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10 mos ago
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The trees rustled warily in the howl of the agitated storms in Neiya's realm. Stone cracked and splintered as talons dug into the pillar holding up the centre pavillion, and subsequently crumbled under pressure as Neiya pulled back, ripping the stonework from its foundation to wield the pillar like a club. With a furious scream not unlike a petulant youth, she swung her massive weapon at the remnant of her luxurious structure, sending shattered debris all over the riverside glen as the building toppled under the impact and collapsed under the combined pressure of it's own weight and Neiya's assault. As if the realm itself knew the significance of this event and the resident deity's unbridled fury, the ground shook and the walls of the realm itself rumbled warily.

Another furious roar as the goddess continued her tantrum, and threw what remained of her pillar with all her might. It smashed into the remnants of her old nesting place, spraying rock and dust everywhere. Thick coils of black energy twisted and churned around the goddess that had once allegedly stood for love, but now seemed to fall ever deeper into some lovelorn despair. The black tendrils extended to touch all shadows in her realm, and in the darkness, something stirred. Countless eyes, teeth, and growls resounded about the primordial world, as it twisted and warped into something wildly unrecognizable compared to it's old shape as a natural garden.

The goddess swore and cried two names, swinging her arm out over the landscape in a fit of unbridled anger. The realm responded, and vast swathes of the land were set ablaze with an endless fire. In the blaze soon wriggled new creatures, wrought to life out of the sheer fury of the goddess. Horned, burning silhouettes skipped around, and before long were sunk deep into brawls amongst themselves.

Neiya did not notice. Heaving heavy breaths, Neiya stumbled across the chaotic ruins of her realm. Her eyes whipped to and fro, as though trying to find something new to destroy - to no avail. It was then that she turned to Galbar. Her gaze and mind focused on Oraelia's lake in the Luminant, home to her traitors. A new plan formed, of revenge and justice. An eye for an eye. Gibbou would be next, as soon as she figured out what Gibbou had ever done on Galbar. For now, Oraelia's creations would suffice.

And so, the Goddess began to sing. She suppressed her fury into a cold and centered vengeance, and listened to the endless torrent of mortal woes to channel all of it at the Oraeliari. A song of eternal sorrow, infectious and unrivaled in beauty. It caught the ear of a single unassuming man in the glowing forest, and Neiya silenced herself, knowing the deed was done.

Now that her focus was here, however, she could just as well try to influence the Oraeliari further, and add to her collection. Trying to focus on a village in the Luminant, Neiya parted her lips to sigh, and a portal tore and whirled open to the world beyond. She was about to call out to the confused denizens beyond when something skittered into her vision, a black beast, licked by dark flames, quickly darted past to escape her realm and dive onto Galbar through the portal. A whole pack of beasts slipped after it. Neiya blinked, her petty scheme of vengeance replaced with confusion. Then, out of nowhere, a tall humanoid that looked like a poor copy of the goddess herself, though licked by flames, ran past at breakneck speed, throwing itself through the portal with a yowl. Before long, the portal closed in on itself.

Neiya stood there bemused, then took a glance about her ruined realm. It was teeming with strange life, called into existence by her reckless behavior. Unsure what to think, Neiya took a breath and considered her curse.

She'd need to do some digging before she could hit Gibbou where it hurt.

Empty Promises

Covered by the veil of morning fog, a long and subdued procession of villagers shuffled along the trampled path westward. Despite numbering almost a hundred, the line of travellers was almost entirely quiet; beckoned to silence by the cold air, the early morning, and the rough road. In the distance behind them they could still catch glimpses in the mist of their old home, abandoned structures of wood, stone and leather and all else that could not be deconstructed and carried on their pilgrimage.

At the back of the procession, one couple struggled to keep the pace ahead of them. A worn woman carrying a mewling bundle, the pressure of recent motherhood scoring her otherwise ageless youth with bags and wrinkles, and a horned man fighting to drag packing to the collective rhythm of the procession trampling dirt and snow underfoot. The bundle offered a temporary complaint, and the woman halted further in her pace as she focused on her child - at least until those behind her threatened to bump into her with their presence. A few short heaves of breath to steel herself, she nuzzled her baby and hurried up alongside her husband. Breathless from the short jog in the morning sun, she pleaded with him. "Eirik… it's not too late to see reason," she pushed out between breaths. "We can go back to the others who stayed. We don't even know how far-"

Her husband shot out a sharp breath, shushing her with a frown and a glance. Hoisting the rope tying their packing together further over his shoulder, he fought a fury borne from hard labor before tempering himself enough to speak. "We have spoken of this already. Less than a dozen remain. I doubt they shall last two winters. Is," he paused to drag the large pack of supplies over uneven ground with a grunt. "Is that the life you want for us? For Ronja?'

She could not answer that with anything but a burning shame in her cheeks, staring down at the unknowing child bundled in blankets in her arms. Already small nubs were growing on her temples under the wiry white hair. Early horns were a sign of a healthy child, the shamans said.

"Besides," Eirik continued between struggling breaths of his own in the cold morning air. "Rurik and his lot may want to defy the gutakvínn and her message, but I am not going to invite that kind of doom into our household." Almost as if summoned by his words, a silhouette appeared above the front of the long procession, large beating wings dissipating fog and snow to reveal the winged, horned woman that led their excursion from the air.

"Eirik…" she breathed with worry and shame in her tone.

"Just walk, Kari. Promised land or not, we'll build a new home. We'll give Ronja the life she deserves."

The ruckus of new arrivals had brought with it nearly a week of debate. After the arrival of the Steinnvaetr tribe from the northeastern reaches of the snowy wastes - and they had reported a hard journey with no sightings of other kin along the way - discussion had begun to shoot through the peaceful settlement that no other tribes were coming. That the wait was over.

Kari stood in a ring of people in the midst of their valley-village, a fascinated three-year old Ronja hoisted up in her arms. For three years they'd argued whether to wait for more pilgrims before moving southwest towards the promised land, and people had begun to settle in. Only the gutakvínn pushed to keep moving - as she always had - but with every chieftain that had arrived, it was another voice against leaving this valley by the water. Now they had dragged the whole debate up again, with the chiefs and the winged messenger surrounded by the village as they debated publicly. With long horns coiling from her head, and wings of blue and gold able to spread in a wingspan beyond that of several men, she cut an imposing figure even before her height came into play. That had kept the chieftains in line during the pilgrimage, but now that they were assembled, they argued with her at every venture.

"There's just no way of knowing if more are on the way, hopeful of joining the great pilgrimage. It would do our kinsmen a grand disservice to abandon this meeting place," argued Chief Borgir, facing off against the winged and horned gutakvínn with the same undaunted arrogance as he always had in these past three years.

"Indeed," the elderly chieftain Torkil cut in to steal the word, leaning on his staff weakly despite looking as youthful as the rest. "To resume the search for the promised land could spell the doom for many hopefuls yet arrived, and uproot all we have prepared here. We are thankful for your effort in leading us here, Aveira of the Mother, but now we must trust in the song to tell us when to resume the pilgrimage."

Aveira, the gutakvínn, watched the two conduct themselves before her with disdain, but seemed more interested in the expressions of the assembled audience, and the hummed agreements their words captured. Before she could respond a third voice piped up to stack arguments against leaving; this time it was Chieftain Havardr, who had gone to the extra trouble of wearing his ostentatious reindeer helmet, covering his small horns with grand antlers. "This bay is perfect for our ways. The Song flows undisturbed, and the fauna are in harmony. To abandon it for another land would be folly, when our resources are so meager."

Kari frowned to herself, remembering when Havardr had demanded all new arrivals pay him half their supplies in tribute. To hear him speak of resources now was to spit on all things decent, and yet she agreed. She tugged Ronja up properly on her side. There couldn't be another journey so soon.

But the gutakvínn did not agree. When silence finally lingered save for some brief murmurs in the crowd, she took it upon herself to respond. Kari still hadn't adjusted to the booming echo of the divine being's voice, nor how her speech seemed to be in another language entirely, yet resonated properly in her head to give it meaning. "Your concerns are unfounded. Were we to depart, I would make certain that others of your kin were not lost. The promised land waits. All that it requires is a journey that shall only become easier the further south we travel."

A brief silence reigned as the stern, powerful voice echoed in the minds of the assembled, joined only by a few coughs and the quiet mewling of a newborn in the crowd. It was not to be, however, as old chieftain Torkil cleared his throat to warn of his incoming dissent, his staff wobbling unsteadily as he straightened his back in the crowd-circle. "Ah, it eases my heart that you would extend such a courtesy to both us pilgrims on this long journey, and our kin who have not yet arrived. What you did not account for in your assurances is the uprooting of all we have built here - the risk to families and children who have just begun to settle." Torkil gestured straight at Kari and Ronja in her arms where they stood in the crowd, casually using them to affirm his point. A strange sensation of primal fear rippled along her spine, and she felt the eyes of the gutakvínn linger on her for what felt like an eternity.

"But afore you argue this point, Aveira of the Mother," Torkil continued, dragging the winged woman's attention back to him. Kari released a breath she hadn't known she was holding. "I propose before this council of peers and divine that this matter will not be settled by discussion - we must vote."

A hum and murmur of agreement spread through the crowd, and perhaps most importantly, among the seven chieftains crowding around Aveira in the middle of the circle. Aveira herself viewed them with what Kari would call open scorn, but still the winged woman relented, seeming to speak to the seven men - not loud enough for the crowd to hear.

"Wha's happenin', mama?" Ronja piped up softly. Kari sighed sharply and gently rocked her three-year old daughter gently. A sting of fear lingered in her heart, as she stared at the gutakvínn. Aveira glanced out over the crowd, and for just a moment Kari's eyes met with the unyielding and stern gaze of the winged woman. It was enough to rocket her heart into fear.

"D-Don't worry, Flower," she offered under her breath, looking down at the chieftain's feet. "We're safe here."

The quiet rush of water seemed to tantalize even the most restless of people with it's peaceful rhythm. The gravel-mixed sand on the beach rattled with a melodic uproar each time a wave washed up onto the land, hugging the bay in brief and fleeting moments. The sonorous rhythms of the sea followed as a natural accompaniment, each crash of waves and foam-touched wind settling in the powerful melody. Like a mastercrafted rattle snare rattled against fur, the strong ocean winds caught in the trees in the midst of their spring awakening and shook them to a gentle agitation. Eager to add to the chorus, the call of a few birds returning from the south mingled with unerring talent, completing the performance into a symphony that only nature could provide. This land had long been untouched, and the Song was strong here - so strong that even those like Eirik, who'd never busied himself with the Song, could pick up it's melodic notes with only a calm mind and open ears. The world was at peace here, in the valley that had become their home.

Judging by the impatient fidgeting, idle sniffles and murmurs among the assembled children however, not all appreciated the Song as Eirik did. He sat on the stump of the birch they felled last summer, watching chieftain Torkil try to lead the assembly of over two dozen youths in training, urging them to sit quietly and listen with extremely varied results. The two boys at the back - Roval's twins - wouldn't stop fighting over a stick, and little Embla at the front of the pack seemed more interested in whatever everyone else was doing. Rikkon's son seemed to be drifting in and out of sleep. Eirik scanned the crowd for his own daughter, and found her radiant silver hair and black horns poking up between a few shorter kids. She was sitting quiet, a determined frown on her face and eyes closed, nose scrunched up the same way as when eel hit the dinner table at home. Even at a mere eight years, Ronja was putting in an amount of effort most of her older peers did not, and it made Eirik's heart swell with pride. Even with the bustle of distracted children, he had no doubt she'd pick up the melody.

That is, until something rocked the symphony with a loud rush of wind that washed over his back, enough to drown out the Song and ruin his basic concentration. The beat of wings stiffened his back, and he knew what was coming even before the gutakvínn Aveira wandered into view to come standing beside him. Her horns coiled far longer than any merelli in Reginsvik, and she stood several heads taller. Every time he saw her, he was reminded of her first arrival, speaking of promised lands and free choice in a way that made it sound neither appealing nor like a choice.

He languished in a brief moment of tension before the gutakvínn broke the silence, speaking calmly so as to not disrupt the proceedings. Even so her voice shot through his senses like an arrow. "Which one is yours?"

Eirik hesitated until he caught her head turning towards him in the corner of his eye. Cursing himself inwardly, he gestured towards Ronja's silver head poking up in the middle of the crowd. "Ronja. She wants to be a shaman."

"A reasonable ideal. The song is a powerful tool to lead the pilgrimage forward." she returned with unyielding determination.

Eirik drew a short breath, allowing himself a glance towards the tall, winged woman. Her eyes were fixed on chieftain Torkil and the children, her features unchanged since first he saw her some eight years prior. Merelli were ageless, but she was untouched by all things. Like an ill memory that never shifted. "The vote is tonight, then?"

"Mmh," Aveira confirmed with a sharp tone. "Though I'm afraid I already know the outcome this year as well."

"Oh?" Eirik questioned with another glance at the statuesque gutakvínn. "The Mother has told you the outcome?"

His question awakened something in the woman, her nostrils flared and her eyes shifted to give him a proper look. "No. With the passing of chieftain Murla, and his successor's ideas, the votes to resume the pilgrimage are in firm minority."

"Oh," Eirik intoned, feeling a wash of relief come over him.

"But that is not why I am here. I came for you, as a matter of fact." she continued, and what measure of relief he had felt quickly drained away. "You are good friends with chieftain Torkil, are you not?"

Eirik blinked, glancing up at the winged woman before looking to Torkil weaving slowly through the crowd of children with his staff for support. "I suppose. I've known him for most of my life."

"I'd like to assist the community even if your leaders will not see reason. Perhaps I could lend my knowledge to the children, and prepare them for a life blessed with all the knowledge of the Mother."

"I…" Eirik breathed, thinking through the implications. A generation taught by a messenger of the gods. Whatever his own misgivings, it was an honor. "I'm sure he would love to hear that."

Eirik felt a hand grip down on his shoulder, and he turned his head to find the gutakvínn staring down at him. Her face was stiff and unyielding, a strange contrast to her supernatural and ageless beauty. "I think it would sound even better coming from you, Eirik. You want a prosperous future for your daughter, don't you?" she said, and her lips creased into an inviting smile.

Somehow, Eirik felt like he was being threatened.

Wood clacked loudly against wood, and painful vibrations shot through Ronja’s hand. She drew her wooden weapon back to defend against retaliation, but it was too late. From out of nowhere, a long stick swung at her from the right, and smacked her in the shoulder hard. It was enough to send her stumbling to her knees, suckling a pained breath, while the clacks of wood against wood continued in frenetic symphony around her. At once, a hand extended, Hakon abandoning his position to offer her help up. “Are you alright?” he blurted out quickly, and languished in front of her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think I was hitting that hard.”

She looked up at him as she tried to push away the pain that burnt in her arm. His square face made him look older than he was, a weird contrast to the small nubs that poked out of his forehead where his horns should be, despite his already having turned sixteen. He was a full year her senior, yet his horns were that of a newborn. That, along with his robust silhouette broadcast his heritage very clearly. He tried too hard, always said the wrong things, and swung his weapon like a dumb brute.. Still, his doe-eyed stare caught her off-guard as their eyes met, and she glanced away quickly. “I-..Idiot. You’re gonna get us yelled at again.”

Hakon retracted his hand, sighing. “I’m not going to attack you on the ground, Ronja. This… this isn’t a real fight.”

“Then you’ll lose!” she breathed sharply, and swung her weapon towards him. He danced out of the way easily, backing away back to his original position as Ronja clambered up off the ground with as much grace as she could. Her swing took too much out of her, and she nearly stumbled again when she attempted another assault. Her arms weren’t strong enough, her body wasn’t fast enough. At this rate, the Mother’s messenger would never take note of her. The botched display during last fall’s duel competition still lingered fresh in her mind. Aveira had seen her, and had been visibly disinterested. She would learn. She would push harder.

Hakon was a skilled opponent, and the two of them resumed their spar. Ronja knew that she would lose were it not for his faults, but his hesitation and complacency and her drive to succeed seemed to put them on almost equal footing. The clack of wood, sharp breaths and crunch of dirt around her seemed to fall into a rhythm as they danced in their mock battle, the cacophony of youths fighting their pitched battles in teams becoming a melody to follow, together with the mild rain that pitter-pattered around them. So it went for most of the afternoon until the winged watcher, Aveira, called for the proceedings to come to an end.

”Our time today is over. Those of you who excelled today, well done. That is all.” she concluded with the same matter-of-factly tone as she always did. Hakon gave Ronja a sheepish smile and nodded, and she felt compelled to nod back before he hurried off to catch up with his friends. Ronja caught sight of Finni and the other girls among the crowd, and was about to walk off when the presence of the tall avatar became clear. ”Ronja. I’d like to speak to you.”

A flurry of thoughts shot through her mind, fear and panic twisting her ideas before she dared respond. She would have to plead for her chance to remain, no doubt. She opened her mouth to speak but Aveira held up a hand. ”Tomorrow is the next vote for the pilgrimage to resume. I trust you understand now the need for your kind to seek out your destiny.”
“..Yes, Mistress. We must seize our chance at the promised land or be destroyed.” Ronja returned quickly, nodding with intent. Her hand gripped firmer around her wooden staff, unsure of what would come next.

”This is the twelfth vote. It should be increasingly clear to all who live here that no consensus to depart shall be made while the current council of chieftains remain in power.”

Ronja paled, watching the tall woman stare back at her with a face that belied the stern warlord she’d hinted at over the years. “So-.. Do… Do we have to-.. Replace them?”

That made the gutakvínn smile. ”Nothing quite so drastic. Power without wisdom is simply brute force. And brute force without reason is, what?”

Ronja wracked her brain, feeling her brow wet with cold sweat. Or perhaps it was just rain. “Uhm. Un-suss-tain-able?”

”Correct,” Aveira chimed in and smiled with a charming and friendly expression wildly contrasted to her usual demeanour. The divine messenger stepped forwards to place a large hand on Ronja’s shoulder. ”It’s time to prepare for a secondary path. I’d like for you to shoulder a new responsibility.”

“M-Me? I’m not-.. I’m not the strongest, though. And.. Finni is as good as me in your classes-...” Ronja argued, though she quickly quieted herself when she realized she was arguing against what she wanted. A churning in her gut built up, butterflies and strange feelings of elation.

”You’ll understand in time, Ronja, that conviction is as important as skill.”

”Behold, the path to your destiny.” Aveira boomed with an unbridled power, her voice carrying on the wind to cow anyone who’d dare question her intent once more. The sky crackled with anger, just as the ocean waves thrashed wildly and frenetically. The agitated water split and fell away, and from the depths rose three large and long ships of dark wood, inscribed with runes and symbols all along the wood. At the end of both aft and fore were large serpentine heads, with gaping maws to herald the power and people they would contain. Large black and red sails rolled from the masts, materialized in a simple show of the gutakvínns power. In short time, Reginsvik had a navy - warships unlike what their own minds could have conjured.

It had taken almost four years to prepare the plan and practice the ways of the sea beyond what her inherent merelli talents had given her, but it was worth it. Ronja stood at the end of their little dock, now wholly insufficient for the large ships that had appeared in the bay at the behest of the divine messenger. Aveira turned towards Ronja and the assembled youths, whipping her hand outwards to will her creative force unto them as well. Their roughspun clothes turned dark, and over their shoulders fell grand black coats of an oily, thick fabric. On their heads helmets of leather and metal materialized, capped with grandiose ram-horns to accentuate their regular horns. She motioned for Ronja to step forwards, and the white-haired girl did so without question. Another of the large coats materialized slowly in Aveira’s hands, this one bulkier, with a wide collar raised protectively. She hung it around Ronja’s shoulders with surprising reverence, and the thick material immediately weighed down heavily on her - fortunately years of martial practice and labor had trained her for this.

”Seize your destiny, children of Reginsvik. Until the day that the pilgrimage resumes, you shall find and prepare the promised land. The blessed peoples of the Mother shall overcome all obstacles. It has been seen.” Aveira shouted with a powerful voice, a beat of her wings bringing her up into the air. Ronja gently touched at the stiff fabric of her new coat, trying her best to remain stoic and push her heady feelings of giddyness down.

“Ronja..” came a voice from the side, quiet and unassuming. It was her mother, watching her with eyes that conveyed none of the pride Ronja had hoped. Instead, she looked scared, worried even.

Ronja frowned, and glanced away. Aveira had warned her of those without conviction, and as she’d grown up she’d realized just how degenerate her parents were. Cowardly, and dishonorable. Seeking safety instead of destiny. But the divine had decreed their success, yet nothing would assuage them. Not even now. Ronja sucked in a breath, trying to keep a level head. “I will find the promised land, Mother, and bring our people to paradise.”




Gibbou’s slippers made soft slaps against the cobblestones of Antiquity. Having her sister over was a lot of fun, but occasionally, she needed to get some distance to vent out all that negativity her stories of recent events filled her with - all this mess with Neiya, the berries, the loss of Genesis… It sometimes just got a little too much, even for her. A thought popped into her head - aeons back, she would have given everything to stay with her sister for every second of every hour; now, she at least an hour’s walk to think for herself and just… Well, be alone.

She hoped nothing was wrong with her - why didn’t she worship her sister like she had all those years ago? Was it because Oraelia had appeared so emotional before her? Or had Gibbou herself changed?

While it was likely a bit of both, she decided not to dwell on it much further. She found herself a small bench next to the road and glanced off into the skydome above. How much had she changed since the days of old, huh? Would… Would Adrian recognise her if she woke him up? Dark thoughts returned to memories of that dark vault - the dormitory on the moon in which specimen of all life laid sleeping, doomed forever to dream about all the things that could have been. Gibbou comforted herself through force to think that, if the world ever faced a terrible threat, then maybe those species could be used to reseed the planet with life.

The comfort evaporated as her eyes fixed on a stray bone on the cobbles. She knelt down with a grimace and picked it up.


Really, she should have expected it. Guardian of the dead? God of the afterlife? Someone who spends their days looking after the dead were bound to be cynical. He needed a beanbag and some hot cocoa, she reasoned. He woulda been given it, too, had it not been for, well, his attitude. She pushed aside the circulatory nature of her argument and kept shuffling down the road. ”Dumb-dumb…”

The pressure of dirt pushing between toes with each step was the slightest distraction from her unfiltered anger. Neiya marched with haste through the dizzying yet sparse layout of Antiquity, flexing the white talons of her War Form restlessly as she pushed over the mostly barren roads. She had chosen not to hover for once, intent on saving every bit of her divine power in the righteous vengeance she was to enact on that conniving, hypocritical Life Goddess.

She'd hesitated in the past, worried she'd gone too far. Tried to let her take her lesson and leave her alone. Now she knew the emotions had been a ploy. She'd bided her time and struck at Neiya's pride all at once. Nallan and the Luminant - nothing was sacred. Neiya felt her blood boil as she stormed across portals at a quick pace, manically eyeing each as she searched for the realm of the Life Goddess. She'd arrive unannounced and knock that pleased, smug smirk the goddess was certain to have off of her pretty face.

Yet something felt wrong. With each step, Neiya's courageous rage and fervor filtered through niggling doubts and second-guessing. What if she didn't know the full story? What if she was playing right into her hands? What if Oraelia expected her to arrive, and sat ready to pay her back in kind for hurting her the last time they met? That thought - which Neiya refused to consider a nugget of guilt - grew like an acorn in her belly, a stone of her own making weighing her fury down

When the Goddess of Love, War and Sin finally stood a stone's throw from the portal she understood to be Oraelia's, it was without the anger with which she had travelled there. She stared at the portal intently, feeling the itch and drive to pay her back with force. Put her in her place. Uncertainty ruled for a few moments, before Neiya cut through her own tension with a scoff and turned on the balls of her feet. She wouldn't play into Oraelia's schemes so easily. Yes, that was it. Neiya was too good, too smart, to fall for such simple provocations. Stiffly she wandered away from the portal, staring into the ground.

Neiya walked aimlessly through Antiquity, trying to make sense of her own thoughts. A frustration boiled inside her, yet she certainly couldn't go back now. The moment was gone. Sullenly, she kicked a rock across the road with her bare feet, stumbling ahead with a sharp sigh.

There came a sharp gasp. A shuffle of fabric against stone halted behind her, and there came a voice like a growl in the darkness. ”You!”

Neiya stopped dead in her tracks, suffering the soft crunch of dirt under her feet as she narrowed her eyes. She knew that voice, didn't she? Neiya spun around to lay eyes on the source of the voice, flexing her white talons.

There, on the opposite end of the cobblestone road, stood Gibbou, her breaths deep and quivering with rage. Her lunar white eyes fiercely contrasted her skin as it darkened deeper and deeper, furious tears of shadow welling up atop her cheeks. Her fists tightened together as though the fingers sought to pierce her palms. ”Why are -you- here?”

Neiya's pearl-white skin flushed with a furious burn as her eyes narrowed further. Her gaze slid around the area, paranoia nipping at the back of her mind, but ultimately being silenced when she regarded the moon goddess properly. "Hello, Gibbou." she crooned with a venomous voice. "I have a lot to thank you for."

”Don’t give me that!” thundered the moon goddess back, moon light warping and twisting in a halo behind her. ”Had this been a normal meeting, I would already have had a bone to pick with you for your outright bitchy behaviour last time… But when I heard you hurt my sister?” The moon light intensified like a supernova. ”You’ve long since crossed the line - it’s time to kick you back to the other side.”

Neiya offered a full on smirk; a vicious and unpleasant expression full of frustrated excitement. Hands falling open, talons curling up in ready motion. "Oh, honey, you picked the greatest time," she rolled out with a sultry, condescending tone. Metallic shards and edges around her form came alive, floating and twisting angrily in the air right around her skin. "I was going to finish the job, but I'll settle for pulling the Moon out of orbit."

The white-hot moonlight spun itself into thread, twisting out of its halo to bind around Gibbou’s skin. As it settled, it hardened into silvery steel, covering her from head to toe. Her shoulders sprouted great pauldrons from which draped a long cloak covering her whole body below the neck like a curtain. The ceremonial blades on the shoulderpads glistened sharply in the dim light of Antiquity, and the moon goddess scowled through the thick visor of her plumed helmet. ”Try me, bitch.”

That was all the coaxing the alleged love goddess needed, and Neiya burst from her spot with uncharacteristically swift speed, sending dirt and gravel spraying from sudden force. "You think a few accessories will help you, Gibbou?" She growled in her charge, a talon lifted in preparation as she flew over the unassuming dirt path in Antiquity. Around her, jagged edges of metal twisted and aligned around her wrist, like a tangle of metal snakes ready to bite. "Let me show you what I've learned since last time!" the goddess cried with a strange mixture of venom and delight, and slashed towards the Moon Goddess as she closed the distance, talons and sharp metal both swept against Gibbou.

Upon impact, however, the talons snapped, splintering into shards that flew across the battlefield and dug reflective debris into the dirt as they landed. Neiya roared with a ferocity that suggested the impact hurt her more than it did the Moon Goddess. Despite her initial assault being an abject failure, Neiya did not relent. The collar of her dress around her head arced upwards to free itself and swung like a blade against Gibbou. That too shattered in a spray of metal. Gibbou snickered.

”What, is that the best you can do? I didn’t even feel that!” She retracted her left fist, her gauntlet growing spikes on the knuckles, and then sent it torpedoing forward towards her abdomen. Neiya gasped in surprise as she realized the opening in her own defenses. However, where a painful sensation of a fist should have been felt, there was instead a rush of air as Gibbou’s fist missed - by several centimetres. The moon goddess’ footing appeared unstable, and the momentum invested into the strike tossed her forward at least a metre, if not more.

Silence struck for a moment, as only the crunch of dirt under Gibbou's boots filled the air. Then Neiya cracked into a haunting chuckle surprisingly full of mirth - and mockery. "Oh, my sweet moon. Will you be ever distant?" she crooned with a mocking tone, before skipping through the air soundlessly to swipe a quick grip on Gibbou's shoulder. Her other fist clenched, and swung hard straight for the goddess head. Her white struck the helmet with a loud clang, and Neiya immediately recoiled; her face locked in a face of relentless pain as she nursed her hand.

”Sh-shut up!” came a fierce retort as the moon goddess enlarged her gauntlet to the size of a cannon ball. She wound it back and propelled it forward again, hoping to take advantage of Neiya’s pained lapse in focus. However, her fist’s added weight once again challenged her ability to balance herself, and her straight punch quickly became a downward hammer, only that it had been aimed too low for that. Her fist dunked against the ground and the moon goddess needed a moment to pick it back up. ”Oh, come oooon!”

Neiya recovered from her own lapse in both tactics and opportunity with all the speed of a particularly tired tortoise, seeming to be at first more interested in maintaining both balance and the poise that made her haughty veneer possible during a brawl. As such, she wasted almost the entirety of Gibbou's recovery on preening a broken talon. When the moon goddess rose in shape before her, the duplicitous Neiya launched back into her offensive with a rancorous frown, diving towards Gibbou once more to grab onto the sturdy frame with a fierce grip. "Oh, let me help you -- up!" Feet dug into the ground for the first time since the start of the fight, and with all her divine strength she tried to hurl the Moon Goddess in the direction of the nearest wall. But Gibbou didn't move much, if at all. Gibbou frantically waved at her with her free hand, slapping wetly at Neiya’s face.

”G-get your hands off me! Stop!” In a shift of divine power, she shrunk her fist and was immediately tossed into the wall. The wall tumbled together like a pile of rocks, the building it supported crashing down with it. However, Gibbou was undeterred and undamaged, grabbing at Neiya’s arms holding her and trying to toss her over her own shoulder. That went about as well as her previous attacks, and all she managed to do was hug Neiya close and lift her slightly, before her cumbersome armour caused her to fall backwards onto her back, dragging Neiya with her.

The love goddess went from an angered snarl to a sudden gasp as her footing was stolen, and crashed down softly with Gibbou, safe from danger and injury in her snug hold. A brief awkward pause followed as both of the two fighters tried to process what just occurred. Being quick to adapt, Neiya adopted a conspiratorial smirk and wriggled theatrically in Gibbou's grip. Her pale and sleek war form grew more and more pink with each passing moment, black horns raising from her head and her features twisting into the inviting and decidedly more curvaceous silhouette that was her corruptive sin form. "Oh, Moon Above," she crooned as her form pushed against armor. "You should have told me this is what you wanted."

Frustration bleached her voice as Gibbou whined and squirmed loose. ”No! Get off me!” Her armour blasted off of her like shrapnel and her small form morphed into the shadows, which all were growing at an alarming rate as though the light of Antiquity had decided it was night time. Two bloodshot eyes was all that indicated Gibbou’s presence, and they were glaring down at the demoness a pace or so away. ”You’re unbelievable - I don’t want anything like that, especially not from you! The only thing I want from you is your cry for mercy!” A spike of shadow shot out of the darkness and pierced the ground next to Neiya. There came a frustrated groan. ”Fuck! Why is this so hard?!”

Neiya sat still for a moment, processing what had just happened as she lounged on the ground where Gibbou had been. Moments later, she burst into a dramatic gasp, raising her nails to touch at her chest as though she were clutching at her heart. "Augh! You got me! You found my weakness, oh goddess of the moon; being slightly surprised!" She panned the back of her hand up to lay flat against her horned forehead. "Mercy, please!" She cried with insidious, and needlessly sweet tone.

Another bolt of darkness blasted out of the shadows, shooting past her once again like an amateurishly thrown rock. ”Shut up! This isn’t funny! This isn’t supposed to -be- funny! Just, just leave me and my sister alone, or I’ll--!” The darkness faltered, dimished, even, as the blood-shot eyes took on their softer, chalky colour and eventually grew a blue-skinned face around them with midnight hair, attached to a body that couldn’t seem to carry itself with joy and pride anymore. ”Why can’t I do anything right?”

A single beat of leathery wings brought Neiya up off the dirt path upon which their alleged battle had taken place, and back to her confident hover above the ground. She regarded Gibbou with a mixture of fascination and contemptuous pleasure, much like a feline toying with prey. Almost as if pulled towards the wavering goddess, Neiya drifted toward Gibbou, fingers flexing but still not as offensive as before. "War and sin are as inevitable as sorrow. Don't take it personally, my sweet. You can still apologize." she crooned haughtily from the air.

”Apologise for what? I’m just trying to protect my sister and, and… And why is that so hard for me? Why can’t I hit you?” She wound up a right hook and sent it forward. It struck air, for Neiya was nowhere close. ”I didn’t even try…” Her knees softened to the point where they could no longer support her, and the small moon goddess slumped down, sniffing weakly.

The 'Love' Goddess released a soft scoff, watching Gibbou sink to the ground. Her own expression seemed to fall back to frustration at her own apparent victory, but that didn't stop her from hovering closer. Her hand stretched out slowly, seeking to place a ginger touch on the moon goddess shoulder as she dared herself closer. "So much potential… So much wasted." she breathed, golden eyes flitting greedily between watching Gibbou's reaction and their surroundings. "All for someone else. Who ever cares for the Moon, hm?"

Gibbou looked up with white-hot eyes of hate, then softly placed her hand on Neiya’s. The grip tightened, and Gibbou cracked a small smile. ”Got you.” Then she pulled Neiya towards herself, gloved her opposite hand in spiked metal and rammed it into her abdomen in a strike that would be downright impossible to miss.

Neiya gasped in surprise, her arm instantly straining against Gibbou's hold. It was too late. The moon goddess fist connected with the sleek form of the corrupting love goddess, who could neither move away nor absorb the hit with that metallic coating she had had previously to changing her form. The air seemed to leave her and she whirled violently in Gibbou's grip, flung backwards in her airborne and vulnerable state. All that left her was a timid whimper, wholly uncharacteristic. Gibbou didn’t waste her chance - she put her whole might into grabbing the love goddess by her arm and, switching her momentum around, tossed her over her shoulder and into the ground, shattering the stone flooring. She pulled back, panting heavily. ”I may not be fast enough to, to catch you, but…” She heaved for breath. ”... But if you do that job for me, I’m stronger!”

The love goddess lay splayed on the cracked ground, a deep indent splitting flagstones in half where stone had met divine flesh. Golden eyes stared upwards frantically, her chest heaving to pull ragged breaths. She wheezed a few sounds that eventually formed words. "H--... H… How.. da-dare… you…" Another sharp breath as the goddess collected herself, her voice rising several hundred decibels. "How dare you!? You disgusting degenerate failure! Indignant thankless worm!" she screamed at full volume, her eyes filling with a dark swirl that seemed to dim their dubious golden glow. Her hands smacked against stone in a furious tantrum, and wisps of black energy shot out against the stone in erratic patterns. "How dare you touch me?!" she roared, and lifted herself up off the ground slowly to resume what she imagined was an imposing hover.

Gibbou entombed herself in armour plates to deflect the blasts, and pained screams rang out from within the unbreakable metal. She was evidently reaching the limit of her stamina. As her metal chrysalis broke, she stood in her full body armour, visor up, but had nothing left of the proud, powerful stance she had opened with. She hissed through her panting and hammered one metallic fist into an iron palm. ”That… That the best you’ve got?”

Neiya screamed in frustration at the sight of the cocoon of metal that was Gibbou. Wild and without the original poise and grace with which she had conducted herself. "S-Shut up! Just shut up! You and your sister can both just- just die!" she wailed, and raised her hands towards the armoured goddess. A torrent of black matter streamed from her hands and arms, like a swift moving fog twisting and coiling to spray forwards with the force of a tidal wave. With it came a cacophony; wailing, crying, screaming, pleading - the many emotions of the world beyond weaponized.

The moon goddess collapsed to her knees, the sound only intensified throughout the armour. Her own screaming was deafened completely by the storm of noise, and she ended up pulling her helmet off, lobbing it at Neiya without really looking where she was throwing, her black hair rolling down over her shoulders in a mess of stressed strands. She grit her teeth together and bumped her forehead to the ground, hoping some physical pain to the skull would alleviate the agonising storm in her head.

The storm twisted away from her in a violent jerk, the energies scoring deep marks in the stone and dirt alike. Soon after the energies dissolved into the air, the intense sounds of the beyond vanishing into nothingness. Neiya had been destabilized, nursing her head with both hands. Looking somewhere between ready to burst into tears and in pain herself, the goddess struggled in the air for a few moments before her wings began beating, carrying her further up into the air. The helmet lay directly beneath her, innocently rolled to a stop on the cracked stone.

With the rustle of chainmail and plate, the moon goddess below her slumped onto her belly, broken to the point of exhaustion by the attack. Her eyes were closed fiercely as though she was suffering a headache, and her heavy breathing had weakened into short, pleading gasps for air. She hardly moved, her armour looking as much like a prison as protection.

Though the moon goddess exhausted form appeared to be the perfect target, it seemed Neiya's taste for violence had abated. The bruised love goddess ascended higher in antiquity until she broke away entirely, wavering in flight as she made a straight beeline towards her own distant portal. For better or worse, Neiya was gone.

It took Gibbou hours to regain consciousness. When she did, she could barely haul herself to her feet. She had defeated Neiya and-... No, no, she hadn’t even been close. She had survived Neiya, more like. Gibbou punched the ground weakly in anger and regret, aimed mainly at herself. Why… Why was she so utterly useless? She had only gotten her opening because Neiya got careless - she had just barely been able to conceal her surprise by looking cool and in control in the moment. She had had no idea what she was doing for that whole fight. She had just tried to mimic the way she had seen mortals fight and she had failed - extraordinarily.

Eventually, she reached her portal, which she fell through rather than stepped. Once she laid safely on the moon’s surface, she felt her eyes well up. ”I’m such useless trash…” she whispered to herself. With a weak hand movement, she conjured forth a bottle with a strong smell. She gave it a swig and cringed.

”I’m hopeless,” she continued and drank some more.

Call to Adventure

The goat pen shed had a certain air of dread emanating from it. Farah had never noticed it before, but back then it had never housed anything but goats, either, save for the occasional boy or girl exiled from the dormitory for a night. Now that it hosted a whole crew of violent thugs, and four slaves under their thrall, it seemed to radiate a certain malice, encroaching on the peace of nearby sheds and the rest of the community with its mere presence. She could see movement between the spaces of the planks. Heard gruff voices in the distance. Farah reached for support as she waited, and looked to her right as a calloused hand gripped hers.

Adnan’s eyes met hers, and he smiled as much as his injured face could muster. It was enough to steady her nerves, and Farah felt her own lips crease into an unbidden smile. Despite his nose having buckled under the pressure of confrontation, and his skin around the breakage being red and angry, he was as handsome as ever. If anything, the damage made him look rugged, although she’d never say such a silly thing. Adnan stared at her as well, content to forget the scene and shed they had both been watching from afar. His lips parted as if to speak, when a sudden force pushed against Farah’s back. The heat and weight of another. Arms wrapping over her shoulders. A brief shock, alleviated as she heard Aisha’s voice. “Farah, this is so exciting! What do you think they’re talking about in there?”

Farah exhaled sharply, her smile growing. Adnan chuckled as well, but released her hand to let her struggle with Aisha on her own, using his hand to gingerly touch at his nose instead. She tried to throw off her excited friend, but it was no use; Aisha clung on tight, as usual. ”Well,” Farah surrendered at last, drawing her gaze away from Adnan to glance back at the shed properly. ”If anyone can make them see reason, it’s Matron Nasira. I’ve never seen anyone win an argument with her.”

“True, true.” Aisha said, and Farah felt her lay her head against Farah’s. “Hi, Adnan! How’s the nose? You should know better than to swing at outsiders.”

”Aisha-...” Farah protested, though could not stop herself from smirking just a little. She glanced back to Adnan, and he seemed to be taking it in stride, a big smile playing on his lips.

“You’re right, Aisha. I got myself in trouble. Patron Abbas gave me a real earful for it, too.” Adnan explained with considerable calm, his gaze fixed on the shed in the distance. Aisha, meanwhile, bobbed a straw of sungrass in front of his face. Farah felt compelled to do her part, and batted her hand down. “I can’t help it. What they are doing to those people. That’s how I ended up in Karay, in the first place. I don’t want to imagine what they’ve gone through.” he continued, and his smile vanished into the ether, replaced with a wistful sorrow. Farah frowned to herself, and gazed back at the shed. Those men had said all manner of wicked things, and had done worse. Farah could barely imagine what Adnan saw in his mind, beyond her own memories of youth. Even those were vague at best. Whatever Karay was like, it didn’t sound like anything like what she knew. That much she had gathered from asking others over the years.

“Don’t worry, Adnan,” Aisha intoned quickly, and reached a hand up to tussle Farah’s hair gently, eliciting a quiet chuckle from her. “You saw Oraliyah’s light. They did too. No chance they will try anything after that. If they do, Farah will call on Oraliyah and the sun will teach them a proper lesson.”

Adnan offered a hum of agreement and smiled still, and Farah snickered quietly. Within, she felt a strange stone in her gut. She didn’t know why Oraliyah had chosen her. Could she call on her? What if all this was some kind of test? What if it was a trick? Yazmina had all kinds of stories about witches and their trickery. But the feeling she had felt, in that moment. That had felt real. Different. Unlike anything on Galbar that she knew. She still felt it somewhere deep within. Oraliyah still graced her with her presence. Perhaps she never left? Farah glanced up at the sky, trying her best to look at the sun without actually looking at it. Everyone knew Oraliyah was too beautiful to look at without being blinded, even children.

Her thoughts were broken by the sound of beads rattling against each other, as the Matron ducked out of the shed, finished with her talks. The old woman barreled out of the pen with determined steps, her face locked in an angry frown. She never looked particularly happy, but it was easy to tell that something was bothering her. Farah felt Aisha slowly let go and ease away, and within moments she had filed in between Farah and Adnan. Two of the others who had lounged nearby quickly scuttled away when they caught sight of the matron. Farah too felt her legs itch with an urge to walk away, but it was too late. Matron Nasira had seen the three of them the moment she stepped outside.

She was in front of them in an instant, her face enough to call on the sky to shield the sun behind dark clouds. She gave Farah a look that evaporated all joy, and replaced it with a feeling of disquiet. “They demand to speak with you, Farah,” the matron spoke through gritted teeth. “These brutes will not leave until we show them the miracle child.”

Farah tried her best to breathe, but the knot in her stomach seemed to make it hard to get a steady breath of air. They wanted to see her? Why?

Before she could ask, Adnan stepped in with his own question. “Matron Nasira? What about those people they are holding captive? They have been in there for a full day now.”

The matron glanced towards Adnan, and her demeanour almost immediately shifted. Her wrinkled features softened, a small, empathetic smile playing on her lips. She extended a hand to gently pat Adnan on the cheek as she spoke. “Oh, my dear. We cannot be saviors for everyone. These barbarians will not see reason, I’m afraid. Not all men are as virtuous as those on our farm.”

Adnan protested, but Farah could not hear it. In her mind whirled a tumultuous flurry of thoughts, drowning out much of the world around her. She felt a growing dread build around her heart, and the shed seemed to grow in the distance, the movement between the boards an eldritch, predatory hint of what dangers lurked on the other side. Barbarians. Slavers. Killers. Thieves. What if they tried something? She had been told her entire life to stay away from outsiders, and now they wanted her to go in there? It wasn’t fair. Wasn’t natural. ”Why me?” she questioned meekly, feeling the shame in her own words. ”I don’t think there’s anything I can do that you can’t, Matron.”

Matron Nasira was back on her in seconds, and her hand lashed out to clap Farah on the cheek in the same way she’d lectured her since she was a child. It burned the same way as then, and Farah sunk her eyes to the ground, her shame growing. “Stupid child. Oraliyah comes down from above to bathe you in her light, and you are still trying to escape your duties? Does your laziness know no bounds?” the matron growled with the same venom she’d had when she found them playing in the field when they were twelve. Aisha tried to protest, but the matron cut her off with a simple shush before continuing. “These men are invaders, and fortunately for us, even barbarians respect the sun goddess. They have asked for your presence to appease their spiritual needs. If that is what it takes for them to finally leave, then so be it.”

Everything was wrong. The very words the matron said disgusted her. Filled her head with strange, unpleasant worries about what the men with weapons would say and do. She had heard her share of horror stories from others about what outsiders were like. Only now did she begin to believe them. She wanted to argue, to tell the Matron that she would not do it. But Oraliyah had shone her light on her for a reason. Right?

“Go now, do not make us wait. Do not worry, child, we are right here.” the matron intoned with a hastened voice. Farah breathed a shaky breath, and felt Aisha touch her shoulder and drift down along her arm as Farah stepped away, head held low. She watched the goat pen shed loom closer with each step, and gently took a step over the low fence. A few more steps, and she heard voices coming from inside. It was enough to give her pause, as the roil in her gut seemed to make itself known again. The Matron said it would be fine. That had to count for something. Right? Farah took another few steps, and stepped through the rattling barrier of string and beads.

The view inside was unpleasant at best. The band of ruffians had assembled on the far side of a bit of fencing, and had pushed their captives into the corner amidst a few distressed goats bleating uncertainly but all the same refusing to skip outside. The stink of goat and old grass was overpowered by the smell of sweat, alcohol and refuse. In mere hours, they had made the shed theirs in every way, and it sent a ripple of disgust down Farah's spine. Their eyes locked on her the moment she stepped inside, and Farah fought the urge to just stop and run back out. Their gazes wandered over her simple dress in strange ways, and their eyes were hard and unpleasant. These were wild men, she reminded herself. Different from those who lived here. Her own gaze fell on one of the corners, where the slaves they had brought with them sat huddled. They looked dirty, scared and weak. A wrenching feeling in her gut followed. How mistreated they were. Like poorly cared for animals. It made her sick inside.

"Done starin'?" a gravelly voice rumbled at her, jolting Farah out of her thoughts. The old man that had hurt and threatened them not many hours ago stared at her from the middle of the shed, and Farah averted her eyes with equal dread and disgust.

"You wished to see me," Farah breathed, trying her best to sound fierce and strong, and ignore the weakness in her limbs. "I am here, now look quickly and go."

The old man broke into a chuckle, which caused a ripple of snickers among his traveling troupe of troublemakers. "I'd expect nothin' but fire from Oraliyah's champion, eh. Tha's fair." He concluded, scratching at his chin as his gaze roamed over Farah. "Now, see, yer old crone won't hear reason, so I suppose we'll leave all ye to the wolves. All we want is a blessin' afore we go. From Oraliyah's champion."

Leave them to the wolves? Farah ruminated as best she could under the circumstances until his request clicked in her head, and her head spiralled with what strange ideas they may demand with such a vague request. A stone filled her gut once more. Why had the Matron sent her in here? Did she hate her so much? She cleared her throat and glanced at the old, disheveled man. "...Bless you? In what… in what world would I bless you?" she asked with a little too much fire, and saw the frown building on their faces. She drew a long breath, finding the huddled slaves in the corner looking at her. Before the old man got any new ideas, Farah steeled herself and stepped forwards to continue, gesturing towards the slaves. "Even if I had the power to bless any woman or man, what possessed you to think, even in jest, that you are worthy of such? You who keep fellow people as animals on a leash, terrified and cowed? Oraliyah's light shines on the kind, the warm of heart, and the weak." she reprimanded swiftly. The man began a reply but Farah felt her fire return. She continued, raising her voice to cut him off. "Yet all of you come here with grins and malice and expect the goddess to smile on you. After what you have done, to us here, to Adnan outside, to these chained people. Have you no shame?"

A strange feeling rippled through her as she finished speaking. Silence reigned in the shed as the men seemed stunned by her angered response. Then it was as though a dam burst. One of the men broke into sobs, falling to his knees and clutching his head. Another stared at one of the slaves with guilt in his eyes before it became too much for him and he vomited onto the hay-covered dirt below. The old man gripped a nearby wooden panel shakily, breathing heavy and unsteady breaths as his companions all burst into tears, sobs, and anguished cries. Farah stepped back in shock. Had she cursed them somehow? She'd never seen men act anything like this.

"Yer… yer right. I-... I've done so much," the man began with a wavering voice, intoned by a chorus of sobs from his companions. "It was tae survive.. always tae survive… tha's what I told meself... Oraliyah… Forgive me.." His gaze rose, and he looked up at Farah with pained, guilt-ridden eyes. In that moment, Farah felt as though he would have leapt from a cliff if he could. His look of abject defeat touched her deep inside, and she realized the other men appeared to be as deeply disturbed as he. This wasn't normal. Was Oraliyah with her right now?

Farah breathed an unsteady breath of her own, and took a two steps forwards to close the gap between her and the old man in the shed. Cautiously she extended a hand, and laid it gently on his shoulder as solemn comfort. He seemed to melt into it, gently leaning against her hand lightly. Then he too burst into tears. Farah stepped closer yet, pulling the much older man against her into a comforting embrace. Her own anger had washed away, and before these humbled men she felt almost maternal. The man cried into her hug as others sobbed, fell together, or quietly recovered in the case of one man. He who recovered looked at the gathered slaves with a growing distaste on his features, then simply wandered over to undo their bonds. One of the captives ran out immediately, while the others remained together. "I'm so sorry…" the man murmured, and Farah shushed him quietly.

"It's never too late to improve. Never too late to be an honest man. If you know what you have done is wrong, then you also know how you must change." she murmured quietly, echoing the words of her bed- and field mates rather than the Matron. Nasira would say a person never changes, but this was surely proof of the opposite. He nodded slowly, and she continued to nurse him for a while before stepping away to allow the man to recover. "You said you would leave us to the wolves. What did you mean?"

The man sighed quietly, and even that admission seemed to hit him with a pang of guilt. "Karay is leaderless. The richest are about tae war with each other for power. Yer farm had a deal with Karay. Food for protection, and new blood. Tha's all gone now. More-... more slavers will be coming this way."

A chill ran down her spine, the implications of his words settling in quite neatly. Suddenly what she had overheard before began to make sense as well. It all led to what she had feared when she had first spotted these men walking on the horizon; the farm was no longer safe.

"But-... there'll be a new leader. A new.. a new deal can be made." she pressed. Even in his humbled state her question provoked only a simple shrug, tired and weary.

"Maybe," he conceded quietly. "I guess all that' depends on findin' someone as sly as the last feller. He was keepin' the market together with nothin' but willpower and brute force."

"Then we must act swiftly," Farah concluded. The Matron would surely agree. "Someone will see reason. Our farm provides food for many mouths. It is a valuable thing to protect." Somewhere deep inside she resented her own words. She knew what she was proposing.

"...Ye mean to go?"

"If the Matron won't, I… I will."

"Please, champion-.." the old man began anew, capturing her attention. He reached for her, before thinking better of himself. Instead he sank to the dirty ground in the shed, prostrating himself before her on both knees in a deep bow. He was promptly joined by his comrades who filed up alongside him in an awkward line in the tiny space. "Let me… let us serve and protect Oraliyah's champion. As penance for me worthless life. I… ye have shown me the blackness of me soul. I know nae wha' else tae do."

Farah breathed a deep breath, watching the men. To her surprise, two of the remaining slaves had joined them, apparently begging her mercy. It made her feel like a fool, and she felt her cheeks burn. "My name is Farah. What you do… what you do is your own choice." she offered and nodded firmly.

They too nodded, and looked up at her as though she had affirmed their service. Farah lifted a hand to scratch at her neck, but stopped halfway when the crowd interpreted her motion as a gesture to rise. She breathed uncertainly.

"...You all must be hungry. Come. We should all eat." she said after a moment of hesitation and offered a small smile. That smile too, spread like wildfire.

Blood Desert

“PEOPLE OF NALLAN! MY PEOPLE! MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY! HEAR ME NOW!” Nalla shouted from the town center, under the cover of a blood red cloth, surrounded by guards. All wore grim faces, looking out at the gathered crowd of sorry looking faces. Terror had been the only thing any of them had known for the last few days, but now there was eerie calm as they listened to their Queen.

The Queen stood erect upon the platform, nothing more than gathered wreckage from the Shattering. She wore confining clothing even as the heat sweltered about her, sticking heavily to her skin. It was a necessary precaution, for the sun here was deadly.

“WE have endured much! The shattering has sent us to doom, by false deities who are not worthy of our worship! THEY DO NOT CARE ABOUT YOU! PERHAPS THEY NEVER DID!” She shouted, arms hanging in the air.

“This is not a test, not a hardship, but cruelty! The druids of the Highlands are traitorous snakes, led here by the Sorceress Witch! For it was SHE, AURIELLE, WHO CAUSED THE SHATTERING!” A lie of course, but the people never did need to know the truth and it was always better to have someone take the fall. Yet, from the crowd, there were angry shouts and veiled whispers. Nalla almost grimaced, but she retained her expression of rage.

“I know she did much for this great kingdom, but her greed and cruelty offended the very gods and for that, they punished us! Not her! But US! WE TOOK THE FALL!” Many shook their heads, many decried her.



WE WILL GROW STRONGER! WE WILL GROW MIGHTY! FOR I DO NOT SEE ANY OTHER WAY!” She paused, letting the crowd build momentum under the sun. “AND WE WILL RECLAIM WHAT WE LOST! WE WILL FIND THE DRUIDS! WE WILL FIND THE SORCERESS WITCH AND HER FOLLOWERS! AND WE WILL KILL THEM ALL!” Mighty bellows of approval, a fervor of pride growing stronger in those gathered. It was delightful to see.

“WE WILL BUILD AN EMPIRE UNDER THIS CRUEL SUN! I SWEAR IT!” The crowd exploded in a chorus of noise.
“WE WILL RISE ABOVE THIS! FOR WE ARE THE PEOPLE OF NALLAN AND THIS WORLD IS OURS!” Nalla dropped her hands and let the energy of the crowd wash over her. She looked upon their faces and she knew many would die. Supplies were running low, water was becoming scarce and no one could find any, not that her scouts had come back.

As she exited the stand, the guards picked up the great red cloth and began to walk with her. Nalla knew what she had to do. IF they were to survive, there was only one option.

She needed Godly aid.

Back at her palace, Nalla readied herself. The idea had been growing her head for sometime. She had always received help in one form or another. Whether it be from Avatars or Gods. This time however, she would contact the one who had sent her own path so long ago. The one she loved, the only God who truly mattered.

"Neiya." She breathed, sat upon her throne, hands clenched together and eyes shut. "Neiya, Goddess of Love and of my Heart, I need your help. I ask you this not easily. But please Goddess, whisper to me like you did so long ago. I will do anything to please you." She said lovingly and full of hope.

At first, silence triumphed in the hall. A morbid echo of her own words carried on the stale wind, reverberating back from the far end of her throne room, even though her voice was not so loud. It grew, words and breaths whipping around her ears in a cacophony of building sound. The very air seemed to pick up and twist, as gusts of air washed against her legs and arms. A pressure grew in the back of her mind and the air grew thick. Then came a voice, sultry and rich. Unforgettable. "How beautifully the longing lover sings for me. I come to you, my beloved, to please and be pleased in our union. Speak to me, my darling."

A shiver of excitement went up her spine at the sound of that voice. Oh how she loved that voice. She had forgotten how much she yearned for it and even now, it did not leave her mind but there were other things to discuss. "Oh Neiya, how I've missed your voice." She began, "I'm sorry this is not a chat of good tidings but I need your help, Goddess. I was betrayed, Nallan was ripped from its home in the Highlands and now I am lost in a blazing sea of heat. Put here by the Sun Goddess to suffer for crimes not my own. What do I do Neiya?"

A flash of heat burned within her forehead, the pressure intensifying. Images of events of the past rushed past her eyes, sensations and emotions returning unbidden at break-neck pace. As quickly as it had begun, the pressure lightened and the sensation ended, bringing Nalla back to the present. Another moment passed, an awkward eternity with a deity lingering in your presence. Finally the voice returned, distant and wavering. "You have suffered a grave injustice, my love. A degenerate being has blindly sullied your legacy out of spite. It is not just an assault upon you, but upon me. I am heartbroken this happened, and I share in your pain. If she saw fit to exile you here however, what better way to spite her than thrive in this new locale?"

"Live here? In this barren land? My goddess… What do you suggest?" Nalla asked, rubbing her temple. That was the second time now a God went snooping in her head, but at least Neiya was on her side. She hoped.

"You see a barren land, my sweet; I see a canvas. You are a ruler, are you not? The land shall serve, as any subject. Go outside, my sweet." the voice beckoned.

She obeyed without words and walked with a fast pace until she arrived at her balcony on the top floor. The room's pillars were cracked but had not relented in the Shattering. There was however, a problem. "My Goddess, the sun… I must go change or I will only last minutes in its gaze." No sooner had she spoken than a shimmer rose around her, small spirits if blue and black fluttering in front of her face. They danced in intricate patterns, leaving behind a thin black weave, a silken shawl slowly materialized and came to rest gently against her head and skin.

"You shall see the beauty of the day once more, to behold my mercy and splendor." the goddess crooned softly.

Nalla caressed the fabric with gentle fingers as a smile broke out on her face. Exodus gift had been helpful in a pinch but this would be useful. She looked to where the sunlight touched the shadow and in one graceful step, plunged into the light. Normally she would have felt a slight discomfort but now she felt fine if a little hot but it would very much do.

"Thank you my Goddess, your mercy knows no bounds and your generosity is endless." She cooed, walking over to the balconies edge. There she could see what remained of Nallan and like before, the same red sea.

"You were given a desolate waste. They failed to understand our bond, my beloved. They could never understand." the voice professed conspiratorially. "If your love for me is as strong as mine is, you will survive any ordeal, even what comes next. Do you want me, Nalla? Will you do anything, as you sang to me?"

The Queen did not hesitate. "Yes… I want you my Goddess. I crave your touch for your love keeps me sane when so many hope to drive me mad." She took a soft breath, "And I will do anything for you, for you are the one who saved me from my pain."

"Then feel me, my love. Be my vessel as I elevate your world beyond mortal limitations." the goddess proffered, and almost immediately after her words came an intense burning from within. It was an itch, a flame, a strange yearning and endless energy that threatened to consume Nalla from within. She felt her feet lift from the ground, no longer bound by simple concepts like gravity. Shimmers of blue and black skittered across her form as the pressure in the back of her mind grew. It was painful, pleasurable, and elevating, all at once. It was more than a mortal could take.

She wanted to scream out, to become lost in the ocean of ecstasy she found herself adrift in but Nalla was no mere mortal. It took all her might but she managed to hold on and stay aware. Though she did not know for how long. A strange song of whispers and screams hurtled past her ears, entrancing despite its lack of melody. The world seemed to drain of color and warmth, only to return with twice the vibrance of before. Something inside felt as though it was about to burst, a whirling force that consumed and tugged at her, while fulfilling her every thought before she thought of it.

She saw her own hand lift, outstretched towards the faraway mountains to the south. Though she could not see that far, she saw a rippling energy flash from her arm and run along the ground out of the city, shearing the ground as it went until it lashed into the distant mountain. A rumble followed, and the ground began to split open. She lifted higher into the air, and felt the exultant breath of another on her skin. Hands that were not there ran along her form and enjoyed her presence. Then the ground rumbled again, and all around the city flew splinters of rocks, a grand crater carved around her palatial grounds. Aided along by the divine, clear water came rushing like a torrent from the distant crack in the mountain, sinking into the long wound in the land and rushing to fill the crater around the city. Her other hand lifted through no will of her own, and on the far side of her demesne she heard the ground crack and rumble once more.

"Never forget, Nalla, my beloved," the voice of the goddess echoed, until Nalla realized she was saying it herself. The earth outside the palace cracked and groaned, and from the earth rose a grand obsidian pillar, atop which was her own likeness embraced from behind by a tall, horned woman. It was foreign, alien in architecture, and entirely captivating. "You are mine, as I am yours. This land shall bloom as our love, fertile and rich." The waters flooded up over the crater and crevasse, drenching the desert at the behest of the goddess. The rust-brown sand gave way to softer ground, and already durable sprawling trees sprouted from the ground. Life was growing in the desert. As the pressure increased, her vision began to give out, and the strain threatened to break her mind. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the pressure fell away, and a whirlpool within drained her swiftly of energy, both her own and the foreign touch of the goddess. The balcony returned under weak feet, her limbs aching and her body exhausted.

Nalla collapsed, sweating profusely and with heavy breaths. Her mind was ablaze with this newest ecstasy and weak as she was, she could not help but wrap herself in a hug, smiling ear to ear.

"Thank you Goddess… My love of loves… My Neiya…" She whispered, enamored with her experience. She did not wish it had ended but knew it would have consumed her until she was but a mindless pup, writhing in ecstasy forever and ever. It would not be so bad but still, it was good to be back, even if she would be hard pressed to be satisfied again.

She perked up at the sound of rushing footsteps and before long a retinue had gathered, hovering over her like some lost dove. They told her of the water and the trees and the life and that salvation was at hand but Nalla found herself wanting only two things. One she could not have but the other…

"Bring me blood."

They were unlike any she had seen before, but this did not surprise her. She, who had tamed the Sylphi, struck deals with Iskrill- These newest additions were most welcome. Though, their defiant look in their eyes would have to be dealt with. Those eyes… So large, so full of curiosity and brimming with hate. It was not their eyes, nor their child-like faces, nor their skin color, nor even their feather crests that had Nalla intrigued but the ornate and exotic skin patterns, glowing within her dim throne room, that truly delighted her.

They spoke no language she knew, but in time they would learn from each other, for Nalla was not one to let unique creations go unchecked in her realm. For this was her home now, whether they had wanted or needed her arrival. They were stuck with her and Nallan, and she would make use out of them yet.

These… Cave dwellers, these savages, these mongrels.

She had no name for them.

They had found them after Neiya’s Gift near the rivers edge, looking miserable and lost, scared and afraid. They had that in common at least. Her guards, and dependable townsfolk managed to capture several dozen, but no more than a hundred individuals.

Now several of them, ones that had seemed to hold some sort of authority, were on their knees in her throne room. One in particular caught her eye. A male by the looks of it, his eyes in particular were pointed with rage at her. It was amusing to say the least. Around his neck however, there hung a necklace of crimson. Not unlike her own, but smaller.

She would have it.

She pointed at him and smiled with glee. “Bring me that around his neck my darlings.”

Several guards obliged, but none were as fast as the one who reached the prisoner. Though their hands were tied, as soon as the guard reached for the pendant the savage sneered, headbutted the guard and grabbed onto his hands. The man yelled, and began to pull away but he seemed to… Grow weaker?

Other guards began to rush forward but Nalla raised her hand, eyes fixated on the spectacle. The others obeyed and the guard slumped to the ground. Nalla tilted her head, listening as his heart beat grew small and faint and then… Silence… He had killed him.

Nalla laughed, clapping her hands with a joyous smile.

“This one has some fire in his eyes. I like that but we’ve seen what a bit of fire can do, have we not?” Her smile changed to a frown in an instant. “Never again.”

Nalla sat upright, and within a flash she was next to him. Before he could react, Nalla whispered the fabled words of her Lover from her lips and the man went limp with a smile on his face. Then shadow began to leak from the crown. In blinding speed they shot off as vicious claws, ripping apart the savage before any could register what had transpired. The shadows then recoiled and there was quiet in the room before his kinsmen began to scream.

Nalla picked up the pendant from the man’s bloody pile. With her other hand, she ran a finger through his blood and brought it to her mouth. The flavor was a bit dry, almost smoky. Delicious all the same. She licked her lips and brought the pendant to eye level.

“Remove these from my presence and clean up this mess.”

“What should we do with them, your Grace?”

“Put them with the others and double the guards.”

“Yes your grace.”

Fortune's Friend

The old wagon had been on the verge of needing replacement, held together only by the willpower of its previous owner and the raw nature of wood. Now that Ava was pulling it by herself, the journey was both slow going and exhausting. The blonde bandit had spent an inordinate amount of time questioning just what had occurred back there, and what madness possessed her to stay with the horned girl in the hours following the death of their respective friends. Every bone in her body said to ditch the bundle of trouble in a ditch and hightail it back to the Ketrefa slums outside the wall. The girl wanted away from there, though, and she felt compelled to see her to safety. Slowing down further thanks to the rough road and shortness of breath, Ava finally broke the silence between the two.

"Hey, Horns. You wanna get in on this cart-pulling? It's killing my back," she breathed with ragged breaths.

It was enough to break the girl out of her catatonic state, and judging by her voice, she wasn't happy. "My name isn't 'Horns'. Please refrain from calling me such. My name-"

"Alright, whatever you say. You gonna pull the cart or not?" Ava interjected quickly, eyes focused on the stony path leading through the woods.

"I think not. There's no way I could manage that heavy duty labor," the girl posited with a tone that shot deep into Ava's core. Should've just let her be back there. But no, she had to play righteous defender for the first time in her life. Ava sighed sharply and let the wagon roll to a stop. She released the wooden beams and nursed her hands with a deep sigh. Immediately the girl piped up again. "What? Why are we stopping?"

"Well, missy," Ava began as she cricked her neck back and forth. Every muscle in her upper body felt sore. "You said you ain't pulling the cart, and I'm spent. We're gonna have to sit tight until one of us starts dragging it again." She glanced over her shoulder and spotted the horned girl sitting at the very front of the wagon, bunched up in a variety of silks and quilts. Her scrunched up face made her displeasure clear, but also made her look like an indignant child.

"I told you we can't stop! It's imperative I reach my destination quickly," she huffed, and slung a lock of hair behind her ear.

Ava scoffed at her and leant against the cart's handle, crossing her arms soon after. "I don't even know where we're going. You wanna fill me in?"

"Teperia," affirmed the girl. "and uhm, from there, to the mountain pass southwards to uhh, Alsaaden and Karay."

Ava peered at the horned woman for a time before shrugging. "Never heard of it. You know the way?"

"No…" she admitted, and glanced down into the bunched up cloth as Ava sighed. "J-Justus… he has… had.. friends in Teperia. He knew the route. Before you killed him."

Ava grunted at that, tugging idly at her ratty tunic and readjusting the leather strap bearing her knife collection. "I didn't kill your friend, Horns. We both lost folk back there," she reprimanded solemnly. The girl frowned and nodded, but she didn't seem all that keen to equate the deaths with each other. "The fact remains we need to know where we're going. We've passed three turns and you've not said anything, so I figured you had it figured."

"I said I don't know!" the girl cried back with as much vitriol as she could muster and bunched up further in the cloth, wrapping her head up as if to hide.

"What are you, five?" Ava sighed. Everything she'd ever learned suggested getting rid of her, dropping the dead weight. Maybe she wasn't as scummy as she'd thought. Some kernel of morality compelled her to stay and figure it out. "...I guess we'll have to find a village and ask our way forwards. I'll take you to Teperia and your ex-friend's goons, unless you can find better transport before that. Then you pay me, and we part ways. Deal?"

No response. Ava queried her twice more to no avail. The blonde bandit huffed quietly and gripped the wagon's handles once more. "By all means, your majesty, let me take care of everything. No, no, no need to acknowledge your lowly servant," she muttered quietly before pulling the cart into motion again with a groan.

Another few hours of laborious exercise had passed, as Ava dutifully pulled the cart along the road, even as the sun slowly began to touch at the tops of the trees in the distance. "...Hey, A… A-Ava?" A voice piped up from the back of the cart, breaking the silence for the first time in hours.

"Oh, look who's talking again." Ava mustered as haughtily as she could, which she had to admit wasn't much. She had no idea how ordinary folk did labor like this all day, every day. It'd be the death of anyone.

"...I'm sorry for ignoring you. Stop the wagon?" the girl pleaded from her mountain of blankets.

"Ahh, no can do, Horns. Gotta make haste to Tepyria. Teferia? Onwards- to adventure." huffed Ava tiredly.

"Stop the wagon. I need to visit nature," the horned girl murmured a little louder over the creaking wheels.

Ava smirked. "No, got a good pace now. You've got a good view of the trees from there, I'm sure." In truth, she had nothing against stopping, but if she had to survive this brat she could at least have some fun.

"Stop the wagon, you vicious knave!" the horned girl cried out with surprising vigour and contempt, though it mostly made Ava ever more smug. Ava rolled the wagon to a merciful stop, and glanced back to see the girl cast off two of her blanket-layers to hurry down the back of the wagon and towards the edge of the forest.

A brief pang of worry set in. What if she'd led her out here only to run away? It was a fleeting doubt at best, and Ava comforted herself after making sure what little supplies they had were still in the wagon.

Ava barely had time to relax, however, before her ears picked up the rustle of branches and leaves, and the easily recognizable buzz of conversation. From the opposite direction. A branch broke somewhere off the right side of the road, and Ava felt a stone form in her gut. On a whim, she hurriedly scrambled for the food in the wagon, piling it into a bundle with an abandoned blanket. Slinging her care package over her shoulder, Ava vaulted the wooden handle and quickly skirted into the tree line, straight towards where the girl had gone off to.

She stumbled through a bush and around two trees when she almost bumped into the horned girl situated behind the last tree. A flash of skin under the messy layers, before the girl hurriedly tugged her blankets together. Her eyes went wide and her face burned with a fiery pink.

"What in the world do you think yo-mmmfhh!" she began as loudly as she could before Ava silenced her with a quick hand over the mouth, and then verbally shushed her as well. Not trusting the girl to listen to an explanation, Ava dragged her along as she made an effort to round the tree, and sink down behind the foliage and underbrush on the edge of the road. Only moments later, four people broke out of the forest's edge on the other side of the road - two men down a ways along the road, and another man and a woman straight beside the cart. Ava lowered herself to press down into the ground, and dragged the girl with her; the woman seemed less inspired to struggle when she saw the new arrivals, as the blonde bandit had suspected, though she wrested free from Ava's grip all the same after they'd both laid down.

The four new arrivals were all human, dressed in gear that immediately told Ava they were more than travelers; leather, weapons, heavy tunics. One of the men wore pieces of shiny silver metal from his shoulders and down along his upper arms, and had two plates on his thighs as well. Ava had never seen anything like it before, but it looked expensive. Only soldiers and nobles wore expensive things, and they didn't look much like nobles. Internally she cursed her luck. She hadn't put much stock in the talks of war, but it seemed the countryside wasn't as safe as she had thought.

The alleged soldiers gathered around the cart, with the armored one staying away to keep an eye on the forest. She couldn't hear much, but what little she did spoke of movement and sound. So they'd seen her escape into the forest. They knew she was here.

"What's going on?" the girl piped up beside her, tugging at the innermost of her layers - a bedsheet by the looks of it. She had enough wherewithal to whisper.

"Soldiers, I think. With any luck they won't go looking." Ava whispered back, carefully moving her arms to lay down properly while not breaking any branches or rustling leaves.

"Soldiers? Can't they help us get to Teperia? Or give us directions? We can reason with them," the girl persisted from Ava's side.

Ava considered the folly of the suggestion, and with it all her past run-ins with the brave soldiers of Ketrefa. They only ever came her way to spit, steal and ravage. With past experiences bitterly in mind, Ava sighed. "If you want to spend the rest of your days as a camp girl, by all means. You can't reason your way out of danger."

"I reasoned with you, didn't I?" the girl gave back a little too loud, and Ava quickly shushed her. That seemed to be the last straw, as the girl began to rise with an irritated sigh. Ava frowned and tried to stop her, but she slapped her hand away quickly before taking a few solid steps forward. The bushes rustled and the four alleged soldiers were immediately alerted to her presence. That didn't seem to dissuade the horned girl, and she steeled herself before wandering out onto the road with her layers wrapped tightly around her. Ava remained low. Maybe the girl was right. Maybe they'd just take her and leave Ava alone. Was she okay with that? She frowned, but decided that whatever happened was the girl's own damn fault.

The three closest rapidly closed the distance and the fourth moved closer as Ava's travelling companion struck up conversation. Ava could only make out bits and pieces, especially that of the loud-mouth girl who put way too much emphasis on imagined camaraderie and what was 'right', as she explained much of what had occurred, but did not appear to mention Ava. She couldn't hear the soldiers all that well, but she saw their eyes, and their movement. They glanced at each other, and at the horned girl. They had the same look in their eyes that Meren had had; they weren't listening to her, they were captivated by what could be. She had seen it before. People with power always took those opportunities. No exceptions.

The stone in Ava's gut grew but she remained still, watching the men and woman encircle the girl. The woman laid a hand on her arm, which seemed to jolt the girl back to reality, and stop her speech about helping her to Teperia dead in its tracks. A little more conversation, and the girl ripped her arm free and scolded them all. It didn’t exactly seem to dissuade them. If they thought she was alone, she might not survive the encounter at all. At best they’d bring her to their camp. Memories of Ketrefan soldiers flashed before her eyes, nights of alleged safety turned to terrifying horror in minutes. She tried to shake her head loose from the past to keep an eye on the situation. The soldiers were trying to convince her of something. Acting friendly but firm. Taking steps to touch her again. They spoke for a time, it felt like an eternity.

"Don't t-touch me! Get away from me!" The horned girl shouted as one of the men gripped her arm again. Ava frowned deeply, frozen in her hiding spot. She knew better than trying to outsmart or deal with those in power. It never worked. It always ended with pain. The three helped each other 'escorting' her towards the wagon. The girl struggled and shrieked. Ava's fists clenched, and she gritted her teeth until they hurt. Why couldn't she just have listened? "Ava! D-Do something! Av-" came a scream before being muffled by a hand. It was enough to make two of them look around.

Ava felt the same surreal sensation as before. For a few moments, her arms felt like they were floating on water, the world around her lost its scents and sounds. She felt her own heartbeat, and with it, a pounding need to help. It was more than help, it was her purpose. Her one goal. Feeling a cold sweat run over her forehead, Ava clambered up from her hideout and wrestled her way through branch and leaf to get to the road. Her direct approach full of sound and broken branches was enough to break the soldiers' focus on the girl, all eyes on Ava as she stepped out onto the road.

"What's this?" One of the men spoke up, a few-toothed older man that looked like he would fit right into the slums back in Ketrefa. "The more the merrier. We were about to return to camp. Don't worry," he said, and smiled in the same way nobles smiled at their slaves. "You're safe now. Lucky we found you."

"Take your hands off of the girl," Ava growled. She took a few steps forwards, reaching for the leather straps protecting her torso - and hiding her collection. The armored man gripped the girl and hoisted her into the wagon against her will, and stood there like he was guarding a treasure, while the other three turned towards Ava. Her hand found the hilt of her newest blade, seeking safety as she took another step forward. "If you leave now and leave us alone, no one has to get hurt."

The older man burst into a laugh, then subtly motioned to his two comrades. Ava wasn't a soldier, but she could tell a signal from a mile away. The soldier woman was the first to approach, one hand reached up towards Ava and the other on her side. The younger man very clearly had his hand on a blade, ready to draw. "There needn't be a lesson taught here, love. Let us take care of you both." The older man offered, and with it came a sharp nod. The two on his side burst forwards, both reaching for Ava in a quick attempt to tackle and grab her. Ready for trouble, Ava drew her newest blade to defend herself.

A spray of warm blood hit her in the face. A pained gasp reached her ears. In front of her, the two soldiers had flinched halfway through their charge, and the woman was already falling to the ground, limp. The man clutched at his throat with fear in his eyes. He stared at Ava as he too dropped to the ground, gurgling helplessly. The older man swore angrily behind them, drawing his own weapon before charging straight past his dying friends to close the distance between him and Ava.

Ava raised the long knife, ready to lunge at him in a quick strike. She knew she'd never outlast or outskill a soldier. Yet again the surreal sensation returned, washing over her other senses. As he barreled forward, her attention drew to his side, entirely open as his arm drew up in an attack. Time felt like it slowed as she moved her long knife straight towards the man's side. It connected before he ever had time to read her intent, and sheared deep into his side, stopping him mid-run as he collided with her. His weapon clattered to the ground as he gasped for air. Only then did Ava realize she had neatly missed every rib and punctured at least a lung from under his armpit. She drew the blade free in both shock and bitter fury, and the man tumbled to the ground with disbelief in his stare, joining his comrades.

"You damn bitch!" a voice roared from her side. She spun to see the last of the four, the man with shiny armor, careening towards her at a furious pace. Ava raised her knife again, feeling the strange ripple run along the hairs on her neck as she watched him move. Saw his every weakness. She jabbed the blade forward to sink it into his gut, feeling almost like she was in trance. Something guided her hand towards where it should go. But it was not enough. In an instant, a firm grip wrapped around her wrist, immediately breaking her out of her spellbound state.

The man had stopped the blade. His face was one of unyielding fury, and his hand on her arm felt like it would snap her bones. He screamed at her and the pain in her arm grew unbearable. Ava cried out in pain and felt the knife slip from her fingers. She swung with her other hand, and the man quickly brought up cold metal on his wrist to intercept it. It felt like striking a wall. He roared something incomprehensible at her and swung with fist straight at her face. A hot flash of pain spread through her face, blinding her. For a moment, the world was gone, and her head felt like it would split apart. She fell through an abyss; it felt as though she'd float in limbo forever. Then the ground smacked hard into her back, and the air left her lungs. She gasped for air, opening blurry eyes to see the man loom over her. He leaned down over her, his metal-sheathed knee weighing down hard on her thigh. Long fingers reached for her face before she could react, and she felt his coarse hands grip around her throat. A crushing pain burned over her shoulders, choking air and life alike out of her. White spots flared in her vision, and Ava struggled helplessly, grabbing at his hands to try and pry them open. She watched the hatred in his eyes, and felt fear and panic rise in her own body. She was going to die. She pawed at him weakly, chipping for air as best she could.

Almost like a miracle, his hands relented and his angered face turned to shock. Air surged back into her lungs in a brief reprieve, and Ava struggled out a few choked breaths. The man straightened out over her, arching his back and groaning loudly. Ava wasted no time. Weak fingers searched for the collection in her straps, and she slid out a bone knife and her first flint shiv. Fueled by fear and fury both, she stabbed forwards into his gut. And again. And again. The man swung a hand at her but it was too late. She stabbed until he stopped moving. When he fell aside, she caught sight of the long knife sticking out of the back of his shoulder. Ava breathed a rattling sigh of relief, feeling the pain in her wind pipe burn still.

The innocent face of the horned girl popped into view above her as silence returned around the wagon. Her eyes were big with fear, shame and shock. "A-Ava?"

"We need to get off the road," she replied as well as she could, each word a struggle. "Get the supplies in the woods. I'll take whatever they had."

"What? No, you should rest." the girl argued, even as she leaned down to start helping Ava up off the ground.

"I'll rest when we get there. We can't stay here, Horns." Ava breathed back and shrugged off the girl's hold. Tiredly she mosied over to the dead strangler, staring at the blade in his back. The only explanation was that the girl had waddled over in her blankets and picked it up to help. Ava chose not to remark on it, girl probably had enough thoughts to deal with.

"...It's Estrid." the girl admitted softly from behind her. "...Thank you. I don't know w-"

"Estrid," Ava interjected, glancing up at the horned girl from a squat beside the dead armored man, prying her long knife free. "Listen to me next time."

New Arrivals

Sawing. Hewing. Scraping. A cacophony of woodworking noise filled the air in and around the workshop; a large lumber yard comprised of two work huts, a storage shed for the important and expensive crafts, and two outdoor shelters for worked and unworked wood respectively. The source of many a complaint even from other loudworks in the modest district outside of Fragrance proper, and tonight was no different.

Despite proper precautions and years of experience with woodworking, each laborer felt the discomfort of their loud environment - each motion of their pristine new two-man copper saw was like a ripple of unease shooting through their bodies after forcing its way through their meager ear protection. That was before one considered things like the ever present film of sawdust on all surfaces, splinters and the musky smell of wood that truly needed no effort to overpower other smells. No sane nelf chose carpentry willingly, let alone a lumber yard. It was guaranteed to be sweaty, loud and smelly.

Tonight was different. A gentle rumble of wood and planks offered an early warning, though only one of the working men noticed anything. With the rumble came an innocuous scent; peach trees and fresh meadows lingered in the air, inviting each in turn to avert their mind from work. As a collective, the laborers slowly paused in their work as more and more of them confusedly moved to identify the source of this new fragrant smell.

They gathered in a group and discussed what they smelt in low voices, barely audible thanks to their ear-wear. That's when the second rumble struck, and the entire shelter full of processed wood rattled angrily. With the rattle came a new waft of scents, more intense than the first and entirely enticing to these men who had been ruined by sawdust and muck. The planks began to shake and rattle with increased fervor, yet a strange combination of fear, curiosity and allure seemed to hold enough sway over the gathered nelves that none found the courage to leave. This second rumble did not seem not to dissipate, rather the very ground beneath the shelter rapidly tore open as they stood silent in awe. One by one, pieces of wood fell away from the bottom, vanishing down into an ever greater rift stretching itself in every direction. Finally, the entire heap of wood toppled into the hole, leaving nothing but a view into the otherworldly rift that had torn itself open over the ground. Beyond it lay the source of the scents; blooming pink trees and colourful strange plants in a grandiose forest. It was brighter than the Fragrancian night, yet it didn’t hurt their eyes nor strain their sight.

The fallen planks and logs seized in the air beneath the rift, arranging themselves like a steep staircase. A few of the nelves grew wary, ushering their comrades to move away. It was no use; already a few among them were daring enough to take a few steps forwards to glean a better view into the rift. They did not have to wait long. Solid, heavy steps slapped against the floating staircase, and a shape grew into view as it ascended the makeshift stairs. It was a nelf, though it only truly looked like one at a second glance, drowned in ratty vestments and a travelling cloak that appeared to have seen it’s fair bit of use. Its skin was a little too light to be attractive, and the clothes masked any defining features, making it difficult to identify even their gender. Only their face was visible, and even then a hood masked most of their features from being illuminated by the vague moonlight and being more than basic shapes to the darksighted nelves.

The visitor from another land stepped up on the last plank before stopping to stare at the assembled crowd in silence. For a few moments, stares were exchanged in silence, before the hooded visitor took another step and walked into the world properly. Their hands lifted slowly, crooked and worn fingers not unlike an aged crone’s withered fingers or the talons of a bird, pointing towards the spiralling rift in the ground with a floating staircase to the blooming land beyond. Lips parted, and though the words were barely spoken out loud, their sound pierced through ear-wear and distance alike, burrowing into the laborers’ ears. It was a strange and unpleasant language entirely foreign to the land, yet they each understood what was said. It called to them, and imparted a beckoning demand that could not be refused.

A new life awaits with the Goddess. Go to her.

No arguments or protests arose among the gathered. After a few seconds of hesitation, the eldest among the men took the first step towards the portal, silently moving past the newly arrived visitor to descend the steps into another land. Bolstered by his action, other laborers began to follow suit. One by one, they descended the steps dutifully, transfixed by the strange words and the world below. As the head of the last laborer dipped below the edge, the rift began to ripple and shift, and within moments it faded from view gradually until only earth and dirt remained, wiped in a crisp circle that hinted at its alien presence. The visitor stared at the portal until it had closed in its entirety, then simply began to walk away from the site and towards the rest of the loudwork district.

With no one left to work the yard or observe what had occurred, the lumber yard fell silent.

Not many were willing to pay the unnamed drifter idling through the city any heed. They didn't smell right, looked run-down, and didn't seem particularly worthy of a second glance from the few that took brief interest. As such, few noticed the idle vandalism - weather-worn fingers painting small symbols on each structure it passed, hidden from view or in the strangest of places. Old, ancient runes of no real meaning beyond basic words and concepts of love and sin. Symbols given power not by their inherent worth, but by the figure of divinity now drawing them into creation.

People would discover them with time. Not many would care, fewer still would dare to touch them save to wash them away. The few that traced the lines or spoke the words - though how they would accomplish such did not occur to the drifter - would be its disciples. The simple knowledge imparted by each symbol would be enlightenment enough to push them down a path of self-discovery by pushing them to indulge in their vices. Whatever meager bit of divinity they received would help them on their quest.

For hours and days, it seemed to be all the drifter did, walking during day and night alike to paint the structures of Fragrance. When the nelven populace began to take note, the streets were bereft of the traveling vandal once more.

Upon a field outside the city proper the drifter found itself face to face with it's most uncanny opponent yet. It was a crude wooden effigy dressed with hay and ragged clothes. The drifter examined its own clothes for comparison and realized what a cheapskate its creator was. Given the blazing sun above, no nelves were present to watch the duel of wits take place, and gave the drifter ample chance to undress and swap the clothes on the effigy with its own.

Having sated it's own need for fashion, it set to work doing its creator's bidding. The goddess cared not how the mortals below were coaxed out of their moral and traditionalist shells, only that it happened without apparent involvement from her. So the drifter, joined on its journey only by a voiceless wooden effigy stuck in the ground, glanced around to cook up it's own master plan. It gathered all it had learned from viewing the township, its people, and listening to those who'd clicked their tongues in earshot. It didn't take an avatar to figure out where the base of their society was quite literally rooted. So the drifter lifted its hands in the air, flexing talon-like fingers as it focused the goddess' essence.

The morning air grew heavy and hot, no doubt troubling a few easily stirred sleepers. With a single moment of intense focus, a small whirlpool of energy grew in the creatures' hands, and then dispersed into the air to be carried away on the wind. The crops would grow plentiful and rich. Those that already had the most would see the greatest boon, while those who struggled would see no benefit at all. If any of what the goddess had imparted on the drifter was correct, the nelves would take care of the rest themselves.

Content with itself, the traveler wandered onwards, leaving the effigy behind with a new set of clothes.

The Eternal War II

28 AA

“Imra, look out!” She gasped before falling to the floor, three arrows having pierced her bronze chains. She wriggled in agony and began to cry out. Radinri cursed, and dove towards her out in the open. He could hear solar arrows whiz past him, planting themselves into stone and dirt with dull thuds, but he managed to drag her back behind the low wall. He cradled her in his arms, pulling out each arrow with a sizzle. He used the arrowhead to stop her bleeding and she groaned again.

“I told you girl. I told you. This is no place for white-wings.” he chastised, making sure the bleeding was stopped. He placed his hand over each wound and poured some of his strength into healing the flesh. She gritted her teeth and with exasperated breath she said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Shh Shh, just rest Imra.” He brushed her golden locks out from her face with his free hand and she gave a small smirk.

“Save your s-strength old man, I’ll be f-fine.” She shivered, eyes closed.

“Nonsense, I’m not going to lose another one of you.” He gritted his teeth.

Imra drifted off as he placed his hand over the final wound. He checked her breathing, it was getting stronger. Good. He placed her over his shoulder and in a crouch, began to move with the wall, until he came to the collapsed part of the building. He looked around, making sure it was safe and spotted another three Oraeliari just landing down to tend to one of their wounded.

He made his way over to them, wary of the skies. For beings with wings, it was amazing how fearful one could be about an ambush and impalement from up above. He had lost friends that way.

He arrived at their landing spot, another collapsed building, providing over from the front and partial from the skies. He set down Imra and went over to help them heal their friends.

“Radinri, that you?” Came a familiar voice with an equally familiar face. The blond haired man in front of him was bloodied but his blue eyes and cheery disposition were a dead give away.

“Olgari!” They clasped hands. “Surprised to see you down here.”

The man shook his head. “The Neiyari are many today, and up there we’re losing. And bad.”

“We aren’t doing so hot down here either.”

The man laying on the ground groaned, a large cut across his chest had split the chain that protected him in half. Radinri poured his strength with the others and the wound began to heal.

“This is Rori, Handari and this poor guy is Vicari, a white-wings.” Olgari said.

“Another one? By the Goddess, how many more will they send in without the proper training!” He lamented.

“She one too?”

“Imra, yeah. Got her yesterday and out of five, she was the only one standing today. These White-wings… Too reckless. Always trying to prove themselves.”

As the wound sealed shut, all of the men took sighs of relief and fell back, zapped of strength for a moment. Outside, the sounds of battle were muffled, but ever present.

“That’s true. They grow up on tales of battle, and exploits, what can you expect? They only learn what it’s actually like when they see it face to face.” Olgari sighed.

“Whose fault is it then? We, who glorify it?” Rori asked, peaking out to look up at the sky.

“Blame us all. Blame us all.” Handari shook his head. “It will always be like this, for too much blood has been shed. Parents slain, friends gone. They’re born into a world of war. Who’s to blame them? You? Me? The Cardinals? If we don’t stop the Betrayers… We will not be the only ones who suffer. That is why we fight, that is why they fight and will continue to fight. Not until either of us yield.”

Radinri furrowed his brow and clutched his chest, not able to feel the pendant his wife made for him but taking solace in the fact it was there. His own children would learn soon enough the horrors, but he could at least tell them, and teach them how to endure. He just had to get back to them.

“Thank you for that.” Olgari rolled his eyes. “Now, let’s get a move on, shall we?” He clasped hands with Radinri again. “What do you say we get these two back to safety and regroup?”

“I’d like that.”

“Alright, listen up men. I’ll grab Vicari, Radinri will grab Imra. Handari, you and Rori will provide us support and be lookouts. We just have to get to the forest and our healers can make sure these two are alright. Now, come on!”

They made a dash for it, Handari and Rori looked to the skies, bucklers at the ready as the two jogged with their unconscious companions.

In the sky far above were tell-tale signs of battle, small silhouettes high in the distance flitting around and clashing. From the ground, it was like a storm of birds diving and colliding with each other. A single silhouette broke from the chaos to focus on the escaping Oraeliari on the ground, growing from a mere dot in the sky to a wide-winged warrior in seconds. The hairs rose on the backs of Handari and Rori's necks even before they got a clear look at the approaching flier, subtly warning of the imminent danger of the Neiyari. A moment later a roughly hewn arrow of still luminescent wood smacked down on the ground a foot from Rori's leg.

The Neiyari came into full view, a lithe and tan woman with light brown wings. Her equipment was no more than tribal scraps, and a crude bow - like many of the Neiyari, yet that equipment typically came with a malice and drive that made them dangerous. Another arrow loosed from her bow, bouncing off of a buckler with a solid thunk.

Olgari let out a sigh. “They never leave us alone!” he shouted, turning to Handari. “You and Rori will have to keep her off us. May the Goddess Protect you.”

“And may the Goddess protect you!” Handari said, leaping into the sky. He and Rori brandished their swords and held their bucklers defensively as they made a beeline for the Neiyari woman.

Radinri and Olgari continued on, running quicker now to get to those trees. The lone enemy took aim again, but decided at the last second to fire at the two flying her way. Another arrow slammed into a buckler, and then flew out out the way from the force of massive wingbeats. The Neiyari quickly turned in the air and shot upwards. The arduous battle of the sky would continue.

Under the shade of luminant trees, Olgari and Radinri came upon their allies. They were quick to settle in Imra and Vicari with those who could look after them and before the two were ready to depart again to find their airborne comrades, Handari and Rori came walking through the tree’s dragging with them the same light-brown winged Neiyari.

Rori had an arrow in his right shoulder, but that did not deter him from helping drag their prisoner. They set her down as Olgari went to inspect his wound. Radinri looked her over. She was cut bad by a blade across her chest and her breathing was shallow. Without looking over her again, Radinri fell to his knees and placed his hands over her wound. He was weaker now, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t try.

“Radinri, what are you doing? Leave her for the healers, you’re weak as it is.” Handari said, watching him intently.

He simply shook his head. “She won’t make it to the healers.”

“She’s just a Neiyari, one that shot me no doubt.” Rori chimed in as Olgari healed up his shoulder.

“That may be so, but the Goddess cares for all things, even the betrayers. Who am I to leave one to suffer when I can help?” he whispered, gritting his teeth as the wound began to seal. “She looks no older than Imra… Just another white-wings…”

He felt a touch upon his shoulder, and he looked up to see Olgari nodding. He then fell upon his knees and helped. The wound began to seal and before long, her breathing stabilized. “Tie her up.” Radinri breathed, falling back onto his hands.

It wasn't long before the captives' hands and wings were tied roughly but effectively. Slumped against a tree, she appeared to be no different from them - were it not for her brown wings and darker hair. The small assembly had enough time to look after their own and catch their breaths before the prisoner stirred. Panic had flashed across her face for an instant, but swiftly replaced itself with a smug and proud smirk as she weakly struggled against her restraints. It was no use; Handari had tied up too many Neiyari to count in the last two decades, and the technique he used to tie their wings was as effective as it was demeaning.

That didn't stop her from trying. When her situation began to sink in, she laughed haughtily. They'd heard and seen soldiers trying to downplay their terror, but her voice had an edge and conviction that continued to unnerve. Or perhaps that was simply the curse of fear inherent within all Neiyari. A skittish white-wing told her to be quiet and she simply smirked before taunting him with a line they did not expect; "None of this matters - the Saints are coming, and with them, the War Mother's emissary. Have you met Aveira, traitor?"

All faces spun to her. Radinri felt his throat grow tight. “W-What did you say?” Rori stammered, standing up.

Olgari did as well. They knew of that name. The one who scarred Soluri, the great betrayer.

“Do not speak lies just to save yourself, Neiyari.” It was Handari who brought him back to reality. Aveira had not been seen since their births, why would she come back now?

The woman's grin only grew. "It is no lie. The Eternal Ruler comes down from her tower, tired of your petty resistance," she spat out, looking at each of them in the grove. "The saints have sung of her arrival for days. But take heart, perhaps one of you will be able to trade my life for yours. Which one of you is most eager to live?"

Rori sprung forth, but Radinri tackled him to the floor. “Get off me!” he shouted, “I’m tired of these Neiyari games! Always lying, always trying to be superior. Look at her! Just look! She wears nothing but rags. This is the army we have to be so afraid of?”

He shook his head. “Rori, you must contain yourself. This is not the way. We are better than this.” he said firmly.

“Rori, control yourself.” Olgari said as he looked at her. “If what she says is true Handari, we must tell Cardinal Tevuri.” His expression turned grim. “It’s the only way.”

“Even lies have a bit of truth to them.” Radinri said, releasing Rori, who grumbled as he walked away.

“Fine. Let’s go.”

The radiant healing lake had become a fortified no aiviri's land. Pointed stakes, nets, tilted barricades. It was a mess of trying to impair falling combatants or dunk their wings in the lake. Given that neither side could uproot the other, debris and forgotten equipment lay between old fence work and regrowing underbrush. A popular game among the young was to brave the endless battle site for old treasures, or as the most heinous rumours alleged - consort with the enemy on the far side of the lake.

The massive tower loomed in the distance, just far enough away to be hinted at beyond the treeline. Small shapes flitted through the sky around it, like an angry nest of wasps gathering in a bigger swarm. Not long after their return to the lakeside and the domed domicile, most of the Neiyari had broken off from the conflict around the lake. Opinions were split among the veterans - many feared a reinforced assault, while some were already celebrating today's victory with the white-wings.

They found the Cardinal where he most always was, walking among the Humani village that had blossomed under the shade of the Bastion. Tevuri had been one of the first to find the Great Lake and the Humani that called it home. He was most versed in their language now, but a newer one was quickly growing among the younger generations. It was a sight to behold for sure, Oraeliari children running, laughing and playing with friends. Humani and kin alike. It was almost as if there wasn’t a war going on.

Tevuri was walking with a humani elder when they came upon him, Neiyari in tow. The children stopped their playing and began to walk after them, curious expressions upon their faces as they gazed upon the Betrayer.

“Cardinal Tevuri.” Olgari said, bowing in respect. The rest followed before rising. Tevuri’s hair was long and golden, matching his wings. He wore white robes today and had a smile upon his face.

“Olgari, Radinri, Handari. Welcome back. Have you rested yet? There is victory today and you all look tiresome.”

“We have news, Cardinal. This Neiyari prisoner speaks words you might want to listen too.”

Tevuri’s eyes came upon the Neiyari and they softened. “And I will gladly hear them from our sister.”

“Perhaps not here, Cardinal?” Radinri said, looking at all the faces.

“Why of course. Come, let us walk.”

A short while later, they came before the Bastion but did not enter. “Will this suffice?” Tevuri asked.

“Yes. Go on then, betrayer. Tell the Cardinal what you told us.” Olgari said.

The woman flexed against her restraints, frowning deeply at the few people gathered - apparently not as many as she had hoped. Her eyes skidded across the village in the distance before she focused on the interrogation properly. "The Eternal Conduit comes for you all," she asserted as loudly as she could. "The War Mother's patience grows thin, and Aveira will bring those few worthy among you back into the fold. Prostrate yourselves now, and I will consider speaking on your behalf!"

Tevuri said nothing at first, but then seemed to avoid her words entirely as he looked her over. “Might I know your name?” he asked.

That seemed to catch her off-guard, and she stared at him with a reluctant defiance. Unnerved by his demeanour, she eventually pressed out a simple “Navera”.

“Navera.” He smiled. “Nice to meet you, Navera. Now I’m afraid I have another question, might I ask, when were you born?”

“I don’t see what that’s got to do with anything,” she responded quickly, frowning deeply. Her eyes skirted between the lot of them, and the previously haughty angel grew anxious. “Nineteen summers ago.” she eventually confessed.

“Why it has to do with everything.” He said. “You were born after she had left, so all you know of her is stories. All grand tales, I’m sure.” He said softly before sighing. “So young. Dressed in simple wear. You were an archer no doubt, told to stay high, shoot at us from up above. How on this good earth did you get captured?”

Handari piped up, “She came low when we were carrying wounded. Rori and I were able to overwhelm her, but not after she got a lucky shot into Rori’s shoulder.”

“Ah, thought to earn a bit of glory then.” Tevuri slowly reached out and moved a strand of hair from her face, his smile softer now. “I will ask this only once, what do you wish for in this life, Navera?”

Navera's face was a mixture of confusion and anger, that same indignant rage all Neiyari had drilled into them. "Victory!" She proclaimed dutifully, lifting her chin in pride of how easily her words came. When that brought her eyes on the same level as Tevuri's, she flushed with a flustered frown and glanced away.

He dipped his head and sighed. “Even now, the minds of youth are poisoned. A shame. A true shame. But do not worry, Navera. Your victory is at hand.”

Tevuri raised his head and with both hands, gripped Navera by the arms. He shut his eyes tight and she struggled in his firm grasp. Slowly she began to grow still, eyes going wide. A light began to emulate from the Cardinal’s hands, growing stronger and brighter with each passing moment. Navera began to cry, and the others shielded their eyes as the glow reached its peak.

The glow dissipated, dying down to reveal Tevuri huddled on his knees, holding Navera within his arms. Her hair was golden, and her wings were white. She gripped him tightly as she cried into his chest. He rose and faced the others, a sense of awe could be seen upon their faces.

“Navera?” He asked, stroking her head. “Navera, is it true? Has Aveira returned?” Tevuri asked with a gentle tone.

The turned woman sobbed quietly, staring at her hands and the ground in equal measure. Her eyes were taken with deep hurt, disbelief, and a certain relief all at once. She hummed softly at first, battling welled up emotions. "I- I don't know…" she sputtered out slowly. "They keep saying so, but no one has… no one has seen anything. I-... so many lies… so much cruelty." she groaned quietly and raised her tied hands to her head.

“A small knife appeared in his hands, and he cut her bondage. “You are safe now, Navera.” He said, the knife disappearing. Tevuri then stood, cradling her in his arms and he turned to the others.

“You have saved this lost soul today, good work men. Go now and rest up. If Aveira has returned, we will need everyone at their best. I will go and tell the others. Be well, for now.”

The trio gave slight bows and watched as he walked off. They then wandered off to go get some grub.

Two full days followed. The first, the neiyari enacted a few hit and run skirmishes but seemed more reluctant to commit to an assault than they had in a long time. That concerned many of the original war's survivors who had remained to defend the lake, while white-wings and a fair few veterans were all too quick to dismiss the duplicity and ferocity of the neiyari; instead this relative peace was lauded as cowardice and lack of strength on the enemy's behalf.

The second day was even more alien to the Neiyari's regular tactics. Archers filled the sky, and skirmishers swarmed on the far side of the lake, but beyond a false charge towards a group of white-wings that got too close there was little activity beyond token efforts to pelt the lakeside with arrows. A consensus was now forming between the older Oraeliari; the Neiyari were up to something. Some argued their attention had been diverted, others claimed it was an attempt to bait an attack. What everyone but the most inexperienced appeared to agree on was that something was amiss.

On the dawn of the third day, when the shimmer of the luminous lake and forest had yet to grow to it's most vibrant, and most scouts were drowsy after a night of watch, it happened. A procession of Neiyari broke out of the early morning mists over the trees on the far side of the lake. Several silhouettes flew over the lake, reaching the midway point before the first scout cried out from above. Four pale Neiyari made up the centre, their skin white as snow in contrast to black hair and wings. Between flew a regal silhouette, tall for an aiviri and with warmer skin than the others. Though hard to make out in the dawning light, it was still clear amidst the beating black wings, a woman with wings of blue and gold. Even at a distance, the black horns curling on her head were visible. Behind them massed a sizable skirmish force of Neiyari, lifting into the sky like a swarm of locusts.

The older Oraeliari knew the betrayer when they saw her. Whispers ran through the ranks, moments of doubt welled up inside them. Even the Cardinals held reservations but they remained standing firm and resolute. Like a golden wall amidst the tide of black. It would not be an easy fight but fight they would. Still, runners were sent back to the bastion, warning of the impending force and of pleas to evacuate. Such a battle it would be.

Between the intense dread radiating from the Saints - rare sight on the battlefield - and the Betrayer's presence, the wavering Oraeliari were at a grave disadvantage. The Neiyari knew the same, and wasted no time in advancing above and around the slow-flying procession hovering over the lake. War cries, arrows and wingbeats filled the lakefront as skirmishers rushed forwards. Most were lightly armored in furs and scraps of leather; armor, even their wooden kind, had always been a luxury reserved for their higher ranking aiviri.

A war cry was shouted and Oraeliari took to the skies, facing destruction all the same. With the bravery and courage of the Cardinals by their side, there was always a chance at victory. A few yielded to the fear of the Saints and fled but those that remained stuck tight to their Cardinals. And in return, a volley of arrows were loosed and both sides fell, plummeting into the lake. As they neared each other, spears were thrown and at long last their blades met and the sky exploded into war.

Then the lake exploded into fiery glow and a voice emanated from it.

"Cease!" It commanded and most Oraeliari and (with much hesitation), Neiyari obeyed.

"This false avatar displeases me." the voice said, and a beam of light shot up and surrounded the Betrayer, stripping her of her luster and revealing the Neiyari pretender beneath. Yazira's return to the lake had taken more than two decades, and had seen her ascension to Saint, yet when the color of her painted wings washed away in the sharp and revealing light, the ruse of Tevuri's one-time aggressor was clear. Aveira was not here. Those Neiyari nearby the procession that were not Saints themselves were stricken with confusion at the revelation - the rank and file of both sides appearing to have been misled by the ruse.

"Hear me and hear me well. I am Rhiora, Caretaker of the Sun and I speak on behalf of Oraeliara." She said in a strong voice. "Do not be persuaded by such tricks employed by the Betrayers, my Oraeliari. Your hearts are strong and your minds stout. Remember, you are not alone in this fight."

When she spoke again, her voice turned cold. "To you, Betrayers, Her spawn and ilk, I say this; Never again shall you be a threat to our faithful. Never again will you be so cruel. I give you what is rightfully deserved. You will learn the error of your ways or succumb forever more to them till you are dust. This fight is over and the war will be lost to you. This I promise." the voice faded, and the lake faded back to it's normal color.

But something stirred in its depths and shot up in a shimmering explosion that erupted like a silent shockwave, rusting feathers and hair alike. Almost immediately, the closest Neiyari began to choke up and clutch their hearts.

The Cardinals watched this, and a voice fluttered into their heads. It was Rhiora. She spoke of what was happening to the Betrayers to them directly. A portion of them here and now would feel remorse for their actions and thus change willingly. All others throughout the entirety of the Luminant had been stripped of their fertility, turned sterile. Some of the Cardinals were alarmed at this but Rhiora said that it was necessary. The war would be won with minimal losses as the only way to break the curse was to become Oraeliari. She then departed and the Cardinals watched as the Neiyari ranks broke almost all at once, at least among those that could.

A massive rout began as panicked Neiyari fled and surrendered in equal measure, others gripped with pains or panic enough to be incapacitated. The Saints, the purest form of Neiyara's corruption, seemed to be retreating already, abandoning the front line to their collective doom. Pockets of resistance flared up, but the battle was won in moments. Reinvigorated Oraeliari swept over the crumbling battle lines of the corrupted betrayers, capturing escaping fliers and striking down those who seemed intent to fight to the end. It was over. Not only had Aveira never returned, but her alleged presence had provoked a true response from beyond.

The day was won.

Later in that week, Soluri arrived. His presence was like a beacon for the Oraeliari and a celebration would have been had, but the giant was pressed for time. In his own way, he spoke of a brewing war between humani who had cast aside the teachings of Oraeliara for war. Much like the Neiyari. They needed to be corrected, and their gifts from the goddess stripped. There was much talk of how and why but in the end it boiled down to those that thought it was their duty to help and by those wary of another war while the current one waned.

In the end, preparations were made by those that wanted to go. It was a choice after all, and many saw it as a righteous cause. Most who had decided to go were the white-wings, but many veterans of the Eternal conflict also decided to go. A handful of Cardinals also volunteered and when everything was ready, Soluri opened a portal to a land known as Ha-Dûna.

All That Glitters

Birdsong and the gentle rustle of leaves in the wind gave the small campsite a homely feel. They had set up by a precarious old river crossing south of Ketrefa, where trade roads briefly dwindled into forest paths and wilderness. Ava scraped at the grotty old leather strapped over her tunic with one of her bone knives, humming an old ballad contentedly to herself between mouthfuls of the last of their botched attempt at grilled snake. The knife came down to cleave another slice of snake, and she peered up to find both her compatriots staring at her as she brought the blade to her mouth.

”What?” she pressed out between heavy chews.

The older of the two men, Erius, produced a gruff scoff and scratched relentlessly at the uneven sore patch on his cheek. “You really use those knives for everything, huh. Ain’t that the same knife what stabbed a man last week?” he rumbled.

”Well,” Ava mustered between hearty chews. ”Whassepointf-”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full. We’re not savages.” Erius grunted quickly. Ava relented begrudgingly with a few quick attempts at chewing - a surprisingly difficult endeavour.

“Don’t we kill people, chief?” the third among them, a young man named Meren, piped up in interjection before she could speak again, rubbing at the back of his head. Both Ava and Erius shot him a glance. Ava had known him only for a few days, but he had swiftly proven to be as smart as he was handsome. That was to say, not very.

“...If we have to. That don’t mean we’re savages. Sometimes people don’t leave you no choice. Common folk get stupid around weapons and danger, see. Start putting value on trinkets and forget what’s important.” Erius replied.

Meren peered at him briefly. “What’s that, then?”


“The important thing. You know, chief, that they forget.”

Erius sighed deeply. “Your life, Meren.”

“Oh! Right. Makes sense to me.” Meren concluded, shrugging ever so slightly before looking back towards the road to fulfill his basic task as a lookout. There was a solemn return to silence, with Ava having helped herself to another slice of food and now struggling to chew that as well. For a while, they sat in silence, listening to the birds.

”So as I were saying,” Ava began, swallowing the last of her meal. ”What’s the point of carrying knives if I ain’t gonna-”

“We got movement down the road!” Meren interrupted with renewed gusto, shooting up from his seat. Erius dusted himself off and pushed up from the log, stepping forward to stamp out the last cinders of their old fireplace. Ava cleared her throat and picked at her canine with her knife, dislodging a particularly annoying bit of snake. “Looks like a cart. We’ve hit the good stuff!” Meren continued, but was quickly shushed by Erius.

“It’s too early to celebrate, kid. Follow my lead like we practiced. Meren, you take the back, Ava backs me up.” Erius retorted. Both Meren and Ava sighed, almost in unison. As the young man vanished into the bushes, Ava stowed the knife into her leather straps with it’s many comrades and used her hands to push herself up from her seat in the dirt, then quickly brushed her hands off on her tunic. It was time to work.

Slowly a lone figure came rolling down the road, dragging a small cart behind him on the rough forest road. His heated and tired breath was audible from a distance, and the creak of wheels accompanied him at a speedy pace. Whoever they were, they were making quite the hasty escape from the walled city. When the figure drew closer, Erius stepped out onto the dirt road to block the path, and Ava calmly followed suit. She grabbed her leather straps with both hands, fingers needily touching at her collection of sharp things.

The traveller - a man with brushes of grey in otherwise neatly groomed brown hair - inevitably drew closer, his gaze at first fixed on the ground ahead of him. His clothes were baggy and covered in sweat, but to Ava they still looked like a rich man’s clothes. Something a man of means would think a peasant wore, while never having seen one. As his gaze fell on the poorly dressed duo of Erius and Ava, she imagined at least part of his shock was finding out how the rabble really dressed. The cart rolled to a stop, and the man slowly let go of the two beams he’d been lifting.

“Evening, friend!” Erius called out as politely as the gruff old man could muster. “Travelling the roads is dangerous work these days, it’s a good thing we found you when we did.” The man did not reply. His gaze shifted backwards over his shoulder, where Meren was just stepping out to block the path. Erius continued jovially. “We’re honest citizens of the walled city keeping the forest safe, you see. This here crossing in particular has been rife with robberies and the like. We’ll be happy to see you pass safely thanks to our vigil, yeah? We just need a little donation to keep our efforts going.”

The man frowned at the both of them deeply, raising a hand to touch a medallion of a heart strung around his neck. It was a surreptitious motion to tuck it away under his tunic before touching at his chin, but it wasn’t fast enough for Ava to miss it. “W-.. I have nothing to give, I’m sorry. Only enough to survive.”

“Now I don’t find that fair, good mister,” Erius interjected with a gruff sigh, scratching at his own beard. “Surely you can fast for a day to help the valiant workers of the forest. Meren, would you mind taking a look back there?”

Meren shuffled his way towards the back of the cart, and a moment of panic seemed to overcome the man by the cart, who immediately shifted his attention backwards. Ava sighed quietly, reflecting back on Erius wisdom. Dropping a hand from her leathers, she stepped forwards to snap her fingers at him, and garner his attention.

”Look, mister. Don’t be thinking of doing nothing foolish now. All we want is a bit of what you got, and you get to go on your way. Just think of it as trade. You’re big on the love goddess, right?” she offered and gestured towards him. His eyes shot back to look at her, confused and scared. ”Well, how about this. You help us get a little something-something, and I swear on Neiya herself that that’ll be the end of it. I ain’t never gonna back down from a deal that helps both of us. I’ll cut down all threats to you myself, in a single swing. Yeah?” she half-bragged, to the man’s apparent consternation.

Suddenly, the air grew warm around her. She felt her cheeks flush with a heat far beyond that of summer, and the voice of Erius warbling in the background as sound began to fade out. A strange heat burrowed itself deep into the back of her mind, dizzying her thoughts and making her sight fuzzy. It was hard to stay in the moment. Meren yelled something at the back of the cart and pointed at it. That prompted the man to jump one of the beams and rush towards the back himself. Ava, who was closest, tried to move to intercept, but her body wasn’t responding. It was like overdosing on Evening Bells; her body had no mind to listen properly. Erius shoved her aside and she went tumbling into the bushes.

"You’d say anything to get what you want, wouldn’t you?” a soothing voice rang out in her head, overpowering everything else. "I want you to have everything you wish for, my dearest. How will you make good on your words in a ditch, with tools of bone and stone? With a mind that cannot help but break every bond you make?”

Something rippled through her body, an unease that made her feel like the rustling bush was swallowing her into some void. Ava battled against her own body, trying to stagger back onto the road, onto her feet. When the voice faded, some normalcy began to come back to her. She had just about stood up when a scream cut through the noise, ripping her attention up to the cart. A pale young woman sat curled up under a roughspun blanket, oaken hair with small horns jutting from her forehead. She was a beauty to behold, enough to make Ava’s fuzzy mind feel an all new array of dizziness. Ava followed the gaze of the beauty instead, and found herself staring at the scene that produced the scream in the first place; Meren stood over the man from the cart, blood on his blade. Erius thundered forwards around the cart to smack Meren over the head. Ava herself stumbled towards the scene with uncertain steps, breathing heavily.

“Idiot!” Erius yelled at a confused-looking Meren. “He’s protecting someone, of course he’s jumpy! Well, Meren, you’re a killer now. Welcome to the group.”

Meren stammered a quiet defence to Erius as Ava peered around, eyes fixating on the girl again. She was sobbing, screaming things at them, and huddling in her blanket. Running did not seem to have come across as an option to her. Even when she looked absolutely devastated, she was fascinating. Ava summoned her remaining strength to climb the side of the cart and make space beside the girl. Her sheer presence was enough to pacify the terrified woman, who cringed into a corner to make herself small. Ava narrowed her eyes, trying to think through the fuzz. ”What about the girl?” she mustered.

Erius paced towards the cart, glancing at her briefly. Like Ava, he seemed to appreciate her for a long time. She hadn’t known him to be that kind of old coot, but there was a day for everything. “Pretty thing like that; probably do her a service if we sell her. I have a contact by the swamplands.” he offered quickly, before glancing back to Meren to continue their talk. Ava hummed quietly and gave her a last look before beginning to shift away.

“...Please help me.” the girl spoke from her hideout in the cart. “I-..I heard what you said. I c-can.. I can pay you anything you want. Don’t let them take me. Pr--..Protect me.” Her hand clutched Ava’s tunic, halting her in her steps.

"A deal offered, and a deal taken. That is what you wished for, is it not?” the voice from before rang out once more, blurring the pleas of the woman and stowing the world back for a few moments. Her leathers grew heavier with weight, and her searching hands found a longer blade added to the collection she carried. A long knife, sheathed in what looked like hardened leather and silver. "With this blessing comes a warning, Ava, daughter of Urven and Kala. You swore on my name, and I have held you to the letter of that word. The next time you disrespect my name, you will wish the guards had killed you instead of cast you out.” With that, the voice was gone, and with it, the pressure on her mind. Reality spiraled back into focus with surprising speed and clarity, enough to shock her system. Ava tore herself away from the cart. She wanted to leave, but something inside her tugged at her heartstrings, buried itself deep in the back of her mind. A niggling need to do right by the girl.

”Fine.” she offered quickly, before stepping off the cart, just in time to intercept Meren heading straight for the woman. ”Can’t let you do that, friend.” she said, a twinge of venom bubbling up unbidden. She found a strange resolve when thinking of it; she had a purpose now. Whether she liked it or not.

“What? Come on, Ava, don’t be a bitch. I’m just gonna say hello.” Meren growled at her, and shoved her firmly. Ava stumbled a few steps, but quickly moved back to block his way. The exchange was enough to draw Erius attention away from looting the dead man, and he moved to join them.

”This woman is under my” she spat out, tasting the words as they surprised even her.

“The hell are you saying? Stop fooling around, Ava. I f-fucking killed a guy!” Meren burst out, and again tried to push past her onto the cart. Ava booted him away with her foot, glancing at them both. That only seemed to enrage Meren more, and he reached for his blade, holding it up threateningly towards her.

“Ava, get down from there before I take you down myself.” Elrius shot in, but it was too little too late. Meren came towards the cart once more, hoisting his blade high. Ava reached instinctively towards her leather straps, grasping the first weapon that her fingers found. She clenched her hand around the hilt of the sheathed long knife and drew it. The knife had barely left an inch of its sheath when a spray of blood shot into the sky, spattering over both Ava and Elrius. Meren fell to the ground, clutching at his throat in a few panicked moments before life left him. Ava widened her eyes, staring at the scene. She glanced to Elrius in disbelief, only to see him topple backwards onto the ground, his tunic quickly staining with red all of its own. She pushed the blade back into its sheath, uncertain of what had just occurred. Silence reigned for a long time, as Ava just stared at the grisly scene.

“Thank you..” piped a voice from the back of the cart.

”...You’d better be worth the payment.” Ava eventually produced, pushing her emotions down and fighting the bitter sting in her eyes away. The old man had joked about Meren being his death not a week earlier, yet here she stood. Two years of cooperation, for what? Did she really speak to a goddess? Or a vengeful spirit? Ava slowly climbed off of the wagon, deep in thought.

“Wh-.. Where are you going?”

”Well, the old man won’t be needing that coin he liberated from your friend anymore.”


Talons rapped restlessly against the opulent armrests of the throne Neiya found herself languidly sat back in. The impatient clicking of nails against stone were joined only by the sound of the cold river snaking through the glen. The occasional butterfly and the eternal wilting and regrowth of the trees could no longer capture her attention, even though she appreciated their beauty. Likewise, the prayers of mortals had lost much, if not all of their appeal. She found herself responding only to the most novel of prayers; the most devout, the most impassioned, and the most outlandish. Furthermore, she felt as though many of her prayers had shifted - there truly was nothing more banal than yet another mortal asking for her blessing in a battle without even knowing her name.

The maelstrom of emotions that had given her so much bitterness was much more manageable now, quieted by experience, control, and shifting the burden onto Aveira. Now she found herself missing the potency with which it had coursed through her mind in the past. It had dominated her every breath, demanded attention and threatened to distract her. Now that she found herself squaring it away into a constant but unimportant sensation, there was nothing to fill the void left by the absence of it’s chaotic roar. Neiya came upon a simple, inescapable truth; she was bored.

For a time she busied herself with the simplest of pleasures; responding to those few prayers that interested her most, and pushing the people asking for her aid to do as they wished rather than what was necessary. A human man pushed to break a few rules to be with the woman he desired, a lapite noble convinced to listen to his own interests rather than the wisdom of his advisors. Through coaxing, manipulation, sweet words and bullying, they all walked straight towards what they innerly wished for. It led to a few distinct and cathartic moments, but more than anything else it made her feel fulfilled. For a time.

She had made an active decision to not visit Cadien in Meliorem for a while, lest he begin to take her for granted. Yamat's realm was even less enticing than her own, and the God of Tragedy was always smugly entertained - something she resented deeply in her own dearth of entertainment. She didn't particularly want to brave Antiquity either; it was inevitably lifeless and uninteresting. No, whatever enjoyment she would glean, she would find from her throne. If Yamat and Cadien could do it, so could she.

Something needed to change. Her purpose was clearer now. The torrent of emotion had felt like a curse, a bitter blend of pain and occasional happiness. But now that it was quieter, it was easier to separate and experience. To immerse herself in without being overpowered by a flurry of unbidden emotions. From this fresh, distant perspective, she could find new appreciation in sampling even the most desperate, sorrowful pains. Each pang of guilt, fury, sadness. All of it had a story, a tale of mortals caught up in their own struggles. These emotions, tied up within each other, were a tangled mess, an uncomfortable torrent of needs and wants. She couldn't find the right moments that caused such stark feelings herself, nor did she have any intention to sit tight and spectate mortals in their dreadfully slow and dense pace. But she could create an approximation to be enjoyed.

Willing a return to her clear connection with the maelstrom of emotion, Neiya immersed herself fully in the experience, as she had the peaceful tranquility of the ocean - and the endless expanse of Aicheil's realm. Allowed herself to feel and, knowing the experience was now entirely voluntary, enjoy each twist and churn of mortal expression. Hate, sorrow, anguish, despair, desire, happiness. Each had their own distinct feeling, their particular reason for existence. In a way, each was exciting to feel when sorted from the mess.

Neiya extended her talons out towards her realm, and the entire area began to warp and twist as the maelstrom left her mind to affect the landscape. She had tried to imitate Galbar, and made a desolate waste - no more. She would do what she wanted. Unfettered by the tedious laws of the world beyond. The ashen landscape and river twisted and broke apart, divided into a dizzying array of islands, valleys, and oceans with no true arrangement. Without divine power or flight, moving between the areas would be all but impossible - and even then they each had their own direction. Each themed after a touch of emotion as Neiya experienced it. It was an endless landscape of new experiences. But it was not enough. She wanted more.

Neiya deepened her connection to the desires of mortals, diving deep into the wellspring of sensations to dig up the most rare, depraved and strange emotions. All mortal desire would have a place. The most powerful and primal needs, the feelings that ruled all mortals, beyond their pathetic contexts. Pride. Greed. Lust. Wrath. Envy. She felt herself change under her new purpose, a greater power allowing her to finally smooth out the jagged chaos she had suffered in the past. Bring her shape some warmth, accentuate herself according to mortal desires. This was her true purpose - doing what she wanted; and allowing mortals to embrace themselves in the same way. They called it sin, she knew it was more than that - it was mortality being true to themselves - and it was exciting.

As the realm began to settle, Neiya reclined in her throne once more. She regarded her now black nails, long still but less openly violent. Her skin was a warm shade of pink, soft and curvaceous as opposed to her other forms. A single set of horns ran from her forehead. The metallic edges and shoulder horns were gone, in their place a majestic set of leathery dark wings.

Neiya smiled gingerly to herself. She was complete, and ready to make her mark on Galbar once and for all. To start, she needed to settle some old scores.

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