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It's not really that delicious unless it thinks is it?

An Isotope Alt.

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Asvarad

The Great Serpent


He could not be trusted. Asvarad knew that even as he watched Vatarr, his new ‘ally’, vanish into the depths and shadows of the metal forest. A peer already capitulated. The worm-king’s appeal to pragmatism was sensible, but he’d only made it after all but gloating that this world was doomed even beyond death. Vatarr offered no assurances, and Asvarad was not inclined to offer his own. Not to someone so pleased with this prison and its cycle of violence.

For now, though? The serpent would have to stand beside his peer against others not merely surrendered to the supposed inevitability of a cycle grown old and decrepit with repetition, but willing participants in it. Vatarr had not been wrong when he said they would be coming. If Asvarad was to honor his word and keep all those labouring with him to escape their supposed fates safe from the maddened players of a sick game, he would need more than just himself. He would need an army.

He was caught in the thought by a gentle shove, and at once was reminded of the sapling who’d woken him. Had Vatarr not encountered that obstacle… Asvarad didn’t recall creating the young tree, but it had not hesitated to protect him. An encouraging fact, given the serpent’s last foray into creating life. Asvarad turned to face the human-like sapling and thought to it reassuringly, “He is gone, and any danger with him. For now.

It regarded him skeptically, face akin to a gnarled carving long since disfigured by growth, and pointed in the other direction from where Vatarr had gone. Towards the chaos of node twenty-four. The Forest’s Sentinel, for that was the sapling’s title, conversed with Asvarad in a language of intent and thought, but its meaning was no less clear than if it were spoken. It feared the darkness more than any ‘god’. It did not understand why its creator would defend the madness beyond the world when it had almost killed the serpent.

“An understandable fear, if a shallow one,” Asvarad’s own thoughts reassured the Sentinel, “I did not speak the full truth to Vatarr. Yes, I do seek to study chaos before banishing it, that was no lie. More than that, though, I mean to keep it here and contained because I believe it can buy us more time. All I’ve learned of the end prophesized by our world’s creator is that in his time it came after chaos was banished and one so called ‘god’ held sway over every node in existence. Securing chaos is all we can do to be different, at least until I, until we all know more."

The sapling, young as it was, listened to its creator and believed it understood. It even nodded it agreement, if not without qualification. If the world itself hung in the balance, then, and only then, chaos was a lesser concern. Even so, for all it’d sworn to ease Asvarad’s burden the Forest’s Sentinel was one being set against not just the darkness beyond but the clawing avarice of the great serpent’s own peers. It wanted to help but the odds…

Asvarad understood that feeling most of all. Imprisoned in flesh, chained by destiny, and evidently the only one of his abilities interested in doing something about it. The odds indeed. The serpent pulled himself up and cast his gaze from the young sapling and to the forest around them. If Asvarad’s power had given birth to one like the Forest’s Sentinel, intentionally or not, then it could surely give birth to more.

The answer was all around him. He slithered between the trees, his scales scraping at them and scoring the softer copper and tin trunks. The serpent swept about the forest surrounding the node, searching until he felt the telltale scrape of his body running against hard iron. Only then did the serpent stop. He turned on the Ironbark tree and, in a flash, struck.

Teeth reinforced by divinity cut into the dull metal and Asvarad beheld the heart of his creation. He felt its roots digging down, so deep that the earth would burn them were they not armoured, and bid them to fan out instead. The tree groaned, creaked, and shuddered as reality itself warped so that it could comply with the impossible order.

Ironbark roots shot out in every direction below the soil and the world seemed to shake as they did. They sought out their kin and dug deep into them. One by one Ironbark trees came under Asvarad’s sway. Each one added every other to its own being and so the web of roots grew and grew until there were not many Ironbarks in the forests of node twenty-five, but one.

Once the serpent commanded that one organism the countless saplings that grew from its body began to change. Reflections of the Forest’s Sentinel, as short as a human child or a tall as a building, they stood and unblinking though they might be they beheld the world with wonder and no questions as to their purpose. Asvarad had made a mistake with their first Servant, but not again. This great army would understand, from its very inception, the weight of its duty. It would be foremost in their minds.

And of those minds, there was one that would lead them. Asvarad instilled one command into his new army as he withdrew from the Ironbark and spit out the chunks of metal and wood that came out with his teeth. The great host that had been born from the body of their vast mother and the will of their divine father would answer to the first of their number and the only one who’d truly made the choice to take on the burden of a god.

“An army to make my peers tremble,” Asvarad addressed the Sentinel as he cast out, watching countless reflections of the young sapling rise from the soil around them, “And one you shall find more than sufficient to fulfill your… Oath to me.”

The Sentinel spun about trying in vain to see all its new kin as it thought to Asvarad. It was thankful, joyful even, to not be the only one, but its thoughts, as they were, came tinged with the fear of chaos. A vast army, beyond a mortal host, but not enough to fight Chaos. For that the Sentinel begged something more.

A newborn people, all the same and yet each one its own alien mind, would not be found wanting by their enemies. Asvarad agreed with the Sentinel and, grating as it was, spoke with a rumbling voice that carried on the winds and filled the forest with power, “Sentinel of this forest, warriors all, I task you with the defense of all who labour to secure this world against hateful destiny. I bid to you contain the Chaos of node twenty-four, the dark land to the southwest. Let none enter and nothing leave. Take on your duty and be fortified in spirit. Know you will have nothing to fear from disease or curse, that your body will never fail you.”

Countless young trees looked away from newfound hands and to the source of the voice. They heard it and each one took on their duty willingly, insofar as their thoughts could be understood at all. They made their way to the heart of the forest and their creator blessed with purpose and the strength to do their part whatever the cost may be.

They were terribly young, but that was not a thought the serpent ever had.



haxx0rz?!
Aena

The Tinkerer


For the first time in a week the sun’s light broke through the canopy above and washed over Aena. She shut her eyes as she basked in the warmth and let her feet guide her along the Serpent’s Trail, a trick her traveling companion hadn’t been able to match and something that annoyed him to no end. Already she expected his face was contorting in familiar frustration seeing it again, but Aena wasn’t about to explain that all it involved was actually paying attention. Well, at least not until it’d be funny.

As if on cue she heard Turev curse, and a quick look confirmed he’d tried copying her and sent himself tumbling. Again. Maybe it’d be kinder to just forget about that one. For a man easygoing enough to not even think of bathing until Aena pushed him into a stream, Turev was almost comically bad at going with the flow. She turned back and held out a hand, chatting as Turev pulled himself up with a curse, “If you break those shoes you’re not getting new ones, you know. Two pairs are enough for someone who didn’t want any to begin with.”

“As if I’m to blame for that,” Turev scoffed as he dusted himself off, “Who cuts a trail without even thinking to build a bridge over the rivers they run into? Even I could do better than that! Some ‘god’.”

Aena rolled her eyes and continued the thought, “You’d also think that when the person who made you your shoes takes them off and tells you yours will get stuck in the mud they’re not lying. Some ‘man’.”

“And maybe you’d think that someone clever enough to make us clothes after seeing them once wouldn’t jump into my arms because a fish brushed against their leg,” Turev teased back.

Aena reached down to pull off her wooden sandal and hurl it at him but stopped halfway as she turned a bend and finally glimpsed the Serpent's Crown. Turev almost walked into her, more focused on her throwing arm than his surroundings, but even he caught himself at the view of the mountains stretching out across the horizon. Directly before them lay a misty pass, but elsewhere?

Peaks so high that the clouds could only cling to their wise bases. It was a mystery how the trees and hills of this hinterland could ever hide them even distant as they were, and from a glance Aena could tell they were at least a day's journey away. She couldn’t help but to mutter, “Wow.”

Turev didn’t have much to add to that, and for the next day they watched the towering stones jutting from the earth near until they seemed like a wall holding back the world itself. Steep slopes climbed into the sky from each edge of the pass and as Aena and Turev made their way through she began to question the suspicion she’d shown the group they’d met days past.

If there was a place where the world would be saved… Of course, she wasn’t really sure she believed it was in danger. Humans were already robbing each other on the road, and what made gods so much different? Anyone could lie. Well, other than Turev, but only because he was terrible at it. That in mind, Aena asked him a question as they trod into the mountain's long shadow, “What kind of work do you think they’ll want, for all they’re offering? If they ask me for help gutting anything I’m turning around with or without you, Turev.”

The man scoffed and eyed the fur clothing on Aena’s back as he answered, “What, you leave that to underlings like me? If you’d believe our friends then I’m sure they’ll have you barking orders in a day, and me gutting in an hour.”

Aena started to bark a retort before catching herself, “I- What?”

She looked at Truev with an expression of genuine confusion, and the man laughed and prodded her to keep moving while he spoke, “Didn’t one of those two say they’re gathering all the clever people and having their snake tutor 'em? Wouldn’t say I’d prefer that to gutting from what I saw of this Asvarad back in the Birthland though. Real freaky looking.”

Before Aena could respond to that they both heard the telltale beginnings of an argument on the wind. Frustrated words giving way to distant shouts had Aena and Turev go dead silent. With a shared nod they slowly made their way off the trail and up the nearest hill until they spotted the source of the quarrel. Just down the slope, ahead of them on the trail, a number of men and women carrying long sticks were fiercely arguing with a man in nicer clothing than even Aena could imagine fashioning.

What she and Turev heard most clearly was the finely dressed man wailing indignantly, “You stu- I mean to say your stupendous people, they deserve to know what's happening in the north! There are generous go-.”

He didn’t get much farther before one of the men wielding what Aena could finally tell was a sharpened rock lashed to his stick handed off the weapon and took the richly dressed traveller in both hands before screaming in his face, “WE ARE NOT INTERESTED! WE HAVE EVERYTHING WE NEED! GO AWAY.”

Even from her distance Aena had to wince at the violence with which the traveller was being shaken. She backed up, but Turev’s arm caught her and swept her up into a jog towards the belligerents to whom he called out, “Afternoon! Hey, is that one of those freaky zealots? One of them preached to me while I was taking a piss, can you believe that?”

Aena nearly shrieked as Turev thrust them into center stage. Her bearded companion reached out and slapped the rattled missionary on the back as he approached the befuddled others. He went on as if they were old friends, “Say uh, you wouldn’t happen to know an eh, ehm, Aena what was his name? The smart one? Os… Something?”

“Ostan,” she all but whimpered before Turev plowed ahead.

“Ostan that’s it! Say, you wouldn’t happen to know Ostan? We shared a meal with him and his little partner on the road. Said you folks were offering food and shelter for work?”

The armed men and women, each one dressed in furs and woven fabrics like the pair Aena and Turev had met on the road, seemed to drop their hackles at the familiar name. The one who’d given up his weapon gestured for it back and jabbed the still stunned missionary in the bottocks with its blunt end to get him moving while he answered Turev, “I know him. And we have food and shelter enough for everyone despite what these freaks like to say. I take it you met them on the trail? They’ve been showing up for the last few days and we’re already out of patience with them.”

“Hah! Freaks, you’ve got that right.” Turev agreed while Aena’s eyes bugged out. If there was anything Aena was sure of, it was that Turev had never met a missionary in his short, ridiculous, life. Nevertheless, he forged ahead with the locals, “We met them oh, a few days or so ago didn’t we Aena?”

He looked back at her, and at once she found herself choked for words. Aena nodded and hoped they didn’t see her coiling a lock of blonde hair with her finger tightly enough that it hurt. Turev just kept talking, “Just wouldn’t leave us alone. I’m Turev, and this here is Aena, by the way.”

“Orwon,” The man named himself and turned to speak to his group, “And I’ve got these ones. Keep scouting ahead on the road, ok?”

The armed group muttered a smattering of affirmations and set out while Orwon addressed Turev and Aena, “Well count me as glad they didn’t discourage you from coming south. We’ll use all the help we can get. I figure if you met Ostan he told you the word?”

“That the world is in danger?” Aena found herself blurting half-skeptically.

Orwon met her eyes and nodded seriously as he answered, “Catastrophe must be averted. If you’ve heard and you’re here to help, then you’re friends of mine. Come, I’ll bring you to the settlement and you’ll be assigned a task after you’ve had a chance to rest from your journey.”

He gestured for them to follow and set off down the trail. Aena found herself glaring at Turev as they made their way towards the center of the Serpent’s Crown. Orwon was too close to permit her more than a scowl and the occasional misstep into Turev’s heels, but she took the effort to let her companion know exactly how she felt about his methods. Turev just took it with all the smugness Aena imagined he had in his body.

Eventually, at Orwon’s prodding, they started to speak up again. Enough had happened on the Serpent’s Trail to provide the pair, mostly Turev, with a few tall tales to burn the time, but invariably the subject drifted back to where they were going instead of where they were from. For a while Orwon just told them to be patient and that they’d see.

Aena was about to Turev to gut their guide in annoyance at the non answer when they emerged from the craggy stone of the pass and into air suddenly thick with humidity. Then she saw and understood their laconic guide as they tread over the rolling hills and eyed many-hued steaming streams of node twenty one. It was art, and she could tell at once. Node eighteen had been comfortable, but it was dull compared to this place.

Far below, in the distance, Aena saw wide fields along the bank of a vast freshwater lake. Above it all towered the node, vastly higher than what any Human had seen of node eighteen's strange monolith. Orwon watched them take it all in and led them down the trail with a grin. He helped them through groves of wide gnarled trees and finally told them how things had been here since the first Humans had begun to reach the end of Asvarad’s trail.

Apparently, in the beginning, it had been touch and go. The serpent was decidedly unfriendly and wasn’t, by virtue of what he was, easy to approach for most humans. Thankfully enough had had the courage to communicate with the enormous creature and before long they’d been led to sown fields and forests rich in wild berries.

Asvarad had offered all of it to them, but not freely. He’d told them of the world's end, prophesied at its beginning, and asked for their help in preventing it. That was all. Not one of those first Humans had refused the serpent’s offer and before long Asvarad had even begun selecting ones among their number for schooling.

Aena asked Orwon more about that, but the man didn’t know much. It seemed Asvarad didn’t do much beyond teach. Almost everything else had been organized by those first arrivals and those who’d migrated in the days since. At that Turev had seemed to brighten and almost at once was boasting of things he’d supposedly done or accomplished to an increasingly skeptical Orwon.

Aena didn’t feel like digging him out of that hole, even if it did end up with Turev spreading dung on fields. So, she let him dig it for what ended up being the next day and a half. When they finally arrived at the wide cleared ground that was the local’s settlement’s center, where the dark bulk of the serpent Asvarad sat coiled devouring the afternoon sun, Turev had spun at least fifteen stories Aena thought had to be almost entirely imaginary.

Then again, seeing what she was seeing now, maybe not. Just about every living creature in the Serpent’s Crown was rapt as Asvarad, this land’s namesake, rose and spoke in their presence for the first time seemingly unbidden, “Worthless cur!"

Asvarad

The Great Serpent


The ground around Asvarad trembled in an echo of his fury as he shouted, spade like teeth bared in a snarl at someone only he could see. He glared at his servant with all six eyes as they nervously retorted with their own thoughts, “Hey hey hey! You didn’t tell me where to put the skull so maybe I chucked it in a stream when I got here, whoops, your bad. You made me!”

Asvarad felt his muscled tense and his vision narrow. Though he hated what he was, clumsy and limited, he was more than a match for a misbegotten wretch like this. His servant seemed to realize it and their fine scales lost some colour as they raised their hands, backed up, and amended the statement, “Ok maybe I uh, I didn’t follow the spirit of the request, but that thing is bad news ok? You made me enjoy crushing awful nippy maggots with my bare hands, which is just- I mean so- It’s seriously messed up, but I still hated carrying that thing!"

The great serpent pushed against his own instincts as hard as he could, through the addling haze that had clouded his vision and driven him to the edge of incandescent rage, and thought back with a cold chill that left his Servant shivering, “Go and find it. When you have it- Give it to me.”

Asvarad turned away from the source of his frustration and towards the increasingly agitated crowd of Humans. The rage contracted in the great serpent’s chest as an idea blossomed in his mind and he pulled himself together to address the gathering, “There has been an… Incident. I must ask for the aid of everyone here, those I have… Taught especially. There is a skull that holds the key to the world before this one, and it has been lost. I will reward whoever finds it.”

Odd as the request was, none questioned it. Almost at once his people began to organize and fan out, the serpent not issuing a single command beyond his speech. It was gratifying to not need a speech for every occasion, but as Asvarad watched even newcomers he’d never seen before joining the search he pondered the last time he’d needed to give one.

When he’d first met the Humans and given them his offer. Then hardly even a third of his audience had managed to come up with a question about this world’s true nature when prompted. Most didn’t even know how. On one side the event had allowed a smaller group to assert itself and organize the others without his interference, but on the other it was beyond discouraging to see so many struggle with what Asvarad knew they could understand. They just needed help.

And he knew he only needed the power of the nodes to help them. The very thing he’d wanted to avoid as much as possible until he understood what it was, if the knowledge Peninal had imparted on him was to be trusted at all, could help Asvarad and the Human’s alike grasp concepts they had no understanding of.

There was risk. With the nodes, there was always risk. They would surely only teach him and his Humans what they were supposed to know. Worse than that? He would have to claim more and more nodes just to access that information. Asvarad recalled the experience and shuddered at the thought, as much in anticipation as terror. It would be dangerous, and to more than his body.

Yet, the reward. He and his people needed more than knowledge and there was no resource like an unclaimed node. It was a perfect incentive, and it made the great serpent leery. He needed much, but what if he was playing too heavily into the game? What if the end began when chaos was banished? Asvarad crushed the thoughts as they came.

He would leave a bastion for chaos until he was sure, but he needed what he needed now. His people most of all.

- - -


His departure had been greeted with some uncertainty, but none had doubted Asvarad’s claim that it was necessary. Now though, it was he that doubted again. The swirling, flicking, madness of chaos stretched out before Asvarad as he approached the twenty fifth node and hesitated. He feared that he saw worlds ending beyond any counting in the infinite uncertainty. He knew that he saw his own.

Asvarad hated this world for the prison he feared it was, but after the hideous insubordination of his Servant he found that he was capable of yet greater anger. And he loathed the idea of all that was, him included, being washed away because he was unwilling to do what he had to. With a growl he did as he had done once before and set course for a vacant node, slithering across the unmade world.

But this time was different. He did not see what had changed, but he tasted the bitterness of charred metal and felt unseen sickness claw at his insides. Darkness that seemed to contract and flex around Asvarad obscured his sight as he searched for the danger that had left him coughing up bright blood from pained lungs.

He was being killed and could not see his attacker. The realization struck the weakened serpent like fire, and without reservation he poured his power into a wish to buy him time. The center of one wide tooth began to glow in Asvarad’s mouth as enamel turned to azure crystal that shined faintly at first but then more intensely with every passing moment. The taste of metal and blood vanished as Azvarad’s invisible wound healed, but the danger had not passed.

The brightening glow from the great serpent’s tooth served as warning, something was getting closer. It was that movement which gave the beast, the vast titan of chaos treading through unreality, away. It was invisible but for the air around it glowing and cracking with sickly colour that Asvarad had mistaken for distant lightning and not the madness that it was. Something had been born in chaos. To look at it, to be near it, was to suffer. If Asvarad had ever doubted his fears as to this world’s nature, then he did no longer.

The great serpent beheld not a guardian or defender, nor a soldier or warrior. He saw malice given form by evil. For the moment he was protected, his defenses proof against the monster’s unseen poison, but with every motion it made to approach him Asvarad felt the gem in his tooth vibrating as it burned with light, and he knew he was still in danger.

Panic overtook him and he all but leapt at the distant node. The serpent’s muscles burned as he raced towards the monolith as fast as his body would allow him, but his pursuer had not been taken unawares. Where before it had been content to slowly poison Asvarad, now it screamed.

The great serpent listened and regretted having ears to hear at all. Every living scream of terror or inanimate shriek rang out in a dissonant harmony, but only for Asvarad. The gem in his tooth began to hurt and he knew he was not faster than his pursuer, but he could tell it made no difference. Chaos manifest had not realized Asvarad was protected until it was too late to stop the serpent from getting what he wanted.

He reached the node and threw his momentum into coiling around it, clinging to the obelisk desperately. The power of the node rushed through him and as he turned to face his pursuer the flickering world froze and the beast was fleeing. Asvarad felt an ocean of power buoying him that he willed to violence. Nature twisted and the vastness of a mountain was flung at the apparition that’d nearly claimed the serpent’s life, but the great plume of dust and rubble that erupted from the impact obscured any certainty of victory.

Somehow, he knew it wasn’t enough. But with no sign of the beast Asvarad put the monster out of his mind and focused on the task before him. He took hold of the power running through him and willed the dark ground around the node to sprout trees whose roots reached greedily into the world’s heart and pulled up every treasure that they found was there for the taking. Dull bark spotted with dull metals or shimmering gems defined the trees at first, but they were feeble. In the face of such horror as he’d witnessed Asvarad could not help but demand they be more.

They grew, and they grasped ever more tightly at the world's bounty. The largest were a thousand men tall, and they stretched out above a canopy of ‘lesser’ cousins no less than half the giant's height. Their bark abandoned pretense, growing thick and metallic. Some few turned to great spikes of crystal as the jewels they'd gouged from the depths of the world grew alongside them. The trees dominated the land but were not alone on it.

Flowering vines wrapped around the living towers and all manner of birds and bees swarmed them. On the ground odd yellow mosses and lichens thrived in the relative darkness under the vast canopy alongside the curious reptiles that trod on and ate the peculiar foliage. Everywhere Asvarad looked to create what his people would need, resources, food, and stability.

He pushed and pushed until once more the task lay finished. The node lay claimed, the knowledge he sought secured, and the creature that had nearly taken his life banished. Then, for the first time in his short life, Asvarad felt he could no longer hold any one of his six eyelids open and began to buckle under his own weight. He was so tired. His body, and his mind, finally crumbled under the strain as the serpent passed out.

Asvarad dreamed he had someone else to take on the weight, wished for it, and thus empowered a sapling just born thought it would be so. A little knight. The odd moving tree, not so different from a man in shape, rose and watched as its creator slumber in a deserved sleep.

It, the Forest’s Sentinel, would do its best to live up to the promise it’d made.



Turev

The Traveller


They left in groups of tens and twenties, the first peoples of a world spreading out across its face. Turev had watched them depart idly. Most trailed after one of the strange creatures that’d been gathered around the odd stone at the valley’s centre before they’d started recruiting. The bearded man, garbed in little more than a few wide leaves strung together with their own stems, had caught bits and pieces of the ‘gods’ speeches and hadn’t yet been keen on sticking around to follow any of them. He didn’t doubt there was bounty beyond the chaos the self proclaimed gods cut into and dispelled for their followers, but what of it?

Turev had seen the edges of the world shiver and crumble. He’d borne witness to grassy meadows and towering peaks erupting from the face of nothingness itself. Each time it happened he thought of only one thing: how glad he was to still be here and to not be caught up in such upheaval. Still, Turev was a man. A tree could stand sentinel over this valley for its whole life, but a man? His mind wandered, his curiosity grew, and when the last of the eye watering chaos in the far south crumbled into familiar order Turev made his decision.

This valley was one place among many, now, and he figured he’d like to see them all. Besides, he couldn’t get a lick of good sleep as long as that hideous multi-headed thing was around and liable to get bored if it spent much longer pacing around the black stone its creators had fussed about. The last person who’d gotten close had been chewed up and spit out. Turev counted his blessings and turned his back on the beast and its charge. Some had come into being with families, charges, reasons they might stay and brave the danger or risk it all and follow a supposed god into the end of reality itself for a chance at something more.

He’d opened his eyes and found himself alone on the same hill where he now stood. Turev felt no need to risk his life, not when it was all he had in this growing world. Thankfully, he didn’t need to. Another enormous creature, one among the ‘gods’, had carved a trail into the world days past and in the time since many had followed the path. Turev figured that was as good a place to start seeing this new world as any and started the journey from the hilltop he’d called home. Uncalloused soles felt the tickle of virgin grass as yet untrod upon and Turev grinned.

He wondered if he’d ever stop walking.

- - -


Twelve days later, he stepped on another damn rock and decided he’d had enough, “Trail my ass! This is just loose dirt and jagged rocks. Aena just give me damn a pair of those wooden things with the straps already? Aena?”

Turev looked over at the woman he’d run into a few days back. As clever as she was unhelpful, Anea had already solved the walking all day problem. She’d also refused to even consider furnishing her travelling companion with a pair of the makeshift shoes after Turev laughed at the idea and disparaged their practicality when she’d first shown him.

The diminutive blonde woman snorted and voiced her reply without even bothering to glance in Turev’s direction, “I don’t know Turev, what about your feet? How will you valiantly carry me off if you’ve also got, what was it? ‘A half dozen bloody splinters in each heel’?”

Turev groaned and jogged up to her, his eyes set on the rocky ground in front of him. He complained, “I’m still not sure I won’t, but it’d beat this. Show some mercy Aena!”

“How about you show some humility, you big idiot.” Aena retorted as she tossed something she’d been fiddling with over her shoulder and straight at Turev’s face. With eyes set on the trail he didn’t notice until the wooden shoes made a meaty THUNK upon colliding with his nose and sending him to the ground.

Aena turned with a hint of concern, but mostly a barely suppressed grin, just in time to hear Turev start cursing, “Chaos itself woman! Watch your aim, I’m bleeding!”

He wiped at his nose fruitlessly, only managing to bloody his already dirt-caked fingers to the point that Aena withdrew a hand she’d outstretched to help Turev up. She shook her head and made her way to the edge of the trail where she pulled a handful of leaves off a tree. “Don’t be such a baby,” She chided as she handed the makeshift rag to Turev, “You’re two weeks old already, at least.”

“Ha ha ha,” Turev deadpanned as he wiped his hands and face off as best he could while pinching his nose. Leaves being what they were, he felt he didn’t really do more than spread the blood thin before he gave up and reached for the pair of shoes Aena had made for him. He donned the pair awkwardly, one hand still stuck to his nose, and stood with a groan. He shook his head and returned his travel companions ‘humour’, “You might be the only Human alive to attack people with the secret gifts you make for them, Aena.”

“Guess I'm unique. Just like you’re uniquely bad at catching Turev.” She retorted with a smirk.

He just glared at her and started walking, this time taking the lead. They passed the next hours of the trip in relative silence, occasionally debating stepping off the trail like others had, but neither had an idea where they were and two wasn’t an encouraging number to start a settlement with. By the time they struck camp night had fallen and they had a fire going courtesy of Aena’s wits and Turev’s now sore arms.

It was then they saw a group coming up the trail, the first of the strangers calling out as they saw the fires light, “Greetings friends! Might we share your fire?”

Aena squinted into the darkness uncertainly, but Turev waved back at them and shouted his reply, “My fire is open to all! Come, come!”

Aena rolled her eyes and hissed at him, “They might be thieves Turev! Other travellers warned us about the people coming back up the trail.”

“And what will they steal Aena, our shoes? The leaves on our backs?” Turev scratched his beard and went on, “Besides, they might have some food. Or information. Mostly uh, food though.”

As if on cue the man's stomach rumbled, and Aena’s wasn’t more than a moment behind his. Without another word in edgewise Aena nodded begrudgingly before setting a cautious eye on the group now making their way over to the fire in earnest.

The first of them, a man dressed in woven fabric and furs, set himself down with a grateful sigh as he explained, “Ah. That’s it, a warm fire and moment to rest. Ostan and I have been on the Serpent’s Trail all day, hoping to reach Brey’s Library. What about you? Making your way to the Serpent’s Crown?”

“The what?” Turev asked blankly.

Aena groaned and the second stranger, Ostan, laughed heartily as he sat down besides the first. He rebuked his fellow, “They’re on their way from the Birthland Erren. Not everyone was as excited to abandon safety for a little path through chaos as us. I doubt they’ve heard more than rumours of where they’re headed since they first set out, right?”

“That’s true,” Aena conceded, “I take it the Serpent’s crown is where that snake god settled down at the end of the trail?”

“That it is!” Erren chimed happily, “A place where the rains are warm as the streams and there’s plenty for everyone if you’re willing to work for it. More than that, it’s where we’ll save the world.”

“Didn’t know it was in danger,” Turev commented idly before adding empathically, “But a land of plenty you say? You lot wouldn’t have any food on hand, by chance?”

“Of course,” Ostan pulled a little satchel off of his shoulder and fished out what looked like dried meat. He passed the strips around until everyone had one, and only then spoke, “And it might be. Erren gets ahead of himself, but the Great Serpent Asvarad tends to provoke that in people. It seems that the god who created this world, now dead from what the Serpent says, spent his last moments propheizing its end.”

“Men.” Aena mumbled sardonically as she chewed.

Turev and Erren reddened, but Ostan just chuckled and agreed, “At least we know where we get it from! But it is what it is. Asvarad is looking for a solution, and he’s asked anyone coming to his lands to help out. If that worries you I’ll say it's not an unfair bargain. Food, real clothing, homes, everything we need is ready for us there and the Serpent has been working on teaching the cleverer ones more about the world.”

“So they can save it?” Aena asked skeptically.

“Catastrophe must be averted,” Erren intoned, “It might seem too good to be true, but Asvarad really is on all of our sides. Truly! If we can’t save the world with the Great Serpent then it can't be saved!”

Turev raised an eyebrow but only shrugged as he spoke, “Seems like as good a place as any. Aena?”

“Seems like,” She agreed, “How far off are we?”

Ostan scratched at the dark stubble on his chin and guessed, “A day or two? The pass isn’t far from here, you’ll be able to spot it and the mountains after you get out of this forest.”

“Not much farther than we have left to travel ourselves!” Erren added gleefully, “We’re heading to Brey’s library. Have you heard much of it? The few who’ve seen it say it’s a place beyond imagining, like a hut but ten, no! A hundred times as large!”

“Can’t say I know what a hut is,” Turev shrugged and added, “Thought I saw a weirdly round mountain off in the distance a couple of days back though, didn’t I Aena?”

Aena glared at him and asked sarcastically, “Before or after you saw another monster with a dozen heads?”

Turev waved her off and answered, “Before I think. Anyways, I might've seen it? You’d be walking more than a couple days to get there, I’d think.”

“Ah,” Erren deflated as he spoke, “Well, I suppose we’ll make do. Right Ostan?”

“That we will,” The older man answered, “A few more days won’t hurt you Erren. It’ll do you good if we have to hunt our own meat.”

Erren reddened and hurried to finish the last of his meat in silence. Ostan shared a smirk with Aena at the younger man's expense, but the conversation waned as the fire dimmed. When they were left with a smouldering pile Aena stood up and announced she’d take the first watch and Turev the second. At that he complained until she threatened to singe his beard off with a burning ember.

Before long though he was curling up on a softer patch of ground. Ostan and Erren did likewise and at last Aena was left alone with the stars and the soft snoring of tired men.

She never took her eyes off of them.




Asvarad

The Great Serpent


Asvarad, the serpent god, slithered across the world he knew and towards its dark boundary. Muscles wider than trees flexed, the god’s long body carving a deep trail into the ground below with every movement. Such was the serpent's pace that Asvarad neared the boundary by the time he even noticed he was being followed. Humans had seen a path and followed it thoughtlessly.

If nothing else, that proved to Asvarad that they were as foolish as his own kin. Seeing the chaos beyond the serpent didn’t need to guess at how likely it was a mere trail would protect his pursuers. They would all die. Before Asvarad swam a sea of possibility, and yet? It was structured, at times, in places. Searing deserts flickered out of existence only to be replaced by stinking flooded swamps which hardly lasted before being supplanted by a strange land of red stone and bloody fog. Reality crumbled, reconstructed itself, and all the while pretended it was never broken. As a last unkindness the region beyond the influence of the elder god’s node was also being blasted by weather that belonged in none of the places Asvarad saw it.

All this only told the serpent there were more possibilities in the chaos than could be imagined. Or perhaps, as many as there had once been. Asvarad had stopped moving and coiled up at the precipice, unconsciously positioned to strike in the face of a suspicion that frightened the serpent to his core. He’d suspected this world was a trap from what information he’d gleaned from Peninal, but this? It was only a suspicion, but Asvarad wondered if every possibility he saw in the chaos beyond was a reality that had once been only to be extinguished because there was no will strong enough. Or perhaps, it had nothing to do with will at all.

Asvarad beheld the certain death of his pursuers, and his own likely end if his worst fears were more than that alone, and decided that none should have to face it unprepared. He began to move again, still carving a serpentine trail into the world, but now it felt solid behind him in a way that the rest of this world did not. Where chaos encroached, the trail did not yield. So long as the humans kept to his path, they would arrive where he would. The serpent god would not be their caretaker, but if they sought to follow him regardless he would not deny a fellow prisoner his aid in escaping their box. Even if it was a hopeless struggle and this world was set to tarnish and wither until only a memory in chaos remained.

He would do what he could to avert that. Whether or not the crucible had birthed and slaughtered not just one world, but worlds beyond counting as the serpent god feared. As Asvarad caught sight of the twenty first node, his target, he thought again of the humans that made their way towards him, following a road with no protector, risking everything because for one reason or another they knew they could not remain where they had been. Mysteries and threats beyond counting beset him, so perhaps some company would not be so bad. Just to… Ease his burden.

With that in mind, Asvarad decided on a different plan for his node than the one he’d been considering. The others hadn’t left a positive impression on the great serpent, and so he’d meant to dissuade them by fashioning his node into an inhospitable and unwelcome land. That would not do now. Instead, Asvarad planned for something greater. The serpent reached the black node, and beholding it he wondered why these pillars were the foundation, but there was no time to study this one now, not while the serpent god’s peers set about claiming the whole of this world.

So he lunged for it. Asvarad coiled his body around a node that rose to prevent him from ever climbing it, though on instinct he tried. Such was the serpent’s enormity that within moments he towered above the swirling chaos below and felt the battery of weather unbound by the laws of reason, logic, and time. As Asvarad pivoted his head to bear witness to it all, it froze. Chaos halted, trapped as whatever it had been when he staked his claim to the black monolith he climbed and coiled around. It waited for him.

He was awash in a river of power, able to command its bend, ebb, and flow, but from the very moment he felt its touch Asvarad knew he was not its source. The power was intoxicating, it was everything that was, but the serpent god felt nothing in it but for the unease one might feel hefting a weapon they did not truly control. The serpent sat in the flow of possibility, able to foresee anywhere it might go, but unable to turn around. Asvarad could not behold the font from which energy beyond imagining stemmed and it nearly frightened him to the point of abandoning the idea of claiming a node at all.

But then what? Travel the world alone, unaided and weaker than his unstable fellows? Asvarad steeled his nerves and so poured his desire into the node, wary at all times that it would betray him. It did not. First a vast field of thick mosses, vines, grasses, and more besides shot out across the node to cover every inch of it. Then, when all the land had been rendered fertile, did Asvarad raise it. A terrible rumbling overtook the world and the lands of node twenty one began to rise as vast mountains that verged on the vertical pulled themselves from the dirt and flanked every edge of the node but for where the serpent’s road held them down and permitted a pass.

The mountains encroached into the interior, but there they began to fade and turn into the rolling green hills of an enormous valley. Warm water exploded from a thousand thousand springs and caves in the border mountains and colorful sediment filled rivers, still steaming, cut their way through towards the lands lowest point: the mysterious node itself. There a great lake formed, and at its edges wide fields already seeded with what would be lurid tubers and ashen grains. Asvarad had not willed that, but accepted it. The node read his desires, and he would not lie to himself and pretend he alone could uncover every truth.

Humans would be indispensable. To that end, he did not leave them a land of grass and steam alone. The vines in the soil, at the lightest prodding, swirled around each other and grew wooden and thick until they began to curl on themselves and rise from the ground in great bulbous trunks covered in little leaves. Species of vine both thin and thick rose and wove themselves into odd bulb trees great and small across the node. Some would bear succulent fruit, others strong woods to build with, and yet more varieties produced stranger things still.

Healing herbs, both for the body and for the spirit. That and, poisons. Those would grow only in dark caves and dangerous places, but Asvarad would not pretend he or his… People would have no use for them.

That done, Asvarad withdrew from the node as fast as he was able. That he would have to spend much time studying, even claiming, more of the things made the serpent god uneasy. The less introspective of his peers would not be able to resist that. Asvarad, terrified as he was, still yearned for the freedom and control he’d experienced as he twisted the world itself into an image he enjoyed.

It had not been by accident that his node resembled a fortress, only with walls miles high and caked in snow. The conflict Asvarad had feared at the beginning would play out, but this time it would not be remotely comparable in scale or devastation caused. Xavier had been a fool to talk them all down. It would have been better to have it out then, for them and for everyone else.

Especially for everyone else. Asvarad felt them enter his newly claimed territory, marveling at the land that awaited them on the other side of chaos, and began to slither towards the pass. He would keep to his word and never be their keeper, but they would need him to show them the fields, and warn them of other things besides. He needed them, in time, and so too did they need him.

It was disconcertingly neat, as natural arrangements went.




Asvarad

The Great Serpent


He knew it was a dangerous risk, and yet even after Asvarad had gained the knowledge promised by the dying elder god and spoken his piece to the bickering divines he had lingered. The action wasn’t impelled by some budding interest in his peers or their affairs, though one of them had prompted it. Asvarad had seen the inquisitive little grey one study the remains of their creator and if the short god’s hushed exclamation was anything to go by? He had discovered something worth knowing. The great serpent longed for the chance to explore that possibility and so took on the risk of remaining, but the presence of other divines precluded him from doing as he pleased.

Asvarad had many eyes, and so had noticed as one goddess paled to see what Eleanna had done. Another had cleaned and clothed the elder gods lifeless corpse when they’d first awoken. To meddle openly with the creator’s body would bias them against him, and while he hadn’t any interest in their friendship the serpent god was in no rush to make enemies. Whatever their attachment to the last victim of this world-trap, he would have to respect it. At least, he would have to appear to have respected it. So, while some of the divines began to head off, and the one named Benea’s ridiculous pet set to the task of turning the babbling Xavior’s proposal into a demand by wrapping itself around the node, Asvarad breathed in.

In the span of the serpent’s breath he watched Xavior build a tomb around the elder god’s body, another peer predisposed to needless sentiment, and Benea’s nascent little faction depart alongside her. Only as Asvarad watched them begin to shrink in the distance did he exhale, and when he did? His breath was alive. Before the serpent, invisible in the air, was a creature that could not be seen nor felt without magic or power. At least, when it didn’t wish to be.

Asvarad looked into the emptiness and shaped the air with the slightest exhalations. Coiled up in the warm sun he lounged away from the others, crafting his own servant in plain sight. The flowing currents of air, hidden from all but the serpent who was watching for them, took the shape of a gaunt approximation of a human. One whose hands had too many fingers and who looked out from two sets of serpentine eyes facing both ahead and to the side. In lieu of skin the servant sported minuscule fine black scales, and each one of their thick nails ended in a sharp dark point. When his servant’s body was complete Asvarad began to work on its mind. Unlike others, he had no need for a pet. A thousand thousand careful adjustments to a floating knot of air and power, and at last the invisible creature fell to the ground without a sound or any clear indication it existed at all.

It had been created with a purpose, and Asvarad welcomed it into the world with terse explanation and a projected thought laden with the serpent god’s authority, “Servant, you have not been created without reason. I require the skull of our-”

“Excuse me, Servant?” A shrill thought bursting with indignation cut off Asvarad and the Servant’s not quite Human features contorted in invisible annoyance, “You're naming me Servant!? And now I’ve gotta a pull skull out of a warm body!? That’s disgusting. I was just created and from what you bothered to put in my head I already know that’s disgusting.”

“I have given you no name” Asvarad thought back forcefully enough to give his creation a headache, “That is for you to decide, your obedience however is not. You will do as I ask. Whatever aversion you feel is passing, I would create nothing ill-suited to its purpose. Be grateful, of all creatures Servant you alone will always find joy in your work. I have made certain of it.”

For a moment Asvarad’s Servant simple stood there, half sunk into the ground and totally still. Any thought of learning how to walk without substance abandoned to listen to its creators painful retort, and issue one of it’s own, “So I have to scoop out brains, and I’ll enjoy it even if I don’t want to, but I get to pick my name? Geez, aren't I lucky.”

“More than you know, ingrate.” Asvarad’s thought boomed in the Servant’s head and took on a such a weight that it couldn’t be gainsaid or denied, “Fetch the skull as soon as it can be done without attracting unwelcome attention, bring it to the place marked twenty one on the map, and present yourself to me there. I’ve no time for this asinine quarrel.”

That said, or thought, Asvarad turned and slithered away with all the speed a small mountain of muscle could provide. The Servant watched their creator depart, carving a great path through grass and brush that seemed to attract a few of the humans already enticed south by the horned god and seeking an easy route, and cursed as it looked back to the node, “Just couldn’t have been created by one of the others. Nope, it’s brains and gore for me. Good thing I’m a freak who’s already excited just thinking about it. Stupid fucking snake.”

Of course, Asvarad hadn’t taught the Servant proper speech. Had he, those few who remained around the first node would have heard the increasingly foul-mouthed specter as it figured out intangible locomotion and made its way to the tomb Xavior had erected with a mix of anger, building exhilaration, and more anger about that.




Asvarad

The Great Serpent


Bright light bled through the serpents eyelids and soaked into his scales as he listened to the words of his dying creator and the subsequent babble of his peers. Through it all the serpent, Asvarad, thought. Over and over he considered turning away from the group before it devolved into violence, as it would, but the ‘gift’ of knowledge within the elder gods fading corpse, corrupted or not, held him back. To flee would be wise, but to remain ignorant would be the action of a fool.

Decided, Asvarad allowed his eyes to flutter open and beheld the world. The valley’s verdant grasses swaying in the gentle wind, the dark node, those curious upright animals, and last of all the others of his own get. He slithered towards the elder god’s corpse as the others crowded it. Every movement was ponderous, and though the serpent felt the strength of his body and the speed at which he could strike, he could not help but find himself wanting. More than that, look at the others: reflections of the animals in the valley below with few exceptions.

They were all so limited. The feeling only grew as the vast serpent all but pushed the others out of the way as he cautiously pressed the tip of his snout against the elder god’s dead forehead. Knowledge washed over him, and Asvarad began to laugh. A deep, thrumming, laughter that vibrated the ground around him and caused his bulk to shake in dark mirth. He pulled himself up, and began to tower over the others before speaking in a voice akin to his laugh, “Blind. All but the little grey one, blind. Quibbling over who must rule a trap. Poisoning and looting the only source of knowledge which could permit our escape."

The serpent had eyed them as he spoke, and it was in the most vocal that he perceived the greatest weakness. In truth, he perceived the weakness in speech itself. Plodding, slow, and aggravating. It only made sense, why allow prisoners anything but the most rudimentary form of communication? Well, some things could be corrected. With a moments focus the serpent worked upon its very mind, and when it spoke again it was an echo in the minds of others. More refined, clearer and less animalistic, but certainly with the same contempt, “Jump to play your fell game if you must, I will first understand it.”






So, this is a WIP, but only in the sense it's a first draft and will be full of spelling errors. If you want to judge off this, that's fine :)
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