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7 mos ago
Current I feel like I'm learning to write all over again.
8 mos ago
Roleplaying is like a fine wine. I don't get enough of it, and most of the time I fail to appreciate it properly.
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Writing is work. The more of it you do, the more you feel like Steve in Accounting is out to get you.
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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.

Memories & Confessions

The land below Eesis steadily changed as they neared the Prairie. Rocky terrain and forests gave way to long stretches of grasslands, golden and green, pocketed with forests and lakes. They even passed over a herd of Auroran Deer, their majestic halos a beacon in the grasses. With each flap of her wings, Eesis was fast approaching the golden sea beyond. The blue sky above began to beat down on them as it sank on the horizon, it was late day, and soon evening. But even from their height, the heat became uncomfortable and Lucia was forced to strip her long brown cloak in favor of her garments that she wore underneath. The wind felt divine upon her arms and she out stretched them in earnest letting the air cool her off.

She looked back at Sanya, who still held onto her like a pup. An adorable pup at that and said, "We're getting closer, won't be long before we enter the Prairie proper and then arrive at the Temple!"

The dark-haired warrior nodded at first, gazing out towards the east in the growing twilight. She'd had a good amount of time to grow used to flight, but still reacted to every shift from Lucia with silent distress. She also, Lucia had learned, preferred to lean forward rather than raise her voice too much. Brought out of her daze, Sanya looked at Lucia and slowly pushed her face forward in that same way, lips brought to her ear. "How long has it been for you?" she asked as peacefully as possible against the wind.

Sanya's voice sent a small shiver up her spine at first before she thought on what she asked. It made Lucia pause. How long had it been? Five years? Ten years? She knew druids traveled there to see her, she had even been happy to welcome them but surely they didn't think she'd always stay there? "Uh…" she began, "It's been a bit but not long enough where people I knew would all be dead. I hope. Well at least the ones I knew last time I was there."

That seemed to make Sanya smile, as guarded and faint as the crease in her lips might be. "You're a hard woman to forget, Lucia," she retorted with another close lean. "I think you're in for another heroes' welcome."

Lucia giggled at that. "Was it my tattoos that gave it away?" she mused before frowning slightly. "That might be true at first, but unlike the druids, the people of the Sunland have always treated me with respect and they don't snoop through my stuff either." she said, rolling her eyes. Still, there was part of her that was nervous. She really didn't want to deal with that again.

Sanya shifted her grip slowly to wrap her arms further around Lucia's stomach, shuffling up against Lucia's back firmly to half-rest her head against her shoulder and head. "I feel as if they acted anything like those druids, the Sunlands would've stopped existing long ago." she offered with some of her deadpan sass. "Could have built yourself an empire."

Lucia's heart beat a little faster at Sanya's touch. Even now she wasn't entirely used to it and it gave her stomach butterflies. To hide her flustered embarrassment she spoke quickly, "Me? A ruler?" she forced a laugh before coughing and saying, "I'd make a terrible ruler. As you know, I'm not very stern. And not really cut out for such a life, as you also saw." Besides the last time she held a position of authority… Well… The city fell. She pushed that thought from her mind and spun it back at Sanya. "Now you on the other hand, I could see it. Queen Sanya, Ruler of the Highlands. That could be fun."

There was a soft hum at first, Sanya musing over the words. "I'd be lying if I said I've never considered it, she eventually replied, a mellow levity to her tone. "I was a poor chieftess. Very poor. Sometimes I wonder if I'd be better with all I've learned. Usually when someone with authority bothers me. Me and the Highlands though - I don't know if we're good for each other."

"Hmm. I feel you are too harsh on yourself Sanya. Wisdom comes with age so they say. Soooooo we should probably be really wise now huh?" Lucia laughed again, leaning her head on Sanya's as she took a deep breath. "This is nice, all the same." she sighed happily. She felt the gentle vibration as Sanya hummed another agreement.

"I'm not sure I'll get used to flying, but the view is gorgeous," Sanya replied and chuckled calmly.

"It sure is." Lucia agreed. "I wouldn't want to share it with anyone else." she followed, murmuring softly.

They had flown for long enough for the sun to begin dipping, a peaceful warmth cast over the landscape as more and more of the horizon crested with golden prairie in the distance beyond cliff and crag. Sanya had long since accepted the helplessness of her position, and found herself gently leaning into Lucia for support as she languidly watched the landscape shift under them. It was the best way to feel safe - even with the brief unsteadiness Eesis was prone to, Lucia was like a rock, and her breathing was calming. At this height, few emotions seemed to reach from below, and beside the occasional twinge of uncertainty, it was still, even in her head. If they hadn’t been able to fall to their death at the whim of a winged beast, Sanya could have stayed like this for a long time.

Not everything was meant to last, however. A black shape on the landscape below caught Sanya’s attention, and she shook out of her idle daze to focus on it further. It was smoke, a plume of it rising high into the sky from the ground below, and what looked like houses and fields. A village? "Lucia? Do you see that?” she muttered after a few moments, and lifted a hand from it’s wrap around Lucia’s stomach to point down towards the distant ground, and the plume of smoke.

Lucia turned her head, following Sanya's hand to where she pointed. "Yeah, I see it. Should we check it out?"

Sanya frowned to herself, eyeing the plume with building distaste. She’d seen enough fires in her life to know this was beyond the norm. "I think so. Could be trouble,” she intoned in turn, sighing quietly.

She felt a slight squeeze on her hand that was still wrapped around Lucia's waist. Lucia then yelled, "Eesis! Change of plans girl, take us to that plume of smoke please!" the Leoness moved her head in that direction and with a slight turn they were headed closer. The situation rapidly became clearer as the plume grew larger and larger. Soon they could see figures milling about from buildings - panic and disarray visible even from the air as Eesis rapidly closed the distance.

Sanya felt a growing twinge, confirming the suspicion. Anger, fear, panic, a dangerous mingle began to grow in the back of her head, like a ball of despair attaching itself like a warning. That mixture of feelings was one she had felt many times. She gripped her arm tighter around Lucia to hold on, and her other hand reached back over her shoulder to feel for her spear. "I’m dragging you into more conflict. But if there are innocents down there-... There’s enough suffering around.” Sanya proffered with a crisp voice, cutting herself off as she stared down at the growing village.

"It's alright Sanya. Innocents come first, we both know that. I'm going to put Eesis down and tell her to get to safety. Get ready." Lucia said to her, voice strong. "Eesis, take us down girl!" and their rapid descent began with the howling of the wind in their ears. Sanya nodded firmly behind Lucia, and freed Sorrowsting from it’s prison between her back and packing with a firm grip unfazed by the wind.

The plume of black smoke quickly became the main feature of the landscape, growing in size until the reason for its existence became apparent; a large longhouse of wood, hay and straw was alight in the midst of a sizable village, and the fire was spreading along both the ground and catching on a nearby shed, threatening to consume all if left unstopped. All about the village, silhouettes ran about in a panic. Some rushed to wells, others in and out of buildings. It was like watching ants from their vantage point of zooming down from above. The roar of fire replaced much of the howl of wind as they drew closer, and intermingled with the discordant cries from the ground. Panic, anger, despair. Sanya felt it clutch at her heart like a dagger plunged clean through her chest, and the sounds followed suit to make it clear how widespread it was. Only as the ground became a tangible presence rather than a painted landscape did it become apparent that the silhouettes were fighting amongst each other. Ragged men and women with sharp weapons chased others; women, children, men. A few were fighting back, but it was a battle to prolong the inevitable, by the looks of it. People were dragged screaming from their houses, or had their hiding place torn open to be assaulted. Chaos.

Eesis roared as they landed with a tremendous thud. Those who had not seen her descent amidst the smoke, now fell over backwards at her sheer size and majesty. Yet her sizeable presence only lasted seconds, before a scream sounded and the village erupted into chaos again. Lucia cursed under her breath. "I was hoping that would have worked!" she shouted, quickly sliding off of her fur and onto the ground. She turned back to Eesis and said, "Alright girl! Get out of here. Fly fly!" she raised her hands, trying to get the Leoness to leave. She let out a low growl, her eyes blinking slow before in a few beats of her wings, she flew off.

"We should evacuate the village centre and see if we can stop the spread of fire. Let’s tidy up these aggressors as we go.” Sanya offered crisply, drawing on a knowledge that felt innate by now, and tore two tied straps by her side, letting their packing fall to the ground. With Sorrowsting in hand, she moved towards the immediate conflict, and the smoke.

"Sanya!" Lucia shouted after her.

Sanya hesitated for a moment, about to peer over her shoulder to find Lucia, but a scream caught her attention instead. A terrified older woman burst out from a smaller hut clutching at her clothes, and out behind her chased a ragged-looking man with a crude axehead affixed to an equally crude club. It matched a repeating pattern that had been going on for centuries. Sanya knew it by heart, at this point. Acting on instinct was enough. She ran forward, spear hefted into a proper position. Let the roil of anguish and fear take over, and settle like a toxic growth to fuel her. The man turned to see her coming, and foolishly lifted his axe to swing at her. Sorrowsting sang as metal careened through the air, and the sharp twin blades at it’s tip slashed deep into the ragged attacker. He fell to the ground, and Sanya swiftly looked for the next cluster of trouble.

She caught sight of a trio barrelling their way up a small path to a larger hut, one of them carrying a crude torch, no more than twenty paces away. She had practiced for this. The Acadian Thrust would be of use after all. She hefted Sorrowsting in one hand, took a solid centering breath, and threw her arm forward with considerable force. The black spear hurled through the air with merciless speed. A mere moment later, the back of the one with the torch arched in surprise and pain, as the spear sank deep into their body. The other two found Sanya staring at them in the chaos, and turned on their path to come rushing back down towards her. One man, one woman. No armor. The man hesitated to put weight on his left leg as he ran. That was enough. Sanya flexed her fingers swiftly and aptly, listening to the droning buzz of hatred, fear and pain that stormed through her mind. Felt her body itch for combat, push for survival. They’d regret the day they assaulted innocent villagers.

A brown-haired, angry woman in crude warpaint came first, rushing straight at her with an axe held high. Too high. Sanya launched forwards with as much speed as she could, driving her elbow forward to smash into the woman’s upper torso. Just as she expected, it knocked the wind out of her. Unexpected however, was how much Sanya had underestimated her own strength, and she watched with brief bemusement as the ragged woman toppled back several feet and rolled wheezing onto the ground. It didn’t seem to dissuade her friend, who came hobbling at a quick pace with a simple wooden spear. Sanya narrowed her eyes and waited for him to make his move. No technique. No grace. No thought in his movements. When the spear came in for a frontal jab, it was simple to step aside and lay a hand on his roughly hewn weapon. She pulled with force, and jerked the man forwards against his will, before quickly sending a foot crashing towards the side of his left knee. His leg bent like a twig under pressure, and his scream and the snap told Sanya all she needed to know. She released his spear and let him fall to the ground, taking quick steps across the paths to recover Sorrowsting from the downed torchbearer.

From her new position, she surveyed the village as it burned. Screaming, smoke, flashes of fire, it intermingled with deep-seated anger, whirling panic, mania, and sorrow. It was always the same. Pain. Suffering. Death. Endless torment and self-destruction; that was humanity’s great destiny. It made her sick. Made it hard to keep the memories out. Teeth. Claws. Knives. Blood. Fire flashed in front of her face, and she cringed away from it, but just as soon it was gone, replaced by the ambient heat of the nearby longhouse laid ablaze. She looked at the bodies strewn about, innocent men and women cut down. Cut down like they were nothing. The droning of emotions blocked her thoughts, made it hard to think. She took a few quick steps to rush down the hill, eyeing the destruction. If she had come sooner, they would be alive. Someone always had to die. A curtain was pulled aside, and a man came running out. A stocky warrior, black soot in his face, with teeth strung around his neck. A surge of panic rippled through her, and she swung Sorrowsting violently, beheading the man before he had a chance to come any closer. What were Vaaku warriors doing here? She looked down at her defeated foe, but his features seemed to have changed. The soot was replaced by a murky beard. When were the Vaaku last seen, again? When was this? Was this a dream? Sanya had no more time to think as another set of warriors came rushing around a corner, chasing three villagers.

So she intervened, as she always had. Let the whine of her spear and the crashing waves of emotions guide her. It was rote, now. So many faces over the years. So many lives taken. They melded together. Images on images of faces, all twisted with rage and panic. Sorrowsting whirled through the air as she moved on her new targets. It was difficult to focus. Impossible to think. Just react. Let the emotions roil. She felt her eyes well up as she cut through one man’s staff, and blinked several times to see him topple back frightened on the ground. His comrade came at her from the side with a jagged club, and she blocked it easily with the center of her spear’s handle. The grinning Ketrefan captain leered at her, dragging his copper-embellished weapon against the handle, cornering her. She swept her spear down at his legs to ground him, and then quickly stepped forwards to stomp on his throat. He gurgled and wheezed, and with another blink the dying man turned ragged and unimportant. Where did the captain go? There was movement at her side, and she swept Sorrowsting swiftly, cutting the man down before he could stand back up.

Another scream cut through the haze, and Sanya redirected her gaze towards another hut in the distance. Angles of the buildings aligned in a strange way, and she remembered the village of Ansrache, images of slaughter and chaos forcing themselves back in haphazard flashes. Screaming. Fire. Blood. Dozens of dead, stacked in piles. Stakes, decorated with those she could not save. The images flickered in and out of reality, forcing themselves onto her eyes again and again. She gasped, clutching her spear and groaned. That was before. It was over. This was different. Wasn’t it? A yawning abyss grew in the back of her head, an endless rush of anger, sorrow, and fear.

Sanya struggled forwards all the same, following the bloodied dirt path towards the roaring flame at the center of the village, the direction of the scream - she was sure. The heat swiftly became unpleasant, and she released a hand to wipe sweat from her face. It came away drenched in crimson. Was she hurt? When did that happen? A crash of wood and a rustle from a smaller hovel on her right caught her attention, and she moved towards it with renewed suspicion. In the spaces between the roughshod boards, she saw movement. The curtain to the doorway had been turned down, and even from afar she saw the bodies of at least two unfortunate villagers.

The silhouette inside seemed to have noticed the movement outside, brisk movement flickered past the boards and then came to a sharp halt by the archway inside, poorly illuminated by the flames. She wouldn’t be snuck up on. Never again. Sanya watched the shape remain still for a few moments, before picking up her pace into a quick lunge towards the shoddy wall, driven by instinct. She swung her arm hard against the planks, and they snapped like sticks and twigs. A gasp from inside as her fingers found purchase around a collar. Sanya pulled, and tore the shape out through the broken wall, listening to the pulse of fury and fear in her head. The shape tumbled to the ground outside with a loud thump, raised its arms in defense. It was too late. Sorrowsting came down to end the threat before it became one. Only now did she see - it was a man. Well, no longer.

“Over here!” a voice belted at the top of their lungs somewhere behind her, and Sanya turned to face the sound - the brown-haired woman in warpaint from before. Sanya watched her with brief bewilderment. Did the dead rise? Did she forget her? It didn’t matter now. She hefted her spear up with both hands to face the woman, who took her time standing on the same hill that Sanya had climbed before. Two men came rushing along the side of the small incline, raising clubs and knives. A third man appeared beside the painted woman, clutching a spear shakily. Together, the four of them descended towards Sanya, weapons held defensively in front of them.
Sanya lifted her own guard, staring at the center of mass of the woman. As long as she kept them in front of her, she would do fine. Taking a deep breath, Sanya took a few steps to the side to clear her space, lifting Sorrowsting in preparation. She thought of nothing. There was nothing to think about. Just a haze. Adrenaline. Survival. Death.

The four broke formation and rushed at her with a chorus of yells. Sanya raised her weapon, and danced two steps forwards to meet them head-on.

”Sanya! Sanya!” A concerned voice rang out. With it came a surge of reality.

Sanya drew a shaky breath, blinking several times as the world and the burning village filled back in around her. Her arm strained under light pressure - at the end hung a woman in warpaint; bruised, bloodied, and helplessly kicking the air as she struggled against Sanya's vice grip around her throat. She seemed to have lost hold of Sorrowsting, and with it, her sense of time and place. She felt dull, tired. Worn. Empty. Much of the haze seemed to have lifted, the whirl of hate and pain moving on, or quieted. She stared at the woman fighting against her grip and frowned deeply. Sanya tightened her grip and lifted the warrior higher to the melody of her choking.

A hand fell upon her shoulder, another plea. ”Sanya! She’s beaten, stop! Please! Stop!” The voice cried out.

Her body stiffened under the touch, a reflexive urge to spin around and strike bubbling beneath the surface. Familiarity began to settle in, and memories returned from their exile. "L-... Lucia?" she offered quietly, then stared at the struggling warrior again. What was she doing? She lessened her grip and let the woman fall to the ground with a crash; she collapsed from exhaustion, clutching at her throat and breathing in a panic. Only then did the scene set in. Three warriors strewn about, lifeless among the rest of the carnage. Her spear was still stuck in one of them. Sanya clutched at the side of her head, fighting a resurging headache.

She felt Lucia wrap her arms around her in a comforting embrace. ”I’m here. I’m here.” she cooed. ”It’s over, no more fighting. You won.”

The words alone were enough to drain her of energy, replaced by a hollow fatigue. She wanted to simply stand there, melt into the arms of another and forget. With the end of battle came the same bitterness she'd fought for centuries. She kicked out towards the grounded warrior to focus her energy. "You. Take your life and leave." she murmured with a frown. The woman did not seem to need further coaxing, battling to stand on unsteady feet before starting limp away. Sanya in turn gingerly wrestled out of Lucia's embrace, and like clockwork moved to retrieve Sorrowsting, like a loyal dog fetching her stick. She eyed the destruction around them, the dead, and memories of the battle came to her in flashes, emotions. Hate. "The villagers…" she began in an unfinished question.

Lucia came up beside her. Her hair was a mess, her tattoo’s pulsed quickly, and her clothes were scratched and torn, caked in dry blood. ”Most are safe now. It was an attack from raiders, who have been run off.” she paused, gazing upon her. ”Are you okay, Sanya?” she asked.

Sanya drew a long and shaky breath. She hesitated to answer, her mind beset with guilt and despair. "It's… always like this. Wherever I go. Death. War. Humans are like a poison to each other, Lucia. We kill, hurt and defile each other. An endless cycle of pain." she replied with a bitter, unsteady tone. "This is all we are. What she wanted me to see. Fickle, petty ants who can't wait to kill each other."

"That's… That's not true." Lucia began. "There is good still, there always has been. You and I know this more than any one person. Sure, they can be bad and hurt one another, but they also have the capacity to help, to grow, to learn. Together and for each other. Please Sanya, you must see there is more to the death and pain. You have to." Her voice fell quiet.

Sanya gripped the handle of her weapon tightly with one hand, slowly turning her head to glance back at Lucia out of the corner of her eye. "Why?" she murmured sullenly. "Look around you. This is-... this is what they did to my home. Endless days, months and years, and there are still trolls. Still raiders. The only thing that's changed is that the weapons are sharper." she continued, turning to face her properly. She watched Lucia, frowning as she saw her expression. She knew how she sounded. Felt how her bitterness rose back to the surface. "Why did I think I could make a difference this time?"

"Because you're a good person Sanya!" Lucia exclaimed, stepping forward. "You want to help those who can't help themselves. You want to save people from cruelty and death. You want a better world, where people can live in peace and happiness. That's why you fight, that's why you've always fought." She breathed.

She felt the sting of anxious thought rise in the emptiness. Was it her own? Lucia's? Sanya exhaled sharply, and drew her gaze away from the tattooed woman. "A good person." she repeated quietly, gaze flitting across the battlefield. Slowly she lowered to a crouch, gripping the hair of one of the fallen with her free hand and lifting him up in grim display. "Do you think this man would agree? I had the power of a god in my hands, and I used it for murder. I still do. What if that was why I was punished? Because I'm a killer."

Lucia flinched at the sight but stood straighter. Her tattoos expanded in size and began to pulse quicker. "That man did not know you." she said, her hands balling into fists. "He was a person that preyed upon innocent lives and you killed him, yes. You killed him but that does not make you a murderer. You killed him, them, everyone before, in the name of protection. In the name of peace." Her hands relaxed and she looked around before gazing upon Sanya again, her expression one of sadness. "A murderer does not regret killing, Sanya. Do you?" She asked.

Sanya loosened her grip, letting the body fall back into the dirt with a thud. She stared at the ground, asking herself the question over and over in her head. "I… I don't know. How am I supposed to know, Lucia?" she asked with building distress. She stood back up and gestured to the carnage. "Maybe once, but these people mean nothing to me. I… they're just memories. Movements. Predictable patterns and scenes of gore that stopped s-scaring me a long time ago. People that look like people I know are dead. People I will never know. Half… half the time I don't even know where I am. When I am. It's-..." Sanya trailed off, unsure of what to say. Her hand moved to drag over her face, still caked with smears of blood. She took a long, shaky breath, her eyes raw as though she were on the verge of tears. A look long forgotten, welling up from the past. "Wherever I go. It's death. It's always death."

There came no reply from Lucia but within seconds two warm arms embraced Sanya. "It's okay. It's okay, Sanya. I know where you are. Right here, in my arms. It'll be okay." Lucia cooed.

Sanya stared off to the side at first, a shaky and uneasy breath rippling from her lips. She leaned into the embrace after a few seconds, head laid against Lucia. Silence reigned for a time, Sanya stuck deep in her own thoughts. Eventually, she came back up to the surface. "I'm so tired, Lucia. Everyone fades away. Like butterflies, gone after a season or two. Constant new faces. New names. New languages. I don't… I don't belong anymore."

Lucia's embrace tightened. "Then let's … Then let's run away." she said, tattoos pulsing faster.

"...Run away?" Sanya questioned quietly, watching the village beyond from her vantage point, captured in Lucia's embrace. She scoffed softly. "I've tried. How would this time be any different?"

"Because you didn't have me by your side." Lucia retorted with a small giggle. "I'm not going to leave you again, not unless you want me too." she paused, her heartbeat racing in Sanya's ears. Tattoos matching the rhythm. "Sanya… I love you." she let the words linger in the air before she exploded, "I've been such a fool for so long! You were always there by my side when I needed you and I never saw what was before me. I was too caught up with the past and what might be, to see what could be. I don't even know if you feel the same way but it's eating me up inside everytime I look at you. I-I-I just needed to get it off my chest. I don't even know if this is the right moment or if it's what you want to hear but I- I love you Sanya. So let's run away, just the two of us. Somewhere far from prying eyes and just live in peace and quiet. Away from violence and war. Please." she took a deep breath, hardly able to contain herself.

Sanya allowed silence to reign after Lucia’s confession, continuing to stare out over the village and the desolation around them from her sanctuary between tattooed arms. She listened to Lucia’s heart, pounding away in her ear. Felt a conspiring fear rising out of anxiety sting at the back of her mind. Sanya closed her eyes and exhaled slowly, leaning in against the dark-skinned woman a little more.


The Bard’s College

Year 15AA...

A single bead of sweat rolled down over Eòghan’s forehead, the blazing midday sun bearing down on him with relentless fury as he worked. He gripped the last of his roughly hewn stakes and slotted it neatly into the grooved support posts. With a solid bit of applied pressure, the wood gave way just enough to allow the intrusion, and clapped back neatly around the stake to complete the fence, with his custom carved joints and rails enough to keep it solidly in place. A confident smile built on his features as he scraped up from the dirt to observe his work properly. His father would be proud to see his innovation and craftsmanship no doubt.

“Brie, I think I’m done, wanna take a look?” he said loudly, eyes fixed on his work, the neatly arranged stakes shielding the entire house. Simple, effective, and good-looking. He heard the idle rustle from inside the house as she made her move outside, and felt his pride swell when he heard her gasp. The blonde housewife wandered out into her little yard, a hand stretched out to gingerly touch at the new fence, and then grip it to test the durability. Eòghan smirked to himself, confident it would hold, and instead watched the Dûnan woman as she leaned and moved about. Her simple dress did little to mask her curvaceous form as she waddled around. Through his time in Ha-Dûna, Eòghan had come to find a natural appreciation for the natural beauty of women with a belly full of life. She caught him looking as she stood half-bent to inspect his fencework, and a self-conscious, shy smile built on her features. She toyed with a lock of her hair as she stood up, halted in hesitation before she approached. Every motion made Eòghan tense with a smug anticipation, watching her torment herself in thought.

“Oh, Eòghan, it’s wonderful! Ever since Gwyn told me what you’d done for her, I’ve been hoping we could finally put an end to our escaping goats and keep the children safe. Thank you!” Brie recounted with a warm smile. He watched her with a brimming smile, steadfast and roving over her features. He could see her battle with her thoughts. After another bout of hesitation, she grazed his arm with a flighty set of fingers, exhaling unsteadily to break her shy smile. The sensation sent a torrent of butterflies rippling through him, and only served to build his smile up further. This was paradise. “I’m-.. perhaps you’d allow me the courtesy of-... well, if you want to come in.. I could… make something. I feel like I should.. thank you.”

Eòghan gripped her hand into both of his own, and raised it to his lips. Keeping his gaze firmly on her eyes and face, he kissed it gently, and watched her face burst into new hues of red and pink. “The summer season has barely begun, Brie. I would hate for you to have forgotten me by autumn’s first breath,” he offered with a husky, confident tone. He’d practiced his voice for perfection, and it was a delight to see her so captivated. “And I’m afraid I’m promised elsewhere. But I’d love to come back tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” She offered, and her face grew redder as reason began to intermingle with shame. “I-.. well, it’s-..”

“Wouldn’t want to leave you without a fence gate to match, after all.” he offered with a smile, and gently laid her hand against her own chest, patting it briefly as he smiled.

The wash of relief, confusion, and anticipation that followed on Brie’s face was worth it. She exhaled deeply, unsteadily, and looked over towards the gate before snickering sheepishly. “Oh. Oh, right. Yes. Hah.” She locked eyes with him of her own volition, clearing her throat. “Tomorrow, then.”

“I’m already looking forward to it.” Eòghan mused calmly.

“Me too-.. I mean. Yes. Thank you again, Eòghan. I’ll.. I should start on dinner, I think.” Brie offered with flushed cheeks that were once more flaring up with shame. She bowed her head to him twice and then turned to waddle back towards the house, touching her cheeks. Eòghan followed her with his gaze, and she twisted around to thank him a last time before dipping back inside her little cottage.

Eòghan chuckled to himself, flexing his fingers thoughtfully as he watched the little drape cover the entrance to Brie’s home. He wasn’t sure how much Gwyn had told her, but it certainly wasn’t bad. Shaking his head, he wandered out of the yard, closing the soon-to-be-replaced gate behind him. The dirt paths of Ha-Dûna stretched out before him, and it was like stepping back out into another world. Without Brie to steal his attention, he heard the bleating of animals, the everpresent cries and yelling of children that really had become its signature melody, and the sights of folk going about their day.

He caught sight of Zelda watching him from two houses away, and smirked to himself. He still remembered the feel of her lips, and her soft skin against his. He lifted a hand to offer her a casual wave in recognition, and even from afar he could see her struck with embarrassment, shrinking together behind her gardening tool - but not enough not to return the wave shyly. He’d have to pay her a visit sometime soon, reassure her he hadn’t forgotten her. But first - he’d promised Gwyn to give her what her husband couldn’t. Ha-Dûna was a well-oiled machine, and Eòghan had found his place in it. He smirked to himself, considering his coming evening as he strolled down along the paths, learned feet carrying him towards Gwyn’s homestead by rote.

In the span of a second, however, two white-cloaked shadows appeared before him as though they had skipped out from behind a nearby bush. Their arms were crossed over their chests sternly, and one had a face with a fuzzy shrub while the other looked to have a bit of a back problem. They each offered Eòghan a scowl as the shorter of them, the one with the back, muttered, “Big plans today, Eòghan?” in a nasal, female voice.

Eòghan froze in his tracks, eyeing them both with confusion. ”Ah. Kaer… Rana, isn’t it?” he offered back at her with a quick smile, before looking at the fuzzy man. ”...And I want to say-... Hm, Garm? Jarn? Just enjoying the summer, myself. How about you two? He tried to look happy, but their stern posture made it difficult. Druids in general were difficult to deal with, that had never changed. Even Aoife had become demanding and aloof, always droning on about responsibilities.

“Gorm, and that’s -Kaer- Gorm to you, man,” the fuzzy druid responded and gave his temple a scratch. Kaer Rana followed Eòghan’s eyes back over to Zelda, who by now was hurrying back indoors. The old druid scoffed quietly to herself and looked back at the young man with her toad-like frown.

“Who’s turn was it -this- afternoon, then? Hers?” She nodded in the direction of Zelda’s house. “Anni’s? Perhaps it was Lubas? We’ve noticed you’re quite fond of her after all.”

“Well, I--”

“No, you know what? Following -this- route, it’s more like you were heading for the Shepherds’ home. Tell me, Eòghan, are you aware that Gwyn’s been married to Skallar, respected son of the Shepherds and proud member of the herjegalling tribe, for almost three years by now?”

”Oh. Uh. Three years, already?” he remarked with as much of a polite smile as he could muster, but felt a pit begin to form deep in his gut. An unpleasant, nagging worry. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand, and shrugged his shoulders. ”Time sure does… uh, fly, around here. Now, whatever this is I’m sure there’s some misunderstanding.”

Both of them shook their heads. “Nuh-uh, not getting away that easily,” said Kaer Rana and looked over his shoulder back towards Brie’s home. “Eòghan, when was the last time you were home? With your wife where you belong? Aoife keeps telling us she’s worried sick about your behaviour, you know. The gods see all, my son.”

“The gods see all,” echoed Kaer Gorm.

“Sins like these are hard to wash away.”

His face washed free of his expression, a momentary lapse as worry gripped him tight. ”Aoife? Why-.. I mean, what did she say?” he shook his head, trying to ward away the spite they were so clearly trying to sow into his mind, and frowned at them both. ”No, you know what. Keep my wife out of this. I don’t like what you’re implying, and you’d better not be poisoning her mind with any of these… implications. I know what the gods see, I’ve spoken to Naya.” Eòghan continued with a little more fervor, grasping at what he could to muster a defence. He’d seen Aoife cry. He’d assured her nothing was wrong. Why was he like this? He shook his head, and pushed his thoughts down. The shame. He stared at them both with some conviction left in his body.

“Naya’s not the goddess you should be worried about, my son,” Kaer Rana mumbled with a sigh and reached out to squeeze his shoulder. “Taeg Eit, on the other hand, is devastated that you’d disregard the sacred oath of marriage like this - and lead so many other fine, young women astray to do the same. But there’s still time to do right, Eòghan - Reiya teaches love of all things, and Taeg Eit listens to the great Reiya if wrongdoers right their mistakes. Go home to her, my son, she misses you so dearly.”

“So dearly,” echoed Kaer Gorm.

Eòghan clenched his fist slowly, watching them both with a knot of frustration wrapped like a defensive shell around the storm of shame their words wrought. He’d been so careful. She didn’t know. Did she know? What would he say? How could he ever say something like this to her? It would ruin her to know. He loved her, after all, he wouldn’t hurt her like that. ”I-... I was headed there anyway.” he lied, feeling the stone lodged in his throat. ”Your rumour-.. rumour mongering isn’t helping anyone.” Eòghan decreed with the last of his confidence, shaking his shoulder as he frowned at them both. With that, he put a foot forward to continue - and then swivelled on his heel as he realized his home was in the other direction.

“Remember - Reiya forgives all!” Kaer Rana shouted encouragingly after him before they faded away behind a house.

His feet carried him at a sedate pace back towards his own home, and he let his frustrations out on every poor rock unfortunate enough to be in his path. Someone called a greeting, but he wasn’t paying attention anymore. Despite the clear weather, it felt as though a rainstorm was building, just over him, to sour everything. The stone in his chest and throat only grew as the path began to lead properly towards his own home. She’d asked what he’d been doing, and he’d always talked about his carpentry. Made sure to do work around the village. Did she know? Why didn’t she say? They didn’t talk a lot these days, though that had been squarely on her - somewhere along the way she seemed not to appreciate life as she had before. That was part of the problem, that much Eòghan was certain of.

Before he knew it, his hand fixed on the small wooden latch on the first fence he’d built in Ha-Dûna, and he lifted the small gate aside. The groan of the latch brought a pair of heads out from around the corner of the house, and two copper-haired girls came running over, shouting, “Mommy! Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home!”

Following them around the corner came none other than Aoife, her form fuller and tested by labour since the day they married. She offered him a tired frown and wiped her hands free of dirt on a linen apron over her white robes. She didn’t wear her tartan cloak due to the weather, which was uncommon even for her. She didn’t say anything, but crossed her arms over her bosom and watched their children grab at him eagerly. The door to the house also swung open, revealing another girl, this one copying her mother’s frown, but still going over to hug her father. From inside the house sounded a duet of baby screams.

”You bet he is! He-Heey!” Eòghan offered happily, accepting the initial tackle of hugs with jovial empathy. His children had a way of wiping away the worries. Such fearless, lovable scamps. He embraced them back, tussled their hair as he always had, and smiled warmly, eventually extending a hand to embrace the late arrival as he knelt down to hug his three girls. From his crouch, he smiled to himself, letting his thoughts stay in the moment. He glanced up to Aoife, a lingering smile sent her way. Just looking at her was enough to drain some of his confidence. ”What mischief are you all up to, hm?” he offered to his children, but kept his gaze on his wife.

“Tabby ate a fistful of dirt earlier!” shouted the second eldest of them, Juniper.

“We were making mudcakes,” gurgled the four year old and brandished her dirty hands. Juniper, a year her senior, started picking at grass stuck in Tabby’s hair, but then Tabby started touching her all over her face, causing Juniper to squeal.

“Nooo! Stop it!” The two of them fell to the ground as Juniper tried to pull Tabby off of her like a wild animal. The eldest daughter groaned and put her hands on her hips.

“Don’t do that in front of daddy! Behave yourselves!” she shouted. Vina had hair a shade darker than copper, like Aoife, and her voice shared the same notes, too, albeit lighter. Aoife crouched down next to the wrestlers and pulled them apart.

“Vina, take them inside and, please, try to calm your brothers down.”

“Yes, mother,” said the seven year old and grabbed both Juniper and Tabby by the hands, dragging them before they could properly stand up. “Come on!” she snarled and the two younger sisters both began to whimper.

“But daddy!”

“Later, sweety,” said Aoife. Finally, after much struggle, the three of them went inside and closed the door behind them. Now only Aoife and Eòghan were standing in the courtyard, Eòghan hardly being within its perimetre at all. Aoife almost stood like a barrier for further entry, arms ever crossed defensively over her bosom. She gave him a knowing look as if waiting for him to speak first.

Eòghan watched her in silence, feeling the feelings of shame return to his body like nervous jitters rippling through his muscles, and his fingers. After a few moments of awkward silence, he turned around to close the gate properly, and busied himself a little too long with the wooden latch. Anything to think. Finally, he swung back around, and mustered a soft, dampened smile. ”They’re as cute as ever.” he proffered calmly. On the inside, he wanted to hold her tight, kiss her, and go inside. He knew that wouldn’t work. Or at least, he wouldn’t want to see if it didn’t.

“Where have you been?”

He breathed a shaky sigh, taking a step forward to try and bridge the gap between him and his forlorn wife. He still remembered when he won her over with but a song and a smile. The days they spent together. She just needed to remember, too. ”You know, helping out. Building things. Fixing things. Working on my music.” he said with what he felt was an adequate amount of conviction. It was the truth, after all. Some of the truth.

Aoife’s frown deepened and anger sparked in her eyes. “Mhm? At the same five girls’ homes? Every day? From dawn ‘til dusk?”

The stone was back in full force, and it seemed to wrench his gut something fierce. He breathed out slowly, and took another step towards her. Arm reaching out to touch hers. ”No, my rose. It isn’t anything like that. I’ve-... I’ve been around a few houses, sure. Building fences, mending tools,” he began, eyes shifting to the side as he considered his words. ”Is someone spreading rumours about us? Is it Gillie you’ve been talking to again? I’ve said-.. I’ve said she’s never liked me.”

“No one’s spreading rumours, Eòghan!” she snarled a little louder than she looked to have intended. Her following words were almost so quiet that they couldn’t be heard: “I’ve seen you… I didn’t want to believe it, but I saw you a week ago, when you were just getting started on that fence for the Shepherd’s family. The way you held her, caressed her, looked at her… Is it me? Am I not pretty enough anymore?”

He thought back to his time with Gwyn a week ago, the frown clear on his face. After this long. They’d been too careless. He’d been careless. All these years together, undone by a fence Gwyn had insisted on. He knew it’d been a bad idea, and he’d done it anyway. Internally swearing, and some measure of defeat clear on his face, he looked at her properly and squeezed her arm. ”Is it-.. No! Aoife, you are my everything. I-... I know I have… that I have not given you the attention you deserve. But I'm here now." he offered with a shaky determination. Another step closer, and he tried to embrace his wife. "I'm here to stay."

Aoife stepped back reluctantly, but her steps grew smaller every time. Eventually, she stopped and let her husband embrace her warmly. Eòghan could hear her whimper into his chest as her small, yet work-tested hands tugged at his overshirt. “Do you promise?”

"I promise," he voiced with more warmth, the wrenching feeling in his gut slowly dissolving in the embrace. In the moment, none of the other women mattered. A distant memory, replaced with all the nights of passion he'd shared with his wife. "I love you more than anything, Aoife."

The following morning, the family had gathered for breakfast as usual. The resthouse system was kind to them all, and their household received bread and grain at the warehouse, along with milk, cheese, butter, potatoes, carrots, kohlrabi and onions. Aoife also kept a small herbal patch in their yard next to the wash tub and clothing line. They all had oatmeal cooked on goat’s milk.

“OW! AAAAAAAAAAAAH!” screamed Juniper after receiving a spoonful of hot porridge in her face at the hands of the gruesome Tabby-made spoon catapult. The four-year-old cackled maniacally, and the shouting taunted the two boys in their shared crib to join in with her on squeals. Aoife groaned from the bottom of her throat and pulled out a cloth from her apron’s pocket.

“Tabby, don’t throw porridge at your sister! Eòghan, honey, would you try to calm the boys down, please? No, Tabby, put down the spoon!” Aoife seized her hand and squeezed it until Tabby’s grip weakened about the spoon and her giggle turned to a whimper. Meanwhile, she wiped the porridge off of Juniper’s chest and stopped her from taking her revenge with claws and teeth. Vina, meanwhile, stared hopelessly into her bowl, covering her ears with her hands.

Eòghan rubbed at his eyes with a weary breath. He hadn’t slept this poorly in a while, and the chaos did nothing to soothe his yearning for peace and quiet. Still, he pushed up from his place, and steadily moved to the squealing duo of boys. He still felt awkward around them when they were this small. Aoife couldn’t stop telling him all the ways he was doing wrong holding, feeding, or playing with them back when they’d only had Vina. ”There, there,” he began with as much calm and charisma as he could summon in the morning, though it was quickly drowned out by the table. Instead, he resolved to scoop them both up, and gently nurse them to a quiet peace. He tried to shut out the chaos behind him, and focused on his boys. Beautiful - no, handsome, like their father. He was looking forward to teaching them all sorts of tricks. Things his father had never taught him. It quickly became clear to him however that his strategy was doing him no favours in calming them. Resolving to do what he knew best, Eòghan instead took to a calm song he’d written for Vina, as he laid them back gingerly and crouched down beside them.

The spider climbs,
in a quiet and calm nook.
The worm crawls,
on the fisherman’s hook.
The snake prowls,
in grass and under rock.
The goat bleats,
frolicking in his flock.
Over forest and field,
the animals’ rule extends.
But to a Dûnan,
all of them are friends.

The boys stopped crying little by little, looking at Eòghan with big, curious eyes. The oldest of them, Brégo, reached out with his small hands to grab at Eòghan’s thumb, cooing quietly as he tried to shake it. His brother, Hama, had not yet mastered rolling over, so he laid on his back grunting enviously at what he couldn’t participate in.

Eòghan considered himself a generous father, and extended his unassailed hand as he stood up, to offer Hama a chance at contact as well. Humming the melody through a jovial smile, he watched his sons for a long moment, taking in the majesty of young life. Brégo had his mother's eyes, a trait he was sure would stun many women as Aoife's had stunned him. For a fleeting moment of peace in the household, at least in Eòghans mind, he glanced at his wife without worry or shame.

Aoife was still busily wrestling Tabby and Juniper apart while Vina had left the table and headed outside, leaving the curtain door halfway pulled aside. Finally, Aoife just sent Tabby and Juniper out of the house, too, and started cleaning the table, which by now had become a mess of spilled porridge and milk. “Uuuugh, those two, little--...” She took a deep breath. “Remember, Aoife, Reiya teaches you to love your children… Loooove your children…” She then breathed out again with a little more relief and walked over to rest her head against Eòghan’s chest. “... They never tell you about this part of motherhood. I wonder why.”

Eòghan exhaled a quiet chuckle, lifting a hand from his sons’ sanctuary to lay on her back instead. ”I suppose we should not fault them for having the spirit of life in them. Part of it is my fault; they take after their father. I always got in trouble when I was little.” he offered up with newfound tranquility, gazing down at his sons with a smile. He stroked Aoife’s back gently, musing to himself. ”Perhaps if we even out the number of boys and girls, the gods will be so pleased they instill them with some calm.”

Aoife sighed. “I know Reiya teaches otherwise, but… Honestly, five is fine by me. I also feel like it should be my decision to make, considering…” She trailed off, pushing herself away gently and returning to the dishes.

Eòghan frowned ever so slightly, a twinge of that unpleasant feeling deep down bubbling up to make certain it was never forgotten. What did she mean by that? Why couldn’t she let it go? Perhaps she was simply talking about her being a woman. How could he know what to say? He knew if he said nothing, she’d sigh for the rest of the day. ”If you want to wait, that’s fine.” he eventually managed, watching her back as he moved to lean against the table.

“It’s not that, Eòghan. Most women have someone who helps around the house… It makes raising the children easier.” She sighed and refused to face him. “I’ve slept on what you said yesterday… About your promise. Would you commit to me - to us - if we had a sixth child?”

”Of course! he promised with a swiftness that surprised even himself. Could he make such a promise? Of course he could. Aoife was his to love, and the thought of her leaving him brought on a sour taste on his tongue. It had to work. He would be better. Eòghan nodded, mostly to himself, and stepped away from the table to walk across the room. Back towards his wife. ”I love you, Aoife. With all my heart.”

“You keep saying that,” she replied with a sad frown. “Over and over, you keep telling me that you love me, but then you go away, sometimes for several days, and you leave me behind with five children and a whole house and nothing to do but be the housewife like some, some peasant.” She dragged her finger along the corners of her eyes. “I am a druid, Eòghan, and I can’t even do my duties because I’m too busy with our family.”

He took another few steps forward, daring to extend his arms in an attempted embrace of her, unassuming and low, though thoroughly a move to trap her in place. ”I know, I know. I’ll-.. I’ll do better, Aoife. Be the man you need me to be.”

“You always say that, too!” she shouted louder than expected, faced him and pulled away from him. “You always just ‘say’ you’ll do this and that, and then you never do it! You instead leave to go work on, on fences and houses, or to gather inspiration for your music. Tell me, Eòghan, have you even made any new music in these past seven years? Have you?”

A bitter sting flowed through his body, a flash of anger he tried to keep down. ”Oh, you know I have. Don’t-... Or-.. have you forgotten the uh, the celebration of Reiya I played at Cewyn’s ceremony? I’ve made plenty of music. It’s just-.. just hard to, well, work with all-... all this!” he bit back with a little too much fervor, and watched her with a sullen mixture of regret and frustration.

“What’s ‘all this’, Eòghan?! You’re never here! It’s just me - it’s always been just me! Your daughter Vina, your oldest daughter, looks at you like a stranger, and Tabby and Juniper are only happy to see you because I keep telling them that you will be back eventually!” Her cheeks were awash with tears and she had to look away. “Cewyn’s ceremony was five years ago, Eòghan… Are you telling me you… Are you telling me you’ve spent five years…” She couldn’t finish her sentence, but instead dragged herself over to the table, collapsed onto a stood and let her sorrow drip all over the table top with loud sobs.

A cold chill ran along his body, first up his spine and then out over his arms, and into his fingertips. ”No,” he protested weakly, a tame rebuttal to the sobs of his red-haired wife. He had to do something. Anything. He dove deep into his mind, trying to conjure up any memory, any song that he had made. Only the one he’d written for Gwyn came to mind. There was nothing. Nothing except lying. ”I’ve-.. I’ve been working on an epic-.. My masterpiece. I-.. I was… I was gonna play it at the festival. An ode-.. to, uhm, love, and us.”

“Stop…” whimpered Aoife in response. “Please… Just…” The sobs choked out the rest of her sentence.

Eòghan stared at her for a long time, unable to speak. Somewhere deep inside, he felt the dam burst, his last hope crashing and falling away. There was only shame. Shame and resentment. He didn’t choose any of this. He had been perfectly happy in his village. Where there wasn’t anyone to ground his accomplishments to dust. Then she gets pregnant, and everything has to change? It wasn’t fair. The world was never fair. Eòghan burst into a sharp exhale, shaking out of his daze with a frown. He moved over towards the wall to unhook his lyre, and briefly inspected it with unsteady eyes. ”I-.. I can’t talk to you when you’re like this. We’ll, uh, talk more after dinner. I need to-... I...” he offered, trailing off himself as he found no suitable words. Still, he moved for the door. Aoife glanced his way and her arms buckled under the weight of her sorrows, laying themselves down on the table to cushion her head as her weeping loudened.

The searing sun had risen to its highest point, yet even from such a perch it could not find Eòghan, stowed away in the shade under the lone oak tree, plinking away languidly on his lyre. He’d gone to his usual spot, but there were too many people to greet, too many questions. He felt like something had changed in the very wind. The smiles people gave him were not as genuine, their eyes were judgemental. Just like his old village, he had to claw and bite to get any sort of respect. What did they know? Dùnans. Self-righteous zealots. He’d spoken to a goddess. Curried her favor. Where was his respect? They should come to him for wisdom. Not tattle on him to his wife, or stick their nose in matters that had nothing to do with them. Aoife too. If only she’d listen, there wouldn’t be any problem at all.

Eòghan sighed sharply to himself, and shifted his seat in the grass. It wasn’t fair. He was just as valuable a member of Ha-Dûna as any other man - more so, in fact! Who if not he would entertain those abandoned, do what needed doing? If he’d done anything wrong, it was on the husbands’ that didn’t satisfy their wives. Not him. No, no one - not even Aoife - understood his worth. Only the Love Goddess had ever given him trust and affection without demands. Truly understood who he was and what he wanted, without question. She was a goddess, though, and perhaps it was her knowledge to have.

He toyed with that idea, strumming on his lyre distantly. What did a goddess look like? He had been told of his village’s view, and that of Ha-Dûna, a mourning woman with small horns. He scoffed quietly, and dreamed an image of what a true love goddess would look like. Borrowed the best features of each of the women he knew, and found in his mind the perfect woman. A picture fit for a goddess. Eòghan smiled to himself, stuck in a simple fantasy of lascivious beauty and comely smiles. He strummed a few more notes on his lyre, and paused as he strummed something he enjoyed. Slowly, an idea came to him, and he began his writing process in earnest, repeating and murmuring words to himself, half-singing to a few more notes of his lyre. He reconstituted an old section he’d dreamt up but never used. It would bridge his words with a little adjustment.

The sun slid over the heavens slowly, cautiously treading closer towards the horizon, watching Eòghan spend the day consumed in his songwriting. Finally, when bells and shouts could be heard from Ha-Dûna as parents began to call their children home for dinner, Eòghan put his fingers on his lyre properly, breathed a gentle breath, and sang his first new composition in years.

My goddess Naya, hear my song,
it is for your heart I do so long,

You are the one, the one I need,
the only woman I would ever heed.

I like the way you love,
as gentle as a dove.
I like the way you speak,
make my knees weak.

You are the one, the one I need,
the only woman I would ever heed.

I love the way you embrace,
gentle, caring and with grace.
I love the way you wear your hair,
framing a face with no compare.

You are the one, the one I need,
the only woman I would ever heed.

You are the perfect goddess for my heart,
every bit of you a work of art.
No one brings me joy like you can,
let me be your one true man.

Fragrant, beautiful, and slender,
Fair and gorgeous too,
Are the qualities of you.

With a final breathed sigh to cap his song, Eòghan let his fingers slide along the strings of his lyre softly, allowing the melody to play out into the ether and vanish into thin air and silence. A rustle of leaves from the tree followed in the silence, a singular caw from a particularly bothered bird. Eòghan was about to rise when a strange but familiar feeling came over him. A rush of wind pushed through the oaken leaves, sending the bird flying away swiftly. A gentle gust tousled his hair and whined past his ear like a sultry breath cut short. He felt the air grow warm, a soft pressure on his mind, and his body. He was no longer alone.

"Oh, how sweetly you sing, Eòghan, son of Baltair and Muire,” a voice that he had not heard in a very long time crooned. His astonished expression shifted to a small smile, which grew when he felt a gentle pressure against his chest, as though someone pushed against him with their hands. "In all the love songs of the world, few take the time to remember me. Your voice carried through stars and void to soothe my spirit and fill me with fire. And-.. Oh, my.”

Eòghan made an effort to speak, but a firm, invisible force gripped his chin, tugging upwards slowly and compelling him to crawl to a stand, pushed back against the tree. Other sensations rushed across his body, like a dozen hands feeling and squeezing his form. "You imagine my form in such a base way, my dearest. Flattering. Riveting, even. Do they know you hold another in your heart? That they are but yours to use to build a form for me? A sinful, debased form, for your pleasure?” the voice continued with a conspiring tone.

He made another attempt to argue her words, but before sound left his lips, his mind flashed with the body he had dreamed up for his version of Naya, posed against him, breathing heavily, flitting across his eyes in vulnerable poses. It was exhilarating, shameful, and captivating, all at once. Almost real. "Is this what you’d like to see, my love? What you’d do? the voice questioned with a breathy whisper. She gave him no time to answer, still. "Perhaps you’d like to see my real form? To think of me when you linger with other men’s women?”

That made him frown, and he did his best to shake his mind free of the unbidden - but not unwanted - images. ”Will you mock me as well, Goddess?” he grunted with bubbling irritation, thinking back to his confrontation with his wife, and the druids. ”They think I’m just a liar and a layabout. No one here appreciates good music, good spirit, and helping your neighbour. So what if I’ve seen a few women when my wife turns me away? You don’t see Aoife bending over for another man. If the men in this town were good for anything beyond brutish labour, the women wouldn’t come to me.” Eòghan almost yelled towards nothing in particular, feeling his pent-up frustration bubble to the surface.

"You have it all figured out, my love, except for how to proceed. A house of twigs and leaves blown away by the slightest wind,” the voice retorted, almost sounding amused. "What have you done to fight these accusations, my dear? Argued? Lied? Mortals spend their lives proving their worth to each other. Life, love, desire. Nothing is free in life, my one and only. You took my gift, went to war, and put your weapon down after one battle. How can you expect a war to be won with no fighting, Eòghan?”

He scoffed at first, but frowned as the imagery set in, and mingled with his experiences. What had he done besides empty promises? Lying? Was this truly how it would be? ”I-... I can’t lose my family. Aoife. But I-.. I don’t think there’s a way back after today. I’m not strong like the others, I’m not a dumb farmer or even that skilled a carpenter. These backwards folk don’t appreciate my music like… like you do, Goddess. I have no way to prove myself. To win the war, like you said.”

"Dear, sweet Eòghan. They do not appreciate it because you do not share it with them as you do with me. Your songs, your music, it steals the heart just as a spear steals a life. If they will not listen, then you must make them.” the voice crooned back at him calmly, and he felt another brisk touch rustle through his hair. "Worry not, my sweet love. You’ve captured my affection, and I will treasure your words forever. For that, I will give you what you need, so that you will treasure me the same. Simply say what it is you wish, and it shall be my delight to equip you for your war of hearts, and minds.”

Eòghan's mind reeled with the possibilities of her offer. He had to be sure not to squander it. To gain back what he risked losing, in a way that suited him. Slowly, a thought began to take root in his mind, and he felt a smile return to his lips alongside his confidence. "Well,” he asserted with a firm tone. ”What Ha-Dûna lacks is a place for me. There should be a space for me to work and create, just like the farmer and the druids, and be appreciated for it. Something that makes people proud to share a roof with me. And, uh, a war, it needs warriors, right? I want others to take up the arts, who will love to learn from me, and laugh with me, and respect me! And, and, together we’ll be loved and respected like never before!” Eòghan declared with a heavy set of breaths. He blinked a few times, and hesitated. Perhaps he demanded too much. He was about to speak again when the voice cut him off once more.

"So be it, my sweet. You shall be a general in the war of hearts and minds. A conqueror. A king. And a king needs a fort. Behold your fortress, Eòghan, as others shall. Teach your army in the ways of your war, and you will build a legacy of song and dance that will carry far beyond your own lifetime.” the voice whispered into his ear, and the cloying feeling intensified. Leaves snapped from the tree and whirled around him in a furious vortex, and he felt himself lift from the ground.

In the distance, the ground rumbled and quaked with growing intensity, sending the poor village into an uneasy stir. Entire blocks of a nearby cliff toppled and cracked into fine dust, revealing smooth sanded brown stone walls rising from the ground beneath. With it came buildings unlike anything Eòghan had ever seen before, red roofs and windows decorating the smooth, angular stone structures. It jutted out of the ground like the crowning glory of Ha-Dûna, and simply looking at it instilled a calming sense of purpose in him. It was unique, reached for the sky, and commanded an instant respect. It was glorious.

When the quakes subsided and the massive building stilled, having completed its ascent, so too did the vortex around Eòghan. He touched down on the ground gently, lyre still clutched tightly in one hand. "If your war of hearts and minds falters, my dearest, sing for me, and I shall give you my heart once more.” the voice whispered quietly, and drifted into silence. At once, the air grew lighter, and his mind cleared of the subtle pressure he had felt.

Eòghan grinned with all his might, staring up at the grand structure in the distance. When he was done, Ha-Dûna would be a place of song, mirth, and pleasures. Surely now, no one would ever doubt him again. The man who seduced a goddess with song.

Years later, after Eòghan’s untimely death at the young age of twenty-nine, Vina stalked through the halls of the College of the Bards, flute resting snugly in the pocket of her baggy pantaloons. She caught herself all-to-often stopping in the courtyard, where outsiders came to be wooed by handsome bards and sexy bardesses, or to get a good laugh by seeing plays or hearing mealhouse songs. There stood a statue of her father, the founder of the college institution and revered servant of Naya, to whom the building was dedicated - how could they not have, after all? From top to bottom, inside and out, the Horned Goddess’ busts, statues and carvings filled every room, hall and wall. The monks, nuns and druids had been arguing over the clerical implications of this for ages, and what parts of ancient mythology would have to be rewritten to fit this new, unexpected face of the Mourning Goddess. Vina’s years in education were approaching their finale - the last thirteen years had been a mess of making curriculums and adjusting to this new appearance of musicians, playwrights and storytellers that seemingly just popped out of nowhere.

There was something else, too. Ever since the college had appeared, Vina and many others had felt a heightened tension in the air, as though it was charged with an invisible thunderstorm. Foreign merchants and pilgrims were gradually being segregated first to the fringes of the city centre, then outside the city centre. Nowadays, foreign merchants were often segregated to the outskirts of the city, where they set up faires in desperate hopes to draw in customers; foreign pilgrims were shown to leftover resthouses after the Dûnan druids had received their reservations. The sensations had culminated in the Conquests two years ago, and ever since those days, it seemed to Vina as though the Dûnans had lost much of the romanticised simplicity preached by the Clennon Fen factions. Their taste for war and rulership had driven them to professionalise those who had survived the campaigns, forming them into units of soldiers supported by the resthouse system. One regiment among these had shown immense promise, Vina had heard the visiting generals discuss earlier: These were the Stone Boars, the elite of the elite. Numbering a humble fifteen currently, they nonetheless put down outskirts bandits almost before blades were crossed on the battlefield, their charge alone terrorising the enemy into surrendering half the time; the other half, they luckily had support from the untrained levies that Dûna had started employing in a more and more organised manner.

Vina shook her head. You heard so much just stalking around between the guests to the college, casually spitting notes into your flute as to not rouse suspicion. The mood in the city had been oppressive, but it could hopefully be allowed to die down for a little bit soon.

Helgensblot was right around the corner, after all.

Chapter 1: A Great Change

Sat upon the small wooden stool, Uraka surveyed her budding empire. The greased, delicate hands of four attendants rubbed the earthen mix of dye and oil over her arms and legs with practiced routine, massaging each muscle until her naturally sun-touched skin was covered with the sandy-white mixture. On her back, the gentle brush of fingertips and the brisk feel of wet paint caressed her, as another attendant decorated her with the history of her clan. A sixth attendant knelt before her, trying not to block Uraka’s view as she firmly rubbed bloodbloom dye over her chest in the pattern of snakes and teeth her father had chosen when they rose to prominence. They painted upon her as befitting of her station as a divine instrument, and beyond them, she could see the fruits of her will unfold.

Hundreds of tools clattered repeatedly in the distance, carving wood, shaping rock, digging soil. Painted men clustered the tropical jungle’s edge with axes, cleavers, and flint. Trees fell one by one, brush was cleared, burned, or uprooted. Each hour, they gained more ground inland, carving out a massive clearing between the swaying seafront and the green wilds that had once pushed up against it - but no more. Besides Uraka’s rudimentary ziggurat, work was underway to replace old huts of leather, leaf and wood with grander construction - mighty limestone blocks were rolled in on logs from the jungle, and from the southern beachfront, slaves dragged large chunks of coral retrieved from the nearby overland reefs. Her father had used his blessed eyes to envision a grand clan unlike any other, and now Uraka would see his vision grow from a paltry gathering of the clans to something unlike anything that had come before - a jewel by the sea. All who saw it would weep with joy and astonishment.

The true change had been the knowledge of the Ta’zun; a simple crafter had devised a way to divert freshwater away from it’s regular paths, and now ever more space could be made for food - without slashing and burning the jungle to find fertile soil. Uraka didn’t understand it, but the man had made grand promises that the good soil could come to them, now. That was enough to settle, and to expand her plans. Between crops and the bountiful sea, the jungle seemed like a distant path at best, skulking at the edges of her budding civilisation.

A clearing throat brought her out of her idle surveying, and Uraka shifted her gaze to find the disturbance. Her eyes narrowed as she found herself looking at her chief advisor - her brother, Nuwan. The snake on his chest was faded, and the blue lines running over his eyes were flecked and smudged over his cheeks. She felt the tightening ripple through her fingers in frustration, but let it go with a sigh. She had grown tired of reminding him to respect tradition. “What is it, Nuwan? Must you intrude when I am not ready?” she pressed out instead, looking back out over her creation-in-progress.

Nuwan cleared his throat again. Uraka stared back at him and caught him peering at her attendants. He rubbed at his cheek idly, before finally glancing away. “Do you think it wise, Sister, to accept this commoner’s request? Traditionally, a Ta’zun is not fit to be consort of a ruler,” he began, and she knew he would continue with the same argument as last time; “A Za’watem should select their mates from the Za’wal or Ta’zesh.”

“I already have two Za’wal husbands, brother,” Uraka responded. She felt a hand scrub at her back gently - which could only mean a mistake was made. She cast a glance over her shoulder, causing the attendant back there to apologize profusely and throwing herself into a deep bow. Uraka frowned, but turned her attention back to Nuwan. “I am Za’watem, am I not? It is my divine will to honor his request. Besides, a man who can move the rivers is better placed in my bed, than in that of some uppity Ta’zesh. His wisdom would be wasted.”

“A little rich to call a fluke wisdom, I think.” Nuwan cut back with a dissatisfied frown. “If he truly had wisdom, he would be a Za’wal, or marked by the gods to be a Za’watem.”

“If we require a mark to remain Za’watem, I suppose I should abdicate father’s power.” Uraka sighed dramatically, slapping the hand of her kneeling attendant away from her face.

Nuwan grimaced at her. “Don’t be absurd, sister. None but us have the means or the will to do something truly great.” Uraka could only hum an agreement at that. A moment of silence followed, before her brother decided to fill the void. “...Moving on, Wazan has requested an audience.”

“Ah, my dear husband returns. I suppose he wishes to woo me with another tale of his endless jour-...” Uraka began, interrupted by hands gently rubbing her neck, throwing her off her thoughts in mild shock. Closing her eyes, she rapturously gave into the massage of paint and oil with a sigh. “Anything else, brother?”

“Uh. Yes. Za’wal Huallar desires an audience as well, to deliver the reading of the sky.”

“Very well,” Uraka offered with another sigh, waiting for the attendants’ hands to lift from her neck before standing up. “Girls, bring me the bowl. You may show them in, brother.” Hands left her in an instant, as the attendants rubbed their hands on cloth and fur to quickly dry off, and a quick chase began between two of them to cross the room and grab the ceremonial bowl of azure liquid. Two of the others gently and wordlessly began the delicate process of adorning her with a skirt of feathers without dirtying the feathers on the outside or smudging the painted patterns on her legs. Finally, a third gently draped her neck and shoulders with fur and gold without covering the snake pattern. As Nuwan excused himself, the bowl was brought forward, the cool blue liquid within rippling gently with each unsteady motion of her attendants. Uraka lowered both hands into the bowl, staining her skin deeply with the rich blue dye. She dragged them back above the surface steadily, letting her hands drip for a few moments before one of her girls dabbed it dry gently with a cloth. It should last her a week before she needed to re-apply her proof of rulership to her hands.

The servant girls had just about cleared aside to give Uraka some space when her brother returned with two men in tow, the old and wrinkled Huallar, painted with the greens and yellows of a Za’wal. Its’ patchiness implied he was applying it himself. In tow behind him came the dark, short hair of her first husband, with immaculate paints over muscled arms and legs, and a red handprint with the insignia of her clan’s snake behind it. Something about it made her smile with glee, even if she imagined he’d only bothered because he was seeing her.

“Beautiful Uraka, your eyes glow like the moon and your voice sings like the ocean,” he began as soon as he laid eyes on her, and Uraka felt her smile grow as her cheeks burned beneath the patterns. She loved the praise, and she knew he had figured that out early. She watched her husband move towards her, and raised her hand to stop him when he came within an arm’s length. She looked into his eyes, those magnificent, strange eyes; a myriad of shimmering color only matched by the rainbow. He had the divine blessing to be sure, more a Za’watem than she could ever be, yet he had chosen the life of a listener and scholar. She did not understand it, but he was ever fascinating. And his smile made her body flutter with butterflies, even now.

“Oh, husband, your words are as sweet as a junanfruit.” She offered in return, gently sliding her hand to his shoulder, and letting her eyes roam his form. He had been gone from her bed for too long. Her thoughts were interrupted by Huallar, who took a few steps forwards and bowed his head.

“Great Za’watem Uraka. I bring most grave news,” Huallar said with a gravelly, tired voice. He looked at her with eyes that were narrowed eyes from age or intent. “The assembly of sky speakers finished this morning, and it is unanimously agreed - the color of the sky is twisting. A rainstorm is coming. We believe it will be here before two moons have slept. Until it arrives, there is no telling how long it will last.”

Uraka frowned. “So soon after the last?” With another sigh, she turned to her husband, who looked worried in turn. “The other speakers I do not care about, husband - You assured me that the ocean would not be displeased with our grand project, yet it sends another storm to wash us away?”

“That is why I am here, beloved Uraka, star of my life,” he responded, lifting a hand to idly fidget with the necklace of painted sea shells hanging down over his chest. “The ocean speaks again - I have ventured far to speak with all the voices of the water, and all say the same. A great change is coming. They did not speak of any storms, but...”

Uraka felt her heart pound harder in her chest. Had they lied to her before? She had been careful not to offend any deities. They had moved the ziggurat when the sun had worried, and now the ocean punished them. “A great change?” It wasn’t fair.

“That is what they said, my love, my ruler.”

She frowned deeply, trying to regain her resolve. Perhaps it was punishment for not truly being Za’watem like her father. Everyone knew it, but no one said anything. Perhaps that was why the ocean was angry. But she did not come this far to let rain stop her from completing the vision. “That could mean anything, husband. Perhaps it is the storm.” she offered back dismissively. Her husband looked ready to reply, but she cut him off. “We shall have to prepare for the storm. Will you let the taskmasters know, brother?” Nuwan nodded. “That will be all then. Thank you, Za’wal Huallar. Brother. Girls. Please leave me with my husband.”

The others began to file out, and Uraka lifted a finger to stop him from speaking before they were alone. She smiled at him, finally lowering her finger.

“Please, Uraka. I think there is more to the words of the ocean than a simple storm.”

She grabbed his wrist gingerly, staining it blue with the still wet dye on her palm. “I haven’t seen you in months, Wazan. We can talk about the words of the gods later.”

He sighed quietly, lifting his free hand to her arm. With a gentle pull on his other, Uraka coaxed him into stepping closer. “Sometimes I worry you do not wish to rule, my love.” he muttered quietly, leaning his head forwards to touch his forehead to hers.

Uraka closed her eyes and smiled, enjoying the scent and warmth of her husband. “The construction of Zuanwa is finally underway, Wazan. Now more than ever, I am ready to rule. Nothing shall stop me.”

* * *

Raket paced outside the hut, listening to the intermittent cries of pain from his wife from within. He tried his best to still his anxiety, but it seemed to rise back up through his legs, crawling in his muscles like ants trying to get under his skin. Two women in the village had died in childbirth this spring, another had fallen to sleeping sickness in the heat a few months after. He bit at his nails, batted away the invasive leaves from the jungle around their hut, even steadied himself against a tree and it’s vines. Nothing helped. Every scream cut into his core like an obsidian knife scoring through animal fat.

A hand slapped down on his shoulder with force, tearing him out of his spiral of panic with shock. He looked over his shoulder to find the familiar face of Larunan, and his body eased just a little.

“Relax,” Larunan said with a gentle smile. “If you die out here of worry, who will teach the child to carve?” He squeezed his shoulder gently, before touching at his own chest’s handprint and yellowed insignia. “We are in this together, Raket. As her husbands, we must be stable and provide comforts for them both.”

“I just-... she sounds so troubled. I want to hold her.” Raket sighed sharply, turning to face Larunan.

Larunan nodded in turn. “Our wife is Ta’zesh. She has fought both men and jaguars. I do not think this battle shall claim her. As craftsmen our battlefield is of the mind and the-” he did not get to finish, as a scream erupted from the hut, loud and long enough to give both the men serious pause. A long pause followed, before the gentle and soft cry of a child pierced the thin walls of their hut. The two men lit up and smiled at each other.

“Za’watem! Za’watem!” came a shout from within the hut. Raket furrowed his brow in confusion, and Larunan stared back at him with a blank expression. Shoulder to shoulder, the two moved towards the entrance with haste. Breaking tradition, they pulled aside the sheet that shielded the procession from the outside, and came face to face with the scene of their resting wife laid upon the simple bedding. Beside her, the midwife cradled a small child with an astonished expression of awe.

Larunan placed his hand on Raket’s shoulder once more just as Raket saw why the midwife had shouted. Upon the child’s head was a strange fin rising from the forehead, with small membranes running down the sides. The midwife gave the child over to their tired wife gently, before turning to the two men with a great smile. “Your son is chosen by the ocean! May his reign be long and great!”

Old Friends & New Experiences

"Orb, what did you want to tell me?"

Orb zipped around her head. Lucia, with Sanya by her side, had traveled a week southwest towards the Sun Lit Temple.

Her home.

Things had gotten better since then, she wasn't feeling so down and was even returning to her old self by telling stories and reminiscing about times past. They joked too, as normalcy slowly returned to the two. That wasn't the only thing that was new however.

She looked to Sanya, who was down the creek where they were camped, to see her friend training with Sorrowsting. Something she usually did in the morning. Yet Lucia watched with curious eyes at all of her movements, the thrusting of the spear, the sweat glistening off of her skin in the morning light, the way her body mo-

"Yes, the message." Orb interrupted, as he stopped in front of her face, bringing Lucia's attention back to reality. She blushed out of embarrassment, before opening her mouth to retort in annoyance but Orb beat her..

"It is from the creator, Lucia." He buzzed.

Her annoyed expression quickly melted as her eyes went wide with surprise.

"Why didn't you tell me sooner Orb! What did he say? What did he say?" She asked enthusiastically.

Runes on Orb began to glow and she heard Qael's voice. A gods voice, again.

“Tell her- Tell her I hope she is doing well and that she’s happy. I’m still grateful for our conversation and I’m doing my best to learn how to care. Though it isn’t easy for a god like me. Tell her I will always listen to her prayers. Tell her I miss her and I hope I could talk to her again soon.”

Lucia's eyes watered and she wiped away her tears as she happily laughed. "Play it again Orb, please." she said, and Orb obliged. She listened again and could hardly believe her ears. It was both touching and a reminder that he was still attempting to care. It meant a whole lot just sending her the message in the first place.

"Oh Qael… You're trying and that's all that matters." she said tenderly, in but a whisper. Before looking back at Orb.

"Thank you Orb, I'm sorry I've neglected you of late." she said, patting him. The constrict lit up for a moment and eventually said, "You are welcome Lucia. You have learned all that can teach you." He said simply.

Lucia frowned sadly. "I know, old friend. I know. It feels like such a waste leaving you in my sack… I wonder if you could teach…" she looked over to Sanya but quickly shook her head. "Bless her heart but she'd probably end up breaking you." she said with a giggle.

The wind suddenly picked up. Like the wind of a storm came roaring. From the horizon something came charging at the two humanoids and Orb. It seemed to distort the gentle colors in the sky. When it got closer, it was clear that it didn’t distort them. It was colors violently moving in the sky and it came barreling straight for Lucia. Only when it got close, the wind died. The constantly shifting waves of color gently descended down from the clouds. “Hello, Lucia.” She could hear the shapeless mass of floating colors say. Qael’Naath wasn’t talking to her in her head now. “It has been a long time but I’ve seen what you’ve achieved through Orb’s training.”

Lucia stood up in surprise. She looked up at the shimmering mass of colors and felt awe. It reminded her so much of Meghzaal that she gave pause when she heard Qael's voice. "That's… You, Qael?" she asked. From her side came the dull thud of feet over grass and rock, and within a few moments Sanya stood at Lucia's side, Sorrowsting leveled at the shimmering mass as though it stood a chance.

"Not entirely. What you see is merely a part of me. A manifestation I was able to send to Galbar.” The words were emanated from shapelessness as vibrations upon the wind. Yet they were spoken very slowly. “Forgive me. I am not used to this way of speaking. It has only been a few years since I and my siblings learned how to create these manifestations.”

Lucia blinked as she looked at Sanya by her side. She gave her a small smile before putting a hand on her shoulder and saying, "It's okay, we're not in danger." before she addressed Qael. "All is forgiven, I was just surprised is all. I received your message. It was very touching, thank you so much!" she said happily with a wide smile.

“This gladdens me.” The words echoed upon the air again. They were more strained than the previous ones. If it noticed Sanya standing by Lucia, the Winds were not showing it. Orb’s runes began to light up in various colors for a moment. Then they died down again. “Ah…that is why you have called for me. The pupil has become a master and must now continue on her own path. Alone.”

"Oh." she said, words getting caught in her throat as she looked to Orb, memories flashing in front of her eyes of all their training sessions, of all the anger and moments of triumph. She tried to compose herself, when she felt a hand on her own shoulder, a mirror of her own previous actions. Sanya looked at her, and then up to the shimmering form of Qael’Naath’s messenger. ”Not alone,” she interjected with a confident venom, even if her grip on her weapon had eased. Lucia flashed her a smile and glanced at her lips before quickly looking back at the manifestation.

In a somewhat shaky voice she said, "I see… I… Didn't think this day would come so fast, so suddenly. Where will- Where will you take him?" she asked.

“The mate cannot understand.” The words echoed through the area. The words were the only admission of Sanya’s existence. “Orb’s new place will be far from here. This is not goodbye, Lucia. Quite the opposite. I will be watching you. With great interest. But now I must say farewell. I have tarried too long. Come, Orb.” Orb’s runes flashed as it floated towards the shapeless mass. When it hung amid the colors, it stopped for a moment. “Farewell, Lucia.” With those words both Orb and the Winds of Magic shot off towards the clouds and then the south-western horizon.

"Goodbye…" she said long after they had gone. Then it dawned upon her what Qael had said and she turned to Sanya with wide eyes. She blushed again and quickly looked over to the camp as her tattoos fluttered. "We should get going, I-I think." she said quickly, walking away.

Sanya stood seemingly nonplussed for the time being, staring up at the sky and eyeing the horizon towards which the phenomenon had flown, as Lucia wandered off. She hummed a quiet and thoughtful agreement at first, and followed Lucia towards the camp, gaze still on the horizon. "So, the gods walk on the ground once more. Or the sky, at least," she concluded with a murmur, seemingly focused on her own thoughts. "Do you know many more gods, Lucia? This one was the most cryptic I've met by far," she offered with a sigh. "And surprisingly presumptuous, too."

She thought a moment before arriving back at camp and beginning to pack her bag. She then spoke aloud, ”Well… Let’s see. That was Qael'Naath, God of magic. He was the one who gifted Orb to me, I’ve probably told you that before, but I can’t remember off the top of my head. He’s not terrible, just has a hard time understanding mortal life and how to care for us. I believe he’s trying.” she mused before continuing. ”I know Oraelia. You do too.” she smiled at Sanya. ”Then there’s… Megzhaal and Aunt Gibbou of course! Those were the only one’s I met before they left. I’ve heard of the five, of course and from distant lands, others too. Though, I’m not sure if I know their original names. I’ve noticed, as the years ago by, people keep shortening or making them longer, the God’s name’s that is.” she sat on her knees and turned to Sanya, ”I know you met-” she began, before she cut herself off. ”Yeah, that one.” she said softly, ashamed of herself.

It was too late. She could see Sanya's expression sting with a dark and reflexive distaste, even if the dark-haired woman did her best to mask it. The mellow half-smile that followed did not reach her eyes. "You can say the name, Lucia. I can take it. I'm over it." she offered with a tone that tried to be convincing. "I've spoken it many times with no reply."

Lucia winced as she looked at Sanya. She knew in her heart Sanya qas lying. She gave a soft sigh before saying, "Even if they don't respond, doesn't mean they aren't listening. Best not to say her name. I'm sorry." she finished softly.

Sanya gave a small shrug in complement to Lucia's words, but it seemed as though her thoughts were elsewhere, as the woman stared quietly at a fixed spot by their camp. She eventually caught herself in the act when the silence grew too long, and subtly changed the conversation as she moved towards their packing. "At least the Sun Mother seems to be everything you've said over the years. If I'm to be honest… I had a hard time believing the stories until now."

Lucia hoisted her sack on her back and looked at Sanya with a grin. "Have I ever lied to you, Sanya?" she mused. "Now come on slowpoke we have traveling to do!" she walked over to Sanya and began helping her pack up.

Sanya scoffed at the words and rolled her eyes, but when she glanced at Lucia that subtle softness that spoke of her own levity had returned. It wasn't a smile, but Lucia knew it wasn't far off. "Good to see someone's in a rush," she added with feigned frustration. Wrapping the last up in her pack, and shuffling the pack to firmly hold Sorrowsting against her back, she managed a full smirk at Lucia. "I suppose it makes sense; the faster we arrive, the fewer grilled snakes you need to pretend to enjoy."

Lucia laughed heartily and in a sarcastic voice said, "Oh you know I just loveeeee snakes for dinner. It's especially fun to pick out all the tiny bones." she began to walk up the stream. "It'll be nice to sleep in a warm bed too." she mumbled under her breath..

Her travelling companion wasted no time in matching her speed, and within moments they had put the few telltale signs of their presence at the campsite behind them. Sanya followed Lucia with high spirits - as high as one could glean from the sorrowful wanderer at least - seemingly willing to put her burdens aside for the journey. Or at least, until a thought seemed to strike her, and bubbled to the surface. "The mate cannot understand. Did he mean me?"

Lucia stiffened her back and tilted her head to the side. "Oh, I must have missed when he said that." she lied, blushing as her tattoos seemed to flutter again. "I guess so, silly huh?"

Sanya exhaled sharply and again provided a soft noise of derision, a silent complaint about the manners of gods, or something else entirely. "Well, I'm delighted he noticed me. A marked improvement. Not a bad fate, either. Whatever the gods require, right?" Sanya mused to herself, her tone carrying that same deadpan levity.

Lucia's eyes went wide at the realization of Sanya's words and she quickly looked ahead, her heart jumping in her chest. No no no! She was getting ahead of herself, it was just Sanya saying Sanya things but… Lucia glanced at her, did she actually mean it? Noticing the silence she suddenly said, "Yep! Whatever they require!" she quickened her pace and groaned inside her head. At least the walk wouldn't be boring, especially with Sanya by her side.

The highlands sang a peaceful song as the Sun Mother dragged her sphere to its highest peak in the sky. Birdsong, the quiet rush of the nearby stream, the gentle breath of the wind. Together with the thud of their feet in the grass and dirt, and the irregular banter they shared, it created its own symphony of peace and tranquility. Wandering like this, Sanya felt, without anyone but your closest and nature beside you, this was the best part of life. They didn’t need to talk - although it didn’t hurt when they did - just enjoy the peace together. Sanya knew that Lucia felt the same. Her smiles were genuine, she was talking as much as a street vendor trying to push wares again, and perhaps most important of all; the sting and dark haze of her emotional turmoil had subsided from Sanya’s mind. The least Sanya could do was try and keep that feeling going. Ha-Dûna seemed like a bad dream, now, a place where she could leave her worries and lock them away. Just like she locked away the Goddess, her youth, the battle of Ramhome, and her days in Ketrefa. Memories to be ignored and forgotten. It was for everyone’s best.

She glanced at Lucia, who seemed taken with the hidden spectacles of life around them, brimming with joy and smiling to herself in moments of thought. It made Sanya’s weary heart fill with some measure of hope. All injuries heal with time. Sanya would not let anyone close who thought differently, and as they walked along the grass-studded stream she imagined herself back to more peaceful times. The few times in her life when Sorrowsting had been put aside for a few days, months, or years. It never seemed possible until it happened. Her gaze scanned for the horizon in a few directions. So far as she could see, no threats would disrupt their peace.

Or so she had thought.

From behind them came a large rumbling, as if the earth was trembling or a tree had fallen but much larger. Lucia yelled out of fright as she lost her footing and fell onto the ground. Yet as quickly as it came, the earth grew still, replaced by… loud panting? The pang of fear kicked Sanya’s nerves into high gear, and a rush of adrenaline shot through her body like a wash of cold water.

Sanya spun around, coming face to face with the largest Leoness she had ever gazed upon. It's fur was the color gold, as well as it's intelligent eyes. It's feathery wings were enormous and easily twice the length of its sleek but powerful body. It had paws as large as boulders, that could easily kill in one hit but most curious was the halo over its head and the symbol of the sun upon its forehead. It looked at her impassively as it turned its gaze to Lucia, who stood up. The Leoness' tail began to flick back and forth as it let out a low rumbling that they could feel in the air.

It wasn’t until she properly examined the scene that she realized she had reflexively searched for Sorrowsting, halfway having drawn it from its resting place before stopping herself. Centuries of travel had taught her not to bully Leons or even truly worry about them, and this one seemed like a particularly bad idea to irritate. Trying to still her nerves, Sanya watched the majestic beast with a mixture of awe and wariness, eyes skidding to Lucia intermittently to try and get a hold on the situation. ”...Friend of yours?” she managed to ask, and then finally eased her grip on her weapon.

Lucia stared wide eyed before a huge grin formed on her lips. She looked to Sanya and nodded enthusiastically. She began to walk over to the Leon, saying, "Sanya, I'd like you to meet Eesis!" she then squealed with delight as Eesis bent down and began to rub on Lucia, who fell over due to the sheer size difference. Lucia laughed wildly as the once fearsome Leoness' demeanor turned into that of a cub's before Sanya's eyes. The leoness then knelt down fully before turning to her side, huffing and letting out a deep purr that could be felt in her chest. Lucia beckoned Sanya over as she continued to talk and pet Eesis.

Sanya took a moment to rub at the bridge of her nose, sighing inwardly as she tried to fight away any residual anxiety and let her heart still. She remained in place for a time, watching the massive beast and her traveling companion play around, a sense of surreal otherworldliness capturing her in the moment as she watched Lucia smile and laugh with her gigantic animal friend. The harsh realities of the world could wait, it felt like. ”Hello, Eesis…” she eventually pressed out, following Lucia’s direction and moving closer. ”Your friends never cease to surprise, Lucia.”

Lucia scratched Eesis under the chin as she spoke. "I found her in the Prairie with Nisin, so long ago. See the halo? Mother created them even before I came to be. Eesis can heal things, Nisin can renew. The golden Leon's. Beautiful isn't she?" she said, looking at Sanya now.

In turn, Sanya nodded, daring to watch the majestic Leoness with a respectful amount of apprehension, even if she managed to keep herself calm. Somewhere in the back of her mind, the seasoned warrior within rattled off the sheer power of such a beast, even without divine blessings. Between the size, the golden fur, and the majesty, it was a truly magnificent sight. She glanced at Lucia, who seemed to anticipate a response. ”Wondrous. And more than a little humbling.”

Lucia tilted her head and smiled. "You can touch her if you want, just let her sniff you first. I promise she won't bite. Probably." she teased.

"Alright…" Sanya agreed with a hesitant tone. Her gaze found Eesis' head, and took a slow step towards both Lucia and the Leoness. Her hand stretched out slowly, carefully, halfway in both offer and cautious effort. The stir in her gut reminded her of when she was a child, that childish fear and fascination of the unknown.

The Leoness lifted her head to Sanya. Massive orbs gazed upon her with impunity. There was a brief second of silence before Eesis moved her snout closer to Sanya and sniffed her. The Leoness then nuzzled Sanya gently, blooming a fascinated small smile on Sanya's lips. Lucia beamed, "See! I knew she'd like you! This is great, now we can fly without any trouble." Lucia said, hugging Sanya from behind. "Oh I should ask, have you ever ridden a Leon before?" she mused.

"Have I…" Sanya began and immediately trailed off. The smile of a dark-skinned man flashed before her eyes. Her own embarrassed laugh as he helped her up on a Leon. His strong grip as he pulled her out of the grass after she fell off. What was his name, again? How long ago was that? "...No. Not really." she offered with hesitation, shaking her thoughts away. "Wait. Fly?"

Lucia let go and spun to her side as she scratched Eesis' chin. She smiled at Sanya excitedly. "Of course! It's easy. All you have to do is hold on. What better way to get to the Temple now? We could be there by tonight I bet!"

Sanya pressed out a hesitant smile to mimic Lucia's excitement, but that solitary attempt at levity faded soon after, as she realized that Lucia was serious. "I… If you're sure…" she murmured. A stone in her stomach seemed to form at the mere thought. Leaving the ground had never been good.

Lucia noticed immediately that something wasn't right. She gingerly stopped scratching Eesis, who looked up, and took one of Sanya's hands within her own. "Hey." she said quietly, "I'll be right there with you and I'm not going to let anything happen to you. I promise." she gave a squeeze and a smile.

The stone lingered in her gut, but Sanya had the wherewithal to ignore it. She watched Lucia for a long while. How genuine she looked even now. Was Sanya making a big deal out of nothing? She breathed a sigh that didn't portray as much confidence as she'd hoped, before responding, "Alright. I'll… follow your lead."

Lucia blushed and her tattoos seemed to pulse with excitement. "G-Good!" she exclaimed before turning to Eesis. "What do you say Eesis? Care to give two weary travels a ride?" The Leoness stirred before stretching and then finally put down one of her wings like a ramp. Lucia looked back at Sanya and then began to pull her up the wing.

Sanya let herself be dragged along, a restless stir flushing her skin as nervous jitters overtook the seasoned grit she was used to championing. Her gaze darted briefly to the Leoness, before finding solace in watching Lucia's calm and encouraging demeanor instead. Her hand clutched warily against golden, soft fur as she tried her best to find her place. Lucia was slow, sensing some sort of hesitation from her. When they reached the top of Eesis, Lucia let go of Sanya’s hand and grabbed her by the shoulders saying, “Here is a good spot, okay? You sit down and I’ll sit down in front of you. You can grab onto m-me or the fur, alright?” she said shyly. “Eesis is a gentle flyer and doesn’t do half the crazy maneuvers Nisin does. Though it will probably look dangerous at first, this is about the safest place to be in the Prairie.” she smiled warmly, before settling down at the nape of Eesis’ neck. She seemed so small compared to the vastness of the Leoness, but she looked back at Sanya all the same, expectantly.

The sheer idea terrified Sanya still, cold chills rippling over her skin. If Lucia said it was fine, she'd trust her. With a slow, steadying nod, Sanya reached forward ever so slightly, trying to find a good hold in Eesis fur. She glanced back to the ground; they hadn't even started and already it seemed to be much too far away. Instead, she found solace in looking ahead, steeling herself for this new challenge with a set of deep breaths. "I… I'm ready." she pressed out at last.

”Okay! Here goes nothing then!” Lucia exclaimed. ”Go on Eesis, take us home!” she said, anticipation building in the air. The Leoness’ muscles seemed to tighten as she crouched at first, before her powerful hindlegs exploded in forward momentum. Lucia leaned seemed to compress herself and she leaned forward as Eesis quickly covered ground. Her wings began to beat, like mini thunderclaps, sending air down like a hurricane. Eesis then began to jump, once, twice, three times! All the while Lucia laughed like a madwoman, squealing with delight. On her fourth jump, Eesis took to the sky and began to beat her wings as they gained altitude.

Sanya managed the bucking Leon with silent and intense focus at first, but the powerful fourth leap seemed to hit her breaking point. An intense dread overtook her, and the sharp gasp she released was unlike any vocalization she recognized herself. The reflexive reach for something safer than the fur led her closer to Lucia, and Sanya's strong arms coiled tightly around the tattooed woman, as she shuffled ever so slightly closer in search of sanctuary. She did not know where to look, so she did not look at all, clinging to Lucia for all she was worth as the wind whipped through her hair and clothes.

Lucia said nothing, but her whooping and hollering died down as they ascended further. She felt warm, very warm and her tattoos were in a constant state of flux- teeming with excitement and pure joy. Eventually, Eesis began to level out and Lucia put one of her hands on Sanya’s arm gingerly. She then spoke, her voice loud. ”Sanya, you’re okay now! Open your eyes and take a look at this view! You won’t fly away! I wouldn’t let you, I promise!”

Every fiber of her being resisted the urge to follow directions initially. She could feel air brush against her, and a strange weightlessness that came with the height, or at least knowing about it. Still, Sanya battled her inner demons, and slowly pried her eyes open to gaze straight forwards over Lucia's shoulder. It was unlike anything she'd ever seen before. Below them stretched the majesty of the highlands, seen before only by birds, leons and the Gods. Every stream looked like a snake, the outcroppings of rocks and stones like pebbles, cutting channels into the earth. Fields of flowers, forests of trees, lakes small and wide- All so minuscule and small and simply breathtaking. Upon the far horizon their stretched fields of gold, sparsely pocketed with pockets of green. She could even see smoke rising, cleansing the land. It was beautiful and Lucia watched her face with a small smile.

Sanya gazed out over the landscape, transfixed. For a time, her doubts and worries washed away with the wind, as her eyes fell on the diminutive details of far-off lands. It was nothing short of breathtaking. A unique and impossible view. A once-in-a-lifetime feeling. A calm spread through her alongside the fascination, and she could not help but be taken with the vista.

Then she made the mistake of looking just a little too close to the edge of Eesis fur, as much straight down as she could. The world whipped back into reality, and somewhere deep in her mind the insanity of her position wrung back into view as she felt a dizzying and disorienting fear grip her legs, her head, her body. Sanya tightened her embrace on Lucia, instinctively holding herself close as she first closed her eyes, and finally leveled her gaze straight ahead instead, more modest and uncertain than she'd felt in years.

Lucia gave a slight chuckle, her long golden hair billowing in the wind as she turned her head to look at Sanya. "You're doing great Sanya! We'll probably be up here until dusk, so I would get comfy if I were you! Hold onto me as long as you want though, I-I lik-" she paused briefly before sputtering out, "I don't mind! Whatever makes you feel safe!"

Lucia's words whizzed past Sanya's senses as she tried to stabilize her thoughts, and her fear. She hated it. Not flying - but feeling unsafe in a way she could do nothing about. Feeling vulnerable. Like a little girl, all over again. It was embarrassing, and Sanya dared not speak for fear of making a further fool of herself. Instead she held onto Lucia - her sole point of safety - and rested her head gently against her shoulder and back. With her warmth so near, she once more pried open her eyes to silently peer into the horizon, and the faraway lands below.

Lucia visibly relaxed after a while, letting herself press into Sanya slightly. She wore a smile on her lips, one Sanya could not entirely see. Her tattoos pulsed contently, as she looked out at the horizon. The Prairie, fast approaching.

Sainthood of the Maelstrom

The bright hues of the Luminant cast the scene in a fickle light. Row upon row of winged men and women, covering the ground a considerable distance in each direction. Their mottled wings shone with new combinations of color in the Luminant’s strange flora. At the head of the procession hovered a horned and winged woman, her own wings splayed with a multitude of colors that did not seem to blend despite the light’s best efforts to cast her in warm and bright hues. Aveira swept over the tall men and women stood at attention with a single beat of her wings, a critical gaze falling over them in seemingly random patterns. When she spoke, it was with a booming, unpleasant echo that belied her round face and soft features.

”Blessed children of the Goddess,” she began, stirring a few among the organized crowd to gaze into the sky in bemusement, awe, or simple respect. ”You have seen and faced the enemy first-hand. Those who cling to the false pretender and her perversion of your duty. Each of you have heard the Goddess, seen her vision for this world. There are those among you who balk at the task. No food. No shelter. The Oraeliari beg for help from above. Are you as them?”

Aveira slowly touched down at the front of the column, extending a hand to caress the face of a pale Neiyari woman with speckled wings. Her eyes filled with fright and awe alike as the avatar deigned to touch her. ”Yazira, is it?” Aveira spoke in a more regular tone. ”Will you get on your knees and beg for your War Mother to build you a paradise? Or will you show her that you are worthy of one?” the avatar continued, staring into her eyes with a malicious intensity.

The pale Neiyari briefly buckled under the attention, but steeled herself as she tried to keep her stern and disciplined face. “I will show I am worthy!” she cried out, emboldened by a hatred and a passion to fight. “I will build a paradise!” Aveira slowly released her face, exhaling a light sigh. Her rueful stare turned soft, before a single beat of her wings brought her into the air once more.

”Those around you are chosen by me, by the Goddess. She has seen your fervor, and your devotion. True children of the War Mother do not beg, they do not ask.” her voice boomed out over the crowd. ”A true Neiyari takes. By force, by cunning, and by blood. You are the greatest among your kind. Among your brethren, you carry within you the vision that your mother desires, and the will to carry it out. Among your kindred, you are saints. Leaders. Carry the banners of war. Put Galbar under your wings. Show your kin the path to paradise. This is my decree, and that of Neiyara! Praise the Goddess!”

A chorus of cries rang out in the Luminant, discordant and battle-ready. Still they remained in place, drilled to discipline before learning basic survival tactics. Aveira broke out into a haughty smile, unable to contain her glee. They were her toy soldiers, and she enjoyed every moment of it so far.

”The path is clear, you Saints of the Maelstrom! On this day, you are the speakers of war, the strategists, and the scholars. If the war falters, if victory is stolen from your hands, know that it is by your own doing. Learn, thrive, and conquer, and nothing shall stand in your way. Heed my words, and accept your calling!” she cried out with a rising fury, and stared down at the assembled Neiyari. They stretched out their arms towards the sky exultantly, and Aveira knew it was time to oblige. She raised her hand to the crowd, and drew on the divine essence from beyond the veil. Felt the Maelstrom of whispers, emotions and desires roil and touch at her being as it did her creator.

She directed her power at the gathered, and the effect was immediate. Again the assembled Neiyari met with direct contact of Neiya’s voice, and her love, and they tried to accept her gifts with stride. Many fell to the ground in agony, others cried and sobbed endlessly, and a few even bled from the eyes. The result was the same. Their connection to their mother deepened, Aveira watched how their wings soaked a stained pure black, and their skin twisted a pale white.

When the storm abated, those who survived the onslaught arose with new purpose in their eyes. Likewise, as the maelstrom faded from her senses, a strange feedback rippled through her body. For a moment, it felt as though a ghostly shape caressed her body, breathed on her neck. A rush of exhilaration and bliss shot through her system, dusting her features with a rosy blush - a wordless reward from Neiya. Aveira’s features curled into a delighted grin. What was war without some interference from above?

Fields of Mercy

The sun’s curious cresting of the east washed the village in a growing intensity of light, signalling the start of another warm spring’s morning. Rays of light searched their way through the thin linen sheet hung over the window, and cascaded a waking warmth on the massive bedstead dominating the room. Slowly but surely, a few among the dozen-and-a-half women on the bed stirred. Farah awoke with a smile on her lips as the morning sun caressed her cheek. Nestled in place between the quiet snores of Yazmina and the ever lazy Aisha, she decided to remain still and appreciate life, listening to the quiet morning clatter of the first who decided to get off the bed. As was usual, the sounds of waking people and the heat of the sun grew exponentially, and within minutes the bed shifted with movement and the room began to fill with ever louder conversation. Resigned to enjoy her morning in peace, Farah twirled a lock of her brown hair between her fingers, and raised it to idly compare it with Aisha’s.

An older voice cut through the noise, and Farah knew it was time to move - the matron was awake. She had barely begun to try and shift free from the careless arm of Aisha and Yazmina’s awkward lean when the clash of wood on a pot rang through the room, together with the matron’s loud voice. A storm of motion erupted on the bed, and Farah was caught in the midst of it; Yazmina rummaged and rolled away in a panic, and Aisha stood straight up and nearly trampled Farah in her abrupt fit to get up and seem awake - just like always. Farah simply sat up with her smile and slowly edged off of the bed, meeting the glowering gaze of the matron as she finally stood up and mosied on over to get ready for the day. Alongside the other girls she wrapped herself in one of the simple dresses the matron had laid out. Beyond smiling, she chose not to pay the banter between the others any heed - she was already on thin ice with the matron for her jest last week.

Spring was certainly in full swing; when Farah finally exited the domicile, she was barraged by the majesty of nature. Swaths of growing crops filled the vista as far east as she could see, and the whole southern meadow had become a sea of colours as wildflowers bloomed. She took a long and hearty breath, taking a moment to enjoy the sound of birdsong. That sound was soon overpowered by both the chatter of voices behind her, and the loud bass carrying from across the nearby field. A simple glance to the north confirmed the sound: the men had also awoken and were moving towards the fields already. That simple fact filled Farah with a certain delight. She hoped she’d get to work with Adnan today as well. She thought about his smile, his arms, his laugh, and felt a little flutter rush through her stomach that brought an embarrassed smile to her lips. Yazmina would tease her to death if she ever said any of this out loud. A few of the women spilled out past her, talking about the topic of the week - Farid’s awkward song for Aisha at the gathering during rest day - with much giggling and cajoling. Farah herself just smiled. It hadn’t mattered that it was awkward, because Aisha had loved it, and that was enough.

“Farah,” boomed a familiar voice behind her. Farah felt her hopes wither inside, but still tried to maintain a cheerful demeanour as she turned to face the matron.

“Matron Nasira,” she responded dutifully, but the withered old woman did not seem particularly impressed.

“I want you to gather flowers today. We need Whiteknife roots, Gold Tongue, and Summerbells.” the imposing lady continued, twisting a brow at Farah. It made her wrinkled forehead crease in all new ways. Before Farah could protest, she twisted away inside the domicile and returned a moment later. Farah’s heart sank when she realized why - the matron had found the biggest basket they had, and shoved it into Farah’s arms. She could barely stretch her arms around it, and it was almost as tall as her too. With a sigh, Farah slipped her arms into the tied on cloth straps, and hefted the sizable basket onto her back.

“What shall I do when I am done, Matron Nasira?” she inquired with a resigned tone.

“Oh, we need -quite a lot- of them. Make sure to fill the basket, my dear. If you somehow manage to still have time in the day, you can help me in the kitchen. Speaking of, I prepared some food so you don’t have to trek all the way back just to eat.” the matron replied with a more pleasant tone of her own, but her face did not change in the slightest; she was still as unpleasant as ever. Still, she pressed a bundled package into Farah’s hands. “And don’t pout at me, Farah. That might work on the boys, but it won’t get you out of honest work today.” she reprimanded with a finality to her words, narrowing her eyes. Farah simply nodded, trying to mellow out her expression. When had she ever tried to get out of work? The Matron just always caught her in brief moments of rest. Farah knew better than to argue the point, and instead began the journey towards the southern meadows. Not much to it other than putting one foot before the other.

It took a good half-hour or so to fully leave the crops behind and walk into the sea of color that was the meadows beyond. Broken up only by the quiet brook bubbling past further down the way, immersing herself in the ocean of flowers was like stepping into a slice of paradise. The gentle brush of wind provided a soft solace from the growing heat, and gave the longer grass amidst the flowers a pleasant sway. Green, gold, red, blue, and white patterns rocked gently with the wind, a dizzying blend of colors - and even more colours stretching into the horizon. Farah found herself unable to dislike her exile from regular farmwork, the pull of nature’s beauty was too great for her smile not to creep back onto her lips. Farah set the basket down gently in the middle of the meadow, laid her package of food down beside it, and waded demurely into the ocean of color, hands outstretched to brush against flower and grass.

The sheer bliss of existing in the field was short-lived, however. The request the matron had given her seemed almost specifically designed to be as frustrating as possible. Summerbells proved to be very rare, and looked almost exactly like the much more prevalent Wolves’ Tooth from a distance. Gold Tongue was easy to find, their large golden flowers rising over many other plants - but their thistle-like leaves made picking each flower an unpleasant hassle at best. Even wrapping her hand in her sleeve did not alleviate the occasional sting. Finally, Whiteknife was among the most numerous flower in the entire valley, yet the matron had still managed to make it troublesome; between the fragile stem and the hearty roots gripping tightly to the earth, dragging Whiteknife roots out of the ground proved to be a sweaty and tedious process. It was an endless cycle, but at the very least the plants were plentiful enough to cut out most of the searching entirely.

When the sun had begun to climb away from its highest point in the sky, Farah helped herself to a seat at her current picking spot, which just so happened to be by the brook. With a quiet sigh she began to unwrap her package of food, and glanced at the basket she’d now brought with her. She’d been at it for ages, yet the basket wasn’t even filled to a third of its capacity. Perhaps she would truly be out here until it was too dark to see, she mused, and idly peeled the shell of a boiled egg from her package. Shuffling a little closer to the water, Farah cautiously dipped her grass- and dirt-muddled feet in the brook, flexing her toes in the small and refreshingly cold stream. It wasn’t so bad, after all. She imagined Aisha was complaining about her back right about now, and Patron Abbas making his rounds scowling at all of them. The quiet peace and the colors was perfect, even if she missed the smiles of her compatriots.

Farah was about to bite into her egg when something gave her pause; movement on the horizon. With a light squint she could make out a bundle of silhouettes, half a dozen perhaps, bobbing over the grasslands on the far side of the brook, perhaps even along the path from Karay far to the southeast. A few moments more, and she could confirm the shapes were growing steadily bigger, slowly but surely. Perhaps they were visitors? That lone thought exhilarated her, a brewing curiosity blooming within her like a gnawing thought she could not rid herself of. When had been the last time they’d had visitors? Ever since the Matron brought her here from Karay, she’d met outsiders only a few times. Even now, when she was by all rights a woman, neither the Matron or Patron ever chose her for the trading journeys - what few there were - and she could count the number of visitors that had visited the farm since her youth on one hand. What reason would they have for visiting? What wondrous tales would they be able to tell? Did they know how far the flowers stretched? With those questions and many more spiralling through her mind, Farah found solid footing once more and stood up to follow the shapes in the distance with eager anticipation.

There were more of them than she had first seen. Perhaps an entire dozen. Farah quickly downed her egg and rewrapped her food packet, dumping it into the basket for easy storage. Her attention thoroughly stolen, she watched the curious band of silhouettes grow closer as they shuffled along what was definitely the beaten path, given the brief height shift as they walked over and past Boar’s Hill and the lonesome old oak that sat perched on it. Farah waited with baited breath, her expectant smile growing as she began to be able to make out the shapes properly. They looked human - which was expected, but also a shame - lending further credence to the theory that Aqil’s story about plantfolk was just a myth from his home. Farah could still not imagine how a flower would be able to walk around.

As Farah was finally able to make out more detail, spotting their leather tunics, dangling trophies and odd garments, her excitement rose even further. They were on the far side of the brook, and even from here she could see they were near a dozen men and a few women by the looks of it. Then - with the urgency of a falling rock - her excitement evaporated in a flash. One of the men and all the women looked to be tied together with rope around their throats. The man at the back of their procession held some kind of long club, and used it to poke the slowest woman in the back to get her to speed up. Suddenly Farah’s urge to wave and call attention to herself had drained. She trailed the procession with her eyes for a few tense moments more just to confirm; they were indeed headed straight for the farm. That was all she needed. Farah grabbed her basket and slung it onto her back, and began to make her way back towards the crop fields with as much haste as she could muster. Why had she walked all the way to the brook?

The journey back was more stressful and exerting than a full day’s work. Farah raced as quickly as she could through the sea of colorful flowers. She had waited too long. On the path, they would be in view of the farm in no time. A brief pain stung her foot with unbidden cruelty, and Farah gasped in surprise and agony, nearly tumbling over. Her foot had found an exceptionally short Gold Tongue lurking in the high grass. She stopped to gingerly rub at the sole of her foot, and catch her breath through gritted teeth. Precious moments lost, she pressed on towards the farmhouses beyond the valley of flowers, a little slower than before.

Her throat burned with a dry lack of water and breath alike, and her legs roared indignantly with tired complaints, but through sheer force of will, she broke free of the meadow and stepped out into a field of vegetables in what felt like record time. It was too late, however. Across the fields, and between the high stalks of rosegrass planted in the furthermost field, she could see the suspicious travelers gathered by the men’s animal pen, and a whole crowd of her compatriots forming around them. With nothing left to do but catch up to the spectacle, Farah trampled across the fields with learned steps. When she reached the rosegrass, she eased the basket off of her back, and skirted through the stalks quickly. She could see that they were moving around, and she could hear their voices. A worry grew where fascination had been. The voices grew louder as she got closer. Heated and vicious.

“We didnae’ trek all this way to be turned ‘round!” a brusque older man with greying stubble shouted at the crowd, headed by Adnan. “As I been saying, we willnae’ leave ‘fore we trade fer what we need. We brought good stock, eh?. Now where’s thiss’er Narisa?” He tugged on the rope in his hand, forcing the three women and solitary man tied to it to stumble forwards, to the collective gasp and disgust of the crowd of farmers. Unbidden memories of rope-tied wrists and tears surfaced somewhere deep from within Farah’s mind, and she felt a certain dread build in her throat and stomach.

“We don’t want your kind around here. You’ll find no trade here. Now let them go,” Adnan retorted with a blazing anger. Farah had never seen him so worked up, his eyes fixed on the old man and his captives with a fury that scared her to watch. “How can you tie up another child of Kadeen like an animal? It is you who is the animal, brutish and without sense.”

The old man frowned in turn, but said nothing. He didn’t need to. Another of his men, a pale man with reddish brown hair stepped forwards and swung at Adnan’s face with the short end of his club. Panicked cries rippled through the crowd, and terror gripped Farah’s chest as a spray of blood rushed through the air. Adnan fell backwards onto the ground, clutching his face and nose. The old man took a single step forwards, causing the entire crowd to retreat. Farid, who was closest, tried to help Adnan up, but quickly backed off when the pale man raised his club. “Now,” the greying man continued, “if ye dinnae’ trade with us, we’ll be taking what’s ours. The Zaeem of Karay is a goner, ye can expect a lot of more of my kind, now that yer precious lil’ deal’s fallen through.”

“What deal?”

“What are you talking about?”


The last voice in a chorus of many belonged to Adnan, who burst up off the ground in swift motion to pounce straight for the old man with a clenched fist. He was fast, but the old man saw it coming. In a deft motion of his own, he gripped Adnan’s arm and pulled him hard to the ground, twisting his arm in a hold that looked painful - something Adnan’s cry of pain confirmed. Another of the man’s cronies picked up the rope that he dropped, and a third stepped forward to flash a small knife of bone or white stone, pressing it against Adnan’s throat. The men muttered among themselves as the crowd rippled with fear, panicked cries, and men holding each other back for safety. It was all too much to handle.

“Stop!” Farah heard herself shout, before truly registering the will to do so. As eyes from both sides turned her way, many if not all noting her presence for the first time, she felt a cold chill run along her spine. Warily she took a step forwards so as to not hide in the rosegrass. She took another step, finding some confidence, and lending herself some brief time to think. Before the old man got a chance to think for himself, she raised her hands towards him. “There is no need for this violence! You do not need to hurt us, nor do you need to trade human lives.”

The greying man stared at her for a few moments, before taking the knife off of his comrade to threaten Adnan personally. “Ye speak of need, lass? What do ye know of it? Give us what we came fer or this lad gets it. We got many mouths to feed and we came here ready to take it.”

Farah stared at the man and his band. They were ragged and unkempt, a few of them with sunken cheeks. They all had that same determination and spite in their eyes. Though she worried for Adnan’s safety, she raised her hands peacefully and stared back at the old man. She also glanced at her own crowd of friends. “I swear to you that if you lay aside your weapon, no harm shall come to you and yours. We have food for all of us, we have lodgings. It does not need to come to violence. Adnan, as many of us, were slaves. What you ask is painful for us, but it does not need to be the end of civility. Please, on the blessing of Oraliyah above, listen to reason.”

A gentle warmth washed over her, trickling into her mind, seemingly wrapping her in a hug. A voice quickly followed, soft and sweet. "Your heart speaks wisely beyond its years. Here, take this blessing in my name and do what others cannot in the name of peace and always remember that you are loved, Farah. Even in times of uncertainty and sorrow. All you need do is say my name and I will be with you." and as quickly as the voice came, it vanished but not before healing her fatigue and foot. She was not the only one to suddenly feel better, for the men and women in the old man's group, even Adnan, looked physically better and not so beaten down. A beam of light then flashed across the sky and illuminated Farah for a moment, basking her in a visage of Oraliyah before dissipating.

Farah was gripped with a haze of delightful confusion. No more did she comprehend her visitation from the divine than any other, yet it did not seem to matter. She felt a warmth burrow deep within, and it made her feel safe and happy, even in this troubled moment. It struck her then - she had called upon a goddess and received a reply from the heavens; from the sun goddess herself! As the light began to dissipate, she released a breath she did not realize she had been holding in.

Adnan fell to the ground, and slowly clambered up, awestruck as he stared at Farah. The old man, having released both the knife and his prisoner, did the same. They all looked at her. Then someone cried “Oraliyah!” and cheers erupted on both sides. Confusion reigned supreme, but the message was clear. The mere act of the divine’s visitation had forced a ceasefire. The now restored travelers looked dumbstruck and humbled alike, and one of them went so far as to help Adnan up. Farid and Aman crept up from behind and before she knew it, they had hoisted Farah into the sky and onto their shoulders. With the warmth of the goddess still lingering in her heart, she could only smile down at those who looked up at her, and to her surprise, many of them smiled back, the old man included.

Peace had returned to the farm, even if Farah knew a long and serious talk would have to follow when the reverie died down.

Matters of the Heart

Though the rolling hills and steep pathways through difficult terrain had long since put it out of view, Ha-Dûna still refused to leave either of the two travelers' minds. Almost an entire day had passed, carried out almost entirely in solemn silence and determined, stiff march across the highlands. Sanya seemed implacable, taking steadily paced steps even up the steepest inclines. Furthermore, she’d insisted on carrying almost all of their packing, and did not seem particularly bothered after a full day of walking. At least not by physical exercise - there was no denying she was as quiet as usual, or perhaps more so.

They’d escaped in a hurry, with Sanya sneaking back into the village to gather up their things. She had insisted the druids hadn’t made a ruckus about it, but she also hadn’t been able to retrieve everything Lucia had brought with her to the village. With the sun starting to touch the hills in the distance for the second time since they left Ha-Dûna, it was no longer a battle worth fighting. Instead they wandered without much in the way of direction over yet another stony meadow, having wandered off the natural beaten path after a brief but unwanted encounter with yet more druids.

Lucia was quiet too, she spoke of no more stories and her tattoos were diminutively small. Even her halo seemed to be a bit dull. She continued walking for a ways, before stopping in the middle of the meadow. Her traveling cloak billowed about her in the breeze as she looked down. ”We should make camp.” she said unenthusiastically. Her voice sounding drained- mellow.

Sanya came to a slow halt, the dark-haired warrior scanning the horizon as she rested her spear on the ground. Ever the watchful and stoic sort, she replied with a simple ”Alright,” before starting to off-load what supplies they had on and around the flattest and largest rock she could find. It was a solemn affair, with Sanya operating more as a dutiful servant than a traveling companion. Looking for possible tinder, rationing up food, seeing about making a shelter out of what they had available; each task followed the other like rote movement, ingrained survival behavior that needed no input. Though she didn’t say anything, it was clear that she expected to do everything relating to physical work.

Lucia looked at Sanya with a blank expression. ”Can I help with anything?” she asked. ”You don’t have to do everything, you know… It’s already enough that you’re carrying my stuff and yours.”

It was enough to give Sanya pause, and the woman ran a hand up to her face to scrub at the side of her temple as she narrowed her eyes at the small camp, such as it was. Her gaze flicked over to Lucia, and then skidded back to the camp thoughtfully. She shrugged. ”Start a fire, maybe?” she eventually pressed out before going on to another task in silence.

”S-Sure thing.” she said, trying to force a smile at Sanya, who wasn’t looking. Lucia went out, trying to find any source of tinder. Being in a meadow didn’t really help but she looked regardless. Her mind was abuzz with thoughts lately, ever since they had been traveling. She just wanted to be seen as a person, was that so hard? Now Sanya was doing all the work, not even talking to her- but then again, she wasn’t starting any conversation either. She paused, bending down to pick up a small stick. She looked around, but the stick was alone.


She sat down and put her head between her knees, staring at the stick. She’d been alone for a long time, hadn’t she? She wondered what sort of wind had brought this stick so far from home, out into a place where it was surrounded by grass and rock. What a sad little stick.

A tear plopped down into her hand and she forced it away, by rubbing her eyes fiercely. She got back up and searched for anything else, but it was useless. There were no other sticks and she wasn’t about to go off to find where they might be. She walked back to camp, head low as she arrived. She walked over to Sanya and showed her the stick. ”It was all alone.” she said, looking at her.

Sanya, sat knelt before the flat rock with their supplies, blinked as she was torn out of sorting their supplies to first look at the solitary stick with confusion. ”I should have some softwood in my pack, still-...” she began, trailing off as her gaze wandered up Lucia’s arm and to her face. The expression on her face softened gently, to that sorrowful sympathy that had taken centuries to wipe out of her eyes in the first place. She clasped a hand around the lonely stick as if to take it off Lucia’s hands. ”I can take care of it, if you want.”

”Thank you, Sanya.” Lucia said softly, looking away as she let the stick go. She then stood silently for a moment, awkwardly shuffling before going to the opposite side of their small camp where she sat down. She picked up a blade of grass and began to fiddle with it between her fingers, sometimes looking at Sanya as she worked, other times at the grass blade. She didn’t know what she was doing anymore but Ha-Dûna was still on her mind. Looking at the blade of grass, she spoke aloud, ”Do you think I was too harsh on them? The druids? I can’t… I can’t get their faces out of my head. The look of shock, the betrayal. Is this what it means to be a Helgen? I shouldn’t say that… I know people are like that when they see me. They think I’m some… Savior, that I can’t do any wrong.” She looked up to gaze upon Sanya. ”Can’t they just see that I… I just help people not for fame or fortune, but because they need help, or guidance or or or… Because it’s the right thing to do? I don’t deserve their titles, I don’t want them, I just want people to do the right thing. Is that so hard? Why is that so hard? And then they keep forcing this belief that I need to be reunited with…” her voice abruptly cut off as she took a deep breath and pulled her knees tight to her chest.

Sanya was diligent as ever, quick to dig through her own packing in search for the alleged softwood. The frown on her lips was intense, a mixture of determination and imminent frustration. It wasn’t until Lucia stopped speaking that the guarded warrior paused in the middle of building a ring of small rocks. She closed her eyes and exhaled briefly, before standing up to close the distance between them. The dark-haired woman fell down to sit on her knees beside her companion. ”They do not decide who you are, Lucia,” she began, extending a hand to place it on Lucia’s arm in a gentle touch of compassion. ”If we let others decide who we are, we are no better than the wild stories they make up about the gods.” Sanya sighed quietly. ”You’re already stronger and better at this than I could ever be. Sometimes, it just gets too real.”

Lucia looked up slowly to meet Sanya’s gaze. Her tattoo’s pulsing around where they touched. She shook her head after a moment. ”You’re far stronger than I am Sanya. Physically and mentally.” she gave a wry smile. ”But you are right, I shouldn’t let what they think… Bother me, but it’s just so… So hard. I know you can feel how I feel Sanya… And for that, I’m sorry. These feelings… They come in waves every now and then and… This one’s bad.” her voice choked up. ”You’re a good friend, better then I am to you.” she said softly, looking away.

”I don’t know,” Sanya began with a soft tone of her own, appearing to have the wherewithal not to be sarcastic - perhaps simply affected by Lucia’s own emotions. ”There isn’t anyone I’ve ever met that I’d rather spend my time around.” She gave Lucia’s arm a gentle squeeze before withdrawing her hand, though remaining sat peacefully at her side. ”If you never felt this way, we never would have met back then. Trust me, keeping it inside is… not good for you.” she eventually conceded with a thoughtful tone.

Lucia looked at her again, saying nothing. She then looked forward and leaned her head onto Sanya’s shoulder. Her halo dissipated, forming a soft glow up in the air above them, almost a king to fireflies. Lucia sighed contentedly. ”I can say the same. There’s only a few I know who’ve stood the test of time, barely…” she said as a whisper. She shut her eyes for a moment, breathing in softly as her tattoos fluttered. Sanya was a good person, and an even better friend. Her words touched her greatly and she realized slowly, that there truly wasn’t anyone else that she enjoyed to be around as much as Sanya. So why then, did they always leave each other? ”Sanya?” she said, ”Why did we… Always go our separate ways?” she asked thoughtfully, a hint of sorrow in her voice.

There was a considerable lull in the conversation. At first the dark-haired warrior seemed unable to produce a reply, and instead reacted to the building atmosphere of sadness by gently leaning her own head against Lucia’s. She sighed softly, reluctant words escaping her, ”I-... We always have something to do. You have your life, people hovering around you eager to hear your wisdom. That strange orb. I’m just a restless soul, wandering.” Lucia could feel the gentle shift as Sanya lifted her hand to rub at her temple. ”You’re usually so happy, when I go. I don’t want to be a chain.”

Her heart began to beat a little faster as she listened. She winced at Sanya’s last sentence, and then said, ”Sanya… You’re not a chain.” she said, becoming misty eyed, her voice full of emotion. ”When you leave… I- I find myself missing you. But I… I never say anything because… Because… Why didn’t I ever say anything?” she said, sounding stunned. ”I’m so sorry, Sanya. You make me happy too, you know?” she said shakely, holding back tears. ”How’s that for wisdom? I can’t even see what’s right in front of me, half the time. I’ve been so alone for so long… I had forgotten what this felt like- This… Talking.” she said at last.

Sanya unleashed something akin to a scoff at first, soft and without any real contempt. Her arm wrestled aside in their lean, and Lucia soon felt it wrap around her shoulder and back in an unspoken extension of shared comfort. ”I tend to remember,” Sanya offered with a little more confidence, that deadpan tone finding its footing after a moment of deliberation. ”You are the only person who gets on my nerves without making me angry.” She sighed after a moment of hesitation. ”That sounded really dumb. I’m sorry. I guess it’s a long time since we just sat down. Even then, I guess I don’t-... say a lot.”

”No, but you listen, Sanya.” Lucia quickly said before pausing for a moment. Her tattoo’s were pulsing now, for she felt safe in that embrace. It was a pleasant feeling, one she had missed sorely. ”It’s okay… You don’t have to be sorry. I’ve been inconsiderate to you, thinking you’d be okay with my absence… Especially back there… You have every right to be angry with me, I’ve been a terrible friend to you.” she said, sucking in a breath.

”Ha-Dûna sure was something,” Sanya acknowledged with a quiet mutter of her own. ”But being angry at you for going along with their wishes is like being angry at the sun for setting. It’s in your blood. Kind-hearted and open to all. Most.” she concluded with a considerable calm. A brief sigh, and a gentle shift of her hand on Lucia’s shoulder in a gentle clap of compassion. ”You are a ray of sunshine on every life you touch, Lucia. I never considered such a life would not always be pleasant for you. So perhaps it is I who is terrible.”

Lucia moved her body closer to Sanya as she shifted slightly. ”No, you aren’t terrible. I just… I see people that need help and I put them first.” she took a breath. ”So when my problems build up, I shove them down to distract myself and eventually, they all catch up and I… Get like this. You were there for me when I needed someone so long ago and since then… I just… Tried to deal with it myself… To varying levels. I don’t like to be a burden on people. It was easier with…” her voice faded as she remembered how Megzhaal would talk to her during her bouts of depression. He had helped too. No more though.

The silence hung in the air for a considerable time, Lucia given time to sit with her thoughts with Sanya close by. Or perhaps the warrioress had thoughts of her own. Eventually Sanya broke the silence with a contemplative thought spoken aloud. ”How long has it been since you two spoke?”

Lucia said nothing for a moment. A gnawing sensation grew in her heart as she gulped and shifted again. ”It’s been… Decades, I guess. Even before that… he had become distant, no longer so… There, if you know what I mean. And now that I know my mother is back, why hasn’t he said anything? Where is he?” she said, her voice growing agitated. ”He was my love. He always told me to be happy, that I shouldn’t just wait for him, but how could I not? Now I realize the folly of my own words, as the druids seek to reunite us, as they talk about him like they know him. No one ever asks me if I want to be reunited with him. They just assume that I’m still love stricken but I… I’m not… I don’t even know what love is. I saw all their happy faces, Sanya. With so many families and children and pure joy and I… I do not deserve it.” she said, tears flowing down her face.

A shaky sigh escaped her companions lips, no doubt stricken by the emotions Lucia herself felt. ”Don’t say that,” she eventually replied, voice fighting to stay even. ”It isn’t true. The way you used to talk about him. The way your eyes lit up when someone said his name. How long you’ve waited.” Sanya took a long breath, shifting in their gentle embrace without moving too much. ”...Even if you no longer feel that way, Lucia, it appears to me like you’ve experienced love like no other. I-.. Well.. Perhaps his silence is his wicked courtesy? To let you find happiness again?”

Her eyes slowly widened as she listened to Sanya, the gnawing at her heart finally easing away. She did not want it to be true, but Sanya was right. She was right. So caught up with what was, Lucia had never even attempted to find hap- Wait, that wasn’t true. She had found happiness, a lot of it along the way. She had just been blinded to what it was. Was it truly was. She lifted her head up, forcing Sanya to move her own. Lifting her gaze, she found Sanya was already looking at her, and Lucia spoke softly, ”It’s what he wanted all along, isn’t it?” she said, her golden eyes full of regret.

There was a certain sorrow in Sanya’s eyes in turn, a tint of pain that had etched itself deep under millennia of duress. It was hard to tell if Sanya was ever happy - even when she smiled it seemed not to reflect the same level of emotion in her eyes - and even in this moment she looked unhappy, vulnerable even. Lucia had never seen her cry, yet she often looked as though she’d cried all night. Only the fact that she was not frowning, instead a mellow part of her lips in a soft pout, tipped her hand. ”I think you should care more about what you want, Lucia. You’ve suffered at the whim of others long enough.” she eventually pressed out.

Slowly a small smile formed on her lips as Lucia teared up. Without saying anything she attacked Sanya with a fierce hug and squeezed her tightly. Her tattoos warmed slightly as they frantically shimmered and pulsed. Eventually she whispered into her ear, "Thank you." but did not let go. She felt Sanya’s arms slowly lift to reciprocate the embrace properly, a small amount of the woman’s strength still being a tight and comforting hold. Lucia melted into the touch, her tattoos fluttering as she nestled her head into Sanya's chest.

They sat in silence for a time, and Sanya gently leant her head against Lucias’. The normally tense warrior seemed to relax in that shared embrace, and Lucia could hear her slow and long breaths as she allowed herself to truly stay in the moment. She could hear her heartbeat too, beating strong.

Eventually, Sanya parted her lips to break the silence. ”Maybe we should just leave the north,” she said with a soft, even mellow tone.

"Leave the North? Like… Go south? Or east? I haven't been home in awhile…" she said sleepily, finding herself very comfortable.

Sanya hummed a thoughtful and distant reply at first, a pleasant quiver of her throat and chest, that soon rose with a longer breath. ”I don’t know-... A break from the attention. Some place where no one cares who either of us are.”

Lucia's embrace slowly grew weaker as the seconds went by, "So…" she yawned, "South then…" she mumbled, eyes drifting shut.

”South sounds good,” Sanya’s voice returned with a hypnotizing calm. ”I know the paths down there like the back of my hand.” She sighed, a gentle caress of her hand on Lucia’s back as she kept talking quietly. ”I haven’t been to my old home in ages. Heh. Last time I was there, a little boy told me he’d be a chieftain one day. I guess he’d have grandchildren by now. Maybe he did become chief.”

There came no reply from Lucia, in fact she had fallen asleep upon Sanya, so tired and worn out as she was. Her breathing deepened and upon the corner of her lips was a soft smile. Sanya sat silent for a while, giving Lucia a gentle stroke on the back. In the peace of silence, she managed a genuine, fond smile of her own.

The Eternal War

by Lord Zee & Enzayne.

His wing was torn, wet blood ran down the side of his face, obscuring his vision. His golden hair was caked in mud and debris. He was battered and scarred all over as he ran through the world of light. Most of the dried blood covering him, was not his own. He held his broken arm, every jolt sending shocks. He gritted his teeth in frustration. He had been cut off from the others, who were now probably dead or fleeing. He wished he could fly, but it was no use. His fresh orange blood would give him away like a perfect trail to follow. He could only hope that Oraeliara was there with him, because the Neiyari were close behind. Even now, he could hear sticks breaking and the rumbling of angry feet. What scared him worse, was what he could hear up above.

The oppressive beat of wings thundering through the grove were inescapable. A particularly cruel Neiyari, bright white and with wings tinged with black and red, had hounded him from above whenever he had the audacity to try and catch his breath. She’d already descended on him once in a clearing, smashing him to the ground like it was a game to her. Dense vegetation had been his only reprieve - but her wing-beats were never far, nor were the echoing, hollow words she cried to his pursuers whenever she spotted him. However many braved the vegetation to follow on foot, their angry cries closed any avenue for reason. With crude implements and raw strength they seemed determined to annihilate all traces of him and his kin. He knew many of them were injured as well, but it seemed to inspire nothing more than hatred in their hearts. The bright lights all around them worked both ways - their discordant colouration was easy to pick out amidst the colourful flora, but hiding from them turned out to be something of a nightmare. And yet, anything was preferable to the alternative.

So he ran.

Deeper and deeper in the land he knew as the Luminant. Since the injuring of Soluri, his people had flocked in many different directions, running from the Neiyari threat. Aveira had been ruthless and spread the word of their hated mother, the betrayer, the terror-made-flesh- Neiyara. He could still hear wing-beats nearing closer, so he veered left into a thicket of thorns, which cut into his flesh greatly. He let out but a whimper. He couldn’t give his position away. Once through the thicket, he doubled his pace- his breath becoming labored but he needed to get distance between him and the oppressors. He ran straight on into a particular dense bush and lost his footing, beginning to tumble down a steep hill. He felt his good wing break under his weight as he tumbled further. That time he couldn’t repress a scream, and so scream he did. The pain was near blackout in intensity and much of the rest of the fall he blanketed out on, hitting something wet.

The fuzzy haze lifted from his eyes almost instantly as she looked to find himself in a stream of clear water running beyond a bend. It was somehow refreshing and he felt better despite the pain. That was until he heard the ‘WOOSH’ of furled wings. He clambered up and dove out of the way onto dry land before she splashed down into the water where he had been standing. He looked back to see her snarl, beginning to pursue him once more as she shouted for the others. He cursed again and ran, following the stream’s edge as she took flight once more into the air.
He could see a glow in the distance, a curious thing and he got so close to see that it was a la- She tackled him from behind and once again they tumbled down a sandy embankment into the cool waters below.

Nails dug and clawed painfully against his skin as they rolled in the water, a desperate set of hands hatefully clinging at his face, his wings, anything they could find brief purchase against in the water. She clung to him with an iron grip, and he felt himself ripped up and out over the surface of water briefly as her wings desperately tried to pull at least herself out of the cool liquid. It was a brief reprieve before they both crashed down under the water once more, her own flailing and refusal to let him slip away only serving to drag them further away from the bright world beyond the surface.

But even her hatred and vice had it’s limits. The urge to hurt him changed to panic before long. He felt her combative grabbing and pulling lessen as the pale Neiyari instead began to battle the water, and the urge to survive overtook her desire to complete her cruel hunt. The water would claim anyone without the strength to return to the surface. It should have been his end.

He drifted deeper, eyes open to the surface as his strength waned. How silly, he thought, to die by drowning. But it was at least better than being tortured. There was a sudden SNAP that jostled him to conscious thought.

He could move his wing again, albeit slowly in the water. He began to feel better, alert and another SNAP could be felt as his other wing mended on it’s own. He hit the bottom of the lake, his lungs about to burst, and upon his two powerful legs he oriented himself to touch bottom and with a mighty kick, began to frantically kick off towards the surface. The light from the surrounding landscape struck his face like a guiding lantern welcoming him back to life as he broke through the surface and reunited with the air beyond, allowing him to breathe once more. Strength still returning to his battered body, it was a far simpler - if primal - struggle to battle back towards solid ground.

His vicious opponent was already clawing at sand and mud by the embankment, thrown entirely by their shared near-death experience. Her mottled wings beat helplessly against the water, half-submerged yet and struggling to even lift properly. For all her cruel bravado, she was no more fierce than a child when her flight was stolen away. Perhaps in that moment, she understood how he had felt during their chase. Yelling from beyond resurfaced when he could finally hear something other than his breath and the splash of water. Trampling sticks, the thud of feet. At the same time, she crawled up onto the mud with what strength she had, gasping frenetically. Despite all this, he was not free of them.

He began to run through the water, tripping over his feet, sputtering and flailing as he ran like some animal quick to escape a predator. Upon the bank however, did he stop when he looked in every direction, gaze faltering on a most peculiar sight. There further up the lake and across it, sat odd structures. Some large, others small, illuminated by viney growths along their sides. Something sat upon the water, drifting closer. A small… Creature… held a large stick and guided it closer. It was accompanied by several others on board. He looked at it with a puzzled face, before looking back to see where the Neiyari were.

No less than three new Neiyari - two men and a woman - had broken through the bright and thorny bushes, each speckled with different skin tones and wing colouration. Even the shortest of them, a ruddy blonde that could have passed for an Oraeliari from afar - was given away by the black pattern running over his wings like cracks in marble. Two of them were pulling their comrade up from the embankment, and the blonde man was staring after him, seeming similarly confused by the approaching shape floating across the water. As they hewed their fallen friend out of the water at last, he pointed across the lake, and all four of them stared in silence, momentarily awestruck.

His heart began to beat faster, knowing full well what the Neiyari were capable of, what they had already done to his people. He began to wade back into the water. “No! Go back! GO BACK!” he shouted at them but they drew nearer still and it was then he saw them clearer- faces so alike, yet so small. They all wore things on their heads that covered their faces in shade and they gave him an extremely puzzled look as they pointed.

He stopped as the water reached his chest. His white toga stained and ripped. He began to point back at their village, then to them. “GO BACK! YOU HAVE TO GO BACK!” he shouted as he pleaded. It was too late. At first they pointed at him, then beyond him. He saw a few of their faces shift with the same horrified realization as his own kin had, that creeping unease that wanted to bury deep in his head. Between the splash of the water, his own voice, and the shout of one of the small creatures on the water, he heard the beat of wings rush through the air.

One by one the dark and speckled wings of the Neiyari took to the skies, and a single glance back towards them confirmed they had all left the bank. His earlier tormentor laid draped in the arms of another, unable to fly on her own, and the second woman hovered nearby ready to lend support. They stared down towards him with a hateful glare, and a bothered glower towards the strange fixtures in the distance, before they lifted higher in the skies - until the lights of vegetation began to interfere with their silhouettes. With their comrade downed by water, it seemed they had lost their immediate appetite for the hunt.

The last of them however, the blonde Neiyari, beat his patterned wings defiantly as he flew out over the lake in a powerful arc, zooming overhead of both the strange creatures and the lake itself in a single sweep of his wings. He too gained altitude, stopping on the far side of the water to view the strange structures from above. Confused and disgusted, he seemed to hover there with intent, burning the image of each of the structures into his memory with an intent stare.

He stared at his kin, with frustration on his face. He beat his wings, but they were still too wet for flight. His attention turned back to the strangers, who were fast approaching him now. He sighed as they came upon him. He was weary and he kept glancing at the betrayer-spawn, until their faces came in view, properly this time. Large eyes, brimming with knowing intelligence. He felt… Somehow akin to them, like a spark had been lighted inside. An older man by the looks of it, pressed through the crowd. He wore clothing that looked very different from what he himself wore, with bright colors entwined into the fabric. His bronze colored arms could be seen, and he took off the object upon his head to reveal grey, curly hair. He opened his mouth to speak and the words that poured out were entirely strange to him.

He did not understand the old man and that meant they did not understand him. The others huddled on his little vessel were torn between watching him, and glancing nervously at the Neiyari hovering in the sky. He could tell even now that they knew in their hearts - as he did - what the betrayer Neiyara had done to their flying kin, as their small faces could not bear to look up in the sky for more than a few moments before their features flushed with worry, anxiety and fright. From beyond the water’s edge, chaos stirred on the ground as someone screamed with a shrill voice, barely audible in the distance.

It was enough to capture the Neiyari’s attention as he lingered, and he spun briefly in the air before lifting even higher. The hateful desire to chase seemed to have subsided, as he too turned and returned from whence he came, following his betrayer kin into the sky. Peace, and confusion, befell the lake and it’s guardians, as he remained alone with the strange figures. His wings could not only move - even if the water had soaked them beyond use - but also barely hurt from before.

He sighed in relief as the Neiyari left but he knew it was a fleeting hope to think they would not return and with greater numbers. He saw how these small folk could feel the fear, and it broke his heart. He could not- He Would not, leave them to the same fate as his kin. They needed to be protected.

He pointed to himself and said, “I am Tevuri.”

“Te-Vuri?” the old man spoke, before pointing at himself. “Yeano.”

“Ye-An-O.” He said the word, the man’s name? The man grinned back, before putting out his hand, gesturing to Tevuri to take it.

Tevuri was hesitant, but slowly he reached out and the Yeano shook his small hand giddily.

Tevuri could not help but smile.

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