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Fe’ris





Fe’ris dozed. As of late, he had found everything to be so tiring. So many mortals with wants and needs, always crowding his mind with their pleas, but almost never making actual prayers. Or building temples in his honor. Or making pilgrimages and sacrifices in his name. Great Lifeblood, what were his devotees even doingdown there? He had half a mind to possess that damn avatar himself, see what was really going on.
But it was all so tiring. No matter how he sprawled his limbs and tucked his wings and wiggled around on his spiny back, he couldn’t get comfortable. The imperfect moon grinned down at him. And Galbar kept spinning. No matter what he did, life would go on. Civilizations would rise and fall. And Oraelia and Gibbou would circle their little planet, for eternity. It kept going and going, never changing, matching forever forward.
The bat dragon’s eyes snapped open as he filled with an energy he hadn’t felt since being shut out by the Lifeblood. It wasn’t that Galbar never changed; it was that Galbar always changed! Change was inevitable. Change was life! And he needed to help it along.
Fe’ris sat up and stretched, for the first time in a long, long time. He pictured Galbar, as it looked in the sky of Antiquity. The vampire churches on Kubrazjar were simply not cutting it. He needed to create something new, something still rooted in the power of the Shifting Font. With a single thought, he forced even more energy into its waters, liberating it from being just any liquid. Those that possessed it would find themselves able to manifest their will in the world around them, modifying it to appear however they wanted. It would not be easy, and it would not be common, but it would be a method of making reality reflect ambitions.
Tired once more, Fe’ris slumped back onto his dais, casting his consciousness toward his avatar. In one final action before he slept, he let the avatar know what was newly possible.
Then he returned to his slumber.



Fe’ris





“You have done well, Fennelle.”

“Jumpin’ jimminy!” The vampire leapt a foot into the air, startled. Her ghoulish reflexes still not enough to keep her from spilling the bowl of sacred water all across the tile. She cursed under her breath and picked up the shattered pot pieces, stuffing them into her heavy robes and shooting a nasty look at the god. “Do you have to sneak up on me like that?”

Fe’ris shrugged, his long cloak whispering across the floor. In any other building, the stained glass panes would’ve cast mesmerizing rainbows across the dark floor, their high, elegant shapes harnessing the sun to create colorful works of art. Yet the light that came through was minimal, the glass tempered and painted with choice minerals so that the deadly sunlight might not touch within the haunted halls. Every aspect of the cathedral had been engineered with one aesthetic in mind: foreboding. And that sense of foreboding wrapped around Fennelle as she faced the god she had faced all those years ago, before the Cult had grown to spread its crypts across south Kubrazjar. ”I can sneak up if I wish. This is my holy site, after all.”

Fennelle huffed and stood at her full height, almost rivaling that of the god. The spring burbled behind them, its headwaters tamed and surrounded by holy masonry. “You’re welcome, by the way! Do you have any idea how difficult it is to convince bloodthirsty monsters to give up hunting long enough to build castles and chapels and crypts and whatnot?”

“I would imagine,” he murmured, swishing by her to pick up a few of the shards, “that it’s not very hard at all, given the nature of my blessing.” The god rolled it around in his fingers. “They are eager to create, are they not? Just like you.”

She folded her arms and huffed. “It’s not easy. We can only build at night, and the mortals that know of us are too terrified to strike up trade of any sort. Your cult is isolated and stagnant. It cannot grow any further.”

“Ah, that is all true.” With a swift slice, he tore a gash in his blackened hand, dripping the godly blood into the spring, turning the pool it bubbled from a deep maroon. He dipped the shard in, and when he pulled it out, it was not fired clay, but a sliver of silver. “Even with my spring?”

Fennelle nodded. “Even with your spring. We need people, plain and simple. All the cultists, vampire or not, are too preoccupied with protecting their hoards to go out and spread the good word.”

“What keeps you from doing so?”

“I have responsibilities! You know, the ones you gave me and Araon? I can’t just leave.” She pushed past him, dumping the broken bowl in and pulling out one slightly smaller, but far more whole.

“He has the soul of a wanderer, even in his growing years. And you, Fennelle, have a commanding presence. Speak, and you will he heard.” The bat god tugged on the tiny, fragile strip of silver, molding it with his hands into a strange cloth, with shiny threads that moved as if it had a mind of its own. “What might it take you to convince you two to abandon what you have built, provided the effort expended by yourselves sees that the cult grows further?”

“I want to take my hoard with me,” blurted Fennelle, before she could even consider what he was proposing. “I want a way to carry it all, without having to worry about weight or thievery. And I don’t want to fear the sun any longer.”

”As you wish.” He spun the cloth around in his hands, shaping a bag that shimmered and glimmered in his black fingers. The god tossed it at her feet, and the bag sat upright, its strap moving around like a judgmental pair of eyebrows. It hopped forward, mouth opening and closing like it wanted something to contain. When the vampire bent to slide it over her shoulder, an intense tingling sensation ran through her body, fierce as lightning and cold as a winter wind. When it faded, she looked up at the muted light coming in through the glass panes overhead, and found her eyes to be far less sensitive.

”I think now you will find sunlight to be not so deadly, though I would not suggest seeking it out on your own. But my boons do not come so cheaply.”

Though fascinated by her new abilities, Fennelle noticed the sharp hint to the god’s tone. “What do you mean? What must I do in return?”

“Not you. Him.” As if summoned, Araon bumbled in, a little grayer for his years but no less excitable. The human cultist gaped at Fe’ris, enchanted by the god’s elegant, yet pointy, attire.

“Oh wow! A god, and not just any god, but our god! Right here, in one of our churches! Fennelle, do you see this? Are you seeing this? Oh man, it’s really him! I’m so honored to be in your presence, Lord--”

A wave of the bat god’s hand, and Araon crumpled, tiny pouches of who-knows-what tumbling from his pockets. Fennelle gasped as his tan skin paled, his hair turning thick and gray. Color leached out of him, and to the layman’s eye, it really looked as if he was dying.

“Fe’ris! Your Holiness, stop! You’re killing him!” She pulled at her braided hair, wanting to stand in their way but terrified of what might happen if she did. The violet eyes glittered with amusement.

“Oh, am I?” He gestured to the man on the floor once more, and Araon stood up, possessing an odd youthfulness despite his apparent age. “My, I had no idea. Araon, do you feel like I’m killing you?”

“No, my Lord.” Araon knelt, his eyes the same violet as the god’s. “I feel nothing but loyalty. I shall continue to serve you, and be your living will on Galbar. And also go on adventures and stuff.”

Fe’ris nodded and turned back towards the fountain. ”Go, then. Make me proud.”

Araon leapt up and tugged on Fennelle’s hand. “Come on, you heard him! Let’s explore! Let’s go see what all there is to see on Kubrazjar!”

Fennelle sighed, but secretly, she was thrilled. Hiding in stone crypts got boring after a while.

She couldn’t wait to see the world.




Fe’ris





Araon stared at the spring water gushing forth from the sheer rock face, falling to his knees as his aching legs finally gave out. A look of absolute wonder was etched onto his face. Finally, after trekking for miles through the desert, dodging vicious sand birds and the eight-legged monstrosities that even the locals wouldn’t take on, fighting off thirst and heat stroke, he had made it. Mist billowed down from atop the sandstone escarpment, tangling with the gushing, crystalline water. The late-day sun hit it just right, lighting the spring up in an array of reds, yellows, and blues. Small animals frolicked in the life-saving water, and even the hot, dusty air seemed to dance.

The moment of appreciation passed, and Araon plunged forward, letting the water soak his tired body. He was young, sure, but the journey had been nightmarish. But now that he was here, it was so clearly worth it! The wellspring was so refreshing, its spray rinsing off weeks of grit and grime. The young man shed his clothes, his pack, his tools, everything, determined to soak in as much of the cooling, rejuvenating, replenishing, um, hydrating, restorative, uh, um…

He scratched his head, rinsing dirt from his blonde hair. He was here, finally! But… it felt like there was something else he needed to do. That tugging in his gut, the tug that had led him to the spring without any need for a map or stars, had not abated. He glanced down at his smooth, tanned stomach, wondering what was causing the feeling. A tapeworm of some kind? No, this behavior was uncharacteristic of a tapeworm. A magical tapeworm? Well, it was possible. The only natives he had found since leaving the Hreelci Isles and striking out for adventure were rather buglike, so it made perfect sense. The more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that a tapeworm was the solution. Damn you, weird wasp people! Damn you and your tapeworms!

A crunch from behind him snapped Araon out of his mild xenophobia. He had thought his back was to a flat, featureless wall of water and rock, but closer examination revealed there to be a chilly cavern, dark and damp, yawning at him like some sort of mouth. He peered in closer, suddenly self conscious, balancing on one foot as he reached for his sword with one wobbly leg…

...

Araon stared at the spring water gushing forth from the sheer rock face, falling to his knees as his aching legs finally gave out. A look of absolute… well, not wonder, but some kind of awe, was etched onto his face. The water was glorious. The water was beautiful. The early morning sun set it aflame, a million droplets of gold reflecting its rays back at him in an array of red and yellow, spilling forth from the heart of the sandstone like, well, blood, or something.

The yearning that had brought him there had subsided. How curious, for it to bring him so far, yet fail him as he finally arrived at his destination. No matter! The revitalizing, thirst-quenching liquid beckoned. Boy, was he thirsty! Weeks of desert journeying truly changed a man. When he plunged into the deluge, sans shirt, sans sword, sans everything, he felt like a man reborn. Purged of all doubts and sins, left in a state that had him one with the water. It was downright spiritual. He wondered why people didn’t come from miles around to appreciate such pleasures. Perhaps the giant wasps he had met on his quest didn’t like water? Wouldn’t that be something.

He heard a noise from within the sandstone cliff and whirled around, the hair on the back of his neck on end. Were there tunnels reaching within the monolith? Were animals sheltering within, furious at his encroachment on their territory? He backed away, slipping in the desert mud, falling flat on his back as he grasped for his sword…

...

Araon stared at the spring water gushing forth from the sheer rock face, falling to his knees as his aching legs finally gave out. A look of confusion and fear played out upon his features, deep in shadow as the sun set behind him. What was going on? His head felt so foggy, and it wasn’t the fumes drifting down from the high-altitude rainforest atop the cliff. Wasn’t it just noon? Or was it morning? He couldn’t remember. And though he had come from the depths of the Outback, he was remarkably clean.

A sense of unease washing over him, he drew his sword. The vast spring was empty, devoid of animal life, yet teeming with plants. Was it a spider dingo? A sand bird, hunting him? He didn’t know, but the presence of hard copper in his hands made him feel a little more at ease. Blade at the ready, he approached the spring warily, jumping at every crunch and crackle of sand beneath his feet. The closer he got, the more on edge he felt. Water thundered down, spraying him with little droplets that, though cooling, did not help him feel any more at ease. Especially when he locked eyes with something hiding behind the sheet of water, ready to pounce out at him…!

...

Araon stared at the spring water gushing forth from the sheer rock face, falling--
“Alright! What in Oraelia’s name is going on here! If you’re a bug person, you better come out now!” He shouted at the cascading water, too confused and angry to appreciate its beauty in the light of the full moon. “And if you don’t, may Gibbou strike you down! Or Cadien, or something! Show yourself!”

“Finally,” hissed something from within the waterfall’s depths, “took you long enough. I was starting to think that I could keep feeding on you forever.”

Sword already out, Araon pointed it threateningly at the source of the voice, using his free hand to draw a torch from his pack. “FEEDING on me!? So you are a parasite! Get out here and fight me like a man, tapeworm!”

Two shiny eyes leered out at him. “I am no tapeworm, boy. I am older than you could comprehend. I have conversed with gods. I have watched the first sunrise over this land. I have seen the birth of the metals that went into your puny excuse of a weapon.”

“No, you haven’t. “

“W-what?!” The voice spluttered angrily at him, and he could see a figure crawling out from behind the water. Dark and mysterious. But also familiar, in an odd way. “How dare you! You have no idea what you’re dealing with.”

Araon lowered his sword, scoffing. The woman’s nose twitched, and her ears flicked one way and the next, and in the moonlight he could see her absurdly long eyebrows. “You’re a night elf. I’ve met you guys before, and I know how long you live. So cut the nonsense already, and tell me what you’ve done to me!”

“I am no mere night elf! I am the danger in the shadows, the monster lurking behind every corner! I have powers you could never dream of. A single bite from me, and your memory dissipates! You are no match for my might!”

“Is that it?” He scratched at the side of his neck, where he could feel multiple scabbed over wounds. “You’ve been biting me and making me pass out? That’s kinda weird, lady. No wonder nobody lives around here. You’ve scared them all off.”

“So what if I have?” The night elf snarled at him, a note of loneliness to her voice. “The magic waters bring prey to Fennelle, sooner or later?”

“Is that your name? Fennelle?”

“Eep!” She ducked back inside, the water parting around her as her body swished into the hidden cave. A few seconds passed before she called back in a much less threatening voice: “You can go now! Go back to whence you came! Nobody is home! Come back to the font later!”

“Are you going to mess with my head again?”

“Only if you don’t leave.”

No longer scared, Araon picked his way around the circumference of the muddy pool to reach a dry spot that still offered access to the cave. He slumped down against it, putting his torch back into his pack. “You must be lonely.”

“Nuh uh! I don’t need anyone. I have the gods and my thoughts. That’s plenty of company.”

“Ooh, gods! I’ve heard of loads of gods in my travels.” He poked his head over the mouth of the cave, hoping to see Fennelle, but all was dark. “Mostly basic ones, like Oraelia and Boris and Gibbou and Cadien, but sometimes a few more obscure ones, like Klaar. Have you heard of Klaar before? He’s supposed to be huge! I like the idea of that.” Araon began to ramble, noting the scuffing sounds that emanated from the dark the longer he prattled on. “A giant, gentle thing of the deep. Have you seen the ocean before? It’s huge!”

“I have heard of the ocean,” scoffed Fennelle. “My people originated from Hreelci. They were no strangers to the huge waters.”

“Hey, I’m from Hreelci too! Do you know someone named Taragon? Or Papreeka?”

“Not all night elves know one another! And I’m hardly a night elf any more, anyhow.”

“You know, you keep saying that, but I don’t really see much of a difference between you and the other elves I’ve known.” He poked his head back in, and this time, he could see the faint reflections of Fennelle’s eyes. “Did you do something to get banished from them?”

“I killed my entire village,” she stated tersely, “so yeah, I’m a little bit banished. I’ve lived out here on my own ever since.” Fennelle sniffed indignantly. “And it’s a fine existence. I have been burdened with glorious purpose by only the most enigmatic of gods. I, and I alone, have a holy task before me.”

“That’s super cool!” Convinced she wasn’t going to kill him now, Araon wriggled his way into the mouth of the cave, watching the water pour by in silvery sheets. He could feel Fennelle’s eyes on him. Thankfully, they weren’t angry any more.

“Oh, I doubt you’ve ever heard of him. He’s a bit niche, as far as gods go.”

“Try me. I’m more knowledgable than you might think. I’ve heard the teachings of Artifex, even. Or at least, I think I have. Those wasps weren’t exactly easy to understand, you know.”

“Fe’ris,” breathed Fennelle, the word echoing all around them, tinting the waterfall red. It send a shiver down Araon’s spine. “Lord of the Little Things, that which crawl and creep. The good and the bad beating in every man’s heart. Flesh of the Moon, Artificer of Ambition, He Who Flutters In The Dark.”

“Wow, you were right, I haven’t heard of him!” He scooted a little closer to her, clothing rasping over the stone. She scooted a little further away. “So what does he want you to do?”

“Spread his doctrine. Fill the night with his name. Manifest his will on Galbar.”

“Sounds kinda hard. Do you have to do it alone?”

“Well, I’m supposed to found a cult of some kind, but I don’t-- Hey!” She shot him a sharp look, close enough for her eyebrows to ghost across his nose. “What do you care! You’re just some guy.”

“I happen to be a bored guy. I made it all the way here, and now I need something else to do. As long as his will isn’t to, like, murder a lot of people, I’d be happy to help found your cult thingie!”

“Are you sure? It won’t be easy. And I cannot guarantee you will get anything out of it.”

“Meh.” Araon swished his sword slowly through the black air. “I figure founding a cult for a god must get you some kind of favor with the big guys, right? So I might as well. What do you want me to do?”

“It’s not what I want, but what he wants.”

“And what does he want?” As soon as the words left Araon’s mouth, he felt the cavern tremble. Fennelle squeaked again, but he was too mesmerized at the way his body lit up to notice. Where his arms and legs should’ve been were tiny rivers of red, branching like trees and glowing brighter than the full moon. He looked at his shoulders, fingers, stomach, everywhere, and there the rivers were, pulsing with his heartbeat. He heart Fennelle move, and he heard her gasp.

“Your blood! I can, I can see it!” And sure enough, when he looked at her, he could see stains on her mouth and fingers, vibrant against the stone encircling them. “It must be Fe’ris!”

It is Fe’ris, hummed the cave. And his doctrine is thus:

1. Improve oneself. Strive to surpass others, but show compassion when it is warranted.

2. Exercise mind, spirit, and body. To neglect one is to neglect all.

3. Cultivate that which excites you. Make it your own. Protect it from those that might covet it for themselves.

4. Give thanks for what you have, but never let your eyes wander from what you have not.

5. Come to yourself foremost, and me second.

So sayeth the God of Ambition.


The human and the vampire shrieked as their bodies filled with purpose and power. No longer were they lonely wanderers, aimless in the scathing desert of Kubrazjar. Now, they were holy figures. Prophets, even.

They crawled forth from the confines of the falling spring water, outlined in silver by the light of the desert moon. And into that night, they went.





Fe’ris





Fennelle crouched in her cave, shivering with cold, wet, and hunger. Stalactites dripped water onto her, water that had never seen the light of day. Her hair was matted, her plum skin stained crimson with blood. She hadn’t meant for it to happen. She hadn’t meant to kill Clowve. But he had just been so obnoxious, rubbing in her face how he was going to inherit the perfume business, from their ailing father, no less! Despite her being the one to tend to his every dying need. It was despicable. He needed to be knocked down a peg. So when he took her up the cliff and gestured to the Outback, saying he’d be the one to tame it and harvest all its fragrances for himself.... well, Clowve may have been full of hot air, but not full enough to keep him from becoming a purple splat on the desert floor. The business was hers, and that was that.

Or, well, it should’ve been “that,” but a night later she was hunched over in agony, too pained by the cold fire racing through her limbs and stabbing at her senses to even fetch water for her father. And when the transformation was over, when her eyes could discern the colors of the caves in the dark, and hear the rustling of cinnalyptus trees two miles downwind, Dear Old Dad became Dear Old Dead, her first of many victims.

At first, she had been ravenous, determined to snuff out the whole town, everyone who adhered so sickeningly close to that moronic emphasis on the Great Peace. Loud noises were great! The sounds of screams and gushing throats were downright musical. She could yell and bang the drums all she wanted, snap javelins and rip apart animal skins, and nobody could stop her! But now, within but a few months, they were all gone, every last one of them. The ones who could flee had fled. The ones who couldn’t had been picked off, night by night, by the monster haunting them. And it wasn’t like she wanted to kill them! But Fennelle was so hungry, and they smelled so good, and no matter how hard she tried to stay away, she just couldn’t help herself...

The former night elf wept as hard as she could, the echoes of her sobs bouncing around the damp limestone walls. They’d come for her, surely, if she didn’t starve first. There’d be hundreds of furious night elves, armed with spears and swords and other implements of destruction she couldn’t hope to stand up to with simple teeth and claws, and that would be the end of it.

Something appeared behind her, in the dark. Before, her eyes would’ve been straining to see anything at all in the pitch black. Now... they still saw nothing, as there was no light whatsoever. But she felt something, displacing the air currents and radiating cold. The sound of swishing fur tickled her delicate ears, and she choked the sobbing down from shrieking wails to a manageable level.

“H-hello?”

”Poor child. What ails you so?”

Fennelle squinted again, and this time, she could see violet orbs, glowing brighter than the pink moon to her own sensitive eyes. Despite how bright it seemed, it was faint, so very faint, and she could make out reflective, ribbed stone walls through the back of the translucent figure. When she looked upon the figure’s face, she gasped.

The cursed night elf had long thought herself the scariest creature in the cave system, but this guy definitely had her outclassed. His entire body was redder than her mouth and hands, and his skin shivered with indescribable symbols of silver. Wiry, wispy brown hair encircled his head like a fluffy halo, yet his mouth was clustered with teeth like white needles. A dark cloak was draped across his back and shoulders, fluttering in the faint breeze of the caverns. He clasped his hands over his white buttoned shirt, which were more like crow feet than hands, all black and scaly. His features were impish, sharp, like a night elf that had come out horribly wrong. She didn’t quite know what to make of him, but years of growing up in the Great Peace had hammered in the importance of being polite.

“I am crying,” snuffled Fennelle, “because my ambitions turned me into a monster. I did some really bad stuff, and now I’m paying for it.” She wiped her wet face, smearing more blood across it, and hoped that the being wouldn’t mind her awful appearance.

Fennelle’s mouth gaped open as the being stretched out on the ground, lying in a puddle of silt and mud as his long body curved with the cave walls. He folded his arms behind his head and closed his eyes, plunging them back into absolute darkness.

”Well then,” spoke the god with a thousand teeth, “you shouldn’t mind me resting here for a moment. Monsters and monsters make excellent company.”

Indignant now, Fennelle sat cross-legged in her own puddle of mud, ears turned toward the mysterious man. “You’re not a monster! Not like I am!”

”What makes you so sure?”

“You didn’t kill your father and brother,” croaked Fennelle. “You didn’t kill all your friends and family and acquaintances.” She paused. “Or at least, I don’t think you killed anyone. I wouldn’t know.”

”But you did.”

“Yes.”

“Poor, poor thing.” In the absolute darkness, the strange man’s voice took on an apologetic tone. “You had no idea what you were in for. Your ambitions led you astray.”

“Yes, they did. And now I’m stuck down here. And I’m going to die. And I deserve it.”

She heard the sound of the man sitting up, splashing muck across the both of them as he did so. Droplets of water continued to fall from above, collecting in her hair and eyebrows, trickling down her face and arms.

“Do you know where we are?”

“No.”

“Do you know who I am?”

“Also no.”

The man chuckled. ”I am the god Fe’ris, and I am going to make you a deal.”

A deal! “A deal?” She shot to her feet. “What can I do for you? I’ll do anything! I’ll even go out in the sun if I have to, just get me out of here! And make me less hungry! Please?” As if in response, her stomach growled ferociously, but it only served to make him laugh harder.”

”You are fiery, I will grant you that. But no, you do not have to go out in the sun. In fact, I suggest you never go out in the sun again; you would soon regret it. No, my deal is much more simple than you might think. But again, I shall ask if you know where we are.”

Fennelle sniffed the air, letting it roam across her tongue as she tried to get her bearings. “Somewhere in Kubrazjar, obviously. We’re far underground, but there’s still air flowing. So I would guess we’re near the junction of the Great Green Mesa, and the Outback. And the water means... there’s a spring nearby! Which means people for me to eat!” Her eyebrows dropped. “But I don’t want to eat people...”

“You shan’t, not to the degree which you have been. Forevermore shall you feed upon the living, but they need not perish before your bite. Your hunger shall not cease, as penance for your misdeeds, but it shall be curbed to be more... sustainably compelling. Now notice the water around us. Is there anything unusual to it?”

Fennelle stuck her tongue in it and immediately scrunched up her face. “It’s salty. What happened? It wasn’t like this before.”

He opened his eyes and looked emphatically at her. “Your face. Your hands. They are cleansed. They have triggered the Font, for we are beneath its headwaters. I was summoned thusly.”

She sniffed the water again, dipping her tongue into it. Yep, still salty. “The Shifting Font? What does that mean? What does it do?”

“It will make your life easier. Mortals are compelled to draw near and exchange that which they do not need for what they do. An easy source of prey, provided you do not over harvest. And the nature of your affliction will allow you to create many useful tools. Such is the nature of transmutation.”

For the first time in a good while, Fennelle smiled. “Thank you, Fe’ris! What must I do to uphold my end of the deal?”

“You must bring success upon yourself. I shall help you no further. And you shall spread word of me, Fe’ris, who granted my blessing to the fiends of blood, the Vampires. You will found the Cult of Ichor, and disperse my teachings, as the heart dispersed to the veins and arteries. That is what I ask of you, Fennelle. Now go, and perhaps we may meet again.”

The god vanished, and Fennelle stood, her head scraping the roof of the low cave. Vampire. Cult of Ichor. Transmutation. Her head spun, not with grief, but possibility. He had given her a chance, to escape the fury of the night elves and serve a greater purpose.

She would not fail him.



The Undergrounders





Cold, crisp air filled Zetian’s lungs as she padded silently up the gently sloping tunnel, the bare stone frigid on her hind paws. Shuffling sounds echoed behind her, no doubt her clergical entourage, but still her heart pounded. She had only heard stories of the ether before. Stories of good and evil, of Lapites driven mad by the secrets it held. Every Lord and Lady of the Warrens had their own experiences, of aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces that had caused great and terrible accidents. The lucky ones had been banished to the mines. The less fortunate had been reduced to nothing more than stains on the Flowing Ether’s walls. Zetian struggled to keep her fur flat, lest the fear-scent betray how nervous she was. A future queen did not get scared before the gods. A future queen embraced them, promising to serve them all her days. Even if it meant staying below the ground, away from their watchful gazes.

The tunnel lightened, and the perfectly smooth walls faded into view. It was taller than it was wide, etched with symbols of the gods. Qa. Ev. Bo. Gi. They danced around the floor and ceiling, inlaid in polished black glass. Each image told a tale: Qa, blessing the first Lapites with horns to channel magic; Ev, granting them fire to banish the dark; Bo, cradling them all in his paws as hard as rock; Gi, her silver ears holding up the Moon. Though Gi especially was beloved by all, Zetian had always found herself a little skeptical. How could the Moon float if it was made of the same rock they tunneled in? Stone was incredibly heavy. It sounded like just another story, made up by the Clergy to keep them all in line. But if it wasn’t a story, she really hoped Gi would be understanding. Gi was supposed to be the nicest, after all. Surely she’d tolerate a little faithlessness.

Finally, the tunnel leveled off, opening up into a chamber ten times as tall as Zetian. She gasped, and the thrumming of her heart faded away as her ears took in the most beautiful sound she’d ever heard. Mana-infused water poured in through a hole in the roof, behaving like no proper liquid she’d seen before. It bubbled and boiled, evaporated and liquefied, full of vapor and glowing a gentle blue. It felt like the air was singing to her, as it pooled in a shimmering reservoir, lined with silver pots and bowls and goblets. But while the water itself was beautiful, it was nothing compared to where it poured from.

Moonlight. Real moonlight, painting every surface silver and kissing all it touched. The hole was small, but stars twinkled in the sky beyond. Icy wind swirled down from above, whisking away the natural heat of the underground. When it blew, she could hear a million, trillion somethings whispering on the surface, calling to her, welcoming her. The dark, damp world she’d always known was gone, banished by the light of the gods. She touched a dark paw to her cheek and it came away wet. She was crying.

“I’m so sorry I doubted you, even for a second,” whispered the rabbit princess. I will never forget this moment.”

A paw, draped in silk, tenderly prodded her shoulder. “It is time,” murmured the cardinal. “You must drink from the Ether, while the Moon is in approval. It will not remain overhead for long.”

She nodded and approached the ring of bowls, wondering which one to take. The water looked like it tasted of diamonds and ice. Would it hurt her? Surely it wouldn’t, if this ritual had been performed many times before. Zetian clasped a small chalice in her paws and drank.

Ice burned through her field of vision. The darkness closed back in, but this time, it pulsated with sound and smell, always dancing around her range of sight. No matter which way she whipped her head, all was dark, smelling of rumbling cave-ins and something sharp that caused her fur to tingle.

The darkness drew away again, and in her vision, she looked up, up at the formless abyss that hung like a dome. It must be the sky, the place where moonlight came from. But where were the stars? And the so-called sun? All she could see and feel and smell was grass, rippling beneath her paws, bathed in blue light. Yes, all was a calming blue, she could see that now. Rivers of mana swirled through the sky and ground, congregating on a single nexus in front of her. A nexus that bore a shape and name.

“Qa,” breathed Zetian, prompting the diaphanous Lapite to turn, so tall and willowy that he looked like he might dissolve at any second. “Is it really you?”

He did not answer, and instead pointed to the wide array of glowing, mesmerizing streams, which blended with the fabric of reality itself. She felt like she could see the whole universe from here, so far did her eyes reach. So why did it all feel so empty? Why weren’t there more moons, more suns, more stars, imbued with the power of mana? Was he saying that none of it was real, that the celestial bodies were lies as she had presumed? What did it all mean?!

Qa turned his undulating, cosmic eyes to her, scanning with vaporous eyes that bore right through her, picking apart her every thought and emotion. He could tell there were many questions bubbling within her, desperate to escape the black fur confining them. But instead of illuminating any such queries, he simply twitched an ear, and the ice swept in again.

Zetian’s eyes snapped open. She was back in the chamber of the Flowing Ether, back beneath an endless roof of stone, the chalice dull in her paws. The moon was gone, and with it, the vision. She took a deep breath. It was a miraculous experience, to be sure! ...But she couldn’t help feeling like Qa, despite all his visual majesty, had been hollow. An impression of something that should’ve felt far more substantial. And where had been the other gods? Was she not supposed to meet more, learn more? Anxiety began to gnaw at her calm temperance. But she forced it down, choking back the fear of the unknown. She was a princess! The clergy could answer such question, surely.

Zetian rubbed the disappointment out of her eyes and stood tall. Now that she had been enlightened, she could properly appreciate her classes on Godly Affairs. Hesitantly, regretfully,, she began the trek back down into the deep, away from the surface that called to her. Away from the Moon.




Gibbou and Fe’ris


The paper screen slid aside with ease as Tskauchi snuck his way into the darkened room, careful to keep his robes from snagging on the damp wood paneling. During the day, Daimyo Praeka’s throne room would’ve been bustling, full of groveling Reshut trying to curry favor with the powerful warlord. But now, the paper lanterns were extinguished, the warm sunlight replaced with nothing but cold stars. Indeed, all those who could see him were but the distant pinpricks of light and the chirping insects in the nearby marshes. He was safe.

Quieter than a snake, he slid across the wood grain, making his way on silent, bare feet to the mound of pillows his father sat on during waking hours. He would have to be extremely careful now, as even the slightest skin-to-skin contact with the hemlock hidden in his robes would be fatal. The hemlock alone would never be able to penetrate the daimyo’s long, flowing robes. But the sharp pin, doused in the plant’s fatal toxin? That would do splendidly. He extracted a small bronze pin, long but thin, and coated it in the poison— carefully, carefully. Satisfied with its deadliness, Tsukauchi arranged the pin in the pillows, so that it would be unnoticed until sat upon and by then, it would be too late. Yes, it was nearly invisible amidst the colorful cushions and fabrics.

As quietly as he had entered, Tsukauchi left. He knew he would need a good night’s sleep to be properly prepared for the chaos that the next day would bring.

~~~

Daimyo Praeka leapt to his feet, clutching his thigh and howling. Tsukauchi turned his head, doing his best to appear concerned as his father hopped around, knocking over expensive ornamental vases, crashing into servants holding platters of exotic fruits, screaming and wailing before eventually collapsing onto the floorboards. From his position, he could just barely glimpse the long, broken spire poking out of the daimyo’s lower thigh, swathed in miles of expensive fabric. The warlord struggled to one leg and pointed viciously at the pile of pillows, his snarl apparent even under the mask.

“Snake! Snake! Something bit me!”

Tsukauchi’s other siblings all jumped to their feet as well, climbing over one another to get away from the danger. The servants held the wide platters up as shields, looking around for the serpent. The eldest Reshut prince even joined in on the search, sweeping his arms out to protect the younger ones from the animal he knew wasn’t there, if only to play the part. He was very grateful for his own mask, as it made it that much easier to hide the massive grin stretching across his face.

“My lord,” proposed one brave servant, as they fruitlessly searched the pillow pile, “are you sure it was a snake? We cannot seem to locate any such creature.”

“It’s there,” spat the daimyo, his breathing labored. “My leg burns like fire.”

“Father,” crooned Tsukauchi, slowly approaching the wounded Reshut, “allow me to examine your leg. It must be hurting fiercely.”

“Fine,” hissed Praeka. “The rest of you will continue to look for it. I will not be satisfied until its severed head is brought to me!”

“As you wish,” chorused the servants, one of whom had already whisked the remaining heirs and heiresses to something safer. Tsukauchi allowed his father to lean on him as the two hobbled to a different part of the royal palace. They quickly found an empty room, secluded by screens of rushes from the noises of royal negotiations and proceedings. Tsukauchi laid his father prone on the tatami mat. Already, the prince could tell that his father’s breathing was labored, his muscles tensing up. He was that much closer to the title of daimyo, and the prospect had all eight feet of his body bubbling with glee.

Tsukauchi grabbed swathes of robes in his fists, sweeping aside coil after coil of silk, cotton, and linen. His movements were rushed, but the fabric just kept falling back into place. Finally, having felt he had stalled long enough, he exposed bare black skin, swollen and sour from where the pin had entered it.

“Well? What do the bite marks look like? It was a snake, it must’ve been.” Tsukauchi’s smile faded as he realized that, though the toxins had successfully entered his father’s bloodstream, it would take far too long to do any lasting damage. The dosage was not nearly enough. When the nurses finally arrived and removed the pin, they’d find a way to purge it from his body entirely. The prince had failed.

“Yes, father, it was a snake. I can see the wound now.” He pinched the thin, needle-like blade and slowly drew it out, spurting forth navy blue blood. He quickly wiped it on his father’s robe, then slipped it within his own. Anyone looking at the wound would think it was some sort of single-fanged creature. That didn’t make sense. Mind racing, Tsukauchi came up with a new plan. A shoddy plan. But one that should hopefully work anyway, before they were intruded upon. “Oh, oh no.” He allowed his voice to fall, taking on a note of horror. “I’ve seen a bite like this before.”

“You have? Where?” The elder Reshut tried to roll his head around, stomach pressed to the floor, to see what Tsukauchi was looking at. But the prince simply pressed down on the small of his back, keeping his face in the mat.

“It was during my training as an envoy. We were in the field, practicing navigating across the swamps. One of my fellow trainees slipped, and his leg went into the mire. When he came out, he had a bite just like this. He only survived because he ate something green.” A weak lie, but a good enough one.

“Green?” His voice was alarmed. “Then get me something green! Hurry, there’s no time to waste!” Tsukauchi rolled his eyes, but did as asked… to a degree. He ran up to the paper door, slid it open, slid it shut, then pretended to run it off. Thirty seconds later, he did the same process in reverse, running up and kneeling by his father’s head.

“I got the first thing I could find.” He presented the hemlock, hoping the old fool would cram it down his throat without a second thought. Sure enough, Praeka snatched it with one hand, lifted the intricate mask adorning his face with another, and horked it down, not even pausing to smell it or taste it. Instantly, the Reshut went into convulsions, white foam dripping down his neck. Disgusted, Tsukauchi stood, rolling his father onto his back with one foot. Gurgling noises arose from his throat as the froth pooled and bubbled in his mouth, blocking air and drowning him in his own reaction to the poison. Wheezing noises issued from the long, lanky chest as the hemlock shut down his respiratory system. The flailing grew feebler and feebler as the great warlord Daimyo Praeka drowned in his own spit.

Carefully, carefully, making sure to not touch any of the saliva, Tsukauchi hooked a finger under the white mask and lifted it up to get a glimpse of the face that had sired him. Bulging blue eyes looked back up at him with glazed malice, set deeply into a wrinkled, misshapen, and sallow face, pores dilated and weeping the fluids of death. Disgusted, Tsukauchi lowered it back down. He would take the memory to his grave.

He rose back to his full height, the lantern light flickering ominously around him. The prince took a deep breath, stealing himself for the performance he was about to give.

“Help, help! There’s something wrong with the daimyo! He’s dying! Help!” His cries of desperation were met by a dozen sets of running feet, shaking the delicate palace walls. But perhaps, it was the excited beating of Tsukauchi’s heart that really shook them.




Gibbou had been spending her time since leaving Cadien’s realm on a bench in the Antiquity, sufficiently hidden from most sources of light. She had been observing mortality below through a mirage of moon dust, observing life in the night as she had promised her sister she’d do. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but millennia of this had taught her to ignore certain natural processes - the tigers in the night had to eat, too, after all.

However, a certain event taking place in the Kylsar Isles had her blood boiling - intentional murder, of one’s own father no less, all to usurp his position. She felt her form flicker between its human shape and the wickedness of the night, her skin seeming to blacken and her eyes turning blood red. She coalesced the moon dust mirage into a stone and, taking aim, sent it flying into the cosmos with a mighty rage.

As if he had simply materialized from her bad thoughts, Fe’ris was by her side, watching the stone soar away into infinity. “Oh, Lady of the Night, what troubles you so, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Gibbou barely even reacted, though the darkness in her skin retracted somewhat. When she turned to Fe’ris, the redness in her eyes had reduced to a mere case of bloodshot veins. ”Oh, Fe’ris, you magnificent bat… Sorry, I was just… Ugh… There’s this mortal - this utter-- ugh! He killed his father in the night - MY night - all so he could snatch his title and lands. I mean-- who does that?! What happened to patience? To, to, to waiting for your due inheritance, huh?”

He nodded apologetically. “Ambition can do that to some, who feel they have a right to power and prestige before their time is due. It is an unfortunate reality. I would do something to curb such heinous acts, but I feel it would infringe on free will to ban such things outright. If only there existed some discouragement, some cosmic retribution to keep the greedy better in line…” The bat god sighed, torn between the ideals of morality and freedom. “You wouldn’t happen to have such an idea, would you?”

The moon goddess drummed her right fingers impatiently on her opposite arm. ”As a matter of fact, I might… But I hope my sister never finds out about it.” She turned to Fe’ris with a frown. ”Mortals this one want power, huh? Fine. We’ll give them power - in fact, we’ll give them so much power that they won’t be satisfied by a normal life anymore. No, they shall regret ever even thinking about killing for ambition! She snapped her fingers and a ball of shadow appeared between them. Gibbou started twisting and turning both her hands in a circular motion above the orb, slowly spinning it outwards into a disk. ”Those whose hearts are as black as the night sky and think their ambitions to be above the lives of those they kill for them - know forever that the night will be your prison for your crimes. You wanted power? Oh, you shall have power. May your curse make you strong, fast, immortal even! But the second you think you are above the night and walk into the day, you will perish to dust at the dawn of the very first ray.” She eyed Fe’ris. ”What you think? Needs more?”

“Umm…” Fe’ris scratched at his pseudo-beard, thinking it over. “It’s definitely, erm, creative. But I feel it would only affect a few, select people. Would they not die too soon, crumbling to dust before they could learn the horrors of what they’ve done to themselves in their hunger for power? And I feel there could be more bats involved. Maybe they can turn into bats, or turn other people into bats. Clouds of bats!” He clasped his claws together in glee. “Yes. Bats. Everywhere, descending from above to dole out justice! Tiny harbingers of death, emissaries of the night! Muahahahaha!” He got a little caught up in the fantasy, rambling on about bats for a weird amount of time.

”B-but… Bats are kind and sweet! They eat fruit and insects for the most part!” moped Gibbou with a frown. ”I don’t want them anywhere near these, these monsters!”

“Okay,” he conceded, trying not to pout. But his questions about the curse remained. “How will they survive? It should be a great challenge, to not go in the sunlight. A temptation, even. Like their sustenance is diurnal, but to witness Oraelia directly would mean death. Perhaps they must pick fruit that only comes out in daylight?”

”No, they’d definitely die… Do we even want these kinds of people to live? Like, sure, they have to stand as a symbol - show mortalkind what you’re -not- supposed to do in this world, but…” She hummed thoughtfully. ”No, you’re right - they should be able to sustain themselves. But on what? Something… Something thematic for the fact that they draw blood for their ambitions...

Fe’ris grinned. “The perfect punishment. Extracting from others what they cannot make themselves. An insatiable lust for blood, haunting them the rest of their immortal lives. I could never come up with something so apt myself. What shall we call the monsters?”

”Wait, we’re actually going with haemophagia?” The moon goddess gagged a little. ”Ugh, I hate them already. They’re perfect. Turning into these nasty, blood-drinking monsters shall be the fate of all who murder for their ambitions! And they shall be called… Vampires!




Tsukauchi struggled to sit upright as the commemorative platinum crown was placed atop his head, balancing atop his robe precariously. The light filtering in the paper screens, illuminating the huge crowd of Reshut that had gathered below for the coronation, only made him more uncomfortable. He didn’t know why he felt so terrible. First, there had been the photosensitivity. Then, he’d begun to sweat blood, the same clear color as his eyes. His appetite for swamp fruits left him, replaced with a yearning for raw meat. His stomach rumbled and sweat dropped into his eyes. The young prince squirmed, hoping nobody would notice, but knowing deep down that all eyes were on him.

“Congratulations, your lordship,” crowed Admiral Akihito, a longtime friend and partner of his father’s, “on your rise to power. Your father was a great leader. He shall be sorely missed.”

“Sorely,” whined Tsukauchi, eager for the ceremony to be over with. The admiral bowed before him, as was customary, and a patch of exposed skin appeared at the intersection of his robes and mask. It wasn’t much, merely an inch or so of night-dark flesh. But it was enough.

Something evil roared within Tsukauchi, something massive and uncontrollable, and before he knew what he was doing, he had thrown aside his mask, plunging his teeth into the naps of the admiral’s neck. Blood gushed in fountainous spurts from the wound, filling the now-daimyo’s mouth faster than he could greedily suck it down. He was too invested to hear the horrified gasps, or the screams, or the pounding of feet belonging to Reshut that tried to pry him away. He just kept drinking, belly distending beyond the confines of his robes, until the poor admiral had nothing left to offer. Finally, horribly, he let his jaws unclamp. Power, delicious power, surged through his body, bordering on divine. When he scanned the hall, he saw not friends, family, and subjects, but sacks of meat, ripe for the harvesting.

Realization slowly crept upon Tsukauchi, as furious arms hauled him to the ground, lashing him still. Shocked voices shouted obscenities and questions at him, but they couldn’t be further away. They had seen his face. They had seen him kill a man. He had to flee.

With his newfound strength, Tsukauchi threw them aside like he would’ve a bothersome clump of cobwebs, and, robes billowing around him, fled into the safety of the gloomy swamps of Kyslar.





The Undergrounders





The Shaft was dark, as shafts tended to be. A sturdy, smooth metal pole ran from top to bottom, extending into the darkness in both directions. Stone ridges lined the diameter, ascending and descending in intervals meticulously placed for being the distances a Lapite could comfortably jump. Hot, steamy air blasted up from below, allowing various shipments from different Warrens to float on sails of silk, pulled up or down by simple rope systems. If Xie had the grass, she could afford robes that would allow her to comfortably float the hundreds of feet up to Mid Warren, and High Warren after that. But jumping was in the parameters of being a runner, so jump she did, ledge after ledge after ledge.

Panting, she crawled over the lip of the Shaft, thoroughly worn out by the heat, humidity, and exertion. Of course, rather than being greeted by a refreshing bowl of cool water and a juicy lemon, accusatory spears thrust themselves into her face. Well, they didn’t thrust themselves, they were thrust by guards. Really, they should’ve gotten used to her by now. She delivered chalk every 30 cycles. It wasn’t a stunning development, or anything.

“Halt! State your business, lightfur!”

“Ughhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

The guards, these ones with brass armor, swapped a few perplexed looks. Rather than waste precious breaths arguing with the zealous morons, Xie held up the same beaded cord and the leaf pouch of chalk. The three of them turned the pouch over and over, looking for contraband, or maybe just enjoying the feel of leaves.

“Important delivery. Archbishop Jingjiao. I have. To be there soon. The ritual is starting. Any minute now.”

Theatrics wouldn’t work on these ‘pites. They surely had never seen an honest battle in all their lives, but they took the duty of protecting High Warren from undesirables very seriously. And why wouldn’t they? The floors were dug from high-quality rock, the kind that didn’t chip or require sweeping. Decorative sconces lined every wall, and the entrance to the Shaft had proper pillars propping it open. Real fire burned in the lanterns above, not the cheapo, dinky mana fire. The smoke was sucked away by ventilation shafts that had time and effort put into scraping them out. This was not a place of loose pebbles, of grit showering down from above and getting stuck in your ear fur. This was High Warren. They were fastidious in their cleanliness, and fastidious in keeping out anyone they thought unworthy of gleaming walls and clean air.

Especially a lightfur runner like Xie. It was impressive she’d made it even this far. The disapproving gazes pressed in around her, filling the air with iron dust, darkening her vision. She did her best not to swallow nervously.

“The gods are waiting,” she mumbled, having recovered enough to sit upright. One guard, a ginger-colored Lionhead, extended a fluffy paw, which she took gratefully. The others glared at him. “May I go now?”

The lead guard tossed the pouch back to her, which she barely managed to not fumble. She could tell by the way he gripped his spear with only his thumb that it was a bit lighter than it had been when she’d handed it over. No matter. Some chalk was better than no chalk at all. The other guard held the cord out to her, dangling it from two fingers as if it was slimy. Xie swiped it back with a scowl. The ginger guard’s eyes softened.

“I’ll escort you to the sacred chambers.” More glares from the other two. Xie shrugged. With an escort, maybe she’d make better time, not having to worry about being caught by other guards. Then again, it’d be impossible to run at any speed with a heavily armored guard tagging along. But it wasn’t her decision to make.

“You’d willingly go with a runner? A runner?

“I’d willingly keep her from sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong, if that’s what you’re asking. Come on, lamp light’s burning.” He gently poked her with his spear shaft to get her moving. Xie fought back the urge to throw a smug grin back at the other two. The sour looks on their faces almost made her want to binky.

Xie and the unnamed ginger guard set off at a fast clip, their pawsteps echoing on the smooth stone around them. Even though she’d been to High a few times before, she was still awed by just how new it all looked. Nobody would ever guess that Lapites had lived here for centuries and centuries. And the doors here were wood, actual wood! It was hard to get over the ostentatious displays of wealth: the weaponsmiths fashioning knives with wooden handles, the curtains of grass and silk draped over the open windowframes, the wide streets paved with travertine and crushed diorite, the rounded dens with actual slate roofing, despite the smooth tunnel ceilings that prevented stalactites from ever causing water damage. There was so much wealth here. A single one of those knives could buy her family food for cycles and cycles and cycles. It made her pet itch. But she didn’t dare say anything.

Well, she didn’t dare for long. The guard didn’t run nearly as quickly as she wanted, and though the shops and residences fell away to long, straightforward tunnels, they didn’t fall fast enough. Conversation would make it go faster.

“Thought you’d be too good to come with a runner like me.” She watched him out of the corner of her eye, gauging his reaction, but he only rattled his helmet good-naturedly. Her tail twitched with relief.

“I’m simply curious. I’ve been a guard a while, but I’ve never seen you before. You make quite an impression with all that chalk.”

Xie gripped it closer to her chest, careful not to grip too tight and spill the powdery contents everywhere. “That’s because I make these runs only about once every thirty cycles. The rest of the time, I stick to Mid and Low.”

“Have you ever been to Grand?” It was an absurd question, and he knew it. The tidy dens, wide roads, and welcoming shop signs around them were already leagues above anything Xie knew down below. Not that he’d have any concept of how good he really had it.

“Please, don’t be ridiculous.” A beat of silence. “...Have you?”

“No.” He ducked his head, ears folded back to show sheepishness. “I want to some cycle, though. Becoming a Grand Guard is my dream.”

“You might want to consider a different dream. Your fur is too light. They’d say it’s not right for absorbing moonlight, or it offends the gods, or something."

“It is not too light! It’s red! The gods love red.”

“That’s ginger.”

The guard scratched at his chest fur, tugging on the long, orangey hairs. “I think I know my own pelt color. I’ve lived with it this long, after all.”

“You’ve lived incorrectly, I’m afraid. Ah, we’re here!” And they were, the huge basalt doors impossible to miss at the end of the large hall. The braziers here circled the dark, beveled rectangles, which must’ve weighed tons. Dark blue light flickered across every surface, turning her silver and him black. “Thank you for the escort. I can see myself inside; they’ve been waiting for me.”

“You’re positive they don’t want you to set it outside and leave?” He arched an eyebrow, which was so unbelievably thick and fluffy that she could see it move, even around the helmet. Xie chuckled.

“Yes, they want me to go inside. The monks and bishops would be outraged if they had to go all the way to the entrance to pick up something from a runner. Thank you for the concern, though.” She blinked warmly at the buck. It was a rare treat, to be talked to with something other than suspicion and malice. “Maybe we’ll meet again next moon.”

“I’d like that.” He reached over her and pushed on one of the doors, clearly expecting it to swing open with ease. When it didn’t, he huffed with embarrassment and heaved on it with both paws. Xie stifled a laugh and pulled towards herself. They swung easily, and she hopped into the black beyond, tittering to herself. A voice behind her prompted her to swivel back around, while the doors slowly returned to their original position.

“Try not to get yelled at too bad, Xie Tuzi!” He had tugged his helmet off, revealing a monstrously puffy mane of stripey ginger fur and two frost-blue eyes. Xie’s own eyes crinkled at the sight.

Something important occurred to her.“Wait, I never got your name!”

“Lu Chuang!” With a resounding clang, the doors sealed shut, locking her into the black.


The Undergrounders





“Oops, sorry, coming through! Out of the way! Watch out, running through here! Wide load, out of the way!” Xie Tuzi of the Bu Lineage barreled through the warrens as fast as she could, a leaf pouch packed full of chalked tucked closely to her chest. She ran at full pelt, paws thrumming against the hard earth in what would’ve been a decently pleasant rhythm, had the heavy beats not been rendered inconsistent by her wild jumping, off walls and occasionally other people. Xie received a great many nasty looks, but it was okay. This was Low Warren, home to the dregs of society; the dirt-sweepers, mine-pickers, and of course, runners like Xie. Sure, she might start a fight if she jumped off the wrong ‘pite here, but it was still less risky than sprinting through High Warren. That was a death wish.

The Lapite girl continued running, bouncing off the various shops and residences of Low Warren, which were packed so tightly together that they rattled when someone rolled over in their nest, three dens down. The urban tunnels made for fun running, but they were crowded and stinky, and the dim mana lanterns were older than old. Heck, they were so old, the sparks from the mines were a more reliable light source! Xie clucked to herself at the thought and kept running.

The closer she got to the Shaft, the wider Low Warren’s tunnels became. Here were the artisans, skilled enough to earn a living, but not enough to live in a higher warren. The lanterns were better maintained, the paths were actually swept properly, and the ceiling reached up higher than her ears. The walls weren’t smooth because of the constant wear and tear on the stone, but because someone had taken the time to properly smooth it out, with tools. Granted, it was still Low Warren, meaning the air itself was practically magnetic from all the hematite hanging about in the dang air, but it was an improvement! She liked it here the most. If only her family could afford it.

Her breakneck pace slowed to a patter, and Xie hesitantly hopped up to the Shaftguard. On good lightcycles, it was Jianyu, the portly and humorous guard that rarely bothered to inspect how much chalk she was delivering. But this time, it was a new face, and new faces usually meant trouble. Just to be safe, she thumped over as lightly as she could, ears flopping down in a sign of submission.

“State your business, lightfur.” Lightfur! Better than halffur. He clearly thought she was solid white, without any patches or markings at all. This could be easier than she anticipated.

“Important chalk delivery to High Warren, on orders of Archbishop Jingjiao. I have an identification cord right here.” She set the packet of chalk atop her head, securing it snugly with her ears, and used a paw to pat around her thick chest fur, combing through the strands until she found what she was looking for- a simple grass cord, strung through with three beads: iron, on the bottom, to represent her; see-through zircon in the middle, to represent her transparency; and finally, a mana-infused pebble on top, to represent the clergy. She thrust it at the guard, hoping he would hurry up. Jingjiao was nice enough to employ her, but nice enough to tolerate tardiness. The longer the guard looked it over, the harder it became to keep her bare paw from tapping nervously in the smooth, compact dirt.

“Anyone could’ve made this,” growled the guard, glaring at her from beneath a copper helmet. “All it would take for a criminal to fake identification is a piece of grass, a piece of glass, and a good paintbrush.”

“Take it up with the administration, not me,” scowled Xie, no longer submissive now that she was sure she’d be tardy. “I’m sure they’d love it if a newbie called them down to handle a girl with a now VERY LATE and VERY IMPORTANT shipment of chalk, whose credentials are completely valid! Do you want the gods to be angry? Huh? HUH? DO YA? Because if I don’t get to High Warren, right now, they are going to rain down a storm of fire and fury upon us! The ground will shake! The mines will bubble and burst with floods of acid and magma! Blood, death, everywhere! Pleaaaaase!” She got down on her knees and begged, hamming it up to the best of her ability, pouring all her irritation into the theatrics. “Think of the does! Think of the kittens! Have you no lapititiy?!”

He threw the cord back at her with contempt and jerked his head at the gaping hole in the wall behind him. “Make it quick. I’ll be listening for your pawsteps.”

“Please, nobody’s ears are THAT good!”

“Try. Me.” He bared his teeth and she got the hint. Xie Tuzi, fastest “lightfur” in the Warrens, jumped into the dark shaft and vanished.


Fe’ris





He was in the air when it happened, as he often was. The thermals over the Blood Basin were particularly turbulent, bouncing him around the cloudless sky like some sort of amusing ride, tossing him one way and the next without him even having to flex a digit. It was a breathless sort of fun, the kind you couldn't have if you were afraid of dying, of plummeting into the sand and becoming nothing more than a stain in the dunes. Perhaps that was why Fe’ris enjoyed it so, the dangerous-yet-harmless joy of being battered by gusts of searing wind. Or perhaps it was the view at sunset, when the already orange land was awash in warm colors, a golden and inviting paradise before the chill of night gripped in its claws. The bat god wasn’t much for art, but even he could appreciate the beauty of it.

It began to fade. He blinked, wondering if perhaps he had stared a little too directly at the sinking orange fireball for a little too long, but no. A wave of unease washed over him, and he tucked his wings, determined to reach the ground and figure out what was going on. But the thermals turned even more violent, actively fighting to keep him away, and that was when revealation dawned on him. There was nothing wrong with his eyes. The Lifeblood had turned on him; the Lifeblood had turned on them all!

Actively panicking now, he flapped with all his might, beating his leathery wings with enough force to punch a hole miles deep into the sandstone. It was to no avail. The Lifeblood had had enough, and with one final blast of scalding wind, it all went black.




Darkness. The darkest darkness, blacker than a black Vrool smothered in coal dust inking itself at the bottom of the ocean. He sent out nervous chitters, hoping to hear the frequency bounce back toward him, but there was nothing for it to bounce off of. It was like being unborn again, in that state after Gibbou but before escaping the Lifeblood. The God of Ambition, titanic in size and cunning, curled his wings around himself and wept. He had never even worked up the courage to greet Mother Moon, and now he never would.

He floated there, awash in sadness and self-pity, for uncountable eons, a ball of fur and flesh in the great nothingness. If only he had made that voyage to the Moon, felt its rays up close and personal. If only he had approached her, swearing his love and loyalty, promising to keep her happy and safe all their immortal lives. If only, if only, if only.

A light pierced the abyss; hauntingly orange, yet calm and cool. He raised his head, letting the beams trickle over his sensitive eyes, allowing them to soothe the pain within. Then, a question. Where had this come from? It was no moon he had ever seen before. Gibbou’s was large, but far away, and it certainly wasn’t orange. Nor was the more recent moon, which hung fat and pink in the night sky. No, this moon was gargantuan, hanging low and heavy, blocking out any stars or sun that might exist.

...Where was he, anyway? He had always thought it to be the null world of the unborn, but that clearly wasn’t the case. Curiosity began to whittle away at the crushing depression that had filled him for so long. Had he done this, somehow? Had his pining for Gibbou created an imperfect representation of her beauty, her kindness? How intriguing. He needed to do more, to test this theory.

He thought of the Blood Basin, and it assembled from the nothingness, each sand particle and wayward stone exactly as he had left it. But there were no Alminaki, no Mananuki, no true shrubs or ferns or grasses. Each time he sculpted one from his will, it fell flat. They were like puppets. They moved and breathed and lived and died below the light of the harvest moon, but it was hollow. He knew they weren’t truly alive, not any more than the copycat biome he had willed forth.

Frustrated, he beat his wings, and it crumbled back into the nothing. He swiped a wing through the air, and a channel appeared in the black, wide and red and dusty. Another swipe, and it widened, branching off into the blackness as a snarl of tunnels, each begging to be explored. He stopped his irritated flapping and dropped into the pit he had carved.

Tall, striated walls arced around him, pulsing like the beat of a heart. He looked down at what he had landed upon. It was simple, nothing more than a marble cylinder, floating above the void. Perfectly smooth, it made something very obvious to him: he had absolute control in this pocket dimension. He could make it adhere to his every specification, down to the quarks and atoms. Fe’ris flexed his wings, enjoying every crack and pop of their many joints. For the first time in forever, the God of Ambition had purpose again, and it was better than any drug. He set to work.

The twisting, tunneling caverns took on minds of their own, hewn into rock of all kinds. Some systems were wide and airy, with large enough diameters to allow entire armies through. Others were cramped, chilly, and pungent, barely wide enough for the worms. Tunneling creatures of all kinds filled the earth, and flittering bats came to follow them. Rivers of blood and acid ran through the infinite tunnels at random, sometimes oozing from the banded stone walls. Lakes of magma and mercury bubbled up from the incomprehensible depths. It was chaotic, exciting, and volatile.

He was so caught up in creation that he failed to notice the giant tear in reality, right where the orange moonlight filtered into the caves.



Fe’ris





Fe’ris flew around Galbar, tired of the same old skies over Toraan. The furred reptilian of the air needed a change of pace.

He flapped hard, his wings creating powerful gusts as they propelled him over the vast ocean. Far below, rugged swampland rotted, permeating the clouds with the stink of saltwater and mire. The mortals wore odd masks to hide their faces, and nasty things lurked in the mucky water. No, this wasn’t suitable. He had to keep going.

He extended his wings and flew further, further, and further still, testing his boundless strength to see how far it would take him. The countless islands blurred into green and brown smudges against an aquamarine background, and he kept going, pushing himself until he found more land.

This time, he struck gold. A lengthy continent of white sand beaches and thick forest sprawled below, its terrain uneven and grasslands many. It lacked large populations of mortals, and the other gods had not lavished over it like they had Toraan. It would suit his purposes well.

A flap of those powerful wings, and an enormous sandstone monolith erupted, huge swathes of it crumbling off and collapsing onto the land below. Upon its flattened peak, a tropical rainforest grew, submerged in a perpetual mist that glowed like fire when the sun hit it. Around the red mesa, the land became cracked and arid, sprinkled with tough shrubs and stubby grasses. Tiny mammals with powerful hind legs dug their way up from between the gouges in the reddened land, their fur short to keep the dust out. Where there were watering holes, there were dense populations of sharp toothed aquatic lizards, giant tortoises, and even a few river hydras, their hides toughened by the intense sun. The trees that sprang up around the water were pungent, smelling like cinnamon and radiating a highly flammable haze. Catlike creatures with masked faces and thick, puffy white tails flocked to the leaves, eating them in large batches before passing out in the baking sun. Smaller variants of the stone birds grew from the sand, their feathers striped to blend in with the dusty desert. Hounds with wide, floppy ears and eight eyes appeared, eager to hunt the small mammals and slow tortoises. A great many venomous snakes slithered out from around the claws of the enormous hydras, stealing away into the many nooks and crannies of the arid and semi-arid desert.

Almost as an afterthought, Fe’ris flew up to a spot along the side of the sandstone rise, which loomed a thousand feet over the dry surface. He touched his nose to the red rock, and a crack splintered the stone, spewing forth clean, fresh water. A shard of rock stabbed at his nose, sending droplets of blood into it, staining the stream a deep crimson. He narrowed his violet eyes at it, and the spring bubbled, the dusty ground below swirling and shimmering at its liquid touch. One of the white, cat-sized creatures approached, four small berries clutched in its paws. Wide eyed, it plunged its paws into the stained water, and when it removed them, a different, larger fruit emerged, the same size as the berries combined. Happy now, the creature stuffed the fruit in its cheeks and scampered off, chittering cheerfully to itself.

Pleased, Fe’ris left the Shifting Font, eager for the day sapients might find it and unlock its powers.



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