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A Thousand Kingdoms, maybe more.

- 1 -

Life in the mesa had not been easy to the humans who had left early, lacking technology and wit many had found themselves in nothing but small communities living in clustered hovels or in caves. All that changed with the wave-like arrival of enlightened humans, their minds and bodies trained, with iron weapons and tools, clad in leather and pristine fabrics. Some arrived as conquerors, handily defeating the local strongman, and declaring themselves tyrants, others arrived with gentler approaches, as philosophers and friendly heroes, still, the result was the same, they became the leading force of the locals.

Soon the human civilization was advancing in great leaps, under the rule of great leaders. Blessed by the earth goddess, humans showed greater architectural ability than any of the races on the planet. Their cities were walled, their fortresses rose high and dug deep below the earth. Terraces were built, with aqueducts custom made to not only bring water, but to also nourish the plants with the nutrients within. Medicine was unparalleled, with virtuous martial artists knowing the paths to bring vitality not only to the body, but to the whole community, bringing sanitation through dogma.

The leading class of humans and chimeras enlightened by the arts was long lived and unparalleled in combat, another stabilizing factor. One too many in fact. With every little village being impossible to conquer, with monarchies and bureaucracies that were extremely stable, there was little room for political change, no consolidation of the holds. Hundreds of kingdoms spread out, set to rule for a long time.

Soon, they started to pour out of the Mesa, Humans and their associate, the Chimeras, becoming the leading force in the region around the Mesa. All through the land the fabled “Thousand Kingdoms” became a topic of much discussion, their influence even spreading into previously separate groups of humans, as in, humans who had not been woken up within Haven. As the art of boat building started to spread, human-walled villages crept around the coast and the channel.

- 2 -

12 great cliques were awarded their holds, most of them having many members among those who got to stay in Haven, in perpetual training. Merely being part of a clan granted one access to Haven and the permanent effect of the region’s life lengthening magic. Many would change name to better fit the stronghold granted to them, the list going as it follows:

1 – The Copper and White Wings. A Harpy Clique. Awarded a Stronghold in the craggy islands east of the Mesa and the Thousand Kingdoms. A tall building of raw rock, mimicking the area.

2 – The Carmine Overlook. Awarded a Stronghold of the same name, by the frontier between the blood mire and the Thousand Kingdoms.

3 – The Golden Visage. Human Clique. Awarded a fort of white stone in a natural harbour south of the great channel.

4 – The Higher Servants. A Clique of Crow Harpies. Related to Celestial Dog. Has been awarded a realm within the Mesa itself for being second place in the tournament.

5 – The Falling Star Sect. Granted a step pyramid like stronghold in the boundary between the mountains and the dark woods.

6 – The Lonesome Masters. Granted a stronghold in the far off reaches of the Stormbreaker Mountains. Overlooking the destroyed Steppes.

7 – The Silver Fang House. Lots of rabbit chimeras, but led by a tiger. Accessible Stronghold south of the Mesa, not too far from the channel. Made money making bets in the tournaments, wants to continue doing that.

8 – The Phantom Wings. Hills of Bountiful Harvests’ Clique, all female. Granted a location within the Mesa for ranking first in the tournament.

9 – The Guardians of the Divine Orchard. Spring Blossom’s Clique. Northwest of the Mesa, near the peninsula.

10 – Earth Breakers. A clique of burrowers chimeras, such as armadillos and moles, aims for the underground but their stronghold is on the surface, east of the mesa.

11 – Mossy Possy. A group of isolationist swamp dwellers. Mix of chimeras fit for the area, such as reptiles, fishes and some dragonflies. Asked their stronghold to be made half-ruined from the start for a better “vibe”

12 – Wind Chasers. Clique on the fields west of the Mesa. Mostly Human, with the only stronghold made of wood, not stone.

Their location was deliberately spread out as to cover most of the areas around the human kingdoms, putting the martial artists as a great barrier against equally great threats. Lektor’s last attempt at protecting the humans before she fully let them start to solve their own problems.

Things were moving rapidly in Sanctuary. It had been many moons since queen Pieapple had been crowned, and yet only recently were things accelerating towards getting the would expedition to the underground started.


Well the fact that the queen now had a second goddess breathing down her neck about this certinyl helped, the queen now required to set up a trade route between her distant kingdom to be and the town of Shadowton down in the Umbral woods, the difficulty of the logistics of that little task be damned, certainly helped. However it was another thing entirely that had kept her back.


As the assembly of [adventurers] and freshly appointed [settlers] gathered at the base of the tree, the elf queen held the arm of her partner Barkbear as the man’s new wooden leg foot was checked over by Fernfreind.

“And if you tilt it back a bit. Yup. circle around. Yup that’s good too,” the kneeling [druidic adventurer] informed the [apprentice druid] as the wooden deer leg, which had some nice leafy greenery actively growing on it, moved about as she instructed till she was satisfied. “Look’s like you're all set to go. Just don’t go running into battle before a bit more practice. Or else you might end up breaking your other leg and end up like Stagstep” she joked

“Har har” the [forest ranger] who was the subject of the joke laughed dryly, their first run in with their collective Huwu’idang patron having left him looking like a saytar with his pair of replacement legs. His [animal companion] doe seemed to find it funny enough despite being these idiots having coste her 3 legs (they’d grown back)

“Are you sure I can't convince you to come?” Pieapple asked her friend as the other elf woman stood up, a question they both knew the answer too, because it had been asked too many times to count now.

“No, I’m sorry. I know I said I would, and I still wish I could, but I have a duty now, one bound to the darkwoods” Fernfreind apologized, with a short little bow

“I know I know. It's just. I’ll miss you”

“Hey, don’t be like that, we can still see each other thanks to you setting up the guild in the Bazaar” Fernfreind insisted, before adding “And to think you almost ended u like these two pulling that off, that must have been some deal” in reference to the two thin scars on one of Pieapple’s arm and leg joints

“Ah, ha ha, yes. It really was” the [monarch] replied, having actually gotten those scars due to telling a joke after the negotiations were over “but yes, I suppose we will, but still, it won’t be the same”

“No, no it won’t” Fernfriend sighed, before glancing over at stag and asking “still sure your staying? Last chance to get away from me you know~”

The elf gave a snort of a laugh and replied, simply “nah I got duties too”

“Well don’t let them make you a stranger” Barkbear told the other man, before stepping forwards and wrapping both him and Fernfriend in a big bearhug (somewhat literally, given the mossbear cloak he was wearing), before reaching over and pulling his regal love into the undignified group hug.

“Alright that’s enough sapiness, we’ll be here all day otherwise” came a call from an elf leaning against a tree well out of bearhugging range. She was dressed as your prototypical [rouge], masked and covered in dark clothes and thus ironically stood out a lot among the lightly clad elves. She was also practically covered in the new grown knives that looked like great sharp claws made of the same material as thorns were, and her hand made up of a series of vines was never far from them.

“Alright Alright Sleektooth, calm it, now is exactly the time for sapiness. Now come give your friends a hug” Barkbear demanded, before putting his new foot to the test by chasing after the antisosial [rouge].

After Sleektooth had been captured and forced against her will to be sociable, it was, at last, time for the adventure to begin.

The trio of [adventurous] joined the rest of the expedition, as the two would stay behind, stepped back and joined the crowd there to wave them off.

“Alright, last call, everyone who’s coming, coming?!” Pieapple called out, just in case some idiot was about to be caught with their pants down and seeking relief while the others moved on without them.

“Oop! Wait!” The sound of crashing branches and snapping twigs came from a nearby room, as a figure stumbled into the royal presence of the queen, giving an accidental bow as she planted face first into the ground. When she stood up, the party would see one of the scruffiest elves in existence, with a mossy robe, wild orange hair and some sort of hollowed gourd leaking wild grape wine. She smiled at the group. “Erm, sorry for this, your royalness uh, Berrypie, yes?”

“Name is Pican, most people call me Pumpkin though. Yeah.” she sniffed, adjusting herself as much as she could, given her state. “Phew, avoided sneezing. Good. Wouldn’t want to waste wine, or this pretty wooden palace.”

The guild’s briefing on the woman would confirm her name, or at least, the nickname. It also said her class: [vagabond], another rather to deny fact, given her looks. What was puzzling was perhaps what had led her to be part of such a high prestige group, many had tried to get a spot after all.

“How would sneezing waste the wine?” Sleektooth murmured to Barkbear while Pieapple leaned in to listen to the guild [secretary] they had with them whisper the [vagabonds] info to her. The details put an odd smile on the [monarch]‘s face as she corrected “It’s Pieapple actually. Blame Lecktoria” and then reached out a hand and offered it to her to shake “lovely to meet you Pumpkin. Are you, ah, holding up ok there?”

Pumpkin cleared her palm against her skirt and shook hands with the queen, smirking. “Yeah. Sorry. All the spores from the underground have given me a bit of an allergy. Most elves don’t struggle with that though. Just me.” she picked up her reed scarf and put it over her face, it made her look weirdly mysterious, despite the pathetic entrance.

Sleektooth was sure she did it better.

“You guys want to go to that strange tower by the lava lake yeh? Dangerous route, but possible… if you don’t take the path down the uh, putrid lake with the glowing stones… or the normal lake, it has a giant cave penguin issue, eats the boat and you whole, they do.”

“That we do, that we do, and that is, of course, why we need you” Pieapple replied, as much telling herself and her friends and flowers that as she was agreeing with the [vagabond]’s words.

“Are you shu-” Sleektooth began to ask, but the [monarch] who had a map of the underground in her head and as a result knew just how much she didn’t know about it cut her off with a hissed “yes! Yes we do”

“We then… Welcome aboard!” Barkbear said stepping forwards and clapping Punmpkin on the back and then basically pulling her along into the group “Come along now, let's be off, and you can regale us with your tales of underground exploration!”


“And then I uh, It was me, the pit of lava, and a very angry jellyfish.” she hummed, moving her arms about. “Thinking it was my demise, I drank up the last of my wine, but I choked on it, going like, poh poh poh and coughing. But guess what. That counted as invoking Po’s name and my precious wine was more than a sacrifice. It went like, bwahhhhh in flames and the idiot jellyfish got filled with hot air and flew all the way up, getting itself snagged by a stalactite crab. [lucky] me, yeah?”

“For sure for sure” Sleektooth agreed, strolling along side the [vagabond] to whom she had warmed up to immensely “Girl i’d have loved to see the look on that fish’s face when it flew off”

“I don’t think they have faces” Barbear pointed out

“Ye ye, they are called fish because they float in the air. They are more like blobs with lots of tentacles.”

“Well, still, bet it was funny” Sleektooth readjusted her statement

“Well, hopefully you’ll be able to share some of that luck with us” Pieapple added cheerfully, before muttering “because we’re going to need it” to herself

“Well, the hard bits are the small stone bridges over a bottomless pit. That bit… we will need luck. But the rest, just be careful and be prepared.” Pumpkin adjusted her own supplies and the mossy cape she wore. “If things get bad, let me be the bait, my clothes are very sour tasting so anything that eats me, will spit me! Just gotta hope it doesn’t chew…”

Pieapple shuddered visibly at the mention of being eaten, while Barkbear wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulder.

“Eh, it won’t come to that I’m sure. We can handle ourselves in a fight just fine” Sleektooth insisted, quick drawing a knife in an attempt to demonstrate this, but the fact that she did this using her vine-y replacement hand did put a bit of a damper on that.

“I wouldn’t rate us that highly. Fernfreind and, ironically, Stagstep where the ones who had pure combat classes, where as we three have a mix due to being out of the action for… varying amounts of time” Pieapple countered. Her two companions had retired fairly early on and had only recently got back on the path of the [adventuror] while she herself had been leveling by means of baking and statecraft for a while now.

“Which is why we have help, yes?” Barkbear reassured her, gesturing to the varicose other [adventurous] scattered throughout the convoy. There where the fish scaled leaf sharks (who could make impressive leaps using their [float like a fish] skill), the boar twins (who rode into battle on a pair of tamed tuber-boars) or the titan blades (a group of [warriors] who where towering even for elves and who used massive swords) to name just the themed groups.

“They can handle anything the dark woods could throw at them, so they should be just fine down here too” Barkbear insisted, before adding tentatively “right?”


- 11a -

The split between the top students had been too obvious by now. On one side, some of the smartest and most organized students were sweating bullets, giving one last go at revising the themes of all the many lectures of Lektor, now engraved within the walls of Haven, or perfecting their mastery of basic architecture and mathematical formulas. On the other, the most talented were chatting, sparring, and in general not giving much of a damn about the upcoming test.

A full human student gritted his teeth in anger as a duo of sparring harpies entered the floor on which he was and caused many of his stone runes to crumble to the floor. None of the non-martial art students were able to keep those who were in check, and some had taken the chance to lord over others... but not too much. The human remembered, a smirk in his face, the day Prideful Mane crossed one line too many.

Sure, he was up there, a second-generation martial arts student, and already catching up with first gens like Hills and Fang, but when he decided to bring forth an idea of might is right... well, the goddess stepped in.

"Hmm? The strongest rule and take from the weak? Funny words my kitty." the goddess said, a golden boot on the head of the lion chimera, his mane was once golden too, now it was dull, stained by mud, the broken lion gurgling an apology. "Hmm? Do I hear a change of heart? Oh, whatever could have made you change your mind on the stance of might makes right? Hmmmmmm?" she put some extra strength on her stomp.

Mane then "Graduated", as Lektor said, though the human would describe it as "thrown towards the horizon by an angered goddess". He did not feel sorry, Lektor had made her rules clear, to fully lose a sense of righteousness and try to rule by raw tyranny was bound to get on her nerves, and to an extent, it did seem like she did not want tyrannical martial artists becoming the rule.

The human smiled, feeling a bit more assured in his fate, he arranged his runes one last time and... the harpies came again, one kicking the other right on his table, pulverising the whole thing. The goddess had her lines, but super-powered idiots were surely not one of them.

Nevertheless, it was time to go perform the last test of the urbanism class.

- 11b -

The night sky shone brightly above Haven, perhaps even brighter than before, starlight itself seemed charged with a special form of energy. Hills of Bountiful Harvest stretched, adjusting her uniform and steeling her body and mind. Today the nerds had done their little math test, which Hills did not care about one bit, but for those who were not slimes, like her, it was also the finals of the combat tournament.

At first, the bunny chimera had thought herself fully hopeless, but multiple events had conspired in her favour. One, the strongest of them, Spring Blossom, had been disqualified, she was simply too strong at this point, in the first battle she had tried to be extremely gentle, and she almost killed the poor human who she was fighting. The technique to strengthen the body with Earth Mana while useful at first, had one key danger to it: What happened once something did have the strength to break that stone skin? Well, it shattered... Almost all veins in the arm of the human instantly turned into shrapnel after Blossom gently poked it, sprays of red all over the place followed, and the goddess had to step in.

So Blossom was out, good, the other rising star was Mane, but uh, he had been "graduated", though Hills would describe it as "Termination" given the goddess brutally turned the lion into the first human to reach the moon given how hard he was thrown out. So that left out a few second gens, third gens and Golden Fanged Cat, who Hills assumed would be her final enemy.

The rabbit put on her uniform and got ready to rumble, she did not have a particular reason to win outside of just wanting to prove herself, a paradoxical state of ambition common to a lot of the top martial artists, for some reason. The attention would be nice, so would the chance to enter the pages of history, though she was sure she would never get to usurp Blossom or Astarte as the top honchos. Above all, there were way too many greedy newcomers thinking they knew it all, and the chance to break those smirks and smiles was always nice.

- 12 -

Lektor, sitting with some retainers and Blossom, watched as the fights started. At the first round, as many as 10 battles happened simultaneously, and yet the goddess did not struggle to keep all of them within her view. As her path towards the Path took shape, she found herself focusing much more on what she called martial arts, more than just being an efficient way to promote health and teach mana manipulation, the goddess started to appreciate it for its ability to mix the mundane inherent needs of survival and conflict with the higher ideals bound to art. With time, it seemed as if the concept became entangled to her existence much like Earth was, and since then, her grasp on the topic had only increased, she could feel every movement of the students, every pull of muscle, every faint flow of mana.

The first round went down without surprises, a simple culling designed not to waste any two major fighters against each other. Almost every fighter now had mastered the aurora and deeper earth infusion, colourful lights shining against the dark of the night, the colours changing from student to student. Unlike the pleasant dance of auroras, the shouting of technique names was something the goddess despised, she had no idea why it had caught on, but the students could not trade blows without either telling the ridiculous name of their kicks and punches or going on and on in long monologues about how their ability was unbeatable or how they had just outwitted their enemy.

Nothing would embody this more than the first of the semifinal battles. Hills of Bountiful Harvests, the rabbit chimera, a big blabber mouth and a massive (in many meanings of the word, depending on where you looked) brat, with her rival being the Brass Bull of Midnight, a human actually, despite the name, who always loved to pretend himself to be an inventor of new techniques when most of what he did was just copy Spring Blossoms' bovine style. She could only imagine they would be shouting and talking their way through the entire battle, given how annoying either could be.

Thankfully, the other battle was between two taciturn entities. Golden Fanged Cat, the other of the 4 first gen students able to participate in this battle (given Blossom was disqualified and Astarte had left), with his rival being the Heavenly Dog, a crow harpy man, ever scowling and with a dark purple aura to him. Lektor could understand Heavenly, he flew, but where the hell did he take dog from? Perhaps it was an attempt to offend her? She was a Rock Cat after all. She did not know, the man was on the weird side, looking quite malicious at times, but for some reason, Lektor did not feel worried.

The blaring of a trumpet signalled the start of the battles.

Hills was fast, always had been, the pink and blue of her aura flashed in a moment across the field and she delivered kick after kick against the Brass Bull, who could not, at any moment, match her speed. An amateur would take that as Hills having an advantage, but there was one issue: damage. Brass could just stand there, menacingly, and take the flurry of attacks, his muscle mass was massive, and the earth enchantment had made it into a wall of steel, for Hills to deliver a kick that could break it, she would have to put an absurd amount of force in each kick, and at that point, her legs would be in equal danger of shattering.

She knew that, because she quickly stepped back, grunting.

"Ha. That was a nice massage Hills, but unfortunately, your legs are better suited to draw looks than to draw blood." the Bull hummed a smug aura to him.

Hill took a position, and the pink around her flared, "That was a great wall cosplay, Brass, but, remember what our teacher told us about structures that are too rigid?" she stepped onto the ground, a chime-like echo leaving, and immediately the human knew what was up, he jumped just in time, as the ground beneath him had been weakened.

Lektor appreciated that Hills had managed to hide that she knew how to manipulate the earth until now, but why the hell had the idiot told her enemy about it before she delivered the strike? Kids these days...

Now the pace had changed, Hills did have the means to take down Brass, but to do so she had to stay still, which the bull was never allowing in his arena, charging at her with renewed might. Lektor hummed, starting to understand what Hills' tactics were... But she was not the only one.

"Bah, what cowardly tactics, you and that Heavenly Dog fella just know how to run." Brass told, but then smirked, readjusting his charges. "I see you trying to tire me out here, but those skips and hops of yours aren't quite free either, are they?" it was now time for him to reveal his earth-shaping skill, which of course was just copying Blossom, as he formed a quarterstaff from raw rock. This greatly increased his range, and although it did not increase the speed to the point he could hit Hills, it did force her to dodge, run and jump far more, soon the rabbit was panting and sweating.

Cornered, Hills became more aggressive, soon she was once again jumping for flying kicks, skirmishing about Brass' flanks, which meant more energy being spent, but she had a bet, which proved itself true quite quickly. The Brass Bull had lowered his defences to conserve energy, not fully, but enough that the rabbit's strikes drew blood. A smug smile filled her face.

Perhaps too smug. She was fully within his range, and although it was unlikely, he could strike her, the more chances she gave him, the more chances the rare event had to happen and given his size and strength, all it would take would be one strong blow to turn her into a bloody mess.

It came sooner than Lektor expected, Hills had been greedy and tried to strike a muscle in the right arm to make the enemy drop his staff, but that made her linger about in his range for too long, with his left hand turned for a sloppy, but brutal enough, side strike, hitting the rabbit on the back, a strike directly at the spine at that, with enough force it made Hill's shape bend against his arm like a cloth. Lektor almost winced, that would be weeks without walking for the rabbit...

Hills groaned in pain and rolled about on the ground; it was over... But then the goddess noticed she rolled a bit too much, and she had rolled with intent as well. Everyone, Lektor and Blossom included, was left in shock as Hills stood up, her limbs moving in a manner that was too soft.

Then it clicked. "She... She suppressed her earth element!?" Lektor said incredulously.

Blossom nodded wisely. "Seems so, it's the reverse path of the Earth Enhancement technique, she followed the road to the other side, instead of making her veins and organs earth-like, she made her earth element be infused with water, gaining a wet clay-like property on her form. Thus, taking no long-term damage from the strike."

"Amazing." Lektor whistled. "Then... That would explain the sweating, it was the result of hoarding water mana. Wait... This is absurd, her stamina is almost unchanged from the start of the battle. She has been only using her earth enhancement on her legs, and not even all of the time."

"And she has been using the fire mana in her aura to feed her body, I would say right now her skill of bodily control outmatches my own." the pink bovine chimaera noted. "Not one mote of mana flows through her body without a purpose."

It was clear to the two of them that Brass Bull should give up now, he did not have the stamina to finish this combat victorious, but the fool kept pushing, each time weaker and slower, as hills danced around his strikes, then, finally, he was the one who lingered too much, Hills pressed her back against the ground and her two feet against his gut, unleashing a reverse "bunny skip" and fully extending her long legs with the full power of her earth and fire mana to boot. The human, lacking the mana and stamina to keep himself heavy enough to stand his ground, was thrown upward into the air and fell off the stage, of the building too, Lektor having to go full rescue mode.

- 13a -

Golden Fanged Cat had jobbed to a harpy man... winged man? The Celestial Dog he was called, and Hills had to admit, he had made his name, even though to her his fighting style was still just 'fly in, kick a bit, fly out'. Some would call him a coward, but the bunny chimera believed being smart was more valuable than being brave.

In fact, she was the exact same as him in most ways, they both liked to hit and run in Parthian tactics, and they both were lightweight speed-focused fighters. So their final battle had been a bit of a... disaster, to say the least.

In the heat of it, it was amazing, Hills was bunny hoping, doing spins and slides all over the place, and the crow harpy man was diving all over the place, doing even a low glide that swiped at her feet by surprise. As they both tired each other out he revealed a technique that imbued earth mana into his feathers and threw them at Hills like a rain of black daggers. At that point, Hills felt like she would lose.

But then she prepared her ultimate technique, she remembered Big Smoke, his shadow steps, and focused all of the wind and fire into a combined mirage and speed boost technique, the crow harpy hit an afterimage and in moments met a rain of strong kicks by the rabbit chimera.

It was supposed to be a cool fight but when she looked around, very few people remained. It had taken four hours for it to end, and people had gotten bored of seeing two fighters running away from each other. To make matters worse, Hills had a certain perception of Celestial Dog, his scowl and dark aurora made him look evil, he had scowled all the time, even as he had beaten Golden Fang, lots of times instead of answering someone he would just mumble to himself, and in group gatherings he liked to stand ominously away.

Clearly a villain, so Hills had not held back on talking about the power of friendship, and how he had lost because he didn't have friends like Big Smoke and her Phantom Wings to train and inspire her. And then the dude started to tear up. People rushed to his side and reassured him he had friends, and then Hills got called a bitch, who would go around bullying a dude just because he was extremely shy. That was the great change to her status from winning the bloody tournament, and only the goddess and Blossom seemed to respect her absurd mastery over the inner mana flow of her body.


The weeks after the final test of maths and architecture had been focused on blacksmithing, the goddess had kept Lorelei's forge, and expanded it a bit too, spreading the basics of metalwork, mining, and of prospecting to her students. The latter was also accompanied by general classes on how to prepare the land for farming. Instead of bothering to teach farming herself, she simply picked humans who already knew how to farm outside of Haven and transplanted them to the Mesa.

With that, and the martial arts tournaments finished, Lektor felt like it was finally time to finish this chapter.

On the day of the results, the students woke up to find Haven once again filled with colours and treats, it was a graduation party after all.

The great majority of students had beige and green uniforms, with different accessories and sashes to represent different positions. Some were awarded the armour and weapons produced in the forging classes. A great map of the Mesa was created at the centre, and students had to pick in which cardinal direction they would go. Well, most students.

For the upper 20%, this was merely a goodbye to most humans and a good number of chimeras as well. They would be the ones focusing outside of the mesa, the keepers of strongholds meant to define the land and keep it safe. And although each clique was being awarded a stronghold already... the goddess had not really finished them, at all, she had this absurd habit of awarding titles for property she did not own or that had yet to exist.

As the party died down, the first waves of student was sent out, one in each direction, once enough time had passed, another wave was sent out on the diagonal of the cardinal points, the objective was to avoid crowding regions with too many people for very little food. Finally, a whole group of stragglers was given plenty of supplies and then sent out to populate the Mesa, this was also the group with most weapons and soldiers, a tactic Lektor used to make sure the first ones to leave would not be able to use banditry to overtake an entire wave of students.

By the end of it, Haven was thoroughly emptied, even the martial artists, who had grown so aloof towards the civilians, felt a sense of melancholy. Not Lektor though, the sphinx goddess was happily snoring and having a well-deserved lazy day, no worries about teaching any hairless primate how to survive.

The Safety of Our Mountain Home

- 8 -

As the deadline drew near, it was time for Lektor to make her final decisions on the fate of humanity. Her lessons had taken two very different turns, one concerned with the secular and administrative worries, one with taking the vessel of earth and the fiery spirit to the limits. Both were important, but the former path was one she would only follow as far as it took for humans to leave her nest, after that, it was the realm of other gods. To refine the path of the earthling, however, was something entirely within her realm to nurture.

So, how would she divide her stock of humans? It was somewhat simple... somewhat complicated too.

One decision she made, initially she had desired to reserve the Mesa for her strongest humans, it was too early however for humans to fully bloom across the world. So, she would allow more 'lowly' settlements in the Mesa, let the human population rise along with their technology, and only then start to drive them out to make space for the high settlements she planned to fill the place with.

So, to the 80% of her people, the ones who studied under her, who could fight, write and craft, the Mesa would be their inheritance, with the mission to consolidate their control and control their domain with a firm hand.

15% of others, were among the best, they could learn the mystical arts, and follow a higher path, and yet... they were bound by cliques, by ambitions, among other issues. They were probably the type she would want to stake their claims on sections of the Mesa when the time came, but ironically, since that time had yet to come, she would gift them the realm that was supposed to be the gift of the lower humans.

Working with the upcoming underground elf kingdom, Impyra, had made her realize the value of a strong... stronghold. An exceptional building held by an exceptional group of people would impose upon the land MASSIVE power. So... to the great cliques, that 15% of those who are both ambitious and refined, she would gift deeds to great holds on distant lands, with the mission of being the first humans to settle those lands.

The final 5% would be her personal retainers, perhaps some would decide to be the leaders of the cliques that dominated the holds being gifted to the 15%, perhaps others would be hermits, and others would stay forever in Haven. These were the upper crust of all earthlings, those who would not follow the path, but brave forward into the yet uncharted.

Lektor clapped her hands. That would work! Work well even! Just one issue.

That increased the number of impressive buildings she had to deliver from 1 (Impyra) to about 13.

- 9a -

The announcement of the FINAL exams came as a surprise to most within Haven. The announcement was sudden and the topics Lektor had announced to be covered by it were odd. They did not seem to cover the full aspect of the education received, instead concerning themselves with leadership, management and to a minor extent architecture. The higher students in particular found it odd but quickly came to understand that the test was not exactly for them, they should do well on it, no doubt, but their results would be overruled by their focus on magic and martial arts.

"My students, it is time for us to address your architectural skills. I am sorry to say but... they are lacking." she sighed, observing their downcast heads. "To be fully honest, the fault is mostly mine, you cannot create or organize when you live with so little... well, except some of the fancier cliques. Still, the results of the last classes have been troubling. You, Stonebreaker, for example, placed all of your warehouses in a single district? Why?? Do you want every street to be filled with endless rows of people trying to go to the same point at the same time? And you, Heavenly SpearFang, just how many guards do you want to fill your city with? Why 1/5 of all buildings dedicated to housing guards?"

She rubbed her temple with a single finger. "Break it down, go fractal, you want smaller sectors connecting to larger sectors, you want neighbourhoods to be focused but not overly specific, they should be able some level of independence. You are not building blocks together, nor should you manage cities as if they were the body of a living being, with a brain sector, a lung sector... you know?" they did not because Lektor had not spent points into teaching them the basics of healthcare, she would, soon enough.

Classes would continue like this, Lektor prepared small model cities, letting the students plan their own too, she wanted them to develop unique architectural styles because she found them quite neat.

Results were... slow, no matter how many times she tried, they always developed the dumbest-looking cities.

"You are building your city on a foodplain? Don't be stupid."

"How. Will. You. Afford. So. Many. Bloody. Walls???


She sighed. "You are all hopeless, all of you. What can be so hard about making non-trashy cities? Hmm!? Nevertheless, tests are delayed, we are staying here until you all grow some sense of public space. Now, write down the most important thing in a large city on your stone, done? Good. Anyone who didn't write public transport is getting beaten up by yours truly."

- 9b -

While the tests stalled, another project grew on the side. Even if her humans learned how to design a city, building one was far beyond their techniques. In the Mesa they would need to learn from the ground up, quite literally, but in the far-off holds, there would be no time for that, same with Impyra in the underworld.

The designs being made by the students weren't only being wasted away, well, most were, because they deserved it, but what Lektor was doing was separating the planning process from the building process, this way she could have the spirit of human design without necessarily needing the humans to build it.

With a look to the side, the goddess observed a true army of statues, they were made from the local stone, andesite, and were all featureless save for their carved-in-stone uniform and a simple runic code in their foreheads. They were builders, experts without the need of food or water, tireless, but also without the power to create on their own, they would follow orders and carve buildings themselves in mostly cut stone and terracotta, Lektor didn't have the patience or gentleness to deal with anything else.

None of the future holds of the cliques were ready yet, but her project for Impyra was. She changed the runes in the bodies of one of the andesite constructs and assigned him as a captain, before handing him the documents and images of the project. It stood still for a long time then mindlessly started to walk away with a platoon of his own, off to build as they were instructed.

- 10 -

The weight of the FINAL exam was notable in her class, and so was the departure of Lorelei's group. Nobody had quite mastered the arts as Astarte had, except maybe Hills, but she had been depressed since her shadow beau had left so suddenly. It did not help one bit that Lektor herself had been distracted, only one person was taking this seriously, Blossom, and yet she had plateaued (which was funny, given Haven's location), wanting to perform techniques she would never have the Mana to truly do.

At one-point Lektor even wondered if the path she was taking was impossible for humans and other earthlings.

Then her student took a step further, and fully humbled the goddess.

What she had called a plateau was in truth Blossom exploring her skill, finding her limits, and understanding them, something Lektor herself had been postponing recently with excuses about how busy she was. While from outside the bovine chimera did not seem to be making strides, internally she was quickly understanding much about how the mana interacted with her body.

One day, out of nowhere, the goddess noticed a build-up of lights around the roof terrace of Haven, when she turned to the source, she noticed it was Blossom, who was now enveloped in a thin aurora, flowing, swirling waves of green and blue dancing around her skin. Immediately Lektor caught herself mesmerized by it, not gasping or asking questions, merely observing it with her godly perception.

Blossom had developed her technique to imbue earth upon her body and refined not the action, but the concept, she had changed how the earth mana acted within herself, instead of being the more clay-like tame and brittle earth aspect, she had brought forth a concept Lektor would never have imagined a human could find within themselves, magnetism... or something close to it.

Upon closer inspection she noticed it was not actual proper magnetism, but rather, she found out how to make her raw mana create such a concept within the conceptual realm of magical energies, and as such, nearby fire, air, and water were now trapped within her aura, thus creating the aurora of colours she was seeing (likely a mixture of the radiation of fire with the atmosphere of water=air). This INCREDIBLY increased Blossom's ability to capture mana, and while she was not generating or changing anything, earth mana naturally started to flow in due to the polarity created by the other elements.

It was absurd, and it was not even done. Lektor increased her perception to the maximum she could as a god, observing now how the electrical charges within Blossom's body flowed across her nerves, the obvious connection between lightning and magnetism was being used so the bovine chimera could manipulate the field of swirling mana around her. The goddess observed as she got used to it, as she quickly learned to make the aurora dance by using signals send from her brain to her limb, assigning most of them to movements of her finger. Then, finally, she stomped, and the world shook.

Walls of stone rose from the ground, at Blossom's command, creating a small room between her and the goddess. Her aurora had mostly dissipated, the initial step of the technique had been a small explosion of magic to lure forth a stream of earth mana to the area, then using her control over mana to command physical earth under the influence of the chaotic burst of energy she had created. It was elegant and yet brutal, as one would expect of the earth element.

By the end of it, the Chimera had fallen to her feet, not even understanding most of what she had done, when she looked up, she saw the wide smile of a very pleasad goddess sitting on the stone wall she had shaped. Murmuring something about how the goat would be extremely jealous of her.

A low rumble echoed through the dark woods, it had a rhythmic beat, and while most of the animals were merely scared, to the elves it represented a much bigger threat, not one man, woman or child was left without a hint of worry.

The source of the small tremors could be easily followed, next to the village, in a small makeshift ritualistic area near the temple. As one got closer they would feel that strong ‘gravity’ effect felt from the presence of a god who was not holding beach their power.

One elf made a silent prayer, while hearing the “BANG BANG BANG” that was causing tremors over the entire region. Could his friend truly defeat the beast? Or was today her doom?

At the middle of it all, there was Lektoria Koreh Tellur. Banging her hands against the monolithic stone table, going “PIE PIE PIE PIE PIE” like a petulant child while waiting for her dish to be served. Sure she could summon pies with her own magic, as she had done in Haven, but like, it didn’t taste as good if it was made from your own divine essence, she was hungry for the real deal, and this elf teasing her with the promise of pastry better deliver the goods.

Up above in the tree house city of Sanctuary, Pebble was running herself ragged trying to make the perfect pie. Or even just a pie. Because it had been all of a day since she had managed to make the one that leveled her up, and recreating that, especially with the intense stress and head pounding petulant command of a goddess, was turning out to be a nightmare. She’d comandered every oven, and gotten all hands on deck, and still, the bakery was filled to the brim with ones that weren't just quite right.

Jeon, ever the unhelpful god, sat at a table just outside the bearkery, silently laughing to himself as this all went down, watching as Pebble churned out more pies in the span of an hour than she had in all of her experiments combined. A thing she was mainly doing because he kept shaking his head solemnly at her latest attempt. It was a cruel cruel thing to do, and a cruel cruel thing to have encouraged his fellow devine to do, but there was an end to this, and end that came in a little notification in Pebbles mind thanks to the amount of grinding she’d been tricked into doing.

Everyone else was suddenly kicked out of the bakery by Pebble and her supportive if confused friends. Free from distraction, other than the goddess, the level 5 [backer] focused, and put all her efforts into one final dish. A humble apple pie.

There was a tense hush outside of the bakery as the elves waited nervously, and then a silent intake of breath when Pebble emerged holding a pastry in her hands. She looked at Jeon, who’s eyebrows raised a little before he nodded, and the elf let out a sigh of relief. Then Jeon smirked and delivered one twist to the proceedings by pointing out simply that “now you better run along and present it before it gets cold”

THere was a pause, and then pebble cursed loudly and started running, drawing the masses of elf kind in her wake as she sprinted down the bark roads of Sanctuary to its lower floor, then grabbed a vine and went swinging down it to the forest floor.

A multitude of elves went swinging down after her, while one and his redwood deer took the new stairs Jeon had added to the trunk after laughing at the elve’s animal hauling strategy.

With the masses in her wake, the elf sped through the woods with skill-powered stride, only to slow as she approached the sound of the banging dinner bell. She caught her breath, steeled herself, and thens stepped into the clearing, still steaming pie held in hide covered hands and held in a stone pie tin.

Lektor's eyes widened, the little scamp had actually done it, she would not have guessed, the humans at Haven would have failed her pie quest for sure, despite their magical martial arts. As she sniffed the air the whole of the forest was able to calm down, the constant earthquakes coming to a sudden halt.

Yet, this also meant all of the goddess's focus was now directed at pebble, the full gravity of her presence now pinpointing at her, along with a glowing stare of her red eyes. Instead of being armored, the goddess wore a party dress with a tiny hat held by one of her cat ears, it was all overwhelmingly golden.

"Come on, come on. Don't freeze in place now, it's just a few more steps and your quest is over."

The elf took a deep breath, approached under the gaze of god, goddess and kin. Then whens he got close she instinctively knelt before the goddess as she raised up the desert as an offering and said with shaky breath “I p-present to you, oh, goddess, [the perfect pie]”

Lektor stared, rubbing her chin. “Hmm… Guess you did not spec into the [humble] stat, eh?” she let out a feline-ish crackle and then picked the pie, summoning forth silver tableware, picking up a slice, and then scooping a bit with her fork, she would sniff at it, stare at it, and finally, took it into her mouth.

Immediately, the goddess’ ears went up, her eyes widened, and her face gained a dark red blush, her wings extended even, and only until she swallowed she relaxed again. “Holly molly. HOW” she picked up the rest of the pie slice with her hand and then ate it all in one gulp. “THIS IS GREAT. You must truly be the best baker in the world… and the only one, so far, but STILL.”

She stood up and straight up jumped over the counter, forcing the elf to her feet so she could give her the proper compliments. “Damn, I did not even prepare a proper reward for you, though Jeon warned me I should, I expect your pie to be trashy, no offense, like, rubber milk and poisonous thorny berries pie, not this golden apple pie.”

Then it clicked on her. She did have one reward, it was a bit excessive, but the pie was excessively delicious too!

[Quest Complete: “The Primordial Pie”]

4 golden coins
Set of silver tableware
Deed to Impyra, Fortress of the Magmatic Ocean
10 [Throwing Rocks +1]

Title Acquired:
Queen Pieapple I

Job Acquired:
[Monarch - Level 1]

New quest acquired:

[“Down Under” : Settle the hold of Impyra deep in the underground caverns.]

“Oh wow, you’ve out done yourself. And me. Love all those notifications I am sooooo stealing them” Jeon called over to Lektor, before starting out a round of applause for the actual triumphant elf herself that was quickly picked up by the rest of the elves, first hesitantly, and then with growing genuine enthusiasm for the triumph of their friend and comrade.

Pebble’s mouth just kinda worked over and over as the notifications pinged in her mind and the quest rewards tumbled down out of thin air into her lap until she finally found a question to start: “W-what am I? What is a [Monarch]?”

The comment brought Lektor straight out of the pie zone. She looked very bothered. "Oh Jeon, did you make the elves here into a bunch of hippie anarchists?" She said in mild annoyance.
"Sigh. So… a king, queen, monarch… uh. How can I explain, hmm, you make the rules of the place you own, it's like your home, but your home is an entire city, and the people within it are your property. They will give you a part of the money they make, you will define what they can or cannot do, and uh, they are also supposed to fight for you if anyone wants to be the monarch instead of you."

“They're a nomadic tribal society, and didn't really think they needed any kind of complex societal structures. Besides, I have been focusing on teaching them way more important things. Like how to make booze!” the god defended his choice of teaching methods and priority, before tossing the goddess a stuffed wineskin to give her something to drink along with her dessert. This had basically no skills or skill put into making it, so it was practically moonshine, but it still did the trick.

“Money? Property? City?” Pebble murmured as the god and goddess spoke, ever so confused as she looked down in her lap and noticed something that was kind of familiar: the crown. After a moment of admiring it, she pulled back the hood of her cloak, then reached up and pulled off the little bramble tiara she wore. It was nothing special. Stag’s one with antlers and Fern’s one of thorns were more impressive. All hers had only a little pebble at the forehead. She set it down, and hesitantly put the crown in its place on her brass skinned brow.

And it felt right.

Suddenly, as she put up the brass crown, with rubies and amethyst decorations, a lot of information was relayed to her. For one, she had an exact replica or the map of the underworld memorized, then, she could perceive some simple facts about her realm. Her city would have exactly one building at the beginning, Impyra Keep, a series of towers custom made to survive the heat and make the elves comfortable within, but it could be easily expanded with simpler constructs and cheaper materials, not unlike the tree town of the undead where she had acquired the cookbook.

Her mind wandered to her own bakery in Sanctuary, and in the project of Impyra in her mind a bakery was formed at a convenient location, where she could use the magma vapours of the underground to make up for a lack of wood. Instinctively, she knew how much stone, iron-wood and mushroom stems she would need to make the place, and that she would need someone of the class [baker] to run in. Of course, she could fill that spot easily. And if she did, she would be able to produce enough Firebread (a recipe made of flour from local plants) to feed about 10 people. Of course, agriculture could be improved, housing could be improved, routes could be created and more workers could bring more grains which would feed more workers. Of course people wouldn't just go about working for any random monarch, she would need prestige, thankfully, her being the baker at the bakery alone was a big source of prestige for the town, given her achievements as a baker, including making a pie worthy of the divine.

As she was lost looking at the mental spreadsheets delivered by the crown, the other elves would stare in mild shock as from the place where she put the crown a change started to happen thought her body, her skin gained a pinkish hue, while a vibrant color of polished marble spread from the root of her hair all the way to the tips.

There were gasps among them, and then her friends pushed forwards to the newly crowned queen’s side

“Pebble. Speak to me. Are you alright?” Fern shook her friend as Stag followed close behind and Bark hobbled after bringing up the rear, all three crouching down beside here

“Huh.. oh… yeah… also its Pieapple now apparently” the [Monarch] murmured, before adding “oh, and, we have another quest, to find somewhere called Impyra in the underground”

“Oh no, not there again” Stag bemoaned

“Compared to the tree, it was kinda nice. Safe, just dark. Plus we have fire this time” Fern replied, their twin responses making it ever so clear that there was no question about them coming with her.

“Ah well, I guess this will be goodbye then, if you're settling so far away” Bark said sadly, leaning of a walking stick next to Pieapple

“Huh? What? No!” Pebble said, shaken out of her reprieve by this admision, before insisting “We’ll… we’ll figure something out. I promise”

As the [adventurers] broke into planning and/or examining Pieapples other rewards, and the other elves sort of semi dispersed into smaller groups to chat themselves now that the bit worth gawking over was over, Jeon sauntered over to Lektor.

“Sooooo, poaching my people now are we? And my high level [adventurers] too! For shame” he said to her, tongue firmly in cheek

Lektor had a guilty face, cheeks stuffed with pie. “I thought it was a nice prize, plus I had made it clear I wanted more folks down there.” her tone was a bit muffled, then she swallowed. “Plus, its not like they will stop being adventurers down there, it's a good spot to prepare new grounds for adventurers towards the north, and, well… I might have a proposal to make up for it.”

She hummed. “It's a bit hard to describe, but I noticed that a girl named Lorelei has been around, have you ever seen her? In particular, her strength and fighting style?”

“Hmmmm,” he tilted his head away and gave it a thing before remembering
“ooooh yeah. That girl with the cat ears. She helped them get the recipe book you know” Jeon replied, before tilting his head back towards her and asking “what about her?”

“I taught her a bunch of cool moves in my little secret monastery.” Lektor said proudly. “But apparently she forgot half of them already, that silly cat. Aaaanyway, the point is, maybe you’d like to have a look around that monastery? I am about to kick out all but the best and wisest from it, as I am about done with babysitting humans. This creates two opportunities for adventures in the north, both on those going out, with the will to be heroes or new kings of their own, and within the temple, as I am sure a group of uh, overly powered animal people with magical powers would be good material for adventurers.” she always felt out of her depth, yet excited, when talking about the whole adventure business with the other god.

“Oh? Inviting me back to your place, are ya kitten?” Jeon teased, before actually addressing “but for real, that is for sure something I wanna look into. Been hanging around these woods for long enough, and it’ll be nice to take a trip out and see some of the other stuff that’s out in the world. Go to interesting places, meet interesting people, that’s my whole deal after all”

He leaned back and looked at an elf who had totally not been listening in with their long ears and added “and don't you worry, I’ll be back. Besides, you’ve been able to handle yourselves just fine for a while now. Buuuut I’ll leave you with some extras to tide you over, don’t you worry”

Then he turned back to Lektor “So yeah, sound fun, aaaand I can spread the good words of adventure and levels, what more could a guy want?”

Lektor clapped her hands. “Right. I need to go back home and get all ready for this, and overlook the elves on their way down… and actually finish the building I just gave the deed of to Pieapple, uhm. I need to do a lot. Thankfully, it's like, miles of deep forest, a whole ocean canal and then more forests, a steep climb, then a cold desert, before you arrive at my place, so I should have the time to overlook all that before you arrive. Feel free to take the scenic route though.”

Jeon had a good laugh at her selling a deed to a house she hadn’t even built yet before reassuring her that “yeah don’t worry, I will. Plus I need to tidy up around here before I head out too, so don’t push yourself too hard, kitten. Maybe give them a few more tools for their trip, stuff like that. How big a trip is that gonna be for them, do you think?” he asked, while gazing over at the crew who were arguing about whether they could safely have Doe carry Bark all the way through the underground or not.

“The underworld is smaller than the overworld… but uh… do they know how to preserve food for a few, uhm… weeks? Months?? Uhhh…” Lektor may have forgotten one little crucial step, but surely, something could be worked out… surely.

Raised in the Dark

Lektor grimaced as she realized a very sad thing. That school and those damn brats Homura had put on her lap were such a chore, such a drain, that normal work, which Lektor would complain about a while ago, was now almost relaxing.

The earthlings were abusing of her big avian-feline heart without mercy, whenever near them (and their fluffy ears and tails) she became far more selfless than she would like to be. To everything there was a limit, and as soon as the correct time came she would kick most of them out and never again answer a single prayer! Humans were NOT her responsibility!!

Though... Well she could do some networking, seek similar mortal focused gods and try to counterweight all the troubles, Jeon was one, she was sure there should be others as well. Between her work as a teacher, as a goddess and her unmatched laziness, Lektor had truly ignored most gods within the world, only having a vague notion of who was where and who was what. For example, she could guess there was a fire deity, but no god of the waters or winds, she should check with the fire deity sometime, the elemental gods would likely find common ground very easily, unless the fire deity was some maniac out to burn and melt the whole world, but what are the chances they would be like that?

The sphynx's internal monologue was stopped by the arrival at the place where she wished to be. A large cave system, truly, one of the rarest things in the underworld!


She could get why the mortals didn't care much for the place. But that was about to change, massively, quickly.

This cave was notable for being one where, due to waterflow and other circumstances, a lot of nutrients and dead matter would flow downward from all over galbar, as if the planet had a bad case dandruff... internally?

Mushrooms, were the first thing the goddess thought about, and mushrooms she would get. It was natural right? You have a lot of matter, you have a lack of sunlight, giant bloody mushrooms. Her mood deflated along with the spores, as both the passage of time and the extra pressure found underground killed her idea.

Fine, reality wanted to play hard to get, but she was Lektoria "The Rock Cat" Tellur, and she would not give up over a bit of gravity.

A bit of extra silicates and maybe a bit of metal to the shroomy cells and both the issue of them dying too faster and not handling that lil' bit of extra pressure well. And it worked, she made sure to make some that were more rich in calcium as to be more edible, and then called it a day as she saw her mushroom forest.

This was a pattern she could repeat as much as she desired and it surely would work in other bits of the underworld despite the lack of a constant flow of nutrients but...

Now that she had done it she realized it was kinda boring. Like, wow. She expected more.

Another idea came to her in another cave.

Perhaps she was looking at it from the wrong perspective, volcanoes were adequate source of nutrients and carried massive energy, so why not break open a few geothermal vents, incite some life to grow from that? It was easy and worked equally well, towering coral reef-like towers rose up, emanating small glowing clouds as they dealt with the rush of geothermal power and nutrients. That was great...

She looked up with some worry as the roof of the cave turned a bright orange, a result from the always burning gas emanated from the towers of life which were as eternal as the roof-fire of the cave. Dark 'clouds' formed on the orange 'sky' as the cooler bits of gas and detritus which would, over time, fall in a rain of dark heated slog. Nutritious though!

So Lektor went for the most sensible approach to salvage the cave from becoming a hellhole version of a coral reef, she planted a jungle, thick and damp trees fed by the light and ash of the ever-burning sky, with a design made to keep that heat going upward, facilitated by eventual openings from the cave system to the Sunset Sands above, causing bits of the desert, at times, to randomly explode with hot sand (and in the worst case, glass) tornadoes follow by the oily black slag springing out and pooling up.

Lektor would copy the system in some other locations, when she had controlled the 'reef pillars' to not explode and burn her damn caves, and she also added more mushrooms about for the sake of variety.

Near the great lava ocean there was no worry about energy, far from it. Light was plentiful, so was heat, but it was a bit toxic given the amount of elements in the dust that no mortal should sniff. This presented an interesting situation and the goddess decided to work with that. While adding some of now properly adapted flora, she created other types of functional trees which were very much dead ends in the food chain, as they would gather much of the metals and rock fragments in the air and bind them to their own form, growing into peculiar shrubs with 'fruits' of lead and rock, sometimes, a small berry of gold or other 'neat' stuff. Forming metallic mangroves around the lava lake, and the goddess even allowing it to advance upon the pools of lava, letting rocky lily pads to grow and bloom in the flow of magma.

That was about as much as Lektor was willing to do in this one sitting of creation. Fauna was lacking, she had no idea how most animals worked and was sincerely not in the mood to learn, many caves were not cared for too, oh well. She would see after all that later, and it was not like there weren't a few animals, some of them she had even created, like the charming rock crabs, while others had found themselves wandering in and adapting to the environments.

Speaking of wandering in, after her half-assed work, the goddess was in the mood for a slice of pie, failing that, a nice elf stew.

The first of the trinity to arrive was obviously the master of the land where the meeting ground had been made, the goddess of dusk, the champion of the northern wars, the blade of the eclipse, Dzalitsunya. Long ago, back when her mind was young and her body less scarred, she had made the palace in the hopes that someday all gods would sit on the tables and discuss a better future. Such delusion had long been dispelled, the illusion of the planet on the walls was not one that inspired hope, but instead, courage, for the battles yet to come.

She took her seat, still at times tugging where shadow petal was supposed to be, other times touching the side of her face now clad in an eye patch, the wound from the battle never recovering, perhaps by her own decision.

All alone in the room, she was left with enough time in her hand to rearrange the furniture to better reflect the trio of the northern alliance, over the long table of the gods. Then, at the last minute, she undid her change, keeping the table and all of its extra seats, perhaps a reminder of all that they had to lose to get here. Then, all that was left for her to do was to wait.

“So gloomy, darling!” Benea had snuck up on Dzallitsunya during her thoughts and placed both her hands on the goddess' shoulders. “I commend you for your strength in all this.” Benea’s voice seeped with compassion. Looking up at her, the typically overbearing goddess hadn’t changed a bit. She still had her smile and she still had her flowery clothes and flawless appearance — she seemed calm, relaxed, as if the world wasn’t ending. Then again, this wasn’t the first time Benea had seen the end of the world.

Dzalitsunya now had the maturity to understand much of Benea, enough at least to understand how far ahead the other goddess was. Perhaps she too would stopped changing so drastically given thousands of years and multiple apocalypses. Not that her plans would allow for such long term worries.

“Pardon me Benea. I just did not feel like erasing the dead like this. It was not my objective to be gloomy.” the scarred dusk goddess smiled and gave the calla lily a hug and then smiled for once. “How were things in the far east? Did you bring me a souvenir?” she joked.

"A little carving of a weasel." Benea plopped the small trinket into the goddess's lap, clearly ignoring any joke on the matter. "Sly and cute, much like our sweet Tsunya."

“Aye! In some land people would take weasels like insults, but these fellas are held in some respect on dusklander society.” she bowed. “I myself, don’t have much, unfortunately, the lands of Anak’Thas to the east were too warped by war, I did however, want to return this to you.”

The goddess of the dusk offered to Benea the rings of the fallen Paladins of Coldshanks, wrapped in the fort’s main banner. Benea smiled softly as she took them and then laid a hand in Dzallitsunya's shoulder.

"Thank you of course, dear," Benea said before pouting. "But where in all that is good is our lovely Xavior?"

Spoken of, the demon appeared, clad in a business suit and carrying a pair of very uncontemporary tablets beneath his arms. He paused at the precipice of the room, lips pursing for a moment as he beheld the original intent of this room, before regaining his composer and greeting the pair “Benea. Dzalitsunya. I hope I did not keep you waiting too long? ”

"Not particularly. I would classify it as, hmm, fashionably late. As the youth would say." Dzalli leaned and gave a somewhat weak but sincere smile. "I hope you are fine? I have to confess I completely zoned off the western areas given the battles."

“All is calm in the west. Well. Mostly. There is a fair amount of… agitation regarding the end of the world, as you might expect” the god replied carefully as he set down the tablets on the table and took a seat “but other than that all is well. It is the south we need to be concerned about.”

"I am doing all I can to repurpose what is left of Anak's force while also licking my own wounds. The Daman are thoroughly defanged, though I have avoided contact with Anna given her recent actions, I would dare say that the North is well secured." The goddess that had been so warm now spoke with a certain steel edge and an equally unmoving iron expression.

"For the South. Our main worry seems to be the way the enemy can spread. With my navy in the inner sea the blockade of information is less critical, though far from perfect. I say we join forces, but together all over our, ahem, fireworks, at play, especially using my navy to get close to the node, and then we scorch that which is already lost." The globe meant to be a reminder of the peace and tranquility, now seemed more like a strategic planning screen.

"Our enemy will be attached to the central node, this might give us the advantage. My people, with the Cinnabar Forge, and yours, Xavior, with the magmatic magic, with the survival expertise of the Paladins and their wasteland training on node 2… we are best fit to take and exploit node 28, put those endless volcanos to excellent use. My magistrates will scout the south for any sort of resistance left, be it the mages and what not, whatever else can be added to our power. This will be the final war and there is no reason to spare any resources, even if a front will be too weak to push, a total attack from all sides will still be our best bet."

“Our biggest concerns are the hivemind in node 18 and Garravar,” Benea added, her voice akin to a seasoned leader all of a sudden. “No doubt Garravar will appear in the first battle, do not engage him — I’ll finish what I started on my own. It’s the safest way. As for the hivemind, I suggest bringing our best shock troops to support my dragon.”

“There have been some recent aerial innovations on my people’s end that might be best suited to escorting your dragon. Speed being of the essence here I’ve taken the liberty of assembling a loyal strike force consisting of all the fliers at my disposal, and would put myself at its head so as to move across the world as fast as possible” Xavior suggested, having put aside the doubt about Grym being their foe in the name of pragmatism. The universe, it seemed, had had quite enough of his wait and see approach to things.

“As for the rest of my forces… I will admit, my style of leadership and governance is not well suited to all out war, and the transition to it is having some… teething problems” he had to admit before clarifying simply that “financial incentives do not hold much weight when the world is about to end. Which is why it is imperative, for me, to get an understanding of what victory will look like, so that the people know what they are fighting for”

“Which brings us to the big question,” Benea interjected. Sitting between the two, she took each of their hands and gripped them tight. “Which of you two will bring about their will, who will inherit the world?”

“You are excluding yourself from the running already?” Xavior noted with curiosity “May I ask why?”

“I had my time, dear,” Benea answered coolly and with a smile. “Though, if you two wish to defer to me a third time, I will do so without question.”

Xavior nodded, before turning to Dzalitsunya and saying “So. You and I.” pausing for a moment and then offering her the floor by saying “If you have a sales’ pitch, now would be the time for it”

Dzallitsunya smirked. “It is simple. We blow up the sun.” she gave some time for the joke to land, but instead, seeing some of the expressions, she suspected she may have overshot and made herself sound too serious.

“Jokes aside.” she said with notable emphasis. “I believe in a world with less ambition. I know it may sound anathema to what we have to believe, but I always found the stars of the night, with their diffuse light, better than the overwhelming light of day. Fighting Anak’Thas my will over that became more steel-like than ever, the veneration of a god-king above all others, the belief that sacrificing one’s will and identity for the sake of said king. It is the same situation we see on the sky under sunlight, a light so strong all else vanishes but its power. It is the same as what we have with the crucible.”

She took a deep breath. “Would it be fair to say that among us there is a common understanding that someday, somehow, having our descendants free from the cycle of crucible and its node would be ideal? To let them rise or fail by their own accord, not by a presset game?” her words became far softer than they were when she was talking about the war. “And yet, we cannot break out the cycle, not yet. So my desire is to at least turn the possible futures towards ones that may get closer to that freedom, and, so, come to action the changes I wish to make towards that.”

“For one, yes, I do wish to diminish the sun, to keep it in a constant state of eclipse would be enough for me. People imitate what they see in nature, and the forces a ‘sun-king’ emanates are just not constructive. Second, I will try to change mankind, in particular, the chimeras of the Daman, the sensibility and telepathy gifted by Anak’Thas, perhaps even some of my own, of yours, Xavier and even the souther magiks. Third, I will see what I can add to the nodes, and if possible, try to further the regional system for more integration, as seen in the Dusklands, but node-bound. Fourth… My first act will be to abdicate godhood. The stories told by Benea convinced me of one thing, too many mistakes in the past were born from emotional attachment, time after time again. Some people, in the council of Eunomia or the Magistrates, already think gods are unnecessary, I do not think that, but should I live in the next world as a god, then I myself will become like the sun, overwhelming others with greater experience and authority… My plan, if possible, is to try to become a memory-less mortal with my family, if I cannot do that, then I will simply erase myself.”

“That seems like a gamble…” Xavier began and then paused, taking the time to think it all over, face a frown and hand stroking his goatee thoughtfully before concluding “no, that’s the wrong way to think of it. It is more of an experiment. A crucible has many gods, an interim one, so what a time with no gods looks like is indeed an interesting question that might open the way out of this mess, if not for us, then for a future generation. It is also, ironically, akin to the question our foe is asking, just taken to its logical extreme, and, of course, without any murder invovled. Assuming we consent to share the same fate as you, of course” to which he glanced over at Benea to gauge her reaction to this.

Benea was still the entire way through the explanation. A skeptical gleam was in her eye by the time Xavior addressed her directly, summoning a flashing smile from the Goddess. "You think removing the current gods will end the cycles? What about my own birth, or my sister's? There were no gods to will us into existence and yet we were created. Voittaja was gone by the time I was born, and yet there I was, in a fresh crucible."

“True, but we have no idea why that one ended either. It could be an interim is tied to the life of the god who made it?” Xavior hypothesized “really we just have so little information at hand, the best we can do is struggle in the dark and ensure we keep what we do know alive. Which admittedly does become more difficult if we remove immortal gods from the equation"

"Which is why I said I disagreed with the belief gods are not necessary." Dzalli interjected. "And we know interins fail, which should signal us even a lone god can become auto destructive, or that… given the lack of gods, the nodes will find their own. Perhaps there is even the possibility that given millennia and no godly oversight mortals may learn a method of ascension or of claiming a node…" this got Dzalli thinking about the only crucible that lasted thousands of years, as far as she knew.

"Benea. Excuse me for the slight change of topic, but what happened with Garravar? What was his finding that drove him to madness?" She took a deep breath. "This information was withheld before, but surely, if you trust us two enough to allow one of us to lead the triggering, then you could also trust us with that, right?"

Benea sat back in her chair and stared at Dzallitsunya for a while before nodding. “It began with the maddening of Falbach, when Falbach grew paranoid that the friends he recreated with the nodes were simply that — recreations. Then of course, Garravar was madly in love with me, and couldn’t fathom an existence where we weren’t our pure selves.”

"Explains your worry over madness being spread. And once again, makes me worry about the emotional attachments of us gods." Tsunya whispered almost as if she was thinking aloud, but she wanted to be heard in this case. "Perhaps… Perhaps we can test this somehow. If you two exchanged a code I do not know… or if a third god interjected… Hmmm. No. In any case any result could be altered by the event, if I imagined a copy of you two they would have their own code, but would it be the same? Sigh. It does not matter anyway. There is no proof the world wasn't created this very day and all else are implanted memories, to get caught up in such questions and end up committing so many atrocities against gods and mortals… how pathetic of them."

“This might be a good moment for me to bring up this little discovery of mine, tough whether it boards good or ill I can not say” Xavior reached into his coat pocket and retrieved his monocle, before placing it atop the two slabs he had brought in with him and sliding the whole set over to Tsunya “that lens will dispel the obfuscation effect” he explained before turning to the eldest among them and asking “Now, while she reads that, tell me Benea, do you know anything about the first gods?”

“How dapper,” Benea commented offhand before looking at Xavior and giving him a big, drawn out blink. “I don’t know of them, dear, are you to say you do?”

Xavier just tilted his head to the side towards Tsunya and then waited a moment for her reaction.

Dzallitsunya’s face varied a lot while she read the work, more than it typically did, showing some rare expressions for the goddess, especially after she picked up the sword, both smugness, surprise and notable shock and discomfort. “I was once annoyed at the drama of the previous crucible that has in many ways defined ours, but drat, at least there is a direct link between us and them. To have our lives defined by these long gone entities, I guess I understand how some mortals find us frustrating. On a similar note, I guess I should apologize for thinking your people were silly for digging deep trying to escape the triggering, there is actual precedent, impressive work.”

She adjusted the monocle and patted at her chin and lips pensively. “We know the name of one of these people, Benea mentioned it, and it stuck with me. It’s the central core of much of my plans for the future. Benea told me that when she won, she was given two rules to follow, don’t mess reality and that the children of Trine would live. At the time I assumed these to be human, and it seems my shot in the dark strikes true, the four primordial gods are rings and clouds, but Trine has a face, has blood, a heart, closer to a human than flowing liquid at least. Three primordials are killed, but the one who is said to be compassionate on the tablet, was also a name Benea saw in the triggering, Kaksi… Then there is the companion… or weapon? I wish not to name it for reasons you should understand. Undoubtedly, getting involved with the killing of primordial gods is already very bad, but to have their name echo with such power is peculiar… Blegh.” the goddess simply stood back on her chain now, putting the monocle back in place, massaging her temple to alleviate the stress.

Benea raised a brow and held out her hand. “Mind if I take a look?”

Tsunya handed it over.

Slotting the monocle in place and wriggling her nose until it was comfy, Benea took a gander at the slabs. Her eyes scanned for a while, seemingly impassive at what she was reading up until a certain point where a horror entered her eyes and she slipped the monocle off. “Well if nothing else, dears, this confirms the origin of Trine and Kaksi. Like it or not, we are currently bound by their rules. Makes you wonder why, I don’t think anyone here is bound by any of my rules…” She bit her thumb, unsure. “Right?”

“Well we don’t exactly know what they are, so only you can say I suppose” Xavier said before adding “Oh and for some reason, only we are bound by whater rule of fear that name creates. Mortals seem entirely immune and/or simply not targeted.”

“Well that doesn’t make things any easier to cipher.” Benea puffed a breath of air.

“It doesn’t… but I think there might be a clue?” she pressed her lips together. “A shot in the dark, if you may. But that name is related to Trine. Trine is related to humans. Humans do not fear that name. Trine and the name slayed gods… but the system that creates us gods seems concerned with the creations of Trine and under the will of the one god Trine would not hunt down.” she shook her head. “It's hard to think up solutions when we don’t even know what or who that name is. It could be a device custom made to banish divinity, it could be a person who betrayed Trine and Kaksi, it could be a person who made this system.”

“Betrayed them and then let their wills cover subsequent crucibles?” Benea seemed skeptical. “I think we need more information, dear. Perhaps we use this triggering event to prolong our lives to complete our investigation in the next.”

Tsunya was no less skeptical than Benea, she was merely creating suppositions. “I don’t particularly think it is that either, but there is precedent, Peninal was the creator of this crucible and yet still fell by Garravar’s sword and made sure his dear Olipha would be reborn” she then smiled. “As I said, should I take such a position, gods will continue to exist, I think… I would not mind you two continuing to exist. I do not know of Xavior’s arrangements, as he has so far not made his case or stated his will, but I doubt he would forcefully erase you.”

“Of course not. As for will, well, I will be frank, I have focused on the here and now for most of my life, and on the past more recently. My will for the next world would be very much being cobbled together at the last minute. That does not seem like a stable foundation to base our hopes on” Xavior admitted, before adding some more practical justification atop it “besides, as a pure numbers game goes, choosing you gives us more time, as you hold the most nodes already. Plus you have experience as a general and warrior both, whereas I only have training and experience in combat, limited as it may be. It would, I think, be optimal for you to be safely commanding from the center while I and Benea act as the proverbial wings, moving swiftly to face threats like Garravar and Grym while not risking our node holder in direct combat if possible.”

The reaction of the dusk goddess was unexpected, she blushed. "Ah? Truly? But then… wow. I… did not expect I would actually have support from the start." She brushed her hair to the side. "Nevertheless, ahem, I do agree this would be the right path… though it pains me to hide behind others, there is no doubt that I would make for the most logical target." She turned her head from one side to the other. "If Grym has defiled the bodies of the southern gods like he has with Peninal, there is no doubt they will be at play. I was wondering…"

"If seeking out Anna would be fine. Despite her transgressions and the slaying of Monica, she is not vile, merely… not smart. I was on a somewhat friendly term with her last we saw each other, and I do think she would be interested in some southern action, at the bare minimum I would like to set up a few nexus so that we may have greater mobility when it comes to taking nodes."

Benea tapped her chin and leaned back in her chair. “I will allow it, Tsunya, if only because she has your referral and we have quite the task ahead of us. How about you, sweet Xavior?”

The god had actively bristled at the thought, but he pushed down his anger and offered the concession of “Just... Keep her away from me”

“It's understandable, I will oversee her then.” Dzallitsunya bowed. “Benea, how much time do you think we have in general? If possible, I would like to extend the Mirrory training to your paladins and Xavior’s troops. As well as equipment in Mitsitaralle and Tzurkortze. Mythril and Orichalk.”

“It’s impossible to say, but I think that should be partially possible.” The Goddess put her hand ontop of Tsunya’s, “But now it is decided, your will shall be the heir to the crucible — all that’s left is the final details of battle.” She looked at the map. “I’ve sat here twice before…”

“It's a great duty I will do my best to me up to, I shall not fail your trust.” Dzallitsunya looked sternly for a moment. “May I just make one last request from you two, however? For the sake of good luck, perhaps a group hug?”

“Mmm. Fine” Xavior pushed back his chair and stood despite his general dislike for physical contact

"If you're going to give a hug, dear, do it right," Benea repeated an old phrase and stood up. She pulled Xavior in close with one arm and dragged Tsunya in with the other. Then, wrapping her arms around both, she gave a heavy squeeze.

The Second Lekture: Progression and Corruption

- 4 -

The effects of the accursed party had been notable on the people of Haven, whereas under the law of bread and water there was peace, now the tension could be felt in the air, melancholy, rage, and suspicion. It was impressive how much trouble a broken routine could cause.

But it was necessary. Art could be made by adding colourful pigments to a rock, yet art could also be made by destroying bits of the rock until what was left was a specific shape. Corruption and destruction were aspects of life, to fully avoid it was an act equal to not living, the key was keeping a balance, a balance most of her students were not keeping.

Every day she would get new questions, about how they could have back that which they had only for one day, the memory of the luxury stuck to their senses and tugged at their will, the flame within wanted more, it was gifted more fuel it grew, now it could not be properly satisfied.

"Well, since there is such a demand, I may bring back it, sometimes, but not for all. From now on good results in my tests and challenges will give you those rewards. Alternatively, there is plenty of what you were gifted out of Haven, if you believe in yourself you may go out there and claim it for yourself, just remember the first rule, once out, you may not return."

The effects were notable, people previously unmotivated now showed greater motivation, either to work or to cheat. Some others were uninfected by the gifts, but to continue among the top students became a reason for their pride, and they started to work much harder on each task. The competition was not all good, rivalries started, and soon even fights would break out.

Some would take their prizes and consume them immediately, but sometimes they would leave them aside, and eat one apple a day instead of eating the three gifted ones at once. This led to the first crimes, as the slyer students would soon discover that stealing was a much faster path to rewards than being top of the class. Theft and suspicion created cliques for protection, and cliques created power that exceeded that of the individual, soon the promise of security in the cliques became the threat of insecurity for the outsiders, they would protect their own and not care if some outside lost their belongings, worse, some would protect thieves from their own side, weaker students found themselves bound to these groups out of worry, but of course, they would not have the same right as the older students who joined out of their will and power.

Among this rising mess also rose a group that was peculiar. Born from those who learned to reduce their reliance on the prizes, those who could go back to water and bread with ascetic discipline. As the other top students decayed, they continued to do well with stalwart focus.

When deaths started happening, not only accidental death from overindulgence in alcohol or food but actual murder, the goddess decided it was time to go back a bit and end this aspect of the experiment, first, however, she would need to talk with her ascetic students.

The sound of metal gloves clapping together made all of said students smile in their private meeting with the goddess. "I thank you, young ones, for your great effort. While vice ran rampant, you stood above it. Your techniques are commendable, and... I feel like there is nothing else for me to teach you." she said happily, then... sadly.

"And I mean that in a harsher way than I would like. Your solution to the troubles of your species is commendable, but it has cost you the fire aspect of your being. It's not a flicker of a flame, but an ember... there is value in that. Value in a hard stone. Unfortunately, my objective here is to polish and carve stone, to melt ore into metal, and your quality became too... harsh, too unmoving, it does not give away and so attempts to change it will not have good results, such forces will only make your brittle or break." the goddess sighed. "While I do not think your group has done anything wrong, you also are no longer within the aims of Haven. I will have to ask you to leave. Your discipline will be of great use to this world, to the humans who were born outside or already left, I will give you guidance and supplies for this journey, but I need all of you to vacate this location at once."

Only glimpses of feelings were expressed by the students, from rage to understanding, from sadness to indifference. Yet all of the ascetics nodded and did as the goddess commanded.

- 5 -

The students woke up to find Haven changed again, it often shifted in shape, but now there was a... solidity to it that wasn't there before. Lektor took notice of those who noticed it because indeed Haven was now an entirely different building. Before it was kept together by the goddess' will, but now she had properly consecrated it into a material location, independent from the goddess' mind.

Another critical change had been that the students had all of their belongings confiscated, but it was not exactly a curse to return to the times of bread and water. With less students and no need to keep the location from crumbling with her will, the goddess found herself with enough focus and energy to make more plentiful rations, far from what a victorious student could get, but now included many vegetables and fruits. Lunch was typically light but protein-heavy, typically potato salad with Gedhe’iwak ceviche, or small sandwiches, Dinner tended to be more varied and filling, but not hard to digest, such as noodles. To further improve integration and luxury the goddess also declared a new meal time, in the afternoon, with a special ceremony to serve the students a drink, made with cocoa.

The building was also less minimalist, not only was the atrium larger, but a raised garden had been added, along with a bathhouse and more spacious hallways. The design was still centred on the round atrium, surrounded by galleries that led into the private rooms, the floor was of a similar size, with a similar amount of rooms. the structure was made far wider to avoid having too many floors. From the outside, it looked similar to a stone pagoda.

Notably, there were carvings on the walls and square pillars in the Haven, seemingly only decorative at first, but soon the students started to see repeating patterns, except all the sphinxes, eagles and lions, which were 100% just Lektor's ego.

One would think the new arrangement would calm the situation, and they would be partially right, most students started to feel comfortable again when all the crazed competition was gone. But not all. Lektor had to add new rules, no theft of the key supplies, no murder, the basics.

While some was expected, like that there would be those too addicted to luxury to turn back to a lesser, if extremely comfortable, living, Lektor found herself impressed with the continued existence of the cliques even after all means of power had been dissolved.

In retrospect, it was obvious, that undoing the situation would not undo the scars, plus humans were a creature of habit, it seemed, there were just so many acquaintances they could make before they started to close their minds to others.

"But that would be putting the burden on the element of earth alone. Earth cools down and takes shape, and habits are formed because of that, the body too gets used to certain things, certain people..." that made sense and no doubt much of it was rooted in that and yet, in her cat's cradle, there was a missing piece. "Earth, even if equal, tends to separate, air and water tend to unify, but may separate if their composition is too different, fire however always unifies. Now Humans are a body of earth and a will of fire... and what does that mean..."

Many theories started to form in her head. "Like moths to a flame, humans will drift towards stronger wills. But that expands the potential of the flame as well? Wouldn't that make for a vicious cycle? A lesser person's flame could become much greater if enough people believe in it, to the point it may overpower the light of a person with a strong and pristine flame? That would not explain this behaviour... But perhaps there is a desire, flames desire to become greater, united flames become greater, but each flame is trapped in a shell of earth... what can it mean? This Path turns into a Maze, and my head spins."

The goddess sighed. More testing was necessary. But perhaps... she should fully understand her home turf first, understand the earthly shell before further tackling the fire within.

- 6α -

"What is this, pupils?"

The crowd from the galleries looked confused for a moment before one brave girl rose her hand. "A rock!"

"Yes, sure, but what is different about this rock?"

The girl leaned forward against the stone barrier between her and a likely fatal flaw. "It's a bit scratched. Did someone break your rock goddess? Wasn't me I swear! Bet it was Grugson..."

"It's not broken, I made these, ahem, scratches, in actuality, it's a carving. Take note of it, and take note of the walls around you, you will see this carving appears for every time there is a stone" she smiled and continued to explain the basics of writing.

"Now, it's very easy for you to learn that symbols are related to a thing, but let's go further, these symbols can also represent concepts and qualities. For example, note that animal on that carving, it has no unique symbol of its own, but a junction of these two, why is that?"

"Because it's a rock cat?"

"What in the name of the Path is a rock cat? Child... you have eyes, you don't need to feel the symbols with your hands. Look at them"

"So... Stone-Hill Cat? Cat from the rocky lands. Oh, that is a lynx, right?"

"That would be correct! By uniting these symbols you can express many different feelings, even completely new feelings that do not have a correct word for them, if you join winter and beauty, you may express the concept of ice crystals, if join spring and annoyance, that can be a very bad allergies season." the goddess smiled. "There may be more flexible systems to take words from the air and impress them onto earthly matter, but, of the ways to write, this type of object-oriented language has an elegance of its own, which I appreciate. she casually took a sip of coffee.

"So, let's use this to do a simple task. Learn the words assigned and then make a name for yourself, a title, and create something that expresses your... uh... vibe. Like Summerchild, Mountain of the Birds, Long Beard, Step of Amber, and so on, so forth." she smirked. "To those of you who typically cheat or slack, I will be direct, do not do that, just this once. This is a very important task."

- 6β -

Elegance, to Lektor, meant a language that expressed the simplistic but often meaningful way the elemental world interacted. To the lessons to come, that would be key. Before she advanced on anything, she took one more moment to meditate on the meaning of things.

"Earth is also the most direct downward force, while Fire is the purest upward force, bound to the heavens and the stars. They move in different directions, earth wins and binds the vessel to the ground... hmm... no... That will not do." the sphinx rubbed her hair in annoyance, raising a finger and causing all stone carvings aligned with her Cat's Cradle to have the words related to body and Earth. She had been anxious since the ascetics had risen, her original tests would merely bring humans towards a fully earth-bound alignment, and that was not what they were meant to be, surely, but... there were some lessons in all that.

For one, she learned new limits of how humans worked with the earth element, second, she had learned the way earth would break off, creating repetitive behaviour, and vice...

"But this word, vice... failure, is the same way we describe erosion. Huh. The water erodes down the stone, and creates the river. But once it finds the vice of the stone, it will not break another path, it's the path of least resistance. Could it be... I have been ignoring the wind and water of the body, they were merely mechanical, but, nothing is this isolated. Hmm"

That would require more thought, but tomorrow's new situation would surely give some insight onto how the body reacted to such changes, after all, it was a bodily chance for once.

The goddess smirked and rose up her hands with immense divine power concentrating on them. Focusing on the stone carvings the students had made.

- 7α -

Screams, gasps and a few surprised "wow" sounds. Haven was a mess that morning, more than it was when the goddess gifted them luxury, more than when she redesigned the whole place.

Those who hadn't noticed it when they woke up surely noticed it when they walked into the hallways, a good percentage of the students now had animal features, from horns to tails to ears and even changes to the eyes and limbs. Not all of them, but even those who stayed fully human felt a level of change within them.

The goddess stood at the very centre of it all with a smug grin.

"What is this?" an old adult man asked, pointing to his fluffy cat ears. "I look ridiculous with these stupid things in my head!"

"Hooo?" the goddess simply made an incredulous, if a bit forced, sound, twitching her own ears.

"Uh... I mean... it's fashionable but on a cute woman such as yourself."

"Whoa... Sly, avoided the fall, makes sense why you took the spirit of the cat." she smirked and continued to watch as the confusion spread out. Then she clapped her golden gloves together and silence that annoying murmur.

"Good morning humans. As you may notice, some of you may have won blessings. All of you won something, but, in many cases, these changes will take the form of appendages, necessary changes to your body so that you may put to use new abilities." she tilted her head. "As some of you may notice, I have some myself."

The whispers came back, some people unironically going "oh! she does have a tail!"

Rolling her eyes Lektor continued. "These blessings were formed from the spiritual essence of your body and of the words you wrote yesterday. Miss Sunset-Gale wished for speed and freedom, now she has wings for arms and a fiery spirit to her. Mister Foglurker wished for the ability to feel at home in places others shun, and took to himself the aspect of the crocodile. And you uh..." she looked down at a rabbit-eared woman, she had a tall body, with a certain thickness to her that stood just under what some would call chubby, but skillfully evaded that line, her smug aura almost mocked the goddess. "I will ignore your desired name and call you Hills of Bountiful Harvests. But you asked for, ahem, fertility, and you sure seem to have that aura about you now."

Lektor hid a blush on her face, clearing her throat. "Today also marks the day your training will be increased, a lot. We are, hmm, halfway through the course. The prize at the end awaits some of you, and plenty of knowledge will be given to all of you. It's time to raise your skills once again, competitions to be held, and, to an extent... cullings. So far the knowledge was guaranteed, but I will start to have a harsher stance. Not all people deserve all the tools, that is the simple reality of it."

She tilted her head. "Try to keep a good result in at least one discipline, be it the art of writing or the martial arts, you will not fail over something your body is not meant to do. That would be like judging a bird on how they swim or a fish on how they fl..." she looked up and saw a floating carp. "Huh."

Her warnings were not jokes, the students found themselves far more organized in constant training, especially in the martial arts. Before they were tilting fields or lifting rocks, now there was mock combat, swordplay and fist fights, the bathhouses which once had many pristine bodies now was a gallery of bruises and scratches. Similar pressure was felt on all levels, from the cooking classes to the writing classes, Lektor was no longer joking.

They wondered what could they receive at the end that would make this worth it, nevertheless, the gift of a goddess would surely be worth something, and nobody wanted to leave Haven just yet and risk losing some important lessor later.

- 7β -

Magma-colored eyes observed the evolution of the students within, peering deep into their bodies and spirit, taking notice of habits by twisting the strings in her cat's cradle.

The designs of the spirit appendages were successful on many levels. Touching them would reveal that they were quite warm, as one would expect of fuzzy ears and fluffy tails, but even the more lizard-like features or horns would have such behaviour. That was because she had made it all "will-bound", natural containers of fire energy naturally produced within the humans. This was likely why the harpies could fly despite a somewhat heavy body, the element of fire had an inherent upward movement.

She observed a tiger man being hit, falling back towards the ground, and at the last minute doing a spin and falling on his feet. Felines had such abilities bound to the hair of their ears, giving them a great sense of balance and spatial location even at high speeds, the feline chimera inherited such aspects, having it bound to their will as well.

As time passed, she started to notice exactly what she sought. The vices, the paths ones were used to, started to appear for chimeras as well. Canines had good hearing and a keen nose, this meant there was little reason to develop or train certain aspects of their vision, which was understandable. Faced however with challenges that fooled their hearing and smelling senses and made aware they would need to improve their vision, they lagged behind even humans while trying to improve it, the trained senses and known paths would actively jump forward and overtake attempts to improve the less trained sense, and too much focus and discipline were spent on containing them to properly learn the other path.

It was logical, it's hard for a flow of water to break through a stone wall, but much harder, if not impossible, for it to break a second opening once the first one was made.

Another thing the chimera aspects tested were the cliques. So far they had survived because in the still days of the new way of life in Haven there was little change to break them apart. Weakened but were still dominant as people preferred their acquaintances over strangers, being all equal, being part of the same clique was about one of the few notable differences among students... until now. How would a wolf chimera react to a wolf chimera from another group? How would a leader react if he led a group with chimeras of the same animal as him within his group? Would they get benefits? Would it create rivalry? Preference? Bias?

And as she expected, the damage to the cliques was immense. Weaker groups found all their integrants drifting apart in a few days. Not only for the aspects she expected, but also the simple truth that the spirit animals bound to the students were also telling of their personalities, people who would ignore each other now found out they were more compatible than they thought. Sometimes the question was merely physical, harpies liked to hang out high in the temple, where other species could not reach, some students became fully nocturnal while others stuck to small niches or humid areas, where most of their previous cliques would not be comfortable.

Stronger cliques survived as coherent groups, in fact, they became even stronger due to all the adaptations to house and unify a pack of increasingly diverse individuals. New ones formed based on the theme of their spirits, while many stood in sort of a half-there half-gone state, more as groups of friends. The difference between the latter and the former two would become pronounced as the cliques quickly discovered that the power of names could also be applied to their groups, soon fancy names with fancier carvings would embellish the areas of certain cliques, The White Blossoms, The Serpent Council, The Band of the Frowning Lord, The Noise Makers, The Spears, The Rock Cat Appreciators...

The goddess was starting to regret teaching writing if this is what they did.

As she also suspected it would happen, some groups did not centre around a single strong leader, but a weak one with many strong followers, however, in practice, she found them to be as coherent as the centralized groups, with the 'council' around the 'king' figure finding their balance of power and accepting the unspoken truth that they were the governing body. Nevertheless, the formation of these more coherent groups did lead closer to her long-term objectives for humanity, but not her long-term philosophy.

"A crossroad? Hmm, no, not quite." she observed the word in front of her and willed the stone rune to change, from Choice-Road, Crossroad, to Choice-Net, Filter. Yes, that would do.

Lektor's Lectures

- 1α -

That temple was a symbol of commitment. It was not born by the greater magic of the gods but instead held together by only her will, any distance or distraction would be enough to shake it to its foundations. It felt trapping to the goddess, but, with it she would be able to guide the humans, earthlings, towards their destiny.

It was a simple round thing, brutish in design, with a central atrium with a stone pillar where the goddess stood, to its surroundings many floors in a tower-like round structure, with balconies so that all humans may watch her. The outward ring of the round structure was an endless row of dormitories, spartan in design, with merely a bed and a washing bin in each. All humans wore simple robes with a middle sash holding them together. Initially, they were all green. Clean water was offered, and so was bread, made by the goddess to make sure they would have good nutrition in them.

The mortals, just raised from lifeless stone forms, were all very much dazed, and they all looked at the goddess with curiosity.

"Good Morning my pupils. I am Lektoria Koreh Tellur, goddess of Earth. Today, the knowledge that will be imparted to you will be that which is most basic. You will learn of this world, of its gods, of how your body works and how it will survive. You will also learn how things will work here in Haven. This very temple where you stand."

And the goddess did follow that exact proposal with very little distraction. Most important were the rules of her lectures and their staying in Haven. "Every morning and every evening you will listen to me and pay attention to my lessons. They will start simple but become more complex. There IS a world out there, far beyond these walls, you MAY choose to go there, but, once you LEAVE you cannot go back, Haven will be lost to you, so will be my overwatching blessing, you will need to forage your own food, defend yourself, and build your own shelter. You may not interrupt me whenever I am lecturing, even to ask pertinent questions, it is simply not allowed. the rules were so simple even the newly-born mortals understood them. And for the first few days, the lessons would be peaceful and none would leave.

But as time passed, some mortals were too eager for their own good. Too excited. although Lektor always made sure she explained how dangerous the world out there was, a group of humans thought themselves ready enough to face it, curious even, wanting to be the first to leave the building. They knew how to eat, they knew how to drink, what else was there to learn? Surely nothing important!

And so, the first batch left.

- 1β -

At night, as all humans slept, the goddess of the earth adjusted strings in her hand following the pattern of a cat's cradle.

"Seems like the first few have left. How brave, yet how foolish, very low self-control and wisdom on those. Yet they made be necessary for mankind when certain times come." she adjusted the strings and knots in her weave. "I believe those who do it for curiosity may fare well among those, but those who do it out of ambition and pride... well, those are truly lost. It is not yet the time of men, it's the age of shadows and flames, with their masters the elves at the lead. A time of tragedies and great change, of falling sounds and the spreading carmine wound." she sighed.

But there was nothing that could be done, the flame in those few burned too bright, now it was up for Fate to decide which ones would be pruned. She had her lessons to continue.

- 2α -

The teacher's teachings would become more hypothetical and figurative as time went on, long gone was the simple "There is this, there is that, this is named x, this is named y." of the past. Now she spoke of sentiments and feelings, and even her more grounded words were sapped with metaphors and unclear answers. But given survival was easy and guaranteed most did not mind that shift, that is, until all those who are too adventurous had left and days went by without new abdications.

A long time would pass of relative peace and no changes within the temple, when the goddess felt it was time new lessons were given. Tasks to be completed. Typically menial beyond belief. They seemed to come in waves, one day it was very physical, like cleaning the walls, running around the building, pruning plants and sand raking; the next day would be menial too but more mentally challenging, students would be given jars with pebbles within and asked to count them over and over, or separate them by aspect, or puzzles were given, or the students were made to remember the names of all those within their floor. There was no punishment (at the moment) for failing these tasks, just the shame of it, some students cheated as they could not find joy in these tasks, Lektor took notice, others, finally, gave up.

The earth goddess had expected that, and she took notice of what tipped over each student, some did not mind the bureaucratic tasks but minded the physical ones, while others thrived in mindless forceful work but did not deal well with numbers, some were too lazy to do either but also not clever enough to cheat. Thankfully the former two were more numerous than the latter.

The adventurers had been left to go without care or aid, but to these newly departed the goddess would give some guidance. She would tell them of caves and bountiful areas within the mesa, and instruct them to live in those places as they were more peaceful than the lands below. She made it clear that it was not their time yet to settle beyond the mesa, she would not stop them if they tried, but success would only come when special students arrived to their villages, ready to lead them properly.

- 2β -

The cat's cradle formed an image of iron and clay strings surrounding a single ruby. The goddess had spent the entire night observing it.

"Wind and Water act mechanical, bound to the earth that is the body. But the fire, it is the spirit. And yet... why is that." she pondered in whispers, unheard in the dead of the night. "It clearly is not random, there is a design, but not even the creator seems to contemplate the decision of making the spirit an ember. That can't be the full story. What does it provide? What does it define? What is the philosophy of this alchemical product?" she re-adjusted the strings.

It was no use.

"Perhaps the solution to this earthling puzzle is in accepting it, sacrifice the whys for the hows. The first students who left had flames too bright, those who leave now have flames too fickle. Those who have the fire but whose earth failed them were more likely to force themselves or to cheat, that is ambition, but what of those gifted in earth but with low flames? Are they of use? I will need to create more situations and test it."

She sighed, so much work to do, yet her own enthusiasm was lacking at times, she was not, after all, a goddess of fire, but she was not foolish to let just let humans go into the world untested. When all of this was over, she would likely take a long rest, and poor will be the humans who ever expect her to help them again.

- 3 -

As the population of the temple settled again, the waves of people leaving stopping and the shape of the temple adjusting for the now more empty areas, the goddess started to think over her task again. It seemed her effort had already filtered a chunk of the humans, the time was coming she would need to change things.

"The days to come will make this less of a temple, more of a forge. The most peculiar and potent humans are now under my command, it is time to test them. First, the minds, then the body. Some will need gifts, so I should wait until I have more energy."

But one last test would be made, it was time to give these humans the fruit of knowledge, and know how they would react.

One day, they would wake up and find their clothes had been changed for colourful garbs, crowns of jewels and rings of silver were given to the, the temple was colourful and vibrant with images from all over the world in its walls. The food too, was wine and nectar, bread with meat and fruits, pie slices too. For one day life in Haven was a feast.

The next days that came, however, gave nothing but the nutritious bread and clean water, the white garbs and brutish rock walls. And Lektoria would refuse to answer if the mortals would ever see those colors and tastes again, merely smiling when asked or reminding them they were not to interrupt her lessons.

The sphinx waited to see what would happen next. This was but one of many tests to come. Not simply testing if the humans would succeed, but more scientific in nature, where the results are truly unknown even to the gods.

First Delivery

Anath Homura & Lektoria

Atop the Misty Tableland new life could be found, born from the work of Ia’Akhul, the wave of life had not discriminated against the artificial land form. Strong winds had dictated a dilapidated land of spread out trees and shrubs, but a verdant land nonetheless. Another thing could be found at the abnormal mesa, and that was the goddess of earth, Lektoria. She patiently awaited a visitor, who she could feel was drawing near.

A strange storm announced her arrival, thunderous and yet suppressed so that the land and sky only slightly trembled as a giant beastial colossus forged from celestial metal currently cantered towards Lektoria. Upon its massive crown stood the familiar sight of Anath Homura, who sent forth her otherworldly voice from afar, with her words crystalline clear and powerful despite the ambient whirlwind around her.

“Mountain-Maker and Lady of the Deep Earth, I come with peaceful greetings and gifts to bestow upon you.”

The sphinx smirked simply, jumping down from the rock outcrop to the ground, looking up at the matron goddess. ”Neat.” she said with her typical casual irreverence. ”I will accept your gifts, it seems they will be part of what is to come, and so, you have my word that they will be defended and protected under my care.” she declared in a louder voice, while waiting for the red goddess to land.

Soon the colossus came to a halt, levitating above the land as Anath Homura leapt from it and alighted close enough to Lektoria for a more conventional conversation. The strange storm that accompanied the coming of the colossus dispersed suddenly, replaced with a calm breeze which gently blew upon the two goddesses. In the absence of the whirlwind, the ethereal song of the stars could be heard, and its melodious presence bathed the world in serenity.

“I am comforted by your conviction.” Anath Homura said, before she bowed respectfully and the motion was followed by her colossus companion in the air as it repeated the act.

”When given a task, I do them with certain zeal. Sorry if I gave you the wrong impression in my birth. But, what you bring to me seems important to the planet. And I can see why, born from clay, it seems, a natural child of the earth, a human.” the earth goddess looked up with a curious fixation, having already paid her own respects with a bow, she looked only at the mortals seemingly carried by the colossus. ”And yet, not only earth, I also sense… fire, not lit, but marked in clay. Hmm. Fire… Well, given your name, I should have expected flames.” she jested. ”But… of the elements, to make Fire the second ruler of these beings… that is peculiar.”

Anath Homura indicated bemusement by tilting her head after she arose from her bow, and then subtly furrowed her brows while she replied with an impassive tone. “These vessels are forged from earth, water, wind, and fire. Bones, blood, breath, and being - all of the aspects that are necessary to be alive. In the end, each of the four primordial elements are equally vital in sustaining their existence.”

”Oh on a physical level, yes, but… these things do have a certain spiritual meaning. Earth takes shape and lasts, that is the opposite of Wind, which is shapeless, merely kissing the face of that it touches, while being so ephemeral too… Water dilutes, it consumes, but it also holds within it the essence. Now fire, hmm~ Fire consumes, what it consumes is changed or lost, it also hungers, desiring more and never being truly satisfied…” she patted her chin. ”But perhaps that is why these mortals are needed? The other races may find satisfaction in existence alone, this one, however, does not, as its very being is defined by seizing more to its flame.” she finished, a feline smirk on her face.

”Yes. That will do. I can see their place and why I was called to nurture them. I will hold my share of them to this mesa for now, keeping their safety, but also letting them rest in anticipation of what is to come.” another upward look, a certain hint of apprehension. ”You wish to also gift them to many gods, hmm? I am honored to have been among the first. But… well, you are far older than me, far older than the planet, who am I to judge. I do request however a certain quantity of them, unspoiled, as to guarantee the populations of the eastern shores, and perhaps a bit beyond.”

Anath Homura merely possessed an enigmatic expression as she listened, and then allowed a pensive silence to linger before she spoke. “You may freely sculpt the humans that you receive, of which will be a plentiful amount. If you wish to distribute them across the land, you may do so as well.” Accompanying her words, the openings scattered over the colossus began to funnel the slumbering humans within via watery cradles carried by the whispering wind. Thousands of stark statues were swiftly laid upon the land beneath the colossus, now resting in a complex arrangement of interweaving and swirling rows. Afterwards the wind and water that transported them receded back into the massive beast of burden, leaving the once-cargo unblemished and alone.

The earth goddess overlooked the whole process, raising and reshaping some of the land around to better shelter the humans, at no moment losing that certain bewilderment in her eyes. ”Well, there they are. I will need to better survey the land, and let the elves nurture some of it, anything to avoid needless suffering.” she tilted her head, now looking at Homura. ”You know, for such a small figure, you are extremely heavy. Lots of burdens to carry, I take?”

“I am what I am.” Anath Homura answered, and then sighed. Her one-eyed gaze drifted aimlessly across the horizon for a moment, before it returned to Lektoria and the red goddess softly smiled. “I will be returning to my realm after I have greeted the other gods and goddesses that are willing to speak with me. Lektoria, I ask that you please visit my home and share the gift of your wisdom with me again.”

”Oh, back to your realm? That explains some of the things I felt. Now, I may be a bit earthbound, but I do have the desire to meet you again as well. My spirit may be foreigner, but my guidance is not. It is my wish to keep the world moving along the tracks of the plan.”

“Then this is farewell… until we meet again.” Anath Homura politely intoned with a fading fondness, before she stepped back and suddenly leapt high onto her perch atop the crown of the colossus. With the completion of the first delivery of the slumbering vessels to be shared among the Divine, the red goddess resumed her journey across the world to spread the seed of humanity.

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