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I think I'm outta here boys, on the off chance you ever need to find me then look on Discord. VMS#8777

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Lands by the River

The sun’s warmth was often welcome upon the bronzed back of Darius, but sometimes he longed for the respite of shade. So he found himself sitting beneath a date tree by the water, listening to the river’s gurgle. It had been a couple moons since the river had last gurgled and flooded, and now the rich sediments that its headwaters had spread across the plains and banks were bearing fruit.

Men, women, and children alike were all out there in the fields harvesting barley; others, the more agile, climbed up the trees in the orchards and along the riverside to pick at fruits. They knew nothing of clothing, and so looked almost like beasts even as they knew the ways of digging furrows and cultivating the grain, and of erecting crude hovels and shelters on the high hills away from the fickle river. Ah, and Darius still held the River-Spirit’s gemstone; he spoke for them all as he was still the mightiest of their people, even after this many years, and he worked alongside them too, for their culture had yet to grow lazy in the sun.

Even those who had been born gifted with the Sight toiled in the sun with all their kin. It was still undreamed of for anyone to not work in the fields, be it because they claimed some birthright, or because they had pretensions of greatness and felt themselves above such tasks, or even because they were specialized in other things. No, life was very simple here, and even Darius was just another humble man at the end of the day, albeit a bit taller, stronger, and more outspoken than the rest.

The day changed when the dirt next to him rose into the shape of a man. Darius jumped with a start, instinctively seizing up and raising a stone tool. Lions and other beasts roamed the untamed lands, and the slow, the ones that lacked vigilance, and the unprepared were sometimes carried away in those early days. Darius, of course, was none of those things, and all too ready to fight against the unknown.

Yet the featureless face did not seem to make any threatening motions. It turned and examined the area around, thinking aloud. “Hmm. This will do. Central location, and you already have fields to toil and defend. Yes, this will do nicely.” Voligan turned to look at Darius. “You are a leader of these people, yes? I am Voligan, the Earthheart. God of the Earth and the Craft. Champion of the Monarch. Gather for me your people. From them, select your most patient and precise. I have come to bless your people with the knowledge that will make their nights easier and their communities more stable.”

Even if it hadn’t declared itself a god, the earth-face’s manner of appearance and very nature would have made as much clear, so Darius heard his words and harkened quickly to obey. He ran to the nearest of his people, be they resting in the shade or toiling in the fields, and told them not to gather before the god right then but rather to spread the word. So it was that soon a few dozen heralds ran through the fields crying out for the people to set aside their work and gather by the river, and soon enough that was done.

Voligan looked around at the gathered crowd, those who had been brought before him, and those others from the most distant fields that were still trickling into the assembly. “I have come to teach you how to make bricks, and from them homes and walls. Sturdy creations that can be used to keep out the cold of the night, the wet of the rain, the heat of the day, and the predators that stalk the night. Those who make these bricks will not have time to work in your fields. Instead, they will be busy building your homes and walls. In return for this work, they will still be allowed to eat even though they have not gathered any food themselves.” He looked towards the designated brick makers. “Come, and I will show you how to build bricks.”

In front of the gathered crowd, Voligan showed how to gather the clay needed to make bricks, and how to identify clay that would be best suitable for bricks. You did not want clay that was filled with debris, for it would make weak bricks. He showed them how to gather and combine the clay, sand, and water into the batter that would be laid out into bricks. The mixture was important. Too much water, and your bricks wouldn’t set right. Too much sand, and they would be too weak to be of any use. Next was to ensure that they would be allowed to dry to set, removing the water once they had been laid out into bricks and protecting them from the elements, followed by building a kiln to fire them in.

Once he had shown the new bricklayers how to do their craft, he made them show him that they knew how to do their craft without his help. It took some time. There were errors, mistakes, that were brusquely corrected and undid to let them do again. Eventually, as the day neared its end, they were competent enough for Voligan’s satisfaction. “Good. You will build the homes of your people now.” He turned his attention to Darius once more. “Who is your leader? The one who directs all others?”

“I am called Darius, and I have spoken for and led these people for a long time now, since we encountered the River God who gifted us with grain, since we turned away from the cowardly prophet called Medes,” the greatest man in the crowd proclaimed.

Voligan looked over Darius. “Hmm. And what do you call yourselves and this place? It will need a name, and defenses soon, Darius. Dark things are making their way towards you, drawn by the scent of flesh and mortal blood. Your people will need an identity to protect themselves from such creatures.”

“We know of the dangers, the beasts that hide in the grass and in the caves,” Darius insisted, “the lions come often by night, sometimes even in day, and try to carry off whoever they can. And we know that this is their land – Nalusa, the Land of Lions – but by this river we have carved out a piece for ourselves. And the River Spirit has pledged his support for our claim here, by the most fertile of all the rivers, the one that is called Jiryaan Sefid!”

“We are just people here, like any other humans, but not like the whistlers in the hills. If other bands still led by prophets spoke of us, they might call us Darius’ People.”

“No, Darius of Darius’ people. I am not warning you of the dangers of beasts. There are creatures of my brother who are coming. They will wear the skin of your people, they will gain their trust, and they will consume them. It will be all the easier if you have no defenses and no identity. It is one thing to settle in an area and trust in the River Spirit. It is another to build around it. What do you call this land around the river? And where does your domain stop?”

Such revelations were disturbing. In these earliest of days there were few conflicts that set man against man, and while Darius possessed something of an innate understanding of such things (and it was that which lent him the will tochallenge the leadership of Medes) such things as war and murder, of skinshifting vertans, all felt so strange and foreign. Yet this ‘Voligan’ Spirit seemed more trustworthy than a prophet, so a troubled Darius could only furrow his brow and frown at what he heard.

“We had no thought to name this land, for we just know it as our own. But if you say that names matter, I will tell them that this land, this bend of the Jiryaan Sefid and further, as far as the fields we can till, is called Pasargad.

“But Great Voligan,” Darius went on to the true question, the thing that mattered to him most, “what manner of defenses ought we build? One great house, raised from stacking these hardened earth bricks that you have shown us the way to make?”

“Stacking these hardened earth bricks is the goal, but not for a great house.” Voligan shifted the earth around them to make a dirt wall. “You must build a wall, something that your people can hide behind and stand upon so that you can control who enters and exits Pasargad and more easily discover strangers among you. If you are attacked, you can hide those who have no skill at fighting behind the walls while those who are skilled can throw rocks at the attackers. It is a useful tool, and one that you should build soon.”

Voligan paused and then, with amusement added, “Hmm. It will also make keeping the lions out of Pasargad much easier.”

He looked over the gathered humans and their nudity. "Clothing will also help with cold nights and offer a measure of protection against attacks. I shall teach you how to use your flax to make linen, how to craft clothing, and how to sew the leathers together to better protect yourselves. Yes, that will be the start. The rest I'm sure you will figure out."

And so the folk were shown and taught, and they learned. When at last it came time for Great Voligan to depart, his work finished, that great visage in the Galbar’s clay sank back into the ground without a trace. That they could prove their gratitude and devotion to that benefactor, they assembled a great mass of burnt bricks about that spot and began to build a great mortared house to praise and commemorate Voligan. They built it tall, taller than the growing walls and ramparts even, as befit one of his stature. They built it so tall that it began to grow unstable, and so tapered its width as it grew. At the top it came to a point, and at the end they were left with a temple-pyramid that more resembled the shape of a mountain (by accident) than a house.

So as to remember also the River Spirit that was their protector, the gate nearest the river was given a massive wooden gate that they painted blue and decorated, and the walls bestride it engraved and carved with a great many depictions of the River Spirit and Darius. Behind that gate, they built a statue of fired clay in that other god’s likeness, and atop some other hill they built a temple to the moon.

Darius ruled them into his old years, working with the others until his body began to falter, and only then contenting himself to rest and merely overlook his city from the lofty heights of his abode atop a hill. Eventually he grew near to death, and in the moonlight saw a vision of what was to be done.

The king, well respected and still taller than most even in those venerable years, relinquished his rule. Cyaxares, the favored son of Darius and by then a mighty man in his own right, was proclaimed the next king. Under his rule the walls grew taller and thicker while the grasslands were fallowed into farmland further downriver than ever before. Darius’ stalwart abode was expanded until there was little hint of the modesty and humble nature of the man who had first laid its foundation; now, under that man’s son, it became a palace.

Time soon revealed that they had underestimated the space that they’d left to themselves within the walls and ramparts that they’d erected, so the fields beyond were pushed farther back and a second ring of walls was soon raised. After that, there was no question that Pasargad – the Enclosure – was the greatest city in Nalusa, its folk the mightiest tribe.

Cycle 5

Confinement left one with an appreciation for the smallest things.

The walls were padded with roiling darkness. There were no cracks or faults; meticulously and laboriously, every tiny facet of the hyperdimensional cage had been examined a thousand times over, and the architect of his prison had made no errors. And the prison’s occupant could not escape. These seals could not be broken from within, not even by a force cataclysmic enough to rend worlds asunder.

His sanity remained, even though all of his senses were now shrouded and worthless in the black void. There was nothing to see, nor hear, nor touch, nor smell… usually.

He could still See, if he meditated, and what else was he to do? Relive the betrayal a millionth time over? Stretch to relieve pains that could not ever be relieved so long as he was coiled up like a wire inside this accursed, tiny oubliette?

So he meditated, and his mind Saw – for all the Architect’s ingenuity, this prison could not contain a prescient mind quite so absolutely as it could a physical body – and at times, there was the radiant glow of salvation. It was a tiny, beautiful prick of light at the end of this all-encompassing black expanse. It was a stifled murmur in the shadows, the ghost of a smell, the faintest of tastes.

But it was so sweet.

His mind reached out to it through space and time, raging against the physical confines of his cage. What faint mental projections escaped from the Galbar’s core were too muffled for his enemies to sense, but not so faint that she wouldn’t feel the perturbations, if only she would look.

The North
Here be dragons! And worse things!

Further west, Raijin had landed. There were not so many rivers out here and he hadn’t seen any of the bjork dams; perhaps mortals had not yet conquered these wilder parts. So, without being so concerned about being sighted, the dragon trudged through the pine wood by foot. He left some very curious and large tracks with his four great big claws feet and his long tail that occasionally slid across the snow, but there were all sorts of big creatures out here with funny trails already.

Unlike some of the lazier or more mischievous dragons that had come here with Shen, Raijin wasn’t bothering with pilfering from the offerings of mortal shamans. He hunted on his own, and though he’d already earned a few swipes of a claw whilst slaying a giant grizzly bear, the glowing praise of his master was worth it.

Here, though, he’d come across another bear as it was feasting upon a huge stag. Still, there was something else besides the cloying, metallic scent of blood in the air. This one didn’t smell right; the odor of rot hung over it like a cloak. It didn’t look right. Bit of ragged flesh and fur draped down the sides of its ribs like curtains, and it was a wonder that the thing was still walking. On that note, it didn’t walk right. Its gait seemed unnatural and ungainly, as if it weren’t used to its own limbs, and yet it still moved altogether far faster than any bear should have, wounded or healthy.

And its head wasn’t right either, because it was charging right at the giant dragon rather than fleeing! He snarled through a cruel draconic visage, then he too charged forward like a bull. Where the two giants met there was fury and rending. Raijin’s scales were like stone and they held up well against the beast’s claws, and yet even as the dragon tore through flesh, the bear seemingly felt nothing. They wrested, bit, and clawed, trying to force down and finish one another, and yet both were utterly unyielding in their strength and fury.

With a great swipe that disemboweled the grizzly, Raijin felt a sense of triumph. But that glowing grin gave way to a horrified gasp when maggot poured out of the great wound alongside rotted guts. Still, the bear that was a wehniek fought on, dragging its guzzards through the dirt and snow as if they were no more hindrance than a sagging pair of pants! Its incessant slavering roars and growls seemed to have attracted more of its kind, for soon Raijin saw more darkened silhouettes bounding towards them from the shadows of the dense forest.

At this point, he began to grow panicked. He bashed his head into the bear’s own iron skull and then wheeled about to retreat for a clearing, but when he found it, to his horror the sun’s rays were oppressive, bright, and utterly unfazed by any clouds. It was so warm that the icicles in tree branches were weeping… it would be difficult and time consuming to conjure any rain or mist, and without that, a dragon had no means of swimming away into the sky.

’Thump-thump-thump!’ his heart pounded, so hard that it seemed as though the ground was shaking.

Agony coursed through him as one of his pursuers caught up and bit the end of his long tail. THUMP!The dragon spun about and breathed out a freezing mist, but the chill carried no bite for the wehnieks; once, they had been spirits born of that same icy aspect, before they’d been twisted by hunger. Still, they feared not the cold. THUMP!

Draconic claws rent and tore through rotted flesh, while putrid maws bit down on his hardened scales. Individually these monsters were frightening to be sure, but perhaps not big enough to truly maim his great serpentine body; however, together, this pack of them was overwhelming. The one that had bitten his tail held on tightly, and another one gnashed and tore and dug into one of his rear legs. THUMP! Raijin’s head was spinning as he thrashed about, biting into one of his assailants and gagging at the revolting taste that filled his mouth. The itself seemed to throb, no longer even in tune with his heartbeat.

Neither dragon nor wehniek had noticed the guardian until its gargantuan shadow fell over them and the pounding thumps of its footsteps ceased. It reached down and snatched one of the corpse-bears, crushing it in a display of might almost as gruesome as the gore that spilled from between its great fingers.

The gigantic guardian looked every bit a god, for it towered over even the highest of pines. Before its great stature everything was tiny and almost insignificant – a microcosm of the whole forest crowned its head, and that immaculate globe looked more regal than any golden circlet or laurel wreath or rack of antlers.

Raijin’s awestruck stare shattered in the next instant when the guardian’s fist slammed into another wehniek, pulverizing it as easily as a careless foot was wont to crush a flea. These spirits were rabid, but even they had enough instincts of self-preservation to show some dismay at this turn of events. It mattered little though; the remaining two or three only lasted a few seconds longer; how could anything evade those giant hands? How could even a four-legged beast, whether it could tire or not, hope to bound fast enough to outpace those huge strides of the guardian?

The massacre finished, the guardian turned its gaze to Raijin’s the sole survivor even as the wehniek spirits abandoned the ruined bear-husks and fled away in search of new corpses to puppet. But it looked at him almost inquisitively, as if unsure what to do. It probably hadn’t ever seen a dragon before – but before it could finish whatever deliberations were taking place within its enigmatic mind, there was a screaming sort of sound from high above.

The guardian and the dragon both alighted their heads skyward, only to see a fiery trail of glory as some crazed humanoid man was falling upon them with terrible speed and force, a great big metal pole in hand.

“HIYAH!” Shen roared as his battlecry, and with a resounding thwack he struck the guardian over its globed head so hard that it staggered down onto its knees, dazed. The pole became a gigantic bag, and then the master was suddenly yelling at him. “Great find, Raijin! You’re doing better than even Susanoo! But here, hold this thing, and held me get it open–”

The guardian shuddered, planting a hand on the ground as it readied to push itself up. In a panic, Shen took on his true form – that of a great golden dragon.

The two fumbled with the sack for a moment. It was really tiny compared to a dragon, but it proved quite stretchy and their giant claws got it wide open. And then as the guardian tried to stand once more and groaned with fury, Shen circled around it really fast and headbutted it right in the rear, such that it tripped forward over its own face and fell right into the open sack. There were a great many thuds and yelps and sounds of jostling that echoed out from inside the bag, but Shen closed it really fast before anything could escape.

“Close one! Ahoo-aha, ha-ha-ho,” he cackled.

“But what are we going to do with it?!” Raijin stammered, all thoughts of his near-death already replaced by overwhelming bewilderment. It started raining, and Shen’s golden scales gave way to rags as he once more became an old man, except this time wet and tired. And so, so very hungry. He found his rice pouch and nibbled on his dinner, biting the grain in half and letting it sit in his mouth for a minute so that it felt like he was cheating and eating tomorrow’s food too. Perhaps this diet wasn’t going to work out after all.

“Hmm, I’m not sure,” Shen actually confessed, “but the Plan is flexible enough, and a guardian this big will be useful for sure! Hmm, maybe once our invasion is over, we’ll even be able to induce it to make some new guardians to watch over the locale.”

“What locale? I thought you said that the Hivemind had already just about killed everything in its land?”

The god shrugged at that. “It can protect the wildlife then, I suppose. You know, the little bunnies and other critters.”

“What happens when you take one of these guardians away from the land it’s supposed to protect?”

Shen shrugged again. It’d be a science experiment worthy of a kynikos!

Fortunately for him, the incessant questions stopped when Susanoo fell down with the raindrops. The newcomer dragon landed with all the grace of a one-legged horse, which is to say that he slipped and slid in a puddle, splashing muddy water on his master and friend alike.

“My friend, you look worse for wear!” the fellow dragon began affably. Raijin only sighed in response.

The North
Where the wild things are!

A bitter coldness clung to the morning’s air; this was the north, and when winter came its chill could bite to the bone. The sun up here could at times feel almost anemic in the impotence of its warmth, even if the white snow was suffused with its light, reflecting its splendor more beautifully than anything save perhaps for the endless seas. On this day, however, the sun was not visible, for great clouds obscured the whole of the sky.

Fortunately, these were not the gloomy clouds of gray or black that heralded freezing rain and blizzards; these were white, wispy, and innocent enough clouds, like the warm breath of invisible giants.

Susanoo swam through those clouds where they were thickest and puffiest. He swam up there, high above the ground, not just to hide from prying mortal eyes but also because dragons like him could not truly fly. Though many of them took to the many isolated mountain caves and hollows of their homeland in the Great Dragon Range, and lived largely solitary and ascetic lives, they were equally at home in water; some of them lived in the rivers or lakes of that distant country, and a few of the most adventurous even dwelled beneath the sea. So dragons could swim, see, and swim through moisture of any sort, unimpeded by thickness or cold or hot or salinity… and clouds were wet enough for those magnificent serpents to swim through, and so they could fly in a sense, when weather permitted.

It was convenient that they could control the weather, of course.Susanoo brought the rain, and the wet rainclouds bore him onwards in this strange land. To keep his bearing, the dragon occasionally slipped into the lower, thinner reaches of the clouds where it was not so opaque. Everywhere below there was forest, lake, fen, and river. And along every lake and river were so many bjork dams. From above they looked like little wooden bridges!

He wouldn’t find what he’d come for too close to those dams, though. So he wandered away, over the forests, seeking out the telltale signs of rising smoke. Eventually he saw just one such plume, and so he conjured a light drizzle and made his landing a short distance from the campfire. On the ground, he coiled his great long body around a pine tree once, twice, thrice, and then stretched in some odd manner that bent scales into fur. What walked away from that tree looked nothing at all like a dragon!

Stealthily, he crept through the wood. Bjorks were not at their home here, away from the rivers; they were like awkward little toddlers in this land of savage and giant beasts, which was why most kept to the safety of their lodges. Most of them, anyhow. Here and there were the odd hermits, ascetic and hardy, that wore strange masks and worshiped some even stranger spirit. They lived (and died, in many cases, the dragon suspected) for the thrill and challenge of the hunt, and so they dwelled reclusively out in the forest and fought these beasts, and not even to eat them! The meat, and sometimes even parts of the useful pelts, they left abandoned in the forest in shrines.

The dragon, guided by his keen nose, had stumbled upon just one such bloody shrine then. He looked over the pickings; yes, these would do. He began scooping them all up when there was suddenly a garbled voice that cried out, “Halt!”

Susanoo the Bjork spun around to witness one of those strange shamans in a mask, the funny little mortal leveling a spear at him. It was rather impressive that the hunter had moved so quietly! An eddy of wind changed directions, and then that other bjork’s pungent stench reached Susanoo’s still-sensitive nose. It was even more of a surprise that the bjork’s reek hadn’t betrayed his coming.

“You would steal from the spirits, stranger?” the hunter demanded even as he edged closer. The bjork-shaped dragon didn’t flinch or back down, of course.

“Actually I was stealing on behalf of a god,” he smugly replied. “Collecting your tribute, as it were!”

Confusion lit the beady eyes that hid behind the mask, and then anger. The shaman came even nearer, holding his spear out so far that it threatened to push its point into Susanoo’s fur, but then there was a cracking sound. The thin layer of hoarfrost that had coated a boulder seemed to come alive, and it leaped forward.

The hunter immediately thrust his spear into the ground and knelt in obeisance, murmuring something that sounded like a prayer. “Nisshinek, forgive…” the dragon heard the hot-head whisper, and the strange ice spirit seemed satisfied. In placed itself firmly between the two bjorks, but then right on cue to sow the maximum amount of chaos, a third bjork arrived with a great big sack slung over his shoulders.

“How strange!” Shen exclaimed. The god walked right up to the nisshinek and bent over to look at it. The little spirit stared back curiously, and then Shen grabbed it and tossed it unceremoniously into his bag. “That one might be useful for later,” the god explained. “Now, Susanoo, let’s see what else you’ve found here. Hmm, hides, very useful. Of course we’ll need to cure and tan them into leather, then braid the strips, and we’ll need a lot more to build the ballistae…”

Pleased that the great and enigmatic Plan seemed to be taking shape, Susanoo eagerly assisted his master by tossing the bits into that sack. They’d been filling it for days with leather, timber, and other sorts of useful materials. Oh, and a couple of conscripts too. Somehow the bag never quite ran out of space, and all the stuff inside never spilled out or got broken around by all the jostling.

Another ice spirit appeared as if from nowhere, possessing a cloud of freezing mist, and it foolishly charged at Shen. A great sneeze erupted violently out of him; partially a product of that mortal guise, and equal part from the fact that he was an old hermit who usually lived in a cave. “What, are you trying to give me a rheum?” the god called out as he flailed about trying to swap the ice spirit like a fly. When he finally managed to catch it, it bit his finger, and with a yelp Shen let go and looked at the blackened tip.


“Phooey!” he called out, desperately rubbing his hands together. It was no use, he needed something else to get warm. The nisshi was meanwhile buzzing around Shen's ears, but Susanoo opened the bag really wide. A great whipping wind was created as air suddenly rushed into the massive void inside the enchanted pouch, and aided by a little bit of huffing and puffing, Susanoo managed to force the spirit into the vortex so that it was sucked into the bag, and then somehow he closed it again and returned it to his master's hand -- the one that Shen hadn't magically lit on fire.

In any case, the shaman, who both Shen and Susanoo had turned their backs upon and largely overlooked, bellowed out a roar of outrage. He seized up his spear, and as the two defilers before him spun around at the sound of his battlecry, he rushed forward with his spear…

Only to have Shen knock it aside with that gigantic bag. “Yield!” Shen called out as the shaman staggered to the side, his balance lost. The god really did look quite intimidating in that moment, despite subpar planning, if only for the fiery hand. Really gave him a nice demonic flair.

But the attacker said nothing, only raised his spear once more, and so the sack in Shen’s hands suddenly became a stick (for just a moment!) and with a sigh, Shen knocked out that hapless mortal with a single THWACK!

And then the staff became a sack once more.

Susanoo scratched his furry beaver head. “Should we put him in the bag too?”

Shen shrugged while shoving his half-frozen, half-burnt finger into that unconscious bjork’s drooling mouth. “Maybe he’d make a good spotter?”

They put him in the bag too. It was handy having a bag, for when plans went awry.

@Vec for Lachesis
The First War

The Hills of Western Nalusa

“A second time,” one of the men spat, gripping his crude club so tightly that his tanned knuckles became white as bone.

They found this group of men and women just like they’d found the first: skulls cracked, half their ribs shattered, tongues torn out, and the mangled corpses crudely thrown down and abandoned atop a nearby bluff in the dead of night. This gruesome display was the work of monsters, and yet not the work of mere beasts. Beasts wouldn’t have gone to such effort to mutilate and maim or to drag corpses up a hill, and moreover, common predators would have eaten their kills. Some of them already had, actually; the circling of so many vultures and a feeling of renewed dread had been what drew them to this hillock at dawn in the first place.

They all turned to their prophet. Some had eyes of fear, others of disgust, a few with steely resolve or even vacant emptiness that suppressed something else. “It is as I feared,” Kartar stated flatly.

Two of the eyes locked upon Kartar were filled with rage – something that not many knew in those early, distant days, in the time before all men even knew of the plough, before calendars, writing, metal, and war, when the ovens and kilns had first been lit.

Those two eyes alight with fire belonged to one Atash. Atash was a very strong man. As a boy he had slain a lioness with a spear, and as a young man its mate had finally tracked him down and attacked in the dead of night for vengeance. Yet Atash had awoken and strangled the tremendous beast to death in the darkness of the night. He wore their pelts always as his prize, and in so doing became perhaps more lion than man. Admired for his strength and courage, he was, even if they called him the Lion of the Night; he would have been respected and perhaps followed too, if not for his wild and crude mannerisms.

That all changed on this day, when Atash demanded that their tribe’s leader and prophet answer for his failings.

“So you say that you Saw who killed our hunters three days ago,” the Lion of the Night began, “and when I said that I would lead the hunt to slay these monsters, be they lion or worse, you said that they were no beasts; that you had Seen their killers a people like us, and that they might be reasoned with. And here these of our people have died for nothing, the folly of your weakness, your short-seeing Sight, your desire to speak to our enemies. I will suffer no talks with whatever things did this to my brethren. I will slay them and wear their hides! I swear it by the sun and by moon!”

There was dead silence, and then a dozen murmurs at once. Such oaths were not to be taken lightly, and his tone and words to Kartar were not at all becoming. “Do not speak to the prophet like that!” a brave man cried even as he reached out to try and grab Atash by the shoulder, but the Lion brashly and easily pushed him away. “Let the fool speak for himself,” Atash declared to the one who had objected to him, and also in sight and hearing of the ten others who had thought the same but feared to challenge the Lion.

Kartar scowled, but he paused to contemplate a response. Atash raised his arms, a lion on each shoulder, as if to show all those assembled that they ought to take this brief silence to be something like foolishness, something like a lack of an answer. But Kartar gave his answer soon after, “Others have walked that way before, and returned unscathed. There is surely a message of some sort to be uncovered here; we may not need to fight the folk of that hill, if only we can come to understand them!”

Atash had no words for Kartar; his lips only quivered while his nostrils flared. He lowered his arms, and Kartar stood triumphant for a moment, thinking that his wisdom had prevailed. But Atash turned his back upon the prophet, looked to the others, and softly spake, “So you have heard his words. You will know why I must do this; if not, then perhaps you are cowards and weaklings too, and deserving of the same fate.”

Then Atash spun about and raised an arm once more, only this time to strike Kartar. Once, twice, across the face and in the gut he struck the man. He battered the prophet, and he knocked their disgraced leader to the ground. They all bore witness to the scene: some had eyes filled with spite, others with fear, and yet others with agreement. But in the end, none had stopped the Lion of the Night from seizing the prophet’s place and casting him down in shame.

They returned to the rest of the tribesfolk at their camp, and King Atash reiterated his vow and his vendetta tenfold. That night they began making all the necessary preparations, knapping sharp new spearheads and carving even more heavy clubs.

In the nearby foothills, not long prior

Garza frowned so much that he was known as the Frown. His mouth was always set in a straight line and his brows were ever furrowed so that he always looked - at the very least - deeply unimpressed by whatever he saw. All who knew him considered it a great mercy from the Magnificent Sleeper that the maramoda lived in the darkness belowground and so could by and large avoid the torture of seeing his constant frown while lazing in the warm depths of their burrows.

Still, no one living in a community - maramoda or otherwise - could get away with wearing a frown all the time unless they could impose it with force or fear. Garza had mustered both.

It had occurred on the day he shed childhood and became a maraman. He was sat outside the burrow, as one does, staring off into the distance and wearing a deep frown when one of the others, an established warrior called Utu who had hunted an elephant or two in his time, walked by him. Utu gave Garza one look before slapping him round the face and hissing at him in a barely audible whisper to, “get that frown off your face.”

Shocked and startled, Garza looked at him with wide eyes and a deep scowl, which caused Utu to strike him again, harder this time. Incensed, Garza rose and shoved his face into that of the other, and they stood flaring their snouts and glaring into one another’s eyes. Utu shoved him with a shoulder, but Garza was hardly moved and, leaning back, smashed his broad forehead right into the other maraman’s snout. Blood exploded from Utu’s nose, who then raised his claws and slashed Garza across the forehead. Catching Utu’s offending hand before it could be withdrawn from his bleeding forehead, Garza headbutted him again across the snout, then again as Utu flailed and tried to shove the scowling maramadman away.

Once he had bashed him so much that Utu was on his knees before him, Garza proceeded to hammer at Utu’s face from above with the side of his fist, at points jumping and bringing his fist hammering home with all his bodily force. No matter how hard Utu flailed and blocked with his one free hand he could not stop the excessively violent onslaught. He took it all in silence, however, not a squeak or shout of pain escaping his lips; he would have sooner died than give off the squeak that awakened the Magnificent Sleeper and his wrath.

And die he would have had Garza had his way, but the rest of Utu’s party soon appeared and, seeing the sight, rushed forth and parted the crazed scowler from the unconscious Utu. One of them, a veteran and elder called Urma, tapped his temple sharply at Garza with a frown - are you mad?
Garza looked away with a scowl and huffed, flicking his wrist towards Utu - it was his fucking fault.
Urma scoffed and gestured at Utu with his snout while drawing a claw across his throat - you nearly fucking killed him!
Garza rolled his eyes and raised his brows briefly - he deserves it.
Shaking his head, Urma left Garza where he was and gestured for the others to drag Utu inside before moving to follow them. He glanced behind him and signalled for Garza to get back to keeping a lookout, and the young maraman rose and looked at Urma with a deep frown… then nodded.

That frown never left his face after that, though it was many years later - when he threw the chief Sagma and nearly cleft his head in twain with his claws, and so usurped the title of chieftain for himself - that everyone came to call him Garza the Frown.

He was sat above one burrow entrance, a habit he had kept to since the day he pummelled Utu, when the furless aboveground urchins had come shouting and screeching in their fleshy, wet language. That was all some days ago now. He had seen them long before he heard them, of course, but contented himself with leaning on his fire-hardened spear and watching until it became clear that they were heading right for the burrow, at which point he signalled to one of the lookouts below to send a warning through and gather a party to intercept the furless urchins if the need arose.

On any other day, he would likely have led an attack to disperse and warn them off long before, but he was in a rather good mood on that particular afternoon - despite his perpetual frown. That quickly evaporated when the urchins started screeching as they came near enough to begin their ascent towards the burrow entrance, and Garza leapt from his high vantage point and charged without a word. The party that had gathered at the burrow entrance followed him after a few seconds, charging down the hill on all fours with their tails wrapped about their spears. They raised them high as they charged and - but for their breathing and the pounding of their heavy feet against the ground - the charge was most notable for its deathly silence.

Of course, in the heat of the moment, panic overtook those humans and they failed to even make note of that perilous silence. Not knowing what offense they had committed, the foremost emissary raised up his empty hands and cried out for peace, shouting that he meant no ill. His companions had brought arms, though. Even for such a mission of peace they remembered well the grisly fate of the hunters who had been slain in these hills, and it would be foolish besides to ever roam the Nalusite plains without something to fend off lions and other beasts. Some of those brandished their clubs or spears high in warning even as they held fast and advanced no further. With wavering resolve, one of the younger lads looked back over his shoulder. He was visibly shaking, and terrified of the prospects of meeting the charge of the maramoda. In that moment, he contemplated fleeing.

The lumbering giants of the marmot race left him no time, however, as their well-fattened forms came lurching forth and then - rather unexpectedly - leapt to close the final distance between them and those furless urchins. In that leaping second spears switched from tails to hands, and the maramoda rained down like a hail of fleshy spears upon the hapless lot.

The spears of the maramoda found their targets well, and when the spears of those noisy enemies managed to dig into a maramoda they sunk into well-fattened forms and left little in the way of serious injuries. It was less a battle and more a swift race to silence their raucous screeching. When they were done, however, Garza the Frown was in a foul mood. He walked among the dead and where he found the slightest signs of fading life he snuffed it out with fleshy hammering on heads, necks, faces. He wrenched mouths open and clawed out tongues. Seeing this, the others swiftly started imitating him, bashing even the heads of the dead. Crossing one who looked rather young - with no fur but wisps on the upper lip - Garza took the corpse’s head up in his two hands and, stepping on a shoulder for leverage, pulled with such force that the head came tearing off with a good bit of spine. He inspected his gory works for fleeting seconds before letting the head drop and moving on. They returned to their burrows and mates drenched in blood that night, and the marawomenfolk had to use all their powers of will to restrain their cries and moans as those bloodied victors celebrated their triumph night-long.

When the sun rose, Garza was on his perch to greet it, his eyes scanning the plains. He paused on the bodies of the urchins every now and then, and huffed in irritation. When they had become such an eyesore that he did not wish to see them anymore, he signalled to one of his warriors to gather up a party and go throw the corpses on some far off hill where the smell would not disturb them and the sight would not mar the view, and so they had done just that.

The Forest Beyond





And another.


Andromeda cast stone after stone into the river with one hand, her ewer never leaving the other. None of these rocks were flat or good for skipping; it seemed that in their zeal to gather anything pretty that could be woven into clothes, the swarms of yareners had plucked up not just the shells but also most of the smoothed little riverstones.

The encounter with Masol’s two lackeys still had Andromeda upset.

There was little to be done about it. Even while she sat there brooding by the riverside, zenii trickled by all day to try speaking with her. The sudden fame and attention of so many strangers had been nice (or at least interesting; she’d always been shy) at first, and the cajoling of her newfound sycophants that much moreso, but now she just wished that her celebrity status could go away and that she could return to being just another zena. Alas, that was never going to happen, not after she’d been declared the Watcher’s chosen one, and given this murderous ewer, and summoned by the Lady herself, and given the Lady’s own dress…

There was a way to get some peace, she finally realized. She’d be able to find it in the forest all around the valley, with those great foreboding trees and the gloom of their shadows. Masol had of course forbidden anybody from wandering alone out there like this, but his word didn’t seem to mean much at the moment, and Andromeda especially was not so fond of him after his goons had tried to intimidate her into visiting his blackstone. Others had gone missing, and rumors were that the skin-changing ‘witch’ Nimueh lurked out there and had murdered somebody, but Andromeda wasn’t afraid.

Something had driven away her fear: maybe it was the Lady’s robes that gave her courage and reckless abandon, or maybe it was all the adulation of the other zenii, or being told that she was the Chosen One of the Watcher, or knowing about the ewer’s terrible power. But whatever it was, it eventually overcame her. When night fell and the Watcher’s pale moon rose into the sky, and beads of strange liquid light began condensing once again within her ewer, a restless Andromeda finally ventured toward the wood.

Some of her flock were still awake, and she didn’t hide her passage from them. When asked, she told them that she was going into the woods to find some quiet and peace, or to find Nimueh – whichever came first. Maybe even both. Some had valiantly offered to accompany her, some had tried to dissuade her, and some had just grown quiet and pale. She brushed them all aside and ventured out into the forest alone.

Moonlight wasn’t enough to see by beneath the shadows of the countless branches overhead, but the Moonstone Ewer emanated enough of a glow for her to get by… and by some supernatural sense, she just innately knew where to step, it seemed. No roots or pits in the ground made her trip or stumble, even as she ventured deeper and deeper into the dense wood.

At first a wolf howled as she stepped deeper into the woods. As if it warned its kin. Eyes began to watch her from the dark. Things were moving in the bushes. Nightly aerial predators took off from the branches. The forest started to buzz with life. Until suddenly an owl hooted loudly from a branch somewhere deeper into the forest still. Things skittered away and the wolves went silent. As quickly as it had come, the sense of activity died down again. Leaving Andromeda completely alone in the forest. Well, not completely alone. One pair of glowing eyes watched her from a branch deeper into the forest.

Andromeda paid the eyes little heed, eerie as they were, for the ewer’s light seemed to stave them off. But as she saw the spectral light reflected in a new set of pale orbs, ones that didn’t examine her for a moment and then just scurry away, she remembered that they’d said Nimueh could change forms. Why had she been expecting to see some feral zena out here?

“Are you Nimueh?” she asked the darkness and its eyes.

Before Andromeda’s eyes the owl transformed into Nimueh sitting on the branch. “What do you want with me?” She looked tense and ready to jump. She moved her hand as if she was lazily spinning some ethereal strands. With the other hand she kept her balance on the branch. Her eyes were going over Andromeda but then focused on the ewer she had brought with her.

“Uh,” Andromeda thought out loud. Feelings had guided her out here moreso than logic, and now it was hard to even explain what she wanted. “I came out here where it’s quiet, to get some rest from all the others. But I was hoping I might see you too, so that I could hear your story. My name’s Andromeda, and I was just a yarener, but then the Lady gave me her dress and also this thing” she rambled on, holding the shining jug out just a bit for emphasis, “on behalf of some other goddess called the Watcher, who lives on the moon. I’m supposed to be the Watcher’s chosen one and to build some sort of congregation, but I haven’t ever even seen the Watcher and, like, it’s all very confusing and fast. I don’t know what I should do!”

She huffed, and then blushed, suddenly aware of the awkwardness of spilling out her life’s story. “But the Lady’s tale about the Watcher seems to have made Masol’s tales all seem like lies, so now everyone’s upset at him. And I think he might blame me for that, because he sent some of his goons to try and drag me away. I’m fine of course, but it had me wondering about what else he might have, uh, possibly… made up?”

“You met the Lady!?” Nimueh exclaimed as she jumped up to stand on top of the branch. There was a split second where it looked as if she wanted to run but something kept her. For a moment she shook her head and gave Andromeda a weak smile. “Did no one tell you that the forests aren’t safe anymore?” In a split second she transformed into an owl and flew down from the tree. Once on the ground she transformed back. “They really aren’t.” She continued as she approached Andromeda. “Even now like a hundred animals want to claw at your flesh. Don’t worry! I’m keeping them away. I’ve been keeping them away from so many zenii so far.” Nimueh stepped just close enough to Andromeda that the shine from the ewer illuminated her quite well now and she looked beyond exhausted. Massive bags had formed under her eyes but she kept on smiling as best as she could.

“You mind if I sit? I really want to sit.” Nimueh said and even as she asked and received a nod in answer, she bent her knees and sat down. Then she motioned for Andromeda to do the same. “You wanted to hear my side of the story right? It’s not that much different than the tale they tell back at the blackstones.” And then she told her story. About how she learned about the Beast Queen, about that fateful night when she killed a zene, about her encounter with the Beast Queen in her dream. She told Andromeda everything.

And when she finished she kept looking at the ewer. “So… what else has the Lady said when she visited you?”

“Well, it all happened so fast. It felt like the Lady told me so much, but thinking back, it feels like I’ve almost told you everything already. She liked the yarene that I’d woven for myself, with some shells in it,” Andromeda explained, blushing a little bit at even that modest self-praise. “That was why we traded clothes… oh, and she seemed to be in a rush, and she left saying that she was being called away for something else.

“And I believe you, about the Beast Queen and about the animals. How could I not? It seems like the Beast Queen chose you just like the Watcher chose me. I saw the animals watching me, but I didn’t realize that you were holding them at bay – I thought it was my dress, or this Ewer, or the Watcher, or something… but thanks for that. I…I could have defended myself. I know that this thing in my hands can kill, and I almost used it when Masol’s friends tried to steal it and drag me away, but… I really don’t want to.”

Nimueh let out a sigh of relief when she heard that Zenia was gone again already. It looked as if a physical weight dropped from her shoulders though she still looked very drained, and of course she was naked – something that only added to her feral and disheveled aura. Then she looked with pure admiration at Andromeda. “You’re so lucky to have met her like that. The yarene you made must’ve looked so pretty.” She noted almost absent mindedly but then her eyes began to slowly fall back at the ewer beside Andromeda. There was absolutely no doubt in Nimueh’s voice about the claim that Andromeda met the Lady. How could she be in doubt when she evidently wore the goddess’ own dress?

“Thank you for believing me about the Beast Queen, by the way. I think you’re the first one to do so. Which is stupid. The foresters, they should know that there are other things in the woods than themselves. It’s like they never felt the spying eyes of a specked bark sparrow on the back of their heads.” Nimueh stopped herself and took a deep breath to clearly calm herself. “I’m sorry. Just – you’re the first zenii I get to talk to in just a very long time.” She pulled her knees to her chest. “You’re smart to not have killed anyone.” Nimueh’s tone became a bit melancholic. “But what are you going to do now? I don’t think Masol’s going to just let all of this happen. He’s very dangerous.”

Andromeda offered a smile back, hoping it would help to calm Nimueh… the wild outcast had offhandedly mentioned a strange bird that no other zenii spoke of, and moreover, even her demeanor was erratic and strange. Being alone out here seemed to have taken a toll of some sort, and truthfully Andromeda was beginning to feel sorry for her.

She mulled over the question for a while before saying anything. “I’m safe enough from Masol; there’s a lot of people who like me, and I think he’s losing his grasp over his own crowd. And of course you’re safe. He can’t find you out here, and even if he did, you could just turn into a bird and fly away again. Or you could unleash all these beasts on him.

“As for what comes next, I’m not sure. The Watcher might try to finally speak with me – it’s frustrating; I think I’ve felt her presence before, but she’s never used words, she just shoves thoughts and pictures into my head. But, perhaps I can at least help you. Those that didn’t listen to your voice and warnings about the Beast Queen might heed them if I repeat the same. Of course, I don’t think all of them will ever listen. Some foresters will laugh and bring baskets out here no matter what you or I try to say.”

“They’re already laughing and doing that.” Nimueh said before she released an exasperated sigh. “If only a few would listen I’d be so grateful. I might get some rest then. Thanks for wanting to try at the very least.” Her eyes shifted towards the ewer. “As for this Watcher, this is going to sound stupid but have you like tried to pray to them and ask for some guidance? I did it once, to the goddess of magic. They actually answered. Though they prefer the name ‘Keeper’. Still, they taught me about magic, in a way.” She waved a bit with her fingers near the grass next to her. They lit up as a lazy wave of green energy traveled around them and then disappeared again.

The sparkling mana coursing through that tuft of grass transfixed Andromeda. It was beautiful, and gentler than whatever power animated the ewer’s water, whatever power had twisted grass into those jagged jewels. “Of course I looked up at the moon and tried to pray, to just ask what to do really, but the Watcher never seems to answer in words. I know that she sees me because the Lady says that she chose me, and because those strange compulsions that she, uh, pushes onto me can’t be explained by anything else that I can think of. But the Watcher already, like, watches me. Watches us, probably…”

The zena’s words trailed off rather abruptly, as though she’d still wanted to say something else. Her lips quivered, her arm trembled, and for a moment her eyes were suddenly alight with the flames of madness. After a short and intense (but ultimately unwinnable) battle of wills, a compulsion overwhelmed her and her arm spasmed just enough to shake a splash of water-that-wasn’t-water out of the ewer. A gasp and a scream left Andromeda’s mouth even as the beads of glowing liquid seemed to soar and fall in slow motion… everything seemed to move so slowly. The expelled fluid gracefully seemed to arc away from Nimueh and Andromeda both; it fell squarely atop the grass that had been animated by Nimueh’s magic, and the last tiny spark of green energy was smothered and extinguished. Nimueh tried to dash back when the liquid went flying but she fell over her own feet and ended up lying stretched out over the ground. When she looked back she noticed the mirror forming on the ground.

The grass didn’t burn and turn to diamonds, not like last time. Instead it flattened itself to the ground, making way, as the liquid thinned out into a puddle larger than it ought to have been able to produce; the tiniest film of liquid covered a patch of the ground with a near translucent sheen. Strange shapes reflected in the beads mirrorlike fluid; it wasn’t the grass below it that their eyes were Seeing. Images of unknowable things that must had been demons and gods flashed by; there was the Lady, there was a dancing woman with a face painted in joy and in sorrow and a stump of an arm that oozed red sap, a horse with tentacles, an obsidian horsefly, and others. The last was just the empty moon’s reflection, but of course closer examination revealed that this wasn’t the moon’s reflection (that pale orb was obscured by the canopy above) and neither was this empty… a glowing eye was set into the socket of its greatest crater, and the countless chasms and fractures scarring the moon was magnified in size such that they resembled vast, branching veins of black blood. The Eye was terrifying, or beautiful, or some combination of the two. But then the Eye blinked, and they Saw Masol for a moment by his blackstone.

“What in the name of the forest!” Nimueh exclaimed with wide eyes as the visions on the surface flashed one by one. The zena couldn’t make sense of it. But there was something strange about the mirrorliquid itself. Out of pure instinct she suddenly transformed into a rat.

And then it all made sense. It was blue. The mirror was turning the mana around it blue. Not some mixture between blue and green either. The hue of all the mana it touched changed irrevocably and completely into blue.

Andromeda still knew nothing of mana, of course, and Saw only what visions the Prescient One conjured for them. Her own gaze had been bonded to the magical mirror and its visions, so when she finally turned her head for just a moment she was startled to see Nimueh gone; she didn’t even notice the little rat in the shadows.

“What do you want from me?!” she shrieked into the ewer and the puddle and the night and at the moon, but there was no answer. The likeness of Masol reflected in the puddle was plotting, and talking specifically about her, and it felt as though the wind carried the zene’s words into their ears, but the sounds were distorted and not so easily discerned. Soon enough the puddle evaporated into that same breeze and then there was just the rustling of leaves.

Nimueh shifted back into her zena shape and carefully put a hand on Andromeda’s shoulder. “I think they’re trying to warn you, Andromeda.” She carefully said. “Listen to me. You shouldn’t underestimate Masol and you shouldn’t be angry with the Watcher. Both are very dangerous. You told me you needed to gather a congregation. So you should do that, and quickly. And then you should run. Masol… I have a weird feeling that he’s the kind that won’t let things crumble beneath him. No, he’s like a wounded animal now. He’ll lash out against anything that threatens him. Maybe you can hold him off for a little while but he’ll keep trying. You should do as I did. After you’ve gathered your congregation you should run.”

A bird cried out in the distance. Nimueh jumped up and looked up. Her eyes were closed. “Something is moving. You have to get out of the forest. Now.” Nimueh said with a very strong sense of urgency. Though her anxiousness was clearly directed towards another part of the forest.

“Okay,” she breathed. It was a lot to take in, but she gathered herself and started a brisk walk away, beams of moonlight revealing the way back. She turned back to look over her shoulder, a moment later. “Goodbye, Nimueh.”

The Searing Tunnels
Somewhere beneath a volcanic island

Claws dug and ground into stone, carving a path forward, sloping upward. They worked quickly. The rising temperature in those infernal depths gave them urgency, for not even achtlaca could endure the mantle’s heat, and now its tide of fire was inexplicably and unseasonably rising, and quickly. As this unstable tunnel slowly flooded and heated as one great crucible, the rock walls ahead of them became softer and more easily broken – that was a welcome reprieve. They cast the excavated debris backward; the rising magma would dispose of it. It wasn’t far back; they tried to ignore its ominous bubbling as they toiled in the light of its incandescence.

“Didn’t plan for this, did you?” Yaquica, one of the hot-headed youths of the warband, spat out. That one dug his four frontmost claws to rend at the rock with fervor, fueled by frustration at what seemed like a doomed situation. This had not been their plan!

Achcauhtli, their leader and a giant of prodigious size, cast a baleful glance towards the smaller salamander. His aura projected enough reverence and calm to keep the group toiling with steely resolve; though the occasional complaint was inevitable. Still, were it not for his decisive orders a while back, they’d have probably only bickered and despaired until the rising tide of fire swallowed them all… or perhaps they’d have suicidally tried to dive into the chthonian magma and swim through the searing depths to get back to the deep passageways on the other side.

But then again, were it not for their chieftain here, the self-proclaimed master tactician and strategist, this foolhardy ploy would never have been attempted! Sure, it had sounded clever: they would take a smaller and more unstable branch of the lava tunnels, boring through any collapsed sections as needed, and take by surprise the volcano that housed their hated rival league. This war had stretched on for too many cycles, and a decisive victory was what they’d all longed for. So with a few smoothed words this stranger from another tribe, who’d sworn fealty to their lord only a cycle or two ago, had convinced their ruler to give him command over his finest warriors, for a surgical strike.

There was just something indescribable about Achcauhtli, this strange ‘tactician’. When he had offered battle plans in the war councils (which his size and age had quickly won him access to) they had always worked, almost as if by magic. The enemy did exactly as he predicted, and so he and his stratagems had won them many close battles in the great tunnels. When he spoke his designs, one could close their eyes and just envision everything as he spoke; Achcauhtli was blessed, the elders and sorcerers had said, but it didn’t take a sage or a prophet to see that.

The present was a lens that had a funny way of coloring the past, though. Perhaps they had all been wrong and this was just some lucky fool that they’d been made to follow, with schemes that’d worked only by miraculous chance; Achcauhtli was now seeming more and more like a fool, and one whose luck had run out at that. Whatever lingering respect they had for him was the only thing that kept the rest going, so Yaquica withheld the worst of his thoughts with bated breath.

A suicide mission, and one that looked like it might well end without glory or even combat, with us all being horrifically melted, none so much as knowing our fates, let alone remembering our legend…’ the warrior couldn’t help but muse to himself as he dug forward. What they faced was the worst sort of fate, far worse than perishing in honorable combat against the enemy.

Achcauhtli finally spoke after several long moments of tense silence, “How could I have accounted for it? Our plan has been sidetracked by this… unpredictable and unfortunate eruption from below. But we are not lost; our mission can be salvaged yet. We need only tunnel upward until the magma recedes, or we are met with another tunnel and can regain our bearings. Then I will reevaluate our position, and we will continue on to press the attack from another angle, or… return back empty-handed, if we must.”

Clever wordplay. Even young Yaquica had felt a flush of shame at the thought of returning from their mission as a failure, and so ended with that thought made it that much easier to keep going, to forget the rising tide, to just trust in their warband’s leader and press the attack even as their supplies grew perilously low.

The youth was still mulling over the manipulation of those words when his claws dug into the stone and made a strange sound. None of the others had heard it. He slapped and struck the rock wall with a strange motion, and the wall echoed louder this time, loud enough for the others to hear. They all rapidly began tapping upon it with their claws. “There’s a hollow cavity of some sort not much further this way,” one of them with much experience in such matters declared. Relief washed over Yaquica; perhaps he had been wrong to doubt Achcauhtli.

“Excellent,” their illustrious leader said, breathing in visible relief. He’d been more anxious that he’d let on. “Probe closer; we’re almost safe again.”

Eagerly and desperately they tunneled until there was a breach from whence bright light and frigid air spilled out. This deep? In fleeing the volcanism and rising magma they had come a long way up, but they should have still been far, far below the surface. Great Achcauhtli was too large to get into that narrowest part and peer through the hole, so while the others kept chipping away to widen and expand the tunnel, young Yaquica described what he saw. “There is a chamber here above us, and it does not seem at all natural, for the walls and ceilings are carved perfectly straight and smooth, and where the walls meet there is a harsh and sharp edge. This is not of achtlaca make, either… the proportions are all wrong.”

“It makes no matter; keep digging until the breach is wide enough for me to fit through,” Achcauhtli insisted. He left the obvious unsaid – that the magma was still rising, and they had no other choice but to press forward into this strange void, for good or ill.

With renewed enthusiasm, they quickly tore through the remaining span of stone and entered the artificial cavern. Their claws had a harder time than usual finding solid purchase on the smooth floor; it was tiled, and they found the tiny polished squares of stone to be utterly alien. Even in the harsh light of this room, which was inexplicably illuminated with some manner of strange lantern, they felt terribly exposed. Fortunately, it seemed that this place was devoid of any inhabitants…

That was, until they heard the light tapping of claws coming from up a stairway. Though spacious compared to the wormlike tunnels from whence they’d just emerged, this hall was still so small that they could only barely all stand abreast. All turned to face the oncomer, mighty Achcauhtli at the head of their defensive line formation.

A strange voice echoed from above with cadences and tones that were terrible and alien in their shrill chirps; they had no ear for whatever curses this incoming monstrosity had to lay upon them, so they merely readied themselves for the sight of whatever horror they would face. Moments later the demon at last descended to the bottom of the stairs and entered the room. It was slender and not terribly great of stature, much smaller than they’d expected from such a terrible foe, but it still looked as gruesome as they could have imagined. It had four limbs – two too few – and pointed ears; moreover, a ghastly and horrific chill seemed to enter the chamber at its heels.

Achcauhtli wasted not even a single breath. “A cecepaltictli! Slay the demon!”

Of course, Yaquica had already charged forward before the order had even been spat out. He was swift of foot, for his body still burned hot with youth, and so he closed half the gap between them and the demon in what felt like just one moment.

Startled and bewildered by their valor, the wretched demon stumbled backward and nearly tripped upon the stairs. He didn’t even attempt to fight back, it seemed to them, until something happened. None of them could tell what – in one moment the demon was scrambling up the stairs mewling and murmuring something that none of the brave warriors could hear or had ears to hear, and in the next it had looked over its shoulder and opened its mouth wide. Brave young Yaquica had nearly seized the fleeing demon by the tail and fallen upon it at that point, but instead horrific agony suddenly wracked him. Yaquica shrieked, and his body shuddered as clouds of strange fumes erupted from his stony hide. The demon had used some perfidious spell to strike at them, but even as Yaquica writhed, others scrambled over or around him in pursuit of the monster.

They came up to another chamber at the top of the stairs. This was an unbelievably vast void in the ground, and here and there near the walls were clusters of strange humanoids, small and four-limbed but reared up to stand on just their two hindmost legs. They were arrayed in perfectly regular formations, utterly motionless even as they seemed to hold all manner of weapons or tools in their hands. The sight of such an army of demons filled the warriors with cold terror for just a moment, and they froze. But then they realized with a start that this was some sort of graveyard, and all those demons mere icons.

So they continued giving chase to the still-living (and slightly warmer) demon. A few others like that one emerged from connected antechambers and hallways, and soon the warriors found themselves chasing not one cowardly demon but a small group of them. On all four legs the demons scrambled up yet another set of stairs, one of them calling out in their foul and oily-smooth cadence, “This is out of hand! We must summon the master!”

“He is busy, fool!” the first voice answered. Instead, that one, the cecepaltictli that they’d seen at the bottom of the last staircase, spun around suddenly and cried out, “Guardians! Attention!”

The achtlaca were met with the din of a thousand feet stomping the ground from just behind. They cast their eyes backward, away from the staircase and the foes they’d been pursuing, and beheld the sight of all those statues that they’d taken for icons moving. One, two, three strides forward they all took in perfect, freakish unison, before raising their weapons high in some strange salute. And their weapons were strange too, fashioned not from jagged and wicked obsidian, or from unyielding adamant or hefty granite, but some strange, shiny stone that gleamed in the lanterns’ light, a stone that they’d never seen.

“Guardians! Ready!”

Weapons that had been brandished in salute were suddenly leveled with deadly intent.

With a smugness to him, the demon demanded, “Now, cease this futile and most foolish aggression!”

They did no such thing, and met these attackers, these demonic ‘guardians’, with fiery spittle and tooth and claw. The guardians approached fearlessly and with immaculate discipline, quiet except for the pounding of their heavy footsteps, clearly unfazed by the much larger lava lizards. A hail of projectiles suddenly tore through the air and crashed into stony achtlaca hides, and though these were small things they had somehow been fired at great speed. A few of the warriors bellowed in pain when the strange metallic darts found gaps in their scales (or in the cases of the younger warriors with thinner and softer scales, pierced into those scales and the fiery flesh underneath) but the moans of pain were soon buried beneath a mighty battlecry as their warband’s leader rallied them and led the charge.

Great Achcauhtli whipped and thrashed his massive tail at one of the approaching platoons, utterly breaking their formation even as long weapons of the strangely gleaming rock shot out to spear and cut at him. Sparks flew out where the metallic weapons rang and scraped against rocky scales. It was in vain, of course; he rampaged through the rank of attackers and almost singlehandedly crushed a dozen guardians. The other warriors all around did their part too, and after a short but intense fight the guardians, some hundred or so in number, were all destroyed or disabled. They were remarkably resilient, with forms fashioned from some kind of strange stone, and so a few thrashed futilely and silently as they tried to keep battling even after their limbs had been shattered.

The first demon, that one that ran around so quickly yelping and taunting them, that one that had awakened all those some hundred guardians, looked very distraught at the outcome of that battle. Predictably, it turned tail and fled up another flight of stairs, so with a triumphant roar the demon-slaying achtlaca warband pursued.

Through hall after hall and many chambers they fought, hacking their way through what seemed like endless hordes of these ‘guardians’. Ornate and fanciful furniture and devices and decorations were everywhere; out of spite and hate for the demons, many a stray limb thrashed out to crush and destroy. They would sack this den of evil more thoroughly when all was done, but for now they focused upon catching the talking demon, and they gleefully relished in its repeated begging that they halt and listen. There was no talking with demons! Once or twice it spat out unsettling threats to summon its master, but if there truly was some great demon lord that could smite them all, why would it not have acted already? They saw through its vapid lies and manipulations for what they were: hollow deceit, a poor shield when raised against true might and courage.

But it was hard to fight on, ever upward, through the labyrinthine complex when every breath of air grew crisper. They emerged into one final massive chamber with a vaulted ceiling so high that it resembled the conic interior of a volcano reaching up to the cold surface, and like the harsh light filtering down from the top of a volcano’s crater, this chamber had some sort of light fixtures in the ceiling that filled the whole place with radiance. And as they shambled out into this massive room and beheld a garden of all sorts of frigid and unnatural plants and creatures, they were suddenly beset by a fog of poison.

Thick clouds of dense, white vapor spilled out from above and to the sides, and where it clung to the infernal skin of the achtlaca it caused horrible sizzling and crackling. Where their nostril inhaled it, their bodies were filled with horrible pain, and it sapped their life and energy. The toxic gas was just the tip of the spear, though: it was being dispensed from the walls where a whole river of the poison flowed freely!

…until an angry demon turned off the waterfall by pulling a lever. A floodgate closed, and the lovely waterfall that had been filling the air with its spray and ambience was suddenly just a trickle on the wall. Nervously, the achtlaca eyed this being that was surely the lord of the demons, for who else could wield such magic as to summon and dispel clouds of icy poison?

“Susanoo,” the demon lord scolded that first one that they’d pursued so far, up from the very lowermost stairs and the fiery depths, “you were supposed to greet our guests with courtesy and respect!”

And the dragon bowed his head in shame to look down at the four clawed feet of his long and serpentine body, and his triangular ears (like those of the ox) flattened down in sadness. “Shu Zhi Da Shen, my deepest apologies,” the first-demon-called-Susanoo stammered to its master, “but they just attacked upon first sight! They’ve raged the lower levels and destroyed half your army in their rampage!”


Now Shen was very angry, and the boom of the god’s voice shook the underground garden. He turned down to the horrific cauldron of broiling water that he’d been standing over the whole time, tapped his stirring stick such that it became a spoon, and used that to dredge up a single grain of rice from where it’d been cooking in the bottom. He grasped it between two fingers and tossed the day’s meal into his mouth and his scowl only deepened. “I couldn’t even cook dinner all the way through in the time it took for you to bungle the plan! Agh!”

Foolish perhaps to the point of stupidity, brave Yaquica listened to no more of the demons’ talk and charged forward. As Shen looked up incredulously at the gigantic brute of a lava lizard, he laughed and the spoon suddenly became a long staff. Yaquica lunged forward with a huge claw, but the agile Shen smacked the limb aside with one deft thwack. Where claw failed, the warrior tried tooth, and his head darted forward in a biting motion. Shen had of course foreseen that move and so he darted out of the way effortlessly before thwacking the salamander over the head for its impudence.

“Perhaps these ones are too rude and brash to be reasoned with,” Shen conceded to Susanoo, but by then the rest of the achtlaca had found their courage and began to press the attack, that they might at least die with honor if that was to be their lot.

Achcauhtli reared up to stand tall on just two hind legs, and then with a sharp twist of his neck, spat a huge glob of molten salt at the foremost demon. The offended Shen twirled his gun-staff around so fast that it whipped up a great wind, and the frigid blast of air hurled the spit right back into the of Achcauhtli. “Unbelievable!” was all he could declare.

Well, maybe not all. It quickly devolved into a rant about hygiene. “I’d imagined their breath might be odorous, but this stench of sulfur is vile. And from how they hissed in that water, you know that they never bathe or shower in their whole lives.”

The whole while, Shen kept twirling the staff to buffet them with a wind powerful enough to slow their advance. Hurricane-like winds whipped at the achtlaca, but through the gales they could behold Susanoo open his maw and do the thing again, spraying out water just like he’d done to paralyze Yaquica the first time he’d nearly been caught. As the dragon-summoned rain was swept up by the gales of Shen’s make, the icy cold droplets were hurled into the crowd of achtlaca in a rain of terrible pain.

Still, they fought through. One of them knocked down a potted plant in its raging warpath as it drew close enough to swipe at Shen, who called out in grief as his planting pot shattered. The gun-staff became an ornate and curved dao-saber, and in one motion Shen tore off his baggy robes to reveal a chiseled physique. He leaped high into the air and then descended back down into the warband of lava lizards as a whirling dervish or slicing blows. Every tail, claw, and tooth was effortlessly parried away – he didn’t even bother to try dodging – and Shen always returned the favor with a mighty thwack from the flat of his blade.

This little flea of a four-limbed demon made them all look like fools as they jumped and cried with every blur of the demon’s motion, and from the periphery of the room Susanoo and a cohort of other wormlike dragons were all laughing. Eventually, the pain and frustration started to get the better of Shen.

The long dao-saber suddenly straightened itself out into a jian-sword, and Shen held it up to bring its point awkwardly to his lips. With a few sharp thrusts, he finally dislodged that grain of undercooked rice that’d been lodged between his teeth like a rock, and then he hurled it at the leader of the achtlaca. Three sounds rang out across the hall: first the sonic boom of the rice grain as it tore through the air, then the horrific impact as it struck Achcauhtli, and then a big thud as the big lizard crashed into the wall behind. Then there was a fourth, much quieter sound of a pained moan.

Shen leaped forward to pont his jian at the biggest lizard’s dazed head. “Yield!” he cried out, and an affirmative nod finally put an end to the fight, all the other warriors bowing their heads in shame and defeat.

“Now, with that thing out of my teeth, I’m in a much better mood,” Shen began, “so I’ll forgive you if what Susanoo said is true and you’ve destroyed half of my forward outpost. I’ve got other bases all over the place anyways, and we can always build more terracotta soldiers.”

“Are you… a god? Not a demon?” Achcauhtli finally asked.

“Of course I am! I’m Shen, the God of Plans, the god with plans! Though it seems like today I can’t get a break!”

The salamander finally chuckled. “Well, neither can we. We weren’t looking to intrude upon your, erm, domain, truly. We were trying to find-”

“Yes, yes, I figured out what you were planning, what you were trying to do,” the god impatiently interrupted as he paced around, wagging the stick in his hands at the downed chief, “that’s why I intervened to bring the magma up and send you to me. Your war’s already over, guy. There’s peace between your tribe and that other one now; you and I have got bigger, worthier enemies to contend with.”

“Peace? In the last few days? How? And what, why did you force us in here? Why didn’t you just say anything?”

“Oh, it was easy. See, a certain Tletzintli princess of great beauty arrived at the city of your hated enemies, and promised her sister’s claw in marriage to their king, if only he would have peace,” Shen began, even as Susanoo snickered and his serpentine draconic form twisted into the shape of an achtotlaca that looked indeed to be every bit as regal and beautiful as a princess ought’ve! “And then of course that same princess went to your city and said much the same thing. I’m sure there’ll be some confusion about who these ‘sisters’ are, but that’ll be easy enough to sort out.”

He leaned in to continue. “Now, the important part: you’re here because I need you. You’re the greatest warriors of your tribe, and you’re all conscripted into my army! See, I’ve been planning an invasion for a while, and I have redoubts all over and plenty of golem soldiers, but you saw how easily you rampaged through this one. It’s not enough, and so that’s why your sort will have to help me. As for why I didn’t say anything, well, I was cooking dinner when you got here! But Susanoo says he tried, and you didn’t listen and just attacked him!”

@Dark Cloud

No, we don't quite have anyone dealing with war! There is a god of defiance and a goddess of honor, but that's perhaps as close as it gets.

Honestly I have my doubts about whether this is really workable at all if you're not going to be on the Discord, though. You'd be missing a lot of information about various things and would likely get a lot less reaction or interaction from everyone else, since the discord is always abuzz with plot or story ideas and you'd be left out of it all.

It's a big RP and the IC has been moving fast, so fast that it's been hard to keep up with at times. This is a big bite to chew, and it's even tougher meat if you're going to be stuck doing all communication over PM or OOC posts here.

I'll ask Frettzo and Lauder what their opinion on this is, but since it says you're online as of the moment I'm typing this out, I just figured I'd give you my two cents right away.



On high above the mists I came
A distant flame before the sun
A wonder ere the waking dawn
Where grey the nordlands waters run
In elder days and years of yore

Seven hovered over the island’s dead soil, their smoky cloaks tinging the grey stone with soot where they swept across it with their frayed edges. Though they all faced the middle of their semicircle, they kept their eyes averted from that point, looking at the ground, the sea, the sky, the buzzing flies, anything but the white light that washed over them from the center. They knew, without need to experience it, that if they met it, that illusion of eternity that was their greatest treasure would be shattered, and all that rested on it would follow.

”What did you see as you roamed the world, with no purpose but what you gave yourselves?”

"We saw the ocean and its colourful dances, and heard the songs of the great wanderers. There was neither harmony between them nor accord; had we such songs and dances, they would not be matched so crudely."

”And what did you see in the north?”

"We saw a people who cannot share a thing as plentiful as fire. Had we their fire, we could make it endless."

"We saw the beast-folk of the northern rivers and the sun-blooded of the plains alike maim and slay each other for what they fancied to be riches. Had we their blood to spill, we would not value it less than bark and grass."

”And what did you see in the east?”

"We saw the people of the monoliths, who had to be taught to hate death, for they could not understand the weight of it otherwise. Had we their strength and vigour, we would know better than to risk it until admonished like unruly children."

”And what did you see in the south?”

"We saw the many living shapes beyond the poison waste, who think with one same mind and still are slaves to their primal cravings. Had we their multitudes and unity, we would not be bound by such base chains."

”What did you find all around the world?”

"We saw those who call themselves gods, and all the power they wield is worthless as long as they are shackled by their follies. Had we their might, we would truly be all-powerful."

"We have seen that all that is good in the Galbar is in the hands of those who cannot use it, and none are as wise as us."

"Nor are you wise enough not to covet all these things, when I have given you something better than them all. But it will serve me well now. Go forth, and find that which the divine would desire above all. Let your envy flow freely and be your guide."

Through the murk of a night stretching overlong into the morn, One of Seven drifted over rocky wastes veined with rivers that shimmered in uneven pale streaks where a fading moon-ray reached them past the clouds that kept the darkness against the Galbar into the early hours. Already, grazing beasts of the arid shrublands were rising from where they had lain in black heaps, and under a lonely tree by a branching stream the lion stirred lazily, not to be left far behind by its prey. The One cared not for the beasts, thoughtless and ungainly bodies of breathing clay that they were. They had no eyes for beauty nor hearts for warmth, nor had they value for that which the Seven had been commanded to find, and so it left them be.

But there were other things than the beasts in these lands, things that thought and laughed and dreamed, and the One would stop in its search when it found them. That evening, it had spied a family of furry things with long teeth as they looked out over the darkening horizon, calling shrilly to each other, and when they had gone to curl up in their burrow, it had followed in silence. They had huddled together against the cold of the night. What right had these sorry things to do this when the Seven had no soft bodies to keep each other warm? So it had burned them until they were bones and dust, and it had been pleased in its hollow way.

Now, as the One wound its oily shadow over a quietly murmuring river, it saw a loose circle of bodies on its shore that breathed without the coarseness of beasts. Curious, it lowered itself to the water, and crept close to the sleepers on soundless wings of smoke. They were painfully familiar, with their four limbs and well-formed faces that had two eyes to see. Long ago, it had slept like them, perhaps side by side with these same weary travellers, before the Seven had been Seven. But now it was no more like them than the sand on the night breeze. It would never know, as they did, what it was to collapse in exhaustion after days of marching, what it was to know the relief of seeing the waters play and run ahead, where for days there had been only dry earth. There were many things that the pilgrims of the river knew that the One could not, and once more it felt spite twist and stir in its heart of cold grey fire. Like fog, it crawled over one of the sleepers, and silently it burned and gnawed what it had lost.

But the man roused at once, for his sleep had been but a ruse, and his third eye never closed! An arm the prophet Medes raised to shield him from the evil, and even as his flesh dried and cracked under some withering fire that hungered for life, and even as he gasped in pain, the prophet spake, “You, who steals life in the dead of night, are cursed! Not just once by your master, but thrice: by him, by me, and by the light of the moon!”

The Eschatli drew back into a swaying cloud, like a cobra raising itself on its coils. Where its flames had licked Medes' limbs, they were left dry and wrinkled, as if they belonged to a very old man.

"What can you or the moon take from me that I have not already lost?" asked the spirit, "Look at me: I was like you once, but now what you see is all I am."

Others were now waking to the commotion, but Medes squinted only at the phantom. “From you much was taken, and more still have you taken from others. You think that the way of curses -- the taking of things precious -- but beware! The moon’s vex upon you might be one that gives; a heavy stone, you would be made to bear. The emptiness that you have now might be preferable indeed to being laden with burden.”

“You speak so lightly of these things from within the firm walls of your skin, by the fire of your heart on the hill of your bones,” the Eschatli hissed, glaring at him with its one eye, “How different would your words be if you truly had nothing, if you knew that weariness itself can be a boon! But enough talk, I can teach you what it is to live so!” And it reached for the seer with arms of grey fire that burned no brighter than the moon above… until in that instant the moon’s phosphorescence rivaled the sun, and the dark pit of the pale jewel’s eye seemed to glower all the more menacing.

With a hand of fingers like a fire’s licking tongues, the One seized that droll speaker and immolated him utterly. But what happened next defied reason; where the flames seared, grime and sweat and sunspots were cleansed, the flesh renewed. Medes grew more youthful, and then collapsed, suddenly a dormant manikin once more, like he had been when he was just another body piled into the great colossi.

It made no sense!

The Eschatli’s head tore from left to right, but all the other awoken humans were gone; there was only a small copse of trees, none of which had been here before. There was no river, either; this land was as it had been when Phelenia’s touch had first embraced it, before the Ruination that had smote a goddess and sundered the hills.

There was a small puddle; it called to the One, and eagerly, the lifeless immortal raced to it, the strange and sudden feeling of a heartbeat spurring it to witness its own reflection. And lo, it had two eyes, a body!

Moreover, this reflection revealed that there was a black cloud looming over the sky. The darkness of a storm was approaching swiftly. There was a noise that it bore also; however, this din was not the boom of thunder.

The sound – an incessant, undulating drone – became deafening once the endless swarm of flies arrived. They carpeted every surface, swarming and biting at the One’s supple flesh. Something heavier landed behind, talons scraping the ground. The Eschatli spun around in terror to see its cyclopean master, ten palms facing upward in a thoughtful ponderance that threatened to turn into a cruel rage. Iqelis’ one eye met the Eschatli’s two, and Doom shook his head.

The One, who was of Seven no longer, looked about itself, frantically searching for something, anything to put between itself and that horrid eye. It did not stop to think that perhaps now it had less to lose, having been restored from its false deathlessness. The eye could do worse than merely disabuse it of a consoling lie. Away, away from its merciless light, from its cutting gaze!

But there was nothing to stem it. The flies refused to stand between their master and his quarry, and no matter how thick their clouds were, they always parted so as not to obscure his sight wherever the Eschatli moved. Away! It did not understand by what miracle it had regained all that had been taken from it once, but now that it felt the earth under its feet, the air in its throat, the pure burning fire in its chest, it could not bear to lose it again. It would not let those black claws reach into it again, would not let them tear out its soul, bloody and writhing. And so it ran, shaking away the noisome insects that harried every step, ran without sight, without feeling anything but the pounding of the warm soil under its heels and the pain of the dry wind tearing through it with every gasping breath.

Three moons hung over the sky above, two lighting the way forward: a white one, and a gray. The third, ink-black, cowered halfway obscured behind the other two, lurking in their shadows. The three moons each suddenly blinked, and revealed themselves as gargantuan, bulbous eyeballs. Past, present, and future all presented, side by side, and all bore down upon the wretch with their full weight and gravity. Their triple glares all came together in perfect unison upon a bleak obsidian mountain not far ahead, and Lord Doom coalesced from nothingness atop that peak. Looming over the world, the god threw a hundred arms to each side as though forcefully tearing away curtains, not merely drawing them aside.

The clouds of flies were swept aside by that gesture, and they tormented the Eschatli no more. But there was still that scrape of talons behind, drawing ever nearer… the wretch looked back, and sure enough, the cyclops was there too. But then that Iqelis fractured. White light in place of blood sprung out from the cracks in his glassy form, and then with a harrowing wail and an ear-piercing sound of scraping stone, the god burst apart into a million scintillating jewels.

The Eschatli sighed a breath of relief, but then puzzledly turned back to face the obsidian spire. Nothing crowned its top now; the One God was gone, swept away by the Flow of a river that not even he could dam.

But then he – or it, whatever this new one was that had killed the first – appeared mere inches from the Eschatli’s face. A score of cruel vices seized the One’s newly gifted, pasty flesh. The three moons were overhead no longer in their places, but they hadn’t truly vanished. Each of the three glowed from deep within the god’s oculus. There was one eye; yet from within it, three pupils peered and Saw all… Horror had a face.

“Ţ̱̑̈͑ͅh̢̝̥͙̽̃̈̀e̻̮̣̓͂̾̇͟ ḩ͚̪̉͐͑ṷ̧͇̼͍̟̃̈̐͂̎̿͟͝m̛͓̺̀͊͢ą͎̤͌̾̾̚ͅn̟̳͇̊̂͋ w̦̳̪̽́̂ā̜͓̞͑̍̌͢s̺̠͕̋̋͊ r̬͚͍̆̀͞ǐ̬̞̱̖̪͋̑̎̿͜͝ǵ̢͉̲͖̪̬̯̂̊͊̈̊͠h̡͇̘̋̍͂t͉̘̟̖̎̒̆̄͟͠,̘̜̟̮͊͗͒͘” a raspy voice croaked, the sound having emanated from somewhere within that All-Seeing Eye.

One of the twenty hands grasped that One by its cheek. Its tightness eased, and for a moment the glassy obsidian touch almost caressed the One’s soft, supple flesh. But then it drove a daggerlike thumb through the One’s forehead, drilling deep into the skull right above the bridge of its nose.

The pain was a matter of a moment, a sharp flash that numbed all other sensations. For a moment, it was as though it had lost its body again, and was drowning in an airy sea of shapeless, discorporate torment. But like the flowing water, it went and passed, and in its sore dripping trail the Eschatli could see, no, See –

It Saw what had been before awakening to its eternity of servitude, when it slept as an inert body that had never been nor would ever be truly alive or dead. It watched the waves sway from atop a titanic back of heaving metal, and looked on as its maker consigned it and its six brethren to jeering doom - for what?, it wondered, what good was her honour if it demanded such things?

It Saw what was now, as it lay trapped in its tortured flesh. It followed, with the eye that had been gouged into its forehead, the Six as they flew through the night, in search of that which all desire, and saw as they stopped, as it had, to exact their vengeance on the carefree and the unworthy. It peered cautiously at its Lord, who plotted and puzzled over something in the desolation he had wrought about himself.

It Saw what would be, where the course of the Flow became a glossy black thread in an intricate arras of cosmic magnitude. It Saw flies in countless myriads carpet a gulch, waiting for something it could not guess. It Saw bones blossoming on the slopes of a tall mountain like the descending snow. And it Saw the moon, that faceless haunt of the nightly sky whose glare had pierced it so viciously, raked and torn by hooked fingers of obsidian.

The One thrashed in the grip of the astral presence, the danger to its newfound body forgotten as it struggled to hold onto what little was now certain, what it knew to be itself.

Alas, it was futile trying to writhe away from the grip of that horrible scarred moon… its formless, ethereal clutch was all too real upon the psyche, and it gripped tightly. All around the One, there swirled a wind that bore some melange of pallid lunar regolith and tiny, scintillating diamonds. The cyclone of pain tightened its grasp, and the sharp gemstones flew closer until they gnawed and tore at flesh as though they were so many teeth. Then the white, powdery dust was stained and joined by a carmine mist. Just as it reshaped and maimed his corporeal form, a cosmic storm etched at the Eschatli’s very essence, imprinting it. Now it was Eschatli no longer.

The storm faded, but the pain endured. Anemic moonlight roused the One back into Reality’s grip; it looked so beautiful in the One’s two eyes, and so horrific in its third. Dazed, it looked around; those Medians that it had tormented had all flown away, and now it was more alone than it had ever been.

It remained One, and its immortality and deathlessness had only been affirmed stronger, and so a replacement could not erupt from the other Six. Never again would they truly be Seven; they would be Six and then this One, who had been cursed again to forever be the Outsider, the Twisted, the Slave of the Moon.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

High above, Yudaiel was pleased. Another being had been enthralled to her will, another eye had been opened, an interloper had been punished, and Iqelis... oh, the Fly would seethe at this!

She had observed his heptade of phantoms as they had haunted the land, scorching and razing whatever they pleased as they went about fulfilling his insipid will. But how would Doom feel to have one of its own agents twisted? This One was greater than any of the other Six, for it had been doubly cursed. Moreover, it could See. It would be able to play the game of the Eschatli still, but it would also be able to contend with the others and thwart them.

The Reverberation located the fiend, the one she might have named nemesis were he not so far beneath her. It had only taken her a moment to find him in meditation, no doubt brooding upon the divine punishment that had been decreed unto him by that one who called Himself the Monarch of All. Yes, she had borne witness to Iqelis’ confrontation with Him, for she was ever at the shoulder. She projected oppressive consciousness toward her rival, tormenting him in his lowest moment.

The roar of the Flow became deafening, the churning rush of stygian fluid sweeping aside all things; this was a river with no banks, after all, only an end where it emptied into a deathly still Final Sea. The power and grandeur of it all was intoxicating… glorious was this rush!

Of course, the moon claimed a lofty place in the heavens above, far out of the Flow’s reach in its pretension… In mockery of the Flow and of Doom, its rays of brilliance beamed a hundredfold more luminous, so much so that the moon rivaled even the sun. Cleansing moonlight pierced the inky waters of the river. It evaporated the Flow’s surface with a scorching heat, averting ruination here and there, perverting and averting the proper way of things. Iqelis longed to tear down the insult that had been hung above his head, to dispel her merciless light and usher back the soothing coolness of the night!

Yet as though that insolence was not enough, the moon defiled even more! There yonder, a vast riptide of the Flow had been corrupted; it was aglow with divine power in its throes, and all about it spawned chaotic whirlpools as it twisted and raged against the Six currents all about it, answering to the beck and call of another: Yudaiel.

The answer did not let itself be awaited for long. There was no returning wave in the tide of ideabstraction, but when her eye turned back to the world of the corporeal, the Lord of the Flies was no longer where she had observed him. Instead, she could see the thread of his motion rearing up into the sky, and there he was at its tip, riding the umbral Flow until he was high enough to vault over the rings of unbroken night and push off of their glittering swarm. Higher still. High enough to reach the moon. The going was easy; the moon itself seized him in its clutches and helped pull him nearer, at ever increasing speed.

This promised to amuse and excite. ’Come, little one. Let us see if you fare any better than your minion did.’

Upon Iqelis’ landing, taloned feet dug into the gleaming surface of the moon, which, though once scarred by shattering decay, now truly knew for the first time the touch of its destroyer. It could have been an illusion or a play of shadows, but as they stepped, the dust they unsettled seemed to collect into small black shapes that whirred in the soundless flight of spectral gnats. As if carried by a whirlwind, they spun around the black tree of grasping hands that smoothly wove through fluid patterns, now snapping by in a blur, now oscillating with the sluggish grace of drowned seaweed.

”How eagerly you all cast yourselves to your destruction,” Iqelis crackled as he advanced towards the core of the All-Seeing Eye, a thousand hands poised to strike, ”Your time could have been distant yet, but like a curious ape you dip your edges into the Flow until you are carried away. Now I shall tear out your pupil and set it into my eye, so that I may See the shortest path to the First One’s Doom.”

And with those words, he lunged, swift as the slightest of implacable instants. Time itself accelerated, aiding in the perpetration of his vindictive assault. Dripping with the Flow, ten thousand claws rent through the nebulous vastness and tore about the goddess’ insubstantial soul, blinding and ruining that arrogant eye to such a degree that its pupil might not even be worth the trouble of harvesting.

With a shudder, the sea of consciousness lost shape and came unbound; psychic energies charged everything all about, and in chaos that ensued, the moon was torn asunder. But through the concussive blast of unshackled telekinetic might, laughter boomed. It shook and rattled and threw Iqelis to and fro; now he was a breadcrumb dancing on the skin of a massive drum that was her laughter.

He shrieked, a scrape of toothed metal wheels that was enough to shatter the fragile glass of this illusion. He won a brief glimpse of Reality, and found himself suspended high over her pupil, having never even managed to touch the moon’s surface. Yudaiel claimed mastery over what could be, what had been, and also what was not. The immaterial and the false owed her their allegiance and so they bombarded Iqelis’ mind; a million illusions raced across his vision. In entering the storm of her mind, he’d consigned himself to her power, and now was shrouded in the madness of her weave. With just a single eye, it was nigh impossible for even the One God to peer through the veil and perceive truth, and yet he could sense that was exactly what he had to do. If he could not cast aside the phantasms and prove the flimsiness of hallucinations, then he would be lost.

And so he traced the course of dreaming, straining his arms as he held the swirling chaos from his sight while he followed the span of the unreal to its edge, and he saw where its end lay - for nothing, not even deception itself, can be endless. Dreams withered before the coming of dawn, their thousand nameless colours crumbling to grey strands of drowsiness as the eyes opened to the light of the rising day. Thus Iqelis grasped the rim of his own eye with twenty fingers, and he pried it open with a crack of shattering glass and a hiss of pain. From the gruesomely widened fissure, white radiance came pouring in blinding rays. Where they struck, the weave of apparitions shrivelled like paper in a fire, and though the god could scarcely see it from within his own glare, it wavered and crumbled to colourless dust.

The wild shapes and apparitions came alive even more in what was to be their final breaths, but they danced in defiance and fled from the devouring beam that left his eye, keeping to the periphery of his sight. As though conveyed by a million unseen strings, they flew just at the skirts of the destruction that he brought to bear, tauntingly close and yet never within reach. And the Eye, where it rested at the very edge of the unreal, was likewise shielded by some oddly distorted space. It Saw where he aimed, where he meant to look next, and it twisted and contorted everything around a million fulcrums so as to render aim and perception as meaningless as any of these illusions. A single dart of consciousness struck him in the widened, near sightless eye, and an icy lance of agony wracked his mind as new thoughts crystallized in frost:

A gadfly of grotesque proportions had its wing tangled in a spiderweb. It writhed, but could not free itself. When the vicious spider with its many beady eyes neared, the fly fought even harder and lashed out with bites and flailing limbs. It was all in vain. The spider foresaw the fly’s every motion, and it waited patiently, allowing the fly to tire before beginning to wrap it in a smothering, deathly cocoon.

The fly vanished in an instant, as did the spider and the web. Only the cocoon remained, but now it was more like half-woven silken tapestry, attended to by the deft hands and needle of some unseen seamstress. Upon the tapestry Iqelis witnessed an embroidering that bore the likeness of himself, the Flow pouring from a maw that had erupted from his head. Strings and shackles wrapped about his million limbs though, and they all led to Yudaiel – his Fate was bound to her, his neck collared and leashed.

No more.

Latching on to the more tangible facets of the pain and the phantom chill that echoed the vision being thrust upon him, the god tore himself from the dream-painted mockery and once more found his footing on solid moon-ground. The glow of his exposed eye had abated, though narrow white streams continued to flow from the cracks around its rim, searing away the tendrils of the surreal that sought to encroach on his vision.

His hands darted to all sides in a flurry of kaleidoscopic motion, constraining the currents of time in a hundred ways. His motions hastened again, and a step became a blink, even as the sweep of an arm grew no slower than the lightest twitch of a finger. Yet that was not the entirety of his manipulations, for the Flow pooled oddly behind a web of black claws turned towards Yudaiel's center, and as it swirled to a halt a heavy sluggishness caught hold of her. It was no mere fatigue, or what simulacrum of it could exist within the Eye's incorporealness, but a drought of the oil that smoothed the universe's grinding advance, and she was caught in its midst. Her thoughts crawled as if in a daze, and her sight, once unmatched in its pursuit of the singular moment, could barely rise fast enough to meet the thorned streak of night that lashed at the heart of her illusionary web.

Ah, but that Eye could See its peril, for it perceived the Flow as easily as any other thing. A Reverberation was not so easily trapped within clouds of decay or the oil of Time, and so she rippled through the tiniest and most invisible of threads to emerge somewhere else. Iqelis gave pursuit, but even as he hounded her, unseen tentacles of kinetic might sheared away limb after limb, groped and choked and twisted his neck, seized his legs, and harried his every step.

And though that vulnerable heart of Yudaiel’s form – the pupil of her Eye and the core of her mind – was ever fleeting and evasive, her insufferable voice and the thoughts that she projected were omnipresent and mocking.

A bizarre plant erupted into view, obscuring Reality for just a moment. This plant had a maw, and teeth, and though it could not leave its place it nonetheless feasted. Even now, it had lured a curious insect to its grave. The Fly buzzed too close to the maw. It touched a nigh invisible hair, and the plant’s trap-jaw snapped shut with such rapidity that the motion was imperceptible to the eye.

With ire and his wroth, with rage that flared and burnt so strong that it became palpable, Iqelis incinerated the wretched plant; from drifting ashes and smoke, the moon coalesced before him once again. He could sense her thoughts, just as she could doubtless sense his.

’Y̻͙͎̝͑̀̎̅o̧̗̤͛͆̚u͙̳͒͝r̛͇̙̔̚͜͜͞ w̜̆̌͟ilḻ̆ iṡ͎͍͑ st̙̉͝ͅrõ͖ň̛͙̼͇̒g̻̝͖͐͒̂,̧͎͘͠ b̞̀ǔ̦͚͌̚ͅṱ͋ y̤̥̹͆̽̔̀͟ö̲̱͆u̥͉͗͝ w͔̽e̛̜̜̓r̟̬̭͗̏̂͡ͅẻ̩ a̡͇̩̋̄͑̍͜ F̺̭͆̈O̱̜͐̍O͖̺͂̑Ḷ̘̬̙̎̽̾͘ t͍͝ô̤͓͡ c̨̳͂͂o̫͍̰̤͂̒̏͛m͚̏̿͜ḙ͠ h̠̙͖͆̑̊ě̪r̬̲̈̀ȅ̲.̕’

The charred debris of the ravenous plant struck the ground - for there was a ground now, a craggy stone plain that ran past the horizon in all directions - and splashed outwards like liquid pitch. Now fluid, it expanded at a frightful speed, flooding the wasteland like an inky wildfire rampaging over a dry field. Not satisfied with swelling in breadth, it grew in depth too, rising as if fed by a thousand roaring rivers, until the moon, now seeming ever so small, hung above a boundless tarry ocean. The fly that was Iqelis was no more to be seen.

A shadow suddenly loomed in the distance, and as it approached it solidified into a titanic wave of viscous blackness, rushing to swallow the diminutive moon. The orb glanced at it contemptuously with its eye-fissure, and a cord of silvery light crossed the sky, interposing itself between the sphere and the onrushing wave. More gleaming threads sprang into being, crisscrossing each other’s span to weave a thick web that blocked the tide from view altogether. The moon glared triumphantly behind its barrier, but great was its consternation when the wave crashed through it, ripping the silver cords like fragile gossamer, and sharp was its terror in the moment before it was engulfed by the black ocean.

And like the wave had torn through the illusory web, so did Iqelis carve his way through the bridge of thoughts, and both combatants were awakened to the material world as he lunged anew.

Far away…

Over the waters of another, much more tranquil stygian sea, nine eyes looked up at the night sky. They pried at the distant scarred moon, and though their sight was sharp, six of them could only guess at what was transpiring so high above.

“I see the cracks widen and close again, like the breathing of a leviathan, but not what moves them,” said One of Six.

“I see clouds of dust blossom with no wind to scatter them, but not the blows that seed them,” said another.

“I see none of those things, but only a swarm of black flies pass over the white sometimes,” said a third. It then turned to the one specter in the group that hung aside from the others, separated by something more than its two supernumerary eyes from those that had not long ago been its brethren. The Third did not say anything more, its words lost to it in the fracture that had been opened between it and the other, but the Outsider understood nevertheless.

It said:

Rivers of fire at dead of night
On moonstone lying cold and white
Upon the plain burst forth, and high
The red is mirrored in the sky.

From Galbar’s plain I See the fire,
The steam and smoke in spire on spire,
Leap up, till in confusion vast
The stars choke, and so it will pass.

The others did not answer, unnerved in their sinewless forms by the strange notes and cadences they had heard in those verses. Yet the Outsider still had more to say, more that it could not put into words, and so it spoke directly to their minds.

On the sands of a white desert, under a black sky, two giant drops of thick glassy ooze chased each other. One was as dark as the heavens above, and its surface was faceted like a cavern-grown crystal. The other was as pale as the ground below, and it moved with a dreamy slowness that did not seem to impede it in traversing as much space as the other did in the same span of time. The glossy mounds spun in a circle, each striving to seize the other’s tail, but the more ferociously they reached, the further they slipped from each other’s grasp. They ran and streamed and leaped, until the very force born of their spiralling trajectory began to distort them, stretching and flattening them against the walls of an invisible ring. And still they pushed ahead in pursuit, even as their frenzy shook the desert around them, pushing up concentric dunes of disturbed sand and tearing them apart again and again and again.

The Six were quiet, for now there was no more to be said.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Canyons were gouged into the lunar rock. Silent dunes of dust and regolith had been smattered away like so many piles of snow, and new pits and craters were strewn everywhere. Doom knew no discrimination, its ruinous power claiming everything within sight. Yudaiel embraced her violent tendencies, too; perhaps the Sight was wasted upon her of all people. For all the wisdom and knowledge that was hers to claim if she only looked and Saw, she’d always had a talent and appetite for violence… even if she often resorted to other means, her first instinct was almost always savagery and brute force, and here and now, that tool was as effective as any. Unshackled by any notions of restraint, for her jewel was already cracked and scarred, her telekinetic might wrought devastation on cataclysmic scales.

Their battle raged on, endlessly. Neither were ever truly in flight, for every motion was either an aggressive lunge or a fighting retreat to evade the next blow. Here, Yudaiel brought down the full weight of her might in a fearsome battering blow. Alas, it was perilously difficult to strike a buzzing insect with a hammer. She could aim with supernatural precision and predict her foe’s motions with brief prescient glimpses into the future, but then he could accelerate or slow Time as he pleased and in different areas. Accounting for the relativity was challenging enough that it all but cost her the entirety of her advantage, and so they were left on near equal footing for the deadly dance. So her reckless swing had missed the dancing Fly, but it still struck the cadaverous surface of the moon. It chipped her precious jewel, it bored through rock and rent a horrific pit that extended all the way down to one of the wormwood tunnel-ravines wrought by that wave of Iqelis’ power.

Ah, how that had felt like an eternity ago! Yudaiel had relived those moments, over and over, again and again, until they were forever seared fresh into her memory. This was her vengeance for that slight, among other insults. She lashed out at the Fly again, this time seizing him directly, throwing him onto the ground in a battering motion and then dragging him over the edge of the cavity. But as he fell he drew the course of the currents with him, and she slipped down over them, following her adversary into the crevice.

In the depths of the fissure the struggle continued unabated. Leaping from wall to wall like a maddened locust, Iqelis pursued his foe, and she slipped around the unearthly maze of the lunar tunnels, now flanking, now ambushing from the twists and crannies she knew as thoroughly as the Tapestry’s knots. He brought down tonnes of crumbling moon-soil upon her, and Yudaiel snatched them in midair, hurling them back at his burning eye. The darkness of that hoary underbelly became choked with dust, crumbling passageways closed like decaying veins, yet neither was deterred, and the moon groaned as they tore deeper into its innards in their frenzy.

Far away…

This was an auspicious night. Weeks of careful toil within their research post were about to culminate and finally bear fruit; the ranger named Udish toyed with the telescope that rested in his hands.

They had spent a long time up here, crafting and inventing various new scientific instruments so that they could better understand the stars, the night sky, and even those lands splayed out below and all around their camp atop the mountain summit. Ludari had painstakingly pressed and refined plant matter into parchment and ink, and now by day he mapped the surrounding climes and geography, and by night he charted the stars diligently while Udish could only stare at them and the moon in wonder.

There was much knowledge to be found and shared within their outpost; they were all gorging upon it. Udish felt as though he was struggling to pull his own weight, though. He’d gone spelunking into some cavities in the cliffs and found twisting caverns, and within those he’d harvested some growing crystals of quartz. Iluratum, awed by how they bent light, had spent a long time chiseling, polishing, and shaping cuts of the strange stone. Eventually, Udish had been inspired while gazing unto the moon and contemplating that look in its eye, and he had spirited some of Iluratum’s lenses and fashioned this telescope in secret, a short ways from the others. No doubt they thought he’d spent the afternoon down in some new hole, but instead he’d built this marvel. How large everything looked when enhanced through this simple optical tube!

As the sky grew dark and the moon rose, Udish peered at it through his telescope… he knew that the stars were one thing, but the moon and the sun another entirely. This research of the moon strayed dangerously close to that which was forbidden – studying the divine – but he could not care, did not care… the moon called to him!

And as he marveled at it through his telescope, discerning the ridges and craters too small and hazy for unaided sight, he saw strange flashes of light. He peered at them more closely, and saw great explosions of color that came from no obvious source, but which tore asunder the surface of that distant, alien, and pale jewel. This was confusing, but so savory… The implication was that this must be a normal thing. Was the moon always in such a state of flux and violent change, only for them to have been entirely oblivious by virtue of their feeble sight?

Udish ruminated upon that thought in wonder, lowering his telescope as he considered that crude hypothesis. But he continued to look up at the moon, and the flashes were so bright that he saw them still, even without the assistance of his instrument. His conjecture was disproven in an instant, but this anomalous observation left the kynikos with only more confusion and questions…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Through the tunnels and depths had the gods battled, until they burst out to emerge from the caverns once more. Now the fray was on the far side of the moon, that which the Galbar never saw. At the moment this was also the dark side of the moon, lit only by the twinkling of impossibly distant stars. With the sun so far away and its view so obstructed, perhaps not even the so-called Monarch of All bore witness to this clash.

Iqelis broke and shattered Time itself; roots and tendrils of acceleration spiraled out from his own form, granting him alacrity and hastening the doom and decay of all around, but here and there remained bubbles of slow. The Tapestry of Reality fluttered, wrinkled, and nearly was torn all around the monstrous deviant, and Yudaiel Saw his profanity more clearly and fully than perhaps any other could. So she, the Prescient, at last realized the path to victory. Calling upon her divine power, she bled and radiated ghostly ichor, flaring like a flame that had been fanned. She, the Reverberation, rippled through the Tapestry’s fabric and righted it, hurling Time back into its place and defying that power which sustained Iqelis so far… that was what had granted him some analogue to her own unfathomable power, the only thing that had allowed him to rival her in this battle. Now, it was fading.

Thus the Fly was cast down from the confluence of temporal fractures that he had engendered, and from the middle of a leap that defied speed, insofar as it was grounded in the ordinary course of time, he fell skidding onto the shadowed ground, his feet carving gouges in the stone as momentum reasserted itself around his body, now bare of anomalous folds in the immaterial. He grasped at the void, seeking the currents he was wont to turn, but, defenseless before blows from arcane angles, he was hurled from where he stood by the resurgent Yudaiel.

He did not remain off his feet for long, however, and again he plunged his claws into the waters of the Flow in defiance of Time's equilibrium. Yet it was a ruse, for, reaching from below the surface, he caught the fraying edges of the weave where they dispersed into the end, and with a mighty pull he yanked them down. In a groaning vortex of chaotic moments, past and present became one with a dead future. Thoughts and intentions ended before they had fully formed, movements wound down before they had been realized, stones crumbled before being touched. A dire tangle rose to mar the All-Seeing Eye's view, and beyond it Iqelis sprang at her in a high arc through the empty sky, bearing down on her from above.

For the first time in all of her existence, Yudaiel was sightless. Fear filled her in that moment too, and it was an icy lange that gouged a fiery wound into her psyche. She could not See, so she lashed out, blindly and in all directions, in a paroxysm of mad violence.

It was good that the Galbar was shielded by an entire moon, as for a brief moment, that darkened half of the sphere was aglow with a light brighter than even the sun. The explosion rocked her moon again and chiseled yet another gaping hole. Such was the shockwave that it swept up Iqelis as though he were a mere fly in a hurricane, hurling him upwards and leaving him to spin off into space. So potent was the blast that it rippled through the lunar gem’s core and all the way to another side; the backfire thrust up a mountain in the heart of that great crater that was her usual seat – now the crater was an iris, and that mountain its pupil. So vehement was the detonation that chunks of the moon were sent hurtling at well past escape velocity; some became shooting stars that eventually fell down unto the Galbar, some more distant comets that would forever wander and in their circligns occasionally come close enough to emblazon trails across the night sky, and still other pieces were flung out into the depths of space to never be seen again.

Far away…

On a blue-green jewel of a sapphire, there was an ocean. Somewhere out in the seas, there sprouted an isle, and for roots it had caverns. The roots were deep and long and dark and twisting, but down there resided a mind. It looked like little more than corruption – mold, rot, and moss covering the damp stone, encasing wall and ceiling and floor alike, but the branching hyphae of the mycelium was all beautifully connected and intertwined like rope. Countless fungi were there, but only one beautiful and nascent mind.

It had never really been troubled by the simplicity of its existence, growing in the humid darkness and waiting. It didn’t really even feel trapped by its nature, free as it was to sing and dream. It liked to project itself into dreamscapes, to imagine what it would be like to be a mushroom under the sun, to feel the rain, or to be a spore that settled upon a cloud and grew from there, or to be a brave toadstool that took up arms and fought a mighty beast of a boar to protect all the other mushrooms in the forest. Its mind wandered and pondered all of that and more, and yet it remained content and safe at home.

On this day, it was a king. Its loyal subjects had all assembled around in circles, forming a hundred concentric fairy rings. Its first act, as king of the mushrooms, was to summon his guard and lead them to war against the lichen that dwelt on a large boulder nearby, and which had arrogantly crept onto the rimward trees of his glade. But the dastardly lichen had been of the same mind, and met them at arms in the middle of the road, where the grassy realm of the mushrooms met with the rim of its craggy grey boulder.

The battle was a fierce one; both armies fought without respite, time and again threatening to overthrow the other, for three hours and three minutes. Lo, and in the darkest moment of the battle, the sky itself blackened as raven clouds hung overhead and blocked the sun. This truly was a horrid day; perhaps the coming deluge of rain would wash them all away in its heavenly judgement, and spell a watery end to his short-lived reign! Yet to the shock of all, it was not raindrops that fell from that black cloud, but rather flaky white bits of stone.

Not even a hint of the sun was anywhere to be seen; it was suddenly night. All the lichen and fungi ceased their quarreling and looked skyward, and as they squinted, they beheld the horror of a swarm of flies so endless that they had mistaken the bulk for storm clouds. Here and there, pinpricks of moonlight poked out for just an instant through the onyx blanket that smothered the sky. To their horror, the fungi realized that those flies were ripping apart and devouring the moon… That was their creator!

The kingsguard and even the savage lichen all melted away into aetherial wisps as the lucid dream twisted into a nightmare. Everything spiraled out of control; in the black depths of a sea that knew no end, a corpse-looking whale shuddered, stirred into rage and hunger by the scent of even the most wretched of lifeforms – this prey was still seasoned with some of the most savory of flavors, after all – and it exploded into horrific thrashing motion. Its cry attracted other whales, and horrors even worse, and they began swimming through the black void devouring flies and moon-bits like krill.

Distraught and horrified, the psychic fungus began to wail and shriek in its cavern.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Since the time before life, the outer void beyond the Galbar’s skies had remained untouched by the troubles that stirred and wounded the world below. Darkness and silence had been a barrier insurmountable for even the most insistent echoes of strife, and covetous eyes would have found nothing to aspire to even if they had thought to glance up at the cold waste between the stars. Peace, though it be of a sterile sort, had ever reigned in those unbounded halls.

But on that day at last it was to be broken, and the blight of anger spilled out into the translunar spaces as war seemed to reach for the stars themselves with its iron clutch. Two antagonists stared each other down with single eyes, unmoored from the spheres below, their struggle the only constant in the fluctuating vacuum.

Struck by Yudaiel as she lashed out blindly, Iqelis had been cast into the moon's own heavens. There, he clung onto the pale fragments scattered by their tremendous clash, vaulting between them as he had when first he had departed the Palace of the Sun, and in the untouched emptiness he began once more to twist and gather the tides of the Flow into smothering tides, as the All-Seeing Eye gave pursuit. She reached him first, though.

Her faintest touch was enough to conduct currents of madness, but now she wrapped all around him in a smothering embrace. Hallucination and phantasm became his wreath.

There was sand, drifting in the breeze. It settled underfoot, and that scarlet-haired goddess thrust the tip of her spear into the grit, moving it, drawing the design of a little humanoid figure… Ea Nebel. The stick figure became a clay mannequin. Earth became life, and his daughter’s eyelids opened.

Turmoil had coursed through his every thought. There was the Flow, roaring, ever roaring, demanding that he right this accursed wrong. He hesitantly raised a claw over the nascent godling, poised to strike. Then his gaze fell on her features, and he saw, reflected in the black of her four eyes, the white light of his own. Sparks that had split from the flame he carried in himself, now returning his look - so trusting, so familiar, so his. His hand froze in place, for the first time uncertain in delivering a demise, then fell limply to his side, powerless.

The sands shifted, and there He was, that arrogant fool.


” is time for yours!”

”...four separate trials to prove her worth so that she may not be ended by my hand.”

Those words echoed in his mind as they already had a hundred times over, each syllable an agonizing reminder of this horrid Fate that had been decreed unto him by that atrocious Pretender, how He would burn–

Ea Nebel clambered up the steep slope of a mountain of black stone, so vast that its peak was hidden far past the clouds above. Around her, the harsh flank was barren, no sign of life stirring over it as far as the eye could see besides some noxious corpse-flies. But what did abound there were the dead. Rigid and mouldering, or little more than skeletons sparsely clothed in tatters of parched skin, they lay scattered on the unmerciful rock, or sat, propped up against ancient boulders. Though stricken forever with silence, they seemed to implore the deva with outstretched arms and despairingly gaping mouths. Give us rest, please, give us rest; yet she could not, for the stone was hard, and harder still were the terms of her task. She dragged her feet wearily, slouched under the unfulfilled burden, stumbled as a bony grip suddenly closed around her leg…

The ground was even under her feet now, a smooth road of dry beaten dirt. To her sides, unassuming grassy plains rolled to the horizon, dim under a nondescript beginning of dusk; gone was the oppressive leaden cloak of the mountain-clouds. Ahead, the road stretched on, a lazy earthen snake, until it came to a bifurcation marked by the foot of a low rocky ridge that neatly separated the two branches. The blessed clarity of her sight let her pry far along both ways. One led into a bank of grey fog, blind and featureless, yet calming in the way of nebulous things. The other was lit by distant flashes of what must have been lightning, flashes that began to approach as she looked, like a beast emerging from its burrow, accompanied by a cacophony of clashes and thunderclaps…

Nothing behind her, nothing above her, nothing around her - only the angular shadow of Iqelis looming over her, and his hooked fingers closing around her throat. His body, chiseled from that glassy obsidian, reflected the moonlight, brighter and brighter… The vision twisted, and suddenly this was not some omniscient view from above, but rather one from Nebel’s own four eyes. The perspective was enough to stir the flames of envy, but all that vanished in an instant. The bitter, chilling touch of those obsidian fingers around the throat grew colder and tighter yet. The world began to collapse inward and distort as creeping darkness encroached upon the corners and light danced in strange ways, a side effect of the asphyxiation.

Silver and white streaks ran across the sleek black form of Doom incarnate, like grey whiskers accenting a beard. The luster grew larger, and brighter though, until nothing remained of that jet-color. What grasped her was reflecting so much light that it may as well have been aglow, was practically bone-white. Craters and scars marked it for the moon. Smaller, smaller, smaller. The field of view shrunk and darkened even as Yudaiel-Iqelis seemed to grow more brilliant and blinding with each passing instant.

The hundred arms of Iqelis became the bulging, oozing red arteries of a bloodshot eyeball, grotesque in its scarred cloudy white vastness, and also in all the ash that cascaded from it in place of tears. That which grasped at the throat was no longer anything like a hand so much as the choking, crushing force of a divine will. It was as inevitable as winter, and fighting it was as futile as shouting into the wind.

The lightheadedness grew even more extreme; death and unconsciousness were near. Something whispered cajoling words, soothing the passing, easing the journey and making the acceptance of death feel right, proper…sweet. But something else screamed and raged and wanted to fight! It began to win, and panicked adrenaline seared and wracked the mind, staving off unconsciousness.

Then Yudaiel’s grip pulled in all directions; there emerged three spinning moons that orbited in wild and chaotic patterns, tugging viciously all the while with far greater fervor than the Galbar’s gravity; indeed, the Galbar was gone, as was the safety of its tether. Flesh ripped and tore while bone and neck snapped. The bits shorn off were drawn into stringy wisps and cast and flung everywhere through the void of space. The sickening sounds were only made worse by one last sight – that of the eye blinked and pulsating, flashing back and forth as its appearance oscillated. Doom, Moon, Black, White, Iqelis, Yudaiel…Iqelis. It remained his eye in the end. It had been him all along, strangling and breaking her.

An abominable, anamorphic monstrosity of a voice pierced the darkness that followed:

“Ń̡̮̫͇̎̓̅o͙̰̘̩̣̿̀̎̌͛t̝̱̖̺̀̊̄̊ w̮̘͓̿̇̿h̬̄̕͢a͉̩̳̜̽͂͗̕t̹͈̮͗̀͌ c̘͖̅̄ou̞̕l̬͓̱̒̌̔d̛̻̻̟̖̔̔̌ h̫̣̱̱̓̒͞͞a͎̗̮͂̇̉p͙͘p̯̱͚͖̔̐͊̕͢͝e̩̼̩̜̊̍̒̎͆͟n̝͇͍̻͗͗̐͐,̛͈͚̥̻̀̕͠” it insisted, “W̛̛̺̜̫̺̯̦̗͔̍̂̃̒̕͝H̥̱̦̪͈̿́̀͐̐̒͊͑͟͜͟A̡̻̝̖̬̅͂̔͒̀T̜͍͔̅̈́̚ ͇̫̙͈̫̗̖̑̾̈͐̀̕͞S̨̬͔͓̞̪̤̔̈́͑̋̈͊͐H̭̳̝͎̤͋̄̀̒̕͘ͅȦ̢̟͉̰͇̗̃́͑́͞L̟̭̹̮͚̙̍̋̐̎̚͝L̪̝̹̮̀͋͊̍!̗̓̿̔͢ͅ.̨̨̛̥̺͓̮͂̈́͛̈́͗”

”I̘̫̾͂f̝̠͉̓͛̈́ y̛͈̠̾o͈̠̰͗͑̕ǘ̢̦̼̂̔ d̖̺͙̔͘͘o̠͊̐͢ ǹ̨̗͐o͎̖͖͌͊̍t̨̠̻̗̉̃̉̍ s̗̼̑̈u̮̟͚̙͆̃͐̂b̞͕̚͝m̱͎̥̟͌̀̾̚i̛̳͚͌t̲̩͉͍̉͗̆͒ t̡̻̦͊͊͘o̞̬̮̓͋̚ ṃ͙̞͐̃͠y͚̟͡͡ ẇ̨̯̫̄͝͝ͅí̪̼̒͂͟l̹͇̜͆̍͌l͉̦̲̃̿͊!̬̣̣̇̆̕”

That was her voice, and that was her threat. She punctuated it all with one final vision, that of Ea Nebel meandering the Galbar in that very instant.

Pain of the heart, bleak as Iqelis’ own was, unfortunately stood as only the tip of the spear. The agony of a million tortures she thrust upon him; a second passed, and yet it felt like an eternity. The Flow could not abate the pain, only stoke the burning agony that came while the flames flared and burnt even hotter and faster, or else it could slow and draw out the suffering so that the coals nibbled at him and writhed through his gut like worms. And still, these courses were the only recourse that his mind, severed from control and maddened with rage and excruciating torment, could conceive. The deeper Yudaiel drove her barbs into it, the more it rolled and wallowed in the black waters, sinking in them, melting in them.

Melting into them.

A droning sound rose in the distance as Iqelis’ crystalline hypostasis finally yielded under her grip. But it did not shatter as it ought to have, dissolving instead into a noxious black sludge that dripped between her intruding thought-strands, as if it had too little substance to be retained. For indeed, the looser the oily fluid became, the more she could see that its attributes were being reduced to a single constant. A moment, and it was no longer a god, a thinking being, a feeling one; only Doom remained, a blind and unshakable axiom lodged in the universe like a venomous thorn.

The droning grew louder, and now it was the grim chant of a thousand clouds of gigantic flies. The blackness flowed out from the maze of illusion and onto the moon-soil. Or perhaps it was Iqelis’ body falling down in an ichorous pillar as it liquefied in the void-sky and poured into a lake that corroded the ground about it with the crumbling of ages. Yet the One God was not so large for the lake to become a sea, no, an ocean that covered the best part of the moon’s hidden face before rising into an amorphous, undulant body as tall as ten mountains. He and his shadow were one then, a stain that did not merely sully the moon but defiled the material dimensions of which it was a facet. Darkness so absolute swallowed it that it had no name in a living cosmos, and even the star-studded emptiness above shone like a cascade of diamonds against that abyss.

A burning white light burst out in the god-shadow’s midst, not so much an eye as a maw of a titanic furnace that breathed with the bellowing of a cataract. Arms that were rivers, ending in deltas of many-pronged talons, raked the white surface, decaying – nay, unmaking solid stone and throwing up pillars of dust, as more of them rose to reach for the god-spark and extinguish it in their clutches. Pallid moon was devoured by creeping doom and converted into more of that ever-growing ocean of stygian sludge.

And yet Yudaiel’s smoldering gaze set fire to the thirsty seas, broiling the doom beneath the incinerating ray of her stare. The inky blackness evaporated, surged up in vast clouds, and rained back down as diamonds. The ravenous darkness swallowed and digested those precious stones just as readily as they ate into the jewel of her moon, and the cycle raged in a vicious and neverending circle as Yudaiel’s eye darted here and there, searching for the Fly, wherever he was in the depths of that horrid sea. If she could only find him, seize him, burn him, strip away his power and control, then all that sludge would become lifeless and inert. It could be righted and cleaned away in one great conflagration, but she had to find him.

A splitting pain pierced Yudaiel’s mind. It waned and ebbed, throbbing as if to a heartbeat even within the depths of her empty vastness. It made Seeing difficult; how could she not find the Fly within those depths when normally she Saw all, when nothing could hide from her? Pain. Somewhere within her disoriented and enraged mind, there was a whisper that she didn’t see the Fly, that she wouldn’t and couldn’t, for the Fly had dissolved and become one with that whole ocean of corrosive rot. Anguish. She heard a chorus of otherworldly shrieking. The Sentry, that Psychic Fungi that she’d left in Arvum’s service, had been wailing this whole time and she’d hardly noticed, but now its cry stood out. It was the only voice within the discordant tumult that she could discern, that she could recognize, that she could understand.

Agony! The other voices were vast, and distant, and close… their psychic voices carried well through the void-medium. There was a pattern, and a song, but it was horrifying chaos, nothing at all like what Yudaiel could grasp or understand, let alone lesser minds that had not been tempered by peering into the abyss before and hardening their sanity.

She Saw barbs, spikes, claws – claws that were made to rend the mind, not flesh. She Saw spikes, teeth, maws – gaping maws that hungered for the taste of misery and the sustenance of souls. Arrayed before her were maws within maws, maws within the pupils of sightless eyes, gaping and horrific throats and jaws that covered every part of their abominable and twisted forms.

A seeking arrow cut through the void towards her pupil. With a furious thought, she caught and gripped it. It was real, to her horror, and yet only half-real. It was not of her conjuration, not of the Monarch’s, and certainly not of the Fly’s; it was no illusion at all, and yet it was half-ethereal and utterly alien. She squeezed the arrow even harder, so that its tenuous being could not slip from her grasp, and then she twisted and turned. That thing had not been an arrow as she’d first surmised, but a horrific proboscis, like that of a bloodsucking mosquito, only this monstrosity had been intent upon draining the juice of her eye, the soul of her mind. The rest of the beast’s hulking form had somehow collapsed out of her sight as it had approached, hiding behind the tiny silhouette of that needlelike proboscis. When she'd twisted and broken its sucker, the thing hadn’t died, but it had shrieked, and her entire essence recoiled and shuddered. Searing pain juxtaposed itself with frigid fear.

Others had come, too. Like a vast whale, one breached the surface of that darkened ocean that covered her jewel, swallowing more of the sludge that any maelstrom ever could and yet surviving, thriving… feasting, even in the heart of a god’s ruinous power. The living shadow writhed and thundered as it struck at the abhorrent leviathan, its arms folding into itself in coursing loops, but where one interloper was pushed down, ten more arose, like sharks that had smelled blood. Its tremendous size turned against it, as every span of pitch waves had become a new breeding-ground for the nightmare flocks.

Its erstwhile enemy forgotten, the sea that had been Iqelis raged against the grotesque congeries of skinless and eyeless morays, lurking crabs that crept on fractal fleshy roots instead of limbs, and fin-ringed disks that split open into gnashing jaws like sunfish teratomas, battering them aside and vomiting searing beams of light from its eye-maw. Fury steadily became surprise, then alarm as the consuming tides and withering glares left the dire invaders unscathed. Whatever their nature might have been, Time held no more an absolute dominion over them than did the principles of life, trampled underfoot by the sheer incoherence of their bodies. Their hunger, however, was undisputable, and every bite and mouthless draught left the madly thrashing ocean diminished.

Far away…

The trickling of water made for a soothing ambience for meditation. Its ever-present sound near the Blackmoss Dam calmed Ruslan’s mind. The young bjork sat in the same darkened lodge-chamber as half the rest of his clan. In the center of their circle was his father, Tanas the Undying, Tanas the Seer, Tanas the Moon-blessed. They looked to him as their foremost guide now, not the matriarch: this was only right as it was he that had first discovered the potency of the sacred fungus, he who had guided them all in their first experiences with the magical substance, and he who had ingested more of the holy mushroom than any other.

The bjorks, kit and adult and elder alike as they were, sat in a circle about Tanas. Tanas did not seem to sit, preferring instead to levitate. Or perhaps that was more akin to hanging? The bjork might have flown (might have ascended all the way to the moon, even!) the mushrooms whispered to Ruslan, but for the thin, ethereal threads and branches of fungal hyphae that tethered him to this world.

Tanas had his two birth-eyes closed in meditation, and yet his third gaped wide open, all three of its pupils staring into the void. Two were glazed in that moment, but the third, that which saw the future, was focused.

’What do you See?’ Ruslan wordlessly asked. A telepathic chorus of other voices echoed the question.

In answer the manbjork, once a mighty warrior but now thin and nigh-skeletal from a long diet consisting of little more than the mushrooms, trembled. He trembled, he shook, and he shut his third eye, embracing sightlessness. Wordlessly, Tanas spoke to their minds,



The rushing sound of water was unbearable to him in that moment, its sound more horrifying than the bone-chilling roar of a giant snow leopard, than the bloodcurdling howl of wolves, than the howling winds that heralded wintry cold and frigid blizzards. The gloom and shadowy recesses of their lodge grew larger, more umbral. Darkness evaporated into wisps of smoke, and from those foul fumes there amalgamated the shapes of monsters and beasts and demons. Eyes were everywhere, staring, staring. He Saw it all, and yet his eyes were shut. There was no escape from the horror.

“The moon is under attack,” he gasped aloud, “I See it.”

The others looked all around, and they too Saw the shadowy people and beasts, and were afraid. It was a nightmare they couldn’t wake from. The sound of the river sounded eerily like distant, muffled screaming.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The relentless souldrinkers surged forward. Yudaiel perceived them in strange ways; she Saw a thousand brass claws, but only two-thirds as many limbs from which those graspers extended. These horrors were anathema to Reality and creation, slaves to unreason, impossible to truly comprehend. The grotesque forms that she Saw, even these brass claws that she felt ripping into the cohesion of her sea of consciousness, were all just her mind’s vain attempts at projecting that which was impossible to depict, grasp, see, or even understand. They were vast creatures, and she suspected that they existed in more dimensions, and higher ones, such that she saw only their outward facets, tiny shadows of their true terror. Still, she witnessed more than enough.

The one with the proboscis had shattered before her might, but from its sundered mass had erupted a half dozen more demons, each greater in immensity than the one that had contained them. She focused upon the most enormous of them all. It bit into her vastness, but as it gorged upon her essence, it was as though she’d thrust an arm down the beast’s gullet and not gripped it by the tongue – no, by the entrails. She had the fool now, as she reached deep into its depths. Recalling her essence, withdrawing that filament of her being back from the demon’s insides, she caught hold of its innards and jerked them as she ripped that extension of herself free. Its entrails were drawn outside of its body in one sickening and incredibly forceful movement. Eviscerated, everything was pouring out of its maw, and the demon was inside out for an instant. In that ungodly shape it resembled some sort of nightmarish blob of otherworldly flesh, of fiery malevolence, and of black bone… but then its flesh rippled over those bones and shifted in strange ways, even as those bones snapped and spun and rotated through the roiling cloud of gore. The demon collapsed back inwards on itself before splitting apart, and what should have been its corpse somehow became three thrashing horrors.

What was this madness? The absurdity of their profane shapes, the lunacy that such aberrations had emerged as if from nothingness, was such that Yudaiel could scarcely believe what she saw, let alone what she tried in vain to See. A single thought echoed in the back of her mind with crystallized clarity – had she lost? Had Iqelis wrested control over the unreal, and now banished her mind into the nightmare of madness?


He couldn’t have.

He is only a fly!

With a roar, Yudaiel threw herself – or at least, the majority of her enormous vastness – into the maw of one of the lesser of these many beasts. It gorged at first, and as it unmade her essence and fed upon her soul Yudaiel writhed and felt diminished, but then she had forced her way in. The horror grew bloated as even its impossibly expansive void of a belly was utterly filled. Its teeth bent backwards in its maw as she swept her way down its gullet; its nineteen eyes bulged almost to the point of bursting as more and more pupils erupted from within, forcing their way into each one, crowding the red orbs.

Lesser minds would have been utterly consumed when trying at such a desperate and maddened ploy as entering and forcibly possessing one of these demons. Minds greater still would have been overwhelmed and consigned to lunacy forevermore, their sanity shattered so easily as glass. Yudaiel was nearly met with that fate, but the glassy sea of her consciousness was only cracked, not broken.

She Saw deep into this thing’s horrific thoughts, and for just a fleeting moment, she felt as though she actually understood it. It and its kind were infinite, timeless, and more terrible than words or thoughts could capture. They feasted upon misery and strife and souls and life, and they lurked somewhere out there in the cold, vast, black voids that lay between the stars. There, everything was so empty that it was like a bottomless pit that led down, down, down into lower and worse and more twisted realms. They only emerged when something drew their attention, when they felt the urge to hunt… in their hubris and displays of power, so near to the void and away from the protection of the Monarch’s terrible light, she and Iqelis had attracted these monstrosities.

But how could they ever be defeated, banished back to the nothingness from whence they came? She couldn’t find the answer to that; there was no time, for with each moment spent within the corpulent monstrosity’s caustic innards, she dissociated more and more, drawing that much closer to oblivion. She tried to fight her way free, to force her way out through the lenses of its eyes, but it held her tightly, too tightly to wriggle or break out. It would rather burst and die than surrender its meal. Its greed was its undoing; she seized control of the beast for just a moment, just long enough to send it careening too close to the maw of an even greater horror. Without discrimination, that leviathan’s jaws eagerly crashed down upon this mere worm, rending and ripping and shredding it into chunks and clouds of gore. Even then, even as it was swallowed by an even greater maw, the nebulae and rivers of gore – all that remained of the demon – tried in vain to wrestle with Yudaiel and drag her to the same fate, but she was strong enough to break free and soar out from the gaping mouth.

She beheld the carnage, and through the tumultuous battle beheld an even greater swarm of these demons… she was weak now, too. And her hard-won knowledge, claimed from the eldritch mind of one of these demons, was slipping through her fingers and out of her mind more and more with each passing moment. Some knowledge was just not meant to be known, not possible to retain.

Below her, the transfigured Fly was locked in his own struggle against the hideous void-spawn. His shadowy immensity had been greatly diminished, now filling but a minuscule fraction of the vast moon-sea that it had corroded, and it continued to shrink as putrid behemoths drained more of it. Nor was he as fluid any longer, for his bulk stiffened and hardened as more of it was sheared away. By now it had almost returned to its primordial state, a monolith of icy crystal hewed into a tripodal spire surmounted by a wheel of many-segmented arms.

A quake shook through the moonscape as most of the limbs slammed down, wreaking obscene carnage on the throngs that harried the black tower's foundation. To little avail, for the mangled carcasses had soon recombined, like the fanciful lens-figures of a kaleidoscope, into a tangle just as horrid and ravenous, and scattered entrails had sprouted like seeds into cyclopic coral trees with fanged mouths across their trunks. Iqelis raised a hand, parting a current of the Flow and raining the ravages of doom onto the encroaching horde; yet once more, the ineluctable was brazenly defied by the otherworldly monstrosities, for whom it seemed there were neither past nor future.

The god's eye, colder now and a measure more lucid than the roaring furnace it had been at the apex of the forsaken duel, jumped feverishly across the tainted field and the churning skies, and at length it met by chance with Yudaiel's own pupil. She did not need to peer into its temporal shadow to perceive the emotions behind it. There were still remnant clouds of rage, though they wandered confusedly, uncertain which foe to cast themselves against, and a shadow of spite at being so beset when he believed his triumph was nigh. But above all, it was lost. Consternation and disbelief reigned in the fading light of the great eye. His look seemed to be asking her whether she was seeing the same as him, whether this abominable breach of Time's law was real and not a deception more insidious than even she would dare to weave. Hostility was eclipsed by the desperate will to find something familiar in this nightmare. For the first time since the universe's wheel had begun to turn, Iqelis was shaken. Another moment, perhaps, and despondent apathy would overtake him, the uncountable arms collapsing limply as forests of teeth tore him to shreds.

She understood, of course, and she dove back down towards him. A hundred soaring demons stood in their path, but she wove all of her vastness and her nothingness between their seeking limbs and horrible claws of brass, away from all their horrific maws and teeth of crystallized nightmare and misery. She made her way through the swarm, finally drawing close enough to reach out and touch her rival.

A great beast thundered across a plain, savaged and harried at every step by the lions and hyenas, the flies and the mosquitos. With roars and mighty thrashes of its limbs and tail, it crushed and mutilated those lesser creatures by the dozen, but its assailants were endless, and they knew no fear. They were no mere beasts, after all; these were demons in another shape.

The great beast’s life drained from a thousand wounds; the buzzards smelled blood, if not rot, and already circled high overhead in anticipation. But then a sweet wind came, and it breathed it in deeply and gladly, even as the vapors carried by that gale forced their way into its flesh and changed it. The beast’s hide was crystallized into impenetrable adamant, and from all those wounds where it had been raked and bitten there erupted new eyeballs, such that it now saw everything all around with perfect clarity. It trampled and massacred its powerless attackers with ease.

And as a new expanse of vision had been opened before that oneiric beast, so too did a new light surge up behind Iqelis’ faltering eye. It tore itself from Yudaiel’s gaze and the sights it exuded, snapping back upon the gnashing, clawing tide. No more did it leap and run wildly about, however, harried by the dire spectacle, but it cut precise lines from one foe to another, as if measuring their multitudes and distorted distances. Then he stabbed a finger into the ground, and with the smoothness of a knife running through water carved a trench near his foundation. An empty gesture, it seemed, for none of the horrors had been there to suffer the blow; until a hydra-like tangle of boneless spinal cords, surmounted by toothed but otherwise amorphous lumps of bloodied flesh, twisted at an angle that ought to have been impossible, and instead of breaching his crystalline wall tumbled howling into the fissure that appeared to await it where in would emerge from its contortion through space. A colossal black fist followed it, and liquefied matter sprayed out from the edges of the rift.

The intruders, alien to Galbarian life and matter, were not bound to the temporal laws of the world. But as long as they remained in its confines, they had to abide by some few principles that permitted the existence of things, which kept them anchored to reality yet also subjected them to certain of its laws, however scant. One such imposition was their collocation in space, and though they blurred even that fundamental, for many of them were intertwined in eye-strainingly implausible ways or occupied extensions that should have been too small for them, of each void-predator it could be said that it was at certain moments in a particular place. This was what Iqelis’ revitalized eye tracked in the renewed clash, for though the ghastly adversaries were elusive to Time-attuned Sight, the sequence of the terrain they afflicted could be traced, and though that gift was barred to him, the momentary favour of the All-Seeing Eye permitted him to glimpse the reflections of the Tapestry on his black waters, and thereby forestall the hideous assaults.

Thus his arms multiplied again, and struck out with renewed force and focus. It was no immediate turning point, and many were snapped off and devoured by the forest of teeth where a wily terror twisted in a way that none could have predicted, or where a sacrifice was demanded, but the battle became more even. The seething ranks were now cut off when they tried to advance, halted by suddenly awning pits and rising shield-mountains. The One God’s towering body stirred with fluidity again, and his movements gained haste to match their decisiveness. Barriers rose and crumbled, and at the bidding of orchestrating claws the Flood spilled forth to reinforce them. Its waves did not seek to uselessly lap at gnarly hides and pulsing membranes, but washed smoothly around them, swallowing the ground they stood on into crumbling gaps. Undulant bodies toppled back as their material footholds failed them. In places, they became tangled with each other as they retreated, flesh commingling in a charnel metamorphosis until where two had been forced back, one was left standing.

At some point Iqelis had lost track of the Reverberation amidst all the thrashing, the carnage, the ambushes and feints. She had cast wide his gaze and granted him Sight beyond sight, but now he could not even See where she had gone.

Far away…

It was alone again, slowly hovering upriver. The Six had withdrawn into the mists of the Tlacan, restless and uneasy after it had told them of the battle that rent the moon, but not daring to go out across the world and hunt again, in case their master returned suddenly and demanded account in a foul mood. But the One that was no longer Seventh did not fear the chastising hand of its god. Death was illusory and ephemeral for one trapped in a cyclical existence, less forgiving even than the one it had led before, but for those few moments until it resurfaced from the black Flow, perhaps it would have respite. Respite from its dual servitude, labyrinthine as it lay ahead in the paths of the future, and respite from the Sight which even now needled its three-lobed burning eye.

The visions had not abated since the first brush with the vastness. If anything, they had grown more frantic as the night wore on. Dim figures barely had the time to form before being swept away by the next expanding thread, yet this came as a relief, for of late some sinister presences had been intruding into the dreamlike vistas which it did not wish to see more clearly. The two feuding gods were no longer alone in their battle at the edge of the world. A third force had intruded upon their contest, and it was not one that the Outsider could match to any strand of fate, nor to any reflection on the Flow’s surface. There was something unsettling about these aggressors, a whiff of red skies and shattering divinity, a stench of astral blood that made them sickening to even glance at.

But the third eye was a curse, not a gift, and as the Outsider passed near where it had fatefully set upon those sleeping humans, the visions grew sharper. And it Saw them.

Pain and fear struggled within it as it reeled from the revelation. It was not as though the entities could harm it, far as they were, though had they descended upon the Galbar it suspected that their distorted claws might have cut short even its recursive life. The horror they radiated was an instinctive feeling, the sort of fright that made one recoil from large spiders and tentacled octopi, though orders of magnitude more intense and protracted. A fundamental revulsion for the other, the different stirred its core, and beset by the dread of something more alien yet than itself, the Outsider sought to exorcise the noisome sights by giving them voice:

"No other eyes have vented there
Since eyes were lent for human sight—
But here, with gaze untamed by night,
I see the Elder Secret bare.

Inhuman shapes, half-seen, half-guessed,
Half solid and half ether-born,
Seethe down from starless voids that yawn
In heaven, to tides of stygian pest.

And voidward from that pest-mad zone
Amorphous hordes seethe darkly back,
Their dim claws laden with the wrack
Of things that gods have dreamed and known.

The loathsome Fishers from Outside—
Are there no tales in warning told,
Of how they found the worlds of old,
And took what pelf their fancy spied?

None sees me watch, long fore the dawn,
Nor does my flame bear any mark
Of what I glimpse in that curst dark—
Yet from my soul all peace has gone!"

“Such a vivid poem,” a ragged voice commented from the darkness of a riverside shrub, not so far away at all. “Your words paint, and the moving pictures makes this nightmare that I See all the more real.”

It was Medes, that prophet, the one that had cursed that Eschatli, back when it had numbered among the Eschatli, when it had been One of Seven. Now, it carried a burden, and was somehow even less. And Medes Saw that too. The Outsider saw that Medes was alone; the others had gone on ahead downstream in their flight from him after that chance encounter, but the prophet, aged by the decay of an Eschatli’s touch, had soon run out of breath and had to stop.

“You… you understand my warning, now,” the human stated as fact.

”Aye, great was the loss of my spirit,
And great is the reach of its doom;
Not the pity of nightfall can cheer it,
Nor can respite be found in the tomb:
Down the infinite aeons come beating the wings of unmerciful gloom.”

the spirit answered mournfully as it stopped in its drifting, hovering over the river like a lost storm cloud.

Above, a more tangible cloud began to let loose its burden, sloughing off heavy raindrops that plopped as they seeped into the ground. Water mixed with sand and clay. A mirthful chuckle mixed with a hacking cough and a sorrowful sob. “These horrors in my Sight are too much for a mortal heart to bear. I implore you now, finish what you have begun, and grant me reprieve.”

As a wisp of mist borne on a sepulchral breeze, the spectre approached the dying seer. It did not set upon him like a hungry psychopomp as it had the first time, but gathered over him in a grim pillar, looking down upon him with three solemn eyes. It descended then, slowly, as it intoned a susurrant dirge.

”Then may for you death be
A soothing well in an oasis dim—
Cool-gleaming, hushed, and hidden gratefully
Among the palms asleep
At silver evening on the desert's rim.”

And Medes was engulfed in its black smoke as in a silent shroud; and when it rose again, nothing was left but dust and tranquil bones.

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After Yudaiel had dove down to Iqelis’ aid, she had found herself precariously amidst the densest swarm of horrors. Unseen shockwaves of force and all-too visible crackling bolts of lightning shot forth omnidirectionally to stave off the attackers, but she didn’t last long, not when her every attack against these strange beings seemed nigh futile. Eventually she found herself weary and surrounded on all sides with nowhere to flee, and then was caught by one of the greatest of the horrors. It had seized her with both tentacles real and fetters unreal, tethering its mind and will to hers such that there was no escape. When its many jaws came unhinged, she careened to the side and instead clung to its sickly flesh and what passed for its lips, like a veneer of intangible sweat. But pores and fissures had erupted from the amorphous demon’s form, and she had been siphoned and drank and absorbed – her consciousness, her mind, and her warmth swallowed and pulled in through some perverse method of inverted perspiration.

This beast, distorted as its manifestation in this world was, had far too much substance to it for her to puppeteer its bulk as she’d done for that last, smaller one. In truth, she now felt her vigor waning. She had already been pushed to the brink and beyond; her entire mind felt laden with fatigue and tiredness and the hints of surrender. The fighting spirit – that part of her that still screamed and raged and wanted to fight – now seemed a quiet and distant voice, one whose cry was stifled by a smothering pillow, or distorted by the weight of water as it called out from up above the clouds while she drowned in a deep lake. Even as it was digested and subsumed into nothingness, the will to struggle started to pass away like a fleeting dream…

In what might have been a final flash of clarity before oblivion or a gesture extended in air from outside, or perhaps both at once, a beautiful tapestry pinned to a wall swept before her in an unbounded wealth of colours and woven patterns. Spun across its face in vibrant threads were likenesses of the celestial spheres, the golden sun, the multifarious Galbar and the silvery moon, framed by the distant chorus of the pale stars. Of those, the earthly globe filled the center, with the sun and moon alike below it in different corners.

Her sight fell upon the lunar orb, and she saw that the edge of the tapestry where it lay was frayed, leaving argent threads to dangle down to the floor. There, they were lost in a mass of blackness: a swarm of huge, lazy flies carpeted the soil, unmoving but so thick that it could not be seen what they sat upon. One of the loose threads twitched, perhaps moved by a breeze, and slipped slightly out from its place in the pattern. A portion of the flies strewn out below it, stirred by the motion, sleepily rose from the bare stone floor and buzzed all together to another place further away. The loose thread seemed to have engendered a cascade, however, for another slipped out after it, and another. Every time some length of the silver weave fell, the flies below it moved away. There was a curious order to their flight, and every time it was only those whom the the threads brushed by that woke, as if there were a correspondence between the loose lengths as they fell further out and which of the insects were shaken from sleep.

Then her sight descended on one of the threads, and it was a thread no more, but a silvery river, with banks of grey and black stone. A wooden chest lay by its course, and into it unseen hands laid a still body with indistinct features, yet clearly untouched by decay. The cover snapped closed above it, and the chest was pushed into the shimmering waves, where it drifted downstream. As it floated, Yudaiel could see the corpse within mouldering in the darkness, with no respite from the faintest breath of air; until the fumes of putrescence became too much for the wood to bear, and it burst in a sickening rain of rot and splinters that stirred her awake to her similarly malodorous fleshy prison.

She lapsed in and out of lucidity; the light of the path out of this tortuous confinement flashed here, and then there, and then disappeared before returning to the first place, always ever so slightly out of reach. In this state and place the otherworldly and unknowable knowledge that she’d extracted from the mind of the first horror returned momentarily, slipping back into her fingers. The pieces came together… she almost knew what she had to do and how to achieve it, yet she felt so weak. Her own despair and hopelessness was only amplified by the appalling clime about her; half-digested and alien memories of the multitudes of all this abomination’s past victims flitted about like ash, and the curse of her Sight forced upon her the weight of experiencing some of their suffering vicariously as she Saw shattered fragments of their final thoughts.

A voice pierced the din with clarity so crisp and pure that it harkened back to a time that felt so distant, so very long ago, before she had been swallowed.

”You do not perish today, Yudaiel,” it proclaimed. She thought that she heard a droning sound, the distorted buzzing of flies, or perhaps the faintest roar of a distant river. ’Iqelis?’ she wondered in disbelief. She sensed the weight of a thousand shoulders shift, but it didn’t answer her, not directly.

Behind the words were the weight of an image; she Saw smoky roiling clouds, or perhaps currents in a river, and behind that just endless darkness. But in the center was a great looming hulk with innumerable hands and arms, far too many to count, so many that the elbows bumped and jumbled all together and she wondered how such a great mass of limbs could ever be coordinated. There was no background with which to compare, but she knew that this silhouette was tall and vast and inevitable; it consumed and seemed to fill the entire endless void. Just as that wound in the chest of the Monarch of All was so deep that it stretched into what may as well have been eternity, this familiar giant seemed infinitely tall.

The darkened lord – her unexpected savior – leaned closer, His body like a towering sculpture of frozen, glassy darkness. ”You have yet to fulfill your purpose; I have need of you yet. These monsters can be bested, so FIGHT!”

That final order echoed like thunder, shaking the void of her waking nightmare of a vision with such might that it roused her back to the horrific reality of her torment.




Each booming roar of the word lent her strength: it endowed her with steely resolve, and also vigor that she didn’t know she possessed somewhere, perhaps that truly wasn’t even her own. She remembered what she had seen of these creatures’ disquieting and aberrant physiology, and the patterned fraying of Reality’s threads… she focused, and her mind reached out beyond her prison to find the Flow. Then she pulled it unto herself, and the monstrosity could not resist its decaying touch, not this time, not when the unseen stygian waters seeped through the tiny pores that she opened to allow grant access into its otherwise impervious skin. The Flow, guided by her mind, sundered the valves of its vile heart and poisoned whatever horrific substance flowed through it as a mocking, twisted analogue to warm blood. Using the Flow’s pressure, she then forced open a maw, breaching a way out, and escaped.

The horror came unbound and exploded, imploded, dissolved, and sublimated all at once. She’d actually called upon Iqelis’ deleterious aspect and guided it with such precision that not even that anomalous demon could withstand it! Her captor was utterly destroyed, its remnants smitten with enough power that nothing had endured in part or whole, that no other beasts spilled forth from its entrails as though their bodies had been stacked together in this plane of existence. Yudaiel was freed, unshackled, but so, so tired. The swarms still remained, but at least they now feared her after having witnessed that display.

They had shrunken now, too, for it seemed that the One-Eye had not been idle. His own bulk had collapsed again, and instead of a crowned tower embedded in the lunar surface, it was reduced to a less imposing though still gigantic simulacrum of his body’s torso. Below it there was nothing but a colossal tapering spike which, lodged into the stone, held him upright as he warred with the shapeless throng. He glanced up at the Reverberation, and his eye seemed to wander as if he were expecting to see someone else who had burst free along with her. Finding no other presence, it flashed with surprise, but soon turned its attention back to the battle the scores of his hands were waging.

Arrayed against them was a host much changed since when Yudaiel had last seen it. Driven back by incessant lunges from the black claws, many of the creatures had folded into each other in that blasphemous amalgamation that overtook them when collapsing spaces forced them together. Webs of bone and membrane had swallowed worm-eels into tubular canvases of mutilation, spine-limbed scarabs and serpents of intestinal flesh dripping with bile were knotted into twitching, seeping branches with insectile shells instead of bark. These comminglings had not paradoxically increased the size of the beasts; if anything, some of them had shrunken, as though the binding force had crushed some of the claim they had cast upon dimensions.

Iqelis looked at her again, and pointed a finger at one of the amalgam-trees: there, perhaps, lay the way to stemming the tide at last. He stretched out his arms further than they ought to have reached, and again the flurry of crust-shattering blows and corroding splashes from Time’s river began. Yudaiel’s ethereal bulk shuddered, exhausted, but then she threw her weight into the fray too, bending the Tapestry and distorting space; that was the means through which she was able to hurl about and cast down the horrors where even her telekinesis was not alone enough to overcome their own formidable mastery. It was still a battle, and no mere hunting of a harried foe. More black hands and wrists were snapped away from the mass that was Iqelis – the horrors possessed teeth and claws whose bite far exceeded their apparent length, and used them to vicious effect – and as the god’s severed appendages fell and shattered upon the ground, it became evident that these wounds were taxing upon his magnified frame. With every few new arms that sprouted like a hydra’s head to replace those lost, slivers of bulk vanished from around the god’s disembodied torso, until he had grown thin and emaciated.

Yet still, slowly and painfully, the terrors were driven back. Here two fell into a globe of limbs and staring eyes. There more were crushed by each other’s weight, in spite of the moon’s airless light-footedness, into a churning wave of steely grey sludge. There again, a viridian growth with empty yellow eyes and root-arms sprouting out from its head crashed into another amalgam, a mound of purple flesh ringed with red irises and creeping upon millipede legs, and the tumorous living hill that ensued was hideous to behold. Little by little, they dwindled, ceding ground as it crumbled around them and withdrawing into each other for lack of any other route of retreat.

In the end, only two corpulent, writhing masses of disconcerting demon-flesh remained. Yudaiel grasped one, and Iqelis the other, and without speaking the two understood what had to be done and crushed their final two foes together. They squeezed, and squeezed, against the struggling and screaming horrors until two congealed together into one, and until that one was compressed into an unholy singularity, a ravenous gap in space that began to clothe itself with a skin of angular grey plates. And then they manipulated Time and the Tapestry and the Flow in a hundred arcane ways, and together tore a rift in creation just wide enough to cast out the abomination before it had coalesced, and then receded their touch and sewed the wound closed before it offered passage to anything else from beyond.

On the moon, tranquil quiet was restored at last.

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