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Reason Reified, Lord Logiker, Sciencomancer Superbus

Bio

I am a Roleplayer with an interest in science fiction and fantasy, with a preference for Casual. I have been roleplaying for several years, and have even taken a stab at running a few RPs.

Outside the Guild, I am an Australian science student, gamer, musician and roleplayer (that's right, IRL too).


Most Recent Posts


Squall Whisperers, Minstrels


"Listen to history's tale,
About Hoshaf the accursed.
Selka mourn and cry and wail,
For this chieftain was the worst."

The light of the bonfire cast deep shadows across Pyouroff's face, with theatrically wide eyes staring across the audience of Hyummin people. Behind him were several younger selka. Two beat a foreboding rhythm on large drums, one rattled a gourd filled with stones, and another twanged a haunting tune from the string of a bow held in his mouth.

"His fall began with desire.
The girl he loved loved his friend.
Since this friend drew Hoshaf's ire,
Hoshaf struck and brought his end!"

A few gasps escaped from some of the pups as Pyouroff leaned forwards and shook his fist.

"Hoshaf Thumfaten did find,
In this scene of death and grief.
Twisted was Thumfaten's mind,
He planned to make Hoshaf chief."

A more aggressive drumbeat grew beneath the sinister melody.

"Violence cemented their claim,
Their allies fought their own clan.
Spreading lies in Kirron's name,
Here the Dawn of Blood began."

"Hoshaf was a chief so cruel,
His own people he enslaved,
No one dared defy his rule,
Hoshaf took all that he craved."

The beating of sticks joined the song, like the sound of spears beating against shields.

"One day Kirron's own bloodkin,
Found Hoshaf on the coastline.
He encouraged Hoshaf's sin,
And gifted weapons divine."

Pyouroff took a step forwards and leaned towards the crowd, the shadows across his face deepening. The selka at the front of the audience took an involuntary step back.

"This power Hoshaf did flout.
All tribes would obey his will.
When Thumfaten voiced his doubt,
Thumfaten Hoshaf did kill."

"Hoshaf wanted his friend's wife,
To seize her and kill her young.
As she fled she lost her life,
But Yupilgo saved her son."

There were murmurs of recognition from the crowd, particularly those belonging to the Grottu. Pyouroff continued his performance.

"Hoshaf, bloodthirsty, enraged,
Formed up a villainous horde.
A war on selka was waged.
Many died to this dread lord."

"Hoshaf marched to the Hyummin,
Nothing would stop Hoshaf's want.
With weapons of the bloodkin,
Hoshaf's power he did flaunt."

There were a few frightened gasps from the crowd, but more whispered in excited anticipation.

"Yet this fight was his demise.
He thought he could never fail.
Then came Ippino the Wise,
Whose fire made the horde turn tail."

There was a victorious cheer from some of the audience. Pyouroff paused briefly to relish the moment. The music then softened to the denouement as Pallamino recited the final verse.

"The violent will never know,
When the roles will be reversed.
Hear the message of this show:
Don't be Hoshaf the accursed."

There was applause at the end. There was always an applause. Yet the haunting tale lingered with them, the music, poetry and theatre causing the song to stick much more stubbornly than words alone. While for many it was a chilling story from their history and no more, some were caught more strongly by the message behind Pyouroff's song.

Two such people were having a hushed conversation to the side as the rest of the audience dispersed to their shelters and beds.

"He is undermining the tribe. Something must be done," hissed one, an imposing man dressed in sharkskin and wearing a necklace of teeth which once belonged to some terrifying beast.

"Kirrethi, it's just a song," said the other, a smaller man by comparison but still with an athletic build. He also wore sharkskin, although not as much as the first, and had a necklace with a few shark's teeth on it.

"Don't you give me that, Rennelo. It is quite clear what he's trying to do. How many new songs has he sung about how dreadful it is to fight and put your own tribe first?" the one named Kirrethi scoffed.

The second selka name Rennelo sighed. "You're right; Pyouroff is being very deliberate in the lesson he is trying to teach. But he's only one man, one voice."

"You've seen the crowds, how he commands their attention. You know as well as I do that you only need one charismatic voice to sway the whole tribe," Kirrethi said. "The youths aren't as keen on training as warriors. And his words have weight with the other family leaders."

"And what would you want more warriors for, Kirrethi? To take what you want? To claim what you desire?"

Pyouroff, whose hearing was exceptionally sharp despite his age, had sidled up to the two selka unnoticed. Their heads snapped around in surprise at Pyouroff's interruption. A snarl formed on Kirrethi's face but quickly twisted into a forced smile. "To protect the Hyummin's interests, of course," Kirrethi answered curtly, then added, "From people like Hoshaf."

A sly smile was on Pyouroff's face. "Well, I hope that the Hyummin's interests don't involve what belongs to other tribes. The K'nights don't take kindly to such intrusions."

Kirrethi huffed, "Of course not." Pyouroff's stare did not believe him.

Kirrethi looked out across the Hyummin tribe with is many selka settled across the flat beach. "We are growing, Pyouroff. The bounties of Delphina and Kirron have fed us well so far, but there is coming a time when it will not be enough. Surely you can see that."

Pyouroff's smile soured somewhat, then softened again. "I've told you of the Ubbo tribe, have I not? When they were short on fish, Arryn messenger of Kalmar, another of Kirron's bloodkin, came to them and showed them how to hunt food on land. Perhaps you need a bit more faith."

Kirrethi's eyes narrowed, but before he could answer Rennelo spoke first. "We thank you for your advice, Pyouroff, although us Korsachi are quite capable of managing our own affairs."

"Without your meddling," Kirrethi added.

Pyouroff waved a hand. "Of course, of course. Don't let the words of a wise, well-travelled old man bother you," Pyouroff said as he turned to leave. "Goodnight, Kirrethi, Rennelo."

As they went their separate ways, Pyouroff passed by one of the musicians as he was unstringing his musical bow. "Do you really want to be aggravating the head of Korsachi?" the young man asked.

"Someone's got to. May as well be me," Pyouroff said with a wink. Yet despite his confident exterior, there was visible weariness in his frame. "Well, I'll be heading to bed. Goodnight, Yup."

"Goodnight, Pyouroff."



The Lustrous Garden had made most of its journey through the sky when a voice stirred Pyouroff from his sleep.

Pyouroff.

Pyouroff moved slowly, stretching old, aching limbs. When he opened his eyes, though, he did not see the beach where he had laid down to sleep, neither did he see the stars or the blue sky. Instead he was completely surrounded by thick fog and darkness. He sat up quizzically. Despite the confusing situation, he still had his wits. Beneath him was the bed he had fallen asleep on, surrounding by sand, so that at least was familiar.

"Who's there?" he asked.

Delphina.

Pyouroff's eyes widened. He hadn't heard Delphina's voice for decades, not since she had appeared to the Hyummin and taught them of music. He looked around, trying to see his goddess, but could not see more than an arm's reach away from himself.

Come.

A path opened in the fog. Pyouroff crawled to his feet and slowly walked down the path. Although the fog was still opaque, Pyouroff made an effort to orient himself. If he was oriented correctly, this direction led to the ocean. His elderly pace quickened in anticipation.

The path indeed opened to the sea. Yet rather than seeing the light of the moon and stars dance beautifully in the ocean, a dark cloud covered the sky and more fog surrounded the empty scene like the curtains of a tent. The sea itself was uncannily calm.

I have come with a warning of an approaching danger.

Across the water from Pyouroff, a figure emerged from the fog. It stood on two legs and had four arms with a long tail. Its horned head looked from side to side, like a predator sniffing out prey, then its head snapped towards Pyouroff, light glinting off four eyes. A shriek chilled Pyouroff's spine and the creature ran towards Pyouroff, leaning its torso forwards and with its long tail flicking out behind it.

Fear rooted Pyouroff to the spot as more similar figures burst from the distant fog. Some were smaller, some were larger. Their shapes and faces varied, some Pyouroff might have described as bear-like, or fox-like, or wolf-like, or even selka-like. Some ran on their two legs, while some made a loping gait on four or six limbs. All, however, were terrifying with claws, horns, teeth and menacing eyes.

In his terror Pyouroff did not notice more figures appear in the near-darkness between him and the monsters. They were selka. The selka saw the monsters and turned to flee, but were not fast enough. The monsters lashed out with their viscous claws, liquid spraying out from the selka where they were slashed. Some selka fell, collapsing into the ocean below them, while some were dragged off by the monsters into the fog.

As the slaughter continued, a new being entered the scene. This one was four times the height of a selka and appeared to be made of crudely hewn chunks of stone or ice. Spikes covered its body. The large being lumbered over to the selka on its lanky legs and swatted out with a long arm, an unlucky selka reduced to a spray and a splash. It continued to lumber forwards in its unstoppable advance, swinging arms scattering all in its path.

Pyouroff then saw one of the monsters break off from the massacre and run towards him. Pyouroff tried to back away, but tripped and fell backwards onto the sand. He tried to scramble backwards as the beast came closer. He could see clearly every detail of its form as it hurried closer, its rippling muscles, its glistening teeth, its twisted horns, its elongated claws. The thing pounced. Pyouroff screamed and covered his face, waiting for claws to rip into him.

It never came.

He opened his eyes and found the scene as empty and featureless as when he had first arrived. Pyouroff was trembling and breathing heavily as he sat in the sand.

Remember this scene. These monsters will reach the Hyummin in four days.

Pyouroff gaped, then stammered, "De-Delphina, please, spare us from these terrible beasts!"

I have already acted against these creatures. If I had not, you would be overwhelmed. Yet I do not allow you to face trials you cannot overcome. Now stand.

Pyouroff climbed to his feet, still trembling.

What was your oath, Pyouroff?

Pyouroff knew the oath well. He had made all his apprentices take it as he had done. "To always worship you, who gives me my strength. To use my power and skills to show your strength, and create beauty wherever I go. And to teach others as I was taught."

If your strength comes from me, why do you fear?

Pyouroff opened his mouth, closed it again and hung his head. "I am sorry, Delphina."

They will arrive in four days. Show all my strength through you.

The fog lifted and the clouds parted, and Pyouroff was looking out upon the open ocean under the night sky. A shiver ran across his body. Then he heard footsteps behind him.

"Pyouroff. I heard you scream. I thought- well-"

Pyouroff turned to see Yup running towards him. Yup was clearly relieved to see Pyouroff unharmed. Yet when Yup saw the terror in Pyouroff's face, evident even in the darkness of night, Yup slowed to a stop and anxiety entered his own voice. "What happened?"

Pyouroff took a deep breath to steady himself. "Delphina visited me and gave me a most terrible vision. Gather the others. I must speak to them."


Squall Whisperers, Minstrels


Much had changed in the past decade.

Pallamino the Third had stayed with Hujaya, Kaleo, Sulingu and Pyouroff for a couple years, learning the ways of the Stormbards, before deciding to set out independently. He parted with the blessings and goodwill of the other Stormbards.

Shortly afterwards, Pyouroff chose to settle back in his home village among the Hyummin, his age catching up to him. There he found a few more selka to apprentice as new Stormbards. Pyouroff had also become a source of oral lore among the Hyummin, his age and experience qualifying him as an elder.

The romance between Hujaya and Kaleo blossomed into love and eventually children. They had a boy, a selka toddler named Delfon who travelled with them in their nomadic lifestyle. Kaleo had learned how to play percussion to fill the absence left by Pyouroff.

Sulingu was still travelling with Hujaya and Kaleo, and she was now a fully grown woman and effectively family. Sulingu was still as graceful as ever, and she had also learned the lyre from Hujaya.

Hujaya, Kaleo, Sulingu and Delfon had spent the last few years travelling the coast between Hyummin and Ubbo. The increased aggression and expansionism of the Hyummin had not gone unnoticed by the Stormbards. What the Stormbards could do about it was limited. As Hyummin natives, they did not want to fight against their own people. Yet neither did they want to fight for the Hyummin against the people of other villages, for the Stormbards had travelled broadly and made friends broadly. The Stormbards did not wield much political power, so did not have the ability to directly lobby the Hyummin. But what they did have was cultural influence and stories. They shared songs of the downfall of the Grottu, reminding the Hyummin of the dangers of warfare.

In spite of this, the travelling Stormbards lived fairly peaceful lives, sharing with selka the beauty of music and the stories of Delphina. It was not until now that they had a chance to truly show Delphina's strength.



"I wanna food!"

Hujaya sighed and looked up at Heliopolis. "You've already eaten recently. It's hardly past midday."

"Wanna food!" pouted Delfon.

Hujaya looked pleadingly at Kaleo. Kaleo knelt down, grabbed Delfon, picked him up and gave the toddler a stern look. "Delfon, what does Kirron teach us?" On getting nothing but a mutter, Kaleo continued slowly, "We have to earn our fun. What have you done to earn your food?"

Delfon muttered, "Hungry. Feet hurt."

"You need to get stronger, Delfon. We walk a lot. Look, how about if you don't complain again between now and afternoon, you can have the rabbit's leg. Deal?"

Delfon considered this for a few moments, his eyes going to the butchered smoked rabbit's carcass tied to his father's side. "Okay."

Kaleo put Delfon down on the ground. "Good boy."

Sulingu watched the scene with a smile, then continued with her lilting gait. Hujaya and Kaleo sang a little travelling song behind her to keep Delfon occupied as they walked. Sulingu was a short distance ahead of the others when she crested a small hill and stopped in her tracks. Her hand went to her flute. "H-Hujaya. Y-you need to see this," she stammered.

Hujaya and Kaleo stopped their song and ran up to the hill beside Sulingu.

"By Kirron's whiskers," exclaimed Kaleo.

"What happened?" Hujaya asked, her mouth gaping and eyes wide.

Before them the trunks and branches of the trees had turned black and their leaves turned white. The grass and undergrowth had withered and turned grey. On the ground lay dead birds, similarly blackened. A few birds still stood on the branches, their feathers grey and eyes dimly glowing. White motes drifted about like some kind of sickly ash. Before their eyes one of the motes settled on a healthy tree and sunk into its bark, a grey blemish spreading from where it entered. The forest was completely silent, with no sounds of life.

Delfon reached the trio, and Kaleo held him close protectively. They stared silently at the scene, unsure what to make of it. Eventually Sulingu said, "I don't like it."

Hujaya's eyes went towards the coast. "There's a village not far down-beach from here." Sulingu and Kaleo knew well the intent behind Hujaya's words. "Let's find a squall and move."

The Stormbards pulled out their instruments - Kaleo his drum, Sulingu her bone flute, Hujaya her lyre - and played the Song of Calling as they walked hastily around the blighted forest. Delfon was quiet, knowing not to interrupt his parents while they sung to squalls and also subdued by the grim atmosphere. Hujaya offered a silent prayer to Delphina, and soon they had a squall. They made the squall dance around them, keeping the miasma at bay.

With trepidation they walked towards and along the beach. They knew a tribe lived around here somewhere, and every step they went without seeing another selka made them more anxious. Then they heard a sound which made their hearts sink: wails of grief. "No," breathed Hujaya, and she quickened her pace, the others rushing behind her.

A sorrowful sight met Hujaya's eyes as she rounded the top of the sand bank. In the camp of the selka lay the sick and dying, black and white blotches covering their fur like a pox. Those who were still healthy knelt beside their loved ones, trying to administer the simple remedies they normally used to no avail. Some of the ill thrashed about where they lay, while some simply stared soullessly into the sky above with glowing white eyes.

Hujaya saw their plight, and in an outpouring of grief she sung,

"Selka sorrowful, selka crying,
I came here and saw your plight.
Although I cannot save your dying,
Delphina's winds can stop the blight."

Sulingu and Kaleo crested the sand bank behind Hujaya, with Delfon struggling along behind them. Sulingu gasped, her flute playing stopping. Kaleo kept beating his drum. Sulingu, remembering herself, stepped forwards and gracefully swept a semicircle in front of herself, directing the squall to blow over and around the camp.

The selka looked up as the Stormbards approached and the wind blew about them. A boy in his mid teens stood and to meet Hujaya. His face was streaked with more wetness than the usual residual sadness from living on land. "Hello, Hujaya. I'm... not sure whether it is good or bad you have come now."

Hujaya recognised the boy, for she had met this tribe only a couple winters ago. This was the chief's son. "Well, we're here now, Lilut. Where's your father?"

The boy looked over his shoulder to one of the marred lying on the ground, and he sobbed as fresh tears welled up in his eyes. "Oh, I'm so sorry," Hujaya said. She pulled Lilut into a hug to comfort him as he cried for his father.

"Hujaya," came a gentle reminder from Kaleo, who along with Sulingu was still trying to find a pattern for the squall to settle into. Delfon hugging onto Kaleo's leg did not help matters.

Hujaya sighed. "Coming." She stepped back from Lilut and gave a tuneful hum as she inspected the scene. She then strummed a chord on her lyre which made a melancholy sound when combined with her humming. The squall shifted its orbit to match the new resonance. With Hujaya and Sulingu controlling the squall, Kaleo was able to take a break to comfort the frightened Delfon.

As the Stormbards ensured the squall kept the perimeter of the camp clear of sickly motes, the people of Lilut's tribe recounted how about two days ago they had seen the first of the motes blow in from across the sea. Several of their number had fallen deathly ill, and the plants had also started to wither. Nothing they had could treat the illness, not even eye-fish scales. They had moved from where they had been before, but the blight had spread, and now there were more sick selka than healthy selka. They had been faced with the choice of abandoning their dying to flee for their own safety, or staying put and risking further infection. Now that the Stormbards had arrived, they could wait around and deliver the last rites. An alma had arrived and sat nearby, watching the dying selka from a respectful distance.

Hujaya, meanwhile, was sitting down and playing a sombre melody on her lyre. The combined strain of watching the squall and hearing the tragedy which had befallen Lilut's tribe showed on her face. "Why? Why must it be like this? If only we had gotten here sooner. Then we could have stopped it." Hujaya buried her face in her hands. Sulingu snapped up in alarm, scrambled for her own lyre and picked up the melody where Hujaya had abruptly stopped. The squall wavered only briefly in its flight.

Hujaya looked up only to gesture around at the perimeter set out by the squall. "We can only protect those this close, and we can't even heal them. And how many other tribes are there who are also suffering this blight?" Hujaya lamented. "Why, Delphina? What have they done to deserve this? How can we show your strength when all we have is a puff of wind?"

There was a distant screech of a pyrgerakia. Yet it was something else that made Hujaya raise her head.

Give me your lyre.

Hujaya blinked, a look of confusion on her face. "What?"

Give me your lyre.

Hujaya trembled as she looked down at her lyre. She had made it herself years ago. It was what she had been playing when Delphina visited her. She had replaced the strings a few times, and it was of rather simple design, but it was her most treasured possession. There were a few moments of hesitation and reservation. Then she stood up and walked towards the ocean.

"Hujaya, what are you doing?" called Kaleo, but Hujaya did not answer. She waded until the water was up to her knees, then she slipped the lyre's strap over her head and lay the lyre on the water. A wave receded past her, dragging the lyre out to sea. She watched as it became more distant, standing there as the waves lapped around her legs, questions and doubt buzzing inside her mind.

Suddenly, the sky was split in half by a bolt of lightning which seared purple blotches into Hujaya's vision. The deafening thunder made her stagger as it rumbled through her bones. By the time Hujaya's vision had cleared, Kaleo had rushed to her side and held her arm. "Hujaya, are you alright?"

Hujaya looked at where her lyre had been, where the lightning had struck. "My lyre..." She could see her lyre being carried by the waves back to shore, but it had a faint blue glow. As it got closer, they saw that it crackled with sparks and hummed with electricity.

Cautiously, Hujaya reached towards the lyre. There was a faint crackle and a prickling sensation in her fingers when Hujaya touched it and she drew back her hand reflexively. On realising that she was unharmed, she reached out again and picked it up. The strings glowed electric blue and thrummed with power. Hujaya looked to Kaleo beside her, and back to Sulingu and the other selka in the camp behind her, who were watching on with fascination. Hujaya slipped the strap of her lyre back over her head, then cautiously brought a finger to a string and strummed it.

Thrumm-umm-umm-umm-mm-m-m...

The sound carried from Hujaya, past the camp and over the horizon like thunder rolling across the sky. The squall orbiting around the camp broke from its path to circle around Hujaya, until Sulingu's music called it back. All the selka looked on in awe.

Kaleo's whiskers twitched. "I think you called more squalls."

Hujaya looked up at the sky. There indeed appeared to be a few squalls flying in the distance. She strummed a few more strings on her lyre.

THR-THR-THRUMM-UMM-umm-umm-umm-umm-umm-mm-m-m...

The squall circling the camp sprayed raindrops across all the selka gathered. A few seconds later, the distant squalls reacted, surging ahead with a burst of speed. A huge grin stretched across Hujaya's face. She looked back at the camp, then along the beach. She started to wade back to shore. "Clap me in, Kaleo."

Kaleo looked at Hujaya for a few moments more in awed silence. Then he clapped once, a second time, then four claps in a row, Hujaya skipping in time with Kaleo's clapping. Then she played her new lyre and sung.

"Praise to Delphina, her power she gave,
Now I can show you the tricks which can save.
With this lyre I have Delphina's great might,
So look and see a most marvellous sight."

The Lightning Lyre's melody filled the air with electricity and otherworldly tones. Its sound carried for an enormous distance, but despite its apparent volume Hujaya's voice could still be heard clearly.

"With my playing I can command the breeze,
For the storm spirits my song does appease.
With a word and a note I make it blow,
The wind obeys and follows where I go."

Two more squalls appeared, and Hujaya sent them into an outwards spiral centred on the camp. Their orbits grew wider and wider, expanding much further than anything the Stormbards had done in the past.

"With my playing I can command the sky,
That blue place where the birds, clouds and squalls fly.
No distance is beyond Delphina's reach,
My song is heard on the sea, land and beach."

Even more squalls arrived and joined the others, making counting them difficult. Hujaya sent the squalls spiralling in an elliptical path which stretched up- and down-beach over the horizon, covered a good stretch of ocean, and pushed inland slightly while keeping the blighted trees outside the perimeter. Overhead storm clouds formed from the squalls' presence, spiralling around with Hujaya in the eye of the storm.

"With my playing I'll keep the blight away,
No more selka here need to die this day.
As far as can been seen my song is heard.
Praise to Delphina, my prayer she answered."

There was a cry of a pyrgerakia as a flare of fire swooped down and set the trees just outside the blighted forest ablaze. The legion of squalls which had been summoned by Hujaya pushed against the flames, fanning them into the marred trees. Slowly the marred trees burned down, and Hujaya pushed the perimeter set up by the squalls further inland.

Minutes ticked by to hours and the day gave way to night, but still Hujaya played with notes of thunder. Kaleo had hand-fed Hujaya and gotten her water, but the extended performance exhausted her. Hujaya's fingers ached. Her movements grew weary. Her eyes drooped.

"You have to rest, Hujaya," Kaleo said, concern in his voice.

"I can't stop. They're counting on me. Them, and everyone else I can reach," Hujaya replied.

"And what will happen to them when you pass out while controlling a hurricane?"

"If I stop now, the blight will come back."

"I could play," Sulingu offered.

Hujaya thought for a few moments, then said, "Okay."

Kaleo helped Hujaya slip the strap of her lyre off while she continued to play. Sulingu stood close beside Hujaya. "You ready?" Hujaya asked. Sulingu nodded. After Hujaya had struck a chord at the end of a phrase, she passed the instrument to Sulingu, who took only a moment to start playing the next phrase. The notes fell uncertainly for a few seconds as Sulingu reacted to the initial jolts of electricity and adapted to the new sound, but she settled into Hujaya's previous melody quickly enough.

Hujaya flopped down to the ground in exhaustion. She barely had time for a single breath before Delfon clambered on top of her. "That was wow, mum! And loud! And windy!"

Though she was tired, Hujaya giggled and gave Delfon a kiss on the forehead. "It was," she concurred. She hugged her child to her chest. "Now, it's past time for you to sleep. Let's get some rest." Hujaya yawned and closed her eyes, drifting off to the melody of the storm.



Thunderbird


The desperate pleas of mortals rose to the ears of their gods. Fire raining from the sky. Dreadful plagues. Terrifying monsters of dull grey flesh and wrathful stone. And Ashalla deigned to answer their prayers.

Thunderbird, go.

The Thunderbird's head lifted from the floor of her nest with a crackle of static electricity and she scanned the horizon. A storm was blowing in from the north. In the nest around her sat eggs of mottled ruby and sapphire, young pyrgerakia who were chirping thunderously at the coming storm, and the burnt and broken bones of megafauna. Snuggled up beside the Thunderbird was the Phoenix, his warmth radiating across the whole nest. He lifted his beak and looked to the Thunderbird with a questioning chirp.

The Thunderbird looked back at the Phoenix, then looked at the storm. "Coo caw," she answered, a breeze rustling through the nest.

The Phoenix gave a forlorn crow. "I understand what it is like to be called by your god to duty. It is a heavy burden to bear."

"Cooo." The Thunderbird snuggled closer to the Phoenix and nuzzled his beak, her eyes showing the same sadness as the Phoenix.

The Phoenix nuzzled the Thunderbird in return, then stood up. The wind of the coming storm had reached them. "You must go, my beloved. I shall protect the nest and the young."

The Thunderbird stretched out her wings, sparks jumping between her midnight blue feathers, and she walked to the rim of the nest. The Thunderbird turned her head back to the Phoenix with a "Coo-oo."

"I will be here waiting for you when you return."

The Thunderbird looked back out towards the southern horizon. The storm clouds rolled overhead, rain pouring down on the nest, and the wind rustled her feathers. She then hopped off the edge of the nest and with a mighty thunderclap the Thunderbird was airborne, the wind carrying her through the sky.



Pyrgerakia, burn the blight.

Forests covered much of Atokhekwoi, and normally these places were havens of life. Yet now patches of desolate grey broke out across the continent like a pox. A Mar mote would infect one tree, then more Mar motes would bud from the corrupted tree as it was warped into the image of the Rooted Decay. Even with the original Mar Tree now dormant, these blighted forests continued to spread.

There was an ear-splitting cry, as loud as thunder, and two flares of light took to the sky and flew towards a blighted forest, while all other creatures fled. They flew through the blue sky above and were met by a couple squalls, who wrapped around the wings of the pyrgerakia and flew with them. The pyrgerakia circled a few times above the withering forest below, then with a screech they dove towards the edge of the forest. As they dove the squalls spiralled around the avians, keeping the Mar motes at bay.

The male pyrgeraki dove in first, becoming like one of the flaming meteors which fell across the sky, streaking through the trees outside the marred region and set them ablaze. The female was close behind. She flew outside the line of fire, and flapped her wings to blow the fire towards the marred forest.

The bushfire flared against the power of decay. And though the Mar motes were a supernatural plague, the trees they infested were still wood so could burn. And burn they did, smoke rising into the sky as flames consumed the forest.

Similar scenes played out across Atokhekwoi, where pyrgerakia driven by the divine command turned their flames against the power of Desolation. As the fires burned in opposition to the plague, a pall of smoke covered the greatest continent. The sun turned red as it rose and set through the smog, perhaps only fuelling the fears held by the mortals of the continent, but in doing this many Mar outbreaks were contained.

Fall of the Jotundar
Rise of the Iron Giants


Long ago...

A storm gathered on the eastern horizon, its clouds almost as dark as the smoke above the Nanhe jungles. Across scorched earth, smouldering charcoal and fresh basalt marched the jotundar, led by the mighty Vulkandr. Buoyed by their victory over Chuanwang and the words of their god, they did not fear the clouds. They did not fear the thunder. But then the first drops of rain fell.

To the boiling constitution of the jotundar, water was a dangerous thing. A light spattering they could manage, but when the heavens opened up with a deluge like nothing ever seen on Galbar, they feared nature's wrath. Squalls dove from above and shoved jotundar around with powerful gales, precipitating on them all the while. Vulkandr bellowed and projected out an aura of searing heat, which boiled away the rain, staved off the squalls and invigorated the jotundar. Although the land around them flooded and the flames in the jungle were suppressed, here the fire giants stood, clustered together and willing to wait out the storm.

Yet they did not have such a luxury. From the east came another thundering, this one rumbling along the ground like a stampede. The heavy rain limited visibility, so the fire giants were left to wait anxiously, fearing what this new sound was while Vulkandr stood tall and firm. Then they saw it, a mighty beast of steel, low to the ground and charging on six legs, its head lined with sharp teeth and two sweeping horns pointed straight towards them. Vulkandr stomped a foot to the ground, cracks surging towards the charging Leviathan then erupting with lava. Yet the molten rock did nothing to slow or harm the beast.

Vulkandr let out a mighty bellow and charged headlong towards the Leviathan. Bolstered by their leader's courage, the jotundar charged too. The Leviathan growled but did not slow. Moments before the two colossi clashed, the Leviathan exhaled a large cloud of scalding steam which engulfed all the giants and obscured their vision. There was a sickening crunch, a roar of pain from Vulkandr, then pandemonium broke loose.

Many jotundar were killed in the ensuing chaos, mostly by the claw or horn or mouth of the Leviathan, but some were crushed by Vulkandr as the giant was pushed about by the Leviathan. Vulkandr's fire was useless against the Leviathan, who was undeterred by any magma which Vulkandr could produce. Any jotundar who attempted to approach the Leviathan were swiftly cut down by a flailing leg or tail. And as the colossi battled horn to fist, the squalls closed in.

The fire giants had no weapons with which they could fight this battle. Some jotundar prayed desperately to Sartravius for aid, but they received no answer. The jotundar watched helplessly as Vulkandr was bitten and gored by the Leviathan, molten ichor spraying from the titanic battle. Utterly outmatched, morale crumbled and the jotundar fled in all directions. Some sought shelter under the canopy of the jungle, hoping to hide from the merciless rain. Some ran to the east, trying to get as far from the battlefront as possible. Many succumbed to the elements. They fled with the incandescent light and violent tremors of the battle behind them. Those which made it beyond the storm heard the roars of Vulkandr peter out, and a long, victorious guttural growl.



The light of Heliopolis shone down from the blue sky onto the jungle below. Flocks of luminescent birds painted the blackened ground ruby, amber, emerald and onyx. Saplings were already breaking through the ashen dirt, and fresh shoots were branching out of the trunks of blackened trees. The flooding rains which had soaked the land the previous day had uprooted a large number of trees, broken limbs and trunks strewn across the ground.

A new river, bulging with floodwater, had formed along the border of the jotundar's flames. And this river flowed through a new lake, round like a crater and ringed with coarse obsidian. Within the lake, currently submerged under the floodwater, were the remains of Vulkandr, hot sulphurous gases eternally bubbling up through the lake. And at the edge of the lake, just within the water, lounged the Abyssal Leviathan.

The squalls had long since departed. Some had pursued the fleeing jotundar, either to douse any more flames they might cause or just to harass them. But with the fires gone the purpose which bound them together was gone with it, and the continent-spanning storm had disintegrated as quickly as it had formed. There was still a heightened population of the spirits, with quite a number flitting around the Leviathan and spooking the Gardeners, but nothing like the storm of the previous day.

The Leviathan lazily strode out of its lake and, in a single bite, consumed a body of a jotundar which was lying on the ground. Its armour plating was battered in places. Its middle left leg hung at an odd angle, the Leviathan walking in a slanted gait to compensate. And a piece of its armour on its back near its neck flapped loosely as it moved, blood caked around it.

Still hungry, the great beast lumbered forwards and ate another of the many jotundar corpses. An emerald kea landed nearby and hopped closer curiously, but was frightened away by a puff of steam. The Leviathan ate some more. It was about to return to Vulkandr Lake when movement on the eastern horizon caught its attention.

A wave of moving shapes was squirming in the distance, fast approaching. Though indistinct from afar, there was something in their motions, an irregularity of wavering and twitching, that struck an observer’s eye with a dimly sinister quality. Towering in their midst was a gargantuan bestial figure, glinting with a metallic spark in the daylight. Though the shadowy mass swirled and crashed chaotically against each other, the vast thing seemed to be driving it forward with a furious onslaught.

As the multitude grew closer, the faces of the turmoil raging within it grew clearer to the Leviathan’s sight. At the fore, snapping and lashing furiously backwards, but in full retreat, was a swarm of horrific beings the likes of which had never been seen under Heliopolis. They moved as a storm of jagged shells, stomping down in a cacophony of twisted segmented limbs. They thundered with thick, swollen stumps, scrabbled on gnarled spiny claws, crawled on oozing fleshy tentacles, keeping pace with each other despite the organic disharmony of their bodies. Despite their flight, their ranks bristled with fearsome living weapons. Serrated pincers lunging, envenomed stinger tails darting, carapaces splitting open to reveal toothless abysses of muscle that spat caustic bile. Their very presence breathed a shadowy taint of dread into the daylit air.

Following hot on the horrors’ trail came a pack of blunter, brutish shapes, less unnameably hideous, yet almost as fearsome in their coarse ferocity. Hundreds of wild boars of all sizes and hues, brown, black, grey alike, bristling and foaming with battle-rage, rushed time and again against their monstrous foes. They surged like waves, now falling back as their momentum spent itself, then gathering their strength and charging again. Some stumbled as vicious pincers snapped through their legs, veered aside as spikes gouged out their eyes, fell to the side covered in steaming gashes from chitinous blades. They bled from myriad wounds, spat crimson foam, shrieked and withered under corrosive barrages, but they pressed on, snapping spiny legs and tearing open plates of crustacean armour.

Spearheading the herd was the colossal being that had loomed over the others in the first glimpses. A swine of impossible size, as tall as the Leviathan itself and almost as thickly armoured with an iron hide, led his kind with a storm of huffs and grunts. Streams of thick dark blood flowed down his snout and legs where the aberrations’ claws had found vulnerable points, and one of his great recurve husks was chipped. Yet, either for his sheer magnitude or the fervour that burned in his tiny bloodshot eyes, he indefatigably covered ground, as uncaring of his own injuries as of those of his foes. Alone among the pursuers, he never seemed to lose wind. Every time his pack lagged behind to catch their breaths, the horrors encircled him from all sides, chittering and gnashing their rage, but unable to stop the pounding of titanic hooves that crushed their bodies in sprays of ichor.

Seeing all this, the Leviathan rose to its feet. The scent of blood and sweat was carried by the wind to the Leviathan’s nose, and the great beast inhaled deeply. It shifted to take the weight off its wounded leg, then it advanced. It took a few seconds for the Leviathan to find a good five-legged gait, but once it settled into the gait it picked up speed. Its thunderous footfalls accelerated until they became like a landslide.

The chitinous horrors saw the approaching beast and screeched in rage. A glob of caustic bile splattered against the Leviathan’s armour, who grunted in pain as it started to eat away at the iron and slip between the cracks. As more globs splattered nearby, the Leviathan exhaled a billowing cloud of steam, hiding its exact position. The cloud of steam continued to charge until it crossed the front line of the monstrosities and scalded their flesh.

Then the Leviathan collided with the monsters. Chitin was crushed against steel and blood sprayed out as the monsters faced the horns, teeth and claws of the Leviathan. The pincers and stingers of the horrors flailed futilely against the Leviathan’s armour as it overran them.

The Leviathan carved a path through the monsters, but turned before reaching the boars. Dozens of the monsters were forced to a stop before the Leviathan’s flank and were overrun by the herd of boars moments later. The Leviathan now charged across the swarm of monstrosities, its terrific speed able to keep pace with the swarm and the herd. The horrors were crushed in their dozens, coating the Leviathan in blood, gore and bile, and just as many were slowed down enough for the boars to swarm them and bring them down.

The swine pursuers wasted no time in taking the opportunity. Their bodies, punctured and torn as they were, bore down in weight on the hampered monstrosities, crumpling their shells through their mere bulk. A final attempt to bristle with claws and spikes availed the skittering beasts little, as those enemies they slew weighed down all the heavier. Caught between a bulwark of iron scales on one side and a living avalanche of fur and tusks on the other, they were ground down with the stolid brutality of a stampeding herd.

The giant packleader, who had huffed curiously at the Leviathan’s approach, seized a slower moment in his charge to dig his hind hooves into the ground and turn aside, narrowly avoiding crashing into the larger beast. His beady eye ran over the reptilian titan with a surprised glimmer, but was fast to turn back on his quarry, or what remained of it. Most of the abominations were by then lying in shattered heaps, mires of their ichor polluting the soil. Stragglers were sent flying with goring blows, or unceremoniously stomped on with armoured hooves.

Before long, little was left moving on the scene. The surviving boars fell to the ground, wheezing and steaming with exhaustion. Here and there, segmented legs sticking out from mangled bodies at odd angles twitched with deathly spasms. The razor-furred giant dropped on his side, sending a quake through the earth, and lay panting, eyes fixed on the Leviathan.

Casually, the Leviathan walked closer. Sections of its iron armour were now corroded, and some fresh blood sizzled out of old wounds which had reopened. Boars which had lay down to rest quickly scrambled to their feet and moved out of the way of the lumbering titan. The Leviathan stopped a short distance away from the giant boar and sniffed deeply. The iron which coated the great boar was similar to the Leviathan’s own, and his scent held some familiar traces.

The Leviathan gave the boar a rumbling grunt of acknowledgement. The hog lifted his head from the ground, dripping foam from around its mouth, sniffed the air and replied with a tired huff. The Leviathan then turned around and sauntered back towards Vulkandr Lake, where it slid beneath the water with a hiss of steam.



Some hours had passed, and already the battlefield had grown a little clearer. A good number of the surviving boars, rested enough to stand again, had risen and wandered off towards where intact plant life could be glimpsed in the distance. The stench of the slain horrors had worsened in the warm air, festering into something offensive even to the rugged nostrils of the wild swine. Together with the smell of damp ashes left after the Leviathan’s struggle with the jotundar and their leader, it drove them off to seek less tainted ground.

Other boars, however, were less daunted by the foetor. A number went sniffing and prodding around the carcasses of their kin, digging the ground around them with their tusks. Some few trotted further, going to poke the remains of the jotundar sprawled on the shore of the newformed lake. They waded into the shallows, rebuffed from swimming further by the scalding steam still wafting up from the surface deeper ahead. Vulkandr’s corpse continued to radiate residual heat, and the water almost boiled over where the Leviathan was submerged.

Still many remained lying, asleep or staring dully at the soil. They were no longer breathing as heavily as before, but the exhaustion of the long chase had not yet dissipated. The monstrous leader was among them, awake and resting on his bent legs rather than the flank. Though almost immobile, his eyes ran along the ground, trying to pick out something that just narrowly eluded them. He sniffed, almost angrily, and looked again. The earth did look a little loose around one mound -

Something burst out from the ground in a spray of soil and ichor. An almost amorphous fleshy mass darted out from its burrow, splitting into a pair of tooth-lined jaws, and engulfed a sprawled boar in a moment before withdrawing. Another shapeless horror rose from below further in the field, claiming another victim, not fast enough to rise to its hooves. Squeals sounded around as the herd stirred from sleep and scrambled to get up. The leader was already rushing to where the first being had vanished, plowing a trench with its snout as he ran.

The Leviathan burst out from the lake with a wave of scalding water, but slowed to a halt when it could not see any enemies. It let out a low growl and prowled forwards, alert for danger. As the boar patriarch rooted around in the dirt where the first monster had vanished, the earth burst open near where the second had been and swallowed another boar. The Leviathan pushed off with a great burst of speed and charged, but by the time it had made it there the horror had burrowed deep beneath the earth again. The Leviathan snapped in frustration at empty air.

Its irritation at the elusive foe was echoed by loud, angry grunting where the giant boar was tossing up mounds of dirt. Each sweep of his snout piled up another mound near a rapidly deepening pit. As if taunting him, the creature rasped and scratched from belowground nearby, but did not show itself beyond darting out for the moment of a blink to lash at its pursuer’s legs.

Then, not too far from the Leviathan, the earth burst open again. A boar skidded away from the snapping maw which had appeared, but a tentacle lashed out and pulled down the boar as the horror retreated again. The Leviathan thundered over, but the horror was quick and was out of reach of the iron beast’s jaws by the time it arrived. The Leviathan took a deep breath, shoved its snout into the hole left by the horror, and exhaled. A great torrent of scalding steam filled the burrow, forcing its way through every gap in the dirt. A cloud of steam rose around the Leviathan and hissed out of fissures in the ground.

With a horrific screech a terrible mass of tentacles and mouths burst out of the ground, hurling clods of earth. Steam trailed behind it, and many patches of its flesh were raw, peeling and oozing. The Leviathan wasted no time in charging this horror and latching on with its mighty jaws.

At the same time, the first monstrosity hurled its mouth out from the ground behind the great boar. Perhaps trying to act in concert with its twin, it snapped onto his hind leg, teeth grinding and dripping as the sharp edges of the metallic fur cut into it. However, by that time the rest of the pack had shaken off its slumber and begun to crowd around its leader. The wormlike terror’s leathery hide, exposed as it twisted out from the earth to follow the kicking of its prey, was pierced and hooked by goring tusks and gnawing teeth. Ichor flowed thickly, and though the wounds were little more than a nuisance for the imposing monstrosity, the dozens of gashes stung one more than another.

The horrid jaws released their prize and whipped around, snapping through the spine of one of the stubbornly swarming swine. Yet no sooner had they closed that the leg they had been holding reared up in an iron-shod kick that smacked the monster’s tubular body against the ground. Dazed, it tried to retreat under the earth, but both its speed and the advantage of surprise were lost. No sooner had it disappeared that a push of the enormous snout scattered its cover; before it could withdraw again, a mouth larger than its own bit into its hide. The struggle became frenzied, as the creature’s rows of writhing limbs battered and flailed, hissed and gnashed against the tusked horde bearing down on it.

Meanwhile the Leviathan continued to grapple with its foe. The nightmarish monster twisted and writhed as it tried to pull away, but the Leviathan’s grip was ironclad. The Leviathan thrashed about, tearing its teeth deeper, and ran around, dragging the monster across the ground and denying it a consistent purchase. The monster reached around with its mouths to try to bite into the Leviathan, but its teeth found no grip on the Leviathan’s armour plates. It thrashed with its tendrils, and one whipped into the Leviathan’s eye. The Leviathan recoiled from the blow, and its jaw loosened just enough for just long enough for the horror to tear itself free and slither away.

The other abomination was less fortunate. It struggled to pull its body loose from its captors, but too many teeth were holding it fast. The more it snapped and crushed, the more tears and gashes opened over its bulk. Finally, the giant boar’s mouth locked over its midsection. The creature’s forking heads shuddered and collapsed into the pit, now carved into a wide gouge by the violence of the struggle. They gave some last surges of spiteful life, snapping at the crowding swine, then fell still, a rasping hiss dying in their throats.

Shaking its bloodied snout, the giant trudged out of the pit and trotted towards the Leviathan, who was growling at the pit the surviving horror had escaped through. The giant boar wheezed and gave a half-hearted dig at the soil, then heavily hung his head to the side. The Leviathan gave a wide-mouthed yawn and scratched a spot behind its neck with a leg. The Leviathan’s gaze lifted up to the eastern horizon, then it looked sideways to the boar patriarch and grunted.

The swine reclined his head, licking up rivulets of dark blood that ran down his snout, and answered with a huff of his nostrils. He then scraped the ground with his teeth as if in acknowledgement or farewell and trotted off towards where the remainder of his herd was throwing soil onto the corpse of the monstrosity. In time, the blemish on the world’s face would disappear.

With the patter of heavy feet, the Leviathan walked off towards the horizon, where the ocean and Abyss awaited it.



Ashalla

Goddess of Oceans, Storms and Ice


Ashalla pulsed through the ocean. She needed to find Shengshi, for there were important matters that she needed to talk to Shengshi about. But a taste she had thought she would never taste again stopped her in her tracks.

A storm gathered overhead, dozens of squalls flickering into existence, as a watery pseudopod lifted a single fish from the water. Its scales were marred by blotches of white and black and it swam in idle lifeless circles in the quivering limb. The storm and sea which was Ashalla cast her taste further, and she found that there were similarly afflicted plants and animals, and also many tainted white motes.

The storm above intensified. A bolt of lightning seared the world in half and struck the infected fish in Ashalla's grip, obliterating it. In the sea around her, the kelp which had been infected snapped frozen then shattered into a billion shards, stopping them from spreading the decay.

"He had said it would not make any more," roared a voice like a hurricane. Yet the plague she now witnessed made the previous blight seem like a gentle trickle. Lightning fell like rain, the thunder roaring with Ashalla's fury, each bolt destroying a Mar mote. Yet the motes were far more numerous than Ashalla's lightning bolts, and the lightning soon abated. "This must cease."

At a whim, the water which Ashalla touched bloomed with microscopic plankton; billions of cheap living beings holding minute souls. A Mar mote drifting past was attracted to the algal bloom and entered into one of the creatures. In seconds the single plankter's soul frayed away and the creature withered and died, but in doing so the Mar mote had been expended. More motes drifted past and were absorbed by plankton. Ashalla swam and created more plankton. Many of the Mar motes would be carried by the winds over the ocean and never touch the plankton, but many more would be absorbed by this sacrificial buffer of life, reducing the grim harvest of the Mar Tree.

Before Ashalla could get far, she saw a dreadful sight in the sky. Lines of fire streaked through the heavens. Meteors, falling from Veradax. She had seen them before, but never in such numbers since the shattered moon had been created. Many of the lines of fire winked out as quickly as they had appeared, but Ashalla watched as one line kept falling, punching through the Blue then streaking down to the horizon like a bolt of lightning. There was a bright flash where it landed, and several seconds later a shockwave tore through the water where Ashalla was, followed by a fiery-hot blast wave in the air. As a billowing cloud of steam rose and spread from the point of impact, a tsunami washed outwards. Yet as the wave passed Ashalla it was stilled by her will.

The meteors continued to fall. That one which had struck before with enough force to level a city was an outlier - very few meteoroids of that size or larger were close to Galbar yet - but Ashalla still felt the smaller impacts and tasted the moon-dust and orvium.

Ashalla was not too concerned for the damage this bombardment would cause to her ocean. The water absorbed the impacts and rebounded gracefully. In a few hours the only evidence of even the largest meteorite strike would be the rock sitting on the ocean floor and a slightly higher concentration of dust in the water. But this was an assault on her domain all the same, and it stoked her rage even more.

Ashalla looked to the sky, and there she saw the full moon of Veradax in all its darkness, thin streaks of fire radiating around it. The moon hovered above the Maelstrom, currently hidden from view far beyond the horizon. The Mar motes, asteroid bombardment and broken promise were each a reason in itself for Ashalla to be spurred into vengeful action. So Ashalla swam towards the Maelstrom, plankton and squalls in her wake.


Ashalla

Goddess of Oceans, Storms and Ice




It was a beach of dark black sand, on a tropical island on the rim of the Eye of Desolation. There was the normal sea life, including dolphins and iridescent schools of fish and coral reefs, but there were also three iron carrionfish prowling the waters near the beach. Lone iron carrionfish were rare enough, but to have a group in one place could only mean one of two things. And these fish were not here to mate.

“What have you found?” asked a voice like a rising tide.

The metallic sharks turned their noses towards the shore. The sea then rose, crawling up the black sand like the tides. Then, as the water washed over one patch of sand which appeared the same as all the others, it stopped and quivered. A couple of squalls peeled off from the water and flitted away. The water gathered up before the spot and rose into the form of a woman. “What happened here?” shuddered a voice like a falling glacier.

She had tasted ichor, belonging to none other than Orvus, soaked into the sand. The remains were no longer visible, but the spilt divine essence was still strong. Proportional to Orvus’ size, it seemed to be a lot of ichor, implying a grievous wound. Ashalla’s head twisted up towards the heavens. “Orvus, where are you?” she called into the aether, but received no response.

Ashalla soaked through the sand to try to find more clues. She detected the divine essence of Katharsos, as distinctive as it was, but that scent appeared very stale, so it seemed improbable that Katharsos’ presence and Orvus’ wounding were coincident. Yet, search as she did, she could find no trace of any other divine essence. Perhaps Katharsos had done this to Orvus, and his essence had faded faster than she expected. Or perhaps some other god had done it and managed to conceal their own essence.

Ashalla lifted her head and looked inland. There were mortals on these islands, made in the image of Orvus. Perhaps they held more clues. Ashalla receded back into the sea and swam around the island in search of mortals. Eventually she found a small family of three nebulites enjoying a shallow beach. The mother held her small baby between her legs, letting the warm water run over her, to various giggles. Ashalla’s watery form rose out of the sea, her imposing gaze looking down upon the Nebulites. “Mortals, tell me: where is your god Orvus?”

Instinctively, the female nebulite of pink and purple swirls, her hair the same color but glowing softly, grabbed her baby and scooped her up into her arms protectively as she looked up in awe at Ashalla. The male, a nebulite of gray with blotches of white stars, went to stand beside his mate from where he had been sitting. The baby began to cry at the sudden commotion and the woman began to coo to it. The male then stepped forward and said, "Orvus is… Gone... your Magnificence." He said slowly, in a sense of awe.

“Do you know what has happened to him or where he went?” Ashalla interrogated.

The male began to speak but the female interrupted, "Your holiness, we do not know where my father went or what happened to him. Many think he… Abandoned us. Laurien said he told her he was needed somewhere and so he left. That was… Ten years ago." Her voice was soft, unsure of itself, and a hint of sadness sounded.

There was a long, low rumble from Ashalla. This story was not adding up. Eventually, she said, “So Laurien claims to have spoken with Orvus before he… left. Where is Laurien?”

The two Nebulites shared looks with each other as the woman rocked the baby. The woman then looked up at Ashalla and said, "Why, she left not long after. She went to protect those that his Holiness Shengshi took. I am not sure where she is now, your Magnificence."

Ashalla rumbled again, then asked, “Is there anyone else who might know more?”

The woman shook her head. “No one here… Though, it might not hurt to ask my sister, Arya.” she said.

“And where is Arya?”

“Most likely at her house, your Holiness. Would you like us to guide you there?” the woman asked.

There was a brief rumble. “Yes.”

The woman smiled, and grabbed the hand of her mate. “Please follow us.”

They led Ashalla through a very worn path, passing other Nebulites as they did, who all stopped and stared upon Ashalla’s watery form, some even bowing. The path took them through the jungle which teemed with life, and before long the Marble Star rose into view. They entered into a very large expanse of farmland, makeshift houses, and bustling society of a fledgling nation. Like before, every single Nebulite stopped and stared upon seeing Ashalla. Before long they came before a cozy looking house of mahogany, far more intricate than the others, but slowly beginning to see wear.

The woman gave her baby to her mate, and then ran up the porch steps and knocked on the door. There was a long silence before the door opened to reveal a Nebulite of inverse colors. She wore a simple, white dress and she looked very tired.

“Ava? What’s wron-” Arya began, before her gaze fell upon the form of Ashalla. Ava giggled and moved out of the way, letting Arya out. She made her way slowly to the top of her stairs before she kowtowed and said, “Holiness Ashalla! Welcome to the Eye.”

Ashalla’s gaze scrutinised Arya for a few moments. “The last of the Zhengwu…” she muttered. A tendril of water snaked up next to Arya and licked the spiral on the back of her hand. She rumbled for a moment, then said in a voice like a river, “I seek Orvus. And I also seek Laurien, who should know more about where Orvus is.”

Arya seemed to stiffen. Whether at the mention of Zhengwu, the tendril of water, or her family, it was hard to say. She looked up at Ashall and blinked. “I… Have no idea where either of them are, I’m afraid. They both abandoned us, and neither even said goodbye.” she said with emotion in her voice.

Ashalla huffed, and started to turn away. “Unfortunate. I will have to seek them out myself.”

“Your Holiness, why are you searching for them?” Arya asked, her eyebrow raised.

Ashalla stopped and her head twisted back to look down upon Arya. After a pause, Ashalla answered, “It is not for you to know.”

Arya took a step forward. “What? Why can’t I know? Even if… Even if they did leave… I believe I have a right to know why her Holiness Ashalla is asking for them,” she said, her voice wavering between calm and desire.

Ashalla answered with a voice like sneering frost, “A right? You have no rights other than those us gods deign to give you. This is not a matter for mortals.”

“But… But they’re my family… Please. Please your Holiness!” Arya pleaded, taking another step down the porch.

Ashalla continued to stare down the nebulite, a low rumble coming from her. “You knew K’nell?” she eventually asked.

Arya paused. ”Yes… I was his Ward.” she said softly.

“Do you know where K’nell and his continent are?”

”I do… But I can’t… I shouldn’t tell you…” Arya said defeated.

Ashalla rumbled softly, then said in a voice like a trickling brook. “I was good friends with K’nell. I was disappointed when he left without telling me where he went.” Ashalla paused to let her words sink in. “I propose an exchange. If you tell me what happened with K’nell, I will tell you what I know of what happened to Orvus.”

Arya looked upon Ashalla in contemplation. After a moment, her shoulders slumped in defeat. “Come inside,” Arya said sadly, walking back up the porch steps. Ashalla dwarfed the house, but she flowed up to the door anyway, and some of her water poured through the doorway as a large pseudopod. The end of the pseudopod sculpted itself into a humanoid form.

Arya led the way through the rather barren house. There was some furniture here and there and hanging along the walls were several artifacts. A large sword of orvium, a spectral dagger, a tattered cloak of stars, a small flute, and a small bell of starlight. A pseudopod stretched from Ashalla to lick each of the artifacts. Eventually they arrived in a kitchen of sorts, with only a table and some counters. Arya sat down across from an empty chair, and beckoned for Ashalla to sit. Ashalla flowed onto the seat, then looked at Arya expectantly.

She sighed and leaned back into the chair. “As you know… Tendlepog, and K’nell are gone. With them also went most of the Dreamers, but some remained… I don’t know where they are, either…” she chuckled sadly before taking a deep breath. “My mothers went with… You might have met them, Hermes and Xiaoli? It’s what they wanted, I guess, but they never told me. After all, He didn’t want anyone to know… Not yet… Maybe not ever. Only my loved ones… That was it and yet… It’s such a burden,” she said, her eyes watering. ”But I’m getting off topic, aren’t I? You see… Your Holiness… K’nell combined Tendlepog and his Sphere to create an alternative to the pyres. He called it an eternal paradise. Heaven. None of them are coming back,” she whispered.

“So that’s what happened. He didn’t want some dreams to end…” A melodious laugh issued from Ashalla with an undertone of burbling. “While Azura has been working tirelessly and enlisting the help of other gods to find a way to save the dead, K’nell achieved it single-handedly! My congratulations to him for taking charge of the natural order. Although, what role does the green mark in the sky have in this?”

Arya expression turned to slight surprise at Ashalla’s laughter. After a moment of blinking the girl said, “It’s called the Moksha and is far more specific to the Dreamers who remained, than to any of us. One need only to dream into it, to know it’s true purpose.”

Ashalla huffed. Then she said with a voice like rolling waves, “You have fulfilled your part of the bargain. Now it is time to fulfil mine.” Ashalla receded from the chair and flowed back towards the door. “Follow.”

As Ashalla withdrew from the house the rest of her form turned to cloud, puffing up and swallowing the village before rising above the ground. Ashalla then flew away from the settlement. Arya followed quickly, flying into the dark cloud. Her small voice then said, “Your Holiness, please, you cannot tell anyone about what K’nell did. If not for me, then for him.”

“You wish for me to keep secret a major shift in the structure of Galbar, the fate of a god, and an alternative to the Pyres - an enigma which is occupying the time and resources of several gods?” Ashalla asked incredulously.

Arya frowned, visibly. "I… It does sound selfish doesn't it… I was unaware that others were working on a solution but… I don't think they can unlock Heaven for everyone. Not unless someone tells them how to get there," she said.

The clouds around her rumbled. “Why do you not tell them?”

"K'nell did not think they would understand why he did what he did. I don't really know what to think anymore," Arya said again, her voice conflicted.

There was a further rumble. “There is some wisdom in K’nell’s caution. I shall exercise discretion in the matter.”

"Thank you, your Holiness."

The clouds then parted, and a beach of black sand stretched out below them. “Here is the place.”

Arya landed amid the cool sand and looked around before looking at Ashalla in confusion. "What am I looking at, your Holiness?" she asked.

The clouds spoke, “You cannot see it with your mortal senses. But Orvus’ blood soaks deep into these sands, crying out in silent anguish. He was gravely wounded here, yet I know not who did it, or where he is now.”

Arya was silent for a long time, her eyes wide as she stared at the beach. "He… He… didn't abandon us…" she said falling to her knees. "I don't understand who, or even why something like this would happen, your Holiness."

“Laurien was the one who had informed you of Orvus’ departure, or so I’ve been told. She may have witnessed something, so she might hold the answer,” Ashalla said.

"I don't know where she is… But his Lordship will," Arya said, blinking away tears.

“So I’ve been told,” Ashalla said.

The clouds above changed from dark shadows to a melancholy grey, and Arya felt the presence of the goddess leave the place. As the rain closed in around Arya, she whispered, "Thank you… For telling me," before her black tears joined the rain.



Ashalla

Goddess of Oceans, Storms and Ice


&

Kalmar




The coasts of Kalgrun were an untamed wilderness. Dense forests, imposing mountains and frozen landscapes held all manners of creatures. Ashalla’s pseudopods curled out of the sea and licked against each new species Ashalla saw. Although she had seen many of these creatures in the sculptures of the winter-spirits, it was only here that Ashalla could taste them. Many of the creatures bore Kalmar’s signature, although some had the mark of Phystene or Seihdhara. There was even one species which had been made by Narzhak.

Eventually Ashalla came to the east coast of the continent, where the forests gave way to plains. Rising from the plains, almost blending into the clouds, were tiny wisps of smoke. There were intelligent mortals in these lands.

Ashalla continued along the coast until she found a pack of the mortals. Their camp was a collection of furs, animal hides and leaf mats strewn across the ground. Some pits had been dug to hide food. In the midst of the camp was a circle of blackened branches and white ash.

A few groups of mortals were within walking distance of the camp, out hunting for sea-birds with their slings or foraging the scrublands for edible plants. These mortals adopted the common humanoid form - notably they were taller than Dreamers and their features bore an animalistic sharpness, particularly their ears, teeth and nails. She also noticed the grace and agility with which the hunters moved. Yet unlike the selka, none seemed to be hunting the fish of the sea.

Within the camp remained one adult mortal. The red-haired male sat on a rock, bone-tipped spear lying nearby. He gave the occasional glance around the camp, which contained a couple of infants asleep on a mat of animal hides, but he was clearly bored.

Ashalla watched the mortal for a time from the concealment of the ocean. Then she approached. While the man was looking the other way, Ashalla flowed quietly across the sand of the beach like a creek running in reverse, then reached the dirt and grass. A pseudopod crept up the rock, but before it reached the man Ashalla thought better of it. Instead the water gathered up and rose.

The sound of water moving was just starting to gain the attention of the bored man when Ashalla spoke with a voice like a crashing wave. “Mortal man.”

The man reached for his spear and turned in alarm, yet when he saw the towering woman of water his mouth gaped open. There was a stunned silence for a second, until the man’s mind caught up with the situation. He leapt to his feet, held his spear upright, crossed his spare fist across his chest and bowed his head. When he looked up again, though, a quizzical expression overtook his face, and his mouth twisted as though trying to find the right words to say.

Ashalla pre-empted the man and said, “I am Ashalla, Goddess of Water. Who are you?”

The man bowed his head again. “I am Nym.”

“What are you, Nym?” As Ashalla asked her question, a thin pseudopod of water snaked along the ground and licked against the man. Nym tensed at the touch and stepped away from the pseudopod, although another pseudopod had sprung up on the other side of him. “Answer the question.”

“I-” Nym tensed again at the watery touch, although the icy gaze bearing down on him made him think twice about resisting. “I am a father, a hunter, a Vallamir.”

The tendrils finished probing Nym and withdrew, allowing Nym to relax a bit. “Who are your gods?”

“My kind were created by Kalmar, Roog, Arae and Li’Kalla. They taught us how to survive in this land of Kalmar’s.”

A little bubble rose through Ashalla and popped at the surface. Li’Kalla? She’s whole again? Ashalla did not hesitate for more than a moment before continuing with her questions. “You are a hunter, yet you are not hunting.”

Nym looked over his shoulder at the sleeping babies in the camp. “No. Today I’m doing the task of a father and watching the camp and the young.”

“Your mind and hands were idle.”

Nym looked a bit sheepish. “Well, yes, it is a bit boring.”

Ashalla rumbled thoughtfully. Her gaze then shifted to a section of scrub nearby, within which lurked a badger. Although the badger appeared ordinary to mortal senses, Ashalla could sense the faintest odor of divinity. A pseudopod stretched out with unnatural speed and wrapped around the animal. Ashalla regarded the badger for a moment, then released the animal which promptly scampered off.

Carrying on as if nothing had happened, Ashalla asked, “Have you ever considered hunting the animals of the ocean?”

The vallamir’s brow furrowed. “No, um… hadn’t had the need. Although, it wouldn’t hurt, although don’t know how.”

Ashalla rumbled again, and glanced up and down the coast. She had seen the equipment the other vallamir had been using, how little the items they had found had been modified from their raw forms. She looked back to Nym. “I will show you how. And I shall also show you something to occupy your mind and hands while they are idle. But first,” Ashalla’s arm stretched out to grab a small rock, then retracted to a more natural length, “I shall teach you how to better shape the world around you.”



Nym’s pack had returned to find him banging rocks together at the direction of a large woman made of water. Although it had seemed to be a lot of pointless noise, when they got closer Nym showed them the flakes of sharp stone which he had produced. They made handles of wooden sticks and plant fibres for the stone shards, and in this way they were able to make stone tools, from which they could better make more tools.

During the evening, by the light of the campfire, Ashalla prompted the vallamir in one use of the stone tools, which was to create carvings in wood, bone and soft stone. It was to be an activity for their downtime, a chance to express their creativity, a way to preserve their memories and a means of non-verbal communication. The carvings were mediocre in quality, although the vallamir seemed to pick up the art fairly quickly, so Ashalla expressed her approval of their artwork.

The following morning Ashalla called some of the hunters, including Nym, to the sea. While they were skilled hunters on land, Ashalla taught them how to hunt in the ocean. The vallamir’s heightened reflexes were of great advantage to them, for they could spear fish with great accuracy once Ashalla showed them how to correct for how the water distorted vision. She also trained them in swimming, so they could dive beneath the water and peel away molluscs with their new stone knives. The hunters returned to their pack that evening with a bountiful catch of sea life.

The vallamir expressed their gratitude to Ashalla as she departed, her work with that pack finished. She bore a desire to teach more vallamir the same. As she travelled and taught, she came to the mouth of a large river and decided to head inland.

For a time, she travelled unopposed. Then, a colossus-sized wolf appeared upriver, defying the very laws of physics while it bounded across the water as if it were solid ground. As it neared, it began to slow down, skidding to a stop as it sniffed the air and, with its sole-remaining eye, peered at the Goddess inquisitively, or at least the region of river water which was the Goddess. In return, tendrils of water licked at the wolf’s fur. Dark and heavy clouds formed in the sky above, the cumulonimbus seeming to take the form of a face which loomed over the wolf. Two eyes of crackling lightning manifested to bear down on the wolf.

“Beast of Kalmar, did Kalmar send you to greet me?” said a voice like a gale.

The wolf did not make a sound; it merely nodded.

There was a huff. “Why not greet me personally?”

The wolf raised its shoulders in something that vaguely resembled a shrug. “He was closer,” a telepathic voice sudden interjected, “But I am on my way.”

“Very well,” Ashalla answered. A tendril of water rose from the river and felt the scar of Fenris’ missing eye, then retracted. The wolf not much of one for conversations, Ashalla waited patiently for Kalmar’s arrival.

He arrived mere minutes later, soaring over the western horizon, with the white-furred cloak of an animal of the north, and flakes of snow still in his hair. He set himself down on the river bank, and the water in front of him suddenly began to freeze… until it stopped, and began to melt again - the snow in his hair doing the same. Kalmar looked up at Ashalla and nodded. “What brings you here?”

“I am exploring these lands and teaching the vallamir of fishing, stone tools and carving,” answered Ashalla.

Kalmar nodded again, as if that was the answer he had expected. “Yes. Thank you for that, by the way.”

“It is my pleasure,” Ashalla burbled.

“If you want to explore these lands, you’re free to do so,” the Hunter continued. “If you’re looking for something specific, or have any other questions, feel free to ask.”

Ashalla rumbled briefly, then asked, “The vallamir say that Li’Kalla was one of their creators. Last I heard Li’Kalla had been in poor shape. How is she?”

“The Architect restored her,” Kalmar answered. “But it seems that she lost most if not all of her memories. She’s a different person now, or at least different from when I first met her. More assertive, more talkative. A strange fixation on purity and bloodlines. Even shares some of Shengshi’s obsession with manners. I met her about ten winters ago, and since then she has taken some of the Vallamir onto her island to the east of here.”

There was a rumble from Ashalla. “Perhaps I should visit her soon.” Ashalla then shifted to another course of inquiry. “You visited Azura recently regarding the soul crystals.”

“I did,” Kalmar nodded. “What do you think of all that, anyway?”

“I care not for the mortals. But it is her prerogative as a god to shape the natural order to her will,” Ashalla said with a voice like a waterfall.

“That prerogative goes both ways,” Kalmar mused. “And means other gods are free to try to stop her. Then other gods will defend her, we’ll have a war, and all our creations will suffer.” He shook his head. “Anyway, the agreement I made with her was that I wouldn’t try to stop her efforts, I would help defend the souls within the vault from harm, and I would offer my own power to help her find a solution, if I can spare it and the solution is agreeable. I also made it clear that the agreement would become invalid should we run out of soul ash before her alternative is completed.”

“That is very reasonable, Kalmar,” Ashalla commented.

“It is good that you agree,” Kalmar said with another nod. “I have a question myself. When you say you don’t care for the mortals, do you mean the state of mortals after they die? Or do you not care for them when they are alive as well?”

There was a brief contemplative rumble. “After a mortal’s demise, they are of little use to me besides the information stored in their soul. During their life, mortals are of interest, amusement and some utility. Although I may grow fond of some individual mortals, unlike Azura I feel no close personal connection with mortalkind as a whole.”

“I’d say mortals have more value than that,” Kalmar said with a shrug. “Though my interest in them doesn’t go as far as Azura’s either. Creatures like the Vallamir, or the Jotnar, Dreamers, and Selka may be smarter than most, but they shouldn’t be put on a pedestal because of it.”

The was a light huff. “Yet their intelligence, which grants them limited power to shape the world around them, makes them clearly superior to unintelligent beasts. Not to say that unintelligent beasts are unimportant, of course, for without them life would falter.”

“Superior in intelligence, yes,” Kalmar nodded. “But can a selka swim as fast as a megaladon? Can a Vallamir track as well as a direwolf?” the Hunter questioned. “Yes, mortals are better poised to take advantage of our direct teachings and gifts than most, but that doesn’t mean their lives inherently have more value. And what we do provide them should be carefully managed. Or else they might take it for granted, and even try to abuse it.”

Ashalla rumbled, then said, “Indeed. Each species has its place and function, if well designed. And what we provide to the mortals often comes with expectations.”

One of Ashalla’s eyes turned to the horizon. “If that is all, Kalmar, I have the rest of your continent to explore.”

“Would you like me to accompany you as you do so?” Kalmar asked.

There was a rumble for a moment, then Ashalla said in a melodic voice, “If you wish.”

Kalmar turned to Fenris and waved a hand. The beast nodded, and moved out of Ashalla’s path, stepping on to the bank of the river where he then proceeded to lay on his belly. Kalmar himself began walking westward. The storm clouds above receded, and a woman of water rose up beside Kalmar. “If we continue upriver, there’s an island…”






Ashalla

Goddess of Oceans, Storms and Ice


Tendlepog was gone.

Ashalla's senses were not fooling her. There quite clearly used to be a continent here, yet now there was nothing but open ocean. Swahhitteh churned to the west, the twin continents reduced to one. The sea bed creaked and hissed, Ehomakwoi still undertaking the task of redistributing the load of Galbar's landmasses. Ocean currents shifted erratically as the Abyss sought new paths through which to drive the sea's motions.

K'nell's power lay heavy here, infusing every cubic metre where Tendlepog once was, so there was no doubting who had done this. The exit of the continent had been smooth, with only weak waves rippling outwards rather than the devastating tsunamis which would have accompanied a violent exit. This had been planned, and K'nell must have been planning it for a long time.

Ashalla spread out across the space where Tendlepog had once been and meditated upon her last meeting with him. "It had been a farewell concert," she eventually concluded, a voice like a wistful breeze. "He did not want some dreams to end."

The night sky stretched out above her. Across the backdrop of purest black twinkled incandescent sparks and shined unchanging pinpricks of white. A smear of red painted part of the sky, and a great luminescent orb cast soft, cool light upon the sea. Yet among these old things was a new mark, a dusty green cloud spilled onto the firmament. Ashalla looked upon it and a feeling of peace came over her. It seemed to say, to some indescribable part of her soul, 'Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,' although she knew not what it meant. Tendlepog and all who lived upon it may be gone, but the God of Sleep had left this mark.

Yet there was another mark which Ashalla held more dear. "I will always cherish the memories."



A little wisp of light curled its way beneath the ocean waves, pulled along by the water currents. The dappled light from Heliopolis above faded as the wisp flowed deeper, sinking into the darkness of the Abyssal Rift. It continued to descend, the tiny shred of light barely able to spare any illumination for the distant stone walls of the chasm.

In the darkness time had no meaning, so after a meaningless period of time the wisp came to be greeted by a warm, incandescent light from below. The deep churning of the Abyss' currents buffeted the delicate wisp into an erratic path. It danced around tube worms and tickled against critters, yet it slowly made its way downwards until finally it sank to the floor of the Abyss. It settled like a feather, and as the wisp faded its light gently suffused throughout the magma.

The ocean sighed as the soft light faded. The water of the seas across Galbar drew back slightly, as if curling up to rest. Gentle waves lapped rhythmically at coastlines, like the soft breathing of a sleeper. For hours the ocean slept like this, yet with sleeping comes awakening, so eventually the ocean awoke. The water rose back up, like one who had gotten out of bed. The waves regained their usual liveliness, and the ocean continued its activity. After many more hours, though, the ocean had grown weary once more, and it ebbed off to sleep.

Thus began the cycle of sleep and awakening, of low tide and high tide. This was the gift of Sleep to the Ocean.


Ashalla

Goddess of Oceans, Storms and Ice



Shengshi

MP: 0/FP: 2


While lifting the Jiangzhou back off the sea had been a little less convenient than usual on account of the lack of freshness in the water below, the golden ship had eventually managed to take to the skies, and currently drifted at a comfortable altitude of a few hundred metres. Life aboard went on as usual, with gifts and food being laid out, listed and arranged for the many different Selka tribes Shengshi planned to visit. While they had only met one, this mention of the ‘First Beach’ and more tribes on the mainland led the snake to believe that, if he followed the coastline, he would eventually come upon additional tribes.

To avoid the chilly rain of the far south, however, the ship kept a sizeable distance from the mountains, which effectively meant they had to soar above the sea for now. God-given eyes could easily spot campfires in the distance, the snake reasoned, so it would be no issue.

The snake sat on the deck on a small pillow-couch placed upon an intricate silk carpet. Before him stood a tiny pedestal on which laid a sheet of rice paper. In his hand he held an ink-tipped brush with which he wrote down what could be assumed to be a poem. Behind him stood ten servants motionlessly like golems awaiting their master’s orders.

“Hmm… He Bo, what rhymes with ‘blessèd’?”

“Does ‘confessèd’ work with the rhythm, Your Lordship?”

“Mmm… Not really, but adjustments can be made…”

There was a shout from one of the servants looking out over the edge.

“Your Lordship! The sea has arisen! It is Her Holiness, the Ocean Queen!”

Down below, formed from the waves of the sea, was the watery shape of Ashalla. She was waving a long limb towards the Jiangzhou.

The snake put down his brush. “Oh my, really? How nice of her to say hello! Pack up my workstation and fetch some wine and cu--... Oh wait, she did not like wine too much, did she?”

“Not that I recall, Your Lordship,” He Bo answered dutifully.

“Very well, then, uhm… Fetch one of the paintings from my room, if you would.”

“Yes, Your Lordship.”

Meanwhile, the ship gently floated downwards until it landed with a soft splash onto the surface of the sea. The snake slithered over to the side of the deck and opened his arms in a welcoming gesture, smiling from horn to horn.

“Oh, dearest sister of mine - how many years has it been?”

“Fifty three,” Ashalla answered flatly. There was an icy chill in the air. Ashalla glanced in the direction the Jiangzhou had come. “You came to the aid of the Wuhdige,” she commented.

“Yes, I decided to finally make my way down south after telling myself that I would for a few decades. And to think that there, in the sea next to which I landed, I did not only find a champion of the tribe, but also their chieftain! I reckon I could pick up fishing for a hobby with such luck.” The snake chuckled to himself. “As for what they needed help with, well - war and the like between mortals are not really my field of expertise, but they seemed like a worthy lot, so I gave them the means of a proper defense. Have you been there before, by the way? I saw a strangely large number of body-painted individuals.” He gave the sea goddess a wink.

“Yes. That was my doing, teaching them about paint. And shelters made of snow for the winter months,” Ashalla said. The chill still hung between them. Then with a voice with the sharpness of an icicle she said, “You broke your pact with Kalmar.”

The snake’s smile vanished completely and his arms went from embracing the air before him to resting sternly on his hips. His joyous eyes became a disappointed frown and he wrinkled his nose. “Was that really a necessary subject to bring up, sister? A reunion between two siblings occurs and one brings up such a taboo subject straight off the greeting.” He shook his head. “I suppose you are expecting me to explain myself?”

“Yes,” Ashalla said curtly.

“My, always so--...” The snake stopped himself, sucked in a sigh and let it out. “So be it. Many, many years have passed since that fateful day when I left the alliance - that is right, I broke no oaths. I simply told Kalmar I did not wish to be a part of the pact anymore. Breaking the oath would mean that I had somehow failed to do my part while still in it, which I have not, mind you. While I certainly have not been the greatest contributor, I confess, I have still suffered and slain enough to say I have at least done some part.” He took a deep breath. “Now, as for the reason itself, Kalmar and I have never truly gotten along well. He reckons I am selfish, which, certainly, I can take criticism for that, I concede; however, I reckon he is blind to others’ perspectives on things, something he so ungracefully proved that very same day. Who would want to be allied with someone who never returns the foundational respect you offer them, hmm?”

There was a rumble, but the icy chill remained. “What were the terms of your alliance?”

“The alliance originally was a call to arms against Orvus, if I recall - my word, it has been quite a long time since then… Whenever one of us would be attacked by Orvus, the others would come to their aid. Of course, since then, it has become apparent that any threats against any of us was to be perceived as a reason to aid - this clause was not formally added, of course. Again, I have always done my part. I also added a small clause for him to let me speak my mind without any interruptions - a demand which he has neglected multiple times, by the way.”

“Is that so?” There was a long and thoughtful rumble. Then the chill seemed to disappear, and Ashalla’s voice became like flowing waves. “Very well.”

The snake furrowed his brow and nodded slowly. “Very well.”

In that same moment, the doors of the palace swung open, and twenty servants came marching out carrying a large painting of the Taipang delta. The snake tried his best to don his smile again and gestured towards the approaching entourage. “Ah, what a wonderous timing. Dearest sister, seeing as it has been so long since we last met, I believed the occasion warranted a gift.” The servants stopped on the centre of the deck and pushed the painting upwards so the frame stood steadily on the deck. “I took the opportunity a few years back to paint the wonderful ecosystem we built together on the desert river. What do you think?”

A light burble issued from Ashalla as her eyes saw the painting. A thin pseudopod reached out and gently licked against the artwork. “It is a marvellous composition. The colours complement each other and highlight the key elements of the work. The brushstrokes set the broader scene while supporting the core features. It is also a lovely representation of our creation.”

“Ah, I am fantastically happy that you like it, dearest sister. It is yours to have if you wish - my gift to you in honour of a lasting friendship between the rivers and the sea.” The snake bowed and the servants who weren’t busy holding up the artwork kowtowed.

“For me?” The pseudopod ran around the edge of the painting. “Unfortunately, I have no place suitable for such an artwork. It can remain on this vessel until such time that I find a suitable place of my own for it.”

The snake blinked, then nodded. “Of course - it shall rest here comfortably until you are ready to claim it.” With that, the servants once more picked the enormous artwork back up and moved it into the palace again. The snake eyed them with a wry smile before looking back at Ashalla.

“Ah, now the mood is back where it belongs. What brings you here to Atokhekwoi, then? Are you, too, on a quest to bring joy and aid to these sweet little mortals?”

“Indeed I am. I have taught the selka about music, a skill they have put to good use.”

“Oh, is that so? How stellar! Tell me, if you would, which tribes have heard of this concept? I would so love to hear them play some for me.”

“The Ubbo, the Hyummin, and the tribes nearby and between them. Some have more talent than others, although most should be agreeable to granting a performance. There are two travelling musicians of exceptional talent, Pallamino the Third of the Ubbo and Hujaya of the Hyummin, whom I would recommend listening to if you meet them.”

“Ah, so I will - I am very much looking forward to it. What instruments do they have? Drums, flutes?”

“Drums, flutes, bows, rattles, sticks, lyres, voice, and more. Pallamino is a flautist. Hujaya is a singer and lyre player, and she also has a following of a few more talented musicians.”

“Oh, it truly is marvellous of you to lead this cultural crusade to the mortal populations of this world - truly. It will no doubt sow the seeds of unfathomably great civilisations. Think about it, my dear - with our combined appreciation for the arts, as well as your safeguarding of the seas and my blessings of the harvest… There is nothing but prosperity and glory in wait for those who pledge themselves to us!”

“Indeed. We work together well. Civilisation shall share our blessings and beauty.”

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