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♦ The Notes of Marcus, the Pseudo-Paladin III

A family in Dusklander society is big, very big, and very unequal. They remind oneself perhaps of what one would call 'clans' and yet with the social expectations of noble houses. Families are dedicated to one craft, and, in general, the villages and small towns will have a family for each craft, with the exception of farming and similar occupations. To get into a craft, you marry or are adopted into the local house. It does help to keep a level of mobility, when the owner of the land and the workers are all cousins, well, they take care of each other, even if one will obviously get to wear fancier clothes than the more 'expandable' side of the house.

That is however an explanation given from afar, look deeper and the already complex system turns into an actual mess. For example, a house of fisherman would obviously rather have their own carpenters, so the house would start marrying and adopting in that direction, it became so widespread these people got a name, 'manyagjir', and it didn't take long for the government to crack down with rule after rule about the topic. Similarly, taking advantage of the right to divorce and re-marriage, the central core of the houses would start basically swapping partners on a regular basis, a manner to expand influence and maintain a group, as the first central house leaders started to die. Obviously, sometimes one will fall in love with people of incompatible crafts, and that in itself required a whole lot of exceptions to the rules and new rules.

And then there is the whole inter-regional government, the institutions, the researchers and natural philosophers. The military, the foreigners, the diplomats. The way these houses operate in the big cities, be it as a native or as a small lodge from a crafting centre opening up a branch.

I would not say the system does not work, it does, so far, but it is notably delicate.

--

Today I had quite a surprise, I have been assigned my own personal Magistrate, to carry my belongings and remind me of my schedules, she also acts as a pass to many locations that were before out of reach. The only issue: she is always around, with her creepy doll eyes and distant look. Llasara is her name, I think.



For a start, I asked her to take me to the closest one could call a market in Tsorovah.

She guided me straight to the central junction and religious plaza, indeed, the yelling and murmur were equal to a market, with house and village representatives setting up cooperation deals, lots of sailors, gondolas, cranes and crates, with an equal amount of magistrates and their subordinates ordering goods around, taking note of what came in and checking for contraband. From that, you could catch glimpses of all of the nation's riches, and indeed the sight of a shipment of spice arriving was interesting.

But I wanted more, something inspiring, overwhelming even. I wanted displays and people trying to sell me their displays. It surely must exist somewhere, because there is Dusklander artistry. It took a lot of effort to get my little paper skinned friend to finally get what I was looking after, and so, we departed the distribution centre.

"boutique"

Or something similar, to be honest, Llasara diction was weird and her tone too low. Anyway

Boutique, meaning excess, not excess as in excessive, decadent, but rather, 'excess goods'. The houses would often have way more resources in their hands than they needed, what to do with that? Well, if you are lucky, if you are from the central core of the families and houses or just blessed with talent, you get to use that excess to make whatever goods you want and distribute them in the boutique. And I mean distribute, not sell.

Dusklander art is therefore very practical in nature, tailors make outfits, carvers make furniture, smiths make jewellery, miners have their gems and hunters rare furs, fishermen have pearls and shells, and so on. Mosaics, statues, and poetry, I guess, are not to be seen, paintings only in patterns for the architecture of homes and in the pottery, other types of art. One gets these goods by being a 'good citizen, in other words, if in Eunomia one gets to wear gold for being the best at carving a profit in the markets, in Tsorovah one wears gold to show how much of a good pet to Dzallitsunya they are.

Jokes aside, it's a shame the Boutique is hard to access for foreigners. When I went there it was a foggy day, the turquoise patterns in the walls and pillars of buildings with frames of brass shone in a glorious but discreet fashion, as is the way of beauty in the dusklands, the streets were illuminated by the light of the houses of the richest and most powerful, passing through stained glass windows, the light would print the colourful patterns upon the street.

--

All words in the streets of Tsorovah were about Badja Kiri and their alchemists or about the war. Of course, with so many paladins already in the 13 I thought the way I could help was by researching the latest dusklander inventions in their prime college. So I asked Llasara to take me there, and to my surprise, she accepted.

But, the foolish girl actually took me in the complete opposite direction. I thought magistrates were supposed to never make mistakes like this, and yet, we went right into the mirror marches, in a completely different Node.

As far as it goes, the node truly changed a lot from the first reports we got from the companions of lady Benea herself. Tsillara is well known for its wine and silk, but it's the arid salt flats and the upper frozen lakes that are truly impressive.

A whole network of stone tunnels and aqueducts is shaping the region up, for both irrigation and to be used in mining operations, all originating from the frozen lakes and the ever-falling snow of the upper highlands. The black cotton sails of the dusklanders, often sought for ships, are here used for windmills connected to operate a crusher, creating massive force to pulverise the ice and maintain the water flow open. I cannot help but notice this technique could be imported quite easily to the Artack.

The simple operation of these devices was enough to bring others to live in the icy region, add to that the army down in the central region of this node further pushed the locals to really up their game as far as fishing goes. The icy lakes of the mirror marches are not lifeless, even in the past it was noted that creatures lurked beneath and ice fishing was common, now, however, the people were pushed to dive deeper.

The dusklanders like water, comes from their homeland being a swamp I guess. In the canals of Tsorovah it was not uncommon to see the youth swimming about, fishing, playing with pet otters and dogs, most undressed, some however carried satchels of the ever so-common black cotton tsillo, there they casually used it to collect things that had fallen down the river or pretty shells and rocks, many seemed to dive for minutes at a time. In the lake however this was no play time, it was professional. Groups of fifty men and women at times would gather up, pull out a magmatic gemstone, harpoons and chains, then a group of, what, two to four, would undress and jump into the cold water, taking the harpoons, seven minutes later they would resurface in a much worse state, so pale they made the other dusklanders look tanned. They would be quickly helped with blankets and the aura of the gemstones while the group of fifty would take the chains, pull them, and out came absurdly sized fishes, crabs and squids.

Llasara told me that not only did they do the fishing I saw, but many underwater structures were being built using these free divers, from nets to capture fishers to crucial structural parts of the previously mentioned ice crusher. She took the chance to ask me how much I knew about the divers of Node 12, but I really did not know much.

I asked her for an extra night to observe the locals, she seemed... annoyed. She noted that I really liked watching people dive since I had also spent so much time in Tsorovah observing it. I was more interested in the food, and in letting my poor legs get some rest after so many days of the journey, but her assumptions actually helped me old, because for once, she decided not to tag along, leaving me be while she went off to attend other matters.

This was my lucky break. I could have not got a visit to Badja Kiri, but, at the same day I was staying in a small ice fisher village, the Dusklanders were holding an army drill on their latest equipment, by the unusual lights off in the distance it seemed to include the so-called alchemical artefacts.

I could not skip the chance to gaze upon that, and so, wearing a cloak of bear fur and a cloak of thick tsillo, I went off into the cold night.

--

The first thing I saw after getting a good view of them atop a hill was their cannons. Small and of a silver colour, it seemed not to be operated by crystals, but by using some sort of ignitable powder that was then lit up by a match. It was louder and created a lot of smoke, but it seemed to work as far as throwing massive balls of metal around went. These were being tested en masse, and seemed to be doing well, as far as the cheering of the crowd went. At their command was a magistrate, holding some sort of device that reminded me of an astrolabe. In fact, all the squads were led by magistrates with similar equipment.

The other group that seemed cheerful were the crossbowman, if the cannons were notable for being smaller, these were notable for being longer, mostly metallic frames. The bolt seemed to be lever operated and moved with ease, somehow shining, yet when locked, it seemed to become tense as the shine faded, the bolt was then launched in full silence, hitting the targets with ferocity. There were similar experiments with similar devices but that acted like slingshots, these had lesser ranger and impact but seemed to fill a purpose.

One person was very happy later when her weapon worked, it was what at first I thought was a buckle shield in her arm, but it was sharp, hollow, and just before she threw it like a disk, the whole thing bloody caught up in a white flame. It seemed like she could carry at best three of these things, the user could not possibly be practical, and yet, even from a distance, it caught me by surprise as it lit up the dark cold night and fell upon the training dummies like a star.

There were normal archers and they seemed to mostly be testing fire arrows, but the last few salves were of an arrow that left a silvery fog in the air as they moved, from what I saw, they were intended to explode not too long after landing, it was a dry explosion that left low hanging fog around the impact. I say intended because most of the experiment failed, mostly midair, but one unlucky archer had it go off when they were adjusting it in their bow, I was seeing it from a distance, but I could see the effect it had on his arm and the side of his face, even from a distance I could see it, it was like petrification, it became lifeless, too solid and yet brittle... a terrible thing.

There was a break in testing after that, when it resumed, the archers were nowhere to be seen.

Some new people arrived, and I recognised their uniform as that of a city guard, the others seemed like normal soldiers. The guards used a whip that upon impact released sparks of light and had a loud crack noise, not that of a whip but closer to lightning strikes, the soldiers would test a similar spell, but this one on the shield, they took a guarding stance and struck it with a sword, causing a bloom of sparks and noise to be released forward, to where the enemy would be.

That was about it for this night, the field started to empty out a few magistrates talked with a human woman with a colourful pair of glasses, she was very bothered and kept looking eastward, as if waiting for something, or someone, to arrive. Telling others they needed to 'put their souls into it' or something like that.

Out of the cold, back at my lodgings, I can't help but feel underwhelmed. Dusklander technology seemed interesting at first but these results were beneath what I expected for what was supposed to be their own variation of magic. Alchemy seems like an art far too delicate and subtle to be useful in war, if useful in anything at all.

I decided to move from Node 8 to Node 3, they say there is a port city up there, though most of the node is an inhospitable mountain. Its right by the Artack and should make for a trip back home, which I might take, as my enthusiasm grows lower.

--

Alchemy is a wonder, it's truly absurd.

Today, I am at Kollore, the capital of Node 3. The lead-up to it was not pleasant or encouraging, cliffside route after cliffside route, through rope bridges and dry gravel expanses, with one area of meagre green terraces, with people who looked nothing like the typical dusklander, they looked tired, apparently, their work was to go up in the mines.

Not a typo, up. While there are mineral riches down mineshafts, most of the mining work in Node 3 is done by going up the impossibly tall mountain and working on exposed quarries or extracting mountain coral from the bizarre wilds up there. Yes, corals up in a mountain too, at least the fish are where they belong, up in the sky flying among the coral.

Apparently, even breathing is hard up there, and miners will go to lodges filled with plants and boiling water to get some fresh air. Llarasa reminded me of how much easier their lives, as well as the lives of the tunnel diggers would be if the rumours of breathing herbs from Eunomia were real.

But who cares about those, Kollore, the city itself, after so much bleakness, what I saw was stunning. It was a verdant paradise, a hanging garden nestled between the frozen wasters, mount insanity and the hell known as Artack. They that if Badja Kiri is the town of alchemistry, this is the town from alchemistry.

Before it was a sad little harbour, probably as disappointing as the terrace towns I crossed, but it became THE focus of the intellectual elite, all the best minds of engineering, botany, and alchemy not preoccupied with the war arrived here, and they were carving Eden from stone.

Carving is literal, as with acids and picks of metals I cannot properly describe they cut the mountain up at sharp angles, reinforcing it with massive stone bricks walls. Water is pumped up by windmills from underground reservoirs, passing through a sand and gravel field heated up by these massive, massive mirrors, all this high up in the mountain, the water then going down brass-like-metal pipes which spreads in a series of canals and waterfalls on the city, all the way down to the sea.

The mirrors will alert a reader to a fact, this land is not covered by the typical Dzallitsunya "blessing" of eternal dusk and eclipses, indeed, the sun shines upon this land, and to cope with that the dusklanders made the whole city hide under orchards, very few homes rise above the shade of the trees and most are somewhat underground or built into the mountain. This orchard also acts to trap the heat of the water vapours, giving an almost subtropical humid and hot feeling under the leaves, among houses of glass and garden after garden of vegetables and flowers. My magistrate attendant informed me that this heat came from the fact we were in the highest layer of the town, as we went lower, the climate within the leaves and glass would be colder.

The alchemists had provided not only the infrastructure for the city, but the very soil. The process is ongoing so I could see it in many stages, from weakening the stone with acids, salts and silver fumes, to building ditches of red, rich dirt, and from there slowly shaping up the land, transplanting entire trees and planting others, raising up cottages of glass and twisted, flexible wood. The water flow provides the working force for the sawmills, the grain mills, fabric looms and even pottery wheels, this isn't used for intense production, but rather, leaves the citizens with notably a lot more free time to just walk around, enjoying the gardens with their translucent parasols and turquoise and black silk dresses.




What was, what will be


The sky above Vallora had the tones of afterglow with the sun high but locked in a state of eclipse. The city was buzzing with life, the sound of forges, of accounting magistrates, and the marching of soldiers to the camp set by Theodoro. A wave of orichalk lances standing high as the men marched down, flowing from Vallora to there like a river of metal, yet the world was silent, the cannons had quieted, the twacks of bows and crossbows, all gone, the time for drilling had passed, it was time to take position and stand ready.

It was impressive to some, imposing to others, but to Dzallitsunya it was just melancholic. She was sitting in a nearby hill, under a tree of purple blooms, Eclipse had been planted on the ground, the goddess resting her hands and chin against its hilt.

Even in the afterglow, as modest of light it may give in an otherwise dusky atmosphere, something cast a shadow over Eclipse. Whoever owned the shadow was creeping ever closer, throwing their shade over Tsunya herself.

“Benea.” The shadow goddess said with a coy tone, killing any chance for a fun surprise. “I was wondering when you would arrive.”

“Shortly,” Jermane answered, “she is just cresting the hill now.”

The goddess turned her head to acknowledge the shadow. “Ah, Jermane. I had not seen you there.” she stood up, taking full hold of the sword. “To be fully honest, you spooked me.”

“I told him to do it, dear!” Benea called out as she finally overcame the slope to stand atop the hill with the others. She held her hands high in a stretch before resting them on her hips. Jermane simply bowed his head to Dzallitsunya and then Benea before backing away to give the two of them space.

“Good technique, I was very distracted by your presence.” she said, then looked to the side for a moment, her lips moving in a hesitating manner. “The news arrived here already.” she added, focusing again on Benea with a side-glance.

“Hmmmm?” Benea gave a playful hum as she went to sit down, a curly-framed chair of birch and flowers knitting underneath to catch her. As she sank into the chair she tapped her cheek. “So much has been going on, my sweet Tsunya, which news?”

Tsunya closed her eyes for a moment, when she opened them again she had fully turned to Benea. “I cannot deny that. I could be talking about the fall of coldshanks, of the, now somewhat old, news of a floating spirit of winter, I could be talking about the embassy coming to me with the most dire news, the death of a god… Did it happen in the past too? That tint of red in the sky when a god dies?”

“Yes.” Benea folded a leg over her knee and crossed her arms — a serious look taking her face. “Every single time. It lingers longer the closer you are.”

“How terrible. That light was truly repugnant.” she stared up at the sky when remembering it. “Sigh… Benea. I do not care much if once you ran by another name. But I cannot deny it… hmm. Stings a bit, to know you knew certain things. This world is full of things beyond my reach, things I can never understand or even change, the sky, the past, the future, death and our fellow gods. Your existence however turns a few of those more tangible to me.”

Benea tucked a slant into her cheek. “Don’t take it personally, darling, it had nothing to do with you and our relationship. Originally it was for my own safety — though I suppose I chose the wrong name for that, it just popped in my head first. Then it was so I wouldn’t accidentally interfere with you or the other’s developing will in an effort to sort of recreate the peace of the past crucible.” She waved her hand and an identical chair appeared facing her. “Do you want to sit and talk about it? It’s far too late for my original plans, or Peninal’s.”

“We both love peace, and in a great irony, I believe we both took actions because of that that only gave room for violence to rise.” Dzallitsunya said, before nodding, sitting down, letting Eclipse fall against the grass and crossing her legs. “I am sorry… I do not have tea today. I could make some but I grew too accustomed to the real deal, summoned tea feels notably… hmm, faux.”

“Oh don’t worry about it.” Benea waved a hand. “I’m sure our time with questions will fill any time for sipping tea. Where would you like to start?”

She stopped, pondered and then let out a somewhat nervous grim. “It will be a charged question, I try to find lesser ones to make the stage for it, but my mind just goes back to one thing.” She took a deep breath. “From where do you think Peninal or the Crucible or… the Node system the… whatever made us, from where do you think they took that? The assumption that we just came from nothing never felt full to me… I know this might be beyond you, but… The end of the last crucible and the start of this one, you had an experience on both sides. I do not. Even your most raw and shallow speculation would be more than what I have.”

Benea tilted her head. “You want to know why you were created? How the crucible decided on making you specifically?”

“Yes, something close to that... We all were born with so many preset thoughts and aspects, the humans too, it just… doesn’t make sense in my mind.”

“Hm… let me try to answer this to the best of my ability, dear.” The Calla Lily Goddess pinched her chin. “You and everyone in this crucible, including myself, is an aspect of Peninal’s will. Whether conscious or not, he wanted all of us to exist and so we do. I won’t lie to you though, it is more complicated than that — there are rules, even if you take all the nodes.” She trailed off. “With no barriers between us, darling, this is not my first crucible — nor was the last one my first either.”

The response surprisingly soothed her curiosity. “Ah! That makes… more sense. I was worried it could have been something worse.” The mention of rules however had echoed in her mind with a sense of dread, yet she also feared asking Benea about it, it was too close to confessing how much she had been thinking about the conquest of all nodes, and she did not want to appear sick to Benea.

“I imagined there was the possibility it was not your first. How many… Do you remember?”

She nodded. “I do.” Benea held out three fingers. “I was born in the sixth crucible, reigned over the seventh, and was reborn in the eighth.”

“Oh? That is… Less, haha.” she contained herself. “Sorry, I was childish for a moment, you are the only old god I know so my mind had raced to the possibility of you being… ageless.” she rubbed the side of her head. “I am sorry, it's just so much to think about. Uhm. But how did you know it was the sixth? Was there someone from a previous crucible, like you exist here?”

“In the sixth? No. I honestly didn’t know it was the sixth at the time. Garravar discovered the numbers for the crucibles, so even then I’m not entirely sure how accurate they are — but he was a very thorough man,” Benea admitted. “But there was an artifact filled with everything we needed to know to work with the nodes, back in the sixth I mean.” Her face twisted with some worry. “Back then, I was the weakest of my sisters, you know? Ha! Look how far I’ve gone since then, sweet Tsunya.”

Tsunya tilted her head. “Well, your arms are still pudgier than Mine or Eleanna’s… heh.”

“Are you calling me fat, dear?” A stern tone laced Benea’s words.

“Closer to soft…” she smirked. “What… were they like? Your sisters I mean. The gods… the people from before.”

“There were four of us. Me, Olipha… then my identical twin, Beneha, after her was Lon and Galina as well.” Olipha answered. “You can see where I found my alias… but to answer your question, they were all fantastic. Beneha was a curious and loving creature, Lon was headstrong but filled with passion, Galina was contemplative and so smart like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Oh. Now I understand why you said that about your name… Wait. Hmm. Now that I think about it, we all saw glimpses of the end of the last crucible, but how did your first one end?”

A quiet thought shadowed Benea’s face, as if a strong pain stabbed at her. “I won and created the seventh crucible.”

Tsunya’s eyes widened. “Oh. Oh…!? So… You… Had all the nodes in your control? And yet the crucible continued?”

“It was my will,” Benea said simply. “A lot had happened in the sixth crucible, but I didn’t want to give up on a peaceful existence between gods. I loved my sisters, I loved them a lot and I still miss them even after so many thousands of years. I had so many options, and I chose the seventh crucible.”

The wide eyes narrowed. “But… What was it like? You had all the nodes and then what? Did they extract your wishes without your input? Did you get whisked to a secret Node dimension to talk with whoever made the nodes? And if you were the weakest, how did you win?” by the end of her last question she was leaning almost too close, then with a sigh she enrightened herself. “I am sorry, I just have been… with a lot in my mind as of late.”

“I…” Benea furrowed her brow and put a hand on Tsunya’s knee, giving it a reassuring pat. “I’ll tell you the rest but you have to promise me that you will talk with me and Xavior so we can all decide together who should take all the nodes, okay?”

“I have been one of the first to propose that, and… despite everything, I stand by it. I cannot say I have not questioned you both before, sometimes I may have had harsh thoughts even, especially with certain acts during this war but…” she took a deep breath. “I truly trust you, you both, I think when the time comes, even if I have to step back, you two will understand my worries and concerns and bring that forth no matter what.”

It was something Theodoro had touched upon a long time ago, something she had not realized until he had put into words. “Not to say I simply stand back to all I have done, I think I am not without merit, yes?

Giving Tsunya a soft smile, Benea shook her head. “I do trust you, it’s just stories of the past have a certain way of muddling thoughts. Either way, I’m ready to tell you about the sixth crucible if you’re ready to listen and be my friend throughout the story.”

The dusk goddess nodded. “Of course. I can stand and listen until the sun dawns again, and it is not dawning for as long as I am standing here.”

“Sweet Tsunya, we are sitting.”

The dusk goddess gasped. “I meant… uh…” she blew some air out of her mouth. “You totally understood what I meant, didn’t you?” she said with a pout.

“I do, darling, I do,” Benea gave the dusk goddess a snorting laugh. “So, the sixth crucible.” Her face turned serious. “I was born with my three sisters as I said; Beneha, Lon, and Galina. When we first awoke we were surrounded by humans, same as you were, but instead of Peninal, we found a great and ancient pillar not far off. Of course we shied away from it at first, it was very intimidating but eventually Beneha decided to investigate it and I quickly followed. Following so far, dear?”

"I am" she rubbed her chin. She wondered if later she could request Benea to draw such things.

“From the pillar we learned about the triggering event and capturing the nodes as well as a brief history on a past crucible,” Olipha recounted. “Unfortunately, Beneha didn’t take it all very well and grew upset and angry to the point that she wanted to destroy the crucible. I tried to calm her down, I really did, but before I could make any progress, Galina and Lon grew upset with Beneha’s actions. Eventually, Lon took Beneha’s life to silence her rage.”

"Ah." The dusk goddess nodded solemeny "Was it… just you four back then?"

“Yes,” Benea answered. “Just us four.”

"What happened next? After the… conflict…"

Olipha let out a long sigh. “I killed Lon to avenge Beneha. She wasn’t expecting it, but neither was I. After that, it was too late. Galina and myself fell into a feud. She raised the humans into an army of paladins, so I did the same and for a little over one-hundred years we fought back and forth against each other. We captured nodes and lost them just the same, but it was never about winning the crucible, it was about our sisters… until a few years before the end at least. During our fighting, when the world was split between her and I, the triggering event started. After that, it was a maddened rush to finish the war and prevent a collapse of apocalyptic proportions. I won.”

She sighed. "I almost feel tempted to say the crucible truly is wicked… But well, humans do it too among themselves, it's far more widespread, like a blinding fire." She turned to Benea. "But then, what next? How did the end of the crucible go?"

“Hm.” Olipha chewed on her cheek. “I saw the ebb and flow of all creation and after that, my will was law. The world sundered itself to my vision and the seventh crucible was formed, and for thousands of years, my will didn’t part from reality — I was all powerful, though… I suppose not all powerful, there were rules.”

For once there was a glint in the shadow's eye. "You mentioned them before. What were they? I can imagine the nodes still stand supreme and unshakable, even as the world bends to your will?"

“Well no,” Olipha actually disagreed. “The nodes bent to my will just the same. Two rules come to mind the most, though. I inherited them by taking all the nodes, you see, and was bound to the will of a previous being named Kaksi. I don’t know anything about Kaksi, except that they left me two things I could never break. First, was that the Children of Trine shall always persist, to which I had no idea what that meant, and second was that a god could never break physical reality.”

"Children of Trine, hmm." She had a main guess, among many, of who those were. "And no breaking of reality. Ergh. Very flexible wording, to me flying fish broke that, until I saw them, so does Umbrium…"

“Wait,” Olipha held up a hand. “Where else would you see fish but the sky? You’re a silly one sometimes, Tsunya.”

"The duskland's rivers are full of fishes."

Olipha snorted a giggle. “Silly. But go on.”

"If you don't mind me asking, in the seventh and sixth Crucibles… was the sky the same?"

“Heavens no.” Olipha waved a hand. “The sky you see now was made by Peninal.”

“Huh… Is that so? What was different from the previous crucibles then? The sky is so immense I had the impression it had to be beyond reach for all things, even a fully unified crucible.”

“Well for one, I wasn’t a constellation in the last crucible.” Olipha winked. “That boy really did have quite the crush on me, didn’t he?”

She took a deep breath and sighed. “I mean, yes, that is probably one way to say it. Truly… reaching for the stars and then just doing something so… But, well, I guess that also meant he went the full way to bring you back…” she tapped her chin. “Were they brought back from the sixth to the seventh? Your sisters…?”

Olipha shook her head. “No. I wish I had a better explanation for you on why, but… leave a survivor to grieve, dear.”

“Sorry…” she nodded in acknowledgement. “I knew it was something harsh to ask but… With Anak’Thas I thought, as a silver lining, that he could be given a second chance… well, he was already and denied it, but I mean, a second chance in a better world.”

“You mean if it would be possible or wise to renew Anak’thas in a ninth crucible?” Olipha peered at Dzallitsunya with an uncharacteristically blank yet thinking stare.

“It would be up to the judgment of the person who makes the final decision, in my own viewpoint, yes. If I am chosen to lead the final union, then it will be because most people trust that my methods and views can bring peace, and if that is the case, then Anak’Thas in such a world would not follow the same unfortunate path…” Tsunya tapped her legs and looked down. “Huh. I expected more resistance to me mentioning taking down Anak’Thas.” she thought aloud as soon as the realization came to her.

“Yes, he wouldn’t, but not because you created a world in which he wouldn’t, but because you created an Anak’thas that couldn’t.” Olipha crossed her arms. “I was reborn in the eight to fulfill a plan set by myself and Peninal, but living in it as long as I have made me realize how futile the plan was. I have given up on it as well as on an idea of me taking all the nodes once again. Instead, I plan on anointing either you or Xavior as my successor… though such a heavy decision does not come easy.”

“... Oh. I guess… I should have guessed. I started this conversation declaring the tea I can create as a god to be faux compared to the real one. And yet… You don’t seem annoyed at your own existence, and at the new chances…” Unless, this was all a set up… but then… Dzallitsunya shook her head, skipping to the next topic. “About the decision… I appreciate this, that I am one of the two you would trust, but you should not burden yourself this much, me and Xavior had a pleasant time together, we too can come to amends should the time come.”

“I’d rather you have someone to blame other than yourself if you don’t find all you’re looking for past the nodes, dear,” Olipha disagreed. “It’s the least I can do for inspiring your existence.” She shook her head. “But enough doom and gloom, I’m starting to think that this is all god’s think about… no, I will admit that there has been thousands upon thousands of years of peace and happiness in the crucible, and from what I have heard, there has been more good that has existed and more joy than there ever was misery and hate. It’s up to us to cling to that optimism, as our wills birth creation.”

Olipha looked away for a moment, shame brushing her cheeks.

“Those work much like light and shadow, when you look at them, you see how one amplifies the other. I cannot deny, when I heard of this cycle, of this thing that at times mimics a deranged game, the thoughts to just let it all end do pass in my head. But… There is also egotism in that, we are gods, and we should take responsibility in our positions.” In comparison, Tsunya’s demeanor was somewhat frigid, a serious look on her face.

“And yet I can also almost envy your current position, having given up on the contest, you can enjoy creation at your will, exploration at your will. I wish I could do the same, but given my position, all choices are weighted in a great intrigue…”

“Oh, sweet Tsunya, no.” Olipha shook her head. “I have conceded my place as the one to take all nodes, but I am very much still involved in the crucible. I cannot let it fall to those like Anak’thas. His will won’t create any of that joy I mentioned, and even if I am no longer the Queen of the Crucible, I won’t let it be poisoned after I’m gone.”

“Hmm. Any help at this frontline will be welcomed. I want to minimize the suffering of the humans, including Anak’s own. I know Xavior would not want his men to die either, we are too young, death is a foreigner… A Coldshanks like situation with our own… I dread to think of it.” the implication was shot without Tsunya ever realizing.

“The Paladins are the frontline.” Olipha sat back. “Trained in the warrior arts of Faringdal and bestowed with my wishes of peace. They know all too well the doom that god like Anak’thas bring to the nodes and will fight to see the nodes free of his grasp.”

“With the dynamic mind of Eunomia, the wealth of the Dusklands, and the food of the Verdant Realms, we will truly be set. We don’t know what is happening in the south, but we will be ready if they are equal to Anak in will, but hopefully that is not the case.” with a tap on her chin. “That said, Faringdal, hm? The name echoes somewhere in my mind… Ah no, Yargindal is what Garravar said in Peninal’s memory.”

Olipha pursed her lips, a blush of embarrassment on her cheeks. "Well, you can't blame me for slipping something up after all this time now can you, dear?" Changing topics. "Was there anything else you wanted to know?"

“Given the situation I don’t blame you.” Tsunya picked up Eclipse and sheathed it, the sun was already setting so there was little reason to keep it out. “There is something, but it is not pleasant. Garravar. I have received some information from Xavior, but, I do wonder, do you know how he learned about the previous crucibles?”

"I do," Olipha admitted. "I know all there is to know about that man…" A sigh. "As for his methods, not all of them were savory, but naturally he studied the nodes and scoured the world for clues."

“But each time the world is remade, isn’t all else erased?” Dzallitsunya leaned back a bit, narrowing her eyes.

"I'm here, Peninal was here, the nodes are here, the map is here, and the pillar was there when I was first born." Olipha shrugged. "Some things stay. Others are constants, like the sun or humans."

“And tragedy. But we can always try to change that…” she glanced at the setting sun before focusing again on Benea. “The map, right… how… infuriating, I wish I could visit the central node again but that is far from simple given that creature of chaos dominating it now.” she bit her lip “Do you think Humans are the Children of Trine, that you mentioned previously? There are very few things that are both constant and yet still fit to be called children.”

"Probably, unless it is referring to all life." A pause. "Though it does make me wonder who Trine was whenever I think on it, not even Garravar could figure that out."

“It leaves me curious as well. Most of us are humans in shape and demeanor, and if humans are a creation of Trine…” she sighed. “I can’t think much about these topics right now, this war consumes so much of my thoughts, but once I am free, we should try to work together to see what else we can discover.”

“Onto one last worry, Garravar is already harming our generations of gods… Given his age and the prowess he showed in the one Peninal memory I had access to, I don’t even dream of fighting him, my concerns on that matter have been with the topics of defense, retreat, containment…” the goddess raised a finger, and in a moment, innumerous jade colored moths that were previously merely fluttering by rushed to her body, wings uniting in a distinctly divine defensive material, not only that, but a few were dedicating to forming the same plate around Benea, but in a binding fashion. She lowered the finger and both dissolved.

“Handy, no? Very hard to perceive, very flexible.” Dzallitsunya smiled. “I will send a message to Eleanna, custom fit so that no foolish idea crosses her mind. But the south…” Dzallitsunya leaned forward. “I have a port city at the bottom of the sheep river, that being the central one of Node 13, Kiri Tzur. Canoes and barges leave Vallor daily for there, and a worthy sea vessel awaits there. I planned to use it to reach the far off island but… I am now bound to this land for as long as Anak’Thas shines. I was thinking however… what if you went South?”

"I could, to accomplish what? And while Garravar's name is handy, never engage him if you do see him and certainly don't get close." Benea wagged a finger. "Even if you do manage to hurt him or even kill him, he will only come back even stronger. Fire will slow him down, but not indefinitely."

“To scout out the stability of those gods and potentially warn them of the dangers we know.” she stopped “But it's merely a proposal. Eventually I will have enough magistrates to spare for at least the former. It's just that… you do have a way with words.” Dzallitsunya shook her head. “Sorry.”

Benea smirked at the compliment. "Very well, darling, I trust you and our sweet Xavior can handle things up here while I take a look."







Dzallitsunya VI


There was calm in the lunar inspired fields of Node 9. The Daman were gone, their race still ongoing, and the goddess finally could appreciate the silver dunes and shining white flowers as well as the visage of the cold mist that rose from the freezing shores of this land's massive crescent shaped lake.

Of course this land provided booms for her people, the white lotuses floating in the nitrogen waters, the sugar cane on the gentler fields, even the flowers themselves, the silver cotton, the seeds and herbs. It still was inhospitable to most, not deadly, but even animals seemed to avoid the land, a few darting and rabbits called this land home, almost free from predators, almost, for in the conversion, a few drakes had too been tamed and bound to the land, though as the lesser version of the lesser version of a beast, they were little but another animal of the land, chaos fully expunged from their core.

"I wish we could stay here longer" she whispered to her wolf companion, but, much like everything else, Anak'Thas and the Crucible stole all that was dear to her. With a sigh she stood up, touching the node one last time to share it with Xavior, then leaving to collect samples of all she had gifted the land, so that her magistrates and newly founded alchemists would find their uses and further enhance the Duskland's potential.

She was sure they would love the sugar especially, so far they had to make do with concoctions and apple extracts, but this was sucrose in its purest. The sugar canes could also produce ethanol, another product that was becoming highly desired, especially in Badja Kiri. With her hands full, she looked once again at the field of white and grey, dunes and flowers, a mirror of the moon above and...

CARMINE

The sky shone red, tinting the pure and white of the moon with blood, her fields of innocent white were poured in the sanguine carmine, each and every tulip, lotus and rose, the streams of cold nitrogen, red. Her mind too, went red, her eyes too she imagined, a feeling surging into her, as if the world broke a bit more, a hollowness in her chest and yet a rush of blood and fury to her head. Cracking crystal and tooling bells.

WHITE

In a moment, it was gone. But the feeling of red stood. A scar in her mind, and a memento in the flowers and plants she had just caught, all fallen to the ground. What had just happened? Whatever it was, it was not good... something that could turn even the gentle night into something so obscenely deranged and violent... truly, the crucible would not allow her to have anything.

When she returned to Vallora, further proof would be given of that.




"And this is what happened at Coldshanks"

The room where the goddess had met with her elite overlooked much of the verdant land of Node 13, tainted with the red of the dawning sun. It was a silent cold morning, the only noise being made were the exhausted panting of a magistrate, who had run day and night to deliver this message and their first hand account, which the goddess could peer into given the link between her and the magi.

"How could the fortress fall so quickly?" questioned Daga, sister of Zed, and one of the three best skilled generals in all of the dusklands, one of the two darkhorses of the program held at the Mirori dream battles. "Even with magic, a bunch of kopesh yielding zealots should not be able to simply overrun Paladins. Its... not logical, is Anak'Thas willing to send his whole population against us?"

"Why should he care? The population of the verdant lands breeds like rats in a granary." ever stern Hatzur retorted, wife of Marana, leader of the unshakeable Hatzur-Marana banner. The one who all expected to be one of the leading generals, and she had lived up to expectations. "Their people don't know struggle or hunger, they do not have to plan for dry seasons and winters, especially in the new Nodes. So he sends them in human waves to be slaughtered, but not before the men breed the women so that the another wave may grow inside them."

Silence, the Orichalk clad woman looking to the side. "No offence." she declared to the third great general, the second and most true of the dark horses, for the man was not a dusklander, on the contrary, a few season ago he had been one of the most fierce of their enemies, with the blood of people they knew and liked in his hand.

It took divine intervention for the man to not be killed when out of nowhere he showed up in Vallora, 'I was just following orders' didn't cut with Hatzur, who had merely retorted 'then blame and hate those who ordered you for what I am about to do.'. But he had come in peace, unarmed, with his family, something was fishy, and both the magistrates, and later Dzallitsunya, had given him the benefit of his doubt.

He tried again and again to explain Anak'Thas tactics, but his tales were so wild the dusklanders took them for fables. Being ignored, he took to himself to join the competition of dream generals, landing the second position. Theodoro, the sunlander, the wretch of Anak'Thas, even with Dzalli's blessing, most took his appointment as insanity.

Now, with the images Dzallitsunya saw in the Magistrate's mind, he had been truly vindicated.

"So." he declared. "As I warned, the Legion is a machine, Anak'Thas, cursed be he, has warped them fully out of the spectrum of humanity. A movie wall of cold eyed bodies, ready to strike." he took a sip of the fire tea he had been served. "And this is only of the many debaucheries he brings. Be prepared."

"Theodoro, I must say I am sorry. Seeing what I saw, I can understand why you took your daughter away from it." the goddess said in a low, almost ashamed tone.

"I could not have her grow to be part of that or worse things." The man shook his head, sorrow in his eyes. "I wish I had believed in you sooner too. I believed in bright lights, but the brighter the light the darker the shadow, but the gentle light has a gentle shadow."

Hatzur and Bada stared at each other for a moment, the latter deciding to speak. "My lady, what shall we do now? Do you think the troops we have and are sending will be enough?"

Hatzur crossed her arms and. "Goddess, the food situation is truly problematic, we put so much effort into making our lands bountiful, while other lands get all of that with much less effort."

"I think retraining and adaptation would be best, but we need a stronger military presence right now or risk worse results. As to you, Hatzur, There are consequences to taking farmland for granted, overproduction without care will lead to loss of quality given enough time."

"Right, but that is in decades or centuries, but right now, more free hands not tied to the farms would be better. Perhaps, moving farmers next spring? From the more arid areas of 8 to maybe farms in the 13? With our techniques and irrigation allied to the already bountiful land, the crop output would be absurd."

At that the goddess stopped, rubbing her chin. "If we expanded our farms to the sunlands, there is the danger our techniques would spread, can you imagine how much scarier the verdant lands would become with our botanical expertise available?"

Hatzur for once was shook. "Yes, exactly what you are thinking. Thankfully, Badja Kiri has made us proud and met expectations, I will give them directions and I am sure they will further work on solve our issues, there is much potential still in all of our lands. They may be harsh, but they are rich in resources and filled with excellent people."

Theodoro leaned forward "Some blessings are curses, roads and bountiful farmlands make it ease for anyone to prosper, friend, or foe. A dusklander army can easily forage for food in Node 13, 14, and so on, but could a foreign army do the same in 8 or 7?"

"A foreign army will never step in our lands." Hatzur cut him quickly. "But I see what you mean. Still, more hands to hold weapons will always be welcomed."

"Oh, but what about the reinforcements from the other paladins and the Xaviorard mercenaries?" Daga questioned.

"Psshhh, Benea just left her own to die like dogs, we should not count on her for a thing. Do not forget we also once held Node 14, but she made no effort in defending it."

"Hatzur... we were just discussing how the fanatical attack of Anak'Thas caught all of us..." Daga stared at Theo before adjusting her sentence. "Most of us by total surprise, its likely she did not expect them either. As for Node 14 uh... I am sure she had her reasons. Right Tsunya?"

The goddess was looking to the fields, somewhat distracted. "I do not understand Benea either, so many illogical choices, and now that the situation is bowling she seems to be gone." this slapped the optimism out of Daga's face. "But I have confirmation that more troops are arriving soon. I will also have the Paladins use my magistrate administration to coordinate more efficiently, this should give us enough of a surplus of forces... to send Daga and Hatzur back to the Mirori to train more troops and themselves."

A unified what filled the room, including Theodoro.

"My lady, to split forces now. That is absurd." Hatzur had risen from her chair.

"I question why you elected three generals if two will be out of it for the whole thing?" Daga insinuated.

"The enemy is employing human waves, the more troops ready to attack the better, else it will turn into a torrent of defeats in detail."

Bathed in the red of the sunrise, Dzallitsunya smiled. "More armies means a more reserved Anak'Thas, therefore less armies means its more likely he will into the field personally, if he does, I will put out his light and save the world from bloodshed. If he does not, then I will still be on the field, holding the line, while the rest of the Dusklands marches forward, readies up, and comes fully prepared to march into 14." she laughed. "We must force his hand, the sooner the better, the sooner, the less people die, and if he denies us that, then that just means our control of 13 will be total, that Kiri Tzur in the central sea will be ready and functional, that our scouts will go deeper and deeper into his land and wreck havoc on their supply."

Tension somehow both increased and eased with her words, as paradoxical as it sounded.

"It almost sounds like you are itching to battle him."

"Oh I am. Perhaps Benea gave you the wrong impression of the gods with her total failure at Coldshanks. I do not leave my own to die, if I must, I will put myself in harms way to solve an issue over simply letting the mortals suffer for it. And the sooner Anak'Thas dies, the sooner peace will prosper, the less people will be blinded by his light." she waved at the window, causing a magistrate to lower the curtains, hiding the now fully risen sun. "Theodoro has reminded us of something important, which is, dusklanders are not defined by blood but by character. Anyone can become a true dusklander, once they see the harms of burning ambition and embrace the gentle shadows. We are liberators my friends, we are the truth and the promise of a better world. Once that vessel of obscene light is put out, we will bring peace to everyone from Node 13 to Node 17, and beyond."




Bada was the last one to remain in the room besides Dzallitsunya. She hummed. "Like old times, eh Tsunyi?"

"Weren't we meeting regularly until recently, sister in law?"

"Ohhh boo hoo, in my brother's home I become Auntie Bada, not here, here I am good old adventurer and troublemaker Bada!"

"Hmm. On one side both versions look like brats, in the other, at least Zed is not asking for you to produce offspring and find a husband."

"Yeah..." she sighed. "Man, times sure changed eh? War with gods... bah. The only war back then was me teasing Croll..." the mood immediately soured. "D...Did you know his grandson became like, the head of a department in Badja Kiri? The blood runs strong! Well... after skipping a generation and... oh... damn I messed this up, huh?"

"Croll leaving us so soon was shocking, I was so sad back then, we lost many good people so far, many. And to bring peace, I will have to kinslay, this is all a bad joke..."

"Tsunyi..."

She turned to Bada, smiling. "But with each node I become closer to a god. A true god. And what problems can a true god not fix? I can somewhat defy death right now with my limited power, imagine what I can do then! So I am not really sad, this war, this slaying, it bothers me but it doesn't matter, when the world in unblinded, I can bring him back, them all back, and there won't be another fight, because we all will rest peacefully under the gentle night."





Don’t you think you’re a little too excited?


The surgeon’s business was located in the bad (or worse) part of the snowy city of Owb. The building itself was sandwiched haphazardly between several other tall buildings, giving the entire corner a bit of a hive look to it. People were buzzing in and out of the many doors and up and down the spiraling stairs, all avoiding the darkened door in one of the alleyways that marked the entrance to the surgeon’s office — all but two, at least.

Renault and Fora stood by the entrance. Renault himself was stripped of his paladin decor and left in his simple dark cloak and whatever cotton clothes he had underneath. Around his neck was an ivory collar known as a soul-biter, but lucky for him his was a fake… or so he hoped — Fora was in charge of procuring it.

Next to him was the culprit herself, Fora, lacking the need of secrecy, she did away with the long cloak, instead wearing a more loose and revealing Daman outfit, or rather, it would be more revealing if not for the Magistrate still being dressed in the cloth that fully covered her body and left her faceless. She had dressed up in as much bronze and silver accessories as she could, also procuring many local beads and animal prizes like feathers and fangs. The last bit was logical for a wealthy slave driver, but she had yet to communicate how the hell she was not going to immediately kill the deal with the former.

For the moment however, all her outrageous look had done was to make the Daman for once be startled, the path past the crowd having been opened almost out of instinct, with everyone too busy whispering and gossiping to question them and far too many eyes staring for a thief to try their luck. “Huh~ I feel like a Eunomian merchant about to strike a good deal. Are you ready for this, servant?” she questioned tapping her heels on the floor before ringing what some would call a ‘doorbell’ while others would call ‘a humanoid skull covered in brass’

“Don’t call me servant,” Renault managed to hiss before the door swung wide open. There in the doorway stood a rather short mousy woman — in fact she was part mouse. Her features were pinched and she had the start of whiskers as she looked up at Fora, ignoring the chastised looking Renault.

“I don’t know you,” the mousy woman started, rather rudely.

“Tseh, is it my fault if you are ignorant?” the magistrate retorted. “Consider yourself lucky though, that the name of this place is well regarded by my contacts and that I do not take anything but the best when upgrading and fixing my property” she waved her head to the slave to her side “So I will say who I am, once I am properly greeted and taken far from the rabble of this street.”

The mouse-lady squinted and mumbled to herself before taking a step back so Fora could enter. The lady spoke with less enthusiasm than desired. “Welcome to Torundo’s office, do you have an appointment?”

"No. Just gold, prizes and foreign booze." She said with a wave of her hand as she passed, taking Renault along inside.

"Well, the place is smelly, but beats sharing the air with snorting pigmen." The magi said as she quickly took notice of everything around her. "Name is Nyindja by the way. From what some would call the golden city of the eastern jungle. Part of the Kamelia clan."

The lady had a face that shouted ‘I don’t care’ and as she walked behind a podium, revealing her job as a secretary, it made sense. The trio stood in a dark room with frozen stone walls and smoky braziers doing their best to heat the otherwise dungeon-looking room. Adjusting herself onto a tall stool, the mouse-lady spoke. “What brings you to Torundo’s office today?”

As she spoke, her eyes started to scan Renault, lifting a brow as she came down to his broad chest. Renault gave a nervous grin and used a single hand to pull his cloak further over him.

"Someone tried to pet the belly of a wolf lady after having got high on wine they sneaked out of my reserves. Now they are lacking an arm, and who has to fix it? Hmmm?" She made a little tsc tsc noise when looking at Renault. "And well, if I am going to have to do this, I decided I might as well go out and make sure it's a damn fine arm at that, perhaps one that is less biteable."

“Ah, sex slave,” the woman nodded with a certain understanding. Renault blinked in confusion and opened his mouth to speak, but then grit his teeth. The secretary hopped off her stool and started walking to a cloth veiled doorway. “I’ll get the good doctor if you want to wait here.”

Fora turned back as the secretary left and almost seemed apologetic despite the lack of facial expression. "How the shining hell did she make that assumption? Remind me never to join a Daman party."

Renault tilted his head and shrugged. “I’m pretty and you mentioned biting, I can see it.” A slow smile started to form on his face, only to wipe away as the cloth blew open and out walked a tall scrawny man with a blood stained apron. His face had snake-like features complete with a flickering tongue and yellow eyes.

“I’m doctor Torundo,” he introduced himself. “You’re Ms. Nyindja?” He pointed a chin at Fora.

“That would be me indeed. It's so nice to finally see a fellow reptilian like me, these mammals give me the allergies.” she bowed energetically. “I heard good words about you and your work Mister Torundo. It seems you know how to get the best the craft can offer.”

Torundo paused for a moment before smiling. “You’d be correct. I happen to have it in with a very famous artificer of ambrosian fibres, no doubt you already are aware or why else would you be here. Though I admit it is odd you came yourself and with a slave you intend to keep; usually my clientelle are bringing in property that was accidentally damaged during acquisition and in need of a remodel.”

“I am somewhat of a newcomer to the area, you could say, I used to be part of the unseen blades of the bronze bloom, but decided to follow a hobby instead. And you know, with the whole Anak crisis situation, the increased raids, I thought, why not get myself a few slaves. So, I would like to get a good look at the whole ordeal.”

“Hey, I won’t pry,” Torundo clasped his hands together, “I never stick my head into the business of a paying customer…” The implication was there.

“Sometimes that is for the best, no? Nevertheless, how does this work? I take, given its very personal work, I will need to put a request first, operation later? Hmm?”

Torundo lifted a brow. “Yes, are you familiar with the Xavian concept of the down payment? I find it extremely effective in this line of work. You’ll give me a third (just a third) of the total cost, and I’ll use it to purchase the wares from my vendor. We can discuss price while my nurse takes your slave’s measurements?”

“Yes, I am familiar! If I am not mistaken, they also enjoy a bit of wine while discussing the deal, no? I brought my own just in case you don’t have any.” she declared, finally revealing the bottles she had brought with her, they all looked fancy and foreigner, far better than what most of the Daman could get, given the war and other issues.

“A perfect,” Torundo said. He looked over at his secretary and nudged a chin at Renault. “Take Ms. Nyindja’s property to the nurse for evaluation.”

The mousy lady nodded and hopped off her stool once again. “This way,” she ordered as she passed through the cloth, Renault audibly gulped.




Renault was led through the hallway, finding himself slowing down as he passed oddities, such as displayed prosthetics that seemed eerily used, or even odd diagrams of mutated bodies. Each time he lingered, the secretary would pat him roughly on the back to get him moving again and each time the strike was aimed lower. Noticing that, Renault stopped dallying around the time she gave him two curious pats on the lower back and walked maybe even a bit faster than needed.

Eventually the pair came across a thick wooden door and opened it up. Inside was a room that could be described as grey. The floor was grey stones, the walls were grey stones, and there was only a slit you couldn’t fit a fist through for a window. A flat grey table (most likely a rickety combination of Xavior iron and tin) sat in the center and counters of equally dubious knives and pokers lined the periphery. The only thing that wasn’t grey was the white wearing nurse by the table.

The Paladin’s eyes glanced off the instruments of torture and landed on the plant woman who was to be sizing him up as his nurse. Before Renault could get a proper look in, the secretary slammed the door behind him, leaving him alone with the lady.

“Well hello,” Renault started with a grin.

“Get on zzee table.” The nurse barely looked at the man.

Remembering his mission, Renault shook his head. “Oh but it’s just my left arm, no need to lay down.”

The nurse furrowed her clover brow and frowned. “Fine zzzen take of your zzzhirt.”

Renault grinned wide, “Well if you say so… but um..”

“What izz it?”

“I’m a little shy, do you mind?”

The nurse crossed her arms and looked at Renault with a limited patience before letting out a long sigh and turning around. “Be quick.”

Not wasting any time, Renault took two quick steps forward. “Sneak attack!”

“Huh?” The nurse turned around just in time for Renault to slam the edge of his hand on the base of her neck. Her eyes began to tear up and her legs began to wobble.

“Awh weedzzz.”

She collapsed. The door swung open and the secretary burst in. “What’s going on in here?”

“Double sneak attack!” Renault chopped the back of the mouse-lady’s neck and sent her to the floor with a thud.




“What the (hic) hell was that?” Torundo squeaked through the cup of wine he was holding. He was sitting in a wood paneled office with Fora, the entire ordeal much nicer decorated than the rest of the surgeon’s place. The chairs were definitely imported from the Benea’s Queendom, and the workmanship on everything else spoke of the more cultured parts of the daman lands. In front of him and fora, the wine bottle was already half empty.

It was impressive what a little concoction of wine, herbs and dream honey could do to a man, one sip and he hadn’t even questioned why Fora wasn’t drinking with him. “Dear goodness, it might be too late.” the magistrate said, standing up. “Doctor. I may not have been fully honest. I mentioned before being of the unseen blades, I said I left but I did not say why.”

Without much context, she started to undo her clothing, first the Daman inspired outer layer. “You heard the rumors right? Of Eleanna meeting with anti-slaving groups. They are true, and we of the clan Kamelia, of chameleon blood, have been given a mission.” as she took off the black cloth, the doctor would see… nothing, the black textile gave way but did not reveal the fully invisible woman.

“But, I did not agree with the plan, I tried to set up a business but so many contacts were already taken down, the crackdown against slavers is starting, and who would be the best target to send a message than one of the most prestigious slave enhancers?” more noise rang outside. “We need to run, doctor, do you have a backdoor or escape route? We need to go now, and warn your contact as well, before it is too late. My clan… they will make boots and bags out of you, haven’t you heard of the odd woman with crocodile boots? That was Doctor Bartholomew.”

“Not Doctor Bartholomew!” Torundo foamed incoherently at the invisible woman, having never met or heard of a Doctor Bartholomew. He stood up quickly (nearly collapsing) and pointed heroically at the door. “This-a-way.” He took a step forward, only to collapse on his face.

“Seesh, should have added more coca, less fungi.” Fora whispered to herself before opening the door, peeking out, and then looking back at the doctor. “Torudo. They are surrounding us. It's too late to run. But I have a plan. Spread on the ground. Pretend you are a rug. Do not answer if they call for you, they have trained parrot men that will mimic the voices of all those you know. Meanwhile, I will go seek Jole, do you remember where his current location is?”

Torundo bubbled on the floor in thought, blowing raspberries. Renault stood on the other side of the door, peeking at where Fora should be as per her clothing and gave her a curious look. He mouthed. “What are you doing?”

“I know where he is!” Torundo shouted from the floor, “But you can’t tell anyone.”

“I will not tell anyone, I promise you Torundo. May the gods take my long chameleon tail if I ever tell you a lie.” Fora’s voice rang from a place completely away from where Renault was looking.

“You have a tail!?” Renault mouthed in surprise.

“Oh blesh you,” Torundo clasped his hands. “I meet with Jole’s assistant every fourth day of the week, so tomorrow, over at the Gringam Market by the potato stand run by Doctor Bartholomew… I think. Wait no, it was run by Drengant Bartogo, a dingo-man, he is the assistant’s brother. Can you bring me so I can warn them?”

“It's too risky Torundo! You have so many things to live for! Who will take care of your collection of Benea figurines should anything happen to you!? No. I will do this mission alone, I am already a woman born to fight, I can take the risk. You, you hide, as I said, do not believe anyone, even if they sound and look exactly like that breakfast you call a secretary (Renault put his hands on his growling stomach). When you feel like the coast clear, run Torundo, run for rivers Torundo, and swim Torundo, swim until the sounds of the villages fade away.” Fora pleaded, holding and shaking the doctor by the shoulders.

The intoxicated man stared wheeling his arms and blubbering “I’m swimming! I’m swimming!”

Renault shook his head and entered the room. He snagged Fora by the shoulder himself and pulled her away. “I think you’re having a bit too much fun with this, we should go before the other two wake up.”

“Oops. Sorry.” she hummed, trying to maintain her balance as she was pulled. “So. To the Gringam market then? And could you please stop holding me so close? I am without clothes, you know?”

“Oh.” Renault gave a simple blush before giggling. He cleared his throat and let go. “Well why are you naked!?” His hand waved behind her derriere, voice turning light and curious. “And do you really have a tail?”

“I… I am not a Chameleon, Renault.” she facepalmed, not that anyone could see. “And ah, to hell with it, I am too tired of having to find new outfits, the dusklander tsillo is meant for a hot swamp, not the dry cold. I will just wear a fur cloak and go ‘invisible’ when we need it. Like a little guardian looking out for you on the mission~”

Renault retracted his hand with a quiet “I know…” and nodded. “I won’t turn that down, but hey if you need extra clothes I’m sure the nurse had a few extra outfits somewhere…” He pinched his chin in thought, a smirk growing on his face.

“Could be useful, that mouse did have a pretty cute cloak too, go ahead to the entrance, I will do a little shopping and meet you there~”


♦ Light and Lightning

Badja Kiri, the frontier campus, was radial in shape, a central shared circular area, with a ring of sectors around it, each sector dedicated to one area of study. The central area had been left between a garden and just untamed wilds, meant for socialisation and relaxation, it stood in contrast to the many cutting edge buildings just across the street, with the core of dormitories, laboratories, libraries and other facilities dedicated to learning preferring to stay close to each other in the central ring. The outer layers expanded depending on the needs of the sector, the greenhouses of the botanical studies, the cages and prisons of the study of biology, the active projects of engineering and the warehouses of umbrium and other chemicals too toxic or flammable.

And all that rose in the middle of nowhere, a figurative oasis of learning, a literal oasis with its aqueduct and dams, and it all started as a little outpost that was never meant to have grown into what it had become. Badja Kiri, the dark gate, was situated in the only known crossing from Node 7 to the Maelite, dusklanders obviously had great interest in the dark, so most intellectuals naturally had visited the place a few times, seeking the elusive umbrium. When the information exchange with Node 12 started, it flowed there, when the three Halle were created, Halle Kemiha found no other place more fit to call home than it. The goddess herself had come to sponsor the building, letting her best engineers reshape the land, creating routes for food and materials to flow in easily, even hiring foreigners though few matched the magistrate precision in mathematics. The end result was almost more fit to legend than reality, from the artificial lake where engineers tested new ship schematics to the absurd abundance of libraries where one might find more information about their hometown than they would find in their own homeland, to foul smell of the fields bathed in distilled acid.

Djaro was one of the students in this facility, which to him was embarrassing. This was the opposite of what one would expect, he was a normal human, not a magi, and he was part of the single most prestigious of the schools, the study of heavenly elements, by all measures he was exceptional among the exceptional. But all that had been given to him not by merit proper, but by luck.

When younger, the boy worked for his family, one of the earliest to settle in the highlands, once a very prestigious one but fallen quite sharply into decadence given the upheaval when the magistrates overtook the clan structure. His work was simple, to carry goods on the back of llamas across the plains, but all of it changed with one bad decision of his, to brave said path during a bad day of the rain season. One lightning strike and his whole pack was dead and he barely made it, his body burned and scarred with the vein like mark of thunder.

It took the best and wisest of the duskland to save his life, but in exchange, the best and wisest of the dusklands took what they gave, and the boy found himself practically kidnapped into the academic world of the Halle Kemiha. Years later, he had become a natural to it, but still, to hold such a position of prestige having never been particularly bright himself still made he feel like an outsider, not to mention, some of the scientists didn't see him quite like an equal either.

"Yohoo~" A female magistrate with smooth dark hair and dark glasses rushed past the crowd, almost pouncing at Djaro. "Sooooo! How are you doing today? Did you think about my proposal? I promise it will just be a few magnesium probes, I wouldn't want to hurt Mava's pet, right~?"

He sighed. "Fuck off Radja. Don't you have a child to torture or something?"

The older woman gasped. "Why... how rude. When have I ever done anything to deserve that?" she shook her head. "Kids these days. I swear, anyone born after the world started just doesn't know how to do anything but eat coconut chips and be rude. Don't you agree pal~?" she turned thinking she would see one of her fans and sycophants, instead meeting the unimpressed eyes of a veteran. "Oh. Nyoriko."

"Hello Radjakiri. Say, the biological sector is quite far, isn't it? Any reason why you are haunting the halls of the upper engineering lab?"

"Mmm. I just like the food, you gearheads make a lovely salad, you know? Thinly sliced tomatoes, very delish... I saw my friend here. Thought I would say hi." she twirled her dark hair. "Welp. Back to work I guess, they say my sector is getting a little gift from node 13 soon~ See you two later!"

Nyoriko was a human much like Djaro, heir greying brown hair fashionably cut around the shoulder, contrasting with her darker skin. Her cold stare sent off Radja, who slithered away when facing perhaps the single most respected human of the Halle Miradja. "I swear." the engineer started "You would think Nora getting sent off would result in an improvement in the biological sector, but this Radja makes me miss her."

Adjusting her purple tinted glasses, she turned to face the young man. "Well. Nevertheless, how are you doing Mister Djaro? I take you are here to gather the latest stained glass for the heavenly sector?"

In a much better mood now that the weirdo was off, Djaro nodded. "Ayup. Heh, seems like I am falling back to my old work. Just transporting stuff about. It's fine though, it's what I prefer."

"Hmm? You think so?" she stared quite intently, although she was short and probably couldn't throw a punch, something about her eyes had the intensity of the stare of a wolf king. "If that is the case, then why not work for me here in the engineering sector? Heavenly studies, philosophy, arts, gears, if you think you should just carry stuff around, the sector wouldn't matter, yes?"

He gasped. "Well. You see uh..."

"You like the heavenly studies in particular, no?"

"Y-yeah."

"And why is that?"

"... Well... There is something about... the heavenly elements. Light and Lightning. They are so majestic yet so wild, power in its rawest form, even the crystal works of Eunomia pale in comparison. And even the gods, as Dzallitsunya confessed, cannot reach so far into the celestial realm. And yet, to work with light and lightning, it's such a delicate process."

"That is true. Lightning has hurt me a few times, but I escaped light alright" she tapped her glasses.

"Master Nyoriko, may I ask, why didn't you follow Dzallitsunya when she was making the first magistrates, you are, uhm, unblinded..."

"I think I look cuter when tanned, paper white just wouldn't go well with my aesthetic." she joked. "But perhaps... I am a prideful person. I like working hard for what I have, I like taming the beast of mathematics with no divine blessing." she patted the boy in the head. "Perhaps we are similar in that way, no?"

"Prideful? I wouldn't..."

"But I am older and less of a fool, I know for sure that my work was never damaged by my decisions, can you say the same?" she smirked. "Food for thought, you should probably rush back to Seer Mava with the glass, before he thinks I am trying to steal you. But if you want to talk again later, there will be a storm when the morning comes, we can go by the copper totems and watch the lights."




Mava stood in the central hall, his assistants adjusting glass panes, mirrors and candles... though the methodology was unclear, in fact, despite being so prestigious, this sector had never truly given any results, people merely respected them for their theme.

"Mister Djaro. You are terribly late." the short magistrate announced before even turning to face the newly arrived student. "You also smell of sulphur, I am guessing you were spending you time dating that girl from the chemical sector? Didn't I say to come here as soon as you had the oils and the glass?"

"Well, you see master, I..."

"Close the door, please. My work is gentle like an orchid, any hint of light and it will burn and wither."

"Right. Right. The door." It was midnight and there was very little wind despite the overcast skies, but his master was very peculiar about his 'work'. "Anyway, as I was saying, she needed help finishing a few concoctions and potions, since today is overcast I assumed I would be out of stargazing duties?"

"Hmm..." the magistrate tapped his chin "I guess today IS overcast. Huh. Well. I will be benevolent this time, try to be more punctual." he reached to take the materials and then waved off. Joining the rest of the stargazers, Djaro had nothing to do but watch the light show of colours and shadows as the candles and lamps were arranged in accordance to constellations and reflected on tinted glass. Sometimes he tried to spend his time reading, but the light rays always stole his focus.

Due to Mava's demands, the room was silent, the crackling of fire, the breathing of the other bored stargazers, the steps of the assistants in the candle ritual, the master himself eating his nails as if today would be the day they discovered the spell to milk celestial energy straight from the sky (it wouldn't), and the humming in his ear, incessant, as it had been since he was thunderstruck.

The ringing hum would change as he focused on certain things, and go fully silent when he saw what wasn't supposed to be there, like the hollow rays of light that emanated from the lava crystal light forcing its energised power past a pane of umbrium tinted glass. He tried to not focus on that, so far whatever impulse overtook him when following these visions only led to trouble, like when he tried to dip his hand into a mercury substance, entranced by the fluid mirror.

A distraction soon presented itself, but it was far from calming. The latest caravan of goods had arrived, meaning fresh food, new tools, new crystals from Eunomia... and prisoners. Radjakiri was there again, of course she was, leader of the biological sector, she was one of the main receivers of the latter. The occupation of node 13 had produced many... undesirable individuals. Brigands, invading beastfolk, Anak'thite zealots, soon hanging every foolish kid who thought about raiding a Paladin supply line felt like a waste, especially with the goddess not buying the whole idea of "leave them hanging to send a message" other cultures might subscribe to.

Then the Halle Kemiha provided an alternative solution, instead of wasting human life in executions or worse, putting them to work for life in a regime of slavery, they proposed finding an 'alternative use' for it, something to 'advance the sciences' and 'save lives'. Djaro could bet any of those in the cage would rather take the rope around their neck over being dragged to Radjakiri's catacombs, to be the first to test the latest medicine and potions, the effects of certain substances on the human body, or to be torn apart like toys, among other dark things one could only speculate about.

And yet, again, most of those in the cage would rather take Radja ripping their still beating hearts out of them over the second district master rushing over the cages like a vulture. Huruh was what people took to call the leader of the studies of the mind, she was youthful and curious, smart, as any magistrate in a position of power, but knew no boundaries. Infamous before the 'prisoner proposal' was put in effect, people were already saying she was insane given her interest in watching people die to see what happened to the mind and a sincere proposal of burning books to see if that would result in smarter demons. Now, with the prisoners, she had bloomed into a twisted flower fully.

Most prisons in the duskland were left comfortably dark and damp, so one may have respite and think about what they have done. Sunlanders complain, of course, but it was seen by the dusklanders as merciful. Huruh invented the opposite of that, the 'bright rooms', to study the harmful effects of excessive light upon one's mind, she crafted a room of pure white, with reflective white marble floors, stainless white walls and so much pure light one could not see their own shadow, even the jailers were made to wear white cloths when dealing with the prisoners, with white masks and white caps and always changing their shoes as to not stain the floors. The only extra colour that made its way into the white rooms was the eventual streak of red when violence and madness occurred.

Both her and Radja had particular eyes over the single beastman of the batch, a captured slave taker and a rarity, though lacking the implants that had become so desired by the dusklander scientists, it still would provide great results to whichever of the two got to 'break down' the man-beast. It didn't take long before they were bickering with each other and the commotion started to grow.

Djaro almost felt sympathy for the thing, before reminding himself these were zealots and slavers, ones that would destroy him and everything he loved for the sake of their demented sunlander desires. Still, it was easy to see himself in there, being one of the test subjects of these maniacs.

"Mister Djaro" Mava called for his attention. "Since you are the closest to the window, could you please throw a brick at the head of those two barbarians outside? Their yelling is upsetting my candles."

"I think that would be a crime Master Mava."

"Hmm... Shame. The ash in the trays then, perhaps? That would just be a misdemeanour, and for all I know, you are still dating that sulphur smelling girl and was never here to start with."




The early morning was arriving soon, not even the overcast sky could hide this, it almost made Djaro a bit tense as the memory of the day he was hit by lightning was alive in his memory. It was safe in the campus, however, as Miss Nyoriko's greatest work had been the copper totems standing tall and consuming all incoming thunderbolts. The main concentration of them was exactly where he was going, an invitation by her was not one you could refuse.

"Good morning!" Yelled the magistrate Manya, grabbing his arm and squeezing it. "Been a while since I last saw you~"

"Didn't we just meet? Master Mava yelled with me because of you." he stroked her pale-ish purple hair and delivered a kiss to her forehead. "What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be back to the dorm for the day?"

"Heard you were out on a date with Miss Nyoriko and I couldn't just let you go alone! That woman in dangerous~"

"She is uh... too old for me? And married to."

"Oh! Oh! Wanna know I fun story I overheard? Hmm? Sooooo, they say once, Miss Nyoriko had an eureka moment, like, in the middle of the 'act' with her husband, do you get what I mean? She just stopped, muttered some equation, and went off to grab the nearest paper sheet to write it down."

"I... ewww." Djaro shook his head. "I could have lived without info on any teacher's sex life... What in the shining hell! Manya!"

Manya laughed out loud. "Well~ I cannot forget this type of information given I am a cute little magi, and now neither can you. Have fun with that." she made a bow-like movement as if striking her boyfriend, before gasping as he was still shocked, wide eyed. "Oh come on its not that bad, I know worse info, this one, I'd say, is kinda... cute in a way?"

Djaro gulped, continuing to stare.

"What? Don't you agree? I would say this tale is quite cute, even if not exactly true." Nyoriko added, adjusting her glasses, this pair was gold trimmed with green lenses, she placed a hand in the purple tinted hair of the magistrate girl. "You magis always assuming we normal humans need to take notes whenever we think anything."

"Oh. Hi. Miss Nyoriko. Good Morning." The magistrate was almost going invisible, the intense sweating threatening to wash off the make up. "I brought the samples you requested, by the way."

"Samples?" Djaro questioned, but Nyoriko was now rushing the two into the amphitheatre like observation post overlooking the lightning rods.

When inside, the two women were quick to move to the nearest table, Manya handing the master a few solutions, most of them ones that Djaro worked on while in their dates, a few seemed like blood samples.

"I will take the cart to put them close to the copper totem, Magistrate, you will have to observe it to see if the results..." Nyoriko had started but was stopped by the roar of thunder, as a bolt hit the rod and travelled around the set field.

All the vials seemed to react.

"Well... no cart needed." Nyoriko said covering her mouth, taking off her tinted glasses. "So its true. Huh. I owe Radjakiri a lobster dinner." she picked up one of the vials.

"Manya, what is happening here?" Djaro questioned, squinting his eyes.

"Love. Look. The concoctions you worked on, they all are different from normal. I don't know how. The results. It was statically impossible, they were all anomalous. Results that happened in 1 out of 10 mixtures with you happened 1 to 1. So. I talked with Nyoriko, she started to look up..."

"And everything you worked on shows similar results Djaro." The engineer said in a harsh tone. "I knew something was up when you worked for me a few lunar cycles ago, but I thought you had tampered the results because of a mistake, not because of unusual and even sometimes better results. We all took Radjakiri's theory that the thunder changed you as an illogical hearsay, but now..."

"Now we got you. We got proof~" Radjakiri added, humming as she stepped closer.

"Oh fuck me, its a party now? You.. Won't cut me... right?"

"Don't be silly, if we wanted to hurt you, you would have been hurt already. Mister Djaro, do you even understand what is happening here? You... somehow, charged these solutions, changed them, when interacting with crystals you too bring out any results. Furthermore, the results differ based on your will, two of these concoctions Mister Djaro, were placebos of sugar and water, Manya also gave you the same request, boil them. And yet... somehow, these two vials now contain two different things, the only variable here is your mindset... its miraculous, really." her stare became harsh. "Its the type of miracle that could have helped us, its the type of miracle that Fora went to the Daman seeking, and you had it all this time. Its truly... shameful."

"So. Me, Nyoriko, a few friends, want to perform a few exams, don't worry, I will keep the prodding and probing to a minimum."

"But Mister Mava, wouldn't he need to approve?"

"He resigned." Nyoriko cut him off quickly

"HUH? He just held a class, he didn't seem like he was quitting and he sure isn't old enough to be retiring??"

"He gave his position of lead seer to someone else, the person who will be leading the Halle Kemiha as far as Light and Lightning, as you put it, is concerned."

"Then... who?" He questioned.

"Her..." Nyoriko rose a hand and pointed at Manya, who was coy for the whole ordeal and confrontation. "... boyfriend."

Those words echoed in his head and his eyes widened. "... You have another one Manya? Who is he?"

"Oh for goodness sake. My moon blessed treasure, its you, we just granted you the rank of master." Radjakiri was in a tenuous frontier between joy and rage. "Unlike the pupils, we all knew that sector was nothing but a sham, that is why we joked around saying smoke and mirrors whenever something was false, but it had a special religious purpose, so we kept feeding it resources. Did it never hit you as odd why the lightning rod studies were done by the engineers not those who studied the heavenly elements? You, however, changed this picture with those little magic fingers of yours, and you will have to take the responsibility one way or another."



♦ The Power of Friendship

Tzallimi, or Chayimi, was the community that naturally developed on the meeting point between node 12 and 7, a river port and garrison at first, soon it became a colourful place populated where the cleverness and innovation of the council and their traders met the cold discipline of the magistrates.

Although the ideas were obviously radically different, the societies were almost incompatible at first glance, with effort and respect from both sides the proper arrangements were made for peaceful coexistence, making the difference into a strength allowing each culture to have access to things that they could never produce on their own.

The council soon noted that exchanging goods for services from the dusklanders was a profitable endeavour. They provided a consistent, frontier-dwelling, well-managed workforce, the cost of iron tools and local crafts that while expensive was still less costly than outfitting an entire working crew of paid local workers, furthermore the well-oiled management of the magistrates made sure there was no cost-cutting or slacking off when the dusklanders promised to build a road, house or mine in x days, there was no doubt they would do it.

Of course, the council was not stupid to fully rely on dusklander for such tasks, they mostly were helping in the north, as to avoid having too much reliance on what was still a foreign group, equally, the magistrates would never send their own people to slave away at dark dangerous mines or for an unequal gain for the sunlanders, all that was being done was to help develop key areas for the mutual benefit of both lands, improving roads, security and resource extraction in a way that both sides were richer for it.

The fast-paced, flexible and shrewd mentality of the merchants of Xavior was at time alien to dusklanders, but none the less fascinating, especially in how advanced it was becoming. Even with the Halle Kemiha and the unorthodox experimentation in Badja Kiri, they always found themselves lagging behind the Xaviorards in many techniques, it was no secret to anyone, as the flow of tools, utensils and devices from the 12 to the 7 had become the main form of trade in the dusklands. While there was some discomfort over it, ultimately, a certain sense of conformity took over.

"Why spend our minds and focus on retreading what they did in Eunomia" became the mindset of intellectuals in the Halle Kemiha, instead of trying to find their path to iron and catching up, they took that as a chance, "Since our allies provide that, let us focus on other things, explore the unexplored, the unusual, instead of trying to recreate the hammers and saws of the 12th node, we will be grateful we are given them, and focus on what other tools are yet to be created."

This had already been done, to a sense, as seen in the army. The core elite forces were characteristically dusklanders, clad in the light and opaque plates of Tzurkortze / Orichalk, with halberds and heavy shields, or the swamp-born light scouts, with elegant bows and poison coated arrows. Meanwhile, the bulk of the force, was made of bronze, iron and steel soldiers, levied from the ranks of civilian society, lancers and crossbowmen.

But that was the military, now, said mindset was dominating the rest of society, making dusklander sciences more akin to a branching off and being as isolationist as the rest of their night dwelling society. Soon said the focus would result in what most foreigners would call "Alchemy" after the group of magistrates of a similar name, soon, but not quite yet.

This led to a further friendship and reliance on the 12, no further exemplified than when the magistrate and the council finally realised an advantageous deal. The land-lease act gave to Eunomia a rotating right to lands and facilities within Dusklander administered zones. In Node 13, this was perhaps a bit of a ploy, giving the locals a taste of rougher more demanding farmers and landlords in the fertile lands of the west so perhaps they become more willing to join the dusklander owned communitarian farms to the east, but the act also included land within the Dusklands, most in the southern highlands of Node 7 were of little use to the dusklanders outside of a few llama herds, the land was however good for husbandry, with cattle, horses and some saurians being able to make use of the flat grassland with a notable lack of predators and chaos riddled wolves, and with just the signing of a few terms and conditions, aspiring or veteran cattle ranchers from the 12 could have a piece of that.

♦ The Notes of Marcus, the Pseudo-Paladin II

Be warned, traveller, of very real danger in the dusklands.

Accustomed to brighter lights, of a morning with singing birds and rays of sunshine, my body completely lost its sense of time, I was aiming to wake up at the hour when the rooster crows, but by the time I was up, it was almost midday, far from the morning time I had sought.

Rushing down, almost forgetting to dress properly, I caught the last servings of the accommodation's breakfast, narrowly avoiding a fate of imbalanced meals for the rest of the day.

This was also my first serving of the local breakfast, and well, it is an experience to be sure.

I already knew that in my heart, we all know the dusklanders hold extreme prejudice towards pastries, seeing milk and eggs as unclean, filthy even, how they think that but are more than okay with devouring ants, snails, frogs and whatever crawls in the shores of rivers is truly a mystery to all the normal people of the world. Nevertheless, what is important is that the typical pies, biscuits, bread too, would be off the table, and so would a hearty eunomian eggs and bacon breakfast. For a moment I was even scared it would all be honeyed fish or ants.

The truth was gentler. They do make bread, be it flatbread, made with sugar and dried grapes or nuts, there is something akin to a bread loaf, but it seemed to have been made by planting seeds onto a flour and honey mix and letting it germinate and create a few roots before it was baked. The taste was... nut-ish, sweet and a bit spicy, very hard to chew and harder still to digest, not for me but I would not say unpleasant. There was a variety of confectionery such as flavoured acacia gum, and what I noticed most dusklanders eating in the main hall was an acai paste with sliced fruit. Many sweet options, a very little savoury, I could see the struggle in the face of the Eunominite envoy as he could not find a thing to replace a meat and eggs filled breakfast.

For drink we were set off well, tea, most gentle, but there was one dark thing, made of this bean, I think it called kohfii? coffee? A very bitter tea, but recommended over and over to me because it was among the 'flame teas'. Not to be confused with fire tea. I will try to explain, but it confuses me still, the dusklanders separate their tea into various categories, the flame tea is one that seems to make one more energetic, active, while fire tea is a spicy, warm ginger tea meant to warm up. Once the servants understood I did not want coffee they finally offered me alternative options of flame tea, ginseng was pleasant and guarana was sincerely closer to a juice, but tasty.

Continuing with drinks, there are options beyond tea, juices for example, and we all know how the dusklander love their lemonades and citric juices. There wasn't much of a surprise outside of the fruits rare in my homeland, the one thing I wanted to share was a peculiar drink, it was made of a soy broth mixed with lemon juice, dense and yet with a hint of acid, pretty good actually. Soy was recently introduced to Dusklander society as their occupation of the 13 progressed and both it and sheep wool had become the latest fascination in their society.

Why, the main river of the 13, The core river of Anak'Thas first city, with so many noble names given by the followers of the accursed god, was simply called Mopotofo Tsonya by the dusklanders, Sheep River. Isn't it hilarious? I know for sure I am not calling it anything else.

Anyway, continuing on, after breakfast and my thorough analysis of all dishes served, it was time to face the city and continue my investigation of topics key to the interests of my people. And what timing for that it was! Because at that very day, a massive movement of troops was happening within the city, some were even training not too far from me, and since there is an interest in the dusklander military, especially to the paladins who have been seeking to recruit locally, I saw it as my duty to report on it.

They were marching down the stone walkways of the swampy city and

♦ A well oiled machine

"So. What should we do? There is a crime, but I do not think we should push for charges. The man is obviously no spy. Today he was set off to take notes on our army, instead, he wasted all of his paper on page after page of food descriptions, and I mean all of it, he is begging for more paper right now" the female magistrate with short hair questioned. Her superior agreed, he was a tall man with a sharp moustache that further enhanced the contrast of inky black hair and paper white skin.

"But, he did use harsh words against our goddess." she added.

Shaking his head, her superior dismissed such concerns. "We are not Anakists, we are not zealots, we are a people of logic who will not be thrown to a fervent fit by mere words against our goddess," he said. "He did not see you checking those papers, correct?"

"I was invisible and he was a snoring mess on his bed." she waved off the worry "He barely tried to hide it and had no system in place to avoid tampering, if I wanted I could learn his handwriting and by means of that forge letters, if that finds itself necessary." she stopped for a moment. "To clarify, I was not offended, I would never be a victim of strong emotions and sunlike behaviour, my worry was the perception he might give to others through his writing."

"That is valid, and you did well with what you had, your plan would have been good, but, I think you assume there is worth to him when there isn't, I sought information already, compared it, and it turns out he is just a minor administrative clerk, I do not even believe he was officially sent." this made the woman raise an eyebrow. "So not a spy, as you said, but maybe someone who thinks he is one? Or just... a complex character."

"And a potential diplomatic faux pas." she added, rubbing her chin. "You intend to poke at the actual incoming diplomats using him?"

"Possibly. Yes. The Halle Koholle has reached a good stance with the Xaviorard sunlanders but the Benean and their Paladins are still a wild card, the military and provincial guards are worried about them trying to hire from our ranks, so we need some active situations to test them." he smiled. "So, for the time being, I will need you to act as the nanny of this man. If that is fine with you. Here, he requested paper after his little issue, it will give you a good chance to present yourself to him."

She took a deep breath. There went her plan to be hired in the newly made policing force to go occupy sunlander cities in the 13, suggesting it now was to basically spit in the face of her superior, so was voicing her doubts if such a close watch over a mere overweight man was an actual necessary task. "Of course my commandant. I will keep you informed."




"It is impossible. Out of my hands at this point. The Halle Kemiha will need to cope with the fact the south is out of our reach at the moment."

"But my lady." the pleading Magistrate was equally faceless to the saboteur Dzallitsunya had sent south, but unlike her, her aura was soft and delicate, after all, she was not one of the agents of the night under the Halle Miradja but of the esoteric learning group of Magistrates, the previously mentioned Halle Kemiha. "If the fabled tower of the mage god or the tablets of endless knowledge were to be studied by one of ours, surely, magic would be within our grasp, and so would the secret of this world."

"And yet, we cannot even communicate with the Magis down south due to the mess at Node 18, the ship project has also been fully derailed until Anak'Thas ends his agression." the goddess let out a tired sigh, arching back and then stretching. "How about the Daman, the Metzeh Kiri, yes? It's a peculiar wildland, and from what we hear, a land of people able to grow special plants and put to use the energy of their souls."

The faceless scholar had a shocked expression. "But... isn't that land... full of slavers and man-eaters, worse of all, a land of no sanitation and no baths?"

"You want me to be willing to cross the chaotic seas or brave the swarmed lands but you cannot show the same zeal when it comes to dealing with a few uncouth wolf-people?" Tsunya teased.

"Given the war, I take we will need to brave the mountains, sigh..." she adjusted her hair. "Fine, for the sake of knowledge I can do it. But if I end up as the breakfast of some giant frog, it will be on your consciousness."

The goddess's eyes widened. "You will be protected by capable hands during the expedition, I will make sure of that, the dusklands already lost their most clever mind once and I will not suffer that again" the words were sharp, no hint of the casual friendly conversation from before.

The magi, caught by surprise, was speechless for a moment, thinking of what to answer, ultimately, she was saved by an approaching messenger.

"My goddess, a report from the embassy in the 12."

Dzallitsunya took the message and at first, she had a smile, mentions of pearls, beautiful crystals, and things that could help her to further develop the dusklands. Then, the mention of the cold winds of a floating entity, and later confirmation of any suspicion from Xavior himself. As if the entities in the current world were not enough, shadows of the past seemed to have crept back up.

The crucible was a cruel world, and she was so tired.




The creature protecting the 9th node was by far the fiercest of the chaos beasts she had faced, with a metallic body, razor-sharp wings, a vicious boar-like face and the ability to breathe fire so hot it would melt the ground itself. This was the third time Dzallitsunya faced it, last time it was weaker, but unlike the chameleon beast of the north, Dzallitsunya had only not been victorious because she had chosen not to win, sparing the beast for dubious reasons.

Today, on the fourth battle, she had an excuse, as she was guiding the expedition to the Daman lands.

Dancing around the fire blast and chaotic molten ground, using the shadow petal to ward off flames, the goddess delivered slashes upon the beast's limbs and struck its head with a hammer before casting chains to hold it, temporarily. Panting, she returned to the group of dusklanders.

"This will hold it until the journey is over." she said as she regained her breath, quickly guiding the magistrates and guards away, across the rock expanses that looked as if an ocean had been petrified in the middle of a storm, with stone 'wave' structures and splashing craters. The chaos beast and its spawn seemed to be able to temporarily revive said ocean with its fire.

"Goddess? Is that not the node?" a keen-eyed Magistrate asked, pointing at the tall black obelisk.

"I have no need for these lands and see no project with its shape and inspiration, so I am letting it be."

In part, this was because she wanted to prove to herself that she would never be as sick as Benea had described, that she could resit the temptations of the node system. In part... because it was relaxing. The dreams of battle were good exercise to the knight goddess, but the real deal, with real fatigue and real pain, could not be beaten. Whenever she was truly out of it, she would enter the node and fight off its chaos and let the frustration and anger be burned away in combat. So she had kept the dragon and its node.

"Now, let us continue and finish our journey before the dawn breaks."




Outside of mysterious roaring noises in the chaotic node 9, along with tracks that seemed similar to that of wheel carts, the time after she had seen off her agents was uneventful. Without a long term objective or exciting combat, her mind had returned to her immediate worries.

And that was how she would explain to Benea that she would return Node 13 to Anak'Thas.

Simply put, she was tired, she was a deity of lofty dreams but whenever she tried to focus on them lesser issues would consume her time. At first, it was the chaotic mortalkind, the loss of Croll, but the gods were equally chaotic and overwhelming, Benea had thrust her into this issue and expected her to fight and kill without ever asking for consent, all her reports did not make Anak'Thas seem that threatening and...

The Hive.

Garravar.

It all seemed to be more pressing than Anak'Thas.

Benea would have to understand.

Due to the route, she took to avoid the chaos, the goddess found herself walking into the dusklander fort town of Vallora, in node 13. It brimmed with life and commerce despite the tension in the air. It would also provide the infrastructure she could use to make her decision known to the land, to move the magistrates' capacities to transfer the land and set up a deal so as to not harm those who were helpful to her or the dusklanders who had come to settle the land.

And of course, to explain her decision to Benea, each word would have to be measured, and the very idea filled the dusk goddess with anxiety, a cold pit in her stomach.

"I will give myself some time off" she confessed as she entered the town, she needed to eat some good food, something sweet and honeyed too, take a nice bath, rest well, then she could return to bothering herself with the world and face the challenge of giving up on Node 13 for the sake of peace and focusing the fight against the chaos, the murderers and the slavers.

The 13 was a sunny land, even Vallora with its dusklander compound, could not be magically shielded from it, thankfully the shadow petal could become a cape with the added feature of a hood, something to spare her face from the overwhelming light.

It also helped to keep herself mostly anonymous, since it was midday most dusklanders were inside or in the covered arcades, she was curious to see how commerce worked in a foreign dusklander compound in case she ever wanted to go back on her ban of the mercantile class.

The exorbitant price of a cupful of honeyed peanuts quickly killed any sympathy for it, Xavior forgive her, even a goddess who could summon gold from between her fingers felt ripped off.

After having that and something to drink, she noticed a small crowd of sunlanders in a plaza, watching some sort of play. It was about two siblings, a girl who created the stars and a boy who created the sun. She had heard of it, one of her agents had told her about it after previously watching it in Tellum'Velik.

She always loved it, it expressed many of her feelings, especially the dangers of unchecked ambition, the boy, in his envy, would create the sun just to show off, an obscene and excessive light, for an equal ambition to outshine the world. At least that is how she interpreted it, she had been theorising about the astral for a long while, and by now she was sure the sun had an addicting blinding effect, since that was easy to realise just by noticing how a strong light made all else darker she imagined that had been the inspiration of such a play.

And yet, the crowd cheered for the boy as the lamp he held exploded in light. The goddess was truly perplexed, what was there to cheer for in the actions of the sun-creating brother? She had little time to think about it, however, as her cape was hit by a small stone.

Turning to face the thrower, she saw a familiar faceless face in a nearby building, the masked agent she had sent to Tellun along with two more, all in a building, as no Magi could stand walking out in open sunlight. The goddess was impressed they were already back from the mission, but this was useful, it meant she could deliver her message faster and focus her mind on defending her land. As soon as she entered the building, however, the expressions of those within told her something bad had happened.

"My goddess." The Halle Miradja with the canine mask bowed. "I have news. Anak'Thas has sent his reply to our messages."

"Truly?" Dzallitsunya said with a certain surprise, she had been waiting for so long until Benea or Anak'Thas answered her pleas for help against the hive. "Well then, do share it! I must know what stance to take forward."

The magistrates looked at each other, not answering the question at all, this turned on the alarms within Dzallis' head and she did not wait until they answered, she dove into their memories to seize it.

Return Node 13 to me or suffer the consequences.


The goddess stood in confusion, eyes darting from magistrate to magistrate trying to confirm the facts, instead, she learned just how much she had been ignoring. What they had heard the paladins talking about, the rumours of a troop called the Blade of Dawn? Why had she bothered? Why had she given them all so many chances?

She felt weak and found herself walking into the dimly lit room without thinking, leaning against the nearest table.

"Just so to be clear in case my ability to read the memory of my magistrates fail me. No mention of the hive, no mention of peace, no mention of a trade deal or cooperation, no mention of MY WORK on this land, that I DEFENDED and PROTECTED for no reason other than appreciation for his people."

"My goddess, it is their belief that you are an invader."

"Haha... An invader... I walked away from his accursed city! How many gods would do that? Preserve lives above all... and now this maniac wants to force my hand, as if I wronged him? I am not worth at least one non-threatening or demanding sentence to him? After I was so gentle to his people and his land, after I worried myself for his sake? That bastard."

She banged her hand against the table. "And here I was doubting Benea. I still might. But I do not care. Be he sick or be he just a moron. I will not have my face spat on like this. Treat me like I was a vermin, something he could just ignore, as if I was beneath him? No. That is not how it will go. I pleaded. I was willing to negotiate. He denied it all. And he will regret it. He will wish he could deal with Benea again."

The magistrates stared at each other and back at the goddess. "Does this mean you will be joining the blockade instead of just occupying parts of the node?"

Dzallitsunya shook her head. "It means I want him dead. Enough. I am tired. So tired. I could be sailing the seas in search of knowledge, I could be with my children, I could be designing the latest city for our peaceful nation. But I was handed this war I have never asked for... Fine! War it is!" she launched off back to the centre of the room, waving her cape, the magistrates tried to follow but stopped as she walked out, into the sunlight.

The goddess looked up. "I am so tired of you too. Your wretched light, so proud of being annoying, so proud of your oppression, that you can overwhelm the gentle night, in a sense, you are so similar to that accursed lantern. Perhaps it is not the nodes but you the true source of the sickness. Cooking brains with your heat." she ranted, then looked again at the crowd, bitterness burning inside her in silver flames. "But did you forget just what I am?"

She picked something from her pocket which the magistrates could not see quite what it was, she then looked at the horizon, extending her hand and then clenching it as if seizing the infinite border between land and sky. Where previously was midday blue suddenly started to have a hint of red and orange, like an early sunset.

To the left, a woman whined as the fire of her oven started to dim up. To the right, one by one, commemorative candles started to go out, and the sunlander priest overlooking them tried to turn them on again but not a single spark would come out of his rock. The people who were previously walking peacefully started to stop in confusion, looking at the sky and at their own shadows, yellow and orange starting to creep up, darkening the world.

By this point, half of the crowd watching the play was shocked to see the sky, the other, was shocked to see the sun boy and his lamp, which previously was a lively flame, fed with expansive oils the lantern was supposed to keep a bright light for a whole hour, but now, it was dying, shadows creeping in closer as the overwhelming flare turned into tamed ember despite the excess of fuel left. By the time it fully died the screams started.

The sun was being eaten.

Night had declared war upon the day and shadows spread up and down the horizon, meanwhile, the previously regent sun was slowly being covered by a growing dark plate. The magistrates now felt safe enough from the sunlight to step in close to the goddess and it was just then that they noticed exactly what she held. Umbrium, the material of the Maelite.

It had grown into an abyssal dark blade, as thin as the horizon line, as ever-present as the horizon line, as it ate the light from the world it gained hints of orange and red on its edge.

Finally, the goddess, no sarcastic or desperate smile on her face, moved the blade off the horizon and up against the sky, brandishing it against the conquered sun, reduced to a ring of light and barely able to keep the world alight.

"I am a god." she declared to the orb of fire, now reduced to an ironic crescent moon shape.

Dzallitsunya V








Standing Lunaticism


The Mirror Marches had gained their name in part for how desolate they could be, villages of ice fishers existed in the frozen lakes of the highlands and the greener valleys housed Tsillara, one of the gemstones of the Dusklands, with a textile industry kickstarted by night cotton, but now home to workers of silk, tsillo, and much more, the core of the node, the plains, however, had so far only housed llama herders and some minor mining communities.

But that had suddenly changed.

Countless tents were now spread at the 'shores' of the salt flat, the light of bonfires lighting up the night sky. Men and women with stern faces walked about, most wearing armour or uniforms but even those in normal clothing lacked the typical flair of dusklander fashion, metallic sounds echoed from makeshift forges while servants walked about carrying bowls of a red-ish type of honey, known to induce dreams upon those who consumed it.

Nearby the tent city stood the totem called Mirori, Magistrates and officers swarming around it, most guiding people near and away from it while a few stayed taking notes on the matter. The introduction of paper and writing from Node 12 had been a blessing to the endless bureaucratic sector of the dusklands, even if the mind of the average Magi was trained to hold numbers as accurately as the written word, the added practicality only helped their work to be more efficient.

Most of them stood in a central larger tent, fancier with symbols in black and turquoise, which slowly crept as the main colours of the goddess' reign. At the back, the goddess and her family sat trying to paradoxically be 'comfortable' and yet imposing at the same time. Against her bosom, Dzallitsunya held her son Llohar while her daughter Dzillikiri rested on a blanket spread over the ground, right by the fur of the nameless wolf king. One would guess she was insane for letting her infant so close to a chaos infused beast that was able to devour a child whole, but the goddess had taught the beast already that its thoughts were not as fast as her sword hand, even if she was distracted with breastfeeding and reading the latest military reports. Zed stood by her side, the actual "leader" of the house, but well aware that was as much of an illusion as the idea Tsunya would ever love him as much as he loved her, still, she was happy and he was content enough with that, though this talk of travels to far lands did put some doubt in his heart.

"One to five, hmm?" the goddess whispered while staring at the paper notes and the paper white-skinned Magistrate. "Topami while leading the archers managed one to seven, but I am not giving up on Llotir yet, next time, let's induce a more defensive scenario, see how he handles the troops when he is not worried about flanking."

The Magi nodded and moved back with a few more to Mirori. The totem, initially made to train the goddess, was now being used en masse to simulate battle scenarios with entire squads of troops. Dzallitsunya was in a rush to reconnect with the south and claim her far off node, but she could not leave her people unprotected for so long.

"My goddess." Zed started, still not understanding the sudden turn on doctrine. "When you said that you had the Magis record everyone living in the dusklands and aimed at having all able-bodied youths come here to train, I thought you were exaggerating... but wow, now I see that was no joke." he outright whistled at the constellation of lights from lit fires in the campground.

Tsunya chuckled. "It is not that many people in here right now, you are also confusing my words." she shook her head. "Everyone of age will have to come here sooner or later in the incoming months, but most will just turn back and go home, the actual size of a military we can logically support is not that big, in fact, right here and right now, we are already overstretched."

"We are?" he questioned, surprised at that. "So far it seemed to be running smoothly."

"More people were retained for further training than I expected, see, I am not only picking soldiers here, I am picking the military leadership of said soldiers. Through tests in and out of the dream, we picked those who can lead and have been testing them on integrity and strategy. Furthermore, even the common soldiery needs further screening, to see who goes back home, who becomes a normal soldier wearing the iron and bronze, who gets to be the elite clad in Tzurkortze." she sighed. "Add to that the people I am picking to be sailors, and we have quite a crowd, a crowd that will need to stay in here for months probably."

"Truly?" Zed gasped. "Will we have to live in this cold tent instead of our palace back home? Our little, warm, perfumed palace?" common sense said no, but knowing his wife, he was never sure.

"We will only stay for this initial period. I need to be here. Soon there will be more people elected officials oh... and there is the fact I had to re-organise so many Magistrates to this task...

"Because the Magis work like your eyes within the dream battles, right?" Zed said proudly, for once he understood and remembered her explanation, sort of.

"Errr. Sort of." the goddess seemed dismissive and distant, Zed's face turned with suspicion. "You are right, unlike most mortals, I can read their memories, they are also great at initiating the dreams perfectly to my request, but... well... their qualities you see, they would be good for many tasks involving strong sharp minds, but the people made to turn into priests and bureaucrats are not exactly the people good in active situations..."

"You mean combat? Is every aspect of our society militarised now, my goddess?" Zed asked with suspicion. "Feels a bit excessive for merely defending ourselves, no?"

Dzallitsunya turned with a soft expression, smiling and shaking her head. "No. I could have meant Navigators for when my ship sets off, yes?" she explained and yet she stood up, giving both of her babies to one of the nurses before wandering off the tent, into the water and salt fields where a perfect image of the moon was reflected, the starry night sky always calmed her spirit and from where she was it almost seemed like she was standing on the moon, as if she could dive and reach far off lunar lands, away from the crucible, away from the chaos and hostile gods. Of course, actually diving would just have one meet the hard bitter reality of things, in this case, a layer of salt rock dense enough to break a nose.

So she closed her eyes, clenched her hands, and turned back to face her husband, who was predictably following her out of the tent. "We do not struggle with banditry in the Twilight, so you probably don't know them, but my magistrate spy on foreign lands and I know how marauders act, do you want to hear?" he was startled by the sudden stern words, it didn't matter, she continued.

"They start with nothing, 0%. They find a nice village full of nice and lovely people and they start raiding its edges, words are exchanged, the village wants to seek peace, but the bandits ask for 100%, ludicrous things, and threaten equally unrealistic danger, that they will go on a full-on assault and leave no one alive. Now, most bandits cannot actually do that without losing most of their numbers, but they don't have to do it, because the village will start offering them, hmm, 25% of what they requested, bargain it down to even 10 or 5%. The village will think they won, they saved themselves and avoided the battle, but 5% is more than 0%, and the bandits can just go and attack other places, maybe in ten years they come back, and since their predecessors gave something, the village gives them yet another 5%, or more. Because stealing a bit here and a bit there, the bandit group has only gotten larger, fatter, overwhelming others like the sun overwhelms the stars." she shook her head.

"We love our lands, we love our peaceful people, we are not greedy or violent, if given the chance, we would raise no army. And that is why we must, otherwise, those with weapons will be the sociopaths, thieves and warlords. Love can induce respect but fear guarantees it. So when the bandits come, they will learn those who threaten our village will not be granted even 1% of their demands, instead, the only decision we will be forced to make will come when they fall on their knees and beg for our mercy."

She thought she was perfectly logical, she had tamed a chaos wolf with such a mentality, surely Zed, smart as he was, would follow her. But he seemed to be more bothered than in the tent. "Those are harsh words my love. And I am not sure I follow you, as you said, I have not seen most of the danger this world has to offer. Just tell me if this army and if these soldiers are truly just here to protect ourselves."

Dzallitsunya smiled. "Most of the training dreams are of defence scenarios, most soldiers are archers and slingers, best at defence, and who are less likely to die in the clash of swords. Our elite tzurkotze troops are led by the lovely Hatzur and her wife Marana, you know them, right? They carry spears and shields, being a stern and dense wall. All of this training is to give the soldiers a veterancy without a fight, so they will know how to survive in battle. Most of the people here will go home with little more than a small defence training to protect their villages and evacuate their families should harm pierce into our lands."

She seized his hands, continuing to smile. "I know it sounds scary, but you believe in me, right? Just imagine it like, if you lived long ago. Before we existed, when the stars were born. You'd think anything in the sky becoming larger than a star would surely be another sun, so when at night you saw something growing larger, you'd think, oh for sure now there will be two suns and what was gentle night will now be a second day. But, then, that would grow into the gentle moon, shepherding the stars in the sky. So think of me like that, I know this makes me scary, but it is to scare away the troubles, not you, not any other of my beloved dusklanders, nor our friends abroad."

Finally, the man sighed and kissed her forehead and then her nose. "Fine. I never doubted you, I was just confused." he held her back. "Shall we go back to our base then?"

Dzallitsunya shook her head. "I still have more bureaucracy to deal with. Go ahead, take care of the kids and warm up the bed for me, yes?" the man nodded and left, leaving the goddess standing there, standing on the mirror image of the moon, wind blasting, making her cape flow and her sword and knives clink against each other.

She sighed.

"Halla Miradja." she whispered at nothing.

"Yes my lady?" the nothing answered back, revealing itself, a figure clad in black cotton and gold symbols, a umbrium tinted mask of a canine over her faceless head. Sure, she had been training magistrates to be navigators in dreams of sea journeys, but she had been aiming for something more practical, an active solution finder to her issues.



"Thanks for serving me as my guard, you were as discreet as I expect, I doubt anyone but the wolf even noticed you."

"Thank you my goddess."

"But I need you to do something else now. Tellum'Vellik mocked me. I sent them resources to build defences southward, towards the hive, and they built them north and east, towards Benea. They also continue to give support to brigands striking at the paladins."

"So I need you to do a covert action for me. Break down all gates but the south one, destroy all ballistas but the south one, break the carts, arrows, and tools being used to dig ditches and prepare for war. Then pick a guard of your choosing, drag him to the dark, and remind him that the city is allowed safety under my word, and that Anak'Thas should hurry and answer my message, holding no delusions of making it to the city before setting up a deal with me." she stared at an angle, eyes fixated under the mask, even though invisibility and a light cotton weave did not make it possible to find the exact face of the Magistrate, the goddess could feel them. "But do not actually harm anyone under any pretext. Be gentle with the poor lad you will deliver the message to."

"What tools should I use for the sabotage of the gates? Has the Halle Kemiha found the burnable oil she sought?"

The goddess seized her hand and focused, infusing the agent with an amount of godly power, making her strength far greater than her thin body would suggest. "Kick it down to the ground." That and the arrival of far more dusklander peacekeepers to the region ought to make the message clear, the goddess thought.




The Notes of Marcus, the Pseudo-Paladin I


What I was told to be ready beforehand, and what most educated people would know anyway, was to expect two things in the dusklands. One, the most obvious, a lack of sunlight, second is that it was a damp place, with constant rains and swampy ground. What caught me by surprise were thunderstorms. While traversing the highlands there was not a day in which the horizon was not lit by constant flashing lights and an equally constant worry to finish your day of travel before said storm was upon you, despite the lack of rain in the highlands, lightning still flows freely from the always overcast skies.

My local guide quickly became an unpleasant company as, due to their own lack of planning, we found ourselves not doing the path on the expected times and ending up stranded in way stations for days at time. He, in a terribly brutish way, had the lack of shame in blaming me, even implying that he expected one of the legendary paladins of the Calla Lily would move faster and be thinner. I tried to explain to him that I was not like the other paladins but as a servant to Lady Benea's will I was still equal to them but alas, words were lost on his simple mind.

Getting to the rivers and bidding adieu to the brute the journey became a bit better, despite the mosquitoes, we could not take a boat down the river because the rain and snow melt of the season made the rivers too rough to traverse at times, no matter, because well maintained roads had been made in most of the path by now. The dusklands were not as dark as I expected, with the lightning and all, but the infrastructure sure was as good as the word of travellers said.

Small villages spread from riverbank to riverbank, all of them providing the same boring encounter where the locals would pile up to meet the paladin and try to waste my time with so many incredibly rude questions. I was almost dreading if the capital would be the same.

It was not.



Tsorovah. Or, as the locals say, Tso Ro Vah, meant to mean something like The End and Beginning in the local tongue, I think. Nevertheless, Tsorovah was to my surprise a little cosmopolitan gem within this muddy valley. Of all towns in the world I would perhaps put it in fourth, maybe fifth, in refinement. And although it is no Eunomia, it has many peculiar charms not to be seen elsewhere.

Stone dominates the local architecture, most homes being stone-brick spires, round, while public buildings tend to be square-ish. Details are plenty in carved stone, metalwork and ceramics are common, but wood is rare. Overlapping roads and canals made for great mobility, giving me adequate privacy I was taken to the building of the embassy, one of the largest spires at the core of the city.

Dampness and thunder was left behind as I stepped in. The floor was polished to a mirror-like state while the walls were made of smooth green marble. Brass lanterns were so widespread one would suspect Dzallitsunya aimed to steal fire from Xavier and lamps from the cursed Anak'Thas, and they all illuminated the almost sinful luxury of the building. Some other foreigners were around, in a lounge area near the central indoor garden, drinking tea or smoking cigars. I noticed a peculiar find in said room, a map of the dusklander understanding of the north of the world, including some settlements or bases in the lands of the sick god.



I had no chance to ask for context, as soon I was guided further in, to where I would stay when living in the dusklands.

My room was warm and dry, with a good view of the city through the stained glass windows of flowery patterns and colours of ruby and topaz.

The staff very polite, but composed of the weird, extremely pale, Magistrates. They were everywhere in the journey, but one does not became aware of how uncanny they are until you find yourself surrounded by them from all sides. One has to wonder why Dzallitsunya made them look so distinct, the answer of many is that it is to make the land's officials recognisable and hard to imitate, some yokels will tell tales of magical rituals where they bath away their visage and become invisible. Me? I believe she made them this way to be oppressive, to always remind you that you are in her lands, in her government.

This came to me the first time when observing the vast, complex irrigation system. Sure, their craft is unmatched, you would struggle to find a people in the Crucible that spend as much time in agriculture as the dusklanders do. They alternate crops with flowers and trees, they build terraces and mounds, they use gravel to filter the sulphuric waters of the hot springs and feed the purified result to the system, they dig new ditches everyday, and cover others. And through all this hard work they manage to make life bloom in the dark swamps, huzzah.

But who made the dark swamps? The very same goddess who taught her people how to survive it.

It is not like it was an accident or the only way, to make the dusklands took a massive effort, I am sure, the proof of that is how most of the land of other gods, including our lady Benea, are not dank, dark sunless lands. And they all grow crops perfectly fine, with no gravel and topsoil mounds, no hot water system, you just till the land and plant as much as you wish without a single worry. This is the default of the world.

And that to me takes away all merit from these lands. A few people in our lands have the gall to complain about Benea's rule, that perhaps, she should be a bit more like Dzallitsunya and her legendary Shadow Government, an spreading system that provides respite to all and is always working towards efficiency and making use of lands. This delusion ignores what the shadow government really is, an artificial obstacle, casting a shadow upon the soil and selling itself as the solution to overcome that shadow. The people are disciplined, sure, like a pet trained to cross the hoops and hurdles set by their owners in those animal shows.

Now, I do not mean to be rude, I am sure my host is not evil, she is an ally after all. Perhaps she does not know better, perhaps she has a weird taste for land development like our lady Monica. But tolerance should not lead to simply accepting baseless, senseless, implications to Benea's rule, which remains the fairest and most balanced, the most friendly to mortals, the sanest and most sensible. It is almost ironic that now I am focused on going against the exact opposite of what was being said not too long ago, when people started to question why the northern queendom did not seem to be developing a city as big as Eunomia, and if perhaps a more libertine, commercial way was not better.

I think this comes to show how these 'critics' are looking for nothing but an excuse to complain and have no real ideology except to glorify whatever foreign lands do in hopes of criticising what is truly perfect.


The sky was a pale white, the world shaded in black, and the goddess stood ready as her enemy made one more attack to defend its node. Twenty or more serpents of living crystal darted all around her, it may look like many beings but much like the hydra it was one beast, in fact, these were not even heads, but arms and claws, cutting at them felt useless as soon they would regrow, still, they made it impossible to approach the beast.

The serpents surrounded the goddess and started to strike at her, at first in a shy manner, one at a time, to learn her movements as she slashed and cut off each lunging arm, then, they prepared to strike at once, but the goddess launched herself up before they could, she cast fort a spear and released a rapid slashing cut all around her, severing the majority of 'heads' at once. Using her cape she cancelled the momentum of the jump, falling back to the ground and floating about, finishing off the last arms, then, she raced for the core of the beast. But as she approached, a new set of heads had been born, like a wave of claw and teeth they swarmed her, she ditched her spear for a knife and cut them off as she could, and while she succeeded it also pushed her back, finally, a serpent broke past her defences and delivered a cut to her neck with its crystalline fin.

The goddess fell back in pain, falling to the ground, a spray of red against the white and black, the snake swarmed her again and there was little she could do now. "Damn it. How careless." she complained in a calm tone, and then the world was enveloped by the sound of ringing bells and broke down like a fragmented mirror before reforming.

The sky was a pale white, the world shaded in black, and the goddess stood ready as her enemy made one more attack to defend its node. Twenty or more serpents of living crystal darted all around her, it may look like many beings but much like the hydra it was one beast, in fact, these were not even heads, but arms and claws, cutting at them felt useless as soon they would regrow, still, they made it impossible to approach the beast.

The serpents surrounded the goddess and started to strike at her, at first in a shy manner, one at a time, to learn her movements as she slashed and cut off each lunging arm, then, they prepared to strike at once, but the goddess launched herself up before they could, casting many knives in her hand which threw down to pin the serpents before using her full momentum to pounce forward, a whistle in the air as she dove down at a great speed straight at the core of the beast. She let the full force of her dive hit the beast with a dropkick then, with sharp and sudden movements, she was already upon it with a sword in hand, striking at it as the serpents rushed forth to save their core.

They were too late, the dark scarlet blood of the beast started to spray and the serpents fell limp just before reaching the goddess. The beast slain, the node was free for the taking. The goddess nodded in acknowledgement of that. "Now Mirori, bring forth a humanoid enemy, equal to my fellow gods." then the world was enveloped by the sound of ringing bells and broke down like a fragmented mirror before reforming.

...

Dzallitsunya sighed as she stood against a tall totem-like structure in the middle of a salt-flat of the mirror marches, standing up after multiple controlled dreams. Although she had not moved, her muscles felt tired and her mind was equally exhausted. Still, she smiled.

The truth was, this world was a dangerous one. To learn to fight for herself was key to her survival, and although Benea was an ally, the mere fact another god such as Anak'Thas had been taken down so easily proved to her that she was for more vulnerable than she felt. For that purpose, she had cast for the Mirori. This relic of divine might was a simple one, it was able to cast forth dreams on those who stood under its shadow, living dreams that transformed the peaceful salt flat around it into an illusory battle zone. It was able to simulate all sorts of dangers, from fellow gods to the chaos beasts and provided the goddess with realistic training against such threats.

The next real fight she got into, against the chaos beast of the 5th Node, some sort of fish-like beast that could dive into the rock as if it was water, she found herself making exemplary quick work of it, using her new sword, the warped branch-like Kukabutzu, to pierce the creature's thick scales and strike at its core before it could truly muster up any harm to her.

Then she approached the node, one more to be taken by the shadows, away from the questionable influence of the sun.

Dzallitsunya IV




Taking a node was never a casual matter to Tsunya, each time she wanted to test it further, see how much she could change, and now, with the knowledge of the wondrous aspects, other nodes were granted she too wanted to push it further than ever before, releasing fully the shackles of conventional physics and biology. The world around her shook and almost screamed as the land was raised further and further, Dzallitsunya reaching as high and as low as she could, bringing forth rare elements and imbuing some new ones with new elements.

The result was the land of the Starry Shores, the vertical archipelago. A massive mountain province, a rough land where only a few areas were fit for a comfortable human life.



Half the shores of this land were made of rough, rocky, gravel coasts, and very dry locations. Some pockets of green were made on the shores or sometimes as little islands in the flat gravel expanses, in here the ground was muddy and humidity almost average, allowing for plants to form, all adapted for the harsh cold winds from the North. The other half has no shore, instead, the tall cliffs and mountains from inland crash against the sea, being suddenly cut off, forming massive rock wall, though their creation was so rough that many had entire sea-side chambers that interconnected forming tunnels across much of the coast.

Inland, with the exception of a green valley or two forming around a river flowing to the sea, there is only a rocky dry land, where even snow struggles to form at the mountain tops thanks to the harsh high speeds of winds as the air flows between the spires of rock.

About half and a bit more of the land is covered by tall mountains and rocky plateaus that from the perspective of other nodes may be seen as tall but in these lands, they form the lowest of the mountain biomes. The valleys with their dry sparse vegetation is mostly home to owls, rodents, goats, and great lizards. The plateaus see larger fauna, such as bears and dear, as well as ferrets and armoured mammals, such as the pangolin and giant armadillos.

This was a harsh land, unfit for human habitation without technologies and public works far beyond what mankind could perform upon this world, yet, it was also a rich land. Though lacking in certain metals like tin or iron it included materials that would be first found by the dusklanders here, green marble, lapis lazuli, as well as ores rich in Zync, Electrum and Rubidium, the latter becoming a fever among dusklanders for its ability to produce purple flames. The most famous one however would not be that common, instead, it would be a natural alloy similar to Auricupride, which is an ore of copper and gold, but richer and with a look that some would describe as "charged", to foreigners this would be known by the name a later scholar gave it, Auri-Chalcum, or the more vernacular Orichalk, to the dusklanders however, this would be known as Tzurkortze, sea copper.

The lands higher still, however, were far richer but far more inhospitable. The Ultra Tall mountains were so far from the ground that pressure became weaker, oxygen was rarer yet the winds only became stronger. Fauna and flora meanwhile only became weirder, it was as if life became derived from the silica membranes of the Diatom algae instead of the carbon-based life found in most of the crucible. Sponge-like creatures grew from stone, creating coral-like structures in elements more similar to colourful glass and diodes, other twisted trees grew with blooms in blue or red, land-dwelling gastropods almost similar to nautilus squids, centipede-like beings in geometric crystalline carapaces that fought over gemstone trilobites. The skies had the gelatinous jelly-flies with their bags of helium and the quickly emigrating flying fishes, the Tonnikala, who just found the place pleasant and full of nutrients, the two other notable vertebrates of this land were the large thunderbird, a clever relative of the ferret, which had learned to hold its breath and sneak grab prey before diving back down to more proper lands and a large animal that could be best described as a mole with the size and temper of a pig, burrowing and feeding off scraps.

Among one of the mesas of this ultra tall region, a shallow but striking lake of pure flowing mercury is among the biggest examples of the weird and unusual geology of the area.

And yet, one mountain stills stood higher, one from which the clouds became much like a sea and the low oxygen and pressure and lack of protection was so severe that without divine help or cutting edge technology a mortal could never dream of exploring the land.

It was also a gentle land of breathtaking (if there was any air) beauty. Grasses with burgundy hues, tall trees with gentle white leaves, and flowers of ultraviolet and infrared colours and palm trees with blue leaves covered in hexagonal shapes. Insects, more like those found on the ground than the unusual ones of the mountain, except made slightly translucent. All life here fed off the radiation of the cosmos, so instead of building thick opaque skins to save themselves they instead had slimy and translucent skin to bask in on those glorious rays, the frogs on a lake were similar but the mammal-like animals not so much, there was a dog-ish creature with a smooth purple or blue fur-coat, the goddess called them Llikas, then there were the monkeys, short, thin and green, with big black eyes.

And, of course, in the middle of it all was Dzallitsunya and the node pillar. She was proud of her work, but also tired, that there were not-dogs and not-monkeys in her tallest garden was to her proof of that, after all these were among the least likely animals you would expect in the stratosphere... right?

The one thing that made her sad however was that for most of the day this land was dormant. With how much she had to focus on the land to imbue it with unusual characteristics, she found herself unable to manipulate sunlight. Even if she had the power, she usually messed with layers of cloud and elements in the air for that, layers which were beneath her mountain. So, from the sunrise to the sunset, this land morphed, unlike the gentle radiation of the stars, the sun was still too much, so the animals and insects hid, the flowers closed up and even the trees would twist and morph to protect their leaves. That left nothing but a barren rocky landscape where once stood the garden, only the palm trees did not hide, instead following the sun like sunflowers, but as soon as darkness returned, the whole land bloomed again.

There were not many mineral features up there, though some elements too unstable for the world below did find themselves allowed to exist up there. Chief among them was Astratine, a geode that when met with the oxygen and pressure of most of the crucible would ignite in tiny sparkles and turn to rusty dust. To the goddess this was little but a curiosity of her land, but to mortals, this would change the night sky.

These geodes were light, small and abundant, naturally growing from certain shells and salts, animals and plants, in their daily habit of hiding and returning, would get bits of it thrown into the air or stuck into them, some of the space monkeys even liked to throw it off the edge for no reason at all.

This mineral would then be carried far and wide by strong winds, starting to heat up and ignite, forming a trail of gold or silver in the sky before fully disintegrating. This little cosmological event would be given a far too ambitious name by the mortals, who called it a "Falling Star"



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