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4 yrs ago
Current ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)
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4 yrs ago
If you're not trying to romance the Pokemon, what's the fucking point?
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4 yrs ago
Can't help but read 'woah' as a regular 'wuh', but 'whoa' as a deep, masculine 'HOO-AH!'
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4 yrs ago
That's patently untrue. I planted some potassium the other day, and no matter how much I watered it, all I got was explosions.
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5 yrs ago
on holiday for five days. if you need me, toss a rock into the fuckin' desert and I'll whisper in your dreams
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Bio

According to the IRC, I'm a low-grade troll. They're probably not wrong.

Most Recent Posts

The Ascent of the Nebel


Ea Nebel stared up into the morning sun again, pacing the chilled and snowdusted rock. The Iron Boar observed her with patient tension. Time was very short.

She knew that the Bridge of the Sun would open to her, if she only called out to it. The Monarch of All would hear her voice. She now bore a Shard of His being that was not hers, and if He did not wish for her to deliver, He would have come to take it. But Ruina had blazed on ahead, and Ea Nebel had no time to row that merry solar stream. She needed something fast, something that could convey her out past the Ring of Shadow, to the Sun and the Moon and between the stars all under its own power. She needed to conjure something up. What?

Her boots had dug a pattern into the snow as she paced. The flame in her heart was out, but she still had enough heat in her veins to do this task, that much was certain. The Gnosis had not left her. How would she do it? Her trials had exhausted her heart and body, and she longed for sleep. She could scrawl a deep glyph, but she didn’t know what to write, and formulating a clear vision of it in her mind would take too long in any case- she might as well fly up in the shape of a bird. And Grief was in no mood to dance.

None of it mattered. She could do it. This was a feat, not a riddle. Ea Nebel looked up, tightened her muscles, screwed her eyes shut, shook her head and kept pacing. She could do it- there were many ways to do this- and yet she…

‘Some voices ought never be heard, as some sights ought never be seen.’

…She was scared. It was a fear she could feel in her gut. Ea Nebel barely knew what she’d heard, but she remembered the sound. She was too exhausted to face such things again. She couldn’t bear the thought of any more pain. Not while the heart-wounds of her trials were still fresh and bleeding. It made her stomach crawl.

But she had to, and she would. What would comfort her in the abyss of outer space? Ea Nebel was fearful; she needed to feel powerful. Dangerous. Mysterious. Strange. She would take strangeness by the throat, and then no strangeness could threaten her. She dragged her boots in the snow, turning her trail of pacing into the seed of a rudimentary glyph, and began to sing.

So stand beneath
The starry beams
Of foreign lights, and
Fever-dreams
Then turn your head
To tongueless teeth
In new-moon nights, and
Heavens deep

The sun can burn
Only in turn
When day is dry, and
Hollow sky
Fall in your bed
Don’t dream in dread
When chasms rise, and
Demons fly


She let her voice taper off. Now it rose before her, called down from some void behind the stars, its hundred filamentous arms radiating up from its core and meeting high in the sky like steepled fingers without joints, perfectly spaced. Against the white of the snow, it was as dark as she was. Ea Nebel pushed its fractal tendrils aside and stepped onto its center, admiring the subtle bulges of hidden teeth like an echinoid. She took hold of two translucent, spiraled appendages, allowing them to wrap around her arms, and shouted a goodbye at her faithful boar as the creature spread its arms and was lifted off the face of Galbar as if it were a bubble and the atmosphere was a bowl of water, buoyed up by earthlight, like the seed of a dandelion.

The sky grew darker and darker. Ea Nebel’s hat melted over her face in a smooth charcoal-black faceplate and helmet, fed with pipes. The Dusk Kite turned its outer face to the Sun, pulling her along by her arms, and began to pulse. Its filaments were innumerable, branching like a basket-star, like a fern, its body like velvet. Every tentacle was longer than the tallest redwood in the giant lands of the north, yet barely thicker than her arm at its base. It ate daylight, and she could see the glow of it, travelling softly up and down its primitive veins to its core like rivers to a lake, breaking up into colours as it was digested. No eyes, no heart, no brain, no gut, no lungs- only those rivulets of luminescence, dripping to its core. So weightless was its impossible body that the solar wind slowly blew it away, out from the sun, away from Galbar.

Ea Nebel frowned. She squeezed the ribbonlike arms that had crept up her sleeves and wrapped all the way up to her shoulders. Hidden organs around her blazed with a spray of refocused light, and shot her forwards to the Sun.

“SHOW ME THE WAY!”

A gust of solar wind rocked her, and she saw a long, straight ray of gold stretching from the Sun before her to Galbar far behind her. She sailed down into the Bridge and was immediately hurled back by the gale, the Dusk Kite curling up around her and flipping around and around as she was blown down towards Galbar, eventually falling out of the beam. She recovered her senses and clung to the creature as it unfurled its arms once more.

The solar wind could only blow her away from the sun, but the veins of the kite were flashing like a heartbeat.

Ea Nebel propelled herself forwards with the kite’s own power, following the Bridge from outside its dangerous current, swiftly exhausting the stored radiance. The wind of photons began to push her back again, and she sailed into the golden beam once more, travelling not up but across it, tumbling out again as swiftly as she could. Once more the kite replenished its store of stolen daylight.

She launched herself forwards again, sailing over the Flow, skimming over the dark surface of Time as she advanced through Space in leaps; tacking back and forth through the golden stream of sunlight before each jump, smoother and smoother, losing less speed each time the gale forced her back, spinning the radial kite around its central axis without ever flipping over and tumbling down the stream, gaining more and more speed…

And then she was just flying, the splayed-fern tentacles swept back around her and trailing far behind in a tail as she skimmed over the golden stream below, a sleek, black meteor diving towards the Sun faster than any living thing could ever dream to fly over the face of Galbar, now far behind.




Upon the bridge itself was Ruina, having teleported up to the bridge itself in lieu of anything more fanciful. She moved with both haste and purpose, and Ea Nebel would see her push open the grand doors of the palace with ease. Ruina left them open wide, knowing that they would close themselves in time. The guards that stood around the palace now were interesting. Did He feel as if He was under threat of some kind? Hopefully they wouldn’t impede her mission.

Entering into the main plaza of the palace Ruina took a few moments to look around briefly, casting out her divine senses in hopes that she would find the blinding radiance that was The Monarch of All. Unfortunately, she did not find Him this way, and thus resorted to something that would be simpler. Speaking up, Ruina spoke in a way to cause her voice to echo throughout the winding halls of the palace. ”I come seeking an audience. I bear news regarding my assigned judgment.”

She’s here.

The Dusk Kite spiralled into the beam of gold and shot over the golden tiles of the bridge as the doors began to swing shut in its path. The creature burst through the crack between them as they swung, throwing them wide, exploding into the palace atrium in a wild spray of tendrils and pulsed photons, and Ea Nebel tumbled from its arms, landing mostly on her feet in a field of staggered and recovering guards. The panicked Kite wrapped its filaments around the marbled pillars of the Palace and flung itself out of the atrium, into the open space of the plaza, leaving Ea Nebel to follow on foot, never daring to turn and look at who or what might pursue her.

“I’m here! I have the Shard!” Her coattails swished around her as she came to a stop in the plaza, standing almost side by side with Ruina. She turned her head wide and searched for the Monarch, faceplate dissolving back into a hat, but all she could see was the Kite mooring itself to a colonnade and drifting upwards in a curled-up bundle to rest, like a sea-lily, like a sleeping buoy. Then it grew quiet, and she met eyes with the goddess at last.

As the Dusk Kite burst into the palace Ruina turned on the spot to glare at the interruption. Readying a bone blade for something to begin attacking her, the guards, or both, Ruina found herself somewhat relieved when it was not an attempt to disrupt her report in some fashion. Releasing the bone blade and allowing it to retreat into her arm, Ruina turned her attention away from the beast as it scrambled around and instead looked down at Ea Nebel as she proclaimed to have a shard with her. Why did she have this? Ruina’s best assumption was that He had directed Iqelis to tell Ea Nebel or told Ea Nebel personally to retrieve it, and thus she paid it no mind. At least for now.

Nodding a greeting at Ea Nebel out of courtesy Ruina turned her attention away from the demigoddess and looked around once more to try and find The Monarch of All. When she couldn't, Ruina merely resolved to wait. A few moments later a thought crossed her mind as she recalled a detail from the trials. Ea Nebel had referred to Iqelis as her father. The same Iqelis that she was about to condemn to death. Perhaps it would be best to say something to Ea Nebel…

Turning to face Ea Nebel again, Ruina spoke softly. ”There is something that I would say. You referred to Iqelis as your father, yes? I must apologize then, for I am about to condemn him to death. I was told to judge him and his trials, and he has failed. The Monarch will not be pleased to hear this failure. I am sorry.”

Ea Nebel held the gaze, then looked down at the smooth floor. It was tiled in jasper and chalcedony. She shook her head, aware of the silence. “Ruina… Don’t you see? There was no trial. Neither for me, nor for my father. This was pure punishment.” Now she looked up again, arms loosely folded. “The Divine Iqelis struck down what the Emperor lifted up. He showed that it was possible to rebel. That was why he had to be humiliated, cornered… hurt where he was most vulnerable, even if it meant sacrificing the Emperor’s own grandchild. An example had to be made. With witnesses. And it had to be done without even lifting a finger Himself. That is the root of royalty: power without effort.” She rubbed the toes of her shoe over the unwalked tiles, once boots, now slippers. “So you were fed a lie, and you became His hammer. My father subjected me to cruelty because you were there to watch him. That was the heart of it all. My father is paraded as a weakling and a monster, alive only by His mercy, and the ties of family between us are… wounded. Between you and me. Me and my father. My father and my mother. It was the perfect plan. Now it is done, and we are afraid to rebel. The Emperor’s will has been carried out. All without even raising his hand.” She stared out, to the colonnades around them, the fountain-monument at the centre of the plaza, the distant height of the halls that held the Throne. “Even I am forced to come and grovel before him now, while he withholds my birthright. This is what it means to be a subject.

Ruina remained silent as Ea Nebel spoke. Perhaps her words had wisdom to them, but there was possibly something that she had never been told of, and even if her words held some wisdom Ruina found it wise to reveal another part of the story that further complicated things. ”I will not dispute what you say, but I will offer up a wrinkle to it: Iqelis has attempted to exert his will upon me before.”

Ruina turned now to look upon the moon, and gestured to it briefly before speaking again. ”The moon gained its scarring by his hand, but if my designs had gone as intended the scars would’ve been by mine. I had announced a test of the moon, just as I had announced and performed a test of the oceans across Galbar. The holes that were there, and the ones that appear at random? They were and are the result of my trial.” Indeed, Ea Nebel recalled the whale bones, a field of emaciated carcasses in dry silt.

”When I moved to test the moon Iqelis appeared and told me not to hold back, inferring that I did in the first place. I informed him that I did not hold back in my tests and questioned why he was so eager to see the moon tested. I suspected that he wanted to start a conflict with Yudaiel, and told him that I would have no part in it.”

Yudaiel. Grief recalled the mushroom. She had been given no choice in such matters.

Ruina looked back down to Ea Nebel now. Her gaze was as steel as she continued. ”Iqelis spelled out his view of things, and I told him that my trials were mine. I also told him that I would never accept the mantle of pawnhood. And then I told him that if he wished to see conflict begin that it would be best to start it himself. In response to this Iqelis called me a fool and asked if I thought I was anything but a pawn. Claiming that he was attempting to guide me, as he described, along currents more favorable, I could tell that I would have to fight or flee. I chose to flee, since I was not at full strength. I warned the other deities and hid myself for a time to recover.”

Ruina raised her arm and once more produced a blade of bone. Looking across the surface of it, Ruina spoke again. ”This suit could not produce these weapons at first. I found a remaining piece of my once sister and removed it to fully become the master of this suit, and following that I infused it with all of the destructive power I could muster. You can sense it, I’m sure.”

“...”

Ruina lowered her arm towards Ea Nebel. Surprisingly, there was no threat to this motion. The bone blade hovered just before her, radiating raw destructive power. Ea Nebel could tell that being struck with a weapon such as this would devastate the corporeal form of even divine beings. She frowned at it, saying nothing.

After a few moments passed, Ruina would retract the blade into herself and lower her arm before speaking again. ”I did this explicitly to defend myself from Iqelis’ machinations. Even if what you say is true, and these trials have all been a display of punishment to remind us all of our place… I would hesitate to say that Iqelis is undeserving of such punishment.”

“...That’s why He chose you, then. You’re afraid.” Ea Nebel finally turned her face away, looking down at the floor. She was quiet, almost mumbling. “Scared hearts are easy to goad. They lash out. If you ever felt yourself losing control, you would wash that blade in my father’s blood. You wouldn’t hesitate to do that, would you, Ruina?” She looked up to where those bright green eyes towered over her, and it was once again clear that she was not talking to herself. “Is it because of your sister? Are you afraid that your brother would hurt you, too? Or are you just scared to die like she did?”

”I chose her for her loyalty, daughter of Iqelis. A trait that your father lacks.”

A voice came from behind Ea Nebel, the voice of her grandfather resonating within her mind as the light from His wound made her cast a shadow upon the floor. He stepped out from behind Ea Nebel, circling the two goddess in silent steps on the hard floor as His lower hands pushed their fingertips together. The great Monarch of All had made himself known, and His eyes rested solely upon the half-god herself as He continued his motions around the two of them, the multicolored cloak dragging on the floor behind Him. His voice came through again before either of the two could attempt to speak, a cruel voice descending upon the two of them.

”Do you believe that I am but a tyrant who prays upon weak hearts? A monster for a ruler? I can be, if that’s what you so desire. It would be an interesting change of character, if I say so myself.”

Ea Nebel released some of the sudden tension resting taught in her spine, and flung out her arm, flourishing her sleeve. Once more she was draped in the sheer layers and puffed silks of imperial regalia. Only then did she curtsy. “There is no more need for such things, Sire. I understand the courtly game. I suppose I should thank you for teaching me a lesson I shan’t forget.” Ea Nebel held the curtsy, but did not lower her gaze. She could almost have been smiling.

Ruina had been about to respond to Ea Nebel’s observations when The Monarch made himself known. Ruina chose to remain silent, and instead gave a silent nod of recognition to Him. As the conversation reached a point of pause, Ruina spoke up to deliver her report on events that had happened. ”Greetings, Monarch. I have done as was requested of me, though I would’ve liked to have heard it from you directly rather than Iqelis. I have watched the trials and I have deemed them a failure. He tested Ea Nebel on things that were already natural to her, frequently without any form of time limit, and at the end of each test he promptly fed Ea Nebel the answer he wanted her to learn. Not once did he challenge her to use her abilities in a new way, an unconventional way, or did he ask her what she had learned. Iqelis has coddled and sheltered her consistently rather than allow Ea Nebel to present herself independently of him. That being said, Homura and I are in agreement: Both of us find no reason for Ea Nebel to be destroyed. I feel that she has suffered enough under the whims of Iqelis. That is my report.”

”I did instruct Iqelis to not hold back in his tests, however…”

The Supreme One looked to Ea Nebel, an inquisitive glare rummaging through her mind as a simple question entered her mind. It was invasive yet it pried not upon needlessly forcing the question into her soul - a mere suggestion that she should answer to Ruina’s accusations. His voice was nothing more than an echo that traveled the length of her mind.

”Do you believe your father held back out of love for you, child?”

The answer was immediate, visceral, almost visible, a thought like an image like a snarl of bared fangs: If he had withheld his fist from his child, would she have jumped?

”Then there is my answer, Ruina. Iqelis shall be spared for the time being, until he inevitably tries to cross me again.”

The Monarch of All turned towards She Who Tests and allowed Himself a brief moment of silence as the two locked eyes. His arms crossed behind His back and the King of the Gods let out a disarming laugh at the two of them, allowing the tension to release itself. Almost as if He knew that the air was too thick to walk through, the Monarch of All let a hand out to Ea Nebel and Ruina in a gesture for them to take His hands in that moment. Yet, it was becoming too bright for one soul amongst them - the mortal in flesh who stood in the palace grounds that were not made for such primitive beings. Ea Nebel could, perhaps, have felt the heat of the blinding palace lights chewing at her, gnawing at her mortality despite her divine nature doing its best to keep her together. It was a slow and gradual heat, but it was making itself known, yet the Monarch of All did not seem to notice, or if He had, He was ignoring her suffering.

”Ea Nebel, do you have the shard of Aletheseus?”

She nodded, and reached into a small purse, raising a hand-sized fragment pulsing with blue spectral fire over her palm. As she did, the crushing sun-heat of the Palace fell on her, fluttering her gown like air from an oven, immediately breaking into a sweat. The Divine Shard of Fortitude had given her strength to endure the solar gale for as long as it could, but it would soon be time to surrender its protection.

”Excellent.”

The Monarch of All’s voice was riddled with happiness as He took the shard from Ea Nebel’s hand and held it close to His light-bearing chest. There was a brief moment before the inevitable pull clutched the shard, dragging back into His body and filling Him with a vigor that had not been seen within the divine being. It was the feeling of power flowing through Him that made the Monarch of All let out a pleased sigh, as if He could breathe once more. Ea Nebel’s own breaths were already growing laboured.

In a swift flick of His hand, the supreme being summoned guards, marching past them, dressed in ornate armors and weapons that radiated divine power. He looked to Ea Nebel and gave her a final trial for her to pass to claim her birthright, speaking softly as a parent to a child.

”Make your way to my throne. There you will receive your birthright, child.”

She nodded, silently choking on air. Her skin had taken on the translucence of warm wax. Ea Nebel took a step, then another, and began to walk, maintaining both her posture and her stride- but slowly. Very slowly. In the moment before her veil fell down around her face, something like a skull was visible beneath it, white as marble.

As the instruction was given for Ea Nebel to make her way to the throne room, Ruina actually stepped forward with something notable to say. ”Come with me, Ea Nebel. I shall guide you.” Ruina had been there before, coming into existence behind the throne. Regardless of why she had been there, Ruina knew the way, and began to lead Ea Nebel.

However she could tell that something was quite wrong by now. Ea Nebel was already under a bit of strain from simply existing in the divine realm, but now as Ruina looked back, her sister was quietly struggling. Looking up to the perpetual light that surrounded the palace, Ruina was able to quickly guess as to why. Though the question of why it took this long for things to become dire puzzled her briefly. Perhaps the shard of fortitude had been lending aid? And thus with it’s loss Ea Nebel was now worse for wear? Unfortunate, but not something that could not be helped. Turning and walking behind Ea Nebel, Ruina paused for a moment to focus.

With the sound of shifting flesh and bone, and a bit of a grunt from Ruina, a wing grew from the left shoulder of Ruina’s suit. It opened gently, revealing that it held a structure much like a dragon’s wing. Tough opaque flesh stretched between malleable fingers, and with a gentle motion Ruina stretched and lowered the wing to shelter Ea Nebel in its shade before speaking softly. ”Come. I will ease your burden, you have suffered enough. It is not far.”

And with that, she urged Ea Nebel further into the throne room.

Together they walked through hall and pathway, following that long, straight route to the heart of the Palace. It was wide, airy, and tall; such was its lofty height that it gave the impression of a mountain, and such did Ea Nebel struggle on its steps that she may as well have been climbing one. Her veil had once again swollen into a featureless round plate of black, and new layers were creeping down from it, one after another, each thicker than the last. She disappeared under bulky heat-armour, and her footsteps clanked on the porphyry floor.

The grand doors of the Imperial throne room were open, flanked on both sides by their ceremonial guard. At the top of the steps, the unidentifiable black figure under Ruina’s wing hunched over and stopped, resting her hands on her knees. A thin white liquid was boiling out of the seams of the suit.

Slowly she raised her hand, and nudged the back of two fingers against the arm of Ruina’s sheltering wing. She could have no more shade. These last steps would be taken alone.

As Ea Nebel pushed against the shade of the offered wing, Ruina hesitated for a moment before realizing what Ea Nebel wanted to do. Nodding, she took a moment to place a reassuring hand on where Ea Nebel’s shoulder would be before pushing her forward slightly and withdrawing the wing in silence. With a wet slithering sound the wing would retract into Ruina’s form, and she would ascend to stand beside Him and await her arrival.

The figure rose from the shade of its sister. Whatever glories of Imperial majesty lay before her went unseen. All she saw was sunlight, a river of golden fire sweeping over her and into her, blinding as it burned. Even her armour swirled and warped with the heat, returning to shapelessness. She did not see behind her a second light emerging, a white light growing and dividing into four smooth, sleek blades, light like brilliant pale crystal hovering behind the back of the ghastly walking sarcophagus she wore, perfectly steady against the gale of the Sun, two on each side, like the spreading wings of a white moth…

But the wings weren’t steady. One flickered, wavered, like a candle disappearing and reigniting in a breeze. It flickered left and right, now on her one side, now on her other, an uncertainty, an error, until finally it crossed over from her left side to her right. As the chrysalis-figure fell at last to its knees before the Throne of the Sun, four white vanes stretched out behind it: three on the one side, and one on the other.

“Ea Nebel, First of the Demi-Gods, Daughter of Iqelis and Homura, Maiden of All Tombs, you have completed your trials as were given to you by your father and, under affirmation of both Ruina and Homura, you have become worthy of becoming wholly divine. As such, I bestow unto you: the Shard of the Grave.”

The Monarch of All spoke loudly, so that all divinity may hear, and a single shard floated between two of His hands, sat perfectly within the light of His chest. As the winged figure came forth, He allowed the gem to slowly descend to her, and the sounds of spears clattering into the ground could be heard behind her. It was then that the Monarch of All raised His trident before bringing it down to rest atop her head, and after speaking a single, indiscernible breath to Ea Nebel, the Monarch of All swiftly brought the trident up and slammed it into the ground.

”Now, Grief, I name you First of the Grave! Come and become a great lord of my realm!”

And then she rose, and there were no wings, no hideous shell, only herself. Her body was as it had always been. She stood up, her black gown trimmed with filigree gold, a thin cord clutched in her hand, and let the Shard rest in her palm: a tiny crucifix of polished bone, as smooth and pure as ivory. She set it around her neck, and it disappeared beneath black satin, cool against her skin.

“Sire, you have honoured me.” She lifted her head and looked up for the first time since abandoning the protection of the lost Shard, then curtsied. “I accept with gladness. As I have been ruled, so too shall I rule in kind.” A tiny smile. “Grandfather.”

”Go, my child, and let my will be done!”




huge thanks and shout out to everyone who stuck around to help make the Ea Nebel trial arc come to be! it's been huge fun

Just one more collab left!
The Last Trial


A cold wind swept over Ea Nebel’s face, dragging her into wakefulness like a splash of chilly water. As soon as the comparison struck her, she could feel that it was no mere obvious simile, for the back of her head rested on a bed of damp snow. Stinging as it did, its grudgingly creaking softness was less sore than the hard stone beneath the greater part of her body.

Straight before her eyes was the sky. Not a gentle grey nor a glaring white, but the clear, rarefied mountain air, marred by cloudy streaks, which she had left behind so long ago. The sun had begun to set, stretching every shadow into a rivulet that coursed eastwards, eager to be swallowed by the gathering tide. The outcropping she lay on was one of the last islands of light in a lake of dusk that covered most of the mountainside, a hand raised to eagerly catch the last rays that would fall its way before phantom twilight set in.

Around, the Bones loomed, grey bodies of giants with the weary white heads of elders. It was not a side of the range she had seen before, not these three massives leaning so close, as if wedged into each other, with even chains radiating out from their ragged circle. The stony slope of one propped itself up on another, diverging from a narrow lip strewn with dead trees and mossy boulders, and was met halfway by the sheer wall of the third. Between them, in the very middle, they formed a small cauldron, as broad and deep as a well of titans. In the spring, when the snows on the lower slopes melted, its bottom would be hidden by dirty water. Now-

Now, there was no bottom at all.

The cauldron was a stain of darkness so deep that it starkly broke out of the mountains’ shade. In the last few stray glances of sunlight, she could see that it was a pool of inky black, still despite the wind’s angry moaning. Nothing could be seen past its surface, but it was clear that, whatever the limits of the earth, its depth was beyond fathoming.

The Last Sea has no end.

Words rang out over the unnatural well, dry and unreadable in expression, a shattering in the wind.

“The path of adversity, which duty must tread.”

Then, others joined them, from the mountaintops and the sky.

“Failure,” came Homura’s somber voice.

“Unworthy,”, Ruina sharply rejoindered.

A towering cloud drifted over the peaks from the north, and it was a vast figure with an awning gash in its chest.

“Answer for your father’s crimes,” it thundered, “Be ended by my hand!” Then it melted into tatters, but its shadow remained, drawing closer.

Rot in hell…

A breeze brought a choking whisper to her ear. “Meant to be…”

Then, silence. Only the black well far below remained, as certain as what is most inevitable in the world. Ea Nebel seated herself on an ice-scoured rock on the edge of the near-vertical slope into oblivion and looked down. Her head throbbed. She wiped away a fresh tear and shook it off her fingers into the pit, watching it fall into forever.

It hadn’t occurred to her that she could fail. Now, everything fell into place on the snow. A life for a life: Ea Nebel for Aletheseus. Whether she lived or died, Iqelis would be punished, and the Law of Heaven vindicated, without the Lord of Creation ever needing to put His own offspring in any danger. She who had sprung from nothing could be returned to nothing, and no Shard of His own body would need to be returned before its time.

‘I am sorry that it is you who must answer for your father’s crimes.’

In the end, only Ruina had really mattered, the blade and hammer hung over Iqelis’s throat to ensure his adequate self-flagellation. The Emperor had given Ea Nebel every possible chance to escape. Her own father was the architect of the absurd games, and her mother had been her judge. He had even given her a talisman. She reached up to her throat where the Banner had been wrapped, but it was long gone, and she knew not where. Had He sent the mushroom vision, too? Had He sent its architect?

All for nothing. Homura was unyielding. Iqelis had been too clever and too cruel. The true failure was his, for not understanding the game.

“...Thank you,” she prayed, not making a sound through the lump in her throat. She dug her fingers under a crack and lifted up a tall stone, covered it in her coat, and revealed it to be a stele. She scratched four gently curved lines on its surface with the doom-claw: four eyes shut. “For letting me meet both of them before the end.” She left her blade and rings in a sealed urn under the stele and stood, draped now in her full regalia. “Goodbye.”

Ea Nebel had no intention to stand around and allow herself be executed. Her life was already over. She could not return to her wandering ways with this pain in her chest. Nor, she now realised, did she ever want to. Her heart of fire had been doused in ice-cold water and could never be relit. There was nothing Ea Nebel wanted more than for it to finally be finished. She was ready to sleep forever.

Her sleeves caught the wind as she fell, and she spread them wide, imagining, for a moment, that she was a bird.

Then she struck the water, and it closed silently over her. It was like cold smoke, thin yet cloying, drinking out all strength and all warmth. There was nothing to see as she sank, nothing to hear, nothing to smell, and at last nothing to feel but the numbing cold.

Then that, too, was gone, and so was she.

Far above, faint and muffled, the husk that had been Ea Nebel heard the voice deliver its eulogy.

“The virtue of courage is the strength to face that which all living things dread. Many are the guises of fear, but all their roots lie in the One Law that binds the world, the destined end. There is no greater force of resolve than to know its Truth in heart and mind alike, to step forth to embrace it under one's own will.

And it is the virtue of faith to fulfil the direst of oaths, were they even the path to Doom. For from every godly word is truth born into the universe, and its potency is sealed by the bindings it lays on the one who speaks it foremost.

These are virtues of the divine.”





There were chains around her.

Taut, hard, cutting, bound around her chest and neck, slung about her shoulders. They held her upright, would not let her fall, would not let her rest. Would not let her-

Die?

No, not die. She was not dead, and it was her, not a scrap that had floated up to the surface. And those were not chains, but arms, tens of arms around her, rigid and faceted. A shadow loomed over her, dark against the crepuscular sky.

“It is not your time,” it whispered, like the snow crunching under her head, “Not yet. Not now.”

Her eyes screwed shut. She let her forehead tilt forwards and press against a spindly bough of black glass. She was exhausted beyond words.

“With that, we are done here, yes?” Came a second voice; the familiar stern tone of Homura, as she projected the words she spoke aloud for all to hear. “These trials are over now.”

“Yes,” Iqelis hissed, quiet but no longer gentle, “Deliver your judgement.”

“I see no reason to annihilate Ea Nebel. She has passed your trials, brother. Let it be known.” Homura answered, and nothing had changed with her proclamation. The red goddess refrained from saying anything more.

At first Ruina was silent. She had taken a few steps away to observe the horizon and surrounding area. In truth she cared little for how Ea Nebel went about completing her trials. She was not the reason why Ruina was here. Upon hearing Homura give her judgement, Ruina nodded to herself silently. It was time.

Turning to face Iqelis, Ruina lowered her hands to her side. Her hands were curled into fists, and behind her her tail wove side to side gently. It was fair to see that Ruina was preparing to deliver news that would likely not be received well. Quashing her hesitation, Ruina began to speak. ”You have failed, Iqelis.”

The delivery was blunt and concise. Ruina’s gaze drifted into a glare as she began to render her full judgement upon Iqelis. ”In a grand majority of the tests you provided there was either no limit, or the test was itself reliant upon abilities already natural to Ea Nebel. You have provided little in the way of actual challenge and framed it all with a lesson upon what it means to be divine that could have easily been had within a simple conversation. I dub these trials unworthy, and will not spare you from whatever punishment comes.”

Her judgement given, Ruina waited to see what, if any, retaliation would come. But now the truth of her presence was known to both Homura and Ea Nebel: She had never been judging the trails, she had been judging Iqelis.

With a spiderlike rearrangement of limbs, the One-Eye withdrew one half of the arms he had coiled around the limp godling, letting her rest on a web of hands as he turned to face the Lady of Pain, and stretched taller as he moved. The white light of his gaze fell onto her from twice her height above.

“Yes,” he crackled, low and grave, “I should have known that trials of virtue would be lost on a brute. Can you only see adversity in cudgeling the body? The corporeal presence of the divine is inconstant, for it is the fiber of its spirit that makes it what it is. If you cannot grasp this nor sense the straining of that fiber, tell your Lord that He should have sent a worthy judge instead of a half-witted ghoul.”

Ruina could only let out a huff as Iqelis rebuked. Of course he would resort to insults so quickly. When he finished, Ruina rebuked. ”To use your own example against you, this fiber should be something that each divine being develops on their own. At the end of each trial you have dictated the exact lesson that you sought to impart, and not once did you ask Ea Nebel what she had learned before feeding her the answer as if she was a helpless babe. You have coddled her and sheltered her at every possible turn rather than allowing her to forge herself. But then that would possibly lead her to hold views that ran counter to yours, would it not? The rapid nature of giving her the answer betrayed your intent: You wanted her to adhere to your thoughts and your ideals, not to step forward and present herself independent of you.”

“I am the One God over the world,” Iqelis' boast seemed to send air and earth stirring with indignation at his hubris, “I alone know the virtues worthy of divinity, as you even now demonstrate, and I have sounded for them in deed, not empty word. She stands here now because they have been with her from her very birth. This I have proved to the First Source, for He never willed for me to teach. Godhood is inherited, not earned.”

Ruina’s eyes narrowed as Iqelis proclaimed himself to be the one god over the world. That certainly sounded quite a lot like a declaration that he was above The Monarch of All, which certainly didn’t sit quite right with Ruina. Iqelis’ arrogance made itself known once again, but Ruina had a surprising response. ”Godhood is granted to those who are worthy. And of this I will hear no more. Submit yourself to the punishment of The Monarch, as ordained by Him, or I will be made to bring you to his court myself.”

With this, Ruina’s arms produced blades quite similar to the ones she had produced before, and along with that her tail produced another stinger, equally like last time. Ruina was prepared and radiant with raw destructive power, but would Iqelis be swayed by someone capable of rending his form with impunity?

A crystalline hand rose and splayed its fingers. The growth of the nascent barbs' lowermost roots slowed perceptibly before the claw folded again, releasing the stymied currents.

“The trials were His punishment,” the god's voice was amused, “Failure was to be quelled by death at His own hand. Unless you can dispense this, your bluster is as hollow as your lonely decree.”

Slowly and deliberately moving to stand beside the two deities on the verge of a great and terrible confrontation, Homura announced her presence again. “Brother. Sister. Ea Nebel has gone ahead of us, to acquire the shard of our fallen brother, I presume. Shall we proceed onward with the last of our business here before you begin either bickering incessantly or have an unnecessary battle. Please.”

A score of Iqelis' arms snapped at their elbows, vainly groping for the body they had been cradling not long before. The god spun his eye to the nearby ledge and let out a stony crack.

“Not in her state now!” He stalked over to the rim in a stride, all tension forgotten. “Come, then.”

With a bound, he dissolved into the gathering night below.

Ruina blinked as Homura delivered the news that Ea Nebel was gone. As Iqelis bound away hastily, Ruina released the blades of bone and willed her weapons back into her form. Looking to Homura, Ruina spoke quickly to explain her next course of action. ”I am going to inform Him of what my judgement is, though I will also inform you that I would vouch for the continued existence of Ea Nebel. With this in mind I would ask of you a favour: Please safeguard Ea Nebel as much as you reasonably can. She has suffered enough at the whims of Iqelis choices and I would prefer no further harm comes. Now, I must depart. Farewell.”

And with that, Ruina would vanish quite immediately to go and locate The Monarch of All.

Homura merely nodded, before she followed Iqelis into the darkness.




The wind fluttered once again over Ea Nebel’s gown, sweeping her sleeves into wings as she fell. Her arms were outstretched, but this time, her hands were fists, and her eyes were wide open. She struck the alpine lake feet-first, and submerged in a splash. The meltwater was clear and chill. No pit this time. No descent into oblivion.

Not for her.

Too tired to swim, much less change her shape, she lay limp as black and white mana flared around her and swirled into a current, carrying her down deep into the ravine that this pond had once been, the train of her regalia rippling behind her like the feeding-arms of some exotic jellyfish. Everything around her was pure-water blue, even her own hand in front of her. She pushed her five fingers into the gravel at the bottom of the lake.

“Open.” And it did.

The rocks fell away, and Ea Nebel swirled down into the deeper and the darker pit. Around her, now-flooded stalactites loomed like curtains of teeth, and the blue shaft of dimming sunlight disappeared immediately into total darkness. The current swept her forwards at a brisk pace. She knew exactly where she was going. She followed it with blind certainty, like a hagfish following the scent of carrion. She snapped her finger in the water and listened to the echoes ricochet against pillars and false doors, into chambers and galleries. No hand had designed this cave, yet the architecture was intimately familiar to her. It was not a labyrinth. It was a crypt.

She breached through the lake’s true surface, still blind, breaking the cavern-silence of the abyss. Her hands reached for the shore of the island and pushed her up out of the shallow water, dragging her waterlogged gown behind her, streaming with sheets and droplets of melt. She groped the darkness until she found her torch and it ignited. Its light was small on the gigantic shape that lay before her, and yet the shadows were titanic.

There it was, in the pit of death, towering over her like a mountain within a mountain: the many-horned mask, the eyeless skull of Aletheseus.

Yet seated upon it was another form, a hunched and cowled creature, their four arms picking away at portions of meat, flesh, and bone, and depositing them into a waiting maw filled with teeth. It crunched and chewed with the ferocity of a starving beast, gulping down every last bit of blue, spectral gristle it had gathered, only a few chews in between each starving bite. If it had noticed the sudden arrival of the Demi-goddess, it did not show it, only eating its feast.

KRAK

Her gunshot shattered the silence like porcelain. Noxious smoke drooled from the muzzle of Ea Nebel’s slender jezail, her exhausted hand already sinking down again under its weight, water still dripping from the fist with which she raised her torch.

The shot cracked through the pile of flesh, tearing through and sending bone shards flying. Finally, the creature stopped its feasting to gaze upon the new intruder, their mouth forming a wide, tooth filled grin amongst the darkness that was its face.

”And who, are you, to interrupt our feast.” It spoke, its voice clashed against itself, as if spoken by thousands of different voices all at once.

“...”

Her hands fumbled the torch and it splashed into the water, for a moment shining brightly on the monster as it fell, casting their hunched shadow high over the cavern wall, enthroned in the horns of the skull. A new, smaller spark lit up in Ea Nebel’s hands as she planted the pole of a small powder-rocket in the gritty cave sand, then gripped the surface of the battered skull and began heaving herself up with all her gown behind her, like a half-drowned caterpillar. “Stupid… vermin.”

The vermin clattered their way to the edge of the skull, gazing down upon the demi-goddess climbing her way up. This was certainly not what they expected, but hey, they had been through weirder. They continued to eat portions of flesh, as they continued to speak with their countless voices.

“We didn’t quite expect another to come down to this depth. Must be an odd reason for one of the divine such as you to come all the way here.” Their grin showed no sign of faltering, eager as ever. Ea Nebel had never hated anything so much in her life.

“Spit that out,” she grunted, hauling herself to the top edge of the giant skull at last. “Now. Spit it out. Spit that out! The fuse hissed into the rocket and it whistled up to the cave ceiling, where it burst with a snap and scattered magnesium sparks over the island, casting the two of them into unnatural light. Ea Nebel reached for her god-knife as she trudged towards the grinning devil, but it wasn’t there. “Spit it out! I’m sick of demons!”

Instead of spitting it out, the demon merely tossed their head back, swallowing the flesh in their mouth in one fell swoop. They turned their gaze back towards the clearly angered god-being, a smile never dwindling.

“For one, we are not a demon, we are god, like you. We also continue to be curious why you have brought yourself down here, and rudely interrupt our feast, we get very hungry, and this flesh is some of the best we’ve had.”

“Shut up!” Ea Nebel finally came close enough to swing a cutlass at the creeping scavenger, her long arm slashing left and right as she kept her balance, her shoes long lost somewhere in the tunnels. “Vermin- shouldn’t- talk! What are you? Who are you?

The scavenger backed up, trying to keep the slashes of the blade away from themselves. “You ask us to keep quiet yet ask us questions regardless? And we have told you who we are, we are a god, and just because you think us Vermin doesn’t mean we are not divine.”

“IGNITE!”

Cousin or not, a whirl of fire leapt to envelop the scavenger as Ea Nebel’s arm finally faltered. “Hold your maggot tongue if you won’t answer me,” she said, her gown steaming on her shoulders as she stood. The fire was already wavering out into smoke, depleted as she was depleted. “This tomb is mine. It will be mine until the end of time, just like the rest. Mine!”

They yelped as the fire curled around them, patting out wherever their cloak caught aflame, yet not once did their smile falter as they continued to hold their gaze towards Ea Nebel. ”We have answered you, yet you refuse to listen,” They lowered themselves, becoming even smaller in contrast to the towering goddess. “And if this is your tomb, you are being a rather bad host.”

She replied by thrusting a pike down at them two-handed. The wood splintered behind the steel as the spearhead screeched against the skull. Her strength was recovering faster than her aim. “If you are my cousin, give me your name and begone!”

Despite her terrible aim, the beast still sidestepped away as she jabbed at them with the spear’s long cue, not willing to take any chances with her. “We will tell you our name, but we have a feast to finish, and would much appreciate yours in turn. We, are Yesaris; and who are you, oh aggressive guardian of tombs?”

“Shut up!”

Still in war-stance, Ea Nebel lowered the broken pike at last. Yesaris, the Devourer. The many-minded mould that rotted the root of the world. She sniffed, wiping her face. Even they had a name. Even this… thing, this wretched, crawling, starving animal spirit, had a name, but she… she was just Ea Nebel, Maid of the Nebel. A goddess for the grave.

Her gown began to boil. Thick ferrofluid bubbled over her, creeping up and steaming as it melted on her skin. “I hope you starve, Yesaris,” buzzed the voice now covered entirely under the boiling plastic tar. “I hope it’s painful. I hope I get to drown you in hot sulphur. La da daa, di da… I’ve already tried to die once in this hole, did you see that? Instead it just brought me grief. I don’t think you’ll die here. Shame. But this pit will bring you grief,” she said, the iron tar around her congealing into new armour, black armour, rough iron rings and studs and spikes in irregular heaps around her limbs. Dense layers of metal, reddened by heat, with no face. “That’s me. I’m grief.”

Then Ea Nebel screamed like a demon and leapt like an animal and seized Yesaris by the throat, cracking whatever chitinous windpipe lay under their grisly unflinching grin between her iron hands, shaking them, choking, crushing, slamming their little cloaked body onto the skull again and again and again and again…

Taloned steps stirred the water and scraped against the floor of the impossible tomb. A white light, colder than flame, drew their amalgamating shadows out anew.

“It is done.” A recurved obsidian blade arced across the vault at a pace easy enough to be caught offhandedly. “Finish that thing and let us away.”

One armoured iron claw sprung out from the parasite-monster’s hood, reached for her knife, and- fumbled. In the blink of an eye, Ea Nebel released Yesaris to snatch the doom-claw in two hands like a cat.

The parasite clung at their throat, their haggard breathing even more broken and scattered. They scrambled with their remaining three arms away from her, putting distance between the two of them, yet still remained on the mask, their feast still in sight. Slowly, they stood back up, their own chitin covered claws readying themselves. “Well, Kin Grief, you have a ferocity in you, but we have a feast we must attend to, and would appreciate no further distractions.”

She shot it with a pistol-bow. “It can speak,” Iqelis remarked with idle disdain.

“Hold the Flow while I gut it.” Ea Nebel advanced on Yesaris swiftly, with deliberate steps across the dead god’s face. As she hounded Yesaris closer and closer to the horns at the end of the mask, Ea Nebel finally reached that point at the center of the mask, a rhombic hole like the niche for a jewel in a crown, where the now-lightless blue flame had shone the most brightly. She came to a sharp stop and sank her arm deep into the still-flickering mass. A strange, moaning boom resonated from deep in Aletheseus’s skull. His spectral body billowed a heavy cloud of smoke, and when it finally cleared, there was not a shred of it left. Only the mask, and the pulsing cyan Shard levitating over Ea Nebel’s palm.

Yesaris screeched an unearthly cry both as their feast vanished away in smoke, and as a small bolt from the pistol-bow stuck into their shoulder. Yet they could only continue to scramble themselves further and further away from Ea Nebel, beginning to climb up the horns of the mask to keep the distance. “Now why did you have to go do that!” They ripped the bolt free, now covered in the thick white blood that came from the wound, tossing it away into the depths around them. “Yet you do not seriously intend to kill us? The crime of killing kin is a serious thing, you know.”

“Your only kin are worms,” came the dry crackle from the One God below. An odd sound rattled in the eyeless steel armour. For the first time in far too long, Grief, too, was laughing. She sheathed her blade in her armour and called her musket once more to her hand, dropping a black pearl down its muzzle.

“Watch me,” she said, slipping the ramrod from its notch one-handed and forcing a steel ball down the barrel onto the mana charge.

Any shadows of the tomb that remained were suddenly banished all at once, as Daybringer shone brightly with its celestial radiance from where Homura stood at the edge of the skirmish, watching while the scene unfolded. “Ea Nebel, that is enough.”

The red goddess slowly approached, as her voice continued to echo all around. She spoke with clarity, and did not shout, yet with otherworldly power she made herself heard. Homura refrained from stepping onto the skull, keeping her distance, but her fierce gaze and the blinding light of her golden spear washed over Ea Nebel with a merciless heat - a heat akin to that of stepping too close to the imperious sun.

“...You wouldn’t do it.” Ea Nebel turned her head away from the blinding light, shouldered the jezail and steadied the wandering barrel on Yesaris’s grin as best she could.

“You stand upon a precarious precipice, the culmination of these trials, and now a choice. I will not decide for you, but I will inform you of the consequences. Should you strike now, I will defend Yesaris, and you will be punished. If you desist with this, I will defend you, and Yesaris will be punished. Now, the decision is in your hands. Choose.” Homura said, and awaited an answer.

Ea Nebel looked towards her again. The plates covering her head screeched and ground open, revealing four small, dark eyeholes. She looked back at her quarry, saying nothing.

“What is this wretched creature worth to you?” Iqelis’ eye turned to the goddess. “Let us quash it and be done with it.”

“Yesaris is a god. One of the lords in our Lord’s celestial court. He is also our brother, and so one of us. I will not allow him to die.” She replied, still staring at Ea Nebel and the weapon she held.

That is a god?” the One-Eye repeated incredulously, “This is either the worst folly I have heard out of you yet, or damning testament that the Elder One has no notion of the honours He so largely and ignorantly bestows. Slaying it would at least silence His mortifying error.”

“Eager to add another slay to your list, Kin? Last we checked our existence was no crime, though we suppose that is no matter to you.”

“You displease my child. That is reason enough.”

Now it was Yesaris’ turn to chuckle “This is your child? We can clearly see the resemblance, she has your insolence. Kin-slaying must run in that portion of the family.”

“We are the only ones who do not let inane scruples interfere with our duty, much as I doubt you know that word,” Iqelis assented in a crackle that might have been either nonchalant or disgusted, before sharply waving a claw, “Enough. End it.”

Ea Nebel did not respond. Slowly she lowered the muzzle of the weapon, just a little, keeping it shouldered. Her eye remained at the sights. She turned, pointing it first at Homura, and then at Iqelis, and then at the glowing Shard that hovered beside her; the relic of the killing that had brought them all here, through so much suffering. If she angled her musket just right, she could deflect the ball against it, back up into her own eye, into her brain. Her finger tightened on the trigger.

The light shifted subtly and Ea Nebel glanced back up at Yesaris’s glinting teeth. “I don’t think you’ll die here.” She locked eyes with Homura- eyes, indeed, that must have laid somewhere in that mess of steel- and let her left hand fall from the musket’s barrel, then raised it one-handed at Yesaris, and fired blind.

KRAK

...splip.

The ball zipped somewhere past their head and bounced from the stone wall far behind, into the lake. Ea Nebel turned lazily towards them, hoping to see Yesaris drop dead, but unsurprised at the result of the wild shot. After all, Luck, too, was dead. “Get out of here. If you trespass again, I will make sure my mother gets no chance to save you.”

“Mother?” Yesaris turned to the goddess of Honor, their grin somehow wider than ever before. Yet all they offered was a small chuckle, and they slowly descended from the horns of the mask. Their new gaze towards Ea Nebel unwavering. “Have no fear, Kin Grief, We are sure you and us will meet again.” Suddenly, they jumped from the mask, allowing their form to fall towards the lake below. As soon as their body hit the surface of the water, it erupted into a writhing swarm of Leeches. They descended back towards the tunnel beneath, leaving the family once more alone with each other.

“Is this the Path you have chosen?” Homura asked Ea Nebel.

“There is no choice in these matters,” Iqelis spoke from behind her as he lowered his twoscore arms from a battle-dam stance, “The Flow guides our hand.”

Homura allowed herself a small-sorrowful-sweet smile. “There is always a choice.”

“The only Path I choose is the one that leads home.” Ea Nebel’s armour disintegrated into fluttering flakes of steel and rust, assembling into a dense coat she clutched tightly around herself. It was almost impossible to tell that her eyes were unfocused, but her eyelids sagged with exhaustion. She took the Shard of Fortitude and dropped it into an inner pocket. “I’ll travel up the rays of the Sun and claim my birthright. The penance has been served. This farce is over.”

“An adequate answer. Go then.” Homura said, before she turned to face Iqelis with another neutral expression. She nodded absently in his direction, then proceeded on her way out of the tomb, only pausing once to speak with the one-eyed god. “For now… farewell, brother.”

Iqelis' gaze leapt away from the colossal hollow mask, over which it had been climbing and sliding, to follow her steps. He held up four hands, framing the vestige's empty eyes to her sight.

“Do you want to live forever?” Though he faced away from the skull, his voice seemed to bounce off it with a metallic murmur.

“Indeed. That is the Path I walk upon. You said that… even gods have their fated ends. Hmm… know that I will continue to persevere even when I am defeated, and I will continue to spread hope through this world, for I know that even the worst of calamities are merely temporary and that death is only a prelude to rebirth.” Homura answered, her eyes and the skin around them appearing a familiar blue for an ephemeral moment, before they returned to their original color, and she stared at Iqelis.

“Perseverance lies broken at our feet,” the One God raised two more claws, turned to point at the husk that the others encircled, “A flame extinguished while it blazes strong burns brightest until the end. One that obstinately clings to every last scrap of kindling will choke ignominiously on its own ashes.” He let his arms fall into a wheel at his sides. “Farewell, sister.”

Ea Nebel stood at the edge of the water behind both of them, facing away into the still lake, examining the back of her bare, pale, spidery hands, mumbling something. “May we not meet again… Homura. Not like this.”

“It is the darkest Path you walk upon.” Homura said, stepping under the opening in the ceiling, and without any further words she leapt up and out of the tomb, leaving Ea Nebel and Iqelis alone.

The One-Eye glanced briefly after her before striding over to the godling in two scraping steps.

“Take these.” A talon rested on her shoulder, as another slid around near her own hand. Precariously balanced on its narrow, ridged palm were two jewelled bands, gold with jade and grey with blood-red. “It is not yet time for the earth to reclaim them.”

She looked up, around, and into the bleaching white light of her father’s face, reflected once more in the dark of her eyes. The corners of her mouth twitched, and they rested there for a moment. They were all very human, really, if only in shape.

“I must away.” She pulled her rings onto her fingers, her coat already tightening around her upper body, her skirt below crawling and thickening into fins, scales, and muscle. “If Ruina is wise, she won’t have wasted any time bearing her judgement to the Monarch, but I might still be able to intercept her.”

“Do not fret about that.” A third claw hesitantly ran over her forearm, the soothing gesture made inadvertently menacing by its stiletto-like tips. “This is your triumph, now. You are worthy, not of the First Source's pretensions, but of the world itself. Let none say otherwise.”

“...” Ea Nebel looked down at her reflection in the water. Still standing. Despite everything, she was still standing. A mote of pride blew into her heart like an ember on a breeze. She ran her hand over the polished surface of his arm, fearing no edge on the glass. “...Until we meet again, Father.”

Her feet disappeared from under her, and all that was left of her was a splash and the wake of a great mer-tail churning the still, dark waters, and the One-Eye was alone in the dark. He watched the ripples play with his glow on the surface, until they were stilled. A crooked black finger reached down, and met its counterpart from under the flow of the umbral waves.

“Who are you?”

Silence. The stirring raised by the fingertip subsided, and god and god looked each other in the eye for a creeping moment. Then both were gone, and death alone rested in the hoary vault.




Grief dug herself out of the snow near the font of a mountain spring, a stain of black on the fluffy white. She gazed upwards, measuring the distance to the Sun with sore eyes. Try as she might, she couldn’t make out even the faintest outline of its hallowed rooftops through the blaze. Homura’s god-spear flickered in her vision, and she looked away, rubbing her hands to warm them.

GROI-GROIIIII!

“PIG!”

She swung her head and dashed through the snow, throwing up a rain of white as the giant rust-brown warthog barreled towards her, slipping and stumbling on the ice-slick rock below, leaping about. She grabbed its tusks and pushed and pulled against its strength as it sniffed her up and down, laughing all the way to Heaven, laughing without end. She wrapped her long, tired arms around its neck. They didn’t even meet on the other side. “I missed you, piggy.”




The Third Trial


As Ea Nebel entered the mouth of the cave

ť̷̼ḥ̸͗e̸͓͌ ̶̹͆m̷̭͝o̷͔͘ṷ̶̉t̴̼́ḧ̸͎́ ̴̙̍o̷͑ͅf̷̻͒ ̴̛͙t̴͕̚h̸͚̊e̶͓͋ ̸̨̍c̵͇͐a̵̜̾v̸͔̕ê̸̘


Ḁ̶͐s̴̛͍̠͖̿͘ ̶̧̔̈Ȩ̷͙̩͗̅a̸̩̼͆͗͠ ̸̩̻͒̓̊N̵̹̲͒͒e̶͉̎̚b̷̩̖̹̅̎͋e̶̦̘̐͆̈́l̴̪̭̹̑̿̉ ̸̧̩͉̀̓̿è̵̦̅͠n̷͐ͅt̸͎̂͋͝ȅ̸͚̭̪r̷̮͍̋͜͝ȩ̷̠̈̿͜d̸͇̊ ţ̴͙̩̳̫̬̱̺̱̭̮̆͊͂͗̈͌͠ḩ̶̢̨̹̹̲̭̬̟͔̻̼̦̱͉̋̈̓͂̀̕͠ͅé̶̛͓̉̈́̄͊̿̇̚͜ ̴̻̺̥̜̪͌̄́͛̉́̈́̉͗̕͘͘͝m̸͓̲̦̑̅̐̎͋̐͒̃̕͝o̴̢̧̭̰̬̮̤͉͓͕̓͊̅͐̒̅̄͂̐ͅu̶̩̤̙͙͕̥̫̠͓̫̎͐͜t̸̟̬̯̼̼͖̑̍͆̀ͅͅͅḧ̷̼̥́̌̀ ̴̥͙̦̦͒̆̈́̿̔̾̈́͐̓͐͒̿̕͜͝͝ō̸̧͍̮̤f̵̡̧̨̡͈̝̹̰̯͖̣̱̬͕͔̰̈́̈̀͛̓̔̓̀̌͋̀ ̴͔̤͖̬̞̜̗͕̳̺̦̑̎͆̒̆́̃͌̀̈́̔̃̕͜t̸̹͕̀̆̈́̓̿̀̌͌͘̚̕h̵̹̣͙̹̮̮̩̣͍̭͍̹̱͓̄̓͜ę̶̛̫͓͈̤͖̲͚̊́͗̎̽̓̽̋͒̅̆̇͝ ̵͖͎̫̻̪͎́̾̓̉̔̂̅̏͒͠c̴̫̱̊̔̓͗̾̒̕ȁ̷̧̛̙͓̜͈̦̝̐̈́̆̄̅̽͘͝v̶̡͖̘̺͈̄̑̇͒͗͒͘͝ȩ̷̢̹̳̺͍͖͒̃̒̉̔̊̋̇̓͐ͅͅ


...

As Ea Nebel entered the graveyard gate, the dense silver cloud that had enveloped her finally thinned, giving way to a light spectral mist that seemed to soften things rather than veiling them. The glow that permeated it, which in the bank under the plain iron archway had for a moment been almost blinding, dispersed along with it, as if to blunt a brightness unbecoming in a sombre place. Now it cast a pale leaden light like a cloudy sky in the fall, as it may well have been, for nothing could be seen in the heavens but a drowsy cap of grey.

Silence. The reverent fog let no sound louder than the crunch of the gravelly path underfoot trouble the repose of the dead.

The cemetery welcomed her with a cool, archaic neatness, as if it were itself the interior of some fantastic sepulchre. Irregular yet harmonious plots surrounded the winding paths like islets rising from the branches of a thin stream, faultless save for the odd tuft of weeds that had sprung up in the otherwise trimmed grass. Headstones filled them like the eaves of a peculiar harvest, lined in orderly rows regardless of disparity and punctuated by some ornamental cypress. Some were great, imposing things, angled and arched, covered with traceries and reliefs eroded by time. Others were humble granite slabs, sober and subdued in their inscriptions. What those were, she could not say for sure, for they were etched in some unknown alphabet of curves and circles, but it was easy enough to guess. Names, dates, the last farewells of those left behind.

The memories of those buried below were just as soothingly ordinary. They had been people like so many others. They had grieved, they had rejoiced, they had been mourned. Now, they rested.

Ahead, the paths turned and crossed in what would have been a maze if it had higher walls. Towards the heart of the graveyard, taller shapes rose between the quiescent rows, the columns and statues of crypts together with the domes of small chapels. And far beyond them, at what must have been the opposite end of this respectable little necropolis, a beam of white light shone through the mist, as if streaming from behind a great invisible door cracked open. Even from this distance, it stung her eyes with an unpleasant glare, and its presence in the gentle grey quiet grated like a crass intrusion.

A low creak sounded from behind her, and the iron gate closed with a click.

“...”

There was no-one there.

When Ea Nebel stood still, the silence was total. There was not a breeze to tousle the grass, nor so much as a cricket. She could hear herself blinking. A more paranoid environment could scarcely be envisioned, and yet she was at ease. The isolation wasn’t lonely. The stones and slabs were as familiar as old toys, and she stroked them with her ungloved hand, back and forth, soothed by the texture. It was almost like an untroubled dream.

She picked a stray cornflower and laid it on the grave of a young child. She didn’t think even a single word as she did so. Were this place any other than what it was, she might have wondered where she had learned that habit. Were this place any other than what it was, its abandonment could be uncanny. But it wasn’t. When had these people lived? Had they been laid here by those who even now walked Galbar? Had they ever walked it themselves? It didn’t matter. She had found a place as far away as a forgotten memory. Here, under the grey sky, there was neither light nor shade. Here there was nothing more to be said or done. Here the Nebel was satisfied.

The godling swung her head to the tower of light. Easy to lose herself in the empty reverie, were that beam not ever trying to shine under the brim of her hat and make her squint. She was still under trial.

The light made her anxious, more than it annoyed her. Both her trials so far had strained Ea Nebel in their own way. This next would be no different. She had seen the grave of Luck, and doubted that hers would be sufficient to bypass a second riddle. The unknown necropolis was so restful that the only way she could see herself being set to the grindstone was by disturbing its peace, as the beacon did now. She sighed faintly and set off towards it with an unhurried step, missing her faithful boar’s unflinching step at her side.

Polished stone monuments grew taller and broader around her until she had to look up at them, not down. Their memories were wealthier, more storied. She didn’t stay long at any of them. Only long enough to notice that a marble bird-bath was not completely still, the way everything else was still. Ea Nebel frowned and looked down. There was a hagfish in there, wriggling away merrily at the bottom of the fountain pool, completely unaware of its misplacement.

How strange.

She kept walking.

The closer she came to the glaring beam, the wider it grew, until it was a veritable gap in the grey scenery. It parted both the fog and the iron fence of the cemetery, which in that spot alone offered the outer world entry into the sacrarium of the dead. For that was what it was; not merely an interloper, but a glimpse of what lay outside the tranquil little sea of grey.

And outside, there was death.

Not the placid, contented death of the graveyard, but the torturous doom of the forsaken. Over an arid plain of sun-cracked yellow earth, uncountable bones lay scattered to the winds. A great battle had evidently been fought there, sometime long ago. The files of immense armies were strewn as they had fought, desiccated fingers collapsed around the rusted stumps of sword and lance, eyes that had once locked in hatred staring emptily into the sky above. Horse and rider had been joined for the last time, centaurs of the battlefield now truly become as fanciful chimeras as their remains mingled. Like the crests of macabre hills, the remains of giants of legendary stature cast their frayed shadows over the blanched sea, their skulls alone as large as the crypts and chapels. Little had their puissance availed them, for they too had been brought low, as impotent as the humblest footman against that foe which none can surpass.

The heavens themselves seemed to be moved to bitterness by that desolate sight, for above the waste reigned the harsh white light, now outright painful to the eye when met directly. Torrid heat wafted from it, hard to bear even so far away, and a distant drone, faint but insistent, hung in the air, without apparent source nor purpose but to strain the ear and rankle the skull.

Around and behind her, the mists coiled invitingly, as if to call her away from that hellish vision and back into the recesses of the grave-paths.

The maiden’s fist clenched and unclenched. She pressed hard against her tragus and smeared her ear shut, deforming the flesh into a half-melted nothing on her face. Now she could feel the drone in her inner skull. She doffed her hat and pulled a dense veil over her face. It dimmed the light only a little, and made it almost impossible to see the bones in front of her. Her lips parted slightly from her clenched teeth. She grabbed the shovel leaning on the iron fence and swung its head against the bars, breaking the quiet of the necropolis with a loud clang. Only then, scowling, did she step through the door.

She measured that old abattoir before she broke ground. It was not infinite. There was a real battle written on the earth in the pattern of the chaos: here they had first clashed, perished, and been trampled; here they had fallen back to the next palisade, collapsing here and there under raining arrows as they formed new ranks. Evenly matched and armed, one side had finally broken. Their bodies were strewn far back behind the battlefield where the lancers had rode them down. Like a fistful of sand thrown to the wind.

Ea Nebel looked up. The beam was still there. The necropolis was still there. The light from the door was soft and silver. The further she travelled from the cool air of the portal, the hotter and louder this world became.

The war elephants were too large to grind down and set in an urn. They were livestock, anyway. The giants were much worse. Their bones could be left to posterity, to be mistaken for strange boulders and make a marker of the place, if anyone ever came here again, ever, until the end of time. Their skulls would need to be set into mounds, and each would be the work of months. They reflected the blinding light like snow, and Ea Nebel had to squint through her veil. She raised her hand to the blank, hot white of the sky. This was not Astalon. There was no sun. It would never be night. And at least Astalon had been quiet.

Quiet, like the graveyard.

Cities had been emptied for this unremembered war. There were more than a million skeletons, not counting horses, dogs, theropods, and other war-animals. Women had fought. Boys also. There were sixty-eight titans of the large kind, and hundreds of their lesser cousins. Many bodies had been crushed, others obliterated entirely. Ea Nebel turned around. The necropolis was still there.

“La da daa, di da, da da daa…”

A little humming tune kept her focused, and she forced herself to sing it louder than the drone in her head. The giant graves could be erected with a multilayered sigil potentiated with the hypertones of a song, turning the work of many decades into… years. Then she could begin to inter the ordinary skulls in the mounds, according to their division. The titanic crania would provide space for men of rank. The skeletons...

“...”

Ea Nebel sank down and sat crosslegged on the hot clay grit, rubbing her eyes with her palms and letting her head sink into her hands, gently chewing her tongue. She still hadn’t done anything. There was no riddle this time, none that she could see. This time she really would have to count the flies. She pulled a timepiece from her coat and set it. She closed her eyes and inhaled, determined to rest in deep meditation, letting her thoughts drift away on the Flow. When she finally opened her eyes, almost twenty seconds had passed.

And the necropolis was still-

“GET OUT!”

The beam didn’t waver. It shone in the middle of the fields of forgetting, the arch of a rain-worn chapel still visible inside, the only soothing thing in the Hell that surrounded her. The conditions of failure were abundantly clear now. There was no riddle here.

“Get out of here! Which one of you did this? Did you think you were being clever? Did you think I would break for something so trite? Was it you? Father? Do you think so little of me? Mother? Oh, no- Homura, isn’t it? I wonder if you treat the others like this. Pity for them! Maybe you, Grandfather, if only you had the spine to do anything yourself.” She whipped the many-hued scarf from her neck and threw it away in a bundle. “Ooh, I feel cooler already. So much for you, you wet-eyed coward. Get out, all of you. Die and rot!”

The last shout, like all that preceded it, was an incoherent mumble under the constant drone of the Hell-sky. The beam didn’t waver. She spat.

Time blurred along, the currents of the Flow making no perceivable ripples on its surface, cursing this world with a damnable smoothness that slid on and on with only the sensation of Ea Nebel’s fingernails digging into her palms to tick one moment over into the next. She lifted her head and stared once more into the beam, trying to make out a shape in the silver wash of mist. There was one. It was different.

Ea Nebel stood up at once. There, through the crack, a second doorway- a real door, a door she knew, her door. Behind it she could make out the domed belfry of her little house, her house on the shore of the Tlaca. On the steps, a movement, a life: the arched back of the Iron Boar, rising and falling, sleeping, dreaming, waiting for its master.

Waiting for her.

She had already choked on a sob before she knew it. Ea Nebel clenched her teeth and tightened her mouth as hard as she could, holding herself. Her hand pressed against her face and covered her eyes.

The sweat of her palms mingled with the tears welling up in her eyes, gently burning. The fluid glowed gently enough to pierce the thin of her eyelids, but not enough to seep out through the gaps in her fingers such that any others would notice the new presence; this was a sight meant only for her four eyes, blurred and shut as they might have been.


With reckless abandon, her flesh lost form. It was as though her eyelids were of transparent glass, while her hands became puffs of fog with fingers made of smoky, wispy dreamstuff. No matter how tightly she tried to cover her eyes or squeeze them closed, she Saw.

The beam’s intensity remained, but it seemed a more distant and less troublesome thing at that moment. The incessant droning sound that had been there faded also, as if muffled by great distance. All of those woes were replaced by a more immediate, pressing one: darkened silhouettes of monstrous beings – Iqelins of all shapes and sizes – lurked waiting all around the outskirts of this great battlefield, silently leering at her and hoping against hope that she would abandon her charge. They were good at hiding from her sight, had been so good that until this moment she hadn’t even sensed their presence, but now she Saw them clearly through all the tricks and glamours. Most were waiting out there in the distance, but others were also hiding anywhere she might have looked for respite: in the shade, in the tunnels back behind from whence she’d entered this place, and yes, inside this little replica of her house. Especially inside of there, they waited.

”Ẏ̡oų̘͎̔̏͠r͙̥̦͗̅̏ f̳̪̂̕l͖̮̚̕y̭̚ ǫ̾͂͟f̝̪͎̏̾̚ ḁ͓̊̆ fȁ̩̯͠th̯̩́̊é͈̺̬̇̃r̡̼̱̔̌̈́ s̙̞̔́ē̯e̩͈͌͛k̺̋ṣ̦̓͆ ţ͠ó̻ t̂͜e͉̭͚̓͐̎s̢̛̱͍͑̓t͖͐ ỵ̹͊̀ó̼ur re͚̣̞͑͆̐s̤̬̓͛ol͈̪͈̂͘͡v͖͎̆̊͝ͅe̟̋,̭̎ y̯͛o̟̗̐͂ự͎̤͗̓ŕ̺͙̗̏̾ d̨͋ȇ̦̫̏d͑͟ḭ̈́c̪̺̏͗at͒ͅio̺͌n̥̫̠̎̈́͝ t̜̫̉̋o d̛̝͙̒ű̡̝͛t̡͓͇́͌́ỹ̜,̨̀” a lonely toadstool whispered to her from below, where it had sprouted out between two ribs of an ancient skeleton.

”Ṫ͉ō͟ le͈̿ä͕͚̋v̩͗ẽ̝ i͕̇s̲̊ ṫ̹o f̺͋aì̛̻̝l͎͙̑͞. So̳̔ e̫͝í̞t̙͒h̜͞e̛̗r͈̼̾̒ l͚̘̆͊eav̧̓e̟̕ a͎͗n̜̓ḏ͔̌͠ p͓͚͈̦̓͌͡͠ĕ̡̛̪͔̯͇͋̈̀̾ͅṟ͖̩͚̅͆̎̀̓͟i̡̛͖͇̹̩͇͒̈͂͘͝s̡̝͇̦̉̆̚͝h̭͖̖͔̱͂̃̆̔̕͟͞ á̳n̘͍͒̿d sp̠̼̎̽i͍̭̿̀t̰̤͑̍e ḩ̩̱̞͓͇̰̓͂̀͊̎́͠i̲̳̻̾̽̑͋ͅm̲̪̩̟̣̣͖͂̐̏͋̈͑͘,̨̡̊͝ or̓͢ TOIL to p̺̹̀͊a̦͊s̞̓ṡ͔̠̈́,̯̇ a̝̞͛́nd͔̈ r͕͡e̫͑m̒͢e̦̒ṁ̢̟̃b̢̗͞͠ẻ̜ṛ͂ t̡̕hȉ̤s͎̆ fa̡̫̒̈́vö̦r wh͇͘ẽ̝n̯͡ ń̥̱͠ḛ̇x̜̋t w̱̌ë̛̜͓́ ś̠p͂͢e͓͊a̿̉͢ͅk.”


Then toadstool’s conspiratorial whispering stopped, and through her tears she saw naught but darkness once again. She raised her hand from her eyes and the bones were bare and empty before her. Only a single heartbeat had passed in that span of time, but now, unnoticed by her judges, she’d been given the answer.

But there was no riddle here. Ea Nebel already knew the answer. She hated the answer. “Shut up,” she whispered, to no one and everyone. “I will not leave. I will not leave. Choke on it. I hope it sticks you through the throat.”

The necropolis beckoned again through the portal, its air cool, its light smooth. No matter how much she stared, she couldn’t See the hulking, crawling shapes of Iqelins seething over every stone like bloated spiders. Spiders creeping everywhere. Creeping through her home. Crawling on her skin. Ea Nebel looked out over the horizon where the heat was burning in. Everything shimmered, blurred with tears and heat. There, too, would be demons, writhing and creeping up her spine, along the endless horizon. Of course there were demons here. This was Hell.

Ea Nebel shuddered and snapped her hand to the back of her neck, felt something soft in her fingers pushing back on her skin with its wriggling little legs, threw it down in front of her, her guts squirming. It didn’t have a head, didn’t have symmetry, just legs and proboscises and bloated abdomen. She splattered it under her heel, already feeling another creeping up her ankle. She swatted it down and broke into a sprint, leaping at once up to the high top of a titan’s skull, where the ground was smooth and white and fire-hot and nothing crawled except the horizon around her in every direction. She crouched and rocked back and forth, holding her head and mouth, trying not to vomit.

“How about… you leave.”

Ea Nebel threw back her veil and squinted into the blinding light, seeing nothing and Seeing nothing. Tiny bugs and maggots crept up and down the horizon just like they crept up and down the lines of her fingers in front of her eyes. She stared and stared until her eyes adjusted and they did not go away- this time she saw them, with her eyes, far far in the distance. She pulled a stiletto from her coat with trembling hands, flipped it back-hand, and popped out the blade.

Her boots hit the ground with a crunch of grit that was lost in the roaring drone and then she was sprinting, crushing bugs and bones alike, faster than a hawk, her blood hotter than Hell. The battlefield flashed away behind her in seconds as the Iqelins on the horizon grew closer and closer. They were huge, colourless, liquid, dripping, like tar-sand, a misshapen nightmare of a being she had never, ever seen. Their bodies were like mites, so swollen and bulbous as to be almost spherical, their legs like gnarled fingers with far too many knuckles, breaching and and out of its surface like capsized ships in storm. The greatest one was closest, towering over the titan-skulls she’d left behind her; Ea Nebel leapt onto its flank, sinking her hands into gritty choking slime, and heaved herself up on top of it, all the way to the height of its back, and slammed her knife into its skin with her fist.

She stuck that demon over and over and over again on hands and knees and every time she made a hole it splattered her with blood; human blood, bright like candy, sugary in her mouth like the oily crust of bile on its body was honey to her; and it felt like stabbing a thick mushroom, and when she looked she saw that it was a mushroom, with moist rubbery gills and stipe-meat; and it struggled and heaved like a mountain might buck off a horsefly but she had a lance now, a long lance like a needle six men tall and on that lance was the scarf the Banner of the Monarch and she stuck him with it; and no wind fluttered that old rag but grey waves rolled over it as its kaleidoscopic colours dimmed and brightened, and the Iqelins the demons were still calmed because it wasn’t hatred oh no this was something much better and crueller and delicious and it hurt so much more; and-

“La da daa- di daa-”

and there was wasn’t was a pattern in those tiny pinpricks of violence she gouged in it and only she could see it and it was plague spots was not a pretty one at all; and as she stabbed at it its mouthparts sprouted and grew and curved and twisted in and out of its four dark pearl eyes its eyeless face like a babirusa; and its head was immobilised and its brain was pierced and it snapped its neck back reared itself up with a sickening crack on too many legs and its belly gaped open because there was a whole new mouth there; except it wasn’t a mouth it was just a hell a hole and the hole was a drooling orifice hag-eel’s breathing hole and it stretched and strained like a dark toothless tube with its six tongues six stubby tentacles; and-

“DA DA DAA-”

and every single person demon was like this now and they were everywhere and a hundred Ea Nebels loved them stabbed them but only one had the ovipositor had the Banner; and they shoved their gaping wounds holes onto the grit and clay and ants and bone and gobbled it up anyway, contracting, stretching, gulping, kissing, shuddering; and everything Ea Nebel could see was doubled quadrupled and blurry and in the after-images she could see them crawling up the beam of light like newborn babes mutilated ticks and sucking her the necropolis out of it like milk pus and she screamed that was good; and the more they slurped and crumbled the less she could see of anything, anything at all…

And then there was nothing, no demons, no heat, no drone, no portal; and Ea Nebel floated there in the silver mist all alone, her face a sea of tears, wheezing laughter to herself and no one else.




“It is the virtue of duty to know one’s own purpose and whereby it may be accomplished. It is to serve one’s end with abnegation, without forsaking its most grievous incumbencies for one’s own indulgent fulfilment when those should prove discordant. Thereby, in service of a higher Law one is made master over oneself and all things.”

The voice hesitated, reflecting on something it had until that point not prepared for.

“And it is to champion that Law and its universal ordainment in the face of unclean forces that would overturn it. It is to find one’s way among their deceptions and never stray from the destined path. This is a virtue of the divine.”




The space, if indeed it was a space, where the arbiters found themselves was cool and dark, the only source of definite sensation being the smooth glassy floor underfoot. After the sights of the ancient battlefield, over which they had been afforded eyes and ears that were everywhere and nowhere at once, free to pry at the minutest grain of dust or observe the breadth of ruination from a far vantage, the impenetrable shadow and silence did not seem altogether unpleasant.

Iqelis was not with them, not visibly. His presence could be felt around them, however. The darkness writhed, breathed, coiled indistinctly; he was inside it, and he was it. Its stirrings were his thoughts, and as the focus of his unseen eye was drawn to the course of the ordeal, a perceptive spirit could have read their course easily enough. There had at first been expectation, impatient yet confident; a pang of bitterness at the demigoddess’ rebuke, and a flash of anger which even here curled into an edge of rancorous mockery oddly laced with concern - Is this how you repay me? On with it! or you will break, are breaking! - that steadily turned to bemusement as he strained to catch something he thought he had seen. It grew to bafflement as distortion blossomed, for it was plain that it was not something he had woven into the fabric of this hell-crucible. Even now, after the hurriedly improvised conclusion to his homily, he seemed to have forgotten the two judges, and fluid ether flowed and shifted places as he weighed memory against design, puzzling over whether the one had contaminated the other. Recollections of a be-nightmared battle against impossible enemies under a sunless black sky danced on the skein of his mind, and measured themselves against the events that he laboured to force into the mould of what had been his intention.

The Goddess of Honor had shut her eyes closed, and sighed once with sorrow before she spoke. “I have now found the profuse irony here to be more than enough. Despite what others may claim, failure in this test is something we have all experienced as the Divine. There will be times when we are defeated, but then we will rise again. She has passed this trial through such failure, so let us move onto the next.” Homura proclaimed, as her scarlet eyes slowly opened, and afterwards shifted her attention to the second judge.

Ruina let out another hum as Homura spoke. She did have a point in that suffering failures without being crippled was a quality needed of a divine, but something tickled at her mind a bit. What, exactly, had been the goal of the test? To bury the bodies? To be rid of the light? This test seemed to be lacking in an overall goal, unlike the prior tests which had fairly clearly defined ones. Thus Ruina would raise an issue. ”Something I feel like I must observe is that this test possessed of it no purpose that is clear to me. What was the goal of Ea Nebel in this area? To bury the bodies? To rid herself of the beam of light? It feels to me that this was a test that had no solution, thus making failing the only solution possible. Lest an explanation comes, I would think of this trial as unworthy.”

Around them, Iqelis' mind bristled with impatience as it was torn away from its pondering, but the voice that sounded from the darkness was even.

“The light and the bodies are one and the same,” it crackled, now loud and pervasive, “They are the path of adversity, which duty must tread and overcome. Had she fulfilled her calling in spite of their asperity and of the lure of complacency, there would have been no doubts as to her success.”

Homura slightly shrugged. “It is what it is. These trials should not be so black and white, and an unworthy trial is still a trial nonetheless. Would you say the actions of Ea Nebel have given you cause to annihilate her?” The red goddess asked, offering Ruina a shadow of a smile.

Ruina blinked as the explanation was given from Iqelis before she nodded. As Homura gave her own thoughts, Ruina would blink once more as she thought about the question presented. Looking to Homura, Ruina gave her answer bluntly. ”No. Not yet. When the trials are finished I will have made up my mind on matters.”

Ruina thought it best to not include the fact that she was not here to judge Ea Nebel, but to instead judge her father, Iqelis. With things explained, Ruina folded her arms before speaking again. ”I am satisfied by the explanations given, and you have my thanks for them. Let us continue to the next trial.”

And so they did.





Ea Nebel


Some earlier time.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she built it on the beach, at the north shore of the Tlacan sea where the water is smooth and shallow and without colour. She built it herself, without any help at all. And she was happy when she built it, because she had nowhere to be, and nothing on her mind. It's important to build a house this way. You must always come home to happy memories.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she built it from smooth ashlar, and it was both tall and wide. She built for it arches and buttresses and colonnades, and she made sure that every part of it was both beautiful and useful, so that it would be just the right size: not too small and not too big. It had one face for the land and also one face for the sea, looming into the banks of mist. They were not the same face, so if the fog of dying rivers that hovered over the dead water were ever to part, a hidden facade may be revealed on Galbar’s final day. She pulled down a low-hanging fragment of obsidian from the sky, which was curved into strange orbits, such that it could be turned one way to look like the sleek skull of the fox, and another an eel, and another a flame. From it she chipped and ground twelve high pillars of pure black glass to hold up its highest domes and halls. When she was done she ground the remains of it smooth again, and set atop it a flat, circular stone dais. This she sent back to float nearby, for when she wished to meditate.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she gave it a wide courtyard, and filled it with trees planted in soil from the Eternal Wildlands, because the mud around the Sea was just no good for growing. This way it would always be a little different, but not very different, but different enough that it had moods, and the birds were often slightly different birds, and the song they sang would always be the right mood for her. Ea Nebel appointed the Iron Boar as watcher over this shrine-forest, which would be its home, and it delighted in the roots and the trees and the streams with their frogs. Outside she laid gravel and chalk in the draining mud, and so built a long road leading to that house, with milestones and resting-places.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she built inside it a museum and a library, and made sure that they would always be full of beautiful flotsam washed up by the Flow from every corner of Galbar. There was Nalusan pottery and Bjork woodcuts and Shennic paintings on rice-paper, and many remains of living things, from the lava-crab to the god-orca, and every kind of exotic creature from the jungles of Orsus: ceratopsian skulls and araucaria cones and cabinets full of many insects that had once glowed with their own power in the Moonlit Gardens, and now glowed on, with hers. And in her house she dug an aquarium, which was a little piece of reef from nowhere in particular, and filled it with all the fish and coral she liked the most, and set windows into it and under it, so she could see everything that went on with her fish by day and by night without ever needing to wet her feet. And when she felt like a closer look, she became a mermaid, and didn’t have to wet her feet that way either.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she built it with a guest wing and an office and a lounge with a roaring fire and chairs so comfortable one could easily die in them. She built a kitchen where the food was always hot, and a porcelain golem would come out to serve it anywhere in the house, and she made sure the golem was dressed well, in white and black. Between domes she built the glass roof of her conservatory and within one she set the glass lens of her observatory, which she would have liked to use more, had the dark between stars not sent shivers over her skin, and the lunar eye not ever been trying to peer down the brass scope. Under the widest dome she erected a throne of swirling onyx, and behind it rings of gold, such that she could sit in the center of an enormous halo. There she would brood, or nap, or lounge around eating fruit as it suited her.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she consecrated a chapel with twelve hundred candles and fractal mosaics in many colours, into which the sun would spill from tall windows and alight on the dancing smoke of censers. She engraved no image of man or beast in that chapel, and gave its altar over to any god to which a mortal guest might wish to pray. For herself, Ea Nebel consecrated a second chapel, a private chapel of black and white ablaq, which is layered stone. There she hung the black silks marked with white, which were the symbol of the babiruš, and the death’s head, and the Three Eyes and One. On its altar were many boars and moths and flowers laid in amber and jet, lit by a crystal set inside a shell, and it was for the receiving of prayers. For when the children of dust pray, they hope that God will listen; and when the God of Nebel prayed, she hoped to hear them speak.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she built for herself a bedchamber, which was a small outgrowth of the much larger room that was her wardrobe. This she filled with black hats, black coats, black jackets, black gowns, black trousers, black skirts (modest), black gloves, black boots, black socks, black glasses, black scarves, and a variety of other accessories, which were black. The secondary section of her wardrobe was reserved for more ostentatious costumes, which had highlights of red, silver, white, and gold, and were otherwise black. In the back corner of this section she stored eight additional dresses, one for every colour that wasn’t black. She had no intention to wear any of them but she felt that it was important to have a little variety.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she displayed all her weapons in a large armory, which were in every way alike to those she conjured. On its racks there were many pole-arms, such things as quarterstaves and glaives and pole-hammers, and her swords she displayed on stands, half-sheathed. There were lined cases, which contained many knives, and the hacking weapons hung from the wall, a selection of machetes among them. Of the missile weapons, the most room was dedicated to her crossbows, slurbows, arbalests and pistol-bows, and room also was left for the javelin, dart, bolas, and the stockless bow, of both the simple and compound kind. The smallest section was reserved for the incendiary weapons: the long, sleek musket with its filigree underbarrel, the fire lance and arrow, and the chòng, or pole-cannon. The only weapon not displayed was the doom-claw, which had no equal, and never left her side.

When Ea Nebel built her house, she dug beneath it an extensive basement. Most of it was unfilled catacombs, where the remains of the faithful, exotic, and worthy could be interred in sarcophagi as Ea Nebel deemed fit. Hidden among these empty and ghostless halls were the secret rooms. One of them was a vault where she might hide her secret treasures, were she ever trusted with any. For now she heaped it with a pile of shining gold, just so that it wouldn’t feel too empty. The other secret room was her dungeon, where sealed cells were arranged around a central workroom built around an oubliette. There she assembled the rack, the wheel, the chair, the horse, and all the other apparatus of torturing.

When Ea Nebel built her house, her own room stood in the sunniest corner. There she had a big bed, and a fire, and a cello, and a shelf for all her treasures: her gold rune-ring of jade and her iron ring with its blood diamond, a stand for the doom-claw and a hook for her grandfather’s scarf, a little haematite warthog, a spindle and whorl, and the turquoise amulet of Yolyamanitzin, who was architect to the Granite Emperor. She had a plush boar and a plush skull and a plush whale and a plush wasp also, and an entire hot spring for her bath. And in this corner she spent most of her time.

All this came to be, when Ea Nebel built her house.



The Helping Spirits


When Witale's pregnancy became known, the ensuing quarrel spread from the woman-tribe of the River Bivyech to their brother-band in the woods, and nearly tore apart both. The correct rites of gift-giving had gone ignored, and so the old mothers of the tribe had been given no opportunity to approve or condemn the union. Those old mothers had been alive since the days of Lansa, and their words were old and sacred: Learn honour, know honour, strive ever for honour; This is the highest tenet, the greatest knowledge, the way of living. Do not tread the path of despair. Do not go the way of greed.

Anger had flared among the Childan youths, who had already partnered in their hearts, the men according to the secret rules of the forest, the girls whispering and giggling around the fire as they accepted the gifts that came every season. Hasty Witale, unruly Witale, who did not listen to her mother! How could she cheat her sisters so? How much hotter would the char of longing burn in her nieces and cousins, knowing that they must wait when she had already taken? Who else would be inspired to steal?

Such distrust and hurt was death to the Childan women. On the morning after the weeping, when the girls had slept in separate corners of the huts and sobbed and seethed on the knife-point insults that had been thrown that night, the Spirit Father's curse was awakened and felt for the first time. No logs were hauled that morning, no stones knapped, no roots dug out. They had abandoned each other in spirit, and their strength had been taken from them, as surely as by plague.

Worse still were the sounds from the forest. Strength and leadership had been vested in the women of that race, and their grief-hatred was great. But violence was the domain of men.

The old mothers had met that day with the new leader of the brother-band, Dosho, who was now Dosho the Punisher, and the old, Lawivawan Copper-Bearer, his powerful body beaten and swollen, his hand broken by the force of his own blows.

Witale could not stay. She had been whipped with the birch, as was proper, yet still her presence divided the giantesses and made them weak. She could not be cast out, for then their abandonment would only seal the curse upon them further. Nor could she go among the men. To have a single woman among a band of men spells ruin. So Lawivawan Copper-Bearer and his ill-gotten bride were to be sent out together.

Several of the brothers went with them. Some went at once, for the same reason that they had followed him their whole lives, that the Flamekeepers had gifted him the spear of copper that Dosho the Punisher now held, the same reason that Witale had gone with him and started this sorry business. There was something strong in Lawivawan, chief among hunters, something wild and sacred in his smile.

Others broke away and followed later. Shason was among them.




The autumn berries had already been taken by the time Shason made it to the river, and he had no more food, nor a spear. He was too far now to go back to Dosho and beg for either. He had no axe to cut down staves and whittle new spears from the staves. He was too hungry to knap an axe.

The scent of the meat lured him down to the river. He could taste it on the air: fresh blood, rich and salty, and fat, prime flesh. His heart roared and warmed with the taste of distant butchery. It was not the smell of death, to Shason. To him it was life.

He seized the thickest muscle from the stone where it lay and ate it raw and cold. His teeth ripped at it, little Homuran fangs, but fangs nonetheless. He lit a fire with the flint and tinder in his pouch, still chewing. Only when he began to be sated did he notice the blood, bone, and feathers marking the trees, and the man now watching him.

"Lawivawan!"

Laviwavan laughed, spread his arms, and embraced his young cousin, slapping his back, kissing his forehead. His bruises were still visible, his fingers still bent in an awkward clutch, but he bore a new spear, smooth and tall with a fine bone point, and his smile was hot and wide. "My boy! I can't stand to look at you like this! Eat up, Shason. Eat everything. You need your strength."

"I was so hungry! I didn't notice the shrine-"

"Take it. The beavers left it here as an offering to the Masked Spirit. Their shamans hunt, even though they cannot eat! They risk their lives just for horn and fur... Take it, they abhor waste. When I travelled among them, they offered me their meat. Some of the older ones were sorry to see the tradition of flesh-offering overturned for my sake, so I always left the entrails at the shrine, for the Spirit."

Shason swallowed meat from the skewer and looked at him wide-eyed. "You've travelled with the shamans?" He was answered with a wild laugh.

"Yes! I've travelled with the shamans. The old ones, the Bijjiork-shamans, not our shamans. I've been with the dam-dwellers too, many times! They call this place the River Bivyech- that's as close as I can speak to their language, anyway. There's a wide dam not far downstream from here, where there are dozens of them, tucked under a big, fine wooden house in the water. Truly, Shason, you've never seen anything like it. If you were to follow the river all the way up to the mountains, you would meet hundreds." Lawivawan laughed and chattered on like a cockerel, then deflated.

"Listen, Shason, if ever you leave us and are hungry again, you must go to the river. Sometimes they will feed you, if they are at peace with their neighbour clans, and trusting. If not, offer to stand watch over them while they work, or at night. Many beasts prey on them that would never harm a Childan man- eagles and bobcats and wolverines, and even a wolf will take more pause for you than a beaver. They will feed you then. It's all leaves, of course, mustard and chicory and sorrel, and that's if they even know how to feed a Childa stomach. Else you get ferns and reeds and expected to thank them for it. Still, they'll feed you. They keep the berries for themselves. Wait until late, then ask for a cup of the drink they make from it. It has some beaverish name. Mighty good stuff."

Shason looked up. "Do they not hunt, Lawivawan?"

The hunter cackled, stamping the dirt with the butt of his spear. "The dam-dwellers? They don't even fish! They only use their spears for fighting. Sometimes wolverines, sometimes each other. Besides-" he rested the spear in his elbow and held his hands out a little distance apart. "Their arms are only this long! You should have seen them gawking the first time I showed one how we Childa men throw a javelin, really swing it, with the whole body..." He stretched out his arms and made the familiar motion, long arm spinning all the way over his torso, then burst once more into laughter. "The old shamans have bloody good aim, but I could see her big flat bottom teeth shining in the sun, so wide was her mouth! Their legs are short too, so they can't chase what they hunt and stick it, not like we can. Not that they really need to. They've the appetite of a goat and the gut to match. Oh, and they swim, I give 'em that. They can swim like a damn fish."

At this point, Shason was gulping down the last of the rare, glistening meat. It was hard to tell if he was listening. Lawivawan hooted a laugh, pinched his ear, and tousled his hair. "Oh, whatever, little man. Come on. The other boys have a hut between the trees round the next bend, there's more food there. Come on- we're trying to decide if we should be shamans next year."




Autumn quickly became winter, and soon there was no promise that any of Lawivawan's little band would survive that long.

Grey earth turned white. The green world disappeared. The Shepherd called his flocks to sleep, and only cold, thin, hungry animals remained to keep watch in the long night. The fox and hare and ermine shed their summer colours and disappeared into the blinding blankness of snow, leaving only their little black eyes and noses. The great aviary of the Giantland trees disappeared for warmer and wetter countries beyond the horizon. Even the seabirds departed their cliffs.

It was time for the North to slumber.

The Childan women huddled in their simple cabins under furs their men had brought them and prayed to the fire, to Lansa, to the Spirit of Heat, and to the Spirit Father, that he might not test them more harshly than they could withstand. Earnest and urgent was their prayer, which they sang in unison every dawn, waiting away the meagre hours before the winter night returned. The winds were harsh this year.

It wasn't the cold they were afraid of. It wasn't the snow that kept them inside.

The roots and greens were gone. There were no more truffles to dig up. The deer and muskox were growing leaner and leaner, and jealously guarded by wolves. The Dwami had sealed their caves with stone, and would not be seen until spring. The Bijjiork had no more leaves to offer.

In the women's camp, there were still acorns, and grains, buried in stores, dug up in small rations. Lawivawan's boys could do nothing but fish through a hole in the ice. It was good eating, but most of it went to feed Witale's growing belly, and the long hours in between soon taught them that grass and bark were meagre fare.

One day Lawivawan vanished. By the time he returned, the clouded night was black as pitch.

"Here."

The smell was unmistakeable. His meat was under a small fur in a grass basket. It was still warm. The Childans tore into it with no less savagery than the beasts howling outside their shelter. He disappeared to his hidden fire without a sound, without a word. There was more meat when he returned, heavy and dripping with fat. The boys scratched marrow out of bone with stone knives. They said nothing, even when Witale slept, better-fed than she had been for months, even when the last bones were brought in and the source of the meat became clear.

No laughter was heard in that camp.

"I met Onki out tracking today while we were looking for you," said Shason. "He says Dosho is dead. His wound festered after the bison hunt. The copper spear has no master." Lawivawan stared into their little fire, his face stone, eyes reflecting the flame like glass.

"There are pregnant women in the camp," said another boy. "They needed that bison. They can't just live on nuts and grass."

Silence.

"Do not dwell in starvation," intoned Lawivawan, quoting the ancient rhyme they had heard from their grandmothers. "Feed yourselves and all who hunger. Do not fall into the ways of sameness, uniformity breeds stagnation. The tools are given to you by the Spirits. Your hands alone can move them."

Dozens. If you were to follow the river- hundreds.

"Be thankful," said Lawivawan Copper-Bearer. "Our Father brought them to us in the shape of an eagle. They are our helpers."

Shason shuffled closer to their little fire. The smooth staff of his new spear stood out in the light. He was already thinking of the girl he would hold in his arms when the season of rites came to pass. The smiles he would see. The feasts they would have.

As always, the Bijjiork were a gift from the Great Spirits.



The First Trial


The vale was long and deep, a concavity that could have been carved into the side of the mountain by a drifting glacier, or perhaps by a judicious finger of divine magnitude. And, as something etched by such an even sweep ought to have been, it was perfectly smooth, a flawless inverted arch plunged into the live rock. Not a single stray boulder nor patch of snow marred its floor, not a stalk of grass or mountain-blossom grew from the dry stone, not even a small crack nor pebble ruined the harmony of its levigated surface.

Little of that could be seen for certain, however, because of a heavy black cloud that covered the sky directly above it. Though no larger than most of the ragged grey nimbi that drifted among the nearby peaks, this dark clot was much heavier, and it appeared to be brewing a small storm directly overhead, for something growled and grumbled ominously in its depths.

Then, before Ea Nebel had the time to step either further ahead or back over the ridge, it suddenly burst, and fell to the ground in uncountable fragments. It became visible then that it was no cloud at all, but a behemoth swarm of carrion-flies, larger than any the Galbar had seen since the pestiferous insects had first set out upon its surface. There were as many of them as drops of water in the ocean and grains of sand in the desert, and as they set down on the ground they carpeted the vale entirely, so that there was not enough soil left uncovered for the slightest of raindrops to have fallen. All as one, they faced the demigoddess, silently challenging her with a sea of rust-red eyes.

Iqelis' voice rang out from the now clear sky.

“All flies know you, all flies look to you. All but one of them, who turns the other way. Find it among the multitude, for until you do, you may not depart this vale. This is your first trial.”

A gust of chilly wind struck her in the back, flinging her hat out ahead, and the steep pass behind her was enveloped by a swirling tide of thick black fog. Another such smoky wall swallowed the opposite end of the ravine. The world beyond might as well have faded from existence; there was only her and the flies.

...Well.

Ea Nebel faced the grey sky and nodded to her unseen judges, then took a step. A few hundred flies scattered, reforming their ranks around her boots and clustering over her exposed footprints until they obscured. The insects between where she had been and where she stood now had dutifully turned their heads, and watched her still. She waved her hand loosely in front of her, rune-ring sparking with glyphs of Gnosis, throwing out a stiff gust. Thousands of flies flew up before her, tossed in a dense wave that became a zephyr, black like smoke as it spiralled away its momentum ahead of her. The flies swerved, circled, tumbled this way and that, crawled over each other in piles as they landed, arranged themselves once more in a thick blanket- and faced her.

Ea Nebel caught a straggler between thumb and forefinger. She lifted it to her face.

Many ways to solve this puzzle, if one were only a god.

Ea Nebel stared at the fly and contemplated, turning it around. She could force this fly to turn its back. Then she could incinerate the rest of the valley wholesale, and leave only this one remaining. A trite answer. She made a note of it.

Stepping out into the endless blanket of vermin, she recovered her hat.

Any mortal would spend lifetimes searching the flies without finding the One. She was not mortal, and could search these flies by hand- if she had to. Ea Nebel bent her knees lightly and leapt to the other side of the vale, coat flung open behind her like a cape, watching a subtle wave in the sheen of the flies below her as they turned in their millions, skidding down over the smooth stone in another great black cloud until the heel of her boot disappeared into the fog of the barrier. She stepped promptly out, glancing at the sky once more. A stupid approach. She might need that energy later.

What then?

Ea Nebel trailed two fingers idly down her neck, cleared her throat, and sang a slow, wordless, operatic note into the valley. From her half-open mouth emanated a light as harsh as death, whiter than the very Moon, blinding, obscuring the shape of the insects. It echoed far between the walls of the valley, a verse in no language, recorded in glyphs of no script. She let it trail off. A faint, foul smell of burnt chitin hung in the air, and she stepped through the usual whirring clouds into the path the beam had traced. There, the flies beneath her feet rolled, wriggled, and crunched. Her light had burned through their eyes into their brains.

She was impressed by her own work. With a single song, Ea Nebel could purge the whole vale in a matter of minutes. Only the turned fly would remain. She sighed. Another fine way to waste her precious strength.

Ea Nebel paced, watching insects scatter underfoot. Patience and power were good virtues. She had an opportunity to prove either. She wanted to. All of her little toy solutions seemed more pleasant than the true answer she already knew.

She doffed her hat and looked into it.

“All flies know you.”

Ea Nebel threw her hat far into the air, down the valley, and watched it dissolve into blowflies. She shed her coat and let it fall around her, letting it sag and melt into a seething mound of the insects, revealing her arms, her shoulders, the brilliant shawl of Heaven around her neck. She felt her hackles rise. The endless sea of eyes upon her was hungrier now.

“Well?” She whispered, loud as a thundercrack. “Don’t you know me?”

The flies rose, slowly at first, then all at once. Their wings were loud as stone and timber grinding in an earthquake. A storm of darkness fell upon her, a gale, a swirling, droning whirlwind of innumerable insects rising around her in a towering pillar. Fat, writhing flies crawled over every inch of the goddess, hanging from her skin, layers and layers of them, heavier and heavier. Ea Nebel screwed her eyes shut, covered herself with her arms, and was lost in a seething mountain of vermin.

Minutes passed. The great mound billowed, heaved, and sagged. The noise grew softer as the last flies landed on their kin. The motion was subtle at first. It grew steadily, sweeping around and around, the repulsive skin of pawing scavengers carried by the currents whirling beneath their feet.

Then they, too, were absorbed.

The mound flickered, from sweeping black silk to glistening ferrofluid to glass and back to blowflies, blowflies, obsidian, silk. It collapsed in on itself until it was a pillar, and in that pillar was the figure of a woman, still standing, arms still crossed over herself, and finally resolved itself into a heavy black coat, tightly buttoned. Not an inch of skin showed under her sleeves and gloves, not a single line of her cringing face beneath her hat and veil.

Without releasing her arms, Ea Nebel snapped her fingers, conjuring into being a tiny animal; the runes from her jade ring traced the spell and tangled together as it resolved into a little tombwasp, perching on the clear and empty rock before her, cleaning its little white antennae as if afraid to get a speck on its garments. She pointed, and it flew off. By the time it returned, she had finally opened her eyes, relaxing her stance very slightly. She lifted a palm and let the predator deposit its quarry: a single, paralysed fly.

Ea Nebel raised her veiled face to the clear sky above.

“...Here it is.”

The fog at the throats of the vale dissolved, and the voice from above spoke again.

“It is the virtue of wisdom to know the nature of things,” it said, “Wherein they are constant, wherein they are mutable, whereby they are driven to their acts. Likewise it is to know how those attributes may be coaxed and guided to form a nature embodied in a guise that we desire. This is a virtue of the divine.”

A black cloud briefly swirled around the thinner end of a low nearby mountain's bifurcated summit, about large enough for one to stand.

“The second trial awaits there.”

“...Let me catch my breath.” Ea Nebel had yet to move a single step from where she stood. She inhaled, held it deeply, released. “Blowing away my hat. Was that a clue?”

Only the bitter howl of the wind among jagged rocks answered.

Ea Nebel looked down at the envenomated fly in her hand. It was twitching weakly, on its back, as if drunk into stupor. In its current state it could neither look towards her nor away from her. She let it fall between her fingers to the valley floor. She stared out into the long trough of empty stone, no longer bound on either side. Had she solved this riddle? Had she even tried?

Why had the one fly turned its back to her? All else looked to her, while it looked away, away from the Nebel spirit, looking out from the grave, looking towards- what? Life? The cradle?

Birth?

Ea Nebel watched the little wasp she had conjured take to the air in front of her, innocent and young. It had found the fly, not her. She pinched the tight fabric of her sleeve, the skin beneath. In the end, she might as well have just counted them. It didn’t matter how many millions of insects were woven into her own inescapable cocoon. The test had been to call up the one that wasn’t.

Footsteps echoed down the god-carved gulch, and then all that was left was the fly, and the wasp.




From the high ledge of Fortitude's tomb, the inaccessible spires and hidden depressions of the range were bared in a vast circle, and by far moreso to a divine eye. Even the secluded gulch had been keenly visible to the watchers above, though they themselves were concealed by a snaking bank of pale mountain mist.

Iqelis moved a step back from the ledge and silently turned an expectant eye to the others.

“How wonderfully contrite; a murderer pontificating the virtues of wisdom and divinity. However, I can at least appreciate the simple nature of your test.” Homura commented, content with the outcome of Ea Nebel’s first trial.

The One-Eye gave no reply, perhaps disdainful, perhaps absorbed in some arcane effort of marshalling the invisible forces that guided the ordeals, save a meaningful glance at the spear in the goddess' hand.

Ruina blinked as Ea Nebel began to depart for the second phase of her tests. Turning to face Homura as she spoke, Ruina noted the lack of a reply from Iqelis and spoke her own observation shortly afterwards, turning to face him as she did. ”I will agree with Homura that the simplicity of the test is appreciable, but I will raise observation that the lack of any form of limitation on time was rather generous. If she wanted, she could’ve counted each individual fly until she found the one you indicated. Some form of limitation or urgency in that sense would make for more thorough testing, I believe.”

“Be assured,” the god's voice sounded distant, like an avalanche somewhere far among the Bones, “That the flies would not have sat idle if she ever neared her goal by that path. She could have worn out her eyes counting without approaching it.”

Ruina could only let out a hum in response as she turned her attention back to Ea Nebel and awaited the next of the trials.



gentlemen it will soon be time for me to take my new year's weekend

i trust that no one will make any 'posts' during this period


Heavy were the fins of the whale that crossed those cold northern seas. Heavy were its lungs that had breathed of many skies. Thin had grown its wrinkled eyes.

Mamang was old.

Long over was the age of whales now. Cows calved, bulls sang, and dancing lights ripped them apart in the night. The hound of Heaven had its fill. The sea was ever filled with them, as ever it would be as long as the cows swam south to calve, and every year the weaned grew smaller. Their kind had supped on the gifts of the Life Mother, though those gifts were small as their nature decreed, and their race were titans. Now her bounty revealed its hidden price: all things have their balance. Even the giants.

Even Mamang.

He knew what was coming. Only one clan had defied the crushing grip of Nature so, their ancient size preserved where others of their race shrank away. They were lords of the sea, unmatched in cunning and supreme in violence. No armoured scales could resist them, nor would they ever forget the secret of immortality. When Mamang had feasted on godfish, they had bolstered him, for a time. They had gorged. They were gorging still.

They were the god-orcas, and their song was the wolf-whine of death.

The alliance was forty strong, and bulls were with them also. Three matriarchs led the slayers into position, holding their voices quiet as they spun their wide net around him. Mamang did not need to roll his unbroken ear around to know that he was at the center. The fever had sharpened his sight, and he saw through clear water the black and the white, the two colours together that every whale feared.

Mamang's ancient heart began to hammer as he gained speed. He had seen it all happen before. It always began this way. First they marshalled. Then, the chase.

The elder whale accelerated. His body was an arrow, his heart a furnace, his banded tail a great wing. He flew through the waters, and his gargantuan body was no impediment, an engine of muscle that propelled him with terrible speed, speed enough to swallow whole schools of squid before they could scatter, speed to throw himself up high among the birds. He could not slow. He could not tire. To tire was death.

The matriarchs purred, and the god-orcas drew nearer. Divine power had seized them. Their song chittered with bloodlust. They would never give in: the Love Dance called them on, to slaughter, to glory.

The horror of death was the horror of utter helplessness. Mamang could do nothing to defend himself. When he finally tired, then the thrashing would begin, the desperate flailing sweeps of a tail that could propel him away no longer. An orca that fell in the path of that titanic wing could see its jaw crushed against its skull, or the wrist of its fin shattered in an instant. Sometimes a young bull would be maimed that way. The matriarchs never were. They led their slayers well.

Mamang's tail burned and he blasted air at the surface, breathing heavily, never slowing. His plume was the only one. The god-orcas never breathed.

After the thrashing, the drowning. Their net would close. They would be around him, on top of him. They would cover his nostrils. They would bleed him. They would shred his fins with their teeth until blue became red. They would circle in and out of the carnage as they tired, leaving the victim no respite. They would ram him as they entered the fray, until his pale-patterned skin was black with bruises. All the while, he would try to breathe.

They did not need to kill him. Once he could swim no further, they would feed.

Mamang flew on in the waters, surrounded, hunted, cornered, utterly alone.

Memories of his mother flickered unbidden in the whale's terror-soaked brain. No mother could help him now. Memories of swiftness. Memories of death. The chasm of air. The taste of poison. Zhongcheng's claw. Memories of corpse-blood fouling the ocean with its smell. Memories of the voice that had whispered at the chasm of death. Memories of other voices.

Kn... ...t... ...ef... ...nc... ...s... ...ed.


Memories flashed in his roiling brain like storm-lightning. His tail heaved. Mamang swam. He swam. He flew. He breathed. The sun burned his back. The god-orcas would never falter.

The chase went on, and on, and on. Exhaustion crept on the whale.

And yet it did not end.

Memory after memory burned in Mamang's eyes, and he did not slow. He tired and did not slow. He tired, and did not slow.

Memories burned before him. Memories of blue. Memories of speed. The memories were all around him. The memories were blue. The blue was speed.

Mamang's heart began to calm. He let his tailbeats lighten, then cease altogether. He glided, faster, faster. The blue wrapped itself around him like a pod of his cows, carrying him on. He was soaked in it. It was his.

He would not die today. He was beyond the orcas- beyond what he had been before his hundred memories. Mamang was not a calf. He was the bull, the ancient, wandering bull, lord among whales. The god-orcas would scatter before him. They would fear him. They would fear him like fish- because he could hurt them like fish.

Mamang's broken ear pounded with blood.

Memories of hurt flared within him.

I̸̛͎̟̠̦̙̝̣͎̼͎̮͍̩͕̤̲̤̫͔̥͍̊̔̾͗̾̑̐̏̑͑̒̈́̄̂̍͗́̀̑̈́͜͝ͅ ̶̨̨̡̨̛̝̼͎̱̪̲͓̥̲̩̦̘̫̖̩̬̳͙̮̽̓̈́̅̀̅̌̎͌̉͘͜s̷̤̤̻̦͕̟̫̺̳͈̠̗̼̥̞̒͜ḧ̸̖͕̥̪̳̪̬̝̀͆̕a̴͎̝̜̬͙̲̠͎͖̬̜̮̜̓̅l̶͇͙̙̫͍͈̩̺̼̻̈́̈́̾̿̃̊͛̃̎̾̍͑͑̽͆̾͘̕͝l̸̡̨̨̧̦̬̞̺̲̭͕̬̻͍̠͌̆̀́̓͊ ̸̨̢̖̥͈̙̥̠̩̙̠̹̦̈͛̓͛̃̒̀͋̍̑̚͘̚͜͝d̴͈̫̙̥̖̱̍͆̈́̓̄̈́̀̀̾̈́̿̕̚͠ͅͅî̷̡̢̬͔͙͓̲͓̭̲̥͓̟͉̥̥̹̼̣̯̜̦͗̇̽̓̃̄͂̏̇̈́̐̍́̓̈́͒̕̚͠͝͝v̸̡̧͖̥͎̭̜̲͔͈̻͉̰̓̉̓̓͋̓̆͆̇͊̑̈́̾̓̎̾͜ͅo̸̧͂̊͋̏̅̌̋̀͂͆̒̋̈̋̾̉̈̀͒̆͋͝ŕ̷̨̫̼̫̺̤̻̩̦͎͈͇̇͂͌̉͊̌̉̂͐̓c̴̖̍̉͛̋͗̓̅̈̌̽̔̿̈́̊̄ͅę̵͇̯̖̰͆̐̓͒̽͂͂͑͝ ̶̨̦̞̣͚̬̙̺͍̘̗͎̙̅͑̍͑̽̿͊̐̆͗͒̄̿̾́͒͘̕̚͠m̵̖̫̤͐̈́̓̆̒̊͛͊̃̓̔̂̎̈́ͅy̶̡̛̰̿̀͝ ̷̢̨̟̦̜̺̤̣̮͔͉͈̜̟̣̟͎̰͇̹̩͇̯̿̅̑̎̔́̐̋̒͒͆̄̕͝͠t̶̺͔̟͈̖̝̗͔͖̣͉̖̺̮̺̠͙̫͍̰̜͒̒́͋͑͂̔̀̏̾̔ỏ̴̢̡̹̬̰̱̮̻̫͌̈̄͛͗̉̓̐̚͘ͅṳ̷̾̍͌c̴̛͚͇̱̯̟͍̬̹̺͎̪̻͓͎̩̋̀͗̈́͘̕͝ḫ̸̨̹͔̺̺̥͇̻̤̭̔̀̂̀̈́̊̄̔̋͒͠ͅ ̵̧̧̤̟͙̪̦̯͍̣̳͉̪͍̜͐̅͌̿͜͠f̸̱͚̪̥͕͋͋͋̔̓̂̉̽̋͌̏͐̽́̚̕͠͠͝r̷̛̬̙̦̹̲͍̱̜̮̤̙͓̃̑͊̂͂͊̒́̅̐̌̐̃̽̈͆͌̚̕ờ̶̦͙̬̌̅͑̑͗́̓̊͆͝͝͠m̵̡̪̹̊̌͋͒͆͐̇́̓̍̅͠ ̶̟̻͆̈͋̎t̴̢̢̡̛̫̲̬̫̙̯̻͕̠̓̄̒͐̚ḩ̸̨͈͔̙̜͕͈̜̳̮̝͕̖̗̖̼̘͙͚̻͖̻͋̈́̾̋̚̕ͅȩ̵̨̛̤̤̖̩͔͓̯͚̰̼͇̖̬͎͔̱ ̶̧̛̫͙͍͖̳͓͍̥̪͎̞͖̭͔̳̦̤̹͍͌͆͑́͐́̄̋́̈̈́̅̾̍̈̑̔̈̍́̈̓͝G̵̯͉͚̯̞̤̭̟̬̳͚͖̻̜͚̗̹̾͑̇̈́͋̀́̈́͠͠͝ǎ̵̰̘̤̥̭̝͓͉̠̋͗́͊́̐̿̈͋̈́̾̿͛͗̉̕͝ḽ̷̢̨̧̧̬̯͚͕̰̻͔̥̤̼̩̜̲̞̻̜͂̎̑̄̄́̊͐̋͊͌̀̂̉͘͝͝ͅb̸̨̧̺̯̗͈̗͖͕͕̠̔͛͗̈́͋͒̄̈́̾͂̐̾͜͜͝͠a̸̧̛̩͎̺̘̜̩̖̜̻̫͈͎̺͎̲͇̦͈̖̽̈́̌͌͆̈́́͋͆̿̕͘r̵̢̻͙̟̱͖̬̥̱̩̣̈́̒̈̌̓̒̽̒̈́̓͐̓̆̅͊̕ͅ'̷̼̠̺͍̬̿́͐͆́̂̔́̓̓̄̓̽͑̓̆̅̾̚̚̚͝ş̸͈̯͎͎̬̗̬͙͙̱͓̗͖̞̺̗̗̦͛͜͝͠ͅ ̸͙̟́̑͑̄̍͌̌̂̊͆̋̀̉̉̚͝ṣ̷̛̙̗͔͚͓̑́̉̎̔̔̈́͆͌͋̐̎͝͝ͅų̸̨̥̞̪̯̪̯̖͎̙̣̬̬͓͓̰̪͚̹͈͒͑͌͑̿̂̌̉̏͝͝ŗ̸͔̬̬͎̱͍̳͎̜̙̙̭̈́͗͗̂̇́̄͌̍̉̅͑́̂f̸̡̨̗̤̙̀̋̉̏͐̾̽̋͂̎̈́͛̂͒̍̀͑̏̊̕̚̚͝ͅä̵̖̻̱̦̲̙͎͎̖̙̙̩̭̯̟́̐c̴̱͍̠̠̿̊̏͊̚̕͜ͅę̶͓͙̼͕͕̜̮̠͂͋͝͠.̸̡̨͎̯̻͓̜͎̥̜͔̏̓͗́̐̎̒͒̑


Blue memories.

Mamang breathed, casting into the air a high spout of steam. He allowed himself to slow. The god-orcas would never cease to hunt him, not while he still wore the band that was his shackle. He let them approach. He let his head sink below the surface. He raised his tail above the glittering blue.

He swung it down.

C r a c k.

XXIV


Mamang left the god-orcas with neither haste nor patience. Rolling and whining in the waters, eyes bloodied, they called to one another with seized and deafened voices. He did not stop to listen.

They may as well have been fish to him.

It was the season for whales to travel north. Mamang journeyed south. His song was sparing. He could hear it now, in that song: the ancient ocean he called towards him with melody, its soul wrapped around him, its unrelenting, endless blue. He had heard it before. He had always heard it. It had ever been a part of him, growing stronger and stronger. The Laektear-Mother had shown him what he had always known. Now, he understood.

Others could not hear it. He was not like them. He was barely even a whale.

Continents sailed past him. The whole world was nothing but a bay. He knew every rock. Mamang travelled south, and the journey of months was nothing to him. The stench of the curse grew closer and closer.

Mamang inclined himself towards it, and he moaned his song of death. Against that song, there was no equal. It was as if the curse made no noise at all.

He left that thing in pieces.

XXV


At the end of his journey, Mamang finally slowed. The water was blue around him. It had other colours, too. Green. Black. White. Colours for which there were no name.

The ocean burned. It shone, it cracked. Mamang watched it churn in restless chaos. He could hear them, now: whales, giant whales, like the lonesome giants that had once crossed the north. Or perhaps only their ghosts. The echoes of their song.

Whatever they were now, they were whales no longer. Somehow they had followed the godfish here when they had first spawned, and were feeding on them still, as godfish fed on the mana. The colours had soaked into them, and their undying voices were laced with light. They were nowhere to be found.

He could not stay here. He was not like them. He had only one colour- the natural colour, the ocean song, the blue. Perhaps the laektear-mother had that colour too. In time, the god-orcas would claim it as well, and then there would be no escape from the curse of the Band.

For a while Mamang drifted, feeling colour fade to colour fade to colour on his skin.

After all, he was only a whale.





Jiugui

&
[mamang]Mamang.[/mamang]

present

O, to drink like a fish!





XXI


The passage of the great walkers had become familiar, now, to the ancient whale. He greeted them with his song, as he greeted any other old traveller in those cool northern seas, though of course they did not hear. Perhaps, like the circling shorebirds, they could sense the ring that now adorned Mamang’s tail, and laughed with its passage, but the whale heard nothing in their sorcerous song, saw nothing under the sheet of red on which they walked.

There was another sound with which the whale had now become familiar: the groan of rising mountains. It was a sound as soft as a whisper, lower than the deepest voice of the earth. To a whale like Mamang, it was clear as could be, no matter where he wandered. This, now, was the closest he had ever heard it, and he raised his eye cautiously to watch the shore. Was there some shape on the horizon now, where none had ever been? Perhaps. Memories of land were always dim and distant memories. Only the shorelines were fixed in his heart, and the shorelines never changed.

He exhaled and rammed a freshly-created shoal of squid down his gullet.

It was then that a buoy of flesh slapped into the water from above, tossing up a fog of bubbles. A spherical object rolled around sloppily like a half-eaten jellyfish, at the mercy of currents and waves alike. Around it ushered forth an invisible cloud of something woefully smelly.

Filth! Sorcery!

By this time, Mamang was well acquainted with the noxious powers of the ancient ones. Diving quickly into the safe dark waters, he eyeballed the limp-legged thing. Surely a corpse! He had seen many thousands of such limp shapes bobbing in the Sea of Keltra on that fateful night. Some numinous terror had slain this poor land-creature, and all that was left was to warn other whales.

Mamang surfaced just about enough to get the cadaver on his tail, and raised it, briefly lifting the body before it rolled off into the waters once more. Then it sent the warning-signal common to whales and Bjorks alike: a firm, loud tail-slap, crashing down on the surface of the waters, slamming the stinking body deep under the waves.

But the cadaver was far from dead! In fact, once the sonic slap washed it in even more salt, sea and sound, the body stirred to life, rambling something mighty slurred like the voice of a lapping wave. Not even dolphin speech was this incomprehensible - a clam would have made more sense. The ball clapped at the water surface in some crude attempt to swim, but only ended up circling around like a one-finned fish. Around it spilled more of the toxic tea, soiling the seas with sickening smells.

The land-calf was clearly not yet free of its lethal curse. Even a whale could see that it was in need of another cold, sobering wash, or perhaps the sweet, merciful embrace of a swift death. The gigantic tail was not enough.

There was only one thing to be done.

As the floundering goblin gasped for breath, the shadow of the gargantuan whale disappeared into the dark with worrying alacrity. Then, after a moment of quiet, the ocean exploded in a mighty column of spray, and a mountain of whale-meat covered the sun. The last thing Jiugui saw was Mamang’s pleated belly covering the whole of the sky.

C R A S H

Anything unfortunate enough to suffer this sort of cetacean send-off would surely find themself in the Afterlife not too long after. However, the goblin still squirmed, flopping around like a swimming sea anemone. It looked at least, uh, somewhat revitalised, for his movements seemed to indicate the basest of survival instincts - retreat.

The whale stared at the tiny spluttering thing with sense of dumb shock as it recovered. This was witchcraft.

Meanwhile, the little ball unleashed small squeals and groans which travelled through the water with a sort of supernatural dexterity and clarity that only holy creatures could manifest. Like a blown-up, but finless pufferfish, the creature clumsily propelled itself away from Mamang, spitting profanities like a drowning sailor.

Something was clearly not quite right here. Mamang was, of course, too stupid to discern whether it was the body, its pernicious longevity, its stench, or in the whale itself, but something had clearly been fumbled for the worse somewhere in this odorous affair. It circled the body, there in the watery blueness safe from the chill and chop of rough waves above, and let its man-sized eye drift right up to the submerged goblin. And he said:

Mhäm mähm?

The ball stopped and squinted fiendishly at the whale. “You shtohp dat name-callin’! I ain’d no caff!” The goblin snorted out a web of salty snot and washed its mouth with some more of that witchly concoction that oozed around it. “I’mma Jiugui ‘n I wash havin’ a lil’ nap until you decided ta wake me! Who doez dat?”

A what now?

“Jiugui,” repeated the little man. “You zbell id… Achtually, dozzen seem like you can neizher read or wride, on accound of your small eyez ‘n finny limbs.” He nodded sagely while the great wrinkled eye squinted pointedly at him. “Forgib me, pleaze… I’fe been so mush wiff this one group’a ghosts up in the moundains dat I fo’got ozzer creashurs egsisted.” He lifted his cup, which now was full of sea water, and toasted the whale. “Buzz bray dell, wass your name, big sir?”

Mähm-mmäng, sang the whale, a process which took the better part of a minute. It was by no means finished: Mmä-mäam mhäm mähm mähm mahm mmang mämm, mä mmähm-mähm määäm mäng mähm mäm mmahng.

Jiugui nodded understandingly. “A beauziful name, sir. A pleashure. Quite a shtory too, huh - from caff off in the Norf to travelz all aroun’ and explosions ‘n singin’ to endin’ up ‘ere, a sagely ole vederan of the sea…” He shed a tear which floated to the surface before burning off in a puff of alcohol. “Boodiful… Oh, I muss hear more ovvit! Shay, Mammy - you ain’d busy now, righ’? I know dish place a few thousand nautical milesh to the souf - great atmosphere, warm waters. You thirsdy?”

The whale was suddenly struck with the knowledge that, though he was over a century old, he had never had so much of a sip of anything in his life. What’s more, he was surrounded every day of those long years by salt. He was positively swimming in it.

There wasn’t a second to lose. He was thirsty. By God he was thirsty.

Mäm, he explained swiftly as he turned his body away and around. Once again, great haste had become a necessity. Something told him this wayward landling wouldn’t fit down his blowhole with nearly the elegance of the last one, and it would probably be hazardous to try. Within a few short seconds, Mamang was facing Jiugui head on once more, and this time his lips parted to bring the impossibly vast cavern of his dark maw to bear on the squirming god. The god had barely time to react before the whale swallowed him up.

Inside, though, Jiugui made himself comfortable sitting on Mamang’s enormous tongue. He shrugged and said, “I understan’. If you thing dis is de best way of travel, I gan tag along ‘ere.” The water in the whale’s mouth drained by some convenient miracle, and He poured himself a drink in the now-dry baleen hall and took a sip. “Sho is straight souf from ‘ere, I think. Then– WOAH!”

As Mamang dove down, Jiugui spilled some of his wine all over his tongue. Mamang recoiled from the burn of the liquor, and the floor, as it were, rolled like a wave, such that the top of Jiugui’s greasy unwashed hair just about brushed the whale’s palate.The orb of a god tossed screamingly around the massive maw, more wine was spilled, more awkward tongue-rolling was had, and by the time Mamang was familiar enough with the sting to settle his mouth a steady trickle of it was making its way to the whale’s distant throat.

The journey got interesting after that. Sure, Mamang may have made a few illegal migrations and awkward turns, but there was no one under the light of Heaven who would possibly indict the whale for diving under the influence. It’s just so easy to get lost at sea, see, where everything’s better down where it’s wetter, and all the same colour to boot.

They looped around the dancing isles, speeding along merrily at the last minute as the glowing laektears turned from yellow to red and the stone began to rise, then sailed past the convocation grounds of divinity, where Mamang skimmed his fin through the wall of the last-remaining surface of vertical ocean between two mountains. They stopped somewhere in the far west when Mamang realised he was skirting the wrong continent entirely, and wheeled merrily around for a while before turning back, flaunting his bangle to a bewildered Zhongcheng somewhere in the glittering bays of the Ring of Shadows. Their route may as well have been drawn in chalk on a convenient wall by a giggling toddler, and no less entertainment was had. No laws were broken that night, but more than a few were written the next day by an assembly of whales, laektears and godfish, their quarrels momentarily set aside to establish some basic rules of propriety for travelling the high seas.

Then, finally, guided by ingrained navigational memory and a smattering of miracles, they arrived.

XXII


Before them laid exactly nothing - on the surface, that was. It was just about winter time here, so whatever traces of the island paradise Jiugui had talked about laid resting at the bottom of the sea. It wasn’t hard to find, sure - eventually their sloshing search brought them to coordinates roughly fifty metres beneath the surface of where they had initially arrived, whereupon they were greeted by a forest of coral and salt-crusted surface flora. Crustaceans and slugs, bacteria and algae all grew thick on the surface flora, eating what they could before the island’s eventual rise back to the surface. The whale, by now in sore need of a little lay down, settled his great belly in the middle of the island and crushed a good deal of it. Mähm.

Jiugui pushed his way out of Mamang’s mouth and scratched his head ponderously. “Gosh, coulda sworn thish was above the wader when I lash shaw id. Mussa been some bender, huh,” he chuckled to himself and nudged Mamang amicably on the nasal nob. “Le’s see if my secret stores are still ‘ere…” The orb flapped his way into the coral forest, frightening crabs and gulpers alike.

Mamang belched a contented cloud of bubbles from his blowhole, watching placidly as a snub-nosed dolphin berated him in no mild terms for his impudence. He flicked his flipper upwards, tossing a previously well-disguised skate into his interlocutor and sending both the confused islanders spiralling away together. His big sleepy eye rolled once more towards the blob.

The fat man had reached the heart of the forest - an overgrown beach full of rocks, broken eggshells, dead trees and skeletons of whatever was unfortunate enough to not make it off the island before it sank. Jiugui kicked a skull over and dug around in the sand. A curious school of anchovies nibbled on his robes and a broad-shouldered king crab plucked at the stale bones of the now-beheaded skeleton next to him. The violent protestations of a local hagfish went unheeded.

After some time of digging and the interruption of two very intimate sandworms’ delicate privacy, the drunk god fixed his grip on a hatch. He squatted down and flipped it open with godly strength, causing tons of water to rush into the air-tight cellar and causing a cacophony of breaking glass and pots, immediately murdering everything within the one-metre radius as a wash of concentrated alcohol pushing way beyond reasonable percentages oozed up from the cellar entrance like a plume of poison. Nearly all of the anchovies flipped onto their backs from acute alcohol poisoning, and the crab stood still in the ooze for a brief moment before she, too, keeled over. Even Jiugui wafted a hand over his nose and went, “Pee-yew! I reckon da’s the baijiu barrels bursting! Funny whad fifty cubics a’ water does to a wine cellar. Lemme go down ‘n see whad survived…” Jiugui squeezed his way into the cellar entrance and whistled a little tune.

Watching the perhaps-immortal goblinoid waddle down into the pit of noxious death, the whale shrugged his flippers and remembered that, unlike the other mammal in the vicinity, he occasionally needed to breathe. The stars high above were beautiful, if a little unsteady-looking, and it was a few minutes before he came down at last to see whether rotund little buddy had finally carked it. The initial cloud of poison had dispersed to the point where a smug-looking hag was able to escape its shield of slime, alive, if terribly wobbly. Shortly thereafter, the goblin climbed out of the hole again carrying a morbidly obese ceramic pot corked with a trunk-like lid. The drunken man giggled to himself and said, “Heheheh, the honeypot was shpared, my fren! Now lessh see if is all still here!” The goblin swam up towards Mamang with a raunchy chuckle on his lips.

The whale waited, floating, and watched with not a little admiration for the carrying capacity of the blob. For a god with more flounder than swim in him and the distinct look of one who might draw his own bath only to drown in it, the sight of that round artefact had sure filled him with spirit. Little did the cetacean know how much it was about to fill them both with spirit by more direct means. The Spirit of Spirits swam into the gape of the whale and sat the pot upon his tongue with a wet slap. Weighting nothing short of a ton, the pot was so wide that it approximated some kind of great squat toad, or turnip, or drunk goblin god, sitting neatly on the tip of the whale’s gargantuan tongue. Jiugui unlidded the container with a well-placed jumping kick and the ooze of obscenely strong alcohol filled the cavity of Mamang’s mouth. The enormous cork was lost somewhere in the darkness.

...Mäaämh? No sooner was the pot opened than the whale was suddenly none so certain of this game. The night had been fun so far, but a trickle was one thing. He was, after all, an inexperienced drinker. The drunk god seemed oblivious to this and scooped up a keg of the stuff, pouring it down the whale’s gullet with festive glee. “Oh, don’ worry, my friend - is a firsh time for everyone! Ganbeiiiiiii!

Well, they’d already come this far.

Mäang-mäaii~!

The keg’s contents disappeared swiftly down the whale’s gullet, and if it were only half-shot for Mamang, then, by God, it was certainly a strong one. The whale slammed shut his lips and eyes and slapped the water with its tail. Perhaps he had made an error of judgement earlier in the night. There was no doubt that this was sorcery, but, if the joy and love overflowing in Mamang’s heart once again were any indication, it could only be good sorcery. Another? Why, yes please! Another would be most welcome!

Ganbei!

That night, the ocean was a magical place. The moon rose high, and from its brilliant eye drifted down glittering sparkles of magic and light, splashing down into the water all around like shining confetti. Mamang’s tail-band attracted every manner of sea-being to come and enjoy the celebration, and many compliments besides. The drops that were spilled were swallowed down by flashing silver fish, and those that perished were snapped up by sharks and squids and laektears and porpoises, themselves swiftly intoxicated. They sloshed and slonked and rolled about together in the waters for hours in the shadow of the whale. The nautilus drank so deeply that the octopus rightly suspected that he would never swim straight again. A big dancerfish oozed a lava-lamp glow of reds and pinks that crawled slowly over her boozed-out body, a field of incapacitated firefly-squid pulsing dumb messages to each other as if the sunken island were itself a curtain of stars.

Then Mamang lifted its mighty head from the water and made to quiet the commotion of light and sea-noise. His brain rolled in booze like a raft in a storm, and the lightning-flash of drunk inspiration had struck. It was time for a poem!

Mamm mhä maäm mng mähm mmang mam-moom,
Moom mäng mhä mammam maang män-mmäai
Mämmmäa mah mma määä mng mhäm-oong,
Mamm mhä manng mng-mam mhäi.


The crabs wept and clicked their pincers. The dolphins slapped their tails and hurled themselves for the water, chittering for encore. The octopus crunched one of the crabs in its beak and wiped a string of briney mucous from its siphon. Even the hagfish swayed with pleasure. Tragically, however, the entire host was so well pissed up at this point that any hopes of translating this magnificent verse have been thoroughly lost to maritime history.

It was well that the evening should end on that high (well, technically, very low; Mamang was a baritone, even by whale standards) note. The sky grew brighter as the booze grew sloppier, and the whale’s tilting vision gave way to whirling fits of nausea. Up and down ceased to make sense, and were his capacious lungs any less suited to the task of gasping in swiftly his chance encounters with air, he surely would have drowned. The island seemed to grow further and further every time Mamang tried to swim back towards it. Flashes of fire began to streak across the sunken stone: the mouthless godfish had waited patiently, but now it was their turn to clean up all who had perished in the orgy of godlike excess, and slaughter the weak; the feast at last was theirs.

The island was lost altogether. The world spun. The tides of dream washed Mamang away into a swirling bubble, buried far in its black and baleful depths. His burned tongue tasted only moon-dust and spirits. His trembling eye swung left and right, fearing things he could not know, and glossy black whale-lice multiplied on his face, chewing into his skin. A shrill cry rose up from an unknown reef, as if some rooted jellyfish was weeping from its bell. Shadows of whales swept over him, and the shadows did not sing…

The dream dried up like foam on the sand, and Mamang was alone under the bright ocean sun.




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