expel their energy in the form of combat, save street brawls and the like. Would you help us create a place where combat can be turned into a source of joy? Of accomplishment? Of, of chivalry?”

Celestine gave a few nods as Boudicca explained her predicament. Moving gently, Celestine’s illusion approached Boudicca’s kneeling form before pressing two fingers to her forehead and speaking once more. “I hear your wish, Ser Boudicca. Thus, I shall teach you of tournaments so that your warriors have a means to expend their energy and better themselves in organized and regulated combat.”

As Celestine’s illusion spoke, the point upon Boudicca’s head that she touched would glow with a white light momentarily, signaling the infusion of the promised knowledge into her mind. When that was finished, Celestine lowered her hand from Boudicca’s forehead and stepped back once more to speak again. ”Should there be doubt regarding my existence and where you learned of this information, you will merely need to invoke my name and I shall send a sign as I can. Rise, Ser Boudicca. Let your people know what you have learned.”

Boudicca did as told, standing up a little taller than before. Her head had been filled with suggestions of tournament organisation, optimal arena sizes, various activities and the like that they hadn’t given much thought to during, for example, Helgensblot or any of their other holidays. She gave a tooth a quiet suck. “I will. Do you have any other tasks for me, great one?”

Celestine gave her illusion’s head a shake before speaking for one last time. ”Nay. All I require for you to remain within my favor is to follow the chivalric code I have taught you, and do not stray. Fear not, for I am watchful. You have been chosen. Also, as a final gift before I depart: Know that I shall strive to grant reward in the afterlife to those who follow my chivalric code. Your faith shall not go unrewarded.”

With that, Boudicca would likely notice that the illusion of Celestine was fading. There was perhaps time for one final question before it was gone, but little more.

“I see. Thank you, then, great one. I’ll live up to your expectations to the best of my ability.” With that, she bent the knee again until the vision faded completely.

Within her realm Celestine opened her eyes as she pulled all of her senses back to one location and ceased actively observing Galbar. Rising from the throne, she took a moment to stretch before beginning to walk towards the doorway that led to Antiquity. She figured that it would be wise to seek out a method to secure Boudicca’s soul sooner rather than later, as from her memories in the lifeblood mortal wars could be unexpected and brutal. She didn’t want to make the promise of a reward and fail to deliver, after all.

Back in Ha-Dûna, Hilda had entered one of the smokehouses to have herself a pipefull to relax the nerves. Now she had done it. Not even this Boudicca, this utter parody of the great chieftess she had known for decades, would let such a blatant attack on her own daughter go so easily. Hilda had joked, challenged her to give her capital punishment, because she had been confident she wouldn’t do it; now that some time had passed, however, the eerie lack of reaction sent shivers down her spine. In truth, she had no deathwish - Hilda was very much content with living: Barring her right to plunder and raid as she had for decades, she had a husband, three kids, many friends, and even one or two very, very, very good friends. Her rank entitled her to her very own tún, and she and her family worked it so well that she herself could almost afford to train as a soldier all year.

She took a deep drag from her pipe, catching a shifty stare from another smoker across the room who immediately looked down in his lap. Yeah, she had everything: wealth, family, power and, most importantly, aura - her presence brought tremblings to her subordinates, and her spirit had invigorated every soldier who had ever fought beside her.

Exhaling a huge plume of smoke in a sigh, watching it join the greater fog cloud hanging under the ceiling, she frowned. She had a few lifelines left in this city, but they wouldn’t be on her side for long if she kept up this attitude. They had their own lifelines, after all, and at some point in the web, those lines all led back to Boudicca and the champions of their peacekeeping cause.

The curtain door was pulled aside, and the opening filled with a giant shadow that could only belong to a select few in this city, and Hilda recognised its contour well enough to know who it was. As the shadow stomped towards her, she pulled a defeated drag and sighed the smoke out. “Alright,” she began, “just make it quick, plea--”


A leathery wack clapped against her cheek with such force that it knocked the pipe out of her lips and hand. While she was far from concussed, it still took Hilda a good few seconds to even blink, much less grasp what had just happened. A wet whap came from the floor and Hilda looked down. She then knelt down and picked up the item. “A… A leather glove?”

“I challenge you to a duel, Hilda - may the best of us win.”

Hilda blinked at Boudicca’s stern expression, then shifted to the glove in her hand. “What?”

“In five days’ time, we will host a tournament - one with games, fights and challenges for all my théins and hildargeach. You’re coming to, and I’m going to grind you into the dirt for what you did to my daughter.” She leaned in. “I know you don’t like it very gentle, though, so I’ll be as mean as you’d like.”

Hilda blinked again. “What?”

“Don’t be late. Five days from now - our battle will commence at midday atop the hill beyond the south gate. Follow the crowds and you’ll find it. Prepare yourself however you wish - I want to fight you at your best.” With that, Boudicca spun on her heel and left again.

Hilda remained dumbfounded. The others in the smokehouse were equally out of it, though it was hard to tell if it was the situation or the pipeweed that had caused that. Finally, Hilda uttered yet again the only work she could think of:


A Bastion of Culture 1 - Song

Year 29AA, middle winter, Ha-Dûna...

Boudicca held her chin up on her thumbs sticking out of her folded hands. She sat atop her bed, a number of animal skins criss-crossing a mattress of dry reeds, hay and grass, legs crossed and knees supporting her elbows. It was one thing to change a friend - another to change an enemy. The restructuring of the Dûnan identity as one of peace and diplomacy didn’t sit well with everyone - the théins like Hilda the Leoness had been furious, originally. Battle was her life, and to not be allowed to exercise it was a great dishonour to her and her men. Boudicca had to admit it, too - peace wouldn’t sit all too well with her personally, either.

Still, it was the preferable outcome, and after a long and arduous discussion between herself and the other théins, they had all come to the same conclusion: While war brought glory and revelry to the fighters, those swept up in the chaos suffered greatly - and there were always many, many more that didn’t fight than those that did. As the greatest power in the region, they had an obligation to rule it justly and peacefully. The théins who wished had been put in command of the professional soldiers, the hildargeach, and would spend their days drilling them in tactics and survival in the wilds. The warriors weren’t many, but in time, they would be good - very good.

The théins who hadn’t chosen military employment served as administrators in Ha-Dûna or were sent out to the various villages to function as chiefs. Valix had been among these, bringing with him migrants and supplies to the small mining town of Ha-Klan over Risenberg, earlier known as Gleann, the first village to fall in the conquests. They were often accompanied by one druid each to serve as spiritual guide. If the village already had a druid, then there was no need. This way, Ha-Dûna had once again begun to strengthen its foothold.

However, it hadn’t been easy to get them to accept a capital-sent chieftain. Some villages had shown signs of rebellion, which had had to be put down. Instead of killing the rebels, however, Boudicca had requested that they be given a choice: death, or to be taken prisoner instead, to be brought back to Ha-Dûna to serve as monks and nuns in the temples to the gods. This would be their new alternative punishment as part of their shift to diplomacy - the temple thralls.

Today, she was to speak before the people and give their thanks to the gods for their aid in the city’s recapture. She had written the speech in her head in its entirety, but in truth, it wouldn’t hurt to beseech the gods for courage before such a performance. She knew just the one. Rising out of bed, she made her way past the central hearth and out through the wolf skin curtain door, stepping into the snowy town core from what had once been the Hall of the Weary. She turned to the left, pulling her plaid and furs ever tighter around herself to ward off the cold. She received greeting bows from passersby going about their daily duties, and she greeted them back with a pound of the chest and a straight-armed, flat-palmed wave. As she pondered how much she regretted not wearing her cap to ward off the wind, she turned the corner of a longhouse and reached the ageing Circle of the Eight. Already, a number of druid apprentices had gathered there with their mentors, being evaluated on the sincerity and ability of their prayer. The mentors stood at the ready with birch branches, ready to whip those who took too lightly to their task. Occasionally, Boudicca would hear a smack! and a pained moan. She paid them no mind - though greeted them when they greeted her - and knelt down before the megalith statue to Macsal: a tall, rough stone triangle where the only triangular characteristics of the stone were that it had three tips. It bulged and caved in places, but the side facing forward had been chiseled and sanded flat through days and weeks of intense sculpting long ago, and now displayed a beautiful mural of a handsome, brown-haired and clean-shaven man, sitting in green and golden grass under a tree and singing for all the animals of the world. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

“Great Macsal, Holy Poet… Please hear my prayer… My heart is set, but my mind is clouding me. I have the will to lead my people, but I know not if I have the voice to charm them - to sway our former enemies to becoming our friends. Is there a way I can show them all the importance of peace? The keys of stability?”

The stone was silent, though, and still,
and from across a distant hill,
like sea waves crashing on the main,
there came a wind gust, loud and shrill.
It seemed to bellow through the air
and twist and turn and toss with flair
until it came upon the théin
and died upon her auburn hair.
The singer carved into the stone
seemed to stir, perhaps to groan,
and something in his rocky vein
moved and spoke: you’re not alone.
And in the stone a smile was formed
and rippled till the air was warmed,
and colours here and there now stained
the rock until it was transformed.

Go stir your people up and speak
Our tongue will speak with you
Speak words that are not strong or meek
And nothing you’ve prepared:
The outward peace that you now seek
Will not emerge if you’ve despaired
That there is peace in you

Boudicca bowed her head ever lower, almost to a kowtow. She swallowed and took a deep breath. “I… I think I understand. But what if I say something wrong? What if I say something I will regret? What if… What if they misunderstand me?” The air rippled around thesanndatr, and from the inked and smiling stone rose a roiling shadow. From the shadow appendages crept, and with their emergence colour spread. The roiling inky mass formed up and took a more solid shape until there hung above the stone a feminine almost-human thing - only that its skin was a multitude of wondrous colours, very much like the heavens. And as the smiling woman above the stone looked upon thesanndatr, the colours left her skin and hair until a perfect human floated there. And although she appeared in all ways human, there was a certain swirling of colour in her eyes and luminous allure that danced about her. Without knowing how or why all those fears in Boudicca’s breast were swept away; and only an excitement and a desire and inspiration to speak beautifully remained.

For a few moments the strange magic hung between Boudicca and the creature, until she leapt lithely from the stone and looked around. It was not frantic - or did not seem to be -, and there was no worry or anxiety - or at least, Boudicca did not think there was. At last the creature stopped looking around and turned to Boudicca, shivering slightly in the crisp morning air (for her strange, low-cut dress was ill-suited to such cold climes and windy morns). ‘How strange, only now I was with the others and now…’ she laughed slightly - nervously? - and her brows furrowed (was it fear?) and she seemed to jump whenever a distant smack would sound.

The druids who had been praying at the other stones had already scurried over to behold the miracle. “It’s a gift - a gift from Macsal!” they praised. “Macsal has given Ha-Dûna a most beautiful young lady!” The shouts seemed at once to effect a change in the woman, and her variegated eyes seemed to twinkle and lips to dance.

“Hush, hush!” Boudicca cautioned and held out a flat palm. It was clear on her pale face that it took every ounce of her concentration not to join her peers in sheer awe at what had just occurred. With her other hand, she reached upwards to the lady on the stone, wetting her winter-dry lips as she thought of what to say, “A-are you alright?”

The woman looked from the commanding Boudicca to the druids gathered about her, then back to Boudicca again, their excitement playing in her eyes. ‘I am my lady,’ came the serenade of her voice, and she lowered her head, bowing ever so slightly in that universal and instinctive show of humility and respect. ‘I am Shaeylila, a lowly plier of songs and poesy, you honour me with so gracious a welcome,’ she fell silent for a few seconds, as though listening to something. Her eyes rose... and fell on those of Boudicca, ‘and I am told there is a strangled song that weeps within your breast, my lady. What hurts and woe have made it so?’

Boudicca instinctively laid a palm on her chest. “A, a song?”

“Have you doubts, good sanndatr?” came a voice from one of the druids behind her. “Macsal will often metaphorically use musical or poetic words to describe ailments of emotions and the like,” she declared proudly in a well-read manner. Some of her peers whooped quietly in awe at her encyclopedic knowledge. Boudicca frowned.

“Is that what you meant?”

Shaeylila bowed again, her eye lashes shimmering in thought before her head rose up again. ‘Yes, you seem to be sick at heart my lady... but I am a stranger here, and perhaps my hearing is- ahem, I mean, perhaps I am reading too much into too little.’ She glanced at the gathered druids for a long thoughtful moment, eyes seeming to wander off in thought, before they focused again and she smiled. ‘My but there are… so many of you here. And who is this Macsal you’ve made mention of again and again?’

“Why, Macsal is your creator, is he not? The great, the outstanding, the unbeatable poet of--”

“Kaer Guni, please, just--...” Boudicca raised a palm and took a breath. “Please, leave me to talk to her by myself.”

The druid blinked and the others, too, looked confused. “But sanndatr, this is a great holy event! We must log every single--”

“Later! Later, I promise. Now leave us be for a time.” The crowd slowly, very slowly began to disperse, disgruntled by their leader’s orders. Boudicca sighed in relief and looked back at the song. “Forgive them - they are eager, always eager, to meet any sort of creature the gods hold dear. I barely had room to think. They didn’t scare you, did they?”

Shaeylila watched them depart and turned back to Boudicca with a knowing smile. Taking the sanndatr by the hand, she drew her towards the stone and sat down against it, on the strange white snow. ‘Not at all! They are all… very sweet. But certain words , these matters of the heart, are sometimes best not heard by so many ears. Especially not the matters that plague a leader’s heart,’ she paused and tidied her dress, then gestured to the other woman. ‘Come come, sit. Speak to me. I don’t know about this Macsal, but I will listen.’

Boudicca nodded slowly and did as told, sitting down next to the stone of Macsal, as sitting on it would be blasphemous. She twiddled her thumbs slowly, trying her best to ignore the cold snow melting into her tartan plaid and checkered pants. Eventually, she drew a breath through her teeth and spoke, “I am troubled by some of my peers’ attitude to peace - we have been at war almost constantly for five years, and while most appreciate a good breather like the one we have now, I fear that we will need only one unruly troublemaker to break this fragile peace we have. I do not know what I can say to my people that will not fuel sentiment for these troublemakers - if I appeal to our pride as a unified people, this pride will be used to push down those that are not us; if I appeal to our strength as victorious conquerors, they will ask why we have stopped showing it; and if I mention neither, they will see me as meek and cowardly. I… I don’t know what to do, what to say.”

Shaeylila was silent for a while, brow bowing gently and lips creased. At last, however, she looked at Boudicca, lips chattering. ‘This white stuff… snow... I can’t feel my- oh me.’ She flushed red and leapt lithely to her feet, looking down at her wet and ruined dress of silk. She patted the remnants of quickly melting snow away and then considered Boudicca for a few moments, before she spoke through blue and shivering lips. ‘Maybe, my lady… rather than placating them with what you say you should instead put something on display. A story! Do you perhaps know the tale of Great-horn Brin’s battle against the Thrice-born Terror? There is a lesson there perhaps more eloquent than words.’

“Oh, gods, you must be freezing! Again, forgive me! You, trell! Fetch this lady furs and a plaid!”

The apprentice, seemingly picked at random from a crowd, immediately set off in a sprint towards a nearby hut. Boudicca sniffed the last of her sternness back inside and raised a brow at Shaeylila. “I have not heard this one, no. Would you tell it to me?”

Once the trell in question had brought the furs - at the song’s inviting glance helping her into them, and receiving whispers of delight and warmth before scurrying off again - Shaeylila turned back to Boudicca, hugging the cosy furs to her. ‘My, so this is what cold feels like. Brrrr.’ Her rosy cheeks were flushed with the cold and a delighted smile decorated the delicate features of her face. ‘But yes! The tale.’ She stood before thesanndatr and spread her hands so that little blobs of ink spiralled from her palms and formed up into a great dark mass of battling warriors. At the centre of the mass were two great figures, one with a prominent horn atop his head and the other boasting three heads, three sets of arms and feet. They danced about each other and Shaeylila’s voice seemed all at once to provide the shouts and cries of battle, the clanging of weapons and twanging of bowstrings, and the grunts of the two great figures as they leapt to and fro and clashed against each other.

On the fields of Falaro
‘Twixt the mountain and the sea
Great-horn Brin took up the bow
And the sword audaciously

Struck he once and struck he twice
And his foe flew far away
He was struck with blows that dice
Grunted them off with a sway

And the god of victory
Standing watch above the fray
Praised the Terror endlessly
And for Brin had naught to say

‘Oh you great god far on high
‘Have you no eyes for my deeds
‘With my blows my foe does fly
‘And his blows fly off like seeds!’

When the Terror was gone down
And when Brin the victor stood
The god looked upon his frown
Who thought he was great and good

‘Lay your weapon down, oh Brin
‘Throw your bow upon the wind.’
As he did, where once had been
Weapons which at death had grinned

There was now but dust and air!
‘Know: your weapons long ago
‘Fell before the Terror’s glare
‘And the strike of his arrow!

‘Only by the happy grace
‘Of my will and decreed fate
‘Were you spared a great disgrace
‘And a weak and slavish state!’

Oh then Brin fell on his face
And near broke his horn in twain
And he spoke a word of praise
And he damned the haughty vein -

‘May they never prosper who
Are too great in their own view!’
Then brave Brin went back off home
Never more in pride to roam.

With the epical verses and inky performance complete, the dark figures melted back away into Shaeylila’s hands and returned to that rose-tinted beige at which the skin of people here seemed to hang. She looked at Boudicca expectantly, biting her lower lip ever so slightly and her eyes of whirling colour wide. ‘D- do you think a performance like that would set the scene for what you have to say, my lady?’ She paused for a few seconds, ‘because if not, there is also the tale of the Great Vile King - whose greed and hubris grew so great that he quaffed and gobbled up everything, even himself in the end!’

“That was…” Boudicca trapped her nose between her palms. “I am torn here, too - the story has a great moral, certainly, but pride in ourselves is…” She looked over her shoulder. No one was watching them intently from what she could see, so she shuffled a little closer. “... Pride in ourselves as the rightful sovereigns of this land is a large part of what keeps us going. The conviction that we are the chosen people is powerful - very powerful. Of course, I…” She paused and suckled thoughtfully on a breath. “... I supposed it could be framed as a return to moderation - a hope that we can still be proud of our role, status and deeds without believing ourselves superior to others… But will they listen to such a message? Will Hilda listen?”

Shaeylila pressed her lips together and brought a forefinger to her nose in thought. “Hmm, Oh! I know! Maybe what you need is something… tailor-made. In an attire that really speaks to your people. But for that, tell me more - who are you people? Why have you been at war so long? Who is this Hilda?’ She turned around and started walking off, ‘come! Let’s walk!’

“I should’ve led with this, really,” chuckled the sanndatr and followed her, eventually taking the lead on the tour through the city. The route took them out of the city core at first, taking a right towards the industrial district where the air grew thick with the fumes from molten glass and burning wood. Pottery lined the edges of the gravel road, and the pair had to dance between the currents of sleds and pulks pulling frozen clay and lumpy metal to their rightful places. “While Ha-Dûna has existed for merely one score and four six years, the people who would call themselves the ‘Dûnans’ after its founding have journeyed together for decades before that. In truth, we are not one people, but four - the gaardskarls, the clennon fen, the herjegalling and the brasforts - all of whom hail from various places to the southeast. At least, that’s what my mother told me.” She paused. “When we first came together, we stuck together - fighting off the Ketties and bandits and that sort of scum. ‘Course, fusing together four different tribes takes love, will and effort - our history isn’t without infighting; in fact, that’s been much of the reason why, ever since Ha-Dûna was founded, we’ve focused on becoming one people. Already here, we encounter issues: Too many of the théins are gaardskarl or brasfortsian, and not enough are druids; they have a fondness for battle and conflict, and I’ve never known a single gaardskarl who didn’t carry harsh sentiment against foreigners. Likewise, not enough clennon fen are théins - their ascetic roots keeps them from chasing any sort of leadership role that isn’t rooted in divinity. So I’m stuck with warmongering théins and peace-suing priests. Are you following so far?”

Shaeylila looked over at the sanndatr with scrunched up brows. ‘Yes my lady. Angry karlfortasians and gardmarks who don’t like outsiders…’ she pursed her lips and looked around with raised eyebrows, ‘so I, uh, better keep a low profile,’ she scratched her cheek and drew the plaid up so it covered her face to the eyes. ‘And peace-loving dravidian-priests and glennon vens wandering around not wanting leadership. Got it. So what happened next?’ Came her now-muffled serenade. Just as Boudicca started again, the serenade picked up once more. ‘Though I- uh.’ She sighed and her eyes grew dim and downcast, ‘I don’t know if a speech or a performance is going to fix all this, my lady. It already sounds so terrible and it’s only the beginning. I’ve never really… dealt with these kinds of things.’ She stopped walking and the plaid fell somewhat. ‘Seems like some cruel playwright perfectly set-up a tragedy.’

“Don’t say that, this is stressful enough already,” Boudicca confessed with uncharacteristic honesty. The smoke of industry thinned, and the pair soon exited the fumes into a livestock market, smells of sweat, fur and manure washing over them like a tidal wave. They had to compete with moos, bleats and grunts to be able to hear each other, and their promenade would come to a stop many times as traders herded cows, goats, sheep, elk and reindeer to and fro like they were irrigating the city with flesh. “On top of this, the last five years have been nothing -but- war, and I fear my officers have grown to like it, and our neighbours are beginning to get a taste for it. The loss of Ha-Gaard to our former allies at Kirin’s Rest only shows that we are increasingly alone in this land - our neighbours aren’t quick to forget what we did to them five years ago, and I’m already beginning to feel that the quest to become a cultural centre did not carry the appeal I thought just some months back…” She looked at Shaeylila and frowned at herself. “I’m sorry for overwhelming you with all this - it may have been fool’s hope that all of this should be solved with poetry.”

Shaeylila’s eyes seemed to harden with anger and she let out a frustrated sigh. ‘Yeah…’ she murmured sullenly. Looking towards the great town, now that they were at its outskirts, a small ripple of colour grew in her eyes until it was a great spark. She turned to Boudicca with a conspiratorial smile, biting her lip slightly. ‘Wh-what if…,’ she hesitated, ‘those people back there said... I am a gift from that Maxwell right? W-well… what if Maxwell… isn’t very happy? What if he is actually quite upset by all this fighting - fighting and killing and goring and not a single poem or song, no epical record by all those vainglorious warriors, no performances, no wisdoms... ’ she paused and glanced at Boudicca with a guilty smile, ‘what if Maxwell is really quite angry? What if even now he is preparing a great furious song condemning before all the world the death of all art that Ha-Dûna’s constant warring has brought?’ She paused, eyes wide, ‘do you think that might shock them towards more cultured pursuits?’

Boudicca pulled away and turned to the sky as though reflecting on this compelled her to apologise to whatever was up there. She caught herself just before her knees were about to give out and cupped her chin in her hand. “Hey… Hey, that’s a great idea! Rebellious, though, my officers may be, they have no wish to be mentioned in Macsal’s cursesongs!” The giant woman took Shaeylila by the shoulder and grinned from ear to ear. “This is perfect! Tell me, tell me! What should I say? How should I frame His anger?” Shaeylila’s elation was all to clear and she seemed to bob up and down in response to Boudicca’s happiness and relief.

‘His anger?’ Shaeylila paused, and the smile slowly faded from her lips. She looked at Boudicca, and where there had been a spark before her eyes now seemed to crackle. She extended a hand to thesanndatr’s cheek. ‘I will show you.’

Thesanndatr stood upon a handcrafted pedestal of wood, carved with intricate images of flames and daemonic battle, at the centre of which was the staring visage of a furious clean-shaven youth. Beside her on the ground, wearing an equally forbidding countenance, was the one everyone was saying had been sent down by Macsal. Anger crackled in the siren’s eyes, and the giant sanndatr’s own eyes seemed to reflect no less a fury. Tension hung in the air for what felt like the longest time, before the Macsalian thing looked down to the ground and spared the gathered people the gorgon in her aspect. The sanndatr glared outwards, a crowd of beards, of scars, of dirt and of cold, red cheeks staring back with baited breath. It was then that the giant raised her arms to the sky and boomed,

“With me, people of Ha-Dûna, as we begin this confession by greeting the gods: As with every dawn, we give thanks to the Sun, to our Mother, Reiya, who helps us keep warm in winters such as this, and pulls our crops out of the soil so we may eat our daily meals without a worry in the world.” She pointed to the horizon.

“We give thanks to the Moon, to the Nightwarden Gibbou, who keeps the wolves at bay when our tents lay exposed and our children are asleep, and ships us off into the realm of dreams.” She pointed to the ground.

“We give thanks to the Stone, to the Boar of Earth, Boris, who gave us the ground we walk and the tools we use. The eternal mountain never breaks down, no matter the passing times.” She arced one arm across the heavens.

“We give thanks to the Stars, to our Beacon of Hope, Seeros, who inspires us every day to do our utmost for both friends and family; the million lights that glisten above when all other lights go out.” She turned around and gestured to the shore below.

“We give thanks to the Sea, to the Ocean Father Claroon, without whose seafood bounty, we would have starved long, long ago. The steady tide brings us high water on which to sail our boats, and spring rains and autumn storms bring our city both crops and feed.” She placed two hands on her temples.

“We give thanks to the Truth, to the All-Knowing Fìrinn, for guidance in these times of ignorance and confusion. The mirrors reveal all, and the holy glass he gave us has let us divine the struggles ahead with graceful accuracy.” She pointed to the forests beyond the city.

“We give thanks to Jennesis, the World Tree, to whom we owe our eternal love and loyalty for all that grows, for the forests that give us game, wood, fruits and nuts. Her power is mighty and her ire is great - may we ever live in her grace, and always respect the line between woods and mankind. Finally…” She gestured to the crowd.

“Let us give thanks to Macsal, the Immortal Poet, whom we must thank for our songs, our lyrics, our dances and theatre. Without Macsal, much of what we think of as Dûnan would simply not exist - the Worldsong would not be here to help us listen to the worries and counsel of the very earth and sky. So let us praise him, and let us praise the Eight for their kind vigilance over our people, which has allowed us to grow into the great civilisation we are today.” She took a brief break to let the message sink in.

“Let us also give praise to Caden, whose strength lifted us above our Sigeran foes in this war; to Taeg Eit, whose will and law kept our people and our marriages together through thick and thin; to Naya, whose colossal heart carried all our sorrow for us so we could fight on despite our losses; to Artafax, for giving us walls and houses unbreakable to any bandit; and to Vandra, for the fire to last all seasons. We thank the gods; we thank them all - we must thank them all, for these past five years have shown that we have grown insolent; we have grown spoiled and ungrateful in the face of the gods, and our people have never been further out of reach of their favour than we are now.”

Ripples of malcontent moved throughout the crowd. Boudicca held up a silencing hand. “There is no denying it and every man, woman and child here knows that quite well: We chose Sigeran. We chose Sigeran over the true gods!”

“The Sigerans chose Sigeran!” came a retort, supported by furious “yeas”. “We stayed true - that is why we won!”

Boudicca raised a hand again. “We didn’t stay true at all! Had we done so, we would’ve never gone to war in the first place. Our rampant massacre of our neighbours to the east was what drew Sigeran to us to begin with!” Whispers flowed between heads like water through a shifting delta. “Had we been true to the teachings of Reiya, to the gospel of Gibbou, to the faith in Seeros and the songs of Macsal, then we already would have known where these sorts of black thoughts would take us!” Before the retorts could come, she took the initiative. “I know what you will say in defense: We had no food - our people grew too many, too fast! And I know this, too - I said the same thing! Our growth took us plundering without a care in the world for how it would affect us in the coming years - how our standing with not just our neighbours would suffer, but with the gods as well!”

“... No… When faced with such grand devastation as a famine, the pious, the virtuous, will not take from others what they want; instead, the virtuous will fall to their knees in prayer, for the gods are good - they are kind - and they will help us if they see our suffering.” She gestured to the many snow-covered fields beyond the city walls. “And lo and behold - Reiya saw our dire need, even after we had taken to the axe, and gave us fields of unprecedented growth! The pious is rewarded; the vile, punished.” Murmurs grew quieter - the sharpness in their words had been dulled.

“We turned hoes into clubs; plows into shields - we neglected the earth and soil for blood and wealth. We used axes and adzes meant for shaping wood into objects of art and architecture, to slay innocents by the thousands. Spears meant to hunt the Highlands’ bounty with, were instead turned on our neighbours - even those of Dûnan blood! We gave up our long poetic traditions for war cries and ceaseless boasting. Our borders may be longer than before, but there is no Dûnan soul left to fill it. Our neglect for culture has gone so far that Macsal himself, furious as we’ve made him, is even composing a cursesong for our people! One that may plunge us into centuries of misfortune!”

At the very moment that mention of the cursesong was made, a collective gasp arose and with it the head of Shaeylila snapped up. Her eyes were as roiling ink and her hair seemed to harbour lightning.

Brothers of the axe and sword -
sires of much war.
On my tongue there is a word
come from Macsal’s shore.
This is but a taste of rhymes
that the angered poet writes,
for he hates to see your crimes
and he hates all haughty heights:

Pause before the ruin and cry
For those long rhymes turned to sloth
Lore that sleeps will quickly die
In the dust its plighted troth
While bloodshed by dawn and dusk
Knibbles at our wit and art and oft destroys them both.

The world around the song seemed to darken even as streams of colour and ink surged about her, and the inks were given form and the verses came alive. The ruin of art stood unveiled, and around it humanoid shadows shed crimson tears even as the ruins disintegrated into dust and a great surge of gushing blood exploded from it until the scene fell away and only the crimson gore remained.

Sheathe your fears and hear the flow
That whispers through the world and sighs-
Let your thirst for beauty grow
And from your burning heart let rise
The words that conquer spears and bows
And binds back severed links and ties

A great blade cut through the endless cascade of blood, and the inky ichor exploded into audible sighs, and the sighs became a hum and song reverberating through the world. Beneath the humming song the sword fell away and was a staring, flame-eyed youth sitting below a burning bush. His chest beat with a flame, and when he stood a field of spears and arrows stood against him. He walked through it unafraid, a song of flame dancing and billowing from his eyes, and all about him the spears and arrows melted away and became extended hands which he pulled from the earth and united with the extended hands of others.

And should those nursed on war rise up
To strike with gilded tongues the call
And should they think to claw and sup
On blood and meat from where you fall
Then meet them with a tongue that spurns
Their furies and stand proud and tall

The earth fell away beneath the fire-eyed youth and great demons with golden tongues ripped and clawed at him, ripping him limb from limb and consuming what remained. And even as they stood in the darkness, their bellies bloated and the flame emerged from their melting forms. Above it all the youth, a giant, rose and stood. He remained like that, slowly growing into the undeniable image of Macsal himself.

With tongue of ink and lyre for hand
Strike up the chords and loose art’s heat
And like a raincloud, beauteous, grand
Pour down upon the thirsting wheat
And quench the thirsting of the land
And wipe the tears that drown in blood
And sing the furies that wars fanned:

But if this is no age for art
And words of beauty find no place
In any hard and war-forged heart
Then make your peace and rest your case
And let the age of weeping start
For how can they bring endless peace
Who dealt to beauty death’s cruel dart?

The full-grown form of Macsal was gored, and blood of unknown colours frothed forth as the god fell; and from the blood there grew a hill atop of which was the great shadow of Ha-Dûna.

Oh Ha-Dûna on the hill
Pearl of poesies of old
Now your poem is grown still
And the heat of art is cold
Now the rhyming god is shrill
Pledges only ruined disgrace:
They who kill off all their art sure in time art will kill!

Dark clouds billowed about the inky Ha-Dûna, and the visage of Macsal - half tearful, half furious - formed in the inky heavens and looked down upon the hill, and into the gathered crowd. Only the ambient sound of rushing winds and the promise of a storm remained in the ink. After a half-minute, the whole thing dissipated and Shaeylila’s gaze returned to the ground and she was silent and still.

The onlookers were white as sheets, no lip left unquivering. The silence choked out even the instinct to scream, and a minute passed as though frozen in time - only the wail of babes still overcoming the terror of the display could be heard. The shock shattered when there came a thump in the snow - on the front rank, one woman, her husband and their children had fallen to their knees, lifted their arms to the podium and shouted, “MACSAL! FORGIVE US!” The sentiment washed over the crowd like a crashing wave, and soon, the hundreds, the thousands of Dûnans who had filled the city core to the brim and spilled over into the streets beyond all collapsed in wailing prayer, begging and pleading for forgiveness. Boudicca offered Shaeylila a knowing nod, the song’s eyes twinkling back, and let the masses lament their sins. This would be a breakthrough for their people - their need to change their ways was now more evident than ever.

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