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...and the Medians.

Setting: The Deep Desert of Nalusa

In the deep desert, even the water seemed coarse and dry. Squint through the sun’s glare, and one could behold the sandy sea, each dune was the crest of a wave, slowly shifting and traveling as the endless winds bore it forth. There were rivers and brooks, also; when the wind was especially sharp, it cut gullies and filled them with streams of sand that flowed in the wind and that could scrape and tear at flesh. The sun was hot, and so it was wise to journey by night. The land was also treacherous, and so it was wise to walk by day lest one lose his way, or fall into a hidden gully or pit. It posed a dilemma that for most there was no winning, but fortunately, the weary band of humans trekking through the waste were guided by one who needed no light to See the way.

By night the air was actually quite crisp in the breeze, and the sharp sand was cool and not so rough upon the cracked and leathery soles of their feet. In such conditions the band wandered from one cave or oasis to the next, stopping rarely for fear of being stranded in the open desert when day broke again. The prophet Medes, their shepherd and guide, promised that the wet river was not far and that even now, he could See it lazily crawling across the land, carrying water that was cooler than nice, sweeter than cactus apples, and pure and unadulterated by sand. In the meantime, they satiated their thirst only with tiny springs where dirty and coarse water welled up from the sandstone.

They were arriving at one such respite now; the herds of wild beasts had found it first, and grateful for the water, the beasts who arrived had begun drinking from it. Before the rare watering holes, all of the wild were equal, and the beasts set aside their petty feuds and were at peace with one another. But a lion was also with them, and even as the approaching noise of Medes’ large band of humans -- who were not of the wild -- made the camels, gazelles, and jackrabbits scatter away, the proud lion bared its teeth and showed no fear. This was what the humans had named Nalusa, after all: the Land of Lions.

A great blast sounded overhead, and through the uniform desert sky, a distant object whistled. The dark form was only there for a blink before slamming into the distant horizon. Another bang came from the impact, deafening the scene with its power and launching a plume of sand into the air.

Before anyone could put together the alien scene, another explosion sounded and yet another figure came cutting through the sky. It crashed into the same spot, shaking the ground and summoning a mushroom of sand. Even at the distance Medes and his people stood at, they could see the glittering of glass falling from the sky overhead, the shockwave nearly toppling them.

To flee was the natural instinct, but this watering hole was the oasis of life, so they held their ground. Medes had Seen that there were no other such havens from thirst for a great distance in any direction. Even as the departing beasts hastened their flight all the more, the lion remained by the wellspring, for it too needed to gorge itself further upon the water and rest in its reinvigorating cool. All eyes turned towards the din and the darkness that had fallen from the sky; lit by the moon, there seemed to be some sort of black smoke rising from the shimmering sands at the center of the blast.

As they watched, a lone figure walked out of the crater and perched a leg up on the lip of the desolation. At this distance, Medes could make out the shape of a human man, posed heroically with a snapping cape and hefting a great weapon over shoulder. An inhuman voice boomed from the otherwise normal-looking man, sounding closer than it should.

"Another victory!"

The prophet Medes squinted, and beheld a god through the darkness and across the sandy dunes. He nodded a head in respect, and yet suddenly felt weary. If this was at all like that last river-god, then this might not be so chance or blessed an encounter… last time, when that brute Darius had seized the chance to take power with demagoguery and bullish fervor, the result had been disastrous. The flock had been split, and woe unto gods and humans alike for that; had they all stayed as one, under his guidance, Medes knew that their destiny would have been that much grander. But perhaps this was a benevolent deity.

“I congratulate you for your triumph,” the naked prophet offered in greeting as he strode forth. His head was tilted, to avert his gaze from the god and to also keep one eye fixed upon the lion by the water; prophet or no, only fools turned their backs to those beasts that were kings of beasts, of desert and of veldt.

"Thank you," Apostate boomed, clearly in a good mood. He let out a single monotone chuckle before continuing. "Who are you, whose sword hangs in the breeze?"

“I am called Medes,” the prophet answered, though his face was quizzical. In those early days, the Nalusites knew nothing of clothes or swords, so the god’s japes escaped them.

"I am Apostate!" The god all but yelled in reply, slamming his blade between the two before leaning on it. He peered over Medes with his human eyes and grinned. "How is your life?"

“We walk, and we are weary and have thirst, but still we walk on, grateful for the night’s cool and the moon’s light.”

Apostate shot a fist between him and Medes, keeping it lingering between the two. He shook it violently. “Defying the elements!”

The prophet contemplated that. “If living and surviving can be called defying the elements, then perhaps,” he conceded, but there was some consternation upon the man’s face. From behind his beard, his lips curled, and he cut to the heart of the matter. “I look into your essence, and see a great storm. What is your purpose, Great Apostate?”

“Let’s find out!” Apostate grinned back, his skin bubbling for just a moment. “What!” The God paused for dramatic effect. “Do you want?”

The prophet peered into the future, unsure if this was some trap, or if he was being offered whatever he could wish for, or if this was some philosophical quandary, or something else, but black smoke defiantly obscured all from his prescience. “We have a dream,” he told the god, “and we know the path to it, too.” Then his head turned to the lion, who still zealously guarded the small watering-hole. “But our throats are parched, and without water this path becomes a perilous one.”

“Then take the water,” Apostate answered simply. He pushed off his blade to stand up straight and in doing so, the handle to the mighty weapon tilted towards Medes. “Do you know how?”

“What is this instrument?” the wisest of them could only ask, not immediately taking up the blade but rather feeling the strangely smooth, cool texture of its blade. Soft and cool, not like the sand or clay underfoot, not like the grass in greener parts they’d seen away from this deep desert, not like the rough bark of the acacia trees, but like the softness of a riverstone weathered smooth by water… or like water itself. The prophet was awestruck, and slowly, some of those behind him advanced forward to similarly gawk at the weapon, Apostate’s question forgotten.

“It’s a sword,” Apostate proudly responded, “it is one of the many ways a person can seize their means from things that otherwise oppress them.” He paused for a moment. “There are many ways to seize your water, I can see them in the air, to defy what stands in your way… but I notice that this way seems to have taken your interest.”

The hand of Medes ran further upon the black metal’s glossy sheen, revelling in the silky smoothness… until it brushed against the razor-sharp edge, and found a new sensation. A small gasp escaped the prophet’s lipsas he beheld the place where flesh had been broken and blood now gushed.

“I understand it now,” he said, intuitively grasping it by the hilt. He tested a sawing motion in the air, stabbing and pulling it back, but found that unnatural — the immense weight of the weapon tossing him along with it. Next he tried a slashing arc, and found that more suitable, even if the weight was still rather unwieldy, forcing him to use both hands and all his strength. The lion only watched and growled in response to this endless din, its eye glued to the throngs of men crowded around Medes and Apostate even as it slowly lapped at the water.

“Is that your water?” Apostate suddenly asked as he split from the group, casually strolling towards the murky oasis.

“No,” Medes admitted after some thought, “but still, we must take it.”

Scuffing his feet in the sand, Aspostate stopped at the bank of the small pond — if it could be called that. He knelt down and dipped a hand in the water, finding it as warm as expected of such a shallow body. This callous disregard to the nearby lion as it growled and bared its fangs seemed to set the beast off guard, but not understanding the nature of the being before it, the king of that desert finally leapt forward with claws extended.

Apostate spun to meet the beast, and as it lingered mid-jump, the god let out a beastly roar that turned the lion’s into a squeak. The immense force of the rage forced the lion to land early in fright, and it backed slowly, eyes never parting from the strange beast that was Apostate. But like the lion before it had been cowed, Medes had also mustered up his courage, and so he had strode forward and was now almost upon the distracted animal. The shuffling of sand about the prophet’s feet suddenly caught the lion’s ear, and it turned its head just in time to witness the savage strike that cleaved into its back and nearly parted it in two.

It let out a different howl then, one of anguish, but began to spasm and go into shock. Medes and the humans could hardly comprehend what was happening; never had they hunted before, instead having lived off the fruits of the land throughout their long journey.

After some moments, Medes began to realize the burden of empathy: he looked into the dying beast’s black eyes, and realized that he should not prolong its suffering anymore. So he wrenched the blade out of the creature’s body, the silky black metal freeing itself with more ease than any mundane blade ought to have had, and without finesse the prophet brought down another savage hacking blow, and then another, and then the lion was in twain.

With a rough tug, Apostate ripped his blade from Medes and swung it over his own shoulder, letting it rest. The expert flourish swiped all the blood free from it before it even touched the god. Apostate idly commented, “It seems you learned a few lessons today.”

Their thirst must have been greater than they had even realized, for the great band of humans surged forward, coming forward in throngs around Apostate and their leader, over and beside the mangled carcass of the lion, to drink deeply from that humble hole filled with sand and mud and water. Medes could not take his eyes away from the lion; though its body was a ruin, the beast’s head still looked majestic, even if its mane would soon be caked with dried blood. It did not seem right, and yet, “Sometimes one’s fortune must come at the expense of another,” he realized aloud.

“Maybe,” Apostate answered, “that’s not what I had in mind, but everyone deciphers the guts of a dead lion differently.”

The god then held out his hand, a large orb of smoky glass present in his palm. “Take this.”

Medes readily accepted it with an air of curiosity. “I plead for your candor, Great Apostate,” he began. “These people look to me for guidance because I am supposedly wise, and yet here I realize that I know so little: what is it that we must do to honor you? What is your lesson and your dogma, and what is the purpose of this stone?”

Apostate let his blade fall into the sand. With both his hands now free he grabbed Medes on each shoulder and lifted him so the tall human form god and the naked prophet were eye to eye — even if that meant Mede’s swollen feet were now dangling in the air, the strange stone-orb having fallen out of his hand. Holding the prophet at arms length but staring deeply into his mortal eyes, Apostate bellowed.

“My lesson? My Dogma? Hear me as I tell you that you are in the most dangerous position a man can be in. You are a leader, and one of the things I do best is kill leaders who forget how to lead,” Apostate started, “so I will tell you the secret of leading without earning my ire, and if you actually remember this, then you’ll have my thanks.”

“Firstly.” Apostate shook Medes to make extra sure he had his attention. “A leader actually follows, and lives among their peers as a friend — ever seeking the best for whoever puts their trust in them. A leader wears the burden of the group, even unto death so long as the others had trusted them. A leader lives by example, showcase your virtues through your actions and your words for the good of those who are looking at you and hearing you. A leader never seeks themself first, but eats last and sleeps last, awaiting the wellbeing of those who trust them. Lastly, a leader only leads those who wish to be led, and encourages the expression of their peers.”

Apostate gave the prophet another vigorous shake. “Understood!?”

Medes nodded vigorously while all the others watched the display gawking. Apostate grinned and set the prophet down.

“Good,” he said, “and if you forget, I’ll cut your balls off.”

Panting, and rather meekly, Medes reclaimed the orb from it had fallen into the sandy ground. “All that, I take to heart. But what of this stone?”

“Oh!” Apostate pinched his chin. “Don’t lose that, for your people’s sake. If it were to be lost, who knows what might happen…”

The Northlands:
Moonlit Nights

Under the moon’s frosted light, the snowdrifts almost glowed. Their luster was a bloodless white, almost like bone. Even as he crawled through it, Kono was unbothered by its chilling touch upon his bare flesh.

The woods seemed just as alive tonight as he felt. His heart nervously raced, the leaves whispered and the wind howled. He stalked further, crawling slowly through the snow and keeping to the shadows beneath trees. In the distance there was a crackling sound -- not that of twigs breaking beneath feet, but rather of them snapping in a bonfire’s heat -- and the flames’ orange glow seemed as bright in the distance as the morning sunrise. Good; that brightness only meant that they would be all the more blind to what dwelled in the shadows.

He inched closer at a snail’s pace, taking care not to brush against any bushes or bring his weight to bear upon any twigs. Beneath the snow in places where the blanket was thin, pine needles dug into his flesh, but this was worth that discomfort. When he had at last come close enough, so close that he dared not inch any nearer to the firelit clearing, he waited with all the patience of a giant sabertooth.

The words of the afternoon before echoed in Kono’s head: “So they truly gone then! It’s been three sunsets since we’ve seen them. What are we to do now without the womens’ warmth?” Wilu had asked.

“They aren’t far,” Kono had answered, “I know they haven’t wandered far. When the day is clear, I have seen the black pillars rising from where they make camp.”

“Perhaps we could steal some of them,” Honon had half-japed. “Just one or two to share, eh?” And then Wilu had laughed, but not Kono. And they must have seen the realization in his eyes, for they had immediately tried to sway him back.

“Hesutu said we are not to enter their camp, nor bother their band,” that craven Wilu had said. Well, at least Honon had been easy enough to convince. This wouldn’t be like that other time, kono had promised his friend, not like with that Lansa… that had grown horribly out of hand, when she had shrieked and clawed at them they had lost their calm. The snow in their minds had melted, and boiled, and they had acted on rage and instinct from then… all that came thereafter had been disaster, and they hadn’t even been thinking clearly enough to hide the signs of that mishap.

Ah, and speaking of snowmelt… they had stayed still for so long that their warmth had started to melt the snow about them into slush, and Kono’s simple clothes were beginning to grow damp. He looked back to his accomplice just a short ways behind him, near another tree, and was about to signal that they should reposition… but then came a sharp snap. The two of them whipped their heads to the side and peered into the darkness, making out the silhouette of a lone figure heading out into the woods. She might have left the fire on the edge of the camp and separated from her friends for just a moment to make water, but that was all the time that it took. The two Childan men silently signalled one another with hand gestures, then crept after her with rocks and balls of moss in hand.

The night was of course dark, but not so dark that they stumbled over roots or gave any warning. When they were close enough, they leapt upon the unsuspecting woman, and abducted her as easily as an eagle might take a hare.

Far away, through dark woods and blizzards and then some ways past a mountain that walked, there was a land with many lakes and rivers. One neck of a stream, once-wild and filled with rapids but now tamed by a small dam, was home to the floundering Blackmoss Clan. They have thrived here not so long ago, but that was before the First Betrayal and the dozen more that had come since then.

A small group of sentries paced atop the dam on that frigid night, keeping watch for any threat -- be it bjork or beast. The full moon illuminated the surrounding environs well enough to make the lot of them feel safe; it was so bright that only one of them even bore a torch -- Ruslan was that one’s name. On dark moonless nights it was easy to get on edge, for you could hardly see anything more than ten feet from your torch, but now it was easier to relax.

So relax they did, until they beheld a sable shape in the moonlit waters. It was making steady progress downriver towards their dam. Ruslan slapped his tail upon the water out of precaution, and manbjorks scrambled out from the nearby lodge with spears.

“You’re being too hasty, that could just be a log,” murmured one of Ruslan’s fellows, but Ruslan had sharper eyes and he had seen a tail bobbing behind that shape. It was a bjork, perhaps an enemy spy trying to sneak into their lodge in the dead of night…

The swift current bore the bjork downstream until it thudded against the dam. The bjork was swollen and waterlogged. “Just a corpse,” Ruslan announced, and that was met with a curious mixture of relieved sighs but also concerned murmurs.

Ruslan held the torch above the body, squinting at it. It looked as though some of the limbs had been gnawed on by fish or some other scavengers, so there was no telling (for his untrained eye, anyhow!) just what had slain that bjork, but he liked to think it was one of their own war parties camped upriver. Finally, he shook his head. “Not a face I recognize. Must’ve been one of those Wickedtooth bastards.”

A raucous cheer erupted, but a cold breeze stifled it soon after. Most of the spearbjorks went back inside where it was warm, while Ruslan and the other sentries lifted the corpse and threw it on the other side of their dam. Let it keep going downstream, become someone else’s problem. It was bad to leave the corpses out in the woods -- the smell drew in the giant wolves and other predators -- so they usually just threw them in the river and let them drift away.

Their enemies -- those of that wretched Wickedtooth Clan upstream -- cared little and were wont to just leave their slain enemies where they had fallen, or sometimes even make macabre examples of the bodies. Barbarians. At least that meant it usually wasn’t a familiar face that they found washed up on their dam.

When their shift was over, Ruslan and his fellows went to the larder and took their meal; times were hard with so many of the foragers having been slain by the Wickedtooth and so many others having been forced to take up the spear, so there was somewhat pitiful picking among the foodstuffs. A few morsels remained of that black moss for which their clan had been named, and each of the young bjorks claimed a bite or two of it to take with some berries. There were a couple of odd mushrooms too -- in recent days, those fungi had seemed to have begun growing everywhere, and never before had their kind been seen. But thus far none of the Blackmoss had been willing, much less especially eager, to try them. Hunger could gnaw, but there were many such fungi that could cause pain even worse, or potentially even kill.

Ruslan ate the berries, but left his chunk of black moss untouched. He made his way deeper into the lodge and found Tanas, a once-mighty manbjork that had been maimed by a spear to the gut, and who in the past days had begun to stink of infection. It hurt Ruslan to see him like that.

“Pa,” the youth began, “I brought you some of the good stuff.”

Through blurred vision, Tanas saw the moss in his kit’s hand and smiled at the sight. “No, savor it for yourself. You still have strength in you. Death is near, boy. I feel the fire creeping through me -- don’t think that I can’t smell it too -- and your presence is enough.”

The manbjork’s words were interrupted by a sputtering series of hacking coughs; the sound agonized them both.

“Eat something, at least,” Ruslan pleaded.

“Dust. I’ll eat dust, and save what’s left of the larder for you young lot. You know we don’t have the supplies to waste, boy.”

Ruslan stymied a tear. A warrior never showed his heart, not unless another bjork hacked open his ribs. “There is something, though. Some mushrooms we found. The others won’t touch them; we don’t know if they are good for eating. Haven’t seen their kind before. So take them, if you will have nothing else.”

“Oh? Well, I could try a few then, for the good of the clan… bring ‘em to me. I’ll tell you lot if they’re fish-shite or if they’re good to eat, ha!” his father managed, before the coughing returned.

Some time later, his son returned, and the old warrior graciously devoured the head of one mushroom in a single bite. He’d been ravenous, truth be told, and was grateful to have found an excuse to eat something. He ate the stalk of that first shroom, and then began working on a second. The fungus tasted odd, and smelled like wet fur. Still, the stuff was not as foul as it might have been, and they seemed to settle alright in his stomach. It wasn’t a terrible last meal, but of course, he would’ve rather had something else.

Or would he?

The taste was beginning to grow upon him. There was a strong earthy flavor but something more palatable layered subtly beneath; it was like aspen cambium, only muddled with a bit of dirt. More voraciously now, he consumed more and more.

“I guess you like them, pa,” Ruslan managed to chuckle.

Seeing Ruslan smile for a moment rather than give his piteous form that look did more for Tanas than anyone else could have known. Between bites, he offered back a, “Ya, not so bad. See if I don’t croak from them within the hour, and then maybe try a couple for yerself.”

Then he settled back into the mat where he’d been left to rest. The heat in his head and the horrific burning in his infected wound both ebbed, while the aches in his back all but vanished from mind. Tanas felt his muscles relax, and was at peace. It was a good feeling, not like that ominous lack-of-sensation or queer warmth that you felt in a toe before frostbite took away its feeling entirely. But was it?! Tanas suddenly felt cold, and chills wracked him as his heartbeat pounded. Was this what dying felt like? Was he being lulled into the long sleep already? He’d thought that he was ready, but panic still set in.

“Pa, what is it?” he suddenly heard, but he didn’t see his son.

“Ruslan! Ruslan, where are you?”

“I haven’t moved!”

“Oh, of course… my fever, it’s the fever. Please, I need water. Help me to the water…”

Even as a wave of coughs punctuated that request and the remaining mushrooms tumbled out of his father’s hands, the shaken youth jumped to comply. With help from Ruslan as well as what little strength remained in his limbs, once-strong Tanas clambered up to his feet. Leaning on his son, the two slowly made their way through the den and to the river-entrance. Tanas half-stooped, half-collapsed faceshift down, and he greedily began sucking down the water. But this water looked strange. In the gloom of their clan lodge one could hardly see, but some moonlight filtered through the water of the exit, and it seemed to give the water an otherworldly glow. The stuff looked odd too, its hue almost mauve, but maybe that was just Tanas’ imagination.

“Alright, that’s better. Take me back to my bedding,” Tanas mumbled. He wanted to say thanks, but some odd alliance of fatigue and pride held his tongue. Perhaps that was for the better; seeing him in such a state had to be hard on the lad; he needn’t remind Rustlan -- his little kit, he still remembered how tiny he had once been -- that time was so limited. They both already knew, but it was best to pretend that they could each banish it out of mind.

Tanas didn’t hear any reply, just the rushing of the river through the walls. How mighty was the river’s roar! And in the darkness of the den, the long shadow twisted and writhed. He saw figures in the darkness: they were fighting, they were filing out of a lodge and walking out over a dam, they were climbing a mountain. And that mountain was climbing a hill, and the trees bestride it were lurching and leaning to view the whole odd scene with better angles. “Aho,” one of the trees laughed, suddenly twisting its shadowy trunk all the way around to look right at Tanas.

He had thought that it was a pine tree, with that trunk and then the triangle-looking shadow atop it, but it was not so pointed at the top like a pine should have been… it was rounded. It was a mushroom!

“You’ll be with us again soon, I hope?” the pine-made-mushroom loudly asked. Its tone was not a forgiving one. Tanas closed his eyes, but instead of darkness between his eyelids and his pupil there was a pattern of color. Maddeningly, when he stared into the color, he saw a mushroom that wilted and became earth, a pinecone that fell, a mighty tree that erupted from that soil and then fell, and finally the divine mushroom revealed itself anew as it sprouted from the rotting log. The cycle repeated, a hundred times and one, and yet he had only taken a single step through the tunnel in that span of time.

“I’ll be back soon, we’re almost to my bed. I’m, I’m sorry for letting you down,” he found himself apologizing to those mushrooms that he had so callously cast aside. How could he have not eaten them with the rest?!

Somewhere far away, as though distorted by being underwater, he heard his son’s voice echo something back before the lad began to sob. But that didn’t matter; he could always set his kit aside later and tell him how to behave like a real manbjork, but right now Tanas needed the mushrooms’ forgiveness. It was a terrible thing to offend a god -- these parts were far from Clan Rod or Mish-Cheechel and so they had never heard of the Green Murder, but even so they just instinctively knew not to offend the divine -- and these mushrooms most certainly were divine.

Tanas understood it now. The revelation came to him, even as he felt the strange sensation of himself laying on the ground and sinking into his bedding, so too did he feel a sort of cosmic understanding as it sank into the depths of his now-so-pliable mind: the mushrooms were not organized as clans, or even as individuals. They did not have one matriarch, and nor did they have just one grand mushroom lording over all the rest as the mushroom god. No, all things were connected! The mycelium tunneled through ground and soil and stone and river and space and time, linking every mushroom altogether in one incomprehensible and vast network. They were all one and the same, collectively and cohesively a whole, and they were God, all of the mushrooms.

It was hard to grasp, and Tanas realized that as he’d grasped the truth of that arcane enigma, he’d been clenching his jaw, gnashing his teeth, and closing his eyes with an almost crushing strength in his eyelids. All of that ended at once when he threw his eyes open. He was no longer inside of that dank and sickly smelling chamber in the lodge where they’d holed him up to die, no, he was outside again and could smell the fresh air. He was curious about his son though, as a father was wont to be, so he stuck his head through the walls of woven timber and mud (it all gave way as easily as water, no, more easily -- sticking his head through was as much hindrance as walking through the air) and observed his son there, looking down upon some shuddering mass of fur that lay on the ground. Ah, that was good, his son was still safe. The thing laying on the floor suddenly vomited, and it was only then that Tanas realized that he was looking upon himself, and yet that was no reflection in the pond. He was well and truly outside of his body!

But if he’d left it behind, then surely he was dead. Yet if he was dead, how was still he writhing and vomiting right there? Tanas was a simple manbjork, but even he saw the inconsistency there. He concluded that he must not be dead, but merely liberated, unshackled, perhaps even ascended. It seemed logical. He had become a god, one with the stars and the mushrooms.

As a god, the affairs of mortals now seemed somehow beneath him. It was quite a different perspective that was thrust upon him all of a sudden, and normally it might have been hard to adjust to, but he was spurred on by instinct. So with a great slap of his tail upon the ground, he propelled himself into the sky. With that single bound, he thrust himself above the tallest of aspens. That still wasn’t good enough, so to get the ideal vantage point he slapped his tail against the nothingness of the air below him and provoked it into slapping him back (that was how bird flew, he suddenly realized) such that he was sent even further skyward, and now found himself comfortably suspended even above the pines. Yes, from here he could see a long ways away, all the way to the damned dam of those damnable Wickedtooth bastards, damn them all!

He supposed that his first act as a god may as well be to smite his enemies, or rather the enemies of the mortal that he had once been, and so he soared yonder with a malevolent mien about him. But then a soundless roar accosted him, and bid him stop. Furiously, he turned his head toward the source of the silent shriek, and then he beheld the greatest star of all in the night sky: the moon! And how had he never before noticed that Great and All-Seeing Eye socketed in its very center, that uncanny orb that stared?

“You,” he proclaimed in an accusatory tone, pointing right at the moon, “may be a god also, but try and stop me! I shall summon the beasts of the land, and conjure malady and malaise, and cast it all upon those insipid fools. Let them worship me as their god, and mayhaps I will show them mercy!”

A ghostly dart flew faster than he could comprehend. It cut through the heavens faster than any shooting star, descending from the moon all the way down to the Galbar’s sky in a thousandth of an instant, and it iskewered him through the chest, right where his infected wound had been. He felt pain again, and this time it was more vivid than ever. Even as an ascended ghost-god-mushroom, he could only gasp for air. But this was not a mere dart, it was a harpoon, and it wrenched him up into the heavens. He was spirited away at an unbelievable rate, but it felt so slow from the pain, slow like the Galbar’s incessant pull had suddenly become a push and he was left to slowly fall all the way to the moon. Still, with the push never abating, his climb grew faster and faster and erelong he was trapped midway between the two bodies, a tiny island of fur amidst the void-sea of space. Fractal lights and eyes peered at him from everywhere between the endless stars and galaxies all around, but his attention was focused solely upon the moon.

That moon was so much grander and terrifying in scale now that he’d approached it; in truth he’d always supposed the thing was just the size of a fist or so, but it sorta made sense that it was really big and just also really far. But none of that mattered; the Eye demanded and commanded his attention, and he was utterly powerless to break contact with it or to avert his gaze and it bored into his mind. With oppressive callousness, the Eye sifted through his memories, and it was as though he relived his entire life in a few quick moments. Then, seemingly satisfied, the Eye ceased and desisted -- for a moment, at least.

Waves of images and condensed concepts, information and understanding, were forced into his mind. He caught tiny glimpses of the storms of thought that raged through Yudaiel’s vastness, and even just the smallest window into her alien mind was terrifying in a dozen different senses.

The concepts co-opted his memories and took familiar simulacrums, that they could retell his life with new meaning and wisdom imbued. In that manner, he could understand that which he could never have understood as words.

He saw the familiar shape of his aunt, the Blackmoss clan’s heavyset matriarch, only her eyes were black voids, like dried and shriveled little blueberries haunting sockets as empty as space. Instead, she looked at him through a great white glow that had been chiseled through her skull and forehead. Through that third eye, she Saw, as did the goddess of the moon. Tanas thought he could see the moon back in there, if he gazed deep enough into the white abyss.

“Y̜̌ȏ̦͔̽u͙̅ ̬̐s̗͎̓͛ę̣̿͑r͉͊v̬̈́e̺̍ ̜̲̂̓m̛͙é͉̣̚ ̠̫̇̚ṇ̙͂̇ǫ̖̽̀ẉ͎̀̃,” the matriarch and goddess stated as fact, “b̺̓͢͝ų̗͈͑͑͡ṭ͙̟́̎̕ ͙̝̳̥͋̓̑͞t͖̻̬̋̈́̈̎͟ḥ̝̘͕̏̏̃̕e̙̺̻̬̍̎͊͘n̡͕̳̗͛̉͊̔,̣̙́͝ ̬̟̩̆͗͘y̺̖̣͒͊͊o̧͍̹̹͂̾͑̀̐͟ų̨̤̣̏̒͘͠ ͎͓͋͢͡͡à̦̥̖͖̃͞͞l̳͚͈̠͑̆̇̄ŵ̧̟̼͘͠a̪̝̋̅y̻͈̦̿̐͆ş͚͋͞ ̡̲͋̄̇͟h̡͈̤̗̃͑̋̓ǎ̙̞̍̚͟v̡͖͂͊e͖̠̗͗̽̓.”

Ah, the reality of the situation was laid bare. He was a lesser god, subjugated to this great one. As all things had to be, and should be. Her truth imprinted itself easily into his mind, engraved itself into his soul, such that believing in it was at once as natural as breathing. But… what was the implication of it?

“How am I to serve your will? What is it that you want? Who shall I smite? I cannot possibly serve you if I do not know these things.”

The matriarch smiled, with teeth that were made of bloody diamonds. Then she chortled.

“I̎ͅ ď͔ó͈ ̣̐n̮͛ơ̟t ̹̽req͈̿uí͓r͔͗e̞̽ k͎̚no̢͆ẃ̗ľ͔e̜͊dg̪͑e̛̯ ȍ͇f͍̀ y͕̔ou,͙͑ ̗͋o͇̎r͚͐ ̻̀ä̲́ssen͙͝t̓͜.̠̽ M̰̍y͚͐ ̩̬͍̱̔̏͐̉̋̚͢͟w̙̦͔̦͒͆̀͋͌ͅí̻̖͘l̮̗͋͘l ͎̪̗̻̩̫͐͊͌̂͆͝Ṣ̛̙̜̝͍͗̎̾͆͘͠ͅͅH̨̦̆̄̽̋͜͟AḼ͚̪́̓̏L ̪̞͔̱̈̀̉͂b̘̫̞̫͓̀̌̂͑͒͢͠e̳͕͚͇̩͊͋͌͒͡ ̟͚̟̥̭̓͆͗̕͝d͖́ǫ̢̝̮͉́͐̽͆͝ń̼ē̛͉͙͚͈͕̑̒͗̚͟.”

Ruslan plodded into the room, a burden upon his shoulders. He laid a hand upon his father’s shoulder, and to Tanas that hand and its warmth felt realer than life itself. “You need only survive,” the young manbjork insisted. And then the dam collapsed and so too did the ideabstraction.

Ripples of oscillating color consumed his whole field of vision. Hanas’ spatial sense was completely unraveled, and so he was swept along by the mushrooms’ power just as surely as a twig was carried away by the river. Time’s subjective nature was intensified; he did not know or feel its passage, and felt simultaneously reinvigorated and exhausted when he finally awoke and saw a familiar setting of the lodge, only without strange colors or wild hallucinations. “You have to survive,” he heard his son’s voice echo from the ideabstraction, and when he turned, he found Ruslan asleep right by his side. No doubt the boy had watched over him all night, until he had lost the long battle with sleep. Tanas sighed and stood up. Unassisted. He looked down, and saw his festered wound miraculously healed over, with only a scar shaped like a crescent moon left to show for it.



Before there was life, there was the Dream. Stars and aurorae of color wheeled overhead, and there was serenity. A great multitude of souls drifted through the phantasmagoria like so many little fireflies in the night sky. They did not and could not speak or smell or touch or feel, but they could see, and the world was a beautiful garden. There were many dimensions, and yet there was no time to sully the majesty of creation; everything seemed immortal and immutable in its permeance, and there was only one infinitely long instant of experience before the colors faded and they were dragged into the grim reality of corporeal life.

In an instant all that they had known was uprooted, and they had been trajected to somewhere else. These first people suddenly found that they could feel, could touch, could scream and cry, and they did. But they could not See; the world was too small in its three dimensions, and that horrid yellow orb in the sky was too oppressively bright!

They writhed on the ground, dazed and confused, until sunset’s reprieve finally afforded them the mercy of being able to see. A kinder orb with a softer and more pallid glow appeared in the sky as night began to fall. It was there in the sky that their future was born. Even in the dusktime the light was blinding, but a few of them could See past it. They took it upon themselves to lead the others forward, and so a long journey began.

They walked the land in great roving bands, not staying as one great horde but splitting into many groups. They were not true nomads, for they each followed the guiding light, and knew that at the end of their road was a destination where their journeying could end. But until their arduous trek to paradise ended, they could only march.

Led by the radiance, a mob of nascent humans found a large barrier of water. Continuing their unknown pilgrimage, they journeyed along the land adjacent to it until they came across a circular pool of water, on both sides of the river it was flanked by three pillars of stone with strange symbols etched into them. A lone stranger paced around the pool, unaware of the approaching humans.

The prophet who walked foremost among the procession made for this enigmatic figure who paced among the standing stones. That man walked with his eyes closed, even in the daylight, and he did not stumble. The moon, even on the far side of the Galbar, guided him onward. Like all those behind him, his flesh had been baked red-brown like clay bricks in the sun, for he was clad like the hairless animals of the land. He hummed in his approach, and when he finally drew near enough that he felt it right to speak, his voice was soft and musical, “An auspicious light has brought us together.”

The stranger peering into the lake mused, “A light, or perhaps something else.” he said, turning to face the humans. He was dressed in the traditional furs of Eidolon. His face was different from theirs, bearing two horns with one broken. His eyes did not match each other, with one red and the other blue. If one could glance over his face and look at his arms, they would see rectangular patterns also colored one red and one blue.

He continued to speak, “I did not know that anyone else was here. This might complicate matters.” his voice trailing off towards the end. Beyond the strange color, if one looked closer they could see a certain weariness in his eyes.

The prophet opened his eyes at last, and the two mud-brown orbs gave a knowing look to the stranger before him. He Saw more than most mortals could, and perhaps more than any of them ought to. “If you keep to your path and walk ever on as do we, perhaps you will find the answers,” the man mused, looking to the lake. “It seems so wrong that with these two eyes I behold these waters and see that they are tired, so tired, all but slumbering -- and yet my third eye Sees something else, something beautiful and terrible: the water is alive and thrashing, and it surges and washes away the banks and cleanses the hills.”

”As said, your presence complicates matters. Within this lake is well and woe. It was not meant for you or your kind.” he said with a resigned voice.

“For whom was the lake filled, then, if not those who walk these lands?”

His face grimaced as he looked out to the lake, ”While you were still, these waters were here. When you return to stillness, they will remain. This a monument ” he paused, attempting to find the correct word, ”This is a monument to well and woe, unpredictability, chance, happenstance.” There was another deliberate pause, ”Potential. The word has become cruel to it and conspired against it. Within these boundaries, it is protected. However it would be a disgrace to confine it to such a small container, it would become its prison. It wanted, it needed ways to sneak back into the world that is hostile against it.”

“A monument,” the man echoed back. He didn’t understand, not yet; while his body was in its prime just like all of the other humans that followed him, they all had young minds. How could a people without history know of history or the sentiments that drove one to build monuments? “I See many things: the path that we must walk, which leads beyond this river; my brothers, who followed another and who are beyond the hills and the horizon; the moon, even as she sleeps below that same horizon; and you, who are more than you seem. But while I sense that this river bears rage and that it will flood, I know not when or why or how. This ‘happenstance’ defies order and reason. What is to become of we who must suffer its whims?”

Devoted to his cause, the stranger replied with a soft anger, ”Your understanding is not required.” He mused upon that idea. ”No. Perhaps I was mistaken. Perhaps you do need to understand.” He pulled something from beneath his furs, a red gemstone stained with a blue coloration over part of it. He pushed it towards the prophet, ”Take it and understand.”

A trusting hand claimed the offered gemstone, and the man curiously inspected it.

The stranger peered into the sage, seemingly annoyed, ”You are still blind to it.” A moment of revelation passed over him, ”But how can you understand without experience?” He reached over to his back and pulled something that shouldn’t be there, a grain of barley and a fruit, before eating them. He conjured another few grains of barley and a fruit before handing it as well to the man, ”Do as I have and eat it.”

The prophet complied once more, without question.

The stranger pulled a handful of water from the lake and dumped it to one side of him. He waved his hands over the ground, and on one side of him was a plate with the same amount of grain as he gave to the seer and on the other side where he had first wetted it with water was a covering of animal skins. ”I shall permit your entire group to have either what is on this plate, or what is on this other.” he said gesturing to below the animal skins.

The prophet only stood statuesque in silent contemplation. After a pregnant pause, one of his followers at last stepped forth to gesticulate toward the furs and inquire, “Brother, what is hidden beneath that?”

“Were that I could See, I would disclose that to you,” the prophet confessed, “but alas, the images are like those in the clouds, hazy and ill-defined. I see this stranger hiding a lustrous stone that glows like the sun beneath it, but I also saw him hide a fruit, some grain, some odd-smelling water that foams and froths like the river’s rapids. It must be influence of this lake; like a dust-storm, it obscures the way.”

”This is risk, danger or reward.” he said. Gesturing towards the revealed plate, ”Do you accept the mediocrity of certainty?” and then towards the hidden plate ”Or the grandeur of potential, knowing it might betray you.”

Much clamoring ensued between all of those humans that were close enough to have heard the offer, but the prophet paid them little heed. He finally pointed one finger toward the cornucopia that he could see, and a raucous outcry sounded out from the throngs behind him. For the first time, the prophet turned his back to the stranger and addressed his own people, “You looked to me for leadership and followed because I can See, and yet to walk the hidden path is to travel in blindness. Fate is like a lion; it is not to be tested or prodded.”

”It is unfortunate that you did not choose the greater of the two plates.” he said, before revealing the second plate which had a larger amount of grain than the first. At that, the tumult only grew. ”Know this prophet: there are greater forces in this world than mere lions.” he said, waving his hand and the revealed plates vanished. But as promised before each human gathered a plate identical to the disappeared one appeared before them.

A few angry outcries pierced through the din of the rest, because they questioned the Sight that their prophet had claimed to possess. The leader heard them, of course, but he kept calm even as one mighty man who towered over most of his peers advanced toward the head of the column. “This is proof,” that second man proclaimed, “that it should be the strongest, the bold, who lead us down the path and choose the way. I would have chosen the hidden bounty, and earned us more than this.

The challenger held up his fistful of barley; it wasn’t much. Though he was hungry, he cast the grains to the ground to make a point; in time, those seeds would sprout. That band of men, who remembered his act, would uncover the nature of grain and seed. But in the moment, all eyes were upon the challenger. “The soles of our feet crack and our legs grow weaker; we have walked far enough, and with this water now, we have arrived at paradise. I say that the journey is finished,” the man dared to shout, and many nodded in agreement for he said what they had hoped to hear for many days. More quietly, he murmured, “But perhaps I will still lend my ear to you if you submit, prophet.

The prophet was troubled by none of it, having only offered a soft ’So be it,’ when he saw that the crowds’ mind was made. More concerned with the stranger, who he had turned to face once more, the prophet finally asked, “Who are you?”

Ignoring the prophet inquiring about his identity, the stranger addressed the challenger, ”Is that so? Grant me the chance to prove your words to be more than sounds. You may settle upon this river, but know that he was not speaking false when said that one day the waters shall overtake the dry and carry away whatever it can grasp. And upon other days, it shall escape the ground and leave you with little of itself to take. You will not know when these times will come, except that will. But when the waters choose to remain steady, you will not find more prosperous land. At least, any that there are will be further than your feet could carry you. On the other hand, this is just one of several great rivers. I know a river which is far less fickle. It shall still wet the earth around it, but at times that are known to you. And rarely shall you find a lack of water there. If you settle there instead, it shall provide a meager but certain living.”

The prophet showed a hint of a triumphant smirk upon his visions being vindicated, but the vigorous and mighty contender only scoffed. “I do not fear water,” he declared, for of course he had not Seen the river’s wrath as the prophet had. “We are tired, and you say that this will be the most prosperous of lands at times, so we shall stay here. And if the river should overstep, we need only carry ourselves and our things to the high banks and the hills, and then return. Our brothers that wander the badlands still will envy us for our place beside this river, and in time, they might even come to join us here.”

Many agreed, but a few muttered dissent and looked once more to the prophet. He squinted at the stranger, and said, “If you will not disclose your identity, then at least tell us of this tame river and where we might find it, that we who care not for the fickle can make our way to it, and leave these others to their doom.”

The stranger replied, ”Choices have been made, and I shall respect that.” he said, looking towards the seer. Reaching his hand out, the gemstone shifted from the prophet’s grasp and returned to the stranger’s. ”Possibility eludes you, but the safe path will be known to you.” and his words were true. He looked towards the brute ”You are likely correct that the others shall envy you. Some shall join you, while others might attempt to take it from you. If you wish for my blessing for when that time comes, follow me.” he said, walking along the lake and towards the river.

So it was that four of every five of them followed the bull-like man-who-be-Shah as he advanced at the stranger’s heels, and the rest of them looked to the prophet, and soon took back to the badlands and the deep desert.
After walking a short distance among the river, ”For my protection, I ask that you do as the leader before you did and claim this gemstone. So that you understand.” he said, tossing the gemstone into the river.

The stone skipped once, twice, and then fell into the rushing water. So far upstream, the water carried little sediment and so the jewel’s shine gleamed even from its place on the muddy bed. It was so close to the bank where the man of great stature stood beside the stranger, and yet it was so far. “How is such a feat possible?” the man demanded. “We cannot walk upon the water, for we were meant to stay upon land. We are not like those there fish darting back and forth in the water, nor like the birds that fly. Our feet must remain upon the ground.”

”It is a skill you must learn.” he said, diving into the water and swimming as a mortal would. While he could have done the miracles mentioned, as he had said, they could not. It was important to show it was possible. He moved to behind where the shine emerged and paddled in place. ”If you can not even enter the water, why should you have a claim over it?

The eyes of the hundreds behind burrowed into the mighty man's back, spurring him on where his courage might have otherwise faltered. His bare feet stepped into the river's cold shallows with trepidation; he was afraid, and yet in that moment he was also brave. Carefully, the man watched the stranger as he swam, examining how he paddled and made strokes to push himself through the water and stay afloat. Calling out to those that he claimed to lead, the man said, "I will do as he asks and claim that stone. If I perish, remember that my name was Darius, and that I died trying to conquer the water and seize for us a blessing."

He trudged forward into the river, one step after another, and suddenly was submerged up to his knees. His body faltered, but he pressed on and took another step, and now the running water brushed against his thigh. The current threatened to sweep him away, and he hadn't even begun to swim -- still his toes clung to the muddy bottom! Strengthless he felt, and not from fear or the water's cold, but by some power that he did not understand.

But the gemstone's sparkle urged him onward, so he strode forth and the water came to his waist. His jaw clenched and his bronze head reddened, his back glistening with sweat that gleamed in the sun even brighter than the river. He suddenly threw himself forward, no longer standing but floating on his stomach, and desperately tried to imitate the stranger's strokes and swim further.

As Darius continued to flail about the water, his strength only left him faster until he faltered. His head began to fall beneath the current, and his breath was taken from him. However, within a second, he found himself once more along the shore, laying on his back with the stranger standing above him. The gemstone laid right within his reach, and after heaving and coughing out a lungful of water while the crowds watched apprehensively, he finally rose to his knees and clambered over to the gemstone.

”As I have been truthful to those who left, I shall be truthful to those who remain. Know these waters can be capricious. You will need to learn to manage its ebbs and flows, and how to cross it with your own power. Know that the sacred lake is not for you, and that I am its defender. I stole away your strength so that you will know it will not serve you against me. However, should invaders attempt to steal your land and you have not offended me or the lake, I shall grant you my aid. ” he said, before turning away from the group.

Darius grasped the gemstone and rose to his feet once more, trying to project strength even as his robustity had been shown its limits. Still, now none among those in his band would be able to fault him for a lack of courage. “So it is done, then?” Darius asked the clearly-divine stranger. “What is it that you will us to do next? How are we to flourish here in this land that you say is prosperous?”

The stranger stated, ”I did promise you prosperity. Thus, I suppose you are entitled to the secrets of its fertility.” he said waving his hand once more. Burlap sacks and tools appeared on the ground in front of him and a seed of inspiration placed in the mortal’s minds. ”The work shall be hard, but the work shall be rewarding.”

He gazed out to where the lake would be, and for a moment he was lost in thought.

“Will you return again? If we have need of you to repel some who would seize these lands by the river, what should we do?” Darius asked, sensing somehow that the stranger was not going to stay much longer.

“I am an honest soul, should invaders come, return the blue and red stone into my lake. I shall grant you aid.” he said, before vanishing.

Laektears, once known as dancerfish, were created out of Rosa’s tears when she was first confronted by Ao-Yurin. They have great wing-like fins and can be found in great groups that murmurate through the water, their scales reflecting refracted right off one another to create kaleidoscopic pulsations of colour even as they individually dance and, in so doing, create a greater cadence as a school. These dances, whether solitary or in a group, appear to have meaning understood by the laektears. One who does not realise they understand the movements of the laektears may perceive their meanings as words or other forms of communication - this happened when the giant mother-laektear 'spoke' with Rosa.
On being exposed to Rosa's blood, the laektears were turned from the relatively small and harmless dancers they had been into an extraordinarily powerful non-sapient species. They gained the ability to grow larger than whales, though full size tends to vary by individual - some may grow no larger than tadpoles while others may grow into the largest sea behemoths. The size of laektears seems to adapt to the availability of types of food - they will tend to remain small when their small size does not hinder feeding, and will grow in size with the availability of larger food sources. Thus eco-systems made up of small-sized creatures will be home to relatively small laektears, while eco-systems that boast an abundance of large sea animals will in time result in very large laektears. Those that reach larger proportions are able to filter feed by virtue of sheer size, but laektears are also scavengers and apex predators able to hunt down even the largest whales. As they tend to move in great murmurations, their hunts are dazzling dances of mind-boggling synchrony.

RIP Mamang, eaten by ravenous school of giant dancing fish



When the Monarch departed, Yudaiel was left alone, an entire world to herself. The moon was her jewel, her throne, her prison, her... home? It was mercifully quiet, and she had sanctified peace about her, but not within her.

She brooded over this new yoke of hers, ‘punished’ with the order to remain apart from the Galbar and deny it her molding hand. She had foreseen the need to work her will through more subtle means -- brute force, as she’d brought to bear about Ashevelen -- was neither elegant nor particularly effective, and it was taxing. It also doubtless risked alienating the other gods… individually Yudaiel feared none of them, for her will was potent, but together they could undoubtedly be her ruin.

Perhaps this was for the better. Her vastness was great, grand enough to stretch across the void and touch the Galbar even from her throne on the moon, perhaps; however, her mind’s reach went even further. Through observing and making subtle touches upon the mortals or the other gods, whether through discreetly manipulating them through visions and ideabstractions or by outright imprinting her will upon lesser minds, she could still do what was done. Whatever she pleased!

If Yudaiel possessed a voice, and space a medium to carry it, then her sudden and violent cackling might have shaken the world. She gazed forward and saw the path. The goddess was more than a mere Reverberation upon the tapestry: Yudaiel was the Lady of Far and Near, She Who is Ever at the Shoulder, the Great and All-Seeing Eye.

And let all flinch from her gaze!

SPRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRUT! went the rush of magmatic pressure, and out flew a cannonball dressed in black and white, skin red as currants, mind sloshed as the waves of the sea. To the surprise of exactly no one, this was Jiugui blasting off again, his bulbous form having been ejected from the heat of the underworld and sent flying through the storms and aftermath of the explosion that had devastated Termina and the surrounding lands. This had given his balloon-like body unreasonable lift and, somehow, not sent him away from Termina, but towards it. In fact, he had flown towards the centre of the explosion with insane speed, slurring a scream all the way.

The scream came to an appropriate halt when the orb of wine, robes and flesh crashed into water once more (smacking into some floating mountains first) - only that this was not water, but a vile, tar-filled slush of death; it was a foul concoction of the scummiest make. It was like face-planting into a mire, only that the mire also tried to sap you empty of all your drive and energy. It was the anathema of life, a black abyss that served only to make the certain end as miserable as possible for whatever was unfortunate enough to fall into it.

That was if your name wasn’t Jiugui, that is. As it turns out, the drunk god was already so sloshed, so unfathomably wasted, so lost in the liquor labyrinth, that he didn’t seem to react to the effects of the Tlacan Sea. The god stood up from where he had crashed (relatively unscathed, if compared to, say, a mortal undergoing the same thing) and staggered around in the shallows of the murky death sea for hours and even days, and the only thing the draining force of the murderous mire could do was, possibly, suck some of the alcohol out of him. He was far from immune, of course - the god grew weaker staying in there; however, like a drunk stuck in an icy storm, he didn’t make a fuss out of it. It did cloud his already overcast senses, though, so the drunk as a skunk man also became virtually blind as a bat and slow as a sloth. After his second week in the sea of doom, the drunk decided that he felt a little tired. It was time to find a place to call it a night.

So he looked ahead. Yup, that was the exact horizon he had been staring at for roughly a fortnight. He turned around: There was the opposite horizon, which hadn’t been as studied as the former, but was still pretty familiar. The god wasn’t quite sure at this point - he knew by now not to trust his senses. He stuck a finger in the air to measure the direction of the wind, which he did - a deathridden, stinking breeze blew from the northwest - but that didn’t really tell him anything about whether there was a comfortable barrel to sleep in over there.

So Jiugui plumped his behind down in the malicious silt and got thinking: How would he get out of this one, huh? He raised his cup to the moon above and produced thereforth a pleading poem for the eye in the sky:

From molten caves and lands of frost,
In foreign lands I am now lost.
Tell me, bright moon, can you see
A refuge for my cup and me?

He then took another sip and waited. Far above and across distances vast, the invisible eye turned its gaze. Yudaiel heard him.

She had seen Jiugui before, and how… curious was he! How capricious! His very aspect, every fiber of his being, seemed to be intoxication and impetuousness, with only the brief and occasional oasis of lucidity. In a sense that was revolting, disgusting, abominable; the chronically unpredictable were things that Yudaiel could hardly keep herself from loathing, especially if they were not trifling things but gods that could shape the world! Yet unlike Ashevelen, perhaps this one could be guided and steered.

His will did not seem so strong as that of the Monarch, who she hardly dared to try dominating -- not yet! -- or even Epsilon, who she’d struggled with so recently. She needed practice if she was going to subjugate and break that loathsome fly Iqelis, and it seemed as though this one, this Jiugui (as she’d heard him call himself when observing his past encounter with Zenia) not only needed, but wanted guidance. Hmph! She could give that.

A dart raced through the void, cast out from her pupil, and reached the Galbar in an instant. It was a small thing, hard to detect, and even if the Monarch might have somehow sensed it, he surely could not object to something so small… she wasn’t even touching that world below, much less bending it to her will. She sent only a simple vision to Jiugui, and none other.

The formless dart struck Jiugui with all the weight and sound of a snowflake. It probed for only a moment, then found his mind, pierced it, and thrust him into an ideabstraction.

The silent, dead, and inky sea’s mirrorlike surface was suddenly disturbed. The sandbar and shoals, which had afforded Jiugui the ability to wade even so far from the shore, began to recede as massive currents of water tore them away. Something beneath the water was drinking the deathly sea, and a great whirlpool appeared around its maw. Jiugui became a leaf in the river, mere flotsam. Titanic tentacles erupted from the water all about him and began thrashing wildly, stretching to brush the heavens and seize the stars. One by one, each twinkled light was captured and hurled into the maw of the colossal beast at the center of the whirlpool.

The moon was suddenly not overhead, but hanging above the horizon just before Jiugui. It was resplendent and glorious in its divine light, and that light reached out to grasp at the drunken god’s hand, to pull him away and to safety. Jiugui reached with his left hand, throwing it forward and ahead of his body, but the moon’s rays just barely swept through his fingers. He threw his right arm forward to try again, but missed just barely. Over and over he stroked, thrashing wildly for his life, and each time the moon’s hand -- and the beach upon the horizon! -- seemed ever closer and yet still he could not touch it.

Like a moth to the flame, the drunk hobbled forward through the muck and silt, chasing the brightness of the horizon with a silly giggle on his lips. Before long, and without him noticing much, he had left the shallows of the beach and moved onto solid ground. Here, the toxic sea no longer affected him and his divine aura slowly began to recuperate, returning his untrustworthy senses to him. Eventually, his giggles quieted down and the god was left pondering the oddness of his sight: Did light always reach out to him this way, or was this just another vision, like that pink elephant the other day? He squatted down and ripped loose a wet fart, mumbling ponderously to himself.

"Whasher you…"

The beach was blanketed beneath a cool and thick fog that seemed to suspend itself above the black seawater, for the haughty mist was pure and would not suffer to become one with the Tlacan Sea. But the dampness in the air was not so picky about other things; the cold nipped as Jiugui, and beads of water condensed upon a rocky outcrop further up the shore. In the moon’s light, they glistened like so many tiny diamonds as they rolled down the boulder, dripping into the sand.

What better drink for a parched god?

Not one to turn down a free lunch (or drink, more like), the drunk god staggered over to the rock and gave it a sloppy lick. The stoney texture didn’t sit well with the god, but he had to admit that the taste was quite refreshing. In a salute as graceful as could be, the fat man raised his cup to the moon with quite the momentum, spilling its contents in a shower all throughout the region. “Thzank you, dear moohn. These bruuuurp theshe dropslets shall… Shall foreffez be known az…” He then suddenly squinted and peered at the droplets again. No, they needed a small detail to be perfect. He grasped a droplet with unfathomable dexterity and twisted it clockwise. Within the second, the alcohol percentage within the fluid had jumped to ninety percent - that was not “by ninety percent”, but “to ninety percent” - and the god had another lick. Forget texture, forget refreshment - with something like this in your mouth, you wouldn’t remember much of either soon enough. The god felt satisfied and toasted the moon once more, saying, “I shall calliz ‘moonshine’ in your z’honourr.”

Meanwhile, all throughout the peninsula, the alcohol Jiugui had previously spilled into the air like a nuclear fountain rained down in torrents. Most of it hit the deserts in the centre, where the alcohol evaporated and momentarily caused a cooling effect so wild and powerful that it sucked in great amounts of moist air from the coastal areas. For a few hours, the region so devastated by the battle of gods and Codex’s might, was drenched in a typhoon and a hurricane’s worth of water, and the endless dead wastes could finally drink again. Many of these wastes could not hold the water for long, of course, and much of it ran off into rivers heading for the shore. However, all the land had needed was a mere sip, and soon enough, life that had lived there before began crawling out of its hideyholes. There were lions, deer, antelopes, bison, camels, jackals, cheetahs, goats, buzzards, eagles and, of course, lots of small animals for these to harass and feast upon. Shrubs and grasses populated the inner badlands and savannah while the coasts drank deep in the mists of the Tlacan Sea and filled with thick mixed broadleaf forests. The highlands that could keep water sported flora that thrived in the rich soil and filled with all kinds of birds and cloven-hoofed ruminants. All throughout the more fertile regions, fruit trees like dates, mangoes, apples, pears, lemons, olives and many more sprouted; nut and seed plants like pistachio and walnut trees, sesame and flax; grains like einkorn, emmer, barley and spelt - everything came to magnificent fruition.

All of this passed without Jiugui noticing any of it. He staggered in place and grinned stupidly at the moon as though it was a lady actually paying attention to him. “Whashu thzink? Like the pun?”

The moon had no words of course, but it gleamed brightly for a moment, and in Jiugui’s blurred vision, seemed to blink. Or was that a wink?! The moonshine in his chalice was alight too with a lunar glow, imbued as it was with Yudaiel’s touch. And when Jiugui proclaimed his cheers and drank deep, the spirit within his chalice tasted of more than just fiery potency… the vapors wafting up from it were laden with the scents of smoke and brimstone and salt and blossoming flowers, of rich earth and decaying leaves and also rotting meat. The smell that reached his nose found its way to his tongue too, and there came a chromatic myriad of tastes, too: mulled wine and acrid bile, the metallic tang of blood but also the sweetness of pure water as it reached a parched throat. Every taste and smell that Jiugui had ever experienced, could ever experience, and never would experience were all there, muddled together.

It took what felt like a long time to live through all of those sensations, to reach into the whole mix but then take the time to discern and contemplate and feel each one, individually, and grasp its quintessence. By the time Jiugui understood the whole of it, the moon had sunk below the horizon and a more luminous and golden jewel had taken its place overhead. Still, the moon could see him, and he could see it too, through stone and time and space. He looked through the Galbar and met the moon’s gaze upon the other side, and then he finally brought the elixir to his lips.

He drained it all at once, but not easily. He did not gag or recoil from the flavor, but there was just so much of it, it felt as though he was drinking a lake, maybe a whole sea. A thousand gulps were not enough to empty that one chalice, but the first drop shattered his perceptions of reality! The stones, the sandy beaches, the nascent and verdant plants that had sprung forth from his influence, the wisps of dense fog -- all of them breathing and shuddering -- were aligned to one heartbeat. Though he was not out of breath, Jiugui began panting that he too could fall into the rhythm of the world. Ah, that was natural and right. He began walking across the lands that would be named Nalusa, his body in one world even as his mind was stretched taut as it was pulled into a hundred others, with nary an ounce of its being left in that plane where his corporeal form had remained.

The scent was ever in his nostrils throughout the whole journey. Languidly, Jiugui’s eye drifted back to the chalice in his first hand. Chuckling slightly, he tossed the cup to his second hand. With great dexterity and none of his usual clumsiness, he caught it without a single precious drop of the moon’s milk having been spilled or lost in that instant the chalice had been in flight. He tossed the cup again, and began juggling it between his third, fourth, and fifth hands. That soon seemed trite; why entertain with such simple tricks when he could see and perceive physics and all of Reality? All secrets and desires were there before him, so he turned back to them. His whole body tingled and was hypersensitive, he perceived every grain of sand in the wind that brushed his cheek, made out the color of every tiny ray of light that came to his eye. There was an itch upon him, though -- a thirst! He looked back to the chalice and laughed, for in all his joy, it seemed he had forgotten to even savor his drink; it was full to the brim, not a drop having been tasted! He started slowly, with just a small sip.

He shivered, and felt everything so much more vividly: the warmth of the sun, the cool kiss of the gentle eddies of wind, even the rumbling and churning of his gut were all there, and he perceived each one separately and so much more distinctly than before. There was an ominous headache, too. A throbbing, searing pain erupted from his head for just a moment -- it was as though a shivering hot knife had been thrust through his skull -- and then it vanished, but his sight was altered. Everything, even space itself, seemed oddly distorted, but in a way that felt true and right. He Saw now, with his third eye, the soul of the world and the hidden nature of all things. The many truths of existence and Reality likewise presented themselves to him now in a frank manner that ideas and ideals were seldom wont to do!

A mycelium network grew out of his soles, or perhaps it was his soles that connected to a network that had always been there? As he already was one with the planet, with space and with time, he could naturally feel its every impulse like a hair standing alone in the wind. The network spoke to him in flavours and textures, and its voice was sound that became colour in patterns like fractals. The scents whispered to his nostrils, and as Jiugui crossed seven continents and fifteen seas, he arrived before that most beautiful, serene being: The mycelium of reality had led him here, to its heart and core - a mushroom rose valiantly to greet the god, and Jiugui greeted it back.

“Lo,” he said, “a cap as fine as yours is sure to outshine my nightblack bandana.” A bow met by the mushroom’s bow.

“Nay,” replied the mushroom in a billion voices and radiated forth a fractal spectacle of light and colour that threatened to draw the wine god’s tears. “What myconous maniac could even begin to measure up to you, O Gway of Joe?”

As Jiugui looked closer at the mushroom, which now had descended to one knee, music began to play, and the melody of existence carried the pair through a forest of bright lights and cicada songs. Jiugui sipped another lakeful of wine from his cup, but found as he drank that his mouth did not fill at all; then it filled way too much and an ocean flushed the pair away from the forest, but his friend the mushroom only laughed heartily as he was swept along with the tide.

“What a show, my friend!” the mushroom clapped. A great beam of moonlight came down to illuminate the pair and they were in the middle of the ocean, aboard a giant flask of… Mushrooms? The mushroom, or possibly several, each took a cup of their own and passed around a flagon of what Jiugui could only presume was more of that moonshine stuff. When the flagon reached him, the wine demon, ever the gracious, gregarious guest, poured the contents straight into his mouth. The flavour was odd -- something fiercely earthy -- but oh well. By now the other mushrooms danced around the central one - they had taken on many different shapes and colours now, so it was at least somewhat easier to differentiate them. They sang and danced as much as their limbless bodies allowed them to and proclaimed the central mushroom the Fungal Pharaoh, the Mushroom Maharaja.

Jiugui couldn’t help but grin and giggle, and it didn’t take long for him to join in on the jig, skipping around in a circle along with the mushroom minions and lauding his host, the Spongey Saoshyant. The Myconous Monarch clapped at the performance with its eighteen arms and blinked a singular eye.

“What a show, my friend!” it repeated. Jiugui, suddenly so certain that he had caught his companion off guard, pointed a finger so hard in its direction that the seas all blew away and left them in an empty desert.

“You have already said that, dear friend.”

The Portobello Prince shrugged innocently, its ten pectoral muscles flexing without a hint of guilt or shame. “Why, I thought you liked repetitive humour?” claimed the mushroom, and for some reason, this claim - nay, accusation - infuriated Jiugui. The sound of those words tasted too sour! Even now, the sight of that mushroom smelled foul! So Jiugui stood up and smashed his cup to the ground, pointing a raging finger at the mushroom; however, when he finally spoke, his voice was soft as cotton dow.

“You should know what I find amusing. If you cannot even do that, then how can you call yourself a fun… person?”

The mushroom shrugged again and pointed up. There, the moon was back, and it shone its fractal lights down at Jiugui again, an oppressively vibrant kaleidoscope of azure rays that may as well have been a lance of fire. Jiugui succumbed - it was too strong; his soul, his form - neither could bear it any longer. The god collapsed under the glare of the sky, heaving while foam and spittle left his mouth as he writhed upon the rough and ever-shifting ground of the sand dune beneath him. This soon reached a crescendo when he felt himself near death, dead, and alive all at once. He screamed from the top of his lungs like a speared boar, and the echoes of his bellowing rocked him harder than any of the ocean’s waves. Around him, darkness clouded his surroundings, and the fractals disappeared a little by little.

A voice like the growl of tectonic plates, like the clash of thunderclouds, erupted from between his legs, entering his body through the million ears of the mycelium network touching his body now that it laid against the ground. “But I am not a person,” the earthquake proclaimed, “I am a mushroom…”

”...I̡̢̯̥̞̼̣̤̤͔̻͙̹̦̊̿̊̑̀͋͋̀͌̃̽̓͋͌͟͝ A̢̨̙̳̲̟͚̺̻̻̻̙̤̺̬̔̽͒͋̒̃̿̇̆̌̂̋́̚͡M̲̫̈͠ A͙̰͙͑̈́͌ G̢̢̗̹̮̟͇̻͚̥̹̯̐̅͒͂͊͊̃̃̄͗̿͌̔̕͢͟O̦̱̦̯̝̯̠͌̊̾́̀̚͘D̨͉̲͙̙̖̬̞̮̪̘̭͉̙̈͐̃̊̅̔̿́̄̂̂̑̚͝!̢̡̹̗̫͕̻̖͖̄̃̍̔̓́͌̔̑͘̚͢͟”

And then the mushroom burst into a million-million spores that took the wind and spread across all corners of the Galbar, that fell in great clouds and greatly outnumbered even the raindrops. Everything faded to black.

In the pitch-black crepuscule, he could finally see just what had impaled him. He beheld the ghostly javelin for just a moment as it glowed in the gloom. He also saw the bloodless wound where it had pierced his gut and thrust all the way through him, down into the sand, into the roots of some queer tree that grew here on the dune. Still, the lance twisted in him as it seemed to sink deeper into the sand. But then the barbed tips of this javelin-that-was-a-harpoon suddenly wrenched at his very being as it was torn out and free, eviscerating his soul.

The smothering darkness was suddenly ruptured by a single pinpoint of brilliance, a purifying spark. The luminous dot -- which was quite like a distant star in its twinkling, and yet different for the pyretic and all too real warmth that it exuded in contrast to that cool and otherwordly glow of stars -- seemed only to grow in its ardent intensity. What had been a mere speck had in moments grown like an unquenchable flame, consuming almost all of the endless and infinite dark void. And it flickered, faster and faster, sending waves that rippled through space, that churned and tossed about his consciousness like driftwood in the sea. The pulses of blinding radiance and scorching heat came faster than he could even process or perceive, such that the void seemed both entirely black and entirely white, frigid and infernal, at the same time. His mind and body, unable to cope or comprehend, were overpowered by nausea, dizziness, and disorientation, but he didn’t stagger or vomit; disembodied spirits just floated and flew, after all.

In that place, Jiugui lost himself. The god was so swept up and consumed by the light and warmth and chaos that flooded his senses that he forgot who he was, what he had been, what had happened, and all the other things that he knew; like a nascent child, he could only feel and experience.

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

Jiugui was spirited somewhere even farther away, disentangled completely from life and limb and flesh, and incomprehensibly far from mortality. He found himself as a self, once more, though perhaps he was not the right self, his real self. Perhaps he was somebody entirely new now. He mulled over that, ruminating the concept of what such a distinction would imply, and thinking also over what the abstract idea of a ‘person’ even meant.

Those thoughts still in mind, he became oriented once more and perceived himself to be floating in the air of the Galbar’s atmosphere, drifting towards the watchful moon. He beheld his own statuesque body below, his closed eyes like candles as they lit his whole face in somber light. But in just a moment those candles had burnt out, his motionless and anemic corpse reeking of alcohol even as it decayed and fermented like a ripened fruit left on the ground. He left that husk behind and found that he was above the clouds now, but he could See better than any eagle! He saw each and every little blade of grass that sprung up to grow between his toes and upon his feet. Why, atop that lonely dune under the tree, he was a splotch of green, an oasis of color in that dreadfully dry desert! Being a ghost could be ever so parching, yet his chalice was gone.

He was higher up now, and a great wind caught him up and dragged him along, spiriting him far away from that desert and that dead sea and his abandoned body. It was night now! The stars above were so beautiful, but also so alien from where he flew. They looked like milky streaks of paint, twisting aurorae that coiled and overlapped and ate on another, bands of every color that existed and even a few that didn’t. One band noticed him and slithered closer; Jiugui saluted it by raising the chalice that had never left his hand.

The Rainbow Serpent echoed back his cheers. Ah, this was a great drinking partner! It even offered Jiugui a poem:

What is a dream, I ask thee?
Mere color, the product of fatigue, a reverie,
some would say. When another world we See
while resting beneath a shaded tree!

Freed now from the poison of his aspect that had perpetually clouded his senses in life, Jiugui’s brilliant mind could soar. Suddenly struck by a whimsy to be philosophical, the wisest of all the gods chuckled slightly, offering the variegated dragon a sip from his cup, just a splash of the Wine of Truth. The Rainbow Serpent eagerly accepted for it long had been curious about such power. Its pupils dilated as it suddenly found itself able to See. But fear crept into the serpent’s visage; it could not stomach the wildness and chaos of the real world, could not digest what it Saw. Madness began creeping into those gigantic pupils of the dragon, and soon it might have lost itself forevermore, and the stars and heavens would have grown that much duller without its presence. Fortunately, Jiugui was there.

“Let me guide you through the desert,” the wine demon smiled. And then he offered his listener an answer:

In sleep one sees reflections in a mirror,
the surface of a still pond with water clear.
Awake or asleep, things are just as they seem.
In death we find truth; all of life is a dream!

The Rainbow Serpent accepted this gospel and nodded gratefully to the sage for the wisdom that he had imparted. “Aeons ago, I dreamt and breathed, and the Cosmos was formed. Still, from you I have learned. Allow me to repay this kindness,” the Celestial whispered, whole galaxies like mere specks upon his cosmic visage, “and usher you to the realm Beyond.”

“It would be my pleasure,” Jiugui soberly and politely answered. The god gracefully climbed atop the dragon and took his place behind its head, and he rode the majestic serpent as it raced through the heavens, through worlds, and even through time. Borne on its back, Jiugui circled a weeping moon, a troubled sun, and then found himself conveyed through the black-velvet expanse beyond. Erelong they came across the curious spectacle of a great cyclopean being that toiled away to chisel and sculpt a whole world from a stone that He had conjured, and Jiugui curiously watched, but they were harried and chased by some snarling, four-eyed beast that ensured their racing through the stars did not come to a slow.

They were going the wrong way, weren’t they? The dragon did at least seem to be slowing down, and Jiugui realized that it was gradually turning about. Of course, flying was hard when the drag of so many stars held back your dragon and threatened to dismount you! Jiugui could only hold on tighter as they raced past a strangely distorted image of a world that bore an uncanny likeness and shared the name (Jiugui just instinctively knew!) of Galbar, though this was a queer and broken world, only a Shard that floated in a great sea of nothingness, like a bloody wound in the breast of Creation itself.

Moments passed, as did that world. There was another Galbar now, one that likewise floated in a great sea, but of blood rather than nothingness. The blood roiled, for it was alive, and like fireflies there hovered a swarm of divine beings all about the periphery of the blood. All looked through the arteries and veins, towards the beating heart that was Galbar. So focused were they upon it that none noticed Jiugui and the Rainbow Dragon as they slithered past.

Another Galbar appeared, though this one was shielded from view by a great spherical wall. Still, as a higher dimensional being, the Rainbow Serpent slithered right through that Barrier; it was as ineffective an obstacle to him as were lines drawn on the ground to anything with the legs to hop over them. Within that sphere were dozens of more spheres though -- it was an entire world, orderly and precise in its mechanisms, assembled from concentric spheres. As they passed through, violin music could be heard harmonising with the strings of a harp. Looking outward towards the source of the music, the pair witnessed an indescribable paradise crested with a tall disorienting palace. Atop the roof of the strange building stood a gentleman holding a silver violin, and as Jiugui and the Rainbow Dragon passed by, the strange man flashed them a Cheshire grin and a knowing wink. The Rainbow Serpent paid the enigmatic man little heed as it breached back through the outermost sphere, the Barrier, just as easily as it’d entered on the other end.

Their journey went on. They saw another Galbar, floating out in the vast sea of a whole universe, though in this universe it seemed that the stone and stars and matter itself were all alive, animated not by souls persay but rather some flickers of will. They came across another Galbar, one defined by a great tree more than anything else; that tree was half red with branches set aflame by some terrible dragon, and half black with branches burnt and dead. Yet somehow the tree was also alive -- between the blackened half and the burning half erupted a third half, one that sprouted still and was verdant with emerald leaves. The proportions defied reason, but perhaps reason was not so constant a thing after all.

Sanity returned as they left, and came to pass another Galbar. And then there was what looked like it could be another, and then another… finally, they’d turned around! Faster than light or the mind or anything else, they raced back through space and dimensions and the wine demon found himself deposited at the gates of the afterlife of his Galbar.

“The stars have foretold that we shall meet again,” the snake promised, before slithering away into the sky.

Jiugui bid his friend farewell and turned his head away from the sky to observe his surroundings. The Elysian Plains sprawled out before him. Everything here was green and flowering, except for that which was instead gilded. Things were peaceful and joyous here. Nature blended seamlessly together with the decadence of civilization: here was a serene but untamed forest, and right there was a nicely pruned and expertly cultivated apple tree, and then right on the other side of that was a warm and spacious dam that some bjorks called home.

“The Singing Maker!” one called out, and half a clan suddenly surrounded Jiugui. They cheered, then praised and worshiped him. One young kit held back a tear in his eye though, even as he rested in paradise.

“Singing Master, where is my pa?” the youth asked. “His name was Bish.”

A larger one stepped forth, the kit’s mother. “Bishadnik,” she elaborated, tears threatening to well up in her eyes too. “He was a tall and mighty bjork, my husband. A good bjork. The God of Souls told us that the good end up here, so where is he? Surely he deserves to be with us now?”

Jiugui chuckled at the attention and smiled warmly from ear to ear. He clapped the kit on the shoulder and said softly, “Your father, your husband, the one you call Bishadnik…” A hand combed through his beard, which had grown white with sagely wisdom obtainable only through death. “Your husband, your father, he lives still, yes. I have seen him, heard him, felt him - even now, his vow to avenge your deaths rings as clear in my head as your voices.” He nodded slowly and chuckled again. “A tragic event, yet one that so humorously demonstrates the truth of the universe: The beauty in the world is inadequate; the good is always accompanied by the evil - the bright and the dark are so closely related. In a flash, great happiness turns into deep sorrow, and people and things are no more as they were before. After all, it will be a dream in the end, and all realms, such as this one, are empty. One may think there is no use in living on as your husband has. Why act if you will eventually awaken from the dream?”

As morale among the bjorks faltered, the sober god chuckled again and sat down in the centre of the circle. “But then again, if life is a dream, why have it be a nightmare? Your father, your husband Bishadnik, and everyone else who have yet to awaken as we have the choice to make the most out of the dream, and as I see and hear and feel them do so, I realise that fate itself becomes an oxymoron.”

The little kit sniffed somberly. “I miss my pa…” But his mother and the rest of the tribe seemed at least somewhat happy again. “So he’s alive then… But if he chases after our killers, he will surely die, will he not?” asked the mother.

Jiugui nodded. “Oh, most assuredly, but change, no matter how dire, is a necessary part of all life. Bishadnik will awaken from the dream and come here to walk the path of his second life, just as you do now. Then with time, surely will he awaken from this dream, too, and move into the next realm, and the despair following his death will repeat itself - but so will the joys of his life and the joys of your lives.” He folded his hands in his lap and had the bjorks gather before him in a cone. “Do not let yourselves be ensnared by the chains of anxiety and fear change - life is all about changes. To avoid them is to welcome sorrow and dismay. Let reality be reality, and let things flow naturally from one movement to the next. Life, reality, is nothing but a network, and once you see how the tiniest vibration in one end ripples across to the other, you will begin to understand that all things change, and all change is caused by another change. Your father, your husband Bishadnik has chosen to become reality - Bishadnik has become the change, and all the world will change at his whim.”

The bjorks blinked as one and exchanged small nods. The little kit raised a paw again and Jiugui nodded at him smilingly. “But when will I see him again?” asked the little one. Jiugui let out a gentle sigh and looked up into the cyan void-like sky of the Elysian Fields.

”The loss of loved ones, naught can match;
The feelings which to us attach
A beating heart for someone else.
Emotions test the shackling belts
Of reason in one’s mind and soul,
But this is not a detriment!
No, my friends, nor decadent!
In fact, it shows good temperament
To have love as one’s goal.”

Again, the meaning seemed to pass over many heads, but before anyone could ask him to elaborate, Jiugui looked to the horizon. There, his good friends the Rainbow Serpent (who were both many and yet was also just one) awaited him, and the sober god combed his white beard with his hand again. “Alas, it may seem that my time has come. I must return now so that I can share with the world its truths and reality, and help all see how to best live their lives.” He stood up again and walked with his hands collected neatly behind his back. The gentle breeze of Elysium sent the straps of his bandana dancing to the rhythm of the bowing grain around the bjork dam. He did not turn back to the bjorks, but the afterlife opened many eyes within Jiugui, and now he had arrived at the truth of the universe, of creation itself. The key to everything rested within him, and now he would return to the land of the living once again to share it with everyone else. He approached the Serpent and smiled.

“Dear friend, what say you? Shall we return to the other side?”

The constellations slithered down from above while the awestruck souls of the dead could only look on in wonder and confusion; no doubt each one saw something different. As for Jiugui, what he saw was just a great stream of color, like a river of hazy paint, though something was wrong! There were only a few score different pigments; the Rainbow Dragon of before had been emblazoned with more hues than one could count, could see, or could even imagine!

“Hurry…” the river of paint whispered as it rushed between the stars and down the sky; the wispy clouds above were the white foam of its rapids. Jiugui crouched down, like a bullfrog. Suddenly the world flashed and pulsated, and he saw great squares, as though everything were just a series of shifted planes, turning pages in a grand book. The world still breathed -- but slowly! -- and all the vivid motion that had animated all things was beginning to cease. His hypersensitivity likewise was now just an afterglow of what he had first felt; he sensed soon his mind would diminish, and the mysteries of the world would be closed to him once more.

So without waiting another beat, the crouched bullfrog that was Jiugui leaped up into the sky, landing within the turbulence of the Rainbow River. Lethargically, it ferried him away, but winds grasped at him and tries to wrest him free of the stream, tried to yank him out of that river through the heavens and to its banks, the shores of nothingness, that he would fall back down and be swept forevermore into the realm of the dead. But Jiugui loved life too much, so he struggled against the flaying winds, and he swam downstream, ever keeping near the center of the stream! He swam more desperately than he would have if there was some kraken behind him drinking the sea. What a whimsical thought!

The dream of his journey and his life was ending. He grew wearier with every stroke that he swam, and with each blink his eyes remained closer for longer than they ought to. The fatigue was setting in, calling on him to succumb to sleep, to move on into the next dream… but then he remembered his thirst, his parched throat. Even if he had been willing to drink paint, this river of dyes was not something tangible enough to consume, so his thirst remained, biting at him. Delirious from exhaustion and thirst, he mumbled to the Rainbow Serpent, “Will you guide me through the desert?”

There was no answer save for the soft murmuring of the river, and the fading music of the dreamtime. Jiugui sighed, and finally let go.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

But then, at the last moment, a single drop of water fell upon his tongue; that lone droplet coaxed his pruned body back to life. It was the purest and sweetest thing that he had ever tasted.

Jiugui found himself somewhere else, in the shade of an odd tree. He was laying upon a patch of grass that had sprouted up to crown some lonely sand dune, and he felt so terribly stiff. Another drop of water fell, this time upon his forehead. He looked up and beheld the sunset; it was dusk now. Another drop rolled off the leaves of that tree above him, and the dew of the cool desert night fell once more upon his chapped lips. But Jiugui, dangerously dehydrated as he was, needed more than a few drops! He had a craving for the good stuff, but he was so lightheaded that he couldn’t even bear to look for his chalice… instead, he cupped his hands together and let the dewdrops rolling off a leaf fill them, and then he brought them up to his mouth and drank deeply.

“Uh-uhm… Are you awake, Magnificent Sleeper?”

Jiugui stopped mid-glug and peered through the gaps between his fingers. There, a large group of small, pale-furred rodents stood in a circle around him. They were marmots, but like the bjorks, they also spoke and looked to be sapient overall. Jiugui squinted at the all-too-familiar sight. His cupped hands filled once more, not from dew but from his own power, and he had a much stronger drink. And then he took another one, and another! The creatures assembled before him didn’t disappear with the alcohol, unfortunately.

“Let me guesh,” he mumbled at last, wiping the leftover death foam from his lips even as the rest of the moonshine that had been in his hands rolled down his chin. “You’re the maramoda or somethin’?”

The creatures, now christened the maramoda, gasped as one. Jiugui’s mouth formed a flat line and the drinking god groaned. Would this happen every time he'd wake up from a bender?

He needed a hangover cure, so he fumbled about until he found his chalice where it had been set down by his side. It still was filled to the brim with some odd glowing concoction that most certainly did not seem like what he needed right then. Strange smells wafted up from the elixir, so Jiugui poured it out and allowed the tree’s roots to drink their fill. He refilled his chalice with a sweet red wine -- that syrupy stuff was always good for hangovers -- and then he drank.

@Goldeagle1221 for Apostate

The Path of Tonauac

These stones were engraved by I, the Tlatotoque Teotl, who is also called the Smoking Mirror. You will have heard of my infamy, I am sure, even if I have fallen; eternal victory -- though within my grasp -- no longer seems so certain.

Few remain that have heard and remember all of the ancient tales, and fewer still who have Seen the beginning of time. I shall record all, in defiance of my supposed lord, so that even if I cannot seize immortality then I might still best him by enduring through legend.

Morality and the sentiment of others do not concern me, so I shall write plainly and tell only the truth, as all things began and happened and ended. My glory is already evident; still, this is a dark tale. I am no hero, and know further that I think little of those ‘heroes’ whose tales I recount for context; they were fools and in the end they did not endure.

. . . . .

The legends begin long ago, harkening back to a time before the gods. A hundred myths exist to explain the coming of the first Tlatotoque, but I have looked into the stone lenses and seen the truth of it: when the Shards were ripped from the Great One’s breast and cast out across the sky, their flights were sporadic. A few collided, and when they merged the lesser Shard’s divinity was oft subsumed by that of the greater, and two became one. But there was one small Shard of divinity that instead was deflected off another and only partly drained, cracked but not broken.

This sliver of godly might was left to fall down upon Galbar. As an egg too weak to hatch, it was inert, little more than a stone. In time it came to rest deep below the ground, in the warm bowels of the Galbar, and when Yoliyachicoztl eventually stirred the magma to life, this Shard found its way into the heart of one nascent Achtotlaca who would rise from the life-bearing magma pools alongside the other progenitors of my kind, and this most auspicious of ancestors was named Tlanextic.

But ‘Great’ Tlanextic, for all his might and beauty and claims of divinity, was not the first who had been birthed from the liquid flame -- he was the last to be born of magma and stone, or at least the last born in such a manner to rise up from the infernal depths. Perhaps he meditated within the warmth for a long time and there came to See, but that is neither he nor there. Know only that for a time, the Achtotlaca survived -- nay, thrived -- even without his ordination.

In the deep-caverns and lava tubes many Achtotlaca already skittered back and forth in the earliest of days. They were in the dark and without purpose, until one called Tonauac gathered the rest together and assumed leadership. Under his guidance, they explored and mapped the black subterranean depths; they found that tribes of others just like themselves had similarly arisen in connected magma chambers, that there were seven such great chambers and lineages within the subterranean realm that would come to be called Chicomoztoc, and that the tetlacuicitli could be hunted or even domesticated for sustenance, and that the comohuacen and other plants could similarly be cultivated for nourishment.

Still, they were not without worries in those times. There came a time when the whole of the Galbar seemed to tremble: the black and tellurian bowels of the world churned, and from the infernal sea deeper still came disturbances. The increased volcanism saw parts of the depths flooded by fire. The tunnels collapsed in many other places, and in this mayhem and din, a once-dormant calamity was stirred.

Nameless this horror was, and faceless too. It devoured effulgence, and about it the shadows came to life. It was darkness and flame wrapped together into some aberrant and abominable corporeal form, anathema to all life, a being of black fire that emanated no warmth and no light, only clouds of black smoke that choked out away life and light.

This was an evil that had been called into existence long ago, alongside the rest of its kindred, to scourge and hate and mutilate all that it saw, and so it did. Mighty are we Tletzintli, but powerless were we before its wrath. When it struck it left none in its path alive, delighting in the cruelty and indiscriminate slaughter. The horror’s onslaught could not be contained by any number of brave warriors; all were eviscerated by its countless claws or ripped asunder by its horrific maw, and their screams and wails echoed all through the caverns. And those that tried to hide met with no luck either, for they say it could smell life itself. Corridor by corridor, chamber by chamber, it brought forth darkness and extinguished all that it could find.

Tonauac did not lead the fighters into battle with the beast, as would be expected a warchief or Tlatotoque. Do not doubt that he was wise indeed, for he was instead the first to flee, to lead his followers as far away from the horror as they could go. Few tales even deign to mention Tupoc, the hero whose brave last stand against the beast bought the Tletzintli a whole hour and doubtless saved hundreds. Alas, that great hero died a horrible death and no doubt spent his last moments despairing at his people’s apparent doom: for in that time the tunnels were not so vast and far-reaching as today, and the last of the Tletzintli there reached the end of their world. They came to be trapped deep within the Galbar’s entrails. With the darkness behind them and only a pool of the world’s molten blood ahead, they could only cast their eyes down into the inferno, or else turn back and face the oncoming apocalypse with as much bravery as they could muster.

Perhaps they had contemplated trying to dive into the depths, to swim and swim and hope to find an opening somewhere where they might emerge again. In all likelihood they would have succumbed to the heat; their husks would have sank and been melted and made one with the Galbar once more.

But instead, their deliverance came as Tlanextic erupted forth from the depths. He was like no other Achtotlaca that they had seen, or that has ever been seen since: amorphous and ever-changing was his form, like coruscating flames, and he had no legs upon which to walk, for his body was borne forth by a rising tide of magma. He was aural too, with a golden radiance that was unimaginably bright, more blinding than anything any Achtotlaca had ever seen, until the first of them would later feel the cold air above the Galbar and behold the Great One’s sun. And this hideous and beautiful and awesome and terrible being -- Tlanextic -- was alight with smokeless fire.

Tonauac and all the others immediately worshiped him as a god, begging and pleading their great savior to smite the darkness that hunted them -- I did not understand how this could have been, not for a long time, but a mere hint of divinity is all one needs to cow mortals… I am sure that it also did not hurt that they were so desperate and afraid. “Save us and we will marvel at your brilliance, baske in your warmth, and obey your commands until the end of days,” the tales would have you believe Tonauac intoned. And they say that Tlanextic retorted only, “Swear it.”

Bowing their heads, all did, and so he clambered further from the pool from whence he had been spawned, advancing towards the darkened tunnel where the horror approached. Before his light, that abomination was made to feel trepidation. Before his commanding voice, that which decreed the aberration submit, the demon was made to feel pain. A dozen hands and arms erupted from Tlanextic, and he surged forward, riding a tide of magma. The darkness fled before him and he seized the writhing horror, and even blinded the thing clawed and gnashed and gouged at its adversary, but Tlanextic’s searing form could suffer no injury.

Tlanextic threw his nemesis down into the scoria, and banished him to the most forsaken of magmatic depths -- but he could not truly kill that monstrosity. I shall not begrudge him that, for neither could I.

The Monarch of All


Yudaiel did not gradually awaken from her dreaming. In one moment she drifted here and there, witnessing and experiencing visions as they came, but in the very next moment she suddenly seized control once more. Something was not right, she sensed; and it demanded her attention immediately. The Great and All-Seeing Eye focused once again, no longer staring lazily into nothing, only to find the entirety of its field of vision obscured by one great, gaping wound. Him. His wound.

Before her was the Monarch of All, looming on the precipice of the boundary of the densest part of her vastness -- the ball of her eye -- and casting His shadow squarely down upon her pupil. At least she hadn’t kept Him waiting for more than a moment!

Yudaiel’s reception was neither icy nor warm; she knew that He would come, and of course knew His purpose, and even had an idea of His intentions. So without blinking or betraying any surprise, the Lady of Far and Near met his gaze and allowed him to speak first.

”Yudaiel, ever the source of trouble within this realm of mine.”

The Monarch of All’s voice rang through the entirety of Yudaiel’s perception, the voice had booked with a ferocity and a disdain that made itself evident the more the voice reverberated. There was a scorn as the Monarch of All did nothing but stare upon the eye of Yudaiel, a barren face casting anger upon the goddess. One of His hands bared four dagger-like claws capable of shredding space itself, a weapon capable enough to slay gods without thought or issue, even with their divinity. His voice came about reality once more, a voice wrought with a seeming hate manifested in her very being.

”Tell me, Prescient, do you know what you have done by utterly destroying that little goddess of luck?”

Her ideabstractions answered Him with a clarity and eloquence that primitive words could not:

From oblivion there erupted an icy expanse, a primordial glacier with no edge. This was land dead and quiet save for the lamentations of the wind, and for a single lonely fruit that had fallen from the sun. Where the fruit rested upon the ice, the howling winds were tamed by its citrusy fragrance and burning heat.

Warmth and life sprung forth from the glowing rind of that aural fruit, and about it lifeless ice was made water. But then, a fattened insect descended from the sky; it too had perhaps come from the sun above, but its nature -- maybe even intention -- was not so noble or so good. It fell right upon the lemon with haste, and then it dug its maw into the rind and began burrowing into the fruit, devouring the crop’s succulent flesh and drinking its juices. The advancing pool of water began to recede and freeze once more as the sacred fruit’s radiance diminished, and when the insect had finally finished its gorging, there was nothing left besides the glacier, and then even the wretched bug shivered and began to succumb to an icy death, for there was now nothing to offer it warmth.

Lightning descended from the moon high up in the roof of the world and smote the bug down before it had the chance to die a natural death, and only then was a new fruit able to climb down from the heavens to bring life and warmth. Other insects tried to come, but they were burnt by the moon’s radiance before they could ruin that which had been prescribed; those insects were anathema to the fruit, immiscible as oil and water, more paradoxical and opposing than fire and cold, than even night and day.

Freed from corrupting influences, in time the glacier was conquered. The sublime fruit melted and warmed all, and life sprung out from a thawed land that had been buried below the ice. The husks of the countless smitten bugs were either left forgotten or found and devoured by those fish that dwelled now in the water, those birds in the air, or those scavenging mice on the land.

The Monarch of All scoffed, turning His head away from the goddess before forcing Himself to gaze down upon Yudaiel once more. The gaze was stern, unrelenting from the oppressive nature that the Ruler of the Gods emanated. The claws flexed ever eagerly, tracing His skin gingerly as He allowed her ideabrstractions settle within His mind as He pondered over the images and visions. It was soon done though as the Monarch of All’s voice rippled through the nearby space once more, his tone wrought with disgust and anger.

”You had gone too far in your total destruction of Asheleven, for you had done one of the only things that I cannot overlook. The others have yet to come beckoning for my judgement upon your murder, but know that you should be groveling at my feet to not be destroyed by my hand, Yudaiel.”

The Monarch’s lofty disdain was palpable, a fog of gilded clouds so dense that it obscured all of the whimsical ideabstracted landscape for a moment before Yudaiel could shape it. The white became wool, and the gold horns; where there had been mist there was now a vast herd of bleating sheep that surrounded the ever-present lemon.

A moon and a sun both hung juxtaposed over the sky. The moon cared little for the sheep’s din and cast its eye somewhere else, and yet the sun began drooping in the heavens, stooping down to listen to their insipid cries…

A fiery flash obliterated that entire world, though not so quick that the immolated sheep couldn’t let loose a few tormented wails of agony. A barrage of sights manifested within the resulting void: there were landscapes and lifestorms twisted and misshapen, hideous and neglected, altogether unworthy, but last came a magnificent jewel grander than any other -- that once-immaculate moon -- which rivalled even the sun.

And there it was Yudaiel’s own pride that grew so potent, so substantial, that it seemed to speak. ‘Look upon the splendor of my work, the precision of my hand,’ it whispered, ‘and pay no heed to the bleating of jealous others. You need not even hear any of their cries against me, much less listen. You owe them nothing. You already guard them from what lies… beyond.

Ah, but perhaps she had gone too far, said too much! In planting such thoughts into one’s mind as they were overwhelmed by an ideabstraction, it was a subtle touch that was needed, and there in the end she had slipped. He would know now that she had seen much, perhaps too much.

The Monarch latched onto those final words and the ideabstraction ceded control before His will; He cast His glare into the heart of the Prescient, and reluctantly, she bared the memory of what she had just Seen in her dreams, of the wooden god, the four-eyed demon, the terrible eye that lurked between the stars, and also of her hatred towards Iqelis and unyielding desire to see him not mercifully shattered, but tortuously bent and broken and twisted to her will. All of that lucid dream’s contents she surrendered then and there, and He saw it in details more vivid than life itself.

The claws seemed to retract as the Monarch of All watched the memories, His eyes unmoving from her core as the visions leapt from one to the other before they ended swiftly enough. A sigh emanated from Him as His hands dropped to His side, looking past Yudaiel and upon her damaged moon, seeing how she, much like Him with the Divine Palace, desired a place to watch Galbar and the space beyond. Perhaps, in a moment of thought, the great Monarch of All stayed His hand as He was shown the similarities that Yudaiel shared with her progenitor. He shifted in place, folding His arms together as a singular breath was loose. Yet, He knew that He could not merely leave Yudaiel to go unpunished, lest the other gods begin defying His will.

In a silent and tense second of thought, the Monarch of All turned His back to Yudaiel in order to gaze upon Galbar, His realm. The view from the moon was a beautiful one, not as bright as the Divine Palace but showing the planet from a different angle that He could appreciate. He immersed Himself in the view, allowing Himself to be lost in what had been created, before His eyes found themselves staring upon where Yudaiel had attacked Asheleven. Even from the Divine Palace, He could feel the impact that had shaken the prison. Turning His head to Yudaiel once more, the Monarch of All spoke in a calmed voice.

”You cannot be unpunished. As such, you will promise me that you will stay confined to this moon, under oath of death. I expect to hear you promise me, no visions, no memories.”

The words might have tumbled out from the mouth of any other given the circumstances, but for Yudaiel, speaking was not so easy. She had never even used her voice before! In a sense, she had no true voice, just as she had no body. To form the crude words, her mind gently reached out to grasp the moon, to caress the motes of dust adrift around them, even to brush against the Monarch himself. The Reverberation pushed and pulled at the matter, and the world was made to resonate and whisper her wavering first words, ”I will vow it.”

No, too tremulous! Too weak!

She spoke this time with a silent roar, a horrible telepathic clamor so potent that it pushed aside all others thoughts, and resounded clearly to any who turned their heads to the moon and listened: ”I s̪͌ha̰͐ll͢͡ ̱̎div͈̋ô̠rc̆ͅe my͍͠ ͈̎touch f͉͋rom̧̒ ͖̓ṱ̀ḫ̌e ̡̋G̘̕al̛̞b̍͟ar̢̓'s surfȧ̦ce͇͝,͙́ an̼̄d r͖̀ȇ͙m̹̍aiņ̑ hè͓r͚̍e. Yoủ͚ ͇̘̱͑̃̇ḧ̨̡̲̪́͊̀͘ả̘͕̜͆̀vê̪̹̄ ̄͟m͖̠͙̊̌̈́y ̟̀w͔͑͐͜ò͎͎͈͕͌́͞rd̬̼͂̊.̠̼̘̈͑͒”

@Antarctic Termite

A worthy submission! As we're in no hurry here we'll take our time and a review may not come for a while yet. I will say that as the first demigod submitted, one thing that I think is crucial to know is what origin and/or parentage you'd envisioned for Ea Nebel.

Hah, just yesterday I was rereading Mk. I and came across that collab of ours where Ialu insulted and tried to fight Ferghus

I'd encourage you to try your hand at a demigod if you think you have the time.
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