When the winter wind breathed its way across the plateau, the caged fires clutched their robes to their sides, then let go again, laughing perhaps, or wondering why they of all beings should feel cold. Then they continued their walk. They had a long way to go if they were to keep up with the spitfires.
Little by little, the green hill was growing duller, its grass getting short as the alpacas grew fat. Green Recurve Wings was one of seven spitfires directing about fifteen of them, driving them on as far as they needed to go if they were to find fresh fodder. Too often the animals got lost, when they were alone, caught in the irregular swathes of ashen grass left behind by the rain of motes.
Not so with the inseparable spitfires guiding them, of course. Between the seven of them, they knew exactly where they were, and where they were going, and could see far into the horizon where they had previously been. All day and all night they enjoyed themselves, singing sparken songs about what had over just a few weeks become their sole role in life.
Sometimes they sang too long.
Green Recurve Wings had ducked between the legs of the wandering animals many times before, many, many, and come away safely from its little stunt every time but once. It was only one, brief encounter with the lead animal’s hoof, but it was more than enough, and it didn’t take much more than a bent wing to be lethal to such a being. Stay here, said the choir of seven minus one. Stay here. That’s what the song says. You just stay here. We won’t come back.
You won’t come back, said Green Recurve Wings, dying. I’ll just stay here. That’s what the song says to do.
And so it was. The night became very cold, and awfully dark. Green Recurve Wings lay there and wondered what it would see if there was no light at all, not even its own. Would it see the things that animals jerked at when they shut the flaps that hung over their eyes? Would it see the Goddess?
You won’t see the Goddess, said the 8.6.17a3y82d9-0.6th sentence, which Green Recurve Wings almost understood. You won’t see her tonight. Only one, small part of her will you see.
The caged fire knelt over Green Recurve Wings, the gilded trim of its robes shining brightly beneath its glassy face. Everything was brilliant, now, shining and beautiful and bold under the gaze of the divine guide.
How did you find me? Said Green Recurve Wings. Who are you? You are so pretty.
The lanternhead laughed, and lowered its wooden hand over the spitfire, and lit the censer in which it carried its holy mana, and as Green Recurve Wings felt its bent steel and dew-soaked silk righting itself, it knew that, by the grace of God, it would fly again.
By the grace of the Lantern God, and the mercy of her Guides.
Chopstick stood up on her balcony at the top of the Official Pagoda, stood up from her work with the intricacies of another god’s craftsmanship, and looked out towards her own.
The sky had darkened with clouds and night, but she could see lights everywhere. From the faint, magic aura of the myriad eyekites rising from the tower and the gardens, and the bright, leaking rivulets of mana from the Generator complex below, and above all from the swarm of Spitfires screaming across the distant terraces, fueled by the winds of golden magic. Behind and below them lay a glittering swathe of pure white ice, frosted in thin layers on every living twig of the mar trees that sprawled through the wounded forest.
Wounded and not dying.
She saw the shine of her secretaries reflected a thousandfold under the canopy as they walked through that scene of desolation, looking for errors and finding none. In such a large group, the spitfires were frightfully keen in their spotting, and in no real risk of forgetting their objective. Within the hour the trees hosting that outbreak of decay would be frozen to death, and their motes would spread no further.
She looked down to the Generator that fueled this display, slowly retracting its next set of kites. The spitfires liked these, though they were strictly forbidden from playing with them. Every hour a new set of polymer wings would slowly ascend, as guided by the lanternhead and spitfire wind scouts according to the state of the weather, some to the high winds and some to the low. There were huge kites, small kites, rotary kite-like turbines and kite balloons, photovoltaic kites and lightning kites, deployed day after day to pull the turbines and conduct the electricity that would be stored by the machine.
Chopstick Eyes fiddled with the ivory necklace she had taken to wearing over her furs and feathers. She had spent a long time thinking about what the generator should actually generate. Gold was dandy and ever so classy, but tricky enough to move and work. Tusks had shared the same issues, nice as they were. Paper bills were a rather unstable form of mana, not one she was inclined to let her workforce play with too often. Shells were too weak.
Powders and liquids were the name of the game, then, and colour, flavour and aroma were always in thaumaturgical demand. Even now the Lanternheads rolled out heavy barrels of spice, brilliant dyes and heady incense, fizzling with currency mana. They were good at it. They had learned.
This bird still wonders, ‘til late hour, What will be done with all this power. The ash and death will soon be done. Not long will we yet hear the Stellar Hum.
“We’ll find a use for it, Liv,” Chopstick assured her. “We’ll sell it for something. And we’ll find a use for this, too. The lampnoggins can figure it out.”
She crouched down again beside the device she had made, stroking the crooning Alma beneath the chin. There were a lot of mechanisms in the bird that she hadn’t really understood, and had left alone, but there were useful ones, too. And the more she studied the fragment of broken sun that had washed up in her Bazaar, dusty with centuries of seabed silt, the more she understood of that brand of divine handiwork also. She poured a canister of magenta mana into the enormous lens’s many maintenance tubes, and counted tics on a stopwatch as the shining and the shaking wound down.
“I think it works,” said Chopstick Eyes. “Call Glassy and Hatboy. It’s time to head south.” She stood up. Another swarm of spitfires was returning over the hills, hungry for fresh soot and wool.
I did this, thought Chopstick Eyes, seeing for the first time. I am the Lantern God.
Choppy claims the Lanterns and Kites portfolios in the process of doing a bunch of cool spitfire-related stuff. 5 native Might on each of those.
The rest is from the Age of Lords.
1 Might to teach spitfire society how to herd the camelids on the Kick, which can provide fibre for the spitfires to eat.
1 Might (after Lanterns discount) to give lanternheads the title, ‘Guides’. They shine brightly both literally and figuratively for their spitfire followers.
1 Might to teach the lanternheads Karamir’s spell, Mend Clothes, except it’s Mend Kites now, and functions more as a healing spell when applied to spitfires. I guess I could discount this, but I don’t think there’s any need to be frugal so let’s just make it potent
3 Might (empowered by Kites) to build the Kite Generator, a Monument complex near the Abacadarium that converts wind energy into relatively stable mana. Choppy being Choppy, this mana is disguised as / takes the form of valuable commodities, such as dyes and spices, in powder form.
1 Might (after Kites discount) to give the lanternheads the title, ‘Fliers of Kites’. They have to be good at it to operate the Generator and make the most of their eyekites.
3 Might (empowered by Lanterns) to build a lens-like artifact that converts mana into light, based on a fragment of the Luminous Garden sun that exploded, and also on the beam-generating machinery in Alma. I WONDER WHAT THIS THING DOES.
I had to pay native Might for an earlier Age of Lords artefact, so I'm gonna hope that once I give this one to the Lanternheads to play with, the AoL spending is legit.
I’m going to officially call this a Quest now since the focus has been on dealing with Mar Tree motes for a while. Lanternheads gain 1 Prestige for a role + 1 for questing. They immediately spend it on the title, ‘Magicians’, for obvious reasons.
There was a Spitfire with green recurve wings, three on each side of its body, perfectly stacked. Its name was Green Recurve Wings. This is a good name for a spitfire.
The spitfire Green Recurve Wings had once been a spitfire named Blue Recurve Wings, and before that, Recurve Tail. Recurve Tail lived in the paintings the caged fires had made, and whenever Green Recurve Wings approached these paintings, and asked where this pretty spitfire was, the caged fires said that it had been Green Recurve’s name, a little while ago. Green Recurve found this very interesting. The caged fires said that Recurve Tail was one of the very first spitfires ever made by God, and that Green Recurve Wings still looked a lot like it had looked then, which other spitfires would always confirm. This made Green Recurve Wings feel very special.
For a little while.
Green Recurve Wings liked following the caged fires around. Every morning it would do a lap of all one hundred and seventy-nine of them, including the ones deep in the forest, and later on, when it got bored, it would do another lap of them. This second lap was easy, since the caged fires didn’t move very much from where they were at the start of the day, but it was also hard, because if Green Recurve left it too long then it wouldn’t remember where they had all been, or how many there were. Green Recurve would have to go and spark at the other spitfires, gnawing and fighting over the cottontail weeds or the woolly moss, and ask them, how many caged fires are there? what do they do? where are the ones I can’t find?
Some of these questions would have answers. Some of them wouldn’t. When Green Recurve Wings had found all the caged fires around the Pagoda, or most of them, it would zoom back and spark: one-hundred-and-fifteen caged fires! I found one with a hexagon hat far upstream! he was doing funny things to the water!
And other spitfires would go and investigate, and Green Recurve Wings would fight over the woolly moss, and the cycle would repeat.
The Lanternhead B5Y, whose number was fourteen and to whom had been given the name Hatboy, stood still and quiet between the splatters of a great wave, thrown up from the river and frozen in time. He spoke sentence number 48se28.4.m56.0df9t308c0i.
This sentence was the introduction to a lesson. It silenced the spitfires onlooking.
Hatboy tapped the fifth corner of his lantern-shade with his chopstick hand, as was his tendency, and the frozen wave collapsed, running back down into the shallow river and bouncing off an invisible umbrella as it went. The spitfires began sparking, and, by way of quelling their excitement, Hatboy raised between his chopsticks a smooth bauble of water, perfectly still and clear as glass, and let it rest in the air before them, unmoving. They chattered, and then murmured.
A thin, green strip of something was raised in his other hand. Slowly he brought it to the bauble. A grave would not be quieter.
This, said B5Y, using hand-signs, is what we call, Mana.
The bill touched the bauble, and a second later a perfect sphere of ice fell to the ground and shattered, snowflake patterns still perfectly visible on its surface. One of the spitfires began shrieking ecstatically, and was swiftly wing-slapped by another.
When we toil in secret, said the hand-signs, we who are caged and destined to serve our Lord, this is what we harness. The vaults of God are many and of mystery, and within them lies great power. By riding on its ebb and channeling its flow, we release God’s power back unto Her. Sometimes, as now, She trickles it down upon us- when there is a need.
Several feet away, between a tree and a leaf, hidden beneath the dappled shade, small mote of nothing fell into a fake black insect, which almost immediately crumbled into dust. The spitfires saw it clear as day.
And Hatboy thought, thanks, Karamir.
Green Recurve Wings flicked its tail and watched the sun glance on the gold leaf enlaid thereon. Green Recurve did this often, because it was pretty, and because otherwise it would be easy to forget how much there was. Of the three thin bars of gilded glow on the spitfire’s tail, one was halfway finished, and the other two still there.
Green Recurve Wings remembered when it had been painted with those stripes. There had been a hubbub of many instructions, and rituals, and dozens of its kin marked the same way, or almost the same way, and it had sat quietly, or maybe not so quietly, and the instructions had been perhaps superfluous between the grandeur of the demonstrations, or so it had been told, because the demonstrations really did have great grandeur, even moderated as they were, but all of this was rapidly fading, some of it already lost. It existed in the chorus of sparks flurrying between the spitfire circuits, but bit by bit it was wearing down.
Still, Green Recurve Wings remembered when it had been painted with those stripes. It remembered, of all the words signed and sparked, these ones:
Granted to you by the grace of the Skewer Lord, this little wealth, That it be for your teaching, and your travel. May your flame shine brightly in the dark place to come.
Green Recurve Wings called the violent winds around it, and shot into the morning, the gold leaf on its wings shrinking little by little as it joined the flock that travelled south.
Starting with 12 native Might (five more than in the turn change b/c I didn't update the income on the spreadsheet, silly me) and 18 Age of Lords points, Chopstick backstage-spends some points to fund mana study among the Lanternheads and their spitfire proteges. We meet Green Recurve Wings, a pretty average spitfire who’ll represent the species while I figure out how the hell to write them.
The observant Lanternheads have copied Karamir’s mana discipline, and Choppy has bankrolled them 1 Might to learn how to interact with mana, 1 Might to learn Rushing Waters, and 1 Might to learn (and teach) Violent Winds. These spells probably aren't as powerful as Karamir's versions, but they're still useful. For another 1 Might, they’ve developed Enfrost, a chilling spell derived from Rushing Waters. All from Age of Lords for now.
Spitfires store mana as gold leaf on their wings. They don’t seem to have much of a capacity to regenerate it on their own yet.
Lanternheads claim two Prestige for being important.
The stream of Spitfires flowed like a skyborne river, a thin trickle of shapes that flashed their hidden colours with odd rhythm as they flowed down on the wind to the spire. They moved with a pattern of organic randomness, the way a twig takes as it becomes a branch, and their voice carried much the same: scratching back and forth, pulsing high and low, transmitting a wave of conversation trapped within itself. Lanternhead X4B watched them with little intrigue. She knew where each flurry of wings and fire would turn their path, and expected each turn of their distant hubbub.
She watched and waited and fanned the bonfire she was building, and spoke the 3k46l8s0.1-40ls.53se291.5o03rd sentence.
The 3k46l8s0.1-40ls.53se291.5o03rd sentence was a short one, but filled with poetry. Some might say melodrama. The 3k46l8s0.1-40ls.53se291.5o03rd sentence suited nights of cool rains and grey skies, with sparse company and much introspection. But there was no time for such sentences.
We must away. We simply must away.
The Spitfires flurried over the bonfire X4B had built, relishing its steam and soot. Its branches numbered 43, of 67 originally piled on, and the Spitfires who saw this number were 30, four of them freshly dividing. She could hear their words clearly now, did X4B, she whom had been called Sparky by God. They buzzed and chattered, things like '77 degree turn from the Sphere Lamp to the Home Lamp via Camel's Bluff' and 'Spray catches you fast if you show off when the south wind hits' and 'Blue Triple Eyes didn't eat too much she was mating Serpent Flare, now she’s Triple Eye Flare'. Those were the best these chittered sentences could be translated, descriptions and comments and gossip of little interest, carried in emotions X4B did not fully understand. X4B heard a few rounds of 'Who is the glass bronze cagefire?' and an answer, 'She's the basket carrier, the one who laughs in embers'.
Sparky it was, then.
The Spitfires always returned this time of day, some small detachment of them flying back over the course of several nights from the Saluran to the south, where a colony in eternal rotation nibbled fine threads of steely parasitic metal that grew on the lava lamps whose submarine vents had closed and whose systems were waning. The Spitfires had named everything in their favoured grove of lamps, and numbered every tree from here to there. As long as they kept cycling back and forth, those names would be remembered, much like Sparky's own had been- by one, then another, bounced back and forth across the group like a rubber ball until it was time to be shared again.
She could not indulge these flames forever. I must away. I simply must away.
The Lanternhead 2AZ, unto whom had been given the title Gourdface, gazed out upon the Feasting Forest, gazed deeply within it from three hundred yards up in the air. He saw its groves and altars, streams, spirits, and outcrops of stone. He saw the subtle curves of the terrain his Lord had sculpted so carefully long ago, and he saw the Mar that was tearing it to pieces.
Everywhere the motes were floating, like the ghosts of moths that never were. Often they were sparse, lonely. Elsewhere they rose like snow flurries. There were patches in the forest where the moon did not have to be full for the twigs to shine in the dark. There were patches where the magic had died with the forest.
2AZ spoke the 79-3ms13g6.p.j9d65-xh21st sentence. This sentence was a personal one, and 2AZ did not regret that no other Lanternhead was present to hear it emanate from the flashing mouth carved into his gourd. Such a sentence is said during times of solitude, when the body is being tempered by the chill of water and the weight of stone, and the mind returns stronger from its hour of weakness. It was cathartic. It was brutal.
2AZ gripped the hilt of his long, straight-edged cane and twisted it, unsheathing the épée that lay within. It was light. So, so very light. It flashed faintly in the fire of his eyes, and he spun it in his hand.
A tiny sprig of cottontail grass fell down onto the garden path, cut clean.
Yes, thought Gourdface. Even he could cut.
All hail the Skewer Lord.
Lanternhead post. Sparky watches some Spitfires return from the Saluran Mendidh, where they have learned to satisfy their need for steel fibre using small growths that form naturally on the sides of the organometallic lava lamps. We see a little of their behaviour.
Gourdface watches the descending Mar plague begin to destroy large swathes of the Feasting Forest, which displeases him greatly. He reveals a type of sword cane given to the Lanternheads as a one-off, with a light, thin blade to compensate for their lack of muscle. This cost 1 Might from the Age of Lords pool.
Comet’s steps through the middle tier of Laurienna were not slow enough to constitute a sulk, nor loud enough for a stride. He walked with his scarlet head hung down. His neck wasn’t tired, no, his neck was fine, thanks, mother, let me go now, mother.
He just preferred not to look people in the eye any more. Not at this time of night. Not even slaves.
Asteria had been… not always pleasant, these last few years. The city hid its darker smiles these days, as if bribed into protecting the innocence of the child-king (long may he live), but Comet was younger once, and he remembered how he loved the spectacle of the old royalty. Hektore’s failed coup had hit him like a pot banged over his head, and he still flinched at the sound.
At least the mason blood on the unfinished temple was nothing but a fading memory.
Comet walked, walked, stopped, looked. He looked left. Some pygmies slept on the street where they were tied, huddled up against each other. He looked right. There was a shop between the string-maker’s workstation and Parallax’s sandal store.
There wasn’t usually a shop between the string-maker’s workstation and Parallax’s sandal store.
Comet crept up to the counter of the shop, which was littered with small flakes and strings of a brightly coloured material that touch confirmed was not leaf, but thinner and drier. A tiny flame lit the store, trapped in a cylinder of that festive material, one that Comet could swear was watching him. The proprietor, if that she was, was slumped over the counter, still holding the wineskin that had drained itself into a puddle under her cheek and all over her floor. She wore a small conical hat made of the same substance.
Comet stared at her. Not in the way he usually stared at girls, no. Not primarily, anyway. He stared at her because she had six arms.
Snores. The lantern wriggled. Comet backed off. He tapped the sleeping… creature on the wrist.
Like a kinked rope uncoiling from an unfavourable bend, the spooky lady uncurled slightly from her own arms, showing off her face. Comet watched as two bundles of sharp sticks and a big bundle of sharp teeth pointed themselves at him. Chopstick Eyes settled her head back on the counter between her arms, still wearing a big grin and a big blush, and worked her mouth, unable to suppress her smile.
Comet stared. Chopstick giggled and hiccuped.
“Are you… alright?”
Chopstick squealed and slid backwards off the counter, her chair falling on top of her with a crash. A very silly laugh followed her head up as she rested it on the counter by the chin, apparently kneeling, the rest of her body still somewhere on the floor.
“I’m daA~aAandy,” said Chopstick Eyes. “I’m fuck… ...ing... maniacal. I’m eggs… sell...” Her sticks swivelled around and found the wineskin, and she heaved herself onto the counter, lay down on it and shook the last few drips into her mouth. She let the skin flop out of her fingers with a curious fascination.
Comet was about to leave when she rolled her head towards him and said, “Hi.”
Comet scratched the back of his neck. “Do you… want some water?”
Chopstick stared at this, the dumbest question ever asked, then burst out laughing again. “Oh you’re funny! You’re really, really funny… HhA hHa hhh~ huhuhuhuh…” She propped her drooping head on the back of her wrist. “You’re really pretty. What’s your naaaaaaaaaAAAAAaaaaame~?”
“I- Oh. Oh. I’m Comet.” Comet looked to one side. He’d heard that before, and said it, but never in quite the same… way.
Chopstick’s mouth and eyes widened as if scarfing down the world’s thickest bread roll. “That’s so cooool! Hic. I’m Butter snort… buttery... I’m butteryboy. Hey, do yoo~ou want to know how I got here?”
“So I was, coming back from Azzie’s place, right? That’s what has the… Tonnikala. Oh I’m god, I said that right. And it’s the sky, right? It’s the sky!” The mysterious shopkeeper waved three of her hands around the air to make this really, really clear. “It’s like, the entire sky. But I also found this place, right? And here’s the thing. Here’s the t h i n g. Um, do you have any water?”
“I can go get-”
“The thing is, I didn’t land here. I wasn’t even gonna leave Azzie’s place, right?? I was just going down for a dip! And then I found a Route through a big cloud and bip boop, now I’m here. Hey, do you want some money?” Two of the hands extended, a pile of thin golden pieces slipping through their cupped fingers. Comet started to shake his head, but the hands had already fell apart and dropped the coins all over his feet. “Oops. Anyway, so I’m here now. And this place is really cool! I’m gonna have more parties… hic. And I’m gonna buy SO~O many thiiiiings. Omgg, you should show me things. And I’m gon-na get you dressed up! I’m gonna dress you in cute clothes~ and something other than leopard print fur, that’s getting kinda tacky...”
“Go home,” said Comet, backing away from the gold. “Go home, butter snort. This isn’t safe.”
“noooOOOooOOOOooo~!” Chopstick giggled. She rolled over onto her back and stretched on the counter, arching her spine luxuriously. “Nah, I’m not gonna go home yet. I can’t… really get up right now… bahahahahah. It wouldn’t… It’d take… a big rock hitting me in the head to make me do any sensible shit now,” said she.
Somewhere high, Veradax eclipsed the Pyres.
* * *
Chopstick lay back on her deck chair at the top of the Pagoda and watched the incoming meteor through her sunglasses. She excised a fresh dollar bill from under her straw hat and waved it temptingly at the distant streak of fire. The meteor didn’t budge.
“It’s gonna be that way, then, huh?”
She threw the bill to the wind and the wind spun it around before bringing it back in the form of a hefty wooden mallet.
“Batter up, bitch!”
Betasticks discovers Laurienna by chance after accidentally evicting herself from the Blue. She decides to celebrate with a one-man party at three in the morning. More importantly, she figures out that she can use the Route to effectively slow-teleport herself into mortal marketplaces, by virtue of being the Market Lord.
Somewhere in the high heavens, a piece of stone began to move.
Forced by a hand that never touched it, sent from a broken place to seek places yet unbroken, the shard of Veradax flew blindly from the only home it knew. It travelled, tugged along by the rolling gravity of other, greater stones, playing in their slipstream. The other moonshards tumbled on, barely feeling its weight.
So weak was the path of the little stone that after a few such passes, it had been tossed far away from the lethal decay of its original path. Free from the onslaught, it drifted nowhere in particular, and, all alone, was halted by an obstacle it never should have met.
The Dusk Kite reached for the tiny meteor with tangled-thread arms and reeled it to its mouth, where little stitches of light started flickering around its core. It wrapped the stone in tentacles made of night and swallowed it whole, a blue glint pulsing through its mould-like veins. Then it spread its arms again and grew perfectly still, once more camouflaged.
Somewhere in its curious mind, it noted the great stones falling from the moon, lit for a moment as they passed through the twilight and fell, like the dumb crushing weights they were, with brutal impetus towards Galbar.
The Dusk Kite, a giant space monster left there by Chopstick, watches meteors fall from Veradax.
What wood and brick and granite had not been stacked in huge piles across the burned field had been erected into the base of a temple, a gargantuan pagoda already three storeys tall. The fog clenched around it, pouring through its windows as if afraid of what would happen if it were seen, and even the stream it was built over babbled in relative quiet. Its footprint alone was enough to hold a congregation of ten thousand worshippers, and the ceiling of that lowermost floor alone was dozens of meters high. The unseen feasting-spirits crawled across its roofs and grounds and walls, drawn to the grim magic etched into its every brick.
“So yeah, this is my office,” said Chopstick Eyes, flicking her lighter with little satisfaction.
Vrog, who had been in the middle of a “Sure, was made for lunch”, stopped and opened his mouth wide. Almost immediately, it half-closed into a perplexed scowl. His tongue slid out and wound through the air, following the forms of the wall standing before them at a distance. Another joined it, angling as if to trace around a corner, then another, and a few more. They soon snapped back in, the whole head shaking around them. Chopstick’s hair laced out, guiding the blind tongues to the edge of the temple by touch.
”I’m tasting what you’ve got going here’s not bad,” he scratched the putrid mess between his teeth, “But gut me, I can’t get a feel of something that big.” Hooked fingers picked out a waddle of dust bound together by spittle and flicked it off to follow a chewed seed. “Maybe if I’d got someone who can see-” a scraping of a hand, “Hold on, there’s just the guy. You’ve got a call from him, actually.” No sooner had he finished speaking that something began to stir and stretch inside him, twisting the surface of his armour in misshapen jutting moulds.
Chopstick made a visible “?” noise.
Vrog barely had the time for a final “Wait, not like-” before his mouth was pulled open from inside beyond even its already loose limits. Emerging from his now grotesquely widened throat, four iron-clad clawed hands clutched its edges and pushed out, then down, widening his head in a circle and folding the upper body down under it like a sleeve. In its place, hoisting itself up from somewhere it could not possibly have been earlier, a metallic pillar rose on its evenly spaced arms, surmounted by a visored head.
The featureless jagged block swiveled around, four burning eyes lighting up in recognition. ”Skragh! Good to hear you’ve found a name that rolls out easy. It’s a pain to remember everyone else sometimes.” The head turned to glance up at the temple and bobbed admiringly. ”I see you’ve been busy too.”
For a second, Chopstick grinned almost as wide as Vrog had. “Narzhak! So good to see you again!” Chopstick waited for more words to come out of her, but they didn’t. The grin vanished. She puffed at her cigarette. “I… Yeah, I’ve been busy. Met your guy. The little one. Six arms, bad dentist? She needed a ride.” She scrubbed the back of her wrist with a spare knuckle, looking twitchily at the piles of as-yet-unused brick and the walls they were meant to be building.
”That one? I’d been wondering where it’d gotten to. I should’ve thought of giving it some way of reporting back. It’s useless as a scout now.” The crude armoured torso swayed aside, settling in a more comfortable position over the half-inside-out body. It stopped in place for a moment as a thought hit it. ”Wait, d’you say ‘she’?” Narzhak’s head wavered heavily on its quadruple shoulders. ”Hrm.” He seemed about to add more, but turned back to look at the temple again instead.
“If she cute, she a girl,” said Chopstick. She picked up a ceramic flake and massaged it in her hands, then pitched it far into the air in a blur of violent motion. A second or two later, a distant click as it fell into place on the pagoda. She grunted. “...Tell me straight, Narzhak, did your secretary slip me a roofie? I feel like spit- I mean, like shit- and the tilework ain’t helping.”
The four hands ran along the fleshy circle they held on to, spinning something below it with a faint churning sound. ”I’ll check.” The head’s topmost eyes sank into its mask, molten iron dripping down to seal them from the surface like a curtain. They soon reemerged in a fiery burst, looking as displeased as a pair of embers could. ”It’s some scrap he got from K’nell or someone. I bet he said it’d be funny. Couldn’t tell you how to get it out, but the best idea he’s got-” one of the hands let go of its support and pointed a finger at it, ”-is doing something you like.” The free hand scratched the gap below the visor’s edge. ”He’s all yours when he comes back if you get a mind to something, long as he can at least walk when you’re done.”
“Fucking dreamboat,” said Chopstick Eyes, recognising the taste of the name. She flipped herself fluidly upside down and started doing push-ups with one hand, legs high in the air. “I should manage.” She threw herself upwise, landing somewhere with an imperceptibly better view of imperceptibly better targets, and drew a throwing knife from her hair.
The steel cut a line through the air as straight as a bullet, and embedded itself on a far tree. The unseen blood of an unseen monster rolled down the bark. The gutsplattered earth looked perfectly clean. Chopstick smiled a powerful smile.
“You’re right, it does help,” she said. She flexed an arm as far as it would go and pulled another knife, a scalpel. “Hey Narzhak, what do you think of a little trade?”
”Anytime.” The free hand stretched out towards the struck tree, fingertips lengthening like freakishly fast growths of metallic grass to scrape the ground around its roots. They rasped around like a mole’s paw for some moments and drew back, most of their length folding into invisibility. Narzhak raised the hand to his eyes, inclined his head to something and leaned on it again, pushing down on the stretched mouth. ”What’re you after?”
Chopstick had nipped off to a nearby refuse pile and started rummaging again. Chopstick was a master rummager. “See, Vrog’s… dry… mouth problems can be solved, I think. At least partially. Because, I’ve been working on a very similar problem very recently. And that might not matter to you, since honestly, I have the feeling mouth boy here might have had it coming. But there are a couple things you have that I’d like to trade for! And maybe other services that I can provide.” There was a remarkably large amount of fabric in the pile, for such a rainy place.
Two pairs of shoulders rose and fell in a well-timed double shrug. ”Tell you the truth, I miss having a working mouth to visit. A drink you plug into your throat isn’t the same, you know?”
“Could do something about that,” said Skraghnaphgh. She pulled out a large silk arrangement and hung it out between her arms. Soaked though it was, it was still clearly recognisable: a torn kite, woven with an ornate eye. She handed Narzhak-Vrog the string.
An iron claw took it, the head over it following its thread over to the staring embroidery. Its own eyes dimmed and simmered down to scars of incandescent metal, luridly red like coals from a dead fire. Narzhak held a splayed hand before the kite, waved it slowly from side to side. Then, his hybrid body shuddered and dragged itself out of the kite’s gaze, leaving it to face the temple wall. Its lower half moved in awkward spasming twitches, as though directed from far away with tangled puppet strings; between this and Vrog’s already distorted proportions, it was a miracle that the sauces it still held in a rigidly frozen arm did not spill over.
Upon its magic silk festooned, An oddish kite has odder eyes. It watches us, like yonder moons, For gods in distant skies.
After a brief contemplation, the god’s true eyes lit up again with a sudden crackle. ”Easier than sticking more eyes on something. There’s a lot you could do with this. How many’re you offering?”
“I’m afraid these are out of stock,” said Chopstick Eyes, taking the string of the eye-kite for herself just to make sure it was still working. “But you can still get your hands on them. I made them for my staff. They aren’t the sightsiest, see. Or the fightsiest. Which is a problem, but I feel like there’s a win for it in both of us. Scuze-moi...” The godlet nipped off under the shade of the giant pagoda, and emerged dragging a corpse under a tarp. “Here’s one,” she said, and gently lifted the canvas.
The curator lifted its head.
It was immediately clear what use such a being would have for the eye-kite. It bore for a head a large paper lantern, flickering quite wildly in the rainstorm wind. Its left hand was a little brass screw-vice, its right a thin bamboo cane. It tapped the earth around it with clumsy bewilderment. By the sound of the movement underneath its billowing robe, the rest of it was made of wood.
“They’re not waterproof yet. Or very agile. Or smart, or… Yeah. They don’t do much,” said Chopstick. “But they can count! They can count things really well, and remember a lot of stuff. And draw the stuff they remember, and put numbers together. They don’t get tired, either, and nothing hunts them. Except termites. Fucking hate termites.” She looked up. “I made them to keep track of all my stuff. I figure I’ll be able to move materials around much faster with them crunching the numbers. But I figure they’re gonna need some help, uh… Staying alive to take all those notes.” The lantern-headed curator tried to get up, muddying its robes further. Chopstick wrapped it up in the tarp and raised it overhead, jerking her head to the pagoda. “Want to wheel that thing inside? Less wet.”
The two half-bodies totteringly shifted on their uneven feet. ”Tad hard to walk in something this small,” Narzhak rumbled, doing his best to keep his weight even on the center, ”Hold on.”
He pushed the edges of Vrog's mouth closer to his body, leaving his four elbows jutting out far outwards. Their tips swelled as with a sudden tumorous burst under their iron skin, and in seconds the formless bloating resolved itself into one long, thick clawed leg on each arm. Raising himself on his new set of limbs, which stretched well past the crooked asymmetrical paws he had until then been staggering over, Narzhak-Vrog scampered towards the temple's gates like an unusually heavyset spider. No trail of rotting footprints followed him.
”Big, open place,” he mused as he went, whether to Chopstick or himself, ”If they'll be working from here, they're going to need a damn proper lot of watching all day round. Could be almost a thousand, and that's without counting shifts. I can bring that many heads over from my place, but I don't have to tell you what kind of hassle it's going to be.” His eyes shot up to the dizzying top of an arch as he passed under it. ”Else I could fly in a bunch of skestral, that'd be a lot easier on the logistics. They act up sometimes, though, you might've noticed, and can't do a lot about termites either.”
The tangle of god-parts stood, slime-filled underside swaying, as Narzhak scratched his head with an uncomfortably twisted arm. ”Making something new on the spot's not going to be any smoother. Bottom line, the best way is working with what we've already got here. You have any more of your-” he fumbled for a word, ”counters? Countants? What're you calling them, anyway?"
“Lantern heads,” said Chopstick, as they entered the pagoda and the question answered itself. About two hundred man-sized mounds lay on the ground, clothed and unclothed, or in pieces, chalk outlines marking where they were meant to go. Some were awake, and looked dimly up from where they stood or sat tapping their abacus, not fully blind after all. In the center of it all stood a Haze Man: [colour=gray][b]“.^* !~! *^. coffee. .eeffoc”[b][/colour], it intoned.
“And, don’t worry,” said the goddess, tossing a coffee bean at the sentinel. “They won’t need much looking after, especially not here. This place is cursed as fuck. But if you want, they could travel with your little winged dudes, or with the ones that’re like Split, the ones that keep buying stuff from my basement. Then they can lend their kites as much as you want, and their numbers, and their maps. They’re guides, after all. Logistics is the one thing they’re kind of good at.” She shrugged. “But it would be nice if they had, like… a little bit of bite, I guess. Especially if they’re going to hang out with your boys.” Choppy clasped her hands together and looked at Narzhak spikily. “Pretty please? I can put it in a contract for you, if you want~"
”Slagspit, it's hard enough moving in this thing, and you want me to work?” the iron head rumbled, with less than genuine irritation. It looked at Choppy, then at the mannequins, then at Choppy again, and finally gave a wheeze like a rusted pipe in mock defeat. ”...Fine, I'll see what we can do. Never mind contracts, I've got a good memory for things that matter.”
Chopstick swooned. A mass of gloves materialised to hold her up in a dramatic pose.
In a few insectile strides, Narzhak's body was over one of the idle wooden figures. Three legs tremblingly balanced the bulk over them as the fourth picked over the dummy's limbs and lantern. ”Don't lift, don't hit, don't do spit except counting. I can't do much about that, but I don't think I need to…" a long finger reached into the lantern from the hole at the top, ”Going to need some raw scrap here. You got a couple knives you can spare?”
Chopstick Eyes flipped a tatami floorboard, revealing a deep, broad square pit packed to the lip with loose blades. “God provides!”
A second later, the tatami crashed down nearby. Coffee looked at it.
The blindly grasping iron hand slid over it, lifted it to the four eyes, then threw it back away and reached further into the cutting tangle. A first fistful of blades was rubbed into a thick, smooth-edged ingot, from which a few shavings were let drop into the mannequin’s lantern. Something began to scrape from inside the paper globe with the fury of an agitated cricket.
Narzhak ran a sharp finger down the wooden body, and the inner scraping followed it. ”That’s the easy part. These heads better be tougher than they look…"
Chopstick crossed her fingers and hoped Narzhak didn’t notice her glancing away.
By the time he looked up from the last of the rigid-limbed subjects, it was growing dark outside, or at least slightly more gloomy than during the daytime. In the deepening shadows of the pagoda, the bobbing lantern heads became steadily less pale as they came into their primordial role.
The final dummy was flung sitting upright by a light tap on its back, finding itself paper to mask with its improvised surgeon. ”If this doesn’t do them something, I don’t know that anything will.” Narzhak outstretched a waiting hand behind himself. ”But I’d rather be sure while I’m here. Eye?”
A fumbling and skittering around saw Chopstick emerge from the dark with another ornate kite. There were scratches around her knuckles and forearms, and some loose bricks piled up in odd ways on the ground. Having something to do beyond watch staved off the jitters. “Are they going to keep making that shreddy sound?”
”Sometimes. Should help with the termites.” The hand passed the kite from her to the dummy's vice-limb, which closed around the string with mechanical eagerness. ”As for bigger things, they've got this...”
The metallic claw suddenly clenched into a fist and struck at the mannequin's chest with the speed of a trained fighter. However, the wooden shape was no longer there to meet it - sometime between the punch's wind-up and its swing, it had leaned sideways with its usual rigidity, avoiding the blow by a hair's breadth. A swipe with another claw followed, and again the dummy leaned back just in time for the jagged fingers to miss it by the narrowest gap. It made a little hop to the side to evade a downward stomp, and suddenly riposted with its thin cane. Had Narzhak's eye not closed with godlike promptness, the bamboo tip would have stabbed it dead in the middle.
”Looks like they've learned to count the right things. If you know when to move and where to hit, you can get by even if you're slow as wood." He took a few steps backwards and rubbed his hidden throat. ”Wish I had a head like that if it wasn't paper. So, for all this, I'll just take the indefinite right to-” he rattled ahead as if through a speech he had been preparing in his mind, ”requisition the services of one or several of them, myself or through representatives, free of charge or for a token fee determined by the duration, until-” he scratched the back of his head, ”further notice. And something about the mouth here. Sounds good?” After a moment's reflection, he added ”Did I get those right?”
“Free of charge up to an amount totalling half their current number, the exact individuals making that number subject to reassignment by me or a representative to ensure that this facility remains manned during their excursion, until such time as a number of lantern heads equal to half their current number have perished, entered stasis, deserted, or otherwise become incapable of adequately performing the duties of their order in the course of their service to you; and on further condition that their services do not include aiding, abetting or perpetrating the destruction, desecration, or otherwise malevolent handling of any property or persons employed by Chopstick-Eyed™ enterprises, without prior permission from said enterprises...”
As she spoke, Chopstick scraped the now-much-emptier pit for spare knives, pulled out a dozen or so and spun them with lazy grace at the lantern head, whose grounded kite had numbered the angle and force of her motion in arcseconds and micronewtons, and dutifully calculated that it could stop nearly every knife by dropping its limbs and falling, puppet-like, into a bundle of wooden limbs on the temple floor, its elbow neatly folded over the better part of its head. After a few seconds it stood, rather shakily, picking razors off its arms without complaint (though perhaps a little indignation).
“...So don’t kill them too quickly, use them against me, or take them all at once, and we’re golden!” Chopstick collected a large scalpel from the lantern head, and touched the back of its blade with her finger, then looked up and stuck her tongue out. “You did good! Pretty cheeky, actually. Don’t worry about the mouth thing. I should be able to sort that out quite easily. You’ll just have to have this body sit still-ish for a little while, and... make sure Vrog’s not looking too hard.” Grin. “I ain’t gonna hurt him. Just gonna leave him a fun little surprise.”
It took Narzhak a few more seconds to scratch himself into focus and rearrange his eyes, which had drifted a little apart under the barrage of terms and conditions. ”We’ve got it, then,” he nodded, curling up the fingers on his legs and letting them slide apart until the joined body rested on its original, lopsided limbs. The elbow-arms continued to smoothly travel up despite having no more length of floor to go over, rising and folding back into blank metallic joints. Left to its own devices, the body tottered on Vrog’s misshapen feet, and only stood precariously still after some careful pushing from the top.
”I’ll leave it for him to find,” one of the fiery eyes gave an oblique wink, ”give you some room to go wild if you feel like it. You’ve got a big margin before he starts feeling anything.” The original four arms stretched the mouth a little wider as the god's pillar-like body began to descend with a loud scraping. It slowed down a fourth of the way in, trying to crawl back less loudly.
”Been good seeing you, Skragh,” the head sank by three short tugs, ”You need anything else, give me a shout. Just make it loud enough that I hear it from down over.” Two longer ones. ”And if you're ever going by the place, it's always open.” One long grinding pull, and it disappeared into the maw. The arms followed suit, with only the barest hint of nail-sharp fingertips glinting over its edge. ”When you're done, just push the hands in, should wake him up. Get you around!”
Chopstick saluted the descent of the warlord. Coffee waited to be sure that the foreign god was gone, then turned to its master, who was spinning the scalpel. “So long, big guy,” the goddess murmured. Then she looked back at the Vrog-body, and grinned.
The firelight glinted on the scalpel.
A bag full of fluid hung on a device like a coat rack, thin tubes running down from it and into Chopstick’s upper arm and spine. Gravity fed the elixir into her flesh through a valve.
She wore a black strip of thick, discarded fabric tightly wrapped over her mouth, the rough wool disguising how much she had bled into it. Later on she would finish the job more neatly, tidy up the loose ends and make sure she could still live her desired aesthetic, but the operation had proven complicated and for all Narzhak’s assurances she wasn’t sure Vrog wasn’t still in there somewhere, waiting to stir awake and pounce.
She wanted to have the satisfaction of being first.
Before her lay two wire frames on a craftsman’s desk. One was fixed into a plain yet stylish wooden treasure chest, albeit circular, lockless, and opening via a brass pedal, giving the impression of an abnormally classy garbage can. The other lay loose. In the former lay a flattened hunk of flesh only moving because its divinity superseded its rancid nature; in the latter, a rather nicer bag of teeth, more human and morphous. It was stitched up heavily at one corner.
“Alright...” Chopstick picked up the loose mouth that so resembled her own, placed it on a platter and ferried it carefully over to Vrog’s still silent frame, a spare arm carrying her fluid bags. Vrog’s churning visage had already regrown most of the prototypes she had cut out of him. She couldn’t tell if the biggest wound was still open because his stasis delayed the process, or because his left-hand mouth had been somewhat more permanent than the rest of his features. She didn’t care either.
She re-opened the scar and brought the smaller mouth closer.
Chopstick sniffed the air. No, same stench, as always. Nothing to make her feel queasy.
The wave of nausea came again.
Pushing through the gut-deep repulsion and vaguely glad it had not shown itself sooner, Chopstick pushed the donor mouth onto Vrog’s meat and-
Energy burst over her like a slimy bubble, drenching her brain in a filthy intoxication. Chopstick recoiled, ripping the mouth back with her and hacking, coughing her stitches open under her mask. Coffee was by her side in a twang of coiled metal, dragging her away. She scrabbled on the ground for the mouth.
A shred of meat had come away with the mouth and was squirming, roiling on the ground with wretched, pitiful life. Chopsticks’ eyes clustered on it. In a sleek instant, Coffee’s foot appeared in its place, and the abortion was stamped into a smudge.
Chopstick looked towards Coffee, who looked back with cold, hard light. She looked back to the stain. She coughed. Blood started to soak into her sticks. Her lanternheads noted this well.
“...Shut up,” rasped Chopstick Eyes, who could not understand. “Get out.” Coffee dissolved into powder and shade. She stayed there on the ground, kneeling in the lantern-light, comprehending slowly what had just been done. “...Fuck. Fuck. Shit.”
Work. That might help.
In little more than a few busy minutes, the bag’s fluids had drained a little lower, and Vrog’s new mouth had been welded into the chassis of a large pocket-watch, its shiny brass guts lying in neat piles on the workbench. A fresh wound had appeared in Vrog’s face, the meat lining the bottom of the pocket-watch, upon which rested Chopstick’s own.
She poured some rat poison down the disembodied maw. Vrog’s surface gave a half-hearted squirm. Good enough.
Chopstick flicked Narzhak’s fingers back down Vrog’s throat one by one, and when the last one was gone, she cleared her throat (it didn’t help) and said, “Wakey wakey~ you’re a cunt~”
A faint gurgling rose from deep below the many presumably convergent mouths on the fluid semblance of a face. Slowly, it articulated itself into a groggy ”Are too” without any of the roughly imitated lips having budged. Only after some more incoherent rumbling did the mouths start to move, one after another, in no particular sequence and without any more of a purpose.
Vrog's frame shuddered once, twice, then stretched itself with several cracks and a manifold yawn. The hands froze in midair as they remembered they might have been holding something when last conscious, then gave a wave and finished their ostentatious movement.
”Guts' sake, I hate it when he does-” the mouth spitting out his greeting to the world stopped when it realised it was not the right one. His hands shot up to his head, feeling their way over what passed for his face. They slowed in wonderment as they rounded the edges of the unfamiliar gaping hole they found, then jumped down over his stomach.
”Sure as spit this one didn't use to be here,” a tongue emerged from the wound and licked its edges, which were already sprouting the tips of a ring of teeth. ”And I'm gutted or I tasted something inside as it's supposed to. That you been doing it?”
Chopstick scraped up the copper gears in her hands and threw them down the pocket-mouth, followed by a bloody rag. She uncorked the rat poison and held that over the mouth, not pouring, looking at Vrog with eyebrow raised.
He made a few more scraping passes with his hooked fingers over his belly, which seemed to have slightly swollen since he had entered the temple, though it might just have been a trick of the failing light. A flickering tongue briefly smelled the liquid, and a claw gave the goddess a thumbs-up.
She exhaled, eyesticks flicking up briefly, and tilted the bottle. After a second, she started to shake it, liquid splashing onto and into the watch in messy spatters. “You weren’t supposed to enjoy that, but whatever, spit-head.”
“Hey, who you calling that?” Speaking through one mouth was not hindering Vrog from licking the rims of the others in delight. “I bust my gut letting you talk to your pal down there, and that's what I get?” For all the plaintiveness of his words, his slurping let on that he was enjoying himself a great deal. “Good stuff you got, though. You want something I hate, try sweet next time, can't stand it.”
Chopstick unhooked her intravenous drip bag from the stand, pulled down her mask, and bit through the master tube, shoving the sac of glitter-brilliant ichor down the watch. The left side of her mouth was bad stitches and skin grafts, stuck to the fabric by dry blood. The right side twitched. “Why the fuck did you feed me that pod, you dingus?”
“Fed you what, scraphead?” The filthily-armoured abdomen was now clearly swelling, stretching the links between the plates covering it. While nowhere as ostentatiously heavy as it had been before its first explosion, it was steadily making its way towards an air of unhealthy gluttony. “I said it'd be fun if somebody ate it. You going to blame me when you stick a nail in your ass next?”
“Watching people shove nails in their ass isn’t fun!” The sac caught on one of the watch-portal’s teeth and split open, disgorging its sugary nutrients. The god with the chopstick eyes, it seemed, preferred her fluid replacement flavoured with candy floss and unicorn semen. “I don’t even have an ass!”
“And you'll never get one with this kinda thinking!” Vrog jabbed a recurve finger at her, “Things getting shoved into people are hilariouuuUURGHHH!”
He doubled over, retching, as the taste finally hit him. Something inside him churned and gargled as it tried to vomit the offending flavour, but found nothing concrete to push out. “Scumspit, you're fast, me and my big mouaAAGHLL!” A glob of some indescribable, eye-wateringly foul rejection was disgorged on the floor at his feet with a crash. A nearby lantern head clutched its chest as if to say, ‘good heavens’.
“EKHAAGH! I swear this is the spittest I've ever-” the rest of the sentence was lost in a strangled cacophony of nausea, “-gutface, got to hand it to you, nobody's ever done made me that slagged while I'm whole. You're near the worst.”
“Well don’t dish it up if you can’t take it, then!” Chopstick tried to derive pleasure from the decommissioning of her floormats, but wasn’t cruel enough. “See, now we’re even.” She drummed her fingers on the surface of the desk, then sprayed some industrial lubricant into the disembodied mouth to help wash the liquid down. “And at least you know this thing kind of works.”
“Sorta.” Vrog's tongue swept up the drips of vile spittle that rounded his still twitching mouths and distributed them on a shoulder like a hand of paint. “Think I'll let things settle before I give it a bigger try, though. You'd think I got diabwhatsitname with how I take to sweet spit.”
He flipped a hand, hefting the rusted bong in its palm. A thin thread of steam was still somehow coming out of it. “Going to lie it out if you're done demonstrating. What's something strong you put in here?”
Chopstick finished tying a knot in her leaking intravenous tube and said, “Deep in the Bazaar, there’s a crystal that gives off magic vapours if you take a light to it. If you breathe it you become invulnerable to pain for hours, and also kind of really horny. I tried some and spent the next four days locked in a small box yanking out my own teeth. I’m not gonna sell it to you because I don’t want you to punch a hole in my pagoda.” She sighed. “But there’s tobacco in the yellow box. Hey, Vrog, before you make off with this-” she nudged the watch. “-I, uh, there was an accident while I was making it. There was...” Tap tap of a bare foot. “...I don’t think you should touch it. At least not while I’m touching it too. Probably not at all if you can help it. It’s really… Not stable. It’s got both our blood worked into it, and the two don’t sit together well. There’s some bad magical shit going on there.” She snapped it shut and palmed it off to the moderately-carved-up lantern head. “These guys probably aren’t strong enough to make it explode. We gods, we have to be careful.”
The bile-spattered shoulders that had been rolling in a gelatinous shrug stopped short at the mention of explosions. After holding up for a moment during which the head between them evidently reflected on what to do with them, they and the whole upper body slumped down in what would have been a nod for someone with a neck. “Cause if we wasn’t, we’d be the ones with nails in our asses, got it.” A long iron finger ran a line around a mouth. “But if I poked it and threw it at somebody? Akh, nah,” the whole hand gave a wave, ”Not worth a good mouth.”
“Yeah… Don’t,” she said, scratching the back of her neck.
Heavy, uneven metal-soled steps clanged and thumped their way to the gate. “So I’ll be starting with that deal you got up.” The finger snapped in the lantern-light for the bearer of the mouthed watch to follow. “Gotta figure something better when I’m travelling, but it’ll do now. I’ll be around the food-hole.”
Clang-ka-thump, clang-ka-thump-crack. Vrog’s limping moved outside down the path.
“It’s all yours. Enjoy,” Chopstick looked at the mats. “Nice meeting you.”
“Same.” The steps stopped, and another snap beckoned the lantern-head to follow. The dummy hobbled into the darkness without visible enthusiasm. “Smell you around.”
The clanking faded into the forest.
Chopstick scratched at her arms where the plastic tube entered the skin. She fiddled with it, and looked into the dark corners of the pagoda.
She picked up another brick.
Down on her spirits because of the swallowed podling, Chopstick shows Vrog the big project she's been working on, a temple-headquarters in the Feasting Forest. He can't appreciate something on that scale without eyes, but, like a suddenly remembered obligation, Narzhak pops out of him to do so instead. The gods catch up on things, Choppy improves her mood with some pleasant knifework, and the temple's staff of lantern-headed, kite-eyed, termite-plagued wooden dummies is introduced.
The lantern-heads are good at counting and calculating things and not much else. Narzhak fixes this slightly by making them fightier in exchange for getting to borrow some now and then, along with a way to circumvent Vrog's eating curse, and pops back in. Chopstick gets to work on a stylish prosthetic mouth, with some complications due to the hazardous materials involved, and uses it to punish Vrog for the podling prank. The two then part ways, or at least hang out in different spots.
Starting with 13 Might and 8 free points, Chopstick builds herself the Official Pagoda, a Holy Site, in the middle of the jungle for 10 Might.This expenditure has been postponed until the next turn.
She staffs it with a Holy Order, the Lanternheads, for 2 free points. Another species for me to pull funky linguistic bullshit on! 1 point claimed towards Lanterns.
She blesses the Lanternheads with a one-time gift, the Eyekites, for 1 free point. When flown, these eye-shaped kites allow the user to see through their fabric as an extension of their own bodies, with great accuracy.
The mouth she collected from Vrog is sealed inside a box which is now a trash can. This is a 1 free point artefact that retains Vrog’s general voraciousness and Orvus’s curse, and is thus extremely good at getting rid of things you don’t want to exist. It is bestowed upon the Lanternheads as a designated paper shredder.
The mouth she fashioned from her own is sealed inside a pocket-watch. This is a 2 free pointThis cost has been paid in native Might on GM advice artefact that connects an uncursed Chopstick mouth to a detached Vrog throat. So as not to create a new demigod from this fusion, Chopstick warns Vrog not to touch it too much, and he passes it on to a Lanternhead for now. Chopstick claims 1 point towards Cuisine.
1 FP (enhanced with War portfolio) spent on teaching the lantern heads to use their calculating skills for martial purposes. To paraphrase Dupont, there's a limited number of moves your opponent can make, and working out the best responses to each of them is a matter of computing. 0 MP (discounted from 1) to grant them the title Knife-Eyed. All that said, it helps to be good at spotting the enemy's vulnerable points at a glance. 1 FP to bless them with resilience against those pesky tropical termites, and anything that doesn't like to cut itself on sharp metal bits when it breaks wooden things.
“Fuck off,” said Chopstick Eyes, waving her arms briefly around her head before wrapping them back around her skinny chest, shivering despite the weight of her bright green sukajan. The wintersprites didn’t let up, and they crowded closely around the shimmery fabric, fighting for space on her bomber hat and perching in neat rows on her chopstick eyes.
“FUCK OFF!” she yelled, waving more arms. The sprites dispersed, momentarily, frightened of being torn by the vigorous motion, but a few brave souls came back, borne on the winds of love.
Chopstick really regretted building that hundred-yard-tall blueice sculpture of herself.
The sprites had their own sculptures to attend to, though, and in time their numbers diminished enough that they were less of a problem. It was in this relatively unbothered state that Chopstick started to notice the unicellular plants that dusted the surface of the ice in a fine rain, and the sculptures of ice that the buoyant winter-spirits would never have naturally found a model for, being rather unable to submerge.
Levitating plankton, sculptures of narwhals. Chopstick was more than willing to accept that she wasn’t the spiciest mi goreng in the supermarket, but she had a good idea she knew what was up. It wasn’t long before a flotilla of flying squid passed close enough to prove her right.
Chopstick Eyes was riding her very own levitating orca by the end of the hour.
It was Azura’s work, for certain, and Ashalla’s. They must have collaborated hard on such a sea. Chopstick let the orca take her where it would, playing with one of the last remaining winter-spirits. It was curious, given the connection, that the sprites and the algae were driven by entirely different modes of photosynthesis. Chopstick dusted the spirit with patterns in green, gold and red plankton, then set it off back to the ice. Perhaps the coloured lineage would stick around and make some use of the symbiosis; perhaps its newfound requirement for trace salts would be its end. She didn’t know.
She was just taking her mind off the fact that Li’Kalla was nowhere to be found.
The blue, fresh waters she had smelled from miles away were here, dark dots marking the melt ponds where the ice was warmest. But no rain. The water here was just an emergent phenomenon, void of intent. Later she would have to voyage south again.
Until then, she could at least examine the source of that endless, lilting melody waving down from above.
She flew on.
The rain belted, sliding off broad leaves and strengthening the roots upon which Chopstick stood. Her saw rasped back and forwards, the noise deadened by the sound of the endless tropical streams flowing down off her hair in hot rivers. She’d given up on clothes a while ago; fashion was one thing, but even raincoats were just extra weight. Bangles and jewellery would do her just fine.
She’d made a mistake; she’d lapsed and been burned for it. The wood was piled up in huge stacks and she carted it off to the build site by hand. No, nothing good had come of it. She’d find some other way to ameliorate her bad reflexes. Sleep wasn’t the answer.
She began to nail the planks together, the ring of her hammer the only sound penetrating the rain. Liv huddled up beside a forest-lantern in a small shelter, moodily looking on. Memories of the Bazaar’s construction were vivid, though working in the Galbarian elements was far more difficult. She had gloves to help her, this time, but she used none of them. Alone. She would do this alone.
The longer she worked, the longer she had to think about what she could do next. And it held back the memories of the night she’d woken up.
Bang, bang bang, went the hammer. She’d cleared an enormous space for this project, and already it felt far too small.
A tap on the shoulder.
The glove pointed. A visitor. Chopstick reluctantly put down her hammer. Liv crooned.
Strangers coming o’er the strait. A new thing for this bird. Come now, goddess. We’ll be late. Your call has been answered.
Well, time for lunch, she thought, flexing her wiry shoulders. She stroked Liv’s head and took her on shoulder. Wonder who it is?
Betasticks discovers that ice sculptures are a form of mating display, and encounters the polar tonnikala. She crosses a winter-spirit with some phytoplankton to make a more colourful winter-spirit, then hears the Verse from somewhere in the Blue, and sets off to investigate.
Alphasticks changes her mind about sleeping again after the invention of nightmares, and decides to distract herself from the bad vibes by commencing work on a huge structure somewhere in the Feasting Forest. She takes a break to go have tea with Vrog.
The Alma came on a midsummer morning, while Chopstick Eyes sat on a stone, watching sheep watching lambs watching butterflies over the fields.
"Good people of Galbar, I bring you grave news..."
The air flickered, and Chopstick jolted.
There. Right there! Atop a whale with Asceal at her side! But Chopstick's smile faded, and the recording played on, lies and illusions all.
"...and the tools to claim your freedom. Each and everyone of you has an immortal soul, the essence of your being that contains your mind and memories. This soul is the very core of your being, more vital to your..."
It wasn't meant for her at all, no more than it was for the sheep. Somewhere, where living beings crowded the space between god and livestock, this message belonged. But not with Chopstick Eyes.
"Katharsos, the tyrant of death, has decreed that your souls, once severed from flesh should be put to the flame..."
Chopstick Eyes listened to the broadcast with growing apathy. Her thoughts were elsewhere by the time the footage of a griffin-soul burning was replayed, and she watched it as she had watched the sheep: without feeling.
"...so I ask you, I beg you, please people of Galbar, when your time comes let the Alma help you. Please use them to save yourselves! For only by your own wills can you set yourselves free!"
The bird fell silent. The two watched each other, chopsticks to eyes and back again, each waiting. The Alma, it seemed, had nowhere else to be, and nothing better to do, than to wait and see if she would die. Chopstick shook her head.
"You're wasting your time, buddy."
Perhaps mistaking this for a preemptive denial of access to her soul, the Alma preened, fluttered, and went on its way. Chopstick suspected it would find Ya-Shuur, and deliver the same message. She shook her head, picked up her shepherding crook, and stretched. She wondered if either the glowing lady or Azura actually believed that they could forestall annihilation. She suspected they both did.
How... breathtakingly naïve.
Everything burns, thought the alien shepherd, drawing an ancient fabric from the pocket of her overalls. Everything rots.
She looked out into the distant sky. Somewhere, far away, she smelled water. Fresh, fresh water. Miles and miles of it, splattered across the earth of midsummer. She looked back at the ancient kite, and wondered how many times she had reached this point, an instant away from alighting the high winds and travelling onwards, only to falter. She didn't know what she was waiting for. She didn't know why she failed.
Azura was still out there. Sitting on an armoured whale, perhaps. Fighting a burning tyrant. Something like that. And here she was, stuck.
She sat back down on the rock. A lamb looked up at her. She looked away.
Her gaze fell upon a tiny whorl of leaves peeking out from a crack in the stone she sat on. There, too, there was something stuck: an ant, writhing on the sticky surface of the succulent mucilage. She knew this plant, had made use of it before. It was a butterwort, and true to its name, the honey with which it trapped and pickled its insect prey was also a great additive in the goatmilk that she and Ya-Shuur fermented in the spring.
The ant struggled on. The exoskeletons of its compatriots lay perfectly preserved elsewhere on the leaf. On the tip of a long pedicel, a tiny purple flower marked what their remains had fed.
Out of the eater came something to eat, thought Chopstick Eyes. Out of the strong, something sweet.
She leaned in and watched the ant struggle anew. The skewers on her face pinched off the tiny flower and dangled it before her face.
She took the flower on her fingertip and shook it about, saw that it wouldn't come off. It was stuck.
Butterwort in midsummer.
The name fit her like a glove never could. One of Ya-Shuur's herder-wolves bounded up, momentarily spooking the sheep, and panted eagerly at the godlet, sensing change.
"BUTTERWORT IN MIDSUMMER!"
Chopstick's laugh echoed across the island of rain, and the molf shot a happy doggy grin as she wiped her sticky, sticky hands clean on its fur. She didn't know what it meant, quite possibly never would, but it was hers and it had stuck. She wiped more of the mysterious sticky fluid on her overalls, and unfolded the kite.
It was time to get out of this place, yes. She'd go to the north where the water was, and seek Li'Kalla's beast out there, and failing that, she would speak with Azura in its reflection. She'd check her postbox, pay her bills, and chase Kalmar over the cold flats, if she could find him. Together they would solve this riddle.
The wind picked up, and Chopstick Eyes was gone within the hour.
Chopstick stood on a raft of kelp, squeezed a brilliant rainbow bird under her arm, and said, "Pew!"
The Alma didn't budge. Chopstick sighed, adjusted her grip under the bird, wrapped her one hand around the creature's right leg and the other under its breast, tugged its leg sharply, and said, "PEW!"
With a squawk, the Alma lit up and blasted a mighty sunbeam into the air, shooting down a passing Skestral. The gargoyle returned to the basement of Galbar exactly as confused as it had come, only much deader. The Alma clucked. Liv croaked disapprovingly. Chopstick cackled.
"This is AWESOME!"
Betasticks goes through something of a crisis, being too depressed to pursue any of her goals. The Alma broadcast reminds her of Azura, though she cares very little of what happens to anyone's soul. After a few more minutes of moping, she sees her stuck-ness reflected in a small carnivorous plant, the butterwort, and comes to learn her soul-name (which she was taught about by Ya-Shuur). Beta Chopstick, now Butterwort in Midsummer, finally gets a-going, and celebrates with a new text colour. As a side note, the etymology I gave for butterworts here isn't actually accurate, they're actually named for their greasy sheen (although they can indeed be used in fermented dishes).
Her soul-name power is that she has sticky hands, and as such is nearly impossible to disarm. Hopefully she figures out how to turn them off soon.
Alphasticks learns that you can use Alma as portable laser cannons.